Posts filed under 'Torture'

1996: Yevgeny Rodionov, Chechen War martyr and folk saint

Add comment May 23rd, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1996 — his 19th birthday — Russian hostage Yevgeny Rodionov was beheaded by his captors outside a village in Chechnya.

The young conscript was seized by guerrillas/terrorists/rebels along with three other comrades* during the horrible Chechen War.

Whatever ransom was demanded, the young man’s family could not pay it and in the end the the kidnappers sawed off his head. Searching for his remains at great personal peril his mother met a Chechen who claimed to be Yevgeny’s executioner, and was told by him that “your son had a choice to stay alive. He could have converted to Islam, but he did not agree to take his cross off.”

If it was meant as a taunt it backfired, for the story was later picked up by Russian media and, championed by his mother, the Rodionov has become elevated into a contemporary folk saint — icons and all.

From the standpoint of the Orthodox hierarchy, Rodionov’s cult is thoroughly unofficial, but when it comes to popular devotion people often vote with their feet. Rodionov’s martyrdom expresses themes of great importance to some Russians: the growing cultural currency of Orthodoxy after the fall of the irreligious Soviet Union; a muscular resistance to Islamic terrorism;** an intercessor for common people ground up in the tectonic shifts that have reshaped Russia.

Thy martyr, Yevgeny, O Lord, in his sufferings has received an incorruptible crown from thee, our God, for having thy strength he has brought down his torturers, has defeated the powerless insolence of demons. Through his prayers save our souls.

* The other three — Andrey Trusov, Igor Yakovlev and Alexander Zheleznov — were all likewise murdered by their kidnappers.

** Although the war that he died in ended for Moscow in humiliating futility, Rodionov only became widely visible in the early 2000s amid an upswing of Russian patriotism following the outrages of the Moscow apartment bombings. (And, a more successful re-run of Chechen hostilities.)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Execution,History,Hostages,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Religious Figures,Ripped from the Headlines,Russia,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Torture,Wartime Executions

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Feast Day of St. Victor and St. Corona

Add comment May 14th, 2017 Headsman

May 14 is the feast date of St. Victor, a Christian Roman soldier and his co-religionist and possible spouse Corona. Both the city and the century (and therefore the reality) of their passion are uncertain.

For the believer, what these martyrs lack in firm historicity they make up for in practical effect.

Corona chanced to become associated by medieval times with money — possibly the coincidence of her name, meaning crown,* with the sigils on coins — and thus she got wrapped up into a variety of pecuniary prayers and incantations. Strictly unofficial stuff from Rome’s standpoint, you understand: treasure-hunting, lotteries, wagering, and other fond fantasies of unearned windfalls.

The solemn devout might laugh, but “dear god, give me some stuff” comprises an underrated share of popular theology. J. Dillinger cites this charmer in Magical Treasure Hunting in Europe and North America: A History, dating to 1794 Austria:

Virgin and martyr Corona, I, a poor sinner, ask you to remember your great mercy and honour and your control over the treasures of the world and whoever asks you in the name of Jesus Christ your dear bridegroom, in his name you have power to give worldly goods to me, a poor and needy person, so I beg you with all of my humble heart, oh virgin and martyr Corona relief [sic] me from my needs and my poverty by giving me 50000 florins of good gold for the salvation of my soul through the redemption of my need body.

This enchantment needs to be added to the web’s supply of money-drawing rituals.

Because engaging such supernatural entities was a frightful venture for the petitioner, be he ever so humble, the prayer amusingly contains an equally elaborate chant for dismissing Saint Moneybags after she has paid up.

Now go away in the peace of God, which shall be between you and me, go back to the place where you came from, the eternal peace of God shall be and shall stay forever between you and me, and you will come again, when I wish to see you. Now go away and be blessed, through God and his holy five wounds, and go away in the peace of God, and the blessing be between you and me and the mine. Amen.

* Her legend can be found attributed to St. Stephanie: like “Corona”, the name Stephanie means “crown”.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Disfavored Minorities,Dismembered,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Martyrs,Pelf,Roman Empire,Soldiers,Torture,Uncertain Dates,Women

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1945: Majda Vrhovnik, Slovenian resistance

Add comment May 4th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1945, Slovene resistance member Majda Vrhovnik was executed by the Gestapo in Klagenfurt, days before the end of World War II.

