1747: Alexander Blackwell, who left them smiling

On this date in 1747,* the Swedes beheaded Scottish-born adventurer Alexander Blackwell for meddling with their line of succession.

Blackwell, “a man of mercurial and adventurous temperament,” had his printing business busted in England for having failed to precede it with the required apprenticeship, and was thrown in jail as a debtor.

To extricate the family from poverty, Blackwell’s wife Elizabeth thereupon launched an amazing career as an herbal limner, drawing, engraving, and hand-coloring editions with hundreds of plants that became a standard reference in the field in the late 1730’s, and whose revenues managed to liberate her spouse. (Elizabeth is still remembered on a plaque at the Chelsea Old Church, in her old neighborhood.)

That mercurial ex-deadbeat might have done better to stick close by his now highly esteemed wife (or possibly his brother, a bloviating classicist), but the wanderlust sent Alex abroad to wash ashore in Stockholm as physician to King Frederick I, where he was soon convicted (on evidence uncertain, apart from the torture-extracted confession) of having intrigued to alter the royal line of succession further to enmeshing Sweden in an alliance with Britain.

He protested his innocence on the scaffold. More memorably, perhaps, he laid his head the wrong way upon the chopping block, requiring the executioner to correct him — whereupon Blackwell cracked wise that he, after all, lacked experience at the art of being beheaded.

Mental Floss mined this outstanding exemplar of gallows humor in a cartoon about memorable exits. (Via History News Network.)

* Some sources, like this Google Books biography, offer August 9 as Blackwell’s execution date. The 11-day discrepancy is due to the still-pending adoption of the Gregorian calendar: July 29 was the date on the Julian calendar still in use in the realms both of Blackwell’s birth and death; in 1752 and 1753, respectively, Britain and Sweden would adopt the Gregorian system.