by Joel F. Harrington
The extraordinary story of a Renaissance-era executioner and his world, based on a rare and overlooked journal.
In the late 1500s a Nuremberg man named Frantz Schmidt began to do something utterly remarkable for his era: he started keeping a journal. But what makes Schmidt even more compelling to us is his day job. For forty-five years, Schmidt was an efficient and prolific public executioner, employed by the state to extract confessions and put convicted criminals to death. In his years of service, he executed 361 people and tortured, flogged, or disfigured hundreds more. Is it possible that a man who practiced such cruelty could also be insightful, compassionate, humane—even progressive?
In his groundbreaking book, the historian Joel F. Harrington looks for the answer in Schmidt’s journal, whose immense significance has been ignored until now. Harrington uncovers details of Schmidt’s medical practice, his marriage to a woman ten years older than him, his efforts at penal reform, his almost touching obsession with social status, and most of all his conflicted relationship with his own craft and the growing sense that it could not be squared with his faith.
A biography of an ordinary man struggling for his soul, The Faithful Executioner is also an unparalleled portrait of Europe on the cusp of modernity, yet riven by conflict and encumbered by paranoia, superstition, and abuses of power. In his intimate portrait of a Nuremberg executioner, Harrington also sheds light on our own fraught historical moment.