On this date in 1560 the second Baron de Castelnau, Jean Boileau, was beheaded as a Huguenot traitor. His was one of the opening casualties of France’s devastating Wars of Religion.
We find Castelnau’s end before war began, when the Huguenot party — although it had been pressed sorely enough for martyr-making in the years of the Reformation — was perhaps not yet quite steeled for the measure of purposeful violence it would require to conquer state power. After the events in this post, the great Huguenot leader Gaspard de Coligny would remonstrate at a royal Council of Notables protesting the loyalty of the realm’s Protestant subjects. Two years later, he was commanding rebels in the field; a decade later, he would be murdered in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.
“Rashly designed and feebly executed,”* the plan of these 1560 pre-rebellion Huguenots was to tilt France’s religious policy by muscling out the top Catholic.
Considering the new king’s youth and Guise’s prestige, here was the potential to lock in for decades to come a situation intolerable to France’s Protestants. (In actual fact, Francis did not live to see 1561 and the country soon fell into civil war … but the characters in this post did not have the benefit of hindsight.)
So the muscling-out plan was born: the Amboise conspiracy. Named for the castle where the attempt was unsuccessfully executed, this plot aimed to seize the Duke of Guise by main force and begin forcing a more satisfactory policy direction on the malleable sovereign.
This scheme became very widely known among Protestant nobles and even bourgeois, who variously signed on or demurred; no surprise, someone in the ever-widening circle of confidantes eventually leaked it to the court. Guise quietly made ready the castle at Amboise to repel the putsch, and when the attempt was made in mid-March it was not the Catholics but the attacking Huguenots who were surprised and routed. Over 1,000 men involved in the attempt were slaughtered in the ensuing days — by the rope, the sword, or the waters of the Loire. Its chief architect, La Renaudie, was killed in the skirmishes but his corpse was still posthumously mutilated.
Castelnau’s beheading is foregrounded
The Lord Castelnau’s detail for the conspiracy was to seize the nearby Chateau Noizay. He did so only to discover himself in a most embarrassing position when his comrades were crushed. The Guise-allied young Duke of Nemours persuaded Castelnau to surrender under safe conduct:
“Lay down your arms then,” said Nemours, “and if you wish to address the king as becomes a faithful subject, I promise you, upon my faith, to enable you to speak to the king and to bring you back in safety.”
Castelnau, in consequence, surrendered the castle of Noizai to the Duke of Nemours, who took an oath and signed it, that no harm should happen to him or his followers. They went together to Amboise, where the unfortunate baron found that the promise which had been made him was not binding, for the Duke of Nemours had exceeded his orders.
Castelnau’s bravery did not forsake him on the scaffold, where he died a martyr to his religion; the Duke of Nemours felt very indignant at the circumstance, as he had given his signature, which tormented him probably much more than it would have done if his word alone had been passed. (Source)
This traitorous conspiracy — and the ferocity of its destruction — helped to initiate the ensuing years‘ tit-for-tat confessional violence that plunged France headlong into the Wars of Religion (and got Guise himself assassinated in 1563). “A morbid desire to witness the shedding of blood seized upon society,” one historian wrote. “D’Aubigne the eminent historian of the French Reformation, was an eye-witness of such incidents, and though but ten years of age, swore like young Hannibal before his father, to devote his life to vengeance of such atrocities.”
On this date in 1558, Protestant Cuthbert Simson or Simpson was burned at Smithfield — having withstood harrowing torture in the Tower of London.
As deacon of a secret congregation during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary, Simson bore the dangerous responsibility of keeping membership rolls. When he was arrested as a heretic and a traitor, he was subjected to “enhanced interrogation” in an effort to obtain the identities of the whole coterie.
Protestant hagiographer John Foxe recorded an alleged last letter that Simson sent to his friends from captivity (updated to present-day English from the glorious original), describing what happened after he, Simson, refused interrogators’ demand that he begin naming names.
