On this date in 1653, the German bandit Jasper Hanebuth was broken on the wheel in Hanover.
An illiterate farmer’s son from Groß-Buchholz, Hanebuth came of age during the calamitous Thirty Years’ War and thereby made his bread for a time as one of the numberless strong arms enlisted to let out one another’s blood.
In a time of crisscrossing armies had conflicting loyalties and uncertain pay, it was a fine line between soldiers and thieves — sometimes just the hour of the day. What matter to a rural family or a vulnerable traveler if the gang of armed men who dispossessed him did so under the banner of God or that of opportunism? And given means and opportunity, what matter to the armed gang itself? Victims in such a chaotic environment, either actual or potential, were liable in their own turn to resort to brigandage as the only viable option, paying the devastation forward.
True to the template, Hanebuth parlayed wartime soldiery into an alarmingly bold career of opportunistic robbery in the still-extant Eilenriede. A purported “Hanebuth’s Block” in the vicinity of the present-day zoo there long preserved the association; there’s still a street in the forest known as Hanebuthwinkel.
He was reputed an especially vicious outlaw, who would raid singly as well as jointly with other farmers and decommissioned warriors, and would as readily for sport or pleasure shoot a convenient target dead before bothering to approach and find out if the business end of the felony was even worth the murder. He ultimately confessed to 19 homicides.
But it was still the pecuniary motive that drove things. Hanebuth approached crime-lord status with secret smuggling tunnels allegedly set up to move his ill-gotten gains and regular traffic with Hanover merchants. Hanebuth also set up as a horse-trader, exploiting his predilection for violence to obtain stock by force. One trader who refused a shakedown simply had his horses outright stolen the next night, and this man at last reported Hanebuth, resulting in his arrest, torture, and execution on the wheel.
He remains one of Hanover’s most iconic historical criminals.
Jacques Collot’s 1633 cycle “The Miseries of War” might have foretold Hanebuth’s fate: here, a soldier of the Thirty Years’ War who has turned to robbery is punished, as Hanebuth would be, on the wheel. The caption explains:
The ever-watching eye of the divine Astrée [Justice]
Banishes entirely the mourning from the country
When holding the sword and scales in her hands
She judges and punishes the inhuman thief
Who awaits passersby, hurts them, and plays with them
[And] then becomes himself the plaything of a wheel.
This entry in our Corpses Strewn series on the October 1698 extirpation of the Streltsy is courtesy of the diaries of Austrian diplomat Johann Georg Korb, an eyewitness to the events.
Again, in front of the Kremlin Castle two others, whose thighs and extremities had been broken, and who were tied alive to the wheel, with horrid lamentations throughout the afternoon and the following night, closed their miserable existence in the utmoft agony. One of them, the younger of the two, survived amidst his enduring tortures until noon the following day. The Czar dined at his cafe (commode) with the Boyar Leo Kirilowicz Narefkin, all the representatives and the Czar’s ministers being present. The successive and earnest supplications of all present induced the monarch, who was long reluctant, to give command to that Gabriel who is so well known at his court that an end might be put with a ball to the life and pangs of the criminal that still continued breathing.
For the remainder of the rebels, who were still guarded in places round about, their respective places of confinement were also their places of execution, lest by collecting them all together this torturing and butchery in the one place of such a multitude of men, should smell of tyranny. And especially left the minds of the citizens, already terror-stricken at so many melancholy exhibitions of their perishing fellow men should dread every kind of cruelty from their sovereign.
But considering the daily perils to which the Czar’s Majesty was hitherto exposed, without an hour’s security, and hardly escaping from many snares, he was very naturally always in great apprehension of the exceeding treachery of the Strelitz, so that he fairly concluded not to tolerate a single Strelitz in his empire, — to banish all of them that remained to the farthest confines of Muscovy after having almost extirpated the very name. In the provinces, leave was given to any that preferred to renounce military service for ever, and with the consent of the Voivodes to addict themselves to domestic services. Nor were they quite innocent: for the officers that were quartered in the camp at Azov to keep ward against the hostile inroads of the enemy, told how they were never secure, and hourly expected an atrocious outbreak of treason from the Strelitz; nor was there any doubt but that they had very ambiguous sympathies for the fortunes of the other rebels. All the wives of the Strelitz were commanded to leave the neighbourhood of Moscow, and thus experienced the consequences of the crimes of their husbands. It was forbidden by Ukase, under penalty of death, for any person to keep any of them or afford them Secret harbour, unless they would send them out of Moscow to serve upon their estates.
