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1939: Maurice Pilorge, Le Condamné à mort

1 comment February 4th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1939, the murderer Maurice Pilorge dropped his beautiful head under the blade.

This strange execution by retrospect almost marks the pivot between eras of crime and culture. Public executions were about to disappear entirely; the Third Republic that ordered them would not long outlive them.

And Pilorge’s death specifically would prove to be the last performance of the guillotine in Rennes. It was also to have been the 396th in the legendary career of 75-year-old headsman Anatole Deibler … except that Deibler dropped dead on a Paris metro platform two days before, as he set out for the lethal rendezvous.

So too did Pilorge’s crime belong to that interwar moment of cosmopolitan decadence. He fatally slashed the throat of a Mexican visitor named Escudero after what Pilorge claimed, in an unsuccessful attempt to leverage the “gay panic” defense, was an indecent proposition. The facts of the case appear better to fit the hypothesis that indecent propositions were Pilorge’s stock in trade: a black book full of dates and initials whose owners he would not identify, a short late-night visit to Escudero’s hotel room, and a total refusal to explain his activities.

Pilorge, who maintained a wry and mirthful attitude throughout his trial, could not but laugh at the judge’s speculation — inspired by the swarthiness of his victim in the case at hand? — that his prisoner was involved in traite des blanches, the white slave trade: “I was never cut out for that. I assure you that I have never fallen so low.”

If Pilorge’s character entered the public gaze awash in same-sex eros, he was fixed in the firmament as such by the pen of Villonesque criminal/writer Jean Genet after the war years.

Claiming (falsely) to have had a prison intimacy with this doomed “Apollo”, Genet dedicated to Pilorge, “assasin de vingt ans,” one of his breakthrough works. Written in prison in 1942, Le Condamné à mort is a homoerotic hallucination of lovemaking ahead of a gathering doom and it helped to launch the theretofore Genet into literary superstardom. I’ve found the lengthy poem available online only in the original French, but here’s a translated excerpt via The Columbia Anthology of Gay Literature:

O come my beautiful sun, o come my night of Spain,
Arrive in my eyes which will be dead tomorrow.
Arrive, open my door, bring me your hand,
Lead me far from here to scour the battleground.

Heaven may awaken, the stars may blossom,
Nor flowers sigh, and from the meadows the black grass
Gather the dew where morning is about to drink,
The bell may ring: I alone am about to die.

O come my heaven of rose, o my blond basket!
Visit in his night your condemned-to-death.
Tear away your own flesh, kill, climb, bite,
But come! Place your cheek against my round head.

We had not finished speaking to each other of love.
We had not finished smoking our gitanes.
Well we might ask why the Courts condemn
A murderer so beautiful he makes the day to pale.

Love come to my mouth! Love open your doors!
Run through the hallways, come down, step lightly,
Fly down the stairs more supple than a shepherd,
More borne up by the air than a flight of dead leaves.

O cross the walls; so it must be walk on the brink
Of roofs, of oceans; cover yourself with light,
Use menace, use prayer,
But come, o my frigate, an hour before my death.

The poem was one of several that Genet wrote later set to music by herhis friend, Helene Martin. (It’s also been covered and reinterpreted by several others.)

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1743: James Hunt and Thomas Collins, Pepper-Alley sodomists

Add comment August 25th, 2016 Headsman

This date’s post arrives via Rictor Norton‘s rich Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England sourcebook. We have cited this page before, notably in connection with London’s “molly houses”, a subject upon which Norton literally wrote the book.

His online “Sourcebook” compiles a vast trove of primary records capturing the prevailing views of early modern England’s sexual dissidents. Many of these records are legal proceedings, though most of those do not end at the gallows. Whatever their various fates, the misfortune to come under the court’s scrutiny preserves for us a snapshot of their circumstances.

Hunt and Collins were caught in a liaison at a house on Pepper-Alley, which once gave access to one of London’s innumerable little stairways into the Thames from which watermen would ferry passengers across and along the river.

To the frustration of the Ordinary they persistently denied it. Indeed, Hunt, a 37-year-old barge builder and “one of the most unaccountable Men that was ever under the like Misfortune” insisted quite violently that he had been stitched up by perjuring witnesses. As an Anabaptist, the threats to his soul that the C-of-E prelate delivered did not much bother him.

“He was one of the most morose, il-natur’d, surly Creatures that could breathe, and was never at Peace one hour, but continually railing against his Prosecutors,” we find. And even when an Anabaptist pastor was brought in to persuade him, “he answered, ‘Say no more to me about it; I’ll forgive no Body, for I’ll die harden’d.’ — This was a most shocking Speech for a Man who had but a few Hours to live; but he continued to the last Moment in the same Manner.”

