Posts filed under 'Arts and Literature'

1647: Francesco Toraldo

Add comment October 21st, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1647, Francesco Toraldo was put to summary death by rebelling Neapolitans.

Toraldo was a decorated commander during the Thirty Years’ War who was all set up to enjoy retirement as the Duke of Palata, a dignity conjured for him by the grateful Spanish.

This title persists in the Spanish peerage to this day, even though the namesake “duchy”, Palata, is a town in Italy — which is where Toraldo had some family holdings.

That meant he was in the neighborhood to get pulled into the action when Naples in 1647 rebelled against the King of Spain, the neglectful overlord of the City of the Sun.

In July 1647 a tax revolt led by a fisherman named Masaniello briefly gained control of the city.*


The Anti-Spanish Revolt of Masaniello in the Piazza del Mercato in Naples on 7 July 1648, by Michelangelo Cerquozzi and Viviano Codazzi, the latter of whom fled Naples because of this very event.

After the city’s merchants murdered Masaniello, Toraldo was called on as governor-general. He enjoyed widespread support among the still-restive populace, and when the Spanish royal house attempted a show of force under John of Austria to decisively quell the disturbance, Toraldo’s defense of the city might have led a more ambitious soul to declare himself the master of Naples. Indeed, many Neapolitans urged this course upon him — but Toraldo hewed to an increasingly untenable middle way of simultaneous fidelity to Spain and the Neapolitan masses that did for him in the end. (In fairness, the bolder attempt would surely have done for him just the same; his safety would have been in retiring.)

Hitherto the people had at least recognised the external sovereignty of Spain. Whilst they fought against the Spaniards, they professed their allegiance to the king of Spain; they rejected the accusation of rebellion, decidedly as well as vehemently; they had respected the pictures and arms of Philip IV and his ancestors, and always called themselves his most faithful people. But by degrees this had changed, and the unsuccessful expedition of Don John had given the last blow to this feeling of attachment to the royal family …A manifesto of the people on the 17th of October, 1647, set forth the grievance of the nation against their rulers, and invoked the aid of the Pope and the Emperor of kings and of princes. Political parties were formed; the most active at first were those who cried “Long life to the Pope! were he but our liege lord.” The Cardinal-Archbishop leaned to this side; the Nuncio Altieri was familiar with intrigues, and his brother was mixed up in it … Others, and amongst them some of the nobility, inclined towards France, and intriguers were not wanting who laboured in behalf of this power … Others again, considered a republic as feasible; but the great mass of the middle class began to perceive the danger into which they had fallen by the last steps taken in the revolution. They had been desirous of the abolition of burdens which were too oppressive, but not of a change in the government and dynasty. They had allowed the populace to have its own way about the gabelles. But when the populace prevailed, they changed their minds, as one insurrection followed upon another, when all commerce was at a stand-still, when all security was at an end, when the town was threatened with being turned into a heap of ruins, and that they were on the point of losing every thing, because they wanted too much. It was this middle class which later gave Spain an easy and bloodless victory.

But till this happened, Naples continued the theatre of horrible scenes. As the negotiations with Don John of Austria led to no results, the people tried to drive away the troops from the posts which they still occupied within the town. Thus Michele de Santis, the butcher who had murdered Don Giuseppe Carafa, led six hundred men against the Spanish post at Porta Meina. The Viceroy, after whom it was called, as has already been mentioned, had built this gate in the wall of Charles Vth, upon the heights of Montesanto, on the slope of the mountain upon which is situated the Carthusian convent and Sant’Elmo. Here stood fifteen Spaniards, armed only with pike and swords; they drove back six hundred men. The leaders perceived that, without the advantage of a commanding position, all individual detached successes were of no avail. Santa Chiara had resisted all their attacks. On the 21st of October a mine was sprung under the tower. Don Francesco Toraldo, who had been too weak to extricate himself, as he might possibly have succeeded in doing from his false position, and who now acted as a sort of check upon the people, commanded the attack in person. The mine was sprung, but being improperly laid, it only injured the neighbouring buildings, which buried numbers of the champions of the people under the ruins. The garrison of the convent made a sally at the same time, and the bands of the assailants withdrew, with the cry of treason. Their unfortunate leader was to atone for the treason; they seized him and dragged him to the market-place. In vain did Don Francesco Toraldo attempt to speak, in vain did his adherents try to silence the mad men. He sank down at the fish-market; they cut off his noble head upon a stone fish-stall. They stuck it upon a speak; thus had first [Don Giuseppe] Carafa’s head been carried in triumph, then that of Masaniello. They tore the still warm heart from the mangled corpse, and carried it in a silver dish to the convent, where Donna Alvina Frezza, the very beautiful wife of the unfortunate man, was staying. The savage murderers desired that the princess would show herself at the gate of the convent to receive the heart of her husband. The nuns, horror-struck, refused to deliver the message: then these savages collected the wood and faggots that were about to set fire to the convent. Toraldo’s widow, informed of the danger appeared at the threshold, and was obliged to receive from the hands of the barbarians this dreadful though beloved present. Many even of the mob wept at this sight. The corpse remained hanging on the gallows for two days, then they took it down, and in one of those sudden revulsions of mind that so often take place amongst the rude masses, they buried their murdered Captain-General with great pomp. (Source)

This fresh detonation of the powder keg led to the populace declaring itself the Neapolitan Republic; as the passage above hints, that project did not long survive the Spaniards’ pressure.

