Archive for January 8th, 2008

1697: Thomas Aikenhead

2 comments January 8th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1697, Scottish medical student Thomas Aikenhead was hanged on the road from Edinburgh to Leith for blasphemy, an already-archaic punishment inflicted for what reads like headstrong youthful atheism of a decidedly garden variety.

Aikenhead partook of the times’ emerging (albeit forbidden) store of humanist and skeptical literature, and chatted most unguardedly with University of Edinburgh “friends” who tattled to authorities to the extent that, not content with testifying against him, one published a pamphlet demanding the offender “atone with blood, the affronts of heaven’s offended throne.”

Said authorities scarcely elevated the dignity of the temporal throne in their own eagerness to swing a sledgehammer against a fly, trying the young hothead for his life under a Restoration law which by its own letter should not have lodged him in mortal peril until his third offense.

Thou Aikenhead, the indictment thundered in the second person:

shakeing off all fear of God and regaird to his majesties lawes, have now for more than a twelvemoneth by past…[vented] your wicked blasphemies against God and our Saviour Jesus Christ, and against the holy Scriptures, and all revealled religione…you said and affirmed, that divinity or the doctrine of theologie was a rapsidie of faigned and ill-invented nonsense, patched up partly of the morall doctrine of philosophers, and pairtly of poeticall fictions and extravagant chimeras

He called the Old Testament “Ezra’s fables”, Jesus the “Imposter Christ” (preferring Mahomet), and anticipated the extirpation of Christianity.

It was a bare two weeks from conviction to execution. Accounts of Aikenhead’s last days seem inconsistent; the prisoner recanted, possibly sincerely, but the Church — explicitly handed the power to at least reprieve him by its intervention — demanded hurried and “vigorous execution.”

Macaulay disgustedly pictured the scene:

The preachers who were the boy’s murderers crowded round him at the gallows, and, while he was struggling in the last agony, insulted Heaven with prayers more blasphemous than any thing that [Aikenhead] had ever uttered.

The singular punishment meted out this day — the last hanging for blasphemy throughout the United Kingdom — cast a long shadow into the coming century’s remarkable Scottish renaissance and lingers even today as a suggestion to some just how near the menace of theocracy might yet remain.

And England’s blasphemy laws? They’re only now facing repeal.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,Hanged,Heresy,History,Milestones,Notable Jurisprudence,Public Executions,Ripped from the Headlines,Scotland

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