Posts filed under 'Flayed'

1771: Daskalogiannis

Add comment June 17th, 2019 Headsman

The Crete patriot Ioannis Vlachos — better known as Daskalogiannis — lost his skin to the Turks on this date in 1771.

Statue of the D-man at Anopolis, Crete. (cc) image by AWI.

A wealthy shipping magnate, Daskalogiannis led the Cretan arm of the nationalist Orlov Revolt, which also featured on the Peloponnese. This affair is named not for any Greek but for the Russian admiral Alexei Orlov, who brought his fleet into the Mediterranean to engage the Turks during the 1768-1774 Russo-Turkish War, inspiring the Greek rising in the process.

Unfortunately for the rebels, some initial successes failed to catalyze a national revolution and Russian aid for the breakaway regions came up considerably short of what was pledged. While Orlov’s navy still harried Constantinople, Daskalogiannis for several months maintained a sort of autonomous redoubt from the mountain fastnesses around Sfakia with about 1,300 followers. By early 1771, he was forced to surrender himself at a gorgeous old Venetian fortress, then tortured and was taken to Heraklion and a horrific execution by flaying alive.

He’s commemorated in many street names in Crete, the name of the Chania International Airport, and a number of poems and folk ballads.

On this day..

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1730: A Natchez woman tortured to death at New Orleans

Add comment April 11th, 2017 Headsman

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.

The Natchez woman was not impressed, but “during that long and cruel torture never shed a tear. On the contrary, she seemed to deride the unskilfulness of her tormenters, insulting them, and threatening that her death would soon be avenged by her tribe.”


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.

* Though it’s a bit tangential to the subject of this post, readers interested in this milieu might cotton to White’s Wild Frenchmen and Frenchified Indians: Material Culture and Race in Colonial Louisiana.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Flayed,France,Gruesome Methods,History,Louisiana,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Torture,USA,Wartime Executions,Women

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1649: Saint Jean de Brébeuf, missionary to the Huron

2 comments March 16th, 2013 Headsman

It was on this date that the Jesuit missionary Saint Jean de Brébeuf was martyred by indigenous Iroquois near present-day Midland, Ontario.

(cc) image from Patrick Shanks

Brebeuf was of Norman stock, kin to poet Georges de Brebeuf.

Ordained in 1622, Brebeuf soon decamped to the New World to Christianize the natives.

There he teamed up with another Jesuit missionary named Gabriel Lalemant and established the Sainte-Marie among the Hurons mission.

As the name advertises, this outpost aimed to minister to the Hurons (Wyandot); to that end, Brebeuf — who learned the local tongue well enough to write a catechism and a dictionary — composed the still-beloved Christmas song “Huron Carol”.

Brebeuf’s own missives recording Huron established him an energetic chronicler who has been styled Canada’s first serious ethnographer. For instance, Brebeuf on the POW treatment he saw the Huron dish out:

when they seize some of their enemies, they treat them with all the cruelty they can devise. Five or six days will sometimes pass in assuaging their wrath, and in burning them at a slow fire; and they are not satisfied with seeing their skins entirely roasted, — they open the legs, the thighs, the arms, and the most fleshy parts, and thrust therein glowing brands, or red-hot hatchets … After having at last brained a victim, if he was a brave man, they tear out his heart, roast it on the coals, and distribute it in pieces to the young men; they think that this renders them courageous … we hope, with the assistance of Heaven, that the knowledge of the true God will entirely banish from this Country such barbarity. (From the Jesuit Relations, volume 10)

Well … not just yet.

Brebeuf regrettably foreshadowed his own ghastly fate, for during his ministry, the Huron and Iroquois went to war. No fewer than eight men posted to Brebeuf’s mission were martyred during 1640s Huron-Iroquois wars.

On March 16, 1649, Iroquois captured Brebeuf and Lalemant, and subjected them to a horrific death just like the sort of thing Brebeuf had seen inflicted by the Huron. Other Jesuit missionaries recorded the tortures from eyewitness accounts given in the subsequent weeks:

As soon as they were taken captive, they were stripped naked, and some of their nails were torn out; and the welcome which they received upon entering the village of St. Ignace was a hailstorm of blows with sticks upon their shoulders, their loins, their legs, their breasts, their bellies, and their faces, — there being no part of their bodies which did not then endure its torment.

Father Jean de Brebeuf, overwhelmed under the burden of these blows, did not on that account lose care for his flock; seeing himself surrounded with Christians whom he had instructed, and who were in captivity with him, he said to them: “My children, let us lift our eyes to Heaven at the height of our afflictions; let us remember that God is the witness of our sufferings, and will soon be our exceeding great reward. Let us die in this faith; and let us hope from his goodness the fulfillment of his promises. I have more pity for you than for myself; but sustain with courage the few remaining torments. They will end with our lives; the glory which follows them will never have an end.” “Echon,” they said to him (this is the name which the Hurons gave the Father), “our spirits will be in Heaven when our bodies shall be suffering on earth. Pray to God for us, that he may show us mercy; we will invoke him even until death.”

