Posts filed under 'Gruesome Methods'

1573: Lippold ben Chluchim, scapegoat

Add comment January 28th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1573, the Jewish courtier Lippold ben Chluchim was broken on the wheel and cut into quarters.

Most of the readily available information about poor Lippold is in German; his was a fate similar to the 18th century “Jud Süß”, minus the worldwide notoriety conferred by a Nazi propaganda film.

Though born in Prague, Lippold would live a life, and die a death, in the orbit of the Elector of Brandenburg — a principality where Jews endured precipitous reversals of fortune over the centuries.

Elector Joachim I had actually expelled Jews from the territory in 1510* after riots incited by rumors of desecrating the Host; Lippold and his family would benefit when Joachim’s son, also named Joachim, rescinded some of the old man’s harsh ordinances and invited Jews to return. Lippold was about 12 years old when his family took advantage of the liberalization and relocated to Berlin in 1542.

By adulthood, the able Lippold had plugged into Joachim II’s court and become a trusted favorite. While Joachim’s dad must have been turning in the grave, one imagines the son appreciated the loyalty of an aide whose prestige depended entirely upon the prince himself.

Events would underscore painfully Lippold’s vulnerability to the turning wheel of fortune.

As Brandenburg’s master of the mint, it fell to Lippold to implement a wide-ranging currency debasement program required by Joachim to finance his spendthrift government — basically passing on the cost to merchants who were required by edict to accept the local coinage at its fanciful face value.

Despite this hated policy, plus additions to the state’s rounds of direct taxation, Joachim was 2.5 million guilders in debt when he died suddenly during a hunting trip on the third of January in 1571. Things immediately turned grim for Brandenburg’s Jewry after the liberal Joachim fils was in the earth; a pogrom sacked Berlin’s synagogue and rampaged through the Jewish quarter.

Joachim’s son and successor Johann Georg likewise found in his father’s Jewish henchman — a man who had naturally waxed very wealthy and very unpopular doing the previous sovereign’s dirty work — a ready scapegoat for Brandenburg’s financial woes. Johann Georg accused Lippold of using black magic and poison to assassinate his benefactor and persuaded Lippold in the usual way to confirm it. Jews beheld the reinstatement of that old proscription, little more than 30 years after Joachim II had canceled it — and they were once again expelled from Berlin en masse.

* Complete with a mass execution.

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1318: Sir Gilbert Middleton, son of iniquity

Add comment January 26th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1318, for kidnapping and robbing some churchmen, the Northumberland knight Sir Gilbert Middleton was condemned to be “hanged and drawn in the site of the cardinals which he had robbed” — the sentence thought to have been executed immediately.

The mid-1310s were a deep slough for King Edward II:* his political power faltered, his finances sank, and the Scots gave him a thrashing at Bannockburn. So low was Edward’s prestige that a pretender turned up claiming to have been switched at birth with the unsatisfactory king.

A “Poem on the Evil Times of Edward II” from that time enumerates the woes of Britons. It reserves several stanzas for the disreputable knights afoot in the land.

Thus is the ordre of kniht turned up-so-doun,
Also wel can a kniht chide as any skolde of a toun.
Hii sholde ben also hende as any levedi in londe,
And for to speke alle vilanie nel nu no kniht wonde
For shame;
And thus knihtshipe is acloied and waxen al fot-lame.

Knihtshipe is acloied and deolfulliche i-diht;
Kunne a boy nu breke a spere, he shal be mad a kniht.
And thus ben knihtes gadered of unkinde blod,
And envenimeth that ordre that shold be so god
And hende;
Ac o shrewe in a court many man may shende.

The author of this verse would have recognized Gilbert Middleton for sure, but before we come to the unkinde blod, appreciate the dastard’s situation. Post-Bannockburn, Robert the Bruce raided into Northumberland with impunity. Estates in that zone could suffer the pillage or pay the Scots off, but in either event they had no protection from the crown … since King Edward had his hands full in a virtual civil cold war against the powerful Earl of Lancaster.

In this tense situation, Middleton shockingly attacked the king’s cousin Lewis de Beaumont on September 1, 1317 while the latter was en route to be consecrated Bishop of Durham. Seized in the same party were Beaumont’s brother Henry, plus two Italian cardinals they had escorted back as emissaries to hammer out a truce between England and Scotland. (The papacy’s interest here was to redeploy Britain’s armed men to Crusading.)

The reasons for this attack have always been mysterious: the Pope blamed those marauding Scots for putting Middleton up to it, but Lancaster was also an ally of the errant knight as well as the promoter of a candidate for bishop rival to Lewis de Beaumont.

However it was intended to play out, the ambush quickly went pear-shaped. Perhaps raiding and holding for ransom was the sort of elbow one could throw in intra-elite politicking of the 14th century, but the presence of the cardinals changed everything.

Middleton might even have been unaware such august dignitaries were in the party when he first attacked it, and one chronicler reports that his party “at first spared the cardinals and their men, for they were not seeking to injure them” until this clemency started leading Beaumont’s retainers too to assert “themselves to be servants of the cardinals, and neither the cardinals nor others were spared, but all were despoiled.”** Regardless of how they came to do it, the sacrilegious rapine of holy cardinals and their retinue was the shocking crime that would thrust Middleton beyond the pale, either of friendship in his rebellion or of reconciliation afterwards. (Beaumont had not yet been consecrated, so the indignities he suffered were all in a day’s work.)

