Posts filed under 'Pardons and Clemencies'

1791: Alessandro Cagliostro condemned

1 comment March 21st, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1791, the Inquisition in Rome condemned magician Alessandro Cagliostro to death — a sentence immediately commuted to imprisonment for the remainder of his life, which turned out to be only four more years.

Cagliostro’s rich career as European courts’ thaumaturge of choice might have been decreed by the stars right down to his pitch-perfectly sinister moniker. Is this the shadowy diabolist whom the title character of in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is meant to evoke?

In fact, his birth name was Giuseppe Balsamo.

Naughty by nature from the time of his youthful expulsion from the Order of St. John, Balsamo — the hobgoblin familiar haunting the adult prophet’s cimmerian shadows — hailed originally from apenniless Sicilian family. (Though Cagliostro claimed for himself a suitably exotic childhood in Arabia and Egypt)

What he wanted in native wealth he more than made up for in enterprise — both for self-education in sorcery, alchemy, and other forbidden arts, and for leveraging his expertise in lustrous capers.

Hopping from court to court, Cagliostro carved out a career moving forgeries of spiritual or temporal potency alongside his legitimate profession as a doctor and chemist and his growing public profile as an influential spiritualist. He broke through as a young man in the train of a cardinal in Rome, using this in to market on the side fake artifacts alleged to have been pilfered from the Vatican’s mysterious Egyptian troves, as well as to seduce a local girl named Serafina whom he married at age 18. Serafina would be his lifelong companion on his adventures.

Cagliostro turned up over the ensuing two decades in Russia, Poland, Germany, and England, where he was inducted into the Freemasons in 1776. He’s been credited with creating masonry’s Egyptian Rite, and with energetically propagating it in the 1780s;* indeed, it was his adherence to Freemasonry — and his sacreligious boldness opening a masonic lodge in Rome under the nose of the pontiff — that led to his 1789 arrest.

His seances and magic potions made him a great favorite of the Versailles court for a number of years, until a glancing association with the Affair of the Diamond Necklace so damaging to the reputation of Marie Antoinette forced Cagliostro’s expulsion from France.

Considering his Mephistophelian** reputation, now very well known in Europe, Cagliostro’s return thereafter to the belly of papal power seems most unwise. Perhaps (as this biographer supposes) it was the influence of Serafina, homesick after so many years separated from her native haunts. Cagliostro’s next ports of call were the Vatican’s Castel Sant’Angelo and (after an escape attempt) the lonely Fortress of San Leo — and even his end was so shrouded in mystery and conjecture that the subsequent conqueror Napoleon commissioned an official investigation to convince everyone that he’d really shuffled off the mortal coil.

Giuseppe Balsamo, attainted and convicted of many crimes, and of having incurred the censures and penalties pronounced against heretics, dogmatics, heresiarchs, and propagators of magic and superstition, has been found guilty and condemned to the said censures and penalties as decreed by the Apostolic laws of Clement XII and Benedict XIV, against all persons who in any manner whatever favour or form societies and conventicles of Freemasonry, as well as by the edict of the Council of State against all persons convicted of this crime in Rome or in any other place in the dominions of the Pope.

Notwithstanding, by special grace and favour, the sentence of death by which this crime is expiated is hereby commuted into perpetual imprisonment in a fortress, where the culprit is to be strictly guarded without any hope of pardon whatever. Furthermore, after he shall have abjured his offences as a heretic in the place of his imprisonment he shall receive absolution, and certain salutary penances will then be prescribed for him to which he is hereby ordered to submit.

Likewise, the manuscript book which has for its title Egyptian Masonry is solemnly condemned as containing rites, propositions, doctrines, and a system which being superstitious, impious, heretical, and altogether blasphemous, open a road to sedition and the destruction of the Christian religion. This book, therefore, shall be burnt by the executioner, together with all the other documents relating to this sect.

By a new Apostolic law we shall confirm and renew not only the laws of the preceding pontiffs which prohibit the societies and conventicles of Freemasonry, making particular mention of the Egyptian sect and of another vulgarly known as the Illumines, and we shall decree that the most grievous corporal punishments reserved for heretics shall be inflicted on all who shall associate, hold communion with, or protect these societies. (Source)

Thereafter widely denounced and renounced as a rank charlatan, Cagliostro at the very least rates as of the more outstanding adventurers of his time — a distinction that bequeathed him an impressive artistic afterlife from Alexandre Dumas to Christopher Walken.

