On this date in 1986, during the opening months of a guerrilla war that would last until 1992, a 70-man detachment of Suriname soldiers raided the village of Moiwana, home of the rebel leader Ronnie Brunswijk, and massacred dozens of people.
Drawing made c. 1990 by an eight-year-old refugee of Moiwana. Image from Richard Price’s “The Killings in Suriname”, Cultural Anthropology, November 1995.
Sealing the roads, the team went house to house for four hours, torching houses and slaughtering any of the Ndyuka civilians who couldn’t escape into the surrounding jungle.
“Everyone was shot — the unarmed women, pregnant women, a baby barely seven months old,” goes the account in Memre Moiwana, a publication of the NGO Moiwana ’86. “No distinctions were made.” Some were mowed down with automatic weapons; others slashed to death with machetes. At least 38 people died, though various sources posit estimates running to upwards of 50.
In the weeks following, nearby Ndjuka villages in eastern Suriname shared a like fate, often bombarded by helicopters and finished off with bulldozers while death squads hunted suspected guerrillas. The U.S. State Department reported 244 Ndyuka people killed that December. A United Nations investigator entering the area months later reported that “no human being or living creature was seen apart from starving dogs in [one such town] Albina. The jungle vegetation had taken over the destroyed buildings.”
A police inspector named Herman Eddy Gooding who had the temerity to investigate these massacres while the guerrilla war was still ongoing was found mysteriously shot dead in 1990. (See Rainforest Warriors: Human Rights on Trial) In 2005, however, survivors of Moiwana won a suit against the army of Suriname before the Inter American Court of Human Rights.
For many generations from the 14th to 17th centuries, new Ottoman heirs maintained themselves by the cruel practice of preventive fratricide.
Enforced at varying levels of systematicity, the destruction of the men best positioned to assert a claim of bloodline legitimacy against the new sultan might arguably have been one of the bulwarks of the empire’s prosperity. It insulated the Sultanate from protracted succession crises, civil war, and political fragmentation. With each generation’s passing, power coalesced into one man.
The sagacity, if not the humanity, of Bayezid’s action was underscored in 1402 when Bayezid was captured in battle by the Timurids and the ensuing 11-year “Ottoman Interregnum” saw the empire strained near to breaking as brother fought brother for succession until Mehmed I emerged victorious in 1413. Having attained power by killing off three siblings, he got the nickname “Mehmed Kirisci” — “Bowstring Mehmed”, after the implement by which the mighty were strangled out of the Turkish game of thrones.
And whoever of my children manages to reach the throne, it is fitting that he should kill his brothers, for the sake of the order of the world. Most of the ulema permit that. Let them act on that. (Source)
In Mehmed the Conqueror’s day, the child “managing to reach the throne” was the winner among the sons, who were posted to various regional outposts to earn their spurs in governance, in a scramble back to the Porte upon word of the old man’s death. This meant that in life, the boys were in a constant struggle for the privilege of central assignments and to nurture their own palace networks who when the day came could provide speedy notification of the impending succession and smooth recognition of a claim by the state apparatus. “The first son to reach the capital and win recognition by the court and the imperial troops became the new ruler,” Donald Quataert writes. “This was not a very pretty method; nonetheless it did promote the accession of experienced, well-connected, and capable individuals to the throne, persons who had been able to win support from the power brokers of the system.” The sitting sultans naturally put their own thumbs on the scale, too.
We are arriving, ever so circuitously, to the date’s honorees, and as one might suppose they were princes of the blood.
Come 1512, we find Mehmed the Conqueror’s son Bayezid II forcibly deposed by his son Selim. All those incentives favoring experienced, well-connected and capable individuals could also induce such a figure to take his advantage when it presented itself rather than awaiting the mischance of racing messengers. In Selim’s case, the father openly favored a different brother, Ahmet, so Selim and Ahmet were at each other’s throats (and dad’s too) well before Bayezid departed the scene.
Long story short, Selim got the kingmaking Janissaries on his side and lodged himself in the palace but his brother fought on against him. Selim would have to secure his power in 1512-1513 by an unusually thorough purge that set him up to earn the nickname “Selim the Grim”.*
Selim had seven brothers, five of whom were fortunate enough to predecease their father, and these seven brothers had collectively fathered nine sons of their own. Selim had quite a number possible rivals to dispose of.
