Posts filed under 'Language'

1555: John Bradford, in the grace of God

Add comment July 1st, 2016 Headsman

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.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,God,Heresy,History,Language,Martyrs,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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1815: Six militiamen, Andrew Jackson’s electoral dirty laundry

Add comment February 21st, 2015 Headsman

If present-day electoral politics strike you as disreputable, take comfort in the knowledge that the Republic has survived its share of low-down, brass-knuckle campaigns in the past. The presidential election of 1828 might have been the very dirtiest.

This race pitted incumbent John Quincy Adams, the silver-spoon New Englander and son of Federalist founding father John Adams, against Andrew Jackson, the uncouth self-made westerner of Scotch peasant stock. Jackson was [in]famous for his duels, and his willingness to push the envelope on acceptable use of the military forces he commanded. Some foes saw him as an American Napoleon; some supporters, likewise.

One of the juiciest gobs of slung mud in that 1828 campaign involved Jackson’s actions as a Major General during the War of 1812, and specifically right around the Battle of New Orleans.

Karl Rove would have approved of this tactical attack on the strength of a candidate, for it was to this service that Jackson owed his national repute. De Tocqueville, who considered Jackson “a man of violent temper and very moderate talents,” said that he “was raised to the Presidency, and has been maintained there, solely by the recollection of a victory which he gained, twenty years ago, under the walls of New Orleans.”*

At any rate, back in 1815, when army regulars were engaged on the east coast (or in the quixotic attempt to invade Canada), battle in the south and west pitted shaky American militia against British-allied Indian tribes in dirty, bloody ethnic cleansing.

Immediately prior to New Orleans, Jackson, west Tennessee’s biggest landowner and therefore its militia commander, took his forces south to Alabama, combined them with other militia, and routed the Creek, ending the Creek War subplot to the War of 1812. ‘Twas this conquest gave Jackson his “Old Hickory” nickname for controlling the Muscogee Creeks of Hickory Ground.

Cool beans for A.J., but not everyone on his team was equally excited.

After the Creek surrendered at the newly-raised Fort Jackson — vanity, vanity, all is vanity! — a number of soldiers stationed there with the 1st Regiment West Tennessee Militia started agitating to pack up and leave, even with the British navy still lurking. Come September, some even went so far as to demonstratively tramp out of Fort Jackson, vowing to return to hearth and home.

These were not enlisted soldiers of a standing army, so they did not necessarily conceive themselves bound to fight the British in Louisiana or the Creeks in Alabama: rights and obligations and loyalties were still being sorted out in the young Republic. These deserters had, however, been mustered that June for an announced six-month term, and September was only three months later. Moreover, these weren’t the only rumblings of desertion in Jackson’s ambit, and since he was potentially facing the prospect of defending the whole Gulf Coast against the world’s preeminent military power using nothing but a motley collection of farmers, Indian allies, pirates, and what-have-you, Old Hickory was not inclined to countenance anything that could erode his forces’ tenuous unity. Like George Washington before him, Jackson shot some malcontents today to pre-empt trouble tomorrow.

On November 21, 1814, Jackson ordered the six deserters/mutineers to court-martial. The next day, he departed to New Orleans where he would cover himself with glory.

After winning that battle, Jackson adjudicated a message from the Alabama court-martial, announcing six men condemned who had not been recommended for leniency.

As is well-known, the War of 1812 had officially been settled by treaty for weeks at this point, but it took approximately f.o.r.e.v.e.r for word to get around in these pre-telegraph days. Jackson didn’t know the war was over: he did know that British ships were still lurking around in the Gulf. (They also didn’t know the war was over.)

So Jackson behaved just as if he had a going conflict on his hands and sent back confirmation of the sentences. His six mutineers were shot kneeling on their coffins before 1,500 troops in Mobile, Ala. on February 21, 1815. Only after that did everybody (British included) find out that there wasn’t anything left to fight for.

But when Andrew Jackson eventually ran for U.S. President in 1828, the poor militiamen were exhumed (only metaphorically!) to traduce the general, whose reputation already ran to the bloodthirsty. This was a country where a great many of the men casting ballots would be, actually or potentially, subject to militia duty: the prospect of a frontier Queeg actually executing militia was calculated to impair Jackson’s famous appeal to the common man and raise the specter of the president as a potential strongman.

Propaganda pamphlets circulated this execution story widely that year, the swiftboating of the 19th century.

Their inevitable inclusion of six coffin-shaped blocks to symbolize the dead men this date eventually gave to anti-Jackson broadsides the name “Coffin Handbills” — a term that eventually extended to the entire genre of political libels. This linguistic relic is surely due for a bicentennial resurrection.

Sordid campaigning over Jackson’s questionable military freelancing was somewhat ironic in 1828, since Jackson also had that reputation from his extra-legal Florida incursions, after the War of 1812. Those adventures rankled many within the Monroe administration, but were stoutly defended by Monroe’s Secretary of State — none other than John Quincy Adams. (Adams’s own signature graces the 1819 treaty with Spain which ceded Florida; it was largely secured by Jackson’s depredations.)

