July 20, 1934 was the third and last of Walter Lett’s scheduled execution dates for raping a white woman in Monroeville, Alabama.
A thirty-something ex-convict, Lett’s protestations of innocence stood little chance against the word of a white woman named Naomi Lowery, herself a penniless drifter.
Lett was almost lynched but despite his certain condemnation there was something wrong about this case — something discomfiting even for Monroeville’s worthies. We have seen elsewhere in these pages that a rape accusation was a powerful weapon on the ambiguous fringes of the color line. Just three years before this story, nine black teens had been accused of a rape on an Alabama train, and the legal odyssey of these Scottsboro Boys would dominate headlines during the Depression.
“It may have been that [Lett] and Lowery were lovers, or that she was involved with another Negro man,” one author put it. “If a white woman became pregnant under those circumstances, it was not uncommon for her to claim rape, or accuse someone other than her lover.”
Records of this trial seem to have gone missing, but Lett’s claims had enough weight (and Lowery’s had little enough) to induce Monroeville’s elders to petition Gov. Benjamin Miller* against carrying out the electrocution. Miller reprieved Lett ahead of May 11 and June 20 execution dates: “I am of the opinion and conviction that there is much doubt as to the man being guilty,” Miller told the Montgomery Advertiser. Gov. Miller was so sure that Lett didn’t do it that before the man went to the chair on July 20, Miller decided instead to let him spend the rest of his life in prison for the thing he didn’t do.
We don’t have Walter Lett’s side of this story because the strain of his position drove him mad; when the sentence was commuted, he was transported from death row directly to a mental hospital, where he died of tuberculosis in 1937.
In his stead, we have a different voice: a Monroeville schoolgirl at the time of Lett’s trial named Harper Lee** would later channel the case’s undertones of racial injustice for her legendary (and, until recently, only) novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.
In one of the famously retiring Lee’s few public comments on the book, she cited the Lett case as her model for the book’s fictional, and manifestly unjust, rape trial.
Lee’s father, A.C. Lee was the editor-publisher of the Monroeville Journal at the time of l’affaire Lett. But as a young lawyer, before Harper’s birth, Lee himself had once defended in court two men who wound up being hanged. An idealized† version of this man is the clear foundation for the defense attorney Atticus Finch in Lee’s book.
Charles Shields, whose 2006 biography of Harper Lee is quoted above on the indeterminate reason for the rape allegation, writes that the author “had a free hand to retell this macabre episode in her father’s life, which he always referred to in vague terms, no doubt because of the pain it caused him. (He never accepted another criminal case.) This time, under his daughter’s sensitive hand, A. C. Lee, in the character of Atticus Finch, could be made to argue in defense of Walter Lett, and his virtues as a humane, fair minded man would be honored.”
* Miller was an anti-Ku Klux Klan politician, a fact of possible relevance to his actions.
** Harper Lee’s childhood friend was Truman Capote, future author of In Cold Blood. (Lee traveled to Kansas with Capote and helped him research the murder case in question.) Alabama’s legislature has recognized Monroeville as the state’s literary capital.
† According to Shields, the real A.C. Lee was more of a gentleman, establishment segregationist: more like the warts-and-all Atticus Finch of Lee’s Go Set a Watchman than the saintly character played by Gregory Peck. In 1952-53, A.C. Lee helped to force out the pastor of the local First Methodist church over controversial pro-integration remarks from the pulpit. Rev. Ray Whatley’s post-Monroeville assignment took him to Montgomery, where he was president of a chapter of the Alabama Council on Human Relations while the young Rev. Martin Luther King was vice-president. Whatley was forced out of his Montgomery congregation, too: called “a liar, a communist, and a few other things” (Whatley’s words) for supporting the Montgomery Bus Boycott. They tried to reassign him to tiny Linden, Alabama, but townspeople there immediately rejected him and many stopped paying church tithes until he was shipped onward to Mobile.
See When the Church Bell Rang Racist by Donald Collins, who notes that Whatley’s anathema had a chilling effect on other white Methodist clergy — now clearly given to understand that there would be “a great price to be paid if a minister chose to speak out for racial justice.”
He was one of* the “Four Hitokiri — manslayers — whose legendary blades coruscated in the Bakumatsu era that marked Japan’s pivot from an isolationist feudal state, one where samurai were big men on prefectures, to a burgeoning modern power ruled by industry and mass conscription.
The irony was that dinosaurs like the Hitokiri helped bring the asteroid down on their own heads.
Warriors/assassins like the Hitokiri were wooed by the imperial camp and the promise of a policy that would maintain the purpose and privilege of elite swordsmen. But once power was conquered, the Meiji emperor repaid those knights’ exertions by doing the modernization thing that Hitokiri types had hoped to avoid.
