Archive for February, 2010

Daily Double: The Merciless Parliament

6 comments February 19th, 2010 Headsman

“Politics is a blood sport.”

Aneurin Bevan

Not in every era do yesterday’s defeated political factions get to retire to write their memoirs or snipe from the comfort of the parliamentary minority.

Certainly not in the 1380s, when the teenage King Richard II and a confederation of nobles fought one another for control of England.

After gaining an early upper hand in 1386, Richard soon found himself defeated on the battlefield and politically encircled — leading to the memorable seating of the “Merciless Parliament”, which proceeded to attaint Richard’s advisors of treason.

A certain archbishop of York, Alexander Nevill by name, Robert de Vere, duke of Ireland, Robert Tresilian, chief justice of the lord king, and Nicholas Brembre, knight and former mayor of the citizens of London, were governors and close councillors of the king, living in vice, deluding the said king, concerned neither with the king’s nor the kingdom’s business but embracing the mammon of iniquity for themselves through much wickedness.

Two of them (not the only two by any stretch) suffered accordingly these next two dates in 1388.

Now that is politics as bloodsport.

On this day..

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1960: Oliviu Beldeanu, for the Berne incident

Add comment February 18th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1960, Romanian anti-communist Oliviu Beldeanu was executed at Jilava prison for a headline-grabbing protest he’d orchestrated in Switzerland five years before.

Beldeanu (here‘s his Romanian Wikipedia page) was the ringleader of a group of Romanian exiles who’d commandeered the Romanian embassy in Bern(e) in February 1955.

The aptly-named Berne Incident was meant to be a symbolic protest — Communist symbols smashed, damaging secret correspondence released, that sort of thing — but it did also result in an embassy driver being shot to death.

These “legionary fascist groups”* and “traitors abroad,” (pdf) (in the official lexicology of Bucharest) were handled fairly gently by Switzerland, predictably keen to stay clear of diplomatic incidents.

Beldeanu et al drew lenient prison sentences from which they were released early.

And that would have been the end of it … but a Communist cloak-and-dagger operation after the ex-cons were freed lured Beldeanu to Berlin. He was kidnapped by the East German Stasi and flown to Romania, there to be subject to a perfunctory trial and speedy execution.

* “Legionary fascist” denunciations — associating the Switzerland activists with Romania’s notorious Iron Guard — cited by Paul Nistor, “The five who scared … America, too. The immediate effects of the attempt in Bern (1955) over the Romanian diplomacy”, Valahian Journal of Historical Studies, Dec. 2009.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Martyrs,Power,Romania,Shot,Treason

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1872: Gomburza

3 comments February 17th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1872, reformist Filipino priests Mariano Gomez, Jose Burgos and Jacinto Zamora (together, the first syllables of their surname formed the acronym “Gomburza”) were garroted in Manila for their alleged support of an anti-Spanish mutiny.

These three clerics were leading exponents of liberalization; they notably pressed the rights of the native-born clergy as against the powerful religious hierarchy of imported Spanish priests.

While that critique had a somewhat receptive ear under the forward-thinking governorship of Gen. Carlos-Maria de la Torre, a more reactionary successor did not look as kindly on such agitation.

When naval shipyard workers rebelled in the 1872 Cavite Mutiny — over higher taxes, including a surcharge to avoid forced labor, not over the Gomburza priests’ agenda as such — the colonial administration used it as a pretext to seized the priests and condemn them for subversion.

Alas, Spain couldn’t manage to garrote away its subject peoples’ aspirations.

A bad end for Gomez, Burgos and Zamora was just the start for reform and independence agitation in the Philippines.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Garrote,History,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Philippines,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Spain,Strangled,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1535: Etienne de la Forge, John Calvin’s friend

Add comment February 16th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1535, as a 25-year-old religious dissident named John Calvin fled Paris, the merchant who had hosted his circle’s Protestant salons was reduced to ashes in Paris.

Though France would ultimately remain Catholic, the Protestant Reformation found rich soil and enjoyed a measure of early official tolerance for reasons of statecraft.

But a sharp crackdown was provoked when Protestants engineered the placement of anti-Catholic posters in several towns during a single night in October 1534 — the so-called Affair of the Placards.

This spelled the end of the circle of dissidents who met at the Rue Saint-Martin.* Young Calvin high-tailed it out of town — a period of wandering and living incognito that would wash him up on the shores of Lake Geneva — but the owner of that Rue Saint-Martin house, Etienne de la Forge (aka Stephanus Forgeus) was denounced to the authorities.

