Posts filed under 'Arts and Literature'

1555: Robert Ferrar, Bishop of St. David’s

Add comment March 30th, 2015 Headsman

The Martyrdom of Bishop Farrar [sic]

by Ted Hughes

Burned by Bloody Mary‘s Men at Caermarthen

“If I flinch from the pain of the burning, believe not the doctrine that I have preached.
 — His words on being chained to the stake.

Bloody Mary’s venomous flames can curl;
They can shrivel sinew and char bone
Of foot, ankle, knee and thigh, and boil
Bowels, and drop his heart a cinder down;
And her soldiers can cry, as they hurl
Logs in the red rush: “This is her sermon.”

The sullen-jowled watching Welsh townspeople
Hear him crack in the fire’s mouth: they see what
Black oozing twist of stuff bubbles the smell
That tars and retches their lungs: no pulpit
Of his ever held their eyes so still,
Never, as now his agony, his wit.

An ignorant means to establish ownership
Of his flock! Thus their shepherd she seized
And knotted him into this blazing shape
In their eyes, as if such could have cauterized
The trust they turned towards him, and branded on
Its stump her claim, to outlaw question.

So it might have been: seeing their exemplar
And teacher burned for his lessons to black bits,
Their silence might have disowned him to her,
And hung up what he had taught with their Welsh hats:
Who sees his blasphemous father struck by fire
From heaven, might well be heard to speak no oaths.

But the fire that struck here, come from Hell even,
Kindled little heavens in his words
As he fed his body to the flame alive.
Words which, before they will be dumbly spared,
Will burn their body and be tongued with fire
Make paltry folly of flesh and this world’s air.

When they saw what annuities of hours
And comfortable blood he burned to get
His words a bare honouring in their ears,
The shrewd townsfolk pocketed them hot:
Stamp was not current but they rang and shone
As good gold as any queen’s crown.

Gave all he had, and yet the bargain struck
To a merest farthing his whole agony,
His body’s cold-kept miserdom on shrieks
He gave uncounted, while out of his eyes,
Out of his mouth, fire like a glory broke,
And smoke burned his sermon into the skies.

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1864: Kastus Kalinouski, Belarus revolutionary

Add comment March 22nd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1864, Kastus Kalinouski was hanged in a public square in Vilnius.

A peasant revolutionary from the European frontiers of tsarism, Kalinouski is a present-day independence hero for Poland, Belarus, and Lithuania. (His name is variously rendered Konstanty Kalinowski, Kastus Kalinouski, and Konstantinas Kalinauskas for those respective homelands.)

These various polities had been joint constituents of the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, gobbled up by Russia at the end of the 18th century.

Dissatisfaction with membership in this adoptive empire progressed differently among different demographics of the old Commonwealth, but it really blossomed in the wreckage of the 1850s Crimean War. Chastened after being drubbed by an industrial power, Russia finally emancipated her serfs — but the emancipation proved to bear as much confiscation as liberation, to the chagrin of the emancipatees.

In Poland, Belarus, and Lithuania, peasant anger at the raw deal dovetailed nicely with stirring national sentiment. Kalinouski, a young barrister, launched the flagship (clandestine) publication for that audience, Muzyckaja Prauda (Peasant’s Truth). It was one of the first periodicals published in Belarusian, and it was not calculated to reconcile his countrymen to Moscow.

Six years have passed since the peasants’ freedom began to be talked about. They have talked, discussed, and written a great deal, but they have done nothing. And this manifesto which the tsar, together with the Senate and the landlords, has written for us, is so stupid that the devil only knows what it resembles-there is no truth in it, there is no benefit whatsoever in it for us.

-From the first issue of Peasant’s Truth

Kalinouski’s literary adventures mirrored a prominent role among the leadership of the January Uprising to throw off the Romanov yoke.

But it proved to be the case that, although scrapping with Great Britain might be one thing, the Russian army was more than a match for her internal foes. It crushed the January Uprising.

In prison awaiting execution, Kalinouski bequeathed one last literary vindication, his Letters from Beneath the Gallows.

Friends, my brothers!

From under the Russian gallows I am writing to you for the last time. It is sad to leave my native land and you, my dear people. My breast sighs and my heart is sore, but it is not a sad lot to perish for your truth. Hear my last words in sincerity, my people, for it is as if they were written from this world only for your good … as day and night do not reign together, so also true learning does not go together with Russian slavery. As long as this lies over us, we shall have nothing. There will be no truth, no riches, no learning. They will only drive us like cattle not to our well-being, but to our perdition.

… go and fight with the whole people for your human and national rights, for your faith, for your native land. For I say to you from beneath the gallows, my people, you will only then live happily, when no Russian remains over you! (Source)


A plaque in Vilnius marks the spot of Kastus Kalinouski’s execution on 22 March 1864 (10 March by the Julian calendar).

