Posts filed under 'History'

1862: Samuel Calhoun, antebellum serial killer

Add comment February 5th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1862, Private Samuel H. Calhoun of the 2nd Kentucky Infantry was executed by the Union Army in Bardstown, Kentucky, for murdering a local farmer.

(Calhoun had previously killed the farmer’s pig, and the farmer had Calhoun arrested. So this was settling the score.)

“I shall pass away, the moral wreck of a degenerate age,” he signed off in his published confession, dictated to Jonathan Harrington Green. “Adieu.”

If the confession is to be believed the farmer was just the last of maybe dozens of Calhoun’s victims, slain remorselessly everywhere from North Carolina to Mexico over the preceding years. But is this unverifiable

Read on for the full story in a post at Civil War Medicine guest-authored by one of our favorite crime-history bloggers, Robert Wilhelm of Murder by Gaslight.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Kentucky,Murder,Public Executions,Serial Killers,Soldiers,U.S. Military,USA,Wartime Executions

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1999: Sean Sellers

Add comment February 4th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1999, Sean Sellers became the last person put to death in the U.S. for a crime committed at the age of 16.

Sellers was just four months into his 17th year when he shot dead an Oklahoma City convenience store clerk in a haze of adolescent angst.

“When I was that person, that murderer, I felt superior,” he later wrote in a confession. “I looked down on people with the secret knowledge that I had killed and was capable of killing them too. When I was not that person I was just a confused teenager, going to school, working, learning to drive, still full of anger, and counting the days when I’d be 18 so I could move OUT of that house.”

Six months later, he moved OUT for good by killing his mother and stepfather as they slept. This killing did not stay secret.

The U.S. at the time still allowed the execution of juvenile offenders, a practice that was barred by the Supreme Court only six years after Sellers died.

But on trial for having avowedly killed as “an offering to Satan” during the height of the 1980s’ bizarre devil-worship panic, his age barely figured at all. A cash-strapped public defender tried to argue that he was possessed; later, a defense psychiatrist claimed that Sellers suffered from multiple personality disorder. It’s safe to say the young man wasn’t right in the head at some level, but this sort of thing is juridical grasping at straws.

Sellers later converted to Christianity, but this conversion wouldn’t help him any more than it had helped Karla Faye Tucker the year before. In Sellers’ case, quite a lot of people thought it was all more or less a scam — the manipulative killer’s ploy to avoid the needle.

One footnote to the much-hyped Satanism angle was the teenage Sellers’ interest in Dungeons & Dragons. (Just him and a few million other people.)

Once mainstream enough to have its own cartoon, the popular role-playing game came under hysterical fundamentalist Christian attack during the Reagan years as Lucifer’s very own sport, the gateway drug to erosion of family values and situational ethics.


(via)

A guy like Sean Sellers magic missile-ing a beholder one day and then wasting his parents the next — that was pretty much the Platonic ideal of the anti-D&D campaign. People magazine said the hobby “fueled his darkening fantasies”. (For his part, Sellers disputed the connection.)

Although this sort of thing looks pretty laughable, there are still some authorities who fail their saving throw against dumb when it comes to the infernal pastime.


Haven’t they seen the after-school special?

As an aside, this “rant” (author’s word) from a man whose ex-wife became involved in the Sellers clemency campaign is a pretty interesting snapshot of the prisoner himself, and of the relationships in close proximity to him.

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1578: Blessed John Nelson, martyr

1 comment February 3rd, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1578, John Nelson was martyred at Tyburn.

A Catholic who had popped across to Flanders to train as a priest, Nelson was captured after about a year’s ministry in December 1577.

Matters with this minor martyr proceeded according to the usual script from that point. Interrogators put it to him whether Queen Elizabeth was the proper head of the Church of England — that old chestnut. The wrong answer would be treason.

[Nelson] was brought forth to be examined before the high commissioners. Here they tendered him the oath of the queen’s supremacy, which he refused to take; and being asked, why he would not swear, he answered, because he had never heard, or read, that any lay prince could have that pre-eminence. And being farther demanded, who then was the head of the church, he answered, sincerely and boldly, that the pope’s holiness was, to whom that supreme authority in earth was due, as being Christ’s vicar, and the lawful successor of St. Peter.

