On this date 125 years ago, a notorious French triple murderer was guillotined outside La Roquette Prison.
This condemned murderer, so infamous that anarchist bomber Ravachol planned to invoke his name as an emblem of crime in a suppressed courtroom speech, slaughtered a prostitute, her maid, and the maid’s child so that he could plunder the apartment’s jewelry.
That’s just one of several more famous (or infamous) contemporaries for whom Pranzini was a sort of subplot character.
The artist Paul Gauguin — though he couldn’t quite remember the name right — suspected that this particular killer plotted his crime at the cafe that both he and Vincent Van Gogh frequented. (Van Gogh painted the proprietress, who was also possibly his lover.)
According to Van Gogh, the whole Pansini [Pranzini] affair, as well as many others, was hatched in this place … From this Pansini case sprang another case, also, according to Van Gogh, hatched in this famous cafe, the Prado case
I heard talk of a great criminal just condemned to death for some horrible crimes; everything pointed to the fact that he would die impenitent…. I felt in the depths of my heart certain that our desires would be granted, but to obtain courage to pray for sinners I told God I was sure He would pardon the poor, unfortunate Pranzini; that I’d believe this even if he went to his death without any signs of repentance or without having gone to confession. I was absolutely confident in the mercy of Jesus. But I was begging Him for a “sign” of repentance only for my own simple consolation.
My prayer was answered to the letter! In spite of Papa’s prohibition that we read no papers, I didn’t think I was disobeying when reading passages pertaining to Pranzini. The day after the execution I found the newspaper “La Croix.” I opened it quickly and what did I see? Ah! my tears betrayed my emotion and I was obliged to hide. Pranzini had not gone to confession. He had mounted the scaffold and was preparing to place his head in the formidable opening, when suddenly, seized by an inspiration, he turned, took hold of the crucifix the priest was holding out to him and kissed the sacred wounds three times! Then his soul went to receive the merciful sentence of Him who declares that in heaven there will be more joy over one sinner who does penance than over ninety-nine just who have no need of repentance.
I had obtained the sign I requested.
Nameless citizens on the square when the blade fell settled for less exalted signs, like the ancient superstition of dipping into the spattered blood. (“Such scenes would disgust the black savages of Dahomey and the Gold Coast,” the London Times sniffed (September 1, 1887), and in vain urged the French government to take up legislation for private executions.)
On this date in 1481, two Lithuanian princes were beheaded in Vilnius for plotting the assassination of the Polish-Lithuanian king.
This late 15th century was a heady time for Poland under the Jagiellon dynasty, and one of this dynasty’s going projects was keeping the adjacent realms of Poland and Lithuania linked together. In time, they would become formally joined, but at this point they were independent entities “united” only by the personal union of the Jagiellon monarch himself.
That monarch in the late 15th century was the redoubtable Casimir IV (Kazimierz IV): Grand Duke of Lithuania since 1440, King of Poland since 1447. Casimir’s family hailed from Lithuania; indeed, as that place had been last European place to Christianize, Casimir’s own father had been born a pagan.
Casimir IV’s eponymous son is St. Casimir, patron saint of both Lithuania and Poland; both actively honor his feast date of March 4.
Lithuania had a strong independent streak (pdf), and its boyars did not necessarily see eye to eye with the Grand Duke. Casimir was keen on centralizing Lithuania’s administration and checking the potential rivalry of the most powerful Lithuanian families, the classic seeds of crown-vs-nobility conflict the world over.
And both watched with a wary eye the growth of Muscovy under the energetic leadership of Ivan III, aka Ivan the Great.
That expanding state in the 1470s gobbled up the buffer city-state of Novgorod; Ivan III’s newly-minted honorific Tsar of all the Rus(sians) openly announced his designs on Lithuania’s own historically Slavic Ruthenian territory. “The gatherer of the Russian lands,” Ivan is known as … and Lithuania (much larger then than it is now) stood to be the gatheree.
The Great Stand on the River Ugra
Come 1480, Casimir was allied against Moscow with the Mongol Horde, the famous “Tatar yoke” that had been collecting Russian tribute for two-plus centuries. In Russian historiography this is the crucial moment when that yoke is thrown off, and the Muscovites accomplished that in part by crossing up the Lithuanians.
The Horde, having marched through Lithuanian territory, assembled on the banks of the Ugra River, opposite a waiting Muscovite army. Neither army attacked. Instead, they waited … and waited … and waited some more.
The Horde, for its part, was waiting for reinforcements from its Lithuanian ally. But those reinforcements never arrived, thanks in part to Russia’s alliance with Crimean khan Mengli Giray, who seems to have absorbed Casimir’s attention in the fall of 1480 with a vexing combination of raids into southern Lithuania and dilatory ceasefire diplomacy. Distracted by the homeland threat, Lithuania never got around to supporting the Horde … and the Horde, after freezing itself on the banks of the Ugra for a couple of months, simply marched away in frustration.
