Posts filed under 'Arts and Literature'

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

Add comment January 19th, 2015 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was asked whether he saw the murdered boy.

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

PODESTA: Think again.

JOAFF: In the antechamber of the synagogue.

PODESTA: Anywhere else?

JOAFF: No.

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

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

PODESTA: Speak it on the ropes.

JOAFF: I have never done anything evil.

He was hoisted up and dropped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PODESTA: What did he think of the Christian faith?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Martyrdom of Simonino, by Gandolfino d’Asti.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1477: Gerolamo Olgiati, ducal assassin

Add comment January 2nd, 2015 Headsman


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Well, yeah.

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

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

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

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

That is,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1502: Ramiro d’Orco, discarded by Cesare Borgia

Add comment December 26th, 2014 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1960: Anthony Miller, the last hanged at Barlinnie

1 comment December 22nd, 2014 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They’d stand on planks placed over the trapdoors …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Feast Day of St. Andrew

1 comment November 30th, 2014 Headsman

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

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

-Mark 1:14-18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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1730: Patrona Halil, Ottoman rebel

Add comment November 25th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1730, Patrona Halil, the virtual ruler of the Ottoman capital at the head of a popular rabble, was lured to Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace on the pretext of receiving an imperial honorific — and there seized by the sultan’s guards and put to summary death.

An Albanian shopkeep and Janissary, Halil (English Wikipedia entry | Turkish) had been at the fore of an extraordinarily successful rebellion that bears his name in Turkish histories.

Very recently the mortal terror of Europe, the Ottoman Empire was into its midlife crisis by the early 18th century — a long transition, as it would transpire, into its terminal “sick man of Europe” stage.

Incensed at the splendor of the grandees during the so-called “Tulip Period” — elites’ 1720s fad for that flower, which accompanied years of decadent, and perhaps impious, openness towards Europe — struggling* Istanbul artisan guilds revolted in 1730 over taxes imposed to pay for war with Persia.

Not for the last time, the impositions of the taxman only served to catalyze wider grievances that had already been mounting. Janissaries cast a gimlet eye on the sultan’s dalliances with European military innovations — which those feudal infantrymen rightly perceived as an existential threat. Everyday Turks and the ulama alike resented the cultural inroads of the West. In the paroxysm of 1730, these factions combined with the petite bourgeois guilds to shake the Porte far more deeply than some riot ought.

There had been many rebellions in Istanbul before, but this was the first to show a syndrome that was thereafter often repeated: an effort to Westernize military and administrative organization propounded by a section of the official elite, accompanied by some aping of Western manners, and used by another interest group to mobilize the masses against Westernization.*


Jean-Baptiste van Mour, a Flemish painter residing in Istanbul at the time. He’s notable for numerous paintings of the Tulip Era Ottoman Empire, including that of the sword-brandishing Patrona Halil further up this post.

The rebellion forced the execution of the grand vizier, and the abdication of Sultan Ahmed III in favor of his nephew Mahmud. Rioters sacked the estates of the wealthy and put a definitive end to the Tulip Period by trashing the delicate gardens emblematic of their sybaritic lords.

For nearly two months, the impertinent Halil was virtually the master of the capital. He rode with the new sultan to the ceremony investing him with Osman’s sword; he dictated appointments for his rude associates, like a Greek butcher named Yanaki who was to become Hospodar of Moldavia. At Halil’s whim, Mahmud was forced to order mansions put to the torch and (of course) that hated war tax rescinded.

Halil probably ought to have been better on his guard against the maneuver the sultan executed this date — and was always likely to attempt in some form. Then again, what he had already achieved, however briefly, was outlandish, and pointed to weaknesses in the Ottoman state far more durable than Halil himself. By slaying the insurgent chief, Mahmud got himself some breathing space: popular dissatisfaction, however, was too widely rooted to be destroyed at a single stroke, and would resume again with intermittent disturbances and purges well into 1731, with a successor revolt in 1740.†

And over a still longer arc, the parties of the Halil revolt would guard their prerogatives so jealously and effectively over the generations to come as to fatally compromise the capacity of the sultanate to compel the modernization that the Empire required. Patrona Halil’s revenge was two centuries in coming … but it was worth the wait.

