Posts filed under 'Gruesome Methods'

Feast Day of Saint Mocius

Add comment May 11th, 2019 Headsman

May 11 is the feast date in the Orthodox confession* of Saint Mocius or Mucius, Hieromartyr of Amphipolis, Macedonia.

Mosaic image of Mocius from the Greek monastery of Hosios Loukas. (cc) image from Hans A. Rosbach.

A hieromartyr is someone who was clergy when he died for the faith; Mocius, as a Christian presbyter, rallied his flock against a public festival for the wine-god Bacchus, allegedly destroying an icon of that hedonic deity.

Since this occurred during the anti-Christian crackdown under the Emperor Diocletian, Mocius got what what was coming to him from this behavior although not until they were able to take him to Byzantium for beheading: attempts to punish him by fire and by throwing him to wild animals were divinely interdicted.

He’s not to be confused with the quasi-mythical Gaius Mucius Scaevola, a hero of Rome’s Etruscan Wars whose legendary steel in the face of execution in the Etruscan camp — “Watch so that you know how cheap the body is to men who have their eye on great glory,” he declared as he thrust his right hand into a brazier without flinching in pain — led his astonished enemies to release him instead. “Scaevola”, meaning “lefty”, is the honorary cognomen his countrymen bestowed upon him thereafter; the feat has inspired later harm-seeking imitators ranging from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Friedrich Nietzsche to Paul Atreides.

* Catholics mark the feast on May 13.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Beheaded,By Animals,Byzantine Empire,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,Heresy,History,Macedonia,Martyrs,Religious Figures,Uncertain Dates

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1766: Edmund Sheehy, James Buxton, and Buck Farrell, Whiteboys

Add comment May 3rd, 2019 Headsman

This account from the London Chronicle, June 5, 1766 refers to the disappearance and alleged murder of the informer John Bridge. We’ve visited this case previously, in the form of Father Nicholas Sheehy, who had also been drawn and quartered a few months previous for the Bridge affair; collectively, these cases are pretext for state reprisal against the Irish Whiteboys movement, which opposed large landholders’ moves to consolidate estates, expel tenants, and let people starve while the land that once fed them was shifted towards commercial agriculture.


The Trials of Mr. Edmund Sheehy, Mr. James Buxton, and Mr. John Farrell, at Clonmel Assizes in Ireland, for the Murder of John Bridge, on the Night of the 18th of October, 1764

Mr. Edmund Sheehy being put to the bar, the lawyers for the crown first called upon John Toohy, who declared, that the prisoner was within two or three yards of John Bridge, when he received the fatal blow from John Mechan.

Mary Brady swore that she came up immediately after the murder, and that the prisoner was present, together with the Rev. Mr. Sheehy, and Edmund Mechan, and that the latter held in his hand a bill hook all bloody, and that the Priest commended the action.

Mr. James Herbert, Farmer, declared, that on Sunday Oct. 28, 1764, he was called upon by Roger Sheehy, then on horseback, behind whom he rode to a meeting of twenty or thirty persons, on the lands of Shanbally, near Clogheen, where they were sworn by Father Sheehy to murder John Bridge, John Bagwell, Esq; William Bagnell, Esq; the Rev. Dr. Hewetson, and every other person who should oppose them; that they would be faithful to the French King, and conquer Ireland.

After having thus sworn, they came to the house of one English, on the lands of Shanbatly, where Bridge was; they took him to a field, where was another party of about a hundred and thirty; here they accused him of giving information against the White Boys, and insisted that he should by oath contradict whatever he had given information of, which he refused to do; hereupon one Byrne made a stroke at him with a turf-slane, which he kept off with his arm; then Edmond Meehan took a bill hook from under his coat, with which he struck Bridge on the back part of his head, which so cleft his scull, that he instantly expired; that the Priest was then within the distance of two yards, with a hook in his hands. After this (being first sworn not to divulge what had been done) they put the body in a blanket, which they conveyed to a ploughed field, where they buried it; but in about eight days after, lest the plough should turn up the body, it was taken up and carried to a church-yard about two miles off.