I was set in an engine of iron, for the space of three hours as I judged. After that, they asked me if I would tell them. I answered as before. Then I was loosed, and carried to my lodging again. On the Sunday after, I was brought into the same place again before the lieutenant, being also constable, and the recorder of London, and they examined me. As before I had said I answered. Then the lieutenant sware by God, I should tell. Then did they bind my two forefingers together, and put a small arrow betwixt them, and drew it through so fast that the blood followed, and the arrow brake.
1563 woodcut of Cuthbert Simson’s torture. (Source)
Then they racked me twice. After that was I carried to my lodging again; and ten days after, the lieutenant asked me if I would not confess that which before they had asked me. I said I had said as much as I would. Then five weeks after, he sent me unto the high priest, where I was greatly assaulted; and at whose hand I received the pope’s curse, for bearing witness of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
And thus I commend you unto God, and to the word of His grace with all them that unfeignedly call upon the name of Jesus; desiring God, or His endless mercy, through the merits of His dear Son Jesus Christ, to bring us all to His everylasting kingdom. Amen. I praise God for His great mercy shewed upon us. Sing Hosanna unto the Highest, with me Cuthbert Simson. God forgive me my sins. I ask all the world forgiveness, and I do forgive all the world; and thus I leave this world, in hope of a joyful resurrection.
Two associates, Hugh Fox and John Davenish, suffered at Smithfield with Simson.
On this date in 1894, Walter Smith was hanged at the Nottingham Gaol by executioner James Billington, for the murder of Liverpool nurse Catherine Cross.
Smith invited Cross to the lace factory where he worked so he could show her a piece of equipment he had designed. He was anxious to impress her and, while they were looking at the lace-making machine, he pulled out a gun, waved it around and shouted, seemingly in jest, “Your money or your life!” The gun went off; Catherine was hit. Smith shot her two more times, then fled the scene.
She survived for another few days, and told the police what had occurred.
Tough Sell: from the Derby Mercury, March 14, 1894
The shooter’s best defense angle was to claim an accident, citing an absence of motive, an argument that is more easily made when one has not pulled the trigger repeatedly … of the gun that one has only just bought the day before. Trial testimony indicated that Smith might have had a romantic interest in Cross and it was inferred that he killed her out of jealousy because she was already engaged to marry someone else, but the victim herself seemed perplexed as to what had occurred, and why.
Smith’s trial lasted for three days; his defence that the gun had gone off accidentally was accepted for the first shot but unsurprisingly rejected for the following two.
Billington performed the execution without an assistant and death was instantaneous.
It had been twenty-six years since England’s last public execution, but interest in even the refraction of death’s spectacle was still sufficient at this point to jam the roads near Bagthorpe Jail (today, Nottingham Prison) with a reported 6,000 spectators whose only reward was to see the gaol hoist its black flag signifying completion of the deed.
From the Nottingham Evening Post‘s same-day coverage of the hanging:
The morning mists had not yet risen when the first portions of the crowd that assembled outside the gaol to witness the raising of the black flag took up their position near the entrance gates, but the sun was shining brightly, shining over as beautiful bit of landscape as is ot be found in the immediate neighbourhood of Nottingham. By slow degrees those mists lifted, and the scene without was fresh and cheerful, the songs of the birds adding to the charm … As time wore on the thoroughfares leading to the place became lively with people hurrying to the scene. At half-past seven crowds began to roll up in larger numbers. Some thousands had now arrived, and their general behaviour was not such as to call for very unfavourable comment. It is not too much to say that had the execution been a public one their numbers would have been multiplied a hundred or a thousand fold. It was a holiday morning. If they could not actually see the hanging they could at least witness te sign which assured them that he had paid the penalty of his crime. The elevated embankments at the four crossroads were thickly lined with sight-seers. From these coigns of vantage they could command a good view of the front of the gaol, on the top of which rested the flag-pole. Away in the distance knots of people foregathered, and hundreds climbed the stone wall in the road near the building in spite of the fact that the top had been freshly tarred to prevent mischief to quick hedges above … It was exactly at a quarter to eight when the prison bell first knelled the doom of the unhappy man, and there was an evident increase of excitement. As the last knell sounded the black flag was hoisted, signifying that the exxecution had taken place, and the crowd quickly dispersed.