Moscow never again paid it tribute … and its Crimean ally destroyed the Great Horde utterly in 1502.
This was the context, back in Lithuania, for the attempt on Casimir’s life that would cost two princes their heads. Notwithstanding his unhelpful alliance with the Great Horde, it seems apparent that Casimir himself espoused a fundamentally western policy: the Jagiellon dynasty had branches in Hungary, Bohemia, Germany, and Casimir had more taste for meddling in these realms than dealing with Russia. One could imagine how a Lithuanian magnate out his lucrative Novgorod trade would feel like the head man didn’t really have his eye on the ball; in 1478, a Lithuanian delegation even requested that Casimir appoint a Lithuanian governor to look after the interests of the Grand Duchy. (Casimir refused.)
And these nobles were getting it at both ends, since Casimir’s state-centralization project meant that they were being cut down to size in terms of their internal political power, too.
Apparently with the support of Moscow itself (whose expansionary interest is self-evident) Iwan Holszanski and Fedor Bielski hatched a plan to murder the Grand Duke and his sons on Palm Sunday, 1481 — which was also the occasion of Fedor Bielski’s wedding. The idea was to replace him with Michal Olelkowicz (Mikhail Olelkevich), who had been Novgorod’s elected prince-ruler in the late 1460s; it’s not clear to me if Olelkowicz himself was actually in on the scheme.
Casimir, at any rate, caught wind of the plot. Legend has it that a servant decorating a room ran across the conspirators’ weapons niches and reported it; it’s alternately alleged that the assassins meant to jump Casimir while out on his favorite pastime, hunting.
However it was supposed to go down, it didn’t work. Bielski was able to flee to Moscow (ditching his newlywed bride), but left Holszanski and the coup’s prospective beneficiary Olelkowicz to suffer beheading this date upon evidence “brighter than the sun” of their treason.
On this date in 1890 at the Columbus Penitentiary in Ohio, a sullen German-American teenager named Otto Leuth (sometimes spelled “Lueth”) paid with his life for the brutal murder of his seven-year-old neighbor, Maggie Thompson.
[T]he sickening murder of an innocent child; yet another child accused for the dreadful deed; a sensational trial, replete with dubiously “expert” testimony, suspicious “confessions,” allegations of police “third-degree” methods, and charges of biased press; not to mention “latchkey” children, systematic child abuse, saccharine sympathy for the guilty, and charges of ethnic favoritism.
Yet it happened over a century ago.
Otto, sixteen at the time he killed little Maggie Thompson, had had a hard life, as Bellamy explains in his book. His mother, Lena, testified at his trial that she
went into veritably demonic fits of rage, during which she was in the habit of physically abusing her children, especially Otto. From an early age, she blandly admitted, she had pulled his hair, kicked him, beaten him, walked on him, and often hit him with any object that came to hand. Once, when Otto was eight, she had beaten him with a chair leg and, when [Otto’s father] Henry tried to intervene, stabbed Henry twice with a convenient butcher knife. Just a few months before Maggie Thompson’s murder, Lena had repeatedly slammed Otto’s head into a wooden door.
It speaks volumes of the difference between that century and this one that nobody who heard Lena’s testimony seemed to think this was in any way excessive, never mind cruel; on the contrary, one person praised her methods as being “good German discipline.”
On May 9, 1889, sixteen-year-old Otto was alone at his family’s home at 47 Merchant Avenue in Tremont, a suburb of Cleveland. He was used to being alone: his mother had been committed to a mental hospital some months before, his father was wrapped up in his cabinet-making business, and his older brother had moved out of the house.
Otto (top) and his victim.
That morning, down the street at 24 Merchant Avenue, Maggie Thompson set off for school. Her mother, Clara, dropped her off at the front gate; it was the last time she would see her daughter alive.
Maggie attended the morning classes and, when school was dismissed for lunch at 11:15 a.m., started on the four-block walk home. En route, she vanished without a trace, as if “the sidewalk might have opened and swallowed the girl.”
Naturally there was a frantic search, lead by her devastated parents and the Cleveland Police Department, who tore the city apart looking for her.
But, although there were numerous false sightings and a few wild stories about Maggie’s disappearance, in spite of everyone’s efforts they couldn’t find her.
Otto participated in the search, along with most of the neighborhood. Nearly every day he would approach Clara Thompson and solicitously ask if she’d heard any news of her child.
