Posts filed under 'Gruesome Methods'

1595: Robert Southwell

Add comment February 21st, 2019 Headsman

February 2O, 1594-5, [Father Robert] Southwell, a Jesuit, that long time had lain prisoner in the Tower of London, was arraigned at the King’s-bench bar. He was condemned, and on the next morning drawn from Newgate to Tyburn, and there hanged, bowelled and quartered.

-Chronicle of John Stow

Youngest child in a gentry household of Catholic-leaning Norfolk, Robert Southwell was for holy orders and martyr’s laurels from the jump; in 1576 at the tender age of 15, he made for Douai and its English seminary, noted for training missionary priests who would return secretly to Elizabethan England to court torture and death for the Word. Within a decade he was a prefect at the English College in Rome and a fully armed and operational member of the Society of Jesus.

In 1586, Southwell sailed for his homeland with fellow Jesuit Henry Garnet, who would one day go to the gallows for Guy Fawkes’s Gunpowder Plot.

For Southwell, the pen was mightier than such detonations.

“St. Peter’s Complaint” (Excerpt)
by Robert Southwell

Ah! life, sweet drop, drown’d in a sea of sours,
A flying good, posting to doubtful end;
Still losing months and years to gain new hours,
Fain times to have and spare, yet forced to spend;
Thy growth, decrease; a moment all thou hast.
That gone ere known; the rest, to come, or past.

Ah! life, the maze of countless straying ways,
Open to erring steps and strew’d with baits.
To bind weak senses into endless strays,
Aloof from Virtue’s rough, unbeaten straits
A flower, a play, a blast, a shade, a dream,
A living death, a never-turning stream.

Quietly nestled in as the house confessor to Catholic noblewoman Anne Howard, Southwell scratched out page after page to fortify the hearts of the beleaguered Old Faith — standard stuff like martyrology testimony concerning his brother priests, overt manifestos like An humble supplication to Her Maiestie, and literary bestsellers admired by Protestant countrymen like Mary Magdalene’s Funeral Tears and his verse collection St. Peter’s Complaint, and Other Poems.*

This last appeared posthumously. After three years’ imprisonment — “I am decayed in memory with long and close imprisonment, and I have been tortured ten times,” the imminent martyr said of his handling by notorious Catholic-hunter Richard Topcliffe; “I had rather have endured ten executions” — Southwell was brought to the bar on February 20, 1595, to answer as a traitor and put to the traitor’s death the very next day.

Though less widely familiar now, his literary output was well-known and highly regarded long after he died, and perhaps influenced many other writers including Shakespeare. The Catholic Church elevated Southwell to sainthood in 1970.

* A couple of Southwell’s epistles are preserved in the 1741 volume Memoirs of Missionary Priests.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,God,Gruesome Methods,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Torture,Treason

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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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1581: Peter Niers

Add comment September 16th, 2018 Headsman

The execution of legendary German bandit and mass-murderer Peter Niers took place in Neumarkt on this date in 1581 … or at least, it started on this date.

A veritable bogeyman figure thanks to the reputation-magnifying effects of early print culture, Niers/Niersch (English Wikipedia entry | the cursory German) enjoyed a years-long career in brigandage across the fractured German map, with upwards of 500 murders to his name.*

No matter the plausibility discount we we might reckon for this sensational figure, it is verifiable that Niers was was an early modern public enemy for years before his death. He enters the documentary trail in 1577 when the first of several known crime pamphlets** about him hit movable type upon Niers’s arrest in the Black Forest town of Gersbach. Under torture, he copped at that time to 75 murders … and then he broke out of captivity and into the nightmares of every German traveler wending gloomy highways through the unguarded wilds.

Actually “rather old,” according to an arrest warrant, with crooked figures and a prominent scar on his chin, the fugitive Niers gained an outsized reputations for disguise and ferocity. As Joy Wiltenburg describes in Crime & Culture in Early Modern Germany, that Niers of fable became like Keyser Soze “assimilate[d to] various supernatural elements” that elevated the crafty gangster into a shapeshifter or magician powered by a demonic patron.

