Posts filed under 'Torture'

Feast Day of St. Barlaam

Add comment November 19th, 2017 Headsman

November 19 is the feast date of Diocletian martyr Saint Barlaam of Antioch.*

A Cappadocian peasant, Barlaam defeated through righteous willpower a Roman judge’s diabolical attempt to go easy on him.

Barlaam was doing the old refusal to pay homage to the pagan gods thing and the judge’s plan was a masterpiece of practical jurisprudence: he had the refusenik stationed before the censer, with the offering in his hand. Then hot coals were plopped into the hand, in the expectation that Barlaam would flinch at the pain and involuntarily drop the herb, coals, and all into the fire — and everyone go home with his own honor satisfied.

But Barlaam had for honor “hardened brass, more than iron in mightiness, firmer than a statue” and instead withstood the coal until either it burned out, or his hand did, refusing to permit fire to touch incense under the eyes of the old gods. That earned him his martyrdom from an exasperated magistrate and, let us say, an extremely specific patronage of stoicism under prolonged hand torture, making him the forerunner of figures as diverse as Thomas Cranmer and Paul Muad’dib.

Here’s a laudatio in Latin for our holy militant from John Chrysostom who notes that the expected flinch-and-drop reaction wouldn’t have even counted as a sin.

* Not to be confused with the Russian hermit and painter Barlaam of Khutyn, nor with Barlaam and Josaphat, legendary India Christians who were adopted from Buddhist mythology.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Execution,God,Martyrs,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Torture,Turkey,Uncertain Dates

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1943: Piotr Jarzyna, Polish Resistance

3 comments October 22nd, 2017 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1943, Piotr Jarzyna was shot at Auschwitz for his activities in the Polish resistance. He was fifty years old.

Jarzyna, a wheelwright, was born to a peasant family in the village of Polanka Wielka near Oswiecim, the town that would become known as the site of the Auschwitz Camp. He moved to Krakow, the nearest big city, in 1938.

Under the German occupation of Poland he joined the peasant resistance movement using the pseudonym “Jacek”, working as a courier and a soldier in the Peasant Battalions in the vicinity of Auschwitz. One of his tasks was providing covert aid to the prisoners in the camp.

As the Auschwitz Museum website notes,

Aid to Auschwitz prisoners took various forms. It consisted above all in furnishing them with food, but also with medicine and bandages. In the winter, people attempted to get warm clothing and underwear to the prisoners. However, the help was not confined to the material sphere. It was equally important to make it easier for the prisoners to stay in touch with their families, usually by helping to deliver illicit correspondence, but there were also cases in which arrangements were made for prisoners to have face-to-face meetings with their loved once. People helped prisoners who had escaped from the camp, and even played a role in organizing the escapes. Local residents’ organisations also received documents from the prisoners that revealed the crimes being committed by the SS, and forwarded this evidence to the headquarters of the Polish underground movement.

In 2009, the Auschwitz Museum published People of Good Will, which provides information about more than 1,200 Polish people from the vicinity of Auschwitz who helped the prisoners. Piotr Jarzyna is one of those.

While continuing to live in Crakow, he frequently sneaked into the vicinity of the camp, carrying various items including copies of the underground press, but most of all medicine for the prisoners, including valuable, highly specific preparations. Reaching the area of the camp involved the great risk of crossing the border between the General Government and the Third Reich, since Germany had annexed the Land of Oswiecim.

Jarzyna was often accompanied on these expeditions by his young daughter Helena. Fortunately he was alone when he was caught by border guards in the autumn of 1942, carrying precious doses of medicine. He was able to dump some of his stash before his arrest, but when they searched him they found several vials of anti-typhus serum meant for Auschwitz inmates.

The Nazis sentenced Jarzyna to serve a term in Monowitz, one of Auschwitz’s three main sub-camps, where inmates did slave labor for I.G. Farben. After three weeks, he was able to escape and made it back home to Krakow.

Amazingly, this experience did not deter Jarzyna from his resistance activities: he went right back to smuggling stuff over the border into Auschwitz. In January 1943, doing another medicine run, he was caught a second time, and this time Helena, then just fourteen, was with him.

