Posts filed under '17th Century'

1642: George Spencer, pork loin

1 comment April 8th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1642, George Spencer paid the penalty at the New Haven (Connecticut) colony for a pig-fucking that he probably never perpetrated.

Seven and a half weeks previous, a farmer named John Wakeman had reported to magistrates that his pregnant sow had delivered a litter of healthy piglets … plus one abomination from the nightmares of H.P. Lovecraft and Ron Jeremy.

Itt had no haire on the whole body, the skin was very tender, and of a reddish white collour like a childs; the head most straing, itt had butt one eye in the midle of the face, and thatt large and open, like some blemished eye of a man; over the eye, in the bottome of the foreheade which was like a childes, a thing of flesh grew forth and hung downe, itt was hollow, and like the mans instrument of generation.

Genetics is a funny thing. Once in a while the little variations in a new generation will produce an adaptive advantage that takes the species another step down its evolutionary path.

And then other times what you get is dickface swineclops.

As so often with a proper monster story, it was the frightened townsfolk who produced the real horror.

The resemblance of this poor (and mercifully stillborn) pig to a man — “nose, mouth and chinne deformed, butt nott much unlike a childs, the neck and eares had allso such resemblance” — looked like palpable divine anger to New Haven worthies, and inspired a suitably inquisitorial response.

Its target was localized to George Spencer, a former servant to the pig’s former owner. Spencer had a bum eye himself plus a reputation as a “prophane, lying, scoffing and lewd speritt.” With a model of heredity we might strain to credit as primitive, it emerged as widespread suspicion that soon manifested into fact that Spencer had fathered the penis-headed chimera.

Maybe George Spencer really did go hog wild. Who really knows? But the account of the “investigation” — in which the only actual evidence was Spencer’s own confession plus his mutant “progeny” — has every hallmark of the false confessions whose prevalence is only lately becoming well-understood. European and American “witches” were also telling their persecutors just what they wanted to hear in the mid-17th century.

Spencer denied the charges at first. The magistrate Stephen Goodyear(e)* interrogated him: did Spencer not “take notice of something in [the monster pig] like him”? Goodyear implied that they already knew Spencer was guilty.

During a nervous pause, which Goodyear took to be Spencer preparing his soul to unburden itself but a less hostile viewer might have taken to be the frightened farmhand fretting about how he was going to escape with his neck, Goodyear hit him with Proverbs 28:13. It’s a nice dual-purpose verse to stamp the divine imprimatur on the good cop-bad cop approach: “He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy.”

Spencer wasn’t getting anywhere denying everything. He decided to try confessing and getting in on that mercy.

(Even at this, he told someone else that he had only confessed “for favor”. Upon hearing this, Goodyear stalked back to Spencer’s cell and made him commit to the confession.)

The next day, a team of town grandees showed up to get the details. Again, Spencer denied it, but now his previous day’s remarks hemmed him in. His story was shifty; he changed the location of the sin from the sty to the stable, varied between a half-hour and two hours engaged in his sin.

By the time of the trial that commenced on March 2, Spencer — perhaps now realizing that the proverb he ought to have heeded was “don’t talk to police” — was back to full denial. This time he stuck to it all the way through the proceedings, and little good it did him as witness after witness who had heard various iterations of his confession reported the admission. The judges had to decide how to adjudicate this kind of case at all, and they decided to go straight to the Pentateuch.

according to the fundamentall agreement, made and published by full and generall consent, when the plantation began and government was settled, that the judiciall law of God given by Moses and expounded in other parts of scripture, so far as itt is a hedg and a fence to the morrall law, and neither ceremoniall nor tipicall, nor had any referrence to Canaan, hath an everlasting equity in itt, and should be the rule of their proceedings. They judged the crime cappitall, and thatt the prisoner and the sow, according to Levit. 20 and 15, should be put to death.

By hanging-day on April 8, Spencer was still refusing to admit the charges, and he even continued his obstinacy to the gallows — giving only the sort of standard-issue hanging-day exhortation to straighten those laces and not skip church that everyone always gave. To this he still “joyned a denyall of his fact.”

Only at the very last, with the noose about his neck, “and being tolde it was an ill time now to provoke God when he was falling into his hands, as a righteous and seveere judge who had vengeanc at hand for all his other sins, so for his impudency and atheisme, he justified the sentence as righteous, and fully confessed the bestiality in all the scircumstances,” meanwhile blaming for the probable damnation of his soul a sawyer in the audience named Will Harding who tried to keep the flesh alive by counseling Spencer to just keep his damned mouth shut and not confess anything in the first place. This death’s-edge admission would have satisfied onlookers, but ought not satisfy us; the complex psychology of false confessions with their underlying fear of punishment and need to please a captor are potentially even sharper at the communal performance of a public execution — the offender’s last opportunity to spiritually rejoin his own community. Spencer knew he was doomed; he knew everyone thought he was lying; he would presumably have genuinely feared hell and deeply desired to give his own certain death meaning. Somewhere in this id soup is surely reason enough to say the thing his friends and neighbors all but willed him to say.

Thing said, the poor sow was butchered under Spencer’s eyes first (as Leviticus demands). Then Spencer was strangled on hemp, “God opening his mouth before his death, to give him the glory of his rightousnes, to the full satisfaction of all then present.”