This entry in our Corpses Strewn series on the October 1698 extirpation of the Streltsy is courtesy of the diaries of Austrian diplomat Johann Georg Korb, an eyewitness to the events.
Today was assigned for the punishment of the popes — that is to say, of those who by carrying images to induce the serfs to side with the Strelitz, had invoked the aid of God with the holy rites of his altars for the happy success of this impious plot. The place selected by the judge for the execution was the open space in front of the church of the most Holy Trinity, which is the high church of Moscow. The ignominious gibbet cross awaited the popes, by way of reward in suit with the thousands of signs of the cross they had made, and as their fee for all the benedictions they had given to the refractory troops. The court jester, in the mimic attire of a pope, made the halter ready, and adjusted it, as it was held to be wrong to subject a pope to the hands of the common hangman. A certain Dumnoi struck off the head of another pope, and set his corpse upon the ignominious wheel. Close to the church, too, the halter and wheel proclaimed the enormity of the crime of their guilty burden to the passers by.
The Czar’s Majesty looked on from his carriage while the popes were hurried to execution. To the populace, who flood around in great numbers, he spoke a few words touching the perfidy of the popes, adding the threat, “Henceforward let no one dare to ask any pope to pray for such an intention.” A little while before the execution of the popes, two rebels, brothers, having had their thighs and other members broken in front of the Castle of the Kremlin, were set alive upon the wheel: twenty others on whom the axe had done its office lay lifeless around these wheels. The two that were bound upon the wheel beheld their third brother among the dead. Nobody will easily believe how lamentable were their cries and howls, unless he has well weighed their excruciations and the greatness of their tortures. I saw their broken thighs tied to the wheel with ropes strained as tightly as possible, so that in all that deluge of torture I do believe none can have exceeded that of the utter impossibility of the least movement. Their miserable cries had struck the Czar as he was being driven past. He went up to the wheels, and first promised speedy death, and afterwards proffered them a free pardon, if they would confess sincerely. But when upon the very wheel he found them more obstinate than ever, and that they would give no other answer than that they would confess nothing, and that their penalty was nearly paid in full, the Czar left them to the agonies of death, and hastened on to the Monastery of the Nuns, in front of which monastery there were thirty gibbets erected in a quadrangular shape, from which there hung two hundred and thirty Strelitz. The three principal ringleaders, who presented a petition to [Peter's half-sister and rival] Sophia, touching the administration of the realm, were hanged close to the windows of that princess, presenting, as it were, the petitions that were placed in their hands, so near that Sophia might with ease touch them. Perhaps this was in order to load Sophia with that remorse in every way, which I believe drove her to take the religious habit, in order to pass to a better life.
After 4 days of torture, on this date in 1584, Balthasar Gérard (Geeraerts) finally met his end by beheading on the wheel.
Gérard managed to be both historically important and wholly forgettable: an assassin working for Spain against the Netherlands, his regicide was met with a predictably stiff punishment. Then, no fault of his own, the subsequent course of history** pushed the assassin into obscurity while elevating his prey.
A lawyer by trade, Gérard was a fervent Catholic and supporter of the Spanish crown, which controlled the territory up the coast through the present-day Netherlands. At the peak of its power, Spain’s monarchy — led by King Philip II — had significant cause for concern at the rise in Protestantism.
The Spanish were Europe’s paladins of staunch Catholicism, and the sight of her troops did little to endear Spain to her colonized neighbors to the North.
For both religious reasons and political ones, the Dutch were looking for a way out from under the Spanish thumb, and a former noble named William, Duke of Orange, was a major instigator in the struggle. In his collected letters and addresses from the period, An apology or defence of William the First of Nassau, William states that, starting in 1559, he became increasingly concerned with plans against Protestants by the Spanish monarchy.
That also happens to be the year William was bestowed with stadtholdership of Holland, Zeeland, and Utrecht; in effect, he controlled the Dutch coast.
