On this date in 1906, less than three weeks after she had assassinated tsarist general Georgiy Alexandrovich Min (Russian biography), revolutionary Zinaida Vasilevna Konoplyannikov was hanged at Schlisselburg fortress near St. Petersburg.
Konoplyannikov is mostly noted in Russian sources online (for instance, here and here).
The daughter of a soldier and a peasant, she was educated — hardly a given for a low-born girl in the late 19th century — and taught in the Baltics and St. Petersburg around the turn of the century. By her profession, the plight of her similarly unprivileged students helped radicalize her.
She had a couple arrests for the usual subversive stuff (distributing illicit propaganda and the like) during Russia’s brief flowering towards liberalism in the 20th century’s early years. Those years would be bloodily reversed as tsarism reasserted itself after the revolutionary moment of 1905.
Konoplyannikov avenged herself on one of the great villains (from her standpoint) of that reversal, G.A. Min — commander of the Semenyovsky Life Guards regiment which bloodily bombarded Moscow’s Red Presnia working-class district to crush the last bastion of revolutionary sentiment in December 1905 at the cost of more than 1,000 lives.
Konoplyannikov gunned him down at a Peterhof train station the following August; in a closed military courtroom (giving her no opportunity to use the trial as an oratorical platform), the assassin was condemned to hang in less than an hour.
She was reported to have died calm, sure in the approaching victory of her cause:
the history of the Russian nation is a record of blood … the autocratic and bureaucratic structures are maintained only by violence … You cannot build anything upon the place of the old without first destroying the old. If it is impossible to catch ideas with bayonets, it is also impossible to resist bayonets with ideas only …
No repressions, no arrests, no prisons, no exiles, no shootings, no punitive expeditions, no pogroms, will stop the rising national movement.
I die with one thought: forgive me, forgive me, my people! I have so little to give you — only this, my life. I die full of faith in what will come … when the throne will crumble, and over the Russian plain, a broad, bright sun of freedom arise.
On this date in 1944, the Gestapo eliminated more-trouble-than-he-was-worth Russian SS man Bronislav Kaminski.
The St. Petersburg-born Kaminski was Soviet by citizenship, but not Russian by nationality. Half-German and half-Polish, he’d done time twice for his questionable loyalties during the paranoid 1920′s and 30′s.
Turns out the commissars were on to something … or maybe, to paraphrase the old saying, that a Nazi is a Communist who’s been to the gulag.
Either way, when the front swept past Belarus where Kaminski was serving his post-release internal exile, the engineer jumped on an opportunity to join a classmate with the Russian National Liberation Army (RONA, or ROA). Kaminski soon rose to command the anti-partisan “army,” and earned an Iron Cross and the rank of Major General when it was incorporated into the Waffen-SS.
Unfortunately for Kaminski — and more so for anyone who happened to be in his unit’s vicinity — the 29th Waffen Grenadier Division was much better at roughing up partisans and their presumed civilian sympathizers than conducting disciplined military operations.
Little more than a roving band of armed thugs,* it was completely ineffective in the Siege of Warsaw earlier in August 1944, spending its time raping and looting instead.
That, evidently, was enough for Himmler, who had Kaminski eliminated** in punishment for his own looting (the booty was supposed to belong to the Reich), and the alleged rape-murder of German women along with all the expendables in Warsaw.
The exact trigger for this execution (for the juridical machinery always veils acts of discretion and intentionality; certainly, this is evident in a state like Nazi Germany) has never been completely clear; it may have been that between Kaminski and turncoat Red Army general Andrei Vlasov, the shrinking Reich had room enough for only one Russian commander.
Devil knows what he was commanding, anyway.
When, post-Kaminski, Vlasov assigned the remains of the RONA to Ukrainian collaborator Sergei Bunyachenko, the latter fumed, “So that’s what you’re giving me, bandits, robbers and thieves! You’ll let me have what you can no longer use!” … and soon bailed on his “patrons” by switching sides in the war yet again.
Sometimes it’s better to let your curiosity rest for a little while, especially when a violent despot takes charge of the region you want to do geological studies on. That was the takeaway lesson for Adolf Schlagintweit (English Wikipedia page | German) when Wali Khan discharged the German explorer’s head in 1857 in the Kashgar region of present-day China.
Schlagintweit and his brothers, Hermann and Robert, were in pursuit of knowledge, following up Hermann and Adolf’s drab and long-titled work Untersuchungen über die physikalische Geographie der Alpen, in ihren Beziehungen zu den phänomenon der Gletscher, zur Geologie, Meteorologie, und Pflanzengeographie (Studies of the Physical Geography of the Alps, in Relation to the Phenomena of Glaciers, Weather, and Phytogeography) and equally odorless (but far more accessibly titled) successor Neue Untersuchungen über die physikalische Geographie und Geologie der Alpen (New Studies of the Physical Geography and Geology of the Alps), authored by all three.
The Schlagintweits were successfully largely because of their ability to draw: their writing left much to be desired, and their scientific skills were frequently a target of ridicule after the voyage that saw the end of Adolf.
The East India Company funded that venture, which was intended to take magnetic field measurements, beginning in 1854. The trek was spurred on by the then-85-year-old Alexander von Humboldt, who had extensively traversed Latin America and attempted the first scientific description of its geology and wildlife; von Humboldt, a noted scientist throughout Europe, convinced the East India Company to pony up large amounts of money for what he expected to be a significant geological study, one that he long sought but could not undertake himself. This relationship is explored in-depth by Gabriel Finkelstein in his well-written History of Science article “‘Conquerors of the Künlün? The Schlagintweit Mission to High Asia, 1854–57″.
The brothers made their way to central India and from there journeyed north into the Himalayas. They did not travel together, but separated and re-united occasionally to go over samples, pictures, and notes.
After their last meeting in the fall of 1856, Adolf’s itinerary brought him through the mountains of Tibet and into present-day China, near the borders with Kyrgystan and Pakistan. It was in this Kashgar region that the geologist found himself embroiled in what would be the last in a series of revolts by the East Turkestan Khojas, a group claiming nobility in Eastern Kazakhstan from the time of Genghis Khan.*
Adolf’s end is largely shrouded in mystery, but some contemporaneous accounts given to the British government provide a minimal sketch. Schlagintweit’s ostensible goal was to reach the city of Kashgar; despite much of his party deserting, and in spite of a warning from fleeing refugees that the notably cruel Wali Khan had initiated a rebellion, Schlagintweit pressed on.
He was met at the city’s border and brought before the Khan, who, having little use for European interlopers wandering his territory, accused the scientist of being a spy and had Adolf summarily beheaded.
Adolf’s notebook was later purchased by a passing Persian from the tobacco shop, where its pages were being used to wrap tobacco leaves. The purchaser tracked down a skull he believed to be Schlagintweit’s and brought the chartaceous and skeletal evidence to India.
The book published from the travels of the Schlagintweits is available here. It has been widely panned as dull.
