Posts filed under 'Gruesome Methods'

1775: A robber under the apartments of Joseph Jekyll

Add comment April 11th, 2018 Headsman

We owe this date’s entry to Joseph Jekyll, a young gentleman (kin to the late judge of the same name whom Alexander Pope had once teased as an “odd old Whig/Who never changed his principle or wig”) who had just taken up residence in Paris in his 22nd year. Just a year later, he would be back in Albion’s soul, bound for his life’s calling as barrister, M.P., and celebrated wit.

Jekyll’s correspondence with his father shows him consumed with a worldly young man’s affairs, alternately French society (in whose salons he left a happy impression) and Europe’s churn of news and rumors. But we catch a glimpse in one of his first letters of a scene to which, perhaps, young Jekyll soon became as inured as most Frenchmen: an exceptionally brutal execution right outside the window of his quarters.

What follows is from Jekyll’s letter dated Ash Wednesday, April 12, 1775.


The police of this country is much commended, and deservedly; yet in Paris I was assured murders were so frequent that it is customary to see five or six bodies to be owned in the morning at a place called the Morgue, and there are nets on the Pont-neuf let down every night to receive persons thrown over by banditti. The morning we saw the Greve there was a gibbet erected. We inquired if there would be much crowd, and were told “No,” for there was generally an execution every day.

The road from Paris hither is full of crosses, with inscriptions to perpetuate the infamy of some robber or murderer. We lodge in a beautiful place or square, and saw from our balcony yesterday evening a criminal broke on the wheel. He arrived at five o’clock in the evening, in a cart guarded by the marechaussee (who constantly patrol the roads). He was attended by a cordelier, and held in his hands two laths nailed together in the form of a cross. He had received the tonsure and unction, and, while he was undressing, the crowd around the scaffold (which was far from being great) sang a voluntary requiem. The executioner, a very spruce fellow in a bag and a bien poudre, extended the criminal’s bare arms and legs on a St. Andrew’s cross, which had two deep notches under the long bones of each limb; then with an iron crow, bent like the blade of a scythe, struck him nine violent blows, the last across the reins. [kidneys] Thus with two fractures in every limb, at each of which he cried out Mon Dieu! the agonising wretch was untied and thrown on the forewheel of a waggon elevated about four feet above the scaffold. The holy father drew a chair near him, and muttered something during his last gasps. At night the body was exposed in the neighbouring forest. Horrible and frequent as these executions are (for there are twelve more now in the chatelet here under the like condemnation), their effects are as insufficient as ours in England. The crime of the unfortunate creature we saw yesterday was burglary, as we learnt from his sentence, which is posted up at every corner in the streets.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Gibbeted,Gruesome Methods,History,Known But To God,Public Executions,Theft

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1720: Antoine-Joseph de Horn, humanity from an executioner

Add comment March 26th, 2018 Henry-Clement Sanson

(Thanks to Henry-Clement Sanson for the guest post. The former executioner — the last of his illustrious dynasty comprising six generations of bourreaux — was the grandson of that dread figure of the Paris Terror, Charles Henri Sanson. Henry-Clement’s Memoirs of the Sansons: From Private Notes and Documents (1688-1847) describes some famous or infamous executions from the family annals. “If it had for purpose to furnish food for the unhealthy curiosity of people who would seek emotions in a kind of written photograph of the scenes that take place on the scaffold, it should be received with loathsomeness,” our guest author disingenuously explains of his motivations after debts resulted in his dismissal from the family post. Rather, “I have been actuated in the course of my work by an abhorrence for the punishment denounced by so many eloquent voices, the punishment of which I have had the misfortune to be the living impersonation.” Although this document appears to draw from some manner of family records, it deserves a cautious reading as pertains the intimate conversations and beneficent motivations of his kinsmen. -ed.)

Count Antoine-Joseph De Horn was the scion of a princely race; and he was connected with the highest nobility of Europe. At the time when speculation, under Law‘s auspices, was raging in Paris, and the temptation of gain was leading astray many persons of position and family, Count de Horn was living in the capital the life of a young lord of fashion and fortune. The sensation which was produced may easily be imagined when it was heard that he had been arrested and put under lock and key under the twofold charge of having murdered, in company with a Piedmontese, called the Chevalier de Milhe, and a third unknown person, a Jew who speculated in the shares of the Royal Bank, in order to rob him of a pocket-book which contained a sum of 100,000 livres.

The murder was perpetrated in a tavern of the Rue Quincampoix, where, it was alleged, Count de Horn and his accomplices had made an appointment with the Jew, under pretence of purchasing the shares he had in his pocket, but in reality to steal them from him.

The greatest agitation prevailed at Court in consequence of this affair, owing to the illustrious rank or the accused, and of his connection with the loftiest aristocracy of the land. De Horn’s trial was pursued with unprecedented rapidity, and it seems as if the numerous steps taken to save the young man’s life only hurried his fate. When his parents heard of his incarceration, they lost no time in moving heaven and earth on his behalf. On the eve of the trial, a large number of his kinsmen assembled in the Palais de Justice, and waited for the members of the court, to bow to them as they passed, by way of commending the accused to their indulgence. This imposing manifestation, undertaken by the first seigneurs of France, produced no effect: the court of La Tournelle sentenced Count de Horn and the Chevalier de Milhe to be broken on the wheel, and left there until death should follow.

This sentence filled the young man’s friends and parents with terror and surprise. They sent to the Regent a petition in which it was represented that Count de Horn’s father was mad, that his kinsman Prince Ferdinand de Ligne was in a similar condition, that lunacy was a common ailing in his family, and that the young man must have committed the crime when of unsound mind. Among those who signed the petition were Prince Claude de Ligne, Marquis d’Harcourt, the Earl of Egmont, the Duke de la Tremouille, the Duke de la Force, the Archbishop of Cambray, Prince de Soubise, the Princess de Gonzague, and many others of the same rank. All the facts adduced in this petition were certainly authentic. The great race of the Princes de Horn and Overisque had given many examples of mental aberration. All the subscribers of the petition went in a body to the Palais Royal; but the Regent only consented to receive a deputation. He was inflexible with regard to a reprieve; and it was with much difficulty that he consented to a commutation of the sentence into decapitation. He could only be moved by being reminded that he was himself related to the culprit through his mother the Princess Palatine. How he kept his promise will be seen hereafter.