Though he was known as William the Silent, the Duke was endowed with both financial resources and widespread popularity, and he didn’t keep his mouth shut when it came to Inquisition courts in his realms.†
When the head enforcer of that policy, Cardinal Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle, left town, William got even noisier — declaring before the Council of State that Spanish policies were squelching religious freedom.
In 1566, the nobleman signed onto the Compromise of Nobles and began funding insurgencies across the northern provinces. As religious unrest grew, Calvinists and Protestants in the French and Germanic portions of Spain’s holdings quickly formed up behind William. An early attempt in 1568 to invade the Netherlands using German mercenaries and French Huguenots failed, but the resultant executions of Egmont and Hoorn put Spain on a long and winding road toward defeat.
The Dutch War was afoot, with William leading the way.
It would take and dozens of small-scale military victories over the next 15 years (during which William declared himself a Calvinist and fully broke his Spanish ties) for the Dutch to move to independence. The 1580 Union of Utrecht and 1581 Act of Abjuration officially ousted King Phillip II from the Netherlands and installed a new government.
Needless to say, Phillip reciprocated William’s love.
In 1580, Spain’s top man put a price on William’s head. Juan de Jáuregui tried to collect two years later by shooting the stadtholder, but the man holding the new title of Prince William I of Nassau recovered, while de Jáuregui was killed on the spot.
With 25,000 crowns at stake, there were bound to be other takers.
Our man Balthasar Gérard started looking for a close encounter with William the Target. At first, he joined the army in Luxembourg, which didn’t get him very far. It was time to gin up a real plot, which Gérard shopped to the Duke of Parma, Alessandro Farnese, in April 1584. Though the Duke offered no funding for the operation — Gérard ponied up the startup money he needed for the trip — and held out little hope that the lawyer would be successful, he gave Gérard assurances that his family would be taken care of in case of disaster.
Gérard first presented himself to William in June as the son of a martyred Calvinist from France. On 8 July, he returned and, badly in need of new clothes, managed to beg 50 crowns for a new set.
Instead, he bought a pair of pistols and, on 10 July, made history with a point-blank shot to William’s chest.
Detail view (click for the full image) of William the Silent’s 1585 assassination at the hands of Balthasar Gerard.
This assassination attempt didn’t fail. William became the second head of state to be killed by an assassin’s bullet,† — and his shooter the first such man to be juridically punished for the deed.
And, oh, how he was punished.
The regicide was beaten immediately after his capture, then subjected to a variety of cruelties, from wet leather boots which, when heated, both crushed and burned the feet, to daily floggings while hanging on a post outside the jail.
But on this day, his time of torture was up, and Gérard was finally put to death. You know, the usual:
It was decreed the right hand of Gerard should be burned off with a red-hot iron, that his flesh should be torn from his bones with pincers in six different places, that he should be quartered and disembowelled alive, that his heart should be torn from his bosom and flung in his face, and that, finally, his head should be taken off.
For all that he suffered as a regicide, Gérard left his family an impressive inheritance. Making good Parma’s assurances, King Phillip II gave them William’s former lands in three French provinces and took his siblings and their issue into his peerage.
Gérard’s cause carried on for another 60 years, until it was finally extinguished by the signing of the Peace of Münster by the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands and Spain.
* Foucault mistakenly identifies the torture as lasting 18 days, and the additional details he lays down for Gérard’s time on death row may be less-than-believable. However, all sources indicate that the tortures Gérard endured were quite spectacular, even by the standards of the day.
** See Dissident identities in the early modern Low Countries for a complete treatment of this period in The Netherlands and Belgium.
† For example, the city of Antwerp (Belgium), then under possession of the Spanish crown and considered the mercantile center of Europe for its vast sugar trade, featured over 100 executions for heresy from 1557-1562, twice as many as in all of Spain during that time.
‡ The first was James Stewart, 1st Earl of Moray, then Regent of Scotland. Stewart’s shooter, James Hamilton, hid out in his uncle’s house until trouble had passed, then disappeared into obscurity.
On this date in 1705, two men were burned at the stake and two others broken on the wheel — Camisards all, put to death in Nimes, France.