* Goodyear(e)‘s daughter Hannah would eventually marry the son of John Wakeman, whose sow it was that gave birth to the pig that started all the ruckus. In the early 1650s, Stephen Goodyear would favor colonial authorities with suspicions of a witch in his very own household, but that poor servant managed to avoid execution.

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1690: Jack Bird, pugilist

Add comment March 12th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1690, the somewhat comic thieving career of Jack Bird came to an end at Tyburn.

Bird ran away from an apprenticeship to serve as a foot-guard under the Duke of Monmouth in the Low Countries, and “here,” says the Newgate Calendar, “he was reduced to such necessities as are common to men who engage themselves to kill one another for a groat or fivepence a day.”

Jack fled his enlistment and commenced a life of larceny.

His first experience wasn’t so good.

After stealing a bit of silk from an Amsterdam merchant, he was put to twelve months’ hard labor, and upon fainting away at the initial brutal work was punished by being chained to the floor of a flooding cistern for an hour where he was “obliged to pump for his life … [for] if the water had prevailed he must inevitably have been drowned, without relief or pity.”

Released back to Old Blighty, Bird’s want of fortune or employment prospects — and possibly England’s want of the flooding cistern punishment — led him to the road, where he robbed with mixed results.

On the one hand, the Newgate Calendar credits him with one of the more humiliating failures in the annals of crime, when he held up a former seaman who had lost both his hands. As Bird was obliged to frisk his fingerless mark to obtain his valuables, he brought himself close enough that the victim, a “boisterous old tar,” “suddenly clapped his arms about his neck, and spurring his own horse pulled our adventurer from his; then falling directly upon him, and being a very strong man, he kept him under, and mauled him with his stirrups.” Bird ended up in Maidstone jail, where he was lucky to have a hanging sentence commuted.

On the other hand, he’s credited with a folklorish encounter with “the mad Earl of P–”.* Ordered to deliver his purse, the Earl counteroffered: “I will box you fairly for all the money I have, against nothing.” Jack thought this a merry lark and accepted straight away. The Earl’s chaplain insisted on doing the honors in his master’s stead and Bird — clearly toughened up from his younger self — duly pummeled the divine and

Our pugilist’s downfall was the gentler sex. Somewhat gentler, anyway. One night when out with a bawd, Jack and his date chanced across a passerby between Dutchy Lane and the Great Savoy Gate in the Strand whom they fell upon and robbed. The opportunistic footpads fled into the dark, but the woman was caught. Jack went to visit her at Newgate and maybe buy off her victim/prosecutor, but instead found himself arrested on suspicion of being her absconded male accomplice.

In a last act of gallantry, the 42-year-old outlaw made a guilty plea and successfully took all the blame on himself.

* From a sift through Wikipedia’s list of English Earldoms, I think this must refer to the notoriously violent Earl of Pembroke, who himself only avoided being hanged for murder by dint of availing the privilege of the Peerage. Whether the alleged boxing round has any basis in fact …

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1686: James Morgan, a Warning to you all

4 comments March 11th, 2014 Headsman

From Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana: Or the Ecclesiastical History of New England from 1620 – 1698:


On March 11, 1686, was Executed at Easton, one James Morgan, for an Horrible Murther. A Man, finding it necessary to come into his House, he swore he would run a Spit into his Bowels; and he was as bad as his Word.

He was a passionate Fellow; and now, after his Condemnation, he much bewail’d his having been given to Cursing in his Passions.

The Reverend Person, who preach’d unto a great Assembly, on the Day of this poor Man’s Execution, did in the midst of his Sermon, take occasion to read a Paper which he had receiv’d from the Malefactor then present in the Assembly. It was as followeth.

I, James Morgan, being condemn’d to die, must needs own, to the Glory of God, that He is Righteous, and that I have by my Sins provok’d him to destroy me before my time. I have been a great Sinner, guilty of Sabbath-breaking, of Lying, and of Uncleanness; but there are especially two Sins whereby I have offended the Great God: one is that Sin of Drunkenness, which has caused me to commit many other Sins; for when in Drink, I have been often guilty of Cursing and Swearing, and Quarrelling, and striking others. But the Sin, which lies most heavy upon my Conscience, is That I have despised the Word of God, and many a time refused to hear it preach’d. For these things I believe God has left me to that, which has brought me to a shameful and miserable Death. I do therefore beseech and warn all Persons, young Men especially, to take heed of these Sins, lest they provoke the Lord to do to them as he has justly done by me. And, for the further Peace of my own Conscience, I think my self oblig’d to add this unto my foregoing Confession, That I own the Sentence which the Honour’d Court has pass’d upon me, to be Exceeding Just: inasmuch as (though I had no former Grudge and Malice against the man whom I have kill’d, yet) my Passion at the time of the Fact, was so outragious, as that it hurried me on to the doing of that which makes me now justly proceeded against as murderer.

After the Sermon, a Minister, at his Desire, went unto the Place of Execution with him. And of what passed by the way, there was a Copy taken, which here ensueth.


The entire interview — as reported by Cotton Mather, the “reverend person” who attended the doomed soul — is here.

“Secure the Welfare of your Soul,” Mather implored Morgan on the morning of the latter’s hanging, “and this (now) pinion’d, hang’d, vile Body of yours will shortly be rais’d unto Glory, Glory for evermore.”

The terrors of the sentence had already worked the clergyman’s part before Mather himself turned up. Whatever Morgan’s conduct day by day in life, he had grown up in the same universe of New England Puritans as Mather, and breathed the same ideology. We find him not so much assenting to his minister’s exhortations, as soliciting them, almost leading the conversation at some points.

