It might have been May 19, 399 BCE* — and if not, we’re in the neighborhood — that the original gadfly** philosopher Socrates obeyed a death sentence from his native Athens and quaffed a cup of deadly hemlock. It’s one of the most famous executions in history, and arguably one of the most consequential.
Socrates left no original writings that survive for us. Posterity sees him via the works of his students Xenophon and especially Plato, but he was a well-known figure to contemporaries in the polis.
For decades, the man with the method and the familiar daemon had been philosophizing around town. Socrates comes in for mockery in an Aristophanes play lampooning newfangled intellectual trends in the 420s BCE
“Like Ozzy Osbourne, [Socrates] was repeatedly accused of corruption of the young.”
The weird and unsatisfying corrupting-the-young and impiety charges which putatively caused the man’s trial and death sentence have been much-debated in the centuries since. It seems clear that at some level the “real” crime in the eyes of the hundreds of fellow-citizens who judged Socrates had to do with the students who weren’t reverential successor-eggheads, but toxic contemporary politicians. Socrates tutored the treacherous demagogue Alcibiades, who convinced Athenians to mount a catastrophic invasion of Sicily that cost Athens the Peloponnesian War; he rolled with Critias, one of the notorious tyrants of Athens during the 404-403 Spartan puppet dictatorship that resulted from losing that war.
All the while, Socrates had openly preached a dim view of the Athenian democratic system. Again, we don’t have the master’s direct words here, but something like the dialogue presented by the Socrates character in Plato’s allegory of the cave — in which non-philosophers are a lot of purblind morlocks — is difficult to square with anything but an elitist take of civilization. There’s a reason this could be a bit of a sore subject in a city that had just seen the glories of its late imperial apex possessed by Spartan hoplites, especially when espoused by a guy who rubbed chitons with the tyrants themselves.
Even so, Socrates was only narrowly convicted. Once convicted, the legal game had both the prosecution and the defendant propose a punishment, and the jury select one.
Were this system still practiced somewhere, game theorists would have a field day with it. But Socrates just opted out of the match by proposing that he be “punished” with a public pension for his services to the polis. There’s being a gadfly, and then there’s telling your jury to go take a long walk off a high rock: he was death-sentenced by a larger margin than had voted to convict. Plato makes this a much more martyr-like scene than Xenophon; the latter emphasizes that the septuagenarian chin-waggler didn’t much mind being excused from the frailties of advancing age.
Plato used Socrates repeatedly in various dialogues, and it goes without saying that these are cornerstones of the literary canon. The dialogues of most relevance† for his execution specifically are:
the Apology, Plato’s account of the defense Socrates mounted at trial: it’s in this text that Socrates is reported to utter the words, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
Crito, a conversation between a wealthy guy of that name and the condemned Socrates in which the philosopher expounds his theory of citizenship and social contract in refusing Crito’s blandishments to escape before execution.
the Phaedo, in which Socrates argues for the immortality of the soul, and then gets down to the business of swallowing his fatal draught.
Soon the jailer, who was the servant of the Eleven, entered and stood by him, saying:—To you, Socrates, whom I know to be the noblest and gentlest and best of all who ever came to this place, I will not impute the angry feelings of other men, who rage and swear at me, when, in obedience to the authorities, I bid them drink the poison—indeed, I am sure that you will not be angry with me; for others, as you are aware, and not I, are to blame. And so fare you well, and try to bear lightly what must needs be—you know my errand. Then bursting into tears he turned away and went out.
Socrates looked at him and said: I return your good wishes, and will do as you bid. Then turning to us, he said, How charming the man is: since I have been in prison he has always been coming to see me, and at times he would talk to me, and was as good to me as could be, and now see how generously he sorrows on my account. We must do as he says, Crito; and therefore let the cup be brought, if the poison is prepared: if not, let the attendant prepare some.
Yet, said Crito, the sun is still upon the hill-tops, and I know that many a one has taken the draught late, and after the announcement has been made to him, he has eaten and drunk, and enjoyed the society of his beloved; do not hurry—there is time enough.
Socrates said: Yes, Crito, and they of whom you speak are right in so acting, for they think that they will be gainers by the delay; but I am right in not following their example, for I do not think that I should gain anything by drinking the poison a little later; I should only be ridiculous in my own eyes for sparing and saving a life which is already forfeit. Please then to do as I say, and not to refuse me.
Crito made a sign to the servant, who was standing by; and he went out, and having been absent for some time, returned with the jailer carrying the cup of poison. Socrates said: You, my good friend, who are experienced in these matters, shall give me directions how I am to proceed. The man answered: You have only to walk about until your legs are heavy, and then to lie down, and the poison will act. At the same time he handed the cup to Socrates, who in the easiest and gentlest manner, without the least fear or change of colour or feature, looking at the man with all his eyes, Echecrates, as his manner was, took the cup and said: What do you say about making a libation out of this cup to any god? May I, or not? The man answered: We only prepare, Socrates, just so much as we deem enough. I understand, he said: but I may and must ask the gods to prosper my journey from this to the other world—even so—and so be it according to my prayer. Then raising the cup to his lips, quite readily and cheerfully he drank off the poison. And hitherto most of us had been able to control our sorrow; but now when we saw him drinking, and saw too that he had finished the draught, we could no longer forbear, and in spite of myself my own tears were flowing fast; so that I covered my face and wept, not for him, but at the thought of my own calamity in having to part from such a friend. Nor was I the first; for Crito, when he found himself unable to restrain his tears, had got up, and I followed; and at that moment, Apollodorus, who had been weeping all the time, broke out in a loud and passionate cry which made cowards of us all. Socrates alone retained his calmness: What is this strange outcry? he said. I sent away the women mainly in order that they might not misbehave in this way, for I have been told that a man should die in peace. Be quiet then, and have patience. When we heard his words we were ashamed, and refrained our tears; and he walked about until, as he said, his legs began to fail, and then he lay on his back, according to the directions, and the man who gave him the poison now and then looked at his feet and legs; and after a while he pressed his foot hard, and asked him if he could feel; and he said, No; and then his leg, and so upwards and 118upwards, and showed us that he was cold and stiff. And he felt them himself, and said: When the poison reaches the heart, that will be the end. He was beginning to grow cold about the groin, when he uncovered his face, for he had covered himself up, and said—they were his last words—he said: Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt? The debt shall be paid, said Crito; is there anything else? There was no answer to this question; but in a minute or two a movement was heard, and the attendants uncovered him; his eyes were set, and Crito closed his eyes and mouth.
