Posts filed under 'Notable for their Victims'

1718: Tsarevich Alexei Petrovich condemned and fatally knouted

1 comment June 24th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1718,* Peter the Great’s hand-picked court condemned his son and onetime heir apparent Tsarevich Alexei to death for plotting treason.

Probably no single figure more strikingly underscored Peter’s violent rupture of the old Russia than Alexei: “timid, secretive and lacking in self-confidence,” he was Peter’s opposite in nearly every particular — his nemesis, literally from birth.

The product of Peter’s unsatisfactory first dynastic marriage to a conservative boyar princess, Alexei got abandoned along with his mother Eudoxia Lopukhina when Peter went on his years-long jag through western Europe.

Peter eventually forced the tsaritsa into a convent so he could take up with the ambitious emigre beauty Anna Mons, but the firstborn son was not so easily discarded.

Often malignantly ignored in his youth, Alexei spent his teen years being browbeaten by Peter who rightly despaired of ever making the boy into a king who could carry Peter’s legacy.

Where the father was preternaturally energetic, the son was feeble and reticent; Peter’s irritated letters to Alexei frequently complain of his laziness. (“I am incapable of exertion,” Alexei whinged.) Where the father had a curious mind for the Age of Enlightenment, the son was a dreamer who preferred the mysteries of the Orthodox religion. The boy showed little interest in politics or statecraft, but his position as the firstborn son meant that politics and statecraft were interested in him. Alexei just wanted to go to church and fool around with his Finnish mistress; he feigned or induced illness to avoid the instructional tasks his father appointed him, and once even tried to shoot himself in the hand to duck work.

The father called on all of his legendary severity fruitlessly trying to twist this malformed sapling into a sovereign when the boy’s every characteristic seemed to reproach Peter’s mission of a new and reborn Russia.

“How often have I scolded you for this, and not merely scolded but beaten you,” Peter wrote the boy when the latest assignment was not accomplished to his satisfaction. “Nothing has succeeded, nothing is any use, all is to no purpose, all is words spoken to the wind, and you want to do nothing but sit at home and enjoy yourself.” Start with scolding, proceed to beating — Peter’s philosophy of management as well as child-rearing.

Ever more fearful of his hated father, Alexei in 1716 gave Peter one final and greatest embarrassment by spurning his father’s last ultimatum to join the Russian army on campaign. Instead, the tsarevich fled to the protection of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI. Charles put him up in Naples for a year until Peter’s courtier Count Tolstoy** finally persuaded Alexei to return.

Alexei hoped he had arranged to get out of the royal-succession game and live as a private citizen, but where princes of the blood are concerned this option is more easily conceived than arranged. Peter well knew that the Orthodox clergy and many aristocrats awaited his death as their opportunity to roll back his reforms; the pious Alexei was inevitably a focus of these hopes and the boy embraced rather than shunned the association. Moreover, the twerp had made Peter look the fool before all of Europe with his running-away act.

Instead, the prince — whose return to Russia under the circumstances really was quite naive — found himself faced with a cruel inquisition.


Detail view (click for the full image) of Nikolai Ge’s 1871 painting “Peter the Great Interrogating the Tsarevich Alexei Petrovich in Peterhof” (via Wikimedia Commons)

Gibbon wrote of Marcus Aurelius that in permitting his notorious son Commodus to become his heir, “he sacrificed the happiness of millions to a fond partiality for a worthless boy, [and] chose a successor in his own family, rather than in the republic.”

Peter the Great easily possessed the iron resolution that the ancient Stoic lacked.

The tsar had learned seamanship in his youth by working in European dockyards; had learned soldiery by enrolling himself in the ranks and working his way up from drummer-boy. In his childhood he had seen the palace guard run amok in the Kremlin slaughtering his own family, bided his time until he could topple the power of his half-sister and take Russia in hand, and then wrought on those mutinous soldiers a terrible revenge.

And he had set for his reign a self-consciously world-historic mission, to force an unwilling nation into the European family. This enterprise of relentless, exhausting hubris the tsar applied everywhere from the cut of his noblemen’s facial hair to the whole-cloth creation of the Westward-facing capital city St. Petersburg.

Just so did Peter address himself to his truculent son.

“I will deprive you of the succession, as one may cut off a useless member,” he threatened in a come-to-Jesus letter of 1715, when Alexei was already 25 years old.

Do not fancy that, because I have no other child but you, I only write this to terrify you. I will certainly put it in execution if it please God; for whereas I do not spare my own life for my country and the welfare of my people, why should I spare you who do not render yourself worthy of either? I would rather choose to transmit them to a worthy stranger than to my own unworthy son.

Peter, to borrow a phrase redolent in Russian historiography, mourned not the cracked eggs that made his omelette.

And sometime after Alexei’s flight to Naples, Peter had clearly come to the understanding that for the good of his nation that unworthy son must indeed be spattered.

This episode places Peter in a monstrous light, just as would Marcus Aurelius appear to us had he contrived to murder the future tyrant Commodus when the latter was a mere callow youth. We do not have the luxury of seeing the path not taken, but it ought be said in the towering tsar’s defense that his disdain for the crown prince’s ability is difficult not to share. Alexei’s character stacks flaw upon flaw; no doubt Peter’s upbringing, by turns distant and brutal, was stamped upon it. Let the father bear that failure, but it does not relieve the sovereign’s choice: was he to confide his country and his legacy to the hands of this goblin? Was it even tolerable to leave this firstborn cooling his heels in a monastery, waiting for Peter’s death to cast off cowl and abdication and be acclaimed king by Old Russia?