The assize model we’ve been featuring this week surely underscores during the Bloody Code days the law as a wholesale instrument.
For a site like this which prefers to zero in on a story for the day, the phenomenon is most discomfiting. But even if executions in the Anglo world have for the past century or two mostly unfolded as individual tragic stories arcing from beginning through middle and end, they have still merely sat atop a legal machine that grinds up lives by thousands.
The specter of the noose perhaps highlights the trend in a way that “mere” terms of years does not quite dramatize for us. Even so, now as then, no small number of convicts prefer the hemp to the life-destroying “mercy” of a lengthy prison sentence or penal transportation overseas.
All of this is mere commentary for today’s hanging trio, who are criminals of no consequence with misdeeds but scantily attested; their trials, like most in that period, would have spanned only minutes or at most a couple of hours, and been determined by gentlemen already looking ahead to the next case. “The hungry judges soon the sentence sign, and wretches hang that jurymen may dine”: Alexander Pope had set that line down in The Rape of the Lock more than 70 years before.
“The capital convictions of the late Lent assizes, exhibit a most melancholy picture of the depravity of the times,” lamented the Leeds Intelligencer taking stock on April 5, 1785 of that season’s legal bulletins. “The following short list will prove it; — at Shrewsbury 11, York 7, Derby 6, Lincoln 9 (executed), Gloucester 11, Nottingham 4, (executed) Stafford 3, (executed) and Dorchester 5. There were 112 tried at Gloucester.”
Shrewsbury split its sentences, five for the scaffold and six for reprieve; the last three of the doomed lost their lives on this date in 1785 for various property crimes. These few words on the Salopean assizes were printed in several newspapers, and are quoted here from The British Chronicle, or, Pugh’s Hereford Journal, March 31, 1785:
At the assizes for Shropshire, which ended at Shrewsbury on Wednesday night last, John Green, for the wilful murder of his wife Elizabeth Green, by shooting her through the head, in a cellar in his own house, at Bromfield near Ludlows, and Ann Hancock, for the wilful murder of her male bastard child, at her lodgings in the Castle-foregate, in Shrewsbury, being fully convicted, received sentence of death, and were on Friday [March 18, 1785] executed at the Old Heath, pursuant thereto, and their bodies were delivered to the surgeons to be anatomized. At the place of execution Ann Hancock comfessed the fact for which she suffered, but Green did not.
Here the Shropshire narrative breaks, consigning the remaining death sentences to the newspaper’s dregs.
… where we find:
The nine following persons were also capitally convicted, and received sentence of death, viz. William Williams, for burglariously stealing 130l. and upwards, the property of Mr. Edw. Jeffreys; Edward Edwards, for burglariously stealing a considerable sum of money, the property of Robert Pemberton, Esq; Sarah Davies, for housebreaking; William Griffiths, for stealing a black mare; Mary Davies, Rich. Pyfield, Mary Boulton, alias Bolton, William Evans, and William Hotchkins, for burglaries. The six latter were reprieved; and William Williams, Edward Edwards, and Sarah Davies, left for execution.
On Sunday morning last Ann Mansfield, the widow of a soldier, and lately a servant to Mr. Richard Wilson of this town, on her return to her father, who lives at Cradley, near Stourbridge, was found on the road, about half a mile beyond Hales-Owen, barbarously murdered. It is supposed, from the circumstances under which she was found, that she had been also ravished: her hair was dishevelled, her handkerchief and cap torn off, and her under petticoat lay by her side.