Secondly, [t]hey asked him his opinion of the religion now practised in England; to which he answered, without any hesitation, that it was both schismatical and heretical. Whereupon they bid him define what schism was; he told them, it was a voluntary departure from the unity of the catholic Roman faith. Then (seeking to ensnare him) they farther urged, what is the queen then, a schismatic or no? … he answered, conditionally, if she be the setter forth [of Anglicanism], said he, and defender of this religion, now practised in England, then she is a schismatic and a heretic.

After he was cut down alive from his hanging so that he could be disemboweled and quartered, Nelson’s last words were reportedly “I forgive the queen and all the authors of my death.”

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1708: Indian Sam and his female accomplice

Add comment February 2nd, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1708, the slave “Indian Sam” and an unnamed black woman were put to death for the murder of a prominent Queens landowner named William Hallet. The woman was burned; the apparent principal of the plot was hung in gibbets with a blade or spike positioned to torment him as he twisted … a terrible landmark for what Graham Russell Hodges calls the “closing vise of slavery.”

(Two additional accomplices were also hanged later, and several other slaves questioned whose ultimate fate was unknown.)

New York had greatly curtailed Africans’ liberties with its 1706 “Code Noir”, and the growing conflict would soon give birth to a bloody slave revolt.

But grievances were settled, too, at the rough and ready level of private violence. One witness recounted (pdf) the scene.

William Hallet junior who labored at a place called Hellgate his wife and five children in a quarter of an hour were all murdered by one Indian slave whom he had up for 4 years. There was a negro woman Slave in the house who was to him in counseling him in this bloody matter. Both he and his wife have gone at Justice Hattely house with some others … about seven at night [Hallet and his wife] returned home and went to bed … The slaves were watching their opportunity for they had to do it that night, and the house being something dark, [Indian Sam] came into the house and had a[n] axe laid behind the door and seeing his Master asleep took the axe and struck him first with the edge and then with the back of it. The first shook awakened his wife who was abed in the same room and she called murder, thereupon he struck her with the back of an axe on the head. There was one child lying in a box about 7 or 8 years of age. Those he murdered with the back of an axe and then drags the Young Child out from its murdered mother and Struck it on the head. The mother of the murdered child was also big with child.

From Lord Cornbury,* Governor of New York, later recounted what followed to the Board of Trade (Feb. 10, 1708):

My Lords.

… I have nothing new to acquaint you with, only that a most barbarous murder has been committed upon the Family of one Hallet by an Indian Man Slave, and a Negro Woman, who have murder’d their Master, Mistress and five Children; The Slaves were taken, and I immediately issued a special commission for the Tryal of them, which was done, and the man sentenced to be hanged, and the Woman burnt, and they have been executed; They Discovered two other Negros their accomplices who have been tryed, condemned & Executed.

Later that year, New York passed another law imposing potentially torturous executions (“pains of Death in such manner and with such Circumstances as the aggravation and Enormity of their Crime in the Judgement of the Justices … shall merit and require”) for slave conspiracies.

Hallet was the descendant of one of New York’s prominent early grandees whose name long remained prominent, which would lead us to suppose that the restaurant called William Hallet in nearby present-day Astoria is not altogether coincidental.

* A character with a rather scandalous reputation.

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1816: Four sodomite sailors of the Africaine

Add comment February 1st, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1816, four British sailors on the HMS Africaine were hanged for buggery. One other crewman suffered 200 lashes; a second, a 17-year-old sentenced to 300, had the flogging stopped at 170 stripes by a surgeon who feared the youth’s life was in danger.


The Africaine: it was a French ship originally, captured in 1810 by the British.

“The Africaine had a reputation as a ‘man-fucking ship’ long before evidence of sodomitic practices came to the attention of Captain [Edward] Rodney,”* Arthur Gilbert explained in his seminal study published in the very first (volume 1, issue 1 — 1976) edition of the Journal of Homosexuality. “There were several reports of “uncleanliness” on the ship early in 1815 and, on one occasion, two seamen were punished for ‘lying on a chest together one night’.”

