Posts filed under 'Arts and Literature'

1829: Matej Tatarka, outlaw

Add comment October 22nd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1829, the Slovak outlaw Matej Tatarka was hanged.

Tatarka — and most information about this character is in Slovak, as the links in the post will attest — was a brigand whose gang haunted the rugged wilds of the Tatras mountains straddling present-day northern Slovakia and southern Poland.

That was in the 1820s, a period when economic and political development in Europe were driving outlaws off the lands and into the wistful literature of a Romantic age. To consider an analogue: it was Ainsworth‘s 1834 novel Rookwood that elevated into myth the criminal career of Dick Turpin — a bandit who had hanged back in 1739.

Tatarka might have been the impetus for Slovakia’s simultaneous-to-Ainsworth recovery of its own hundred years’ dead knight of the road, Juraj Janosik.

Tatarka flashed into the emerging Slovak national consciousness in early 1829, when he escaped prison. Recaptured months later, the Habsburg empire’s sentence and execution of such a quaint figure could not fail to attract the interest of Slovak romanticists like Belopotcky, who helped circulate the fellow among artists by including Tatarka in his almanacs of Slovakian events.

It was so directly after the archaic Tatarka’s hanging that interest in Janosik revived in the 1830s that the causal inference is difficult to resist; Tatarka hanged at Liptovsky Mikulas in 1829 and the very next year a play about cheerful brigands opened in that same town. Poet Janko Kral, who celebrated Janosik in verse,* might have even witnessed Janosik’s hanging.

* Kral’s Vignettes of Janosik in turn influenced his contemporary Jan Botto, whose Song of Janosik is 19th century literature’s definitive elegy for the bygone social bandit — concluding (with thanks to Sonechka for the translation)

When they hang me, the rain will mourn me
The moon and stars will shine for me
The winds will murmur over me, and the Tatras will resound with,
“Flown are thy golden days!”

Once they’d fixed on Tatarka’s predecessor, these Slovak writers couldn’t get enough; here’s Botto’s Death of Janosik in a dramatic reading:

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Czechoslovakia,Death Penalty,Execution,Habsburg Realm,Hanged,History,Murder,Outlaws,Public Executions,Theft

Tags: , , , , , , ,

9: The Battle of Teutoburg Forest

Add comment September 11th, 2016 Headsman

Zum Kampf! Zum Kampf! from Max Bruch‘s 1877 oratorio about Teutoburg Forest victor Arminius. Also be sure to check out the Handel opera.

September 11 in the year 9 AD marked the bloody conclusion of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest — the engagement that permanently scared the Romans off Germany.

One of history’s true turning-point battles, Teutoberg Forest abruptly stanched decades of expansion that had seen Roman arms ascendant from Britain to the Levant. Indeed, the Roman commander who had the dishonor of falling on his sword at this legendary defeat, Publius Quinctilius Varus, was an experienced imperial patrician as well-traveled as the Roman standards who has been seen in these very pages collaborating with the Judean King Herod to execute Herod’s former heir.

But it was in the shadows and bogs of Germany’s primeval forests that Varus made his legacy to the world, which was to have his name famously bemoaned by facepalming Emperor Augustus once news of the disaster made its way back to the Eternal City.

Prior to this cataclysm, the empire had been working a years-long plan to annex fringe chunks of the vast Magna Germania beyond the Rhine and Danube rivers with its customary view towards eventually bossing the whole place. “Upper Germania” and “Lower Germania” to the west of Magna Germania already answered to Rome, testament to recent campaigns launched from neighboring Gaul;* the vast frontier beyond peopled by fractious warring barbarian tribes, with whom Rome cut strategic divide-and-conquer alliances, appeared to promise a future march of Roman glories all the way to the Baltic Sea.

This imperial hubris was shattered at a blow by the Cheruscan chief Arminius, who thereby made his name immortal to Germany.**

He had the element of surprise on his side, because his family had been such loyal Roman allies that Arminius had been trained up in the Roman army as a youth, and even held Roman citizenship. Whatever it was he experienced seems to have nurtured an implacable desire him to keep it away form his homeland. When the time came his familiarity with Roman military orders would be a high card in his hand, too.

Back in Germania, Arminius maintained his overt affiliation with Rome but started sending out feelers to assemble a confederation against the legions. He played this double game so adroitly that Varus still trusted his “ally” implicitly when Arminius reported a Germanic uprising that wanted Roman chastisement. Blind to his danger, Varus duly (and with casual discipline that would read very culpably in retrospect) marched his 17th, 18th, and 19th legions out through the unfamiliar glooms of the Teutoburg Forest.

It was a right massacre.

Their column broken up by rough terrain and pounding autumn rains, the Romans were ripe pickings for German sorties beginning on September 9. Harried by the Germans over two days’ panicked marching, the Romans were pressed into a dead end where palisades trapped the desperate legions at the edge of a slough and put them to slaughter. A bare handful escaped to tell the tale, and no future legion would bear the numerals of those annihilated on this day.

Varusschlacht, by Otto Albert Koch (1909).

The scale of the defeat, by rude tribesmen the empire always counted on being able to bully, beggared the Roman imagination.

“An army unexcelled in bravery, the first of Roman armies in discipline, in energy, and in experience in the field, through the negligence of its general, the perfidy of the enemy, and the unkindness of fortune was surrounded,” Paterculus lamented. “Hemmed in by forests and marshes and ambuscades, it was exterminated almost to a man by the very enemy whom it had always slaughtered like cattle, whose life or death had depended solely upon the wrath or the pity of the Romans.”

To judge by Roman reports — and what gives this event a purchase on the annals of Executed Today — the battlefield rout transitioned directly to the ceremonial butchery of captives. (As well as the posthumous beheading of the suicide Varus.) While some suffered torture and execution, others were offered as ritual sacrifices to the Germanic gods who had so magnificently delivered the day.

Several years later, a Roman force out to re-capture the lost standards of the Teutoburg legions reached the site of the empire’s humiliation. Tacitus describes the scene as a horror.

In the center of the field were the whitening bones of men, as they had fled, or stood their ground, strewn everywhere or piled in heaps. Near lay fragments of weapons and limbs of horses, and also human heads, prominently nailed to trunks of trees. In the adjacent groves were the barbarous altars, on which they had immolated tribunes and first-rank centurions.

Some survivors of the disaster who had escaped from the battle or from captivity, described how this was the spot where the officers fell, how yonder the eagles were captured, where Varus was pierced by his first wound, where too by the stroke of his own ill-starred hand he found for himself death. They pointed out too the raised ground from which Arminius had harangued his army, the number of gibbets for the captives, the pits for the living, and how in his exultation he insulted the standards and eagles.