Okada Izo was among the first barbarian-expellers to be caught up by the policy swing. After a couple of years running amok in Kyoto, the anti-foreigner movement was suppressed and its leader forced to commit seppuku, which was still more deference than Izo received.
Less an “execution” than a human sacrifice — the village old feller’s folksy “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon,” evokes a primal flash of blood trickling off a maize-god’s altar — the titular event is an annual tradition for a tiny American town. Though unnamed, the town and some of its denizens were patterned on North Bennington, Vermont, where Jackson was living as the wife of a professor at Bennington College.
The setting was entirely contemporary to the story’s publication, right down to the day: it hit print in the June 26, 1948 edition of The New Yorker magazine. And what took Jackson two hours to write has continued to disturb and perplex generations of readers.
In “The Lottery” (available online here (pdf)), friendly townsfolk gather “in the square, between the post office and the bank” to enact a curious civic ritual dating to a time and purpose they no longer even remember.
We see each household’s father draw a slip of paper from a battered old box and although we do not understand the reason we soon feel there is something ominous about it.
After the last slip is drawn,
there was a long pause, a breathless pause, until Mr. Summers. holding his slip of paper in the air, said, “All right, fellows.” For a minute, no one moved, and then all the slips of paper were opened. Suddenly, all the women began to speak at once, saving. “Who is it?,” “Who’s got it?,” “Is it the Dunbars?,” “Is it the Watsons?” Then the voices began to say, “It’s Hutchinson. It’s Bill,” “Bill Hutchinson’s got it.”
“Go tell your father,” Mrs. Dunbar said to her older son.
People began to look around to see the Hutchinsons. Bill Hutchinson was standing quiet, staring down at the paper in his hand. Suddenly. Tessie Hutchinson shouted to Mr. Summers. “You didn’t give him time enough to take any paper he wanted. I saw you. It wasn’t fair!”
“Be a good sport, Tessie.” Mrs. Delacroix called, and Mrs. Graves said, “All of us took the same chance.”
“Shut up, Tessie,” Bill Hutchinson said.
Tessie has good cause to fear. A second drawing now ensues among the five members of the Hutchinson family — Tessie and Bill, plus their three children.
And as soon as Tessie reveals the slip of paper with the black spot, her friends and even her family (“someone gave little Davy Hutchinson a few pebbles”) immediately turn on her and stone her to death.
“I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives,” Jackson explained.
These noble heads rolled a bare 10 weeks after the death of King Edward IV to whom Woodville was certainly quite loyal: the Earl’s sister, Elizabeth Woodville, was Edward’s queen Consort.
This marked the acme of the family’s meteoric, single-generation rise from gentleman nobodies. Anthony’s dad, Richard Woodville, vaulted the family into the nobility with an illicit marriage to the Duke of Bedford’s widow. Their pretty daughter Elizabeth scandalized Britain’s elite by conquering Edward’s heart and his hand in 1464 — though this was her second marriage: the first, to Sir John Grey of Groby, had produced two children, one of whom was the Richard Grey who went to the block with Sir Anthony Woodville.
The reason that Anthony Woodville and not his father was the current Earl Rivers was because dad had his own head cut off when King Edward was temporarily deposed in 1469. (Exile to Bruges was also the reason that the second Earl Rivers met William Caxton.)
After Edward came roaring back at the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471, the Woodville family would have been feeling pretty well set up: their Yorkist faction seemed to have won as decisive a victory as could be imagined over the Lancastrians.
But King Edward’s early death meant that Anthony’s nephew Edward V inherited all too early — which is to say that he did not truly inherit at all. The 12-year-old Edward and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York, both of them children of Elizabeth Woodville, were the boy-princes left to the care of Edward IV’s brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester.
Now, they believe it; and withal whet me
To be revenged on Rivers, Vaughan, Grey:
But then I sigh; and, with a piece of scripture,
Tell them that God bids us do good for evil:
And thus I clothe my naked villany
With old odd ends stolen out of holy writ;
And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.
The next part of the story is quite notorious, and it directly concerns the Woodvilles: the reason that Richard infamously disappeared those tragic princes into the Tower of London was because they were in Elizabeth Woodville’s own custody — and Richard, soon to seize power for himself as King Richard III, feared that if given the opportunity to gather themselves the Woodvilles and not he would dominate English politics.