Irony or no, the attacks had to be dealt with.

Jackson’s partisans responded with equal vigor. For instance, newspapers (the excerpt below comes from the May 1, 1828 Maryland Gazette) carried a lengthy vindication penned by a Jackson partisan and fellow-Tennessean then sitting his first term in Congress … but destined in time to follow Jackson to the White House.**

I had supposed it scarcely possible that any candid, intelligent man, could for a moment doubt the correctness of General Jackson’s conduct, in relation to this subject … No man has ever been more misrepresented and slandered by his political adversaries than Gen. Jackson, and upon no subject more than that in relation to the execution of the ‘six militia men.’ …

The corps to which the ‘six militiamen’ belonged, was stationed at Fort Jackson. Between the 10th and 20th of September 1814, before the period even of three months, much less six months, had expired, an alarming mutiny, such as was seldom ever witnessed in any army, took place in the camp, of which these ‘six militia men’ were the ringleaders. Harris who seems to have been the principal, several days before the mutiny broke out, carried about a subscription paper thro’ the camp, obtaining the signatures of all who would agree to go home. In defiance of their officers commanding the post, they on the 19th of September 1814, violently and tumultuously assembled together, to the number of near two hundred, broke open the public stores, took out provisions, demolished the bake house, shot down breves, and in the face of authority, left the camp on the next morning ‘at the end of revielle beat;’ yelling and firing scattering guns as they departed, proclaiming to all who would, to follow them.

Th proceedings of the court martial were forwarded to General Jackson then at New Orleans, for his approval. The six ringleaders were not recommended to mercy by the court martial. No palliating circumstances existed in their case, known to him. He knew they had been tried by a court martial composed of their fellow citizens and neighbours at home. The news of peace had not then arrived. The enemy’s forces were still in our waters and on our border. When an attack might be made was unknown, and the militia under General Winchester‘s command at Mobile, were ‘threatening to mutiny.’ … General Jackson saw that the salvation of the country was still in jeopardy, if subordination was not preserved in the army. He approved the sentence, and these six unfortunate, tho’ guilty men, were executed. This approval of the sentence of the court martial was made at New Orleans on the 22d of January, 1815. The first intimation which the General had of the news of peace even by rumour, was received on the 18th or 19th of February, 1815 … Col. G.C. Russell, who commanded on the day the sentence of the court martial was carried into execution, states in a letter of the 29th of July, 1827, that ‘we had no knowledge of a treaty of peace having been signed at Ghent, till more than a month after the approval of the sentence, and fifteen or twenty days after its execution.’ The official news of peace did not reach General Jackson until the 18th of March, 1815, and on the 19th of the same month, the British commander received the official intelligence from his government. It was not until after this period that the British forces left their position on that border of the union.

The effect which the execution of these men produced in the army was most salutary. Not a whisper was afterwards heard of the mutiny which had threatened General Winchester’s command. Subordination was restored, and all the troops in the service were willing, and did without a murmur perform their duty. Mutiny and desertion were no longer heard of in that part of the military service.

it is impossible to conceive how censure can attach to General Jackson. At the time he approved the sentence of the six ringleaders, he pardoned all those who had been recommended to mercy by the court martial that tried them. At the time of the execution all acquiesced in its justice. Every officer in the army responded to the importance of the example, for the good of the service. At that time the whole country was satisfied. Not a whisper of censure was heard against the commanding General, or any member of the court martial in reference to it.

-James K. Polk

Polk, indeed, advised his friend Jackson closely during the latter’s 1828 campaign, and specifically counseled an active campaign to rebut the “six militiamen” attacks.

Polk’s energetic response and others like it must have worked well enough: Jackson crushed John Quincy Adams as handily as he had once done the Creeks, and wound up with his hatchet face on the American $20 bill.

* The De Tocqueville quote in the text is the part germane to this post, but it disdainfully goes on to pronounce New Orleans “a victory which was, however, a very ordinary achievement and which could only be remembered in a country where battles are rare. Now the people who are thus carried away by the illusions of glory are unquestionably the most cold and calculating, the most unmilitary, if I may so speak, and the most prosaic of all the nations of the earth.” Sniff.

** And to follow Jackson’s policy of dubious southerly land-grabs.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,Execution,History,Language,Mass Executions,Military Crimes,Mutiny,Notable Participants,Popular Culture,Shot,Soldiers,Tennessee,USA,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1864: Franz Muller, “Ich habe es getan”

2 comments November 14th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1864, German tailor Franz Muller hanged before an unruly London mob estimated near 50,000 angry souls.

Muller was among Britain’s last public hangings, before executions disappeared behind prison walls four years later. But what he’d done was a first, and father to a legion of detective novels and dinner theater: Muller committed the first murder on a British train.

Certainly Muller’s motive was as pedestrian as his locomotion was unusual, for the victim was a 69-year-old banker who was relieved of a gold watch and gold spectacles, then pitched out of his compartment onto an embankment on a North London commuter train.