In early June, Clarissa Shevel, the woman who lived with her husband in the back of the Lueths’ two-family house, asked Otto to do something about the terrible stench that pervaded the entire building. Otto suggested the odor was caused by a dead animal. He bought some chloride of lime and put it in the ventilation hole, then burned some sulfur, but it didn’t help.
Around that time he was witnessed carrying some badly stained bedding to the smokehouse at the back of the property.
On June 9, Otto’s mother Lena, who had by now been discharged from the mental hospital, became fed up with the smell and sent her husband Henry down to the cellar to investigate. He came back up a few minutes later, deeply shaken, and ran out to find a policeman.
In the Lueths’ cellar was the nude corpse of Maggie Thompson.
She was wrapped in one of Lena’s dresses and her own clothes lay underneath her. She had been beaten to death and her body was so badly decomposed that her parents had to identify her by scars on her hips.
The police promptly arrested everyone who lived at the house: Henry and Lena Lueth, Clarissa Shevel and her husband, and Otto, who was picked up on his way home from the ice cream parlor. All five suspects were separated and subjected to a serious “sweating,” but Otto was the prime suspect. He had a reputation as a bully, and he’d been at home alone for much of the previous month.
The climax came at 3:30 a.m., when an agonized female shriek resounded from the floor below the sweating room. “Who is that?” cried Otto to Detective Francis Douglass. “Your mother, I believe,” replied Douglass. “She had nothing to do with it!” blurted out Otto. “Who did?” queried Douglass. Otto: “I did it! I did it!” Douglass: “Did what, Otto?” “I killed her! I killed her! Please give me your revolver so I can kill myself!”
Resisting the temptation, the police instead took his verbal confession, wrote it down, had him sign it and escorted him to a cell.
Otto said he had been standing outside his parents’ home at about 11:30 a.m. on May 9 when he encountered Maggie. She asked him if he could donate any buttons to the “button-string” she was making, and he said he had four and would give them to her if she came inside.
Maggie obediently followed him in, and he led her upstairs to his bedroom, where he attempted to rape her. When she screamed, he hit her with a nearby hammer.
Otto said he thought he’d probably killed her with the first blow, but he kept striking her until her head was a pulp and the bed was covered in blood. After an unsuccessful attempt to have sex with her body, he fled the scene. He did go back to the house that night, but spent the next several days at his brother’s home.
Six days later, just before his mother was supposed to come home, Otto returned home to clean up. He carried Maggie’s corpse to the family cellar and left it lying there; he didn’t even bother to bury it or cover it up.
Given Otto’s confession, the circumstantial evidence and the revulsion his crime invoked in the city of Cleveland, his lawyer didn’t have much to work with. Not even trying for an acquittal, his defense instead claimed Otto was mentally impaired and/or insane.
Otto had a strange depression in his skull and his attorney suggested he was brain-damaged — which might very well have been true, given the abuse he had suffered at Lena’s hands. Several members of his family, including his mother and brother, had epilepsy, and his attorney suggested he might have had a seizure and committed his crime without even knowing what he was doing.
Such a scenario was possible. The problem was, though, that none of the medical experts who testified for the defense could diagnose Otto with epilepsy.
The claims of subnormal intelligence were contradicted by the testimony of Otto’s former teachers. Although his pathetic attempts to conceal Maggie’s body might indicate otherwise, his intellect seems to have been about average. Before he quit school at age 13, he had been an unexceptional student with some talent as a violinist.
Otto’s lawyer also said his client had not, in fact, attempted to sexually assault Maggie Thompson either before or after death, and Otto had invented that part of his confession because the police were pressing him to cough up an explanation for his motiveless crime. But given the fact that Maggie’s body was found naked, this claim didn’t carry much weight either.
It was no surprise that, when the trial concluded on December 27, 1889, the jury came back with a verdict of guilty without a recommendation of mercy. Perhaps the only surprising thing was that they actually bothered to deliberate for a whole four and a half hours.
Otto rapidly exhausted his appeals and was hanged eight months after his trial, alongside another killer, one John “Brocky” Smith of Cincinnati. Two other men had also been scheduled to die that night, but one got reprieved and the other’s execution was postponed.
Otto left behind a statement where he admitted he’d killed Maggie Thompson, but denied his previous claims that he’d tried to rape her. He died calmly and without a fuss, standing on the trap and saying simply “All right, let her go.”
On this date in 1987, Utah executed Dale Selby Pierre for one of the most notorious crimes in that state’s history — the Hi-Fi Murders.
Pierre, along with two fellow airmen from the Hill Air Force Base, William Andrews and Keith Roberts, began an armed robbery of a hi-fi shop in nearby Ogden near closing time on the evening of April 22, 1974.
The night that unfolded would be a visit to an antechamber of hell not only for the two young clerks on duty at the time, but three other people who wandered into the store while the crooks were still in it — each of whom was added to the growing pen of hostages Pierre et al kept in the basement.