People of Good Will states,

The Germans took them both to Wadowice, and then transported them to Gestapo headquarters in Bielsko. They underwent brutal interrogations there, before being taken to the prison in Mylowice. The Germans then committed Helena to the Gestapo jail in Bielsko, while sending her father to Auschwitz. The Gestapo summary court in the camp sentenced him to death, and he was shot on October 22, 1943.

Helena survived. After the war, her father was posthumously decorated with the Order of the Cross of Grunwald, Third Class, due to his heroics during the Nazi occupation.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Guest Writers,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Poland,Shot,Torture,Wartime Executions

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1976: Masacre de Los Surgentes, during the Dirty War

Add comment October 17th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1976, seven young leftist Montonero militants were extrajudicially executed by the Argentine junta in Los Surgentes.*

Just months into Argentina’s seven-year military dictatorship and the dread nomenclature of “the disappeared” was already entering the lexicon for activists snatched by paramilitaries to a fate of God knows what.** They vanished by the thousands during Argentina’s “Dirty War” leaving no paper trails to explain their fates, no gravesites to mourn over nor legal cases to mobilize around — no way for their loved ones to get a handle on them, but only the barest veneer of deniability for the junta as its torturers did their monstrous work. In 1978, Argentina dictator Jorge Rafael Videla infamously answered an inquiry at a press conference with the chilling words, “They are neither dead nor alive, they are disappeared.”

But, seriously, the disappeared were mostly dead. Everyone knew.

The Masacre de Los Surgentes was an uncomplicated version of the grim fate awaiting these abductees. Seven young leftist radicals, all in their early twenties and all thought to be in simpatico with the Montonero guerrilla movement, had been kidnapped in the days prior around the city of Rosario. They’d been interrogated and tortured alongside other captives, a few of whom would survive with stories about their compatriots’ last hours.


The secret prison where this day’s victims and hundreds of others were detained in Rosario is today managed as a memorial site. (cc) image by Rosario resident Pablo D. Flores.

Around dawn on the 17th of October, all seven — María Cristina Márquez, Cristina Costanzo, Analía Murgiondo, Sergio Abdo Jalil, Eduardo Felipe Laus, Daniel Oscar Barjacoba, and José Antonio Oyarzábal — were blindfolded, handcuffed, and driven a few kilometers out of town, to the village which gives the massacre its name, and gunned down.

Sergio Jalil’s courageous mother Nelma Jalil became a prominent champion for Argentina’s bereaved families of the “disappeared” as a co-founder of the Madres de la Plaza 25 de Mayo, or “Rosario Mothers”.

* Though a small town of 4,200, Los Surgentes has had an ample allotment of wartime mass executions: it’s is also known as the site where Argentine hero Santiago de Liniers was shot with his associates in 1810.

** Indeed, Argentina’s armed forces and allied paramilitaries had been fighting this dirty war against the left-wing guerrillas for several years prior to the 1976 coup.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Argentina,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Shot,Torture,Wartime Executions

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1586: John Lowe, John Adams, and Robert Dibdale, English Catholics

Add comment October 8th, 2017 Richard Stanton

(Thanks to Richard Stanton for his guest post, originally published in A menology of England and Wales, or, Brief memorials of the ancient British and English saints arranged according to the calendar, together with the martyrs of the 16th and 17th centuries. Writing in the 19th century, Stanton calls these English martyrs “Venerable” but as of this writing they are “Blessed” — having been advanced further along the path to sainthood in 1987. -ed.)

The Venerable John Lowe was born in London, and for some time was a Protestant minister. On his conversion he went to the College at Douay, and from thence to Rome, where he was ordained priest. In due time he returned to England and laboured on the Mission, till he was arrested and condemned and executed for high treason, on account of his priestly character and the exercise of its functions.

The Venerable John Adams was a native of Dorsetshire, and went to Rheims for his theological studies. He returned to England as a priest in 1581, and after some time was seized and banished, with a number of others, in the year 1585. After a few months’ stay at the College, he contrived to return to his labours on the Mission, but was once more apprehended and condemned to death, barely for being a priest. Few particulars are known relative to this Martyr, but it is recorded in one of the catalogues that his constancy was proof against all the artifices and promises, used to divert him from his generous resolution to sacrifice his life for the Faith.

