Posts filed under 'Burned'

1779: Manuel, burned for witchcraft in the USA?

Add comment June 15th, 2019 Clarence Alvord

(Thanks to the late University of Illinois history professor Clarence Walworth Alvord for the guest post, which originally appeared in an essay he wrote for the centennial of the Land of Lincoln‘s 1818 statehood. For context to this 1779 execution, the area comprising the future U.S. state of Illinois had been attached by the British crown to its own recently annexed province of Quebec, formerly French and Catholic. Illinois had then been seized during the Revolutionary War by Virginia, which at this moment (and only a few years thereafter) maintained it as Virginia’s own “Illinois County”. Notwithstanding Dr. Alvord’s rebuttal, the slave Manuel is still frequently described down to the present day as having been burned for witchcraft. -ed.)

The secret of writing true history depends upon the collection of all the contemporary evidence bearing on the case. The reason that people complain of the changing interpretations of history is that new material is found as society demands a broader and broader interpretation of the phenomena of the past. There was a time when history consisted in what we call to-day the drum and fife history; the doings of the great political leaders, events of military glory; and almost no other phenomena of changing society were noted. To-day the task of the historian, however, is far greater; and he is obliged to cast his net far afield in order to collect the material for the social development of the past …

“it must be remembered that the Creoles were very ignorant and superstitious, and that they one and all, including, apparently, even their priests, firmly believed in witchcraft and sorcery. Some of their negro slaves had been born in Africa, the others had come from the Lower Mississippi or the West Indies; they practised the strange rites of voudooism, and a few were adepts in the art of poisoning. Accordingly the French were always on the look-out lest their slaves should, by spell or poison, take their lives …

At this time the Creoles were smitten by a sudden epidemic of fear that their negro slaves were trying to bewitch and poison them. Several of the negroes were seized and tried, and in June two were condemned to death. One, named Moreau, was sentenced to be hung outside Cahokia. The other, a Kaskaskian slave named Manuel, suffered a worse fate. He was sentenced “to be chained to a post at the water-side, and there to be burnt alive and his ashes scattered.” These two sentences, and the directions for their immediate execution, reveal a dark chapter in the early history of Illinois. It seems a strange thing that, in the United States, three years after the declaration of independence, men should have been burnt and hung for witchcraft, in accordance with the laws and with the decision of the proper court. The fact that the victim, before being burned, was forced to make “honorable fine” at the door of the Catholic church, shows that the priest at least acquiesced in the decision. The blame justly resting on the Puritans of seventeenth-century New England must likewise fall on the Catholic French of eighteenth-century Illinois.

-Theodore Roosevelt, The Winning of the West

An example of how easy it is to misinterpret a past event, provided all the material available is not collected, and how easy is that interpretation after the material has been found, has come under my observation … About forty years ago Edward G. Mason, at that time secretary of the Chicago Histori[c]al Society, found the record book kept by the county Lieutenant, John Todd,* in the year 1779, when Todd came to govern the territory that had been occupied by George Rogers Clark and his Virginians during the Revolutionary War. In this record book Mason found the copy of a warrant for the death of a negro, named Manuel, by burning at the stake, which burning was to take place after consolation to the criminal had been given by the parish priest. The copy of the warrant had been crossed out by drawing lines through it. Please bear this fact in mind, since it should have suggested a correct interpretation. Naturally this warrant aroused the imagination of Mr. Mason, and he vegan to search for an explanation and discovered that about this time there was an outbreak of voodooism among the Illinois slaves and that two slaves had been put to death. He drew the natural conclusion therefore that Manuel had been burned at the stake for the practice of witchcraft. Basing his interpretation upon Mr. Mason’s find, a well-known ex-president, Theodore Roosevelt, who among other occupations has dabbled in history, wrote at some length upon this episode and drew a comparison between eighteenth century Catholic Illinois, where for the practice of witchcraft men were burned at the stake with the sancttion [sic] of the parish priest and in accordance with French Catholic law, with a similar episode in the history of Puritan Massachusetts in the seventeenth century.

