Posts filed under 'Public Executions'

1746: Francis Towneley, of the Forty-Five

Add comment July 30th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1746,* the English Jacobite Francis Towneley was hanged, drawn and quartered at London’s Kennington Park.

This Lancashire Catholic had relocated residence and loyalty to France at age 19 in 1728, and fought in that country’s army. He was right at the sweet spot of veteran seasoning and youthful enterprise by the time “the Forty-Five” rolled around: the last great Jacobite rising to reverse the Glorious Revolution and re-enthrone the dispossessed heirs of King James.

With British armies deployed around Europe and the colonies in the 1740s during the War of Austrian Succession, the French decided to back a Jacobite bid to restore the exiled Stuart pretender, using the customary geopolitical strategem of teaming up with the Scottish. Being a Lancashire local, Towneley was commissioned a colonel and dispatched as an advance party to Manchester to scare up a regiment of Stuart loyalists there who would join up with Highlanders on the march from points north.

Towneley’s Manchester Regiment turned out to number just 300 hardscrabble souls. Discouraged by the thin show of public support — and by reports of a large loyalist army that turned out to be pure bluff — the Jacobites retreated, dropping off Col. Towneley’s regiment on the way to garrison Carlisle. Just days later, this small rearguard was overrun and forced into unconditional surrender by a guy named William the Butcher. This wasn’t destined to end well.

Towneley’s legal defense made the case that he was a commissioned officer of France, and not of the Stuarts themselves, which made him a prisoner of war rather than a traitor, an interesting debating point for barstool barristers but the sort of jurisprudence that will inevitably be determined in the breach by policy instead of principle. Policy in this instance was not to go easy on the Jacobites.

After he had hung for six minutes, he was cut down, and, having life in him, as he lay on the block to be quartered, the executioner gave him several blows on the breast, which not having the effect designed, he immediately cut his throat: after which he took his head off then ripped him open, and took out his bowels and threw them into the fire which consumed them, then he slashed his four quarters, put them with the head into a coffin, and they were deposited till Saturday, August 2nd, when his head was put on Temple Bar, and his body and limbs suffered to be buried.

Towneley’s family still had his severed, spike-holed head into the 20th century, when they finally interred the macabre mememto.

* We’re sticking with the local date in England here. England was still on the Julian calendar at this point (though for just a few years more). You’ll also see August 10 cites out there: that’s the equivalent date on the Gregorian calendar, which was current in France and throughout Europe’s Catholic realms.

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1847: Manuel Antonio Ay, Caste War harbinger

Add comment July 26th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1847, the execution of Maya leader Manuel Antonio Ay in Valladolid kicked off the Yucatan’s decades-long Caste War.

Under Spanish administration, Mexico had a dizzying 16-tiered racial caste hierarchy.

The casta system was officially abolished when Mexico attained independence in 1821, but for Amerindians the newfound equality was more aspirational than real. It’s just that now they were looking up at Mexican-born criollo elites instead of Iberia-born peninsulares.

Either caste’s powers that be had long found found the Maya especially contumacious subjects; a Yucatan Mayan stronghold had, indeed, been the very last unconquered indigenous realm of the Americas to fall to Europeans — as late as 1697.

In 1846, a heavily Maya Yucatecan peasantry, strained by the economic extractions the Mexican state was imposing for its disastrous war with the United States, began rising against the overweening local gentry.

The progress and organization of these disturbances varied, but it’s the execution of our man, the 27-year-old chief of the village Chichimila, that traditionally marks turning-point galvanizing a full-scale rebellion. On July 18, as armed Maya regiments gathered in nearby Tihosuco, Valladolid’s authorities seized Miguel Antonio Ay for planning a rebellion. He had in his possession a letter from Bonifacio Novelo, a major Maya chief who would become one of the Caste War’s leading figures in the years to come — indeed, Terry Rugeley says in Yucatan’s Maya Peasantry and the Origins of the Caste War that Ay served for his persecutors as “a temporary substitute for Novelo, whom officials feared and hated more than any Maya.”

They’d never lay hands on Novelo, but his substitute was executed in the town square of Valladolid, and the body returned to exhibit in Chichimila in a futile attempt to cow resistance: Ay had, instead, become the first martyr of the coming war. Three days later, the gathering Maya army sacked the village of Tepich, beheading the colonel who commanded its defenses — the onset of generations of general war that persisted into the 20th century.

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1785: John Winship, family planner

2 comments July 25th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1785, a Sunderland-area farmer named John Winship was hanged for killing his Grace Smith maidservant with a poisonous draught of corrosive mercury sublimate which Winship had intended to induce an abortion.

His body was delivered to a local surgeon, who autopsied it and “in the presence of many gentlemen of the faculty” lectured on Winship’s organs as he dug them out (and extracted two intestinal worms).

the doctrine of the late Mr. Hewson, F.R.S. was demonstrated, that, in executions of this kind, death is not produced, as has been generally supposed, by an extravation of blood, occasioned by the rupture of the vessels of the brain, but by suffocation: as in the case of drowning, etc. (Newcastle Courant, July 30, 1785, quoted in this anti-abortion tract)

Grace Smith, who died four agonizing days after she ingested the toxin, perhaps did not sympathize with her killer’s strangulation as much as might be proper.

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1683: Lord Russell, Whig martyr

Add comment July 21st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1683 at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London the great Whig parliamentarian William, Lord Russell was beheaded with a legendary want of dexterity by Jack Ketch.