The Beaumonts became Middleton’s unwilling guests at Mitford Castle.† The cardinals had their effects restored and, after enduring their now-excommunicate captors’ unavailing petition for a suitable penance, were given over to Lancaster; they returned all the way to London under his safe conduct … and as they went they “published a terrible sentence upon their assailant and upon all in any way adhering to them … demand[ing] execution of this sentence through all England.” Before September was out, there was a royal proclamation against Middleton’s “sons of iniquity.”

This rebellion, whatever its dimensions, lasted for a vague span over the autumn and winter months. Sir Gilbert and his too-few friends held some fortifications in Northumberland and Yorkshire; where possible they added more noble types to his collection in Mitford but in spite of the tense situation in England no wider rising materialized.

And living by plunder quickly caught up with Gilbert Middleton.

certain nobles of the countryside … went to him under safe conduct, as if for their [the hostages] deliverance, and after many words and quibblings, a certain price for them being settled, they set free certain ones and left certain ones as hostages until full payment of the money. Thereupon, the day of the final payment arriving, and the appointed time, when the attendants of the same Gilbert were roaming in various places, in order to plunder and pillage, those who ought to have made the payment came to speak with him, saying that they had the money secretly in the town, and asked that free exit and entrance might be granted to them to fetch it. This granted, when they came to the gate of the castle as if to go out, the porters’ throats being cut in a moment, they led in a multitude of armed men hiding outside, who suddenly, rushing with blows upon him [Gilbert], who was thinking of no such thing, bound him tightly with iron chains.

-annals of John de Trokelowe

The captive Middleton was shipped to London and there condemned to “be dragged through the city to the gallows and there be hanged alive, and alive be torn apart and afterwards be beheaded … heart and organs to be burnt beneath the aforesaid gallows, also the body of the same Gilbert be divided into four parts, so that one quarter of his body be sent to Newcastle, another to York, the third to Bristol, and the fourth to Dover, there to remain.”

* Of course, worse times were yet to come.

** Quoted (as are many other period citations) in this useful public domain biography of Middleton. This author’s take was that Lancaster was behind the affair, believing “that it would be popular in the North of England, and would make a signal for a general rebellion throughout the country. The presence of the cardinals ruined the scheme” — and Lancaster himself had the wit and the pull to dissociate himself before it all came down on Middleton’s head.

† Yes, those Mitfords.

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1539: St. John Stone

1 comment December 27th, 2015 Headsman

Though it is not certain, it is thought that December 27, 1539 might have been the execution date of Catholic martyr St. John Stone in England.

An Augustinian whose friary was closed in 1538 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Stone at his expulsion “rudely and traitorously” refused to endorse Henry VIII’s authority over the church. He maintained his obstinacy even under the personal interrogation of Thomas Cromwell.

Somehow a year passed before Stone was brought to trial at Canterbury as a traitor. The execution of the inevitable sentence might then have been held up to coincide with the arrival to Canterbury of Anne of Cleves, the German Protestant princess who was (ever so briefly) Henry VIII’s fourth wife. Welcome to England, honey! It’s a great scene to imagine, but obviously the story — and hence this date — smacks of propaganda.

Whatever the true date of execution was, what we do have for certain is the butcher’s bill — itemizing the operation of tearing apart a religious dissident into rigorous accounting straight from your corporate expense report.

Paid for half a ton of timber to make a pair of gallows to hang Friar Stone, 2s. 6d.; to a labourer that digged the holes, 3d.; to four men that helped set up the gallows for drink to them, for carriage of the timber from Stablegate to Dongeon, 1s.; for a hurdle, 6d.; for a load of wood and for a horse to draw him to the Dongeon, 2s. 3d.; paid two men that set the kettle and parboiled him, 1s.; to two men that carried his quarters to the gates and set them up, 1s.; for halters to hang him and Sandwich cord and for straw, 1s.; to a woman that scoured the kettle, 2d.; to him that did the execution, 3s. 8d.

The Vatican rates John Stone as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales, and canonized him in 1970.

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1553: Pedro de Valdivia, founder of Santiago

Add comment December 25th, 2015 Headsman

On Christmas Day of 1553, the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Valdivia, noted as the founder of Santiago, Chile,* was executed by Mapuche Indians who had captured him in battle.

Valdivia got his start in New World bloodsport in the train of the Pizarro brothers, and cashed in with mining concessions as a reward for his able service in the Pizarros’ campaign against yet another conquistador, Diego de Almagro.

Not content to wax fat on Incan silver, Valdivia secured permission to pick up Almagro’s aborted mission: the conquest of Chile. With a force of about 150 Spaniards and many times that number of native allies, he successfully crossed the Atacama desert (bypassing Andean tribes that had proven hostile to Almagro) and attained the Mapocho river valley. There he created Santiago** on February 12, 1541, and almost immediately established the Spanish colony — distinct from Peru — whose headquarters it would be.

It didn’t take long for these interlopers to incur native resistance which would long slow the imperial development of Chile. Later in 1541, an Indian attack raze Santiago, although its Spanish defenders just managed to hold on to the rubble and begin a laborious process of vigilant rebuilding.

While the future metropolis, which lies about the north-south midpoint of the present-day state, grew stone by stone, Valdivia endeavored to carry his conquest to the south. This would soon provoke the furious resistance of the Mapuche people and become the Arauco War, which simmered for decades. (Or centuries, depending on the degree of continuity one might attribute to various rebellions.)

