As dawn broke over the Piazzetta San Marco in Venice, the body of a man hung from the gallows between the columns. There were no witnesses to this execution — it was a quiet affair carried out under the veil of night. The citizens of the Serenissima were understandably worried. This man was not common criminal — he was a man from a distinguished noble family.
What events had led to a man of such stature becoming victim of such a fate?
Antonio the Ambassador
Antonio Foscarini was the third son of Nicolo di Alvise de ramo di S.Polo and Maria Barbarigo di Antonio.
Antonio began his diplomatic career as one of the representatives of the Republic of Venice to the Court of King Henri IV of France (1601) and was there, at Paris, in this capacity to celebrate Henri’s wedding to Marie de Medici. Despite being elected as Ambassador to France — “Ambasciatore ordinario in Francia” — (26th May 1607), he did not actually take up his position until February of the following year.
When he was elected Ambassador to England — “Ambasciatore ordinario in Inghilterra” — (July 1610), he again did not take up his position until the following year (4th May 1611). Unfortunately, Foscarini’s position came under question in Venice. One of Foscarini’s secretaries denounced his to the Council of Ten, accusing him of selling state secrets to Venice’s mortal enemy at the time — Spain.
Foscarini was summoned to return to Venice immediately. Upon his arrival he was imprisoned, where he remained for three years whilst in inquiry into the allegations took place. Foscarini was duly released upon being found “not guilty” (30th July 1618) — there was no blemish on his service record. Two years later he was elected Senator (1620).
The Council of Ten
The Council of Ten was formed in 1310 “to preserve the liberty and peace of the subjects of the republic and to protect them form the abuses of personal power”. In effect, the Council of Ten was actually made up of 17:
the Doge – who presided over all and was elected ruler for a specific term.
the Prime Minster – elected chairman of the government
the Signoria – comprised of three Capi (three chiefs of the Great Council); six Savii Grandi (modern-day Cabinet); three Savii da Terra Firma and three Savii agli Ordini or da Mar (Ministers of War, Finance and Marine).
These men, for there were no women, were elected for a specific term, depending upon their position. In effect, this ensured that any attempt on the part of one person or a family or a group to gain sole power was neutralized. Even the Church was excluded from taking any part in the government of the Republic.
The Countess of Arundel
At the age of 35, this formidable woman arrived in Venice in 1621.
Alatheia Talbot was the granddaughter of the infamous Bess of Hardwick (goddaughter of Queen Elizabeth I of England) and the wife of Thomas Howard, 2nd Earl of Arundel, and a leading figure at the court of King James I of England. Both Alatheia and Thomas were passionate art lovers, and used their boundless wealth to amass the first great private art collection in England. And this was the reason for Alatheia’s journey to Venice – that and the education of their sons. Alatheia left her children at the villa in Dolo whilst she continued onto Venice and settled in Palazzo Mocegnigo on Grand Canal.
The Senator & the Countess
It was whilst situated in the Palazzo Mocegnigo, that the Senator possibly renewed his acquaintance with the Countess. In his position as Ambassador to England, Foscarini would have come into contact with both the Countess and her husband, who was, we must remember, a prominent official of the royal Court. As to the true nature of this acquaintance, it has been suggested that the two were not particularly close.
Whatever the suggestion, on the evening of 8th April 1622 as Foscarini was departing the Senate, he was arrested on the orders of the Consiglio dei Dieci and charged with:
… having secretly and frequently been in the company of ministers of foreign powers, by day and by night, in their houses and elsewhere, in this city and outside it, in disguise and in normal dress, and having divulged to them, both orally and in writing, the most intimate secrets of the Republic, and having received money from them in return …
Less than a fortnight later, Foscarini was strangled in prison and the following morning found hung between the two columns in Piazzetta San Marco.
The news of Foscarini’s execution spread like wildfire throughout the length and breadth of Europe. Many rulers, upon hearing the news, were shocked.
