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Book of the week — Melchior Hedloff, the Melcher Shooter

Melchior Hedloff title page and frontis piece

“Imagination, of course, can open any door – turn the key and let terror walk right in.”
Truman Capote, In Cold Blood

Melcher Hedloffs sonst Schütze=Melcher genannt… verübete und begangene Mord=Thaten.
Melchior Hedloff (1606-1654)
Wrocław (Breslau), G. Gründer at the Baumann Printing Shop for K. Klosemann 1654

Over the last decade, the genre of true crime has been elevated to a new cultural status. From podcasts to docuseries, true crime anthologies have entered into the homes of millions, bringing with them new cases as well as old mysteries. It begs the question, why do so many love consuming shocking tales of real life horror? Unsurprisingly, the genre of true crime has a history that dates back much farther than we might expect. 

As early as the mid-sixteenth century, pamphlets reporting on crime were published and distributed to a newly literate public. These pamphlets — short, small, and often unbound — detailed horrific murders, trial accounts, and sometimes included woodcuts of the most notorious criminals in action. In addition to pamphlets, broadsides would also be posted around cities and neighboring towns. The purpose of such publications varied and could range in tone: inciting fear, highlighting morality, or even sympathizing with the perpetrator. The latter is evidence that many readers were more enticed by the criminals rather than their victims. Sensationalist as they were, the pamphlets and broadsides could be considered early attempts at understanding the social and psychological roots of crime. 

Melchior Hedloff, introduction page with decorated initial and banner

One such pamphlet was published in the city of Wrocław (present-day Poland) in 1654. It recounted the crimes of robber and highwayman, Melchior Hedloff. Hedloff’s tale began in the small village of Kuźnica Kącka, where he was born in 1606. In the midst of his adolescence, Hedloff’s life became embroiled in the Thirty Years’ War — a conflict within the Holy Roman Empire that is considered to be the most destructive war in European history. When he came of age he fought as an Imperial soldier, supporting the Bohemian Revolt. During the ensuing years, the city of Wrocław and its surrounding areas were occupied by Saxon and Swedish troops; and worse, had lost thousands of inhabitants to the plague.

When Hedloff returned from war he married and had a daughter. The start of a seemingly normal life. But perhaps the atrocities of war had left their mark. Before long, Hedloff took to petty crime. He began poaching, then robbing, and soon led a small criminal organization with three other accomplices. This gang of “highwaymen” stalked the Międzyborska forests and the nearby towns of Chojnik, Pawełki, Niwki, Kuźnica Czeszycka, and Surmin. Using the swampy woods to his advantage, Hedloff remained elusive from the law for many years.

Melchior Hedloff, spread with German text

It is not known when Hedloff turned to murder, but when he did he “surpassed everything heard heretofore about an evil person.” He became known as the Melcher Shooter, as he used rifles, along with a Turkish saber, to carry out his attacks. The former to kill and the latter to mutilate his victims. This fifteen-page account follows a chronological list of his crimes — two hundred and fifty-one murders in all. The entries record the places where they occurred, the class or trade of the victims, and details of the stolen property. Only three codex versions of this biography have survived. Among his murders were one hundred Poles, six Jews, and ten women. One his rifles, later used as evidence, had included incisions based on the victims’ sex and nationality. Perhaps the most heinous crime was the rape and murder of a pregnant woman, whose stomach was cut open in order to extract her unborn child, which was also mutilated so that Hedloff could eat its heart. 

In the town of Oleśnica, Prince Sylwiusz Nimrod, Duke of Württemberg-Oels, issued a manhunt for Hedloff. Although he evaded capture by hiding in the Międzyborska forests, his wife was arrested and later his daughter turned herself in voluntarily. Hedloff’s wife revealed that she had been tasked to bring him the heart of a small child which, as he believed, would bring him extraordinary abilities. Being afraid of him, she obeyed — but the origin of the heart was never truly known. Both wife and daughter confessed to being accomplices in his crimes. Both were tortured and broken on the wheel. Hedloff’s two brothers, Maciej and Jerzy, were also captured and tortured for knowing about the crimes of their brother and accepting the victim’s stolen goods as gifts. 

Melchior Hedloff, final page with pendant text block

Hedloff was finally captured on November 2, 1653, in the village of Łąki near Sułów. After a brief trial, his execution date was set three months later, on February 19, 1654. On that day, the executioner took Melchior Hedloff, tied to a cart, around the four corners of the Oleśnica town square. Before beginning the public spectacle, Hedloff’s fingers were torn off one at a time. At each of the four corners Hedloff was then skinned alive, with the exposed flesh cauterized so as to prevent him from bleeding to death. At the first corner, the skin of the left arm; at the second, the left breast; the third, the right shoulder; and at the fourth corner, the right breast. It was noted that Hedloff did not utter a single groan, nor did he show any signs of remorse. After being dragged around, bones broken, heart cut out, Hedloff was taken out of the city where his body was quartered. Its pieces were later distributed and hung at square’s four corners for “entertainment.”

On the occasion of his execution, a broadside, complete with portrait and text was widely disseminated. A similar image can be found in this pamphlet, with Hedloff armed to the teeth in the woods and scenes of his crimes in the background.  


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