* Four years after Wali Khan was deposed once again by the Chinese, Uighurs successfully battled for the region’s brief independence. Tensions in the region, needless to say, have not settled.
It also records the physical intrusion — not merely the psychological postulating — of the author himself, wandering the prison corridors in the dark, laying his hand (so it would seem) upon the condemned boy’s ebbing pulse.
“Gibbeted” ran in the August 26 Cincinnati Commercial:
EXECUTION OF A YOUTHFUL MURDERER.
SHOCKING TRAGEDY AT DAYTON.
A Broken Rope and a Double Hanging.
Sickening Scenes Behind the Scaffold-Screen.
The execution of James Murphy, yesterday afternoon, at Dayton, for the murder of Colonel William Dawson, in that city, on the night of August 31,1875, was an event, it must be said, which the people of Montgomery County had long looked forward to with no small degree of satisfaction. The murder was of itself peculiarly atrocious, from the fact that it was actually committed without a shadow of provocation. The victim was a worthy and popular citizen, and the feeling of the public in regard to the crime was sufficiently evinced in the fact that the city authorities, subsequent to the arrest of Murphy, were obliged to call out the militia that the claim of legal justice to deal with the criminal might be protected. Colonel Dawson, it may be remembered, was murdered apparently for no other reason than that he refused a drunken party permission to intrude upon the quiet enjoyments of a private wedding party. The Colonel was Superintendent of the Champion Plow Works, at Dayton, and the bridegroom being an employe of the company, the Colonel had, by request, assumed the management of the wedding ball. When Murphy was refused admittance, he induced one of his companions, Lewis Meyers, to entice the Colonel out of doors on the pretext of getting a drink; and soon after the invitation had been accepted. Murphy struck Dawson, and during the subsequent scuffle, suddenly plunged a long knife up to the halt in the Colonel’s left side. The victim of this cowardly assault lived but a few moments afterward, and died without being able to positively identify his assassin.
Circumstantial evidence, notwithstanding, clearly pointed to Murphy as the criminal, and to Meyers as his accomplice; the former being sentenced to death, and the latter, being convicted of manslaughter, to a term of two years in the State Penitentiary. Sentence was passed on the 28th of April, the jury having disagreed upon the first trial, in February, which necessitated a second.
The youth of the prisoner—he was only nineteen years of age—did not, strange as it may seem, excite any marked degree of sympathy for his miserable fate. He was a fair skinned, brown haired, beardless lad, with rather large features, a firm, vicious mouth; sullen, steady gray eyes, shadowed by a habitual frown; a rather bold forehead, half concealed by a mass of curly locks, brushed down, — a face, in short, that, notwithstanding its viciousness, was not devoid of a certain coarse regularity. His parents were hard-working Irish people, but his own features showed little evidence of Celtic blood.
Perhaps the dogged obstinacy of the prisoner in denying, almost to the last, his evident crime, had no little to do with the state of public feeling in regard to him. Moreover, he had long been notorious in the city as a worthless loafer and precocious ruffian, perpetually figuring in some street fight, drunken brawl or brutal act of violence. For a considerable period of time, previous to the murder of Colonel Dawson, he had been the boasted leader of a band of young roughs, from nineteen to twenty years of age, who were known in Dayton as the “chain-gang.”
The boy’s mother had died while he was yet young; but he did not lack a home, and the affection of an old father, and of brothers and sisters—the latter of whom he is said to have cruelly abused in fits of drunken passion. In this connection it of course be in order, religiously, to discourse upon the results of neglecting early admonitions; and, philosophically, upon the evidence that the unfortunate lad had inherited an evil disposition, whereof the tendencies were not to be counteracted by any number of admonitions. But the facts in the case, as they appeared to the writer, were simply that a poor, ignorant, passionate boy, with a fair, coarse face, had in the heat of drunken anger taken away the life of a fellow-being, and paid the penalty of his brief crime, by a hundred days of mental torture, and a hideous death.
Perhaps there are many readers of this article, who may have perused and shuddered at the famous tale of the “Iron Shroud.” You may remember that the victim, immured in the walls of a dungeon, lighted by seven windows, finds that each successive day of his imprisonment, one of the windows disappears forever. There are first seven, then six, then five, then four, then three, then two, then but one—dim and shadowy;—and then the night-black darkness that prefigures the formless gloom of the Shadow of Death. And through the thick darkness booms, hour after hour, the abysmal tones of a giant bell, announcing to the victim the incessant approach of the fearful midnight when the walls shall crush his bones to shapelessness. No one ever read that tale of the Castle of Tolfi without experiencing such horrors as make the flesh creep. Yet the agony therein depicted by a cunning writer is, after all, but a very slight exaggeration of the torture to which condemned criminals are periodically subjected in our prisons—not for seven days, forsooth, but for one hundred. This is the mercy of the law! – to compel the wretched victim to await the slow but inevitable approach of the grimmest and most ignominious of deaths for one hundred days. Fancy the ghastly mental computation of time which he must make to his own heart— “ninety-nine—ninety-eight—ninety-seven—ninety-six—ninety-five,” until at last the allotment of life is reduced to a miserable seven days, as frightfully speedy as those of the Man in the Iron Shroud. And then the black scaffold with the blacker mystery below the drop, the sea of curious and unsympathetic faces, the moment of supreme suspense after his eyes are veiled from the light of the world by the sable hood. But this pyramid of agony is not absolutely complete until apexed by the vision of a fragile rope, the sudden hush of horror, and the bitterest period of agony twice endured. It is cruel folly to assert that because the criminal be ignorant, uneducated, phlegmatic, unimaginative, he is incapable of acutely feeling the torture of hideous suspense. That was asserted, nevertheless, and frequently asserted yesterday, by spectators of the execution. We did not think so. The victim was young and strong, a warm-blooded, passionate boy, with just that coarse animal vitality which makes men cling most strongly to life, as a thing to be enjoyed in the mere fact of possession—he mere ability to hear, see, feel.
The incidents of the prisoner’s jail life during the last week—how he ate, drank, smoked, talked—might be very fully dwelt on as matters of strictly local interest, but may be briefly dismissed in these columns. There is, however, one story connected with that jail-life too strange and peculiar to be omitted. It seems that young Murphy learned to entertain a special affection for Tom Hellriggle, a Deputy Sheriff of Montgomery County, who had attended him kindly since his removal from the jail-room to a cell on the third floor, which opened in the rear of the scaffold. One night recently. Murphy said to Hellriggle, confidentially: “I knew I was going to be hanged, long ago. Do you know that I knew it before I was sentenced?”
“Why, how did you know that?” curiously asked the deputy.
Then the lad told him that during the intervals of the trials, one night between 12 and 1 o’clock, he heard the voice of a woman crying weirdly and wildly in the darkness, and so loudly that the sound filled all the jail-room, and that many of the men awoke and shuddered.
“You remember that, don’t you?” asked the lad.
“I do,” said the deputy; “and I also remember that there was no living woman in the jail-room that night.’
