Posts filed under 'Public Executions'

1567: Captain William Blackadder, Darnley patsy

Add comment June 24th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1567, the Scottish soldier Captain William Blackadder (or “Blacketer”) died a scapegoat at Edinburgh.

Being dragged on a hurdle to Mercat Cross where he was hanged and quartered, and his remains nailed up in Scotland’s principal cities, was undoubtedly the worst thing that ever happened to Captain Blackadder but posterity finds his severed tendons and ruined viscera only a lesser subplot in the psychodrama of that august future Executed Today fixture Mary, Queen of Scots.

Mary’s famously terrible marriage to the monstrous Lord Darnley produced the eventual King James VI and I, at the cost of utterly ruining Mary’s reign. Please reference the great many more learned and erudite sources that will dwell on the innumerable faults of this grasping English lord who immediately upon achieving wedlock began maneuvering against his wife for power in Scotland. He’s notorious as a drunk, a lech, a murderer, and in general an obnoxious and arrogant shit.

Until, 18 months and change into the marriage, a huge explosion rocked Kirk o’ Field, Edinburgh … and when the debris cleared, there lay the bodies of the obnoxious consort and his servant. Strangely they were dead in a nearby orchard, suspiciously unsinged by the Gunpowder Plot-like pyrotechnics.


Drawing of the crime scene made for the English Secretary of State William Cecil

The particulars of Darnley’s murder have puzzled posterity for the ensuing 450 years, precipitating as it did Mary’s own fall from her throne — a moment manifested by Mary’s humiliating surrender when her dwindling and dispirited supporters melted away instead of fighting at the “Battle” of Carberry Hill. Mary had the humiliation in that June of 1567 of being led through Edinburgh by rebel lords to imprisonment, under the jeers of a hostile crowd.

But since these rebels were rising against Mary’s post-Darnley fling, putatively in the name of Mary herself, they also proceeded to conduct a disingenuous search for Darnley’s assassins in these days, landing on this luckless son of a declining house who had presented himself under Mary’s colors at Carberry Hill. Nobody since and probably nobody then really thought he had “art and part” in Darnley’s death; nevertheless, the diarist Birrel noted, “the 24 day of Junij Captane Villiam Blacketer was drawn backward, in ane cairte, from ie Tolbuith to the Crosse, and ther wes hangit and quartred, for being on the King’s Murther.”

We could not in good conscience miss the opportunity afforded by this distinctive name to cite topical-to-us content from the BBC sitcom Blackadder.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Murder,Nobility,Public Executions,Scotland,Soldiers,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1568: Weyn Ockers, slipper slinger

Add comment June 22nd, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1568 the Dutch Protestant Weyn Ockers was drowned with her maid Trijn Hendricks.

Both were condemned for having taken part in the paroxysm of Calvinist anti-icon riots known as the Beeldenstorm (“icon-fury”) — specifically the 1566 sack of the then-Catholic Oude Kerk in Amsterdam. The Netherlands’ Spanish Catholic overlords were in these months of 1568 busily meting out revenge for the sacrilege.

In a somewhat iconic event of the iconoclasm, Ockers was alleged to have chucked her slipper* at an image of the Virgin Mary perched on the altar — one particularly resented by the reform-minded since the priest encouraged lucrative offerings of parishioners’ valuables to be presented to this icon. One might well doubt the fact of it; Ockers had not been arrested for this offense, but the accusation emerged from the interrogation under torture of other Protestants. Ockers copped to it under torture herself; Hendricks, made of tougher stuff, withstood torture twice and never admitted anything, but still shared her mistress’s fate.

* Not the worst missile that Marian statuary has endured.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drowned,Execution,God,History,Netherlands,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Spain,Torture,Women

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2013: The Hawalli monster

Add comment June 18th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 2013, Egyptian Hajjaj Saadi was hanged with countryman Ahmad Abdulsalam al-Baili at a car park in Kuwait.

Photographers were on hand to record the public execution, just the second in Kuwait since breaking a six-year moratorium on hangings. Saadi in particular was a reviled criminal, dubbed the “Hawalli monster” for the expat district of Kuwait City where he lived — and where, his prosecutors alleged, Saadi lured some 17 or 18 young children, both boy and girls, to rape.