Having seen the Spanish throw up a chain of forts in their territory the better to control new gold mines, the Mapuche counterattacked and overran the fort at Tucapel — led by a bold young commander named Lautaro, who had only recently fled from the personal service of Valdivia himself. Grievously underestimating the vigor of his foe, Valdivia set out to pacify the rebels with a mere 40 Spanish soldiers “because at that time the Indians were but lightly esteemed.” (Marmolejo; see below) Approaching an eerily empty Fort Tucapel on Christmas Day, his token force was suddenly engulfed by thousands of ambushing Mapuche and massacred to a man.

Almost to a man.

Valdivia had the misfortune of being taken alive.

The conquistador was put to death shortly after the battle. The chronicler Jeronimo de Vivar simply said that the commander Caupolican ordered him speared to death — but others went in for more frightful descriptions of an event they surely did not witness.

Alonso de Gongora Marmolejo, who like Vivar was a contemporary to the death of the governor, claimed (Spanish link) that “the Indians kindled a fire before him, and cut off his arms from the elbow to the wrist with their blades; they took care not to permit him his death, and so devoured his roasted flash before his eyes.”

As a founding figure in Chilean history, Valdivia has enjoyed frequent literary treatment, as has his impressive mistress Ines de Suarez. (Isabel Allende’s Ines of my Soul is a recent example.) It is likely that none will ever surpass in literary importance the 16th century epic of of the conquest of Chile La Araucana. Although its author, Alonso de Ercilla, did not sail for America until several years after Valdivia’s death, he — naturally — made the late conqueror one of his principal subjects.

* And the namesake of Valdivia, Chile.

** The name pays tribute to Saint James.

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1556: A canon’s servant

Add comment December 14th, 2015 Headsman

We’ve touched in these pages on the appealing diary of Felix Platter, a youth from Basel, Switzerland, studying medicine in Montpellier, France.

This was published in English as Beloved Son Felix; sadly, it’s now out of print, though it can be perused for free on archive.org.

A murderer was executed on the 14th of December. Three years earlier he had been a servant with a canon, who lived alone in his house, and carried a quantity of gold sewn into his clothes. The servant plotted with another man to kill his master. One evening, when the canon was sitting in a corner of the hearth, roasting a partridge, the servant felled him with a blow of a club on the back of the head. The villains then cut his throat and fled with the money, which came to a good sum. When the crime was discovered a sergeant was sent after them; but he allowed himself to be corrupted, and instead of arresting them he accepted a bribe and left them free to take the road to Spain. There they were too ostentatious with their wealth, and as a result they were robbed by brigands. However, the servant continued on his way, now alone. Without resources, he took employment with a Spanish shoemaker, and remained there three years. He let his beard grow, and believing that he would no longer be recognized he returned to France, and went to Lunel by way of Montpellier, but he was arrested there and brought back to Montpellier.

Although buried three years, the canon was disinterred, so that the murderer could be confronted with his victim. However, there were none of the signs they expected to see on such an occasion — as for example the opening of the wound and the gushing forth of blood; although it should be added that the corpse was very wasted. The accused man made a full confession and was condemned to the punishment they call massarer.* He appealed to Toulouse, succeeded in escaping as he was being taken across a river, was recaptured, condemned anew to that cruel punishment, and brought back to Montpellier for the sentence to be carried out. After the judgment had been read aloud, the executioner put the man on a cart, where he was laid on the lap of the executioner’s wife. He then began to pinch him with red-hot tongs, and this treatment continued until they came to the canon’s house. There the executioner cut off both the man’s hands on a block placed on the cart for that purpose. The woman held him with his eyes blindfolded, and as each hand was cut off she pulled a pointed linen bag over the stump, from which shot a jet of blood, and tied the bag on tightly to stop the bleeding. The man was taken afterwards to the Cour du Bayle, and there he was beheaded. His body was cut in quarters, and the pieces were hung up on the olive trees outside the town.

The sergeant who had taken the bribe, and who had been betrayed by the murderer, was tied to the cart, his body bare to the waist. The executioner scourged him until the blood came, several times over. After this he was banished.

Felix Platter noted a number of different executions in his five-year diary of Montpellier, but he didn’t let them get him down. The following February 27, Platter finally “with a heavy heart quitted this beloved town, in which I had lived for so long” and made for Basel where a respectable life as a doctor awaited him. (Felix was well-qualified for this from his coming of age in Montpellier, having dissected frequently: his journal records with something approaching glee the numerous midnight grave-robbings he undertook to secure subjects.)

* Massarer was the local version of the widespread and horrible “breaking” punishment of smashing the offender’s limbs one by one. Platter had earlier noted such an execution in 1554, and explained that it was carried out upon “a Saint Andrew’s cross … with two hollowed-out balks of timber.” Once the condemned murderer was trussed to the cross, the executioner “took a heavy bar of iron, called a massa, sharpened a little on one side, and broke the man’s limbs with it … The last blow was struck on the chest, and this killed the victim.”

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1781: Gaspard de Besse, social bandit

Add comment October 25th, 2015 Headsman

The French robber Gaspard de Besse was broken on the wheel in Aix-en-Provence on this date in 1781.