And so the Roman army now on the spot, six years after the disaster, in grief and anger, began to bury the bones of the three legions, not a soldier knowing whether he was interring the relics of a relative or a stranger, but looking on all as kinsfolk and of their own blood, while their wrath rose higher than ever against the foe.

Despite the devastation, Teutoburg Forest was no extinction-level event for the Roman Empire. The Rhine and Danube frontiers remained an ongoing source of action for the many centuries to come, but despite raids and incursions here or there Rome never more seriously aspired to Magna Germania.

A few books about the Battle of Teutoburg Forest

* The future emperor Tiberius campaigned heavily in Germania, the last of which was post-Varus operations from 10 to 12 AD sufficient to permit the Romans to declare an honorably victorious conclusion to the project. (Tiberius celebrated a Triumph afterwards.)

** Arminius — whose name has been held equivalent with “Hermann” — has been the subject of many literary celebratins in a nationalist vein, great business especially in the 19th century.

The Hermannsdenkmal nomument in the Teutoburg Forest, the life’s labor of sculptor Ernst von Bandel who was able to finish it thanks to a mood of national exultation after the triumph of the Franco-Prussian War. For some reason it has a sister in Minnesota. ((cc) image by Hubert Berberich.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Cycle of Violence,Execution,Germany,History,Known But To God,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Put to the Sword,Roman Empire,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Torture,Uncertain Dates,Wartime Executions

Tags: , , , , , ,

1736: Captain John Porteous, riotously lynched

Add comment September 7th, 2016 Headsman

Hated Edinburgh gendarme Captain John Porteous was lynched on this date in 1736.

September 7 was the date of Porteous’s own scheduled hanging, for triggering a mob scene at a previous execution we have already visited: Porteous, commanding the guard detail at that hanging, reacted insaley when

some unlucky boys threw a stone or two at the hangman, which is very common, on which the brutal Porteous (who it seems had ordered his party to load their guns with ball) let drive first himself amongst the inocent mob and commanded his men to folow his example which quickly cleansed the street but left three men, a boy and a woman dead upon the spot, besides several others wounded, some of whom are dead since. After this first fire he took it in his head when half up the Bow to order annother voly & kill’d a taylor in a window three storys high, a young gentleman & a son of Mr Matheson the minister’s and several more were dangerously wounded and all this from no more provocation than what I told you before, the throwing of a stone or two that hurt no body.

Nowadays Porteous might cite officer safety and be back on the job in a week’s time. Edinburghers in 1736 gave their law enforcement a bit less latitude, and the city magistrates were obliged to box Porteous up in the Tolbooth lest a baying mob “would have torn him, Council and Guard all in pices.”

Five months remained to Mr. Porteous, a span in which he must have died a thousand deaths as he watched fortune toss his prospects to and fro from within his dungeon. The temper of the city would admit no other result than his conviction and death sentence but officers of the law have strings to pull with the state their muskets uphold. With King George II out of hand,* Queen Caroline granted Porteous a reprieve (not yet an outright clemency) from an intended September 8 date with his own hangman. That intervention was soon overruled by a higher sovereign, for as the Newgate Calendar puts it, “when the populace were informed, such a scheme of revenge was meditated as is perhaps unprecedented.” This was no sudden spasm of public rage; five calculating days had elapsed from the arrival to Edinburgh of the queen’s mercy when

On the 7th of September, 1736, between nine and ten in the evening, a large body of men entered the city of Edinburgh, and seized the arms belonging to the guard; they then patrolled the streets, crying out, ‘All those who dare avenge innocent blood, let them come here.’ They then shut the gates and placed guards at each.

Illustration of the Porteous mob, from Sir Walter Scott’s Heart of Midlothian — which dramatizes the lynching.

The main body of the mob, all disguised, marched in the mean time to the prison; when finding some difficulty in breaking open the doors with hammers, they immediately set fire to it; taking great care that the flames should not spread beyond their proper bounds. The outer door was hardly consumed before they rushed in, and, ordering the keeper to open the door of the captain’s apartment, cried out, ‘Where is the villain, Porteous?’ He replied, ‘Here I am, what do you want with me?’ To which they answered, that they meant to hang him in the Grass Market, the place where he had shed so much innocent blood.

His expostulations were all in vain, they seized him by the legs and arms, and dragged him instantly to the place of execution.

On their arrival, they broke open a shop to find a rope suitable to their purpose, which they immediately fixed round his neck, then throwing the other end over a dyer’s pole, hoisted him up; when he, endeavouring to save himself, fixed his hands between the halter and his neck, which being observed by some of the mob, one of them struck him with an axe, which obliging him to quit his hold, they soon put an end to his life.

When they were satisfied he was dead they immediately dispersed to their several habitations, unmolested themselves, and without molesting anyone else.

Such was the fate of Captain John Porteous, a man possessed of qualifications which, had they been properly applied, might have rendered him an honourable and useful servant of his country. His undaunted spirit and invincible courage would have done honour to the greatest hero of antiquity. But being advanced to power, he became intoxicated with pride, and instead of being the admiration of his fellow citizens, he was detested and hated by all who knew him. The fate of this unhappy man, it is hoped, will he a caution to those who are in power not to abuse it; but, by a humane as well as diligent discharge of their duty, to render themselves worthy members of society.

Porteous did get a solemn memorial stone in Greyfriars Kirkyard once passions cooled … 237 years later.

(cc) image from Kio Stark.

* The Hanoverian king spent most of 1736 away taking a visit (quite unpopular with his English subjects) back to the family’s namesake German principality, which George II also ruled in a personal union.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Lynching,Murder,Pardons and Clemencies,Public Executions,Rioting,Scotland

Tags: , , , , ,

1672: Not Cornelius van Baerle, tulip-fancier

Add comment August 23rd, 2016 Alexandre Dumas

For this date’s post we welcome back to Executed Today the prolific pen of Alexandre Dumas, here working on the “fictional” side of his familiar historical fiction genre.

Dumas’s novel The Black Tulip (La Tulipe Noire) begins with the very real Aug. 20, 1672 lynching of Dutch statesmen Cornelis and Johann de Witt, and from that point unfolds the story of a fictional godson, Cornelius van Baerle — whose green thumb will nurture the titular flower along with a love for the jailer’s daughter Rosa. (To the very great wrath of van Baerle’s neighbor and murderous rival gardener, Isaac Boxtel.)

Dumas has already sown both seeds when he dates his narrative via van Baerle’s will, written when the fictional main character is in danger of succumbing to the same cataclysm that swallowed up his godfather: already smitten with Rosa, he purposes to bequeath her the bulbs, whose rare product will be worth a bounty.