Countess Alatheia was perturbed for her name had been linked with that of Foscarini. It was in her house that Foscarini had been accused of passing state secrets to Venice’s enemies — notably Spain (via the Secretary of Emperor Ferdinand) and the Church (via the Papal Nuncio).
Sir Henry Wotton, England’s Ambassador to Venice, notified Alatheia by letter that the Council of Ten would be passing a sentence of banishment upon her, and that it would be in her best interests to leave immediately.
But Sir Henry had greatly underestimated this woman — for she was aggressive adversary (they had crossed swords many times). Instead, Alatheia went immediately in person to Sir Henry, vigorously denying the charges and informing him of her intentions to seek an audience with the Doge, Antonio Priuli. Alatheia laid the blame for Foscarini’s death firmly at his doorstep, and let him know in no uncertain circumstances that she intended to bring about his dismissal.
Alatheia was granted her audience with the Doge. She was warmly received and assured that there was never any question of neither her banishment not implication in the recent tragic events. She generously accepted his assurances, but requested a public exoneration in writing in both Venice and London; this duly occurred. She was given lavish gifts by the Doge and with her wagons heavily laden with, left Venice six months later.
In January of 1623, a unique event occurred in Venice: Antonio Foscarini was posthumously exonerated by the Council of Ten. Ten months previously, it had unanimously found him guilty of treason and had him executed. King James I’s ambassador to the Serenissima, Sir Henry Wotton, characterized the event: “…surely in 312 years that the Council of Ten hath stood, there was never cast a greater blemish upon it.”
And so, after much investigation, Antonio Foscarini was officially exonerated of all charges (16th January 1623).
Throughout the summer, proof of Foscarini’s innocence gathered momentum, and was such that none could ignore it. Those who had accused Foscarini of the act of treason were brought before both the Inquisitors of the State and the Council of Ten themselves to answer certain questions. It was determined, during the course of events, that both accused had perjured themselves by making false accusations against Foscarini. Why they did so is not known, but Murray Brown presents a number of credible scenarios in his “The Myth of Antonio Foscarini’s Exoneration”.
The Council of Ten publicly confessed its error — copies were given to Foscarini’s family and were also distributed throughout Europe. Foscarini’s body was exhumed and he was given a state funeral. A statue of Foscarini is in Foscarini Chapel of the Church of S.Stae.
It had been as satisfying* for Snell as last days on earth come: the very morning of his execution, militia fellow-traveler Timothy McVeigh blew up Oklahoma City’s Murrah Federal Building.
It is not for this venue to attempt any definitive judgment on the connections and cul-de-sacs of the much-scribbled-about white supremacist labyrinth. It is enough for our purposes to note several items which may be coincidence and have sometimes been reckoned rather more.
April 19 had already become the militia movement’s holy day: April 19, 1775, had sparked the American Revolution; more to the point, it had been the date in 1993 of the slaughterous Waco siege. Snell’s execution was slated for that date intentionally, much to the outrage of his sympathizers: so was McVeigh’s plot.
Twelve years before his death, Snell himself had schemed to blow up the very same building.
Snell has been reported to have predicted that there would be a bombing on his execution date.
After his execution, Snell was returned to Oklahoma Christian Identity mecca (and possible McVeigh haunt) Elohim City, where he lay three days in an open casket before being interred in the community’s cemetery under a headstone marked “Rev Richard Wayne Snell. Patriot.”
On this date in 1763, a young woman shuffled off this mortal coil and into Quebecois folklore.
She’d made the mistake of outliving two husbands, and was convicted (with her father) of having been the instrument of their demise. Gibbeted after her death — a punishment not used in France, but Quebec had been captured by the English in the French and Indian War — her corpse became a figure of ghost stories and popular superstition, haunting passersby and playing poltergeist.
But why take it from me? Here’s the unhappy fate of Madame Corriveau, in puppet theater.
Or a stylish graphic novel-style cartoon.
Devotees of the written word can get their fill in two 19th century texts available free from Google Books: a passage in Maple Leaves, and a historical novel in which she figures as a character, The Golden Dog. Her French Wikipedia page is here.