When she set out from hence, she had a small bundle, containing a new pair of stuff shoes, one pair of pattens, a black silk handkerchief, with lace to trim it, and sundry other things of small value; a new black silk hat pinned to her side, and wore a black and a white cloak, over both of which she pinned a white hat; which were all taken away.
A strong suspicion prevails against the S———- carrier (behind whom she rode through Hales-Owen the night before) who not only that night delivered a woodcock and some light parcels in S———-, but sent on Sunday morning her two cloaks to her father by two chimney-sweepers, who were both stopped, in order to undergo an examination. — The carrier is also taken up.
This “letter” was printed in several English newspapers; sometimes abridged for space needs, in time it appears to have evolved with the progress of available facts and suppositions.
Here it is in the Leeds Intelligencer for Dec. 27:
On Saturday evening last, Ann Mansfield having left the service of Mr. Richard Wilson, was returning to her father, who lives at Cradley, near Stourbridge, and for that purpose had sent part of her things by the carrier, and intended to have accompanied him herself; but calling on her sister, who lives with Mrs. Horton, in Mount-Pleasant, was detained till near dark, when the mistress very humanely begged her to stay all night, as it was impossible for her to overtake the carrier; but neither Mrs. Horton’s kindness nor her sister’s persuasions could prevail, for she unhappily persisted in her design of going home; and what is very remarkable, on leaving the house complained (to make use of her own expression) or a sinking at her heart.
She had with her a small bundle, containing a new pair of stuff shoes, one pair of pattens, a black silk handkerchief, with lace to trim it, and sundry other things of small value; a new black silk hat pinned to her side, and one black and one white cloak, both of which she wore, and a white hat pinned over them.
Some time yesterday morning she was found murdered near the spot where the Darbys are now hanging. — She is supposed from the situation she was found in to be ravished, and that the villains who perpetrated the horrid fact stuffed something in her mouth to prevent her alarming the neighbours with her cries, as no wounds of consequence enough to cause her death appeared outwardly, but the skin is forced off her hands and fingers, as supposed by struggling.
When found, she had her hair dishevelled, her handkerchief and cap torn off, and every thing of value taken away. — She had only four-pence in her pocket, which she intended to give the carrier. She was carried to Hales-Owen church.
Two fellows are taken up on suspicion of committing the horrid crime, one of whom had a white cloak in his pocket, supposed to belong to the unfortunate young woman, and they are sent this morning for examination. It appears that the carrier before-mentioned waited for this poor young creature and took her behind him, and was met by many people; which getting wind the carrier was taken up, and it is feared is too justly suspected, as he greatly prevaricates.
However much embroidery affects this story, we have a sense of the event — and of the dangers of an unlit nighttime road.
That this attack was (quite deservedly) recognized as the most egregious crime handled at Shrewsbury’s Lent 1775 assizes can be seen in the disposition of the sentences. This from Say’s Weekly Journal of April 1, 1775:
At Shrewbury assizes the following persons received sentence of death, viz. John Parry, and William Roberts, capitally convicted last assize, for plundering a wreck; Joseph Skidmore, for the murder of Ann Chandler, in a lane near Hales-Owen; Edward Stol, for horse stealing; Jane Aston, for stealing household goods; Samuel Thomas and Philip Jones, for horse-stealing; and Jemima Asplin, for breaking out of gaol, after having received sentence of transportation at last county sessions. — A respite during his Majesty’s pleasure was received for Roberts on Thursday; Aston, Thomas, Jones, and Asplin were reprieved; and Parry, Stol, and Skidmore, left for execution, the latter of whom suffered on Saturday last.
Just why the victim has become “Ann Chandler” instead of “Ann Mansfield” nor which a historian ought to prefer I cannot determine. But after Skidmore’s March 25 hanging, and the April 1 execution of Parry, all the others condemned at the 1775 assizes were reprieved their death sentences.
