Posts filed under 'Denmark'

1739: Michael Blodorn, “selvmordsmord”

1 comment June 1st, 2012 Headsman

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.

Scholar Tyge Krogh’s new book titled (and about) The Lutheran Plague of suicide-murder.

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!

Um.

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.

Still, selvmordsmord persisted (Danish link: or, here’s the same story in Norwegian).

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.

Crazy, right?

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.

And numerous more modern criminals right into the 21st century look every bit like selvmordsmord cases. For example:

  • 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).

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Murder,Soldiers

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869 or 870: St. Edmund the Martyr

2 comments November 20th, 2011 Headsman

This is the feast date and martyrdom date of middle ages English king Edmund the Martyr.

Stained glass of Edmund the Martyr from Our Lady and the English Martyrs church in Cambridge. (cc) image from Laurence OP

This acute ruler of the East Angles, the last native East Anglian king, was stomped in battle by the marauding norsemen under Ivar the Boneless and his less interestingly-named brother Ubbe Ragnarsson.

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.

So far, no dice.

Update: Jamie that killjoy at the British History Podcast puts it in 869 and rebuts the notion that there was any execution at all, here.

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Entry Filed under: Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Denmark,Early Middle Ages,England,Execution,Famous,God,Heads of State,History,Martyrs,Myths,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Power,Religious Figures,Royalty,Shot,Shot with Arrows,Summary Executions,Torture

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c. 865: Ragnar Lodbrok, Viking raider

4 comments November 19th, 2011 Headsman

On an unknown date in (perhaps) the 860s, Norse raider Ragnar Lodbrok (or Ragnar Lothbrok) was allegedly put to death in the Indiana Jones-esque manner of being cast into a pit of snakes.

Ragnar is a half-legendary character who plundered France and Britain in the mid-ninth century, the heyday of Viking marauders; he’s also the lead character of the cable TV series Vikings.

He’s known from Scandinavian sagas, like the Ragnarssona Þattr, which describes Ragnar’s final battle after shipwrecking in Northumbria.

At that time, there was a king called Ælla ruling over Northumbria in England. And when he learns that raiders have come to his kingdom, he musters a mighty force and marches against Ragnar with an overwhelming host, and hard and terrible battle ensues. King Ragnar was clad in the silken jacket Aslaug had given him at their parting. But as the defending army was so big that nothing could withstand them, so almost all his men were killed, but he himself charged four times through the ranks of King Aella, and iron just glanced off his silk shirt. Finally he was taken captive and put in a snake-pit, but the snakes wouldn’t come near him. King Aella had seen during the day, as they fought, that iron didn’t bite him, and now the snakes won’t harm him. So he had him stripped of the clothes that he’d been wearing on the day, and at once snakes were hanging off him on all sides, and he left his life there with much courage.

Here’s Ernest Borgnine as Ragnar in the 1958 film The Vikings, dying in a pit full of wild dogs, not snakes. Well, it’s the same animal kingdom.

“How the little pigs would grunt if they knew how the old boar suffers!” he’s supposed to have exclaimed, keeping to the nature theme.

Although Vikings didn’t really seem to need a casus belli to pillage England, the little pigs would in fact do some serious grunting when they found out about the boar: Ragnar’s sons punitive sorties against England martyred the Christian king St. Edmund.

Update: When this post was first written in 2011, information about this distant Viking captain was not all that plentiful. Ragnar’s starring turn in a TV serial since that time has somewhat broadened his cultural footprint.

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Entry Filed under: Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",By Animals,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Denmark,Early Middle Ages,England,Execution,Gruesome Methods,Heads of State,History,Immured,No Formal Charge,Notably Survived By,Occupation and Colonialism,Pirates,Power,Royalty,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Terrorists,Wartime Executions

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1663: Corfitz Ulfeldt, in effigy

Add comment November 13th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1663, Danish noble Corfitz Ulfeldt — then a fugitive abroad — was executed in effigy.

Ulfeldt (English Wikipedia page | Danish) is notorious as his country’s greatest traitor.

To commit great betrayals, one needs to begin with great trust. Ulfeldt was the son of a chancellor and was married off to Leonora Christina, the daughter of King Christian IV.

