On this date in 1374, mayor Tile von Damm was beheaded by rebel populares in his home city of Braunschweig (Brunswick).
One of northern Europe’s great Hanseatic merchant cities, Braunschweig enjoyed a rich history of civic unrest — the Braunschweiger Schichten. (Literally shift, but also carrying the sense of rebellion.)
The Great Rebellion in Braunschweig, by Alfred von Schüssler (mid-19th century).
One of its most outstanding installments — the one recalled as the Große Schicht — kicked off on April 17, 1374. (Most of the information about this incident is in German, as are most of the links in this post.) On that evening, a meeting of the ruling council of merchant magnates with its guild chiefs on how to deal with Braunschweig’s crippling debt turned tetchy and spilled into a popular protest. Within hours, as a chronicler would later put it, the devil was set loose in Braunschweig.
Guild protests carried to the “House of the Seven Towers” where Tile von Damm(e) resplended in the manner fitting the city’s mayor and its wealthiest patrician. That house still exists to this day, but the mayor’s thread was measured in mere hours: he was soon hauled out and beheaded on the Hagenmarkt.
Either eight or ten magnates (sources seem to be split on the figure) were slain during these April disturbances with others fleeing as guild rebels took full control of the city, not to be fully restored until 1386 — although in a show of transnational oligarch solidarity, Braunschweig was booted out of the Hanseatic League while the lower orders had the run of the place.
On this date in 1792, the French Revolution’s iconic execution machine made its quiet experimental debut on the grounds of a suburban Paris hospital.
For all the long and terrible shadow it would cast, the first guillotine was a ridiculous rush job — courtesy of a legislature too squeamish to deal in the particulars of the humane head-chopper it had insisted upon. A ghastly farce ensued, as detailed by Paul Friedland in his Seeing Justice Done: The Age of Spectacular Capital Punishment in France,* wherein during a matter of weeks in the spring of 1792 the thing was practically willed into existence by French physician Antoine Louis by virtue of being the one guy who was willing to get into the technical journals on the matter of crunching a heavy blade through a man’s spine.**
The invention would initially be known as a louisette or louison in his honor, before that moniker was supplanted by the surname of a different physician who had become known (derisively, at first) for proposing a mechanical beheading device: Joseph-Ignace Guillotin.
Lawmakers’ shyness stems as Friedland sees it from their ambivalence about the entire project of public executions with their unruly rabble, pornographically agape: in this courtly sketch of the proposed machine, even the executioner — and this behavior is explicit in its original caption — coyly averts his eyes as his sword-arm releases the blade.
It was on March 20, 1792 that Assembly’s Committee on Legislation authorized deploying the as-yet uninvented device and “almost immediately, there followed an urgent, almost frenzied effort to build a decapitating machine as quickly as possible.” Executions remained suspended in the interim but Louis worked with dispatch, and an efficient carpenter named Guidon,† and the device performed its first real execution a mere five weeks after the enabling legislation, on April 25.
This date was its dry run, courtesy of a few fresh cadavers at the Bicêtre Hospital, which the chief surgeon, one Cullerier, was very happy to make Dr. Louis’s arrangements.
You will find at Bicetre all the facilities that you desire for the trial of a machine that humanity cannot see without shuddering, but which justice and the welfare of society make necessary. I will keep the corpses of those unfortunates who die between today and Monday. I will arrange the amphitheater … [and if] the ceiling does not accommodate the height of the machine, I can make use of a little isolated courtyard situated next to the amphitheater. The honor that you are bestowing on the House of Bicetre, Sir, is a very nice gift that you are giving me, but it would be even more so if you wished to accept a simple and frugal meal, such as a bachelor can offer.
Several more VIPs multiplied the honor. Rejoining Friedland’s narrative,
On April 17 the first trial of the guillotine took place. On hand to witness the event were: Sanson, the executioner of Paris, along with his son and an aide; the carpenter who built the machine and his aides; and several members of the medical establishment including Drs. Louis, Cullerier, and Pierre Jean George Cabanis, the prominent physician and friend of Mirabeau. Reportedly also in attendance that day were several members of the National Assembly and last, but certainly not least, an individual who was both a politician and a physician: Dr. Guillotin himself. By all accounts the trial was a wonderful success. As Dr. Louis enthused in his report to [politician and intellectual Pierre-Louis] Roederer, the machine decapitated three cadavers “so neatly that one was astonished by the force and celerity of its action.” Dr. Cabanis would later describe the blade’s descent as having “severed the heads faster than one could see, and the bones were cleanly cut.”
