Posts filed under 'Broken on the Wheel'

1783: Jacques Francois Paschal, rapist monk

Add comment October 10th, 2016 Headsman

For this date’s post, we are indebted to Rictor Norton, who maintains the invaluable Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century Enland site. Norton wrote a book about England’s proto-gay “molly house” culture, and his site includes a nigh-comprehensive index of 18th century reportage touching same-sex activity.

Norton quotes these reports — luridly horrible, if slightly contradictory — here.

Wednesday 29 October 1783

A correspondent from Paris, who was present at the late execution of the Friar convicted of an unnatural crime, has favoured us with the following particulars: the monk who murdered a young boy that would not submit to his infernal solicitations, was tried at two o’clock in the afternoon, and sentenced to be broke alive on the cross, and then burnt to ashes at four the same day. He was allowed some time in a house to prepare himself for the awful moment, but did not remain there half an hour. He was then taken to the Grève, the place of execution, tied to the cross of St Andrew, and broke with amazing celerity. He had eight bones broken, and was thrown alive into the fire. It is usual for criminals on these occasions to receive the coup de grace, that is, the criminal being tied down on the cross, which is fixed upon a scaffold, the executioner sets a halter round the said criminal’s neck, and passing the ends of the rope through two holes made on purpose in a board of the scaffold, one of Jack Ketch’s* men, who attends underneath, joins the aforesaid ends in a kind of press, and takes care to strangle the malefactor at the very instant he receives the first stroke. The Friar in question was denied this extraordinary favour, though he begged it with many dreadful cries. Monsieur Jack Ketch made his appearance in his own coach, dressed in scarlet laced with gold, with three of his men behind. (Caledonian Mercury)

Thursday 30 October 1783

On Friday, the 10th inst. a friar was executed at Paris for an unnatural crime, and afterwards attempting to murder a young boy of 14, a commissionaire, a kind of porter to waits at the corner of the streets to run of errands. the sentences on criminals are published in France by the Courts of Justice in which they are passed; the present runs in the following manner: Jacques François Paschal, is condemned to the amende honorable, before the principal door of L’Eglise de Paris, where he shall be conducted by the executioner of haute justice, in a tumbril, in his shirt, his feet and head naked, holding in his hand a burning torch of yellow wax of two pounds weight, having a rope about his neck and a label before and behind, on which shall be written these words: Debauche contre nature & assassin: “The crime against nature, and murder”; and there, on his knees shall declare in a loud and intelligible voice that wickedly, rashly, and ill-advisedly, he had delivered himself up to an excess the most criminal towards a young commissionaire, aged fourteen, and had enticed him into his chamber, on the 3d of the present month of October, where, irritated by his resistence [sic], he had attempted to murder him, by giving him a great number of stabs with a knife on the head, reins, and in the back; of which he repents, and demands pardon of God, the King, and Justice: He shall then be taken in the same tumbril to the Place de Greve, to have his arms, legs, thighs, and reins, broken on a scaffold erected for that purpose in the said Place de Greve, and shall afterwards be cast into a burning fire, there to be consumed to ashes, and his ashes scattered in the wind, &c. The boy, though desperately wounded, we hear is not dead.