Such was the end, Echecrates, of our friend; concerning whom I may truly say, that of all the men of his time whom I have known, he was the wisest and justest and best.
A few books about the death of Socrates
* The Phaedo places Socrates’ trial on the day after Athens consecrated a ritual boat for its annual pilgrimage. (This was supposed to be the very boat that the hero Theseus had sailed back after defeating the minotaur in time immemorial, and the Athenians maintained it for centuries in a seaworthy state to make ceremonial voyages to the island of Delos, a sanctuary for Theseus’s patron Apollo. This is also the very conveyance in question in the “Ship of Theseus” paradox, a philosophical conundrum proceeding from the question of whether the thing was still “Theseus’s ship” if every single component of it had been replaced in the intervening years.) Anyway, Theseus aside, that mention of the consecration gives us Mounichion 7 on the confusing lunisolar Attic calendar for the trial of Socrates.
During the ship’s sacred voyage, Athens was to remain ritually “cleansed.” This condition included not conducting any executions. A date for the death of Socrates is established by Xenophon and Seneca reporting that the boat returned after 30 days — which was about twice as long as ordinarily required, but the archaic craft was very vulnerable to bad weather. 30 days is an eminently doubtable nice round number, but where ancient dates are concerned, we takes what we can gets.
There are other dates out there. In particular, a number of easily accessible pages claim that the hemlock was downed on May 7, 399. I’m not positive, but it appears to me that this might have originally been arrived at by counting 30 days exclusively from Mounichion 7 to reach Thargelion 7, then noticing that Thargelion typically began sometime in May, and smushing together “May” and “7″ from alien calendars … after which it’s been repeated on the basis of previous source’s authority. If there’s better support for this date than I infer, I welcome correction.
For my part, I’ve dated this entry based on the astounding Hellenic Month Established Per Athens calendar, specifically its dates for Thargelion of the 1st year of the 95th Olympiad. Thargelion 6 corresponded to May 18/19, says HMEPA — Greek days began at sundown — and since Socrates died at the end of daylight, just before sunset, that’s a Gregorian May 19th. Again, though, all this is built upon a chain of questionable inferences based on a few questionable passing remarks from just a couple of ancient sources. In the end, one just can’t know for sure.
** Plato reports in the Apology Socrates characterizing himself as such this way — “a sort of gadfly, given to the state by God; and the state is a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life” by his stings — bequeathing to us the evocative metaphor.
† Find these essential execution-related dialogues here, here, or here, or just the highlights here.
Back in the 19th century, islands stacked high with guano were worth their weight in bird crap. The phosphate-rich dung piled meters-deep in some places, and could be mined for agricultural fertilization and for use in gunpowder and explosives.
In 1856, Congress even passed a Guano Islands Act empowering skippers to plant the stars and stripes on any of these lucrative little turd reefs they happened to run across. That’s how the U.S. came to possess, for instance, Midway Island … and more than 100 other islands as well.
Most of these claims have long since been ceded, but a few remain today. One of them is (still!) Navassa, a three-square-mile speck off the coast of Haiti, 100 miles south of Guantanamo Bay.
But in the late 19th century, its sweet, sweet guano was being extracted by a Baltimore-based firm known as the Navassa Phosphate Company. This operation employed 137 African-American laborers, moving groaning shitloads of product by raw muscle power under a blistering tropical sun … and under 11 white overseers.
The nature of the assignment — an island very far from the nearest American settlement, with no other industry, community or outpost to repair to — made taking a job on Navassa almost like hitching on somewhere as a sailor: you were off to a little floating dictatorship, with no way out until the end of the contract.
Navassa’s overseers turned out to have a taste for the cat o’nine tails, and worse.
“The conditions surrounding the prisoners and their fellows were of a most peculiar character,” Harrison noted in his eventual commutation order.
They were American citizens, under contracts to perform labor upon specified terms, within American territory, removed from any opportunity to appeal to any court or public officer for redress of any injury or the enforcement of any civil right. Their employers were, in fact, their masters. The bosses placed over them imposed fines and penalties without any semblance of trial. These penalties extended to imprisonment, and even to the cruel practice of tricing men up for a refusal to work. Escape was impossible, and the state of things generally such as might make men reckless and dangerous.
Or, as a naval inspection judged it, Navassa resembled “a convict establishment without its comforts and cleanliness”: people being worked brutally to the bone during their contract, eating rancid rations and living in filth.