The reports ring with awe, and well they might. For an Enlightenment audience that theretofore had known beheadings only via the error-prone action of an executioner’s muscle, it must have been a wondrous spectacle, a triumph of ingenuity and philosophy for a humane new age.
** A rival proposal called for automating death via a sort of proto-gas chamber: the executioner to “attach the condemned by the neck, feet, and hands behind the back [to a post on the scaffold], all of which he would cover or enclose in a kind of booth, 5 feet square, equipped with panes of glass on all four sides and with a tight-fitting cap on top … charcoal, sulfur, and other materials that cause asphyxiation could be introduced into the booth by means of an inverted funnel in such a way that the condemned would suffocate and expire instantaneously.” Yet another proposal called for a strangling machine.
† “Who charged 5,500 francs for it,” report the memoirs of the Sansons, which also notes that by way of experimentation, two of the cadavers were beheaded with the familiar-to-us oblique knife, and the third less satisfactorily with a crescent-shaped alternative.
On this date in 2015, in the Islamic holy city of Medina, Saudi Arabia beheaded Indonesian domestic worker Siti Zainab after a very long wait.
Zainab, a maid, was condemned to death in 1999 for stabbing to death her cruel* employer. Her execution went on pause for more than 15 years until all of the victim’s children could reach adulthood and exercise their right to enforce or mitigate the death sentence; still, for all that lead time, Saudi Arabia irked Jakarta by failing to notify consular offices of her impending beheading.
In addition to the usual controversies Saudi Arabia’s aggressive headsmen engender when dispatching the kingdom’s widely abused migrant workers, Zainab’s case raised hackles over the condemned woman’s alleged “suspected mental illness.”
* Cruel according to Zainab and her defenders. Indonesian NGO Migrant Care argued that the murder was outright self-defense.
April 9 is the (Roman) feast date of the minor Cappadocian saint Eupsychius.
As martyr to the hated-of-Christians pagan throwback emperor Julian the Apostate, Eupsychius could perhaps be accounted an ironical late victim of the fratricidal family politics that consumed the heirs of the great Christianizer Constantine the Great.
When Constantine kicked off in 337, he left three sons of a disgraced empress whom he optimistically hoped would share rulership. What happened instead was that, inside of a generation, practically the entire Constantinian line laid one another in the earth by dint of bloodthirsty dynastic rivalries, leaving only two men standing.
And it so happened that those two kinsmen faced one another across late antiquity’s gaping spiritual chasm: one a Christian, the other a pagan.
Constantius was the surviving son of Constantine, and regardless his Christian affiliation had secured his initial control of his father’s new eastern capital by unsentimentally butchering the bulk of his extended family including his own uncle Julius Constantius, and Julius’s firstborn son. Two other sons of Julius Constantine, too young for the abbatoir, escaped their brother’s fate and so our future Julian the Apostate grew up under a perpetually dancing Damoclean sword, a bookish philosophizing type enchanted by classical learning — so enchanted that he would eventually, and at first very quietly, apostatize from his substantial Christian education and adhere instead to the old gods.
In the fullness of time, the remainder of Constantius’s family succumbed to various civil wars — including Julian’s only surviving brother, Gallus, executed for treachery in 354 in an incident that could very well have claimed Julian as well if for no other reason than proximity. A prolific writer, Julian would later recall that “if some God, to inure my safety, had not ingratiated me with his [Constantius’s] beautiful and excellent wife, Eusebia, I could not have escaped his resentment.” Perhaps the childless Constantius could foresee well enough that, resentment or no, his last relation would be required for imperial policy soon enough.
And indeed the very next year, having spent many months mulling over whether to kill him, Constantius instead elevated Julius as his junior co-emperor. The young scholar soon distinguished himself as a surprisingly competent leader and battlefield commander, pacifying Germania and Gaul before, almost inevitably, the two emperors turned on one another in civil war. Julian must have been well-favored of goddess Fortuna whom he will defend in this post, for he won that war before the first spear was chucked when Constantius took ill and died as the rivals steered their armies towards one another.
So suddenly, 40 years after the empire had officially gone Christian, it had a pagan ruler — the last pagan ruler it would ever know.
Julian was an intelligent and idealistic young man. Taking power before the age of 30, he set a bold course to massively remake the empire in the image of its most admirable anachronisms: living modestly, paring the bureaucracy, debating Senators as their equal instead of their overlord, and — the attempted rollback that would mark his nickname and his reputation — restoring a pre-Christian cosmology to philosophical preeminence.
A few books about Julian the Apostate
This could have been Julian the Apostate‘s life’s work, twenty or thirty of forty years dislodging Christianity from the official foothold it had only recently attained and creating the groundwork for a pagan-dominated middle ages: fine grist for speculative alternative history, since Julian actually died in 363 in war against the Persians.
