Nicknamed for her strawberry blond hair, the Golden Boos had an ingenious scam that required every bit of her Bunyanesque strength: she would wander the countryside and check into inns with a large chest or pack. Intimating that the parcel contained something of great value, she would insist upon its overnight safekeeping in a very secure room.
Once the inn had tucked in for the night, a diminutive accomplice would emerge from the trunk, plunder the lonely room of its valuables, and the two would escape into the night. Evidently, secure rooms in 18th century Liechtenstein were never secured from the inside.
She admitted to 17 such thefts. Liechtentein, whose population at the present time numbers fewer than 40,000 souls, had to import the executioner to chop off Barbara Erni’s Golden Boos on a public scaffold in Vaduz on February 26, 1785.
Liechtenstein officiall abolished the death penalty in 1987.
On this date in 1601, Queen Elizabeth’s last great favorite became the last man beheaded in the Tower of London.
Vain and dashing Robert Devereux rolled into the royal court in 1584 around age 19 and immediately established himself as the new favorite of the monarch, 30-some years his senior. They spent long walks and late nights in enchanted private company, and Devereux “commeth not to his owne lodginge tyll the birdes singe in the morninge.” Ye olde walke of shayme.
In becoming the (presumed) lover* of the aging Virgin Queen, the Earl of Essex was only following the family** trade: his stepfather Robert Dudley was the younger Elizabeth’s longtime intimate.
It is up to the artists to postulate the relative measures of passion and cynicism in these dalliances; many have tried, inspired by the scaffold sundering of one of history’s great May-December affairs. The Essex-Elizabeth drama was a popular topic for broadsides, ballads, and stage treatments from the 17th century to the present day.
He was wildly popular in London, but Essex was also afflicted by the follies of youth. Rash, temperamental, vainglorious; he aspired to leverage the favor of his sovereign into statesmanship and he achieved heroic repute for his swashbuckling raid on Cadiz.
Yet Essex reads like a whelp who never quite grew into a man’s boots. Every sketch of Essex includes, because it seems so starkly illustrative of his unstable character, the story of the time his impertinence led the queen to box his ears publicly — and the hothead’s hand flew instinctively to his sword-hilt. Everyone reconciled over this brush with lese-majeste, but only after Essex scribbled some skulking reproaches (“What, cannot princes err? cannot subjects receive wrong? is an earthly power or authority infinite?”) that he had the petulance to actually send to Elizabeth.
Not for the last time an Englishman found this conquest more easily aspired than achieved. Essex liberally overused his authority to knight men as a reward for their service, but his soldiers mostly slogged to and fro with little headway to show for it. After a frustrating campaign season chasing his tail, Essex defied the increasingly strident directives to attack issuing from Elizabeth’s irate pen, and made terms with the Irish commander Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone. Then he defied Elizabeth’s order to remain in Ireland and hastened back to London to justify himself. It was said of him that he “never drew sword but to make knights.”
This was the beginning of Essex’s end. Elizabeth’s fury at the aimless military campaign was compounded when her churlish captain turned up from Ireland unbidden and burst into her private chambers while she was still dressing to report on his unauthorized summit. Cecil et al, whose ascendance Essex had meant to reverse with the triumph of his arms, now murmured that the earl had strayed near outright treason to parley with the rebel whom he was supposed to be routing. The Privy Council put him under house arrest.
Heaped in debt and deprived of the prestigious proximity to power he had enjoyed literally throughout his adulthood, the man’s turbulent spirit stirred strangely in York House. We have seen that Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, was a man to abhor an indignity even past the point of self-preservation. He unwisely sent secret missives to try to turn the ongoing succession negotiations‡ against Robert Cecil; when the Privy Council caught wind of this intrusion, he refused its demand that he present himself to account for his actions. Instead, he made matters worse by mounting a pathetic march through London with his supporters.
This “Essex Rebellion” was meant to rally the citizenry to him and turn some sort of coup against Robert Cecil. It seems so foolhardy and ill-considered that it’s difficult to think what was in the earl’s head. If you squint at it just so, it perhaps had a big-R Romantic quality, a gallant band of brothers saving the nation from its duplicitous ministers; the night before the rebellion, Essex (a liberal arts patron in his time) splurged to have William Shakespeare’s company§ stage a special performance of Richard II — a play wherein the English monarch is deposed. Presumably this was his inspirational pregame speech.
Thinking much more clearly than Essex, Londoners vigorously ignored his summons and the marching party trudged alone — and surely increasingly frightened — through the city until it was stopped by a barricade. Its participants then fled back to Essex House where they soon found themselves surrounded.
Whatever the fancy that led the Earl of Essex on his fatal February 8 march, and whatever the extent of his ambitions for that occasion, the careless threat to the public peace went several bridges beyond a boyish foible that Elizabeth could overlook in her impulsive courtier. He was prosecuted for treason within days and Elizabeth signed his death warrant on February 20th. The only mercy extended the ex-favorite was to suffer the noble execution of beheading, rather than a traitor’s drawing and quartering. Essex also successfully appealed for a private execution within the walls of the Tower, away from the gawks of those London masses who had so signally failed to rebel along with him.
My sins are more in number than the hairs on my head. I have bestowed my youth in wantonness, lust and uncleanness; I have been puffed up with pride, vanity and love of this wicked world’s pleasures. For all which, I humbly beseech my Saviour Christ to be a mediator to the eternal Majesty for my pardon, especially for this my last sin, this great, this bloody, this crying, this infectious sin, whereby so many for love of me have been drawn to offend God, to offend their sovereign, to offend the world. I beseech God to forgive it us, and to forgive it me — most wretched of all.
He prayed a Psalm. Then, stretching out his neck on a low block and thrusting his arms from his sides, he bid the headsman strike. The executioner had to oblige his patient in triplicate in order to sever the puffed-up head.
The Earl of Essex has the distinction of being the last person beheaded on the Tower Green, within the walls off the Tower of London — the last name on the little placard of headless notables photographed by tour groups. Note that Essex was not the last person beheaded at the Tower, when the adjacent Tower Hill is included (that distinction belongs to Jacobite rebel Simon Fraser); nor was he the last person executed within the Tower (that distinction belongs to World War II spy Josef Jakobs, who was not beheaded but shot).
Weary and depressed, Elizabeth died little more than two years afterwards.
* There’s a mind-bending speculative hypothesis out there — cousin to the Shakespeare-focused Prince Tudor theory — that Essex was actually Elizabeth’s secret, illegitimate son. This secret history is obviously more congenial with the queen’s early favoritism for Essex than with her eventually chopping off his head.
** Essex was also a distant cousin of Elizabeth herself: his maternal great-grandmother was Mary Boleyn, sister of Anne Boleyn — who was Elizabeth’s mother.
† Walter Raleigh was a notable Cecil ally in this factional conflict. Raleigh attended Essex’s execution … and, of course, shared that fate many years afterwards.
‡ Elizabeth was nearing age 70; her childless death was imminent. James VI of Scotland was being vetted by Robert Cecil as the successor. Essex tried to stick his thumb in the pie by warning James that the Cecil faction would conspire to foist the English crown on the Spanish infanta — daughter of the Spanish king who had been the Catholic Mary Tudor’s husband. (The infanta was not Mary’s own daughter.) This was no idle threat, as at this point it was only a few years since the Spanish Armada had sallied for English seas.