The Venerable Richard, or, as he is called in some catalogues, Robert Dibdale, was born in Worcestershire. He became a student, and in due time a priest, of the English College at Rheims. In the year 1584 he was sent on the Mission, which he diligently served for some time. He was however arrested by the persecutors, tried and condemned for high treason, on account of his priestly character and functions. This Martyr, like a number of other missioners of that time, was remarkable for the gift he possessed of exorcising evil spirits. A fellow-missioner has left an account of several wonderful instances of this kind, of which he was himself witness, and others are recorded by Yepez, Bishop of Tarrasona, in his account of the English persecution. These wonderful occurrences were said to be the cause of numerous conversions to the faith.

The three Martyrs, Lowe, Adams, and Dibdale, all suffered at Tyburn on the same day, the 8th October, and on the mere charge of their priesthood, which by the recent statute was declared to be high treason.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,God,Gruesome Methods,Guest Writers,History,Martyrs,Other Voices,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Torture,Treason

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1517: Konrad Breuning, Tübingen Vogt

Add comment September 27th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1517, aged magistrate Konrad Breuning was beheaded as a traitor for helping negotiate a landmark limitation of the Duke of Württemberg’s powers.

Fruit of one of Tübingen’s wealthiest families — one can still see in the church there the donative Breuning BellKonrad Breuning was a Vogt, one of the Holy Roman Empire’s important municipal administrators.

In 1514, crushed by taxation and written out of political power, commoners both urban and rural mounted a rebellion known as “Poor Konrad”. (Its name had nothing to do with our post’s star character; “Konrad” was just a common name that had come to denote the everyman.)

Wealthy elites were able to leverage the rebellion’s pressure,* and Duke Ulrich‘s increasingly desperate need for revenues that only they could authorize, into a sort of Magna Carta for the duchy: the Treaty of Tübingen. As the name implies, it was negotiated right in Konrad Breuning’s stomping-ground; the site was his own suggestion.

This great coup was attained at a great cost, for Duke Ulrich was a mercurial fellow who would eventually be run out of Württemberg altogether after he outright murdered a guy. That murder, in 1515, perhaps drove Ulrich to an attempted (and backfiring) show of authority with the 1516 arrest of Bruening, his brother Sebastian (who was Vogt of a different town), and Konrad Vaut (yet another Vogt, and see what we mean about the popularity of the name?). Their rank did not protect them from the torture necessary to extract confessions.

All three were condemned to death for treason in a stacked trial in December 1516. For reasons that are not self-evident to me from the mostly-German sources that I have found, the other two Vogts lost their heads more or less promptly after their conviction but Konrad Bruening was maintained as Ulrich’s most unwilling guest for most of a year before he finally followed them. Maybe it was the duke protracting the savor of his revenge upon Tübingen’s bourgeoisie for that treaty.

* Despite the role of Poor Konrad in catalyzing the Treaty of Tübingen, the urban lower orders got much less out of the deal than the 1% types and the peasantry was shut out altogether. It would not be long before the frustration of the latter class again conjured an insurrection: the devastation 1524-1525 Peasants War.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Holy Roman Empire,Judges,Lawyers,Politicians,Public Executions,Torture,Treason

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1815: St. Peter the Aleut, the martyr of San Francisco

Add comment September 24th, 2017 Headsman

September 24 is the feast date in the Orthodox Christian tradition of Peter the Aleut.

As one might infer from his sobriquet, Peter the Aleut* — Chukagnak, to call him by the name of his birth — was a North American indigene whose canonization story features cultural collision all the way down.

Originally from Kodiak Island, Peter’s soul was won for Christ via the Russian Empire’s eastward expansion across the Bering Strait to Alaska.

Come the early 19th century the Russian-American Company that was Moscow’s chartered vehicle in the colonization game had pressed south seeking more favorable climes** with a fort in northern California supplying a network of outposts that stretched far south as Bodega Bay,† near the present-day San Francisco area.

Russia’s southerly excursions would collide with Spanish exploration pressing north: in their intersection lies the context for Peter the Aleut’s martyrdom.

