Posts filed under 'Italy'

1945: Harold Pringle, the last Canadian military execution

Add comment July 5th, 2020 Headsman

The only Canadian soldier to be executed during (… actually well after!) World War II, Harold Pringle, caught a fusillade in Italy on this date in 1945.

A 16-year-old — he fibbed about his age — enlistee from small-town Ontario, Pringle joined the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment.

Pringle and a mate in the Hasty P’s name of “Lucky” MacGillivray linked up with some British deserters to form a black market outfit in conquered Rome. The “Sailor Gang”* enjoyed several weeks of picaresque living in the lawless city. Unsurprisingly, as Allied military authorities got control of the place they were eager to make examples of these minor gangsters. (Major gangsters were a different matter.)

The shooting death of that mate MacGillivray gave military prosecutors the means to sink the Sailors. One of their number was induced by a sweetheart deal to finger Pringle as for murdering him. Pringle and his comrades all contended that “Lucky” had been shot by mischance during one of the outlaws’ frequent drunken bouts, and having died en route to the hospital, Pringle shot him up posthumously in hopes of making the body look like it had been prey to a gang hit.

Despite all the trouble taken to secure a very dubious conviction, the execution itself was carried out in great secrecy by a tiny rump contingent of Canadians — all their fellows had already been withdrawn from Italy — who were not to speak of it afterwards.

According to Andrew Clark, the author whose research revealed the event to the wider public in A Keen Soldier: The Execution of Second World War Private Harold Pringle, it all came down a political balancing act. Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King faced a June 1945 election (followed by formation of a coalition government) that a controversial execution might complicate.

However, the British had executed two of their guys in the Sailor Gang case, and reciprocity was expected on a diplomatic level. So the solution was to do it as quietly as possible, and cover it with an official secret designation. Even Pringle himself didn’t find out his sentence was confirmed until the morning of the execution.

Book CoverBook Cover
Left: The classic antiwar novel inspired by the Pringle case, which was the only novel published by Colin McDougall. Right: The 2002 nonfiction treatment that brought the affair to the public eye. Below: A 1955 episode of Four Star Playhouse also seems to be based on the Pringle case, and Colin McDougall is credited with the story.**

There’s a riveting audio interview here with a member of the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment who had guard duty on the condemned youth on the last night of his life. “Just as brave as could be,” Orville Marshall reports.

* There’s another infamous troupe of deserter-gangsters operating in Rome in this same period, the Lane Gang. The said “Lane” — whose real name was Werner Schmiedel — was hanged by American authorities in June 1945.

** McDougall served in Italy up to the end of Canada’s involvement there, and that is surely how he came to know about the secret execution in a general sense; any more specific vector of information appears to be unknown. However discovered, Pringle clearly haunted McDougall: he took several years to write his magnum opus, and also published a short story in McLean’s in the early 1950s called “The Firing Squad”.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Canada,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Italy,Milestones,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Organized Crime,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1855: Pietro Fortunato Calvi, the last Belfiore Martyr

Add comment July 4th, 2020 Headsman

Italian Risorgimento martyr Pietro Fortunato Calvi was hanged on this date in 1855 in Mantua.

The son of a Paduan police commissioner when that province rested in Austrian hands, Calvi — that’s an Italian link, as are almost all in this post — was an army lieutenant who was drawn by the swirl of patriotism into the Revolutions of 1848. He commanded a 4,600-strong militia in Venice where the abortive proclamation of a republic was suppressed by Austria.

He fled to exile in Turin, then part of the mainland remit of the independent Kingdom of Sardinia. But his sympathy for an attempted Milanese insurrection in those parts wore out his welcome with his new hosts, and he was obliged to find refuge in Switzerland.

From there, he and four companions launched a romantic, doomed expedition to sound out the alpine north for patriotism that might be stirred into revolution anew. Their mission was compromised by a spy, however, and the quintet was soon arrested.

Transported to Mantua for trial, Calvi successfully protected his companions by throwing all the responsibility upon himself and went to the gallows with a stirring declaration as he ought.

what I have done I have done of my own free will, that I would do it again, in order to expel Austria from the States it so infamously usurped … Pietro Fortunato Calvi, rather than betraying his homeland, offers his corpse.

