Song of the executioner

As I slowly walk across Canton Schaffhausen I come across a number of small hills that bear the name “Galgenbuck”(Gallows Hill).

The cantonal capital Schaffhausen itself was a Reichstadt, an imperial free city, meaning it was directly subject to the Holy Roman Emperor and no other government.

He granted it the privilege of being allowed to arrest and try criminals within a radius of two miles.

Offenders would be sentenced to the gallows for very petty crimes against property.

In the Middle Ages and Early Modern period, the most common method for execution, at least for males, was decapitation by sword.

In 1550 a tramp was hanged for stealing turnips.

Not long afterwards three Jews met the same fate for embezzling a small sum of money.

In about 1558 a torture chamber was installed in the Oberhaus (upper house) by the Obertor (upper gate).

Offenders were exiled over the border or taken speedily to the gallows.

A Schaffhausen chronicle reports for 1605:

“The old gallows was dismantled with great pomp at the beginning of this year and replaced with a new one.
A foreign murderer was pinched with glowing pincers, taken to the gallows, hanged and finally burned.”

Originally Schaffhausen did not have its own executioner, but fetched one when needed from Zürich or Konstanz.

It is not until the 16th century that Schaffhausen can be shown to have had resident executioners.

The executioner was also usually the official torturer.

The hangman and the executioner followed a “dishonourable trade” and were thus excluded from membership of guilds and corporations.

The professionalization of death — a chilling business — was cultivated for centuries by a profane tribe of men who were denied civil status and ostracized from nearly every aspect of daily life.

Forced to live at the margins, the executioner was defined by ambiguities: a pivotal actor in the multipart drama of public killing, an extension of the crown, and yet morally hazy and universally despised.

One did not simply become an executioner.

Rather, one was generally born into the profession.

Though not legally hereditary, the office was usually recognized as a family trade.

The title of executioner passed from eldest son to eldest son.

Younger sons and nephews remained in the family business, filling vacancies in other cities or working as assistants.

Daughters of executioners invariably married sons of executioners, therefore providing an endless bounty of death’s choreographers.

If the office of executioner was bound by a kind of primogeniture, it was because the families had few alternatives.

The very presence of the executioner and his family in everyday society was so feared that their lives were highly governed.

Early modern cities enacted laws dictating nearly every aspect of the executioner’s life, from where he could live to which buildings he could enter to whom he could touch.

In most of Europe, executioners were prohibited from living in the urban areas they served.

At required attendance at church services, they and their families were restricted to a designated pew.

Executioners only entered the city to perform tasks related to their office.

Those entailed the duties, of course, of torturing or killing the condemned, but they also included a variety of other obligations, such as cleaning cesspools, claiming stray animals, and disposing of animal carcasses that might litter the streets.

Included in the basic duties was a management role over other social pariahs, (prostitutes, lepers, etc), from whom the executioner could levy a tax, as a sort of sovereign of the underworld.

Executioners were not boorish uneducated sociopaths who took pleasure in the killing and the limelight.

Rather, they were largely literate and well-educated.

Their education, like most tradesmen, was practical in nature.

They were largely taught at home since executioners’ families were forbidden from attending school.

An executioner’s education entailed a rudimentary knowledge of his locality’s justice system, order and rituals, as well as his role within them.

Most importantly, the executioner’s education included extensive instruction in human anatomy.

Indeed, the executioner’s knowledge of the human body was so renowned that their services were often demanded in place of a physician.

The executioner is usually presented with a warrant authorizing or ordering him to execute the sentence.

The warrant protects the executioner from the charge of murder.

Common terms for executioners derived from forms of capital punishment — though they often also performed other physical punishments — include hangman (hanging) and headsman (beheading).

In Western Europe and its colonies, executioners have often been shunned by their neighbours.

This attitude can be observed in numerous novels and films, for instance in Alexandre Dumas, père’s The Three Musketeers, or in the film La veuve de Saint-Pierre (The Widow of Saint-Peter) in which executioners, who are minor characters, are ostracized by villagers.

In Japan, executioners have been held in contempt as part of the Burakumin class.

