Posts filed under 'Lucky to be Alive'

1915: Wenseslao Moguel, “El Fusilado”, survives the firing squad

Add comment March 18th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1915, Wenseslao Moguel, a soldier of Pancho Villa during the Mexican Revolution, was captured and immediately stood in front of a firing squad.

Miraculously, Moguel survived their volley, and even survived the coup de grace shot to the head afterwards delivered by the squad’s commander.

Although badly disfigured, he managed to crawl away from the execution grounds and went on to live a full life with the nickname El Fusilado (“the executed one”). He died around 1975.


In 1937, Wenseslao Moguel appeared on the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! radio program.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Executions Survived,History,Lucky to be Alive,Mexico,No Formal Charge,Not Executed,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1650: Not Anne Greene, miraculously delivered

Add comment December 14th, 2017 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1650, 22-year-old Anne Greene was hanged for infanticide.

A maidservant, she had been seduced by her master’s teenage grandson and became pregnant. Anne stated stated she had no idea she was pregnant until the baby suddenly fell out of her while she was “in the house of office” — that is, the outhouse. But when the body was found she was arrested for murder.

Medical evidence supported Anne’s claim that the baby was stillborn. It was premature, born at only 17 weeks gestation, and only nine inches long, and the midwife said she “did not believe that it ever had life.” Nevertheless, Anne was convicted of murder and condemned to death.

After Anne was hanged, she dangled for half an hour while her friends pulled down on her body and thumped on her chest with a musket butt, trying to hasten her death. After half an hour she was cut down, put in a coffin and carted off to the anatomist, Dr. William Petty.

The good Dr. Petty soon realized she wasn’t quite dead.

The story is told in a 1982 article in the British Medical Journal, titled “Miraculous deliverance of Anne Green: an Oxford case of resuscitation in the seventeenth century.” Petty and his assistant immediately set about reviving his patient through various means:

William Petty and Thomas Willis abandoned all thoughts of a dissection and proceeded to revive their patient. They caused her to be held up in the coffin and then by wrenching open her teeth they poured in her mouth some hot cordial which caused her more coughing. They then rubbed and chafed her fingers, hands, arms, and feet, and, after a quarter of an hour of this with more cordial into her mouth and the tickling of her throat with a feather, she opened her eyes momentarily. At this stage the doctors opened a vein and bled her of five ounces of blood. They then continued administering the cordial and rubbing her arms and legs. Ligatures, presumably compressing bandages, were applied to her arms and legs. Heating plasters were put to her chest and another apparently inserted as an enema, “ordered an heating odoriferous Clyster to be cast up in her body, to give heat and warmth to her bowels.”

When Anne regained consciousness, she was unable to speak for twelve hours, but after 24 hours she was speaking freely and answering questions, although her throat was bruised and hurt her. Dr. Petty put a plaster on the bruises and ordered soothing drinks.

Anne’s memory was spotty at first; it was observed that it was “was like a clock whose weights had been taken off a while and afterwards hung on again.” Within two days the amnesia disappeared, although — perhaps mercifully — she still had no memory of being hanged. Within four days she could eat solid food again, and within a month she had made a full recovery.

The Journal of Medical Biography also has an article about Anne Greene, titled “Intensive care 1650: the revival of Anne Greene”. The abstract notes,

A combination of low-body temperature and external (pedal) cardiac massage after her failed execution, it is suggested, helped to keep her alive until the arrival of the physicians who had come to make an anatomical dissection but serendipitously won golden opinions.

Anne Greene was subsequently pardoned; the authorities said God had made His will clear on the matter, and furthermore, her dead baby “was not onely abortive or stillborne but also so imperfect, that it is impossible it should have been otherwise.” She became a celebrity, and tributary poems in her honor circulated widely.


