But here in the early 1480s, the terrifying powers of the Holy Office for the Propagation of Faith (the Inquisition’s business-card title) were, well … unexpected.
Don Diego Suson, one of the six put to death this date, was the wealthy patriarch of a marrano family — Jews, who had converted a century prior. The Inquisition’s whole founding spirit was the sense of characters like Torquemada that as such conversions had generally been obtained under duress, the families in question were still secretly maintaining their Semitic rites. That would make them apostates (since they were baptized and supposedly Christian), and it would implicate them in God knows what other malignancy (since they were malignant Jews).
This made it especially dicey for Suson that he was also a rabbi to an underground community of still-practicing “converted” Jews. (Spanish source) Torquemada was on to a real thing here.
Unfortunately his daughter — so the legend says — didn’t quite grasp what the Inquisitors had coming and lightly betrayed the fact to her Christian lover. In no time at all, the guys with the racks and thumbscrews had the terrible family secret in hand.
It’s said that the beautiful (of course) daughter was so riven with grief and shame for the careless destruction of her father that she shut herself up in a convent … and arranged that when she died her guilt-stricken head should be hung up at her former home.
The location of this macabre monument is still marked in Seville today; once known as the Calle de la Muerte, it is now called the Calle Susona.
On this date in 1999, the Philippines resumed executions after 23 years with its first-ever lethal injection.
Judicial executions had ceased during the Marcos dictatorship’s martial law period — extrajudicial killings were another story — and formally all but abolished after Marcos fell in 1986.
But rampant crime made an execution comeback a potent political issue that helped to carry Fidel Ramos* to the presidency in 1992. The revival would bring along the latest upgrades in killing-people technology: whereas the Philippines had previously used the electric chair, a holdover from its former colonial domination by the United States, it now followed America’s footsteps in preferring the sanitized experience of lethal injection.
Leo Echegaray, destined to become the first person to meet such a fate in the Philippines, was a house painter convicted of raping his daughter or stepdaughter. (Despite Rodessa’s surname, her mother and Leo never married. Rodessa Echegaray’s uncertain biological parentage was at issue in the case, as to the question of whether the rape could be said to be incestuous: rape committed by a father was a specific subcategory of rape under the law uniquely eligible for the maximum penalty.)
The Supreme Court had no interest in parsing DNA, finding that the parenthood “disclaimer cannot save him from the abyss where perpetrators of heinous crimes ought to be.”
“The victim’s tender age and the accused-appellant’s moral ascendancy and influence over her are factors which forced Rodessa to succumb to the accused’s selfish and bestial craving,” it ruled. “The law has made it inevitable under the circumstances of this case that the accused-appellant face the supreme penalty of death.”
That was in 1996. By the time Echegaray came to the actual end of his appeals cycle, Ramos had given way to the mercurial Joseph Estrada. A former actor, Estrada put his showmanship to use by having his telephone hotline to the prison disconnected prior to Echegaray’s execution to underscore his resolve not to entertain any 11th-hour commutation.
The 11th hour was of intense interest to everyone else. The supposedly secret time and circumstances of Echegaray’s move to the death house was leaked and resulted in a circus scene as the doomed prisoner, Bible in hand and “Execute Justice, Not People” pinned his orange prison jumpsuit, pushed through a raucous crowd of journalists to a van waiting to drive him to New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa for his milestone date. The undignified “execution fiesta” continued hours later in the official witness room, where media jostled for the best seats, and even to Echegaray’s last rest as reporters hounded the hearse and beyond. (Actual example: “I’m here at the funeral parlor and I’m holding Leo’s leg. It’s a bit warm and it looks like he is only sleeping.”)
Once the death chamber’s seal was cracked, it saw steady traffic: Six other people suffered execution in the Philippines during the ensuing 12 months. Then, as abruptly as capital punishment had returned to the Philippines, it blinked away.