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1715: Lips Tullian, outlaw and comic hero

1 comment March 8th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1715, the legendary outlaw Filip Mengstein was broken on the wheel in Dresden’s marketplace, along with four henchmen.

With the wiseguy nickname “Lips Tullian”, our cutthroat’s gangland derring-do cuts a truly timeless profile. But it happens that Lips did his cutting in the environs of Saxony and Bohemia, exploiting for many years lax domestic security in the Holy Roman Empire occasioned by the preoccupations of the Great Northern War. Legend has it that he was a former dragoon forced to take to the road around 1702 when he slew a comrade in a duel.

From wilderness haunts — there’s still a “Lips Tullian Hill” in Saxony’s Tharandt Forest — Tullian’s “Black Guard” gang sallied into towns to raid prosperous homes and churches. When caught, he had a knack for the dramatic breakout, returning again and again to his gang.

Alas, it was an unsuccessful escape attempt in 1713 that finally caused his captors of the day to realize who they had and put him to torture and, eventually, the brutal breaking-wheel execution.

Immortalized in subsequent folklore, especially in Bohemia, Lips Tullian is best noted recently as the subject of a popular 1970s Czech comic published (until Communist authorities suppressed it) by Mlady Svet. The illustrator Kaja Saudek based his Lips Tullian on the romantic 19th century interpretation of Kvidon de Felses — presenting him as a gold-hearted rogue with an impressively chiseled physique.

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1996: Antonio James, final judgment

Add comment March 1st, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1996, Antonio James downed a last meal of fried oysters and crab gumbo, then went to the death chamber of Angola Prison to suffer lethal injection for the murder of Henry Silver.

Silver was a 70-year-old fellow whom James shot dead in a New Orleans robbery way back in 1979. (Net return: $35.) A few weeks later, he bungled another robbery and ended up shot with his own gun … and under arrest. It was his second murder conviction. Although James dodged 13 death dates and was the senior figure on the state’s death row when his time came, his was pretty unremarkable as death penalty cases go.

This did chance to be the first execution in Louisiana after the film Dead Man Walking (which is set in that state) was released, and it got a bit of additional media coverage as a consequence.

James’s last hours became the subject of the ABC Primetime Live documentary Final Judgment (or Judgment at Midnight). It’s a little hard to come by clips of this program online, but here’s one review, and here’s another. In it, the warden Burl Cain* described James’s execution.

Well, he was laying there, and then he kind of grabbed my hand, so I held his hand, and then I told him, ‘He’s waiting for us. Get ready, we’re going for the ride.’ And I said, ‘The angels are here.’ He kind of smiled, and he said, ‘Bless you.’ That’s the last words he said. And then I nodded my head to go ahead. He was holding my hand real tight. And then after a couple of minutes, he took about three or four deep breaths, and then he relaxed my hand. I do believe right now his soul is in heaven, and he’s OK. And since I believe that, it makes it easier.

* In the Angola memoir In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance by onetime Louisiana death row habitue turned prison journalist Wilbert Rideau, Cain comes off as a real camera-hound.

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1943: The last five Young Guards shot in Krasnodon

Add comment February 9th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1943, days before their city was liberated, five members of the anti-occupation resistance were shot in Krasnodon in the Donbass.

That eastern Ukrainian city* had fallen under German-Italian-Romanan occupation in July 1942.

In response, some 100 local teens banded together into an anti-fascist underground — the Molodaya Gvardiya, or Young Guard. (English Wikipedia entry) | Russian) Most of their number would give their lives in resistance.

During the few months of occupation, the Young Guards managed an impressive record of sabotage operations and propaganda coups. It busted 90 people out of the Germans’ concentration camp, and got the hammer and sickle hung up on government buildings to mark the silver anniversary of Red October. In December, the Young Guards managed to destroy the labor bureau (and its list of intended conscripts) on the eve of a planned deportation, sparing 2,000 people that dreadful fate.

The Germans finally got their hooks into the Young Guards and started mass arrests at the start of January. They brought in most of the Young Guards for torture and execution — smashing up the organization in their very last weeks in town.

The five put to death this date were the last of those martyrs, and the more tragic in that the occupiers were even then gearing up to evacuate as the Red Army closed in. (The Soviets took the city on February 15.) They were:


Oleg Koshevoy’s interrogation. Image from MolodGuard.ru’s stupendous images collection.

In September 1943, three Soviet citizens were publicly executed in the liberated city on charges of having aided the Germans in suppressing the Young Guards.

The Young Guards’ youth and intrepidity made them extremely congenial to the Soviets’ wartime demand for martyrs. At the urging of his Ukrainian deputy Nikita Khrushchev — who himself hailed from the Donbass — Stalin approved a number of the Young Guards (including this date’s Koshevoy and Shevtsova) as Heroes of the Soviet Union.