When Christian died, Ulfeldt was the de facto ruler of the realm or a few months in 1648 while the elective monarchy sorted out where to pass the crown next.

The choice ultimately fell to the late king’s son Frederick III, but this saturnine prince was distrusted by the Danish nobility, who forced on him as the price for his power a Haandfaestning — a sort of temporary Magna Carta circumscribing a monarch’s power for the period of his individual reign. It set a less than comradely tone for the two men’s relationship.

In 1651, an accusation surfaced that Ulfeldt was in on a plot to poison the king — an accusation that cost Ulfeldt’s lover her own head. Deciding that he didn’t need to be around when the next specious regicide allegation made the rounds, Ulfeldt pre-emptively fled the country.

From there, Ulfeldt’s lust for power and personal enmity for Frederick would light his path to infamy.

He signed up with Sweden’s King Charles X — Denmark’s greatest foreign rival — and mounted an invasion of his native country, possibly even financed by stolen Danish treasure. Rewarded with a Swedish noble title, he promptly began double-dealing against them, until his disgusted new sovereign dispossessed him, leading Ulfeldt to return hat in hand to Copenhagen.

Imprisoned there for that whole leading-an-enemy-invasion incident, Ulfeldt again managed to wriggle out and immediately tried to raise a German army against Denmark. Really — enough, dude.

Frederick certainly thought he’d seen enough too. Not having the compulsive traitor available to execute bodily, he resorted to the weird ritual of punishing a mannequin, and ordered the prison governor:

Know that you have to command the executioner in our name, that to-day, November 13, he is to take the effigy of Corfitz, formerly called Count of Ulfeldt, from the Blue Tower where it is now, and bring it on a car to the ordinary place in the square in front of the castle; and when he has come to the place of justice, strike off the right hand and the head, whereafter he is to divide the body into four parts on the spot, and carry them away with him, whilst the head is to be placed on a spike on the Blue Tower for remembrance and execration.

A few months after, the hunted Ulfeldt was reported to have died in Switzerland, a report considered highly suspicious in his native land. Nevertheless, he was never captured or heard from again, so whenever or however he died, it seems he managed to cheat the executioner of his flesh. As to the judgment of posterity: that, he had long since squandered.

The royal and loyal widow Leonora Christina enjoys a reputation quite a bit more favorable than her husband. She swallowed every draught of his exile, and more — remaining imprisoned under harsh conditions long after Corfitz’s death, only released in 1685 with the passing of King Frederick’s wife, her vengeful personal enemy. In that time, and in between fending off in her dungeon the local vermin, lecherous jailers, and the poison of personal bitterness, she wrote voluminous and well-regarded memoirs.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Denmark,Executed in Effigy,Execution,History,Infamous,Nobility,Not Executed,Politicians,Treason

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1945: Kim Malthe-Bruun, Yours, but not forever

20 comments April 6th, 2011 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this day in 1945, Kim Malthe-Bruun was executed by firing squad in the Vestre Fængsel Prison in Copenhagen. His crime was being a member of the Danish Resistance Movement in German-occupied Denmark; he had stolen a customs boat and used it to smuggle arms from Sweden to Denmark to be used against the Nazis.

Kim was born in Saskatchewan, Canada in 1923, and moved to Denmark at the age of nine with his sister and mother. He quit school at seventeen to become a merchant seaman, then joined the Danish Resistance in 1944. Kim was arrested on December 19, 1944, held in various detention cells over the next few months, tortured, and condemned to die, along with three other members of his resistance group. Doubtless the Nazis were anxious to execute them all while they still could; Germany’s surrender was less than a month away.

In 1949, Kim’s mother, Vibeke Malthe-Bruun, published a collection of his letters and diary entries. The book, titled Kim, became a bestseller in Denmark and made Kim revered as a national hero. It was published in English in 1955, under the title Heroic Heart: the Diary and Letters of Kim Malthe-Bruun. Most of the sources about him are in Danish.