The third son of the Earl (later Duke) of Bedford, Lord Russell emerged from a decade of comfortable obscurity in the Parliament’s back benches to become a leading exponent of the nascent Whigs* opposed to royal absolutism and to Catholicism — two heads of the same coin, for the Whigs, given that the heir presumptive James had controversially converted to Catholicism.

The national freakout from 1678 over an alleged “Popish Plot” to undo Old Blighty gave Russell his cause; his leadership of the resulting parliamentary bid to exclude James from royal succession made the gregarious Russell “the governing man in the House of Commons”.

Lord Russell was a man of great candour, and of general reputation; universally beloved and trusted; of a generous and obliging temper,” his friend Gilbert Burnet recorded of our man. “He had given such proofs of an undaunted courage and of an unshaken firmness, that I never knew any man have so entire a credit in the nation as he had.”

Russell was, Burnet allowed, “a slow man, and of little discourse, but he had a true judgment, when he considered things at his own leisure: his understanding was not defective; but his virtues were so eminent, that they would have more than balanced real defects, if any had been found in the other.”

Chief among those virtues was his wholehearted sincerity for his cause — a passion the source of both his renown, and his destruction. Russell was heard to espouse the view that James ought not merely be excluded from succession, but executed like his father.

Matters never quite approached that point, but the crisis provoked by the Exclusion Bill firebrands led King Charles II to dissolve parliament in 1681, depriving the Whigs of their legal perch. In the ensuing years politics played out not as legislation but conspiracy, and the crown’s rather more successful harassment of same: many of the chief Whig actors were driven offstage to scaffolds, dungeons, or continental exile.

The half-dozen most eminent Whigs remaining — to whom, besides Lord Russell, we number the king’s illegitimate son Monmouth, the Earl of Essex, Baron Howard of Escrick,** Algernon Sidney, and John Hampden† — formed a sort of informal Council of Six who met secretly to consider the bad options available to the fractured Whig movement. Some section of the wider Whig network in which this Council operated turned eventually to considering the most desperate of measures.

Their Rye House Plot schemed to waylay and assassinate the royal person near a fortified manor handily on the king’s route back to London from the Newmarket races. It was owned then by a radical former soldier of Cromwell‘s New Model Army.

It has been long debated to what extent any of the top Whigs knew of or actively participated in this Guy Fawkesian plot, or its complement, a projected armed rising of the sort that Monmouth would indeed mount in 1685. One school of thought is that the Tories seized it as an expedient to eviscerate the remaining Whig leadership by conflating the entire movement with a regicidal scheme; another is that the Whig insistence upon its martyrs’ innocence — and Lord Russell is the chief man in this pantheon — has amounted to a fantastic propaganda coup.‡

In June 1683, a salter who was in on the Rye House planning got a cold sweat and informed on the Whigs. This backstab earned a royal pardon for himself, and started a familiar policing sequence of incriminated conspirators turning crown’s evidence and informing in their turn on the next part of the network.

Many of the Whigs fled to the Netherlands, received there by the House of Orange which would seat itself on the English throne inside of six years.

Lord Russell, however, refused to fly. He landed in the Tower of London by the end of the month, to face trial as a traitor on the evidence of his association with other Whigs and his entertaining the plan of raising an armed revolt. The judge’s summation to the jury even underscored that “You have not Evidence in the Case as there was [in other Rye House cases] against the Conspirators to kill the King at the Rye. There was a direct Evidence of a Consult to kill the King, that is not given you in this Case: This is an Act of contriving Rebellion, and an Insurrection within the Kingdom, and to seize his Guards, which is urged an Evidence, and surely is in itself an Evidence, to seize and destroy the King.”

Lord Russell’s case shifted around the fringes of actual innocence — those plans for Insurrection within the Kingdom, he said, occurred sometimes at meetings he happened to attend but only off on the side, or without Lord Russell’s own involvement or support. (Speaking from the scaffold, he would several times insist that his acts were at worst misprision of treason, which was no longer a capital crime at this point.)

Against this the crown produced Lord Howard, a cravenly interested party to be sure, who saved his own skin by testifying that the six-headed cabal was down to planning the specifics of the places where a rebellion might best be stirred up, the procurements of arms and bankroll that would be necessary to same, and how to draw Scotland into the fray as an ally. “Every one knows my Lord Russell is a Person of great Judgment, and not very lavish in Discourse,” Howard allowed on the point of Russell’s active assent to the plans. “We did not put it to the Vote, but it went without Contradiction, and I took it that all there gave their Consent.”

David Hume would observe in his History of Great Britain that Russell’s “present but not part of it” parsing didn’t make for a very compelling story. “Russell’s crime fell plainly under the statute … his defence was very feeble.”


Detail view (click for the full image) of an 1825 painting of Lord Russell’s trial, commissioned of George Hayter by Lord Russell’s admiring kinsman John Russell, Duke of Bedford. John Russell also wrote a biography of his famous ancestor. The unbroken succession of Dukes of Bedford from William Russell’s father continues to the present day; the current Duke of Bedford, 15th of that line, is one of Britain’s richest men.

Conscious of the great pulpit his scaffold would offer, Lord Russell drafted with the aid of his wife a last statement vindicating his own person and the Whig cause that flew into print before the onlookers at Lincoln’s Inn Fields were dipping their handkerchiefs into his martyrs’ blood.

