On this date in 1938, Austrian Martha Marek was guillotined in Vienna for several murders by poison.
She first came to the attention of the discerning interwar crime audience in 1925 when she and her husband Emil were convicted of insurance fraud: Emil claimed to have “lost his leg while chopping wood” just after having taken out a policy, but examination showed that the lost leg had actually been chopped off methodically — and clumsily. They both served a short stint in prison but at least Martha still had four good limbs to go with her wits.
Martha before her marriage had been the lover of a department store magnate five decades her senior who lavished money on her and left her a tidy inheritance to the chagrin of his family. She made her way in the world hitting mother lodes and living comfortably on them, and the time would come that poison would suit her ends better than seduction.
In July 1932, Emil died of apparent tuberculosis. The next month, the couple’s infant daughter Ingeborg died too. Martha, who had lately been reduced to peddling vegetables in the street, pocketed insurance payments on both.
Shortly after, she moved in with an elderly aunt, and the aunt soon died too — leaving her home and assets to her “caregiver”.
As this nest egg dwindled, Martha opened the place boarders, and one of these poor souls also died — not before mentioning to some people that he always seemed to get sick when he ate Martha’s food. Turned out, Martha had insured his life too.
Martha actually got away with all of this at first, despite the agitation of the dead boarder’s relative. But she pushed her luck a little bit too far when she tried to fraudulently report some insured paintings as stolen in 1937. Persnickety insurance adjusters investigated, and the whole murder spree came out in the process. She was convicted for killing husband, daughter, aunt, and lodger with the rat poison Zeliopaste (thallium).
Austria’s traditional execution method had been hanging, and its traditional executive behavior had been to commute women’s death sentences.
However, the March 1938 Anschluss annexing Austria to Hitler’s Germany brought an update to Germany’s capital punishment policies. Hitler rejected the mercy application (it didn’t help that Martha was half-Jewish) … and prolific Third Reich executioner Johann Reichhart overpowered a violently struggling Martha Marek to behead her on the fallbeil.
So successful was the progress of his arms that Emperor Tiberius II Constantine married his daughter to Maurice and set him up as the official heir, a sage expedient considering that Roman commanders had once been known to take the succession into their own hands.
In fact, that’s exactly what happened to Maurice.
As a reward for his many victories in the field, Maurice got to take charge of a badly stumbling state: war both east and west (Maurice made peace with the Persians and brought the Slavs and Avars to heel in the Balkans), the intractable intra-Christian Monophysite controversy (Maurice extended a politic religious toleration), the bankruptcy of his state (Maurice cleaned up the reckless prodigality of his predecessors). For twenty years Maurice managed as well as anyone a very messy situation that in clumsier hands might easily have consumed the state entirely.
In the end this might be his legacy, for good and ill: a manager, not a visionary. Byzantium maybe doesn’t even survive without Maurice, but he was not fated to be familiar to posterity’s every schoolchild like Octavian Augustus — merely to lose his job to office politics.
Maurice, says Charles William Previte-Orton, “was a better judge of policy than of men.” And while the emperor “saw the dire need of economy,” he “forgot that the army did not” and so fatally disregarded “the ferment among the overtried soldiery.”
Maurice had already irritated his Dacian legions by refusing to pay an Avar ransom for their captured brethren — that fiscal rectitude thing, always a dangerous virtue to exercise in proximity to armed men. Now, he provocatively dialed back their pay and then tried to keep them beyond the frontier in Avar territory rather than retiring to home winter quarters.
The legions mutinied, thrusting a mere centurion named Phocas (or Phokas) to their fore. As Maurice commanded neither love nor fear in his home precincts, Constantinople itself yielded readily to the rebels while the enervated erstwhile emperor crossed the Bosphorus and there resigned to his fate not only himself but the several sons he had been designating to succeed him on thrones East and West. Gibbon:
Phocas made his public entry in a chariot drawn by four white horses: the revolt of the troops was rewarded by a lavish donative; and the new sovereign, after visiting the palace, beheld from his throne the games of the hippodrome. … The ministers of death were despatched to Chalcedon: they dragged the emperor from his sanctuary; and the five sons of Maurice were successively murdered before the eyes of their agonizing parent. At each stroke, which he felt in his heart, he found strength to rehearse a pious ejaculation: “Thou art just, O Lord! and thy judgments are righteous.” And such, in the last moments, was his rigid attachment to truth and justice, that he revealed to the soldiers the pious falsehood of a nurse who presented her own child in the place of a royal infant. The tragic scene was finally closed by the execution of the emperor himself, in the twentieth year of his reign, and the sixty-third of his age. The bodies of the father and his five sons were cast into the sea; their heads were exposed at Constantinople to the insults or pity of the multitude; and it was not till some signs of putrefaction had appeared, that Phocas connived at the private burial of these venerable remains. In that grave, the faults and errors of Maurice were kindly interred. His fate alone was remembered; and at the end of twenty years, in the recital of the history of Theophylact, the mournful tale was interrupted by the tears of the audience.
