Posts filed under 'Disfavored Minorities'

1971: Victor Apaza Quispe, Arequipa folk saint

Add comment September 17th, 2014 Headsman

From Frank Graziano’s Cultures of Devotion: Folk Saints of Spanish America:


In Arequipa, there is active devotion to Victor Apaza Quispe, who was born in the Miraflores district in 1932. Apaza led a vagrant life supported by odd jobs after fleeing his abusive father. In a variant version that he related to inmates, he was sold by his father into farm labor. Apaza married in 1953, continued a life of transient jobs and petty crime, drank heavily, and physically abused his wife and daughter until he finally abandoned the home. When he returned ten years later, the marriage was beyond repair. In January 1969, Apaza dreamed that his wife was unfaithful to him. He went to the location revealed in the dream and saw the shadowy figure of a man escaping. His wife, also there, was not as fortunate. Apaza beat her to death with a rock.

It was later revealed that the crime was premeditated and carefully planned. Apaza originally denied responsibility but confessed his guilt once the evidence mounted against him. Later, during appeals for clemency, he again declared his innocence. He was convicted partially on the evidence of his two daughters, who wittingly or unwittingly offered testimony that supported the death penalty. Apaza did not understand the sentence until his lawyer translated it for him into Quechua. He hugged his lawyer, the two of them crying, and then collapsed into his chair.

People in the courtroom were shocked by the death sentence. The rarity of the event — this would be the first execution in Arequipa — resulted in extensive press coverage. Apaza suddenly gained a celebrity derived less from his crime than from the punishment. The press represented him as a poor, simple man and a good Christian. According to Apaza’s defense attorney, “the very foundation of society was shaken” when the public learned that Apaza had been sentenced to death. Horror and indignation were aroused because the imminent execution was “an unjust action of human justice.” Divine justice would make amends.

Apaza faced the firing squad in prison on September 17, 1971. (The drama is intensified in some folkloric versions by locating the execution in Arequipa’s main plaza.) Arequipa’s residents were outraged, even traumatized, and some fifteen hundred attended Apaza’s funeral. They organized themselves into squads, taking turns to carry the coffin.

Apaza had been in prison for two years before he was executed. Like Ubilberto Vasquez Bautista in Cajamarca, he became a model prisoner and something of a populist. Fellow inmates described Apaza as a good, hardworking, honest man. In 1971, the 531 men incracerated with him sent a letter to the court petitioning clemency, in part because Apaza had proven himself to be “an honorable man and dedicated to his work.” The prison chaplain, a Jesuit, found Apaza to be pious and God-fearing, and the warden thought he was a “completely good” man. Later, retrospective press accounts described Apaza and Ubilberto together as “innocent men crushed by the Kafkaesque and labyrinthine cruelties of the administration of justice in Peru.”

Book CoverThe devotees with whom I spoke in Arequipa knew little about Apaza. Even the official rezador, a man who prays for tips at the shrine, did not have the story clear. Many devotees had a vague idea that Apaza had been executed under circumstances that suggested injustice, however, and the key word offered by all was “innocent.” Some believed that the true killer confessed the crime after Apaza was executed.

When I asked devotees how they knew that Apaza was innocent, one woman astonished me with her answer: “because a sinner cannot work miracles.” I later encountered this same response in other devotions. Once a folk saint’s fame for miracles is accepted as true, then this truth — this evidence — revises backward to create the conditions necessary for the production of miracles. Miracles make Apaza’s apparent guilt impossible, so the verdict is reversed. Innocence causes miracles, and miracles cause innocence. Miracles occur within the circularity defined by these parameters.

Apaza is miraculous, like all folk saints of this prototype, because “he died innocent and is beside Our Lord.” “You were shot, you suffered,” people said when they requested the first miracles, because these misfortunes qualified Apaza for sainthood.

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1846: Andrew Kim Taegon, the first Korean priest

Add comment September 16th, 2014 Headsman

The first native Korean Catholic priest, Andrew Kim Taegon, was martyred for his faith on this date in 1846.

