On this date in 1730, French-allied Tunica Indians put a captured Natchez woman to grisly public death under the walls of New Orleans.
This is the English translation of Marc-Antoine Caillot’s Relation du voyage de la Louisianne ou Nouvelle France fait par le Sr. Caillot en l’année 1730, a key firsthand source for the incident in this post.
Months earlier the Natchez had risen in rebellion against the colonists in Louisiana — a bloody settling of accounts the that answered a French push to colonize more land with an attack meant to drive them out of Louisiana altogether. The initial, surprise attacks slew 237 French subjects, many in stomach-turning fashion. Friend of the site Dr. Beachcombing details a particularly atrocious murder in his post on the affair at Beachcombing’s Bizarre History Blog.
So the French were in a state of rage and fright on April 10 — the day after Easter — when an allied tribe, the Tunica, showed up at the Big Easy with six Natchez captives in tow, three women and three children. Chief among them was a woman readily recognized by the French as the wife of a once-friendly Natchez chief now “known for being an enemy of the French.” Indeed, escapees from Natchez captivity slated her with having given the go-ahead for the torture-murder of three of their countrymen.
And this hated foe the Tunica proceeded to offer to the French, as a gesture of goodwill.
As Sophie White explains in her “Massacre, Mardi Gras, and Torture in Early New Orleans” (The William and Mary Quarterly, July 2013),* Louisiana territory governor Etienne Perier in slyly declining the prisoner intentionally condemned her to a speedy and spectacular death. Rather than taking her into official custody for disposal by the French judiciary or diplomatic organs, Perier put her up for a night in the French jail while her captors prepared a performance for the morrow calculated to slake the bloodlust of French and native alike.
White’s narrative is worth excerpting at length here; all the parentheticals come from White’s original text.
Officially, Governor Perier could claim that he had maintained French notions of justice by rejecting the Tunica offer of the prisoner of war (even though at a later date he would openly write of another four male and two female Natchez having “been burnt here”). Yet he allotted a space for the Tunica to torture her and arranged for her to be kept in jail overnight while the Tunica danced the black “calumet of death” in preparation for her execution. In the morning, after gathering firewood, erecting a frame, and painting their faces and bodies, the Tunica “began to run as if possessed by the devil and, while yelling (it is their custom), they ran to the jail where she was in chains”; she was engaged in a final assertion of sartorial self-preservation, “fixing a ribbon to her braided hair,” hair that she knew would soon be scalped.
Like Perier, the colonial populace also became involved in exacting revenge on this member of the Natchez nation. Not only were “all the Sauvages who were in New Orleans” present at the torture ritual but colonists also attended the performance as spectators, as they might in France attend a public execution. They watched as the Tunica tied her to a frame and as a Natchez man who had abandoned his kin and been adopted by the Tunica stepped forward to burn her, starting with “the hair [poil, or body hair] of her … then one breast, then the buttocks, then the left breast” (the ellipses represent a deliberate authorial omission on the part of Caillot). Commentators described the methodical burning of torture victims as a form of slow-cooking (“a petit feu”). For Caillot, the ritual burning of the victim’s genitals, breasts, and buttocks was marked by the carefully observed but gruesome sight of “the abundance of grease mixed with blood that ran onto the ground.” His description evoked the cooking of meat basted in fat, with the frame simulating a spit on which the victim was roasted; if this frame/spit did not physically turn its meat, the torturers made sure that she was evenly roasted on all sides by their methodical movement across her body. This food preparation imagery was followed by other cooking analogies. As they were about to kill her (in contrast to the procedure in France, where spectators waited for the execution to be complete before grabbing souvenir pieces of the criminal’s body), “the French women who had suffered at her hands at the Natchez [settlement] each took a sharpened cane and larded her,” just as French culinary techniques called for piercing meat with a sharp stick prior to the insertion of thin strips of lard.
Detail view (click for the full image) of a generic depiction of the torture frame, from Jean-Francois-Benjamin Dumont de Montigny’s memoir. Sophie White notes that this figure is identifiably female based on her genitalia and the long scalped hair mounted on the adjacent pole.
Over the next several years, the French not only turned back the attack but largely shattered and Natchez peoples, dispersing their remnants to fragmented communities throughout the U.S. South. Today only a few thousand Natchez souls remain, and their interesting language has died out entirely.
On April 1, 1464 mayor of Cologne Johann Breyde was chopped into quarters … with ink.
