Archive for December, 2013

1502: Vitellozzo Vitelli and Oliverotto da Fermo, Borgia casualties

Add comment December 31st, 2013 Headsman

On New Year’s Eve 1502, Cesare Borgia had two treacherous condottieri put to summary death at Senigallia.


The Showtime series The Borgias got canceled before it reached this particular depredation in Cesare Borgia’s career.

The “nephew” — that is, son — of Pope Alexander VI, Cesare resigned a cardinalcy in 1498 to follow his true passion, bloodshed, and set up as one of the Italian peninsula’s warring dukes. He had many a martial adventure before getting ambushed by a party of Spanish knights in 1507. Machiavelli considered him an able leader compromised by owing his temporal power to the pope’s territorial allotment. In The Prince, Machiavelli remarks on the lesson of Borgia’s reign, that “he who has not first laid his foundations may be able with great ability to lay them afterwards, but they will be laid with trouble to the architect and danger to the building” — and yet Cesare Borgia’s own fall months after his patron paterfamilias passed “was not his fault, but the extraordinary and extreme malignity of fortune.”

Cesare went from victory to victory in the first years of the sixteenth century, enough so that he threatened to make himself hegemonic in Italy. Several of his own allies, of which our day’s principals Vitellozzo Vitelli (his family ruled Citta di Castello and Oliverotto da Fermo* (lord of Fermo) were two, began plotting against him and sent out feelers to build an anti-Borgia alliance among small powers who fretted the prospective domination of Cesare. (Though Borgia had them killed on a separate occasion, the others of note for purposes of this post are two members of the powerful Orsini family — Francesco Orsini, known as the Duke di Gravina; and, Cardinal Pagolo.)

As Florence’s own representative to Borgia’s court during the events in question, Machiavelli had a first-person view of events and recorded them in some detail. Taken on the back foot momentarily, Borgia stalled, firmed up his relations with friendly cities like Florence, and beat a momentarily tactical retreat. He came to terms with his friends-cum-rivals, who once more resumed campaigning on Borgia’s side.

Putatively back on the same team, several of the plotters soon found themselves at a stalemate besieging Senigallia, which refused to surrender to any but Borgia himself. They were therefore required to summon the dangerous prince from Lombardy. True to his name, Borgia did not miss the opportunity of an innocent invitation to destroy his foes.

Borgia marched into Seniallia with 10,000 infantrymen and 2,000 cavalry for a friendly little reunion. According to Machiavelli (who in this passage refers to Borgia as Duke Valentino, or simply as “the duke”),

Vitellozzo, Pagolo, and the Duke di Gravina on mules, accompanied by a few horsemen, went towards the duke; Vitellozo, unarmed and wearing a cape lined with green, appeared very dejected, as if conscious of his approaching death — a circumstance which, in view of the ability of the man and his former fortune, caused some amazement. And it is said that when he parted from his men before setting out for Sinigalia to meet the duke he acted as if it were his last parting from them. He recommended his house and its fortunes to his captains, and advised his nephews that it was not the fortune of their house, but the virtues of their fathers that should be kept in mind. These three, therefore, came before the duke and saluted him respectfully, and were received by him with goodwill; they were at once placed between those who were commissioned to look after them.

But the duke noticing that Oliverotto, who had remained with his band in Sinigalia, was missing — for Oliverotto was waiting in the square before his quarters near the river, keeping his men in order and drilling them — signalled with his eye to Don Michelle, to whom the care of Oliverotto had been committed, that he should take measures that Oliverotto should not escape. Therefore Don Michele rode off and joined Oliverotto, telling him that it was not right to keep his men out of their quarters, because these might be taken up by the men of the duke; and he advised him to send them at once to their quarters and to come himself to meet the duke. And Oliverotto, having taken this advice, came before the duke, who, when he saw him, called to him; and Oliverotto, having made his obeisance, joined the others.

So the whole party entered Sinigalia, dismounted at the duke’s quarters, and went with him into a secret chamber, where the duke made them prisoners; he then mounted on horseback, and issued orders that the men of Oliverotto and the Orsini should be stripped of their arms. Those of Oliverotto, being at hand, were quickly settled, but those of the Orsini and Vitelli, being at a distance, and having a presentiment of the destruction of their masters, had time to prepare themselves, and bearing in mind the valour and discipline of the Orsinian and Vitellian houses, they stood together against the hostile forces of the country and saved themselves.

