Posts filed under 'Gruesome Methods'

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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1896: Five Persians by gatching

Add comment May 10th, 2018 Headsman

From the London Graphic, August 15, 1896:

An Execution in Pesia

From a corrspondent

A hideous form of execution, which has not been practiced for twenty years, was revived the other day to strike terror into the hearts of the people. The murder of the Shah was followed by a succession of robberies on the road between Bushire and Isfahan, the nomad tribes going out in large parties and looting villages and caravans, and an Englishman was even stripped naked and beaten with sticks. One hundred thousand pounds was estimated as the value of property that changed hands during one week. Every day individuals came naked into Shiraz, and the roads were strewn with merchandise that the robbers found unsuitable to carry off.

At this juncture H.R.H. Rukn-ed-Dowleh, Governor of Shiraz, marched out of prison five men, who, common report said, had been there for the last five months, and had had nothing whatever to do with the matter, but had merely been brought from the south, because they refused to pay the excessive taxes imposed on them.

These men were to be executed to frighten the people by being buried alive in plaster of Paris. This form of execution is called “Gatching,” and consists of a hollow pillar being erected over a hole about two feet deep, so that the whole forms a well into which the prisoner is put, sometimes (the most merciful method) head downwards, and at others with his head sticking out over the top; Plaster of Paris is then emptied in, and between each basketful water is poured down the well. The gatch then swells, and when it hardens it stops the circulation, causing the most excruciating agony.

About nine a.m. on Sunday, May 10th, the five prisoners, chained neck to neck, were marched out of prison, and slowly escorted by a large mob, who were kept from pressing too close by soldiers with fixed bayonets and others with long sticks, they were taken to the Koran Gate, near the Bagh-i-No, on the town side of which, alongside the road, their wells had been prepared. It took one hour to reach the Bagh-i-No, but the torture of this form of execution being unknown to the prisoners, they walked along without a sign of fear.

They were taken into a high-walled garden, a guard being placed at the entrance, and in a short time the first to be executed was brought out. Round his neck was a steel collar with a chain, which his guard held tightly in his hand. Someone offered him a pitcher of water, from which he eagerly drank, and then, not knowing to what awful death he was doomed, he walked calmly and without a word to his well.

It took nearly half an hour to fill the well with gatch, during all which time the sticks of the soldiers were in use to keep the crowd from pressing too close and hampering the movements of those employed with the gatch. After this, the second was brought out, and as the crowd moved to the well prepared for him I took the accompanying photograph, which shows the man buried up to the chin, his face covered with powdered gatch and his eyes closed, so as not to see the crowd standing round; the gatch has not begun to set, and the man is suffering no pain.

Having obtained a photograph of a form of execution which I hope has been resorted to for the last time, I hurried from the spot, and only just in time, as I afterwards heard, to escape the most heartrending scenes. When the gatch became solid and tightened on the poor prisoner, his yells were frightful to listen to, and as they were carried over the walled garden, those waiting their turn realised that the death to which they were doomed, so far from being the painless one they had hoped for, was instead of a terrible nature. As the fourth man was led from the garden he begged the executioner to take him to the Bazaar, where he would find some one to give him ten tumans (2 l.), after which he could cut his head off. The fifth man became even more frantic as the yells issued from the mouths of his companions. “Spare me! Spare me!” he cried, “and I will show you were 2,000 tumans (400 l.) lie hid,” but his offer came too late.

When, three days later I passed along the road, I found capitals had been added to the pillars, covering the heads of the poor men, who had thus horribly been done to death.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Gatching,Gruesome Methods,History,Iran,Mass Executions,Persia,Public Executions,Theft,Torture

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Unspecified Year: Vilem, the Forest King

Add comment May 2nd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in an unspecified year, the bandit Vilem is broken on the wheel and beheaded in the classic Czech poem Maj, by Karel Hynek Macha.

Maj (“May”) commences with a lass called Jarmila on the first day of that month who waits on the shores of a Bohemian lake now named for Macha for her outlaw lover … only to be told by a boatman that her sweetheart in fact reposes across that body of water, weighted with irons in a castle dungeon, where he awaits a dawn execution for murdering his own father, who was also Jarmila’s seducer. All concerned reflect and pine through a melancholy night, and come morning Vilem is put to death as planned and gibbeted on his breaking-wheel; years later, his still-visible remains occasion a traveler-narrator to discover and somberly reflect on the events, and the ephemerality of all things: “My youth, alas, my youth! My season and song are May! / An eventide of May on a rocky, desolate shore: / Light laughter on the lips, deep grief in the heart’s core.”

