Executioners & Assistants

Skinners, potion peddlers and bone-setters

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Schwind(t) – Surgeons, Knackers, Executioners, Physicians

 
Mathias Schwindt (1727-1793) is known to have labored both as a surgeon and as a knacker (German: Abdecker). He was the son of Nicholas Schwindt and Magdalena Klein of Septfontaines, Luxembourg. Nicolai/Nicholas Schwindt is referred to in Latin as carneficis ex valle viridi septemfontana (executioner from the valley of seven fountains = Septfontaines). Mathias married in first instance Marie-Catherine Rach (probably: Raach from Echternach) and as a widower he married in 1758 in Körich, Luxembourg Margarethe Paltz, widow of Henri Glodt from Septfontaines. In various documents he is referred to as chirurgus ex Siebenborn (surgeon from Siebenborn = Septfontaines). On the 1766 census of Septfontaines Mathias Schwindt is recorded as maître des basses oeuvres (Executioner of Low Works), which means he was the aid to the executioner, the executioner being referred to as maître des hautes oeuvres (Executioner of High Works).
 
A Nicholas Schwindt, allegedly born in 1782 in Septfontaines, though not found in the local register, was admitted as a surgeon in the year 1800, and he continues to be listed as a surgeon until 1818 when a newly promulgated medical practice law prohibited him to continue to practice surgery [1]. Though medicine and surgery were two separate disciplines in those days, the ban leads us to assume that he lacked a recognized formal academic education or that he refused to have his credentials scrutinized by the authorities. Nicolas Schwindt died on November 18, 1859.

Peter Schwind(t) was born September 2, 1838, in Septfontaines, son of Nicholas Schwindt, occupation tawer (German: Weissgerber) and Anne-Marie Klein. He practiced medicine in the United States of America. His biography is published in a separate article, see: Peter Schwind 

Executioner by Franz Kinnen (1905-1979)
Tony Jungblut: Das Henkerbuch
Luxembourg, 1958
 

 Executioners – Dynasties

 The executioner and skinner trades were inherited in specific families. On March 10, 1673, the city of Luxembourg paid 4000 pounds to the Spanish occupant to acquire penal judicature and High Court rights and on May 1, 1673, took possession of the gallows located at Merl, at the outskirts of the city of Luxembourg. The last hanging in Luxembourg happened on August 2, 1793. Mathias Zimmer, also known as Mathes vu Medernach, a thief, was hanged at Larochette (Fels) [2].
 
A property located at Bisserweg, (Henkesch’gâss – Hangman’s alley), Grund, a suburb of the city of Luxembourg, was known as Henkesch’haus (Hangman’s House) [3]. Its occupants over several centuries reflect the consistency of the occupation in a small number of families. The home was bought on August 4, 1629, by Jakob Karpf(f), hangman of the city and duchy of Luxembourg. In 1643, this house passed to Hans-Michael Schwindt, occupation: hangman. He was married to Katharina Karpf. Around 1683, Michael Schwind is Luxembourg’s executioner assisted by Johann Schwind. In 1723, Nikolaus Schwind, the stepfather of Johann Peter Volmaar (Folmar, Follmar, Fulmayr), a minor, age 14, fills in for him until Volmaar’s nomination as executioner on April 29, 1729. Lorentz Volmaar, Schwind stepson’s natural father, was the former executioner. Laurentius Volmer / Volmaar / Vollmar / Volmeyer / Folmar / Follmar / Fulmayr was the son of Jacobi Volmer, Executor Justitiae Militiae Bavarieae (German: Scharfrichter) from Waldfels, Bavaria. In 1707 Laurentius Volmer had married Anna Back, who as his widow married Nicholas Schwind, who hailed from Saarburg. In the early 18th century, several marriages in the city of Luxembourg are recorded between grooms and brides with the last name Back, witnessed by individuals with last name Back!     
 
In 1750, the house at Bisserweg was owned by Nikolaus Wagner, executioner, married to Francisca Schwindt. In 1780, the home was occupied by Friedrich Folmar, executioner, married to Apollonia Spirkel. In 1795, Pierre Spirkel, executioner, lived there, followed by A. Spirkel. In 1805, P. Spirkel, executioner, rented the house to A. Klein-Folmar, skinner, from Pettingen (Lintgen municipality). On March 7, 1799, Spirkel beheaded eleven men from Arzfeld known as “Klëppelmenner”, who had resisted the French draft, by using the newly introduced guillotine. Luxembourg’s lore maintains that the beheading did not go so well since Spirkel had to finish the chore with his pocket knife. The guillotine was used on February 21, 1821, for the last time in Luxembourg. In 1824, the Henkesch’haus was sold to the adjoining orphanage. The Nikolaus Wagner-Schwindt household, previously mentioned, had owned another home in the same street and by 1806 that home was occupied by Nikolaus Wagner, ex-executioner.
 

