The wonderful blog Ghosts of D.C. calls our attention (via SanhoTree) to a fabulously gruesome botched hanging in the nation’s capital on this day in 1880.
Stone was condemned for a brutal double-throat-slashing attack on his estranged wife, Alberta, and her sister, Lavinia Pitcher. Those two women lived together in Northwest D.C. along with Alberta’s two children by Stone; they had already had to shoo away the husband on previous occasions.
On Oct. 5, 1878, Stone forced his way into their residence and attacked Lavinia — she just happened to be in the sitting room when Stone burst the door. Pursuing her into the yard, Stone slashed her throat with a razor. Alberta came rushing down the stair to her shrieking sister’s aid, and Stone turned on her and delivered a similar injury. Alberta died the next morning; Lavinia survived.
Stone was chased down by neighbors who had been roused by the very noisy assault, which citizen captors then fended off attempts to exact summary justice until police arrived to take Stone into custody.
So that’s the crime. But get a load of the punishment.
Stone was hanged in a prison courtyard from a gallows 20 feet high, with just a five-foot drop of the rope. The details are important here because you might think from the story that follows that he was dropped almost all the way to the ground: the violence of the noose striking tends to cause a hanged body to oscillate. “He’s only got to be an inch or two off-centre and he’ll swing like a bloody pendulum when he’s dropped,” the executioner Syd Dernley remembered being told during his 20th century training program.
You can see pretty easily why that’s pertinent from the Washington Post‘s account of what happened when the trap was dropped.
Instead of the dangling and possible convulsed form of the dying man being as expected, all were horrified at seeing the body standing for a moment headless on the ground, the blood spurting in thin jets from the neck. Before anyone had time to realize what had occurred the decapitated trunk fell back, prone. The head had shot backwards also and bounded against the frame of the scaffold, falling about four or five feet from the body, the bleeding base being uppermost.
Falling 20 feet to land arrow-straight upright while your black-bagged was torn off by a rope must be something like tossing a coin and having it come up … sides.
Physicians coolly retrieved the head from its bloodied sack, and found Stone’s visage “placid, and the lips moved as if about to say something.” (New York Times) It was sewed back to the murderer’s formerly blood-jetting neck for burial.
On this date in 1864, a bustling market Saturday in Port-au-Prince, Haiti was enlivened with the public executions of eight Haitians for cannibalistic murder.
It was perhaps the signal event in a long-running campaign against vodou (voodoo, vaudoux) in whose service the murder was supposedly committed. The charge sheet had it that a man intent on an occult rite to propitiate the spirit world had slaughtered his own young niece and with several friends and family devoured her remains.
It made for some great copy.
“The eye of the law has penetrated into the midst of the bloody mysteries of this religious cannibalism, against which all the teachings of Catholicism have remained powerless,” breathed the world press in salacious revelry.
Sketch of the Bizoton Affair accused from Harper’s Weekly.
Within Haiti and without, vodou itself stood in the dock alongside its adherents. This was quite likely the very point of the trial.
The popular syncretic religion, heavily derived from Haitian slaves’ African roots, represented to Haitian elites and European observers alike all that was most barbarous about the one place that had run white slavers off. Just a few years ago as I write this, the U.S. televagelist Pat Robertson claimed that Haiti had come by its liberty due to a long-ago pact with the devil. That “pact” was a secret vodou ceremony launching the rebellion that became the Haitian Revolution.
Vodou persisted throughout the 19th century — it still persists today — among Haiti’s underclasses. Though frequently persecuted, vodou enjoyed the support and personal devotion of Emperor Faustin Soulouque, a former slave who ruled Haiti in the 1850s. When Soulouque was overthrown by Fabre Geffrard in a coup backed by Haiti’s elites, dissociating from vodou was one of his principal tasks.
