Was the last executioner related to Tussaud ?

"When I read in this newspaper in December that Madame Tussaud, founder of the famous waxworks, was born into the Grossholz family, and possibly came from Sachseln, I had to find out more," says Rolf Matter (70). He was born in Sarnen and is a descendant of the Grossholz "executioner dynasty" on his mother’s side. Matter began meticulously searching for his roots in the state archives in Central Switzerland, working together with genealogists from home and abroad. “My interest is so great because the penal system is a common thread running through my family history." Rolf Matter was in charge of Criminal Punishment and Measure Enforcements in the Justice Department of the Canton of Lucerne for 35 years. His great-great uncle, the Alpnach policeman Elias Grossholz, the brother of Matter’s grandmother, was appointed Chief of Police in Obwalden on 1 August 1940. "He renewed the corps and even purchased the first police car in Obwalden," says Matter, not without little pride.

"Related" to Madame Tussaud
"Our families have a common ancestor," says Matter. This was Cunrat Grossholz, who was originally a knacker in Zurich. From 1473, the family Grossholz served over generations as executioners in Zurich, and one of the first persons they executed was Hans Waldmann, on 6 April 1489. Some Grossholzs moved to Baden and Winterthur, and to Alsace and Germany, where they also became executioners. Rolf Matter can trace the Grossholz family tree back to 1 December 1761 without any gaps. At the time, Marie, daughter of the Alsatian officer Joseph Gross wood and the Swiss Annemarie Walder, was born in Alsace. She later became known as Madame Tussaud, and was the founder of today’s London Wax Museum. She not only maintained business relationships with executioners in Paris and London, but was herself one of this clan.

"Thanks to the Uri family records, I can prove without doubt that descendants of Madame Tussaud continued to carry out such duties in Central Switzerland until at least the 19th Century," says Rolf Matter. The last hangman and executioner of this family - his great-great-grandfather Vincent Grossholz – died in Uri in 1887. As many as three executioners with this name carried out death sentences in Obwalden: Balz from Sachseln († 1796), his son Ignaz († 1838) and his grandson Johann († 1877). "With my Grossholz family research, I’m not trying to identify myself with the penal services of my ancestors," asserts Matter. He’s glad that his period of office was more humane.

Last executioner unknown
"I’ve not been able to figure out the name of the last Obwaldner executioner," admits Matter. That would be of especial interest for him. "Shortly after my great-great uncle Elias Grossholz became police chief, the triple murderer Hans Vollenweider was arrested in Sachseln. Convicted of the murder of the police officer Alois von Moos, Vollenweider was executed by guillotine in Sarnen in 1940, the last civilian execution in Switzerland. A persistent rumour circulated at the time that Police Chief Grossholz from the famous executioner dynasty carried out this last execution himself. "Whether that’s the truth or will probably remain one of the best kept secrets in Obwalden," says Matter. "For ever!"

Dishonourable reputation
London journalist and biographer Kate Berridge explains why Madame Tussaud concealed her membership of the Grossholz family: "With her memoirs, she wanted to get rid of the “taint of her dishonourable birth” once and for all. "Executioners were considered to be dishonourable, were not allowed to acquire land rights, could only choose their wife from executioner circles and, in the 18th Century, were not even permitted to marry. Furthermore, because any contact with the executioner was dishonourable, the latter had his own special standing place in the gallery of the church in Sarnen.

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