Posts filed under 'Arts and Literature'

1939: Robert Nixon, Richard Wright inspiration

Add comment June 16th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1939, Illinois electrocuted Robert Nixon for bashing Florence Johnson to death with a brick as he burgled her Chicago home.*


The Chicago Tribune‘s Family Circus-esque May 28, 1938 illustration of the crime scene.

Nixon’s fingerprints would also link him to three previous rape-murders in California; separately, he admitted raping and killing Illinois nursing student Anna Kuchta in 1937, although he would also argue that Chicago police tortured the confessions from his lips.

Crudely nicknamed the “Brick Moron”, Nixon was vilified in shockingly racist terms by a hostile press.

This Chicago Tribune article is one of the worst exemplars and is only the start of a much longer piece in the same vein but even straight-news bulletins routinely went with a casual “savage colored rapist” label. His possible developmental disability (“moron” …) was generally cast not as any sort of mitigating consideration but as the indicator of a superpredator: “It has been demonstrated here that nothing can be done with Robert Nixon,” the sheriff of the Louisiana town where he grew up wrote to Chicago. “Only death can cure him.”

Richard Wright allegedly mined the commentary on Nixon to inform his classic novel Native Son, which hit print the next year … and sees its lead character Bigger Thomas die in the Illinois electric chair.

* It was supposed to be a triple execution but late reprieves spared Steve Cygan and Charles Price, both murderers in unrelated cases.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Illinois,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Theft,USA

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Feast Day of St. Barnabas

1 comment June 11th, 2017 Headsman

June 11 is the feast date of St. Barnabas, St. Paul‘s New Testament wingman.

A Cypriot Jew named Joseph, “Barnabas” (“Son of Encouragement”) was so christened in the fourth chapter of the New Testament’s Acts of the Apostles because upon his conversion he sold his land for a donative to the Galileans.

After that, Barnabas reappears throughout Acts as one of the most important of the early Christian missionaries, usually joining St. Paul — whom Barnabas himself introduced to the Christians after Paul got religion — as emissary to the non-Jews, for which purpose the Holy Spirit itself demanded him by name. (Acts 13:2: “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”)

They’re frequently paired thereafter in the narrative although it’s invariably Saint Paul’s honeyed tongue that does the confounding before the companions flee this city or that ahead of a furious mob.* Evidently the Holy Spirit’s labor policies could have used some updating: Barnabas also features in a whinge by Paul in 1 Corinthians 9 against the excess sacrifices the Jesus sect is exacting from its most successful envoys, who get no wages and no sex and (so it seems) have to hustle side jobs to keep up their proselytizing.

Don’t we have the right to food and drink? Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas [St. Peter]? Or is it only I and Barnabas who lack the right to not work for a living?

Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink the milk? … whoever plows and threshes should be able to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest. If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more?

But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.

Barnabas eventually parted ways with Paul, proceeding to Cyprus with the mysterious John Mark (possibly Mark the evangelist, author of the Gospel, or possibly a different guy) where hagiography holds that Jews angered by his preaching fell on Barnabas and stoned him to death, perhaps around the year 61.

Although obviously a consequential figure in early Christianity, Barnabas’s many Biblical appearances do not capture his voice. The apocrypha preserves at least two tracts** further animating this important character: the Epistle of Barnabas dating to the late first century or early second century; and, the Acts of Barnabas, a 5th century creation which purports to arise from the hand of John Mark and describes a martyrdom by fire, not stone:

And Barjesus, having arrived after two days, after not a few Jews had been instructed, was enraged, and brought together all the multitude of the Jews; and they having laid hold of Barnabas, wished to hand him over to Hypatius, the governor of Salamis. And having bound him to take him away to the governor, and a pious Jebusite, a kinsman of Nero, having count to Cyprus, the Jews, learning this, took Barnabas by night, and bound him with a rope by the neck; and having dragged him to the hippodrome from the synagogue, and having gone out of the city, standing round him, they burned him with fire, so that even his bones became dust. And straightway that night, having taken his dust, they cast it into a cloth; and having se cured it with lead. they intended to throw it into the sea. But I, finding an opportunity in the night, and being able along with Timon and Rhodon to carry it, we came to a certain place, and having found a cave, put it down there, where the nation of the Jebusites formerly dwelt. And having found a secret place in it, we put it away, with the documents which he had received from Matthew. And it was the fourth hour of the night of the second of the week.

Because June 11 formerly fell on/near Midsummer, ere the Gregorian reforms skipped the calendar 10-11 days forward, St. Barnabas’s Day has a festive agrarian history commemorated by the proverb, “Barnaby bright, Barnaby bright, the longest day and the shortest night.” The saint is also the patron of Cyprus, and may be invoked to protect against hailstorms or in service of peacemaking. Numerous schools, churches, and monasteries around the world bear his name.

* There’s a comic touch to their preaching travails, too: in one exciting episode (Acts 14), Paul (of course) heals a cripple while the dynamic duo preaches in Lystra, leading excited witnesses to take them for Hermes and Zeus and start sacrificing to them.


No tips, please: Paul and Barnabas refusing the sacrifices of Lystrans in this detail (click for the full image) of a 1650 painting by Nicolaes Berchem.

** Beyond the Epistle and the Acts, there is also a very much later Gospel of Barnabas.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Burned,Cyprus,Disfavored Minorities,God,History,Lynching,Martyrs,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Stoned,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates

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1730: Sally Bassett, Bermuda slave

Add comment June 6th, 2017 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

Perhaps on this day in 1730,* an elderly mulatto slave named Sarah or Sally Bassett was burned at the stake for attempted murder in the British Caribbean colony of Bermuda.