The story in a nutshell is that a party of Alaskan natives in California under Russian colors was caught out hunting seals or otters by Spanish soldiers who took them captive. Peter and another Alaskan native convert called Ivan Kiglay were eventually left imprisoned together in a Spanish mission and ordered to convert to Catholicism on pain of death. When they refused, Peter was indeed slain — horribly tortured to death by having his extremities cut away while living, before finally being disemboweled.

Ivan Kiglay is the eyewitness source of this information, spared from sharing Peter’s chalice for unclear reasons. The blog OrthodoxHistory.org has done yeoman coverage of this controversial event or “event” and its overview post “Is the St. Peter the Aleut Story True?” is well worth exploring.‡ In 2011, the same site posted a rare English translation of the original Russian-language Ivan Kiglay deposition, excerpted (lightly tidied) below:

Missioners and the leader of the named above mission (whose name he does not remember) made a request to all the Kodiak dwellers to convert to the Catholic religion, to which they replied that they have already converted to a Christian religion on Kodiak, and they do not want to convert to any other religion. In a short time, Tarasov and other Kodiak dwellers [i.e., all the other Alaskans] were transferred to Saint Barbara. Though he (Kiglay Ivan) and wounded Chukagnak, were left in the mentioned mission, were kept with Indian criminals in the prison for several days, without food and water.

[One night] the chief of the mission brought the order to convert but they did not comply, despite the critical situation that they faced. On the sunrise of the next day a religious clerk came to the prison, accompanied by betrayed Indians, and called them out of the prison; Indians surrounded them, and by order started to cut (chop) Chukagnak’s fingers by articulations, from both hands and [after that] arms, and in the end cut his stomach (abdomen), by that time, he was already dead. That should have happened also to Kiglay, but at that time to the priest was brought a paper (he does not know from where and from whom). After reading that, [the priest] ordered to bury the body of the dead Chukagnak from Kasguiatskovo in the same place, and he [Kiglay] was sent back to prison.

Ivan Kiglay himself only delivered this information in 1819, four years after the alleged events, because he had ultimately to escape from a period of Spanish enslavement. In 1820 the Russian-American Company official Symeon Ivanovich Yanovsky forwarded the same report to a monastery in the motherland along with his endorsement of Ivan’s credibility (“He is not the type who could think up things”).

Unless you’re cocking an eyebrow at the convenient and mysterious last-second reprieve, there’s no particular reason to doubt the sincerity of the original deposition or of Yanovsky as interlocutor. However, there’s also no apparent corroboration of the incident known from Catholic records and the forced conversion backed by such an outlandish murder seems at odds with Spanish behavior on this particular frontier. A much later sentimental embroidery by Yanovsky from 1865 blurs the Peter story into outright hagiography. The documentary trail is so thin and questionable that everything about Peter the Aleut down to his actual existence has been hotly debated since.

Russia’s probes of California came to naught, of course — and Spain’s too for that matter, considering the Mexican War of Independence already in progress in this decade. All this land, and Alaska too, were marked for a different empire rising on the far side of the continent … and Russia’s Alaskan evangels would not in the end extend the Third Rome into the New World, but instead form the germ of the Orthodox Church in America. Today, St. Peter the Aleut is honored by Orthodox communities throughout the United States as the “martyr of San Francisco” (although this proximity for the martyrdom is also uncertain).


Shrine to Peter the Aleut in Kodiak, Alaska. (cc) image by Jesuit anthropologist Raymond Bucko, SJ.

* The descriptor “Aleut” was applied indiscriminately here, but by now it has the blessing of tradition. A more discriminating ethnography would reckon Peter and his Kodiak origins not an Aleut (from the Aleutian Islands) but an Alutiiq.

** Apart from the events narrated in this post, the Russian-American Company also dropped a fortress on Hawaii and even attempted an ill-considered takeover.

† Arriving there long before Alfred Hitchcock.

Our grim site does not pretend an opinion on whether and how religions ought to enshrine their saints … but for those curious about how St. Peter’s questionable historicity plays vis-a-vis his canonization, OrthodoxHistory.org has you covered.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Alaska,Borderline "Executions",California,Disfavored Minorities,Dismembered,Execution,God,Gruesome Methods,History,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Religious Figures,Russia,Spain,Torture,USA

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1627: Matthäus Ulicky, for communion

Add comment September 11th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1627, Matthäus Ulicky had his right hand chopped off, and then his head, in Caslav, Bohemia (present-day Czech Republic).