From a cave in the Esterel Mountains looming over the French Riviera, Gaspard raided the ample traffic wealthy merchants sent to and from the Mediterranean and Italy. He established a Robin Hood-esque “social bandit” profile by dint of his targets and populist provocations like, “the two scourges of Provence are the mistral and the parliament!”

Legend holds that he was unfailingly courteous in his raids and never killed those he preyed upon.

No surprise, he did not enjoy a like deference once one of his gang betrayed him. Hopefully amid the limb-shattering blows of the executioner he could console himself with the prospect of posterity’s renown.

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1638: Stepan Ostryanin, Cossack hetman

Add comment October 14th, 2015 Headsman

(Thanks to friend of the blog Sonechka for research, translation, and background information touching this post. -ed.)

October 14 (October 1 O.S.) is a liturgical feast celebrating the protective intercession of the Virgin Mary, a date of particular significance in Russia and Ukraine. Indeed, Red Square’s St. Basil’s Cathedral is actually the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos [i.e., Mary] on the Moat, just one of many Orthodox churches so named.

Also known as Pokrov — a quaint Slavic term for covering, denoting safeguarding — the holiday celebrates an incident from 10th century Byzantium when a saint beheld Mary descend through the dome of the church, then spread her garment protectively over the entire congregation.

It is of special significance in Ukraine where the ecclesiastical celebration pulls double duty as the Day of the Ukrainian Cossacks. And it is in honor of Pokrov that we dedicate this post.


17th century icon of the Madonna’s broad cloak protecting Ukrainians.

On an unspecified date in 1638, a Cossack named Ostryanin was broken on the wheel in Warsaw … maybe.

The Ostryanin Uprising of 1638 was one of the ongoing cycle of Cossack disturbances in the southern reaches of the Polish-Lithuanian Empire — modern-day Ukraine. Like many of these, it was a short-lived affair considered on its own, but the pattern of disaffected Cossacks struggling against the Polish crown for some combination of recognition, largesse, and autonomy was an ongoing pattern in the 17th century — and by the 1650s it would begin tearing apart the formerly mighty Polish-Lithuanian realm and transferring Ukrainian territory from Polish to Russian domination.

Tradition held that after the rising was stamped out in the summer of 1638, Stepan Ostryanin himself was treacherously seized and taken to Warsaw for execution. A late 18th century chronicle* of a distinctly patriotic bent called Istoriya Russov embroiders upon that death by breaking-wheel with racist gusto:

in accord with their treachery, insidious and duplicitous, having learned through their Jew spies that hetman Ostryanin’s would travel unguarded … the Lyakhs [term for “Poles”; it’s derogatory in present-day Russian but may have been less so at the time -ed.] surrounded him in Kanev monastery with a host of men. They, having tied the hetman and his men, altogether thirty seven people, … prepared an execution for them in Warsaw unprecedented in its cruelty, which posterity will scarcely believe to be true, because it would not occur to even the most barbarous and ferocious Japanese (!) and the reality of which would terrify the very beasts and monsters.

On the other hand, a Cossack named Yakiv Ostryanin was to be found on Russian soil in the subsequent years, until he was murdered in 1641. Some historians think that he was the very same namesake Cossack rebel escaped from Polish vengeance, and the story about him being broken on the wheel in Poland is pure sentimental folklore; alternatively, Stepan and Yakiv might have just been two different Cossacks named Ostryanin who met two different fates.

Quite a difference for our supposed Stepan Ostryanin, but a minor mystery from this distance in time. Nevertheless, our man, whoever he was, had a posthumous contribution yet to make to the letters of his Slavic brethren.

Polish historian Szymon Okolski rode along with the Polish commander Mikolaj Potocki in Potocki’s successful campaign of the spring-summer 1638 to suppress this rebellion. Okolski’s field diaries of the campaign are a key historical source on the Cossacks and are thought to have been used extensively by the Cossack-descended writer Nikolai Gogol in composing his short story Taras Bulba.

A product of Gogol’s youth, Taras Bulba has a rough romanticism — and a romanticism for the Cossack (read: national Ukrainian) cause specifically that nonplussed Russian authorities at the time. (And probably now, too.)

Taras Bulba‘s title character is a mature Cossack patriot who with his two sons joins the Cossack risings against Poland. Its location in time is indeterminate, not unlike the unending cycle of risings themselves. Taras Bulba is a nearly eternal character, almost a fixture of nature, because his war seemed eternal too.

And of course it contains some cracking execution scenes. The execution by breaking-wheel of Taras Bulba’s son might have been inspired by the Istoriya Russov‘s outraged account of that full Japanese barbarism. The excerpt below hails from this public-domain English translation.


Ostap had been seized and bound before his very eyes, and that he was now in the hands of the Lyakhs. Grief overpowered him. He pulled off and tore in pieces the bandages from his wounds, and threw them far from him; he tried to say something, but only articulated some incoherent words. Fever and delirium seized upon him afresh, and he uttered wild and incoherent speeches. Meanwhile his faithful comrade stood beside him, scolding and showering harsh, reproachful words upon him without stint. Finally, he seized him by the arms and legs, wrapped him up like a child, arranged all his bandages, rolled him in an ox-hide, bound him with bast, and, fastening him with ropes to his saddle, rode with him again at full speed along the road.