Nor have his grander poses entirely wanted for supporters in posterity, particularly among adherents to the still-extant Masonic rite he initiated. (Aleister Crowley also suggested that he might have been Cagliostro in a previous incarnation.)

W.R.H. Trowbridge’s 1910 biograhy Cagliostro: The Splendour and Misery of a Master of Magic is in the public domain and available free online.

* Cagliostro might also have written a classic occult volume, The Most Holy Trinosophia.

** “Mephistophelian” might be the literally applicable word. When the mysterious Cagliostro’s possible identity as the exiled Sicilian swindler Balsano was first exposed, eventual Faust author Johann von Goethe happened to be in Palermo — and he took it upon himself to investigate personally by calling on Balsano’s family. (“You know my brother?” “All Europe knows him.”)

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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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1865: The Jacksonville Mutineers

Add comment December 1st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1865, six African-American infantrymen were shot in Fernandina, Florida, for the Jacksonville Mutiny.

Formed in 1863, the 3rd Infantry Regiment, United States Colored Troops served in the trenchworks around Fort Wagner — the grinding siege in the summer of 1863 that followed the bloody attempt to storm the fort immortalized in the 1989 film Glory.

The Third was subsequently transferred to Union-occupied Jacksonville, Florida for duty garrisoning a conquered town of the Confederacy whose white citizens chafed doubly at their presence. But the unit had weathered both the boredom of the garrison and the hostility of white Floridians, and was set to muster out and return home on Halloween of 1865.

All U.S. Colored Troop regiments were officered by white men, putting an inevitable racial tinge on the inherent potential tension between enlistees and their commanders — the triggering event in our story. Heading the Third was a fellow named John L. Brower, Lieutenant Colonel by rank courtesy of his political connections but of nearly no actual military experience.

Ohio National Guard Judge Advocate General Kevin Bennett, in his 1992 article about the mutiny,* calls Brower a “martinet”; elevated to command of the Third on September 12 for what should have been a mostly ceremonial interim, Brower delighted in enforcing stringent wartime discipline months after Appomattox. While no man welcomes the taste of the lash when he’s one foot out the door back to civilian life, excess discipline meted out by cruel white overseers was particularly bad form for Colored Troop regiments.

From the standpoint of black Americans, the war had been all about destroying slavery; they had practically had to force this objective, and their own presence,** into the conflict. Being strung up by the thumbs for petty theft — Brower’s decreed punishment for one of his charges on October 29 — was far too evocative of the hated Slave Power.

“Inexperienced officers often assumed that because these men had been slaves before enlistment, they would bear to be treated as such afterwards,” one white Colored Troop commander later remembered. “Experience proved to the contrary. Any punishment resembling that meted out by the overseers caused irreparable damage.”†


The inclination of black troops to reject servile treatment and the anxiety that this provoked among their officers and the larger white community must surely be read in view of the perplexing new conditions following the Civil War.

Even among whites who supported it in principle, slavery abolition meant an unsettling and uncertain rearrangement of civilization — or at least, it potentially meant that. Would the economy continue to function without slavery? Would the daily conventions and assumptions that had sustained whites north and south have to be entirely renegotiated?

“Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship,” Frederick Douglass had proclaimed. Now that the war had finished, what else did those musket-toting sable fellows think they had earned the right to?

Press reports over the course of 1865 show a continuing theme of “Negro mutinies”: it is for wiser studies than this post to determine whether the trend such stories represent is disturbances among the black soldiery, or an exaggerated preoccupation among their white countrymen. In either event, Jacksonville was very far from unique even if the punishments were exemplary.


From the June 16, 1865 Cleveland Plain Dealer, concerning black soldiers on a steamer bound for Texas calling at Fort Monroe who, chagrined at the assignment, refused to permit the steamer’s resuming its journey.


From the June 19, 1865 Philadelphia Inquirer, concerning a company refusing to embark for Texas. “Certain evil disposed persons put it into the heads of these credulous colored soldiers that they were to be sent to Texas as servants for the white troops,” runs the report. “Doubtless some secret enemies of the Government instilled similar subtle falsehoods into the simple minds of the blacks who were disarmed at Fortress Monroe a few days ago.”


