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1625: Not Helene Gillet, beheading survivor

Add comment May 12th, 2014 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

Parlement begged to differ.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What would happen to her now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1527: Johann Hüglin, Meersburg martyr

Add comment May 10th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1527, authorities in the Swabian city of Meersburg gathered in the city marketplace in their most impressive regalia to condemn Johann Hüglin to immediate execution.

Hüglin — this link is in German, like almost everything about him that’s available online — was a priest of peasant stock.

After the 1525 Peasants War, a rebellion against authority both secular and ecclesiastic, everyone got real nervous about stirrings of rebellion. Accordingly, a divine from nearby Überlingen had several priests of suspicious heterodoxy arrested early in 1527, Hüglin among them. The other three of these soon regained their safety with a timely expression of contrite fealty. Hüglin preferred obstinacy to submission.

Charged with heresy, and with dangerously promulgating same to the simple folk in his flock in sympathy with the recent rebellion, Hüglin defended himself in terms that were becoming recognizably out of bounds — defending the primacy of the Biblical text, for instance, to uphold unwelcome doctrines like tax resistance, salvation by faith alone, and priestly marriage.

“If the Holy Scripture says nothing of Purgatory, why should I say it?” he replied when pressed on that doctrine. “Is [the torture] I have suffered not Purgatory enough?”

One hopes so, for he was condemned that same day and immediately degraded out of the clergy and relaxed to the secular authorities for immolation on a ready-built pyre, which consumed him as he sang “Gloria in Excelsis” and “Te Deum Laudamus”.

Today in Meersburg there’s a street, Johannes-Hüglin-Weg, named for this Protestant martyr.

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1961: Alvin Table Jr. and Billy Wayne Sees, Bahamas pirates

Add comment May 9th, 2014 Golde Singer

On this date in 1961, two modern-day (but somewhat inept) pirates sailed into the history books by becoming the first U.S. citizens to be executed in the Bahamas.

Alvin Table Jr., 26, mounted the gallows in Nassau at 7 a.m.; William (Billy Wayne) Sees, 21, followed an hour later. Each was declared dead within three minutes.

The bizarre adventure that preceded the hangings had begun a year earlier in Texas, where Table wooed 18-year-old Barbara Fisher briefly before whisking her off to Mexico to be married. The couple returned to San Antonio and linked up with Sees. (In a post-crime interview, Barbara described Sees as Alvin’s friend, but it’s unclear how the two ever met. Table, a Californian, had a history of at least one bad marriage, some bad checks and an assault on the West Coast; Sees, a native of Arkansas, had a history of assault in the south and, according to one account, a conviction for murder in New York State.)

However the liaison was forged, the trio worked their way across the south, cashing bad checks along the way to pay for the trip. They arrived in Florida in April 1960 and, with the law closing in, tried to buy a boat in Key West with yet another bogus check. When the sale took longer than planned, they simply took the boat and headed for Cuba.

Their plan apparently was to take refuge in Cuba — or, as Barbara put it, to “get away from it all.” Unfortunately, their boating skills failed them, and they ran aground off Elbow Key in the Bahamas. (It didn’t help that they hadn’t filled the boat with gas before leaving Key West.)

For three days, they took refuge in the island lighthouse — and, according to Barbara, they “had a pretty good time”. But the good times lasted about as long as the food held out.

About the time they started to panic, a charter fishing boat, the Muriel III, spotted the castaways and radioed the Coast Guard of the situation. Sees swam out to the Muriel, clambered aboard, and turned a gun on the passengers. When the captain, Angus Boatwright, grabbed a rifle to defend himself, Sees shot him.

Alvin Table then joined Sees aboard the boat, and they let the four fishermen swim to shore, taking the captain’s body with them on a raft made of life jackets. Their attempts to keep the first mate, Kent Hokanson, on board, failed when Hokanson simply jumped overboard and also started swimming for the island. Table and Sees, apparently deciding that time was of the essence in the situation, let Hokanson go and fled the scene.

During the gun battle, Barbara Table was in the lighthouse, packing up the trio’s belongings for departure. She heard the gunshots, and on finding out what had transpired, wisely chose not to stand by her man. The Coast Guard eventually picked up all the survivors and flew them to Nassau.