from Thursday 30 October to Thursday 6 November 1783

A Gentleman who arrived in Town a few Days ago from Paris, was present at the Execution of the Monk on the 10th Inst. for Murder, and an Attempt to commit a detestable Crime, says, the Particulars on the Subject, as stated in some of the English News-papers, are erreoneous; but the following may be depended on as a Fact. — The Monk, who belonged to the Convent of Montmartre, having formed a Design of gratifying his unnatural Passion on a Savoyard Boy, Commisionaire, or Messenger frequenting the Boulevards, Corner of Rue Poissoniere, enticed him to the Convent, and pretending to confess him, took him into his Cell, where, under the Mask of Religion, the Monster in Iniquity attempted to satisfy his brutal Desires, which the Boy resisting, he gagged, and bound him with Cords, to prevent his crying out, or making any Noise, and then stabbed him in several Parts of the Body, locked the Door and fled. Being missed in the Evening at Vespers, the Superior sent to his Cell, the Door of which remaining fastened, notwithstanding being repeatedly knocked at, was ordered to be broke open, when a most shocking Scene presented itself to View, the poor Boy weltering in his Blood, and near expiring. Every possible Assistance was immediately given, but in vain; for he survived no longer than just to be able to relate the dreadful Story, and to discover who was the nefarious Perpetrator of so inhuman a Deed; in pursuit of whom the Police instantly dispatched the Marrechausse, and he was apprehended the next Morning in the Forest of St. Germain, disguised as a Peasant. Being conveyed to the Prison of the Grand Chatelet at Paris, he was privately tried according to the Custom of that Country, though on this particular Occasion his Sentence was not announced so soon as is usual; for it was not till after the Expiration of twenty Days allotted for the Arrival of the Chief Executioners from the provincial Cities, summoned to give their personal Attendance at this Execution extraordinary, that his Sentence was read to him, that within forty-eight Hours he was to be broke on the Wheel, and his Body, whilst yet alive, burnt; at which he seemed very little affected. About one o’Clock on the Day mentioned, under strong Guard, and escorted by a very numerous Procession of Capuchin Friars, bareheaded, with lighted Torches in their Hands, chanting a Requiem for his departing soul, he was brought on Foot to the Church of Notre Dame, where, bare-footed, and stripped to his Shirt, with Labels behind and before, denoting, in Capital Letters, his Crimes, he made his final Confession, and asked Pardon from God, his King, and Country. He was, then, in the same Order, conducted to the Grève, the Place of Execution, where a large Scaffold, with the Apparatus of Death, was erected. At the same Time arrived the Executioner of the Capital, stiled Monsieur de Paris, who alighted from a most elegant Cabriolet, beautifully ornamented with his Arms and Crest on the Pannels, and two Servants in rich Liveries behind. He was a tall, handsome Man, between thirty and forty Years of Age, dressed in Scarlet and Gold, with the Insignia of his Order embroidered over the right Shoulder, a Sword by his Side, and from Head to Foot fashionably and well equipped. After bowing three Times to the Spectators, who were amazingly numerous, he ascended the Scaffold, whereon the Criminal had, in the Interim been placed, and accompanied by a large Body of provincial Executioners, and other Officers of Justice, his Confessor now took leave, and he being fastened to the Cross, Monsieur de Paris, by Means of an Iron Bar, which he used with both Hands, very expeditiously executed Part of the first of the Sentence; and then ordered the Body to be trussed on a Wheel, they were together thrown into a large Fire, kindled at a little Distance from the Scaffold. The poor Wretch mounted the Steps with seeming Composure; but from the Moment he received the first Blow, he continued to utter the most piercing Shrieks, till the Fire put a Period to his Life and Misery. (Derby Mercury)

* The reference here is to the notorious English hangman whose name became the metonym for an executioner. The high executioner of Paris by this point would have been Charles-Henri Sanson, the man who would eventually guillotine Louis XVI. (Sanson was 44 years old at this date, contrary to the estimate in the the excerpt quoted above.)

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Attempted Murder,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Gruesome Methods,History,Public Executions,Rape,Religious Figures,Sex,Torture

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1554: A false coiner and a masked dummy

Add comment September 29th, 2016 Headsman

From the diary of Felix Platter, a Swiss youth studying in Montpellier, France. It is not completely evident from context (“afterwards …”) whether the masked dummy was “executed” on the same occasion as the coiner, or whether that effigy was punished on a different day.

On the next day [after a September 28 execution] a false coiner was hanged in the same place. The gibbet was not vety high and had only one arm.

Afterwards a masked dummy was brought on a hurdle, and was laid on the cross and its limbs broken, as I have described. This dummy represented a Greek who had studied at Montpellier and had been accounted one of the keenest blades of the town. He had married Gillette d’Andrieu, a girl of doubtful reputation, who had neither beauty nor fortune. She had a very long nose, and her lover could scarcely manage to kiss her on the lips, especially since he too had a nose of respectable size.

The Greek was insulted by a canon, Pierre Saint-Ravy, who taunted him, at the moment when he was about to relieve himself, of having had intercourse with his wife. The husband at once stabbed the canon and fled; he could therefore be executed only in effigy. His wife continued to live in Montpellier, and was often in Rondelet’s house she was a relative of his.*

She often came there to dance, and one day I danced with her, all booted and spurred, on my return from Vendargues. As I turned, my spurs entangled themselves in her dress, and I fell full length on the floor. Some tablets I had in a breast pocket were broken into pieces, and I was so stunned that I had to be helped up.

* Guillaume Rondelet was one of Platter’s instructors, a professor of medicine. He had been friends with Rabelais and has the distinction of appearing in Gargantua and Pantagruel under the name Rondibilis.

Part of the Daily Double: Felix Platter’s Diary.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Counterfeiting,Crime,Death Penalty,Executed in Effigy,Execution,France,Gruesome Methods,Hanged,History,Known But To God,Murder,Not Executed,Pelf,Public Executions

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1554: A handsome young man from Montpellier

Add comment September 28th, 2016 Headsman

From the diary of Felix Platter, a Swiss youth studying in Montpellier, France:

On the 28th [of September, 1554] the Provost came to Montpellier, and there were several executions.

