Posts filed under '17th Century'

1643: Philippe Giroux, former president of the Dijon Parlement

Add comment May 8th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1643, a remarkable trial-of-the-century political case climaxed when a former judge was beheaded for murdering his noble cousin and the cousin’s valet.

Book CoverPhilippe Giroux’s amazing and disconcerting case is the subject of a page-turning microhistory by James Farr, A Tale of Two Murders: Passion and Power in Seventeenth-Century France, which is the source of essentially every detail about the case in this post. “There is substantial evidence surviving from this case,” Farr writes … “and not all of it points the same way.”

Philippe Giroux had, in the suspicious eyes of his peers in Dijon society, ample motive that would connect him to the September 6, 1638 disappearance of Pierre Baillet and Philibert Neugot: common rumor had him so infatuated with Baillet’s wife, Marie Fyot, as to aspire to marry her.

But Giroux was no ordinary lustful bourgeois: he was the paramount judge at the Parlement of Dijon, a powerful client of an even more powerful patron, the Prince of Conde. Giroux’s kin and allies peopled the Burgundy courts.

Perhaps it is no surprise in the Three Musketeers-era France addicted to dueling that a person of this prominence would attract a nemesis, but rare indeed that a vendetta could pull such a powerful figure so low as the scaffold. This bilious triumph was savored in the end by Giroux’s hated rival Pierre Saumaise de Chasans.

A fellow judge whose enmity with our date’s principal reached back at least to 1627, Saumaise, in Farr’s words, presented his contemporaries

a personality of unrelentingly pious self-righteousness blending seamlessly into base self-interest. A quarrelsome man constantly at odds with his fellow judges, Saumaise was involved in twenty-two quarrels with other judges in Parlement, was reprimanded eleven times as the culprit, and was censored seven times. During the seventeenth century the Parlement as a whole was drifting toward lenience in criminal sentences, but Saumaise swam against this current. For example, in 1633 Saumaise was assigned as a rapporteur to ten cases appealed to Parlement from lower courts across Burgundy. In only one of those cases did Saumaise seek to lessen the punishment imposed by the lower court …

Another gruesome example of Saumaise’s severity. In 1633, for conviction of a murder, the grapegrower Bazille Borde was broken on the wheel (more often murderers were hanged or beheaded). As Saumaise watched, the executioner shattered Borde’s arm and leg bones with a metal rod, and then pitched him onto a raised wheel, face up, to die slowly and in agony. His accomplice merely had his head chopped off, after which Saumaise and the presiding judge split the epices of sixty-six ecus (more than the victims combined would have earned in years).

Most disturbing of all of the examples of Saumaise’s stern, unmerciful jurisprudence is the series of cases for witchcraft that Saumaise prosecuted in March 1633. In other parts of France and Europe a witch hunt swept widely during the early seventeenth century, but with the exception of a few flare-ups, Burgundy was largely spared. Saumaise oversaw one of those flare-ups. For a bloody week in the middle of March, Saumaise signed his name as a rapporteur to seven sentences which capped the trials of twenty-five accused witches. Lower courts had ordered banishment, but under appeal at Parlement (required by law for all capital offenses tried in lower courts) Saumaise and the presiding judge demonstrated their belief that firmer punishment was needed. Saumaise saw to it that several of the victims were tortured, and three were eventually burned at the stake. Saumaise and the president assigned to these cases, by the way, pocketed for their efforts 400 ecus (that is, 1,200£, or more than a journeyman artisan — or any of the victims — might earn in fifteen years). In all, in 1633 alone Saumaise shared with his presidents about 700 ecus in addition to his regular wages. Fellow judges, including Philippe Giroux, were deeply troubled by the severity of Saumaise as a judge. By Giroux’s count, Saumaise submitted fifty-six people accused of crimes to be tortured, broken on the wheel, or beheaded, prompting Giroux to conclude in disgust that Saumaise was “a crow who is most content among dead bodies.”

From the late 1620s and throughout the 1630s these two sniped at each other in the august chambers of the king’s justice and with the less discriminating public squibs facilitated by the era of movable type. On the whole, Saumaise did not get the better of his confrontations with Giroux, even once being forced to perform the amende honorable before their legal peers with a galling public affirmation of his enemy’s honor that must of tasted like ash in Saumaise’s mouth.

That was early in 1639, mere weeks after Giroux allegedly slaughtered Pierre Baillet. It would be prove to be the apex before the wheel of fortune very abruptly threw him down.

Giroux attempted to press his advantage over Saumaise by pursuing a rape charge against him, but the case speedily fell apart with the whiff of suborned perjury about it. Meanwhile, two judges not in Giroux’s network had been detailed to investigate the Baillet murder, and a constellation of evidence was emerging from the Giroux servants and associates who had been interrogated. However much of this was circumstantial and hearsay, it was certainly more than the president of Parlement ought to have said against him per the Caesar’s-wife standard.

In July 1640 Giroux was arrested and although his confinement was comfortably befitting his station it would continue for the remainder of his life — Giroux powerless while the case gathered against him to do aught but issue learned public factums savaging the case against him as a concoction of Saumaise’s vendetta. Indeed, as a purely juridical matter, this prosecution did suffer from some debilitating flaws which help to explain the protracted three-year gap from arrest to judgment and execution. Most notably, it lacked bodies, which were legally required to prosecute a murder case in the absence of a confession or an eyewitness, neither of which proved forthcoming. Had Giroux, as a servant had alleged, efficiently pitched the victims undetected into his latrine where quicklime had dissolved their remains into the ordure? If so, it might never be possible to conclude a judgment; certainly the magistrate Giroux remained wisely steadfast in his denials and could be relied upon to perceive where his prosecutors’ claims were most vulnerable. In Giroux’s telling the prosecution and the hand of his personal enemy had veered into an outright stitch-up, with every witness favorable to himself excluded and the prejudicial evidence of his rivals’ kin granted outsized credence. Are we seriously to believe this senior judge butchered his own cousin in his own home, that the victims or “victims” had not instead (as other rumors suggested) upped sticks and left the country or fallen prey to some wilderness brigands?