On this day, the 23d of August, 1672, being on the point of rendering, although innocent, my soul to God on the scaffold, I bequeath to Rosa Gryphus the only worldly goods which remain to me of all that I have possessed in this world, the rest having been confiscated; I bequeath, I say, to Rosa Gryphus three bulbs, which I am convinced must produce, in the next May, the Grand Black Tulip for which a prize of a hundred thousand guilders has been offered by the Haarlem Society, requesting that she may be paid the same sum in my stead, as my sole heiress, under the only condition of her marrying a respectable young man of about my age, who loves her, and whom she loves, and of her giving the black tulip, which will constitute a new species, the name of Rosa Barlaensis, that is to say, hers and mine combined.

So may God grant me mercy, and to her health and long life!

Cornelius van Baerle.

And having done this, van Baerle is escorted directly to the scaffold, where we pick up Dumas’s narrative courtesy of

Chapter 12: The Execution

Cornelius had not three hundred paces to walk outside the prison to reach the foot of the scaffold. At the bottom of the staircase, the dog quietly looked at him whilst he was passing; Cornelius even fancied he saw in the eyes of the monster a certain expression as it were of compassion.

The dog perhaps knew the condemned prisoners, and only bit those who left as free men.

The shorter the way from the door of the prison to the foot of the scaffold, the more fully, of course, it was crowded with curious people.

These were the same who, not satisfied with the blood which they had shed three days before, were now craving for a new victim.

And scarcely had Cornelius made his appearance than a fierce groan ran through the whole street, spreading all over the yard, and re-echoing from the streets which led to the scaffold, and which were likewise crowded with spectators.

The scaffold indeed looked like an islet at the confluence of several rivers.

In the midst of these threats, groans, and yells, Cornelius, very likely in order not to hear them, had buried himself in his own thoughts.

And what did he think of in his last melancholy journey?

Neither of his enemies, nor of his judges, nor of his executioners.

He thought of the beautiful tulips which he would see from heaven above, at Ceylon, or Bengal, or elsewhere, when he would be able to look with pity on this earth, where John and Cornelius de Witt had been murdered for having thought too much of politics, and where Cornelius van Baerle was about to be murdered for having thought too much of tulips.

“It is only one stroke of the axe,” said the philosopher to himself, “and my beautiful dream will begin to be realised.”

Only there was still a chance, just as it had happened before to M. de Chalais, to M. de Thou, and other slovenly executed people, that the headsman might inflict more than one stroke, that is to say, more than one martyrdom, on the poor tulip-fancier.

Yet, notwithstanding all this, Van Baerle mounted the scaffold not the less resolutely, proud of having been the friend of that illustrious John, and godson of that noble Cornelius de Witt, whom the ruffians, who were now crowding to witness his own doom, had torn to pieces and burnt three days before.

He knelt down, said his prayers, and observed, not without a feeling of sincere joy, that, laying his head on the block, and keeping his eyes open, he would be able to his last moment to see the grated window of the Buytenhof.

At length the fatal moment arrived, and Cornelius placed his chin on the cold damp block. But at this moment his eyes closed involuntarily, to receive more resolutely the terrible avalanche which was about to fall on his head, and to engulf his life.

A gleam like that of lightning passed across the scaffold: it was the executioner raising his sword.

Van Baerle bade farewell to the great black tulip, certain of awaking in another world full of light and glorious tints.

Three times he felt, with a shudder, the cold current of air from the knife near his neck, but what a surprise! he felt neither pain nor shock.

He saw no change in the colour of the sky, or of the world around him.

Then suddenly Van Baerle felt gentle hands raising him, and soon stood on his feet again, although trembling a little.

He looked around him. There was some one by his side, reading a large parchment, sealed with a huge seal of red wax.

And the same sun, yellow and pale, as it behooves a Dutch sun to be, was shining in the skies; and the same grated window looked down upon him from the Buytenhof; and the same rabble, no longer yelling, but completely thunderstruck, were staring at him from the streets below.

Van Baerle began to be sensible to what was going on around him.

His Highness, William, Prince of Orange, very likely afraid that Van Baerle’s blood would turn the scale of judgment against him, had compassionately taken into consideration his good character, and the apparent proofs of his innocence.

His Highness, accordingly, had granted him his life.

Cornelius at first hoped that the pardon would be complete, and that he would be restored to his full liberty and to his flower borders at Dort.

But Cornelius was mistaken. To use an expression of Madame de Sevigne, who wrote about the same time, “there was a postscript to the letter;” and the most important part of the letter was contained in the postscript.

In this postscript, William of Orange, Stadtholder of Holland, condemned Cornelius van Baerle to imprisonment for life. He was not sufficiently guilty to suffer death, but he was too much so to be set at liberty.

Cornelius heard this clause, but, the first feeling of vexation and disappointment over, he said to himself —

“Never mind, all this is not lost yet; there is some good in this perpetual imprisonment; Rosa will be there, and also my three bulbs of the black tulip are there.”

But Cornelius forgot that the Seven Provinces had seven prisons, one for each, and that the board of the prisoner is anywhere else less expensive than at the Hague, which is a capital.

His Highness, who, as it seems, did not possess the means to feed Van Baerle at the Hague, sent him to undergo his perpetual imprisonment at the fortress of Loewestein, very near Dort, but, alas! also very far from it; for Loewestein, as the geographers tell us, is situated at the point of the islet which is formed by the confluence of the Waal and the Meuse, opposite Gorcum.

Aerial view of present-day Loewestein Castle. (cc) image from Hans Elbers

Van Baerle was sufficiently versed in the history of his country to know that the celebrated Grotius was confined in that castle after the death of Barneveldt; and that the States, in their generosity to the illustrious publicist, jurist, historian, poet, and divine, had granted to him for his daily maintenance the sum of twenty-four stivers.

“I,” said Van Baerle to himself, “I am worth much less than Grotius. They will hardly give me twelve stivers, and I shall live miserably; but never mind, at all events I shall live.”

Then suddenly a terrible thought struck him.

“Ah!” he exclaimed, “how damp and misty that part of the country is, and the soil so bad for the tulips! And then Rosa will not be at Loewestein!”

Chapter 13: What was going on all this Time in the Mind of one of the Spectators

Whilst Cornelius was engaged with his own thoughts, a coach had driven up to the scaffold. This vehicle was for the prisoner. He was invited to enter it, and he obeyed.

His last look was towards the Buytenhof. He hoped to see at the window the face of Rosa, brightening up again.

But the coach was drawn by good horses, who soon carried Van Baerle away from among the shouts which the rabble roared in honour of the most magnanimous Stadtholder, mixing with it a spice of abuse against the brothers De Witt and the godson of Cornelius, who had just now been saved from death.