“So,” continued the boy, “they asked me if I heard it, and I said yes; but I pretended I did not know what it was. I believe I said no human being could cry so fearfully as that. But I did know what it was, Tom—I saw the woman.”
“Who was it?” asked Tom, earnestly.
“It was my mother. And I knew why she cried so strangely. She was crying for me.”
There are few men who enter the condemned cell and leave it for the gallows without having entertained during the interval a strong desire to take their own lives, and are for the most part deterred from so doing rather by the religious dread of a dim and vague Something after death, than by any physical fear. So it appears to have been with Murphy. When all hope, except the hope of pardon from the All-forgiving Father, was dead within him, and the Governor of Ohio had refused to grant a reprieve or commutation of sentence, then the prisoner listened much more calmly to the admonitions of Father Murphy, a fat, kindly, red-cheeked Irish priest, who took a heartfelt interest in the “spiritual welfare” of his namesake. He soon expressed repentance for his crime, and even agreed to confess all publically—an act, all the circumstances properly considered, which really evinced more manhood than the act of “dying game” with the secret.
Shortly afterward he handed to Deputy Sheriff Hellriggle a small, keen knife, which he had managed to conceal, despite all the vigilance of his guards “I would not take my own life, now,” he said, “though I were to be hung twice over.” Yet at the time the poor fellow probably had little idea that he would actually suffer the penalty of the law twice. It was evident, however, that he had frequently premeditated suicide, as in a further conversation with his guard he pointed out certain ingenious and novel modes of self-destruction which he had planned. That the criminal possessed no ordinary amount of nerve and self-control under the most trying circumstances, can not for a moment be questioned; nor can it be truthfully averred that his courage was merely the result of stolid phlegm and natural insensibility. None of the family, indeed, appear to inherit over-sensitive organizations, as a glance at the faces of the visitors to the condemned cell sufficiently satisfied us. When James’ oldest brother, a ruddily-featured young man of twenty, visited the prisoner day before yesterday, he mounted the black scaffold erected outside the cell-door, and, after a few humorous remarks, actually executed a double-shuffle dance upon the trap-door, until Sheriff Patton, hearing the noise, at once turned him out of the corridor. But James’ actions in jail, his last farewell to his relations, his sensitiveness in regard to certain reports afloat concerning his past career, and lastly, the very fact that his nerve did finally yield under a fearful and wholly unexpected pressure, all tend to show that his nature was by no means so brutally unfeeling as had been alleged.
The scaffold had been erected at the rear end of the central corridor of the jail hospital ward in the third story of the building, immediately without the cell-room in which the prisoner had been confined subsequent to his removal from the gloomier jail-room below, where he had heard the loud knocking of the carpenters’ hammers, and the hum of saws—sounds of which the grim significance was fully recognized by him without verbal interpretation. “Ah, they are putting up the gallows!” he said: “The noise don’t frighten me much, though.” To the reporter who visited the long, white corridors by lamp-light, with the tall, black-draped and ebon-armed apparition at its further end, these preparations for an execution under roof, instead of beneath the clear sky, and in the pure air, seemed somewhat strange and mysteriously horrible. It is scarcely necessary to describe the mechanism of the scaffold, further than to observe that the trap-door was closed by curved bolts, the outer ends of which were inserted into or withdrawn from shallow sockets in the framework at either side of the door, by foot-pressure upon a lever, which connected with the inner ends of the bolts, and worked them like the handles of huge pincers. The rope did, however, attract considerable attention from all who examined it previous to the execution. It seemed no thicker than a strong clothes-line, though actually three eighths of an inch, and appeared wholly unequal to the task for which it had been expressly manufactured from unbleached hemp. Yet Sheriff Gerard, of Putnam County, who had officiated at five executions, and was considered an authority upon such matters, had had it well tested with a keg of nails and other heavy weights, and believed it sufficiently strong. A bucket of water was suspended to it for some twenty-four hours, in order to remove its slight elasticity. But the bucket turned slowly around at intervals, and, under the constant pressure and motion, it seems that the rope became worn and weakened at the point of its insertion into the cross-beam. The drop-length was regulated to three feet and a half.
The unfortunate boy’ s mental impressions, yesterday morning, must assuredly have consisted of a strange and confused vision of solemn images and mysterious events. From the opening door of his cell he could plainly perceive every mechanical detail of the black gibbet, with its dismal hangings of sable muslin. Sisters of Charity, in dark robes; solemn-faced priests, with snowy Roman collars; Sheriffs and Deputy Sheriffs of austere countenance, which appeared momentarily to become yet more severe; policemen in full dress whispering in knots along the white corridor, a score of newspaper correspondents and reporters scattered through the crowd, writing and questioning and occasionally stealing peeps at the prisoner through the open door; calm-visaged physicians consulting together over open watches, as though eager to feel the last pulsations of the dying heart; undertakers, professional, cool and sad, gathered about a long, handsome black walnut coffin, adorned with silver crosses, which stood in the comer of one hospital room—these and other figures thronged the scene of death and disgrace while without a bright sun and a clear sky appeared for the last time to the wandering eyes of the condemned. He had early in the morning gone through the necessary formal preparations of being shaved, bathing, and putting on the neat suit of black cloth for which he had been measured a few days before. He had slept soundly all night; after having listened to the merry music of the city band, playing before the columned Court-house, but his sleep was probably consequent upon physical and mental exhaustion from haunting fear, rather than a natural and healthy slumber. He had risen at 7 o’clock, made a full confession in presence of the Sheriff, heard mass, listened to Father Murphy’s admonitions, ate a light breakfast, and smoked several cigars. Father Murphy’s admonitions, delivered in simple language, and a strong old-country brogue, seemed to us passive listeners somewhat peculiar, especially when he stated that the “flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, which not even the angels were worthy to eat,” would give strength to the poor lad “to meet his God at half-past 1 o’clock.” But if ever religious faith comforted the last moments of a young criminal, it did in this instance; and it was owing to the kindly but powerful efforts of the little priest that the youth made a full public confession of his crime. This is the confession:
MONTGOMERY COUNTY JAIL,
DAYTON, 0., August 24,1876.