* Masaniello’s populist revolt left a wide literary footprint. Of special note is the opera La Muette de Portici, whose performance in Brussels in 1830 helped catalyze the Belgian Revolution.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Execution,Gibbeted,History,Italy,Lynching,Naples,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Soldiers,Spain,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1526: Bianca Maria Gaspardone, the Insatiate Countess

Add comment October 20th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1526, Bianca Maria Gaspardone was beheaded at Milan’s Castello di Porta Giova, the present-day Castello Sforzesco.

She was only about 26 years old, but onto her second* dynastic marriage — this to Renato di Challant.

As the story was later recorded in Matteo Bandello‘s Novelle,** the young woman had wealth and options, and with her husband off fighting in Milan’s war against France, she indulged a series of boudoir intrigues — critically for our purposes, one Ardizzino Valperga, Count of Masino.

Per Bandello, the Lady of Challant grew annoyed by him and tried to dispose of him by provoking a quarrel between he and another of her lovers, the Count of Gaiazzo — but the two men compared notes and simply arrived at a mutual contempt for her.

The count made the sign of the cross, and all full of wonder said: Fie, shameless slut that she is. If it weren’t a dishonor for a knight to imbrue his hands in the blood of a woman, I would gouge out her tongue through the back of her neck; but first I would like her to confess how many times she begged me with her arms on the cross, that I have you killed! And so they repeated in public and private the crimes of this dishonest woman until they were on every person’s lips. She, hearing what these gentlemen said about her, even if she pretended no concern for it, was angry with indignation and thought of nothing else but to be highly avenged.

It was in those days in Milan there was one Don Pietro di Cardona, a Sicilian, who governed the company of his legitimate brother Don Artale. This Don Pietro was a young man of twenty-two, dark-faced but proportionate in body and melancholy appearance, who one day seeing Mrs. Bianca Maria fell wildly in love with her. She judging him to be a pigeon of first feather and instrument capable of doing what she so longed for, lured him to better ensnare and dazzle him. He, who had never before loved a woman of account, considering her to be one of the first in Milan, pined miserably for her sake. In the end she made it one night to go and sleep with him, and took such loving pleasure together that he believed himself to be the happiest lover in the world, and not long after asked the young man to kill the Count of Gaiazzo and Signor Ardizzino.

Don Pietro obligingly ambushed Signor Ardizzino and did him to death. Arrested thereafter, he was equally obliging in giving up his paramour as the moving spirit, and she foolishly admitted as much by trying to bribe her way out of trouble.

Don Pietro was permitted to flee from prison. But the unfortunate young woman, having confirmed her lover’s confession with her own mouth, was condemned to have her head cut off. She, having heard this sentence, and not knowing that Don Pietro had run away, could not be prepared to die. At the end, being led onto the ravelin of the castle facing the square and seeing the block, she began to cry in despair and beg for the grace that, if they wanted her to die happy, they would let her see her Don Pietro; but she sang to the deaf. So the poor woman was beheaded. And whoever longs to see her face portrayed in life, should go to the Chiesa del Monastero Maggiore, and there he will see her painted.


Bandello’s closing remark about her painting has commonly been understood to claim her as the model for this fresco of Saint Catherine of Alexandria by Leonardo da Vinci follower Bernardino Luini (1530). More recent research has cast doubt on that notion: scholars now prefer to reckon her image as that of a kneeling patron (along with her first husband) in a different image.

This tale made its way from Bandello’s pen into subsequent literature, notably a Jacobean English sex-romp tragedy called The Insatiate Countess, and a 19th century Italian play, La Signora di Challant; the whole thing appears overall to have unrealized potential for digital-age revival as sultry costume drama for prestige television.

* First hubby Ermes Visconti was beheaded in 1519.

** Bandello’s Novelle stories, which mix history and folklore, also include a version of the pre-Shakespeare Italian Romeo and Juliet drama.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Italy,Milan,Murder,Nobility,Public Executions,Scandal,Sex,Women

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Feast Day of Saint Justus

Add comment October 18th, 2020 Headsman

October 18 is the feast date of early Christian (and possibly legendary) martyr-saint Justus of Beauvais.

He’s supposed to have been decapitated for the faith while en route to Amiens, France, around 287, and thereafter scooped up his head in his arms to join the cephalophore club.


The Miracle of Saint Justus, by Peter Paul Rubens (1630s).

Widely venerated in France, he bequeathed the place-name of Saint-Just on a number of villages, which of course makes him by indirect means* the namesake of the French Revolution figure Louis Antoine de Saint-Just — Robespierre’s ferociously irreligious “angel of death” and a great enthusiast of (and eventual prey to) the guillotine.

* As his ancestors come from Oise, the specific “de Saint-Just” in their names might refer to Saint-Just-en-Chaussee.

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

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1630: Yuan Chonghuan

Add comment September 22nd, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1630,* the Ming statesman Yuan Chonghuan was executed by lingchi

Yuan Chonghuan’s tomb in Beijing. (cc) image by Walter Grassroot.

Yuan (English Wikipedia entry | Chinese was a commander during the 1620s wars against invaders from Manchuria — wars that in due course would bring about the end of the Ming dynasty and the transition to the Manchu-founded Qing. For that very reason, Yuan cuts a sort of Stilicho figure, whose historical shadow is that of a capable commander undone due to petty infighting by a state too far gone to rot to recognize that it needed his talents.**

Yuan scored some notable battlefield wins against the Manchu (Jurchen) invaders in his time. Political intrigue saw him pushed out of power for a spell, ere a new emperor took the throne and called him out of retirement, investing him with enough authority to execute a rival general on his own say-so.

