Posts filed under '17th Century'

1623: Claes Michielsz Bontebal, Maurice murder moneybags

Add comment July 3rd, 2019 Headsman

We’ve previously addressed in these pages the 1623 execution of Reinier van Oldenbarnevelt for attempting to assassinate Maurice, Prince of Orange in revenge for his, Maurice’s, 1619 execution of Oldenbarnevelt’s father.

Well, the scheme here was to hire a number of assassins for the attack, a plan which guaranteed that someone would blab and blow the whole deal. But before the blabbing and the blowing, the hiring required a vast cash outlay — 6,000 guilders to be precise.

Claes Michielsz Bontebal (English Wikipedia entry | Dutch) was one of the financiers who did the hiring, and got caught in the blowback after the blabbing. He was executed with three other conspirators


Detail view of a 1623 print reporting the beheading (click for a larger view with portraits of Bontebal and his collaborators).

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

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1685: Archibald Campbell

Add comment June 30th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1685, the 9th Earl of Argyll went the same way as the 8th.

We’ve addressed in these pages the travails borne by Archibald Campbell, 8th Earl of Argyll, whose once considerable power was overwhelmed by the Wars of the Three Kingdoms and came to an end under the blade of the Edinburgh maiden.

While imprisoned awaiting the chop, the 8th Earl composed for his much-reduced heir, also named Archibald Campbell, composed a volume titled Instructions to a son with a variety of foreshadowing maxims.

You have a great task to do, you must from the bottome climb up to the mount of Honour, a very abrupt and difficult ascent; which yet, nevertheless by observing the sure footings of some of your progenitors, and the slips of others, particu?larly those recent slidings of mine own, (for other they are not) you may at last attain the top, and by your own merit and your Princes favour, your House may be Culminant again.

If it shall so happen … have a care then of that Precipice; let no revenge or ambition blind you into destruction; you may poise your self with your wings of Honour and Greatness, but venture not, nor presume to fly.

Covet not with immoderate hast Lands, Riches, Honour, for it is seldom that men whose rash desires and designs are laid out that way, compass their full content, and for the most part meet with a destiny far other then they expected; and when they are once so disappointed, Fortune or rather Providence so much amazeth the judgment even of wise men, as in time of danger they know not what resolution is best to be taken. You will not be necessitated through the want of these three, so as to reach at them unlawfully, and endanger what you have in possession, and your self together

‘Tis folly to complain of life, more to be troubled at the end of it, by the reason we ought more to complain of our birth, that made and produced us mortal, then of our death, which will render us immortal.
To be long or short lived is no more then this, we come either sooner or later (no great choice) to our grave. He is very desirous of life, who is un?willing to dye when all the world is weary of him.

The kid did his late dad proud in the 1660s, regaining the attainted earldom and re-establishing the rank and wealth of their house. Argyll — and by this name henceforth we refer to Argyll fils — nurtured Presbyterian sympathies which told strongly against him when a failed Presbyterian rebellion touched off the fruitful-for-this-site era of the Killing Time.

From this point his position speedily eroded and his evasion of an oath of loyalty to Protestantism — when he finally took it he added his own unauthorized disclaimer, “only in as far as it is consistent with itself” — got him arrested, and a dubious charge of libeling the king was questionably stretched to compass a death sentence. That was around the end of 1681; on December 20 of that year, his daughter Sophia Lindsay visited him, accompanied by their page. When secluded in the dungeon, the page and the doomed man swapped clothes, and Argyll clattered away in servants’ livery to hiding in London safehouses and continental refuges.

Having already been taken for a traitor, this Argyll on the lam went all-in for unambiguous sedition. Ciphered communications of his were among the papers seized from Baillie of Jerviswood after the exposure of the Rye House Plot.

With the passing of King Charles II in 1685 and the long-feared succession of his Catholic brother James II, Scots in Holland mounted an invasion of their home country in an attempt to topple the government. Our man lent it both leadership and title: it’s known as Argyll’s Rising and was intended to complement/support the English Whig rising under the Duke of Monmouth.

Argyll’s expedition turned up in Scotland in May 1685 and instantly went sideways. Amid leadership conflicts and lukewarm recruitment, the rebellion collapsed. Argyll was captured by a militia who “would fain have concealed his rank, as they durst not release him; but he was recognised by their officer. He was led to Edinburgh, where he was treated with the same indignities as had formerly been the lot of Montrose. As the king had ordered him if taken to be put to death within three days, he was executed on his former iniquitous sentence (30th). He met his fate with piety and fortitude; embracing the instrument of death, he called it (in allusion to its name) the sweetest maiden he had ever kissed.”