Some Huron Infidels — former captives of the Iroquois, naturalized among them, and former enemies of the Faith — were irritated by these words, and because our Fathers in their captivity had not their tongues captive. They cut off the hands of one, and pierce the other with sharp awls and iron points; they apply under their armpits and upon their loins hatchets heated red in the fire, and put a necklace of these about their necks in such a way that all the motions of their bodies gave them a new torture. For, if they attempted to lean forward, the red-hot hatchets which hung behind them burned the shoulders everywhere; and if they thought to avoid that pain, bending back a little, their stomachs and breasts experienced a similar torment; if they stood upright, without leaning to one side or the other, these glowing hatchets, touching them alike on all sides, were a double torture to them. They put about them belts of bark, filled with pitch and resin, to which they set fire, which scorched the whole of their bodies.

At the height of these torments, Father Gabriel Lallement lifted his eyes to Heaven, clasping his hands from time to time, and uttering sighs to God, whom he invoked to his aid. Father Jean de Brebeuf suffered like a rock, insensible to the fires and the flames, without uttering any cry, and keeping a profound silence, which astonished his executioners themselves: no doubt, his heart was then reposing in his God. Then, returning to himself, he preached to those Infidels, and still more to many good Christian captives, who had compassion on him.

Those butchers, indignant at his zeal, in order to hinder him from further speaking of God, girdled his mouth, cut off his nose, and tore off his lips; but his blood spoke much more loudly than his lips had done; and, his heart not being yet torn out, his tongue did not fail to render him service until the last sigh, for blessing God for these torments, and for animating the Christians more vigorously than he had ever done.

In derision of holy Baptism, — which these good Fathers had so charitably administered even at the breach, and in the hottest of the fight,—those wretches, enemies of the Faith, bethought themselves to baptize them with boiling water. Their bodies were entirely bathed with it, two or three times, and more, with biting gibes, which accompanied these torments. “We baptize thee,” said these wretches, “to the end that thou mayst be blessed in Heaven; for without proper Baptism one cannot be saved.” Others added, mocking, “we treat thee as a friend, since we shall be the cause of thy greatest happiness up in Heaven; thank us for so many good offices, — for, the more thou sufferest, the more thy God will reward thee.”

These were Infidel Hurons, former captives of the Iroquois, and, of old, enemies of the Faith, — who, having previously had sufficient instruction for their salvation, impiously abused it, — in reality, for the glory of the Fathers; but it is much to be feared that it was also for their own misfortune.

The more these torments were augmented, the more the Fathers entreated God that their sins should not be the cause of the reprobation of these poor blind ones, whom they pardoned with all their heart. It is surely now that they say in repose, Transivimus per ignem et aquam, et eduxisti nos in refrigerium.

When they were fastened to the post where they suffered these torments, and where they were to die, they knelt down, they embraced it with joy, and kissed it piously as the object of their desires and their love, and as a sure and final pledge of their salvation. They were there some time in prayers, and longer than those butchers were willing to permit them. They put out Father Gabriel Lallement’s eyes and applied burning coals in the hollows of the same.

Their tortures were not of the same duration. Father Jean de Brebeuf was at the height of his torments at about three o’clock on the same day of the capture, the 16th day of March, and rendered up his soul about four o ‘ clock in the evening. Father Gabriel Lallement endured longer, from six o’clock in the evening until about nine o’clock the next morning, the seventeenth of March.

Before their death, both their hearts were torn out, by means of an opening above the breast; and those Barbarians inhumanly feasted thereon, drinking their blood quite warm, which they drew from its source with sacrilegious hands. While still quite full of life, pieces of flesh were removed from their thighs, from the calves of the legs, and from their arms, — which those executioners placed on coals to roast, and ate in their sight.

They had slashed their bodies in various parts; and, in order to increase the feeling of pain, they had thrust into these wounds red-hot hatchets.

Father Jean de Brebeuf had had the skin which covered his skull torn away; they had cut off his feet and torn the flesh from his thighs, even to the bone, and had split, with the blow of a hatchet, one of his jaws in two.

Father Gabriel Lallement had received a hatchet- blow on the left ear, which they had driven into his brain, which appeared exposed; we saw no part of his body, from the feet even to the head, which had not been broiled, and in which he had not been burned alive,—even the eyes, into which those impious ones had thrust burning coals.

They had broiled their tongues, repeatedly putting into their mouths flaming brands, and burning pieces of bark, — not willing that they should invoke, in dying, him for whom they were suffering, and who could never die in their hearts. I have learned all this from persons worthy of credence, who have seen it, and reported it to me personally, and who were then captives with them, — but who having been reserved to be put to death at another time, found means to escape.

But let us leave these objects of horror, and these monsters of cruelty; since one day all those parts will be endowed with an immortal glory, the greatness of their torments will be the measure of their happiness, and, from now on, they live in the repose of the Saints, and will dwell in it forever.

Brebeuf’s intercultural legacy allegedly lives on in sport form. Though it’s unverifiable folklore, it is said that Brebeuf saw Iroquois tribesmen playing the game of baggataway and, reckoning the sticks used to manipulate the ball resembled bishops’ croziers, conferred upon the game the name lacrosse.

Europeanized versions of this game (“with a few genteel refinements”) remain wildly popular in Canada, and are growing throughout North America. Lax bros can be found especially in the environs of well-heeled private high schools … like Brebeuf Jesuit Prep School (Indianapolis, Indiana).