This startling image does not depict an actual flesh-and-blood execution. It is, instead, an outstanding (and conveniently for our purposes, dated) instance of an artifact from medieval Germany, the Schandbild. Such “defamatory pictures” often supplemented a Schmahbrief or “defamatory letter” — intended, as the names suggest, to impugn publicly the target over a debt, a broken promise, or some other private breach of faith.
Something like 100 of these defamations survive from late medieval and early modern Germany (approximately 1400 to 1600), many of them fantasizing about their debtors’ executions in bloodthirsty scenes that also gesture to the place that ritual, spectacle, and dishonor held on the real-life gallows. Here are a few of the more piquant examples; many more await at a wonderful Pinterest gallery here.
The purpose of defamatory letters and pictures was to bring low the reputation of their target in the eyes of a wider community — leveraging social pressure either for revenge, or to force the defamed to repair the breach.
Matthias Lentz, one of the (regrettably few) historians working on these underappreciated objects, notes* that there are even surviving contracts from Germany, Bohemia and Poland enumerating an “explicit understand about injuring a person’s reputation and bringing dishonour upon a defaulting individual … a clause called Scheltklausel that laid down the practice of publicly scolding a defaulter.” For every Schandbild or Schmähbrief there must have been a dozen other potential swindlers quietly forced by the threat of public infamy to make good their contracts.
Per Lentz, the earliest known instance of an explicit contract dates to 1379, “wherein a ducal councillor accorded a nobleman, in eventuality of the former violating the terms of the contract, the right to denounce him as a fraud by ‘posting his name on the pillory [of the councillor’s home town], or wherever he likes'” — again, linking the “mere” text to the instruments of official corporal punishment.
Nor was it uncommon for the Schmähbrief, if things got to that point, to fantasize about the debtor’s bodily suffering in brutal terms that would like invite an investigation for terroristic threats were the modern debt collection call center to deploy them in its harangue. One quoted by Lentz captioned his illustration thus:
It is customary to judge thieves and traitors according to their offences, the first is sent to the gallows, the second broken on the wheel. As I have not got power to carry out the above-mentioned acts, it is my intention to use the painter to have them painted hanging from the gallows and being tortured on the wheel.
Still, Schandbilder und Schmähbriefe meant to intimidate not physically, but socially.** It was in this capacity that the iconography of the pillory and the scaffold entered the frame: ’twas an infamy to be exposed upon them for a public crime — serving as “an indictment of those who knew the criminal … [and] a punitive stigma over his or her relatives and friends.”† Posting a slur on the repute of a prominent person — for the targets were most always people of rank, who would feel an injury to their status — taxed this same, essential, civic currency.
This is why we should let his shameful picture hang here with his coat of arms, until he has given me compensation recognized by respectable people for those unwarranted things that he and his people did … and ask all those who seek charity, who see him painted hanging, that they let him hang. (Source)
By consequence the execution imagery was strictly optional, one iconographic choice among many. From the too-few examples that survive to us it is plain that creditors delighted in their symbolic chastisement, issuing all the obloquies a grievance could devise, untethered from the confines of possible or the … sanitary.
The Schandbild frequently evinced a scatological fixation.
* Quotes form Lentz’s “Defamatory Pictures and Letters in Late Medieval Germany: The Visualisation of Disorder and Infamy” in The Medieval History Journal, vol. 3, no. 1 (2000). Lentz also has several German-language journal titles on the same topic.
** Not necessarily true of their Italian cousins, pitture infamanti. These were a similar sort of thing, but were issued not privately but by the city-states themselves against absconded offenders — a sort of quasi-execution by effigy. Many of these were painted for public spaces and removed with the passage of time so we have lost exemplars, including the products of masters — the Medici, for example, commissioned Botticelli to grace Florence with pitture infamanti of the Pazzi conspirators, which were whitewashed in 1494.
A characteristic pose for these pictures, also used in Germany, had the “victim” hanging upside-down by one foot, conjoining “metaphors of inversion” (as Robert Mills puts it) to the disgrace of the gallows. This posture is commonly thought to have inspired the “Hanged Man” tarot card.
Left: a pittura infamante study by Florentine Renaissance artist Andrea del Sarto; right: the “hanged man” card from a tarot pack.
*† Maria Boes, “Public Appearance and Criminal Judicial Practices in Early Modern Germany,” Social Science History, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Summer, 1996)
On this date in 1437, the Earl of Atholl finally reached the end of a three-day carnival of public tortures and lost bowels, heart, and head for assassinating the King of Scotland.