As the history blogger Mike Dash explains in a detailed exploration of the case’s background, the deeply Catholic Geffrard had come to an arrangement with the Vatican that
committed the president to making Catholicism Haiti’s state religion — and the executions of February 1864, which so clearly demonstrated Christian “orthodoxy,” took place just weeks before the priests of the first mission to the country arrived from Rome. The trial was followed up, moreover, by a redrafting of Haiti’s Code Pénal, which increased the fines levied for “sorcery” sevenfold and added that “all dances and other practices that … maintain the spirit of fetishism and superstition in the population will be considered spells and punished with the same penalties.”
The original records of the trial are long lost, meaning the surviving accounts are typically the very partisan ones already convinced that pagan vodou cannibalism was rampant in Haiti. The British charge d’affairesSpenser St. John* has one of the best-known and most influential from his 1887 memoir of Haiti. (St. John attended the trial personally with other European dignitaries.)
St. John considered the case self-evident, and dwelt on its lurid revelations of the cannibalism scene — the flaying of little Claircine’s body, the palm of the hand savored by one cannibal as the choicest morsel. Cannibal testimony was St. John’s own choice morsel; in his view, Haitians extremely “sensitive to foreign public opinion” obstinately threw up a collective wall of silence on a practice that “every foreigner in Hayti” just knew was everywhere around him. But even when St. John published, after another 20-odd years past the Bizoton trial to gather evidence of anthropophagism, all that he managed to produce were two highly dubious second-hand accounts of white men allegedly sneaking into vodou ceremonies under cover of blackface and reporting the sacrifice of children. In the hands of Victorian writers prone to still further embroidery these few sketchy dispatches — and the notorious Bizoton case — would help to cement vodou’s sinister reputation.
St. John’s American counterpart was less impressed with the show trial, its moral panic scenario, and the thrashings administered to the accused to force their confessions.
It was not a fair trial; the evidence was extracted by torture. There was a report in circulation. It caused great excitement. Government took it up, and was determined to convict, because it was a seeming stain on their race. The verdict was forced.
Per St. John, the execution itself was badly botched. “The prisoners, tied in pairs” were “fired [at] with such inaccuracy” by their respective shooting teams “that only six fell wounded on the first discharge.” It took half an hour and much reloading to complete the executions, “and the incidents were so painful, that the horror at the prisoners’ crimes was almost turned into pity at witnessing their unnecessary sufferings.”
* As a consular official in a previous post on the opposite side of the globe, St. John accompanied two of the earliest ascents of Mount Kinabalu in Borneo; as a consequence, one of that mountain’s peaks bears his name.
On August 2, 1875, Robert Casey was shot and killed by William Wilson in Lincoln with a bullet fired from a Winchester rifle. Wilson was tried, convicted by a jury and sentenced to be hanged.
On December 10, 1875, the appointed day, a large crowd gathered in the Lincoln* jail yard to witness the hanging. Ash Upson** was present as a representative of the press, but left shortly after the trap was sprung, probably to get a drink.
After being suspended by a rope for nine and one-half minutes by the Sheriff’s watch, Wilson’s body was taken down from the scaffold and placed in the coffin.
Spectators nudged the Sheriff and told him that Wilson was not yet dead.
Red-faced and embarrassed the Sheriff and several helpers lifted William Wilson from his wooden coffin, escorted him once more to the scaffold. The rope was again tied around the condemned man’s neck and he was suspended for an additional twenty minutes, at the end of which time there was not much doubt that the demands of the law had been satisfied.
Father Antonio Lamy, twenty-eight years old, a native of France, a nephew of Archbishop John B. Lamy of Santa Fe, had been a reluctant witness to the hanging … Padre Lamy had been in Lincoln on a missionary tour. He called at the jail to offer spiritual consolation to William Wilson, soon to be hanged. Wilson prepared himself for death under Father Lamy’s direction and accepted his offer of company to the scaffold.
The hanging and rehanging of Wilson proved too much for the frail young man of God.
Rather desperately ill, suffering from chills and high temperature, the Padre insisted on returning on horseback to Manzano a few days after William Wilson had been hanged. Arriving in Manzano, Father Lamy’s condition rapidly became worse. He died there on February 6, 1876.