This obstinacy on the part of the Regent was much commented upon. Personal animosity was said to be the cause. M. de Horn, being young, handsome, and captivating, had been something of a lady-killer. Now, morality was not the distinguishing feature of Philip d’Orleans’ court, and it was said that several beauties in fashion had regarded the foreign young lord with more than ordinary favour. Mdme. de Parabere‘s name was particularly mentioned; and it was related that the Regent had once surprised M. de Horn in conversation with the beautiful marchioness. In his fury the prince showed him the door, saying, ‘Sortez’ —to which the Count made the proud and appropriate answer: ‘Monseigneur, nos ancetres auraient dit, sortons.’ To this adventure, whether real or invented, was attributed the Regent’s hatred for Count de Horn, whose life he had sworn to sacrifice. It is not my business to discuss this question. What was most certain was that Law, the minister of finance, and Dubois, the prime minister, showed themselves the bitterest foes of Count de Horn. The influence of the shares of the Royal Bank and of the Mississippi was diminishing; and they were in hopes that this might be mended by a display of unparalleled severity for the punishment of a murder committed with the object of taking possession of some of these shares.

Shortly afterwards, Charles Sanson received a visit from the Marquis de Creqy, the nobleman who had been the instigator and leader of all the attempts made to save the unfortunate youth. He seemed convinced that the Regent would keep his word, and showed him a letter in which the Duke de Saint-Simon expressed his conviction that Count de Horn would be decapitated. The Marquis added that his royal highness had also promised that the execution should take place in the court of the Conciergerie, to spare the culprit the shame of being led through the crowd. The only thing was to spare the unhappy young man as many sufferings as possible. M. de Creqy expressed a wish to see the sword which was to be used for his execution; he turned pale when my ancestor produced the broad double-edged blade, sharp and flashing, which could hardly be styled a weapon. On one side was engraved the word Justitia; on the other a wheel, emblem of torture. It was the sword with which the Chevalier de Rohan had been decapitated.

M. de Creqy could hardly refrain from weeping when he begged Charles Sanson to be as lenient as possible in the execution of his fearful mission, to uncover only the neck of the victim, and to wait until he received the priest’s absolution before giving him the fatal blow.

The conversation then turned to the measures to be taken for the remittance of the body, which M. de Creqy claimed in the name of the family. He requested my ancestor to procure a padded coffin wherein to place the remains of De Horn, which were then to be taken away in a carriage sent expressly for the purpose. Charles Sanson promised to see to the accomplishment of these lugubrious details.

When he left, M. de Creqy, wishing to reward my ancestor for the services he asked, presented him with 100 louis, and insisted on his accepting the gift. But Charles Sanson firmly refused. M. de Creqy appeared moved, and retired. I may be forgiven for dwelling with some complacency on this trait of disinterestedness on the part of one of those who preceded me in the office I held for many years; it may be considered as an answer to the charge of cupidity which has been launched at a profession which did not appear sufficiently soiled by blood.

Only a few hours had elapsed since the visit of the Marquis de Creqy, when Charles Sanson received the order to take, on the next morning at six o’clock, from the Conciergerie, Count Antoine de Horn; to convey him to the Place de Greve, after passing through the torture-chamber, and carry out the sentence of Parliament in its cruel tenour. My ancestor’s expectation was justified; the Regent did not keep his word; Law and Dubois had won the day against the Duke de Saint-Simon and the nobility.

To my ancestor’s extreme surprise, the sentence did not even contain the secret restriction of a retentum, which spared horrible sufferings to the accused, by ordering the executioner to strangle him before breaking his limbs. How could he now keep the promise he had made to the Marquis de Creqy? Charles Sanson passed the night in anything but pleasant reflections.

It was broad daylight when my ancestor arrived at the Conciergerie with his sinister cortege. He immediately entered the prison, and was conducted to a lower room in which were the Count de Horn and M. de Milhe, who-had just been tortured. Both were horribly mangled, for they had supported the boot to the eighth spike. The Count was extremely pale. He cast a haggard look around him, and kept speaking to his companion, who seemed much more resigned and listened with religious attention to the priest who was consoling him. As to M. de Horn, instead of being plunged in the state of prostration which usually followed the abominable sufferings he had just borne, he gesticulated with feverish animation and pronounced incoherent words which almost seemed to justify what had been alleged in his defence concerning the unsoundness of his mind. He violently repulsed the priest, who was dividing his attention between the two sufferers, and repeatedly asked for Monsignor Francois de Lorraine, Bishop of Bayeux, from whom he had received the communion the day before.

The fatal moment came. The culprits were carried to the executioner’s cart. Charles Sanson sat down next to the Count, while the priest continued speaking to the Piedmontese. Seeing the unhappy young man’s extreme agitation, my ancestor thought he might quiet him by giving him some hope, even were that hope to remain unrealised.

‘My lord,’ he said, ‘there is perhaps some hope. Your relations are powerful.’

The prisoner violently interrupted him. ‘They have abandoned me,’ he exclaimed; ‘the Bishop — where is the Bishop? He promised to return.’

‘Who knows?’ my ancestor ventured to say; ‘reprieve may yet come.’

The young man’s lips turned up contemptuously. ‘If they wanted to spare my life, they would not have crippled me in this fashion,’ he replied, bitterly, casting a look at his lacerated legs and feet.

Charles Sanson says in his notes that he really hoped and expected that some attempt would be made to save De Horn. But nothing occurred. The Pont-au-Change was passed, and in another minute the cortege reached the Place de Greve. The Count looked at Sanson reproachfully as if upbraiding him for what he had said; but he was now quite collected and the fear of death had left him.

