In the reign of King Charles I a strolling musician, a poor piper, named John Bartendale, was brought, in 1634, before the Assizes, and was convicted of felony.
He received sentence, and on March 27th was hung on the gallows, outside Micklegate Bar, York. There were no houses there at that time — it was open country. After he had remained swinging for three-quarters of an hour, and was to all appearance dead, he was cut down, and buried near the place of execution. The officers of justice had accomplished their work carelessly in both particulars, as it afterwards transpired, for he had been neither properly hung nor properly buried.
Earth has a peculiarly invigorating and restorative effect, as has been recently discovered; and patients suffering from debility are by some medical men now-a-days placed in earth baths with the most salutary effects. In the case of gangrened wounds a little earth has been found efficacious in promoting healthy action of the skin. John Bartendale was now to experience the advantages of an earth-bath.
That same day, in the afternoon, a gentleman, one of the Vavasours of Hazlewood, was riding by, when he observed the earth moving in a certain place. He ordered his servant to alight; he himself descended from his horse; and together they threw off the mould, and discovered the unfortunate piper alive. He opened his eyes, sat up, and asked where he was, and how he came there. Mr. Vavasour and his servant helped him out of his grave, and seated him on the side. The man was sent for water and other restoratives, and before long the news had spread about down Micklegate that the poor piper was come to life again. A swarm of wondering and sympathising people poured out to congratulate John the Piper on his resurrection, and to offer their assistance. A conveyance was obtained, and as soon as Bartendale was in a sufficient condition to be moved he was placed in it covered with Mr. Vavasour’s cloak, — for he had been stripped by the executioner before he was laid in the earth — and was removed again to York Castle.
It was rather hard that the poor fellow, after he had obtained his release, should have been returned to his prison; but there was no help for it. The resurrection of the piper was no secret; otherwise Mr. Vavasour would doubtless have removed him privately to a place of security till he was recovered, and then have sent him into another part of the country.
At the following Assizes, Bartendale was brought up again. It was a nice point of law whether the man could be sentenced to execution again after the Sheriff had signed his affidavit that the man had been hung till he was dead. Mr. Vavasour was naturally reluctant to supply the one link in the chain of evidence which established the identity of the prisoner with the piper who had been hung and buried for felony; he made earnest intercession that the poor fellow might be reprieved, popular sympathy was on his side, the judge was disposed to mercy, and Bartendale was accorded a full and free pardon; the judge remarking that the case was one in which the Almighty seemed to have interfered in mercy to frustrate the ends of human justice, and that therefore he was not disposed to reverse the decree of Providence according to the piper a prolongation of his days on earth.
Drunken Barnaby in his “Book of Travels” alludes to Bartendale, when he stops at York:
Here a piper apprehended,
Was found guilty and suspended;
Being led to t’fatal gallows,
Boys did cry, “Where is thy bellows?
Ever must thou cease thy tuning,”
Answered he, “For all your cunning,
You may fail in your prediction.”
Which did happen without fiction;
For cut down, and quick interred,
Earth rejected what was buried;
Half alive or dead he rises,
Got a pardon next Assizes,
And in York continued blowing —
Yet a sense of goodness showing.
After his wonderful deliverance the poor fellow turned hostler, and lived very honestly afterwards.
When asked to describe his sensations on being hung, he said that when he was turned off, flashes of fire seemed to dart before his eyes, and were succeeded by darkness and a state of insensibility.
(Thanks to Dr. Robert Macnish, a young Scottish surgeon, writer, and polymath whose wide-roaming intellect earned him the nickname of “the Modern Pythagorean.” While resident in Paris, Macnish witnessed the public beheading of a French murderer on March 24, 1825 … an experience he rendered into the essay below. The crime which occasioned this spectacle was notorious in his brief day; Victor Hugo refers to Papavoine by name as “the horrible madman who killed the children with a knife to the head!” in The Last Day of a Condemned Man. -ed.)
AN EXECUTION IN PARIS.
In the month of March 1825, Louis Auguste Papavoine lost his head. He was guillotined at the Place de Greve for the murder of two children in the Bois de Vincennes. The man was mad, beyond all doubt, and in Great Britain would have been sentenced to perpetual confinement as a lunatic; but the French criminal court refused to admit the plea of insanity, and he was given over to the executioner: the Cour de Cassation having rejected his appeal from the decision of that which tried him.