Kim’s writings reveal him to be a deeply sensitive and caring young man, wise beyond his years. On April 4, two days before his death, Kim wrote his last letter to his girlfriend, Hanne, urging her to go on with her life:

I don’t expect you to forget me. Why should you forget something so beautiful as that which existed between us? But you mustn’t become a slave to this memory … Don’t let it blind you and keep you from seeing all the wonderful things life has in store for you. Don’t be unhappy …

You will live on and you will have other beautiful adventures, but promise me — this you owe to everything I have lived for — that never will the thought of me come between you and life … Gradually as bigger and more important things appear, I shall glide into the background and be a tiny speck of the soil out of which your happiness and your development will keep on growing …

You see, Hanne, one day you will meet the man who will be your husband. The thought of me will flash through you, and you will perhaps deep down have a vague, uneasy feeling that you are betraying me or something in you which is pure and sacred. Lift up your head once more, Hanne, look straight into my eyes which are smiling at you and you will understand that the only way to betray me is by not completely following your natural instincts. When you see him, let your heart go out to meet him — not to drown your sorrow but because you truly love him.

He closed with:

Yours, but not forever.

The author Lois Lowry was inspired by Kim’s story and based a character on him in her book Number the Stars. The novel, which is about the rescue of the Danish Jews, won the 1990 Newberry Medal, one of the most prestigious awards in children’s literature.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,Germany,Guerrillas,Guest Writers,History,Martyrs,Other Voices,Shot,Soldiers,Treason,Wartime Executions

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Unspecified Year: The Robbers of Nordenshaw

1 comment December 24th, 2010 Headsman

This Yule, we present an ancient Danish ballad which “is probably too true a picture of the lawless conduct of men of the highest rank, and of a state of things not confined at that period to the islands of Denmark.”

The Robbers at Nordenshaw

The Robbers lurking at Nordenshaw*
From out the green-wood creep,
And march by night to the farmer’s house,
Their Yule with him to keep.**

They’ve march’d away to the farmer’s house
With each in hand a spear;
“Come, cousin, see, we are kith and kin,
“Tap us thy Christmas beer.

“And, farmer, lodge us all tonight,
“And well with liquor ply,
“And with us leave thy pretty wife,
“Or, farmer, thou shalt die.”

“I’ll freely pour my mead and ale,
“And well I’ll serve you too;
“But, Sirs, by all that’s good above,
“No outrage on us do.

“Now if upon my house ye seize,
“And lord it at your will,
“And if ye put my wife to shame,
“That were outrageous ill.”

Some on the table threw their swords,
Some cloaks of fur so fine,
Some bade the honest farmer’s wife
Bring in the beer and wine.

A cloth of woven silk she took,
And over the table spread;
And there her ale and wine they drank,
And ate her meat and bread.

A cautious wife was Oaselille,
And used her words with care;
She rose and told the robber guests
She would their beds prepare.

No thought had she, good Oaselille,
With them to share her bed;
But left them feasting, and for help
Through the dark forest sped.

With hurried step through bush and field
Ran on the lusty dame,
And after four long weary miles
To Drost Sir Peter’s† came.

She reach’d Sir Peter’s courtyard gate,
Drew on her mantle blue,
And boldly up to the upper room,
Sir Peter’s chamber, flew.

“Wake up, Drost Peter Hoseale, wake,
“No moment longer sleep;
“The thieves, that lurk’d at Nordenshaw,
“With us their Christmas keep.

“What! still, Sir Peter, slumbering on
“Nor yet but half awake?
“Those robbers twelve are at the Grange,
“All twelve are now to take.”

Then rose the Drost and call’d his men,
And bade them all to arm;
“Wake up, my men, there’s come tonight
“Good news from yonder farm.

“Wake up, no moment more delay,
“And d’on your trusty mail;
“For Nilus Ufridson is there,
And not the man to quail.”

“Where,” ask’d those sturdy robbers twelve,
They’d drunk of ale so deep,
“Where’s now the farmer’s pretty wife?
“We’ll have her here to sleep.”

“Chide not, good Sirs, a short delay”
The grey-coat farmer said;
“She is even now to the chamber gone
“To make her guests their bed.”

The farmer out of his window look’d,
And saw the Drost’s array;
“There stop here thirty men at arms,
“Are dress’d like cushats gray.”

Then answer’d Nilus Ufridson,
“Of such I’m not afraid,
“If but my comrades stand as firm,
“And faithful prove my blade.”

