Posts filed under 'Public Executions'

1620: Thomas Dempster condemned

Add comment April 20th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1620, Thomas Dempster was condemned by a Scottish assize to execution for counterfeiting. No documentation specifying the execution date appears to be available but such sentences were commonly implemented almost immediately — either directly from the courtroom or within a couple of days.

The Dempster family of Muresk were baronial landowners who owed both privilege and surname to the hereditary rank of dempster. This curious office of “dooms-man” connects etymologically with judging (“deem”), the successor to a Gaelic position called the judex that once projected royal authority into the courtroom.

Over the centuries-long term, this pre-Norman holdover was on a downward trend towards obsolence; the dempster transitioned to being the pronouncer of the court’s sentences and “ultimately became the common hangman.”* (Source)

Nevertheless, in our man’s time the Muresk Dempsters had estate enough to squander, and the quarrelsome Thomas did yeoman work in that respect, blowing the family fortune on clan feuding that extended even to a violent rivalry with his own son, James.** The assize record would note him “altogidder sensles of that his miserable cairage, nawayis being movet thairwith, bot rather resolveing to rwn heidlongis in all godles and cruiket courses.”

Having been found in this degraded state guilty of forgery, he was condemned by the court “to be tane to the Castell-hill of Edinburgh, and thair his heid to be strukin frome his body; and all his moveable guidis and geir pertening to him to be escheit to his Maiesteis use, &c.”

* The office of the dempster was abolished in 1773.

** James and his team ambushed and injured the father in a rivalry over a woman, driving James to a life of banditry. Another son — James’s younger brother, confusingly also named Thomas Dempster — was snatched away from this noxious family atmosphere by a kindly uncle who gave him a continental education; this other better-favored Thomas Dempster grew up to become a noted ecclesiastical historian.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Counterfeiting,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Nobility,Pelf,Public Executions,Scotland,Uncertain Dates

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1818: Five from the Lancaster Assizes, “most dangerous to society”

Add comment April 18th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1818, four hanged at Lancaster Castle for uttering forged notes, along with a fifth hanged for burglary and horse theft — all casualties of the latest Lancaster Assizes. For the account, we excerpt Jackson’s Oxford Journal of May 9, 1818; the footnotes are from that source as well.

LANCASTER ASSIZES, April 13.

Address of Chief Baron Richards, on passing sentence of Death upon the prisoners capitally convicted of forgery, and of uttering forged Bank of England notes.

Wm. Oxenham*, convicted of uttering a forged Bill of Exchange, was first placed at the bar.

Chief Baron — “William Oxenham, you have been convicted of uttering a forged Bill of Exchange, well knowing at the time you uttered it that it was forged. The crime of which you have been convicted, on the most satisfactory evidence, by a most intelligent Jury, is a crime the most dangerous to society, and which loudly calls for the highest punishment the law can inflict; for no man, in a commercial country like this, can, by any care, effectually protect himself from such attempts. If there should be any disposition at the foot of the Throne to extend its mercy towards you, I shall rejoice: but of this I can offer no assurance; and if there should be any mitigation of your sentence, it will only be on condition of your being forever removed from this country.” — His Lordship then passed upon him the last sentence of the law in the usual terms.

The following prisoners were then placed at the bar: — Wm. Steward†, Thomas Curry†, Margaret M’Dowd†, R. Wardlaw†, R. Moss, Hannah Mayor, and J. Vaughan, convicted of uttering forged Bank of England notes; and G. Heskett†, convicted of burglary and horse-stealing.

The Chief Baron, addressing by name the first seven prisoners, thus proceeded, —

You have been severally convicted of uttering forged Bank of England notes, knowing them to be forged: the law has affixed to this crime the punishment of death, and it is an offence which, on account of its injurious consequences to society at large, requires the infliction of the highest punishment.

