Posts filed under 'Auto de Fe'

1900: En Hai, the murderer of von Ketteler

9 comments December 31st, 2008 Headsman

On the last day of the 19th century, a Chinese officer was beheaded on the public street where he had precipitated western* military intervention in the Boxer Rebellion by killing a German diplomat.

Foreign commercial penetration — and domination — was generating domestic turmoil in China. As liberal reforms foundered in the late 1890’s, a more radical anti-foreigner movement blending spiritualism and martial arts launched the Boxer Rebellion (or Yihetuan Qiyi, in the local coinage).

In addition to massacring hated missionaries, the Boxers besieged foreign diplomatic missions in Peking … and veteran German ambassador Klemens von Ketteler was killed in a firefight on a crowded street. (The particular circumstances of the killing seem highly confused, and were immediately colored by the various interested parties’ axe-grinding; it’s sometimes called an “assassination,” but there’s no proof von Ketteler was specifically targeted, and the ambassador himself managed to get a shot off in the fray.)

Given the financial interests at stake, it would be far too much to say that von Ketteler’s death caused the military intervention that ensued, but it certainly catalyzed the conflict. The next day, China’s Dowager Empress declared war against the Eight-Nation Alliance. Within two months, Peking (Beijing) was under foreign occupation.

The man detained as von Ketteler’s murderer — En Hai, or Enhai, or Su-Hai — was proud to claim the act himself, and intimations of the Chinese government’s official blessing for anti-foreigner activities were carefully massaged since the Eight-Nation powers would have need of the Qing dynasty to keep order locally.


On the afternoon of this day in 1900, En Hai was brought out from German custody to the street where von Ketteler had met his end and handed over to the Chinese for beheading. Notice the substantial foreign attendance in both the photograph and the drawing. A German officer’s diary entry cited in The Origins of the Boxer War: A Multinational Study recounted the scene.

Ketteler’s murderer was executed at last — for months past the unfortunate wretch has been begging for his execution. It took place in one of the busiest thoroughfares but there were only a few curious onlookers. Scarcely fifty yards away the usual business was being quietly transacted in the streets, people who were eating did not suffer themselves to be interrupted, and a teller of fairy-tales who was recounting his absurd stories had interested his numerous audience much more than the execution.

And to see that the lesson would not be lost on future generations of Chinese, the humiliating peace imposed upon China that December (and formally signed the following year) required China to expiate its guilt by

erect[ing] on the spot of the assassination of his Excellency the late Baron von Ketteler, commemorative monument worthy of the rank of the deceased, and bearing an inscription in the Latin, German, and Chinese languages which shall express the regrets of His Majesty the Emperor of China for the murder committed

Having been made an offer it couldn’t refuse, China honored the intersection (German link) where both the victim and his killer had died in their turns with a massive pailou archway, inscribed

This monument has been erected by order of His Majesty the Emperor of China for the Imperial German Minister Baron von Ketteler, who fell on this spot by heinous murder on the 20th of June, 1900, in everlasting commemoration of his name, as an eternal token of the Emperor’s wrath about this crime, as a warning to all.


A historical postcard of Ketteler monument.

“Everlasting commemoration,” in this case, lasted 15 years.

The national aspirations that had fired the Boxers reared up again in 1911-12 to topple the Qing. Days after Germany’s surrender in World War I, the Chinese Republic began removing the von Ketteler monument.

Visitors will need to look sharp to catch it now, in Zhongshan Park (aka Sun Yat-Sen Park or Central Park), where it has been rededicated to abstractions that age a little better than our German civil servant.

But this was still not quite the last the name von Ketteler was heard in the consular world. A relative (German link) of the man slain in Peking was a conservative diplomat of the Weimar and early Nazi period who opposed the national socialist government. Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler was abducted by the Gestapo in 1938 and murdered thereafter in unclear circumstances, possibly for involvement in a very early plot to kill Hitler.

* “Western” in this case includes Japan, the regional industrial power that also flanked the Russian Empire to the east — very much a player on the European balance-of-power chessboard. Germany (obviously), France, Italy, Russia, the U.K., and the U.S.A. were the other nations involved in the intervention, along with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, whose naval deployment to China included future Sound of Music character Georg Ritter von Trapp.

A fair amount of detail on China’s foreign relations during this period is available free in the (dry, and sometimes dated) public-domain 1918 work The International Relations of the Chinese Empire.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,20th Century,Arts and Literature,Assassins,Australia,Auto de Fe,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,China,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Hong Kong,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Occupation and Colonialism,Pelf,Power,Public Executions,Soldiers,Strangled,Treason,Where

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1689: Kazimierz Lyszczynski, the first Polish atheist

3 comments March 30th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1689, in a Warsaw marketplace, Kazimierz Lyszczynski had his tongue torn out, his head struck off and his body burned to ashes which were shot from a cannon — all for scratching a few words with the whiff of atheism.