Peter’s own youth, when he was part of an unresolved dynastic rivalry awkwardly sharing power, had been mired in plots and counterplots. Now, he could scarcely help but suspect that Alexei was also a piece of some conspiracy intending to undo Peter — whether in life or in death.

He forced the son to name his confidantes, then put those confidantes to torture and followed their accusations. In March of 1718, several men were broken on the wheel in Red Square; Alexei’s mother, long ago exiled to a convent, was menaced through her lover who was publicly impaled. Others got off with whippings, brandings, beatings, exile.

Not long after, that Finnish mistress of Alexei returned to the rodina herself. During his mission to Italy, Count Tolstoy had compromised her, and now she willingly supplied Peter the evidence of his son’s treason: that he spoke often of the succession, and how he would abandon St. Petersburg, let the navy rot, and restore the rights of the church; that he thrilled to every rumor of Peter’s illness and even to a mutiny. (Alexei would later acknowledge to his father’s face that had the mutineers acclaimed him tsar, he would have answered the summons.)

Peter empowered a very reluctant secular court to examine Alexei as a traitor without deference to his royal person. In a word, this meant torture — and on June 19, the frail Alexei was lashed 25 times with the knout, a terrible whip reinforced with metal rings that flayed a man’s back into carrion-meat and could even break the spine. Alexei managed to endure it, so on June 24 his suppurating wounds were reopened with another 15 strokes of the cruel scourge.

Under this inhuman torment, Alexei admitted wishing his father’s death — not much of an admission since he had already said as much to dad in the weeks before. But this gave his magistrates enough to condemn the tsarevich to death later that same night, for compassing the death of the king. The reality was that Alexei, vapid and indolent, had only one design on the death of his father: to await it with hope.

What we do not quite know is whether or how this sentence was actually effected. Peter wavered and did not sign the sentence — but as contemporaries saw it, God signed it.

On the morning of June 26, Peter and a number of other court dignitaries went to Peter and Paul Fortress. The fortress’s logs do not specify whether this was yet another round of torture for Alexei; stories would later circulate that Peter or a subaltern murdered the boy here by crudely beating him to death or privately beheading him, sparing the realm the spectacle of the broken crown prince mounting the scaffold.

But the official story, that an already-faltering Alexei begged Peter’s forgiveness as he succumbed to the shock notice of his condemnation, could easily be true: 40 strokes of the knout were enough to take the life of a much firmer constitution than Alexei’s.

By any measure, Peter authored the death of his son under the pall of execution, if not its literal fact — and for all the instances of royal-on-royal violence supplied by the annals, this filicide is nearly unique: Peter the Great, Emperor of All Russia, tortured his disappointing son to death.

Peter the Great died in 1725 at age 52 — according to legend, catching his death by forging into the freezing Finnish Gulf to rescue some drowning soldiers. (“I do not spare my own life for my country and the welfare of my people …”) Peter’s wives had borne him eight legitimate sons over the years, but Alexander, Pavel, Peter, another Pavel, another Peter, yet another Pavel, and yet another Peter had all died in early childhood. This was to be (after the brief reign later in the 1720s of Alexei’s sickly son Peter II) the end of the direct male line of Romanovs.

Instead, Peter was succeeded by his remarkable wife Catherine, by origin a Latvian peasant — and the 18th century would be dominated by female monarchs, culminating with Catherine the Great.

* It was June 24 by the Julian calendar still in use in Russia at that time. By the modern Gregorian calendar, Alexei Petrovich was condemned on July 5, and died on July 7.

** Ancestor of the novelist Leo Tolstoy, a man who did not like executions.

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1879: Alexander Soloviev, bad shot

Add comment May 28th, 2015 Headsman

On this date* in 1879, would-be regicide Alexander Soloviev was hanged

Soloviev (English Wikipedia entry | Russian), a Narodnik revolutionary, was one of the less competent assassins to have a go at Tsar Alexander II.

Surprising the undefended sovereign on the latter’s morning constitutional near Winter Palace, Soloviev couldn’t connect with his revolver from four meters’ distance. As Alexander fled, Soloviev gave chase, firing four more times in the process to no effect before the gathering crowd wrestled him to the cobblestones.

Soloviev admitted the crime — the admission was hardly necessary — and hanged before a crowd of 70,000 souls. Despite the ensuing police crackdown on subversives (resulting in still more executions), many of those 70,000 surely numbered among the gawkers two years later for the hanging of the Narodnaya Volya terrorists who at last successfully assassinated Alexander.

* May 28 was the local (Julian calendar) date for the execution; by the Gregorian calendar prevailing outside Russia, it was June 9.

Part of the Themed Set: Terrorism.

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1536: Anne Boleyn’s supposed lovers

3 comments May 17th, 2015 Headsman

Beware, trust not in the vanity of the world, and especially in the flattering of the court … if I had followed God’s word in deed as I did read it and set it forth to my power, I had not come to this.

-From the last statement of George Boleyn

This was the execution date in 1536 of Anne Boleyn‘s co-accused, the undercard to the deposed queen’s beheading.

It was the accusation of adultery that furnished Anne’s downfall; some adulterers were perforce required. These were William Brereton, Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, Mark Smeaton … and the ex-queen’s own brother, George Boleyn.