This tale, recognizable to every Czech, has been put to the silver screen on several occasions. Macha’s timing was impeccable, for he self-published it in 1838, right when central Europe’s romantic social banditry mythos was forming. According to Mohmir Grygar, the name “Vilem” (Wilhelm, William) might allude to the executed Tyrolean chancellor Wilhelm Biener, although Biener himself — a fallen overmighty politico, not a gold-hearted brigand — bears little resemblance to his alleged literary descendant.

1

Late evening, on the first of May—
The twilit May—the time of love.
Meltingly called the turtle-dove,
Where rich and sweet pinewoods lay.
Whispered of love the mosses frail,
The flowering tree as sweetly lied,
The rose’s fragrant sigh replied
To love-songs of the nightingale.
In shadowy woods the burnished lake
Darkly complained a secret pain,
By circling shores embraced again;
And heaven’s clear sun leaned down to take
A road astray in azure deeps,
Like burning tears the lover weeps.

A haze of stars in heaven hovers—
That church of endless love’s communion—
Each jewel blanches and recovers
As blanch and burn long-parted lovers
In the high rapture of reunion.
How clear, to her full beauty grown,
How pale, how clear, the moon above,
Like maiden seeking for her love,
A rosy halo round her thrown!
Her mirrored image she espied,
And of self-love, beholding, died.
Forth from the farms pale shadows strayed,
Lengthening longing to their kind,
Till they embraced, and close entwined,
Coiled low into the lap of shade,
Grown all one twilight unity.
Tree in the shadows writhes to tree.
In the far mountains’ dark confine
Pine leans to birch and birch to pine.
Wave baunting wave the streamlets move.
For love’s sake—in the time of love—
Anguished goes every living thing.

A fair girl at the rim of land
Watches the evening’s rosy phases;
Under the oak-tree by the strand
Far out across the lakes she gazes.
Blue to her feet it coils and glimmers,
And green beyond, and greener, sleeps,
Till in the distances and deeps
In clear, pale light all melts and shimmers.
Over the wide and watery plain
The girl has fixed her weary gaze;
Over the wide and watery plain
Only the glint of starlight plays.
A lovely girl, an angel ravaged,
A bud that April winds have savaged,
In her pale cheeks doomed beauty hastens.
One hour has swallowed up her morrow,
One hour her promise chills and chastens,
Marries her May to grief and sorrow.

Of twenty days the last has died;
Still dreams the quiet countryside.
The last light hastens to its close,
And heaven, like a great, clear rose,
Over the deep blue mountains flushes.
“He comes not! Ah, such anguish takes me!
Another spoiled, and he forsakes me!”
A heavy sigh her sad voice bushes,
Her aching heart burns in her breast,
And with the water’s plaint unsleeping
Mingles the note of bitter weeping.
Snared in her tears the stars find rest,
Down her pale cheeks like bright sparks flowing
Till like quenched stars they burn to shades there,
On her cold countenance briefly glowing.
And where they fall, the blossom fades there.

At the rock’s rim she glimmers whitely;
A silken standard flies her gown,
In evening zephyrs fluttering lightly.
Her eyes on distance fix and frown—
In haste she dries her blinding tears,
Beneath her shading hand she peers,
And on the distant shore she fastens,
Where in the hills the lake creeps hiding;
Over the waves live sparks go gliding,
Star after watery starlet bastens.

Even as snow-white virgin doves
Against dark wastes of cloud in flight,
On water-lily flowering white
On deepest blue—so something moves—
Where in the hills the lake creeps hiding—
Over the dark waves nearer gliding,
Nearer in haste. A moment proves
Now as the stork’s grave flight it looms,
No dove so flies nor lily blooms,
But a white sail rocked by hasting breezes.
A slender oar the blue wave teases,
With flaming furrows the surface bazing.
The golden rose of heaven’s hold,
High in the mountain oakwoods blazing,
Gilds the ripples with rosy gold.
“Swift litlle boat! Near, nearer bounding!
‘Tis be! ‘Tis be! Those plumes bright beaming,
The hat, the eyes beneath it gleaming—
His cloak—” The boat in the beach is grounding.

Over the rocks his light step rings,
By a known path he climbs and closes.
The girl’s pale face flowers into roses;
From the tree’s shade in wild hope flying
She runs, high-calling, runs and springs,
And on the rower’s breast she’s lying-
“Alas, my heart!: The moonlight shows
In its full flood a face she knows.
Her pounding blood to terror knells her.
Where is Vilem?”

“See, by the lake,”
In low grim tone the boatman tells her,
“Above the night the forests make
Rises a tower, its image white
Deep in the lake’s heart drowned from sight;
But deeper, see, at the water’s rim,
From a little window a lantern’s gleam;
This night to vigil Vilem is giving:
Tomorrow sets him free from living.
His heavy guilt and yours he carries:
Deep your seducer’s blood has stained him,
That stroke a parricide arraigned him.
Still, still revenge the avenger barries!
A felon’s death! Peace to him bring,
Lord, when that face, the rose outshining,
In its high place stands withering,
And in the wheel his limbs are twining!
So dies the dreaded Forest King!
Bear for his guilt, and your own shame,
My bitter curse, and the world’s blame!”