Despite successfully defending Beijing itself from a Jurchen attack, Yuan came under suspicion for the escape in that battle of the enemy ruler — Hong Taiji, the man who would become the founder of the Qing dynasty. Had he passed on an opportunity to follow up his victory because he had a treasonable understanding with the guy who stood a fair chance at conquering China in the foreseeable future? The charge formed the basis of his destruction. At least Yuan could be philosophical about it: “A life’s work always end in vain; half of my career seems to be in dreams. After death my loyal spirit will continue to guard Liaodong.”

Later rulers — the Manchu/Qing rulers — officially rehabilitated the man and his countrymen down to the present day pay him tribute at various public memorials to his honor, like Yuan Chonghuan Memorial Park in his native Dongguan.


A 1956 serialized novel treating the end of Yuan and the revenge sought by his (entirely fictional) son Yuan Chengzhi, Sword Stained with Royal Blood, has been re-adapted into numerous martial arts jams for film and television.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Gruesome Methods,History,Lingchi,Myths,Notably Survived By,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Soldiers,Torture,Treason,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1568: Ivan Fedorov, zemshchina boyar

Add comment September 11th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1568, the Russian boyar Ivan Petrovich Fedorov-Chelyadnin was personally “executed” by Ivan the Terrible.

The vengeful tsar suspecting this man of aspiring to his position had him dressed in royal robes and sat him on the throne, then mockingly paid obeisance before stabbing him to death. It’s unclear whether this great lord had the benefit beforehand of any semblance of judicial process.


Detail view (click for the full image) of Nikolai Nevrev‘s painting of Ivan the Terrible, coiled in fury with dagger drawn, about to “depose” Ivan Fedorov.

The poet A.K. Tolstoy* (cousin of the Tolstoy) sketched the scene in an 1858 verse, “The Staritsky Voivode”:

When the old governor was accused,
That, proud of the nobility and antiquity of the family,
He dreamt of assigning himself a royal dignity,
Ivan ordered him to appear before his eyes.
And to the condemned he brought a rich crown,
And a garment of pearls and gold,
And he laid on the barmi,** and seated him on his own throne
He raised the guilty one on silk carpets.
And, dropping his gaze before him, he fell in the middle of the chamber,
And, bowing to the ground in mock obedience,
Said: “Satisfied in your majesty,
Behold, your slave smites your brow!”
And, having risen with merciless malice,
Plunged a knife into his heart with a greedy hand.
And, bending his face over the overthrown enemy,
He stepped on the corpse with a patterned boot
And he looked into the eyes of the dead, and with trembling unsteady
Sovereign lips snaked a smile.

The late 1560s bring us to the crescendo of Ivan’s oprichnina, years of terror and purging visited by the paranoid sovereign on his internal foes — actual, potential, or imagined.

Although remembered as the name for Ivan’s policy, the oprichnina was also a literal physical territory — created in 1565 when Ivan successfully forced his nobles to give him absolute power over life and death in the appanage of the oprichnina.† Over the succeeding years, Ivan extended both the physical reach of that realm, and the reach of the dictatorial authority that it embodied — threatening the zemschina, a distinct geographical area where terrified boyars administered the incumbent, non-Ivan Russian state.

“Ivan’s open hostility towards the zemshchina could not fail to alarm its leaders,” not Maureen Perrie and Andrei Pavlov in this biography of Ivan the Terrible … and this fact could not fail to catalyze those much-feared internal foes.

It is quite probable in the circumstances that the idea of removing the tsar and transferring the throne to his cousin Prince Vladimir Staritskii might have been discussed among zemshchina boyars. Two foreign observers — the Germans Heinrich von Staden and Albert Schlichting, who both served in the oprichnina — refer to a conspiracy of the zemshchina boyars in favour of Vladimir. An unofficial Russian chronicle also mentions the ‘inclination’ of the opposition to promote Vladimir’s candidature for the Russian throne. But according to a chronicle account there was no overt conspiracy, only discussions (‘words’), for which the boyars who opposed the oprichnina paid a heavy price.

Our date’s principal, Ivan Fedorov, attracted Ivan’s attention in the ensuing investigation. A prince from a venerable noble family, Fedorov had been a pillar of the state, an important governor and military commander, for three-plus decades. It availed him little under Ivan’s suspicion.

Fedorov was placed in disgrace and exiled to Kolomna. Nobles and officials among his supporters were arrested and executed, and many of the equerry’s armed servants were exterminated. The oprichniki [Ivan’s personal army, the enforcers of the oprichnina -ed.] carried out several punitive raids against Fedorov’s lands. Many of the inhabitants were slaughtered (some were put to the sword, while others were herded into their cottages and burned alive). According to Staden, women and girls were stripped naked ‘and forced in that state to catch chickens in the fields’. Buildings were demolished, livestock was slaughtered and chancellery officials were put to death, along with about 300 boyars’ servants.

* A.K. Tolstoy also wrote a tragedy for the stage (banned in tsarist Russia), The Death of Ivan the Terrible.

** Barmi: an ornamental mantle or collar that comprised part of the royal regalia.


It’s the semicircle between Tsar Alexis‘s beard and his crucifix.

The term, now so dreadful in Russian historiography, originally denoted an inheritance of land left to a widow, as distinct from that left to her children.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,History,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Power,Put to the Sword,Russia,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Treason

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1664: Sawny Douglas, Chevy Chaser

Add comment September 10th, 2020 Headsman

From the Newgate Calendar:


SAWNY DOUGLAS

A Scottish Highwayman who laid England under toll, and took a Copy of “Chevy Chase” to Tyburn when he was hanged on 10th of September, 1664

SAWNY DOUGLAS, a Scotsman, was the son of a tanner, and born at Portpatrick in the shire of Galloway, where he lived till the unnatural Civil War broke out in 1641. Sawny at this time being very zealous on the side of the Kirk, and consequently against the King, entered himself into the service of the Parliament, was at the siege of Dundee, and boasted after that bloody action was over that he killed with his own hands no less than twenty-nine persons.