A University of Ljubljana medical student and Communist destined to be honored as a national hero of Yugoslavia, Vrhovnik (English Wikipedia entry | Slovenian) joined the underground resistance when the Nazis occupied Yugoslvia in 1941. She’d spend the bulk of the war years producing and distributing illicit anti-occupation propaganda but by war’s end she had been detailed to nearby Klagenfurt — a heavily Slovene city just over the border in Austria.

She was finally caught there and arrested on February 28, 1945, and shot in prison even as Klagenfurt awaited Allied occupation which would arrive on May 8.

Her credentials as a patriotic martyr — there’s a Majda Vrhovnik school named for her — would surface her name in 1988 in connection with an affair that helped begin the breakup of Yugoslavia into ethnic statelets, when an opposition journalist published a censored article under the pseudonym “Majda Vrhovnik”.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Austria,Doctors,Execution,Germany,History,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Revolutionaries,Shot,Slovenia,Spies,Torture,Wartime Executions,Women,Yugoslavia

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1979: Major Bijan Yahyahi, prison torturer

1 comment April 13th, 2017 Headsman

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Courts went up in the very first days after the victory of the Iranian Revolution. These courts still exist nearing 40 years on but were oriented initially like many revolutionary tribunals towards clearing out hated servants of the old regime.

And like many revolutionary tribunals they developed a reputation for delivering justice more swift than measured — with one-sitting procedures where defendants faced hectoring judges and surprise charges without benefit of that “Western absurdity,” a defense counsel. For the Ayatollah Khomeini, revolutionary courts weren’t a probative exercise but a vehicle for delivering popular justice. “If the revolutionary courts did not prosecute them, the people would have gone on a rampage and killed them all,” he said of the courts’ targets.

This sentiment was echoed almost word for word by a spectator in this case, who (according to an April 13, 1979 New York Times profile) shouted at the judges during an adjournment that “if the court forgives him, the people won’t and will get him!” The major’s courtroom was packed with 200-plus spectators, many of whom could show the scars that the Shah’s torturers had left them.

Though he must have known he had no real hope at acquittal, Yahyahi fought his corner — for there was still the hope of a prison sentence, which his co-accused received, instead of death. Accused of abusing prisoners at Qasr Prison, Yahyahi protested that he had been forced to do it, that “the system was there, I didn’t create anything … I’m a nobody.”

“You wouldn’t understand it unless you put yourself in my shoes,” he explained unavailingly. “I asked for a transfer. I tried hard to get out. You must take that into consideration.”

A parade of witnesses described the torments of the Shah’s prison; Major Yahyahi’s rank at the facility was enough to condemn him for command responsibility, even absent witnesses who could link him personally this or that thrashing.

“It is not the individual who is on trial,” the mullah-judge presiding explained, repeatedly. “It is the regime.” The toppled regime, after all, had been convicted already.

Major Yahyahi’s trial (together with four others) consumed the court’s business on April the 12th. By that night Yahyahi was condemned to death; he was executed by firing squad the very next day, only one of ten people put to death around Iran on April 13, 1979.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Iran,Shot,Torture

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1730: A Natchez woman tortured to death at New Orleans

Add comment April 11th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1730, French-allied Tunica Indians put a captured Natchez woman to grisly public death under the walls of New Orleans.

This is the English translation of Marc-Antoine Caillot’s Relation du voyage de la Louisianne ou Nouvelle France fait par le Sr. Caillot en l’année 1730, a key firsthand source for the incident in this post.

Months earlier the Natchez had risen in rebellion against the colonists in Louisiana — a bloody settling of accounts the that answered a French push to colonize more land with an attack meant to drive them out of Louisiana altogether. The initial, surprise attacks slew 237 French subjects, many in stomach-turning fashion. Friend of the site Dr. Beachcombing details a particularly atrocious murder in his post on the affair at Beachcombing’s Bizarre History Blog.

