Posts filed under 'Beheaded'

1469: Andrea Viarani

Add comment August 12th, 2020 Headsman

The August 12, 1469 beheading of a Ferrara nobleman named Andrea Viarani is the subject of a chapter in the very fine volume The Art of Executing Well: Rituals of Execution in Renaissance Italy.

This scholarly tome explores via six chapters with different authors and several translated texts the spiritual and ritual experience of execution, particularly as mediated by confraternities of lay comforters who worked to steady the condemned for their ordeal and — as they prayed — their salvation.

Notably, The Art of Executing Well favors the reader with a 100-page translation of a Bolognese Comforters’ Manual and its associated hymnal. This resource was used by the Compagnia di Santa Maria della Morte to train its brethren for their weighty task of counseling the doomed.

This manual is, in the first place, a philosophical text for the counselor — to get his mind right, fully versed in Church doctrine concerning the afterlife and approaching his somber task full of contrition, humility, and piety.

Those doing this work must put their heart in it and act only out of love for God, and also out of charity for and the salvation of the neighbor. And they must make a great effort to do this, otherwise it would be displeasing to God. And take note that it will not gain you anything for eternal life if it is done for any vain reasons: any aspect of glory or mundane pomp, or to be held in high esteem by the people of this world, or to avoid disrespect of your fellow man, or for any worldly gain, or to be on everyone’s lips, or to be praised, or to be able to learn the secrets or the deeds of those people, or out of revenge, or out of ill will, or for faction, or for reward. But you should only do it out of reverence for God and to observe his commandment.

And in the second place, it’s a practical handbook for navigating the many reactions and considerations that people in their last hours might have, as part of guiding the sufferer towards reconciliation with God. “You must not tire of speaking” to those who wish to listen and pray with you, but also bring several enumerated volumes for those who prefer to read; in many other cases, “you will find those who do not willingly accept their death and for whom it is a very big thing” and who must be guided empathetically when their thoughts are preoccupied by concern for their family, or by writing their will, or by their raw resistance to death. At times the guidance reads strikingly modern; set aside the figure of the executioner and words like these would not be amiss to aid you or I in a 21st century personal crisis:

There are those whom you will find hard-hearted in the beginning and who do not want to hear anything you say … Be very careful not to unsettle him with words or harshness. Because sometimes those who are so hardened and miserable may react quite violently against one word they don’t like, with the result that you risk never being able to say anything that they do like, and this leads to worse. And if you see that in spite of your words he doesn’t wish to repent and remains hard-hearted, let it be and say nothing to him. Rather, let him say what he wants. And then tell some appropriate story or some example to your companion [i.e., a brother emissary from the confraternity -ed.] or with whoever is around, and tell in such a way that he who is to die hears you. And when his anger subsides and he is just there not doing anything, then go and put your hand on his back and ever so gently reprove him for his folly and place him on the proper road.

We’ve previously seen in these annals an example of lay brother and condemned prisoner working together to ready a soul for the block, in the person of Niccolo Machiavelli associate Pietro Boscoli, who was involved in (or perhaps merely adjacent to) an anti-Medici plot.

That’s not dissimilar from the situation of our day’s principal. Andrea Viarani came from a cultured noble family numbering diplomats, doctors, and astrologers among its ranks — and he came to his grief by his involvement in a conspiracy against the local tyrant, Borso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara.*

Not much is really known about this man’s life, but he comes alive in Alfredo Troiano’s examination of three poems that the man wrote while awaiting execution. These poems later made their way to Bologna, where the aforementioned Compagnia di Santa Maria della Morte incorporated them into its own corpus and for Troiano, that’s no coincidence: they exhort the reader to attitudes characteristic of confraternities, revealing the unrecorded exertions these lay brethren must have made in Viarani’s cell.

If the blind, false, and treasonous world,
full of injustice, betrayal, and deception
has held you many years
far from your Maker and the Supreme Good,

Shows now both the shadowy and the fleeting nature
of hoping for vain pleasures, which
that foolish desire inclines towards
never thinking of its true salvation:

Now that heaven has given you much grace
and you are brought back to the point,
Andrea, that God has made you
repentant of the wrong committed.