Those who have read the histories of that time will remember that Dundee was taken by storm, and that the garrison was put to the sword; which gave Sawny an opportunity to discover his cruelty.

After the restoration of King Charles II, when the Scots were reduced to obedience, Sawny found himself obliged to seek some other subsistence than the army.

He had now been a soldier about twenty years, and though he had never been advanced higher than to carry a halberd [i.e., a sergeant -ed.], yet he was something loth to lay down his commission. However, there was no opposing necessity, and he was obliged to submit, as well as many of his betters, who were glad they could come off thus, after having been so deeply concerned in the rebellion.

Coming into England, and being destitute of both money and bread, he was not long in resolving what course to take in order to supply himself. The highway, he thought, was as free for him as for anybody else, and he was both strong and desperate. But the question was, where should he get a horse and accoutrements? “What,” said he again, “should hinder my taking the first that comes in my way, and seems fit for my purpose?” Pursuant to this last resolution he kept on the main road, with a good crab-tree stick in his hand, till he saw a gentleman’s servant alone, well mounted, with pistols before him.

He had some question ready to ask, and after that another, till the poor footman was engaged in a discourse with him, and rode along gently by his side. At last Sawny observes an opportunity, and gives him an effectual knock on the pate, which, followed with four or five more, left him insensible on the ground, while our young adventurer rode off with the horse till he thought himself out of the way of any inquiry.

The first robbery he committed was in Maidenhead Thicket, in Berkshire, in those times a very noted haunt for highwaymen. The person he stopped was one Mr Thurston, at that time Mayor of Thornbury, in Gloucestershire. He got about eighteen pounds, and was so uncivil as to refuse the poor gentleman ten shillings to bear his charges home; which was all he required, and for which he begged very hard.

Another time he robbed the Duchess of Albemarle* of diamond rings to the value of two hundred pounds, besides a pearl necklace, rich bracelets and ear-rings. After this he came and took lodgings at the house of one Mr Knowles, an apothecary in Tuthil Street, Westminster, where he set up for a gentleman, appeared very fine, and made love to his landlord’s daughter, who was reputed to be a two thousand pounds fortune.

For some time he was very well received both by the young lady and her father; but when his money was gone, and they found him full of shifts, arts and evasions, they not only discarded him as a husband and son-in-law, but turned him fairly out of doors.

Sawny now took to the road again, and committed more robberies than before, ranging all over the north of England, and being often so fortunate as to escape justice when it pursued him. He moreover contracted a familiarity with Du Vall, the most generous-spirited highwayman that ever lived, which friendship continued till Death parted them by his deputy Jack Ketch.

Sawny’s last attempt was on the Earl of Sandwich,** who was afterwards admiral in the Dutch war, and unfortunately lost his life, together with his ship. This noble commander, having arms in the coach, resolved not to be insulted by a highwayman, and discharged a pistol into Sawny’s horse, which immediately dropping down under him, the servants came up and secured our bonny North Briton, who was thereupon committed to Newgate, and in less than a month after ordered for Tyburn.

The Ballad of Chevy Chase, a popular song that survives in several variants, tells the story of a great battle between Scotsmen and Englishmen — won by the Scottish side, as occurred in its likely real-life inspiration, the Battle of Otterburn (1388).

Much beloved on both halves of Britain, it survives in several variants to the present day. The ballad also directly inspired the naming of Chevy Chase, Maryland (which once contained a number of street names alluding to Otterburn), as well as the stage name of National Lampoon/Saturday Night Live comedian Cornelius Crane “Chevy” Chase.

While he was under sentence he behaved in a very profane and indecent manner, cursing the bellman for his bad English when he repeated the usual Memento the night before his execution. At St Sepulchre’s the next day, when the appointed ceremony was performed, instead of composing his countenance, and looking as a man in his condition ought to do, he only told the spectators that it was hard a man could not be suffered to go to the gallows in peace; and that he had rather be hanged twice over without ceremony, than once after this superstitious manner.

He read no Prayer Book, but carried the ballad of Chevy Chase [see sidebar -ed.] in his hand all the way to Tyburn. When he came thither he took no notice of the ordinary, but bid the hangman be speedy, and not make a great deal of work about nothing, or at most about a mere trifle. He died 10th of September, 1664, aged fifty-three, and was buried in Tyburn Road.

* There were only three legitimate Dukes of Albemarle. The first was ancient history, a casualty at Agincourt centuries before. Chronologically, this robbery victim should refer to the wife of the first Duke, who was also the great Roundhead commander — and indeed, the robber’s very own commander at Dundee — George Monck. However, the text might instead be an anachronistic invocation of the wife of the second Duke of Albemarle who attained notoriety, and great wealth, as the “Mad Duchess” even though she didn’t attain the title until 1669. These entries, especially the ones dating back to the 17th century, were full liable to crisscross the unmarked boundaries between history and legend.

** Not the Earl who gave us sammiches, but his ancestor.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Outlaws,Public Executions,Theft

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1943: Julius Fučík, Notes from the Gallows

1 comment September 8th, 2020 Headsman

Czechoslovakian journalist Julius Fučík was executed by the Third Reich on this date in 1943.

