Posts filed under 'Famous Last Words'

1661: Jin Shengtan, literary scholar

Add comment August 7th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1661, scholar Jin Shengtan — the “father of vernacular Chinese literature” — was

Jin Shengtan (English Wikipedia entry | Chinese) had the misfortune of reaching his intellectual maturity amid the collapse of the Ming Dynasty and the ensuing chaotic transition to the Qing.

In those years he contributed a perspicacious literary commentary that resides to this day in the canon of Chinese letters; his criticism is credited with raising the stature of Chinese vernacular literature, for instance via his meticulous analysis of Water Margin — now rated as one of the four classic Chinese novels.

In 1661, Jin took part in a protest against official corruption whose violent suppression is remembered to Chinese history as the “Lamenting at the Temple of Confucius”. Jin’s particular lament — probably apocryphal but too good not to repeat — has been remembered as a jest from the edge of the grave: “Being beheaded is the most painful thing, but for some reason it’s going to happen to me. Fancy that!”

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Gallows Humor,History,Intellectuals,Power

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1821: Athanasios Diakos, Greek War of Independence hero

Add comment April 24th, 2019 Headsman

Greek independence hero Athanasios Diakos died by Ottoman impalement on this date in 1821.*

Though he acquired his nickname Diakos (“deacon”) from a youthful spell in a monastery, this fellow Athanasios (English Wikipedia entry | Greek) while the Turks still governed Greece made his way as a klepht — Greece’s version of the Balkan hybrid outlaw/guerrilla archetype, similar to the hajduk figures among the South Slavs. All of these outlaw types took to the mountains where they could subsist as brigands and mercenaries beyond the reach of the Porte, and seek opportunities where they might to strike at Ottomans. Many of the Greek persuasion, Diakos included, adhered to the Filiki Eteria secret society that aspired to liberate Greece.

With the onset of the Greek War of Independence in early 1821, Diakos jumped right into the fight. Picturesquely, he met a much larger Turkish detachment in battle at Thermopylae where he made like Leonidas and with a handful of companions heroically held out against impossible odds at the Alamana Bridge.

Captured wounded, Diakos spurned the temptation of an officer’s commission in the Turkish army should he but switch sides with words that remain legendary in his homeland to this day: “I was born a Greek, I shall die a Greek.” He was impaled at the city of Lamia, fearlessly musing, “Look at the time Charon chose to take me, now that the branches are flowering, and the earth sends forth grass.”


The Apotheosis of Athanasios Diakos, by Konstantinos Parthenis (1933).

He’s a very famous and beloved figure in Greece, albeit much less so in parts beyond. The village where Diakos was allegedly born has been renamed for him full stop.

* The narratives I’ve seen run a bit hinkie between the Battle of Alamana on April 22 and the great klepht’s death on April 24 since there’s a two-day gap and everyone seems to agree that he was ordered for execution “the next day”. I’m sticking to the agreed death date here, which is universal, but as best I can discern the timeline alternatives for accounting the missing day appear to break down between the notion that Diakos was impaled on the 23rd and lingered on his spike overnight before death, and that it was not until the 23rd that the Ottoman commander had the opportunity to interrogate him and decide his fate and thus “the next day” was the 24th. I haven’t located a source that appears dispositive on this issue.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Greece,Gruesome Methods,Guerrillas,History,Impaled,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Ottoman Empire,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Turkey,Wartime Executions

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Feast Day of Saint Pigmenius

Add comment March 24th, 2019 Headsman

March 24 is the feast date of Saint Pigmenius, the patron saint of pigmen.

In the hagiography, Pigmenius was a Christian scholar who numbered among the instructors of the young royal relative destined to switch back to paganism and become reviled of Christians as the Emperor Julian the Apostate.