The roving killer Peter Niers and his gang appeared in a number of accounts, several without demonic content. Johann Wick followed Niers’s career with horror; his collection includes three pamphlets on his misdeeds between 1577 and 1582. Niers was arrested and tortured in Gersbach in 1577, confessing to seventy-five murders. According to a song pamphlet from 1577, he learned the art of invisibility from an earlier arch-murderer, Martin Stier. (Wick also owned an account of Stier’s misdeeds and added a note in the margin of the Niers pamphlet, cross-referencing Stier’s 1572 execution in Wurttemberg.) Both Stier and Niers confessed to killing pregnant women. Each had also ripped a male fetus from the mother’s body, cut off its hands, and eaten its heart. Niers evidently escaped in 1577, to be rearrested in 1581 and this time finally executed. According to the pamphlet account, he was caught only because he was separated from the sack containing his magical materials and so could not turn invisible. Here the capture is considered an act of God, but the Devil gets no explicit credit for Niers’s evil magic or his 544 murders, including those of 24 pregnant women. Only the final pamphlet, printed in Strasbourg in 1583, fully explains the diabolical reason for the mutilation of fetuses. Here, the Devil makes an explicit pact with the killers and promises them supernatural powers from the fetal black magic.

He must have been a few fetuses late by the end, for it was his disguise that failed him when he slipped into Neumarkt in August 1581 intending to freshen up at the baths. Instead, he was recognized and arrested.

His body — already put to the tortures of pincers and oil — was shattered and laid on the breaking-wheel on September 16, 1581, but it was two agonizing days before this terror of the roads finally breathed his last.

* 500 murders sounds like plenty to you, me, and Ted Bundy, but it wouldn’t have even made him the most homicidal German outlaw executed in 1581.

** A 1582 print reporting Niers’s execution is available online here.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Gruesome Methods,History,Murder,Outlaws,Public Executions,Theft,Torture

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1704: Roland Laporte, posthumously, and five aides, humously

1 comment August 16th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1704, the great Camisard commander Pierre Laporte was publicly burned. He was already two days dead, but the same could not be said by five comrades-in-rebellion who were quite alive as they were broken on the wheel.

Familiarly known by the nom de guerre “Roland”, Laporte (English Wikipedia entry | the far more detailed French) was a whelp of 22 when entrusted with command of about 400 Protestant guerrillas operating around Lassalle, and his native Mialet.

These were rebels in a very dirty regional civil war in France’s heavily Protestant southeast, following the crown’s revocation of tolerance for the heretics. Roland proved himself one of its ablest prosecutors, putting Catholics to fire and sword be they enemy troops or wrongthinking neighbors.

By 1704 the insurgency was circling the drain as Camisard officers were either killed off or bought off. Our self-proclaimed “general of the children of god” was not the type to be had for 30 pieces of silver plus an army commission,* and so only violence would do for him. On August 14, betrayed by an informer who was amenable to purchase, Roland was slain in a Catholic ambush at Castelnau-les-Valence. Five officers escorting him opted not to go down fighting and surrendered instead, which proved a regrettable decision.

But even death could not slake the vengeance of his foes. “On the 16th August, 1704, the body of Roland Laporte, general of the Camisards … was dragged into Nimes at the tail of a cart and burnt, while 5 of his companions were broken on the wheel around his funeral pyre.”

For the unusually interested reader, there’s a 1954 French biography by Henri Bosc — who also authored a multi-volume history of the Camisard war — titled Un Grand Chef Camisard Pierre Laporte dit Roland, 1680-1704. It’s long out of print and appears to be difficult to come by.

* Not long before Roland’s defeat, just such a deal had shockingly induced fellow Camisard commander Jean Cavalier to turn coat.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,France,God,Gruesome Methods,Guerrillas,History,Mass Executions,Posthumous Executions,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Soldiers,Terrorists,Torture,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1540: The Botolph Plotters of Calais, the last English Carthusian, and Thomas More’s son-in-law

Add comment August 4th, 2018 Headsman

The 4. of August, Thomas Empson sometime a monke of Westminster, which had beene prisoner in Newgate more than three yeares, was brought before the Justices of goale deliverie at Newgate, and for that he would not aske the king pardon for denying his supremacie, nor be sworne thereto, his monkes cowle was plucked from his backe, and his body repried till the king were informed of his obstinacie. The same 4. of August were brawen to Tiborne 6. persons, and one led betwixt twaine, to wit, Laurence Cooke, prior of Dancaster, William Horne a lay brother of the Charterhouse of London, Giles Horne gentleman, Clement Phillip gentleman of Caleis, and servant to the lord Lisle, Edmond Bromholme priest, chaplaine to the said lord Lisley, Darby Gening, Robert Bird, all hanged and quartered, and had beene attainted by parliament, for deniall of the kings supremacie.

