They almost got away with their crime – the castle’s castellan Valentin Runck and the court locksmith Daniel Stieff. As the highest administrative officer of the Berlin City Palace, Valentin Runck had noticed that it was very easy to steal some royal valuables here and there. A pair of gloves here, a precious little box there, not to mention some cubits of unused damask: Since months, the castellan had been eking out his income by purloining.
A Theft at the Royal Coin Cabinet
And then, there was the coin collection of soldier king Frederick William I stored in cupboards. He was not really interested in it. Was there a numismatist taking care of the collection? Not at all! Frederick William cut the budget of Maturin Veyssière de La Croze, who had been appointed by his father, and therefore the librarian was no longer able to manage the royal library properly, not to speak of taking care of the numismatic collection appropriately. Runck convinced his friend, the court locksmith Daniel Stieff, to crack the locks of the cupboards the coins were stored in as discreetly as possible.
The theft would have gone unnoticed if the court locksmith would not have tried to sell one of the gold coins to a gold smith. The smith was surprised to see the rare piece. He contacted La Croze and the latter made sure that Stieff was arrested immediately. As it was common back then, the suspect was tortured so that he would confess the crime. However, Stieff continued to maintain that he found the coin.
At this point, his accomplice lost his cool. He claimed in writing that there had been a robbery at the royal coin cabinet. Stieff only picked up one of the coins that had been dropped by the robbers. This seemed strange to the authorities. Runck was arrested and he confessed the crime while being tortured.
The entire population of Berlin was watching when the punishment of the thieves took place. Let us quote from the Chronicles of Berlin, Potsdam and Charlottenburg published in 1843: “Both were sentenced to be pinched with burning irons at all crossroads on the way to the place of execution, and then to be broken on the wheel alive. The execution ... took place on 8 June 1718. The castellan, who had been the actual instigator of the crime, was carted through the town on a tumbrel and pinched with burning irons while the locksmith went on foot in front of the vehicle. The delinquents’ wives followed the cart and had to witness the execution of their husbands. First, the locksmith was punished in the way his sentence demanded it, then, the same happened to the castellan; subsequently, both women were beaten up with a rod and sent to the prison in Spandau whereas the children were taken to the orphanage and only 3,000 talers of the considerable fortune of both men was deposited for their maintenance.”
Why This Inhumane Punishment Was Considered Just
We do not want to imagine the pain caused by this punishment. But the question remains whether the spectators, who came in masses to see the execution, did not feel any pity on the tortured men! Apparently not: The king did not gloss over his sentence, instead he made it known throughout the entire kingdom by means of this publication.
The reason behind it was the conviction that had been valid since medieval times: Every crime challenges the divine order of the world. The bigger the crime, the greater the damage to this world order. God was the custodian of the order. So that his anger would not erupt onto the entire society, a just authority had to find and punish the criminals. And the punishment had to match the gravity of the crime.
The convicted thieves did not simply steal some precious items, but made the king, the sacrosanct representative of God on earth himself their victim. This was the worst of all crimes a subject could commit. Worse than stealing (from ordinary people, of course), worse than murder, even worse than treason.
This had to be atoned for publicly. As cruel and brutal this punishment might seem to us, the contemporaries of Runck and Stieff considered it just and reasonable regarding the degree of fault.
And What Did the Royal Philosopher Think of It?
Did Frederick II, who was only six years old at that time, witness the execution? The odds are quite high. Together with his father, the heir to the throne had to represent the authorities on occasions like these. We would like to believe that Frederick was so shocked about the sentence that he vehemently opposed death penalty after ascending the throne – after all, he stylized himself as “roi philosophe”.
However, what happened was quite the opposite: Frederick abolished life imprisonment in favour of death penalty. He replaced torture by the judiciary power to convict an accused person even without a confession as long as he seemed to be guilty.
Death sentences like breaking somebody on the wheel, beating him to death and the dismemberment were only abolished when people started to imagine a state without God. La Grande Terreur, as Robespierre’s reign of terror was called and in the course of which between 25,000 and 40,000 victims were guillotined, was incredibly modern: The victims were not executed for the sake of divine justice but in order to get rid of the government’s enemies.
If you would like to read the entire records (in German), click here to see a digitalised version of the issue kept at the Bavarian State Library.
This German article by Hans Paul Prümm demonstrates with concrete examples that Frederick II was not of the same opinion as we are today when it came to justice carried out by the state.
If you are interested in the subject, we recommend a book written by the brilliant historian Richard van Dülmen. He published a study worth reading with the title: “Theatre of Horror: Crime and Punishment in Early Modern Germany”.
We bought this book at Thomas Rezek’s antiquarian bookshop in Munich.