Morbid History

Morbid little historical tidbits that intrique me 

Written by Shiva Rodriguez (2014) 

As is my custom, I've been juggling two different books to read over the past week. This time they both have to do with capital punishment in Europe, and I'm finding it interesting how very different the general attitudes are.

The first one is called “Murderous Tyneside”, which pretty much gives a synopsis of every trial that ended in execution in Newcastle in the 20th century. The witness statements often seem as though one were merely watching a ball game. It's like they'd be sitting in the parlour and look out the window to see a man cut a woman's throat, then they would finish tea and conversation before going to look for a policeman to report the deed while the victim often lay bleeding to death in view. (I think about half these blokes went for supper right after committing murder.)

They didn't particularly like executing people in England, but they did draw the line at murder. Being found guilty of wilful murder was an automatic neck-breaking sentence. Even if you just meant to cripple your foe, if he died from septic shock or gangrene a few weeks later you were on trial for your life before the body was cold.

Another thing I found unusual was how many trials involved testimony that the suspect said “I'll swing for him/her/you” shortly before killing the victim. “I'll swing for ___(insert most likely the ex-lover's name here)___” was the slang of the day that roughly translates to: “I'm going to be hanging from the gallows within a month for doing this, but I don't care because this person has wronged me and deserves to die right now.”

Of course, British executions in that era were famously quick and effective, so it really doesn't surprise me that so many angry people who felt they had nothing to live for did not fear judicial hanging.

And so comes the contrast when reading about a society where people truly didn't have much to live for...

The long drop had yet to be invented and executions were practically designed to be as torturous as possible in the era of the second book I'm reading. “The Faithful Executioner”, which is somewhat of a biography of the infamous 'Meister Franz”, Nuremberg's executioner during a good part of the 16th century.

In this period, people were in an almost constant state of panic over the very idea of death, and certainly had good reason to be since damned near anything could kill you back then. Actual crimes were committed more for survival than out of anger or passion. Murder just seemed to be insurance that there were no witnesses to identify you as the person who committed the capital offence of picking an apple from a tree that a Count had pissed on.

I'm not kidding. There were a million miniscule offences that could send you straight to the scaffold. Hell, even just threatening to do something, like burn your neighbor's house down, was considered as bad as actually doing it as far as the courts were concerned. (And people seemed more than happy to run as fast as they could to the authorities to report any little infraction which would almost guarantee the execution of the “poor sinner”.)

Meister Franz, not unlike many other people in his profession, was pretty much regarded as Death Itself and therefore treated as a pariah of society. Well, at least on the days where he wasn't obligated to perform his duty in front of a cheering mob. But unlike what the Billingtons, Pierrepoints, and other later century counterparts enjoyed, the folks who met Meister Franz didn't go to their deaths willingly or with very much dignity.

What I found odd is that this was a society where people pretty much expected to live to the ripe old age of 30 (if they survived past the age of three) and could often count on a very painful death that may well linger on for weeks. You would think that knowing the time and place where the end would come would be almost a relief, or at least be easy to resign oneself to. While executions in Germany at the time were usually hideous, they rarely lasted for more than 30 minutes. (And for the more gruesome ones, such as burning alive, I've found that most of the executioners I've studied who had to use this method found a way to quietly stab or strangle the victim before the pyre was ever lit. Franz was no exception.)

By far the biggest contrast was how society behaved. The 20th century English kept their executions very quiet and as far away from public view as possible. Not unlike American executions today, there would usually be a crowd of both supporters and opponents of the death penalty at the gates waiting on word that the condemned was no longer among the living, but there was hardly any fanfare. Capital punishment was treated like an embarrassing little necessity in a society where people otherwise enjoyed long, healthy lives.

Back in the 16th century, executions were practically can't-miss social events and performed live on stage (scaffold) that was raised high enough to give everyone a good view. It was a festival-like atmosphere, which I found odd considering the constant fear of death that generally encompassed all social classes at the time.

Granted, I can understand the jovial atmosphere in later time periods when death awaited those who committed only the most serious offences, or even during the French Revolutionary period when if you weren't seen feverishly supporting the cause then you might find yourself on the guillotine the following day.

But I can't quite wrap my head around the festive mood of most 16th century execution days. Did people really say to themselves: “My neighbor is going to be strung up for stealing a cabbage. Let's go cheer him on!”

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