“No,” answer’d Lave Rimordson,
“And scann’d the troop afield,
“For such men care we not a bean,
“To them we’ll never yield.”

They beat the door with sword and spear
And rais’d a fearful shout;
“Up up, Sir Nilus Ufridson!
“Thy gang and thou come out.”

“Seven tons of gold I’ll give thee, Drost,
“And silver other five,
“To let us hence in peace depart
“My men and me alive.”

“Thy silver, Nilus, heed I not,
“As little heed thy gold;
“Through thee weeps many an orphan child
“For friends beneath the mould.”

Hard fought Sir Nilus Ufridson,
And well he kept his ground,
And heavy were from bar and beam
The blows he dealt around.

Nor less did Lave Rimordson,
But fought with might and main
Till at the hilt by dint of blows
He broke his sword in twain.

He dash’d the hilt against a stone,
The blade stuck in the mould;
“And now, my only chance of life,
“I’ll try good words and gold.

“Drost Peter Hoseale, spare my life,
“And do me no disgrace;
“I’m near of kin to the Danish Queen
“And of an Emperor’s race.”

“If near of kin to the Queen thou art,
“And all so nobly born,
“Why to the Farmer’s didst thou go,
“And treat his rights with scorn?”

So seized Sir Peter all the twelve,
And townward march’d them off;
And set them side by side on poles,
The people’s jest and scoff.

And there they lie on rack and wheel
To bear the heat and cold;
But to the King the Drost has brought
Twelve heavy chests of gold.

* Located on the Danish island of Fyen, Fyn, or Funen.

** The Danish Jul runs all through December up to Christmas Eve, Dec. 24; that date, Christmas Eve, is the big Yule celebration in Denmark.

† I situate this execution in the 13th century based on Drost Peter’s appearance in this historical romance of Danish King Erik VI Menved‘s youth.

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Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Arts and Literature,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,Fictional,Gruesome Methods,Mass Executions,Nobility,Outlaws,Pelf,Public Executions,Summary Executions,Theft,Uncertain Dates

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1661: Kaj Lykke, in effigy

1 comment September 10th, 2010 Headsman

On an uncertain date in 1661, the Danish noble Kaj Lykke (sometimes Kai Lykke) — safely but penuriously absconded to exile — was “executed” in effigy.

This wealthy roue (Danish Wikipedia page) was famous for his affairs innumerable.

To one of these maids, Lykke addressed a love-note remarking that the unpopular queen consort Sophie Amalie enjoyed queen consorting with her servants.

The sort of salacious rumor-mongering that constitutes many a blogger’s daily bread (and no doubt many a debauched noble’s pillow-talk) was, in Denmark at the dawn of its absolute monarchy, lese-majesty, and a good excuse once it became known to seize the naughty noble’s riches for the crown.

Lykke got himself abroad and didn’t have to face the music in the flesh — though the forfeited estates were no mean loss — and a doll representing the dirty-minded fugitive had its hands and head lopped off in Lykke’s stead in Copenhagen.

Kaj Lykke returned from exile (Swedish link) and died in Denmark in 1699. Centuries later, his skull was unearthed pursuant to eugenics research: the theory was that this bad boy’s sloping forehead showed him to be a primitive Neanderthal-descended type.

Though that particular bit of pseudo-science has long since been buried, Lykke’s skull never has been — and given that it’s out and about anyway, it’s been used to reconstruct the noble’s appearance. (I’ve been unable to locate an image of this reconstruction online.)

Part of the Themed Set: Executions in Effigy.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Denmark,Executed in Effigy,Execution,History,Nobility,Not Executed,Notable for their Victims,Power,Public Executions,Scandal

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1693: Anne Palles, the last witch executed in Denmark

Add comment April 4th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1693, fortified with a half-pot of wine provided at public expense, 74-year-old Anne Palles was beheaded and then burned as a sorceress — the last “witch” put to death in Danish history.

Palles got caught up in the usual way: an aged farmer’s wife misfortunate enough to be attached to a couple of incriminating coincidences. Nine-tenths of Denmark’s 1,000 or fewer executed witches were women, two-thirds of them over 50 years old. (Danish-language source.)

