Archive for July 17th, 2010

1749: Samuel Henzi, excluded

1 comment July 17th, 2010 Headsman

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

-Langston Hughes

Those lines, written for 20th century America’s struggle with racism, are rooted in the timeless conflict between the haves and the have-nots, and those “exploding” dreams deferred have provided more than a few subjects for these morbid pages.

This date in 1749 saw the beheading of writer and reluctant revolutionary Samuel Henzi (German Wikipedia page), along with two fellow-conspirators in a plot to overthrow the aristocratic government of Bern(e).

Still operating off a 13th century constitution, Berne had ossified into an oligarchic society with privilege derived from heredity and the capable but low-born frustratingly locked out. This arrangement had provoked intermittent uprisings and challenges, but as of the mid-18th century, it was still going strong, and “patricians mockingly observed that the citizens must be stripped of their feathers, that they might not want to fly.” (Source)

Henzi was a man with the ambition and the talent to soar above his place.

Eloquent, cultured, a guy to bang out some French poetry on the side, Henzi had been among a group of lower gentry who in 1744 petitioned for a change to Bern’s governing council, which at that time had become a privately held dynastic trust among a few top burghers.

For a suggestion as incendiary as allocating council seats by lot the better to represent the class, Henzi was treated as a rebel and exiled to Neuchatel.

dass ein eingewurzelter Staatskrebs mit Demuth nicht geheilt werden kann; nein! man muss den Degen in die Faust nehmen, wenn man die verlorne Freiheit wieder erobern will.*

Returning on a pardon, he found that not much had changed. The doors to employment in the civil administration shut tight against him, and not being bought off with a minor sinecure he fell in with a circle of malcontents dreamily conspiring to blow the whole thing up.

These plotters were exposed and three considered ringleaders — merchant Samuel Niklaus Wernier, Stadtlieutenant Emanuel Fueter, and Henzi — were beheaded on this date, each reputedly requiring more than one stroke of the sword.

On embarking with their two sons to quit the Helvetic territory, the wife of Henzi exclaimed, “I would rather see these children sink in the Rhine-stream than they should not one day learn to avenge the murder of their father.” However, when the sons came to manhood, they displayed more magnanimity than their mother; and one of them, who rose to distinction in the service of the Netherlands, requited with good offices to the burghers of his native town the unmerited misfortunes which they had brought upon his family. (Source)


Henzi’s fate greatly excited German dramaturg (and original Conehead) Gotthold Lessing — indeed, he would remark that no other event moved him so deeply.

Almost immediately after Henzi’s decapitation, Lessing wrote his first tragedy, the never-finished but aptly-titled Samuel Henzi, which is available in the original German here.**

Wann man des Staates Flehn, der sie aus Gunst erkoren,
Der nur aus Nachsicht fleht, empfängt mit tauben Ohren;
Wann wer der Freiheit sich das Wort zu reden traut,
Zum Lohn für seine Müh ein schimpflich Elend baut;
Freiheit! wann uns von dir, du aller Tugend Same,
Du aller Laster Gift, nichts bleibet als der Name:
Und dann mein weichlich Herz gerechten Zorn nicht hört,
So bin ich meines Bluts –– ich bin des Tags nicht wert.

* That is, “humility cannot cure the cancer of the state; one must take the sword in fist.” The comment is cited in Edward M. Batley, “‘Tu executes comme tes maitres jugent!’ – The Henzi Affair and the question of Lessing’s political judgment”, German Life and Letters, July 1984.

** Lessing’s next stab at stagecraft in the key of seria produced what’s generally described as the German theater’s first domestic or bourgeois tragedy, Miss Sara Sampson (German Wikipedia entry).

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Activists,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Martyrs,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Switzerland,Treason

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