After plundering the shop of $25,000 worth of electronics, Pierre and Andrews went to get rid of their prisoners by making them drink liquid Drano.
This method of homicide, theoretically an elegantly quiet one which would facilitate a clean getaway, had been cribbed from a murder scene in the 1973 Dirty Harry movie Magnum Force.
Unlike the poor prostitute in Magnum Force, Pierre and Andrews’s victims groaned and gurgled, their blistering mouths suppurating so much fluid that duct tape to quiet them down wouldn’t stick. And the Drano didn’t kill them, or at least it was sure taking its time.
“I remember the noise they were making, the sounds of pain they were making,” Pierre told his clemency hearing. “It was something greater than sad.”
Since they hadn’t got rid of their victims quite so cleanly, Pierre simply set about shooting them — and in the case of Michelle Ansley, a 19-year-old in her first (and last) week on the job at the Hi-Fi shop, raping her first. These execution-style murders had only mixed results, and one of the hostages — 43-year-old Orren Walker — being noticeably not dead, had a ball-point pen kicked into his ear in an attempt to finish him off.
Somehow, Walker still survived, as did 16-year-old Cortney Naisbitt, who suffered severe brain damage. (Both have since died.) Stanley Walker, Carol Naisbitt, and Ansley were not so “lucky.” But neither were the perps: since Andrews had openly talked at the Air Force base about boosting that very hi-fi shop and even killing anyone who “gets in the way,” suspicious fellow airmen soon turned them in.
The 21st century’s more polished and calculating strategic communications consultant probably would have advised keeping well clear of such an incendiary crime, but death penalty opponents actually pushed clemency hard in the Hi-Fi case.* For the NAACP, the sentences underscored racial disparity in the death penalty.
Rubbish, one might say, given the killers’ epically villainous conduct. But one member of the all-white jury was apparently passed a note by parties unknown reading “Hang the niggers.” And the NAACP noted that Utah gave death sentences to these guys, but not to a white supremacist who murdered two black men for jogging with white women.
The crime took a course of its own. It wasn’t planned that way. People kept coming in and I just panicked. The only way to prevent what happened was to have been moved away from the Air Force entirely … Of course the alcohol and the pills I was consuming didn’t help — valiums, reds, black beauties and yellow jackets … I tell myself, “You have to accept responsibility for it — you did it, you were there. You can’t rationalize it.”
Dale Pierre pleads his case to the Utah clemency board.
Dale Pierre was the very first person put to death in Utah after its famously groundbreaking execution of Gary Gilmore in 1977. But in fact, the Hi-Fi killers had preceded the eager volunteer Gilmore on Utah’s death row, and Gilmore as he walked his last mile reportedly wisecracked to Pierre and Andrews, “I’ll be seeing you directly.”
Pierre’s accomplice William Andrews was also finally executed in 1992, after a then-unimaginable (and anything but “direct”) 18 years on death row — nearly half his life. Their fellow accomplice Keith Roberts didn’t personally take part in the cellar hecatomb and therefore avoided the death sentence: he was paroled in 1987.
* The clemency push was much stronger for William Andrews than for Dale Pierre, since Andrews was also making the argument that he hadn’t directly killed anyone and hadn’t intended to. As a matter of fact, the manipulative Andrews was and is widely doubted on that point — but any such claim was wholly unavailable to the acknowledged triggerman Pierre.
Late this night* in 1628 was the fictional execution of The Three Musketeers antagonist Milady de Winter.
Milady de Winter, as the heroine of Agnes Maupre’s revisionist French graphic novel series (Author interview | Another (Both in French)).
This conniving minx bears the fleur-de-lis brand of a teenage crime upon her shoulder — a very naughty beauty-mark indeed — but becomes a secret agent of Cardinal Richelieu. (Richelieu is a point of friction for the Musketeers right from the start.)
To skip to the end of things, Milady is portrayed as having orchestrated at Richelieu’s behest the (actual, historical) assassination of the Musketeers’ buddy the (actual, historical) Duke of Buckingham, which Milady accomplishes by seducing and manipulating his (actual, historical) assassin, John Felton. In reality, Felton was motivated by the stirring Republican sentiment that would soon generate a revolution; in Dumas, he’s a horny dupe who sees his seductress escaping by sea even as he’s placed under arrest.
Buckingham was (actually, historically) murdered on August 23.
The fictional narrative picks up on August 25, when the escaped Milady writes to Cardinal Richelieu from the safety of Boulogne. Unknown to her, her hours are numbered.
