Posts filed under '17th Century'

1648: Francis Ferdinand de Capillas, protomartyr of China

3 comments January 15th, 2017 Headsman

January 15 is the feast date, and the 1648 execution date, of the Catholic protomartyr of China — St. Francis Ferdinand de Capillas.

The pride of a tiny Castilian hamlet, de Capillas was a Dominican who got his start saving souls proselytizing in the Philippines, where Spain did a robust trade.

In 1642, he joined other Dominican friars on a mission out of Fu’an in the south of China. Spain and Portugal had made steady inroads* for Christianity in the peninsular locale of Macau over the preceding decades but de Capillas’s was a mission to make converts in the mainland. There, things could, and did, get trickier.

Their mission coincided with the collapse of the guardedly friendly Ming dynasty. Seen from the long-run perspective — you know, the one in which we’re all dead — this dynastic transition would widen the field for missionary work under new regimes that would be largely amenable to Christian preaching until the 18th century. But in the short term, it was de Capillas who was dead, because the remnants of the defeated Ming and their dead-end emperor fell back into their area as the rump Southern Ming dynasty — and the province became a war zone.

Christians were not alone among the populations caught perilously between the rival sovereigns, where wrong-footing one’s allegiance was liable to be worth your life. In the mid-1640s, Christians and Ming got on favorable terms: not so much an alliance as an affiliation.

These contacts cultivated between Christians and court came a-cropper in the war. After the Qing conquered Fu’an, a counterattack by the Southern Ming besieged the city in late 1647. The Qing were going to win the larger struggle, but at that moment, they were going to lose Fuan — and by Eugenio Menegon’s telling in Ancestors, Virgins, and Friars: Christianity as a Local Religion in Late Imperial China,

military leader of the Qing camp captured a loyalist soldier, he extorted the names of the Fuan citizens who were collaborating with [the Ming commander] Liu. Among the best known were [Chinese convert Christians] Miao Shixiang, Guo Bangyong, and Chen Wanzhong. Other Christians also sided with Liu. This leak provoked retaliation against relatives and friends of the loyalists still inside the besieged town. Among the victims was the Dominican Capillas. He was taken from prison, accused of being one of the leaders of the Christians and connected to the [Ming] loyalists, and executed in mid-January 1648.

This association did not go well for any of those involved; Liu did not survive the year, forced to commit suicide under a later Qing invasion, circumstances that also saw Miao Shixiang and Guo Bangyong themselves put to summary death.

* Kaijian Tang estimates 40,000 Christians in Macau by 1644. (Setting Off from Macau: Essays on Jesuit History During the Ming and Qing Dynasties)

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,History,Milestones,Religious Figures,Summary Executions,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1651: Arnold Johan Messenius and his son

2 comments December 22nd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1651, Sweden’s Queen Christina revenged a libel on the head of Arnold Johan Messenius and his 17-year-old son.

The educated and determinedly unmarried Christina ranks among history’s most remarkable monarchs; her disinterest in marriage, her masculine dress, and her intimate friendship with Countess Ebba Spare have led her to be speculatively identified as lesbian, hermaphroditic, or otherwise subversive of gender — as in the recent film The Girl King.

However, for the matter at hand the relevant fact about Christina was her lineage: she was the daughter of the great Lutheran king Gustavus Adolphus, whose father had expelled the Catholic king, Sigismund Vasa. The Vasas still ruled Poland and gazed rivalrously across the Baltic dreaming of a return of their Nordic estates — and became a natural focal point for schemers in Sweden.

One such schemer was a brilliant and cantankerous historian, Johannes Messenius, who was father and grandfather of the men whose eventual execution occasions this post. After serving Sigismund Vasa’s Polish court some years, this most senior Messenius returned in 1608 to Sweden for career reasons, pretending an expedient Lutheran conversion into the bargain. But the quarrelsome intellectual “could hardly breathe except in an atmosphere of strife” (per this public domain volume) and after making himself unwelcome at a university continued picking fights at the Stockholm archives until

he was accused of carrying on a traitorous correspondence with the Polish Vasas, in which he urged them to attack Sweden. It does not appear that the proofs of this treason are now in existence, but its probability has been shown by a letter from Messenius, in which he owned his undiminished attachment to the Roman Church, and said that he only conformed to the Lutheran rites outwardly and by compulsion.