The date for this execution comes from The Century of the Renaissance, a public domain book available free from Google. It’s also backed in the roster of execution dates from Michelet’s Histoire de France. This looks to me as if it comes from primary documentation, but Feb. 15 is sometimes also reported.

* Calvin apparently had an appointment during this period in Paris to meet a scholar he would later execute, Michael Servetus, but the tete-a-tete never came off.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,France,God,History,Notably Survived By,Public Executions

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1979: Four Generals of the Shah

14 comments February 15th, 2010 Headsman

Shortly before midnight this date in 1979, Iranian royalist Generals Mehdi Rahimi, Reza Naji, Manuchehr Khosrodad, and Nematollah Nassiri were shot in a Tehran school courtyard after a snap trial by the newborn Iranian revolutionary regime.

General Mehdi Rahimi.

The Iranian Revolution had only just overthrown the remains of the absconded Shah’s regime; the country observes the “Decade of Fajr” over the first 11 days of February, commemorating the “Dawn” of the Islamic Republic from the return of Ayatollah Khomeini to the fall of the luckless loyalists installed by Pahlavi on his way out the door.

In this uncertain situation, the new regime seized its newfound authority … violently.

General Rahimi — probably the most voluptuously eulogized of the bunch — still pulls tribute for his loyalty to the collapsing monarchy, and his salute to the Shah even when in revolutionary custody.

Lower-profile to posterity, Naji had once governed Isfahan under martial law; Khosrodad was a general of the air force; and Nassiri headed the hated secret police SAVAK.

All were convicted of the catch-all charge of “corruption on earth” (just imagine what they’d do with the banksters!), and upon a quick confirmation of sentence from Khomeini, immediately shot. (Their property was also confiscated.)


See? Shot.

The notorious hanging judge who chaired the drumhead tribunal later recalled in his memoirs

The first people I tried and punished for their deeds were Nematollah Nasiri, head of SAVAK, and Khosrodad, air force commander; Naji, martial law administrator of Esfahan, and Rahimi, martial law administrator of Tehran and head of police force. … All the people who were sentenced to death by the Revolutionary Tribunals were the best examples of ‘corruptor on earth’ and they were executed as such.

A Corruptor on earth is a person who contributes to spreading and expanding corruption on earth. Corruption is what leads to the decline, destruction and the deviation of society from its nature. People who were executed had strived in spreading corruption and prostitution, circulating heroin, opium and licentious behavior, atheism, murder, betrayal, flattery, and, in sum, all these vile qualities. These people’s problems were aggravated by the fact that they did not repent once they saw the people’s revolution.

I believed at the time, and I still believe, that all the parliamentarians and senators, all governors, heads of SAVAK and police, who held office after 1963 and the Imam’s boycott, should be sentenced to death. High-ranking ministry officials who were instrumental in the survival of the [Shah’s] apparatus and who, for getting close to the Shah and his family, would accept any humiliation are all convicted (condemned).

To sum up, all the people that I condemned and who were executed in the early days of the establishment of the Revolutionary Tribunals and later in the Qasr prison were all corruptors on earth and, based on the Quran, their blood was a waste.

(The executions were announced on February 16, and that date is sometimes cited as the execution date. Feb. 15 appears to be more strongly attested to me. Whatever the clock said, these men’s deaths marked the start of a juridical bloodbath.)

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1994: Andrei Chikatilo, the Butcher of Rostov

5 comments February 14th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1994, Ukrainian serial killer Andrei Romanovich Chikatilo was shot dead in a soundproof room in Novocherkassk, Russia, for a stupendous serial murder spree in the 1980s USSR.

The quintessential case study in anonymous middle-aged melancholy turned larger-than-life horror, the sexually dysfunctional Chikatilo raped, murdered and mutilated dozens in a homicidal career beginning at the unusually late age of 42.

After that initial foray into rape-murder in 1978, three years passed before the factory clerk (molestation allegations had drummed him out of teaching in the interval) began his harvest of 50-plus victims: children and teenagers of both sexes, and young adult women.

In addition to the staggering body count, the murders of the “Rostov Ripper” were marked by orgiastic savagery: breasts severed, eyes gouged out, genitalia mutilated and even eaten, and bodies lacerated with scores of stab wounds.

Like many monsters, he was also, as much as his more well-adjusted fellows, a creature of his own time and place.

Chikatilo was a socially maladjusted child in part due to his father’s capture by the Germans during World War II, subjecting the family to the postwar ostracism that awaited returning POWs. (Some sources also say Chikatilo saw his mother raped by German soldiers.)