In the months after his conquest of power, Selim wintered in Bursa, where he had interred five of his young nephews. (The other four nephews were all Ahmet’s sons, and still at large.) Some bout of fresh resistance by Ahmet induced Selim, on November 27, 1512, to do the grim thing:
The eldest of them, Osman, son of Prince Alemshah, was twenty years old; the youngest, Mahomet, son of Prince Schehinshah, was only seven. Selim sent Janissaries to apprehend them, and they were shut up by his orders in one apartment of the palace. On the next morning, the Sultan’s mutes entered to put them to death. A fearful scene ensued, which Selim witnessed from an adjoining chamber. The youngest of the captive princes fell on their knees before the grim executioners, and with tears and childish prayers and promises begged hard for mercy. The little Prince Mahomet implored that his uncle would spare him, and offered to serve him all the days of his life for an aspre (the lowest of all coins) a day. The elder of the victims, Prince Osman, who knew that there was no hope of mercy, rushed fiercely upon the murderers, and fought hard for a time against them. One of the mutes was struck dead, and another had his arm broken. Selim ordered his personal attendants to run in and assist in the execution; and at length the unhappy princes were overpowered by numbers, and strangled. Their bodies were deposited with all display of royal pomp near the sepulchre of Amurath II. (Source)
Six months later, Ahmet — defeated and in his own turn throttled with a bowstring — joined them in the same tomb.
* All told, Selim the Grim ordered something like 30,000 executions in his eight-year reign.
On this day in 1800,* a seventeen-year-old mail sorter named Thomas Chalfont was hanged at Newgate for theft.
Chalfont “feloniously did secrete a letter, or packet, directed to Messrs. Bedwells, St. John’s-street.” Said letter, or packet, had contained three £10 notes; it arrived to Messrs. Bedwells late and containing only two such notes. The accompanying letter had also been altered to correspond to the diminished enclosure.
The recipient complained to the post office, and Chalfont was found out.
He was the second post office employee to be executed for the same offense; almost a year earlier, John Williams had faced the hangman for taking money — it was even the same amount, £10 — out of a letter in his charge.
According to Susan Whyman, the royal mail was a frequent locus of property crime throughout the 18th century: “armed robbery, overcharging for postage, forging franks, wilful destruction of letters, and embezzlement of enclosed bills or money.” Chalfont’s variant here seems downright banal, but it was commonplace enough that one correspondent Whyman cites in 1787 defeated sticky-fingered mail sorters by tearing a £10 Bank of England note in half and mailing the two halves to his wife separately.
We greatly lament to find young men gratuitously placed in trust in the Post-office, frequently abusing the confidence reposed in them, disgracing their friends, who necessarily must have used much interest in obtaining such places for them, and then bringing themselves to an ignominious fate.
Four others died alongside Chalfont: Thomas Douglas, a horse-thief; John Price and John Robinson, burglars; and William Hatton, who took a shot at a watchman.
In the Derby Mercury edition (Nov. 13, 1800) reporting the quintuple execution, the very next news item underscored the post’s continuing security problems:
A singular attempt to intercept the passage of the letters into the Post Office, at Durham, was fortunately discovered on Sunday evening last, before any mischief had been effected by the stratagem. A piece of sheet iron, so modelled as to fit the entrance of the box, had been introduced, so as that it could be withdrawn with any letter that might be put into it.
* The Newgate Calendar supplies the date of November 11; this appears to be erroneous, as the period’s reporting confirms a Wednesday, Nov. 12 execution.
On this date in 1944, the Gestapo publicly hanged 13 men without trial at an S-Bahn station near Cologne.
Heavily bombed by the Allies in World War II, the Rhineland industrial center had spawned two overlapping anti-Nazi movements both represented in this evil baker’s dozen. Their purchase on posterity’s laurels of anti-Nazi “resistance” has been debated ever since.
Often derogated as mere “delinquents”* — who failed to articulate “a positive view of goals”** — the heavily working-class Edelweißpiraten were expressly delinquent from the Third Reich’s project of youth indoctrination.