Lift your mind to God, move your hard heart
and do not be so obstinate with him
but with devout tears,
repentant of having erred, ask for forgiveness.

Ah! Don’t wish to abandon your soul,
being diffident of eternal grace,
for it never is tired of gathering
he who, repentant, so asks.

This sirvente runs to 35 stanzas, and the translation is original to The Art of Executing Well where the reader may peruse it at length; Viarani also wrote two sonnets, one addressed to the Eternal Father and the other the Eternal Queen (that is, to God and to the Virgin Mary), which also appear in that book.

* The son of Niccolo d’Este, a name distinguished in execution annals by meting that fate out to his young wife and his son for their shocking affair. (The lovers weren’t kin themselves.)

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Ferrara,History,Italy,Nobility,Power,Public Executions,Treason

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979: Gero, Count of Alsleben

Add comment August 11th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 979, a Saxon lord won a trial by combat at the cost of his head.

You’re not supposed to call this period the “Dark Ages” but it’s fair to say that our sources don’t throw a comprehensive illumination on the story.

Our date’s principal is a count named Gero, possibly/presumably the descendant of one Gero the Great who governed a vast eastern march of the Holy Roman Empire. Famous for his campaigns against the Slavs, he’s the historical personage behind the “Margrave Gere” character in the Nibelungenlied.

By our Gero’s generation, that vast eastern march had been fragmented into smaller territories, so he carried the same name with nothing like the same political muscle. The man who concerns us was Count of the town of Alsleben, in Saxony, and somehow he made an enemy of a knight named Waldo. What grievance did they have worth fighting about? This is one of those topics left un-lit for us by history, but as we shall see we might be entitled to guess that Gero was the guy in the wrong.

At any rate, the two fought a sanctioned judicial duel on August 11, 979, a date we have via several chroniclers taken by the remarkable event. In the scrap, both antagonists gave like they got, but Waldo having stunned Gero with a blow stepped out of the lists and began unstrapping. We can perhaps picture him, smirking in peppermint-striped armor, pumping his gauntlets … but …

… well, Gero had also wounded Waldo about the neck in the melee, and that wound took lethal, albeit delayed, effect. Was it a subtle injury that left Waldo bleeding out internally, blissfully unaware of death stealing up on him? Or a vicious wedge-shaped gash that spat wheezing gore through his fingers as he tried to stanch it? Whatever it was, it was good enough: “as he refreshed himself, Waldo fell down dead,” the prince-bishop Thietmar noted. (Book 3, paragraph 9 of Thietmar’s Chronicle.)

Executed Today has previously skirted the strange (and strangely long-lasting) juridical enclave of judicial duels/trials by combat. The way this is supposed to work is, the dead guy is deemed owned and the living guy, however concussed he might be, is legally vindicated by prowess at arms.

Not so here. Emperor Otto II revealed the whole spectacle to have been a sham all along and decreed Gero’s death anyway. He was beheaded that very evening.

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Entry Filed under: Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Early Middle Ages,Execution,Germany,History,Holy Roman Empire,Nobility,Wrongful Executions

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1573: Lancelot van Brederode, sea beggar

Add comment July 20th, 2020 Headsman

Dutch revolt general Lancelot van Brederode was beheaded on this date in 1573, bequeathing posterity the gorgeous ruin of his sacked castle.

Lancelot van Bredrode, detail from an illustration of him alongside fellow ‘sea beggar’ Jan van Duivenvoorde, by Johannes Hilverdink.

Lancelot van Brederode (English Wikipedia entry | Dutch) was the bastard half-brother of Hendrick, Lord of Broderode, and both men numbered among the ranks of Calvinist Low Countries nobles determined to break away from Spanish Catholic domination.

This faction became known as the Geuzen, meaning “Beggars”; so prominent was Hendrick that he was the Grote Greus, or “Big Beggar”. Alas, he was chased into exile by the Spanish crackdown and became the Died Young Beggar.