Fleeing the new order, Pigmenius headed to Persia and as the Roman martyrology recounts it, there

he lived four years and went blind. After four years he was addressed in a dream vision by the Lord Jesus Christ, saying: “Pigmenius, return to Rome, and there you will regain your sight.” Getting up the following morning, he had no fear, but immediately got into a ship and came to Rome. After four months, he entered the city; he began to ascend the hill on the Via Salaria with a boy, feeling his way with a cane. And behold, Julian the emperor, travelling in his golden robes, saw Pigmenius from afar; recognizing him, he ordered him to be summoned. When he had been brought, Julian said to Pigmenius: “Glory be to my gods and goddesses that I see you.” Pigmenius replied: “Glory to my Lord, Jesus Christ, the crucified Nazarene, that I do not see you.” In a rage, Julian ordered him to be thrown off a bridge into the Tiber.

So he got to dunk on the emperor, before he got dunked by the emperor.*

However, this book (French) makes the interesting argument that the fourth century Pigmenius was a reinvention of a 1st century Roman saint of similar name, to whom subsequent legends attributed a fictitious eastern sojourn.** “It is this ‘orientalization’ of Pigmenius that connected it to the time of Julian,” runs the argument. For, once Julian’s death in battle in those precincts made the East an overwhelming shadow in Roman minds, “Julian’s story melded somehow with the legends which ran over the distant lands where it had unfolded and the oriental traditions, were ‘Julianized'” — Pigmenius’s among them.

* As the editor of this martyrology remarks in a footnote, this snappy retort was actually borrowed by the hagiographer from stories of Maris, Bishop of Chalcedon, to whom is attributed a similar exchange:

Julian: Thy Galilean God will not heal thy sight.

Maris: I thank God for depriving me of the power of beholding thy face.

** Comparable, the author claims, to the Persian excursions of Saint Cyriacus.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Drowned,Execution,Famous Last Words,God,Intellectuals,Italy,Martyrs,Power,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates

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1802: Robert Snooks, “They can’t start the fun until I get there!”

Add comment March 11th, 2019 Headsman

James Snook(s), who is remembered as Robert Snooks — a possible corruption of “Robber Snook” — was a career robber with a record. He hanged on this date in 1802 for mugging the Tring Mail postboy, an adventure that grossed 80 quid worth of notes ransacked from correspondence he left strewn on Boxmoor.

His decision to discard a distinctive saddle with a broken strap cracked the case for authorities and a reward for his capture went abroad — a reward claimed by “William Salt, a postboy of Hungerford, in Berkshire” who “was born in the same town as the prisoner, where they were play-fellows” and so recognized him immediately on Saturday night driving his chaise through Marlborough Forest and chased down and overpowered Snook whose resistance to his old chum did not extend to use of the “two loaded pistols … in his coat pocket.” (all quotes from the London Morning Chronicle of December 9, 1801)

Tried at the Hertford assizes, he was found to have spent notes known to be in the Tring Mail and on that basis* condemned on a Tuesday … to be dispatched with dispatch that Thursday morning on Boxmoor, near the site of the robbery. “It’s no good hurrying,” he allegedly quipped to gawkers while enjoying a last drink at a nearby pub. “They can’t start the fun until I get there!”

A weathered stone erected a century later marks the supposed place of his burial, and can be visited at Hemel Hempstead. For reasons that elude my understanding, a number of sites including Wikipedia as of this writing claim that this gentleman was the last person executed in England for highway robbery. That’s not even close to accurate.

* The postboy he attacked could not identify him positively, since the crime occurred at night.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous Last Words,Gallows Humor,Hanged,Public Executions,Theft

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1820: John and Lavinia Fisher

Add comment February 18th, 2019 Headsman

February 18, 1820 was the execution date of South Carolina crime Hall of Famers John and Lavinia Fisher.

By legendary repute the first serial killer in America, Fisher and her husband John were said to lure travelers to their Six Mile Wayfarer House near Ashley Ferry outside Charleston where they’d be poisoned, stabbed, and robbed.

Alas, the Fishers were actually a more conventional sort of brigand.


National Advocate for the Country (New York, N.Y.), January 28, 1820.

Quite incredible legends have been embroidered for this purported Bates Motel of the early Republic: for instance, that their cover was blown by a man named John Peoples/Peeples who grew suspicious enough to avoid drinking the poisoned tea and then sat up all night like young Felix Platter until he caught wind of the imminent attack, sprang out a window, and fled to safety. If so, it was a woeful failure of the period’s journalists merely to report that he had been savagely beaten and robbed.