“Our banding together occurred primarily because the HJ was dominated by a certain compulsion to which we did not want to submit,” one “pirate” declared to Gestapo interrogators. Another said that his clique simply wanted “to spend our leisure time going on trips as free boys and to do and act as we pleased.”†
Many looked longingly back on the Bündische Jugend, romantic and far less authoritarian traditions of youth outdoorsmanship that the new regime had suppressed.‡ These pirates shirked their Hitler Youth “responsibilities” and did their rambling without odious political officers, repurposing old hiking tunes into confrontational subversive songs that they backed up with a penchant for fistfights with the HJ. A song of one band, the Navajos, ran:
Hitler’s power may lay us low,
And keep us locked in chains.
But we will smash the chains one day.
We’ll be free again.
For hard are our fists,
Yes! And knives at our wrists,
For the freedom of youth
The Navajos fight.
We march by the banks of the Ruhr and the Rhine
And smash the Hitler Youth in twain.
Our song is freedom, love, and life.
We’re Pirates of the Edelweiss.
The discourse parsing the degree of “criminality” in youth defying a criminal society strikes the author as an all too precious critique from the security of the postwar world. These pirates might make for less congenial martyr figures than the likes of Sophie Scholl but in the end, they took desperate risks to maintain a sphere of freedom in circumstances of inconceivable peril. Not much adult opposition to Hitlerism with proper manifestos did better than they.
And the Pirates had a handle on larger stakes than their own jollity. Many gangs listened to outlawed foreign broadcasts, committed acts of politically charged vandalism and sabotage, and hid army deserters or Jews. Certainly the authorities viewed them politically when they were subjected to Gestapo torture.
Some current and former Edelweiss Pirates were among the young people in increasingly war-ravaged Cologne who in 1943-44 came under the sway of an escaped concentration camp prisoner named Hans Steinbrück. His “Steinbrück Group” (or “Ehrenfeld Group”, for the suburb where they had their headquarters and, eventually, gallows), the second faction represented in the November 10 hangings, had a more distinctly criminal cast — stealing food and trading it on the black market.
Steinbrück, who claimed anti-fascist motives of his own, was also ready to ratchet up the associated violence past adolescent brawling. He stockpiled illegal weapons and had his gang shoot several actual or suspected gendarmes on a “Nazi hunt” shortly before their arrest. He would ultimately be accused of plotting with Eidelweiss Pirate Barthel Schink to blow up a Gestapo headquarters. The activities of the Ehrenfeld Group in particular have been controversial for many years: were they resisters, or merely gangsters who conveniently appropriated a patina of anti-fascist activism?
Under whatever label, their activities were far too much to fly as youthful transgression; Heinrich Himmler himself ordered the Ehrenfeld gang busted up in the autumn of 1944. Sixty-three in all were arrested of whom “only” the 13 were extrajudicially executed: Hans Steinbrück, Günther Schwarz, Gustav Bermel, Johann Müller, Franz Rheinberger, Adolf Schütz, Bartholomäus Schink, Roland Lorent, Peter Hüppeler, Josef Moll, Wilhelm Kratz, Heinrich Kratina, and Johann Krausen. (Via)
* They would survive the end of the war and prove defiant of the Allied occupation authorities too, which is one reason they had to fight until 2005 for political rehabilitation. Perry Biddiscombe explores this Pirates’ situation in occupied postwar Germany in “‘The Enemy of Our Enemy': A View of the Edelweiss Piraten from the British and American Archives,” Journal of Contemporary History, January 1995.
Minutes before dawn prayers today, Pakistan hanged Shafqat Hussain in Karachi Central Jail.*
He’s the latest casualty of Pakistan’s wild death penalty resurgence following last December’s bloody terrorist attack on a Peshawar school — leading Islamabad to break a moratorium on carrying out the death sentences that it was continuing to hand down.
And how! According to the BBC, today’s hanging brings to 193 the total of people put to death in the little more than half-year since; Pakistan could stop hanging today (it won’t) and easily rank among 2015’s execution leaders by the end of the year.
Though the first victims of the new policy were people previously death-sentenced for terrorism, and thereby at least thematically linked to the Peshawar massacre, Pakistan by March had dropped the distinction and commenced hanging prisoners by the fistful for ordinary crimes, too.
Shafqat Hussain’s name has repeatedly entered the news cycle during that time, as he has faced and then avoided multiple execution dates, most recently this past June 9. Some have gone to the very brink, and seen the young man reprieved moments from donning his hanging-shroud.
