Posts filed under 'Uncertain Dates'

1450: Jack Cade posthumously quartered

Add comment July 16th, 2017 Headsman

On or around this date in 1450 the body of the rebel Jack Cade was posthumously beheaded and quartered.

He’s one of England’s first names in rebellion, and Cade’s Kentish rising indexed England’s catastrophic breakdown under the weak king Henry VI, a milepost between the waning Hundred Years’ War and the onrushing Wars of the Roses.


Panel of a 1964-1965 ceramic mural in Peckham, by Polish artist Adam Kossowski. (cc) image from Peter Gasston.

And for all of these, Cade included, Henry was the chaos-making variable.

He had just about finished squandering the entire French patrimony so gloriously won for him by the sword-arm of his doughty father Henry V, and defeated troops fleeing French advances in Normandy compounded, as they tramped up the southeast beaten and looting, the general fury at the king’s unpopular marriage to the French princess Margaret of Anjou. With shambolic governance allied to a slumping economy, corrupt taxation, and mounting public debt, things were coming unglued.

Like many kings, Henry benefited from the instinct to target overt blame away from the sovereign himself and towards the aides and counselors who surround him. One of the very most hated of those counselors was the man who had negotiated that French marriage — giving away to the French crown the hard-won provinces of Anjou and Maine as its price. William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, was so near to being attainted or lynched around London that King Henry exiled him for his own safety to France. But Suffolk didn’t make there: instead, he was captured at sea and murdered.

When his body washed up in Kent, rumors seem to have anticipated a royal reprisal against that region and in favor of the late hated favorite, perhaps the trigger for the events in this post.

Nevertheless, the “rebels” did not conceive themselves engaged in a seditious enterprise; this is apparent from the manifesto of grievances it issued, with moderating tones and language echoing complaints that the Commons was raising to no avail in Parliament.

Item. The law serves of nought else in these days but for to do wrong, for nothing is spread almost but false matters by colour of the law for reward, dread and favour and so no remedy is had in the Court of Equity in any way.

Item. We say our sovereign lord may understand that his false council has lost his law, his merchandise is lost, his common people is destroyed, the sea is lost, France is lost, the king himself is so set that he may not pay for his meat nor drink, and he owes more than ever any King of England ought, for daily his traitors about him where anything should come to him by his laws, anon they take it from him.

Item. We will that all men know we blame not all the lords, nor all those that are about the king’s person, nor all gentlemen nor yeomen, nor all men of law, nor all bishops, nor all priests, but all such as may be found guilty by just and true inquiry and by the law.

Item. We will that it be known we will not rob, nor plunder, nor steal, but that these defaults be amended, and then we will go home …

The man at the forefront is a cipher: he went by the potent alias of “John Mortimer”, the surname unmistakably linking his cause to the rival royal claimants over at the the House of York, but neither the name of “Jack Cade” by which history recalls his movement nor the antecedent experiences that thrust him into leadership can be attested with any confidence.

He appears by the half-glimpses we catch of him in the period’s chronicles to be a vigorous and intelligent character. He shied away from battle with a royal army, wisely avoiding the taint of treason that would come with entering the field against the king’s own person; but, it was an organized withdrawal that left his forces capable of ambushing and destroying the detachment from that army that the king had sent to pursue them, a testament to Cade/Mortimer’s adroit command.

Panicked when the news of this reversal resulted in his own forces taking up the rebels’ call to punish traitorous lords, King Henry beat feet for the safety of Kenilworth Castle and abandoned the stage of London to this mysterious new character.

The rebel militia seized it on the third of July that year, visiting its promised popular justice in the process upon several of those “false counsellors” detested among the populace — including the Bishop of Salisbury, the Baron Saye and Sele, and the former sheriff of Kent, William Cromer; Shakespeare gives us a bloody-minded* Cade bantering with his prey Saye and Sele in Henry VI, Part 2 — “Ye shall have a hempen caudle, then, and the help of hatchet … Go, take him away, I say, and strike off his head presently; and then break into his son-in-law’s house, Sir James [sic] Cromer, and strike off his head, and bring them both upon two poles hither.”


Charles Lucy, “Lord Saye and Sele brought before Jack Cade 4th July 1450″

Peasant risings like these are made for eventual failure, but it the unusually high water mark achieved by Cade’s rebellion before receding makes another measure of the crown’s weakness. After ceding the Kentishmen the run of London for several days, it took a desperate nighttime battle on London Bridge to finally push them out.

A general amnesty went abroad to induce the rebels to disperse, but it was not for Cade — who fled to Sussex where he was taken, and mortally wounded in the process, by the new sheriff of Kent, Alexander Iden. (A road called Cade Street now runs in the vicinity; there is a monument to his capture in Heathfield.) It was Cade’s good fortune to succumb to his injuries on the journey back to London but the pains of justice were inflicted upon his remains just the same.