Events could easily have turned out differently — even with Richard on the blade end of the Woodvilles’ executioner. In the chaotic days following Edward’s death, as news made its way ponderously around the realm, Richard raced to get ahead of the Woodvilles before they were secure in their patrimony. On April 30 of 1483, Richard intercepted the royal party traveling to London and took king into custody along with Rivers, Thomas Vaughan, and Richard Grey.
Gloucester-cum-Richard III acted with dispatch from that point. He had Elizabeth Woodville’s marriage to the late king invalidated, effectively disinheriting her children. While Gloucester made ready for his coronation, Anthony Woodville and his friends made sad poetry and last wills and testaments.
On this date in 1718,* Peter the Great’s hand-picked court condemned his son and onetime heir apparent Tsarevich Alexei to death for plotting treason.
Probably no single figure more strikingly underscored Peter’s violent rupture of the old Russia than Alexei: “timid, secretive and lacking in self-confidence,” he was Peter’s opposite in nearly every particular — his nemesis, literally from birth.
The product of Peter’s unsatisfactory first dynastic marriage to a conservative boyar princess, Alexei got abandoned along with his mother Eudoxia Lopukhina when Peter went on his years-long jag through western Europe.
Peter eventually forced the tsaritsa into a convent so he could take up with the ambitious emigre beauty Anna Mons, but the firstborn son was not so easily discarded.
Often malignantly ignored in his youth, Alexei spent his teen years being browbeaten by Peter who rightly despaired of ever making the boy into a king who could carry Peter’s legacy.
Where the father was preternaturally energetic, the son was feeble and reticent; Peter’s irritated letters to Alexei frequently complain of his laziness. (“I am incapable of exertion,” Alexei whinged.) Where the father had a curious mind for the Age of Enlightenment, the son was a dreamer who preferred the mysteries of the Orthodox religion. The boy showed little interest in politics or statecraft, but his position as the firstborn son meant that politics and statecraft were interested in him. Alexei just wanted to go to church and fool around with his Finnish mistress; he feigned or induced illness to avoid the instructional tasks his father appointed him, and once even tried to shoot himself in the hand to duck work.
The father called on all of his legendary severity fruitlessly trying to twist this malformed sapling into a sovereign when the boy’s every characteristic seemed to reproach Peter’s mission of a new and reborn Russia.
“How often have I scolded you for this, and not merely scolded but beaten you,” Peter wrote the boy when the latest assignment was not accomplished to his satisfaction. “Nothing has succeeded, nothing is any use, all is to no purpose, all is words spoken to the wind, and you want to do nothing but sit at home and enjoy yourself.” Start with scolding, proceed to beating — Peter’s philosophy of management as well as child-rearing.
Ever more fearful of his hated father, Alexei in 1716 gave Peter one final and greatest embarrassment by spurning his father’s last ultimatum to join the Russian army on campaign. Instead, the tsarevich fled to the protection of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI. Charles put him up in Naples for a year until Peter’s courtier Count Tolstoy** finally persuaded Alexei to return.
Alexei hoped he had arranged to get out of the royal-succession game and live as a private citizen, but where princes of the blood are concerned this option is more easily conceived than arranged. Peter well knew that the Orthodox clergy and many aristocrats awaited his death as their opportunity to roll back his reforms; the pious Alexei was inevitably a focus of these hopes and the boy embraced rather than shunned the association. Moreover, the twerp had made Peter look the fool before all of Europe with his running-away act.
Instead, the prince — whose return to Russia under the circumstances really was quite naive — found himself faced with a cruel inquisition.
Detail view (click for the full image) of Nikolai Ge’s 1871 painting “Peter the Great Interrogating the Tsarevich Alexei Petrovich in Peterhof” (via Wikimedia Commons)
Gibbon wrote of Marcus Aurelius that in permitting his notorious son Commodus to become his heir, “he sacrificed the happiness of millions to a fond partiality for a worthless boy, [and] chose a successor in his own family, rather than in the republic.”
Peter the Great easily possessed the iron resolution that the ancient Stoic lacked.
The tsar had learned seamanship in his youth by working in European dockyards; had learned soldiery by enrolling himself in the ranks and working his way up from drummer-boy. In his childhood he had seen the palace guard run amok in the Kremlin slaughtering his own family, bided his time until he could topple the power of his half-sister and take Russia in hand, and then wrought on those mutinous soldiers a terrible revenge.
And he had set for his reign a self-consciously world-historic mission, to force an unwilling nation into the European family. This enterprise of relentless, exhausting hubris the tsar applied everywhere from the cut of his noblemen’s facial hair to the whole-cloth creation of the Westward-facing capital city St. Petersburg.
Just so did Peter address himself to his truculent son.