Late in 1815, Captain Rodney determined to crack down on the man-fucking and by threatening them with “dreadful consequences” coerced two of the crew into implicating themselves and a great many others in a buggery ring. As the Africaine made its way back to Portsmouth that autumn, it was scene to an ever-widening investigation.

Out of about 220 to 230 men aboard, some 50 members of the crew would ultimately be involved in the investigation, 23 of them charged or implicated with a wide variety of riffs on “the unnatural crime”: one Raphael Seraco was seen “with his yard actually in the posterior of John Westerman”; another sailor “placed his yard between [my] thighs and in that position effected an emission”; still another had “his yard against the backside of the boy Christopher Jay and … in quick motion as if he was committing the unnatural crime”; one of the ship’s boys “being much hurt sung out ‘Oh'” during an attempted rape; and someone had been rogered “on the flag stones of the Galley.”

While seabound sodomy was hardly unheard-of, the practitioners among the Africaine‘s crew had seemingly grown unusually (and dangerously) bold about practicing it without a modicum of concealment, “copulating in plain view like dogs.”

“God must put it into men’s heads to commit the unnatural crime of buggery,” an accused boatswain’s mate had allegedly declared. “If God was to put it into his head to fuck a man, [I] would as soon do it as fuck a woman.”

The sheer number of men rolled up in accusation and counter-accusation made across-the-board death sentences inconceivable. And among those implicated, it was extremely difficult to ascertain truth when fear and favoritism and innuendo were so thick in the air — “terrified as we were,” as one accused man later recounted, “in the idea of being prosecuted for the horrible crime imputed to us, dismayed and alarmed … in the duress of our situation, our minds and feelings every moment distorted by hope and fear without a friend to counsel us.”**

Blackstone had long before noted that the witch-hunt potential of a charge of sexual deviance demanded “that the accusation should be clearly made out.” To Rodney’s credit, he didn’t start stringing people up from the yardarm while the Africaine was at sea.

In port, Captain Rodney gave the matter over to the Admiralty with what one imagines was probably no small relief. In the grand tradition of prosecutorial discretion, the court-martial board proceeded to break down the many accused into those who would be charged and those who would cut deals to implicate the charged.

Seraco and Westerman, mentioned above, were the first sentenced to death, and then Seraco again condemned along with another partner, John Charles. (Seraco had been implicated by several people during Captain Rodney’s seaside inquiry, and Seraco in turn had accused no fewer than 14 of his mates in a vain attempt at self-protection.)

One of the other (uncharged) seamen giving against Seraco offered this juridically damning and sociologically interesting testimony:

Seraco put the question to me whether I would let him fuck me. I told him I did not much mind. He connected with me forward on the Starboard side. He entered my backside — I did the same with him three times. John Charles the prisoner was the first who mentioned the thing to me or I should never have had such a thought in my head.

Testimony of this nature, Gilbert says, posed a problem of jurisprudence: this was evidence not directly bearing on the charge that the defendant committed a specific act of sodomy with the other defendant. Legally, unless the Seraco-Charles liaison had been the charge at the bar, this testimony was extraneous. The Attorney General opined that, in a like civilian trial, he would have advised against executing a death sentence that had been obtained with such evidence — and that fact may have helped procure a pardon for a sailor named Joseph Tall.

Raphaelo Treake (Troyac), condemned with Tall, got the same favor — but Treake was immediately re-tried for a different act of buggery and re-condemned. Treake was another Italian, and Albert notes that their common crime was popularly euphemized as le vice Italien and considered a characteristically Mediterranean indulgence. “All the scandalous behavior in the Africaine has been owing to Treake and Seraco. They are the origin of the whole of it,” another crew member — a Spanish Morisco — testified.†

As January 1816 unfolded, several others went before the court martial and received prison sentences (or in the odd case, acquittal) as the great sodomy-and-uncleanliness audit proceeded.