Cade died on Sunday, July 12. The precise date for his posthumous disgrace is not certain from the sources available to us. Many writers report July 15, seemingly based on John Benet’s chronicle, which is a strong source and asserts the 15th unambiguously. I’m here guardedly preferring the 16th based on Gregory’s Chronicle, whose authors were clearly Londoners, and who narrated the progress of the week following Cade’s death with specificity.

And that day was that fals traytoure the Captayne of Kentte i-take and slayne in the Welde in the countre of Sowsex, and uppon the morowe he was brought in a carre alle nakyd, and at the Herte in Sowetheworke there the carre was made stonde stylle, the wyffe of the howse myght se hym yf hyt were the same man or no that was namyd the Captayne of Kente, for he was loggyd whythe yn hyr howse in hys pevys tyme of hys mys rewylle and rysynge. And thenne he was hadde in to the Kyngys Bynche, and there he lay from Monday at evyn [i.e., Monday, July 13] unto the Thursseday nexte folowynge at evyn [Thursday, July 16]; and whythe yn the Kynges Benche the sayde captayne was be-heddyde and quarteryde; and the same day i-d[r]awe a-pon a hyrdylle in pecys whythe the hedde by-twyne hys breste from the Kyngys Benche thoroughe owte Sowthewerke, and thenne ovyr Londyn Brygge, and thenne thoroughe London unto Newegate, and thenne hys hedde was takyn and sette uppon London Brygge.

Cade’s is the rebellion that gets the ink, but several other uprisings in the South of England followed in the months ahead … ill omen for the king who would soon experience the ruin of his reign and family.

The History of England podcast covers Jack Cade’s rebellion in Episode 161.

* It is one of Cade’s subalterns in this play who supplies posterity with the immortal quip, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Dismembered,England,Execution,Famous,Gibbeted,History,No Formal Charge,Popular Culture,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Treason,Uncertain Dates

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1835: The unknown lynched of the Murrell Excitement

Add comment July 7th, 2017 Headsman

We’ve done several posts in these pages devoted to Mississippi’s July 1835 slave insurrection panic and there are several more yet to come.

But today’s post is dedicated to the dead that we can’t date, and mostly can’t even name: the unknown slaves killed beyond the reach of law and documentation in forgotten lynchings or private murders around Madison County and environs. There’s no way to know how many these were; it’s guessed that they ranged into the dozens.

Well might one outrage to the well-documented extralegal lynch committee stretching necks in the county seat of Livingston — but as this was a committee of local oligarchs it had an orientation towards order, even if not law, and it brooked cross-examination and extenuating evidence, issued sub-lethal sentences and even acquittals. According to Joshua Rothman in Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson, many claimed — right or wrong — that Livingston was an island of relative calm in a panic compassing “a territorial belt along the Mississippi River stretching northward from Mississippi’s boundary with Louisiana nearly 250 miles toward Tennessee and inland roughly 75 miels toward the center of the state.”

Numerous public reports in Mississippi tried to suggest that a very different atmosphere prevailed in and around Madison County during the insurrection scare that continued on past the hangings of the gamblers in Vicksburg, and that the Livingston Committee of Safety had successfully introduced order to a situation that might otherwise have escalated into an uncontrolled orgy of violence.

Yet even in Livingston, the narrative is absorbed with the white purported masterminds; slaves’ executions appear as a part of the scenery, never exhaustively categorized. The white artisan Ruel Blake would be impeached on evidence given by a slave whose capture and hanging by a mob dignifying itself an ad hoc lynching subcommittee is entirely recounted — sans date — in a single footnote to the Livingston proceedings.

He was run by track-dogs some two hours without being taken, making his escape by taking to water. He remained in the woods until the excitement had partially subsided. By the laudable exertions of his master, he was decoyed into Livingston, where he was taken … the committee of safety had adjourned when he was taken. The citizens seemed determined he should be hanged, and consequently organized a committee, composed of some of the members of the first committee and other freeholders, who condemned him to be hanged; and, in pursuance of the sentence, he was executed in Livingston. Under the gallows he acknowledged his guilt, and said that R. Blake told him of the insurrection … Blake told him he must kill his master first, which he promised to do. Blake told him he was to be one of the captains of the negroes, &c.

And this is a wealth of information compared to some. Elsewhere we are left with passing allusions, shocking and frustratingly sparse, fragments deposited by a whirlwind.

In Warren County, the slave Israel Campbell remembered in his autobiography how he “saw the place where the slaughter took place. Two large wooden forks, with a pole laid from one to the other, served for the gallows, and they told me men hung there two days and nights.” But he never quite tells us how many or just when.

A July 8 letter from a white man in Clinton, Mississippi,* remarks that “a general excitement prevails, and every one is vigilant in the detecting and hanging of all villains, and it requires but little proof. I cannot say how many have been hung and shot among the white and blacks.”