Catholicism had begun making inroads in Korea from the late 18th century, a development most unwelcome for the Confucian Joseon dynasty. Catholic adherents graduated over the decades of the 19th century to heavier and heavier degrees of persecution. By 1866, the peak of anti-Catholic sentiment, it’s thought that Korea’s Catholic community numbered about 20,000 living souls — and had lost about 10,000 others to martyrdom.

Andrew’s father was one of these 10,000.

The son, and the principal figure of this post, was baptized in his childhood. He trained for Holy Orders at overseas seminaries, in China and the Philippines (according to Wikipedia, he has a statue in the Philippines village where he once hung his hat), finally stealing illicitly into Korea to evangelize underground. Such missions were of ancient vintage for the Church; they have also proven a font of martyrs.

Kim managed about 13 months before he was captured and put to death in the 1846 “Pyong-o persecution”, one of several distinct crackdowns on the alien faith whose episodes punctuated the overall fearful climate for Korea’s Catholics.

Beheaded at the age of 25 among a group of 20 Catholic martyrs, the young man was eventually canonized as St. Andrew Kim Taegon by Pope John Paul II. He shares a common September 20 feast date with other Korean martyrs, including Paul Chong Hasang.

St. Andrew is the patron of the Korean clergy, and of the Pontifical Korean College in Rome. When in Seoul, stop at the Jeoldu-san museum and shrine to remember him.

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1833: A 13-year-old slave girl

1 comment August 23rd, 2014 Meaghan

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

On Tuesday, the 23rd inst., Harriet, slave of JAMES H. SHEPPERD, JR., aged about 13 years, was convicted of the murder, by drowning, of a son of ALEXANDER McKENZIE, Esq., of Hardeman county; she was sentenced to be hung on the 23rd of August. The boy deceased, was aged about 5 years, and was drowned in a common flour barrel fixed in a spring near the residence of his father. (Source)

On this date in 1833, a thirteen-year-old slave girl was hanged for murder in Bolivar, Tennessee.

The teenager, called Harriet, belonged to James H. Shepperd, Jr. On some unspecified date, she drowned a five-year-old boy, the son of Alexander McKenzie, in a flour barrel near his home in Hardeman County.

A local news account noted, “The circumstances as detailed by the witnesses on the trial, show the transaction to have been one of the most wanton and aggravated murders, perhaps ever committed by a female so young, and created considerable excitement in the minds of a virtuous community.” Harriet was convicted on July 23 and executed exactly a month later.

Harriet was the youngest female ever legally executed in Tennessee. She was not, however, the youngest person in the state to meet with that fate. That honor goes to twelve-year-old Jesse Ward, also a slave, who was hanged for arson in Knoxville in 1809. He burned down his master’s house and several barns because he was angry at being whipped.

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1883: Ah Yung

Add comment August 16th, 2014 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1883, Chinese immigrant Ah Yung, aka Ah Kee, was hanged in Missoula, Montana.

As Tom D. Donovan notes in his book Hanging Around The Big Sky: The Unofficial Guide to Lynching, Strangling and Legal Hangings of Montana, his execution had three distinctions:

  • The first (of nine) legal executions in Missoula County;
  • The first Chinese person hanged in Montana;
  • The quickest reported hanging, with death declared in only a minute and a half.

Ah Yung was condemned for the January 29, 1883 murder of Chung Yu, the paymaster of the Wing See Company.

However, the authorities believed his murder was the least of Ah’s crimes; he was suspected of killing no fewer than seventeen people, two whites and fifteen Chinese.

Ah Yung shot and killed Chung Yu and wounded another man during a botched robbery, then fled the scene. The authorities offered a $400 reward for his arrest, and he was captured a month after the murder at Frenchtown, Montana. But, as Donovan records, “because of some bizarre reason, there was a question whether or not the reward was going to be paid for his captor released the prisoner.”

Fortunately, the murderer remained free for only a few days and didn’t have the opportunity to commit any more crimes before he was captured again, and this time sent to jail in the newly incorporated city of Missoula.