Maurice’s widow Constantina and his daughters were suffered to live, but only for a few years more: they too were eventually put to death for plotting. It was the perfect way to kick off a calamitous century for the Byzantines.
Anna of Anna and the King and Fanny of Fanny and the Regent had a link besides the publishing industry: Anna Leonowens‘s son Louis actually paid court to Fanny Knox. He wound up settling for Fanny’s sister Caroline when Fanny went for the Siamese aristocrat Phra Pricha (or Preecha) Kon-la-Karn. (“Phra” is an honorific for Pricha’s rank. Fanny would later be known as the Baroness Pricha Kon-la-Karn.)
But just weeks after their marriage — and while Fanny was pregnant with their first (only!) child — the new groom was accused of peculation and treachery, leading to his shocking Nov. 24 beheading.
The New York Times marveled in a sketchy April 12, 1880 recap:
Nothing so startling has happened here in a quarter of a century. You can only understand its effect by imagining John Sherman, Secretary of the Treasury, to be suddenly arrested, carried off mysteriously to Richmond or Petersburg, Va., and as mysteriously hanged. You may say that you do not hang high officers in the United States. Neither do they behead high officers in Siam. The instance of Pra Preecah [another alternate spelling] can hardly be paralleled here, at least in this generation.
The unparalleled and opaque tragedy transpired in the first few years of the majority of Siam’s King Chulalongkorn (or Rama V) — one of the royal princes tutored by the aforementioned Anna Leonowens.
In time, Chulalongkorn would be known as Rama the Great, the brilliant modernizer in his country’s history … but at this time those aspirations were constrained by much more conservative Siamese elites, most especially personified in the man who had been Chulalongkorn’s regent during his minority, Si Suriyawongse. The Times article just quoted ungenerously judges the king “a weak, cruel, cowardly despot” who “cannot much longer retain his power.”
Prominent among the king’s “Young Siam” party was the Amatayakun family, and the most prominent among that clan was Phra Pricha. Pricha was the governor of Prachinburi.
The substance of the formal accusation was that our man abused his control of Prachinburi’s lucrative Kabin gold mine to embezzle revenues that rightly belonged to the crown while grotesquely oppressing, even outright murdering, laborers under his jurisdiction there. The baron even confessed to the charge, though it’s difficult to know what weight to put upon that.
The probable subtext is political enmity between the Amatayakun family and the Bunnag family of the “Old Siam” ex-regent. Indeed, it’s been speculated that it was precisely because Phra Pricha detected the imminent accusations against him that he married Fanny Knox — so that he could give the money to his wife to protect it.
The British consul, meanwhile, quite overreached himself to intervene on behalf of his new son-in-law.
In a personal visit to Chulalongkorn, he urged the king that Pricha’s political enemies had concocted the charges — and that British gunships would back the sovereign if he should use the occasion to reverse the power of the old guard who intended to prosecute the former governor. (Source)
Chulalongkorn declined to upset the apple cart. Phra Pricha was handled by his enemies, and his family fell from power with his execution
Was the king’s reticence timidity or sagacity? 1879-1880 proved to be the nadir of Chulalongkorn’s power. Within months after Phra Pricha’s execution, team Young Siam was wresting its influence back. As the 1880s unfolded, Old Siam was literally dying off, and loyalists of the young king began filling their ministries.
Chulalongkorn’s reluctance to invite foreign intervention would foreshadow perhaps his essential accomplishment: although entirely surrounded by British and French colonies and certainly subject to those empires’ pressures, Rama the Great maintained the independence of Siam/Thailand.