Fortunately there has come into my hands a full record of the court’s proceedings by which Manuel was condemned; and I find that the judges in the case, although they were obliged to listen to the superstitious accusations of negro slaves, were careful to determine the fact that Manuel and another negro had been guilty of murder by poisoning their master and mistress, Mr. and Mrs. Nicolle, and that it was for this act the two negroes were condemned to death. I then looked up the law of the land. Naturally it might be supposed as Roosevelt did that this was French law, but there was another possibility, namely that Virginia law in criminal cases would be used by a Virginian magistrate, such as John Todd. I found that the Virginia law in the case of murder of a master by a slave was death by burning at the stake so that in the case of Manuel you see that the condemnation was strictly in accordance with Virginia law and not with French law. Another document of even greater interest in the case also came to my hands. It certainly was a surprise. This was another warrant for the death of Manuel, issued at a later hour in the day, but by this later warrant the death penalty was changed from burning at the stake to hanging by the neck. To summarize then: Manuel was not condemned for witchcraft but for murder; he was not condemned to be burned at the stake in accordance with French law, but in accordance with Virginia law; and finally he was not burned at the stake at all, but was hung by the neck. This is an excellent example of the danger of drawing inferences in regard to historic events upon too narrow information. There was one fact which both Mr. Mason and Mr. Roosevelt ignored in their interpretation of the warrant. The copy of the warrant was found in a carefully kept record book, and was crossed out by lines being drawn through it. That fact should have made them suspicious of their own interpretation. Records such as this condemnation to death would not be lightly erased by the keeper of a record book. An historical Sherlock Holmes would not have been misled.

* Todd’s brother Levi was grandfather to eventual U.S. First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. -ed.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Illinois,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,USA,Virginia,Witchcraft

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1627: Catlyn Fiermoing, village witch

Add comment June 8th, 2019 Headsman

The sorceress Catlyn Fiermoing was burned on this date in 1627 at the village of Wommersom.

A standard witch-hunt case, Fiermoing apparently got into hot water calling on the devil in a fight with her husband 19 years before her death, which summons Old Scratch duly answered and duly sealed the bargain with the usual promissory notes and carnal violations: this at least is the gist of what her interrogation records preserve us. (Dutch speakers can read a summary in here: part 1 | part 2.) She used her supernatural powers to get a little bit of money and kill some local rivals’ cows.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Belgium,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Public Executions,Torture,Witchcraft,Women

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1538: John Forest and the image of Saint Derfel Gadarn

Add comment May 22nd, 2019 Headsman

English Franciscan John Forest was burned at Smithfield on this date in 1538 … the undercard to the simultaneous “execution” of a downthrown idol of Saint Derfel Gadarn.

The latter had been ripped from its shrine at Llandderfel in Gwynedd, Wales: the place gets its name from Derfel himself and its devotion to its Celtic patron had not waned in the centuries since but fostered a thriving pilgrimage site where the icon received the offerings of devotees in trust of the saint’s supernatural protection.

Such rituals really infuriated the iconoclastic, monastery-shuttering reformers abroad in England in Henrician England post-Anne Boleyn and in 1538 Derfel G. came in for special “punishment.”

“There is an image of Derfel Gadarn within the said diocese, in whom the people have so great confidence, hope, and trust, that they come daily on pilgrimage unto him, some with kyne, other with oxen or horses, and the rest with money,” fumed the king’s own scaffold-bound Lord Chancellor, Thomas Cromwell. “In so much that there was five or six hundred pilgrims, to a man’s estimation, that offered to the said Image the fifth day of this present month of April.”

Cromwell and team were very keen to show up the superstition, hypocrisy, and money-grubbing wrapped up in these quaint old idols, to expose to the public gaze the contraptions that allowed statues to weep or the priests that dined hearty on the victuals sacrificed by poor pilgrims … and so it came to pass that the May 22, 1538 death of John Forest at the stake was also a great demystifying of old Saint Derfel. Hauled to London from its native haunts, this image was railed at in a showboating sermon by the scaffold-bound Bishop of Worcester, Hugh Latimer.

