There is next to no archival information surviving that would give us insight into this remarkably lateHexenprozess. However, it seems that Schnidenwind got Willinghamed: when a fire destroyed the village of Wyhl, local grandees immediately assumed that the cause of such a devastating event ware eine Zauberin (“would have been a sorceress,” as an abbot wrote in his diary).
Having begun from the conclusion it was simply a matter of finding the witchiest character in the vicinity to fit as the Zauberin. Schnidenwind, a 63-year-old peasant, probably had some pre-existing reputation as a possible witch — a reputation that a visit to the rack obligingly confirmed.
On this date in 1779, Londoners crowded Tyburn to witness the hanging of James Hackman for a sensational high-society murder.
Just twelve days before his date with the hemp, Hackman had walked up to Martha Ray at the Royal Opera and shot her in the head with a single-shot pistol. Then, he turned a second weapon on himself in a vain attempt to commit suicide.
The reader is not mistaken to detect here the mania of unrequited passion. Several years before the young Hackman was a handsome lieutenant introduced to Martha Ray’s social circle. She was a successful soprano on the London stage and though unmarried lived with the Earl of Sandwich as his wife in all but the illustrious name.
Yes, this is the very Earl of Sandwich who pioneered the eating of things stuck between bread slices.* Sandwich — John Montagu to his parents — had other interests besides the munchies; he was the capable First Lord of the Admiralty throughout the 1770s. (As a result, Captain Cook, whose seafaring explorations were occurring at that time, kept naming islands for the Earl of Sandwich).
Domestic life for the Earl and his legal Countess — not “Earless”; that’s a different thing — wasn’t quite as satisfying. Dorothy Montagu, going gradually insane, separated from Sandwich. The lord plucked 17-year-old commoner Martha Ray — a quarter-century Sandwich’s junior — in 1759 and she lived as his mistress from there on out.*
Despite their age difference and never-formalized status they had a comfortable arrangement; Ray bore Sandwich nine children** and the two appeared in public as a couple. The Earl sponsored Martha Ray’s opera career and education.
James Hackman met the Earl’s mistress around 1775 and the two formed an intimacy. Just how intimate they might have been has never been firmly established but is clear that as time passed the infatuation increasingly ran in only one direction. Hackman sold his commission in the 68th Regiment of Foot to become a Church of England deacon, perhaps angling by this expedient to woo Martha Ray away from Sandwich to a wholly respectable union.
She understandably demurred on this “opportunity” — leading the greenhorn Reverend to his blackguard act.
Hackman’s pointless waste of Martha Ray’s life and his own plucked his contemporaries’ sentimental heartstrings like nothing else. “All ranks of people … pitied the murderer’s fate,” remarks the Newgate Calendar. One newspaper report of the death sentence noted that “all present were greatly affected” at Hackman’s agitations “and however we may detest the crime, a tear of pity will fall from every humane eye on the fate of the unhappy criminal.” (General Advertiser and Morning Intelligencer, Apr. 17, 1779)
James Boswell was fascinated by the crime; he attended the trial and spilled many public and private words on its subject.
Boswell empathized with Hackman: in a report of the trial for the St. James’s Chronicle (Apr. 15-17, 1779) he opined that the “natural Effect of disappointed Love, however, shocking it may appear, is to excite the most horrid Resentment against his Object, at least to make us prefer the Destruction of our Mistress, to seeing her possessed by a Rival.” Not that Boswell condoned the murder, but “I would say to all that are conscious that their Passions are violent, Think ye that htis unfortunate Gentleman’s general Character is … worse than yours? No, it is not.”
While Human Justice is to be satisfied, let us consider that his Crime was neither premeditated‡ Cruelty, nor base Greediness. He is therefore an Object neither of Abhorrence nor of Contempt … Let us unite our fervent Prayers to the Throne of Heaven, that this our Brother may obtain Forgiveness through Jesus Christ, and be admitted in another State of Being to everlasting Happiness.
