Posts filed under 'History'

1879: Kate Webster, of the Barnes Mystery

1 comment July 29th, 2013 Richard Clark

(Thanks to Richard Clark of Capital Punishment U.K. for the guest post, a reprint of an article originally published on that site. (I’ve added some links and done a bit of minor reformatting.) The images accompanying this post are also provided by Mr. Clark. -ed.)

Kate Webster was a rather incompetent career criminal who had served several prison terms for various thefts and offences of dishonesty, both in her native Ireland and in England. These included a period of 12 months in 1877 in London’s Wandsworth prison, where she would ultimately die.

She was born Catherine Lawler in 1849 in Killane, Co. Wexford in what is now the Irish Republic and started her criminal career at an early age. She claimed to have a married a sea captain called Webster by whom, according to her, she had had four children. Whether this is true is doubtful, however.

She moved to Liverpool (stealing money for the ferry fare) and continued stealing once she arrived there. This was to earn her a four-year prison sentence at the age of 18. On release, she went to London and took work as a cleaner — often “cleaning out” her employer’s possessions before moving on.

In 1873, she settled at Rose Gardens in London’s Hammersmith area. Her next door neighbours were Henry and Ann Porter whom she got on well with and were to feature later in her story. She moved to Notting Hill to a new job as a cook/housekeeper to Captain Woolbest and whilst in his employ, met a man named Strong with whom she went to live and became pregnant by. She duly gave birth to a son on the 19th of April 1874 and was promptly abandoned by Mr. Strong. Without any means of support (there was no Social Security then), Kate resorted to her usual dishonest practices and served several prison sentences as a result.

On release from Wandsworth in 1877, she again sought domestic work — firstly with the Mitchell family in Teddington, of whom she was to say that they didn’t have anything worth stealing. She was constantly on the move at this time and used several aliases including Webster and Lawler.

Sarah Crease, another domestic servant, became friends with Kate somewhere around this period, and it was Sarah who found herself looking after Kate’s son during his mother’s spells in prison.

The murder.

On the 13th of January 1879, Kate entered the service of Mrs Julia Martha Thomas at No. 2 Vine Cottages, Park Road, Richmond. To begin with, the two women got on well and Kate recorded that she felt she could be happy working for Mrs. Thomas, who was comfortably off, although a rather eccentric woman in her mid 50’s.

Soon, however, the poor quality of Kate’s work and her frequent visits to local pubs began to irritate Mrs. Thomas and after various reprimands, she gave Kate notice with Kate’s dismissal to take effect on Friday, the 28th of February. This period of notice was a fatal mistake on the part of Mrs. Thomas and she became increasingly frightened of her employee during its period, so much so that she asked friends from her church and relatives to stay in the house with her.

Friday the 28th arrived and as Kate had not managed to find a new job or any accommodation, she pleaded with Mrs. Thomas to be allowed to remain in her house over the weekend. Sadly, Mrs. Thomas agreed to this — a decision that was to cost both women their lives.

On the Sunday morning (the 2nd of March 1879), Mrs. Thomas went off to church as usual. Kate was allowed Sunday afternoons off work but had to be back in time for Mrs. Thomas to go to the evening service. This Sunday afternoon Kate went to visit her son, who was as usual in the care of Sarah Crease, and then went to a pub on the way back to Vine Cottages. Thus she got back late which inconvenienced Mrs. Thomas, who again reprimanded her before rushing off so as not be late for the service. Fellow members of the congregation noticed that she seemed agitated, whether this was because she suspected Kate’s dishonesty and feared her home was being robbed, is quite possible.

Whatever the reason, Mrs. Thomas left church before the end of the service and went home, sadly without asking anyone to accompany her. Precisely what happened next is unclear. In her confession prior to her execution, Kate described the events as follows:

We had an argument which ripened into a quarrel, and in the height of my anger and rage I threw her from the top of the stairs to the ground floor. She had a heavy fall. I felt that she was seriously injured and I became agitated at what had happened, lost all control of myself and to prevent her screaming or getting me into trouble, I caught her by the throat and in the struggle choked her.

At her trial, the prosecution painted a rather different picture. Mrs. Thomas’ next door neighbour, Mrs. Ives, heard the noise of the fall followed by silence and at the time thought no more of it. Little was she to suspect what was to happen next.

Kate, of course, had the problem of what to do with the body but instead of just leaving it and escaping, she decided to dismember it and then dispose of the parts in the river.

She set about this grim task with a will, firstly cutting off the dead woman’s head with a razor and meat saw and then hacking off her limbs. She par-boiled the limbs and torso in a copper on the stove and burned Mrs. Thomas’ organs and intestines.

Even Kate was revolted by all this and the enormous amount of blood everywhere. But she stuck to the job and systematically burnt or boiled all of the body parts and then packed the remains into a wooden box, except for the head and one foot for which she could not find room. It has been said that Kate even tried to sell the fatty remains from boiling the body as dripping.

Mrs. Ives was later to report a strange smell from next door (which was caused by the burning).

Kate disposed of the spare foot on a manure heap but was left with the problem of the head, which she decided to place into a black bag.