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Canada,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Flayed,France,God,Gruesome Methods,History,Martyrs,Mature Content,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Religious Figures,Wartime Executions

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Feast Day of the Holy Maccabees

1 comment August 1st, 2010 Headsman

This is the feast date, in both the Orthodox and Catholic traditions, of the Woman with Seven Sons — each of whom is supposed to have been put to death for refusing to break the Mosaic law by eating pork.

Although they are Jewish martyrs more than a century before Christ, they are revered most especially by the Christian faith that elbowed Judaism aside. Their story comes from 2 Maccabees, a “deuterocanonical” text that is part of the Old Testament but not part of the Hebrew Bible — for reasons having to do with the contingent process of formulating the canon.* (Short explanation | Long explanation)

Whether sent from the Lord or not, this story features the righteous resistance of the faithful family against Antiochus IV Epiphanes, ruler of the Seleucid Empire, which was one of the successor Hellenistic states to Alexander the Great’s conquests.

In 2 Maccabees (and also in 1 Maccabees, which covers the same period, though not this specific martyrdom), Antiochus IV is making an unwelcome pro-heathen intervention in a Jewish civil war on the side of the hellenizers as against the hidebound traditionalists. This comes to attempting “to compel the Jews to depart from the laws of their fathers, and not to live after the laws of God: And to pollute also the temple in Jerusalem, and to call it the temple of Jupiter Olympius.” (2 Maccabees 6:1-2; this chapter features a Whitman’s sampler of other faithful traditionalists slaughtered for various forms of adherence to the Law.)

Same deal with the dietary laws, whose countermanding edict Antiochus (being a wicked heathen king) is pleased to enforce by the most ghastly tortures.

Here’s the description of the martyrdom from 2 Maccabees chapter 7:

Das Martyrium der sieben Makkabaer, by Antonio Ciseri, in an aptly classical setting.

1: It came to pass also, that seven brethren with their mother were taken, and compelled by the king against the law to taste swine’s flesh, and were tormented with scourges and whips.
2: But one of them that spake first said thus, What wouldest thou ask or learn of us? we are ready to die, rather than to transgress the laws of our fathers.
3: Then the king, being in a rage, commanded pans and caldrons to be made hot:
4: Which forthwith being heated, he commanded to cut out the tongue of him that spake first, and to cut off the utmost parts of his body, the rest of his brethren and his mother looking on.
5: Now when he was thus maimed in all his members, he commanded him being yet alive to be brought to the fire, and to be fried in the pan: and as the vapour of the pan was for a good space dispersed, they exhorted one another with the mother to die manfully, saying thus,
6: The Lord God looketh upon us, and in truth hath comfort in us, as Moses in his song, which witnessed to their faces, declared, saying, And he shall be comforted in his servants.
7: So when the first was dead after this number, they brought the second to make him a mocking stock: and when they had pulled off the skin of his head with the hair, they asked him, Wilt thou eat, before thou be punished throughout every member of thy body?
8: But he answered in his own language, and said, No. Wherefore he also received the next torment in order, as the former did.
9: And when he was at the last gasp, he said, Thou like a fury takest us out of this present life, but the King of the world shall raise us up, who have died for his laws, unto everlasting life.
10: After him was the third made a mocking stock: and when he was required, he put out his tongue, and that right soon, holding forth his hands manfully.
11: And said courageously, These I had from heaven; and for his laws I despise them; and from him I hope to receive them again.
12: Insomuch that the king, and they that were with him, marvelled at the young man’s courage, for that he nothing regarded the pains.
13: Now when this man was dead also, they tormented and mangled the fourth in like manner.
14: So when he was ready to die he said thus, It is good, being put to death by men, to look for hope from God to be raised up again by him: as for thee, thou shalt have no resurrection to life.
15: Afterward they brought the fifth also, and mangled him.
16: Then looked he unto the king, and said, Thou hast power over men, thou art corruptible, thou doest what thou wilt; yet think not that our nation is forsaken of God;
17: But abide a while, and behold his great power, how he will torment thee and thy seed.
18: After him also they brought the sixth, who being ready to die said, Be not deceived without cause: for we suffer these things for ourselves, having sinned against our God: therefore marvellous things are done unto us.
19: But think not thou, that takest in hand to strive against God, that thou shalt escape unpunished.
20: But the mother was marvellous above all, and worthy of honourable memory: for when she saw her seven sons slain within the space of one day, she bare it with a good courage, because of the hope that she had in the Lord.
21: Yea, she exhorted every one of them in her own language, filled with courageous spirits; and stirring up her womanish thoughts with a manly stomach, she said unto them,
22: I cannot tell how ye came into my womb: for I neither gave you breath nor life, neither was it I that formed the members of every one of you;
23: But doubtless the Creator of the world, who formed the generation of man, and found out the beginning of all things, will also of his own mercy give you breath and life again, as ye now regard not your own selves for his laws’ sake.
24: Now Antiochus, thinking himself despised, and suspecting it to be a reproachful speech, whilst the youngest was yet alive, did not only exhort him by words, but also assured him with oaths, that he would make him both a rich and a happy man, if he would turn from the laws of his fathers; and that also he would take him for his friend, and trust him with affairs.
25: But when the young man would in no case hearken unto him, the king called his mother, and exhorted her that she would counsel the young man to save his life.
26: And when he had exhorted her with many words, she promised him that she would counsel her son.
27: But she bowing herself toward him, laughing the cruel tyrant to scorn, spake in her country language on this manner; O my son, have pity upon me that bare thee nine months in my womb, and gave thee such three years, and nourished thee, and brought thee up unto this age, and endured the troubles of education.
28: I beseech thee, my son, look upon the heaven and the earth, and all that is therein, and consider that God made them of things that were not; and so was mankind made likewise.
29: Fear not this tormentor, but, being worthy of thy brethren, take thy death that I may receive thee again in mercy with thy brethren.
30: Whiles she was yet speaking these words, the young man said, Whom wait ye for? I will not obey the king’s commandment: but I will obey the commandment of the law that was given unto our fathers by Moses.
31: And thou, that hast been the author of all mischief against the Hebrews, shalt not escape the hands of God.
32: For we suffer because of our sins.
33: And though the living Lord be angry with us a little while for our chastening and correction, yet shall he be at one again with his servants.
34: But thou, O godless man, and of all other most wicked, be not lifted up without a cause, nor puffed up with uncertain hopes, lifting up thy hand against the servants of God:
35: For thou hast not yet escaped the judgment of Almighty God, who seeth all things.
36: For our brethren, who now have suffered a short pain, are dead under God’s covenant of everlasting life: but thou, through the judgment of God, shalt receive just punishment for thy pride.
37: But I, as my brethren, offer up my body and life for the laws of our fathers, beseeching God that he would speedily be merciful unto our nation; and that thou by torments and plagues mayest confess, that he alone is God;
38: And that in me and my brethren the wrath of the Almighty, which is justly brought upon our nation, may cease.
39: Than the king’ being in a rage, handed him worse than all the rest, and took it grievously that he was mocked.
40: So this man died undefiled, and put his whole trust in the Lord.
41: Last of all after the sons the mother died.
42: Let this be enough now to have spoken concerning the idolatrous feasts, and the extreme tortures.