On the first day he appeared on horseback, preceded by several horsemen and followed by the town trumpeter sounding his trumpet. Behind him walked a criminal, with some monks. He was a handsome young man and had been an accomplice in a murder He was brought to a scaffold that had been erected in front of the Hotel de Ville. There a Saint Andrew’s cross had been made with two hollowed-out balks of timber; in this his limbs were to be broken.

The condemned man stood and recounted in rhyme the crime he had committed, and at the end he added: ‘Pray to Holy Mary that she may intercede with her Son to take me into Paradise.’

The executioner then undressed him and tied him by the limbs to the cross, as those are tied, with us, who are to be broken on the wheel. Then he took a heavy bar of iron, called a massa, sharpened a little on one side, and broke the man’s limbs with it. This punishment resembles our punishment of the wheel, and is called here massarrer. The last blow was struck on the chest, and this killed the victim.

Part of the Daily Double: Felix Platter’s Diary.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Gruesome Methods,History,Known But To God,Murder,Public Executions

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1768: Francesco Arcangeli, Winckelmann-Mörder

Add comment July 20th, 2016 Headsman

For murdering German Enlightenment intellectual Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Habsburg Trieste on this date in 1768 inflicted a breaking-wheel execution straight out of antiquity.

A Saxon cobbler’s son, Winckelmann (German Wikipedia link) showed academic aptitude from youth and spent his twenties reading theology and medicine at the Universities of Halle and of Jena while he tutored to pay the bills. This scuffling scholar got his big break when his gifts were noticed by the visiting papal nuncio, who recruited him to court service in Rome on condition of his conversion to Catholicism — a spiritual epiphany which dovetailed perfectly with his growing interest in art and drew him to Italy. (pdf)

Winckelmann traveled and read widely in Italy. He was a great admirer of the restrained classical Grecian aesthetic whose celebrated exemplars were being unearthed throughout the Mediterranean world;* some papers he wrote during the 1760s are regarded as seminal documents in the study of art history and of archaeology, and he in turn became a celebrity intellectual sought-after in the salons of visiting art-fanciers.

Having begun so mean and climbed so very high, Winckelmann was set up for golden years savoring the view from the pinnacle — but he was never destined to receive them.

Taking ill on a trip with friend and fellow classicist Bartolomeo Cavaceppi in 1768, Winckelmann tapped out and returned alone to Trieste where he shared a room at a seaside hotel** with a chance acquaintance of the road: our post’s subject, Francesco Arcangeli. (German Wikipedia again)

Arcangeli, it turned out, was a thief who had already been expelled from Vienna and now compounded his villainy by throttling and stabbing Winckelmann. Though the wounds were mortal, Winckelmann lived on for several hours in full command of his senses, evenly providing every bit of information that would be needed to avenge his murder. The self-evident inference of robbery forms Arcangeli’s accepted motive, but alternative hypotheses have attracted attention over the years: in particular, Winckelmann is thought to have been homosexual, so it’s possible their shared lodging was really an assignation that went very bad; more exotic is the idea that Winckelmann was intentionally assassinated further to some inscrutable plot among Vatican rivals or art cognoscenti.

A Winckelmann Society in the man’s hometown of Stendal, Germany maintains its native son’s scholarly focus on classical antiquity. Readers of German might also appreciate Goethe’s essay on the man.

* Notably, the excavation of Pompeii and Herculaneum had only just begun in 1748; Winckelmann visited the sites.

** It’s the present-day Grand Hotel Duchi d’Aosta.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Austria,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Gruesome Methods,Habsburg Realm,History,Italy,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Public Executions,Theft

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1699: Nikol List, Golden Plate robber

Add comment May 23rd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1699 the robber prince Nikol List was broken on the wheel in the town of Celle — along with seven other members of his gang.

A former soldier and beer-house keeper, Saxony’s bandit career owned the usual long roster of outrages upon person and property but really fixed his name in the heavens (and his soul in the other place) by robbing St. Michael’s Church of Lüneburg of its treasured Golden Plate and sacrilegiously melting it down.

In the end his career was not long — just a few years in the late 1690s, nothing to compare with the likes of his near-contemporary Lips Tullian — for the outrage at St. Michael’s attracted the fury of the Duke of Brunswick who dedicated himself to the prompt destruction of these outlaws.

List is no. 6 in this illustration conflating the executions of various gang members who suffered at different times and places. The full numbered key to this forest of corpses can be found, along various other illustrations, here.