A few books about the Lavinia Fisher case

Instead, these two seemed to be part of a gang of bandits who occupied not only their Six Mile House but also the Five Mile House, and Lavinia wasn’t the only woman in the lot: one Jane Howard was among the half-dozen arrested when the Six Mile lair was raided by a vigilante posse in February 1819, along with William Heyward, James M’Elwray, and Seth Young, along with others uncaptured. (Names via National Advocate, March 3, 1819) Papers of the time slate them with offenses like stealing livestock and highway robbery, and it’s the latter crime — not murder — that brought the Fishers to their gallows.

Either way, Charleston tour guides will tell you that she haunts the old city jail to this day. She’s also famous for her purported last words, “If you have a message you want to send to Hell, give it to me; I’ll carry it,” which might even be a real quote.


Alexandria [Va.] Gazette & Daily Advertiser, Feb. 26, 1820

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous Last Words,Hanged,History,Organized Crime,Public Executions,South Carolina,The Supernatural,Theft,USA,Women

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1402: Fang Xiaoru, of the ten agnates

Add comment July 25th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1402, the Yongle Emperor cemented his seizure of the throne by purging Confucian scholar-bureaucrat Fang Xiaoru with a legendary extermination to ten degrees of kinship.

Our numerous executions on this occasion bring us to the close of a three-year civil war that ensued the death of the Ming dynasty founder, known as the Hongwu Emperor. In this conflict, the old man’s designated successor, a grandson who took the ironic regnal moniker of Jianwen Emperor (meaning “establishing civility”), was defeated and deposed by one of the old man’s sons, a prince whose name can be transliterated as Zhu Di or Chu Ti.

The uncle was much the abler commander while the nephew was plagued by defections. In July of 1402, Zhu Di’s forces captured the capital city of Nanjing; the Jianwen emperor vanished into history’s fogs — burned to death, Zhu Di would claim, citing an unrecognizable corpse charred in the blaze that consumed the imperial palace; rumors long persisted that he had occulted himself into the mountains robed as a monk.

Either way, Zhu Di had occasion now to announce himself the Yongle Emperor. “Perpetual happiness,” that one means. And to make sure that everyone would real happy with the new arrangements, Boss Yongle insisted on the immediate fealty of the capital’s intelligentsia. “Those who are guilty I do not dare to pardon,” he said of the late emperor’s ex-ministers. “Those who are innocent I do not dare to execute.”

Most of those presented with these alternatives chose judiciously, as attested by the Yongle Emperor’s subsequent 22-year reign.

But our principal Fang Xiaoru was the most famous among a number of scholars to stand athwart history yelling stop.* For malcontents like Fang, the Yongle Emperor offered a compelling dissuasion in the form of the ancient “extermination of nine agnates”: the collective execution of the traitor’s entire family, compassing nine different classes of relations.

  1. The criminal himself
  2. His parents
  3. His grandparents
  4. His children (and children’s spouses)
  5. His grandchildren
  6. The criminal’s spouse
  7. The spouse’s parents
  8. The criminal’s aunts and uncles
  9. The criminal’s cousins

We don’t know how all his cousins and in-laws felt about the matter but for his own part, Fang was undaunted: “Never mind nine agnates; give me ten!” And that’s just what they did, drafting the scholar’s own pupils into the hecatomb as the tenth degree, an extremity unequaled in the history of China or academia.

All told, the ten agnates numbered 873 people, among perhaps as many as ten thousand noncompliant officials and family members purged overall. Yet still as he died, hewed apart at the waist, Fang dipped his finger in his own gore and scrawled on the floor his own last verdict on the new emperor: the single Chinese character meaning “usurper”.


An execution by “waist severing” delivers what it promises.

