If he was real at all, or even if he wasn’t, Antonio Mamerto Gil Nunez was an freelance ranchhand gaucho who ditched his conscription into the Argentine Civil Wars for life as an outlaw — flourishing in the classic social bandit guise as a friend to the put-upon peasantry with beneficence extending all the way to saintly healing powers.
Ambushed and captured at last, Gil’s last charity was reserved for the policeman who decided to have him summarily executed — whom Gil warned was about to receive an en-route pardon. The cop didn’t buy this obvious dilatory gambit and slit the bandit’s throat, only to return and find the promised clemency riding on up. As Gil had also prophesied, the policeman’s son had fallen quite ill and now he prayed to the brigand he had just put to death, who posthumously secured the boy a miraculous recovery.
The reports of the duly impressed executioner proliferated and soon fathered a flourishing popular veneration. Although Gauchito Gil is of course entirely unrecognized by the institutional Catholic Church, many devout pilgrims visit his site to pray for, or to offer thanks for, a favorable intercession in life.
Come close and see her and hearken. This is she.
Stop the ways fast against the stench that nips
Your nostril as it nears her. Lo, the lips
That between prayer and prayer find time to be
Poisonous, the hands holding a cup and key,
Key of deep hell, cup whence blood reeks and drips;
The loose lewd limbs, the reeling hingeless hips,
The scurf that is not skin but leprosy.
This haggard harlot grey of face and green
With the old hand’s cunning mixes her new priest
The cup she mixed her Nero, stirred and spiced.
She lisps of Mary and Jesus Nazarene
With a tongue tuned, and head that bends to the east,
Praying. There are who say she is bride of Christ.
According to Suetonius and Tacitus, Locusta was fished out of the dungeons in the year 55 for use by the young Nero, the stepson of the emperor Claudius, to murder Claudius’s natural brother Britannicus and assure Nero uncontested power. (There’s some speculation that she might have offed Claudius, too.)
[Nero] meditated a secret device and directed poison to be prepared through the agency of Julius Pollio, tribune of one of the praetorian cohorts, who had in his custody a woman under sentence for poisoning, Locusta by name, with a vast reputation for crime. That every one about the person of Britannicus should care nothing for right or honour, had long ago been provided for. He actually received his first dose of poison from his tutors and passed it off his bowels, as it was rather weak or so qualified as not at once to prove deadly. But Nero, impatient at such slow progress in crime, threatened the tribune and ordered the poisoner to execution for prolonging his anxiety while they were thinking of the popular talk and planning their own defence. Then they promised that death should be as sudden as if it were the hurried work of the dagger, and a rapid poison of previously tested ingredients was prepared close to the emperor’s chamber.
Locusta and Nero test their new and improved poison on a slave before administering it to Britannicus, by Joseph Noël Sylvestre c. 1875
It was customary for the imperial princes to sit during their meals with other nobles of the same age, in the sight of their kinsfolk, at a table of their own, furnished somewhat frugally. There Britannicus was dining, and as what he ate and drank was always tested by the taste of a select attendant, the following device was contrived, that the usage might not be dropped or the crime betrayed by the death of both prince and attendant. A cup as yet harmless, but extremely hot and already tasted, was handed to Britannicus; then, on his refusing it because of its warmth, poison was poured in with some cold water, and this so penetrated his entire frame that he lost alike voice and breath. There was a stir among the company; some, taken by surprise, ran hither and thither, while those whose discernment was keener, remained motionless, with their eyes fixed on Nero, who, as he still reclined in seeming unconsciousness, said that this was a common occurrence, from a periodical epilepsy, with which Britannicus had been afflicted from his earliest infancy, and that his sight and senses would gradually return. As for Agrippina [Nero’s mother, later murdered by the monster -ed.], her terror and confusion, though her countenance struggled to hide it, so visibly appeared, that she was clearly just as ignorant as was Octavia, Britannicus’s own sister [and Nero’s wife … also later murdered by Nero -ed.]. She saw, in fact, that she was robbed of her only remaining refuge, and that here was a precedent for parricide. Even Octavia, notwithstanding her youthful inexperience, had learnt to hide her grief, her affection, and indeed every emotion.