To my shame be it spoken, I wished to see an execution by the guillotine. There was a sort of sanguinary spell attached to this instrument, which irresistibly impelled me to witness one of its horrid triumphs. When I thought of it, the overwhelming tragedy of the Revolution was brought before my eyes — that Revolution which plunged Europe in seas of blood, and stamped an indelible impression upon the whole fabric of modern society. There was something appalling in the very name of this terrific engine. M. Guillotine, its inventor, was also one of its victims — he perished by his own contrivance. [this popular legend is untrue -ed.] Let no man hereafter invent an instrument of punishment. Perillus contrived the brazen bull, and was among the first to perish by it. Earl Morton, who brought the “Maiden” to Scotland, underwent a like fate; and Deacon Brodie was hanged upon his own drop.
The day on which Papavoine suffered was beautifully fair; and, profiting by this circumstance, the idle population of the French capital flocked in myriads to witness his exit. It was calculated that there were not fewer than eighty thousand spectators. The Place de Greve was literally paved with human beings. A person might have walked upon their heads without difficulty; and so closely were they wedged together, that had any object larger than an apple been thrown among them, it could not have found its way to the ground. Men, women, and children, were clumped into one dense aggregate of living matter; and as the huge multitude moved itself to and fro, it was as the incipient stirring of an earthquake, or as the lazy floundering of the sea, when its waves, exhausted by a recent storm, tumble their huge sides about, like the indolent leviathan which floats upon their surface. There was no spot of the Place unoccupied save immediately around the scaffold, where a portion was squared off, and kept clear by a strong body of mounted gendarmerie, who kept back with their horses the living wall, which was every moment threatening to break asunder by the pressure behind, and intrude its animated materials into the proscribed area. Nor was the Place de Greve the only spot so crowded. The quays along the Seine were equally peopled, and even the opposite banks of that broad stream were filled with multitudes. Notre Dame shone with spectators, who had mounted its beetling towers to catch a dim prospect of the sacrifice; and every window and height, which afforded the most distant view, were similarly occupied.
In Paris, as in London, it is customary to let out those windows where a good view can be obtained; and on any occasion of particular interest — as the present happened to be — considerable sums are asked, and given. Sometimes half a Napoleon is demanded for a single place; and the sum varies from that to half a franc, according to the eligibility of the situation. Many of the windows are so near to the guillotine, that a very favourable prospect of the painful spectacle can be obtained; and these, of course, are crowded with persons who can afford to pay well for the gratification of their curiosity — if there be, indeed, any gratification in witnessing the instantaneous and sanguinary death of a fellow creature. Yet the view, even from the best windows, is not equal to that from within the open area. But into this space, it is no easy matter to get a footing; the few who are admitted being military men, and such of their friends as they choose to bring along with them. Indeed, at this time, there were few or no officers of any rank within the opening. It was mostly occupied by the gendarmes, who were there upon duty; and by a few dozens of common soldiers, whom curiosity or idleness had brought together. This, however, was the spot to which my wishes led me; and under the guidance of a young French officer of hussars, I was led into the area, and placed in front of the guillotine, not ten feet from its dreadful presence. But dreadful as it is from association, and from its destructive rapidity, this machine is by no means so appalling to look at as the gallows. The same feeling of horror does not attach to it; nor is the mind filled with the same blank dismay, or the same overpowering disgust, which are universally felt on beholding the gibbet, with its looped rope, its horrid beam, and its deceitful platform, which, slipping from beneath the feet of its victim, leaves him dangling and gasping in the winds of heaven. Somehow the same strong idea of disgrace is not connected with the axe as with the gibbet; but this may be from the thought that the noble and the good have shed their blood in torrents beneath its edge, thus giving it a sort of factitious interest, and deadening even with the most criminal the ignominy of its punishment. Nor is it coupled with such inveterate disgust, and such decided outrage to the feelings of humanity. Prolonged physical suffering is at all times revolting; and to see a human being struggling with a violent death — writhing in agony, and perishing like a dog — is the most detestable sight in existence. The guillotine distracts the fancy with no such sickening imagery. Whatever agony is sustained, is the more noble and enduring agony of the spirit, previous to the fatal hour. There is no struggle here with the grim tyrant — no painful encounter between life and death — no tortures like those which wrung Laocoön and his miserable offspring. From perfect life, the individual is transported to as perfect annihilation. He does not enter eternity by slow, unwilling steps: the spirit does not quit its fleshly mansion painfully and tardily, but leaves it with a sudden bound, and plunges at once into a new existence, there to be saved or lost, as its fate chances to be decreed in the Book of Life.
