Franz Schmidt (1555 – June 14 1634)

A healer’s job is to heal. And this list is ordered by their birthdays. So, why would I add an executioner with no known birthday to it?

Few sentences had as much an impact on my decision to become a medic than the one attributed to Asklepios: “Sedare dolorem, opus divinum est.” — the soothing of pains is the highest (a divine) calling.

An executioner’s job in Germany of the 16th century was by no means a simple one. To become one, an apprenticeship with an established Master (“Meister”) executioner was required, a hard and thankless job of being the Master’s personal servant, then a few years in the employ of another executioner, followed by a rather involved process of Mastership, only after which one was allowed to call oneself an executioner.

Schmidt’s father did not voluntarily pick up the sword. As a woodsman, he worked for the Margrave of Kulmbach (Albrecht II, a real asshole, that guy), who had a habit of executing anyone he disliked. When his executioner refused to hang four innocent men, Albrecht forced Schmidt’s father to do the deed, damning him to a life as executioner, since the job was a one way street into societal shunning.

Franz entered as an apprentice into his father’s business at age 14. At the time, being an executioner meant to not only execute criminals but to also be jailor, advocate for the condemned, legal expert, craftsman, and more. At age 18 he finished his apprenticeship but continued work under his in Hof (Bavaria) until meeting Maria Beck, his future wife and daughter of the chief executioner of Nürnberg, whose post he inherited.

Not your basic Hangman

Being chief executioner in Nürnberg, one the richest and most prosperous cities in Europe, afforded Schmidt a wealthy lifestyle and considerable social and legal powers. Under his reign, he pushed for and turned into law the Executioner’s Right To Refuse. Remembering his father’s fate, a Margrave’s decision condemning him to a life of social stigma and state sanctioned killing, he established that “no man, not of free standing nor as an executioner, can be made to kill against his conscience.”

Medieval Nürnberg. Front and center the gallows and executioner’s hill. In today’s world, this is where the A73 highway comes down from Erlangen. Schmidt lived in the center of town, close to the cathedral.

He also became a campaigner for women’s rights with his wife who in the couple’s lavish residence in the best part of Nürnberg hosted fundraisers for women’s shelters and orphanages.

Contrary to the image of executioners in modern folklore, only a small part of Schmidt’s work revolved around executions. As the local jail’s prisoner advocate he also had the power to commute sentences and choose the means of execution. He abolished the death penalty for homosexual acts, opting for banishment instead. He also ended the more brutal forms of execution, burning, drowning, the wheel, and crushing, were commuted to an execution by sword.

One would think that such a rebel would make enemies, and that he did. By and large, however, he was not just respected but actually liked by clergy, nobility, and the common folk, for his piety and reasoning for life, his common commutations of sentences, and his work in social matters.

The “Executioner’s Bridge” in Nürnberg. A museum about medieval law and Franz Schmidt is located to the right. To the left the “Executioner’s Tower” where Schmidt had his office.

In addition to executions, Schmidt also had to carry out physical punishments, such as flogging, amputation of limbs or fingers or toes. Of these, as well as his executions (361 executions, 345 punishments), he kept meticulous records. This will become important in a second.

By 1590, Schmidt, endearingly known as “Meister Franz” across the land, had reformed his job into that of a “merciful weapon of justice.” Well liked by most, he was no less than considered a peer to jurists and upper law enforcement. He could have continued and then retired rich and happy with his wife and seven kids.

Yet, there was a second side to Meister Franz. Early in his career, he found his love for medicine. “If I am to drive out the ailments of this city, I must not start or end with the criminal element, I must also heal the human element” he wrote to his wife in one of the few surviving letters and documents (Nürnberg was heavily bombed in WWII and few things of value survived, Bamberg was mostly spared – a story for another day, also involving a physician – and some of his records were kept there).

From 1578, the start of his work in Nürnberg, to his death in 1634, he worked not only as an executioner but also as a healer. While working to reduce the pain of executions and to commute as many as possible (even Meister Franz was clear that a murderer deserved death), he also soothed the pain in those who did not meet him on the scaffolds. In his lost writings, the last one having been destroyed during the Allied bombing of Nürnberg, days before the war’s end, he described methods to set bones, establish the health of an unborn child, cure a number of fevers and other ailments, and posited the (sacrilegeous for the time) question if the fever or the cough was not the illness itself but a symptom of unseen things, too small to detect, inside a person’s body.

He wrote about sanitation, respectful medicine, reproductive health, and the value and frequent health checkups for the very young and very old.

Sedare dolorem…

When he retired in 1617, he received a royal letter of “Ehrlichkeit”, removing the last stigma of having been an executioner, from Ferdinand II, and became a medical consultant and teacher. In 1543, Vesalius’ De Humani Corporis Fabrica, the first book on human anatomy was published, and having read it before, Schmidt not only translated it into German, he also performed, against the laws of the time and under the generous protection of his reputation and letter of Ehrlichkeit, autopsies on consenting donors for young healers.

By his own estimates, he performed close to 15’000 consultations as a healer and medical consultant over his career, trained 502 young medics, and “spared the life of those condemned to suffer torment until death” a whopping 904 times.

When he died in 1634 he received a state funeral and was buried in a cemetery usually reserved for clergy and nobility. His writings persisted and were used, among other ways, as the basis of both justice and medical reform until late into the 18th century.

Schmidt’s grave in Nürnberg.

A Metal Medic

Schmidt wasn’t free to chose his occupation, having been cast into it by fate and a cruel Margrave who condemned him, trough his father, to a life that could have gone differently very easily.

But he chose to stretch and soften his impact on society, reducing executions, showing mercy more than the times would have allowed most anyone else, and by becoming a healer of more than just perceived and real societal ills. He, in everything he did, lived by that sentence attributed to Asklepios: Sedare Dolorem Opus Divinum Est.

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