Guillotine the Statistician!

Das Titelblatt von Johann Heinrich Wasers „Abhandlung vom Geld“.

Johann Heinrich Waser, Abhandlung vom Geld (= Treatise on Money)

Printed in 1778 in Zurich.

Johann Heinrich Waser was certainly one of the brightest and most innovative minds of Zurich in the 18th century. His contemporaries didn’t appreciate that. They were annoyed by his insistence on being right and by the fact that he – as one of the first representatives of statistical methods – judged powerful people in the same way as ordinary citizens.

Johann Heinrich Waser, copper engraving by Johann Rudolf Holzhalb.

A Talent for Numbers

Gathering and evaluating statistical data was Waser’s speciality. He made use of this talent in many different areas. He re-calculated the size of the Swiss Cantons, determined the density of their population, elaborated sort of a gross national product and dreamt of a political measurement enabling him to evaluate how economic circumstances were connected to the dissatisfaction of the people.

The Depreciation of Money

The dynamite Waser’s logically impeccable calculations contained was the fact that politicians were unable to contradict his unassailable figures. There was nothing to be glossed over. The numbers spoke for themselves. In the age of Enlightenment, people believed in logical reasoning and therefore in the possibility of quantifying the world. That’s why Waser dealing with the real value of coins in his book “Abhandlung vom Geld” wasn’t just science, but political dynamite. And Waser – standing up for the poor – even attached a moral message to it:

“A poor people lives happily with little and only has to spend small amounts in a very economical manner, it does not need gold in order to do so. However, a rich and spendthrift people that has money in abundance, that tries to display its greatness by wasting money and therefore constantly thinks about new splendours has to pay dearly for everything and no sum is too big for it… In ancient times … the highest ratio between silver and gold was 1:13. In mighty, rich, luxurious Rome it was 1:15. Yes, under the Augustinian emperors it even increased to 01:16,088, as it was the case in 55 AD under the rule of Nero.”

Quantifying the Government’s Quality

In other words, Waser claimed that the morality of a state could be calculated statistically. And he did so in Zwingli’s Zurich, a city that was proud of its reformed and modest lifestyle! Additionally, the enlightened politicians were unable to find arguments against this stubborn free spirit. His system was conclusive.

What Happened Next

We don’t know when exactly the city fathers started to think that Zurich would be better off without this fussy troublemaker. Probably when they realised that they were only able to control by censorship the publication of his works within Zurich, however, foreign countries loved to print Waser’s calculations. In 1780, a newspaper of Göttingen published an article by Waser accusing Zurich’s city fathers of maladministration. Waser had analysed the figures of the administration of the Zurich war funds and indirectly accused the council of Zurich of having embezzled money and of being corruptible. He did this at a time when the citizens of Zurich were becoming increasingly irritated by the council anyway, since it had autocratically seized all power: In 1777, for example, it had forged an alliance with France without even asking the citizens of Zurich!

And now this miserable priest, who had been excluded from office, dared to accuse these noble gentlemen of maladministration.

Ultima Ratio

The council pressed charges. Of course, it had to improvise. After all, it was not possible to accuse Waser of being a brilliant calculator who publicly proved the bribery and embezzlement committed by the council of Zurich. Therefore, his article was stylised as betrayal of military secrets.

The fact that Waser tended to ignore legal boundaries whenever he saw a book or document in an archive that might help his studies played also into the hands of his prosecutors. They lunged at a document from 1452, which had been found in his house during a search and which, maybe, under very specific circumstances could have been of use to the Habsburgs…

If Waser would only have been a slightly more modest accused! His recalcitrant attitude turned even the most well-intentioned politicians against him. Nevertheless, when the jury sentenced him to death – 12 votes in favour, 8 votes against – the act could clearly be identified as a judicial murder and was understood abroad as such.

This did not change the fact that Johann Heinrich Waser was guillotined on 27 May 1780.

By the way, 1780 was the year in which – on 12 January – the Zürcher Zeitung was published for the first time. In this journal, many politicians have substantiated their opinions over the centuries by quoting statistics.

After all, nowadays all politicians do firmly believe in exactly the very statistics that supports their claims best.


If you would like to take a look at Waser’s “Abhandlung vom Geld”, you may do so here.

We bought this book at Thomas Rezek’s antiquarian bookshop in Munich.

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