* According to Robert W. Olson’s “The Esnaf and the Patrona Halil Rebellion of 1730: A Realignment in Ottoman Politics?”, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, September 1974, the major beefs of the esnaf (guilds) were a spiral of inflation brought by the devaluing Ottoman currency, the influx of immigrants to the capital, and taxes.

** Serif Mardin, “Center-Periphery Relations: A Key to Turkish Politics?”, Daedalus, Winter 1973.

† See Olson, “Jews, Janissaries, Esnaf and the Revolt of 1740 in Istanbul: Social Upheaval and Political Realignment in the Ottoman Empire”, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, May 1977.

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Feast of St. Clement

Add comment November 23rd, 2014 Headsman

Today is St. Clement’s Day, the feast day of the first century Pope Clement I — who, tradition has it, was martyred by the Romans under Trajan at the ancient Crimean city of Chersonesus by being pitched into the Black Sea weighted down with an anchor.*


The Martyrdom of St. Clement, by Bernardino Fungai.

The documentary trail for leadership of the Christian community in these embryonic years is a little thin but officially, the Vatican rates Clement the fourth Pope following St. Peter, Linus, and Cletus; Tertullian says he was ordained by Peter’s very on hand.

He’s the earliest of these successors of the Apostle who can still speak to posterity. The First Epistle of Clement,** which might very well be from the pope’s own hand, is among the oldest extant Christian texts outside of the books actually gathered in the New Testament. Clement wrote it to recall the Corinthian congregation to obedience after “no small sedition” challenged its presbyters; by way of a voluminous review of authority both scriptural and natural,† the Bishop of Rome unsurprisingly concludes that folk ought submit to the constituted ecclesiastical authorities.

Forasmuch then as these things are manifest beforehand, and we have searched into the depths of the Divine knowledge, we ought to do all things in order, as many as the Master hath commanded us to perform at their appointed seasons. Now the offerings and ministrations He commanded to be performed with care, and not to be done rashly or in disorder, but at fixed times and seasons.

And where and by whom He would have them performed, He Himself fixed by His supreme will: that all things being done with piety according to His good pleasure might be acceptable to His will.

They therefore that make their offerings at the appointed seasons are acceptable and blessed: for while they follow the institutions of the Master they cannot go wrong.

For unto the high priest his proper services have been assigned, and to the priests their proper office is appointed, and upon the levites their proper ministrations are laid. The layman is bound by the layman’s ordinances.

Let each of you, brethren, in his own order give thanks unto God, maintaining a good conscience and not transgressing the appointed rule of his service, but acting with all seemliness.

Not in every place, brethren, are the continual daily sacrifices offered, or the freewill offerings, or the sin offerings and the trespass offerings, but in Jerusalem alone. And even there the offering is not made in every place, but before the sanctuary in the court of the altar; and this too through the high priest and the afore said ministers, after that the victim to be offered hath been inspected for blemishes.

They therefore who do any thing contrary to the seemly ordinance of His will receive death as the penalty.

-1 Clem 40:1 – 41:3 (via)

Presumably in consequence of the device used to sink the pope into the Euxine, St. Clement is honored as the patron of smiths and metalorkers; little-observed now, St. Clement’s Day once saw clanging processions of cloaked, and tanked, blacksmiths answering to Old Clem and belting out tunes at every tavern they passed. Pyromaniacs and Warner Brothers cartoon characters might also wish to honor St. Clement with a good old-fashioned anvil firing.

* Chersonesus, which is the city where the prince Vladimir the Great was baptized en route to Christianizing all of Russia, has gorgeous ruins that can be seen adjacent to present-day Sevastopol. St. Cyril, missionary to the Slavs and fountainhead of the Cyrillic alphabet(s), is supposed to have dug up Clement’s relics during his sojourn and hauled them, anchor and all, back to Rome.

** There’s a Second Epistle of Clement, too, but it is not thought to be a genuine product of Clement.

† And unnatural! Viz. “There is a bird, which is named the phoenix. This, being the only one of its kind, liveth for five hundred years; and when it hath now reached the time of its dissolution that it should die, it maketh for itself a coffin of frankincense and myrrh and the other spices, into the which in the fullness of time it entereth, and so it dieth.” The phoenix is supposed to be evidence and/or metaphor for the Resurrection and the afterlife.