Sir, as for the Pain that my Body must presently feel, I matter it not: I know what Pain is; but what shall I do for my poor Soul? I’m terrified with the Wrath of God: This, this terrifies me, Hell terrifies me: I should not mind my Death, if it were not for that.

Mather runs with this for a while, perhaps a little too far — “those exquisite amazing Torments … such as never have an End. As many Sands as could lie between this Earth and the Stars in Heaven, would not be near so many as the Ages, the endless Ages of these Torments.”

Morgan steers his confessor towards solutions with a leading question.

But is there not Mercy for me in Christ?

(Two things to bear in mind: first, Morgan at “I think about thirty” years old would have been the elder figure in this conversation with 23-year-old Cotton Mather; second, this is Mather’s own account of Mather’s private conversation, as composed in a self-consciously literary “dialogue” form for the purposes of publication.)

This conversation hones by mutual consent of the speakers on the classics of the condemned cell: drinking, Sabbath-breaking, and bad company as the root sins that watered the gallows-tree, mitigated by the redemptive opportunity to turn one’s own public strangulation into a pedagogic moment for the gawkers.

Morgan was right on board. (They didn’t all come so easy.)

Mather records his charge’s last speech, made from the hanging-ladder before he is turned off.

I Pray God that I may be a Warning to you all, and that I may be the last that ever shall suffer after this manner. In the fear of God I warn you to have a care of taking the Lord’s Name in vain. Mind, and have a care of that Sin of Drunkenness: For that Sin leads to all manner of Sins and Wickedness: (mind, and have a care of breaking the sixth Commandment, where it is said, Thou shalt do no Murther) for when a Man is in Drink, he is ready to commit all manner of Sin, till he fill up the Cup of the Wrath of God, as I have done by committing that Sin of Murder.

I beg of God, as I am a dying Man, and to appear before the Lord within a few Minutes, that you may take notice of what I say to you. Have a care of Drunkenness, and ill Company, and mind all good Instruction; and don’t turn your Back upon the Word of God, as I have done. When I have been at Meeting, I have gone out of the Meeting-house to commit Sin, and to please the Lust of my Flesh. Don’t make a mock at any poor Object of Pity; but bless God that he has not left you as he has justly done me, to commit that horrid Sin of Murder.

Another thing that I have to say to you, is, to have a care of that House where that Wickedness was committed, and where I have been partly ruin’d by. But here I am, and know not what will become of my poor Soul, which is within a few moments of Eternity. I have murder’d a poor Man, who had but little time to repent, and I know not what is become of his poor Soul. O that I may make use of this Opportunity that I have! O, that I may make Improvement of this little, little time, before I go hence and be no more. O, let all mind what I am saying now I am going out of this World. O, take Warning by me, and beg of God to keep you from this Sin, which has been my Ruine.

O Lord, receive my Spirit: I come unto thee, O Lord, I come unto thee, O Lord, I come, I come, I come.

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1687: The first of the Martyrs of Eperjes

Add comment March 5th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1687, the Austrian empire made the first of its many Protestant martyrs in Eperjes — the Hungarian name for the city now in Slovakia, where it is known as Prešov.

In the wake of the unsuccessful Zrinski-Frankopan Hungarian conspiracy against Hapsburg absolutism, the arch-Catholic Holy Roman Emperor Leopold did some cracking down.

Leopold suspended the Hungarian constitution and rounded up Protestant pastors, who “were not executed, but the choice of those convicted was between recantation and serving as galley slaves.” (Source)

Rough handling pushed the most aggrieved Hungarians into outright revolt in the 1670s, eventually led by the nobleman Imre Thököly.*

Thokoly enjoyed fantastic success, carving by force of arms a Principality of Upper Hungary roughly corresponding to present-day Slovakia. Squeezed as he was between the great powers of the Holy Roman Empire and the Ottoman Turks, Thokoly allied himself with Sultan Mehmed IV and aided the Turks’ 1683 siege of Vienna.

That meant that his followers would share the downfall of that enterprise.

After the siege was thrown off, Thokoly’s rebellion was gradually quashed, culminating in a 1685 battle at Presov — one of Thokoly’s major bastions. (Hungarian link)

Thereafter, Thokoly himself would be a ward of the Ottomans, alternately a prisoner or a vassal captain in the field. (He would briefly establish himself as Prince of Transylvania with Ottoman backing in 1690.)

Pope John Paul II and Evangelical bishop Jan Midriak prayed together at a monument to the Presov martyrs in 1995.(cc) image from Jozef Kotulic.

For Presov and those misfortunate enough to be caught there, matters were worse.

The Hapsburg military governor of the former rebel territory, Antonio Caraffa, set up a star chamber to deliver some harsh justice.

From February 1687, Presov Protestants trying to raise money to re-establish war-damaged schools were accused of conspiring to rise again and subjected to a series of torture-driven show trials.

The first four of these, Sigmund Zimmermann, Caspar Rauscher, Andreas Keczer and Franz Baranyay, were beheaded and quartered on March 5, 1687. All told, some two dozen would die over the course of 1687 in this hunt, most of them on the scaffold — the Martyrs of Eperjes. (German link.)


Statue of Imre Thokoly at Budapest’s Heroes’ Square. (cc) image from Hungarian Snow.