While List was alive and “working” his former house in Beutha was razed and a pillory set on the place instead, to disgrace the naughty native son. Worn “Nikol List Stones” can still be seen there. Two commemorate citizens whom List shot dead evading arrest on St. John’s Eve in 1696:

Christoph Kneuffler, farmer and sheriff of Hartenstein, shot on St. John’s Eve 1696 by Nikol List. This honest man was 50 years and 27 weeks old, and leaves a troubled widow and four children, namely three sons and one daughter.

Gottfried Eckhardt, citizen and butcher of Hartenstein, shot on St. John’s Eve 1696 by Nikol List. This man was 34 years and 34 weeks old, and has a poor afflicted widow and three small uneducated children, two sons and a daughter.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Gruesome Methods,History,Mass Executions,Murder,Outlaws,Public Executions,Theft

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1573: Lippold ben Chluchim, scapegoat

Add comment January 28th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1573, the Jewish courtier Lippold ben Chluchim was broken on the wheel and cut into quarters.

Most of the readily available information about poor Lippold is in German; his was a fate similar to the 18th century “Jud Süß”, minus the worldwide notoriety conferred by a Nazi propaganda film.

Though born in Prague, Lippold would live a life, and die a death, in the orbit of the Elector of Brandenburg — a principality where Jews endured precipitous reversals of fortune over the centuries.

Elector Joachim I had actually expelled Jews from the territory in 1510* after riots incited by rumors of desecrating the Host; Lippold and his family would benefit when Joachim’s son, also named Joachim, rescinded some of the old man’s harsh ordinances and invited Jews to return. Lippold was about 12 years old when his family took advantage of the liberalization and relocated to Berlin in 1542.

By adulthood, the able Lippold had plugged into Joachim II’s court and become a trusted favorite. While Joachim’s dad must have been turning in the grave, one imagines the son appreciated the loyalty of an aide whose prestige depended entirely upon the prince himself.

Events would underscore painfully Lippold’s vulnerability to the turning wheel of fortune.

As Brandenburg’s master of the mint, it fell to Lippold to implement a wide-ranging currency debasement program required by Joachim to finance his spendthrift government — basically passing on the cost to merchants who were required by edict to accept the local coinage at its fanciful face value.

Despite this hated policy, plus additions to the state’s rounds of direct taxation, Joachim was 2.5 million guilders in debt when he died suddenly during a hunting trip on the third of January in 1571. Things immediately turned grim for Brandenburg’s Jewry after the liberal Joachim fils was in the earth; a pogrom sacked Berlin’s synagogue and rampaged through the Jewish quarter.

Joachim’s son and successor Johann Georg likewise found in his father’s Jewish henchman — a man who had naturally waxed very wealthy and very unpopular doing the previous sovereign’s dirty work — a ready scapegoat for Brandenburg’s financial woes. Johann Georg accused Lippold of using black magic and poison to assassinate his benefactor and persuaded Lippold in the usual way to confirm it. Jews beheld the reinstatement of that old proscription, little more than 30 years after Joachim II had canceled it — and they were once again expelled from Berlin en masse.

* Complete with a mass execution.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Dismembered,Execution,Germany,Gruesome Methods,History,Jews,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Political Expedience,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Witchcraft,Wrongful Executions

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1556: A canon’s servant

Add comment December 14th, 2015 Headsman

We’ve touched in these pages on the appealing diary of Felix Platter, a youth from Basel, Switzerland, studying medicine in Montpellier, France.

This was published in English as Beloved Son Felix; sadly, it’s now out of print, though it can be perused for free on

A murderer was executed on the 14th of December. Three years earlier he had been a servant with a canon, who lived alone in his house, and carried a quantity of gold sewn into his clothes. The servant plotted with another man to kill his master. One evening, when the canon was sitting in a corner of the hearth, roasting a partridge, the servant felled him with a blow of a club on the back of the head. The villains then cut his throat and fled with the money, which came to a good sum. When the crime was discovered a sergeant was sent after them; but he allowed himself to be corrupted, and instead of arresting them he accepted a bribe and left them free to take the road to Spain. There they were too ostentatious with their wealth, and as a result they were robbed by brigands. However, the servant continued on his way, now alone. Without resources, he took employment with a Spanish shoemaker, and remained there three years. He let his beard grow, and believing that he would no longer be recognized he returned to France, and went to Lunel by way of Montpellier, but he was arrested there and brought back to Montpellier.