John Lenorgan swore, that being sent by his uncle, Guynan, to the house of English, where the Bridge had been, between ten and twelve at night, he heard the noise of a number of people; that not caring to be seen, he concealed himself in a ditch, where he was discovered by Thomas McGrath, who put him on horseback behind the Priest, with whom he rode some time, and on the way discovered the body of a dead man, wrapt up in a blanket, before a person on horseback, and through a hole in the blanket, saw the head bloody, and that there was a number of persons attending it, both on foot and horseback, of whom he knew Father Sheehy, Edmond Meehan, Buck Sheehy, Thomas McGrath, Bartholomew Kenneley, and John Toohy; and that when they came to the turn of the road, the Priest let him down, directing him the shortest way home, and gave him three half crowns, charging him not to mention to any one what he had seen; and that he understood the dead body was that of John Bridge.

Here was closed the evidence for the crown. James Prendergast, Esq, attempted to prove an alibi, by swearing that, on the 28th of October, 1764, he and the prisoner, with their wives, dined at the house of Mr. Joseph Tennison, near Ardfinan, in the county of Tipperary; where they continued until after supper, and that it was about eleven o’clock when he and the prisoner left the house of Mr. Tennison, and rode a considerable way together on their return to their respective homes, and that the prisoner had his wife behind him; that when they parted, he (Mr. Prendergast) rode directly home, where, on his arrival, he looked at the clock, and found it to be the hour of twelve exactly, and as to the day he was positive, the 29th being the fair day of Clogheen; that he had desired the prisoner to sell some bullocks for him at the fair, not being able to give his attendance; and that Paul Webber, of Cork, Butcher, was in treaty for the said bullocks with the prisoner, on the 29th.

Mr. Tennison declared he remembered the prisoner and Mr. Prendergast dining with him some time in the month of October, 1764, but was inclined to believe it was earlier in the month than the 28th, for that on the 29th he dined with the Corporation of Clonmell; that on the Wednesday following he dined with the prisoner and Mr. Prendergast, at the prisoner’s house, and that day he invited the prisoner and his wife, with Mr. Prendergast and his wife, to dine with him the Sunday following, and was positive that company did not dine with him on any other day in October.

Paul Webber, of Cork, Butcher, swore, that he was at the fair of Clogheen on the 29th of October, 1764, where he saw the prisoner, but was not in treaty with him for any bullocks belonging to Mr. Prendergast, but the prisoner told him, that Mr. Prendergast had some bullocks on his hands to dispose of, on which he sent a person to Mr. Prendergast’s house, who bought them for him.

Thomas Mason, Shepherd to the prisoner, swore to the night and hour of the prisoner’s return abovementioned, and that he took him from his master his horse, and turned him out to the field. The following persons were also produced to discredit the testimony of John Toohy: viz. Bartholomew Griffith, Surgeon, Daniel Griffith, and John Day, servants to Brooke Brasier, Esq.

The purport of the evidence given by Bartholomew Griffith was to confront Toohy, who, being asked by the prisoner, who gave him the new cloaths he then had on, answered they were given him by his uncle Bartholomew Griffith, who being examined, denied it. Daniel Griffith declared, that Toohy was, on the 28th and 29th of October, 1764, at his house at Cullen.

John Day swore, that Toohy lived for six weeks with his master Brooke Brasier, Esq, when he behaved very ill, and was a person of bad characer; but Mr. Brasier declared he did not know the said Toohy, but that a person was in his family, for that time, of a very bad character, but that he did not know him.

The evidence of James Herbert, for the Crown, was not attempted to be invalidated. Mr. Herbert came to the Assizes, in order to give evidence in favour of Father Sheehy; the Grand Jury, who before had found bills of high treason against him, sent for Toohy, who said he knew him very well, and would assist to take him; upon this William Bagnell, Esq, attended Toohy, with some of the light-horse, went and took him; when being told on what occasion he was secured, he said he would discover the rise and meeting of the White Boys, and their intentions; and acknowledged himself guilty of what he was accused.