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1698: Guido Franceschini, The Ring and the Book inspiration

Add comment February 22nd, 2014 Headsman

Robert Browning‘s long narrative poem The Ring and the Book concerns the murder trial of the nobleman Guido Franceschini — a real-life case that saw the defendant in question executed in Rome on this date in 1698 for murdering his wife Pompilia as a suspected adultress. (And her parents just because.)

The 21,000-line work was Browning’s greatest success in life, though many particulars of Browning’s spin on events have been challenged by the 2001 study Roman Murder Mystery.

We’ll be content this day to take Browning’s audience’s-eye view of the jealous husband’s scaffold comeuppance on execution-day.

To mount the scaffold-steps, Guido was last
Here also, as atriciousest in crime.
We hardly noticed how the peasants died,
They dangled somehow soon to right and left,
And we remained all ears and eyes, could give
Ourselves to Guido undividedly,
As he harangued the multitude beneath.
He begged forgiveness on the part of God,
And fair construction of his act from men,
Whose suffrage he entreated for his soul,
Suggesting that we should forthwith repeat
A Pater and an Ave with the hymn
Salve Regina Coeli, for his sake.
Which said, he turned to the confessor, crossed
And reconciled himself, with decency,
Oft glancing at Saint Mary’s opposite,
Where they possess, and showed in shrine to-day,
The blessed Umbilicus of our Lord,
(A relic ’tis believed no other church
In Rome can boast of) — then rose up, as brisk
Knelt down again, bent head, adapted neck,
And, with the name of Jesus on his lips,
Received the fatal blow.

The headsman showed
The head to the populace. Must I avouch
We strangers own to disappointment here?
Report pronounced him fully six feet high,
Youngish, considering his fifty years,
And, if not handsome, dignified at least.
Indeed, it was no face to please a wife!

The “old yellow book” of original case notes that Browning found at a Florentine market and subsequently served as his reference source is available here. The poem itself is, of course, in the public domain; read it in its entirety here, or get hours of free audio reading here.

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1653: Jasper Hanebuth, robber and murderer

Add comment February 4th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1653, the German bandit Jasper Hanebuth was broken on the wheel in Hanover.

An illiterate farmer’s son from Groß-Buchholz, Hanebuth came of age during the calamitous Thirty Years’ War and thereby made his bread for a time as one of the numberless strong arms enlisted to let out one another’s blood.

Hanebuth is the titular villain in the German historical fiction novel The Murderer’s Concubine.

In a time of crisscrossing armies had conflicting loyalties and uncertain pay, it was a fine line between soldiers and thieves — sometimes just the hour of the day. What matter to a rural family or a vulnerable traveler if the gang of armed men who dispossessed him did so under the banner of God or that of opportunism? And given means and opportunity, what matter to the armed gang itself? Victims in such a chaotic environment, either actual or potential, were liable in their own turn to resort to brigandage as the only viable option, paying the devastation forward.

“It defies the pen to recount all the miseries and horrors” from those years of pillage and rapine, wrote August Jugler in his history of Hanover.

True to the template, Hanebuth parlayed wartime soldiery into an alarmingly bold career of opportunistic robbery in the still-extant Eilenriede. A purported “Hanebuth’s Block” in the vicinity of the present-day zoo there long preserved the association; there’s still a street in the forest known as Hanebuthwinkel.

He was reputed an especially vicious outlaw, who would raid singly as well as jointly with other farmers and decommissioned warriors, and would as readily for sport or pleasure shoot a convenient target dead before bothering to approach and find out if the business end of the felony was even worth the murder. He ultimately confessed to 19 homicides.

But it was still the pecuniary motive that drove things. Hanebuth approached crime-lord status with secret smuggling tunnels allegedly set up to move his ill-gotten gains and regular traffic with Hanover merchants. Hanebuth also set up as a horse-trader, exploiting his predilection for violence to obtain stock by force. One trader who refused a shakedown simply had his horses outright stolen the next night, and this man at last reported Hanebuth, resulting in his arrest, torture, and execution on the wheel.

He remains one of Hanover’s most iconic historical criminals.


Jacques Collot’s 1633 cycle “The Miseries of War” might have foretold Hanebuth’s fate: here, a soldier of the Thirty Years’ War who has turned to robbery is punished, as Hanebuth would be, on the wheel. The caption explains:

The ever-watching eye of the divine Astrée [Justice]
Banishes entirely the mourning from the country
When holding the sword and scales in her hands
She judges and punishes the inhuman thief
Who awaits passersby, hurts them, and plays with them
[And] then becomes himself the plaything of a wheel.

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1681: Isabel Alison and Marian Harvey, Covenanters

Add comment January 26th, 2014 Headsman

We turn today to William Crookshank’s (certainly partisan) narrative of the hanging of two Scottish Covenanters on this date in Edinburgh, as told in his The history of the state and sufferings of the Church of Scotland.


On the 25th of December some of the students in the College of Edinburgh brought to the head of the Cowgate the effigy of the pope in his robes, with his keys, mitre, and triple crown; and, when they had excommunicated him, they carried him about in a chair, like that wherein he is elected at Rome, to the foot of the Blackfriars’ Wynd. The students, knowing the thing had taken air, gave out that they were to carry his holiness in procession to the Grassmarket, the place of the execution of criminals; whereupon the guards marched thither. Meanwhile the boys marched in procession by the Black-friars’ Wynd to the High-street, three of them going before with lighted torches. Being come thither they condemned his holiness to be burnt: accordingly the torchmen blew up the effigy with gun-powder, notwithstanding their being attacked by some soldiers commanded by Linlithgow and his son; whom they warned to beware whom he struck, since he had relations among them.