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1700: Jamie Macpherson, Highlander

4 comments November 16th, 2014 Headsman

The legendary Highlands freebooter Jamie Macpherson was hanged on this date in 1700 in Banff.

Macpherson is said to be an illegitimate half-Gypsy child with every talent necessary to live larger than life — and if gigantism can be inferred from the size of his enormous alleged sword, that would be extremely large indeed.

Besides his elite SPARQ score, Macpherson was blessed with complementary gifts for making music and sweet sweet love, and plundered livestock and merchandise and maidenheads as he sprang through the vicinities of Banff and Aberdeen. Despite living by his prowess with the sword every source concurs that he never used it to harm anyone that the audience would sympathize with.

But he outraged the local grandees, and at length he was apprehended (as befits his outsized tale) by a fellow with the improbable name “Duff of Braco” — then was duly condemned to hang on market-day (“Forasmeikle as you James McPherson, pannal are found guilty by ane verdict of ane assyse, to be knoun, holden, and repute to be Egiptian and a wagabond” etc.).

In the week before his hanging, Macpherson reportedly composed an air variously described as “Macpherson’s Lament” or “Rant” or “Farewell” which he then performed on the gallows.

In the most picturuesque version, he played his own fiddle in this exit performance, then dramatically smashed the instrument. As Chambers’s Journal observes, it seems hard to accept that the sheriff would have given this veritable Goliath the free use of his hands at such a desperate moment. Indeed, local legend has it that the authorities were so afraid that a reprieve might arrive that upon catching sight of an approaching rider on the horizon, they put the town’s clocks 15 minutes forward.

At any rate, several versions of the Lament/Rant/Farewell survive and one can follow its evolution in this open-source Annals of Banff. Robert Burns’s eventually immortalized the verse with this gloss on it from the late 18th century:

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1792: Three of the H.M.S. Bounty mutineers

2 comments October 29th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1792, three men were hanged from the yardarms of the H.M.S. Brunswick in Portsmouth Harbor.

Their crime was participating in that famous or infamous act of seaborne resistance, the Mutiny on the H.M.S. Bounty.

There are so many excellent resources already for enthusiasts of this adventure that a generalist site such as this one can scarcely hope to contribute. Much of the commentary through the years has gravitated towards asserting (by implication at least) the ought between the allegedly oversensitive first mate Fletcher Christian and his allegedly tyrannous captain William Bligh.

Their confrontation is too well mythologized to require commentary here. We only wish to note that this workplace confrontation occurred in furtherance of a mission whose purpose was the application of the lash to other laborers than the Bounty‘s Able Seamen.

Lord Byron fictionalized Bligh’s and other mariners’ accounts to render “The Island”, a poem surprisingly sympathetic (given Byron’s radical proclivities) to the officers mutinied upon. In it, he renders the Eden-like plenty of Otaheiti

The gentle island, and the genial soil,
The friendly hearts, the feasts without a toil,
The courteous manners but from nature caught,
The wealth unhoarded, and the love unbought;
Could these have charms for rudest sea-boys, driven
Before the mast by every wind of heaven?

The Bread-tree, which, without the ploughshare, yields
The unreaped harvest of unfurrowed fields,
And bakes its unadulterated loaves
Without a furnace in unpurchased groves,
And flings off famine from its fertile breast,
A priceless market for the gathering guest …

Those fertile-breasted breadtrees were the object of Bligh’s voyage: they were to be acquired, potted, and sailed onward to the Caribbean where they’d be transplanted in hopes of providing a cornucopia … of profits to sugar plantations whose slaves’ hands an “unreaped harvest of unfurrowed fields” would free for an added margin in the export economy.*

The Bounty bartered for and potted up over 1,000 specimens during a protracted five-week layover Tahiti, a literal Bounty that the crew would prove to prefer to the floating despotism under Capt. Bligh.

Those mutineers turned the breadfruit-ship ’round and settled themselves back on Tahiti or on Pitcairn Island,* burning the Bounty in hopes of simply disappearing from imperial Britain’s circuits of maritime accumulation.