Having learned from the failure of previous rulers’ persecutions, he deployed instead the devious and modern mechanic of liberal religious toleration, starving the “Galileans” of the galvanizing force of either state backing or state oppression while perhaps setting their orthodox edifice up to splinter over time as various heretical movements began freely venting their rival doctrines on one another.
Julian the Apostate presiding at a conference of sectarians, by Edward Armitage (1875).
His uniqueness and his erudition have made him an attractive character for modern interlocutors, especially those of the Christ-skeptic variety; Gore Vidal sympathetically centered Julian in an engrossing historical novel, and Gibbon warmly admired him:
The Christians, who had now possessed above forty years the civil and ecclesiastical government of the empire, had contracted the insolent vices of prosperity, and the habit of believing that the saints alone were entitled to reign over the earth. As soon as the enmity of Julian deprived the clergy of the privileges which had been conferred by the favour of Constantine, they complained of the most cruel oppression; and the free toleration of idolaters and heretics was a subject of grief and scandal to the orthodox party. The acts of violence, which were no longer countenanced by the magistrates, were still committed by the zeal of the people. At Pessinus the altar of Cybele was overturned almost in the presence of the emperor, and in the city of Caesarea, in Cappadocia, the temple of Fortune, the sole place of worship which had been left to the Pagans, was destroyed by the rage of a popular tumult. On these occasions, a Prince who felt for the honour of the gods was not disposed to interrupt the course of justice; and his mind was still more deeply exasperated when he found that the fanatics, who had deserved and suffered the punishment of incendiaries, were rewarded with the honours of martyrdom.
It is the last named of these incidents that finally brings us round to our date’s principal.
Like Julian himself, St. Eupsychius had no way of knowing that the new, old order would be a transient epoch. In his zeal to resist a rejuvenated paganism, Eupsychius led a riotous sack of a temple to Fortuna (Tyche). The church historian Sozomen gives us the primary-est historical record, and although it dates to several decades after Eupsychius’s martyrdom we can’t be picky when it comes to antiquity.
It is said that at this time were martyred Basilius, a presbyter of the church of Ancyra, and Eupsychius, a nobleman of Caesarea in Cappadocia, newly wed and in a manner of speaking still a bridegroom. As regards Eupsychius, I conjecture that he was executed because of the temple of Tyche, then destroyed, on account of which destruction, as has been said above, all citizens of Caesarea collectively experienced the emperor’s wrath, while those who personally took part in it were punished, some with death, some with banishment.
Later iterations would expand predictably on Eupsychius’s sufferings — tortures, miracle-making, blood and milk springing from his wound, and even eventually eliding the precipitating riot or arson — all of which conspires to pull a discernibly historical figure behind the dark glass of hagiography.*
Little more than a year later, Julian suffered a mortal wound in battle against the Sassanids. The Constantinian dynasty died with Julian, as did his signature project of Apostasy — a sudden volte-face of that fickle Fortuna whose memory and reputation would persist well beyond the twilight of paganism.
The History of Rome podcast deals with Julian in episodes 143, 144, 145, and 146.
* See L.G. Westerink, “The Two Faces of St. Eupsychius,” Harvard Ukrainian Studies, Vol. 7, Okeanos: Essays presented to Ihor Shevchenko on his Sixtieth Birthday by his Colleagues and Students (1983).
(Thanks to Dr. Robert Macnish, a young Scottish surgeon, writer, and polymath whose wide-roaming intellect earned him the nickname of “the Modern Pythagorean.” While resident in Paris, Macnish witnessed the public beheading of a French murderer on March 24, 1825 … an experience he rendered into the essay below. The crime which occasioned this spectacle was notorious in his brief day; Victor Hugo refers to Papavoine by name as “the horrible madman who killed the children with a knife to the head!” in The Last Day of a Condemned Man. -ed.)
AN EXECUTION IN PARIS.
In the month of March 1825, Louis Auguste Papavoine lost his head. He was guillotined at the Place de Greve for the murder of two children in the Bois de Vincennes. The man was mad, beyond all doubt, and in Great Britain would have been sentenced to perpetual confinement as a lunatic; but the French criminal court refused to admit the plea of insanity, and he was given over to the executioner: the Cour de Cassation having rejected his appeal from the decision of that which tried him.