Nephew of a great composer of the same name, our Julius Fučík was an 18-year-old left-wing activist when the Social Democrat party he was a part of founded the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. Fučík and his pen grew up in this world, together generating a substantial corpus of essays and analysis on pregnant years.

Hitler’s occupation of Czechoslovakia drove his party and his work underground, which eventually resulted in his arrest.

He’d eventually be deported to Germany and hanged at Berlin’s Plötzensee Prison, but Fučík made his lasting fame to posterity through the clandestine diary notes, bursting with anticipation for a bright Communist future, that he scribbled during his initial detention at Prague’s Pankrác Prison from 1942-1943.

After the war, these would be published as Notes from the Gallows — a text so scriptural in Communist Czechoslovakia that it weighed like manacles.

In Milan Kundera‘s The Joke, one of the characters standing trial is browbeaten by a prosecutor using Fučík’s words, while Fučík’s “fervent, pure” portrait gazes in judgment. (Consonant with the stature of Notes from the Gallows, its author was saluted via many street names, public monuments, and so forth. Quite few still remain today, in Germany as well as the former Czechoslovakia.)

“‘Death, you have been long in coming. And yet it was my hope to postpone our meeting until many years hence. To go on living the life of a free man, to work more, love more, sing more, and wander the world over …'” I recognized Fucik’s Notes from the Gallows.

“‘I loved life, and for the sake of its beauty I went to war. I loved you, good people, rejoicing when you returned my love, suffering when you failed to understand me …'”

That text, written clandestinely in prison, then published after the war in a million copies, broadcast over the radio, studied in schools as required reading, was the sacred book of the era. Zemanek read out the most famous passages, the ones everyone knew by heart.

“‘Let sadness never be linked with my name. That is my testament to you, Papa, Mama, and sisters, to you, my Gustina, to you, Comrades, to everyone I have loved …'” The drawing of Fucik on the wall was a reproduction of the famous sketch by Max Svabinsky, the old Jugendstil painter, the virtuoso of allegories, plump women, butterflies, and everything delightful; after the war, or so the story goes, Svabinsky had a visit from the Comrades, who asked him to do a portrait of Fucik from a photograph, and Svabinsky had drawn him (in profile) in graceful lines in accord with his own taste: almost girlish, fervent, pure, and so handsome that people who had known him personally preferred Svabinsky’s sublime drawing to their memories of the living face.

Fučík, and the idealized Max Švabinský portrait of him — one of several times it’s been used on postage stamps.

Meanwhile Zemanek read on, everyone in the hall silent and attentive and the fat girl at the table unable to tear her eyes away from him; suddenly his voice grew firm, almost menacing; he had come to the passage about Mirek the traitor: “‘And to think that he was no coward, a man who did not take flight when bullets rained down on him at the Spanish front, who did not knuckle under when he ran the gauntlet of cruelties in a concentration camp in France. Now he pales under the club of a Gestapo agent and turns informer to save his skin. How superficial was his bravery if so few blows could shake it. As superficial as his convictions … He lost everything the moment he began to think of himself. To save his own life, he sacrificed the lives of his friends. He succumbed to cowardice and through cowardice betrayed them …'” Fucik’s handsome face hung on the wall as it hung in a thousand other public places in our country, and it was so handsome, with the radiant expression of a young girl in love, that when I looked at it I felt inferior not just because of my guilt, but because of my appearance as well. And Zemanek read on: “‘They can take our lives, can’t they, Gustina, but they cannot take our honor and love. Can you imagine, good people, the life we might have led if we had met again after all this suffering, met again in a free life, a life made beautiful by freedom and creation? The life we shall lead when we finally achieve everything we’ve longed for and fought for and I now die for?'” After the pathos of these last sentences Zemanek was silent.

In the post-Communist era Fučík has had a critical re-examination, with an updated version of Notes published now including for the first time the bits his widow had judiciously excised, wherein Fučík admits to breaking under torture — although he also records that he “confessed” only inaccurate information that would not endanger comrades. He’s also been knocked for failing to use his firearms on either his captors or himself at the time of his arrest.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Czechoslovakia,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Power,Torture,Wartime Executions

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1803: John Hatfield, Beauty of Buttermere deceiver

Add comment September 3rd, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1803, the Maid of Buttermere was widowed by the hangman. (She only used to be a Maid, of course.)

Before he was the presenter of BBC’s venerable In Our Time program, Melvyn Bragg wrote a historical novel about (and titled) The Maid of Buttermere

This legendary beauty bound for legendary sorrow entered literary annals and the nation’s romantic consciousness courtesy of a 1792 travelogue by Joseph Budworth (aka Joseph Palmer) titled A Fortnight’s Ramble to the Lakes of Westmoreland, Lancashire, and Cumberland. The 35-ish Budworth/Palmer met the girl in her Cumbrian village and honored or embarrassed her with a breathless chapter celebrating Mary Robinson’s allure:

Mary of Buttermere

Her mother and she weere spinning woollen yarn in the back kitchen. On our going into it, the girl flew away as swift as a mountain sheep, and it was not until our return from Scale Force that we could say we first saw her. She brought in part of our dinner, and seemed to be about fifteen. Her hair was thick and long, of a dark brown, and, though unadorned with ringlets, did not seem to want them; her face was a fine oval, with full eyes, and lips as red as vermilion; her cheeks had more of the lily than the rose; and, although she had never been out of the village (and I hope will have no ambition to wish it), she had a manner about her which seemed better calculated to set off dress, than dress her. She was a very Lavinia,

Seeming, when unadorn’d, adorn’d the most.