Cast adrift in the Pacific, Bligh somehow guided the 7-meter open launch 6,700 kilometers to Timor, losing only one of his 18 loyal passengers along the way — a feat of seamanship Bligh himself told all about in a first-person account. From the East Indies, Bligh caught a ride back to England and reported the insurrection to the Admiralty in March 1790, more than two years after his ill-starred voyage had set sail from Spithead.

So in 1791, a 24-gun ship called Pandora set out carrying a box of evils for the mutineers. The latter had, in this time, found the comforts of the South Pacific at least somewhat less congenial now that they proposed to make themselves permanent residents and moreover anticipated native deference to their race despite having opted themselves out of the authority that underwrote said privilege. Fletcher Christian himself is thought to be among the mutineers who died in conflicts with the natives.†

Still, the Pandora found 14 of the Bounty‘s former crew to round up and return for British judgment. (The Pitcairn settlement escaped notice altogether; it was only chanced upon by an American ship in 1808 by which time nobody had any interest in persecuting the last remaining mutineer.)

The three featured today were, perhaps surprisingly, the only ones to pass through all the filters from detention to execution, filters that one might have thought would winnow only fleetingly in the case of such an impudent rebellion.

  • To begin with, the Pandora ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef on its return voyage. Only at the last moment did a boatswain unlock the cell where the prisoners were being held — and only 10 of the 14 managed to escape being swallowed up by the seas.

  • The ensuing court-martial acquitted outright four of those remaining ten — men whom Bligh himself described as innocent loyalists who had been forced to remain with the mutineers.

The Admiralty court-martial had a job to fix the six other sailors in their right spots along the spectrum from “enthusiastic mutineer” to “passive participant” to “had to go along with events outside of their control.” It took a good deal of testimony from Bligh’s loyalists about who was armed, who gave a sharp word, and so forth, during the critical moments of Fletcher Christian’s coup. (Legal proceedings in the Bounty case are collected in their entirety here, part of a rich trove of primary sources related to the incident.)

In the end, all six whom Bligh did not vouch for got the same sentence — death — but the court endorsed several for royal mercy. The three who eventually hanged on October 29, 1792 were:

  • Able Seaman Thomas Burkitt or Burkett. Multiple witnesses made him an armed and active member of the mutiny from its very first stroke, assisting Fletcher Christian’s nighttime seizure of the sleeping captain.
  • Able Seaman John Millward. He too was placed among the armed mutineers by witnesses; in fact, prior to the mutiny, he had attempted with two other crewmates to abscond from the Bounty and spent three weeks hiding out in Tahiti before recaptured.
  • Able Seaman Thomas Ellison. Just 16 or 17 years old at the time of the mutiny, Ellison was made to hand over his watch at the helm to a mutineer. His efforts at court to portray himself as loyal to Bligh and only unwillingly swept up in events were contradicted by one of the men set adrift with the ex-captain, but have been favorably received by many later interlocutors. The Charles Nordhoff-James Hall novelization Mutiny on the Bounty presents Ellison as an innocent.

Three others condemned with this trio at the same court-martial who might have shared their execution date were spared that fate.

  • Able Seaman William Muspratt copped a stay and eventually a commutation of sentence based on having been prevented from calling his desired witnesses. He returned to active duty at sea.
  • James Morrison, notable for having built a schooner on Tahiti with which he attempted unsuccessfully to sail for the East Indies, was recommended for mercy by the court which condemned him. While incarcerated, Morrison wrote a journal giving his account of the mutiny; he too returned to active service as a gunner.
  • Midshipman Peter Heywood, the only officer charged was, like Morrison, pardoned at the court’s recommendation. He put in many years of respectable service at sea, eventually retiring with the rank of post-captain. Anticipating his being tongue-tied when the pardon was announced to him, he had a note ready-written to hand the angel of his deliverance: “when the sentence of the law was passed upon me, I received it, I trust, as became a man; and if it had been carried into execution, I should have met my fate, I hope, in a manner becoming a Christian … I receive with gratitude my Sovereign’s mercy; for which my future life shall be faithfully devoted to his service.” (London Times, Oct. 30, 1792)

* This breadfruit scheme was the brainchild of Joseph Banks, an empire-minded botanist who was also a leading advocate of diverting the convict labor formerly exported to America to Australia instead.