Lancelot’s talents were on the waves, and it’s no surprise that seafaring Watergeuzen were the most prominently successful Beggars of all in the unfolding Dutch Revolt. Unfortunately he was not successful at supporting the defense of Haarlem against Spanish siege: when the Spanish took the city, Lancelot lost his head. To add insult to injury, they destroyed Brederode Castle; the gorgeous ruins were protected as a national monument and partly restored in the 19th century.


The Ruins of Brederode Caste, by Meindert Hobbema. For a more present-day view of the shattered citadel, see here.

Lancelot’s young (at the time of dad’s beheading) son Reinoud van Brederode went on to become a powerful lawyer and diplomat in the Dutch Republic. But not so powerful that he could save his father-in-law, Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, from his own date with Executed Today.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Netherlands,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Soldiers,Spain,Wartime Executions

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1788: Elisabetha Gassner

Add comment July 16th, 2020 Headsman

Thief Elisabetha Gassner (English Wikipedia entry | German) was beheaded in Oberdischingen by executioner Xaver Vollmer on this date in 1788.

Gassner (English Wikipedia entry | German) was an industrious laborer who, born a vagrant and soon after losing her father, busted her hump into a home and a small farm of her own while maintaining a large family (seven kids by the time of her beheading, plus an invalid mother).

Nimble fingers made her this nest egg — fingers for knitting stockings, and, more and more, for picking pockets in Biderberg and Württemberg.

With a purported 300+ thefts attributed to her, she acquired outsized reputation as a thief transcendent enough to apotheosize her under the nickname Schwarze Lies (“Black Lisa”) alongside the legendary outlaws of the day.

Her ambition for a foothold in this precarious world made her as bold with the quality of her targets as their quantity: her arrest was for lifting a 1,700 guilder purse from Count Franz Ludwig Schenk von Castell, in the chapel of Ludwigsburg Palace.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Holy Roman Empire,Public Executions,Theft,Women

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1667: Chatan Chocho, Ryukyu diplomat

Add comment July 11th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1667, the uncle of the sessei — think Chief Minister or Grand Vizier — of the Ryukyu Kingdom covering the island chain south of Japan was beheaded for a diplomatic scandal.

The Ryukyu Kingdom was a weak state that made its way in vassalage to burlier neighbors, including mainland China to its west and the Japanese feudal state Satsuma to the north. Satsuma had defeated Ryukyu in war in the early 17th century, and according to Angela Schottenhammer (The East Asian Mediterranean: Maritime Crossroads of Culture, Commerce and Human Migration) Satsuma dominated Ryukyu to the extent of providing it gold, silver, and tin — not native to Ryukyu — for the latter to send as offerings to China.

The primary interest of Satsuma lay in trade with China … Since Satsuma did not have direct contacts with China and [China] officially did not want to have any relation with Satsuma, Satsuma controlled the lucrative tribute trade activities of the Ryukyus with China backstage. As far as we can tell from the available documents, Satsuma issued a series of orders to the Ryukyuans to conceal their relations with them from the Chinese, especially during the times of a Chinese investiture mission staying in Ryukyu, in order to successfully continue to obtain Ryukyuan products. Ryukyuan tribute missions were secretly used by Satsuma to obtain highly prized Chinese products for resale in Japan. The Satsuma-Ryukyuan relationship, like Robert Sakai describes, “was maintained side by side with the tributary relationship between China and Ryukyu”. This practice was carried on in the Qing dynasty. It is clear that the Ryukyus contituted an asset to Satsuma as an economic bridge between China and herself.

This trilateral relationship will help to explain the beheadings that occasion this post.

Our man Chatan Chocho, a former member of the Ryukyuan governing council, was chagrined to discover in 1665 that the emissary Eso Juko, recently dispatched from Ryukyu to China, had been ambushed by so-called “pirates” who were actually Chatan’s very own retainers in disguise. They made off with the gold offerings that were bound for the young Chinese emperor.

Needless to say this was an offense against statecraft and commerce far more serious than mere brigandage. Satsuma investigated it with al the urgency due its economic bridge with China.