* Others include Huang Zicheng and Lian Zining. See “Venerating the Martyrs of the 1402 Usurpation: History and Memory in the Mid and Late Ming Dynasty” by Peter Ditmanson, T’oung Pao, Second Series, Vol. 93, Fasc. 1/3 (2007), pp. 110-158.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous Last Words,Gruesome Methods,History,Innocent Bystanders,Intellectuals,Power,Treason

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1685: Richard Rumbold, owner of the Rye House

Add comment June 26th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1685, Roundhead militant Richard Rumbold — known affectionately to his comrades from the English Civil War as “Hannibal”, since he shared with the great Carthaginian general the distinction of an eye lost on campaign — was beheaded at Edinburgh‘s Mercat Cross.


J.M.W. Turner watercolor of the Rye House circa 1793.

Rumbold was the owner of the Rye House in Hertfordshire, the manor which in the 1680s would become famous as a regicidal adjective: the titular epicenter of the Rye House Plot. Hannibal Rumbold had intended to station a force of armed men on his grounds with the intent to kidnap/assassinate King Charles II and his Catholic brother and heir presumptive, James as they returned to London from horse races at Newmarket. When fire struck Newmarket, the royal party’s plans changed and the plot never came off … but it was discovered some weeks later and yielded an ample harvest of heads. Rumbold escaped to the continent for a time but was none repentant about it when taken, saying “he did not neither durst repent for it, but on the contrair that if all the hair of his head were men, he would venture them all for the cause.”

In this instance, it also yielded some edifying scaffold oratory, and this man’s parting sentiment that “this is a deluded generation, veiled with ignorance … for none comes into the world with a saddle on his back, neither any booted and spurred to ride him” was of interest to British Whigs and American revolutionaries a century later. It plays much better lo these many years later with ellipsis in place of the “popery” stuff which occurs between, but judge for thyself: here follow Rumbold’s erudite owns in context via an open source volume which has the address titled “Against Booted and Spurred Privilege”

Gentlemen and Brethren: —

It is for all men that come into the world once to die; and after death the judgment! And since death is a debt that all of us must pay, it is but a matter of small moment what way it be done. Seeing the Lord is pleased in this manner to take me to himself, I confess, something hard to flesh and blood, yet blessed be his name, who hath made me not only willing, but thankful for his honoring me to lay down the life he gave, for his name; in which, were every hair in this head and beard of mine a life, I should joyfully sacrifice them for it, as I do this. Providence having brought me hither, I think it most necessary to clear myself of some aspersions laid on my name; and, first, that I should have had so horrid an intention of destroying the King and his brother … It was also laid to my charge that I was antimonarchical. It was ever my thoughts that kingly government was the best of all where justly executed; I mean, such as it was by our ancient laws; — that is, a King, and a legal, free-chosen Parliament, — the King having, as I conceive, power enough to make him great; the people also as much property as to make them happy; they being, as it were, contracted to one another! And who will deny me that this was not the justly-constituted government of our nation? How absurd is it, then, for men of sense to maintain that though the one party of his contract breaketh all conditions, the other should be obliged to perform their part? No; this error is contrary to the law of God, the law of nations, and the law of reason. But as pride hath been the bait the devil hath caught most by ever since the creation, so it continues to this day with us. Pride caused our first parents to fall from the blessed state wherein they were created, — they aiming to be higher and wiser than God allowed, which brought an everlasting curse on them and their posterity. It was pride caused God to drown the old world. And it was Nimrod‘s pride in building Babel that caused that heavy curse of division of tongues to be spread among us, as it is at this day, one of the greatest afflictions the Church of God groaneth under, that there should be so many divisions during their pilgrimage here; but this is their comfort that the day draweth near where, as there is but one shepherd, there shall be but one sheepfold. It was, therefore, in the defense of this party, in their just rights and liberties, against popery and slavery —

[Being here interrupted by drum beating, he said that they need not trouble themselves, for he should say no more of his mind on that subject, since they were so disingenuous as to interrupt a dying man. He then continued: –]

I die this day in the defense of the ancient laws and liberties of these nations; and though God, for reasons best known to himself, hath not seen it fit to honor us, as to make us the instruments for the deliverance of his people, yet as I have lived, so I die in the faith that he will speedily arise for the deliverance of his Church and people. And I desire of all you to prepare for this with speed. I may say this is a deluded generation, veiled with ignorance, that though popery and slavery be riding in upon them, do not perceive it; though I am sure there was no man born marked of God above another; for none comes into the world with a saddle on his back, neither any booted and spurred to ride him; not but that I am well satisfied that God hath wisely ordered different stations for men in the world, as I have already said; kings having as much power as to make them great and the people as much property as to make them happy. And to conclude, I shall only add my wishes for the salvation of all men who were created for that end.