The Guards valorized in a 1945 novel, and then a 1948 film based on that novel. (Russian links, both.)

They’ve featured in postage stamps, public artwork, and every manner of patriotic commemoration ever since. They’ve even come in for a bit of post-Soviet “ownership” conflict (over the Guards’ degree of Communist Party affiliation) between Ukraine’s Russian- and Soviet-leaning east and the nationalist-sympathizing west.

Today the “Molodaya Gvardiya” brand might be most immediately recognizable as a youth organ of Vladimir Putin’s party — no connection to the young partisans, of course.

* Not to be confused with the Russian city of Krasnodar.

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1476: Israel, the last execution of the Trent blood libel trial

Add comment January 19th, 2015 Headsman

We have covered in these pages the horrific blood libel trial that sent most of the Jews of Trent to execution for the supposed ritual murder of the child Simon of Trent.

The moral panic (and torture-aided interrogation) that broke out when Trent’s Jews were suspected of having killed a Christian child led to a batch of executions in June 1475. But that was only the first act of a drama that would reach all the way to the courts of popes and emperors in the subsequent months … a conflict that would not end even when the last “murderer”, Israel, was broken on the wheel on January 19, 1476.

Trent lay at the southern fringe of the Habsburg Holy Roman Empire,* literally halfway from Vienna to Rome … and Trent’s ambitious prince-bishop Johannes Hinderbach was likewise beholden to both those poles of authority.

The sitting pope, Sixtus IV, was pretty sympathetic to Jews in general and very definitely not okay with Hinderbach’s theater of torture and execution. Sixtus was certainly also feeling plenty of pushback from other Jewish communities in Europe to make sure Trent wouldn’t be a precedent for similar freakouts in the future, and from Christian elites who didn’t want muddleheaded fanatics running around.

In Trent, “the Jews” meant literally three households — a tiny handful of people. By contrast, in cosmopolitan, humanist Rome, Jews were prominent among the intelligentsia and their presence taken for granted. Sixtus had Jewish “advisors and physicians in the papal court. They were teachers of music, theater, and science. Rome was a center of Hebrew literature and publishing … Sixtus IV, like most of his predecessors, took his role as a defender of Jews from violence more or less for granted.”**

Sixtus ordered the proceedings halted “because many and important men began to murmur,” and instituted an apostolic commission to investigate.

But Hinderbach and the Trentini refused to cooperate (Italian link) with the investigation. Hinderbach, for his part, was all-in on the Simonino story: just like today, nobody on the hook for a wrongful execution is going to advance his career by acknowledging that fact.

Resentfully, Hinderbach put his unwelcome papal visitor Battista Dei Guidici up in a crappy room, and “many people, moved more by furor than reason, temerity than devotion, threatened to kill the commissioner in the streets of the city, if he did not confirm the miracles and the asserted martyrdom” of little Simon. If anyone in Trent thought otherwise, he did not dare make it known to the closely-watched investigator.

Trent still had Jews in prison at this point, but Hinderbach resolutely prevented the pope’s agent from interviewing with them. “It was to be feared,” Hinderbach said, “that if he talked to them, he or his men could give some sign to the Jews, who would be rendered more obstinate, since they were always saying, ‘A man will come to free us.'”

Book CoverThese quotes are via R. Po-Chia Hsia’s Trent 1475: Stories of a Ritual Murder Trial, which is likewise our guide for the tense diplomatic battle ensuing over the autumn of 1475.

After having bribed a servant to deliver word to the imprisoned Jewish women that they had an advocate, Dei Guidici relocated to nearby Venetian territory — “where innocent people are not killed, where Christians do not plunder Jews, as it was in Trent” — and papers started flying.

Dei Guidici appealed to — and eventually ordered — Hinderbach to release the remaining Jews in his custody, while the pope sent out directives quashing any preaching on Simon’s “martyrdom.” Italian Jews poured into Dei Guidici’s offices appealing for their fellows and attesting that they could not travel through Trent for fear of mob violence.† A verse from a Veronese rabbi dating to late 1475 curses the nearby city: “Hills of Trent, may you not have rain or dew / Seven times may you fall and not rise.”

Hinderbach, for his part, sent his own envoys to German cities that had persecuted Jews for ritual murder in the past to get his own paper trail establishing that, yes, the Hebrew liked a good drink of Christian blood. More significantly, as a prince-bishop, Hinderbach also sent his own appeals up the Holy Roman Empire’s secular chain of command, objecting to the ecclesiastical meddling.

Hinderbach’s only concession to his apostolic scold was to release the children he had in custody. In October 1475, his political machinations with the Habsburgs yielded authorization from the powerful Tirolean Archduke Sigismund to resume judicial proceedings against “the Jewish men and women you have in prison” and “render justice as it should be, and let the death sentences be carried out.”

Interrogations for six Jewish men still in custody resumed on October 25, again with the aid of the horrible strappado to confirm and elaborate upon the already-determined official story of Simon’s martyrdom.