Consul General Thomas Knox, meanwhile, was recalled over his impolitic meddling. Millions of tourists to Thailand’s unofficial northern capital might be interested in this side note: Nigel Brailey suggests that “It could be said that Siam’s role in Chiengmai,” which was then a distinct tributary kingdom of Siam’s subject to the growing influence of the neighboring British, “was saved by the … Phra Pricha affair.” The ambassador swap caused a year-long gap in British-Siamese diplomatic negotiations thereto which had been intensifying in early 1879.
* “Chiengmai and the Inception of an Administrative Centralization Policy in Siam (II),” Southeast Asian Studies, March 1974. (pdf cached here)
Elli Barczatis hooked up in 1949 with Karl Laurenz when both worked in the DDR Ministry of Industry. (Both these links are in German, as are most that follow.)
Their careers went in opposite directions thereafter. Barczatis scored a plum appointment as Prime Minister Otto Grotewohl‘s administrative aide while Laurenz got booted out of the Communist party altogether for political unreliability: he’d been a mere social democrat before the communist takeover.
Laurenz started scratching out a living as a freelance journalist in both East and West Berlin, prior to Berlin Wall days, and was recruited by West Germany’s intelligence service to brief them on the goings-on in the East.
In December 1950, a former coworker saw Barczatis and Laurenz at a cafe rendezvous — and saw Barczatis pass the reporter a sheaf of papers. The coworker reported it to East Germany’s secret police, the Stasi.
Because of Barczatis’s proximity to the head of government, the Stasi had to investigate the tip with great delicacy. But no matter; the East German spooks could be patient as death when the occasion demanded. So over the course of four-plus years, they cautiously surveilled, and eventually entrapped, the lovers.
At last, on March 4, 1955, those grim security men arrested Barczatis at her apartment in the suburb of Kopenick. Laurenz, returning laster that day to the East from a West Berlin meeting with intelligence officers, was nabbed as well.
Laurenz confessed to espionage right away; it might have been a cathartic experience for him. “The accused became provocative, comparing the State Secretariat for State Security of the German Democratic Republic with the fascist Gestapo and the Nazi SD,” a Stasi officer reported after marathon interrogation sessions. “He remarked that the treatment of prisoners by the State Secretariat for State Security is worse than the treatment by the SD and the Gestapo.” But the doomed spy still stubbornly protected his contacts, sources — and Elli Barczatis. He insisted that she was more leaker than spy, and gave him information thinking only that it was background for his reporting.
What was the extent of Elli Barczatis’s espionage? What did she betray that justified her execution? Incredibly, the interrogation record reveals not a single instance in which she furnished Laurenz with material so sensitive that it could be interpreted as having endangered the security of the communist state. She betrayed no military or defense secrets. She merely told her friend about letters her office received from the populace complaining about food shortages; mismanagement that created problems in industry; government personnel changes; and Westerners who visited Prime Minister Grotewohl. The absurdity of all communist regimes was that such tidbits of information were considered state secrets.
Baczatis’s and Laurenz’s beheading on the fallbeil was the culmination of a mid-Fifties security crackdown by East Germany that also eliminated (although not by execution) at least two other highly-placed West German assets, Hermann Kastner and Walter Grosch. (Source.)
Andre-Marie Ampere, one of the founding pioneers of electromagnetism (Ampere called the new field “electrodynamics”) lost his father to the French Revolution’s guillotines.
The father in question was Jean-Jacques Ampère, an intelligent and levelheaded man whose sense of duty outweighed his instincts of self-preservation.
He was determined to do every job he had to the best of his ability — whether the task was educating a son or discharging the office of justice of the peace — and this diligence cost him his life.
A bourgeois silk merchant (a quintessentially Lyonnais occupation), he lived with his wife and son in a tiny village outside of Lyon called Poleymieux-au-Mont-d’Or. It was there that he and his wife, who were one of only five bourgeois families in a primarily peasant population, raised the boy who would grow up to be the father of electrodynamics.
In 1782, he retired and devoted himself full-time to his children’s upbringing — particularly that of his son, whom he soon realized was not an ordinary child. Born partly of necessity (Poleymieux lacked a school) and partly of choice (Jean-Jacques had, after all, opted to move to Poleymieux, and some speculate that he wished to give his son an upbringing like the one advocated by Rousseau in Émile), André-Marie’s unorthodox education resembled what today’s DIY pedagogues might call “unschooling”: he was encouraged to take charge of his own learning, given access to his father’s library, and taught a variety of eclectic subjects according to what most held his interest at the moment.
