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The Faithful Executioner    by Joel Harrington Amazon.com order for
Faithful Executioner
by Joel Harrington
Order:  USA  Can
Picador, 2013 (2013)
Softcover, e-Book
* *   Reviewed by Bob Walch

Life was certainly rough in the sixteenth century and a primitive justice system that utilized a violent code of punishment made things even worse. In this unusual volume Joel Harrington recreates the life of one of Europe's professional executioners of the period.

Frantz Schmidt was born into an executioner family in 1554. This account of his life follows him from a youthful apprenticeship at his father's side to his independent travels as a journeyman executioner.

During a career where he estimates that he killed 394 people and flogged or disfigured hundreds more, Meister Frantz Schmidt served as the executioner of Nuremberg, Germany, for much of his life.

Based on a journal that Schmidt kept during his lifetime, the narrative moves back and forth between the man's own words and the author's recreation of the historical period. The reader will not only become quite familiar with the necessary skills of a professional executioner but Harrington also tries to get inside his subject's head and capture the man's uneasy social status and his efforts at self-advancement (he had aspirations of a medical practice).

Obviously a book of this nature also looks at the kinds of transgressions that were deemed serious enough to merit some manner of punishment as well as the evolving system of justice.

'At the heart of this book lies another narrative, a reflection about human nature and social progress, if there are such things,' writes Harrington. 'Which assumptions and sensibilities made the judicial violence that Meister Frantz regularly administered torture and public execution acceptable to him and his contemporaries yet repugnant to us in our own times? How and why do such mental and social structures take hold, and how do they change?'

Not a topic most people would perhaps want to delve into, this book certainly is rather graphic at times, but there's much more to it than just cataloguing Frantz Schmidt's methods. It also looks at the society that demanded such justice. Sadly, this approach has not been relegated to the history books. There are countries where it is still in force!

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