Nor did I ever pretend to a great readiness in speaking: I wish those gentlemen of the law who have it, would make more conscience int he use of it, and not run men down by strains and fetches, impose on easy and willing juries, to the ruin of innocent men: For to kill by forms and subtilties of law, is the worst sort of murder …

I never had any design against the king’s life, or the life of any man whatsoever; so I never was in any contrivance of altering the government. What the heats, wickedness, passions, and vanities of other men have occasioned, I ought not to be answerable for; nor could I repress them, though I now suffer for them.

These notices drew furious confutations from Tory pamphleteers aghast at the face these traitors had to forswear their malice against King Charles; a battle of broadsides to control the historical narrative ensued, and was resolved in the Whigs’ favor by the imminent conquest of power by the aforementioned House of Orange. The Whig-aligned William and Mary reversed Lord Russell’s attainder in 1689 — but that’s never stood in the way of historians’ debates.

In a much lower historical register, Lord Russell’s execution was egregiously bumbled by the London headsman Jack Ketch, who had to bash repeatedly at the man’s neck before he could remove it from the shoulders. It is largely from this event that Ketch derives his lasting reputation as an incompetent and/or sadistic butcher, mutually reinforcing with Russell’s martyr status.

Ketch would later claim in a published “Apologie” issued against “those grievous Obloquies and Invectives that have been thrown upon me for not Severing my Lords Head from his Body at one blow” that his prey

died with more Galantry than Discresion, and did not dispose him for receiving of the fatal Stroke in such a posture as was most suitable, for whereas he should have put his hands before his Breast, or else behind him, he spread them out before him, nor would he be persuaded to give any Signal or pull his Cap over his eyes, which might possibly be the Occasion that discovering the Blow, he somewhat heav’d his Body

and besides that Ketch “receav’d some Interruption just as I was taking Aim, and going to give the Blow.” How would you like it if someone came to your workplace and did that?

The damage to Ketch’s reputation was already done. Two years later, en route to the block for a subsequent failed bid to topple the Stuarts, the Duke of Monmouth tipped Ketch with the scornful charge not to “hack me as you did my Lord Russell.” When Ketch botched that execution too, he was nearly lynched — but escaped the scaffold to live on in Punch and Judy and in the English tongue as the definitive lowlife executioner.

* Short for “Whiggamores”, who were Covenanter rebels in the 1640s. “Tories”, by contrast, took their name from Irish Catholic outlaws: each party became known by the slur its foes attached to it.

** Yes, another one of those Howards: this Howard’s great-grandfather lost his head for the Ridolfi intrigue.

† Hampden survived the suppression of Whig intrigues long enough to coin the term “Glorious Revolution” when the Stuarts were finally overthrown

‡ See for instance Lois Schwoerer, "William, Lord Russell: The Making of a Martyr, 1683-1983" in Journal of British Studies, January 1985 for a skeptical-of-Russell reading of the evidence. “The government did not concoct the plot; it was frightened by the revelations, whatever use it made of them. There is no doubt that proposals for an insurrection of some kind were discussed; Russell’s impetuosity and extremism make it more likely than not that he was an active party to these discussions. What is in doubt, since nothing came of the discussions, is how far the parties had gone in developing a concrete plan for a rising.”

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1780: John Gamble, anti-Wilmot

Add comment July 20th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1780, three men were executed in London — John Gamble was hanged at Bethnal-Green, Samuel Solomons in Whitechapel, and James Jackson in the Old-Bailey — for that summer’s working-class Gordon Riots.

These three all died for pulling down houses during the riots. Our focus today is on Mr. Gamble, who helped haul down the house of Justice David Wilmot, Esq.

Crying “Let’s go to Justice Wilmot’s!” rioters on the east end of London that night of June 7 headed straight for the residence of their notorious foe, a magistrate who had made himself infamous in workers’ eyes by his zeal to bring working-class economic resistance to heel.

Gamble, a hard-drinking journeyman cabinet-maker, was among the pillagers, and by dint of recognition was designated to pay the penalty for it.

“There might be a thousand” people who mobbed the Wilmot house, one witness at Gamble’s trial estimated. “When I left the place they were pulling down the house. They had thrown down part of the lead, and were throwing down the rest.”

This one was among three witnesses who testified to seeing Gamble on the scene, hauling out wood for a merry bonfire and “chuck[ing] tiles off two or three times” from the roof.

The penniless artisan defended himself as well as he could, cross-examining witnesses in an attempt to show conflicting reports of his dress that night. He himself claimed to have simply been out for a walk while drunk. Evidently it made a favorable impression on many in the courtroom.

“The prisoner being but a lodger had no friend to appear for him, nor any counsel; he was too poor,” reported the Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser (July 6, 1780). “It was hoped by many, as he was a very hard-working, ignorant man, that he would have been recommended to mercy, and several of the Jury were certainly for it, but others, with the Foreman, seemed to be of a different opinion.”

London authorities were all about making a point with these Gordon Riots cases, and Gamble’s execution was arranged on a “gallows at Bethnal-green … fixed immediately opposite to Justice Wilmot’s house.” That’s as per the General Evening Post, July 20, 1780 – July 22, 1780, which affords us this affecting description of the actual hanging:

the Ordinary got up into the cart, and prayed with him upwards of 20 minutes, in which he joined with the greatest devotion; he was then tied up, and his brother and another friend got up into the cart, and took an everlasting farewell, and kissing each other, they retired. Here the prisoner desired the Ordinary to pray some minutes longer with him, which he readily complied with; having finished, and gone to his coach, the executioner pulled his cap over his face, and at the request of the prisoner a handkerchief was tied over his cap. He put his hands together, and lifting them towards Heaven, cried out “Lord Jesus receive me,” when the cart drew away, and he was launched into eternity about half past eight o’clock, amidst a numerous crowd of spectators. After hanging upwards of an hour his body was cut down, and delivered for interment. The prisoner was about 36 years of age, a cabinet-maker, and has left a wife and three children. ‘Twas observed, that all the time he was under the gallows, he never but once turned his face towards Mr. Wilmot’s house. His time was taken up so much in prayer, that he made no speech to the populace of any kind.