This 1651 pamphlet contains 20-odd poems about Anne Greene’s remarkable survival, ranging in style from very reverent (“Thou Paradox of fate, whom ropes reprieve, / To whom the hangman proves a gentele Shrieve”) to very not (“Now we have seen a stranger sight; / Whether it was by Physick’s might, / Or that (it seems) the Wench was Light”). One of them was a classics-heavy number submitted by 18-year-old Oxford student Christopher Wren, later to set his stamp upon the city’s architecture after the Great Fire.

Wonder of highest Art! He that will reach
A Streine for thee, had need his Muse should stretch,
Till flying to the Shades, she learne what Veine
Of Orpheus call’d Eurydice againe;
Or learne of her Apollo, ’till she can
As well, as Singer, prove Physitian.
And then she may without Suspension sing,
And, authorized, harp upon thy String.
Discordant string! for sure thy foule (unkinde
To its own Bowels’ Issue) could not finde
One Breast in Consort to its jarring stroake
‘Mongst piteous Femall Organs, therefore broke
Translations due Law, from fate repriev’d,
And struck a Unison to her selfe, and liv’d.
Was’t this? or was it, that the Goatish Flow
Of thy Adulterous veines (from thence let goe
By second Aesculapius his hand)
Dissolv’d the Parcae‘s Adamantine Band,
And made Thee Artist’s Glory, Shame of Fate,
Triumph of Nature, Virbius his Mate

She left the area for awhile to stay with friends in the country, taking her coffin with her, “as a Trophy of her wonderful preservation.” She subsequently married and bore three children before dying in 1659, nine years after her hanging.

In 2009, author Mary Hooper wrote a novel based on Anne Greene, titled Newes From the Dead.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Executions Survived,Hanged,History,Lucky to be Alive,Murder,Not Executed,Other Voices,Public Executions,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1717: Three spared en route to Tyburn, thanks to Jack Ketch’s debts

Add comment November 6th, 2017 Headsman

From the London Weekly Journal or Saturday’s Post, Nov. 9, 1717:

On Wednesday we had a very odd Accident happen’d upon Occasion of the ordinary Execution of Criminals; the Number to be hang’d was five, according to the Dead Warrant, but two of these had obtain’d a respite of Execution, the other three were put into the Cart and carry’d to the Place of Execution.

The Person they call the Finisher of the Law, alias the Hangman, and who, for the common Understanding inherits the Name of Jack Ketch, going before the Cart on Foot, in order to be ready at the Place, was arrested in Holborn by three Bayliffs or Officers, on a Sheriffs Warrant for Debts, and was carry’d away.

However, after some Time he got out of their Hands, but soon fell into worse Company; for the Mob got him into their Clutches, and whether he had given them Occasion or no, we know not, but no Pick-Pocket was ever used worse by them; for if all we hear is true, they left him with little Life in him.

In the mean Time the Prisoners came to the Place of Execution; but no Hangman could be found to do them the usual last Offices of Kindness. The Under-Sheriff, it is said, offered very generously to several Persons to officiate, but none could be found. Mr. Ordinary, we hear, might have had the Compliment, but did not think fit to say he would accept it if it had been offer’d.

One bold Fellow, being half inclin’d, his Comrade prompted him earnestly, Do Jack, says his Brother Tom, thou hast not earn’d a Penny in an honest Way a great While.

No, says Jack; da___e, not I, for I deserve it as much as any of them; but do you do it your self, Tom, you know it will be your Turn quickly, and Jack Ketch shall use you the better for it.

But in short, neither Jack nor Tom would do it, and the poor Wretches, tho’ they waited in the Cold a great While, were not willing to do it for themselves; and so the Sheriff’s Officers were fain to bring them back again to Newgate, where it is said they must lie till Jack Ketch recovers of his Suffocation in the Horse-Pond, and is in Condition for his honest Employment.

The prisoners in question all had their sentences commuted.

