On this date in 1803, Flemish outlaw Ludovicus Baekelandt was guillotined at Bruges with about 20 of his gang.
Deserting the army of the conquering French, Baekelandt set up as a bandit preying the deep spruce forests of the Vrijbos, eventually attaining leadership of a gang more than 30 strong.
Baekelandt is one of those whom popular memory and national sentiment (resentful here of the French occupation) has elevated into huggable social banditry. But the evidence remaining us testifies to little but a garden-variety brigand whose offenses were in no way confined to property crimes.
The gang was rounded up in 1802 and the Bruges court heard testimony from more than 100 witnesses, eventually dooming 21 men and three women to death for a litany of murders and robberies.
Almost all the information about Baekelandt available online is in Dutch; if that tongue is in your toolkit, gentle reader, this public-domain book is sure to level you up on Ludovicus Baekelandt and friends.
Neither the empire nor its ward greeted this absentee-landlord arrangement with enthusiasm.
The city of Brussels at this point* was governed by the “nine nations”, nine craft guild consortiums wielding privileges dating to the medieval economy who together dominated the city. Defending these privileges against absolutist states intent on rolling them back was a major bone of contention in Brussels, even years before the Austrian handover.
Just what the ancient rights of the guilds embraced had long been contested with the Spanish crown, and apparently the Brussels town council kept the charters enumerating a very expansive grant of them locked up — until they were accidentally revealed thanks to a bombing in the Nine Years’ War, then published widely.
So did the guilds get these rights or no?
Anneessens in 1698-99 argued the nations’ case before the equally ancient Council of Brabant, and lost: Spanish Austria was suffered to curtail the Brussels guilds, and although the guilds provocatively refused to swear their customary oath to the new arrangement the Spanish were able to squelch the ensuing disturbances by 1700.
The tensions rested, unresolved, through the war years but come 1717 they resurfaced when the Austrian-import governor the Marquis of Prie demanded fresh oaths upon the hamstrung guild privileges, and new taxes to boot. Again the guilds refused — not only in Brussels but Ghent, Antwerp and Mechlin.
Prie only quelled this half-revolt in 1719 but when he did,
he took drastic measures. Five leaders, including Anneessens, were arrested. They were all locked inside the Stone Gate, and a scandalous trial followed, during which Prie did everything he could to get Anneessens, whom he viewed as the brains behind the resistance, convicted. Anneessens received a death sentence, which he proudly refused to sign, and was beheaded on 18 September 1719 [sic**]. After the execution the people of Brussels mourned and collected his blood as relics, and priests in some of the churches held requiems in spite of strenuous attempts by Prie, supported by the higher clergy (the Archbishop of Mechlin) to prevent this. Prie had wanted to “make an example” with this execution and in fact succeeded, despite the sympathy of the people of Brussels for their martyr. (Hetty Wertheim-Gijse Weenink, “Early 18th Century Uprisings in the Low Countries: Prelude to the Democratic Revolution,” History Workshop, spring 1983)
* The guild-nation governance system would persist until Belgium was occupied by France after the French Revolution.
** Literally every other source I found, including the inscription on the Anneessens monument, prefers September 19 for the man’s execution.
Implicated a sorceress by the last “witch” they tortured during the witch trials of Olsene-Dentergem in the early 1660s, Maeyken had little likelihood of resisting her own bout with enhanced interrogation and duly settled upon a vast register of infernally aided mischief plus 23 more humans to accuse.
On the advice of five witchcraft lawyers, Maeyken De Smet was sentenced to burning at the stake and the confiscation of all of her property. Because she had concluded a written contract with the devil, which she had signed with her own blood; had renounced God, Our Lady and all of the saints; had had sex with the devil several times; had attended several meetings of witches and their devils; had bewitched people and cows with a grey powder; and had contaminated flax with flee-beetles and trees with pernicious insects, she was strangled at the stake on a scaffold on the gallows-field and then burnt to ashes. All of her goods were confiscated. The trial had lasted eighteen days and had cost 301 pounds, 8 Schellings and 10 groats. (Six Centuries of Criminal Law: History of Criminal Law in the Southern Netherlands and Belgium)
The hecatomb this situation would seem to portend did not quite come to pass, as many of the other accused mounted vigorous defenses — often successfully exploiting judicial mechanisms to tie up the juggernaut long enough that they could get out of its way. (One even successfully used a hunger strike to avoid execution.) This particular witch hunt fizzled out by the end of 1662.