The place of his execution, the valley of Belfiore, has conferred its name upon a host of Italian patriots who hanged there in the 1850s. Our guy Calvi was the last of these Belfiore martyrs.

Belfiore, Mantua, Padua, Venice, Turin, and all the rest were part of a united Italy within a generation.

Italian speakers might enjoy this biography of Pietro.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Austria,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Habsburg Realm,Hanged,History,Italy,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Soldiers,Treason

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1790: Seven officers of Papal Avignon

Add comment June 11th, 2020 Headsman

Charles Souvay in “The French Papal States during the Revolution” (The Catholic Historical Review, January 1923) describes the violent reunion to the French nation of the Papal States enclave around Avignon where popes had formerly reigned. This June 11 lynching was as nothing for mob violence compared to the Massacres of La Glacière later in 1790.

In 1789 the French Papal possessions included the two Counties respectively called in Roman Chancery style the Comitatus Avennicinus, or High County, the principal city of which was Carpentras, and the Comitatus Avenionensis, or Low County, named after its capital Avignon; both together having in all an area of less than a thousand square miles. Since 1274, by donation of King Philip III to Pope Gregory X, they belonged to the Popes; and even though several times (1663, 1688 and 1768) the French kings attempted to wrest them from their legitimate sovereign, there was, in 1789, no question of disputing the Papacy’s rights. A Legate administered the two Counties, continuing in the old Papal Castle the moral presence of the popes who had resided there from 1309 to 1378.

The Counties were comparatively an earthly paradise: taxes insignificant; no imposts; living wonderfully cheap — “for one or two sous one could hve a meal of bread, meat and wine”; no militia, scarcely any privileges of nobility; no restrictions on fishing and hunting and to cap it all a miniature representative Assembly. However, the rank and file of the population had a bad name, and it deserved it. In the course of time the country had become the secure haven of all the scoundrels of France, Italy and Genoa: smugglers, fences, vagabonds, swindlers, crooks, convicts escaped from the galleys of Toulon and Marseilles, all flocked there and soon fraternized in debauchery and crime.

Such ingredients constituted a soil admirably adapted for the rapid growth of the revolutionary seed. No wonder, therefore, that towards the end of 1789 rebellion broke out in Avignon, where minds were easily wrought up. Before long it spread beyond the ramparts of the City of the Popes. The high County, however, remained loyal; hence timid: fear of the violence of the demagogues — a fear but too well founded — increased the numbers of the anti-papal faction; and soon the noise they raised was such that the Pope had to intervene. He did it in a fatherly way, promised all the reforms deemed opportune (Briefs of February and April 1790) and sent a Commissary with the charge of trying every possible way to restore order and peace. At Carpentras the pontifical Commissary was shown he was unwelcome; at Avignon he was positively refused admittance.

Then in the papal city Jacobinism, preached by ranting advocates like Tournal, Rovere, the two Duprats, the two Mainvielles, Lecuyer, multiplied its proselytes and stopped at no violence. Within a short while seven or eight riots broke out. On June 10, 1790, at the instigation of the leaders, all the rabble of the city and the suburbs, churls adverse to excise, rapscallions adverse to order, stevedores and longshoremen, armed with scythes, pikes and cudgels, rose up tumultuously, served on the Vice-Legate Casoni notice to quit, turned out of the city the Archbishop Giovio, ousted the Italian officials, obliged the Consuls to resign, hanged the officers of the National Guard and the principal loyalists (June 11)* and possessed themselves of the town hall. For efficiency trust the preachers of the revolutionary gospel.

* Seven men were murdered that day; some were nobles, others priests and others artisans.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Borderline "Executions",Execution,France,Hanged,History,Lynching,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Papal States,Public Executions,Summary Executions

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1571: Sigismondo Arquer, Sardinian scholar

Add comment June 4th, 2020 Headsman

Sardinian scholar Sigismondo Arquer was burned at the stake in Toledo, Spain, on this date in 1571.

