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1550: Jacopo Bonfadio, indiscreet

Add comment July 19th, 2018 George Bruce Malleson

(Thanks to George Bruce Malleson for the guest post on Italian humanist Jacopo Bonfadio (English Wikipedia entry | Italian). Although time’s ravages against the original legal paper trail has fogged the matter, it appears to be July 19 of 1550* that the Republic of Genoa took Bonfadio’s head for sodomy. In our more queer-friendly time, many scholars now believe (contra our Victorian guest author) that the scandalous charge might well have been accurate, although also one that most observers believe was invoked due to Bonfadio’s creditable disdain for protecting the secrets of the powerful. Malleson’s biographical vignette was originally published Studies from Genoese History. -ed.)

To possess genius — to have cultivated your talents to a degree which places you above the level of a prejudiced and half-educated community — to be incorruptible in a corrupt society — to have acquired, in virtue of your office, secrets which make you dreaded by the guilty — these are crimes which society, in a low state of morality, never has forgiven, never will forgive. They are, in fact, crimes which in every age have driven the perpetrator of them to exile, to proscription, and to death!

The truth of this statement has been illustrated by many noble examples, but of these there is not one more striking than that of Jacopo Bonfadio.

One of the most brilliant writers of the sixteenth century, a philosopher, a poet, and a historian, occupying one of the most important posts in the republic of Genoa, it was the fate of Bonfadio to be sentenced to be burnt alive for an offence which he had not committed, simply because, in his Annals of the Genoese, he had given certain indication of the possession of knowledge, which some influential families considered compromised themselves.

This was the sole crime of Jacopo. He was a self-made man; he had raised himself by his own abilities to the position he occupied; he was the intellectual life of Genoa; he possessed the confidence and affection of the learned; yet from this great position he was hurried to death by the machinations of the half-educated, corrupt, and demoralised amongst the influential families of the ‘proud city.’ [“la Superba”, the city’s nickname -ed.]

What he was, intellectually, may be gathered from the recorded opinions of his contemporaries, and of the great writers of subsequent ages. Thus, the French writer, Antoine Teissier, who flourished in the second half of the seventeenth century, pronounces him ‘l’un des plus beaux esprits d’ltalie;’ Menagio places him in the front rank amongst the poets of Italy; Bayle, in his dictionary, speaks of him as one of the best writers of the sixteenth century. ‘His private letters in particular,’ writes Mazzuchelli, ‘are held in the greatest esteem, so that not only are they considered equal to those of our best masters, such as Caro, Tasso, and Tolomei, but they are preferred by the soundest critics to the choicest productions of all the others. I do not propose to prove this by the sole authority of Octavio Rossi, who calls the style of his familiar letters “unique and inimitable,” for I can cite as strong supporters both Gianmatteo Toscano, who affirms without hesitation that Bonfadio might be regarded “in epistolis familiaribus Etrusca lingua tenui stylo, ac presso compositis, omnium Princeps;” and Scipione Ammirato, a judge not less competent, who frankly asserts that “he knows not what there is of polish in the art and manner of writing letters which is not to be found in the letters of Bonfadio.” Many other authorities are cited; but I need only name one, that of Ludovico Dolce, who, writing to Count Fortunate Martineiigo, thus expresses himself: ‘I have a liking for many men, but an especial liking for Bonfadio. I often see his letters, and I adore them.’

To his most famous work, The Annals of Genoa from 1528 to 1550, intended as the continuation of the history of Uberto Foglietta, it would be difficult to ascribe too much praise. The style is admittedly clear, elegant, and precise. But there belongs to it a greater praise — a praise the greatest of all — but which, by a strange contradiction of right, was earned by a quality which caused the death of the author. This quality, so rare, has thus been described in the concluding lines of a sonnet addressed to him by Alessandro Piccolomini, and which thus terminates:

Dunque direm de vostri scritti poi,
Quel che forse di rado in altro e detto;
Cosl series’ei, cosi fu fatto a punto.

And which may thus be imperfectly rendered:

In your writings we feel most acutely
A virtue so rarely conferred;
The events you describe so minutely
Are just the events which occurred.

It was because these annals were so true — I may say, so uncompromising in their truth — that they drew upon the author an anger, born of a lax perception of moral duties, which could only be satiated by his death. Written by Bonfadio in Latin, and translated into Italian by Paschetti, in 1586, they constitute to the present day the most valuable history of the events of the administration of the country after the recovery of its liberty by Andrea Doria, including the account of the conspiracy of Gianluigi Fiesco.

I will but briefly refer to the other writings of Bonfadio. They may, including those specially mentioned, be comprised under the following headings: I. His ‘Carmina,’ or Latin elegies; II. His rhymes. III. His letters. IV. His translation into Italian of the oration of Cicero in defence of Milo. V. The Annals of Genoa. VI. Poems translated from the Greek.

Regarding these I will extract only one criticism, and that will be on his elegies. Of these Antonio Abate Sambuca writes: ‘To all who examine them they appear a chef-d’oeuvre, whether for the perfection and regularity of the language, for the strength and novelty of the sentences, for the expression of the affections and manners, for the nobleness of the figures, for the clearness and sweetness of the style, and for the happiness and vividness of the rhyme.’ Of his poetry I shall give specimens at the end of the story, which I propose now to narrate, of his career.

The precise date of the birth of Jacopo Bonfadio has not been traced, but it is certain that he came into the world about the year 1500. He was born in Gazano, a small property in the Riviera di Said, in the province of Brescia. This property was situated between Salo and the river Clisi. He always believed that his family was of German origin, of noble race, and that his ancestors, settling on the banks of the river Clisi, had pursued there the vocation of blacksmiths. Such was the family tradition; but there seems reason to believe that he may have been mistaken, and that his ancestors were mountaineers of Brescia. This, however, is of little consequence.

Jacopo early displayed a happy disposition, and his natural genius was fostered by a careful education. At an early age he was sent to Verona and placed under the care of Signor Niccolo Pellegrini. Thence he migrated to Padua, to finish his studies at the university of that famous city. Here he so distinguished himself as to be accounted one of the most promising scholars of the university, from which he in after years received the degree of doctor of law.

His education completed, he set out for Rome — then the arena for the debut of a young man of ambition and of education. His first step seemed to promise success, for he was almost immediately appointed secretary to Cardinal di Bari. In this office he remained till the death of the cardinal, three years later. His life at this period he thus describes, in a letter written subsequently to his friend, Francesco della Torre: ‘For three years at Rome I served Cardinal di Bari in a very honourable position — that of secretary to himself — and I received from that Signor all the kindnesses which can be desired, without my asking for even one. And, besides presents, which he gave me every year, he promised to obtain for me a good position, in the most obliging manner, for he said I should not hope for it as emanating from his courtesy, but from my deserts. But when the time came he died, and all my hopes vanished.’

The loss thus sustained by Bonfadio was a great one. Again was he on the world. The new cardinal, Girolamo Ghinucci, did indeed appoint him as secretary, but he found himself on a footing very different to that he had occupied under his predecessor. ‘I served then,’ wrote he in the same letter to della Torre, ‘in the same office, Cardinal Ghinucci; and although one of his ministers, a man born in the country and brought up in the mountains, who had come smoke-dried and starved to Rome, with the old fierceness of soul and thenew avidity for office — although, I say, this man, who could do much, persecuted me with bitter hatred, in order to give my place to one of his friends, yet I might have hoped to obtain from the cardinal the post which Messer Giacomo Gallo, who succeeded to me, had afterwards, but, for my misfortune, a serious and long illness deprived me of my secretaryship.’

It was probably a little after this time, when at Venice, on his way to his native place, that Bonfadio incurred the temporary displeasure of two famous men of letters, his friends Paolo Manuzio and the Padre Ottavio Pantagato. It would appear that some four years previously the padre had made certain corrections in translations made by Bonfadio from the orations of Cicero. The translations as originally made Bonfadio had given to Manuzio, but he had refused to send him the emendations. Nevertheless, he did give or sell these to a printer named Giunta. The story is chiefly interesting from the insight afforded into his character by the letters of excuse he wrote on the subject to Manuzio: ‘Tramentino,’ he wrote, ‘gave me your letter. You can conceive how agreeable it was to me, and I thank you from my heart. I shall reply confusedly, for my mind is now agitated by pleasure and displeasure. I shall begin with that which weighs most upon it.

‘It is true that on the departure from Venice of the friend to whom I owed my life, it being necessary for him, in a matter concerning his honour, to go to Rome — he having no money even for his journey I was assailed by him with the most earnest and ardent prayers I ever heard, and, having no other means of succouring him, I did give to Giunta those corrections made four years ago by Padre Ottavio in certain orations of Cicero which you had from me in the Casa Colonna. … And although the cause which induced me to do this was one of humanity and duty, as you see, I am nevertheless liable to be blamed by the other side because I have disobliged you.’ He proceeds then to enter more fully, and with great feeling and eloquence into the case. The letter is a masterpiece of pleading, and of successful pleading, for it removed all anger from the mind of Manuzio.

Shortly after this correspondence Bonfadio received an offer to proceed to Spain in the suite of the Signor Guido Bagno, envoy of the Duke of Mantua. He accepted the appointment, in every respect very desirable, but he arrived at Rome to take it up only to find that Guido Bagno had just died. Full of sad thoughts Bonfadio at once quitted Rome for the kingdom of Naples. In this he passed many months travelling. He visited the places most famous for their beauty, their antiquity, and their historical recollections,. reaping much enjoyment, though, he adds very feelingly in a letter, no profit. In fact, his means at this period appear to have been extremely restricted. Having explored Naples, and found it intellectually barren, Bonfadio had resolved to proceed by sea to Venice, thence by land to Padua — the city of his education. But at this juncture he received a letter from his friend Marcantonio Flaminio, strongly urging him to return by way of Rome, as he would find in that city a patron in the person of Cardinal Ridolfo Pio di Carpi. He followed the advice, was well received by the cardinal, and assigned a stipend. Still retaining this he set out for Padua, where he had determined to fix his abode. He proceeded thither by way of Florence and Ferrara, renewing his acquaintance with valued friends at both those places. Arrived at Padua, fortified by his five years’ experience of the shallowness and instability of a courtier’s life, Bonfadio applied himself steadily to the study of the fine arts and of philosophy. He lodged in the house of Cardinal Bembo, who had for him so great an esteem that he appointed him one of the tutors to his son Torquato. He devoted likewise a considerable portion of his time to the education of the youth of the city, earning thereby their gratitude — for his name had become already established.

