Žilina’s executioner

The executioning sword of Žilina

Just as any other proper medieval town, Žilina had its own executioner who carried out the actual torture after sentencing. Jurisdiction in Žilina belonged to the hereditary mayor, who judged as well. The town council later took over these responsibilities and eventually created a special profession of judges.

The executioner’s profession  was not attractive at all. Initially, executioners were not respected among the population. People feared  them and avoided meeting them. They were regarded as impure and devilish. However, when the executioner carried out a death sentence, it was largely a public performance. Thus people did not mind his craft, but were happy to come and watch him at work. Today, the word executioner  also evokes images of the "executioning sword". It was used solely for executions. The executioner, being regarded as an impure person, wore a wine - color hood on his head, so that people would know to avoid him. The sword that he held in his hands commanded respect and fear. It was also a sign and symbol of his craft. A well-known legend is associated with Ján Jessenius from Jaseno, who was executed. He once visited the home of a municipal executioner in Prague for medical purposes. A sword, which the executioner had in his house as a symbol, allegedly moved. This meant that the man would one day be executed. And so he was.

Executioning sword

Executioners’ swords served a single purpose, and were therefore special. They had a broad blade with a curved or chopped tip. There were often three holes at the end and the blade’s tip could not be sharpened. Everyone recognized an executioner’s sword and so it could not be used for any other purpose. In addition, the  sword had a short groove. The handle was adapted for one and a half hands most of which was covered in leather. The handle’s end had a spherical head. Sometimes names of the executed were engraved into the blade. Various images were depicted on it, such as a wheel, gallows and in the case of Žilina, a heart. The sword, as a symbol of the capital punishment was used until the 17th century. Some regions used an axe as well, but ordinary people were usually sentenced to the gallows.
Žilina is fortunate that during the period when swords stopped being used as executioners’ tools, they were placed within the prison building in the Town Hall. The swords later became part of the Old Town Hall decoration. In 1942, the town gave them away to the Municipal Museum. In 1953, they were moved to Považské Museum in Žilina. These symbols of town rights still evoke respect in the public.

Žilina’s executioner
Just as all other towns, Žilina had its own executioner. Unfortunately the oldest documents about him are no longer available. But we do know that among many other laws, the town also had a sword law (ius gladioli). It gave the town authorities the right to punish criminals even by the death penalty. Penalties were very strict, which is documented in the translation of the Magdeburg Right in the Town Book of Žilina. Punishments increased according to the value of stolen goods. Even the gallows were possible for high value theft. Ironically, if someone accidentally killed someone it was deemed sufficient to cut off his hand.

The first reports of Žilina’s executioner are from the 17th century, but his name is not mentioned.  However, Žilina certainly had an executioner from its very beginning. In addition to punishments, he was responsible for the town’s sanitation and he often acted as a folk healer. He may have also supervised the town’s prostitutes, as this was customary in other towns. At the end of the 17th century, the executioner’s post in Žilina was held by Matej Roško from Trenčín. Therefore, the first executioner from Žilina itself was Jakub Pečienka from the beginning of the 18th century, followed by his son Ján. As Žilina was a small town, it is likely that, despite strict laws, not many death sentences or other torture penalties were carried out. The most common sentences carried out were cutting off hands, ears and the like, but very often the sentences were alleviated to life imprisonment or cudgeling. In addition to the swords, a container with portraits of Adam and Eve in which the executioner allegedly washed his hands after an execution is still preserved in Žilina. However, this may be just a legend, similar to the pleasant story "Tales of the executioner’s apprentice and his lover" by Zuzana Kuglerová.  According to the legend, the executioner’s house was outside the town in a place called Čepieľ (Blade) where he executed people and carried out other sentences. It is a nice story, but it relates more to a profound love than being about an executioner, and even then it is just fantasy. Yet this shows that the executioner  must have evoked different emotions in people which is expressed in legends. However, Žilina’s executioner actually carried out the torture in prison. There were two such prison chambers in Žilina and both were in the basement of the old Town Hall. One was large while the other was small. Another interesting fact is that a pillory of shame was placed in the town square where punishments were carried out. According to Lombardini, it was removed in the 19th century. But the truth is that criminals from the lower classes were hung behind Žilina on a hill called Šibenice (Gallows). We know this because of preserved sources from other towns. We know this much to be true. Everything else is just myths, oral traditions and human imagination.

Source: M. Mrva

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