It is a practice which must be repressed; and if this cannot be effected by other means, it must be done by visiting it with the utmost severity of the law; for the negotiation of forged notes is the strongest and most extensive mode of plundering the public which can be resorted to, and it is one against which no care or prudence can be an effectual protection. I had, the last Assizes, the very melancholy duty, in this place, of passing the sentence I am now about to pass upon you, upon a number of persons convicted of this offence, and which sentence was carried into effect with respect to most of them: but I do not perceive that this sad example has been attended with any advantage, or that it has produced any diminution in the number of offenders of this description; you have not taken warning from it; for I observe that your offences are all subsequent to the last Assizes. It is, therefore, necessary that examples should still continue to be made; and it is my duty to tell you that some of you, nay, that most of you, beyond all question, must suffer the full sentence of the law.


* This prisoner was so unwell, that he was obliged to be supported into Court, and placed in a chair, until sentence was passed upon him.

† The prisoners thus marked were left for execution, and suffered the sentence of the law on Saturday se’nnight [i.e., Saturday, 18 April 1818], at Lancaster.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Counterfeiting,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Mass Executions,Pelf,Public Executions,Theft,Women

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1922: Cemal Azmi, the butcher of Trabzon

Add comment April 17th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1922, a Turkish official implicated in the Armenian genocide had a death sentence enforced upon him … by an assassin’s bullet.

Cemal Azmi, wartime governor of the Black Sea littoral of Trabzon,* was the point person in his region for the murder of some 50,000 Armenians. One distinctive twist in Trabzon (though by no means confined to that locality) was the prevalent use of drowning for cost-effective wholesale murder.

The Italian consul in Trabzon, Giacomo Gorrini — a veteran diplomat who hereafter would become consumed by the Armenian community’s travails until his death in 1940 — gave a heartbreaking account. His accounts of systematic mass drownings were corroborated by many other witnesses, including Turkey’s wartime German allies.

The passing of the gangs of Armenian exiles beneath the windows and before the door of the Consulate; their prayers for help, when neither I nor any other could do anything to answer them; the city in a state of siege, guarded at every point by 15,000 troops in complete war equipment, by thousands of police agents, by bands of volunteers and by the members of the “Committee of Union and Progress”; the lamentations, the tears, the abandonments, the imprecations, the many suicides, the instantaneous deaths from sheer terror, the sudden unhingeing of men’s reason, the conflagrations, the shooting of victims in the city, the ruthless searches through the houses and in the countryside; the hundreds of corpses found every day along the exile road; the young women converted by force to Islam or exiled like the rest; the children torn away from their families or from the Christian schools, and handed over by force to Moslem families, or else placed by hundreds on board ship in nothing but their shirts, and then capsized and drowned in the Black Sea and the River Deyirmen Dere — these are my last ineffaceable memories of Trebizond, memories which still, at a month’s distance, torment my soul and almost drive me frantic.

According to the tribunal that tried him in absentia in 1919, Governor Azmi personally ordered many such mass drownings. He also used the Red Crescent hospital to lodge young Armenian girls for his use as sex slaves, only to have them killed late in the war to tie up loose ends. To complete his cycle of deadly sins, Azmi also took liberal advantage of the looting opportunity afforded by the speedy vanishing of Armenian subjects.

Azmi absconded rather than face postwar prosecution but his symbolic death sentence gained bodily force via Armenian revolutionaries’ Operation Nemesis: a campaign to assassinate the chief authors of the genocide.

Nemesis’s most famous targets were the “Three Pashas” who ruled the Ottoman Empire during World War I. (They successfully murdered two of the three.) But Azmi was on the list as well, and on April 17, 1922, a pair of Armenian hit men gunned him down on the Berlin’s Uhlandstrasse along with another genocidaire, Behaeddin Shakir. The assassins weren’t even arrested.

* Centuries before, Trabzon’s Byzantine precursor, Trebizond, had been the last redoubt of the vanishing Roman Empire.

** Vahakn Dadrian, “Children as Victims of Genocide: The Armenian Case,” Journal of Genocide Research, 2003, 5(3). The same author has written widely on the Armenian genocide, including but not limited to Azmi’s conduct in Trabzon; also see his “The Turkish Military Tribunal’s Prosecution of the Authors of the Armenian Genocide: Four Major Court-Martial Series” (Holocaust & Genocide Studies, 1997 11(28) and “The Armenian Genocide as a Dual Problem of National and International Law” (University of St. Thomas Journal of Law and Public Policy, 2010, 4(2)).

