Posts filed under 'Capital Punishment'

1555: John Bradford, in the grace of God

Add comment July 1st, 2016 Headsman

The Protestant martyr John Bradford, burned for his faith on this date in 1555, is the popularly reputed source of the idiom “There but for the grace of God go I” — a sentiment admirably fashioned for reckoning the scaffold.

Those who know their own hearts, will be ready to acknowledge, that the seeds of the worst and most aggravated wickedness which have been practised by other men, lie hid therein, (Matt. xv. 19,) and are only restrained from bursting forth by God’s grace. The pious Martyr Bradford, when he saw a poor criminal led to execution, exclaimed, “there, but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford”. He knew that the same evil principles were in his own heart which had brought the criminal to that shameful end. (Source)

It was certainly apt for Bradford himself, who got religion as a student in the 1540s, left off law studies for theology, and was ordained an Anglican deacon by Bishop Nicholas Ridley just in time for the wheel of fortune to spin back to Catholicism.

Clapped in prison within the first weeks of Queen Mary‘s attempted Catholic restoration, Bradford for a time shared lodgings in the Tower with both Ridley and Thomas Cranmer.

Alas, be he ever so pious, our holy martyr’s temporal legacy — his authorship of the aphorism attributed him — remains impossible to substantiate. The remark is not known to have appeared in print until well over two centuries after Bradford’s cold ashes melted into the Smithfield market, and it was thereafter attributed in the 19th century to a variety of other figures as well as to Bradford. (The rivals on no better authority than Bradford could claim, it must be said.) Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, for instance, puts the remark in the mouth of 17th century divine Richard Baxter. (“I never hear of such a case as this that I do not think of Baxter’s words, and say, ‘There, but for the grace of God, goes Sherlock Holmes.'” in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery”)

But the mysterious provenance is only fitting, since that grace expired soon enough for John Bradford — as it does for all other flesh besides.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,God,Heresy,History,Language,Martyrs,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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1948: Meir Tobiansky, by summary judgment

Add comment June 30th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1948, an alleged spy was extrajudicially executed by the Israeli Defense Forces.

This execution occurred during a short truce punctuating Israel’s War of Independence, but prior to the ceasefire the nascent IDF had become suspicious at Jordan’s gift for accurately targeting critical infrastructure in Jerusalem.

Suspicions came to settle on Meir Tobianski a Lithuania-born former British officer who had become a captain in the Jewish militia Haganah: as an employee of the Jerusalem Electric Corporation, he would have made a great informant for enemy artillerymen.

On June 30, 1948, Tobianski was kidnapped and driven to a depopulated Arab village (present-day Harel, Israel), where four intelligence officers demanded to know if Tobianski had given any information to his British colleagues at the utility (he had), and then declared him condemned as a spy. (Efficiently, they had already prepared the firing squad ahead of time.)

The chief of these four, Isser Be’eri, was later charged with manslaughter for the affair, receiving a symbolic one-day sentence. His subordinates, who were never charged, had long careers in Israeli intelligence; one of them, Binyamin Gibli would go on to help cook up a subsequent espionage debacle, the Lavon Affair.

Tobianski has been officially rehabilitated by Israel. Despite the irregularity of the proceeding against him, he’s sometimes described as the first of only two executions in Israeli history, alongside the much more procedurally defensible hanging of Adolf Eichmann.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,History,Israel,Jews,Occupation and Colonialism,Posthumous Exonerations,Shot,Spies,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1726: Joseph Quasson

Add comment June 29th, 2016 Headsman

Hanged on this date in 1726, Joseph Quasson enjoys a minor distinction in the annals of the gallows press: according to friend of the blog Anthony Vaver, Samuel Moody’s account of Quasson’s long* jailhouse sojourn was the first published in the colonies as a standalone conversion narrative, without cover of an attached ministerial sermon.