That very day, the Prime Minister of the defeated regime, Long Boret, was arrested and summarily shot at the city’s Cercle Sportif.
Only weeks earlier, he had been furiously trying to negotiate any sort of peace with the advancing guerrillas … but his doomed government had little leverage. Boret was among several high-ranking officials whose names were on a death list the Khmer Rouge announced publicly; when the United States abandoned its support and evacuated days before, it was a surprise that Long was not among the Cambodian officials joining them.
He did have a good idea to get out in these very last hours — he and General Sak Sutsakhan, two of the last of the ancien regime remaining. Here is American correspondent Arnold Isaacs’ account of their last meeting:
When Phnom Penh awoke on the 16th, even the hard-line members of the Supreme Committee saw at last that further resistance was impossible … [and] agreed to … the immediate transfer of power to the revolutionaries. They asked only that there be no reprisals against officials and soldiers of the Phnom Penh regime.
As dawn broke on the 17th, the dispirited group returned to Long Boret’s house, where they finally received [the Khmer Rouge’s] reply to the previous day’s peace offer. It was a flat, frightening rejection. Not only would the liberation forces accept no arranged handover of power, but the membership of the Supreme Committee had been added to the seven original “traitors” on the Khmer Rouge death list.
Stunned, members of the government walked out of the prime minister’s residence and dispersed, leaving a “strange calmness,” General Sak later recalled. Only he and Long Boret were still there when an army officer arrived to report that a few helicopters were preparing to leave from the Olympic Stadium. The two leaders, each in his official car, reached the stadium shortly after eight o’clock and boarded one of the helicopters waiting there. A few minutes later, however, Long Boret’s wife, two children, and his sister, along with some family friends, arrived at the landing zone, and he stepped down to join them on another helicopter. With him went his close friend, Information Minister Thong Lim Huong.
General Sak, with his wife and children, took off at eight-thirty. From the air, as they rose over the city, they could see the prime minister’s party switching to still a third waiting helicopter. Whether both craft were mechanically unflyable or failed to take off for some other reason is not known. But Long Boret never left Phnom Penh. He was seen under arrest that afternoon, and shortly afterward was executed.
On this date in 2004, South Carolina executed a man who had once been on the other side of the law.
Jerry Bridwell McWee hardly fit the profile of a future death row inmate when he met one George Scott. McWee was pushing 40, had no criminal record, and had once done a stint as an Augusta, Ga., police officer.
But it wasn’t many months that the two had iced a couple of Aiken County denizens in a hunt for drug money.*
It may have worked to Scott’s advantage that he was a career criminal, and had the instinct to turn state’s evidence before his confederate could send him to the gurney. Even so, it took some wheedling to get a death sentence out of the jury, which was clearly better inclined to give McWee life. A law (since reversed) at that time forbade advising jurors on parole scenarios, so the jury’s repeated pleas to know when the prisoner might be released under a life sentence — actual answer: age 71, at the earliest — were denied.
It was bum luck for Jerry under the circumstances, but also a mess of his own making; there was no question of innocence or some other mitigating point that gave him any likelihood of winning South Carolina’s first executive clemency.
In his final statement read by his lawyer, McWee asked both his own family and [victim John] Perry’s family to forgive him. “I only wished that things could have been different,” McWee wrote. “I would give anything if only that could have been the case.” A tear formed in his eye as his mother blew a kiss back at him and his final words were read. That tear finally rolled down the side of his head moments after he stopped breathing. More than 10 minutes later, McWee was officially declared dead at 6:18 p.m.
Celia McWee softly sobbed, a well-wadded tissue in her hand, as she waited for prison officials to open the curtain to the death chamber. She gasped “Oh my God” and her cries got louder as the curtain opened and she saw her clean-shaven son strapped to the gurney, his arms extended, and intravenous tubes stretching through a nearby wall. A minister put his hand on her shoulder. After glancing at his mother, Jerry McWee looked back at the ceiling, softly mumbling as the tubes shuddered. He blinked several times and his breathing got shallow, then stopped. Celia McWee’s sobs got softer as it was obvious McWee was no longer breathing. But she never took her eyes off her son.