At length the cart stopped at the foot of the scaffold. The culprits, owing to the torture they had undergone, could not move unaided. Charles Sanson therefore took Count de Horn in his arms and carried him up the steps. At the same time he whispered in his ear the advice that he should ask permission to make revelations, as a means of gaining time; but the unfortunate young man had again lost his self-possession and gave vent to incoherent exclamations. ‘I knew they would not allow the Bishop to come,’ he said; … ‘they have arrested him because he had shares also. But I shall sell my life dearly; only give me arms! … they cannot refuse to give me arms!’ … While he was thus expressing himself, Charles Sanson stepped back, motioning to his assistants to begin their work which consisted in tying him to the plank on which he was to be broken. When this was done, the priest, who had just left the Piedmontese, approached De Horn: ‘My son,’ he said, ‘renounce the sentiments of anger and revenge which trouble your last moments. Only think of God: He is the sovereign author of all justice, if you appear before Him with a contrite and humbled heart.’

The Count at length seemed moved, and he joined in the priest’s prayer. As to my ancestor, he remembered M. de Creqy’s request as to priestly absolution, and in this respect his conscience was firm; but he had also promised not to make the young man suffer. In an instant he decided on the course he should adopt. Simulating sudden illness, he passed his iron bar to Nicolas Gros, his oldest assistant, took the thin rope used for the secret executions of the retentum, passed it round the Count’s neck, and before Gros had raised the heavy bar wherewith he was about to break the culprit’s limbs, he pulled the rope, and thus spared him the most atrocious sufferings ever devised by human cruelty.

On the other hand, the Chevalier de Milhe, who was being broken, uttered wild shrieks. In vain did the priest wipe the perspiration from his brow, and pour a few drops of water into his mouth. Charles Sanson was struck with the inequality of the sufferings of the two men, and told Gros to give him the coup de grace — the blow which broke the chest.

Gros obeyed, but not without casting an uneasy look at the commissaire, who was viewing the execution from the balcony of the Hotel-de-ville. No doubt the latter cared little for executions of this kind, of which, perhaps, he had seen but too many, for he perceived nothing. At this moment the priest, surprised not to hear the cries of Count de Horn, returned to exhort him to repentance: he saw that death had forestalled him. The rope was still hanging from the young man’s neck, and my ancestor hastened to conceal it while the ecclesiastic was standing between the Hotel-de-ville and himself; then, placing a finger on his lips, he solicited the priest’s discretion.

Both passed the remainder of the day beside the mangled remains. Shortly after the execution, a carriage drawn by six horses, preceded by a mounted servant, and followed by six servants in gorgeous livery, entered the Place de Greve. It was the Duke de Croy d’Havre, whose arms could be descried on the panels of his carriage through the black crape which covered it. He was soon followed by three other carriages, which stopped on the north sideof the square. They were all in deep mourning, as also the harness of the horses and the liveries of the servants. The blinds were closed, as much to avoid public curiosity as to conceal the cruel sight of the scaffold. But it was whispered in the crowd that the last comers were the Prince de Ligne, the Duke de Rohan, and a Crouiy, the last scion of the illustrious race of Arpad, which traced its origin to Attila, and put forth more legitimate rights to the crown of Hungary than the house of Hapsburg.

My ancestor was surprised not to see the Marquis de Creqy. But his astonishment was short-lived, for a rumour at the other end of the Place announced the arrival of two other carriages, in an apparel still more pompous. They drove up to the other carriages and took up a position in the same line. The Marquis de Creqy stepped out, and advanced on to the square clad in the uniform of a colonel-general and general inspector of the King’s armies, and wearing the insignias of the Golden Fleece, the grand crosses of Saint-Louis and Saint-Jean of Jerusalem. His countenance bore the traces of profound grief. He traversed the Greve with a firm step; the crowd stepped back respectfully before this great personage, who was one of Louis XIV’s godsons.

As soon as the commissaire saw M. de Creqy, he retired from the balcony of the Hotel-de-ville, as if only waiting for this final protest to bring the scene to a conclusion. This meant that justice was satisfied. The Marquis walked straight up to my ancestor with a severe face, and looking at him almost threateningly:

‘Well, sir,’ said he, in a stern voice, ‘what of your promise?’

‘Monseigneur,’ answered Charles Sanson, ‘at eight o’clock this morning M. le Comte de Horn was dead, and the bar of my assistant struck a dead body.’

The priest confirmed my ancestor’s words.

‘Well,’ said M. de Creqy, in a milder tone, ‘our house shall remember that if it could obtain nothing from the clemency of the Regent and from the justice of Parliament, it is at least indebted to the humanity of the executioner.’

The Count’s body was then untied and taken to one of the carriages. It was so mutilated that the limbs seemed ready to separate from the trunk. As a protest against the cruelty of the sentence, M. de Creqy insisted on holding one of the legs, which only adhered to the corpse by the skin. When this was done the carriages moved away in a file, and stopped before the house of the Countess de Montmorency-Lagny, nee De Horn, where the Count’s remains were placed in a bier and deposited in a chapel. It remained there for two days, surrounded by a numerous clergy who sang the mass of the dead. Meanwhile Prince Francois de Lorraine, Bishop of Bayeux, had returned to Paris. He expressed much grief at having been unable to attend his unfortunate kinsman to the scaffold, thinking that the execution was to take place at a later date. He nevertheless arrived in time to join his prayers to those of the clergy, and, in company with MM. de Creqy and de Plessis-Belliere, he escorted the body to the Castle of Baussigny, in the Netherlands, where the Prince de Horn, eldest brother of the defunct, and head of the family, usually resided.

This extraordinary affair greatly irritated the highest personages of the State against the Regent and his favourites: it proved of no assistance to Law, whose fall was unavoidable. On his return from his country-seat the Duke de Saint-Simon hastened to write to the Duke d’Havre to express his regret at what had occurred, and to say how he himself had been deceived by the false promises of the Duke d’Orleans.

I quote here the Duke d’Havre’s answer, because it not only expressed the sentiments of all the French nobility, but it corroborates what I have said concerning Charles Sanson’s conduct:

My dear Duke, — I accept with gratitude, and I understand quite well, the regret you are kind enough to express. I do not know whether the Marquis de Parabere or the Marquis de Creqy obtained of the executioner of Paris the charity which is attributed to him; but what I do know is that the death of Count de Horn is the result of a false policy, of the financial operations of the Government, and, perhaps, also of the policy of the Duke d’Orleans. You know my sentiments of consideration for you.

