Authors: Geoffrey Abbott
The list of those broken on the wheel by him is long and draconian. On one day, 5 June 1573, not only triple-murderer Barthel, and Gronla Weygla, guilty of five murders, died in that manner, but also Meussel, who had stabbed two men to death in order to steal their money.
In the following year Schmidt no doubt achieved a certain amount of satisfaction in dispatching Kloss Renckhart who, with an associate, committed three murders. Having killed two members of his gang for various reasons he, together with another accomplice, attacked an isolated mill.
They shot the miller dead and then forced his wife and the aid to fry some eggs in fat. Putting the food on the miller’s corpse, Renckhart kicked the body, exclaiming, ‘Miller, how do you like this morsel?’ and then forced the wife to eat the eggs. He was arrested after plundering the mill, and later kept an appointment with Schmidt and the iron bars on the scaffold.
Sometimes iron clubs were not used; instead, the criminal would be beheaded by the sword, his body then being exposed on the wheel. This occurred when, on 6 August 1579, Michael Dieterich, one of three robbers, was sentenced to death.
Among the crowds watching the procession to the scaffold was Dieterich’s wife who, until that moment, had had no idea that her own husband would be one of those in the executioner’s cart – nor had she ever had any suspicions that he was engaged in any nefarious deeds. But Schmidt was waiting, and only a brief farewell was possible.
Dieterich might be applauded for his duplicity, but he certainly lacked the audacity of Hans Horn who, having committed two murders, slew a pedlar in the woods with a chopper. Not only did he take eight florins from his victim, and cover the corpse with brushwood, but he had the nerve to seek out the pedlar’s wife and marry her! Schmidt took good care of him, too.
As if having one’s arms and legs broken with iron bars wasn’t enough, many criminals were first subjected to torture, their arms ‘nipped with red-hot pincers’. One such was George Taucher who, at three o’clock in the morning, killed a tavern-keeper’s potboy by slitting his throat with a knife. The searing agony of the glowing tongs, followed by the shattering blows of the iron bar, soon convinced him of the error of his ways.
Probably the occasion which tested Franz’s single-mindedness to the maximum was when he had to execute his own brother-in-law. Yet, loyal to his oath, he administered two tweaks with the red-hot tongs to his relative who, after having been allowed to embrace his daughter on the scaffold, was subjected to no fewer than 31 blows of the iron bar before he expired.
Early in the nineteenth century executions were carried out not on the wheel but by the wheel, it being used as a weapon with which the victim was struck. The Percy Anecdotes, written in 1823, quotes the account of an execution witnessed by a traveller in 1819, which took place near Berlin, his description of the scene being particularly vivid:
‘A triangular gibbet is raised in the centre of an extensive plain commanding a view of the city; attached to this gibbet is a stone platform, lightly railed in with iron, so as to admit of all that takes place being distinctly viewed by the spectators. A large grave was dug in front of it. The area was surrounded by a detachment of lancers, formed in hollow squares, and enfiladed around the execution site by an inner square of the infantry guard.
About half an hour before the appearance of the criminal, twelve persons, executioners, officers of the police, and two little boys as assistants, mounted the scaffold and fixed the strangling cords. At length the buzz of the surrounding multitude, the flourishing of naked sabres and the galloping of the officers, announced the slow approach of the riminal upon a hurdle drawn by six horses.
On his approach, the word of command flew through the ranks; arms were presented, drums were beaten, and the colours and lancers’ pennants raised, until he had mounted the scaffold.
Never shall I forget the one bitter look of imploring agony that he threw around him, as almost immediately his coat was rudely torn from his shoulders. He was then thrown down, the cords fixed round his neck, which were then drawn by the executioner until strangulation almost commenced, or at least until dislocation of the neck was nearly completed.
Another executioner then approached, bearing in his hands a heavy wheel bound with iron, with which he violently struck the legs, stomach, arms and chest, and lastly the head of the criminal. I was unfortunately near enough to witness his mangled and bleeding body, still convulsed.
