Posts filed under '18th Century'

1738: Helena Curtens and Agnes Olmans, inviolable dignity

1 comment August 19th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1738, the last victims of witch trials in the Lower Rhine were burned at the stake in Gerresheim, an ancient German city today subsumed by Düsseldorf.

More eccentric than demoniacal, the sicky 14-year-old Helena Curtens reported having seen some ghostly apparition during a curative pilgrimage to Kevelaer, and received from him some towels with weird occult inscription. (She actually did have such towels.)

This adolescent attention-seeking turned into a whole thing when judge Johann Weyrich Sigismund Schwarz’s long ears caught hold of Gerresheim’s wagging tongues.

The whole idea of witches and witchcraft was trending ever less fashionable at this time, but not for Schwarz: he routed Curtens’s occult encounter into the judicial Hexenprozess and got on record an accusation against her neighbor Agnes Olmans as well as the usual stuff about playing the harlot with a visiting devil.

Their case extended for more than a year; Helena Curtens was 16 by the time she burned.

In that time, Curtens stayed curiously committed to her crazy story, even knowing that it was putting her under the shadow of the stake.

Olmans, by contrast, fought with every fiber the allegations that her young neighbor kept confirming. Olmans even fell ironic victim to the uneven development of rational witch-law reform when she tried to demand that she be put to the ordeal of water to prove her innocence: it turned out that this backwards practice of pseudo-forensics had been barred in 1555, so Schwarz could not order it. At trial, her denials were easily overcome by the gossip of neighbors, and even her own husband — who recalled that the mother-in-law had a distinctly witchy reputation. Hey, ’til death do us part, babe.

Today, there’s a public stone monument to these milestone sorceresses, the Gerresheimer Hexenstein (“Gerresheim witches’ stone”)

Its inscription reads:

Human dignity is inviolable.
For Helene Mechthildis Curtens and Agnes Olmanns.
Burned in Gerresheim on August 19, 1738.
After the last witch trial in the Lower Rhine
and for all those tortured and outcast

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1714: Constantine Brancoveanu and his sons

Add comment August 15th, 2014 Headsman

Three centuries ago today, Wallachian prince Constantine Brancoveanu was beheaded in Istanbul with his four sons.

Brancoveanu (English Wikipedia entry | Romanian) had fallen foul of the Sublime Porte, which dominated Wallachia, by dallying with the Ottomans’ European rivals, the Habsburgs and the Russians.

During the then-current installment the oft-renewed Russo-Turkish War derby, he actually massed armies for a potential swing all the way to the anti-Ottoman team. Breaking those up and returning Peter the Great’s gifts after the Russian clock got cleaned did not a tribute of loyalty make in the eyes of Turkey.

Not only Contantine but his entirely family — wife, four sons, and six daughters — were carried thereafter to Istanbul prisons. On the Feast Day of the Blessed Virgin, in the presence of the Sultan himself and of Christian diplomats who would be sure to put the word out, his four sons Constantine, Stefan, Radu and Matei were beheaded in his presence, as was the Wallachian treasurer Enache Vacarescu. The 60-year-old prince exhorted them as they endured their martyrdoms to remain steadfast, until at last he too lost his head. (Istanbul Christians managed to give the bodies honorable burials after fishing them out of the Bosphorus. The remains were later translated to Bucharest.*)

Most of the web sites about Branacoveanu and family are in Romanian; he was in his quarter-century reign a great cultural patron. The first Romanian Bible was completed in his time, and he undertook a great building program whose distinctive architectural stile still bears his name — Brancovenesc.

The Romanian Orthodox church conferred upon the martyred family the laurels of sainthood in 1992, a fine time to honor Romanian independence from foreign domination although of course by that time the Ottomans were yesteryear’s news and the outside heavy in question was the Russians.


Brancoveanu and his sons, from a mural at a monastery Brancoveanu founded.

Constantine also has a full panoply of secular miscellany in his honor: roads, statues, ballads, a metro station named after him, and so forth.

* At least, the alleged remains; it is well not to turn a forensic lens on saintly relics, and when Brancoveanu’s tomb was opened at the bicentennial of his death the skeleton therein appeared by the state of its teeth to be that of a man half Brancoveanu’s age. (Source)

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1793: Walter Clark, hanged women’s father

Add comment August 14th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1793, Walter Clark was executed for burglary at Morpeth, with one Margaret Dunn. Clark rates a mention in the spirit of the apple not falling far from the tree: a year before Clark’s conviction and hanging, his two daughters Jane and Eleanor had suffered the same fate with William Winters for a murder committed just up the road from Morpeth.