She continued to clean up the cottage on the Monday and Tuesday and then “borrowing” one of Mrs. Thomas’ silk dresses went to visit the Porter family on the Tuesday afternoon, taking the black bag containing the head with her.

She told the Porters that she had benefited under the will of an aunt who had left her a house in Richmond which she wanted to dispose of, together with its contents, as she had decided to return to Ireland. She asked Henry Porter if he knew a property broker (estate agent) who might be able to assist her.

Later in the evening Kate excused herself and went off, ostensibly to visit another friend, returning later without the black bag which was never found. Both Henry Porter and his son Robert had carried the bag for Kate at various stages of their walk to the railway station and two pubs along the way and both noticed how heavy it was.

This still left Kate with the rest of the human remains in the box to dispose of and she sought the services of young Robert Porter to help her in this, taking the lad back home with her for the purpose. She and Robert carried the box between them to Richmond Bridge, where Kate said she was meeting someone who was taking the box and told Robert to go on without her. Robert was to hear a splash of something heavy hitting the water below a few moments before Kate caught up with him again.

The box was discovered the next morning by a coal man who must have had a horrible shock when he opened it. He reported his discovery to Inspector Harber at Barnes police station and the police had the various body parts examined by a local doctor who declared that they were from a human female and noticed that the skin showed signs of having been boiled. Without the head, however, it was not possible to identify the body.

Kate meanwhile was calling herself Mrs. Thomas and wearing the dead woman’s clothes and jewellery. She kept up pressure on Henry Porter to help her dispose of the property and he introduced her to a Mr. John Church, who was a publican and general dealer, who she persuaded to buy the contents of the house. Kate and Church seemed to rapidly become friends and went drinking together several times. The real Mrs. Thomas had not been reported missing at this stage and the papers referred to the human remains in the box as “the Barnes Mystery,” a fact known to Kate as she could read, as could the Porter family. Robert told his father about the box he had helped Kate carry which was like the one described in the papers.

Kate agreed a price for the furniture and some of Mrs. Thomas’ clothes with John Church and he arranged for their removal. Unsurprisingly, this was to arouse the suspicion of Mrs. Ives next door who questioned Kate as to what was going on. Mrs. Church was later to find a purse and diary belonging to Mrs. Thomas in one of the dresses. There was also a letter from a Mr. Menhennick to whom Henry Porter and John Church paid a visit.

Menhennick knew the real Mrs. Thomas and it became clear from the discussion that it could well be her body in the box. The three men, together with Menhennick’s solicitor, went to the Richmond police station and reported their suspicions. The next day a search was made of No. 2 Vine Cottages and an axe, razor and some charred bones were recovered, together with the missing handle from the box found in the river. Thus on the 23rd of March, a full description of Kate Webster was circulated by the police in connection with the murder of Mrs. Thomas and the theft of her effects.

Kate had decided to flee to Ireland taking her son with her — which was to be the first place the police looked for her. She was arrested on the 28th of March and kept in custody awaiting collection by two detectives from Scotland Yard. She was brought back to England and taken to Richmond police station where she made a statement on March 30th and was formally charged with the murder.

The statement accused John Church of being responsible for Mrs. Thomas’ death and he was subsequently arrested and charged with the murder too. Fortunately, he had a strong alibi and had also assisted the police in discovering the crimes. At the committal hearing, the charges against him were dropped while Kate was remanded in custody. She was transferred to Newgate prison to save the journey by horse drawn prison van across London each day for her trial.


Kate Webster’s trial opened on the 2nd of July 1879 before Mr. Justice Denman at the Central Criminal Court (the Old Bailey) next door to Newgate. In view of the seriousness of the crime, the Crown was led by the Solicitor General, Sir Hardinge Giffard, and Kate was defended by Mr. Warner Sleigh.

A hat maker named Mary Durden gave evidence for the prosecution telling the court that on the 25th of February, Kate had told her she was going to Birmingham to take control of the property, jewellery, etc. that had been left her by a recently deceased aunt. This, the prosecution claimed, was clear evidence of premeditation, as the conversation had occurred 6 days before the murder.

One of the problems of the prosecution case, however, was proving that the human remains the police had found were actually those of Mrs. Thomas. It was a weakness that her defence sought to capitalise on, especially as without the head there was no means of positively identifying them at that time. Medical evidence was given to show that all the body parts had belonged to the same person and that they were from a woman in her fifties.

The defence tried to suggest that Mrs. Thomas could have died of natural causes, in view of her agitated state, when she was last seen alive leaving church on the Sunday afternoon. Both Henry Porter and John Church gave evidence against Kate describing the events of which they had been involved, and her defence again tried to point the finger of suspicion at them. In his summing up, the judge, however, pointed to the actions and previously known good characters of both of them. Two of Kate’s friends, Sarah Crease and Lucy Loder, gave evidence of her good nature.

Late on the afternoon of Tuesday, the 8th of July, the jury retired to consider their verdict, returning just over an hour later to pronounce her guilty. Before she was sentenced, Kate yet again made a complete denial of the charge but cleared Church and Porter of any involvement in the crime. As was normal, she was asked if she had anything to say before she was sentenced and claimed to be pregnant. She was examined by a panel of matrons drawn from some of the women present in the court and this claim was dismissed as just another of her lies. She went back to Newgate and was transferred the next day to Wandsworth to await execution. It has been suggested that Wandsworth did not have a condemned cell at this time although it would seem unlikely. In any event, Kate was guarded round the clock by teams of female prison officers.