By month’s end, it was all finished but the noosings.

On February 1, the four condemned “died truly penitent acknowledging the justice of their sentences and admonishing their shipmates to take warning from their unhappy fate not to be guilty of such detestable practices.” The ship’s clipped log entry tersely recorded that unhappy fate.

a.m. Fresh breezes and cloudy … employed getting ready for punishment. At 9 made signal [with] a gun. At 11 executed Seraco, Westerman, Charles, and Treake [for] a breach of te 29th article of war, and punished alongside [John] Parsons … with 200 lashes and [Joseph] Hubbard with 170 lashes for a breach of the 2nd article of war as sentenced by a court martial.

p.m. … sent the bodes of the executed to the hosptal. Read articles of war to the ship’s company.

On that same date as the poor buggers of the Africaine suffered their various corporal punishments, the Portsmouth commander Admiral Edward Thornborough appointed three captains to lead an inquiry into whether this floating Sodom was the fault of Captain Rodney’s soft discipline. The investigators heard good testimony all around among the ship’s junior officers to the conduct of Captain Rodney, and within days exonerated all the higher-ups, only pausing to complain that there could have been more frequent religious services and readings of the Articles of War.

And that was that … even for the ship itself. By mid-February, the HMS Africaine was being stripped down at a Thames dock. She would be officially decomissioned and broken up that year.


How exceptional were the Africaine sodomites in the British navy as the 18th century gave way to the 19th?

Dr. Richard Burg, author of Boys at Sea: Sodomy, Indecency, and Courts Martial in Nelson’s Navy as well as a 2009 Journal of Homosexuality article on the Africaine case (see †), was generous enough to offer his insights into this elusive subculture.

I’d like to start with a question about the historiography. Arthur Gilbert brought this incident to wide public view in the 1970s, and you’ve written about it much more recently. How has the scholarly sense of homoeroticism in the British navy, or in western militaries generally, evolved in the past forty years or so?

Its evolution has paralleled the gay rights movement that began with the Stonewall riots. Generally, scholars have come to realize that homoeroticism in the ranks is more than an isolated phenomenon. Most research on the matter, however, has centered on the persecution of gay service members or the rights of gays to serve openly: can it be allowed, what problems would it create, how military personnel and the public might deal with it, etc. Scholarly interest in the historical dimension of military homoeroticism has been confined to an isolated handful of researchers. Most scholars are dealing with more contemporary and more relevant aspects of the subject.

How widespread were same-sex trysts in the Royal Navy at this time?

No idea. This is, of course, what everyone wants to know, and there is simply no data that even suggests a guess let alone an answer.

What was it about the case of the Africaine that resulted in this sizable court-martial and multiple hanging, when at least some other incidents of “buggery” and “uncleanliness” over the years appear to have been dealt with quietly or discreetly ignored?

What made the Africaine different? The number and conspicuousness of the Africaine business meant it had to be dealt with. All other known incidents that produced courts martial or even summary punishment involved only pairs of mariners. Admittedly, some mariners were involved with multiple partners, but the relationships were dyadic rather than involving multiple partners simultaneously.

Do we know if men who engaged in homosexual behavior within the navy also did so on terra firma, or is that an “identity” most took on specifically to adapt to their confined all-male environment at sea? Is there any connection or analogue we can speak to between these cases and the simultaneous molly culture?

I have only run across mention of one or two navy sodomites who took their proclivities with them on land. This does not mean it didn’t happen. It is just that it is almost impossible to follow sailors once they leave their ships. They leave almost no evidence of their individual activities when not signed on board navy ships. No, I see no parallels or connections to eighteenth-century molly culture.

This is a a tangential point, but I was struck by your remark relative to the Italian Rafael Seraco that “sodomy, Popery, and Italy were inseparably linked in the minds of eighteenth-century Englishmen.” Why was that?