Hussain denied committing the crime laid at his door — the abduction and murder of a 7-year-old boy in the area where he worked as a watchman — but a confession “allegedly” obtained by torture doomed him. Guilt aside, the matter garnered worldwide headlines (and advocacy) largely on account of his youth: Hussain and his advocates say he was a minor of age 14 or 15 when arrested; Pakistani courts have found him to have been 23. (!) It is this dispute about the age that has been at the center of Shafqat Hussain’s recent heart-stopping cycle of appeals and stays.
Shortly before his execution, Shafqat Hussain put his byline to a compelling first-person testimonial for CNN about life on Pakistan’s death row and the experience of nearing an imminent execution date.
When the jailer tells me that my execution date has been set, he separates me immediately from the other prisoners. I spend all seven days by myself in a cell in the barracks for prisoners about to be executed. They conduct a physical exam every one of those seven days. They weigh me every day, take my blood pressure and temperature as well.
On the last two days they also measure my height, my neck and my body for the clothes I am to wear when they hang me.
One day before my hanging, they tell me about my final visit with my family and that I need to execute my will. I cannot really say what I am thinking in those last seven days. My brain is thinking all sorts of things.
* According to a brother, who told AFP that “there is a cut mark on his neck and half of his neck is separated from his body,” they did not hang him very well.
Fourteen-year-old John Bell was hanged at Maidstone Prison on this date in 1831, for slashing the throat of a 13-year-old chum near Rochester in order to steal a pittance of poor relief that boy had received from a parish church. (The murder netted “three half-crowns, a shilling, and a six-pence” per the Aug. 6, 1831 Preston Chronicle, from which the facts of the case below are also drawn.)
Bell’s little(r) brother James gave the evidence that would hang John: that John spied Richard Taylor and on a lark announced that they would slay him for his pennies.
To this end John borrowed James’s knife, and before employing it to open Richard’s carotid artery, retired with Richard to a turnip-field where the blade pared a few snacks for greedy boys.
Then on the pretense of taking a shortcut home, James guided Richard into a woods where avarice guided his hand to a greater sin than turnip-theft. Showing a streak of the same ruthless acquisitiveness, 11-year-old James demanded half the proceeds lest he blab on his brother — leading James, whose situation was beginning to dawn upon him, to exclaim, “Torment will come upon me for this; I know I shall be hanged!”*
The hardihood which the culprit had displayed at his trial, and even when sentence was passed, deserted him as he entered his cell. He wept bitterly; and when his mother visited him on Sunday afternoon, [the day before the hanging -ed.] he acused her of being the cause of bringing him to his “present scrape.”
On Sunday evening, after the condemned sermon had been preached by the Rev. Chaplain, Bell made a full confession of his guilt. His statement did not materially differ from that which was given on the trial; but he added some particulars of the conduct of his victim before he murdered him, which make the blood run cold.
He said that when he sprung upon Taylor with the knife in his hand, the poor boy, aware of his murderous intention, fell upon his knees before him — offered him all the money he had, his knife, his cap, and whatever else he liked. Said he would love him during the whole of his life, and never tell what had happened to any human being. This pathetic appeal was lost on the murderer, and without making any answer to it, he struck the knife into his throat!”
At half-past 11 o’clock, the solemn peals of the prison bell announced the preparations for the execution. After the operation of pinioning, &c. had been completed, the culprit attended by the Chaplain, &c., walked steadily to the platform.
When he appeared there, he gazed steadily around him; but his eyes did not quail, nor was his cheek blanched. After the rope was adjusted round his neck, he exclaimed in a firm and loud tone of voice, “Lord have mercy upon us. Pray good Lord have mercy upon us. Lord have mercy upon us. All the people before me take warning by me!”
Having been asked if he had any thing farther to say, he repeated the same words, and added, “Lord have mercy upon my poor soul.”
At the appointed signal, the bolt was withdrawn, and in a minute or two the wretched malefactor ceased to exist.
The body is to be given over to the surgeons at Rochester for dissection.
The number of persons present could not be less than 8,000 or 9,000.
The jury did not even retire to come to its verdict, but it strongly endorsed commuting the consequent (mandatory) death sentence.