Although buried three years, the canon was disinterred, so that the murderer could be confronted with his victim. However, there were none of the signs they expected to see on such an occasion — as for example the opening of the wound and the gushing forth of blood; although it should be added that the corpse was very wasted. The accused man made a full confession and was condemned to the punishment they call massarer.* He appealed to Toulouse, succeeded in escaping as he was being taken across a river, was recaptured, condemned anew to that cruel punishment, and brought back to Montpellier for the sentence to be carried out. After the judgment had been read aloud, the executioner put the man on a cart, where he was laid on the lap of the executioner’s wife. He then began to pinch him with red-hot tongs, and this treatment continued until they came to the canon’s house. There the executioner cut off both the man’s hands on a block placed on the cart for that purpose. The woman held him with his eyes blindfolded, and as each hand was cut off she pulled a pointed linen bag over the stump, from which shot a jet of blood, and tied the bag on tightly to stop the bleeding. The man was taken afterwards to the Cour du Bayle, and there he was beheaded. His body was cut in quarters, and the pieces were hung up on the olive trees outside the town.

The sergeant who had taken the bribe, and who had been betrayed by the murderer, was tied to the cart, his body bare to the waist. The executioner scourged him until the blood came, several times over. After this he was banished.

Felix Platter noted a number of different executions in his five-year diary of Montpellier, but he didn’t let them get him down. The following February 27, Platter finally “with a heavy heart quitted this beloved town, in which I had lived for so long” and made for Basel where a respectable life as a doctor awaited him. (Felix was well-qualified for this from his coming of age in Montpellier, having dissected frequently: his journal records with something approaching glee the numerous midnight grave-robbings he undertook to secure subjects.)

* Massarer was the local version of the widespread and horrible “breaking” punishment of smashing the offender’s limbs one by one. Platter had earlier noted such an execution in 1554, and explained that it was carried out upon “a Saint Andrew’s cross … with two hollowed-out balks of timber.” Once the condemned murderer was trussed to the cross, the executioner “took a heavy bar of iron, called a massa, sharpened a little on one side, and broke the man’s limbs with it … The last blow was struck on the chest, and this killed the victim.”

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

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1781: Gaspard de Besse, social bandit

Add comment October 25th, 2015 Headsman

The French robber Gaspard de Besse was broken on the wheel in Aix-en-Provence on this date in 1781.

From a cave in the Esterel Mountains looming over the French Riviera, Gaspard raided the ample traffic wealthy merchants sent to and from the Mediterranean and Italy. He established a Robin Hood-esque “social bandit” profile by dint of his targets and populist provocations like, “the two scourges of Provence are the mistral and the parliament!”

Legend holds that he was unfailingly courteous in his raids and never killed those he preyed upon.

No surprise, he did not enjoy a like deference once one of his gang betrayed him. Hopefully amid the limb-shattering blows of the executioner he could console himself with the prospect of posterity’s renown.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Gruesome Methods,History,Outlaws,Public Executions,Theft

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1638: Stepan Ostryanin, Cossack hetman

Add comment October 14th, 2015 Headsman

(Thanks to friend of the blog Sonechka for research, translation, and background information touching this post. -ed.)

October 14 (October 1 O.S.) is a liturgical feast celebrating the protective intercession of the Virgin Mary, a date of particular significance in Russia and Ukraine. Indeed, Red Square’s St. Basil’s Cathedral is actually the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos [i.e., Mary] on the Moat, just one of many Orthodox churches so named.

Also known as Pokrov — a quaint Slavic term for covering, denoting safeguarding — the holiday celebrates an incident from 10th century Byzantium when a saint beheld Mary descend through the dome of the church, then spread her garment protectively over the entire congregation.

It is of special significance in Ukraine where the ecclesiastical celebration pulls double duty as the Day of the Ukrainian Cossacks. And it is in honor of Pokrov that we dedicate this post.

17th century icon of the Madonna’s broad cloak protecting Ukrainians.

On an unspecified date in 1638, a Cossack named Ostryanin was broken on the wheel in Warsaw … maybe.

The Ostryanin Uprising of 1638 was one of the ongoing cycle of Cossack disturbances in the southern reaches of the Polish-Lithuanian Empire — modern-day Ukraine. Like many of these, it was a short-lived affair considered on its own, but the pattern of disaffected Cossacks struggling against the Polish crown for some combination of recognition, largesse, and autonomy was an ongoing pattern in the 17th century — and by the 1650s it would begin tearing apart the formerly mighty Polish-Lithuanian realm and transferring Ukrainian territory from Polish to Russian domination.

Tradition held that after the rising was stamped out in the summer of 1638, Stepan Ostryanin himself was treacherously seized and taken to Warsaw for execution. A late 18th century chronicle* of a distinctly patriotic bent called Istoriya Russov embroiders upon that death by breaking-wheel with racist gusto:

in accord with their treachery, insidious and duplicitous, having learned through their Jew spies that hetman Ostryanin’s would travel unguarded … the Lyakhs [term for “Poles”; it’s derogatory in present-day Russian but may have been less so at the time -ed.] surrounded him in Kanev monastery with a host of men. They, having tied the hetman and his men, altogether thirty seven people, … prepared an execution for them in Warsaw unprecedented in its cruelty, which posterity will scarcely believe to be true, because it would not occur to even the most barbarous and ferocious Japanese (!) and the reality of which would terrify the very beasts and monsters.