For most children, this technique is questionable; but when your kid happens to be a genius and a polymath, it works just fine. André-Marie was an audodidact and proactive in his learning, which would be a force for good in his life: as we’ll see, it was what pulled him out of his depression after his father’s death.
When the Bastille fell in 1789, not much changed at first. Jean-Jacques embraced the ideals of the Revolution and even wrote a play called Artaxerxe ou le Roi constitutionnel [Artaxerxe or the constitutional king], which James Hofmann, author of André-Marie Ampère: Enlightenment and Electrodynamics, sees as a parable containing Revolutionary themes.
A month after the fall of the Bastille, he lost his job as local aristocrat Guillin Dumontet’s procureur fiscal (a “judicial and administrative position,” according to Hofmann). Then, in the fall of 1791, he took another bureaucratic job: justice of the peace and “presiding legal functionary for the police tribunal” in Lyon. He may have done it voluntarily, out of sincere political fervor; but he may also have done it to protect his family, since his former boss, Guillin Dumontet, had been beheaded and partially cannibalized by his peasants a few months prior. If he had indeed taken this post for the good of his family, his plan backfired horribly…
The Revolution ran counter to the grain of Lyonnais culture for a number of historical reasons (the strong Catholic tradition and the silk trade being two of them). More immediately, famine and taxes had not disposed the people of Lyon towards the local Revolutionary government — particularly the far-left Jacobin faction, which continuously struggled for control of the city.
When the Jacobins seized power in March 1793, they provoked opposition from Girondins and royalists alike, and on May 29 important members of the Jacobin leadership were arrested. Among those apprehended was Joseph Chalier, head of a major Jacobin club known as the “Central Club.” Someone had to open the case against Chalier, and that someone was Jean-Jacques Ampère.
In spite of the Convention’s attempts at negotiation (which quickly turned to threats), Chalier was sentenced to death on July 16 and guillotined the next day. It was not Jean-Jacques who condemned Chalier to death — that does not appear to have been part of his job — but it was he who sent out the warrant for his arrest, and this was more than enough to get him sentenced to death when the political tides turned. (If the judges who actually sentenced Chalier to death — Cozon, Pourret, Régnier, and Maret — were ever punished, I haven’t found any evidence for it.)
Paris responded by placing Lyon under siege on August 9, and two months later, the city surrendered to the Convention. Rather than flee, Jean-Jacques remained in the city, resolved to see his duty through to the bitter end. Throughout the siege, he instructed his wife not to tell their children of the danger he was in. When Lyon was taken, he was immediately arrested, and in the six weeks he spent in prison, he had little doubt about his fate.
Trial and execution
Much of his trial is preserved in court documents. They refer to Lyon as “Ville-Affranchie” — “Liberated City,” the name Bertrand Barère gave to the town before declaring, “Lyon has made war against liberty; Lyon is no more” — so you know they mean business.
During his interrogation, Ampère père was accused not only of having issued the warrant for Chalier’s arrest, but also of having sentenced male and female Jacobin club members to public humiliation and having their eyebrows shaved off, respectively — as well as just generally having been a jerk to Jacobin detainees during interrogations.
The responses he gives show a man resolved to keep both his pride and his honor in the face of certain death, a functionary convinced that he had committed no wrong. Ampère admits to having had Chalier arrested but vehemently denies the other charges. He was also asked if he had left his post and/or sent a revocation to Paris, and responded that he had kept his post and had “no revocation to make.” This probably sealed his fate.
Interrogation of Jean-Jacques Ampère, 61 years of age, justice of the peace of the canton of Halle-aux-Blés, residing in Lyon, Quai Saint-Antoine, Number 44. — Responses he gave.
I was in Lyon during the siege.
I never had any correspondence with the so-called constituent authorities in Lyon.
Question: You are accused of having filed the whole procedure against the patriots, of having been president of the correctional police during the whole time of the counter-Revolution, and of having judged those who had committed no crime other than belonging to the [Jacobin] club, sentencing the men to be tied to the post [this refers to a punishment formally known as "exhibition," which was sort of like the pillory] and the women to having their eyebrows cut off; of having condemned, among others, Cadet Rufard, member of the [Jacobin] club, to six months of imprisonment for having sought bread for his brother, put in chains on May 29. You are reproached with having said to all of those whom you interrogated, “You are scoundrels, you people with your clubs; you had agents all the way out in the country, and your plot was the destruction of honest people.” In a word, you are accused of the assassination of the virtuous Chalier, since it was you who filed the first procedure, and it’s thanks to your arrest warrant that he mounted the scaffold.