The Duke of York’s [the future James II -ed.] being now in Scotland sharpened the edge of the persecution; so that no less than twenty were executed in the course of this year 1681.

The sufferers had, it is true, declared against the king’s authority, for which many of them were hanged, and otherwise persecuted by their enemies, and’censured by their friends. They branded them as madmen, enemies to government and civil society; but it is very plain that they never opposed government or monarchy as such, but only wicked, perjured, and persecuting governors. These they did oppose, and that for the very same reasons that brought about the Revolution and the protestant succession.

I cannot express this better than in the words of the author of the Memoirs of the Church of Scotland, when speaking of the Torwood excommunication. Says he,

I desire the impartial reader to compare it with the memorials above-mentioned, [to wit, the memorial to the Prince of Orange from the people of Great Britain, to invite him to come to their assistance] and see if it be posible for any British protestant, who owns the justice of the Revolution, to reflect upon the zeal of these people, without blushing for himself and the whole nation, that they did not see and abhor the tyranny of those reigns sooner; then they had joined with those people instead of censuring their zeal; the Revolution had then been brought about without sovereign help at all; the Prince of Orange had then been called over, as peaceably as King George, to take possession of the crown; and the blood of near 20,000 people, who were one way or other murdered and destroyed by that now abdicated race of tyrants, had been saved. What a shame is it, says he, to us, and how much to the honour of these persecuted people, that they could thus see the treachery and tyranny of those reigns, when we saw it not; or rather, that they had so much honesty of principle, and obeyed so strictly the dictates of conscience, as to bear their testimony early, nobly, and gloriously to the truth of God and the rights of their country, both civil and religious; while we all, though seeing the same things, yet betrayed the cause of liberty and religion, by a sinful silence and a dreadful cowardice.

But suppose, through the treatment, the unacountable treatment they met with, they had gone a little beyond due bounds, and though sometimes their expressions were not so well chosen, can that either condemn the principles of religion and liberty upon which they acted; nay, or their actual disowning those tyrants, who, for nothing but the matters of their God and Saviour, had declared them outlaws, rebels and traitors? Besides, the blood of many was shed, against whom they could prove nothing, but what they extorted from them by their ensnaring questions. Nay, even some of the weaker sex were hanged or drowned on this score. But I shall relate the matters of fact as they happened in the order of time.

It was a dreadful affront to the Duke of York to find his holiness treated in such a manner, on that grand festival the 25th of December; and therefore the sycophant managers must not overlook such an indignity.

Accordingly, on the 4th of January, the masters of the college declared their abhorrence of what their scholars had done; and on the 6th, the council commanded the magistrates to order the college gates to be shut, and the classes to be dissolved. About this time several of the students were imprisoned, besides Mr Ridpath, which so exasperated the rest, that it is said, they threatened to burn the provost’s house at Priestfield, because the magistrates, who were patrons of the college, instead of protecting them, had acted violently against them; and in a few days the house of Priestfield was burnt.

Whereupon the council, on the 17th, issued a proclamation, offering 2000 merks and a remission, to any who should discover the actors: but it does not appear that any discovery was made …

The order of time leads me to the case of Isobel Alison and Marion Harvey, two young women, who were executed this month, to the perpetual disgrace of the bloody managers, who could have no acts of what they called rebellion, in the least, to lay to their charge.

When they were taken, I know not. Isobel Alison was apprehended at Perth, where she lived, only for speaking against the severity used to sundry good people there; for they could accuse her of nothing else. Marion Harvey was seized while going one day from Edinburgh to hear sermon in the fields, and was last year before the council. But though they had nothing against these two young women, they were resolved to shed their blood: and therefore upon what they owned at their examination they founded their indictment, and took away their lives. That the reader may have a specimen of the injustice of this period, that afterwards became common, I shall here insert the substance of their examination first before the council, and next before the lords of justiciary.

When Isobel Alison was before the council, she was interrogated as follows:

Q. Can you read the Bible?

A. Yes.

Q. Do you know the duty we owe to the civil magistrate?

A. When the magistrate carrieth the sword for God, according to what the scripture calls for, we owe him all due reverence; but when they overturn the work of God, and set themselves in opposition to him, it is the duty of his servants to execute his laws and ordinances on them.

Q. Do you own the Sanquhar declaration? [a speech disavowing Presbyterian allegiance to the government]

A. I do own it.

Marion Harvey’s examination before the council was upon the same points with that of her fellow-sufferer … Only, among other tilings, they said, Will you cast away yourself so? To which shy replied, I love my life as well as any of you, but would not redeem it upon sinful terms. They said, the rock, the cod and bobbins, were as fit for her to meddle with as those things. They offered her the assistance of ministers, but she would have none of their pro. vidiug

On the 17th of January they were brought before the Lords of Justiciary; for it was the constant practice at this time, the one day to bring such as fell into their hands before the council, and there by ensnaring questions, to bring them into a confession of such things as they accounted treason, and next day to prosecute them before the criminal court. These two women were accused for hearing at field-conventicles, harbouring Messrs Cargill, Cameron, &c. owning the Rutherglen and Sanquhar declarations, &c.