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Armenia,Borderline "Executions",Death Penalty,Germany,History,Murder,Ottoman Empire,Politicians,Public Executions,Shot,Summary Executions,Turkey,War Crimes

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1725: William Dickson, collared

Add comment April 13th, 2018 Headsman

Original Dublin broadsheet via James Kelly’s Gallows Speeches: From Eighteenth-Century Ireland:

The Last Speech, Confession and Dying Words of William Dickson

who was Try’d and Condemned, for High Treason against his Majesty King George, for Counterfeiting the current Coin of Great Britain, at the General Assizes holden at Ardmagh, the 23d of March, 1725, and was Executed, Tuesday the 13th of April, for the same; with an Account of the Coller he had to save himself, as it was taken from his own Mouth in the Gaol, &c.

Good Christians my time being very short, expecting a Reprieve from Dublin, this morning, it did not come according to Expectation I did not loose any Time in preparing my self for the World to come, and hopes that I shall Reign with my Blessed Redeemer.

First, I Recommend my Soul to Christ, my Lord and Saviour, to forgive me my manifold Sins and Wickednesses which I have committed from Time to Time, in not Obeying his Laws, nor taking my dear and beloved Parents Advice, in what they would have me to do, which I hope will be a warning to all Men, as I am a Dying Man, this Day, the Truth I will declare before God and the World, to whom, and through his great Mercy, I hope to merit Salvation.

I William Dickson was Born of very good Parents, and come of an honest Family and Married one of the Richisons, whom God preserve and keep them from all Danger Ghostly and Bodily, and all their Enemies. I am aged to the best of my Knowledge, about 29 Years of Age, and in all that Time, I thank my God, I never was guilty of any ill Vices in all my Life, nor, did any harm to any Body till I went to Live with Mr. Alexinder Hurdman as Overseer, near Kilalee in the County of Ardmagh, and in a little while, he sent me to lay out Five Guineas for him, but they were returned back again to me, the first Time I saw James Dunbar was at his House.

The first time that ever I saw any of the Molds was at Drum, where I went to get a Cavesson that I lent to James Glass [sic], and they told me he was in the Garden, where I found the said Dunbar, James Gass, and Robert Gass, and when they saw me they thrust the Mold into the left side Pocket of Robert Gass, that I might not see it. The next Morning going to the Smiths Shop, and coming back again, I met Robert Gass in the Wood, and he told me that James Gass was going for Mettle and Fire, desiring me to stay till I saw them try the Mold. Soon after the said Gass cast two Crowns, and would have given one of them to Robert Gass for a Pocket Piece, but he would not receive it for fear I should discover them on him, he melted them down to Dross, and hid it in the Moss. As I answer before God and a dying Man, I never had any thing to do with the said James Gass in the whole course of my Life, nor did I ever Coin tot he value of six pence in all my Life, nar had I any Moulds for that Use. As for James Gass that has sworn my Life away wrongfully, and not only so, but has most barbarously Murder’d me, and has been the occasion of making the best of Wives loose a Husband; for which I do not doubt, but the Lord of Heaven and Earth will do us Justice and Revenge my Cause.

As for Mr. Francis Scott who was Accus’d &c. I never knew any thing by him in all my Days. And likewise John Hurdman. I hope the World will not Reflect on any of my Friends for Dying this Untimely Death, I not being Guilty of what is laid to my Charge, I do desire my good and loving Wife, (that Lives in the Parish of Kildree in the County of Tyrone) to take good Heart and not to Pine for me, for I hope with the Assistance of my blessed Saviour to be with him in a very little time, which is better than this Worldly Wealth, for there is nothing in it but Trouble & Sorrow. And my Daughter whom I leave my Blessing, take heed to mind your Redeemers Commandments, and your Mothers Orders, and then the Lord will bless and prosper you in all your Doings, be sure to mind the Church and keep Gods laws, and every thing will prosper that you take in Hand, Likewise I begg all good People may not reflect on my Dear Father and Mother, that lives in Carinomoney in the Parish of Baleniscron in the County of Derry, brought me up in the fear of God, and gave me a good Education, may the Lord Prosper Them, and when they depart this Life, they may have Life Everlasting, and that the Lord May Crown them with a Crown of Glory.