When Stewart’s grandson Robert exploited the family’s familiar proximity to the king to admit a team of assassins on the night of Feb. 20-21 1437, it ended a strange run for James I.* James had been melodramatically kidnapped by pirates at age 12 and sold to the English — who held the Scottish king** for ransom for 18 years.
By the time James returned to native soil in 1424, he had had quite enough of being some other lord’s shuttlecock and irritated Scotch magnates — who had formerly enjoyed the run of the place and therefore dragged their feet when it came to repatriating their hostage king — by his overweening grabs at land, money, and power. One prime example that would come back to haunt him in the events of this post was the 1425 destruction of the Albany Stewarts, which netted the crown the forfeiture of three earldoms. Clients of the Albany Stewarts, like Sir Robert Graham, delivered a fair fraction of the 28 stab wounds that shuffled King James off this mortal coil.
But even James’s allies had to look sharp when it came to any demesnes not nailed down.
Our principal for today’s post, Walter Stewart, was one of these. James’s uncle and supporter, and the son of King Robert II, Stewart/Atholl had pushed for the magnates to ransom James.
Putatively seen as the king’s ally, Atholl’s complicity in regicide made him a byword for treachery to outraged Scottish chroniclers; the apparent grab for the throne led his captors to put a “corone of papir … upon his hed, the which was all abowte depaynetid with jubettes, and for the more dispite and shame to hym was writyne with thes wordes, TRAITOUR, TRAITOUR, TRAITOUR,” according to The Dethe and False Murdure of James Stewarde, Kyng of Scotys.
In a 1992 article on events&:dagger; historian Michael Brown noted that what Atholl had added to his holdings through his nephew the king was the earldom of Strathearn, and it was but tentatively held: granted for Walter Stewart’s lifetime only, it would revert to the king with the septaugenarian’s death, leaving his heirs no better off than Walter’s own efforts had made them circa 30 years before.
Brown depicts the aging lord as a savvy operator who “would increasingly have despaired of keeping the earldom of Strathearn in his family … [as] a consequence of James’s general opportunism when it came to increasing the revenues of the crown.” A couple of specific adverse interventions that trimmed Atholl’s estates might have presaged — in the earl’s mind, at least — a potential royal move against his position, a move that Atholl would be best advised to check preemptively or never at all. Who could say in February of 1437 whether the Stewarts would by March or April still be royal confidantes in any position to have “left the Kynges chamburs doore opyne; and … brussed and blundird the lokes of hem, yn such wise that no man myght shute hem”?
If we’re not sure of exactly why they did it, we do know very clearly that the plot failed as a coup attempt. Both the queen and the six-year-old heir James II survived that evil night, and James’s violent deposition met not support, but horror. Within weeks the conspirators were hunted to ground. Atholl, for his part, protested his innocence of the regicide all the way to the end, a protest that neither contemporaries nor historians have much credited.
And his death declar’d that there is nothing more popular than justice, for they who were wont to detract from him whilst he was alive, now he as dead had most flagrant desires after him, insomuch that the Nobles, as soon as they heard he was murder’d, came in of their own accord from their respective countries and before a tryal was appointed they voluntarily sent out into all parts to apprehend the murderers and bring them to justice.
Very many of them were taken. The principal of them was put to new and exquisite kinds of death. The rest were hang’d. The chief heads in perpetrating the wickedness were reckon’d to be Walter Earl of Athole, Robert his nephew by his son, and their kinsman Robert Graham.
The punishment of Walter (because he was the chief author and instigator of the whole plot) was divided into three days suffering. In the 1st he was put on a cart wherein a stork-like swipe [crane] or engine was erected, and by ropes let through pullies was hoisted up on high and then, the ropes being suddainly loos’d, he was let down again almost to the ground with grievous pains by reason of the luxation [stretching] of the joints of his body. Then he was set on a pillory that all might see him, and a red-hot iron crown set on his head with this inscription, that he should be called King of all Traitors. They say the cause of this punishment was that Walter had been sometimes told by some female witches (as Athole was always noted to have such) that he should be crown’d king in a mighty concourse of people. For by this means that prophecy was either fulfill’d or eluded, as indeed such kind of predictions do commonly meet with no other events. The day after, he was bound upon a hurdle and drawn at an horse-tail thro’ the greatest street in Edinburgh. The 3rd day he was laid along upon a plank in a conspicuous place and his bowels were cut out whilst he was alive, cast into the fire, and burnt before his face. Afterwards his heart was pulled out and cast into the same fire. Then his head was cut off and expos’d to the view of all, being set upon a poll in the highest place of the city. His body was divided into four quarters and sent to be hang’d up in the most noted places of the best cities of the kingdom.