From the September 30, 1865 Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.), concerning a mutiny reported near Hilton, N.C.


From the Oct. 1, 1865 Daily Constitutionalist (Augusta, Ga.), reporting a disturbance begun when a black regiment demonstrated against a court-martial for one of their comrades accused (and acquitted) of stealing a hat.

In the midst of all of this — right about the time of the incident in this post, in fact — bulletins reached American shores of the Morant Bay Rebellion, a bloody rebellion of black laborers in British-controlled Jamaica. Slavery had been abolished on that Caribbean island more than 30 years prior: what did that uprising augur for the races in these United States?


Subtext becomes text: the Norwich (Conn.) Aurora, December 23, 1865. “The African released from restraint, and the passion of the savage provoked, will realize the scenes formerly witnessed in Hayti.” (The full article (pdf))

For our case, the name of the man punished like a slave is lost, but we do know what he did: steal some molasses from the kitchen. That’s how six of his comrades ultimately wound up looking down the barrels of their executioners.

A Lt. Greybill caught the greedy nosher and decreed a rough summary punishment, which the arriving Brower arrived helped to enforce on the resisting prisoner. “Tying up by the thumbs” was a brutal and humiliating treatment that lifted the man by those digits (often dislocated in the process) until only his toes remained on the ground, barely supporting his weight, and left him there for hours. In the film 12 Years a Slave, we see a man subjected to this sort of tiptoeing, but with a rope about the neck instead of about the thumbs.

Other enlisted men gathered around this pitiful scene, complaining about what they saw. A Private Jacob Plowden, who will eventually number among our day’s six executees, cried out that “it was a damn shame for a man to be tied up like that, white soldiers were not tied up that way nor other colored soldiers, only in our regiment.”

Plowden announced that “there was not going to be any more of it, that he would die on the spot but he would be damned if he wasn’t the man to cut him down.” Another private, Jonathan Miller, joined the incitement — “Let’s take him down, we are not going to have any more of tying men up by the thumbs.” A number of the black soldiers, 25 to 35 or so, began advancing on Brower and the hanging molasses-thief. Brower drew his sidearm and fired into them, wounding a man and sending the soldiers scurrying — some dispersing, but other dashing off to tents to arm themselves.

Several non-lethal fights now occurred in various spots around the camp between soldiers and officers, and eventually between the disaffected soldiers and arriving brethren from Company K, who had been summoned to calm the situation.

Lt. Col. Brower exchanged shots with several of the men who armed themselves, and in a bit of symmetry with the distasteful punishment that had started the whole mess, he had his thumb shot off in the process. One of the privates who had been heard complaining of the thumb-hanging, now playing peacemaker, grabbed the injured officer and escorted him to a safe building, warning some men who tried to pursue them to “stop their damn foolishness.”

Elsewhere, a Lt. Fenno sabered a protestor, and got bashed over the head with a fence-post in response. Neither injury was life-threatening to its recipient. Some shots were exchanged elsewhere in camp and/or fired demonstratively into the air, again to no fatal effect. And a Private James Thomas cut down the post where the source of all the disturbance, the fellow who just wanted an extra ration of molasses, was hanging.

This was the whole of the commotion, which Company K reinforcements soon quelled.

In a speedy series of court-martials lasting from Oct. 31 to Nov. 3, thirteen men were convicted of mutiny in this affair, and a fourteenth of conduct prejudicial to good order (his offense: not during the mutiny but after all was over, saying of Brower, “the God-damned son of a bitch, he shot my cousin. Where is he? Let me see him.”) A fifteenth man was acquitted. All 15 accused mounted their own defense, without counsel or aid — generally endeavoring to show that they had either not armed themselves or (and this was the decisive factor for the six whose conviction carried a death sentence) not fired their weapon.

The trial itself posed interesting procedural dilemmas, which Bennett explores at length in his article: first, because it was a mutiny case, the white officers of the Third who comprised the jurors were also, awkwardly, the brother-officers of the witnesses who testified against the mutineers.

And second, although the Civil War was over, Florida still technically remained in a state of rebellion, and this enabled the unit to convene a general court-martial, issue death sentences, and even carry them out without allowing any appeal to Washington. General John Foster gave the final approval to the sentences and transmitted case files to Washington after the fact; that was all the six condemned had by way of legal or executive review.