Whether pricked by his conscience or by the political resistance of the Vatican, Estrada’s flamboyant resolve appeared to waver after Echegaray’s execution, even leading to one appalling occasion where he tried frantically to call in a last-second stay for another man but couldn’t get through until the execution was underway. Estrada finally suspended executions once again in March 2000 to honor the millenial Jubilee of Christ‘s birth. Estrada himself didn’t last much longer after that moratorium expired, and his successor President Gloria Arroyo also finalized no death sentences during her term — until in 2006 Arroyo signed repeal legislation and commuted all 1,230 existing death sentences.
* Ramos had formerly been a Philippines Constabulary officer, and in that capacity been personally present at the televised 1973 execution of heroin kingpin Lim Seng.
On this date in 1653, the German bandit Jasper Hanebuth was broken on the wheel in Hanover.
An illiterate farmer’s son from Groß-Buchholz, Hanebuth came of age during the calamitous Thirty Years’ War and thereby made his bread for a time as one of the numberless strong arms enlisted to let out one another’s blood.
In a time of crisscrossing armies had conflicting loyalties and uncertain pay, it was a fine line between soldiers and thieves — sometimes just the hour of the day. What matter to a rural family or a vulnerable traveler if the gang of armed men who dispossessed him did so under the banner of God or that of opportunism? And given means and opportunity, what matter to the armed gang itself? Victims in such a chaotic environment, either actual or potential, were liable in their own turn to resort to brigandage as the only viable option, paying the devastation forward.
True to the template, Hanebuth parlayed wartime soldiery into an alarmingly bold career of opportunistic robbery in the still-extant Eilenriede. A purported “Hanebuth’s Block” in the vicinity of the present-day zoo there long preserved the association; there’s still a street in the forest known as Hanebuthwinkel.
He was reputed an especially vicious outlaw, who would raid singly as well as jointly with other farmers and decommissioned warriors, and would as readily for sport or pleasure shoot a convenient target dead before bothering to approach and find out if the business end of the felony was even worth the murder. He ultimately confessed to 19 homicides.
But it was still the pecuniary motive that drove things. Hanebuth approached crime-lord status with secret smuggling tunnels allegedly set up to move his ill-gotten gains and regular traffic with Hanover merchants. Hanebuth also set up as a horse-trader, exploiting his predilection for violence to obtain stock by force. One trader who refused a shakedown simply had his horses outright stolen the next night, and this man at last reported Hanebuth, resulting in his arrest, torture, and execution on the wheel.
He remains one of Hanover’s most iconic historical criminals.
Jacques Collot’s 1633 cycle “The Miseries of War” might have foretold Hanebuth’s fate: here, a soldier of the Thirty Years’ War who has turned to robbery is punished, as Hanebuth would be, on the wheel. The caption explains:
The ever-watching eye of the divine Astrée [Justice]
Banishes entirely the mourning from the country
When holding the sword and scales in her hands
She judges and punishes the inhuman thief
Who awaits passersby, hurts them, and plays with them
[And] then becomes himself the plaything of a wheel.
A Catholic priest (defrocked for the occasion of his execution) who had previously gone to prison for his nationalist sympathies, Matamoros joined the revolutionary army of fellow-clergyman Jose Maria Morelos as the Mexican War of Independence blossomed.
Matamoros proved to have the knack for martial leadership and was a lieutenant general and Morelos’s second-in-command within months.
The Spanish captured him in early January 1814 after the revolutionaries’ failed attempt to take Valladolid. His foes could not be moved to exchange him on any terms.
Though Morelos too would suffer this fate in time, their cause eventually prevailed. Post-independence, the martyred Matamoros became a Mexican national hero. He’s interred today at Mexico City’s iconic El Angel monumental column.
Lulek, who died at Prague’s Pankrac Prison, has the distinction of being the last person executed in what now constitutes the present-day Czech Republic. (A Slovak man named Stefan Svitek was put to death later that same year in Bratislava; Svitek holds that same distinction for both present-day Slovakia and for the former Czechoslovakia as a whole.)