It’s known as the Chatan Eso Incident, which tells you that Chatan’s attempt to bury his own connection to the crime by having those involved murdered privately did not succeed. In its capacity as the Ryukyuan boss, Satsuma ordered both Chatan and Eso condemned to death, and delivered them to Ryukyu to execute the sentence. Their children were scattered to outlying islands in internal exile. (It’s not clear to me whether Eso, the envoy who got robbed, was viewed as actively complicit in the heist, or if his execution flowed from the failure to complete his mission or a general policy of maximal due diligence.)

* I’m reporting this, with trepidation, per the dates in Wikipedia entries. I have had no luck at all tracing a primary source for this date; nor even the original calendar register to confirm whether “July 11” is indeed a correct Gregorian rendition. The best that I can report is that, per this calculator that served us well in our Torii Suneemon post, July 11 corresponds to 20th-21st Satsuki (the fifth month) of the Japanese lunisolar calendar, and 1667.5.21 is the date reported in the Chinese Wikipedia entry for the incident. That is very thin sourcing indeed; there’s ample scope for error here.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Japan,Politicians,Power,Ryukyu,Satsuma,Uncertain Dates

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1485: William de La Marck, the Wild Boar of the Ardennes

Add comment June 18th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1485, the German warrior William de La Marck was beheaded at Maastricht.

“There is, moreover, in the land, a nobleman of good descent, and fame in warlike affairs, but otherwise, so to speak, Lapis offensionis et petra scandali — and a stumbling block of offence to the countries of Burgundy and Flanders. His name is William de la Marck.”

“Called William with the Beard,” said the young Scot, “or the Wild Boar of Ardennes?”

“And rightly so called, my son,” said the Prior, “because he is as the wild boar of the forest, which treadeth down with his hoofs and rendeth with his tusks. And he hath formed to himself a band of more than a thousand men, all, like himself, contemners of civil and ecclesiastical authority, and holds himself independent of the Duke of Burgundy, and maintains himself and his followers by rapine and wrong, wrought without distinction upon churchmen and laymen.”

Sir Walter Scott, Quentin Durward. The boar is a major antagonist in this novel, but Scott has him killed, ahistorically, in melee.

Le Sanglier des ArdennesThe Wild Boar of the Ardennes, so christened for his resemblance to that ferocious beast; “he affected to delight in this surname, and endeavoured to deserve it by the unvarying cruelty and ferocity of his life” — tusked his way onto history’s stage in the power vacuum following the collapse of Burgundy as an independent power.

Among other effects, Burgundy’s fall greatly widened the local autonomy of the city of Liege, in present-day Belgium — a city that Burgundy in its recent heyday had violently brought to heel.

And not merely the city, but the entire Prince-Bishopric of Liege.

A tasty truffle for the snuffling, to porcine eyes.

In 1482, the Wild Boar assassinated the sitting Prince-Bishop of Liege, Louis de Bourbon. It’s a scene captured in dark melodrama by Executed Today‘s court painter Eugene Delacroix.

He intended by this stroke to set up his son Jean de La Marck as the Prince-Bishop. Instead he kicked off a civil war and in lieu of the mitre he obtained a payoff from the Prince-Bishopric as Liege turned to resisting the inroads of the Austrian Empire. The Boar now allying with Liege in this endeavor, he was ingloriously ambushed by imperial forces and brought in for butchering.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Belgium,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Habsburg Realm,History,Netherlands,Nobility,Power,Public Executions,Soldiers

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1704: Anna Ericksdotter, the last witch executed in Sweden

Add comment June 15th, 2020 Headsman

Sweden conducted its last witch execution — a beheading — on this date in 1704.

Anna Eriksdotter (English Wikipedia entry | Swedish) was a local cunning-woman whose talent for healing both men and beasts had seen her dogged with rumors of devilry for many years.

Evidently she leaned into the story or — who knows? — believed it herself. When a man named Nils Jonsson accused her of striking him blind, deaf and dumb, she acknowledged punishing her “disgusting” neighbor, and even claimed that, raised to witchery from her childhood, she had committed various other supernatural offenses against the community: laying a curse on the vicar, and conjuring wolves to prey on livestock.