The upshot of the Maccabees texts is the revolt of Judas Maccabeus against the Seleucids, the episode that gives us Hanukkah, when that “temple of Jupiter Olympius” was rededicated back to YHWH.

And though not specifically because of the Holy Maccabees, the start of that revolt is the very next thing to occur in the text,** at the start of chapter 8:

1: Then Judas Maccabeus, and they that were with him, went privily into the towns, and called their kinsfolks together, and took unto them all such as continued in the Jews’ religion, and assembled about six thousand men.
2: And they called upon the Lord, that he would look upon the people that was trodden down of all; and also pity the temple profaned of ungodly men.
3: And that he would have compassion upon the city, sore defaced, and ready to be made even with the ground; and hear the blood that cried unto him,
4: And remember the wicked slaughter of harmless infants, and the blasphemies committed against his name; and that he would shew his hatred against the wicked.

And then, of course, it’s the good guys’ turn to start killing.

* It is worth noting that deuterocanonical books aren’t part of the Old Testament for most Protestants; Martin Luther declared himself “so great an enemy to the second book of the Maccabees, and to Esther, that I wish they had not come to us at all, for they have too many heathen unnaturalities.”

** The book’s chronology is scarcely rigorous, but if the episode is considered historical, it would have occurred in 167 B.C.E. (the year the Maccabean revolt began) or the few years before, reaching back to Antiochus’s anti-Mosaic injunctions c. 175 B.C.E.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Dismembered,Execution,Flayed,God,Gruesome Methods,Israel,Jews,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Myths,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Religious Figures,Summary Executions,Torture,Uncertain Dates

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1570: Ivan Viskovaty among hundreds on Red Square during the Oprichnina

4 comments July 25th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1570, Russian tsar Ivan IV GroznyIvan the Terrible — carried out one of his most infamous and horrible atrocities with hundreds executed on Red Square.

Ivan the Terrible, by Viktor Vasnetsov. (Cropped image; click for the full painting.)

We find ourselves in 1570 almost a quarter-century into the reign of this complicated, frightening figure. It is the oprichnina, the bloodiest spell of Ivan’s authority: years of torture, purges, and political violence vividly symbolized by the tsar’s black-clad personal Gestapo, the oprichniki.

“Children of darkness,” the exiled noble Kurbsky called these dreadful Praetorians. “Hundreds and thousands of times worse than hangmen.”

A dangerous time to draw breath, but a particularly dangerous time for any boyar, men of the feudal nobility whom Ivan set his iron hand to mastering. This, after all, was the historical task of monarchs at this time, and it was everywhere accomplished with bloodshed.

For Ivan, having come of age an orphan at the mercy of rival boyars, it was a vengeful personal obsession.

Already stung by the defection — and subsequent nasty correspondence — of one such noble, Andrei Kurbsky, Ivan was downright paranoid about disloyalty during the long-running Livonian War against Muscovy’s western neighbors, Poland, Lithuania and Sweden.

Ivan became ever readier to equate dissent with treason and to ascribe his military reverses to conspiracies on the part of his aristocratic commanders, rather than to the shortcomings of his war-machine in general. A vicious circle thus emerged – of military failures; suspected treachery; the suspects’ fear of condemnation and liquidation, and flight abroad.*


The innocent have nothing to fear!