When we first saw her at her distaff, after she had got the better of her first fears, she looked an angel; and I doubt not but she is the reigning Lily of the Valley.

Ye travellers of the Lakes, if you visit this obscure place, such you will find the fair Mary of Buttermere.

After this, a side trip to ogle the Lily of the Valley became part of the regular itinerary of Lake District visitors for a couple of years. How Mary felt about, or leveraged, her strange celebrity can only be guessed at but ten years onward she was still unmarried.

Enter John Hatfield.

This fellow made his wastrel’s way by imposture and cozening, having charmed his way into the company of the Duke of Rutland and two different heiresses. He overdrafted all these fortunes and paid some visits to debtors’ prison.

By the time he turned up in the Lake District, he was impersonating an M.P. named Colonel Hope, and under this name wooed and won our fair Lavinia. The poet Samuel Coleridge, who happened to be in the area on a walking tour, wrote up the event for the Oct. 11 edition of London’s Morning Post.

Romantic Marriage

On the 2d instant a Gentleman, calling himself Alexander Augustus Hope, Member for Linlithgowshire, and brother to the Earl of Hopetown, was married at the church of Lorten, near Keswick, to a young woman, celebrated by the tourists under the name of The Beauty of Buttermere. To beauty, however, in the strict sense of the word, she has small pretensions, for she is rather gap-toothed, and somewhat pock-fretten. But her face is very expressive, and the expression extremely interesting, and her figure and movements are graceful to a miracle. She ought indeed to have been called the Grace of Buttermere, rather than the Beauty. — She is the daughter of an old couple, named Robinson, who keep a poor little pot-house at the foot of the small lake of Buttermere, with the sign of the Char, and has been all her life the attendant and waiter, for they have no servant. She is now about thirty, and has long attracted the notice of every visitor by her exquisite elegance, and the becoming manner in which she is used to fillet her beautiful long hair; likewise by the uncommonly fine Italian hand-writing in which the little bill was drawn out. Added to this, she has ever maintained an irreproachable character, is a good daughter, and a modest, sensible, and observant woman. That such a woman should find a husband in a man of rank and fortune, so very far above her sphere of life, is not very extraordinary; but there are other circumstances which add much to the interest of the story. Above two months ago, Mr. Hope went to Buttermere upon a fishing expedition, in his own carriage, but without any servants, and took up his abode at the house kept by the father of the beauty of Buttermere, in the neighbourhood of which he was called the Honourable Charles Hope, Member for Dumfries. Here he paid his addresses to a lady of youth, beauty, and good fortune, and obtained her consent. The wedding clothes were bought, and the day fixed for their marriage, when he feigned a pretence for absence, and married the beauty of Buttermere. The mistake in the name, the want of an establishment suited to his rank, and the circumstance of his attaching himself to a young lady of fortune, had excited much suspicion, and many began to consider him an impostor. [sic] His marriage, however, with a poor girl without money, family, or expectations, has weakened the suspicions entertained to his disadvantage, but the interest which the good people of Keswick take in the welfare of the beauty of Buttermere, has not yet suffered them to entirely subside, and they await with anxiety the moment when they shall receive decisive proofs that the bridegroom is the real person whom he describes himself to be. The circumstances of his marriage are sufficiently to satisfy us that he is no impostor; and, therefore, we may venture to congratulate the beauty of Buttermere upon her good fortune. The Hon. Alexander Hope, the member for Linlithgowshire, is a Colonel in the army, a Lieut. Colonel of the 14th regiment of foot, brother, to the Earl of Hopetoun, and Lieutenant Governor of Edinburgh Castle.

Unfortunately Coleridge labored under a false Hope, and the wide publicity of this union instantly validated the locals’ suspicions of the suitor: plenty of Londoners knew that the real Colonel Hope was off in Vienna. Within a month (Nov. 8) the very same journal printed a lengthy article under a less flattering headline:

Fraudulent Marriage

[The following advertisement has been issued for apprehending the pretended Colonel Hope, who lately married the Buttermere Beauty]

Notorious Imposter, Swindler, and Felon. — John Hatfield, who lately married a young woman (commonly called the Beauty of Buttermere), under an assumed name. Height about five feet ten inches, aged about 44, full face, bright eyes, thick eye-brows, strong but light beard, good complection with some colour, thick but not very prominent nose, smiling countenance, fine teeth, a scar on one of his cheeks near the chin; very long, thick, light hair, with a great deal of it grey, done up in a club; stout, square shouldered, full breast and chest, rather corpulent and stout limbed, but very active, and has rather a spring in his gait, with apparently a little hitch in bringing up one leg; the two middle fingers of his left hand are stiff from an old wound, and he frequently has a custom of putting them straight with his right: has something of the Irish brogue in his speech, fluent & elegant in his language, great command of words, frequently puts his hand to his heart, very fond of compliments, and generally addressing himself to persons most distinguished by rank or situation, attentive in the extreme to females, and likely to insinuate himself where there are young ladies; he was in America during the war, is fond of talking of his wounds and exploits there, and on military subjects, as well as of Hatfield Hall, and his estates in Derbyshire and Chester, of the antiquity of his family, which he pretends to trace to the Plantagenets; all which are shameful falsehoods, thrown out to deceive. He makes a boast of having often been engaged in duels; he has been a great traveller also (by his own account), and talks of Egypt, Turkey, Italy, and in short has a general knowledge of subjects, which, together with his engaging manner, is well calculated to impose on the credulous. He was seven years confined in Scarborough gaol, from whence he married, and removed into Devonshire, where he has basely deserted an amiable wife and young family. He had art enough to connect himself with some very respectable merchants in Devonshire as a partner in business, but having swindled them out of large sums of money he was made a separate bankrupt, in June last, and has never surrendered to his commission, by which means he is guilty of felony. He cloaks his deceptions under the mask of religion, appears fond of religious conversation, and makes a point of attending divine service and popular preachers. To consummate his villainies he has lately, under the very respectable name of the Hon. Col. Hope, betrayed an innocent but unfortunate young woman near the Lake of Buttermere. He was on th 25th of October last, at Ravenglass in Cumberland, wrapped in a sailor’s great coat and disguised, and is supposed to be now secreted in Liverpool, or some adjacent port, with a view to leave the country.