Palles was accused (Danish) by a “wise woman” who was herself trying to beat a rap for attempted murder with black magic.

Once that happened, it all started to make sense (more Danish): the sudden death of a woman her husband had once danced with; the poor production of cows passing a place where Palles had pissed.

Clap her in prison and twist her arm a little, and she’ll cop to having “given herself to the Devil, life and soul”, and rolled with an infernal familiar (a black cat: how trite) by the name of “Puus”.

Though you wouldn’t call a thousand executions a drop in the bucket, Denmark never really experienced the witches’ holocaust that occurred in some other European locales. A 1576 law* providing an automatic judicial appeal for sorcery condemnations is often credited for this happy-ish circumstance; in this case, Palles recanted her confession on appeal as torture-induced, and a divided high court in Copenhagen only confirmed the death sentence by an 11-6 vote. (Antonin Scalia writing for the majority.) Even her burning-alive sentence was moderated by the crown to beheading, followed by posthumous burning.

Everyone being a little uncomfortable with the case didn’t ultimately do Anne Palles much good. Another woman, Anne Kruse, had died in prison with her, and was posthumously burned at the stake; the woman who’d made the initial accusations was flogged … and Anne Palles had her head struck from her body and her remains burned to ashes as a witch.

But an era had passed with the cooling of those embers.

Just three years later, an outbreak of witch accusations — the “possessions of Thisted” — rocked northern Jutland. This case boomeranged on its accusers (we’ve seen that elsewhere in Scandinavia), and largely put a stop to witchcraft prosecutions … though the superstition that generated them would persist for quite some time longer.

After 1650 — and thus long before the official day of reckoning for witch-belief during ‘the possession of Thisted’ in 1696-98 — a marked drop in the numbers of witch-trials took place … and the Jutland High Court judges grew more and more sceptical. One of them, the Professor of Mathematics, Villum Lange [Danish bio], wrote to Peder Schumacher (the later Griffenfeldt) in 1670: ‘During the past few days we have had a crowd of women brought before us, accused of sorcery. We have condemned a number of them to the stake; but because they are so foolish and simple-minded we have recommended to the court that the case should first be brought before His Majesty for appeal … One of them confessed to us herself that she had talked with the devil; but whether it was melancholia or some other form of fantasy, or was the honest truth, God alone knows. To me she appeared to be a person in her second childhood.’ No wonder that rumours soon began to circulte that this High Court judge ‘was siding with the sorceresses and saying that no sorceresses existed.’ Towards the close of the century the common people were complaining that the Jutland High Court judges never condemned anyone to the stake any more, and tht was the reason for there being so many sorceresses in Jutland.

But it was only among the educated upper clases [sic] that attitudes were changing. Among ordinary folk the need for witch-trials continued to be felt far into the future, and when the authorities would no longer agree to her this type of case, people several times took the law into their own hands. In 1722 some pesants at Gronning on Salling lynched a witch by burning, and in 1800 the last murder of a witch occurred at Brigsted in the neighbourhood of Vejle.

Gustav Henningsen, “Witchcraft in Denmark”, Folklore, Vol. 93, No. 2 (1982), pp. 131-137

* The first of its kind in Europe. Two other legal ordinances from earlier in the 16th century restricted the use of torture to gain confessions and barred courts from crediting the accusations of other convicted witches, and they also helped constrain outbreaks of widespread persecutions. (Anne Palles’s case looks to have skated pretty close to the line on both of those counts.)

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,History,Milestones,Posthumous Executions,Public Executions,Torture,Witchcraft,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1520: Hemming Gadh

Add comment December 16th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1520, Hemming Gadh was beheaded at Raseborg Castle, Finland for his support of Swedish independence from Denmark.

Gadh (English Wikipedia entry | Swedish | free Swedish biography), around 70 by this time, had had a colorful, opportunistic career in Swedish politics. And religion: he was once temporarily Bishop of Linkoping, but could not win papal approval for the post and got excommunicated a few years later.