The kinship so many Londoners felt for this homicidal stalker moved print copy high and low, before Martha’s body had gone quite cold. Its most notable product was the 1780 Love and Madness, an epistolary novel of tragic passion presented via the (fictitious) letters exchanged by the supposed lovers. So heavily did this understanding of events by Hackman’s contemporaries color its subsequent remembrance that Love and Madness is also the title or subtitle of two 21st century nonfiction considerations of the affair. (1, 2 | Review of both)
Hackman for his part carried off the requisite public posture of resigned tragic nobility in the few days before he satisfied human justice. The General Evening Post, April 17-20 1779 described the execution:
This unfortunate gentleman received the sacrament in the morning with all the fervency and devotion of a sincere repenting criminal: — he repeated that affecting acknowledgment of his guilt, which on his trial drew tears from the audience, and seemed in a state of composure, unruffled with the idea of punishment, which, he said, was no more than he deserved.
At nine o’clock he came into the press-yard, where a great crowd of persons assembled to gratify their curiosity. That all might have an equal share of the sight, a lane was formed by the multitude on each side, through which Mr. Hackman passed, dressed in black, leaning on the arm of his friend the Rev. Mr. Porter, whose hand he squeezed as he muttered the solemn invocation to Heaven, not to forsake a sinner of so enormous a degree, in the trying hour of death.
Mr. Hackman was conveyed from Newgate in a mourning coach, attended by the Rev. Mr. Porter Mr. Villette, the ordinary of Newgate, and Mr. Leapingwell, a Sheriff’s officer.
He reached Tyburn about a quarter before eleven o’clock. When he arrived at the fatal tree, a cart lined with black was under the gallows ready to receive him. Mr. Porter and Mr. Villette ascended it by a pair of steps, and he followed them unsupported. As soon as he had got into it he walked forward, and fell on his knees, (a position seldom used by persons in his circumstances at Tyburn, as they always pray standing) and the Clergymen did the like, one on each side of him, where they remained praying for about fifteen minutes, then got up, when the rope was put about his neck, and tied to the gallows.
In this manner he remained praying between the two Divines for ten minutes more, when the Rev. Mr. Porter embraced him, and Mr. Villette took his leave, and both left the cart. The convict[‘]s cap being pulled over his face, he told the executioner to leave him to himself for a few minutes, and he would drop his handkerchief as a signal when he was ready, which he did after a few minutes pause, and was thereupon launched into eternity.
His whole behaviour was manly, but not bold: his mind seemed to be quite calm, from a firm belief in the mercies of his Saviour.
He wore not hat, not any bandage on his face where he gave himself the wound, that the public curiosity might not be interrupted in looking at him; saying, “that he wished to be made a public spectacle of, and hoped his death might be of service to mankind.”
He was no ways convulsed, nor was their [sic] any motion of the body that tended to shew it experienced any pain. Nothing more was to be seen than what proceeded from the jerk on quitting the cart.
The mob was more numerous than on any other occasion since the death of Dr. Dodd. It was expected Mr. Hackman would suffer at Covent-garden, and preparations were made by some speculating carpenters, who met with a mortifying disappointment.
After hanging the usual time, his body was put into a hearse, and taken to Surgeons-hall in the Old Bailey, where it was prepared for the inspection of the public.
Mr. Harkman expressed a wish to his friends, that the ceremony of anatomizing his body might be dispensed with; and that his corpse might be treated in the same manner as that of Lord Ferrers.
Mr. Hackman intimated to a particular friend, that if his remains could be deposited near those of Miss Ray he should feel inexpressible happiness in the hour of death.
A man who was standing near a dray in Oxford-street to see Mr. Hackman pass, was thrown down under one of the horses by the crowd; the horse being frightened, stamped on the man, and beat out his brains.
* Allegedly so that the Earl wouldn’t have to leave his beloved gambling table to dine.
** There is a wonderful bon mot that has enlivened compendia of anecdotes through the years, consisting of more or less the following exchange:
First speaker: You will either die on the gallows or of some social disease.
Second speaker: That depends upon whether I embrace your principles or your mistress.
‡ Hackman had to be talked off simply pleading guilty but in the end he hung his trial hopes on arguing that he intended to kill himself, in Martha’s presence, and was overwhelmed by a momentary “phrensy”. A letter in his pocket meant to be delivered posthumously to his brother-in-law supported this claim; the fact that he brought two guns to meet her rebutted it.