To my shame be it spoken, I wished to see an execution by the guillotine. There was a sort of sanguinary spell attached to this instrument, which irresistibly impelled me to witness one of its horrid triumphs. When I thought of it, the overwhelming tragedy of the Revolution was brought before my eyes — that Revolution which plunged Europe in seas of blood, and stamped an indelible impression upon the whole fabric of modern society. There was something appalling in the very name of this terrific engine. M. Guillotine, its inventor, was also one of its victims — he perished by his own contrivance. [this popular legend is untrue -ed.] Let no man hereafter invent an instrument of punishment. Perillus contrived the brazen bull, and was among the first to perish by it. Earl Morton, who brought the “Maiden” to Scotland, underwent a like fate; and Deacon Brodie was hanged upon his own drop.
The day on which Papavoine suffered was beautifully fair; and, profiting by this circumstance, the idle population of the French capital flocked in myriads to witness his exit. It was calculated that there were not fewer than eighty thousand spectators. The Place de Greve was literally paved with human beings. A person might have walked upon their heads without difficulty; and so closely were they wedged together, that had any object larger than an apple been thrown among them, it could not have found its way to the ground. Men, women, and children, were clumped into one dense aggregate of living matter; and as the huge multitude moved itself to and fro, it was as the incipient stirring of an earthquake, or as the lazy floundering of the sea, when its waves, exhausted by a recent storm, tumble their huge sides about, like the indolent leviathan which floats upon their surface. There was no spot of the Place unoccupied save immediately around the scaffold, where a portion was squared off, and kept clear by a strong body of mounted gendarmerie, who kept back with their horses the living wall, which was every moment threatening to break asunder by the pressure behind, and intrude its animated materials into the proscribed area. Nor was the Place de Greve the only spot so crowded. The quays along the Seine were equally peopled, and even the opposite banks of that broad stream were filled with multitudes. Notre Dame shone with spectators, who had mounted its beetling towers to catch a dim prospect of the sacrifice; and every window and height, which afforded the most distant view, were similarly occupied.
In Paris, as in London, it is customary to let out those windows where a good view can be obtained; and on any occasion of particular interest — as the present happened to be — considerable sums are asked, and given. Sometimes half a Napoleon is demanded for a single place; and the sum varies from that to half a franc, according to the eligibility of the situation. Many of the windows are so near to the guillotine, that a very favourable prospect of the painful spectacle can be obtained; and these, of course, are crowded with persons who can afford to pay well for the gratification of their curiosity — if there be, indeed, any gratification in witnessing the instantaneous and sanguinary death of a fellow creature. Yet the view, even from the best windows, is not equal to that from within the open area. But into this space, it is no easy matter to get a footing; the few who are admitted being military men, and such of their friends as they choose to bring along with them. Indeed, at this time, there were few or no officers of any rank within the opening. It was mostly occupied by the gendarmes, who were there upon duty; and by a few dozens of common soldiers, whom curiosity or idleness had brought together. This, however, was the spot to which my wishes led me; and under the guidance of a young French officer of hussars, I was led into the area, and placed in front of the guillotine, not ten feet from its dreadful presence. But dreadful as it is from association, and from its destructive rapidity, this machine is by no means so appalling to look at as the gallows. The same feeling of horror does not attach to it; nor is the mind filled with the same blank dismay, or the same overpowering disgust, which are universally felt on beholding the gibbet, with its looped rope, its horrid beam, and its deceitful platform, which, slipping from beneath the feet of its victim, leaves him dangling and gasping in the winds of heaven. Somehow the same strong idea of disgrace is not connected with the axe as with the gibbet; but this may be from the thought that the noble and the good have shed their blood in torrents beneath its edge, thus giving it a sort of factitious interest, and deadening even with the most criminal the ignominy of its punishment. Nor is it coupled with such inveterate disgust, and such decided outrage to the feelings of humanity. Prolonged physical suffering is at all times revolting; and to see a human being struggling with a violent death — writhing in agony, and perishing like a dog — is the most detestable sight in existence. The guillotine distracts the fancy with no such sickening imagery. Whatever agony is sustained, is the more noble and enduring agony of the spirit, previous to the fatal hour. There is no struggle here with the grim tyrant — no painful encounter between life and death — no tortures like those which wrung Laocoön and his miserable offspring. From perfect life, the individual is transported to as perfect annihilation. He does not enter eternity by slow, unwilling steps: the spirit does not quit its fleshly mansion painfully and tardily, but leaves it with a sudden bound, and plunges at once into a new existence, there to be saved or lost, as its fate chances to be decreed in the Book of Life.