They had just days prior been subjected to a trial whose outcome was a foregone conclusion. All pleaded their innocence save Smeaton, a commoner court musician who could not withstand torture and “admitted” fooling around with Queen Anne.*

Along with Smeaton, three gentlemen-doomed plucked from the Tudor court’s shadowy recesses — joined to the legendary queen at the chopping-block, if not very probably in her bed.

  • Norris, the Groom of the Stool
  • Weston, a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber
  • Brereton, a Groom of the Privy Chamber

“Everyone was moved at their misfortune, especially at the case of Weston, who was young and of old lineage and high accomplishments,” one contemporary recorded of the fearful pall cast upon King Henry’s court by the purge. “But no one dared plead for him, except his mother, who, oppressed with grief, petitioned the King, and his wife, who offered rents and goods for his deliverance.”

The most egregious charge, naturally, did not concern these men. To put the fallen queen beyond the reach of sympathy it was alleged that she

following daily her frail and carnal lust … procured and incited her own natural brother, Geo. Boleyn, lord Rocheford, gentleman of the privy chamber, to violate her, alluring him with her tongue in the said George’s mouth, and the said George’s tongue in hers, and also with kisses, presents, and jewels; whereby he, despising the commands of God, and all human laws, violated and carnally knew the said Queen, his own sister, at Westminster; which he also did on divers other days before and after at the same place, sometimes by his own procurement and sometimes by the Queen’s.

This outrageous smear on the extremely specious grounds that big brother “had been once found a long time with her, and with certain other little follies,” invited as much skepticism among the Boleyns’ contemporaries as it does for posterity. Even after Anne had been condemned for adultery and incest in her stage-managed trial, George — the last of the bunch to face the tribunal — fought his corner so vigorously “that several of those present wagered 10 to 1 that he would be acquitted, especially as no witnesses were produced against either him or her, as it is usual to do, particularly when the accused denies the charge.”

A foolish bet, but perhaps one placed from a position of willful hope. If a peer of the realm could be condemned a traitor for hanging out with his sister, then no Henrician nobleman could hope to sleep securely.

Little could their dread fathom the bloody years to come. Many who saw the Boleyns’ heads drop would in time have cause to make of their gambling winnings a purse to tip their own executioners.

Thomas Cromwell, who engineered the Boleyn faction’s fall, outlived it by barely four years. The Earl of Surrey, who sat in judgment on this occasion, lost his head in 1547; his father the Duke of Norfolk,** who was the presiding judge, only avoided execution because Henry VIII died hours before Norfolk was to go to the block. George Boleyn’s wife, Lady Rochford, is supposed to have provided evidence against him; she was later swept up in the fall of Catherine Howard and beheaded for her trouble on that occasion.

But those were tragedies for later days.

In the spring of 1536, from his window in the Tower, the poet Thomas Wyatt witnessed this date’s executions: the young Anne’s last lover before the king descended on her, Wyatt too had been initially implicated in debauching the queen and he was fortunate not to be among their number. (Wyatt’s son would not be as lucky.) The shaken Wyatt wrote his fellow courtiers’ heartbreaking eulogy, and perhaps that of his era too, in his verse reflection on that terrible fall from fortune. (Via)

V. Innocentia
Veritas Viat Fides
Circumdederunt
me inimici mei

by Sir Thomas Wyatt, the Elder

Who list his wealth and ease retain,
Himself let him unknown contain.
Press not too fast in at that gate
Where the return stands by disdain,
For sure, circa Regna tonat.†

The high mountains are blasted oft
When the low valley is mild and soft.
Fortune with Health stands at debate.
The fall is grievous from aloft.
And sure, circa Regna tonat.

These bloody days have broken my heart.
My lust, my youth did them depart,
And blind desire of estate.
Who hastes to climb seeks to revert.
Of truth, circa Regna tonat.

The bell tower showed me such sight
That in my head sticks day and night.
There did I learn out of a grate,
For all favour, glory, or might,
That yet circa Regna tonat.

By proof, I say, there did I learn:
Wit helpeth not defence too yerne,
Of innocency to plead or prate.
Bear low, therefore, give God the stern,
For sure, circa Regna tonat.

* In the Tower awaiting execution, Anne would voice worry for Smeaton’s soul when she learned that he had failed to retract this confession at the block. But Smeaton and all the men were beheaded in preference to a sentence of drawing and quartering, and had reason to be cautious about their comportment on the scaffold lest crueler torments be reinstated for them.

** Norfolk was Anne Boleyn’s uncle.

Circa Regna tonat: “Around the throne it thunders”, from Seneca’s Phaedra.

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1915: Basanta Kumar Biswas, bomber

Add comment May 11th, 2015 Headsman

Today is the centennial of Basanta Kumar Biswas‘s execution for the Delhi-Lahore conspiracy.

Said conspiracy was a project several years running by a circle of Bengalis and Punjabis to murder officials of the British occupation — “necessary,” as one of the accused explained at trial in 1914, “to awaken the masses, who are wrapped in sleep and under a foreign yoke.” (London Times, June 24, 1914)

Indeed, from a worse-is-better standpoint, the current Viceroy Lord Hardinge was a real pain since he had implemented reforms to make British authority a little more responsive to the subcontinent’s inhabiants.*

One of the conspirators’ signal blows was tossing a bomb into Hardinge’s elephant-mounted howdah.