Lyszczynski — less dauntingly rendered “Cazimir Liszinski” — was convicted of holding such heretical doctrines as:

God is not the creator of man; but man is the creator of a God gathered together from nothing.

His actual writings are not known directly — his books were burned along with his flesh — but only from the transcripts of his rather hysterical trial, so it’s uncertain what he actually believed; for that matter, he vigorously (albeit unsuccessfully) abjured atheism. Some sources say that he was nailed for as little as irreverent marginal notations in a theological tract he found unconvincing; others report that he actually wrote a heretical text.

According to Valerian Krasinski’s Historical Sketch Of The Rise, Progress And Decline Of The Reformation In Poland V1 (available free from Google books)

Cazimir Lyszczynski, a noble and landowner of Lithuania, a man of a very respectable character, was perusing a book entitled Theologia Naturalis, by Henry Aldsted, a Protestant divine, and finding that the arguments which the author employed in order to prove the existence of divinity, were so confused that it was possible to deduce from them quite contrary consequences, he added on the margin the following words — “ergo non est Deus,” evidently ridiculing the arguments of the author. This circumstance was found out by Brzoska, nuncio of Brest in Lithuania, a debtor of Lyszczynski, who denouned him as an atheist, delivering, as evidence of his accusation, a copy of the work with the above-mentioned annotation to Witwicki, bishop of Posnania, who took up this affair with the greatest violence … nothing could shelter the unfortunate man against the fanatical rage of the clergy … On the simple accusation of his debtor, supported by the bishops, the affair was brought before the diet of 1689, before which the clergy, and particularly the bishop Zaluski, accused Lyszczynski of having denied the existence of God, and uttered blasphemies against the blessed Virgin and the saints. The unfortunate victim, terrified by his perilous situation, acknowledged all that was imputed to him, made a full recantation of all he might have said and written against the doctrine of the Roman Catholic church, and declared his entire submission to its authority. This was, however, of no avail to him, and his accusers were even scandalized that the diet permitted him to make a defence, and granted the term of three days for collecting evidence of his innocence, as the accusation of the clergy ought, in their judgment, to be sufficient evidence on which to condemn the culprit.

Pope Innocent XI at least salvaged the performance of the Catholic hierarchy in the affair by condemning, rather than promoting, the ambitious bishops.

Whatever the doomed man’s actual doctrines and writings, it is likely not coincidence that one finds this atrocious affair during at the moment of his country’s political collapse. The heretical knight’s 55 years corresponded to Poland’s fall from central Europe’s dominant power into the plaything of neighboring hegemons. The Polish-Lithuanian Empire stood at its maximum extent at his birth; during Lyszczynski’s boyhood, the Zaporozhian Cossacks broke free of Warsaw; as a young man, he saw the Swedes, the Russians, and Poland’s former vassal Prussia strip the empire of peoples and land.

By the time of Lyszczynski’s misfortunate death, Poland was a second-rate power on the brink of irrelevance — an abyss into which it would plunge in the century to come. Corwin’s Political History of Poland (another Google Books freebie) lays the scene:

The constant internal dissensions caused and nourished by foreign intrigues were in no mean measure responsible for the King’s failures in his final campaigns and in his diplomacy. They resulted in the loss of territory and the decline of Poland’s position as a great European power. French and Austrian money supported Polish anarchy. Diets were constantly torn up some even before the presiding officer could be elected. No law could be enacted. Corruption was rampant. Several attempts were made to depose the King. Religious intolerance became intensified and the first and last auto da fe in Poland was executed in 1689, on one Casimir Lyszczynski for his atheistic proclivities. The country became a theatre of constant strife between the various magnate families. At times the clashes resulted in formal civil wars.

It might be small consolation for having one’s head chopped off, but Lyszczynski’s reputation has far outrun his persecutors’, and in the lands of the old Polish-Lithuanian Empire, he cuts a pathbreaking figure for secularists and freethinkers.

There’s a substantial article about Lyszczynski on a Polish freethinkers’ site. As his hometown Brest lies in modern Belarus, he also enjoys a monumental biography on a Belarussian atheism site (and even favorite-son treatment on the city of Brest’s own page).

Lyszczynski’s gravestone — image (c) Irina Shvets and used with permission. The inscription reads, “Oh, travelers! Do not pass these stones. You will not stumble upon them if you don’t stumble upon the truth. Recognize the truth: for even those who know that it is the truth teach that it is a lie. The teachings of the wise are bound by deceit.”

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Auto de Fe,Beheaded,Belarus,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,Freethinkers,God,Heresy,History,Intellectuals,Lithuania,Milestones,Nobility,Poland,Public Executions,Soldiers

1596: Francisca Nunez de Carvajal, her children, and four other crypto-Jews of her family

3 comments December 8th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1596, the Inquisition sent nine Jewish converts to Christianity to the stake in Mexico City for Judaizing — a cruel fate offering a window into a secret history of New World settlement.