Denial — or even confessing, but guessing the wrong detail to “admit” — was not an option, as this October 26 interrogation record indicates.

He was asked whether he saw the murdered boy.

JOAFF [one of the Jewish households’ servants]: In the ditch.

PODESTA: Think again.

JOAFF: In the antechamber of the synagogue.

PODESTA: Anywhere else?

JOAFF: No.

He was ordered stripped, tied by the rope, and hoisted up.

JOAFF: Let me down, I’ll speak the truth.

PODESTA: Speak it on the ropes.

JOAFF: I have never done anything evil.

He was hoisted up and dropped.

This continues until Joaff has been dropped enough times to agree that he saw Simon’s body on Saturday night, on a bench in the synagogue. They knew that was the truth because it confirmed what they already wanted to hear.

This would be the end of Trent’s Jewish men in January 1476.

Israel, a 23-year-old copyist, was the last to die, and his fate is particularly poignant.

He had half-escaped the pall of death by accepting baptism the previous spring, and lived freely during the following months under the name Wolfgang. Dei Guidici interviewed him, one of the few productive sessions the pope’s man was able to arrange in Trent, and learned thereby of the details of Hinderbach’s interrogations.

Once Dei Guidici withdrew to Venetian soil, Jews of that principality would begin reaching out to “Wolfgang” in their efforts to communicate with the remaining imprisoned Jews.

This skullduggery came came apart when the persecution fired back up in October, and Israel was re-arrested, and put again and repeatedly to the rope. He was a man bound to be crushed by the legal machinery arrayed against him, but it was not only that. As Israel was well-traveled, he was tortured for information about ritual murders in other German cities; his forced denunciation of 14 named Jews in Regensburg initiated a blood-libel proceeding in that city that was only aborted by intervention from the Emperor himself.

And while Israel struggled to portray himself as a faithful convert and appeal to little Simon for an exculpatory miracle that never came, he at least once threw aside the mask to give his tormenters a piece of his mind.

PODESTA: What did he think of the Christian faith?

ISRAEL: He wants to say the truth. He does not believe in anything of the Christian faith … It is a joke to say that God came down from heaven to earth, walked around and lived among men. He believes only in God and nothing more. He believes also that the Jewish faith is right and holy.

PODESTA: Does he believe that it is right, according to Jewish law, that Jews kill Christian children and drink and eat their blood as he himself had said.

ISAREL: He believes firmly that it is right that Jews kill Christian children and eat their blood. He wants to have Christian blood at Easter, even now that he is baptized he wants to die a Jew.

Four other Jews from Trent died by hanging earlier in January 1476. The last one put to death was Israel on January 19 — “thief, eater and drinker of Christian blood, poisoner, blasphemer, traitor, and an enemy of Christ and Godly majesty.”

Even his death did not finally put a stop to the affair, for the women of the Jewish community were still in prison, and still being tortured as late as March. They would eventually accept baptism as the price of their release.

Meanwhile, Hinderbach and Dei Guidici carried their scrap to the curia. Hinderbach’s dogged advocacy of his burgeoning cult of Simon — and the odd ad hominem against his foe here and there — won some allies against Dei Guidici’s protests against “the peril which would be incumbent on the Christian religion, on account of the dealings in Trent, and the lies that would reach the ignorant.”

In the end, the Church decided it on political grounds. It could not encourage more Trents; neither could it invite the scandal of disavowing the one that had already taken place. It upheld Hinderbach’s conduct while also reiterating standing prohibitions against blood-libel trials or oppressing the Jews.

Hinderbach very naturally took this as vindication and spent the balance of his life propagating the Simonino cult. Artwork throughout northern Italy, some of it still visible in situ today in its original public monuments and chapel frescoes, attested to his success.


The Martyrdom of Simonino, by Gandolfino d’Asti.


The Martyrdom of Saint Simonio, from the Trento school of Nicklaus Weckmann. (Via)

Indeed, the city of Trent itself‡ still has a street-viewable bas-relief depiction of Simonino’s ritual murder, with the Latin inscription:

In the dungeons of these buildings, where once a synagogue stood, and now a shrine, the blessed martyr Simon of Trent, in his 29th month of life, was killed with excruciating pain by the Jews in the deep of the night of April 10, 1475 A.D.

The Simon of Trent cult — never the face of Christianity that the institutional church really wanted to feature — was only officially suppressed in the 20th century with the Second Vatican Council.

* Trent’s position on the frontier of the Italian and German worlds is also the reason the next century’s major anti-Reformation Council of Trent was held there.

** Sixtus wasn’t all good news for Jews. More from political necessity than affirmative desire, he also authorized the Spanish Inquisition and appointed Torquemada.