He was indeed captured, convicted on three counts of felony forgery related to his pretense, and hanged on market day at Carlisle.

For the Beauty of Buttermere, the addition of this humiliating personal tragedy only deepened her charm to the literary set. William Wordsworth‘s lengthy autobiographical poem The Prelude contains in Book VII a meditation on the now-older Mary as a doting mother settled in with a respectable farmer, her youthful beauty and her consequent fame both receding into time.

I mean, O distant Friend! a story drawn From our own ground, — the Maid of Buttermere, — And how, unfaithful to a virtuous wife Deserted and deceived, the Spoiler came And wooed the artless daughter of the hills, And wedded her, in cruel mockery Of love and marriage bonds. These words to thee Must needs bring back the moment when we first, Ere the broad world rang with the maiden’s name, Beheld her serving at the cottage inn; Both stricken, as she entered or withdrew, With admiration of her modest mien And carriage, marked by unexampled grace. We since that time not unfamiliarly Have seen her, — her discretion have observed, Her just opinions, delicate reserve, Her patience, and humility of mind Unspoiled by commendation and the excess Of public notice — an offensive light To a meek spirit suffering inwardly. From this memorial tribute to my theme I was returning, when, with sundry forms Commingled — shapes which met me in the way That we must tread — thy image rose again, Maiden of Buttermere! She lives in peace Upon the spot where she was born and reared; Without contamination doth she live In quietness, without anxiety: Beside the mountain chapel, sleeps in earth Her new-born infant, fearless as a lamb That, thither driven from some unsheltered place, Rests underneath the little rock-like pile When storms are raging. Happy are they both — Mother and child! — These feelings, in themselves Trite, do yet scarcely seem so when I think On those ingenuous moments of our youth Ere we have learnt by use to slight the crimes And sorrows of the world. Those simple days Are now my theme; and, foremost of the scenes, Which yet survive in memory, appears One, at whose centre sate a lovely Boy, A sportive infant, who, for six months’ space, Not more, had been of age to deal about Articulate prattle — Child as beautiful As ever clung around a mother’s neck, Or father fondly gazed upon with pride. There, too, conspicuous for stature tall And large dark eyes, beside her infant stood The mother; but, upon her cheeks diffused, False tints too well accorded with the glare From play-house lustres thrown without reserve On every object near. The Boy had been The pride and pleasure of all lookers-on In whatsoever place, but seemed in this A sort of alien scattered from the clouds. Of lusty vigour, more than infantine He was in limb, in cheek a summer rose Just three parts blown — a cottage-child — if e’er, By cottage-door on breezy mountain-side, Or in some sheltering vale, was seen a babe By Nature’s gifts so favoured. Upon a board Decked with refreshments had this child been placed ‘His’ little stage in the vast theatre, And there he sate, surrounded with a throng Of chance spectators, chiefly dissolute men And shameless women, treated and caressed; Ate, drank, and with the fruit and glasses played, While oaths and laughter and indecent speech Were rife about him as the songs of birds Contending after showers. The mother now Is fading out of memory, but I see The lovely Boy as I beheld him then Among the wretched and the falsely gay, Like one of those who walked with hair unsinged Amid the fiery furnace. Charms and spells Muttered on black and spiteful instigation Have stopped, as some believe, the kindliest growths. Ah, with how different spirit might a prayer Have been preferred, that this fair creature, checked By special privilege of Nature’s love, Should in his childhood be detained for ever! But with its universal freight the tide Hath rolled along, and this bright innocent, Mary! may now have lived till he could look With envy on thy nameless babe that sleeps, Beside the mountain chapel, undisturbed. Four rapid years had scarcely then been told Since, travelling southward from our pastoral hills, I heard, and for the first time in my life, The voice of woman utter blasphemy — Saw woman as she is, to open shame Abandoned, and the pride of public vice; I shuddered, for a barrier seemed at once Thrown in that from humanity divorced Humanity, splitting the race of man In twain, yet leaving the same outward form. Distress of mind ensued upon the sight And ardent meditation. Later years Brought to such spectacle a milder sadness, Feelings of pure commiseration, grief For the individual and the overthrow Of her soul’s beauty; farther I was then But seldom led, or wished to go; in truth The sorrow of the passion stopped me there.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Pelf,Public Executions

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1955: Emmett Till lynched

Add comment August 28th, 2020 Headsman

Emmett Till was lynched on this date in 1955.

He’s surely the most recognizable and symbolically powerful of America’s many lynch victims, thanks in large measure to his mother’s Mamie Till’s insistence on an open-coffin funeral that put Emmett’s mutilated face in front of media consumers worldwide.

