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The death penalty, the punishment of legally killing someone guilty of a crime, is controversial now. More than half the nations of the world do not allow it, and the number of US states banning it has increased to eighteen. It was taken for granted centuries ago that you could be hanged for theft, and also that you might have your ears cropped or fingers cut off for other crimes, or that torturing people was in the legal interest of governments. Governments would pay executioners to carry out this handiwork, so there were lots of executioners who were government employees within cities and states. Meister Frantz Schmidt of Nuremberg was just one of these functionaries, working from 1573 to 1618, but he was different: he kept a journal. That journal is the basis for _The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century_ (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) by historian Joel F. Harrington. The journal is sparse. There are a few pages in this book that have lengthy quotations from it, with most quotations being a few sentences regarding a particular miscreant or the administration of a particular punishment. It seems, however, that Harrington has dug deep into the archives of the times, and fills out Schmidt's ambitious life story, along with giving insight to his time's views of crime, punishment, and the social role of the executioner.
Schmidt got his life vocation as executioner from his father, who had been unwillingly forced into the job. His father would have trained him in decapitation by the sword, and hanging. Just as important was learning how to apply instruments of torture. Sometimes these would be applied to torment someone on the way to the gallows; a court might prescribe that a certain number of nips with red-hot tongs, pulling off flesh, were needed before death happened. Torture was used also to get information; we might now call it by the euphemism "enhanced interrogation," but no euphemisms were needed in Schmidt's time. Along with thumb screws, flame to the armpits, the rack, and others, he would also have legally used the torture called "water," known these days as waterboarding, and some of our contemporaries still think this a dandy technique. Schmidt would have been responsible for patching up those that he had tortured, perhaps just to make them presentable on execution day. He would have used salves and herbs, and he would have known how to set bones broken by his more violent techniques. He didn't make any extra money for helping to heal prisoners in this way, but he would have had extensive hands-on insight into human anatomy. Because of this experience, Schmidt, like many other executioners, was in demand as a healer, not for prisoners but for the general public. Not only did he make more money as a practical doctor than he did for his civic work, he treated thousands of patients and was well respected in this role. He worked all his life to escape the shame of filling the outcast role of executioner (he would have been socially shunned), and after he retired, he was cleared of all inherited shame.
This is an engrossing history. The punishments described are unpleasant to read about, but so are the crimes as committed by highwaymen, burglars, and arsonists, often preying upon countrymen who were far removed from any civic protection and who might thereby lose all their crops, cattle, home, and family. Through Schmidt, Harrington makes real a lawless and brutal world, and readers 400 years later will be thankful that the routines of justice are different now, at least for most of us and for most of the time.