This reprieve suggested to the worthy spectators remarks such as the following:—

“It’s very fortunate that we used such speed in having justice done to that great villain John, and to that little rogue Cornelius, otherwise his Highness might have snatched them from us, just as he has done this fellow.”

Among all the spectators whom Van Baerle’s execution had attracted to the Buytenhof, and whom the sudden turn of affairs had disagreeably surprised, undoubtedly the one most disappointed was a certain respectably dressed burgher, who from early morning had made such a good use of his feet and elbows that he at last was separated from the scaffold only by the file of soldiers which surrounded it.

Many had shown themselves eager to see the perfidious blood of the guilty Cornelius flow, but not one had shown such a keen anxiety as the individual just alluded to.

The most furious had come to the Buytenhof at daybreak, to secure a better place; but he, outdoing even them, had passed the night at the threshold of the prison, from whence, as we have already said, he had advanced to the very foremost rank, unguibus et rostro — that is to say, coaxing some, and kicking the others.

And when the executioner had conducted the prisoner to the scaffold, the burgher, who had mounted on the stone of the pump the better to see and be seen, made to the executioner a sign which meant —

“It’s a bargain, isn’t it?”

The executioner answered by another sign, which was meant to say —

“Be quiet, it’s all right.”

This burgher was no other than Mynheer Isaac Boxtel, who since the arrest of Cornelius had come to the Hague to try if he could not get hold of the three bulbs of the black tulip.

Boxtel had at first tried to gain over Gryphus to his interest, but the jailer had not only the snarling fierceness, but likewise the fidelity, of a dog. He had therefore bristled up at Boxtel’s hatred, whom he had suspected to be a warm friend of the prisoner, making trifling inquiries to contrive with the more certainty some means of escape for him.

Thus to the very first proposals which Boxtel made to Gryphus to filch the bulbs which Cornelius van Baerle must be supposed to conceal, if not in his breast, at least in some corner of his cell, the surly jailer had only answered by kicking Mynheer Isaac out, and setting the dog at him.

The piece which the mastiff had torn from his hose did not discourage Boxtel. He came back to the charge, but this time Gryphus was in bed, feverish, and with a broken arm. He therefore was not able to admit the petitioner, who then addressed himself to Rosa, offering to buy her a head-dress of pure gold if she would get the bulbs for him. On this, the generous girl, although not yet knowing the value of the object of the robbery, which was to be so well remunerated, had directed the tempter to the executioner, as the heir of the prisoner.

In the meanwhile the sentence had been pronounced. Thus Isaac had no more time to bribe any one. He therefore clung to the idea which Rosa had suggested: he went to the executioner.

Isaac had not the least doubt that Cornelius would die with the bulbs on his heart.

But there were two things which Boxtel did not calculate upon:—

Rosa, that is to say, love;

William of Orange, that is to say, clemency.

But for Rosa and William, the calculations of the envious neighbour would have been correct.

But for William, Cornelius would have died.

But for Rosa, Cornelius would have died with his bulbs on his heart.

Mynheer Boxtel went to the headsman, to whom he gave himself out as a great friend of the condemned man; and from whom he bought all the clothes of the dead man that was to be, for one hundred guilders; rather an exorbitant sum, as he engaged to leave all the trinkets of gold and silver to the executioner.

But what was the sum of a hundred guilders to a man who was all but sure to buy with it the prize of the Haarlem Society?

It was money lent at a thousand per cent, which, as nobody will deny, was a very handsome investment.

The headsman, on the other hand, had scarcely anything to do to earn his hundred guilders. He needed only, as soon as the execution was over, to allow Mynheer Boxtel to ascend the scaffold with his servants, to remove the inanimate remains of his friend.

The thing was, moreover, quite customary among the “faithful brethren,” when one of their masters died a public death in the yard of the Buytenhof.

A fanatic like Cornelius might very easily have found another fanatic who would give a hundred guilders for his remains.

The executioner also readily acquiesced in the proposal, making only one condition — that of being paid in advance.

Boxtel, like the people who enter a show at a fair, might be disappointed, and refuse to pay on going out.

Boxtel paid in advance, and waited.

After this, the reader may imagine how excited Boxtel was; with what anxiety he watched the guards, the Recorder, and the executioner; and with what intense interest he surveyed the movements of Van Baerle. How would he place himself on the block? how would he fall? and would he not, in falling, crush those inestimable bulbs? had not he at least taken care to enclose them in a golden box — as gold is the hardest of all metals?

Every trifling delay irritated him. Why did that stupid executioner thus lose time in brandishing his sword over the head of Cornelius, instead of cutting that head off?

But when he saw the Recorder take the hand of the condemned, and raise him, whilst drawing forth the parchment from his pocket — when he heard the pardon of the Stadtholder publicly read out — then Boxtel was no more like a human being; the rage and malice of the tiger, of the hyena, and of the serpent glistened in his eyes, and vented itself in his yell and his movements. Had he been able to get at Van Baerle, he would have pounced upon him and strangled him.

And so, then, Cornelius was to live, and was to go with him to Loewestein, and thither to his prison he would take with him his bulbs; and perhaps he would even find a garden where the black tulip would flower for him.

Boxtel, quite overcome by his frenzy, fell from the stone upon some Orangemen, who, like him, were sorely vexed at the turn which affairs had taken. They, mistaking the frantic cries of Mynheer Isaac for demonstrations of joy, began to belabour him with kicks and cuffs, such as could not have been administered in better style by any prize-fighter on the other side of the Channel.

Blows were, however, nothing to him. He wanted to run after the coach which was carrying away Cornelius with his bulbs. But in his hurry he overlooked a paving-stone in his way, stumbled, lost his centre of gravity, rolled over to a distance of some yards, and only rose again, bruised and begrimed, after the whole rabble of the Hague, with their muddy feet, had passed over him.

One would think that this was enough for one day, but Mynheer Boxtel did not seem to think so, as, in addition to having his clothes torn, his back bruised, and his hands scratched, he inflicted upon himself the further punishment of tearing out his hair by handfuls, as an offering to that goddess of envy who, as mythology teaches us, wears a head-dress of serpents.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Fictional,Guest Writers,Last Minute Reprieve,Netherlands,Not Executed,Other Voices,Pardons and Clemencies,Public Executions,Treason,Wrongful Executions

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

A Day in the Death Penalty Around the Martyrology

Add comment August 9th, 2016 Headsman

The Roman martyrology distinguishes August 9 as the feast date of several minor ancient saints of questionable veracity purportedly martyred by the persecutions of Rome.

