Aquino, a lifetime politician from one of the archipelago’s powerbroking families, was one of the principal opposition figures against the increasingly autocratic Marcos. His 1968 denunciation of the “garrison state” — Marcos would quadruple the size of the military and infiltrate it widely into civil society — was one of the definitive and lasting brands upon that regime.
So nobody, not least Aquino himself,* was surprised when the outspoken senator was arrested hours after Marcos imposed martial law in September 1972.
Unlike most such political prisoners, Aquino stubbornly refused to cut any deal for amnesty that would confer any hint of submission to Marcos. Their conflict reads, on both sides, as an intensely personal one.
Placed on trial for allegedly arming a guerrilla organization, murdering a political follower, and trying to place the Philippines under (unspecified) foreign domination, Aquino staged a headline-grabbing 40-day hunger strike in 1975 and received extreme unction. The Archbishop of Manila finally talked the wasting Aquino out of letting himself starve to death, but perhaps not out of a certain thirst for martyrdom. (New York Times, Feb. 22, 1977)
“If Marcos believes I’m guilty, I want to be shot tomorrow,” he’s supposed to have exclaimed as he was led away from the tribunal that pronounced his death. (New York Times, Nov. 26, 1977)
That didn’t happen.
While Aquino’s death sentence on this date was expected, it was also generally thought that Marcos — who had allowed only one (non-political) execution during five years of martial law to that point — would spare his foe, as indeed he did. Marcos even released Aquino to travel to the U.S. for treatment after suffering two heart attacks in 1980.
Aquino had those few years to raise his profile and that of the Philippines opposition around the states. Returning to his native country on August 21, 1983, a moment when a then-ailing Marcos seemed weakened enough for a political opening, Aquino was infamously assassinated right on the tarmac as he stepped off the plane.
This event, and the two million-strong funeral march of Aquino’s bullet-riddled body to Manila’s Rizal Park, helped galvanize the country’s opposition. By 1986, popular demonstrations sent Marcos fleeing to exile … and elevated to the presidency Ninoy Aquino’s widow, Corazon.
On this date in 1868, Italian revolutionaries Giuseppe Monti and Gaetano Tognetti were guillotined in Rome.
Theirs was a passion of the Risorgimento, the 19th century drive to unify as a single nation the peninsula’s quiltwork of minor kingdoms, duchies, and city-states.
Following the Third Italian War of Independence, this had largely been accomplished … with the notable exception of the Papal States surrounding Rome. You can hardly have Italy without the Eternal City.
Inside Rome, Monti and Tognetti prepared a little morte of their own. Intending to mount a fifth-column uprising to coincide with the arrival of Garibaldi’s army, the two detonated a couple barrels of gunpowder under the Serristori barracks, killing 23 French zouaves and four Roman civilians. (All links in this paragraph are Italian.)
Unfortunately for the bombers, no general rising ensued, and the Papal and French armies subsequently repulsed Garibaldi at the Battle of Mentana on Nov. 3, 1867 — extending the papal enclave’s lease on life only slightly, but just enough to deal with Monti and Tognetti.
Their fate at the hands of the civil and religious authorities (one and the same, at this time), is dramatized in the 1977 Italian film In Nome Del Pap Re. (This Google books freebie purports to relate their final days.)
No, not that Seven of Nine. We have no further details on offer about these poor souls, but we thought the assortment of crimes — a mother for murdering her bastard child; a highwayman; an overseer for whipping a slave to death — and the editorial rant about the governor‘s abus’d Clemency, made for a colorful slice of life.
On this date in 1955, eight former officials of the Georgia — the country Georgia — secret police were tried publicly in Tbilisi, and six* of them convicted and promptly shot.
Officially, they were in the dock post-Stalin for their various depredations during the late ascendancy of the notorious Lavrentiy Beria. (Both Beria and Stalin himself were native Georgians.)
All their frightening offices for the NKVD had been re-branded, post-Stalin, as counterrevolutionary and terroristic, the same sort of chilling police-state lingo they used to turn against enemies back in their day.