§ Another noteworthy Shakespeare connection: one of the participants in the Essex Rebellion was the Earl of Southampton (he was spared execution). Southampton, whose given name was Henry Wriothesley, is often identified as the “Fair Youth” to whom Shakespeare dedicated numerous love sonnets. (Some of those are directly addressed to a Mr. “W.H.”)
Niccolo Machiavelli‘s exile from Florentine politics — and subsequent entry into the intellectual canon — was cinched this date in 1513 when two of his friends (or possibly co-conspirators) were executed for a plot against the Medici.
Days after that stern friar burned to ashes on the Piazza della Signoria, Machiavelli was named the secondo segretario fiorentino,* alongside a primo segretario counterpart, the older and more cautious Marcello Virgilio Adriani.
What a moment this was to be a Florentine! The mighty Medici had been chased out of Florence and with the fall of Savonarola and his grim morals police the humanist dream of a classical republic suddenly seemed within grasp.
Machiavelli was just 29 years old when he reached this office, bursting with a patriot’s reckless exuberance — and a virile young man’s hedonism. He delighted in whores and in boozing around with his Chancery cronies Agostino Vespucci** and Biagio Buonaccorsi.
The correspondence of these indiscreet young Turks fill with profane and cutting takes on the leading citizens of Florence; Machiavelli, who was known in his own time as a playwright and not a political philosopher, was even bold enough to put such ridicule in print. The 1504 play Le Maschere is tragically lost, but by surviving accounts it lampooned “under feigned names, many citizens who were still living.”†
A few books about Niccolo Machiavelli
While not scribbling pasquinades and getting laid, the Second Secretary had matters of state to attend to. We have met him in these pages, as the Florentine ambassador to the court of Cesare Borgia; Machiavelli could not help but admire the condottiero‘s ruthlessness. Machiavelli also represented Florence in Rome, Spain and France.
Showing an equal aptitude for politics by other means, Machiavelli moved the Florentine military muscle towards a citizen militia, presciently replacing its dependence on mercenaries. In 1509 this force captured Pisa.
But Machiavelli’s excessive regard for this strategic advance married to his excessive affinity for the republic of Piero Soderini undid him in the end. While the First Secretary, Adriani, quietly cultivated contacts of various political persuasions, Machiavelli went all in against the stirring Medicean party. This became a problem when the fortunes of peninsular war drove Florence’s French allies away, leaving the city ripe for recapture by Giuliano de’ Medici, who also happened to be the brother of the pope in waiting.
In 1512, a hastily-assembled city militia of about three or four thousand infantry and 100 men-at-arms met an overwhelming Spanish-Papal-Medicean force at Prato. Scrambling to defend a lost cause, Machiavelli had mustered about a third of the militia and was trying to organize the city’s defenses. Florence’s crushing defeat in this battle and the ensuing civic massacre in Prato (with “countless murders, sacrileges and rapes”) convinced the Florentines to depose Piero Soderini and throw open the gates to Giuliano de’ Medici.
This was the end of Machiavelli the statesman … and, of course, the birth of Machiavelli the philosopher. The ensuing 15 years’ frustrating exile left him no other outlet for his political passions save his pen; needless to say, works like The Prince and Discourses on Livy retain exalted seats in the canon down to the present day. (They made little impression on Machiavelli’s contemporaries; Florentines still knew him for the plays he kept writing.)
A few books by Niccolo Machiavelli
When eveniing comes, I return home and enter my study; on the threshold I take off my workday clothes, covered with mud and dirt, and put on the garments of the court and palace. Fitted out appropriately, I step inside the venerable courts of the ancients, where I nourish myself on that food that alone is mine and for which I was born; where I am unashamed to converse with them and to question them about the motives for their actions, and they, out of their human kindness, answer me. And for four hours at a time I feel no boredom, I forget all my troubles, I do not dread poverty, and I am not terrified of death. I metamorphose into them completely.
-Machiavelli, December 10, 1513
The cautious primo segretario Adriani, who could better see where the winds were blowing, survived the transition by having the wisdom not to align himself with the losing party. Whatever the verdict of posterity, the 1510s were Adriani’s time to bask in the center of events while Machiavelli did his work of ages in obscurity.
But what cinched Machiavelli’s unhappy permanent banishment from Florentine politics — notwithstanding unctuous expedients like dedicating The Prince to the Medici ruler — were the events culminating in two February 23, 1513 beheadings.
Machiavelli had been dismissed in November 1512. Four months later, a nascent (or wildly exaggerated) anti-Medici conspiracy led by a republican named Pietro Boscoli came to light. Its chief, and paltry, evidence was little more than a written list of around 20 fellow-travelers, upon which appeared the name of Niccolo Machiavelli. It’s more than likely that the “treason” amounted to little more than the idle chatter of some disaffected republicans, but after a generation in exile the newly restored Medici dynasty wasn’t taking any chances.
For the onetime Second Secretary, this meant prison and torture by the strappado. Three months on, he was released to his estate with no political succor save the haunts in his head.
But the head he got to keep — and that was better than one could say for Pietro Boscoli.
Boscoli and one Agostino Capponi were beheaded early in the morning of February 23, a bare eight hours after their death sentences were announced. Their last hours were recorded as a Recitazione by a young friend named Luca della Robbia: the tender Passion scene of Boscoli in particular struggling to come to grips with his shockingly sudden fates. The full narrative can be found in translation by Alison Knowles Frazier in The Art of Executing Well: Rituals of Execution in Renaissance Italy. We excerpt a little taste below:
At about 8 o’clock, having had his supper, Boscoli was brought with his legs in irons to the chapel where … he was told that he had to die …
Pietro Paolo cried out “Oh Pietro Paolo, oh poor Pietro Paolo! What has become of you!”
Poor Pietro Paolo struggles on here for 15-odd pages in evident anguish, veering between practical considerations of the family he is leaving behind and whom to rustle up as his last-minute confessor, and his uncertain spiritual readiness for death (he was particularly upset at being told of his fate after dinner, for “I am too loaded down with food, and I have eaten salty things, so that I don’t feel able to join my spirit to God”). Della Robbia stays with him the whole time; in the latter’s introduction, he says he “noted diligently all his words, both questions and replies, and kept them in my memory … that such a great and well-formed example of strength and spiritedness would not be lost” and recorded them faithfully later on.
By the end, Boscoli has reconciled his mind to the scaffold.
He is escorted down the stairs from the chapel of the Bargello to its interior courtyard where
leaving the first step, he encountered the Confraternity’s‡ crucifix.
“What am I to do?” [Boscoli] said.
“This is your captain, who comes to arm you,” the friar responded. “Greet him, honor him, ask him to make you strong.”
Then he said, “Greetings, Lord Jesus. I adore you, hanging on the cross. Make me, I beg you, like to your Passion. True Lord, I ask you for peace.”
“Okay, yes,” the friar replied, “Your ear heard the preparations …,” and told him once again the three things.§
And he answered, and said, “‘Let your ear hear the preparation of my heart, Lord Jesus.'”
Then the execution, because he wanted to put a kerchief over his eyes, asked his forgiveness and offered to pray to God for him.
“Go ahead and do your duty,” Pietro Paolo said. “And when you have put me at the block, leave me like that for a bit and then finish me off, and that you pray God for me, I accept.”