CROY D’HAVRE

Was Count de Horn really innocent? We have no right to judge the merits of those it was our mission to put to death. Nevertheless I have taken the liberty to allude to the rumours which were current at the time of De Horn’s arrest, and which made him out to be the victim of the Regent’s personal animosity. Another version tended to establish his innocence, or, at least, so to diminish his responsibility in the Jew’s murder, that, were the version correct, the sentence he suffered could only be regarded as a monstrous iniquity. It was said that M. de Horn and the Chevalier de Milhe had not made an appointment with the Jew with the intention of murdering and robbing him, but merely with the object of obtaining from him a large sum in shares of the Bank which the Count had really entrusted to him; that not only did the Jew deny the deposit, but that he went so far as to strike Antoine de Horn in the face. Upon this the young man, who was hot-blooded and passionate, seized a knife that lay on the table and wounded the Jew in the shoulder. It was De Milhe who finished him and took the pocket-book, of which the Count refused to have a share. If the affair occurred in this way, it must be acknowledged that the Regent, and the magistrates who served his hatred, had a heavy reckoning to answer for.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Gruesome Methods,Guest Writers,History,Murder,Nobility,Other Voices,Pelf,Public Executions,Torture

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Feast Day of St. Dismas, the penitent thief

1 comment March 25th, 2018 Headsman

March 25* is the feast date (per the Roman tradition) of the penitent thief crucified alongside Jesus Christ.

“The Good Thief”, by Michelangelo Cerquozzi.

The Crucifixion — Christ flanked by the “bad thief” who taunts Him and the “good thief” who capes for the Messiah — is deeply planted in the western canon. All four of the Gospels refer to two thieves although it is not until Luke — chronologically the latest, and hence the most embroidered and least reliable, of the synoptic gospels — that these nameless extras are surfaced as contrasting archetypes of the damned and the saved.

And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us. But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss. And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:39-43)

This is as much as the New Testament has to offer on these characters, but the theme of the Savior’s redemption poured out to flesh-and-blood sinners at the hour of death had a powerful resonance for Christendom and would furnish a good thief cult down the centuries; topical for this site, said thief would headline countless execution sermons to the condemned. (Example) As Mitchell Merback puts it in The Thief, the Cross and the Wheel: Pain and the Spectacle of Punishment in Medieval and Renaissance Europe

For suffering patiently and obediently, for his literal realization of the ideal of imitatio Christi, he is rewarded with the crown of martyrdom. The spectacle of his death, his ‘immediate beatitude’, was therefore consummately edifying: a beautiful death, redeemed and redeeming, not despite but because of the abjection that accompanied it. To the philopassianic late Middle Ages he served as a powerful inspiration for penitents. One could only wish to die so thoroughly cleansed of sin as the man in the image.

We have already seen how a similar wish obtained, individually and collectively, in the theatre of public punishments. Confessed and penitent convicts became, in the eyes of the people, the living counterparts of the historical martyrs and, consequently, the objects of a quasi-cultic veneration … Like his condemned counterparts in the Middle Ages, then, the Good Thief’s worthiness for redemption resided in part in the purity of his self-examination, confession and repentance … [and] also sprang directly from his fleshly pains. As both spectacle and image, the demolished body of the Penitent Thief constituted a sign of this soul’s lightning progress through purgation and towards redemption. Within the purview of a Christian ‘piety of pain’, his torments were both abject and redemptive, fearful and enviable, unbearable and fascinating.

For the Bad Thief, who in stubborn blindness turns away from Christ and dies in despair, unregenerate and damned, this surplus of earthly pain is something else: a foretaste of eternal torments. The same violent death transforms one Thief into a likeness of the Crucified, and hence a figure worthy of compassion, admiration and veneration; the other is marked as an everyday scapegoat, worthy of mockery and scorn. Together, then, the two figures, though marginal in the Passion narrative, become central in the medieval economy of response: they become antithetical models for a culture tuned to pain’s instrumentality in the pursuit of redemption.

In the language of the canvas, Christ gestures at that redemption by inclining his head to the right, towards the Good Thief, and didactic works will sometimes add a cherub retrieving this dying penitent’s soul whilst some infernal monster snatches the nasty one.


“Crucifixion” by Vitale da Bologna, circa 1335.

Both thieves attained their legendary names later in antiquity from the Gospel of Nicodemus, Dismas, Dysmas or Demas (the good one) and Gestas or Gesmas (the other one).** Other apocraphal texts build these two out like spinoffs in a blockbuster franchise; The Story of Joseph of Arimathaea gives us one bloodthirsty murderer and one proto-social bandit with a heavy dollop of anti-Semitism:†

The first, Gestas, used to strip and murder wayfarers, hang up women by teh feet and cut off their breasts, drink the blood of babes: he knew not God nor obeyed any law, but was violent form the beginning.

The other, Demas, was a Galilean who kept an inn; he despoiled the rich but did good to the poor, even burying them, like Tobit. He had committed robberies on the Jews, for he stole (plundered) the law itself at Jerusalem, and stripped the daughter of Caiaphas, who was a priestess of the sanctuary, and he took away even the mystic deposit of Solomon which had been deposited in the (holy) place.

And in a credulity-straining prequel, the Gospel of the Infancy stages a scene where these same two guys (as Titus and Dumachus) mug the Holy Family on the latter’s flight to Egypt only for the Good Thief in a spasm of conscience to call off the attack. Baby Jesus rewards his clemency with the depressing prophesy that they’ll all be crucified together.

Present-day namesakes of the penitent thief include the Christian rock band Dizmas, and Bill and Ted’s hometown of San Dimas, California.

* It shares a calendar date with the Feast of the Annunciation, which is the date that an angel informed the Virgin Mary of her miraculous pregnancy. (March 25 = Christmas Day minus nine months.) Medieval belief cottoned to the symmetry of the divine conception and the passion of the cross falling on the same day.

