Posts filed under '16th Century'

1505: The Val Camonica witches

Add comment June 23rd, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1505, seven women and a man were burned in the town of Cemmo in Lombardy’s Val Camonica — the first victims of that region’s outbreak of witch-hunting that would claim over 100 lives all told.

This alpine valley fell in the remit of the city of Brescia which meant that (since the 1420s) it answered ultimately to the Most Serene Republic of Venice. But in the hinterlands of the fragmented Italian peninsula were

Remotenesses like Val Camonica are among the focal points for the fancy or hope that pockets of paganism held on from antiquity even in the heart of Christendom. Brescia lay in the belt spawning doctrinal and political challenges to the medieval church — the very zone that gave rise to the Inquisition.

During two distinct periods — 1505 to 1510, and again from 1518 to 1521 — that Inquisition fastened on folk in this region who constituted “a most pernicious kind of people … utterly damned by the stain of heresy, which was causing them to renounce the sacrament of the baptism they had received, denying their Lord and giving their bodies and souls to Satan whose advice was leading them astray.” (1521 communique of Pope Leo X, quoted here)

The circumstances for these purges can only be guessed at, as most of the primary documentation, particularly of the earlier episode, is lost. But the context of Papal-Venetian rivalry all but insists upon itself. Indeed, Venice’s ruling oligarchy is known during the 1518-1521 Inquisition to have interceded to prevent the Pope’s delegate from putting torch to flesh, provoking one of the innumerable jurisdictional imbroglios between the rival city-states.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Italy,Known But To God,Mass Executions,Public Executions,Venice,Witchcraft,Women

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1594: Michael Renichon, impoverished assassin

Add comment June 3rd, 2017 Headsman

Confession of Michael Renichon of Templeu, Parson of Bossier, in the County of Namours

Concerning, The bloudy enterprise, which by him should have bene committed upon the person of County Maurice, Prince of Orange, as also, The sentence denounced against hym for that déede, in the Haghe on the third of June 1594.

Printed at Utrecht, by Salomon de Roy, ordinary Printer of the Estates, in their language, and now truely translated into english by R. R.

LONDON Imprinted by John Wolfe. 1594.

Michael Renichon of Templeu, and Parson of Bossier in the County of Namur aforesaid (dispatched with Letters of the Earle of Barlaymont, in the habite of a Souldier, from Brussel, the tenth day of March last:) was by Convoy conducted thence to Louen, Diest, Herentals, and Tuernoult: from whence accompanied onely with one of the garrison of the sayd Towne, he was guided to the Towne of Bredau: where being entred, he delivered certaine close sealed Letters, unto the Governour there, which were addressed from the Earle of Barlaymont unto Captayne Larigon Commaunder of the Castle of Tuernoult, importing, that the bringer thereof, was sent thither by expresse commaundement of Archduke Ernestus of Austria, to communicate unto him a certaine enterprise, to be done upon the towne of Bredau.

The Gouernour desirous to be by him further instructed, as well of the cause of his comming thither, as of the particularities of the said enterprise: Renichon first humbly besought him, that it would please him to entertaine him into his service, and then, persisting (though differing and dubling in his assertions, which savored of manifest untruethes) that his matter was just and perfect: Affirmed, that for certaine yeares, he had bene Secretary to the Abbot of Malonne, and for his knowledge and experience, he was by him advaunced to the same place, with the Earle of Barlaymont: from whome hee had after thys manner withdrawen himselfe, onely for the fervent desire hé had to doe him service, with such other the like accomplements.

The Governour finding small probability in hys filed speeches, feared greatly some pretence of waightier matter: and for that cause, caused him forthwith to be conveighed to the Haghe: Where, upon the first of Aprill, (fearing what would ensue) he attempted to strangle himselfe with a corde made of points and stringes of his Armes, fastened to a certayne iron in the Gaole, under which he was found all be blouded, and speechlesse.

