“It is unjust that that which is rightly judged should result in prejudice to us and bring damage to others …”
-Edward II, letter concerning the Pierre Vigier case
One is like to reckon the phenomenon of the interminabledeath penaltyappeal a modern construct, product of the present day’s moral confusion or juridical inefficiency.
It’s been right about 700 years exactly since Pierre Vigier was hanged in the February-April neighborhood, in the year of our Lord 1312, for his impolitic sentiments on the governance of his native province. This medieval execution went with a very modern-sounding 12 years of indeteminate appeals.
Still, it is true what they say — “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” In this foreign country, Gascony by name, they did the hanging first … and then did the appeals.
Our source here (virtually the only source short of plumbing the archives) is Joseph Kicklighter’s “English Bordeaux in conflict: the execution of Pierre Vigier de la Rousselle and its aftermath, 1312-24″ from the Journal of Medieval History, no. 9 (1983).
And the source of all the judicial chaos was the bizarre situation of one king as a rival king’s vassal.
Gascony at this time was a sort of feudal leftover of the Angevin Empire whose Plantagenet descendants were still kings of England. This remaining Plantagenet patrimony* in southwestern France was a going source of conflict between the realms, the most recent of which had been expedientlysettled by making the English king also Duke of Gascony … and (with respect to Gascony) the French king his liege lord.
The territory was worth the “submission”: ducal Gascony’s fertile land gave England a bounty in crops and wine. And the inevitable rivalry over sway in Gascony easily knocked on to the courts. As Barbara Tuchman put it in A Distant Mirror,
[t]he King of France still retained superior sovereignty under the formula of superioritas et resortum, which gave the inhabitants the right of appeal to the ultimate sovereign. Since his decisions were more than likely to go in their favor against their English overlord, and since the citizens, knowing this, exercised the right frequently, the situation was an endless source of conflict.
It was during such a conflict, when the rival factions of the Gascon capital of Bordeaux had the city in virtual anarchy as they jockeyed for power under the nominal lordship of English king Edward II, that the onetime royal castellan Pierre Vigier de la Rouselle apparently dumped on one of the new officials in conversation with a couple of informants.
The municipal government arrested Vigier and had him hanged — quickly, before Vigier’s inevitable attempted appeal to Parlement could save him.
(This all went down just a couple months before Edward II suffered a Gascon humiliation closer to home, when the Gascon nobleman Piers Gaveston, Edward’s dear friend and suspected lover, was executed by rival English lords.)**
Vigier’s aggrieved sons did pursue the appeal (it is they who provide posterity the circumstances of Pierre’s condemnation, so handle the story with care: one latter-day hypothesis is that Vigier was an outright rebel against the new appointees). Inevitably, the French backed their claim, allowing them undercut Edward’s ducal authority.
From there, the matter sank into an intractable mire of feudal Europe’s overlapping political authorities and factional rivalries. Parlement decreed some penalties. King Philip remitted some of them as a diplomatic gesture. The sons renewed their complaint. Bordeaux authorities tried to put the matter to bed by persecuting Vigier’s persecutors, only to be slapped down by an indignant King Edward. Persons were seized only to be ordered released, and estates likewise. Just as there was no single unambiguous authority to adjudicate it, there was no single wrongdoer to investigate, no single injury to repair (besides the matter of honor, there was the dead man’s property, and the fact that he was buried in unconsecrated ground), and no single arrangement of interested parties between the Vigier sons on the one side and the Plantagenet king on the other.
Edward seems to have taken particular affront at this imposition on his routine authority, and one must bear in mind that at this stage even the concept of sovereignty as we think of it today was simply not on the map. In some ways, the French appeals policy was pioneering it.
But as the suit bumped up and down or got kicked down the road by a Parlement that was probably enjoying its sport, Edward tried to dispose of it through such expedients as harassing its supporters and attempting to bankrupt the Vigiers. All this, naturally, just got rolled into the messy ol’ case.