Mr. James Buxton, commonly called Capt. Buxton, on account of the power he had over the people he commanded, was the next person put to the bar to be tried. The testimony, which has been already related, was in every particular supported by the additional evidence of Mr. Thomas Bier, who was an accomplice, and acknowledged being present when they all swore allegiance to the French King, and to murder John Bridge, &c. and that too in consequence of a letter he received from Father Sheehy. Mr. Bier declared, that, at the time Bridge was murdered, the Priest was within two or three yards of the unfortunate man, holding the book, on which he a little before pressed and exhorted him to swear for the purpose, as has been mentioned.

Mr. James Farrell, commonly called Buck Farrell, a young man of a genteel appearance, was the last convicted, and on the joint evidence of the prosecutors.

Tuesday, the 15th of April, they received sentence to be executed the 3d of May, at Clogheen.

The general characters of the prisoners, until this unfortunate affair, were very respectable. Their influence must have been considerable, otherwise they could not have brought after them, and inlisted, the number of people they did, who were subject to martial law, by which they were tried on misbehaviour. It was in resentment of a whipping, which was inflicted on John Bridge with remarkable severity, to which he was sentenced by one of the Court-martials, that he was led to give evidence against them, by which he lost his life.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Ireland,Martyrs,Murder,Power,Public Executions,Terrorists,Wrongful Executions

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1821: Athanasios Diakos, Greek War of Independence hero

Add comment April 24th, 2019 Headsman

Greek independence hero Athanasios Diakos died by Ottoman impalement on this date in 1821.*

Though he acquired his nickname Diakos (“deacon”) from a youthful spell in a monastery, this fellow Athanasios (English Wikipedia entry | Greek) while the Turks still governed Greece made his way as a klepht — Greece’s version of the Balkan hybrid outlaw/guerrilla archetype, similar to the hajduk figures among the South Slavs. All of these outlaw types took to the mountains where they could subsist as brigands and mercenaries beyond the reach of the Porte, and seek opportunities where they might to strike at Ottomans. Many of the Greek persuasion, Diakos included, adhered to the Filiki Eteria secret society that aspired to liberate Greece.

With the onset of the Greek War of Independence in early 1821, Diakos jumped right into the fight. Picturesquely, he met a much larger Turkish detachment in battle at Thermopylae where he made like Leonidas and with a handful of companions heroically held out against impossible odds at the Alamana Bridge.

Captured wounded, Diakos spurned the temptation of an officer’s commission in the Turkish army should he but switch sides with words that remain legendary in his homeland to this day: “I was born a Greek, I shall die a Greek.” He was impaled at the city of Lamia, fearlessly musing, “Look at the time Charon chose to take me, now that the branches are flowering, and the earth sends forth grass.”


The Apotheosis of Athanasios Diakos, by Konstantinos Parthenis (1933).

He’s a very famous and beloved figure in Greece, albeit much less so in parts beyond. The village where Diakos was allegedly born has been renamed for him full stop.

* The narratives I’ve seen run a bit hinkie between the Battle of Alamana on April 22 and the great klepht’s death on April 24 since there’s a two-day gap and everyone seems to agree that he was ordered for execution “the next day”. I’m sticking to the agreed death date here, which is universal, but as best I can discern the timeline alternatives for accounting the missing day appear to break down between the notion that Diakos was impaled on the 23rd and lingered on his spike overnight before death, and that it was not until the 23rd that the Ottoman commander had the opportunity to interrogate him and decide his fate and thus “the next day” was the 24th. I haven’t located a source that appears dispositive on this issue.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Greece,Gruesome Methods,Guerrillas,History,Impaled,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Ottoman Empire,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Turkey,Wartime Executions

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1595: Henry Walpole, martyred at York

Add comment April 7th, 2019 Headsman

Jesuit priest Henry Walpole died a traitor’s death outside York on this date in 1595.