After all the mutiny business had been sorted out, Bligh commanded a second, do-over voyage to dump breadtrees on Jamaica. Slaves’ distaste for the delicacy caused the voyage’s immediate objectives to fail; however, the imported fruit would eventually become a Jamaican culinary staple.

** Descendants of the Bounty mutineers and native women still inhabit Pitcairn to this day. It’s the smallest self-governing national jurisdiction in the world.

† The last mutineer on Pitcairn gave vague and contradictory accounts of Christian’s death. It was long rumored that he might actually have escaped Pitcairn and secretly returned to England: if so, he was never exposed.

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1441: Margery Jourdemayne, the Witch of Eye

Add comment October 27th, 2014 Headsman

There was a Beldame called the wytch of Ey,
Old mother Madge her neyghbours did hir name
Which wrought wonders in countryes by heresaye
Both feendes and fayries her charmyng would obay
And dead corpsis from grave she could uprere
Suche an inchauntresse, as that tyme had no peere

On this date in 1441, a Westminster folk magician went to the stake.

The “Witch of Eye” had meddled with powers beyond her control — not the Satanic for which her sentence condemned her, but those of the royal court.

This local wise woman had been arrested as a sorceress once a number of years before. But medieval Europe, before the Reformation and Counter-Reformation and the attendant gloom of existential danger from within, was usually not eager to pursue a local shaman for serving a community’s demand for everyday magick — just so long as the charms and incantations purveyed were not being turned to any apparently injurious purpose. The Witch of Eye, Margery Jourdemayne by name, spent several months imprisoned in Windsor Castle and was released with a pledge to stop with the hocus-pocus.

In her fatal last affair this broken promise would augur very ill. But barring that extraordinary case, this was actually one of those little social regulations that could usually just be ignored in the breach. Our cowherd’s wife returned to purveying salves, potions, and elixirs, perhaps a bit more quietly.

Despite her humble rank, the Witch of Eye seems to have enjoyed a sizable client base among the great lords and ladies.

Such august persons of course had interests outside of love tonics. At the start of the 1440s, the royal court was absorbed by the affairs of the teenage king Henry VI.

In Late June of 1441, three servants of Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester were accused of compassing the death of the king by using astrological divination to forecast the date of his death — which looked especially treasonable since the result reported is supposed to have been soon.

Though a Peerress by marriage, Eleanor was only the daughter of a knight. A sort of proto-Anne Boleyn, she had raised herself (and not a few eyebrows) by starting off as a lady in waiting of the Duke’s previous wife, and then

A cultivated humanist, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester gave every impression of having found a satisfying domestic union — but Eleanor’s social-climbing set her up for some resentment. It was even said by a chronicle, laying a retrospective interpretation on events, that only occult arts could account for Eleanor’s boudoir triumph:

And this same tyme was take a womman callid the wicche of Eye, whoos sorcerie and wicchecraft the said dame Alienore hadde longe tyme usid; and be suche medicines and drynkis as the said wicche made, the said Alienore enforced theforsaid duke of Gloucestre to love her and to wedde her.

The rank of the figures involved elevated such gossip beyond the courty’s everyday rumor-mongering.

Humphrey had claimed the Regency for a brief period before Henry VI declared his own majority in 1437, at age 16. More than that, Humphrey was the most senior uncle to the unmarried* Henry, which made him the heir presumptive. He was a heartbeat away from having the crown on his own head.

And that made it a very colorable accusation that Eleanor’s servants — and those henchmen soon accused Eleanor herself, too — took interest in the prospective imminent death of a king in the springtime of his youth.**

Henry’s alarmed response was twofold. First, he commissioned a horoscope reading of his own; no surprise, this improved horoscope predicted a long, healthy life.† Second, he kicked off the judicial processes that would ruin all concerned — although some ruinations were more final than others.

The servants pointed the finger at Eleanor, and the Duchess desperately fled to the sanctuary of Westminster Abbey. This proved not to help her that much when an ecclesiastical court handed down charges of witchcraft and heresy. One of Eleanor’s three busted cronies, Roger Bolingbroke, had already been forced to publicly abjure his devilries amid a display of his necromancing tools.