Kate was to make two further “confessions” in Wandsworth, the first implicating Strong, who was the father of her child. These allegations were also found to be baseless.

Kate was informed by her solicitor that no reprieve was to be granted to her, despite a small amount of public agitation for commutation. So on the eve of her hanging, Kate made another confession to the solicitor in the presence of the Catholic priest attending her, Father McEnrey, which seemed somewhat nearer the truth. She stated that she was resigned to her fate and that she would almost rather be executed than return to a life of misery and deception.


The actual execution of the sentence of death had changed a great deal over the 11 years between the ending of public hangings and Kate’s death, even though the words of the sentence had not.

No longer was it a public spectacle with the prisoner being given a short drop and allowed to die in agony. William Marwood had made great improvements to the process and had introduced the “long drop” method, designed to break the person’s neck and cause instant unconsciousness.

The execution was, as usual, to take place three clear Sundays after sentence and was set for the morning of Tuesday, the 29th of July at Wandsworth prison. Wandsworth was originally the Surrey House of Correction and had been built in 1851. It took over the responsibility for housing Surrey’s condemned prisoners on the closure of Horsemonger Lane Gaol in 1878.

Kate was to be only the second person and the sole woman to be hanged there.

At 8.45 a.m., the prison bell started to toll and a few minutes before 9.00 a.m. the Under Sheriff, the prison governor, Captain Colville, the prison doctor, two male warders and Marwood formed up outside her cell.

Inside, Kate was being ministered to by Father McEnrey and attended by two female wardresses. She would have typically been offered a stiff tot of brandy before the execution commenced. The governor entered her cell and told her that it was time and she was led out between the two male warders, accompanied by Father McEnrey, across the yard to the purpose built execution shed which was nicknamed the “Cold Meat Shed.” (See photo)

Having the gallows in a separate building spared the other prisoners from the sound of the trap falling, and made it easier too for the staff to deal with the execution and removal of the body afterwards. As Kate entered the shed, she would have been able to see the large white painted gallows with the rope dangling in front of her with its simple noose laying on the trapdoors. The idea of coiling up the rope to bring the noose to chest level came later, as did the brass eyelet in the noose. Marwood stopped her on the chalk mark on the double trapdoors and placed a leather body belt round her waist to which he secured her wrists, while one of the warders strapped her ankles with a leather strap. She was not pinioned in her cell, as became the normal practice later.

She was supported on the trap by the two warders standing on planks, (one is just visible in the bottom left hand corner of the photo) set across it. This had been the normal practice for some years in case the prisoner fainted or struggled at the last moment. Marwood placed the white hood over her head and adjusted the noose, leaving the free rope running down her back. Her last words were, “Lord, have mercy upon me.”

He quickly stepped to the side and pulled the lever, Kate plummeting down some 8 feet into the brick-lined pit below. Marwood used significantly longer drops than later were found to be necessary. Kate’s body was left to hang for the usual hour before being taken down and prepared for burial. The whole process would have taken around two minutes in those days and was considered vastly more humane than Calcraft’s executions.

The black flag was hoisted on the flag pole above the main gate, where a small crowd of people had gathered for her execution. They would have seen and heard nothing and yet these rather pointless gatherings continued outside prisons during executions until abolition.

As the criminal was female no newspaper reporters were been allowed to attend the execution but the Illustrated Police News did one of their famous drawings of the scene as they imagined it, with Marwood putting the hood over a pinioned Kate’s head.*

The Sheriff’s Cravings show that William Marwood received £11 for hanging Kate, presumably £10 plus £1 expenses.

Later in the day, her body was buried in an unmarked grave in one of the exercise yards at Wandsworth.** She is listed in the handwritten prison records as Catherine Webster, interred 29/07/1879. Although she was the second person to be executed at Wandsworth, she was buried in grave no. 3 as the graves were numbered 1, 3, 5, etc. on one side of the path, while on the other side they were numbered 2, 4, 6, etc. and it was decided to use those on one side first.

In all, 134 men and Kate were to be hanged at Wandsworth up till the 8th of September, 1961, when Henryk Niemasz became the last to suffer for the murder of Mr. and Mrs. Buxton.


If the events of that Sunday evening were exactly as Kate described them, it is strange that Mrs. Ives did not hear the quarrel or any other noises from next door. Again why were there bloodstains at the top of the stairs if Mrs. Thomas’ injuries had occurred at the bottom?

It is generally held that Kate lay in wait for Mrs. Thomas and hit her on the head with an axe causing her to fall down the stairs, where she then strangled her to prevent any further noise. This would, of course, make the crime one of premeditated murder and is much more in line with the forensic evidence.

Whether Kate decided to kill Mrs. Thomas in revenge for her earlier telling off or whether it was because she saw a great opportunity to steal from Vine Cottage, or both, is unclear. It is not unknown for previously non-violent criminals to turn to violent murder. John Martin Scripps became, to date, the last British man to be hanged for murder when he was executed in Singapore in April 1996. He too had convictions for dishonesty.