A member of Perry’s family also witnessed the execution, and his gaze never left McWee’s body either. After the execution, Perry’s wife and family issued a statement thanking the community, law enforcement and prosecutors and saying it was not a time to rejoice. “God has given us free will – we are each responsible for our actions,” part of the statement read. “Please make choices you can live with. Please pray for the soul of Jerry B. McWee.”
The executed man’s mother, Celia McWee, also lost a daughter to murder in 1980; she had been, and remains, a mainstay of the anti-death penalty movement. On this biographical page, she sets the scene through a mother’s eyes.
One day Jerry came to my work. We said hello but I was still angry and didn’t ask if he wanted to talk. I thought, “If you’re going through a hard time, then good, because now you’re being punished for what you did.” To this day I’ll never forgive myself for not reaching out to him.
Jerry didn’t want me to witness the execution but I fought tooth and nail to be there. I couldn’t let him die in front of a room full of strangers. … The wife of Jerry’s victim wasn’t there, and I would say she’s the most sympathetic person I’ve ever known. She never publicly denounced what my son did, nor did she ever call for his execution.
Just before the lethal injection, Jerry turned to take a good long look at me and then blew me a kiss. After that he closed his eyes and I watched the blood drain from his face. I don’t know what could be harder than watching your son die like that. A mother does not see a 30, 40, 50-year-old man strapped to that cross-like gurney. She sees the child she gave birth to, the child that in her eyes never grew up.
* In two separate crimes, each had been the triggerman once. Formally, McWee was executed only for the first murder, a clerk McWee had shot in the course of robbing a convenience store of $350. He subsequently pleaded guilty to the second murder, for which he received a life sentence; Scott did likewise.
On this date in 1947, former Vichy Secretary of State Comte Fernand de Brinon was shot in the Paris suburb of Montrouge for war crimes.
A lawyer and journalist who met future Nazi luminary Joachim von Ribbentrop in 1919, Brinon and his socialite wife Lisette were the toast of right-wing high society in the 1930’s. He even scored a scoop interview with the Fuhrer himself, shortly after Hitler became chancellor.
Germany’s rout of France in 1940 vindicated to many of the French right their critiques of France’s decadence; for Brinon, the natural step was support for collaboration, a career-enhancing philosophy that saw him to the third-ranking position of the Vichy government.
There he struck a post-partisan, consensus-oriented pose vis-a-vis picking sides between the new overlord and the erstwhile ally it was bombing:
To collaborate loyally with our opponents of yesterday in no way signifies in the mind of any man of good sense becoming the enemies of our allies of yesterday. (New York Times)
Men of good sense also knew the Bolsheviks were the real threat to world peace; hence, this Vichy-era newsreel of today’s victim reviewing French troops on the Eastern front:
[O]bsequious, indiscreet and an open admirer of Nazism … his collaboration was ideological, and it exceeded by far the agreements over food, prisoners of war, the demarcation line, and the mass of daily adjustments to the occupation sought by most Vichy officials … [Brinon represented] the Nazi end of the Vichy spectrum.
That made him an easy call for the sternest reprisal liberated France could exact, and he knew it himself: Fernand and Lisette tried to flee for Germany when the western allies began recapturing France in 1944.
What adds poignancy, if perhaps not sympathy, to his fate is the fact that Lisette — Jeanne Rachel Louise Franck, her name had been before he put a ring on her finger — was Jewish, and that fact was not a secret. She spent the occupation years as an official Honorary Aryan, safe from the deportations her husband helped arrange for others.
Lisette was also arrested by the Allies as she fled for Germany in 1944 — and how many Jews can say that? — but was released, and died in 1982. Four years ago, her aged son wrote a soul-searching book about his relationship with his mother and (for Brinon was Lisette’s second marriage) his stepfather, Lisette de Brinon, Ma Mere. There is also a recent biography of Brinon in French (review (also French)).