And here it is:

* Quasson fatally shot a fellow enlistee serving during Father Rale’s War. There was no question about his guilt, but when the murder took place the next sitting of the court was nine months away so the man just got to cool his heels.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Maine,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Soldiers,USA

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1680: The wife of Abdullah Celebi, and her Jewish lover

Add comment June 28th, 2016 Headsman

At noon on Friday, 28 June 1680, people crowded into Istanbul’s Hippodrome, the city’s main public space, to stone to death a Muslim woman identified as ‘the wife of Abdullah Celebi’ for adultery with an infidel, and to witness the beheading of the Jew who was alleged to be her lover, a neighbourhood shopkeeper. Neighbours who had raided her home when they knew that the Jew was inside claimed to have found the couple having intercourse, which was doubly illicit: not only was she married, but sexual relations between Christian or Jewish men and Muslim women were forbidden by law. The accused denied any wrongdoing, but a mob dragged the two before the chief justice of the empire’s European provinces (known as Rumelia), Beyazizade Ahmet (d. 1686), who had previously been the main judge at Istanbul’s Islamic law (shariah) court.

Beyazizade accepted the testimony of the witnesses. Denying the accused a trial, he condemned the pair to death. Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa Pasha (d. 1683) reported his decision to Sultan Mehmet IV (r. 1648–87, d. 1693), who confirmed the sentence. The sultan attended the double execution in person and offered the man conversion to Islam, permitting him to die swiftly and with dignity by decapitation. Mehmet IV was the only sultan to order an adulteress to be executed by stoning during 465 years of Ottoman rule in Istanbul.

Indeed, public stoning of adulterers was such a rare event in medieval and early modern Islamic history that it is difficult to find any other examples of Islamic rulers punishing transgressors of sexual norms in this way.

This remarkable double execution comes to us by way of three Muslim chroniclers via “Death in the Hippodrome: Sexual Politics and Legal Culture in the Reign of Mehmet IV” by Marc Baer* — whom we have excerpted above. Regrettably, it’s entombed behind a paywall.

Our Ottoman interlocutors universally hold the stoning and beheading as a gross moral failure on the part of both judge and sultan. To begin with, all three chroniclers consider the accusation against the couple legally groundless: evidently the two were not really caught in flagrante delicto and both denied the liaison; this led Sari Mehmet Pasha** to sharply criticize the judge for even admitting neighbors’ suspicions as evidence — rather than punishing the accusers themselves for slander.

According to shariah it is incumbent to accept such testimony only when this situation is witnessed with one’s own eyes, meaning that the witnesses actually see the man insert his penis in and out of the woman ‘like inserting the reed pen in and out of the kohl pot’. But this is one of those impossible conditions set forth to ensure that such charges and their punishment are not frivolously made. Moreover, what is also needed is the woman’s own confession, or admission of guilt. Yet in this case she insistently denied the charge. The Jew likewise continuously claimed he had no knowledge of the affair.

Indeed, another astonished chronicler, Mehmet Rashid, believed that the law required such exacting pornographic specificity of a witness that no adulterers had ever been executed in the history Islam without their own confession. All describe the eyewitness standard as a shield, not a cudgel.

Moreover, even a demonstrable crime of the flesh — and even one committed by a Jew or Christian with a married Muslim woman — ought not result in capital punishment according to religious scholars of the period marshaled by Baer. (At least, not of the man: theoretically the woman could be stoned to death although in practice this never occurred either.)

What was bizarre and blameworthy to contemporaries was that an esteemed judge issued a verdict of literally historic harshness on such dubious grounds — and that the sultan seemed eager not to restrain, but to enforce it. Their narratives† cast Mehmet in a very dark light. “Let me see [the executions] in person,” he says in Silahdar Findiklili Mehmet Agha’s account — then makes a point to cross the Hellespont that morning from the Asian to the European side of the city the better to establish himself in a mansion commanding a view of the ceremonies.

At that time they brought the woman and the Jew to the place of execution. Being told, “Become a Muslim, you will be redeemed, you will go to Paradise,” the Jew was honored by the glory of Islam and then decapitated at the base of a bronze dragon

Wailing and lamenting, [the woman] cried, “They have slandered me. I am innocent and have committed no sin. For the sake of the princes, do not kill me, release me!” But they did not let her go.