“I’ll get you there, even if it be not alive! I will not abandon your body for the Lyakhs to make merry over you, and cut your body in twain and fling it into the water. Let the eagle tear out your eyes if it must be so; but let it be our eagle of the steppe and not a Polish eagle, not one which has flown hither from Polish soil. I will bring you, though it be a corpse, to the Ukraine!”

Thus spoke his faithful companion. He rode without drawing rein, day and night, and brought Taras still insensible into the Zaporozhian Setch itself. There he undertook to cure him, with unswerving care, by the aid of herbs and liniments. He sought out a skilled Jewess, who made Taras drink various potions for a whole month, and at length he improved. Whether it was owing to the medicine or to his iron constitution gaining the upper hand, at all events, in six weeks he was on his feet. His wounds had closed, and only the scars of the sabre-cuts showed how deeply injured the old Cossack had been. But he was markedly sad and morose. Three deep wrinkles engraved themselves upon his brow and never more departed thence. Then he looked around him. All was new in the Setch; all his old companions were dead. Not one was left of those who had stood up for the right, for faith and brotherhood. And those who had gone forth with the Koschevoi in pursuit of the Tatars, they also had long since disappeared. All had perished. One had lost his head in battle; another had died for lack of food, amid the salt marshes of the Crimea; another had fallen in captivity and been unable to survive the disgrace. Their former Koschevoi was no longer living, nor any of his old companions, and the grass was growing over those once alert with power. He felt as one who had given a feast, a great noisy feast. All the dishes had been smashed in pieces; not a drop of wine was left anywhere; the guests and servants had all stolen valuable cups and platters; and he, like the master of the house, stood sadly thinking that it would have been no feast. In vain did they try to cheer Taras and to divert his mind; in vain did the long-bearded, grey-haired guitar-players come by twos and threes to glorify his Cossack deeds. He gazed grimly and indifferently at everything, with inappeasable grief printed on his stolid face; and said softly, as he drooped his head, “My son, my Ostap!”

The square on which the execution was to take place was not hard to find: for the people were thronging thither from all quarters. In that savage age such a thing constituted one of the most noteworthy spectacles, not only for the common people, but among the higher classes. A number of the most pious old men, a throng of young girls, and the most cowardly women, who dreamed the whole night afterwards of their bloody corpses, and shrieked as loudly in their sleep as a drunken hussar, missed, nevertheless, no opportunity of gratifying their curiosity. “Ah, what tortures!” many of them would cry, hysterically, covering their eyes and turning away; but they stood their ground for a good while, all the same. Many a one, with gaping mouth and outstretched hands, would have liked to jump upon other folk’s heads, to get a better view. Above the crowd towered a bulky butcher, admiring the whole process with the air of a connoisseur, and exchanging brief remarks with a gunsmith, whom he addressed as “Gossip,” because he got drunk in the same alehouse with him on holidays. Some entered into warm discussions, others even laid wagers. But the majority were of the species who, all the world over, look on at the world and at everything that goes on in it and merely scratch their noses. In the front ranks, close to the bearded civic-guards, stood a young noble, in warlike array, who had certainly put his whole wardrobe on his back, leaving only his torn shirt and old shoes at his quarters. Two chains, one above the other, hung around his neck. He stood beside his mistress, Usisya, and glanced about incessantly to see that no one soiled her silk gown. He explained everything to her so perfectly that no one could have added a word. “All these people whom you see, my dear Usisya,” he said, “have come to see the criminals executed; and that man, my love, yonder, holding the axe and other instruments in his hands, is the executioner, who will despatch them. When he begins to break them on the wheel, and torture them in other ways, the criminals will still be alive; but when he cuts off their heads, then, my love, they will die at once. Before that, they will cry and move; but as soon as their heads are cut off, it will be impossible for them to cry, or to eat or drink, because, my dear, they will no longer have any head.” Usisya listened to all this with terror and curiosity.

The upper stories of the houses were filled with people. From the windows in the roof peered strange faces with beards and something resembling caps. Upon the balconies, beneath shady awnings, sat the aristocracy. The hands of smiling young ladies, brilliant as white sugar, rested on the railings. Portly nobles looked on with dignity. Servants in rich garb, with flowing sleeves, handed round various refreshments. Sometimes a black-eyed young rogue would take her cake or fruit and fling it among the crowd with her own noble little hand. The crowd of hungry gentles held up their caps to receive it; and some tall noble, whose head rose amid the throng, with his faded red jacket and discoloured gold braid, and who was the first to catch it with the aid of his long arms, would kiss his booty, press it to his heart, and finally put it in his mouth. The hawk, suspended beneath the balcony in a golden cage, was also a spectator; with beak inclined to one side, and with one foot raised, he, too, watched the people attentively. But suddenly a murmur ran through the crowd, and a rumour spread, “They are coming! they are coming! the Cossacks!”

They were bare-headed, with their long locks floating in the air. Their beards had grown, and their once handsome garments were worn out, and hung about them in tatters. They walked neither timidly nor surlily, but with a certain pride, neither looking at nor bowing to the people. At the head of all came Ostap.

What were old Taras’s feelings when thus he beheld his Ostap? What filled his heart then? He gazed at him from amid the crowd, and lost not a single movement of his. They reached the place of execution. Ostap stopped. He was to be the first to drink the bitter cup. He glanced at his comrades, raised his hand, and said in a loud voice: “God grant that none of the heretics who stand here may hear, the unclean dogs, how Christians suffer! Let none of us utter a single word.” After this he ascended the scaffold.