This explosive lacerated Lord Hardinge with shrapnel, but it did not slay him — neither him, nor the Raj. (The poor elephant-driver was not so lucky.) But the authors of the deed remained obscure for many months despite the state’s intense investigation, and lucrative reward.

While the British hunted, the terrorists/freedom fighters authored a second bomb attack — one that would eventually form the basis of their prosecution. Biswas was tasked with assassinating another colonial official with another bomb, but finding that sentries prevented his approaching his target, he lodged the device on a carriageway, hoping it would detonate under the wheels of some passing viceregal envoy.

Instead, the roadside bomb was struck by a messenger on a bicycle — with lethal effect.

Three other men were condemned to death at the same trial: Amir Charid, Abadh Behari, and Balmokand. Biswas himself received only a prison sentence, but it was upgraded to hanging on appeal.

Several plaques in India — and one in Tokyo, placed by an expatriate — commemorate the young man as a national martyr.

* The measure of Hardinge’s success was London’s ability during World War I to deplo most of its occupation troops plus over a million Indian soldiers to other theaters without losing control of India — despite the best efforts of the Central Powers to foment a wartime mutiny on the subcontinent.

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1779: James Hackman, sandwich wrecker

Add comment April 19th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1779, Londoners crowded Tyburn to witness the hanging of James Hackman for a sensational high-society murder.

Just twelve days before his date with the hemp, Hackman had walked up to Martha Ray at the Royal Opera and shot her in the head with a single-shot pistol. Then, he turned a second weapon on himself in a vain attempt to commit suicide.

The reader is not mistaken to detect here the mania of unrequited passion. Several years before the young Hackman was a handsome lieutenant introduced to Martha Ray’s social circle. She was a successful soprano on the London stage and though unmarried lived with the Earl of Sandwich as his wife in all but the illustrious name.


(cc image) from Molly Elliott.

Yes, this is the very Earl of Sandwich who pioneered the eating of things stuck between bread slices.* Sandwich — John Montagu to his parents — had other interests besides the munchies; he was the capable First Lord of the Admiralty throughout the 1770s. (As a result, Captain Cook, whose seafaring explorations were occurring at that time, kept naming islands for the Earl of Sandwich).

Domestic life for the Earl and his legal Countess — not “Earless”; that’s a different thing — wasn’t quite as satisfying. Dorothy Montagu, going gradually insane, separated from Sandwich. The lord plucked 17-year-old commoner Martha Ray — a quarter-century Sandwich’s junior — in 1759 and she lived as his mistress from there on out.*

Despite their age difference and never-formalized status they had a comfortable arrangement; Ray bore Sandwich nine children** and the two appeared in public as a couple. The Earl sponsored Martha Ray’s opera career and education.

James Hackman met the Earl’s mistress around 1775 and the two formed an intimacy. Just how intimate they might have been has never been firmly established but is clear that as time passed the infatuation increasingly ran in only one direction. Hackman sold his commission in the 68th Regiment of Foot to become a Church of England deacon, perhaps angling by this expedient to woo Martha Ray away from Sandwich to a wholly respectable union.

She understandably demurred on this “opportunity” — leading the greenhorn Reverend to his blackguard act.

Hackman’s pointless waste of Martha Ray’s life and his own plucked his contemporaries’ sentimental heartstrings like nothing else. “All ranks of people … pitied the murderer’s fate,” remarks the Newgate Calendar. One newspaper report of the death sentence noted that “all present were greatly affected” at Hackman’s agitations “and however we may detest the crime, a tear of pity will fall from every humane eye on the fate of the unhappy criminal.” (General Advertiser and Morning Intelligencer, Apr. 17, 1779)

James Boswell was fascinated by the crime; he attended the trial and spilled many public and private words on its subject.

Boswell empathized with Hackman: in a report of the trial for the St. James’s Chronicle (Apr. 15-17, 1779) he opined that the “natural Effect of disappointed Love, however, shocking it may appear, is to excite the most horrid Resentment against his Object, at least to make us prefer the Destruction of our Mistress, to seeing her possessed by a Rival.” Not that Boswell condoned the murder, but “I would say to all that are conscious that their Passions are violent, Think ye that htis unfortunate Gentleman’s general Character is … worse than yours? No, it is not.”

While Human Justice is to be satisfied, let us consider that his Crime was neither premeditated‡ Cruelty, nor base Greediness. He is therefore an Object neither of Abhorrence nor of Contempt … Let us unite our fervent Prayers to the Throne of Heaven, that this our Brother may obtain Forgiveness through Jesus Christ, and be admitted in another State of Being to everlasting Happiness.

The kinship so many Londoners felt for this homicidal stalker moved print copy high and low, before Martha’s body had gone quite cold. Its most notable product was the 1780 Love and Madness, an epistolary novel of tragic passion presented via the (fictitious) letters exchanged by the supposed lovers. So heavily did this understanding of events by Hackman’s contemporaries color its subsequent remembrance that Love and Madness is also the title or subtitle of two 21st century nonfiction considerations of the affair. (1, 2 | Review of both)

Hackman for his part carried off the requisite public posture of resigned tragic nobility in the few days before he satisfied human justice. The General Evening Post, April 17-20 1779 described the execution:

This unfortunate gentleman received the sacrament in the morning with all the fervency and devotion of a sincere repenting criminal: — he repeated that affecting acknowledgment of his guilt, which on his trial drew tears from the audience, and seemed in a state of composure, unruffled with the idea of punishment, which, he said, was no more than he deserved.