After him, his nephew was brought forth to suffer, but because of his age they would not put him to so much pain; and besides, he was not the author, but only an accomplice in another man’s wicked design, as having obey’d his grandfather therein, so that he was only hang’d and quarter’d.
But Robert Graham, who did the deed with his own hand, was carried in a cart thro’ the city, and his right hand was nail’d to a gallows which was set up in the cart, and then came executioners which did continually run red-hot iron spikes into his thighs, shoulders, and those parts of his body which were most remote from the vitals, and then he was quarter’d, as the former. After this manner was the death of James vindicated.
‘Tis true, ’twas a cruel one, but ’twas reveng’d by punishments so cruel that they seem’d to exceed the very bounds of humanity. For such extreme kinds of punishment do not so much restrain the minds of the vulgar by the severity as they do make them wild to do or suffer any thing; neither do they so much deter wicked men from committing offences by their acerbity as they lessen their terror by often beholding them, especially if the spirits of the criminals be so hardened that they flinch not at their punishment. For among the unskilful vulgar a stubborn confidence is sometimes prais’d for a firm and stable constancy.
* James’s successors handed down the throne, father James to son James, right down into the Stuart dynasty that came to rule England as well. This makes our James I an ancestor of such scaffold worthies as Mary Queen of Scots and Charles I.
** James was kidnapped in March 1406. His father Robert III died in April of the same year.
† “‘That Old Serpent and Ancient of Evil Days': Walter, Earl of Atholl and the Death of James I,” The Scottish Historical Review, Vol. 71, No. 191/192, Parts 1 & 2 (Apr. – Oct., 1992).
On this date in 1563, Jean de Poltrot de Méré was ripped apart in the streets of Paris for assassinating the Duke of Guise.
The opening act of the civil war between Catholics and Huguenots that would devour France in the late 16th century was but a year old at this moment, and Guise was the very man who had set off the powderkeg with a notorious massacre of Huguenots the previous March that had sent agitated confessional armies into the fields.
During the ensuing months, Guise stood at the fore of Catholic forces, opposite the Huguenot commander Conde.
Come early 1563, Guise was besieging the Huguenot-held city of Orleans when Poltrot (English Wikipedia page | French) contrived to ambush him on a nearby road. Poltrot shot Guise with a pistol* and fled; he’d be arrested a day later.
In the Wars of Religion, each previous atrocity justified the revenge that followed it; Guise’s death — and Poltrot’s confession under torture** that it was the Huguenot Admiral Coligny who directed his hand — would help to set the scene for the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre visited by Catholics on the Huguenots nine years later. (In fairness we ought also to add that this was not Guise’s first brush with Protestant assassins.) And heavily Catholic Paris was even before the Guise murder violently agitated against Huguenots. During the fighting in 1562,
Reputed Huguenots were struck down in the streets. Sometimes mock trials were held; the attackers grilled the captives on their religious beliefs and, when not satisfied with the answers, killed them on the spot. Officials who tried to intervene were themselves in danger, and edicts against violence were bitterly protested. As one anonymous memoirist described it, “The people wanted nothing less than permission to kill and exterminate the Huguenots without any form of trial; but the consequences were too dangerous.” He implied that permission might have been given, had it been possible to contain the violence.†
All this rage, when focused on the assassin of the Catholic party’s champion, was enough to tear a man limb from limb.
Poltrot’s sentence was to be publicly ripped apart by horses straining his limbs to the four points of the compass. It didn’t quite work: sinew and muscle is too dense and tough to shred by main force, even for a horse; it was only by dint of the the executioner’s helpful hacking that the beasts could dismember their prey.
Quartering by horses is a punishment so preposterously horrific that it could only belong to an age of intentional spectacle.
Indeed, Florike Egmond and Peter Mason argue‡ that until the 16th century such a theatrical execution “was a purely fictional punishment in Europe, which ever since Roman times emerged occasionally in literature, legend and folk-tales as an outrageous form of retribution for (high) treason and related offences” — such as Livy’s mythic rendering of the end given faithless ex-ally Mettius Fufetius, the treatment of St. Hippolytus, and foggy distant Frankish legends.
Although the concept might have existed in imaginations for centuries before, equine execution was at best a vanishingly rare event in reality; certainly when Poltrot was butchered, nobody present had ever before beheld such a sight. For Egmond and Mason, this was an innovation of his judges who “jumped the gap between fiction and historical records” in pursuit of ever “more expressive forms of punishment in order to emphasize the outrageousness of the offense.”