Only time itself finally ended the appeal … in March 1324, King Charles IV announced the indefinite postponement of all ducal litigation at the Parlement of Paris becase of a mounting Anglo-French crisis which would soon lead to the brief War of Saint-Sardos. But even during the war, the court continued to deal with some aspects of the case; and the appeal was still under judgment when the Anglo-French feudal relationship was resumed with the accession of Edward III to the English throne.† It seems likely … Parlement had dropped the case by the 1330’s … in all probability, the Vigier case had lost the critical importance with which the king-duke and his officials had regarded it for so long. One might, with some justification, wonder why the appeal had ever enjoyed such attention.‡
“It was not the dynastic question that brought about the war,” wrote the historian T.F. Tout. “The fundamental difference between the two countries lay in the impossible position of Edward in Gascony.”
** Potentially topical to this digressive connection: Edward’s loyal aide in Bordeaux, a gentleman by the name of Arnaud Caillau, may have been a cousin of Piers Gaveston. Edward certainly had a supportive Gascon faction that his own resentful alleged vassals were frequently keen to harass; maybe the whole Vigier intervention just struck a little too close to home.
‡ Lest we misrepresent Kicklighter, he does go on to attempt to explain this hypothetical wonder as “a certain indication of the limited power of the English in Gascony.” I prefer my own stopping-point.
On this date in 1911, Joseph Christock — a “loose-jawed, low-browed fellow, a brother to the ox, under the fine-spun skin of the human” — was hanged for murder.
The last person executed in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania had, a mere five months before, been a hired farmhand … until he drank himself stupid on cider and proceeded to rape the lady of the farm and murder both her and her 65-year-old mother.
The crime was a straightforward one, even if the prisoner was determined to run out the clock making what reads like a rather self-conscious display of bravado. (He wrote his own death-date into his Bible and coolly showed it off to a reporter; he also attempted suicide several times.)
my grandfather, charles reigle was a asst. warden at this time and joesph christock made an astrological drawing the night before the hanging which i possess along with a photo of my grandfather,joesph christock and the warden which i also posses.
I took the liberty of following up this comment, and Mr. Ron Young generously sent me copies of the images below, along with the following explanation.
The one is a photo of my grandfather, Charles Riegle, and the other is a drawing cristock made for my grandmother, Sarah Riegle. They,along with my mother, Dora and i don`t remember how many more of 13 children they had were living in a house right outside of the prison walls. The drawing always intrigued me because it looks astological, but could mean a number of things. My grandfather passed aroung 1938, so a lot of the stories, i heard were at a young age.
We don’t have any special research to add on this occasion, but submit them here with great gratitude to Mr. Young, and in the spirit of the uncanny. These small artifacts, from the doomed flesh of a long-dead murderer via two generations of a warden’s family, across a random meeting on the Internet and thence to points unknown.
This occupation lifted the virulent anti-semites Baky and Endre into national power, because along with keeping Hungary in the Axis coalition, the Nazis also forcibly overcame its junior partner’s former reticence about Jewish genocide.
Adolf Eichmann arrived into Nazified Hungary and used our day’s two principals (along with another executed collaborator, Andor Jaross, they’re known as the “deportation trio”) as his instruments. Within months, hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews were being shipped to the gas chambers. This period is one of the waypoints of pernicious Nazi race theory, when the collapsing German regime spent military resources urgently needed at the front to organize the mass slaughter of Jews.*
And they had to work fast, because by that next winter the Red Army was seizing Budapest. These enthusiastic fascist operators did not fare well by the postwar government.
On this date* in 1815, Anthony Lingard was hanged for murder and robbery at Derby.
Lingard strangled the widow who operated the Wardlow Miers tollbooth in order to rob her poor possessions and lavish those ill-gotten proceeds upon the girl he had impregnated — “with a view to induce her to father the child upon some other person.” That’s the world without contraception for you.