Taking it into his head that the ancient, rival city of Novgorod — one of the cradles of Russian civilization — was scheming to deliver itself to the newly-formed Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Ivan led an army there that in early 1570 massacred thousands of Novgorodians.**

He wasn’t done yet.

Returning to Moscow with his blood up, Ivan subjected his numerous Novgorodian prisoners to a savage regimen meant to uncover the extent of their nefarious doings. And it wasn’t long before the locals (who were, after all, just as suspect in Ivan’s eyes) got swept up in it, too. Politically-motivated magistrates with torture-induced confessions and denunciations did the dreadful things they always do.

This date in 1570 turned out to be the affair’s crowning carnival of barbarism.

“The Russian capital had seen many horrors in its time,” wrote Soviet-era historian A.A. Zimin (cited in this biography of Ivan IV). “But what happened in Moscow on 25 July, in all its cruelty and sadistic refinement, outdid all that had gone before and can perhaps be explained only by the cruel temperament and the sick imagination of Ivan the Terrible.”

Ivan Viskovaty (English Wikipedia link | French) had been one of Russia’s leading men on foreign affairs for a generation, as well as a longstanding ally of the tsar.

Nevertheless, he would be the first and most prominent victim on Red Square this date. Viskovaty’s rival Andrei Shchelkalov, who succeeded Viskovaty as the foreign affairs minister, neatly stitched up the senior diplomat for being in on the Novgorod “plot” as well as more exotic schemes to hand over southern cities to Turkey and the Khanate.

Historian Nikolai Karamzin related the scene (quoted here):

On July 25, in the middle of the market-place, eighteen scaffolds were erected, a number of instruments of torture were fixed in position, a large stack of wood was lighted, and over it an enormous cauldron of water was placed. Seeing these terrible preparations, the people hurried away and hid themselves wherever they could, abandoning their opened shops, their goods and their money. Soon the place was void but for the band of opritchniks gathered round the gibbets, and the blazing fire. Then was heard the sound of drums: the Tsar appeared on horseback, accompanied by his dutiful son, the boyards, some princes, and quite a legion of hangmen. Behind these came some hundreds of the condemned, many like spectres; others torn, bleeding, and so feeble they scarce could walk. Ivan halted near the scaffolds and looked around, then at once commanded the opritchniks to find where the people were and drag them into the light of day. In his impatience he even himself ran about here and there, calling the Muscovites to come forward and see the spectacle he had prepared for them, promising all who came safety and pardon. The inhabitants, fearing to disobey, crept out of their hiding-place, and, trembling with fright, stood round the scaffold. Some having climbed on to the walls, and even showing themselves on the roofs, Ivan shouted: “People, ye are about to witness executions and a massacre, but these are traitors whom I thus punish. Answer me: Is this just?” And on all sides the people shouted approval. “Long live our glorious King! Down with traitors! Goiesi, Goida!”

Ivan separated 180 of the prisoners from the crowd and pardoned them. Then the first Clerk of the Council unrolled a scroll and called upon the condemned to answer. The first to be brought before him was Viskovati, and to him he read out: “Ivan Mikhailovich, formerly a Counsellor of State, thou hast been found faithless to his Imperial Highness. Thou has written to the King Sigismund offering him Novgorod; there thy first crime!” He paused to strike Viskovati on the head, then continued reading: “And this thy second crime, not less heinous than thy first, O ungrateful and perfidious one! Thou hast written to the Sultan of Turkey, that he may take Astrakhan and Kazan,” whereupon he struck the condemned wretch twice, and continued: “Also thou hast called upon the Khan of the Krim Tartars to enter and devastate Russia:† this thy third crime.” Viskovati called God to witness that he was innocent, that he had always served faithfully his Tsar and his country: “My earthly judges will not recognize the truth; but the Heavenly Judge knows my innocence! Thou also, O Prince, thou wilt recognise it before that tribunal on high!” Here the executioners interrupted, gagging him. He was then suspended, head downwards, his clothes torn off, and, Maluta Skutarov, the first to dismount from his horse and lead the attack, cut off an ear, then, little by little, his body was hacked to pieces.

The next victim was the treasurer, Funikov-Kartsef, a friend of Viskovati, accused with him of the same treason, and as unjustly. He in his turn said to Ivan, “I pray God will give thee in eternity a fitting reward for thy actions here!” He was drenched with boiling and cold water alternately, until he expired after enduring the most horrible torments. Then others were hanged, strangled, tortured, cut to pieces, killed slowly, quickly, by whatever means fancy suggested. Ivan himself took a part, stabbing and slaying without dismounting from his horse. In four hours two hundred and been put to death, and then, the carnage over, the hangmen, their clothes covered with blood, and their gory, steaming knives in their hands, surrounded the Tsar and shouted huzzah. “Goida! Goida! Long live the Tsar! Ivan for ever! Goida! Goida!” and so shouting they went round the market-place that Ivan might examine the mutilated remains, the piled-up corpses, the actual evidences of the slaughter. Enough of bloodshed for the one day? Not a bit of it. Ivan, satiated for the moment with the slaughter, would gloat over the grief of the survivors. Wishing to see the unhapy wives of Funikov-Kartsef and of Viskovati, he forced a way into their apartments and made merry over their grief! The wife of Funikov-Kartsef he put to the torture, that he might have from her whatever treasures she possessed. Equally he wished to torture her fifteen-year-old daughter, who was groaning and lamenting at their ill fortune, but contented himself with handing her over to the by no means tender mercies of the Tsarevich Ivan. Taken afterwards to a convent, these unhappy beings shortly died of grief — it is said.