Revived now, and come to his speech agayne, one demaunded for what cause he would have committed this acte upon himselfe: whereunto replying, hee confessed volontarily, without proffer of any torture or constraint, as well by word of mouth, on the second of Aprill, as also afterward by his owne hand writing at sundry times, as namely on the twentieth day of Aprill, and last of May, the very absolute trueth of hys comming thither: affirming the speeches uttered by him and fathered uppon the Abbot of Malonne, and Earle of Barlaymont, to bee false and forged, acknowledging further.

That having had long processe in Law against his Parishioners of Bossier, touching the revenues of his Parsonage: as also endamaged through the dayly incursions of the unbrideled souldiours: he was enforced by meere necessity about some two yeares sithence, to abandon his Parsonage, and committing the cure thereof unto a Chaplaine, retired himselfe unto the Towne of Namours, where he supplied the roome of a Scholemaster.

The Earle of Barlaymont, having had some intelligence of my being there, entreated me by some of hys gentlemen, on an Evening to suppe with him: supper being ended, the Earle retired himselfe into hys Chamber, and commaunded me to bee brought in to him: where (his people withdrawen) he asked me how I could with so small allowance content my self, and spend my time, to so little proffite, adding further, that hee knew the meanes how to advaunce my estate, if eyther I would seeke it at his handes, or rouse and plucke up my appaled spirites, for which his honourable courtesies, humbly thanking him, I presented him my best service.

The which now presented, hee tooke occasion to send for me in February last past, by his Chaplaine after supper, falling in discourse with me, in the presence of some other, of an enterprise to be done upon the Towne of Bredau.

Likewise at an other time being entred into his Chamber, he sent for me againe, at which time he tolde mee, that hee was to communicate unto me a matter of greater consequence and importance, and that if I would employ my selfe in the service of the king, he would richly and royally recompence me. Uppon which promise, I vowed my service to him againe.

Not long after this, I was by him commaunded to follow him to Brussels, where the sayd Earle divers and sondry times frequenting the Court, at length commanded me to attend on him thither: with whome passing from chamber to chamber, at last, the Earle entred the chamber of the Archduke Ernestus: whom I then beheld, minding to follow after hym: at which tyme I was partly hindered by the suddaine falling too of the doore: which not fully shut, (listening what might passe betwéene the Archduke and the sayd Earle,) I easely heard them speake Spanish and Latine: and at sundry times, make repetition of recompence and reward: The Earle ready to take hys leave of the Duke, who brought him to the chamber doore: the Duke at his last farewell, sayd, Cumulate & largo foenore satisfaciam. When the Earle returned, he told mee, that they had all that time, conferred about my matters: and that the Archduke had ordained two hundred Phillips Dollors to be delivered me.

Retired now to his lodging, he gave me further to understand that the Archdukes pleasure and full intention was, to roote out, or by a third hand violently to murther the Counte Maurice of Nassau: and for that end and purpose, he had already dispatched certaine other persons, assuring me, that if I would likewise undertake the like action, it should be great advauncement for me and all my fréendes: saying further, that there were allready fiftéene thousand crownes gathered together, to bee disbursed to him, that first should bring to passe the foresaid massacre or murther.

Uppon this point I aunsweared the Earle, that it was an action méerely impertinent to my profession, who had never borne armes: he replied that it was the will and pleasure of the king, and the commaund of the Archduke, and therewithall, fell to perswading me agayne wyth many vehement reasons, in such sort, as I promised to do my uttermost endevor to that ende.