The hangman, William Marvell — who had obtained the position because his predecessor was also clapped in debtors’ prison — likewise lost the executioner’s gig thanks to the embarrassing arrest. Too reviled thereafter to find honest work he wound up being sentenced to convict transportation for shoplifting in 1719.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Last Minute Reprieve,Lucky to be Alive,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Public Executions,Theft

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1862: Not Finnigan, miner’s court survivee

Add comment September 12th, 2017 Headsman

This entry from a diarist in Idaho’s 1860s gold rush arrives to us courtesy of Steven Tanasoca and Susan Sudduth in the Oregon Historical Quarterly of summer 1978.

Sydney-born, our observer George Harding in 1856 joined the wave of Austrlian migration to gold-strike California with his widowed mother and three younger brothers. But the family (augmented by a stepfather and an adoptive son) soon drove on to the Oregon Territory. In 1862, 19-year-old George, his brother Bill, and their stepfather Charles Murray tried their luck in the Idaho mining boom: far from prospecting, Harding made his bread by painting, carpentry, and suchlike workaday labor in the Elk City camp.


Wednesday 10th [September] Clear and fine all day. We worked all day on the fashion Saloon. A man by the name of [James] McGuire was shot through the neck this afternoon by a man named Finnigan. A most horrid murder was commited [sic] this afternoon. He was stabbed in the neck twice, cutting the jugular vein in two. He died about half an hour after. At the time of the murder, he was lying in bed supposed to be asleep. They have arrested Finnigan. Have suspicion that he committed the crime. We had a very severe frost last night. Ice was a quarter of an inch thick in the shop.

Thursday 11th Clear and fine all day. We work[ed] all day painting for Captain Maltby. The town has been in a great excitement all day. The miners came into town this morning and organised a Vigilance Committee. Finnigan has been on trial all day. The jury returned a Verdict about 10 o’clock this evening that he was guilty of Willful Murder. A great number of the miners was for hanging him right away, but after a little consideration it was decided that he should be hung at eleven o’clock tomorrow morning. We had another very heavy frost last night.

Friday 12th Clear in the morning, but got dark and cloudy in the afternoon. We worked all day for Captain Maltby. The scaffold was erected this morning about eight hundred yards from Elk City on the West side. Finnigan was brought to the scaffold about eleven o’clock under a strong guard. He was reading the prayer book all the way to it. When he got on the scaffold, he confessed that he committed the crime and stated the reasons why he had done it. He said that some time back he and the deceased had a quarrel in which the deceased had attempted to take his life with a knife and would have done it had he not been stopped by outside parties.* He said that after this he had wanted some revenge. Also, the deceased had said that he would kill him the first chance he got. Finnigan warned all young men to take warning by him to keep from drinking and gambling as it was that that had brought him on the gallows now. Finnigan took a parting leave of all his friends. The Sherif [sic] then covered his face and tied his hands behind his back and put the rope around his neck. The trap was then let go, and to the astonishment of the spectators, Finnigan fell to the ground. By some means or other the knot came untied after giving Finnigan a heavy jerk. As soon as he could speak he cried out to save him, save him. Some of the people then cried out to let him live and he was then taken back to the town, which he left this afternoon. It commenced raining this evening.

* The bad blood between these men is fleshed out a bit more — along with a more cinematic version of the gallows escape — in An Illustrated History of North Idaho. This source not unreasonably suspects that a sympathetic hand among the execution party might have rigged the noose to “by some means or other” come undone.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Executions Survived,Hanged,History,Idaho,Lucky to be Alive,Lynching,Murder,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Public Executions,USA

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1863: Not Nathaniel Pruitt, reprieved deserter

Add comment June 10th, 2017 Headsman

On this date 150 years ago, according to Larry Daniel’s Soldiering in the Army of Tennessee, a middle-aged man was all set to be shot for deserting the Army of Tennessee, and the much-resented command of Gen. Braxton Bragg.