At the period of my admission, it was two o’clock — one hour exactly from the time of execution; and I had, therefore, abundant leisure to contemplate the engine of death, and to witness the behaviour of the vast multitude around it. Things were as quiet as could well be expected in so great an assemblage. There was plenty of talking, but much less disturbance than would have occurred in England upon any similar occasion. In truth, the only quarter which manifested tumult, was in the immediate neighbourhood of the area, which threatened every moment to be broken in, not so much by the fault of those directly in front of it, as by the immense pressure of those in the back-ground. Every now and then its square proportions were destroyed by a portion of the crowd which bulged inwards in a solid mass; and almost at the same moment, this violation of the straight line was repaired by the gendarmes, who kept riding along the square, and pressing back the intruding body into its proper place. The recklessness and fierce temper of the French soldiery were manifest, and formed a strong contrast to the good-humoured forbearance of our own troops. No ceremony was used towards intruders. Whoever came, or was forced into the square by his rearward companions, was thrust back with wanton violence. Where the pressure of the horses was resisted, the gendarmes made use of the flat sides of their sabres, and belaboured the crowd without mercy. The whole scene presented a strange picture of the fearful and the ludicrous. While it was distressing to witness the terrified crowd recoiling before the soldiers, it was amusing to witness the dexterity with which the latter treated the refractory — sometimes pushing them back with their steeds, sometimes beating them with their swords, and sometimes dexterously pitching off their hats into the assemblage. When any unfortunate fellow lost his chapeau in this manner, or received a salutary blow from the weapon of a gendarme, a loud shout of laughter was set up among the spectators. In fact, the whole, except thosewithin reach of punishment, were in excellent humour, and seemed to have come together more to enjoy a farce than witness the horrors of a public execution. Things continued in this state till the hour of three, which, pealing from the clock of the Hotel de Ville, announced the approach of the criminal. Scarcely had the fatal sounds swung upon the air, than the whole host was hushed into silence. They knew that the destined time was at hand, and that Papavoine was on his way to the scaffold; — and every man held his breath with deep interest, and felt, in spite of himself, a solemn awe fall over his spirit. But this dreadful silence did not continue long — for far off, in the direction of the bridge over which the criminal must pass, there was seen a heaving among the assemblage, which moved as if borne on the bosom of a vast wave; and murmurs like the half-suppressed voice of a remote volcano, were heard to proceed from this moving multitude. It was now evident that the procession approached; and every eye was turned towards that direction, and every ear wrought to its keenest pitch to catch the strange sounds which denoted its coming. Each moment the noise became louder, and the motion of the crowd more general. At last the trampling of horses was heard, and a troop of gendarmes, forcing a path through the recoiling people, were seen to approach. Behind them came a cart drawn by two horses; and in this cart sat Papavoine and an old Catholic priest. To the rear of this a second body of gendarmes brought up the procession. The criminal was a small, thin man, of about five feet six. He was dressed in a shabby blue surtout, and brown trowsers, and wore a fur cap upon his head. His arms were pinioned behind him, not by the elbows as with us, but by the wrists. He had no neckcloth on, nor shirt; and the collar of his surtout was drawn some way over his shoulders, so as to leave the neck quite bare and ready for the axe. Though pale and death-like, and seemingly impressed with the marks of sorrow and bad health, he exhibited no signs of terror or dismay. His demeanour was quiet and composed; and to the exhortations of his spiritual adviser he appeared to pay deep attention.
Now, here a scene took place which baffles description. No sooner had the wretch entered the area appropriated for his fate, than a shout of deafening execration arose from the hitherto silent multitude. No preparatory murmurs of hatred and revenge preceded this ebullition of feeling. It sprung up simultaneously, and as if those from whom it proceeded were animated with one soul, and felt one pervading vengeance thrilling through their hearts. “Wretch!” “Villain!” “Miscreant!” “Assassin!” arose in a wild swell from the crowd; and above the deeper voices of the men were heard the shrill imprecations of females, denouncing, with even more bitter wrath, the murderer. Had it been for almost any other crime, the women would have felt towards him more kindly than his own sex; but that for which he was to suffer was one of all others the most heinous to a maternal heart — and the natural fountains of woman’s tears were no longer free to flow in their wonted channel.
But Papavoine did not seem to hear the imprecations which were poured like vials of wrath upon his head — nor did he even appear sensible of the presence of those who so bitterly reviled him in his last moments. The cart stopped at the foot of the scaffold, and descending firmly, he conversed for one moment with the old priest, previous to mounting the fatal steps. I was at this time only a few yards from him, and marked him most distinctly. His look was perfectly calm and composed, and, had he died in a better cause, it would have been impossible not to admire his steady heroism. He said a single word in the ear of the priest who kissed him on the cheek, and left him, apparently much affected. Papavoine now ascended the guillotine rapidly and firmly, and committed himself to the hands of the executioner and his assistant satellite. At this part of the scene the loud execrations of the people had melted into breathless awe. Not a whisper was heard, nor even a movement among the vast and silent assemblage. The whole spectacle was dreadful — the very stillness of the crowd had something appalling in it; and the systematic dispatch with which the executioners proceeded among such universal silence, was sickening to the last degree. While gazing upon the victim, my respiration was almost totally suspended — my heart beat violently, and a feeling of intense anxiety and suffocation pervaded my frame.