So the French were in a state of rage and fright on April 10 — the day after Easter — when an allied tribe, the Tunica, showed up at the Big Easy with six Natchez captives in tow, three women and three children. Chief among them was a woman readily recognized by the French as the wife of a once-friendly Natchez chief now “known for being an enemy of the French.” Indeed, escapees from Natchez captivity slated her with having given the go-ahead for the torture-murder of three of their countrymen.

And this hated foe the Tunica proceeded to offer to the French, as a gesture of goodwill.

As Sophie White explains in her “Massacre, Mardi Gras, and Torture in Early New Orleans” (The William and Mary Quarterly, July 2013),* Louisiana territory governor Etienne Perier in slyly declining the prisoner intentionally condemned her to a speedy and spectacular death. Rather than taking her into official custody for disposal by the French judiciary or diplomatic organs, Perier put her up for a night in the French jail while her captors prepared a performance for the morrow calculated to slake the bloodlust of French and native alike.

White’s narrative is worth excerpting at length here; all the parentheticals come from White’s original text.

Officially, Governor Perier could claim that he had maintained French notions of justice by rejecting the Tunica offer of the prisoner of war (even though at a later date he would openly write of another four male and two female Natchez having “been burnt here”). Yet he allotted a space for the Tunica to torture her and arranged for her to be kept in jail overnight while the Tunica danced the black “calumet of death” in preparation for her execution. In the morning, after gathering firewood, erecting a frame, and painting their faces and bodies, the Tunica “began to run as if possessed by the devil and, while yelling (it is their custom), they ran to the jail where she was in chains”; she was engaged in a final assertion of sartorial self-preservation, “fixing a ribbon to her braided hair,” hair that she knew would soon be scalped.

Like Perier, the colonial populace also became involved in exacting revenge on this member of the Natchez nation. Not only were “all the Sauvages who were in New Orleans” present at the torture ritual but colonists also attended the performance as spectators, as they might in France attend a public execution. They watched as the Tunica tied her to a frame and as a Natchez man who had abandoned his kin and been adopted by the Tunica stepped forward to burn her, starting with “the hair [poil, or body hair] of her … then one breast, then the buttocks, then the left breast” (the ellipses represent a deliberate authorial omission on the part of Caillot). Commentators described the methodical burning of torture victims as a form of slow-cooking (“a petit feu”). For Caillot, the ritual burning of the victim’s genitals, breasts, and buttocks was marked by the carefully observed but gruesome sight of “the abundance of grease mixed with blood that ran onto the ground.” His description evoked the cooking of meat basted in fat, with the frame simulating a spit on which the victim was roasted; if this frame/spit did not physically turn its meat, the torturers made sure that she was evenly roasted on all sides by their methodical movement across her body. This food preparation imagery was followed by other cooking analogies. As they were about to kill her (in contrast to the procedure in France, where spectators waited for the execution to be complete before grabbing souvenir pieces of the criminal’s body), “the French women who had suffered at her hands at the Natchez [settlement] each took a sharpened cane and larded her,” just as French culinary techniques called for piercing meat with a sharp stick prior to the insertion of thin strips of lard.

The Natchez woman was not impressed, but “during that long and cruel torture never shed a tear. On the contrary, she seemed to deride the unskilfulness of her tormenters, insulting them, and threatening that her death would soon be avenged by her tribe.”


Detail view (click for the full image) of a generic depiction of the torture frame, from Jean-Francois-Benjamin Dumont de Montigny’s memoir. Sophie White notes that this figure is identifiably female based on her genitalia and the long scalped hair mounted on the adjacent pole.

Over the next several years, the French not only turned back the attack but largely shattered and Natchez peoples, dispersing their remnants to fragmented communities throughout the U.S. South. Today only a few thousand Natchez souls remain, and their interesting language has died out entirely.

* Though it’s a bit tangential to the subject of this post, readers interested in this milieu might cotton to White’s Wild Frenchmen and Frenchified Indians: Material Culture and Race in Colonial Louisiana.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Flayed,France,Gruesome Methods,History,Louisiana,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Torture,USA,Wartime Executions,Women

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Feast Day of St. Eupsychius, anti-Apostate

3 comments April 9th, 2017 Headsman

April 9 is the (Roman) feast date of the minor Cappadocian saint Eupsychius.