Sodomy, Popery, and Italy were linked in the minds of Englishmen long before the eighteenth century. Sodomy arrived in England as an Italian import according to popular views prevalent at least since the early seventeenth century, and probably earlier. The pope and the Catholic Church were also considered the handmaidens of sodomy at the same time. Part of this is due to raging anti-Catholicism in England dating from the Reformation of Henry VIII. Another part of it is the human tendency to blame the “other” for real or perceived ills: Jews, Communists, Fundamentalists, Liberals, whoever is handy. Catholics and sodomites were easy targets for Englishmen from the sixteenth century onward.

* Captain Rodney was the youngest son of Admiral George Brydges Rodney, a famed commander during the American Revolution. It’s thanks to Admiral Rodney’s career that the name Rodney became popularized as a first name.

** Midshipman Christopher Beauchamp. This was his explanation for why he had (falsely, he said) confessed to the lesser offense of (non-penetrative) “uncleanliness”.

† Quoted in B. R. Burg, “The HMS African Revisited: The Royal Navy and the Homosexual Community,” Journal of Homosexuality, 56:2 (2009).

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1923: Eligiusz Niewiadomski, assassin-artist

1 comment January 31st, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1923, Polish nationalist painter Eligiusz Niewiadomski was executed for assassinating Poland’s first president.

After more than a century under German, Austrian, and (most especially hated) Russian domination, Poland had established itself an independent republic in the first world war’s imperial wreckage.

Niewiadomski (English Wikipedia entry | Polish), whose father had taken part in the 19th century’s anti-Russian January Uprising, was a talented painter with a serious nationalist streak.

And that was really the done thing for his time and generation: his painting career from the 1890’s into the early 20th century maps the Young Poland movement of up-and-coming artists experimenting with new forms and celebrating romantic attachment to their prostrate homeland.


“The conscience of Polish literature,” Young Poland writer Stefan Zeromski, as depicted by Niewiadomski.

When not promoting patriotic appreciation of the Tatra Mountains, Niewiadomski enjoyed supporting Polish National Democracy, a right-wing movement raging against the Cossack yoke.

Niewiadomski was a true enough believer to serve time in a tsarist prison, but he was far from the leading light of either the artistic or political movements. By the time Poland attained independence (Niewiadomski worked for Polish intelligence during World War I, and even finagled a cameo on the front lines), he was in his fifties and seemingly settling in for a slow moulder into obsolescence in bureaucratic posts and artistic monographs.

(Of course, had he done so, the next decades would have brought him their own surprises.)

Instead, the 1922 election for President of the Polish Republic, which was decided in that country’s National Assembly, saw parliamentary horsetrading elevate an engineer on the strength of the left parties’ votes — a shock victory over Niewiadomski’s preferred right-wing candidate Count Maurycy Klemens Zamoyski, the infant republic’s Bush v. Gore.

It came to street disturbances, to assaulting members of parliament, to demonstrations “for” and “against.” There were casualties. Lumps of dirty snow were thrown at the carriage of the president-elect as it drove across the town. Newspapers dreamt of “a lump of snow that will change into an avalanche” and about removal of that man-“hindrance,” that man-“obstacle.” … The infamous ride through the streets of Warsaw was a ride down death’s lane. Someone hit the first president of the republic in the head with a stick, someone else waved brass knuckles in his face …

-Anna Bojarska in From the Polish Underground

So, five days into Gabriel Narutowicz‘s term, Niewiadomski did what any violent, disaffected patriot would do: he gunned down the new Polish president at the Zacheta art gallery. It’s always great to see artists participating in the political dialogue.

This event is the subject of the 1977 Polish film Smierc prezydenta (Death of a President).

The shots by Niewiadomski marked an end to the week of hatred. Poland suffered a shock — even the Right did. National reconciliation bloomed like a thousand flowers. The president’s funeral became an occasion for a deeply disturbed society to demonstrate. Half a million people walked in the funeral procession!

-Bojarska, again

Less than seven weeks later, Niewiadomski christened that national reconciliation with his blood … at a fortress the Russians had once used to garrison his country, Warsaw Citadel.

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1913: John Williams, the Case of the Hooded Man

1 comment January 30th, 2013 Headsman

One hundred years ago today, John Williams was hanged at Lewes Gaol for murdering a police officer.