In this spectacle designed for the cheap seats, Latimer spent hours ceremonially exhorting the patiently trussed John Forest to abjure his heresies. Forest predictably declining, the image of Saint Derfel was then produced and challenged to intervene for his spiritual bannerman, even engaged in a stagey grappling match — until finally the discredited simulacrum was tossed as mere fuel into the pyre that swallowed John Forest. (Forest has the distinction of being the only Catholic martyr burned at the stake during the English Reformation.)

The always enjoyable History of England podcast delves into the frightful fate of Saint Derfel’s icon and Blessed John Forest’s living flesh in episode 236.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Inanimate Objects,Martyrs,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Religious Figures

1494: Joan Boughton, “old cankered heretic”

Add comment April 28th, 2019 Headsman

Lollard heretic Joan Boughton was burned on this date in 1494 — purportedly England’s first female Christian martyr.

Followers of pre-Luther English church reformer John Wyclif(fe) had been thick on the ground in the early 15th century, terrifying the English state into a violent suppression.

But these years of headline repression did not suffice to drive Lollardy into the grave … only underground. The Lollard heresy continued to persist, quietly, its trajectory and dimensions largely undocumented, barely surfacing here and there with the odd arrest. “Between 1450-1517, Lollardy was almost wholly restricted to the rural districts, and little mention is made of it in contemporary records,” notes this history. “How extensively Wyclif’s views continued to be secretly held and his writings read is a matter of conjecture.”

Its adherents still had the stuff of martyrdom, for on this occasion decades on from the heyday of Lollardy and into the reign of Henry VII,

an old cankered heretic, weak-minded for age, named Joan Boughton, widow, and mother unto the wife of Sir John Young — which daughter, as some reported, had a great smell of an heretic after the mother — burnt in Smithfield. This woman was four score years of age or more, and held eight opinions of heresy which I pass over, for the hearing of them is neither pleasant nor fruitful. She was a disciple of Wycliffe, whom she accounted for a saint, and held so fast and firmly eight of his twelve opinions that all the doctors of London could not turn her from one of them. When it was told to her that she should be burnt for her obstinacy and false belief, she set nought at their words but defied them, for she said she was so beloved with God and His holy angels that all the fire in London should not hurt her. But on the morrow a bundle of faggots and a few reeds consumed her in a little while; and while she might cry she spoke often of God and Our Lady, but no man could cause her to name Jesus, and so she died. But it appeared that she left some of her disciples behind her, for the night following, the more part of the ashes of that fire that she was burnt in were had away and kept for a precise relic in an earthen pot.

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1623: Nicolas Antoine, Judaizer

Add comment April 20th, 2019 Headsman

Protestant theologian turned apostate Judaizer Nicolas Antoine was burned at the stake in Calvinist Geneva on this date in 1623.

Antoine (English Wikipedia entry | French) had followed a religious journey from the Catholicism of his birth, on to Protestantism as a young man. This arc in the first decades of the 17th century was potentially dangerous but scarcely uncommon.

But Antoine took an incredible and taboo step beyond the schism in Christendom as his religious studies unfolded in Geneva and the short-lived independent Huguenot enclave the Principality of Sedan: he became steadily less convinced of the New Testament full stop, investing priority only in the Old. He became interested in Judaism.

As a reformed pastor in the city of Metz on the French-German frontier, Antoine approached the local rabbinate to explore conversion. Fearing the reprisals such a scandal could draw, these worthies advised him to try Italy. Those Metz rabbis fancied the religious climate on the peninsula more accommodating, but they were mistaken: their brethren in both Venice and Padua spurned Antoine in the same way, and for the same reason. One of them suggested that he content himself to practice secretly, as a Crypto-Jew.