Not surprisingly, Navassa’s “convict” laboring population rebelled in 1889, and in a vicious hour-long riot slew five overseers while maiming several others.
Warships calling on the island shipped 18 back to face murder charges; ultimately, three black guano-miners were sentenced to death for the affair.*
However, a huge clemency push spearheaded by the Baltimore-based black fraternal organization the Grand United Order of Galilean Fishermen raised the cry to spare the condemned men.
Guano harvesting resumed after the riot, but was aborted in 1898 by the Spanish-American War; the Navassa Phosphate Company fell into bankruptcy, and although the U.S. later threw up a lighthouse on Navassa to aid Panama Canal-bound vessels, it’s been effectively uninhabited ever since.
* The appeals arising from the Navassa conviction generated the 1890 Supreme Court case Jones v. United States, affirming Navassa’s American territoriality, and establishing Congressional jurisdiction over violations of U.S. law that didn’t take place in any particular state. This bit of jurisprudence has turned up all over the place in the century-plus since it was issued.
Thanks for the guest post to Nancy Bilyeau, the author of The Crown and The Chalice, thrillers set in Tudor England. The main character is Joanna Stafford, a Dominican novice.
On this day in 1521, Edward Stafford, 43, third duke of Buckingham, was beheaded on Tower Hill outside the Tower of London, found guilty of high treason against Henry VIII.
In Shakespeare’s play Henry VIII, the king said of Buckingham, “He hath into monstrous habits put the graces that were once his, and is become as black as if besmear’d in hell.” Today few believe that the duke actively plotted to overthrow his king. But Edward Stafford was guilty nonetheless — of being too noble, too rich and too arrogant to survive in the increasingly paranoid court of Henry VIII, his cousin once removed.
Buckingham’s life had been marked with loss and suspicion.
When he was five years old, his father, the second duke, was executed by Richard III. Young Edward Stafford was hidden from Richard III in relatives’ homes, not to emerge until Henry VII defeated the last Yorkist king at Bosworth.
He became a royal ward of the Tudor family, knighted at the age of seven. But as he grew into a proud, preening adolescent, Henry VII cooled toward him, fearing that he outshone the heir to the throne, the future Henry VIII.
Stafford was a direct descendant of Edward III and so had a solid claim to the succession. What didn’t help was that foreign ambassadors wrote admiringly of “my lord of Buckingham, a noble man and would be a royal ruler.”
Henry VIII succeeded to the throne in 1509, unchallenged by his older cousin. In fact, the duke was lord high steward for the coronation and carried the crown.
But over the next ten years he was pushed out of the center of power more and more. As friends, Henry VIII much preferred lower-born, jovial men like Charles Brandon and William Compton. And the man who ran the entire kingdom was Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. There was no place for Buckingham.
In response, Edward Stafford married a noblewoman of the Percy family, fathered four children (and several illegitimate children), and withdrew to his vast estates, where he was the unquestioned man in charge.
What changed in the cousins’ relationship to draw treason charges in 1521?
For one, it was becoming apparent that Henry VIII would have no male heir.
Catherine of Aragon‘s last pregnancy was in 1518. They had a daughter, Mary. But the Tudor dynasty was a new one, and Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey weren’t sure that the nobility would accept a female ruler someday. Might they not look to the duke of Buckingham, instead?
On April 8, 1521, the duke was ordered to London from his castle at Thornbury. He set out for the court, seemingly unaware of any danger, and was greatly shocked when arrested along the way and taken to the Tower. At his trial, he was charged with “imagining and compassing the death of the king,” through seeking out prophecy from a monk named Nicholas Hopkins about the chances of the king having a male heir. Evidence was supposedly obtained from disgruntled former members of the duke’s household.
Buckingham denied all charges. But a jury of 17 peers found him guilty, led by the duke of Norfolk, who condemned him — while weeping.
Edward Stafford died with dignity on Tower Hill, and was buried in the Church of the Austin Friars. One chronicler said Buckingham’s death was “universally lamented by all London.”
Parliament passed a bill of attainder, and the duke’s enormous wealth — his castles and holdings and titles — passed to the crown. The illustrious Stafford clan never rose to prominence again. They were the first noble family to be crushed by Henry VIII … but definitely not the last.
This speech inaugurated some of the darkest days of the Cold War … but they were probably even worse for Oleg Penkovsky, who was arrested just hours before Kennedy delivered it. He might have been shopped by a U.S. intelligence mole working for Moscow.
Penkovsky and his British contact, businessman Greville Wynne, faced a public show trial in May 1963 — resulting in the spy’s prompt execution. (Wynne got a prison sentence, and was later exchanged back to the West for Portland Spy Ring principal Gordon Lonsdale.)
As befits the shadow world of espionage, Penkovsky’s activities and motivations are still disputed to this day. While some consider him among the most valuable/damaging spies in the Cold War, former MI5 officer Peter Wright claimed that Penkovsky was a loyal Moscow agent all along actually trafficking disinformation — and that he was not executed at all but cashiered to a comfortable secret retirement after his show trial “condemnation.”
After a short-lived attempt to maintain a posture of “armed neutrality”vis-a-vis the Civil War combatants, Kentucky became the uncertain and bloodilycontested frontier march between the rival governments.
With the 1862 invasions of Kentucky by armies North and South, sides had to be chosen. Corbin enlisted with some local militia mates in the Confederate army; after wintering in Virginia, he was dispatched back to his native Campbell County, Ky. — now under Union control — to beat the bushes for more Confederate enlistees. With him was another Campbell County native son now serving in the Southern army, Jefferson McGraw.