And so after a brief pause the company resumed its mirth. One and the same night witnessed Britannicus’s death and funeral, preparations having been already made for his obsequies, which were on a humble scale. He was however buried in the Campus Martius, amid storms so violent, that in the popular belief they portended the wrath of heaven …
The family horror of the Julio-Claudians was the career breakthrough for Locusta, whom Nero rewarded “for her eminent services with a full pardon and large estates in the country, and actually sent her pupils.” (Suetonius)
One presumes (although the ancient historians are not so kind as to share her accounts with posterity) that her baneful academy proceeded to do a roaring business for the balance of Nero’s 14-year reign, for she resurfaces in the narrative at the very end of it — as the desperate Nero’s supplier for a suicide draught when he was fleeing the Senate’s proscription.
Nero ended up doing the deed with a blade, not the poison. His dour and forgettable successor, Galba, enjoyed only the briefest ascendancy before he too was done to death on January 15 of the year 69 — but he made sure to use that interval to destroy Nero’s most hated henchmen, Locusta included. (Sans giraffe.)
In the case, however, of Helius, Narcissus, Patrobius, Lucusta, the sorceress, and others of the scum that had come to the surface in Nero’s day, he ordered them to be led in chains throughout the whole city and then to be executed. (Cassius Dio)
Jack Hall, chimney sweep turned robber turned folk song antihero, hanged at Tyburn on this date in 1707, along with five other men.
Two of those others, Richard Low and Stephen Bunch, were Hall’s accomplices and co-defendants for burgling the home of a Captain John Guyon on a dark November night. They took “a blue Cloth Wastcoat, a pair of Cloth Breeches, 3 Suits of Lac’d Head-cloaths, four Yards of yellow Ribbon, four Yards of green Ribbon, two Silver Spoons, and a Dram Cup.”
It was only the latest in a string of raids that must have earned them some kind of reputation, for at their execution the Ordinary of Newgate, Paul Lorrain, pressed Hall “Whether (as ’twas reported by some) he had made a Contract with the Prince of Darkness, for a set time to act his Villanies in; he answer’d, He never did, nor said any such thing.”
The devil paid dividends into the afterlife by giving surprisingly long legs to a tributary folk ballad* which survives into the present as “Sam Hall”. Some (not all) of this song’s many latter-day versions reference Jack/Sam’s first legitimate occupation, chimney-sweeping: as a boy, Hall had been sold into a indenture as a “climbing boy”.**
* This song’s passage from its source of tunes dating to the 16th century English church into a delta of variant versions in the 19th and 20th century is traced by Bertrand H. Bronson in “Samuel Hall’s Family Tree” (California Folklore Quarterly, Jan. 1942).
** The horrifying use of small children to shimmy, near-naked, up asphyxiating chimneys a-soot scrubbing persisted deep into the 19th century. William Blake paid heartbreaking poetic tribute to chimney-climbing boys, and in Dickens’ Oliver Twist, young Oliver is nearly given as an apprentice to a vicious chimney sweep named Mr. Gamfield — the avoidance of which “was the critical moment of Oliver’s fate.”
On this date in 1659, an Irish adventurer named Don Guillen Lombardo went to the stake in Mexico City as a heretic — en route to a destiny as a romantic swordsman
William Lamport was born in Wexford, by blood the descendant of English aristocracy and by conviction kin to Ireland’s Gaelic resistance to English incursion. His grandfather Patrick fought for Irish rebels at the Battle of Kinsale.
This was years before Lamport’s own birth but the youth must have been a chip off the old block: by the 1620s, as a student, William got himself run out of London for his aggressive Catholic proselytizing. Or at least, this is what William would say of himself: for his early years, we have mostly just his own word to go by.
Lamport took exile in Spain and there found his niche as a soldier and ladies’ man under a Hispanicized name: “Guillen Lombardo de Guzman” — that last nombre taken in tribute to his patron, the Count of Olivares. Guillen Lombardo de Guzman was a considerable enough figure in the Spanish court to have his portrait painted by Rubens.
These were formative years for the young man, but the crucial formative events we can only guess at: how did his thought evolve to the seditious or heretical form that set him against the Inquisition? Why did he cross the Atlantic to New Spain with the Marques of Villena in his late twenties?