The reason why he asked for a little time at the block, was that he had all night long always desired a great joining with God and he didn’t feel that he had achieved it as he desired, so that he hoped in that last moment to make a great effort and so to offer himself wholly to God …
Agostino Capponi, whom della Robbia has seen only glancingly over his long narrative, follows Boscoli. Although Capponi required two blows of the executioner’s blade, he perhaps went into the hereafter with a soul better at peace — for he “retained on his face a certain wry expression, perhaps not distant from true sincerity.”
† Landon says the primo segretario Adriani encouraged Machiavelli to publish this play, even though Adriani himself is one of its targets — in Landon’s view, because Adriani was playing a long game for power, and revenge: quietly encouraging Machiavelli’s excesses while positioning himself politically to profit from his consequent fall.
§ Shortly before proceeding to execution, Boscoli steeled himself for the ordeal by resolving that “In this journey I have to have three things. I have to believe the faith. I have to have firm hope that God will pardon me. And the third is that I have to suffer this death for love of Christ and not for others.”
On this date in 1691, Russian Orthodox priest Sylvester Medvedev was beheaded on Red Square.
Medvedev was a protege of the great progressive clergyman, poet, and educator Symeon of Polotsk, one of the intellectual champions of the reforming faction of Orthodoxy’s Great Schism.
The Schism in question was the widespread disaffection of the faithful (now known as “Old Believers”) for changes dictated from on high whose effect was to centralize the Russian Orthodox church and to alter its services.
The Patriarch of Moscow had underaken to revise the liturgy, the prayer-books, and the church services in Russian Orthodoxy in order to bring them in line (so he said) with their proper Greek antecedents. It provoked a furious reaction by Russian traditionalists. Perhaps the most vividly symbolic flashpoint of the Schism was the simple-seeming distinction between making the sign of the cross with three fingers (as the Patriarch demanded), or with two. It was all down to what Nikon said was a mistranslation of the original Greek when the rite had first been established hundreds of years before.
That reform and others were enforced, and opposed, violently: floggings, executions, and desecrations of now-outlaw icons were met by Old Believers willing to mutilate their own hands, or kill themselves, or go to the stake rather than bend. Some 20,000 people are said to have self-immolated in resistance.
“Come, Orthodox People,” thundered Protopope and soon-to-be Old Believer martyr Avvakum Petrov. “Suffer tortures for the two-finger sign of the cross … Although I have not much understanding I am not a learned man yet I know that the Church which we have received from our Holy Fathers is pure and sacred. As it came to me, so shall I uphold my faith until the end.”
Boyarina Feodosia Morozova concurred with Avvakum Petrov (who was her confessor): in this famous painting of her by Vasily Surikov, she makes a defiant two-fingered blessing to onlookers as she the authorities drag her away.
Peter, of course, was not yet “the Great”: he was just a vulnerable kid with a potential legitimacy problem. As one consequence, his mother, Natalyz Naryshkina, was able to dictate the appointment of a very conservative patriarch when that post opened in 1690.
That man, Adrian, would be the last Moscow patriarch until the Bolshevik Revolution in large measure due to his conflicts with the grown Peter over the latter’s blasphemously western orientation.
Adrian was no Old Believer but he bitterly opposed Peter’s attempts to get Russians to dress like Europeans and shave off their beards. And given the ferocity of religious feeling when the stakes are a matter of a single finger, it will go without saying that an inveterate liberalizer like Sylvester Medvedev would have no purchase with the patriarch.
This is indeed a strange interim in Russian history; Russian’s great westernizing and secularizing autocrat has reached the throne but with him ascends, just for a moment, the staunchest conservatives ecclesiastics.
What was Medvedev up to that got the new patriarch in a twist? If you liked the three-finger thing, you’ll love this: Medvedev maintained that the transubstantiation/metousiosis of ceremonial bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ was accomplished during liturgy by the Words of Institution (“Take, eat, this is my body …”), which was also the Catholic perspective — in contrast to the orthodox Orthodox position that this was achieved by the Epiclesis invoking the Holy Spirit.
His real crime might well have been to align himself politically with the lately deposed Sophia, for Medvedev inherited his mentor’s place as court poet and education paladin when Symeon of Polotsk died in 1680. Sycophantish verse like this, written in Medvedev’s unuccessful attempt to gain leadership of an academy to promulgate western learning, can’t have done him any favors in the end:
You have been given the name of wisdom,
For Sophia was named wisdom by God.
It befits you to begin the sciences,
To pursue them, most wise one!
On this date in 1528, Anabaptist Ambrosius Spittelmayr was beheaded in Cadolzburg, Bavaria.
Baptized by Hans Hut only the year before, Spittelmayr propounded his outlaw adult-baptism creed as a wandering preacher in Upper Austria and southern Germany before his arrest.
The energetic Spittelmayr left his interrogators a 3,000-word confession of faith that has been of great value to scholars probing Hut’s own theology, which was deeply influential in southern Germany. Spittelmayr’s confession emphasizes a Godly life, including a version of primitive communism that called on the faithful to share their worldly effects — a prominent feature in much Anabaptist thought that helped certainly raised the hackles of those with property to protect.
Nobody can inherit the kingdom unless he is poor with Christ, for a Christian has nothing of his own; no place where he can lay his head. A real Christian should not even have enough property on earth to be able to stand on it with one foot. This does not mean that he should go and lie down in the woods and not have a trade, or that he should not have fields and meadows, or that he should not work, but alone that he might not think they are for his own use and be tempted to say: this house is mine, this field is mine, this dollar is mine. Rather he should say it is ours, even as we pray: Our Father. In summary, a Christian should not have anything of his own but should have all things in common with his brother, that is, not allow him to suffer need. In other words, I will not work that my house be filled, that my larder be supplied with meat, but rather I will see that my brother has enough, for a Christian looks more to his neighbor than to himself. Whoever desires to be rich in this world, who is concerned that he miss nothing when it comes to his person and property, who is honored by men and feared by them, who refuses to prostrate himself at the feet of his Lord … will be humbled. (Via)
On July 27, in the year 1889, the Parisian police were informed of the disappearance of one Gouffe, a bailiff. He had been last seen by two friends on the Boulevard Montmartre at about ten minutes past seven on the evening of the 26th, a Friday. Since then nothing had been heard of him, either at his office in the Rue Montmartre, or at his private house in the Rue Rougemont. This was surprising in the case of a man of regular habits even in his irregularities, robust health, and cheerful spirits.
Gouffe was a widower, forty-two years of age. He had three daughters who lived happily with him in the Rue Rougemont. He did a good trade as bailiff and process-server, and at times had considerable sums of money in his possession. These he would never leave behind him at his office, but carry home at the end of the day’s work, except on Fridays. Friday nights Gouffe always spent away from home. As the society he sought on these nights was of a promiscuous character, he was in the habit of leaving at his office any large sum of money that had come into his hands during the day.
About nine o’clock on this particular Friday night, July 26, the hall-porter at Gouffe’s office in the Rue Montmartre heard someone, whom he had taken at first to be the bailiff himself, enter the hall and go upstairs to the office, where he remained a few minutes. As he descended the stairs the porter came out of his lodge and, seeing it was a stranger, accosted him. But the man hurried away without giving the porter time to see his face.
When the office was examined the next day everything was found in perfect order, and a sum of 14,000 francs, hidden away behind some papers, untouched. The safe had not been tampered with; there was, in short, nothing unusual about the room except ten long matches that were lying half burnt on the floor.