Since the incident is unique even in Mehmet’s own long reign one draws larger conclusions at one’s own risk: hard cases make bad law. But it might be possible to perceive here a misjudgment by a man who, having grown to manhood out of the shadow of the dangerous harem that had lately dominated Ottoman politics felt keen to assert himself as a champion of realm and faith alike. (And his sex into the bargain.)

Baer presents Mehmet as an unusually eager proselytizer, always ready with a conversion blandishment whether for infidels captured in the empire’s European wars or for chance encounters with Jewish and Christian commoners. (He also forced a noted rabbi, Shabbatai Tzevi, to convert after the latter started getting some traction as a possible Messiah, and eventually began pressuring Istanbul’s numerous court Jews — physicians, advisors, and miscellaneous elite intelligentsia — to become Muslims as well.) And a Muslim movement had in recent years clamped down on carnivalesque diversions like taverns and public singing thought to trend toward impiety.

Three years later, Mehmet would (over)extend the Porte’s sway to the gates of Vienna. But Mehmet’s defeat there helped to collapse his own power back home, and he was deposed in 1687.

Our correspondents, writing in the wake of that reversal, unmistakably view affairs like this date’s executions as evidence of moral depravity that was punished by its authors’ subsequent misfortunes. Writing of the once-powerful judge, who chanced to die around the same time Mehmet fell, Defterdar concludes that “Beyazizade fearlessly persevered in the matter without scruple” until “the hearts of young and old turned away from him in disgust” and he fell “from the summit of his dignity.”

* Past and Present, Feb. 2011

** The imperial treasurer, himself executed in 1717.

† It does bear remarking that all three chroniclers wrote after Mehmet IV’s own fall.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Jews,Milestones,Notable Jurisprudence,Ottoman Empire,Public Executions,Sex,Stoned,Turkey,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1942: Evzen Rosicky, athlete

2 comments June 25th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1942, Czech athlete and resistance figure Evzen Rosicky was shot with his father at Prague’s Kobyliske shooting grounds.

His country’s former champion in the 800 meters and 400 meter hurdles, Rosicky had the honor of representing Czechoslovakia at the 1936 Olympics … Hitler’s Berlin showcase.

Three years later, it was the Czechs unwillingly playing host to the Germans. By then, Rosicky was a journalist of left-wing proclivities (he was a card-carrying Communist) and he naturally segued right into anti-occupation resistance.

Arrested and shot along with his father, Jaroslav, Evzen Rosicky is the namesake of Prague’s Stadion Evzena Rosickeho.


(cc) image of Stadion Evzena Rosickeho by Honza Záruba.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Athletes,Capital Punishment,Czechoslovakia,Death Penalty,Entertainers,Execution,Germany,History,Shot,Wartime Executions

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1884: Field executions during the Bac Le ambush

Add comment June 24th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1884, a French expeditionary force’s summary battlefield executions marked its retreat from an ambush — and the approach of the Sino-French War.

Having established a foothood in south Vietnam (Cochinchina), France was pushing into north Vietnam (Tonkin) — a campaign that could open a potentially lucrative route straight into China.

For the same reason, China viewed Tonkin as its own security zone. The ensuing skirmishes had as we lay our scene been recently abated by the Tientsin Accord* — an accord on France’s terms, since she had lately enjoyed the run of play in the field.

One of those terms was Chinese withdrawal from Tonkin, and as one might expect the Chinese had little appetite to speedily effect such a submission. In June 1884, when a small French column commanded by a Lt. Col. Alphone Dugenne pushed into what was supposed to be France’s new satrapy, it expected to occupy undefended towns.

Instead, on June 23, having forded the rain-swollen Song Thuong River, Dugenne’s force encountered Chinese regulars manning a chain of clifftop forts.