When Isobel Alison was before them, she was examined as follows:

Q. Do you abide by what you said the last day?

A. I am not to deny any thing of it. She owned she had converged with David Hackstoun, and disowned their authority.

Q. Do you disown us and the king’s authority in us?

A. I disown you all because you carry the sword against God, and not for him, and have, these nineteen or twenty years, made it your work to dethrone him, by swearing, year after year, against him and his work, and assuming that power to a human creature which is due to him alone, and have rent the members from their Head, Christ.

… Then they said, Your blood be on your own head, we shall be free of it. She answered, So said Pilate, but it is a question if it was so; and ye have nothing to say against me, but for owning of Christ’s truths and his persecuted members. They made no reply, but desired her to subscribe what she had owned, and, upon her refusing, did it for her.

Marion Harvey, before the justiciary, owned the Sanquhar declaration, &c. and then protested that they had nothing to say against her as to matter of fact; but only that she owned Christ and his truth, his persecuted gospel and members; of which she said, Ye have hanged some, others you have beheaded and quartered quick. To this they said nothing; but called those who were to sit on the jury, who appeared with reluctance. One of them said, He did not desire to be engaged in this matter; but he was obliged: then he desired that the confessions of the two prisoners might be read, because he knew not what they had to say against them. When he was ordered to hold up his hand and swear, he fell a-trembling. The jury being fixed, the confessions were read, and the advocate in a speech, aggravated every particular, in order to prove them guilty of treason. Some of the jury urged that there was no fact proved against them. The advocate said, But treason is fact; and taking himself again, he said, It is true, it is only treason in their judgment, but go on according to our law; and if you will not do it, I will proceed. The jury brought them in guilty on their own confession; however, the passing of the sentence was deferred till the 21st, when they were both condemned to be hanged at the Grassmarket on the 26th.

Meanwhile, on the 20th, the council enlarged the powers of the laird of Meldrum for apprehending those who were in the rebellion. The many searches which were made in consequence of this were most oppresive. The same day the magistrates of Edinburgh were ordered to call all the masters of coffee-houses before them, and obliged them to come under a bond of 5000 merks, to suffer no news-paper to be read in their houses, but such as are approved of by the officers of state.

Next day all the students in the college of Edinburgh were ordered to retire fifteen miles from that place, within twenty four hours, and not to come within these bounds without leave from the council, under the pain of being treated as seditious persons. A fine protestant government, to make such a splutter about burning the pope! But it was decent to compliment his Royal Highness the Duke!

On the 26th, Isobel Alison and Marion Harvey were executed according to their sentence. The reader will find what passed between them and Mr Riddel in the Cloud of Witnesses, together with their respective testimonies. When they were brought from the prison to the council-house, in order to be carried from thence to the place of execution, Marion Harvey said, with a surprising chearfulness and heavenenly transport, Behold, I hear my Moved saying unto me, Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away. When in the council-house, Paterson bishop of Edinburgh (such was the spirit of the man!) said, Marion, you said you never would hear a curate, now you shall be forced to hear one; and immediately ordered one of his suffragans, whom he had prepared for the purpose, to pray. When he began, she said to her fellow-prisoner, Come, Isobel, let us sing the 23d Psalm; which they did, and thereby drowned the curate’s voice, and confounded their persecutors.

Their behaviour on the scaffold is not to be omitted. Isobel having sung the lxxxiv Psalm, and read Mark xvi, cried over the scaffold, and said, Rejoice in the Lord ye righteous; and again, I say, rejoice. She was not suffered to pray till she came to the foot of the ladder. As she went up, she cried out, ‘O be zealous, sirs, be zealous, be zealous! O love the Lord, all ye his servants! O love him; for in his favour is life!’ And added, ‘O ye his enemies, what will ye do? Whither will ye fly in that day? for now there is a dreadful day coming on all the enemies of Jesus Christ. Come out from among them, all ye that are the Lord’s people.’ Then she concluded, ‘Farewell all created comforts; farewell sweet Bible in which I delighted most, and which has been sweet to me since I came to prison; farewell Christian acquaintances. Now into thy hands I commit my spirit, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.’ Then the executioner threw her over.

Marion Harvey likewise sung Psal. lxxxiv. and having read Mal. iii, she said, ‘I am come here to-day for avowing Christ to be Head of his church and King in Zion. O seek him, sirs, seek him and ye shall find him: I sought him and I found him; I held him, and would not let him go.’ Then she rehearsed briefly the heads of her written testimony. Going up the ladder she said, 0 my fair one, my lovely one, come away. And, sitting down on the ladder, she said, ‘I am not come here for murder; for they have no matter of fact to charge me with ; but only by judgment. I am about twenty years of age: at fourteen or fifteen I was a hearer of the curates and indulged; and while I was a hearer of these I was a blasphemer and Sabbath-breaker, and a chapter of the Bible was a burden to me; but since I heard this persecuted gospel, I durst not blaspheme nor break the Sabbath, and the Bible became my delight.’ Upon this the commanding officer called to the executioner to throw her over, which he did accordingly.

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1690: Andrei Ilyich Bezobrazov, stolnik

Add comment January 8th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1690, the Russian stolnik (an administrative office in the Russian court) Andrei Ilyich Bezobrazov was put to death with the magicians he allegedly contracted to bewitch Tsar Peter the Great.