On hearing of the bailiff’s disappearance and the mysterious visitor to his office, the police, who were convinced that Gouffe had been the victim of some criminal design, inquired closely into his habits, his friends, his associates, men and women. But the one man who could have breathed the name that would have set the police on the track of the real culprits was, for reasons of his own, silent. The police examined many persons, but without arriving at any useful result.
However, on August 15, in a thicket at the foot of a slope running down from the road that passes through the district of Millery, about ten miles from Lyons, a roadmender, attracted by a peculiar smell, discovered the remains of what appeared to be a human body. They were wrapped in a cloth, but so decomposed as to make identification almost impossible. M. Goron, at that time head of the Parisian detective police, believed them to be the remains of Gouffe, but a relative of the missing man, whom he sent to Lyons, failed to identify them. Two days after the discovery of the corpse, there were found near Millery the broken fragments of a trunk, the lock of which fitted a key that had been picked up near the body. A label on the trunk showed that it had been dispatched from Paris to Lyons on July 27, 188-, but the final figure of the date was obliterated. Reference to the books of the railway company showed that on July 27, 1889, the day following the disappearance of Gouffe, a trunk similar in size and weight to that found near Millery had been sent from Paris to Lyons.
The judicial authorities at Lyons scouted the idea that either the corpse or the trunk found at Millery had any connection with the disappearance of Gouffe. When M. Goron, bent on following up what he believed to be important clues, went himself to Lyons he found that the remains, after being photographed, had been interred in the common burying-ground. The young doctor who had made the autopsy produced triumphantly some hair taken from the head of the corpse and showed M. Goron that whilst Gouffe’s hair was admittedly auburn and cut short, this was black, and had evidently been worn long. M. Goron, after looking carefully at the hair, asked for some distilled water. He put the lock of hair into it and, after a few minutes’ immersion, cleansed of the blood, grease and dust that had caked them together, the hairs appeared clearly to be short and auburn. The doctor admitted his error.
Fortified by this success, Goron was able to procure the exhumation of the body. A fresh autopsy was performed by Dr. Lacassagne, the eminent medical jurist of the Lyons School of Medicine. He was able to pronounce with certainty that the remains were those of the bailiff, Gouffe. An injury to the right ankle, a weakness of the right leg, the absence of a particular tooth and other admitted peculiarities in Gouffe’s physical conformation, were present in the corpse, placing its identity beyond question. This second post-mortem revealed furthermore an injury to the thyroid cartilage of the larynx that had been inflicted beyond any doubt whatever, declared Dr. Lacassagne, before death.
There was little reason to doubt that Gouffe had been the victim of murder by strangulation.
But by whom had the crime been committed? It was now the end of November. Four months had passed since the bailiff’s murder, and the police had no clue to its perpetrators. At one time a friend of Gouffe’s had been suspected and placed under arrest, but he was released for want of evidence.
One day toward the close of November, in the course of a conversation with M. Goron, a witness who had known Gouffe surprised him by saying abruptly, “There’s another man who disappeared about the same time as Gouffe.” M. Goron pricked up his ears. The witness explained that he had not mentioned the fact before, as he had not connected it with his friend’s disappearance; the man’s name, he said, was Eyraud, Michel Eyraud, M. Goron made some inquires as to this Michel Eyraud. He learnt that he was a married man, forty-six years of age, once a distiller at Sevres, recently commission-agent to a bankrupt firm, that he had left France suddenly, about the time of the disappearance of Gouffe, and that he had a mistress, one Gabrielle Bompard, who had disappeared with him. Instinctively M. Goron connected this fugitive couple with the fate of the murdered bailiff.
Confirmation of his suspicions was to come from London. The remains of the trunk found at Millery had been skilfully put together and exposed at the Morgue in Paris, whilst the Gouffe family had offered a reward of 500 francs to anybody who could in any way identify the trunk. Beyond producing a large crop of anonymous letters, in one of which the crime was attributed to General Boulanger, then in Jersey, these measures seemed likely to prove fruitless. But one day in December, from the keeper of a boarding-house in Gower Street, M. Goron received a letter informing him that the writer believed that Eyraud and Gabrielle Bompard had stayed recently at his house, and that on July 14 the woman, whom he knew only as “Gabrielle,” had left for France, crossing by Newhaven and Dieppe, and taking with her a large and almost empty trunk, which she had purchased in London. Inquires made by the French detectives established the correctness of this correspondent’s information. An assistant at a trunk shop in the Euston Road was able to identify the trunk — brought over from Paris for the purpose — as one purchased in his shop on July 12 by a Frenchman answering to the description of Michel Eyraud. The wife of the boarding-house keeper recollected having expressed to Gabrielle her surprise that she should buy such an enormous piece of luggage when she had only one dress to put into it. “Oh that’s all right,” answered Gabrielle smilingly, “we shall have plenty to fill it with in Paris!” Gabrielle had gone to Paris with the trunk on July 14, come back to London on the 17th, and on the 20th she and Eyraud returned together to Paris. From these facts it seemed more than probable that these two were the assassins so eagerly sought for by the police, and it seemed clear also that the murder had been done in Paris. But what had become of this couple, in what street, in what house in Paris had the crime been committed? These were questions the police were powerless to answer.
The year 1889 came to an end, the murderers were still at large. But on January 21, 1890, M. Goron found lying on his table a large letter bearing the New York postmark. He opened it, and to his astonishment read at the end the signature “Michel Eyraud.” It was a curious letter, but undoubtedly genuine. In it Eyraud protested against the suspicions directed against himself; they were, he wrote, merely unfortunate coincidences. Gouffe had been his friend; he had had no share whatever in his death; his only misfortune had been his association with “that serpent, Gabrielle Bompard.” He had certainly bought a large trunk for her, but she told him that she had sold it. They had gone to America together, he to avoid financial difficulties in which he had been involved by the dishonesty of the Jews. There Gabrielle had deserted him for another man. He concluded a very long letter by declaring his belief in Gabrielle’s innocence — “the great trouble with her is that she is such a liar and also has a dozen lovers after her.” He promised that, as soon as he learnt that Gabrielle had returned to Paris, he would, of his own free will, place himself in the hands of M. Goron.
He was to have an early opportunity of redeeming his pledge, for on the day following the receipt of his letter a short, well-made woman, dressed neatly in black, with dyed hair, greyish-blue eyes, good teeth, a disproportionately large head and a lively and intelligent expression of face, presented herself at the Prefecture of Police and asked for an interview with the Prefect.
Requested to give her name, she replied, with a smile, “Gabrielle Bompard.” She was accompanied by a middle-aged gentleman, who appeared to be devoted to her. Gabrielle Bompard and her friend were taken to the private room of M. Loze, the Prefect of Police. There, in a half-amused way, without the least concern, sitting at times on the edge of the Prefect’s writing-table, Gabrielle Bompard told how she had been the unwilling accomplice of her lover, Eyraud, in the murder of the bailiff, Gouffe. The crime, she stated, had been committed in No. 3 in the Rue Tronson-Ducoudray, but she had not been present; she knew nothing of it but what had been told her by Eyraud. After the murder she had accompanied him to America; there they had met the middle-aged gentleman, her companion. Eyraud had proposed that they should murder and rob him, but she had divulged the plot to the gentleman and asked him to take her away. It was acting on his advice that she had returned to France, determined to give her evidence to the judicial authorities in Paris. The middle-aged gentleman declared himself ready to vouch for the truth of a great part of this interesting narrative. There they both imagined apparently that the affair would be ended. They were extremely surprised when the Prefect, after listening to their statements, sent for a detective-inspector who showed Gabrielle Bompard a warrant for her arrest. After an affecting parting, at least on the part of the middle-aged gentleman, Gabrielle Bompard was taken to prison. There she soon recovered her spirits, which had at no time been very gravely depressed by her critical situation.