(Today executions in Japan are not carried out by professional executioners, but by prison guards regularly moved).

In “Memories of Silk and Straw”, by Junichi Saga, one of the families surveyed in the Japanese village of Tsuchiura is that of an executioner family.

This family suffers social isolation, even though the family is somewhat well-off financially.

Executioners were seen as “damned” people and even their graveyards were separate from public graveyards.

There were no inscriptions on executioner tombstones, usually uncarved and unpolished simple rough stones were used.

This ostracism sometimes had consequences for individual executioners:

In March 1671 the nearby commune of Wilchingen laid a complaint against one of its citizens who wanted to marry the daughter of the Schaffhausen executioner, which the commune regarded as a disgrace.

The authorities found in favour of the commune.

As late as 1763 a woman from Schaffhausen lost her citizenship rights because she had a relationship with the hangman’s son.

She was forbidden to bring her cloth for sale at market.

Throughout the whole period Schaffhausen’s executions were carried out at the Bohnenberg (Bean Hill) near Neuhausen (at the Rhine Falls), which was where the huge gallows stood.

As late as the 19th century 11 death sentences were passed and implemented.

The last execution on the gallows took place on 18 February 1822.

In the canton of Zürich, from the 15th century to the end of the 18th century, 1,445 persons were condemned to death (1,198 men, 247 women), 915 of these were beheaded, 270 hanged, 130 burnt alive, 99 drowned, 26 broken on the wheel, 1 quartered alive, 1 immured and the last one was impaled.

In 1835, the guillotine was added.

In 1848, the death penalty for political crimes was forbidden by the constitution.

In 1874, it was then completely abolished.

However, because of an increase in crime, due to the economic depression of the time, capital punishment was reintroduced in 1879.

On 21 December 1937, the Federal Assembly of Switzerland adopted the first national criminal code, abolishing capital punishment.

Swiss military law, however, still allowed the death penalty for treason.

During World War II, 30 people were sentenced to death, 17 of those executed before the end of the war.

The 1999 Swiss Federal Constitution then banned the death penalty at the constitutional level.

Today, capital punishment is forbidden in Switzerland by Article 10, Paragraph 1, of the Swiss Federal Constitution.

It was abolished from federal criminal law in 1942, but remained available in military criminal law until 1992.

Two initiatives have so far been launched to amend the Constitution to provide the reintroduction of capital punishment.

The first in 1985 would have made drug dealing punishable by death.

It did not manage to collect the required 100,000 signatures needed for a binding national referendum.

In August 2010, family members of a murder victim launched another constitutional amendment initiative to provide for capital punishment in cases of murder combined with sexual violence.

The initiative quickly found itself at the centre of public attention and was roundly rejected by political leaders.

It was withdrawn a day after its official publication.

Of the 105 independent states that are United Nations members or have UN observer status, 36 retain capital punishment in both law and practice.

Since 2009, Iran and Saudi Arabia have executed offenders who were under the age of 18.

Public executions are still being carried out by the governments of Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Somalia.

81% of the world’s executions take place in just three countries: China, Iran and the US.

From 2007 to 2012, Iran executed 1,663, China over 1,000 and the US 220 executions.

The United States is the only country in the Americas to carry out executions.

The US carries out more executions than any other liberal democracy in the world.

Capital punishment is controversial.

Its opponents regard the death penalty as inhumane and criticize it for its irreversibilty and assert that it lacks a deterrent effect.

They argue that not all people affected by murder desire a death penalty, that execution discriminates against minorities and the poor, that it encourages a “culture of violence” and that it violates human rights.

Advocates of the death penalty argue that it deters crime, is a good tool for police and prosecutors, makes sure that convicted criminals do not offend again and is a just penalty for atrocious crimes such as child murders, serial killers or torture murderers.

The world’s religions have mixed opinions on the death penalty, depending on the sect, the individual believer and the time period.

Personally, I feel that it is hypocritical for the state to take the lives of others while condemning others for the taking of lives.

In my opinion, too many nations continue to sing the song of the executioner.


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