But what turned Kate to such appalling violence? Did she just snap or had she spent two hours or so thinking about it? We will never know the answer to these questions because there was no psychiatric assessment carried out on murderers back then.


It was reported in October 2010 that Julia Martha Thomas’s skull has finally been discovered in the grounds of Sir David Attenborough‘s property in Park Road, Richmond by workmen excavating for an extension. He had purchased a former pub called “The Hole in the Wall” which was adjacent to his property and has had demolished the rear of the pub. It is highly likely that Kate Webster frequented “The Hole in the Wall”.

The coroners report stated that the skull had fractures consistent with falling down stairs and also had depleted collagen which suggested it had been boiled.

* Interesting sidelight on the popular circulation of crime news here, using a comparison of this case and that of another noteworthy 1879 hanging, Charles Peace. -ed.

** After the 90th Wandsworth execution, the authorities started to re-use some graves of previously hanged male prisoners. Nobody else was ever buried in Kate’s grave, however.

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1976: Christian Ranucci, never yet rehabilitated

Add comment July 28th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1976, Christian Ranucci, 22, was guillotined in Marseilles … with the last words addressed to his attorneys, “Réhabilitez-moi”.

If that has not yet occurred, it has not been for want of trying.

Many people think Ranucci was the last person executed by France; in fact, this is not correct. But the confusion is understandable: Ranucci has persisted in the headlines and the public imagination owing to a running controversy over whether he was wrongly convicted. It’s a vexing case rife with ambiguous circumstantial evidence, and observers are usually able to see in it what they want to see.

On June 3, 1974, two incidents — a minor traffic accident, and the request by a young man of a local mushroomer to help his car out of a muddy gallery where it was stuck — placed a gray Peugeot 304 at La Pomme, outside Marseilles. This also happened to be the date that 8-year-old Maria-Dolores Rambla was abducted from St. Agnes by an unknown man in a red sweater reportedly driving a gray Simca 1100, a vehicle that would be possible to mix up with the Peugeot 304.

When news of the abduction broke on the radio the morning of June 4, the people who saw the Peugeot(s) later called it in as a tip.

Police got to the bespectacled young Ranucci (English Wikipedia entry | French; most of the links from here on out are French) via the accident. His car didn’t stop for the other motorist, but limped on down the road another kilometer. The other driver’s vehicle was inoperable, but that driver sent a passerby to follow the hit-and-run Peugeot’s path to see if he could track down a license plate number. Indeed he did do that.

And when that good citizen called police, he said he had seen the driver running into the nearby woods with either a sizable package or a small child. (The story has … evolved.) You can see where this is going: when the area was searched after the tip came in, poor Maria’s dead body was steps away from the spot the car stopped. She’d been knifed to death.

The mushroom-gallery, for its part, yielded up a red pullover sweater like the one the abductor wore, and a bloody knife.

After 17 hours’ grilling by the police, Ranucci broke down and confessed. He would later retract the confession, blaming police pressure. (Here in 2013, everybody does know — right? — that false confessions happen with alarming frequency, and that they’re widely associated with exonerations.)

As open-and-shut as this sounds, Ranucci’s many defenders have found a great deal wanting in the case

Journalist Gilles Perrault has been on about this case for decades. His L’ombre de Christian Ranucci drew a 50,000 euro judgment for defaming the Marseilles police.

Among the sticking-points for skeptics:

  • There’s the inconsistency in the reported make and model of the vehicle vis-a-vis what Ranucci was driving.
  • None of the eyewitnesses to the abduction could identify Ranucci in a lineup … until the lineup was pared down to make it a gimme. Sloppy lineup work has been a significant factor in wrongful convictions; on the other hand, eyewitnesses are extremely unreliable in general.
  • The recovered red pullover was much too small for Ranucci, possibly suggesting that this apparent link to the observed abductor did not reach all the way to the accused.
  • Mr. Red Pullover Simca 1100 was allegedly seen attempting other abductions at times and places that made it certain that he was not Christian Ranucci.
  • Questionable handling of physical evidence by investigators.

That’s basically just to scratch the surface. Here (pdf) is a much lengthier exegesis of the potentially exculpatory evidence, in French. Here’s an English summary covering the same stuff on a site whose resources are mostly also in French. (“We do not assert Christian Ranucci is innocent.”) Countless additional search hits en francais await the interested researcher.

Ranucci himself insisted against advice on pursuing an actual-innocence defense, rather than mounting a mitigation case focusing on avoiding the guillotine while conceding guilt. He was convicted on just a 9-3 jury vote.

But neither in his own time nor latterly has that case gained much purchase on the conscience of his prosecutors. The President who denied Ranucci’s clemency petition, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, has recently given his 1976 decision a vote of confidence; the father of the victim feels likewise.

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1781: Francois Henri de la Motte, French spy

Add comment July 27th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in history, the French spy Francois Henri de la Motte was hanged at Tyburn — and, only after hanging, his head was cut off and his heart carved out. Old Blighty was going a bit soft: it didn’t do actual drawings and quarterings at this late enlightened date. (Well, just one.)