In its narrow particulars, it resembles more closely a private vendetta than the mob justice evoked by a term like “lynch law”: in the dark hours after midnight the night of August 27-28, two white Mississippians, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, barged into the home of a sharecropper named Moses “Preacher” Wright and at gunpoint forced him to surrender his nephew. Chicago-raised and thus insufficiently alert to the full rigor of the color line, young Emmett had transgressed it a few days prior by apparently* hitting on Bryant’s wife, boasting of his prowess with white girls up north.

In retaliation for this offense, the two intruders bundled Emmett into their truck, took him to a barn where they bludgeoned him into the deformed horror that later shocked so many newspaper subscribers — after which they finished him off with a gun and dumped his remains into the Tallahatchie River.

While this was not as exalted as the more recognizably execution-esque summary justice of the whole town, no reader in this year of our lord 2020 can fail to recognize the wanton self-appropriation of policing power by vigilantes justifiably confident in their impunity. This informal extension of the state’s legitimate violence via extralegal but allied actors is a hallmark of lynch law, however its definitional boundaries are drawn.

And indeed an all-white jury predictably acquitted the killers in what they later acknowledged was an act of race-based jury nullification. In a jaw-dropping post-trial Look magazine interview, the pair — shielded from a “double jeopardy” re-trial by their acquittal — matter-of-factly admitted the murder. To the reporter’s eyes they behaved as if they “don’t feel they have anything to hide; they have never regarded themselves as being in legal jeopardy. Not even psychologically are they on the defensive. They took it for granted before the trial that every white neighbor, including every member of the jury and every defense attorney, had assumed that they had indeed killed the young Negro. And since the community had swarmed to their defense, Milam and Bryant assumed that the ‘community,’ including most responsible whites in Mississippi, had approved the killing.”

Yet Till as portrayed by his executioners was a far finer man than they.

Their intention was to “just whip him… and scare some sense into him.” And for this chore, Big Milam knew “the scariest place in the Delta.” He had come upon it last year hunting wild geese. Over close to Rosedale, the Big River bends around under a bluff. “Brother, she’s a 100-foot sheer drop, and she’s a 100 feet deep after you hit.”

Big Milam’s idea was to stand him up there on that bluff, “whip” him with the .45, and then shine the light on down there toward that water and make him think you’re gonna knock him in.

“Brother, if that won’t scare the Chicago ——-, hell won’t.”

But under these blows Bobo never hollered — and he kept making the perfect speeches to insure martyrdom.

Bobo: “You bastards, I’m not afraid of you. I’m as good as you are. I’ve ‘had’ white women. My grandmother was a white woman.”

Milam: “Well, what else could we do? He was hopeless. I’m no bully; I never hurt a nigger in my life. I like niggers — in their place — I know how to work ’em. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are gonna stay in their place. Niggers ain’t gonna vote where I live. If they did, they’d control the government. They ain’t gonna go to school with my kids. And when a nigger gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he’s tired o’ livin’. I’m likely to kill him. Me and my folks fought for this country, and we got some rights. I stood there in that shed and listened to that nigger throw that poison at me, and I just made up my mind. ‘Chicago boy,’ I said, ‘I’m tired of ’em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. Goddam you, I’m going to make an example of you — just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.'”

Taken to the riverbank where he’d be slain, Emmett Till bravely spat on his killers’ last offer of domineering clemency.

They stood silently … just hating one another.

Milam: “Take off your clothes.”

Slowly, Bobo pulled off his shoes, his socks. He stood up, unbuttoned his shirt, dropped his pants, his shorts.

He stood there naked.

It was Sunday morning, a little before 7.

Milam: “You still as good as I am?”

Bobo: “Yeah.”

Milam: “You still ‘had’ white women?”

Bobo: “Yeah.”

That big .45 jumped in Big Milam’s hand. The youth turned to catch that big, expanding bullet at his right ear. He dropped.

* The specifics of what transpired at the Bryants’ grocery to trigger the lynching have been finely parsed and disputed ever since 1955. At a maximally “incriminating” interpretation, he made a crude but unthreatening pass at Mrs. Bryant. By other readings the whole thing might have been merely a misunderstanding. In this author’s opinion, indulging the question of whether Emmett Till was “actually innocent” of wolf-whistling a white woman concedes far too much ground at the outset to his murderers.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Children,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Lynching,Mississippi,No Formal Charge,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Sex,Shot,Summary Executions,USA

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Feast Day of Saint Bartholomew

Add comment August 24th, 2020 Headsman

August 24 is the feast day* of Saint Bartholomew the Apostle, an original companion of Christ who is silent as the grave when it comes to the Gospels** but holds a distinguished place in artistic history as Christianity’s best-known flayed martyr.

(And of course, a distinguished place in sectarian bloodshed history thanks to the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre during the French Wars of Religion.)


A fierce Bartholomew brandishing his flayed skin in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment.


Marco d’Agrate shows off his anatomical expertise in this sculpture at the Milan Cathedral, which he arrogantly signed “I was not made by Praxiteles but by Marco d’Agrate.” (cc) image by Latente Flickr.


This flinchingly realistic depiction of the skin being cut off the muscle comes from Caravaggio disciple Valentin de Boulogne. (cc) image by livioandronico2013.


This late 16th century fresco by (speculatively) Niccolo Circignani in Rome’s Basilica of Santi Nereo e Achilleo perhaps alludes to the Ottomans’ 1571 flaying execution of a Venetian commander.

* Per the Catholic tradition. For Orthodox Christians, the feast is observed on June 11; in the Coptic church, it occurs on the first day of Thout which currently corresponds to September 11 or 12.

** Bartholomew’s name does go on several apocryphal texts.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Execution,Flayed,God,Gruesome Methods,Martyrs,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Uncertain Dates

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