From Mississippi Springs* on the same date: “Many white persons have been suspected of giving encouragement to it — some taken up, others pursued — those taken up have invariably been hung after a hasty examination by those who apprehended them; no more ceremony than is usually used upon hanging a dog for killing sheep is extended to them … A great number of negroes have been hung, and they are hanging them daily.”

Rothman again:

From near Natchez, about forty miles south of Claiborne, a plantation governess wrote in her diary about “insurrections, hangings, patrolling, and all sorts of frights” in the area, and one man wrote from Natchez itself that everyone in the city was “under arms all the time” and “hourly expect[ed] an insurrection, as the celebrated negro stealers Murrel and his band, are at the head of all the negroes.” All the towns upriver from Natchez, the man reported, were similarly guarded, and people in those places were “catching from 5 to 20 every day … and they hang them without judge or jury …

Future U.S. Senator and Mississippi Governor Henry Stuart Foote lived then in Clinton and his memoir heaped scorn on the ur-text of this statewide paroxysm, Virgil Stewart’s pamphlet claiming that small-time outlaw John Murrell was really a master criminal orchestrating a slave revolution. Foote remembered how in a timeless phenomenon “those who dared even to question the actual existence of the dangers which he depictured [sic] were suspected by their more excited fellow-citizens of a criminal insensibility to the supposed perils of the hour.”

[In Clinton] after the first organization of the vigilance committee, which sat afterward every day, the excitement, as was natural, increased perceptibly every hour. Suspected persons, both white and black, were apprehended everywhere; some of whom were brought before the committee for examination, while others, whose guilt seemed to be fully established, were hung without ceremony along the roadsides or in front of their own dwellings by those who had apprehended them …

Madison county was still the main focus of excitement, and every day we heard in the peaceful village where I dwelt of some new case of supposed guilt which had been there developed, and some new application of punishment not known to the law of the land, but which was supposed to be justified by the terrible necessity then dominating over all things beside.

Circumstances being what they are, we cannot but assume that such episodes each stand in for added multiples of lives taken by fire or noose or musketry, on plantation fastnesses or remote byways or hamlets too small for their own scrivener … nameless lives whose loss never spilled a drop of ink.

* Published in the Ohio State Journal, July 24, 1835.

* Published in the Baltimore Gazette and Daily Advertiser, July 30, 1835.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Innocent Bystanders,Known But To God,Lynching,Mississippi,No Formal Charge,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,Summary Executions,Torture,Uncertain Dates,USA

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Feast Day of Rufinus and Valerius

Add comment June 14th, 2017 Headsman

Rufinus and Valerius, Roman tax collectors who converted to Christianity and were martyred at Soissons during the Diocletian persecution in 287, are honored by the Roman martyrology on this date.

They’re saints of a lesser firmament, although Rufinus has a spot of archaeological distinction as the intercessor honored on the Darenth Bowl, a beautiful fifth-century glass artifact that somehow survived to us intact. (Note, however, that there are 11 saints Rufinus.)

They figure indirectly in one of the martyrology’s recurrent themes, the Saul-like conversion of Roman persecutors to the Christian faith: Rufinus and Valerius were held to have been martyred by the Roman prefect Rictius Varus,* who presents as a recurrent tormenter of Christians and in the martyrology arrives to dispatch our taxmen straightaway after doing the same to future Shakespeare monologue superstars Crispin and Crispinian.

In fact, Rictius Varus figures in no fewer than nine late third century martyrologies, compassing 20+ champions of the faith … the last of whom was the great Saint Lucy who is said to have induced Varus to embrace the same persecution and suffer martyrdom right along with her.

* Sometimes rendered Rictiovarus or Rixiovarus. He is no relation to the Varus from the Battle of Teutoburg Forest: that (in)famous man‘s cognomen was not Varus, but Quinctilius.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,God,Martyrs,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Uncertain Dates

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Feast Day of St. Cetteus

Add comment June 13th, 2017 Headsman

June 13 is the feast of St. Cetteus, patron of the Adriatic port city of Pescara.

This saint’s legends the line between just-so story and real historical events, illustrating the Church martyrology’s great strengths as a read-made memorial of Christians’ trials down the years. That in this case the suffering was less a religious persecution per se than the shame of being trod over by conquerors who installed themselves almost without opposition in the hollowed husk of Roman greatness and did as they pleased.

The Lombard incursion beginning in 568 in some ways signals the permanent sundering of east from west in the Roman world, for the Germanic invaders — a mixture of pagans and Arian heretics, no less — in time ousted Byzantium from the latter’s Italian holdings and meanwhile underscored the Roman Empire’s near-impotence in its ancestral homelands. “From Italy the emperors were incessantly tormented by tales of misery and demands of succor, which extorted the humiliating confession of their own weakness,” writes Gibbon. “The expiring dignity of Rome was only marked by the freedom and energy of her complaints: ‘If you are incapable,’ she said, ‘of delivering us from the sword of the Lombards, save us at least from the calamity of famine.'”