Just as Gamble was turned off, two pick-pockets, dressed tolerably decent, were detected, and delivered over to the custody of the civil officers.

(After this ceremonial procession-to-hanging-site, the penal party returned to Newgate to repeat the same with Samuel Solomons, then returned to Newgate again to repeat it with James Jackson. Additional executions for other pullers-down of houses took place around London on both July 21 and July 22.)

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1476: Hans Bohm, the Drummer of Niklashausen

1 comment July 19th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1476, a peasant preacher who nearly stirred a revolution was consigned to the flames in Wurzburg.

Hans Behem (or similar variations on that surname, e.g. Bohm or Boheim) is known to posterity as the Drummer of Niklashausen, for when he descended into that Tauber River town for Carnival he performed with this instrument.

His vocation — his peasant’s lot in life — was sheep-herding.

One frigid Lent night in 1476, a year when the protracted winter freeze promised gaunt months ahead for the peasantry, Hans was wrapped in his heavy cloak watching his flock when he had an unexpected visitor:

Book CoverThe Virgin Mary appeared to him.

Richard Wunderli’s very appealing Peasant Fires: The Drummer of Niklashausen situates this queer episode in the foreign world of the early modern peasantry, when the supernatural suffused everyday life and the seasons of the year elapsed in “ritualized joy, laughter, deprivation, and seriousness.”

Carnival, just ended, was “liminal time”: time for inversion of natural orders, time for foolishness, time for liberation. If the rite confined and discharged potential social pressures, “liminal time” also held a latent threat to the ordered world of lords and bishops. What happened if sublime religious revelation burst the calendar’s boundaries and flooded ordinary time with the liminal?

[The Virgin] told him that both God and her Son were angry with mankind and were chastising all peoples with the dreadful cold and snow. People were consumed by their vanities, she said, and did not worship the Heavenly Family as was their due … Hans was ordered to go to the portal of the village church of Niklashausen, the Frauen kirche, the church dedicated to the Virgin, and there publicly he was to burn his drum and his shepherd’s pipe. Then he was to preach in Niklashausen, and the Mother of God would instruct him what to say. (Wunderli)

Thanks to this vision, 1476 would be a year out of time.

Hans apparently knew a Beghard mystic who dwelled in the hills where he pastured sheep. In the fullness of time, this anonymous man would die with the drummer; the precise nature of their association is a matter for speculation, though some would later charge (the better to derogate the illiterate boy’s supposed divine revelation) that the Beghard orchestrated the whole thing.

Nevertheless, the proximity to the Drummer of Niklashausen of an adherent of the suppressed Beghard movement underscores the link between Hans’s subsequent preaching and the centuries-old tradition of radical poverty. Elites long viewed these movements as seditious, and why not? Poverty was the material lot of most people just as it had been for Christ himself, but it was self-evidently not the lot of Christ’s vicars, who in fashionable attire bought with forced tithes and the sale of get-out-of-purgatory indulgences breezed obnoxiously past the everyday tolls and levies that crushed their flocks. Arrogant, predatory lords made out even better than that.

Sacralized poverty ever sat next door to levelling — next door to revolution.

The German abbot Johann Trithemius would complain of the “rustic, ignorant people [who] gathered together daily in Niklashausen,” and their terrifying-to-him vision “that peasants would become free and the clergy placed in servitude.”

What could peasants find more agreeable than that they had been freed from all payments of rents and tenant services, and that thereafter they would hold everything in common with the clergy and princes? Truly, what could a layman find more desirable than that he should see the clergy and priests immediately stripped of all privileges and liberties, and denied their collection of tithes, rents, and the proceeds of the holy altar?

Madness … or divinest sense.

Hans Behem preaching from a window, with his sinister adviser at his side. Detail (click for the full image) of a 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle illustration. (via Wikipedia)

Hans, of course, obeyed the Virgin’s charge to him.

Just after Easter, he publicly burned his drum — his own little vanity — and began preaching in Niklashausen.

Maybe the words came from the Beghard, or from the alleged mendicant friar who was rumored to whisper to Hans. Maybe the young man had a natural gift for oratory and a few lucky breaks.

But to tens of thousands of German peasants who soon began arriving, he was a holy youth, the vessel for heaven. Hans’s prayers lifted the interminable frost, sparing at least some portion of the year’s crop. Peasants from all around the region caught wind of the supernatural event and began up and disappearing from their places without notice or excuse, leaving work half-done to join troops of their fellows making pilgrims’ tracks to Niklashausen.

There, they too were summoned to cast aside all their own vanities as well,* and into the flames went stylish clothes, sinful cards and dice.

“They cut the long points off their shoes,” wrote a disdainful chronicler Georg Widman. “And trimmed their hair, and it seemed as though a dozen carts would not suffice to haul away the hair and shoes being discarded that day, to say nothing of embroidered kerchiefs, robes, doublets.”