Sally was the property of Thomas Forster, as was her granddaughter, Beck. (Thomas Forster was the grandson of Josias Forster, who was governor of Bermuda from 1642 to 1643.) The Forster family lived in Sandys Parish.

Being so old, Sally wasn’t worth much: her value was appraised at one pound, four shillings and sixpence, or about $160 in modern U.S. currency. She also had the reputation of a troublemaker: in 1713, for example, she was whipped the length of Southampton Parish after being accused of threats, property damage and killing livestock.

On December 18, 1729, Sally allegedly gave two bags of poison, said to be “white toade”** and “manchineel root”, to her granddaughter, Beck, and told her to poison Thomas, his wife Sarah, and Nancey, another slave in the Forster household.

Beck slipped a dose into the master and mistress’s food, “where if her Mistress did but smell on’t twould poison her.” She put the rest of the poison in the kitchen door, where Nancey found it and “by only looking at it ye said. Nancey was poyson’d.” (Quotes are as cited in Slaves and Slaveholders in Bermuda, 1616-1782.)

Sally was not arrested and charged with the crime until June 2, nearly six months later. The victims were all still “sick and Lye in a very Languishing and dangerous Condition,” but Sarah Forster was at least well enough to drag herself out of her sickbed and testify against her slaves.

Beck was acquitted but Sally, “not having the fear of God before her Eyes, Butt being moved and seduced by ye Instigation of the Devil,” was convicted of petit treason for her attempt on her master and mistress’s lives.

Although she maintained her innocence, she was sentenced to death.

Barefoot, wearing only pants and a loose blouse, on the way to the place of execution Sally is said to have looked at the crowds rushing to see the show and quipped, “No use you hurrying folks, there’ll be no fun ’til I get there!” When she looked at the logs waiting to fuel the fire she supposedly said, “Ain’t they darlin’?”

She was burned alive on an unusually hot day, in public, either on an island off Southampton Parish or at Crow Lane at the east end of Hamilton Harbor. After her death a purple Bermudiana, Bermuda’s official flower, is reputed to have grown in the ashes. Days later, Bermuda enacted new laws to tighten control of the “many heinous and grievous Crimes as of that Secret and barbarous way of Murdering by Poison and other Murders … many times Committed by negroes and other Slaves and many times malitiously attempted by them.”

Sally’s death has passed on into legend and is considered part of Bermuda’s cultural heritage. Even today, nearly three hundred years later, a very hot day in Bermuda is sometimes called a Sally Basset day. In 2009, a ten-foot statue of Sally was dedicated at the Cabinet Office grounds in Hamilton, the first time in Bermuda that a slave was so memorialized.

* There are some shouts for June 21, 1730. If there is an authoritative primary document establishing the execution date with certainty, we have not been able to unearth it.

** The involvement of white toad, as historian Justin Pope observes, points — alarmingly for 18th century white Bermudians; intriguingly for posterity — to transatlantic black (in multiple senses) economies.

There were no indigenous white toads in Bermuda. However, as noted by the Bermudian historian Clarence Maxwell, poisonous toads were used in ceremonies among Akan speaking peoples in the tropical forests of West Africa and carried into the voudou traditions of San Domingue.

… If there really was a white toad used in the Bermuda poisoning conspiracy, then it was almost certainly brought to the colony by a slave mariner who believed he was arming a spiritual practitioner against her enemies. It was not something that Sarah Bassett could have asked for lightly. The person who purchased the item would have easily been able to discover, or at least suspect, its usage. Whoever carried it had to be trusted. The toad would have had to been captured or cultivated in the tropical forests of West Africa or northern South America, purchased in the slave markets of towns like Paramaraibo, on the Surinam River of Dutch Guyana, or in the markets of Elmina, on the southern coast of West Africa. We can only surmise the origins of the poisonous toad, yet its very presence on the island of Bermuda suggests a trade in poisons, betweens slave societies and through the hands of black mariners.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Attempted Murder,Bermuda,Burned,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Famous,Gallows Humor,Guest Writers,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,Women

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1621: John Rowse, unnatural father

Add comment June 2nd, 2017 John Taylor

(Thanks for the guest post to Thames boatman and picaresque pamphleteer John Taylor, the self-described “Water Poet”. Taylor has a minor cottage industry of social historians devoted to his varied output, like one of the first credited palindromes, “Lewd did I live, & evil I did dwel” … which would exactly suit John Rowse, the early modern sybarite turned murderer whom the Water Poet favored with the prose below, under the original title of “The Unnatural Father.” We’ve filled in wiktionary links to some of the more interesting archaic usages here; for the writer’s rich supply of loose-women synonyms please consult the Dungeons & Dragons random harlot table. — ed.)

As a chain consists of divers links, and every link depends, and is invoked upon one another, even so our sins, being the chain wherewith Satan doth bind and manacle us, are so knit, twisted, and soldered together, that without our firm faith ascending, and God’s grace descending, we can never be freed from those infernal fetters; for sloth is linked with drunkenness, drunkenness with fornication and adultery, and adultery with murder, and so of all the rest of the temptations, suggestions, and actions, wherewith miserable men and women are insnared and led captive into perpetual perdition, except the mercy of our gracious God be our defence and safeguard.

For a lamentable example of the devil’s malice, and man’s misery; this party, of whom I treat at this time, was a wretch, not to be matched, a fellow not to be fellowed, and one that scarce hath an equal, for matchless misery, and unnatural murder. But to the matter.