Trial judge William Blackstone pointed out to Hackman’s jurors that the composure of the accused before and after the crime did not suggest a madman and that accepting Hackman’s claim of only an instant’s insanity could present a very slippery slope indeed for future murder prosecutions.
The generations-long conquest of indigenous peoples in North America might look from posterity like a historical ienvitability, but the 1715-1718 Yamasee War was perhaps “as close to wiping out the European colonists as ever [they] came during the colonial period.” (Gary Nash, quoted by William Ramsey in “‘Something Cloudy in Their Looks': The Origins of the Yamasee War Reconsidered”, Journal of American History, June 2003. This post draws heavily from Ramsey’s article, which is the source of any quote not otherwise attributed.) In it, not only the Yamasee but a vast coalition of peoples throughout what is today the United States Southeast nearly swept the British out of South Carolina.
And it started three hundred years ago today with some executions.
British South Carolina had extensive trading contacts with the native peoples in their environs — acquiring deerskins and Indian slaves for the plantation colony — and said trading had too often been a flashpoint between alien cultures. South Carolina’s annals record a number of instances of natives crudely abused by Anglo merchants, including women whose bodies were next to sacrosanct for the matrilineal Yamasee, and traders aggressively taking slaves even from friendly tribes. Many years later a Lower Creek man would recall that “we lived as brothers for some time till the traders began to use us very ill and wanted to enslave us which occasioned a war.”
It has never been entirely clear just why and how such individual abuses, even as a pattern, triggered in 1715 something as drastic as military action; our source William Ramsey suspects that they only hint at much wider-ranging economic pressures of the Atlantic economy, which entangled native peoples in debt and warped traditional lifeways towards producing ever more deerskins for export, obtained at ever poorer prices from ever more belligerent merchants.
Just as trade relations were at their most antagonistic, the colonial capital Charles Town fell down on the diplomatic side of the job. (This is, again, per Ramsey.)
The colony had created in 1707 an office of Indian Agent.
Intended to manage the complications of its sometimes-delicate cross-cultural trade and police the traders, the post instead became a locus of bitter competition between two men: Thomas Nairne and John Wright. (There’s a 1710 account of South Carolina in Nairne’s hand available here.) These two men, South Carolina’s most expert Indian diplomats and the only two men ever to hold the Indian agent office, had by the 1713-1715 period become consumed with their internal rivalry. Wright, a trader who thought Nairne too accommodating of the natives generally and unduly meddlesome with Wright’s own commerce specifically, bombarded the latter with lawsuits; Nairne eventually had to stay in Charles Town almost permanently to protect his own affairs. The colony’s diplomatic voice fell silent — which meant that rapacious traders squeezing mounting debts on their spring rounds in 1715 were that voice.
In annoyance, one tribe returned an ultimatum to Charles Town: “upon the first Afront from any of the Traders they would down with them and soe goe on with itt.” (See The Southern Frontier, 1670-1732)
That warning got the colony’s attention.
The Indian Agent rivals Wright and Nairne were dispatched together to meet with the Yamasees at Pocotaligo and smooth things over. But just as these men stood at loggerheads professionally, they were noted for quite distinct policies towards the Indians: Nairne was the friendly hand, the man who sympathized with natives. Wright was the asshole. If their joint presence was intended to be a good cop-bad cop act, they carried it off as clumsily as their mutual antipathy might suggest.
In a famous meeting on the night of April 14, Nairne, Wright, and a number of traders seemingly reassured the Yamasees over a feast that their grievances would be redressed, and went to sleep satisfied that matters were well in hand.
It was not so for the Yamasees, who held council that night after the Europeans were tucked away. An unknown Indian leader who signed himself “the Huspaw King” would later dictate a letter to a hostage charging that at the April 14 meeting
Mr. Wright said that the white men would come and fetch [illegible] the Yamasees in one night and that they would hang four of the head men and take all the rest of them for slaves, and that he would send them all off the country, for he said that the men of the Yamasees were like women, and shew’d his hands one to the other, and what he said vex’d the great warrier’s, and this made them begin the war.
