Johannes Bückler, also known as Schinderhannes, still has plenty of fans today who see him as the ‘German Robin Hood’. Posterity has painted him as a loveable rogue breaking the law for good and even altruistic reasons, and in doing so he became more symbol than man.


For others, however, his alternative nicknames evocatively capture the true reputation of the outlaw who wreaked havoc in the Rhineland around the turn of the 19th century: John the Scorcher, John the Flayer and the Robber of the Rhine.

Bückler is thought to have been born in the late 18th century in Miehlen (the exact year is uncertain – sometimes it is given as 1778, sometimes 1783). His father was an impoverished army deserter and his mother a petty thief. He turned to crime himself at an early age; as a teenager he was caught stealing skins from the tanner to which he was apprenticed.

Why was Johannes Bückler called Schinderhannes?

From there, Bückler graduated to burglary and armed robbery. The fact that he picked up the nickname Schinderhannes – coming from the word ‘schinder’, meaning ‘flayer’ – did not refer to a particular proclivity for violence, though, but was a nod to his tanning days.

A still from the 1958 film Der Schinderhannes
The legend of Schinderhannes has continued to grow, and was dramatised in a 1958 film directed by Helmut Käutner. (Photo by Film Publicity Archive /United Archives via Getty Images)

Despite not actually flaying his victims, the truth is that Schinderhannes was no Robin Hood figure. He was a self-serving crook motivated by greed. But he took on a folkloric hero status at a time when this part of Germany had fallen under French rule, undeservedly transforming him into a paragon of resistance against the invaders.

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What were Schinderhannes’s crimes?

Schinderhannes’s crime spree across the Rhineland included cattle and horse thefts, extortion, robbery, and murder.

With a band of fellow outlaws, he knew he could target Jewish people since they could not expect much protection from the law at a time of rampant antisemitism. One accomplice, ‘Black Peter’, killed a Jewish cattle dealer just for exposing his affair with a married woman.

In 1799, Schinderhannes’s reputation got a boost when he made a daring escape from prison. While locked up in a tower in Simmern, he used a kitchen knife smuggled in by a friendly guard to cut a hole in the wooden door – covering up his progress by ‘gluing’ the boards back into place using chewed up bread – and, once out of his cell, he leapt from the first floor into the moat.

Although hurting his leg badly, the jailbreak made Schinderhannes a hero to the people. From then on, he could trust that someone would hide him from authorities, or at least not turn him in. His criminal exploits became more audacious and prolific, and he had a long line of lovers drawn to his dangerous allure.

What happened to Schinderhannes?

Schinderhannes managed to evade capture for a couple of years, but it all ended in 1802. Far from the noble rogue, he immediately testified against his own gang members in the hope of a more lenient sentence. Instead, he was imprisoned in the Holztrum, an imposing tower in the city of Mainz, and interrogated multiple times over the next 16 months.

At the resulting trial in October 1803, Schinderhannes stood in the dock with dozens of accomplices. Those not lucky enough to be acquitted were given jail terms (including Schinderhannes’s wife, Julchen, who had just given birth to his son) or sentenced to death. Schinderhannes was the first of 20 condemned to lose their heads on the guillotine on 21 November 1803, as tens of thousands of people watched on.

The arrest of Schinderhannes, 1802.
A depiction of the arrest of Schinderhannes, 1802. The outlaw managed to evade capture for a couple of years, but it all ended in 1802. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

Yet his legend continued to grow, with highly romanticised accounts of his deeds appearing in novels, plays, films – including the 1958 film directed by Helmut Käutner – and even inspiring board games.


Jonny Wilkes
Jonny WilkesFreelance writer

Jonny Wilkes is a former staff writer for BBC History Revealed, and he continues to write for both the magazine and HistoryExtra. He has BA in History from the University of York.