On December 10, he received a telegraph ordering him to suspend one of the death sentences in response to an inquiry raised by U.S. Senator Edgar Cowan: Cowan had been contacted by one of his constituents, who represented that Private David Craig, whom the constituent had raised from childhood, had written him complaining of his wrongful conviction. According to Sen. Cowan, the allegation was that Craig had been directed to collect arms from the mutineers as the disturbance came to an end, but was thereafter arrested in the confusion for being armed with the weapons he collected. But December 10 was nine days too late, and the late Private Craig’s case file disturbingly seems to have been lost from the National Archives.

The other five shot by musketry this date were:

  • Joseph Green
  • James Allen
  • Jacob Plowden
  • Joseph Nathaniel
  • Thomas Howard

Lt. Col. Brower only testified at one of the courts-martial, and was sent home almost immediately afterwards. He’d lost his thumb for his adventure as an officer and a gentleman, but between the original provocative punishment that he helped enforce, and then inflaming a tense situation by shooting at his soldiers, the brass was probably just as pleased to see him go as were his subordinates.

The non-executed mutineers who received prison terms (up to 15 years) had their sentences commuted following a review in 1866. The rest of the regiment mustered out as scheduled at the end of October, two days after the Jacksonville Mutiny.

* B. Kevin Bennett, “The Jacksonville Mutiny”, Civil War History, Volume 38, Number 1, March 1992. Bennett’s article is the source of all of the quotes in this post not otherwise cited.

** See I Freed Myself, or this podcast interview with its author, David Williams.

† See here for a fascinating instance of this at sea in June 1865, by the author of Becoming American under Fire: Irish Americans, African Americans, and the Politics of Citizenship during the Civil War Era

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

2 comments October 29th, 2014 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1651: Wilhelm Biener, faithful counsellor

Add comment July 17th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1651, Wilhelm Biener, late the chancellor of Tyrol, lost his head to the rancor of Tyrol’s landed aristocracy.

A barrister by training and eventually a judge, Biener or Bienner (English Wikipedia entry | German) transitioned into a court position under Leopold V, Archduke of Austria. Leopold’s death in 1632 left a four-year-old heir, Ferdinand Charles; the boy’s mother, Claudia de’ Medici, leaned increasingly on Biener’s counsel as she ably kept Tyrol in order (and out of the devastating Thirty Years’ War) while little Ferdinand aged towards his majority.

As a commoner, no dynastic entanglements of his own divided his attentions from the state’s own interest, a fact that Claudia de’ Medici recognized by elevating Biener to the chancellorship in 1638, and that the land’s magnates recognized in the strictly levied taxes Biener extracted from their resentful purses.


Detail view (click for full image) of Karl Anrather’s 1891 painting of Wilhelm Biener holding forth against the Tiroler Landtag, from the Ferdinandeum at Innsbruck.

We’ve seen quite often enough in these pages that the danger undertaken by such figures should their enemies ever find power over them mitigates the honors and emoluments they are like to enjoy while in office. One gets a sense of the undercurrent of biding violence from the remark of the Bishop of Brixen, directed to forward the required revenues in a letter less deferential than a senior cleric thought he was due: “The man deserves to lose the fingers that could write such an intemperate effusion!”

For Biener, the volcano opened under him with the death of his patron Claudia de’ Medici on Christmas Day 1648. Her boy Ferdinand Charles was all of 20 years old now, wet behind the ears and enamored of courtly profligacy. Despite his affection for Biener and his long service to his mother, the young prince would vacillate on sparing the consigliere until it was too late.

Biener’s enemies struck with a secret trial accusing him of wetting his own beak on the imposts he had imposed on Tirol; the account below of what followed from a travelogue probably reflects the posthumous myth of Biener more faithfully than it does the real man.

[Biener] was ultimately condemned, in 1651, to lose his head. Biener sent a statement of his case to the Archduke Ferdinand Karl; and the young prince, believing the honesty of his mother’s faithful adviser, immediately ordered a reprieve. The worst enemy and prime accuser of the fallen favourite was Schmaus, President of the Council … and he contrived by detaining the messenger to make him arrive just too late in Rattenberg, then still a strong fortress, where he lay confined, and where the sentence was to be carried out.