After hanging, they quartered his parts and pinned them up as a warning.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous Last Words,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Soldiers,Terrorists,Treason

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2004: Fabrizio Quattrocchi, “I’ll show you how an Italian dies!”

Add comment April 14th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 2004, Italian mercenary Fabrizio Quattrocchi was executed by Iraqi insurgents.

A former Italian army corporal turned baker, Quattrocchi (English Wikipedia entry | the vastly more detailed Italian) hired on with an American contractor in the Iraq fiasco as a private security guard at €8,000 per month, intending to save enough to start a family.

Instead, Quattrocchi was seized as a hostage outside Baghdad with three comrades on April 13, 2004, by the “Green Brigades,” one of that era’s many ephemeral bodies of militants. The other three* were held (and eventually freed unharmed via a June 2004 special forces raid) further to an unsuccessful ultimatum demanding Italian withdrawal. Quattrocchi, by contrast, was executed the very next day after capture — seemingly to prove that the kidnappers meant business after Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi greeted news of the men’s capture with a vow that he would never give in to “blackmail.”

A video of the murder was delivered to Al Jazeera TV, which has never aired it in its entirety. However, it became known via second-hand reports of those who had viewed it, and eventually from a partial airing of the video, that just prior to being shot Quattrocchi spat defiant last words to his executioners:

'I'll show you how an Italian dies'
From the London Times, April 16, 2004.

Then he was shot dead,** and dumped in the grave he’d been forced to dig for himself.

Thanks to these last words, which Berlusconi and his foreign minister Franco Frattini immediately pinned to a bloody banner, Quattrocchi’s memory has been the subject of partisan rancor in Italy. The left has disdained to celebrate a gun for hire in a disastrous imperial foray; the right has honored his patriotism and conferred a medal of valor upon him in 2006 — arousing some protest since this recognition has not been extended to regular Italian soldiers who fell to terrorist attacks in Iraq, nor to less bellicose murdered hostages like Enzo Baldoni.

* The other captives were Salvatore Stefio, Maurizio Agliana, and Umberto Cupertino, all like Quattrocchi Italians in their mid-thirties. Stefio would later be prosecuted and acquitted for unauthorized recruitment of security contractors.

** About a month after Quattrocchi was slain by gunfire, the grisly beheading of hostage Nick Berg inaugurated a different epoch in Iraq’s stagey hostage murders.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Borderline "Executions",Execution,Famous Last Words,History,Hostages,Iraq,Italy,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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1892: Thomas Neill Cream, “I am Jack the …”

Add comment November 15th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1892, globetrotting murderer Thomas Neill Cream hanged.

Act I

Glasgow-born, Cream grew up in Canada and did his parents proud by becoming a doctor with a big black moustache.

He manifested an early knack for being in the vicinity of patients who died unexpectedly: Cream’s wife Flora died of consumption in 1877 while on a medicine regimen he had prescribed her (granted, Cream himself was away in London at this time), and a patient and possible mistress turned up dead outside the good doctor’s offices overdosed on chloroform. As suspicion burgeoned, Cream legged it for the United States.

Cream set up as a red light district abortionist in Chicago, and it didn’t take long for his special gift to manifest again. He beat one murder charge when a patient’s rotting corpse was found stashed in his midwife’s apartment; but, in 1881, epilepsy pills he provided another mistress for her husband turned out to be spiked with strychnine in a botched attempt to stitch up the druggist for blackmail. Daniel Stott ended up dead; Thomas Cream, in Joliet — 31 years old with a life sentence.

So ended the homicidal career of Thomas Cream … until 1891, when Gov. Joseph Fifer yielded to the entreaties and bribes of Thomas’s brother and commuted the sentence.