On this date in 1823, 40-year-old farmer John Newton was hanged for the murder of Sarah, his wife, who was heavily pregnant with their fifth child.
What happened is this: George Edwards, a local man, stopped by the Newton house and asked John for repayment of three shillings owed him for a lamp he’d sold the couple. In response, John flew into a rage, saying he had already given Sarah the money to settle the debt. This wasn’t the first time she’d done this, he told Edwards, and she had to be taught a lesson. He called Sarah into the room and threatened to thrash her.
Edwards was aghast and begged John not to hurt his wife, saying he’d rather forget about the three shillings altogether than have John do something so stupid. The three of them sat down and shared several jugs of weak beer — Edwards refusing to depart until John promised he would not hurt Sarah. As he left, he warned John that if he abused his wife, he, Edwards, would never speak to him again.
In the early hours of the next morning, John showed up at Edwards’s house and asked him for directions to the doctor’s, saying Sarah was suffering from pregnancy-related complications and “a bad job has happened.” When the doctor came, however, he found this wasn’t the case at all. Sarah had, in fact, been brutally beaten. Although she was given medical attention, she died at around midnight.
The medical witnesses all agreed that Sarah Newton had died as a result of blood loss and, since the newspapers of the time seemed strangely reluctant to detail her injuries, it can probably be assumed that she had a miscarriage, caused by the beating and kicking she had been given by her husband.
Newton’s defense was three-pronged: first, he pointed out that Sarah had previously hemorrhaged after giving birth. Second, he claimed she had attacked him and he had hit her only in self-defense and only a few times with an open hand. Third, he presented various witnesses to suggest he had been insane at the time.
None of these arguments impressed: the jury deliberated all of two or three minutes before finding him guilty of willful murder. John said, incredulously, “I have lost my life for three shillings.”
John Newton wasn’t the only person to face trial in connection with his wife Sarah’s death, however. After John’s execution, the coroner who handled Sarah’s death inquest was brought up on charges of malpractice.
The coroner, a man named Whitcombe, had dismissed half the jury before the case was over because he considered the investigation to be “trifling.” He tried to persuade the rest of the jury members that Sarah had died “by visitation of God” before settling for an open verdict. He had Sarah’s body dissected before the inquest jury could examine it, and his own inspection of the body was judged to be perfunctory. Whitcombe had also failed to call George Edwards to the stand during the inquest, even though he was an important witness; Whitcombe also had an improper private interview with the defendant.
Whitcombe’s jury judged him culpable of “gross violation of his duty,” but in view of the fact that he had retired from his post in the meantime, he was not punished.
From the Caledonian Mercury, April 7, 1823
EXECUTION OF JOHN NEWTON, FOR THE MURDER OF HIS WIFE.
After this unfortunate man had been conveyed from the place of trial to the jail, on Saturday evening, he continued for many hours in a state of great agitation and mental distress.
On Sunday he attended divine service in the chapel of the prison, where he conducted himself with propriety. On the more near approach of the hour of dissolution his feelings again became more agitated.
At about a quarter after 12, on Monday, he was brought towards the scaffold, exclaiming, as he passed along, “I have lost my life for three shillings.” Having ascended the lodge of the jail, where he passed a few minutes in prayer with the chaplain, and some fellow prisoners, he was conducted to the scaffold; when, looking towards the immense multitude assembled, he exclaimed in a very loud tone, several times, “John Bolton!” “John Bolton, of The Hem!”
A voice appeared to answer from the crowd; and the prisoner then exclaimed, “John Edwards, are you come from Severn Hall?”
While on the scaffold, he said to the crowd, “This is a sad death to die, my lads, for a young man lie me; God bless you all.”
“I would give all the world it had not happened.”
He exclaimed two or three times, “Don’t hang me.” “I hope, gentlemen, you’ll not hang me yet.”
Occasionally he ejaculated, “Lord have mercy on me!”