When Spain expelled its Jews (and subsequently its Muslims), those who did not flee had to convert. Conversions at swordpoint being of suspect sincerity, the Inquisition spent much of the following centuries hunting Conversos — so-called “New Christians” — who secretly preserved their outlawed faiths.

For some crypto-Jews, the New World held an appeal akin to that which would draw later generations of northern Europe’s religious minorities.

Latin America in particular attracted considerable numbers of New Christians. The advantage of these territories was that they offered the New Christians a familiar culture and the possiblity of direct — even if infrequent — contact with the mother countries … These factors also helped permit [crypto-Jews] to practice Judaism.

The Carvajals (or Carabajals) were just such a family, settling in Monterrey under the aegis of their kinsman, Spanish governor Luis de Carvajal y Cueva.

But in 1590, the governor’s sister Francisa was tortured by the Inquisition into implicating her entire family in Judaism.

They got off with a humiliating public recantation, but evidence of a relapse a few years later resulted in Francisca being burned at the stake at an auto de fe — along with her children Isabel, Catalina, Leonor and Luis, and four of their in-laws. The 30-year-old Luis left a testimonial to his faith and his tortures.

A headstone in New Mexico, USA, suggests crypto-Jewish descent. Image used with permission.

Despite the grisly doings of this day, however, the Inquisition never could extirpate Jews from its American territory.

These hidden communities filtered into Mexico and north to the present-day United States, keeping adapted versions of Jewish traditions secretly alive.

Still, crypto-Jews produced scant potentially self-incriminating documentary evidence. Although DNA testing has latterly entered the scene, the true extent and nature of these populations has been the subject of lively scholarly controversy.

But the Carvajals and others like them, seemingly lost to the Inquisition’s depredations, are coming alive again. This day’s executions are the subject of a modern opera and a spring 2008 Texas A&M symposium.

And the wider community of crypto-Jews have their own umbrella organization and a burgeoning body of historical literature.

Books about crypto-Jews

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Auto de Fe,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Garrote,God,Heresy,History,Jews,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Mexico,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Spain,Strangled,Women

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1491: Eight current and converted Jews at an auto de fe

6 comments November 16th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1491, the murder of the Holy Child of La Guardia was punished with an auto de fe and the public execution of eight Jews — some practicing, some converted to Christianity (who enjoyed the mercy of strangulation before being burnt) — and three others already dead but exhumed for the occasion.

The auto de fe — literally, “act of faith” — was a public ritual of religious penance for the condemned. Though its performance did not always precede the execution of its participants, it became closely associated with the savagery of the Spanish Inquisition.

In the hysteria of the Holy Child of La Guardia case — one of history’s better-remembered instances of “blood libel” implicating Jews in the ritual murder of Christian children — the result was foreordained.

Knitting together (inconsistent) confessions obtained under torture, the famed Inquisitor Torquemada proved a conspiracy of Jews had kidnapped and crucified a child further to the concoction of a magic potion that depended on the heart of an innocent Christian — despite a fruitless high-and-low search for some missing child who might have been the actual victim.

After this day’s gaudy public slaughter, a cult sprang up around the supposed martyr, adored in a chapel erected where one of the prisoners had once had a home — the very spot, it was said, where the Jews conspired. The Holy Child was a staple of Spanish literature down to the 20th century and is still venerated in La Guardia.

But Torquemada aimed for results well beyond Christendom’s martyrology, and the wretches at the stake would not be this day’s only victims.

John Edward Longhurst argues in The Age of Torquemada that the Inquisitor seized on the Holy Child case to orchestrate “his heart’s desire — the expulsion of all Jews from Spain.”*

Early the next year, the Spanish monarchy obliged, permanently remaking Spain:

If Ferdinand and Isabella were hesitating over expelling the Jews from Spain, the discovery of this latest Jewish plot would surely resolve all doubts. The Auto de Fe of November, 1491, exploited the affair to its fullest, emphasizing not only all the gruesome details of the Murder but the Jewish menace to Christians intended by it. The sentence against the Jew Juce Franco, read aloud to the great crowd at the Auto de Fe, identifies him as a seducer of Christians to the Law of Moses in language that clearly foreshadows the Edict of Expulsion four months later

We may be sure that Ferdinand and Isabella were treated to a lengthy account of this case. It also is clear, from their own observations in the Edict of Expulsion, that Torquemada impressed on them the determination of the Jews to persist in their efforts to seduce Christians to Judaism. As long as they were permitted to remain, the danger of infection would never be eliminated, no matter how harsh the measures employed against them.

* Or, their forcible conversion … which would then keep the Inquisition in business for years to come.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Auto de Fe,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,History,Innocent Bystanders,Jews,Mass Executions,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Notable Sleuthing,Popular Culture,Posthumous Executions,Power,Public Executions,Spain,Wrongful Executions

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