But the duke’s soldiers, not being content with having pillaged the men of Oliverotto, began to sack Sinigalia, and if the duke had not repressed this outrage by killing some of them they would have completely sacked it. Night having come and the tumult being silenced, the duke prepared to kill Vitellozzo and Oliverotto; he led them into a room and caused them to be strangled. Neither of them used words in keeping with their past lives: Vitellozzo prayed that he might ask of the pope full pardon for his sins; Oliverotto cringed and laid the blame for all injuries against the duke on Vitellozzo. Pagolo and the Duke di Gravina Orsini were kept alive until the duke heard from Rome that the pope had taken the Cardinal Orsino, the Archbishop of Florence, and Messer Jacopo da Santa Croce. After which news, on 18th January 1502, in the castle of Pieve, they also were strangled in the same way.

* Machiavelli also wrote up Oliverotto in The Prince.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Execution,Heads of State,History,Italy,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Soldiers,Strangled,Summary Executions,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1663: Tempel Anneke, witch

Add comment December 30th, 2013 Headsman

Three hundred fifty years ago today Anna Roleffes — nicknamed “Tempel Anneke” — became one of the last* witches executed in Braunschweig, Germany.

Roleffes (English Wikipedia page | German) is particularly interesting due to the lengthy and detailed records of her case that remain preserved. Consequently she’s become the subject of one of the most compelling microhistories of the witch-hunt era, The Trial of Tempel Anneke: Records of a Witchcraft Trial in Brunswick, Germany, 1663.

The accused was a widow about 63 years of age, putting her right in the demographic sweet spot for a witchcraft accusation. She lived with her son, and kept up a side business in folk medicine and fortune telling, putting her right in the professional sweet spot for a witchcraft accusation.

But again, this was the decline phase of the burning time. The Thirty Years’ War was over,** and with it the time of panicky bloodbaths was receding (ever so gradually) relative to more measured legal procedures. In this meticulously documented instance, procedural rules are rigorously followed by rational, educated investigators looking to convict a duly accused citizen of being the bogeyman.† Some records of the investigation stretch from a full year before her June 1663 arrest.

It’s not completely clear exactly how she first entered the judicial process,‡ but her reputed felicity in the augury business stacked up the evidence against her. (Even though some of the witnesses providing it were themselves fined by the court for engaging it in the first place.) One of the first witnesses in the record was a fellow who came to Tempel Anneke for some palmistry. She told him that he’d soon retrieve some pewter silverware that had been stolen from him, and indeed he did. After such an event, you and I might be tempted to leave Tempel Anneke a favorable review on Yelp; Hans Tiehmann, by contrast, reported her for maleficium.

A person in such proximity to the many private woes of her neighbors could find such accusations quickly became self-confirming in the juridical eye. One shepherd came to her after losing several sheep. She prescribed a burnt curative and this proved effective in protecting the remainder of his flock. Then he returned complaining of an illness of his own, and this she could not cure. Both transactions inculpate her in the record. Just another satisfied customer!

The demonology theory of the day held that any magic at all flowed by definition from Hell. In the hands of judges steeped in such ideas, everyday hexes and cantrips — which, again, many of the witnesses themselves voluntarily sought out — could become, officially, infernal manifestations. From turning up lost cutlery, the proceeding segued all the way demonic contracts.

Tempel Anneke was literate and sharp, cannily refusing to confess anything voluntarily. But the terms of the Carolina — the 16th century Germanic criminal code governing proceedings — authorized torture to obtain such a confession upon a “credibly established legally sufficient and consequently suitable indication” of criminal behavior. (Source) The judges submitted their investigation records to legal experts at the University of Jena, who ruled that they had indeed met the legal threshold to enhance interrogation. This she could not withstand, and so eventually confessed that she had made a pact with Satan sealed with fornication

on her son’s farm in the granary … by the light of the moon, she had to step into a circle on the ground which was black, and on [the Devil’s] urging, she let three small drops of blood into a small piece of linen, from her smallest finger on her right hand, which she had pricked with a needle, and she had to give it to him. Thereupon he had started and said, “I now have your blood, now you are mine, with body and blood, now you shall do what I want from you.”