This John Rowse being a fishmonger in London, gave over his trade and lived altogether in the town of Ewell, near Nonsuch, in the county of Surrey, ten miles from London, where he had land of his own for himself and his heirs for ever to the valne of fifty pounds a year, with which he lived in good and honest fashion, being well reputed of all his neighbours, and in good estimation with gentlemen and others that dwelt in the adjoining villages.

Until at the last he married a very honest and comely woman, with whom he lived quietly and in good fashion some six months, till the devil sent an instrument of his to disturb their matrimonial happiness; for they wanting a maidservant, did entertain into their house a wench, whose name was Jane Blundell, who in short time was better acquainted with her master’s bed than honesty required, which in time was found out and known by her mistress, and brake the peace, in such sort, between the said Rowse and his wife, that in the end, after two year’s continuance, it brake the poor woman’s heart, that she died and left her husband a widower, where he and his whore were the more free to use their cursed contentments, and ungodly embracements.

Yet that estate of being unmarried, was displeasing to him, so that he took to wife another woman, who for her outward feature, and inward qualities was every way fit for a very honest man, although it were her hard fortune to match otherwise.

With this last wife of his he lived much discontented, by reason of his keeping his lewd trull in his house, so that by his daily riot, excessive drinking and unproportionable spending, his estate began to be much impoverished, much of his land mortgaged and forfeited, himself above two hundred pounds indebted, and in process of time to be, as a lewd liver, of all his honest neighbours rejected and contemned.

His estate and credit being almost past recovery wasted and impaired, he forsook his wife, came up to London with his wench, where he fell into a new league with a corrupted friend; who, as he said, did most courteously cozen him of all that ever he had, and whom at this time I forbear to name, because it was John Rowse his request before his execution, that he should not be named in any book or ballad, but yet upon a die his name may be picked out betwixt a Cinq and a Trois. This false friend of his, as he said, did persuade him to leave his wife for altogether, and did lodge and board him and his paramour certain weeks in his house, and afterward caused him and her to be lodged, having changed his name, as man and wife in an honest man’s house near Bishops-gate, at Bevis Marks.

Where they continued so long, till his money was gone, as indeed he never had much; but now and then small petty sums from his secret friend aforesaid, and he being fearful to be smooked out by his creditors, was counselled to leave his country and depart for Ireland. And before his going over sea, his friend wrought so, that all his land was made over in trust to him, and bonds, covenants, and leases made, as fully bought and sold for a sum of two hundred and threescore pounds. Of all which money the said Rowse did take the Sacrament at his death, that he never did receive one penny, but he said now and then he had five or ten shillings at a time from his said friend, and never above twenty shillings. And all that ever he had of him, being summed together, was not above three and twenty pounds, the which moneys his friend did pay himself out of his rents. But some more friend to him, than he was to himself, did doubt that he was cheated of his land; whereupon, to make all sure, he said that his false friend did so far prevail with him, that he the said Rowse took an oath in the open court at Westminster Hall, that he had lawfully sold his land, and had received the sum above said, in full satisfaction and payment, and his said friend did vow and protest many times unto him, with such oaths, and vehement curses, that he never would deceive his trust, but that at any time when he would command all those forged bonds and leases, that he would surrender them unto him, and that he should never be damnified by them or him, to the value of one half penny. Upon which protestations, he said, he was enticed to undo himself out of all his earthly possessions, and by a false oath to make hazard of his inheritance in heaven.

In Ireland he staid not long, but came over again, and was by his friend persuaded to go into the low countries; which he did, never minding his wife and two small children which he had by her, having likewise a brace of bastards by his whore, as some say, but he said that but one of them was of his begetting. But he, after some stay in Holland, saw that he could not fadge there, according to his desire and withal, suspecting that he was cheated of his land, and above all, much perplexed in his conscience for the false oath that he had taken, pondering his miserable estate, and rueing his unkindness to his wife, and unnatural dealing to his children, thinking with himself what course were best to take to help himself out of so many miseries which did incompass him, he came over again into England to his too dear friend, demanding of him his bonds and leases of his land which he had put him in trust withal. But then his friend did manifest himself what he was, and told him plainly, that he had no writings, nor any land of his, but what he had dearly bought and paid for. All which, Rowse replied unto him, was false, as his own conscience knew. Then said the other, have I not here in my custody your hand and seal to confirm my lawful possession of your land? and moreover, have I not a record of an oath in open court, which you took concerning the truth of all our bargain? And seeing that I have all these especial points of the law, as an oath, indentures, and a sure possession, take what course you will, for I am resolved to hold what I have.

These, or the like words, in effect passed betwixt Rowse and his friend, trusty Roger, which entering at his ears, pierced his heart like daggers; and being out of money and credit, a man much infamous for his bad life, indebted beyond all possible means of payment, a perjured wretch to cozen himself, having no place or means to feed or lodge, and fearful of being arrested, having so much abused his wife, and so little regarded his children, being now brought to the pit’s brim of desperation, not knowing amongst these calamities which way to turn himself, he resolved at last to go home to Ewell again to his much wronged wife for his last refuge in extremity.

The poor woman received him with joy, and his children with all gladness welcomed home the prodigal father, with whom he remained in much discontentment and perplexity of mind. The devil still tempting him to mischief and despair, putting him in mind of his former better estate, comparing pleasures past with present miseries; and he revolving that he had been a man in that town, had been a gentleman’s companion of good reputation and calling, that he had friends, lands, money, apparel, and credit, with means sufficient to have left for the maintenance of his family, and that now he had nothing left him but poverty and beggary, and that his two children were like to be left to go from door to door for their living.

Being thus tormented and tossed with restless imaginations, he seeing daily to his further grief, the poor case of his children, and fearing that worse would befall them hereafter, he resolved to work some means to take away their languishing lives by a speedy and untimely death, the which practice of his, by the devil’s instigation and assistance, he effected as followeth.