In April 1863, a Union patrol out hunting Confederate guerrillas accidentally caught wind of the recruiters’ activities and followed McGraw to the Rouse’s Mill safe house where he was to rendezvous with the waiting Corbin.
Several days after the recruiters’ capture, Union Gen. Ambrose Burnside issued General Order 38, threatening the death penalty for “all persons found within our lines who commit acts for the benefit of the enemies of our country.” This order explicitly compassed “Secret recruiting officers within our lines.”
This book has a chapter about the Corbin-McGraw case.
General Order 38 was viewed as targeting “Copperheads” and other anti-war northern agitators — and it almost immediately resulted in the arrest of Ohio Democrat Clement Vallandigham** — but it was the less august Corbin and McGraw who paid the heavier penalty.†
Again, General Order 38 postdated Corbin and McGraw’s arrest. They had expected, and perhaps were even directly assured by their captors, to be treated as regular prisoners of war. On the other hand, Order 38 aside, these men were undoubtedly working covertly behind Union lines, and risked harsher treatment on that basis alone.
At any rate, the two were condemned to die by a military commission in Cincinnati for violating Order 38 by recruiting behind Union lines. Neither Gen. Burnside nor Abraham Lincoln himself — who were both besieged by petitions for clemency — would consent to spare them.
Corbin, who was a church elder in his home environs, led a prayer service for guards and inmates alike at the prison chapel on the morning of his execution. Writing 34 years later, a witness recalled the moment:
That scene, and the words which fell from his lips on that occasion, are indelibly stamped on my memory …
After reading and prayer by Captain Corbin, he said, in part, speaking of himself, that “life was just as sweet to him as any man, but if necessary for him to die in order to vindicate the law of the country, he was ready to die, he did not fear death; he had done nothing he was ashamed of; he had acted on his own convictions and was not sorry for what he had done; he was fighting for a principle, which in the sight of God and man, and in the view of death which awaited him, he believed was right, and feeling this he had nothing to fear in the future.” He closed his talk by expressing his faith in the promises of Christ and his religion.
To see this man, standing in the presence of an audience composed of officers, privates, and prisoners of all grades, chained to and bearing his ball, and bearing it alone, presenting the religion of Christ to others while exemplifying it himself, was a scene which would melt the strongest heart, and when he took his seat every heart in that audience was softened and every eye bathed in tears.
After Corbin and McGraw were shot, two Union prisoners of war in Confederate custody were selected by lot for a retaliatory execution. With some diplomatic maneuvering (and a Union threat to retaliate for the retaliation by executing Robert E. Lee’s captured son), they managed to avoid that fate. (One of these men almost executed in retaliation, Henry Washington Sawyer, went on after the war to build the still-extant Chalfonte Hotel in his hometown of Cape May, N.J.)
** General Order 38 also resulted in the arrest of an Indiana legislator named Alexander Douglas. Douglas beat these charges thanks to the energetic defense mounted at the tribunal by his neighbor, attorney Lambdin P. Milligan … and the fame thereby falling to the latter man would eventually help to fix his own name into the jurisprudential firmament as the subject of the landmark Supreme Court ruling Ex parte Milligan. For more background, see this pdf.
† Nobody else was ever executed under General Order 38.
The crimes of Mervyn Touchet (executed on May 14, 1631), second Earl of Castlehaven, caused a sensation in Stuart England.
Convicted of rape and sodomy by a jury of his aristocratic peers, his crimes were alleged to have taken place under his roof and against members of his own family. While all of the witnesses against Touchet stood to gain materially from his death and various household servants did present evidence which contradicted that of his wife and son (who testified against him), he, as household head, was clearly unable to maintain proper order and obedience within his own house and this was instrumental in ensuring his conviction.
In this sense, although his alleged crimes were themselves horrific, it was Castlehaven’s subversion of expected social roles and modes of conduct in the context of his disordered household which truly shocked contemporaries (as Cynthia B. Herrup has skillfully argued in her study of the Castlehaven case, A House in Gross Disorder: Sex, Law, and the 2nd Earl of Castlehaven).
Mervyn was born in 1593, the eldest son of Lucy Mervyn and George Touchet; the latter was Baron Audley in the English peerage and, from 1616 until his death a year later, first earl of Castlehaven in the Irish peerage. Details of the future Earl’s childhood are scant.
From the time he was seven, in 1600, his family appears to have lived largely in Ireland, first on their estates in Munster and later in county Tyrone and Armagh (although they were in England sporadically, such as in 1594 when the elder Touchets were present at an inn in Beaconsfield to see their daughter Maria clandestinely marry the heir of John and Joan Thynne, Thomas, initiating a prolonged feud between the two families).
In 1608, Mervyn’s father settled the family’s English properties on his son and, while he remained in Ireland, Mervyn took up residence in England in the counties of Somerset and Dorset. In keeping with his new status as a propertied gentleman, he was knighted in the same year.
Sometime in this period Mervyn also embarked on legal studies and, in 1611, he was admitted to the Middle Temple. Around this time he also began his first marriage, taking as his wife Elizabeth Barnham, the daughter (and one of the co-heirs) of Benedict Barnham, a London alderman.
Through this match Mervyn gained additional properties in Middlesex, Hampshire, Kent, and Essex. Roughly a year after the marriage ceremony, in 1612, the couple’s first son, James Touchet, was baptized. The pair went on to have two more sons, George and Mervyn, and three daughters, Lucy, Dorothy, and Frances.