Previous to being turned off, he put off his shoes (which he wore slipperways) from his feet; and when the drop fell he died instantly, and apparently without a struggle.
The unhappy man occupied a farm of about 170 acres, had been married about ten years, and has left four children. He told a gentleman who visited him, he had been a very bad husband at all times; that when he committed the fatal act, he struck and kicked his wife several times; and that, but for the interposition of Providence, he should, under the influence of his ungoverned feelings, at the same time have sacrificed the life of the child who interposed its cries in behalf of its mother: this addition to his crimes was happily prevented by the poor child outrunning and escaping from him. The unhappy criminal was a large and very muscular man. -Salopean Journal
On the morning of Saturday the 1st inst. William Bailey, collier, of Old Park Iron Works, near Shifnal, Shropshire, was found robbed and murdered in an iron-stone work, at Red-lake, in the parish of Wellington, having his throat cut and skull fractured in several places.
Suspicion immediately attached the crime to John Griffiths, a cooper, who resided about two hundred yards off, (and that from his bad character, he having been twice convicted of felony, as well as its being known that he had recently much importuned the deceased for the loan of cash,) and he was accordingly taken into custody in the [fear?] of absconding.
Notwithstanding there had been much rain during the preceding day, and the roads dirty in consequence, yet the shoes of Bailey were perfectly clean when his body was found; and it was conjectured that he had been murdered in some building and his remains carried to where they then lay.
The search was in consequence directed to a house lately erected by Griffiths about one hundred yards off, and the attention of those who entered it was attracted by stains of blood on the wall, and a quantity of sand which appeared to have been recently laid on a part of the floor. The latter was immediately ripped up, and underneath it was found a vault about eight feet long, four feet wide, and five deep, to which there was no communication but by removing the boards of the floor.
The boards were much stained with blood, and a considerable quantity in a coagulated state, which had evidently run down between them, was found in the bottom of the vault. A shirt, marked with the initials of Bailey’s name, was found hid under some coals in the cellar, and which has been sworn to as his property. A cooper’s bloody adze, exactly corresponding with the fractures in Bailey’s skull, was found on the floor; and a large horse pistol secreted in the brick work.
No part of Griffith’s working apparel, or dirty linen, could be found; but it appeared his wife had been washing the major part of the preceding night. A woman that lives nearly opposite the end of Griffith’s new house, and about twenty yards off, swore that on the night of the murder, at about half past nine o’clock, she saw (from her window) Griffiths come out of his house, and reconnoitre the road both ways, and seeing no one in sight, drag out a bag containing some weighty matter, and haul it round the end of his house in the direction to where the body of Bailey was found.
A bag was found in Griffith’s house containing a quantity of coagulated blood at the bottom of it.
Bailey’s house at Old Park, was robbed of every thing valuable on the night of the murder, and, no doubt, by the murderer or his associates; from his person was stolen an old silver watch, maker’s name, “C. Harrison, Limerick, No. 76.” Bailey was in the 64th year of his age, and of the Methodist persuasion; Griffith is about 28, and pretended to be of the same profession; he was at the meeting the same evening immediately after the murder. They were in the habit of praying together in private.
Coroner’s verdict, wilful murder against John Griffith. He is now in Shrewsbury gaol to take his trial at the next assizes. He denies all knowledge of the murder, and says if he should be found guilty, he is determined not to be publicly hanged. Griffith is a native of Wellington.
Original caption: “The above is a plan of the premises: — a. — The road to Potter’s Bank. — b. — Griffith’s dwelling house. — c. — Red Lake. — d. — The house, from whence the woman saw Griffith in the act of hauling the bag out of his new house. — e. — Road to Old Park Iron Works. — f. — Griffith’s New House. — g. — Iron Stone Work. — h. — Here Bailey’s body was found. — i. To Ketley Iron Works.”