A Gadh-fly to the Danish-run Kalmar Union, he was a longtime supporter of Swedish independence agitator Sten Sture the Elder — so much so that when Sten kicked the bucket in 1503, it was Gadh who spiked the story and sent a squire disguised as the late statesman running off to Stockholm to rally his successors before the opposition could capitalize on the situation. (Sweden: The Nation’s History, by Franklin D. Scott)

Gadh was a key figure holding the Swedish party together in a decade-long interregnum until Sten Sture the Younger was up to the task.

And young Sten’s arrival was just in time, because around 1518, Gadh got captured, went over to the Unionist party, and helped it capture Stockholm … precipitating an infamous bloodbath.

Danish King Christian II evidently didn’t trust this turncoat any further than he could throw him, however, which was quite a bit further when he was cut in two. The opportunism that had served Gadh so well for so long this time cost him his head. (Swedish link.)

When in Finland, you can still see the dramatic former island keep where it all went down:


Raseborg Castle (Finnish: Raaseporin linna, Swedish: Raseborgs slott) in Ekenas.

(More information here)

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,Finland,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Power,Religious Figures,Separatists,Sweden,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1550: Jon Arason, the last Catholic bishop of Iceland

Add comment November 7th, 2009 Headsman

At dawn this date in 1550, two sons* of Jon Arason were beheaded at Skalholt, followed by the energetic sextegenerian prelate himself — cementing Lutheranism in Iceland.

As bishop of the northern diocese of Holar and one of the most powerful pols in Iceland, Arason did what he could to maintain papal authority when the Danish King Christian III began pushing Protestantism.

Arason was a practical guy; remote from any prospect of aid, he was content to maintain a cordial balance between his diocese and the southern one of Skalholt. (The two sees were political rivals of long standing; Skalholt’s previous Catholic representative, Ogmundur, had at one point many years before our narrative excommunicated Arason and forced the latter to flee to Denmark.)

Whether driven by the prince or the bishop within,** Arason took advantage of his Protestant opposite number’s timely passing in 1548 to make a play for power in the south as well. Early returns augured well; Arason arrested the Lutheran replacement, got the Icelandic parliament to throw in with him, and captured key points in the Holar diocese, reconsecrating ecclesiastical properties as Catholic.†

But his rival Dadi Gudmundsson turned the tables on the man who was becoming the de facto ruler of the island by ambushing him at a parley. The cleric and the two sons, having been declared outlaws months before by Danish decree, were executed on that basis without trial, lest holding them for the planned hearing the following spring enable their supporters to rally. Arason’s beheading was reportedly botched.

Legally doubtful but practically effectual, the axe that (eventually) decapitated the divine did likewise to his flock. Lutheranism thereafter settled comfortably into the ascendancy: Iceland would not have another Catholic bishop for nearly four centuries, by which time its Catholic population had shrunk near the vanishing point.

Although his faith didn’t have legs on the island, Arason reads very easily as a proto-nationalist figure and political actor; he’s been well-loved by Protestant, Catholic, and irreligious posterity alike.

He also gave Icelandic a bit of vernacular on his way to shuffling off this mortal coil. When a priest named Sveinn proffered the solace, “There is a life after this one!” as the last bishop approached the block, he replied, “Veit ég það, Sveinki!”“This I know, Sveinki!”

In everyday conversation in Iceland, that phrase is still used to tease someone who has just stated the obvious.

* Although this is well into the period when Catholic clergy were supposed to be practicing celibacy, Arason’s indifference to this particular mortification of the flesh is just another bit of his charm. With his mistress Helga Sigurdardottir, he sired nine sons and daughters, marrying them into politically advantageous allegiances where possible. At least eight subsequent Lutheran bishops sprang from his seed; by the present, “virtually all Icelanders can validly claim direct descent” from Jon Arason, according to Iceland, the First New Society.

** Jon Arason was also a notable poet. Ljomur, whose attribution to Arason is speculative, can be enjoyed for free here.

† More particulars about the Icelandic political chessboard are available in this 19th century text (the pdf is easier on the eyes than the text), or in “An Icelandic Martyr: Jón Arason,” by Thomas Buck, in the Jesuit publication Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 46, No. 182 (Summer, 1957), pp. 213-222.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Artists,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,God,History,Iceland,Language,Martyrs,Milestones,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Popular Culture,Power,Religious Figures

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