He turns. His voice to silence falls;
Down he climbs through the rocky walls,
Outward his boat goes gliding.
Swift as the stork’s flight, beating fast,
Dwindling, dwindling, a lily at last,
Over the lake in the mountains hiding.

Hushed are the waters, dark, forlorn,
In deep dusk all things crouch to cover.
A white dress gleams on the waves that mourn
Over her: “Jarmila!” like a lover,
And the woods sigh: “Jarmila!” over and over.

Late evening, on the first of May—
The twilit May-the time of love.
To dalliance woos the turtle-dove:
“Jarmila! Jarmila!! Jarmila!!!”

2

Out of heaven a star falls questing,
Dying through the wastes of space,
Endlessly it falls unresting
Through its endless resting-place;
From the unbounded grave wild crying
Beats at heaven with bitter breath.
“Is there then no end of dying?”
Nowhere—never an end of death.
Around the white tower breezes shiver,
Beneath, the whispering wavelets quiver.
On the blanched walls in silver glance
The argent moon sheds radiance.
But deep within the tower is darkness only,
For the clear moon’s pale wealth of light
Through narrow window into the cell gropes lonely,
And dims into the assault of night.
Column by column the sombre vault’s recesses
Melt into darkness. The entering wind sighing
Circles the cell like murdered felons crying,
And stirs the prisoner’s tresses.
Beside a table hewn of stone,
His head upon his hands inclining
Half-sits, half-kneels this wretched one,
To deeps of thought his soul resigning.
As clouds the moon’s face veil and cover,
He draws their web his spirit over;
Thought into thought flows undesigning.

“Deep night, now in your veiling hold
My native village you enfold,
And friends weep for my end there.
Weep?—and for me? A dream outworn!
Long since I have no friend there.
The first gleam of tommorow’s morn
Over her forest breaking,
Will send me to my death forlorn,
And gild, as when her child was born,
Her merry, mild awaking.”

Silent he falls; but through the night,
About the high vault flying,
Far, far his voice goes sighing,
Till as with horror frozen in flight
At the cell’s end it chills there,
And into darkness stills there.

The silence in the darkness grieving
Calls back to heart the days departed;
Again in waking dreams he’s living
The long-lost life of a boy light-hearted.
Remembrance of green years and kind
Brings back a young man’s dreams to mind;
The prisoner’s eyes with tears are flowing,
And in his heart a great pain growing—
A lost world how shall the seeker find?

Mountain on mountain westward presses
Beyond the lake high-piled
And there in the pinewoods’ sweet recesses,
He dreams himself once more a child.
Early thrust from his father’s care,
Bred up by brigands in strifes and stresses,
Last to their leader fallen heir,
Gallant and daring they acclaim him.
Known to all men, thus all men name him,
Lord of the Woods, a name of fear.
Till the love of a broken rose inflames him;
His hand, to bitter vengeance straying,
Seeks the seducer, strikes him, claims him,
His stranger father strangely slaying.
Wherefore a prisoner he lies,
Doomed to the wheel’s embrace that kills;
Lord of the Woods, at dawn he dies,
At the first kindling of the hills.

Now at a table hewn of stone,
His head upon his hands reposing,
Half-sits, half-kneels this wretched one,
The abyss of thought his soul enclosing:
As clouds the moon’s face veil and cover,
He draws their web his spirit over,
Thought evermore new thought disclosing.

“He, sire and foe!-I, death and seed!
And he my love’s betrayer!
I knew him not! My fearful deed
recoiled and slew the slayer.
Why was I banished from his sight
The lawless woods to barry?
Whose crime does the dawn’s death requite?
Whose guilt is this I carry?
Not mine! ab, surely I was bent
A mute, unwitting instrument
God’s judgment to deliver.
Not mine the deed! Why, then, ah, why
Out to this hideous death go I
So soon-and, ah, for ever?
Soon, and for ever! Endless—death—”
For horror fails the prisoner’s breath,
Echoing from the dungeon wall;
The voiceless shadow of the night
In iron grip shuts sound and sight.
A new dream holds his mind in thrall.

“Ah, she, my saint, my rose embowered!
Why lost ere ever she was found?
Why at my father’s hands deflowered?
Accursed I!—” Deep anguish drowned
The struggling words. With sudden sound
Of clamorous chains he springs upright,
And from the little window strains
Over the waves his tortured sight.
Cloud veils the moon, and shadow reigns
Over the earth, but no shade mars
The zenith glittering with stars;
With points of fire the lake they stain,
That flash and fade in waters hollow.
Their glimmering flight his fixed eyes follow,
And all his heart is wrenched with pain.
“How fair the world! How rich the night!
Silver and shade agreeing!
Ah, tomorrow shuts my dying sight
On all the bliss of seeing!
And as grey cloud across the skies
Far, far and wide goes flying,
So—” Down he sinks, his hungering eyes
Torn from the scene, his chains’ harsh cries
Soon into silence dying.