** The understood arrangement is that Dismas was crucified on Christ’s privileged right side. However, Merback notes that like Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern these two halves of a whole are easily confused with one another, for “one of the surviving manuscripts containing the legend places Gestas on the right and Dysmas on the left; and several works discussed in these pages show the name ‘Gestas’ inscribed near the Thief on Christ’s right. Whether these are the outgrowths of a primitive literary tradition or the result of iconographic confusions or misappropriations is unclear.” As an example, in Conrad von Soest‘s Altarpiece from Bad Wildungen it appears that Dismas is the one bound for perdition:

† In The Story of Joseph of Arimathaea, damnation is explicitly framed as the fate of the Jews, with Christ assuring Dismas/Demas that “the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and Moses shall be cast out into the outer darkness.”

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Crucifixion,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Gruesome Methods,History,Israel,Myths,Palestine,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Theft,Uncertain Dates

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1673: La Chaussee, for the giblet pie

Add comment March 24th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1673, a footman named La Chaussee paid the forfeit for acting the agent of fugitive poisoner.

The malevolent concoctions of the Marquise de Brinvilliers have already been detailed in these pages. The sudden death of her lover and accomplice St. Croix in the summer of 1672 had exposed his incriminating effects to unwelcome scrutiny, as a consequence of which said Marquise was at this moment on the lam.

A mere valet might very much aspire to melt into the scenery when an accusing gaze is cast; indeed, La Chaussee — Jean Amelin was his real name — had been the vehicle for delivering the fatal draught* to that lady’s two brothers via a giblet pie which the servant poisoned. Although the widowed Madame d’Aubray became greatly and rightly suspicious of her sister-in-law — who by the murder of her brothers now stood to inherit a good deal of money — it seems never to have occurred to anyone that the help was in on the plot.

That is, until La Chaussee most unwisely emerged from the background at the sensitive moment of St. Croix’s death, daring to assert his rights as the former servant of that man to a bag of money whose position in the late poisoner’s apartment he could precisely describe. Having volunteered and (by his accurate description) substantiated this eyebrow-raising intimacy, La Chaussee promptly received not the 1,700 livres aspired after but a speedy arrest.

Hours before he underwent his sentence on March 24, 1673, he was put to torture to discover his accomplices, and as intended the pain loosened his previously reluctant tongue. From the public domain Madame de Brinvilliers and her times, 1630-1676:

“I am guilty. Madame de Brinvilliers gave poison to Sainte-Croix. He told me about it.”

“What did he tell you?”

“Sainte-Croix told me that she gave it in order that her brothers might be poisoned.”

“Was it a powder, or a liquid?”

“A liquid. It was administered in wine and in soup.”

“What did you put in the dish at Villequoy?”

“A clear liquid, taken from Sainte-Croix’s casket. I gave poison to both the brothers. Sainte-Croix promised me one hundred pistoles.”

“Did you report to Sainte-Croix the effect of the poison on Monsieur d’Aubray?”

“Yes, and he gave me some more poison.”

“You are exhorted to tell the truth. Who were your accomplices?”

“Sainte-Croix always told me that Madame de Brinvilliers knew nothing about the matter. But I believe that she knew everything.”

“What makes you think so?”

“Because she often used to speak about poisons.”

“Was it ever suggested that Madame d’Aubray [the widow of the eldest brother -ed.] should be poisoned?”

“Sainte-Croix was not able to get me into her household. Some days before the death of Sainte-Croix, Belleguise took from his lodgings two boxes, but I do not know what was inside. I knew Belleguise ever since I was in the service of Sainte-Croix. Madame de Brinvilliers asked me to tell her where the casket had been placed, and if I knew what was inside. I did not think it was in Sainte-Croix’s rooms, because for a long while it had been placed in the care of a woman called Guedon, who had been working with me in the Rue de Grenelle. I do not know whether Guedon was acquainted with its contents.”

La Chaussee was again asked if Sainte-Croix had given poison to Madame Villarceau d’Aubray.

“No,” he replied. “But if he could have introduced anyone into her household he would have done so.”

The lackey was then taken to the prison chapel to rest for an hour before being carried to the place of execution. Upon being asked if he had anything further to add, he made some rambling observations about a certain Lapierre who had been living with Belleguise, and who was sent away. The sense is difficult to arrive at, and after his torture he may have been slightly delirious and light-headed.

He was then taken in a cart to the Place de Greve, and his limbs broken with an iron bar, a singularly atrocious punishment which was not abolished until the age of the great revolution. Like all cruelties of this nature, it never prevented a single crime. Indeed the brigands and thieves, for whom it was chiefly intended, were in the habit of hardening their flesh against its agonies, and in their moments of recreation used to carry out mock but painful tortures of the wheel, which enabled them to suffer on the public scaffold with fortitude and resignation.

The Marquise de Brinvilliers was eventually captured, and faced torture and execution in 1676.

* The dark arts of chemistry required for this affair were said to have been learned by St. Croix when he was imprisoned in the Bastille and there chanced to meet the Italian poisoner Exili.

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1766: Nicholas Sheehy, Whiteboys priest

Add comment March 15th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1766, Irish priest Nicholas Sheehy was hanged, drawn, and quartered in Clonmel — a victim to the years-long campaign of enclosures by Ireland’s landlords, whom English agriculturist Arthur Young reported as “harpies who squeezed out the very vitals of the people and by process, extortion, and sequestration dragged from them the little which the landlord had left them.”

Sheehy was a sympathizer of the peasant “Whiteboys” resistance movement, so named for the snowy frocks these secret guerrillas donned when out on midnight raids to strike back against the owners where tenants’ livelihoods were at stake. Where landlords enclosed public grounds, Whiteboys knocked down the fences; where they displaced peasant farmer with commercial livestock, Whiteboys hamstrung the cattle.

“It could not be expected,” wrote Margaret Anne Cusack, “that the Irish priest would see the people exposed to all this misery — and what to them was far more painful, to all this temptation to commit deadly sin — without making some effort in their behalf.”

Father Sheehy, parish priest of Clogheen, was one of these, and a villain in the eyes of Protestant elites for his denunciations of enclosure and his comforts to its more muscular foes.

He had interfered in the vain hope of protecting his unfortunate parishioners from injustice; and, in return, he was himself made the victim of injustice. He was accused of encouraging a French invasion — a fear which was always present to the minds of the rulers, as they could not but know that the Irish had every reason to seek for foreign aid to free them from domestic wrongs. He was accused of encouraging the Whiteboys, because, while he denounced their crimes, he accused those who had driven them to these crimes as the real culprits. He was accused of treason, and a reward of £300 was offered for his apprehension. Conscious of his innocence, he gave himself up at once to justice, though he might easily have fled the country. He was tried in Dublin and acquitted. But his persecutors were not satisfied.

