Day 80: Last Words On German Executioners

originally published March 20, 2012

Every so often, a seventeenth-century German guidance counselor would look a student over, consult his notes, and pull out the word ‘scharfrichter’ as his recommendation. For these confused teens, this was not good news. A scharfrichter, while clearly a vital cog in the twisted workings of the German government at the time, was not the kind of guy you’d invite over on Friday night for beer and Westfälische Rinderwurst.

The scharfrichter was the guy who swung the ax of justice. The executioner.

When your job’s nickname is the “Mate of Death”, no one expects you to be the life of the party. In fact your presence at a party might give the wrong idea to the other guests, so chances are you’ll spend your evenings getting really adept at whittling, or possibly just growing a thick, German moustache.

That’s not to say you couldn’t be both a Mate of Death and a local fashion icon. The scharfrichter’s traditional ensemble consisted of a snazzy black frock coat and a silk top hat. I would think silk to be an odd choice, given the regular contact you’d have with blood-splatter, but I suppose letting these guys feel good about their headwear was a small concession for the massive void in their souls.

The scharfrichter employed an assistant, a guy they called the “löen” (or ‘lion’), who dragged the prisoners around, buried the bodies and handled lesser punishments, like branding. All the scharfrichter had to do was swing the ax. He didn’t even need to clean up.

Franz Schmidt was one of the earliest-known scharfrichters, honing his skills between 1573 and 1617 in Nuremberg. He kept a journal, which chronicled 361 executions, and 345 “lesser punishments”, which could be anything from cutting an ear or finger off, to flogging the prisoner, to tickling them until they peed. Franz got a little wordy in his diary, sometimes getting into the grizzly facts of the crimes his victims had perpetrated.

And luckily for those of us with a thirst for blood and a tolerance for gory minutia, you can purchase A Hangman’s Diary at your local book retailer or death-paraphernalia emporium. I have no doubt that the audiobook (probably read by Christopher Walken) is riveting.

Let’s fast-forward to Lorenz Schwietz, the Royal Prussian Executioner from 1900 to 1914. His death toll is only about 120, but I’m sure killing less people than some other guy a few centuries earlier didn’t make Lorenz any more popular.

Lorenz was originally a butcher, which makes sense. He moonlighted as the Royal Prussian Executioner’s assistant until that particular executioner resigned after murdering his other assistant in a drunken brawl. Lorenz was not considered to step up and wear the silk hat; he had a criminal record, and you don’t want a criminal doing something as noble and sacred as killing people.

A couple other executioners took over, but finally Wilhelm Reindel was forced to resign in 1901 because he kept showing up to work drunk, and frequently failed to chop his victims’ heads off in one blow. Really, this is not a job for which you’d want to employ a shoddy worker. Lorenz had been swinging the ax for a few months now, and the folks in charge decided it didn’t really matter if he had a record. He was getting promoted.

Lorenz had a team of four assistants. They’d travel around Prussia by third-class rail, not wanting to blow the state’s dime on extravagance. He’d meet up with his victim the night before, check out his canvas (the guy’s neck), and see how much resistance he’d be expecting the next day. How I wish there were transcripts of those chats. I wonder if things would get awkward and if Lorenz would bring up the weather. Maybe they’d talk about soccer.

After the Great War, things didn’t turn out so great for Lorenz Schwietz. The economic crisis cost him all his savings, and his wife died in 1923. Two years later he took his own life, probably not with his own ax.

Lastly we should mention Johann Reichhart. Johann also kept a detailed account of his killings, probably because he knew it would be a best-seller someday. Except that Johann’s may need to come out in multiple volumes: he chalked up a whopping 3165 executions.

Johann was born into a family who had performed executions for eight generations. That’s a long history of children who grew up watching their father come home from work, remove his brain-splattered silk hop hat and thought, “Someday, that could be me.”

Johann was all business. He preferred the Fallbeil as a method of death-bringing – kind of like a steam-punk German guillotine. He used to travel with his own Fallbeil, performing town-to-town executions like a roaming indie band, showing up and wowing the local yokels with the swift clank of his blade. He once applied for permission to break the German speed limit as he traveled because he was just that important. His request was denied.

He started his duties in 1924, but the real bulk of his work was between 1939 and 1945, when over 2800 of his victims were put to death. Johann had nothing to do with the mass-murders in concentration camps; his butchering was a one-on-one arrangement. After VE Day, Johann was employed by the Occupation Authorities to turn his skills on his former bosses. In total he killed 156 Nazi war criminals, and somehow avoided being branded as one himself.

Johann’s legacy to his profession was the technique of the quick-kill; his assistants would hold the victim down on the Fallbeil, doing away with time-consuming straps and belts. He could get the whole thing done in about three or four seconds.

After WW2, Johann’s life seemed to chop off its own happiness. His wife left him, and one of his sons was so mortified by his father’s profession, he took his own life in 1950. The death penalty was outlawed in West Germany, and Johann had nothing to do but retire and reflect on a lifetime of ending other lifetimes.

After writing about death for two days, I think it’s time for a change. I want to point out that Lorenz Schwietz is the only German executioner on Wikipedia who took his own life. Yesterday, I wrote about two clowns who did the same. Clearly the profession of clowning is more depressing than that of an executioner. I’m just saying.

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