An 18th-century executioner’s manuscript gives medical advice

It may come as a surprise to learn that some executioners also practiced medicine. A 1,500-page manuscript recently acquired by the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens in California reveals its author, a German executioner named Maximus Fidelis Steigendesch (1730-1810), alias Deigendesch, as an expert in “executioner’s medicine.” If that sounds like black humor, it’s not. According to the Huntington, Steigendesch came from a family of executioners, renderers (“a person who disposes of dead or unwanted animals”) and butchers, whose knowledge of anatomy and physiology, such as she was, qualified him to be a part-time worker. healer.

“If asked to think of a typical physician, many today would likely imagine a highly trained professional wearing a white coat and stethoscope,” said Joel Klein, Molina curator for the history of medicine and related sciences at the Huntington. “While such a picture might ring true, if we look further back, we see a medical market with various type-defying healers. One of the most surprising and notable groups of these practitioners were the many executioners of modern Europe who also saw patients or compounded medicines.

Instead of a list of those he had sent, the executioner’s manuscript “Hortus Sanitatis” (Garden of Health) describes ailments – for example, “Zwerchfalls-Entzündung” (inflammation of the diaphragm) – and methods of diagnosis, as well as remedies, including an extensive collection of recipes for specific drugs. Composed over a decade, the manuscript demonstrates the executioner’s understanding of the living body, which may have come in handy when he had to finish one.

“This unique manuscript has much to tell us not only about modern medical practice, but also about the relationship between medicine, criminal justice and state authority,” Klein said.

The bound manuscript was one of many notable historical items added to the Huntington Library’s collection, including botanical drawings created by Countess Mary Macclesfield (c. 1761–1823) and her daughter Lady Elizabeth Parker Fane (1751–1829); a Beecher family half-plate ambrotype ca. 1860; an 1859 travel diary of Nagasaki, Japan, and Ningbo, China; and the Woodbridge and Michaelis family papers, 1832–1890.

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