Born in the capital of Spanish-governed Sardinia, this gentleman had a hereditary imperial knighthood but also an interest in humanism and religious heterodoxy well-calculated to annoy in Counter-Reformation Spain.


Arquer’s map of his native city of Cagliari, for the Cosmographia universalis, for which compendium he also composed an entry on “dark Sardinia” that “in its blend of ancient sources, personal observations and original narrative structure … played a critical role, even when not explicitly acknowledged, in the development of the image of Sardinia in European culture.” (Source) Today, one of the streets in this very historical core the man once sketched is called Via Sigismondo Arquer.

Exploiting Arquer’s associations with Swiss Protestants as well as his talent for making powerful enemies — skewering clergy in the Cosmographia, nettlesome lawsuits against Spanish oligarchs — the Inquisition bagged him for heresy in 1563. He was 33.

In between bouts of interrogation, Arquer used his long confinement to knock out a Passion in Catalan, heavy with personal resonance. The Christ parallels ran all the way to the Plaza de Zocodover, where a soldier — motivated by anger at the heretic or pity for the sufferer, only God can say — speared him through the side during his death throes.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Artists,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Heresy,History,Intellectuals,Italy,Public Executions,Spain,Torture

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1831: Ciro Menotti, hero to Garibaldi

Add comment May 26th, 2020 Headsman

Italian patriotic hero Ciro Menotti was hanged on this date* in 1831.


Marker in Modena to the martyrdom of Ciro Menotti and Vincenzo Borelli. (cc) image from Filippo Fabbri.

Menotti (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) was a member of the revolutionary carbonari who stood at the fore of an insurrection in northern Italy in 1831. The plot was sponsored by the Duke of Modena and quashed by the same when he realized its premature exposure compromised its utility as a vehicle for expanding his dominions. The arrival of Austrian troops in March of 1831 swiftly pacified the risings.

In tribute of Menotti, national patron saint Giuseppe Garibaldi named one of his sons for him — Menotti Garibaldi, later a deputy in the parliament of the independent and unified Italy whose realization had been the common quest of both his namesakes.

* There are some citations out there for May 23, rather than May 26. This appears unambiguously mistaken to me (witness the date on the monument pictured in this post); I haven’t been able to determine the initial source of the discrepancy.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Habsburg Realm,Hanged,History,Italy,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Revolutionaries,Treason

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1327: Beomondo di San Severo

Add comment April 15th, 2020 Headsman

An Italian friar known as Beomondo di San Severo was flogged to death in Naples on this date in 1327 at the behest of the Inquisition.

Little is known of him; the case was unearthed from the Neapolitan archives in the 20th century, striking to audiences of that period for the man’s surprising presagement of … evolutionary biology?

Man therefore, in his original and primordial condition, was immersed almost in a mixture of elements, and came to light by chance, as [writes] Augustine in the books of the Trinity: for this reason God is called only Conditor ac Administrator, because man did not arise from the mud of the earth by the will of God. For this reason also the psalms say that man was born from the earth. Therefore, so men descend from men as God descends from God.

In context this can’t have been merely an idea about the origins of life on earth, however heretical: the whiff of radical egalitarianism is clear enough here, and would be right at home in these years of a many-headed bottom-up challenge to pontifical authority — the Friars Minor (to which Beomondo belonged), the Beghards and Beguines, and millenarian rebels like Fra Dolcino. 1327 is the very hear in which Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose unfolds.

Alas, the scanty documentary trail means that a similarly perspicacious novelist will be required to imagine Beomondo’s own life and thought in full. One question that volume have to grapple with is the reason for the anomalous and very brutal execution by lash, when the pyre would ordinarily be anticipated for heresy.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,God,Gruesome Methods,Heresy,History,Italy,Naples,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Torture,Whipped

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1560: Giambatista Cardano, “crowning misfortune”

Add comment April 13th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1560, the son of Renaissance polymath Gerolamo Cardano was beheaded for murdering his — the son’s — wife.

While Cardano pere was one of the great intellectuals of his era, and has been covered in these grim annals via his interest in a genius composer executed for sodomy, the fils earns notice merely for his famous relations.