Outnumbered and on unfamiliar ground, the French surely felt their vulnerability. “High rocks, deep canyons, dense woods and somber defiles, where a handful of resolute men could easily have stopped a whole army, were the principal features of the country,” according to a French-derived account published later that year in the U.S.** “The heat was intense, and fatigue overcame the soldiers, already tired by the thousands of ostacles of the road. The fiery atmosphere did not allow any ret, even during the night, and terrible showers of rain, accompanied with thunder and lightning, converted the rivulets into torrents which swept everything before them, soaked the poor soldiers and destroyed provisions.”

A delegation under flag of truce informed Dugenne that China’s commander was aware of the Tientsin Accord, but had received no superior orders to withdraw. This obviously put both forces in an uncomfortable position. The Chinese wanted time: was this a good faith sorting-out (the Tientsin arrangements were barely six weeks old), or a double game? When the eventual winners wrote the history of events, they called what ensued June 23-24 the Bac Le ambush.

Believing that he had an arrangement with his opposite number, Dugenne’s column moved ahead on the afternoon of the 23rd, in a defile ominously commanded by the Chinese positions. Suddenly — and accounts from the two sides each accuse the other of provoking the first shots — the French came under Chinese fire. “Every tree, every overhanging rock, concealed an invisible enemy, who, being perfectly under cover himself, safely inflicted death all around him,” our correspondent’s account runs.


Illustration of the Bac Le ambush from Le guet-apens de Bac-Le by a French officer who survived it, Jean-Francois-Alphonse Lecomte.

But the ambush did not become a massacre; the French were able to regroup, stabilize their position, and camp that night — the Chinese “so near that they could hear them talk.”

The next day, the French would find themselves hopelessly outgunned but not (yet) encircled, and by mid-morning would be effecting an orderly retreat. In the course of it, Dugenne ordered at least two sets of executions to maintain discipline: early in the morning, it was “the hanging of two Chinese spies who had just been caught … with great solemnity and a great apparat, which caused a hail of bullets to whiz from all sides, where the Chinese friends of the hanged men were concealed.”

Hours later, as his column formed up to withdraw, Dugenne harshly punished his own native Tonkinese auxiliaries, green recruits who had all but routed in the first moments of the ambush when they came under fire and whose ill discipline could not be brooked on retreat: Dugenne “gave an order before [retreating] to shoot down ten Tonquinese of the native troops.”

Dugenne reached friendly forces safely, and with him accounts of a “massacre” that would incense public opinion in Paris. China’s refusal to meet the ensuing French demands for satisfaction in this affair would by August trigger open war in Tonkin.

* Not to be confused with 1885’s Treaty of Tientsin, which actually ended the Sino-French War.

** San Francisco Evening Bulletin, Sep. 11, 1884

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Hanged,History,Known But To God,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Shot,Soldiers,Spies,Summary Executions,Vietnam,Wartime Executions

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1784: Fifteen crooks hanged at Newgate

Add comment June 23rd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1784, no fewer than 15 men hanged on the public scaffold outside London’s Newgate Gaol. Per the next day’s Parker’s General Advertiser and Morning Intelligencer,

William Smith, Isaac Torres, Charles Barton, Patrick Burne, Patrick Birmingham, John Lynch, James Farrel, James Davis, Daniel Bean, Archibald Burridge, Robert Ganley, and Thomas Randal, for burglary; Peter Haslet alias Edward Verily, for personating and assuming the name of Thomas Howard, of his Majesty’s ship the Pallas, with intent to receive his wages; and Joseph Haws and James Hawkins for a street robbery. The above unhappy men came upon the scaffold a little before seven o’clock; they all seemed devout and penitent, and behaved in every respect as became their miserable situation. The plat-form dropped about a quarter before eight, and at the same moment they were all launched into eternity. The concourse was immense; the windows and roofs of the houses commanding a view of the fatal spot, were crowded, and many thousands of people were assembled in the Old-Bailey before six o’clock.