At the period of my admission, it was two o’clock — one hour exactly from the time of execution; and I had, therefore, abundant leisure to contemplate the engine of death, and to witness the behaviour of the vast multitude around it. Things were as quiet as could well be expected in so great an assemblage. There was plenty of talking, but much less disturbance than would have occurred in England upon any similar occasion. In truth, the only quarter which manifested tumult, was in the immediate neighbourhood of the area, which threatened every moment to be broken in, not so much by the fault of those directly in front of it, as by the immense pressure of those in the back-ground. Every now and then its square proportions were destroyed by a portion of the crowd which bulged inwards in a solid mass; and almost at the same moment, this violation of the straight line was repaired by the gendarmes, who kept riding along the square, and pressing back the intruding body into its proper place. The recklessness and fierce temper of the French soldiery were manifest, and formed a strong contrast to the good-humoured forbearance of our own troops. No ceremony was used towards intruders. Whoever came, or was forced into the square by his rearward companions, was thrust back with wanton violence. Where the pressure of the horses was resisted, the gendarmes made use of the flat sides of their sabres, and belaboured the crowd without mercy. The whole scene presented a strange picture of the fearful and the ludicrous. While it was distressing to witness the terrified crowd recoiling before the soldiers, it was amusing to witness the dexterity with which the latter treated the refractory — sometimes pushing them back with their steeds, sometimes beating them with their swords, and sometimes dexterously pitching off their hats into the assemblage. When any unfortunate fellow lost his chapeau in this manner, or received a salutary blow from the weapon of a gendarme, a loud shout of laughter was set up among the spectators. In fact, the whole, except thosewithin reach of punishment, were in excellent humour, and seemed to have come together more to enjoy a farce than witness the horrors of a public execution. Things continued in this state till the hour of three, which, pealing from the clock of the Hotel de Ville, announced the approach of the criminal. Scarcely had the fatal sounds swung upon the air, than the whole host was hushed into silence. They knew that the destined time was at hand, and that Papavoine was on his way to the scaffold; — and every man held his breath with deep interest, and felt, in spite of himself, a solemn awe fall over his spirit. But this dreadful silence did not continue long — for far off, in the direction of the bridge over which the criminal must pass, there was seen a heaving among the assemblage, which moved as if borne on the bosom of a vast wave; and murmurs like the half-suppressed voice of a remote volcano, were heard to proceed from this moving multitude. It was now evident that the procession approached; and every eye was turned towards that direction, and every ear wrought to its keenest pitch to catch the strange sounds which denoted its coming. Each moment the noise became louder, and the motion of the crowd more general. At last the trampling of horses was heard, and a troop of gendarmes, forcing a path through the recoiling people, were seen to approach. Behind them came a cart drawn by two horses; and in this cart sat Papavoine and an old Catholic priest. To the rear of this a second body of gendarmes brought up the procession. The criminal was a small, thin man, of about five feet six. He was dressed in a shabby blue surtout, and brown trowsers, and wore a fur cap upon his head. His arms were pinioned behind him, not by the elbows as with us, but by the wrists. He had no neckcloth on, nor shirt; and the collar of his surtout was drawn some way over his shoulders, so as to leave the neck quite bare and ready for the axe. Though pale and death-like, and seemingly impressed with the marks of sorrow and bad health, he exhibited no signs of terror or dismay. His demeanour was quiet and composed; and to the exhortations of his spiritual adviser he appeared to pay deep attention.
Now, here a scene took place which baffles description. No sooner had the wretch entered the area appropriated for his fate, than a shout of deafening execration arose from the hitherto silent multitude. No preparatory murmurs of hatred and revenge preceded this ebullition of feeling. It sprung up simultaneously, and as if those from whom it proceeded were animated with one soul, and felt one pervading vengeance thrilling through their hearts. “Wretch!” “Villain!” “Miscreant!” “Assassin!” arose in a wild swell from the crowd; and above the deeper voices of the men were heard the shrill imprecations of females, denouncing, with even more bitter wrath, the murderer. Had it been for almost any other crime, the women would have felt towards him more kindly than his own sex; but that for which he was to suffer was one of all others the most heinous to a maternal heart — and the natural fountains of woman’s tears were no longer free to flow in their wonted channel.
But Papavoine did not seem to hear the imprecations which were poured like vials of wrath upon his head — nor did he even appear sensible of the presence of those who so bitterly reviled him in his last moments. The cart stopped at the foot of the scaffold, and descending firmly, he conversed for one moment with the old priest, previous to mounting the fatal steps. I was at this time only a few yards from him, and marked him most distinctly. His look was perfectly calm and composed, and, had he died in a better cause, it would have been impossible not to admire his steady heroism. He said a single word in the ear of the priest who kissed him on the cheek, and left him, apparently much affected. Papavoine now ascended the guillotine rapidly and firmly, and committed himself to the hands of the executioner and his assistant satellite. At this part of the scene the loud execrations of the people had melted into breathless awe. Not a whisper was heard, nor even a movement among the vast and silent assemblage. The whole spectacle was dreadful — the very stillness of the crowd had something appalling in it; and the systematic dispatch with which the executioners proceeded among such universal silence, was sickening to the last degree. While gazing upon the victim, my respiration was almost totally suspended — my heart beat violently, and a feeling of intense anxiety and suffocation pervaded my frame.