The Camisards* were French Protestants of the mountainous southern Cevennes region who make their entry into these pages because the crown in 1685 revoked the Edict of Nantes, France’s guarantee of multiconfessional toleration.
Protestants were going to be bullied into conversion — or, in many cases, flight. (London’s Spitalfields textile industry, for instance, got a welcome shot in the arm from refugee Huguenot weavers.)
In 1702, the Cevennes Protestants pushed back.
“A persecution unsurpassed in violence had lasted near a score of years,” Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in his 19th century travelogue of the region. “This was the result upon the persecuted; hanging, burning, breaking on the wheel, had been in vain; the dragoons had left their hoof-marks over all the countryside; there were men rowing in the galleys, and women pining in the prisons of the Church; and not a thought was changed in the heart of any upright Protestant.”
Two years of dirty neighbor-on-neighbor violence mostly petered out in 1704 with the loss of the Camisards’ two main leaders — Jean Cavalier, the brilliant peasant-turned-commander who was bought off by an army commission and a royal pension, and Roland Laporte, who was betrayed as by Judas for 200 pieces of gold.
The prospect of a renewed rising drew them back — a bold and terrible stroke to mount a surprise massacre and kidnap the exiled English Duke of Berwick. Catinat returned from his hidey-hole in Geneva; Ravanel came the bush where he was the last notable Camisard commander in the field.
An informer spilled the secret and the conspirators were busted in Nimes before they could spring their trap.
They faced immediate trial and condemnation — Catinat and Ravanel, along with two younger fighters named Jonquet and Villas.
After a long bout of pre-execution torture on April 21 to reveal their conspirators,**
The next day, the 22nd April, 1705, they were taken from the prison and drawn to the place of execution in two carts, being unable to walk, on account of the severe torture to which they had been subjected, and which had crushed the bones of their legs. A single pile of wood had been prepared for Catinat and Ravanel, who were to be burnt together; they were in one cart, and Villas and Jonquet, for whom two wheels had been prepared, were in the other.
The first operation was to bind Catinat and Ravanel back to back to the same stake, care being taken to place Catinat with his face to windward, so that his agony might last longer, and then the pile was lit under Ravanel.
As had been foreseen, this precaution gave great pleasure to those people who took delight in witnessing executions. The wind being rather high, blew the flames away from Catinat, so that at first the fire burnt his legs only — a circumstance which, the author of the History of the Camisards tells us, aroused Catinat’s impatience. Ravanel, however, bore everything to the end with the greatest heroism, only pausing in his singing to address words of encouragement to his companion in suffering, whom he could not see, but whose groans and curses he could hear; he would then return to his psalms, which he continued to sing until his voice was stifled in the flames. Just as he expired, Jonquet was removed from the wheel, and carried, his broken limbs dangling, to the burning pile, on which he was thrown. From the midst of the flames his voice was heard saying, “Courage, Catinat; we shall soon meet in heaven.” A few moments later, the stake, being burnt through at the base, broke, and Catinat falling into the flames, was quickly suffocated. That this accident had not been forseen and prevented by proper precautions caused great displeasure to spectators who found that the three-quarter of an hour which the spectacle had lasted was much too brief a time.
Villas lived three hours longer on his wheel, and expired without having uttered a single complaint.
A hecatomb of Camisard executions followed, fed by the denunciations of frightened or avaricious people; still others were “merely” condemned to the galleys … bringing at last a sullen peace of arms to the turbulent province.
According to this registry of events in French Quebec before the English conquest, one Charles Alexis dit Dessessards was ordered broken on the wheel by Quebec’s high executioner on this date in 1673.
He had been convicted of murdering a fur-trapping buddy named Herme, and plundering his pelts.
In the terrifying words of the sentence, he was at 3 p.m. to have “arms and legs broken with four blows, then be strangled and thrown on a wheel to remain there until seven o’clock in the evening. His body will then be brought to the gallows, there to remain until entirely consumed” by the elements. On top of everything, he had a 200-livre fine to pay.
There was just one bit of good news for the murderer Charles Alexis dit Dessessards:
“Until the said Charles Alexis is apprehended, the aforesaid sentence will be executed upon his effigy.”