Gustavus Adolphus had him clapped the dungeons of an Arctic fortress which is where his son Arnold Johan Messenius (English Wikipedia entry | Swedish) grew up — understandably absorbing the grudges of his frostbitten hereditary imprisonment, until he was ripped away to a Lutheran education against which he sturdily rebelled by killing a classmate and fleeing into exile. By the time he was all of 17 he had been re-taken and locked away as a Polish agent in his own right. He’d be 33 before he regained liberty.

The liberal Christina and Count Per Brahe the Younger attempted in the 1640s to atone for Arnold Johan’s mistreatment by detailing him for a (successful) mission to Poland to retrieve his father’s magnum opus, a history of Sweden all the way back to Noah’s flood that the late father had written in prison and taken pleasure in denying to his jailers.

But Arnold Johan’s subsequent reintroduction into polite society as a nobleman with a state pension to continue the father’s histories just didn’t come with a happy ending. The boy had his father’s knack for playing both sides of the Baltic, but less so his craft with a quill: Arnold’s Swedish commission to write some histories of his own foundered on the prospective scribe’s authorial torpor. Meanwhile,

Messenius was neither softened by adversity nor improved by prosperity. He was harsh to his inferiors, insolent to his equals, and ungrateful to his benefactress. The peasants on his estate complained of his injustice and cruelty, and he was on bad terms with all his neighbours. He resisted some just claims of his own sister’s, and … a judgment given against him, Christina obliged him to make restitution to his sister. From that time he became an agitator against the government.

Now “the elder Messenius invented the most absurd and contradictory accusations against the Queen and her Ministers, which were exaggerated by the heated imagination of his son,” Arnold Messenius, our source avers, and the boy bursting with the family bile proceed to circulate “a virulent squib against the queen and the nobility, and, in the frankest language invited the heir to the throne to place himself at the head of a rebellion.” This is the so-called “Messenian conspiracy,” after the surname of father and son who both soon found themselves under Christina’s personal interrogation for this incitement, the father first denying any part in the affair and subsequently claiming the letter as his own inspiration in an apparent effort to shield the boy.

Humane Christina was rigorous with this third-generation treason, and had both beheaded without delay — although she also confined the punishment to these two rather than others they accused of collaborating on a general rising.

For her part, Christina by this time had grown weary of rule and interested in Roman Catholicism to which she perceived she could not convert without splinterizing her kingdom. She had already set in motion her own abdication, which she effected in 1654. Christina would play out the string in Rome, as the guest of the papacy and the friend of intellectuals, artists and eccentrics — while that heir the Messenians had sought to incite peacably ascended to her place as Charles X Gustav.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Nobility,Sweden,Treason

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1661: Murad Bakhsh, son of the Taj Mahal builder

Add comment December 14th, 2016 Headsman

Mughal prince Murad Bakhsh, the youngest son of Taj Mahal builder Shah Jahan, was executed on December 14, 1661.*


There’s blood in the stones … (cc) image from Vil Sandi.

Despite writing into stone a love to transcend time, Shah Jahan had the monarchy’s eternal managerial challenge: succession.

This ought not have surprised him. Jahan himself had been a third son, who took his own power by rebellion and clinched it by fratricide. And through the empress to whom Jahan would dedicate the Taj, Mumtaz Mahal, Shah Jahan had four sons who all thought they like their illustrious dad deserved the helm of the wealthy Mughal state.

In descending order of age, those rivalrous brthers were: Dara Shikoh,** Shuja, Aurangzeb, and our man Muhammad Murad Bakhsh. As we open the scene, each governs a portion of the father’s empire; by the end of this post, Aurangzeb will be emperor — his reign to span nearly a half-century — and his brothers will be all be dead.