The remains of the priest were buried under the floor of the parish church at Manzano. The story of Padre Lamy’s death has for many years been kept alive in the Manzano community. His grave in the church has long been a silent sermon in opposition to the brutality of capital punishment.
* Lincoln was a little hit and miss with its necktie parties: it’s also the town where Billy the Kid escaped a hanging.
(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog here. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)
“I have a right to choose the way I die!”
— Douglas Van Vlack, convicted of murder, hanging, Idaho.
Executed December 9, 1937
Van Vlack kidnapped his ex-wife and killed her, as well as two police officers. A few hours before his hanging was scheduled, Van Vlack broke away from his guards and scrambled over the cell block to cling to the ceiling rafters. He stayed in the ceiling for a half an hour as his lawyer and the prison chaplain begged for him to come down; he jumped thirty feet below just before the guards entered the cell block with a net. Van Vlack’s hanging was unsuccessful; technically he died the next day, December 10, after a few hours in a coma.
But when his body was laid out on a stretcher for disposal and the official witnesses were filing out of the death chamber, Rodrigues began showing signs of life.
It was “a defect in the garrote or due to careless adjustment of the metal band which fits about the victim’s neck to cause strangulation,” an Associated Press wire report ran.*
In present-day Iran, one of the most aggressive death penalty states going, a drug dealer managed to survive a hanging just weeks ago as I write this in 2013. That man got shipped to the hospital and placed on life support, with the justice minister eventually announcing that he wouldn’t be noosed again.
With nary a pause to await further instruction, the execution-chamber guards forcibly subdued Rodrigues, who had reanimated sufficiently to “put up a furious struggle.” They forced their thrashing victim back onto the garrote, double-checked the metal band this time,** and tightened it until it asphyxiated Rodrigues a second time … then left the now-actually-lifeless body on the machine a full 22 minutes to make good and certain of their work.
* Here quoted from the Oct. 30, 1927 Los Angeles Times. Also see the New York Times from the same date for a truncated paraphrase of the same report.
This entry in our Corpses Strewn series on the October 1698 extirpation of the Streltsy is courtesy of the diaries of Austrian diplomat Johann Georg Korb, an eyewitness to the events.
This differed confiderably from those that preceded. The manner of it was quite different, and hardly credible. Three hundred and thirty at a time were led out together to the fatal axe’s stroke, and embrued the whole plain with native but impious blood: for all the Boyars, Senators of the realm, Dumnoi, Diaks, and so forth, that were present at the council constituted against the rebel Strelitz, had been summoned by the Czar’s command to Bebraschentsko, and enjoined to take upon themselves the hangman’s office. Some struck the blow unsteadily, and with trembling hands assumed this new and unaccustomed task. The most unfortunate stroke among all the Boyars was given by him whose erring sword struck the back instead of the neck, and thus chopping the Strelitz almost in halves, would have roused him to desperation with pain, had not Alexasca* reached the unhappy wretch a surer blow of an axe on the neck.
Prince Romadonowski, under whose command previous to the mutiny these four regiments were to have watched the turbulent gatherings in Poland on the frontier, beheaded, according to order, one out of each regiment. Lastly, to every Boyar a Strelitz was led up, whom he was to behead. The Czar, in his saddle, looked on at the whole tragedy.
Peter scornfully reproached many of the nobles who trembled at being compelled to behead some rebels; adding in a strain of sanguinary justice, “No victim is more acceptable to the Deity than a wicked man.” Mentchikof, however, did not labour under such delicate feelings; for as a prelude to the execution of one hundred and fifty Strelitz, he drove through the streets of Moscow in a sledge, brandishing a naked sword, and boasted of his adroitness in cutting off twenty heads. (Source)
This isn’t exactly the most historically important execution, but as the Newgate Calendar says, “The circumstance which attended the execution of this unfortunate man alone entitles him to a place in our pages, for otherwise his case is void of interest.”
What follows is the Calendar’s entry, which comes verbatim from the Aug. 23 London Times.