The process was incredibly short. In a few seconds Papavoine was bound to a board which stood upright, and reached to the middle of his breast. The board moved on a pivot, and as soon as the malefactor was buckled to it, it was depressed, and shoved with its burden towards the groove of the guillotine, at the top of which hung the axe, ready to descend, on the pulling out of a small peg which kept it in its situation. A moveable piece of wood being now drawn down upon the root of the neck, to prevent all attempt at motion, and everything being ready, the executioner pulled a cord, and with the impetuosity of lightning, down came the axe upon its victim. Papavoine was annihilated in a moment. I saw his head slip from the body and tumble into a basket ready to receive it, while the blood spouted forth in little cataracts from the severed trunk, and dyed the scaffold with a purple tide. From the time when he appeared upon the guillotine till the head was severed, only twenty-five seconds elapsed — such is the appalling, yet humane rapidity of a French execution.
I looked attentively to observe if there was any motion in the trunk — any convulsive start at the instant of decapitation, but there was none. It lay from the first perfectly motionless, nor exhibited the slightest shudder — the least quivering — or the faintest indication that, the moment before, it was part of a sentient being, instinct with all the energies of life. This I did not expect. I conceived that a strong muscular spasm would have convulsed it at the fatal instant: and such, I am told, was the case with Brochetti, an Italian, executed some time before, and whose trunk sprung violently from its situation, and shook with universal tremor.
The momentary silence which pervaded the crowd previous to the axe’s descent was now broken, and an instantaneous movement ensued among its before tranquil numbers. The windows were deserted by their occupants; the doors poured their population into the streets; and the house-tops and black Gothic towers of Notre Dame were rid of the crowds which sat perched like eagles upon their lofty summits. But long ere this assembly had melted away, the guillotine had disappeared from the Place de Greve. Two minutes were allowed to elapse, that the head and body of the criminal might part with their blood.
They were then thrown into a long basket, and sent in the cart — which brought them alive — to the Ecole de Medecine for dissection. And the scaffold, after being cleansed of the gore, by having several buckets of water dashed over it, was taken to pieces, and deposited in the Hotel de Ville, till its sanguinary services were again required. The execution, together with the process of cleansing and dismantling the guillotine, did not occupy above seven minutes.
Next morning, the same curiosity which led me to witness this revolting sight took me to the Ecole de Medecine, to witness the remains of Papavoine. There were a number of scientific men present — among others, the celebrated Doctor Gall, who was employed in investigating the developements of the head, and pointing them out to several of his pupils. [A topic of great interest to Macnish, who also wrote a book about phrenology. -ed.] There was no portion whatever of the neck remaining attached to the trunk. It, as well as the head, had been severed from the body. The axe had struck at its very root, and even grazed the collar bone where it is fixed to the sternum. This is not in general the case, the neck being in most instances pretty accurately cut through the middle — one half of it adhering to the head, the other to the trunk.
I am not sure that I had done right in making such a scene as the above the subject of an article. There is something in the minute details of an execution, at which the mind shudders; and it is probable the reader may think that my impressions of the spectacle just related, should have been confined to my own bosom instead of being made public.
(For writerly firsthand accounts of the guillotine in action in the 19th century, compare to Tolstoy or Turgenev. -ed.)
A Magdeburg gardener of socialist proclivities, Jennrich was nothing more than an enthusiast who got swept up in events when metalworkers at the Ernst-Thälmann factory struck for better pay and lower food prices — a protest that quickly metastasized into what looked to the Communist authorities like a treasonable movement calling for liberalization, a release of political prisoners, and reunification with West Germany.
The movement was crushed within a day by Russian tanks — although some Soviet soldiers notably (and sacrificially) refused to fire on protesting workers. But before events played out, Jennrich had disarmed a guard at the prison in nearby Sudenburg. He fired the guard’s carbine twice, then destroyed the weapon.
It’s not certain how many people lost their lives in the suppression of this affair — hostile western estimates ran into the thousands — but two policemen were killed at Sudenburg prison, and in a cruel show of official impunity Jennrich got tapped to answer for their deaths. He said he’d just fired the carbine into a wall or the air in order to empty it … but the state said he’d emptied it into those two luckless officers.