This dangerous path he followed for some years. Become then a pastor in the village of Divonne — presently in France but Geneva-governed in his day — Antoine “secretly observed a thoroughly Jewish mode of life, saying his prayers in Hebrew and observing all the Mosaic rites,” according to the Jewish Encyclopedia, but his position on the pulpit eventually stretched past breaking his capacity to serve both conscience and vocation.

In his public services he pronounced the name of Jesus as seldom as possible. He was never known to read the apostolic confession audibly. In the communion service, instead of the words “This is my body, this is my blood,” he was once heard to say, “Your Savior remembers you.” His sermons, the texts for which were taken exclusively from Isaiah and the other prophets, became celebrated far and wide; yet they lacked any peculiarly Christian characteristics. The peasants of Divonne were perfectly satisfied with their pastor, who was eloquent in the extreme and full of kindness toward them; they were not shocked by the vague form of his sermons. But the lord of the adjoining manor was outraged. One Sunday, Antoine preached on the second Psalm, which, according to orthodox Christian theology, announces the coming of the son of God. [“Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee. Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession. Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” -ed.] Antoine, on the contrary, permitted himself to declare that God had no son and that there was but the one God. This was too much for the lord; he remonstrated loudly with the heretical pastor and threatened to denounce him to the synod. Antoine fell into gloomy despair; a nervous attack deprived him of his reason. To several colleagues from Geneva who had come to see him he began to chant the seventy-fourth Psalm; then he suddenly stopped, and, exclaiming that he was a Jew, blasphemed Christianity …

A charge of heresy could no longer be avoided; the chief of the Geneva police arrested Antoine, and instituted proceedings. While he was in prison the clergy were tireless in seeking his reconversion, trying in vain to make him sign a declaration of orthodox faith. Bidden to formulate his religious belief, he drew up twelve articles, which were submitted to an ecclesiastical court. In them he gave the tenets of Judaism in the style of Maimonidesthirteen articles of faith, and added “eleven philosophical objections against the dogma of the Trinity.” At the same time he addressed to the judges three memorials, two of which have been preserved. In spite of the exertions of Metrezat, a pastor of Paris, and others, the judges were immovable. The trial commenced April 11; Antoine’s attitude, full of dignity, aroused much sympathy. The threats of the judges were of no more avail than the persuasions of his colleagues. He repeated constantly: “I am a Jew; and all I ask of God’s grace is to die for Judaism.” The court sought to show that he had promulgated his heretical doctrines at Geneva: this he contradicted most forcibly. All the efforts of the judges were met with the unchanging reply, “With the help of God I am determined to die in my present belief.” Fifteen clergymen or professors of theology were summoned as witnesses. Several of them begged for a light sentence, since, in their opinion, Antoine had committed no sin by becoming a Jew, though for his hypocrisy he deserved unfrocking or banishment, or, at the worst, excommunication. Furthermore, they said that the matter ought not to be hastened, and that the advice of the various churches and academies should be sought. A fanatical majority, however, insisted that the judges should seize the present opportunity to demonstrate their faith, since it was most dangerous to absolve one who had professed Judaism while wearing the garb of a Christian priest. For some days longer the judges waited for Antoine to recant. As his recantation was not forthcoming, they pronounced sentence April 20, 1632; condemning him to be loaded with chains, placed upon a pyre, to be there strangled, and then burned. In vain the clergy petitioned for a respite; Antoine was executed the same day. He went to his death serenely, and died imploring the mercy of the God of Abraham.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,God,Heresy,History,Martyrs,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Switzerland

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1536: Michael Seifensieder, Hieronymus Kals and Hans Oberecker, incriminating abstention

Add comment March 31st, 2019 Headsman

From The Mennonite encyclopedia: a comprehensive reference work on the Anabaptist-Mennonite movement, Volume 1:

The earliest Anabaptist confession, The Seven Articles of Schleitheim (1527), forbade in Article 4 the patronage of drinking places. Capito, the reformer of Strasbourg, states in a contemporary letter that the Anabaptists had undertaken to refrain, among other things, from drinking (“zu meiden das üppige Spielen, Saufen, Fressen, Ehebrechen, Kriegen, Totschlagen”). Bullinger, Zwingli‘s successor in Zürich, in his 1560 work against the Anabaptists (Von der Wiedertaufferen Ursprung) states that they drank only unfermented sweet cider (Süssmost) and water. Anabaptists were often identified as such because they refused in the inns to drink alcoholic liquors to the health of other guests, whereupon they were arrested and executed. An illustration of this is Michael Seifensieder, a preacher of the Hutterites, who with two associates [Hieronymus Kals and Hans Oberecker -ed.] was arrested on Jan. 8, 1536, in an inn in Vienna for the above reason,* having been discovered by his refusal to drink, and was finally burned at the stake on March 31, 1536.

* The episode as described in the Martyrs Mirror runs thus:

While they were eating supper, the people tried to ascertain their character by drinking to their health; but when they perceived that they would not respond, the host had some paper brought, and wrote a letter in Latin, which, among other things, read as follows, “Here are three persons who appear to me to be Anabaptists.” But he did not know that Brother Jerome [Hieronymus Kals] understood Latin. Then said Jerome to the other brethren, they would watch together, let things go as the dear Lord should please. Two hours afterwards the constables came and brought them bound before the judge, and when they had been examined they were put in prison.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Austria,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,Habsburg Realm,Heresy,History,Martyrs,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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1431: Thomas Bagley, Lollard martyr

Add comment March 10th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1431, an Essex priest named Thomas Bagley — “a valiant disciple and adherent of Wicliffe,” which is to say a Lollard heretic — was put to the torch at St. Paul’s Cross, London, while the Archbishop of Canterbury denounced his heresies.

He was prey to a crackdown on his seditiously egalitarian sect launched in 1428 by the said archbishop, Henry Chicele. That outlawed movement still persisted despite the defeat of its most famous rebellion more than a decade before.

Lollards had a low opinion of both the perquisites and the ritual trappings of the institutional church, so Bagley “was accused of declaring that if in the sacrament a priest made bread into God, he made a God that can be eaten by rats and mice; that the pharisees of the day, the monks, and the nuns, and the friars and all the other privileged persons recognized by the church were limbs of Satan; and that auricular confession to the priest was the will not of God but of the devil. And others [other Lollards] held that any priest who took salary was excommunicate; and that boys could bless the bread as well as priests.”

Pressed by their persecutors, the Lollard movement mounted its last major armed rebellion weeks later, in May of 1431 — storming Abindgon Abbey and Salisbury Cathedral. The attacks came to nothing save the execution of its leadership.

For many years thereafter, until its remnants swept into the Reformation, Lollardy haunted English elites from the shadows and the underground — “a persistent, covert tradition of radical thinking” whose reach in the English population is unknowable. It was never again strong enough to mount a rising in its own name but surfaced martyrs here and there and might have contributed inspiration and simpatico to other challenges that shook the masters in the 15th century, like (speculatively) 1450’s Jack Cade rebellion out of Lollard-rich Kent.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,God,History,Martyrs,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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1562: Sophie Harmansdochter, “Gele Fye”

Add comment March 3rd, 2019 Headsman

Sophie Harmansdochter, aka Gele Fye, a notorious fink, was executed at The Hague on this date in 1562.

She was the daughter of an Anabaptist martyr, but where she might have taken her heritance in zeal for the evangelium she settled instead for for taking the contact list. By 1537, three years after her father lost her head for the faith, Harmansdochter was informing on his ex-associates; resulting in several more executions and several hundred guilders’ worth of rewards. As late as 1552-53 her information triggered Mennonite hunts across the Low Countries touching not only Amsterdam but Leiden, Friesland, and Antwerp.