This undergraduate thesis (pdf) tries to unravel the mystery of the man. What we know is that he was denounced to the Inquisition in October 1642 after attempting to enlist a friend in a subversive plot. The records here come via the Inquisition and are colored accordingly, but they indicate that Don Guillen aspired to cleave off New Spain with himself as the king of a radically egalitarian new state that would abolish all race and caste divisions. Among the papers he prepared for this visionary future was the first known declaration of independence in the Indies.
He spent the next 17 years in dungeons — less a few days when he escaped prison on the morrow of Christmas in 1650 and quixotically proceeded to nail up revolutionary manifestos on the cathedral door and around town denouncing the Inquisition. He was quickly recaptured, having now assumed the character of a determined rebel against powers both spiritual and temporal and consigned to an auto de fe in Mexico City’s main square. He was supposed to burn alive, but is supposed to have effected a cleverly merciful self-strangulation on the iron collar that staked him to his pyre.
On this date in 1492, 27 Mecklenburg Jews were burned together outside the gates of the city of Sternberg.
Illustration of the burning of the Sternberg Jews, from Hartmann Schedel‘s Weltchronik (1493)
These unfortunate victims of the Sternberger Hostienschänderprozess we have already met via their Catholic intercessor, Father Peter Dane. Although Father Dane got away for the moment — his punishment would arrive five months hence — the scandal consisted of Dane’s alleged provision of his parish’s consecrated Host to Mecklenburg’s impious Hebrews for their profanation in occult Semitic liturgies.
Mecklenburg’s elimination of her Jewry — for those spared the stake were banished — had a tortured legacy thereafter, as one might expect. In the immediate aftermath, Sternberg became such a discomfitingly profitable pilgrims’ destination that Martin Luther denounced by name its services to Mammon. (See our previous post on Fr. Dane for the details.)
Centuries afterwards, Weimar hyperinflation put Sternberg’s pyres and the coin of the realm together again when Sternberg issued its own notes, one of them blazoned with its famous burning Jews. Picture pulling one of these out of your wallet at the corner kiosk:
Sternberg’s Church of St. Mary and St. Nicholas, which prospered in the pilgrimage days, has a still-extant chapel of the holy blood built in honor of (and thanks to the donatives earned by) the outraged Eucharist. Today the historic chapel holds a contemporary sculpture titled “Stigma” — a reminder of the dark day in 1492 the chapel once celebrated.
On this date in 1595, Gabriel de Espinosa the “confectioner of Madrigal” was put to death for impersonating the late king of Portugal. Most accessible information about this queer case appears in Spanish, as are most of the links in this post.
As this scenario spawned multiple executions, so we have already dealt with the background in greater detail.
Its strange outgrowth was “Sebastianism”, a local variation of the widespread“king under the mountain” myth. Sebastian’s body was not recovered, and Portuguese survivors straggling back home brought confusion and rumor as to his fate.* Since the kingdom itself had followed the young king into occultation, his stunned subjects widely embraced the unlikely fancy that the prince was about to return to put things right.
“Portugal could accept defeat at the hands of the Moors, but not the loss of national independence,” Mary Elizabeth Brook wrote in “From Military Defeat to Immortality: The Birth of Sebastianism,” Luso-Brazilian Review, Winter 1964. As its people “considered Sebastian’s death to be the sole cause of national ills, they were not ready to believe that he was really dead.”
These stories compounded themselves by spawning fresh rumors of the elusive king — deep in penance for losing the battle, some said — said to be sighted here or there like Bigfoot, according to your cousin’s best friend’s groomsman who heard it from a traveler at a roadside inn. Twice in the 1580s, popular superstition elevated to royal pretender two different mystery men.
While these affairs had an accidental and ad hoc character, our Gabriel de Espinosa arising in 1594 was diligently contrived.
The Augustinian friar Miguel dos Santos, a follower of the exiled clainant to the Portuguese throne,** somehow scrounged up a Spanish pastry-maker with an uncommon felicity in languages† and took him under his wing until he could do a passable impression of the late king. This Gabriel de Espinosa was then to be paired up with a Portuguese dowager princess who had been socked away in a nunnery during the succession mess. This would have been a considerable promotion for both characters, but the process of quietly gathering support for these would-be rulers could not avoid detection.