In a well-documented incident, a soldier received a reprieve as a result of a dramatic incident. Forty-seven-year-old Nathaniel Pruitt of the Nineteenth Tennessee was found guilty of desertion and on June 10, 1863, was taken to a field beside his regimental camp, his coffin placed beside an open grave. A minister cut a lock of hair to give to Pruitt’s wife. The firing squad was positioned and ordered to take aim, but just then an officer came galloping up with a special order to suspend the sentence. The prisoner began crying. “I was truly glad [of the reprieve], but must say some of the boys were disappointed,” a Mississippi diarist noted. Incredibly, the very next day, Pruitt again deserted and was never heard from again.

One takes the author’s point here about Pruitt’s risk-seeking second flight, but even so it might not really be all that “incredible” that one would desert the company of armed men who had recently shown open disappointment about being prevented from shooting one dead.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Confederates,Death Penalty,Desertion,Execution,History,Last Minute Reprieve,Lucky to be Alive,Military Crimes,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Shot,Soldiers,Tennessee,USA,Wartime Executions

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1634: John Bartendale survives hanging and burial

1 comment March 27th, 2017 Sabine Baring-Gould

(Thanks to Sabine Baring-Gould for (another) guest post. This report in Baring-Gould’s Yorkshire Oddities, Incidents and Strange Events glosses a rhyming Latin squib of Richard Brathwait‘s Drunken Barnaby’s Four Journeys to the North of England, several versions of which survive.)

JOHN BARTENDALE,
The Piper.

In the reign of King Charles I a strolling musician, a poor piper, named John Bartendale, was brought, in 1634, before the Assizes, and was convicted of felony.

He received sentence, and on March 27th was hung on the gallows, outside Micklegate Bar, York. There were no houses there at that time — it was open country. After he had remained swinging for three-quarters of an hour, and was to all appearance dead, he was cut down, and buried near the place of execution. The officers of justice had accomplished their work carelessly in both particulars, as it afterwards transpired, for he had been neither properly hung nor properly buried.

Earth has a peculiarly invigorating and restorative effect, as has been recently discovered; and patients suffering from debility are by some medical men now-a-days placed in earth baths with the most salutary effects. In the case of gangrened wounds a little earth has been found efficacious in promoting healthy action of the skin. John Bartendale was now to experience the advantages of an earth-bath.

That same day, in the afternoon, a gentleman, one of the Vavasours of Hazlewood, was riding by, when he observed the earth moving in a certain place. He ordered his servant to alight; he himself descended from his horse; and together they threw off the mould, and discovered the unfortunate piper alive. He opened his eyes, sat up, and asked where he was, and how he came there. Mr. Vavasour and his servant helped him out of his grave, and seated him on the side. The man was sent for water and other restoratives, and before long the news had spread about down Micklegate that the poor piper was come to life again. A swarm of wondering and sympathising people poured out to congratulate John the Piper on his resurrection, and to offer their assistance. A conveyance was obtained, and as soon as Bartendale was in a sufficient condition to be moved he was placed in it covered with Mr. Vavasour’s cloak, — for he had been stripped by the executioner before he was laid in the earth — and was removed again to York Castle.

It was rather hard that the poor fellow, after he had obtained his release, should have been returned to his prison; but there was no help for it. The resurrection of the piper was no secret; otherwise Mr. Vavasour would doubtless have removed him privately to a place of security till he was recovered, and then have sent him into another part of the country.

At the following Assizes, Bartendale was brought up again. It was a nice point of law whether the man could be sentenced to execution again after the Sheriff had signed his affidavit that the man had been hung till he was dead. Mr. Vavasour was naturally reluctant to supply the one link in the chain of evidence which established the identity of the prisoner with the piper who had been hung and buried for felony; he made earnest intercession that the poor fellow might be reprieved, popular sympathy was on his side, the judge was disposed to mercy, and Bartendale was accorded a full and free pardon; the judge remarking that the case was one in which the Almighty seemed to have interfered in mercy to frustrate the ends of human justice, and that therefore he was not disposed to reverse the decree of Providence according to the piper a prolongation of his days on earth.

