Iceland last used the death penalty on January 12, 1830 with the beheading of farm servants Agnes Magnusdottir and Fridrik Sigurdsson.
Only threadbare details survive to posterity about their crime: one night in 1828, Agnes roused a neighboring farm to give the alarm that Natan Ketilsson’s farmhouse, where she worked, was afire. Neighbors were able to quench the blaze quickly enough to realize that Ketilsson himself had not died because he was trapped in the flame — but because he had been stabbed to death, along with another man known as a criminal, Petur Jonsson.
Agnes, 33, and teenager Fridrik were arrested for murder and eventually beheaded on a desolate hill on the frozen northern coast where a mossed-over stone still silently marks the spot.*
(cc) photo taken by Jennifer Boyer on the walking path to be found at the site of crime.
Why were these men killed? The trial record attributes it to Fridrik’s “hatred of Natan, and a desire to steal,” which are answers that ask their own questions. If the stones remember, they aren’t telling and in the scantiness of documentation the job has fallen to literature instead, for there is something to be said for an mysterious double murder in the ashes of a half-burned farm and the novelty of a woman being the very last human to have her head chopped off in Iceland. (On execution day, Fridrik went first.)
Agnes was Natan’s lover, but the farmer had a reputation for womanizing and, so all suspect, eyes for Fridrik’s young girlfriend;** the inference of a jealous domestic psychodrama cast on the fringe of the Arctic Sea, of chilly twilit tables gathering furtive eyes above with wandering hands below, seems hard to resist. One of Natan’s other paramours was the poet Skald-Rosa, who addressed an anguished quatrain to Agnes in the weeks after the murder, helping to fix the latter’s place in national lore as the wicked moving spirit behind the whole disaster.
Don’t be surprised by the sorrow in my eyes
Nor at the bitter pangs of pain that I feel:
For you have stolen with your scheming he who gave my life meaning,
And thrown your life to the Devil to deal.
And then there was the strange coda, while verdicts were sent to Denmark for confirmation,† of the condemned simply living and working among the community waiting to execute them. Nineteenth century rural Iceland was a little short on jail cells and surplus provisions.
After studying on an exchange program in Iceland, Australian Hannah Kent found this speculative environment a rich source for her well-received first novel, Burial Rites. (There’s a lengthy and interesting podcast interview with her by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation here.)
Kent’s drama has made headway in Hollywood, with Jennifer Lawrence said to be keen on playing the tragic lead; if it someday does hit the silver screen, however, it won’t even be the first on its subject matter — witness the 1995 film Agnes.
As of this writing, the full movie can also be searched on YouTube…
The criminals Fridrik Sigurdsson and Agnes Magnusdottir were today moved out of custody to the place of execution, and following them to the execution site were the priests Reverend Tomasson and Reverend Thorvardur Jonsson, an assistant priest. The criminals had wished that the latter two help them prepare for their deaths. After the priest Johann Tomasson completed a speech of admonition to the convict Fridrik Sigurdsson, Fridrik’s head was taken off with one blow of the axe. The farmer Gudmundur Ketilsson,‡ who had been ordered to be executioner, committed the work that he had been asked to do with dexterity and fearlessness. The criminal Agnes Magnusdottir, who, while this was taking place, had been kept at a remote station where she could not see the site of execution, was then fetched. After the Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jonsson had appropriately prepared her for death, the same executioner cut off her head, and with the same craftsmanship as before. The lifeless heads were then set upon two stakes at the site of execution, and their bodies put in two coffins of untreated boards, and buried before the men were dismissed. While the deed took place, and there until it was finished, everything was appropriately quiet and well-ordered, and it was concluded by a short address by Reverend Magnus Arnason to those that were there.
Actum ut supra.
B. Blondal, R. Olsen, A. Arnason
(From the Magistrate’s Book of Hunavatn District, 1830 — as quoted in the epilogue of Kent’s Burial Rites)
* The milestone murderers, or at least their heads, rest in Tjörn.
** This young woman, Sigridur Gudmundsdottir, was condemned to death with the other two but got to keep her head in the end.
† Iceland did not become independent of Denmark until 1944.
Danish “pastor-poet” Kaj Munk was kidnapped and extrajudicially executed by the German occupation on this date in 1944.