Le 6. — “Charles Alexis dit Dessessards, convaincu d avoir tué de guet-à-pens le nommé Herme, son camarade de voyage, et d’avoir volé ses hardes et pelleteries, sera conduit sur la grande place de cette vile (Québec), par l;exécuteur de la haute justice, un lundi, à trois heures après-midi, et là, sur un échafaud qui y sera dressé à cet effet, y aura les bras et les jambes rompues de quatre coups qu’il recevra vif; sera ensuite étranglé et jeté sur une roue pour y demeurer jusqu’à sept heures du soir. Son corps sera porté sur les fourches patibulaires pour y demeurer jusqu’à parfaite consommation. Condamne en outre à deux cents livres d’amende envers le Roy, à la restitution des choses volées et le surplus de ses biens confisqué. Et en attendant que le dit Charles Alexis soit appréhendé, sera exécuté en effigie aux fourches patibulaires, un lundi, à l’heure que dessus.
On this date in 1761, King Canek Chan Montezuma was torn apart in the main square of Merida.
This august regnal name was asserted by a shaman previously known as Jacinto Uc de los Santos (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish). “Canek” echoed the history of the Mayan Itza kings, but it was Jacinto in using it for a single month’s insurrection that fixed its immortality.
“Memory is not just a tool of the spirit for calling up the past. Rather it is a skill which allows us in a moment to see what is in its essence outside of time. Memory allows us to rise to a state, not available to the mind alone, where everything is present.”
Canek, a commoner (perhaps an orphan) with some education, mounted in November 1761 a surprise revolt at the village of Cisteil (or Quisteil). There he deposed the parish priest and preached from the Catholic pulpit in the Mayan tongue:
My beloved children, I know you yearn to throw off the heavy yoke you have labored under since the Spanish subjugation … Spanish rule [brings] nothing but suffering servility.
About this same time, a Spanish merchant on his routine business rolled into town, blithely unaware of the gathering rebellion. Canek found the interloper insolent, and had him killed.
Crowned the new Mayan king and asserting semi-divine powers, Canek rapidly gained the support of neighboring towns. Within a week, he fielded 1,500 Mayan soldiers to defend Cisteil against a Spanish force sent to suppress them. Hundreds died in a bitter hand-to-hand battle on November 26, 1761, and Cisteil burned … but the Spanish won, and Canek, following a short flight, was captured with his remaining followers.
The Spanish governor of Yucatan, Jose Crespo (Spanish link), ordered Canek to a tortuous execution: tortured, broken, burned, and his ashes scattered. Many of his other followers were also put to death in various ways around the same time.
Mural of Jacinto Canek’s torture by Fernando Castro Pacheco at the Palacio de Gobierno in Yucatan, Mexico. (cc) image from Yodigo.
The Spanish hadn’t heard the end of this.
In the next century, Canek’s name was on the lips of Mayan descendants and mixed-blood Mestizos when they revolted again in the long-running (1847-1901, or even later: Quintana Roo maintained itself semi-autonomous until the 1910s) Caste War against domination by the European-identifying peoples of what was now the independent state of Mexico.
For decades, large areas of the Mayan Yucatan remained deadly to enter for any white-skinned outsider.
Today, it’s safe to check out the monumental tribute to Jacinto Canek on the Merida boulevard that bears his name.
On this day in 1721, Jean-Pierre Balagny, alias Capuchin, was broken on the wheel in Paris. He was one of the lieutenants and boon companions of legendary French outlaws Cartouche.
We have noted that that renowned bandit crowned his fame at the last by enduring all tortures, only to voluntarily give up the names of his companions as he approached the scaffold and perceived that they had failed to arrange a rescue.
“Capuchin”, who was with Cartouche when he was captured and subject to much the same interrogation, proved as good as his captain. He, too, endured the boot without breaking. And he, with two companions, likewise reached the scaffold and only there coughed it up.
They gave information as to their accomplices, and made, at the foot of the scaffold, confessions which torture had failed to elicit from them.