This operation was facilitated and — so conceived a public that was spellbound by the crime — poor Mr. Thomas Briggs’s escape prevented by the then-prevalent use of the compartment coach, a railcar design without any interior corridor communicating between the berths. As each compartment opened only to the outside, passengers were stuck in their rooms between stations (and ticket-takers had to scuttle hazardously along exterior running-boards). Known in much of Europe as the English coach, these designs would quickly lose popularity thanks in part to this very affair.*

In a sense, these spaces just translated into the industrial era the age-old terrors that stalked travelers. It must be this that accounts for the extraordinary interest the public took in Briggs and Muller: in a sealed compartment, face to face with a desperate man, one would be as nakedly vulnerable as the lone rider on the roads of yesteryear quailing at the shadow of Dick Turpin. London businessmen did not expect such harrowing encounters on their daily commute.

A reward soon yielded a tip that put police onto this working-class immigrant Muller — the man sure ticked every box for a proper moral panic — who had dropped into a Cheapside jeweler’s** shop two days after the murder to exchange a gold chain (later identified as Briggs’s chain), and hopped a ship to New York soon thereafter. Inspectors took a faster ship and beat him to the Big Apple. He still had Briggs’s watch and top hat on his person, the latter ingeniously cut down.†

In a recent book about Briggs’s murder, Kate Colquhoun argues that despite the verdict, Britons “never quite felt they got to the bottom of” why the murder occurred. It’s commonly supposed that Muller didn’t intend to slay his victim and perhaps didn’t even realize he had done so.

Muller’s disarmingly amiable personality contrasted sharply with the circumstantial but persuasive evidence of a violent bandit; he struck the men who awaited him in New York as having been genuinely surprised by his arrest. Muller himself denied his guilt throughout a breathlessly reported three-day trial and even pressed for a stay of execution claiming to have developed new evidence of his innocence.

There was no stay, and only at the very last moment before the drop fell did the condemned youth succumb to the pressure of the German-speaking Lutheran clergyman who had been his companion in the last days to confess himself of the crime with the words Ich habe es getan.

Rev. Louis Cappel, whose immediate public announcement of this solemn unburdening played better as theater than as ministry, later explained in a letter to the London Times‡ (Nov. 16, 1864) that

the unhappy man declared he was innocent not while, but before, the Sacrament was being administered to him. Soon after entering his cell on the last morning I asked Muller again whether he was guilty of this murder. He denied it. I then said, “Muller, the moments are precious; we must turn our minds wholly to God; I shall question you no more about this, but my last words to you will be, ‘Are you innocent?'”

He remained silent for a minute or two, but presently exclaimed, his eyes full of tears, and clasping his arms round my neck, “Do not forsake me; stay with me to the last.”

* As a stopgap safety measure in the following years, before the widespread introduction of cars with interior corridors, existing compartment coaches were fitted with peepholes (called “Muller’s lights”) between compartments as well as wires enabling passengers to ring the alarm

** Submitted without comment: the jeweler’s name was John Death.

† Muller’s truncated-top-hat design actually enjoyed a brief fashion vogue that became named for him as a “Muller cut-down”.

‡ Consonant with the growing elite consensus on the matter, half the Times‘ execution coverage — a full column and a half of newsprint — was dedicated to excoriating the “lawless ruffianism” of the jeering hang-day mob.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Language,Milestones,Murder,Pelf,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Theft

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2,500 days: Still hanging around

2 comments September 3rd, 2014 Headsman

Today’s admittedly slight entry is a milestone not only for Finland but for this site as well: it’s the 2,500th consecutive day we’ve posted since we launched on Halloween all the way back in 2007, roughly two or three Ice Ages in Internet years. Lord knows the site design looks it.

One can well doubt the utility of passing the epoch in execution-hunting. But if there is one thing that thousands of hours over 2,500 days plumbing archives for scaffold stories confers, it’s a certain facility with the subject matter. I’ve read an awful many literary products from many a time and place, on the occasion of this rare meta-post, I’d like to mine them in service of a petty peeve.

There is a certain English convention favoring the use of the word “hanged” to refer to the execution of a human at the end of a rope, in contravention to the word “hung” in every other imaginable context of a dangling past participle. Though this is certainly an intervention in an ancient argument that tends to generate more heat than light, I do wish it understood in no uncertain terms that a vast concourse of primary literature testifies that it is perfectly acceptable to use “hung” to refer to an execution.

While I have my own preference and peccadillos about language, I associate most readily with the descriptivist camp.

But I hope to convince you, gentle reader, that for us to hang together on this matter it is not even unnecessary that you share my readiness to welcome ever more shocking barbarisms into the tongue.


The verb to hang derives from two different Old English words, hon (intransitive) and hangian (intransitive). A good thousand years ago, hon and hangian collapsed into a single word, whose dominant past tense across the board was hanged. Centuries after that, the alternate form hung migrated out of the north of England and basically crowded out the old hanged past participle, sort of like snuck is doing to sneaked today. No doubt the pubs of old rang in their day with outrage that apprentices these days no longer said hanged my codpiece but preferred this degenerate novelty quasi-word instead.