It was an outrage whose time had come, however, for quartering by horses was employed several times more for regicidal offenses in the ensuing decades — including for the Catholic militant who assassinated the Huguenot King Henri IV.
* This event would appear to dislodge the 1570 murder of Scotland’s Regent Moray from its popular acclamation as history’s earliest firearm assassination. As Guise lingered for six days and finally succumbed to effects of his doctor’s own bloodletting, perhaps the view is that Poltrot’s pistol only earned half-credit.
** Poltrot would later retract the claim, when not under torture.
† Barbara Diefendorf, “Prologue to a Massacre: Popular Unrest in Paris, 1557-1572,” The American Historical Review, Dec. 1985.
‡ “Domestic and Exotic Cruelties: Extravagance and Punishment,” The Irish Review, Autumn 1999
On this date in 1718,* the vengeful tsar Peter the Great staged a horrible execution on Moscow’s Red Square.
Stepan Glebov was the collateral damage of Peter’s ferocious conflict with his ill-favored crown prince Tsarevich Alexei — the whelp who had only recently been repatriated to his glowering father after fleeing Russia altogether, to cap a lifetime of letting dad down. Alexei was back in Peter’s clutches, and a few months from the events in this post would be shockingly knouted to death at Peter’s orders.
This Freudian clash also mapped sharply onto Russia’s political schisms (and many of the links in this post are to Russian pages). Alexei was the son of Peter’s first wife, Eudoxia [or Evdokia] Feodorovna Lopukhina, a princess whom the teenage Peter had been required to wed as part of the political logrolling involved in overcoming the 1680s regency of his sister Sofia.
Peter had achieved that victory, definitively, and once it was secured it didn’t take him long to tire of both Eudoxia and of the stagnant boyar class she represented. Peter was all about westernizing the motherland; what better way to start than by immuring his Russian bride in a monastery** and grabbing a German merchant’s daughter for a mistress?
The blows were borne together by Eudoxia, by her devout son Alexei, and by that part of traditional and Orthodox Russia horrified by Peter’s innovations. Resentments ran along the familiar channels, here to an immoderate fantasy of deliverance come Peter’s death and there to dangerous plans to immanentize same.
When exposed by to Peter’s hostile gaze little distance would there seem between these varietals.
When Alexei returned to face Peter’s investigation, the old man turned his harsh scrutiny on the ex, knowing her to be a locus of opposition. She was found living outside the monastery in secular garb, having taken an officer named Stepan Glebov as her lover. Their correspondence was ransacked by persecutors determined to discover indicia of treasonable scheming therein. Dozens of associates and monastery monks and nuns would be caught up in the affair, damned for anything from failing to prevent the former queen’s dalliance to plotting against the life of Tsar Peter. Most were stripped of rank and sent to exile with various forms of corporal punishment — whipping, severed nostrils, tongues sliced out — but several would be tortured to death or executed on the breaking-wheel including Dositheus, Bishop of Rostov, a confidante of Eudoxia who had allegedly prophesied Alexei’s triumph over his father, and Alexander Kikin, a mentor of Alexei’s who had helped to arrange his escape from Russia.
But upon Glebov, miserable man, Peter would give free rein to his amazing talent for cruelty: the lover to be impaled alive on a stake artfully inserted to miss all vital organs so as to maximize his suffering; some accounts even give it out that the naked Glebov was bundled in furs for the freezing winter’s execution, that he might endure his pains the longer.
Glebov survived impalement for over 14 hours, only dying after 7 a.m. on the morning of March 16. Folklore (it’s probably just that) has it that, importuned on that stake by the tsar to admit to the treasonable conspiracy, Glebov justifiably retorted that he had refused such a confession under unspeakable torment in Peter’s dungeons, so why would he break now? “Depart, and let me die in peace so that you may live without peace.”
Eudoxia’s brother Avram was also put to death in December 1718. She herself was shut up in Shlisselburg fortress for the balance of Peter’s life, but she would survive to see her grandson (Alexei’s son) take the throne in 1727 as Peter II.
* Julian date: it was March 26 on the Gregorian calendar.
On this date in 1689, the Maratha prince Sambhaji was put to a grisly death by Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb.*
Sambhaji was the firstborn son of the man whose daring had created the Hindu Maratha state — and whose death in 1680 seemed to the neighboring Muslim Mughals the right invitation to destroy this nascent rival.