These “admissions” might have been necessary to actually bring a witch to the block in 18th century Sweden, scorched as consciences were after a particularly notorious witch hunt 28 years before.

Even so, Anna Ericksdotter just barely attained her milestone. Her sentence was approved by the young king Charles XII — a bit preoccupied in that moment getting rinsed on northern Europe’s battlefields by Peter the Great — over the strong pardon recommendation of his magistrates who considered Ericksdotter “full with mad imaginations”.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Milestones,Public Executions,Sweden,Witchcraft,Women

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1453: Loukas Notaras, Byzantine

Add comment June 3rd, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1453, Loukas Notaras, the last megas doux of the freshly destroyed Byzantine Empire, was executed at the command of Mehmed the Conqueror.

A wealthy Greek merchant who’d been circulating on the highest plane of Byzantine statecraft, Notaras is famous for his purported quip, “I would rather see a Turkish turban in the midst of the City [Orthodox Constantinople] than the Latin mitre.” The quote is probably apocryphal, but it sticks because he got the wish when Mehmed conquered Constantinople.

His end made a canvas congenial to moralizing brushwork. The victorious sultan spared him initially only to reverse course a few days later. By hostile Christian repute this was when Notaras was commanded to deliver his youngest son for perverse usage in the harem; a hostile-to-Greeks version has the wily old courtier immediately falling into his habitual scheming.

This post drawing on the work of the French scholar Thierry Ganchou suggests a less sensational compounding of reactions that ensued upon the sultan’s demand for Notaras’s youngest son, Jacob — not as a sex slave but as a court hostage, which was a normal practice in this period to keep potentially rivalrous elites onside. Notaras reacted badly, viewing the demand as an arbitrary humiliation and fearing the boy’s potential conversion to Islam and matters spiraled from there.

In his history written a century later, the ex-bishop Makarios Melissenos also suggests that, like Hulagu Khan upon destroying the Caliphate, Mehmed found himself contemptuous of prey yet so wealthy when his own country had gone to the wall.

“Inhuman half-breed dog, skilled in flattery and deceit! You possessed all this wealth and denied it to your lord the emperor and to the City, your homeland? … Why were you unwilling to assist the emperor and your homeland with your immense wealth?” (Source)

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Beheaded,Byzantine Empire,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Ottoman Empire,Power,Turkey

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1629: Thomas Schreiber, “thistles, thorns, and strife”

Add comment May 30th, 2020 Headsman

The heartrending and entirely timeless story of a man destroyed for during the three-year witch hunt paroxysm in Mergentheim for having more wisdom and decency than the duly constituted authorities is excerpted from Witch Hunting in Southwestern Germany, 1562-1684: The Social and Intellectual Foundations.


Book CoverThomas Schreiber had a strong sense of justice. When the trials in Mergentheim had run only two months, he had already lost faith in the judicial procedure. On December 1, 1628, when Martha, wife of Bürgermeister Hans Georg Braun, was executed, Schreiber was heard by many persons exclaiming that she had been done a gross injustice. Schreiber even let slip that “King Nero” had also conducted such bloodbaths. Six weeks later Schreiber was again appalled when the extremely wealthy widow of Lorenz Gurren was convicted of witchcraft, and executed on January 12, 1629. When attending the execution of the lady, he had the temerity to express amazement over her confession. The Amtmann Max Waltzen turned to him and said pointedly, “Ha, ha, those who know the devil should not be so amazed.” That kind of talk perturbed Schreiber, and when magistrates began avoiding him, he prepared to flee. During this time he repeatedly denounced the court for its unjust trials and declared that “if anything happens to me, let every pious Christian fear for himself.” He also prayed that “God might preserve everyone from Neuenhaus [the jail and torture chamber], for even the most pious if put in there would be found to be a witch.” The trials, he insisted, were bloodbaths, and the magistrates were out to “wash their hands in my blood.”