For the near term, it was a violent and unstable period; Lombard rulers assassinated and warred with one another as their hegemony devolved into a patchwork of feuding duchies, helping set the scene for the fractured medieval peninsula.

The perils of internal strife manifest in our martyr’s story; despite his eventual association with Pescara, his bishopric was inland at Amiternum and it was there, the story goes, that he was ordered drowned in 597 by a tyrannous Lombard warlord who mistakenly thought him a crony of his rival.

Tossed into the drink, the bish floated downstream to Pescara where a fisherman, recognizing the corpse’s ecclesiastical raiments without knowing exactly who wore them, buried him under the whimsical name “Peregrino”.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Borderline "Executions",Drowned,Early Middle Ages,Execution,History,Italy,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Religious Figures,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates

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Feast Day of Saint Eskil

Add comment June 12th, 2017 Headsman

June 12 is the feast date* of Saint Eskil, a martyr to the slow Christianization of Scandinavia.

Ol’ “God-kettle” was one of several missionaries known to have been dispatched in the 11th and 12th century from England to Sweden, a traffic in religious conversion across the North Sea crossroads to invert the centuries-past course of Vikingers who put so many British sanctuaries to the sack.

The Northmen realms were ripe to join Christendom but sagas touching the time describe an uneven transitional period where the new and old faiths jostled for primacy.

“Ingi was king for a long time, well-liked and a good Christian; he put down [pagan] sacrificing in Sweden and ordered all the people of the land to become Christian,” runs The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise** (available in pdf translation here), about King Inge the Elder.

But the Swedes had too strong a belief in the heathen gods and held to their ancient ways … the Swedes thought that King Ingi had infringed their rights under the ancient law of the land, when he found fault with many things that Steinkel his [Christian] father had let be; and at a certain assembly which the Swedes held with King Ingi they gave him the choice of two things, either to observe the ancient laws or else to give up his throne. Then King Ingi spoke, and said that he would not leave the true faith; whereat the Swedes cried out, and pelted him with stones, and drove him from the law-assembly.

Svein, the king’s kinsman, remained behind at that assembly, and he offered to make sacrifice for the Swedes if they would grant him the kingdom; all agreed to Svein’s offer, and he was accepted as king over all the Swedish realm. Then a horse was led forth to the assembly, hewn in pieces, and divided up for eating, and the sacrificial tree was reddened with its blood. Thereafter all the Swedes cast off the Christian faith, and sacrifices were instituted, and they drove King Ingi away; he departed into western Gautland. For three years Svein the Sacrificer was king over the Swedes.

King Ingi went with his own bodyguard and some followers, though it was only a small force … into Sweden; he rode by day and night and came upon Svein unawares in the early morning. They seized the house over their heads and set it on fire, and burnt all the company who were inside … Svein came out and was cut down. And so Ingi took the kingship of the Swedes anew, and restored the Christian faith; he ruled the realm till the day of his death.

The “Svein” referred to here is a gentleman whom the historians recall as Blot-Sweyn — “Sweyn the Sacrificer” — and this Norse answer to Julian the Apostate apparently enjoyed his interregnum authority in about the 1080s thanks to Inge’s disrespect of the old rites still honored at the ancient Temple at Uppsala.

The timeline of high statecraft is extremely sketchy, and Saint Eskil’s relationship to events doubly so. Commonly recalled as a victim of the Blot-Sweyn period, Eskil is first marked in the 1120s annals of another Anglo-Saxon monk abroad in Scandinavia, Aelnoth from Canterbury — “Eschillus of sacred memory” who succumbed evangelizing to the “barbarorum feritate.” That’s the whole of it, with nothing like a year or a regnal era to hang one’s hat upon. In the 13th century, with Christianity truly triumphant, a hagiography of Eskil greatly embroidered the martyrdom story and tied it to the land’s most notorious rearguard ruling unbeliever, featuring a cast of heathens so nonplussed at the monk’s interruption of their feast that, notwithstanding his show of divine miracles, Blood-Sweyn has him sentenced to immediate stoning.

The town of Eskilstuna bears his name (it used to just be “Tuna”).

* Though it’s been bumped to June 12 everywhere else, the feast is still marked on its original June 11 date in the diocese Strängnäs, where the saint was supposed to have attained his martyr’s crown. (Strängnäs Cathedral is supposed to mark the very spot of his fatal confrontation with the Aesir followers.)