Thanks to this sort of wholesale purging, Ivan the Terrible became in the 20th century something of an allegorical shorthand for Joseph Stalin, whose own reign of terror was a touchier subject for direct commentary. By that same token, and capturing the multifaceted meaning of the word Grozny, (both awful and awe-inspiring) Soviet patriotic mythology co-opted Ivan and his allegedly farsighted cruelty as a state- and nation-builder.

Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible — a planned trilogy of films of which only two were completed, due to Stalin’s distaste for his greatest director’s interpretation — captures a view of Ivan IV Grozny from the shadow of wartime Stalinist Russia. (The two extant films can be seen in their entirety on YouTube, and are well worth the watching.)

The more conventional take is that, especially by his later years, the guy’s tyrannical paranoia had metastasized enough to send him plum off his rocker. In 1581, that favorite son who had accompanied Tsar Ivan to Novgorod, and to Red Square on this date, piqued his father’s rage during an argument — and in a fury, Ivan struck him dead.


Detail view (click for the full, gorgeous canvas) of Ilya Repin‘s emotional painting of Ivan the moment after he has mortally wounded his son. Incited to his own act of lunacy by the tsar’s riveting madman expression, iconographer and Old Believer Abram Balashov slashed these faces with a knife (image) in the Tretyakov Gallery in 1913.

The capable young heir’s senseless death effectively spelled the end for Russia’s Rurikid Dynasty descended from the half-mythical Norse founder of Rus’, Rurik. That argument from order and progress in favor of Ivan’s ferocity inconveniently runs up against the fact that what he actually bequeathed to the next generations of Russians was the rudderless, war-torn Time of Troubles, when rival claimants struggled for the throne.

Ivan IV is sure to remain a controversial, compelling figure for many a year to come. Released just a few months ago as of this writing, and in a time when Ivan comparisons are coming back into vogue for the ominous contemporary Russian state, Pavel Lungin’s Tsar (review) mounts a gory critique of its subject.

* Jonathan Shepard, book review in The Historical Journal, vol. 25, no. 2 (June 1982).

** Novgorod by 1570 was not as important as it had once been, but Ivan’s sack massively depopulated the city, essentially destroying its remaining strength as an independent commercial center.

† The allied Ottoman Turks and Crimean Khanate did in fact devastate Russia (and pillage Moscow) the very next year.

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1314: Tour de Nesle Affair adulterers

7 comments April 19th, 2010 Headsman

Think you want to fall in love with a princess?

On this date in 1314, the French crown dissuaded the fantasy by butchering two Norman knights who had sheathed their swords where they oughtn’t.

In the Tour de Nesle affair (English Wikipedia page | French), French princess Isabella — then Queen of England, where she is known as Isabella of France or any number of less-flattering sobriquets — noticed that some purses she had once given her brothers’ wives as gifts were being sported by a couple of (evidently metrosexual) dudes in the court.

Let their fate be a warning against regifting.

In short order, the purse-toting knights Philippe and Gauthier d’Aunay or d’Aulnay (both links are in French) were arrested for tapping, respectively: Margaret of Burgundy (the wife of the king’s eldest son, Louis, soon to become Louis X); and, Blanche of Burgundy (the wife of the king’s third son, Charles, the future king Charles IV).*

“The pious confidence of the middle age, which did not mistrust the immuring of a great lady along with her knights in the precincts of a castle, of a narrow tower — the vassalage which imposed on young men as a feudal duty the sweetest cares, was a dangerous trial for human nature, when the ties of religion were weakened.”

Jules Michelet

Under torture, the knights copped to the cuckoldry, supposed to have been conducted in the Tour de Nesle, a since-destroyed guard tower on the Seine.**


Detail view (click to see larger image) of the dilapidated Tour de Nesle, as sketched in the 17th century by Jacques Callot. The tower was destroyed in 1665.

The knights suffered horrific deaths:

“deux jeunes et biaux chevaliers furents roués vifs, écorchés vifs , émasculés, épendus de plomb soufré en ébullition, puis décapités, traînés à travers rues, et pendus au gibet y pourrissant durant des semaines. Leurs sexes, instruments du crime, sont jetés aux chiens. Jamais corps n’auront autant souffert.”

In fine: flayed, broken on the wheel, burned with hot lead and sulfur, genitals thrown to the dogs, and then decapitated for ignominious gibbeting on Montfaucon.

The women fared only a little better. Neither faced execution, and in fact both would technically become Queens of France. But they “reigned” as such from prison.

Margaret of Burgundy was clapped in a tower in a room exposed to the elements while her estranged husband became king. She succumbed (or possibly was murdered outright to clear the way for a new wife) in 1315.

Blanche of Burgundy was still in wedlock and still locked up in Chateau-Gaillard when her husband ascended the throne early in 1322; the marriage was annulled a few months later, and Blanche lived out her last few years at a nunnery.

Isabella’s role in all of this as the goody-two-shoes informer upon the adulterers looks particularly ironic with benefit of hindsight. In another 12 years’ time, this Queen of England and an adulterous lover combined to overthrow the King of England.