According to Eyraud’s letters, if anyone knew anything about Gouffe’s murder, it was Gabrielle Bompard; according to the woman’s statement, it was Eyraud, and Eyraud alone, who had committed it. As they were both liars — the woman perhaps the greater liar of the two — their statements are not to be taken as other than forlorn attempts to shift the blame on to each other’s shoulders.
Before extracting from their various avowals, which grew more complete as time went on, the story of the crime, let us follow Eyraud in his flight from justice, which terminated in the May of 1890 by his arrest in Havana.
Immediately after the arrest of Gabrielle, two French detectives set out for America to trace and run down if possible her deserted lover. For more than a month they traversed Canada and the United States in search of their prey. The track of the fugitive was marked from New York to San Francisco by acts of thieving and swindling. At the former city he had made the acquaintance of a wealthy Turk, from whom, under the pretence of wishing to be photographed in it, he had borrowed a magnificent oriental robe. The photograph was taken, but Eyraud forgot to return the costly robe.
At another time he was lodging in the same house as a young American actor, called in the French accounts of the incident “Sir Stout.” To “Sir Stout” Eyraud would appear to have given a most convincing performance of the betrayed husband; his wife, he said, had deserted him for another man; he raved and stormed audibly in his bedroom, deploring his fate and vowing vengeance. These noisy representations so impressed “Sir Stout” that, on the outraged husband declaring himself to be a Mexican for the moment without funds, the benevolent comedian lent him eighty dollars, which, it is almost needless to add, he never saw again. In narrating this incident to the French detectives, “Sir Stout” describes Eyraud’s performance as great, surpassing even those of Coquelin.
Similar stories of theft and debauchery met the detectives at every turn, but, helped in a great measure by the publicity the American newspapers gave to the movements of his pursuers, Eyraud was able to elude them, and in March they returned to France to concert further plans for his capture.
Eyraud had gone to Mexico. From there he had written a letter to M. Rochefort’s newspaper, L’Intransigeant, in which he declared Gouffe to have been murdered by Gabrielle and an unknown. But, when official inquiries were made in Mexico as to his whereabouts, the bird had flown.
At Havana, in Cuba, there lived a French dressmaker and clothes-merchant named Puchen. In the month of February a stranger, ragged and unkempt, but evidently a fellow-countryman, visited her shop and offered to sell her a superb Turkish costume. The contrast between the wretchedness of the vendor and the magnificence of his wares struck Madame Puchen at the time. But her surprise was converted into suspicion when she read in the American newspapers a description of the Turkish garment stolen by Michel Eyraud, the reputed assassin of the bailiff Gouffe. It was one morning in the middle of May that Mme. Puchen read the description of the robe that had been offered her in February by her strange visitor. To her astonishment, about two o’clock the same afternoon, she saw the stranger standing before her door. She beckoned to him, and asked him if he still had his Turkish robe with him; he seemed confused, and said that he had sold it. The conversation drifted on to ordinary topics; the stranger described some of his recent adventures in Mexico. “Oh!” exclaimed the dressmaker, “they say Eyraud, the murderer, is in Mexico! Did you come across him? Were you in Paris at the time of the murder?” The stranger answered in the negative, but his face betrayed his uneasiness. “Do you know you’re rather like him?” said the woman, in a half-joking way. The stranger laughed, and shortly after went out, saying he would return. He did return on May 15, bringing with him a number of the Republique Illustree that contained an almost unrecognisable portrait of Eyraud. He said he had picked it up in a cafe. “What a blackguard he looks!” he exclaimed as he threw the paper on the table. But the dressmaker’s suspicions were not allayed by the stranger’s uncomplimentary reference to the murderer. As soon as he had gone, she went to the French Consul and told him her story.
By one of those singular coincidences that are inadmissable in fiction or drama, but occur at times in real life, there happened to be in Havana, of all places, a man who had been employed by Eyraud at the time that he had owned a distillery at Sevres. The Consul, on hearing the statement of Mme. Puchen, sent for this man and told him that a person believed to be Eyraud was in Havana. As the man left the Consulate, whom should he meet in the street but Eyraud himself! The fugitive had been watching the movements of Mme. Puchen; he had suspected, after the interview, that the woman would denounce him to the authorities. He now saw that disguise was useless. He greeted his ex-employe, took him into a cafe, there admitted his identity and begged him not to betray him. It was midnight when they left the cafe. Eyraud, repenting of his confidence, and no doubt anxious to rid himself of a dangerous witness, took his friend into an ill-lighted and deserted street; but the friend, conscious of his delicate situation, hailed a passing cab and made off as quickly as he could.
Next day, the 20th, the search for Eyraud was set about in earnest. The Spanish authorities, informed of his presence in Havana, directed the police to spare no effort to lay hands on him. The Hotel Roma, at which he had been staying, was visited; but Eyraud, scenting danger, had gone to an hotel opposite the railway station. His things were packed ready for flight on the following morning. How was he to pass the night? True to his instincts, a house of ill-fame, at which he had been entertained already, seemed the safest and most pleasant refuge; but, when, seedy and shabby, he presented himself at the door, he was sent back into the street. It was past one in the morning. The lonely murderer wandered aimlessly in the streets, restless, nervous, a prey to apprehension, not knowing where to go. Again the man from Sevres met him. “It’s all up with me!” said Eyraud, and disappeared in the darkness. At two in the morning a police officer, who had been patrolling the town in search of the criminal, saw, in the distance, a man walking to and fro, seemingly uncertain which way to turn. Hearing footsteps the man turned round and walked resolutely past the policeman, saying good-night in Spanish. “Who are you? What’s your address?” the officer asked abruptly. “Gorski, Hotel Roma!” was the answer. This was enough for the officer. Eyraud was know[n] to have passed as “Gorski,” the Hotel Roma had already been searched as one of his hiding-places. To seize and handcuff “Gorski” was the work of a moment. An examination of the luggage left by the so-called Gorski at his last hotel and a determined attempt at suicide made by their prisoner during the night proved conclusively that to the Spanish police was the credit of having laid by the heels, ten months after the commission of the crime, Michel Eyraud, one of the assassins of the bailiff Gouffe.
On June 16 Eyraud was delivered over to the French police. He reached France on the 20th, and on July 1 made his first appearance before the examining magistrate.