O dear Brothers, mind to shun Bad Company, which was my Overthrow in this World and be Upright and Just in all your Dealings before God and Man, and you need not fear Living in the World. Mind your Father and Mother’s Advice. My time is almost spent, and having no more to say, Sweet Saviour open thy Arms of Mercy, look down upon me, O Lord, and Shut not thy Gate against me, but take me to Thy Self, into Thy Heavenly Kingdom, where I shall rest in Peace, and all you who are Spectators of this my unfortunate and Tragick Scene, lift up your Hands and say, Lord, receive my poor Soul.

I die a member of the Church of England.

An Account of a Collar he had about his Neck to save his life

As the prisoner was going to the place of Execution, the Sheriff and High Sheriff, perceiving he went very stiff, the[y] wonder’d what was the matter, but they never minded him till they came to the place of Execution, and when the Minister had done with him, then he went 4 or 5 steps up the Ladder very fast, but the Sheriff and High Sheriff perceiving his Neck very thick, desir’d him to come down, on searching they found a Collar of Iron well fix’d about his Neck, they call’d to the Gaoler to take it off upon that the Executioner took it off, it weighed about three pound, there was a Hinge in the middle and 3 hooks to it, one before and another at each side, it Clasp’d together, like a woman’s Clasp for Shoes, with a Girth Web, before and behind which went between his Legs.

We testify the above is True, as Witness our Hands

Terence O’Neill Sub-Sheriff
Will. Watts Head Sheriff.

Tomorrow will be publish’d the Last Speech of a Woman Cook Maid to the Bishop of Londonderry, who was Burnt alive at Derry for the murder of her own child.

Belfast Printed and Reprinted in Dublin by C.C., 1725.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Counterfeiting,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Ireland,Pelf,Public Executions

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1715: Jeremiah Meacham, “mightily distressed”

Add comment April 12th, 2018 Headsman

Jeremiah Meacham was hanged in Rhode Island on this date in 1715 for a double murder committed during a disturbing psychotic break.

In the execution sermon below by Newport Rev. Nathaniel Clap, he attributes what we would today take as clear mental health problems to the man’s disinterest in attending church — for, “while, he was generally esteemed exemplarily exact in his Dealings, and punctual to his Promises, about his Worldy affairs … he seldom or never seemed altogether free from some terrible reflections upon his Conscience, for his Apostasy from God. And it hath been thought that his Convictions about some Concerns of his Soul, mixed with some vexations about his Affairs in the World, brought him into a grievous hurry, which by degrees boil’d up into a sort of a raging fury: And keeping out of the way of suitable directions for his Soul, his troubles of mind grew so intolerable, that he told some, that he was weary of his life.”

Things grew so uncomfortable with him, that he loved not Home; he thought that all his Neighbours looked strangely upon him; he pretended that he feared some body designed mischief against him, and that he should be slain. Every day seemed unto him as if it would be the last day of his life: And he asked of others, if they knew of no contrivance against him.

The Day before he committed his Murders, he appeared mightily distressed, walking about in a very great agony, a great part of that day, chusing to be at the Neighborbours. But on the said day of his Murders (22 d., 1 m.) he got and sat upon his House, with a Penknife in his hand, for several hours, if discoursing sometimes with those that came near him, seeming afraid some or other would hurt him; Others feared more that he would hurt himself; none seemed much to fear that he intended any hurt to any body else. And he declar’d, that he would hurt neither Man, Woman nor Child, if they would let him alone.

After he came down from his House top into his Chamber, he kept there most part of the Afternoon of that day, until after Sun set; and then his Wife, and her Sister, upon his invitation, going up to him, urging of him to go down with them, or striving with him to keep him from hurting of himself; it seems that then he struck his Wife in her throat with his Pen-knife: and then struck her and her Sister down with an Ax (that he had carried up, and he had also Charged his Gun; but made no use of that, in his Murders) how many blows he gave them is not known: But the dreadful marks of several remained on their miserably mangled Bodies.