Despite the immense concourse, this gigantic hanging of miscellaneous thieves rates little better than footnote mention in the period’s press. England was gallows-mad; CapitalPunishmentUK.org makes it 56 hangings in 1784 in London alone. There would be an even larger mass execution (20 people) the next February!

Even by the standards of the Bad Old Days, Old Blighty set a terrific pace. “The frequency of English executions was widely noted by foreign observers,” V.A.C. Gatrell writes in The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 1770-1868

The Prussian code had restricted capital punishment as early as 1743, and after 1794 only murderers were executed. Catherine‘s reforms to similar effect followed in Russia in 1767 and Joseph II‘s in Austria in 1787. Philadelphia Quakers dispensed with capital punishment after the American Revolution. In Amsterdam in the 1780s less than 1 a year were killed; barely 15 were executed annually in Prussia in the 1770s, and a little over 10 in Sweden in the 1780s. Towards 1770 about 300 people a year were condemned in the whole of France; over twice that number were condemned annually between 1781 and 1785 in London alone. [most were reprieved -ed.] Before the guillotine’s invention French punishments were crueller than English … even so, only 32 people were executed in Paris in 1774-7, against 139 in London.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Public Executions,Theft

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1940: Three saboteurs and a spy, “Fusilles et oublies”

Add comment June 22nd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1940, the collapsing French state “shot and forgot” four subversives at Pessac. These cases are heavily covered by the French-language blog Histoire penitentiaire et Justice militaire; many links in this post point to well-illustrated articles on that site, which make recommended reading for those inclined to delve deeper.

Late June finds France in the dark weeks after Dunkirk — the very day, in fact, when Marshall Petain’s government formally surrendered to the German blitz.

Elsewhere, the remains of the Third Republic had fled west to Bourdeaux, taking along its death row prisoners. The state that condemned them did not mean to let its imminent disappearance cheat it of their blood.

Jean Amourelle, a stenographer in the French Senate whose duties included shorthanding the secret proceedings of its military commissions, was caught routing intelligence to Germany.

Set to join him for this date’s execution were two pairs of brothers: Roger and Marcel Rambaud, and Leon and Maurice Lebeau. Seventeen-year-old Maurice Lebeau had his sentence commuted to hard labor, however, and was spared from the firing detail.

The Rambauds and Lebeaus were factory workers sentenced as saboteurs for compromising the engine of a French military plane, causing it to explode mid-flight: strange behavior for Communist proletarians explained by the temporary peace between Germany and the Soviet Union that (for the moment) positioned the Comintern-directed French Communist Party as an opponent of the war.

Despite the sacrifice of the Rambauds and Lebeaus, this posture was short-lived. Just one year later — June 22, 1941, in fact — Germany’s invasion of the USSR thrust Europe’s Communist movements into common fronts with anti-fascist parties, and France’s Communists into the forefront of French Resistance martyrs.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,France,History,Shot,Spies,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1378: Pierre du Tertre and Jacques de Rue, Charles the Bad men

Add comment June 21st, 2016 Headsman

On this date* in 1378, Jacques de Rue and Pierre du Tertre, aides to King Charles II of Navarre, were beheaded at Les Halles.

Both men were casualties of their devious master’s most recent betrayals, part of a career that had honed the double game to nearly sadistic precision.

Navarre spent the latter half of the 14th century fouling up alignments in the Hundred Years’ War by constantly switching his allegiances between England and France. Come the 1370s, he was supposed to be on team France — having paid homage to the French king in 1371 — but was still conniving with the English whose expeditions might one day apply enough pressure to force France to restore him some lost domains.

The last great plot of the man contemporaries knew as Charles the Bad really fell apart in the spring of 1378 when the French detained en route to Normandy Jacques de Rue and Pierre du Tertre, two emissaries of Charles’s “criminal entourage”. They carried coded messages** confirming that Navarre was not only back to scheming with the English, but that he was trying to orchestrate the assassination of the French king by means of poison — plots that Jacques confirmed under torture.

France retaliated by attacking its disloyal partner’s Norman holdings and by year’s end the whole region had been chopped up between the French and the English, never to return to Navarrese hands. His retainers were put to death and their corpses strung up on Montfaucon.