Milady proceeds the next morning to a convent in Bethune where she chances to encounter the mistress of her old foe d’Artagnan … and, by that night, to slay said mistress with poison just ahead of the arrival of the Musketeers.** But the Musketeers are able to track the escaping murderess down by the next evening. There, they subject her to a snap “trial”:
“We wish to judge you according to your crime,” said Athos; “you shall be free to defend yourself. Justify yourself if you can. M. d’Artagnan, it is for you to accuse her first.”
“Before God and before men,” said he, “I accuse this woman of having poisoned Constance Bonacieux, who died yesterday evening.”
He turned towards Porthos and Aramis.
“We bear witness to this,” said the two Musketeers, with one voice.
D’Artagnan continued: “Before God and before men, I accuse this woman of having attempted to poison me, in wine which she sent me from Villeroy, with a forged letter, as if that wine came from my friends. God preserved me, but a man named Brisemont died in my place.”
“We bear witness to this,” said Porthos and Aramis, in the same manner as before.
“Before God and before men, I accuse this woman of having urged me to the murder of the Baron de Wardes; but as no one else can attest the truth of this accusation, I attest it myself. I have done.” And d’Artagnan passed to the other side of the room with Porthos and Aramis.
“Your turn, my Lord,” said Athos.
The baron came forward.
“Before God and before men,” said he, “I accuse this woman of having caused the assassination of the Duke of Buckingham.”
“The Duke of Buckingham assassinated!” cried all present, with one voice.
“Yes,” said the baron, “assassinated. On receiving the warning letter you wrote to me, I had this woman arrested, and gave her in charge to a loyal servant. She corrupted this man; she placed the poniard in his hand; she made him kill the duke. And at this moment, perhaps, Felton is paying with his head for the crime of this fury!”
And so forth.
Then these obviously impartial judges judge her guilty, and have the executioner of Lille — whom they have thoughtfully procured in advance — chop off her head and dump her in a river.
“The executioner may kill, without being on that account an assassin,” said the man in the red cloak [i.e., the executioner himself], rapping upon his immense sword. “This is the last judge; that is all. Nachrichter, as say our neighbors, the Germans.”
Extrajudicial is as extrajudicial does. And in this case, Richelieu is just as happy to be rid of his duplicitous agent and, admiring the protagonist’s moxie, commissions d’Artagnan a lieutenant in the Musketeers. D’Artagnan is the fourth of the titular “three Musketeers”, so this denouement means that he’s finally made it … and he should stand by for duty in sequels continuing to mix-and-match Dumas’s fictional characters with actual, historical events.
This date’s captivating femme fatale has appropriately been portrayed by a ravishing host of silver screen sirens including Lana Turner, Mylene Demongeot, Antonella Lualdi, Faye Dunaway, Rebecca de Mornay, Emmanuelle Beart, and (most recently as of this writing), Milla Jovovich.
* August 27-28, right around midnight. Dumas isn’t specific as to pre- or post-midnight.
Rather than just break the thing off,* he arranged — so the jury found, though Videto always denied it — to kill the poor woman. (Literally poor. Her last husband had left her, abandoning her penniless.)
Videto contrived a whole scenario where the colored man was lurking around his house … the red-colored man, in this case. Scary Indians.
Claiming to be spooked by encounters with mysterious native prowlers, Videto armed himself up; sure enough, one night soon, an Indian shot into his bedroom and started a firefight. The perennially discarded Fanny Mosley was killed in the crossfire.
For the apparent calculation that went into this cover story, Videto was awfully careless about the details. As rudimentary as crime scene forensics were in 1825, it was still self-evident that the glass in the window had been shot outward, not inward; and, that the ball causing Mosley’s fatal wound had likewise originated from within the house, not without. And come to think of it, the “Indian footprints” outside that window looked an awful lot like Videto’s own. And nobody else had ever seen these Indian stalkers Videto was on about — not that night, nor in his buildup of the preceding days.
The evidence might be circumstantial, but those were a whole lot of circumstances. The jury took 15 minutes to convict him, although Videto maintained his innocence to the last — even waving a written declaration of such to the onlookers after the trap fell, while he was strangling to death.
After a large concourse of people had assembled which was estimated at six or eight thousand, [Videto] was then taken from his place of confinement and conducted by the sherif and guard of seven independent companies to the place of his execution. Then, with 2 assistants, he ascended the gallows, where a discourse was delivered by Elder [Nathaniel] Culver from Luke 13th 23, in which he pointed out to him awful situation and then he protested his innocence of the crime alledged against him and likewise stated that he was no way accessory. Then after giveing a parting hand to each one of his attendants and to a Brother, which was all the relation of his present, his hands were then bound; the rope about his neck was then fastened, and the moment was at hand. The fatal stud was then nock-d out, and now, do not you see him in your imagination hung & strangling. O twas a solemn sight, but the laws must be put in execution.