Response: I never had any part in the judgments against patriots, men or women, which pronounced the sentence of pillory against the men and shaved eyebrows against the women; I admit to having filed the procedure against Citizen Chalier, on the declaration that had been made to me on May 27 by the public prosecutor who had the right to provoke my ministry; I also made several investigations against certain municipal officers after May 29, and in ruling on these procedures, I followed the law in sending back the accused in the presence of the director of the jury, the indictment alone regulating the jurisdiction. I conformed to the investigation of the functions of police officers who are uniformly employed to gather the vestiges of crimes and send the judgment back to the courts who should be informed of them. The circumstances were such that prudence joined with my sense of duty in making me carry out the measure indicated by the law. Before ruling on the procedure against the municipal officers, I had also ruled on the fate of a municipal named Sautemouche. I let him out under an oath to return, and soon after his release, the unfortunate Sautemouche succumbed to the blows of malicious persons. He was murdered, and most of the sections shouted for my arrest, because I had obeyed my conscience and my opinion by delivering an innocent man.
Question: Did you leave Lyon and did you send your revocation to the Committee of Public Safety, according to the law?
Response: I have no revocation to make.
Question: Did you continue your functions during the siege in a city in revolt?
Response: Yes, from May 27 until the beginning of August.
Question: Did you issue the warrant for Chalier’s arrest?
Response: Yes, on June 7.
On November 22, the same day as his trial (other sources give the date as November 23, 24 or 25, but I’m going by the date of execution given in legal documents), he was guillotined in Place Bellecour along with three men who appear not to have been involved in the affair: Étienne Chazottier, a lawyer and the president and secretary of the “permanent section” (a local political office), for “offenses against patriots”; Pierre-Elisabeth Chaponnay, an aristocrat, for “giving considerable sums to, and favoring the plans of, counterrevolutionaries”; and Jean Freidière, a geometer and secretary of the “surveillance committee” — no crime given. Ampère was 61 years old.
My dear angel, I have received your comforting letter; it was a life-giving balm to the emotional wounds that had been inflicted on my soul by my regret at being misunderstood by my fellow-citizens, who have denied me, through the most cruel separation, a homeland that I have cherished so much and whose prosperity is so close to my heart. I wish for my death to be the seal of a general reconciliation between our fellow-men. I pardon those who rejoice in it, those who caused it, and those who ordered it. I have reason to believe that the national vengeance, of which I am one of the most innocent victims, will not extend to the few possessions that have been sustaining us, thanks to your wise money-saving and our frugality, which was your favorite virtue … After my trust in the Eternal, to whose breast I hope will be taken that which remains of me, my sweetest consolation is that you will cherish my memory as much as I cherished you. That much is owed me. If from my home in Eternity, where our dear daughter has preceded me, I am able to attend to things on earth, you and my dear children will be the object of my care and concern. May they enjoy a better fate than their father and always have before their eyes the fear of God, that salutary fear that makes innocence and justice act on our hearts in spite of the fragility of our nature! … Do not speak to Josephine [André-Marie's younger sister, then about eight years old] of her father’s misfortune — make sure she does not know about it; as for my son, there is nothing I do not expect of him. As long as you have them, and they have you, embrace each other in my memory: I leave you all my heart.
The author then explains that “There follow a few pieces of advice concerning the household economy, notes about paying off debts, and meticulous scruples regarding antique probity, signed with these words: J.-J. Ampère, husband, father, friend, and forever-faithful citizen.”
He continues with a sentiment shared by most nineteenth-century commentators on this affair: “Thus died, with resignation, with grandeur, and expressing himself almost as Jean-Jacques [Rousseau] would have been able to, this simple man, this reclusive merchant, this justice of the peace from Lyon. He died like so many members of the National Assembly, like so many Girondins, sons of [the spirit of] ’89 and ’91, children of the Revolution, devoured by it, but pious to the end, and not cursing it!”
We are also treated to some of Ampère’s actual notes (it would have been nice if Sainte-Beuve had just reprinted them in their entirety instead of only snatches): “It is impossible, my dear friend, for me to leave you rich, or even moderately comfortable; you cannot attribute this to my bad conduct nor to any spendthrift behavior. My greatest expense was the purchase of books and geometrical instruments which our son could not do without; but that expense was itself a bargain, because he never had any tutor except for himself.”