Chinese immigrants, especially drawn by gold strikes,* were a sizable constituent in frontier Montana as throughout the American West. A Montana travelogue in the Nov. 25, 1882 Utah Salt Lake Tribune

“Gangs of Chinamen clearing away the forest and underbrush … laboring with pick, shovel and wheelbarrow.” This was the Northern Pacific then under frenetic construction through forbidding Rocky Mountain terrain in subzero temperatures. In Missoula itself, “Celestials” were “numerous enough to form a Chinese quarter. They have an eye to business, and where you find a live, busy camp or town in this remote region, there, too, you find the inevitable Chinaman.”

A Presbyterian minister and a Catholic priest attempted to offer pastoral counsel to the condemned man, only to discover that he was utterly ignorant of religion. Pressed to confess, Ah Yung refused and kept repeating, “Me no kill him,” — a statement he held to his dying moments.

* Welcomed initially, the Chinese were an increasingly contentious presence in Montana (and elsewhere) in the 1880s. Still, there were over a hundred independent Chinese mining operations known in Montana at this time.

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1912: Sing Sing’s seven successive sparks

Add comment August 12th, 2014 Headsman

New York’s electric chair handled record traffic on this date in 1912: seven successive electrocutions.

The first two men committed unrelated and isolated crimes.

  • John Collins got drunk and started firing a pistol in his Manhattan apartment. Police responded, and Collins shot a patrolman through the chest when they entered his domicile and tried to arrest him.
  • Joseph Ferrone, a violent wife-murderer who reacted to his guilty verdict by smashing a glass and slashing a juror with the jagged edge before he was restrained.

The last five were the culmination of another record: six people (these were nos. two through six) executed for one homicide. More specifically, and this was their newspaper billing, “Six Italians”.

Ringleader Lorenzo Cali

Lorenzo Cali, Santo Zanza, Vincenzo Cona, Salvatore DeMarco, Angelo Giusto and Filippo DeMarco were all Sicilians who were among the million-plus emigres to leave the island in the wake of the devastating 1908 Messina earthquake, had washed up at Croton Lake outside of New York working on the aqueducts that supplied that swelling metropolis with its fresh water.

It was backbreaking work at less than $2 a day, with tent barracks for recuperation because it was a prohibitive two-hour train ride back to the last stop on the New York subway.

In 1911, Cali caught wind of the passing of a nearby farm owner — Henry J. Griffin, whose comfortable home (usually occupied by boarders from the aqueduct’s managerial ranks) must have looked a fair sight from the muddy workers’ tents. It was said that he had left his wife not only that property but a $3,000 insurance policy. That would be a good four times the average annual earnings of a workingman at the time: had that policy been cashed out, grabbing the proceeds would be a better day’s labor by far than tending the aqueduct.

On the night of November 8-9 of that year, our Six Italians — led by Cali, who had made a point of casing the house over the preceding weeks — stole by moonlight into the woods near the house and waited for the male residents to leave for the day. Once they did, the Italians raided the farm.

Though they easily overpowered the three women left there, they didn’t find any $3,000. One of the women, Mary Hall, the young wife of an aqueduct superintendent, lost her composure in the face of the bandits screaming at her to produce more money; desperate to control her sobbing and shrieking, Santo Zanza stabbed her fatally in the chest.

But as the men fled the house with pennies on their hoped-for fortune and a dying woman at their back, the other two matrons of the house summoned police — Aqueduct Police, actually, a special force detailed to keep order in the unruly laborers’ shanties. Four of the men were arrested in the vicinity that afternoon; Cali, the ringleader, made it back to his Brooklyn tenement but was caught there two days after the murder. Only Salvatore DeMarco, known to his confederates as “Penolo”, remained on the lam.

A speedy succession of four different trials (Filippo DeMarco and Cali opted to be tried together) commenced at the Westchester County courthouse in White Plains before the month was out. Heavy guard (“Black Hand” notes kept arriving at the judge’s door; for fear of a possible rescue attempt by underworld characters, Italians were barred from attending the trial) did not in the least encumber their rapidity.