The Mughals were right to worry, for in the 18th century the Maratha polity would grow into an empire dominating the Indian subcontinent, and drive the Mughals into a long decline.
But in the 1680s, it was the Maratha on the back foot as Aurangzeb invaded their haunts on the Deccan Plateau, steadily albeit very slowly reducing Maratha fortresses over the course of the decade (and the next decade).
This war defined Sambhaji’s reign, and ended it too, when he was at last captured with his favorite aide Kavi Kalash in Sangmeshwar. Mockingly dressed up as buffoons, they were paraded through Mughal territory to the emperor, who would present them a demand for Islamic conversion as the price of their lives.
But the doomed wretches knew that, after all, their heads would fall upon the scaffold, or that, if by abject submission and baseness, they escaped death, they would be kept in confinement deprived of all the pleasures of life, and every day of life would be a new death. So both Sambha and Kabkalas indulged in abusive language, and uttered the most offensive remarks in the hearing of the Emperor’s servants … [Aurangzeb] gave orders that the tongues of both should be cut out, so that they might no longer speak disrepsectfully. After that, their eyes were to be torn out. Then, with ten or eleven other persons, they were put to be put to death with a variety of tortures, and lastly he ordered that the skins of the heads of Sambha and Kabkalas should be stuffed with straw, and exposed in all the cities and towns of the Dakhin, with beat of drum and sound of trumpet. Such is the retribution for rebellious, violent, oppressive evil-doers. (Source — British, it must be said)
Sambhaji has not been highly rated for his indifferent internal governance of Maratha, but the clarifying allure of war and the gruesomely patriotic manner of his death earned him hero’s laurels still honored by Hindu nationalists down to the present day; the village of Tulapur where he was put to death honors Sambhaji with several monuments.
For a contemporary — like, say, Aurangzeb — Sambhaji’s death followed closely by the capture of his family when the Maratha capital succumbed to Mughal siege must have appeared to presage the destruction of his state. Things didn’t work out that way: Sambhaji’s younger brother Rajaram and especially Rajaram’s impressive queen Tarabai kept the Mughals bogged down on the Deccan, bleeding money** and time as they struggled to complete the conquest — until by Aurangzeb’s own despondent death in 1707, it was the Maratha on the advance, and the Mughal Empire on the brink of its own collapse.
** “The expense in gold and rupees can hardly be accurately estimated. Aurangzeb’s encampment was like a moving capital — a city of tents 30 miles in circumference, with some 250 bazaars, with a ½ million camp followers, 50,000 camels and 30,000 elephants, all of whom had to be fed, stripped the Deccan of any and all of its surplus grain and wealth.” -Stanley Wolpert
On this date in 1785, two of the three leaders of Transylvania’s great peasant uprising were broken on the wheel in the city of Alba Iulia — the third having cheated the executioner by hanging himself in his cell.
Left to right: Vasile Ursu Nicola, known as Horea; Ion Oarga (Closca); and, the suicide, Marcu Giurgiu (Crisan).
The Revolt of Horea, Closca and Crisan (English Wikipedia entry | the far more detailed Romanian) featured the usual grievances of feudal serfs, who in this case were Orthodox Christians governed by a Hungarian Catholic nobility. The heavier exactions of the region’s magnates in this period had led to several peasant delegations petitioning for relief from the Habsburg crown, among whose rosters appear this day’s eventual executees, Horea and Closca.
Those grievances were transmuted into rebellion, paradoxically as it might seem, by the 1780 death of Maria Theresa and the consequent ascent to sole rulership of Emperor Joseph II. Remembered as one of history’s great progressive “enlightened despots,” Joseph would surely have thought himself a friend to the peasantry with measures like rolling back serfdom and a broadened mandate for education.*
But the careless injuries his modernizing edicts visited on a precarious dominion of his polyglot empire would help beat ploughshares into swords in the regions of present-day Romania.
Imperial demands for fresh (rationalized, as the empire saw it) cash taxation had excited the countryside’s nobility and peasantry alike, since little specie flowed through their traditional agrarian arrangements, and an attempted census had met widespread resistance as a likely harbinger of the revenue man; but, these rebels from the soil still mostly hated their traditional local overlords and in due course would direct their blades and torches accordingly. Demands they presented to a besieged city on November 11 of 1784 underscore their perspective:
The nobility should be abolished; each noblemen, if he could get a job in the imperial administration, should live on that income.
The noble landlords should leave once for all their nobiliary estates.
The noblemen should pay taxes like any common taxpayer.