The process was incredibly short. In a few seconds Papavoine was bound to a board which stood upright, and reached to the middle of his breast. The board moved on a pivot, and as soon as the malefactor was buckled to it, it was depressed, and shoved with its burden towards the groove of the guillotine, at the top of which hung the axe, ready to descend, on the pulling out of a small peg which kept it in its situation. A moveable piece of wood being now drawn down upon the root of the neck, to prevent all attempt at motion, and everything being ready, the executioner pulled a cord, and with the impetuosity of lightning, down came the axe upon its victim. Papavoine was annihilated in a moment. I saw his head slip from the body and tumble into a basket ready to receive it, while the blood spouted forth in little cataracts from the severed trunk, and dyed the scaffold with a purple tide. From the time when he appeared upon the guillotine till the head was severed, only twenty-five seconds elapsed — such is the appalling, yet humane rapidity of a French execution.
I looked attentively to observe if there was any motion in the trunk — any convulsive start at the instant of decapitation, but there was none. It lay from the first perfectly motionless, nor exhibited the slightest shudder — the least quivering — or the faintest indication that, the moment before, it was part of a sentient being, instinct with all the energies of life. This I did not expect. I conceived that a strong muscular spasm would have convulsed it at the fatal instant: and such, I am told, was the case with Brochetti, an Italian, executed some time before, and whose trunk sprung violently from its situation, and shook with universal tremor.
The momentary silence which pervaded the crowd previous to the axe’s descent was now broken, and an instantaneous movement ensued among its before tranquil numbers. The windows were deserted by their occupants; the doors poured their population into the streets; and the house-tops and black Gothic towers of Notre Dame were rid of the crowds which sat perched like eagles upon their lofty summits. But long ere this assembly had melted away, the guillotine had disappeared from the Place de Greve. Two minutes were allowed to elapse, that the head and body of the criminal might part with their blood.
They were then thrown into a long basket, and sent in the cart — which brought them alive — to the Ecole de Medecine for dissection. And the scaffold, after being cleansed of the gore, by having several buckets of water dashed over it, was taken to pieces, and deposited in the Hotel de Ville, till its sanguinary services were again required. The execution, together with the process of cleansing and dismantling the guillotine, did not occupy above seven minutes.
Next morning, the same curiosity which led me to witness this revolting sight took me to the Ecole de Medecine, to witness the remains of Papavoine. There were a number of scientific men present — among others, the celebrated Doctor Gall, who was employed in investigating the developements of the head, and pointing them out to several of his pupils. [A topic of great interest to Macnish, who also wrote a book about phrenology. -ed.] There was no portion whatever of the neck remaining attached to the trunk. It, as well as the head, had been severed from the body. The axe had struck at its very root, and even grazed the collar bone where it is fixed to the sternum. This is not in general the case, the neck being in most instances pretty accurately cut through the middle — one half of it adhering to the head, the other to the trunk.
I am not sure that I had done right in making such a scene as the above the subject of an article. There is something in the minute details of an execution, at which the mind shudders; and it is probable the reader may think that my impressions of the spectacle just related, should have been confined to my own bosom instead of being made public.
(For writerly firsthand accounts of the guillotine in action in the 19th century, compare to Tolstoy or Turgenev. -ed.)
On this date in 1689, the Maratha prince Sambhaji was put to a grisly death by Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb.*
Sambhaji was the firstborn son of the man whose daring had created the Hindu Maratha state — and whose death in 1680 seemed to the neighboring Muslim Mughals the right invitation to destroy this nascent rival.
The Mughals were right to worry, for in the 18th century the Maratha polity would grow into an empire dominating the Indian subcontinent, and drive the Mughals into a long decline.
But in the 1680s, it was the Maratha on the back foot as Aurangzeb invaded their haunts on the Deccan Plateau, steadily albeit very slowly reducing Maratha fortresses over the course of the decade (and the next decade).
This war defined Sambhaji’s reign, and ended it too, when he was at last captured with his favorite aide Kavi Kalash in Sangmeshwar. Mockingly dressed up as buffoons, they were paraded through Mughal territory to the emperor, who would present them a demand for Islamic conversion as the price of their lives.