In such a gap might a litigant preserve his life. Still and all, O.J. Simpson was acquitted but also permanently stripped of his public stature and respectability. How much more these pains would have weighed on a dignitary of the king’s courts, in a society where family, honor, and reputation were the true coin of the realm. However stoutly he defended himself from his cell, Giroux found events running away from him, and even the favor of the Prince of Conde coldly withdrawn — as discovered when his father presented himself in the prince’s court to petition for his son and was advised that he’d be seeing the inside of the Bastille should he not speedily fly. His son contemplated the same strategem, but his jailbreak plot was detected before it could be implemented.

When a sack apparently containing the remains of the victims was finally uncovered — the identification dramatically cinched by a playing card that a tailor had sewn into one of the men’s collars to stiffen it — the fallen president of Parlement knew his doom was sealed although even to his confessors he staked his immortal soul upon his innocence. The courts so long uncertain about the fate of their former colleague now had a clincher. They imposed financial penalties that, while irrelevant to his own final hours, devastated and permanently diminished Giroux’s family’s house thereafter, plus the sentence of beheading, a merciful abatement considering the more brutal executions at the law’s disposal for cases of murder.

After hearing the sentence of death [early afternoon of May 8], Giroux was led into the holding cell of the courthouse and prepared for execution. He was stripped of the symbols of his presidential office — ritually divested of his bonnet carre and his scarlet robe, which in any case he had not been permitted to wear since his incarceration. Such a ritual officially cast the felon into the dishonorable netherworld of social disgrace. Execution everywhere in early modern Europe “imported infamy” upon the condemned, and this was made visible by the physical treatment of the criminal’s body. The body in those days was not thought of as simply the integral possession of the individual human being but rather as a socially defined entity that signified status and standing in a highly stratified system. This system, as Giroux knew as well as anyone, was held together and given meaning by that pervasive notion of honor that so preoccupied men like him. The loss of honor could ruin a family, most directly by ending descendents’ [sic] prospects of marrying. It was undoubtedly because of this fear of dishonor that upon being led into the holding cell, Giroux turned to Comeau and said with tears in his eyes, “I beg you to assure my Lord the Prince [of Conde] that I remain his servant, and I beg him that this poor innocent who is my son and who has the honor to carry [Conde’s] name must not suffer from the disgrace of his father. Perhaps he will be more fortunate that I.” …

Spared both the humiliation and the pain of being broken on the wheel, Giroux gasped, “God be praised! These men have much charity and mercy, because according to the crimes of which I have been accused, I ought to be more rudely treated.” Opting for beheading was one indication that the judges were trying not to dishonor Giroux. Another was that they withheld a customary phrase in the sentence of death. Usually death sentences called for actions that would obliterate the memory of the convicted felon and destroy in posterity the honor of his or her family. The body might be burned and its ashes scattered to the wind, or dismembered and buried in an unmarked grave, or documents from the trial declaring the innocence of the accused, such as factums, might be destroyed. The judges ordered none of these steps.

Now Saumaise had the satisfaction of seeing the amende honorable ritual reversed to his advantage, as a bound Giroux begged public forgiveness on his knees during his shameful procession to death. “Ah, my father! My son! My kin! My friends! What will you not suffer from this affront that will burst upon you all!” Farr has him exclaiming. He had a quarter-mile yet to walk to the Place du Morimont (present-day Place Emile-Zola).*

The streets were lined with a hundred armed men who held in check a crowd “so numerous” and packed so densely, according to Larme, “that one could suffocate among them.” Giroux apparently regained his composure, for he now strode between the two priests “with constancy and firmness,” as Larme reports. The former president had the presence of mind to bid adieu to several people whom he recognized along the way. He even smiled, showing no evidence that he was suffering inside. It was in this state that he entered the chapel beneath the scaffold where, still clutching the crucifix, he bade a final goodbye to his son and asked him always to remember his father with respect and love. He then prostrated himself before the altar, saying, “Receive, O Lord, my death in expiation for my sins.” He rose, turned to the priests, and asked them to promise to take his body to the family estate at Marigny for burial. He emerged from the chapel and climbed the steps of the scaffold. He faced the crowd, and bowed deeply three times. Then, his back to the executioner, he dropped to his knees. He heard his sentence of death read to him yet again, this time by an assistant to the royal prosecutor general named Deschamps, and then recited a series of litanies. After that, Deschamps drew close and said that he had orders to ask Giroux one last time whether he had killed Monsieur Baillet, whether Marie Fyot was involved in the conspiracy, and who his accomplices were. Giroux, steadfast in his innocence to the end, replied, “I have told you everything I know.”

Giroux was confessed a final time by Father Chaudot, received absolution, and awaited the approach of the hooded headsman. The executioner removed Giroux’s flowing wig to blindfold his eyes. Giroux clutched the crucifix and drew it close to his heart just before the executioner’s sword flashed toward Giroux’s exposed neck. The first blow did not sever the former president’s head, not did the second. The crowd gaped in horror and then erupted in sympathy for Giroux while he was being hacked to death. Larme too looked on horrified, and reported that many in the crowd tried to storm the scaffold and wanted to tear the executioner limb from limb, shouting “Death to the headsman!” And they would have done so, Larme assures us, if the soldiers posted all around the gallows had not kept them at bay. It ultimately took the headsman five blows of the broadsword to cut off Philippe Giroux’s head.

* Find here a grim French-language tour through the notable public punishments administered at this location down the years.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Judges,Lawyers,Murder,Public Executions

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1623: Nicolas Antoine, Judaizer

Add comment April 20th, 2019 Headsman

Protestant theologian turned apostate Judaizer Nicolas Antoine was burned at the stake in Calvinist Geneva on this date in 1623.

Antoine (English Wikipedia entry | French) had followed a religious journey from the Catholicism of his birth, on to Protestantism as a young man. This arc in the first decades of the 17th century was potentially dangerous but scarcely uncommon.