To Warren Munger and Elihu Thompson, my Attorneys:
I will now say to you, and the public in general, that ever since you became my attorneys, at all times until to-day, I have denied that I struck and killed William Dawson, for which crime I am now under sentence of death. This statement I have made you in the mistaken hope and belief that it might do me some good, and I therefore put the blame on another person—Charles Tredtin. Now that all hope is gone, I have to say that you have done all you could for me as my attorneys, and that I feel satisfied with your efforts in my behalf. I am willing now to make public all I know about the murder of Colonel William Dawson. and I desire to make the statement, for I am now about to die, and do not want to die with a lie upon my lips. I do not wish Tredtin to be pointed out as long as he lives as the person who stabbed Colonel Dawson; and I desire also that justice may be done Meyers, who is entirely innocent, and was not connected in any way with the killing of Dawson. The following are the facts:
On the evening of the murder, Jim Alien, John Petty, George Petty, Charles Hooven and myself were at a dance on McClure street. From there I and Hooven and George Petty went down the street to Barlow’s Hall, where there was a dance going on, but of which we did not know until we arrived there. We went in and went up to the bar, and had a drink of beer. About fifteen minutes after this, Gerdes and I started up to get into the ball-room, but before we started Kline, Petty and Tredtin had gone up. When we got within two or three steps of the top of the first stairway I met Brunner there on duty as door-keeper, and he asked me if I had a pass. I told him no, and then he said, “You’ll have to go down stairs.” I said, “All right.” Then Dawson grabbed hold of me and said, “Get down, or I’ll throw you down.” I jerked away from him, laughed at him, and went down stairs. Then Gerdes and I went and saw the man who got married, and asked him if he couldn’t let me up stairs. He said, “Yes, of course I can;” and then I went up with Gerdes and the man who got married, and he told Brunner to let me in. We went into the ball-room, where Kline, Tredtin and Petty were standing. Then Kline said, “Where’s that big son of a bitch that was going to throw you down stairs?” and I said, “What do you want to know for?” He then said, “I want to know.” Then I said, “There he is; whatever you want to say to him, say it.” Then Kline said, “Oh, you big son of a bitch!” After about half an hour Petty and I went down stairs to the bar-room. Gerdes, Tredtin and Kline came down there, where I saw them, but whether they came together or not I don’t know. Kline, Petty and I drank beer together. We all five then went back up stairs. Dawson and Meyers went down stairs, into the bar-room; then we five followed on down, and went out at the side door on the street. We then began talking about the occurrence on the stairway between Dawson and myself, and some one said, but I don’t recollect who it was, “Damn him, we’ll get him before morning.” I don’t recollect that there was anything more said. Meyers was not with us then on the street, or at all in any way connected with us or our party that evening. All five of us then went back together up stairs, where we saw Meyers and Dawson. We staid there some five or ten minutes, when we saw Meyers and Dawson go down stairs and then we five followed after them, and saw them go out of the side door on to the street, and we followed them out. Kline said to me and Petty, near the comer of the side street and Fifth street, “You go down this side of the street and we’ll go down the other.” Petty and I followed after Meyers and Dawson, some distance behind them, while Kline. Gerdes and Tredtin went across to the north side of the street, and went down west on that side of Fifth street. We saw Meyers and Dawson try to get in at the big gate at Weidner’s, and Pearl street. When we came together Dawson sort of turned around, and I struck him with both fists in the breast; Petty struck Meyers, and Meyers caught hold of a post and prevented himself from falling into the gutter, and then straightened himself up and ran away eastward, and Petty started across the street as soon as Meyers ran. My strokes in Dawson’s breast staggered him, and he didn’t recover himself until after Meyers and Petty had left. About the time Dawson recovered himself, Kline and Tredtin run in and struck Dawson too. My passions were now aroused. I drew my knife out of my inside breast coat pocket and stabbed Colonel Dawson. I did it on the instant, and took no second thought about it. I do not remember of hearing Dawson say anything before or after I cut him. He may have said something, but I did not hear him. The purpose of our party of five in following Meyers and Dawson out was to lick them both. I saw Gerdes about the middle of the street coming towards us, but he didn’t get up to us. Which way Kline and Tredtin went I do not know. Dawson started east on Fifth street on a run. I was facing the east when I cut Dawson. After Dawson run I was alone on the sidewalk, when Frank came up and struck at me with his club. I dodged him and struck at him with my knife, but don’t know whether I cut his clothes or not. I then wheeled and started to run west, As I run he threw his club at me, and as I started to run across the street, I fell over the hitching-post in front of Weidner’s, and there I dropped my cap and knife. Frank fired at me with a pistol, and shot at me just as I fell. I got up and started to run across the street, and Frank fired a second time at me as I was about to enter the alley on the north side of Fifth street. I stood in the alley awhile, and then I went home to my father’s house, where I was afterward arrested by the police. Whisky and bad company have been the ruination of me, and the cause of all my bad luck. I had drank a good deal that night of beer and whisky.
This is a true and correct statement about the murder, and is all I wish to say about the matter.
He also dictated a letter of thanks to Sheriff Patton. his deputies, and all who had been kind to him during his confinement. Sheriff Patton himself paid for the prisoner’s coffin, a very neat one.
At half-past one o’clock. Deputy Sheriff Freeman appeared at the door of the cell-room, which opened directly upon the ladder leading to the scaffold, and observed in a low, steady voice: “Time’s up, Jim; the Sheriff wants you.” The prisoner immediately responded, “All right; I am ready;” and walked steadily up the steps of the ladder, accompanied by Fathers Murphy and Carey. His arms had been pinioned at the elbows by a strong bandage of black calico. Probably he looked at that moment younger and handsomer than he had ever appeared before; and a hum of audible surprise at his appearance passed through the spectators. Accompanied by his confessor and Father Carey he walked steadily to the front of the platform; and after looking quietly and calmly upon the faces below, spoke in a deep, clear, bold voice, pausing between each sentence to receive some suggestion from the priest at his side.
“Gentlemen, I told a lie in the Court-house by saying Tredtin was guilty.”
“I think I am guilty”—with a determined nod of the head.
“I return thanks to Sheriff Patton, his deputies and all my friends.
“I forgive all my enemies and ask their forgiveness.
“If there is any one here who has any hard feelings toward me, I ask their forgiveness.
“This is my last request.
“Gentlemen, I want all young men to take warning by me. Drink and bad company brought me here to-day.
“And I ask the forgiveness of Mrs. Dawson and her children, whom I injured in passion, when I did not know what I was doing.
“I believe Jesus Christ will save me.”
Sheriff Patton then read in a quiet, steady voice, the death-warrant. It was heavily bordered in black, and bore a great sable seal. “It is my solemn duty,” said the Sheriff, “to execute the sentence passed upon you by the Court:
“State of Ohio, Montgomery County—To William Patton, Sheriff: Whereas, at the January Term, 1876, of the Court of Common Pleas, within and for the County of Montgomery and State of Ohio, to-wit, on the 28th day of April, 1876, upon a full and impartial trial, one James Murphy, now in your custody, was found guilty of deliberate and premeditated murder of one William Dawson, in manner and form as found in a true bill of indictment by the grand jury on the 30th day of October, 1875; and whereas the Court aforesaid, at the term aforesaid, to-wit: on the 12th day of May, 1876, upon the conviction aforesaid, ordered, adjudged and sentenced the said James Murphy to be imprisoned in the County jail until the 25th day of August, 1876, and that on that day, between the hours of 10
A.M. and 4 P.M., he be taken from said jail, and hanged by the neck until he be dead, this is therefore to command that you keep the said James Murphy in safe and secure custody until said day, August 25,1876; and that on said day, between said hours, you take said James Murphy, and in the place and manner provided by law, hang him by the neck until he be dead. Of this warrant, and all your proceedings thereon, you shall make due return forthwith thereafter.
“Witness: JOHN S. ROBERTSON, Clerk of said Court.