** This saga’s narrative stretches from an outright legendary prehistory to the Middle Ages. The Ingi-Svein affair is its last episode, but its first locates a more Wagnerian milieu: “Sigrlami was the name of a king who ruled over Gardariki; his daughter was Eyfura, most beautiful of all women. This king had obtained from dwarves the sword called Tyrfing, the keenest of all blades; every time it was drawn a light shone from it like a ray of the sun. It could never be held unsheathed without being the death of a man, and it had always to be sheathed with blood still warm upon it. There was no living thing, neither man nor beast, that could live to see another day if it were wounded by Tyrfing, whether the wound were big or little …”

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Entry Filed under: 11th Century,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,Early Middle Ages,Execution,God,Gruesome Methods,History,Martyrs,Religious Figures,Stoned,Summary Executions,Sweden,Uncertain Dates

Feast Day of St. Barnabas

1 comment June 11th, 2017 Headsman

June 11 is the feast date of St. Barnabas, St. Paul‘s New Testament wingman.

A Cypriot Jew named Joseph, “Barnabas” (“Son of Encouragement”) was so christened in the fourth chapter of the New Testament’s Acts of the Apostles because upon his conversion he sold his land for a donative to the Galileans.

After that, Barnabas reappears throughout Acts as one of the most important of the early Christian missionaries, usually joining St. Paul — whom Barnabas himself introduced to the Christians after Paul got religion — as emissary to the non-Jews, for which purpose the Holy Spirit itself demanded him by name. (Acts 13:2: “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”)

They’re frequently paired thereafter in the narrative although it’s invariably Saint Paul’s honeyed tongue that does the confounding before the companions flee this city or that ahead of a furious mob.* Evidently the Holy Spirit’s labor policies could have used some updating: Barnabas also features in a whinge by Paul in 1 Corinthians 9 against the excess sacrifices the Jesus sect is exacting from its most successful envoys, who get no wages and no sex and (so it seems) have to hustle side jobs to keep up their proselytizing.

Don’t we have the right to food and drink? Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas [St. Peter]? Or is it only I and Barnabas who lack the right to not work for a living?

Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink the milk? … whoever plows and threshes should be able to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest. If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more?

But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.

Barnabas eventually parted ways with Paul, proceeding to Cyprus with the mysterious John Mark (possibly Mark the evangelist, author of the Gospel, or possibly a different guy) where hagiography holds that Jews angered by his preaching fell on Barnabas and stoned him to death, perhaps around the year 61.

Although obviously a consequential figure in early Christianity, Barnabas’s many Biblical appearances do not capture his voice. The apocrypha preserves at least two tracts** further animating this important character: the Epistle of Barnabas dating to the late first century or early second century; and, the Acts of Barnabas, a 5th century creation which purports to arise from the hand of John Mark and describes a martyrdom by fire, not stone:

And Barjesus, having arrived after two days, after not a few Jews had been instructed, was enraged, and brought together all the multitude of the Jews; and they having laid hold of Barnabas, wished to hand him over to Hypatius, the governor of Salamis. And having bound him to take him away to the governor, and a pious Jebusite, a kinsman of Nero, having count to Cyprus, the Jews, learning this, took Barnabas by night, and bound him with a rope by the neck; and having dragged him to the hippodrome from the synagogue, and having gone out of the city, standing round him, they burned him with fire, so that even his bones became dust. And straightway that night, having taken his dust, they cast it into a cloth; and having se cured it with lead. they intended to throw it into the sea. But I, finding an opportunity in the night, and being able along with Timon and Rhodon to carry it, we came to a certain place, and having found a cave, put it down there, where the nation of the Jebusites formerly dwelt. And having found a secret place in it, we put it away, with the documents which he had received from Matthew. And it was the fourth hour of the night of the second of the week.

Because June 11 formerly fell on/near Midsummer, ere the Gregorian reforms skipped the calendar 10-11 days forward, St. Barnabas’s Day has a festive agrarian history commemorated by the proverb, “Barnaby bright, Barnaby bright, the longest day and the shortest night.” The saint is also the patron of Cyprus, and may be invoked to protect against hailstorms or in service of peacemaking. Numerous schools, churches, and monasteries around the world bear his name.

* There’s a comic touch to their preaching travails, too: in one exciting episode (Acts 14), Paul (of course) heals a cripple while the dynamic duo preaches in Lystra, leading excited witnesses to take them for Hermes and Zeus and start sacrificing to them.


No tips, please: Paul and Barnabas refusing the sacrifices of Lystrans in this detail (click for the full image) of a 1650 painting by Nicolaes Berchem.

** Beyond the Epistle and the Acts, there is also a very much later Gospel of Barnabas.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Burned,Cyprus,Disfavored Minorities,God,History,Lynching,Martyrs,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Stoned,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates

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1940: Julien Vervaecke, Tour de France cyclist

Add comment May 25th, 2017 Headsman

On or around this date — exactly when is forever obscure* — the former Tour de France cyclist Julien Vervaecke was summarily executed by Polish and British soldiers in German-occupied Belgium.

The Belgian velocipeddler raced professionally from 1924 to 1936 and reached the top ten of cycling’s signature event four times — capped by a third-place ride in 1927.