The latter, Giambatista Cardano by name, committed nothing but a shabby domestic murder, dosing his wife Brandonia di Seroni — “a worthless, shameless woman” in Gerolamo’s estimation — with arsenic when he had tired of her infidelities.

Still, it is the burden of a father to love his firstborn no matter how undistinguished and homicidal. Cardano poured his sorrow into a long funerary verse, not neglecting therein to defend the prerogatives of a jealous husband’s “avenging right hand”; we obtain it from the old man’s autobiography.

A Lament on the Death of My Son

Who has snatched thee away from me —
O, my son, my sweetest son?
Who had the power to bring to my age
Sorrows more than I can count?
Wrath in whose soul or what stern fate
Willed to reap thy youth’s fair flower?
Not Calliope, not Apollo,
Served thee in thine hour of need!
Cithara, now, and all song be still;
Measures of threnodies shall renew
Mourning and sighs for my dear son.
— Strains of his singing haunt me still —
Laurels, alas, in the healing art,
Knowledge of things, and a facile gift
Of Latin tongue—what profit these
Labors long if they swiftly die?
Service rendered Spanish prince,
Duty done to the noblest of men
Help thee naught if with these for thy judge
Death with his scythe doth seek thy blood.

What, ah me, shall I do? My soul
Swoons to remember thee, gentle son;
Silent, I brood on thy destiny grim;
Tears that I dare not give to words,
Shall I not shed for my stricken son?
Lasting encomium had I reserved,
Fitting reward to thine ashes paid;
Silence — O shame — must my tongue now guard,
Death unjust nor its cause announce.
Grave are the ills thou hast borne, mild son.
Prince and Senate and ancient law
Ordered thy doom whilst thou in rash haste,
Brought an adultress the wage of her crime.
Safely adultery now in our homes
Mocks and insults when punishment swift
Stays the avenging right hand of the youth.

Son — the reflection true of the good
Strong in my father — worthy to live
Long through the years — Alas, my beloved!
Fates have forbidden and swept all that good
Far past the stars, and removed from gray earth
Every bright and illustrious thing.
Hail thee, child, for thy spirit high!
Clear is thy blood from ignoble stain;
Honor of forefather’s hast thou sought.
Far stands the king, and hope of safety,
Phoebus denies the lands his beams,
Light from Diana passes and dies,
Stars in the calm sky glance no more
Lest they look down on a palace foul,
Stained with the reeking blood of the slain.

Where lies my way? What land now claims
Body and limbs disfigured by death?
Son, is there naught but this to return?
Thee have I followed on sea and on land!
Fix me — if mercy is anywhere found —
Pierce me with weapons, O ye mad Gods!
Take with thy first blow my dreary life.
Pity me thou, oh great father of Gods,
Thrust with thy spear my hated head
Deep into Tartara; else am I bound
Hardly to burst this life’s bitter chains.
This, O my son, was not pledged to thy sire,
Love so unholy to trust with thine all —
Love that has ruined thee, son of my heart!

Wife of a memory blessed and true,
Happy thy death, nor spared for this grief!
I, through this crime, have myself brought disgrace,
O son to our name, for by envy compelled,
Homeland and Lares paternal I left.
Death had I sought for my innocent soul,
But surviving and living I vanquished my fate.

Ages to come will know, son, thy name,
Orient lands will hear of thy fame;
Dead to us thou art indeed —
Life hast thou won through all the earth!

It would be fair to say that this last vow of the grieving father was not kept. Indeed, the misery of losing his son to the executioner cast an enervating pall over the elder Cardano’s remaining years. “My supreme, my crowning misfortune,” he bewailed. “Because of this, it was neither becoming for me to be retained in my office [a professor of medicine at Pavia], nor could I justly be dismissed. I could neither continue to live in my native city with any peace, nor in security move elsewhere. I walked abroad an object of scorn; I conversed with my fellows abjectly, as one despised, and, as one of unwelcome presence, avoided my friends.”

A couple of years on and the unwelcomeness had become overwhelming; he relocated to a professorship in Bologna — nowise happy but at least clear of the omnipresent, suffocating shame associated with his name. The man’s woes were in no way alleviated by his surviving son Aldo, a thief and all-around lowlife whom Cardano ended up disinheriting. (Lone daughter Chiara was A-OK by pops apart from being unable to bear him grandchildren: “from my daughter alone have I suffered no vexations beyond the getting together of her dowry.”)