The Spectator editorialized for the occasion (and we draw this text from its reprint in the Standard of Aug. 8, 1831):
The boy Bell, whose conviction of the murder of little Taylor, near Chatham, we mentioned in our last number, was hanged on Monday, at Maidstone. Bell was only 14 years of age; and, from the utter neglect of his education, could hardly be regarded, even had he been much older, as an accountable being.
It does not appear, from any thing that transpired at the trial or after it, that he felt any greater qualm in killing Taylor, than he would have done in killing the rabbit to whose squeak the dying shriek of the child was, with horrid reality, compared by the brother of the slayer.
Was an untutored boy like this, with his chubby cheeks and flaxen locks, and every attribute of childhood, a proper subject for the halter and the dissecting-knife? Is it required that our code, like that of Moloch, should receive its sanction by the sacrifice of infants? Are our children and schoolboys already murderers in intention, that we should offer them such an example; or was it our grown-up men that we sought to deter from crime by so revolting a specimen of punishment?
Of all the legal tragedies that have been enacted for the last twenty years, there has been none so replete with horror.
And yet we are told therer wer multitudes assembled to behold it! And the masses that pressed forward to glut their eyes with the expiring convulsions of the miserable boy were angry because they had to wait from eight to eleven o’clock until their longing was satisfied!
* This quote is from the Liverpool Mercury of Aug. 5, 1831.
On this date in 1752,* Thomas Wilford hanged at Tyburn — the first person executed under the Murder Act of 1751.
Approved the previous year but just come into effect on the first of June of 1725, the Murder Act proposed “that some further terror and peculiar mark of infamy be added to the punishment of death” for homicides.**
Since even shoplifting could get you hanged at this period, actually killing someone required an extra twist on the punishment. Parliament killed two birds with one stone here by also addressing the country’s need for anatomical corpses, requiring that the bodies of hanged murderers be delivered “to the hall of the Surgeons Company” where it “shall be dissected and anatomized by the said Surgeons.”†
Wilford presented the surgeons a one-armed specimen with questionable impulse control. As a teenager, he met a prostitute named Sarah Williams in their shared workhouse, and married her, but the honeymoon did not last long. Four days later, his bride stayed out late and to his queries admitted having gone “to the Park” — whereupon Wilford grabbed a knife and slashed her neck so deep as to nearly decapitate her.
“He had no sooner committed the horrid deed than he threw down the knife, opened the chamber door, and was going downstairs when a woman, who lodged in an adjacent room, asked who was there; to which Wilford replied: ‘It is me. I have murdered my poor wife, whom I loved as dearly as my own life,'” quoth the Newgate calendar.
A simple and pathetic crime with an easy disposition for the judiciary. The Newgate Ordinary’s account has a few more details. As specified, his remains were indeed turned over for anatomization.
Another provision of the Murder Act: a death sentence for murder is to “be executed according to law, on the day next but one after sentence passed, unless the same shall happen to be the Lord’s day, commonly called Sunday.” Wilford was condemned on a Tuesday and hanged on Thursday morning; however, the predominant practice moving forward would be to issue such sentences on Fridays in order to give the doomed an extra day to prepare themselves.‡
* Thursday, July 2 was the Julian calendar date of Wilford’s hanging. Our norm has been to prefer the local date (Gregorian or Julian, depending on the country) prior to England’s changeover in 1752 — and then generally to prefer the Gregorian date thereafter. (We’ve made a few exceptions.)
England spent the first eight months of 1752 on the Julian calendar, then transitioned to the Gregorian calendar in September of that year, so in this particular instance we’re hewing it close to the bone.
I infer that the calendar switch is probably also the reason why the Newgate Calendar incorrectly attributes Wilford’s hanging to June 22: the discrepancy between the Julian and Gregorian calendars at this point was 11 days, so a later interlocutor might have supposed that July 2 was a Gregorian date that wanted subtraction. It was a confusing, 355-day leap year for Old Blighty, complete with a new New Year’s Day, so if that’s the explanation I’m inclined to give the author a mulligan for making an unnecessary date adjustment and then miscounting the number of days to adjust.
** The Act’s preamble claims that the “horrid crime of murder has of late been more frequently perpetrated than formerly, and particularly in and near the metropolis of this kingdom, contrary to the known humanity and natural genius of the British nation.” We lack dependable crime statistics for this period to verify this sense of parliamentarians.
† The Murder Act also empowered judges, at their discretion, to order a criminal hung in chains, like theseblokes.