Saadi strenuously denied the charges at trial, insisting that his confession was extracted by torture. No doubt it was. He also said he got no aid from the Egyptian embassy.

Ahmad Abdulsalam al-Baili murdered an Asian couple by torching their flat, and unsuccessfully tried to do the same to an Egyptian couple.

Caution: Mature content. The video in particular shows the actual hanging moment itself; it’s evident that Saadi, a muscular bodybuilder, survived the drop, and in the video he struggles against the rope.



Ahmad Abdulsalam al-Baili


Hajjaj Saadi

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Egypt,Execution,Hanged,History,Mature Content,Murder,Public Executions,Rape,Ripped from the Headlines,Torture

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1492: Jan van Coppenolle

Add comment June 16th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1492 the Flemish rebel Jan van Coppenolle was beheaded at the Vrijdagmarkt in Ghent.

When the formerly doughty duchy of Burgundy faltered as an independent polity after the death of Charles the Bold in 1477, Ghent and its sister Low Countries trading cities had forced upon Charles’s heir Mary an expansive recognition of those cities’ rights.

It was known as the Great Privilege, and it was greatly dependent on the political weakness of the recognizing authority.

Mary expressed this weakness in another way as well: with her marriage to the Habsburg heir Maximilian I of Austria — tying her patrimony to the Austrian empire. Upon this marriage did the House of Habsburg found a redoubling of its already expansive holdings, for Mary herself brought the wealthy Low Countries into the fold while the couple’s son Philip married a Spanish infanta and founded the line of Habsburg Spanish monarchs.* Apt indeed was the House Habsburg motto: “Leave the waging of wars to others! But you, happy Austria, marry; for the realms which Mars awards to others, Venus transfers to you”

Mary, unfortunately, was not around to enjoy the triumph of her matrimonial arrangements, for in early 1482 a horse threw her while out on a ride, breaking her back. Philip might have had a bright future ahead, but he was only four years old.

It was Maximilian’s flex on direct power in the Low Countries — and in particular his ambition to raise taxes to fund expansionist wars — that brought to the stage our man van Coppenolle (German Wikipedia entry | Dutch). He became a preeminent popular leader of a decade-long Flemish rebellion against the future Holy Roman Emperor that verged towards a war of independence.

Briefly forced to flee to exile in France after Maximilian quelled the initial resistance in 1485, van Coppenolle returned with French backing and controlled Ghent from 1487 when the rebellion re-emerged. This second installment had some legs, especially since Maximilian was imprisoned several months by the city of Bruges, allowing van Coppenolle leave enough to even mint his own coinage, the Coppenollen … before the Habsburgs finally suppressed the risings.

* The present Spanish king, Felipe VI, is a descendant of Philip I.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Austria,Beheaded,Belgium,Burgundy,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Habsburg Realm,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Treason

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1779: Manuel, burned for witchcraft in the USA?

Add comment June 15th, 2019 Clarence Alvord

(Thanks to the late University of Illinois history professor Clarence Walworth Alvord for the guest post, which originally appeared in an essay he wrote for the centennial of the Land of Lincoln‘s 1818 statehood. For context to this 1779 execution, the area comprising the future U.S. state of Illinois had been attached by the British crown to its own recently annexed province of Quebec, formerly French and Catholic. Illinois had then been seized during the Revolutionary War by Virginia, which at this moment (and only a few years thereafter) maintained it as Virginia’s own “Illinois County”. Notwithstanding Dr. Alvord’s rebuttal, the slave Manuel is still frequently described down to the present day as having been burned for witchcraft. -ed.)