Table and Sees did reach Cuba, but they were arrested there after again running aground — this time near Isabela de Sagua, 200 miles east of Havana. At the request of the British government, Cuba extradited the pair to the Bahamas. They were both charged with and convicted of murder and piracy, despite Table’s efforts to distance himself from the murder by pointing out that he wasn’t on board the boat when it happened. An appeal to the Privy Council in London fell on deaf ears, and the Americans were sentenced to hang.

Barbara Table was briefly held in the Bahamas on a charge of grand larceny in the theft of the boat but was later released; officials cited “a lack of evidence.” Mrs. Table returned to her hometown of San Antonio, Texas, and quietly disappeared.

On a side historical note, the Bahamas retains the death penalty today, although it conducts actual executions so infrequently that the anti-death penalty watchdog Hands Off Cain considers it “abolitionist de facto”. According to researcher William Lofquist, no executions have been carried out in the Bahamas in the last decade. Lofquist observes that in today’s Bahamian justice system, “death sentences rather than executions have become the measure of the state’s resolve to maintain ‘order’.” Some of this is due to restrictions placed on the nation by the Privy Council in London, but while some chafe at those restrictions, attempts to create an appellate system separate from the Privy Council have failed. For more on Lofquist’s analysis of executions in the Bahamas over the centuries, and the cultural environment that shaped them, read his complete study. (pdf link to his “Identifying the Condemned: Reconstructing and analyzing the history of executions in The Bahamas,” The International Journal of Bahamian Studies, 16)

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2013: Vahid Zare pardoned while hanging

3 comments May 8th, 2014 Headsman

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

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

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

The graphic pictures that follow tell an astonishing story.

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1887: Theodore Baker, who knew how it feels to be hanged

1 comment May 6th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1887, Theodore Baker was hanged for murder in Springer, New Mexico.

Baker was taken on as a lodger and ranch hand in Colfax County by an acquaintance named Frank Unruh, and there struck up a liaison with Unruh’s pretty young wife Kate.

One jealous and alcohol-fueled argument later, Baker had shot Unruh dead.

Both Baker and Kate Unruh were arrested, but in December 1885 a mob decided to dispense with the legal niceties and broke into the jail, dragging Theodore Baker out to lynch him to a telegraph pole.

Just another Old West lynching.

Except this lynching had an unusual distinction: it was defeated by a sheriff’s posse, and Baker cut down after having strangled some minutes — unconscious, but alive. He had already survived execution and the trial hadn’t even happened.

But that didn’t mean he got to skip the trial.

After months of recovery, Baker finally went on trial for the murder of Frank Unruh, and with the damning if self-interested testimony of Kate Unruh was condemned on September 6, 1886 to face the noose once again.

Being that this was an age of mass communication, Baker — evidently somewhat garrulous — provided newspapers ample copy on the firsthand experience of execution. (Line breaks have been added to all the ensuing newspaper excerpts for readability.)

[A]t the gaol door I began to curse them, when one of the put the muzzle of his pistol to my ear and said — ‘Keep still, d— you, or I’ll put a bullet through you.’ I knew him by his voice, and knew he would do it, so I kept still.

A little further on we came to a telegraph pole. From the cross bar swung a new rope. One one end was a slipnoose.

They led me under the rope. I tried to stoop down and pull off my boots, as I had promised my folks I would not die with my boots on, but before I could do it the noose was thrown over my head and I was jerked off my feet.

My senses left me in a moment, and then I waked up in what seemed to be another world.

As I recollect now, the sensation was that everything about me had been multiplied a great many times.

It seemed that my five executioners had grown in number until there were thousands of them.

I saw what seemed to be a multitude of animals of all shapes and sizes.

Then things changed and I was in great pain. I became conscious that I was hanging by the neck, and that the knot of the rope had slipped around under my chin.

My hands were loosely tied, and I jerked them loose and tried to catch the rope above me. Somebody caught me by the feet just then and gave me a jerk.

It seemed like a bright flash of lightning passing in front of my eyes. It was the brightest thing I ever saw.

It was followed by a terrible pain up and down and across my back, and I could feel my legs jerk and draw up.