Although he protested his innocence, it (is) generally believed that he was guilty but protested innocence on account of the conexions. Thus it is that we see man snached from the hand of existence by the Executioner, thus we may justly say “the wicked do not live out half their days.” He (had) a long trial and without doubt an impartial one. But we are frail mortals all hastening to our Mother, ____our joys are like the morning dew before the morning sun. They pass we know not where and we are led to reflection:
Mortals behold the hour glass.
And leave your wordly care
It shows how swift our minutes pass
And bids us all for death prepare.
** As a Vermont Vilas, we suppose that this writer was probably related to politician Levi Baker Vilas and to his (future, at this point) son, eventual U.S. Senator and Secretary of the Interior William Freeman Vilas.
presented the sad image of depopulation and decay: her slavery was a habit, her liberty an accident; the effect of superstition, and the object of her own amazement and terror. The last vestige of the substance, or even the forms, of the constitution, was obliterated from the practice and memory of the Romans; and they were devoid of knowledge, or virtue, again to build the fabric of a commonwealth. Their scanty remnant, the offspring of slaves and strangers, was despicable in the eyes of the victorious Barbarians. As often as the Franks or Lombards expressed their most bitter contempt of a foe, they called him a Roman;
“and in this name,” says the bishop Liutprand, “we include whatever is base, whatever is cowardly, whatever is perfidious, the extremes of avarice and luxury, and every vice that can prostitute the dignity of human nature.”
While the popes of the 10th century would really set that prostituted standard with the period known as the “pornocracy”, Stephen VI(I) makes everybody’s bad popeslists with one of the papacy’s all-time embarrassing events: the Cadaver Synod.
The pontiff at this point is no global media celebrity but an ensemble character captive to the the disreputable politics of a shrunken, malarial town. Stephen’s predecessor Formosus had been one of the city’s “Carolingian” faction backing the withering remains of Charlemagne’s once-great line.
At loggerheads with the Italian Spoleto family claiming the Holy Roman Emperor title for the anti-Carolingians, Formosus had invited an illegitimate Frankish scion to roll down the Italian peninsula and take it from them — which is exactly what happened.
Two months after Formosus crowned this Carolingian, Arnulf by name, as “Augustus” in Rome, Formosus died while Arnulf was on his way back to Bavaria … putting the Spoletos back in charge. After a brief interregnum papacy, the Spoleto-backed anti-Carolingian prelate Stephen ascended St. Peter‘s throne.
The factional conflict was approaching civil war. Stephen’s Cadaver Synod (or in the equally evocative Latin, Synod horrenda) was a singular show of power against the Carolingians.
About January of 897, the pope had Formosus’s corpse exhumed and creepily propped up in its vestments on a throne at the Basilica of St. John Lateran. There, before a reluctant clerical conclave, the rotting remains of Formosus** were subjected to a kangaroo prosecution personally conducted by Pope Stephen. As Robert Browning described it in a digressive passage of The Ring and the Book,
And at the word the great door of the church
Flew wide, and in they brought Formosus’ self,
The body of him, dead, even as embalmed
And buried duly in the Vatican
Eight months before, exhumed thus for the nonce.
They set it, that dead body of a Pope,
Clothed in pontific vesture now again,
Upright on Peter’s chair as if alive.
For frightful was the corpse-face to behold,—
How nowise lacked there precedent for this.
Pope Formosus and Stephen VII (aka Stephen VI), by Jean-Paul Laurens, 1870
After the possibly-nuts Stephen had his fill of ranting at the mortal remains, he declared his foe “convicted” and condemned the body to the dissevering of its three right-hand blessing-fingers — symbolic of the damnatio memoriae the synod would pass upon the ex-pope, revoking the decrees and undoing the ordinations that hand had wrought in life. Formosus in his various parts was tossed into the Tiber.
While this macabre spectacle lives forever in the papal annals, Stephen didn’t live out the year: his enemies overthrew him that summer and had him summarily put to death, declaring the Synod horrenda‘s judgment reversed in the process.
In the event, the matter would be settled the old-fashioned Roman way: in the streets.
Despite the loss of their leader, [Stephen’s] party remained active and elected a certain Cardinal Sergius as pope, simultaneously with the election of a candidate by the opposite faction.
But, in a sudden burst of violence, Sergius and most of his followers were chased out of the city … Over the next twelve months, four more popes scrambled onto the bloodstained throne, maintained themselves precariously for a few weeks — or even days — before being hurled themselves into their graves.
On this date in 1889, the only guillotine execution in North America took place on the tiny French remnant colony of Saint Pierre, just off Newfoundland.