But Antoine took an incredible and taboo step beyond the schism in Christendom as his religious studies unfolded in Geneva and the short-lived independent Huguenot enclave the Principality of Sedan: he became steadily less convinced of the New Testament full stop, investing priority only in the Old. He became interested in Judaism.

As a reformed pastor in the city of Metz on the French-German frontier, Antoine approached the local rabbinate to explore conversion. Fearing the reprisals such a scandal could draw, these worthies advised him to try Italy. Those Metz rabbis fancied the religious climate on the peninsula more accommodating, but they were mistaken: their brethren in both Venice and Padua spurned Antoine in the same way, and for the same reason. One of them suggested that he content himself to practice secretly, as a Crypto-Jew.

This dangerous path he followed for some years. Become then a pastor in the village of Divonne — presently in France but Geneva-governed in his day — Antoine “secretly observed a thoroughly Jewish mode of life, saying his prayers in Hebrew and observing all the Mosaic rites,” according to the Jewish Encyclopedia, but his position on the pulpit eventually stretched past breaking his capacity to serve both conscience and vocation.

In his public services he pronounced the name of Jesus as seldom as possible. He was never known to read the apostolic confession audibly. In the communion service, instead of the words “This is my body, this is my blood,” he was once heard to say, “Your Savior remembers you.” His sermons, the texts for which were taken exclusively from Isaiah and the other prophets, became celebrated far and wide; yet they lacked any peculiarly Christian characteristics. The peasants of Divonne were perfectly satisfied with their pastor, who was eloquent in the extreme and full of kindness toward them; they were not shocked by the vague form of his sermons. But the lord of the adjoining manor was outraged. One Sunday, Antoine preached on the second Psalm, which, according to orthodox Christian theology, announces the coming of the son of God. [“Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee. Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession. Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” -ed.] Antoine, on the contrary, permitted himself to declare that God had no son and that there was but the one God. This was too much for the lord; he remonstrated loudly with the heretical pastor and threatened to denounce him to the synod. Antoine fell into gloomy despair; a nervous attack deprived him of his reason. To several colleagues from Geneva who had come to see him he began to chant the seventy-fourth Psalm; then he suddenly stopped, and, exclaiming that he was a Jew, blasphemed Christianity …

A charge of heresy could no longer be avoided; the chief of the Geneva police arrested Antoine, and instituted proceedings. While he was in prison the clergy were tireless in seeking his reconversion, trying in vain to make him sign a declaration of orthodox faith. Bidden to formulate his religious belief, he drew up twelve articles, which were submitted to an ecclesiastical court. In them he gave the tenets of Judaism in the style of Maimonidesthirteen articles of faith, and added “eleven philosophical objections against the dogma of the Trinity.” At the same time he addressed to the judges three memorials, two of which have been preserved. In spite of the exertions of Metrezat, a pastor of Paris, and others, the judges were immovable. The trial commenced April 11; Antoine’s attitude, full of dignity, aroused much sympathy. The threats of the judges were of no more avail than the persuasions of his colleagues. He repeated constantly: “I am a Jew; and all I ask of God’s grace is to die for Judaism.” The court sought to show that he had promulgated his heretical doctrines at Geneva: this he contradicted most forcibly. All the efforts of the judges were met with the unchanging reply, “With the help of God I am determined to die in my present belief.” Fifteen clergymen or professors of theology were summoned as witnesses. Several of them begged for a light sentence, since, in their opinion, Antoine had committed no sin by becoming a Jew, though for his hypocrisy he deserved unfrocking or banishment, or, at the worst, excommunication. Furthermore, they said that the matter ought not to be hastened, and that the advice of the various churches and academies should be sought. A fanatical majority, however, insisted that the judges should seize the present opportunity to demonstrate their faith, since it was most dangerous to absolve one who had professed Judaism while wearing the garb of a Christian priest. For some days longer the judges waited for Antoine to recant. As his recantation was not forthcoming, they pronounced sentence April 20, 1632; condemning him to be loaded with chains, placed upon a pyre, to be there strangled, and then burned. In vain the clergy petitioned for a respite; Antoine was executed the same day. He went to his death serenely, and died imploring the mercy of the God of Abraham.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,God,Heresy,History,Martyrs,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Switzerland

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1683: John Nisbet the Younger

Add comment April 14th, 2019 Headsman


Marker located at the entrance to the Burns Mall from Kilmarnock Cross. (cc) image from @mafleen.

John Nisbet was hanged on this date in 1683 for having participated four years prior in the Battle of Bothwell Bridge that shattered the Covenanter rebellion.

“Here lies John Nisbet, who was taken by Major Balfour’s party, and suffered at Kilmarnock, 14th April, 1683, for adhering to the word of God and our Covenants,” reads his grave.

Come, reader, see here pleasant Nisbet lies,
His blood doth pierce the high and lofty skies;
Kilmarnock did his latter hour perceive,
And Christ his soul to heaven did receive.
Yet bloody Torrence did his body raise,
And buried it in another place;
Saying, ‘Shall rebels lye in graves with me?
We’ll bury him where evil-doers be.’

Nisbet, we learn from Robert Wodrow, “sang the 16th Psalm, from the 5th verse to the close, with a great deal of affection and joy; and then read the 8th chapter to the Romans, and prayed again.”

When he had delivered his bible to his uncle, he made himself ready for the executioner, not expecting to get leave to say any thing to the specattors; but essaying to speak, and not being interrupted, he continued a good while in an extemporary discourse, pressing them to godliness, and recommending religion to them, from his own feeling and experience. He notices, that this is the first execution of this kind at that place, and is of the opinion, it is not like to be the last; he tells them, death is before them all, and if it were staring them in the face, as nearly as it was him at present, he doubts not there would be many awakened consciences among them; but as for himself, though death be naturally terrible, and a violent death yet more terrible, yet the sting of it is taken away, and he can say, he reckons every step of the ladder to be a step nearer heaven.