‡ The eleven other people — non-murderers — condemned at the same assize were not executed until July 13.
On this date in 1805, servant Mary Morgan, age 17, was hanged at Presteigne for murdering her bastard child.
An undercook in M.P. Walter Wilkins‘s Maesllwch Castle, Morgan had that achingly typical infanticide story: an unwed youth down the servants’ quarters desperately concealing the pregnancy until her coworkers sniffed her out, barged into the room where she had locked herself up to surreptitiously give birth, and discovered the newborn, “cutt open, deep sunk in the Feathers with the Child’s head nearly divided from the Body” by the efficient hand of a young under-cook who had often used that same pen-knife to slaughter chickens.
“I determined, therefore, to kill it, poor thing!” she would later confess of the (unnamed) father’s refusing her any aid. “Out of the way, being perfectly sure that I could not provide for it myself.”
That was in September of 1804. She would remain imprisoned until she could be tried at the Radnorshire assizes the following April.
Morgan expected lenient treatment — more on that in a moment — and must have been shocked to have the death sentence pronounced on April 11, with no more than two days to prepare herself for the ordeal. She was reportedly in a state of near-collapse when hanged at Gallows Lane.
Mary Morgan’s grave marker in St. Andrew’s parish church. A much longer and more sanctimonious stone, erected by a friend of the judge, also stands in the same cemetery.
We have seen elsewhere in these pages that executing women for infanticide was becoming distinctly uncomfortable for Europeans at this period, and Great Britain was no exception.
During those many decades, close to 200 infanticide cases came to its bar. Hardly any of the accused women were even convicted, never mind condemned.* All the more surprising, then, that the one and only prisoner to merit a death sentence was a 17-year-old. Why did Mary Morgan hang when other Welsh infanticides walked?
The (presumably unobtainable) answer has occasioned a good deal of modern-day speculation.
One possible reason was a cruel judgment on Mary’s unbecoming nonchalance in the court. The presiding judge, George Hardinge,** wrote in private correspondence to the Bishop of St. Asaph that young Miss Morgan “took it for granted that she would be acquitted; had ordered gay apparel to attest the event of her deliverance; and supposed the young gentleman (who I well knew) would save her by a letter to me.” Judges like to see a little cowering.
The young gentleman Hardinge alludes to is another person of interest with respect to Mary Morgan’s surprising fate: Walter Wilkins, Jr. — the heir in the household where Mary served. This man seduced Mary but was not — so said both Mary and Walter — the father of the unfortunate child. In an egregious conflict of interest, Wilkins served on the grand jury that found his lover guilty. Was he playing a double game, posing as a potential intercessor even while keen to eliminate the evidence of his misdeeds?
Kilday suspects that in the end it was nothing but the calculated caprice of Judge Hardinge — who, although he often acquitted accused infanticides, was also alarmed by the prevalence of the practice and wanted to stake out at least one deterrent instance of truly exemplary punishment. As he said in his sentencing address to Mary Morgan, “many other girls (thoughtless and light as you have been) would have been encouraged by your escape to commit your crime, with hopes of impunity; the merciful turn of your example will save them.”
Hardinge himself might not have been fully at home with this rationale. He’s reported to have visited the grave of his “thoughtless and light” defendant several times, even composing a verse “On Seeing the Tomb of Mary Morgan”:
Flow the tear that Pity loves,
Upon Mary’s hapless fate:
It’s a tear that God approves;
He can strike, but cannot hate.
Read in time, oh beauteous Maid!
Shun the Lover’s poisoning art!
Mary was by Love betray’d,
And a viper stung the heart.
Love the constant and the good!
Wed the Husband of your choice,
Blest is then your Children’s food,
Sweet the little Cherub’s voice.
Had Religion glanc’d its beam
On the Mourner’s frantic bed,
Mute had been the tablet’s theme,
Nor would Mary’s child have bled.
She for an example fell,
But is Man from censure free?
Thine Seducer, is the knell,
It’s a Messenger to thee.
* Kilday makes it 149 indictments from 1730 to 1804, with seven convictions and two executions — Jane Humphries in 1734 and Elinor Hadley in 1739; and, after Mary Morgan, another 46 indictments up until 1830 without a single conviction.