Upon his father’s death in 1617, Mervyn inherited his lands in Ireland and the title of Earl of Castlehaven, becoming the second Earl. It is also possible that he converted to Catholicism during this period. While Castlehaven steadfastly denied this, most of his children later became active Catholics, perhaps as a result of their early upbringing in these years.
Following the death of Elizabeth in 1622, Castlehaven remarried in 1624, this time to Lady Anne Brydges, nee Stanley, who was born in 1580 and was to outlive her husband by sixteen years. The widow of Grey Brydges, Baron Chandos, Anne was roughly thirteen years older than her new husband but she also had several young children from her first marriage and the two families now became one.
This dynastic merger was further consolidated when Anne’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth, was married to Castlehaven’s heir, James, in 1628. Elizabeth was all of 13 years old at the time.
Both marriages proved to be disastrous. In particular, the marriage of Elizabeth and James was dismal affair and ultimately led to the Earl of Castlehaven’s execution. By 1629, James had left the family estate (and his teen wife) at Fonthill Gifford and Elizabeth had become involved with Castlehaven’s favoured servant, Henry Skipwith.
It remains unclear whether this was a consensual relationship or, as was later charged, Castlehaven arranged for Skipwith to rape his step-daughter and daughter-in-law. What is certain is that Castlehaven persisted in showing great favour to Skipwith, which resulted in a confrontation between James and his father and ended with James complaining to King Charles I about his father’s conduct.
With this complaint, a formal inquiry was launched into the allegedly disorderly environment of the Touchet home.
The results of this inquiry, conducted by the Privy Council, revealed abominable crimes, in particular rape and sodomy. On April 25, 1631, the Earl was put on trial, charged with committing sodomy with a servant and assisting another servant, Giles Broadway, with the rape of his own wife, Anne, the Countess of Castlehaven (Anne alleged that the Earl had restrained her while Broadway assaulted her).
Henry Skipwith was never formally charged for his affair with Castlehaven’s daughter-in-law but rumour abounded of Castlehaven’s involvement in this as well (either in terms of instigating the rape, if such it was, or as a panderer who encouraged the illicit affair).
Special scaffolding was erected in Westminster Hall to accommodate the huge numbers that turned up to witness the trial and news writers throughout the realm and as far away as colonial North America speculated about the case and the outcome of the trial. Charles I, who prided himself on his happy and close-knit domestic life, was particularly shocked by Castlehaven’s behaviour and remarked that he hoped the “obscene tragedy” would quickly pass.
At the trial itself, twenty-seven peers acted as both judge and jury against Castlehaven and the testimony of six witnesses, including that of the Countess of Castlehaven and her daughter, was recorded by the court.
Their testimony painted a vivid picture of the Castlehaven household at Fonthill Gifford as a den of sexual iniquity and debauchery.
According to the Countess, Castlehaven had sexually and physically abused her from the very beginning of their marriage and this had culminated with Broadway’s rape of her at with Castlehaven’s assistance. Anne revealed that, within a few days of their wedding, the Earl was consorting openly with prostitutes and household serving boys.
She reported that he had commanded the couple’s servants to expose themselves to her and goaded her into illicit relationships with his friends and favoured servants, whom he also encouraged to embezzle money from the estate. She also alleged that, following the marriage of her daughter to Castlehaven’s heir, James, the crazed Earl had concocted a scheme to have Henry Skipwith impregnate the girl with his bastard, whom James would be forced to recognize as his own.
Throughout the trial Castlehaven was described as unstable, erratic, dissolute, and utterly devoid of religious faith and piety.
In his defence, Castlehaven alleged that he was the victim of a plot orchestrated by his family to commit judicial murder and inherit his estate and wealth. The most he would admit was over-generosity to a few of his favoured servants. He countered the charges by accusing his wife of infanticide and adultery and charging his son and daughter-in-law/step-daughter with greed.
As he reminded the court, all the witnesses against him stood to benefit a great deal from his death. Likewise, he told the court that the testimony against him on the rape charges was logically inconsistent and the reports of sodomy did not prove penetration and, without that definitive act, the sodomy charges were not sustainable.
While he was accused of subverting the natural order and not properly governing his household, he painted himself as the victim of his inferiors, who were the ones truly guilty of threatening the natural order by plotting against him.
The preserved records from the trial demonstrate that the evidence against Castlehaven was spotty and ill-sustained. The jury took several hours to deliberate and reach a verdict and, ultimately, twenty-six of the twenty-seven peers voted to convict on the charges of rape but only fifteen were persuaded by the allegations of sodomy.
After his conviction, some members of Castlehaven’s natural family, including his siblings, petitioned the crown for a pardon based on the alleged corruption of the witnesses against him. But Charles I refused to consider it or to investigate the suspicions of corruption while Castlehaven himself refused to confess his guilt and seek a pardon on his own behalf.
When he was taken to the scaffold on Tower Green on May 14, Touchet orally protested the verdict while affirming his acceptance of the King’s right to try and execute him. He also made a final declaration of his loyalty to the Church of England.
Almost immediately after his execution, various broadsides and pamphlets describing the lurid details of the cases and the motivations of those involved began to circulate, ensuring that it remained a topic of discussion and rumour for years to come.
While several writers argued for Castlehaven’s guilt, others, including his sister, Eleanor, authored a number of tracts which proclaimed his innocence and decried the wickedness of his accusers.