The part of his life for which he’s most famous, meanwhile, drew out into a years-long bloodbath even though he was a suspect from the very first murder — a crime for which another man was wrongfully executed. Sclerotic bureaucracy and investigative cock-ups hobbled the police effort throughout, a sort of criminological emblem of the Soviet Union’s twilight. Authorities were loathe to involve the public by admitting the presence of a serial killer, a type officially associated with bourgeois society.

Chikatilo was arrested once in 1984 carrying a Bundy-esque murder kit, but authorities couldn’t make anything stick (Chikatilo’s Communist Party membership helped); another officer stopped him leaving the forest where bodies turned up, but didn’t search the satchel which contained his most recent victim’s severed breasts. Chikatilo was investigated early on, but ruled out as a suspect because of a blood type mismatch between his blood and crime-scene semen — apparently the result of a rare biological anomaly that (combined with authorities’ outsized confidence in forensic detection) bought him years of killing and involved thousands more suspects before investigators finally circled back to Andrei Romanovich.

Even at his last arrest, investigators who knew they had their man nearly let him slip away because they couldn’t charge him within 10 days — finally cajoling a confession and the killer’s cooperation at nearly the last possible hour.

According to Cannibal Killers, the Chikatilo task force solved 1,062 unrelated crimes, including 95 murders, while puzzling out the Rostov Ripper.

There’s much more about Chikatilo’s career at trutv.com; the 1995 film about the Chikatilo murders, Citizen X, indulges some dramatic license, but it’s pretty watchable for a TV movie.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Infamous,Murder,Notable Sleuthing,Popular Culture,Rape,Russia,Serial Killers,Sex,Shot,Ukraine,USSR

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1906: William Williams, the last hanged in Minnesota

4 comments February 13th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1906, Minnesota hanged a Cornish immigrant for the murder of his homosexual lover … and hanged him so clumsily that it never hanged again.

William Williams shot Johnny Keller dead after Keller’s mother intervened in the teenagers’ relationship. A series of mooning-slash-menacing letters failed to win back affections. “I want you to believe that I love you now as much as I ever did,” Williams wrote. “Keep your promise to me this time, old boy, as it is your last chance,” he wrote, later.

When the man with the redundant name went to die in the dead of night at a St. Paul prison, it seems that there’d been a slight miscalculation. When dropped through the trap, Williams’s “feet touched the ground by reason of the fact that his neck stretched four and one-half inches and the rope nearly eight inches.”

Consequently, three deputies on the scaffold hoisted the rope up to get him airborne, where he strangled to death over the span of a ghastly quarter-hour.

Slowly the minutes dragged.

The surgeon, watch in hand, held his fingers on Williams’ pulse as he scanned the dial of his watch.

Five minutes passed.

There was a slight rustle, low murmurs among the spectators and then silence.

Another five minutes dragged by.

Would this man never die?

Fainter and fainter grew the pulsations of the doomed heart as it labored to maintain its function.

The dead man’s suspended body moved with a gentle swaying.

The deputies wiped their perspiring brows with their handkerchiefs.

Members of the crowd shifted from one foot to another.

There were few murmurs, which died at once.

Eleven, twelve, thirteen minutes.

The heart was beating now with spasmodic movement, fainter and fainter.

Fourteen minutes—only a surgeon’s fingers could detect the flow of blood now.

Fourteen and a half minutes.

‘He is dead,’ said Surgeon Moore.

The end has come.

And the end had come.

Two things happened in consequence of this sensational press narrative.

First: the news entities who promulgated these descriptions were themselves prosecuted under a law sponsored by anti-death penalty Republican legislator John Day Smith to make executions as secretive as possible. The St. Paul Pioneer Press, St. Paul Dispatch and St. Paul Daily News each caught fines of 25 bones or clams or whatever you call them.

Second: those illicit descriptions out in the public eye triggered efforts (eventually successful in 1911) to abolish the death penalty full stop in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

There’s a great roundup of the Williams case here, and a pdf from the Minnesota Historical Society about the background and consequences of the John Day Smith law, themselves quite topical for this blog.

Smith’s law was adopted as a half-measure when death penalty abolition couldn’t pass in 1889, as a bit of moral hygiene against the unseemly spectacle of public execution. The measure pioneered the familiar 20th century routine of conducting executions after midnight behind prison walls. Newspapermen derisively called it the “midnight assassination” law — but it was taken up by many other states over the succeeding years as public executions went extinct.