Then there was a blank and I knew nothing more until 11 o’clock next day …

My first recollection was being in the court room and saying, ‘Who cut me down.’

There was a terrific ringing in my ears like the beating of gongs. I recognised no one. The pain in my back continued.

Moments of unconsciousness followed during several days, and I have very little recollection of the journey here. Even after I had been locked up in this prison for safe keeping, for a long time I saw double. Dr. Symington, the prison physician, looked like two persons.

I was still troubled with spells of total forgetfulness. Sometimes it seemed I didn’t know who I was.

All that Baker gave out in the run-up to his actual trial.

As his (judicial) hanging neared, and his hopes for avoiding it vanished, our expansive man on death row got philosophical with a correspondent from the New York Sun. The Chicago Daily Tribune of May 23, 1887 reprints Baker’s remembrance — has it evolved from the previous year? — and Baker’s wider thoughts on life and death.

It is not the pain I fear at all. I have been hanged, and I know what I am talking about. What ails me is that I don’t want to die, and I don’t think I ought to.

Probably if you knew that in an instant you were to be blown to nothingness, so that you could experience no suffering whatever, you would appreciate how I feel about it.

As for the mode of death, you can say that it is as good as any other, and it don’t need to be too artistically done, either.

Why, when they hanged me first down here by the railroad track I was scared half to death. They had no modern appliances, and I made up my mind that they were going to give me a terrible struggle of it, but it was nothing of the sort. The mob swung me off from a telegraph pole like they would a log, and then one or two of them pulled my legs. That isn’t so almighty nice, but still it don’t hurt as you might think it would.

I must have been there ten or fifteen minutes before the Sheriff and his posse found me and cut me down.

Of course by that time I was unconscious, but I remembered enough of what occurred to banish any fear that I might have of death on the gallows. It’s death in whatever form it comes that I object to.

If I have got to go I had just as soon go by the rope as by the bullet, and I had a good deal rather go by the rope than by the knife or by poison.

You can say this much for the information and comfort of all the poor fellows who will have to swing when I am gone. Tell them to brace up and take it easy. They are going to die easier deaths than three-fourths of the fat old Judges who sentence them, and who expect to die in their beds.

There has been altogether too much writing and talking on the subject of the barbarity of the gallows. I’m in favor of abolishing capital punishment myself, but if a man must die, what’s the use of being too particular about the mode, so long as you have got a good enough scheme now?

Baker also gave his own version of the events that led to his death sentence. It should be said that his “kill or be killed” spin quite attenuates the court’s finding that Baker only wounded Unruh in their altercation, but then chased his bleeding cuckold down as far as a quarter-mile from the house to deliver the coup de grace.

Under all the circumstances my crime was not murder, anyway. I had become involved in a quarrel between Unruh and his wife, and, foolish as that was, it would have led to nothing more if Unruh had not attacked me. I had to kill him or be killed.

The woman swore against me in order to save herself. She was scared to death because they lynched me, and she was afraid that unless somebody swung for the crime she might be called on some dark night.

But whether my crime was deliberate murder or not, I think I have been punished enough. It is more than a year since the mob lynched me, and since that time I have lived with a rope around my neck all the time.

As I have said to you, my sufferings when I was being resuscitated were greater than they were when I was hanging. It took me three months to get over the effects of the lynching. Two or three times a day my brain would be in a whirl, and I would lose all control of myself. Then when I slept I would go through it all again.

At length, when I was brought to trial and was convicted and sentenced to death, I had th erope once more before me.

The anxiety about the trial, and later about my appeals, has worn on me until my nerves are in about as bad a condition as they were when I was in the hospital at Santa Fe, and the old complaint from which I suffered when I was recovering from the lynching has returned again.

I haven’t slept for months without hanging by the neck through it all. Can you imagine what it is to be conscious all the time of dangling in that way? Asleep or awake I have a rope about my neck, and I know exactly how it feels.

I think I have had enough of it, but as they seem to think not in these parts I suppose I shall have to take some more.

I can tell you, though, that I don’t want anybody to bring me to life this time.