A monstrous bird’s extended wing,
From peak to peak the cloud is driven,
Under one vast pall gathering
In blackest marriage earth and heaven.
Hark! from the high hills lost to sight
A poignant voice is trilling,
A forest piper of the night,
The song of heaven distilling.
To all things which bave wakeful lain
It charms down sleep’s completeness;
The prisoner in his mortal pain
Finds Lethe in its sweetness.
“How beautiful, dear voice, the song
On the night’s breast you’re flinging!
But one more night-ah, God, not long!-
And deaf to your enchanted tongue,
No more I’ll hear such singing.”
Again be sings-the clank of chains
Rings through the cell, despairing-
Deep silence. Once again the pains
Of death his heart are tearing,
And fading far the voice complains
An anguish beyond bearing.
“Time yet to come? Tomorrow’s day?
Still, still some dream will time repay,
Or sleep too deep for dreaming?
Perhaps this life which here I live
Is but a sleep, and dawn will give
Only another seeming?
Or that best rose, long longed-for here,
That fruit the wide earth did not bear,
Will dawn and death disclose?
Who knows?—Ah, no one knows!”

Silence again. The hush of night
On all the earth is draped there.
Quenched is the moon’s benignant light,
Quenched are the stars, and all around
Is purest darkness, black, profound,
As if the grave’s mouth gaped there.
No winds blow more, nor waves complain,
Nor even the far, sweet pipe of pain,
And in the bosom in the cell
Dead silence, utter darkness dwell.
“How deep the night-how dark the night!
On me a darker closes—
Away, thought!” Panic shuts from sight
The grave his thought discloses.

Deep silence. From the streaming wall
Flows down a small, slow river,
And echoing drops the silence fret;
Through the long cell their hollow fall,
Measuring night’s moments of regret,
Chimes—ceases—chimes and ceases ever,
Chimes—ceases—chimes and ceases yet.

“How long the night—how long the night!
On me a longer closes—
Away, thought!” Horror shuts from sight
The grave his thought discloses.
Deep silence. Once again the chime
Of slow drops falling metes out time.

“A darker night! Here in the womb
Of veriest midnight shines some beam
Of moon or star—there—hideous gloom,
There never—never—never a gleam,
Only the dark for ever.
All’s one there, without part-they send
no hours, no moments to befriend,
Night fails not, never dawns the day,
For there time passes never.
There never—never—never an end!
From death that passes not away
Who shall my soul deliver?
“There utter emptiness, beneath,
Around, above, the void of death,
Quenching all live’s endeavour.
Unending silence—never a sound—
Unending space, night, time, surround
The dead mind dreaming on decay—
Mere nothingness—for ever!
And I to nothing—but one more day,
And I to nothing am cast away—”
He faints, he falls aquiver.

Lightly the waves at play come springing
Under the tower, their small spray flying,
Ever a gentle murmur bringing,
A cradle-song for captive singing,
Who in a deep half-death is lying.

The fearful clash of chains awakes
The guard, who with his lamp comes hasting;
So light a step, it scarcely breaks
The prisoner’s trance of dread unresting.
Pillar to pillar the lantern bright
Puts forth its little gleaming:
Still paler, paler grows its light,
Till fails at last the exhausted spark,
And absolute and moveless dark
On all beyond lies dreaming.
But still the prisoner’s eyes, adaze
As if night shrouded still their gaze,
Strain forward, nothing seeing,
Althought the lantern’s reddening ray
Lights his wan face, and drives away
The timid shadows fleeing.
Beside the table hewn of stone,
His head upon his hands inclining,
Half-sits, half-kneels the wredched one,
To sick despair his soul resigning;
And the faint whispering of his breath
Tells forth tormenting dreams of death.

“Alas, my soul-Alas, my love-”
Single and slow the sad words move
Out of his shut lips sighing.
Scarcely they reach the straining ear
When, newly born in pain and fear,
Already they are dying.

The gaoler’s light before him goes,
And on the prisoner’s face it glows.
The prisoner’s face—ah, dread and pain!—
His fixed eyes glare in wild distress
After an end of endlessness,
Tears, sweat and blood his pallor stain,
For speech his lips contend in vain.

The frightened gaoler stoops to snare
The thread of utterance from the air,
Lighter than lightest breeze he hears
The prisoner’s tale of blood and tears.
Lower he leans, and closer yet
To the wan mouth his ear is set,
Hard on the labouring lips now leaning,
Till fainting, fainting, they forget
Speech, as if sleep came unawares.