“Well done, son! well done!” said Bulba, softly, and bent his grey head.

The executioner tore off his old rags; they fastened his hands and feet in stocks prepared expressly, and—We will not pain the reader with a picture of the hellish tortures which would make his hair rise upright on his head. They were the outcome of that coarse, wild age, when men still led a life of warfare which hardened their souls until no sense of humanity was left in them. In vain did some, not many, in that age make a stand against such terrible measures. In vain did the king and many nobles, enlightened in mind and spirit, demonstrate that such severity of punishment could but fan the flame of vengeance in the Cossack nation. But the power of the king, and the opinion of the wise, was as nothing before the savage will of the magnates of the kingdom, who, by their thoughtlessness and unconquerable lack of all far-sighted policy, their childish self-love and miserable pride, converted the Diet into the mockery of a government. Ostap endured the torture like a giant. Not a cry, not a groan, was heard. Even when they began to break the bones in his hands and feet, when, amid the death-like stillness of the crowd, the horrible cracking was audible to the most distant spectators; when even his tormentors turned aside their eyes, nothing like a groan escaped his lips, nor did his face quiver. Taras stood in the crowd with bowed head; and, raising his eyes proudly at that moment, he said, approvingly, “Well done, boy! well done!”

But when they took him to the last deadly tortures, it seemed as though his strength were failing. He cast his eyes around.

O God! all strangers, all unknown faces! If only some of his relatives had been present at his death! He would not have cared to hear the sobs and anguish of his poor, weak mother, nor the unreasoning cries of a wife, tearing her hair and beating her white breast; but he would have liked to see a strong man who might refresh him with a word of wisdom, and cheer his end. And his strength failed him, and he cried in the weakness of his soul, “Father! where are you? do you hear?”

“I hear!” rang through the universal silence, and those thousands of people shuddered in concert. A detachment of cavalry hastened to search through the throng of people. Yankel turned pale as death, and when the horsemen had got within a short distance of him, turned round in terror to look for Taras; but Taras was no longer beside him; every trace of him was lost.


Despite his cunning escape on this occasion, Taras Bulba himself is also in the end put to death: the story ends with him going to the stake as his soul summons the brethren he can still see in the distance to resume the fight, again and again.


[A] band of Lyakhs suddenly rushed up, and seized him by the shoulders. He struggled with all might; but he could not scatter on the earth, as he had been wont to do, the heydukes who had seized him. “Oh, old age, old age!” he exclaimed: and the stout old Cossack wept. But his age was not to blame: nearly thirty men were clinging to his arms and legs.

“The raven is caught!” yelled the Lyakhs. “We must think how we can show him the most honour, the dog!” They decided, with the permission of the hetman, to burn him alive in the sight of all. There stood hard by a leafless tree, the summit of which had been struck by lightning. They fastened him with iron chains and nails driven through his hands high up on the trunk of the tree, so that he might be seen from all sides; and began at once to place fagots at its foot. But Taras did not look at the wood, nor did he think of the fire with which they were preparing to roast him: he gazed anxiously in the direction whence his Cossacks were firing. From his high point of observation he could see everything as in the palm of his hand.

“Farewell, comrades!” he shouted to them from above; “remember me, and come hither again next spring and make merry in the same fashion! What! cursed Lyakhs, have ye caught me? Think ye there is anything in the world that a Cossack fears? Wait; the time will come when ye shall learn what the orthodox Russian faith is! Already the people scent it far and near. A czar shall arise from Russian soil, and there shall not be a power in the world which shall not submit to him!” But fire had already risen from the fagots; it lapped his feet, and the flame spread to the tree…. But can any fire, flames, or power be found on earth which are capable of overpowering Russian strength?

Broad is the river Dniester, and in it are many deep pools, dense reed-beds, clear shallows and little bays; its watery mirror gleams, filled with the melodious plaint of the swan, the proud wild goose glides swiftly over it; and snipe, red-throated ruffs, and other birds are to be found among the reeds and along the banks. The Cossacks rowed swiftly on in the narrow double-ruddered boats—rowed stoutly, carefully shunning the sand bars, and cleaving the ranks of the birds, which took wing—rowed, and talked of their hetman.

* The Istoriya Russov had a great influence on young writers in the early 19th century. The text can be read as advancing a nationalism of all the Russias, or as speaking in a more specifically Ukrainian voice. See The Cossack Myth: History and Nationhood in the Age of Empires.

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1589: Franz Seuboldt, broken parricide

Add comment September 22nd, 2015 Headsman

We have had occasion to profile the famous Nuremberg executioner (and diarist) Franz Schmidt, who is the subject of a recent book on his life and times.

This date in 1589 marked one of executioner Schmidt’s more high-profile appearances. The occasion was the execution of parricide Franz Seuboldt, who killed his own father by ambush while dad was setting bird traps.

For this transgression, Seuboldt was condemned to be drawn through Nuremberg and “nipped” by the executioner’s red-hot tongs. With these, Franz Schmidt ripped bloody chunks of the murderer’s flesh. When at last they reached the “raven stone” execution platform outside Nuremberg’s sturdy walls, Schmidt stretched out his patient and set about methodically smashing his limbs with a heavy wooden “Catherine wheel”: “only” two limbs in Seuboldt’s case, before administering the coup de grace.

This broadsheet illustration traces the case in a U shape from crime (upper left) to tongs (foreground) to execution (right) and finally the mounted wheel.