We don’t know if this was on-message for the delegation — a glimpse of the iron fist that Nairne’s politesse was to glove — or delivered privately in Wright’s going campaign to undermine his opposite number. What we do know is that the Yamasees had seen both these men in authority over colonial-Indian trade over the past several years: on the night of April 14-15, they had to decide between mixed messages. Could they count on Nairne’s reassurances of comity? Or should they believe, as Wright intimated, the increasingly obnoxious inroads of traders presaged the outright destruction of their people?
April 15th was Good Friday. And the Europeans awoke to their Calvary.
The Yamasees’ decision about the intentions of their European counterparts was far from internally unanimous — but it was instantly effected.
“The next morning at dawn their terrible war-whoop was heard and a great multitude was seen whose faces and several other parts of their bodies were painted with red and black streaks, resembling devils come out of Hell,” a plantation owner later wrote to London. Most of the Europeans were killed on the spot, Wright apparently among them. A couple of them escaped.
And for Thomas Nairne, a stake in the center of the little village awaited, with an agonizing torture-execution said to have required three days before Nairne mercifully expired on April 17th.
The red indicates War, and the black represents the death without mercy which their enemies must expect.
They threw themselves first upon the Agents and on Mr. Wright, seized their houses and effects, fired on everybody without distinction, and put to death, with torture, in the most cruel manner in the world, those who escaped the fire of their weapons. Amongst those who were there, Captain Burage (who is now in this town, and from whom I derive what I have just said) escaped by swimming across a river; but he was wounded at the same time by two bullets, one of which pierced his neck and came out of his mouth, and the other pierced his back and is lodged in his chest, without touching a vital spot. …
Another Indian Trader (the only one who escaped out of a large number) saved his life by crawling into a marsh, where he kept himself hid near the town. He heard, during the whole day, an almost continual fire, and cries and grievous groans. He often raised his head in his hiding-place, and heard and saw unheard-of things done; for the Indians burned the men, and made them die in torture. They treated the women in the most shameful manner in the world. And when these poor wretches cried O Lord! O my God! they danced and repeated the same words mocking them. Modesty forbids me to tell you in what manner they treated the women: modesty demands that I should draw a veil over this subject.
This man who had witnessed so many cruelties, stripped himself naked so as completely to resemble the Indians; and in this state, made his escape by night, crossing the town without being perceived, he heard many people talking there, and saw several candles in each house; and having avoided the sentries, God granted that he should arrive here safe and sound.
Mr. Jean Wright, with whom I had struck up a close friendship, and Mr. Nairne have been overwhelmed in this disaster. I do not know if Mr. Wright was burnt piece-meal, or not: but it is said that the criminals loaded Mr. Nairne with a great number of pieces of wood, to which they set fire, and burnt him in this manner so that he suffered horrible torture, during several days, before he was allowed to die.
From the Gazetteer and London Daily Advertiser, Feb. 15, 1764:
Extract of a letter from a gentleman at Liverpool, dated Feb. 2.
On Monday night was apprehended John Nelson (who has been frequently advertised in public papers) and for some time past has been a principal leader of a gang of highway robbers, and house-breakers. A Bailiff at Prescott has lately seen Nelson in a private lodging house in that town, and promised a handsome gratuity to the woman of the house, if she would give him the earliest intelligence when Nelson came again.
Accordingly on Monday evening, they acquainted him that Nelson was then in the house in bed; the Bailiff, upon this, engaged a Constable and three other men to accompany him to the house, and entering into it with as little noise as possible, they instantly went up stairs, and rushed into the room where Nelson lay; being thus surprised, and overpowered by numbers, he was at length obliged to submit, though not till after he had made a great resistance, and had struggled hard to get possession of his clothes, which lay at some distance from the bed; but the Bailiff stunned him by two blows on his head, and several upon his arm, with a large stick.
As soon as Nelson was secured, he offered the Bailiff a Johannes, and two other pieces of gold, and promised to send him fifty more in the morning, if he would leave him to drink a cup of ale with the other four men, but the Bailiff honestly rejected the profferred bribe. Upon examining his pockets, there were found two loaded pistols, which primed themselves, a powder-horn containing about two ounces of gunpowder, a tinder-horn, fifteen balls, a piece of crape, a case of launcets, a belt of a particular form to carry pistols in, and two silver meat spoons, without any mark.