As martyr to the hated-of-Christians pagan throwback emperor Julian the Apostate, Eupsychius could perhaps be accounted an ironical late victim of the fratricidal family politics that consumed the heirs of the great Christianizer Constantine the Great.

When Constantine kicked off in 337, he left three sons of a disgraced empress whom he optimistically hoped would share rulership. What happened instead was that, inside of a generation, practically the entire Constantinian line laid one another in the earth by dint of bloodthirsty dynastic rivalries, leaving only two men standing.

And it so happened that those two kinsmen faced one another across late antiquity’s gaping spiritual chasm: one a Christian, the other a pagan.

Constantius was the surviving son of Constantine, and regardless his Christian affiliation had secured his initial control of his father’s new eastern capital by unsentimentally butchering the bulk of his extended family including his own uncle Julius Constantius, and Julius’s firstborn son. Two other sons of Julius Constantine, too young for the abbatoir, escaped their brother’s fate and so our future Julian the Apostate grew up under a perpetually dancing Damoclean sword, a bookish philosophizing type enchanted by classical learning — so enchanted that he would eventually, and at first very quietly, apostatize from his substantial Christian education and adhere instead to the old gods.

In the fullness of time, the remainder of Constantius’s family succumbed to various civil wars — including Julian’s only surviving brother, Gallus, executed for treachery in 354 in an incident that could very well have claimed Julian as well if for no other reason than proximity. A prolific writer, Julian would later recall that “if some God, to inure my safety, had not ingratiated me with his [Constantius’s] beautiful and excellent wife, Eusebia, I could not have escaped his resentment.” Perhaps the childless Constantius could foresee well enough that, resentment or no, his last relation would be required for imperial policy soon enough.

And indeed the very next year, having spent many months mulling over whether to kill him, Constantius instead elevated Julius as his junior co-emperor. The young scholar soon distinguished himself as a surprisingly competent leader and battlefield commander, pacifying Germania and Gaul before, almost inevitably, the two emperors turned on one another in civil war. Julian must have been well-favored of goddess Fortuna whom he will defend in this post, for he won that war before the first spear was chucked when Constantius took ill and died as the rivals steered their armies towards one another.

So suddenly, 40 years after the empire had officially gone Christian, it had a pagan ruler — the last pagan ruler it would ever know.

Julian was an intelligent and idealistic young man. Taking power before the age of 30, he set a bold course to massively remake the empire in the image of its most admirable anachronisms: living modestly, paring the bureaucracy, debating Senators as their equal instead of their overlord, and — the attempted rollback that would mark his nickname and his reputation — restoring a pre-Christian cosmology to philosophical preeminence.

A few books about Julian the Apostate

This could have been Julian the Apostate‘s life’s work, twenty or thirty of forty years dislodging Christianity from the official foothold it had only recently attained and creating the groundwork for a pagan-dominated middle ages: fine grist for speculative alternative history, since Julian actually died in 363 in war against the Persians.

Having learned from the failure of previous rulers’ persecutions, he deployed instead the devious and modern mechanic of liberal religious toleration, starving the “Galileans” of the galvanizing force of either state backing or state oppression while perhaps setting their orthodox edifice up to splinter over time as various heretical movements began freely venting their rival doctrines on one another.


Julian the Apostate presiding at a conference of sectarians, by Edward Armitage (1875).

His uniqueness and his erudition have made him an attractive character for modern interlocutors, especially those of the Christ-skeptic variety; Gore Vidal sympathetically centered Julian in an engrossing historical novel, and Gibbon warmly admired him:

The Christians, who had now possessed above forty years the civil and ecclesiastical government of the empire, had contracted the insolent vices of prosperity, and the habit of believing that the saints alone were entitled to reign over the earth. As soon as the enmity of Julian deprived the clergy of the privileges which had been conferred by the favour of Constantine, they complained of the most cruel oppression; and the free toleration of idolaters and heretics was a subject of grief and scandal to the orthodox party. The acts of violence, which were no longer countenanced by the magistrates, were still committed by the zeal of the people. At Pessinus the altar of Cybele was overturned almost in the presence of the emperor, and in the city of Caesarea, in Cappadocia, the temple of Fortune, the sole place of worship which had been left to the Pagans, was destroyed by the rage of a popular tumult. On these occasions, a Prince who felt for the honour of the gods was not disposed to interrupt the course of justice; and his mind was still more deeply exasperated when he found that the fanatics, who had deserved and suffered the punishment of incendiaries, were rewarded with the honours of martyrdom.

