Frantz Schmidt hanged his first thief when he was 19, on a June day in 1573. Either his father or another master executioner pronounced the hanging “executed adroitly,” concluding Frantz’s apprenticeship and certifying him as a master in his own right. Over the next four decades, Frantz would hang, behead, or otherwise kill 394 people, and flog, maim, and torture confessions out of hundreds more. He began as a traveling freelancer around Bavaria, and then, from 1578 until his retirement in 1618, served as the full-time executioner of the jewel of the Holy Roman Empire, the populous, prosperous, and cosmopolitan city of Nuremberg. In elaborate sentencing rituals behind closed doors, the patrician judge and jurors of Nuremberg’s “blood court” pronounced who should die and by what means. Before crowds of hundreds, it was Frantz and his assistants who carried out the punishments, embodying the legal authority of empire. For Frantz, there was no special skill in hanging someone: just tie the noose and push. Beheading, by contrast, required an exact position of the feet, eagle eyes and a steady hand, a fluid swing of the arm. One blow must neatly and completely sever the head, lest the crowd erupt in anger: in a few instances, spectators had responded to a miscarried execution by stoning the executioner himself to death. Frantz, then, took pride in his near-flawless record. In almost 200 beheadings, he required a second stroke only four times.
More inexplicable than the persistence of capital punishment is the rest of America’s carceral iceberg. In the 1970s, the United States not only revived the death penalty but also embarked upon a penal experiment without world-historical precedent in a democracy. This complicated and interlocking array of state and federal laws, programs, and construction projects has vastly increased the number of prisons, the number of people sent there, and the number of years they stay. By 2008, for the first time in history, one in a hundred American adults was either in prison or jail. The numbers have since declined slightly, but remain very high in both historical and international perspective. With 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States holds 25 percent of its prisoners, often in brutal and sanity-threatening conditions that most Americans would not hesitate to label torture if they encountered them somewhere else.Progress and Execution