He confessed, upon his examination before the Magistrates of this town, to all the robberies lately committed in this place, except one; to several highway robberies; and also impeached seven accomplices, two of whom are since taken and confined in the town gaol, two are gone to sea, and a pursuit is out in quest of the other three. Nelson formerly went to sea, and served an apprentice to a gentleman of this town; he is remarkably strong and robust, and of a daring and intrepid spirit. On the Sunday morning following, Nelson, with two of his confederates, attempted to make their escape, having got off their irons, and made a considerable progress under ground, but was prevented by the timely assistance of the guard, and properly secured; and on Tuesday they were conducted under a strong guard to Lancaster castle together with a woman, convicted of assisting the prisoners with saws and files, to make their escape. We hear Nelson has made several useful discoveries, by which means the gang of house-breakers and street robbers are expected to be brought to justice.
From the London Chronicle, Apr. 7-10, 1764:
At the assizes at Lancaster, the three following received sentence of death, viz. John Nelson, for entering the house of Mr. Richardson, of Liverpool, and stealing silver plate, &c. Thomas Naden, for pulling down and destroying Heaton-Mill, the property of Mr. George Bramall; and Francis Windle, for breaking into the house of Mr. Scarisbrick, of Widness, and stealing a sum of money. The judge, before he left the town, reprieved Windle, and ordered Nelson and Naden to be executed on Saturday the 7th instant.
William Whittle, a Catholic, was executed at Lancaster on this date in 1766 for murdering his Protestant wife and their children in a religious frenzy.
For whatever reason, several years into his union, Whittle took deeply to heart a priestly warning that he was liable to damnation for marrying a heretic. He accordingly ended the marriage by
“cleaving his Wife’s Head with an Axe, and ripping her Belly open, and afterwards cutting off the Heads of the two Children, one of whom he also ripped open and took out its Heart.” (St. James’s Chronicle, April 5, 1766)
(The children, Whittle said, had been imperiled in soul by their mother’s taking them to an Episcopal church; in murdering them their loving father had sent them to purgatory en route to heaven, saving them from eternal hellfire.)
Whittle was condemned to be hung in chains for the shocking crime, a demonstration that Catholics understood as aimed pointedly at them. At least of their number replied with like menace in an anonymous letter to the Rev. Mr. Oliver of Preston, the magistrate who committed Whittle to prison.
Sir, I make bold to acquaint you, that your house and every clergyman’s that is in the town, or any black son of a bitch like you, for you are nothing but hereticks and damned fouls. If William Whittle, that worthy man, hangs up ten days, you may fully expect to be blown to damnation. I have nothing more material, but I desire that you will make interest for him to be cut down, or else you may fully expect it at ten days end. My name is S.M. and W.G.
(Letter as quoted in the Leeds Intelligencer, April 22, 1766 — also the source of the newspaper screenshot above)
Mainstream suspicion of Catholics at this time — which was within living memory of the last great Jacobite restoration attempt — was quite deeply ingrained; as one can see from the riposte above, the sentiment was mutual. After all, these were matters of eternal salvation even if Whittle himself “appeared to be a stupid, bigotted, ignorant fellow.”
The shocking family butchery evoked a minor wave of fretting over insidious Catholic-Protestant intermarriages. I think the present-day reader will not have much difficulty recognizing contemporary analogues to this thrust of resulting commentary:
I am likewise persuaded that there are many lay-papists in the kingdom who abhor this fact of Whittle as much as any protestant can do. But if their religion does not give countenance to such doctrines as this alledged by this miserable man, why do they not by some public act disavow their approbation of them? why do they leave suspicions upon themselves and their religion by their silence, when such occasions call upon them so pressingly to explain themselves, and particularly when they are complaining of the severity of the penal laws[?]
The clear “lasts” we do have are country by country, earlier or later depending on the vigor of the pushback witch-hunters could muster against the theonset of rationalism.
The last witch execution that can be documented on in the Holy Roman Empire’s illustrious history took place on this date in 1756, in Landshut, during the age of Maria Theresa.* Its subject was a 15-year-old named Veronika Zeritschin, who was beheaded and then burned.