Drunken Barnaby in his “Book of Travels” alludes to Bartendale, when he stops at York:

Here a piper apprehended,
Was found guilty and suspended;
Being led to t’fatal gallows,
Boys did cry, “Where is thy bellows?
Ever must thou cease thy tuning,”
Answered he, “For all your cunning,
You may fail in your prediction.”
Which did happen without fiction;
For cut down, and quick interred,
Earth rejected what was buried;
Half alive or dead he rises,
Got a pardon next Assizes,
And in York continued blowing —
Yet a sense of goodness showing.

After his wonderful deliverance the poor fellow turned hostler, and lived very honestly afterwards.

When asked to describe his sensations on being hung, he said that when he was turned off, flashes of fire seemed to dart before his eyes, and were succeeded by darkness and a state of insensibility.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Executions Survived,Guest Writers,Hanged,Lucky to be Alive,Not Executed,Other Voices,Public Executions

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1915: Cordella Stevenson lynched

1 comment December 8th, 2016 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1915, a mob visited Cordella Stevenson’s cabin, dragged her out, and lynched her.

The good citizens of Columbus, Mississippi, found her body the next day, hanging from a tree limb. The site of her lynching was only 50 yards north of the Mobile and Ohio Railroad, and rail passengers who came in and out of the city that day saw her corpse thus displayed. She had been “maltreated” (that is, raped) and stripped naked before being strung up.

Several months before, Gabe Frank, a local white man, lost his barn to fire. Although there was no direct evidence to implicate him and he had not been seen in the area for months prior to the fire, Cordella and Arch Stevenson’s son came under suspicion of arson.

The parents were respectable people who had worked for the same white employer for over a decade, but the son had a “worthless” reputation. Frank tried tracking the young man with bloodhounds, but was unsuccessful. The local police arrested Cordella and kept her locked up for several days, hoping she might know something of her son’s whereabouts, but they eventually released her without charge.

The Stevensons thought or hoped that would be the end of the matter.

Arch and Cordella had already gone to bed that Wednesday night in December when, at about 10:00 p.m., they heard someone pounding on their door. Before they could get to the door to answer it, the vigilantes had broken it down. They seized Cordella, pointed their rifles at Arch, and threatened to shoot him if he moved. At some point he managed to flee, bullets whizzing miraculously past him in the dark, and he ran to town for help. Arch knew what was good for him; after reporting what happened to the authorities, he fled the area for parts unknown. Meanwhile, somewhere out there in the night, the mob fell on his wife.

Kerry Segrave recorded in his book Lynching of Women in the United States: Recorded Cases, 1851-1946:

Sheriff Bell telephoned to Justice of the Peace McKellar to hold an inquest. He was out of town and did not return until Thursday night. As a result, the naked body was left hanging in view of the “morbid” crowd that came to see it until Friday morning when it was cut down and the inquest was held. That inquest jury returned a verdict that Cordella Stevenson came to her death at the hands of persons unknown.

The Chicago Defender, a (still-extant) black newspaper noted for its accurate reporting of Jim Crow era violence, bitterly editorialized, “This these southern culprits did. No law below the Mason and Dixon line that would cause them to fear. No officer in the police department that would dare to do his duty. No man in the government circles in Washington that has enough backbone to enforce the Constitution of the United States. This mob knew and they went on with their ghastly work.”

A century later, Cordella Stevenson’s ghastly death has still not been forgotten. In 2013, a poem for her, titled “What the Dark Said”, was published in the collection Ain’t No Grave, by Tennessee poet TJ Jarrett.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arson,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Innocent Bystanders,Lucky to be Alive,Lynching,Mississippi,No Formal Charge,Other Voices,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Summary Executions,USA,Women

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1721: John Meff

Add comment September 11th, 2015 Headsman

John Meff hanged at Tyburn on this date in 1721 for returning from convict transportation.

If we are to credit the autobiographical account that Meff furnished the Ordinary of Newgate prior to his hanging, it was the last act in an adventuresome life. )Here’s the Ordinary’s account of the execution of Meff with three other men; here’s the Newgate Calendar entry based upon it, and which provides the quotes ensuing in this post.)