A.N. Rapava, for instance
… was Deputy Head of the NKVD in Georgia. In July 1945, he received the rank of Lt. General. From late 1938 until 1948, he was the Head of NKVD/NKGB/MGB** in Georgia when he was removed under a cloud. (Source)
Georgia’s Stalin-era apparatchiks had vicious infighting, aggravated by a growing rift between Stalin and Beria late in Stalin’s life. (Indeed, if you like some hypotheses, this was why it was late in Stalin’s life: Beria might have poisoned off Uncle Joe to protect himself from purging.)
Rapava was a Beria man, but when Stalin swept his own people into place† in the late 1940s to early 1950s, a Stalin guy named N.M. Rukhadze arrested and replaced Rapava.
A few weeks before Stalin died, when the biography of Beria is thick with curious maneuverings, Beria got Rukhadze replaced; once Stalin kicked off, Beria was free to flat-out arrest Rukhadze.
It was a bit of an irony that when the post-Stalin Bolsheviks came round to mop up in Georgia, the rivals Rapava and Rukhadze had to stand in the dock together, both allegedly part of Beria’s organization. It would have been a bit inconvenient to detail how it was Beria himself who ordered Rukhadze’s arrest.
The others who shared their fate:
A.S. Khazani, NKVD political department officer who wrote a book with the title The Moral Outlook of a Soviet Man
N.A. Krimian, who served in the NKVD in Georgia and later in Ukraine, where he orchestrated the execution of political prisoners ahead of the invading Germans in World War II
K.S. Savitsky, NKVD Georgia official
Sh.O. Tsereteli, a tsarist officer turned Bolshevik and a Beria ally dating back to the early 1920s
All were shot for the victims of the Georgian purges they had conducted. A translator and a bodyguard were also convicted at the same trial, drawing prison sentences.
At 7:30 this morning at Yerwada jail in Pune, Maharashtra, the sole surviving author of 21st century India’s most notorious terrorist plot was put to death.
Ajmal Kasab was captured alive after the deadly November 26, 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. The “26/11″ date will live quite a while in infamy on the subcontinent … as will the chilling CCTV images of the armed and armored Kasab prowling the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. Kasab and his partner in the rail station attack slew more than 50 people that evening, and another dozen-plus policemen in running gun battles as they fled the scene.
This was only one of a multitude of Mumbai targets hit in an audacious attack on that 26/11 by a ten-man team of Lashkar-e-Taiba* Islamic militants, trained in Pakistan. They had sailed in from Karachi (murdering the crew of a small fishing boat they hijacked) just for the occasion.
Kasab’s confederates elsewhere in town achieved a similar body count hitting a pair of five-star hotels, the Taj Mahal and the Oberoi Trident, each of which turned into a multi-day hostage standoff only resolved by a bloody to-the-death shootout with paramilitaries.
Attacks on a cafe and a Jewish center, as well as several timed bombs, also took place. In all, some 166 people — plus nine of the ten terrorists responsible — died, with hundreds more wounded and a nation of more than a billion shaken and angry. It’s one of those cases that make people say, “if ever there was a death penalty case …” Kasab’s speedy dispatch has been a hot political topic since he was first handed a death sentence on May 6, 2010, and the whole affair has not done any favors for the ever-touchy India-Pakistan relationship.
The (usually) sluggish India death penalty process requires that cases cleared by the judiciary receive executive clemency consideration — a stage of the process that often takes years. Recent presidents have tended to stand on only considering such applications in the order they are submitted, and then either granting those clemencies after ponderous review, or scarcely prioritizing any review at all, with further judicial interventions and a shrinking pool of trained hangmen also gumming up the works.
It’s been a recipe for virtual death penalty abolition: the last hanging prior to Kasab’s was in 2004, India’s only other execution this century. This is in a country with one-sixth of the world’s population.