Lingard’s girl thought this bribe fishy and gave him back the widow’s incriminatingly distinctive shoes after hearing reports that footwear had been taken from the murder scene. Then, she testified against him at the Derby Assizes (Lingard had also confessed the crime). Tried on Saturday the 25th, convicted “after a few minutes,” and strung up in front of the county gaol at noontime Tuesday, Lingard “met his fate with a firmness which would deserve the praise of fortitude if it was not the result of insensibility. He appeared but little agitated or dejected by his dreadful situation.”
Rather than the increasingly standard post-execution coda of anatomization, Lingard’s body was given over to a use of more ancient vintage: gibbeting.
Hung up in chains on the aptly named Gibbot Field in Wardlow near the spot of the murder, Lingard’s bleaching bones provided a grisly object lesson to passersby of the consequences of crime. Or, maybe not: though the novelty at first made a crowd-pleasing spectacle, it soon faded into the scenery.
If what was left of Anthony Lingard failed to overawe his criminal counterparts, it did at least leave an impression on poet William Newton, who penned this sad meditation on the local landmark, found in full here. (It must have helped his perspective that Newton was into his sixties when the young pup hanged.)
“The supposed Soliloquy of a Father, under the Gibbet of his Son; upon one of the Peak Mountains”
TIME — Midnight. SCENE — A Storm.
Art thou, my Son, suspended here on high? —
Ah! what a sight to meet a Father’s eye!
To see what most I prized, what most I loved.
What most I cherish’d, — and once most approved,
Hung in mid air to feast the nauseous worm.
And waving horrid in the midnight storm!
Let me be calm; — down, down, my swelling soul;
Ye winds, be still, — ye thunders, cease to roll!
No! ye fierce winds, in all your fury rage;
Ye thunders, roll; ye elements, engage;
O’er me be all your mutual terrors spread.
And tear the thin hairs from my frenzied head:
Bring all your wrathful stores from either pole.
And strike your arrows through my burning soul :
I feel not, — fear not, — care not, — shrink not, — when
I know, — believe, — and feel, — ye are not men!
Storms but fulfil the high decrees of God,
But man usurps his sceptre and his rod.
Tears from his hand the ensigns of his power.
To be the petty tyrant of an hour.
My Son! My Son! how dreadful was thy crime!
Thy name stands branded to remotest time;
Gives all thy kindred to the eye of scorn,
Both those who are, and those that may be born;
Scatters through ages on thy hapless race
In every stage of life, and death, — disgrace:
In youth’s gay prime, in manhood’s perfect bloom.
Ah! more, — it ends not, dies not, on the tomb!
O woman! woman! choicest blessing given.
If pure; — the highest gift of highest heaven!
If lax, corrupt, deceitful, — worse than hell!
Worse than the worst of demons dare to tell!
It was thy lot, ill-fated Son! to find
Thy doom pour’d on thee by the faithless kind;
Fraudful, and false, their treacherous snares they spread.
And whelm’d destruction on thy thoughtless head.
To die, to perish from the face of earth.
Oblivion closing on thy name and birth.
Hid under ground from each invidious eye,
From every curious, every rancorous spy,
Was what thy crime deserved: — not more;
The rest seems cruelty. — When heretofore
Our barbarous sires the aweful Gibbet rear’d.
The Gibbet only, not the laws were fear’d:
The untutored ruffian, of an untaught clime,
Fear’d more the punishment than dreaded crime.
We boast refinement, say our laws are mild.
Dealt equally to all, the man, the child: —
But ye, who, argue thus, come here and see,
Feel with a Father’s feelings; — feel with me!
See that poor shrivell’d form the tempest brave.
See the red lightning strike, the waters lave.
The thunders volleying on that fenceless breast! —
Who can see this, and wish him not at rest?
At rest, — vague word! — the immaterial mind
Perhaps even now is floating on the wind: —
Ah! no, — not mind, — not spirit, — but the shell;
The mind ere this has drank of Mercy’s well:
‘Tis not for that I feel, for that I sigh.
But sweltering, putrid, rank mortality.
O! blind to truth, to all experience blind.