Still stands the guard in dreadful dreaming,
Like bees in swarm his tears come teeming,
Sorrow his heart within him sears.
Long he stands frozen there aghast,
Till thrusting off his helpless fears,
Out of the cell he flies in haste.
Long as he lived, he told no word
Of what his ears this night had heard:
Rather his whole life through thereafter
His pale lips said farewell to laughter.

The guard is fled, fast-closed the door.
Deep darkness shrouds the cell once more;
And through the night once more the chime
Of slow drops falling metes out time.

Beside the table hewn of stone
Half-sits, half-kneels Vilem alone;
His face a sight for fear and pain,
With fixed eyes staring in distress
After an end of endlessness—
Tears, sweat and blood his pallor stain.

Incessantly the watery chime
Of slow drops falling metes out time,
And wind and wawes as one complain;
To Vilem’s ear of death they tell.
He faints beneath the thought appalling.
Far through the night an owl is calling,
And louder beats the midnight bell.

Intermezzo I

Midnight

(a lonely place in the countryside)

In the wide plains sleeps sound the pale moon’s argent light,
Darkness is on the hills, the lake with stars is bright.
A hillock by the lake-shore rises,
A stake thereon, a wheel raised lightly,
Whereon a bleached skull glistens whitely,
While ghostly rout a dance devises,
About the high wheel revelling rightly.

Chorus of Phantoms

“Silent the midnight graveyard lies;
Through the graves the marshlight flies,
Its dead blue radiance lights the head
Of the newly-buried dead,
Who, while his fellows sleep, stands guard,
Last of the sepulchred, dead today,
Beside his own cross keeping ward.
A grey cloud in the zenith stays,
No moon beneath it but the ray
Of the dead man’s glassy gaze,
And through half-open lips beneath
The glitter of his gnashing teeth.”

A Voice

“This is the hour! The place prepare!
Lord of the Woods, the lord of fear,
Is one with us at dawn of day.”

Chorus of Phantoms (lifting down the skull)

“From death’s dim threshold come away,
Inherit life – a voice receive.
Be one among us, know us well,
No more be doomed alone to dwell.
Another must your place achieve.”

The Skull (joining in their dance)

“How my limbs long to join again
In one whole creature, only one!
What is this rout of terror and pain?
My newest dream – I still dream on!”

Voice

“His place of honour ready see!
When tomorrow’s course is o’er
The storm shall bear us here once more.
Glorious may his burial be!”

Chorus of Phantoms

“His place of honour ready see!
When tomorrow’s course is o’er
The storm shall bear us here once more.
Glorious may his burial be!”

Voice

Fly, voice, across the fields with power!
At midnight is the funeral hour.
His votive gift let each make known!

The Stake and Wheel

“I’ll be the coffin to his repose.”

Frogs in the Marsh

“The burial anthem we’ll intone.”

Storm over the Lake

“The gale funeral music knows.”

The Moon in the Zenith

“I’ll cover him with snow-white pall.”

Mist on the Mountains

“With veils I’ll drape his funeral.”

Night

“I’ll give black weeds to mourn the dead.”

The Hills Standing Round

“Give veils and garments to us all.”

The Falling Dew

“And I will give you tears to shed.”

The Barren Soil

“I’ll incense with sweet smoke his head.”

The Sinking Cloud

“With rain will I asperge his bed.”

The Falling Blossom

“I will weave garlands for his bier.”

Light Breezes

“We’ll bear them to the coffin lightly.”

St John’s Fireflies

“Our tiny candles shall burn up brightly.”

Thunder out of the Depths

“I’ll wake the great bell’s hollow tone.”

The Mole under the Earth

“I’ll dig his grave, I, lowly here.”

Time

“Over his bones a tomb I’ll rear.”

Flocks of Night-Birds Crossing the Moon

“We’ll make the funeral feast our own.”

Voice

“All honour to his grave we pay!
The moon pales in the heaven’s heart,
The gates of morning draw apart—
It is day! It is day!”

Chorus of Phantoms (as they vanish)

“It is day! It is Day!”

3

Over the dark hills rosy day
Arises, the May valley wakes;
Above the woods, as morning breaks,
Like mist lies long the dream of May.
Out of the forests bluely lifting
Faint vapours climb the rose-flushed sky,
And on the lake more bluely drifting
In delicate colours melt and die;
And on the shore, and in the shadow
Of hills and valleys flowering,
Shine out white courts through wood and meadow,
Waking; till like a mighty king—
Colossal as the shade of night
Against thwe heaven’s rosy light—
The highest peak stands towering.