Biener had all along steadfastly maintained his innocence; and stepping on to the scaffold, he had again repeated the assertion, adding, “So truly as I am innocent, I summon my accuser before the Judgment-seat above before another year is out.” When the executioner stooped to lift up the head before the people, he found lying by its side three fingers of his right hand, without having had any knowledge that he had struck them off, though he might have done so by the unhappy man having raised his hand in the way of the sword in the last struggle. [more likely they were folded in prayer. -ed.] The people, however, saw in it the fulfilment of the words of the bishop, as well as a ghastly challenge accompanying his dying message to President Schmaus. Nor did they forget to note that the latter died of a terrible malady some months before the close of the year.

Biener’s wife lost her senses when she knew the terrible circumstances of his death; the consolations of her director and of her son, who lived to his ninetieth year in the Franciscan convent at Innsbruck, were alike powerless to calm her. She escaped in the night, and wandered out into the mountains no one knows whither. But the people say she lives on to be a witness of her husband’s innocence, and may be met on lonely ways proclaiming it, but never harming any. Only, when anyone is to die in Büchsenhausen, where her married life passed so pleasantly, the ‘Bienerweible’ will appear and warn them.

Living on in Tyrol folk tradition, Biener took a leap into the Romantic-era national consciousness thanks to writer Hermann Schmid, who popularized Biener’s legend with a 19th century historical novel, The Chancellor of Tyrol; public domain versions can be read online in two volumes (1, 2); a theatrical adaptation by Josef Wenter is still staged to this day.


Marker honoring Wilhelm Biener in the Austrian Tyrol town of Rattenberg, where Biener was executed on July 17, 1651.

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1817: Two-fifths of the condemned in Valenciennes

Add comment July 3rd, 2014 Headsman

From the York Herald and General Advertiser (York, England) of Saturday, Aug. 16, 1817.

Five English soldiers being on guard, the 18th of June last, at one of the gates of Valenciennes, committed a robbery on the house of an individual, and were condemned to be hanged. They were conducted, by the orders of Lord Wellington, on the 3d of July, outside the walls of the town, to undergo their punishment.

The people followed the culprits, invoking, in accents of sorrow, the pity of their officers, and crying “Mercy! Mercy!”

Two of them were executed, and the other three received their pardon at the very moment they were about to part with life. At this news the joy of the numerous spectators was extreme, and the thanks they addressed to the English General were no doubt less eloquent than the joy from which they emanated.

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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 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.

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2013: Vahid Zare pardoned while hanging

4 comments May 8th, 2014 Headsman

Last year on this date, an astonishing scene unfolded at a public hanging in Mashhad, near the Iran-Afghanistan border.

Vahid Zare, a robber who murdered a young military conscript pursuing him, was the man due for execution.

Moments after he was dropped and began strangling, the family of his victim pardoned him — their right under Iranian law. Zare was immediately rescued mid-hanging, and his executioner helped him off the gallows for transportation to a local hospital.

The graphic pictures that follow tell an astonishing story.

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1789: Not Mary Wade, 11-year-old thief

Add comment March 16th, 2014 Headsman

Thanks to Aaron Molyneux for the guestpost. It’s just an excerpt of a much more detailed treatment Molyneux first made of this case on PrisonVoices.org. I’ve made a handful of minor edits to compress this excerpt, and added or moved some links. -ed.

On Wednesday the 14th of January 1789 Mary Wade stood in court at the age of just 11 years old and received the verdict that her life was to be cut short. For the robbery of one cotton frock, a linen tippet and a linen cap she was found guilty and sentenced to hang. Judged to have committed an adult’s crime, she would face an adult’s punishment.

Although in modern Britain theft may seem a quite unremarkable crime, in Mary Wade’s age robbery was dealt with by extreme punishment. The court suggested that Mary’s theft was equal to “holding a pistol to the breast of a grown person”. Whether or not Mary Wade was aware of the hard-lined punishments given to those who stole remains unknown but having committed a very similar crime at the age of eight, only to get away with it because of her young age, she did know it was a crime and therefore it would seem that there was an air of desperation about Mary’s actions.