“I will deprive you of the succession, as one may cut off a useless member,” he threatened in a come-to-Jesus letter of 1715, when Alexei was already 25 years old.
Do not fancy that, because I have no other child but you, I only write this to terrify you. I will certainly put it in execution if it please God; for whereas I do not spare my own life for my country and the welfare of my people, why should I spare you who do not render yourself worthy of either? I would rather choose to transmit them to a worthy stranger than to my own unworthy son.
Peter, to borrow a phrase redolent in Russian historiography, mourned not the cracked eggs that made his omelette.
And sometime after Alexei’s flight to Naples, Peter had clearly come to the understanding that for the good of his nation that unworthy son must indeed be spattered.
This episode places Peter in a monstrous light, just as would Marcus Aurelius appear to us had he contrived to murder the future tyrant Commodus when the latter was a mere callow youth. We do not have the luxury of seeing the path not taken, but it ought be said in the towering tsar’s defense that his disdain for the crown prince’s ability is difficult not to share. Alexei’s character stacks flaw upon flaw; no doubt Peter’s upbringing, by turns distant and brutal, was stamped upon it. Let the father bear that failure, but it does not relieve the sovereign’s choice: was he to confide his country and his legacy to the hands of this goblin? Was it even tolerable to leave this firstborn cooling his heels in a monastery, waiting for Peter’s death to cast off cowl and abdication and be acclaimed king by Old Russia?
Peter’s own youth, when he was part of an unresolved dynastic rivalry awkwardly sharing power, had been mired in plots and counterplots. Now, he could scarcely help but suspect that Alexei was also a piece of some conspiracy intending to undo Peter — whether in life or in death.
He forced the son to name his confidantes, then put those confidantes to torture and followed their accusations. In March of 1718, several men were broken on the wheel in Red Square; Alexei’s mother, long ago exiled to a convent, was menaced through her lover who was publicly impaled. Others got off with whippings, brandings, beatings, exile.
Not long after, that Finnish mistress of Alexei returned to the rodina herself. During his mission to Italy, Count Tolstoy had compromised her, and now she willingly supplied Peter the evidence of his son’s treason: that he spoke often of the succession, and how he would abandon St. Petersburg, let the navy rot, and restore the rights of the church; that he thrilled to every rumor of Peter’s illness and even to a mutiny. (Alexei would later acknowledge to his father’s face that had the mutineers acclaimed him tsar, he would have answered the summons.)
Peter empowered a very reluctant secular court to examine Alexei as a traitor without deference to his royal person. In a word, this meant torture — and on June 19, the frail Alexei was lashed 25 times with the knout, a terrible whip reinforced with metal rings that flayed a man’s back into carrion-meat and could even break the spine. Alexei managed to endure it, so on June 24 his suppurating wounds were reopened with another 15 strokes of the cruel scourge.
Under this inhuman torment, Alexei admitted wishing his father’s death — not much of an admission since he had already said as much to dad in the weeks before. But this gave his magistrates enough to condemn the tsarevich to death later that same night, for compassing the death of the king. The reality was that Alexei, vapid and indolent, had only one design on the death of his father: to await it with hope.
What we do not quite know is whether or how this sentence was actually effected. Peter wavered and did not sign the sentence — but as contemporaries saw it, God signed it.
On the morning of June 26, Peter and a number of other court dignitaries went to Peter and Paul Fortress. The fortress’s logs do not specify whether this was yet another round of torture for Alexei; stories would later circulate that Peter or a subaltern murdered the boy here by crudely beating him to death or privately beheading him, sparing the realm the spectacle of the broken crown prince mounting the scaffold.
But the official story, that an already-faltering Alexei begged Peter’s forgiveness as he succumbed to the shock notice of his condemnation, could easily be true: 40 strokes of the knout were enough to take the life of a much firmer constitution than Alexei’s.
By any measure, Peter authored the death of his son under the pall of execution, if not its literal fact — and for all the instances of royal-on-royal violence supplied by the annals, this filicide is nearly unique: Peter the Great, Emperor of All Russia, tortured his disappointing son to death.
Peter the Great died in 1725 at age 52 — according to legend, catching his death by forging into the freezing Finnish Gulf to rescue some drowning soldiers. (“I do not spare my own life for my country and the welfare of my people …”) Peter’s wives had borne him eight legitimate sons over the years, but Alexander, Pavel, Peter, another Pavel, another Peter, yet another Pavel, and yet another Peter had all died in early childhood. This was to be (after the brief reign later in the 1720s of Alexei’s sickly son Peter II) the end of the direct male line of Romanovs.
Instead, Peter was succeeded by his remarkable wife Catherine, by origin a Latvian peasant — and the 18th century would be dominated by female monarchs, culminating with Catherine the Great.