“I was born in London of French parents,” Meff begins — Huguenots who had fled Catholic harassment.

Huguenot refugees formed an important part of London’s Spitalfields weavers, and Meff apprenticed in this business until he could hang out his own shingle. But finding business too slow to support his family, he took to a bit of supplementary thieving.

Meff says that he had already once been condemned to death for housebreaking “but, as I was going to the place of execution, the hangman was arrested, and I was brought back to Newgate.”

Certainly the era’s executioners had frequent criminal escapades, but I have not found this remarkable Tyburn interruptus related in any press accounts in the 1710s. It’s possible that Meff is embellishing on the 1718 downfall and execution of hangman John Price — though Price was seized red-handed and not detained in the exercise of his office. This inconsistency has not prevented creation of a wonderful illustration, The Hangman Arrested When Attending John Meff to Tyburn, from this volume.

At any rate, Meff’s sentence was moderated to transportation to the New World, and he says that he “took up a solemn resolution to lead an honest and regular course of life … But this resolution continued but a short time after the fear of death vanished.”

Here Meff’s story really gets colorful — whether to the credit of the unsettled Atlantic economy or to the teller’s gift for embroidery we cannot say.

The ship which carried me and the other convicts was taken by the pirates. They would have persuaded me and some others to sign a paper, in order to become pirates; but we refusing, they put me and eight more ashore on a desert uninhabited land, where we must have perished with hunger, if by good fortune an Indian canoe had not arrived there. We waited till the Indians had gone up the island, and then, getting into the vessel, we sailed from one small island to another, till we reached the coast of America.

Not choosing to settle in any of the plantations there, but preferring the life of a sailor, I shipped myself on board a vessel that carried merchandise from Virginia and South Carolina to Barbadoes, Jamaica, and other of his majesty’s islands. And thus I lived a considerable time; but at last, being over-desirous to see how my wife and children fared inEngland, I was resolved to return at all adventures.

Once back, Meff says, he “quickly fell into my former wicked practices” — as if by gravity, no further explanation ventured. It’s hard not to suspect that he simply managed to escape his American indenture to continue a career in larceny, absent the whole marooned-by-pirates subplot. Men were known to tell tall tales to the Ordinary — who, after all, had their own story to sell the public through the deaths of their charges.

“The narrow escape he had experienced from the gallows ought to have taught him more wisdom than to have returned from transporation before the expiration of his time; but one would think there is a fatality attending the conduct of some men, who seem resolutely bent on their own destruction,” the Newgate Calendar’s entry concludes.

“One truth, however, is certain. It is easy, by a steady adherence to the rules of virtue, to shun that ignominious fate which is the consequence of a breach of the laws of God and our country.”

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Last Minute Reprieve,Lucky to be Alive,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Public Executions,Theft

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1430: Ten men beheaded, and an eleventh man married

1 comment January 10th, 2015 Sabine Baring-Gould

(Thanks to Sabine Baring-Gould for the guest post, from this piece on Helene Gillet‘s miraculously surviving her beheading. -ed.)

In the Middle Ages there were two chances of life at the last moment accorded to a malefactor condemned to death, besides a free pardon from the sovereign. One of these was the accidental meeting of a cardinal with the procession to execution; the other was the offer of a maiden to marry the condemned man, or, in the case of a woman sentenced to death, the offer of a man to make her his wife.

The claim of the cardinals was a curious one. They pretended to have inherited the privileges with which the vestal virgins of old Rome were invested. In 1309 a man was condemned to be hung in Paris for some offence. As he was being led to execution down the street of Aubry-le-Boucher, he met the cardinal of Saint Eusebius, named Rochette, who was going up the street. The cardinal immediately took oath that the meeting was accidental, and demanded the release of the criminal. It was granted.

In 1376, Charles V was appealed to in a case of a man who was about to be hung, when a young girl in the crowd cried out that she would take him as her husband. Charles decreed that the man was to be given up to her.