Salisbury and Winchester Journal, April 6, 1812
At Shrewsbury Assizes, on Friday se’nnight, John Griffiths was tried for the wilful murder of Mr. W. Bailey, of Ketley, near Wellington, on the evening of the 31st of January last.
The deceased and the prisoner lived near each other, and were in habits of intimacy, the latter having experienced many acts of friendship from the former, whom he at length resolved to murder, in order to get possession of some cash bills which he understood he had about him.
The prisoner was a cooper by trade, and was carrying on his business in a house he had newly built, but to which he had not wholly removed. He was seen on the evening stated dragging something from his new house round the old one, to the spot where the body of the deceased was found, the skull beat in with a hammer part of a cooper’s adze, and Griffiths’s adze was found bloody on the hammer part, which exactly fitted the wounds.
Blood was found on the floor of a room in his new house, and had run through to the cellar; the walls were sprinkled with it, and attempts had evidently been made to scrape it off, and to clean it from the floor. A train of circumstances, related by different witnesses, brought the fact so close home to the prisoner, that the Jury had no hesitation in pronouncing him Guilty.
He was hanged on Monday last, and his body given to the surgeons for dissection. He had previously made a full confession of his guilt.
Suffice to say that, wherever one lays the reasons, London’s gravitational force drags the eyeballs.
For this week’s series, it’s time to do justice to the everyday criminals who plied their trades outside the Great Wen. Specifically, we’ll be off to the Welsh frontier to meet some Shropshire malefactors whose long-ago crimes waft the moldy bouquet of that West Midlands county’s distinctive cheese.
The sequence of March execution dates upon which this post series hangs (ahem) is more than coincidence, for the pattern of executions in Shropshire — as is generally true outside of London — tracks sittings of the intermittent assizes.
This juridical innovation predated the Magna Carta and somehow persisted until disco: traveling judges commissioned by the state to hold courts of oyer and terminer in six different regional circuits. Shropshire was part of the Oxford circuit with Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Worcestershire, Staffordshire, Herfordshire, Monmouthshire, and Gloucestershire; typically, Shropshire’s assizes were held in its centrally located county town, Shrewsbury, twice per year — once during Lent, and again in the summer. At these assizes the mobile barristers would plop down, straighten their wigs, and in the course of a few weeks try all the pending felony cases that had stacked up since their last visit. Then they would pick up and move to the next county in the circuit.
When there were many capital cases in the queue, assizes could turn downright bloody — but in more normal times, their product was predictability. Thanks to the assize schedule, 18th and 19th century Shropshire hangings almost all take place in either March-April, or July-August. Head over to capitalpunishmentuk.org and browse their logs of historical executions: see what I mean?
With due appreciation to the court’s metronomic regularity, the next few days will be dedicated to a selection of Salopean March noosings … common crimes, to be sure, and maybe a bit out of the way — but for those who touched them every bit as rich with malice and majesty and madness as ever a London footpad could design.
** This fate befalls the titular tortured scientist in Frankenstein: he wastes three months in prison on suspicion of murdering his friend awaiting “the season of the assizes”, at which point “I was obliged to travel nearly a hundred miles to the county-town, where the court was held.”
On this date in 1824, only three days after his indictment, Richard Overfield was hanged in Shrewsbury, England for the murder of his three-month-old stepson, Richard Jr.
The child died on September 21 the previous year. Overfield’s wife, Anne, rushed to the doctor’s after finding her little son in apparent agony. When she kissed the baby, she noticed his lips were white-colored and blistered and tasted bitter.
Little Richard Jr. died later that day in spite of the doctor’s attempts to save him.
worked in a carpet factory and so had access to sulphuric acid. This he stole to administer to the baby. The already terrible picture this forms is made all the more grotesque when you know how sulphuric acid kills: the acid is so corrosive that it burns the mouth, throat, esophagus and stomach when ingested. It can, and often does, cause the sufferer to experience severe thirst and to have difficulty breathing.