During his stay of from four to five years in Padua it was the custom of Bonfadio to make autumnal visits to various parts of the country. Thus, in the month of September, 1541, we find him at Verona; in October at Colognola, enjoying the society of his distinguished friend, Marcantonio Flaminio. More than once, too, he visited his native Gazano. The good effect on him of the re-opening of ties which exist between a man and the place in which he is born he thus recounts in one of his letters: ‘You know well,’ he writes, ‘that in Padua I was often tormented by a cloud of black thoughts, and that I came here to recover my serenity. That which I could not do myself by myself; that which you could not do by faithful reminders, by sweet reprovals, nor by efficacious prayers — for you are indeed a true friend to me; that which time could not do, although it is generally accustomed to do it — to be the only author of joy — that did in a moment the sight of this Riviera; for at the very first glance a deep sigh issued from my heart, and seemed to take away from me a mountain of humours, which till then had weighed me down.’

In a letter to another friend he thus expresses himself: ‘I am longing for the time to come when I may be there. Oh, happy time! I shall be in Gazano with the mountains and the rivers near me. Every eight days I shall descend to the lake, free from those thoughts which have kept my mind withered and burnt up. Carrying in my heart a lake of perfect joy, I shall go diverting myself, living a pure life, an Arcadian life with shepherds, shepherdesses, and the muses.’

It is not difficult to divine the cause of the sad thoughts to which Bonfadio alludes in these letters. He had, since his arrival in Padua, been mainly dependent for his livelihood upon the stipend granted him by cardinal Ridolfo Pio di Carpi. This stipend the cardinal suddenly, and without given reason, stopped. It became then difficult for Bonfadio to live in Padua in a style suited to his position and increasing fame. On this subject he thus wrote to his friend Francesco della Torre: ‘You know the conditions on which I now live in Padua; and it is because the maintenance I enjoy is not very secure, — not, indeed, because the Signor who keeps me here, Cardinal Bembo, is not very liberal, — I am always fearful lest it should diminish, — and the doubt which I feel regarding the future is the reason why I do not enjoy the present.’

Many thoughts of how to better his position appear to have crossed his mind at this period. At one time he endeavours to obtain the position of tutor in a well-to-do family; at another he strives to establish an academy for instruction in moral philosophy and ethics; at another he asks for an ecclesiastical benefice. But, if all these efforts were unsuccessful, a very long time did not elapse before he reaped the fruit of his studies. Just after he had learned that his application for the benefice was not likely to prove successful, there came to him from Genoa the offer of the Chair of Philosophy in that city. He promptly accepted it, and repaired without delay to his post some time in the year 1545.

Bonfadio went to his new labours with a light and cheerful heart. Nothing could have whispered to him that he was about to take up his abode amongst a people by whom his erudition, his honesty, his want of sympathy with every kind of corruption, would be imputed to him as the most heinous of all crimes. There was no cloud on- his brow now. In the other parts of Italy in which he had lived, he had been esteemed, honoured, and loved. The voice of envy and jealousy had never been raised against him. Enjoying at Rome, at Naples, and at Padua, the society of the most cultivated and intellectual men of the day, he might well have hoped to find some members of that class in the city still virtually governed by Andrea Doria. At all events there could be no suspicion in his mind that the very virtues which had caused him to be selected for the post to which he had been called, would prove, in the eyes of an influential portion of the Genoese society, defects so great as to necessitate his death.

We find recorded in his own letters his first impression of Genoa and its society. ‘I like Genoa,’ wrote he, after his arrival, to his friend Count Fortunate Martinengo. ‘I like Genoa, both for its position, and for all those peculiarities about it which you have seen. I have some friends, amongst them Messer Azzolino Sauli, a well-educated and refined young man. This winter I read the first of the Politica of Aristotle to an elderly audience, rather merchants than scholars. I am, then, up to a certain point happy, but am not without some annoyances. Towards the end of July I shall come to Brescia on my way to the lake.’ It is clear from this extract that he was little satisfied with the quality of his scholars. The same dissatisfaction may be traced in another of his letters. He writes: ‘The country is beautiful, the air good, the conversation agreeable; and if the intellects here were as fond of letters as they are of traffic in sea matters, I should be still better pleased.’ Still he never hesitated to declare himself quite satisfied with his lot, and ambitious of nothing beyond it.

To the duty of reading philosophy there soon became joined another. This was no less than to take up the history of the Republic at the point where it had been left by Uberto Foglietta, and to continue it. Bonfadio willingly applied himself to the task thus thrust upon him by the Republic. It was a noble undertaking. In 1528 Andrea Doria had restored to Genoa her liberty, and from that date Bonfadio started his annals. He had to write, in fact, the history of Genoa under the constitution which had been the first to secure her against the constant contests for authority amongst the great families — contests which up to that time had filled so large a part of her domestic history. The work was executed in a manner that may be pronounced perfect, whether with respect to the happy style or the accuracy of statement which characterised it. But it happened that amongst the events recorded in the twenty-two years, the story of the conspiracy of Gianluigi Fieschi occupied a very prominent place. Now all the archives of the State had been open to the inspection of Bonfadio. Either by their means, or by others to which, from his position, he was allowed to have recourse, he had become acquainted with a heap of secrets compromising many members of the aristocratic families. The reader who has accompanied me so far will probably recollect that many families belonging to the Portico Nuovo had given their adhesion to Fiesco; that even after the conspiracy had failed the Senate had actually treated with the elder surviving brother of the drowned Gianluigi; and that it was due, solely and entirely, to the personal influence of Andrea Doria, that that august body had consented to pursue ‘to the bitter end’ hostilities against the members of the family. It is very evident that the Fieschi had been supported openly by many, secretly by a considerable number, of the members of the Senate. It may even be inferred that their adherents were not to be counted in the Portico Nuovo alone.

In the Centuria No. 35, Trajano Boccalini gives the following figurative account of the appearance in Parnassus before the King of Heaven of Jacopo Bonfadio, after he had undergone the sentence pronounced against him, that of being burnt alive. ‘Hardly,’ he writes, ‘had the stoic youth been dismissed when there appeared in the hall of audience, all singed by the fire, Jacopo Bonfadio. He informed His Majesty that having been invited by the Genoese to write the history of their country, — solely because some of them had found him most resolved to write it with the dignity befitting an historian, without respect of persons, obeying only the voice of truth, — he had been terribly persecuted and accused of vice; that he thus had lost at the same time his reputation and his life. Apollo,’ pursues Boccalini, ‘contrary to the opinion of the rest, not only showed no compassion for the learned man, but informed Bonfadio in severe language that although the charge on which he had been tried might be entirely false, he did not the less deserve to be so treated by the Genoese by reason of his shameful imprudence. Because the writing of matters prejudicial to the honour of influential people during their lifetime and that of their sons, however true the matters might be, displayed rather imprudence or rashness than an uncorrupted mind and a love of truth; that a man must be a fool who should think he could preserve his life from the anger of an influential man whose reputation and perhaps even, whose honour he had attacked and soiled with his pen.’

There may possibly be some who would agree with Apollo.

-One of Malleson’s footnotes

Now, in writing the annals of that conspiracy, two courses were open to Bonfadio, — the honest and the dishonest course. He might tell the truth or he might disguise it. There was no middle way. The object of the compilation of the annals was to ensure for posterity an authentic record of the events of each year, without favour or affection for any man or any body of men. It was probably to ensure this result that the task had been entrusted to a distinguished foreigner, — though an Italian, — rather than to a born Genoese. Truth and impartiality were even more essential than a good style. Bonfadio possessed this peculiar qualification for the task, in that, whilst a distinguished writer, he had apparently no interest to conceal the truth. Obliged to speak, his inner conscience forced him to speak all he knew.

For such a man there could be but one course. Yet in Genoa — the city in which the educated people were money-making rather than intellectual — it was a course fraught with danger. The stern old man whose vigilance and caution had received so terrible a blow from Gianluigi Fiesco, and whose fiat was still supreme in Genoa, had not yet satiated his vengeance. The publication of all the secrets Bonfadio had acquired would, besides, induce the inference that he possessed others which he had not as yet divulged. The secrets of half the nobility of the city would thus be dependent on his forbearance. Yet Bonfadio did not hesitate. His Annals were found to contain such an account of the baffled conspiracy as could be acquired only by one who had acquainted himself with its most secret springs.

Then occurred one of those resolutions which most surely mark a low temperature of morality in a society. Bonfadio, it was evident, possessed certain secrets which many members of both Portici knew to be compromising to themselves. It was not as if each of those members had made a confidant of his fellow. Bonfadio, by the knowledge he had displayed in his annals, showed that he knew the secrets of each. Not one was sure that he might not at any moment be denounced. Without confiding in each other, all the secret conspirators knew instinctively that Jacopo Bonfadio was the common enemy of all.

Instinctively, too, each man simultaneously felt that Bonfadio must be got rid of. Not simply banished, for then he might tell his tale in other lands, but so dealt with that his tongue might be for ever silenced. Bonfadio, in fact, must die.

But how to accomplish his death. His life had been blameless. He was unmarried. They could not strike him through a wife. But he must be got rid of. The lie which could alone effect this must be a good one; it must have something in it of probability; something which was associated with the previous habits of the man. To unscrupulous Spirits of the baser sort the fabrication of such a lie was easy. It was produced. An infamous crime was manufactured, and Jacopo Bonfadio was Condemned to be burnt alive.

It is curious that of the process of this illustrious man no records are now to be found in the archives of Genoa. To an enquiry made on the subject by the author of the history of his life, Count Giainmaria Mazzuchelli, the following answer was returned: ‘The process of Bonfadio is not in the archives, nor are there any of his writings but the annals. I will search, in other places, but I cannot flatter myself that I shall be able to throw any light on the subject.’ Subsequently: ‘After having diligently searched in three different archives, in which it was possible something might be found, I have discovered nothing regarding Bonfadio, by which I conclude the process has either been taken away or burnt.’

Through the intercession and interest of his friends the sentence of burning was commuted into one of beheading, and this was duly carried into execution in the course of the year 1550. Bonfadio betrayed to the last all the consciousness of innocence. The following letter, the last of his on record, was written to his friend, Signor Giambattista Grimaldi, some short time before the sad event: ‘I am sorry to die, because it does not seem to me that I deserve so great a punishment; but I submit myself to the will of God. I am sorry, too, because I die ungrateful, not being able to thank so many honoured gentlemen who have toiled and laboured for me, and especially yourself. I give you, from the bottom of my heart, infinite thanks, and I consign to you and to Signor Domenico Grillo, and to Signor Cipriano Pallavicino, my nephew Bonfadino. My body will be buried in San Lorenzo; and if, from the world beyond, it shall be possible for me to convey to any friend a sign without terrifying him, I will give it. May all of you remain happy!’

Such was the end of Jacopo Bonfadio, a man who received death as the reward for exposing, in the course of duty, the crimes of the society of which he was a noble member. I have adopted the view that he was innocent of the crime attributed to him — that that crime was invented to screen delinquents from his censure — because that view is supported by the best authorities. Thus, Ghilini, in his ‘Teatro d’Uomini litterati,’ attributes the death of Bonfadio to ‘his having too freely, and perhaps more freely than became a historian, written severely of some families of Genoa.’ So, likewise, Carlo Caporali affirms that ‘Bonfadio, invited by the Genoese to write the history of their country, for speaking too freely, was, under other pretexts, condemned to the flames ;’ and in the’ Biblioteca Natiana’ it is stated that ‘Bonfadio was badly paid for his Annals, since, having spoken ill of some member of a noble family, he was accused, although innocent, of a shameful crime, and condemned to be burnt.’