Angelo Giusto had implicated Santo Zanza as the killer (“the confession was wrung from the prisoner by up-to-date third-degree methods,” a newspaper reported) and a cycle of desperately competing confessions and accusations ensued among the lot to easily doom them all. The general thrust of the non-Zanza defendants was that the whole thing was a robbery only, and that Zanza had gone rogue in knifing Mary Hall to death. Even if true, however, those statements amounted to confessing capital crimes under felony murder rules imputing to all participants in the criminal enterprise joint liability for all its consequences. There was one death by one man’s hand, but all six were murderers.

Twenty-six days after Mary Hall’s death, all five Italians stood together in the courtroom to receive their death sentences. The trials had taken just a few hours apiece; jury deliberations consumed less than a quarter-hour for all cases save that of the youngest, Giusto.


New York Times headlines from November 29 (left) and December 6 of 1911. “Less than thirty hours’ actual court time was used in the four trials,” the latter article reported by way of high-fiving the state’s attorneys. “It is believed that Westchester has established a new record for the quick disposal of murder cases in this State.”

Two days after that, the last fugitive Salvatore DeMarco was finally arrested at his East Flatbush apartment. He was tried, convicted, and condemned all in a single day on December 19.

As the short appeals process unfolded over the ensuing months, public pressure for mercy was exerted by the Italian consulate specifically on behalf of the men who had not bloodied their own hands. Even Santo Zanza, who was executed separately from the rest on July 12, climbed aboard, and gave statements designed to accentuate his own culpability and underscore his fellows’ innocence of his design. But considering the sensational nature of the crime, and its context of growing public fear of violent crime rife among New York’s Italian immigrants, this was not one to recommend itself to the governor‘s clemency.

There is a detailed Crime Library summation of this case that begins here; note that most of its navigation links insert a gratuitous (and link-breaking) space after the phrase /croton in the web address; clicking through the 15-page story requires some annoying manual url manipulation.

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1548: Seraphin d’Argences

Add comment August 1st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1548, the Calvinist evangelist Robert de Lievre — better known by his nom de prosélytisme Seraphin d’Argences, or as Antoine Deschamps — was burned at Paris’s Place Maubert.

According to their hagiographies, the martyrs’ steadiness caused their assigned Catholic hector Francois Le Picart to lay off the browbeating and comfort them in their last pains.

This neat trick was achieved by the dread Chambre Ardente, really earning its name in this instance, which wanted the example made of this itinerant preacher to match the scope of his roving heresy. Seraphin d’Argences had even had the temerity to administer reformed Lord’s Suppers, leading the judgment against them to cite not only the obvious heresy stuff but “acts repugnant to the holy Catholic faith and the sight of the Holy Church, outraging the Blessed Sacrament of the altar.”

The show began with the minister’s collaborators, Jean Thuillier, Michel Mareschal and Jean Camus, piled into a cart for the ride to the stakes. Seraphin d’Argences trailed right behind them, drug on a sledge pulled by the tumbril.

At the Place Maubert, they all burned the same, but the heresiarch’s stake was consciously elevated above the other three — a sure nod to the developing age of spectacular capital punishment.

Following his bodily execution, Seraphin d’Argences was re-executed in effigy in various towns where he had been active: Langres, Sens, Blois, Bourges, Angers, and others all hosted ceremonial “executions” of lifelike likenesses of the lifeless schismatic.

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1847: Manuel Antonio Ay, Caste War harbinger

Add comment July 26th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1847, the execution of Maya leader Manuel Antonio Ay in Valladolid kicked off the Yucatan’s decades-long Caste War.

Under Spanish administration, Mexico had a dizzying 16-tiered racial caste hierarchy.

The casta system was officially abolished when Mexico attained independence in 1821, but for Amerindians the newfound equality was more aspirational than real. It’s just that now they were looking up at Mexican-born criollo elites instead of Iberia-born peninsulares.

Either caste’s powers that be had long found found the Maya especially contumacious subjects; a Yucatan Mayan stronghold had, indeed, been the very last unconquered indigenous realm of the Americas to fall to Europeans — as late as 1697.