The Jacobins greatly spun the proceedings against Ampère; in a November 25 letter to the Convention, Collot d’Herbois and Fouché claimed that: “It was liberty that they wanted to assassinate in killing Chalier; his executioners have confessed it; before coming under the blade of justice, they were heard to say that they were dying for the king, that they had wanted to give him a successor.” It goes without saying that there is no reason to believe that Ampère said any such thing on the scaffold—he lived and died a Republican.
To say the execution was a shock to the eighteen-year-old André-Marie would be an understatement.
He never truly recovered from the death of his father, which was neither the first nor the last personal tragedy that would befall him; his older sister Antoinette had died a year earlier, and he would also lose his first wife after only four years of marriage. James Hofmann points out in Enlightenment and Electrodynamics that Jean-Jacques was André-Marie’s only link to the world outside Poleymieux, where he was socially isolated in addition to being intellectually stimulated (his undersocialization did indeed have a permanent effect; he was extremely awkward all his life).
Although André-Marie made a “return to normalcy” through study, he was scarred for life; Hofmann asserts that the event “contributed to the permanently melancholy cast of his adult temperament.”
After hearing the news, André-Marie became catatonic for a year; according to his friend and fellow-scientist François Arago, “The blow was too hard; it was beyond the strength of a young man of eighteen: Ampère was shattered. His intellectual faculties, so active, so intense, so developed, suddenly gave way to a veritable idiocy. He spent his days mechanically contemplating the earth and sky, or making little heaps of sand.”
Yikes. Arago claims that André-Marie was able to snap out of it with the help of Rousseau’s writings on, of all things, botany: “This lethargy of all moral and intellectual feeling had lasted for more than a year, when the letters of J.-J. Rousseau, on botany, came into Ampère’s hands. The limpid and harmonious language of this work entered the soul of the sick young man and partially gave him his nerves back, as the rays of the rising sun pierce the thick fogs of morning and bring life to the heart of plants stiff from the night’s chill.” With that, Ampère’s intellectual life reawakened; he began to study, and eventually became more or less functional — although, according to Hofmann, direct discussion of the event remained a taboo subject.
Indirect references are another matter; he named his son Jean-Jacques, in memory of his father and also, some speculate, as an homage to Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
On this date in 1427, the merchant-mayor of Wismar was beheaded — the incidental casualty of a Baltic trade war.
The Hanseatic League, that vast trading cartel stretching from Europe’s Low Countries in the west to Novgorod in the east, was in its glory at the start of the 15th century. The Hanse dominated Baltic trade.
Schleswig is the “neck” of Denmark’s Jutland peninsula. In the present day, the German-Danish border splits Schleswig horizontally: north Schleswig is Danish soil; south Schleswig, German.
To summarize a complicated history, the historical Duchy of Schleswig was long a bone of contention between the pre-modern precursors of those current states. Since Germany was very far from a unitary entity where we lay our scene in the 15th century, Denmark’s immediate rival for Schleswig was that territory’s southern neighbor, Holstein. Eric had fought intermittently in the 1410s and 1420s against the counts of Holstein over who controlled what and upon what terms in south Jutland.
After securing a legal ruling favorable to his claims from the Holy Roman Emperor, Eric in 1426 began enforcing his rights by force.
Holstein in turn sought aid from Hanseatic towns many of whom — wary of Denmark as a rival to its Baltic trading stranglehold — did indeed enter the fray on the side of Holstein. Hanseatic ships began raiding southern Denmark in the spring of 1427.
Wismar, a Hanse wool-trading port just a few kilometers outside of Holstein, was one of these cities. Johann Bantzkow (German link), its merchant ruler, supplied some 200 sail for the Hanseatic flotilla.
Unfortunately for the Hanse, and for Bantzkow, the Danes, proved to have naval superiority and dealt a crushing defeat to the Hanseatic fleet on July 11, 1427 — then once again on July 25. A number of Wismar ships were captured in the process.
Public anger in Wismar was intense. That city had seen its own social conflicts in the generations preceding between the town’s patricians and its guilds; now popular anger over the souls lost at sea caused Bantzkow’s fellow-mayor Hinrik van Haren to be slain by the mob. Bantzkow himself was condemned judicially, and his influential family could not manage any better succor than a death by the sword instead of the horrible prospect of the breaking-wheel. Claus Jesup (German link), a leader of guilds, made himself mayor of a rearranged political order.