John Stow, Annals of England to 1603 (see page 977 of this archive.org version)*

Tyburn hosted a mass execution on this date mingling several different offenders with a Catholic bent from Henrician England’s religion/politics bloodsport.

The most politically intriguing are Clement Phillip (or Philpott) and Edmund Brindholme, two members of the retinue of the Viscount Lisle. Lord Lisle governed Calais, Henry VIII’s vital French bridgehead.

Phillip and Brindholme were part of the “Botolph Plot”, so named for a fellow-servant called Gregory Botolf or Botolph.

Botolph was an energetic conspirator and/or trumped-up con man who represented to his mates that he was shuttling mash notes with the exiled Cardinal Reginald Pole, Henry VIII’s once-loved, now-despised nemesis noted for his noisy denunciations of the king’s break with Rome. Botolph’s declared objective was to “get the towne of Calais into the hands of the Pope and Cardynal Pole; this was the matter that I went to Rome for; and I have consulted with the Holy Father the Pope and with the Reverent Father Cardynall Pole.”

The implausibility of these fanciful pretensions — one chronicle calls this guy “Gregory Sweetlips” which gives you an idea of his credibility — stood in inverse relationship to the damage such a plot’s execution would inflict: Calais was a commercially and strategically important port that had been in English hands for nearly 200 years; for a dynasty perpetually nervous of its prestige, fumbling it away could have proven catastrophic.** So once a plan to betray it from the very governor’s household was exposed, the crown prosecuted it ferociously, although as best I can determine Botolph himself appears to have successfully escaped the royal vengeance.

Lord Lisle himself was also clapped in the Tower† for his servants’ misbehavior but no attainder was ever proceeded upon. In 1542, Henry cut him a break and released him; Lisle would already have been near or past the age of 70 by this point, which we mention as context in reporting that news of his intended release caused the poor ex-governor to keel over dead of a heart attack. “Henry VIII’s Mercy was as fatal as his Judgments,” one waggish historian would later remark.‡

Things might have gone less mercifully for Lisle had not his situation happened to overlap with the fall of Thomas Cromwell, which unfolded that same summer of 1540.

Cromwell was beheaded on July 28, significantly upstaging this August 4 coterie, and events in Calais might have played a part in that unhappy end. Politically weakened by his authorship of the failed Anne of Cleves marriage, Cromwell’s defeat is sometimes read in the light of excessive reformation zeal unleashed in Calais. (Like most theses about Tudor England, the Calais-reformers line has its detractors.) One possible way to read the Botolph Plot stuff is as one of Cromwell’s very last, desperate gambits: threatened by the conservative Duke of Norfolk, who had the whip hand during this brief interval thanks to his kinship to incoming queen Catherine Howard, Cromwell struck back against his persecutors “with the concentrated energy of a desperate gambler” (Source) … by going hard after the papist plot in Calais and implicating in the treason Howard’s ally, the aforementioned Lisle.


In William Horn(e) the crown completed the destruction of the Carthusian order, which had been violently suppressed several years previous — with 18 executions into the bargain. Eleven more Carthusians had avoided the scaffold only to be consigned to the dungeons where pestilence and neglect took their toll, until only Horn survived.

Nobody seems quite able to put a finger on why Horn was kept alive all that time: was he just hardier or “luckier” than the rest, or was he being intentionally saved as an accent upon an occasion such as this? With him went Friar Lawrence Cook, the last Carmelite executed in the king’s suppression of that order: he hailed from Yorkshire and had once countenanced that region’s subversive (in Henry’s eyes) Pilgrimage of Grace.

In a similar vein, we also find among this batch Giles Heron, a son-in-law of the first name in Catholic obstinacy, Sir/Saint Thomas More. Heron had kept his head about him and even sat on the Middlesex grand jury that recommended proceedings against Anne Boleyn, which is the sort of thing a Thomas More client wouldn’t mind doing at all.

Alas, he was in the judgment of a contemporary “wise in words, but foolish in deeds” during such dangerous times. Comfortably situated as a rentier landlord, Heron appears to have fallen into a ferocious tiff with a tenant who revenged an eviction by informing to Cromwell’s spies about Heron’s divergences from the new orthodoxy. The evidence of this tenant, one Lyons, eventually led Parliament to attaint Heron. The confiscated estates would be restored to Heron descendants under Queen Mary.