Those old enemies Britain and France had renewed hostilities over the American Revolution, which France backed to twist the neighboring lion’s tail.

De la Motte was a French expat living in England, in which capacity he supported the statecraft of his native realm by coyly picking up British army and naval dispositions and sending word home of who was going where, when. His intelligence allegedly enabled the French navy to turn an unusually aggressive gambit against the British in an engagement in the East Indies, with the loss of 207 souls.

“In the whole history of mankind, an instance was not to be produced of a more ingenious, able, and industrious spy than Mr. De La Motte,” his prosecutors charged. (There’s an account of the trial here.)

Perhaps this was flattery, since the operation was not defeated by counterintelligence except de la Motte’s own counter-intelligence. The guy dropped a bunch of incriminating notes he had taken on naval movements in a staircase, and they were there snatched up by King George’s true subjects and forthwith sent their owner to Newgate. His English accomplice quickly turned Crown’s evidence

Days after the spy’s ignominious end, General Cornwallis’s army in the American south arrived from Charleston at Yorktown, Va., a deep-water port from which he meant to command the Chesapeake. There, Cornwallis was surrounded by an overwhelming force of both American rebels and their French armies. The British defeat at Yorktown that October clinched independence for the colonies.

De la Motte’s trial — accused perfidious Frenchman in danger of barbaric old-timey punishment — appears to be the model for the London trial against Charles Darnay depicted at the start of A Tale of Two Cities. See if this sketch by noted death penalty skeptic (but also death penalty obsessive) Charles Dickens doesn’t essentially depict Francois de la Motte’s situation:

“What’s coming on?”

“The Treason case.”

“The quartering one, eh?”

“Ah!” returned the man, with a relish; “he’ll be drawn on a hurdle to be half hanged, and then he’ll be taken down and sliced before his own face, and then his inside will be taken out and burnt while he looks on, and then his head will be chopped off, and he’ll be cut into quarters. That’s the sentence.”

“If he’s found Guilty, you mean to say?” Jerry added, by way of proviso.

“Oh! they’ll find him guilty,” said the other.

Charles Darnay had yesterday pleaded Not Guilty to an indictment denouncing him (with infinite jingle and jangle) for that he was a false traitor to our serene, illustrious, excellent, and so forth, prince, our Lord the King, by reason of his having, on divers occasions, and by divers means and ways, assisted Lewis, the French King, in his wars against our said serene, illustrious, excellent, and so forth; that was to say, by coming and going, between the dominions of our said serene, illustrious, excellent, and so forth, and those of the said French Lewis, and wickedly, falsely, traitorously, and otherwise evil-adverbiously, revealing to the said French Lewis what forces our said serene, illustrious, excellent, and so forth, had in preparation to send to Canada and North America.

Darnay is acquitted, obviously, as Dickens was only three chapters in and being paid for a novel-length serial.

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1578: Thee Bruges Minnenbroder

1 comment July 26th, 2013 Headsman

During the Dutch Revolt — a proto-nationalist conflict pitting the Low Countries against the Habsburg Empire, overlaid with a religious conflict pitting Calvinist against Catholic — the Low Countries principals came to an expedient arrangement to lay off fighting with one another in order to concentrate on controlling their respective internal revolts.

As we’ve previously discussed, this truce helped set up now-unmolested local religious majorities to do some internal purging.

Whereas Calvinist Ghent went after some Catholic monks on accusations of homosexuality, Catholic Bruges (today in Belgium) … went after some not-Catholic-enough monks on accusations of homosexuality.

The results, as described in Same-Sex Desire in the English Renaissance: A Sourcebook of Texts, 1470-1650, were depressingly similar.

In [illustrator Franz] Hogenberg‘s Scenes an engraving dated May 18, 1578, shows a lengthy procession of monks being marched out of a monastery in Bruges under armed guard. The title and verses explain that two Franciscans of Calvinist leanings were whipped and then interrogated (probably on account of their Protestantism). But they revealed that many in their order were tained by sodomy (Sodomi). The other monks admitted this (under torture?), and “they were all taken prisoners and led away to the gate for their godlessness.” Presumably depicting a result of this … [is] Execution for Sodomitical Godlessness in the City of Bruges … Three monks are about to be burned in a public square while two are being beaten. Underneath, the verses state, “in well-known Bruges in Flanders three Franciscans (Minnenbroder) have been burned. Also two others were well beaten with switches and two had to be banished. For they were young and inexperienced and had been seduced by the old ones, so that they unjustly practiced sodomy (unzuchtt) upon their bodies.” Though the circumstances of the monks’ trial are as yet unclear, such sentences were carried out by secular authorities. Minnenbroder (Franciscans) may be a satiric pun on the word minne (which had come to mean debauchery), suggesting “brothers in lust” as opposed to brotherly love. Hogenberg connects sodomy with “godlessness,” as was common.

… The investigations, convictions, and punitive displays in these monastic cases [in Bruges and in Ghent] had special topicality for inclusion because they not only afforded titillations of sexual scandal, censure, and public punishment, but also added alleged religious transgression and appealed to Protestant-Catholic rivalries of the time. Although Hogenberg’s sodomites are ecclesiastics, his engravings indicate how these public spectacles were managed, while also providing us one contemporary view of the attitudes attendant crowds displayed.