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Italy,Murder,Sex,Torture

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1799: Francesco Antonio Lucifero, mayor of Crotone

Add comment April 3rd, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1799, the Jacobin mayor of the Calabrian city of Crotone was shot by counterrevolutionists with three comrades.

Francesco Antonio Lucifero hailed from a devilishly powerful family that had produced several prior mayors who weren’t left-wing radicals. Our Lucifero cleaved to the Parthenopean Republic, the Neapolitan revolutionary state that from the first days of 1799 displaced the Kingdom of Naples.

The Republic was short-lived, and so was Lucifero.

Southerly Crotone was one of the first targets of the Catholic and monarchist Sanfedismo militia led by Calabrian Cardinal Fabrizio Ruffo, which counterattacked the Republic with fury and alacrity. Ruffo overcame that city in March; Lucifero was condemned to death along with three other leading nobleman-revolutionaries Bartolo Villaroja and Giuseppe Suriano, and a Captain Giuseppe Ducarne — the leaders of the holdout republican resistance whom Ruffo besieged in Crotone’s fortress.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Italy,Naples,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Power,Shot,Soldiers,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1547: Diego de Enzinas, Spanish Protestant

Add comment March 15th, 2020 Headsman

On or about this date in 1547, the Spanish-born scholar Diego de Enzinas was burned by the Roman Inquisition.

Like his (more renowned) brother Francisco de Enzinas — who translated the New Testament into Spanish — Diego (English Wikipedia entry | Spanih) was an apostate (to Cathoic eyes) Protestant scholar.

He spent the early 1540s — when he was merely in his early 20s — studying, translating, and propagandizing in Paris and the Low Countries. Catching word from his kin in Burgos that it was too dangerous to risk returning to his homeland, he took refuge with fellow dissidents in Rome … but when arrested, he would betray their names to Inquisition torturers.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,Heresy,History,Intellectuals,Italy,Martyrs,Papal States,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Torture

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1945: Giovanni Cerbai, partisan

Add comment February 10th, 2020 Headsman

Italian partisan Giovanni Cerbai was shot on this date in 1945.

A communist who fought in the Garibaldi Battalion during the Spanish Civil War, “Giannetto” was interred in transit through France and spent the early part of World War II confined to the Bourbon island panopticon of Ventotene* — a misery shared by many other prospective guerrillas.

“While the flames of the war grew and approached all around, while in the cities and in the countryside workers, employees, professionals and intellectuals were agitating, moving, pressing for peace and freedom, in Italian prisons and confinement islands hundreds and thousands of anti-fascists pined in their forced inactivity,” wrote fellow Ventotene detainee Luigi Longo in his memoir. “The island of Ventotene was like the capital of this captive world. In the spring of 1943 it gathered about a thousand leaders and humble militants from all the currents of Italian anti-fascism … We shared our common sufferings, the same hopes and an equal love of freedom.”

This prison was liberated by American forces in December 1943 but Cerbai had already escaped in August, joining the partisans.

“A fighter of exceptional enthusiasm and daring,” per the hagiographic words of his posthumous military valor decoration, he had a brief but distinguished service in the field, surviving the Battle of Porta Lame. Cerbai was eventually captured, and shot at the outset of a notorious weekslong massacre of prisoners by the fascists.

There’s a street named for him in his native Bologna.

* Another communist political prisoner in this same fortress, name of Altiero Spinelli, drew up with fellow leftists in 1941 an illicit text titled “Manifesto for a free and united Europe” — more familiarly known as the Ventotene Manifesto. (Full text here.) Spinelli’s document called for a federation of European states to mitigate the potential for wars, a crucial precursor of the European Federalist Movement that Spinelli would co-found in 1943; Spinelli for this reason is a forefather of postwar European integration. And not just a forefather: he died in 1986 as a member of European parliament, having dedicated his postwar life to the project.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guerrillas,History,Italy,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Shot,Soldiers,Torture,Wartime Executions

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