To be sure that nobody should stop or prevent his devilish enterprise, he sent his wife to London on a frivolous errand for a riding coat; and she being gone somewhat timely and too soon in the morning, both her children being in bed and fast asleep, being two very pretty girls, one of the age of six years, and the other four years old, none being in the house but themselves, their unfortunate father and his ghostly counsellor, the doors being fast locked; he having an excellent spring of water in the cellar of his house, which to a good mind that would have employed it well would have been a blessing, for the water is that of crystalline purity and clearness, that Queen Elizabeth of famous memory would daily send for it for her own use, in which he purposed to drown his poor innocent children sleeping. For he going into the chamber where they lay, took the youngest of them named Elizabeth forth of her bed and carried her down the stairs into his cellar, and there put her in the spring of water, holding down her head under that pure element with his hands, till at last the poor harmless soul and body parted one from another.

Which first act of this his inhuman tragedy being ended, he carried the dead corpse up three pair of stairs, and laying it down on the floor, left it, and went down into the chamber where his other daughter named Mary was in bed; being newly awakened, and seeing her father, demanded of him where her sister was? To whom he made answer that he would bring her where she was. So taking her in his arms he carried her down towards the cellar, and as he was on the cellar stairs she asked him what he would do, and whither he would carry her? Fear nothing, my child, quoth he, I will bring thee up again presently; and being come to the spring, as before he had done with the other, so he performed the last unfatherly deed upon her; and to be as good as his word, carried her up the stairs and laid her by her sister. That done, he laid them out and covered them both with a sheet, walking up and down his house weeping and lamenting his own misery and his friend’s treachery, that was the main ground of all his misfortunes and the death of his children; and though there was time and opportunity enough for him to fly, and to seek for safety, yet the burthen and guilt of his conscience was so heavy to him, and his desperate case was so extreme, that he never offered to depart, but as a man weary of his life, would, and did stay, till such time as ho was apprehended and sent to prison, where he lay till he was rewarded with a just deserved death.

What his other intents were after be had drowned his children is uncertain, for he drew his sword and laid it naked on a table, and after he gat a poor woman down into the cellar, and in the same place where the two infants lost their lives, he did help the woman to wring a buck of his clothes, and then he requested her to help to convey his goods out of his house, for he said that be feared that the sheriff of Surrey would come and seize upon all. But the woman not thinking of any of the harm that was done, imagined that he had meant that his goods would be seized for debt and not for murder.

But to return to the miserable mother of the murdered children, she said that her heart throbbed all the day, as fore-boding some heavy mischance to come; and having done her business that she came about to London, as soon as she came home she asked for her children, to whom her husband answered that they were at a neighbour’s house in the town. Then said she, I will go thither to fetch them home. No, quoth he, I will go myself presently for them. Then said his wife, let the poor woman that is here go and bring them home. But at last she saw such delay was used, she was going herself, then her husband told her that he had sent them to a kinsman’s of his at a village called Sutton, four miles from Ewell, and that he provided well for them, and prayed her to be contented and fear nothing for they were well. These double tales of his made her to doubt somewhat was amiss, therefore she entreated him for God’s sake to tell her truly where they were. Whereupon he said, “If you will needs know where they are, go but up the stairs into such a chamber and there you shall find them. But in what a lamentable perplexity of mind the poor woman was when she perceived how and which way they lost their lives, any Christian that hath an heart of flesh may imagine. Presently the constable was sent for, who took him into his custody, who amongst other talk, demanded of him why and how he could commit so unnatural a fact as to murder his children? To whom he answered that he did it because he was not able to keep them, and that he was loth they should go about the town a begging; and moreover, that they were his own, and being so, that he might do what he would with them, and that they had their lives from him, and therefore he had taken their lives from them, and was contented to lose his life for them; for he was sure that their miseries were past, and for his part, he had an assured hope to go to them, though they could not come to him.

So being had before justice his examination was very brief, for he confessed all the whole circumstances of the matter freely, so that he was sent to the common prison of Surrey called the White Lion, where he remained fourteen or fifteen weeks a wonderful penitent prisoner, never, or very seldom, being without a bible or some other good book meditating upon; and when any one did but mention his children, he would fetch a deep sigh and weep, desiring every one to pray for him; and upon his own earnest request, he was prayed for at Paul’s Cross, and at most of the churches in London, and at many in the country, and at the Sessions holden at Croydon the latter end of June last. He made such free confession at the bar, declaring the manner of his life, his odious drinking, his abominable whoring, his cruel murder, and the false dealing of his deceitful friend, which was the cause of his final wreck, with which relations of his pronounced with such vehemency and protestations, he moved all that heard him to commiseration and pity.

So according to law and justice, he was there condemned and judged for the murdering of his two children to be hanged; which judgment was executed on him at the common gallows at Croydon, on Monday the second day of June, 1621, where he died with great penitency and remorse of conscience.

This was the lamentable end of John Rowse, a man of the age of fifty years, and one that might have lived and died in better fashion, if he had laid hold on the grace of heaven, and craved God’s protection and fatherly assistance. But of all that herein is declared, this one thing which I now declare, is most lamentable and remarkable, which is that Ewell being a market town not much above ten miles from London, in a Christian kingdom, and such a kingdom where the all-saving Word of the ever-living God is most diligently, sincerely, and plentifully preached; and yet amidst this diligence, as it were in the circle or centre of his sincerity, and in the flood of this plenty, the town of Ewell hath neither preacher nor pastor. For although the parsonage be able to maintain a sufficient preacher, yet the living being in a layman’s hand, is rented out to another for a great sum, and yet no preacher maintained there. Now the chief landlord out of his portion doth allow but seven pounds yearly for a reader, and the other that doth hire the parsonage at a great rent doth give the said reader four pounds the year more out of his means and courtesy. And by this means the town is served with a poor old man that is half blind, and by reason of his age can scarcely read. For all the world knows that so small a stipend cannot find a good preacher, books, and very hardly bread to live on; so that the poor souls dwelling there are in danger of famishing for want of a good preacher to break the Bread of Life unto them. For a sermon amongst them is as rare as warm weather in December or ice in July; both which I have seen in England though but seldom.