“And the seal thereof of the city of Dayton, in said county, this 20th day of June, 1876.
“[Seal Court of Common Pleas]”
“JOHN S. ROBERTSON, Clerk.”
In the meantime Deputy Sheriff Freeman adjusted the thin noose about the prisoner’s neck, and pinioned his lower limbs. “James Murphy, good-bye, and may God bless you!” observed Patton in a whisper, handing the black cap to a deputy. At this moment the representative of the Commercial succeeded in obtaining admittance to the little audience of physicians in rear of the scaffold; and took up his position immediately to the left of the trap-door. The next instant the Sheriff pressed the lever with his foot, the drop opened as though in electric response, the thin rope gave way at the crossbeam above, and the body of the prisoner fell downward and backward on the floor of the corridor, behind the scaffold screen. “My God. My God!” cried Freeman, with a subdued scream; “give me that other rope, quick.” It had been laid away for use “in case the first rope should break,” we were told.
The poor young criminal had fallen on his back, apparently unconscious, with the broken rope around his neck, and the black cap vailing his eyes. The reporter knelt beside him and felt his pulse. It was beating slowly and regularly. Probably the miserable boy thought then, if he could think at all, that he was really dead—dead in darkness, for his eyes were vailed—dead and blind to this world, but about to open his eyes upon another. The awful hush immediately following his fall might have strengthened this dim idea. But then came gasps, and choked sobs from the spectators; the hurrying of feet, and the horrified voice of Deputy Freeman calling, “For God’s sake, get me that other rope, quick!” Then a pitiful groan came from beneath the black cap.
“My God! Oh, my God!”
“Why, I ain’t dead—I ain’t dead!”
“Are you hurt, my child?” inquired Father Murphy.
“No, father, I’m not dead; I’m not hurt. What are they going to do with me?”
No one had the heart to tell him, lying there blind and helpless and ignorant even of what had occurred. The reporter, who still kept his hand on the boy’s wrist, suddenly felt the pulsation quicken horribly, the rapid beating of intense fear; the youth’s whole body trembled violently.
“His pulse is one hundred and twenty,” whispered a physician.
“What’s the good of leaving me here in this misery?” cried the lad. “Take me out of this, I tell you.”
In the meantime they had procured the other rope—a double thin rope with two nooses—and fastened it strongly over the crossbeam. The prisoner had fallen through the drop precisely at 1:44 1/2 P.M.; the second noose was ready within four minutes later. Then the deputies descended from the platform and lifted the prostrate body up.
“Don’t carry me,” groaned the poor fellow, “I can walk—let me walk.”
But they carried him up again. Father Murphy supporting his head The unfortunate wanted to see the light once more, to get one little glimpse at the sun the narrow world within the corridor, and the faces before the scaffold. They took off his ghastly mask while the noose was being readjusted. His face was livid his limbs shook with terror, and he suddenly seized Deputy Freeman desperately by the coat, saying in a husky whisper, “What are you going to do with me?” They tried to unfasten his hand, but it was the clutch of death-fear. Then the little Irish priest whispered firmly in his ear, “Let go, my son; let go, like a man – be a man – die like a man.” And he let go. But they had to support him at arm’s length while the Sheriff pressed the trap-lever—six and one-half minutes after the first fall It was humanely rapid work then.
The body fell heavily, with a jerk, turned about once, rocked backward and forward, and became almost still. From the corridor only the head was visible—turned from the audience. Father Murphy sprinkled holy water upon the victim. The jugular veins became enlarged, and the neck visibly swelled below the black cap. At this time the pulse was beating steadily at 100; the wrist felt hot and moist, and we noticed the hand below it tightly clutched a little brass crucifix placed there by the priest at the last moment. Gradually the pulse became fainter’ Five minutes later, Dr. Crum, the jail physician, holding the right wrist announced it at eighty-four. In ten minutes from the moment of the drop it sunk to sixty. In sixteen minutes the heart only fluttered, and the pulse became imperceptible. In seventeen minutes Dr. Crum, after a stethoscopic examination, made the official announcement of death.
The body was at once cut down by Sheriff Patton, and deposited in the handsome coffin designed for it. Half an hour later we returned to the jail, and examined the dead face. It was perfectly still, as the face of a sleeper, calm and undisfigured. It was perhaps slightly swollen, but quite natural, and betrayed no evidence of pain. The rope had cut deeply into the flesh of the neck, and the very texture of the hemp was redly imprinted on the skin. A medical examination showed the neck to have been broken.
Supposed witches are a staple of history’s scaffold-rolls, and we may well take relief at the passing of this superstition.
England’s last witchcraft executions were in 1682; the law that hanged them was repealed in 1736. But the human story is not confined to parliamentary parchment, and popular belief in witches was not instantly dispelled at the stroke of a pen. Indeed, the belief never has been dispelled altogether.
Aging beggar Ruth Osborne got herself on the bad side not of Colley but a Tring farmer prosperously named John Butterfield when she pooh-poohed his refusal to spare her some scraps, and Butterfield’s livestock thereafter got sick.
Whether Butterfield was animated by genuine supernatural paranoia or merely by dick-swinging, he organized a witch-ducking of Ruth and her husband John: organized to the extent of having criers announce it days in advance.
Now, granted, witch-ducking was now illegal. But Mr. Butterfield draws a lot of water in this community, and he turned out a mob to wreck a couple of suspected hiding-places before the two were captured, trussed-up, and paraded to Marlston Meer.**
Butterfield got local yokel Thomas Colley drunk and agitated enough to do for him the dirty work of casting two impoverished souls into a pond so shallow they could scarcely sink, and therefore were obviously guilty for floating. This public torture continued until Ruth died† — Colley prodding the victims with a pole and passing the hat for community underwriting.
“The Ducking of John Osborn”, as reprinted (pdf) by the Hertfordshire Countryside.
Colley was prevailed upon after his conviction to sign a recantation of the belief that had brought him to his inglorious end, a neat inversion of the forced confessions of previous generations’ “witches”, and no less indicative of the operations of power upon the mind as well as the body of the condemned.
I beseech you all to take warning by an unhappy man’s suffering; that you be not deluded into so absurd and wicked a conceit, as to believe that there are any such beings upon earth as witches.
It was that foolish and vain imagination, heightened and inflamed by the strength of liquor, which prompted me to be instrumental (with others as mad-brained as myself) in the horrid and barbarous murder of Ruth Osborne, the supposed witch, for which I am now so deservedly to suffer death.
I am fully convinced of my former error, and with the sincerity of a dying man, declare that I do not believe there is such a thing in being as a witch; and pray God that none of you, through a contrary persuasion, may hereafter be induced to think that you have a right in any shape to persecute, much less endanger the life of a fellow creature.
I beg of you all to pray to God to forgive me, and to wash clean my polluted soul in the blood of Jesus Christ, my saviour and redeemer.
So exhorteth you all, the dying
Whatever the state of Thomas Colley’s mind by the time it was strangled by the halter at Gubblecote Cross, Colley’s come-to-the-Enlightenment moment didn’t exactly impress his former audience.