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1792: William Winter, Elsdon Moor gibbet habitue

Add comment August 10th, 2014 Headsman

Atop a hill called steng Cross at the Northumberland village of Elsdon stands an eerie heirloom of England’s gallows history: Winter’s Gibbet. (Or “Winter’s Stob”, to use the local parlance.)


(cc) image from Flickr user johndal

It was here — within sight of the spot where he had murdered an old shopkeep to plunder her stores — that William Winter was gibbeted in chains following his August 10, 1792 hanging at the Westgate of Newcastle. In this fate, he followed his father and brother, hanged four years prior at Morpeth.

According to William Weaver Tomlinson’s Comprehensive Guide to the County off Northumberland,

In 1791 there lived here an old woman named Margaret Crozier, who kept a small shop for the sale of draper and other goods. Believing her to be rich, one William Winter, a desperate character, but recently returned from transportation, at the instigation, and with the assistance of two female faws [vendors of crockery and tinwork] named Jane and Eleanor Clark, who in their wanderings had experienced the kindness of Margaret Crozier, broke into the lonely Pele on the night of 29th August 1791, and cruelly murdered the poor old woman, loading the ass they had brought with her goods. The day before they had rested and dined in a sheep fold on Whisker-shield Common, which overlooked the Raw, and it was from a description given of them by a shepherd boy, who had seen them and taken particular notice of the number and character of the nails in Winter’s shoes, and also the peculiar gully, or butcher’s knife with which he divided the food that brought them to justice. No news, however, of Jane and Eleanor Clark’s fate.

This last line, however, is mistaken: Jane and Eleanor were hanged with William Winter. Indeed, “such was the uncommmon strength of William Winter, that, after receiving sentence of death, he carried both his female companions, one under each arm, from the bar, and across a wide street to the old Castle; supporting, at the same time, his own heavy chains, as well as the irons affixed to the women.” Afterwards, these lightweights weren’t gibbeted, but given over for dissection.

Winter’s rotting corpse hung for many years on his gallows. After it fell apart, the structure was dismantled — but in 1867 the English naturalist Walter Trevelyan, now landlord of the site, had a replica erected with a wooden mannequin. That figure was in its turn stolen, and over the years only the oft-stolen and -replaced wooden head has remained; even the gallows itself torn down at least once. But it has weathered the years and borne the dim memory of William Winter down to the present day.


At the base of the Winters Gibbet sits a stone that was once the base of a Saxon cross that gave Steng Cross its name — an old medieval marker on the road from Elsdon to Wallington and Morpeth.

(cc) images above from Flickr users Phil Thirkell (first two) and just1snap (last two)

That legend alluded to by Tomlinson, that the shepherd’s boy was able to identify Winter by the pattern of his hobnails, was later exploited as an exemplar of watchfulness in Lord Baden-Powell‘s seminal Scouting for Boys, the book that launched the scouting movement.

“The following story, which in the main is true, is a sample of a story that should be given by the Instructor illustrating generally the duties of a Boy Scout,” runs the introduction to a three-page exegesis on the “strong, healthy hill-boy” who easily covered several miles after passing Mr. Winter, came upon the scene of the crime, recognized the bootprints, and summoned constables whom he guided back to the escaping murderer.

Thus the boy did every part of the duty of a boy scout without ever having been taught.

He exercised –
Woodcraft
Observation without being noticed
Deduction
Chivalry
Sense of duty
Endurance
Kind-heartedness

That last virtue Baden-Powell attributes by dint off the youth’s being broken-hearted at beholding the gibbet, to realize he had caused the criminal’s death. “You must not mind that,” says a magistrate to the child in a fabricated dialogue. “It was your duty to the King to help the police in getting justice done, and duty must always be carried out regardless of how much it costs you, even if you had to give up your life.”


Illustration from Baden-Powell’s Scouting for Boys.

The historical Robert Hindmarsh sort of did pay that most extreme price for his duty; allegedly he was so terrified of reprisals that it led him to an early grave just a few years later. This circumstance, instructive of the marauding family’s reach and impunity, might be further bolstered by the popular superstition that Elsdon Moor is also haunted: a “Brown Man of the Moors” tale predates this crime, but is also sometimes conflated with the purported apparition of William Winter himself.