As for Smith himself … there’s a rumor of a ghost story, and (given a tragic love story, a sensational crime, a capital punishment milestone, and a queer identity) the palpable fact of a play.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Minnesota,Murder,Sex,USA

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1554: Lady Jane Grey, the Nine Days’ Queen

10 comments February 12th, 2010 Headsman

February 12 is the anniversary of Lady Jane Grey‘s beheading at the Tower of London. The Protestant teenager was the designated successor of sickly boy-king Edward VI, but popular and aristocratic support went for Mary Tudor in a landslide.

The Nine Days’ Queen landed in the Tower and copped to a treason charge on a tenuous deal for mercy (not applicable to her sponsors and allies, many of whom went to the block). But a January 1554 Protestant rebellion that had Protestant restoration as part of its programme made it a dangerous indulgence for Mary to keep her cousin’s neck attached to its shoulders.

On this auspicious anniversary, Executed Today is pleased to welcome Jane Grey expert J. Stephan Edwards, Ph.D. Dr. Edwards runs the Some Grey Matter site, and is working on a forthcoming book about our day’s famous beheadee.

ET: The conventional wisdom on Jane Grey is that she was basically destroyed by the machinations of the men around her. Is that a misapprehension? Was she more involved in events than she’s given credit for? Can one take seriously the notion that she didn’t want to be queen?

JSE: Having spent almost ten years researching the life of Lady Jane Grey Dudley and her very brief reign as Queen of England in July 1553, I am confident that she was not directly involved in the plans to make her Edward VI’s successor to the throne. At the same time, however, I am completely convinced that she was well aware of those plans at least six weeks before she actually became queen. And it is beyond question that she knew of the plan at least a week before her accession. Thus the standard mythology that portrays Jane as utterly unaware and totally innocent until the last possible second is just that … a myth.

I am similarly convinced that Jane accepted the crown after offering little more than perfunctory resistance. The crown offered a degree of personal independence that would otherwise have been unavailable to her. It also offered power. Despite Victorian-era storytelling to the contrary, Jane Grey Dudley was very much a product of her own age, and that was an age of widespread personal ambition, of duty to both family and God to advance one’s self and one’s family. It would have been a deep betrayal of her family and of social norms actually to refuse such an exalted position.

In the act of accepting, she is recorded to have asked God for some sign that she should refuse, paused for a moment, and receiving no such sign, she accepted. Further, Jane was apparently an adherent to the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, the idea that all things, including our daily lives, are preordained and known to God, and as humans we are powerless to alter God’s plan. Having prayed to God for a sign that she should refuse the crown and receiving none was no doubt to her an indication that her God’s preordained plan was for her to be Queen of England. She therefore accepted without offering further resistance of any kind.

Further, there is ample evidence to show that Jane fully embraced her new status. She signed dozens, perhaps hundreds, of documents with her own hand rather than relying on a privy secretary to sign in her stead (common practice in the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI before her). This indicates active and positive involvement in affairs. And on more than one occasion, she countermanded the orders of her council, imposing her own will upon them, again evidence of an intent to rule.

Was she “destroyed by the machinations of the men around her”? I think perhaps there is a better way to phrase it. Jane Grey Dudley lived in an era when women were second class citizens with few legal rights and virtually barred from public affairs. Yet the circumstances of July 1553 mandated that a woman must assume the throne, however much that contradicted 400 years of established English practice. If anything, Jane Grey Dudley was a pawn in a political chess game in which the players, all male, searched desperately for a male king, yet all they had at hand were potential queens. The male players at the chess board were simply struggling with the pieces they had available and trying to make the best of an unfamiliar and even frightening situation. They failed, and Queen Jane was one of the unfortunate pieces swept from the board.

Jane is obviously a romantic figure — small r, big R — in part because she didn’t ever have the chance to start doing the un-romantic things that rulers have to do. How has her image changed over the years? What about her would most surprise people today?

Actually, Jane did “do some of the unromantic things that rulers have to do.” She sat in daily on meetings of the Privy Council. She helped to plan military maneuvers against her cousin, the future Queen Mary … maneuvers intended to bring about the latter’s death. She sent thousands of men off to die in battle. The nine short days of the reign of Queen Jane were packed with unromantic and burdensome activity unfamiliar to a woman of not quite eighteen years of age.

If anything, the years have served to erase much of that non-romantic material and replaced it with the image of an obedient girl-child secluded in study or prayer, uninvolved in the affairs of the world. Indeed, one biographer writing in the 19th century referred to her existence as one of “splendid isolation.”

Yet she was anything but isolated. The historical evidence makes it clear that she was socially active, participating in many of the public celebrations held by her kingly cousin’s court. She traveled a great deal, visiting with relatives and friends of the family scattered across the entire realm. And she had a love of music that was intense enough to give her tutor concern that she was becoming too distracted from her intellectual studies. The picture that has emerged from my own research is of a girl who was quite “normal” for those of her social and economic status in that era, with the possible exception of a gift for languages.