He’s not to be confused with his more famous uncle, John Nisbet of Hardhill, who suffered as a Covenanter martyr in 1685. (He surely cannot be the uncle referenced by Wodrow.) The Nesbitt Nisbet Society has more on this family’s role in the Covenanter movement.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,God,Hanged,Martyrs,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Scotland

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1623: Reinier van Oldenbarnevelt, family tradition

Add comment March 29th, 2019 Headsman

Reinier van Oldenbarnevelt was a chip off the old headsman’s block on this date in 1623, beheaded in The Hague for plotting to avenge the beheading of his father.

The old man, Johan van Oldenbarnevelt by name, had lost a power struggle to Maurice of Orange and gone to the scaffold in 1619.

Full of murderous filial piety, our man Reinier (English Wikipedia entry | Dutch) conspired with his brother Willem and others of their faction to return the favor on Maurice by having a gang of toughs ambush him in early February.

Word leaked early; the plot fizzled and Reinier was captured to face the vengeance Maurice had once once designed for his father. (Willem escaped to Belgium, but two of their accomplices were dismembered with Reinier.)


Dutch illustrator Claes Janszoon Visscher depicted the son’s execution, as he had once depicted the father’s. For an analysis of the scene, see John Decker’s Death, Torture and the Broken Body in European Art, 1300-1650.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Assassins,Attempted Murder,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Netherlands,Power,Public Executions

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1696: Charnock, King, and Keyes, frustrated of regicide

Add comment March 18th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1696, a trio of Jacobite conspirators were hanged for their failed assassination plot against King William.

An exiled loyalist to the deposed King James II, the onetime Oxford don Robert Charnock conceived what the propagandists would call “the late Hellish and Barbarous Plott” along with fellow Stuart loyalist George Barclay. Their mission in murdering William III was to catalyze a general Jacobite rising that would reverse the Glorious Revolution and restore James to the throne: it was a recurring campaign against the Dutch usurper throughout the 1690s.

Ambush was the gambit proposed by the worthies in this case, for William.

was in the habit of going every Saturday from Kensington to hunt in Richmond Park. There was then no bridge over the Thames between London and Kingston. The King therefore went, in a coach escorted by some of his body guards, through Turnham Green to the river. There he took boat, crossed the water, and found another coach and another set of guards ready to receive him on the Surrey side. The first coach and the first set of guards awaited his return on the northern bank. The conspirators ascertained with great precision the whole order of these journeys, and carefully examined the ground on both sides of the Thames. They thought that they should attack the King with more advantage on the Middlesex than on the Surrey bank, and when he was returning than when he was going … The place was to be a narrow and winding lane leading from the landing place on the north of the river to Turnham Green … a quagmire, through which the royal coach was with difficulty tugged at a foot’s pace. The time was to be the afternoon of Saturday the fifteenth of February. (Macaulay)

Some 40 assassins had been marshaled for the purpose of surprising the royal party on that occasion but as they nursed their cups in the vicinity’s public houses they received the disquieting intelligence that the king had skipped the hunt that day.

Although the inclement weather was the reason given out, the truth of the matter was that they were betrayed. In a week’s time, most of the conspirators would be in custody* and the country on a virtual war footing against prospective invasion by France. On March 11, the first three prospective assassins stood at the bar: Charnock, Edward King, and Thomas Keyes. They were plainly guilty and condemned accordingly.

King died firmly; Keyes, in “an agony of terror … [that] moved the pity of some of the spectators”; and Charnock, being repelled in his bid to turn songbird in exchange for his life, went out with a missive bitterly defending his project, for “if an army of twenty thousand men had suddenly landed in England and surprised the usurper, this would have been called legitimate war. Did the difference between war and assassination depend merely on the number of persons engaged?” (both quotes from Macaulay) Several additional conspirators would follow them to the scaffold in the weeks to come.


“The Triumphs of Providence over Hell, France & Rome”: Broadside celebrating and satirizing the deliverance of the realm from the Jacobite plot, via the British Museum.

* George Barclay, however, successfully escaped to the continent.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Assassins,Attempted Murder,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Notable for their Victims,Power,Public Executions,Treason

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1695: Highwayman Biss

1 comment March 12th, 2019 Headsman

This ballad transmits to posterity via the Pepys collection of late 17th century ephemera stashed by that famed diarist Samuel Pepys. (In these pages, we’ve already met Mr. Pepys lurking about various executions.)

The Penitent Highway-man: Or, The Last Farewel of Mr. Biss, Who was Born at Shaftsbury, in Wiltshire, and was arrain’d and found guilty, and accordingly received Sentence of Death, and was Executed at Salisbury, on the 12th of March, 1695.

To the Tune of, Russel’s Farewel, &c.

Good People all I pray attend,
and listen now to me,
A sad Relation here I send
of Biss in Shaftsbury:
A noted Highway-man he was
who on the Road did ride,
And at the length it came to pass,
he was condemn’d and dy’d.

When he was to his Tryal brought,
and at the Bar did stand,
He for no kind of favour sought,
but there held up his Hand,
Declaring to the pantient Judge,
who was to try him then,
He should not bear him any grudge,
he wan’t the worst of Men.

He said, The Scriptures I fulfill’d,
though I this Life did lead,
For when the Naked I beheld,
I clothed them with speed:
Sometimes in Cloth and Winter-frize,
sometimes in Russet-gray;
The Poor I fed, the Rich likewise
I empty sent away.

What say you now my honour’d Lord,
what harm was there in this?
Rich wealthy Misers was abhorr’d
by brave free-hearted Biss.
I never robb’d nor wrong’d the Poor,
as well it doth appear;
Be pleas’d to favour me therefore,
and be not too severe.

Upon the Road a Man I met,
was posting to a Jayl,
Because he could not pay his Debt,
nor give sufficient Bayl:
A kind and loving Friend he found,
that very day of me,
Who paid the Miser forty Pound,
and set the Prisoner free.