In 1846, a heavily Maya Yucatecan peasantry, strained by the economic extractions the Mexican state was imposing for its disastrous war with the United States, began rising against the overweening local gentry.

The progress and organization of these disturbances varied, but it’s the execution of our man, the 27-year-old chief of the village Chichimila, that traditionally marks turning-point galvanizing a full-scale rebellion. On July 18, as armed Maya regiments gathered in nearby Tihosuco, Valladolid’s authorities seized Miguel Antonio Ay for planning a rebellion. He had in his possession a letter from Bonifacio Novelo, a major Maya chief who would become one of the Caste War’s leading figures in the years to come — indeed, Terry Rugeley says in Yucatan’s Maya Peasantry and the Origins of the Caste War that Ay served for his persecutors as “a temporary substitute for Novelo, whom officials feared and hated more than any Maya.”

They’d never lay hands on Novelo, but his substitute was executed in the town square of Valladolid, and the body returned to exhibit in Chichimila in a futile attempt to cow resistance: Ay had, instead, become the first martyr of the coming war. Three days later, the gathering Maya army sacked the village of Tepich, beheading the colonel who commanded its defenses — the onset of generations of general war that persisted into the 20th century.

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1801: Chloe

1 comment July 18th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1801, the teenage slave “negro Chloe” — as the press reports almost invariably called her — was hanged at Carlisle, Penn., for murdering her owner’s two young children.

Although a slave by every experience of her short life, Chloe and others of her generation actually existed in a legal twilight space between slave and free. Pennsylvania in 1780 had taken a step towards emancipation that was pioneering for its time but the halfest of half-measures: the Gradual Abolition Act made the children of slaves born in Pennsylvania after 1780 into indentured servants who would be manumitted by age 28.* As a result, dwindling numbers of grandfathered legal slaves remained in Pennsylvania until 1847, even as the state became an antebellum hotbed of abolitionist activism with a huge population of free blacks and slaves fled from Southern plantations via the Underground Railroad.

In Chloe’s case, she had been born to a slave in 1782, then willed when her owner William Kelso died in 1789 to William’s daughter Rebecca, who eventually sold Chloe on to a dealer.

In 1794, Chloe was bought and sold repeatedly: she was sold in July of that year, and then again in August, and then again in October, until an Irish merchant named Oliver Pollock finally bought her in March of 1795 and gave her a little bit of stability. In her eventual last confession, Chloe credited Pollock and his daughter as the only owners who took any care for her education.

Pollock, however, sold Chloe as well at the end of 1796. One wonders if the “high passion” to which she would eventually attribute her murders made her a notably ungovernable slave-child for all these passing masters, or whether it was all just happenstance — that she was just a commodity that could be liquefied in a pinch.

Whatever the case, Andrew Carothers — the man who bought Chloe from Pollock — would be her last master.**

The hard-working Andrew Carothers and his wife, Mary, had a little log cabin in Cumberland County, home to six children. Chloe was their first slave, to relieve Mary of her household labors while Andrew cleared a plot of forested land nearby, and the tone of Chloe’s last confession — widely published at the time of her execution — clearly implies a going resentment for Mary. Chloe will have just turned 18 years old when she commits her capital crimes; she’s grown out of childhood and through adolescence in this family, working as Mary’s constant domestic drudge and probably sleeping in the barn.

On January 24, 1801, the family realized that four-year-old Lucetta had gone missing. Andrew found her dead in the nearby creek where they drew water.

Since we’ve begun our story at the end we know the author of the deed in advance. Chloe would say that she had been given of late to “temptations” to do violence to her owners — sudden fancies that she would unthinkingly indulge. She had already tried and failed to murder the family’s youngest son, she said, and twice attempted to fire the barn.

On that fatal Saturday, Chloe had taken Lucetta to the creek when she needed to retrieve some water without, she said, intending any mischief. But the “temptation” came upon her there and she yielded to it readily, suffocating Lucetta and leaving her in the creek.

By returning nonchalantly and playing surprised that evening, Chloe evaded suspicion in this instance. It wouldn’t have been so implausible that an unattended little girl in a rural family might have fallen into a river and drowned, and a relieved Chloe “promised myself good days” without violent urges.