[T]he infatuation of the greatest part of the country people was so great that they would not be spectators of his death (perhaps from a consciousness of being present at the murder as well as he); yet many thousands stood at a distance to see him go, grumbling and muttering that it was a hard case to hang a man for destroying an old wicked woman that had done so much damage by her witchcraft.‡
As if to prove the point, it is said that Colley’s spirit has haunted the area ever since — in the form of a big black dog. (Colley – collie, is that it?)
* Some sources (incorrectly) give August 22nd as the date of the hanging, which might be a confusion with April 22nd, the date of the crime. Similarly, the Newgate calendar dates Thomas Colley’s hanging to April 24th, which is certainly wrong.
** “It only became possible to restrain collective violence towards witches in England … when from 1856 onwards a paid and uniformed police force came into existence. Up to that point the elected, non-professional constable or his deputy had kept well out of incidents of this sort or had even supported his fellow villagers in their infamous activities.” (Source)
† John Osborne is often reported to have died hours after he was pulled alive from the pond, but at least some (pdf) contemporaneous sources seem to indicate that he lived on and even stayed in the area — where nobody would hire him because of his wizardry stigma.
‡ Cited in W.B. Carnochan, “Witch-Hunting and Belief in 1751: The Case of Thomas Colley and Ruth Osborne” Journal of Social History, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Summer, 1971).
The execution stemmed from a civil war fought by crown against nobles struggling to preserve their feudal rights — and specifically, a 1465 battle won by the nobles’ intrepid standard-bearer Charles the Bold. Louis was grumpy at his governor of Paris for not relieving him in time, and when the wheel of courtly politics turned sufficiently, that incident supplied enough suspicion to destroy Melun.
The war, caused by the League of the Public Good, which restored liberty and fortune to Chabannes, deprived his enemy, the count de Melun, not only of both, but of life also. When we are told that Melun was so addicted to pleasure, luxury and sloth, as to have acquired the name of the Sardanapalus of his times, we can form no very flattering estimate of his character. Yet he stood high in the good graces of Louis XI, and participated largely in the spoils of Chabannes. In his capacity of governor of Paris and the Bastile, he was also entrusted with the custody of that nobleman. It was not till after the battle of Montlheri that Louis began to suspect him. The monarch had, indeed, some excuse for suspicion. Melun had at least been criminally negligent, in a post which demanded the utmost vigilance. He had prevented a sally from the city during the battle, which might have turned the scale in the king’s favour, and he had been ignorant of, or winked at, a correspondence carried on with the chiefs of the League by some of the disaffected citizens. These indications of treachery were strengthened by two circumstances; some of the cannon of the Bastile had been spiked, and the gates of the fortress, on the side next the country, had been left open while the besiegers were making an attack. The escape of Chabannes might also afford a reason for doubting his keeper’s fidelity. Louis, however, was, at this moment, too closely pressed by his numerous enemies to enter into an investigation of the subject; and he, therefore, only dismissed the governor.
The Battle of Montlhery
Melun retired to his estates, and imagined that the storm was blown over. He was mistaken. As soon as Louis had disembarrassed himself, he instituted a rigid enquiry into the conduct of his disgraced favourite. One of the most active in pushing it on was a man who was indebted to the count for his rise in life; the cardinal Balue, of whom further mention is about to be made. The result of the enquiry was, a charge of having maintained a secret correspondence with the heads of the League, especially with the duke of Britanny. Melun was in consequence arrested, and conveyed to Chateau Galliard, in Normandy, by the provost Tristan l’Hermite, of infamous memory.*
The trial was commenced without delay, and, as he refused to confess to any crime, he was put to the torture. With respect to his correspondence with the chiefs of the League, he avowed it, but pleaded that it had the king’s sanction. It is probable that this was really the case. Many motives might have induced the king to allow of his officer corresponding with the enemy. But Louis had now resolved upon the destruction of Melun; and, as he never scrupled at falsehood when he had any point to gain by it, he denied that he had given the permission. By adding that he had long had cause to be dissatisfied with the prisoner, he gave a broad hint as to what kind of verdict he desired.** The judges, as in duty bound, pronounced Melun guilty, and he was consigned to the scaffold. His execution took place in 1468. Of his confiscated property, a considerable portion was bestowed on Charbannes.
It is said, that the executioner having only wounded him at the first stroke, Melun raised his head from the block, and declared, that he had not deserved death, but that, since the king willed it, he was satisfied. If this be true, we must own that tame submission to the injustice of a despot was never more strikingly displayed.
Had Melun lived but a little longer, he might have triumphed in the downfall and punishment of his ungrateful enemy, the cardinal, which took place in 1469 … The cardinal, and his his friend and agent William d’Harancourt, bishop of Verdun, were in close correspondence with his enemies.†
Though Melun generally goes down as a guy who caught a bum rap — probably even Louis XI thought so, given the subsequent fall of Melun’s rivals — this 19th century history of France observes that such consideration turns on noblesse oblige, for while “such crime on the part of a burgess was considered worthy of death, nobles practised breach of faith as a pastime, and a lucrative one, until it was rendered a serious matter by sending the guilty to the scaffold.”
* For instance, in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Tristan l’Hermite is the man dispatched by Louis XI to seize Esmeralda from the cathedral for hanging.
On August 21, 1915, the Turkish governor of Syria had 11 Arab nationalists publicly hanged in Beirut for seditious contacts with the French.
A larger and more famous batch would follow these the next year, like today’s victims the fruit of the French consul‘s leaving an incriminating list of potential allies in its embassy when it bugged out.
[i]n all, fifty-eight individuals were tried and sentenced to death; forty-five of these were either out of the country or avoided arrest; two were given reprieves; and the other eleven, ten Muslims and one Christian, were disgracefully hanged. This public display of terror was only a prelude to additional steps taken as part of the wartime policy of repression…
Lightly defended, Jemal argued that he had no means other than those of terror to hold the area. He claimed that the executions had, in fact, forestalled a rising in Syria. Others, however … see Jemal’s actions in Syria as turning the tide against Istanbul, “causing the Arab Muslims in the area to make up their minds once and for all to break away from the Turkish Empire.” Jemal had perpetrated a “Remember-the-Alamo” for the Lebanese. Throughout the country, the story of his perfidy was passed from person to person and from village to village … One can hardly measure the significance of these hangings in stimulating people to abandon their Ottoman attachment.
By the next year, Arabs had risen in revolt, in alliance — as Pasha had feared — with the Triple Entente.
Failed revolutionaries usually wind up as footnotes in history books. Certainly, the period between 1789 (the beginning of the French Revolution) and 1805 (the year in which Napoleon crowned himself emperor) is one of such turmoil in Europe that it is easy not to see any but those who are larger than life.
Pimentel parlayed her puissant pen into a permanent position on the salon circuit, doing late-18th-century literary things like quoting classics and maintaining voluminous correspondences.