† During this time, Dei Guidici also managed to extract a Trent resident named Anzelino Austoch. Under Dei Guidici’s torture, Austoch accused the man named der Schweizer, “the Swiss” — the very man who had suggested that the Jewish homes be searched for Simon’s body — of committing the murder. Dei Guidici clearly believed that either the Schweizer, or Austoch, or both, had actually killed Simon and intentionally framed the city’s Jews.

‡ Trent does not, of course, still avow the legitimacy of these proceedings; the city has elsewhere put up plaques apologizing for it.

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1477: Gerolamo Olgiati, ducal assassin

Add comment January 2nd, 2015 Headsman


Dramatization of events in this post for the video game-derived film Assassin’s Creed: Lineage.

On this date in 1477, the assassins of the Duke of Milan suffered bitter death for fame eternal.

Famous for both his astute political machinations and for cruelty verging on the sadistic, Galeazzo Maria Sforza inherited leadership of Milan in at the age of 22 with the passing of his father, the great condottiero Francesco Sforza.

Francesco, the founder of the Sforza dynasty, had dynastically married himself to one Bianca Maria Visconti, a daughter of Milan’s previous ruling house.* But not all of the Visconti were at home with the Sforza.

A brash young man of that noble family, Carlo Visconti, as full of humanistic idealism as he was of bile for the licentious Duke’s alleged violation of his sister, joined a conspiracy also compassing two other gentlemen, Giovanni Andrea Lampugnani and Gerolamo Olgiati, to do Galeazzo Sforza to death.

At a St. Stephen’s Day service in the a basilica christened to Stephen Lampugnani approached the prince feigning supplication for some audience, then produced a hidden blade and stabbed Galeazzo Sforza. Visconti and Olgiati then rushed on Sforza as well and before anyone realized what was happening the Duke, croaking some half-heard invocation of Mary, was falling dead on the church floor.


Illustration of Galeazzo Sforza’s murder on the title page of a 1476 Lament for the Duke decrying the assassination.

Pandemonium ensued, and in the ensuing helter-skelter, Sforza’s bodyguards fell on Lampugnani and killed him on the spot, while Olgiati managed to escape.**

“It now only remains for us to consider those dangers which follow after the execution of a plot,” Machiavelli mused in his “Of Conspiracies” typology of his Discourses. “These in fact resolve themselves into one, namely, that some should survive who will avenge the death of the murdered prince. The part of avenger is likely to be assumed by a son, a brother, or other kinsman of the deceased.”

Well, yeah.

The assassins of the Duke of Milan appear not to have burdened themselves overmuch with advance consideration of this danger, possibly indulging the dream of Brutus that by a dagger’s stroke alone they could restore the lost republic.

Needless to say, this beautiful hope vanished in the bloody revenge carnival that actually ensued the murder. Just a few days after the assassination, having taken refuge with a priest — his justly frightened family had closed its door on him and needed to make theatrical denunciations of his treason for their own safety — Olgiati was captured, put to a torturous interrogation, and publicly butchered. He had outlived the Duke by only a week, and his gashed carcass was hung up in sections around town by way of warning. The rotting heads of the conspirators remained impaled on lances on the city’s bell tower well into the 1490s.

According once again to Machiavelli, Olgiati “exhibited no less composure at his death than resolution in his previous conduct, for being stripped of his apparel, and in the hands of the executioner, who stood by with the sword unsheathed, ready to deprive him of life, he repeated the following words, in the Latin tongue, in which he was well versed

“‘Mors acerba, fama perpetua, stabit vetus memoria facti.'”

That is,

‘Death is bitter but fame is eternal, and the memory of the deed will endure.’

This attempt, quixotic and doomed, to depose an Italian tyrant by murdering him in church might well have formed the blueprint for a similar plot in Florence in 1478, the Pazzi conspiracy. That version was even less successful than its Milanese predecessor: at least Olgiati and company could say that they actually managed to kill their target before everything else hit the fan.

And republic or not, Sforza’s murder did shake up the polity. It put the Duchy of Milan in the hands of his wife, as the unsteady regent of a seven-year-old heir. A few years later, the late duke’s brother Ludovico displaced the regent and effectively bossed Milan until the French imprisoned him in 1500 during the Italian Wars.

While he had the run of the place, Ludovico Sforza commissioned of Leonardo da Vinci a monumental equestrian statue in memory of his brother that da Vinci never finished.† Quite strangely, the master’s notes were plumbed by a 20th century Pennsylvania airline pilot who dedicated the latter part of his life to actually casting “Leonardo’s Horse”.

* The names Visconti and Sforza are also associated with some of the earliest tarot decks and among the first to introduce to playing cards the use of trionfi, or “triumph” cards — that is, “trumps”. One can readily purchase present-day reprints of this historic pack.