They implicated so many persons, that another series of trials began, which lasted as long as the declarations of convicted prisoners compromised other persons, and threw new light on the immense ramifications of an association of miscreants which had for many years defied the police. More than sixty persons were under lock and key at the time of the execution of Cartouche and Balagny. This number increased every day in consequence of the confession of those who hoped to save their lives by denouncing their accomplices, and in June of the following year it rose to one hundred and fifty … all this blood, instead of washing the affair away, seemed rather to make it more serious. Every day brought to light some new discovery; and this shows how profoundly mistaken were those who denied that Cartouche, the centre and wire-puller of this horrible association, possessed the organising spirit without which he could not have extended this immense net over the Parisian society.
One is left to infer from this entry in the memoirs of the Parisian hereditary executioner-family Sanson that Balagny likewise did in his friends over some ornate notion of honor … although if the anecdote is true, one could as easily suppose any number of less “creditable” reasons.
At any rate, Balagny’s evidence added to that of Cartouche’s snowballed into a bloody cycle of tortures and executions and fresh denunciations over the year to come.
Of course, getting rid of all the criminals did not get rid of crime.
“In spite of the executions at La Greve, there are more thieves than ever in Paris,” lamented one observer (quoted here). “Cartouche has died on the wheel; but his name and memory engender robbers.”
On this date in 1788, France’s last attempt at an execution by breaking-wheel was thwarted by a vast crowd sympathetic to the condemned … which stormed the scaffold in Versailles and liberated the victim.
As neat a parable as one might like to find of the entire revolutionary storm then rising on France’s horizons, Jean Louschart’s tale begins with a conflict at home between the young man Jean — neck-deep in Voltaire, Rousseau, and the rest of Enlightenment thought — and his father, a respected and conservative smith not to keen on the boy’s books. Then add to this, that the Louschart family took on one Madame Verdier as a boarder, and Jean grew smitten with that woman’s daughter Helen, to the chagrin of Madame Verdier … who wanted to marry that girl off to Jean’s own father.
So Mathurin Louschart eventually got into it with his son Jean over the boy’s subversive reading. When Mathurin ordered Jean to be silent, the young man just feeling his oats retorted that this was a novel way of settling the dispute. This jab at the elder’s native prerogatives led Mathurin to drive Jean from the house full stop.
That might have been all there was to it if not for the pull of Helen. The Greeks would have understood.
Jean eventually snuck back intending to elope with the willing Helen and salvage her from her father’s hand, but Helen’s mother sniffed out the plan … and the boy entered his former domicile to find Helen being soundly thrashed by Madame. This led Jean to try to protect her, which led Mathurin to intervene, which led to a dramatic bout of father-son violence in which Mathurin was fatally struck with a smithy hammer. Madame Verdier would accuse the young man of willful murder; Jean’s supporters insisted that he had merely tossed the hammer back into the house as he fled it (having overpowered the father’s own murderous rampage), accidentally causing the father’s death. Jean himself kept mum at trial, certain that he could never convince the judges of this version of events and content to suffer for having shed his father’s blood.
We’ll take it here from the Memoirs of the Sansons. The voice here is the grandson of the venerable French Revolution executioner Charles Henri Sanson, who was before that the venerable executioner of the ancien regime. (The mob addresses him familiarly as “Charlot” here.) Fathers and sons had this much in common at least.
the court sentenced [Jean Louschart] to die on the wheel. The prisoner, however, was not condemned to amende honorable, which included the amputation of the hand; and the judges added a retentum to their sentence by which Jean Louschart was to be secretly strangled before his limbs were crushed.
Now public opinion, in Versailles, had already settled that Jean was innocent, and the news of his forthcoming execution caused general excitement. The execution was appointed to take place on August 3. On the morning of the 2nd, Charles Henri Sanson sent from Paris two carts containing the instruments of torture, and beams and boards for the erection of the scaffold. He himself went to Versailles in the afternoon. The emotion caused by Jean Louschart’s impending fate was limited to Versailles; and my grandfather was so thoroughly convinced that he had to deal with a vulgar criminal that he was greatly surprised when he found the whole town in a fever. The Place Saint-Louis was covered with so great a multitude that the assistants and carpenters could hardly go on with their work. No hostility was manifested, however; the crowd was noisy, but its mood was gay; the name of Jean was scarcely pronounced; and the workmen who were erecting the platform were merely jeered. One of the carpenters having, however, struck an urchin who was throwing stones at him, cries of ‘Death!’ were uttered; in an instant all the mocking faces became dark and threatening ; the assistants and carpenters were attacked, and their lives were in great danger. But a body of a hundred men, who could easily be identified as smiths by their athletic proportions and brawny faces, interfered, and partly by strength, partly by persuasion, they induced the crowd to retreat.