* It was June 24 by the Julian calendar still in use in Russia at that time. By the modern Gregorian calendar, Alexei Petrovich was condemned on July 5, and died on July 7.
June 9 in ancient Rome was the festival of the Vesta, the acme of the Vestalia festival extending until June 15.*
We hope this hearth-goddess will accept the homage Pluto‘s emissaries here propose to pay her most famous servants, the Vestal Virgins.
An ancient order of priestesses reaching back to Rome’s mythical founding period, perhaps even rooted in Rome’s matriarchal Etruscan predecessors, the Virgins by the time of the classical era numbered six — selected from among candidate girls aged 6 to 10 who would be whisked away from their families to serve for thirty years.
Vestal Virgins enjoyed great prestige and a number of social prerogatives (they had the power to pardon condemned prisoners, among other things). In exchange, they were tasked with maintaining Rome’s favor with her temperamental gods by tending diligently to the city’s most cherished religious observances.
From the moment of their selection, Vestal Virgins became a sort of personification of Rome itself — Rome’s civic virtue; Rome’s standing with the gods. Rome and the Vestals, joined by the sacred eternal hearth-flame whose perpetual kindling was the virgins’ chief ceremonial duty, drew succor from one another. Pliny wrote that they “have the power, by uttering a certain prayer, to arrest the flight of runaway slaves, and to rivet them to the spot, provided they have not gone beyond the precincts of the City” — but Rome’s greatness, too, was attributed to the citizenry’s dutiful maintenance of the Vestals through the centuries.
For such an empyreal creature to indulge the fleeting pleasures of the flesh was quite beyond question. Vesta, said Ovid,
was always unable to tolerate men.
What wonder if a virgin delights in virgin servants,
And only allows chaste hands to touch her sacred relics?
Realize that Vesta is nothing but living flame,
And you’ll see that no bodies are born from her.
She’s truly a virgin, who neither accepts seed
Nor yields it, and she loves virgin companions.
But over the centuries, not all of Vesta’s servants kept that same hard line on unchaste hands** — and in so doing risked punishment by an unusual execution of living burial. Even defiled Vestals were inviolate in their persons: their blood could not be shed, and the hands of the common executioner could not touch them. They had to be dispatched without direct violence, by immuring them alive under the earth. (Not so their seducers: getting busy with a Vestal Virgin would cost a man as many strokes of a scourge as required to kill him.)
Back to Ovid:
Now sacred flames you shine brightly under Caesar’s rule:
The fire on the Ilian hearths is there, and will remain,
It won’t be said that under him any priestess disgraced
Her office, nor that she was buried alive in the earth.
So the unchaste die, being entombed in what they
Have violated: since divine Earth and Vesta are one.
We have no specific calendar dates to go with any of these, but the British Museum antiquarian G.H. Noehdon compiled the available information about Vestals’ executions at some length in this public domain text:
a subterraneous chamber or cell of small dimension was formed, into which you descended from above. There were placed in it a couch or bed, a burning lamp, and a few necessaries of life, such as bread, water, milk, and oil. It would have been impious, according to Plutarch, to destroy by hunger, a life that had been consecrated by the most holy rites. The wretched victim, it is to be imagined, chiefly perished by suffocation. For the cell was closely shut, and overlaid with earth, as soon as she was descended.
The whole proceedings were terrific. The delinquent was conveyed to that place of horror in a litter, so fastened up and covered from without, that not even a sound or groan could escape from it. She was thus carried through the market-place, while the people, in fearful silence, made way, and followed speechless, impressed with the awe of this frightful ceremony. No sight, says Plutarch, could be more shocking, nor was there ever a day at Rome more gloomy and sorrowful.
Per Noehdon, the oldest case on record was of one Pinaria, executed for impurity under Tarquin the Elder. A Vestal named Minucia suffered the same fate in the 4th century BCE; two more, Opimia and Floronia, were condemned in the 3rd century, though one committed suicide in preference to immurement. Dionysius of Halicarnassus attributes a plague to the incontinence of the Vestal Urbenia, and its abatement to her punishment. Cassius Dio credits no fewer than three Vestals with execution for unchastity in 114 BCE — but one can hardly fail to note that this is a period of deepening class tension in Rome in the aftermath of the Gracchi. One wonders if carnal indulgences were merely a pretext to purge Aemilia, Licinia, and Marcia for the wrong factional alignment.