By the revolutionary 1790′s, she’d risen to become the aforementioned Queen Maria Carolina’s librarian, but was among those inspired by the liberta, egalita, fraternita of the French Revolution. When Napoleon tore through northern Italy and conquered as far as Rome, the monarchy rode out to reconquer the Eternal Cityget itself decimated, and Naples’ dreamers had their chance.
Pimentel turned her literary talents to the Republic’s service, including some outstandingly vituperative verse savaging the exiled Maria Caroline as a lesbian and threatening her with the guillotine.
Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel is one such overlooked person. She was a major figure, but on a small stage, connected with the little known and failed Neapolitan revolution and subsequent short-lived Neapolitan republic of 1799. It was a sister of the French republic and one of many set up in the 1790s in Europe, all of which—the Neapolitan version included—have been relegated to the status of “also-rans” in history.
Eleonora was an unlikely revolutionary. She was born in Rome in 1751 of Portuguese nobility and would be hanged in Piazza Mercato in Naples in 1799 in a grotesque caricature of an execution. Her executioner, Maria Caroline of Hapsburg, Queen of Naples during the Neapolitan Revolution was also born in 1751. That was also the decade of the great Lisbon earthquake, about which an anonymous poet wrote lines as if describing the dramatic events that would soon shake Europe the way the earth had shaken Portugal:
With her last earthquake this round world shall rise,
The sun shall lose his fires in endless night,
And the moon turned to blood, glare horrid light,
When comets dire shall sweep athwart the sky,
And stars like leaves before the tempest fly.
Certainly, the last days of one of Portugal’s daughters, Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel, seem contained in that verse.
Stendahl, in Rome, Florence and Naples (1826) , reports at length a conversation about the Neapolitan Revolution and its grisly conclusion with a young man he identifies only as T***, an eye-witness to the events, themselves. Stendahl concludes: “I have been careful to suppress, during the course of this narrative, all the more gruesome details. Robespierre, whatever his faults, has this at least to be said in his favor: he did not count a majority of personal friends among the total number of his victims. Those whom he sacrificed, he sacrificed to a system, however ill-founded; not to his petty, personal spite.”
In Piazza Mercato, the fortunate among those sentenced to death* were beheaded swiftly. The less fortunate, among whom was Eleonora, were hanged. In her case, it was a ghoulish affair. Her body was left dangling from the gallows for a day, exposed to further jibes and humiliation, such as the popular verse making the rounds at the execution (cited in Albanese 1998):
A signora donna Lionora,
che cantava ncopp’ o triato,
mo abballa mmiezo ‘ o mercato,
viva viva ‘u papa santo,
c’ha mannato i cannuncini,
pe scaccià li giacubini!
Viva a’ forca ‘e Masto Donato
Sant’Antonio sta priato.
To lady Eleonora
who used to sing upon the stage
and now dances in market square,
long live the Holy Pope,
who sent us the guns
to chase away the Jacobins!
Long live the gallows and Master Donato [a traditional name for the hangman]
Praise be to Sant’Antonio.
Eleonora was calm at the gallows. She asked for some coffee, and—true to her intellect to the last—her last words were in Latin: “Forsan et haec olim meninisse juvabit,” a citation from Virgil—“Perhaps one day this will be worth remembering.”
Giuseppe Boschetto, La Pimentel Conducted to the Gallows, 1869
One of the most interesting memories of the Revolution is the Palazzo Serra di Cassano, on via Monte di Dio. It was the home of Giovanni Serra, Duke of Cassano, one of Eleonora’s closest friends. Looking down at the crowd as he was about to die, he said, “I have always wanted good for them and now they cheer at my death” [cited in Albanese 1998]. The next day, his father closed the portal of the building that opens onto the Royal Palace and said it would remain closed until the ideals his son had died for were realized. The door is still closed.
The greatest memorial in recent memory, however, was when Vanessa Redgrave, the English actress, stepped out on the stage of the San Carlo Theater on Friday, January 8, 1999, and recited, in magnificent Italian, the title role in Eleonora, a 3-hour oratorio, an absolute hymn of praise to Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel. It was composed by Roberto de Simone, prominent Neapolitan composer and musicologist. The production had had a two-week run-up in the Neapolitan daily, il Mattino, replete with histories of the Neapolitan revolution, fragments of Eleonora’s poetry, long citations from historical heavyweights such as Benedetto Croce, and even the news that a descendant of Eleonora’s (through her brother’s line), another Fonseca Pimentel, would be at the premiere. The production, itself, was generally well received. The next day, the critic from il Mattino called it “an allegory of all the martyrs in history” (Gargano 1999). “Art is liberty,” he wrote, “and must free itself from the bonds of time like an ever-evolving presepio,” thus comparing the production to the traditional Neapolitan manger scene that celebrates the birth of the Savior. Heady praise, indeed.
Visit the Around Naples Encyclopedia for an expanded version of this post with much more about Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel’s biography, the unfolding of the Revolution, and its legacy.
Acton, Harold. The Bourbons of Naples. London: Prion Books, 1957.
Albanese, Camillo. Cronache di una Rivoluzione, Napoli 1799. Milan: Franco Angeli, 1998.
Bradford, Ernle. Nelson, The Essential Hero. London: MacMillan, 1977.
Croce, Benedetto. “Eleonora de Fonseca Pimentel.” Monograph. Rome: Tipografia nazionale, 1887.
Croce, Benedetto , et al. La Rivoluzione Napoletana. 1999 reprint by Tullio Pironti, ed. Naples: Morano, 1899.
Croce, Benedetto. “Eleonora de Fonseca Pimentel e il Monitore Napoletano” in La Rivoluzione Napoletana di 1799. Bari: Laterza, 1926.
Cuoco, Vincenzo. Saggio Storico sulla Rivoluzione Napoletana nel 1799. Milano: 1806.
Diana, Rosario. Forward to Vincenzo Cuoco, Pl atone in Italia. Naples: Pagano, 2000.
Gargano, Pietro. “Quei martiri nostri fratelli.” Il Mattino, January 9, 1999.
Gurgo, Bice. Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel. Napoli: Cooperativa Libreria, 1935.
Irace, Clorinda. E.F.P. Le tracce, i luoghi. Naples: Lions Club, 1977.
Macciocchi, Maria Antonietta. Cara Eleonora. Milan: Biblioteca Universale Rizzoli, 1993.
Stendahl. Rome, Florence and Naples. 1826.(Richard N. Coe, trans.) London: John Calder, 1959.
Urgnani, Elena. La Vicenda Letteraria e Politica di Eleonora de Fonseca Pimentel. Il Pensiero e la storia. Ed. Istituto Italiano per gli Studi Filosofici. Vol. 54. Naples: La Città del Sole, 1998.
In 1626, Henri de Talleyrand-Périgord, Comte de Chalais, head of wardrobe to King Louis XIII, was one member of that house whose neck was shortened for an offense against the king’s court.
Henri — as he shall be herein known, so as not to confuse him with his many relatives — was the youngest of three children. Born in 1599, he served in the military at the unsuccessful Siege of Montauban in 1621 and 1622. (The defeat (temporarily) preserved Huguenot rights in France.)