Both the imposter and his mentor were hanged for their trouble, but the confectioner’s refusal under torture to acknowledge himself as Gabriel and his regal bearing at the noose did well by his pretense to the very last. He’s perhaps the most appealing of the Sebastianist pretenders for this reason, and is even occasionally mooted as the real deal — as in Jose Zorrilla’s romantic poem Traidor, Inconfeso y Martir, which conceives Gabriel as the actual Dom Sebastian. (The confectioner of madrigal has enjoyed frequent literary attention through the ages.)
Since it was always about something much more profound than the man himself, it’s no surprise that Sebastianism like other “sleeping king” superstitions very long outlasted the plausible lifespan of its namesake. When Portugal finally regained independence from Spain in 1640, the new King John IV had to promise to surrender his throne should Sebastian reappear: Sebastian would have been 86 years old at the time. The messianic cult even hopped the Atlantic and found a home in Brazil well into the 19th century.
* According to Brook, two Portuguese chroniclers did in fact see Sebastian’s body identified by captured Portuguese noblemen after the battle. But the Sebastianism cult had its legs long before such reports filtered back to the homeland.
** It was in service of the this exile’s claim that the Florentine adventurer Philippe Strozzi got killed trying to capture the Azores.
† Apparently the baker was a former soldier and had also thereby acquired some skills like horsemanship that also proved handy for feigning nobility.
The Protestant martyr John Bradford, burned for his faith on this date in 1555, is the popularly reputed source of the idiom “There but for the grace of God go I” — a sentiment admirably fashioned for reckoning the scaffold.
Those who know their own hearts, will be ready to acknowledge, that the seeds of the worst and most aggravated wickedness which have been practised by other men, lie hid therein, (Matt. xv. 19,) and are only restrained from bursting forth by God’s grace. The pious Martyr Bradford, when he saw a poor criminal led to execution, exclaimed, “there, but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford”. He knew that the same evil principles were in his own heart which had brought the criminal to that shameful end. (Source)
It was certainly apt for Bradford himself, who got religion as a student in the 1540s, left off law studies for theology, and was ordained an Anglican deacon by Bishop Nicholas Ridley just in time for the wheel of fortune to spin back to Catholicism.
Clapped in prison within the first weeks of Queen Mary‘s attempted Catholic restoration, Bradford for a time shared lodgings in the Tower with both Ridley and Thomas Cranmer.
Alas, be he ever so pious, our holy martyr’s temporal legacy — his authorship of the aphorism attributed him — remains impossible to substantiate. The remark is not known to have appeared in print until well over two centuries after Bradford’s cold ashes melted into the Smithfield market, and it was thereafter attributed in the 19th century to a variety of other figures as well as to Bradford. (The rivals on no better authority than Bradford could claim, it must be said.) Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, for instance, puts the remark in the mouth of 17th century divine Richard Baxter. (“I never hear of such a case as this that I do not think of Baxter’s words, and say, ‘There, but for the grace of God, goes Sherlock Holmes.'” in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery”)
But the mysterious provenance is only fitting, since that grace expired soon enough for John Bradford — as it does for all other flesh besides.
Joseph Smith, the strange founder of America’s most successful home-grown religion, was lynched on this date in 1844 at the jail in Carthage, Illinois.
Mormonism today boasts some 15 million adherents but it all started in the 1820s when Smith, then an energetic young mystic in the revival hotbed of western New York, claimed to have been guided by an angel to plates engraved in a made-up language that only he could translate and only that one time because the plates disappeared back to angelic custody after Smith’s perusal. It will not be news to this site’s LDS readers that few outside the faith place this origin story on the near side of the laugh test, but then, it is the nature of religions to appear ridiculous to outsiders: Christ crucified is unto the Greeks foolishness.
Smith’s heretical story of America as the ancient zone of a literal “New Jerusalem” founded by Israelites with a theretofore unknown gift for transoceanic navigation was certainly a stumbling-block for Protestant American neighbors, who harried from state to state — a practically Biblical sojourn through the desert — the fast-growing community. It came to pass* that the young man’s implausible scripture struck a resonant chord for the young nation.