But now the sun his first red blessing gives
Over the blue, dark hills, and by that token
Suddenly all the spell of dreams is broken,
And joy possesses everything that lives.
Whitely the lake’s green glass the flight of birds receives,
And fleets of little craft, and small, swift-rowing shallops,
Pattern the dim blue waves with glancing, fiery scallops.
Murmurous by the shore the pinewoods greet the day,
Sweet with the song of birds, the thrush’s shower of pearls,
And mingling with their psalm the mirth of straying girls,
As all that lives draws breath to praise the youthful May.
The morning wind, like song, through the green valley blowing,
Bears on its incensed breath a sweet white foam of flowers,
And wild geese ride its flight above the forest bowers,
And to its touch young trees unfold their eager growing.
One scene, and only one, the fair young morn defaces,
Where to the wide lake’s heart a narrow isle goes straying,
Bearing the little town, and the white tower, whose shade
Deep in the waters green in quiveringly laid.
Here wakes a clamorous cry, babel of human baying,
As from the gates of the town the hungry man-pack races.
From far the people haste, a swift stream rushing by,
And ever swells the food, a river strongly rolling,
A mighty multitude, its voice to thunder tolling;
The unhappy felon comes, led forth at dawn to die.

Now from the little town a troop of guards comes swinging,
In slow and sombre march the hapless prisoner bringing,
Whose old, proud habit soon the eager watchers spy.
The clamour stills around—a hush falls on the crowd—
Till babel bursts anew, with many a cry and loud:
“Tis he! The flowers, the plumes he’s wearing,
The hat, the eye beneath it glaring—
His very cloak—’Tis he,’tis he! The dreaded Forest King!”
About him beats the cry, his old name echoing;
And louder still it rings, as thundering waters clear,
As with a heavy step the criminal draws near.
Round him darkens the throng—like heavy clouds in heaven—
A sword flames from the dark—as heaven’s lightnings flare;
Slowly the doomed man goes, his gaze to earth is given.
The town bell tolls; the crowd pities and falls to prayer.

There stahd a little mound, on the lake-shore leaning lightly,
A long stake raised thereon, a wheel above it rearing,
A steep hill looms above, twin peaks its summit sharing,
And on the higher point a chapel gleaming whitely.
In sombre march thereto company is come;
Now all men move aside—the felon stands alone.
A last time led forth here, still he beholds his own,
The dark, deep-breasted hills which were his early home,
Where the lost coin was spent, the golden childhood days.
Yet once more, only once, in the rosy dawning light,
Let forth to the hills, a shade before the chapel white,
To the lord of heaven and earth his reverence he pays.
And deep compassion folds its hands on every heart.
His grief their grief inflames, they suffer his despair,
Fixing their eyes through tears on the summit where he stands
Adoring the fair earth well-fashioned at God’s hands,
A murderer praising God in the humbled hush of prayer.

The rising sun with ruddy grace
Flushes the prisoner’s pallid face;
His eyes, through mists of weeping,
A last love-tryst are keeping.
Beneath him deep the lovely vale
Dreams in its rugged mountain pale,
By forests circled greenly.
The lucid lake serenely
Nursed in the flowering valley drowses.
Blue to the shore it coils and glimmers,
And green beyond, and greener, sleeps,
Till in the distances and deeps
In clear, pale light all melts and shimmers.
About the wheel the white farmhouses
Dimpling the sunlit lake-shore lie.
Across the mirroring waters fast
Flocks of white birds and small boats fly,
Till bluely hides the lake at last,
Far in the hills retreating.
And white craft in the scalloped beaches—
The tower-the town-the white birds’ flight—
Hillocks and shadowy mountain reaches—
Gaze on that mirror with delight,
Their deep-drowned beauty greeting.
Rocks are piled heavy on that far shore
Where flowering land and lake are meeting,
And there an oak-tree old and hoar
Roots in the rocks-once, once the dove
Called there deliciously to love—
Oh, fair lost hour and fleeting!
Never again! The mound is nearing,
The column an the wheel appearing.
Beyond the hill there slips away
A young wood, murmuring mournfully;
Radiant the sun on vale and lea—
The morning dew—the morning May.

