Review: The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honour and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century by Joel F. Harrington

The Faithful Executioner [2013] – ★★★1/2

A technically proficient and reliable executioner was himself the very embodiment of the sword of justice in action – swift, unwavering, deadly, but never appearing susceptible to arbitrary or gratuitous cruelty” [Harrington, Farrar, Straus and Giroux Publications, 2013: 67].

This book is a biography of Franz Schmidt (1555-1634), a public executioner who lived in what is now Germany in the Renaissance period. He kept a diary for the majority of his professional life, which lasted some forty-five years and included the execution of at least three hundred and sixty one people. Harrington traces Schmidt’s life, from his apprenticeship to him becoming a master of his craft, a healer, a family man and, finally, “an honourable member of society”, grounding his research in Schmidt’s dairy. After gaining technical skills, Schmidt travelled several years across the country, performing executions for a fee (as was customary), and though associating with a dishonourable profession, always tried to challenge the social stigma and strived to be part of the honourable society, taking pains to avoid associating with the world of immorality, including gambling, drinking and fighting. Harrington’s non-fiction is not for the squeamish and the biography presented is a bit misguided, but those who are interested in the history of criminal punishment will find much here to consider at length.

Franz Schmidt made his professional debut as an executioner in Steinach in June 1573, and then in Kronach administered his very first execution “with the wheel”. He had to gain his technical proficiency rather quickly and, in the process, also developed mental stamina. There are probably few historical non-fiction books out there that have themes more gruesome and macabre that those presented by Harrington in his book, and the author does not shy away from all the ghastly details. He talks at length about “drowning executions”, executions “with the rope” and “with the sword” (poena capitas or “capping”), and about something called “live burials”. As was common at that time, Franz Schmidt did not just work as an executioner, but also as a chief interrogator, torturer and flogger. His job also involved delivering “convicted offender in a satisfactory condition for public punishment” [Harrington, 2013: 60], and that, shockingly, at times meant ensuring that any torture wounds are completely healed before the final punishment is inflicted.

Though such medieval interrogation techniques as the ordeals by fire and water are now generally well-known (for example, commonly practiced in England), there was also in medieval and renaissance Germany something called “the bier test”. It involved “assembling a room full of witnesses, [and] the executioner and his assistant would force the accused or a group of suspects to approach the victim’s corpse on its stretcher and touch it. If the body bled or gave any other sign of guilt (apparent movement), the killer would supposedly be compelled to confess” [Harrington, Farrar, Straus and Giroux Publications, 2013: 56]. Cruel and sadistic torture methods are also mentioned, for example, something called the “Spanish boots” and the strappado technique. Some drastic punishments, such as bodily mutilations and certain forms of execution, slowly gave way to more “humane” punishments in Schmidt’s later life, including simple banishment, flogging and wearing visible signs of life-time humiliation. This brings to mind The Scarlett Letter [1850] by Nathaniel Hawthorne, a classic set in the 1600s America, where the main heroine was first publicly humiliated by standing on the scaffold for three hours and was then forced to wear a scarlet “A” for the rest of her life.

Execution with a sword, Cosmographia universalis (1552) by Sebastian Münster

The curious aspect for me was the parallels between the interrogation techniques used in Schmidt’s time and the present-day criminal justice practices. As in later periods of Schmidt’s life, today it is also the emotional/psychological pressure that drives the interrogation of suspects at police stations. Harrington writes: “the executioner relied more on emotional vulnerability and psychological pressure than on sheer physical coercion” [Harrington, 2013: 109]. This, of course, reminds of one of the most famous literary interrogations – that of Esmeralda in Victor Hugo’s classic set in the Middle Ages – Notre-Dame de Paris [1831]. There, the mere touch of a monstrous torture device on Esmeralda’s leg was more than enough for her to confess all the imaginary sins of this world. It was also surprising for me to discover a technique called “good executioner, bad executioner” practised in Schmidt’s time. This involved a practice whereby “the two men alternatively threatening and consoling a terrified suspect”, and I could not help but draw parallels with the present-day interrogation technique practised in the US called “bad cop, good cop”, where after a series of consoling and sympathetic messages from a “good” cop, the suspect is then faced with a “bad” cop, who threatens and intimidates. The confusion increases the stress, and this aids the suspect to confess sooner.

It was equally fascinating to read about the psychology and privately-held beliefs of the executioner. Franz Schmidt focused more in his diary on the crimes of his accused, rather than on his work, and he considered bandits, who attacked, tortured and murdered people during the night, to be the worst sinners who deserved the worst kinds of punishments. His career was long, and the first signs of his decline can only be seen in 1611, when he experienced the most dramatic execution ever – the botched execution of incestuous and adulterous Elisabeth Mechtlin. To the horror of the crowd, Schmidt decapitated the convict with three strokes, and more botched executions followed after that one.

The author gives much historical context to Schmidt’s diary entries, emphasising the political and societal shifts in the criminal justice execution and the attitudes surrounding it at that time. However, unfortunately, this book is also problematic in its essence. Harrington paints the portrait of “a pious and abstemious” man, who was thrust into a profession he never chose and who was also sympathetic and even benevolent. Schmidt wants to present a “humane” and “compassionate” executioner who also happened to torture and disfigure hundreds. This line is rather worrying, and even if there is some truth in it regarding Schmidt’s character, Harrington presents his assumptions and conclusions about Schmidt’s diary entries as facts and “truth”, when there is no concrete evidence that they are so, especially since people are very unlikely to present themselves in a bad light in their diaries, knowing full well that their written material would be preserved for posterity. In fact, the author himself notes that Schmidt made a number of inaccuracies regarding executions in his diaries and these inaccuracies were later verified, and even says at one point “we should be attuned to the executioner’s own need to justify the cruelties he himself later inflicted on such criminals” [Harrington, 2013: 151]. Moreover, expressions of sympathy in a dairy do not automatically mean that a person was the epitome of goodness and did not have any sadistic tendencies. It is hard to believe that a man would engage himself in a completely detestable-to-him occupation for forty-five years merely because of his “duty”, whether religious or otherwise. We may believe that Schmidt saw torture only as “a necessary evil”, but there is also no concrete evidence to prove that assertion categorically. Clearly, Schmidt is not saying everything in his dairies, and he is purposely silent about the actual torture interrogations he presided over.

The unfortunate element of The Faithful Executioner is that it is mostly filled with wordy conjectures, rather than reasoning based on concrete facts and, thus, should be taken with a grain of salt. It is also difficult to believe the publisher’s claim that this is “a biography of an ordinary man struggling for his soul”. On the other hand, simply because of its subject matter, the read, albeit “gruesome”, is still interesting, and most of the historical context provided, supported by telling illustrations of that time, is illuminating, making this non-fiction a worthwhile read.

4 thoughts on “Review: The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honour and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century by Joel F. Harrington

  1. I salute you for ploughing through what may have been a distressing read to give us this balanced yet critical review. I appreciated your comparison with modern techniques of interrogation, some legal, some questionable, and not a few downright dreadful.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. This must have been such an interesting read! I’m pretty sure I would not have picked this book up from a bookshelf, but your insights on it kinda changed my mind on it! Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

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