Although reserved for more exceptional crimes than the everyday thefts that merited hanging, breaking on the wheel was a fairly common form of execution in Germany, France, and elsewhere in continental Europe for many, many years. Indeed, while the wheel would fade from the Nuremberg scene during the 17th century, the horrible device remained in (increasingly rare) use in France right up to the French Revolution.

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1797: David McLane, an American traitor in Quebec

Add comment July 21st, 2015 Headsman

On only one occasion has the sentence of hanging, drawing and quartering been executed on the soil of the (eventual) United States.

But on this date in 1797, that terrible death was visited on American citizen David McLane in Quebec for attempting to topple British authority in that Canadian province.

David McLane, a Rhode Island merchant, was arrested in the suburbs of Quebec City in May of 1797 and accused of conniving with French diplomats to recover their former colony by dint of an invasion of raftborne pikemen across the St. Lawrence to support a planned French landing. This tome claims it to be Quebec’s first treason trial under British rule; the Attorney General prosecuting it thought it the first in the North American colonies since Nicholas Bayard‘s in 1701. (Cobbett’s State Trials has the entire trial transcript.)

The Quebecois spectators crowded the courts in dread of hearing the ancient English punishment pronounced. They were not disappointed.

Writing many decades later about an execution he had witnessed as a 10-year-old boy, Philippe Aubert de Gaspe recollected its grisly particulars — and the surprising (to the audience) fact that McLane was hanged to death before the emasculating-and-disembowelling portions of the sentence were visited on him.*

The government having little confidence in the loyalty which the French Canadians had proved during the war of 1775, wished to strike terror into the people, by the preparations for the execution. From the early morning was heard the noise of the pieces of aitillery that were being dragged to the place of execution outside St. John’s gate; and strong detachments of armed soldiers paraded the streets. It was a parody on the execution of the unfortunate Louis 16th and all to no purpose.

I saw McLane conducted to the place of execution, he was seated with his back to the horse on a wood-sleigh whose runners grated on the bare ground and stones. An axe and a block were on the front part of the conveyance. He looked at the spectators in a calm, confident manner, but without the least effrontery. He Was a tall and remarkably handsome man. I heard some women of the lower class exclaim, whilst deploring his sad fate:

Ah if it were only as in old times, that handsome man would not have to die! There would be plenty of girls who would be ready to marry him in order to save his life!

And even several days after the execution, I heard the same thing repeated.

This belief then universal among the lower class must, I suppose, have arisen from the fact that many French prisoners, condemned to the stake by the savages, had owed their lives to the Indian women who had then married them.

The sentence of McLane, however, was not executed in all its barbarity. I saw all with my own eyes, a big student named Boudrault, lifted me up from time to time in his arms, so that I might lose nothing of the horrible butchery. And Dr. Duvert was near us, he drew out his watch as soon as Ward, the hangman, threw down the ladder upon which McLane was stretched on his back, with the cord round his neck made fast to the beam of the gallows; thrown sideways by this abrupt movement the body struck the northern post of the gallows, and then remained stationary, with the exception of some slight oscillations.

“He is quite dead,” said. Dr. Duvert, when the hangman cut down the body at the end of about twenty-five minutes; “he is quite dead, and will not feel the indignities yet to be inflicted on him.” Every one was under the impression that the sentence would be executed in all its rigor, and that the disembowelled victim, still alive, would see his own entrails burnt but no; the poor unhappy man was really dead when Ward cut him open, took out his bowels and his heart which he burnt in a chafing dish, and cut off his head which he showed all bloody to the people.

The spectators who were nearest to the scaffold say that the hangman refused to proceed further with the execution after the hanging, alleging “that he was a hangman, but not a butcher,” and it was only after a good supply of guineas, that the sheriff succeeded in making him execute all the sentence, and that after each act of the fearful drama, his demands became more and more exorbitant. Certain it is that after that time Mr. Ward became quite a grand personage; never walking in the streets except with silk stockings, a three-cornered hat and a sword at his side. Two watches, one in his breeches pocket, and the other hanging from his neck by a silver chain, completed his toilet.

I cannot refrain, in parting from this doer of worthy deeds, from relating a fact which I have never been able to account for. When I arrived in Quebec in order to go to school, at about nine years of age, people seemed to regret a certain good hangman named Bob; he was a negro, whom every one praised. This Ethiopian ought to have inspired the same horror which is always felt towards men of his calling; but, on the contrary he visited at all the houses like the other citizens, enjoyed a name for unimpeachable honesty, ran errands, in fact was a universal favorite. As well as I can remember, there was something very touching in Bob’s history; he was a victim of circumstances, which compelled him to become a hangman in self-defence. He used to shed tears when he had to perform his terrible task. I do not know why my memory, generally so tenacious concerning all I saw and heard in my early childhood, fails me in the matter of explaining the reason of the universal sympathy extended to Bob.**

Now I return to McLane. Such a spectacle as I have described could not fail to make a great impression on a child of my age; hence it arises that I have thought a great deal about the fate of a man, whom many people looked upon as a victim to the politics of the day. I have tried to satisfy myself as to his greater or less guilt. I could say a great deal on this subject; but I will be silent. Suffice it to say, that if in these days a boasting Yankee were to proclaim to all comers, that with five hundred able men, armed with sticks hardened in the fire, it would be easy to take the town of Quebec, the young men would crowd round him to humor him and encourage him to talk, and then giving him lots of champagne to drink, would laugh heartily at him, without the government dreaming of having him hung, drawn and quartered.