Thereuppon I desired the said Earle, to instruct mee how I might behave my selfe in this enterprise: hee aunsweared, that the Counte Maurice being a yong noble man, very familiar and popular, it were a very easie matter to insinuate himselfe in hys favor: that it must not bee wrought in hast or rashly, but wyth great advise and leysure, That he was to make hys repaire into the Haghe, or such other place where the Counte were most restant: that there, he should under the coullour of teaching a common schoole, expect and waight for the comming of such other as were assigned to the like ende and purpose (whereof there were six and he was the seaventh, who taking advise and councell together uppon one observation made, might easely woorke the depth of their desire: advising me further, that I was to provide my selfe of a paire of good Pistols, with firelockes, the which (biting carefully and clenly kept) I should charge with two or thrée bullets, and upon the first occasion proffered, should shoot through the said Counte, or otherwise murther hym by what devyse or practise I either best could my selfe: or the other which yet were to repayre unto me. In conclusion affirming, that hee who best and first behaved himselfe in this action, should be best and first rewarded.

That there were also other, which were to be made away by like practise, videlicet, Barnevelt, Longolius, and S. Allegonde: of whome, or any of them, if he could procure their death and destruction: he should bee richly likewise recompenced, charginge him especially to alter his name, and to apparell himselfe souldiorlike for this purpose.

These and such other exhortations ended, the Counte Barlaymont caused certayne other persons to bee brought into my presence: of whome, he said that one of them, was of the six above mentioned: to whome he declared that I was lately adopted into their fellowship: upon which spéech, the said party embracing me, called me his Camerado: assuring me that in short time, he would follow me into Holland, for and upon the like occasions.

The said Countie further declared, that the sayde sixe persons are, and have bene ever since the death of the Prince of Parma, and before, notorious murtherers, and that they are allowed gentlemens pay in the Court there, by the King, and uppon any such desperate action, are onely and ever employed against the ennemy.

Thus retyring himselfe from our company, he dispatched hys Secretary incontinently to Stephen de Narra, of whome he received in sundry kindes of quoyne, the foresayde somme of two hundred Dollars, the which was presently by him delivered me.

Being now furnished of all things expedient for my iourney, and ready to depart from Brussels to Andwerpe, I was by one of the sixe persons above mencioned, conducted to the Schuite, who at my very departure signified unto mee, that hee assuredly hoped to have borne me company to Leiden: of whom demaunding where that was, and to what ende: hee aunsweared me, that Leiden was a Towne and an University in Holland, wher the younge Prince of Orange studied, whether hee should likewise be employed, to the intent that insinuating himselfe into his favor, he might with better conveniency bereave hym of hys life.

Thus resolved to obey the Counte of Barlaymonts pleasure and commaund, I first cloathed my selfe souldierlike, named my selfe Michil de Triuier, and arrived at Andwerpe with the forsaid Letters of the County of Barlaymont, addressed to Largion, where (understanding that he was upon occasions departed from Tuernault) I was enforced to alter my course, and returned to Brussels againe: where receiving other Letters of the foresaide County, tooke my way to Louen, Diest, Herentals, and Tuernault, from whence as aforesaid, I came to Bredau.

The generall Estates of the united Provinces of the Low-Countries, duely examining the state of this cause, finding it a matter of very evill example, as also, that in a Country of Justice, where all daungerous and perillous actions and eventes ought to be prevented, and the peace and tranquillity of the same highly preferred and advaunced, estéemed it in their wisedomes a matter not onely not tollerable, but rather severely to bee punished, to the terror and example of all other: and thereuppon have condemned and adjudged, and doe by these presentes condemne and judge the Author of this intended murther, to be presently conveighed from hence to the ordinary place of execution, and there to be beheaded with the sword: and afterwardes, hys body to be quartered, his head to bee put uppon a pole, and the quarters hanged on the foure corners of the Haghe, declaring further his goods to be confiscated.

This was pronounced in the Audience of the Court of Hol?land, the third of June 1594. And Signed

Nievelt.

Under that was written, The Decree of the foresaid Councel. And was subscribed.

J. van Zuilon.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Assassins,Attempted Murder,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Habsburg Realm,History,Netherlands,Public Executions,Wartime Executions

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1521: Xicotencatl Axayacatl, Cortes fighter

Add comment May 21st, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1521, the Tlaxcallan warrior Xicotencatl Axayacatl (or Xicotencatl the Younger) was hanged by Hernan Cortes on the eve of his conquest of Tenochtitlan.