Ever thus. Anyway, when all was said and hung, hanged only hanged on to its archaic noosey usage, perpetuated by innumerable formulaic judicial sentences. It’s hanged right onto it all the way down to the present.


Let’s just see about that.

However, there’s never been any sort divinely inscribed rule to halt the advance of hung at the edge of the scaffold — nor has that been the consensus practice of actual English speakers over the generations.

It’s practically mandatory among the descriptivist set to roll out the 1994 Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage on this subject. The source has its detractors and other dictionaries argue differently, but underscore at a minimum its point as to the worth of the distinction. Sure, your teacher, like mine, probably told you that “pictures are hung and people are hanged,” and hanged is certainly a correct word for what the hangman did. But …

Our evidence shows that hung for hanged is certainly not an error. Educated speakers and writers use it commonly and have for many years … Hanged is, however, more common than hung in writing. It is especially prevalent when an official execution is being described, but it is used in referring to other types of hanging as well …

The distinction between hanged and hung is not an especially useful one (although a few commentators claim otherwise). It is, however, a simple one and easy to remember. Therein lies its popularity. If you make a point of observing the distinction in your writing you will not thereby become a better writer, but you will spare yourself the annoyance of being corrected for having done something that is not wrong.

Tastes aside — and I will admit to a deeply inculcated preference for “hanged” — what does the language profit by throwing up a Berlin Wall to preserve from hung only this one specific sense of to hang — this sense, and no other? How does the noose, a minuscule enclave of usage, command its own irregularity in 21st century English?


Languages evolve in funny ways, to be sure. Hanged is certainly good for the gallows but less so for your picture, and that alone is an acknowledged oddity.

But it is not only in the 21st century that English has resorted to “hung” to refer to execution, and done so with perfect ease and clarity.

The Merriam-Webster source aforementioned was good enough to provide some of the examples informing its conclusion, and these are repeatedly found in the various forum threads on the Internet where the sorts of readers who make war over the Oxford comma hang out. For example:

“These men were … at last brought to the scaffold and hung.”
-Percy Bysshe Shelley

“I have not the least objection to a rogue being hung.”
-W. M. Thackeray

“The negro murderer was to be hung on a Saturday without pomp.”
-William Faulkner

We could add a few from Executed Today’s voluminous archives ourselves.

“Some of those hung were known personally to Europeans in Tabriz, who are positive that they took no part in the fighting. They were hung simply because they were Constitutionalists.”
-Bertrand Russell

“My father saw four men hung for being with some others who had set fire to a rick.”
-Thomas Hardy

Till was hung yesterday
for murder and rape with trimmings”
-Ezra Pound

Educated, knowledgeable wielders of the language have been right at home with hung in our sense for centuries. These examples tend to elicit the objection that one is cherry-picking a few careless errors every writer makes here and there, and while that has the look of circularity to me — educated speakers don’t say “hung”, so every example to the contrary is by definition a mistake — maybe the problem is a dearth of data points.

Please allow your narrator to remedy this! Two and a half thousand posts in, I’ve seen “hung” used many times in primary (or secondary, but still quite vintage) sources in a wide variety of literary forms and quoted some number of them on the site.


Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch, Feb. 1, 1905

Any individual example of a word’s use can always be defined away. For example, when Thomas Hardy recalled the disturbingly sensuous appeal of a murderess he saw die on the gallows in his youth — “I remember what a fine figure she showed against the sky as she hung in the misty rain and how the tight black silk gown set off her shape as she wheeled half round and back” — one can well note that here he uses “hung” to draw attention not to the execution itself but to the fact of her dangling, her suspended corpse’s impression as an object under his eyes.

Perhaps this is also why our correspondent finds that the beloved thief Skitch “hung but a few seconds, before the rope slipped from the gallows.” It is certainly in this sense that Christ “hung on the cross” because he was physically sagging off it.

And this lyric celebrating Irish “Invincible” Joe Brady would obviously lose the rhyme if it resorted to “hanged”, so artistic license may be admitted as well if it be confined to stylists of poetry and not prose:

It was in Kilmainham Prison the Invincibles were hung.
Mrs Kelly she stood there all in mourning for her son.
She threw back her shawl and said to all:
“Though he fills a lime-pit grave,
My son was no informer and he died a Fenian blade.”

Grammar very quickly becomes the proverbial blind man’s lamppost here, used not for illumination but for support of an ungenerous and predetermined conclusion. But I think the frequency of the examples of “hung” over the years, often used precisely in spots that would induce today’s fastidious language police to fire off a blog comment or tweet, builds a strong case that “hung” has been an acceptable past participle in English for our line of work for a very long time.

While “hanged” is the predominant choice, there are so many instances of “hung” to be dredged from English archival sources that the alternatives are clearly a both/and for writers across several centuries, rather than an either/or.