The noblemen’s estates should be divided among the common people
The most immediate spark to set all this tinder ablaze would be the apparent prospect of widespread military recruitment — a desideratum for the peasantry, as it offered the prospect of social mobility and an escape from the magnate’s lash — which was then apparently withdrawn or blocked, a cruel trick to put the servile class in mind of its many abuses. In early November, beginning in Zarand, thousands of peasants Romanian, Saxon, and Hungarian alike rose in arms and began putting manors and churches to the sack.
“Letters from Transylvania continue to talk of excesses committed by rebels there,” one bulletin reported.
Not content to kill the feudal lords, they set fire to the habitations of their vassals if these refuse to embrace the party of the insurgents. At Kerespaya they broke into the coffers of the royal treasury and took away all the money. The evangelical pastor of that place, after having seen the throats of his wife and children cut, was taken to the church and decapitated at the foot of the altar. Some Franciscans met the same fate, those who had taken refuge in the bell towers were strangled and thrown into the streets. But they respect the officials of the emperor, as long as they are not nobles … Major Schultz asked one of them the motives for their cruel conduct, he answered: “Do not believe, Sir, that we have joined this party without reason; we were forced into it by the most pressing necessity. Here are authentic copies of several royal orders given out for our benefit that have not been carried out. All our remonstrances in this matter have been useless, and we have been sent away without receiving justice. It is thus only to break the yoke of the most insufferable slavery that we have resolved to vindicate ourselves. We know well that our conduct will be disapproved of, but we pride ourselves at the same time that it will serve to force examination of the conduct of those who have so cruelly deceived us. At any event, we prefer death to a miserable life, and will die content so that our example might guarantee the rights of humanity to our descendants and give the state contented subjects.”
The tragic aspirations of this rebellion — which lasted only two months, but had managed to assume a proto-national character** — were amply fulfilled once it was crushed and its three principal leaders betrayed to the government. The two who faced the horrors of the breaking-wheel, and Crisan as well, had their corpses quartered and their limbs distributed to the major thoroughfares by way of intimidation. Dozens of others of less eternal fame were also put to death during this period, to add to the innumerable killings in the course of suppressing the rebels.†
Above: detail view (click for the full image) of an 18th century print illustrating the execution. Below: another take on the scene.
But there was, too, that examination they desired forced upon the emperor, who promulgated a decree abolishing serfdom in 1785, eliminated noble control over marriages, and expanded the peasantry’s grazing rights. These reforms were at best only partially successful (the true end of serfdom still lay decades in the future) but they betokened on parchment just as the rebels had done in fire and blood the crisis striking at the ancien regime — for, alongside condemnations of the peasantry, there were during those revolutionary years also vindications of them, written in the language of the Enlightenment:
The Walachian uprising is an important lesson for sovereigns. It confirms the observation that the human spirit is mature for a general ferment, that it yearns for laws that respect equality, justice, and the order corresponding to its nature. How could it have been that under the most beneficent and mild government in the world, that of Joseph II, such an event could occur? It is because the principles of liberty, justice, and equality are woven into our hearts; they are a part of our natural destiny.
† “I will leave you to judge the excesses they committed. Among others twenty-seven peasants were arrested, whose heads were cut off by nobles in one day without any kind of procedure.” One reported decree — we hope never effected in reality — threatened to impale a random citizen of any town that gave sanctuary to the “villainous low people.” (Both nuggets from Venturi, op. cit.)
On this date in 1755, Henri Mongeot was broken on the wheel for assassinating the husband of his adulterous lover, Marie.
Louis Alexandre Lescombat was a Paris architect; the betrayal of his flighty wife Marie Catherine Taperet was all the talk of Paris after her lover Mongeot slew the husband whilst out on a walk in December of 1754 — then summoned the watch to present a bogus self-defense claim.
For the widow, one good betrayal would deserve another: Mongeot faithfully avoided implicating her in the murder but when he discovered on the very eve of his death that she was already making time with a new fellow, he summoned the judge and revenged himself by exposing her incitement to the crime. His evidence would doom her to follow him many months later, after the sentence was suspended long enough for the widow Lescombat to deliver a son.
Joining Mongeot on the scaffold this date was a 15-year-old heir to the family executioner business apparently conducting just his second such sentence — Charles-Henri Sanson, the famed bourreau destined in time to cut off the head of the king and queen. Mongeot makes a passing appearance in the 19th century Memoirs of the Sansons; in it, Charles-Henri’s grandson remarks from the family notes that “Mdme. Lescombat … was confronted with him [i.e., her doomed lover] at the foot of the scaffold. She was remarkably handsome, and she tried the effect of her charms on her judges, but without avail.”