** There is a positively maddening inconsistency, thus far irresolvable for this author, between accounts (here’s one example | and another) asserting that Carlo Visconti was slain by Sforza’s bodyguards directly after the assassination, and other accounts (like Gregory Lubkin’s 1994 history of Sforza’s Milan) that put Visconti on the scaffold beside Olgiati.

† Da Vinci’s ponderously slow progress on this high-profile project led Michelangelo to cattily impugn the rival artist’s bronze-casting aptitude.

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1502: Ramiro d’Orco, discarded by Cesare Borgia

Add comment December 26th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1502, Ramiro d’Orco (Ramiro de Lorqua or de Lorca) was put to death in the main square of the city he had governed mere days before.

In 1498, Cesare Borgia, the bastard son of Pope Alexander VI, resigned his cardinalate* to pursue a conqueror’s laurels.

Dynastically allied with France and backed by il papa‘s ducats and decrees, Cesare seized control of Romagna after Alexander helpfully pronounced his vicars there deposed.

As Borgia extended his sword up and down the peninsula, he left his Spanish steward Ramiro d’Orco in Romagna’s capital of Cesena as his governor . D’Orco was a capable, cruel ruler. But his fall likely owed as much to his master’s gifts for the condotierro racket as to d’Orco’s overeager resort to torture and public executions .

Borgia’s conquests multiplied his rivals, fellow condotierri who feared that he could soon come to dominate Italy. The discovery of one plot by former allies against him might have inspired Borgia to consider the damage that the captain of Romagna could do, should he shift his loyalties.

Borgia, not present for events, had d’Orco arrested by surprise on December 22. He was on Christmas condemned to death for graft, and by the next day’s light his black-bearded head surmounted a bloody pike. Borgia also thereby reaped the benefits of d’Orco’s brutality while also dissociating his own person from the resentment those methods had engendered.

Niccolo Machiavelli, Florentine emissary to the Borgia court, watched Cesare’s career closely. In The Prince, Machiavelli is full of skepticism for rulers who come to power through the “fortune” of inheritance or another ruler’s patronage — but Cesare Borgia rates an exception. The conqueror “laid sufficiently good foundations to his power.”

When the duke occupied the Romagna he found it under the rule of weak masters, who rather plundered their subjects than ruled them, and gave them more cause for disunion than for union, so that the country was full of robbery, quarrels, and every kind of violence; and so, wishing to bring back peace and obedience to authority, he considered it necessary to give it a good governor. Thereupon he promoted Messer Ramiro d’Orco, a swift and cruel man, to whom he gave the fullest power. This man in a short time restored peace and unity with the greatest success. Afterwards the duke considered that it was not advisable to confer such excessive authority, for he had no doubt but that he would become odious, so he set up a court of judgment in the country, under a most excellent president, wherein all cities had their advocates. And because he knew that the past severity had caused some hatred against himself, so, to clear himself in the minds of the people, and gain them entirely to himself, he desired to show that, if any cruelty had been practised, it had not originated with him, but in the natural sternness of the minister. Under this pretense he took Ramiro, and one morning caused him to be executed and left on the piazza at Cesena with the block and a bloody knife at his side. The barbarity of this spectacle caused the people to be at once satisfied and dismayed.

* In fact, he was the first cardinal ever to resign the position.

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1960: Anthony Miller, the last hanged at Barlinnie

1 comment December 22nd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1960, 19-year-old Anthony Miller became the 10th and last person executed at Scotland’s Barlinnie Prison.*

Miller worked in a team with a 16-year-old accomplice in a “queer-rolling” racket: the younger James Denovan would lure a mark with the promise of an assignation, then Miller would jump him and turn a 2-against-1 robbery. Artless, but effective.

With such a crude m.o., it’s no wonder Miller and Denovan beat a man all the way to death in the course of one of their shake-downs. Since he was a minor, Denovan drew a prison term. Miller … not so lucky. His plaintive last words, “Please, Mister …” form the title of a play about his life written by Patrick Harkins.

Tour Barlinnie’s capital punishment environs with one of its old death-watch officers in this David Graham Scott short film, “Hanging With Frank”:

David Graham Scott was good enough to share some firsthand recollections of the film’s title character Frank McKue, and the process of producing “Hanging With Frank”.

Frank McKue was an extremely likeable chap with a very dark sense of humour. Definitely my type of guy. Used to have a drink with him at his local pub in Edinburgh called ‘The Diggers Arms’ (called as such because local gravediggers would drink there) . The sound of the trapdoor swinging open that you hear in the film is actually the door to the beer cellar crashing open in the pub which I recorded as a foley. Frank said it was almost the exact sound! Since the trapdoor in the execution chamber at Barlinnie Prison was shored up and unable to open when we visited it seemed a logical idea to use this nice little soundbite.

Incidentally, the prison that we were filming was still (and still is) very much in operation. There are some shots where you can see prisoners moving about in the upper galleries. It’s Barlinnie Prison in Glasgow, Scotland and dates from the Victorian era. Frank worked there in the 50s as a prison officer who occasionally did deathwatch details. That involved sitting with the condemned man on his last nights and drinking tea, engaging him in conversation and playing draughts [checkers in the U.S.].