On scant evidence, Jennrich harshly received a life sentence that August. But even this did not suffice for officials racing to manifest their righteous indignation against the late subversion. “The protection of our peaceful state requires the death penalty for the crimes committed by the defendant,” huffed the prosecutor, and appealed the sentence to Germany’s high court … which accordingly upgraded the sentence to “the extermination of the defendant from our society, and therefore the death penalty.”
Jennrich was beheaded on the fallbeil at Dresden still protesting his innocence. A post-unification court finally vindicated that protest in 1991, posthumously rehabilitating Jennrich as having been condemned without evidence even by the terms of East Germany’s 1950s laws.
March 12 is the martyrdom date (in 295) and annual feast date of Saint Maximilian of Tebessa, Christianity’s protomartyr of conscientious objectors.
A Christian from Numidia (the Mediterranean coast of present-day Algeria), Maximilian presented himself to the African proconsul for mandatory conscription and refused in the name of Christ to bear arms.
The proconsul remonstrated with him, and in their interaction Maximilian espoused a vindication of pacifism so clear and timeless that a Vietnam War-era Catholic antiwar organization would take the name Order of Maximilian. “I will not be a soldier of this world, for I am a soldier of Christ.”
Maximilian That is their business. I also am a Christian, and I cannot serve.
Cassius Dion But what harm do soldiers do?
Maximilian You know well enough.
Cassius Dion If you do not do your service I shall condemn you to death for contempt of the army.
Maximilian I shall not die. If I go from this earth my soul will live in Christ my Lord.
Cassius Dion Write his name down … Your impetiy makes you refuse military service and you shall be punished accordingly as a warning to others. (Reading the sentence) “Maximilian has refused the military oath through impiety. He is to be beheaded.”
And Pilorge’s death specifically would prove to be the last performance of the guillotine in Rennes. It was also to have been the 396th in the legendary career of 75-year-old headsman Anatole Deibler … except that Deibler dropped dead on a Paris metro platform two days before, as he set out for the lethal rendezvous.
So too did Pilorge’s crime belong to that interwar moment of cosmopolitan decadence. He fatally slashed the throat of a Mexican visitor named Escudero after what Pilorge claimed, in an unsuccessful attempt to leverage the “gay panic” defense, was an indecent proposition. The facts of the case appear better to fit the hypothesis that indecent propositions were Pilorge’s stock in trade: a black book full of dates and initials whose owners he would not identify, a short late-night visit to Escudero’s hotel room, and a total refusal to explain his activities.
Pilorge, who maintained a wry and mirthful attitude throughout his trial, could not but laugh at the judge’s speculation — inspired by the swarthiness of his victim in the case at hand? — that his prisoner was involved in traite des blanches, the white slave trade: “I was never cut out for that. I assure you that I have never fallen so low.”
If Pilorge’s character entered the public gaze awash in same-sex eros, he was fixed in the firmament as such by the pen of Villonesque criminal/writer Jean Genet after the war years.
Claiming (falsely) to have had a prison intimacy with this doomed “Apollo”, Genet dedicated to Pilorge, “assasin de vingt ans,” one of his breakthrough works. Written in prison in 1942, Le Condamné à mort is a homoerotic hallucination of lovemaking ahead of a gathering doom and it helped to launch the theretofore Genet into literary superstardom. I’ve found the lengthy poem available online only in the original French, but here’s a translated excerpt via The Columbia Anthology of Gay Literature:
O come my beautiful sun, o come my night of Spain,
Arrive in my eyes which will be dead tomorrow.
Arrive, open my door, bring me your hand,
Lead me far from here to scour the battleground.
Heaven may awaken, the stars may blossom,
Nor flowers sigh, and from the meadows the black grass
Gather the dew where morning is about to drink,
The bell may ring: I alone am about to die.
O come my heaven of rose, o my blond basket!
Visit in his night your condemned-to-death.
Tear away your own flesh, kill, climb, bite,
But come! Place your cheek against my round head.
We had not finished speaking to each other of love.
We had not finished smoking our gitanes.
Well we might ask why the Courts condemn
A murderer so beautiful he makes the day to pale.
Love come to my mouth! Love open your doors!
Run through the hallways, come down, step lightly,
Fly down the stairs more supple than a shepherd,
More borne up by the air than a flight of dead leaves.
O cross the walls; so it must be walk on the brink
Of roofs, of oceans; cover yourself with light,
Use menace, use prayer,
But come, o my frigate, an hour before my death.
The poem was one of several that Genet wrote later set to music by herhis friend, Helene Martin. (It’s also been covered and reinterpreted by severalothers.)