That physique got him turned away when he tried to volunteer to fight the Soviets in the Winter War, but it didn’t put the Gestapo off him after Germany occupied Norway in 1940. He formed an informants’ network known as the Rinnanbanden which infiltrated the resistance movement and entrapped anti-occupation Norwegians — a “game in the negative sector,” as Rinnan described it.
The “game” got more than a thousand people arrested and something like 100 killed, including one of the more notorious episodes of the occupation, the Majavatn affair. (Norwegian link) It also eventually got Rinnan a German rank and the opportunity to kill some people personally.
Twelve people in all from the Rinnanbanden were sentenced to death after the war, counting Rinnan. Ten of those did indeed pay the penalty.
There’s a Norwegian page about the Rinnanbandenhere.
The assassin Verger (English Wikipedia entry | French) was a 30-year-old ordained priest who had accumulated a quarrelsome reputation among his ecclesiastical peers. The previous year, he had been laid under an official interdiction for preaching against the Catholic Church’s controversial new doctrine of the Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception.
Some reports had Verger crying out “No goddesses!” as he daggered the archbishop. “It is nowise the person of the Archbishop of Paris whom I wished to strike, but, in his person, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception,” Verger told the magistrates who judged him within days. There wasn’t a whole lot of doubt about the trial, so why wait around? But Verger’s vendetta wasn’t only theological; his suspension meant he wasn’t getting paid, and as his fury mounted over it he went so far as to post himself at the door of a church with a placard proclaiming that he was starving.
Archbishop of Paris was a surprisingly dangerous job in the mid-19th century. Sibour got the post because his predecessor was shot dead negotiating at a barricade during the 1848 revolution; in 1871, Archbishop Georges Darboy was taken hostage by the Paris Commune and executed by his captors when the national government invaded the city.
In reality no advocate could be of material service to the accused, save in the most exceptional cases. The men who organized the Holy Office knew too well what they wanted to leave open any possibilities of which even the shrewdest advocate could take advantage, and it was admitted on all hands as a recognized fact that there was no method of defence save disabling the witnesses for the prosecution. It has been seen that enmity was the only source of disability in a witness, and this had to be mortal — there must have been bloodshed between the parties, or other cause sufficient to induce one to seek the life of the other. If, therefore, the case rested on witnesses of this kind, their testimony had to be rejected and the prosecution fell. As this was the only possible mode of escape, the cruelty of withholding from the prisoner the names of the adverse witnesses becomes doubly conspicuous. He was forced to grope around in the dark and blindly name such persons as he imagined might have a hand in his misfortunes. If he failed to hit upon any who appeared in the case, the evidence against him was conclusive, as far as it went. If he chanced to name some of the witnesses, he was interrogated as to the causes of enmity; the inquisitor examined into the facts of the alleged quarrel, and decided as he saw fit as to the retention or the rejection of their testimony. Conscientious jurists like Gui Foucoix and inquisitors like Eymerich warned their brethren that as the accused had so slender a chance of guessing the sources of evidence, the judge ought to investigate for himself and discard any that seemed to be the product of malice; but there were others who sought rather to deprive the poor wretch of every straw that might postpone his sinking. One device was to ask him, as though casually, at the end of his examination, whether he had any enemies who would so disregard the fear of God as to accuse him falsely, and if, thus taken unawares, he replied in the negative, he debarred himself from any subsequent defence; or the most damaging witness would be selected and the prisoner be asked if he knew him, when a denial would estop him from claiming enmity. It is easy to imagine other tricks by which shrewd and experienced inquisitors could save themselves the trouble of admitting the accused to even the nugatory form of defence to which alone he was entitled. As to allowing him to call witnesses in his favor, except to prove enmity of the accusers, it was never thought of in ordinary cases. By a legal fiction, the inquisitor was supposed to look at both sides of the case, and to take care of the defence as well as of the prosecution. If the accused failed to guess the names of enemies among the witnesses and to disable their testimony, he was condemned.