But the doomed wretches knew that, after all, their heads would fall upon the scaffold, or that, if by abject submission and baseness, they escaped death, they would be kept in confinement deprived of all the pleasures of life, and every day of life would be a new death. So both Sambha and Kabkalas indulged in abusive language, and uttered the most offensive remarks in the hearing of the Emperor’s servants … [Aurangzeb] gave orders that the tongues of both should be cut out, so that they might no longer speak disrepsectfully. After that, their eyes were to be torn out. Then, with ten or eleven other persons, they were put to be put to death with a variety of tortures, and lastly he ordered that the skins of the heads of Sambha and Kabkalas should be stuffed with straw, and exposed in all the cities and towns of the Dakhin, with beat of drum and sound of trumpet. Such is the retribution for rebellious, violent, oppressive evil-doers. (Source — British, it must be said)
Sambhaji has not been highly rated for his indifferent internal governance of Maratha, but the clarifying allure of war and the gruesomely patriotic manner of his death earned him hero’s laurels still honored by Hindu nationalists down to the present day; the village of Tulapur where he was put to death honors Sambhaji with several monuments.
For a contemporary — like, say, Aurangzeb — Sambhaji’s death followed closely by the capture of his family when the Maratha capital succumbed to Mughal siege must have appeared to presage the destruction of his state. Things didn’t work out that way: Sambhaji’s younger brother Rajaram and especially Rajaram’s impressive queen Tarabai kept the Mughals bogged down on the Deccan, bleeding money** and time as they struggled to complete the conquest — until by Aurangzeb’s own despondent death in 1707, it was the Maratha on the advance, and the Mughal Empire on the brink of its own collapse.
** “The expense in gold and rupees can hardly be accurately estimated. Aurangzeb’s encampment was like a moving capital — a city of tents 30 miles in circumference, with some 250 bazaars, with a ½ million camp followers, 50,000 camels and 30,000 elephants, all of whom had to be fed, stripped the Deccan of any and all of its surplus grain and wealth.” -Stanley Wolpert
The Ordinary was the chaplain at London’s Newgate Prison, a post held by a succession of different men into the 19th century. Broadly, the Ordinary’s job description was to care for the souls of prisoners, and he naturally took special interest in the salvation of the many souls destined for the Tyburn Tree.
But by the early 18th century, the Ordinary’s real racket — from a cash flow standpoint — was publishing. The Rev. Paul Lorrain, Ordinary from 1700 and a great innovator of the Accounts, notoriously left an estate of £5,000 at his death in 1719 … on an annual salary of £35.*
Beginning in the 1670s, an Ordinary named Samuel Smith began publishing short, broadside-scale accounts of the condemned prisoners in his charge. These accounts had and always retained a didactic purpose for their audience that can read quite heavy-handed and repetitive; while not every malefactor succumbed to Ordinary’s pitch, so many did so and with such formulaic consistency that wags like Defoe would laugh that Lorrain was forever “mak[ing] a Sheep-stealer a saint.” Nevertheless, their influence was considerable, and they’d form one of the core sources for the Newgate Calendar.
And as it turned out, the Ordinary’s Accounts also tapped what proved to be a bottomless public appetite for crime stories.
The Ordinaries, Lorrain especially, soon found they could leverage their unique dungeon access to notorious criminals into fantastic sales. Ordinary’s Accounts grew by the 1710s to lengthy pamphlets, containing the Ordinary’s own sermons, summaries of the offenses, and reports of the behavior of the condemned at the gallows; and, the public profile thereby obtained positioned the Ordinary like so many scrabbling bloggers to market books deriving from his ephemera. As copy moved, these ministers of salvation did not shrink from selling their column-inches for advertising, padding some Ordinary’s Accounts installments out to 50 pages long.
This greater bulk was also a reply, as was a race towards the earliest publication hour possible, to the competition of rival catchpennies aggressively cranked out by commercial pamphleteers in the burgeoning industry of print, and bidding to capitalize upon the same spectacle in the same fashion.
Whatever his flaws and foibles and no matter the contradiction with his ministerial role, the Ordinary stands as the tallest figure in this formative bustle but even as this dungeon minister shaped the burgeoning city’s cacophony he in time became eclipsed by it. In its earliest form the Ordinary speaks the penitential tones of a receding era, striving for reconciliation, forgiveness, fellow-feeling among the prisoners and the community that had condemned them, part of a cosmology where sheep-stealers and saints really could clasp hands. Ordinary’s Accounts ceased in 1772, not long before Tyburn itself closed down, and by then London was the ascendant global capital of a bourgeois order with a markedly different conception of crime and criminal.
For the next few days, we’ll visit a few of these Ordinary’s ccounts; though we have often excerpted them in these pages with a natural focus to the bits about the actual crime or execution, here we’ll enjoy them in their entirety — sermonizing, advertisements, and all.
On this date in 1942, the start of Purim,* Nazi forces occupying Minsk massacred approximately 5,000 Jews from the Minsk Ghetto at a site known simply as Yama, “the Pit”.