* She was for a time thought to be the last witch executed in Braunschweig. That distinction appears to belong instead to Katharina Sommermeyer (1698).

** Gone, but certainly not forgotten. Tempel Anneke was a widow because her husband died in the Thirty Years’ War.

† Modernity can’t cast too many stones here.

‡ The Carolina licensed investigation of someone who was simply “suspected of a crime through common repute.” Many accused witches of course were prior to their formal accusations suspected or reputed witches.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Public Executions,Witchcraft,Women

1854: Uhazy, amid Minnesotan depravity

Add comment December 29th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1854, a Dakota Indian named Uhazy was publicly hanged in a scene of “Total Depravity” at St. Paul, Minnesota — the first execution in the Minnesota Territory.

Uhazy (many other transliterations are possible) was convicted of the 1852 murder of a German woman near Shakopee. He then enjoyed the hospitality of St. Paul’s jail for two solid years while his appeals played out.

Even when juridical remedies proved unavailing, there was at least some public sentiment for his reprieve.

A large number of ladies (including the wife of the previous governor) applied to territorial Gov. William Gorman for clemency. Gorman refused it.

Besides, if he granted such a petition, Gorman replied, “others of his savage tribe might be tempted to hope for a like release, and commit a like offence; and the danger of such results would be far greater from Indians than from civilized man.”

“Civilized man’s” tense relationship with the “savage tribe” would in a few years spark a brief war and (in Mankato, Minn.) the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

Civilization had a different challenge on this occasion: the ribald street scenes that often accompanied public hangings.

St. Paul’s own Daily Minnesota Pioneer (Dec. 30, 1854) were far too genteel to report from the scene, a fact which of itself suggests the intelligentsia’s growing moral disgust for witnessing people witnessing executions.

As we had no inclination to witness the tragedy, we are unable to give the lovers of the dreadful a detail of the poor fellow’s suffering; but understand he met his fate with all that stoicism for which his race is noted.

Others were not so retiring. The scene they reported does not flatter; the mob was so large and unruly that when the sheriff set about erecting a scaffold that morning in a downtown square, he was obliged by Gov. Gorman to relocate it to St. Anthony Hill for public safety. (See this book.) Uhazy didn’t hang until 3 o’clock in the afternoon.

“Liquor was openly passed through the crowd, and the last moments of the poor Indian were disturbed by bacchanalian yells and cries,” one paper editorialized. “Remarks too heartless and depraved, in regard to the deceased, to come from men, were freely bandied. A half-drunken father could be seen holding in his arms a child eager to see well; giddy and senseless girls chatted with their attendants, and old women were seen vying with drunken ruffians for a place near the gallows.”

Capital punishment in general and the public spectacle of execution specifically long troubled the Minnesotan conscience. The Espy file credits Minnesota with just 28 executions in addition to that aforementioned Mankato mass-hanging; in 1889, the state moved all its exections behind prison walls and away from drunken ruffians. It hasn’t executed anybody at any venue since 1906.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Minnesota,Murder,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1022: Medieval Europe’s first heresy executions

Add comment December 28th, 2013 Headsman

The first documented executions of heretics in medieval Europe occurred on this date in 1022 in Orleans, when 13 or so were burned at Orleans.

The French king at this time was Robert II, known to history as “Robert the Pious” because he was so violent with the sub-orthodox.* In addition to this date’s burnings, he’s noted for inciting anti-Jewish persecutions that in some places drove local Jewry to drown themselves fleeing pogroms.

For those within Christianity, starting now, Robert’s Piety meant much tighter scrutiny of potentially deviant doctrines.

Now, these were not the first-ever Christian-on-Christian heresy executions in the West. But so far as is known they marked a revival of the practice after some six centuries of disuse — dating back to the Roman Empire when rival strains of early Christianity fought things out. That was ancient history, and not only literally; by this point in the Middle Ages, “heresy” was not nearly so dangerous a charge among Christian disputants as it would come to be after 1022.

The period’s chronicles paint the early eleventh century as a time of rising heresies, or rather rising fear of heresies. It’s an idea that would have a blazingly bright future.