It is the last named of these incidents that finally brings us round to our date’s principal.

Like Julian himself, St. Eupsychius had no way of knowing that the new, old order would be a transient epoch. In his zeal to resist a rejuvenated paganism, Eupsychius led a riotous sack of a temple to Fortuna (Tyche). The church historian Sozomen gives us the primary-est historical record, and although it dates to several decades after Eupsychius’s martyrdom we can’t be picky when it comes to antiquity.

It is said that at this time were martyred Basilius, a presbyter of the church of Ancyra, and Eupsychius, a nobleman of Caesarea in Cappadocia, newly wed and in a manner of speaking still a bridegroom. As regards Eupsychius, I conjecture that he was executed because of the temple of Tyche, then destroyed, on account of which destruction, as has been said above, all citizens of Caesarea collectively experienced the emperor’s wrath, while those who personally took part in it were punished, some with death, some with banishment.

Later iterations would expand predictably on Eupsychius’s sufferings — tortures, miracle-making, blood and milk springing from his wound, and even eventually eliding the precipitating riot or arson — all of which conspires to pull a discernibly historical figure behind the dark glass of hagiography.*

Little more than a year later, Julian suffered a mortal wound in battle against the Sassanids. The Constantinian dynasty died with Julian, as did his signature project of Apostasy — a sudden volte-face of that fickle Fortuna whose memory and reputation would persist well beyond the twilight of paganism.

The History of Rome podcast deals with Julian in episodes 143, 144, 145, and 146.

* See L.G. Westerink, “The Two Faces of St. Eupsychius,” Harvard Ukrainian Studies, Vol. 7, Okeanos: Essays presented to Ihor Shevchenko on his Sixtieth Birthday by his Colleagues and Students (1983).

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arson,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,History,Martyrs,Rioting,Roman Empire,Torture,Turkey,Uncertain Dates

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1724: Sister Geltruda and Fra Romualdo, at a Palermo auto de fe

1 comment April 6th, 2017 Henry Charles Lea

(Thanks to Henry Charles Lea for the guest post, which first appeared in his The Inquisition in the Spanish Dependencies: Sicily – Naples – Sardinia – Milan – The Canaries – Mexico – Peru – New Granada. The Inquisition was abolished in Sicily in 1782, but an interesting Palermo museum preserves its artifacts. -ed.)

When, in 1718, Savoy exchanged Sicily with Austria for Sardinia, the Emperor Charles VI would not endure this dependence of the [Inquisition] tribunal upon a foreign power and procured, in 1720, from Clement XI a brief transferring the supremacy to Vienna. In accordance, however, with the persistent Hapsburg claims on the crown of Spain, the Inquisition remained Spanish. A supreme council for it was created in Vienna, with Juan Navarro, Bishop of Albarracin as chief who, although resident there gratified himself with the title of Inquisidor-general de Espana, but in 1723 he was succeeded by Cardinal Emeric, Archbishop of Kolocz.

Apparently it was deemed necessary to justify this elaborate machinery with a demonstration and, on April 6, 1724, an auto de fe was celebrated at Palermo with great splendor, the expenses being defrayed by the emperor.


Detail view (click for the full image) of a French print of the auto de fe.

Twenty-six delinquents were penanced, consisting as usual mostly of cases of blasphemy, bigamy and sorcery, but the spectacle would have been incomplete without concremation and two unfortunates, who had languished in prison since 1699, were brought out for that purpose. They were Geltruda, a beguine, and Fra Romualdo, a friar, accused of Quietism and Molinism, with the accompanying heresies of illuminism and impeccability. Their long imprisonment, with torture and ill-usage, seems to have turned their brains, and they had been condemned to relaxation as impenitent in 1705 and 1709, but the sentences had never been carried out and they were now brought from their dungeons and burnt alive.