The Martyrs Mirror hagiography of Reformation martyrs offers us these four stalwart subjects of the Habsburgs’ Low Countries patrimony:
On the last of January, 1550, there were offered up for the faith, at Lier, in Brabant, four pious Christians, named Govert, Gillis, Mariken and Anneken, who, as sheep for the slaughter, had been apprehended without violence. When they were brought before the council, and questioned concerning their faith, they made a frank and unfeigned confession of it. The bailiff then said, “You stand here to defend yourselves?”
Govert replied, “As regards my faith, I have freely confessed it, and shall turn to no other; though it cost my life, I will adhere to it.”
Forthwith the imperial edict* was read to them, and the bailiff asked them whether they understood its contents.
Govert said, “God has commanded us through Christ, as is recorded in the sixteenth chapter of Mark, that all who believe and are baptized shall be saved, and that those who do not believe shall be damned; but the emperor, in his blind judgment, has commanded that whoever is baptized upon his faith, shall be put to death without mercy. These two commands militate against each other; one of the two we must forsake; but everyone ought to know that we must keep the command of God; for though Satan teaches that we are heretics, yet we do not act contrary to the Word of God.”
When they were led to the tribunal, Govert said to the priests, “Take off your long robes, put on sack cloth, put ashes on your heads, and repent, like those of Nineveh.”
In the court the bailiff asked him whether he desired no favor.
He replied, “I will not ask for your favor; for what I cannot do without, the most high God will give me.”
The bailiff said also to Anneken, “Do you not desire a favor, before sentence is passed upon you?
She answered, “I shall ask favor of God, my refuge.”
Mariken, an old woman of seventy-five years, was asked whether she would confess her sins to the priest.
She replied, “I am sorry that I ever confessed my sins to the mortal ears of the priests.”
Seeing some brethren, Govert turned his face and joyfully comforted them, saying among other things, “I pray God, that you may be thus imprisoned for His glory, as I now am.”
The bailiff very fiercely said, “Be still, for your preaching is of no account here.”, “My lord bailiff,” said he,”I speak only five or six words, which God has given me to speak, does this give you so much pain?” And when the people murmured on this account, he said, “This has been witnessed from the time of righteous Abel, that the righteous have suffered reproach; hence be not astonished.” The two servants that stood by him said, “You must not speak; the bailiff will not have it; hence be still.”
Immediately God closed his mouth, which grieved many. Gillis was not questioned, and he said nothing at all; but they were led back to prison, where they rejoiced together, and sang: Saligh is den man, en goet geheeten; and also the forty-first psalm. The bailiff then came into prison, and asked Govert, whether he had considered the matter; to which be replied, “Unless you repent, the punishment of God shall come upon you.” The bailiff looked out of the window, and said, “Will God damn all this multitude of people?”
Govert replied, “I have spoken the Word of God to you; but I hope there are still people here who fear God?”
The bailiff then turned to Anneken, and asked her what she had to say to it.
She replied, “Lord bailiff, twice I have been greatly honored in this city, namely, when I was married, and when my husband became emperor; but I never had a joy that did not perish, as I now have.”
On his way to death, Govert delivered an excellent admonition, reproving the wicked railing, and said, “Be it known to you, that we do not die for theft, murder or heresy, but because we seek an inheritance with God, and live according to His Word.”
The executioner commanded him silence, but he said, “Leave God be with me for a little while; repent, for your life is short.”
A brother then said, “God will strengthen you.” “Oh, yes,” said he, “the power of His Spirit is not weakening in me.”
The monk attempted to speak to Mariken, but Govert said, “Get you hence, deceiver, to your own people; for we have no need of you.”