Probably the best-attested and best-known Vestal Virgin executed was Cornelia, the Virgo Maxima (chief Vestal) entombed by order of the notorious tyrant Domitian. (Domitian had also executed three other Vestals some years prior.) Pliny the Younger recorded her going to her death effecting (as did her purported lover) a persuasive mien of indignant innocence.
Domitian generally raged most furiously where his evidence failed him most hopelessly. That emperor had determined that Cornelia, chief of the Vestal Virgins, should be buried alive, from an extravagant notion that exemplary severities of this kind conferred lustre upon his reign.
Accordingly, by virtue of his office as supreme pontiff, or, rather, in the exercise of a tyrant’s cruelty, a despot’s lawlessness, he convened the sacred college, not in the pontifical court where they usually assemble, but at his villa near Alba; and there, with a guilt no less heinous than that which he professed to be punishing, he condemned her, when she was not present to defend herself, on the charge of incest, while he himself had been guilty, not only of debauching his own brother’s daughter, but was also accessory to her death: for that lady, being a widow, in order to conceal her shame, endeavoured to procure an abortion, and by that means lost her life.
However, the priests were directed to see the sentence immediately executed upon Cornelia. As they were leading her to the place of execution, she called upon Vesta, and the rest of the gods, to attest her innocence; and, amongst other exclamations, frequently cried out, “Is it possible that Caesar can think me polluted, under the influence of whose sacred functions he has conquered and triumphed?” Whether she said this in flattery or derision; whether it proceeded from a consciousness of her innocence, or contempt of the emperor, is uncertain; but she continued exclaiming in this manner, til she came to the place of execution, to which she was led, whether innocent or guilty I cannot say, at all events with every appearance and demonstration of innocence. As she was being lowered down into the subterranean vault, her robe happening to catch upon something in the descent, she turned round and disengaged it, when, the executioner offering his assistance, she drew herself back with horror, refusing to be so much as touched by him, as though it were a defilement to her pure and unspotted chastity: still preserving the appearance of sanctity up to the last moment; and, among all the other instances of her modesty, “She took great care to fall with decency.”
Celer likewise, a Roman knight, who was accused of an intrigue with her, while they were scourging him with rods in the Forum, persisted in exclaiming, “What have I done? — I have done nothing.”
The Vestal Virgins were finally suppressed (and their eternal flame quenched) by the Christian emperor Theodosius, in 394.†
A few years later, Rome was sacked for the first time in 800 years.
* There are mixed accounts as to whether June 9 or June 7 was the first day of the Vestalia, but the 9th was unquestionably the most important.
** Legend has it that Rome’s founders, Romulus and Remus, were sons of a Vestal Virgin, Rhea Silvia: again, this tradition could well be the refracted memory of Etruscan priestesses, or princesses, or both. The man who was to kill these unholy offspring instead took pity on them and cast them adrift on the Tiber — and that’s how they ended up being famously suckled by wolves.
On this day in 1940, in the tiny village of Celiny in Nazi-occupied Poland, German soldiers and gendarmes stood 32 Polish citizens against the wall of a house and shot them all to death.
The victims of the shooting had, by the Germans’ own admission, done nothing to deserve their fate. They were killed in reprisal for crimes committed by others: namely, the murder of a German gendarme the previous day.
Two Poles had apparently become involved in a dispute with the gendarme, provoked by a disagreement over the legality of ordering a certain dish in a local hostelry: that particular cut of meat was not supposed to be available to Poles under the rationing system introduced by the German administration. The Poles initially succeeded in escaping from the fracas by bicycle, but were caught up by the gendarme, on a motorbike, in Celiny; here, a further scuffle had ensued, in the course of which the gendarme was fatally wounded.
In a slightly different version of the story, the German gendarme had not even been killed by the Poles but had died as a result of crashing when, somewhat inebriated as well as angry, he took a corner too fast in pursuit of the two Poles. Whatever the truth of the matter, the latter knew they were in for trouble and rapidly escaped; they were nowhere to be tracked down.
The Germans had previously registered prominent local citizens to serve as hostages for just this sort of situation. But everyone on the registration list was forewarned by their friends and family and went into hiding to avoid arrest.
The next morning, unable to find any of their hostages, the local German authorities got together and argued for a full three hours over what to do. In the end they settled on a plan: They went to the prison in the nearby city of Sosnowiec and grabbed 32 inmates who had been “incarcerated for all the manner of reasons, including minor infringements of the most trivial of the new rules imposed by the German occupation, political resistance, and sheer bad luck.”
The men’s bad luck got even worse: the 32 men (29 Catholics and three Jews) were trucked fifteen miles back to Celiny, taken to the scene of the fight from the night before, stood in a row against the wall and shot dead at point-blank range.