Firmus and Rusticus
The Virgin of the Rosary with Saints Firmus and Rusticus (1603) by Pietro Marone

Saints Firmus and Rusticus are two gentlemen of Bergamo who are supposed to have wound up martyred in Verona under Diocletian‘s persecutions. There’s an Acts of Firmus and Rusticus that the contemporary church does not consider authentic; it’s possible that if they really existed they might have been North African Christians whose remains were translated to Verona.

Firmus and Rusticus are not the patron saints of Romeo and Juliet‘s hometown; that honor instead goes to Zeno.


Much more obviously African is St. Numidicus, who under the short-reigning but heavy-persecuting emperor Decius was burned at the stake in Carthage and/or survived burning to accept ordination at the hands of St. Cyprian.

Romanus Ostiarius

August 9 is the vigil of St. Lawrence‘s martyrdom in Rome. St. Romanus is a legendary spinoff on Lawrence: a Roman guard who is supposed to have been so moved by Lawrence that he solicited baptism from the saint, and was immediately martyred for his trouble. Although his dubious historicity — one can’t but suspect outright fiction — has ushered him into the martyrology’s footnotes, he was formerly consequential enough to be sculpted for the colonnade of St. Peter’s.

There are several other martyrs also named Romanus; still, this guy in his day was the most important and the most Italian which makes me fairly confident that he also conferred his name upon the Tuscan town San Romano, and through its position amid the Florentine conflict with Siena and Lucca, to Uccello‘s triptych series The Battle of San Romano, a great pathbreaker for lance-aided linear perspective in the early Renaissance.

Noccolo Mauruzi da Tolentino unseats Bernardino della Ciarda at the Battle of San Romano, by Paolo Uccello (c. 1435-1455).
Secundian, Marcellian and Verian

At last we have St. Secundian, another Decian martyr who was supposedly a Senator or similar VIP. August 9 marks his martyrdom perhaps near Civitavecchia, along with two bookish minions — students or scholars of some sort.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,Italy,Martyrs,Myths,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Uncertain Dates

Tags: , ,

1546: Etienne Dolet, no longer anything at all

Add comment August 3rd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1546, which was his 37th birthday, the French linguist and translator Etienne Dolet was burned at the stake in Paris over a few little words.

Dolet (English Wikipedia entry | French) was a young polymath with a pugilistic streak both literary and literal. While a law student at Toulouse, he won both a stint in prison and the patronage of King Francis I.

Dolet might have rated the latter a sturdier shield than it proved to be in practice, for his satires — so irreverent as to be heretical in a time when heresy really mattered — landed him back in the clink in Lyons from 1542 to 1544, charged with atheism.

Dolet’s real concern was language: he was a prolific translator of books into French (including some of his own work in Latin), and he produced a lengthy commentary on classical Latin and, in 1540, Europe’s first vernacular treatise on translation.

But for a smart guy he could be a little dumb.

Having pulled strings with the bishop to weasel out of his dungeon, Dolet made tracks for Italy … but then cockily returned to Lyons where he was once again arrested as a heretic. He didn’t get a second chance to learn his lesson.

Dolet’s condemnation turned on a philistine misapprehension of the humanist art of translation.

“While translating, you must not be enslaved to the extent of rendering word for word,” he had counseled in his treatise. “Concentrate on the meaning and handle things so that the intention of the author is expressed, while heedfully maintaining the propriety of both languages.” This is nearly a banality for the modern art of translation, but at the time pitted him against a long Christian tradition that prized textual fidelity over literary elegance.

Rendering a complex bit of Plato into French, Dolet reworked the passage into his target language thus:

Since it is certain that death is not at all among the living: and as for the dead, they no longer are: therefore, death touches them even less. And hence death can do nothing to you, for you are not yet ready to die, and when you have died, death will also not be able to do anything, since you will no longer be anything at all.

If you’re going to be executed over a block of text, that’s a pretty good block.

It’s the anything at all (we added the emphasis) that got Dolet in this instance: Plato had not literally said that, and Dolet’s hostile interlocutors decided to read this flourish of artistry and emphasis as proof of a sly atheist denying the immortality of the soul. No less an authority than the Sorbonne theological faculty signed off on this reading. (Calvin also denounced Dolet; he’s sometimes regarded as a freethinker martyr, which is a more generous spin than “clever asshole.”)

Dolet’s surname chances to double as a declension of the apt Latin verb “to hurt”; en route to the stake, the impious polyglot is said to have exploited the overlap in one final — shall we say dolorous? — witticism:

Non dolet ipse Dolet, sed pia turba dolet
Dolet himself does not suffer, but the pious crowd grieves

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Freethinkers,Gallows Humor,Heresy,History,Intellectuals,Public Executions

Tags: , , , , , , ,

1415: Thomas Grey, Southampton Plotter

Add comment August 2nd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1415, about to set sail from Southampton for the invasion of France that would define his reign, King Henry V favored the Bargate with the beheading of Sir Thomas Grey.

Henry V at this moment was just two years on the throne, the son of a usurper who had deposed and murdered Richard II. That he was now off to venture his life in the field, leaving no wife or child, could have placed his line with but a small mischance in the way of extinction.

The Southampton Plotters had a mind to be that small mischance.

Their idea was to topple King Henry in favor of Edmund Mortimer, the Earl of March — who had been Richard II’s heir presumptive at the time Richard was deposed, and whose claim to the throne should have preceded that of Henry’s own family were such matters decided by lawyers alone.

Henry’s coup d’etat and the aspirations thereafter descending respectively from Henry IV and from Richard II were the dynastic font of the Wars of the Roses. Those wars occurred well after the events of today’s post but the opposing factions were already now beginning to wend their ways towards Bosworth Field.

Mortimer was a seven-year-old when Richard was dethroned. He grew up in confinement, albeit honorably treated. Despite his family’s understandably rocky relationship with the new regime, Mortimer himself didn’t cross Henry V, and Henry guardedly admitted him first to his liberty and then to the privileges his rank entailed.

Although Mortimer was rapped over the knuckles for a disapproved marriage, he had never yet ventured any apparent act of treason. By appearances, the Southamptom Plot might have been the moment he went all the way to the brink and then chickened out, for it was Mortimer himself who (without admitting any involvement) personally finked out the plan to King Henry on August 1, 1415. All three of its principal authors spent that very night in the dungeons: Henry, Baron Scrope, a longtime friend and confidante of the king; Richard, Earl of Cambridge, a somewhat impoverished peer of the realm; and our man, the knight Sir Thomas Grey.

Henry gratefully agreed to the pretense that this plot had been a terrible surprise to Mortimer and pre-emptively pardoned him of any taint arising from it.

Gray, the only commoner in the bunch, went on trial the very next day, which was a Friday — and his sentence was executed before suppertime.