Detail view (click for the full image) of an engraving, The Great Auto De Fe At Palermo Italy 6 April 1724

Less notable was an auto de fe of March 22, 1732, in which Antonio Canzoneri was burnt alive as a contumacious and relapsed heretic.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Austria,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,Guest Writers,Habsburg Realm,Heresy,History,Italy,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Sicily,Torture,Women

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1975: Pierre Galopin, hostage of Hissene Habre

Add comment April 4th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1975, French Major Pierre Galopin was executed by Chad rebel Hissène Habré.

Galopin (English Wikipedia entry | French) had been dispatched to the former French colony to negotiate the release of two French nationals* seized as hostages by Habre’s Command Council of the Armed Forces of the North (CCFAN).

You’ll never guess it: CCFAN also took Galopin hostage.**

CCFAN tried to leverage its new captive into an arms trade. When France dragged its feet, the Chadians terminated the negotiation by having Galopin condemned by a “revolutionary tribunal” and hanged to a roadside tree.

Habre would eventually take power as President of Chad in 1982, and was subsequently welcomed on state visits to the former mother country — much to the disgust of those who remembered the Frenchman sacrificed to his ambitions. Galopin was hardly the last man to be so distinguished: as of this writing, Habre is serving an eternal prison sentence in neighboring Senegal for crimes against humanity committed during his eight years ruling Chad.

* Archaeologist Françoise Claustre and development worker Marc Combe. (A third hostage, West German doctor Christoph Staewen, had also been taken, but had quickly been ransomed by his government.) Combe escaped in 1975. Claustre was not released until 1977.

** CCFAN was also riven by a major internal division that by 1976 would split the movement into two rival organs. It has long been murky (French-language pdf here) just whose interest within CCFAN was best served by the hostile course of events.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Chad,Execution,France,Hanged,History,Hostages,Soldiers,Torture

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1437: Walter Stewart, Earl of Atholl

Add comment March 26th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1437, the Earl of Atholl finally reached the end of a three-day carnival of public tortures and lost bowels, heart, and head for assassinating the King of Scotland.

When Atholl’s grandson Robert exploited the family’s familiar proximity to the king to admit a team of assassins on the night of Feb. 20-21 1437, it ended a strange run for James I.* James had been melodramatically kidnapped by pirates at age 12 and sold to the English — who held the Scottish king** for ransom for 18 years.

By the time James returned to native soil in 1424, he had had quite enough of being some other lord’s shuttlecock and irritated Scotch magnates — who had formerly enjoyed the run of the place and therefore dragged their feet when it came to repatriating their hostage king — by his overweening grabs at land, money, and power. One prime example that would come back to haunt him in the events of this post was the 1425 destruction of the Albany Stewarts, which netted the crown the forfeiture of three earldoms. Clients of the Albany Stewarts, like Sir Robert Graham, delivered a fair fraction of the 28 stab wounds that shuffled King James off this mortal coil.

But even James’s allies had to look sharp when it came to any demesnes not nailed down.

Our principal for today’s post, Walter Stewart by name, was one of these. James’s uncle and supporter, and the son of King Robert II, Stewart/Atholl had pushed for the magnates to ransom James.

Putatively seen as the king’s ally, Atholl’s complicity in regicide made him a byword for treachery to outraged Scottish chroniclers; the apparent grab for the throne led his captors to put a “corone of papir … upon his hed, the which was all abowte depaynetid with jubettes, and for the more dispite and shame to hym was writyne with thes wordes, TRAITOUR, TRAITOUR, TRAITOUR,” according to The Dethe and False Murdure of James Stewarde, Kyng of Scotys.

In a 1992 article on events† historian Michael Brown noted that what Atholl had added to his holdings through his nephew the king was the earldom of Strathearn, and it was but tentatively held: granted for Walter Stewart’s lifetime only, it would revert to the king with the septaugenarian’s death, leaving his heirs no better off than Walter’s own efforts had made them circa 30 years before.