Just as Bolingbroke claimed that “he wroughte the said nygromancie atte stiryng of the forsaid dame Alienore, to knowe what sholde falle of hir and to what astat she sholde come,” Eleanor implicated her old magic-vendor, the Witch of Eye for building some of the illicit charms. By now it was pratically beside the point that Eleanor said Bolingbroke’s damning wax figurines were meant to inflict children upon Eleanor rather than injury upon His Majesty. Margery Jourdemayne had shaped the wretched dolls, and nobody caught in the storm of charges had less pull than she. Plus, of course, she was now a repeat offender.

How she in waxe by counsel of the witch,
An image made, crowned like a king,
… which dayly they did pytch
Against a fyre, that as the wax did melt,
So should his life consume away unfelt.

Condemned by a court presided by the Archbishop of Canterbury, she was burned at Smithfield.

Two of the three courtiers died violently, too: Roger Bolingbroke was hanged, drawn, and quartered on November 18, while Thomas Southwell died suddenly in prison around the time of Jourdemayne’s execution. He might have poisoned himself. The third man, John Home, was only shown to have known what his fellows were up to and not to have taken part himself: he skated on a royal pardon.

The Duchess of Gloucester did well to confine her own juridical guilt to ecclesiastical charges only — heresy and witchcraft — and beat the much more dangerous treason charge that was leveled at her. (In another century, Britons would be much more used to the idea of executing elite nobility.) Her marriage was annulled (she procured it by witchcraft, remember?) and she was forced to perform a humiliating public penance on foot around Westminster and London before being shunted off into a forced and closely-watched retirement.


The Penance of Eleanor, by Edwin Austin Abbey (1900)

The scandal didn’t directly touch the Duke of Gloucester, but it essentially forced him out of public life. Six years later he was arrested for treason, but he died (possibly of a stroke, or possibly poison) within days.

The sensational fall of this household excited literary interlocutors almost before Margery Jourdemayne’s ashes were cold — such as this nearly-contemporary “Lament of the Duchess of Gloucester” which dwells on the titular character’s self-destruction by dint of her own vanity: “who wille be high, he shalle be low / the whele of fortune, who may it trow.”

The verses excerpted above in this post come from the following century’s “Mirror for Magistrates”, which makes use of historical figures who met terrible fates not unlike this very site. She might also have helped inspire a lost play from the late 16th or the 17th century.

Shakespeare too stages this entire affair in Henry VI, Part 2, representing Gloucester as an innocent tragically bearing the disaster his enemies visit on him through his wife.

In Act I, Scene 2, Eleanor arranges her divination — and we learn that her enemies are in the process of framing her.

Eleanor. While Gloucester bears this base and humble mind.
Were I a man, a duke, and next of blood,
I would remove these tedious stumbling-blocks
And smooth my way upon their headless necks;
And, being a woman, I will not be slack
To play my part in Fortune’s pageant.
Where are you there? Sir John! nay, fear not, man,
We are alone; here’s none but thee and I.

[Enter HUME]

Father John Hume. Jesus preserve your royal majesty!

Eleanor. What say’st thou? majesty! I am but grace.

Father John Hume. But, by the grace of God, and Hume’s advice,
Your grace’s title shall be multiplied.

Eleanor. What say’st thou, man? hast thou as yet conferr’d
With Margery Jourdain, the cunning witch,
With Roger Bolingbroke, the conjurer?
And will they undertake to do me good?

Father John Hume. This they have promised, to show your highness
A spirit raised from depth of under-ground,
That shall make answer to such questions
As by your grace shall be propounded him.

Eleanor. It is enough; I’ll think upon the questions:
When from St. Alban’s we do make return,
We’ll see these things effected to the full.
Here, Hume, take this reward; make merry, man,
With thy confederates in this weighty cause.