When I go out tomorrow I will know just what is coming, and when I tell the Sheriff to let me slide I will be the first man in America who has lived a year and a half to say that a second time to a hangman.

This same article says — though this already sounds like folklore — that Baker went fearlessly to the gallows, and his last words were addressed to the hangman as he adusted the knot around Baker’s neck: “That’s right. I have been in the habit of having it a little higher up.”

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1624: Antonio Homem, at the hands of the Portuguese Inquisition

Add comment May 5th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1624, Coimbra University theologian Antonio Homem was burned at the stake in a Lisbon auto de fe.

Homem came from a “neo-Christian” family, Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity. Considering the compulsion, one could fairly question the piety of such “Christians”; in a great moment in damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t, the Spanish Inquisition fired up to probe the potential un-Christian activity of neo-Christians.

Neighboring Portugal was just a beat behind Spain in all this; Spain expelled its Jews — the ones who weren’t willing to convert — in 1492, and Portugal did so in 1497. The Portuguese Inquisition began in 1536 and, like Spain’s, took conversos as a primary focus.*

Homem’s family’s response was to be more Catholic than the Pope and have Antonio trained for the clergy; he became canon of the Cathedral of Coimbra and a doctor at the University of Coimbra.

Homem was in his fifties when it became known among his colleagues that he was of New Christian stock, and this circumstance soon attracted unwanted attention — and eventually, his denunciation for allegedly leading a secret Judaic cell. Homem, it is said, “often took the part of priest”; The Other Within: The Marranos, Split Identity and Emerging Modernity describes a Kippur ceremony from the Inquisition records.

The public, all fasting and dressed in white, used the Christian Bible (the Vulgate) to recite Latin Psalms that expressed a Jewish-Marrano sentiment (Psalms such as “When Israel came out of Egypt,” “On the rivers of Babylon,” and “From the Abyss I called you, O God”). In those ancient Jewish poems the Marranos expressed their own, specific sense of exile and yearning for redemption. A few “priests of the Law of Moses,” replicating a Catholic ceremony, dressed Homem in a long elegant garment and put “a sort of miter” on his head, decorated with golden plaque. There was an altar there, and incense, and painted images of Moses and of a Marrano martyr or saint “who had been … burned as a Jew.”

The inner life of the converso is a great riddle from our distance of time and context. It is immediately tempting to perceive religious martyrs here, people who were forced underground but still kept what they could of the faith of their fathers at risk of life and limb.

Such a reading paradoxically allies us with their persecutors, for it is by the Inquisition’s hand that we have the evidence — and this is a source whose evidence we greet very skeptically when it, for instance, charges conversos with murdering Christian children. Inquisitors all around Europe were after all involved in these very years in scaring up secret witches’ covens to incinerate, and it was not unknown for the deadly judicial apparatus to be borrowed here and there from restraining the minions of Hell in order to service business opportunities, political aspirations, or private grudges of the personal or professional variety. Try asking a present-day academic how easy they’d sleep knowing their colleagues on the tenure committee also had a few buddies in the Holy Inquisition.

Antonio Jose Saraiva’s The Marrano Factory: The Portuguese Inquisition and Its New Christians 1536-1765** contends that most “Judaizing” Christians were just plain Christians — caught up like accused witches and warlocks could be in some specious neighborhood rumor that became a self-fulfilling accusation. “Inevitably,” says Saraiva, “a family quarrel or a commercial intrigue would lead to several series of denunciations, followed by arrests. Arrests led to trials which spiraled into new rounds of arrests and trials.” Saraiva argues that Homem’s recently-exposed Jewish heritage probably just made him a ready target when a commercial dispute of some sort led the Inquisition’s Coimbra tribunal to seize “scores of merchants engaged in the triangular commerce between Brazil, Oporto and Amsterdam.”

Whether Homem really did head a covert cult with 100-plus adherents reading Old Testament verses from the Latin Bible — or whether this was what an inquisitor goaded by Homem’s enemies supposed a secret Jew might do — he was left to rot in prison several years† after his 1619 condemnation while the Inquisition investigated dozens of his alleged adherents. These included other cathedral canons, professors and students at the university, nuns from four nearby convents, and other persons of some stature. (Homem, to his credit, refused to accuse anyone else.)