Had Jane, in fact, ruled, how different might events in England been? (and elsewhere, since this was also a key period of imperial competition?)

I am not myself a huge fan of “counterfactual history,” of speculating about “what might have been.” But since a lot of people do ask this question, I will say this: Had Jane remained queen, and had Mary remained on the political periphery (or been executed), it seems to me that the British Isles would be a very different place today. Just in basic political terms, Elizabeth also would likely not have become queen, so the great Elizabethan “Golden Age” would never have happened. Also, Jane would likely have had children, so there would not have been any need to reach outside the realm in 1603 to find an heir. James VI of Scotland would never have become James I of England, and Scotland may have remained forever a separate kingdom and nation. Without a King James of England, there would not have been a Charles I of England, and thus perhaps no religious civil wars in the mid 17th century. Carried still further, James II would never have become king, and no Act of Settlement would have been necessary. The Hanoverians would never have succeeded to the English throne … no George III and perhaps no American revolution. Certainly no Queen Victoria. And the current queen would instead be a German housewife.

All of this would likely have left England as a relatively small nation. It probably would never have become “Great Britain,” either geo-politically or symbolically. It might well have remained a minor actor on the international political stage. The great “British Empire” and the modern Commonwealth might never have existed.

Religiously, England might also have been very different. The more radical strain of evangelical reformism (later called “Puritanism”) espoused by Edward VI and Jane may well have prevailed. The moderate Elizabethan religious settlement of the 1560s likely would not have happened. Thus the Church of England might have looked today more like a Presbyterian or Lutheran church, both doctrinally and physically. Anglicanism today would have been based on simple preaching, with most ritual and liturgy pared down to a bare minimum. No vestments, no decorated churches, and perhaps no bishops and archbishops. All of that would, in turn, have had a huge impact on English culture, art, literature, etc.

In short, had Jane reigned long, the world would be a very different place today, in ways that we probably cannot even begin to imagine.

How did Jane herself change over the course of her experiences in proximity to power, and then as the queen, and then in the Tower?

This is a very difficult question to answer, if not an impossible one, because we have so very little evidence about Jane herself, her character, and her personality. We know next to nothing of her innermost thoughts and attitudes during this period, especially the period during her imprisonment in the Tower. The one thing that we can perhaps say is that religion became Jane’s chief comfort during the last six months of her life, and she clung to her faith with tenacity. The evidence suggests that she was accepting of her death in the belief that she was serving her God and her faith. In fact, she seems to have carried out the activities of her last days with great care and deliberateness so as to leave a carefully constructed final impression on others. She wrote a judiciously worded letter to her sister and penned a brief note to her father, almost certainly conscious that both would be published after her death. She engaged in a semi-public theological debate with Queen Mary’s own Roman Catholic chaplain and hand signed a transcript of that debate in order to authenticate her words. And lastly, she delivered an ambiguously worded speech from the execution scaffold that declared herself simultaneously innocent and guilty. Jane was a relatively unknown private figure when she became queen, and a very public one by the time she died, well aware that she would soon be known across Europe. That transformation from private to public figure must surely have changed her profoundly, in ways we can only guess.

As a researcher, how do you deal with the sketchy documentary trail on Lady Jane?

Historians and researchers deal every day with people and groups of people for whom few written records or other evidence exists. To compensate, many modern historians take pieces of evidence from here and bits of data from there and compile them, then use that compilation to construct snapshots of groups rather than of individuals. For example, we can reconstruct from written records the amount of charity that was dispensed in certain specific regions (e.g., a single parish in London). From that amount, we can gain some idea of how extensive poverty may have been in that region. And from the list of names and ages of those to whom charity was dispensed, we can deduce what percentage of the poor were male or female, young or old … even if we know nothing more than their names and ages.

With Jane, I have reversed the process. Historians have done a great deal of work to describe aristocratic young women in England in the sixteenth century … their education, their religious beliefs and practices, their domestic lives, etc. If that group composite picture is valid, we should also be able to say that if a certain person is a member of that group of young female aristocrats, she is likely to have had similar characteristics. Thus I have proposed that in the absence of any written evidence to the contrary, Jane was probably very much like her social and economic peers in many ways. She was different only in those ways for which we have clear evidence, such as her proficiency in as many as five to seven languages.

How was her execution carried out? Was it typical for its time, place, and circumstances?