Beauty once more the felon’s eyes receive,
Beauty which now for ever he must leave,
And passionate regret his heart possesses:
Deeply he sighs—tear after tear flows over—
One last long look, lingering as looks the lover,
Then to the sky his tear-dimmed eyes he raises.
In the azure vault of heaven the blanching mists are dancing,
In light dissolving zephyrs tattered,
And on the far horizon scattered
White cloudlets over the placid sky go glancing.
The grieving prisoner greets them as they race:
“You clouds, who in your wandering course embrace
Like secret circling arm the earth her own course keeping,
You dissolutions of stars, shades in the blue of heaven,
You mourners ever to mutual sorrow given,
Who know so well the ways of silent weeping—
Bear you my charge, of all things that have birth.
Where you pass from me on your long, wide way
To the distant shore, there for a moment stay,
There, pilgrim clouds, greet reverently the earth.
Ah, well-beloved earth, beautiful earth,
My cradle and grave, the womb that gave me birth,
My sweet, sole land, left to my spirit’s keeping,
Ah, vast and single of beauty as of worth!-
Seek there that rock, and when your swift sails gain it—
If you shall see—by the shore—a woman weeping—”
There fails his voice, the strangling tears have slain it.
Down from the height the guards their prisoner lead
By a wide pathway through young pinewoods threading,
Down and still down; now on the mound they’re treading;
And now the multitude is hushed indeed.
The executioner with his sword stands ready.
Yet one more time the prisoner lifts his eyes,
Worships the sweet, encircling world-once sighs-
And on the approaching death his soul makes steady.
His breast and throat he bares, kneeling to earth he leaves it;
Back steps the headsman-an age the frozen mind believes it!—
The sword flashes; a rapid forward stride—
The sword circles; the bent white neck receives it—
The head falls—a tremor—and yet a tremor beside—
And falls the body after, one with the grieved earth growing.
Into the earth, so beautiful, so beloved.
His cradle and grave, the womb that gave him birth,
His sweet, sole land, his heritage approved,
In the generous earth, the single, holy earth,
Into the mother’s heart the blood of her son is flowing.

The prisoner’s shattered shell, limb after long limb broken,
Twined in the wheel’s embrace is raised, a terrible token,
And over the wheel his head, a blind, oblivious thing.
So died the lord of the woods, the dreaded Forest King.
On the dead countenance the last dream lingers still.
Gazing upon his face, mute round the little hill
The unquiet multitude awaits the long day’s ending,
Till the declining sun draws to the west once more,
Into the head’s blind eyes its gay last laughter sending.
Hushed is the broad lake-hushed is the evening shore.

Above the far dark hills the last radiance blazed.
The pale, dead face of the head is softly silvered o’er,
Silvered the silent mound, hushed by the lake-shore,
As in the evening hush the moon’s fair face is raised.
Distant are grown the towns, far as a cloud in air,
Beyond to the edge of seeing the dead eyes steadily stare,
To the edge of sight, to his youth-Oh, brief, bright childhood day!

Time in its headlong flight has carried that Spring away.
Far fled is his dream, a shadow no more found,
Like visions of white towns, deep in the waters drowned,
The last indignant thoughts of the defeated dead,
Their unremembered names, the clamour of old fights,
The worn-out northern lights, after their gleam is fled,
The untuned harp, whose strings distil no more delights,
The deeds of time gone by, quenched starlight overhead,
Heresy’s pilgrimage, the loving, lovely dead,
The deep forgotten grave, eternal board and bed;
As the smoke of burned-out fires, as the shattered bell’s chime,
Are the dead years of the dead, their beautiful childhood time!

Late eve—the second eve of May—
The twilit May—the time of love—
Meltingly calls the turtle-dove:
Vilem! Vilem! Vilem!!

Intermezzo II

Close the hills lean to each other,
Underneath a dark cloud hiding,
Like a vaulted ceiling riding
Taut from one peak to his brother.
Dark this place by evening gloom is,
Dark and silent as the tomb is.
In the portal deeply-shaded,
Where the hills shrink back dividing,
Sharp rocks in the opening spaces
Steeply rear their frowning faces,
Lower, narrower, blackly biding;
Underneath the cloud dark-braided
Shuts this gate of rocks and boulders.
In the valley’s heart deep-gladed,
Darkly red a camp-fire smoulders,
Broken from the west bright-beaming,
A long sliver of the sunset;
Round its red nocturnal gleaming
Circle night-birds, wheeling, plaining,
In a red and restless onset,
Till the blue of night they borrow.
Sinks the fire, still waning-waning,
Till the broad and bounteous heaven
Melts in nightly dews of sorrow,
And the earth to grief is given.

Oaks a hundred years a-growing,
Darkness within darkness throwing,
Hide a company of friends there.
Cloaked in white, as in the bright time,
Sit the comrades of the night-time.
Each before him groundward bends there,
Wordless, motionless, his vision,
As if terror’s chill transition
Into stone their flesh had stricken.
Through the valley seems to quicken
Whispered breath of lamentation
Round the moveless men who plain him,
Secretly, without cessation:
“Lost, our leader!—they have slain him!”

And the wind, the smoke-wreaths plying,
To the moveless men is crying:
“Lost, our leader!-they have slain him!”

And the restless leaves aquiver
Underneath the cold cliff-faces,
Trembling, murmuring, utter ever
These insistent, changeless phrases:
“Lost, our leader!-they have slain him!”

All the forests in their station
Sound the great, sad accusation:
“They have slain him—slain him!!—slain him—!!!”