In 1846, there were twenty-nine and two journeymen skinners/executioners in Luxembourg, in 1862, there were thirty-five skinners and eight apprentice skinners [4]. Besides the Schwind(t) family, some of the known executioners and skinner dynasties from Luxembourg and surrounding areas were named: in the 15th century: Meister Konrad Studenfuss, Thewalt, Meister Hase, Meister Hans Stip. Clais Houst (Grosser Clais) accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake, Meister Michel (17th century in Arlon), Rach (18th century in Erpeldange [5], Peter Rach, Trier area), N. Wagener (18th century) and Back. Gaspar Back, carneficis luxemburgensis, a quack doctor, exorcist, skinner and former executioner from the city of Echternach was indicted on June 30, 1679, of the crimes of swearing in public and threatening his wife. He was acquitted on September 2, 1679, however his testimony had a domino effect leading to the burning at the stake of three women accused of witchcraft. He had learned his trade by spending three years as an apprentice with Meister Gerardt or Gerhard, the executioner of the city of Trier, Germany [6]. Other  executioner/skinners of the same name were: Feit Back mentioned in 1752 in Remich, as being from Beuren now Germany, Nikolaus Back in Flatzbour, Bondorf, Peter Back in Beyren and Michel Back in Dudelange, Bintner, Folmar – Volmar – Follmar – Fulmayr, Hopp – Hop (including: Hopp Jacques in Hoscheid), Klein, (among others: Mathias Klein in Dudelange), Spirkel – Spierkel – Spierckel (Luxembourg and Altwies), Schinter, Ury, Wagner, Weis (in Lorentzweiler) and Wolff (Ury and Wolff active at Rost, municipality of Bissen).

As evidenced by the juxtaposition of husbands’ names and brides’ maiden names preceding, in time families exercising the same occupation became inter-related since it was practically impossible for their scions to marry outside of the profession; they were prisoners of their trade.

Anna Back, daughter of Gaspar Back, appointed as executioner by Louis XIV in 1693, was married to Lorentz Fulmayr, executioner from Bavaria, and after his death to Nikolaus Schwind (see above). A Peter Back, skinner from Wolkrange, France was married to a Maria Schwind and Laurent Back was married to Antonia Spirkel who was the widow of Conrad Fulmayr [7]……….. 

Luxembourg’s outstanding poet Michel Rodange (1827-1876) mentions some of the more colorful skinners, potion peddlers and bone-setters in his epic satyr Renert, The Fuss am Frack an a Maansgréisst [8], published in 1872, the Luxembourg satirical rendering of the popular medieval epic of Reynard The Fox

II. Gesank (257)
Ech schécken Iech méng Doktren:
De Flëpp vum Kuebur,
De Miller och vu Miirzeg
An d’Mamer Zockerkur.

II. Song (257)
I send you my doctors:
Philippe from Kobenbour,
Miller too from Mertzig
And the sugar cure from Mamer

 
Thus spoke de Renert to the bear mangled in one of the Fox’s schemes. Flëpp (Philippe) from Kobenbour near Altrier was as well-renowned bone-setter, Miller from Mertzig, a first class charlatan, peddling very lucratively, a magic ointment called Goldschmir, or Gold Salve, supposedly made from pure gold. The reference to the sugar cure from Mamer refers to the priest of that place dispensing colored anis flavored sugar during the cholera outbreak of 1865-1866.
 
IV. Gesank (145)
Dir sid jo halver Dokter,
An ‘t as mer guer nët bang,
Dir wart jo am Freckeisen
Am och beim Päerdsklos laang.

IV. Song (145)
You really are half a doctor,
I am not afraid at all,
You have been to Freckeisen
And a long time with Päerdsklos.

 

This time de Renert sweet-talks the wolf by complimenting him that he is almost a doctor since he spent time at Freckeisen (near Waldbillig and Christnach). Wilhelm Back was a skinner in Christnach, and the skinner families Back, Bintner and Hopp lived in Freckeisen [9].  Päerdsklos or Horse’s Nick was an amateur veterinarian from Kitzebour, near Larochette (German: Fels) who had expanded his flock to include humans.

 


[1] Der Kanton Capellen, Festschrift 1839-1939, Cap 1939.
[2] Tatsachen aus der Geschichte des Luxemburger Landes, Dr. P. J. Muller, Luxembourg 1968.
[3] Livre d’Or du centenaire de la fanfare royale grand-ducale Luxembourg-Grund 1852-1952.
[4] Statistiques Historiques, 1839-1989 équarrisseurs, éxecuteurs and data Statec, Luxembourg 1990.
[5] Die Gemeinde Erpeldingen und ihre Geschichte, Michel Wilhelm, Luxembourg 1998.
[6] Hémecht, Jahrgang 54, 1, Luxembourg 2002.
[7] Names from various sources, including Kalennerblieder, Volumes 1-5, Evy Friedrich 1980-1985.
[8] Au fil de l’histoire. Médecine, charlatans et rebouteux d’autrefois, Albert Calmes, 1955 & Renert, Editions Guy Binsfeld commented by Romain Hilgert 1987.
[9] Waldbillig, Francois Becker 1969.
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© 2010 – 2011 Fausto Gardini. Jacksonville, Florida

Published in Luxembourg On My Mind in 2011