The same sentiment was expressed by the celebrated poet Gianillateo Toscano, in the following lines:

Non mimis intumuit nuper Benaeus alumni.
Bonfadii, ac Musis, docte Catulle, tuis,
Bis tamen infelix: rapuit nam Roma Catullum
Bonfadium Letho das scolerate Ligur.
Historia teternum eujus, fera Genua, vivis
Immeritum sseva lege neoare potcs?
Mitius est, quod te spumanti vortice marmor
Pundit; et es scopulis durior ipsa tuis.

Trajano Boccalini, again, takes occasion to warn all writers of history, by the example of Bonfadio, against writing anything prejudicial to the honour of powerful members of a community; whilst Garuffi, in ‘Italia Academica,’ expressly asserts that ‘the capital crime of Bonfadio was his having described, with the freedom which is the duty of an historian, the conspiracy of the Fieschi.’ Finally Ottavio Rossi declares that’Bonfadio was really doomed to death for secret reasons of State, and not for the crime imputed to him.’ It is true that the historian, Mazzuchelli, summing up the various opinions which he cites, thinks it not impossible that he may have appeared guilty of having incurred the hatred of certain families, and also of the crime; but whilst he rests the evidence of his guilt of the crime solely upon some Latin verses written at the time by Bonfadio’s friend, Manuzio, who, in his turn, accepted the sentence as proof of guilt, Mazzuchelli proceeds to indicate that he may have made enemies not only by the freedom of his Annals, but by the honest freedom of his tongue, one example of which he cites. The opinion, then, of Mazzuchelli is certainly not borne out by the concurrent testimony I have cited, nor would it appear to be endorsed by later writers. Of these I will cite only one, Giunio Carbone whose work, the ‘Compendium of the History of Liguria,’ appeared in 1837.
Carbone thus sums up the case:

To write history, a mind resolute and impervious to fear is necessary. To expose nakedly the facts of a case is but a small thing; but to reveal the causes, to point to the consequences, and to assign to each actor his proper part, is the proper office of an historian. When this is done with respect to men of a past era, no danger is incurred; but, when men still living are referred to, it becomes necessary to offend either truth or the wrong-doers. For the first fault posterity will punish us; for the second, the offended wrong-doers will fabricate vengeance. It is never difficult for human malignity to paint its charges with the colour of reason. Jacopo Bonfadio had lived the greater part of his life wandering and unhappy. Nature had endowed him with a mind never satisfied with itself. After many wanderings he settled in Genoa, the life in which pleased him. To him was then allotted the duty of writing the annals of the Republic, and all the grandees of Liguria emulated with each other to do him honour. He wrote his work with great spirit and elegance, though not altogether with prudence, especially in his account of the conspiracy of the Fieschi. As an eyewitness of the event, and possibly aware of the part taken in it by certain grandees, he could neither suppress nor soften certain light allusions and certain pointed indications, which, in our days, may, indeed, have lost their significance, but at that time were as knives and spears piercing the hearts of many powerful nobles.

‘Now, those who were pricked in their own consciences, and who knew that Bonfadio was acquainted with their many secrets, terrified lest he should make still more important and damaging disclosures, tortured their ingenuity how they might rid themselves of him. Examining, then, very minutely his habits and mode of life, and finding therein no fault, not even a pretext, whereby they might convict him of a State crime, they thought they might compass his destruction by accusing him of some grave outrage against religion or morality … A process having been instituted against him, and he having been declared guilty, he was condemned to be decapitated and then burnt. The sentence was executed. But I do not believe, nor is it possible for me to believe, that he suffered so severe a penalty for a crime of that nature; nor can I conceive how the Ligurian Senate would have been so severe and ferocious in an age when Pierluigi Farnese boasted of greater atrocities, the indecent accounts of which were circulated in every country. No! the death of Bonfadio is attributable to far more potent causes — to the terror of that hypocrisy which veils the deadliest vengeance with professions of religion and of virtue, to the necessity of applying discipline to one who speaks about the most important affairs of the age in which he lives.

I cannot conclude this sketch of the life of this famous man, ‘whose writings,’ wrote Mazzuchelli, with great truth, ‘will live for ever immortal in the memory of the learned,’ without giving a few quotations from his letters and poems. It cannot but be interesting to know the opinion which such a man had formed of himself, the account which he has left of his habits and mode of life. These details, fortunately, still exist recorded in his letters to his most intimate friends. Thus, in a letter written in Genoa to his friend and patron, Signor Giovanibatista Grimaldi, he says: ‘Your Lordship having inquired about me from Messer Stefano Penello, it appears to me that I am bound to give you some information about myself. As to literature, it is true that I know less of it than I should like to know, and of the little I do know I don’t care to vaunt, for I detest arrogance, and am by nature inclined to its opposite. As to my life and habits, I would rather be accounted sincere and modest than a man of learning and letters. Above all, I love truth and honesty, nor can I change in this respect. … I am a man of few words, neither very cheerful nor melancholy, but very thoughtful, even more so than is good for me. In Rome I exhausted what I had of ambition, and I have learned to bear every inconvenience. I do not care for it when it comes, nor does it seem to me very strange when it does come, and I accommodate myself without ceremony to whatever may happen. I avoid the proud, but to .whoever shows me the smallest sign of courtesy I am the humble servant; nor do I ever insult anyone.’ Again, in a letter to a friend, dated Genoa, December 26, 1547, Bonfadio thus writes: ‘You deceive yourself if you think that I am other than I am. I am poor, alike with respect to nature, to fortune, and to virtue. Regarding the first I have not been able to increase my store, but I have lived very closely on that with which she endowed me at my birth. To the second, I have never been able to find out the road, although I have sought it in many places at the cost of great inconvenience. To the third, I do not deny that I have equally endeavoured to discover the way; but having seen that it was long, and rough, and steep, I have often been discouraged. Besides that, many times hard shocks of adverse fortune have struck me. And the syrens, still, have often sung in my ears, too open to their voices, so that I have remained at the foot of the mountain, whence only I have been able to see the summit of virtue. Yet I have had this happy fortune, that modesty having once descended from the peak I embraced her, and have since kept her with me.’

I shall conclude these extracts with one to his friend, Paolo Manuzio, written from Padua. ‘Your life,’ he writes, ‘is too much occupied and too much given to labour. Nor do I know for what end you are labouring; to enrich yourself? I do not believe it, for you do not measure riches with the crooked rule of the vulgar; and you have sufficient of the goods of fortune for your desires. Perhaps to have ecclesiastical honours? I do not believe that, because I know that you always held in higher esteem the being worthy of the honour than the honour itself; and already every honour is due to you. I see the stimulus that spurs you on, and that the desire for glory keeps you awake day and night. … Yet, although you may decrease, your labours, for which you are always striving to obtain new materials, you must not fear that the esteem of the world will decrease in the least, for your fame is already so high that it will always be recognised; Be content with that, and do not allow a love of glory to do that which may injure your health.’

I now proceed to give a few specimens of his imagination, as indicated in his lighter pieces of poetry. The first is a short extract from one of his longer odes. It may thus be rendered1: —

What men call Life, is like a meadow fair
Wherein some serpent makes his trench.rous lair:
And thus uneasy fears perturb each breast,
No heart finds happiness, no bosom rest.
‘Would as a child my life had passed away
‘Ere carking care began his cruel sway.’
Thus some. Whilst others nought but sorrow feel,
And sighs and wailings form their only meal:
And e’en if pain or death to vex forbear,
Still on their bosom lies the sleepless care,
Their pleasures finish ere they well commence,
Most brief those hours in which they.re most intense.

The next piece is addressed to his first love. The first four verses may be translated as follows: —

When the buds burst forth and blossom
In the month which heralds May,
And the scent of a thousand flowers
Is wafted from each spray,
I rise from my couch at daybreak,
And I seek my lattice and gaze,
And I list to the trills the nightingales
Pour forth as their song of praise,
And I see the glad sea peacefully
Smile its greeting to the morn,
And I feel my heart a glad captive led,
Yet I do not feel forlorn;
For I mind those days in my childhood,
When the crystal wave so dear
I stemmed, and sought from bank to rock
Delights in the water clear.
And I wrap myself in the memories
Of the past, and descend to the sea,
And I feel the soft air and all Nature
Seem, Laura, to murmur but thee!
Might it please the Fates that my heart.s desire
Should at last be granted to me,
Sweet Laura, then, I would supplicate
No sweeter boon than thee.
Then all Nature would seem more lovely
And the Graces and Loves, as a prey
Having yielded their charms, should follow
And grace thy triumphal day;
And I, who in thy absence
Feel all things dark and drear,
Should revel and bask in the light which shines
From those eyes so soft and clear.
And I, — What am I, dearest? None other than you see,
Whilst thou, in the wealth of thy beauty,
Art more than a goddess to me.
In the wealth of the youth of thy sweet spring-life
I could lie beside thee and gaze
On thy perfect form, and my lips should tell
Their tale of love and of praise.
I would tell thee what man men think me to be
Since the childhood of the past,
When I gave my heart to thy keeping, —
Oh! Love! shall I win thee at last?

I conclude with a short extract in the original from one of his Latin Carmina, on the subject of Villa Coloniola, the favourite resort for his autumn holidays: —

Nunc vivo: et vita est multo mihi carior, in me
Quum memini de quo venerit ilia loco.
Salve, o terra beata, mihi gratissima terra
Diis superis: salve dia Coloniola.
Nomen fama tuum immortalibus in monimentis
Protendat; nec te deruat ilia dies.
Haec lingua ante meis haerebit faucibus, ante
Haec dextra attractis concidet articulis,
Quam memori exanimo, et nostro de pectore migret
Saepe vocanda mihi cara Coloniola.

I should be glad to give a specimen of the clear and vigorous style of the Annals, but I refrain. It is possible I may some day be tempted to translate them into our language. I have met no Italian writings which would so well adapt themselves to the robustness and vigour of the English tongue.

For the present, I leave, and leave with regret, the name of Jacopo Bonfadio. He was not the first, and probably has not been the last, victim to the malignity of inferior natures, alarmed by the dread of the discovery of their own evil deeds. But to a noble nature his fate, sad as it was, possesses an element which reassures. It is true his enemies killed him. But, after a lapse of three hundred and thirty years, his name still lives, clothed with honour, veneration, and respect. But for those who killed him! A too kind Providence has preserved them, by the annihilation of their very names, from the execration of posterity!

* Even the year is a matter of dispute among various sources.

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1857: Danforth Hartson, again

Add comment July 15th, 2018 Robert Elder

(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)

“For God’s sake, don’t do that again.”