It will be well at this point in the narrative to describe how Eyraud and Gabrielle Bompard came to be associated together in crime. Gabrielle Bompard was twenty-two years of age at the time of her arrest, the fourth child of a merchant of Lille, a strong, hardworking, respectable man. Her mother, a delicate woman, had died of lung disease when Gabrielle was thirteen. Even as a child lying and vicious, thinking only of men and clothes, Gabrielle, after being expelled as incorrigible from four educational establishments, stayed at a fifth for some three years. There she astonished those in authority over her by her precocious propensity for vice, her treacherous and lying disposition, and a lewdness of tongue rare in one of her age and comparative inexperience. At eighteen she returned to her father’s house, only to quit it for a lover whom, she alleged, had hypnotised and then seduced her. Gabrielle was singularly susceptible to hypnotic suggestion. Her father implored the family doctor to endeavour to persuade her, while in the hypnotic state, to reform her deplorable conduct. The doctor did his best but with no success. He declared Gabrielle to be a neuropath, who had not found in her home such influences as would have tended to overcome her vicious instincts. Perhaps the doctor was inclined to sympathise rather too readily with his patient, if we are to accept the report of those distinguished medical gentlemen who, at a later date, examined carefully into the mental and physical characteristics of Gabrielle Bompard.
This girl of twenty had developed into a supreme instance of the “unmoral” woman, the conscienceless egoist, morally colour-blind, vain, lewd, the intelligence quick and alert but having no influence whatever on conduct. One instance will suffice to show the sinister levity, the utter absence of all moral sense in this strange creature.
After the murder of Gouffe, Gabrielle spent the night alone with the trunk containing the bailiff’s corpse. Asked by M. Goron what were her sensations during this ghastly vigil, she replied with a smile, “You’d never guess what a funny idea come into my head! You see it was not very pleasant for me being thus tete-a-tete with a corpse, I couldn’t sleep. So I thought what fun it would be to go into the street and pick up some respectable gentleman from the provinces. I’d bring him up to the room, and just as he was beginning to enjoy himself say, ‘Would you like to see a bailiff?’ open the trunk suddenly and, before he could recover from his horror, run out into the street and fetch the police. Just think what a fool the respectable gentleman would have looked when the officers came!”
Such callousness is almost unsurpassed in the annals of criminal insensibility. Nero fiddling over burning Rome, Thurtell fresh from the murder of Weare, inviting Hunt, the singer and his accomplice, to “tip them a stave” after supper, Edwards, the Camberwell murderer, reading with gusto to friends the report of a fashionable divorce case, post from the murder of a young married couple and their baby — even examples such as these pale before the levity of the “little demon,” as the French detectives christened Gabrielle.
Such was Gabrielle Bompard when, on July 26, exactly one year to a day before the murder of Gouffe, she met in Paris Michel Eyraud. These two were made for each other. If Gabrielle were unmoral, Eyraud was immoral. Forty-six at the time of Gouffe’s murder, he was sufficiently practised in vice to appreciate and enjoy the flagrantly vicious propensities of the young Gabrielle. All his life Eyraud had spent his substance in debauchery. His passions were violent and at times uncontrollable, but unlike many remarkable men of a similar temperament, this strong animalism was not in his case accompanied by a capacity for vigorous intellectual exertion or a great power of work. “Understand this,” said Eyraud to one of the detectives who brought him back to France, “I have never done any work, and I never will do any work.” To him work was derogatory; better anything than that. Unfortunately it could not be avoided altogether, but with Eyraud such work as he was compelled at different times to endure was only a means for procuring money for his degraded pleasures, and when honest work became too troublesome, dishonesty served in its stead. When he met Gabrielle he was almost at the end of his tether, bankrupt and discredited. At a pinch he might squeeze a little money out of his wife, with whom he continued to live in spite of his open infidelities.
Save for such help as he could get from her small dowry, he was without resources. A deserter from the army during the Mexican War in 1869, he had since then engaged in various commercial enterprises, all of which had failed, chiefly through his own extravagance, violence and dishonesty. Gabrielle was quick to empty his pockets of what little remained in them. The proceeds of her own immorality, which Eyraud was quite ready to share, soon proved insufficient to replenish them. Confronted with ruin, Eyraud and Gompard hit on a plan by which the woman should decoy some would-be admirer to a convenient trysting-place. There, dead or alive, the victim was to be made the means of supplying their wants.
On further reflection dead seemed more expedient than alive, extortion from a living victim too risky an enterprise. Their plans were carefully prepared. Gabrielle was to hire a ground-floor apartment, so that any noise, such as footsteps or the fall of a body, would not be heard by persons living underneath.
At the beginning of July, 1889, Eyraud and Bompard were in London. There they bought at a West End draper’s a red and white silk girdle, and at a shop in Gower Street a large travelling trunk. They bought, also in London, about thirteen feet of cording, a pulley and, on returning to Paris on July 20, some twenty feet of packing-cloth, which Gabrielle, sitting at her window on the fine summer evenings, sewed up into a large bag.
The necessary ground-floor apartment had been found at No. 3 Rue Tronson-Ducoudray. Here Gabrielle installed herself on July 24. The bedroom was convenient for the assassins’ purpose, the bed standing in an alcove separated by curtains from the rest of the room. To the beam forming the crosspiece at the entrance into the alcove Eyraud fixed a pulley. Through the pulley ran a rope, having at one end of it a swivel, so that a man, hiding behind the curtains could, by pulling the rope strongly, haul up anything that might be attached to the swivel at the other end. It was with the help of this simple piece of mechanism and a good long pull from Eyraud that the impecunious couple hoped to refill their pockets.
The victim was chosen on the 25th. Eyraud had already known of Gouffe’s existence, but on that day, Thursday, in a conversation with a common friend, Eyraud learnt that the bailiff Gouffe was rich, that he was in the habit of having considerable sums of money in his care, and that on Friday nights Gouffe made it his habit to sleep from home. There was no time to lose. The next day Gabrielle accosted Gouffe as he was going to his dejeuner and, after some little conversation agreed to meet him at eight o’clock that evening.
The afternoon was spent in preparing for the bailiff’s reception in the Rue Tronson-Ducoudray. A lounge-chair was so arranged that it stood with its back to the alcove, within which the pulley and rope had been fixed by Eyraud. Gouffe was to sit on the chair, Gabrielle on his knee. Gabrielle was then playfully to slip round his neck, in the form of a noose, the cord of her dressing gown and, unseen by him, attach one end of it to the swivel of the rope held by Eyraud. Her accomplice had only to give a strong pull and the bailiff’s course was run.*
Detail view (click for the full four-panel image) of Le Petit Journal‘s illustration of Bompard and Eyraud murdering Gouffe. Via this collection of 1890-91 French news about the crime.
At six o’clock Eyraud and Bompard dined together, after which Eyraud returned to the apartment, whilst Bompard went to meet Gouffe near the Madeline Church. What occurred afterwards at No. 3 Rue Tronson-Ducoudray is best described in the statement made by Eyraud at his trial.
At a quarter past eight there was a ring at the bell. I hid myself behind the curtain. Gouffe came in. ‘You’ve a nice little nest here,’ he said. ‘Yes, a fancy of mine,’ replied Gabrielle, ‘Eyraud knows nothing about it.’ ‘Oh, you’re tired of him,’ asked Gouffe. ‘Yes,’ she replied, ‘that’s all over.’ Gabrielle drew Gouffe down on to the chair. She showed him the cord of her dressing-gown and said that a wealthy admirer had given it to her. ‘Very elegant,’ said Gouffe, ‘but I didn’t come here to see that.’
She then sat on his knee and, as if in play, slipped the cord round his neck; then putting her hand behind him, she fixed the end of the cord into the swivel, and said to him laughingly, ‘What a nice necktie it makes!’ That was the signal.