These official 17th century Middlesex county records, to pick a trifling example, consistently index the various felons “sentenced to be hung.” Much later, the prolific 19th century scribbler George Walter Thornbury‘s Old and New London volumes remark that Lord Sanquhar was “sentenced to be hung till he was dead;” likewise this 1880s tour of York Castle given to the Smithsonian Institute uses the four-letter variant over and over again.

Jonathan Swift’s poetic rogue Tom Clinch went to his death with intrepidity that Swift commended to his readers in a line whose meter could just as easily have borne “hanged”.

Then follow the Practice of clever Tom Clinch,
Who hung like a Hero, and never would flinch.

When Lord Nelson had the Jacobin Neapolitan admiral executed by asphyxiation with a rope attached to a ship’s yardarm on June 29, 1799, he recorded in his journal:

A slight breeze; a cloudy sky. Sentenced, condemned, and hung Francesco Caracciolo.

Ahead to the turn of the 20th century, a lifetime newspaper man paid a different maritime noosing the same four-letter coin when he published a history of his native Brighton:

Crossing the pond, we find the New York Times correspondent reporting the execution of five indigenous Cayuse for perpetrating the Whitman Massacre. “The town,” he reported, “was full of men and women, the former coming to see how the election resulted, and the latter to see how the Indians were hung.” Grammarians may enjoy their chuckle here, but nobody misunderstands the meaning.


New Hampshire Patriot and Gazette, Nov. 29, 1865

Surveying the British suppression of India’s 1857 revolts, Harpers magazine similarly noted that

[s]ome of the mutineers were to be hung, and around the gallows, erected during the night previous, the soldiers were drawn up.

In none of these are the various authors lingering especially over the physical quality of suspension. The word conveys the act of execution, simply and directly.

Even diplomatic cables — whose milieu is a cadre of educated elites — have been seen in these very pages making free use of “hung”:

“Hung” is certainly ubiquitous in the use of everyday speakers who are not literary craftsmen. An eyewitness report to the post-Civil War execution of Confederate guerrilla Sue Mundy:

The fall was not more than three feet, and did not break his neck; he choked to death. We have seen a great many persons hung, but never before did we witness such hard struggles and convulsions.

But this syntax is not confined to the hoi polloi. Even judges — like the one who pronounced sentence on Richard Johnson in 1829 — were known to condemn prisoners to be hung by the neck until dead.

Respectable English newspapers used “hung” sometimes, and without worrying the empire’s fainting-couches, in the 18th and 19th centuries, like the London Times on Fritz Muller’s 1864 hanging:

We’ve seen that even the executioners themselves describe their calling with the word “hung”; more recently, a Liverpool screw recalled the morning of Britain’s last executions for the Telegraph:

At half past seven in the morning, all the prisoners started tapping their cell doors: bang, bang, bang. It just went on. As we got nearer to eight o’clock they started banging quicker: bang, bang, bang, bang. And at eight o’clock exactly they all banged once, hard, and then stopped dead. And I thought, ‘That’s the moment he’s been hung.’ The hairs on the back of my neck went up, they really did. I remember it to this day.

So how many more centuries must the line against common folk saying “hung” be policed to save the Queen’s English from degradation?


I can’t speak readily to the thrust of English in all the many parts of the world that it is spoken, but at least as pertains Great Britain and North America, I do wonder if a wider colonization of the word “hung” in this sphere was unnaturally aborted by the vanishing of the hangman from the Anglo public eye.

Britons have not laid eyes on a public execution in a century and a half; hardly any Americans are still alive who would remember the last one stateside. Although Britain has been fifty years without an execution of any kind, its current frequency of execution by hanging is basically statistically identical to that of the United States. Even allowing for the imprint of judicial executions abroad, or suicides by hanging, most of those who don’t choose to write a daily blog about the death penalty perhaps have altogether less reason to talk or think about hangings than did ancestors milling about the public gallows at Tyburn or the Boston Common.

It’s just a theory.

Two thousand, five hundred posts into this project, only the devil knows how long this site might continue to run or what it will all mean when we come to the end of it. I can only assure the reader that I’ll, er, hang on as long as I can. If the substance of this post can be Executed Today’s legacy, I’ll consider it an epoch well-wasted.

Previous self-congratulatory milestone posts:

  • 2001, musing on the death penalty in literary dystopias
  • 1500, about the Hand of Glory legend
  • 1000 (and one), about the Arabian Nights stories
  • 500, merely a Spartan marking of the date

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Administrative Messages,Language

1530: Francesco Ferruccio, victim of Maramaldo

Add comment August 3rd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1530, Francesco Ferruccio (or just Ferrucci) and his executioner Fabrizio Maramaldo clinched their immortality at the Battle of Gavinana.

The battle was the tragic final scene of the War of the League of Cognac, in which an alliance of Italian city-states tried to expel the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor Charles V from the peninsula. Charles had already in effect decided matters by forcing the French out of the fight, which also brought about the capitulation of the Vatican.