Danforth Hartson, convicted of murder, hanging, California.
Executed July 15, 1857

Hartson (aka Sailor Jim) claimed self-defense in a fight that followed his argument with “estimable citizen” John Burke, whom he knocked to the ground and then shot in the chest. Burke was able to make a full statement, naming Hartson as the murderer, before he died.

Hartson’s last words came after he slipped through the noose and fell through the trap door.

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1864: The Andersonville Raiders

1 comment July 11th, 2018 dogboy

It’s not hard to understand why the Andersonville Raiders turned criminal. But on this day in 1864, the group was decapitated when six of its leaders were hanged in a quasi-legal action at the most inhospitable prisoner of war camp in the Confederacy.*

Andersonville Prison was opened in February 1864, 26.5 Georgian acres (about 0.1 square kilometers, or about the size of a square 4 city blocks on a side) of tightly-packed tents with a ditch of water flowing through its center. Its design population was 10-15,000 prisoners; its true population at one point was almost 30,000.** Some 45,000 Union soldiers went in, passing first the outer stockade, then the so-called “dead line” that demarcated the line outside of which they could be shot summarily, and finally into a mass of malnourished, often sickly humanity. Of these, 13,000 never emerged.

The Confederacy, you may recall, was not the war’s winner. As an aspiring nation, the CSA borrowed heavily to fund its arms, then found itself strapped for basic supplies as the war dragged on. By 1863 the nation was already economically depressed, and when a CSA-USA prisoner exchange agreement broke down, the Confederacy found itself with a lot of Union soldiers to house and nowhere to put them. Enter Andersonville: far enough from the North to be “safe”, easily defensible, and in the heart of slave labor to build it. All the Confederacy needed to build some basic housing was wood, which should be … oh wait … war update!…the Union controlled lumber supplies. Guess there won’t be housing.

Prisoners instead got lumped in with their brigade, and (at least initially) basic materials to make some sort of shelter.† New arrivals often showed up without being thoroughly checked over, so they might come in with food and supplies that weren’t already available to other internees.‡ Very quickly, the grounds were littered with Union POWs from around the country, people with vastly different backgrounds and goods. As the camp’s population breached 10,000 and then 20,000,§ there were, of course, inmates with designs on better living.

It’s not hard to see where this is going.

Sometime around May 1864, dozens of them assembled into a loose affiliation. The Raiders were headed by about a half dozen men: Charles Curtis, Patrick Delaney, John Sarsfield, William Collins (“Moseby”), a guy known only as “A. Munn”, and W.R. Rickson (or possibly Terry Sullivan; there’s an unusual disparity in diary accounts on the person’s name, but first-hand diary entries from the moment prefer Rickson) were considered the principal offenders. Each headed a small band of thieves who would trick new entrants, burgle tents, or use violence or threats of violence to amass “wealth” and keep themselves well-fed, well-clothed, and, most importantly to them in this hostile place, alive.

The Raiders had some huge advantages when they committed these crimes. Thanks to their amalgamated resources, they had good odds of being better armed and more fit than their victims — unless those victims were green, in which case they just knew the place better. The thieves started out as midnight raiders who turned tail at the first sign of genuine resistance unless they thought they could readily overpower the victim. By mid-June they were brazen, according to John Ransom: “Raiders … do as they please, kill, plunder and steal in broad day light, with no one to molest them.”

The victims were soldiers who, even if they weren’t killed, were left without resources in a deadly environment. Even the robberies and beatings were, in many cases, a prolonged form of murder, and Union inmates knew it. Indeed, Collins was thought by most to have never directly assaulted anyone, but he was known to steal blankets from the ill.

It’s unclear what the full Raider population was (estimates range from 100 to 500, but most people settle on the 100-200 range). What we can say definitively is that it was large enough to be a problem. Late in June of that year, a group called “the regulators” began taking police-like action against the perpetrators. Inmates brought their complaints to the group, which sought out and punished — usually through head shaving or other non-destructive means — those they found responsible.

On June 29, that problem started getting a real solution when the Raiders assaulted and robbed a prisoner now known only as Dowd. Dowd complained to the guards, and Andersonville’s overseer, Captain Henry Wirz, officially endorsed the Regulators as a police force/tribunal to maintain order. But first he announced an end to inmate rations until the Raiders were given up. (What a guy!)

The Regulators, headed by a man called “Lumber” (or maybe “Limber”) Jim, quickly had 80-100 inmates to deal with. Jury trials were implemented in the spirit of (but without most of the protections of) common law, and most punishments ranged from setting in the stocks to running the gauntlet.


Detail of a panorama sketch of Andersonville (click to see it) makes space for a certain well-attended sextuple hanging.

The ringleaders were also among this bunch. They were assembled on July 11 and executed at a hastily-erected gallows on the north end of camp. As far as the POWs were concerned, the ultimate crime of the Raiders was a violation of the soldier code of death before dishonor. Their bodies were buried separately from other inmates, and the US makes a point of placing no memorial flags at their graves.

To be clear, the Andersonville Raiders were, for most inmates, not the primary problem but an obviously controllable one. Remember that 30% of the interned died, and for the most part those deaths were borne of bad sanitation, hunger, and disease. The removal of the Raiders was a morale boost at best, as Andersonville was still a pee-pee soaked heckhole in which another 10,000 soldiers would die before liberation in May 1865, most of them before the summer’s end.

* It was also known as Camp Sumter, named after the county it resided in.

** The population density at peak was 330,000 people per square kilometer. For comparison, the world’s densest city is Manila, at about 71,000 people per square kilometer.

† It turns out the term “shebang” wasn’t widely-used camp lingo. Drawings and photos of the camp illustrate the variety of dwellings: open sleeping, simple V-tents, structured tents, lean-tos, huts, and shacks were all scattered about the grounds.

‡ They also came with new diseases.

§ The original camp was actually only 16.5 acres, and the population ballooned to 20,000 in early June and 33,000 in August of that year. Ransom notes that the stockade was “enlarged” on July 6. Fall transfers dropped the number to 1,500 and it bumped back up to 5,000 until war’s end. Sanitation issues persisted throughout.

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1828: William Rice but not John Montgomery, who cheated the hangman with prussic acid

Add comment July 4th, 2018 Meaghan

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

Just before 6:00 a.m. on July 4, 1828, prison officers arrived at the cell of disgraced ensign John Burgh Montgomery in Newgate Prison‘s condemned hold.

They were there to escort Montgomery to his hanging. The 33­-year-­old would have been one of the last in England executed for for the crime of uttering forged notes — except that his wardens instead found him lying stone dead. With the aid of prussic acid, the counterfeiter had cheated the hangman of half his day’s prey, leaving his prospective gallows partner, thief William Rice, to face the hemp alone.

Although his guards had confiscated his razor and penknife as a routine precaution against suicide, no one had expected Montgomery to take his own life. He had pleaded guilty before the court and seemed resigned to his fate. In custody he was a model prisoner, spent his last days writing to his loved ones, and “addressed himself with great anxiety to his religious offices.”

Nobody was able to figure out how the condemned man came by enough poison to kill thirty people and how he kept it hidden, given that he and his cell were regularly searched.

The Irish-­born Montgomery, Nicola Sly records in her book Goodbye, Cruel World… A Compendium of Suicide,

was said to be a very respectable, well­-educated man, who had once held a commission in the Army. However, after inheriting a considerable fortune, he frittered it away and resorted to passing phony banknotes to support his rather dissipated lifestyle. Given his pleasing looks, gentlemanly appearance and good manners, he was very successful, since nobody thought him capable of any wrongdoing. However, he was caught after becoming careless and making the mistake of committing frequent repeated offense in a small geographical area of London.

Montgomery left behind several letters, marked by expansive tragic romanticism but no hint of suicidal intent. One letter was for the prison surgeon, asking that his body be used for dissection. He said that by this he wanted to provide some positive contribution to the public to make up for his crimes. He asked that his heart be preserved in spirits and given to his girlfriend.

To the girlfriend he wrote,

My dear idolized L.,

One more last farewell, one more last adieu to a being so much attached to the unhappy Montgomery. Oh, my dearest girl. If it had been in the power of anyone to avert my dreadful doom, your kind exertions would have been attended with such success. Oh, God, so poor Montgomery is to die on the scaffold. Oh, how dreadful have been my hours of reflection, whilst in this dreary cell.

Oh, how tottering were all my hopes; the bitterness of my reflection is bitter in the extreme. This will be forwarded to you by my kind friend Mrs. D. I should wish you to possess my writing portmanteau. Oh, I wished to have disappointed the horrid multitude who will be assembled to witness my ignominious exit. Farewell forever,

P.S. Here I kiss fervently.

The jury on the inquest into Montgomery’s death recorded a verdict of felo de se, meaning that Montgomery had willfully and knowingly taken his own life whilst of sound mind. As such, his body was buried in the graveyard of St. Sepulchre­-without-Newgate at night, and without any memorial service.

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1941: 3,500 Jews at the Khotyn Fortress … but not Adolph Sternschuss

Add comment July 3rd, 2018 Meaghan

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

On July 4, 1941, a thirteen-year-old Jewish boy named Ephraim Sternschuss began his diary in the Nazi-occupied Zloczow, Poland, with these lines:

Mother knows nothing about Father’s murder. I won’t be the one to tell. But I have to express what I’m feeling … I’ll write down all the details so when I’m old I’ll remember my youth and this World War, even though I’m not sure I’ll live through it.

I’m writing while lying on my back. I can’t move my legs. Mother says I’m in shock. Maybe I am. Maybe I’m so anxious because I can’t tell her about Father, who was drafted yesterday into forced labor and Mother still believes he’s alive.

The eastern Polish town of Zloczow had been annexed by the Soviet Union after the partition of Poland with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939. Zloczow‘s Jews, who at 14,000 people constituted about half of the population, lived in relative safety until the summer of 1941, when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union.

They arrived in Zloczow on July 2. With the help of enthusiastic local Polish and Ukrainian collaborators, the SS rounded up 3,500 Jews, among them Adolph Sternschuss, Ephraim’s father. The victims were told they would be sent to forced labor — excavating mass graves of Soviet victims, digging anti-tank ditches, and such.

They were, in fact, digging their own graves.

Ephraim described his father’s departure thusly:

Father was taken at 10:00 a.m. An evening earlier Mrs. Reichard came by and told us that at a local Ukrainian meeting, it was decided to carry out an anti-Jewish pogrom the very next day. Unfortunately, Father didn’t believe her because she was such a gossip. Father was sitting in the kitchen when two Ukrainians came in, Warwara from our street and Bojko a tailor …

They told Father to get ready for work. Father changed into an old suit, emptied his pockets of everything except a penknife, a handkerchief and a Soviet ID. They said to give Father bread because “he would return only at two in the afternoon and he’d get hungry until then.” (My god, what hypocrisy!) Mother made two sandwiches with sausage. They also told him to bring a shovel and he kissed Mother and me and went away.

