Monday, November 7, 2016

The Family Business: Executioner

For over 200 years the Grossholtz or Grosholtz family worked as executioners in France and Germany. Often the children would follow in the father's footsteps. This is how the family dynasty came about. As far as I can tell the family lived in the village of Landser where the first executioner resided.

  The village of Landser is a small french village located north east of France. The town of Landser is located in the department of Haut-Rhin of the french region Alsace. The town of Landser is located in the township of Sierentz part of the district of Mulhouse. Wernhard Grosholtz or Werlin was born on April 30, 1600 in Mullhouse and died in 1651. He was an executioner between 1629 thru 1640 in Landser and in Freidburg from 1644 thru 1651 when he died at the age of 51. When Werlin moved to Freidburg, his son Martin Grosholtz, who was born in 1622 in Landser took over the executioners position from 1640 until his death in 1640.


The travel distance between Landser and Freidburg was approximately three days by horse and wagon. One might assume that an increase in salary might have been the reason for moving the family a distance from Landser. Freiburg’s location at a major crossing point of north-south and east-west trading routes made the city an important market center in the middle ages. This accounted for the broad market street, Kaiser Johann Strasse, and several smaller market squares, such as the Potato Market, “Kartoffel Markt”. Jean-Jacques was born in Freiburg im Breisgau, a vibrant university city in southwest Germany’s Black Forest, is known for its temperate climate and reconstructed medieval old town, crisscrossed with picturesque little brooks (b├Ąchle). In the surrounding highlands, hiking destination Schlossberg hill is linked to Freiburg by a funicular. Featuring a dramatic 116m spire, the Gothic cathedral Freiburg Minster towers over the central square M├╝nsterplatz Meaning & History.

For over one hundred years the Grosholtz family held the position of executioner in Lutzelbourg. The distance between Freiburg and Lutzelbourg is approximately 150 km or 93 miles. It would take approximately 3 days to travel this distance. Halve these distances for a horse pulling a cart or for a very heavily laden horse. Approximately it would have taken Werlein Grossholtz to travel with his family to Lutzelbourg from Freiburg about six days. This was a tremendous move for the family. As far as I can tell the family lived in Freiburg till around 1680. Werlin married Maria Schaeffler on August 20, 1629 in Mullhouse. This was Werlin's second marriage. His first wife, Anna Scherrer died at a young age.  Werlin and Anna had one child a boy by the name of Martin. Werlin's second wife died also after a year of marriage. Werlin married Maria Mengis in Freiburg in 1635,Their six children were born in Freiburg, Elizabeth born 1635 and Anna Maria born on 1640.A son Jakob was born in 1644. Jean-Jacques was born on 1646. Two more daughters Elizabeth in 1649, and Katharina in 1651 were born to the couple. Jean-Jacques was born Hans Jacob in German on May 30, 1646, Hans was the shorter version of Johannes and Jacob was the German name for Jacque. He was appointed executioner for Lutzelbourg from 1680 to 1712.

Jean-Michel Grosholtz born in 1688 to Hans-Jakob Grossholz took over his father's place as executioner for Lutzelbourg in 1712 after Hans-Jakob's death. He retired from this position and transferred his reins to his son, Jean-Georges Grosholtz. Jean-George who worked as an executioner until 1787 upon his death. His name sake and son, Jean-Georges Grosholtz worked for Lutzelbourg from  1787-1793.

Strasbourg is the ultimate European city. It has flavours of both France and Germany, and sits right on the border of the two countries. Geographically strategic, it was fought over for centuries between the French and Germans and Alsace and Lorraine. Some of the Grosholtz family served dual terms as executioners in Lutzelbourg and Strasbourg. They were Jean-Michel Grosholtz 1670-1686 Jean-Melchior Grosholtz 1686-1691and Jean-Michel Grosholtz 1691-1724. Two were serving individual terms and they were Jean-Joseph Grosholtz 1756-1761 Valentin Grosholtz 1763-1785.

As a professional you were expected to commit a quick and clean execution. Often the executioner was killed because he was not professional. Executioners weren't treated well by the towns people. It was typical that the eldest son inherited the position and younger brothers waited for a position in a nearby village to open up. Daughter married sons of executioners and that is how dynasties were built. Laws would govern how an executioner would live from where they lived to which building they could enter and who they could touch. Executioners were restricted from living in the town and usually lived on the outskirts. They could only attend church in a designated pew or come in the town to perform their duties. Some of the benefits that executioners were afforded were the following; they were allowed to clean cesspools and keep what ever they found, they could keep stray animals, carcasses that were abandoned including the hide, also they were allowed to levy taxes on prostitutes, etc. Executioners would receive food and other products that vendors would bring into the city through the city gates. These gifts were meant to ease the executioner feelings of being snubbed.. Most executioners were educated and literate including knowledge of local justice system, order and rituals as well as the role that he plays within the system. Most executioners education includes human anatomy and were often used in place of a doctor when one wasn't available. Public executioners who performed their job by sword, fire or wheel had to look professional while performing their job. They would become masters of torture used to interrogation.
Before an execution they would begin practicing with gourds and pumpkins. Then graduate to small animals like goats and pigs. The final step is executing domestic animals.

Many of the villages were small surrounded by stone walls to keep the bandits out of the town. Forests and meadows surrounded these villages. With only a few people from the town to ward off these bandits the villages were at the mercy of the robbers. Occasionally soldiers were brought in to protect the villages.

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