A bit more polite about it was Thomas Collins, who had returned to England after spending a career as a soldier in the army of Emperor Charles VI. Still, Collins would not own any actual rendezvous with Hunt, saying only that the two had met by accident on Pepper-Alley and gone to the “Necessary House” (an outdoor toilet) where they “had not been there much above a Minute before two Men came and said they were Sodomites, and pull’d him off the Seat, and turned his Pockets inside out” but finding no money stomped off, complaining “here is no Feathers to pluck.”

The Ordinary was highly dissatisfied with their behavior.

Where two Men who were convicted of such an attrocious [sic] Crime, upon the fullest Evidence that was ever given in any Court of Justice, should prevaricate so much, and behave in so indecent a Manner as they (especially Hunt) have done ever since their Condemnation; the World must be left to judge, whether they were Innocent or Guilty.

Held in Southwark Gaol, they were executed at Kennington Common alongside three other men and a woman (crimes: housebreaking, returning from transportation, murder, murder) where both “continued quite obstinate” with Hunt even refusing to kneel for prayers. While Hunt had friends or money enough to have a coach ready to carry his corpse away from the surgeons who haunted hang-days in search of prey for their anatomy theaters, one final posthumous indignity still awaited Mr. Collins — described by the Ipswich Journal in its September 3 edition:

LONDON, August 27.
The Body of Thomas Collins, executed on Kennington-Common for Sodomy, that was carried off by the Surgeons, being, on Examination, found to be infected with the Venereal Disease, was carried back to the Gallows and there left naked.

Read the full account at Rictor Norton’s site here, or peruse the rest of the Sourcebook including his Grub Street resources on all manner of commoner life and literature (LGBT-related and not) for the 18th century British.

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1809: Four by William Brunskill at Horsemonger Lane

Add comment April 4th, 2016 Headsman

Jackson’s Oxford Journal, April 1, 1809:

ASSIZES. — At Surry [sic] assizes, the following capital convicts received sentence of death: — J.A. Davison, J. Mason, J. Wood, and S. Hilton, for burglary; W. Leech, for highway robbery; J. Bartlet, [sic] for an unnatural offence; T. Hall, for extorting money under a threat of charging J. Clarke with an unnatural offence; H. Edwards, for shooting at W. Smith; J. Stenning, for forging a note; C. March, for cattle-stealing; S. Turner, for privately stealing; and Mary Ann Ellis, J. Hopkins, and J. Cobb, for stealing in dwelling-house. The Judges reprieved all except Bartlett, Edwards, Mason, and Wood.

Robert Skinner was indicted for attempting to ravish Mary Ann Hill, on the 16th of February last, at Wandsworth. The prosecutrix, who stated herself to be only 16 years of age, deposed that her father was a market-gardener at Wandsworth, and the prisoner worked in his service. On the 16th of February last they were at work together in a shed. He was binding coleworts, and she was trimming them.


A field of colewort. (cc) image by patchara yu.

After he had finished, he came to where she was sitting and threw her down. He was, however, interrupted by the coming of a cart, or she believed he would then have committed the offence charged. On cross-examination, she said her father had a cottage in his garden in Garret-lane, and she, her sister, and another girl slept there alone. On the 14th of January the prisoner was there in the evening; they gave him some beef-steaks for his supper, and he would not go home. She gave him the mattress to lie upon without side her chamber door. — In the night she heard a noise, and got up to see what it was; they were both naked. She did not tell her father of this. A few nights afterwards they had him to supper again, and got him some sausages; he would stay all that night, and she then let him lie in the same bed, but she did not let him lie next to her. The Learned Judge here interrupted, and observed it was ridiculous to talk of any attempt at a rape after this. The prisoner was of course acquitted.


Jackson’s Oxford Journal, April 8, 1809:

EXECUTION. — James Bartlett, for an unnatural crime; Henry Edwards, for highway robbery; and John Biggs and Samuel Wood, for burglary, were executed yesterday morning, [April 4, 1809] at the usual hour, on the top of the New Prison, Horsemonger-lane, in pursuance of their sentence. The crowd assembled on the melancholy occasion was excessive. The unfortunate men met their fate with great fortitude, and died acknowledging the justice of their punishment. Biggs sarcastically observed to the Executioneer, [sic] when he was pinioning him in the usual way — “I wish you had a better office.”* — He with the rest died extremely penitent. A hearse conveyed the body of Bartlett to Limehouse, where he is to be interred. — He is stated to have conveyed before his trial upwards of 1500l. to his daughters.