When he had murdered them, he stood watchfully upon his Guard, with his Ax in hand, threatning all that offered to come up Stairs; knock’d one man down with his bloody Ax. Others endeavouring to apprehend him, by breaking up the Chamber Floor under him, & the Roof over him; he laboured to defend himself, as if against the worst Enemies. And when they carried some Fire, flaming to light their way before them, he snatch’d away the Fire, and laid it among some combustible matter, and got ready more, and quickly kindled a great Fire in the midst of the Chamber, as if he chose rather to Burn himself alive, and the dead Bodies with him than to be taken …

At some time or other, in these hurries it seems, he had cut his own throat; but fearing that death would not come soon enough that way, and finding that he could not bear burning to death; it was thought, he was willing to try, if he could dash himself to pieces, by throwing himself out at the Window; by which he also hurt his head, if no other part of his Body; but his Wounds were near healed, before he came to Dye.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Public Executions,Rhode Island,USA

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1775: A robber under the apartments of Joseph Jekyll

Add comment April 11th, 2018 Headsman

We owe this date’s entry to Joseph Jekyll, a young gentleman (kin to the late judge of the same name whom Alexander Pope had once teased as an “odd old Whig/Who never changed his principle or wig”) who had just taken up residence in Paris in his 22nd year. Just a year later, he would be back in Albion’s soul, bound for his life’s calling as barrister, M.P., and celebrated wit.

Jekyll’s correspondence with his father shows him consumed with a worldly young man’s affairs, alternately French society (in whose salons he left a happy impression) and Europe’s churn of news and rumors. But we catch a glimpse in one of his first letters of a scene to which, perhaps, young Jekyll soon became as inured as most Frenchmen: an exceptionally brutal execution right outside the window of his quarters.

What follows is from Jekyll’s letter dated Ash Wednesday, April 12, 1775.


The police of this country is much commended, and deservedly; yet in Paris I was assured murders were so frequent that it is customary to see five or six bodies to be owned in the morning at a place called the Morgue, and there are nets on the Pont-neuf let down every night to receive persons thrown over by banditti. The morning we saw the Greve there was a gibbet erected. We inquired if there would be much crowd, and were told “No,” for there was generally an execution every day.

The road from Paris hither is full of crosses, with inscriptions to perpetuate the infamy of some robber or murderer. We lodge in a beautiful place or square, and saw from our balcony yesterday evening a criminal broke on the wheel. He arrived at five o’clock in the evening, in a cart guarded by the marechaussee (who constantly patrol the roads). He was attended by a cordelier, and held in his hands two laths nailed together in the form of a cross. He had received the tonsure and unction, and, while he was undressing, the crowd around the scaffold (which was far from being great) sang a voluntary requiem. The executioner, a very spruce fellow in a bag and a bien poudre, extended the criminal’s bare arms and legs on a St. Andrew’s cross, which had two deep notches under the long bones of each limb; then with an iron crow, bent like the blade of a scythe, struck him nine violent blows, the last across the reins. [kidneys] Thus with two fractures in every limb, at each of which he cried out Mon Dieu! the agonising wretch was untied and thrown on the forewheel of a waggon elevated about four feet above the scaffold. The holy father drew a chair near him, and muttered something during his last gasps. At night the body was exposed in the neighbouring forest. Horrible and frequent as these executions are (for there are twelve more now in the chatelet here under the like condemnation), their effects are as insufficient as ours in England. The crime of the unfortunate creature we saw yesterday was burglary, as we learnt from his sentence, which is posted up at every corner in the streets.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Gibbeted,Gruesome Methods,History,Known But To God,Public Executions,Theft

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1836: Two English poisoners

Add comment April 9th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1836, two different Englishwomen hanged in Gloucester and Liverpool for seeing off their respective husbands with arsenic.

They’re the subjects of an excellent pair of posts by Naomi Clifford, author of such topical-to-Executed Today fare as Women and the Gallows, 1797-1837 and The Murder of Mary Ashford: The Crime that Changed English Legal History, which concerns the long overdue abolition of juridical trial by combat in Great Britain … after an accused murderer used this artifact to escape prosecution in 1817.