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1788: John and Robert Winter, father and son

Add comment August 6th, 2014 Headsman

On August 6, 1788, “John and Robert Winter, the father and son, were executed at Morpeth, pursuant to their sentence, for breaking open the house of William Charlton, esq., of Hesleyside. As they had lived for many years in a course of the most daring and shameless villainy, at their death, they testified the most brutal want of feeling, fear, or compunction.”

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1743: Gen. Charles Emil Lewenhaupt, scapegoat

Add comment August 4th, 2014 Headsman

There’s a good chance that you experience an unpleasant degree of performance pressure from time to time in your environs, whatever they might be. Lord knows even the executioner is not immune to it.

But it’s doubtful very many are under the sort of professional pressure that Swedish general Charles Emil Lewenhaupt succumbed to on this date in 1743, when he was beheaded for command incompetence thanks to his country’s defeat in the 1741-1743 Russo-Swedish War.

An aggressive political faction of “Young Turks” — er, Young Swedes — known as the Hats had kicked the country’s cautious former president to the curb and aimed to restore the great power status Sweden had coughed up to Russia decades prior. In Sweden, their engagement with Russia would become known as the Hats’ War.

Lewenhaupt himself was elevated to command of Sweden’s Finland forces — for Finland was Swedish territory at this point, although it had been brutally occupied by Russia from 1714 to 1721 and only returned when Sweden ceded its Baltic possessions to Peter the Great — over a general who opposed the adventurous scheme. Ironically, the whole thing would ultimately redound to the benefit of Peter the Great’s daughter.

In 1741 as the War of Austrian Succession consumed the rest of Europe, Lewenhaupt was placed in charge of the opening gambit, an invasion of Karelia. Russia’s autocratic Empress Anna had just died in 1740, leaving her niece Anna Leopoldovna in charge as regent for the the infant Ivan VI. The idea from the Swedish side was to pair the invasion (with a short line to St. Petersburg, then the capital) with an internal coup against the shaky monarch; further to that latter end, Swedish diplomats* maneuvered behind the scenes to position Peter the Great’s popular daughter Elizaveta to seize power, whereupon she would cede back to Sweden (either out of gratitude or by compulsion of the arriving Swedish armies) the Baltic lands recently torn from Stockholm’s hands.

Make sense?

The entire project was a fiasco for Sweden.

Sweden’s Hats-dominated Riksdag declared war on Russia in July of 1741, but the joint land and naval attack that was supposed to ensue completely failed to materialize: the Swedish fleet had been ravaged by an epidemic while awaiting the action, and the Swedish army massing at Villmanstrand had not yet finished assembling. So having thrown down the gauntlet, the Swedes just stood flat-footed, and it was the Russians who launched the invasion by routing the army at Villmanstrand. Our Gen. Lewenhaupt only arrived at that army two weeks after the battle.

Things went pear-shaped from that point for Sweden, but back in St. Petersburg the invasion’s prospective beneficiary was doing just fine.

Elizaveta had cagily accepted the aid of her French and Swedish “benefactors” but without committing any reciprocal promise to paper. Far from being a catspaw of foreign interests, this daughter of Russia’s conquering tsar was a popular figure in her own right, especially with the elite Preobrazhensky Regiment; on the evening of November 24, 1741, Elizaveta displayed herself at the regimental barracks dramatically clad in a breastplate and wielding a silver cross, summoning her supporters to mount a coup that the guards themselves had long sought. It was achieved (by Elizaveta’s own insistence) without bloodshed** that very night.

Duly installed, Elizaveta simply continued prosecuting a war that was going quite nicely for her side thank you very much, eventually forcing Sweden to conclude the war with a treaty ceding yet more territory to Russia.

The tribulations of this embarrassing (and costly) war led for Sweden to an internal rebellion — but the Hats were able to crush it and hold onto power by farming out blame for their failed war of choice onto the generals in the field. In 1743, Gen. Lewenhaupt and Gen. Henrik Magnus von Buddenbrock were sentenced to death for command negligence. Buddenrock was executed on schedule on July 27, but Lewenhaupt managed to escape — briefly. He was recaptured aboard a ship fleeing for Gdansk and beheaded on August 4.

Needless to say the great classical tradition of “with your shield or on it” did not extend to the Hats’ civilian leadership. These fellows maintained their hold in the Riksdag long enough to fling Sweden into yet another costly war of choice with Prussia in 1757, where they got their ass kicked again by Frederick the Great.