He’s most famous in the annals of his sport for his controversial victory in the 1930 Paris-Roubaix race, when he crossed the finish line second after getting the worst of a late collision with French cyclist Jean Marechal, but was awarded the win by judges who faulted Marechal for the incident. (Vervaecke got the medal but not the branding: it’s known as l’affaire Marechal.)

By the time war clouds had gathered anew, Vervaecke (English Wikipedia entry | German | French) had retired to proprietorship of a restaurant in Menen, on the French border.

As the Wehrmacht blitz overran Belgium, Vervaecke’s home chanced to fall within the British pocket pinned to Dunkirk, 70 kilometers away away. The famous evacuation would commence on May 26.

On May 24, scrambling soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force, apparently including some officers of the exiled Polish army,* tried to ransack Vervaecke’s place for supplies, and the ex-cyclist resisted. As with Marechal all those years ago, Vervaecke had the worst of this collision, and the tetchy troopers led him away.

Nobody witnessed what happened to him; his body only turned up weeks later, over the border in France. It’s guessed that he might have been detained and then shot out of hand hours later — more prey to the fog of war.


At least he didn’t die of lung cancer: In a different era for athletics, Vervaecke and Maurice Geldhof take a trip to flavor country during the Tour de France.

* Poland had already been occupied by Germany and the USSR, in September 1939.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Athletes,Belgium,Borderline "Executions",Businessmen,England,Entertainers,Execution,France,History,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Shot,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates,Wartime Executions

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Feast Day of St. Victor and St. Corona

Add comment May 14th, 2017 Headsman

May 14 is the feast date of St. Victor, a Christian Roman soldier and his co-religionist and possible spouse Corona. Both the city and the century (and therefore the reality) of their passion are uncertain.

For the believer, what these martyrs lack in firm historicity they make up for in practical effect.

Corona chanced to become associated by medieval times with money — possibly the coincidence of her name, meaning crown,* with the sigils on coins — and thus she got wrapped up into a variety of pecuniary prayers and incantations. Strictly unofficial stuff from Rome’s standpoint, you understand: treasure-hunting, lotteries, wagering, and other fond fantasies of unearned windfalls.

The solemn devout might laugh, but “dear god, give me some stuff” comprises an underrated share of popular theology. J. Dillinger cites this charmer in Magical Treasure Hunting in Europe and North America: A History, dating to 1794 Austria:

Virgin and martyr Corona, I, a poor sinner, ask you to remember your great mercy and honour and your control over the treasures of the world and whoever asks you in the name of Jesus Christ your dear bridegroom, in his name you have power to give worldly goods to me, a poor and needy person, so I beg you with all of my humble heart, oh virgin and martyr Corona relief [sic] me from my needs and my poverty by giving me 50000 florins of good gold for the salvation of my soul through the redemption of my need body.

This enchantment needs to be added to the web’s supply of money-drawing rituals.

Because engaging such supernatural entities was a frightful venture for the petitioner, be he ever so humble, the prayer amusingly contains an equally elaborate chant for dismissing Saint Moneybags after she has paid up.

Now go away in the peace of God, which shall be between you and me, go back to the place where you came from, the eternal peace of God shall be and shall stay forever between you and me, and you will come again, when I wish to see you. Now go away and be blessed, through God and his holy five wounds, and go away in the peace of God, and the blessing be between you and me and the mine. Amen.

* Her legend can be found attributed to St. Stephanie: like “Corona”, the name Stephanie means “crown”.

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Feast Day of St. Eupsychius, anti-Apostate

3 comments April 9th, 2017 Headsman

April 9 is the (Roman) feast date of the minor Cappadocian saint Eupsychius.

As martyr to the hated-of-Christians pagan throwback emperor Julian the Apostate, Eupsychius could perhaps be accounted an ironical late victim of the fratricidal family politics that consumed the heirs of the great Christianizer Constantine the Great.

When Constantine kicked off in 337, he left three sons of a disgraced empress whom he optimistically hoped would share rulership. What happened instead was that, inside of a generation, practically the entire Constantinian line laid one another in the earth by dint of bloodthirsty dynastic rivalries, leaving only two men standing.

And it so happened that those two kinsmen faced one another across late antiquity’s gaping spiritual chasm: one a Christian, the other a pagan.

Constantius was the surviving son of Constantine, and regardless his Christian affiliation had secured his initial control of his father’s new eastern capital by unsentimentally butchering the bulk of his extended family including his own uncle Julius Constantius, and Julius’s firstborn son. Two other sons of Julius Constantine, too young for the abbatoir, escaped their brother’s fate and so our future Julian the Apostate grew up under a perpetually dancing Damoclean sword, a bookish philosophizing type enchanted by classical learning — so enchanted that he would eventually, and at first very quietly, apostatize from his substantial Christian education and adhere instead to the old gods.

