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Bloodshed in the name of justice

At the Executioner’s Museum in Sissach different worlds meet: cold shivers and fascination are just as much intertwined as the dramatic stories of executioners and the delinquents executed by them.

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One of the executioners’ axes on display at the executioner’s museum in Sissach

By Nicole J. Bettlé

Right in the centre of Sissach, next to the Bridge over the Diegter brook, is a quaint former customs house. Those who enter it immediately sink into another world. Just like Alice in Wonderland, its visitors will need a great deal of both curiosity and courage. After all, here they will not be meeting fictitious rulers intent on hacking away other peoples’ heads; they rather learn the personal history of people that once carried out beheadings on behalf of the ruling jurisdiction.

The executioner and his office
The professional office of executioner came into existence during the 12th and the 13th century. At that time the criminal justice system in Europe was “institutionalised”. During that evolution, the previously clan-oriented jurisdiction went into the hands of worldly authorities that extended their power over cities and rural communities. From then on they were in charge of prosecuting and sentencing criminals – and thus also of appointing an executioner who carried out their sentences.

The executioner did not just instill fear in thieves, murderers or rapists. His fellow Christian citizens were also afraid of him. After all, the office of executioner was regarded as an “unclean profession.” Although the executioner always carried out his duties on behalf of the authority he belonged to the caste of the “Dishonest.” They were ostracised socially and legally and thus disadvantaged in all walks of life.

From a legal point of view, only the executioner was entitled to carry out torture and executions that had been issued by the ruling bodies. And only he and other “dishonest” people were allowed to touch prisoners. Thus medical healing also fell into his remit. It was his duty to medically provide for the tortured and for incarcerated sick people. Many executioners were famous for their extraordinary knowledge of human anatomy and their knowledge of healing herbs.

Cold steel and rolling heads
Visitors are introduced to the history of executioners directly at the entrance area. They also learn about the “Mengis” family, one of the major executioner dynasties in Switzerland. Their members have verifiably carried out executions in many different cantons since the 16th century and into the 20th century. After all, the office of executioner was hereditary and traditionally passed on to the next generation.

On the ground floor you can also find the instruments which executioners, appointed by law, used to carry out the death sentences. The museum is in possession of one of the largest collections of executioner swords and axes. Their production dates back to the 17th and 18th century. Some judge’s staffs and contemporary illustrations complete the exhibition.

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The museum is in possession of one of the largest collections of executioner swords.

What really catches the visitors’ eyes is a real guillotine that also has found its way into this exhibition. With some interruptions, it was in use in Switzerland from 1845 until 1940. Then again, on the top floor stands the original model which physician Joseph-Ignace Guillotine, after whom it is named, used to lobby for its introduction during the French Revolution. Thanks to extensive picture material, visitors learn quite a number of interesting facts about the invention, the technique, and the application of the guillotine. Its use can actually be traced back to the 12th and 13th century.

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A very special guillotine is also on display at the museum

Corporal punishment and death penalties
The term “executioner” was only one among many professional titles. Very often he was also called “headsman” or “hangman”, in German there were even  more terms used behind closed doors. His henchmen, on the other hand, very often were torturers who, under his command, systematically mutilated suspects to force them to make a confession.

The instruments for torture, the most frightening tools of an executioner and his henchman, are fittingly exhibited in the basement of the museum. Numerous original manacles and shackles, thumbscrews or scold’s bridles are exhibited down there. On top of that visitors can look at a pillory, a torture chair and also a contraption used to stretch suspects – commonly known as a rack.

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Scold’s bridles are also exhibited

How the respective tools of the torturers had been used is also demonstrated via an exquisite selection of old prints. Whatever remained of delinquents after torture and execution is also shown with examples of several skulls. Particularly interesting for movie aficionados might be an iron costume which can be found in the torture basement. It is a prop that was used in the movie “Sleepy Hollow” (1999), starring Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Christopher Walken and Christopher Lee.

Until 18 March 2018 the executioner’s museum in Sissach has a special exhibition under the title “The Last Civil executions in Switzerland, After The Reintroduction of the Death Penalty in 1879”. Apart from the guillotine , on loan from the Historical Museum Lucerne for this exhibition, the personal stories and the crimes of the last criminals executed in Switzerland are also documented here.

The museum of the once ostracised and feared executioners is open every first and third Sunday of the month, from 2-5pm. Guided tours in English are also available. Further information is available on www.henkermuseum.ch

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