August(e) Neel had capped a Dec. 30, 1888 drinking binge with fellow fisherman Louis Ollivier by breaking into a boat captain’s cabin they expected to find empty. Instead, they found the armed captain ready to defend himself … so they overpowered him and stabbed him to death.
And then, for some reason — “because we were sloshed and we wanted to find out how much fat the old seadog had in his body,” Neel told the court — the murderous sots dismembered the body.
While the murder was not particularly premeditated, it occurred during a perceived crime wave, and the post-mortem butcher’s act really grossed out the court. (They probably also didn’t do themselves any favors at the bar by having attempted to sail to Newfoundland.) All in all, a prime case for example-setting: Neel, as the lead culprit in the caper, was sentenced to the worst example possible. His partner got 10 years at hard labor.
Now, St. Pierre hadn’t had an execution and didn’t have the infrastructure for it. But French law didn’t let the locals in far-flung islands just do a practical straightforward thing like hang a bloke or shoot a bloke. And it wouldn’t do to have the colony send Neel somewhere where executions were a done thing. It was there in black and white that executions had to be conducted by guillotine, near the site of the crime. And so an old spare guillotine was disassembled, boxed up, and shipped up to St. Pierre from Martinique, expressly to sever Neel’s head.
Neel seems to have been the calmest man on the island, almost philosophically indifferent to the the head-chopper. The community he had aggrieved could not say the same: St. Pierre had to recruit a local petty criminal to serve as executioner, and the guy was so ostracized that he left for France afterwards. They hadn’t thought through the execution procedure to determine who would give the order to drop the blade, so after an uncomfortable pause, Neel himself shouted at the executioner to do it. By the time it hit bottom, human flesh was left grotesquely clinging to the dull imported blade.
The prosecutor vowed in the face of this dog’s breakfast never to seek another death sentence.
Never used again, this infamous device remains in St. Pierre to this day. It can be seen there behind the stairs at the Musée de l’Arche.
The St. Pierre guillotine. (cc) image from The Tedster, who also thoughtfully provides photos of the museum’s explanatory placards. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.
The Neel story was “re-imagined” — nigh rewritten — for the heavily fictionalized 2000 Juliette Binoche film La Veuve de St. Pierre.
The primary source for this account — apart from the museum placards linked in the caption above — is the invaluable Bois de Justice, an astonishingly encyclopedic resource on the history of the guillotine.
For what’s generally interpreted as reasons of personal more than political loyalty, Chu accordingly agreed to serve in Wang’s cabinet as Foreign Minister. “Chen Gongbo‘s mouth, Zhou Fuohai‘s pen and Chu Minyi’s legs” was the government’s tagline. (Chu was also a noted martial artist.)
But it was Hirohito’s guns they relied upon, and none of them would much outlive Japan’s surrender. Chu was tried as a traitor in April 1946.
We doubt that any interposition of ours can improve the story of this execution as provided in the Newgate Calendar:
Executed on 22nd of August, 1700, near Edinburgh, for the diabolical Murder out of Revenge of the Two Children of Mr Gordon
It is with deep regret that we are compelled to bring before the reader a murderer, in a character which ever should be held most sacred. A crime more premeditated, and more fraught with cruelty, never stained the annals of history. Ambition has often impelled tyrants to shed innocent blood; revenge has stimulated men to kill each other; jealousy with ‘jaundiced eye’ destroys the object of its love; but God forbid that we should ever again have to record the fact of a tutor, a minister of the Gospel, premeditatedly murdering his pupils! — the sons of his benefactor. When we add, that this most miserable sinner expiated his offence in avowing himself an atheist, we arrive, at once, at the very depth of human depravity.
This detestable culprit was born in the county of Fife, in Scotland, and was the son of a rich farmer, who sent him to the University of St Andrews for education. When he had acquired a sufficient share of classical learning he was admitted to the degree of Master of Arts, and began to prosecute his studies in divinity with no small degree of success. Several of the younger clergymen act as tutors to wealthy and distinguished families till a proper period arrives for their entering into orders, which they never do till they obtain a benefice. While in this rank of life they bear the name of chaplains; and in this station Hunter lived about two years in the house of Mr Gordon, a very eminent merchant, and one of the bailies of Edinburgh, which is a rank equal to that of alderman of London.
Mr Gordon’s family consisted of himself, his lady, two sons and a daughter, a young woman who attended Mrs Gordon and her daughter, the malefactor in question, some clerks and menial servants. To the care of Hunter was committed the education of the two sons; and for a considerable time he discharged his duty in a manner highly satisfactory to the parents, who considered him as a youth of superior genius and great goodness of heart. Unfortunately a connection took place between Hunter and the young woman, which soon increased to a criminal degree, and was maintained for a considerable time without the knowledge of the family.