Dying was an active process in the Tudor era. It was something a person did, not something that happened to a person. Those facing death were expected to carry out certain predetermined actions and to behave in certain specific ways as demonstrations that they were destined to go to heaven. Dying was to be done with dignity, with a measure of planning (if the death was anticipated far enough in advance), and with particular tasks to be performed by the dying before they took their leave of the earthly world and moved on to the spiritual world. A large body of literature and advice books on how to die, or “the art of dying” (ars moriendi in Latin), emerged during the period. Jane Grey Dudley played her part so well that she was held up as an example to all in later years of “how to die well.”

The condemned were always afforded the opportunity to prepare themselves spiritually, with the method of preparation dependent upon the form of religion then in place. Jane was executed after Roman Catholicism had been re-instituted in England, so she was given the opportunity to confess to a Catholic priest, to be absolved, and to take final communion. Holding firm to her Protestant beliefs that confession was a private matter between penitent and God alone and not necessitating a priest’s hearing, that absolution was given only by God and not mediated by priests, and that the Roman Catholic Mass was erroneous, she instead engaged in a public theological debate with John de Feckenham. During this debate, Jane professed her faith to a sizable audience, outlining its central tenets, an action that itself served as a kind of “Protestant confession” without directly involving a priest in the process.

She then wrote letters to her sister and father bidding them farewell and offering spiritual counsel to them as well. She probably wrote letters to others, especially her mother, but they have not survived. Taking leave of the world and offering consolation to those to be left behind was part of the ars moriendi. Jane’s letter to her sister, in particular, was reproduced repeatedly over the next century as a near-perfect example of how to bid farewell to loved ones. [Available here, the last of several Jane Grey letters reproduced in this public-domain book.]

On the morning of the execution, she would have dressed appropriately in a simple gown of somber color, usually gray or black (certainly not the angelically virginal white depicted in Paul Delaroche’s famous histrionic painting of her execution). Many carried some type of religious text with them to the place of execution, often a Missal or Book of Hours (for Catholics) or a New Testament or copies of the Four Gospels (for Protestants). Jane carried a book of prayers copied from the works of St Jerome, St Ambrose, and St Austin, each a father of the early Christian church of the fourth century (Tudor-era Protestants recognized the value of the writings of these men though they denied their status as saints and intercessors in heaven). That morning, she carefully inscribed the book to her jailer in preparation for presenting it to him in her last moments. Small gifts to jailers, and even to executioners, were considered signs of humility and Christian forgiveness.

Jane was to be executed within the relatively private walls of the Tower of London rather than in the full glare of the crowds outside the walls on Tower Hill. Executions were large public spectacles that often drew huge audiences, so a private execution was considered a great favor to the condemned.

There was no permanent execution scaffold within the Tower. Scaffolds were built specifically for each execution, then immediately dismantled. The eye-witness accounts indicate that the scaffold for Jane’s execution was built against the wall of the central White Tower, at its northwest corner … the corner closest to the Chapel of St Peter-ad-Vincula. Since Jane was housed in the upper storey of the Gentleman Gaoler’s (Jailer’s) quarters, which still stands today, she would have seen the scaffold being built just a few yards across Tower Green. She would also have had a very short walk from her quarters to the scaffold, though she would have been in full view of the many permanent residents, workers, and official visitors within the Tower that busy Monday morning. She is said by eyewitnesses to have made the walk with great dignity and without any outward signs of distress.

Jane was accompanied to the scaffold by at least two of her ladies-in-waiting and by John de Feckenham, her debate opponent of the previous days. Feckenham served two purposes. Firstly, he was available should Jane wish to convert to Roman Catholicism in her final moments, and to offer whatever spiritual comfort he could should she chose not to convert. No Protestant preacher or pastor was allowed. Secondly, Feckenham served as the personal representative of Queen Mary, ready to witness the proceedings and to recount them to his mistress.

Upon reaching the scaffold, Jane, like all those condemned to die, was allowed to make a final speech. Such speeches were customarily written and memorized in advance with great care, as it was common practice for the witnesses present to write down the dying person’s last words. Scaffold speeches were often published within days of the execution and circulated widely, sometimes as political propaganda, sometimes as educational tools or warnings to others, and sometimes simply as “news of the day.” Jane would have been well aware of this practice, and her final speech, as it was published barely more than a month later, reflects a careful choice of words. She stated that she was guilty of having broken the law by accepting the crown, but that she was innocent of having sought it. She acknowledged the justice of her execution, as all condemned were expected to do. Protestations of innocence at the moment of execution were paradoxically considered signs of guilt, of lack of humility, and transgressions of God’s will.