Act II

Cream sailed for England that October and a fresh start … in the same line of work. He’d be back in custody by the following June, with at least four more murders under his belt, sloppy and incontinent now like the late-career Ted Bundy.

Cream took lodgings in Lambeth and dove right into London’s seedy underbelly. Barely two weeks after his arrival, a 19-year-old prostitute he’d plied with drinks was dead of strychnine and Cream was using his old ploy of blackmailing a random bourgeois for her murder. A few days later, he did the same thing with yet another streetwalker and another extortion target.

The nigh-industrial rapidity of these maneuvers speaks to Cream’s self-destructive impulsiveness; one can picture such a high-risk caper working (maybe Cream had even made it work sometimes back in Chicago) but only if the murder was executed with great care and the shakedown target very deliberately selected and framed. The “Lambeth Poisoner” (as the press came to call the writer of these anonymous blackmail letters) had done neither; his hamfisted money grabs only drew the attention of Scotland Yard.

Cream so ached for exposure that he gave a visiting New Yorker whom he met an impromptu tour of the sites associated with the Lambeth Poisoner — whose number had by then been augmented with yet two additional prostitutes, again offed with strychnine. Creeped out at the fellow’s suspicious expertise, the Yank tipped off the police; pieces fell into place quickly from that point.

His whole career, including that bit on the far side of the Atlantic, was exposed now and Cream (who here referred to himself as “Dr. Thomas Neill”, as reflected by the carton above) was convicted in a short trial in October 1892 — just a few weeks before the court’s sure sentence was imposed.

Act III?

Cream murdered a minimum of five people. Beyond those five, he’s worth a cocked eyebrow or more in the death of his wife and several women under his care in his medical (mostly abortionist) guise.

Chris Scott’s historical novel Jack imagines Cream as the Whitechapel killer.

But hangman James Billington put Cream into a whole different coffee when he claimed that the Lambeth Poisoner had gone through the trap uttering the aborted sentence “I am Jack the–” … meaning, Billington means you to understand, Jack the Ripper. As a result, Dr. Cream has a ledger in every Ripperology suspects table but there are at least a couple of major problems with the hypothesis:

  1. Nobody else present for the execution reported hearing any such suggestion from the condemned man; and
  2. The Ripper was an elusive criminal with a whole different m.o.; and
  3. Cream was still serving his Illinois prison term when the Ripper murders toook place back in 1888.

You might think that being clad in irons on a different continent makes for an ironclad alibi, but bars are no bar to a criminal as nimble as Jack. The Cream dossier makes the incredible claim that Cream chanced to have a lookalike double in the criminal underworld, and that the two routinely passed as one another — so Cream could have been serving his sentence while his double committed the Whitechapel murders, or vice versa.

If this twist strikes the reader as a little bit too Scooby Doo for reality, well, the man’s verifiable body count more than qualified the doctor for his place in the criminal annals … and his place on the gallows.

A few books about Thomas Neill Cream

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Doctors,England,Execution,Famous Last Words,Hanged,Illinois,Murder,Pelf,Serial Killers,USA

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1555: Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, Oxford martyrs

1 comment October 16th, 2016 Headsman

The Anglican Church memorializes the feast of the Oxford Martyrs on October 16 — which also happens to be the date in 1555 that the first and second of those Reformation prelates went to the stake in that city.

The Oxford Martyrs are three in all, a proper trilogy;* the last in chronology if not in precedence was the Anglican Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, who sanctified King Henry’s putting aside his first wife, and was burned at the pleasure of that scorned Catholic’s daughter in 1556. By that time he outlived by seven months the men whose execution we mark here, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley.


Detail view (click for the full image) of a woodcut illustration of Latimer’s and Ridley’s martyrdom in John Foxe’s 1563 Book of Martyrs.

Given a different set of breaks and perhaps a Y chromosome in the royal offspring, Latimer might easily have been martyred a generation prior under a King Henry who stuck to his papist “defender of the faith” credentials. Latimer was a rising reformer in the late 1520s whose subversive preaching had already got him slapped down by Cardinal Wolsey.

