Matthew Gates 8m 1,937 #executioner
The views of this article are the perspective of the author and may not be reflective of Confessions of the Professions.
The author generated this text in part with GPT-3, OpenAI’s large-scale language-generation model. Upon generating draft language, the author reviewed, edited, and revised the language to their own liking and takes ultimate responsibility for the content of this publication.
“Meister Franz, a respected executioner in 16th century Germany, reflects on his profession and the delicate balance of justice and mercy as he prepares for one final execution. Despite the dishonorable nature of his profession, Meister Franz’s piety and skill as an executioner have earned him the respect of his community. But as he reflects on his past and the gravity of his actions, Meister Franz must come to terms with his legacy and the weight of his responsibility. A thought-provoking tale that delves into the complexities of justice and redemption.”
Meister Franz had recently arrived in Nuremberg from Bamberg. As he walked towards the execution site, he couldn’t help but think back to how he came to his profession. “Like father, like son,” they say, but his father’s profession was more by default than by design. His father, Heinrich, had been forced into becoming an executioner by the vicious Bavarian magistrate Albrecht II. Without an executioner at hand, Albrecht II picked Heinrich out of the crowd and threatened to hang him if he didn’t perform executions. What was this father to do?
After that, nobody wanted to have anything to do with Heinrich, but as was the tradition for the son of an executioner, Franz took up the same occupation. He was 18 when he became executioner under his father’s supervision in 1573, and since then, he had performed 361 executions and 345 minor punishments – floggings, as well as ear or finger amputations.
Franz had executed criminals by rope, sword, breaking wheel, burning, and drowning. Although he would never reveal his preferred method, he had become well-versed in all manner of execution techniques, and never enjoyed the death taking place, often finding himself in some silent prayer, hoping for a quick and painless death for any soul destined to end by his hand. And yet, despite the dishonorable nature of his profession, according to others, Franz was a respected member of the community and earned himself an endearing name: Meister Franz.
But now, as he stood at the execution site in Nuremberg, he had to focus on the task at hand: Vogel, who had been found guilty of burning his enemy to death. It would be Franz’s first execution in his new hometown. He took a deep breath, trying to push away the memories of his past, and proceeded to do his job.
As Meister Franz prepared to execute Vogel, he couldn’t help but reflect on the time he had spent getting to know him. As was customary with prisoners, Franz had taken the time to get to know Vogel on a personal level, after all, he was personally sending him off to eternity. If Vogel had had serious wounds or was otherwise ill, Franz would have nursed him back to health, fulfilling the duties of his secondary profession as a medical consultant. He may have even requested the execution’s delay so Vogel could face a proper death with his health intact. He couldn’t help but think that the name “Vogel” meant bird, and if he were truly repentant, he would have assuredly ascended to heaven.
It was not uncommon for prisoners like Vogel to receive visitors, such as family members or the relatives of the victim seeking reconciliation. Franz knew deep down that forgiveness was divine, and he felt joyful when one condemned killer accepted some oranges and gingerbread from his victim’s widow. He saw it as a sign that she had wholeheartedly forgiven him.
As he prepared to execute Vogel, he couldn’t help but contemplate his role as someone who meted out justice in the name of society and – above all – God. It was his professional and sacred duty to serve as an agent who balanced divine and earthly authority. As he placed the noose around Vogel’s neck, he said a silent prayer for the man’s soul and for the strength to carry out his task. He pulled the lever and Vogel’s body fell through the trapdoor. As he watched Vogel take his last breath, he couldn’t help but feel a sense of sadness, knowing that he had played a part in ending a life, a life that he ultimately never wanted to take. But he also knew that his actions were necessary to maintain order and justice in society.
As Meister Franz watched over Vogel in the days leading up to his execution, he couldn’t help but notice the steady stream of chaplains who came to visit him. Most who visited condemned prisoners were the clergy, and the chaplains who visited Vogel and other prisoners would most likely attempt to soften their hearts and convince them to beg for God’s forgiveness. They would read from the Bible, pray, and preach while appealing to such diverse emotions as fear, sorrow, and hope.
Vogel, like most prisoners, had likely not seen much literature or art in his life. Smaller towns might have had a small church with only the most rudimentary paintings on its walls – if any. The prisoner could have possibly known about heaven and hell from prints, but they were too expensive for the lower classes to own, even with the advent of the printing press. Peasants relied on the clergy to show them their illustrated prayer books and teach them about their religion.