Eyraud pulled the cord vigorously and, in two minutes, Gouffe had ceased to live.
Eyraud took from the dead man his watch and ring, 150 francs and his keys. With these he hurried to Gouffe’s office and made a fevered search for money. It was fruitless. In his trembling haste the murderer missed a sum of 14,000 francs that was lying behind some papers, and returned, baffled and despairing, to his mistress and the corpse. The crime had been a ghastly failure. Fortified by brandy and champagne, and with the help of the woman, Eyraud stripped the body, put it into the bag that had been sewn by Gabrielle, and pushed the bag into the trunk. Leaving his mistress to spend the night with their hateful luggage, Eyraud returned home and, in his own words, “worn out by the excitement of the day, slept heavily.”
The next day Eyraud, after saying good-bye to his wife and daughter, left with Gabrielle for Lyons. On the 28th they got rid at Millery of the body of Gouffe and the trunk in which it had travelled; his boots and clothes they threw into the sea at Marseilles. There Eyraud borrowed 500 francs from his brother. Gabrielle raised 2,000 francs in Paris, where they spent August 18 and 19, after which they left for England, and from England sailed for America. During their short stay in Paris Eyraud had the audacity to call at the apartment in the Rue Tronson-Ducoudray for his hat, which he had left behind; in the hurry of the crime he had taken away Gouffe’s by mistake.
Eyraud had been brought back to Paris from Cuba at the end of June, 1890. Soon after his return, in the room in which Gouffe had been done to death and in the presence of the examining magistrate, M. Goron, and some fifteen other persons, Eyraud was confronted with his accomplice. Each denied vehemently, with hatred and passion, the other’s story. Neither denied the murder, but each tried to represent the other as the more guilty of the two. Eyraud said that the suggestion and plan of the crime had come from Gabrielle; that she had placed around Gouffe’s neck the cord that throttled him. Gabrielle attributed the inception of the murder to Eyraud, and said that he had strangled the bailiff with his own hands.
Eyraud, since his return, had seemed indifferent to his own fate; whatever it might be, he wished that his mistress should share it. He had no objection to going to the guillotine as long as he was sure that Gabrielle would accompany him. She sought to escape such a consummation by representing herself as a mere instrument in Eyraud’s hands. It was even urged in her defence that, in committing the crime, she had acted under the influence of hypnotic suggestion on the part of her accomplice. Three doctors appointed by the examining magistrate to report on her mental state came unanimously to the conclusion that, though undoubtedly susceptible to hypnotic suggestion, there was no ground for thinking that she had been acting under such influence when she participated in the murder of Gouffe. Intellectually the medical gentlemen found her alert and sane enough, but morally blind.
The trial of Eyraud and Bompard took place before the Paris Assize Court on December 16, 1890. It had been delayed owing to the proceedings of an enterprising journalist. The names of the jurymen who were to be called on to serve at the assize had been published. The journalist conceived the brilliant idea of interviewing some of these gentlemen.
He succeeded in seeing four of them, but in his article which appeared in the Matin newspaper said that he had seen twenty-one. Nine of them, he stated, had declared themselves in favour of Gabrielle Bompard, but in some of these he had discerned a certain “eroticism of the pupil of the eye” to which he attributed their leniency. A month’s imprisonment was the reward of these flights of journalistic imagination.
A further scandal in connection with the trial was caused by the lavish distribution of tickets of admission to all sorts and kinds of persons by the presiding judge, M. Robert, whose occasional levities in the course of the proceedings are melancholy reading. As a result of his indulgence a circular was issued shortly after the trial by M. Fallieres, then Minister of Justice,* limiting the powers of presidents of assize in admitting visitors into the reserved part of the court.
The proceedings at the trial added little to the known facts of the case. Both Eyraud and Bompard continued to endeavour to shift the blame on to each other’s shoulders. A curious feature of the trial was the appearance for the defence of a M. Liegeois, a professor of law at Nancy. To the dismay of the Court, he took advantage of a clause in the Code of Criminal Instruction which permits a witness to give his evidence without interruption, to deliver an address lasting four hours on hypnotic suggestion. He undertook to prove that, not only Gabrielle Bompard, but Troppmann, Madame Weiss, and Gabrielle Fenayrou also, had committed murder under the influence of suggestion.† In replying to this rather fantastic defence, the Procureur-General, M. Quesnay de Beaurepaire, quoted a statement of Dr. Brouardel, the eminent medical jurist who had been called for the prosecution, that “there exists no instance of a crime, or attempted crime committed under the influence of hypnotic suggestion.” As to the influence of Eyraud over Bompard, M. de Beaurepaire said: “The one outstanding fact that has been eternally true for six thousand years is that the stronger will can possess the weaker: that is no peculiar part of the history of hypnotism; it belongs to the history of the world. Dr. Liegeois himself, in coming to this court to-day, has fallen a victim to the suggestion of the young advocate who has persuaded him to come here to air his theories.” The Court wisely declined to allow an attempt to be made to hypnotise the woman Bompard in the presence of her judges, and M. Henri Robert, her advocate, in his appeal to the jury, threw over altogether any idea of hypnotic suggestion, resting his plea on the moral weakness and irresponsibility of his client.
In sheer wickedness there seems little enough to choose between Eyraud and Bompard. But, in asking a verdict without extenuating circumstances against the woman, the Procureur-General was by no means insistent. He could not, he said, ask for less, his duty would not permit it: “But I am ready to confess that my feelings as a man suffer by the duty imposed on me as a magistrate. On one occasion, at the outset of my career, it fell to my lot to ask from a jury the head of a woman. I felt then the same kind of distress of mind I feel to-day. The jury rejected my demand; they accorded extenuating circumstances; though defeated, I left the court a happier man. What are you going to do to-day, gentlemen? It rests with you. What I cannot ask of you, you have the right to accord. But when the supreme moment comes to return your verdict, remember that you have sworn to judge firmly and fearlessly.” The jury accorded extenuating circumstances to the woman, but refused them to the man. After a trial lasting four days Eyraud was sentenced to death, Bompard to twenty years penal servitude.
At first Eyraud appeared to accept his fate with resignation. He wrote to his daughter that he was tired of life, and that his death was the best thing that could happen for her mother and herself. But, as time went on and the efforts of his advocate to obtain a commutation of his sentence held out some hope of reprieve, Eyraud became more reluctant to quit the world.
“There are grounds for a successful appeal,” he wrote, “I am pretty certain that my sentence will be commuted … You ask me what I do? Nothing much. I can’t write; the pens are so bad. I read part of the time, smoke pipes, and sleep a great deal. Sometimes I play cards, and talk a little. I have a room as large as yours at Sevres. I walk up and down it, thinking of you all.”
But his hopes were to be disappointed. The Court of Cassation rejected his appeal. A petition was addressed to President Carnot, but, with a firmness that has not characterised some of his successors in office, he refused to commute the sentence.
On the morning of February 3, 1891, Eyraud noticed that the warders, who usually went off duty at six o’clock, remained at their posts. An hour later the Governor of the Roquette prison entered his cell, and informed him that the time had come for the execution of the sentence. Eyraud received the intelligence quietly. The only excitement he betrayed was a sudden outburst of violent animosity against M. Constans, then Minister of the Interior. Eyraud had been a Boulangist, and so may have nourished some resentment against the Minister who, by his adroitness, had helped to bring about the General’s ruin. Whatever his precise motive, he suddenly exclaimed that M. Constans was his murderer: “It’s he who is having me guillotined; he’s got what he wanted; I suppose now he’ll decorate Gabrielle!” He died with the name of the hated Minister on his lips.