This was the humiliating end to the political life of Charles the Bad: reduced to a client king dominated by France (to his north) and Castile (to his south). It would soon find its parallel in the horror ending of his actual life on New Year’s Day 1387:

Charles the Bad, having fallen into such a state of decay that he could not make use of his limbs, consulted his physician, who ordered him to be wrapped up from head to foot, in a linen cloth impregnated with brandy, so that he might be inclosed in it to the very neck as in a sack. It was night when this remedy was administered. One of the female attendants of the palace, charged to sew up the cloth that contained the patient, having come to the neck, the fixed point where she was to finish her seam, made a knot according to custom; but as there was still remaining an end of thread, instead of cutting it as usual with scissors, she had recourse to the candle, which immediately set fire to the whole cloth. Being terrified, she ran away, and abandoned the king, who was thus burnt alive in his own palace.

* There are some cites for May 21 out there, but the sourcing on June appears stronger to me, and references to the men’s interrogations and trial run to June. The beheading is also referred to as having taken place on a Monday, which fits June 21 (but not May 21) in 1378.

** According to CryptoSchool this is one of the oldest known documents in the history of cryptology. Devised personally by Charles of Navarre, its gambit was to “move the names of princes, castles and cities to other names not their own.” (Chronique Normande)

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Attempted Murder,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Gibbeted,History,Nobility,Notable for their Victims,Politicians,Public Executions,Spies,Torture,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1375: Niccolo di Toldo, in the arms of St. Catherine of Siena

Add comment June 20th, 2016 Headsman

I have one body
And to you I offer and return it.
Here is my flesh;
Here is my blood;
Let me be slain, reduced to nothing;
Let my bones be split apart
For those for whom I am praying, if such is your will.

-Prayer of St. Catherine of Siena (Source)

This date in 1375 is the best data point we have for the beheading of Niccolo di Toldo.

The Sienese archives offer scant documentation of this political execution; a decree of June 4, 1375 orders his examination for “the discord sowed by him in the city of Siena, pernicious and deadly to the state of the present government” — and a couple of letters on Niccolo’s behalf from the governor of neighboring Perugia. Francis Thomas Luongo in The Saintly Politics of Catherine of Siena — we will come to Catherine presently — next points in lieu of any remaining record of Niccolo’s execution to “the necrology of the Sienese Dominican friary [which] includes an entry for one ‘Nicholaus, familiarius of the Lord Senator,’ who died and was entombed in the cloister of San Domenico on 20 June, the vigil of the feast of Corpus Christi.” It’s not certain that this is the same man but the description fits him, and the date is one week after the last known letter on his behalf from Perugia — which was an appeal for mercy.

We are as ignorant of Niccolo di Toldo’s offense as we are of the date of his death. But his position (in the household of a senator) and his Perugian affiliation suggest him an agent of papal subversion.

Siena’s centuries-long decline from the ranks of Italy’s city-state powers dates ultimately to the Black Death outbreak of 1348. The Plague devastated Siena.

The ensuing generations saw authority in the great Tuscan city furiously contested; the government turned over repeatedly in the 1360s — the Dodici (the Twelve), the Tredici, the Quindici, each an executive committee of interested parties in the coalition of the day.

From the late 1360s and through the 1370s, the Quindici held sway: reformist guild leaders* who were opposed by the the deposed (and by now proscribed) ex-Dodici, Siena’s great magnates in alliance with the papacy. (Luongo delves into Sienese politics in considerable detail in his book.) By year’s end Siena would join a city-state coalition led by Florence that fought a three-year war against the papal states with the excellent name “the War of Eight Saints”.

That coalition and that thrust of policy is likely what a “political subversive” in 1375 Siena would be subverting. And the governor of Perugia appealing to the Sienese for Toldo’s life? He was a French cardinal, kin to Pope Gregory XI.**


Little as we know of Niccolo di Toldo prior to his death, that execution is one of the most famous in all of medieval Europe.