In an alternate history of Spain’s New World encounter it is Xicotencatl who has the glory of putting Cortes and his adventure to execution: the Tlaxcallans mounted a ferocious resistance when the conquistadors penetrated their territory, with Xicotencatl’s huge armies placing the Spanish in mortal peril despite the latter’s advantages of firearms and cavalry. Spanish soldier and diarist Bernal Diaz del Castillo would record of one engagement in September 1519

a battle of as fearful and dubious an issue as well could be. In an instant we were surrounded on all sides by such vast numbers of Indians, that the plain, here six miles in breadth, seemed as if it contained but one vast body of the enemy, in the midst of which stood our small army of 400 men, the greater part wounded and knocked up with fatigue. We were also aware that the enemy had marched out to battle with the determination to spare none of us, excepting those who were to be sacrificed to their idols.

When, therefore, the attack commenced, a real shower of arrows and stones was poured upon us; the whole ground was immediately covered with heaps of lances, whose points were provided with two edges, so very sharp that they pierced through every species of cuirass, and were particularly dangerous to the lower part of the body, which was in no way protected. They fell upon us like the very furies themselves, with the most horrible yells; we employed, however, our heavy guns, muskets, and crossbows, with so much effect, and received those who pressed eagerly upon us with such well-directed blows and thrusts, that considerable destruction was made among their ranks, nor did they allow us to approach so near to them as in the previous battle: our cavalry, in particular, showed great skill and bravery, so that they, next to the Almighty, were the principal means of saving us.

Indeed our line was already half broken; all the commands of Cortes and our other officers to restore order and form again were fruitless, the Indians continually rushing upon us in such vast crowds that we could only make place with sword in hand to save our line from being broken. …

Cortes (and the Almighty) made it out of that scrap but their small force was severely taxed by repeated engagements, including a destructive nighttime raid launched by Xicotencatl. The Spanish never conquered the Tlaxcallans — turning instead to diplomacy to attract them as allies against their rivals, the Aztecs.

So far was the victorious Xicotencatl from embracing this decision that he repeatedly ignored Tlaxcallan chiefs’ orders to stop fighting. His refusal to accommodate has inevitably been read retrospectively in view of indigenous anti-colonialism, but in the moment it was probably had a more prosaic cause: had he been suffered to complete Cortes’s destruction, he would have figured to gain a whip hand in domestic Tlaxcallan politics.

Still, the Indians were taking fearsome casualties from the Spanish and this combined with the prospect of turning Cortes’s invaders against their own enemies carried the decision. For many generations this timely alliance privileged the Tlaxcala nation, whose peoples ranked higher than other natives long into the Spanish sovereignty.

But it seems to have been intolerable for Xicotencatl Axayacatl.


The Last Days of Tenochtitlan — Conquest of Mexico by Cortez, by William de Leftwich Dodge (1899).

Cortes and his Tlaxcallan and other allies launched the final march that would conquer Tenochtitlan on May 22, 1521, but the day before setting out it was discovered that Xicotencatl had abandoned the camp. Diaz, again:

After considerable inquiries, it was found that he had secretly returned to Tlascalla on the previous night to take forcible possession of the caziquedom and territory of Chichimeclatecl. It appears, according to the accounts of the Tlascallans, that he wished to avail himself of this favorable opportunity of raising himself to supreme power in his own country, which the absence of Chichimeclatecl offered to him, who, in his opinion, was the only person that stood in his way since the death [by smallpox -ed.] of Maxixcatzin, as he did not fear any opposition from his old blind father. This Xicotencatl, the Tlascallans further added, had never felt any real inclination to join us in the war against Mexico, but had frequently assured them it would terminate in the destruction of us all.