In the fullness of time, the remainder of Constantius’s family succumbed to various civil wars — including Julian’s only surviving brother, Gallus, executed for treachery in 354 in an incident that could very well have claimed Julian as well if for no other reason than proximity. A prolific writer, Julian would later recall that “if some God, to inure my safety, had not ingratiated me with his [Constantius’s] beautiful and excellent wife, Eusebia, I could not have escaped his resentment.” Perhaps the childless Constantius could foresee well enough that, resentment or no, his last relation would be required for imperial policy soon enough.

And indeed the very next year, having spent many months mulling over whether to kill him, Constantius instead elevated Julius as his junior co-emperor. The young scholar soon distinguished himself as a surprisingly competent leader and battlefield commander, pacifying Germania and Gaul before, almost inevitably, the two emperors turned on one another in civil war. Julian must have been well-favored of goddess Fortuna whom he will defend in this post, for he won that war before the first spear was chucked when Constantius took ill and died as the rivals steered their armies towards one another.

So suddenly, 40 years after the empire had officially gone Christian, it had a pagan ruler — the last pagan ruler it would ever know.

Julian was an intelligent and idealistic young man. Taking power before the age of 30, he set a bold course to massively remake the empire in the image of its most admirable anachronisms: living modestly, paring the bureaucracy, debating Senators as their equal instead of their overlord, and — the attempted rollback that would mark his nickname and his reputation — restoring a pre-Christian cosmology to philosophical preeminence.

A few books about Julian the Apostate

This could have been Julian the Apostate‘s life’s work, twenty or thirty of forty years dislodging Christianity from the official foothold it had only recently attained and creating the groundwork for a pagan-dominated middle ages: fine grist for speculative alternative history, since Julian actually died in 363 in war against the Persians.

Having learned from the failure of previous rulers’ persecutions, he deployed instead the devious and modern mechanic of liberal religious toleration, starving the “Galileans” of the galvanizing force of either state backing or state oppression while perhaps setting their orthodox edifice up to splinter over time as various heretical movements began freely venting their rival doctrines on one another.


Julian the Apostate presiding at a conference of sectarians, by Edward Armitage (1875).

His uniqueness and his erudition have made him an attractive character for modern interlocutors, especially those of the Christ-skeptic variety; Gore Vidal sympathetically centered Julian in an engrossing historical novel, and Gibbon warmly admired him:

The Christians, who had now possessed above forty years the civil and ecclesiastical government of the empire, had contracted the insolent vices of prosperity, and the habit of believing that the saints alone were entitled to reign over the earth. As soon as the enmity of Julian deprived the clergy of the privileges which had been conferred by the favour of Constantine, they complained of the most cruel oppression; and the free toleration of idolaters and heretics was a subject of grief and scandal to the orthodox party. The acts of violence, which were no longer countenanced by the magistrates, were still committed by the zeal of the people. At Pessinus the altar of Cybele was overturned almost in the presence of the emperor, and in the city of Caesarea, in Cappadocia, the temple of Fortune, the sole place of worship which had been left to the Pagans, was destroyed by the rage of a popular tumult. On these occasions, a Prince who felt for the honour of the gods was not disposed to interrupt the course of justice; and his mind was still more deeply exasperated when he found that the fanatics, who had deserved and suffered the punishment of incendiaries, were rewarded with the honours of martyrdom.

It is the last named of these incidents that finally brings us round to our date’s principal.

Like Julian himself, St. Eupsychius had no way of knowing that the new, old order would be a transient epoch. In his zeal to resist a rejuvenated paganism, Eupsychius led a riotous sack of a temple to Fortuna (Tyche). The church historian Sozomen gives us the primary-est historical record, and although it dates to several decades after Eupsychius’s martyrdom we can’t be picky when it comes to antiquity.

It is said that at this time were martyred Basilius, a presbyter of the church of Ancyra, and Eupsychius, a nobleman of Caesarea in Cappadocia, newly wed and in a manner of speaking still a bridegroom. As regards Eupsychius, I conjecture that he was executed because of the temple of Tyche, then destroyed, on account of which destruction, as has been said above, all citizens of Caesarea collectively experienced the emperor’s wrath, while those who personally took part in it were punished, some with death, some with banishment.

Later iterations would expand predictably on Eupsychius’s sufferings — tortures, miracle-making, blood and milk springing from his wound, and even eventually eliding the precipitating riot or arson — all of which conspires to pull a discernibly historical figure behind the dark glass of hagiography.*

Little more than a year later, Julian suffered a mortal wound in battle against the Sassanids. The Constantinian dynasty died with Julian, as did his signature project of Apostasy — a sudden volte-face of that fickle Fortuna whose memory and reputation would persist well beyond the twilight of paganism.

The History of Rome podcast deals with Julian in episodes 143, 144, 145, and 146.

* See L.G. Westerink, “The Two Faces of St. Eupsychius,” Harvard Ukrainian Studies, Vol. 7, Okeanos: Essays presented to Ihor Shevchenko on his Sixtieth Birthday by his Colleagues and Students (1983).