In England, under the barbarous custom of the peine forte et dure, a prisoner who refused to plead either guilty or not guilty was pressed to death, because the trial could not go on without either confession or defence. Cruel as was this expedient, it was the outcome of a manly sense of justice, which based its procedure on the rule that the worst felon should have a fair opportunity to prove his innocence. Far worse was the system of the Inquisition, which was equally resolved that its culprits should have no such easy method of escape as a refusal to plead. It had no scruples as to proceeding in such cases, and the obstinacy of the accused only simplified matters. The refusal was an act of contumacy, equivalent to disobeying a summons to appear, or it was held to be tantamount to a confession, and the obdurate prisoner was forthwith handed over to the secular arm as an impenitent heretic, fit only for the stake. The use of torture, however, rendered such cases rare.
The enviable simplicity which the inquisitorial process thus assumed in the absence of counsel and of all practical opportunities for defence can perhaps best be illustrated by one or two cases. Thus in the Inquisition of Carcassonne, June 19, 1252, P. Morret is called up and asked if he wishes to defend himself against the matters found in the instructio or indictment against him. He has nothing to allege except that he has enemies, of whom he names five. Apparently he did not happen to guess any of the witnesses, for the case proceeded by reading the evidence to him, after which he is again asked thrice if he has anything further to say. To this he replies in the negative, and the case ends by assigning January 29 for the rendering of sentence. Two years later, in 1254, at Carcassonne, a certain Bernard Pons was more lucky, for he happened to guess aright in naming his wife as an inimical witness, and we have the proceedings of the inquest held to determine whether the enmity was mortal. Three witnesses are examined, all of whom swear that she is a woman of loose character; one deposes that she had been taken in adultery by her husband; another that he had beaten her for it, and the third that he had recently heard her say that she wished her husband dead that she might marry a certain Pug Oler, and that she would willingly become a leper if that would bring it about. This would certainly seem sufficient, but Pons appears nevertheless not to have escaped. So thoroughly hopeless, indeed, was the prospect of any effort at defence, that it frequently was not even attempted, and the accused, like Arnaud Fabri at Carcassonne, August 26, 1252, when asked if he wished a copy of the evidence against him, would despairingly decline it. It was a customary formula in a sentence to state that the convict had been offered opportunity for defence and had not availed himself of it, showing how frequently this was the case.
January 28, 1820 was the scheduled hanging-date for Stephen Boorn in Vermont, who was spared by the stroke of luck in one of the Republic’s seminal wrongful conviction cases. For all its vintage, it has a disturbingly current feel.
Stephen Boorn and his brother Jesse were farmers in Manchester living with their possibly feebleminded brother-in-law Russell Colvin when Colvin suddenly vanished in May 1812. Vanishing unexplained for weeks on end was actually an established behavior for this peculiar gentleman, so it was only gradually that suspicion of foul play accumulated. There was some bad blood known to exist between Colvin and his brothers-in-law; they had even been seen in a violent quarrel just before Russell Colvin disappeared (pdf). There were whispers, but never any real evidence.
And so weeks stretched into months, and then to years. Many years. Was it possible two neighbors of the good people of Manchester, Vt., had gotten away with murder plain as day and gone about bringing in their crops just like nothing happened?
The break arrived in 1819 courtesy of the brothers’ aged uncle Amos Boorn. Amos reported that Russell Colvin had appeared to him in a dream and accused his former in-laws of murder. Now a dream couldn’t be read in evidence, but it proved sufficient to re-open a cold case and endow the investigation with official “tunnel vision” so familiar to the staging of a wrongful conviction.
The other classic trappings of that scene followed anon: shoddy evidence, a jailhouse snitch, and even a false confession.
Once under the pall of suspicion, random events around the Boorns began to seem sinister. The dream-Russell’s accusation led to a cellar-hole being excavated, which turned up some random junk (a penknife, a button); was it Colvin’s random junk? A barn on the Boorn farm burned down; had it been torched to conceal evidence? A boy found bones at a stump on the property; were they human remains? (They turned out to be animal remains.)