Entering the ring, Govert said to the gild-brothers, “How you stand here with sticks and staves? Thus stood the Jews when they brought Christ to death; if we had been afraid of this, we would have fled in time.”
They then knelt down together, and prayed; whereupon they kissed each other. Anneken immediately commenced to sing, “In thee, O Lord; do I put my trust.” The servants told her to be still; but Govert said, “No, sister, sing on,” and helped her sing. Enraged at this, the bailiff called to him a servant, and whispered something in his ear. The latter went to the assistant of the executioner, who, upon receiving the order, immediately put a gag on Govert; but the latter held his teeth so firmly closed, that the gag did not hinder him much, and he laughingly said, “I could easily sing with the gag on; but Paul says: “Sing in your heart to God.”
The executioner, in order to put her to shame, made Anneken stand in her bare chemise. A servant asked Gillis whether he did not see some of his people. Gillis said, “Do you know of nothing else to torment us with?” “What does he say?” asked Govert. “He inquires for our fellow brethren,” replied Gillis. Govert said, “Though I could count twenty, I would not mention a single one. You think that by killing us you can suppress the Word of God; but of those that hear and see this, hundreds shall yet come forth.” Standing at the stake, he said, “Amend your ways and repent; for after this there will be no more time for repentance.” A servant who had a bottle of wine, asked them whether they wished to drink. Govert said, “We have no desire for your insipid wine; for our Father shall give us new wine in His eternal kingdom.” When it was thought that the old woman had been strangled at the stake, she began to sing a hymn in honor of her Bridegroom, which when Anneken heard it, she, from ardent love, sang with her. When they all stood at their stakes, each with a strap around the neck, they smiled at and nodded to one another, thus affectionately saluting and comforting each other, and commending their souls into the hands of God, they fell asleep in the Lord, and were burned.
On this date in 1292, Johann de Wettre, “a maker of small knives,” was condemned to die at Ghent for sodomy.
De Wettre was consequently (whether on September 8 or subsequently) “burned at the pillory next to St. Peter’s” in what appears to be the earliest documented execution of homosexuality in Christian Europe. Whether he was a habitual or a one-time offender, how he was detected and prosecuted, and the fate of his male partner — all of these are obscure.
One can safely suppose that de Wettre was not the first European executed for sodomy; perhaps the scanty lines we have of his death are only fortuitously preserved because he suffered his very public fate in one of Europe’s largest and most prosperous cities.
However accidental, de Wettre’s stake is a landmark for Christendom’s emerging conception of same-sex desire as not only a capital crime, but a downright existential threat.*
No matter what Leviticus might say on the subject, the late Middle Ages furnish no documented examples of official persecutions but a rich corpus of same-sex literary amour, often penned by monks — a class of men whose debauchery (real or alleged) would come to invite violent attacks in the coming centuries.
O would that I had been my own messenger
Or been that letter which your hand softly touched;
And tht I had had then the same power to feel I have now,
And that you could ot recognize me until I wanted you to.
Then I would have explored your face and spirit as you read,
That is, if I could have restrained myself long enough.
The rest we would have left to nature and the gracious gods.
For God is readier than man to grant indulgence.
Horace composed an ode about a certain boy
Whose face was so lovely he could easily have been a girl,
Whose hair fell in waves against his ivory neck,
Whose forehead was white as snow and his eyes black as pitch,
Whose soft cheeks were full of delicious sweetness
When they bloomed in the brightness of a blush of beauty,
His nose was perfect, his lips flame red, lovely his teeth —
An exterior formed in measure to match his mind.
Now, the Church was still issuing plenty of edicts proscribing same-sex activity around this period, so whether or not the ability of these men and many others to produce overtly homoerotic verse while still prospering within the holy orders constitutes “toleration” is a lively scholarly debate. Suffice it to say that around the 12th and 13th centuries there was a social and legal shift underway from treating sodomy predominantly as a vice for personal penance, to treating it as, well …
If a sodomite had been executed, and subsequently several times back to life, each time he should be punished even more severely if this were possible: hence those who practice this vice are seen to be enemies of God and nature, because in the sight of God such a sin is deemed graver than murder, for the reason that the murderer is seen as destroying only one human being, but the sodomite as destroying the whole human race.