On the other hand, a Cossack named Yakiv Ostryanin was to be found on Russian soil in the subsequent years, until he was murdered in 1641. Some historians think that he was the very same namesake Cossack rebel escaped from Polish vengeance, and the story about him being broken on the wheel in Poland is pure sentimental folklore; alternatively, Stepan and Yakiv might have just been two different Cossacks named Ostryanin who met two different fates.

Quite a difference for our supposed Stepan Ostryanin, but a minor mystery from this distance in time. Nevertheless, our man, whoever he was, had a posthumous contribution yet to make to the letters of his Slavic brethren.

Polish historian Szymon Okolski rode along with the Polish commander Mikolaj Potocki in Potocki’s successful campaign of the spring-summer 1638 to suppress this rebellion. Okolski’s field diaries of the campaign are a key historical source on the Cossacks and are thought to have been used extensively by the Cossack-descended writer Nikolai Gogol in composing his short story Taras Bulba.

A product of Gogol’s youth, Taras Bulba has a rough romanticism — and a romanticism for the Cossack (read: national Ukrainian) cause specifically that nonplussed Russian authorities at the time. (And probably now, too.)

Taras Bulba‘s title character is a mature Cossack patriot who with his two sons joins the Cossack risings against Poland. Its location in time is indeterminate, not unlike the unending cycle of risings themselves. Taras Bulba is a nearly eternal character, almost a fixture of nature, because his war seemed eternal too.

And of course it contains some cracking execution scenes. The execution by breaking-wheel of Taras Bulba’s son might have been inspired by the Istoriya Russov‘s outraged account of that full Japanese barbarism. The excerpt below hails from this public-domain English translation.

Ostap had been seized and bound before his very eyes, and that he was now in the hands of the Lyakhs. Grief overpowered him. He pulled off and tore in pieces the bandages from his wounds, and threw them far from him; he tried to say something, but only articulated some incoherent words. Fever and delirium seized upon him afresh, and he uttered wild and incoherent speeches. Meanwhile his faithful comrade stood beside him, scolding and showering harsh, reproachful words upon him without stint. Finally, he seized him by the arms and legs, wrapped him up like a child, arranged all his bandages, rolled him in an ox-hide, bound him with bast, and, fastening him with ropes to his saddle, rode with him again at full speed along the road.

“I’ll get you there, even if it be not alive! I will not abandon your body for the Lyakhs to make merry over you, and cut your body in twain and fling it into the water. Let the eagle tear out your eyes if it must be so; but let it be our eagle of the steppe and not a Polish eagle, not one which has flown hither from Polish soil. I will bring you, though it be a corpse, to the Ukraine!”

Thus spoke his faithful companion. He rode without drawing rein, day and night, and brought Taras still insensible into the Zaporozhian Setch itself. There he undertook to cure him, with unswerving care, by the aid of herbs and liniments. He sought out a skilled Jewess, who made Taras drink various potions for a whole month, and at length he improved. Whether it was owing to the medicine or to his iron constitution gaining the upper hand, at all events, in six weeks he was on his feet. His wounds had closed, and only the scars of the sabre-cuts showed how deeply injured the old Cossack had been. But he was markedly sad and morose. Three deep wrinkles engraved themselves upon his brow and never more departed thence. Then he looked around him. All was new in the Setch; all his old companions were dead. Not one was left of those who had stood up for the right, for faith and brotherhood. And those who had gone forth with the Koschevoi in pursuit of the Tatars, they also had long since disappeared. All had perished. One had lost his head in battle; another had died for lack of food, amid the salt marshes of the Crimea; another had fallen in captivity and been unable to survive the disgrace. Their former Koschevoi was no longer living, nor any of his old companions, and the grass was growing over those once alert with power. He felt as one who had given a feast, a great noisy feast. All the dishes had been smashed in pieces; not a drop of wine was left anywhere; the guests and servants had all stolen valuable cups and platters; and he, like the master of the house, stood sadly thinking that it would have been no feast. In vain did they try to cheer Taras and to divert his mind; in vain did the long-bearded, grey-haired guitar-players come by twos and threes to glorify his Cossack deeds. He gazed grimly and indifferently at everything, with inappeasable grief printed on his stolid face; and said softly, as he drooped his head, “My son, my Ostap!”