Stephen Boorn had moved to Denmark, New York, but Jesse Boorn was taken into custody for interrogation. There he was parked in a jail cell with a forger named Silas Merrill.
Lo and behold, Jesse Boorn immediately spewed to his bunkmate the awful secret of the murder. Yup, after keeping it quiet for seven years he detailed it all to Silas Merrill one “night, when he and Jesse had waked from their sleep, and without any previous persuasion or advice on the subject” and also just happened to tie in all that random sinister stuff from the investigation like the barn and the bonestump. Naturally, Merrill was released for relaying to his jailers this valuable and in no way impeachable information.
Now cornered, Jesse confessed to the murder. The causes of false confessions are complex, but the advent of DNA exonerations has underscored the alarming frequency of this phenomenon. A strictly rationalist explanation might postulate that Jesse thought he could avoid hanging by taking responsibility for a crime he was now certain to be convicted of, and framing it in the least culpable possible light; the murkier fathoms of human psychology might suggest a desire to please his captors or a conscience conforming itself to the conviction of his neighbors. Whatever the case, the confession got Stephen extradited from New York, and under interrogation Stephen too confessed. Stop confessing to things, people! (In fact, best say nothing at all.)
Despite retracting the confession, the brothers were convicted with ease in a trial held at the town’s church, the better to accommodate huge crowds that would have overflowed the courtroom. They were both slated to hang on January 28.*
While Jesse Boorn won a commutation his brother appeared doomed.
As an almost literal last gasp, Stephen took out newspaper advertisements searching for Russell Colvin. And they worked. At least, this is the version of the story as it is commonly recounted, dating I believe to this 1932 volume on wrongful convictions. The primary sources referenced there actually appear to me to indicate that the Boorn-saver, a New Jersey gentleman named Taber Chadwick, responded with a letter to the editor to a simple news report of the case, which report naively credited the dream-driven conviction as “divine providence”.
From the New York Evening Post, Nov. 26, 1819.
Luckily, Mr. Chadwick realized that he knew a Russell Colvin from Manchester whose mental state was thoroughly addled.
New York Evening Post, Dec. 10, 1819.
A fortnight after this letter hit the press, Colvin was back in Manchester … and this time, it was not in a dream.
Colvin confirmed that his brothers-in-law hadn’t hurt him at all and both Boorns — who, we remind you, had each previously confessed to killing a man who was now here in the flesh and blood to exonerate them — both these Boorns walked free.
* According to this biography of the African-American divine Thomas Lemuel Haynes, Haynes was the Boorns’ confessor while they awaited execution, and one of the only people to believe the brothers’ protestations of innocence. Haynes was eventually moved to spend his own money on the famous advertisement hoping that “any person who can give information of the said Colvin may save the life of an innocent man.” If there’s one Vermonter who comes out of this astonishing story smelling like a rose, it’s Reverend Haynes.
On this date in 1868, a trio of notorious Italian brigands went under the French guillotine in Marseilles.
Joseph Coda-Zabetta, the leader, had escaped a hard labor sentence in Italy and fled to France where he founded a large band of robbers who terrorized France’s Mediterranean countryside from Nice to Marseilles for some months in 1867.
From raiding unoccupied country homes the gang soon progressed to bold invasions of occupied houses and waylaying travelers. “In one instance,” a press report of their trial reported,* “six of the band attacked a convoy of carriers, one of whom received a pistol-shot in the breast and a stab with a knife, from which injuries he afterwards died.”
Twelve of the band faced trial, and four of their number received death sentences. (Seven others had long prison sentences; a man named Muletto was acquitted.)
Coda, Antoine Quaranta, and Felix Mardi (Italian pdf) were all guillotined on this date in 1868. (They died, it was said, repentant (French).) The fourth condemned prisoner, Jacques Mulatere, had his death sentenced commuted to life at hard labor.