The Last Sleep of Argyle (1860s) by Edward Matthew Ward: the man was reported to have slept so serenely on his last night on earth that he had to be awakened for execution.

The next generation of Campbell chiefs finally got the political calibration right, supporting the invasion of William and Mary to overthrow James II which elevated the Argylls to the dukedom which their heirs maintain to this day.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Maiden,Nobility,Public Executions,Scotland,Treason

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1690: Tom Kelsey, royal robber

Add comment June 13th, 2019 Headsman

From the Newgate Calendar:


An audacious young Thief who robbed the Tent of King William in Flanders and stabbed a Newgate Turnkey. Executed 13th Of June, 1690

THOMAS KELSEY was born in Leather Lane, in the parish of St Andrew, Holborn; but his mother being a Welsh woman, and she having an estate of about forty pounds per annum, left her by an uncle at Wrexham, in Denbighshire, the whole family — which consisted only of the two old people, and this their son — went down thither to live upon it.

Tom was from his infancy a stubborn, untoward brat, and this temper increased as he grew up; so that at fourteen years of age he was prevailed on by one Jones, who has since been a victualler in London, to leave his father and come up to town, in order to seek his fortune. Having neither of them any money, they were obliged to beg their way along in the best English they were masters of. Going one day to a gentleman’s house with their complaint, he took a liking to the boys, and received them both into his house: Kelsey in the quality of a horsekeeper and Jones as a falconer. It may be supposed they were both awkward enough in their callings, but Tom’s place was the least difficult, so that he kept it the longest, the gentleman being soon weary of his falconer, and glad to send him about his business again.

It was not a great while after, before Tom Kelsey was detected in some little pilfering tricks, and turned out of doors after his companion, whom he could not find when he came to London. His being out of place till he could subsist no longer, and his natural inclination to dishonesty, soon brought him forward in the course of life for which he was afterwards so infamous. He fell into company with thieves, and was as bold and as dexterous in a little time as the best of them, if not even beyond them all.

Going one day by the house of Mr Norton, a silversmith in Burleigh Street, near Exeter ‘Change, a couple of his companions came by him like strangers, and one of them snatched off his hat, and flung it into the goldsmith’s chamber window, which stood open, running away as fast as they could. Tom, who had a look innocent enough to deceive anybody, made a sad complaint to Mr Norton, who stood at his door and saw all that passed. It happened that at that time there was nobody at home but himself, of which Tom had got intelligence before. “Poor lad!” says Mr Norton, “you shall not lose your hat; go upstairs and fetch it yourself, for I cannot leave the shop.” This was just what Tom wanted; he went up and took his hat, and with it a dozen of silver spoons that lay in his way, coming down in a minute, and making a very submissive bow to Mr Norton for his civility, who let him go without suspicion. This prize was divided between him and his two associates, as is common in such-like cases.

Tom was not, however, so successful in his villainies but that he was condemned to be hanged before he was sixteen years of age. The fact was breaking open the house of one Mr Johnson, a grocer in the Strand, and stealing from thence two silver tankards, a silver cup, six silver spoons, a silver porringer, and forty pounds in money. But he got off this time on account of his youth, and the interest his father made at court; for, hearing of his son’s condemnation, the old gentleman came directly up to town, and arrived before the day appointed for his execution, procuring a full pardon by the mediation of some powerful friends.

To prevent his following the same courses again, and exposing himself afresh to the sentence of the law, the old gentleman put his son apprentice to a weaver, but before he had served half-a-year of his time he ran away from his master, and took to his old courses again. It was his pride to make all whom he conversed with as bad as himself, an instance of which appeared in what he did by one David Hughes, a cousin of his by the mother’s side. This youth, going to Kingston Assizes along with Tom a few days after he came to town, was prevailed upon by him to pick a pocket in the court; in which action being apprehended, he was immediately tried, and condemned to be hanged upon a gibbet within sight of the Bench, as a terror to others. This week was fatal enough to young Hughes; for he came to London on the Monday, on Tuesday and Wednesday spent and lost ten pounds, which was all the money he had, along with whores and sharpers, on Thursday in the evening picked a pocket, was condemned on Friday morning, and hanged on Saturday. This was the end of one of Kelsey’s hopeful pupils, who had the impudence to boast of it.