Homem was eventually among eight burned (Portuguese link) at an auto this date at the Ribeira de Lisboa, and his house was torn down to be replaced with a pillar inscribed “Praeceptor infelix”. Prior to their destruction they were favored with the preachings of Friar Antonio de Sousa who railed against the insidious Semitic threat to homeland security.

For our sins of the last years people of quality have been cross-breeding with these perverse Jews to whom I am referring. They became corrupted by their contact with them and have become Jews like they are. Just a few years ago only low-class, trashy Jews were paraded at the autos-da-fe. See what now appears for sentencing in the autos-da-fe and in this very one at which I am preaching: ecclesiastical personnel, friars, nuns, holders of master’s degrees, licentiates, doctors and professors with family connections to the nobility, people only half of New Christian origin, or a quarter, or an eighth, all confessing and convicted of Judaism. (Translated excerpt via Saraiva)

Readers with Portuguese proficiency can find more on this case in this 1999 book exploring the Inquisition’s Coimbra archives, or in Antonio Homem e a inquisição.

* For the setting of this post, the 1620s, Spain and Portugal are under the personal union of a common monarch, Philip IV.

** We’ve mentioned it before.

† One of the great (and eventually fatal) inefficiencies of the auto-de-fe system was its tendency to leave its future exhibits to languish for years in prisons before the prescribed spectacle could be properly arranged.

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1471: Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales, after the Battle of Tewkesbury

Add comment May 4th, 2014 Headsman

May 4, 1471 was the date of one of England’s most pivotal battles, Tewkesbury.

Tewkesbury was the last great victory in the War of the Roses for the House of York, and it must have seemed to contemporaries like the last victory Yorkists would ever need. The “kingmaker” Warwick was dead from a previous battle that April; the Lancastrian claimant Henry VI was imprisoned by the Yorkists, who would murder him before the month was out; and Henri’s heir apparent, the 17-year-old Prince of Wales, was put to death immediately after Tewkesbury.

Young Edward of Westminster had been stewing these past several years — until the aforementioned Kingmaker swung to his side — in exile in France, trying to finagle a way to rally the Lancastrian cause. Like many a teenager he was prone to nursing bilious fantasies of revenging himself on people, as the Milanese ambassador wrote in 1467.

This boy, though only thirteen years of age, already talks of nothing but of cutting off heads* or making war, as if he had everything in his hands or was the god of battle or the peaceful occupant of that throne.

“Peace” would not be the watchword of the abortive Lancastrian restoration attempt.

Shortly after returning to England, Edward had word of Warwick’s defeat. But having taken the trouble to come all this way from France, he still plowed ahead into the desperate stand at Tewkesbury. Edward had no experience at all in battlefield command.

When the Lancastrian lines broke at Tewkesbury, a disordered route fled towards nearby Tewkesbury Abbey. The nobles who reached it would hole up there claiming the privilege of sanctuary … for just two days, at which point the victorious Yorkist King Edward IV had them arrested and put to swift execution, sanctuary be damned. (The abbey had to close to re-purify.)

Prince Edward didn’t even make it that long. There are varying accounts of his death at Tewkesbury suggesting a summary execution scenario of some kind.

In one version, the Duke of Clarence overtook him in flight. Clarence having himself briefly supported the rebellion before he returned to the Yorkist side, he’s supposed to have immediately beheaded the youth in a paroxysm of demonstrative loyalty.

Alternatively,

Prince Edward was taken as he fled towards the towne, by Sir Richard Crofts, and kept close … After the field was ended, proclamation was made, that whosoever could bring forth prince Edward alive or dead, should have an annuity of a hundred pounds during his life, and the princes life to be saved, if he were brought forth alive. Sir Richard Crofts, nothing mistrusting the kings promise, brought forth his prisoner prince Edward, being a faire and well proportioned young gentleman; whom when king Edward had well advised, he demanded of him, how he durst so presumptuously enter into his realm with banner displayed.