The square on which the execution was to take place was not hard to find: for the people were thronging thither from all quarters. In that savage age such a thing constituted one of the most noteworthy spectacles, not only for the common people, but among the higher classes. A number of the most pious old men, a throng of young girls, and the most cowardly women, who dreamed the whole night afterwards of their bloody corpses, and shrieked as loudly in their sleep as a drunken hussar, missed, nevertheless, no opportunity of gratifying their curiosity. “Ah, what tortures!” many of them would cry, hysterically, covering their eyes and turning away; but they stood their ground for a good while, all the same. Many a one, with gaping mouth and outstretched hands, would have liked to jump upon other folk’s heads, to get a better view. Above the crowd towered a bulky butcher, admiring the whole process with the air of a connoisseur, and exchanging brief remarks with a gunsmith, whom he addressed as “Gossip,” because he got drunk in the same alehouse with him on holidays. Some entered into warm discussions, others even laid wagers. But the majority were of the species who, all the world over, look on at the world and at everything that goes on in it and merely scratch their noses. In the front ranks, close to the bearded civic-guards, stood a young noble, in warlike array, who had certainly put his whole wardrobe on his back, leaving only his torn shirt and old shoes at his quarters. Two chains, one above the other, hung around his neck. He stood beside his mistress, Usisya, and glanced about incessantly to see that no one soiled her silk gown. He explained everything to her so perfectly that no one could have added a word. “All these people whom you see, my dear Usisya,” he said, “have come to see the criminals executed; and that man, my love, yonder, holding the axe and other instruments in his hands, is the executioner, who will despatch them. When he begins to break them on the wheel, and torture them in other ways, the criminals will still be alive; but when he cuts off their heads, then, my love, they will die at once. Before that, they will cry and move; but as soon as their heads are cut off, it will be impossible for them to cry, or to eat or drink, because, my dear, they will no longer have any head.” Usisya listened to all this with terror and curiosity.

The upper stories of the houses were filled with people. From the windows in the roof peered strange faces with beards and something resembling caps. Upon the balconies, beneath shady awnings, sat the aristocracy. The hands of smiling young ladies, brilliant as white sugar, rested on the railings. Portly nobles looked on with dignity. Servants in rich garb, with flowing sleeves, handed round various refreshments. Sometimes a black-eyed young rogue would take her cake or fruit and fling it among the crowd with her own noble little hand. The crowd of hungry gentles held up their caps to receive it; and some tall noble, whose head rose amid the throng, with his faded red jacket and discoloured gold braid, and who was the first to catch it with the aid of his long arms, would kiss his booty, press it to his heart, and finally put it in his mouth. The hawk, suspended beneath the balcony in a golden cage, was also a spectator; with beak inclined to one side, and with one foot raised, he, too, watched the people attentively. But suddenly a murmur ran through the crowd, and a rumour spread, “They are coming! they are coming! the Cossacks!”

They were bare-headed, with their long locks floating in the air. Their beards had grown, and their once handsome garments were worn out, and hung about them in tatters. They walked neither timidly nor surlily, but with a certain pride, neither looking at nor bowing to the people. At the head of all came Ostap.

What were old Taras’s feelings when thus he beheld his Ostap? What filled his heart then? He gazed at him from amid the crowd, and lost not a single movement of his. They reached the place of execution. Ostap stopped. He was to be the first to drink the bitter cup. He glanced at his comrades, raised his hand, and said in a loud voice: “God grant that none of the heretics who stand here may hear, the unclean dogs, how Christians suffer! Let none of us utter a single word.” After this he ascended the scaffold.

“Well done, son! well done!” said Bulba, softly, and bent his grey head.

The executioner tore off his old rags; they fastened his hands and feet in stocks prepared expressly, and—We will not pain the reader with a picture of the hellish tortures which would make his hair rise upright on his head. They were the outcome of that coarse, wild age, when men still led a life of warfare which hardened their souls until no sense of humanity was left in them. In vain did some, not many, in that age make a stand against such terrible measures. In vain did the king and many nobles, enlightened in mind and spirit, demonstrate that such severity of punishment could but fan the flame of vengeance in the Cossack nation. But the power of the king, and the opinion of the wise, was as nothing before the savage will of the magnates of the kingdom, who, by their thoughtlessness and unconquerable lack of all far-sighted policy, their childish self-love and miserable pride, converted the Diet into the mockery of a government. Ostap endured the torture like a giant. Not a cry, not a groan, was heard. Even when they began to break the bones in his hands and feet, when, amid the death-like stillness of the crowd, the horrible cracking was audible to the most distant spectators; when even his tormentors turned aside their eyes, nothing like a groan escaped his lips, nor did his face quiver. Taras stood in the crowd with bowed head; and, raising his eyes proudly at that moment, he said, approvingly, “Well done, boy! well done!”