Tho’ he had got the Guinneys bright,
and put them in his Purse,
I follow’d him that very night,
I could not leave him thus;
Mounting my prancing Steed again,
I crost a point of land,
Meeting the Miser in a lane,
where soon I bid him stand:

You borrow’d forty Pounds, you know,
of me this very day,
I cannot trust, before you go
I must have present pay:
With that I seiz’d & search’d him round,
and rifl’d all his store,
Where straight I got my forty Pound,
with twenty Guinneys more.

The Judge he made him this reply,
Your Joaks are all in vain,
By Law you are condemn’d to Dye,
you will no Pardon gain,
Therefore, Repent, repent with speed,
for what is gone and past,
Tho’ you the Poor did clothe and feed,
you suffer must at last.

That word was like a fatal sword,
it pierc’d him to the heart;
The Lord for Mercy he implor’d,
as knowing he must part
With all his Friends and Pleasures too,
to be as I have said,
At Salsbury to Peoples view,
a sad Example made.

His melting Eyes did over-flow
with penitential Tears,
To see his dismal Overthrow,
just in his strength of Years.
O kind and loving Friends, he cry’d,
take warning now by me,
Who must the pains of Death abide,
this day in Salsbury.

In grief and sorrow now I pass
out of the World this day,
The latter minute’s in the glass,
therefore good People pray,
That as this painful Life I leave,
the Lord may pity take,
And in his arms my Soul receive,
even for his Mercies sake.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Outlaws,Public Executions,Theft

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1616: Vincenz Fettmilch

Add comment February 28th, 2019 Headsman

Among the ancient remains, that which, from my childhood, had been remarkable to me, was the skull of a State criminal, fastened up on the tower of the bridge, who, out of three or four, as the naked iron spikes showed, bad, since 1616, been preserved in spite of the encroachments of time and weather. Whenever one returned from Sachsenhansen to Frankfort, one had this tower before one; and the skull was directly in view. As a boy, 1 liked to hear related the history of these rebels, — Fettmilch and his confederates, — how they had become dissatisfied with the government of the city, had risen up against it, plotted a mutiny, plundered the Jews’ quarter, and excited a fearful riot, but were at last captured, and condemned to death by a deputy of the emperor. Afterwards I fc!t anxious to know the most minute circumstance, and to hear what sort of people they were. When from an old contemporary book, ornamented with wood-cuts, I learned, that, while these men had indeed been condemned to death, many councillors had at the same time been deposed, becanse various kinds of disorder and very much that was unwarrantable was then going on; when I heard the nearer particulars how all took place, — I pitied the unfortunate persons who might be regarded as sacrifices made for a future better constitution. For from that time was dated the regulation which allows the noble old house of Limpurg, the Fiauenstein-honsc. sprung from a club, besides lawyers, tradespeople, and artisans, to take part in a goverument, which, completed by a system of ballot, complicated in the Venetian fashion, and restricted by the civil colleges, was called to do right, without acquiring any special privilege to do wrong.

Goethe

On this date* in 1616 the muffin man Vincenz Fettmilch was executed for a Frankfurt guild revolt that became a notorious anti-Jewish pogrom.

One of the crown jewels of the Holy Roman Empire, Frankfurt am Main was at this time a predominantly Lutheran city of some 20,000 souls, governed by a council comprising the city’s wealthy patricians to the exclusion of her merchants and artisans. The city also boasted one of Germany’s largest Jewish communities, consisting of well over 1,000 people concentrated in a quarter known as the Judengasse (“Jew Lane”); living in Frankfurt under imperial protection, Jews of course were subject at any given time to varying degrees of community anti-Semitism.

The small and almost accidental spark to light the Fettmilch conflagration began in 1612 when the accession of Emperor Matthias led to citizen petitions for an enumeration of civic rights and the patricianate suspiciously refused to supply the charters. The ensuing conflict brought a growing popular movement that “commanded support from a large cross-section of the city’s inhabitants,” writes Christopher Friedrichs.** “But from the outset a dominant role was assumed by one man: Vincenz Fettmilch, a citizen who had experimented with a number of occupations before becoming a pastry-baker. There is no question that Fettmilch was a dynamic and articulate leader — and a passionate foe of patricians and Jews alike.”

For many months did Fettmilch (the cursory English Wikipedia entry | the much better German) and the patricianate maneuver but the long and short of it was that the latter’s credibility to rule deteriorated fatally with damaging revelations of financial malfeasance. By 1614 the popular movement achieved the outright conquest of municipal power, forcing Frankfurt’s much-resented oligarchs to yield their governing posts to guildsmen.

Which also positioned Vincenz Fettmilch to effect his demand for rousting that huge Jewish population.

On August 22, 1614, a popular riot invaded and ransacked the Judengasse. Fettmilch himself issued the expulsion order the very next day. This event is one of the best known and most studied anti-Jewish pogroms in German history; it’s also recalled as one of the last such incidents before the Third Reich — for Fettmilchs did not commonly get the run of a city, and our Fettmilch did not enjoy his run for very long.

As imperial soldiers gathered for an order-restoring incursion that rebellious Frankfurt would be powerless to resist, Vincenz Fettmilch was summarily arrested later in 1614 by other Frankfurters, sparing the city a good deal of destruction and speedily collapsing the new order he had created. Fettmilch had over a year as a ward of the empire’s torturers before he with three associates was beheaded and quartered on February 28, 1616 — the same day that Frankfurt’s Jewish refugees were officially re-admitted back to the Judengasse.


Broadside of the punishment of Fettmilch and associates by Johann Ludwig Schimmel.†

From the time of Fettmilch to this day inconclusive debate has raged among historians and other Germans about how to weigh, interpret, and reconcile those two thrusts of the rebellion — the resistance to Frankfurt’s optimates, and the chauvinism against her Jewry.