At nine o’clock he came into the press-yard, where a great crowd of persons assembled to gratify their curiosity. That all might have an equal share of the sight, a lane was formed by the multitude on each side, through which Mr. Hackman passed, dressed in black, leaning on the arm of his friend the Rev. Mr. Porter, whose hand he squeezed as he muttered the solemn invocation to Heaven, not to forsake a sinner of so enormous a degree, in the trying hour of death.

Mr. Hackman was conveyed from Newgate in a mourning coach, attended by the Rev. Mr. Porter Mr. Villette, the ordinary of Newgate, and Mr. Leapingwell, a Sheriff’s officer.

He reached Tyburn about a quarter before eleven o’clock. When he arrived at the fatal tree, a cart lined with black was under the gallows ready to receive him. Mr. Porter and Mr. Villette ascended it by a pair of steps, and he followed them unsupported. As soon as he had got into it he walked forward, and fell on his knees, (a position seldom used by persons in his circumstances at Tyburn, as they always pray standing) and the Clergymen did the like, one on each side of him, where they remained praying for about fifteen minutes, then got up, when the rope was put about his neck, and tied to the gallows.

In this manner he remained praying between the two Divines for ten minutes more, when the Rev. Mr. Porter embraced him, and Mr. Villette took his leave, and both left the cart. The convict[‘]s cap being pulled over his face, he told the executioner to leave him to himself for a few minutes, and he would drop his handkerchief as a signal when he was ready, which he did after a few minutes pause, and was thereupon launched into eternity.

His whole behaviour was manly, but not bold: his mind seemed to be quite calm, from a firm belief in the mercies of his Saviour.

He wore not hat, not any bandage on his face where he gave himself the wound, that the public curiosity might not be interrupted in looking at him; saying, “that he wished to be made a public spectacle of, and hoped his death might be of service to mankind.”

He was no ways convulsed, nor was their [sic] any motion of the body that tended to shew it experienced any pain. Nothing more was to be seen than what proceeded from the jerk on quitting the cart.

The mob was more numerous than on any other occasion since the death of Dr. Dodd. It was expected Mr. Hackman would suffer at Covent-garden, and preparations were made by some speculating carpenters, who met with a mortifying disappointment.

After hanging the usual time, his body was put into a hearse, and taken to Surgeons-hall in the Old Bailey, where it was prepared for the inspection of the public.

Mr. Harkman expressed a wish to his friends, that the ceremony of anatomizing his body might be dispensed with; and that his corpse might be treated in the same manner as that of Lord Ferrers.

Mr. Hackman intimated to a particular friend, that if his remains could be deposited near those of Miss Ray he should feel inexpressible happiness in the hour of death.

A man who was standing near a dray in Oxford-street to see Mr. Hackman pass, was thrown down under one of the horses by the crowd; the horse being frightened, stamped on the man, and beat out his brains.

* Allegedly so that the Earl wouldn’t have to leave his beloved gambling table to dine.

** There is a wonderful bon mot that has enlivened compendia of anecdotes through the years, consisting of more or less the following exchange:

First speaker: You will either die on the gallows or of some social disease.

Second speaker: That depends upon whether I embrace your principles or your mistress.

Though it’s been variously attributed, it appears that the retort was originally delivered by the comic Samuel Foote to Lord Sandwich — about Martha Ray.

† Notable among the five children of Sandwich and Martha Ray: jurist Basil Montagu.

Sandwich’s wife also bore him a legitimate son, who eventually succeeded to the father’s Earldom; the title still exists today.

‡ Hackman had to be talked off simply pleading guilty but in the end he hung his trial hopes on arguing that he intended to kill himself, in Martha’s presence, and was overwhelmed by a momentary “phrensy”. A letter in his pocket meant to be delivered posthumously to his brother-in-law supported this claim; the fact that he brought two guns to meet her rebutted it.

Trial judge William Blackstone pointed out to Hackman’s jurors that the composure of the accused before and after the crime did not suggest a madman and that accepting Hackman’s claim of only an instant’s insanity could present a very slippery slope indeed for future murder prosecutions.

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4 BCE: Antipater, disinherited Herodian

Add comment March 29th, 2015 Headsman

The names of the Roman Empire’s various client kings are, when not utterly lost to history, deeply obscure to a present-day general audience. The best exception bar Cleopatra is surely the Judean ruler King Herod of Biblical villainy.

Christ‘s antagonists were actually two* different men of the same name: the tyrannical Herod the Great, the one whom the Gospel of Matthew accuses of massacring Bethlehem infants in a vain attempt to kill the baby Jesus; and, his son Herod Antipas, the successor credited with beheading John the Baptist and with taking a pass on Jesus’s own case when Pontius Pilate tried to drop it on him.

But for fickle fortune, Herod Antipas’s annual Advent vilifications might belong instead to Antipater, who was put to death around this time in 4 BCE by command of his dying father Herod the Great.

Named for his grandfather who founded the Herodian dynasty, Antipater was Herod the Great’s first-born son and for most of the decade preceding his death had been in Herod’s succession plans.

Like many princes, Herod was cursed with scheming, rivalrous offspring, and the father was forever revising his last will as their fortunes ebbed and flowed. In 7 BCE he had even executed two of Antipater’s half-brothers, Alexander and Aristobulos. Nearly 70 years old, Herod the Great now designated Antipater as his sole successor. The young man’s prospects for lasting Biblical infamy seemed excellent.