Who think such spectacles improve mankind:
Bid untamed youth on such sights feast his eyes,
Harden you may, but never humanise.
Ye who have life, or death, at your command.
If crime demand it, let the offender die.
But let no more the Gibbet brave the sky:
No more let vengeance on the dead be hurl’d.
But hide the victim from a gazing world.
Anthony Lingard was the last person ever gibbeted in Derbyshire. England abolished gibbeting and hanging in chains full stop in the 1830s.
* The date March 8 is widely attributed on other sites, but the primary documentation for March 28 is unambiguous. I want to suspect a seminal typo somewhere that’s been copied a thousand other times over.
Captured in Canton at the end of the war, Tanaka was tried by the Allied occupiers for permitting the execution of a downed American airman on April 6, 1945. That unnamed airman had been tried in wartime Japan for targeting civilians during his bombing raid, a judgment that Tanaka’s tribunal vociferously disputed.
Though he drew a hanging sentence for that offense, it was not carried out: instead, the doomed general was handed over to the Chinese nationalists to answer for the depredations of his 23rd army.
No surprise, the outcome there was pretty much the same.
A couple of years later, the very justice who had first examined Hunter received a grant to found a school. Brentwood School is still going strong in its fifth century, and on its grounds — directly adjacent, in fact, to the school’s first purpose-built room** — rests a stone for the edification of the generations of Anglican pupils who followed. It honors the young man who died to crack open a book.
WILLIAM HUNTER. MARTYR. Committed to the Flames March 26th MDLV.
Christian Reader, learn from his example to value the privilege of an open Bible. And be careful to maintain it.
An elm tree planted at that spot came to be known as the Martyrs Elm.
1847 illustration of Brentwood School and the Martyrs Elm.
* This is the date per Foxe’s Book of Martyrs; others give March 27. The memorial stone carries the day for our purposes in view of contradictory sourcing.
** The legend that Brentwood School was founded as the justice’s penance for dooming Hunter seems to be unfounded.
On this date in 1915, “the sentences of the court-martial on a batch of 45 mutineers of the 5th Light Infantry were promulgated in public” — as the Straits Times reported — “and, in the case of 22 who were condemned to death, the sentences were executed on the spot.”
A crowd of fifteen thousand watched the spirited Indian sepoys shot dead for revolting the previous month.
This demoralized 800-strong garrison of Punjabi Muslims — who had, it need hardly be added, a noble history of insurrection to think upon — was already deployed far from home to look after the imperial interests of the London gentry while British lads mustered for bayonet charges in No Man’s Lands.
The last straw for these sepoys was a rumor that they were to be shipped to the European theater and made to turn their weapons against the Turkish sultan, their Muslim coreligionist.*
On February 15, 1915, helpfully covered by the celebratory fireworks of the Chinese New Year, about half the garrison left its barracks, attacked its British officers, and started killing any European they came across. (Many British familes took refuge in jail cells.)
Around 40 died in a few days before a mixed British-French-Russian-Japanese force arrived to crush the revolt. It was just one among a number of insurrectionary outbreaks during the war to rattle Britain’s possessions in Asia and elsewhere.
Punishments meted out this day were not the end of it at all; the court of inquiry sat until May, sentencing several dozen to death and many others to prison terms or penal transportation.
And if the mutiny never really threatened British control of Singapore, the ethnic and religious fissures it exposed in the imperial order have obvious resonances (pdf) for our present day.
In order to distinguish mutineers from peaceable citizens, all Indian residents were required to register and obtain passes. This aroused considerable anger, which was exacerbated by the cavalier attitude of some registration officers, who acted as if all Indians were to blame.
* The Ottomans had also issued a call to jihad with the onset of war, hoping to drive just this sort of wedge among Britain’s colonies.
On this day in 2010, reggae artist, politician, activist and convicted child killer Modise Mokwadi Fly was hanged in Botswana’s capital city of Gaborone.
He was the second person to be executed under the administration of President Ian Khama; the first was also a child killer.