But when they took him to the last deadly tortures, it seemed as though his strength were failing. He cast his eyes around.

O God! all strangers, all unknown faces! If only some of his relatives had been present at his death! He would not have cared to hear the sobs and anguish of his poor, weak mother, nor the unreasoning cries of a wife, tearing her hair and beating her white breast; but he would have liked to see a strong man who might refresh him with a word of wisdom, and cheer his end. And his strength failed him, and he cried in the weakness of his soul, “Father! where are you? do you hear?”

“I hear!” rang through the universal silence, and those thousands of people shuddered in concert. A detachment of cavalry hastened to search through the throng of people. Yankel turned pale as death, and when the horsemen had got within a short distance of him, turned round in terror to look for Taras; but Taras was no longer beside him; every trace of him was lost.

Despite his cunning escape on this occasion, Taras Bulba himself is also in the end put to death: the story ends with him going to the stake as his soul summons the brethren he can still see in the distance to resume the fight, again and again.

[A] band of Lyakhs suddenly rushed up, and seized him by the shoulders. He struggled with all might; but he could not scatter on the earth, as he had been wont to do, the heydukes who had seized him. “Oh, old age, old age!” he exclaimed: and the stout old Cossack wept. But his age was not to blame: nearly thirty men were clinging to his arms and legs.

“The raven is caught!” yelled the Lyakhs. “We must think how we can show him the most honour, the dog!” They decided, with the permission of the hetman, to burn him alive in the sight of all. There stood hard by a leafless tree, the summit of which had been struck by lightning. They fastened him with iron chains and nails driven through his hands high up on the trunk of the tree, so that he might be seen from all sides; and began at once to place fagots at its foot. But Taras did not look at the wood, nor did he think of the fire with which they were preparing to roast him: he gazed anxiously in the direction whence his Cossacks were firing. From his high point of observation he could see everything as in the palm of his hand.

“Farewell, comrades!” he shouted to them from above; “remember me, and come hither again next spring and make merry in the same fashion! What! cursed Lyakhs, have ye caught me? Think ye there is anything in the world that a Cossack fears? Wait; the time will come when ye shall learn what the orthodox Russian faith is! Already the people scent it far and near. A czar shall arise from Russian soil, and there shall not be a power in the world which shall not submit to him!” But fire had already risen from the fagots; it lapped his feet, and the flame spread to the tree…. But can any fire, flames, or power be found on earth which are capable of overpowering Russian strength?

Broad is the river Dniester, and in it are many deep pools, dense reed-beds, clear shallows and little bays; its watery mirror gleams, filled with the melodious plaint of the swan, the proud wild goose glides swiftly over it; and snipe, red-throated ruffs, and other birds are to be found among the reeds and along the banks. The Cossacks rowed swiftly on in the narrow double-ruddered boats—rowed stoutly, carefully shunning the sand bars, and cleaving the ranks of the birds, which took wing—rowed, and talked of their hetman.

* The Istoriya Russov had a great influence on young writers in the early 19th century. The text can be read as advancing a nationalism of all the Russias, or as speaking in a more specifically Ukrainian voice. See The Cossack Myth: History and Nationhood in the Age of Empires.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Poland,Power,Public Executions,Russia,Soldiers,Treason,Ukraine,Wartime Executions

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1589: Franz Seuboldt, broken parricide

Add comment September 22nd, 2015 Headsman

We have had occasion to profile the famous Nuremberg executioner (and diarist) Franz Schmidt, who is the subject of a recent book on his life and times.

This date in 1589 marked one of executioner Schmidt’s more high-profile appearances. The occasion was the execution of parricide Franz Seuboldt, who killed his own father by ambush while dad was setting bird traps.

For this transgression, Seuboldt was condemned to be drawn through Nuremberg and “nipped” by the executioner’s red-hot tongs. With these, Franz Schmidt ripped bloody chunks of the murderer’s flesh. When at last they reached the “raven stone” execution platform outside Nuremberg’s sturdy walls, Schmidt stretched out his patient and set about methodically smashing his limbs with a heavy wooden “Catherine wheel”: “only” two limbs in Seuboldt’s case, before administering the coup de grace.

This broadsheet illustration traces the case in a U shape from crime (upper left) to tongs (foreground) to execution (right) and finally the mounted wheel.

Although reserved for more exceptional crimes than the everyday thefts that merited hanging, breaking on the wheel was a fairly common form of execution in Germany, France, and elsewhere in continental Europe for many, many years. Indeed, while the wheel would fade from the Nuremberg scene during the 17th century, the horrible device remained in (increasingly rare) use in France right up to the French Revolution.

On this day..

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

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