A charge of murder was got up against him; and although the body of the man [John Bridge, a former Whiteboy turned informer -ed.] could never be found, although it was sworn that he had left the country, although an alibi was proved for the priest, he was condemned and executed. A gentleman of property and position came forward at the trial to prove that Father Sheehy had slept in his house the very night on which he was accused of having committed the murder; but the moment he appeared in court, a clergyman who sat on the bench had him taken into custody, on pretence of having killed a corporal and a sergeant in a riot. The pretence answered the purpose …

At the place of execution, Father Sheehy most solemnly declared, on the word of a dying man, that he was not guilty either of murder or of treason; that he never had any intercourse, either directly or indirectly, with the French; and that he had never known of any such intercourse being practised by others.

Father Sheehy’s head wound up on a pike (it was said that the birds in reverence would not peck at it), and his name in the rich firmament of Irish martyr-patriots. He’s been occasionally proposed for canonization.

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1584: Five Catholic priests

Add comment February 12th, 2018 Headsman

John Hungerford Pollen collected and translated this document in Unpublished Documents Relating to the English Martyrs. It comprises the testimony of a friendly Catholic witness to the martyrdom of five priests at Tyburn on this date in 1584, as conveyed to another priest, the future martyr Robert Southwell. The historical moment for these martyrdoms was the weeks following the exposure of the Catholic Throckmorton Plot; most of the priests had been in prison many months, but appear to have their martyrdoms catalyzed by a seemingly perilous security situation.

The Martyrdome of Mr Haddock, Emerford, Fenn, Mutter, priests.

The 6 day of February Mr Heywood and five other priests were brought to the Kings-bench barre, indited of high treason for conspiring at Rhemes and Rome, as it was surmised against F. Campian. They all pleaded not guilty and so were conveyed to the Tower. F. Haywood was in Jesuit’s weed, so grave a man as ever I sett my eyes upon, he wore a coate of black very low and upon the same a cloke of black, downe almost to the grownde. He had in his hand a black staff and upon his head a velvet coyfe and there upon a broade seemly black felt.

The 9 [sic] of February the five priests were brought againe to the barre, and arrained upon the former endightment: they pleaded and protested innocency. Their old friend [Charles] Sledd [an informer noted, like George Eliot, for turning in Catholic priests -ed.] gave in evidence against them: The Jury found them out of hand Guilty, and the Judge gave sentence of death. Whereupon the priests soung Te Deum and such like godly verses.

Upon Wednesday being the last day of the Terme, these five priests were drawen from the Tower to Tyborne upon hurdles; the first that was brought into the cart under the gibbet was Mr Haddock, a man in complexion fayre, of countenance milde, and in professing of his faith passing stoute. One of the Sherifs called Spencer much incensed against them, together with certaine ministers bad Mr Haddock confesse the fact and ask the Queen forgivenesse. Whereupon Mr Haddock calling God to witnesse, protested upon his soule that he was not guilty of the treason, and therfore would not aske the Queen forgivenesse: and further sayd, ‘I take her for my lawfull Queen, I have seyd this morning these many paternosters for her, and I pray God she may raigne long Queene. If I had her in the wildernesse I would not for all the world putt a pinn towards her with intent to hurt her.’

Then seyd the Sherif Spenser, ‘There is since thy arrainment worse matter found against thee [by Munday the spye]': Whereunto answered Mr Haddock, ‘You have found nothing since; and soe belyke I was wrongfully arrained.’

Then Antony Munday was brought in, who uttered these speeches, ‘Upon a time you and I, with another whose name I have forgotten, walking together at Rome, the other wished the harts [Munday actually said ‘heads’ -ed.] of 3 of the nobility being of her counsell. Whereupon you sayd, M. Haddock, To make up a masse, I would we had the hart [head] of the Queen.’

Then sayd Spenser and other of his officers, ‘Away with the villaine traytor.’

But Mr Haddock, moved with these foresaid talke and speeches sayd as followeth. ‘I am presently to give an account [of all that I have done during life before the tribunal of God]; and as before God I shal answer, I never spake nor intended any such thing. And Munday, if thou didst heare me speak any such thing, how chanced it thou camest not to the barre to give this in against me upon thy othe.’ ‘Why,’ sayd Munday, ‘I never heard of your arraingement.’

Then said Spencer, ‘Didst not thou call the Queen heretick?’ ‘I confesse,’ sayd Haddock, ‘I did.’ Whereupon Spencer together with the ministers and other of his officers used the aforesaid speeches of treason, traytor, and villaine.

Mr Haddock sayd secretly a hymne in latin and that within my hearing, for I stood under the gibbet. A minister being on the cart with him, requested him to pray in English that the people might pray with him. Where upon Mr Haddock put the minister away with his hand, saying, ‘Away, away, I wil have nothing to doe with thee.’ But he requested all Catholics to pray with him and for his country. Where upon sayd one of the standers-by, ‘Here be noe Catholicks': ‘Yes,’ sayd another, ‘we be all Catholics.’ Then sayd Mr Haddock, ‘I meane Catholicks of the Catholick Roman Church, and I pray God that my bloud may encrease the Catholick faith in England': whereunto sayd Spenser: ‘The Catholic faith, the devel’s faith. Away with the traytor Drive away the cartel’ And so Mr Haddock ended his life, as constantly as could be required.

When the cart was dryven away, this Spenser presently commanded the rope to be cut, but notwithstanding the officer strock at the rope sundry times before he fell downe; and the reporte of them that stood by the block was that at what time the tormenter was in pulling out of his bowells, Mr Haddock was in life. By his own confession he was 28 yeares of age.

After Mr Haddock was taken to the block Mr Hemerford was brought unto the cart; he was very milde, and sometime a scholler of St John’s College in Oxford. Spenser bad him confesse and aske forgivenesse as before: but he protested innocency as Mr Haddock had done; yet sayd, ‘Where in I have offended her, I ask her forgivenesse, but in this fact of treason alleaged against me, I never offended.’