Another of the actions of this extravagant was his robbing the Earl of Feversham‘s lodgings. This nobleman was General of the Forces in the reign of King James II, and consequently had a sentinel always at his door. Tom dressed himself in a foot-soldier’s habit one evening, and went up to the fellow who was then on duty, asking him a great many questions, and offering at last to stand a drink, if he knew where to get a couple of pots of good beer. The soldier told him there was very good a little beyond Catherine Street, but he durst not leave his post so long as to fetch it. “Can’t I take your place, brother soldier?” quoth Tom. “I am sure if somebody be at the post there can be no danger.” The soldier thanked him, took the sixpence, and went his way; meanwhile Tom’s associates got into the house, and were rifling it as fast as they could. They had not quite done when the soldier came back; whereupon Tom gave him twopence more, and desired him to get a little tobacco also. While the poor fellow was gone for this the villains came out, and Tom went with them, carrying off not only above two hundred pounds worth of plate, but even the soldier’s musket. The next day the sentinel was called to account, and committed to prison. At the ensuing court martial he was ordered to run the gauntlet for losing his piece, and then was sent to Newgate, and loaded with irons, on suspicion of being privy to the robbery, where, after nine months’ confinement, he miserably perished. Kelsey, after this, broke open the house of the Lady Grace Pierpont, at Thistleworth, and stole from thence a great many valuable things. But soon after one of his companions impeached him for this fact; whereupon, being informed that the officers were in search after him, he fled to the camp of King William in Flanders. Here he got a considerable booty out of his Majesty’s tent, and from other general officers, with which he got to Amsterdam, and sold it to a Jew, whom he also robbed afterwards, and sold what he had gotten to another Jew at Rotterdam, from whence he re-embarked for England.

He had not been long returned to his native country before he was detected in breaking open the house of a linen-draper in Cheapside, which put a final end to his liberty, though not to his villainy, for, being sent to Newgate, and having no hopes of ever getting out any more, unless to go to Tyburn, he grew desperate, and resolved to do all the mischief he could there. Mr Goodman, one of the turnkeys of that jail, being one day drinking in the common-side cellar, Kelsey privately stabbed him in the belly with a knife, of which wound he instantly died. For this murder he received sentence of death at the next session in the Old Bailey, and a gibbet being erected in Newgate Street, near the prison, he was thereon executed, on Friday, the 13th of June, 1690, being then no more than twenty years of age. As a terror to the other prisoners who were then in confinement, his body was suffered to hang on the gibbet the space of three hours.

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

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1627: Catlyn Fiermoing, village witch

Add comment June 8th, 2019 Headsman

The sorceress Catlyn Fiermoing was burned on this date in 1627 at the village of Wommersom.

A standard witch-hunt case, Fiermoing apparently got into hot water calling on the devil in a fight with her husband 19 years before her death, which summons Old Scratch duly answered and duly sealed the bargain with the usual promissory notes and carnal violations: this at least is the gist of what her interrogation records preserve us. (Dutch speakers can read a summary in here: part 1 | part 2.) She used her supernatural powers to get a little bit of money and kill some local rivals’ cows.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Belgium,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Public Executions,Torture,Witchcraft,Women

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1661: James Guthrie, protester

Add comment June 1st, 2019 Headsman

With the words “the covenants, the covenants, shall yet be Scotland’s reviving!” Presbyterian minister James Guthrie was executed on this date in 1661 at Edinburgh’s Mercat Cross, after the post-Oliver Cromwell restoration of the Stuarts.

Guthrie was a principal combatant in the interregnum-specific schism of resolutioners versus protesters.

The protesters were protesting against their opposite numbers’ hasty alliance with the exiled then-pretender King Charles II after the beheading of Charles I: correctly perceiving the Stuart heir hostile to the substantive object of presbyterian church governance, the protesters warned not “to promise any power to the King before he had evidenced the change of his principles, and the continuing of that power in his hand was sinful till that change did appear.”

Notably, and in his case fatally, Guthrie made an early exit from the royalist cause and butted heads personally with Stuart loyalist John Middleton — an officer whom Charles would advance to an earldom, and appoint to adjudicate Guthrie’s own trial. Guthrie’s prosecution has often been read as an excess of personal pique on the part of Middleton for the sharp words Guthrie had given him many years before.

He hanged together with a Scottish army deserter (who was very much the undercard attraction on this occasion) named William Govan. Guthrie claimed in his last speech that he eschewed opportunities to escape his prison so as “not [to] stain my conscience with the suspicion of guiltiness by my withdrawing.”

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Religious Figures,Scotland

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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 evidence compounded 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 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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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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