What’s remarkable is that this tradition was resuscitated not for the exemplary punishment an itinerant band of outsiders or some marginal, radical sect, but for canons of the Orleans Cathedral — “certain clerks, raised from childhood in holy religion and educated as deeply in sacred as in profane letters … Some were priests, some deacons, some sub-deacons. The chief among them were Stephen and Lisois.” Their positions situate them as elite, establishment characters.

The “heresy” in question has in the past been speculatively associated with the gnostic Bogomils on the strength of one account that describes them as “Manicheans”. It hints at a tantalizing underground history of fugitive Bulgarian mystics. Unfortunately the author of that account was an epic swindler, and was not a firsthand witness to the trial. Besides, thanks to St. Augustine, “Manicheaism” was the medieval byword for heresy of any sort. There’s no concrete reason to ascribe Manicheaism to those burnt this day.

According to R.I. Moore‘s engaging The War On Heresy: Faith and Power in Medieval Europe** (from which all quotes in this post derive), it was precisely because of their high ranks that the Orleans “heretics” were targeted — and so far from being the purveyors of some devilish doctrine, they were basically the victims of a political purge for which “heresy” was the stalking-horse.

Moore’s argument, in fine, is that King Robert, who was the scion of the new and uncertain Capetian dynasty, was in a tight spot vis-a-vis his powerful neighbors. He had previously married one Bertha, the mother of one of the Count of Blois; Robert, however, put her aside in favor of Constance, kin to the Count of Anjou. However, he had flip-flopped a couple of times between these two spouses, and the domestic relations mirrored the king’s political maneuvering opposite Blois, Anjou, and Normandy, where the trial was held. Richard II, Duke of Normandy,† was a Blois ally; it was Richard’s uncle who claimed to have busted the heresy by infiltrating the group.

The heresy charge, Moore argues, “was a manoeuvre by the supporters of the Blois faction, still hoping for the restoration of Bertha, against those of Constance and her Angevin connections.” They were able to attack Constance’s circle via her spiritual (and temporal) allies, and they were able to force the deposition of the Constance-friendly Archbishop of Orleans in favor of their own candidate.

It was a move very dangerous to the king. He was able to counter it only by dissociating himself from his former favourites at a hastily summoned trial. As Paul of St Père described it, ‘The king and Queen Constance had come to Orléans, as Harfast had asked, with a number of bishops, and at his suggestion the whole wicked gang was arrested by royal officials at the house where they met, and brought before the king and queen and an assembly of clerks and bishops at the church of Ste Croix.’

It was, Moore says, “like a kangaroo court.” Stephen had been Queen Constance’s own confessor; one later chronicler, exaggerating events he did not witness, claimed that Constance actually struck out Stephen’s eye with her staff as the condemned were hauled out of their home church for the stakes.

We have no way to know if the representation of the prelates’ beliefs that comes down to us bears any relationship to their real thoughts. If so, the grounds upon which this “wicked gang” were targeted does indeed read like heresy: denying the Virgin birth, the Resurrection, the efficacy of baptism, and transubstantiation. Certainly a rap sheet like that would be enough to get a body burned in the heretic-hunting centuries to come.

Moore speculates that these “heretics” were basically neoplatonists who had some off-script ideas or experiences and got demagogued by Bertha’s people on that basis. The disdainfully condescending supposed riposte of the condemned certainly sounds calculated to put their persecutors in their place.

You may tell all this to those who are learned in earthly things, who believe the fabrications which men have written on the skins of animals. We believe in the law written within us by the Holy Spirit, and hold everything else, except what we have learned from God, the maker of all things, empty, unnecessary and remote from divinity. Therefore bring an end to your speeches and do with us what you will. Now we see our king reigning in heaven. He will raise us to his right hand in triumph and give us eternal joy.

Being heretics, of course, they didn’t get to drop the mic with their noble defiance ringing from the page.

when the flames began to burn them savagely they cried out as loudly as they could from the middle of the fire that they had been terribly deceived by the trickery of the devil, that the views they had recently held of God and Lord of All were bad, and that as punishment for their blasphemy against Him they would endure much torment in this world and more in that to come. Many of those standing near by heard this, and moved by pity and humanity, approached, seeking to pluck them from the furnace even when half roasted. But they could do nothing, for the avenging flames consumed them, and reduced them straight away to dust.

For more on the primary(ish) sources that document this event and their various problem points, see this pdf.