Then sayd a minister, master of art of St John’s College of Oxford, ‘You and I ware of old acquaintance in Oxford, by which I request you to pray openly and in English, that the people may pray with you.’ Then said M Hemerford, ‘I understand latin well enough, and am not to be taught of you. I request only Catholicks to pray with me.’ Where upon answered the minister, ‘I acknowledge that in Oxford you were alwaies by farre my better. Yet many times it pleaseth God, that the learned should be taught by the simple.’ One Risse termed a Doctor of Divinity, asked Mr Hemerford whither he would hold with the Pope or the Queen, in case the Pope should send an army into England. Whereunto Mr Hemerford answered, That in case they were sent in respect of the Pope’s own person, then he would holde with the Queen; but if it were sent to suppresse heresy or to restore the land to the catholick faith, then he would holde with the Pope. His speech was short being not permitted to speak much, and in substance the rest of his speech, not here sett down verbatim, was to the same effect that Mr [Haddock’s] was. He was cutt downe half dead: when the tormentor did cutt off his membres, he did cry ‘Oh! A!’ I heard my self standing under the gibbet.

Mr Fenn was the third that suffred, being bidd to doe as before, answered as his fellows did & sayd. ‘I am condemned for that I with Ms Haddock at Rome did conspire, & at which time Mr Haddock was a student at Rome and I a prisoner in the Marshalsea, or at the lest I am sure that I was in England, but to my remembrance, I was a prisoner in the Marshalsea. Therefore good people judge you whether I am guilty of this fact or noe.’

A minister called Hene avouched a place of St Paul whereunto Mr Fenn said: ‘I am not to be taught my duty by you.’

The rest of his speeches were to the same effect his fellows were. Before the cart was driven away, he was stripped of all his apparell saving his shirt only and presently after the cart was driven away his shirt was pulled of his back, so that he hung stark naked, where at the people muttered greatly, and the other sherif, called Massam, sayd to the officers, ‘You play the knaves. They be men. Let them be used like men,’ and alwaies commanded that they should hang until they were dead. Notwithstanding the other sherif commanded that they should be cut downe presently, and soe was Mo Fenn, but his companions following him were permitted to hang longer.

Mr Nutter was the 4th man, sometime schollar of St John’s College in Cambridge, and Mr Munden was the fifth & last: they denyed the fact, acknowledged the Queen Majesty to be their Queene and prayed for her, as the former had done, and soe in most milde and constant manner ended their life. Many a one in my hearing sayd, ‘God be with their sweet soules.’

What I have putt downe I hard myself, and therefore I may boldly speake it. If you please, you may shew it to your friends, provyded alwaies you tell not my name.


Plaque honoring George Haddock/Haydock at St. Andrew’s & Blessed George Haydock’s Catholic Church, Cottam, Lancashire. (cc) image by Skodoway.

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1588: Two Nuremberg highwaymen

Add comment January 2nd, 2018 Headsman

Nuremberg executioner Franz Schmidt on this date in 1588 broke on the wheel two of the countless violent thieves that haunted the byways of early modernity. As the meticulous Nachrichter did for all his clientele, Schmidt noted the occasion in his diary:

January 2nd. George Hörnlein of Bruck, Jobst Knau of Bamberg, a potter, both of them murderers and robbers. Two years ago Hörnlein and a companion attacked a carrier on the Remareuth, stabbed him four times so that he died, and took 32 florins. Six weeks ago he and Knau were consorting with a whore. She bore a male child in the house, where Knau baptised it, then cut off its hand while alive. Then a companion, called Schwarz, tossed the child in the air, so that it fell upon the table, and said: “Hark how the devil whines!” then cut its throat and buried it in the little garden belonging to the house.

A week later the above-mentioned Hörnlein and Knau, when the whore of the aforesaid Schwarz bore a child, wrung its neck; then Hörnlein, cutting off its right hand, buried it in the yard of the house. Six weeks ago Hörnlein and Knau with a companion, a certain Weisskopf, attacked a man between Herzog and Frauen Aurach. Knau shot him dead, took 13 florins, dragged the body into the wood and covered it with brushwood.

[A long list of murders and highway robberies follows here. Schmidt adds:]

To conclude it would require another half sheet to write down all the people they attacked … The two murderers were led out on a tumbril. Both their arms were twice nipped with red-hot tongs, and their right arms and legs broken; lastly they were executed on the wheel.

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2009: One stoned and one shot by Islamic militants in Somalia

Add comment December 13th, 2017 Headsman

From Associated Press reports:

MOGADISHU, Somalia — Witnesses say Islamist militants have executed two men accused by the fighters of murder and adultery.

Witnesses in the town of Afgoye southwest of the capital say the Hizbul Islam militants on Sunday stoned to death the man accused of adultery and shot the man accused of murder. They say the militants summoned the town’s residents to watch the executions.

Islamic courts run by radical clerics have ordered executions, floggings and amputations in recent months. In some areas militants have also banned movies, musical telephone ringtones, dancing at weddings and playing or watching soccer.

Somalia has been ravaged by violence since warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, then turned on each other.

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1591: Edmund Geninges

Add comment December 10th, 2017 Headsman

Catholic priest Edmund Geninges (also Gennings, or Jennings) was executed on this date in 1592, along with the layman Swithburne Welles, whose home played host to Geninges’s final Mass. At least, that’s according to The life and death of Mr. Edmund Geninges priest, crowned with martyrdome at London, the 10. day of November, in the yeare M.D.XCI., by .

Despite the title, the text within that volume correctly places events on “fryday the 10 day of December” — per the Julian calendar still in use in England at that time. The book was even by the priest’s brother, John Gennings: m must have just been a typeset-o on the frontispiece.

As merchants of the grim we excerpt the portion of that tract focusing on Geninges’ death. A fuller summary of the hagiography can be enjoyed on Early Modern Whale.

