For Frantz Schmidt, killing criminals was the family business

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?”)

Harrington-The-Faithful-ExecutionerSchmidt 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.

Letter (really just a slip of advice) to my preteen self

Layout 1I KEEP SMACKING into time-travel missives on the Internet titled “Letter to my 18 Year Old Self.” While I’m pleased that the Postal Service has found a way to forward letters back through time, I’m surprised that so many people — that phrase brings more than 30,000 Google hits— are so fascinated with their eighteen-year-old selves.

Here’s the kind of advice folks give their younger selves:

  • Trust your instincts
  • Stop doing drugs
  • Seize the day
  • Party less, study more
  • Don’t go out with losers

Problem is, that’s the same advice that  moms and dads and teachers gave us all those years ago. If we didn’t listen to our parents, why would we listen to old, uncool versions of ourselves?

Seriously. Picture yourself at eighteen. A person who looks a little like you, only withered and flabby, appears as a ghost one night. “Be true to yourself” it says, which sounds OK. But then it says, “study pharmacy, you’ll get a better job than I did” and “don’t commit to the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, it’ll only leave you broken and bitter.”

How would you respond? You’d think, “My God, what a pathetic old stove! No way I wanna end up like that. I better party even harder!”

Karen Davis in grade school (left) and high school.

How do you like me now? Karen Davis in grade school (left) and high school.

If I could offer advice to my younger self, I’d go all the way back to age eleven and say, “Be nice to Karen Davis.”

Karen was a skinny blond kid that kids picked on in fifth and sixth grade. I never harassed her, but I never stuck up for her, either. If I had, I could’ve walked up to her five years later, when she’d turned into a Britt Ekland lookalike, and said, “Hey, Karen, remember me? Your only friend from grade school? Wanna get together …?”

I know, that’s totally shallow advice. I should say, “Be nice to everyone, because you never know which geek will get rich someday and possibly lend you money.”

Now that’s the kind of advice I could have used.

SEPTEMBER 30: Little Women published. Say hello to the March sisters (especially Jo!)


Above: Jo March (played by Winona Ryder) with Friedrich Bhaer (Gabriel Byrne) in the 1994 film version of Little Women.

ON THIS DATE in 1868, Louisa May Alcott published Little Women, a still-beloved children’s book that introduced three teenage (at the start) March sisters: Meg, sixteen; Jo, fifteen; and Beth, thirteen — plus twelve-year-old Amy.

LittleWomen20Responsible Meg and virtuous Beth are fine, but it’s Jo that readers love. Strong-willed and tomboyish, she is the character who most resembles the young Alcott. Like the author, Jo wants to be a writer and cares nothing for romance, although she does eventually wed (Alcott never married).

The major event in Little Women (MAJOR SPOILER ALERT!) is the death of Beth, who succumbs to scarlet fever. In a 1997 episode of “Friends,” Rachel deliberately shocks Joey, who is reading the book, by blurting “Beth dies!” Joey is horrified, naturally.

Little Women first appeared as a film in 1933 with Katharine Hepburn playing Jo. An all-star 1949 version featured June Allyson as Jo, Janet Leigh as Meg, Margaret O’Brien as Beth, and Elizabeth Taylor as Amy. In 1994, Winona Ryder played Jo with Claire Danes as Beth and Kirsten Dunst as the young Amy. That cast also included Susan Sarandon as Mrs. March, Christian Bale as Jo’s friend Laurie, and Gabriel Byrne as Friedrich Bhaer, the man Jo marries.

SEPTEMBER 29: Booker T. and the MG’s peak with “Green Onions”


ON THIS DATE in 1962, seventeen-year-old Booker T. Jones and the MGs peaked at number three on the Billboard Hot 100 chart with “Green Onions,” a now-classic instrumental rhythm-and-blues tune. Rolling Stone magazine ranked it number 183 on its 2003 list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

The four-man Memphis-based band took its name from a spur-of-the-moment suggestion from drummer Al Jackson. Jones told National Public Radio in 2003 that Jackson looked around one day, saw an MG sports car, and said, “Why don’t we call (the band) Booker T. and the, uh … MG’s?”

Booker T and the MG's in 1971 with (left to right) Steve Cropper, Booker T Jones, Donald "Duck" Dunn and Al Jackson.

Booker T and the MG’s in 1971 with (left to right) Steve Cropper, Booker T Jones, Donald “Duck” Dunn and Al Jackson.