There is scant information readily available online as to how she came to that dreadful pass, perhaps because the distinction was long thought to be held by a woman named Anna Maria Schwegelin (English Wikipedia entry | German) — condemned for her Satanic intercourse in 1775. That sentence, it was only latterly discovered, was not actually carried out, leaving poor Anna to die in prison in 1781.
As one might infer, Veronika Zeritschin’s own distinction might not be entirely secure against subsequent documentary discoveries. But as of now, she appears to be the last person executed on German soil as a witch.
* Marie Antoinette‘s mother. Maria Theresa’s absolutism was not quite that of the Enlightenment; she was a staunch foe of the trend towards religious toleration:
What, without a dominant religion? Toleration, indifferentism, are exactly the right means to undermine everything … What other restraint exists? None. Neither the gallows nor the wheel … I speak politically now, not as a Christian. Nothing is so necessary and beneficial as religion. Would you allow everyone to act according to his fantasy? If there were no fixed cult, no subjection to the Church, where should we be? The law of might would take command. (Source)
On March 23, 1761, British highwayman Isaac Darkin — “Dumas” by a dashing alias — hanged at Oxford for robbery.
It might be Darkin’s misfortune to have been born just too late for the mythmaking golden age of highwaymen; a generation or two earlier he might have forged a reputation alongside a Dick Turpin. He was one of the last road agents whose career and genteel pretensions might have suited him for the firmament.
The suave outlaw, noted for his natty attire and correct address, first passed under the shadow of the noose in 1758 around age 18, when a death sentence earned for his first legal brush was respited in favor of conscription into the Seven Years’ War.
Darkin took the deal, but not the troop transport to Antigua: instead he devised a route to early retirement from the infantry by bribing the captain of a merchantman anchored nearby in the Thames to stow him away.
And then, quoth this history of highwaymen, our man “rioted all through the West of England, robbing wealthy travellers and gaily spending his takings on what he loved best: fine clothes and fine ladies. He was so attentive to business that he speedily made a name for himself, the name of a daring votary of the high toby.”
Arrested in Salisbury in 1760 for the famous robbery of a Lord Percival, Darkin beat that charge — but not before becoming a favorite of the city’s ladies who were reported to crowd his cell with callers and coo over him at fashionable tea-times. When “Dumas” escaped the noose on a technicality, some Salisbury women dedicated their enchanting Duval a come-hither ode.
Joy to thee, lovely Thief! that thou
Hast ‘scaped the fatal string,
Let Gallows groan with ugly Rogues,
Dumas mut never swing.
Does thou seek Money? — To thy Wants
Our Purses we’ll resign;
Could we our Hearts to guineas coin
Those guineas all were thine.
To Bath in safety let my lord
His loaded Pockets carry;
Thou ne’er again shall tempt the Road,
Sweet youth! if you wilt marry.
No more shall niggard travellers
Avoid thee — We’ll ensure them:
To us thou shalt consign thy Balls
And Pistol; we’ll secure ‘em.
Yet think not, when the Chains are off,
Which now thy Legs bedeck,
To fly: in Fetters softer far
We’ll chain thee by the Neck.
Alas for its swooning authors, the handsome bandit had no interest in the bonds of matrimony, and just as well — for he would have left his mate a hempen widow.
A mere six weeks after this merry escape, he was snapped up again in Oxford, having returned inevitably to his career and calling.
This time there was no hope of escape and no technicality to hang his hat on.
There was nothing for it but to die “game” — that is, fearless of death — an underworld virtue Darkin carried almost to a fault. He spent his last days “with reading the Beggas’s Opera” and “said it was always his Determination, whenever he should have the ill Fortune to be taken, ‘to suffer without discovering the least Dread of Death; never to betray his Connections, but to die like a Hero.'”*
So indeed he did, as attested by a letter from Oxford published in the London Evening Post (March 21-24 1761) — hurling himself off the gallows without the hand of the executioner.
His Behaviour was extremely undaunted; for when he came out of the Gaol to the Ladder, he ascended it with the greatest Resolution; and the Cord being tied up by his own Desire over the Gallows before he came, he instantly went up four Steps higher than that on which he stepped off to hang himself, put the Cord round his own Neck and placed it, then descending the four Steps down, pulled out a white Handkerchief, tied it round his Eyes and Face, and went off without saying one Word.