Left alone in the fray, doughty Florence — ever so briefly at this moment restored as a Republic, having given the Medici the boot — continued to hold out against impossible odds. A vast imperial army swollen by landsknechts whose mercenary arms were now unnecessary elsewhere in Italy besieged Florence on October 24, 1529.


The Siege of Florence, by Tuscan Renaissance Man Giorgio Vasari.

The intrepid Florentine commander Francesco Ferruccio (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) strove to take his hopeless fight to the enemy. After a plan to coerce papal support by striking Rome was vetoed, Ferruccio mounted a march through the Apennines to threaten the Imperials’ rear.

He was intercepted at Gavinana, a battle decided by the arrival of landsknecht reinforcements under the command of the notoriously cruel condottiere Fabrizio Maramaldo.

Maramaldo would elevate himself for posterity out of the ranks of his merely brutal brethren by finding Ferruccio, badly wounded, his prisoner, and putting him to immediate death by his own hand — an execution that resulted in Florentine capitulation one week later, and the installation of Alessandro de’ Medici as Duke of the now ex-Republic.*

While admittedly borderline as an “execution” suitable for this here site, Ferruccio’s defiance in the face of his killer and his last denunciation of Maramaldo — “Coward, you kill a dead man!” — became the stuff of legend in a later Italy. (It also helped Ferruccio’s case for the nationalist pantheon that he died fighting against the Germans, not against the next city-state over.)

The romantic novelist Francesco Domenico Guerrazzi** made Ferruccio the subject of his magnum opus L’Assedio di Firenze, and before you knew it the name was on the lips of every risorgimento Tom, Dick and Francesco. Garibaldi invoked him in speech; Goffredo Mameli wrote him into the national anthem.


Every man has the heart
and hand of Ferruccio …

Under the Italian state those men helped to make, Ferruccio was appropriated as the name of a battleship; fascist Italy especially found Ferruccio congenial to the national-pride project and valorized the martyr relentlessly.


1930 Fascist Italy stamp depicting — for the 400th anniversary of the occasion — Fabrizio Maramaldo murdering his prisoner Francesco Ferruccio. Other Februccio stamps from the same period can be found on the man’s Italian Wikipedia page.

For Maramaldo, a less flattering but possibly more durable legacy: Italian gained the noun maramaldo, the adjective maramaldesco, and the verb maramaldeggiare to signify bullying or cruel domineering.

* Alessandro had a reputation for despotism, and was assassinated a few years later by his cousin Lorenzino de’ Medici in a tyrannicide that was Brutus-like in both its motivation and effect. That later affair is the subject of the 19th century play Lorenzaccio.

** Guerrazzi also did his bit for the legend of Beatrice Cenci.

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Feast Day of St. Vitus

Add comment June 15th, 2014 Headsman

June 15 is the feast date of the early Christian saint and martyr Vitus.

The 6th century roster Martyrologium Hieronymianum gives us “In Sicilia, Viti, Modesti et Crescentiae”. From this nub grew a legend of the young child of a Roman Senator who turned to Christianity and would not apostatize, fleeing finally to Lucania with his tutor Modestus and his nanny Crescentia and eventually exorcising a demon possessing the son of the Christian-hunting, Empire-quartering Roman sovereign Diocletian. They were all — boy, tutor, and nanny — tortured to death for their troubles; that occurred either by means of or (manifesting God’s customary disdain for the pagan persecutors) after surviving execution in a boiling pot, which has become Vitus’s most typical iconographical emblem. (For example, as seen on the coat of arms of the Austrian town Sankt Veit im Pongau.)


The Martyrdom of St. Vitus, anonymous c. 1450 painting

This story doesn’t have much historical merit, but shrines and chapels to Vitus date as far back as the 5th century so Vitus, whomever he was, had real importance to early Christians.

His cult became especially prominent in medieval central Europe. Prague’s imposing Gothic cathedral bears his name, because Wenceslaus, Duke of Bohemia* allegedly retrieved for it the saint’s arm in a reliquary.**

While many places are dedicated to St. Vitus in Germany, Hungary, and Croatia, the man has red-letter treatment in Serbia — owing to this also being the date in 1389 that the Serbs’ Tsar Lazar was martyred by the Turks at the Battle of Kosovo. As a result, the feast date Vidovdan is a major celebration in Serbia (and to some extent Bulgaria and Macedonia), where it is observed on June 28th — the Gregorian date presently corresponding to the Julian calendar’s June 15th.

The same Vitus who cheers Balkan nationalists trod a completely different path into medical textbooks.

For centuries, Europeans were known to break out in curious ecstatic mass dancing, even sometimes dancing themselves to death. Generally believed today to be psychosocial afflictions, these dancing manias became widely associated with St. Vitus (his patronage includes both dancers and epileptics), whose intercession would be sought to calm the capering souls.

Dancing manias stopped happening in the 17th century or so, but the link between Vitus and involuntary rollick gave the name St. Vitus’s Dance to the condition Syndenham’s chorea — which is characterized by uncontrolled dance-like movement.