Not this John Williams.

Williams was supposed to be the mysterious prowler spotted lurking outside a Hungarian countess’ Eastbourne home on October 9, 1912. The prowler was treed on the portico of the house by a responding police officer, but shot that cop dead and made good his escape.

The ensuing “Case of the Hooded Man” — the branding is not quite Sherlock Holmes, but it suits this blog — concerned the legal contest over whether John Williams was that prowler/shooter.

Circumstantial though it was, quite a lot of evidence supported that conclusion.

The day after the murder, Williams was informed upon by a young friend, Edgar Power, who knew him by his real name of George McKay. Williams/MacKay had passed Power a note on the night the policeman died reading, “If you would save my life come here at once to 4 Tideswell Road. Ask for Seymour [the name of Williams’s girlfriend]. Bring some cash with you. Very Urgent.”

Power set up a meeting with Williams where the police could nab him. (Power would later testify at trial that his friend had bragged specifically about his “good shot” that hit the policeman.)

Not yet done, our busybody stool pigeon then called on Williams’s girlfriend and persuaded her to move the murder weapon she had hidden with her beau … enabling police to grab that piece of evidence, too.

That gun made its mark in the emerging science of forensic ballistics. Seminal ballistics expert Robert Churchill was able to conclusively link this firearm to the portico murder by means of an early application of a now-familiar technique.

Churchill fitted a new hammer and springs and then test-fired [the gun]. Those test bullets had the same rifling pattern as the bullet used to kill Inspector Walls, and Churchill had no doubt about his conclusions that it was a gun of that very same make which had fired the fatal bullet.

In order to demonstrate the technicalities of Churchill’s evidence, Sergeant William McBride, one of the very first police photographers at Scotland Yard, used close-range photography to illustrate the pattern of the grooves on the bullets. He also collaborated with Churchill in placing dentist’s wax inside the gun barrel, then withdrawing it when it had cooled and set hard. This enabled him to photograph the pattern in the wax, caused by the grooves of the inside of the gun barrel, showing the same profile that would match a lead bullet fired through that gun barrel.

A nationwide petition for Williams’s pardon would circulate after his conviction upon the production of some dubious evidence throwing suspicion upon another (phantasmal, so far as anyone could determine) party. The Home Secretary replied to those appeals in the House of Commons a week before the execution:

The house will understand that there is no part of the Home Secretary’s duty which throws greater responsibility upon him or is indeed more painful, then that which has to be exercised in connection with the prerogative of mercy. Of course, any man would be only too glad to find a scintilla of evidence or reason, or I might say to invent a reason, which would enable him to save a human life. But my duty, as I understand it, is to act in accordance with the law and the traditions of my office … the whole story [of a man’s alleged twin brother committing the crime] is an invention because [the man], having known John Williams in the past, he did not like to think of his being hanged.

Thought-of or no, hanged John Williams was.

Part of the Daily Double: Century-Old English Legal Novelties.

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1913: Edward Hopwood, clumsy suicide

1 comment January 29th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1913, Edward Hopwood was hanged for the murder of his girlfriend, Florence Silles.

Silles was an actress and music hall songstress who had broken off her relationship with the 45-year-old manager when she found out that, contrary to his representations, Hopwood was (a) still married; and (b) not wealthy.

Hopwood contrived to track his ex down in a hotel bar, and after an evening’s drinking and talking, the two got into a cab together. There, Hopwood shot her point-blank through the head.

It sounds — and was — pretty open-and-shut, but Hopwood’s bootless defense took the case through a brief detour of an odd cul-de-sac of English jurisprudence. Hopwood claimed that he’d been trying to commit suicide, and that Silles caught her bullet accidentally as she attempted to stop him killing himself.

While it’s clear that nobody else in the court believed this, it’s also the case that suicide is a felony by law. And up until 1957, it was legal doctrine that anyone who, in the course of commission of this felony, managed to kill another person, could be held liable for homicide. (Source)

Accordingly, as the London Times reported on Dec. 10, 1912, that with respect to the attempted-suicide claim, “even if the prisoner’s story were true, the prosecution submitted that in law his crime would be at least manslaughter, and in all probability murder.” Hopwood attempted to appeal his conviction on the basis of botched suicide, and an appellate ruling wrote this very doctrine into precedent.