The drummer’s preaching veered apocalyptic. Medieval people would have believed of a course that God’s pleasure or disfavor went abroad in the world; the awful winter (only the latest in a series) and, for peasants, a generation of deteriorating material conditions and multiplying taxes, would have stood witness to the Lord’s dissatisfaction. The miracles attributed to Hans — healing the lame, the blind, and the mute; even raising a drowned child from the dead — were of a piece with his words, with the bonfires, with the favor of the Virgin Mary.

Hans’s call to renewal was not a summons to save individual souls but a charge to right the evils in the world that had laid divine afflictions upon all: “If they do not forthwith mend their lives, the whole world will be made to suffer affliction for their sins.” (Source)

The Emperor is a miscreant, and the Pope a nonentity. It is the Emperor who gives to princes, counts, and knights authority to tax and burden the common people. Alas! for you, poor devils!” Spies in the crowds, no doubt paraphrasing prejudicially, captured for the alarmed archbishop and lords the dangerous sentiments being preached in Niklashausen to crowds swollen into the tens of thousands who might not easily be controlled.

Princes, civil and ecclesiastical, ought to possess no more than common folk, and then all would have plenty. The time would come when princes and nobles would have to labour for a day’s wage. The fish in the water, and the game upon the land, ought to be common. Tolls, road-money, servitudes, rents, taxes, and tithes to spiritual or temporal superiors were to be wholly done away with.

Most frightful of all was the open threat to slay worthless priests, that soon clerics would cover their head with their hand for fear of being caught out with a tonsure. Hans Behem’s crowds rejoiced at the prospect; a clergyman would write later that summer of the pilgrims’ “hateful song”: “O God in Heaven, on you we call / Help us seize our priests and kill them all.”**

On the night of July 12, 1476 — the eve before the Drummer was to preach a sermon for which he had asked his followers to arrive armed — 34 mounted knights burst into the farmhouse and hustled the firebrand into custody before anyone could resist.

The movement was beheaded and it fractured quickly: after a day of confusion, some of them set off on a march to nearby Wurzburg, where the Drummer languished in the Archbishop’s fortress, a position that the rabble was in no position to take by main force. Many gave up the enterprise, but dozens, maybe a hundred or more, were captured and filled Wurzburg’s dungeons to overflowing.

Almost all were ultimately released. Only three were put to trial: Hans himself, the mysterious Beghard, and a peasant who had risen up after Hans’s arrest to incite the crowd to kill the Wurzburg clergy. Hans was tortured by the the rope, hoisted into the air by his pinioned hands then dropped with all the weight of his body tearing at his shoulders. They did this to him over and over, until he said that he was a fraud, that Mary never came to him, that he never worked a miracle, that that “wandering, cunning mendicant friar contrived everything.”

Hans was burnt flesh either way: this is the fate of martyrs. It was essential that he also be discredited, though the effect was scarcely immediate.

Certainly, there were those who with imprudent faith believed that his whole affair originated in heaven … they hoped that God would preserve him from being killed; or if God allowed him to die, then He would take immediate vengeance on the courts that condemned the Youth.

Others, who were more sane, among whom were the bishop and his clergy, did not fear the vengeance of God for the death of this wicked man; rather, they earnestly, sensibly, and rationally feared that spiteful, evil spirits — who take delight in possessing superstitious people — would scheme some plot of guile and deceit at the execution. For they judged that little Hans was not a man of God but was possessed by the devil.

At last the judgment of death to little Hans was to be carried out … After he had been led to a level piece of ground, which is behind my monastery near the house of the lepers, he was seated and bound with ropes. Nearly all the citizens of the town stood by armed, waiting for him to be delivered to the fires. In the meantime, two evildoers who were with him received a sentence to have their heads cut off.

After they were beheaded, little Hans asked the magistrate: “Are you going to hurt me?” The magistrate replied: “No, but someone has prepared a bath for you” — for the Youth had not yet seen the pile of wood for the fire, or if he had seen it, he perhaps did not know what it was.


From the Nuremberg Chronicle

When he was tied to the stake for burning, however, he sang certain songs or verses in a high voice about Our Lady, which he had composed in the German language. Among the bystanders were many who believed that the man could not be burned because of the merit of his holiness, by which they thought he would be preserved by the Mother of God. Hence, they were afraid to stand near him. They were terrified that perhaps the fire would be scattered about by divine fury and would consume those observing the execution. Others feared that the Youth could not be burned because of the protection of demons or of some other sorcery. Therefore, the executioner — who also feared this — caused all the Youth’s hairs to be shaved, so that no evil spirit or demon would be able to hide in them.

Bound to the post, the Youth shouted his songs. But as soon as the fire was set below him and he felt the flames, he cried out three times with a weeping voice: “Ow, ow, ow.” He was then engulfed by the flames. His voice uttered nothing again. Consumed by the voracious fire, he was reduced to ashes. No miracles happened, nothing that demonstrated that Innocence had been consumed by fire. Nevertheless, so that the frivolous devotion and fear of stupid people not fashion him into a martyr, the executioner ordered that all his ashes be thrown into the river. After this was done, the gathering of the people at Niklashausen came to an end.

The “gathering” did not quite blow away with the Drummer’s ashes, not just like that.

Despite edicts from nearby cities against the practice, pilgrims continued journeying to Niklashausen over the following months: not with the number and character sufficient to threaten revolution, but more than enough to make the authorities jumpy. The Archbishop was so desperate to quash these pilgrimages that in 1477 he had the church at Niklashausen razed.