In 1382, a similar case came before Charles VI, which we shall quote verbatim from the royal pardon.

Henrequin Dontart was condemned by the judges of our court in Peronne to be drawn to execution on a hurdle, and then hung by the neck till dead. In accordance with the which decree he was drawn and carried by the hangman to the gibbet, and when he had the rope round his neck, then one Jeanette Mourchon, a maiden of the town of Hamaincourt, presented herself before the provost and his lieutenant, and supplicated and required of the aforesaid provost and his lieutenant to deliver over to her the said Dontart, to be her husband. Wherefore the execution was interrupted, and he was led back to prison … and, by the tenor of these letters, it is our will that the said Dontart shall be pardoned and released.

Another instance we quote from the diary of a Parisian citizen of the year 1430.* He wrote:

On January 10, 1430, eleven men were taken to the Halles to be executed, and the heads of ten were cut off. The eleventh was a handsome young man of twenty-four; he was having his eyes bandaged, when a young girl born at the Halles came boldly forward and asked for him. And she stood to her point, and maintained her right so resolutely, that he was taken back to prison in the Chatelet, where they were married, and then he was discharged.

This custom has so stamped itself on the traditions of the peasantry, that all over France it is the subject of popular tales and anecdotes; with one of the latter we will conclude.

In Normandy a man was at the foot of the gibbet, the rope round his neck, when a sharp-featured woman came up and demanded him. The criminal looked hard at her, and turning to the hangman, said: —

A pointed nose, a bitter tongue!
Proceed, I’d rather far be hung.

* This would have been during the English occupation of Paris in the Hundred Years’ War, even as Joan of Arc was delivering the country from the hands of its antagonists.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Known But To God,Last Minute Reprieve,Lucky to be Alive,Mass Executions,Not Executed,Other Voices,Pardons and Clemencies,Public Executions

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1625: Not Helene Gillet, beheading survivor

Add comment May 12th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1625, Helene Gillet went to the scaffold in Dijon to suffer beheading for infanticide.

But it was the executioner and not Helene who came down from it in pieces.

Helene was the beautiful 21-year-old daughter of a royal chatelain, the sort of well-to-do folks who would own monogrammed blankets that proved quite incriminating when found wrapped around an abandoned dead infant in the woods. Helene would claim that its origin was a family tutor who forced himself upon her, and also insist without further explanation on her innocence of the child’s fate — though the latter little entered the picture since an edict from 1556 made it capital crime to conceal pregnancy and childbirth.

Thanks to her status, she was entitled to the dignity of a beheading, rather than an ignoble dispatch by rope. But all else for Helene Gillet was shame: her father disowned her and forbade any intervention on her behalf; only Helen’s mother accompanied her to Dijon to appeal against the sentence.

It is said that in the course of her appeals to the Parlement of Dijon, the mother attracted the sympathy of the Bernadine abbey there, one of whose inmates ventured to prophesy that “whatever happens, Helene Gillet will not die by the hand of the executioner, but will die a natural and edifying death.”

Parlement begged to differ.

On Monday, May 12th, the young woman was led to the hill of Morimont (present-day Place Emile-Zola) by the executioner of Dijon, Simon Grandjean. Monsieur Bourreau was in an agitated state that day, whether from pity for his victim, or from an ague that had afflicted him, or from whatever other woes haunted his life. When you’re the executioner of Dijon you can’t just call in sick or take a mental health day.

The scaffold on which the whole tragedy was to unfold was a permanent edifice, albeit far less monumental than the likes of Montfaucon. Its routine employment was attested by the permanent wooden palisade and the small stone chapel comprising the arena — features that would factor in the ensuing scene.