What began as a tax revolt against fresh impositions being mooted for the province soon gathered grievances of both class and caste and frightened the empire with a massacre of 39 Spaniards when the rebels overran the city of Cochabamba.
Ultimately, it was more rebellion than revolution — one among a sporadic series of resistance movements in the Andes — and was quelled within weeks by the intervention of a Spanish viceroy for whom the quick dispatch of the insurrectionary leader was no more than natural.
Today, Cochabamba remembers its very brief master Calatayud with an excitingly kinetic equestrian monument.
Iceland last used the death penalty on January 12, 1830 with the beheading of farm servants Agnes Magnusdottir and Fridrik Sigurdsson.
Only threadbare details survive to posterity about their crime: one night in 1828, Agnes roused a neighboring farm to give the alarm that Natan Ketilsson’s farmhouse, where she worked, was afire. Neighbors were able to quench the blaze quickly enough to realize that Ketilsson himself had not died because he was trapped in the flame — but because he had been stabbed to death, along with another man known as a criminal, Petur Jonsson.
Agnes, 33, and teenager Fridrik were arrested for murder and eventually beheaded on a desolate hill on the frozen northern coast where a mossed-over stone still silently marks the spot.*
(cc) photo taken by Jennifer Boyer on the walking path to be found at the site of crime.
Why were these men killed? The trial record attributes it to Fridrik’s “hatred of Natan, and a desire to steal,” which are answers that ask their own questions. If the stones remember, they aren’t telling and in the scantiness of documentation the job has fallen to literature instead, for there is something to be said for an mysterious double murder in the ashes of a half-burned farm and the novelty of a woman being the very last human to have her head chopped off in Iceland. (On execution day, Fridrik went first.)
Agnes was Natan’s lover, but the farmer had a reputation for womanizing and, so all suspect, eyes for Fridrik’s young girlfriend;** the inference of a jealous domestic psychodrama cast on the fringe of the Arctic Sea, of chilly twilit tables gathering furtive eyes above with wandering hands below, seems hard to resist. One of Natan’s other paramours was the poet Skald-Rosa, who addressed an anguished quatrain to Agnes in the weeks after the murder, helping to fix the latter’s place in national lore as the wicked moving spirit behind the whole disaster.
Don’t be surprised by the sorrow in my eyes
Nor at the bitter pangs of pain that I feel:
For you have stolen with your scheming he who gave my life meaning,
And thrown your life to the Devil to deal.
And then there was the strange coda, while verdicts were sent to Denmark for confirmation,† of the condemned simply living and working among the community waiting to execute them. Nineteenth century rural Iceland was a little short on jail cells and surplus provisions.
After studying on an exchange program in Iceland, Australian Hannah Kent found this speculative environment a rich source for her well-received first novel, Burial Rites. (There’s a lengthy and interesting podcast interview with her by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation here.)
Kent’s drama has made headway in Hollywood, with Jennifer Lawrence said to be keen on playing the tragic lead; if it someday does hit the silver screen, however, it won’t even be the first on its subject matter — witness the 1995 film Agnes.
As of this writing, the full movie can also be searched on YouTube…
The criminals Fridrik Sigurdsson and Agnes Magnusdottir were today moved out of custody to the place of execution, and following them to the execution site were the priests Reverend Tomasson and Reverend Thorvardur Jonsson, an assistant priest. The criminals had wished that the latter two help them prepare for their deaths. After the priest Johann Tomasson completed a speech of admonition to the convict Fridrik Sigurdsson, Fridrik’s head was taken off with one blow of the axe. The farmer Gudmundur Ketilsson,‡ who had been ordered to be executioner, committed the work that he had been asked to do with dexterity and fearlessness. The criminal Agnes Magnusdottir, who, while this was taking place, had been kept at a remote station where she could not see the site of execution, was then fetched. After the Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jonsson had appropriately prepared her for death, the same executioner cut off her head, and with the same craftsmanship as before. The lifeless heads were then set upon two stakes at the site of execution, and their bodies put in two coffins of untreated boards, and buried before the men were dismissed. While the deed took place, and there until it was finished, everything was appropriately quiet and well-ordered, and it was concluded by a short address by Reverend Magnus Arnason to those that were there.
Actum ut supra.
B. Blondal, R. Olsen, A. Arnason
(From the Magistrate’s Book of Hunavatn District, 1830 — as quoted in the epilogue of Kent’s Burial Rites)
* The milestone murderers, or at least their heads, rest in Tjörn.
** This young woman, Sigridur Gudmundsdottir, was condemned to death with the other two but got to keep her head in the end.
† Iceland did not become independent of Denmark until 1944.