The two lords were able to insist on a trial by their peers, which bought them only the weekend: an ample quorum of lords was conveniently on hand preparing to embark for France with the king. They too were condemned that Monday, and like Grey they proceeded straight from court to the block.*

Duly satisfied, Henry sailed for France on the 11th.

And that was that … for the time being.

In gratitude for keeping his own head, Edmund Mortimer kept that head down for the few years remaining him before he died, childless. Cambridge’s young son Richard would eventually inherit not only his father’s claims but also those of his uncle, the Duke of York (slain at Agincourt) and those of Mortimer too, Voltroning his various heritages into a mighty estate. This Richard, Duke of York would bear Mortimer’s rival regal claim into posterity and eventually captain the Yorkist (of course) side at the outset of the Wars of the Roses. His sons were the Yorkist kings Edward IV and Richard III.**

In Shakespeare’s Henry V, a rather brief interlude in Act 2, Scene 2 introduces and disposes of the Southampton conspirators before Hal weighs anchor for Normandy where he will come of age by executing his buddy and then butchering the French on St. Crispin’s Day. (Shakespeare unfairly positions the Southampton plotters as traitors bought by French gold and entirely omits the role of Mortimer, who is not a character in the play at all.)

Trumpets sound. Enter KING HENRY V, SCROOP, CAMBRIDGE, GREY, and Attendants


Now sits the wind fair, and we will aboard.
My Lord of Cambridge, and my kind Lord of Masham,
And you, my gentle knight, give me your thoughts:
Think you not that the powers we bear with us
Will cut their passage through the force of France,
Doing the execution and the act
For which we have in head assembled them?


No doubt, my liege, if each man do his best.


I doubt not that; since we are well persuaded
We carry not a heart with us from hence
That grows not in a fair consent with ours,
Nor leave not one behind that doth not wish
Success and conquest to attend on us.


Never was monarch better fear’d and loved
Than is your majesty: there’s not, I think, a subject
That sits in heart-grief and uneasiness
Under the sweet shade of your government.


True: those that were your father’s enemies
Have steep’d their galls in honey and do serve you
With hearts create of duty and of zeal.


We therefore have great cause of thankfulness;
And shall forget the office of our hand,
Sooner than quittance of desert and merit
According to the weight and worthiness.


So service shall with steeled sinews toil,
And labour shall refresh itself with hope,
To do your grace incessant services.


We judge no less. Uncle of Exeter,
Enlarge the man committed yesterday,
That rail’d against our person: we consider
it was excess of wine that set him on;
And on his more advice we pardon him.


That’s mercy, but too much security:
Let him be punish’d, sovereign, lest example
Breed, by his sufferance, more of such a kind.


O, let us yet be merciful.


So may your highness, and yet punish too.


You show great mercy, if you give him life,
After the taste of much correction.


Alas, your too much love and care of me
Are heavy orisons ‘gainst this poor wretch!
If little faults, proceeding on distemper,
Shall not be wink’d at, how shall we stretch our eye
When capital crimes, chew’d, swallow’d and digested,
Appear before us? We’ll yet enlarge that man,
Though Cambridge, Scroop and Grey, in their dear care
And tender preservation of our person,
Would have him punished. And now to our French causes:
Who are the late commissioners?


I one, my lord:
Your highness bade me ask for it to-day.


So did you me, my liege.


And I, my royal sovereign.


Then, Richard Earl of Cambridge, there is yours;
There yours, Lord Scroop of Masham; and, sir knight,
Grey of Northumberland, this same is yours:
Read them; and know, I know your worthiness.
My Lord of Westmoreland, and uncle Exeter,
We will aboard to night. Why, how now, gentlemen!
What see you in those papers that you lose
So much complexion? Look ye, how they change!
Their cheeks are paper. Why, what read you there
That hath so cowarded and chased your blood
Out of appearance?


I do confess my fault;
And do submit me to your highness’ mercy.


To which we all appeal.


The mercy that was quick in us but late,
By your own counsel is suppress’d and kill’d:
You must not dare, for shame, to talk of mercy;
For your own reasons turn into your bosoms,
As dogs upon their masters, worrying you.
See you, my princes, and my noble peers,
These English monsters! My Lord of Cambridge here,
You know how apt our love was to accord
To furnish him with all appertinents
Belonging to his honour; and this man
Hath, for a few light crowns, lightly conspired,
And sworn unto the practises of France,
To kill us here in Hampton: to the which
This knight, no less for bounty bound to us
Than Cambridge is, hath likewise sworn. But, O,
What shall I say to thee, Lord Scroop? thou cruel,
Ingrateful, savage and inhuman creature!
Thou that didst bear the key of all my counsels,
That knew’st the very bottom of my soul,
That almost mightst have coin’d me into gold,
Wouldst thou have practised on me for thy use,
May it be possible, that foreign hire
Could out of thee extract one spark of evil
That might annoy my finger? ’tis so strange,
That, though the truth of it stands off as gross
As black and white, my eye will scarcely see it.
Treason and murder ever kept together,
As two yoke-devils sworn to either’s purpose,
Working so grossly in a natural cause,
That admiration did not whoop at them:
But thou, ‘gainst all proportion, didst bring in
Wonder to wait on treason and on murder:
And whatsoever cunning fiend it was
That wrought upon thee so preposterously
Hath got the voice in hell for excellence:
All other devils that suggest by treasons
Do botch and bungle up damnation
With patches, colours, and with forms being fetch’d
From glistering semblances of piety;
But he that temper’d thee bade thee stand up,
Gave thee no instance why thou shouldst do treason,
Unless to dub thee with the name of traitor.
If that same demon that hath gull’d thee thus
Should with his lion gait walk the whole world,
He might return to vasty Tartar back,
And tell the legions ‘I can never win
A soul so easy as that Englishman’s.’
O, how hast thou with jealousy infected
The sweetness of affiance! Show men dutiful?
Why, so didst thou: seem they grave and learned?
Why, so didst thou: come they of noble family?
Why, so didst thou: seem they religious?
Why, so didst thou: or are they spare in diet,
Free from gross passion or of mirth or anger,
Constant in spirit, not swerving with the blood,
Garnish’d and deck’d in modest complement,
Not working with the eye without the ear,
And but in purged judgment trusting neither?
Such and so finely bolted didst thou seem:
And thus thy fall hath left a kind of blot,
To mark the full-fraught man and best indued
With some suspicion. I will weep for thee;
For this revolt of thine, methinks, is like
Another fall of man. Their faults are open:
Arrest them to the answer of the law;
And God acquit them of their practises!


I arrest thee of high treason, by the name of
Richard Earl of Cambridge.
I arrest thee of high treason, by the name of
Henry Lord Scroop of Masham.
I arrest thee of high treason, by the name of
Thomas Grey, knight, of Northumberland.