He was apprehended for a highway robbery, and convicted at the Old Bailey, when he received sentence of death. From the time of his conviction, he either affected, or suffered, complete insanity; but this did not release him from the consequence of his sentence; and, on Monday, August 22d, 1814, he was executed in front of Newgate, along with William Henry Lye, for burglary; John Mitchell, for forgery; Francis Sturgess, and Michael Mahoney, for highway robbery; and John Field, alias Jonathan Wild [not that one -ed.], for burglary. By half past six o’clock the Old Bailey, and houses adjacent, were crowded to great excess. At half past seven Mahoney was brought forward, for the purpose of being disencumbered of his irons. While his irons were knocking off, it was found necessary to search for a knife to cut some part of the cordage, which confined the irons. Mahoney, seeing this, stooped, and, with an Herculean effort, tore it asunder. This being the only Catholic, the Rev. Mr. Devereux attended him in constant prayer, in which he joined most fervently. Sturgess, Field, and Mitchell, conducted themselves with great propriety. The unfortunate Ashton had been in a state of insanity since the receipt of the awful warrant for his execution. In the Press Yard he distorted his countenance horribly. He was the fifth who mounted the scaffold, and ran up the steps with great rapidity; and, having gained the summit of the platform, began to kick and dance, and often exclaimed, ‘I’m Lord Wellington!’ The Rev. Mr. Cotton, who officiated for the first time as Ordinary, enjoined him to prayer, to which he paid little attention, and continued to clap his hands as far as he was permitted by the extent of the cord. Mitchell often invited him to prayer. All that could be done was ineffectual, and it was necessary to have two men to hold him during the awful ceremony. When they released him for the purpose of the Lord’s Prayer being said, he turned round, and began to dance, and vociferated, Look at me; ‘I am Lord Wellington!’ At twenty minutes past eight o’clock the signal was given, and the platform fell. Scarcely, however, had the sufferers dropped, before, to the awe and astonishment of every beholder, Ashton rebounded from the rope, and was instantaneously seen dancing near the Ordinary, and crying out very loudly, and apparently unhurt, ‘What do ye think of me? Am I not Lord Wellington now?’ then danced, clapped his hands, and huzzaed. At length the executioner was compelled to get up the scaffold, and to push him forcibly from the place which he stood.
Quite a baptism for the Rev. Horace Salusbury Cotton’s very first gig as the Ordinary. Cotton noted Ashton’s remarkable behavior in his execution diary; the relevant pages can be seen here.
Nothing daunted, Cotton enjoyed a 25-year run in the position (he was the cleric Charles Dickens saw at work when the writer visited Newgate in 1835), and “enjoyed” really does seem like the right word. “He was a robust, rosy, well-fed, unctuous individual, whose picture may be seen in Cruikshank‘s plate of the Press yard in Pierce Egan‘s ‘Life in London,’” wrote Horace Bleackley. “His condemned sermons were more terrific than those of any of his predecessors, and he was censured by the authorities for ‘harrowing the prisoner’s feelings unnecessarily’ in the case of Henry Fauntleroy, the banker.”
Dr Cotton, Ordinary of Newgate, Announcing the Death Warrant, by a prisoner named W. Thomson. This 1826 watercolor is at the Tate gallery.
On this date in 1812, William Booth was hanged at Stafford for counterfeiting.
Booth might have murdered his brother John, who was found beaten to death in a Warwickshire stable in 1808. He defeated that charge for want of evidence.
But he would not be two times lucky before the bar.
As a “farmer” living on 200 acres, he enjoyed the privacy to build his own mint, complete with forged royal stamps for churning out banknotes — more than enough cause to hang a man should he be caught, which Booth was. He was a difficult fellow to arrest, the Bury and Norwich Post reported (Aug. 19, 1812), because his farmhouse turned out to be “a little fort, full of trap-doors, and barred and bolted like a bastile.”
Booth’s engineering acumen might have come in handy for his executioners. As a broadside notes, the gallows Booth
ascended with a firm and steady step, but turned his back upon the populace almost immediately; after some time spent in prayer, the rope was adjusted, and a signal being given by the malefactor, (throwing his handkerchief from him that he was ready to submit to his fate,) the drop sunk, when, shocking to relate, by the cord slipping from the fatal tree, the unfortunate man fell from the top of the gallows upon the platform, a distance of eight or ten feet, where he remained motionless and insensible for some minutes.