Sentenced to die by hanging Mary was taken away from her mother and marched out of the Old Bailey. For a girl of Mary’s age this situation must’ve been a frightening ordeal. Being sent to Newgate prison was not for the faint hearted. It was a vile place deemed so unhealthy that Physicians often refused to go in. By the time Mary entered, Newgate was London’s main jail and Mary joined many others waiting to be hanged before huge crowds outside the prison doors. Arriving in irons Mary would have been faced with open sewage, disease and lack of water. It would be a shock to the system for anybody never mind an eleven year old girl. If those entering had enough money they would enter the Master’s side or the press yard where they would have beds, heat and have their irons removed. But those who could not afford would be thrown into the Common Felons side. These would go without bedding or proper clothing and be forced to slum in the overcrowded, rat-infested cells. Mary almost certainly would have been with the fellow women convicts in the Common Felons side.

More than likely alone, vulnerable and scared Mary would spent a total of ninety three days waiting to be marched out in front of the baying crowds which gathered outside the prison walls to watch convicts hang for their crimes. Ninety three days in which she would wait for her death.

Then, on the 16th of March 1789, in celebration of King George III‘s recovery from madness, Mary Wade’s death sentence was respited along with all other condemned women. Instead of hanging, she would be transported to New South Wales on the convict ship Lady Juliana.

Read on at Prison Voices for more on Mary Wade’s offense, and for her story as a transported convict — where she became the ancestor of a huge number of latter-day Australians.

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1730: Neither James Prouse nor James Mitchel, much to their surprise

Add comment January 14th, 2014 Benjamin Franklin

January 14, 1730, was the date appointed for the public hanging in Philadelphia of James Prouse and James Mitchel for burglary.

Prouse, for his part, admitted the crime but insisted that James Mitchel had nothing to do with it — and Mitchel insisted the same. This ultimately generated considerable support for clemency which the authorities did not seem inclined to act upon.

Naturally the young newspaperman Benjamin Franklin — just turning 24 in January 1730 — was keen to publish this affecting story in his Philadelphia Gazette. Through the magic of public domain, he’s generously allowed us to republish his account from the January 20, 1730 Gazette as our guest post today.

Hyperlinks are, as one may surmise, Executed Today‘s own annotations.


We think our Readers will not be displeased to have the following remarkable Transaction related to them in this particular Manner.

Wednesday the 14th Instant, being the Day appointed for the Execution of James Prouse and James Mitchel for Burglary, suitable Preparations were accordingly made. The tender Youth of one of them (who was but about 19) and the supposed Innocence of the other as to the Fact for which they were condemned, had induced the Judges (upon the Application of some compassionate People) to recommend them to His Honour‘s known Clemency: But several Malefactors having been already pardoned, and every Body being sensible, that, considering the great Increase of Vagrants and idle Persons, by the late large Importation of such from several Parts of Europe, it was become necessary for the common Good to make some Examples, there was but little Reason to hope that either, and less that both of them might escape the Punishment justly due to Crimes of that enormous Nature. About 11 o’Clock the Bell began to Toll, and a numerous Croud of People was gathered near the Prison, to see these unhappy young Men brought forth to suffer. While their Irons were taken off, and their Arms were binding, Prouse cry’d immoderately; but Mitchel (who had himself all along behaved with unusual Fortitude) endeavoured in a friendly tender Manner to comfort him: Do not cry, Jemmy; (says he) In an Hour or two it will be over with us, and we shall both be easy. They were then placed in a Cart, together with a Coffin for each of them, and led thro’ the Town to the Place of Execution: Prouse appear’d extreamly dejected, but Mitchel seemed to support himself with a becoming manly Constancy: When they arriv’d at the fatal Tree, they were told that it was expected they should make some Confession of their Crimes, and say something by Way of Exhortation to the People. Prouse was at length with some Difficulty prevailed on to speak; he said, his Confession had been taken in Writing the Evening before; he acknowledged the Fact for which he was to die, but said, That Greyer who had sworn against him was the Person that persuaded him to it; and declared that he had never wronged any Man beside Mr. Sheed, and his Master. Mitchel being desired to speak, reply’d with a sober compos’d Countenance, What would you have me to say? I am innocent of the Fact. He was then told, that it did not appear well in him to persist in asserting his Innocence; that he had had a fair Trial, and was found guilty by twelve honest and good Men. He only answer’d, I am innocent; and it will appear so before God; and sat down. Then they were both bid to stand up, and the Ropes were order’d to be thrown over the Beam; when the Sheriff took a Paper out of his Pocket and began to read. The poor Wretches, whose Souls were at that Time fill’d with the immediate Terrors of approaching Death, having nothing else before their Eyes, and being without the least Apprehension or Hope of a Reprieve, took but little Notice of what was read; or it seems imagined it to be some previous Matter of Form, as a Warrant for their Execution or the like, ’till they heard the Words PITY and MERCY [And whereas the said James Prouse and James Mitchel have been recommended to me as proper Objects of Pity and Mercy.] Immediately Mitchel fell into the most violent Agony; and having only said, God bless the Governor, he swooned away in the Cart. Suitable Means were used to recover him; and when he came a little to himself, he added; I have been a great Sinner; I have been guilty of almost every Crime; Sabbath-breaking in particular, which led me into ill Company; but Theft I never was guilty of. God bless the Governor; and God Almighty’s Name be praised; and then swooned again. Prouse likewise seemed to be overwhelmed with Joy, but did not swoon. All the Way back to the Prison, Mitchel lean’d on his Coffin, being unable to support himself, and shed Tears in abundance. He who went out to die with a large Share of Resolution and Fortitude, returned in the most dispirited Manner imaginable; being utterly over-power’d by the Force of that sudden Turn of excessive Joy, for which he had been no Way prepared. The Concern that appeared in every Face while these Criminals were leading to Execution, and the Joy that diffused it self thro’ the whole Multitude, so visible in their Countenances upon the mention of a Reprieve, seems to be a pleasing Instance, and no small Argument of the general laudable Humanity even of our common People, who were unanimous in their loud Acclamations of God bless the Governor for his Mercy.