And as the wolf is most bold with the sheep when there is either no shepherd or an impotent, insufficient one, so the devil perhaps took his advantage of this wretched man, seeing he was so badly guarded and so weakly guided to withstand his force and malice; for where God is least known and called upon, there Satan hath most power and domination. But howsoever, I wish with all my heart, that that town and many more were better provided than they are, and then such numbers of souls would not be in hazard to perish; nor so many sufficient scholars that can preach and teach well, live in penury through want of maintenance. I could run further upon this point, but that I shortly purpose to touch it more to the quick in another book.

By this man’s fall we may see an example of God’s justice against drunkenness, whoredom and murder. The devil being the first author, who was a murderer from the beginning; who filled Cain with envy that he murdered his brother Abel; who tempted David first to adultery and afterwards to murder; who provoked Herod to cause the blessed servant of God, John Baptist, to lose his head, because he told him it was not lawful for him to marry his brother Philip’s wife; and who was the provoker of the aforesaid Herod to murder all the innocent male children in his kingdom. And let us but mark and consider the plagues and punishments that God hath inflicted upon murderers, adulterers, and incestuous persons. First Cain, although by his birth he was the first man that ever was born, a prince by his birth, and heir apparent to all the world, yet for the murder by him committed on his brother, he was the first vagabond and runagate on the face of the earth, almost fearful of his own shadow; and after he had lived a long time terrified in conscience, was himself slain, as is supposed, by Lamech, Simeon, and Levi. The sons of Jacob were accursed of their Father for the slaughter of the Sichemites; Joab, the captain of David’s host, was slain for the murdering of Abner; David himself, for the death of Urias and the adultery committed with Bethsheba, was continually plagued and vexed with the sword of war, with the rebellion of his own sons, and with the untimely deaths of Amnon and Absalom. Banuah and Rechab, for the slaying of Ishbosheth the son of Saul, they were both by David’s commandment put to death, who had both their hands and feet cut off, and were afterwards hanged over the Pool in Hebron, (Samuel 2. 4.) The examples are infinite out of divine and human histories, that God did never suffer murder to go unrewarded; and this miserable man, of whom I have here related, is a most manifest spectacle of God’s revenging vengeance for that crying and heinous sin.

As concerning lust and incontinency, it is a short pleasure bought with long pain, a honeyed poison, a gul of shame, a pickpurse, a breeder of diseases, a gall to the conscience, a corrosive to the heart, turning man’s wit into foolish madness, the body’s bane and the soul’s perdition. It is excessive in youth and odious in age, besides God himself doth denounce most fearful threats against fornicators and adulterers, as the apostle saith, that whoremongers and adulterers shall not inherit the kingdom of heaven, (1 Cor. 6. 9). And God himself saith, that he will be a swift witness against adulterers, (Mal. 3. 5). And the wise man saith, that because of the whorish woman, a man is brought to a morsel of bread, and a woman will hunt for the precious life of a man; for saith he, can a man take fire in his bosom, and his clothes not be burnt 1 or can a man go up on hot coals, and his feet not be burnt? So he that goeth into his neighbour’s wife, shall not be innocent, (Prov. 6, 27, 28, 29). Abimeleoh, one of the sons of Gideon, murdered three-score and ten of his brethren, and in reward thereof, by the just judgment of God, a woman with a piece of a millstone beat out his brains, after he had usurped the kmgdom three years (Judges 9th). Our English chronicles make mention that Roger Mortimer, Lord Baron of Wallingford, murdered his master, King Edward the second, and caused the King’s uncle, Edmund, Earl of Kent, causelessly to be beheaded; but God’s justice overtook him at last, so that for the said murders he was shamefully executed. Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, was murdered in the Abbey of Bury by William de la Poole, Duke of Suffolk, who afterwards was beheaded himself on the sea by a pirate. Arden of Faversham, and Page of Plymouth, both their murders are fresh in memory, and the fearful ends of their wives and their aiders in those bloody actions will never be forgotten.

It is too manifestly known what a number of stepmothers and strumpets have most inhumanly murdered their children, and for the same have most deservedly been executed. But in the memory of man, nor scarcely in any history, it is not to be found, that a father did ever take two innocent children out of their beds, and with weeping tears of pitiless pity and unmerciful mercy, to drown them, showing such compassionate cruelty and sorrowful sighing, remorseless remorse in that most unfatherly and unnatural deed.

All which may be attributed to the malice of the devil, whose will and endeavour is that none should be saved who lays out his traps and snares, entangling some with lust, some with covetousness, some with ambition, drunkenness, envy, murder, sloth or any vice whereto he sees a man or a woman most inclined unto, as he did by this wretched man lulling him, as it were, in the cradle of sensuality and ungodly delight, until such time as all his means, reputation, and credit was gone, and nothing left him but misery and reproach. Then he leads him along through doubts and fears to have no hope in God’s providence, persuading his conscience that his sins were unpardonable, and his estate and credit unrecoverable.