Fly, a South African national, had been general secretary of the Botswana Congress Party Youth League. On November 27, 2006, he killed his two-year-old son, Tawana Mosinyi, with an ax while the toddler slept. Fly maintained until his death that Tawana’s death was accidental and he’d actually been trying to throw his ax at the police who were firing shots at his house from outside. The prosecution believed Fly deliberately killed his son to spite the child’s mother, whom he’d recently quarreled with.
After his conviction on October 17, 2008, Fly apologized to Tawana’s family for his death. He sentenced to hang five days later, then he waited a year and a half for his date with death. Witnesses reported he seemed oddly cheerful and gregarious in court, smiling and chatting amiably with his friends and relatives who attended the trial.
In February 2010, the month before his execution, Fly made an attempt to escape from prison. He was the first prisoner to succeed in escaping from Botswana’s death row — but he was only free for fifteen minutes. After his capture, it was alleged, he was brutally beaten by the guards and then placed in solitary confinement so no one could see his injuries.
If the prison did in fact do this, it didn’t work: the news of the alleged mistreatment became public on March 23. Whether the timing had anything to do with his secretive execution the next day is unclear. Predictably, Botswana’s Department of Prisons and Rehabilitation denied that the prisoner had been abused or placed in isolation.
I am full of ambition and hope and of full charm of life. But I can renounce all at the time of need, and that is the real sacrifice. These things can never be hinderance in the way of man, provided he be a man. You will have the practical proof in the near future.
On this date in 1931,* India revolutionary Bhagat Singh was hanged by the British in Lahore, together with Shivaram Rajguru and Sukhdev Thapar. The hanging was surreptitiously done, on the evening before it was officially scheduled, with the men’s cremated ashes scattered into the nearby Satluj River.
Statue of the three March 23 martyrs near Amritsar, Punjab, close to the Pakistani border. (cc) image from Alicia Nijdam.
Though only 23 years of age when he hanged, Singh’s renown as a nationalist freedom-fighter was already considerable. It has not lessened in the intervening decades.
Till that time I was only a romantic revolutionary, just a follower of our leaders. Then came the time to shoulder the whole responsibility. … I began to study in a serious manner. My previous beliefs and convictions underwent a radical change. The romance of militancy dominated our predecessors; now serious ideas ousted this way of thinking. No more mysticism! No more blind faith! Now realism was our mode of thinking.
“It takes a loud noise to make the deaf hear,” read their leaflet, vindicating the (non-lethal) ordnance.
Singh’s arrest, along with a fellow bomb-tosser, was an intended consequence, but the official pursuit of the case against him also led back to Singh’s fellow-revolutionaries and bomb-manufacturers. Some of these were induced to inculpate Singh, Rajguru, and Thapar to the theretofore-unsolved murder of Lahore policeman John Saunders in December 28.
Saunders had been mistakenly assassinated: Singh et al took him for John Scott, a police superintendent who ordered a baton charge against protesters and personally helped beat to death one of the independence movement’s revered fathers.
While the law wrapped its coils about him, Singh led a successful hunger strike for better prison conditions, and kept churning out writing.
His example of sacrificial revolutionary ardor — not to mention his leftist politics — kept him a popular martyr figure for years after his death, all the way down to the present day.
Climactic execution scene from the 2002 Hindi flm The Legend of Bhagat Singh — one of many different cinematic adaptations of his story.
The Shaheedi Mela (Martyrdom Fair) is observed across Punjab each March 23 in honor of these men.
In the diary of that remarkable man, Gen. Patrick Gordon, who left Scotland in 1651 a poor, unfriended wanderer, and, when he died, in 1699, had his eyes closed by the affectionate hands of his sorrowing master, the Czar Peter the Great, the following entry is to be found, under date Hamburg, March 22, 1686:
This day, a man and a woman, a burgher of the towne being the womans master, for murthering, were carted from the prisone to the house where the murder was committed; and there before this house, with hotte pinsers, the flesh was torren out of their armes, and from thence were carted to the place of justice without the towne, and there broken and layed on wheeles.