Brown depicts the aging lord as a savvy operator who “would increasingly have despaired of keeping the earldom of Strathearn in his family … [as] a consequence of James’s general opportunism when it came to increasing the revenues of the crown.” A couple of specific adverse interventions that trimmed Atholl’s estates might have presaged — in the earl’s mind, at least — a potential royal move against his position, a move that Atholl would be best advised to check preemptively or never at all. Who could say in February of 1437 whether the Stewarts would by March or April still be royal confidantes in any position to have “left the Kynges chamburs doore opyne; and … brussed and blundird the lokes of hem, yn such wise that no man myght shute hem”?

If we’re not sure of exactly why they did it, we do know very clearly that the plot failed as a coup attempt. Both the queen and the six-year-old heir James II survived that evil night, and James’s violent deposition met not support, but horror. Within weeks the conspirators were hunted to ground. Atholl, for his part, protested his innocence of the regicide all the way to the end, a protest that neither contemporaries nor historians have much credited.

And his death declar’d that there is nothing more popular than justice, for they who were wont to detract from him whilst he was alive, now he as dead had most flagrant desires after him, insomuch that the Nobles, as soon as they heard he was murder’d, came in of their own accord from their respective countries and before a tryal was appointed they voluntarily sent out into all parts to apprehend the murderers and bring them to justice.

Very many of them were taken. The principal of them was put to new and exquisite kinds of death. The rest were hang’d. The chief heads in perpetrating the wickedness were reckon’d to be Walter Earl of Athole, Robert his nephew by his son, and their kinsman Robert Graham.

The punishment of Walter (because he was the chief author and instigator of the whole plot) was divided into three days suffering. In the 1st he was put on a cart wherein a stork-like swipe [crane] or engine was erected, and by ropes let through pullies was hoisted up on high and then, the ropes being suddainly loos’d, he was let down again almost to the ground with grievous pains by reason of the luxation [stretching] of the joints of his body. Then he was set on a pillory that all might see him, and a red-hot iron crown set on his head with this inscription, that he should be called King of all Traitors. They say the cause of this punishment was that Walter had been sometimes told by some female witches (as Athole was always noted to have such) that he should be crown’d king in a mighty concourse of people. For by this means that prophecy was either fulfill’d or eluded, as indeed such kind of predictions do commonly meet with no other events. The day after, he was bound upon a hurdle and drawn at an horse-tail thro’ the greatest street in Edinburgh. The 3rd day he was laid along upon a plank in a conspicuous place and his bowels were cut out whilst he was alive, cast into the fire, and burnt before his face. Afterwards his heart was pulled out and cast into the same fire. Then his head was cut off and expos’d to the view of all, being set upon a poll in the highest place of the city. His body was divided into four quarters and sent to be hang’d up in the most noted places of the best cities of the kingdom.

After him, his nephew was brought forth to suffer, but because of his age they would not put him to so much pain; and besides, he was not the author, but only an accomplice in another man’s wicked design, as having obey’d his grandfather therein, so that he was only hang’d and quarter’d.

But Robert Graham, who did the deed with his own hand, was carried in a cart thro’ the city, and his right hand was nail’d to a gallows which was set up in the cart, and then came executioners which did continually run red-hot iron spikes into his thighs, shoulders, and those parts of his body which were most remote from the vitals, and then he was quarter’d, as the former. After this manner was the death of James vindicated.

‘Tis true, ’twas a cruel one, but ’twas reveng’d by punishments so cruel that they seem’d to exceed the very bounds of humanity. For such extreme kinds of punishment do not so much restrain the minds of the vulgar by the severity as they do make them wild to do or suffer any thing; neither do they so much deter wicked men from committing offences by their acerbity as they lessen their terror by often beholding them, especially if the spirits of the criminals be so hardened that they flinch not at their punishment. For among the unskilful vulgar a stubborn confidence is sometimes prais’d for a firm and stable constancy.

-Rerum Scoticarum Historia (1582)

* James’s successors handed down the throne, father James to son James, right down into the Stuart dynasty that came to rule England as well. This makes our James I an ancestor of such scaffold worthies as Mary Queen of Scots and Charles I.

** James was kidnapped in March 1406. His father Robert III died in April of the same year.

† “‘That Old Serpent and Ancient of Evil Days': Walter, Earl of Atholl and the Death of James I,” The Scottish Historical Review, Vol. 71, No. 191/192, Parts 1 & 2 (Apr. – Oct., 1992).