* The very Good King Wenceslaus who looked down on the feast of Stephen.

** Speculatively, Sanct Vid might have been selected for Christian veneration in this area to facilitate replacement of the similarly-named Slavic god Svantovid. An active (albeit declining) pagan community persisted in Prague as late as the 12th century.

As with most Slavic deities, Svantovid’s exact characteristics and the extent of his veneration are very poorly documented; however, in 1168, the Wendish fortress of Arkona was conquered by the Danes and the forced Christianization of its inhabitants is commemorated in Laurits Tuxen‘s late 19th century image of Archbishop Absalon casting down Arkona’s idol of Svantovid. (It’s also commemorated by the name of the neo-pagan Russian metal band Arkona.)

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1824: Antonio Brochetti, galley-dodger

Add comment May 22nd, 2014 Headsman

From Henry-Clement Sanson‘s memoirs:

On May 22 the scaffold was again erected for the execution of an Italian, a native of Rome, named Antonio Brochetti. He was imprisoned at Bicetre at the time of the murder, he having been previously sentenced to hard labour for life. He killed one of the turnkeys, with no other object than putting an end to his own life. Life in a prison or in the hulks seemed to him a much more severe punishment than death. His wish was fulfilled; he was condemned to death, and executed on the Place de Greve five days after, at four o’clock in the afternoon.

He went to the scaffold with eagerness. “I would rather die a thousand times than go to the hulks!” he exclaimed several times. Since Brochetti’s execution the severity displayed in French penitentiaries has increased; and his example has been followed by many.

“Galley slavery” in the antique Ben-Hur sense had been a mainstay of European navies since France got the bright idea to address a shortage of oarsmen by making press gangs out of magistrates. This idea was widely copied, and intensified.

At their peak in 1690, French galleys had 15,000 under oars — captured Turks, defeated Huguenots, slaves seized from Africa and North America, and, of course, criminals or anyone who could be construed as such.

Yet even by this time the galley was virtually obsolete as a military asset; Paul Bamford argues that they were maintained for pageantry and (internal) state-building for the French crown. Thus, as the 18th century unfolded, “galley” slaves were increasingly used for hard labor on the docks and in the arsenals — still-brutal punishment in a similar spirit, but no longer literally pulling an oar. By 1748, they were at last formally subsumed into a network of port prisons.

By this late date, however, usage had established the word galérien for convict galley-slaves so firmly that it persisted even now with the new redefinition.** (Italian still to this day has la galera for prison: the acme of seagoing Italian city-states coincided with that of the galley.)


Galleys’ greatest day: the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.

* Lionel Casson (in “Galley Slaves” from the Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, vol. 97 (1966)) dates this to a January 22, 1443 edict of Charles VII conferring on merchant Jacques Coeur the right to impress vagabonds into his fleet.

** Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean (Les Miserables) was a galley-slave; he would have been by Antonio Brochetti’s time just a few years out of the galleys himself.

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1860: Ann Bilansky

Add comment March 23rd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1860, Ann Bilansky was hanged in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Bilansky — her Christian name is given as Ann, Anne, or Anna in various reports — was condemned for poisoning her husband, an immigrant Polish saloonkeeper named Stanislaus, so that she could get with her bit on the side.

Just a couple of weeks before Stanislaus’s unexpected March 1860 demise, Ann had gone with a friend to a local drug store and picked up a bit of the deadly powder, allegedly to deal with vermin. (This was arsenic’s very common, legitimate use.) She suspiciously tried to get her friend to put the purchase in her name.

The community suspected Ann a murderess as soon as Stanislaus dropped dead. She showed far less evident grief about her spouse than could possibly suffice for decency, and one local snoop peeped on her being a very merry widow indeed with her suspected paramour … on the very day after the funeral. Call it one for the road: the late husband’s stomach, when autopsied, had revealed that suspicious rat poison. She was soon behind bars, and would be convicted with ease.

(In July 1859, she escaped through a window of the barely-secure jail, rendezvoused with her old lover, and fled to the countryside. It was a week before the law collared her.)

Ann Bilansky continued to maintain her innocence at trial, in jail, and all the way to the scaffold. She reveled in the attention her case garnered and plied numerous visitors with claims of innocence and minute supposed errors in her trial. “She was a complete pettifogger,” said a newspaperman, “and had imbibed an opinion, which is common among better informed people, that technicalities could defeat justice in every case.”

But the versions of events she pushed on her many callers stood so starkly at odds with the evidence and the popular sense of her guilt that she even found her way into the local idiom for a time: a St. Paul resident could drolly call b.s. on someone by remarking, “You have been to see Mrs. Bilansky.”

Still, she was a condemned woman — and from the sound of it a rather appealing one — who asserted her innocence, and this meant she did not want for supporters. Legislators were among her jailhouse social circle, and she had enough sympathetic lawmakers that both the House and Senate actually passed a private bill for commutation of her sentence. Gov. Alexander Ramsey vetoed it.