4

Beautiful May is passed, withered the bloom of Spring;
The summer fire burns high, wanes, and as soon is gone,
Autumn, and winter after; another Spring comes on,
As time bears off the years on its unresting wing.

The seventh year it was, the seventh year’s last day;
Deep on it lay the night, and with the midnight chime
A new year would be born. The cold earth dreaming lay.
Lone hoof-beats by the lake troubled the silent time.
I was that wayfarer, bound for the town by night,
Led by chance to the mound, where, long ago at rest,
The dreaded Forest King lingered a quiet guest;
There first I saw Vilem- a bare skull glistening white.
There in the midnight land, far as the eye’s reach ranging,
Through valleys, over hills, by forest, lake and meadow,
A wide, white pall of snow lay level and unchanging,
Over the skull and wheel-all white without a shadow.
Deep clouds hemmed in the moon, which seemed to droop and sicken;
Sometimes the weird owl cried, ever the sad wind’s shaking
Plucked at the wheel above, and set the loud bones quaking,
So that my horse and I with panic dread were stricken.
Forward I spurred in fear, there where the safe town hailed me,
And asked what wheel, what bones were these which grimly grew there,
The old innkeeper told the story all men knew there-
The story I have told-and on that wheel impaled me.

Far I went through the world-and the world has enough of pain,
Many a storm of heart blew over me and bled me;
But still this old, worn woe beckoned me back again,
Till in a young Spring season home to the mound it led me.
Under the stake I sat, just as the sun descended,
Under the wheel which bore the skeleton and skull there,
Gazing sad-eyed on Spring, whose cup was fair and full there,
Even to the misty rim where earth and heaven blended.

Evening once more, the first of May-
The twilit May-the time of love.
Meltingly called the turtle-dove,
Where rich and sweet the pinewoods lay.
Whispered of love the mosses frail,
The flowering tree as sweetly lied
The rose’s fragrant sigh replied
To love-songs of the nightingale.
The lake within the dark woods straying
Softly complained a secret pain,
By circling shores embraced again
As brother sister in their playing.
About the head the sunset bright
Lay like a wreath of roses growing,
Gilding the bony face with light,
On fretted skin and white jaw glowing.
In the hollow skull the breezes sped
As if grim laughter mocked the dead,
and lifted lightly here and there
What time had left of his long hair;
Beneath his brows the dewdrops borrow
The sunset light, as if, discerning
The evening beauty of May’s returning,
His dead eyes brim with tears of sorrow.

There I sat on, until the young moon’s light
Blanched both my face and his with rays as pale as bright;
Now like a snowy pall its whiteness spreads before him
Over the vales and woods to the distant hills that bore him.
Sometimes from far away the cuckoo’s greeting sounds here,
Flung from the flowering vale, sometimes the owl’s grave warning;
From many a farmyard near the bark of dogs rebounds here;
Out of the dust arises a sweet incense of mourning,
The little tears of the Virgin upon the hill are flowering,
Deep in the heart of the lake a secret light is burning;
And the fireflies, shooting stars, about the wheel are showering,
Glittering in their play, touching the pale skull brightly,
Lighting to launch again, and launch again ac lightly,
Like fiery falling tears, all his spent tears embowering.

And in my grieving eyes two hot tears rise and break,
Glittering down my cheeks as sparks play in the lake;
For my young years, mine too, my childhood golden-gay,
Time in its headlong flight has seized and borne away.
Far is that lost dream now, a shadow no more found,
Like visions of white towns, deep in the waters drowned,
The last indignant thoughts of the defeated dead,
Their unremembered names, the clamour of old fights,
The worn-out northern lights after their gleam is fled,
The untuned harp, whose strings distil no more delights,
The deeds of time gone by, quenched starlight overhead,
Heresy’s pilgrimage, the loving, lovely dead,
The deep, forgotten grave, eternal board and bed,
The smoke of burned-out fires, the scattered bell’s chime—
Like the song of dead swam, like Eden snatched away,
So is my childhood time—
But what of following time?
My youth, alas, my youth! My season and song are May!
An eventide of May on a rocky, desolate shore:
Light laughter on the lips, deep grief in the heart’s core.

See you the pilgrim there, hastening on his quest
Through the long, sunset fields, beneath the dimming west?
Strain your eyes as you will, the end you cannot see,
As over the edge of vision he falters and finds no rest.
Never-ah, never! And this is all life offers me!
Comfort? Who comforts me? What charm this heart can move?
Love is without an end!—And bitter is my love!

Late evening, on the first of May—
The twilit May-the time of love—
Meltingly calls the turtle-dove:
“Hynek! Vilem! Ah, Jarmila!!!”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Czechoslovakia,Death Penalty,Execution,Fictional,Gibbeted,Gruesome Methods,Murder,Outlaws,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Rape,Sex,Uncertain Dates

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