In July, two of the Earl’s alleged accomplices were put to death (the household page who was alleged to have committed sodomy with Castlehaven, and Giles Broadway, who aided Touchet in the supposed rape of his wife).
While these two servants had confessed to their crimes (aware that, as Castlehaven had already been convicted and executed, there was little chance that they would be acquitted and confessing meant that some mercy in the manner of their deaths would be shown to them by the state), the details of their confessions offered some support to Castlehaven’s accusations of corruption on the part of his wife and son and so the question of his guilt remained unresolved for many.
With his father’s death, James Touchet had the title of Earl of Castlehaven and his father’s lands conferred upon him by the crown. The executed Earl’s widow did not remarry and James Touchet was never reconciled with his wife, whose alleged misconduct with the servant Henry Skipwith had initiated the prosecution against the Earl.
While the Castlehaven case is often cited as both a potent example of the dangers inherent in the subordination of household discipline and as a celebrated case in the history of the treatment of homosexuality, it also established an important precedent regarding the right of a wife to testify against her husband in cases of marital cruelty and rape.
On this date in 1945, five days after the Germans had surrendered to the Allies in World War II, two deserting sailors were shot at Amsterdam.
Dorfer (top) and Beck.
The strangest thing: Bruno Dorfer and Rainer Beck were deserters of the Wehrmacht’s Kriegsmarine … and they were shot by a court-martial conducted by the Wehrmacht itself.
This surprising and shameful story is told in full by Chris Madsen in “Victims of Circumstance: The Execution of German Deserters by Surrendered German Troops Under Canadian Control in Amsterdam, May 1945,” a 1993 Canadian Military History journal article available online in pdf form.
Basically, a pocket of fortified German resistance remained hunkered down in the Netherlands as the war approached its close. That force of 150,000 surrendered to a much smaller number of Canadians on May 5 on terms that maintained German responsibility for administering its armed forces and the civilian areas under its control — a highly anomalous situation in an occupied country as the Third Reich winked out of existence altogether.
Canadians and Germans, according to Madsen, enjoyed a collegial relationship as the Canadians gradually took German forces into custody … or received German forces who helpfully marched themselves into custody. But even under guard, these “imprisoned” Germans still retained significant autonomy and a German command structure that Canadians were loath to interfere with — an arrangement so expedient that it severely tested the bounds of propriety. So invested were the Canadians in maintaining their opposite numbers’ unit cohesion* that they handed some deserters (and plenty of men were deserting the German army) back over to the nominal prisoners!
Rainer Beck had been deserted for the best part of a year: the son of a Social Democratic father and a Jewish mother, he’d ditched harbor defense the previous September and had been laying low with his sister in Amsterdam. Bruno Dorfer was a more recent deserter. They naturally assumed that with the Canadian takeover, they’d be good to go: they turned themselves in to Canadian soldiers with an eye towards regularizing their status.
They were in for quite a surprise, as Madsen relates:
Major Oliver Mace, acting commanding officer of the Canadian regiment, ordered Major J. Dennis Pierce, the company commander in charge of the former factory [where the German prisoners were being held], to place the two deserters inside the compound because “they were certainly Germans and we had no other place to put them.” …
At 1005 hours on 13 May 1945, Pierce informed 2 Canadian Infantry Brigade of the intended German course of action: “German Marine deserters being tried this morning. German Commander intends [to] shoot them.” The German camp leadership established a Standgericht or a court martial within the camp … [and] brought Dorfer and Beck before three officers, a team of military lawyers “whom Pierce himself had ‘put in the bag’ in the streets of Amsterdam earlier in the week.” [Fregattenkapitan Alexander] Stein regarded the proceedings as a show trial for his authority. At the insistence of the German naval commander, the entire camp population witnessed the event. A parade state, taken earlier that morning, counted 1,817 German marines inside the camp. The two accused, represented by a German military lawyer, underwent rigorous cross-examination before this large staring crowd … Oberleutnantnginieur Frank Trmal, a young German officer present at the fifteen-minute trial, remembered Beck’s defense:
For some reason Beck, who was older, decided to defend himself and told the court that we (the Germans) all knew several weeks ago the war was all over for us and that it was a matter of time before we surrendered. He told the captain and the court that any further fighting by us against the Canadians would be senseless bloodshed. With this the captain jumped to his feet in a rage, screaming at Beck that he was calling all ofus, his comrades, and his officers, murderers. It is something that I will never forget.
After the inevitable-yet-incredible conviction, Stein appealed to his Canadian guards for a bit of comradely assistance in carrying out the court-martial’s order.
The Seaforth Highlanders obligingly delivered up eight captured German rifles with ammunition, plus a heavy truck to help their “prisoners” execute their deserters. A Canadian military cable testifies in its clipped and plaintive language to the egregious moral vacuum afflicting the chummy occupation: “German marines in Amsterdam have picked up some of their own deserters. They have been tried by military law and sentenced to be shot. May they do this.”
The answer was determined not by any senior Canadian officer, but by the German high commander who had surrendered the Dutch pocket the week before, Johannes Blaskowitz. It was on his approval that Dorfer and Beck were shot against an air raid shelter wall at 1740, not eight hours after their bizarre public trial.
When the story surfaced publicly in 1966 as a result of Der Spiegel investigations, Stein was unrepentant. “Beck would never have been a credit to Germany anyway,” he told the Globe and Mail (Oct. 28, 1966). “Deserters only turn into criminals in civil life too.”