Detail view (click for the full images) of Hogenberg prints from this British Museum collection. Also see this slightly different version of the arrest print.

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Feast Day of St. James the Greater

1 comment July 25th, 2013 Headsman

It’s a big day today in the Galician city of Santiago de Compostela, because the twenty-fifth of July is the feast of its patron and namesake* St. James the Great.

One of the original Apostles (literally, he and his brother John are the first two whom Jesus calls in the Gospels), James also had the distinction of apparently being the first Apostle to die for Christ.** His execution at the hands of Herod Agrippa† is reported in Acts 12:2;‡ it’s the only apostolic execution in the New Testament.

This, of course, occurred on the southeastern fringe of the Mediterranean, so it’s a wonder that James’s bones came to repose at a Spanish city literally situated on Finisterre, the far western edge of the world as far as Europeans saw it. The Lord works in mysterious ways.

It’s certainly plausible — though impossible to substantiate — that James evangelized in Spain prior to his execution. The whole Mediterranean was a Roman lake. More towards the outlandish is the patriotic story (pdf) that James’s relics were miraculously discovered there in 813 at the moment when Muslim expansion into Iberia gave the hard-pressed Christian kingdoms the greatest possible need for a morale boost.§

James became for those souls Saint James Matamoros, Moor-slayer, and started turning the tide of fictional battles and blessing his own very real chivalric order.

Saint James gets his Moor-slaying on.

“A knight of Christ’s squadrons,” Cervantes wrote. “St. James the moorslayer, one of the most valiant saints and knights the world ever had, and that now the heavens have … this great knight with the vermilion cross has been given by God to Spain for its patron and protection.”

James’s martial prowess is entirely posthumous: when the Son of God recruits him, he’s a humble piscator at labor mending his nets (there are some less-bellicose present-day churches going under the name “Saint James the Fisherman”). Gibbon could not but marvel at the “stupendous metamorphosis [that] was performed in the ninth century, when from a peaceful fisherman of the Lake of Gennesareth, the apostle James was transformed into a valorous knight, who charged at the head of Spanish chivalry in battles against the Moors. The gravest historians have celebrated his exploits; the miraculous shrine of Compostella displayed his power; and the sword of a military order, assisted by the terrors of the inquisition, was sufficient to remove every objection of profane criticism.”

But mythmaking exercises a historicity all its own, and the James legends offered a rallying-point for Spain’s Christians. He stands to this day the patron of Spain as well as a number of places colonized by Spain.

Pilgrims have ever since that stupendous metamorphosis of the 9th century made the journey to the apostle’s purported resting-place; this Way of St. James, actually comprising several different possible routes covering hundreds of kilometers on foot, has in recent years emerged as a major tourist draw. The Way terminates, of course, at Santiago de Compostela and the enormous cathedral there where repose James’s relics.

Saint James’s Day, 25 July, is its celebratory culmination.

James so overawes July 25 on the liturgical calendar that it’s a mere footnote to add that this same day also pays homage to Saint Christopher, a historically dubious Christian martyr from the third or early fourth century Roman Empire.

Christopher is rather nifty, because he’s sometimes depicted in iconography as cynocephalic — that is, having the head of a dog. At least the rest of him is human, unlike Saint Guinefort the Greyhound. (No lie. It’s a doggie saint, albeit of the distinctly unofficial variety. To stamp out folk veneration, an incensed preacherhad the dead dog disinterred, and the sacred wood [where it received offerings] cut down and burnt, along with the remains of the dog.”)


* The name “Santiago” derives from our saint’s name in Latin, Sanctu Iacobu. This is also the source, and James the intended honorary, for other places on the map named Santiago, such as Santiago, Chile.

** Assuming you don’t count Judas Iscariot, of course.

† Herod Agrippa is not to be confused with his grandfather Herod the Great — the Biblical Massacre of the Innocents guy — nor with his uncle Herod Antipas — the guy who punted Jesus’s prosecution back to Pontius Pilate. Three different Herods; three different New Testament heavies.

‡ James’s death in Acts 12 is followed immediately by Saint Peter staging a supernatural jailbreak out of the same prison. The latter goes on to evangelize for another 20-odd years.

§ The holy remains reached that resting point, goes the legend, only by perilously navigating a path of dragons, pagans, and wagons.

Update: Unfortunately, 2013 celebrations have given way to mourning for the victims of a high-speed train crash at Santiago de Compostella on the eve of the feast.

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1471: Dmitry Isakevich Boretsky, son of Marfa Boretskaya

Add comment July 24th, 2013 Headsman

Muscovy’s long march to supremacy among the early Russian polities reached a decisive turn on 14 July 1471 when it defeated longtime rival Novgorod at the Battle of Shelon.

Ten days after that defeat, Novgorod’s commander Dmitry Isakevich Boretsky was put to death by the will of Ivan III.

Novgorod the Great had been losing ground to its neighbor for generations. Matters came in the end to the “Mayoress” Marfa Boretskaya, the widow of Novgorod’s former mayor (posadnik) Isaac Boretsky; she emerged in the 1460s as the charismatic leader of the hardline anti-Muscovite types.