In 1623, Henri returned from war and married Charlotte de Castille (not to be confused with the modern porn star!). It was not long after that rumors of Castille’s impropriety started making the rounds, as immortalized in Tallemant de Réaux‘s verse, whose rough translation is as follows:
On seeing the slit
Of the Countess of Alais
Who likes the strong ballet,
And says hers is more charming
Than the Chalais’.
And that, not so roughly translated, is why Pontgibault received a visit from an irate Henri.
Henri is alleged to have challenged a duel, where he cock-blocked his cuckold — permanently. The European ideals of chivalry yet persisted, so there was some question whether this affair constituted murder, and the trial was the talk of France through the winter of 1623.
Madame de Chevreuse, former lover of Henry Rich (later Earl of Holland), had a string of lovers, and it’s questionable whether Henri was among them. Whether he was or not, she ignited in him a passion that would lead to his execution.
The impetus for this execution was ostensibly a plot to save Gaston d’Orléans, who, by decree of Louis XIII, was to marry Marie de Bourbon, duchesse de Montpensier. The union would bring significant wealth into the family of Louis XIII.
Backed by his First Minister Cardinal Richelieu, the king was insistent. For several years, Richelieu had also been reducing the power of the nobility and consolidating central authority around the king, which was not the way Madame de Chevreuse envisioned the world.
Instead, she sought to install Gaston d’Orléans on the throne, thus advancing her agenda to restore power to the nobility. The forced marriage became a convenient excuse to enact her plan against Richelieu. And her charming way with men made it easy to find participants.
Madame de Chevreuse and d’Ornano were at the heart of the conspiracy, but their reach extended as far as England and Spain. She was also supported by Anne of Austria, who is thought to have played a critical role in organizing the conspirators. At the very least, the collective hope was to make Monseiur abandon Louis XIII’s court and seek an alliance with the Hugenots, who would be sympathetic to a cause against the Catholic Church.
At some point, Richelieu caught wind of d’Ornano’s involvement in a conspiracy against the throne; not knowing the extent of the effort, he had d’Ornano detained. Lest their plot be found out, the conspirators encouraged Gaston to initiate a war; this was particularly true of Comte de Soissons, who posted a reward should Monseiur take up arms against his brother.
Gaston hesitated, and a new plan was enacted.
Instead, some of the conspirators would take audience with Richelieu and either detain or kill him, depending on the story. Needless to say, the plan failed, and the conspirators were found out. Chalais tried to lay low while the plot against the king and his minister unfolded, but he did not sufficiently distance himself from Madame de Chevreuse: Gaston was exposed and named names, and Chalais, not well-connected enough to fight the charges against him, was captured at Nantz on July 8.
Henri de Talleyrand-Périgord, Comte de Chalais, was sentenced to death by beheading for lèse-majesté, and on August 19, 1626, he mounted the scaffold at Place de Bouffay in Nantz. In a last, cruel twist, the conspiracy had bought off the town executioner in hopes that, lacking a practitioner of the macabre art, Chalais might be spared. But a replacement had been hastily found: a man himself condemned to death:
The [replacement] was so unskillful that, besides two blows from a Swiss sword, which had been purchased on the spot, he gave him thirty-four with an adze such as carpenters use; and was obliged to turn the body round to finish the severing of the neck, the patient exclaiming up to the twentieth blow: ‘Jesus, Maria et Regina Cali!’
No other conspirators were put to the sword, and Gaston and his brother eventually made up. Richelieu, meanwhile, gained more power and transitioned France from a feudal state to an absolute monarchy under Louis XIII and his successor, Louis XIV. His dealings form the backdrop of The Three Musketeers.
As for Madame de Chevreuse — who also figures in The Three Musketeers, scheming behind the scenes against Richelieu and crushed on by Aramis — she fled to Château d’Dampierre, then was exiled to England, where she fell in with the Duke of Lorraine (and became his mistress); she attempted to organize several more coups against the Red Eminence, but each fell short of the mark.
Madame de Chevreuse eventually ended up in Spain, then moved back to England, then shipped out to Flanders, where she connected once again with the Comte de Soissons and attempted to usurp the throne before it could be passed to Louis XIV. When Richelieu finally passed, she sought to oust his replacement, this time relying on César de Bourbon, duc de Vendôme, who was also involved in the Chalais conspiracy. After this failure, Madame de Chevreuse retired to Gagny.
Elizabeth Stone writes of Madame de Chevreuse in Political Women, “It was not she evidently who made of Buckingham a species of paladin without genius; a brilliant adventurer of Charles IV of Lorraine; of Chalais a hair-brained blunderer, rash enough to commit himself in a conspiracy against Richelieu, on the faith of the faithless Duke d’Orleans; of Châteauneaf, an ambitious statesman, impatient of holding second rank in the Government, without being capable of taking the first.”
Be that as it may, she is a compelling historical figure, and the Chalais conspiracy formed the basis for the operatic tragedy Maria di Rohan.
On this date in 1944, German Communist Ernst Thälmann was shot at the Buchenwald concentration camp.
A true proletarian turned proletarian leader (and reliable adherent to Moscow’s line), Thalmann stood for election to the German presidency no the Communist Party ticket against Hindenburg and Hitler in 1932 (he’d also run in 1925).
Hitler wasn’t a very good winner.*
The Gestapo nabbed Thalmann in its sweep for leftists following the Reichstag Fire. Eleven years he waited in prison — being tortured, naturally — for his turn on the stage of a show trial. Or any trial at all.
It never took place.
Instead, the Weimar Communist leader languished in detention as the horror of Naziism swallowed Germany, with nothing to give the anti-fascist cause but his name — here adopted by a Spanish Civil War battalion.
We have such cinematic treatment of the man because after the war, the legitimately proletarian, demonstrably antifascist, ideologically unsullied, and conveniently dead Thalmann made ideal material for the Communist East German state’s national pantheon.
The myth employed all of the media available to a modern industrialized state. In addition to the scholarship produced by professional historians, popular works with a similar agenda also appeared. Irma, the slain party leader’s daughter, wrote a biography of her father intended for children. Max Zimmering wrote one of several children’s novels about Thalmann, and East German poets lionized the martyred communist leader. … Thalmann memorials were built, and membership in the SED’s youth organization, the Free German Youth (FDJ), began with the Thalmann Pioneers. Finally, Thalmann’s life was the topic of several films and television movies, the most important being the two features, Ernst Thalmann – Sohn seiner Klasse (Ernst Thalmann – Son of His Class, 1954) and Ernst Thalmann – Fuhrer seiner Klasse (Ernst Thalmann – Leader of His Class, 1955).
* Yes, this is glib; Hindenburg, not Hitler, won the 1932 election. However, the Nazis’ plurality victory in that year’s Reichstag election also gave Hitler the juice to demand the Chancellorship and set himself up to wield total power in Germany. Whatever the ballot boxes on any particular day had to say, Hitler obviously won the early 1930′s.