“It was a really powerful religion,” says John Dolan in an episode of the War Nerd podcast.** “It said, our people have always been here, America is the promised land, you’re at home here. And that meant so much to 19th century Americans.”
The strange new sect’s capacity for punching above its weight in the missionary game also unleashed violently hostile reactions, marrying to its settler theology a compelling lived experience of persecution. The march of the movement across the continent has an astonishing, can’t-make-this-up character — “full of stir and adventure” in Mark Twain’s words, so again a perfect fit for America.
A few books about Joseph Smith
Smith took his fledgling faith from its New York birthplace to Kirtland, Ohio — where he was fortunate to survive a tarring and feathering in 1832 — and then onward to Missouri where a dirty vigilante war led the governor to issue a notorious “extermination order”: “the Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary for the public peace.” Scrabbling for a homeland and pursued by a Missouri treason charge (!) Smith ducked over the western border to Illinois and set up a Mormon town called Nauvoo.
The faith was barely a decade old and still struggling to find an equilibrium. While Smith fought the last battle by creating a gigantic militia to protect his flock from the sorts of military attacks it had faced in Missouri — which state still sought Smith’s head in the 1840s — he attained his martyrdom as the fallout of prosaic internal politics. Seeking to suppress schismatic Mormons, Smith in June 1844 ordered the destruction of their critical newspaper, the Nauvoo Expositor.†
By now having worn out his welcome with yet another state, the unpopular Smith became the subject of an Illinois arrest warrant as a result of this lawless attack on his rivals. Expecting better treatment than Missouri would have offered him and angling to keep Mormons in an amicable relationship with neighbors, Smith this time chose to turn himself in to face trial for inciting a riot, along with his brother Hyrum Smith and two other Mormon leaders, Willard Richards and John Taylor.‡
But in this case, the law did not take its course.
On the afternoon of June 27, 1844, a mob of 200 armed men stormed the jail in Carthage where the Mormons were held, meeting only token resistance. (Indeed, many of the force assigned to guard the Mormons joined the attackers instead.) They gunned down Hyrum Smith on the spot and drove Joseph Smith — firing back all the while — to a window where a fusillade knocked him out of the second story. His body was shot up and mutilated; one of the numerous accounts of those moments even has it that the corpse was propped up for a summary firing squad “execution.”
Whatever else one could say of Joseph Smith, he forged a community that survived its founder’s death, and is thriving still nearly two centuries on. With Smith’s passing, leadership of the Mormons fell to Brigham Young, who brought the Mormons out of Illinois for their destiny in Utah.
* Smith — or the angel Moroni, if you like — amusingly abuses the portentous clause “it came to pass” in the Book of Mormon, repeating it in about one-fifth of the tome’s verses.
** Also recommended: Dolan’s article on Joseph Smith as an outstanding product of an era of “text-finding” — his book offering pious Americans their greatest desideratum, a national link to God’s Biblical chosen people much like James MacPherson‘s forged Ossian epic thrilled the patriotic fancies of Scots discomfitingly swallowed up into Great Britain.
† The Expositor published only one single issue: the June 7, 1844 edition that caused its immediate suppression and eventually Smith’s death.
‡ Both Richards and Taylor survived the mob attack on Carthage Jail. Taylor in 1880 succeeded Brigham Young as president of the church.
On this date in 1781, the Spanish social bandit Diego Corrientes Mateos was hanged and quartered in Seville.
A robber who plied the roads from Portugal to his native Seville, Corrientes (English Wikpedia entry | Spanish) was said to be of farmworker stock himself. His consequent good treatment of the rural common folk enabled him to operate with great freedom and situated him as a Robin Hood character; folklore has consequently inflated the valor of his exploits and the bile of Sheriff of Nottinghamesque pursuers like the lieutenant governor of Seville. For example, surprising his adversary on one occasion, Corrientes is supposed to have remarked, “I have learned that you boast you will be able to capture me.”
“Yes, and hang you,” shot back Francisco de Bruna.
“Then I must spare your life so you can fulfill your promise,” the sporting Corrietes allowed. (The reader will discern that Francisco de Bruna soon made good his threat.)
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.”