This was also about the time when her husband died and left her with four whelps to raise, and the need for her pieces of silver became extremely pressing. But in a pattern similar to many witch hunt informers, Gele Fye’s snitching was abruptly terminated by attempting to point the finger at a person of actual power — namely the former mayor of Amsterdam, who had also once been her paymaster. She was arrested as a perjurer in 1556 and spent six years in prison in The Hague, giving birth to her fifth child while behind bars.*

On March 3, 1662, Sophie Harmansdochter had her tongue — the source of her false witness — cut out, then her scaffold put to the torch.

She survives in Dutch literature as an emblematic deceitful mole.

* A collaborator, Volckje Willems, was also arrested but died in her dungeon before she could qualify for Executed Today treatment.

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1610: Pierre Canal, Geneva sodomite

Add comment February 2nd, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1610* a Genevan official named Pierre Canal was twice capitally punished — broken on the wheel (for treason) and burned (for sodomy).

A longtime city official, as well as an Italian-educated doctor, Canal was progeny of city worthies. Although his own father was a hero of L’Escalade, Geneva’s successful defense against a 1602 attack on Geneva by the Duke of Savoy,** Canal was rounded up for alleged adherence to Savoy’s threatened (never executed) Escalade sequel in 1610.

Under torture for treason, he also copped to dozens of homosexual liaisons over many years, a behavior that he said he’d picked up in Italy.†

Canal’s roster of names named became fodder for a sodomy-hunt spasm in the ensuing months. At least three of his claimed lovers confessed under torture and were executed, and a fourth only survived because he managed to break jail. Others either withstood torture without admitting to an affair, or managed to confine their stipulated activities to non-capital versions of the perversions, such as oral sex without ejaculation. (The latter class ended up with punishments ranging from fines to banishment, but got to keep their limbs.)‡ Echoes of the affair continued in now-queer-vigilant Geneva in the form of several additional prosecutions running until 1623.

* Sources I’ve found are keenly divided between a February 2 and a February 3 execution.

The dispositive primary source, The Archives d’etat de Geneve Proces Criminels, does not appear to me to be digitized for the public, notwithstanding the canton’s exhibitions of a few choice artifacts. I’m going with the 2nd, gingerly, because the secondary sources that seem the most rigorous and credible (such as this Swiss historical dictionary and to me tend towards that date.

** The Escalade is the event commemorated in the Genevan “national” anthem “Cé qu’è l’ainô”.

† We’ve seen gay sex euphemized as le vice italien in the 19th century British navy, too.

‡ Canal named over 20 people, though not all were pursued. There are thirteen additional people named for prosecution by Judicial Tribunals in England and Europe, 1200-1700: Abel Benoit (20, soldier), Francois Felisat (24, carder), Pierre Gaudy (18, porter), George Plongon (25, Sieur Bellerive), Mathieu Berjon (36, printer), Antoine Artaut (30, carder), Jean Bedeville (23), Paul Berenger (23, tailor), Noelle Destelle (25, baker), Jean Maillet (61), Paul Andre (23), Claude Bodet (45, baker), Jean Buffet (23, tailor).

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Doctors,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Homosexuals,Politicians,Public Executions,Sex,Switzerland,Torture,Treason

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546: Croesus

Add comment January 5th, 2019 Headsman

It was perhaps around the winter outset of 546 BCE that the Lydian king Croesus was captured and executed or spared by the Persians.

Famed for his wealth — he funded the construction of the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders* — Croesus was heir to a 600-year-old empire dominating western Anatolia. Herodotus credits the Lydians as the inventors of coinage, a likely basis for the “rich as Croesus” expression.

Would that he had been so rich in wisdom.

In perhaps 547 BCE, Croesus launched a war against the rising power on his eastern border — the Persian Achaemenid Empire, led by Cyrus the Great. In a classic ancient own-goal, Croesus got the thumbs-up for this adventure from the Oracle of Delphi, who told the Lydian envoys that if Croesus fought Persia, he would destroy a great empire.** That empire turned out be his own.

After fighting to a stalemate in the autumn of 547, Croesus retired to his capital of Sardis to winter, believing war would abate with the end of the campaigning season — even dismissing his allies until the spring.