On this date in 1682, the Orthodox “Old Believer” priest Avvakum was burned at the stake in Pustozyorsk — part of Russia’s brutal crackdown on religious dissenters.
Old Believers rejected — with varying degrees of obstinacy, ranging at its most dramatic to communal self-immolation — liturgical reforms (and a concomitant expansion of central authority) forced by Patriarch Nikon. The conflict between the institutional church and Old Believers resulted in Orthodoxy’s great 17th-century schism, and persecution of the recalcitrants that waxed and waned for generations.
Avvakum, a protopope of one of the principal Moscow cathedrals, was at the forefront of the resistance as the schism opened, refusing to be reconciled with Nikon.
His tart autobiographical account — of miracles, devilry, preaching and persecution — captures an arresting, if obviously partisan, view of the situation.
Later they took the priest Lazar and cut his entire tongue from his throat. Just a bit of blood there was, and then it stopped. And he again spoke even without a tongue. Next they put his right hand on the block and chopped it off at the wrist, and lying there on the ground, of itself the severed hand composed its fingers according to tradition, and it lay that way a long time before the people. Poor thing, it confessed even in death the unchanging sign of the Savior.*
Wonderful are the works of the Lord and inexpressible are the designs of the Most High! He suffers punishment, but he has mercy and heals again. But why go on and on ? God’s an old hand at miracles, he brings us from nonexistence to life. And surely he will resurrect all human flesh on the last day in the twinkling of an eye. But who can comprehend this? For God is this: he creates the new and renews the old. Glory be to him in all things!
The “Life of the Archpriest Avvakum” is reprinted in Russian, English and Belgian here, and a slightly different English translation is extensively annotated here.
Old Believers (not excluding those in North America, though this trove of resources is not to be missed by anyone with an interest in Russian Orthodoxy, regardless of locale) still persist, unreconciled to the Orthodox establishment. This respectful photography project documents modern Old Believer life:
* One of the liturgical changes at issue was making the sign of the cross with two fingers (the old way) or three (the new way) — a particularly emblematic symbol of the conflict (notice Avvakum’s two-fingered blessing in the icon above). The dispute had a notable artistic use in Boyarina Morozova, a Vasily Surikov painting of an Old Believer defiantly holding up two fingers as she is hauled to exile.
On this date in 1794, two women whose husbands had been deadly enemies in the French Revolution followed them to the guillotine.
The radical Jacques Hebert had been beheaded on March 24; Camille Desmoulins, the acerbic Dantonist journalist who had often savaged Hebert, followed him on April 5. Between the two, Robespierre had destroyed the principle remaining factions to his left and his right, respectively.
In Desmoulins’ last days, a supposed plot involving his wife formed part of the charge against him, and he became frantic that a bride he loved tenderly (he died clutching a lock of her hair) would follow him to the scaffold. It was barely a week later that it came to pass, when Lucile shared a tumbril with an unlikely friend: the widow of Hebert.
In this postcard, Desmoulins (dandling his son) and Lucile are warned of their danger, while Lucile’s doting mother looks on. (Source)
Their fate was nothing to the Revolution, but it remains an affecting personal portrait amid the tempest of factional massacres. Here is their end, sketched by the (markedly anti-Revolutionary) Paris in the Terror:
As Camille Desmoulins had foreseen, his wife soon followed his footsteps to the guillotine … Lucile was arrested immediately after Camille’s execution. It suited the Committee [of Public Safety] to support St. Just’s story of a “dangerous conspiracy in the prisons.” Along with having been seen in the vicinity of the Luxembourg (carrying the baby Horace in her arms in the hope that Camille might catch a glimpse of him),* Lucile had gone to Robespierre’s house and tried to gain admittance in order to plead with the Incorruptible on her husband’s behalf. No man was less accessible to the pleas of wailing women than Robespierre, and his door remained adamantly closed. Such manifestations of despair conveniently lent themselves to St. Just’s contention that revolt was afoot, and Lucile was accordingly arrested.