But, she said, Mary’s strict discipline soon undid those better angels. After Lucetta was buried on Sunday the 25th, Mary “made me strip off my short-gown, and gave me a severe whipping, with a cowskin; also on Tuesday she gave me another, and on the following Saturday she gave me a third.” For one who had so lately experienced the cruel pleasure of visiting lethal violence upon her tormenter’s own flesh and blood, this treatment was too much to bear. That weekend she lured another daughter, six-year-old Polly, to the creek and did her the same way.

Chloe was reported to have forsworn “any spite or malice against” her victims — “on the contrary, I loved them both.”

But, she said, she murdered them because their tattling on her misbehaviors set her up for Mary’s corrective hidings (“far beyond the demerit of the fault”); and, “the second and greatest motive … to bring all the misery I possibly could upon the family, and particularly upon my mistress.”

If suspicion had escaped Mary the first time around, it now insisted upon itself.

Mary’s account of matters also hit the papers; she said that on the Monday following Polly’s death she accused Chloe of the horrible crime. “She [Chloe] said she did not do it, had no hand in it, and full denied it till Monday was a week.” That must have been an excruciating week, doing the wash and preparing dinner with the sullen teenager who you’re also convinced is picking off your family and torturing to that effect. “I was much whipped by my master, to extort a confession,” Chloe recalled. At last the Carothers’ pressure overwhelmed their slave.

I said [to Chloe] it was not worth while to deny it, her countenance would condemn her, it was plain she had a hand in it — it was plain, for the children would have crawled on their hands and feet out of the run if somebody had not held them in … she might as well tell as not — I could not bear the sight of her about the house; I was sure she had done it.

Chloe eventually consented to confess not to Mary Carothers but to a neighbor, Mrs. Clendinen, who had a lighter personal touch and not so much acrimonious history with Chloe. Even so it was still another two weeks before they escorted Chloe to the sheriff. The spiritual instruction that her many owners had never bothered with in her life now became available to her as she approached death — obviously all-inclusive with ghostwriting services as well.

Oh! what have I done? In revenging the injuries I suffered, I have drawn the fierce indignation of heaven upon myself. The voice of the blood of two innocent children crieth against me from the ground. Is my sin too great, for the mercy of God to pardon? Is my stain too deep for the blood of Jesus to wash away? I am full encouraged to trust that, loud as the blood of these innocents cries for vengeannce, the blood of Jesus cries louder still for mercy and pardon and I trust that his unbounded goodness will not suffer me to perish.

The original source of both Chloe’s and Mary Carothers’s accounts are separate 1801 articles in Kline’s Carlisle Weekly Gazette: July 22 (Chloe) and June 24 (Mary). Both were subsequently reprinted by other newspapers around the young country.

* This law inconvenienced the political elites of the early Republic, since it also prohibited importing new slaves — even for the Southern congressmen who came to Philadelphia while that city served as the U.S. capital during the 1790s. George Washington, famous for crossing the Delaware, had to run his black slaves over that river to New Jersey periodically while he was president, lest they become automatically liberated by residing continuously in Pennsylvania for six-plus months.

That said, the Gradual Abolition framework did sustain a market in human chattel inasmuch as somebody’s compulsory labor unto age 28 was still a value that could be calculated and sold. The way to import slaves to Pennsylvania was to bring them in under the same transit auspices that Washington used, legally manumit them there into “indentured servitude” pending their 28th birthday, and then sell the indenture contract.

** John Carothers, Andrew’s cousin, had been poisoned in 1798 with his own wife Mary in another, unrelated Cumberland County death penalty case.

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1646: Jan Creoli, for sodomy in slavery

Add comment June 25th, 2014 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1646, a black slave named Jan Creoli was executed in Manhattan, part of what was then called New Netherland and is now New York.

Creoli had been caught having carnal knowledge of a ten-year-old boy, another slave named Manuel Congo. Several of his own fellow Africans turned him in to the authorities. When Manuel Congo was brought face-to-face with Creoli, the boy “without being threatened in any way confessed to the deed in the presence of the prisoner.”

