Saturday, 14 September 2013

The Faithful Executioner, by Joel Harrington

Why I chose it: Slate excerpt

Podcasts: Mysterypod

Brow: Granted, this is a true crime book about 16th century Germany, but it remains true crime, which makes it middle-brow.

Summary: Meister Frantz Schmidt was chief executioner of the German city of Nuremburg for over three decades. Several things were remarkable about him: first, he was literate, which was unusual for anyone at the time, let alone a social outcast like an executioner. Second, he put his literacy to good ends, leaving a journal that recorded most of the torture and executions he carried out on behalf of the state in his long career. Third, the main reason his career was as long as it was is that he was a sober, religious man at a time when most people in his profession were unreliable, mostly due to alcoholism. This also allowed him to change his social position from outcast, as a person who worked in the criminal justice system at the time would have been, to a respectable, married citizen. Joel Harrington discovered the original journal and used it as the basis of his biography of Schmidt.

What I liked about it: In addition to being a biography of a fascinating historical character, the book also explains the changing social mores of 16th century Germany, where many of the old punishments like burning at the stake were phased out as too gruesome, so new methods like death by the sword were introduced. Each new punishment meant that executioners had to learn how to perform them properly, otherwise they risked being punished in their victim's place.

What I didn't like about it: As the enduring popularity of 'Medieval Dungeon' Museums attests, we're enthralled by stories of human bloodlust, so I can't really fault Harrington for occasionally going into great detail about the types of executions or specific incidents in Schmidt's repertoire. But if you're not a fan of them, you might want to stay away from this one.

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