His Body was ordered to be brought back into the Castle, to be conveyed to the Museum for Desection [sic]; but he declaring that he valued not Death, but only the Thoughts of being anatomized, a large Gang of Bargemen arose, took him a Way in Triumph, carried him to the next Parish Church; and while some rung the Bells for Joy, others opened his Belly, filled it full of unslick’d Lime, and then buried the Body.
* From Andrea McKenzie’s “Martyrs in Low Life? Dying Game in Augustan England” in the Journal of British Studies, April 2003. For more on the subject, also see the same author’s book-length treatment, Tyburn’s Martyrs: Execution in England, 1675-1775.
On this date in 1791, the Inquisition in Rome condemned magician Alessandro Cagliostro to death — a sentence immediately commuted to imprisonment for the remainder of his life, which turned out to be only four more years.
Cagliostro’s rich career as European courts’ thaumaturge of choice might have been decreed by the stars right down to his pitch-perfectly sinister moniker. Is this the shadowy diabolist whom the title character of in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is meant to evoke?
In fact, his birth name was Giuseppe Balsamo.
Naughty by nature from the time of his youthful expulsion from the Order of St. John, Balsamo — the hobgoblin familiar haunting the adult prophet’s cimmerian shadows — hailed originally from apenniless Sicilian family. (Though Cagliostro claimed for himself a suitably exotic childhood in Arabia and Egypt)
What he wanted in native wealth he more than made up for in enterprise — both for self-education in sorcery, alchemy, and other forbidden arts, and for leveraging his expertise in lustrous capers.
Hopping from court to court, Cagliostro carved out a career moving forgeries of spiritual or temporal potency alongside his legitimate profession as a doctor and chemist and his growing public profile as an influential spiritualist. He broke through as a young man in the train of a cardinal in Rome, using this in to market on the side fake artifacts alleged to have been pilfered from the Vatican’s mysterious Egyptian troves, as well as to seduce a local girl named Serafina whom he married at age 18. Serafina would be his lifelong companion on his adventures.
Cagliostro turned up over the ensuing two decades in Russia, Poland, Germany, and England, where he was inducted into the Freemasons in 1776. He’s been credited with creating masonry’s Egyptian Rite, and with energetically propagating it in the 1780s;* indeed, it was his adherence to Freemasonry — and his sacreligious boldness opening a masonic lodge in Rome under the nose of the pontiff — that led to his 1789 arrest.
His seances and magic potions made him a great favorite of the Versailles court for a number of years, until a glancing association with the Affair of the Diamond Necklace so damaging to the reputation of Marie Antoinette forced Cagliostro’s expulsion from France.
Considering his Mephistophelian** reputation, now very well known in Europe, Cagliostro’s return thereafter to the belly of papal power seems most unwise. Perhaps (as this biographer supposes) it was the influence of Serafina, homesick after so many years separated from her native haunts. Cagliostro’s next ports of call were the Vatican’s Castel Sant’Angelo and (after an escape attempt) the lonely Fortress of San Leo — and even his end was so shrouded in mystery and conjecture that the subsequent conqueror Napoleon commissioned an official investigation to convince everyone that he’d really shuffled off the mortal coil.
Giuseppe Balsamo, attainted and convicted of many crimes, and of having incurred the censures and penalties pronounced against heretics, dogmatics, heresiarchs, and propagators of magic and superstition, has been found guilty and condemned to the said censures and penalties as decreed by the Apostolic laws of Clement XII and Benedict XIV, against all persons who in any manner whatever favour or form societies and conventicles of Freemasonry, as well as by the edict of the Council of State against all persons convicted of this crime in Rome or in any other place in the dominions of the Pope.
Notwithstanding, by special grace and favour, the sentence of death by which this crime is expiated is hereby commuted into perpetual imprisonment in a fortress, where the culprit is to be strictly guarded without any hope of pardon whatever. Furthermore, after he shall have abjured his offences as a heretic in the place of his imprisonment he shall receive absolution, and certain salutary penances will then be prescribed for him to which he is hereby ordered to submit.
Likewise, the manuscript book which has for its title Egyptian Masonry is solemnly condemned as containing rites, propositions, doctrines, and a system which being superstitious, impious, heretical, and altogether blasphemous, open a road to sedition and the destruction of the Christian religion. This book, therefore, shall be burnt by the executioner, together with all the other documents relating to this sect.