My grandfather had not bestowed much attention on this popular demonstration, but he became more attentive when the interference of the smiths took place. He felt convinced that the crowd was obeying a by-word, and that if it had retreated it was merely because it preferred to wait for a more favourable time for action. He directed his assistants to finish the erection of the scaffold as quickly as possible, and returned to Paris, where he lost no time in acquainting the proper authorities with his apprehensions.
Political emotion had already given rise to many storms in the provinces. Normandy, Bretagne, Bear n had risen on behalf of their parliaments, attacked in their privileges. Dauphine had taken a decisive step; after a long series of riots, the representatives of the three orders, nobility, clergy, and tiers-tiat, had assembled, and proclaimed their provincial independence. Paris, however, had heard with indifference of the arrest of two members of the Parliament d’Espremenil and Monsabert; and the authorities had no idea that a struggle between the Government and the people could take place in the very town inhabited by the King and his Court, so that only a few soldiers were sent to Versailles.
The multitude which had thronged the Place Saint-Louis retired during the night; only a few young men remaining to watch what took place around the scaffold. It was rumoured that Helen Verdier had thrown herself at the Queen’s feet, imploring the reprieve of the culprit, and that Marie Antoinette had prevailed on the King to grant it. The news had doubtless led to the dispersion of the crowd.
Charles Henri Sanson made the most of the circumstance. He caused a strong paling to be erected around the scaffold; and, on their side, the executive magistrates took upon themselves to advance the hour of execution.
It was two o’clock in the morning when my grandfather left the Place Saint-Louis for the prison, and he remarked that the men who were still in the place dispersed in different directions as he went away. Jean Louschart was stretched on his pallet when he entered his cell. The doomed man rose and calmly surveyed him. The clerk of the parliament read aloud the sentence, to which he listened with much attention. He then murmured a few words, among which only those of ‘ Poor father!’ were heard, and he added in a loud voice:
‘In two hours I shall justify myself before him.’ On being told that it was time to depart for the scaffold, he turned to the executioner, saying, ‘You can be in no greater hurry than I am, sir.’
At half-past four o’clock the cart moved in the direction of the Place Saint-Louis. The executive magistrates were in hopes that, owing to the retentum, everything could be finished before the population awoke. But they soon perceived their mistake. The streets were swarming with people. The whole of the population was astir. Deafening clamours burst from the crowd as the cart appeared, and it was with the greatest difficulty that it made its way. The prisoner did not even seem to suspect that all this movement was caused by the sympathy people felt for him. At the corner of the Rue de Satory a piercing cry was heard, and a girl was seen waving her handkerchief. Jean Louschart looked up, and rising to his feet, he tried to smile, and exclaimed, ‘Farewell, Helen, farewell!’ At that moment a smith of high stature and herculean proportions, who was walking near the cart, cried in a thundering voice: ‘It is an revoir you should say, Jean. Are good fellows like you to be broken on the wheel?’
A horseman drove him back, but applause and cheers came from every quarter. It was obvious, by the pale faces of the clerk, the policemen, and the soldiers who surrounded the cart, that the agents of the law were anything but confident. The scaffold, however, was reached without accident. The crowd was thickly packed on the Place Saint-Louis. As the cart stopped Jean Louschart addressed a question to the priest who was sitting near him, and my grandfather heard the latter answer, ‘To save you.’ ‘No, father,’ said the doomed man in a feverish voice and with some impatience; ‘if I am innocent of the intention of committing the crime, my hands are nevertheless stained with blood. I must die, and I wish to die.—Be quick, sir,’ he added, turning to my grandfather.
‘Sir,’ answered Charles Henri, pointing to the infuriated masses that were already breaking through the paling, ‘if there is a man here who is in danger of death it is not you.’