(Robespierre, in fact, had been the chief witness at Camille’s wedding and was actually godfather of little Horace.)
Lucile was condemned to death on April 13, along with eighteen other victims. She accepted her sentence with serenity. “In a few hours I shall see my Camille again,” she declared to her judges. “I am therefore less to be pitied than you, for at your death, which will be infamous, you will be haunted by remorse for what you have done.” At the same trial, the widow of Hebert was also condemned. The two women whose husbands had so bitterly hated each other struck up a friendship in the last few days of their life. “You are lucky,” Mme. Hebert said to Lucile as they departed for the scaffold. “Nobody speaks ill of you. There is no shadow upon your character. You are leaving life by the grand staircase.”
Upon hearing the news of her daughter’s sentence [Lucile’s mother] sent a frantic letter to Robespierre. “It is not enough for you to have murdered your best friend [Camille],” she cried. “You must have his wife’s blood as well. Your monster Fouquier-Tinville has just ordered Lucile to be taken to the scaffold. In less than two hours’ time she will be dead. If you aren’t a human tiger, if Camille’s blood hasn’t driven you mad, if you are still able to remember the happy evenings you once spent before our fire fondling our Horace, spare an innocent victim. If not — then hurry and take us all, Horace, myself and my other daughter Adele. Hurry and tear us apart with your claws that still drip with Camille’s blood … hurry, hurry so that we can all sleep in the same grave!”
* This particular of strolling outside the prison in hopes of giving the doomed man a glimpse is echoed by Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities in the person of Charles Darnay‘s wife — Lucie:
“[T]here is an upper window in the prison, to which Charles can sometimes gain access at three in the afternoon. When he can get to it — which depends on many uncertainties and incidents — he might see you in the street, he thinks, if you stood in a certain place that I can show you.”
In all weathers, in the snow and frost of winter, in the bitter winds of spring, in the hot sunshine of summer, in the rains of autumn, and again in the snow and frost of winter, Lucie passed two hours of every day at this place; and every day on leaving it, she kissed the prison wall.
On this date in 1966, an Indonesian firing squad on the island of Obira (or Obi) shot Chris Soumokil (the link is to his Dutch wikipedia page) for having styled himself the president of the Republic of the South Moluccas.
Soumokil’s fate underscores the many contradictory eddies of nationalism in the post-colonial age, and especially in that “imagined community”par excellence, the scattered archipelago of Indonesia.
The disintegration of the Dutch East Indies and the rapid dissolution of the federative state was anxiously watched in the Moluccas. … [Moluccans] were a privileged group and had favourable career opportunities … [they] were deeply concerned when Sukarno first proclaimed independence in 1945; indeed, many seemingly chose the side of the Dutch government and hoped for a return to colonial times, because they feared that a Java-dominated Indonesian state would significantly worsen their position. …
When Sukarno, in the spring of 1950, dissolved the state of East Indonesia, of which the Moluccas were a province, a group of Moluccans immediately responded by proclaiming and independent Republic of the South Moluccas (Republik Maluku Selatan) on 24 April. This, of course, was unacceptable for Sukarno. In November 1950, the Indonesian army occupied the island of Ambon, the cultural and political centre of the Moluccas. The RMS government and its sympathizers fled to the island of Ceram, where it started a guerrilla war against the Indonesian government. In the early 1960s it became clear that this struggle was utterly hopeless. In 1962, The Netherlands transferred New Guinea to the Republic of Indonesia, thereby depriving the RMS guerrillas of the safe haven where it [sic] had prepared its actions and found refuge.
Soumokil was captured in December 1962 and imprisoned; he was executed* just a month after the Indonesian government was seized by Suharto, on a programme of putting disorder to the sword.
Although politically moribund, the South Moluccan struggle to which Soumokil is a martyr is far from forgotten. And this is where the story of nationalism takes an unexpected turn.