It was then carried down from the scaffold for interment, and in less than a quarter of an hour from the beginning of his torture, the corpse was completely covered with earth. Several large stones which were thrown in on top of him hastened his last gasp – he was mangled into eternity.’
Breaking on the wheel was not restricted to this side of the Atlantic. One adventurer, Bryan Edwards, who travelled extensively in the Americas in the late eighteenth century, was lodging in St Domingo during a rebellion that took place there in 1791. His inn overlooked the street, so he had a good view of an execution enacted in the square, where two men were being broken on ‘two pieces of timber placed crosswise’, the traditional St Andrew’s cross. One of them, after having each leg and arm broken in two places, was finished off with a blow to the stomach.
The second prisoner was not so lucky. The executioner, after breaking the man’s arms and legs, was about to deliver the final blow when the mob forced him to desist – not for humane reasons, however, for they tied the suffering victim in a cartwheel, which they then hoisted into the air by fixing the other end of the axle in the ground. Gloating over the terrible agonies he was enduring, they left him there.
How long this suffering would have continued one can only guess for, ‘at the end of some 40 minutes, some English seamen, who were spectators of the tragedy, strangled him in mercy’.
In Surinam, situated on the South American coast, breaking on the wheel was carried out to its ultimate and horrific end, no coup de grâce being administered. J. G. Stedman recounts in the book of his travels there between 1772 and 1777 how, in one execution, he saw a slave tied to the wooden cross. The slave’s left hand was then chopped off by the executioner using a hatchet. Next, seizing a heavy iron bar, he rained repeated blows on the victim, breaking his bones to slivers until the blood, marrow and splinters flew around the scaffold.
The slave, still alive, was untied. In his writhings he fell off the wheel on to the ground, cursing his tormentors. Such was his agony that he begged that his head should be chopped off, but his plea was ignored. For six hours he endured the torment of his shattered limbs until his guard, motivated either by compassion or intolerance, knocked him on the head with the butt-end of his musket.
‘To increase their torment they were bound hand and foot, thereby making it impossible for them to reach the gifts of food and water pushed through crevices in the walls by sympathetic passers-by.’
To those whose delicate sensitivities were likely to be upset at the sight of spouting blood or severed limbs, this method of execution proved to be ideal. At best the victim, while dying, was completely hidden from view; at worst, where the victim was buried up to the neck, at least only the head was visible, death being apparent when finally the eyes closed and silence reigned.
Although in Saxon times some barons disposed of their criminals by forcing them into a crucet house, a short, narrow chest, the spikes with which it was lined bringing about a slow and agonising death, burying alive never really caught on in England, only one case being reported in the ancient annals. That occurred in 1222:
‘A Prouinciall councell was holden at Oxforde by Stephen Langton, Archbyshoppe of Canterburie, and his bishops and others. There was a young man and two women brought before them, the young man would not come into any church, nor be partaker of the Sacrements, but had suffered himselfe to be crucified, in whom the scars of all ye wounds were to be seene, in his hands, head, side and feete, and he reioyced to be called Jesus by these women and others.
One of the women, being olde, was accused of bewitching the young man unto such madnes, and also, altering her owne name, procured herself to be called Mary the mother of Christ; They being convict of these crimes and others, were adiudged to be closed up between two walles of stone, where they ended their lives in misery. The other woman, being sister to the young man, was let goe, because shee revealed the wicked fact.’
A similar device to the Saxon crucet house was employed in France, and was known as the
chambre á crucer
. This was a chest, also studded with spikes or containing sharp stones, into which the victim was crammed and then buried alive.
Sometimes the chest was dispensed with, as in 1460 when a Frenchwoman, condemned for theft, was sentenced to be buried alive before the gallows. And the Duc de Soissons, on discovering that a manservant of his had had the temerity to tarry one of the maids without first obtaining the ducal permission, had them both buried alive in the grounds of his estate.