The stunned prisoner was gradually revived, and redoubled his pieties. The fall must have rendered the noose unusable, because for some reason a delay ensued sufficient to stretch out the proceedings to two full hours, all of which Booth spent in the shadow of the gallows. Even when they finally had him trussed up and ready to hang again, they needed a do-over: Booth once more dropped his handkerchief, but the drop embarrassingly failed to dislodge. Booth, who had twice prepared himself to walk to the brink of death only to twice survive, asked for his handkerchief back once the apparatus had been fixed so that he could re-drop it.
Having faced two capital trials, and two executions, Booth couldn’t even get buried right on the first time. Apparently a re-drawing of the county line required his remains to be exhumed and re-interred, giving rise to a ballad, “Twice Tried, Twice Hung, Twice Buried”.
(Although this version proposes twice hanged and once drowned: suffice to say, Booth lived an interesting death.)
On this date in 1699, Madame Angelique-Nicole Tiquet lost her beautiful head … eventually.
The talk of every Parisian in the spring of 1699 for attempting the life of her husband, Angelique-Nicole Carlier had been well-known in Paris circles since the 1670s; coincidentally or not, that was a period when a perceived boom in “husband-killing” burgeoned the phenomenon into an outright moralpanic.
In those bygone days, Mademoiselle Carlier did her manslaying metaphorically, wielding only her limitless charms (not excluding a wealthy inheritance left by her industrious albeit untitled late father). This reputed “masterpiece of nature,” alas, exchanged her magnum opus for deniers on the livre when she succumbed to the suit of Claude Tiquet, a respected councilor of the Parlement of Paris so bedazzled by the young woman that he did not pause to consider her liberalities. Although quite past her in age, Tiquet won her hand with the promise of wealth so capacious that he wooed his intended with a bouquet of flowers studded with 15,000 l. worth of diamonds — and plied her aunt with still more largesse to advance his case.
But actually, Monsieur Tiquet was not wealthy. He stretched his fortune to acquire these amorous bribes as, let us say, investments in a happy future.
“Thus they united their fortunes for life, equally blinded as to each other,” George Henry Borrow wrote. “Such are the steps that lead to the most unhappy destinies.”
The wife’s prodigality — and her belated discovery as she blew through the putative family fortune that it was he who had married the money, and not she — soon brought domestic relations to a frosty pass.
Madame kindled a more edifying romance with a young captain of the guards; Monsieur strove in vain to check her moves with locked doors and snooping skulks. They separated to distinct wings of the family house, seeing one another only rarely — and in deathly silence — while each schemed his or her embittered schemes. Years they wasted at this intolerable impasse.
Despairing at last of being rid of either her horrible husband or his horrible debts, Madame Tiquet took her plotting far enough to compass her spouse’s death. “It is impossible,” she cried in one unguarded moment to a friend, “for me to have any enjoyment of myself while my husband lives, who is in too good health for me to look for such a quick revolution of fortune.”
So she engaged the services of her porter and of a freelance villain, and on the evening of April 8, 1699, these two assassins ambushed Claude Tiquet as he returned from a friend’s house and shot him three times. One ball only barely missed the heart. Tiquet survived, and he demanded those who came to his aid take him not to his own house but back to his friend’s. Of enemies, he said, “I have none but my own wife.”
This scenario speedily became the talk of Paris, and it did not take long for sentiment to coalesce against the wife. The hired assassins implicated Madame Tiquet in a years-long conspiracy to murder her husband whose previous installments — a missed ambush; a failed poisoning — had come to naught. Both Madame Tiquet and the porter, Jacques Moura, received a sentence of death, each appropriate to their respective stations: she to lose her neck, and he to swing from his.
There nevertheless remained some ambiguity about her real guilt, for the evidence was mostly circumstance and inference and colored by the purely titillating qualities of the public scandal. And then there was the fact that she was an attractive woman.