Here’s Clifford on our poisoners, bound for separate gallows on April 9, 1836:

Clifford makes a triptych here with a third post about yet another poisoner who shared the same fate five days later.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions,Women

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1489: Hans Waldmann, mayor of Zurich

Add comment April 6th, 2018 Headsman

An equestrian monument to Hans Waldmann at Zurich’s the Münsterhof plaza reminds of that onetime mayor’s beheading on this date in 1489.


(cc) image from Roland zh.

His city’s most outstanding personality of the age, Waldmann (English Wikipedia entry | the far more detailed German) sprang from merchant stock. He’d soared to the top in his Swiss city-state via his gift for military command, which stood Zurich in good stead during the Burgundian Wars.

Despite his war heroism, the peasantry of Zurich’s rural proximities soon grew to hate Waldmann as the spear tip of the urban oligarchy. Notoriously, he ordered the destruction of peasants’ dogs to preserve the hunting privilege for the powerful.

On the first of April, a revolt toppled Waldmann’s authority. He was arrested on a diverse slate of accusations including treason, peculation, and sexual corruption.

For the four days intervening, he endured “ceaseless torture, hanging, and stretching,” but the mayor retained enough vigor to walk “manly” and “proud” (in the words of a Bernese observer) to his scaffold.


Waldmann’s Farewell, by Johann Caspar Bosshardt (1847).

Detail view (click for the full-page illustration) of Hans Waldmann’s beheading, from the Lucerne Chronicle (1513).

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Politicians,Public Executions,Soldiers,Switzerland,Torture,Wrongful Executions

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1590: George Schweiger, tough love

Add comment April 2nd, 2018 Headsman

In the usual telling the father welcomes back the prodigal son by slaying the fatted calf … not the son himself. This, uh, alternate version comes from the diary of Nuremberg executioner Franz Schmidt.

April 2nd [1590]. George Schweiger of Falckendorf near Nerzogaurach, a thief who, in his youth, together with his brother, first stole 40 florins from his own father. Later, when his father sent him to settle a debt, he kept the money and gambled with it; lastly, discovering that his father had a treasure buried in a barn behind the house, he stole 60 florins of it. He had a lawful wife, but left her and attached himself to two whores, promising marriage to both. Beheaded with the sword as a favour.*

His father let him lie in prison here, and desired and insisted that justice should be done, in spite of the fact that he had recovered his money.

(Emphasis added.)

* i.e., he was sentenced to hanging as a common thief, but was given the quicker and more honorable execution of beheading as a mercy.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Pelf,Public Executions,Theft

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1592: The Uglich Bell

Add comment April 1st, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1592, the bell of Uglich had its “tongue” cut out, then was sent to Siberian exile — the crowning indignity of the collective punishment visited on that Volga River town for the murder of Tsarevich Dmitri.

Eight years on from the death of the ferocious and epoch-making Ivan the Terrible, Russia was under the rule of the boyar Boris Godunov, governing in the stead of his brother-in-law, etiolated Ivan heir Tsar Feodor.*

Although rival interpretations exist,** the conventional understanding of events we shall detail here is that Godunov turned assassin in order to maintain his hold on power and, eventually, achieve the tsardom for himself.


Boris Godunov’s 1598 coronation, from the Mussorgsky opera Boris Godunov.

Not yet the tsar himself at this point, Godunov’s problem was that he exercised power only through Feodor … and that heirless sovereign had a (much) younger brother, our victim Tsarevich Dmitri, who in the fullness of time might easily come to supplant both Feodor and Godunov. Boris Godunov had hidden this moppet and his mum away in Uglich, where the child had his own court as Russia’s last appanage prince. The English diplomat Gil(l)es Fletcher† never met Dmitry but his 1591 Of the Russe Commonwealth caught the peril of the situation, with a bit of foreshadowing.