Darby Gynnyng — to use a more Gaelic rendering of his name — was a bit more forceful about his dissidence, for he came “late of Dublin,” where he “has maintained divers of the King’s enemies in Ireland, especially Fitz Garrard whom he succoured and accompanied.”

* A somewhat different roster for the same date is supplied by Wriothesley’s Chronicle (p. 121 of this archive.org version) which might be double-counting his “six persons more” to suggest so many as 13.

This yeare, the fowerth daie of Awgust, were drawen from the Tower of London to Tiburne, Giles Heron, gentleman, Clement Philpott, gentleman, late of Callis, and servant to the Lord Lile, Darbie Gynning, Edmonde Bryndholme, priest, William Horn, late a lay brother of the Charter Howse of London, and another, with six persons more, were there hanged drawn, and quartered, and one Charles Carow, gentleman, was that daie hanged for robbing of my Ladie Carowe, all which persons were attaynted by the whole Parliament for treason.

** The Tudors actually did lose Calais to French siege in 1558. These were the last months of the ailing Queen Mary’s rule; she’s reported to have wailed on her deathbed that “When I am dead and cut open, they will find Philip [her husband] and Calais inscribed on my heart.”

† Seized upon Lord Lisle’s arrest were seven years of correspondence comprising more than 3,000 distinct documents. This trove has survived to present times and become an invaluable resource for historians’ exploration of Tudor life. It’s known as the Lisle Papers; there are published collections and commentaries on them available by the late Muriel St. Clare Byrne.

‡ Still, this was a better fate than that enjoyed by the next Viscount Lisle, John Dudley, who briefly exercised de facto rulership of England only to have his head cut off after the fall of Lady Jane Grey.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,God,Gruesome Methods,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Treason

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1402: Fang Xiaoru, of the ten agnates

Add comment July 25th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1402, the Yongle Emperor cemented his seizure of the throne by purging Confucian scholar-bureaucrat Fang Xiaoru with a legendary extermination to ten degrees of kinship.

Our numerous executions on this occasion bring us to the close of a three-year civil war that ensued the death of the Ming dynasty founder, known as the Hongwu Emperor. In this conflict, the old man’s designated successor, a grandson who took the ironic regnal moniker of Jianwen Emperor (meaning “establishing civility”), was defeated and deposed by one of the old man’s sons, a prince whose name can be transliterated as Zhu Di or Chu Ti.

The uncle was much the abler commander while the nephew was plagued by defections. In July of 1402, Zhu Di’s forces captured the capital city of Nanjing; the Jianwen emperor vanished into history’s fogs — burned to death, Zhu Di would claim, citing an unrecognizable corpse charred in the blaze that consumed the imperial palace; rumors long persisted that he had occulted himself into the mountains in a monk’s robes.

Either way, Zhu Di had occasion now to announce himself the Yongle Emperor. “Perpetual happiness,” that one means. And to make sure that everyone would real happy with the new arrangements, Boss Yongle insisted on the immediate fealty of the capital’s intelligentsia. “Those who are guilty I do not dare to pardon,” he said of the late emperor’s ex-ministers. “Those who are innocent I do not dare to execute.”

Most of those presented with these alternatives chose judiciously, as attested by the Yongle Emperor’s subsequent 22-year reign.

But our principal Fang Xiaoru was the most famous among a number of scholars to stand athwart history yelling stop.* For malcontents like Fang, the Yongle Emperor offered a compelling dissuasion in the form of the ancient “extermination of nine agnates”: the collective execution of the traitor’s entire family, compassing nine different classes of relations.

  1. The criminal himself
  2. His parents
  3. His grandparents
  4. His children (and children’s spouses)
  5. His grandchildren
  6. The criminal’s spouse
  7. The spouse’s parents
  8. The criminal’s aunts and uncles
  9. The criminal’s cousins

We don’t know how all his cousins and in-laws felt about the matter but for his own part, Fang was undaunted: “Never mind nine agnates; give me ten!” And that’s just what they did, drafting the scholar’s own pupils into the hecatomb as the tenth degree, an extremity unequaled in the history of China or academia.

All told, the ten agnates numbered 873 people, among perhaps as many as ten thousand noncompliant officials and family members purged overall. Yet still as he died, hewed apart at the waist, Fang dipped his finger in his own gore and scrawled on the floor his own last verdict on the new emperor: the single Chinese character meaning “usurper”.


An execution by “waist severing” delivers what it promises.