The oldest boys had the first go, with Dara Shikoh’s power as the officially designated regent of the incapacitated Jahan challenged quickly by Shuja, who was governor of Bengal. Shuja decared himself emperor and marched on Dara Shikoh, who turned little brother aside.

The two were soon forced to come to terms with one another as the younger brothers, Aurangzeb and Murad, had combined their own forces — and the youth had their say in May 1658, smashing Dara Shikoh at the Battle of Samugarh. Murad is credited in this watershed battle with a decisive charge, personally slaying the enemy second-in-command using a composite bow. This fight made Aurangzeb emperor; Dara fled for Afghanistan but was caught and killed a few months later. (Shah Jahan, still living, was confined comfortably but sorrowfully by Aurangzeb.) In January of 1659, Aurangzeb put down Shuja’s challenge at the Batte of Khajwa.

Having wagered the Peacock Throne in battle twice for the honor of supplanting his elders, Aurangzeb had a more expedient solution to sweep away his last potential rival.

On arriving at Muttra (Mathura) Aurangzeb threw off the veil that he had worn with Murad. That brave but savage Prince was arrested while suffering from the effects of a carouse, and sent in all secrecy, a prisoner, to Dehli, where he was confined in the Salimgarh, a fort near the palace.

Murad would be put to death a couple of years later via the instrument of a murder charge supplied by the family of a courtier whom Murad had previously killed.

* The equivalent date on the Julian calendar, December 4, is also sometimes reported.

** The name means “as magnificent as Darius,” which is the sort of conceit destined to set a body up for disappointment.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Execution,History,India,Mughal Empire,Murder,Notably Survived By,Power,Royalty

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1683: Algernon Sidney, republican philosopher

Add comment December 7th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1683 the English politician and philosopher Algernon Sidney (or Sydney) was beheaded to uphold (so he conceived it) “the common rights of mankind, the laws of this land, and the true Protestant religion, against corrupt principles, arbitrary power, and Popery.”

He was one of the 17th century’s great philosophers of republicanism, and his Discourses Concerning Government was more influential in his lifetime than the work of his contemporary (and fellow-Whig*) John Locke.

Although the pen might be mightier than the sword, Sydney himself did not eschew the more literal form of combat and entered a triumphant battlefield for the Roundheads at Marston Moor. But despite penning a strong defense of assassinating despots,** Sidney’s disapproval of the proceedings against King Charles I — a trial at which Sidney, now a parliamentarian, sat as a commissioner — kept him free of the whiff of regicide.

The Republic that prevailed after King Charles’s scaffold, and in which he continued as an MP, was the closest thing Sidney would experience to the political order his writings expounded. When Parliament was forcibly disbanded in 1653 to give over to Cromwell’s rule, Sidney (like his friend and mentor Henry Vane) would not quit the legislature until General Harrison physically seized him. He sorely provoked the interregnum state thereafter by staging a pointed performance of that tyrannicidal play, Julius Caesar … starring himself as Brutus.

Away on the continent when the monarchy was restored in 1660, Sidney would not lay eyes on native soil again until 1677, when he secured a royal mulligan that also spared him the fruits of various plots he had cogitated while in exile to re-depose the Stuarts with the aid of France or the Netherlands. But he returned as one of the leading men of a Whig faction that increasingly courted the ire of the crown and from whose machinations the arch-republican was in no way dissuaded.

Sidney’s prosecution as a party to the Rye House Plot to murder King Charles II helped to earn the new Lord Chief Justice George Jeffreys his reputation as a notorious hanging judge: promoted to the post weeks earlier as a reward for his prosecution of Sidney’s alleged conspirator Lord Russell, Jeffreys stacked the trial against the defendant leading Sidney to issue from the scaffold a lengthy disquisition on the iniquities of the court. (Notably, Jeffreys circumvented a standard requiring two witnesses to prove treason by ruling that Jeffreys’ own writings made their author a “second witness”.)