With these suggestions he led him on to despair, and in desperation to kill his children and make shipwreck of his own soul, in which the diligence of the devil appeareth, that he labours and travels incessantly; and as Saint Bernard saith, in the last day shall rise in condemnation against us, because he hath ever been more diligent to destroy souls than we have been to save them. And for a conclusion, let us beseech God of his infinite mercy to defend us from all the subtle temptations of Satan.


JOHN ROWSE his prayer for pardon of his lewd life, which he used to pray in the time of his imprisonment.

God of my soul and body, have mercy upon me; the one I have cast away by my folly, and the other is likely to perish in thy fury, unless in thy great mercy thou save it. Sly sins are deep seas to drown me; I am swallowed up in the bottomless gulf of my own transgressions. With Cain I have been a murderer, and with Judas a betrayer of the innocent. My body is a slave to Satan, and my wretched soul is devoured up by hell. Black have been my thoughts, and blacker are my deeds. I have been the devil’s instrument, and am now become the scorn of men; a serpent upon earth, and an outcast from heaven. What therefore can become of me, miserable caitiff? If I look to my Redeemer, to him I am an arch-traitor, if upon earth, it is drowned with blood of my shedding, if into hell, there I see my conscience burning in the brimstone lake. God of my soul and body have mercy therefore upon; save me, O save me, or else I perish for ever. I die for ever in the world to come, unless, sweet Lord, thou catchest my repentant soul in thine arms. O save me, save me, save me.


JOHN ROWSE of Ewell, his own arraignment, confession, condemnation, and judgment of himself whilst he lay prisoner in the White Lion, for drowning of his two children.

I am arraign’d at the black dreadful bar,
Where sins, so red as scarlet, judges are;
All my indictments are my horrid crimes,
Whose story will affright succeeding times,
As, now, they drive the present into wonder,
Making men tremble as trees struck with thunder.

If any asks what evidence comes in?
O ’tis my conscience, which hath ever been
A thousand witnesses: and now it tells
A tale, to cast me to ten thousand hells.

The jury are my thoughts, upright in this,
They sentence me to death for doing amiss:
Examinations more there need not then,
Than what’s confess’d here both to God and men.

That crier of the court is my black shame,
Which when it calls my jury doth proclaim,
Unless, as they are summon’d, they appear,
To give true verdict of the prisoner,
They shall have heavy fines upon them set,

Such, as may make them die deep in heaven’s debt;
About me round sit and innocence and truth,
As clerks to this high court; and little Ruth
From peoples eyes is cast upon my face,
Because my facts are barbarous, damn’d and base.

The officers that ’bout me, thick, are plac’d,
To guard me to my death, when I am cast,
Are the black stings my speckled soul now feels,
Which like to furies dog me, close at heels.
The hangman that attends me, is despair,
And gnawing worms my fellow-prisoners are.

His Indictment for Murder of his Children.

The first who, at this Sessions, loud doth call me
Is murder, whose grim visage doth appal me;
His eyes are fires, his voice rough wind out-roars,
And on my head the Divine vengeance scores;
So fast and fearfully I sink to ground,
And wish I were in twenty oceans drownd.

He says, I have a bloody villain been,
And, to prove this, ripe evidence steps in,
Brow’d like myself, justice so brings about,
That black sins still hunt one another out;
‘Tis like a rotten frame ready to fall,
For one main post being shaken, pulls down all.

To this indictment, holding up my hand,
Fettered with terrors more than irons stand,
And being asked what to the bill I say,
Guilty, I cry. O dreadful Sessions day!

His Judgment

For these thick Stygian streams in which th’ast sworn,
Thy guilt hath on thee laid this bitter doom;
Thy loath’d life on a tree of shame must take
A leave compelled by law, e’er old age make
Her signed pass-port ready. Thy offence
No longer can for days on earth dispense.
Time blot thy name out of this bloody roll,
And so the Lord have mercy on my soul.

His speech what he could say for himself.

O wretched caitiff! what persuasive breath,
Can call back this just sentence of quick death?
I beg no boon, but mercy at God’s hands,
The King of Kings, the Sovereign that commands
Both soul and body, O let him forgive
My treason to his throne, and whilst I live,
Jibbets and racks shall torture limb by limb,
Through worlds of deaths I’ll break to fly to him.
My birth-day gave not to my mother’s womb,
More ease, than this shall joys, whene’er it come.
My body mould to earth, sins sink to hell,
My penitent soul win heaven, vain world farewell.

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1755: Louis Mandrin

Add comment May 26th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1755, the French outlaw Louis Mandrin was broken on the wheel.

In common with the whole French populace, Mandrin had a beef with the Ferme general — the country’s tax-farming concern — but Mandrin was the one who did something about it.

Specifically, he built a vast smuggling network in the 1750s that all along a vast north-south corridor from Burgundy to Savoy moved tobacco, cotton, and everything else the farm wanted to harvest — scoring political points along the way by thrashing the tax collectors whenever possible. It’s said that he took pains to have his merry contrabanders stay out of the violence business, unless they had the opportunity to direct it at the revenue men.

In the end, the Farmers General — a wealthy consortium that would one day soon commission a chunk of Paris’s city walls — provoked an international incident by illegally raiding Savoy to capture him, then having him tried and executed with speed to forestall any possibility of his return being negotiated.

But the popular bandit entered the popular culture where he has long outlived the rapacious Farmers; he’s been the subject of multiple film treatments, most recently in 2011, and the pensive folk song “La complainte de Mandrin” still today maintains its currency.

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Feast Day of St. Victor and St. Corona

Add comment May 14th, 2017 Headsman

May 14 is the feast date of St. Victor, a Christian Roman soldier and his co-religionist and possible spouse Corona. Both the city and the century (and therefore the reality) of their passion are uncertain.