* Others include Huang Zicheng and Lian Zining. See “Venerating the Martyrs of the 1402 Usurpation: History and Memory in the Mid and Late Ming Dynasty” by Peter Ditmanson, T’oung Pao, Second Series, Vol. 93, Fasc. 1/3 (2007), pp. 110-158.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous Last Words,Gruesome Methods,History,Innocent Bystanders,Intellectuals,Power,Treason

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1726: Franz Laubler, Hermann Joachim Hahn’s murderer

Add comment July 18th, 2018 Headsman

Franz Laubler was broken on the wheel in Dresden on this date for assassinating Protestant deacon Hermann Joachim Hahn.

Hahn was a well-connected pastor who had been plying his trade in the Lutheran Kreuzkirche for nigh 20 years. That trade consisted heavily in the evangelization of Catholics in a confessionally split city;* indeed, his murderer, a Catholic-reared butcher and mercenary, had himself once upon a time been converted by Deacon Hahn.

Said Franz Laubler had in time returned his soul to the Roman fold but the unsettled mind suggested by his sectarian vacillation is supported by Laubler’s strange conviction that a communion wafer taken in 1720 had lodged permanently in his gullet. “Schlaget mir den Kopt ab, und ihr werdet noch die Hostie in meinem Halse finden!” he exclaimed: “Cut off my head, and you’ll still find the Host in my throat!”


Not to be confused with the Ghost to the Post.

On May 21 of that same year of our Lord 1726, the Host-throatened Laubler presented himself at the divine’s residence under the guise of seeking spiritual counsel, but instead sent Hahn straight to his maker with a hidden blade.** He’d thrown down Dresden’s Lucifer, he explained to the gendarmes who took him into custody — and made his heavy heart light.

The murder triggered a massive Protestant pogrom against Catholics which required several days to quell.

There’s a public domain volume from 1826 about these events available free here, as well as a 2009 book Die Hostie im Hals. (The Host in the Throat | here’s a review) Both titles are in German. Hahn’s Wikipedia page itemizes a number of other German pamphlets about his murder dating to the 1720s.

Hahn’s tomb can be found in the Trinitatiskirche Cemetery, where it was transferred in the mid-19th century from the old Johanniskirchof.

* Dresden, and Saxony in general, were predominantly Protestant. However, Catholics enjoyed a broad grant of tolerance thanks in part to the Elector of Saxony, Augustus the Strong, who converted to Catholicism in 1697 in order to become King of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

** Okay, it wasn’t straight to his maker: Laubler started by trying to strangle Hahn with a rope, and resorted to the knife as his victim resisted him.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Assassins,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Germany,God,Gruesome Methods,History,Holy Roman Empire,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Public Executions

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1758: Not Florence Hensey, Seven Years’ War spy

1 comment July 12th, 2018 Headsman

The French spy Florence Hensey was due to die at Tyburn on this date in 1758. As it happened, the only violence done there was to the spectators.

A well-traveled Irish Catholic, Hensey had a prosperous London medical practice when he made an offer to a former colleague in France to share intelligence on war preparations at the outset of the England-vs.-France Seven Years’ War (1756-1763).

Upon being accepted into the ranks of salaried moles, Hensey set his industry to forming acquaintances at establishments where parliamentarians and their clerks met and gossiped, transmitting the resulting nuggets to France by way of Germany in lemon juice ink concealed within letters bearing nothing but everyday pleasantries. Eventually clerks suspicious at the volume of such superficially trivial exchanges being imposed upon the international post got nosy and found out the real story.

Hensey’s treachery was obvious, ongoing, and in the midst of wartime. He should have died for it, but on that very morning he was spared that miserable fate. The Newgate calendar professes “much surprise at the extension of royal mercy” considering numerous other precedents to the contrary.

De la Motte, the particulars of whose case we shall hereafter give, was “hanged, drawn, and quartered,” for the same kind of offence which Hensey committed; and in still more recent times, numbers have suffered death for similar treason; and yet we have to observe, without finding any especial reason for it, that Doctor Hensey was pardoned. If granted from political motives, it must have been in fear of Spain; an unworthy impulse of the ministers of a far greater and more powerful nation.

Indeed, the Spanish connection appears to be the best explanation for Hensey’s unexpected reprieve: he had a brother in the retinue of a Spanish ambassador who was able to exercise his empire’s diplomatic channels in the doctor’s service. (Spain was on the sidelines at this moment, and Britain keen to keep her there; the Spanish finally joined the war on France’s side very late in the game, in 1762.)