But maybe not so ironic after all, if one takes her for a power-thirsty “she-wolf”.

This Tour de Nesle scandal also happened to cast doubt on the paternity of Margaret’s only daughter Joan, which mitigated against Joan (and potentially in favor of Isabella’s new son, Edward) for eventual claim to the throne of France. Since this potential succession was not evidently imminent, and Isabella had three brothers in the prime of life, this seems a farfetched motivation for tattling. But one is drawn to the question of inheritance since happenstance soon put the royal succession into dispute — a misfortune that helped lead to the Hundred Years’ War when that son, grown up to be Edward III of England, did indeed press his French claims at swordpoint.

(The Tour de Nesle scandal is generally thought now to have been legitimate, on the grounds that the ruling family would not have inflicted such an injury to its own legitimacy without very good cause. However, according to Alison Weir, at least one chronicle blamed the affair on a frame-up by hated royal advisor — and eventual Executed Today client — Enguerrand de Marigny.)

Neither Isabella nor Joan ever ruled France. Joan, however, was an ancestor of Henri IV.

* The wife of the middle son, Philip, was also accused of knowing about the affairs, but her strong defense and her husband’s backing got her off.

** Spectacular embroideries enhanced the legend in later generations, into tales of a royal succubus making her rendezvous in the tower by night, then having her lovers hurled off it at dawn. Alexandre Dumas spun a melodrama from this material, though Frederic Gaillardet accused him of plagiarism. (Dumas gives his side of the story at excrutiating length in his memoirs.) La Tour de Nesle was later made into a movie.

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1199: Pierre Basile, marksman

3 comments April 6th, 2010 Jonathan Shipley

(Thanks to Jonathan Shipley of A Writer’s Desk for the guest post. -ed.)

If you kill a king, expect swift retribution.

Expect avengers.

Expect to not live long after you deal the final fatal blow to a royal personage.

A boy, Pierre Basile, was executed on this date in 1199 for shooting King Richard the Lionhearted* with an arrow expelled from his crossbow.

The wound wasn’t fatal to Richard I; the gangrene was. (French page) Although the king pardoned the boy for the shot before dying, Richard’s right hand man, French Provencal warrior Mercadier, would hear none of it. After the king’s death, Mercadier stormed Chateau de Chalus-Chabrol, defended weakly by Basile, then flayed him alive before hanging him.

Little is known of the boy defender. Also known as Bertran de Gurdun and John Sabroz (the various names suggest we’ll never know his real name), Basile was one of only two knights defending the castle against the king’s siege.

This castle protected the southern approach to Limoges and was betwixt routes from Paris and Spain and the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. The English army openly mocked its defenses as the siege continued. The ramparts were cobbled together with makeshift armor. A shield was constructed out of a frying pan.

Knowing the castle would fall sooner than later, the English were lax in their siege, though eager for the riches inside. (Supposedly within the castle walls was a treasure trove of Roman gold.)

Richard I, as feudal overlord, claimed it for himself and no boy knights were going to get in his way. The king had been in the area suppressing a revolt by Viscount Aimar V of Limoges. The viscount’s forces had been decimated by the king’s army. The riches for the win lay in the castle and Basile stood atop it.

It was early evening, March 25, 1199, when Richard walked around the castle perimeter without his chainmail on. Arrows had been shot from the ramparts by Basile but were paid little attention. The king applauded when one arrow was aimed at him. The next arrow fired struck the king in the left shoulder near the neck.


Richard the Lionhearted, mortally wounded.

The king returned to the privacy of his tent to pull it out. He couldn’t. The surgeon Hoveden, Mercadier’s personal physician, was summoned. He removed the arrow, but not swiftly, or cleanly. Gangrene quickly set in. The king asked for the crossbowman. The boy, Basile, appeared before the stricken king, expecting to be executed on the spot. The boy spoke first, saying he had tried to kill Richard because the king had killed the boy’s father and two brothers.

“Live on,” the king replied, “and by my bounty behold the light of day.”

He ordered the boy set free and, further, sent him away with 100 shillings. Deliriously jubilant at the king’s decision, the boy quickly returned to the castle.

On April 6, in the arms of his mother, Richard I died. His remains were buried at the foot of the tower from which Basile shot the arrow.

And with the king died his chivalry towards Basile.

Mercadier, who had entered the king’s service in 1184 and fought in battles in Berry and Brittany, Flanders and Normandy, brought the castle’s defenders to a swift and punishing death.

Hanging the defenders, he took the boy and flayed him first — that is, he removed the boy’s skin while he was still alive. Then Pierre Basile was hung, and his body consigned in an unmarked grave.

* Last seen in these parts slaughtering Muslims on Crusade.

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1571: Marco Antonio Bragadin, flayed Venetian

9 comments August 17th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1571, the commander of a Venetian garrison was flayed by the Turks.

Marco Antonio Bragadin (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) — or Marcantonio Bragadin — was the captain of Famagusta as an Ottoman Empire near the peak of its power began to wrest Cyprus from eight decades of Venetian control.

The Turks sacked the wealthy Cypriot capital Nicosia in September 1570, slaughtering or enslaving the inhabitants. Bragadin thereupon received an inducement from the invaders to surrender the last Venetian outpost still remaining in Cyprus: the severed head of Nicosia’s general.