Part of the Daily Double: Century-Old English Legal Novelties.

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1656: Joris Fonteyn, anatomized and painted

2 comments January 28th, 2013 Headsman

“On January 28th 1656, there was punished Joris Fonteyn [or Fonteijn] of Diest, who by the worshipful lords of the law court was granted to us an anatomical specimen. On the 29th Dr. Joan Deyman made his first demonstration on him in the Anatomy Theatre, three lessons altogether”.”

-Records of the Amsterdam Anatomy Theatre (cited in this pdf)

Dr. Joan Deyman had succeeded Dr. Nicolaes Tulp in the redoubtable position of the guild’s Praelector Anatomiae — the physician entrusted with the guild’s once-per-year public anatomical reading over the dissection of an executed criminal. In his day, Tulp and his dissection had been painted by Rembrandt.

With the new praelector in the wealthy city came its guild’s need for fresh art to keep up with the Joneszes.

New subject, new work … but the same artist. A mere sapling when he rendered Dr. Tulp, Rembrandt was a fully mature painter of 50 when he put this scene to canvas.

Sadly, this painting was damaged in a 1731 fire, destroying most of its figures, including the titular one.


Braaaaaaaaaaaaaiiiiinnnnnssssssssss! Dr. Deyman’s hands are all that remain of him. The cadaverous Joris Fonteyn, however, belongs to the ages.

Since it was part of the anatomization law for the unfortunate subjects to be given a decent burial, Fonteyn’s exit from the annals of history is another entry (pdf) in the surgeon’s guilds records:

Wednesday, February 2, at 9 o’clock in the evening the body was interred with fitting dignity in the South Churchyard.

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1565: Benedetto Accolti, would-be papal assassin

Add comment January 27th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1565, three men who schemed to assassinate Pope Pius IV were put to public death at the Capitol.

Detail (click for the full painting) of Parnassus by Raphael, the Vatican’s “Raphael Rooms”. According to Jonathan Unglaub,* this figure is the then-acclaimed, today-obscure poet Bernardo Accolti, our failed assassin’s great-uncle.

Pius was a pope of the counter-reformation; it was he who brought the Council of Trent to its conclusion.

And though generally noted for his moderation (and his enthusiasm for building), he was not above striking heads from shoulders. Upon his ascension a few years prior he had dealt harshly with the nephews of his predecessor.

Accolti hailed from a prominent Florentine noble family; his father and namesake was a scheming cardinal.

Young Benedetto, clearly, could scheme a little himself, since he roped several buddies (Italian link) into a plot to murder the pontiff. In December 1564, they presented themselves at a papal audience, but apparently got cold feet. One of their number, a Cavalier Pelliccione, ratted the lot of them out before they could muster their nerve a second time: the good cavalier might have been motivated by having possession of treasonably pre-written letters to be sent to various dignitaries upon the pope’s violent deposition.

Pelliccione accordingly skated with a pardon, but two co-conspirators were sent to the galleys for life.

Benedetto Accolti, Antonio Canossa, and Taddeo Manfredi were dragged to the Capitol on January 27 and put to the gruesome public butchery — “like cows” — of the mazzolatura.

There are several resources that claim the plot was among Catholic ultras who found Pius a little on the heretical side. This Italian encyclopedia entry attributes to the astrologically-inclined Accolti a more nutty-prophetic ambition of a “papa angelico” who would unify Christendom.

Maybe he should have just exercised a little patience. Pius IV died in December 1565.

* Jonathan Unglaub, “Bernardo Accolti, Raphael’s ‘Parnassus’ and a New Portrait by Andrea del Sarto,” The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 149, No. 1246, Art in Italy (Jan., 2007).

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Assassins,Attempted Murder,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Italy,Mazzolatura,Nobility,Notable for their Victims,Papal States,Public Executions,Torture,Treason

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