Algernon Sidney is the namesake, along with English parliamentarian John Hampden, of Virginia’s Hampden-Sydney College, reflecting Sidney’s importance to the next century’s American revolutionaries. Archive.org has a lengthy public domain compendium (including his discourses on government), The Works of Algernon Sydney.

* Locke had no appetite for the noble martyrdom act pulled by the likes of Sidney and Lord Russell. He fled to the Netherlands during the Rye House Plot crackdown, only returning to England with the Glorious Revolution.

** For example:

Honour and riches are justly heaped upon the heads of those who rightly perform their duty [of tyrannicide], because the difficulty as well as the excellency of the work is great. It requires courage, experience, industry, fidelity, and wisdom. “The good shepherd,” says our Saviour, “lays down his life for his sheep.” The hireling, who flies in time of danger, is represented under an ill character; but he that sets himself to destroy his flock, is a wolf. His authority is incompatible with their subsistence. And whoever disapproves tumults, seditions, or war, by which he may be removed from it, if gentler means are ineffectual, subverts the foundation of all law, exalts the fury of one man to the destruction of a nation, and giving an irresistible power to the most abominable iniquity, exposes all that are good to be destroyed, and virtue to be utterly extinguished.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Notable for their Victims,Politicians,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Treason

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1678: Edward Colman, Popish Plot victim

Add comment December 3rd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1678, Catholic courtier Edward Col(e)man was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn — the second victim of Titus Oates’s “Popish Plot” concotion.

Colman was a Catholic convert whose zeal for the old faith led him into a variety of treacherous intrigues with the French court — although Colman’s eager and fruitless offices more annoyed than profited his allies.

His behavior was sufficiently indiscreet that fabulist Titus Oates had Colman queued up by name* as a Catholic plotter in the first round of 1678 Catholic terrorism allegations that would roil the realm for the next three years.

That indiscretion was very real, however, and extended to a careless presumption of his own safety. He seems to have been tipped to his danger by the judge who first took Oates’s evidence, a friend named Sir Edmund Godfrey, but he failed to use this advance intelligence to destroy his own correspondence. Godfrey in his own turn went on to a starring role in the Popish Plot debacle when he turned up murdered in October of 1678, a crime whose immediate attribution to the Catholic conspiracy that Oates had unfolded for him sent England clear round the bend.**

Colman’s case had already begun and half-fizzled by that point but with the apparent assassination of the judge a cry for his own blood now shook Parliament — “Colman’s letters!” alluding to that correspondence he surely wished he had burned: its volumes unfolded intelligence leaks, offers to exert French influence in the government even so far as dissolving Parliament, and applications for King Louis’s gold.

There are some incriminating examples in the trial transcript that, Lord Chief Justice William Scroggs charged, show “That your Design was to bring in Popery into England, and to promote the interest of the French King in this place, for which you hoped to have a Pension.” While Oates was a legendary perjurer and his fables destined to take the lives of 20-odd innocent souls in the months to come, the fact was that Colman really was caught out. His scheming ought not have merited such spectacular punishment under less extraordinary circumstances, but the things Colman really did do made it easy for Oates to position him as a paymaster in the fictitious regicidal conspiracy. “Mr. Colman, your own papers are enough to condemn you,” Scroggs said when his prisoner asserted innocence.

Nor could he protect himself with position. (Men even higher than Colman would succumb to the panic in time.) As detestably elevated as Colman looked to the average commoner, he was not himself a lord and was already (pre-Oates) regarded by King Charles II and many members of the court as a loose cannon. Everything pointed to sacrificing him … and they did. But as events would prove, the popular rage was not quenched on Colman’s bones alone.

The always-recommended BBC In Our Time podcast covers the Popish Plot in its May 12, 2016 episode.

