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Day 28: The Murderer and the Maestro

 31 Days of Halloween: On Atlas Obscura this month, every day is Halloween. Stop by the blog every day this month for true tales of the unquiet dead. Come for the severed heads, stay for the book bound in human skin. Every story is true, and each one is a real place you can visit. We dare you. 

How the screams of a murderer helped shaped music history and are ringing in our ears today…

“The nobleman Franz Zahlheim, convicted of murder, shall be taken to the Hoher Markt, where glowing hot pincers shall be applied to his chest… His body will be broken on the wheel from the feet upward, then displayed on a gibbet.”

Such were the words of the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph II in 1786. Emperor Joseph had himself reformed the criminal and penal system and medieval style executions like this had long since been abandoned. However, so horrified was the emperor by the crime of Franz Zaglauer von Zahlheim that he made a special exception to allow it. This was to be the last medieval style execution in Austria.

Franz Von Zahlheim was himself, a nobleman. Like many other nobleman of his time, he did not work, per se, and had a serious problem with gambleing. Having accrued a staggering ammount of gambling debt, Zahlheim hatched a plan to solve his money woes. It was simple enough. First he found a wealthy older Austrian widow, second, he wooed her and promised to take her hand in marriage, third, he would knock her off and take her money. Which is exactly what he did. After stealing her fortune, he killed the widow and hid the body. Nonetheless, he was quickly caught. 

The high society of Vienna was shocked, and the Emperor most of all. In an unusal act of savage punishment, Joseph literally went “medieval on his ass.” On the day that Franz Von Zahlheim was to be executed over 30,000 spectators turned out for the event. The style of his execution was about as bad as it gets. It took many hours and Zahlheim was kept concious during the entire event as he was burned and every bone in his body - starting with the feet and working upwards - one by one. 

But while Zahlheim screamed, a mere 200 hundred yards away, another of Austria’s sons was busy composing his next brilliant work. 

Concerto in C minor Number 24 is considered one of Mozart’s greatest works, with its “dark eruptions” and “explosions of tragic, passionate emotion.” This was the piece Mozart was working on when Zahlheim was hung, less than a block from his house. It is unknown if Mozart saw the hanging, though if he almost certainly would have been aware it was taking place. Had he been anywhere near his home during the four hours the gruesome event took place in, he certainly would have heard the screams of the crowd. 

Fourteen days after the execution, Mozart entered the grim concerto into his catalogue. While we will never know for sure, below is the Concerto in C minor Number 24. Judge for yourself.

 

Artifacts relating to the case, along with many other grizly murders can be found at the Kriminal Museum, in Vienna, Austria.

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KRIMINAL MUSEUM, Vienna, Austria