The secret of writing true history depends upon the collection of all the contemporary evidence bearing on the case. The reason that people complain of the changing interpretations of history is that new material is found as society demands a broader and broader interpretation of the phenomena of the past. There was a time when history consisted in what we call to-day the drum and fife history; the doings of the great political leaders, events of military glory; and almost no other phenomena of changing society were noted. To-day the task of the historian, however, is far greater; and he is obliged to cast his net far afield in order to collect the material for the social development of the past …

“it must be remembered that the Creoles were very ignorant and superstitious, and that they one and all, including, apparently, even their priests, firmly believed in witchcraft and sorcery. Some of their negro slaves had been born in Africa, the others had come from the Lower Mississippi or the West Indies; they practised the strange rites of voudooism, and a few were adepts in the art of poisoning. Accordingly the French were always on the look-out lest their slaves should, by spell or poison, take their lives …

At this time the Creoles were smitten by a sudden epidemic of fear that their negro slaves were trying to bewitch and poison them. Several of the negroes were seized and tried, and in June two were condemned to death. One, named Moreau, was sentenced to be hung outside Cahokia. The other, a Kaskaskian slave named Manuel, suffered a worse fate. He was sentenced “to be chained to a post at the water-side, and there to be burnt alive and his ashes scattered.” These two sentences, and the directions for their immediate execution, reveal a dark chapter in the early history of Illinois. It seems a strange thing that, in the United States, three years after the declaration of independence, men should have been burnt and hung for witchcraft, in accordance with the laws and with the decision of the proper court. The fact that the victim, before being burned, was forced to make “honorable fine” at the door of the Catholic church, shows that the priest at least acquiesced in the decision. The blame justly resting on the Puritans of seventeenth-century New England must likewise fall on the Catholic French of eighteenth-century Illinois.

-Theodore Roosevelt, The Winning of the West

An example of how easy it is to misinterpret a past event, provided all the material available is not collected, and how easy is that interpretation after the material has been found, has come under my observation … About forty years ago Edward G. Mason, at that time secretary of the Chicago Histori[c]al Society, found the record book kept by the county Lieutenant, John Todd,* in the year 1779, when Todd came to govern the territory that had been occupied by George Rogers Clark and his Virginians during the Revolutionary War. In this record book Mason found the copy of a warrant for the death of a negro, named Manuel, by burning at the stake, which burning was to take place after consolation to the criminal had been given by the parish priest. The copy of the warrant had been crossed out by drawing lines through it. Please bear this fact in mind, since it should have suggested a correct interpretation. Naturally this warrant aroused the imagination of Mr. Mason, and he vegan to search for an explanation and discovered that about this time there was an outbreak of voodooism among the Illinois slaves and that two slaves had been put to death. He drew the natural conclusion therefore that Manuel had been burned at the stake for the practice of witchcraft. Basing his interpretation upon Mr. Mason’s find, a well-known ex-president, Theodore Roosevelt, who among other occupations has dabbled in history, wrote at some length upon this episode and drew a comparison between eighteenth century Catholic Illinois, where for the practice of witchcraft men were burned at the stake with the sancttion [sic] of the parish priest and in accordance with French Catholic law, with a similar episode in the history of Puritan Massachusetts in the seventeenth century.

Fortunately there has come into my hands a full record of the court’s proceedings by which Manuel was condemned; and I find that the judges in the case, although they were obliged to listen to the superstitious accusations of negro slaves, were careful to determine the fact that Manuel and another negro had been guilty of murder by poisoning their master and mistress, Mr. and Mrs. Nicolle, and that it was for this act the two negroes were condemned to death. I then looked up the law of the land. Naturally it might be supposed as Roosevelt did that this was French law, but there was another possibility, namely that Virginia law in criminal cases would be used by a Virginian magistrate, such as John Todd. I found that the Virginia law in the case of murder of a master by a slave was death by burning at the stake so that in the case of Manuel you see that the condemnation was strictly in accordance with Virginia law and not with French law. Another document of even greater interest in the case also came to my hands. It certainly was a surprise. This was another warrant for the death of Manuel, issued at a later hour in the day, but by this later warrant the death penalty was changed from burning at the stake to hanging by the neck. To summarize then: Manuel was not condemned for witchcraft but for murder; he was not condemned to be burned at the stake in accordance with French law, but in accordance with Virginia law; and finally he was not burned at the stake at all, but was hung by the neck. This is an excellent example of the danger of drawing inferences in regard to historic events upon too narrow information. There was one fact which both Mr. Mason and Mr. Roosevelt ignored in their interpretation of the warrant. The copy of the warrant was found in a carefully kept record book, and was crossed out by lines being drawn through it. That fact should have made them suspicious of their own interpretation. Records such as this condemnation to death would not be lightly erased by the keeper of a record book. An historical Sherlock Holmes would not have been misled.