For the believer, what these martyrs lack in firm historicity they make up for in practical effect.

Corona chanced to become associated by medieval times with money — possibly the coincidence of her name, meaning crown,* with the sigils on coins — and thus she got wrapped up into a variety of pecuniary prayers and incantations. Strictly unofficial stuff from Rome’s standpoint, you understand: treasure-hunting, lotteries, wagering, and other fond fantasies of unearned windfalls.

The solemn devout might laugh, but “dear god, give me some stuff” comprises an underrated share of popular theology. J. Dillinger cites this charmer in Magical Treasure Hunting in Europe and North America: A History, dating to 1794 Austria:

Virgin and martyr Corona, I, a poor sinner, ask you to remember your great mercy and honour and your control over the treasures of the world and whoever asks you in the name of Jesus Christ your dear bridegroom, in his name you have power to give worldly goods to me, a poor and needy person, so I beg you with all of my humble heart, oh virgin and martyr Corona relief [sic] me from my needs and my poverty by giving me 50000 florins of good gold for the salvation of my soul through the redemption of my need body.

This enchantment needs to be added to the web’s supply of money-drawing rituals.

Because engaging such supernatural entities was a frightful venture for the petitioner, be he ever so humble, the prayer amusingly contains an equally elaborate chant for dismissing Saint Moneybags after she has paid up.

Now go away in the peace of God, which shall be between you and me, go back to the place where you came from, the eternal peace of God shall be and shall stay forever between you and me, and you will come again, when I wish to see you. Now go away and be blessed, through God and his holy five wounds, and go away in the peace of God, and the blessing be between you and me and the mine. Amen.

* Her legend can be found attributed to St. Stephanie: like “Corona”, the name Stephanie means “crown”.

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1919: Rudolf Egelhofer, Bavarian Soviet commandante

Add comment May 3rd, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1919, the commandante of the “Red Army” of the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic was shot by the German soldiers and Freikorps that had just overrun the revolutionary republic.

The son of a pauper basketweaver, Rudolf Egelhofer enlisted in the navy in World War I and was involved in a naval revolt in the war’s closing days. Transplanting to Munich in the chaotic postwar environment, Egelhofer joined the Communist Party and became a fixture of the revolutionary movement; the socialist writer Oskar Maria Graf would record of Egelhofer’s stature at a parade that he stood “determined and sincere, in a sailor’s uniform, sometimes raising his fist. Those who heard him, had to believe in him.”

After a left-wing coup claimed Bavaria in early April, Egelhofer’s magnetism was entrusted with the impossible task of organizing an armed forces for the Soviet before Munich went the way of the Paris Commune. But the Bavarian Soviet was overwhelmed in less than a month.

In the first days of May, Egelhofer’s fate was shared by something like 700 supporters of the defeated Soviet.


The fierce “victim” dominates his executioner in Execution by Firing Squad of the Sailor Egelhofer, by Heinrich Ehmsen (1931). This is only the central panel of a triptych depicting the White storming of Red Munich; the piece is described in this post.

Ehmsen has a similar idea about relative stature at work in Execution by Firing Squad (Red Jacket) (1919).

Though little memorialized at the place of his glory and martyrdom — which fell on the western side of the Iron Curtain — numerous East Germany streets, public buildings, and naval vessels bore Egelhofer’s name in tribute during the Cold War.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Execution,Germany,History,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1691: William Macqueen, the Irish Teague

Add comment May 1st, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1691, 11 hanged publicly at Tyburn.

From the Ordinary’s Account they make a fairly typical, if voluminous, assortment: an infanticide, a drunken murderer, and thieves and highwaymen of various descriptions.

Two of these rude knights of the road were “William Selwood alias Jenkins, condemned with William Mackquean a Papist,” the latter also called “Bayley, alias the Irish Teague.” Condemned for robbery on the road, Macqueen confessed to having previously murdered a soldier in a similar encounter; they were “Old Offenders” who had previously “been Reprieved, but would not take warning.”

For the veteran robber Macqueen we have a fine instance of the facts-be-damned mythmaking characteristic of the early Newgate Calendar: his entry credits him with stealing the mace of the Lord Chancellor, an outrageous caper that different criminals really did pull off many years before. Not accidentally, our rewrite version from the Whig ascendancy also edits the identity of the Lord Chancellor involved, who perforce must seem ridiculous to have lost the emblem of his station in this manner — replacing the true victim, the moderate and forgettable Earl of Nottingham, with that hated late-Stuart bete noir (and notorious hanging judge), Lord Jeffreys.

The implicit parable of the Glorious Revolution is reinforced by what must surely be a fanciful vignette in which Macqueen mugs the Lady Auverquerque, the wife of one of the Dutch commanders who invaded England with William of Orange in 1688. Both parties involved are foreigners on English soil, and their awkwardness in that most naked transaction of gunpoint robbery has comedic effect. Presented with a confusingly veiled demand for a “loan,” the mistress seeks clarification: “I believe you had as good tell me at once you are come to rob me; for this is an odd way of borrowing.” Macqueen/Teague apologizes and manages crudely but effectively to the convey the point: “I am a stranger in this country, and so if I don’t know the difference between robbing and borrowing, you must excuse me; for all I mean is, to have your money.”

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1505: One Bolognese thief hanged, and another saved by Saint Nicholas

Add comment April 15th, 2017 Cherubino Ghirardacci

(Thanks to Augustinian friar Cherubino Ghirardacci for today’s guest post, from his History of Bologna. The Saint Nicholas in question for this picturesque vignette is not Santa Claus (though that figure’s real-life inspiration also had an averted execution to his hagiography) but the medieval mystic Saint Nicholas of Tolentino … a popular Italian saint who appears to have obtained an informal niche profile as the intercessor who would help a fellow survive a hanging: he had already been credited with saving a man wrongfully accused of murder who hung four days on the gallows in 14th century Aquila. -ed.)