* By name — not by face: Oates would be embarrassed at Colman’s eventual trial by the prisoner pointing out that Oates, who now claimed to have been personally paid out by Colman for various seditious errands, had utterly failed to recognize his “conspirator” when Oates appeared before the Privy Council to lay his charges in September.

** Godfrey’s murder has never been satisfactorily explained. There’s a good chance that it was a wholly unrelated affair with amazing bad timing; the revenge of the truculent Earl of Pembroke, whom Godfrey had prosecuted for murder a few months previous, is one leading possibility.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Notable for their Victims,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Spies,Terrorists,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1659: William Lamport, the real Zorro?

Add comment November 19th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1659, an Irish adventurer named Don Guillen Lombardo went to the stake in Mexico City as a heretic — en route to a destiny as a romantic swordsman

William Lamport was born in Wexford, by blood the descendant of English aristocracy and by conviction kin to Ireland’s Gaelic resistance to English incursion. His grandfather Patrick fought for Irish rebels at the Battle of Kinsale.

This was years before Lamport’s own birth but the youth must have been a chip off the old block: by the 1620s, as a student, William got himself run out of London for his aggressive Catholic proselytizing. Or at least, this is what William would say of himself: for his early years, we have mostly just his own word to go by.

Lamport took exile in Spain and there found his niche as a soldier and ladies’ man under a Hispanicized name: “Guillen Lombardo de Guzman” — that last nombre taken in tribute to his patron, the Count of Olivares. Guillen Lombardo de Guzman was a considerable enough figure in the Spanish court to have his portrait painted by Rubens.

These were formative years for the young man, but the crucial formative events we can only guess at: how did his thought evolve to the seditious or heretical form that set him against the Inquisition? Why did he cross the Atlantic to New Spain with the Marques of Villena in his late twenties?

This undergraduate thesis (pdf) tries to unravel the mystery of the man. What we know is that he was denounced to the Inquisition in October 1642 after attempting to enlist a friend in a subversive plot. The records here come via the Inquisition and are colored accordingly, but they indicate that Don Guillen aspired to cleave off New Spain with himself as the king of a radically egalitarian new state that would abolish all race and caste divisions. Among the papers he prepared for this visionary future was the first known declaration of independence in the Indies.

He spent the next 17 years in dungeons — less a few days when he escaped prison on the morrow of Christmas in 1650 and quixotically proceeded to nail up revolutionary manifestos on the cathedral door and around town denouncing the Inquisition. He was quickly recaptured, having now assumed the character of a determined rebel against powers both spiritual and temporal and consigned to an auto de fe in Mexico City’s main square. He was supposed to burn alive, but is supposed to have effected a cleverly merciful self-strangulation on the iron collar that staked him to his pyre.

It has been postulated that Johnston McCulley borrowed from a 19th century historical romance starring Lamport and his underground circle in McCulley’s The Curse of Capistrano — the serialized novel that introduced the dashing Mexican nobleman with a double life as champion of the little guy, Zorro. Lamport’s native Wexford — the one in Ireland — has consequently celebrated him in a “Wexford Zorrofest”.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Mass Executions,Mexico,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Soldiers,Spain

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1607: Jan Le Loup, Maastricht werewolf

Add comment November 5th, 2016 Headsman

A Dutchman known as Jan Le Loup (John the Wolf) was burned at the stake on this date in 1607 as a werewolf.

In a Europe where wolf attacks were still a real threat, the werewolf superstition waxed in partnership with the witch superstition. “Werewolf witch trials” form a distinct subspecies of the regular old witch trial; one of them even constitutes the maiden post of this here execution blog and it’s not very difficult to imagine predatory megafauna terrorizing a region could be attributed supernatural powers; the occultist Montague Summers devoted a whole book to plumbing the records of bygone werewolf cases for evidence of genuine lycanthropy.


This illustration of Beast of Gevaudan, a notorious man-eater from the 1760s, looks like the animal leaped straight out of hell. (via this fantastic Pinterest gallery)

Werewolves could likewise be rolled up via the familiar machinations of the witch-hunter. In John the Wolf’s case, he was accused out of the trial against Henry Gardinn of having used their transmogrifying beast personas to devour a child in Limburg. Gardinn burned in 1605; John was able to flee to Heusden but was recognized in 1607 and returned to Maastricht for the inevitable.