Bragadin was having none of it.

Milord pasha of Carmania,

I have seen your letter. I have also received the head of the lord lieutenant of Nicosia, and I tell you herewith that even if you have so easily taken the city of Nicosia, with your own blood you will have to purchase this city, which with God’s help will give you so much to do that you will always regret having encamped here.

The Famagustans didn’t get quite that much help from God, but they forced a dear purchase in blood. For nearly a year, they repelled the siege; starving and exhausted, they at last accepted a merciful surrender only to have the entire garrison slain (the link is in Italian) at the beginning of this month.

The entire garrison, save Bragadin.

Special torments were reserved for the general who had given them such trouble. Executed Today friend Melisende’s Historic Biography post on Bragadin recounts the nauseating Calvary of the Venetian: mutilated, dragged around his fallen fortress, then exposed on the docks for flaying alive. The skin was stuffed with straw and sailed back to Istanbul as a war trophy for the Sultan Selim II.

One can see here, of course, the narrative of East vs. West in a war for civilization itself, although one should observe that the overthrow of Catholic hegemony on Cyprus restored the privileges of the Orthodox church. But the fall of Cyprus was itself the backstory for one of the pivotal naval battles of the age two months later, the Battle of Lepanto, at which a league of Mediterranean powers including Venice decisively checked Ottoman influence at sea, pre-empting a likely invasion of Italy.

Bragadin, for his part, became a potent symbol blending civic and religious martyrdom in what turns out to be (post-Lepanto) a victorious cause. One might say that he fulfilled a need.

Cultures which have drawn nourishment from their legendary martyrs feel a need to prolong the spectacle of their suffering. They hark back to the desire to keep the dying man with them; and the memory of this desire strengthens their tales of holy victimhood, dramatizes them, keeps them alive. Bragadin’s torture was long-drawn-out, and it must be constantly remembered as such.

… Christians’ preoccupation with relics has been complex, enduring and, at times, feverishly obsessive. It has reached high points in moments when Catholic doctrines and practices have felt most dramatically threatened. During Marcantonio Bragadin’s lifetime, and during the period immediately following, Christendom trembled before the encroaching Muslims. In this context, the story of Bragadin’s martyrdom acquired particular potency: not because the Church proclaimed him a saint, but because by analogy, he seemed to bring the ancient Christian matrydoms up to the present. He seemed to make those sufferings real and explicit, lifting them out of their legendary fogginess. Step-by-step, piece-by-piece, he “demonstrates” the martyr’s ordeal, almost as in a manual of suffering.

Nor was the fulfillment merely conceptual. According to this page on Rome tourist destinations, the painting of St. Bartholomew’s flaying executed for the ancient basilica of Santi Nereo e Achilleo in the 1600 Jubilee alludes directly to the more contemporary event — notice the dark, turban-clad figure on the left.

In 1596, one of the few survivors of Cyprus nicked Bragadin’s hide from Istanbul and returned it to Venice, where it remains today entombed as a relic at the Basilica di San Zanipolo.

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1831: Nat Turner

12 comments November 11th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1831, the slave Nat — remembered to history as Nat Turner after the surname of his original owner — was hanged, flayed and dismembered for leading the most notorious slave rebellion in antebellum America.

A deeply religious man known to other slaves as “The Prophet”, Nat followed what he took to be divine directive to launch a bloody uprising on the night of August 21-22 in Southampton County, Virginia. Using (at first) axes, knives and clubs to avoid attracting attention to gunfire, Nat’s band slaughtered whites from house to house, freeing slaves as they went. At least 55 whites were killed, and a like number of slaves by white militias that mobilized to put down the revolt … and then hundreds more slaves as far away as North Carolina suspected of some tangential involvement or simmering disloyalty.

The uprising was suppressed within two days, but it rooted so deeply in the conscience of the South that it persists to this day.

“I have not slept without anxiety in three months. Our nights are sometimes spent listening to noises.”
-Slaveowner after the rebellion

Nat Turner embodied slaveowners’ terror of the subject population living about them, outnumbering them, resentfully supporting Southern gentility at the end of a whip — the conundrum Jefferson had described barely a decade before as “we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.” Arguably, the revolt hardened southern whites against moderating slavery; some legislatures tightened restrictions against teaching slaves to read, thinking that literate slaves like Nat were more liable to uprisings.

Conversely, he was a powerful martyr of resistance in the slave quarters, a symbol of scores of other lesser-known uprisings and of the countless more that lurked in dreams and fantasies, awaiting some spark of outrage, some sudden opportunity, some wild carelessness of death.

He was a figure of literature even before his death — The Confessions of Nat Turner, dictated to a white interrogator, left Nat’s own riveting testimony from the shadow of the gallows; the Virginia-born white novelist William Styron used the same title for a controversial 1967 historical novel which earned a Pulitzer but drew a critical rebuttal from many black writers. (Nat Turner also stalks the memory of Styron’s semi-autobiographical narrator in Sophie’s Choice.) More recently, Nat has received graphic novel treatment.

Historians of every stripe, meanwhile, have struggled over the meaning of the man’s deeds and — especially — his paradoxical legacy as symbol.

Update: The occasion received a tribute in Alabama about the time this post went up.

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