In those years and long after, chroniclers as one scorned the Drummer and his flock; Sebastian Brant’s 1494 satire Ship of Fools also singles out des sackpfeifers von Nickelshusen (the bagpiper of Niklashausen) and those who followed him.† Hans’s people, illiterate commoners, don’t have a voice in the histories.

The grievances were never really answered. It was not until 1518 that authorities finally deemed it safe enough to rebuild the Niklashausen church … but even then, Germany had not heard the last of peasant revolution.

* Bonfires of the vanities were all the rage

** Wunderli notes the movement’s apparent indifference to Jews, despite its falling in the immediate wake of one of Europe’s most inflammatory blood libel cases. These peasants were not assembled for a pogrom; it was their Christian oppressors whom they hated.

† See the German version Das Narrenschiff, under “verachtung der gschrift”, “contempt of scripture”.

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1801: Chloe

Add comment July 18th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1801, the teenage slave “negro Chloe” — as the press reports almost invariably called her — was hanged at Carlisle, Penn., for murdering her owner’s two young children.

Although a slave by every experience of her short life, Chloe and others of her generation actually existed in a legal twilight space between slave and free. Pennsylvania in 1780 had taken a step towards emancipation that was pioneering for its time but the halfest of half-measures: the Gradual Abolition Act made the children of slaves born in Pennsylvania after 1780 into indentured servants who would be manumitted by age 28.* As a result, dwindling numbers of grandfathered legal slaves remained in Pennsylvania until 1847, even as the state became an antebellum hotbed of abolitionist activism with a huge population of free blacks and slaves fled from Southern plantations via the Underground Railroad.

In Chloe’s case, she had been born to a slave in 1782, then willed when her owner William Kelso died in 1789 to William’s daughter Rebecca, who eventually sold Chloe on to a dealer.

In 1794, Chloe was bought and sold repeatedly: she was sold in July of that year, and then again in August, and then again in October, until an Irish merchant named Oliver Pollock finally bought her in March of 1795 and gave her a little bit of stability. In her eventual last confession, Chloe credited Pollock and his daughter as the only owners who took any care for her education.

Pollock, however, sold Chloe as well at the end of 1796. One wonders if the “high passion” to which she would eventually attribute her murders made her a notably ungovernable slave-child for all these passing masters, or whether it was all just happenstance — that she was just a commodity that could be liquefied in a pinch.

Whatever the case, Andrew Carothers — the man who bought Chloe from Pollock — would be her last master.**

The hard-working Andrew Carothers and his wife, Mary, had a little log cabin in Cumberland County, home to six children. Chloe was their first slave, to relieve Mary of her household labors while Andrew cleared a plot of forested land nearby, and the tone of Chloe’s last confession — widely published at the time of her execution — clearly implies a going resentment for Mary. Chloe will have just turned 18 years old when she commits her capital crimes; she’s grown out of childhood and through adolescence in this family, working as Mary’s constant domestic drudge and probably sleeping in the barn.

On January 24, 1801, the family realized that four-year-old Lucetta had gone missing. Andrew found her dead in the nearby creek where they drew water.

Since we’ve begun our story at the end we know the author of the deed in advance. Chloe would say that she had been given of late to “temptations” to do violence to her owners — sudden fancies that she would unthinkingly indulge. She had already tried and failed to murder the family’s youngest son, she said, and twice attempted to fire the barn.

On that fatal Saturday, Chloe had taken Lucetta to the creek when she needed to retrieve some water without, she said, intending any mischief. But the “temptation” came upon her there and she yielded to it readily, suffocating Lucetta and leaving her in the creek.

By returning nonchalantly and playing surprised that evening, Chloe evaded suspicion in this instance. It wouldn’t have been so implausible that an unattended little girl in a rural family might have fallen into a river and drowned, and a relieved Chloe “promised myself good days” without violent urges.

But, she said, Mary’s strict discipline soon undid those better angels. After Lucetta was buried on Sunday the 25th, Mary “made me strip off my short-gown, and gave me a severe whipping, with a cowskin; also on Tuesday she gave me another, and on the following Saturday she gave me a third.” For one who had so lately experienced the cruel pleasure of visiting lethal violence upon her tormenter’s own flesh and blood, this treatment was too much to bear. That weekend she lured another daughter, six-year-old Polly, to the creek and did her the same way.

Chloe was reported to have forsworn “any spite or malice against” her victims — “on the contrary, I loved them both.”

But, she said, she murdered them because their tattling on her misbehaviors set her up for Mary’s corrective hidings (“far beyond the demerit of the fault”); and, “the second and greatest motive … to bring all the misery I possibly could upon the family, and particularly upon my mistress.”

If suspicion had escaped Mary the first time around, it now insisted upon itself.

Mary’s account of matters also hit the papers; she said that on the Monday following Polly’s death she accused Chloe of the horrible crime. “She [Chloe] said she did not do it, had no hand in it, and full denied it till Monday was a week.” That must have been an excruciating week, doing the wash and preparing dinner with the sullen teenager who you’re also convinced is picking off your family and torturing to that effect. “I was much whipped by my master, to extort a confession,” Chloe recalled. At last the Carothers’ pressure overwhelmed their slave.

I said [to Chloe] it was not worth while to deny it, her countenance would condemn her, it was plain she had a hand in it — it was plain, for the children would have crawled on their hands and feet out of the run if somebody had not held them in … she might as well tell as not — I could not bear the sight of her about the house; I was sure she had done it.