Named for the adoptive family who raised him on the Baltic island of Lolland, Munk (English Wikipedia entry | Danish) was one of his country’s most popular playwrights of the 1930s.
He felt then the era’s pull to the Führerprinzip, and expressed admiration for the fascist rulers emerging in Germany and Italy — and disdain for parliamentarian prattle. Mussolini, he wrote, “was the new man, the future of Europe.”
He could scarcely have been ignorant of the danger this posture invited.
To this period dates Munk’s postwar fame, as well as his celebrated play Niels Ebbesen — which is all about a medieval Danish squire who assassinated a German tyrant. You can imagine how that went over in Berlin.
And as a working pastor, Munk had another platform, too.
“The pulpit has become for us a place of responsibility,” he wrote in 1941. “We tremble in our black garments when we ascend its stairs, because here, in God’s house, the Word is free … the Holy Ghost … forces us not to stay silent but to speak.”
And Munk was willing to do it, to exploit his position to oppose the cooperative stance his superiors were trying to promulgate; to preach against the occupation from the Copenhagen Cathedral in December of 1943; and to have subversive sermons illegally printed and promulgated — the last just days before his death.
Seized by the Gestapo on January 4, 1944, he was shot immediately after at Silkeborg. (The site is dignified by a a pious and understated memorial.) His abandoned corpse was discovered the next morning; consequently, January 5 is often the occasion for events marking the anniversary of Munk’s martyrdom.
On this date in 1621, Christenze (or Christence) Kruckow was beheaded as a witch — the only known noblewoman to suffer that fate in Danish history.
Kruckow first came under the witchsmeller’s nose in the 1590s. As a young woman, she lived in the household of a man named Eiler Brockenhuus — common practice at the time in Danish high society. The supposition is that when the lady of the house died in 1582, Kruckow might have aspired to make a permanent move. Instead, the position of wife no. 2 went to another woman named Anne Brille.
From the sound of it, Anne Brille spent the ensuing decade-plus in a state of continual pregnancy, punctuated only by periods of mourning as all 15* of her prospective progeny miscarried or died in infancy. Pick your environmental toxin or genetic abnormality of choice, but it’s no surprise this started to give the poor would-be mother the heebie-jeebies. Eventually, two of the estate’s servants got caught up in a 1596 witchcraft interrogation and were burned at the stake — but not before implicating Christenze Kruckow as part of the coven.
On that occasion, the usual reticence to visit on elites the sanctions intended for their lessers prevailed, and Christenze simply had to relocate to a sister’s household in Alborg.
But a reputation for black magic wasn’t the best thing to have to one’s name in early 17th century Europe, when witch-hunting reached a horrifying acme. Like his brother-in-law James VI of Scotland (also James I of England), the long-reigning Danish king Christian IV developed a personal obsession with the diabolical, leading to an effusion of witchcraft trials in the 1610s and early 1620s.
Now, Kruckow’s elite status served to attract instead of deflect attention; it didn’t help that she was become a never-married hexagenarian. When a neighbor’s wife fell ill in witch-spooked Alborg, the accusations against her snowballed into their customary colorful forms, such as that she’d been seen delivering a pregnant woman (Danish link) of a troll or ogre at some fell sabbath. King Christian took a personal interest in seeing her case prosecuted, and in the end it was his own Privy Council that tried her, and then sentenced her to the privileged death by the sword instead of the stake: the last deferences to her social rank. She confessed at that time to having attempted to lay a curse on the wedding-bed of her long-ago rival, Anne Brille.
In between her witch episodes, Christenze Kruckow had taken an interest in education for poor children in Alborg. She carried her philanthropy (more Danish) even beyond the scaffold, bequeathing 1,000 rigsdalers to a university scholarship that the University of Copenhagen was still awarding into the 20th century — popularly known as the “beheaded virgin grant”.
Alv Erlingsson made his sea-dog bones in this conflict, terrorizing Hanseatic League fleets and eventually raiding the Danish coast as well. His “Viking” reputation proceeds not only from this mastery of the waves but from his willingness to direct it even against his own king and country.
Although he was a senior enough official to be dispatched as an envoy to the English king in 1286,* a falling-out with King Eric‘s brother Haakon led Erlingsson to actually attack Oslo the following year.** His marauders put it to the torch and murdered the garrison commander — after which Erlingsson was a robber baron in the fullest sense of both words.
