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Klaus Störtebeker

German Privateer

Born: c. 1360 in Wismar

Died: October 20, 1401 in Hamburg

Klaus Störtebeker was a leader and the best known representative of a companionship of privateers known as the Victual Brothers ("Vitalienbrüder" in German). The Victual Brothers were originally hired during a war between Denmark and Sweden to fight the Danish and supply the besieged Swedish capital Stockholm with provisions (Latin "victualia"). After the end of the war, the Victual Brothers continued to capture merchant vessels for their own account and named themselves "Likedeelers" (literally "equal sharers").

A large number of myths and legends surround what little facts exist on Klaus Störtebekers life. Even the name Störtebeker is only a nickname meaning "empty the mug with one gulp" in Old German. The moniker refers to the pirate's supposed ability to empty a four-litre mug of beer in one gulp. At this time, pirates and other fugitives from the law often adopted a colorful nom de guerre.

Störtebecker entered public consciousness around 1398, after the expulsion of the Victual Brothers from the Baltic island of Gotland, where they had set up a stronghold and headquarters in the town of Visby. During the following years, Störtebeker and some of his fellow captains (the most famous of whom were Gödeke Michels, Hennig Wichmann and Magister Wigbold) captured Hanseatic ships, irrespective of their origin.

In 1401, a Hamburgian fleet led by Simon of Utrecht caught up with Störtebeker's force near Helgoland. According to some stories, Störtebeker's ship had been disabled by a traitor who cast molten lead into the links of the chain which held the rudder of Störtebeker's ship. Störtebeker and his crew were ultimately overcome and brought to Hamburg where they were tried. Legend has it that Störtebeker offered a chain of gold long enough to enclose the whole town of Hamburg in exchange for his life and freedom. However, Störtebeker and all of his 73 companions were sentenced to death and were beheaded.

The most famous legend of Störtebeker is about the execution itself. It is said that Störtebeker asked the mayor of Hamburg to release however many of his companions he could walk past after being beheaded. The rather riskless request was granted. After he was beheaded, Störtebeker's body allegedly got up and walked past twelve of Störtebeker's companions before the body was tripped by the executioner. The twelve men, however, were executed along with all of the others.

Today there is a statue in Hamburg to honor Störtebeker:

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