This gambit, however, came as quite a nasty surprise to the ample and bloodthirsty crowd that had turned up at Tyburn.

The awful procession to Tyburn, intended to impress the multitude with sentiments of reverence for the laws of their country, produced a very contrary effect; and the eager and detestable curiosity of the populace, to witness executions, became a source of considerable emolument to certain miscreants, who were in the habit of erecting scaffolds for spectators; many of these scaffolds were substantial wooden buildings, and erected at every point from whence a glimpse of the execution could be obtained; the prices for seats varied according to the turpitude or quality of the criminal: — Dr. Hensey was to have been executed for High Treason in 1758, the prices of seats for that exhibition amounted to 2s. and 2s. 6d.; but, in the midst of general expectation, the Doctor was most provokingly reprieved.

As the mob descended from their stations with unwilling steps, it occurred to them, that, as they had been deprived of the intended entertainment, the proprietors of the seats ought to return the admission-money; which they demanded in terms vociferous, and with blows offensive, and in short, exercised their happy talent for rioting with unbounded success. On this occasion a vast number of these erections were destroyed.

Hensey spent a couple more years in Newgate, then was released into obscurity; presumably he left the realm to his brother’s custody.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Doctors,Drawn and Quartered,England,Espionage,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Last Minute Reprieve,Lucky to be Alive,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Spies,Wartime Executions

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1681: Archbishop Oliver Plunkett, the last Catholic martyr in Great Britain

Add comment July 1st, 2018 Headsman

Archbishop Oliver Plunkett earned the last Catholic martyr’s crown in Britain on this date in 1681.*

Product of County Meath blood and Italian seminary, Plunkett had been back floating around Ireland as its chief prelate since 1670. In this decade, the English-imposed laws burdening Catholics had been relaxed; Plunkett was able to minister his flock, openly at first and after 1673 as a fugitive whom Irish authorities did not much wish to pursue.

Plunkett’s safety speedily expired with the emergence in England of the Popish Plot, a security panic catalyzed like its modern-day analogues by equal parts bad faith and malice.

The concoctions of an opportunistic fabulist caused the English populace to become convinced in 1678 that a vast and treasonable Catholic conspiracy menaced the land; in its day, it was a delusion held so widely and deeply as to cow into silence and compliance all skeptics, even King Charles himself. Charles’s Lord Lieutenant in Ireland, the Earl of Essex, cynically leaned into the hysteria by whipping fears of a Plunkett-hatched invasion of Ireland by the French, although he well knew that Plunkett was “of a … peaceable temper & … comforable to ye Government.”

Plunkett spent months in hiding, refusing to flee Ireland, until he was finally arrested in December 1679. After proceedings in Ireland collapsed, the prelate was moved to London for a more manageable show trial, the entire transcript of which can be perused here.

In it, the Lord Chief Justice Sir Francis Pemberton chastises Plunkett for soliciting time to collect his witnesses, and concludes with a denunciation of the enemy religion that would not look far out fo place in many a present-day comments section.

truly yours is Treason of the highest Nature, ’tis a Treason in truth against God and your King, and the Country where you lived. You have done as much as you could to dishonour God in this Case; for the Bottom of your Treason was, your setting up your false Religion, than which there is not any Thing more displeasing to God, or more pernicious to Mankind in the World. A Religion that is ten Times worse than all the Heathenish Superstitions; the most dishonourable and derogatory to God and his Glory, of all Religions or pretended Religions whatsoever, for it undertakes to dispense with God’s Laws, and to pardon the Breach of them. So that certainly a greater Crime there cannot be committed against God, than for a Man to endeavour the Propagation of that Religion; but you to effect this, have designed the Death of our lawful Prince and King: And then your design of Blood in the Kingdom where you lived, to set all together by the Ears, to destroy poor innocent People, to prostitute their Lives and Liberties, and all that is dear to them, to the Tyranny of Rome and France.

Now tormented that his opportunistic fear-mongering was actually going to lay the archbishop in his grave, Essex implored the Catholic-sympathetic King Charles to spare Plunkett. “Then, my lord, be his blood on your own conscience,” snapped Charles, politically constrained from a beneficence he would have dearly loved to grant. “You could have saved him but would not, I would save him and dare not.”