* You’ll also find the date of March 10 in various sources; this 10-day discrepancy is that commonplace calendar complication, the Julian-Gregorian split. Frankfurt am Main was a free imperial city within the Holy Roman Empire, and while the empire had gone Gregorian from its introduction in 1582, the mostly Protestant Frankfurt (along with many other German states) stayed away from this papist device until 1700. Our dating here defers to the local Julian sentiment.

** Friedrichs, “The Fettmilch Uprising in German and Jewish History,” Central European History, June 1986.

† Image from Karl Harter in From Mutual Observation to Propaganda War: Premodern Revolts in Their Transnational Representations; that author contextualizes the scene as follows:

In the middle of the picture we see the scaffold set up at the market place of Frankfurt cordoned by heavily armed soldiers and railings with posts showing the imperial eagle: The punishment of the rebels is taking place within the separated legal space of the empire, where only the delinquent, the executioner, the judge and several officials (representative of the imperial commission) and the soldiers appear. The city council and the representatives of the guilds on the two platforms in the centre of the background as well as the burghers of Frankfurt surround that space, watching from the outside. The executioner decapitates one of the delinquents, the recently severed finger of whom can be seen in front of him. The dismembering of the finger – the Schwurfinger – clearly points at the illegal conjuration or conspiracy in terms of penal law. Two more decapitated corpses of ringleaders are positioned on the scaffold. In the background on the left, outside the city three gallows are set up; one with a corpse hanged at the feet and another exposing part of quartered corpse. Both death penalties — reverse hanging and quartering — are typical of the aggravated and infamous punishment of treason. In the case of the Fettmilch-revolt, the four main ringleaders were dismembered, decapitated, quartered and parts of their corpses were exposed at the gallows outside of town. Furthermore, their heads were impaled and exposed on the gate tower on the Rhine side, which was the main entrance to the city, depicted with the four decapitated heads and a super-sized imperial eagle in the left background of the broadsheet. The symbolic implication, communicated and enhanced by the broadsheet, is quite obvious: The ringleaders and the revolt are to be commemorated as a serious political crime. This was emphasized by the total demolition of Fettmilch’s house shown in the foreground of the illustration on the right and the infamous shaving, flogging and banning of his family depicted in the background on the right: the total social disintegration and exclusion of the main ringleader — comprising his family, his name, his house — for eternal memory (“zum ewigen Gedächtnuß”). Apart from the ringleaders and their families, the punishment of other rebels (17 associates and followers) by flogging and banning, shown in the background on the left, seems almost lenient. In addition to the punishment of the rebels, the restitution of the legal and imperial order is represented by the re-entry of the Jewish community in form of a procession, just passing the scaffold.

All other broadsides dealing with the punishment of the rebels depict the same scene and make use of similar iconic elements: scaffold, armed soldiers, imperial posts and eagle, the dismembering of the Schwurfinger and decapitation, the tower with the heads, the gallows with the quartered corpses, whipping and expulsion, the demolition of the house, the re-entry of the Jews etc.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Gibbeted,History,Holy Roman Empire,Martyrs,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Torture,Treason

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1663: William Dillon, anatomized and diarized

Add comment February 25th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1663, a very pious William Dillon lost his life for a murder during a brawl on London’s Long Acre. Whether he gained, as he anticipated, his eternal soul, surpasseth the understanding of this site. But he achieved, at least, a small measure of literary immortality.

Good People, I stand here a Spectacle to God, Angels and Men, sad and deplorable (I believe) to you, but in my inward Reflections on my Regenerate Estate, in my dear and blessed Saviour Jesus, full of Spiritual Hopes and Comfort.

I declare my self to you all a true and constant Christian, an Apostolical Romane Catholick, and on that account, I am particularly obliged to protest that my hopes are totally and solely placed in the Al-sufficient [sic] Merits of my glorious Redeemer, from whose Merits, the Merits of Man receive their total supernatural condignity and worth. To help the compleating of the Sufferings of his own Body, in his mystical, I am come here to participate of his beloved Crosse, sanctified and dignified by his own most pretious blood.

I give thanks to those deserving and charitable Persons, who desired and endeavoured my longer Life, for my better Repentance and amendment. But although they have failed in their Merciful Intercessions for me, there is an Advocate with the Father, even Jesus Christ the Just, whose Power is infinite, to save to the uttermost.

As I infold my self in the Arms of his rich and embracing Mercy, so I would be joyned with you all in his Divine, as I am in my own derived charity.

I wish you all good, as I should have done that very person, if known to me, for whose Death I am condemned. God Omniscient knoweth my Innocency in that particular, being in my Conscience so clear and free from that guilt, that to my knowledge I never touched the Man. May they have the benefit of the blood of Christ, who have occasioned the losse of mine; and God forgive me in His, as I do them for my own.

After his execution, Dillon was anatomized: it is thanks to this posthumous punishment that we meet him, or at any rate his cold kidneys and ureters and heart and lungs, two days after death through the pen of London diarist Samuel Pepys — a man we’ve run into several times before. Here in its chatty entirety is Pepys’s entry for February 27, 1663:

Up and to my office, whither several persons came to me about office business. About 11 o’clock, Commissioner Pett and I walked to Chyrurgeon’s Hall (we being all invited thither, and promised to dine there); where we were led into the Theatre; and by and by comes the reader, Dr. Tearne, with the Master and Company, in a very handsome manner: and all being settled, he begun his lecture, this being the second upon the kidneys, ureters, &c., which was very fine; and his discourse being ended, we walked into the Hall, and there being great store of company, we had a fine dinner and good learned company, many Doctors of Phisique, and we used with extraordinary great respect.

Among other observables we drank the King’s health out of a gilt cup given by King Henry VIII. to this Company, with bells hanging at it, which every man is to ring by shaking after he hath drunk up the whole cup. There is also a very excellent piece of the King, done by Holbein, stands up in the Hall, with the officers of the Company kneeling to him to receive their Charter.

After dinner Dr. Scarborough took some of his friends, and I went along with them, to see the body alone, which we did, which was a lusty fellow, a seaman, that was hanged for a robbery. I did touch the dead body with my bare hand: it felt cold, but methought it was a very unpleasant sight.

