Like most executioners he inherited his profession from his father; the elder Schmidt was the executioner of Bamberg. The son told the story that his father had been a woodsman when the Margrave of Brandenburg-Kulmbach chose him from a crowd and forced him to perform a beheading, whereupon he had no choice but to take up the trade. In 1578 the younger Schmidt became the executioner of Nuremberg, where he remained for the rest of his life.
What interests me about this story is people's ambivalence toward executioners. On the one hand most people believed that public executions were vital for maintaining order, and royal or city officials stage managed executions to display their awesome power. There was a lot of pressure on the executioner to do the job quickly and cleanly, to uphold the majesty of the occasion and keep the crowd from getting unruly. (Schmidt's predecessor in Nuremberg once took three strokes to behead a victim, whereupon the crowd stormed the gallows and pelted him with frozen mudballs.) So executioner was an important office, and executioners for major courts were well paid and received all sorts of exemptions from taxes and duties and the like.
On the other hand, people feared executioners and considered them uncanny, dangerous, possibly satanic figures. People crossed the street to avoid walking through an executioners shadow. In much of Germany (but not England) executioners were forbidden from entering a church. They and their children were barred from most professions and no respectable person would allow his daughter to marry one. Yet this uncanny reputation also had its uses. Some executioners did a thriving business in body parts from executed criminals -- you may have heard of the alleged magical powers of a thief's hand, and this is only the most famous of a whole range of dark folk beliefs. Some became experts in witchcraft, playing up the notoriety they got from killing or torturing witches to sell amulets or other protections against magic.
Some also became healers. Franz Schmidt was one of these; according to his diary he treated 15,000 patients over the course of his life, deploying the usual mixture of herbal nostrums and folk Galenic lore. He also built up his knowledge of anatomy by dissecting cadavers and put this learning to use as a surgeon. Schmidt tried to escape from the executioner's role and free his children from its limitations, shifting his family's business from killing to healing. He appealed his case all the way to the Duke of Bavaria and his petition was eventually granted, lifting the curse from his line.
This basic pattern repeats all over Europe, in all sorts of ways. The authorities in church and state tried to divide the world into good and evil. Priests and doctors were good, witches bad; criminals were bad, officials of the state were good. But popular belief insisted on the ambivalence of power. People believed that a wise woman who had the power to cure would also have the power to curse. Execution might be necessary for the preservation of order, but it carried with it a taint that blackened the lives of those who performed it. Christian notions of good and evil were always mingled with an older notion of spiritual power, spiritual danger, and spiritual pollution.
And on a lighter note, here is a little story from an interview with historian Joel F. Harrington, who wrote a book about Schmidt. "Raven Stone" is what Germans called a rock marking the spot where beheadings took place:
The crowd could get too wild and unruly, or the prisoner could be bad. There was one man who was walking along with a bottle and drinking the whole way and spitting on people and when he got up to the Raven Stone he stopped and urinated in front of everybody. Then he climbed on top—still drinking—and Schmidt cut off his head while he was still holding the bottle. That was a bad death.