Adolph did not return at two o’clock, and at four that afternoon, Ephraim and his mother, Anna, heard the sound of distant gunfire coming from the Khotyn Fortress. A neighbor came by and told Ephraim there had been a mass shooting (the perpetrators were members of Einsatzgruppe C) and “all the men were killed.”


Khotyn Fortress. (cc) image from Andriy Baranskyy.

Ephraim assumed his father must be dead. He started his diary because he couldn’t bear to speak the dreadful fact aloud, but had to confide in somebody, if only an old school notebook.

What he didn’t know was that Adolph Sternschuss had, in fact, miraculously survived the shooting. The happy news was delivered to Ephraim’s family on July 5: Adolph was alive and hiding with friends of the family.

Around four o’clock the mother of Mrs. Kitai, Mother’s friend, came in and said that Father was alive and staying with them. Hurray! I went wild, jumping, laughing, everything. Mother gave her clean underwear for Father and asked her to tell him to stay there, not to come home, until the situation improved. Mother went out to tell Mrs. Reichard the news, and about an hour later the door opened and Father came in.

I’ll never forget the sight. His black suit was gray with dirt and dust, on his head he wore some wrinkled hat … He held the package of underwear Mother sent him and a small army shovel. When he entered I jumped out of bed and screamed “Mummy!” and ran to him. I kissed him although he was terribly stinking, like a corpse — and he started crying. It was the first time I saw Father cry.

Together with Mrs. Beer we pulled a sofa into the other room and hid the door behind a mirrored chest. We helped Father remove his clothes and then we saw what the Ukrainians were capable of. His whole back was beaten to a black pulp and swollen and he had a hideous bruise on his head.

We washed him and then he ate something and then we put him to bed and he fell asleep. He didn’t say a word.

Over the next few days, Adolph described his ordeal and his incredible survival to his only child, who wrote it all down in detail in his diary. Adolph’s story, as told to Ephraim, is worth quoting almost in full:

At noon I brought him a meal and he told me what he had gone through. I didn’t recognize his monotonous tone, but there, in the darkness of the basement, I sensed that he was reliving his ordeal. Well, in the beginning he worked near the Fortress, burying cadavers of horses.

Then he was transferred to the Fortress itself. At the entrance he was ordered to show his papers, but he lied, claiming he had none. “A man is only an addition to his identity card,” he said as if he were the father I knew.

They worked in two places: the inner court of the prison and the garden. They had to dig up mass graves of corpses killed by the NKVD — Ukrainians and Poles (and some Jews like Dr. Grosskopf and his son-in-law). The bodies were laid out in rows to be identified.

On that occasion, the Ukrainians beat the Jews, accusing them of committing these murders. Naturally, the Germans and the S.S. troops joined in, beating the Jews mercilessly. Father was followed by a short, white-haired butcher who hit him with a stout stick he had pulled out of the fence, and by a tall, blond S.S. soldier who used a coiled rope.

At noon two officers came up to Father and asked his profession. He answered, “Lawyer.” Probably they could tell from his accent that he had studied in Vienna,* but they asked him anyway. When he confirmed it, one of the Germans asked, “You aren’t Jewish, are you?” and Father said he was, and the German, furious, said, “Then I can’t do anything for you,” and the two of them stormed off.

Shortly after, the shooting began …

Around three o’clock they shot Father, but as he happened to already be in the ditch, all four bullets hit the pile of dirt, and Father fell down and pretended to be dead. An hour later it started raining and that’s what saved him: the Ukrainians and Germans were forced to stop shooting and shelter themselves under the roof.

At 9 p.m. sharp Kuba Schnapp and Freimann pulled Father out of the ditch and all three made their escape. Father practically had to be dragged away because both of them, and two corpses, were lying on his left leg. “After playing Indians,” said Father and it seemed to be that he smiled, they slipped through a hole in the fence and parted ways.

Father wanted to enter Winczura’s house but was refused. He then moved on to Barabasz and there, in the attic, were about thirty people. The next day he was forced to leave because of the terrible conditions. He moved over to a client of his, Mrs. Lewant, and stayed in the attic with the Kitai family. From there he returned home.

“One thing is etched in my memory forever,” he said. “I never imagined that Jews could die like that. They were like Romans. Proud, erect, silent. Thus they were killed.”

Seventy years later, one “old, toothless” witness, one of the fifteen remaining Jews still living in the area, recalled the massacre: “The earth shifted for days. They couldn’t bury them fast enough.”

Unfortunately, Adolph didn’t live long after he crawled out from under those corpses in the mass grave. He was not young, and his health was ruined by his horrific experience. Just a few days before Christmas, he died in his bed after a series of heart attacks.

On December 29 that year, Ephraim wrote mournfully,

Only those who have lost their fathers will understand me — and regrettably there are so many now. Dr. Hreczanik was right when he said to Mother, “your husband was killed at the Fortress.”

This first mass killing in Zloczow was followed by others. In late August 1942, the Germans rounded up 2,700 Jews and deported them to the Belzec Extermination Camp. In early November, a further 2,500 people were taken away.

A month later, a ghetto was established for between 7,500 and 9,000 people from Zloczow as well as the remnants of several nearby Jewish communities. Rather than go into the ghetto, Ephraim and his mother went into hiding, concealed outside the village of Jelechowice by sympathetic Ukrainian Catholic farmers: Grzegorz “Hryc” Tyz, his wife Maria “Misia” Koreniuk, and Helena Skrzeszewska.

The Sternschusses made the right choice: in April 1943 the Zloczow Ghetto was liquidated and all the survivors were shot and buried in mass graves.

Ephraim and Anna Sternschuss remained hidden on the rural farm for the rest of the war. When it was safe they just stayed inside the house; when there was danger they hid “downstairs” under the floor, “in a grave-like pit, narrow and long.” He kept writing in his diary:

We walk about the house without any inhibition, trusting Rex to faithfully do his duty. He barks differently at anyone so we can know in advance whether he’s a friend or a foe. In any case, whenever we hear him, Mother and I enter our room, shut the door and Misia, if the visitor is a stranger, sings “Chiming of Bells in the Dusk.” Then we sit quietly, almost without breathing, waiting for the visit to end. Nobody must know about our existence here.

The Sternschuss family’s hosts refused to accept any payment for their stay, but Ephraim and his mother did have to chip in to cover the cost of their food. Over time, others joined them: Ephraim’s aunt and uncle, Lipa and Linka Tennenbaum; the Tennenbaums’ daughters, Eda and Selma; the five members of the Parille family; and Edzia Weinstock and her daughter Eva.

Thus, the farm became a sanctuary for eleven Jews, plus the three hosts — all living on a small farm with a three-room farmhouse, a shed, an outhouse, and an uncertain grant of borrowed time. Ephraim occupied himself writing in his diary, drawing, and reading. Misia Koreniuk, one of his hosts, was a teacher, and she freely shared her “huge chest of books and magazines” with him. Ephraim even began teaching himself algebra and geometry.

It wasn’t all a nightmare. There was, for example, an amusing incident in February 1943 where they got the farm animals drunk on moonshine vodka:

It was a pity to have to throw it away, so Hryc scattered a bit in the yard for the chickens and the rest he put in the trough for the cow Krasula. The chickens pecked — and immediately lay down on the earth, absolutely foggy minded. But Krasula started going berserk, running around and climbing trees. It was terribly funny but also a bit dangerous. Hryc managed to overcome her with much difficulty and tied her up in the stable.

Through his hosts Ephraim kept up with the progress of the war and tracked the Allied advance in his diary, eagerly awaiting liberation. Yet it was hard to stay optimistic and he occasionally had thoughts of suicide. As he wrote in October 1943, he struggled to keep from succumbing to apathy and despair:

It’s all nonsense. […] Nobody knows us. We don’t have anybody in the whole wide world. Nobody. Only Mother and I. Therefore there’s no other option: one mustn’t give in to crises. We have to stay united. Today my heart is heavy. I’m writing almost in darkness but I must write. Too much crap weighs on my heart and I must pour all of it, at least in this diary.

Why is it called life? The best years of my youth have gone by and will not return. Never. Even if it all ends today, it won’t do any good … This is my life. And if I add the well known fact that everybody is born with a death verdict — what’s there to live for?

On November 6, 1943, a baby girl was born on the farm — the offspring of one of the members of the Parille family. Before the war, the mother had tried for years to get pregnant, going through “all possible treatments and nothing helped. And here, of all places, did she give birth.”

Ephraim wrote that their host, Hryc, started sobbing in despair when he found out:

So we aren’t only fourteen but fifteen with the baby! Not too bad … That’s to say very bad. Lipa is right saying that the baby can betray us all. We learned not to speak but to whisper, but a baby?! What’s to be done?

Within a few days the baby died. Perhaps it was just as well.

The situation became even more precarious in late January 1944, after a unit of retreating Germans showed up at the farm and the commander requisitioned a room in the farmhouse for himself and his Russian girlfriend.

Thus the farmhouse was divided: the German in one room, the three Ukrainian farmers in the next room, eight Jews in the 3×4 meter room down the hall, and three more hidden in the shed!

The German officer never found out about the hidden Jews, and as Ephraim noted, the man’s presence turned out to have a silver lining, because it protected everyone from the threat of looting, arson and murder at the hands of anti-Semitic Ukrainian partisans, who had become very active in the area.

Also, Helena Skrzeszewska was able to cajole the military kitchen into giving her their leftover soup, which she fed to the Jews. Ephraim noted wryly, “We live at the expense of Hitler.”

He was actually upset when the German officer left the farm two weeks later, writing,

Our citadel is no more. Again fearful nights will begin without the landlords who’ll go to the village for their sleep. We’ll remain on our own against the gangs, full of fear of the Ukrainian killers, of being set on fire … Again night watches every two hours, with a pistol and six bullets.

Sure enough, in early March, while Ephraim’s hosts were away from the farm, the Ukrainian partisans tried to set the place on fire. Ephraim was on watch that night:

I don’t know if I panicked. But now, while writing that, I think I wasn’t absolutely clear about what I was doing. Anyhow, after raising [the others in hiding], I opened the door and like an idiot went out into the lighted yard. Two sprints brought me to the well. I crouched behind its side and emptied my pistol of all its bullets, shooting into the darkness of the forest like a movie cowboy. The first time in my life.

In the meantime Lipa, Mother, Linka and Edzia came out with buckets. […] I don’t think it took us a long time to control the situation. The fools didn’t shoot at us from the forest despite the fact that we were in the light. I assume — and I’m not the only one thinking like that — that they were frightened of us being armed.

In the morning, when our landlords came back from the neighbors, they were surprised to learn that the house was still standing. […] Hryc went to the forest and found blood stains in the snow.