Jane also asked those in the small audience to pray for her soul “while yet I live.” Her choice of words reflected her disagreement with the Catholic practice of saying masses for the dead. She then kneeled and asked the audience to recite along with her as she spoke the words of Psalm 51, the Miserere, which begins, “Have mercy upon me, O God.”

Those of noble or royal status who were convicted of treason were often beheaded, whereas men of lower birth were hung, drawn and quartered and women of lower birth were often burned at the stake (considered more “humane” for the “weaker sex” than hanging, drawing and quartering). The monarch’s consent was required for beheading, but it was seldom withheld. Thus Mary consented to Jane being executed by beheading with an axe. Therefore, following her recitation of Psalm 51, Jane stood again to make final preparations to meet the axe. She handed her gloves and handkerchief to one of her ladies, and gave her small prayer-book to Thomas Bridges, the brother of the Lieutenant of the Tower. The prayerbook has survived and is sometimes displayed as part of the permanent “Treasures of the Library” exhibition at the British Library in London.

After her attendants assisted her to loosen the neck of her gown, the executioner knelt in the customary request for forgiveness from the condemned. The executioner then asked her to stand upon the straw spread around the block to soak up the blood. As she began to kneel, she asked the executioner whether he would take her by surprise and strike before she was ready. Assured that he would not, she tied a cloth around her head to block her eyesight. Then, in one of the most poignant of scenes, she felt blindly for the block, and not finding it because of the cloth over her eyes, she asked, “What shall I do? Where is it?” It was against custom to assist the condemned to find the block, lest the person offering aid be accused of having an unjust part in a death. However, someone -– usually reported as Feckenham –- apparently did reach down and guide her hands to the block. (This instant is the scene depicted in Delaroche’s near-life-sized painting, though most of the details of that painting are quite inaccurate.)

Detail view of Hippolyte (Paul) Delaroche’s The Execution of Lady Jane Grey. (Click for full-size image.)

The UK National Gallery on Feb. 24 opens an exhibition on this work titled “Painting History: Delaroche and Lady Jane Grey”.

According to the gallery’s advance publicity, “For the first time, Painting History examines this iconic masterpiece in the context of Delaroche’s great historical paintings, particularly the poignant scenes from English history which made his reputation. The exhibition features seven major international loans of paintings by Delaroche including The Princes in the Tower, 1830 and Young Christian Martyr, 1854–5 (both Louvre) and Strafford on his way to Execution, 1835 (private collection). Displayed alongside are Delaroche’s expressive preparatory drawings for Lady Jane and a selection of comparative paintings and prints by his contemporaries, including Eugène Lami, Claude Jacquand and François-Marius Granet.”

The guy sure had a thing for executions. If this blog had a patron artist, it would be Paul Delaroche.

Finally finding the block, she laid her neck upon it and repeated Jesus’s words on the cross, “Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” At those words, the executioner swung his axe and she was dead.

There is a previously unchallenged tradition that Lady Jane Grey Dudley was buried in the Chapel of St Peter-ad-Vincula (St Peter-in-Chains) within the Tower, supposedly beneath the floor just in front of the left-hand side of the altar. A plaque to that effect was placed there in the 1870s, and the modern tour guides of the Tower usually regale tourists with heavily embellished stories of the events.

My own research, however, suggests that Jane may have been buried outside the Tower. Several circumstances of the day support my conclusion. First, the chapel had been restored to service in the Roman Catholic faith by mid-February 1554. The Roman Catholic Church explicitly prohibits the burial of heretics in consecrated ground, and Jane was considered a heretic by that Church. Additionally, there is a contemporary account that tells of the bodies of Jane and her husband Guildford, who was executed the same day on Tower Hill, lying in a cart outside the chapel for several hours. The reason for the delay is given as a need to seek special permission to bury them within. None of the eyewitness accounts of the day go on to speak of the burial itself. Whether this is because none of those eyewitnesses saw the burial take place or because it was considered by them to be not worth the mentioning is unclear. However, Jane’s father Henry Grey was executed on Tower Hill two weeks later for his part in a rebellion in late January 1554, and he is reported to have been buried in the Church of Holy Trinity Minories just yards from Tower Hill. That church was a former abbey of the Order of St Clare that had been closed by Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the 1530s. Henry Grey had purchased the former abbey, together with its church, from the crown in the 1540s. During renovation work in 1851, a workman discovered a carefully preserved severed head that was later identified as the head of Henry Grey. It therefore seems probable that Henry Grey was indeed buried inside Holy Trinity Minories, one of his own properties conveniently nearest the place of his execution. It is equally possible that his daughter Jane Grey Dudley and his son-in-law Guildford Dudley were buried at Holy Trinity just days before Henry.