The following are Copies of the Papers delivered out by Prouse and Mitchel the Evening before, with little or no Alteration from their own Words.

I James Prouse was born in the Town of Brentford in Middlesex County in Old England, of honest Parents, who gave me but little Education. My Father was a Corporal in the late Lord Oxford’s Regiment of Horse, (then named the said Lord’s Blues) and I was for some Time in the Care of an Uncle who lived at Eling near Brentford aforesaid, and who would have given me good Learning; but I being young would not take his good Counsel, and in the 12th Year of my Age came into Philadelphia, where I was recommended to one of the best of Masters, who never let me want for any Thing: But I minding the evil Insinuations of wicked People, more than the good Dictates of my Master, and having not the Fear of God before my Eyes, am deservedly brought to this wretched and shameful End. I acknowledge I justly merit Death for the Fact which condemns me; but I never had the least Design or Thought of the like, until often press’d, and at length seduced to it by John Greyer, who was the only Person that ruined me. He often solicited me to be guilty of other Crimes of the like Nature, but I never was guilty of any such, neither with him or any one else; neither did I ever wrong any Man before, save my too indulgent Master; from whom I now and then pilfer’d a Yard or the like of Cloth, in order to make Money to spend with the said Greyer. As for James Mitchel who dies for the same Fact with me, as I hope to receive Mercy at the great Tribunal, he the said James Mitchel is intirely innocent, (*) and knew nothing of the Fact until apprehended and taken. I am about Nineteen Years of Age and die a Protestant.

JAMES PROUSE.

(*) N. B. He declared the same Thing at the Bar just before he received Sentence.

The Speech or Declaration of James Mitchel written with his own Hand.

I James Mitchel, was born, at Antrim in the Kingdom of Ireland, of good and honest Parents, and brought up with them until the Age of 13 Years, and had a suitable Education given me, such as being taught to read and write English, with some Latin; and might have been further instructed, but at my earnest Request was bound Apprentice to a Book-binder, and served 4 Years to that Trade; after which I left the Kingdom and went for England in order to be further improved in my Business; but there had the Misfortune to be press’d on board the Berwick Man of War, commanded by the Honorable George Gordon, and having been at several Parts abroad, returned to England in Octob. 1728. where I was by Sickness reduced to a very sad Condition, through which I came over to this Country a Servant; here I was it seems unfortunately led into bad Company, and one Evening by James Prouse was raised out of my Bed to go and drink with him and one Greyer, the which Greyer after parting gave to the said James Prouse Six-pence, which was all the Money I saw that Night and till next Morning, and then James Prouse took out of his Pocket a 15 Shilling Bill, and desired me to get it changed for him, in order to spend some of it; but coming unto Town I was apprehended for the robbing of Mr. George Sheed, and now am to die for the same. I die a Protestant.

JAMES MITCHEL.

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