* Todd’s brother Levi was grandfather to eventual U.S. First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. -ed.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Illinois,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,USA,Virginia,Witchcraft

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1884: Seven anarchists of La Mano Negra

Add comment June 14th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1884, seven alleged terrorists of the Black Hand* were garroted in Jerez (Xeres), Spain.

This frightening organization was announced to the public via Spanish police discovery of documents purporting to outline their murderous perfidy and conveniently justifying a crackdown on restive Andalusia, then plagued (so the crown saw it) with a burgeoning labor movement.

Whether La Mano Negra (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) truly existed as an organization has been subject to debate from that day to this, but anarchist worker militants had undoubtedly moved in 1881-82 towards overtly violent confrontation with landowners — bread riots during an agricultural crisis paired with robbery and arson. It was by no means merely adventurism. A Madrid newspaper reporting the sack of a bakery saw for the starving looters only three options: “O la limosna, o el robo, o la muerte” … alms, theft, or death.

Three thousand or more of protesting workers would be arrested in those months, and bound over to be used at the discretion of torturers; in the main, they affiliated to the labor union FTRE rather than anything so exotic as a Black Hand. But several murders that took place during or at least proximate to the Andalusian labor disturbances would be attributed to that sinister appendage and bring seven men controversially to execution in Jerez’s market squae on June 14, 1884.

As for others made to prefer alms or theft, hundreds were burdened with judicial penalties of various sorts and deported to Spanish colonies. A successful clemency campaign in the early 1900s reversed a number of those sentences, finally permitting these anarchists or “anarchists” to return to Spanish soil.

* This fell moniker refers to a number of distinct movements with a violent cast of mind sufficient to expose them to the predations of this very blog — notably, the Serbian terrorists who assassinated Archduke Ferdinand

The successors of the Jerez Black Hand that is the subject of this post also paid their own subsequent notable visit to the scaffold in the 1890s.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Garrote,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Murder,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Spain,Strangled,Terrorists,Torture,Wrongful Executions

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1690: Tom Kelsey, royal robber

Add comment June 13th, 2019 Headsman

From the Newgate Calendar:


An audacious young Thief who robbed the Tent of King William in Flanders and stabbed a Newgate Turnkey. Executed 13th Of June, 1690

THOMAS KELSEY was born in Leather Lane, in the parish of St Andrew, Holborn; but his mother being a Welsh woman, and she having an estate of about forty pounds per annum, left her by an uncle at Wrexham, in Denbighshire, the whole family — which consisted only of the two old people, and this their son — went down thither to live upon it.

Tom was from his infancy a stubborn, untoward brat, and this temper increased as he grew up; so that at fourteen years of age he was prevailed on by one Jones, who has since been a victualler in London, to leave his father and come up to town, in order to seek his fortune. Having neither of them any money, they were obliged to beg their way along in the best English they were masters of. Going one day to a gentleman’s house with their complaint, he took a liking to the boys, and received them both into his house: Kelsey in the quality of a horsekeeper and Jones as a falconer. It may be supposed they were both awkward enough in their callings, but Tom’s place was the least difficult, so that he kept it the longest, the gentleman being soon weary of his falconer, and glad to send him about his business again.

It was not a great while after, before Tom Kelsey was detected in some little pilfering tricks, and turned out of doors after his companion, whom he could not find when he came to London. His being out of place till he could subsist no longer, and his natural inclination to dishonesty, soon brought him forward in the course of life for which he was afterwards so infamous. He fell into company with thieves, and was as bold and as dexterous in a little time as the best of them, if not even beyond them all.

Going one day by the house of Mr Norton, a silversmith in Burleigh Street, near Exeter ‘Change, a couple of his companions came by him like strangers, and one of them snatched off his hat, and flung it into the goldsmith’s chamber window, which stood open, running away as fast as they could. Tom, who had a look innocent enough to deceive anybody, made a sad complaint to Mr Norton, who stood at his door and saw all that passed. It happened that at that time there was nobody at home but himself, of which Tom had got intelligence before. “Poor lad!” says Mr Norton, “you shall not lose your hat; go upstairs and fetch it yourself, for I cannot leave the shop.” This was just what Tom wanted; he went up and took his hat, and with it a dozen of silver spoons that lay in his way, coming down in a minute, and making a very submissive bow to Mr Norton for his civility, who let him go without suspicion. This prize was divided between him and his two associates, as is common in such-like cases.