Later the month the Germans returned and searched the farm for signs of partisan activity, and actually encountered Ephraim’s aunt and mother inside the house:

Mother and Auntie locked us in and ran to the entrance door. They hardly made it when the door was busted open in spite of the big lock hanging outside. The Germans were astonished running into them. Despite Lipa’s warnings to Mother not to reveal her knowledge of German, she explained to them that they were locking themselves in the house in fear of the partisans.

“The partisans are all Juden,” said one of the Germans, and then asked where did Mother acquire such a German [language]. She told him she lived in Salzburg and came here to get married. “It’s all Love’s fault,” said the German, asked her to forgive him, went out and in a moment returned with a bomboniere.

In the meanwhile dawn was breaking and they discovered the Germans were S.S. troops. Mother says that if she wasn’t hit by a heart attack she would never have one. Immediately she told them they were being “evacuated” to the West. The Germans, perfect gentlemen that they were, proposed to help them, give them a truck. Auntie thanked them, said there was no need, everything was under control. Indeed.

Half an hour later our landlords returned back from the village. They looked really terrified when they saw Mother and Linka standing at the entrance to the house with two S.S. men. Mother introduced them, bid the Germans farewell and entered the hideout with Auntie.

The hideout happens to be east of the house, not west.

All the Jews spent three days in the underground hideout until the SS officers left. By then the front was very close, as Ephraim wrote on March 13:

In the nights, during shifts, we hear the “music” of artillery. The front keeps coming closer. Two days ago they were at Podhorce, 15 kms away! The windows were shaking to the blasts of cannon. But the Germans, damn it, pushed them back to a point 35 kms from us. There they stand and shoot. What bad fortune! Tarnopol has been liberated and we are not.

On March 26, Ephraim noted that it was the 1,000th day he had spent living under German occupation: “The 1,000 days we’ve spent in the Reich are like 1,000 years. With my whole heart I wish the Fuhrer and his admirers to have 1,000 such days …”

And he had months left to endure before he would see freedom.

On July 3, the second anniversary of the massacre at the Khotyn Fortress, Ephraim was using the outhouse when he saw a car stop and two Germans emerge with two men and a child. The Germans shot all three of them and left their bodies by the road. The victims, he found out later, were Jews who had been caught hiding nearby.

Liberation finally came to Jelechowice on July 16, 1944, as noted by a single sentence in red pencil in Ephraim’s diary: “THE BOLSHEVIKS HAVE ARRIVED!!!” He was sixteen years old, and had survived 1,111 days under the Germans.

On the third day after liberation, he recorded,

Mother, Auntie and I went to town. Zloczow made a terrible impression on us. Only bombed, burnt houses, torn wires on the road. A mass of troops on the way to Lvov. Our house is burnt. The neighbors — who couldn’t really understand how we managed to survive — said that the Germans had set the house on fire because it contained the archives of the Gestapo.

In the house, which was inhabited by the Gestapo unit, we found our dining room furniture in one of the rooms. It looked strange to me. That’s precisely what we need: a big table, or a buffet …

We haven’t met Jews.

Ephraim’s last diary entry was on July 29. He wrote of finally encountering some other survivors:

Maybe twenty people, perhaps thirty … All stood and cried. For sure I don’t have to write that picture down in the diary. I’ll remember it to the end of my life. All the Jews, the ten thousand Jews of Zloczow, were praying together in one small room. I heard the heart-rending sobbing, the wailing, the “Magnified and sanctified be His great name” prayer for the dead, and the “God, full of compassion” one, and I understood once and for all that they, we, address somebody who was absent when needed, and perhaps now wasn’t needed any longer, or maybe simply never existed. It was noontime and

The diary ends in mid-sentence.

Ephraim remained in Poland for over a decade after the war. He attended engineering school for two years, then switched his studies to theater. He moved to Israel in 1957. There he changed his family name from Sternschuss to Sten.

In Israel, Ephraim married, had children, and had a successful career as an author, actor, director and playwright for both stage and radio. But for decades he kept his diary hidden and did not speak of his Holocaust experiences to anyone.

Although he had a normal existence in his adopted country, he never recovered emotionally from the trauma of the war, describing it as “the load crushing my soul.”

He had thought, he said, once he left Poland, that he might finally “become a regular human being. But the world wouldn’t let me.”

In the 1990s, Ephraim returned to Zloczow, which is now part of Ukraine and called Zolochiv. Two of his Ukrainian rescuers had died, but Ephraim had a tearful reunion with Hryc Tyz, who told him, “You are my relatives. I didn’t believe I’d be lucky to yet see somebody from my family.”

His four-day trip inspired him to dig out his diary and translate it into Hebrew so that his children could read it. The diary was published in English in 2006, with annotations by an older Ephraim fifty years after the fact, under the title 1111 Days in My Life Plus Four.

Ephraim Sten died in 2004.

The Khotyn Fortress is a major tourist attraction in Ukraine and is considered one of the nation’s most stunning castles. In a nearby field, a “foul-smelling marsh” where “the grass is high and thick,” is a memorial for the 3,500 Jews (but not Ephraim’s dad) who were murdered there in July 1941.

* Zloczow answered to the sovereignty of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918.

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1894: William Whaley, “the horror of the situation”

Add comment June 22nd, 2018 H.M. Fogle

This ghastly description of a botched hanging comes courtesy of the out-of-print The palace of death, or, the Ohio Penitentiary Annex: A human-interest story of incarceration and execution of Ohio’s murderers, with a detailed review of the incidents connected with each case by H.M. Fogle (1908):


Chapter 19

William Whaley
June 22, 1894

A negro robber who beat out the brains of Allen Wilson, near Yellow Springs, Ohio, with a dray pin. Hanged June 22, 1894

A Brutal Robber Meets a Just Fate


William Whaley, serial number 25,257, was executed in the Ohio Penitentiary Annex twelve minutes after the birth of a new day, June 22, 1894, for the brutal murder of Allen Wilson, a thrifty and hard working colored man.

The crime was committed near Yellow Springs, Greene County, Ohio, on the night of June 6, 1893. Robbery was the motive for the crime, and a dray pin the instrument of destruction. He sneaked upon his victim in the dark, and literally beat his brains out.

Whaley was a young man not over twenty-five years of age, and with perhaps one exception, was the most profane man that was ever incarcerated in the Ohio Penitentiary Annex. He refused all spiritual consolation, and cursed his executioners almost with his dying breath. He was a cowardly cur, and betrayed his cowardice while on the scaffold. Three times he sank to his knees as the noose was being adjusted. The attending Guards were compelled each time to assist him to his feet, and finally to hold him up by main strength until the rattle of the lever shot his body through the open trap. Being almost in a total state of collapse, the body instead of plunging straight through the opening, pitched forward, striking the side of the door, thus breaking the force of the fall. For this reason the neck was not broken, and death was produced by the slow and harrowing process of strangulation.

Reader, if you have never seen a sight of this kind you cannot understand or comprehend the horror of the situation. Time after time the limbs were drawn up with a convulsive motion, and then straightened out with a jerk. The whole body quivered and shook like one might with the ague; while the most hideous and sickening sounds came from the throat. This continued for eighteen minutes; but to one looking on it seemed an age. After eighteen minutes the sounds ceased; the body became perfectly still; the limbs began to stiffen; the heart-beats to weaken. In just twenty-six minutes after the drop fell the last pulsation was felt, and the doctor solemnly said: “Warden, I pronounce the man dead.”

The outraged law had been avenged, and a soul unprepared had been ushered into Eternity.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Murder,Ohio,Other Voices,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Theft,USA

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1944: Seisaku Nakamura, Hamamatsu Deaf Killer

Add comment June 19th, 2018 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1944, nineteen-year-old serial killer Seisaku Nakamura was hanged for a series of horrific murders in wartime Japan. He killed at least nine people, perhaps as many as eleven, many of them while he was still a minor.

Nakamura, born deaf, was ostracized by both his family and society at large for his disability. Robert Keller, in his Asian Monsters: 28 Terrifying Serial Killers from Asia and the Far East,* notes:

It has been noted that many serial killers who suffer such ostracism retreat into a fantasy world, fueled most often by revenge fantasies. This was certainly the case with Seisaku Nakamura. He developed a near obsession with the Samurai culture and enjoyed watching movies where Samurai slaughtered their victims with lethal Katana swords.


The 47 Ronin (1941).

Yet on the surface all appeared normal. Seisaku was a bright boy who excelled at school. He was polite and deferential. He endured his condition without complaint. He’d grown, too, into a tall and strapping youth.

All was not normal, however.

According to Nakamura’s later confession, he committed his first two murders on August 22, 1938, when he was only fourteen. He tried to rape two women, he said, and murdered them after they resisted. This account has never been confirmed; perhaps he was boasting, or perhaps the murders did occur and the Japanese military government kept them out of the news.

Nearly three years passed before he committed another homicide: on August 18, 1941, Nakamura stabbed a woman to death and nearly killed another. Two days later, he stabbed and hacked another three victims to death. The police had a suspect description, but hushed up the information about the crimes for fear of causing a panic.

On September 27, Nakamura got into an argument with his brother at their parents’ home. The result was a bloodbath: he stabbed his brother in the chest, turned the knife on the rest of the family, stabbing and slashing his father, sister, niece and sister-in-law. Amazingly, only Nakamura’s brother died. Questioned by the police, the survivors refused to cooperate, saying they were afraid of retribution if they named their attacker.

Nearly a year passed with no bloodshed, but on August 30, 1942, Nakamura targeted another family. He saw a young woman on the street, followed her home, where her husband and three children were. Nakamura began his attack on the mother, and when her husband tried to defend her, he stabbed them both to death. He then slaughtered their two youngest children and turned his attention to the oldest, a girl. He started to rape her, then inexplicably broke off his assault and ran away, leaving her alive.

The survivor provided a good witness description to the police, who had their eye on Nakamura already; they had come to believe the reason his family wouldn’t say who attacked them the year before was because their attacker was one of their own.

The “Hamamatsu Deaf Killer” was arrested and quickly tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death in spite of his youth and the parade of witnesses ready to say he was insane.

Little is known about him and his crimes, as Japanese government suppressed most of the information.

* As we’ve previously noted, we cite the titles, we don’t write the titles.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Japan,Murder,Other Voices,Serial Killers,Wartime Executions

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1883: Not Alferd (sic) Packer, #nerdprom attendee

Add comment May 19th, 2018 dogboy

The National Press Club is probably best known for its White House Correspondent’s Dinner. This site prefers to think of it as the site of the Alferd Packer plaque, a memorial to a cannibal who avoided hanging.


(cc) image from Kurt Riegel.

The plaque is rather unassuming, its simple polished brass declaring: “The Alferd Packer Memorial Grill — In Memory of Stan Weston 1931-1984.” Weston was the public affairs officer at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who came up with a 1977 contest to name the USDA’s new cafeteria. But hold that thought for now.

Packer was born in Pennsylvania in 1842. He made his way west and joined the Union Army in Minnesota, then ambled on into the Rockies as a pioneer after the Civil War. In a particularly stunning feat of incompetence, he and five others separated from a larger expedition and tried to make it across a mountain pass in January 1874. Three months later, Packer arrived on the other side, declaring that he got separated from the other five.