* Notwithstanding his piety, Robert had actually been excommunicated for his marriage to Bertha, who was his cousin.

** Of interest in the same vein, Moore’s The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Authority and Deviance in Western Europe 950-1250.

† More about Richard II, Duke of Normandy, in this podcast episode from Lars Brownworth’s Norman Centuries. You might be familiar with his grandson, William the Conqueror.

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Entry Filed under: 11th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Early Middle Ages,Execution,France,God,Heresy,History,Mass Executions,Milestones,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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1504: Ivan Volk Kuritsyn, Ivan Maksimov and Dmitry Konoplev, Judaizers

Add comment December 27th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1504, three Russians were executed for Judaizing.

These were the casualties that marked the end of the Zhidovstvuyushchiye, a little-known late 15th century circle of “Judaizers” or “Jewish-thinking people.” We know them mostly through their enemies so the precise nature of their beliefs is hard to pin down, but they don’t look like actual converts. “There was nothing Jewish about them,” Philip Longworth contends. “‘Judaizer’ was simply a term of ideological abuse, like ‘Trotskyist’ in the 1930s.”

According to this thesis by Cambridge Slavonic lecturer Jana Howlett, the term itself dates to a Byzantine (meaning not labyrinthine, but historically related to Byzantium) typology of heresies and didn’t necessarily have any direct reference to practicing Judaism even within its own context. It just meant that they’d strayed from orthodoxy into heresy.

Be that as it may, they’re recorded to history as “the Judaizers”. Exactly what these so-called Judaizers thought and where to situate them among the various factions and interests within Russian society at the time has long been a matter of dispute among scholars of the period. (Again, see the Howlett paper for a survey of the historiography — at least, as it stood in the 1970s.)

There’s a putative Hebrew association in the form of a scholar named “Skhariya the Jew” whom Mikhail Olelkovich brought to Novgorod. “Skhariya” — or Zacharia ben Aharon ha-Cohen — translated a variety of Hebrew astronomy and philosophy texts into Russian, and seems to have contributed to a burgeoning intellectual current. We might perhaps consider this ferment in the vein of western Europe’s humanism or its abortive pre-Protestant “heretical” religious innovations, or that of the contemporaneous Orthodox conflict between “Non-Possessors” and “Possessors” — respectively, those rejecting or criticizing institutional monasticism and its enormously wealthy estates, and those defending same. Some of the Judaizers’ attributed beliefs, such as anti-trinitarianism and privileging direct study and individual interpretation of the Biblical text, hint at the coming wave of Protestantism; others, such as renouncing the divinity of Christ and immortality of the human soul, are more radical still.

These people have not left us their own voices, and even their persecutors have barely done better, so who really believed what remains at bottom conjectural.

The recently independent Novgorod had in the 1470s been taken over by the state-building Ivan III. Its new prelate Archbishop Gennady,* noted for forcing Moscow-friendly reforms onto the Novgorod clergy, thrust Judaizers into the ecclesiastical cross-hairs by declaring the discovery of the heresy and demanding church councils “not to debate them, but to burn them.” Such councils were held, with executions of Novgorod heretics following, in 1488 and 1490. Considering the city’s political situation one has to entertain the possibility that doctrinal outrages were exaggerated or concocted as pretext for punishing people whose real sin was resisting Gennady.

Even if the heretics themselves are obscure to us, one can imagine the interests here: churchmen keeping the doctrinal line, statesmen keeping their new conquest in line.

More strangely, the Judaizers charge re-emerged years later not in Novgorod but in Moscow. The facts, as usual here, are open to interpretation: were these two different circles, or were they connected? Was there anything plausibly heretical, or was it just recycling the “Trotskyism” charge?

No less a person than Metropolitan Zosimus, who coined the famous conception of Moscow as the “Third Rome” (inheriting from the second Rome, Constantinople, lately fallen into Turkish hands) was hounded out of his position as a heretic in 1494. Zosimus died before any trial, so he doesn’t get a blog entry. Not all were so fortunate.

Yet another council reconvened in 1503-04. It was headed by a very aged Ivan III with his son and heir Vasily and Zosimus’s successor Metropolitan Simon.