It has been said that McLane was an emissary of the French government; I do not myself believe so; the French republic, at war with all the European powers, had too much work on its hands to concern itself about a little colony, containing some millions of acres of snow; to use an expression not very flattering to us.

The policy of our then rulers was crafty and hence cruel. Every where they thought they discovered emissaries of the French government. There were two Canadians banished from the country, their crime being that they had been to Martinique in, I believe, an American vessel, to transact some commercial business: they granted them the favour of allowing them to take with them their wives and children.

* Actual complete hung, drawn, quartered sentences were already passe in Great Britain.

** Colonial Quebec had several black executioners; the best-known was Martinican slave Mathieu Léveillé from 1733 to 1743. (There an interesting .pdf about Leveille and his world here.)

The identity of the affable “Bob” our narrator half-remembers is a bit of a mystery; he has been identified with George Burns, a black man who held the job in the early 1800s, but the timetable isn’t quite right relative to de Gaspe’s admittedly distant memories. (The diarist thinks Bob was the former executioner by the time concerned with our post.) Frank Mackey in Done with Slavery: The Black Fact in Montreal, 1760-1840 suggests we take the name at face value and identify this executioner as either or both of “Bob a Nigro man” jailed as a felon in 1781 (we don’t know that Bob a Nigro man became a hangman), or “Robert Lane the Hangman” who was charged with a crime in 1789 (we don’t know that Robert Lane the Hangman was African). Mackey suspects that these are one and the same man.

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2007: Jafar Kiani, stoned

Add comment July 5th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 2007, Jafar Kiani was stoned to death in Iran for committing “adultery while married” with Mokarrameh Ebrahimi, by whom Kiani had two children. She was condemned to the same death, for the same crime.

Ma’iz b. Malik al-Aslami came to Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) and said: Allah’s Messenger, I have wronged myself; I have committed adultery and I earnestly desire that you should purify me … a ditch was dug for him and he (the Holy Prophet) pronounced judgment about him and he was stoned.

… There came to him (the Holy Prophet) a woman from Ghamid and said: Allah’s Messenger, I have committed adultery, so purify me. … He said: Well, if you insist upon it, then go away until you give birth to (the child). When she was delivered she came with the child (wrapped) in a rag and said: Here is the child whom I have given birth to. He said: Go away and suckle him until you wean him. When she had weaned him, she came to him (the Holy Prophet) with the child who was holding a piece of bread in his hand. She said: Allah’s Apostle, here is he as I have weaned him and he eats food. He (the Holy Prophet) entrusted the child to one of the Muslims and then pronounced punishment. And she was put in a ditch up to her chest and he commanded people and they stoned her. Khalid b Walid came forward with a stone which he flung at her head and there spurted blood on the face of Khalid and so he abused her. Allah’s Apostle (may peace be upon him) heard his (Khalid’s) curse that he had huried upon her. Thereupon he (the Holy Prophet) said: Khalid, be gentle. By Him in Whose Hand is my life, she has made such a repentance that even if a wrongful tax-collector were to repent, he would have been forgiven. Then giving command regarding her, he prayed over her and she was buried.

-one of many hadiths to sanction stoning (the Quran does not do so explicitly)

A frighteningly primitive form of execution, stoning is a legally prescribed form of execution for extramarital concupiscience in Iran.

“Article 102 — An adulterous man shall be buried in a ditch up to near his waist and an adulterous woman up to near her chest and then stoned to death.” (

Such sentences were implemented fairly widely in the immediate aftermath of the Iranian Revolution, when sharia strictures were inscribed in law. (Human Rights Watch estimates that the Islamic Republic has conducted at least 70 executions by stoning since its birth in 1979, though reckonings of double that figure or more can also be had. Iran has not exactly prioritized transparency in this area.)

In the 21st century, however, Iran has distinctly toned down stoning executions.

The head of Iran’s judiciary announced in 2002 what was widely reported as a “moratorium” or even a “ban” on stonings.

It is obvious from Kiani’s execution that this directive did not carry absolute authority; with a pair of 2009 stonings, a judiciary spokesman explained that the so-called moratorium was merely an “advisory”, and that “judges are independent.” Kiani’s execution was justified on the grounds that the Supreme Court had approved the sentence.

Amnesty International reported at least six stonings from 2006 to 2009, but the independence of local judges has not since that time sufficed to overcome Tehran’s growing reservations about the controversial punishment. It appears that Iran has not carried out any known stonings from 2010 onward, which was right around the time worldwide outcry saved adulteress Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani from death by stoning. (She was eventually released altogether.)

Nevertheless, the stoning laws have remained on the books, and people are still being sentenced to be buried in a hole and lethally pelted with rocks. Iran explored removing stoning from its penal codes altogether in 2012, but the Guardian Council reportedly rescued stoning and the final version of that legislation in 2013 retained the option.

Jafar Kiani’s lover Mokarrameh Ebrahimi, who had also been languishing under the same sentence for 11 long years at the time of Kiani’s execution, was, at least, a beneficiary of Iran’s growing reticence to implement such sentences. Campaigners were able to win her release in March 2008.

Elahe Amani discusses stoning in Iran in a 2013 podcast here.

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