It seems one Dillon, of a great family, was, after much endeavours to have saved him, hanged with a silken halter this Sessions (of his own preparing), not for honour only, but it seems, it being soft and sleek, it do slip close and kills, that is, strangles presently: whereas, a stiff one do not come so close together, and so the party may live the longer before killed. But all the Doctors at table conclude, that there is no pain at all in hanging, for that it do stop the circulation of the blood; and so stops all sense and motion in an instant.

Thence we went into a private room, where I perceive they prepare the bodies, and there were the kidneys, ureters [&c.], upon which he read to-day, and Dr. Scarborough upon my desire and the company’s did show very clearly the manner of the disease of the stone and the cutting and all other questions that I could think of … how the water [comes] into the bladder through the three skins or coats just as poor Dr. Jolly has heretofore told me.

Thence with great satisfaction to me back to the Company, where I heard good discourse, and so to the afternoon Lecture upon the heart and lungs, &c., and that being done we broke up, took leave, and back to the office, we two, Sir W. Batten, who dined here also, being gone before.

Here late, and to Sir W. Batten’s to speak upon some business, where I found Sir J. Minnes pretty well fuddled I thought: he took me aside to tell me how being at my Lord Chancellor‘s to-day, my Lord told him that there was a Great Seal passing for Sir W. Pen, through the impossibility of the Comptroller’s duty to be performed by one man; to be as it were joynt-comptroller with him, at which he is stark mad; and swears he will give up his place, and do rail at Sir W. Pen the cruellest; he I made shift to encourage as much as I could, but it pleased me heartily to hear him rail against him, so that I do see thoroughly that they are not like to be great friends, for he cries out against him for his house and yard and God knows what. For my part, I do hope, when all is done, that my following my business will keep me secure against all their envys. But to see how the old man do strut, and swear that he understands all his duty as easily as crack a nut, and easier, he told my Lord Chancellor, for his teeth are gone; and that he understands it as well as any man in England; and that he will never leave to record that he should be said to be unable to do his duty alone; though, God knows, he cannot do it more than a child. All this I am glad to see fall out between them and myself safe, and yet I hope the King’s service well done for all this, for I would not that should be hindered by any of our private differences.

So to my office, and then home to supper and to bed.

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1685: James Algie and John Park, Paisley Covenanters

Add comment February 3rd, 2019 Headsman

From The Covenanter, vol. 5. The footnote appears in the original.


Paisley — Its Antiquities, Manufactories, Martyrs, Theological Seminary, Social and Religious Condition.

Paisley, which I visited on the 28th of September — having left Kilmarnock the day before — was once a flourishing place, and notwithstanding its adversities, still holds an important place among the manufacturing towns of Britain. It occupies the site of an old Roman camp — a ridge some two or three hundred feet high, some half-mile in length, and half as much in breadth, lying nearly north and south, steep on its western side and northern end, less so on the east, where, and on the south, with the plains at their foot, lies the body of the town, and tapering off towards the south until it is lost in the beautiful valley, extending far to the south-west: the western side still retaining its precipitate outline. From the summit of the hill — a vacant green, once the actual site of the Roman encampment — the vision ranges over a wide and varied scene, in every direction, except on the east, where it is soon arrested by spurs shot out by the great central plateau. On the west and south lie the rich plains of Renfrew and Ayr; in the far distance are seen the bare and lofty peaks of the high mountain summits of Arran, often capped with clouds: on the north and north-east, the mountains of Bute and Argyle, with the Gowrie hills. In all, eleven counties are represented in this panorama, which the venerable Professor, whose dwelling is but a few steps distant, takes great delight in exhibiting to the inquiring stranger.


Panorama of Paisley, as seen from Barshaw Park. (cc) image from the city’s community website.

Paisley is not without its objects of interest. I have already mentioned, in a previous letter, the Wallace oak and mansion, two miles distant on the south, in the quiet vale of Ellerslie. There is no doubt of their identity. The tree is, however, in the last stages of decay. The dwelling still remains — a substantial stone edifice, some forty feet in length, two stories high, with projecting wings of equal length: evidently built in times when every man’s house was literally his castle. Part of it is still inhabited. In the town itself, near the banks of the Cart, is an ancient abbey, erected, probably, in the 14th century, but most of it still in excellent preservation — indeed, a portion of it, the southern extremity of the old, double church, is still used as a place of worship; the northern portion being the only part of the abbey building that has gone entirely into ruins, enough only remaining to show its original extent and form. The other portions of the abbey, consist of ranges of high buildings, enclosing a square, these in the olden time having been occupied as the residence of the monks and their retainers — on some occasions, furnishing a temporary place of sojourn to the Kings of Scotland. In the Sounding Aisle, so called from its prolonged and rolling echoes, is a tomb, said to be of Margory Bruce, the ancestor of the fated house of Stuart. And, in the church itself, as in many of the ancient chapels and all the cathedrals, are any number of tombs and tablets, and slabs, marking the last resting-place of the great, in their day. What a mockery do most of the inscriptions appear. 1. A name — some title — and, then, “here they lie!” The oldest of these that I noticed was 1433.


Paisley Abbey. (cc) image from @ArchHist.