Ulicky and his offending extremity were casualties of the centuries-old struggle for reformation in Bohemia, and more specifically of the 1620s triumph of Catholic arms and the consequent promulgation of Habsburg edicts enforcing orthodoxy in ecclesiastical doctrine and practice.

One of the chief fault lines in the generations’ religious strife* had been Rome’s practice — never dictated in Scripture — to limit Holy Communion for the laity to

  1. Bread only, and not both bread and wine; and,
  2. Bread only when distributed by a priest, and not by another lay congregant.

Perhaps this point reads in retrospect like a minor ritualistic difference, but for disputants upholding or breaking the priestly domination over Christ’s body and blood denoted a question of power, of the intrinsic nature of Christianity. Little surprise that the Catholic order of the 1620s barred the reformist practice of permitting communion of both types, distributed by hands unburdened with holy orders.

Ulicky and his right hand broke that prohibition, delivering both bread and wine from his own unworthy lay deacon’s hands. He initially escaped Bohemia, leaving a reformist manifesto in his wake, but was arrested when he attempted to return.

* Both the Bohemian Hussite movement and the later Lutheran Reformation opposed Catholic doctrine restricting communion to the control of ordained priests.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Austria,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Czechoslovakia,Death Penalty,Execution,God,Habsburg Realm,History,Martyrs,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Torture

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1471: Giovanna Monduro, Piedmont witch

Add comment August 17th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1471, Giovanna Monduro, wife of Antoniotto Marandolo, burned at the stake in her native Piedmontese village of Miagliano.

Michael Tavuzzi, whose very specific title Renaissance Inquisitors: Dominican Inquisitors and Inquisitorial Districts in Northern Italy, 1474-1527 is our main source for this post, describes the case as “representative of the witch-trials conducted by Dominicans, both conventual and observant, in northern Italy during the Renaissance” which “seem to have been procedurally very similar.”

The story begins with a trial that we don’t know about, the trial at a nearby village of a witch called Maddalena who at some point offered Giovanna’s name to her tormentor.

Said tormentor, one Giovanni Domenico da Cremona, arrived in January 1470 to the beautiful Piedmont hamlet of Salussola* bearing a frightful boon: the offer of leniency for anyone who would gift the Inquisition their comprehensive confessions, and the names into the bargain of anyone else who was up to something sub-orthodox.

More than likely Giovanna’s name was actively solicited on the basis of Maddalena’s accusation; in either event, it was certainly supplied by family and neighbors to whom the woman had a witchy reputation. After an incriminating attempt to flee, she was brought to trial in the village church on February 13, 1470.

This time was very early days yet for the great witch-hunts yet to disgrace Europe, but it is recognizably of a piece with them. Over the course of the preceding generations, jurists and scholars had painstakingly constructed the edifice to support the many stakes and scaffolds: the conflation of folk magic, superstition, and holdover pagan customs with a literal network of flying, Satan-fucking warlocks bent on the destruction of Christendom.

For many centuries, “the Church, as the civilizer of nations, disdained these old wives’ tales,” Hugh Trevor-Roper put it in The European Witch Craze. But come the antechamber of modernity, “to deny the reality of night-flying and metamorphosis would be officially declared heretical; the witches’ sabbat would become an objective fact.”

Inquisitors’ preconceptions of the menace came to structure the trials they conducted, to insinuate themselves through questioning by turns sly and violent into the mouths of their prey, whose admissions would then compound not only upon the next town over but to the confirmation of the entire diabolic schema. It’s difficult to know where were the heads of long-gone peasants and townsfolk in all this but Giovanna’s attempt to escape suggests that whatever beliefs they might have held, all knew to dread the inquisitor.

Back to Tavuzzi’s treatment of the Salussola case:

The list reproduced in the trial’s transcript of the predetermined questions that were to be put to Giovanna by Giovanni Domenico during the course of the trial is instructive, for it reveals very well indeed the conceptual baggage that an inquisitor brought to such a task at this time. The questions amount to a kind of primer of the diabolic interpretation of witchcraft and allude to almost all its essential components: the sect of the witches, repudiation of the Christian faith, the pact with the devil, sexual congress with him, abuse of the sacraments, the performance of malevolent magic. Inquisitors invariably compiled such a list of points, known as articuli or capituli inquisitionales, to guide them in their interrogations, and it is through these that their own witch-beliefs and demonology would have impinged upon the course and outcome of a witch-trial.