The Russian polity had changed in the meanwhile. Moscow fought a war against Lithuania in 1492-94, seized lands as a result, and negotiated an “eternal peace” that lasted all of six years … when Moscow went back to war and gobbled up more Lithuanian land. Lithuania had a predominantly Orthodox population living under a Catholic monarchy, and it was under the banner of defending the faithful that Ivan’s armies advanced.

Fyodor Kuritsyn had long been one of Ivan’s trusted diplomats; indeed, he had negotiated the end of hostilities with Lithuania in 1494. He was also supposed to have nursed a longstanding interest in dangerous heterodox philosophies and had been mentioned as a possible heretic in the 1490 proceedings. Ivan protected him at that time.

Fyodor disappears from the written record in about 1503; his fate is unknown. But Fyodor and his brother Ivan Volk Kuritsyn both appear to have been associated with Ivan’s daughter-in-law Elena of Moldavia. Elena was the mother of the previous official heir Dmitry — who had been surprisingly disinherited and clapped in prison in 1502 to make way for Vasily, Ivan’s son by his second wife. Elena’s fall might have exposed the Kuritsyns to political blowback, and whether it was actually “heresy”-related or not, the old heretical whiff from the previous generation’s investigations would have been there for the taking.

Hung up in cages and burnt along with Ivan Volk Kuritsyn were (at least) two other men: Ivan Maksimov, who like the Kuritsyns was associated with Elena of Moldavia; and, Dmitry Konoplev, who like the Kuritsyns was involved in the diplomatic service. There’s just enough to hear the grinding of unseen whetstones in the bowels of the Kremlin, but not quite enough to know whose knives are being sharpened. Still others were burned on the same occasion in Novgorod.

“The real reasons for the execution of Ivan Volk Kuritsyn, Ivan Maksimov and Dmitry Konoplev in 1504 cannot be ascertained,” Howlett concludes. “It can be said, however, that there is little reason to accept the view that they were executed for heresy, Judaizing or otherwise.”

Ivan III died the next year at the age of 65.

* Gennady is today an Orthodox saint notable for composing the first complete Biblical codex in Old Church Slavonic — the Gennady Bible.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Heresy,History,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Russia

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Themed Set: Heresy

Add comment December 27th, 2013 Headsman

Obviously one of the major themes of this site, heresy executions haven’t been seen in Europe since 1826.

They suffer, of course, from the keen paradox that burning a fellow for his wrongthink is a great way to advertise his doctrines. Paul Friedland has lately noted the way that Protestant martyrdoms changed the way audiences interacted with the scaffold, and in turn changed the performance of the public execution as a whole.

“I will burn,” theologian Michael Servetus allegedly told his Calvinist persecutors. “But this is a mere event. We shall continue our discussion in eternity.”

Servetus might have meant the disputatious souls involved in his own case and who’s to say they’re not deep in an astral bull session as we speak. But in the material world that conversation is scarcely guaranteed: despite what they say, it’s many the martyr that’s been long forgotten. The paradox for heretics is that the anti-orthodox deviation they reckon is worth their lives is only likely to be comprehended, never mind embraced, by their descendants if it captures enough adherents to become its own orthodoxy — if it fits in that narrow band of heterodoxy between what’s worth capital punishment and what’s just too bonkers to attract new proselytes. Some part of this might be the implacable chance arrangements of history, Luther succeeding because he came on the heels of humanism and the printing press and so forth. Another part might be sheer luck: just think where Christianity itself would be without Saint Paul. Talk about the ultimate example of missionary martyrdom.

Occasionally, when the Zeitgeist is just right, the sacrifice of the faithful will multiply new adherents like hydra-heads. But if the example is just more fearful than inspirational or just plain nobody is buying he heresy, the spectacle of human flesh charred away might prove just the thing to sear off the stump.

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Entry Filed under: Themed Sets

1936: Harry Singer, in the holiday spirit

Add comment December 26th, 2013 Robert Elder

(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)

(Said to a guard) “The chair will be a good enough [Christmas] present for me.”