Wolsey’s fall and Henry’s departure from the Roman communion arrived just in time to ramp Latimer from prospective heresiarch to the master pulpit rhetorician of a new order. (He’s particularly remembered for some metaphorical sermons about playing cards.) In 1535, Latimer became Bishop of Worcester in which capacity he did not disdain the office of exhorting Catholic martyrs themselves on the foot of the pyre. Even in Henry’s last years, when militant Protestants could be put to death as readily as recusant Catholics, Latimer courted principled danger by refusing to sign on to Henry’s “six articles” asserting Catholic doctrines like transubstantiation and clerical celibacy. Latimer resigned his bishopric and went to the Tower of London rather than endorse them.

Nicholas Ridley at this period was a reformist priest in Cranmer’s more cautious orbit, who advanced him rank by rank — and with no dungeon interim — to the Bishop of London and Westminster.** Ridley had the honor of being a primary antagonist to the radical John Hooper in the “vestments controversy”, Ridley defending the status quo of clergy bedizened with suspiciously Romish priestly attire despite the poverty of Christ.

Ridley basically won this dispute in the short term, but had scant leisure to celebrate before the sickly young king’s death set the realm up for a contested succession. Under his gilded robes Bishop Ridley spent the brief ascendancy of Lady Jane Grey thundering against the bastard rival who intended to — and very soon did — supplant her.

Tried together in your basic case of victor’s justice, Ridley and Latimer were burned with Cranmer brought out as a witness in an attempt to intimidate him. Cranmer’s vacillating recantations before his own execution do him little credit, but considering how the Ridley died it would require a hard heart not to empathize. Protestant martyrologist John Foxe made purple prose or a very black scene:

Then they brought a faggot, kindled with fire, and laid the same down at Dr. Ridley’s feet. To whom Master Latimer spake in this manner “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.”

And so the fire being given unto them, when Dr. Ridley saw the fire flaming up towards him. he cried with a wonderful loud voice, In manus teas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum: Domine recipe spiritum meum. And after, repeated this latter part often in English, “Lord, Lord, receive my spirit;” Master Latimer crying as vehemently on the other side, “O Father of heaven, receive my soul!” who received the flame as it were embracing of it. After that he had stroked his face with his hands, and as it were bathed them a little in the fire, he soon died (as it appeareth) with very little pain or none. And thus much concerning the end of this old and blessed servant of God, Master Latimer, for whose laborious travails, fruitful life, and constant death, the whole realm hath cause to give great thanks to Almighty God.

But Master Ridley, by reason of the evil making of the fire unto him, because the wooden faggots were laid about the gorse, and over-high built, the fire burned first beneath, being kept down by the wood; which when he felt, he desired them for Christ’s sake to let the fire come unto him. Which when his brother-in-law heard, but not well understood, intending to rid him out of his pain, (for the which cause he gave attendance,) as one in such sorrow not well advised what he did, heaped faggots upon him, so that he clean covered him, which made the fire more vehement beneath, that it burned clean all his nether parts, before it once touched the upper; and that made him leap up and down under the faggots, and often desire them to let the fire come unto him, saying, “I cannot burn.” Which indeed appeared well; for, after his legs were consumed by reason of his struggling through the pain, (whereof he had no release, but only his contentation in God,) he showed that side toward us clean, shirt and all untouched with flame. Yet in all this torment he forgot not to call unto God still, having in his mouth, “Lord, have mercy upon me,” intermingling his cry, “Let the fire come unto me, I cannot burn.” In which pangs he laboured till one of the standers-by with his bill pulled off the faggots above, and where he saw the fire flame up, he wrested himself unto that side. And when the flame touched the gunpowder, he was seen to stir no more, but burned on the other side, falling down at Master Latimer’s feet; which, some said, happened by reason that the chain loosed; others said, that he fell over the chain by reason of the poise of his body, and the weakness of the nether limbs.

* There’s a just-so story backed by little to no concrete evidence that the three Oxford Martyrs are metaphorically represented as the three blind mice (pursued by a female antagonist!) in the nursery rhyme.

** Barstool trivia: Ridley is the only person who has ever held this title.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Botched Executions,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous Last Words,Heresy,History,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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