Tom was not, however, so successful in his villainies but that he was condemned to be hanged before he was sixteen years of age. The fact was breaking open the house of one Mr Johnson, a grocer in the Strand, and stealing from thence two silver tankards, a silver cup, six silver spoons, a silver porringer, and forty pounds in money. But he got off this time on account of his youth, and the interest his father made at court; for, hearing of his son’s condemnation, the old gentleman came directly up to town, and arrived before the day appointed for his execution, procuring a full pardon by the mediation of some powerful friends.

To prevent his following the same courses again, and exposing himself afresh to the sentence of the law, the old gentleman put his son apprentice to a weaver, but before he had served half-a-year of his time he ran away from his master, and took to his old courses again. It was his pride to make all whom he conversed with as bad as himself, an instance of which appeared in what he did by one David Hughes, a cousin of his by the mother’s side. This youth, going to Kingston Assizes along with Tom a few days after he came to town, was prevailed upon by him to pick a pocket in the court; in which action being apprehended, he was immediately tried, and condemned to be hanged upon a gibbet within sight of the Bench, as a terror to others. This week was fatal enough to young Hughes; for he came to London on the Monday, on Tuesday and Wednesday spent and lost ten pounds, which was all the money he had, along with whores and sharpers, on Thursday in the evening picked a pocket, was condemned on Friday morning, and hanged on Saturday. This was the end of one of Kelsey’s hopeful pupils, who had the impudence to boast of it.

Another of the actions of this extravagant was his robbing the Earl of Feversham‘s lodgings. This nobleman was General of the Forces in the reign of King James II, and consequently had a sentinel always at his door. Tom dressed himself in a foot-soldier’s habit one evening, and went up to the fellow who was then on duty, asking him a great many questions, and offering at last to stand a drink, if he knew where to get a couple of pots of good beer. The soldier told him there was very good a little beyond Catherine Street, but he durst not leave his post so long as to fetch it. “Can’t I take your place, brother soldier?” quoth Tom. “I am sure if somebody be at the post there can be no danger.” The soldier thanked him, took the sixpence, and went his way; meanwhile Tom’s associates got into the house, and were rifling it as fast as they could. They had not quite done when the soldier came back; whereupon Tom gave him twopence more, and desired him to get a little tobacco also. While the poor fellow was gone for this the villains came out, and Tom went with them, carrying off not only above two hundred pounds worth of plate, but even the soldier’s musket. The next day the sentinel was called to account, and committed to prison. At the ensuing court martial he was ordered to run the gauntlet for losing his piece, and then was sent to Newgate, and loaded with irons, on suspicion of being privy to the robbery, where, after nine months’ confinement, he miserably perished. Kelsey, after this, broke open the house of the Lady Grace Pierpont, at Thistleworth, and stole from thence a great many valuable things. But soon after one of his companions impeached him for this fact; whereupon, being informed that the officers were in search after him, he fled to the camp of King William in Flanders. Here he got a considerable booty out of his Majesty’s tent, and from other general officers, with which he got to Amsterdam, and sold it to a Jew, whom he also robbed afterwards, and sold what he had gotten to another Jew at Rotterdam, from whence he re-embarked for England.

He had not been long returned to his native country before he was detected in breaking open the house of a linen-draper in Cheapside, which put a final end to his liberty, though not to his villainy, for, being sent to Newgate, and having no hopes of ever getting out any more, unless to go to Tyburn, he grew desperate, and resolved to do all the mischief he could there. Mr Goodman, one of the turnkeys of that jail, being one day drinking in the common-side cellar, Kelsey privately stabbed him in the belly with a knife, of which wound he instantly died. For this murder he received sentence of death at the next session in the Old Bailey, and a gibbet being erected in Newgate Street, near the prison, he was thereon executed, on Friday, the 13th of June, 1690, being then no more than twenty years of age. As a terror to the other prisoners who were then in confinement, his body was suffered to hang on the gibbet the space of three hours.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Public Executions,Theft

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1566: Bartholome Tecia, Geneva sodomite

2 comments June 10th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1566, student Bartholome Tecia was drowned in Geneva as a sodomite.