Pranab Mukherjee, India’s new president, took office with a number of presidential clemency applications still pending, some dating back to the late Nineties. While there’s no guarantee that he’ll break with the glacial pattern established by his predecessors when it comes to backlogged everyday criminals, Mukherjee advanced this exceptional petition right to the front of the line and turned it down flat even as Kasab was secretlytransferred from his unusual egg-shaped bombproof Mumbai cell to the hanging facility at Yerwada.
“His execution,” said Maharashta Home Minister R.R. Patil, “is a tribute to the victims.”
On this date in 2010, a Saudi Arabian man named Mohsen al-Dossary or al-Dussari was beheaded in Riyadh for having shot dead a police officer in nearby Kharj who tried to stop him driving the wrong way on a street.
That’s some costly road rage.
Islamic sharia law provides the victim’s family the right to pardon an offender and stop an execution; implicit in that right is the need for the offended family to make a legally supportable determination to withhold pardon in order for an execution to proceed. In an interesting twist on that jurisprudence, the Saudi Press Agency reported that al-Dossary had to wait several years in prison while the policeman’s sons grew to majority and could legally consent to having the murderer put to death.
[I]n the death of Gil Jamieson, who had been kidnapped by a mad youth who filled his ransom letters with quotations from the Shakespearen play [Macbeth]: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / that struts and frets his hour upon the stage / and then is heard no more …”
The murderer and author of the letters was captured some days later, tried, convicted, and sentenced to hang, all within three weeks. This feat was facilitated because his lawyers, Beebe and Huber, offered no defense and called no witnesses. The jury included members who were part of the search party and the victim’s bodyguard and gravedigger. A Navy psychiatrist offered to testify for the defense but was rebuffed. The medical examiner was also the prosecution psychiatrist, Doctor Robert Faus. He testified that past suicide attempts by Miles Fukunaga were “normal.” Despite protests and appeals, Fukunaga was hanged.
Ten years earlier, a well-known local haole athlete, David Buick, found himself down on his luck. He ordered a taxi driver, one Ito Suzuki, to drive out of Honolulu proper to a place called Red Hill. He ordered the man to stop the car and get out. He pointed a gun at the driver and robbed him of one dollar. When Suzuki turned to flee, Buick shot him in the back. Before he died, the taxi driver identified Buick a the gunman. The charge was eventually reduced to second degree murder, and Buick is said to have returned to the Mainland following his jail time.
In both cases, there was premeditation, kidnapping, murder, and flight. Fukunaga willingly confessed and indeed showed extreme remorse. Buick never confessed or showed the slightest regret over his actions. But Fukunaga had murdered a fine boy of a prominent haole family.** Buick had only murdered a middle-aged Japanese taxi driver.
This shocking crime — Fukunaga openly cited the notorious Leopold and Loeb murder and the more recent Hickman kidnapping as his models — ratcheted up ethnic tensions in Hawaii between whites, especially elite whites, and Japanese.
The Japanese community’s newspaper Hochi mounted a vigorous clemency campaign emphasizing sentencing differences like that vis-a-vis Buick. “If Myles Fukunaga is hanged it will not be because he killed a human being,” the paper editorialized. (pdf) “It will be because he killed the son of the vice-president of one of our big trust companies and because his victim was a white boy.”
* Ethnic data of those 75 executed: 24 Hawaiian; 24 Filipino; 9 Japanese; 6 Korean; 5 Chinese; 3 Puerto Rican; 3 unknown; 1 Caucasian.
** Gill Jamieson’s father, Frederick Jamieson, was a vice president of the Hawaiian Trust Company (since folded into the Bank of Hawaii). According to Kokugo Gakko in, the targeting of a bankster family by a frustrated working-class youth (Fukunaga was reportedly logging 80-hour weeks in menial jobs, having been forced to quit school in his teens to support his family) was no coincidence at all.