Though John tried claiming that Henry’s indictment had been to revenge himself for an altercation between the two, torture soon changed The Wolf’s story and placed he, Gardinn, and a third companion into a forest coven with a devil-avatar with whom they danced and feasted on human flesh.

After execution, his remains were exhibited on a pole surmounted by a wooden illustration of a werewolf.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Gibbeted,History,Murder,Netherlands,Public Executions,The Supernatural,Torture,Witchcraft

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1646: The effigy of Jean de Mourgues

Add comment October 9th, 2016 Headsman

According to a note in the memoirs (French, natch) kept by Le Puy master tanner Antoine Jacmon, “the portrait and effigie of the noble Jean de Mourgues” was publicly beheaded in place of the flesh of the noble Jean de Mourgues, as penalty for the latter’s attempt to murder his own uncle.

According to the author’s note, this punishment had so little effect that Jean de Mourgues successfully carried out the assassination in a hail of gunfire two years later.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Attempted Murder,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Executed in Effigy,Execution,France,History,Murder,Nobility,Not Executed,Public Executions

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1675: Katharina Paldauff, the Flower Witch

Add comment September 23rd, 2016 Headsman

It was likely on, and certainly about, this date in 1675 that the Riegersburg Castle keeper’s wife was burned as the “flower witch”.


Riegersburg Castle. (cc) image from Tobias Abel.

This dramatic keep roosting atop a volcanic crag in southeast Austria today hosts a Witch Museum exhibiting the treatment meted out to those infernal agents.

This castle had perhaps become identified as a hostelry of sorceresses by dint of its long management under the Countess Katharina Elisabeth Freifrau von Galler, an iron-willed noblewoman who did not fear to assert prerogatives of power more commonly reserved for male hands — not least of which from the standpoint of posterity’s tourism industry was much of the castle construction one beholds there today.

“The bad Liesl” — one of her chiding nicknames — died in 1672 and coincidentally or not a witch hunt swept the surrounding region of Styria from 1673 to 1675.

The best-remembered of the accused was the commoner who almost literally personified the Bad Liesl’s fortress: Katharina Paldauf (English Wikipedia entry | German), the wife of Riegersburg Castle’s chief administrator.

She was ensnared in the usual way, when accusations from other defendants, who were being tortured for the identities of their witches’ sabbath affiliates, compounded against her. These charges credited Paldauf with the power to conjure foul weather from the depths of hell, as well as murdering children and pitching them into the castle well. In a more grandmotherly vein (Paldauf was 50; older women appear to have been disproportionately vulnerable to witch charges) she’s said to have had the power to pluck blooming flowers even in the dead of winter — the source of her Blumenhexe repute, although this legend, er, stems from folklore rather than anything in the documentary record.

Torture broke her.

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

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1681: Maria, Jack, and William Cheney

Add comment September 22nd, 2016 Headsman

[1681 September] 22. There were 3 persons executed in Boston[.] An Englishman for a Rape. A negro man for burning a house at Northampton & a negro woman who burnt 2 houses at Roxbury July 12 — in one of wch a child was burnt to death.* The negro woman was burned to death — the 1st yt has suffered such a death in N.E.

-diary of Increase Mather

These three unfortunates were all three perpetrators of separate crimes, united by the logistical convenience of a joint execution date.

Maria’s claim on the horrible distinction of having been burned alive has been doubted by some,** but if Mather’s diary is correct it was undoubtedly done to mirror a crime so frightful to the masters: the firing of their own domiciles by their own domestics. The record in the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s court records assuredly elides a fathomless depth of human passion.