When Chichimeclatecl received information of this, he instantly returned to Tezcuco in order to apprize Cortes of it. Our general, on hearing this, despatched five distinguished personages of Tezcuco, and two Tlascallans, who were his particular friends, after Xicotencatl, to request his immediate return to his troops, in Cortes’ name. They were to remind him that his father Lorenzo de Vargas would certainly have marched out against Mexico in person, if blindness and old age had not prevented him; that the whole population of Tlascalla continued loyal to his majesty, and that the revolt he wished to excite would throw dishonour on his own country. These representations Cortes desired should be accompanied by large promises, to induce him to return to obedience. Xicotencatl, however, haughtily replied, that he was determined to abide by his resolve, and our dominion in this country would not have continued thus long if his father and Maxixcatzin had followed his advice.

Upon this our general ordered an alguacil to repair in all haste with four of our horse and five distinguished men of Tezcuco to Xicotencatl’s abode, to take him prisoner, and hang him without any further ceremony. “All kindness,” added Cortes, “is thrown away upon this cazique. His whole time is spent in devising plots and creating mischief. I cannot suffer this to continue any longer; the matter has now come to a crisis.”

As soon as [conquistador Pedro de] Alvarado received information of these commands, he urgently begged of Cortes to pardon Xicotencatl. Our general replied that he would consider about it, though he secretly gave the alguacil peremptory orders to put him to death, which was accordingly done. Xicotencatl was hung in a town subject to Tezcuco, and thus an end was put to all his plottings. Many Tlascallans assured us that the elder Xicotencatl himself had cautioned Cortes against his son, and had advised him to put him to death.

This, at least, is the story. We lack Xicotencatl’s own voice here, and we must guess at the forces at work via the few and partisan narratives of the conquistadors. Anthropologist Ross Hassig speculates here that the “desertion” accusation — given that other similar “desertions” occur with unpunished regularity among both Spanish and natives — might have been merely pretextual on the part of Cortes, to eliminate a man he still considered a dangerous foe.

Either way, with the passage of years Xicotencatl has become a Mesoamerican symbol of indigenous valor and imperial resistance. His martial statue graces Plaza Xicohtencatl in the present-day city of Tlaxcala.

* Diaz’s narrative dates the Spanish departure from Tezcuco to May 13, instead of May 22 but he is extremely slipshod with chronology. Diaz is also a key primary source for the most lurid accounts of Aztec human sacrifice, and his reliability in that quarter has been challenged, too.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,Execution,Hanged,History,Mexico,Military Crimes,Occupation and Colonialism,Political Expedience,Power,Soldiers,Spain,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1528: Eitelhans Langenmantel, Thomas Jefferson ancestor

1 comment May 11th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1528, the Augsburg Anabaptist Eitelhans Langenmantel was executed as a heretic, along with a servant and a maid. Langenmantel had used his own fortune to print several dissident tracts.

His infant grandson, Daniel Hoechstetter, would eventually emigrate to Cumberland where he did honorable business for England’s Royal Mines as part of a community of German miners.

Through this Anglicized descendant, Langenmantel is the maternal great great great great great great great grandfather of U.S. President and Founding Father Thomas Jefferson.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,God,Heresy,History,Martyrs,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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1505: One Bolognese thief hanged, and another saved by Saint Nicholas

Add comment April 15th, 2017 Cherubino Ghirardacci

(Thanks to Augustinian friar Cherubino Ghirardacci for today’s guest post, from his History of Bologna. The Saint Nicholas in question for this picturesque vignette is not Santa Claus (though that figure’s real-life inspiration also had an averted execution to his hagiography) but the medieval mystic Saint Nicholas of Tolentino … a popular Italian saint who appears to have obtained an informal niche profile as the intercessor who would help a fellow survive a hanging: he had already been credited with saving a man wrongfully accused of murder who hung four days on the gallows in 14th century Aquila. -ed.)