Undoubtedly, the chaplains who visited Vogel would have brought their prized Bibles or their woodcuts, as well as etchings of saints, sinners, and death. The clerics used these pictures to illustrate their sermons. Franz watched as the chaplains led prisoners to recite the Lord’s Prayer. They read from the Lutheran catechism and offered reassuring words. Sometimes they joined along with the jailer or members of their family to sing hymns of consolation. Everyone wanted to believe Vogel would be ready for a penitent and open-hearted death.
Franz couldn’t help but feel a sense of hope as he watched Vogel’s interactions with the chaplains. He knew that his job was to administer justice, but he also knew that it was important for the prisoners to have a chance at redemption before they met their end. He couldn’t help but think that maybe, just maybe, Vogel would find forgiveness and peace before he died. When Meister Franz became an executioner, he knew it was not only about ridding the world of sinners and evildoers. As with the teachings of the Church, there were still imperative lessons to be learned.
In his own lessons, he knew that public executions had to accomplish two distinct goals. First of all, he wanted to shock spectators and use the harrowing scene as a preventative measure. The second goal was to buttress and reaffirm divine and temporal authority. As executioner, he played a pivotal role in achieving this delicate balance.
He staged the events from condemnation through death procession to the actual execution as if it all were stage filled with actors. The people of his era were familiar with “morality plays.” These were allegorical dramas where characters had personified moral qualities (such as charity or vice) or abstractions (as death or youth), complete with a moral lesson. What greater stage performance to present these ideas publicly than by executing a sinner?
Franz fulfilled his goal of addressing the divine and earthly realms on the state’s behalf through this ritualized and regulated brutality. He knew that it was a heavy responsibility, but he also knew that it was necessary to maintain order and justice in society. He tried to be as humane as possible and to give the prisoners a chance to redeem themselves before they met their end. He knew that there was a delicate balance but offered some grace and peace towards those he still saw as human beings.
As Meister Franz prepared to execute Vogel, he was aware of the tradition of the last meal. It was common knowledge that the condemned man could request whatever he wanted for his last meal. The condemned could order whatever he or she wanted, and in copious amounts – wine and beer included. Of course, imbibing large quantities of spirits at the “hangman’s meal” were often to the advantage of the executioner. The prisoner was occasionally dead-drunk and nonresistant before actually dying. In one instance, a rogue consumed so much food and drink his stomach had burst as he swung from the gallows. Franz had also witnessed those prisoners who would not touch a bite.
As Vogel finished his last meal, Franz’s assistants clothed him in a white linen execution gown. Attired in his earthly shroud, Vogel awaited for Franz to preside over the public spectacle to come. The warden announced Franz with the customary words: “The executioner is at hand.” Dressed in his ceremonial best, Franz entered and asked Vogel for forgiveness. He then shared the traditional drink of peace with him. After a few words, he moved on to the waiting judge and jury.
As he approached the judge and jury, he couldn’t help but feel a sense of gravity. He knew that he was about to play his part in a ritual that had been passed down through the centuries. He was both the enforcer of justice and the agent of mercy. Franz took a deep breath and proceeded to do his job as humanely as possible and give the prisoners a chance to redeem themselves before they met their end, to find some peace with the hands that took their final breath. Although he was not responsible for passing judgement, he was a religious executioner and saw himself as carrying out an executive order based on both the state and a religious obligation.
As Meister Franz presented Vogel to the “blood court,” he watched as the red and black-robed judges in the ornately decorated room listened as the scribe read the final confession and its tally of offenses, concluding with the formulaic condemnation: “Which being against the laws of the Holy Roman Empire, my Lords have decreed and given sentence that he shall be condemned from life to death by…” The jurors paused to vote on the manner of execution: by rope, sword, fire, water, or the wheel. They chose the rope.
To present this living morality play to as many people as possible, broadsheets were circulated weeks in advance. This ensured hundreds, and maybe thousands of onlookers. Vogel had to walk a mile to reach his place of execution. His journey was without incident. This was not always the case, though. Franz lamented when a prisoner behaved wildly or gave trouble. He sharply recalled one unruly drunkard who urinated in the open at the gallows. When he learned his sentence, he said he was willing to die, but asked as a favor to fence and fight four of the guards. As Franz wrote in his journal, “His request was refused.”
After his retirement in 1617, Meister Franz began a new, lucrative career as a medical consultant. More accurately, he resumed his other job. Harrington calculated the number of patients seeking medical advice which amounted to roughly 15,000 consultations in the remainder of his lifetime. During the course of his life, he also had multiple children.
Meister Franz received a state funeral in 1634 in Nuremberg’s most prominent cemetery. His burial site was only a few paces away from the graves of the famous painter Albrecht Dürer and poet Hans Sachs. This story is based on the life of Meister Franz Schmidt.