By a new Apostolic law we shall confirm and renew not only the laws of the preceding pontiffs which prohibit the societies and conventicles of Freemasonry, making particular mention of the Egyptian sect and of another vulgarly known as the Illumines, and we shall decree that the most grievous corporal punishments reserved for heretics shall be inflicted on all who shall associate, hold communion with, or protect these societies. (Source)
Nor have his grander poses entirely wanted for supporters in posterity, particularly among adherents to the still-extant Masonic rite he initiated. (Aleister Crowley also suggested that he might have been Cagliostro in a previous incarnation.)
W.R.H. Trowbridge’s 1910 biograhy Cagliostro: The Splendour and Misery of a Master of Magic is in the public domain and available free online.
** “Mephistophelian” might be the literally applicable word. When the mysterious Cagliostro’s possible identity as the exiled Sicilian swindler Balsano was first exposed, eventual Faust author Johann von Goethe happened to be in Palermo — and he took it upon himself to investigate personally by calling on Balsano’s family. (“You know my brother?” “All Europe knows him.”)
Two inconsistent versions of a mass-murderer’s moniker in this American colonial news dispatch* can hardly detract from the horror of Jamaica’s first serial killer. The Scots emigre Lewis Hutchinson owned an isolated estate along the only byway connecting the north and south sides of Jamaica.
“The Mad Master of Edinburgh Castle” sought the most dangerous game in this creepy defile, and as many as 40 or 50 passing travelers might have become his prey when they came calling in need of a bed for the night at his sinister donjon.
Extract of a letter from Kingston, in Jamaica, April 1.
The 16th of last month was hanged at Spanish Town, one James [sic] Hutchinson, the most detestable and abandoned villain, that ever disgraced the human species.
He was a naive of North-Britain, and had a pen in Pedro Valley, in St. Ann’s parish: when any of his neighbours cattle strayed on his lands, he always secured them as his own, and by that means had acquired a little fortune, and it is imagined that many people had been murdered by him for demanding their property, and this conjectue seems but too well founded as you’ll observe in the sequel.
A Mr. Callender (whose land joined Hutchinson’s) had lost a Jack-ass, and seeing him in this wretch’s pasture, went to him and requested that the Ass might be turned in the highway, when he would take care he should trespass upon him no more.
Hutchinson told him this command should be immediately complied with, and when Callender had turned his back and was going away, the villain took a gun, and killed him on the spot. A man then lying sick at Hutchinson’s hearing the report of a gun, crept out of his bed, asked what firing that was, and said, I believe you have shot the man that I heard enquiring about the Ass.
The villain replied, go instantly to your bed, or I’ll serve you the same sauce.
The sick man however in the evening, found means to get privately out of the house, and immediately lodged a complaint, upon which Hutchinson, was apprehended, and by the information of one of his negroes, the place was discovered where he had conveyed the head of Callender, and where near 20 other human skulls were found, the body was thrown into a cockpit (as is here called) a place deemed inaccessible, being down a perpendicular rock, that had been split by an earthquake, or so formed by nature, the bottom of which could not be discerned, hanging however upon a point of the rock which jetted out, the unfortunate man’s body was seen, and well known by his cloaths; by some daring contrivance, a person went down a considerable length, and discovered a great number of human bones, but no skulls, so that it is to be supposed, this merciless villain had always taken off the heads of those he had murdered, in the same manner he did with poor Callender.
At his trial, he had several of our most eminent council to plead for him, and during the whole time for his commitment to his execution, he behaved with the greatest insolence, he employed the whole day before he died, in writing, and told the people he had made his own epitaph, and left a 100l. to have it engraved on his tomb stone. It is long and ill wrote, but he concludes it in these words, speaking of the Courts and Jury,
Their sentence, pride, and malice I defy,
Despise their power and like a Roman die.
Lewis Hutchinson, hanged at Spanish Town the 16th of March, 1773, aged forty years. — Thus was the world rid of this detestable and most execrable monster.
* It was printed many places; the Salem, Mass. Essex Gazette of May 25, 1773 is the specific one I’ve transcribed from.