It has happened in these days, that is to say on April 15, Tuesday, that two thieves have been hanged; one sixty years old and one about eighteen, and the execution took place on the usual spot, that is in the cattle market; and the minister of justice ordered that they should be left hanging upon the gallows until the usual hour, when the members of the Company of the Dead came to remove them for burial, and having taken down from the gibbet the old man and having placed him on the bier, they then deposed the youth, called Pietro Antonio of Bologna. He had been adopted by one who dwelt in the Borgo of San Pietro, and was already a novice of San Jacomo; this one was found alive and of so much vivacity it seemed as though he had been reposing on his bed asleep: but however with the neck injured, because the halter had entered into it, and had almost sawn through the throat.

The bystanders, marvelling much at this unusual sight, quickly had him carried to the Hospital to care for him; and there came a messenger from the Senate to see, and to hear everything that had happened; and Pietro Antonio said that he had been helped by the glorious saint Nicholas of Tolentino, to whom he had vowed, that if he escaped this opprobrious death, he would vest himself in his habit, and that he being on the gallows, the glorious St. Nicholas supported him by holding the soles of his feet in his hands. This was considered a marvellous miracle in the city, and every one ran to visit him and hear him discourse.

On Sunday, April 27, the Brothers of San Jacomo came in procession to the Hospital to fetch the above-mentioned Pietro Antonio and to conduct him to San Jacomo, and they pass together with the “Compagnia della Morte” behind San Petronio and before this church, and they go before the palace of the family Antiani, and below the “Madonna del Popolo”; and the condemned man is dressed in white with a black mantle, and with no cap on his head, and with the same halter round his neck with which he was hanged. When he reaches this spot, he falls on his knees and adores the Queen of Heaven, and wishing to rise, the simple women around tear off some of his clothes in devotional excitement; but being covered with another cape, he arrives at the church of San Jacopo, and there in the presence of all the city, the halter is taken from his neck and laid by him on the altar; and by the reverend prior of that said convent, Master Giovanni de Ripis, he was solemnly dressed in the Carmelite habit and called Brother Nicholas, in honour and reverence of St. Nicholas of Tolentino; and the ceremonies of vesting him being over, the friars meanwhile chanting the Te Deum Laudamus, he was presented by the said Prior to the very holy image of the glorious St. Nicholas, which is behind the choir in the chapel of St. Thomas Apostle and St. Nicholas, now called of the Madonna of Heaven, because when he made his vow he had in his mind this venerated image. Then he placed there his votive offering, his true portrait painted on canvas, and also the same halter with which he was hanged, the which things one may still see today in this said church.

He lived four years very devoutly, tending the sick; but then, tempted by the devil, he threw away his habit, and giving himself once more to thieving he was taken and hanged with the golden halter to the long balcony of the Podestà, and died for his sins.

The record of this miracle appears, with all the expenses, in an authentic book of 148 pages, in the Sacristy of these said monks, where are mentioned the sums spent on the procession, and miracle, and of the votive panel picture, which was made by master Ercolese, painter, and cost in all lire 3 and soldi 11.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Executions Survived,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Italy,Myths,Not Executed,Other Voices,Public Executions,The Supernatural,Theft

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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

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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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1592: Thomas Pormort, prey of Richard Topcliffe

Add comment February 20th, 2017 Headsman

Thomas Pormort (or Pormant) was hanged on this date in 1592 on a gibbet erected adjacent to a Paul’s Churchyard haberdashery whose proprietor had once entrusted the condemned Catholic priest with his confession.

Pormort was a priest trained on the continent who returned to native soil about the beginning of 1591 to brave the Elizabethan persecution, but managed only a few months in the field before his arrest.

He had the misfortune to face the personal interrogation of the vindictive inquisitor Richard Topcliffe, notorious even in his own day for his gleeful sadism. Topcliffe seems not to have even feigned a politic distaste for the breaking of bones and and of men and made a point to attend the executions his offices effected, including Pormort’s.

Now, back in the day such grim ministers of state could be empowered to toy with their prey in their very own lairs. Even the sainted Thomas More had kept a personal torture chamber at his own home.