For this diabolical new construction of homosexuality Warren Johansson coined the term “the sodomy delusion”:** “a complex of paranoid beliefs … to the effect that non-procreative sexuality in general, and sexual acts between males in particular, are contrary to the law of Nature, to the exercise of right reason, and to the will of God and that sodomy is practiced by individuals whose wills have been enslaved by demonic powers.” It was a conception that would find its way into law and popular prejudice in the centuries following our Ghent knifemaker’s immolation — and would continue thereafter, evolving across revolutions† religious, political, and economic to shape public discourse about homosexuality down to the present day.
During the Dutch Revolt — a proto-nationalist conflict pitting the Low Countries against the Habsburg Empire, overlaid with a religious conflict pitting Calvinist against Catholic — the Low Countries principals came to an expedient arrangement to lay off fighting with one another in order to concentrate on controlling their respective internal revolts.
As we’ve previously discussed, this truce helped set up now-unmolested local religious majorities to do some internal purging.
Whereas Calvinist Ghent went after some Catholic monks on accusations of homosexuality, Catholic Bruges (today in Belgium) … went after some not-Catholic-enough monks on accusations of homosexuality.
In [illustrator Franz] Hogenberg‘s Scenes an engraving dated May 18, 1578, shows a lengthy procession of monks being marched out of a monastery in Bruges under armed guard. The title and verses explain that two Franciscans of Calvinist leanings were whipped and then interrogated (probably on account of their Protestantism). But they revealed that many in their order were tained by sodomy (Sodomi). The other monks admitted this (under torture?), and “they were all taken prisoners and led away to the gate for their godlessness.” Presumably depicting a result of this … [is] Execution for Sodomitical Godlessness in the City of Bruges … Three monks are about to be burned in a public square while two are being beaten. Underneath, the verses state, “in well-known Bruges in Flanders three Franciscans (Minnenbroder) have been burned. Also two others were well beaten with switches and two had to be banished. For they were young and inexperienced and had been seduced by the old ones, so that they unjustly practiced sodomy (unzuchtt) upon their bodies.” Though the circumstances of the monks’ trial are as yet unclear, such sentences were carried out by secular authorities. Minnenbroder (Franciscans) may be a satiric pun on the word minne (which had come to mean debauchery), suggesting “brothers in lust” as opposed to brotherly love. Hogenberg connects sodomy with “godlessness,” as was common.
… The investigations, convictions, and punitive displays in these monastic cases [in Bruges and in Ghent] had special topicality for inclusion because they not only afforded titillations of sexual scandal, censure, and public punishment, but also added alleged religious transgression and appealed to Protestant-Catholic rivalries of the time. Although Hogenberg’s sodomites are ecclesiastics, his engravings indicate how these public spectacles were managed, while also providing us one contemporary view of the attitudes attendant crowds displayed.
On this date in 1916, German forces occupying Belgium shot Gabrielle Petit at Schaarbeek for espionage.
Petit, orphaned as a child, was a 21-year-old Brussels saleswoman and governess when the First World War began.
In 1914, she helped her wounded fiance, soldier Maurice Gobert, cross the front lines into the Netherlands to rejoin his unit.
This was already a no-no — just the thing, in fact, that would soon get British nurse Edith Cavell shot by the Hun. But Petit went way beyond into outright espionage.
Having impressed British officers upon her successful delivery of Maurice by relating everything she could remember about the German army’s disposition, she got a crash course in spycraft and returned back over the lines. For a year and a half, she continued funneling information about troop movements as well as distributing the then-underground (but today still-extant) newspaper La Libre Belgique.
Captured in February 1916, she refused to trade her life for the identity of any other operative, and was shot for spying.
Although Gabrielle Petit didn’t get anything like Nurse Cavell’s wartime propaganda play, her story became well-known after the Armistice and resulted in a state funeral, various films and books, and a monument in Brussels’ Place Saint-Jean.
On this date in 1916, Captain Charles Fryatt was shot at Bruges, Belgium as an illegal combatant.