Other records show some of the reasons for the behavior of the magistrates toward Schreiber. On December 12, 1628, Martha Dökherin claimed to have seen Schreiber at a witches’ dance. On January 29, 1629, a second woman denounced him. Schreiber’s terror grew as he sensed that things were closing in on him. Schreiber’s terror grew as he sensed that things were closing in on him. He arranged to have money sent out of town to a place where he could later pick it up. On February 1, 1629, he left town, and fled to Ansbach, and later to Hohenlohe. He left in such a hurry that he later had to write his wife to send him his cloak, shoes, black hat, and a pair of green trousers. He wrote also to his friend, the Latin teacher George Allemahn, asking him to examine the case secretly to see whether it was safe to return. In a letter to Bürgermeister Paul Nachtraben [whose own wife had also been executed as a witch -ed.], Schreiber again explained why he had left and protested his innocence. He noted that he feared trial because torture led people to confess lies. In yet another letter to his wife he comforted her with the thought, “Oh what pains these unjust judges will have to suffer in hell!” Finally in a tiny note no larger than three inches by four, he told his wife to meet him at Ebersheim in Hohenlohe.

Unfortunately this note and perhaps the other letters were intercepted by the magistrates in Mergentheim. On February 9, 1629, they wrote to Hohenlohe that Schreiber was staying in Ebersheim, and to kindly detain him until extradition papers could be prepared. By February 10, Schreiber was back in Mergentheim answering questions. He admitted at once that the trials seemed like bloodbaths to him but he could not be sure that anyone had been done an injustice. When asked if he had not defended the witches “and held that witchcraft was mere fantasy,” Schreiber replied that “he had always said [that witch trials were legitimate] only if no one is done an injustice.” At this point the authorities in Mergentheim were apparently confused. There were only two denunciations of Schreiber as a witch, not enough for torture, and Schreiber was too important a man to be dealt with lightly. The first deficiency was remedied on February 13, when Catharina, Georg Reissen’s wife, denounced Schreiber. We may suspect that Schreiber’s name had been suggested to her, as indeed it may have been to the preceding two women.

Schreiber’s friends were another matter. On April 10, the authorities in Mergentheim received a supplication from friends and relatives in Heidenheim, Langenau, Ellwangen, Dinkelsbühl, and Aalen. They protested the lengthy incarceration of Schreiber without specific charges, admitted that he might have sinned against the magistracy set up by God, but pleaded that his youth and his four little children be mitigating factors.

Instead of considering Schreiber’s children, the court wrote to Würzburg for advice. On May 6, 1629, the authorities at Würzburg replied that (1) because three persons had denounced him, (2) because he had fled, (3) because he had attacked the judicial system, Thomas Schreiber might be tortured. The court in Mergentheim proceeded to this step on May 19. Once again Schreiber called the ever mounting trials a bloodbath, [the author here footnotes that 33 more persons had been executed since Schreiber’s capture] but claimed to be glad that God was letting him suffer. Dr. Baumann interrupted to insist “as surely as God is in heaven, this is justice.” Schreiber countered by swearing “as truly as Christ died on the cross, and God created me, I am innocent.” He also asked, “Cannot the learned make mistakes in this matter too?” That ws the last straw; he was given over to torture. After hanging for the length of a Pater noster, he admitted that he had committed adultery three years ago with a woman who turned out to be the devil. In addition he had denied God and said that “men die like cattle.” The rest of his confession proceeded readily as he admitted attending witches’ dances and named those whom he had seen there. He claimed that he had never harmed anyone by magic, since his only reason for giving himself to the devil was Pullschafft (sexual intercourse). He confessed that he had stolen the host from the Eucharist, and proved to be incapable of repeating his rosary. For a man with so many relatives in Protestant Heidenheim, this incapacity must have seemed particularly significant. He confirmed this confession on May 22, naming seven complices, and ratified these confessions and denunciations again on May 25, 26 and 28. Clearly the authorities wanted to establish beyond all doubt the voluntary nature of his confession.

In letters to his wife during this time, Schreiber continued to protest his innocence and with great emotion took leave of his family. Fortunately he could look forward to meeting them again in heaven, but even this did not create resignation. He urged his wife to marry again and noted that she had always repeated an axiom that now had especially bitter relevance: “Whoever is chosen for eternal life must undergo thistles, thorns, and strife.” In the only note we have from Anna Schreiber, written in a very crude hand, she begs pardon for ever giving him the idea that she thought him guilty of witchcraft, and wishes she were dead. The letters are certainly as touching and revealing as the famous one of Mayor Junius in Bamberg, or that of [Magdalena] Weixler in Ellwangen.