Earlier, in the thirteenth century, during the war against the Albigenses, the sister of the governor of Le Voeur was lowered into a pit, which was then filled up with boulders.
In Germany duels, with clubs as weapons, took place between men and women, much thought having first been given to equalise the obvious discrepancies between the sexes, the man, one hand tied behind his back, was armed with three clubs but had to stand up to his waist in a large hole in the arena. The woman, at liberty to move where she wished, had three stones, each swathed in cloths.
The rules of the contest were listed in a book written by H.C. Lea in 1892: each of the adversaries would proceed to strike the other as opportunity presented itself, but should the man, either in order to maintain his balance or to recover from a blow, touch the ground with his hand or arm, he would forfeit a club. Should the woman hit him with a stone after he had lost all his clubs, she would lose one of her stones. If, during the combat, she managed to render the man unconscious, he would be executed. But should he, despite her elusiveness, be able to club her into insensibility, she would be declared the loser, and would be buried alive.
Dutch women also suffered similar deaths, not by contests but at the hands of the Spanish, when that nation ruled The Netherlands. One, Ann Ven der Hoor, of the town of Malines, refused to embrace Roman Catholicism and was buried alive, only her head being left exposed. A final choice being given, she refused to abjure her faith, and so the executioner covered her head with earth, then stamped on her until she expired.
Switzerland, too, disposed of some of its unfortunates by burial, preferring, however, to entomb them within walls or cellars of buildings, a method adopted by the Ancient Persians, whose condemned criminals were imprisoned inside the double walls of houses adjoining the main roads in the cities. To increase their torment they were bound hand and foot, thereby making it impossible for them to reach the gifts of food and water pushed through crevices in the walls by sympathetic passers-by.
In India the practice of burying female offenders alive was associated with chastity – or rather the loss of it. Sir Thomas Roe, visiting the court of the Great Mogul in Bengal in 1614, reported that a woman, discovered to be involved in an intrigue with a lover, was placed upright in a hole containing a stake to which her feet were bound. The earth was rammed round her legs and body up to the armpits and she was kept in this position for three days and two nights without food or water. Her head was uncovered, ensuring that she was fully exposed to the heat of the tropical sun. Had she survived the ordeal, a pardon would have been granted, but the privations were too overwhelming, and she died shortly afterwards.
The price of unchastity was also high in the days of the Romans. Vestal Virgins who yielded to temptation and so lost their qualifications and honoured places in the temple were, promulgated in 451
in the Decemviri of the Twelve Tables, forthwith entombed in a small cave or buried alive in the ground, wearing only a single garment.
One Virgin was thus buried because, on seeing a wedding, she murmured wistfully:
‘Felices nuptae! Moriar ni nubere dulce est.
’ (‘Hail, happy bride! I wish I were dead, or married!’) The former of her wishes was swiftly granted.
Further east, the wind-blown sands all but obliterate the old caravan route which leads from Karakorum, once the capital city of Genghis Khan, traverses the Gobi Desert via the Mongolian towns of Bayan Tumen and Baruun Urta, and ends at Peking (now Beijing). The route is lined with small mounds, each the trial place of those who, in the sixteenth century, sought to ambush and rob the rich merchants of their spices and ivory, their silver and jewels.
Many expeditions were led against the wily raiding parties, but few of their members were captured, and it became obvious that stern deterrents were required. As in London at that time, where the practice of exhibiting the heads of wrongdoers on London Bridge warned of dire retribution, so the authorities in Mongolia bethought themselves of the qualities of the soil of their region which, when mixed with straw and water, solidified into a form of cement.
Accordingly, captured bandits were buried alive at intervals alongside the caravan route, in holes filled with the mixture, their visible heads functioning both as signposts for the merchants and ‘Keep Off’ signs for any would-be marauder.