Cyrus surprised him instead, marching aggressively on Sardis and putting it to siege after routing a much larger Lydian army at the Battle of Thymbra.† It wasn’t long before the Persians found an ill-defended entrance into the city’s citadel via a mountain ascent, and fulfilled the Pythian priestess’s prophecy.

We have no certain record of Croesus’s actual fate; the histories for him come from later Greeks, whose accounts are contradictory and even folklorish; J.A.S. Evans suggests in a 1978 scholarly exploration that the Greeks were equally in the dark about the matter but that “Croesus had become a figure of myth, who stood outside the conventional restraints of chronology.”

Herodotus renders his version thus, turning the action on Croesus’s remembrance of a previous encounter with the Greek wise man Solon, who had counseled him that wealth is not happiness:

The Persians gained Sardis and took Croesus prisoner. Croesus had ruled fourteen years and been besieged fourteen days. Fulfilling the oracle, he had destroyed his own great empire.

The Persians took him and brought him to Cyrus, who erected a pyre and mounted Croesus atop it, bound in chains, with twice seven sons of the Lydians beside him. Cyrus may have intended to sacrifice him as a victory-offering to some god, or he may have wished to fulfill a vow, or perhaps he had heard that Croesus was pious and put him atop the pyre to find out if some divinity would deliver him from being burned alive. So Cyrus did this.

As Croesus stood on the pyre, even though he was in such a wretched position it occurred to him that Solon had spoken with god’s help when he had said that no one among the living is fortunate. When this occurred to him, he heaved a deep sigh and groaned aloud after long silence, calling out three times the name “Solon.” Cyrus heard and ordered the interpreters to ask Croesus who he was invoking … He explained that first Solon the Athenian had come and seen all his fortune and spoken as if he despised it. Now everything had turned out for him as Solon had said, speaking no more of him than of every human being, especially those who think themselves fortunate.

While Croesus was relating all this, the pyre had been lit and the edges were on fire. When Cyrus heard from the interpreters what Croesus said, he relented and considered that he, a human being, was burning alive another human being, one his equal in good fortune.

In addition, he feared retribution, reflecting how there is nothing stable in human affairs. He ordered that the blazing fire be extinguished as quickly as possible, and that Croesus and those with him be taken down, but despite their efforts they could not master the fire.

Then the Lydians say that Croesus understood Cyrus’ change of heart, and when he saw everyone trying to extinguish the fire but unable to check it, he invoked Apollo, crying out that if Apollo had ever been given any pleasing gift by him, let him offer help and deliver him from the present evil.

Thus he in tears invoked the god, and suddenly out of a clear and windless sky clouds gathered, a storm broke, and it rained violently, extinguishing the pyre.

Even in this one text, Cyrus both does and does not execute Croesus, a figure whose proportions of historicity and legend are impossible to measure. In different variants of this tragic fall, Croesus puts up his own pyre for desperate self-immolation like the Steward of Gondor

… or it is or is not successfully extinguished. A post-pyre Croesus then goes on to become a dutiful slave of Cyrus, the relationship of conquered and conquering kings full of aphorism and fable-ready vignettes with no dependable historical warrant.

* For the pedants in the room, the “Seven Wonders” roster was composed later in antiquity, and the Temple of Artemis made the list based on its rebuild version after the one put up by Croesus had been torched by the fame-seeking Herostratus.

** Croesus rated the Delphic oracle’s advice highly. Aesop, the fable guy got himself executed by the Delphians by misbehaving while in the course of delivering a tribute from Croesus.

† Allegedly, the unnerving sight of Cyrus’s camels arrayed for battle panicked the Lydian cavalry into flight.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Burned,Execution,Executions Survived,Famous,Heads of State,History,Language,Last Minute Reprieve,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Pardons and Clemencies,Persia,Popular Culture,Power,Reprieved Too Late,Royalty,Summary Executions,The Supernatural,Turkey,Uncertain Dates,Wartime Executions

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Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!