So it was with Topcliffe, who inflicted his hospitality on Pormort in the intimacy of his own place, where he apparently had the facilities necessary to put a prisoner to the rack. According to Portmort, the torturer had another intimacy besides during their pain-wracked discourse, taunting or boasting to his victim of carnal indulgences he enjoyed from the queen herself. Pormort would allege at the bar that

Topcliffe told [Pormort] that he was so familiar with her Majesty that he many times putteth [his hands] between her breasts and paps and in her neck.

That he hath not only seen her legs and knees [but feeleth them] with his hands above her knees.

That he hath felt her belly, and said unto her Majesty that she had the softest belly of any woman kind.

That she said unto him, ‘be not these the arms, legs and body of King Henry?’ To which he answered: ‘Yea.’

That she gave him for a favour a white linen hose wrought with white silk, etc.

That he is so familiar with her that, when he pleaseth to speak with her, he may take her away from any company; and that she is as pleasant with everyone that she doth love.

This Penthouse letter for the queen has no factual plausibility, and nobody thought so in 1592. Whether the priest’s report of its utterance is an actual glimpse into a seditious perversion of the torturer, or a desperate attempt by a doomed man to smear his persecutor, Topcliffe took the matter seriously enough that he made Pormort stand on the ladder under his noose in freezing cold for two hours on execution day while Topcliffe browbeat him to withdraw the allegation. (Pormort didn’t budge.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,God,Hanged,History,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Torture

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1584: Five young thieves

Add comment February 12th, 2017 Headsman

Nuremberg executioner Franz Schmidt on this date in 1584 hanged a gang of five young — very young — thieves. He marked the occasion in his diary:

February 12th. Hennsa of Geyselwind, alias the fat lad; Hennsa Pallauf of Hernda; Killian Wurmb of Virnspach, alias Backendt; Hans Schober of Weher, alias Pulfferla; and Hennssla Klopffer of Reigelsdorff; five thieves who, with the previously executed ‘Silly Mary’ and ‘Country Kate,’ had burgled and stolen (they had also formerly been whipped out and put in the stocks ten times). They had to be clothed, for they were naked and bare; some of them knew no prayers and had never been in a church; the eldest were 22, 17, 16 and 15 years old, the youngest 13 years. All five hanged here in Nuremberg.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Public Executions,Theft

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1584: Silly Mary and Country Kate

Add comment February 11th, 2017 Headsman

Executioner Franz Schmidt records in his journal for this date in 1584 the hanging of two women — according to Schmidt, the first women hanged in Nuremberg.

February 11th. Maria Kurschnerin of Nuremberg, alias Silly Mary, who had formerly been whipped out of town with rods, and had her ears cropped; also Katherine Schwertzin of Weher, alias Country Kate, who had also formerly been whipped out of the town; both of them thieves and whores, who with thievish youths and fellows climbed and broke into citizens’ houses and stole a mighty quantity of things; both hanged at Nuremberg. It was an unheard of thing for a woman to be hanged in Nuremberg, and it had never yet happened.

Thought Schmidt doesn’t say it, both of these girls were very young — according to Joel Harrington’s The Faithful Executioner, both would be minors by today’s standards.

This helps account for the huge crowd that turned out to see them executed — many of them no doubt had also been in the huge crowd that had previously seen “Silly Mary” suffer a non-fatal corporal punishment the year before. The executioner Schmidt administered that punishment as well, and likewise noted it in his diary on January 10, 1583.

January 10th. Mary Kurssnerin, a young prostitute, who was a watchman’s [musketeer’s?] daughter, a girl who had thieved considerably and a handsome young creature with whom the young Dietherr had dealings; Elizabeth Gutlerin, a bath attendant; Katherine Aynerin, alias die Gescheydin, a blacksmith’s wife and a handsome creature; all three children of citizens, and prostitutes, were here pilloried and afterwards flogged out of the town. Such a dreadful crowd ran out to see this that several people were crushed to death under the Frauenthor. Subsequently Mary’s ears were cut off, and she was hanged.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Milestones,Public Executions,Theft,Women

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1573: Gilles Garnier, loup-garou

Add comment January 18th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1573, Gilles Garnier was burned at the stake as a lycanthrope.