The Cambridge-educated Walpole was a recusant Catholic of about 23 years and seemingly no more than moderate religious commitment when he witnessed the scaffold martyrdom of Edmund Campion.

After beholding such a sight — and, it is said, the spatter of the saint’s very blood upon his garments — a now-radicalized Walpole published a verse eulogy for Campion* and fled for the continent to take up holy orders. He spent a decade in studies and ministry in Italy, France, Spain, and the Low Countries.

But he never managed a spell as an underground priest on native soil, for when putting ashore in Yorkshire in December 1593 he was instantly betrayed and arrested, and passed the remainder of his days in various dungeons, and upon various racks. As a former lawyer, Walpole found a clever line of argument in his case, noting that the law required priests landing in England to surrender themselves to authorities within three days, and he had not violated it since he had been captured within hours.

The crown had an even better reply, in the form of the invitation to swear the Oath of Supremacy admitting Queen Elizabeth the head of the English church, the demand upon which so many priests founded their martyrdom. Walpole refused as he ought and, together with another priest named Alexander Rawlins, went to his death at the “York Tyburn” gallows in Knavesmire, his heart perhaps fortified by remembrance of the words with which he had once celebrated Campion.

Can dreary death, then, daunt our faith, or pain?
Is’t lingering life we fear to loose, or ease?
No, no, such death procureth life again.
‘Tis only God we tremble to displease,
Who kills but once, and ever since we die
Whose whole revenge torments eternally.

We cannot fear a mortal torment, we.
These martyrs’ blood hath moistened all our hearts:
Whose parted quarters when we chance to see
We learn to play the constant Christian parts.
His head doth speak, and heavenly precepts give
How we that look should frame ourselves to live.

His youth instructs us how to spend our days;
His flying bids us learn to banish sin;
His straight profession shows the narrow ways
Which they must walk that look to enter in;
His home return by danger and distress
Emboldeneth us our conscience to profess.

His hurdle draws us with him to the cross;
His speeches there provoke us for to die;
His death doth say, this life is but a loss;
His martyr’d blood from heaven to us doth cry;
His first and last and all conspire in this,
To shew the way that leadeth us to bliss.

Blessed be God, which lent him so much grace;
Thanked by Christ, which blest his martyr so;
Happy is he which seeth his Master’s face;
Cursed all they that thought to work him woe;
Bounden be we to give eternal praise
To Jesus’ name, which such a man did raise.

Although condemned to hanging, drawing, and quartering, both Rawlins and Walpole were graciously suffered to die at the end of the rope before the horrors of disemboweling and quartering were inflicted on their lifeless corpses.

* The publisher of this poem was fined £100 and sentenced to have his ears cropped … but he did not attempt to mitigate his pains by exposing the identity of the author.

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

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1540: Hans Kohlhase, horse wild

Add comment March 22nd, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1540, the legendary outlaw Hans Kohlhase — a crime victim turned revengeful crime lord — executed* in Berlin. It’s a classic case of stubborn cusses escalating a minor property dispute.

En route to the Leipzig fair in 1532, Kohlhase (English Wikipedia entry | German) was stopped by a Saxon nobleman who confiscated some of his horses. In dueling publications years later, Kohlhase would charge that Guenther von Zaschwitz accused him of stealing the horses; von Zaschwitz countered that Kohlhase looked suspicious and got uppity with his retainers when questioned.

Proceeding to Leipzig in a huff, Kohlhase obtained the commendations necessary to confirm his identity and then demanded his property back from von Zaschwitz. The lord agreed … if Kohlhase would pay for the horses’ days of upkeep in his stables. Just a little crap sandwich from the neighborhood bully. Kohlhase didn’t feel like having a bite of it.