The site, which hosts memorial events every March 2, was marked with a somber obelisk in the immediate postwar years; unusually for a Stalin-era monument, it is overt about the Jewish character of the victims — for Soviet propaganda often obfuscated this with a technically-correct formulation such as “Russian citizens”. In this case, the 1940s memorial obelisk remarkably had a Yiddish inscription to mirror its Russian one. (The sculpture of a column of faceless people tragically descending the slope into the pit was added in the post-Soviet period.)
All images (cc) Dennis Jarvis.
Minsk’s pre-war Jewish population of more than 50,000 was almost entirely annihilated during World War II.
Gerson’s cabaret career was the more robust through the roaring twenties but with benefit of retrospection we admit with Liza Minelli that from cradle to tomb, it isn’t that long a stay.
And the ominous next act would not belong to Weimar Jews.
After being elbowed off German stages by Reich race laws, Gerson recorded several songs in German and Yiddish; her “Vorbei” (“Beyond Recall”) hauntingly commemorates the lost world before fascism — “They’re gone beyond recall / A final glance, a last kiss / And then it’s all over.”
Gerson fled Nazi Germany to the Netherlands; once that country fell under its own harrowing wartime occupation, she tried to escape with her family to neutral Switzerland but was seized transiting Vichy France. Gerson, her second husband Max Sluizer, and their two young children Miriam (age 5) and Abel (age 2) were all deported to Auschwitz and gassed on arrival on Valentine’s Day 1943.
* Her first marriage was to film director Veit Harlan, who would later direct the notorious anti-Semitic propaganda film Jud Süß — based on an executed Jewish financier. From the German-occupied Netherlands, Gerson unsuccessfully appealed to this powerful ex for protection.
** Future horror maven Bela Lugosi also appeared in both Gerson films, Caravan of Death and On the Brink of Paradise. Gerson’s German Wikipedia page also identifies her as the voice of the evil queen in the 1938 German-language dub of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
And Pilorge’s death specifically would prove to be the last performance of the guillotine in Rennes. It was also to have been the 396th in the legendary career of 75-year-old headsman Anatole Deibler … except that Deibler dropped dead on a Paris metro platform two days before, as he set out for the lethal rendezvous.
So too did Pilorge’s crime belong to that interwar moment of cosmopolitan decadence. He fatally slashed the throat of a Mexican visitor named Escudero after what Pilorge claimed, in an unsuccessful attempt to leverage the “gay panic” defense, was an indecent proposition. The facts of the case appear better to fit the hypothesis that indecent propositions were Pilorge’s stock in trade: a black book full of dates and initials whose owners he would not identify, a short late-night visit to Escudero’s hotel room, and a total refusal to explain his activities.
Pilorge, who maintained a wry and mirthful attitude throughout his trial, could not but laugh at the judge’s speculation — inspired by the swarthiness of his victim in the case at hand? — that his prisoner was involved in traite des blanches, the white slave trade: “I was never cut out for that. I assure you that I have never fallen so low.”
If Pilorge’s character entered the public gaze awash in same-sex eros, he was fixed in the firmament as such by the pen of Villonesque criminal/writer Jean Genet after the war years.
Claiming (falsely) to have had a prison intimacy with this doomed “Apollo”, Genet dedicated to Pilorge, “assasin de vingt ans,” one of his breakthrough works. Written in prison in 1942, Le Condamné à mort is a homoerotic hallucination of lovemaking ahead of a gathering doom and it helped to launch the theretofore Genet into literary superstardom. I’ve found the lengthy poem available online only in the original French, but here’s a translated excerpt via The Columbia Anthology of Gay Literature:
O come my beautiful sun, o come my night of Spain,
Arrive in my eyes which will be dead tomorrow.
Arrive, open my door, bring me your hand,
Lead me far from here to scour the battleground.
Heaven may awaken, the stars may blossom,
Nor flowers sigh, and from the meadows the black grass
Gather the dew where morning is about to drink,
The bell may ring: I alone am about to die.
O come my heaven of rose, o my blond basket!
Visit in his night your condemned-to-death.
Tear away your own flesh, kill, climb, bite,
But come! Place your cheek against my round head.
We had not finished speaking to each other of love.
We had not finished smoking our gitanes.
Well we might ask why the Courts condemn
A murderer so beautiful he makes the day to pale.
Love come to my mouth! Love open your doors!
Run through the hallways, come down, step lightly,
Fly down the stairs more supple than a shepherd,
More borne up by the air than a flight of dead leaves.
O cross the walls; so it must be walk on the brink
Of roofs, of oceans; cover yourself with light,
Use menace, use prayer,
But come, o my frigate, an hour before my death.
The poem was one of several that Genet wrote later set to music by herhis friend, Helene Martin. (It’s also been covered and reinterpreted by severalothers.)
Iceland last used the death penalty on January 12, 1830 with the beheading of farm servants Agnes Magnusdottir and Fridrik Sigurdsson.