Having positioned Gillet on the block, our troubled executioner raised up his ceremonial sword and brought it crashing down … on her left shoulder. The blow toppled the prisoner from the block, but she was quite alive. To cleanly strike through a living neck with a hand-swung blade — to do so under thousands of hostile eyes — was never a certain art; there are many similar misses in the annals. Often, an headsman’s clumsiness in his office would incite the crowd: the legendary English executioner Jack Ketch was nearly lynched for his ten-thumbed performance beheading Lord Monmouth; the hangman of Florence had been stoned to death by an enraged mob after a badly botched execution in 1503.

The Dijonnaise were no more forgiving of Grandjean. Hoots and missiles began pelting the platform as the pitiable condemned, matted with blood, struggled back to the block — and Grandjean must have felt the rising gorge and sweated hands of the man who knows an occasion is about to unman him.

Grandjean’s wife, who acted his assistant in his duties, vainly strove to rescue her man’s mettle and the situation. One chop would do it: the struggling patient would still, the archer detail would restrain the angry crowd. Madame Grandjean forced Gillet back to the block, thrust the dropped sword back into the executioner’s hands with who knows what exhortation.

What else could he do? Again the high executioner raised the blade and again arced it down on the young woman’s head — and again goggled in dismay. Somehow, the blow had been half-deflected by a knot of Helene Gillet’s hair, and nicked only a small gash in the supplicant’s neck. Now hair is a decided inconvenience for this line of work and it was customary to cut it or tie it up — even the era of the guillotine gives us the infamous pre-execution toilette. Even so, the idea of a strong and vigorous man brandishing a heavy executioner’s sword being so entirely frustrated by a braid puts us in mind of an athlete short-arming a free throw or skying a penalty kick for want of conviction in the motion.

This is, admittedly, a retrospective interpretation, but if Grandjean had any inkling of what was to follow one could forgive him the choke.

Having now seen the vulnerable youth survive two clumsy swipes, the crowd’s fury poured brickbats onto the stage in a flurry sufficient to drive the friars who accompanied the condemned to flee in fear for their own lives. Grandjean followed them, all of them retreating to the momentary safety of the chapel as the attempted execution collapsed into chaos.

The steelier Madame Grandjean tried to salvage matters by completing what her husband could not — and seized the injured Gillet to haul her off the platform to the partial shelter of the stone risers by which they had ascended, like a tiger dragging prey to its lair. No longer bothering with the ceremonial niceties of the office, Madame Grandjean simply began kicking and beating Gillet as she drew out a pair of shears to finish her off in violent intimacy.

But the raging mob by this time had pushed through the guards and overrun the palisades, and fell on the melee in the midst of Madame Grandjean’s fevered slashing. The executioner’s wife was ruthlessly torn to pieces, and the cowering executioner himself soon forced from his refuge to the same fate.

Helene Gillet, who had survived a beheading, was hauled by her saviors bloody and near-senseless to a nearby surgeon, who tended her injuries and confirmed that none of them ought be fatal.

What would happen to her now?

The prerogatives of the state insist against the popular belief in pardoning an execution survivor.

We don’t have good answers for this situation even today; that a person might leave their own execution alive seems inadmissible, even though it does — still — occur.

But Helene Gillet was obviously a sympathetic case, and as a practical matter, the office of Dijon executioner had suddenly become vacant. The city’s worthies petitioned as one for her reprieve.

As it happened, King Louis XIII’s younger sister Henrietta Maria had on the very day preceding the execution been married by proxy to Louis’s ill-fated English counterpart Charles I. This gave the French sovereign good occasion for the very palatable exercise of mercy, “at the recommendation of some of our beloved and respected servants, and because we are well-disposed to be gracious through the happy marriage of the Queen of Great Britain.”

The Parlement of Dijon received the royal pardon on June 2, and formally declared Helene Gillet’s official acquittal.

The fortunate woman, having had a brush with the sublime, is said to have retired herself to a convent and lived out the best part of the 17th century there in prayer.

There’s a 19th century French pamphlet of documents related to this case available from Google books.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Executions Survived,France,History,Lucky to be Alive,Murder,Nobility,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Public Executions,Women

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