Whereunto the prince boldly answered, saying; “To recover my fathers kingdom and heritage, from his father and grandfather to him and from him after him to me lineally descended.” At which words king Edward said nothing, but with his hand thrust him from him, or (as some say) stroke him with his gauntlet; whom incontinently, George duke of Clarence, Richard duke of Gloucester, Thomas Grey marquess Dorset,** and William lord Hastings that stood by, suddenly murdered: for the which cruel act, the more part of the doers in their latter days drank of the like cup, by the righteous justice and due punishment of God.

Shakespeare dramatized this (considerably more dramatic — if admittedly less execution-like) version in Henry VI, Part 3.

Lancaster’s very dim (circa 1471) fortunes would ultimately be rescued in the 1480s by the grandson of a beheaded Welsh courtier — who won the throne as Henry VII and founded the Tudor dynasty.

* Edward as a seven-year-old was alleged to have been given the authority by his mother to decide what fate should befall the knights who had not successfully protected Henry VI from capture. Edward decreed their beheading.

** Ancestor of Lady Jane Grey.

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1740: Elizabeth and Mary Branch, tyrannical mistresses

Add comment May 3rd, 2014 Headsman

From the Newgate Calendar:

These cruel women were born at Philips Norton, in Somersetshire. The mother was distinguished from her childhood by the cruelty of her disposition. She married a farmer, named Branch, but the husband soon found what an unfortunate choice he had made; for his wife no sooner came into possession of her matrimonial power than she began to exercise her tyranny on her servants, whom she treated with undeserved and unaccountable cruelty, frequently denying them the common necessaries of life, and sometimes turning them out of doors at night in the midst of winter; but their wages in these cases were sent them by Mr Branch, who was as remarkable for his humanity and justice as his wife for the opposite qualities. Mary Branch, the daughter, was an exact resemblance of her mother in every part of her diabolical temper.

Mr Branch dying, and leaving an estate of about three hundred pounds a year, he was no sooner buried than all the servants quitted the family, determined not to live with so tyrannical a mistress; and her character became so notorious that she could obtain no servants but poor creatures who were put out by the parish, or casual vagrants who strolled the country.

It is needless to mention the particulars of the cruelties of this inhuman mother and daughter to their other servants, at whom they used to throw plates, knives and forks on any offence, real or supposed; we shall therefore proceed to an account of their trial and execution for the murder of Jane Buttersworth, a poor girl, who had been placed with them by the parish officers.

At the assizes held at Taunton, in Somersetshire, in March, 1740, Elizabeth Branch and Mary, her daughter, were indicted for the wilful murder of Jane Buttersworth; when the principal evidence against them was in substance as follows: Ann Somers, the dairymaid, deposed that the deceased, having been sent for some yeast, and staying longer than was necessary, excused herself to her old mistress on her return by telling a lie; on which the daughter struck her violently on the head with her fist, and pinched her ears. Then both of them threw her on the ground, and the daughter knelt on her neck, while the mother whipped her with twigs till the blood ran on the ground, and the daughter, taking off one of the girl’s shoes, beat her with it in a cruel manner. The deceased cried for mercy, and after some struggle ran into the parlour, where they followed her and beat her with broomsticks till she fell down senseless; after which the daughter threw a pail of water on her, and used her with other circumstances of cruelty too gross to mention. Somers now went out to milk her cows, and on her return, at the expiration of half-an-hour, found her mistress sitting by the fire and the girl lying dead on the floor; but she observed that a clean cap had been put on her head since she went out, and that the blood had run through it. At night the body was privately buried.

This transaction, added to the character of the mistress, having raised a suspicion in the neighbourhood, a warrant was issued by the coroner to take up the body, and an inquest being made into the cause of the girl’s death, Mr Salmon, a surgeon, declared that she had received several wounds, almost any one of which would have proved mortal. The jury found both prisoners guilty, and they were sentenced to die. As the country people were violently enraged against them, they were conducted to the place of execution between three and four in the morning, attended only by the jailer and about half-a-dozen people, lest they should have been torn in pieces.

When they came to the spot, it was found that the gibbet had been cut down; on which a carpenter was sent for, who immediately put up another, and mother and daughter were executed before six o’clock, to the disappointment of the country to witness the death of two such unworthy wretches.

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1923: Florence Lassandro, unwilling feminist

Add comment May 2nd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1923, the only woman ever executed in Alberta’s history was hanged at Fort Saskatchewan.