But Packer had taken money and effects from them, which made the remaining members of his expedition more than a little suspicious. Caught out in a lie, Packer confessed to a carnivorous progress through his comrades: Israel Swan froze to death, and he was eaten; James Humphreys died a few days later, and he was eaten; then Frank Miller was likely murdered and eaten; and George “California” Noon fell to the pistol of Wilson Bell. With Bell armed and dangerous, Packer claims to have killed him and taken a bit of a snack for the road.*

Packer was arrested shortly after his return, but he slipped his bonds and escaped to Wyoming. There the law finally caught up to him. He was returned to Colorado, where a judge sentenced the cannibal to death.

The hanging was not to be. Packer appealed the conviction, which was ultimately overturned by the Colorado Supreme Court; on retrial he was remanded for a 40-year prison sentence instead. He was paroled in 1901, took a job as a guard at the Denver Post (who had, incidentally, helped him make parole), and died in 1907.

Back to the memorial grill.

Why would the USDA honor such an odd historical figure? Politics.

In 1977, newly appointed Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland had a beef with the General Service Administration, which refused to terminate the Nixon-era contract award for cafeteria services and food. Bergland’s response? Let the disgruntled employees name** and shame. The USDA cafeteria became the Packer Memorial Grill,† and Bergland paraded the press through the facility, taking every opportunity to point out just how similar he felt the food was to the diet of the honoree.

The contract was rescinded later in 1977. The plaque, meanwhile, was taken off the wall just a week after its installation. Initially, the GSA claimed it was not approved prior to installation, but it turns out the building manager, a GSA employee named Melvin Schick, simply found the name distasteful.

All of which begs the question of how it ended up gracing the National Press Club’s bar, emblazoned with Stan Weston’s name. The answer probably lies in Wesley McCune, founding member of the “Friends of Alferd Packer” and member of the National Press Club. Schick returned the plaque to Weston after the goings-on at the USDA cafeteria, and Weston hung it in his office. McCune’s group met most Aprils to hold an Alferd Packer dinner at the National Press Club. Stanley D Weston died in July of 1984, and while it’s unclear when the plaque went up, by 1989, this unusual object had a permanent home.

* A memorial was placed at Cannibal Plateau in the 1920s.

** The plaque was originally purchased by Bob Meyer and Stan Weston.

† And it wasn’t the first! The University of Colorado has had an Alferd Packer Restaurant & Grill since 1968.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Colorado,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Murder,Not Executed,Other Voices,Pardons and Clemencies,Popular Culture,USA

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1968: Karol Kot, the Vampire of Krakow

Add comment May 16th, 2018 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1968, Polish serial killer Karol Kot, called the Vampire of Kraków, was hanged in the city of Mysłowice. He was only twenty-one years old.

Kot was born in Kraków in 1946, the son of an engineer and a housewife. His abnormal, violent behavior began early. He was jealous of his baby sister, who was born when he was eight, and thought their parents loved her more. While their parents were away, he beat her and even tortured and killed her pets.

He was fascinated by death and hung around slaughterhouses in his free time, helping the employees there kill calves and drinking the animals’ blood.

Most of the sources about Karol Kot, such as this Warsaw Post article, and this article from Polish Newsweek, are in Polish. He was, however, the subject of an episode in the 2014 English-language documentary series Killers: Behind the Myth.

This Kraków Post article describes Kot’s origins. He did well enough in his studies at school, but his classmates knew him as a shy, withdrawn loner and a weirdo. Between that and his enormous knife collection, it’s no wonder there was a running joke at Kot’s school that he must be the Vampire of Kraków.

One of the few things he truly excelled at was shooting; he was the star of the local rifle club. At one point he was ranked tenth in the entire country in the youth division. Kot’s coach mentored him, invited him to his home and even told his own son, “Be like Karol.” Kot found this hilarious: he had been planning to murder the boy.

He committed his first knife attack in September 1964, at the age of seventeen, stabbing a 48-year-old woman repeatedly inside a church as she knelt to pray. She survived. In fact, she didn’t even realize she was hurt until she went home, removed her coat, saw that she was bleeding and went to the hospital.

Kot went after his second victim, a 73-year-old woman, a few days later. Kot saw her exit a tram, followed her home, and stabbed her in the back as she walked up her front steps. She survived, but remained paralyzed for the rest of her life.

Six days later he stabbed a third woman, 77 years old, again inside a church; this was his first fatality. When the nuns found her, with her dying breaths the victim whispered that her attacker had been a schoolboy.

All three of Kot’s first victims were older females. He committed no more stabbings for a year and a half, but became interested in poison instead. Kot laced open bottles of beer and soda with arsenic and left them lying around, hoping someone would drink from them, but no one was tempted. He tried giving a poisoned drink to a classmate, but his intended victim poured it out because it smelled funny.

In 1966, Kot gave up on the poisoning idea and returned to his old weapon, the knife. He changed his target demographic from elderly women to young children.

In February, he stabbed and killed an eleven-year-old boy named Leszek at Kościuszko Mound. It was a horrific attack, with far more wounds inflicted than were necessary to kill Leszek. In April, Kot attacked a little girl named Małgorzata as she was checking the mail outside her home. He stabbed her a total of eleven times in the chest, back and abdomen. She suffered from severe internal injuries, but survived.

After knifing Małgorzata, Kot went to the militia to get his gun permit renewed, then went home.

In Communist Poland, crime was rarely reported in the newspapers. In the case of Kot’s murders, however, the vexed police took the rare step of issuing press releases about his crimes, appealing to possible witnesses to come forward with information.

The citizens of Kraków were terrified. People began going out with boards and cast-iron pot lids stuffed under their clothes to protect themselves from the Vampire’s blade.

Kot was caught after he bragged about his crimes to fellow member of the rifle club. She didn’t believe him until she read in the newspaper about the attempted murder of Małgorzata. Then she went to the police.

He was arrested, but was permitted to take his final school-leaving examinations, in hopes of forestalling an anticipated insanity plea. Police used the fact that he passed his exams as evidence that he was rational and sane.

After being taken into custody, the baby-faced killer denied everything. But after his surviving victims all identified him as their attacker, he cheerfully confessed to everything. He said he committed the murders because it gave him a sense of pleasure, and he enjoyed drinking his victims’ blood as they lay dying. He even studied books of human anatomy to figure out where to place his knife.

The murders thrilled him and gave some spark to his “heavy, dull and colorless” life, he said. He felt no remorse at all.

Kot’s rifle coach was outraged at first when he heard that such a fine young athlete had been arrested. Surely this was a miscarriage of justice. After Kot confessed, however, his devastated coach wrote to him in prison, asking him to return his rifle medals because he was unworthy of them.

In his final interview, Kot said, “Soon, where I’m going, I’ll meet with my victims, and we can speak. Here on Earth, I have no one to talk to.”

Kot was sentenced to death, but his sentence was reduced to life imprisonment on appeal due to his youth. However, after the General Prosecutor intervened, the death sentence was reinstated and Kot was hanged.

On autopsy, a large tumor was found in his brain. It had gone undiagnosed in life. Whether this was the reason for Kot’s sadism is anyone’s guess.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Murder,Other Voices,Poland

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1827: Blue Jimmy

Add comment April 25th, 2018 Florence Dugdale

(Thanks to Florence Dugdale-Hardy, wife of gallows aficionado and literary titan Thomas Hardy, for the guest post on horse thief “Blue Jimmy”, whom Thomas Hardy also referenced by name in a poem. We dug up the piece here. -ed.)

Blue Jimmy: The Horse Stealer

(written by Florence Dugdale-Hardy with Thomas Hardy)

Blue Jimmy stole full many a steed
Ere his last fling he flung.

The name of “Blue Jimmy” — a passing allusion to whose career is quoted above from Mr Thomas Hardy’s ballad “A Trampwoman’s Tragedy” — is now nearly forgotten even in the West of England. Yet he and his daring exploits were on the tongues of old rustics in that district down to twenty or thirty years ago, and there are still men and women living who can recall their fathers’ reminiscences of him.

To revive the adventures of any notorious horse-thief may not at first sight seem edifying; but in the present case, if stories may be believed, the career of the delinquent discloses that curious feature we notice in the traditions of only some few of the craft — a mechanical persistence in a series of actions as if by no will or necessity of the actor, but as if under some external or internal compulsion against which reason and a foresight of sure disaster were powerless to argue.

Jimmy is said to have been, in one account of him, “worth thousands,” in another a “well-to-do” farmer, and in all a man who found or would have found no difficulty in making an honest income. Yet this could not hinder him from indulging year after year in his hazardous pursuit, or recreation, as it would seem to have been, till he had reft more than a hundred horses from their owners, and planted them profitably on innocent purchasers.

This was in full view of the fact that in those days the sentence for horse-stealing was, as readers will hardly need to be reminded, death without hope of mitigation. It is usually assumed that the merciless judicial sentence, however lacking in Christian loving-kindness towards the criminal, had at least the virtue always of being in the highest degree deterrent; yet at that date, when death was the penalty for many of what we should now consider minor crimes, their frequency was extraordinary. This particular offence figures almost continually in the calendar at each assize, and usually there were several instances at each town on a circuit. Jimmy must have known this well enough; but the imminent risk of his neck for a few pounds in each case did not deter him.

He stood nineteen times before my lord judge ere the final sentence came — no verdict being previously returned against him for the full offence through lack of sufficient evidence.

Of this long string of trials we may pass over the details till we reach the eighteenth — a ticklish one for Jimmy — in which he escaped, by a hair’s breadth only, the doom that overtook him on the nineteenth for good and all. What had happened was as follows: —

On a December day in 1822 a certain John Wheller, living near Chard, in Somerset, was standing at his door when Jimmy — whose real name was James Clace — blithely rode by on a valuable mare.

They “passed the time of day” to each other, and then, without much preface:

“A fine morning,” says Jimmy cheerfully.

“‘Tis so,” says Mr Wheller.

“We shall have a dry Christmas,” Jimmy continues.

“I think we shall so,” answers Wheller.

Jimmy pulled rein. “Now do you happen to want a good mare that I bought last week at Stratton Fair?” And he turned his eye on the flank of the animal.

“I don’t know that I do.”

“The fact is a friend of mine bought one for me at the same time without my knowledge and, as I don’t want two, I must get rid of this one at any sacrifice. You shall have her for fourteen pounds.”

Wheller shook his head, but negotiation proceeded. Another man, one named Wilkins, a nephew of Wheller, happening to pass just then, assured Wheller that he knew the seller well, and that he was a farmer worth thousands who lived at Tiverton. Eventually the mare was exchanged for a cart-horse of Wheller’s and three pounds in money.