This execution is dramatized in the 1969 Italian-Yugoslav film Dio è con noi (The Fifth Day of Peace, also released as Gott mit Uns and The Firing Squad).
it is a fact that many captured German units were secretly kept in readiness for possible use against the Red Army. Churchill, who not without reason had a high opinion of the fighting quality of the German soldiers, gave Field Marshall Montgomery an order to that effect during the last days of the war, as he was to acknowledge publicly much later in November 1954. He arranged for Wehrmacht troops who had surrendered in northwest Germany and in Norway to retain their uniforms and even their weapons, and to remain under the command of their own officers, because he thought of their potential use in hostilities against the Soviets. In the Netherlands, German units that had surrendered to the Canadians were even allowed to use their own weapons on May 13, 1945, to execute two of their own deserters!
On this date in 1936, Buktyar Rustomji Ratanji Hakim, also known as Buck Ruxton, was hanged in Strangeways Prison for the murder of his common-law wife, Isabella, and their maid, Mary Jane Rogerson.
A general practitioner of Persian descent, Ruxton was born in India and moved to the United Kingdom in 1930 to set up practice in Lancaster.
He met a married Englishwoman, Isabella Van Ess, and took up with her after her divorce. Although they never legally married and Ruxton actually already had a wife he’d left behind in India, they lived as man and wife and had three children, and she took his last name.
Ruxton had a reputation as a good doctor and a compassionate one who waived his fees for indigent. He wasn’t nearly as good a husband as he was a physician, however: he was extremely jealous of his charming, sociable wife and continually accused her of infidelity with little actual evidence of it.
The neighbors overheard violent arguments, and Isabella would occasionally take the children and leave, seeking refuge at her sister’s home. At one point she reported her husband to the police for domestic violence, but they paid little attention to her complaints.
On September 15, 1935, Ruxton flew into one of his rages, stabbed his wife five times in the chest, beat her and strangled her with his bare hands. He battered the maid to death as well, since she had been unlucky enough to witness it. A clever little rhyme memorialized the story, one of its various versions is printed below:
Red stains on the carpet, red stains on the knife
For Dr. Buck Ruxton had murdered his wife
The maid servant saw it and threatened to tell
So Dr. Buck Ruxton, he’s killed her as well
Ruxton dismembered both bodies in the bathtub and dumped the parts in a stream near the Scottish border, over a hundred miles from Lancaster. There were thirty pieces in all, leading the press to call the case the “Jigsaw Murders.”
In an effort to hinder identification, Ruxton removed the victims’ teeth and skinned their faces. This turned out to be too clever by half: once the bodies were found in late September, the precision of the cuts told authorities that the killer was someone with anatomical knowledge and surgical skill, which narrowed the suspect pool considerably.
This filter, combined with the realization that one of the newspapers Ruxton used to wrap up some dismembered bit was a special edition copy sold only in Lancaster and Morecambe, led the cops to Ruxton and not many others. It wasn’t long before the pieces — sorry — fell into place.
Meanwhile, exciting new forensic techniques, helped firm up identification of the corpses: authorities superimposed a photograph of Isabella over one of the skulls and found a dramatically jury-friendly visible match.
Isabella Ruxton, in life and death.
Forensic entomology (in this case, the gross but useful technique of checking the age of the maggots infesting the corpses) helped pinpoint the date of death.
Ruxton was arrested on October 13, nearly a month after the double murder.
The Ruxtons’ charlady told the police that on the day Isabella and the maid disappeared, Ruxton came to her house early and told her not to come in to work. The next day, when she arrived at the Ruxtons’ house, she found it in a state of disarray with the carpets removed and a pile of burnt material in the backyard. A neighbor couple also had helpful recollections: Ruxton had persuaded them to come and help out at his house, saying he’d cut his hand while opening a can of peaches and he needed to clean up quickly because decorators were coming over. They scrubbed his walls and he gave them some bloodstained carpets and clothing.
Given all this evidence, there was little Ruxton’s defense attorney could say for him.
The defense tried to challenge the identification of the bodies, but the superimposed skull picture was quite convincing. Ruxton admitted his guilt prior to his execution and signed a short confession. He was hanged in spite of a petition with 10,000 signatures asking for mercy.
“Land agents” — the rent-squeezing fist of distant landlords — were not popular people in Ireland. These bill collectors literally ran people out of house and home: one late 19th century land agent in Ireland recalled in his memoirs having received over a hundred threatening letters and, in November 1884, having his house in Kerry dynamited.
So the 1857 murder of Tipperary land agent John Ellis drew little surprise (his life had been attempted at least twice before, when he evicted people to prospective starvation during the Great Famine), and drew scarcely any mourning.
“He had been earning this for many a year, if any man however bad could be said to earn such an end, by turning people out in the road,” an observer noted. That observer was the Archbishop … talk about a tough crowd.
Since £90 had been left undisturbed in the murdered man’s pockets, authorities were pretty sure it was no passing robber that got the best of John Ellis but someone who targeted the hated land agent. However, the only witness — and the word applies only in the loosest sense — was the teenage cart-driver who had been ferrying Ellis home near midnight when his passenger had been shot by ambush from the bushes. Young Thomas Burke hadn’t seen anything useful.
Still, within only days, police had zeroed in on their suspects — with classic tunnel vision.