Besides the emperor that now is who hath no child (neither is like ever to have for ought that may be conjectured of his body and the barenness of his wife after so many years’ marriage),‡ there is but one more, viz., a child of six or seven years old in whom resteth all the hope of the succession and the posterity of that house

[The child] is kept in a remote place from the Moscow under the tuition of his mother and her kindred of the house of the Nagois, yet not safe (as I have heard) from attempts of making away by practice of some that aspire to the succession if this emperor die without any issue. The nurse that tasted before him of certain meat (as I have heard) died presently. That he is natural son to Ivan Vasil’evich the Russe people warrant it by the father’s quality that beginneth to appear already in his tender years. He is delighted (they say) to see sheep and other cattle killed and to look on their throats while they are bleeding (which commonly children are afraid to behold), and to beat geese and hens with a staff till he see them lie dead.

The court rumors about Dmitry’s danger were onto something. On May 15, 1591, the eight-year-old princeling was found dead. He’d been stabbed in the neck.

Dmitry’s mother had the local prelates ring the cathedral bell summoning townsfolk to the commons to announce the murder and accuse Boris Godunov’s agents of perpetrating it. Outrage and panic soon whipped people into a mob that rampaged through Uglich, lynching 15 people — including one of Dmitry’s playmates as well as Moscow’s dyak, Mikhail Bityagovsky.


18th century icon of the Tsarevich Dmitry “Uglichsky” (click for larger image) shows his murder (left), and the cathedral bell being sounded to instigate summary justice (right). At the base of the cathedral, Mikhail Bityagovsky tries to batter down the door to silence the alarm.

Dangerous to bystanders, this mob was impotent against the Russian state. Boris Godunov dispatched a delegation that whitewashed Dmitry’s murder and ruthlessly punished Uglich; some 200 are reported to have been put to death for the disturbances.

The bell itself received the crowning punishment on the first of April in 1592, as the literal physical instigator of the riot: hurled from its tower, it was flogged on the public square and mutilated by having its “tongue” (the clapper) torn out. Then it was sent into exile in Tobolsk, where it remained until the 19th century. It hangs today at Uglich’s Church of St. Dmitry on Blood, although — as detailed in the bell’s Russian Wikipedia page — there is some debate about its authenticity.

As for “Saint Dmitry”, his story was just beginning and the canonization wasn’t the half of it.

When Tsar Feodor died in 1598 and Boris Godunov seized the throne outright, Russia entered her “Time of Troubles” — fifteen terrible years of civil war, invasion, and contested succession that ended with the seating of the Romanov dynasty. The Time of Troubles was characterized by, among other things, several imposters claiming to be this very murdered Prince Dmitry and therefore the rightful tsar. False Dmitrys were so ubiquitous during this interregnum that they have their own pretender regnal numbering, but all were failures in the contest for power: False Dmitri I, False Dmitri II, and False Dmitry III each came to violent and sordid ends.

* Ivan the Terrible had a perfectly cromulent heir being groomed for power in the form of one Tsarevich Ivan, but the volatile tsar had struck him during an argument in 1581 and accidentally killed him — which brought the unprepared Feodor into the succession and set up the catastrophic events of this post, as well as this incredible Ilya Repin painting:


Detail view (click for the full image) of Repin’s rendering of the horrified Ivan the Terrible clutching his mortally wounded son.

** The other principal version (Russian link) is that Dmitry suffered an epileptic fit while playing a game with knives, and accidentally stabbed himself. Many Uglichans gave this story to the official investigation (more Russian) that ensued the prince’s death, but their testimony is hard to depend upon since the Godunov-affiliated authorities conducting the investigation (like Patriarch Job, whom Godunov had made metropolitan of Moscow) preferred that version and presumably made sure that they received it. After Godunov’s death the official story reassigned responsibility to him — although this again was driven by the political imperatives of that moment. Some historians down the years have given credence to the “accident” hypothesis.

† That’s Giles Fletcher the elder, who is not to be confused with his son, the poet Giles Fletcher the Younger.

‡ Feodor had only a single daughter, Feodosia, born in 1592 (she died in 1594). As of the time of Dmitry’s murder, Feodor was 33 years old and completely childless.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Borderline "Executions",History,Inanimate Objects,Public Executions,Rioting,Russia,Treason

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