Other visitors arrived bearing more forceful means of liberation: one slipped her chloroform, to disable the guards; a female visitor got caught in the act of trying to swap clothes with the doomed woman. Ann Bilansky even copped to having a specific family that she had arranged to hide out with if she could get out.

She just never quite managed the trick.

Ann Bilansky’s death was accounted a good one by the metrics of gallows-conduct: she did not faint or quail at the sight of the rope, or beg unbecomingly for mercy. But her last words plainly indicate that although she may have reconciled herself to death, she was not in the end at peace with the events that had brought about her end. (Many observers thought she entertained hope for the dramatic arrival of a last-second pardon.)

I die without having had any mercy shown me, or justice. I die for the good of my soul, and not for murder. May you all profit by my death. Your courts of justice are not courts of justice — but I will yet get justice in Heaven. I am a guilty woman I know, but not of this murder, which was committed by another. I forgive everybody who did me wrong. I die a sacrifice to the law. I hope you all may be judged better than I have been, and by a more righteous judge. I die prepared to meet my God.

Bilansky was the first woman executed in the state of Minnesota. (Minnesota had just become a state in 1858.) She remains to this date the last, and since Minnesota has no death penalty at present, she figures to keep the distinction for the foreseeable future.

Source: April 3, 1860 New York Herald

Part of the Themed Set: Arsenic.

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Feast Day of Saints Crispin and Crispinian

Add comment October 25th, 2013 Headsman

This day is called the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day and comes safe home,
Will stand o’ tiptoe when the day is named
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall see this day, and live old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbors
And say, “Tomorrow is Saint Crispian.”
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say, “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.”

…And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.

-Henry V, Act 4, Scene 3

Though the band of brothers is much better-known than Crispin and Crispinian themselves, Shakespeare’s immortal verse alludes to a pair of questionable third-century martyrs whose feast date this is.

They were supposedly Christian missionaries proselytizing in Gaul, or possibly Britain,* and there made to suffer for the faith under Diocletian‘s persecutions: Crispin Crispian’s version of the period’s characteristic “execution survived” story has them being pitched into the drink with millstones, but failing to drown. As usual, the Romans had more methods in reserve than God had escapes.

Somewhat derogated latterly since their historicity is so shaky, C+C are the patrons of leather workers and related professions including tanners, saddlers and cobblers.

And in the great spirit of reappropriating ancient martyrs, fellows this handy with thongs and harnesses were claimed by one Toronto church as patrons of leather fetishists.

“These wounds I had on Crispin’s Day” indeed.

Oh, and speaking of St. Crispin’s Day and war and literature, October 25 is the anniversary not only of Agincourt but also of the Crimean War battle that inspired Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade”.

Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell
Rode the six hundred.

* There’s a Crispin and Crispianus pub in England dating all the way to Templar times and later frequented by novelist and public hanging scold Charles Dickens.

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356 BCE: Herostratus burns the Temple of Artemis

3 comments July 21st, 2013 Headsman

By the ancient world’s tradition, it was on July 21, 356 — the night of Alexander the Great‘s birth* — that a theretofore forgettable man set fire to the wooden rafters of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus.

Situated on the Hellenized coast of Asia Minor, near present-day Selcuk, Turkey, Ephesus was one of the great cities of the Mediterranean. It counted Artemis (Diana) its patron deity, and gloried in a jaw-dropping marble temple, bankrolled two centuries before by the Lydian king Croesus, that would have nearly covered a modern football pitch. Ephesians took their Artemis seriously: 400-plus years later, St. Paul would barely escape lynching at the hands of enraged Artemis devotees when he proselytized there.

What a horror it must have been for 4th century BCE Ephesians to awake this day to the destruction of their city’s own sacred pride.

Even more shockingly, the temple’s destroyer made no effort to conceal himself. He openly boasted of his act, and of the horrifying reason for it: merely to exalt his obscure name with the luster of infamy.

Ephesus not only put this man to death, but passed a damnatio memoriae upon him, forbidding any mention of his name, in order to deny him his victory.

But the the historian Theopompus, who was not Ephesian, cheated the city of its sentence by recording it: Herostratus. It’s a word that has become a metonym in many languages and an allegory in many books for any villain impelled to his wickedness by the allure of celebrity.

We have no specific date for Herostratus’s execution. But we do have his last tortured victory. We do have his name.

The Ephesians in time rebuilt the magnificent temple, bigger and more awe-inspiring than before. It stood some 600 years more until the Goths sacked it in 268 AD, long enough to secure its place among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

“I have set eyes on the wall of lofty Babylon on which is a road for chariots, and the statue of Zeus by the Alpheus, and the hanging gardens, and the colossus of the Sun, and the huge labour of the high pyramids, and the vast tomb of Mausolus,” wrote Antipater of Sidon of the reconstructed, post-Herostratus temple. “But when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, ‘Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on aught so grand.'”


The Temple of Artemis today: a weedy rubble. (cc) image from LWY.

* Plutarch remarked that Artemis was too distracted delivering the conqueror into the world to protect her shrine.

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