Angelique’s brother, a guardsman like the condemned woman’s lover, organized a petition for pardon. Surprisingly, even Monsieur Tiquet threw himself at Louis XIV‘s feet to plead for the life of his would-be murderess and the mother of his children. But it is said that when the Sun King wavered in his firmness, the Archbishop of Paris himself insisted upon the sentence. That prelate’s warning that save Madame Tiquet’s head should drop, no man could feel safe in his house must have fallen very ominously from the lips of the executive manager of Parisian confessionals.
Madame Tiquet heard the final failure of her appeals this day from an official who in the springtime of life had himself numbered among Mademoiselle Carlier’s suitors. And because the condemned would still not consent to confess the plot, that admirer was further obliged to order her to the cruel water torture to extract her statement.
In this procedure, the poor sinner is stretched out as on the rack, and eight pots of water painfully forced down the gullet. Madame Tiquet endured only a single pot before she calculated her inability to withstand the procedure and admitted all. Even so she continued to insist on the innocence of her lover: “I took care not to let him into the secret, else I had lost his esteem forever!”
These justice-satisfying preliminaries dispensed with, the condemned were conducted to the Place de Greve to suffer the penalty of the law. Thousands crowded the streets and windows, as was becoming the style for the execution spectacle of the era. Genuinely contrite or else wanting to play the part, she conversed humbly with her confessor and her condemned porter, exchanging absolutions and exhortations to die with Christian firmness.
Proceedings were delayed by a thunderstorm, although Madame Tiquet showed nothing but equanimity to wait at the foot of the scaffold while the weather passed. Jacques Moura hanged first: the undercard attraction.
Then the talk of all the town mounted those beams to give her own final performance, one remarked upon by all observers for its poise and stagecraft. The later memoirs of the Sanson family, written after that name inscribed itself on the guillotine during the French Revolution, dramatized the scene. It includes the regrettable inability of their own ancestor Charles Sanson de Longval* to equal the doomed woman’s grace under pressure.
When Angelique’s turn was come, she advanced, gracefully bowing to my ancestor, and holding out her hand, that he might help her to ascend the steps. He took with respect the fingers which were soon to be stiffened by death. Mdme. Tiquet then mounted on the scaffold with the imposing and majestic step which had always been admired in her. She knelt on the platform, said a short prayer, and, turning to her confessor,
“I thank you for your consolations and kind words; I shall bear them to the Lord.”
She arranged her head-dress and long hair; and, after kissing the block, she looked at my ancestor, and said:
“Sir, will you be good enough to show me the position. I am to take?”
Sanson de Longval, impressed by her look, had but just the strength to answer that she had only to put her head on the block.
Angelique obeyed, and said again:
“Am I well thus?”
A cloud passed before my ancestor’s eyes; he raised with both hands the heavy two-edged sword which was used for the purpose of decapitation, described with it a kind of semicircle, and let the blade fall with its full weight on the neck of the handsome victim.
The blood spurted out, but the head did not fall. A cry of horror rose from the crowd.
Sanson de Longval struck again; again the hissing of the sword was heard, but the head was not separated from the body. The cries of the crowd were becoming threatening.
Blinded by the blood which spurted at every stroke, Sanson brandished his weapon a third time with a kind of frenzy. At last the head rolled at his feet. His assistants picked it up and placed it on the block, where it remained for some time; and several witnesses asserted that even in death it retained its former calmness and beauty.
For an interesting consideration of the Tiquet affair, including her posthumous use in polemical melodrama either critiquing or celebrating her repentance of a life of iniquity, there’s a freely downloadable academic paper here. It’s by the author of this wild true-crime mystery unfolding elsewhere in France at just about the same time.
* Charles Sanson de Longval was the first Sanson executioner, the founder of the dynasty of headsmen. He had fallen into the dishonorable profession from a much more respectable social station and had been transplanted to Paris from Rouen only a few years before.
Thanks for the guest post to Nancy Bilyeau, the author of The Crown and The Chalice, thrillers set in Tudor England. The main character is Joanna Stafford, a Dominican novice.