Frank showed how the prison officer’s escorting the condemned man would walk a few paces across the gallery and through the doors into the execution chamber.

They’d stand on planks placed over the trapdoors …

… and hold onto safety ropes dangling from the ceiling to stop them from falling down with the prisoner. There had been various instances in the past of prison guards and assistant executioners falling through the trapdoors with the condemned man.

The deathwatch officers would sit with the condemned prisoner at all times after sentence was pronounced. Cups of tea, mingled with small-talk and endless games of draughts and they just chatted away about everything ‘except the obvious’! Their job on the morning of the execution was to escort the condemned man out of his cell (which was actually two normal sized cells knocked into one) and into the execution chamber just a few paces across the gallery in D-Hall of the prison. They steadied the man as the executioner led the way onto the scaffold and the assistant helped buckle his wrists and feet with leather straps when they reached the correct position on the trapdoors. A signal from the assistant to the executioner sent the man on his downward journey to the basement below where the mortuary slab awaited.

The positioning of the noose was crucial for a clean break between the 2nd and 3rd vertebrae The rope always did a quarter turn to throw back the head and cleanly sever the spinal column at those points and the hangman treated the affair with diligence and extreme reverence. Frank would then often sit with the executioner and assistants as they had their breakfast and left the executed man dangling for a full hour. The prisoner was then pulled back up, the noose removed and then he was lowered back down with other ropes to the basement room again where he was stripped and laid on the mortuary slab. The body ‘belonged to the state so it was buried within the prison grounds’ and no relative was allowed to visit the grave site or send flowers.

I storyboarded much of the film due to the restrictions of time, the nature of the equipment we were using and, of course, the mood I was trying to evoke. I also used black and white, grainy, light-sensitive film stock to try and get the feel of the execution facility in its heyday of the 1950s. If I had more money and time I would have made this film about 10 minutes longer but alas it was not to be. There was always the odd event that we shot spur-of-the-moment. Like when I noticed a butterfly trying to escape from the window of the execution chamber. In this space it took on quite a metaphorical aspect as it struggled desperately and futilely against the glass. Strangely, there was a large group of them roosting on the ceiling. I’ve never seen such a thing in my life and have no idea why they were acting like this. There were also mounds of pigeon droppings too which we tried to avoid as best we could (it can be quite toxic when breathed in). There’s a very brief shot in the film of two pigeon chicks which were nested snugly within a cavity of the execution beam … another bizarre metaphor about death and resurrection, I guess.

When we visited there were major renovations taking place within D-Hall and, as we see in the film, the condemned cell and execution chamber were torn apart. Even the grave sites were not spared. Drainage for the new toilets being built (this was the end of the notorious slop-out era) actually passed through the graves of the executed men. Indignity upon indignity heaped upon these pathetic corpses with each flush of the toilet. The graves had been marked with initials to denote where each of the murderers lay but these had been removed at some point as if to completely erase any trace of them. Frank knew exactly where each lay though and reeled them off one by one. He told me about the way the coffins were designed with a hinged flap over the face of the dead man. Once sealed in the coffin with quicklime scattered over him, Frank would open the flap and add water over the face of the executed prisoner to hasten the destruction of the body. The grave was then filled back in. One of the graves was forever sinking and had to be refilled with ashes from the boiler house on a regular basis. It was the grave of James Robertson, a former policeman who had run over and killed his lover in 1950. He was duly executed for the cold-blooded murder but it was as if his body was restless in the grave the way the tarmac kept on sinking down. In refilling the grave Frank told me that the body seemed to be miraculously well preserved and that somehow the quicklime designed to dissolve it had had the very opposite effect! The prisoners on that grave-filling detail were often terrified and were offered extra perks like cigarettes to make it a bit easier for them. To this very day that same grave is still sinking for some odd reason … the depression in the tarmac can be clearly seen in the film.

There were many stories that Frank related to me about his good friend Albert Pierrepoint, who he befriended during his time at Barlinnie Prison. Pierrepoint was the famous British state executioner at that time and conducted various executions throughout the entire United Kingdom. Frank kept up his friendship with Albert way after capital punishment was abolished and used to visit his pub in Manchester called ‘Help the Poor Struggler’. At his home in the west side of Edinburgh, Frank proudly showed me his various bits of execution related paraphernalia.