— Harry Singer, convicted of murder, electric chair, Indiana.
Executed December 26, 1936

The twenty-five-year-old former farmhand kept mostly to himself Christmas Day, playing checkers and eating “heartily,” according to the Associated Press. Few details of the crime have survived, except the names of his victims: Mr. and Mrs. John Wesley Kaufman and their daughter, age twelve. In prison, Singer also confessed to the murder of Joseph Bryant, age twenty, of Detroit.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Guest Writers,Indiana,Murder,Other Voices,USA

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2010: An Iranian crack trafficker

Add comment December 25th, 2013 Headsman

According to an AFP report, Iran hanged a drug trafficker in Sari, Mazandran province, on December 25, 2010 — “after being convicted of keeping, carrying and selling the narcotic drug ‘crack’,” in the words of prosecutor Assadollah Jafari.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Drugs,Execution,Hanged,Iran

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1715: William Ainslie, Edinburgh Castle betrayer

1 comment December 24th, 2013 Headsman

Edinburgh, Scotland held a Christmas Eve 1715 hanging of a soldier for abortive plot in the abortive Jacobite rising of 1715

The plot was a bold conspiracy of Highlanders to seize Edinburgh Castle itself, which would have been every bit the coup it sounds like. Sergeant William Ainslie and two other soldiers of the garrison had been bribed to admit the plotters via a sally port.


(cc) image from Stephanie Kirby.

Once there, the Highlanders meant to seize the castle’s ample stock of weapons and cash, and also “fire three cannon; that when this signal should be heard by some men stationed on the opposite coast of Fife, a fire should be kindled on the heights; and that these beacons, continued northward from hill to hill, should, with the speed of a telegraph, apprise Mar of his advantage.”

One minor problem: the whole enterprise depended on the ability of at least 83 people to keep a secret, but “they were so far from carrying on their affairs privately, that a gentleman who was not concerned told me that he was in a house that evening, where eighteen of them were drinking, and heard the hostess say that they were powdering their hair to go to the attack of the Castle!” Even so, the word only barely got out in time, the conspirators self-defeating by showing up late (too much time powdering?) and with ladders that were too short.

William Ainslie, the sergeant who was planning to open the gate for the Highlanders, had to shout the alarm and play it off that way once he realized that the dawdling had wasted the opportunity, but he was soon found out and spectacularly hanged over the castle wall for his trouble. The inevitable hanging-ballad broadside (“The Lamentation, and Last Farewell, Of Serjeant William Ainslie, who was executed over the Castle-Wall of Edinburgh for High Treason and Treachery, on Monday the 24th of December, 1716″*) emphasizes the pecuniary motive at the expense of the patriotic, but maybe it should have been dedicated to the principle that loose lips sink ships.

Let all Bold Soldiers far and near,
That sees my dismal Fall,
Lament my sad and wretched End,
That’s brought my self in Thrall;
Here to the World I do declare,
The Castle to Betray.
Full Fifty Pounds I was to have,
for which I’m doom’d to Die.

My Name is William Ainslie,
A Serjeant Stout and Bold,
In Flanders I the French have Fought,
And would not be Control’d:
And Loyal was to King and Crown,
my Trust did ne’re Betray,
Till I was tempted with that Gold,
For which I’m Doom’d to Die.

While I did in the Castle ly,
In Irons close Confin’d
For my Dear Wife and Children all,
My Heart no Ease could find,
To GOD I did for Mercy cry,
As I in Fetters lay.
Both Night and Day to him I’le Pray,
Since I am Doom’d to Die.

Ah! wo be to that cursed Gold,
That did my Heart intice,
To act such a gross Treachery,
The Castle to Surprise;
But wo’s me, for my Treachery,
My Hour is drawing nigh.
For I most hang out o’re the Wall,
Most Just Deservedly.

Good People, pray do not revile,
My Wife and Children dear;
Whom I so dearly lov’d on Earth,
Lord to my Soul draw naer: [sic]
I hope in Mercy he’l appear,
For still to him I’ll cry;
Since I most Justly, am condemn’d,
Over the Wall to dy.

They told me a must hang some Days,
Over the Castle-Wall;
Until the Rope takes Fire and breaks,
Then to the Ground I fall:
But since that I must suffer here,
Unto the Lord, I’ll pray;
Take Warning by my shameful End,
I just deserve to dy.

Since many People here is come,
This Day to see me dy;
I hope their Prayers to God they’l send,
For me, before I dy:
My vital Breath will soon be gone,
With a strong Rope and Tree;
But yet I hope my Peace is made,
With God who lives on high.