[Exit]

Father John Hume. Hume must make merry with the duchess’ gold;
Marry, and shall. But how now, Sir John Hume!
Seal up your lips, and give no words but mum:
The business asketh silent secrecy.
Dame Eleanor gives gold to bring the witch:
Gold cannot come amiss, were she a devil.
Yet have I gold flies from another coast;
I dare not say, from the rich cardinal
And from the great and new-made Duke of Suffolk,
Yet I do find it so; for to be plain,
They, knowing Dame Eleanor’s aspiring humour,
Have hired me to undermine the duchess
And buz these conjurations in her brain.
They say ‘A crafty knave does need no broker;’
Yet am I Suffolk and the cardinal’s broker.
Hume, if you take not heed, you shall go near
To call them both a pair of crafty knaves.
Well, so it stands; and thus, I fear, at last
Hume’s knavery will be the duchess’ wreck,
And her attainture will be Humphrey’s fall:
Sort how it will, I shall have gold for all.

In Act I, Scene 4, the enthusiasts summon a shade from the underworld and our day’s principal is favored with a few lines from the bard:

Margaret Jourdain. Asmath,
By the eternal God, whose name and power
Thou tremblest at, answer that I shall ask;
For, till thou speak, thou shalt not pass from hence.

But the entire party is arrested and Gloucester’s attempts to note the meaningless vagueness of the predictions supplied by the alleged demon are overrulded rudely.


The conjuration scene in Henry VI, Part 2, illustrated by John Opie.

In Act II, Scene 3 the Duke and Duchess are destroyed politically, and their hirelings destroyed bodily.

Henry VI. Stand forth, Dame Eleanor Cobham, Gloucester’s wife:
In sight of God and us, your guilt is great:
Receive the sentence of the law for sins
Such as by God’s book are adjudged to death.
You four, from hence to prison back again;
From thence unto the place of execution:
The witch in Smithfield shall be burn’d to ashes,
And you three shall be strangled on the gallows.
You, madam, for you are more nobly born,
Despoiled of your honour in your life,
Shall, after three days’ open penance done,
Live in your country here in banishment,
With Sir John Stanley, in the Isle of Man.

Eleanor. Welcome is banishment; welcome were my death.

Duke of Gloucester. Eleanor, the law, thou see’st, hath judged thee:
I cannot justify whom the law condemns.
[Exeunt DUCHESS and other prisoners, guarded]
Mine eyes are full of tears, my heart of grief.
Ah, Humphrey, this dishonour in thine age
Will bring thy head with sorrow to the ground!
I beseech your majesty, give me leave to go;
Sorrow would solace and mine age would ease.

Henry VI. Stay, Humphrey Duke of Gloucester: ere thou go,
Give up thy staff: Henry will to himself
Protector be; and God shall be my hope,
My stay, my guide and lantern to my feet:
And go in peace, Humphrey, no less beloved
Than when thou wert protector to thy King.

Queen Margaret. I see no reason why a king of years
Should be to be protected like a child.
God and King Henry govern England’s realm.
Give up your staff, sir, and the king his realm.

Duke of Gloucester. My staff? here, noble Henry, is my staff:
As willingly do I the same resign
As e’er thy father Henry made it mine;
And even as willingly at thy feet I leave it
As others would ambitiously receive it.
Farewell, good king: when I am dead and gone,
May honourable peace attend thy throne!

[Exit]

Queen Margaret. Why, now is Henry king, and Margaret queen;
And Humphrey Duke of Gloucester scarce himself,
That bears so shrewd a maim; two pulls at once;
His lady banish’d, and a limb lopp’d off.
This staff of honour raught, there let it stand
Where it best fits to be, in Henry’s hand.

Earl of Suffolk. Thus droops this lofty pine and hangs his sprays;
Thus Eleanor’s pride dies in her youngest days.

See also: Jessica Freeman, “Sorcery at Court and Manor: Margery Jourdemayne, the Witch of Eye Next Westminster,” Journal of Medieval History, vol. 30, pp. 343-357.

* Henry married Margaret of Anjou in 1445. Despite the Shakespeare portrayal, she had no part in the proceedings against Eleanor or the Witch of Eye.

** It has long been supposed that part or all of the real impetus for these charges was an opportunistic attack by the Duke’s political rivals, specifically around the question of making peace with France in the Hundred Years’ War. Gloucester, who fought at Agincourt (Shakespeare’s Henry V name-checks him in the great Crispin’s Day pre-battle oration), opposed the growing pro-peace faction.

† It did not predict that Henry would end up murdered in prison.

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