It has happened in these days, that is to say on April 15, Tuesday, that two thieves have been hanged; one sixty years old and one about eighteen, and the execution took place on the usual spot, that is in the cattle market; and the minister of justice ordered that they should be left hanging upon the gallows until the usual hour, when the members of the Company of the Dead came to remove them for burial, and having taken down from the gibbet the old man and having placed him on the bier, they then deposed the youth, called Pietro Antonio of Bologna. He had been adopted by one who dwelt in the Borgo of San Pietro, and was already a novice of San Jacomo; this one was found alive and of so much vivacity it seemed as though he had been reposing on his bed asleep: but however with the neck injured, because the halter had entered into it, and had almost sawn through the throat.

The bystanders, marvelling much at this unusual sight, quickly had him carried to the Hospital to care for him; and there came a messenger from the Senate to see, and to hear everything that had happened; and Pietro Antonio said that he had been helped by the glorious saint Nicholas of Tolentino, to whom he had vowed, that if he escaped this opprobrious death, he would vest himself in his habit, and that he being on the gallows, the glorious St. Nicholas supported him by holding the soles of his feet in his hands. This was considered a marvellous miracle in the city, and every one ran to visit him and hear him discourse.

On Sunday, April 27, the Brothers of San Jacomo came in procession to the Hospital to fetch the above-mentioned Pietro Antonio and to conduct him to San Jacomo, and they pass together with the “Compagnia della Morte” behind San Petronio and before this church, and they go before the palace of the family Antiani, and below the “Madonna del Popolo”; and the condemned man is dressed in white with a black mantle, and with no cap on his head, and with the same halter round his neck with which he was hanged. When he reaches this spot, he falls on his knees and adores the Queen of Heaven, and wishing to rise, the simple women around tear off some of his clothes in devotional excitement; but being covered with another cape, he arrives at the church of San Jacopo, and there in the presence of all the city, the halter is taken from his neck and laid by him on the altar; and by the reverend prior of that said convent, Master Giovanni de Ripis, he was solemnly dressed in the Carmelite habit and called Brother Nicholas, in honour and reverence of St. Nicholas of Tolentino; and the ceremonies of vesting him being over, the friars meanwhile chanting the Te Deum Laudamus, he was presented by the said Prior to the very holy image of the glorious St. Nicholas, which is behind the choir in the chapel of St. Thomas Apostle and St. Nicholas, now called of the Madonna of Heaven, because when he made his vow he had in his mind this venerated image. Then he placed there his votive offering, his true portrait painted on canvas, and also the same halter with which he was hanged, the which things one may still see today in this said church.

He lived four years very devoutly, tending the sick; but then, tempted by the devil, he threw away his habit, and giving himself once more to thieving he was taken and hanged with the golden halter to the long balcony of the Podestà, and died for his sins.

The record of this miracle appears, with all the expenses, in an authentic book of 148 pages, in the Sacristy of these said monks, where are mentioned the sums spent on the procession, and miracle, and of the votive panel picture, which was made by master Ercolese, painter, and cost in all lire 3 and soldi 11.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Executions Survived,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Italy,Myths,Not Executed,Other Voices,Public Executions,The Supernatural,Theft

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1724: Sister Geltruda and Fra Romualdo, at a Palermo auto de fe

1 comment April 6th, 2017 Henry Charles Lea

(Thanks to Henry Charles Lea for the guest post, which first appeared in his The Inquisition in the Spanish Dependencies: Sicily – Naples – Sardinia – Milan – The Canaries – Mexico – Peru – New Granada. The Inquisition was abolished in Sicily in 1782, but an interesting Palermo museum preserves its artifacts. -ed.)

When, in 1718, Savoy exchanged Sicily with Austria for Sardinia, the Emperor Charles VI would not endure this dependence of the [Inquisition] tribunal upon a foreign power and procured, in 1720, from Clement XI a brief transferring the supremacy to Vienna. In accordance, however, with the persistent Hapsburg claims on the crown of Spain, the Inquisition remained Spanish. A supreme council for it was created in Vienna, with Juan Navarro, Bishop of Albarracin as chief who, although resident there gratified himself with the title of Inquisidor-general de Espana, but in 1723 he was succeeded by Cardinal Emeric, Archbishop of Kolocz.

Apparently it was deemed necessary to justify this elaborate machinery with a demonstration and, on April 6, 1724, an auto de fe was celebrated at Palermo with great splendor, the expenses being defrayed by the emperor.


Detail view (click for the full image) of a French print of the auto de fe.

Twenty-six delinquents were penanced, consisting as usual mostly of cases of blasphemy, bigamy and sorcery, but the spectacle would have been incomplete without concremation and two unfortunates, who had languished in prison since 1699, were brought out for that purpose. They were Geltruda, a beguine, and Fra Romualdo, a friar, accused of Quietism and Molinism, with the accompanying heresies of illuminism and impeccability. Their long imprisonment, with torture and ill-usage, seems to have turned their brains, and they had been condemned to relaxation as impenitent in 1705 and 1709, but the sentences had never been carried out and they were now brought from their dungeons and burnt alive.


Detail view (click for the full image) of an engraving, The Great Auto De Fe At Palermo Italy 6 April 1724

Less notable was an auto de fe of March 22, 1732, in which Antonio Canzoneri was burnt alive as a contumacious and relapsed heretic.

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