Trial documents make him a youth from the valleys of northwest Italy’s Piedmont, where pockets maintained loyalty to the Evangelical Church of Vaud — Vaud being an adjacent Swiss canton that had been annexed by Calvinist Geneva. He was in the big city to study under Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor in theological preeminence.

He’s been rediscovered by a more queer-friendly posterity. An eponymous play by Jean-Claude Humbert received a Geneva municipal literary prize in 2005, and the present-day Geneva visitor will see a commemorative marker for Tecia unveiled in 2013.


Plaque in Geneva honoring Bartholome Tecia, which reads “BARTHOLOME TECIA. Piedmontese student aged 15, denounced, tortured and sentenced on June 10, 1566 to be drowned in this place, for crime of homosexuality. Today, sexual orientation and gender identity must be universally recognized as basic human rights. Around the world, people continue to be discriminated against, persecuted and sentenced simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.” (cc) image by MHM55.

There’s been a bit of pushback against this memorialization in view of the coercion alleged against him by two younger students. Executed Today would be the last to disclaim adolescents’ capacity for sexual predation, but it’s also the case that all three boys as participants in same-sex rendezvous would have feared themselves under the pall of the executioner: Geneva had drowned a similar trio for sodomy in 1554. While it’s obviously impossible at our remove to have anything better than a guess at the motivations and perspectives of the people involved, it does bear consideration that the accusers were powerfully incentivized to put the entire onus on someone other than themselves. For what it’s worth, Tecia militantly refused to confess, even when put to torture.

It happens that one of Tecia’s accusers was Theodore Agrippa d’Aubigne, the son of a participant in the Huguenot Amboise conspiracy to depose King Francis II. Agrippa d’Aubigne would go on to a scintillating military career during the French Wars of Religion, eventually settling in as Governor of Maillezais when his guy Henri IV won that war. That would have been a nice capstone to his career, except that France’s anti-Reformation turn following Henri’s assassination obliged him to flee a French death sentence for exile … to Geneva. He left an impressive literary legacy containing, to the best of my knowledge, no comment on l’affaire Tecia.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Drowned,Execution,History,Homosexuals,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Ripped from the Headlines,Sex,Switzerland,Torture

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1627: Catlyn Fiermoing, village witch

Add comment June 8th, 2019 Headsman

The sorceress Catlyn Fiermoing was burned on this date in 1627 at the village of Wommersom.

A standard witch-hunt case, Fiermoing apparently got into hot water calling on the devil in a fight with her husband 19 years before her death, which summons Old Scratch duly answered and duly sealed the bargain with the usual promissory notes and carnal violations: this at least is the gist of what her interrogation records preserve us. (Dutch speakers can read a summary in here: part 1 | part 2.) She used her supernatural powers to get a little bit of money and kill some local rivals’ cows.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Belgium,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Public Executions,Torture,Witchcraft,Women

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1754: Captain John Lancey, Devonshire arsonist

1 comment June 7th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1754, Captain John Lancey hanged at Execution Dock on the Thames — the victim of his brother-in-law’s clumsy insurance scheme.

We here defer to the dolorous annals known as the Newgate Calendar, so familiar around these parts, which subtitles its entry as …


Executed at Execution Dock, 7th of June, 1754, for burning a Ship at the Instigation of a Member of Parliament

This unfortunate man fell a dupe to an artful and wicked villain, his employer, who at the time was a disgraceful Member of the House of Commons, and who, to avoid the punishment due to his crimes, fled, and left the unfortunate subject whose case is before us a victim to his baseness.

Not this John (de) Lancie.

Captain John Lancey was a native of Bideford, in Devonshire, respectably born and well educated. As he gave early proofs of an inclination for a seafaring life he was taught navigation, was attentive to his studies, and gave proofs of a goodness of disposition that promised a better fate than afterwards attended him.