The prospective realignment was itself reversed in 1430, and the re-established magnates put up a Bantzkowsche Sühnekapelle (German again), or Bantzkow Penance Chapel, to atone for the unjust beheading. Regrettably, the chapel was demolished in the 19th century.
Given setbacks at sea, Holstein and its remaining Hanseatic allies focused on actual conquest in Schleswig, and with much better success. Eric was eventually forced after great expense to sue for a costly stalemate,* an affair which helped to undermine Eric’s own hold on power until he was finally deposed in 1440.
However, Eric’s success on the seas — and his urgent need for funds — led to his establishing Denmark’s Sound Dues on 1429, collecting lucrative tolls from all foreign ships sailing between the Baltic Sea and the Kattegat.** This tax would remain a pillar of the Danish state well into the 19th century, at times providing up to two-thirds of the government’s operating income.
A new Hanse was re-founded in 1980 as a cultural exchange network among the historic cities of the federation.
* Control of Schleswig-Holstein never was definitively resolved, and it re-emerged as a famously devilish diplomatic problem in the 19th century — prompting Lord Palmerston to remark that “only three people … have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business — the Prince Consort, who is dead — a German professor, who has gone mad — and I, who have forgotten all about it.”
** It’s thanks to Sound Dues that Elsinore, the main tolling point, got big and rich enough for Shakespeare to set Hamlet there.
In this unsettled environment, an able man could rise. Few were abler than Hem Chandra, more familiarly known to posterity as Hemu.
Born to a family of Hindu priests in a time when Hindu kings had not ruled his homeland for centuries, Hemu first came to prominence as a merchant supplying provisions, and later armaments, for the imperial army. He proved so capable that Islam Shah took him on as an adviser.
Now, despite the Mughal conquest, Islam Shah was actually an Pashtun. A weak succession after Babur had thrown the Mughals into retreat, and most of their once and future territory was now under the temporary authority of the Sur Empire.
Following Islam Shah’s death in 1554, the political situation for the Sur Empire fell into confusion. A boy-emperor successor was murdered to give way to a drunk, and Hemu emerged as the de facto authority in the chaotic realm … which in practice meant racing around dealing with various military threats.
Hemu put down the many internal revolts that flowered after Islam Shah’s death, but his greater problem was the resurgent Mughals.
Babur’s heir Humayun had been driven into exile in Persia years ago. Now he returned at the head of an army to retake his patrimony. Even when Humayun himself died in the process (he fell down a flight of stairs*), he bequeathed Hemu a potent foe in the form of his teenage heir Akbar — the sovereign who would eventually be esteemed the Mughals’ greatest emperor.
Even so, Hemu was routing all who stood against him. The onetime merchant had proven himself “one of the greatest commanders of the age,” in the words of Victorian historian John Clark Marshman. “He never shrank away from the battlefield and when the fight was most fierce, he did not bother for his personal safety and always fought with his adversaries courageously along with his comrades.”
On October 7, 1556, Hemu whipped Akbar at the Battle of Delhi. Entering the ancient capital, Hemu proclaimed himself emperor under the regnal name Raja Vikramaditya. And why not, after all? The kingdom already only maintained itself by Hemu’s own brilliance; he’s reputed to have had an undefeated combat record at this point.
But sometimes a single loss is all that’s needed.
Hemu was the first Hindu emperor in 350 years, but he only held the position for a month.
The new emperor again met Akbar (and Akbar’s regent Bairam Khan) on the fifth of November at Panipat, and this time the Mughals won. Hemu’s valorous exposure to danger proved his undoing when he was struck in the face by an enemy arrow.
As his once-unconquerable army routed, the captured Hemu was taken as a prisoner to his rival ruler — unconscious, and already dying. Again, the accounts vary;** in the classical version, Akbar nobly refuses to put the captive to death. Elphinstone‘s History of India, glossing some earlier Muslim historians, writes that
Bairam was desirous that Akbar should give him the first wound, and thus, by inbruing his sword in the blood of so distinguished an infidel, should establish his right to the envied title of ‘Ghazi’ or ‘Champion of the Faith’; but the spirited boy refused to strike a wounded enemy, and Bairam, irritated by his scruples, himself cut off the captive’s head at a blow.
However, there are other versions of this story in which the 14-year-old Akbar is not so reticent.