Woe betide she who faced such questions … for the answers were already written.

Though Giovanna met this dreadful interrogation with some steadiness, human fortitude but rarely equaled the ordeal. Interrogated twice, she denied all repeatedly, even remaining steadfast through her third session that introduced torture to the proceedings.

Days later, the Inquisitor broke her.

A fourth interrogation took place on 20 February, and at that point she began to confess: she admitted that she had indeed belonged to the sect of the witches for twenty-three years, recapitulated all the elements of the stereotype of diabolic witchcraft, including shapeshifting and transvection that are not mentioned in Giovanni Domenico’s initial list of questions, and admitted to having caused the deaths of several persons.

She started coughing up names — some local women, some residents of a nearby village, a local priest — and when in fear for flesh or soul she attempted to walk back her confessions and accusations, she was tortured afresh until she adhered to the preferred story.

For unknown reasons it was not until almost 18 months later that

on 17 August 1471, the deputy of the local feudal lord, the count of Tollengo, in whose dungeon she must have been incarcerated since the trial, emitted the sentence whereby Giovanna was to be burned at the stake in nearby Miagliano — her birthplace — and it was carried out the same day.

* A display at a museum there commemorates the event.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Italy,Public Executions,Torture,Witchcraft,Women

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1789: Giovanna Bonanno, la Vecchia dell’Aceto

Add comment July 30th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1789, the Sicilian poisoner Giovanna Bonanno was hanged in Palermo.

Portrait of an Old Woman, by Giorgione (c. 1500-1510)

Bonanno (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) had borne the unremarked burdens of the poor into her ninth decade; her life prior to the brush with infamy is all but dark to us save a suspected marriage record from 1744. She seems to have scrabbled her way by beggary and folk magic.

In 1786, she chanced upon the the formula to concoct a lethal yet subtle draught from white wine vinegar and arsenic. (She never divulged its precise composition.)

For a few years in the late 1780s Bonanno’s vinegar became the hit choice for the choice hit. It was the ideal concoction: victims couldn’t detect it and doctors couldn’t diagnose it — so dissatisfied spouses, overeager heirs, rivalrous lovers, keepers of grudges, and all other manner of winnowers beat a path to her door.

Inevitably this business was betrayed as word got about; although it would surely have occurred by means of some other leak soon enough, in the event it happened when Bonanno’s delivery-woman realized that her parcel was intended for someone that she knew, and warned him.

As usual, it was the purveyor who bore the brunt of the law, as suppliers and clients alike damned her for a sorceress as well as a poisoner. Although hanged for her crimes, La Vecchia dell’Aceto — “The Old Vinegar” — entered instantly into Sicilian folklore; Italian speakers might enjoy Luigi Natoli‘s novel of that title.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Italy,Murder,Public Executions,Sicily,Torture,Witchcraft,Women

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1598: Lucas, waterboarded Guale

Add comment July 29th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1598, the indigenous Guale youth called Lucas was hanged by the Spaniards in St. Augustine, Florida, for his supposed part in the prior year’s massacre of five Franciscan missionary friars during a 1597 Guale revolt.

This entire tragic affair, documented poorly and with partiality in Spanish sources, remains an interpretive palimpsest to the few who are familiar with it. Historian J. Michael Francis grapples with it in Murder and Martyrdom in Spanish Florida: Don Juan and the Guale Uprising of 1597; a recent talk by the latter at the U.S. Library of Congress delves into the “400-year-old murder mystery”:

The key primary source for this event is Luis Jerónimo de Oré’s text The Martyrs of Florida, from approximately 1619. (Here’s a public domain English translation) The titular “Florida” as claimed by Spain in the New World colonization scramble was a much larger territory than the present-day U.S. state, peninsula, and running Internet gag; hence, the Guale territory relevant to this post lies on what is today the Georgia coast.

Ore informs us that “an Indian youth, who was a Christian and heir to the caciquedom,” was incensed when the Franciscan resident at the settlement of Tolomato presumed to disallow him a second wife.