One of the prize exhibits was an engraved glass from the Albert’s pub. There was also an amazingly detailed scaled down model of the Delaware gallows which his retired carpenter friend and fellow execution enthusiast, Sudsy, had made for him. Frank showed me with great relish how this unique hanging apparatus would operate. It was obvious that he wanted more than mere models to play with and his real ambition was to be the British state executioner. He had contacted the British Home Office to put his name down as one of the persons willing to train as a state executioner should capital punishment come back. There was no way he’d be getting that job at the time I met him though as he’d already undergone a major operation and had a pig’s heart valve sewn into him. I felt guilty asking Frank to climb the rungs of the ladder into the beam room for a third take, I recall. He was happy to do it but breathless by the end! I thought how awful it would have been, and ironic, if he’d died within this space he loved so much.

But it seems that within the film Frank does fulfill the dual role of hangman and condemned man. The two aspects merged into one at the crowning moment as he puts the bag over his own head — a touch that I thought might be ridiculous at first but somehow does work quite well in the finished film.

Alas for Frank the calling to be a state executioner never came to happen and he died in 2008 from heart complications. Hanging with Frank will remain his legacy, however. A film as much a character study as it is a piece of history. [See more movie stills here -ed.]

I made this film with very little funding indeed and despite its receiving various accolades over the years the government funded film agency in Scotland at the time, The Scottish Film Council, refused to send it to film festivals as it was deemed distasteful. My work has frequently led me to being despised by the powers that be in the largely straight-laced documentary scene … I must be doing something right I suppose!

* Not to be confused with the last executed in Scotland full stop. Miller was the second-last in Scotland.

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Feast Day of St. Andrew

1 comment November 30th, 2014 Headsman

Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.

Now as he walked by the sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. And Jesus said unto them, Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men. And straightway they forsook their nets, and followed him.

-Mark 1:14-18

“Walks on the Water” by the Russian band Nautilus Pompilius
Translation from friend of the blog Sonechka; alternate version here

Apostle Andrew was fishing from a wharf.
While the Savior was walking on the water.
Andrew was pulling fishes from the sea,
While the Savior – fallen men.

Andrew cried out: “I will leave the wharf,
If you reveal the secret to me.”
And the Savior answered: “Be calm, Andrew.
There is no secret here.

“You see, yonder, on the mountain
Towers a cross,
Underneath are a dozen soldiers.
Hang on it for a while.
And when you get bored,
Return back here
To walk on the water with me.”

“But, Master, the helmets are adorned with glistening horns,
A black raven circles the cross.
Explain to me now, take pity on the fool,
And leave the crucifixion for later.”

The Messiah gasped and with ire
Stamped his foot on the smoothness of water.
“You are indeed a fool.” — And Andrew in tears
Shuffled off home with his fishes.

November 30 is the feast date of St. Andrew the Apostle, Christ‘s very first disciple along with his brother St. Peter.

Andrew gets pretty short shrift in the New Testament compared to his brother, even though the Gospel of John actually credits our man with being the first of the two boys to cotton to the Nazarene’s preaching.

Despite playing such a minor role in the sacred texts, he has a cultural footprint far in excess of fellow apostolic extras like Saint Bartholomew.

After the master’s crucifixion, Andrew is supposed to have preached in Turkey and Greece. Romanian and Kievan Rus’ traditions posit that he wandered even further north to make the first Christian inroads among their pagan forebears; as a consequence, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine are all among the countries that count Andrew as a patron saint, along with the place of his martyrdom, Greece.

The most recognizable such patronage, of course, is Scotland.

The story has it that a legendary Roman monk in the fourth century brought three fingers, an arm bone, a kneecap, and a tooth formerly comprising the saint from Patras, where Andrew died, to a monastery on the coast of Fife. The subsequent settlement has been known as St Andrews for over 800 years, so if you like that might make Andrew the patron saint of golf, too.**

Scotland’s flag, the ☓-shaped heraldic saltire pictured above, evokes Saint Andrew’s distinctive execution device, the aptly-named (and kink-friendly) St. Andrew’s Cross.

Like his brother’s physiologically improbable upside-down execution, this is supposed to have represented the disciple’s own unworthiness to die the same death as the Savior, and Roman executioners’ surprising accommodation of such scruples.


The Martyrdom of Saint Andrew, by Charles Le Brun (1646-1647).

St. Andrew’s Day is an official holiday in Scotland. In many other countries of central and Eastern Europe, the vigil preceding St. Andrew’s Day has long been associated with folk magic for divining the identity of an unmarried maid’s future husband.


Detail view (click for the full image) of Henryk Siemiradzki’s 1867 painting Siemiradzki Noc-Andrzeja.

Andre, Andrei, or Andreas are equivalents; it’s thanks to a November 30 christening that San Andreas Lake got its name, and in turn conferred same on the associated continental fault that keeps Californians employed making disaster movies about their own selves going the way of Atlantis.

* There is also an apocryphal Acts of Andrew, whose original text has been lost but is known in summation indirectly through other authors. It is thought to date to the third century.

** It was Archbishop James Hamilton — later executed — who gave the residents of St Andrews standing access to golf’s Holiest of Holies, the Old Course at St Andrews.

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