Only threadbare details survive to posterity about their crime: one night in 1828, Agnes roused a neighboring farm to give the alarm that Natan Ketilsson’s farmhouse, where she worked, was afire. Neighbors were able to quench the blaze quickly enough to realize that Ketilsson himself had not died because he was trapped in the flame — but because he had been stabbed to death, along with another man known as a criminal, Petur Jonsson.
Agnes, 33, and teenager Fridrik were arrested for murder and eventually beheaded on a desolate hill on the frozen northern coast where a mossed-over stone still silently marks the spot.*
(cc) photo taken by Jennifer Boyer on the walking path to be found at the site of crime.
Why were these men killed? The trial record attributes it to Fridrik’s “hatred of Natan, and a desire to steal,” which are answers that ask their own questions. If the stones remember, they aren’t telling and in the scantiness of documentation the job has fallen to literature instead, for there is something to be said for an mysterious double murder in the ashes of a half-burned farm and the novelty of a woman being the very last human to have her head chopped off in Iceland. (On execution day, Fridrik went first.)
Agnes was Natan’s lover, but the farmer had a reputation for womanizing and, so all suspect, eyes for Fridrik’s young girlfriend;** the inference of a jealous domestic psychodrama cast on the fringe of the Arctic Sea, of chilly twilit tables gathering furtive eyes above with wandering hands below, seems hard to resist. One of Natan’s other paramours was the poet Skald-Rosa, who addressed an anguished quatrain to Agnes in the weeks after the murder, helping to fix the latter’s place in national lore as the wicked moving spirit behind the whole disaster.
Don’t be surprised by the sorrow in my eyes
Nor at the bitter pangs of pain that I feel:
For you have stolen with your scheming he who gave my life meaning,
And thrown your life to the Devil to deal.
And then there was the strange coda, while verdicts were sent to Denmark for confirmation,† of the condemned simply living and working among the community waiting to execute them. Nineteenth century rural Iceland was a little short on jail cells and surplus provisions.
After studying on an exchange program in Iceland, Australian Hannah Kent found this speculative environment a rich source for her well-received first novel, Burial Rites. (There’s a lengthy and interesting podcast interview with her by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation here.)
Kent’s drama has made headway in Hollywood, with Jennifer Lawrence said to be keen on playing the tragic lead; if it someday does hit the silver screen, however, it won’t even be the first on its subject matter — witness the 1995 film Agnes.
As of this writing, the full movie can also be searched on YouTube…
The criminals Fridrik Sigurdsson and Agnes Magnusdottir were today moved out of custody to the place of execution, and following them to the execution site were the priests Reverend Tomasson and Reverend Thorvardur Jonsson, an assistant priest. The criminals had wished that the latter two help them prepare for their deaths. After the priest Johann Tomasson completed a speech of admonition to the convict Fridrik Sigurdsson, Fridrik’s head was taken off with one blow of the axe. The farmer Gudmundur Ketilsson,‡ who had been ordered to be executioner, committed the work that he had been asked to do with dexterity and fearlessness. The criminal Agnes Magnusdottir, who, while this was taking place, had been kept at a remote station where she could not see the site of execution, was then fetched. After the Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jonsson had appropriately prepared her for death, the same executioner cut off her head, and with the same craftsmanship as before. The lifeless heads were then set upon two stakes at the site of execution, and their bodies put in two coffins of untreated boards, and buried before the men were dismissed. While the deed took place, and there until it was finished, everything was appropriately quiet and well-ordered, and it was concluded by a short address by Reverend Magnus Arnason to those that were there.
Actum ut supra.
B. Blondal, R. Olsen, A. Arnason
(From the Magistrate’s Book of Hunavatn District, 1830 — as quoted in the epilogue of Kent’s Burial Rites)
* The milestone murderers, or at least their heads, rest in Tjörn.
** This young woman, Sigridur Gudmundsdottir, was condemned to death with the other two but got to keep her head in the end.
† Iceland did not become independent of Denmark until 1944.
If he was real at all, or even if he wasn’t, Antonio Mamerto Gil Nunez was an freelance ranchhand gaucho who ditched his conscription into the Argentine Civil Wars for life as an outlaw — flourishing in the classic social bandit guise as a friend to the put-upon peasantry with beneficence extending all the way to saintly healing powers.
Ambushed and captured at last, Gil’s last charity was reserved for the policeman who decided to have him summarily executed — whom Gil warned was about to receive an en-route pardon. The cop didn’t buy this obvious dilatory gambit and slit the bandit’s throat, only to return and find the promised clemency riding on up. As Gil had also prophesied, the policeman’s son had fallen quite ill and now he prayed to the brigand he had just put to death, who posthumously secured the boy a miraculous recovery.