Whoever chopped it, the severed head was sent to Kabul to cow Hemu’s Pashtun supporters, while the torso was publicly gibbeted outside Purana Quila. Hemu’s followers were massacred afterwards in numberless quantities sufficient, so it is said, to erect minarets of their skulls.
Akbar ruled the Mughal state until his death in 1605.
** See Vincent A. Smith, “The Death of Hemu in 1556, after the Battle of Panipat,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (July 1916). Smith’s opinion is that Akbar probably did cut off Hemu’s head personally, but might later have spun the incident in a less distasteful direction.
Simonetta’s honors and appointments multiplied as Sforza’s reach expanded; when Sforza died, and then Sforza’s heir was assassinated, a 7-year-old became Duke of Milan.
The late 1470s saw a bitter power struggle during the child duke’s minority for effective control of the state: on the one hand, the boy’s uncle Ludovico; on the other, the boy’s mother Bona of Savoy. Simonetta was the able minister of state for Bona, and his faction briefly prevailed and saw Ludovico into exile.
Simonetta had put several years of hustle into balancing the political factions that kept Bona — and via Bona, himself — in control. Alas for their cause, Bona was eventually induced via her lover, a natural rival of Simonetta’s, to just go and invite Ludovico to return to Milan
Simonetta looked grave, as he well might, when he heard the news. “Most illustrious duchess,” he said to Bona the next day, “do you know what will happen? My head will be cut off, and before long you will lose this state.”
And so it was.
Bad news for Francesco Simonetta, sure, but Ludovico would one day use his position to commission Da Vinci’s The Last Supper.
Simonetta’s legacy beyond peninsular politics is somewhat less august. Hs treatise on code-breaking, Regule ad extrahendum litteras ziferatas sine exemplo (Rules for Decrypting Coded Documents), is a tipsheet for busting elementary substitution ciphers: determine the language, look for common words, exploit the letter patterns caused by standardized word endings (like -ing and -ed in English), isolate the vowels.
This day is called the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day and comes safe home,
Will stand o’ tiptoe when the day is named
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall see this day, and live old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbors
And say, “Tomorrow is Saint Crispian.”
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say, “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.”
…And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
Though the band of brothers is much better-known than Crispin and Crispinian themselves, Shakespeare’s immortal verse alludes to a pair of questionable third-century martyrs whose feast date this is.
They were supposedly Christian missionaries proselytizing in Gaul, or possibly Britain,* and there made to suffer for the faith under Diocletian‘s persecutions: Crispin Crispian’s version of the period’s characteristic “execution survived” story has them being pitched into the drink with millstones, but failing to drown. As usual, the Romans had more methods in reserve than God had escapes.
Somewhat derogated latterly since their historicity is so shaky, C+C are the patrons of leather workers and related professions including tanners, saddlers and cobblers.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell
Rode the six hundred.
This entry in our Corpses Strewn series on the October 1698 extirpation of the Streltsy is courtesy of the diaries of Austrian diplomat Johann Georg Korb, an eyewitness to the events.
This differed confiderably from those that preceded. The manner of it was quite different, and hardly credible. Three hundred and thirty at a time were led out together to the fatal axe’s stroke, and embrued the whole plain with native but impious blood: for all the Boyars, Senators of the realm, Dumnoi, Diaks, and so forth, that were present at the council constituted against the rebel Strelitz, had been summoned by the Czar’s command to Bebraschentsko, and enjoined to take upon themselves the hangman’s office. Some struck the blow unsteadily, and with trembling hands assumed this new and unaccustomed task. The most unfortunate stroke among all the Boyars was given by him whose erring sword struck the back instead of the neck, and thus chopping the Strelitz almost in halves, would have roused him to desperation with pain, had not Alexasca* reached the unhappy wretch a surer blow of an axe on the neck.
Prince Romadonowski, under whose command previous to the mutiny these four regiments were to have watched the turbulent gatherings in Poland on the frontier, beheaded, according to order, one out of each regiment. Lastly, to every Boyar a Strelitz was led up, whom he was to behead. The Czar, in his saddle, looked on at the whole tragedy.
Peter scornfully reproached many of the nobles who trembled at being compelled to behead some rebels; adding in a strain of sanguinary justice, “No victim is more acceptable to the Deity than a wicked man.” Mentchikof, however, did not labour under such delicate feelings; for as a prelude to the execution of one hundred and fifty Strelitz, he drove through the streets of Moscow in a sledge, brandishing a naked sword, and boasted of his adroitness in cutting off twenty heads. (Source)