Leaving the abbey, we passed over to the factories. Of these, we visited but one — Kerr’s — where sewing cotton is spun and prepared for the market. It is a large establishment, employing, in all, nearly three hundred hands, two hundred and fifty of whom are females, who, when working by the day, earned about 6s. and 8d. sterling ($1,64) per week; working by the piece about 8s. and 6d. or 9d. sterling ($2,16) per week: out of this, of course, meeting all their expenses. The work is not, now, oppressive, the law having limited the time employed in factory work to, I think, twelve hours. Those that we saw appeared to be generally healthy. They were dressed very much alike, in dark dresses, sufficiently neat and comfortable, and manifested no want of cheerfulness. I made inquiry, however, and found that spitting of blood was not at all uncommon, and do not doubt that in many instances close confinement, in a heated atmosphere — many of them, moreover, sitting at their work — is followed by the very worst consequences as to health.*

Paisley had its martyrs. James Algie and John Park, I quote from Dr. Symington,

who were executed at the market cross, Feb. 3d, 1685; and were ignominiously buried in the Gallow-green. On the enlargement of the town some fifty years ago, their remains were exhumed, and transferred, most respectfully, to a new burying ground in West Broomlands, which had recently been laid off in the view of erecting a new parish and a parish church to accommodate the increasing population. The scheme of a new erection was not carried into effect, and, after a few interments, the ground was abandoned as a place of burial, went into neglect, and became nearly obscured by surrounding buildings. The inscription on the slab at the graves had become, by time and weather, nearly illegible. A few friends, sympathizing with similar movements in other parts of the country, suggested the erection of a simple and durable monument; and the suggestion was promptly and liberally responded to, and funds realized for carrying it into effect. A chaste and elegant obelisk is now erected on the spot where the ashes of the Martyrs repose. On the east side of the pedestal is engraved the original epitaph:

Here lie the corpses of James Algie and John Park, who suffered at the cross of Paisley, for refusing the oath of Abjuration.

February 3d, 1685.

Stay, passenger, as thou go’st by,
And take a look where these do lie,
Who for the love they bare to truth,
Were deprived of their life and youth;
Tho’ laws made then caus’d many die,
Judges and ‘sizers were not free,
He that to them did these delate,
The greater count he hath to make,
Yet no excuse to them can be;
At Ten condemned, at Two to die,
So cruel did their rage become,
To stop their mouth caus’d beat the drum;
This may a standing witness be
‘Twixt Presbyt’ry and Prelacy.

On the north side of the pedestal is an inscription stating the time and circumstances of the removal of the remains from the Gallowgreen.

The stone containing the Epitaph, transcribed on this monument, was erected over the grave in the Gallow-green, the place of common execution; and on occasion of the grounds being built upon, it was removed near to this spot along with the remains of the Martyrs, by order of the Magistrates,

JOHN STORIE, JOHN PATISON, and JOHN COCHRANE.
MDCCLXXIX

On the south side is the following inscription:

ERECTED

By the contributions of Christians of different denominations in and about Paisley, to renew and perpetuate a memorial of the respect and gratitude with which posterity still cherish the memory of the Martyrs of Scotland.

MDCCCXXXV

And on the west side are inscribed the following truthful and beautiful lines from Cowper:

Their blood is shed
In confirmation of the noblest claim,
Our claim to feed upon immortal truth,
To walk with God, to be divinely free,
To soar and to anticipate the skies.
Yet few remember them. They lived unknown,
Till persecution dragged them into fame,
And chas’d them up to heaven.

The sequel is remarkable. We again use the Dr.’s language:

During the recent movements in the extension of church accommodation an elegant structure was erected, in the immediate vicinity of the tomb, having a burying-ground attached to it, and appropriately designated Martyr’s Church. The graves of the two martyrs, though adjacent, were not within the boundaries of the church-yard, and the obelisk stood outside of the wall. The plan, however, of enclosing extensive grounds in the neighbourhood for a new and spacious cemetery was formed, and the ground where the obelisk stood came in course to be included, and the remains, formerly buried in ignominy, now lie in one of the finest burying-places in the country; the erection now marking the spot forming one of its most interesting objects.

* Paisley is not now in a flourishing state. There has been a gradual decline, I was told, for twenty-five years past.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,God,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Scotland

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1610: Pierre Canal, Geneva sodomite

Add comment February 2nd, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1610* a Genevan official named Pierre Canal was twice capitally punished — broken on the wheel (for treason) and burned (for sodomy).

A longtime city official, as well as an Italian-educated doctor, Canal was progeny of city worthies. Although his own father was a hero of L’Escalade, Geneva’s successful defense against a 1602 attack on Geneva by the Duke of Savoy,** Canal was rounded up for alleged adherence to Savoy’s threatened (never executed) Escalade sequel in 1610.

Under torture for treason, he also copped to dozens of homosexual liaisons over many years, a behavior that he said he’d picked up in Italy.†

Canal’s roster of names named became fodder for a sodomy-hunt spasm in the ensuing months. At least three of his claimed lovers confessed under torture and were executed, and a fourth only survived because he managed to break jail. Others either withstood torture without admitting to an affair, or managed to confine their stipulated activities to non-capital versions of the perversions, such as oral sex without ejaculation. (The latter class ended up with punishments ranging from fines to banishment, but got to keep their limbs.)‡ Echoes of the affair continued in now-queer-vigilant Geneva in the form of several additional prosecutions running until 1623.

* Sources I’ve found are keenly divided between a February 2 and a February 3 execution.

The dispositive primary source, The Archives d’etat de Geneve Proces Criminels, does not appear to me to be digitized for the public, notwithstanding the canton’s exhibitions of a few choice artifacts. I’m going with the 2nd, gingerly, because the secondary sources that seem the most rigorous and credible (such as this Swiss historical dictionary and to me tend towards that date.

** The Escalade is the event commemorated in the Genevan “national” anthem “Cé qu’è l’ainô”.

† We’ve seen gay sex euphemized as le vice italien in the 19th century British navy, too.

‡ Canal named over 20 people, though not all were pursued. There are thirteen additional people named for prosecution by Judicial Tribunals in England and Europe, 1200-1700: Abel Benoit (20, soldier), Francois Felisat (24, carder), Pierre Gaudy (18, porter), George Plongon (25, Sieur Bellerive), Mathieu Berjon (36, printer), Antoine Artaut (30, carder), Jean Bedeville (23), Paul Berenger (23, tailor), Noelle Destelle (25, baker), Jean Maillet (61), Paul Andre (23), Claude Bodet (45, baker), Jean Buffet (23, tailor).

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Doctors,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Homosexuals,Politicians,Public Executions,Sex,Switzerland,Torture,Treason

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