The Executioners Who Practiced Medicine

By Debra Kelly on Sunday, February 2, 2014
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“It is the essence of genius to make use of the simplest ideas.” —Charles Peguy

In A Nutshell

State executioners have always held a strange position in society: a dark necessity, an enforcer of law, and the ultimate justice. In Germany and France, the executioner’s position was even stranger. From the 15th century well into the 19th, the executioner’s intimate knowledge of the human anatomy served him well in his other profession—as a healer. Records speak of executioner-bone setters and executioner-physicians, and many were known for their knowledge of herbal medicines . . . as well as their ability to procure human body parts for use in a variety of remedies.

The Whole Bushel

Perhaps one of the strangest occupations is that of an executioner. Clearly known as the final justice, many executioners performed a dual role as torturer and inquisitor, extracting confessions and information from suspects and innocent civilians alike. These job descriptions gave the executioner an unarguably intimate knowledge of human anatomy, and from that came the knowledge of how to put back together what they spent their days taking apart.

This led to the development of so-called “executioner medicine.” Popular in particularly France and Germany, it allowed executioners to largely overcome much of the social stigma that went along with their professions.

Oddly, going to see a torturer-executioner could mean two different extremes for those who found themselves going under the knife for some reason or another. Those who were tortured by the executioner, even if they were found to be completely innocent, would have a lasting stain not only upon their character, but also upon the character of their guild, family, or profession. Going under the knife of the executioner who was practicing medicine, however, was completely acceptable for people of all walks of life.

While many executioners practiced their medicinal trade quite legally, there were others that didn’t. Executioners were often challenged by more reputable surgeons and doctors, and many broadened the scope of their practices. It’s been well documented that Pierre Forez, an executioner at Lille, France, also dabbled in the sale of “hanged man’s grease” for various medical practices.

This hanged man’s grease (also called “poor sinner’s fat”) was fat taken from the corpses of hanged men. It was believed to work as a salve when applied to limbs suffering from lameness or restricted blood flow, arthritic joints, and it even aided in the mending of broken bones. It was, of course, a commodity that executioners had access to in quantity, and allowed many of them to work as pharmacists and apothecaries as well as doctors and surgeons.

Other body parts salvaged from executed criminals were also used in medicinal practices of the era. Ground human skull was mixed into drinks for those suffering from epilepsy, and it was believed that “poor sinner’s blood” could also cure the seizures of epilepsy. Human skin was tanned and made into belts to be worn by pregnant women to ease labor pains or chokers to be worn for the prevention of goiters.

In a 1662 manifesto, physician Johann Joachim Becher of Bavaria wrote that all apothecaries should keep an ample supply of no less than 23 types of human by-products in stock for the creation of different remedies. One of these—and perhaps the most important—was mummy, defined as the “menstruation of the dead,” or the blood of corpses.

The executioner as doctor was one of the few professionals who were allowed to cross the boundaries of the social hierarchy without stigma. Lower-class individuals often went to the executioner for his knowledge of herbal medicine and ability to set bones, and it wasn’t unheard of for members of the aristocracy to appoint executioners to high-ranking positions—in a medical capacity, of course. King Frederick I of Prussia appointed an executioner from Berlin as his personal physician in 1711, and it was his grandson, Frederick the Great, that issued a decree making the executioner’s right to practice medicine legal.

Many times, the families of executioners would learn from them and also practice medicine. Commonly, wives of executioners would serve as midwives, and sons would go on to assist their fathers as skinners.

Show Me The Proof

Defiled Trades and Social Outcasts, by Kathy Stuart
Professional and Popular Medicine in France 1770-1830, by Matthew Ramsey
The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century, by Joel F. Harrington
Women, Medicine and Theatre, 1500-1750, by M.A. Katritzky