For this Moluccan diaspora, already subject to all the strains of migration, the affair was a betrayal by their host country, which had failed to repay their ancestors’ loyalty to Holland during the colonial period by backing their people’s aspirations for independence — and had done this even while placing another colony, Suriname, on precisely the sort of stewardship-to-independence track the RMS had in mind for itself.
Soumokil’s execution (and his widow’s subsequent release to the Netherlands) helped (the link is Dutch) radicalize the next generation of Dutch Moluccans to the extent of carrying out some spectacular terrorist actions.
Though there haven’t been any bombs lately, there remains to this day enough currency in this cause to recommend it in the identity formation of the YouTube generation.
* An account of Soumokil’s last hours given by Soumokil’s widow posted here gives the particulars thus:
On April 11, 1966, Mrs. Soumokil and her son Tommie were given permission to pay a last visit to Mr. Dr. Soumokil from 08.00 AM to 11.30 AM to say good-bye to each other.
On April 12, 1966, at 01.00 AM Mr. Dr. Soumokil had been taken by the Indonesian Military from the condemned cell and transferred by motorboat to the island Obi in the archipelago Pulau Seribu … On April 12, 1966, one minute before 07.00am, Mr. Dr. Soumokil gave his last breath. He had been shot by the Indonesian firing-squad.
On this date in 1670, a 70-year-old upstanding Edinburgher went to the stake for confessing — unbidden — to witchcraft.
The “Wizard of West Bow” had had a distinguished military career and an exactingly pious public life among Edinburgh’s strictest Presbyterians. So it came as something of a surprise when, after being struck by an illness, he up and copped to a lifelong sexual relationship with his sister Jean … and a lifetime of hitherto unknown black arts, powered by a Satanic walking-staff. He was so far from being suspect that town elders at first thought him daft.
Only when Jean backed his story with the sort of details to give vapors to the “Bowhead Saints” neighborhood did things get serious. She especially warned about that staff.
So on this day, the dumbfounded city worthies had to tote one of their own to the area around Edinburgh’s modern Pilrig Street and have him strangled and burnt at the stake. Whatever moved Weir to issue his damning (literally!) admission, he was plainly quite in earnest: when asked to pray at the stake, he shot back, “Let me alone, I will not. I have lived as a beast, and I must die as a beast.” The staff was thrown onto the pyre with him; it was said to burn abnormally slowly.
His sister was hanged shortly thereafter for the same offenses, scandalizing her upstanding neighbors by tearing her clothes off on the way to the scaffold.
For a century, nobody dared live in Weir’s house, which the cremated major — and/or that staff, floating about looking for its owner — supposedly haunted. The house is long torn down, but the tale is natural fodder for any “haunted Edinburgh” tour.
One is struck in such a story by its modernity — perhaps the reason it could speak to a Victorian novelist like Robert Louis Stevenson.
The interpretive framework we begin with for witch hunts is — well, a “witch hunt.” Our own sense of what unjust social persecution is shapes the way we read these long-gone cases, the confessions forced from the victims’ lips. We identify with the “witches”; it is the alien world that ferrets them out and burns them that wants explaining.
Major Weir unnervingly turns the tables on such voyeurs as your correspondent. He steps without warning out of a forgotten mass of long-gone peoples, his confession not merely voluntary but insistent against skepticism — and suddenly we grapple for our bearings not in sociology but in abnormal psychology: here is a man very much of his society who has unexpectedly rejected it, boasts of rejecting it all along, and does so not craving after reconciliation to his people but in order to die (as does his sister) obstinate in that rejection. We can perhaps identify less readily with this individual than with his crestfallen friends.
Whether or not the Weirs really did anything that would count as a crime today — although one is practically forced to agree that at a minimum, the siblings violated a sexual taboo still enforced now — we have a template for this man not in the McCarthy hearings but straight from the evening news: the unassuming neighbor revealed to be a serial killer; the trusted rector who turns out to have been a pedophile.