Those that did cause my dismal End,
I do forgive them here;
For now my Life lyes at the Stake,
Oh! Lord, to me draw near:
My precious Soul I pray receive,
For unto Thee I’ll fly;
For I have acted Treason great,
And for it I must die.

I wish all People Warning take,
That’s come to see me die;
The World unto you I’ll leave,
For all Eternity:
I must away, farewel, adieu
My Wife and Children all;
For I must hang into the Air,
Over the Castle Wall.

All you that sees me here this Day,
I desire you all to pray;
That all my Sins God would forgive,
Since I am brough to die:
Let every one both far and near,
Take Warning now by me;
Your Trust, I pray, never betray,
For which you see me die.

FINIS.

* I believe this is misdated since the plot was clearly set for September 9, 1715

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Scotland,Soldiers,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1605: Niklaus von Gulchen, Nuremberg privy councillor

Add comment December 23rd, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1605, Nuremberg privy councillor Niklaus von Gulchen (or Gilgen) was beheaded for his scandalous corruption. The wheeler-dealer’s graft had problematically extended to playing false with and backstabbing any number of elite patrons, from Nuremberg burghers all the way up to the Prince of Sulzbach, and even gone so far as to provide advice to foreigners against the interest of his own city.

The great executioner Franz Schmidt, whose many diary entries record (often tersely) the hundreds of hangings, beheadings, drownings, burnings, and breakings on the wheel he performed for Nuremberg over his lifetime, made an unusually voluminous entry for this shocking treachery. And from the sound of it, the duplicitous Master Doctor earned every drop of his executioner’s opprobrium — even if, according to Schmidt’s biographer, the malefactor’s misused position still entitled him to the privilege of execution by the sword, exemption from torture, and a dignified black cloak to wear to his last performance.

December 23rd (a Monday).* Master Doctor Nicholas von Gilgen, who was by appointment a privy councillor in an honourable council and was bound to that council by oaths he did not observe; for the sake of money received wrote for and advised two (opposite) parties in many affairs; also gave evidence and sat in council for deliberations and decisions; also stole from my lords of this town the allowances for beer and wine, causing it to be stored by his servants.

Also he debauched before her marriage, forcing her to do his will, his servant whom he brought from Trier to this town, and whom he gave as a wife to his clerk Philip Tumbler, by a promise of 50 florins and large presents. According to her declaration she brought forth five children by him, three of which miscarried during delivery or by fright in the twelfth week, two remaining alive, a boy and girl, he being sponsor to the boy at baptism.

Similarly, by like promises, he forced his under-maid to consent to his will a year ago, and tried likewise to persuade his brother’s two daughters; one, the wife of Doctor Wurffbaum, he tried to compel, but she resisted, the other the wife of Doctor Calrot, who yielded to his will and consorted with him before and after her marriage, according to her account through fear and compulsion and the promise of many presents and a wedding portion (he did not admit he compelled her, and I do not believe he forced her).

Lastly he played false when serving the Prince of Sultzbach, whose advocate he was; he also mediated dishonestly between the families of Nuremberg, and between the noble families of Leschwitz and Redwitz, writing to, and advising both parties in one affair. Likewise he counselled the Italian Charles Albert Nello and other Italians against the rulers of our town; also stole the decrees from the office of an honourable councillor.

In Italy too, at Padua, he produced a false certificate, when he figured as a doctor there by means of a false certificate, for he became a doctor at Basel only long after. For his evil deeds he lay in prison for thirty-eight weeks in Lugins Land and in the jail. He was led out on Monday by favour in a long mourning cloak, his arms bound behind him with a black silk cord, and led by a cord, a black cloth being spread on the seat (on the scaffold).


Niklaus von Gulchen’s beheading, from the Nuremberg chronicle. Note that the illustration portrays the doomed pol kneeling, when in fact he was beheaded in a chair. In any stance, von Gulchen “was a mischievious, gold-grubbing man,” according to the chronicler.

When he had been beheaded his body was wrapped in the cloth and laid in a wooden coffin, nailed down and taken to St. Peter’s church by the assistant executioner, but removed at night in a cart to St. John’s by the little gate that leads to the Butts, and buried in the graveyard by the walls.

* Nuremberg, a Protestant city, was still on the Julian calendar.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Lawyers,Pelf,Politicians,Public Executions,Rape,Scandal,Sex,Treason

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