He set up as a freebooter operating out of Riga and preying by land and sea on whomever he could lay a sword on: the Teutonic Knights fretted the “harmful wolves led by the Count of Tønsberg.” This too is a part of his Viking image: King Eric and the Hanse made peace soon enough so that everyone could resume getting rich on trade. Erlingsson didn’t, or couldn’t, make that arrangement and so made his way taking plunder from the fringes of proper civilization. From the standpoint of posterity he looks positively anachronistic.
Call it Viking or piratical, romantic or loathsome — it caught up with him quickly in 1290 when he was captured on the Danish coast. Now despite his high birth he had no clout of his own and no diplomatic protection to shield him from revenge against the devastation he had visited upon those lands.
Information on this amazing character is not as widely available as one might hope; there’s a useful biographical sketch of him by Gabriele Campbell here (already cited in this post). The same blogger also has a follow-up post unpacking the games of thrones taking place in the same milieu.
* England and Norway were on a friendly footing, and the countries were maneuvering towards terms for Norwegian-Scots Princess Margaret to come to the Scottish throne.
** Erlingsson’s successful 1287 attack on Oslo led directly to the initial construction (in the 1290s) of Akershus Fortress, to shore up that city’s defenses. This medieval castle still guards the port to this day; it also hosted the execution of Vidkun Quisling and several other condemned traitors after World War II.
On the morning of December 14, 1759, William Davis succumbed to a self-inflicted wound rather than face St. Croix’s harsh justice for an alleged slave rising plot.
They strung up his remains just the same.
St. Croix, today part of the U.S. Virgin Islands, was at the time a Danish colony.* As with other Caribbean islands, its economy catered to the lucrative new European taste for sugar — powered by human bondage.
“The establishment of the sugar industry created the demand for labor in the West Indian islands,” Eric Williams wrote. “It was a choice, from the sugar planter’s point of view, of Negro labor or no labor at all. Sugar meant slavery.”
It was, in fact, sugar which raised these insignificant tropical islands from the status of pirates’ nests to the dignity of the most precious colonies known to the Western World up to the nineteenth century …
Tremendous wealth was produced from an unstable economy based on a single crop, which combined the vices of feudalism and capitalism with the virtues of neither. Liverpool in England, Nantes in France, Rhode Island in America, prospered on the slave trade. London and Bristol, Bordeaux and Marseilles, Cadiz and Seville, Lisbon and New England, all waxed fat on the profits of the trade in the tropical produce raised by the Negro slave. … Sugar was king; without his Negro slave his kingdom would have been a desert.
For those in King Sugar’s castle this desert stuff was no mere metaphor, but life and limb itself. They trafficked fantastical wealth from the shores of tiny islets where they took their sleep surrounded by a vastly more numerous** servile population. Just let the serfs of such a manor commence a jacquerie …
White planters’ vulnerability to a potential slave revolt, dramatically underscored by a 1733 revolt on neighboring St. John, bred great paranoia about imagined plots: a casual word here or there could be heard as a seditious murmuring, and then a politically motivated judicial machinery of torture, hearsay, and panicked accusations set into motion. It can be maddeningly difficult from the distance of centuries to weigh the truth value of a supposed slave plot strangled in the crib. Intrepid resistance? Or phantom from the planters’ nightmares?
Either way the slaves wound up just as dead.
We have the story of this revolt’s suppression from one of the judges, Engelbert Hasselberg, and this naturally constrains our view. Hasselberg wrote up his report, complete with an index of all the slaves punished, for eyes in Copenhagen. He’s certain that there really was an intended rising, even as he acknowledges a want of firm evidence: “many of the conspirators have refused to confess anything at all, although there has been sufficient evidence against them, insofar as it may be called evidence at all, where rogues have plotted and been the sole witnesses.” That is, a few people’s highly questionable accusations/confessions† sustained the entire affair.
But the story must have had the judges’ hearts in their throats.