In terms of his motives he said that revenge had been foremost in his mind. In 1928 his parents had been unable to meet monthly rental payments. The Hawaiian Trust company served as the collecting agent for their landlord and had sent a rent collector to the Fukunaga family to demand full payment of back rent. Humiliated and ashamed, Fukunaga bitterly resented the bank’s action and, on learning that Vice President Frederick W. Jamieson had a son, he decided to seek revenge … by kidnapping and murdering the boy. Fukunaga also confessed to another motive. As the eldest son of seven children, Fukunaga stated that he had felt a filial obligation to help his poor parents … he had hoped to accomplish this filial act with the ransom money.
All this might tend to militate against the “insanity” defense, which Fukunaga himself energetically rejected.
This date in 1646, the city of Evora, Portugal, celebrated an auto-da-fe — one of those festivals of Catholic orthodoxy in which penitents were paraded and the most wicked amongst them burnt to death.
They were also fine times for the Inquisitors who prosecuted them, and a burden on the public treasury only made sustainable by the contemporary looting of the New World. We turn for this account of profligacy to The Marrano Factory, a book whose thesis is that the alleged “Judaizers” these displays were meant to showcase were mostly just regular Catholics caught up by the chance factors of torture-adduced accusations or the presence of some remote Jewish ancestor on the family tree.
It’s not hard to see from what follows why the guys running them might have been convinced they were doing God’s work. It’s difficult, after all, to get a man to understand something when his sweetmeats and rabbit feast depend on his not understanding it.
With time and experience, the auto-da-fe publico and its minutely regulated ceremonial grew into a grand and pompous pageant. It was attended by the top brass, often by the king and the royal family and, much as a carnival, it galvanized the whole city into communal bustle …
All defendants appearing at autos-da-fe, public or private, had to wear a sanbenito. At the Evora public auto-da-fe of November 18, 1646, 165 covados (one covado = 0.66 meters) of red and yellow cloth were used, i.e., about 87 meters of cloth for 115 penitents and persons to be executed, costing a total of 62,700 reals at 380 per covado. On the two sides were painted the insignia corresponding to the offenses. In the case of those on death row, painters called in by the Inquisition had — seeing but unseen — to sketch their features and then paint on one side of the sanbenito their portrait, head engulfed by flames.
The day on which a forthcoming auto-da-fe publico was announced in the palace of the Holy Office was a festive one, as we can ascertain from the quantity of compotes and various pastries, procured from neighboring convents and delivered on that day to the secret chambers of the Inquisition. According to the List of Expenses for the Evora auto of November 18, 1646, 64,820 reals were spent on these dainties, hence more than on the 87 meters of cloth for the sanbenitos … and more than triple the cost of feeding a prisoner during an entire year (20,000 reals). It is worth noting that prison fare included meat, in order to test whether the prisoners were observing Jewish dietary laws. This fabulous quantity and variety of foodstuffs was destined exclusively for higher echelons of lawyers and clergy, i.e., three Inquisitors, four deputies, four notaries and a prosecutor, besides the six Jesuit fathers who confessed the six persons sentenced to death …
The feasting did not stop there. Since Friday was a “fast” day on which Catholics abstain from meat, six varieties of fish (sole, mullet, eel, pollock, snapper and sardines) as well as flour and olive oil to cook them in and seasonings for fish-cakes, to the tune of 27,546 reals, were delivered at the Palace of the Inquisition, to be eaten on that day and the left overs [sic] on the Saturday preceding the auto. This fish was distributed to everyone, including the guards who received also rations of bread, meat, wine and fruit, for a total value of 760 reals. The day of the ceremony proper saw the “auto-da-fe supper,” which we are coming to, by and by.
When they were done killing, it was time for the “auto-da-fe supper,” served at the estaus. In the Evora account of November 18, 1646 it comprised about 14 kilos of lamb, 20 young chickens and pullets, 12 roasting chickens, 4 ducks, 4 rabbits, 3 turkeys (each one cost more than what was paid to the painter for one portrait of a prisoner condemned to death); one sow “which was divided by the Gentlemen Inquisitors and the notaries” and one large fruit basket, containing Bosc pears, bergamots, chapel apples and rennets. Like the sweatmeats and compotes which had arrived at the palace of the Holy Office a fortnight before the auto, this repast was meant for the higher officials … it is a curious thing that there were as many turkeys as Inquisitors, as many duck and rabbits as deputies and notaries. This evokes both the idea of an alimentary hierarchy and a kind of remuneration in commodities. However that may be, the total expense of these men in food on the occasion of the auto came to about 110,000 reals (not to mention the porcelain and cutlery), or more than half of the total expense of the auto-da-fe.
