A job executing people in the 16th century wasn't nearly as glamorous as you might think. Joel F. Harrington, author of the fascinating new book The Faithful Executioner gives us the gory details.

I have spent virtually every day of the past four years in the company of a man who with his own hands killed 394 individuals, flogged or otherwise disfigured roughly the same number, and tortured hundreds more. I should add that my acquaintance has been dead for nearly four hundred years, and my familiarity with him is based on an intimate knowledge of the private journal he kept for nearly half a century. This fascinating document, which I have transcribed and translated from a 1634 German manuscript, is the basis of my forthcoming biography of Meister Frantz Schmidt, executioner of the imperial city of Nuremberg from 1578-1618.

Professional killers like Frantz Schmidt have long been feared, despised and even pitied, but rarely considered as genuine individuals, capable—or worthy—of being known to posterity. In premodern Europe, professional executioners were particularly reviled as cold-blooded killers for hire and accordingly excluded from respectable society at every turn. Most were forced to live outside the city walls or near an already unclean location within the city, typically the slaughter-yard or a lepertorium. Their legal disenfranchisement was just as thorough: no executioner or family member could hold citizenship, be admitted to a guild, hold public office, serve as a legal guardian or trial witness, or even write a valid will. Until the late fifteenth century, these outcasts received no legal protection from mob violence in the event of a botched execution, and a few were actually stoned to death by angry spectators. In most towns, hangmen—as they were most commonly known—were forbidden to enter a church. And if an executioner wished to have his child baptized or desired last rites for a dying relative, he depended on the willingness of the sometimes less-than-compassionate local priest to set foot in an “unclean” residence. They were also banned from bathhouses, taverns, and other public buildings, and it was virtually unheard of for an executioner to enter the home of any respectable person. People of Frantz Schmidt’s era harbored such a pervasive fear of social contamination at the very touch of an executioner’s hand that respectable individuals jeopardized their very livelihoods by even casual contact. Folklore abounded with tales of the disasters that befell those who broke this ancient taboo, and of beautiful condemned maidens who chose death over marriage to willing hangmen.

Yet the Frantz Schmidt I have come to know more through his own words and other primary documents does not appear to have been either a sadistic monster or a simple-minded henchman. To the contrary, in his journal we encounter a pious, thoughtful, abstemious father of seven who is nonetheless excluded from the respectable society he serves, and forced to spend most of his time with convicted criminals and the thuggish guards who assist him. Though effectively isolated, the long-time executioner paradoxically exhibits a high degree of social intelligence, a capacity that makes possible both his brilliant professional success and a gradual reversal of the popular stigma oppressing him. Thanks to the broad chronological scope of the journal—beginning with his first execution at age 18 and ending with his last dispatch at 64—we also witness the literary and philosophical evolution of a minimally-educated autodidact, whose journal entries progress from laconic summaries of his criminal encounters to virtual short stories, and in the process reveal ever more of their author’s innate curiosity--particularly on medical matters--as well as his moral cosmos.

One particular surprise of the journal is the profound empathy Meister Frantz displays with the many crime victims he encounters, especially children and the elderly. Hundreds of journal entries reveal a man who apparently never became numb to human suffering, never became the emotionless automaton of popular literature. His relief at the capture and execution of marauding robbers, some of them serial murderers, is likewise palpable. Moreover, despite his repeated exposure to the entire gamut of human cruelty and deceit, not to mention his own regular administering of horrific violence, this apparently genuinely religious man seems never to have wavered in his belief in ultimate divine forgiveness and redemption for those who sought it.

Why would such a man become an executioner in the first place, let alone continue to work for nearly a half century in what was universally considered an odious profession? Frantz Schmidt’s sympathy for victims and satisfaction at restoring the peace provides some of the answer. But it was another manuscript that I located in the State Archive of Vienna that revealed a still deeper motivation. After spending his entire life in a profession officially designated as “dishonorable,” the seventy-year old retired executioner made a late appeal to Emperor Ferdinand II himself to restore his family’s good name. The petition was clearly formulated and penned by a professional notary, but the sentiments expressed are highly personal, even surprisingly intimate at times. Most revealingly, the elderly Frantz recounts the story of how his family unjustly fell into their infamous profession as well as his lifelong determination to avoid the same fate for his own sons. To this end, he offers his longtime service to the city of Nuremberg and to the Holy Roman Empire as payment for the requested imperial privilege. The thirteen-page document also includes the names of several prominent citizens healed by Schmidt, who maintained a sideline as a medical consultant and practitioner—a surprisingly common occupation among executioners—as well as an enthusiastic endorsement from the Nuremberg city council, his employer for four decades. His long service to the city and the cause of law and order, the councilors concur, has been “exemplary” and they urge the emperor to restore his honor.

I won’t give away how Frantz Schmidt’s story unfolds or turns out. I will say, though, that the survival of this exceptional historical source enables us to vicariously experience the thoughts, feelings, and actions of the type of individual perpetually consigned to the shadows, revealing a real person animated by bitter resentment of past and present injustices but also an unshakable hope for the future. Most remarkably, it gives those of us in the twenty-first century an unexpected glimpse of that presumed oxymoron: the moral life of a premodern executioner.