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,Execution,Gruesome Methods,Hanged,History,Nobility,Notable for their Victims,Power,Public Executions,Scotland,Torture,Treason

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1563: Jean de Poltrot, assassin of the Duke of Guise

1 comment March 18th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1563, Jean de Poltrot de Méré was ripped apart in the streets of Paris for assassinating the Duke of Guise.

The opening act of the civil war between Catholics and Huguenots that would devour France in the late 16th century was but a year old at this moment, and Guise was the very man who had set off the powderkeg with a notorious massacre of Huguenots the previous March that had sent agitated confessional armies into the fields.

During the ensuing months, Guise stood at the fore of Catholic forces, opposite the Huguenot commander Conde.

Come early 1563, Guise was besieging the Huguenot-held city of Orleans when Poltrot (English Wikipedia page | French) contrived to ambush him on a nearby road. Poltrot shot Guise with a pistol* and fled; he’d be arrested a day later.

In the Wars of Religion, each previous atrocity justified the revenge that followed it; Guise’s death — and Poltrot’s confession under torture** that it was the Huguenot Admiral Coligny who directed his hand — would help to set the scene for the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre visited by Catholics on the Huguenots nine years later. (In fairness we ought also to add that this was not Guise’s first brush with Protestant assassins.) And heavily Catholic Paris was even before the Guise murder violently agitated against Huguenots. During the fighting in 1562,

Reputed Huguenots were struck down in the streets. Sometimes mock trials were held; the attackers grilled the captives on their religious beliefs and, when not satisfied with the answers, killed them on the spot. Officials who tried to intervene were themselves in danger, and edicts against violence were bitterly protested. As one anonymous memoirist described it, “The people wanted nothing less than permission to kill and exterminate the Huguenots without any form of trial; but the consequences were too dangerous.” He implied that permission might have been given, had it been possible to contain the violence.†

All this rage, when focused on the assassin of the Catholic party’s champion, was enough to tear a man limb from limb.

Poltrot’s sentence was to be publicly ripped apart by horses straining his limbs to the four points of the compass. It didn’t quite work: sinew and muscle is too dense and tough to shred by main force, even for a horse; it was only by dint of the the executioner’s helpful hacking that the beasts could dismember their prey.


Here’s a similar take in color.

Quartering by horses is a punishment so preposterously horrific that it could only belong to an age of intentional spectacle.

Indeed, Florike Egmond and Peter Mason argue‡ that until the 16th century such a theatrical execution “was a purely fictional punishment in Europe, which ever since Roman times emerged occasionally in literature, legend and folk-tales as an outrageous form of retribution for (high) treason and related offences” — such as Livy’s mythic rendering of the end given faithless ex-ally Mettius Fufetius, the treatment of St. Hippolytus, and foggy distant Frankish legends.

Although the concept might have existed in imaginations for centuries before, equine execution was at best a vanishingly rare event in reality; certainly when Poltrot was butchered, nobody present had ever before beheld such a sight. For Egmond and Mason, this was an innovation of his judges who “jumped the gap between fiction and historical records” in pursuit of ever “more expressive forms of punishment in order to emphasize the outrageousness of the offense.”

It was an outrage whose time had come, however, for quartering by horses was employed several times more for regicidal offenses in the ensuing decades — including for the Catholic militant who assassinated the Huguenot King Henri IV.

* This event would appear to dislodge the 1570 murder of Scotland’s Regent Moray from its popular acclamation as history’s earliest firearm assassination. As Guise lingered for six days and finally succumbed to effects of his doctor’s own bloodletting, perhaps the view is that Poltrot’s pistol only earned half-credit.

** Poltrot would later retract the claim, when not under torture.

† Barbara Diefendorf, “Prologue to a Massacre: Popular Unrest in Paris, 1557-1572,” The American Historical Review, Dec. 1985.

‡ “Domestic and Exotic Cruelties: Extravagance and Punishment,” The Irish Review, Autumn 1999

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Assassins,By Animals,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Dismembered,Drawn and Quartered,Execution,France,Gruesome Methods,History,Mature Content,Milestones,Murder,Power,Public Executions,Torture,Treason,Wartime Executions

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