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The Medieval Dungeon

On July 7, 1584, Franz Schmidt, the official executioner in Nürnberg, beheaded Annela Moser. The married woman had been known to have realtions with 21 different men. Schmidt, known  as “Meister Franz”, wrote this and other executions in his journal.

A popular destination for a pleasant day trip is the medieval dungeon in Nürnberg. The cells, for housing those held during pre-trial custody, and the torture chamber stand practically unchanged over the years.

The conditions in the dungeon, called Das Lochgefängnis in German, were less than comfortable. The completely dark cells were two meters by two meters and the walls were covered in wooden planks. A wooden bed and a bench stood in the cell, along with a bucket, for necessary business, covered with a wooden board that doubled as a table. Those being held had to pay for their accommodations. The well-to-do could afford more than bread and water and the destitute were at the mercy of charity or the city itself.

The dungeon dates back to 1322 with a well-documented history. The crimes, those that warranted such interrogations, were recorded in the city’s archives and ranged from slander and fornication to theft and murder. Once in custody, the accused would be encouraged to speak. The executioner showed the accused the torture instruments and perhaps demonstrated them. If the accused still refused, he or she would be further coaxed to talk by the executioner, who used the instruments to inflict pain: thumb screws, reverse hanging, fire (burning candles held under the armpits), or a combination of the above.

Once the accused confessed, many crimes carried a death sentence. Beheading was quick and dirty (if the executioner struck true between the cervical vertebrae—if not, well, it was messy and painful.) Other methods included the breaking wheel (the body being bound to a wagon wheel and then beaten), hanging, burning at the stake and drowning. Some were buried alive.

For more information about witch trials in Germany, click here: Bamberg Witch Trials

Also check out Das Lochgefängnis—Tortur und Richtung in Alt-Nürnberg, a reprint of the original book by Hermann Knapp from 1907, kindly released from the Geschichte Für Alle e.V., the historical society in Nürnberg.

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