Each [Negro] was if possible to slay his master or foreman; next, those whose masters’ plantations lay in the Christianstaed district, were to gather on Colleman’s plantation … and those Negroes who belonged to the West-End, were to assemble at the West-End fort, and first take possession of Fort Friderichswaern and of all the ammunition there to be found. Thereupon all those who had procured weapons were to march to Christianstaed, setting the plantation[s] on fire on the way, and killing or burning all whites who collected to put out the fires, and finally to storm [Fort] Christianstvaern.
Hasselberg’s report begins, oddly enough, by meditating that “the greater part of the slaves on colonies as recently developed as St. Croix are free-born, and have therefore just as good claim to their freedom as we have to ours. One or other fateful occurrence has brought them out of that natural equality which at birth they enjoyed with us, and made those persons our slaves who by a contrary event might have become our masters. What wonder then that such persons seek their freedom when they are provoked by the unreasonable conduct of unwise masters, and when they believe that the enterprise is not impossible.”
For Hasselberg this freely acknowledged natural inclination is not so much a systemic critique as a management challenge, and he expands on the talents required by the slaveowner to extract surplus-labor without “expos[ing] himself to resentment”, while not neglecting to request that Denmark increase its subsidy to St. Croix.
The enterprise was exposed by a few stray remarks from a quarrelsome slave.
It was in the month of December, 1759, that 2 white men, Matthias and Benjamin Bear, were molding bullets on Sr. Soren Bagge’s plantation. A Negro slave by the name of Cudjo, working at that time on Bagge’s plantation, asked Benjamin Bear to give him some of the bullets as a present, but as he was unable to give a proper account of what he was going to do with them, Bear gave him none. But Matthias, who did not think so far ahead, gave Cudjo a dozen bullets while Bear had stepped aside. Bear learned about it, and in the afternoon of the same day, he said to Cudjo, in the presence of a white man, Peter Hyde, and of a number of other Negroes, that he had heard that Matthias had given him some bullets, but he, Cudjo, had better look out, or his head might some day be found lying at his feet. To this, Cudjo replied, addressing himself to the 2 white men, Benjamin Bear and Peter Hyde, “You look out that some of your heads won’t lie at your feet pretty soon.” Peter Hyde then asked, “Whom will you then kill?” and Cudjo replied, “You shall be the first that I shall kill.”
The day before this conversation took place between Bear, Hyde and Cudjo, the Cudjo aforementioned had said concerning Mr. Bagge’s plantation house, “Maybe that house will be mine in a short time,” to which one of Bagge’s Negroes, namely Will, replied, “God damn you, you can’t keep a secret.” The same day Cudjo had asked B. Bear how long it would be until Christmas, and when Bear asked Cudjo why he wanted to know this, he answered, “I am asking about it, as I hope by that time to be a little Petit Maitre.”
Bear and Hyde reported the conversation and under questioning on December 11, Cudjo and his blood brother started revealing details of a slave rebellion in the offing — scheduled to capitalize on whites’ distracting Christmas celebrations. William Davis, a free black, was its supposed instigator.
Davis was under interrogation the very next day. The particular suspicion he was under would have instantly impressed him as placing him in the gravest peril; when induced with a plea bargain-type offer to merely suffer banishment, he “made a frank confession” and “exposed the whole dessein, and gave the names of quite a number of Negroes, some of whom have been found guilty and others acquitted.”
Hasselberg’s categorical assertion that Davis’s plea-induced statement was a “frank confession” doesn’t square comfortably either with Davis’s subsequent attempt to repudiate the “confession” or with the acknowledged denials and acquittals of most of the people he named. Perhaps this speaks well of St. Croix’s judicial restraint, but what might actually have been afoot for Christmas 1759, and how many people it might have involved, is heavily conjectural.
Not least because Davis — in remorse for naming names, perhaps, or else not trusting his captors’ assurance of humane treatment — took any subsequent remarks to an early grave.
[H]e managed to cut his throat in the morning of December 13, while in the fort. The wound was not considered dangerous by the surgeon, and he was immediately bound. He made various confessions after that time, but on the following night, he tore the bandage from his neck, cursed and scolded those who approached him, and swore that if they cut him up piece by piece, and roasted on the fire, he would nevertheless confess nothing. On the following morning, December 14, he died, and he was made an example of.
Hasselberg is not completely explicit here that the posthumous punishment occurred on that same day Davis succumbed, but he does not mince words when it comes to the example itself.