The clear “lasts” we do have are country by country, earlier or later depending on the vigor of the pushback witch-hunters could muster against the theonset of rationalism.
The last witch execution that can be documented on in the Holy Roman Empire’s illustrious history took place on this date in 1756, in Landshut, during the age of Maria Theresa.* Its subject was a 15-year-old named Veronika Zeritschin, who was beheaded and then burned.
There is scant information readily available online as to how she came to that dreadful pass, perhaps because the distinction was long thought to be held by a woman named Anna Maria Schwegelin (English Wikipedia entry | German) — condemned for her Satanic intercourse in 1775. That sentence, it was only latterly discovered, was not actually carried out, leaving poor Anna to die in prison in 1781.
As one might infer, Veronika Zeritschin’s own distinction might not be entirely secure against subsequent documentary discoveries. But as of now, she appears to be the last person executed on German soil as a witch.
* Marie Antoinette‘s mother. Maria Theresa’s absolutism was not quite that of the Enlightenment; she was a staunch foe of the trend towards religious toleration:
What, without a dominant religion? Toleration, indifferentism, are exactly the right means to undermine everything … What other restraint exists? None. Neither the gallows nor the wheel … I speak politically now, not as a Christian. Nothing is so necessary and beneficial as religion. Would you allow everyone to act according to his fantasy? If there were no fixed cult, no subjection to the Church, where should we be? The law of might would take command. (Source)
At around 2:00 a.m., Mary Horseman of Kentish Town was woken by the sound of her ten-year-son calling out that his father, London milkman Walter Horseman, needed her… Mary found her husband sitting on his bed. By the light of the moon, which was flooding through the large bay windows, she could see that he was quite black with blood, which covered him from his face to his waist. “Lord bless me,” he said. “Something has run over my face!”
“Run over your face?” she responded. “Why, you are nothing but blood!” She ran for a candle, and when she returned, the light revealed a truly hideous sight: her husband was cut to pieces, his forehead, eyes and nose smashed. His skull, which was broken, was described in court as “cut and mangled in a desperate manner.” The two sections of the skull had broken apart, and his eye sockets had been smashed into shards.
There was nothing to be done for Walter, but amazingly, he lingered until the 19th, over a week after the assault. Due to his head injuries and the fact that he’d been attacked while he was sleeping, he wasn’t able to provide any useful information as to what happened.
The murder weapons were left behind at the crime scene: they proved to be a wooden hedge stake and an iron bar, which was “jellied” with gore.
Only a few farthings were missing from the house. The Horsemans’ four-year-old daughter, who was sleeping in the same room as her father, was not harmed. Suspicion quickly fell on Rickards, the Horsemans’ former apprentice, whom they’d recently sacked for laziness. He had no alibi for the night of the murder, a night watchman saw him near the Horsemans’ home about an hour after the attack, and Mary identified the hedge stake as one he had cut several days before the attack.
Nevertheless, he seemed confident and didn’t bother to leave the area. In fact, in an incredible display of chutzpah, he actually visited his ailing former master and shook his hand before Walter died. Perhaps his cockiness — or obliviousness — was a product of his immaturity; in an age of doubtful record-keeping, we can’t be sure of Joseph Rickards’s age but he was certainly quite young. Mary Horseman speculatively pegged the ex-apprentice as an 18-year-old; the London Times (Feb. 24, 1786) thought that he did “not appear to be more than sixteen years of age.” Although even 16 would be quite old enough to hang in Bloody Code London, the magistrate felt constrained on account of the boy’s age to caution his jurors against excess confidence in the confession he ultimately produced:
I should not for one, though he is very near the state of manhood, chuse to rest singly and merely on his confession, as he is not at full age, though he is above that age of discretion, which the law assigns to be at the age of fourteen years, and certainly it is near the time that human reason is supposed to be mature.
On the 20th, the day after Walter’s death, Rickards was arrested. Within a day he had admitted to concealing himself in a large cupboard in one of the bedrooms in order to beat his former boss to death in his bed. (The trial records are here.) He tried to shift some of the blame to Mary Horseman, claiming they had frequently kissed and he had “laid hold of” her breasts, and that she had told him she wished her husband was dead.
He was hanged in a field across the way from the Horseman family’s dairy — a pathetic spectacle, to judge by the account of the Public Advertiser (Feb. 28, 1786), during which he recanted his allegations against the milkman’s widow.