The wretch was comforted in his last days by Catherine of Siena, a young mystic — and, not incidentally, an increasingly influential opponent of the anti-curial political climate. Today, Catherine is the patron saint not only of Siena but of all Europe, and her dessicated head (sawed off her body by devotees for use as a fetish) greets the reverent and the gawker alike, enthroned in its grisly reliquary in the Basilica San Domenico.


(cc) image by Patrick Denker.

Catherine found Niccolo angry at his impending fate, initially refusing to see any spiritual counselor: no state of mind for a soul to meet its maker. Any of the confraternities tasked at this time with succoring those about to face execution would have been charged with bringing such a person to a condition of resignation and penitence.

Catherine achieved her mission to join the doomed man to God but much, much more than that: her account of their relationship, up to the moment when she ecstatically catches his falling bloody head, is a celebration of erotic mysticism. It’s also one of the most famous episodes of the saint’s life.

Niccolo’s virgin helpmate was herself noted for her mystical “marriage to Christ”: in it, Catherine presented her heart to the phantom Savior, and he his ritually circumcised foreskin to her.

Converging religious fervor and carnality mark her interaction with Niccolo, too; at one point she implies that she has sublimated the condemned traitor’s attraction to her into piety, and (as Catherine wrote a follower),

God’s measureless and burning goodness tricked him, creating in him such an affection and love in the desire of me in God, that he did not know how to abide without God, and he said: ‘Stay with me and do not leave me. Like this I cannot but be alright, and I will die content!’ and he had his head resting on my breast. I sensed an intense joy, a fragrance of his blood, and it was not without the fragrance of my own, which I wait to shed for the sweet husband Jesus.

Catherine saw Niccolo di Toldo only twice in the days leading up to his execution. When he went to the block, she was there to meet him: in fact, she was there early and made bold to occupy the condemned’s place on the scaffold, and to stretch her own neck out over the headsman’s block that her kindred spirit would soon soak in gore. It was as if preparing his bridal bed, where she would embrace Niccolo even as the executioner struck — the two as passionately near to one in soul and body as the logistics of a heavy blade’s arc can permit.

[H]e arrived, as a meek lamb, and seeing me, he began to laugh, and he wanted me to make the sign of the cross. When he received the sign, I said, “Come on! to the nuptials, my sweet brother! for soon you will be in life without end.” He got down with great meekness, and I stretched out his neck, and leaning down, I reminded him of the blood of the Lamb. His mouth said nothing but “Jesus” and “Catherine.” And, as he was saying thus, I received his head in my hands, closing his eyes on divine goodness and saying, “I want this!” (“lo voglio”)†

She clutched to herself the lifeless head that had dropped into her lap and beheld “with the greatest envy” Niccolo’s soul ascending in the martyrdom Catherine aspired to. Afterwards, she was reluctant to wash out the clothes spattered with blood from the sacred climax of death.

The Dominican friar Caffarini, an ally of Catherine who was later to become of the principal exponents of her canonization, wrote of the tableau that Niccolo

accepted death while still at a young age, in the presence of the Virgin and with her receiving his head into her hands, with such marvelous devotion that it was like the transitus of some devout martyr and not the death of one who was condemned for a human crime. And everyone watching among whom I was only one was so moved internally and from the heart that I do not remember any previous burial accompanied with as much devotion as that one.


Panel of Francesco Messina‘s 1962 monument to St. Catherine of Siena outside Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo.

* Apart from the enmity of the papal party, the powerful guild leaders of the Quindici faced working-class opposition that resulted in a 1378 revolt.

** Gregory XI was the guy who moved the papacy back from Avignon to Rome.

† Translated excerpts culled from snippets and excerpts in various locations. Original Italian versions of Catherine’s poetic letters are available in public-domain Google books here; there’s also a recent English translation by Susan Noffke.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Italy,Martyrs,Nobility,Notable Participants,Power,Public Executions,Treason,Uncertain Dates

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Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!


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