Maria, a negro servant to Joshua Lambe of Roxbury, in the county of Suffoike in New England, being presented by the Grand Jury was indicted by the name of Maria Negro for not having the feare of God before hir eyes and being instigated by the devil at or upon the eleventh of July last in the night did wittingly, willingly and feloniously set on fire the dwelling house of Thomas Swann of said Roxbury by taking a Coale from under a still and carried it into another roome and laide it on the floore neere the doore and presently went and crept into a hole at a back doore of thy Masters Lambs house and set it on fier also taking a live coale betweene two chips and carried it into the chamber by which also it was consumed. As by uour Confession will appeare contrary to the peace of our Souevaigne Lord the King his croune.

The prisoner at the bar pleaded and acknowledged herself to be guilty of said fact. And accordingly the next day being again brought to the bar and sentenced of death pronounced against her by the honorable Governor, yet she should go from the bar to the prison from whence she came and thence to the place of execution and there be burnt.

Thy Lord be merciful to thy soul.

Three days later a fugitive slave named Jack — “Run away from Mr. Samuell Wolcot because he always beates him sometimes with 100 blows so that he hath told his master that he would sometime or other hang himself” — torched a house in Northampton, seemingly by accident while foraging by torchlight. There can’t have been a connection between these two slaves and their seemingly very different acts of resistance, but where once is coincidence, twice is a trend: Jack was convicted of arson and taken from Northampton to Boston at some inconvenience to the colony (the trip took 15 days and cost £2) for exhibition at the same pyre as Maria. Jack was certainly burned only posthumously.

As for the white gentleman, we will give the word to Increase Mather’s chip off the old block, Rev. Cotton Mather:

On September 22, 1681, one W.C. [William Cheney] was executed at Boston for a rape committed by him on a girl that liv’d with him; though he had then a wife with child by him, of a nineteenth or twentieth child.

This man had been “wicked overmuch.” His parents were godly persons; but he was a “child of Belial.” He began early to shake off his obedience unto them; and early had fornication laid unto his charge; after which, he fled unto a dissolute corner of the land, a place whereof it might be said, “Surely the fear of God is not in this place.”

He being a youth under the inspection of the church at Roxbury, they, to win him, invited him to return unto his friends, with such expressions of lenity towards him, that the reverend old man their pastor, in a sermon on the day when this man was executed, with tears bewail’d it.

After this, he liv’d very dissolutely in the town of Dorchester; where, in a fit of sickness, he vow’d that, if God would spare his life, he would live as a new man; but he horribly forgot his vows. The instances of his impiety grew so numerous and prodigious, that the wrath of God could bear no longer with him; he was ripen’d for the gallows.

After his condemnation, he vehemently protested his innocency of the fact for which he was condemn’d; but he confess’d “that God was righteous, thus to bring destruction upon him for secret adulteries.”

A reprieve would have been obtain’d for him, if his foolish and froward refusing to hear a sermon on the day appointed for his execution had not hardened the heart of the judge against him. He who had been a great scoffer at the ordinances of God, now exposed himself by being left unto such a sottish action!

He had horribly slighted all calls to repentance, and now, through some wretches over-perswading [sic] of him that he should not die according to sentence and order of the court, he hardened himself still in his unrepentant frame of mind.

When he came to the gallows, and saw death (and a picture of hell, too, in a negro then burnt to death at the stake, for burning her master’s house, with some that were in it,) before his face, never was a cry for “Time! time! a world for a little time! the inexpressible worth of time!” uttered with a most unutterable anguish.

He then declared, that “the greatest burden then lying upon his miserable soul, was his having lived so unprofitably under the preaching of the gospel.”

* It is flatly incorrect that Maria’s arson killed anyone. She was indicted for arson, and there is no reference to an associated murder in the trial record or non-Mather accounts.

** Notice that the court order does not direct that Maria be burned to death. This letter, as an example of a possible rival interpretation, indicates that “two were this day Executed heer and Exposed to the flames for those Crimes,” implying an equivalence between the punishments of the two slaves: hanged to death, then their bodies burned.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arson,Burned,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Slaves,USA

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Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!


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