* One writer on the case has suggested that the story of the murder by rope and pulley was invented by Eyraud and Bompard to mitigate the full extent of their guilt, and that the bailiff was strangled while in bed with the woman. But the purchase of the necessary materials in London would seem to imply a more practical motive for the use of rope and pulley. (Irving’s original footnote.)
† Moll in his “Hypnotism” (London, 1909) states that, after Gabrielle Bompard’s release M. Liegeois succeeded in putting her into a hypnotic state, in which she re-acted the scene in which the crime was originally suggested to her. The value of such experiments with a woman as mischievous and untruthful as Gabrielle Bompard must be very doubtful. No trustworthy instance seems to be recorded in which a crime has been committed under, or brought about by, hypnotic or post-hypnotic suggestion, though, according to Moll, “the possibility of such a crime cannot be unconditionally denied.” (Irving’s original footnote)
On this date in 1905, “baby farmer” Elisabeth Wiese was beheaded in Hamburg.
In a luridly reported case “revolting in the extreme, proving the woman to be a monster of iniquity” Wiese — a former convict whose larcenous past had forced her trade away from the legitimate field of midwifery to the more shady precincts of mercenary fostering.
From scandal-averse single mothers in England as well as Germany, she collected children with maintenance fees running to US $1,000 plus a hush-money surcharge tacked on. For this donative, she represented a capacity to distribute these whelps to willing adoptive families: in reality, most of them she disposed of with morphine. (As an added inflammation to public opinion, she had also forced her own illegitimate daughter into prostitution; Paula, whose own infant was among Wiese’s victims, repaid that ill turn by appearing as a witness against her mother.)
When Wiese fell under suspicion, the neighbors’ reports of her kitchen glowing like hellfire and belching revolting stenches led police to the remains of these little ones burnt up in her stove.
Condemned for five murders — it’s thought that the true count must have run much higher — Wiese is known as the “angel-maker of St. Pauli” after the suburb where she plied her trade.
On this date in 1801, four Jacobins were executed in Paris after Napoleon’s secret police entrapped them into a plot against the First Consul.
After seizing power on the 18th Brumaire (November 9, 1799) the new man on horseback needed to consolidate power against the opposition of both royalist and Jacobin opposition. It would prove to be the case that the latter were the declining force and the royalists were the ones in it for the long haul.
But it had not been many years since the Jacobins were the power in Paris, and Napoleon was a proactive type; his 18th Brumaire coup had been effected on the pretext of a phony Jacobin conspiracy. So instead of just waiting around for the attentats aimed at his person, Napoleon set his police chief — Joseph Fouche, the onetime “Executioner of Lyons” — to spin them up himself by the offices of agents provocateur.
Here, a police plant named Harel goaded several radicals into kind of supporting (or at least not resisting) his plot to dagger the Corsican at the opera in October 1800. “It was agreed to exaggerate the danger to which it was appropriate to the First Consul to have been exposed,” wrote the French diplomat Bourienne in his memoirs. Harel himself had to distribute the weapons.
Though the daggers conspirators would probably have been happy to see Napoleon dead, they were so little inspired to achieve that death by their own hands that most of them quailed to appear at the scene where the trap would be sprung. They ended up being arrested in their homes.
Four of the seven Jacobins were guillotined on January 30, 1801 (all these links are to French Wikipedia pages):
The Death of Caius Gracchus, by Jacobin artist Francois Topino-Lebrun (1798). The painting’s contemporary allusion was to Gracchus Babeuf, recently executed (after an unsuccessful suicide attempt in the courtroom) for the Conspiracy of Equals.
The artists implicated were both associates of Jacques-Louis David (and the opera being staged was one inspired by David’s The Oath of the Horatii). David had already by this time proved himself a willing lackey of the new regime, but the resulting brush with police scrutiny (David had to testify at the trial) surely underscored to the opportunistic painter that his own revolutionary past could be dropped on his head like Damocles’ sword at any moment Napoleon should choose.
On January 23, 1751 Lhasa … witnessed another horrible example of Chinese justice. Lobsang Trashi and six other leaders of the rebellion were executed by cutting them into pieces. Other people were beheaded or strangled. The heads of the executed were mounted on spikes. The other leaders were exiled and stripped of their property.
The royal chamberlain, Lobsang Trashi (German Wikipedia entry | Dutch) managed to escape the scene and found himself at the head of a furious rabble that sacked the Qing embassy, looted a treasury, and killed dozens of Chinese soldiers — and dozens more Chinese civilians.
But the popular furor burned itself out within days, most Tibetan elites sagely declining to get involved in the pogrom pending the likely — and soon, actual — overwhelming Qing response. These guys got the fire-eaters arrested (they’d be handed over to the arriving Chinese army) and installed the Dalai Lama as the new secular as well as religious authority.
On this date in 205, the Roman patrician Gaius Fulvius Plautianus was put to summary execution for aspiring to the purple.
Maternal cousin and longtime ally to Septimius Severus, Plautianus had helped himself to a generous slice of power and wealth when his friend became emperor. He got his bristly mug onto imperial coinage and even dynastically married his daughter to Severus’s nasty son and heir* Caracalla.
And so liberally did Plautianus wet his beak on the perquisites of this power that, Cassius Dio reports, “the populace in the Circus once exclaimed: ‘Why do you tremble? Why are you pale? You possess more than do the three.'” The three meant Severus himself and his two sons.
Severus for a time blithely ignored his friend’s aggrandizement, and Plautianus made the political personal by appropriating for himself the estates of numerous senators whose proscription he helped Severus implement.
But the enormous influence of his prefect soon began to present a threat that the emperor could not afford to ignore. In the coming years of the Third Century Crisis, this pattern would repeat itself with numbing regularity: the prestige of some figure would raise the prospect of his seizing the throne; the mere possibility would then thrust sovereign and potential usurper into a destructive mutual dash towards pre-emptive violence.
It’s anyone’s guess whether Plautianus was already contemplating a putsch as the natural progression of his authority, but the decision was made for him by the contempt with which Caracalla treated that daughter he’d been made to marry. The heir “was exceedingly hostile to the the girl, and to her father too,” and even “daily promised to kill her and her father as soon as he became sole ruler of the empire.” (Herodian of Antioch)
Resolving to strike before the young hothead was in a position to effect his threats, Plautianus allegedly engaged one of his loyal servants to assassinate the imperial family.**
The plot was instead betrayed, and Plautianus was produced before his former colleague to be handled as they had once handled those proscribed senators. After his immediate execution, his body was cast into the streets and Caracalla’s unwanted wife sent to a miserable exile.†
The History of Rome podcast covers the reign of Severus and the fate of Plautianus in episode 101, “And All Was of Little Value”.
* Co-heir, with his brother Geta — whom Caracalla murdered at the first opportunity after dear old dad died.
** The would-be assassin presented Severus with a written order for his death in the hand of his master. Cassius Dio quite justly suspects this a stitch-up: “These circumstances in particular betrayed the fraud; for Plautianus would never have dared to give such instructions either to ten centurions at once, or in Rome, or in the palace, or on that day, or at that hour, and especially not in writing.”