Struggling to find a political foothold upon which to resist burgeoning Moscow, Marfa Boretskaya intrigued with the friendly — and similarly Muscophobic — Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This drew Ivan III into what would prove to be the decisive military showdown between these venerable cities.

Marfa’s son Dmitry, our date’s unfortunate executed, would have stood to garner the glory of it had he prevailed.

He didn’t.

Bummer: Klavdy Lebedev‘s 1889 panorama of Marfa Boretskaya surveying the destruction of Novgorod.

Marfa Boretskaya was not put to death herself, but taken prisoner to Moscow upon Novgorod’s formal annexation in 1478 and socked away in a convent.

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1635: Hans Ulrich Schaffgotsch, man in the middle

Add comment July 23rd, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1635,* the German aristocrat and general Hans Ulrich [von] Schaffgotsch lost his head in Regensburg.

Schaffgotsch (German Wikipedia entry: most information about him online is in German) would have appeared to have won the birthright lottery. Sure, he was no king, but being born to a hereditary Silesian baron of distinguished blue-blood lineage, and being dynastically married to a princess, put him squarely within the 1 percent’s 1 percent.**

Schaffgotsch caught one very bad break: he was born to come of age during the Thirty Years’ War.

The Schaffgotsch family had different branches going, but Hans Ulrich’s was Protestant — and this was also the predominant faith in early 17th century Silesia. (It adhered to the unsuccessful Bohemian Revolt.)

Doctrinal differences aside, Schaffgotsch had favorable terms from the Catholic emperor. He also made himself good friends with a fantastically wealthy duke named Albrecht von Wallenstein. Wallenstein was a little shaky on the religion question himself; he’d been raised Protestant and converted to Catholicism for unknown reasons.

When the Thirty Years’ War came calling again late in the 1620s, Wallenstein used his capacious wealth to field a large army in service of Ferdinand, and Schaffgotsch went right along as the generalissimo’s able adjutant. But Ferdinand, who was short on both cash and troops to call his own, soon came to fear this capable general upon whom he overmuch depended. When the opportunity arose, the sovereign abruptly relieved Wallenstein of command in 1630 — only to have to reinstate him in 1632† when his replacement got killed.

It turns out Ferdinand did have good cause for suspicion. Wallenstein was dissatisfied with the emperor’s treatment as well, and covertly treated with the Protestant league to switch sides or overthrow the emperor and rule in Bohemia. The detection of these plans in Vienna led Ferdinand to have Wallenstein judged by a secret court, then assassinated in 1634.‡

As his aide, Schaffgotsch too was soon dealt with. Unlike the dangerous Wallenstein, Schaffgotsch was a small enough target to arrest and prosecute in the conventional way — which happened in 1635. Schaffgotsch obstinately refused under torture to admit any involvement in treason, but he was condemned to death all the same.

The Silesian aristocrat might have felt hard done by, but he relieved some annoyance with an old-fashioned shopping spree. Schaffgotsch went out in style (German link) by plumping for black drapings for the scaffold, ordering a custom coffin, doing up all his servants in black mourning garb, and bribing the executioner of Regensburg to behead him seated in a chair. (The lord rooted himself so firmly in his seat that his head flew off at the sword’s stroke without his body toppling over.)

Afterwards, Schaffgotsch’s body was laid out for last respects for two days in Regensburg Blauen Krebs inn, which still exists to this day. (And has the story on its website.)

* Gregorian date. With Catholic and Protestant powers both going at it, dating gets confusing in this period; it would have been July 13 per the Julian calendar still in use by most Protestants, and this date is also sometimes attributed.

** Click here for some appealing views of Kynast (Chojnik), one of Schaffgotsch’s castles.

† Wallenstein commanded Habsburg forces at the Battle of Lutzen in November 1632, where Sweden’s King Gustavus Adolphus was killed.

‡ Wallenstein’s treachery and death are the topic of Schiller’s play Wallenstein.

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1979: Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party coup

2 comments July 22nd, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1979, Saddam Hussein executed a terrifying purge of the Ba’ath party.

Hussein had come to power just six days before by forcing out his cousin Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr.

On this date, some 400-plus Ba’ath party leaders were summoned to a pavilion near the Iraqi presidential palace. The secret police locked the doors behind them.

As film rolled, a man named Muhyi Abdel-Hussein came to the stage. Until just days prior, he had been the general secretary of the Revolutionary Command Council, the executive committee that ran the state. For opposing Saddam Hussein’s accession, he’d been arrested and endured God knows what. It was enough to break him, and make him the star in a drama worthy of the old Soviet show trials.

Speaking deliberately, Muhyi Abdel-Hussein* stood at the podium and accused himself of involvement in a Syrian plot against the regime. He had, moreover, been joined in his treason by a number of men in that very room. And then as the names were read off to the stunned audience, Mukhabarat men arrested them and dragged them out of the hall. Colleagues gaped as their ranks were culled around them, each paralyzed with the same panicked thought: am I next? Realizing their vulnerability, some began to chant feverishly their loyalty: “Long live Saddam Hussein!”**

All the while, the emerging dictator — younger and trimmer than we remember him at the end — sat steps away at a simple little table, coolly puffing his cigar. He would be the unquestioned master of Iraq for the next 24 years.