One day, however, when Mr and Mrs Gordon were on a visit, Hunter and his girl met in their chamber as usual; but, having been so incautious as not to make their door fast, the children went into the room and found them in such a situation as could not admit of any doubt of the nature of their intercourse. No suspicion was entertained that these children would mention to their parents what had happened, the eldest boy being not quite ten years of age; but when the children were at supper with their parents they disclosed so much as left no room to doubt of what had passed. Hereupon the female servant was directed to quit the house on the following day; but Hunter was continued in the family, after making a proper apology for the crime of which he had been guilty, attributing it to the thoughtlessness of youth, and promising never to offend in the same way again.
From this period he entertained the most inveterate hatred to all the children, on whom he determined in his own mind to wreak the most diabolical vengeance. Nothing less than murder was his intention; but it was a considerable time after he had formed this horrid plan before he had an opportunity of carrying it into execution.
Whenever it was a fine day he was accustomed to walk in the fields with his pupils for an hour before dinner, and in these excursions the young lady generally attended her brothers. At the period immediately preceding the commission of the fatal act Mr Gordon and his family were at their country retreat, very near Edinburgh; and having received an invitation to dine in that city, he and his lady proposed to go thither about the time that Hunter usually took his noontide walk with the children. Mrs Gordon was very anxious for all the children to accompany them on this visit, but this was strenuously opposed by her husband, who would consent that only the little girl should attend them.
By this circumstance Hunter’s intention of murdering all the three children was frustrated; but he held the resolution of destroying the boys while they were yet in his power. With this view he took them into the fields and sat down as if to repose himself on the grass.
This event took place soon after the middle of the month of August, 1700 and Hunter was preparing his knife to put a period to the lives of the children at the very moment they were busied in catching butterflies and gathering wild flowers. Having sharpened his knife, he called the lads to him, and when he had reprimanded them for acquainting their father and mother to the scene to which they had been witnesses, said that he would immediately put them to death.
Terrified by this threat, the children ran from him; but he immediately followed and brought them back. He then placed his knee on the body of the one while he cut the throat of the other with his penknife, and then treated the second in the same inhuman manner that he had done the first. These horrid murders were committed within half-a-mile of the Castle of Edinburgh; and as the deed was perpetrated in the middle of the day, and in the open fields, it would have been very wonderful indeed if the murderer had not been immediately taken into custody.
At the very time a gentleman was walking on the Castle hill of Edinburgh, who had a tolerably perfect view of what passed. Alarmed by the incident, he called some people, who ran with him to the place where the children were lying dead. Hunter now had advanced towards a river, with a view to drown himself. Those who pursued came up with him just as he reached the brink of the river; and his person being immediately known to them, a messenger was instantly dispatched to Mr and Mrs Gordon, who were at that moment going to dinner with their friend, to inform them of the horrid murder of their sons.
Language is too weak to describe the effects resulting from the communication of this dreadful news; the astonishment of the afflicted father, the agony of the frantic mother, may possibly be conceived, though it cannot be painted.
According to an old Scottish law it was decreed that “if a murderer should be taken with the blood of the murdered person on his clothes, he should be prosecuted in the Sheriff’s Court, and executed within three days after the commission of the fact.” It was not common to execute this sentence with rigour; but this offender’s crime was of so aggravated a nature, that it was not thought proper to remit anything of the utmost severity of the law.
The prisoner was therefore committed to jail and chained down to the floor all night, and on the following day the sheriff issued his precept for the jury to meet; and in consequence of their verdict Hunter was brought to his trial, when he pleaded guilty, and added to the offence he had already committed the horrid crime of declaring that he only lamented not having murdered Mr Gordon’s daughter as well as his sons. The sheriff now passed sentence on the convict, which was to the following purpose: that “on the succeeding day he should be executed on a gibbet, erected for that purpose on the spot where he had committed the murders; but that, previous to his execution, his right hand should be cut off with a hatchet, near the wrist; that then he should be drawn up to the gibbet by a rope, and when he was dead, hung in chains between Edinburgh and Leith, the knife with which he committed the murders being stuck through his hand, which should be advanced over his head and fixed therewith to the top of the gibbet.”
Mr Hunter was executed in strict conformity to the above sentence on the 22nd of August, 1700. But Mr Gordon soon afterwards petitioned the sheriff that the body might be removed to a more distant spot, as its hanging on the side of the highway, through which he frequently passed, tended to re-excite his grief for the occasion that had first given rise to it. This requisition was immediately complied with, and in a few days the body was removed to the skirts of a small village near Edinburgh, named Broughton. It is equally true and horrid to relate, that, at the place of execution, Hunter closed his life with the following shocking declaration: “There is no God — I do not believe there is any or if there is, I hold him in defiance.” Yet this infidel had professed himself to be a minister of the Gospel!