Supplementary Appendix 392b.1

“Schinderhannes (John the Scorcher)” [*]

At the close of the last century, and the beginning of the present, the borderland between France and Germany was infested by bands of desperadoes, who were a terror to all the peaceful inhabitants. War, raging with great fury year after year, had brought the Rhenish provinces into a very disorganised state, which offered a premium to every species of lawless violence. Bands of brigands roamed about, committing every kind of atrocity.

They were often call Chauffeurs or Scorchers, because they were accustomed to hold the soles of their victims’ feet in front of a fierce fire, to extort a revelation of the place where their property was concealed. Sometimes they were called Garotters or Stranglers (from garrot, a stick which enabled the strangler to twist a cord tightly round the neck of his victim).

Each band had a camp or rendezvous, with lines of communication throughout a particular district. The posts on these lines were generally poor country-taverns, the landlords of which were in league with the band. And not only was this the case, but from Holland to the Danube, the chauffeurs could always obtain friendly shelter at these houses, with means for exchanging intelligence with others of the fraternity. The brigands concocted for their own use a jargon composed of French, German, Flemish, and Hebrew, scarcely intelligible to other persons. Not unfrequently, magistrates and functionaries of police were implicated with this confederacy. Names, dress, character, complexion, and feature were changed with wonderful ingenuity by the more accomplished leaders; and women were employed in various ways requiring tact and finesse.

The more numerous members of the band, rude and brutal, did the violent work which these leaders planned for them. Many, called apprentices, inhabited their own houses, worked at their own trades, but yet held themselves in readiness, at a given signal understood only by themselves, to leave their homes, and execute the behests of the leaders. They were bound by oaths, which were rarely disregarded, an assassin’s poniard being always ready to avenge any violation. Most of these apprentices were sent to districts far removed from their homes when lawless work was to be done.

A Jewish spy was generally concerned in every operation of magnitude: his vocation was to pick up information that would be useful to the robber-chief, concerning the amount and locality of obtainable booty. For his information, he received his stipulated fee, and then made a profit out of his purchase from the robbers of the stolen property.

Schinderhannes, or “John the Scorcher,” was the most famous of all the leaders of these robbers. His real name was Johann Buckler; but his practice of chauffage, or scorching the feet of his victims, earned for him the appelation of Schinderhannes. Born in 1779, near the Rhine, he from early years loved the society of those who habitually braved all law and control. As a boy, he joined others in stealing meat and bread from the commissariat-wagons of the French army at Kreuznach. He joined a party of bandits, and was continually engaged in robberies: he was often captured, but as frequently escaped with wonderful ingenuity, and his audacity soon led to his being chosen captain of a band.

There was something in his manner which almost paralysed those whom he attacked, and rendered them powerless against him. On one occasion, when alone, he met a large party of Jews travelling together. He ordered them imperiously to stop, and to bring him their purses one by one, which they did. He then searched all their pockets; and, finding his carbine in the way, told one of the Jews to hold it for him while he rifled their pockets! This also was done, and the carbine handed to him again. ([Illustration: frontispiece from J. G. Dentu, Histoire de Schinderhannes & autres brigands dits garrotteurs ou chauffeurs, qui ont désolés les deux rives du Rhin & la Belgique pendant les dernières années de la révolution, vol. 1 (Paris 1810).])


Sometimes he would summon a farmer or other person to his presence, and tell him to bring a certain sum of money, as a ransom, or purchase-price of safety in advance; and such was the terror at the name of Schinderhannes, that these messages were rarely disregarded As the French power became consolidated on the left bank of the Rhine, Schinderhannes found it expedient to limit his operations to the right bank; and the prisons of Coblentz and Cologne were filled with his adherents.

Like Robin Hood, he often befriended the poor at the expense of the rich ; but, unlike the hero of Sherwood Forest, he was often cruel. The career of Schinderhannes virtually terminated on the 31st of May 1802, when he was finally captured near Limburg; but his actual trial did not take place till the closing days of October 1803, when evidence sufficient was brought forward to convict him of murder, and he was condemned to death.

Mr Leitch Ritchie has made this redoubtable bandit the hero of a romance — Schinderhannes, the Robber of the Rhine. In his Travelling Sketches on the Rhine, and in Belgium and Holland, he has also given some interesting details concerning Schinderhannes himself, and the chauffeurs generally. Among many so-called wives, one named Julia was especially beloved by him, and she and a brother-robber named Fetzer, were with him when captured. “At his trial,” says Mr Ritchie in the second of the above-named works, “he was seen frequently to play with his young infant, and to whisper to his wife, and press her hands.

The evidence against him was overpowering, and the interest of his audience rose to a painful pitch. When the moment of judgment drew near, his fears for Julia. shook him like an ague. He frequently cried out, clasping his hands: ‘She is innocent! The poor young girl is innocent! It was I who seduced her!’ Every eye was wet, and nothing was heard in the profound silence of the moment, but the sobs of women. Julia, by the humanity of the court, was sentenced first; and Schinderhannes embraced her with tears of joy when he heard that her punishment was limited to two years’ confinement. His father received twenty-two years’ of fetters; and he himself with nineteen of his band, was doomed to the guillotine. The execution took place on the 21st of November 1803, when twenty heads were cut off in twenty-six minutes. The bandit-chief preserved his intrepidity to the last.” [Woodcut Mainz Stadtarchiv.] [1]


Concerning the chauffeurs or bandits generally, it may suffice to say that when Bonaparte became First Consul, he determined to extirpate them. One by one the miscreants fell into the hands of justice. For many years the alarmists in France had been in the habit of insinuating that the bandits were prompted by the exiled royalists, or by the English; but it was perfectly clear that they needed no external stimulus of this kind. After the death of Schinderhannes, the bands quickly disappeared.


[*] The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities, ed. R. Chambers, vol. 2 (1881), 28 October 1881, 509–10. — Ed. note: Germ. Schinder, “oppressor, tormentor.” Back.

[1] Ed. note: After Schinderhannes was executed in Mainz on 21 November 1803 along with nineteen of his gang members, local physicians performed Galvanic experiments on the cadavers of the sort Johann Wilhelm Ritter had earlier carried out on frogs (see also Friedrich Schlegel’s letter to Schleiermacher on ca. 15 November 1799 [letter 255c], note 2), including attaching the detached head of one cadaver to the rump of another, producing, among other results, twitching of the face muscles and lips, gnashing of teeth, and protrusion of tongues (Walther, Medicinalrath “Mainz,” Medicinisch-chirurgische Zeitung 4 [1803] 97 [5 December 1803], 364–67).

See the following illustrations of galvanic experiments from Jean Aldini, Essai théorique et expérimental sur le galvanisme: avec une série d’expériences faites en présence des commissaires de l’Institut National de France, et en divers amphitéatres anatomiques de Londres (Paris 1804), plates 3 and 4 following p. 398; note the galvanic pile at the head of each cadaver:




Translation © 2017 Doug Stott