Fryatt was a 42-year-old civilian mariner captaining the SS Brussels on the Harwick-Hook of Holland route when, in March 1915, a German U-Boat ordered him to heave to.
Fryatt wheeled the Brussels around on the submarine and attempted to ram it. The German ship escaped by a whisker only by scrambling an emergency dive. The Admiralty gave Fryatt a gold watch and a pat on the head for bravery.
It was not until the following year that the Germans captured that same vessel with that same captain on board. When they realized who they had, they subjected him to a snap tribunal for violating the laws of war: he’d participated in combat (by trying to ram the U-Boat) whilst being not a member of his country’s armed forces. That made him an illegal combatant, a franc-tireur in the still-current term for a civilian partisan left over from the Franco-Prussian War.
The Germans mightily loathed such terrorists, feared they would bedevil their steps in Belgium and France: people not sporting enough to stay beaten, people with the effrontery to fight back without being a duly enrolled member of a nation-state’s standing army. They did not scruple to push an expansive line on the definition of civilian non-participation.
“Every non-uniformed person,” read the a Moltke directive to the army, “if he is not designated as being justified in participating in fighting by clearly recognizable insignia, is to be treated as someone standing outside international law, if he takes part in the fighting … [or] participates in any way in the act of war without permission. He will be treated as a franc-tireur and immediately shot according to martial law.” (Source.)
So … that’s exactly what happened to Captain Fryatt.
This shooting set off a flurry of international recriminations and rebuttals.
People of normal moral sense can see readily enough that a merchant captain who scares off a submarine has not committed a grave crime any more than has a teen who chucks a grenade at commando firing at his home. The legal question for deliberation in Fryatt’s case was all about whether the merchant mariner had or had not committed an impermissible belligerent act by charging* … and as always, the definition of a war crime turned out to mirror precisely the political interest of the definer.
The British at this point had the Germans handily bottled up in a naval blockade that even seized food as “contraband”. (A tactic angrily denounced as a war crime in Berlin.) The Germans needed to get out of this stranglehold, and lacking anything approaching parity on the high seas, they staked their hopes on the U-boat. So the German interest was for maximum latitude for submarine activity; in fact, early in 1915, it was just in the process of rolling out its unrestricted submarine warfare policy of unannounced attacks on civilian freighters carrying war materiel. This does not seem to be what the U-boat stopping the Brussels did, but it gives you an idea of the scene. German military judges naturally said that German submarines who stopped a British merchant ship were not to be defied.
And the British interest, and by wonderous coincidence also its policy and legal position, naturally maintained maximum restrictions on a U-Boat’s potential targets, and maximum rights for the realm’s Captain Fryatts to resist.**
Fryatt, indeed, had followed the directives laid down by that Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. Churchill threatened to prosecute any ship captain who surrendered his vessel to a U-boat without opposing it “either with their armament if they possess it, or by ramming”: the theory was that routine resistance would maximize costs to the German navy, and maybe lead slow and vulnerable U-boats to skip the parley stage in favor of sneak attacks on unflagged steamers, which would sooner or later sink an American ship, which would help pull the U.S. into the war. (In May 1915, making no mistake at all about its target, a German U-boat intentionally torpedoed the Lusitania, generating a helpful stateside scandal also attended by dickering over the legality of the attack.)
So, the initial German announcement tersely reported that Fryatt
was condemned to death because, although he was not a member of a combatant force, he made an attempt on the afternoon of March 20, 1915, to ram the German submarine U-33 … One of the many nefarious franc-tireur proceedings of the British merchant marine against our war vessels has thus found a belated but merited expiation.
Britain replied that the captain had exercised only his “undoubted right of resistance,” and pointed out that a different merchant vessel that did obey such an order on the very same day had been sunk before it could evacuate — drowning 104 souls.
[T]he experience of German methods of warfare warned him that surrender would be no guarantee that the lives of his crew would be spared.
He determined therefore to take the best chance of saving his ship, and to steer for the submarine in order to force her to dive, and, if she were not quick enough in diving, to ram her.