On this date in 1541, 68-year-old Margaret Pole, countess of Salisbury, was beheaded within the confines of the Tower of London, as befitted her rank. She was cousin to Henry VIII’s mother, and well trusted by the king for years. Yet this intelligent and dignified aristocrat died without trial in a horribly botched execution that is considered a low point of Henry’s reign.
Margaret knew better than most how difficult it was to survive royal storms if your family was close to the throne. Yet despite all her efforts to stay out of danger, it was her family that doomed her to the axe in the end.
When Catherine of Aragon arrived in England to marry Prince Arthur, Margaret became one of her ladies and a deep friendship sprang up. Years later, when Margaret was a relatively young widow, tall and red-haired, and Catherine was married to Arthur’s brother, Henry VIII, Margaret was singled out for several great honors. In 1512, the king gave Margaret many of the lands of her Warwick grandfather and a family title. She became the countess of Salisbury in her own right.
Margaret was selected by king and queen to be the governor for the 9-year-old Princess Mary, their only child. In a separate, vast household, she would be the one to guide Mary toward her destiny as heir to the throne. Some of Margaret’s own children made excellent marriages, such as her daughter Ursula to the oldest son of the duke of Buckingham. Her son, Reginald, began to shine as a cleric and intellectual; Henry VIII paid for his studies at the University of Padua.
The Pole family fortunes crashed — as so many others did — after Anne Boleyn became the second wife of Henry VIII. Not surprisingly, Margaret had sided with Catherine and Mary during the divorce struggle. When in 1533, the king’s men came to Mary’s household to claim her jewels as part of Henry’s move to bastardize his daughter, Margaret refused to hand them over. She was then discharged from her office by the king, who called her a “fool.”
Margaret did and said nothing else that was publicly critical of the king. She never saw Catherine of Aragon again and rarely saw Mary, to whom she had been a second mother. She spent her time in country retirement. She adhered to traditional Catholic doctrine, and priests lived in her homes. This was not illegal, but as religious reform gained steam, it brought her under scrutiny.
However, from the safety of France and Italy, her son, Reginald, chose to make public remarks sharply critical of Henry VIII. He published a treatise in 1536 attacking the king’s claim to superiority over the English church and calling on the princes of Europe to depose him. The king was enraged.
Margaret and her oldest son, Henry Pole, Lord Montagu, wrote Reginald letters pleading with him to cease his attacks. “Do your duty or you will be my undoing,” she warned — correctly.
In 1538 another of Margaret’s sons, Geoffrey, was questioned and then confined in the Tower of London. He eventually gave statements that his brother, Montagu, and their relations and friends sympathized with Reginald Pole and had privately criticized Henry VIII. Under law, this was treason, punishable by death. All the noblemen accused of being part of the “Exeter Conspiracy” were executed. But there was no proof that Margaret Pole ever wrote or said anything that fell under the definition of treason.
It didn’t matter. She was questioned, held under house arrest, and then imprisoned in the Tower of London for two years. She suffered in the winters, and Henry VIII’s fifth wife, the teenage Catherine Howard, bravely sent her some warm clothes.
A minor rebellion broke out in England, led by a Neville, her mother’s family, but unconnected to Margaret. Nonetheless, it seems to have prompted Henry VIII to eliminate the woman whom he had once trusted and admired, who was his closest female relative after his daughters.
Early in the morning of May 27, the Constable of the Tower woke up Margaret to tell her she would die within the next few hours. The ailing countess replied she had never been charged with any crime.
Because of her royal descent, she was executed on the Tower grounds, on the same spot as Anne Boleyn five years earlier, before more than 100 spectators. There was not enough time to erect a scaffold; also, the executioner was not in residence, only his novice.
Margaret commended her soul to God and asked the spectators to pray for the king and queen, Prince Edward and of course the Princess Mary. Reports conflict on what happened next. Some say she refused to kneel before the block on the ground, or to stand still. The novice swung at her with his ax, hacking at her shoulders, before managing to kill her. It may have taken 10 chops.