But for Antipater, himself already entering his fifth decade, patience did not appear a virtue.

Josephus describes Antipater complaining to his mother that “he had already gray hairs upon his head, and that his father grew younger again every day, and that perhaps death would overtake him before he should begin to be a king in earnest; and that in case Herod should die, which yet nobody knew when it would be, the enjoyment of the succession could certainly be but for a little time; for that those heads of Hydra, the sons of Alexander and Aristobulos, were growing up.”

Upon learning of Antipater’s consequent plot to speed his inheritance, Herod reportedly went on a paranoid security bender “and had many innocent persons led to the torture, out of his fear lest he should leave any guilty person untortured.” Herod lured Antipater back to Jerusalem and had him handed over to the Roman governor of Syria, Varus,** for trial.

The evidence against the heir — including a captured potion that was given to a condemned prisoner and proved thereby to be a lethal poison — was quite extensive, and Antipater was imprisoned and disinherited in 5 BCE.

Just one year later, the inexorable march of time delivered Herod to his deathbed. Had Antipater but waited …

But the would-be king was still alive and in custody, so perhaps he still stood a chance. Impatient as ever, Antipater jumped the gun when he caught premature word that Herod, who was actually still clinging to life, had finally kicked off.

As soon as Antipater heard that, he took courage, and with joy in his looks besought his keepers, for a sum of money, to loose him and let him go; but the principal keeper of the prison did not only obstruct him in that his intention, but ran and told the king what his design was, hereupon the king cried out louder than his distemper would well bear, and immediately sent some of his guards and slew Antipater; he also gave order to have him buried at Hyrcanium, and altered his testament again, and therein made Archelaus,† his eldest son, and the brother of Antipas, his successor, and made Antipas tetrarch.

So Herod, having survived the slaughter of his son five days, died, having reigned thirty-four years.

* There’s also a Herod Agrippa who appears in the Acts of the Apostles, executing St. James the Great. He is still another king of the same line.

** Varus, who seems to have been hated by the Jews for his cruelty, was destined for a specifically Roman notoriety of his own: he led the huge Roman force destroyed by Germanic tribes at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest. “Varus, give me back my legions!” Augustus famously moaned upon hearing that three whole legions had been annihilated.

Archelaus‘s succession did not last long; the emperor Augustus deposed him in 6 AD, leaving Herod Antipas to govern Judea.

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1801: Four entrapped Jacobins

Add comment January 30th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1801, four Jacobins were executed in Paris after Napoleon’s secret police entrapped them into a plot against the First Consul.

After seizing power on the 18th Brumaire (November 9, 1799) the new man on horseback needed to consolidate power against the opposition of both royalist and Jacobin opposition. It would prove to be the case that the latter were the declining force and the royalists were the ones in it for the long haul.

But it had not been many years since the Jacobins were the power in Paris, and Napoleon was a proactive type; his 18th Brumaire coup had been effected on the pretext of a phony Jacobin conspiracy. So instead of just waiting around for the attentats aimed at his person, Napoleon set his police chief — Joseph Fouche, the onetime “Executioner of Lyons” — to spin them up himself by the offices of agents provocateur.

The so-called Conspiration des poignardsConspiracy of Daggers — was one of Fouche’s triumphs.

Here, a police plant named Harel goaded several radicals into kind of supporting (or at least not resisting) his plot to dagger the Corsican at the opera in October 1800. “It was agreed to exaggerate the danger to which it was appropriate to the First Consul to have been exposed,” wrote the French diplomat Bourienne in his memoirs. Harel himself had to distribute the weapons.

Though the daggers conspirators would probably have been happy to see Napoleon dead, they were so little inspired to achieve that death by their own hands that most of them quailed to appear at the scene where the trap would be sprung. They ended up being arrested in their homes.

Four of the seven Jacobins were guillotined on January 30, 1801 (all these links are to French Wikipedia pages):


The Death of Caius Gracchus, by Jacobin artist Francois Topino-Lebrun (1798). The painting’s contemporary allusion was to Gracchus Babeuf, recently executed (after an unsuccessful suicide attempt in the courtroom) for the Conspiracy of Equals.

The artists implicated were both associates of Jacques-Louis David (and the opera being staged was one inspired by David’s The Oath of the Horatii). David had already by this time proved himself a willing lackey of the new regime, but the resulting brush with police scrutiny (David had to testify at the trial) surely underscored to the opportunistic painter that his own revolutionary past could be dropped on his head like Damocles’ sword at any moment Napoleon should choose.

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205: Plautianus, purple proximity

Add comment January 22nd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 205, the Roman patrician Gaius Fulvius Plautianus was put to summary execution for aspiring to the purple.

Maternal cousin and longtime ally to Septimius Severus, Plautianus had helped himself to a generous slice of power and wealth when his friend became emperor. He got his bristly mug onto imperial coinage and even dynastically married his daughter to Severus’s nasty son and heir* Caracalla.

And so liberally did Plautianus wet his beak on the perquisites of this power that, Cassius Dio reports, “the populace in the Circus once exclaimed: ‘Why do you tremble? Why are you pale? You possess more than do the three.'” The three meant Severus himself and his two sons.

Severus for a time blithely ignored his friend’s aggrandizement, and Plautianus made the political personal by appropriating for himself the estates of numerous senators whose proscription he helped Severus implement.