His dead body was dragged through the streets by a horse, by one leg; thereafter hanged on a gallows by a leg, and finally taken down and burned at the stake.†
By Hasselberg’s accounting, Davis was just the first of 14 people hanged, burned, broken on the wheel, or “set up in a gibbet or iron cage” to die of thirst and exposure.§
* St. Croix’s most famous denizen for posterity at this hour was a very small child named Alexander Hamilton.
** Of the British territory Nevis, one late 18th century chronicler remarked, “the present number of whites is stated not to exceed six hundred, while the negroes amount to about ten thousand; a disproportion which necessarily converts all such white men as are not exempted by age and decrepitude into a well regulated militia.” According to Hasselberg, the ratio on St. Croix was 1,690 whites to 11,807 blacks.
† The first slave to provide a corroborating account, one Qvamina, received his freedom and 50 rigsdalers in a conspicuous ceremony performed in front of other slaves.
‡ All translations are via Waldemar Westergaard in “Account of the Negro Rebellion on St. Croix, Danish West Indies, 1759″ in The Journal of Negro History, January 1926.
§ William Davis was the first; the full roster of additional executions in Hasselberg’s report:
2. Franch (or French), free negro, convicted by witnesses, but confessed nothing himself.
He was broken on the wheel with an iron crowbar, laid alive on the wheel, where he survived 12 hours. The head was then set on a stake, and the hand fastened on the gallows.
3. Prince Qvakoe, belonging to his Majesty, convicted by witnesses, and has confessed being implicated.
Was executed in the same way as Franch and lived 2 hours.
4. Cudjo, belonging to Doran, is convicted by witnesses, and has himself confessed.
Was burned alive on a pyre, lived in the fire 4½ minutes.
5. Gomas, belonging to John Bradshou, is convicted and has confessed.
6. George, belonging to James Hughes, has confessed and is convicted.
Both these negroes (5 and 6) were first pinched with hot tongs, then hanged by the legs in a gallows, and a dog likewise, by the neck, between them. Gomas lived ½ an hour and was strangled; George lived 3 hours and was strangled.
7. London, belonging to Thomas Lacke, is convicted and has himself confessed.
He was first pinched with glowing tongs, then hanged up by the legs, lived 12 hours and was strangled.
8. Sam Hector, belonging to Pieter Heyliger, Senior, is convicted by witnesses, but has confessed nothing himself.
He was set up in a gibbet or iron cage and lived 42 hours.
9. Michel, belonging to Hugh O’Donnell, is convicted by witnesses, but confessed nothing.
Got the same punishment as Sam Hector, lived 91 hours.
10. Will, belonging to Soren Bagge, is convicted by witnesses, but made no confession.
Was burned alive, lived in the fire 14 minutes.
11. George, belonging to John Cookly, confessed and was convicted by witnesses.
He was pinched with glowing tongs and hanged by the neck.
12. [Name not given], belonging to Manan Rogers, is convicted by witnesses, and made a partial confession.
Was set up in a gibbet from January 18, at 3:30 p.m. to Jan. 27, 8:30 a.m.
13. Sylvester, belonging to James Conningham, has confessed and been convicted by witnesses.
He was burned alive, and lived in the fire 4½ minutes.
14. Jupiter, belonging to W. Burnet, has confessed and been convicted by witnesses.
He was burned alive, and lived in the fire for 1½ minutes.
On this date in 1537, Jürgen Wullenwever was decapitated and quartered at Wolfenbüttel.
Photo by Agnete (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Wullenwever (English Wikipedia entry | German) was a merchant from Hamburg who came to the fore of a popular Lutheran movement in the Hanseatic port of Lübeck that claimed the power of its old aristocratic council for the city’s burghers.
In this capacity, Wullenwever maneuvered — vainly as it turned out — to arrest the century-long wane of the city’s influence. Lubeck in its day had been “the Queen of the Hanseatic League”. Come 16th century, it was struggling to maintain its trading preeminence against the inroads of Dutch merchants and the fragmentation of the once-mighty Hanse.
This project was doomed in its conception — there was nothing Lubeck could really have done to hold back the historical developments happening around it — and bungled in its execution. The merchant magnates of Wullenwever’s democratic coalition grew suspicious of (too-)popular religiosity.