When the happy houre of his passion was come being 8 of the clocke on fryday the 10 day of December, M. Plasden, M. White, and the rest were carryed to Tyborne, & there executed. Mistresse Welles to her great grief was reprived, and died in prison. M. Edmund Geninges, and M. Swythune Welles, as is aforesayd, were condemned to be executed in Grayes Inne fieldes on the North side of Holborne, over agaynst his owne dore: When they were brought thither, after a few speaches of a Minister or two that were there present, M. Geninges was taken of the sledd, whereon he lay. In the meane time he cryed out with holy S. Andrew: O bona Crux diu desiderata, & iam concupiscenti animo preparata, securus & gaudens venio ad te; ita & tu exultans suspicias me discipulum eius qui pependit in te! O good gibbet long desired, and now prepared for my hart much desiring thee, being secure and ioyfull I come unto thee, so thou also with ioy, I beseech thee receyue me the disciple of him that suffered on the Crosse.

Being put upon the ladder naked to his shirte, many questions were asked him by some standers by, wherto he answered still directly. At length M. Topliffe being present cryed out with a loud voyce, Geninges, Geninges, confesse thy fault, thy Popish treason, and the Queene by submission (no doubt) will grant thee pardon. To which he mildly answered, I knowe not M. Topliffe in what I have offended my deare annoynted Princesse, for if I had offended her, or any other in any thing, I would willingly aske her, and all the world forgivenesse. If she bee offended with me without a cause, for professing my fayth and religion, because I am a Priest, or because I will not turne Minister agaynst my conscience, I shalbe I trust excused and innocent before God: Obedire (sayth S. Peter) oportet Deo magis quam hominibus, I must obey God rather than men, and must not in this case acknowledge a fault where none is. If to returne into England Priest, or to say Masse be Popish treason, I heere confesse I am a traytour; but I thinke not so. And therefore I acknowledge my selfe guilty of these thinges, not with repentance or sorrow of hart, but with an open protestation of inward ioy, that I have done so good deedes, which if they were to do agayne, I would by the permission and assistance of Almighty God accomplish the same, although with the hazard of a thousand lives.

Which wordes M. Topliffe hearing, being much troubled therwith, scarce giving him leave to say a Pater noster, bad the Hangman turne the ladder, which in an instant being done, presently he caused him to be cut downe, the Blessed martyr in the sight of all the beholders, being yet able to stand on his feete, & casting his eyes towardes heaven, his senses were very little astonished, in so much that the Hangman was forced to trippe up his heeles from under him to make him fall on the blocke. And being dismembred, through very payne, in the hearing of many, with a lowde voyce he uttered these wordes, Oh it smartes, which M. Welles hearing, replyed thus: Alas sweete soule thy payne is great indeed, but almost past, pray for me now most holy Saynt, that mine may come. He being ripped up, & his bowelles cast into the fire, if credit may be given to hundreds of People standing by, and to the Hangman himselfe, the blessed Martyr uttered (his hart being in the executioners hand) these words, Sancte Gregori ora pro me, which the Hangman hearing, with open mouth swore this damnable oath, Gods woundes, See his hart is in my hand, and yet Gregory in his mouth, o egregious Papist! Thus the afflicted Martyr even to the last of his torments cryed for the ayde & succour of Saynts, and especially of S. Gregory his devoted patron, and our countries Apostle that by his intercession he might passe the sharpnes of that torment.

And thus with barbarons [sic] cruelty our thirce [sic] happy Martyr finished the course of his mortall life, and purchased no doubt a crowne of immortality in the glorious Court of heaven. Wherfore now he triumpheth with all unspeakeable ioy, and [b]eatitude amongst the number of those blessed martyrs who have in this world suffered all torments of persecution, and have withstood Princes and Potentates, lawes and lawmakers, for the honour and glory of theyr Lord and Saviour, and therfore have found true the confortable saying of holy David, Qui seminant in lachrymis, in exultatione metent: They who sow in teares, shall reape in ioy. Now so much the more is our Saynt glorifyed, by how much the more he was tormented, according to that saying of S. Cyprian: Quo longior vestra pugna hic, corona sublimior, presens tamen confessio quanto in passione fortior, tanto clarior & maior in honore. By how much your combat is the longer, by so much your crowne shall be the higher, so that by how much stronger the present confession is in suffering, so much more glorious and greater it shall be in honour.

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1586: John Lowe, John Adams, and Robert Dibdale, English Catholics

Add comment October 8th, 2017 Richard Stanton

(Thanks to Richard Stanton for his guest post, originally published in A menology of England and Wales, or, Brief memorials of the ancient British and English saints arranged according to the calendar, together with the martyrs of the 16th and 17th centuries. Writing in the 19th century, Stanton calls these English martyrs “Venerable” but as of this writing they are “Blessed” — having been advanced further along the path to sainthood in 1987. -ed.)

The Venerable John Lowe was born in London, and for some time was a Protestant minister. On his conversion he went to the College at Douay, and from thence to Rome, where he was ordained priest. In due time he returned to England and laboured on the Mission, till he was arrested and condemned and executed for high treason, on account of his priestly character and the exercise of its functions.

The Venerable John Adams was a native of Dorsetshire, and went to Rheims for his theological studies. He returned to England as a priest in 1581, and after some time was seized and banished, with a number of others, in the year 1585. After a few months’ stay at the College, he contrived to return to his labours on the Mission, but was once more apprehended and condemned to death, barely for being a priest. Few particulars are known relative to this Martyr, but it is recorded in one of the catalogues that his constancy was proof against all the artifices and promises, used to divert him from his generous resolution to sacrifice his life for the Faith.

The Venerable Richard, or, as he is called in some catalogues, Robert Dibdale, was born in Worcestershire. He became a student, and in due time a priest, of the English College at Rheims. In the year 1584 he was sent on the Mission, which he diligently served for some time. He was however arrested by the persecutors, tried and condemned for high treason, on account of his priestly character and functions. This Martyr, like a number of other missioners of that time, was remarkable for the gift he possessed of exorcising evil spirits. A fellow-missioner has left an account of several wonderful instances of this kind, of which he was himself witness, and others are recorded by Yepez, Bishop of Tarrasona, in his account of the English persecution. These wonderful occurrences were said to be the cause of numerous conversions to the faith.

The three Martyrs, Lowe, Adams, and Dibdale, all suffered at Tyburn on the same day, the 8th October, and on the mere charge of their priesthood, which by the recent statute was declared to be high treason.

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