Fast forward a couple of years. Suits in the courts bogging down, Kohlhase at his wit’s end resorted to an older form of redress, one consecrated by centuries of tradition but now forbidden by a landmark 1495 legal reform: he declared a feud. Kohlhase really vented his spleen in this one, not bothering as a plausibly wronged party to play for hearts and minds but rather pronouncing his vendetta against the whole Electorate of Saxony.

Thus “justified,” he turned out-and-out bandit, gathering a crew of desperados to his banner and robbing with opportunistic promiscuity while staying a step ahead of a bounty issued against him by Elector Johann Frederick I. To repeat: this is all over a question of who foots the bill for a feedbag. Even Martin Luther tried to talk this vengeful fury off his grudge.

What is just, you will do justly, says Moses; wrong is not justified by other injustice … What you rightly do, you do well; if you can not obtain justice, there is no other advice than that you suffer injustice … Therefore, if you desire my council (as you write), I advise, accept peace.

Kohlhase accepted only the peace of the grave.

The German romanticist Heinrich von Kleist immortalized (and renamed) this uncompromising litigant in the novella Michael Kohlhaas; the same story has been re-adapted for cinema several times more.

* No surviving document specifies whether the execution was by breaking wheel or beheading.

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

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1595: Robert Southwell

Add comment February 21st, 2019 Headsman

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

-Chronicle of John Stow

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

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

For Southwell, the pen was mightier than such detonations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1610: Pierre Canal, Geneva sodomite

Add comment February 2nd, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1610* a Genevan official named Pierre Canal was twice capitally punished — broken on the wheel (for treason) and burned (for sodomy).

A longtime city official, as well as an Italian-educated doctor, Canal was progeny of city worthies. Although his own father was a hero of L’Escalade, Geneva’s successful defense against a 1602 attack on Geneva by the Duke of Savoy,** Canal was rounded up for alleged adherence to Savoy’s threatened (never executed) Escalade sequel in 1610.

Under torture for treason, he also copped to dozens of homosexual liaisons over many years, a behavior that he said he’d picked up in Italy.†

Canal’s roster of names named became fodder for a sodomy-hunt spasm in the ensuing months. At least three of his claimed lovers confessed under torture and were executed, and a fourth only survived because he managed to break jail. Others either withstood torture without admitting to an affair, or managed to confine their stipulated activities to non-capital versions of the perversions, such as oral sex without ejaculation. (The latter class ended up with punishments ranging from fines to banishment, but got to keep their limbs.)‡ Echoes of the affair continued in now-queer-vigilant Geneva in the form of several additional prosecutions running until 1623.

* Sources I’ve found are keenly divided between a February 2 and a February 3 execution.

The dispositive primary source, The Archives d’etat de Geneve Proces Criminels, does not appear to me to be digitized for the public, notwithstanding the canton’s exhibitions of a few choice artifacts. I’m going with the 2nd, gingerly, because the secondary sources that seem the most rigorous and credible (such as this Swiss historical dictionary and to me tend towards that date.

** The Escalade is the event commemorated in the Genevan “national” anthem “Cé qu’è l’ainô”.

† We’ve seen gay sex euphemized as le vice italien in the 19th century British navy, too.

‡ Canal named over 20 people, though not all were pursued. There are thirteen additional people named for prosecution by Judicial Tribunals in England and Europe, 1200-1700: Abel Benoit (20, soldier), Francois Felisat (24, carder), Pierre Gaudy (18, porter), George Plongon (25, Sieur Bellerive), Mathieu Berjon (36, printer), Antoine Artaut (30, carder), Jean Bedeville (23), Paul Berenger (23, tailor), Noelle Destelle (25, baker), Jean Maillet (61), Paul Andre (23), Claude Bodet (45, baker), Jean Buffet (23, tailor).

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Doctors,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Homosexuals,Politicians,Public Executions,Sex,Switzerland,Torture,Treason

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1581: Peter Niers

Add comment September 16th, 2018 Headsman

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

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

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

Actually “rather old,” according to an arrest warrant, with crooked fingers 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.

On this day..

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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