The count of 12 executed people comes from a footnote in the text attributing a 3,600-real bill to the painter Miguel Fernandes for sanbenitos of hellfire made for the condemned. However, “executed” people “could refer to live people (‘executed in the flesh’) and to dead or otherwise unavailable people (‘executed in effigy’ or ‘executed in statue’) and in the latter case their effigies (‘statues’) were to be decked out and then ‘executed’.” So, call it a total of 12 flesh-and-bones people and effigies, in some combination; if there’s a firm accounting of who was executed (and whether they were alive, dead, or absent at the time) at this particular auto, I have not yet been able to locate it.
If you didn’t get August 5 off, your jurisdiction is ignoring the Scottish parliament’s 1600 decree: “in all times and ages to come the fifth of August should be solemnly kept with prayers, preachings, and thanksgiving for the benefit, discharging all work, labour, and other occupations upon the said day.”*
They didn’t mean to keep it out of excess reverence for St. Emygdius: rather, August 5 was the date of the Gowrie conspiracy, a sketchy supposed assassination attempt on King James VI of Scotland (soon also to become King James I of England). John Ruthven, Earl of Gowrie and his brother Alexander Ruthven were both slain on the spot during that event … but not until 15 weeks later did Parliament rule that “the said bodies of the said Traitors shall be carried, upon Monday next [i.e., November 17], to the publick cross of Edinburgh: and there to be hangd, quarter’d, and drawn, in presence of the hail People: and thereafter, the heads, quarters, and carcasses, to be affix’d upon the most patent parts and places of the Burroughs of Edinburgh, Perth, Dundee and Stirling.”
Did they deserve it?
Scottish writer John Prebble considered the Gowrie conspiracy one of his realm’s best mysteries. It’s a maddeningly perplexing sequence of ambiguous (or altogether dubious) events related by interested, partisan sources.
I am murtherit!
The summary official version — and we’re skipping over such writerly red herrings as a mystery man in the turret, a still-stabled horse, and a wild fable about a pot of foreign gold — is that while staying at the Ruthven estates, James’s courtiers saw him shouting out the window, “I am murtherit! Treassoun! My Lord of Mar, help! help!”
While Lord Mar and others spent half an hour (!) trying to batter down a locked entrance to the regicidal turret, a page named John Ramsay found another staircase in, where he came upon the king and Alexander Ruthven grappling. Ramsay stabbed Ruthven about the head and neck, and Ruthven fled down Ramsay’s same staircase: there he careened headlong into more arriving royal retainers who killed him flat. Ruthven died exclaiming “Allace! I had na wyte [blame] of it!”
Meanwhile, the Lord Gowrie — quite possibly knowing nothing but that there was a commotion involving the king in his home — had rallied outside the courtyard with his own household and marched in swords drawn, passing the fresh-slain body of his little brother on the way. He must have been in an evil temper when he burst into the chamber, there to discover Ramsay and friends, and only them: the king had been locked in another room for his protection. Ramsay demanded Gowrie’s submission and the two crossed swords, with Ramsay running the elder Ruthven through, too.
(Small wonder Ramsay went on to become a royal favorite.**)
“… if it be true”
“A very wonderful story, your Majesty, if it be true,” one lord is supposed to have replied to James upon hearing this amazing tale.
Suspicion was immediately rife that this “treason” stuff was a cover for the king to take out a rival noble. The Ruthvens had often been at odds with King Jamie’s own family; John and Alexander’s own father was beheaded in 1584 for trying to kidnap the then-teenaged king, and their grandfather had helped a gang of nobles destabilize James’s mother Mary by murdering her favorite courtier David Rizzio right before her eyes. And of course, the crown would be able to seize all the “traitors'” estates, nicely flipping around a significant cash debt owed to the Ruthven clan.