The reports of the duly impressed executioner proliferated and soon fathered a flourishing popular veneration. Although Gauchito Gil is of course entirely unrecognized by the institutional Catholic Church, many devout pilgrims visit his site to pray for, or to offer thanks for, a favorable intercession in life.
Come close and see her and hearken. This is she.
Stop the ways fast against the stench that nips
Your nostril as it nears her. Lo, the lips
That between prayer and prayer find time to be
Poisonous, the hands holding a cup and key,
Key of deep hell, cup whence blood reeks and drips;
The loose lewd limbs, the reeling hingeless hips,
The scurf that is not skin but leprosy.
This haggard harlot grey of face and green
With the old hand’s cunning mixes her new priest
The cup she mixed her Nero, stirred and spiced.
She lisps of Mary and Jesus Nazarene
With a tongue tuned, and head that bends to the east,
Praying. There are who say she is bride of Christ.
According to Suetonius and Tacitus, Locusta was fished out of the dungeons in the year 55 for use by the young Nero, the stepson of the emperor Claudius, to murder Claudius’s natural brother Britannicus and assure Nero uncontested power. (There’s some speculation that she might have offed Claudius, too.)
[Nero] meditated a secret device and directed poison to be prepared through the agency of Julius Pollio, tribune of one of the praetorian cohorts, who had in his custody a woman under sentence for poisoning, Locusta by name, with a vast reputation for crime. That every one about the person of Britannicus should care nothing for right or honour, had long ago been provided for. He actually received his first dose of poison from his tutors and passed it off his bowels, as it was rather weak or so qualified as not at once to prove deadly. But Nero, impatient at such slow progress in crime, threatened the tribune and ordered the poisoner to execution for prolonging his anxiety while they were thinking of the popular talk and planning their own defence. Then they promised that death should be as sudden as if it were the hurried work of the dagger, and a rapid poison of previously tested ingredients was prepared close to the emperor’s chamber.
Locusta and Nero test their new and improved poison on a slave before administering it to Britannicus, by Joseph Noël Sylvestre c. 1875
It was customary for the imperial princes to sit during their meals with other nobles of the same age, in the sight of their kinsfolk, at a table of their own, furnished somewhat frugally. There Britannicus was dining, and as what he ate and drank was always tested by the taste of a select attendant, the following device was contrived, that the usage might not be dropped or the crime betrayed by the death of both prince and attendant. A cup as yet harmless, but extremely hot and already tasted, was handed to Britannicus; then, on his refusing it because of its warmth, poison was poured in with some cold water, and this so penetrated his entire frame that he lost alike voice and breath. There was a stir among the company; some, taken by surprise, ran hither and thither, while those whose discernment was keener, remained motionless, with their eyes fixed on Nero, who, as he still reclined in seeming unconsciousness, said that this was a common occurrence, from a periodical epilepsy, with which Britannicus had been afflicted from his earliest infancy, and that his sight and senses would gradually return. As for Agrippina [Nero’s mother, later murdered by the monster -ed.], her terror and confusion, though her countenance struggled to hide it, so visibly appeared, that she was clearly just as ignorant as was Octavia, Britannicus’s own sister [and Nero’s wife … also later murdered by Nero -ed.]. She saw, in fact, that she was robbed of her only remaining refuge, and that here was a precedent for parricide. Even Octavia, notwithstanding her youthful inexperience, had learnt to hide her grief, her affection, and indeed every emotion.
And so after a brief pause the company resumed its mirth. One and the same night witnessed Britannicus’s death and funeral, preparations having been already made for his obsequies, which were on a humble scale. He was however buried in the Campus Martius, amid storms so violent, that in the popular belief they portended the wrath of heaven …
The family horror of the Julio-Claudians was the career breakthrough for Locusta, whom Nero rewarded “for her eminent services with a full pardon and large estates in the country, and actually sent her pupils.” (Suetonius)
One presumes (although the ancient historians are not so kind as to share her accounts with posterity) that her baneful academy proceeded to do a roaring business for the balance of Nero’s 14-year reign, for she resurfaces in the narrative at the very end of it — as the desperate Nero’s supplier for a suicide draught when he was fleeing the Senate’s proscription.
Nero ended up doing the deed with a blade, not the poison. His dour and forgettable successor, Galba, enjoyed only the briefest ascendancy before he too was done to death on January 15 of the year 69 — but he made sure to use that interval to destroy Nero’s most hated henchmen, Locusta included. (Sans giraffe.)
In the case, however, of Helius, Narcissus, Patrobius, Lucusta, the sorceress, and others of the scum that had come to the surface in Nero’s day, he ordered them to be led in chains throughout the whole city and then to be executed. (Cassius Dio)