Curiously enough Wheller did not suspect that anything was wrong till he found the next day that the animal was what he called “startish” — and, having begun to reflect upon the transaction, he went to his nephew Wilkins, who also lived at Chard, half a mile from Wheller, and asked him how he knew that the vendor of the mare was a farmer at Tiverton? The reply was vague and unsatisfying — in short the strange assurance of Wilkins, Wheller’s own nephew, was never explained — and Wheller wished he had had nothing to do with the “man worth thousands.” He went in search of him, and eventually found him at that ancient hostel “The Golden Heart” at Coombe St. Nicholas, placidly smoking a long clay pipe in the parlour over a tankard of ale.

“I have been looking for you,” said Mr Wheller with severe suddenness.

“To get another such bargain, no doubt,” says Jimmy with the bitter air of a man who has been a too generous fool in his dealings.

“Not at all. I suspect that you did not come honestly by that mare, and request to have back my money and cart-horse, when I’ll return her.”

“Good news for me!” says Jimmy, “for that I’m quite willing to do. Here, landlady! A pipe and ale for this gentleman. I’ve sent my man out to bring round my gig; and you can go back to my farm with me, and have your horse this very afternoon, on your promising to bring mine to-morrow. Whilst you are drinking I’ll see if my man is getting ready.”

Blue Jimmy went out at the back, and Wheller saw him go up the stable-yard, half-regretting that he had suspected such a cheerful and open man of business. He smoked and drank and waited, but his friend did not come back; and then it occurred to him to ask the landlady where her customer, the farmer, lived.

“What farmer?” said the landlady.

“He who has gone out to the stables — I forget his name — to get his horse put-to.”

“I don’t know that he’s a farmer. He’s got no horse in our stables — he’s quite a stranger here.”

“But he keeps the market here every week?”

“I never saw him before in my life. And I’ll trouble you to pay for your ale, and his likewise, as he didn’t.”

When Wheller reached the yard the “farmer” had vanished, and no trace of him was discoverable in the town.

This looked suspicious, yet after all it might have meant only that the man who sold him the mare did not wish to reopen the transaction. So Wheller went home to Chard, resolving to say nothing, but to dispose of the mare on the first opportunity. This he incontinently did to Mr Loveridge, a neighbour, at a somewhat low price, rubbed his hands, and devoutly hoped that no more would be heard of the matter. And nothing was for some while. We now take up the experience of Mr Loveridge with the animal. He had possessed her for some year or two when it was rumoured in Chard that a Mr Thomas Sheppard, of Stratton, in Cornwall, had been making inquiries about the mare.

Mr Loveridge felt uneasy, and spoke to Wheller, of whom he had bought her, who seemed innocence itself, and who certainly had not stolen her; and by and by another neighbour who had just heard of the matter came in with the information that handbills were in circulation in Cornwall when he was last there, offering a reward for a particular mare like Mr Loveridge’s, which disappeared at Stratton Fair.

Loveridge felt more and more uncomfortable, and began to be troubled by bad dreams. He grew more and more sure, although he had no actual proof, that the horse in his possession was the missing one, until, valuable to him as his property was for hauling and riding, his conscience compelled him to write a letter to the said Mr Sheppard, the owner of the lost animal. In a few days W. Yeo, an emissary of Mr Sheppard, appeared at Mr Loveridge’s door. “What is the lost mare like?” said Mr Loveridge cautiously.

“She has four black streaks down her right fore-foot, and her tail is stringed’ so” — here he described the shades, gave the particular manner in which the tail had been prepared for the fair, and, adding other descriptive details, was certain it was the same mare that had been brought to Chard. He had broken it in for Mr Sheppard, and never before had known a mare so peculiarly marked.

The end of the colloquy was that Mr Loveridge gave up the animal, and found himself the loser of the money he had paid for it. For being richer than his worthy neighbour Wheller who had sold it to him, he magnanimously made up their temporary quarrel on the declaration of Wheller that he did not know of the theft, and had honestly bought the horse. Together then they vowed vengeance against the thief, and with the assistance of Mr Sheppard he was ultimately found at Dorchester. He was committed for the crime, and proving to be no less a personage than the already notorious Blue Jimmy, tried at the Taunton Assizes on March 28, 1825, before Mr Justice Park.

During the trial all the crowd in court thought that this was to be the end of famous Blue Jimmy; but an odd feature in the evidence against him was that the prosecutor, Mr Sheppard, when cross-examined on the marks described by his assistant Yeo, declared that he could not swear positively to any of them.

The learned judge, in summing up, directed the jury to consider whether the identity of the mare had been so indubitably proved as to warrant them in pronouncing the prisoner guilty, and suggested that the marks described by the witness Yeo might be found upon many horses. “It was remarkable,” his Lordship observed, “that Wilkins, who was present when Wheller bought the horse, although the nephew of the latter, and living within half a mile of him, had not been brought into court to give evidence, though witnesses from so considerable a distance as Cornwall had been examined.”

In spite of this summing-up people in court were all expecting that Blue Jimmy would swing for his offences this time; yet the verdict was “Not Guilty,” and we may well imagine the expression of integrity on Blue Jimmy’s countenance as he walked out of the dock, although, as later discoveries proved, he had, as a matter of fact, stolen the mare.

But the final scene for Blue Jimmy was not long in maturing itself. Almost exactly two years later he stood at the bar in the same assize court at Taunton, indicted for a similar offence. This time the loser was one Mr Holcombe, of Fitzhead, and the interest in the trial was keener even than in the previous one.

Jimmy’s first question had been, “Who is the judge?” and the answer came that it was Mr Justice Park, who had tried him before.

“Then I’m a dead man!” said Jimmy, and closed his lips, and appeared to consider his defence no longer.

It was also a mare on this occasion, a bay one, and the evidence was opened by the prosecutor, Mr Holcombe, who stated that the last time he saw his mare in the field from which he had lost her was on the 8th of the preceding October; on the 10th he missed her; he did not see her again till the 21st, when she was in a stall of Mr Oliver’s, at the King’s Arms, Dorchester.

Cross-examined by Mr Jeremy: The field from which the mare was stolen was adjoining the public road; he had never known the mare to escape; it was not possible for her to leave the field unless she was taken out.

Elizabeth Mills examined. Her husband kept the Crown and Anchor at Mosterton, Somerset; the prisoner came to her house about four o’clock on October 9. He had two horses with him. He asked for some person to put them in the stable; another man was in his company, and eventually the other man put them in the stable himself. The prisoner was riding the mare on his arrival; it was a bay one. Her husband returned about nine at night. (Cross-examined by Mr Jeremy.) Prisoner bargained with her husband for the horses; Pierce, the constable, was there while prisoner and her husband were talking; prisoner left next morning.

Robert Mills, husband of the last witness, examined. He reached home about nine o’clock on October 9. He went with Pierce the constable into the stable and saw a blood Mare; also a pony mare. Constable and witness took two bridles and a saddle belonging to the horses into the house, having a mistrust that the animals were not honestly acquired. Prisoner called for his horses next morning, and asked what he had to pay. Witness, who now began to recognise him, said: “Jimmy, I don’t think you came by these horses straight.” He replied, “I don’t know why you address me by the familiar name of Jimmy, since it is not mine. I chopped the mare at Alphington Fair for a black cart-horse.” Prisoner spoke of the pedigree of the mare, and asked twenty-five guineas for it, and twelve for the pony. Witness offered twelve for the mare. Prisoner refused, paid his reckoning and ordered his horses. While the saddle was being put on, witness cut two marks in the hair under the mane. Prisoner then left the house. The other man had gone away before witness returned the night before. The pony was left. Witness saw the mare afterwards, on the 22nd, in Mr Holcombe’s possession. He examined the mare and found the private marks he had made on her under the mane. He had never seen the prisoner between the time the latter put up at his house and when he saw him in Tiverton Prison.

(Cross-examined by Mr Jeremy.) The morning after prisoner brought the horses to his house he asked for some beer, though he was accustomed to wine, he remarked, and said that he was going to Bridport Fair to spend a score of bank-notes or so by way of killing time.

A witness named Gillard, as he was walking to church on the morning of the 8th (the morning before the robbery was committed) saw the prisoner in a lane three miles from Fitzhead, sitting on the ground between two camps of gipsies.

The prisoner said nothing in his defence, merely shaking his head with a grim smile. The verdict was Guilty.

“A Trampwoman’s Tragedy”
by Thomas Hardy
(Stanza X)

The taverns tell the gloomy tale,
The gloomy tale,
How that at Ivel-Chester jail
My love, my sweetheart swung;
Though stained till now by no misdeed
Save one horse ta’en in time of need;
(Blue Jimmy stole right many a steed
Ere his last fling he flung.)

His Lordship, in passing sentence of death, entreated the prisoner to make the best use of the short time he would have to live in this world. The prisoner had been two years since brought before him and in 1823 he had been convicted by his learned Brother Hullock for a similar offence. The full weight of the punishment awarded to his crime must now fall upon him, without the least hope of mitigation.

Such was horse-stealing in the ‘twenties of the last century, and such its punishment.

How Jimmy acquired his repute for blueness — whether the appellative was suggested to some luminous mind by his clothes, or by his complexion, or by his morals, has never been explained, and never will be now by any historian.

About a month later, in the same old County Chronicle, one finds a tepid and unemotional account of the end of him at Ilchester, Somerset, where then stood the county gaol — till lately remembered, though now removed — on the edge of a wide expanse of meadowland, spread at that season of the year with a carpet of butter-cups and daisies. The account appears under the laconic heading, “Execution, Wednesday, April 25, 1827: James Clace, better known by the name of Blue Jimmy, suffered the extreme sentence of the law upon the new drop at Ilchester … Clace appears to have been a very notorious character” (this is a cautious statement of the reporter’s, quite unlike the exuberant reporting of the present day: the culprit was notorious indubitably). “He is said to have confessed to having stolen an enormous number of horses, and he had been brought to the bar nineteen times for that class of offence…. In early life he lived as a postboy at Salisbury; afterwards he joined himself to some gipsies for the humour of the thing, and at length began those practices which brought him to an untimely end; aged 52.”

A tradition was till lately current as to his hanging. When on the gallows he stated blandly that he had followed the strict rule of never stealing horses from people who were more honest than himself, but only from skinflints, taskmasters, lawyers, and parsons. Otherwise he might have stolen a dozen where he had only stolen one.

The same newspaper paragraph briefly alludes to a young man who was hanged side by side with Blue Jimmy, upon the “new drop”: —

“William Hazlett — aged 25 — for having stolen some sheep and some lambs. The miserable man, after being condemned, seemed to imagine that his was a very hard case.”

The County Chronicle prints the last few words in italics, appearing to hold up its hands in horror at the ingratitude of the aforesaid William Hazlett. For was not he provided with a “new drop,” and had he not for his fellow voyager into futurity that renowned Wessex horse-thief, Blue Jimmy, who doubtless “flung his last fling” more boldly than many of his betters?

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Other Voices,Public Executions,Theft

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