The motive came out during the trial: Overfield knew when he got married that Anne was pregnant with another man’s child. This was, in fact, why he married her in the first place.
The parish didn’t want to pay out welfare for yet another illegitimate baby, so they offered Overfield a lump sum of money to marry its mother. Any baby born more than a month after marriage would be considered legitimate and its purported father would have to support it.
Overfield accepted the parish’s offer, but although the baby bore his name, he told Anne he would never accept her son as his own. And since he already had the lump-sum payment, well …
Masuccio’s tale is itself an Italian Renaissance gloss on an old Ovid story; its outline will be instantly recognizable to devotees of the Capulets and Montagues. But instead of dueling suicides, Masuccio ends one of the star-crossed lovers with an executioner’s blade.
In Mariotto and Ganozza, which can be enjoyed for free in the original Italian here or here, the young lovers secretly wed only to find “that wicked and hostile fortune reversed all their present and future desires.”
These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder …
“Fortune’s” inscrutable hand turns out to be that of Mariotto himself, who gets into a fight with some other nobleman and, slaying him, must flee into exile. Posterity must excuse Mariotto/Romeo his hotheadedness, for were he not the type to wreck his own life by murdering a guy in a street fight he also wouldn’t be the type to pursue forbidden tragic romance. That’s art.
Fortune’s fool …
“How great was the supreme grief of the two most wretched lovers, so lately wed, and how bitter their tears at the thought of what they believed to be their endless separation, he alone who has been pricked by such wounds can truly tell.” (Translation source.)
“So deep and bitter it was, that at their last parting, they seemed for a long while to have died in each other’s arms.”
It next comes to pass that Gianozza’s father, ignorant of her secret marriage to the town fugitive, arranges a match for her. This development leads our Juliet figure to seek out the aid of the friar who has secretly wed them in a scheme that is precisely Shakespearean.
The friar “made up a certain water with certain concoctions of various powders that, when the draught was ready and she had drunk it, it would not only make her sleep for three days, but seem to be really dead.” With this potion they stage Gianozza’s death; then, the friar secretly steals her hibernating “corpse” from its tomb, revives her, and packs her off to find her beloved.
He, of course, has separately received word of Gianozza’s death — and (also of course) the courier that had been dispatched pre-death elixir to clue him into the plan has been waylaid by pirates and left his essential plot spoilers at the bottom of the sea.
Disconsolate, Mariotto returns to Siena with the unproductive object of mooning over Gianozza’s grave and “weep[ing] as if their lives were ended.” Don’t worry, he has a backup plan! “If by misfortune he was recognized, he thought he would gladly be condemned as a murderer, knowing that she was already dead whom he loved more than himself and who loved him with equal love.”
This works as well as you expect, albeit with less panache than Shakespeare’s crypt climax: Mariotto gets caught in a transport of the macabre trying to break into Gianozza’s sepulcher, and is recognized as a condemned outlaw.
Before dawn, all Siena was full of the news, which reached the ears of the Court, who ordered the mayor to go and arrest him and quickly do that which the laws and the State commanded.
So, a prisoner in fetters, Mariotto was led to the palace of the mayor. When he was flogged, without needing long tortures, he faithfully confessed the cause of his desperate return. Though all alike had the greatest pity for him, and amongst the women he was bitterly wept for and thought the only perfect lover in the world, and each of them would have willingly redeemed him with her own life, yet he was at once condemned by the law to be beheaded. When the time arrived, without his friends or parents being able to aid him, the sentence was carried out.
Three days later, Gianozza — having reached Mariotto’s former refuge of exile and there learned of his misapprehension — turns up in Siena again only to discover that she is too late. Rather than stabbing herself to death right then and there as the Bard’s heroine would do, she shuts herself up in a convent “with intense grief and tears of blood and little food and no sleep, continually calling for her dear Mariotto, [and] in a very short time ended her wretched days.”