In fine, the working official hypothesis was that Ellis had been shot over a personal grudge, and not because of his distasteful profession. William and Daniel Cormack had a sister who had just given birth out of wedlock in the poorhouse; they had another sister who was known to be carrying on with John Ellis, who was a notorious cad during his downtime between evictions. The idea was that the brothers shot Ellis to preserve their one sister from the other sister’s fate.
With no actual evidence to buttress this just-so story, John Law got to twisting arms. An 11-year-old girl was parked in solitary confinement for two months to try to get her to incriminate the Cormacks.
The child, to her glory, stubbornly refused to do so. But Thomas Burke, the cart-driver, could not equal her steel. After initially deposing that he had seen nothing — it was very dark, after all — he managed to “remember” that he actually had seen the Cormacks on the scene after all. Another man also “verified” this testimony.
On the strength of these eminently impeachable eyewitnesses the Cormacks were doomed to die. Burke would later admit that he lied, and 2,000-plus people signed a petition pleading for a pardon.
None was forthcoming.
Mounting a public scaffold at Nenagh for a crowd welling with pity, Daniel Cormack made a dying declaration that everyone believed: “Lord have mercy on me, for you know, Jesus, that I neither had hand, act, nor part in that for which I am about to die. Good people, pray for me.”
This rank injustice only rankled more* as years passed.
Fifty-two years later the hanged boys were exhumed from their graves in Nenagh Gaol and given a long honorary procession to their native town of Loughmore, where they were laid to rest in a prominent white mausoleum that can still be visited today.
The plaque at that structure records the closest thing to the verdict of history upon the case:
By the Irish Race in memory of the brothers DANIEL and WILLIAM CORMACK who for the murder of a land agent named ELLIS were hanged at NENAGH after solemn protestation by each on the scaffold of absolute and entire innocence of that crime, the 11th day of May 1858. The tragedy of the brothers occurred through false testimony procured through GOLD and terror, the action in their trial of JUDGE KEOGH, a man who considered personally, politically, religiously and officially was one of the monsters of mankind, and the verdict of a prejudiced, partisan packed perjured jury. Clear proof of the innocence of the brothers afforded by ARCHBISHOP LEAHY to the VICEROY of the day but he nevertheless gratified the appetite of a bigoted, exterminating and ascendancy caste by a judicial murder of the kind which lives bitterly and perpetually in a nation’s remembrance.
* A later ballad (just one of several) ramps up the nationalist-confrontation factor for the age of Fenianism … and fabricates the detail of an exculpatory thunderstorm.
In the year of fifty eight, my boys, that was the troublesome time
When cruel landlords and their agents were rulers of our isle.
It was then that Ellis was shot down by an unknown hand.
When the news spread round Killara that Trent’s agent he was shot,
The police were then informed and assembled on the spot.
They searched every field and garden, every lane and every shed,
Until they came to McCormack’s house where two boys were in bed.
They accused these boys of murder from information they had got
From the coachman who was driving at the time that Ellis was shot.
They said that they were innocent, but ’twas all of no avail.
They were handcuffed and made prisoners and conveyed to County Gaol.
At the Spring Assizes these two young men stood their trial in Nenagh town.
By a packed jury of Orangemen, they were guilty found.
The judge addressed the prisoners. He asked what they had to say
Before he signed their execution for eleventh day of May.
“In Mill Killara we were reared, between Thurles and Templemore,
Well known by all inhabitants around the parish of Loughmore.
We’re as innocent of shooting Ellis as the child in the cradle do lie,
And can’t see the reason, for another man’s crime, we are condemned to die.”
The execution it took place, by their holy priest reconciled, their maker for to face.
Such thunder, rain and lightning has ne’er been witnessed since
As the Lord sent down on that day, as a token of their innocence,
That their sould may rest in heaven above as their remains rest in Loughmore.
Required by the revolutionary tribunal to identify herself, she retorted (since her brother’s death passed the succession to the imprisoned child Louis XVII), “I am called Elizabeth Marie de France, sister of Louis XVI, aunt of Louis XVII, your King.” The papers just reported that she said “Elizabeth Marie.”
This fate cannot have surprised her: her correspondence anticipates a bloody reckoning with the revolutionary “monsters from hell” from years earlier, and reflects the figure in the royal household pushing the king and queen on immoderate courses like their famous attempted escape. (Elisabeth posed as a maid with the fugitive party.) “The Assembly is still the same; the monsters are the masters,” she wrote in February 1790. “The king, and others, from the integrity of their own natures, cannot bring themselves to see the evil such as it is.”
Elisabeth was nevertheless quite attached to her brother and her sister-in-law, and swore an oath to keep with Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette during the royal couple’s harrowing attempt to ride out the revolution. She courageously quaffed the every terror that family endured all the way to the dregs; when the mob stormed the Tuileries on June 20, 1792, she was momentarily mistaken for the queen and thereby put in peril of her life. “Do not undeceive them!” she warned an associate who was about to save her by correcting the misapprehension.
Elisabeth’s correspondence shows her not “merely” self-sacrificing but a keen observer of events who pushed her brother to rein in the revolution by force … and pushed her exiled brother the Comte d’Artois** to do likewise. For Elisabeth, bloodshed would be necessary, and desirable sooner than later — in contrast to the national-reconciliation stuff the doomed king was still hoping for.
By the end Paris of the Terror probably didn’t really need any better reason to cut off Elisabeth’s head than the fact of her bloodlines — “sister of the tyrant.” There are enough little hagiographies out there concerning Elisabeth’s piety and loyalty, however, that some think she should eventually be proposed as a candidate for Catholic canonization.