And Wullenwever’s political high-wire act involved arrangements of convenience with the Anabaptist commune of Münster — spurring rumors of his own radical baptist conversion* — and fomenting Catholic peasant uprisings to meddle in the succession of the Danish-Swedish crown. Whatever else one could say of him, one can’t fault him for a want of daring, a quality that stood him in good stead with romantic era writers.
But Wullenwever’s allies lost their fights, and the political coalition that supported his municipal leadership soon broke up under the pressure of events.
The aristocratic party re-took power in 1535 and didn’t immediately persecute Wullenwever. But the hostile Archbishop of Bremen eventually seized the man on his territory and turned him over to a Catholic Saxon duke for punishment.
* I’m certainly not a specialist, but I’m skeptical of the claim in some sources that Wullenwever was an Anabaptist Manchurian candidate type. Wullenwever confessed to a great Anabaptist scheme … but that was under torture of enemies determined to do him to death, and it was retracted before his execution. The claim implies that all of northern Germany might have gone over to a radically democratic Anabaptism had not the ancien regime overthrown the Burgermeister, and for that reason it’s gained Wullenwever the surprising latter-day embrace of nationalists and revolutionaries.
June 29, 1944, saw several noteworthy mass executions around Axis western Europe.
France: Seven Jewish hostages for the assassination of Philippe Henriot
Poet and journalist Philippe Henriot (English Wikipedia entry | French), the “French Goebbels”, was the Vichy government’s able chief propagandist.
On June 28, 1944, Henriot was assassinated by Maquis operatives disguised as milice paramlitaries.
Incensed, the real milice this morning gathered seven Jews already held in prison as hostages at Rillieux, drove them to the cemetery, and shot them one by one.
(Paul Touvier, who orchestrated this retaliatory execution, managed to stay underground until 1989. At his 1994 war crimes trial, he claimed that the Germans wanted 30 hostages killed, and therefore what he actually did was “save 23 human lives.” Touvier was convicted on the charge of crimes against humanity.)
Italy: Massacres in San Pancrazio, Cornia, and Civitella
As dawn broke this date, German soldiers retreating from liberated Rome fell upon several Tuscan villages.
German columns had been beset by partisans on the way, and standard operating procedure was to retaliate against partisans indirectly, by killing civilians — as in the notorious massacre in the Ardeatine caves. This vengeance was visited on the three towns: over 200 civilians were summarily executed on June 29, 1944.
“My mother later said she went to speak to my father,” remembered one San Pancrazio man. “A soldier turned her back and told her they were taking him to be tortured. She and my father both cried.” The father and those taken with him were shot in the basement of a farmhouse.
Caution: Graphic video.
The towns themselves have kept this date in remembrance, but the massacres were swept under the rug in the postwar settlement as Italy, Germany, and their former western enemies realigned for the Cold War. Only in the 21st century have they come to wider attention, when the discovery of secret archives documenting the atrocities enabled an Italian court to convict an aged German soldier in absentia.
There’s a CNN documentary on these events focusing particularly on San Pancrazio. Called “Terror in Tuscany”, it may be viewable here or here, depending on your location.
When said heavy-handed monarch was deposed by his own uncle Frederick, Clement turned privateer … and when said deposing-uncle Frederick died in 1533, Clement entered the ensuing civil war between supporters of the still-imprisoned ex-king Christian II and those who backed Frederick’s own son Christian III. This was also a social and political war over the Reformation.
Clement went to war for his former boss, Christian II, instigating a 1534 North Jutland uprising of the Catholic peasantry that in October of that year trounced the Protestant noble army sent to suppress it at the Battle of Svenstrope Mose (Svenstrop Bog or Moor).
That battle clinched Clement’s reputation as one of the great peasant-rising leaders, and also clinched for Clement the fatethatusuallybefalls such characters. Shortly after, Clement’s aristocratic ally cut his own deal with Christian III and abandoned the rabble to a vicious counterattack. In December 1534, General Johan Rantzau stormed the rebel strongholdof Aalborg, slaughtering two thousand peasants, reducing freeholding farmers to tenants, and bringing Clement home in chains for a grand finale.