On the first of July, he was drawn to Tyburn (a stained glass depiction of it can be found in this post), where he was hanged and quartered. (The strange Anglo-Irish plotter Edward Fitzharris preceded Plunkett on the scaffold, as an undercard attraction.) “He won more credit and repute, as well for himself as for his country, by one hour of suffering, than he could have acquired perhaps by hundreds of years of life,” one observer wrote.

This might very well be so. Aside from being the last Catholic martyr in the Isles, Plunkett is among the most warmly remembered, as evidenced by his recent remit as the patron saint of peace and reconciliation in post-Troubles Ireland — not to mention the loving preservation of his relics at St. Peter’s cathedral in Drogheda.

Readers might enjoy this 68-minute lecture on Plunkett’s life and times.


St. Oliver Plunkett’s head preserved in a shrine at Drogheda, Ireland. Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

* July 1 by the Julian calendar still then employed in England; by the Gregorian calendar adopted in most Catholic countries at this point, the date was July 11 — and some Catholic primary sources use the latter date.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Ireland,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1581: Christman Genipperteinga

Add comment June 17th, 2018 Headsman

June 17 of 1581 was the alleged condemnation date — the best specific calendar date we have — for the German robber/murderer Christman Genipperteinga or Gniperdoliga, who was broken on the wheel for a reported 964 murders.


See? June 17.

A 1581 pamphlet “Erschröckliche newe Zeytung Von einem Mörder Christman genandt” is the earliest account we have of our inaptly named Christman (German Wikipedia entry | the surprisingly much more detailed English), and even this first source supplies us the seemingly outlandish body count.

Our man is supposed to have made a lair in the Rhineland wilds from which he preyed on German and French travelers, and even turned murderer of other bandits after partnering with them.

We of course lack any means to verify independently this murder toll exceeding six per month throughout the whole of his thirteen-year career; if we’re honest about it, we’re a little light on verification that this guy wasn’t a tall tale from the jump. Whether or not he really drew breath, or profited from the pre-modern propensity to overcounting bodies, his fame was certainly magnified by the burgeoning print culture … and its burgeoning fascination with crime. Joy Wiltenburg in Crime & Culture in Early Modern Germany:

It was in the 1570s that reports of robber bands multiplied, reaching a peak in the 1580s and continuing in lower numbers into the seventeenth century. Accounts of such activity were far-flung, from Moravia in the modern Czech Republic to Lucerne in Switzerland and from Wurttemberg in southwestern Germany to Bremen in the north. Although violence and malevolent magic were the most sensational aspects of the bands’ reported activities, stealing was central to their existence.

Even among these ubiquitous broadsheet outlaws, Christman Genipperteinga’s near-millennium stuck in the public imagination.

As years passed, the story has resurfaced in chronicles, histories, and popular lore running all the way down to our present era of listicle clickbait … and they’ve all somehow made this monster into an even more sinister figure than a mere nongenti sexagintuple slayer. Dubious evolutions include:

  • Genipperteinga kidnapping a woman and forcing her to become his mistress, murdering all the children they produced. (She subsequently betrays him to the authorities by arranging to leave a trail of peas to lead them to his hideout.)
  • Genipperteinga cannibalizing his victims, including his own infants.
  • And, Genipperteinga having literal supernatural powers (invisibility, congress with dwarven artificers).

For a larger-than-life criminal, a longer-than-death execution. The story goes that our Christman endured nine agonizing days on the breaking-wheel, his tormentors fortifying him with hearty drinks every day in order to prolong his sufferings.

Again, this real or fanciful detail profits by comparison to the trends in enforcement emerging to meet the social panic over crime. This was a period when Europe saw the death penalty flourish both in terms of its violent spectacle and, as Wiltenburg notes, its raw frequency:

There is some evidence that the swell in crime reports in the later decades of the sixteenth century coincided with a time of generally intense prosecution. According to figures compiled by Gerd Schwerhoff, a number of localities had especially high levels of execution in this period. Augsburg, for example, shows a distinct rise in the proportion of criminals executed in the last four decades of the sixteenth century — double or more the proportions of the preceding and following periods. Nuremberg too had a substantial rise in the last decades of the sixteenth century, with lower numbers before and much lower figures by the mid-seventeenth century. Zurich similarly executed a much higher proportion in the sixteenth century than in the fifteenth or the seventeenth, although its figures are not broken down by decade.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Gruesome Methods,History,Holy Roman Empire,Infamous,Murder,Outlaws,Public Executions,Torture,Uncertain Dates

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