Holy Trinity was closed as a place of worship in 1899 and merged with the nearby Church of St Botolph’s-without-Aldgate. Henry Grey’s preserved head is now kept in a secret location somewhere on the grounds of St Botolph’s, but the remains of the Church of Holy Trinity Minories were destroyed during the London Blitz of 1940. All that remains is a small public garden in Tower Hill Terrace over the road from the north outer curtain wall of the Tower, a mere 150 yards from the site of Jane’s execution.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,Heads of State,History,Interviews,Martyrs,Nobility,Other Voices,Political Expedience,Popular Culture,Power,Pretenders to the Throne,Treason,Women

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1585: Frederick Werner, the executioner’s brother-in-law

1 comment February 11th, 2010 Headsman

Being ‘broken on the wheel’ was an agonising and prolonged way in which to die …

The felon was secured, spread-eagled, face upwards, on a large cartwheel mounted horizontally on an upright which passed through the hub, the wheel sometimes being slightly canted in order to give the spectators a better view of the brutal proceedings …

Death was meted out by the executioner wielding a heavy iron bar, three feet long by two inches square, or using a long-handled hammer. Slowly and methodically he would shatter the victim’s limbs; the upper and forearms, the thighs and the lower legs … On being removed from the wheel the corpse would resemble a rag doll, the various short sections of the shattered limbs being completely disconnected from each other …

In some states in Germany the regulation number of blows was forty. Franz Schmidt, executioner of Nuremberg in the sixteenth century, wrote in his diary that on 11 February 1585 he ‘dispatched Frederick Werner of Nuremberg, alias Heffner Friedla, a murderer who committed three murders and twelve robberies. He was drawn to execution in a tumbrel [a cart], twice nipped with red-hot tongs and afterwards broken on the wheel.’

This multiple murderer was in fact Schmidt’s brother-in-law and, probably in view of their relationship, the judges decreed that only thirty-one blows need be struck. One wonders whether, after that number, there was anything worthwhile left to aim at.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Gruesome Methods,History,Murder,Public Executions,Theft

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1952: Liu Qingshan and Zhang Zishan, the first corruption executions in Red China

2 comments February 10th, 2010 Headsman

China has been clamping down on official malfeasance lately, but corruption trials have a long and storied vintage in the realm.

The very oldest casket in the cellar has stamped upon it this date in 1952, when Maoist China carried out its first corruption executions.


The public trial of Liu Qingshan and Zhang Zishan. (Source.)

“Faithful and unyielding” during wartime, Liu Qingshan and Zhang Zishan exploited their resulting positions of authority to plunder economic development money.

Theirs was the signal case in an anti-corruption “campaign against three evils” that ended late in 1952, with the announcement that 196,000 party members and cadres had been convicted of something. (Cited here.)

One then-youthful man remembered that

in the winter of 1951, Mao launched a national campaign against what he called the three evils — corruption, waste, and bureaucracy. Taking advantage of the winter holidays, students were sent to various places as members of so called Tiger Hunting Teams. With six other students I was sent to the Art Supply Service then attached to our school. It was housed two miles from the campus. I worked there under the office of the Campaign Against the Three Evils. The entire staff and all the workers were organized to study Party policies attached to this campaign. The staff was then called upon to make a clean breast of their crimes and accuse others they knew to be criminals as well. These crimes included embezzling, forgery, theft, bribery and other white collar crimes. Some suspects were already being locked up in isolated rooms within the offices. Most of those locked up were directors on various levels. Some were even old Party members from the early Yanan days. We had no mercy on those we saw to be “criminals.”

I learned from the newspaper that corruption and waste had become very serious problems indeed. It also revealed how Party cadres had degenerated from revolutionary heroes into grafters. The best example we were told of was two senior cadres, the secretaries of the Tianjin Prefectural Party Committee, Liu Qing-san and Zhang Zi-shan, who were even sentenced to death for their crimes. The Party wanted to show that its own members were not exempt from justice. In showing this, they concurred with the old Chinese belief that it was best to execute one as a warning to a hundred.

Took the words right out of Mao’s mouth.

Only if we execute the two of them, can we prevent 20, 200, 2,000 or 20,000 corrupt officials from committing various crimes.

… although of course, that was a primitive age; one could hardly expect that sort of startling yield on investment in today’s on-the-go China. “[T]he effect would not be so great. To show our determination, we would have to execute several more than two.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Milestones,Pelf,Politicians,Public Executions,Scandal,Shot,Theft

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