The captured commander languished in his dungeon awaiting the conclusion of the civil war. It took a good year under siege for Rantzau to bring Copenhagen to heel, but once that city capitulated in August 1536, Clement was brought out of storage for use as a victory cigar. (Danish link)
On September 9, 1536, wearing a lead crown to mock his ambition, Clement had his head chopped off, and his remains were dismembered and set up for public display.
On this date in 1739, Michael Blödorn was stretched out on a scaffold at Copenhagen’s beautiful Kongens Nytorv (King’s Square), where an executioner set about smashing his limbs with heavy wagon wheels.
A 1727 illustration of Danish prisoners broken on the wheel.
As he lay suffering, Blödorn sang vigorously — a joyful hymn to lift his soul to heaven.
That, indeed, was why he was being broken on the wheel in the first place.
Blödorn was part of an alarming trend in Lutheran countries that waxed especially strong in Denmark: a homicide-to-heaven loophole apparently licensed by the Reformation theology.
Crudely put, the scam is this: you have a sure ticket to salvation if you die with no un-repented sin on your soul. But the only real way to know when you’re going to die is to kill yourself … and since that’s a mortal sin, that’s even worse than risking the everyday mischance of life.
But do like Mike and kill a random stranger to incur a death sentence, and you get to check out pure as the driven snow: assured last-minute repentance with no suicidal downside. Everybody wins!
Actually carrying out this plan required what you might call a deep commitment to your theology: in an effort to discourage the practice without backing off the death penalty for murder, penalties for apparent suicide-by-executioner cases had been ramped up into an archaic bloody theater. Blödorn, a soldier, had already been suffering weekly floggings leading up to the execution. Civilian murderers could look forward to having the flesh ripped with red-hot tongs.
Ouch. A 1727 illustration of judicial penalties that might attend a suicide-murder: tearing with hot tongs, the breaking-wheel, and severed hands.
At last in 1767, the Danes reversed course abandoned capital punishment for “melancholy and other dismal persons [who committed murder] for the exclusive purpose of losing their lives,” implementing instead sentences of humiliating hard labor: a punishment to fit the crime and also meet the larger society’s need for deterrence.
“This made Denmark a pioneer when it came to abolishing the death penalty,” said Danish academic Tyghe Kroghe, author of a new book about the suicide-murder phenomenon. “But it was not something they did proudly. The decision violated the religious understanding of the criminal system.”
Here’s Kroghe discussing his research … in Danish.
Executions of men and women who not only decline to fight their sentences, but even commit their capital crimes with the intent to engineer their own executions, are hardly confined to the foreign country that is the past.
Maybe you wouldn’t point the finger at Martin Luther any longer, but Denmark’s very last civil execution was of an arsonist so insistent about attempting murder that the authorities finally gave him the peace of the grave that he desired. We’ve seen in these pages the headsman courted by people motivated by depression and by romantic love.
Christopher Newton, who killed his cellmate to draw a death sentence and was executed in Ohio in 2007;
Daniel Colwell, who gunned down a couple randomly to “win” a death sentence in Georgia in 2003 but died before reaching execution;
Mamoru Takuma, the mentally disturbed author of Japan’s notorious Osaka school massacre, who committed the crime with no intent to escape and immediately demanded a death sentence (carried out in 2004).
These two were sore about their father Ragnar Lodbrok, who had shipwrecked in England — maybe East Anglia, maybe elsewhere — and allegedly been thrown into a snakepit.
According to the hagiographic account, these Danish heathens attempted to force Edmund to renounce Christianity. Edmund demurred.
Then those wicked men bound Edmund, and shamefully insulted him, and beat him with clubs, and afterwards they led the faithful king to an earth-fast tree, and tied him thereto with hard bonds, and afterwards scourged him a long while with whips, and ever he called, between the blows, with true faith, on Jesus Christ; and then the heathen because of his faith were madly angry, because he called upon Christ to help him. They shot at him with javelins as if for their amusement until he was all beset with their shots, as with a porcupine’s bristles, even as Sebastian was.
The martyr-king’s body was ultimately interred at the aptly-namd Bury St. Edmunds. This locale thereafter became a major, and lucrative, pilgrimage spot in Britain.
Edmund himself became the patron saint of England until he was supplanted just before the Norman invasion by omnibus patron saint George. As George had nothing to do with England, there’s been some latter-day push to revert the honor to the native king.