* Joined by French diplomats, whose interest in Elizaveta’s takeover was to abort Russia’s alliance with Austria and England in the continental war. The Hats had aligned Sweden with France; the latter helpfully supplied the cash Elizaveta needed as the intrigue unfolded over 1741.

** Never the violent type, Elizaveta is especially notable in these pages for her pledge never to approve a death warrant under her reign. Russia would not see another execution until 1764, under Catherine the Great.

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1746: Francis Towneley, of the Forty-Five

Add comment July 30th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1746,* the English Jacobite Francis Towneley was hanged, drawn and quartered at London’s Kennington Park.

This Lancashire Catholic had relocated residence and loyalty to France at age 19 in 1728, and fought in that country’s army. He was right at the sweet spot of veteran seasoning and youthful enterprise by the time “the Forty-Five” rolled around: the last great Jacobite rising to reverse the Glorious Revolution and re-enthrone the dispossessed heirs of King James.

With British armies deployed around Europe and the colonies in the 1740s during the War of Austrian Succession, the French decided to back a Jacobite bid to restore the exiled Stuart pretender, using the customary geopolitical strategem of teaming up with the Scottish. Being a Lancashire local, Towneley was commissioned a colonel and dispatched as an advance party to Manchester to scare up a regiment of Stuart loyalists there who would join up with Highlanders on the march from points north.

Towneley’s Manchester Regiment turned out to number just 300 hardscrabble souls. Discouraged by the thin show of public support — and by reports of a large loyalist army that turned out to be pure bluff — the Jacobites retreated, dropping off Col. Towneley’s regiment on the way to garrison Carlisle. Just days later, this small rearguard was overrun and forced into unconditional surrender by a guy named William the Butcher. This wasn’t destined to end well.

Towneley’s legal defense made the case that he was a commissioned officer of France, and not of the Stuarts themselves, which made him a prisoner of war rather than a traitor, an interesting debating point for barstool barristers but the sort of jurisprudence that will inevitably be determined in the breach by policy instead of principle. Policy in this instance was not to go easy on the Jacobites.

After he had hung for six minutes, he was cut down, and, having life in him, as he lay on the block to be quartered, the executioner gave him several blows on the breast, which not having the effect designed, he immediately cut his throat: after which he took his head off then ripped him open, and took out his bowels and threw them into the fire which consumed them, then he slashed his four quarters, put them with the head into a coffin, and they were deposited till Saturday, August 2nd, when his head was put on Temple Bar, and his body and limbs suffered to be buried.

Towneley’s family still had his severed, spike-holed head into the 20th century, when they finally interred the macabre mememto.

* We’re sticking with the local date in England here. England was still on the Julian calendar at this point (though for just a few years more). You’ll also see August 10 cites out there: that’s the equivalent date on the Gregorian calendar, which was current in France and throughout Europe’s Catholic realms.

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1785: John Winship, family planner

2 comments July 25th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1785, a Sunderland-area farmer named John Winship was hanged for killing his Grace Smith maidservant with a poisonous draught of corrosive mercury sublimate which Winship had intended to induce an abortion.

His body was delivered to a local surgeon, who autopsied it and “in the presence of many gentlemen of the faculty” lectured on Winship’s organs as he dug them out (and extracted two intestinal worms).

the doctrine of the late Mr. Hewson, F.R.S. was demonstrated, that, in executions of this kind, death is not produced, as has been generally supposed, by an extravation of blood, occasioned by the rupture of the vessels of the brain, but by suffocation: as in the case of drowning, etc. (Newcastle Courant, July 30, 1785, quoted in this anti-abortion tract)

Grace Smith, who died four agonizing days after she ingested the toxin, perhaps did not sympathize with her killer’s strangulation as much as might be proper.

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1780: John Gamble, anti-Wilmot

Add comment July 20th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1780, three men were executed in London — John Gamble was hanged at Bethnal-Green, Samuel Solomons in Whitechapel, and James Jackson in the Old-Bailey — for that summer’s working-class Gordon Riots.

These three all died for pulling down houses during the riots. Our focus today is on Mr. Gamble, who helped haul down the house of Justice David Wilmot, Esq.

Crying “Let’s go to Justice Wilmot’s!” rioters on the east end of London that night of June 7 headed straight for the residence of their notorious foe, a magistrate who had made himself infamous in workers’ eyes by his zeal to bring working-class economic resistance to heel.

Gamble, a hard-drinking journeyman cabinet-maker, was among the pillagers, and by dint of recognition was designated to pay the penalty for it.