Nearly three-quarters of a century later, Fulbrook visited the site of the massacre:
The wall against which the thirty-two people were shot remains pockmarked by the bullet holes, daubed now with dashes of red paint to intimate their bloody origins; there is a memorial stone, for which money had arduously to be raised among the local community; and fresh flowers were often laid there, to keep the memory of former compatriots and relatives alive.
The memorial stone lists the names of the 29 Catholic victims, but not the names of the Jews, apparently because the townspeople didn’t know who they were.
Fulbrook notes that this incident seems insignificant when put into context of the “enormity of other crimes that were soon to engulf the area.” Indeed, she says, “This incident would scarcely bear mention in comparison with the crimes committed on an infinitely larger scale at Auschwitz.”
But to the tiny village it was devastating and not easily forgotten — a small emblem of the countless nameless Poles casually put to execution in those years.
Regent Morton had a reputation for avarice during his run in the 1570s. However, deriving as it does from his executive impingement on the treasures of courtiers and clans no less grasping than himself, that reputation probably ought to be taken with a grain of salt.
If nothing else, Regent Morton had the excuse of king and country. Sir Walter Scott, for one, favored this Red Douglas with a much more charitably statesmanlike gloss in The Monastery and The Abbott.
As one example, Morton irked divines by enforcing with a minimum of pious exceptions a pre-existing statute requiring a one-third cut of ecclesiastical revenues.
In 1578, this Argyll kidnapped King James VI and induced the 12-year-old to declare his majority and dismiss the Earl of Morton. Argyll landed a Chancellorship out of the deal: Morton — well, you know. He would eventually be accused, 14 years’ belatedly but not inaccurately, of complicity in the 1567 murder of Lord Darnley.
Argyll in the end lost his head to that distinctive Scottish proto-guillotine known as the Maiden. Though the apparatus actually dates back to 1564,* a legend as moralistic as it is specious holds that the Regent Morton was himself the man who ordered construction of the device that would eventually end his own life. Sir Walter could hardly be asked to resist that kind of material:
“Look you, Adam, I were loth to terrify you, and you just come from a journey; but I promise you, Earl Morton hath brought you down a Maiden from Halifax, you never saw the like of her — and she’ll clasp you round the neck, and your head will remain in her arms.”
“Pshaw!” answered Adam, “I am too old to have my head turned by any maiden of them all. I know my Lord of Morton will go as far for a buxom lass as anyone; but what the devil took him to Halifax all the way? and if he has got a gamester there, what hath she to do with my head?”
“Much, much!” answered Michael. “Herod’s daughter, who did such execution with her foot and ankle, danced not men’s heads off more cleanly than this maiden of Morton. ‘Tis an axe, man, — an axe which falls of itself like a sash window, and never gives the headsmen the trouble to wield it.”
“By my faith, a shrewd device,” said Woodcock; “heaven keep us free on’t!”
Beware, trust not in the vanity of the world, and especially in the flattering of the court … if I had followed God’s word in deed as I did read it and set it forth to my power, I had not come to this.
This was the execution date in 1536 of Anne Boleyn‘s co-accused, the undercard to the deposed queen’s beheading.
It was the accusation of adultery that furnished Anne’s downfall; some adulterers were perforce required. These were William Brereton, Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, Mark Smeaton … and the ex-queen’s own brother, George Boleyn.
They had just days prior been subjected to a trial whose outcome was a foregone conclusion. All pleaded their innocence save Smeaton, a commoner court musician who could not withstand torture and “admitted” fooling around with Queen Anne.*
Along with Smeaton, three gentlemen-doomed plucked from the Tudor court’s shadowy recesses — joined to the legendary queen at the chopping-block, if not very probably in her bed.
Norris, the Groom of the Stool
Weston, a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber
Brereton, a Groom of the Privy Chamber
“Everyone was moved at their misfortune, especially at the case of Weston, who was young and of old lineage and high accomplishments,” one contemporary recorded of the fearful pall cast upon King Henry’s court by the purge. “But no one dared plead for him, except his mother, who, oppressed with grief, petitioned the King, and his wife, who offered rents and goods for his deliverance.”
The most egregious charge, naturally, did not concern these men. To put the fallen queen beyond the reach of sympathy it was alleged that she
following daily her frail and carnal lust … procured and incited her own natural brother, Geo. Boleyn, lord Rocheford, gentleman of the privy chamber, to violate her, alluring him with her tongue in the said George’s mouth, and the said George’s tongue in hers, and also with kisses, presents, and jewels; whereby he, despising the commands of God, and all human laws, violated and carnally knew the said Queen, his own sister, at Westminster; which he also did on divers other days before and after at the same place, sometimes by his own procurement and sometimes by the Queen’s.