Later, the band called the MG car company, seeing if they would agree to be a sponsor. “They wouldn’t do it,” Jones said. “So we decided that it would be Booker T. and the Memphis Group, the MG’s.”

“Green Onions” began as a “little ditty I’d been playing on piano, except I switched to Hammond M3 organ,” Jones told The Plain Dealer of Cleveland in 2012. Guitarist Steve Cropper said the song came together during a jingle session. He told Rolling Stone that he thought at the time, “This is the best damn instrumental I’ve heard since I don’t know when.”

Why did they call the song “Green Onions?” “We were trying to think of something that was as funky as possible,” Cropper said.

The MG’s released several other food-titled songs in the 1960s, including “Jelly Bread” (1963), “Mo Onions” (1963), and “My Sweet Potato” (1966). None sold nearly as well as the original “Green Onions.”

Movie Star High School

AS A LIFELONG film buff and a brand-new Coloradoan, I was delighted to discover in 2007 that I lived less than 30 minutes away from a wellspring of movie talent — Denver East High School. Opened in 1875, this school has housed a glut of powerhouse performers, including

Layout 1Douglas Fairbanks Sr., swashbuckling star of the silent screen.

Harold Lloyd, early comic actor, director, and producer.

Hattie McDaniel, first black winner of an acting Oscar.

Ward Bond, prolific character actor and star of TV’s “Wagon Train.”

Pam Grier, black action-film legend.

Don Cheadle, versatile Oscar-nominated actor.

The first three either dropped out or transferred, but so what? They didn’t need no stinkin’ diplomas! They had talent! And drive! A quality that came in handy seeing as they had to drive or fly or hitchhike more than 1,200 miles west to get to Hollywood (and more than 1,600 miles east to get to Broadway).

By contrast, Hollywood High students could —and can —walk to the major studios. Although a ride in a Mercedes is the preferred mode of transportation. Not that all Hollywood kids are rich and spoiled. Some just happen to go to school in the perfect place for aspiring film stars. In movies and in real estate, location is everything.

Of course, Hollywood High isn’t California’s only movie star high school. There’s also …

University High (Los Angeles): Alumni include Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, Sandra Dee, and Jeff Bridges.

Harvard-Westlake (Los Angeles): Myrna Loy, Shirley Temple, Elizabeth Montgomery, Candice Bergen, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Beverly Hills High: Jackie Cooper, Betty White, Richard Dreyfuss, Carrie Fisher, Nicolas Cage, David Schwimmer, and Angelina Jolie.

Van Nuys (Los Angeles): Natalie Wood, Jane Russell, Robert Redford, Stacy Keach, and Ed Begley Jr.

Santa Monica High: Glen Ford, Sean Penn, Rob Lowe, Robert Downey Jr., and Charlie Sheen.

While that’s a load of acting talent, Hollywood High has them beat. Here are eight exceptional film and TV stars who attended that school …

Layout 1

John Huston (class of 1923) accrued 15 Academy Award nominations from 1941 to 1986. He won for directing and writing the screenplay for Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).

Alan Ladd (class of 1934) made his name starring in hard-boiled detective films like This Gun For Hire (1942) but is best known as the gunslinger in Shane (1953).

Lana Turner (class of 1936) starred as the femme fatale in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) and illuminated such big-screen soap operas as Peyton Place (1957) and Imitation of Life (1959).

Mickey Rooney (class of 1938) starred in a number of Andy Hardy films in the late 1930s and was Hollywood’s number one box-office attraction, according to the Quigley poll, from 1939 to 1941.

Jason Robards (class of 1940) starred on stage and screen in Long Day’s Journey into Night (film 1962) and won back-to-back supporting actor Oscars for All the President’s Men (1976) and Julia (1977).

Gloria Grahame (class 1942) won the best supporting actress Oscar for The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) but was more memorable for her roles in In a Lonely Place (1950) and The Big Heat (1953).

James Garner (dropped out 1944) appeared in scores of films but is best remembered as Bret Maverick in “Maverick” (1957-62) and James Rockford in “The Rockford Files” (1974-80).

Carol Burnett (class of 1951) became a comedy legend during her long run with “The Carol Burnett Show” (1967-78).

Here are few more stars from Hollywood High school…

Joel McCrae (class of 1924), known for Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and 1950s Westerns.

Linda Evans (class of 1960), “The Big Valley” (1965-69), “Dynasty” (1981-89).

Stefanie Powers (class of 1960), “Heart to Heart” (1979-84).