On this date in 1594, Catholic militant Jean Châtel was dismembered for the near-assassination of King Henri IV.
Just two days before his public butchery, the 19-year-old clothier’s son (English Wikipedia entry | French) had milled about in a crowd awaiting the Huguenot* king’s return from Picardy. As Henri entered the Hotel de Bouchage and bent over to accept the obeisance of two courtiers, Châtel sprang out of the crowd and daggered him. The blade cut Henri’s lip — a glancing blow just a few degrees distant from a history-altering one.
Châtel would cite Jesuitical inspiration, and when his instructors’ quarters were searched they yielded seditious exhortations against Protestant princes. One Guignard, who had authored the most inflammatory tracts (e.g., regretting that Henri had not been slain at the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre), was put to death on January 7; the rest of the order was expelled from Paris — as was Châtel’s family, whose home was razed and replaced with a monument against religious fanaticism.
The pyramid memorial was replaced by a succession of fountains, of which the most recent is the present-day Fontaine Cuvier.
It was of course far too much to hope that this scolding plinth could bring down the dangerous sectarian temperatures raised by a half-century of civil war. In his time Henri IV evaded numerous — some 20 or more — attempts on his life, before a different Catholic enragee, one Francois Ravaillac, successfully murdered him in 1610.
* The threat of pedantry in the comments section obliges us to allow that Henri nominally converted to Catholicism in order to take the throne and end the Wars of Religion — the occasion on which he was purported to murmur that (staunchly Catholic) Paris is worth a Mass.
On this date in 1678, Catholic courtier Edward Col(e)man was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn — the second victim of Titus Oates’s “Popish Plot” concotion.
Colman was a Catholic convert whose zeal for the old faith led him into a variety of treacherous intrigues with the French court — although Colman’s eager and fruitless offices more annoyed than profited his allies.
His behavior was sufficiently indiscreet that fabulist Titus Oates had Colman queued up by name* as a Catholic plotter in the first round of 1678 Catholic terrorism allegations that would roil the realm for the next three years.
That indiscretion was very real, however, and extended to a careless presumption of his own safety. He seems to have been tipped to his danger by the judge who first took Oates’s evidence, a friend named Sir Edmund Godfrey, but he failed to use this advance intelligence to destroy his own correspondence. Godfrey in his own turn went on to a starring role in the Popish Plot debacle when he turned up murdered in October of 1678, a crime whose immediate attribution to the Catholic conspiracy that Oates had unfolded for him sent England clear round the bend.**
Colman’s case had already begun and half-fizzled by that point but with the apparent assassination of the judge a cry for his own blood now shook Parliament — “Colman’s letters!” alluding to that correspondence he surely wished he had burned: its volumes unfolded intelligence leaks, offers to exert French influence in the government even so far as dissolving Parliament, and applications for King Louis’s gold.
There are some incriminating examples in the trial transcript that, Lord Chief Justice William Scroggs charged, show “That your Design was to bring in Popery into England, and to promote the interest of the French King in this place, for which you hoped to have a Pension.” While Oates was a legendary perjurer and his fables destined to take the lives of 20-odd innocent souls in the months to come, the fact was that Colman really was caught out. His scheming ought not have merited such spectacular punishment under less extraordinary circumstances, but the things Colman really did do made it easy for Oates to position him as a paymaster in the fictitious regicidal conspiracy. “Mr. Colman, your own papers are enough to condemn you,” Scroggs said when his prisoner asserted innocence.
Nor could he protect himself with position. (Men even higher than Colman would succumb to the panic in time.) As detestably elevated as Colman looked to the average commoner, he was not himself a lord and was already (pre-Oates) regarded by King Charles II and many members of the court as a loose cannon. Everything pointed to sacrificing him … and they did. But as events would prove, the popular rage was not quenched on Colman’s bones alone.
* By name — not by face: Oates would be embarrassed at Colman’s eventual trial by the prisoner pointing out that Oates, who now claimed to have been personally paid out by Colman for various seditious errands, had utterly failed to recognize his “conspirator” when Oates appeared before the Privy Council to lay his charges in September.
** Godfrey’s murder has never been satisfactorily explained. There’s a good chance that it was a wholly unrelated affair with amazing bad timing; the revenge of the truculent Earl of Pembroke, whom Godfrey had prosecuted for murder a few months previous, is one leading possibility.