Chloe eventually consented to confess not to Mary Carothers but to a neighbor, Mrs. Clendinen, who had a lighter personal touch and not so much acrimonious history with Chloe. Even so it was still another two weeks before they escorted Chloe to the sheriff. The spiritual instruction that her many owners had never bothered with in her life now became available to her as she approached death — obviously all-inclusive with ghostwriting services as well.

Oh! what have I done? In revenging the injuries I suffered, I have drawn the fierce indignation of heaven upon myself. The voice of the blood of two innocent children crieth against me from the ground. Is my sin too great, for the mercy of God to pardon? Is my stain too deep for the blood of Jesus to wash away? I am full encouraged to trust that, loud as the blood of these innocents cries for vengeannce, the blood of Jesus cries louder still for mercy and pardon and I trust that his unbounded goodness will not suffer me to perish.

The original source of both Chloe’s and Mary Carothers’s accounts are separate 1801 articles in Kline’s Carlisle Weekly Gazette: July 22 (Chloe) and June 24 (Mary). Both were subsequently reprinted by other newspapers around the young country.

* This law inconvenienced the political elites of the early Republic, since it also prohibited importing new slaves — even for the Southern congressmen who came to Philadelphia while that city served as the U.S. capital during the 1790s. George Washington, famous for crossing the Delaware, had to run his black slaves over that river to New Jersey periodically while he was president, lest they become automatically liberated by residing continuously in Pennsylvania for six-plus months.

That said, the Gradual Abolition framework did sustain a market in human chattel inasmuch as somebody’s compulsory labor unto age 28 was still a value that could be calculated and sold. The way to import slaves to Pennsylvania was to bring them in under the same transit auspices that Washington used, legally manumit them there into “indentured servitude” pending their 28th birthday, and then sell the indenture contract.

** John Carothers, Andrew’s cousin, had been poisoned in 1798 with his own wife Mary in another, unrelated Cumberland County death penalty case.

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1651: Wilhelm Biener, faithful counsellor

Add comment July 17th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1651, Wilhelm Biener, late the chancellor of Tyrol, lost his head to the rancor of Tyrol’s landed aristocracy.

A barrister by training and eventually a judge, Biener or Bienner (English Wikipedia entry | German) transitioned into a court position under Leopold V, Archduke of Austria. Leopold’s death in 1632 left a four-year-old heir, Ferdinand Charles; the boy’s mother, Claudia de’ Medici, leaned increasingly on Biener’s counsel as she ably kept Tyrol in order (and out of the devastating Thirty Years’ War) while little Ferdinand aged towards his majority.

As a commoner, no dynastic entanglements of his own divided his attentions from the state’s own interest, a fact that Claudia de’ Medici recognized by elevating Biener to the chancellorship in 1638, and that the land’s magnates recognized in the strictly levied taxes Biener extracted from their resentful purses.


Detail view (click for full image) of Karl Anrather’s 1891 painting of Wilhelm Biener holding forth against the Tiroler Landtag, from the Ferdinandeum at Innsbruck.

We’ve seen quite often enough in these pages that the danger undertaken by such figures should their enemies ever find power over them mitigates the honors and emoluments they are like to enjoy while in office. One gets a sense of the undercurrent of biding violence from the remark of the Bishop of Brixen, directed to forward the required revenues in a letter less deferential than a senior cleric thought he was due: “The man deserves to lose the fingers that could write such an intemperate effusion!”

For Biener, the volcano opened under him with the death of his patron Claudia de’ Medici on Christmas Day 1648. Her boy Ferdinand Charles was all of 20 years old now, wet behind the ears and enamored of courtly profligacy. Despite his affection for Biener and his long service to his mother, the young prince would vacillate on sparing the consigliere until it was too late.

Biener’s enemies struck with a secret trial accusing him of wetting his own beak on the imposts he had imposed on Tirol; the account below of what followed from a travelogue probably reflects the posthumous myth of Biener more faithfully than it does the real man.

[Biener] was ultimately condemned, in 1651, to lose his head. Biener sent a statement of his case to the Archduke Ferdinand Karl; and the young prince, believing the honesty of his mother’s faithful adviser, immediately ordered a reprieve. The worst enemy and prime accuser of the fallen favourite was Schmaus, President of the Council … and he contrived by detaining the messenger to make him arrive just too late in Rattenberg, then still a strong fortress, where he lay confined, and where the sentence was to be carried out.

Biener had all along steadfastly maintained his innocence; and stepping on to the scaffold, he had again repeated the assertion, adding, “So truly as I am innocent, I summon my accuser before the Judgment-seat above before another year is out.” When the executioner stooped to lift up the head before the people, he found lying by its side three fingers of his right hand, without having had any knowledge that he had struck them off, though he might have done so by the unhappy man having raised his hand in the way of the sword in the last struggle. [more likely they were folded in prayer. -ed.] The people, however, saw in it the fulfilment of the words of the bishop, as well as a ghastly challenge accompanying his dying message to President Schmaus. Nor did they forget to note that the latter died of a terrible malady some months before the close of the year.

Biener’s wife lost her senses when she knew the terrible circumstances of his death; the consolations of her director and of her son, who lived to his ninetieth year in the Franciscan convent at Innsbruck, were alike powerless to calm her. She escaped in the night, and wandered out into the mountains no one knows whither. But the people say she lives on to be a witness of her husband’s innocence, and may be met on lonely ways proclaiming it, but never harming any. Only, when anyone is to die in Büchsenhausen, where her married life passed so pleasantly, the ‘Bienerweible’ will appear and warn them.