Alberta had introduced alcohol prohibition in 1916. Florence Lassandro and her husband Carlo, Italian immigrants, were in the profitable contraband business that resulted, employed by the “Emperor Pic” — a rum-running godfather named Emilio Picariello.

Emperor Pic and Florence were together in a vehicle crossing from the British Columbia border in September, 1922, when an attempt to serve a warrant resulted in a chase in which Picariello’s son (fleeing in another vehicle) was shot through the hand. Shortly thereafter, Picariello and Lassandro sought out the shooter, police constable Steve Lawson, and in the resulting confrontation Lawson himself was shot dead.

The circumstances of this fatal encounter are murky and disputed; Lassandro initially claimed to have pulled the trigger, and this helped to get she along with Picariello condemned to death for the crime. As her execution neared — under circumstances we’ll get into momentarily — she amended that statement.

“We agreed that it would be best for me to take the responsibility and say that I did it, as women don’t hang in Canada and he would get off,” she said in a telegram to the Justice Minister (according to Jana Pruden‘s Edmonton Journal story of Oct. 9, 2011). “I never shot a gun in my life — was always afraid of them.”

But in the public debate over her prospective hanging, the question wasn’t so much about Lassandro not being a triggerman but about her not being a man.

The discomfiture still usual in our own day over putting a woman to death was certainly present in early 20th century Canada. No woman had hanged anywhere in Canada since Hilda Blake 24 years years prior.

But Florence Lassandro found an unexpected hand cutting away this lifeline: the women’s movement.

Canadian women had won suffrage in most provinces during the war years, and only in 1921 had the first woman been seated in Parliament. The next movement milestone on the horizon (it would be achieved in 1929) was winning juridical recognition of women as legal “persons”.

So the women’s movement in 1920s Canada was deeply sensitive to any appearance of special pleading which appeared to place adult women on any footing lesser to adult men. A Prohibition gangster who shot a cop would surely be hanged if a man; indeed, Emilio Picariello, slated to die on the same morning as Florence Lassandro, had no real hope of clemency. So wasn’t Florence Lassandro’s claim on mercy nothing but the old sentimental paternalism that women were trying to escape?*

“I also desire to protest against the pernicious doctrine that because a person who commits a murder is a woman that person should escape from capital punishment,” wrote Emily Murphy, Canada’s (and the British Empire’s) first female magistrate. “As women we claim the privileges of citizenship for our sex, and we accordingly are prepared to take upon ourselves the weight of the penalties as well.”

An Alberta provincial barrister agreed, if a bit condescendingly: if “women will occupy themselves with all those things (law, Bench, franchise, etc.), taking the places side by side with men as their equal in all things, including even part in the framing and administration of our own laws, surely women should be equally subject to those laws in the event of their offending against them.” (Both quotes from Westward Bound: Sex, Violence, the Law, and the Making of a Settler Society.)

So Florence Lassandro was subject to those laws indeed.**

Early on the morning of May 2, Emilio Picariello (about whom, just go prove the point, we’ve barely spoken) went first to the gallows, scornfully refusing the hood. Minutes after he swung, Lassandro — visibly stricken with fright — followed.

“Why do you hang me when I didn’t do anything?” she implored of the official witnesses. “Is there not anyone who has any pity?”

No one answered.

“I forgive everyone.”

And then she hanged.

Twelve months later, Prohibition was repealed in Alberta.

* This is by no means a latter-day insight. Olympe de Gouges‘s French Revolution-era Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen turned the equation around and argued, “Woman has the right to mount the scaffold; she must equally have the right to mount the rostrum.”

As a somewhat digressive aside, Paul Friedland has made the case that men experiencing a very gender-specific shock at seeing women attending executions was instrumental in the gradual removal of once-public executions behind prison walls.

** Lassandro’s fellow-Italians had her back where her fellow-women did not, and they argued — not unreasonably — that Canada already had a de facto practice of never executing women and it was awfully convenient that everyone was now so high-minded about scrapping taboo once there was a poor Italian immigrant in the dock.