In all, 68 people were hauled out of the room; they were tried immediately and sentenced within minutes: 22 to die, the rest to the dungeons.† The condemned were shot that very day: in a diabolical twist, a number of their former, as-yet-unpurged Ba’ath Party colleagues were detailed for firing squad duty.

Nor was this the end. A wider purge of potential rivals with potential influence — party members, union leaders, intelligentsia, businessmen — unfolded throughout that week; by August 1, several hundred (the exact figure will never be known) had been condemned to die. Muhyi Abdel-Hussein, whatever they promised him, was among them.

* “Al-Khalil gives the last name of Muhyi Abdel-Hussein as Rashid. Matar gives it as Mashhadi. Since Mashhad is a place in Iran, one can only assume that this name was bestowed on the unfortunate Abdel-Hussein posthumously, after it had been discovered that ‘he had reached his position through devious means and that he was originally Persian.'” (Source)

** The entire liturgy of terror was been stage-managed by Taha Yasin Ramadan, who became Iraq’s vice president (and, like his president, was eventually hanged for his trouble). Also making an appearance: Barzan al-Tikriti, who was likewise destined to hang during the American occupation; on July 22, 1979, he was one of the judges on the kangaroo court that issued the death sentences.

† Different sources produce slight variations on the counts of 68 arrests and 22 executions.

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356 BCE: Herostratus burns the Temple of Artemis

1 comment July 21st, 2013 Headsman

By the ancient world’s tradition, it was on July 21, 356 — the night of Alexander the Great‘s birth* — that a theretofore forgettable man set fire to the wooden rafters of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus.

Situated on the Hellenized coast of Asia Minor, near present-day Selcuk, Turkey, Ephesus was one of the great cities of the Mediterranean. It counted Artemis (Diana) its patron deity, and gloried in a jaw-dropping marble temple, bankrolled two centuries before by the Lydian king Croesus, that would have nearly covered a modern football pitch. Ephesians took their Artemis seriously: 400-plus years later, St. Paul would barely escape lynching at the hands of enraged Artemis devotees when he proselytized there.

What a horror it must have been for 4th century BCE Ephesians to awake this day to the destruction of their city’s own sacred pride.

Even more shockingly, the temple’s destroyer made no effort to conceal himself. He openly boasted of his act, and of the horrifying reason for it: merely to exalt his obscure name with the luster of infamy.

Ephesus not only put this man to death, but passed a damnatio memoriae upon him, forbidding any mention of his name, in order to deny him his victory.

But the the historian Theopompus, who was not Ephesian, cheated the city of its sentence by recording it: Herostratus. It’s a word that has become a metonym in many languages and an allegory in many books for any villain impelled to his wickedness by the allure of celebrity.

We have no specific date for Herotratus’s execution. But we do have his last tortured victory. We do have his name.

The Ephesians in time rebuilt the magnificent temple, bigger and more awe-inspiring than before. It stood some 600 years more until the Goths sacked it in 268 AD, long enough to secure its place among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

“I have set eyes on the wall of lofty Babylon on which is a road for chariots, and the statue of Zeus by the Alpheus, and the hanging gardens, and the colossus of the Sun, and the huge labour of the high pyramids, and the vast tomb of Mausolus,” wrote Antipater of Sidon of the reconstructed, post-Herostratus temple. “But when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, ‘Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on aught so grand.'”

The Temple of Artemis today: a weedy rubble. (cc) image from LWY.

* Plutarch remarked that Artemis was too distracted delivering the conqueror into the world to protect her shrine.

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1813: Johann Christian Claudius Devaranne

Add comment July 20th, 2013 Headsman

Two centuries ago today, Johann Christian Claudius Devaranne got himself shot for resisting Napoleon’s draft in Germany.

The Corsican had fallen back following the debacle of occupying Moscow, but the attempts of Napoleon-allied forces to recoup dwindling numbers by conscription provoked fierce resistance in Solingen — where the draft board was driven out and recruiting materials destroyed.

This little flare-up goes by the excellent title of the “Russian Truncheon Insurgency,” but it soon ran into the bayonets of Napoleon’s German partners. On January 30, 1813, a week after draft riots first erupted, troops began suppressing it. Devaranne, a 29-year-old father of five, was seen as a leader in the resistance and a price put out on his head … a price his own maid collected when the fugitive innkeeper was reckless enough to sleep at home one night.

He was tried and shot at Dusseldorf months later, during a lull in the year’s bloody campaign season.

For the 120th anniversary of Devaranne’s execution — which was also six months into Adolf Hitler’s Chancellorship — Solingen dedicated a memorial plaque to Devaranne, claiming his nationalist martyrdom as its own.

“It is no accident that precisely the Third Reich celebrates the memory of this hero. The same spirit which animated Devaranne, animates our SA as well,” said the city’s Lord Mayor. (There was an SA honor guard on hand for the occasion.) “Then as now, we revolt against repression, then against the Corsican, today the SA’s revolution against the Marxists. We need the memory of our heroes to redirect us to their spirit in dark hours.”

The plaque went missing after the war, but Devaranne still has a street named after him in Solingen.

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