This cacique and two other Indians, like him, given to the same immoral practice, went into the interior among the pagans, without saying anything or without obtaining permission as they were wont to do on other occasions. After a few days they returned at night with many other pagan Indians, painted and smeared with red paste, and with feathers on their heads. This among them is a sign of cruelty and slaughter.

Thus fearsomely attired, they burst upon the hut of the prudish Fray Pedro de Corpa and butchered him, setting up his head on a spear. Having done this, the angry cacique — who is known only as Juanillo, which is sometimes the name given to this rebellion — ordered other Guale to treat their nosy proselytizers likewise. As a result, four other Franciscans — Fray Miguel de Aunon and a lay brother on St. Catherine’s Island, Fray Bias Rodriguez at the mission village of Santa Clara de Tupiqui, and Fray Francisco de Verascola on Asao — were all murdered within days. A couple of other missionaries had very close escapes.


Map of the relevant part of the Georgia coast.

Besides these, a Fray Francisco de Avila was kidnapped and held hostage for ten months. Although cruelly tortured, Avila would survive captivity and produce a narrative of his own, one that Ore includes wholesale in his volume as a standalone chapter.

In the course of the ensuing Spanish raids on the Guale, the Spanish captured seven boys or young men and interrogation zeroed in on one of them: the son of the cacique of Tupiqui, who appeared as a possible participant in murdering Fray Bias Rodriguez.

Lucas was reticent on the point but after being subjected to the water torture he allowed that “he arrived in time to see Fray Bias die,” and this confession of his presence sufficed to condemn him. He was the only person judicially executed in the course of the entire revolt.

In view of said declarations of these proceedings, the crime falls upon Lucas the Indian, son of the Cacique de Tupiqui, for having been present and participated in the killing of Fray Bias, who was sent to convert the people of Tupiqui. I must condemn him by this my decree, sentenced according to his declaration, with the penalty of death. The justice which I order shall be done him is: That when he leaves the jail where he now is, it shall be with a rope around his neck, his hands tied behind him, and with a loud voice it must be proclaimed to the public his crime; that he be taken to the gallows, already prepared for this purpose, and that there he shall be hung by the neck and strangled until dead. Because, thus is it well to punish with real justice those who dare to commit such crimes, and as an example to the other Indian natives of these provinces that they may not commit similar crimes. So do I pronounce sentence and command.

And if the said Lucas is not mindful of receiving baptism and should not die repenting, and in the Catholic faith, I order that he be hung and after his death his body be burned to powder.

-Gonzalo Menendez de Canco, Governor of Florida (Source)

Interpretations of the whole affair have always been driven by Ore’s narrative: either the surface reading of it, that Juanillo and company found monogamy irksome and preferred, in Ore’s words, “to give rein to their sensuality and unlawful pleasures”; or, a converse take for the era of decolonization, that the cultural interference of the Spanish empire triggered a native backlash for whom the friars were the ready-to-hand targets. In either version, the rebellion flourishes briefly but ultimately fails.

Francis in his book and the video above offers a very different reading: as a successful revolt authored by a different cacique, Don Domingo of Asao, who violently renegotiated the local balance of power** and thereby displaced the caciques of Tolomato as the paramount chiefs of the Guale. As a particularly gruesome coda, Domingo made successful obeisance to the Spanish and obtained the crown’s blessing for an expedition to destroy Juanillo, whom he blamed for the disturbance. After capturing the rebels’ last redoubt (beheading Juanillo in the process), Domingo ordered the surviving women to scalp their own men. Now that is paramount chiefdom.

Domingo appears to have maintained his preeminence among the Guale for the balance of his years — backed by and partnering with the Spanish, to the happiness of evangelizing clerics who were never more disturbed. A few years later, the Spanish even plopped down a new mission in his very own native soil … Santo Domingo de Asao.

* The Guale people are thought to have been subsumed into the Yamasee.

** View the Spanish arrivistes, who had a handful of small settlements rather than the dominating presence that their globe-straddling empire might suggest, as just “another powerful Mississippi chiefdom” to local eyes. (Source of this characterization)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Florida,Georgia,Hanged,History,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Spain,Torture,USA,Wartime Executions

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