But the enormous influence of his prefect soon began to present a threat that the emperor could not afford to ignore. In the coming years of the Third Century Crisis, this pattern would repeat itself with numbing regularity: the prestige of some figure would raise the prospect of his seizing the throne; the mere possibility would then thrust sovereign and potential usurper into a destructive mutual dash towards pre-emptive violence.

It’s anyone’s guess whether Plautianus was already contemplating a putsch as the natural progression of his authority, but the decision was made for him by the contempt with which Caracalla treated that daughter he’d been made to marry. The heir “was exceedingly hostile to the the girl, and to her father too,” and even “daily promised to kill her and her father as soon as he became sole ruler of the empire.” (Herodian of Antioch)

Resolving to strike before the young hothead was in a position to effect his threats, Plautianus allegedly engaged one of his loyal servants to assassinate the imperial family.**

The plot was instead betrayed, and Plautianus was produced before his former colleague to be handled as they had once handled those proscribed senators. After his immediate execution, his body was cast into the streets and Caracalla’s unwanted wife sent to a miserable exile.†

The History of Rome podcast covers the reign of Severus and the fate of Plautianus in episode 101, “And All Was of Little Value”.

* Co-heir, with his brother Geta — whom Caracalla murdered at the first opportunity after dear old dad died.

** The would-be assassin presented Severus with a written order for his death in the hand of his master. Cassius Dio quite justly suspects this a stitch-up: “These circumstances in particular betrayed the fraud; for Plautianus would never have dared to give such instructions either to ten centurions at once, or in Rome, or in the palace, or on that day, or at that hour, and especially not in writing.”

† Caracalla had his former wife murdered in 212.

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1477: Gerolamo Olgiati, ducal assassin

Add comment January 2nd, 2015 Headsman


Dramatization of events in this post for the video game-derived film Assassin’s Creed: Lineage.

On this date in 1477, the assassins of the Duke of Milan suffered bitter death for fame eternal.

Famous for both his astute political machinations and for cruelty verging on the sadistic, Galeazzo Maria Sforza inherited leadership of Milan in at the age of 22 with the passing of his father, the great condottiero Francesco Sforza.

Francesco, the founder of the Sforza dynasty, had dynastically married himself to one Bianca Maria Visconti, a daughter of Milan’s previous ruling house.* But not all of the Visconti were at home with the Sforza.

A brash young man of that noble family, Carlo Visconti, as full of humanistic idealism as he was of bile for the licentious Duke’s alleged violation of his sister, joined a conspiracy also compassing two other gentlemen, Giovanni Andrea Lampugnani and Gerolamo Olgiati, to do Galeazzo Sforza to death.

At a St. Stephen’s Day service in the a basilica christened to Stephen Lampugnani approached the prince feigning supplication for some audience, then produced a hidden blade and stabbed Galeazzo Sforza. Visconti and Olgiati then rushed on Sforza as well and before anyone realized what was happening the Duke, croaking some half-heard invocation of Mary, was falling dead on the church floor.


Illustration of Galeazzo Sforza’s murder on the title page of a 1476 Lament for the Duke decrying the assassination.

Pandemonium ensued, and in the ensuing helter-skelter, Sforza’s bodyguards fell on Lampugnani and killed him on the spot, while Olgiati managed to escape.**

“It now only remains for us to consider those dangers which follow after the execution of a plot,” Machiavelli mused in his “Of Conspiracies” typology of his Discourses. “These in fact resolve themselves into one, namely, that some should survive who will avenge the death of the murdered prince. The part of avenger is likely to be assumed by a son, a brother, or other kinsman of the deceased.”

Well, yeah.

The assassins of the Duke of Milan appear not to have burdened themselves overmuch with advance consideration of this danger, possibly indulging the dream of Brutus that by a dagger’s stroke alone they could restore the lost republic.

Needless to say, this beautiful hope vanished in the bloody revenge carnival that actually ensued the murder. Just a few days after the assassination, having taken refuge with a priest — his justly frightened family had closed its door on him and needed to make theatrical denunciations of his treason for their own safety — Olgiati was captured, put to a torturous interrogation, and publicly butchered. He had outlived the Duke by only a week, and his gashed carcass was hung up in sections around town by way of warning. The rotting heads of the conspirators remained impaled on lances on the city’s bell tower well into the 1490s.

According once again to Machiavelli, Olgiati “exhibited no less composure at his death than resolution in his previous conduct, for being stripped of his apparel, and in the hands of the executioner, who stood by with the sword unsheathed, ready to deprive him of life, he repeated the following words, in the Latin tongue, in which he was well versed

“‘Mors acerba, fama perpetua, stabit vetus memoria facti.'”

That is,

‘Death is bitter but fame is eternal, and the memory of the deed will endure.’

This attempt, quixotic and doomed, to depose an Italian tyrant by murdering him in church might well have formed the blueprint for a similar plot in Florence in 1478, the Pazzi conspiracy. That version was even less successful than its Milanese predecessor: at least Olgiati and company could say that they actually managed to kill their target before everything else hit the fan.

And republic or not, Sforza’s murder did shake up the polity. It put the Duchy of Milan in the hands of his wife, as the unsteady regent of a seven-year-old heir. A few years later, the late duke’s brother Ludovico displaced the regent and effectively bossed Milan until the French imprisoned him in 1500 during the Italian Wars.