Lancey was sent to sea as mate of a ship, of which Mr. Benson, a rich merchant at Biddeford, was the proprietor. Lancey, having married a relation of Benson’s, was soon advanced to the command of the vessel. This Benson was Member of Parliament for Barnstaple, in Devonshire, and what kind of character he deserved will appear in the sequel.

After Lancey had returned from a long voyage he was for a considerable time confined to his bed by a violent illness, the expense of which tended considerably to impoverish him. When he had partly recovered, Benson told him that he proposed to refit the ship in which he had formerly sailed; that Lancey should have the command of her; that he (Benson) would insure her for more than double her value, and then Lancey should destroy the vessel.

This proposal appeared shocking to Lancey, who thought it but a trial of his honesty, and declared his sentiments, saying that he would never take any part in a transaction so totally opposite to the whole tenor of his conduct.

For the present nothing more was said; but soon afterwards Benson invited Lancey and several other gentlemen to dine with him. The entertainment was liberal; and, Captain Lancey being asked to stay after the rest of the company were gone, Mr Benson took him to a summer-house in the garden, where he again proposed destroying the ship, and urged it in a manner that proved he was in earnest.

Captain Lancey hesitated a short time on this proposal and then declined to have any concern in so iniquitous a scheme, declaring that he would seek other employment rather than take any part in such a transaction. But Benson, resolving if possible not to lose his agent, prevailed on him to drink freely, and then urged every argument he could think of to prevail on him to undertake the business, promising to shelter him from punishment in case of detection.

Lancey still hesitated. But when Benson mentioned the poverty to which his family was reduced by his late illness, and offered such flattering prospects of protection, the unhappy man at length yielded, to his own destruction. A ship was now fitted out, bound for Maryland: and goods to a large amount were shipped on board, but relanded before the vessel sailed, and a lading of brickbats taken in by way of ballast. They had not been long at sea when a hole was bored in the side of the ship and a cask of combustible ingredients was set on fire, with a view to destroying her. The fire no sooner appeared than the Captain called to some convicted transports, then in the hold, to inquire if they had fired the vessel; which appears to have been only a feint to conceal the real design.

The boat being hoisted out, all the crew got safe on shore; and then Lancey repaired immediately to Benson to inform him of what had passed. Benson instantly dispatched him to a proctor, before whom he swore that the ship had accidentally taken fire, and that it was impossible to prevent the consequences which followed.

Lancey now repaired to his own house, and continued with as much apparent unconcern as if such a piece of villainy had not been perpetrated; but he was soon afterwards taken into custody by a constable, who informed him that oath had been made of the transaction before the Mayor of Exeter by one of the seamen. Lancey, however, did not express much concern, secure in his idea of protection from the supposed influence of Benson.

On the following day Lancey and one of the ship’s crew were committed to the jail of Exeter, where they remained three months; and being then removed to London were examined by Sir Thomas Salisbury, the judge of the Admiralty Court, and committed to the prison of the Marshalsea. Application was afterwards made to the Court of Admiralty to admit them to bail; and there appeared to be no objection to granting the favour, but Benson, on whom they had depended for bail, had absconded, to escape the justice due to his atrocious crime.

Being committed to Newgate, they were brought to trial at the next Sessions of Admiralty held at the Old Bailey,when Lancey was capitally convicted, and received sentence of death, but the other was acquitted.

Lancey lay in prison about four months after conviction, during which his behaviour was altogether consistent with his unhappy situation. His Christian charity was remarkable towards Benson; for, though that wicked man had been the cause and instigator of his ruin, yet he never once reflected on him, but imputed all the crime to himself, and appeared to behold it in its genuine light of deformity.

It was presumed, when he was first apprehended, that he might have been admitted an evidence against Benson, if he would have impeached him; but this he steadily refused to do.

His devotional exercises were exemplary: he attended prayers in the most regular manner, and gave every proof of his contrition. He was accompanied to the place of execution by two clergymen; and, having confessed his guilt in a speech to the surrounding multitude, he underwent the sentence of the law on the 7th of June, 1754, at Execution Dock, in the 27th year of his age.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Pelf,Public Executions

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