In her book Brothers Among Nations: The Pursuit of Intercultural Alliances in Early America, 1580-1660, author Cynthia J. Van Zandt notes,

The statement that a ten-year-old child who had been raped might “confess to the deed” seems startling to modern eyes, but it is highly significant for understanding Dutch authorities’ actions. As far as New Netherland’s officials were concerned, Manuel Congo was not just a victim but also a participant in the crime of sodomy despite his age and the fact that he had been raped. Dutch officials in New Netherland and in the United Provinces regarded sodomy as one of the worst social crimes possible, every bit as serious as murder.

Confronted with his victim’s testimony, Creoli admitted his guilt and shamefacedly added that he’d also committed sodomy while in the Dutch Caribbean colony of Curacao.

He was accordingly executed: tied to stake, garrotted, and his body burned to ashes. Little Manuel got off lightly: he was only whipped.

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Feast Day of St. Vitus

Add comment June 15th, 2014 Headsman

June 15 is the feast date of the early Christian saint and martyr Vitus.

The 6th century roster Martyrologium Hieronymianum gives us “In Sicilia, Viti, Modesti et Crescentiae”. From this nub grew a legend of the young child of a Roman Senator who turned to Christianity and would not apostatize, fleeing finally to Lucania with his tutor Modestus and his nanny Crescentia and eventually exorcising a demon possessing the son of the Christian-hunting, Empire-quartering Roman sovereign Diocletian. They were all — boy, tutor, and nanny — tortured to death for their troubles; that occurred either by means of or (manifesting God’s customary disdain for the pagan persecutors) after surviving execution in a boiling pot, which has become Vitus’s most typical iconographical emblem. (For example, as seen on the coat of arms of the Austrian town Sankt Veit im Pongau.)


The Martyrdom of St. Vitus, anonymous c. 1450 painting

This story doesn’t have much historical merit, but shrines and chapels to Vitus date as far back as the 5th century so Vitus, whomever he was, had real importance to early Christians.

His cult became especially prominent in medieval central Europe. Prague’s imposing Gothic cathedral bears his name, because Wenceslaus, Duke of Bohemia* allegedly retrieved for it the saint’s arm in a reliquary.**

While many places are dedicated to St. Vitus in Germany, Hungary, and Croatia, the man has red-letter treatment in Serbia — owing to this also being the date in 1389 that the Serbs’ Tsar Lazar was martyred by the Turks at the Battle of Kosovo. As a result, the feast date Vidovdan is a major celebration in Serbia (and to some extent Bulgaria and Macedonia), where it is observed on June 28th — the Gregorian date presently corresponding to the Julian calendar’s June 15th.

The same Vitus who cheers Balkan nationalists trod a completely different path into medical textbooks.

For centuries, Europeans were known to break out in curious ecstatic mass dancing, even sometimes dancing themselves to death. Generally believed today to be psychosocial afflictions, these dancing manias became widely associated with St. Vitus (his patronage includes both dancers and epileptics), whose intercession would be sought to calm the capering souls.

Dancing manias stopped happening in the 17th century or so, but the link between Vitus and involuntary rollick gave the name St. Vitus’s Dance to the condition Syndenham’s chorea — which is characterized by uncontrolled dance-like movement.

* The very Good King Wenceslaus who looked down on the feast of Stephen.

** Speculatively, Sanct Vid might have been selected for Christian veneration in this area to facilitate replacement of the similarly-named Slavic god Svantovid. An active (albeit declining) pagan community persisted in Prague as late as the 12th century.

As with most Slavic deities, Svantovid’s exact characteristics and the extent of his veneration are very poorly documented; however, in 1168, the Wendish fortress of Arkona was conquered by the Danes and the forced Christianization of its inhabitants is commemorated in Laurits Tuxen‘s late 19th century image of Archbishop Absalon casting down Arkona’s idol of Svantovid. (It’s also commemorated by the name of the neo-pagan Russian metal band Arkona.)

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