Edinburgh Presbyterian ministers openly disputed the Ruthvens’ guilt, refusing to thank God for James’s “deliverance”.† James found it necessary to forcibly quash this talk, and he would insist upon the Ruthvens’ guilt all his days. But those outside the reach of Scottish royal power had looser tongues.
French nobles who had met Gowrie on the latter’s recent return from his continental studies, and Queen Elizabeth, who had received Gowrie warmly at court, openly doubted the official account: it was thought wildly at odds with the young man’s character. The nature of the interaction between the king and Alexander Ruthven prior to the intervention of John Ramsay depends upon the account of the king himself — that account, and no other. The other witnesses were dead. And the object of the plot seems unclear: sure, maybe Alexander Ruthven could have killed the king mano a mano, but then what? There was no indication at all of confederates (even Alexander’s brother reacted in confusion), nor coherent design for some next step like massacring James’s courtiers or toppling the government or even escaping. These were scheming aristocrats, not deranged lone assassins. And both James and Gowrie had behaved for all the world before this incident as if the unpleasantness with the father was water under the bridge.
“The assassination of the Gowries was the most indefensible act that has ever appeared on the pages of Scottish history,” avers mildy a 1912 volume of the Ruthven family papers. It was “a cunning conspiracy that has disgraced the historical record for more than three hundred years.”
The jury’s still out
Still, the hypothetical account of a royal anti-Gowrie conspiracy seems if anything even less satisfying than the official story. Most of the happenings besides what passed between Alexander and James were witnessed by others, so … the king falsely yelled “treason” counting on the handful of his guys staying in the Ruthvens’ own place to kill the Ruthvens instead of the other way around? Events played out so chaotically that this convenient outcome seems mere [mis]chance. What was the plan if John Ramsay hadn’t found the unlocked second entrance?
And yet some 350 witnesses were examined without turning up any concrete design, and three Ruthven retainers hanged on August 23 insisting upon their innocence of any treasonable intent.
One can go a lot of ways from here, and it’s hard to spin any one story that satisfyingly accounts for all the evidence. A scheme to kidnap (and extract policy change from) the king, rather than murder him? Alexander an unwilling pawn, forced into it by his brother? Or, as one English envoy supposed, a destructive spiral of events proceeding from a silly misunderstanding wherein a chance reference to the Ruthvens’ executed father led Alexander to defend the family a little too hotly and the king to start shouting in panic when he realized he was unarmed in the company of an excited, and much larger, man?‡
We’ll never really know. Light a candle for epistemological uncertainty next August 5.
Much help drawn from a two-parter review of the contradictory evidence in The Scottish Historical Review, nos. 121 and 122 (April and October 1957) by W.F. Arbuckle.
* August 5 was indeed “solemnly kept” during the reign of James, according to F.C. Eeles in “The English Thanksgiving Service for King James’ Delivery from the Gowrie Conspiracy” from the July 1911 Scottish Historical Review. As the title of that piece suggests, there was even a service promulgated (though never incorporated into the Book of Common Prayer), beseeching God that James “may bee kept as the apple of thine eye, and thy kindnesse and mercy may follow him all the dayes of his life, with abundance of all thy blessings both heavenly and earthly upon his Majesty, our gracious Queene, the Prince …”
** Ramsay would be supplanted in the royal sun come the 1620s, by George Villiers.
† Religion affords another potential motivation here, although perhaps only retrospectively. James was working a long-term project to reintroduce episcopacy — crown-appointed bishops — to control the loose canons of Scotch Presbyterianism. “No bishop, no king,” in the aphorism attributed him.
