the executioner’s diary


In some cases Master Frantz had to arrange for the offender to be dragged to the scaffold through the streets while he pulled out parts of his flesh with red-hot tongs on the way; and before that, he frequently had to administer the tortures that brought the accused to confess. The process began with a display of the instruments to the accused, to whom the executioner’s assistant described their function while playing up the skill and ruthlessness of his master. Most people gave in at this point, but those who did not (mostly hardened robbers) would be subjected to the thumbscrews or leg splints, or have fires lit under their armpits, or be put in the “crown”, a leather or metal band progressively tightened around their head, or be drawn up a ladder with weights applied to their feet in a torture known as the strappado. All this was carefully regulated. Master Frantz stopped the torture if it reached a stage where it threatened the life of the accused. He tended the wounds he had inflicted until, if necessary, the accused was ready to undergo the procedure all over again. We know all these details because, most unusually, Master Frantz Schmidt kept a diary, which the American historian Joel F. Harrington has unearthed in a manuscript copy from 1634, the year of the executioner’s death, that is more accurate and more detailed than the versions that appeared in print in 1801 and 1913.

more from Richard J. Evans at the TLS here.