Staging Public Order

An Execution in Hamburg’s Theatre of the World 1686 

In Hamburg, where the first opera house of the German-speaking lands opened its doors only eight years ago at the Goosemarket, the whole city turned into a stage on the 4th October 1686. Thousands of onlookers lined the streets, while hundreds of soldiers secured the public space. When the door of the executioner’s house in the city-centre was opened and a procession began with two former politicians in its midst – condemned for high treason in the siege of Hamburg – the curtain rose for a theatre of horror, a meticulously scheduled public execution in four acts. It had but one message to be known throughout the urban space: the triumph of the Senate’s outstanding authority in ending both the siege of the Danish king only a few weeks ago, and a political unrest that demanded more power for the city’s burghers. 

The first act, the so-called poor-sinners walk, presented the prisoners awaiting execution, Cord Jastram and Hieronymus Snitger. Led by pastors and accompanied by soldiers, and the executioner and his men, they stepped out onto the city’s ramparts – showing the surrounding spectators how they were removed from the topographical and political heart of the city, their former domain. 

In Valencia after the artisan uprising of the Germania (1519-1522), numerous executions where also held in public. Ringleaders and the main participants of the Germania, like Joan Caro, where lead by a priest and their father confessors, from the prison directly to the gallows in the crowded market square. A detail of the Mancelli map gives evidence that the colourful, bustling Plaza del Mercado was temporarily transformed into a stage for the theatre of horror. In Hamburg, however, both, the scaffold and the gallows were pushed out to the rural area of St. Georg outside the city’s walls, a site where the stinking or noisy industries clustered, including the pigsties and the knacker’s yard. 

The second act staged the execution by beheading – in Jastram’s case followed by quartering – on the so-called Köppelberg. Here, the condemned men had to kneel down on an earth mound surrounded by water like on a theatre stage while the executioner took a swing with his sword. Contemporaries understood that every human being had to play a role in a play staged by God. Acting contrary to this predestined role by offending the legal, moral, religious or magisterial order had to be punished visibly and consequently in public with as many people as possible to witness and legitimate the event. As a result, the punishment had to correspond to the degree of the violation. Only then, public order in the will of God could be restored. 

In act three the corpse and torso were carted to the gallows to be buried in a shallow grave, close to the scaffolds, on an unhallowed ground in close vicinity to carpenter and brandy burner workshops and the graveyard for the poor or plague victims. Far from the cemeteries of the principal and smaller churches within the city walls of Hamburg, Jastram and Snitger’s mortal remains found their final resting-place in the periphery. A very similar arrangement can be traced in Exeter of 1588. There, the Cathedral Close, once surrounded by tall elm trees, provided the central burial ground for the city, except for those rich or important enough to be buried inside the Cathedral. The unbaptised, suicides, thieves, people that were excommunicated, or unrepentant prostitutes, however, were excluded from burial on consecrated ground.    

The final act accentuates particularly the public space and fabric, for the two heads of Jastram and Snitger, skewered with iron bars, were brought back to the city gates, Steintor in the east and across the whole city to the Millerntor in the west, where they were exhibited publicly and permanently as a reminder and warning.   

Daniel Bellingradt and Claudia Heise (FAU Erlangen-Nuremberg) 

© Figure 1: The detail of the map by Samuel König (c. 1680) shows the execution site, the so-called Köppelberg, in the periphery of the city of Hamburg (Staatsarchiv Hamburg, Signatur: 720-1/1_131-01 = 68.42). Figure 2: Public execution of the two politicians Cord Jastram and Hieronymus Snitger on the Köppelberg, 4th October 1686 (Staatsarchiv Hamburg, Signatur: Sammelband A 320/22)]. 


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