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1945: Charlotte Rebhun, Righteous Gentile

3 comments May 1st, 2014 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1945 in Berlin, a German woman named Charlotte Rebhun was executed by the Nazis. She had almost made it through the war: Berlin fell to the Russians the very next day.

Charlotte, a Gentile, had been married to Max Rebhun, a Jew. They had two children: Wolfgang, born in 1927, and Adele, born in 1930. Following Kristallnacht, Max was deported to Poland. Charlotte and the children followed him in 1939, and after war broke out the entire family wound up in the Warsaw Ghetto.

On August 20, 1942, during the Grossaktion that ultimately resulted in a quarter-million deaths, Max was taken to Treblinka and gassed. His wife and children escaped the ghetto and set up residence in the Aryan sector of the city.


Charlotte Rebhun (top); Charlotte with the infant Barbara (bottom).

Already at considerable risk, Charlotte placed herself in further danger by hiding eight additional Jewish people in her apartment.

In early 1943, a young Jewish couple in the Warsaw Ghetto, anxious to protect their nine- month-old daughter, convinced a German soldier (!) to smuggle her out of the ghetto. He gave the baby to his girlfriend, who passed her on to Charlotte Rebhun. The baby was named Barbara and called Bashka.

The infant’s parents thought they would only need to be separated for a short time, and promised to come back soon to collect her. But they never did. Charlotte treated Bashka as her own and kept her for about eighteen months, until the Warsaw Uprising in August 1944.

With the Red Army approaching, the population of Warsaw decided to liberate themselves, and launched a rebellion against the Nazi occupiers. They were able to take the city back, but didn’t have sufficient arms or fighters to keep it without help, and help never came. While the Soviets sat and watched at a discreet distance, the Nazis regrouped, went back to Warsaw and crushed the rebellion.

More than 150,000 Polish civillians died and more than half the city’s buildings were destroyed in the aftermath of the failed uprising.

Charlotte’s son Wolfgang was one of the fighters who participated in the rebellion. He escaped summary execution, but was sent to the hellish Mauthausen Concentration Camp. Charlotte and her daughter Adele were sent to a slave labor camp in the city of Czestochowa.

Little Bashka, who was two and a half years old, somehow got separated from her foster family. A Red Cross worker found her all alone in a little Polish town twenty kilometers outside of Warsaw.

Barbara was taken in by a Polish family named Kaczmarek, who raised her alongside their five children for the next several years. After the war, the Jewish Central Committee in Warsaw initiated a search-and-recovery effort for child Holocaust survivors living with Gentile families. The Kaczmarek family wanted to legally adopt Barbara, and in 1948 the wrote to the JCC to ask if anyone in her biological family had survived. In response, the JCC sent someone to their to their house and removed Barbara by force. Sent to a Jewish orphanage, she was adopted by a Jewish couple and in 1950, they moved to Israel.

It wasn’t until she was sixteen years old that Barbara learned she was adopted, and it wasn’t until 1996 that she began seeking out her roots. She was able to reconnect with the Kaczmarek children (the parents had died in the years since the war) and then Charlotte’s children, both of whom survived the camps.

It was only then that she learned her rescuer’s fate: Charlotte and Adele had been liberated from the labor camp in Czestochowa and gone home to Berlin, but after their arrival Charlotte was executed. Just what “crime” she had committed to deserve her fate has not been recorded.

The adult Barbara, now known as Pnina Gutman.

Unfortunately, Barbara (who now calls herself Pnina Gutman) has never been able to identify her biological parents. Adele and Wolfgang didn’t remember their names. Barbara had come to the Rebhuns with a note giving her name as Barbara Wenglinski, but that may not have been her real family name.

The note had asked their daughter’s rescuers to contact their relatives in America if her parents didn’t survive the war and come back for her. Barbara wrote letters to seventy people in America named Wenglinski, but none of them provided any useful information. She would still like to learn who her parents were and what happened to them, and has appealed for information over the internet.

Barbara’s mother and father are presumed to have perished, probably during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in the spring of 1943. Barbara would not have survived either were it not for the courage of Charlotte Rebhun and the others. Yad Vashem honored Charlotte as Righteous Among the Nations on November 20, 1997, more than fifty years after her death.

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