This was his undoubted right under international law – to disregard her summons and resist her attack to the best of his power. It was a contest of skill and courage in which each side took their chance.
This led Germany to reiterate, on August 10, its view that Fryatt’s
act was not an act of self-defence, but a cunning attack by hired assassins …
The German War Tribunal sentenced him to death because he had performed an act of war against the German sea forces, although he did not belong to the armed forces of his country. He was not deliberately shot in cold blood without due consideration, as the British Government asserts, but he was shot as a franc-tireur, after calm consideration and thorough investigation …
Germany will continue to use this law of warfare in order to save her submarine crews from becoming the victims of francs-tireurs at sea.
There’s a 1917 monument to Captain Fryatt still displayed at London’s Liverpool Street Station, as well as a mountain in Alberta named in his honor.
Nobody was ever prosecuted for Fryatt’s execution.
* The distinction as parsed by Germany hung on whether the intended merchant prize was armed (allowed to resist) or unarmed (not).
** U-boats were new legal territory in 1915. The 1930 London Naval Treaty — although Germany was not party to it — attempted to clarify the status of these machines.
He had killed his corporal two weeks before, and was one of “only” 13 Belgian soldiers executed during the Great War, either for military offenses such as desertion, or regular criminal ones such as Walput’s homicide.
On this date in 1918, Belgium carried out its last execution for ordinary crimes — in fact, its only one since 1863.
Now, that figure excludes a reported 242 people executed from 1944 to 1947, in revenge for the Nazi occupation. (To say nothing of those conducted by the Nazis themselves.) But that’s quite a stunning run, considering that death penalty statutes were on the books until 1996: it’s just that the sentences were routinely commuted.
According to the information in this thread on the lively Francophone guillotine.cultureforum.net (it does what it says in the url), Ferfaille murdered his pregnant girlfriend to further his career tomcatting with his other not-yet-pregnant girls. (This being the fourth year of the Great War, a lot of his competition was fertilizing no-man’s lands.)
And as disreputable as hammering one’s lover to death and stuffing her in the vegetable garden is, we’re comfortable averring that it was probably not the single most villainous act to transpire in Belgium the whole of this past century and a half.
Farfaille’s exceptional fate was a consequence of his committing his particular atrocity during that same Great War that gave him such great odds with Flemish females.
Ferfaille was executed in Veurne, just up the road from Dunkirk in the tiny corner of Belgium not occupied by Germany … and he was executed during Germany’s Spring Offensive on the Western Front, its last desperate (and ultimately unsuccessful) gamble* to secure battlefield victory before the recently-committed Americans threw their corn-fed thumbs on the scale.
Despite the venal nature of the crime, Ferfaille’s capital punishment was decreed by military court, since the perp was a soldier. With shells kerploding in the distance, the rakish junior officer was set up to face a tribunal with a particular shortage of patience for his shenanigans. (Belgium also carried out military executions in World War I — it’s just that the others were for military crimes, like desertion.)
Although what remained of Belgium was not jumpy in the execution of its sentence. Quite the opposite.
Actually conducting this beheading** required requisitioning from France prolific belle epoque headsman Anatole Deibler (French Wikipedia entry), and his assistants, and their portable guillotine. (Belgium had a guillotine of its own, but it would have had to cross the front to get to Emile Ferfaille. War is hell that way.)
This party of death made a hazardous journey skirting the charnel house of the Western front, protected by all the might of two nations’ armies for their mission to kill one man in a season where thousands died namelessly day by day … sort of a Bizarro World Saving Private Ryan.
The train took these rather small-time ministers of doom to Dunkirk, where they transferred to a truck for Veurne, then under direct German bombardment. The execution crew stood in only a little less danger than its client, but it carried out the sentence, “publicly” in the town’s all-but-empty square. Due to German shelling, barely anyone in the public witnessed this milestone event.
* The manpower for a western push was facilitated by the recent removal of Germany’s eastern enemy consequent upon the Russian Revolution.
** The penalty demanded by law. Post-World War II executions all seem to have been firing squad affairs even though the letter of Belgian law still apparently prescribed beheading even then.