Whatever its other sins, Russia enjoys a reputation for having largely steered clear of the frightful witch-hunts that broke out elsewhere in Europe. Certainly tsars issued many decrees against witchcraft and even prescribed the death penalty in law. But unlike courts in western Europe, Russia does not seem ever to have folded the entire swath of extra-Christian folk beliefs and everyday peasant “magic” together into a juridical theory of omnipresent diabolical terrorism stretching from the neighborhood midwife to the Prince of Darkness himself. Perhaps for that reason, its historical record of witch persecutions presents fewer and more scattered data points.

Elites, write Valerie Kivelson and Jonathan Shaheen,* “demonstrated no interest in formulating a systematized or theorized framework for explaining the uncanny power of magic [and] they also made no effort in their courtrooms to unearth evidence of such a framework … Instead of pursuing connections to the devil, Muscovite judges exerted themselves to track the lineages and results of magic: Who taught you? Whom have you taught? Whom have you bewitched? The judges’ concerns were concrete and this-worldly: who were the victims and who were the victimizers?”

Unfortunately for Bezobrazov, his victim was the tsar himself.

Bezobrazov allegedly obtained the service of “sorcerers and witches” who worked magic “on bones, on money and on water” to enspell the new 17-year-old sovereign during the uncertain period after Peter threw off the regency of his older sister Sophia. Despite Peter’s ultimate reputation as Russia’s great westernizer, the immediate effect of this transition was an oppressive interregnum wherein conservative religious interests took advantage of the new sovereign’s distraction from internal Russian politics to reassert themselves violently.

For Bezobrazov, political turnover augured personal uncertainty. The innocent explanation for his “witchcraft” was invoking a little ritual in hopes of catching a favorable assignment in Peter the Great’s new Russia. It didn’t work.

Bezobrazov was beheaded on Red Square on this date at the same time two folk healers went to the stake with their magic talismans and healing herbs at a swamp across the Moskva from the Kremlin. An essay in this Festschrift describes what it’s like to be a peasant folk healer suddenly under investigation for regicide.

Dorofei Prokofiev … had treated animals belonging to the Bezobrazov household. But when arrested and interrogated, Dorofei did not identify himself as a “sorcerer,” but rather as a posadskii chelovek (artisan), specifically a horse-trainer (konoval) and a blood-letter (rudomet’). He admitted to practicing bean divination and palm reading in addition to treating the illnesses of children and adults with herbs and incantations. His bag contained beans, incense (for protecting brides and grooms from sorcerers, Dorofei said), and a variety of herbs. The herb bogoroditskaia (= royal fern) he gathered himself on St. John’s Day, while reciting the charm “whatever you, herb, are good for, be good for that.” But he denied ever casting a spell to harm the sovereign, and he claimed not to be acquainted with Andrei Bezobrazov — a lie that was quickly uncovered when Dorofei was subjected to torture. At that point Dorofei changed his story: Bezobrazov had asked him to cast a spell on the tsar, but only to make him feel favorably towards Bezobrazov, not to damage the sovereign’s health. Dorofei gave his interrogators examples of the incantations that he used in fortune-telling, all intertwined invocations of Christian figures with sympathetic magic. In short, Dorofei tried to rescue himself by claiming that his healing and fortune-telling activities were all well-intentioned. But the investigators, and Peter himself, were convinced of Bezobrazov’s guilt, which meant Dorofei was guilty as well. Bezobrazov was beheaded, and Dorofei was burned at the stake as a witch.

For everyday folks like Dorofei Prokovie, the author notes, “well-positioned patrons could be either a source of protection or of danger.”

According to Crime and Punishment in Early Modern Russia, which is also the source of the January 8 date, Bezobrazov’s wife was punitively tonsured for not reporting the “plot” and several other of Bezobrazov’s peasants were knouted and sent to Siberia.

* “Prosaic Witchcraft and Semiotic Totalitarianism: Muscovite Magic Reconsidered” in Slavic Review, vol. 70, no. 1 (Spring 2011)

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1663: Tempel Anneke, witch

Add comment December 30th, 2013 Headsman

Three hundred fifty years ago today Anna Roleffes — nicknamed “Tempel Anneke” — became one of the last* witches executed in Braunschweig, Germany.

Roleffes (English Wikipedia page | German) is particularly interesting due to the lengthy and detailed records of her case that remain preserved. Consequently she’s become the subject of one of the most compelling microhistories of the witch-hunt era, The Trial of Tempel Anneke: Records of a Witchcraft Trial in Brunswick, Germany, 1663.

The accused was a widow about 63 years of age, putting her right in the demographic sweet spot for a witchcraft accusation. She lived with her son, and kept up a side business in folk medicine and fortune telling, putting her right in the professional sweet spot for a witchcraft accusation.

But again, this was the decline phase of the burning time. The Thirty Years’ War was over,** and with it the time of panicky bloodbaths was receding (ever so gradually) relative to more measured legal procedures. In this meticulously documented instance, procedural rules are rigorously followed by rational, educated investigators looking to convict a duly accused citizen of being the bogeyman.† Some records of the investigation stretch from a full year before her June 1663 arrest.

It’s not completely clear exactly how she first entered the judicial process,‡ but her reputed felicity in the augury business stacked up the evidence against her. (Even though some of the witnesses providing it were themselves fined by the court for engaging it in the first place.) One of the first witnesses in the record was a fellow who came to Tempel Anneke for some palmistry. She told him that he’d soon retrieve some pewter silverware that had been stolen from him, and indeed he did. After such an event, you and I might be tempted to leave Tempel Anneke a favorable review on Yelp; Hans Tiehmann, by contrast, reported her for maleficium.

