This is a posting about a 16th-century executioner who beheaded convicted criminals. Whatever you think of capital punishment, don’t equate Frantz Schmidt with the Isis terrorist group, which has garnered attention by beheading innocent people. News stories erroneously refer to the Isis killings as “executions,” when in fact they are despicable acts of murder.
ONE DAY IN 1573, eighteen-year-old Frantz Schmidt of Bavaria joined his father’s profession, which was the standard practice in the sixteenth century. Even for sons of executioners.
At the time, chopping off criminal heads was a good job with growth potential. After five years in the region of Bamberg, Schmidt moved on to Nuremberg and married the chief executioner’s daughter. (We’re guessing she rarely greeted her father or husband with, “How was work today?”)
Schmidt eventually succeeded his father-in-law as chief executioner, and made a handsome living. The Schmidts lived comfortably, although they didn’t get invited to many parties. Historian Joel F. Harrington in The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honour and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century (Macmillan, 2013) noted that “the dishonourable nature of (Schmidt’s) profession consistently precluded his open participation in patrician and craftsmen circles alike, placing him and his family in a unique kind of social limbo.”
Schmidt “killed 394 people and flogged or disfigured many more during his 45-year career as an executioner,” wrote Jason Zasky of Failure magazine. He performed executions by rope, sword, breaking wheel, burning, and drowning. Torture was part of his job, yet Schmidt wasn’t such a bad guy. He wanted to be a healer. He was skillful with a sword, meaning that those he beheaded suffered little. And he was sober, a rarity among executioners of his era.
Much is known about Schmidt due to a diary —“it starts out more like a resumé,” Harrington says — that the executioner kept with details of his executions. Harrington, a professor at Vanderbilt, discovered the journal in a dusty German bookshop and was inspired to write The Faithful Executioner, a book that received excellent reviews.