Living on in Tyrol folk tradition, Biener took a leap into the Romantic-era national consciousness thanks to writer Hermann Schmid, who popularized Biener’s legend with a 19th century historical novel, The Chancellor of Tyrol; public domain versions can be read online in two volumes (1, 2); a theatrical adaptation by Josef Wenter is still staged to this day.


Marker honoring Wilhelm Biener in the Austrian Tyrol town of Rattenberg, where Biener was executed on July 17, 1651.

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1455: Kunz von Kauffungen, Altenburg Prince-Robber

Add comment July 14th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1455, the German knight Kunz von Kauffungen was beheaded at the Freiberg marketplace for the trifling offense of kidnapping a couple of Saxon princes.

Kunz von Kauffungen (English Wikipedia link | German) fought on the side of Frederick II, Elector of Saxony in the colorfully christened Saxon Fratricidal War. That’s no ornamental prose: it was literally a war between siblings, namely the aforesaid Frederick and his little brother William III, Landgrave of Thuringia.*

While captaining a unit for Frederick, Kunz had his lands ravaged by William’s guys; eventually he even got outright captured and had to spring for a crippling 4,000-florin ransom.

The warring brothers settled things in 1451, but Kunz found to his fury that his postwar meaningful ahems around the Elector of Saxony did not meet with any compensation reciprocating the fortune ruined in the Elector’s service. (During the war Kunz had been given some captured property of one of William’s supporters, but the terms of the peace reverted everything to its original owner.)

Kunz skulked, and sued, and eventually Frederick flat-out banished him. But his grievance was never met, and in that day German nobles felt themselves entitled to force redress via feuds and private wars entirely alien to our post-Westphalian states.

Kunz’s personal contribution to the annals of noble vendetta was the Altenburg Prinzenraub — the Altenburg Prince-Robbery, which consisted of, well, robbing Frederick of his two sons Ernest** and Albert.

On the night of July 7-8, 1455, Kunz and his retainers snatched the two boys, aged 14 and 11 respectively, from Altenburg. The kidnapping went pear-shaped almost immediately: starting for Bohemia on the 8th, Kunz was captured by some concerned citizen or other, liberating Albert. Various legends make it monks, villagers, or a heroic collier.

His buddies took Ernest to an abandoned medieval mine shaft, today known as the “Prince Cave”. After holing up three days — and catching the news of Kunz’s ignominiously easy capture — this party arranged to turn Ernest back over in exchange for an amnesty, and scuttled away.

Kunz, of course, was not so lucky. A back paving-stone in Freiburg is said to mark the spot where his severed head came to rest on the 14th of July, 1455.

* Data point for the nature vs. nurture debate: the father of Frederick and William was known as Frederick the Belligerent or Frederick the Warlike.

** This is the “Ernest” referenced by the the Ernestine line — a lineage ancestor to present-day royal families of Belgium and Great Britain.

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1616: “A gentellwoeman” by exposure, for a eunuch liaison

Add comment July 13th, 2014 Headsman

The English diplomat Sir Thomas Roe, envoy to the Mughal Empire from 1615 to 1619 during the reign of Jahangir, recorded in his journal* the unfortunate fate this date of a nameless woman for being caught rendezvousing with a palace eunuch.

This day a gentellwoeman of Normalls was taken in the kings house in some action with an Eunuch. Another Capon that loved her kylld him. The Poore Woeman was sett up to the Arme pitts in the Earth hard ramed, her feete tyde to a stake, to abyde 3 dayes and 2 nights without any sustenance, her head and armes bare, exposed to the sunns violence: if shee died not in that tyme she should bee pardoned. The Eunuch was Condemned to the Eliphantes. This damsell yeelded in Pearle, Jewelles, and ready mony 160,000 rupias.

That this bit character who does not even merit a name here left such a fortune surely testifies to the Mughal Empire’s famously astounding trade wealth.

Roe does not disclose how long the condemned woman managed to survive, but the separate memoir of Roe’s chaplain Edward Terry confirms that she succumbed to exposure well before the elapse of the pardonable three days. (The two seem to have received differing intelligence on the execution method of the eunuch, despite Terry’s indication that it transpired practically in the English mission’s backyard.)

Now for the disposition of that King, it ever seemed unto me to be composed of extremes; for sometimes he was barbarously cruel, and at other times he would seem to be exceedingly fair and gentle.

For his cruelties, he put one of his women to a miserable death; one of his women he had formerly touched and kept company with, but now she was superannuated; for neither himself nor nobles (as they say) come near their wives or women, after they exceed the age of thirty years. The fault of that woman was this; the Mogul upon a time found her and one of his eunuchs kissing one another; and for this very thing, the King presently gave command that a round hole should be made in the earth, and that her body should be put into that hole, where she should stnad with her head only above ground, and the earth to be put in again unto her close round about her, that so she might stand in the parching sun ’till the extreme hot beams thereof did kill her; in which torment she lived one whole day, and the night following, and almost ’till the next noon, crying out most lamentably, while she was able to speak, in her language, as the Shumanite’s child did in his, 2 King. 4. “Ah my head, my head!” which horrid execution, or rather murder, was acted near our house; where the eunuch, by the command of the said King, was brought very near the place where this poor creature was thus buried alive, and there in her sight cut all into pieces.

* Published as The embassy of Sir Thomas Roe to the court of the Great Mogul, 1615-1619, as narrated in his journal and correspondence. This vignette is from volume 1; there is also a volume 2

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