Hardly were the words out of his mouth than a tempest of groans and screams burst forth. The paling was broken and trodden under foot, and hundreds of men rushed on the scaffold. The smith who had already spoken to Louschart was among the foremost. He seized the prisoner in his muscular arms, cut his bonds, and prepared to carry him off in triumph. An extraordinary scene now took place; Jean Louschart struggled violently against his saviours, turned towards the executioner and begged for death with the earnestness usually displayed by other culprits in asking for mercy. But his friends surrounded him, and at length succeeded in carrying him away.
My grandfather’s position was perilous in the extreme. Separated from his assistants, alone amidst a crowd that knew him but too well, he really thought that his last hour was at hand. His countenance probably betrayed his thoughts, for the tall smith came up to him, and seized his arm: ‘Fear nothing, Charlot,’ he cried; ‘we don’t want to harm you, but your tools. Henceforth, Charlot, you must kill your customers without making them suffer.’ And speaking to the crowd: ‘Let him pass, and take care he is not hurt.’
This harangue calmed the crowd, and my grandfather was allowed to withdraw. In less time than it takes to write this account the scaffold and all its accessories were broken into pieces, which were thrown on the pile prepared for the burning of the prisoner’s body; and the terrible wheel was placed on the summit as a kind of crown. Fire was set to the heap, and men and women, holding each other by the hand, formed an immense ring and danced around the crackling pile until it was reduced to ashes.
Louis XVI pardoned the unwillingly liberated Jean Louschart, and abolished the breaking-wheel.
On this date in 1739, Michael Blödorn was stretched out on a scaffold at Copenhagen’s beautiful Kongens Nytorv (King’s Square), where an executioner set about smashing his limbs with heavy wagon wheels.
A 1727 illustration of Danish prisoners broken on the wheel.
As he lay suffering, Blödorn sang vigorously — a joyful hymn to lift his soul to heaven.
That, indeed, was why he was being broken on the wheel in the first place.
Blödorn was part of an alarming trend in Lutheran countries that waxed especially strong in Denmark: a homicide-to-heaven loophole apparently licensed by the Reformation theology.
Crudely put, the scam is this: you have a sure ticket to salvation if you die with no un-repented sin on your soul. But the only real way to know when you’re going to die is to kill yourself … and since that’s a mortal sin, that’s even worse than risking the everyday mischance of life.
But do like Mike and kill a random stranger to incur a death sentence, and you get to check out pure as the driven snow: assured last-minute repentance with no suicidal downside. Everybody wins!
Actually carrying out this plan required what you might call a deep commitment to your theology: in an effort to discourage the practice without backing off the death penalty for murder, penalties for apparent suicide-by-executioner cases had been ramped up into an archaic bloody theater. Blödorn, a soldier, had already been suffering weekly floggings leading up to the execution. Civilian murderers could look forward to having the flesh ripped with red-hot tongs.
Ouch. A 1727 illustration of judicial penalties that might attend a suicide-murder: tearing with hot tongs, the breaking-wheel, and severed hands.
At last in 1767, the Danes reversed course abandoned capital punishment for “melancholy and other dismal persons [who committed murder] for the exclusive purpose of losing their lives,” implementing instead sentences of humiliating hard labor: a punishment to fit the crime and also meet the larger society’s need for deterrence.
“This made Denmark a pioneer when it came to abolishing the death penalty,” said Danish academic Tyghe Kroghe, author of a new book about the suicide-murder phenomenon. “But it was not something they did proudly. The decision violated the religious understanding of the criminal system.”
Here’s Kroghe discussing his research … in Danish.
Executions of men and women who not only decline to fight their sentences, but even commit their capital crimes with the intent to engineer their own executions, are hardly confined to the foreign country that is the past.
Maybe you wouldn’t point the finger at Martin Luther any longer, but Denmark’s very last civil execution was of an arsonist so insistent about attempting murder that the authorities finally gave him the peace of the grave that he desired. We’ve seen in these pages the headsman courted by people motivated by depression and by romantic love.
Christopher Newton, who killed his cellmate to draw a death sentence and was executed in Ohio in 2007;
Daniel Colwell, who gunned down a couple randomly to “win” a death sentence in Georgia in 2003 but died before reaching execution;
Mamoru Takuma, the mentally disturbed author of Japan’s notorious Osaka school massacre, who committed the crime with no intent to escape and immediately demanded a death sentence (carried out in 2004).