Detail view (click for the full image) of The Werewolf, or the Cannibal by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1509)

The “Werewolf of Dole” was a scavenging hermit resident on the outskirts of that Burgundian town when a little girl was strangled and partially eaten in October of 1572. Townsfolk feared a maneating wolf but a subsequent pattern of attacks would point at something even more frightful.

As kitsch as it becomes for us in modernity, it is not difficult to discern in the werewolf legend the shadow of a truly terrifying era when predatory wolves and predatory men alike prowled the dangerous byways in Europe, especially France.

And a sure way to conflate the two was through a figure like Garnier (English Wikipedia entry | French), who, in a starving winter, monstrously ate the flesh of his victims. He would later confess — we can only guess through what combination of disordered mind and torturer’s suggestion — that as he foraged one day, wracked by hunger, a phantom appeared to him and offered him an ointment that would confer the lifesaving hunting prowess of the wolf.

Like any opportunistic carnivore, the loup-garou Garnier knew enough to prey upon the weakest.

Shortly after slaying that first victim, Garnier grabbed another little girl and was in the process of a bestial hands-and-teeth attack when some villagers came upon the scene. Garnier fled, but at least some of these accidental witnesses were convinced that they had seen a wolf attack — for what man tears into his still-dying quarry with his bare teeth?

Then again, as observed by Sabine Baring-Gould* — whose The Book of Were-Wolves makes for a goosefleshing Halloween read — there would even post-Garnier in 1573 be an edict promulgated against what Parlement suspected was continuing werewolfery in the vicinity, directing all and sundry “to assemble with pikes, halberts, arquebuses, and sticks, to chase and to pursue the said were-wolf in every place where they may find or seize him; to tie and to kill, without incurring any pains or penalties.” Lycanthropy is stirring deep within this society, authorities, onlookers and offender(s?) all suggestible to one another.

Garnier killed a little boy later that same November, perhaps his most gruesome as he not only cannibalized the fresh corpse but tore off the child’s leg to save for later.

His fourth known victim was his last and resulted in his capture when he was again surprised on the scene. (This time, the witnesses saw only the man — not the wolf.)

His trial, which was for all its fantastic content notably a secular one, was a monument to the fear that must have gripped Dole while children vanished only to turn up as carrion: some fifty witnesses were summoned, many to make connections between Gilles Garnier and canis lupus that one would strain to credit as speculative but were probably quite sincere. Everyone knew there was a werewolf, and then everyone knew Gilles Garnier was that werewolf.

Like the French peasantry, posterity has seen in Garnier what it hopes or expects to see. Do we witness the grim and commonplace effects of torture upon a bystander being scapegoated for the natural incursions of wolves? The predations of a “normal” serial killer refracted through his society’s superstitions? A mentally ill man truly convinced (as with the wendigo psychosis) of his own beastliness? An entirely false confession reflecting Garnier’s own complicity in the same evolving myth that captivated his neighbors?

Or might we allow with Montague Summers the genuine historicity of the monster?

As Nabuchodonosor was so punished by God, so Heaven may also well have permitted Gilles Garnier and the sorcerers of Savoy owing to their vile appetites and their lust for human flesh to have become wolves, losing human form.

From whatever cause this shape-shifting may arise, it is very certain by the common consent of all antiquity and all history, by the testimony of learned men, by experience and first-hand witness, that werewolfism which involves some change of form from man to animal is a very real and very terrible thing. (The Werewolf)

If you prefer your rending human flesh in podcast form, Stuff You Missed In History Class covered this story in a (graphic) Halloween episode.

* An occasional Executed Today guest blogger, through the magic of public domain.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Murder,Public Executions,Serial Killers,The Supernatural,Torture

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