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68 or 69: Locusta, infamous poisoner

1 comment January 3rd, 2017 Headsman

Come close and see her and hearken. This is she.
Stop the ways fast against the stench that nips
Your nostril as it nears her. Lo, the lips
That between prayer and prayer find time to be
Poisonous, the hands holding a cup and key,
Key of deep hell, cup whence blood reeks and drips;
The loose lewd limbs, the reeling hingeless hips,
The scurf that is not skin but leprosy.
This haggard harlot grey of face and green
With the old hand’s cunning mixes her new priest
The cup she mixed her Nero, stirred and spiced.
She lisps of Mary and Jesus Nazarene
With a tongue tuned, and head that bends to the east,
Praying. There are who say she is bride of Christ.

-“Locusta”, by Algernon Charles Swinburne

On an unknown date late in the year 68 or in the very first days of the year 69 the infamous Locusta was put to death.

Like most ancients, Locusta survives for us through a bare handful of lines — but the notoriety of her deadly potions has made her name a metonym for poisoners down the centuries and inspired outlandishly lurid Game of Thrones-esque legends like the one about being executed via giraffe-rape.

According to Suetonius and Tacitus, Locusta was fished out of the dungeons in the year 55 for use by the young Nero, the stepson of the emperor Claudius, to murder Claudius’s natural brother Britannicus and assure Nero uncontested power. (There’s some speculation that she might have offed Claudius, too.)

[Nero] meditated a secret device and directed poison to be prepared through the agency of Julius Pollio, tribune of one of the praetorian cohorts, who had in his custody a woman under sentence for poisoning, Locusta by name, with a vast reputation for crime. That every one about the person of Britannicus should care nothing for right or honour, had long ago been provided for. He actually received his first dose of poison from his tutors and passed it off his bowels, as it was rather weak or so qualified as not at once to prove deadly. But Nero, impatient at such slow progress in crime, threatened the tribune and ordered the poisoner to execution for prolonging his anxiety while they were thinking of the popular talk and planning their own defence. Then they promised that death should be as sudden as if it were the hurried work of the dagger, and a rapid poison of previously tested ingredients was prepared close to the emperor’s chamber.


Locusta and Nero test their new and improved poison on a slave before administering it to Britannicus, by Joseph Noël Sylvestre c. 1875

It was customary for the imperial princes to sit during their meals with other nobles of the same age, in the sight of their kinsfolk, at a table of their own, furnished somewhat frugally. There Britannicus was dining, and as what he ate and drank was always tested by the taste of a select attendant, the following device was contrived, that the usage might not be dropped or the crime betrayed by the death of both prince and attendant. A cup as yet harmless, but extremely hot and already tasted, was handed to Britannicus; then, on his refusing it because of its warmth, poison was poured in with some cold water, and this so penetrated his entire frame that he lost alike voice and breath. There was a stir among the company; some, taken by surprise, ran hither and thither, while those whose discernment was keener, remained motionless, with their eyes fixed on Nero, who, as he still reclined in seeming unconsciousness, said that this was a common occurrence, from a periodical epilepsy, with which Britannicus had been afflicted from his earliest infancy, and that his sight and senses would gradually return. As for Agrippina [Nero’s mother, later murdered by the monster -ed.], her terror and confusion, though her countenance struggled to hide it, so visibly appeared, that she was clearly just as ignorant as was Octavia, Britannicus’s own sister [and Nero’s wife … also later murdered by Nero -ed.]. She saw, in fact, that she was robbed of her only remaining refuge, and that here was a precedent for parricide. Even Octavia, notwithstanding her youthful inexperience, had learnt to hide her grief, her affection, and indeed every emotion.

And so after a brief pause the company resumed its mirth. One and the same night witnessed Britannicus’s death and funeral, preparations having been already made for his obsequies, which were on a humble scale. He was however buried in the Campus Martius, amid storms so violent, that in the popular belief they portended the wrath of heaven …

-Tacitus

The family horror of the Julio-Claudians was the career breakthrough for Locusta, whom Nero rewarded “for her eminent services with a full pardon and large estates in the country, and actually sent her pupils.” (Suetonius)

One presumes (although the ancient historians are not so kind as to share her accounts with posterity) that her baneful academy proceeded to do a roaring business for the balance of Nero’s 14-year reign, for she resurfaces in the narrative at the very end of it — as the desperate Nero’s supplier for a suicide draught when he was fleeing the Senate’s proscription.

Nero ended up doing the deed with a blade, not the poison. His dour and forgettable successor, Galba, enjoyed only the briefest ascendancy before he too was done to death on January 15 of the year 69 — but he made sure to use that interval to destroy Nero’s most hated henchmen, Locusta included. (Sans giraffe.)

In the case, however, of Helius, Narcissus, Patrobius, Lucusta, the sorceress, and others of the scum that had come to the surface in Nero’s day, he ordered them to be led in chains throughout the whole city and then to be executed. (Cassius Dio)

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