“There might be a thousand” people who mobbed the Wilmot house, one witness at Gamble’s trial estimated. “When I left the place they were pulling down the house. They had thrown down part of the lead, and were throwing down the rest.”

This one was among three witnesses who testified to seeing Gamble on the scene, hauling out wood for a merry bonfire and “chuck[ing] tiles off two or three times” from the roof.

The penniless artisan defended himself as well as he could, cross-examining witnesses in an attempt to show conflicting reports of his dress that night. He himself claimed to have simply been out for a walk while drunk. Evidently it made a favorable impression on many in the courtroom.

“The prisoner being but a lodger had no friend to appear for him, nor any counsel; he was too poor,” reported the Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser (July 6, 1780). “It was hoped by many, as he was a very hard-working, ignorant man, that he would have been recommended to mercy, and several of the Jury were certainly for it, but others, with the Foreman, seemed to be of a different opinion.”

London authorities were all about making a point with these Gordon Riots cases, and Gamble’s execution was arranged on a “gallows at Bethnal-green … fixed immediately opposite to Justice Wilmot’s house.” That’s as per the General Evening Post, July 20, 1780 – July 22, 1780, which affords us this affecting description of the actual hanging:

the Ordinary got up into the cart, and prayed with him upwards of 20 minutes, in which he joined with the greatest devotion; he was then tied up, and his brother and another friend got up into the cart, and took an everlasting farewell, and kissing each other, they retired. Here the prisoner desired the Ordinary to pray some minutes longer with him, which he readily complied with; having finished, and gone to his coach, the executioner pulled his cap over his face, and at the request of the prisoner a handkerchief was tied over his cap. He put his hands together, and lifting them towards Heaven, cried out “Lord Jesus receive me,” when the cart drew away, and he was launched into eternity about half past eight o’clock, amidst a numerous crowd of spectators. After hanging upwards of an hour his body was cut down, and delivered for interment. The prisoner was about 36 years of age, a cabinet-maker, and has left a wife and three children. ‘Twas observed, that all the time he was under the gallows, he never but once turned his face towards Mr. Wilmot’s house. His time was taken up so much in prayer, that he made no speech to the populace of any kind.

Just as Gamble was turned off, two pick-pockets, dressed tolerably decent, were detected, and delivered over to the custody of the civil officers.

(After this ceremonial procession-to-hanging-site, the penal party returned to Newgate to repeat the same with Samuel Solomons, then returned to Newgate again to repeat it with James Jackson. Additional executions for other pullers-down of houses took place around London on both July 21 and July 22.)

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1789: Francis Uss

Add comment July 11th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1789, Francis Uss was publicly hanged in Poughkeepsie, New York, for burglary.

Anthony Vaver, author of Bound With An Iron Chain: The Untold Story of How the British Transported 50,000 Convicts to Colonial America, unfolded this wanderer’s story on Vaver’s blog Early American Crime; click onward to find how the Strasbourg-born Uss wound up fighting at Yorktown and staying in America.*

Uss gave over an autobiographical manuscript shortly before his hanging, and although the last page of its remaining copy is regrettably damaged, the man’s meditations on his ineluctable doom remain these centuries later an affecting, human wail.

The terrors of the approaching awful Friday rise up in fearful anticipation before me! I have realized them so often that they cease to be ideal. Once more I will indulge them and, hand in hand with horror, once more walk over the gloomy stage.

After a night spent in disturbed slumbers and terrific dreams, I rise from the floor and see the gleamings of a rising sun which I never never more will see go down. The birds hail in cheerfullest notes the new-born day—but music to me has lost its charms, and to me the new-born day brings woe unutterable. Food is set before me; but I turn with loathing [from(?)] nourishment, for what connexion is there between life and me? My pious friends surround me, and retire not, till they have wearied Heaven with the most fervent supplications in my behalf. Oh that I felt their fervor, had their faith, and enjoyed their consolations! — The day fast advances — I hear the din of crouds assembled in the streets — Again there is a noise at the prison door! The massy key grates upon the wards of the lock, and grates too upon my very soul. The door recoils, and enter the ministers of justice. Pity is painted on every countenance. The sounding file is applied, my chains drop to the earth, and my limbs are once more free, only soon to be bound in never-ending obstruction.

Heavens! What are my feelings while the suffocating cord is adjusted to my throat! Death is in the very touch and I think with unutterable …

* Anthony Vaver has also guest-blogged for Executed Today.

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