Our purposes God justly hath discover’d;
And I repent my fault more than my death;
Which I beseech your highness to forgive,
Although my body pay the price of it.


For me, the gold of France did not seduce;
Although I did admit it as a motive
The sooner to effect what I intended:
But God be thanked for prevention;
Which I in sufferance heartily will rejoice,
Beseeching God and you to pardon me.


Never did faithful subject more rejoice
At the discovery of most dangerous treason
Than I do at this hour joy o’er myself.
Prevented from a damned enterprise:
My fault, but not my body, pardon, sovereign.


God quit you in his mercy! Hear your sentence.
You have conspired against our royal person,
Join’d with an enemy proclaim’d and from his coffers
Received the golden earnest of our death;
Wherein you would have sold your king to slaughter,
His princes and his peers to servitude,
His subjects to oppression and contempt
And his whole kingdom into desolation.
Touching our person seek we no revenge;
But we our kingdom’s safety must so tender,
Whose ruin you have sought, that to her laws
We do deliver you. Get you therefore hence,
Poor miserable wretches, to your death:
The taste whereof, God of his mercy give
You patience to endure, and true repentance
Of all your dear offences! Bear them hence.

Exeunt CAMBRIDGE, SCROOP and GREY, guarded

Now, lords, for France; the enterprise whereof
Shall be to you, as us, like glorious.
We doubt not of a fair and lucky war,
Since God so graciously hath brought to light
This dangerous treason lurking in our way
To hinder our beginnings. We doubt not now
But every rub is smoothed on our way.
Then forth, dear countrymen: let us deliver
Our puissance into the hand of God,
Putting it straight in expedition.
Cheerly to sea; the signs of war advance:
No king of England, if not king of France.


* The History of England podcast deals with this in episode 144 (skip to 26:48).

** And, their irritating and rebellious brother George, whom Edward had drowned in a butt of malmsey.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Public Executions,Treason,Wartime Executions

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

1595: Gabriel de Espinosa, the confectioner of Madrigal

Add comment August 1st, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1595, Gabriel de Espinosa the “confectioner of Madrigal” was put to death for impersonating the late king of Portugal. Most accessible information about this queer case appears in Spanish, as are most of the links in this post.

The confectioner’s fall began in Morocco 17 years before, almost to the day. On the fourth of August 1578, the King Sebastian of Portugal — who had no child and no sibling — bravely and foolishly got himself killed crusading against the Moors and set up a succession crisis that enabled neighboring Spain to gobble up the kingdom.

As this scenario spawned multiple executions, so we have already dealt with the background in greater detail.

Its strange outgrowth was “Sebastianism”, a local variation of the widespread “king under the mountain” myth. Sebastian’s body was not recovered, and Portuguese survivors straggling back home brought confusion and rumor as to his fate.* Since the kingdom itself had followed the young king into occultation, his stunned subjects widely embraced the unlikely fancy that the prince was about to return to put things right.

“Portugal could accept defeat at the hands of the Moors, but not the loss of national independence,” Mary Elizabeth Brook wrote in “From Military Defeat to Immortality: The Birth of Sebastianism,” Luso-Brazilian Review, Winter 1964. As its people “considered Sebastian’s death to be the sole cause of national ills, they were not ready to believe that he was really dead.”

These stories compounded themselves by spawning fresh rumors of the elusive king — deep in penance for losing the battle, some said — said to be sighted here or there like Bigfoot, according to your cousin’s best friend’s groomsman who heard it from a traveler at a roadside inn. Twice in the 1580s, popular superstition elevated to royal pretender two different mystery men.

While these affairs had an accidental and ad hoc character, our Gabriel de Espinosa arising in 1594 was diligently contrived.

The Augustinian friar Miguel dos Santos, a follower of the exiled clainant to the Portuguese throne,** somehow scrounged up a Spanish pastry-maker with an uncommon felicity in languages† and took him under his wing until he could do a passable impression of the late king. This Gabriel de Espinosa was then to be paired up with a Portuguese dowager princess who had been socked away in a nunnery during the succession mess. This would have been a considerable promotion for both characters, but the process of quietly gathering support for these would-be rulers could not avoid detection.

Both the imposter and his mentor were hanged for their trouble, but the confectioner’s refusal under torture to acknowledge himself as Gabriel and his regal bearing at the noose did well by his pretense to the very last. He’s perhaps the most appealing of the Sebastianist pretenders for this reason, and is even occasionally mooted as the real deal — as in Jose Zorrilla’s romantic poem Traidor, Inconfeso y Martir, which conceives Gabriel as the actual Dom Sebastian. (The confectioner of madrigal has enjoyed frequent literary attention through the ages.)

Since it was always about something much more profound than the man himself, it’s no surprise that Sebastianism like other “sleeping king” superstitions very long outlasted the plausible lifespan of its namesake. When Portugal finally regained independence from Spain in 1640, the new King John IV had to promise to surrender his throne should Sebastian reappear: Sebastian would have been 86 years old at the time. The messianic cult even hopped the Atlantic and found a home in Brazil well into the 19th century.

* According to Brook, two Portuguese chroniclers did in fact see Sebastian’s body identified by captured Portuguese noblemen after the battle. But the Sebastianism cult had its legs long before such reports filtered back to the homeland.

** It was in service of the this exile’s claim that the Florentine adventurer Philippe Strozzi got killed trying to capture the Azores.

† Apparently the baker was a former soldier and had also thereby acquired some skills like horsemanship that also proved handy for feigning nobility.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Popular Culture,Portugal,Power,Pretenders to the Throne,Public Executions,Spain,Torture,Treason

Tags: , , , , , ,

1943: Marie-Louise Giraud, Vichy abortionist

Add comment July 30th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1943, the French executioner Jules-Henri Desfourneaux guillotined Marie-Louise Giraud as an abortionist.

Born in defeat, the Vichy regime had a program of renewing an enervated nation by restoring its values — families and proper sexual mores foremost among them. Marshal Petain famously diagnosed the reasons for France’s quick collapse under German guns: “Too few children, too few arms, too few allies.”

Interest in the fertility rate was not a Vichy innovation; worries about depopulation had become acute following the bloodbath of the First World War, and birth rates in the interwar years fell conspicuously too low for regenerating the cannon fodder. France’s scolds saw her as decadent, and eventually as deserving prey to the neighboring power that had regenerated both hearth and national purpose through fascism.

Petain placed a similar regeneration at the center of his broken nation’s agenda, and designed policy around cultivating traditional families with fecund and obedient wives.

One remarkable plank in that platform was to ramp abortion up to the stature of capital crime. Even though abortion was technically illegal before Vichy, it had long been winked at in practice.