While he had the run of the place, Ludovico Sforza commissioned of Leonardo da Vinci a monumental equestrian statue in memory of his brother that da Vinci never finished.† Quite strangely, the master’s notes were plumbed by a 20th century Pennsylvania airline pilot who dedicated the latter part of his life to actually casting “Leonardo’s Horse”.

* The names Visconti and Sforza are also associated with some of the earliest tarot decks and among the first to introduce to playing cards the use of trionfi, or “triumph” cards — that is, “trumps”. One can readily purchase present-day reprints of this historic pack.

** There is a positively maddening inconsistency, thus far irresolvable for this author, between accounts (here’s one example | and another) asserting that Carlo Visconti was slain by Sforza’s bodyguards directly after the assassination, and other accounts (like Gregory Lubkin’s 1994 history of Sforza’s Milan) that put Visconti on the scaffold beside Olgiati.

† Da Vinci’s ponderously slow progress on this high-profile project led Michelangelo to cattily impugn the rival artist’s bronze-casting aptitude.

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1660: Francis Hacker and Daniel Axtell, regicides

Add comment October 19th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1660, the English soldiers Francis Hacker and Daniel Axtel(l) were executed for their roles in keeping the captured King Charles I, and for eventually seeing that late king to his beheading.

Francis Hacker

No hapless grunt, Hacker was a committed Roundhead even though most of his family stayed loyal to the Stuarts. When captured by the royalists at Leicester, Hacker “was so much prized by the enemy as they offered him the command of a choice regiment of horse to serve the king.”

Hacker disdainfully turned it down.

And as the wheel of fortune turned, the king would become Hacker’s prize. It was Hacker who commanded the detail of 32 halberdiers who marched the deposed monarch into Westminster Hall on January 20, 1649 to begin a weeklong trial — and a whole new historical era of parliamentary ascendancy.

Ten days later, when Charles was led out for beheading outside the Banqueting House, it was Hacker who escorted him. Hacker might have escaped even this much participation with his own life after the restoration of Charles’s son and heir, but it came out that he had even written, with Cromwell, the order to the executioner.

(It was an order that one of his comrades that day had very presciently refused to set his own hand to; come 1660, Hercules Huncks would owe his life to this refusal.)


Detailed view (click for a larger image) of an illustration of the king’s beheading. On the right of the scaffold, character “D” sporting a natty scabbard is Francis Hacker.

It’s a funny little thing to lose your life over, because — narrowly considered — it was nothing but a bit of bureaucracy. Hacker et al had been given from above a commission for the king’s death. On the occasion of the execution they had to convey from their party to the executioner a secondary writ licensing the day’s beheading.

But monarchs asserting divine prerogative certainly do not take such a view of mere paperwork.

“When you come to the Person of the King, what do our Law Books say he is? they call it, Caput Reipublicae, salus Populi, the Leiutenant of God”

-The regicides’ judge, delivering sentence

Huncks refusing to set his hand to this death warrant, it was Cromwell himself who personally dashed it off, then handed it to Hacker, who fatally countersigned it, just before the execution proceeded.

Meanwhile, Hacker’s subaltern Daniel Axtell razzed Huncks for chickening out. Axtell, who seemingly would be right at home in the kit of your most hated sports club, was indicted a regicide for his gauche fan behavior during the king’s trial, several times inciting soldiers (on pain of thrashing, per testimony in 1660) to chant for the king’s condemnation, whilst bullying any onlookers who dared to shout for Charles into silence.

Hacker did not bother to mount a defense; the verdicts were foreordained by political settlement.

Axtell argued superior orders, a defense best-known to us for its unsuccessful use by Nazis at Nuremberg but one which actually boasts a long history of failing to impress:

the Parliament, thus constituted, and having made their Generals, he by their Authority did constitute and appoint me to be an Inferior Officer in the Army, serving them in the quarters of the Parliament, and under and within their power; and what I have done, my Lord, it hath been done only as a Souldier, deriving my power from the General, he had his power from the Fountain, to wit, the Lords and Commons; and, my Lord, this being done, as hath been said by several, that I was there, and had command at Westminster-hall; truly, my Lord, if the Parliament command the General, and the General the inferiour Officers, I am bound by my Commission, according to the Laws and Customs of War to be where the Regiment is; I came not thither voluntarily, but by command of the General, who had a Commission (as I said before) from the Parliament. I was no Counsellor, no Contriver, I was no Parliament-man, none of the Judges, none that Sentenced, Signed, none that had any hand in the Execution, onely that which is charged is that I was an Officer in the Army.

Sounding equally modern, the court replied:

You are to obey them in their just commands, all unjust commands are invalid. If our Superiours should command us to undue and irregular things (much more if to the committing of Treason) we are in each Case to make use of our passive not active Obedience.*

The two men were drawn from Newgate to Tyburn this date and hanged.

Axtell was quartered, the customary fate of those regicides who had been put to death all the week preceding. Hacker, however, enjoyed the favor of hanging only, and was delivered and “was, by his Majesties great favour, given entire to his Friends, and buried” — perhaps because so many of Hacker’s family had remained true to Charles.

“If I had a thousand lives, I could lay them all down for the Cause

-Axtell, at his execution

* Axtell’s trial has a good deal of detailed bickering over the superior-orders defense, but the court itself did also take pains to differentiate the things Axtell did as an officer, such as commanding troops (for which Axtell was not charged) — and his going the extra mile and surely beyond his commission to shout for the king’s death.

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