With the Gowrie plot as backdrop, James was able to force radical ministers and their tin-foil hats out of Edinburgh and obtain the consent of the rest to James’s own hand-picked bishops — the camel’s nose under the tent, if you like. (See Maurice Lee, Jr., “James VI and the Revival of Episcopacy in Scotland: 1596-1600,” Church History, 43 (1974).) The Ruthven family papers volume also sets great stock by the idea that a Catholic party was out to get Lord Gowrie.
‡ “by occasion of a picture (as is sayde) or otherwise, speech happening of Earle Gourie his father executed, the k. angrelie sayde he was a traitour. Whereat the youth showing a greived and expostulatorie countenance and happilie Scot-like woords, the k. seeing hymself alone and wythout weapon cryed, ‘Treason, Treason’. The Mr [i.e., Alexander Ruthven], abashed much to see the k. to apprehend yt so … putt his hand with earnest deprecations to staie the k. showing his countenance to them with out in that moode, immediatlie falling on his knees to entreat the k.” Ramsay did say that when he entered the room he saw Alexander’s head under James’s arm, which might be consistent with this supplicatory pose … especially given that accounts of the men’s respective physiques suggest Alexander should have had the clear advantage in an actual scrap.
On this date in 1724, Willem Mons was beheaded in St. Petersburg for peculation.
Mons was the brother of the German commoner Anna Mons, a beautiful young woman who segued from being the May-December lover of Peter the Great‘s trusted admiral Franz Lefort to the mistress of the teenage emperor himself. Peter and Anna had a famous (famously scandalous) romance through her twenties, but as she entered her thirties and heard the clock ticking, her bid to make Peter put a ring on it by flirting with a Prussian diplomat came to grief and got her briefly tossed in prison.
Willem Mons was still a minor when his big sister fell from Peter’s graces. He would prove to have an equally adroit instinct for imperial bedchamber politics.
“One of the best-made and most handsome men that I have ever seen,” in the French ambassador’s estimation, Mons hustled his way into the train of the woman Peter had married instead of Anna — Catherine.
There Willem Mons and his other sister Matryona Balk monopolized the access routes to the empress and lucratively tolled all petitioners who traveled them. Wealth and status accumulated; the immigrant bourgeois’s son even stopped going by William in favor of the more impressive “Moens de la Croix”.
Not surprisingly, the emperor himself was the last to discover the open secret of his wife’s household’s river of graft.* Peter, who could be quite the moralist, was incensed; he interrogated the chamberlain so terribly that the young man fainted dead away.
“Moens de la Croix” was no longer. In both senses.
Having issued the confessions to condemn himself under the very credible threat of torture, Mons was socked away in Peter and Paul Fortress. Catherine made bold to defy Peter’s edict that nobody petition him for Mons’s life; in response, the enraged tsar smashed a Venetian mirror with his bare hand and roared, “thus I can annihilate the most beautiful adornment of my palace!” Court observers reported that marital relations between the two were visibly strained well after the scandal.
These weren’t happy days for the oft-sickly Peter; indeed, they were the last months of his life. Early the next year, he would succumb to a gangrenous bladder and leave the throne to this very Catherine. Perhaps his decrepit state accounts for the likely scurrilous rumor that the handsome chamberlain’s real offense wasn’t so much corruption as cuckoldry. It’s fair to say that such an affair would have been an extraordinarily reckless thing for Catherine.
On November 16, 1724, William Mons and Matrena Balk were taken in sledges to the execution site. Mons behaved courageously, nodding and bowing to friends he saw in the crowd. Mounting the scaffold, he calmly took off his heavy fur coat, listened to the reading of the sentence of death and laid his head on the block. After his death, his sister received eleven blows of the knout, very lightly administered so that not much harm was done, and was exiled for life to Tobolsk in Siberia. Her husband, General Balk, was given permission to marry again if he wished. (Source)
The late courtier’s severed head was preserved in alcohol (legend says that the fuming Peter made Catherine contemplate it). It was eventually deposited in the Kunstkamera museum, famous for housing Peter’s gross horde of collected pickled fetuses, dwarves, and other medical curios. Mons’s head still resides there today.