In his way to the place of execution, the convict appeared to be in a state of mind bordering upon stupefaction: He had no book, nor did he employ the short remnant of time in those preparations for eternity which his miserable situation rendered so indispensably necessary.
Before being turned off, the prisoner desired to see the widow of the deceased; she was sent for to her house, but was gone to London: he declared he had no accomplice in the fact, and that he was induced to the perpetration thereof by the supposition, that after the decease of his master he should succeed to his business as a milkman. Just before coming to the village, he burst into tears, and when he came to the place of execution wept bitterly; his expressions of sorrow and contrition being only interrupted by fervent appeals to Heaven for mercy till the last moment of his existence. He desired his hat might be given to one, and his buckles to another man; and he also made some other trifling dispositions.
One of the Sheriffs, and a great number of their officers on horseback and on foot, attended on the above occasion. Considering the nature of the criminal’s offence, and the disposition of the English to behold spectacles of horror, the crowd was not near so great as might have been expected, owing, no doubt, to the fall of snow, and going so early. The body of the malefactor was conveyed from Kentish Town to Surgeons Hall for dissection, without a shell, and covered only with a coarse cloth, which by the motion of the cart was frequently so removed, that the head and different parts of the body were frequently seen by the passengers on the road and in the streets.
The anatomization, and accompanying public lecture on the late Rickards’s thorax, was performed by a “Dr. Cooper” (General Evening Post, Feb. 28-Mar. 2, 1786); this would appear to be the budding anatomist Astley Cooper who was only 17 years old himself at this time — just at the outset of a scintillating medical career.
Joseph Richards was arraigned for the wilful murder of Walter Horseman, milkman, in Kentish Town. The deceased’s widow deposed, that the prisoner was formerly a servant to her husband; that he was discharged for negligence; that he had frequently threatened vengeance on the deceased; that on the morning the murder was committed, she was awakened by a noise, and on entering the room her husband slept in, she found him sitting up in the bed, and as far as his waist in blood; that a stick which the prisoner had cut some time before, lay in the room, and an iron bar, covered with blood; that her husband was mangled in a shocking manner: — he lingered a few days, and died a shocking spectacle.
Four other witnesses were examined, whose testimony proved certain corroborating circumstances; such as, being from his lodging the night the murder was committed, being seen to melt lead, and to pour it into the stick that was found in the deceased’s room, &c.
The prisoner confessed the murder to one of the magistrates who committed him for trial; but pleaded Not Guilty at the bar.
The jury, after a few minutes’ consideration, brought in their verdict Guilty.
Mr. Recorder pronounced judgment. He said the voice of innocent blood cried to heaven for vengeance. He dwelt upon the atrociousness of the crime of murder, observing, that the Divine Law had ordained, that whoever sheddeth man’s blood, &c., and then expatiated on the peculiar circumstances of the murder, the murder of an innocent master, to whom he owed duty and reverence.
The sentence was then passed as usual, that he be hanged till dead, and anatomized; and an order of Court was made out, to execute him on Monday, at Kentish Town, as near as possible to the house of the deceased.
Joseph Richards, a youth about eighteen, who was convicted on Friday last, for the wilful murder of Walter Horseman, with whom he lived servant, was executed at Kentish Town, opposite the house where the horrid fact was perpetrated. The malefactor came out of Newgate about twenty minutes before eight o’clock, and with some alertness stepped into the cart, which conveyed him through Smithfield, Cow Cross, and by the two small-pox hospitals to the spot, where he was removed from that society of which he had proved himself a most unworthy member, at a time of life when such atrocity of guilt as he possessed has been seldom known to degrade humanity. In his way to the place of execution, the convict appeared to be in a state of mind bordering upon stupefaction; he had no book, nor did he employ that short remnant of time in those preparations for eternity which his miserable situation rendered so indispensably necessary.
Before being turned off, the prisoner desired to see the widow of the decreased; she was sent for to her house, but was gone to London; he declared he had no accomplice in the fact, and that he was induced to the perpetration thereof by the supposition, that after the decease of his master he should succeed to his business as a milkman. Just before coming to the village, he burst into tears and when he came to the place of execution, wept bitterly; his expressions of sorrow and contrition being only interrupted by fervent appeals to Heaven for mercy till the last moment of his existence.