Barbara Hershey (class of 1965), Hannah and her Sisters (1986).

Meredith Baxter (class of 1965), “Family Ties” (1982-89).

John Ritter (class of 1966), “Three’s Company” (1976-84).

Valerie Bertinelli (class of 1978), “One Day at a Time” (1975-84).

Laurence Fishburne (class of 1980), The Matrix (1999).

Leighton Meester (class of 2001), “Gossip Girl” (2007-12).

That is one impressive alumni list.

SAY WHAT YOU WILL: When you want to say something objectionable (and you know you do), preface it with this disclaimer

Layout 1SAY WHAT YOU WILL about the phrase “say what you will,” it can be an effective preface to a questionable comment.

Stalin and his mustache

Stalin and his mustache

Example: “Say what you will about Stalin, the guy grew a helluva mustache.”

See how well that works? The speaker has compartmentalized his praise. So what if Stalin was a really bad dude. This is about mustaches, not morality!

The idea behind the “say what you will” phrase is it suggests — but doesn’t specify — something bad about the subject before going on to something different and better. Which is why I got confused last week when I heard a caller on a talk-radio station begin a sentence with “Say what you want about Anne Frank …”

I didn’t even hear the rest. My brain was too tangled with questions. Like, What’s wrong with Anne Frank? How did she earn a “say what you want”? Is there a dark side to her story that I don’t know about?

What did Anne Frank do wrong? Nothing bad, don't worry.

What did Anne Frank do wrong? Nothing bad, don’t worry.

On reflection, I think the caller just bungled her “say what you want” preface. She must have meant that people say a lot about Anne but they don’t say enough about her writing, or optimism, or whatever it was I tuned out.

Or maybe the caller tried to reverse the “say what you want” convention, starting with the acknowledgement that Anne was a good kid and ending with a critical “but” as in “… but she knew nothing about taxidermy!”

Nice try, caller, but it doesn’t work that way. Starting a sentence with “say what you want about the miracle of childbirth …” and finishing with “… it sure is messy” doesn’t cut it. Our brains are programmed to hear “say what you will/want” and think, Ooh, there’s something bad about this person.

Orin Hargraves agrees with me. The author of It’s Been Said Before: A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Cliches (2014) writes that “say what you will” “is mainly used to concede that there are grounds for criticism of someone or something before going on to praise them.”

Here are some examples from the Internet:

“Say what you will about the greedy capitalist record chiefs of the 1970s, they sure knew how to throw a party.”

“Say what you will about (Mel Gibson) – about his problem with booze or his problem with Jews – he is a serious filmmaker.”

“Say what you will about British cheese, there’s not a cheese that’s been more copied, emulated, and changed than good old English cheddar.”

My all-time favorite use of this phrase, or cliché, comes courtesy of John Goodman’s Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski (1998). Distressed to learn that a bunch of thugs are actually German nihilists (who reject all religious and moral principles), he expresses a slight preference for Nazism. “Say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude,” he tells the Jeff Bridges character. “At least it’s an ethos.”

As a fictional character in a quirky comedy, Sobchak could get away with a comment that might incinerate a real person. Ask Bill Maher. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, the host of Politically Incorrect got pilloried for defending the courage of the terrorists. Said Maher, “Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly.”

Apparently, “say what you will/want” can’t make every statement palatable. Too bad. We still have to think before we speak.

Say what you will, that’s probably a good thing.

SEPTEMBER 27: Militants pick on the wrong teenager

1254369002072-rukhsana kausar

ON THIS DATE in 2009, nineteen-year-old Rukhsana Kausar shot and killed a terrorist who had broken into her family home in Jammu and Kashmir. For her actions defending herself and her family, she would be presented with the India National Bravery Award.

On a Sunday night, three armed men broke open a window and entered the house, possibly to kidnap Kausar, although some sources say they simply wanted food and lodging for the night.

Hiding under a bed, Kausar heard the militants beating her father. Enraged, she picked up an ax, raced toward the attacker, and struck him. When the man dropped, she snatched his AK47 and shot him dead. She fired at the other militants as well, injuring one and sending both racing into the night.

“I couldn’t bear my father’s humiliation,” Kausar said, quoted in The Telegraph. “If I’d failed to kill him, they would have killed us.”

Kausar’s age is sometimes reported as twenty-one. Wikipedia states that her birth year is 1989, which would make her nineteen or twenty at the time of the incident.