This outrageous smear on the extremely specious grounds that big brother “had been once found a long time with her, and with certain other little follies,” invited as much skepticism among the Boleyns’ contemporaries as it does for posterity. Even after Anne had been condemned for adultery and incest in her stage-managed trial, George — the last of the bunch to face the tribunal — fought his corner so vigorously “that several of those present wagered 10 to 1 that he would be acquitted, especially as no witnesses were produced against either him or her, as it is usual to do, particularly when the accused denies the charge.”
A foolish bet, but perhaps one placed from a position of willful hope. If a peer of the realm could be condemned a traitor for hanging out with his sister, then no Henrician nobleman could hope to sleep securely.
Little could their dread fathom the bloody years to come. Many who saw the Boleyns’ heads drop would in time have cause to make of their gambling winnings a purse to tip their own executioners.
Thomas Cromwell, who engineered the Boleyn faction’s fall, outlived it by barely four years. The Earl of Surrey, who sat in judgment on this occasion, lost his head in 1547; his father the Duke of Norfolk,** who was the presiding judge, only avoided execution because Henry VIII died hours before Norfolk was to go to the block. George Boleyn’s wife, Lady Rochford, is supposed to have provided evidence against him; she was later swept up in the fall of Catherine Howard and beheaded for her trouble on that occasion.
But those were tragedies for later days.
In the spring of 1536, from his window in the Tower, the poet Thomas Wyatt witnessed this date’s executions: the young Anne’s last lover before the king descended on her, Wyatt too had been initially implicated in debauching the queen and he was fortunate not to be among their number. (Wyatt’s son would not be as lucky.) The shaken Wyatt wrote his fellow courtiers’ heartbreaking eulogy, and perhaps that of his era too, in his verse reflection on that terrible fall from fortune. (Via)
Veritas Viat Fides
me inimici mei
by Sir Thomas Wyatt, the Elder
Who list his wealth and ease retain,
Himself let him unknown contain.
Press not too fast in at that gate
Where the return stands by disdain,
For sure, circa Regna tonat.†
The high mountains are blasted oft
When the low valley is mild and soft.
Fortune with Health stands at debate.
The fall is grievous from aloft.
And sure, circa Regna tonat.
These bloody days have broken my heart.
My lust, my youth did them depart,
And blind desire of estate.
Who hastes to climb seeks to revert.
Of truth, circa Regna tonat.
The bell tower showed me such sight
That in my head sticks day and night.
There did I learn out of a grate,
For all favour, glory, or might,
That yet circa Regna tonat.
By proof, I say, there did I learn:
Wit helpeth not defence too yerne,
Of innocency to plead or prate.
Bear low, therefore, give God the stern,
For sure, circa Regna tonat.
* In the Tower awaiting execution, Anne would voice worry for Smeaton’s soul when she learned that he had failed to retract this confession at the block. But Smeaton and all the men were beheaded in preference to a sentence of drawing and quartering, and had reason to be cautious about their comportment on the scaffold lest crueler torments be reinstated for them.
** Norfolk was Anne Boleyn’s uncle.
† Circa Regna tonat: “Around the throne it thunders”, from Seneca’s Phaedra.
osing his head on May 12, 1543 made Jakob Karrer von Gebweiler’s name in the annals of art and and medicine.
The remains of the Basel felon — who attacked his wife with a knife when she discovered his bigamous marriage — were turned over after execution to Andreas Vesalius.
That brilliant Flemish doctor was in the midst of a proper Renaissance leveling up of medicine, lifting it past the centuries-long thrall of ancient Greek physician Galen.
Human dissection was essential to Vesalius’s project, as it was alike to many other medical men and to artists too. In his career, Vesalius’s cunning scalpel stripped numerous cadavers for students and urban grandees. With Karrer, Vesalius performed a public dissection, articulating Karrer’s skeleton.
Gifted to the university there, the skeleton was restored in 1985 and can be seen to this day at the Institute of Anatomy in Basel, Switzerland — one of the very earliest still-preserved articulated skeletons.
Why is it a Basel criminal who enjoys this distinction?
From Wikipedia’s library of De Humani illustrations.
Because in 1543, Vesalius was in that city* to work with printer Johannes Oporinus, even then publishing the physician’s magnum opus De Humani Corporis Fabrica. Vesalius personally transported to Oporinus the famously gorgeous and detailed woodcuts of Titian’s pupil Joannes Stephanus Calcarensis that made De Humani a smash hit in Vesalius’s own time and one of the most treasured artifacts of Renaissance scholarship.