A person in such proximity to the many private woes of her neighbors could find such accusations quickly became self-confirming in the juridical eye. One shepherd came to her after losing several sheep. She prescribed a burnt curative and this proved effective in protecting the remainder of his flock. Then he returned complaining of an illness of his own, and this she could not cure. Both transactions inculpate her in the record. Just another satisfied customer!

The demonology theory of the day held that any magic at all flowed by definition from Hell. In the hands of judges steeped in such ideas, everyday hexes and cantrips — which, again, many of the witnesses themselves voluntarily sought out — could become, officially, infernal manifestations. From turning up lost cutlery, the proceeding segued all the way demonic contracts.

Tempel Anneke was literate and sharp, cannily refusing to confess anything voluntarily. But the terms of the Carolina — the 16th century Germanic criminal code governing proceedings — authorized torture to obtain such a confession upon a “credibly established legally sufficient and consequently suitable indication” of criminal behavior. (Source) The judges submitted their investigation records to legal experts at the University of Jena, who ruled that they had indeed met the legal threshold to enhance interrogation. This she could not withstand, and so eventually confessed that she had made a pact with Satan sealed with fornication

on her son’s farm in the granary … by the light of the moon, she had to step into a circle on the ground which was black, and on [the Devil's] urging, she let three small drops of blood into a small piece of linen, from her smallest finger on her right hand, which she had pricked with a needle, and she had to give it to him. Thereupon he had started and said, “I now have your blood, now you are mine, with body and blood, now you shall do what I want from you.”

* She was for a time thought to be the last witch executed in Braunschweig. That distinction appears to belong instead to Katharina Sommermeyer (1698).

** Gone, but certainly not forgotten. Tempel Anneke was a widow because her husband died in the Thirty Years’ War.

† Modernity can’t cast too many stones here.

‡ The Carolina licensed investigation of someone who was simply “suspected of a crime through common repute.” Many accused witches of course were prior to their formal accusations suspected or reputed witches.

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1605: Niklaus von Gulchen, Nuremberg privy councillor

Add comment December 23rd, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1605, Nuremberg privy councillor Niklaus von Gulchen (or Gilgen) was beheaded for his scandalous corruption. The wheeler-dealer’s graft had problematically extended to playing false with and backstabbing any number of elite patrons, from Nuremberg burghers all the way up to the Prince of Sulzbach, and even gone so far as to provide advice to foreigners against the interest of his own city.

The great executioner Franz Schmidt, whose many diary entries record (often tersely) the hundreds of hangings, beheadings, drownings, burnings, and breakings on the wheel he performed for Nuremberg over his lifetime, made an unusually voluminous entry for this shocking treachery. And from the sound of it, the duplicitous Master Doctor earned every drop of his executioner’s opprobrium — even if, according to Schmidt’s biographer, the malefactor’s misused position still entitled him to the privilege of execution by the sword, exemption from torture, and a dignified black cloak to wear to his last performance.

December 23rd (a Monday).* Master Doctor Nicholas von Gilgen, who was by appointment a privy councillor in an honourable council and was bound to that council by oaths he did not observe; for the sake of money received wrote for and advised two (opposite) parties in many affairs; also gave evidence and sat in council for deliberations and decisions; also stole from my lords of this town the allowances for beer and wine, causing it to be stored by his servants.

Also he debauched before her marriage, forcing her to do his will, his servant whom he brought from Trier to this town, and whom he gave as a wife to his clerk Philip Tumbler, by a promise of 50 florins and large presents. According to her declaration she brought forth five children by him, three of which miscarried during delivery or by fright in the twelfth week, two remaining alive, a boy and girl, he being sponsor to the boy at baptism.

Similarly, by like promises, he forced his under-maid to consent to his will a year ago, and tried likewise to persuade his brother’s two daughters; one, the wife of Doctor Wurffbaum, he tried to compel, but she resisted, the other the wife of Doctor Calrot, who yielded to his will and consorted with him before and after her marriage, according to her account through fear and compulsion and the promise of many presents and a wedding portion (he did not admit he compelled her, and I do not believe he forced her).

Lastly he played false when serving the Prince of Sultzbach, whose advocate he was; he also mediated dishonestly between the families of Nuremberg, and between the noble families of Leschwitz and Redwitz, writing to, and advising both parties in one affair. Likewise he counselled the Italian Charles Albert Nello and other Italians against the rulers of our town; also stole the decrees from the office of an honourable councillor.

In Italy too, at Padua, he produced a false certificate, when he figured as a doctor there by means of a false certificate, for he became a doctor at Basel only long after. For his evil deeds he lay in prison for thirty-eight weeks in Lugins Land and in the jail. He was led out on Monday by favour in a long mourning cloak, his arms bound behind him with a black silk cord, and led by a cord, a black cloth being spread on the seat (on the scaffold).


Niklaus von Gulchen’s beheading, from the Nuremberg chronicle. Note that the illustration portrays the doomed pol kneeling, when in fact he was beheaded in a chair. In any stance, von Gulchen “was a mischievious, gold-grubbing man,” according to the chronicler.

When he had been beheaded his body was wrapped in the cloth and laid in a wooden coffin, nailed down and taken to St. Peter’s church by the assistant executioner, but removed at night in a cart to St. John’s by the little gate that leads to the Butts, and buried in the graveyard by the walls.

* Nuremberg, a Protestant city, was still on the Julian calendar.

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