No longer.

During the war years, the Vichy state plucked our principal Giraud from the seaside Norman village of Barneville-Cateret to prove they were serious about never again letting France get caught out with too few children.

Giraud had performed 27 illegal home abortions for hire, under hygienic conditions perfectly compatible with death by septicemia, which one of her patients suffered in January of 1942. Since the legitimate part of her economic life was as a hosteler to prostitutes, she was way out of strikes with the morals police.

The last woman ever guillotined in France, Marie-Louise Giraud is the subject of the wrenching 1988 Claude Charbol film Une Affaire de Femmes.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Milestones,Murder,Wartime Executions,Women

Tags: , , , , , ,

326: Crispus and Fausta, incestuous lovers?

Add comment July 23rd, 2016 Headsman

On an uncertain date perhaps around late July of 321,* the Roman emperor Constantine the Great had his son and also his wife mysteriously put to death.

It’s mysterious because besides execution, Constantine had a damnatio memoriae passed over his former family to bury any record of their sins in Time’s obscurity. These edicts didn’t always work … but in this case, if there were any who dared to record what happened, that illicit account did not survive its journey from antiquity.

But it was surely a shocking scandal in its time.

Crispus was Constantine’s first-born son and very much in the father’s favor. He was the child of a wife or concubine named Minervina. In 307, Constantine put this woman aside to make a more politically expedient marriage to Fausta, the daughter of Diocletian‘s retired-now-unretired co-emperor Maximian who with his son Maxentius held sway in Italy at that moment of the Roman Tetrarchy‘s ongoing collapse.**

Although Crispus didn’t offer his dad much in this situation by way of family alliances, Constantine kept him in his favor — by all appearances grooming him as an heir. Call it paying it forward: as a young man, Constantine himself had been in a similar position when his father Constantius dumped Constantine’s peasant mother in favor of an imperial marriage. That moment might have strangled a world-historic career before it even began, but Constantius instead chose to keep Constantine on the paternal cursus honorum.

So it went with Crispus — for a while.

In 317, Constantine, now emperor in the western part of the empire,† made Crispus into his Caesar; the boy ruled in Gaul and Germania for several years, thrashing barbarian tribes as he ought. Dad, meanwhile, was maneuvering towards victory over his eastern opposite number Licinius, with Crispus contributing an important naval victory in 324.

The young man (in his twenties at this time; his precise year of birth is uncertain) seemed on his way to a scintillating future.

Bronze coin from the mint of Rome depicting Crispus.

Things went pear-shaped suddenly in 326 when his father had him executed without any kind of warning that survives in the scant records available to us — and not only Crispus, but also Constantine’s own wife, that Fausta whose marriage might have threatened the boy’s status.

We don’t know why but the rumor as trafficked by the much later Byzantine historian Zosimus suggests a possible Parisina and Ugo scenario: “He put to death his son Crispus, styled Caesar, on suspicion of debauching his mother-in-law Fausta, without any regard to the ties of nature … [and] causing a bath to be heated to an extraordinary degree, he shut up Fausta in it, and a short time after took her out dead.”

It is down to conjecture what one ought to make of this nth-hand scandal-mongering; for impugning someone’s character one can hardly do better than an incest accusation. The story does appear to fit the few available facts, however, and Fausta was much closer in age to Crispus than to Constantine. It might also be noteworthy that three of Fausta’s sons went on to become Emperor and one daughter Empress but none of them ever rehabilitated mom.

Damned memory be damned, Crispus was rediscovered during the Renaissance and favored with several dramatic renditions embellishing the young man as a tragic hero, often with speculation that he was wrongly condemned to Constantine’s everlasting shame.‡ The events surrounding Crispus’s death being almost entirely obscured, writers could really go nuts with it; for example, Sir Walter Scott‘s Count Robert of Paris (set in Constantinople during the Crusades) features the story of an entirely fictitious penance built into subsequent Byzantine execution rituals by a remorseful Constantine:

But the death-blow had no sooner struck the innocent youth, than his father obtained proof of the rashness with which he had acted. He had at this period been engaged in constructing the subterranean parts of the Blacquernal palace, which his remorse appointed to contain a record of his paternal grief and contrition. At the upper part of the staircase, called the Pit of Acheron, he caused to be constructed a large chamber, still called the Hall of Judgment, for the purpose of execution. A passage through an archway in the upper wall leads from the hall to the place of misery, where the axe, or other engine, is disposed for the execution of state prisoners of consequence. Over this archway was placed a species of marble altar, surmounted by an image of the unfortunate Crispus — the materials were gold, and it bore the memorable inscription, TO MY SON, WHOM I RASHLY CONDEMNED, AND TOO HASTILY EXECUTED. When constructing this passage, Constantine made a vow, that he himself and his posterity, being reigning Emperors, would stand beside the statue of Crispus, at the time when any individual of their family should be led to execution, and before they suffered him to pass from the Hall of Judgment to the Chamber of Death, that they should themselves be personally convinced of the truth of the charge under which he suffered.

* Approximate times around the spring and summer of 326 have been proposed by various authors based on the very vague allusions of ancient sources. This author argues that numismatic evidence permits a more precise triangulation. Constantine in 326 journeyed from his new capital in the east to Rome: an imperial mint traveled with him, striking coins as it went — and some of those coins show Crispus. His presence on coins from various stops of this journey indicates that Crispus must have been alive as the procession reached Rome on July 21, 326, but the Caesar vanishes from them, and from history, immediately thereafter.

** The History of Rome Podcast narrates this period, with Constantine’s rise into political relevance in episode 130.

† The Tetrarchy was still tetrarching along pending Constantine’s victory over all: the system featured separate senior emperors East and West each dignified Augustus, and each Augustus had a junior fellow-emperor and heir titled Caesar. Constantine was Augustus of the West, and Crispus was a Caesar.

‡ Fausta tends to get somewhat shorter shrift than her putative lover. Crispus’s presence in the literary culture would appear to make him the namesake of the Boston American Revolution martyr Crispus Attucks. African-descended men in North America often carried Roman names, though “Crispus” was by no means a common one.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Italy,Notably Survived By,Put to the Sword,Roman Empire,Royalty,Scandal,Sex,Soldiers,Uncertain Dates,Women,Wrongful Executions

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Previous Posts


October 2016
« Sep    



Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!

Recently Commented

  • helen: I am ready to pay my execution with guilltone for...
  • Kevin M. Sullivan: With all due respect, Jakers, you do...
  • lawguy: Truman not Roosevelt was president when the bomb...
  • Bob Story: Will do.
  • Graham Clayton: Hi Bob, Thanks for your message. If you...