The case of Thomas Schreiber is better documented than most, but it reveals the shock and fear that pervaded a town in the grip of panic. Friendships broke down as men lost confidence in one another; families were rent with grief and self-accusation. This case reveals most clearly the danger of attacking the judicial system in the midst of spasms of witch hunting. Doubts, if any, were for the judges, not the populace. Theoretical statements, especially in Latin, were also tolerable. But specific attacks on men and policies were contempt of court and brought swift retribution. On May 30, 1629, Thomas Schreiber was beheaded and burned. Yet how can one measure his contribution to the crisis of confidence in Mergentheim?

The fires continued to burn after the protest of this innkeeper “zum Hirsch.” But the growing awareness that he had been right after all brought witch hunting to a close in Mergentheim before the Swedes arrived to enforce such a policy. The panic had lasted two and a half years, had cost 126 lives, and had disrupted the lives of hundreds more. If this was social catharsis, it nearly killed the patient.

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

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1780: Johann Heinrich Waser, persecuted whistleblower

Add comment May 27th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1780, statistician Johann Heinrich Waser

“One of the most spectacular and horrific treason cases of the late eighteenth century” in the words of Jeffrey Freedman (A Poisoned Chalice | here’s a review) — one that “shattered the complacent belief that such a brutal and cynical act of repression could no longer occur in an age of Enlightenment, let alone in Switzerland, the land of William Tell, republican virtue, and free, self-governing citizens.” Subsequent centuries laugh in bitter commiseration.

Initially a pastor, Waser’s idealism had not been fully wrung out in the seminary and so he got himself fired from his Zurich-area parish for complaining too loudly about the oligarchic graft that left his flock’s poor relief barren.

Nothing daunted, he effected a career change and “threw himself with zeal and success into all researches in natural history, history, agriculture and statistics.” He surely had little notion that this technocratic exercise could imperil his life … but as with his time in the ministry, he suffered for his inability to pay the tithe of politic hypocrisy to the unrighteous mighty. Freedman again:

One of Waser’s demographic studies uncovered evidence of a stagnating and even declining population in certain rural districts. To Waser (and indeed to cameralists in general) it was axiomatic that a growing population was good, that it was both cause and symptom of economic prosperity. So the evidence of a stagnating and declining population demanded an explanation, which Waser believed he had found in the trade in mercenaries practiced by the Swiss cantons. With this, Waser was touching upon a very delicate subject indeed, for the trade in mercenaries was not only a useful safety valve for disposing of excess population, it was a major source of fiscal revenue. Yet Waser condemned the lucrative trade without restraint, documenting with hard statistical evidence the population losses it caused; and he drove home his point with anecdotes such as the following, which appeared in the introduction to a study provocatively entitled, “Swiss Blood, French Money”:

With the General Stuppa in attendance, the Marquis de Lauvois, the War Minister of Louis XIV, is supposed once t0o have said to his king: “Sire, if you had all the gold and silver paid by yourself and your royal ancestors to the Swiss, you would be able to pave the highway from Paris to Basel with Thalers.” Whereupon General Stuppa declared: “Sire, that may well be so; but if it were possible to collect all the blood shed by our nation for you and your royal ancestors, one could build a navigable canal from Paris to Basel.

Waser’s incautious muckraking got him the Julian Assange treatment: he’d be condemned for treasonably stealing the information he reported for the public weal; in an attempt to blacken his name, he was even spuriously investigated for poisoning the sacramental wine.

The May 27 beheading of the “unhappy pastor” raised a clamor of European outrage against Zurich’s oligarchs. True, the salon-dwelling demographic liable to such a sentiment had no power to chastise. But it at least enjoyed the satisfaction inside of 20 years to see the lords toppled who had built Waser’s scaffold … thanks, appropriately enough, to the French.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Public Executions,Switzerland,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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