* The hangman so busted upon was William Brunskill, who already had near a quarter-century in his poor office by that time. It’s a bit hard to tell from the printed account, but since Brunskill had some notable ten-thumbed hangings to his credit — like that of Joseph Wall seven years before — the “better office” remark might have been a Monmouth-esque professional rebuke.

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1823: William North, prostrated homosexual

Add comment February 24th, 2016 Headsman

From the Morning Chronicle of Feb. 25, 1823, via Rictor Norton. (Spaces added for readability.)

EXECUTION. — Yesterday morning, at an early hour, considerable numbers of spectators assembled before the Debtors’ door at Newgate, to witness the execution of William North, convicted in september Sessions of an unnatural crime.

The wretched culprit was 54 years of age, and had a wife living.

On his trial, he appeared a fine, stout, robust man, and strongly denied his guilt. On his being brought before the Sheriffs yesterday morning, he appeared to have grown at least ten years older, during the five months he has been in a condemned cell, with the horrid prospect before him of dying a violent death. His body had wasted to the mere anatomy of a man, his cheeks had sunk, his eyes had become hollow, and such was his weakness, that he could scarcely stand without support.

Though the consolations of religion were frequently offered to him, yet he could not sufficiently calm his mind to listen, or participate in them, even to the moment of his death. Sunday night he could not sleep, his mouth was parched with a burning fever; he occasionaqlly ejaculated “Oh God!” and “I’m lost;” and at other times he appeared quite childish; his imbecility of mind seemed to correspond with the weakness of his body. He exclaimed on one occasion “I have suffered sufficient punishment in this prison to atone for the crimes I have committed;” and when the Rev. Dr. Cotton and Mr. Baker, who attended him, asked him if he believed in Christ, and felt that he was a sinner? He replied “I pray, but cannot feel.”

The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was not administered to him, probably on account of his occasional delirium, and the generally disordered state of his mental faculties.

At five minutes before eight yesterday morning he was pinioned by the executioner in the press room, in the presence of the sheriffs and officers of the goal. As St. Sepulchre’s church clock struck eight, the culprit, carrying the rope, attended by the executioner, and clergyman, moved in procession with the sheriffs, &c. on to the scaffold.

On arriving at the third station, the prison bell tolled, and Dr. Cotton commenced at the same moment reading the funeral service “I am the resurrection and the life,” &c. of which the wretched man seemed to be totally regardless. On his being assisted up the steps of the scaffold, reason returned; he became aware of the dreadful death to which he was about to be consigned; his looks of terror were frightful; his expression of horror, when the rope was being placed round his neck, made every spectator shudder.

It was one of the most trying scenes to the clergymen they ever witnessed — never appeared a man so unprepared, so unresigned to his fate. — The signal being given the drop fell, and the criminal expired in less than a minute. He never struggled after he fell.

The body hung an hour, and was then cut down for interment. — The six unhappy men who are doomed to suffer on to-morrow morning, appear to be perfectly resigned to their fate.

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c. 1560: Dominique Phinot, queer composer

1 comment January 25th, 2016 Headsman

Jacob Bonfadius, a man otherwise not in the last place among the erudite, because of copulation with boys (a most vile and sordid thing), was beheaded in prison and publically burned. The French Dominique Phinot, a distinguished musician, was also killed in the same way for a very similar folly.

Gerolamo Cardano

This throwaway remark by the Italian Renaissance man Cardano is our only clue to the fate — indeed, to the very biography — of the composer Dominique Phinot. Based on the volume’s publication in 1561, it is thought that Phinot suffered for his folly around 1557-1560. We don’t even know the place.

Whatever damnatio memoriae obscured him in death, Phinot (English Wikipedia entry | French) was a prominent and highly regarded musician in his working life, acclaimed an expert in polychoral motets. Some 90 exemplars, and dozens of other compositions, survive; the 17th century Italian musicologist Pietro Cerone credited Phinot’s innovations with opening the way for Palestrina.

He emerges for posterity through those compositions; the earliest surviving date to 1538 and his publication locales (and the powerful men to whom they were dedicated) suggest a man for whom patrons in northern Italy (and across the Alps in Lyons) eagerly competed in the 1540s and 1550s. It is known that Phinot was retained by the Duke of Urbino for a period.

It is surely topical to notice that our correspondent Cardano was himself widely whispered to enjoy the same folly, too: a Venetian whose deep interest in music led him to “adopt” into his wifeless** household a number of boys with musical gifts, Cardano could hardly fail to court suspicion. “The rumor was being circulated everywhere that I was using my boys for immoral purposes,” Cardano reports autobiographically of one instance where he was threatened with exposure. Cardano appears never to have been formally charged as a sodomite, but it is remarkable — and even, he admits, “foolishness” — that his brushes with danger never caused him to reconsider the boy-keeping policy.†

As a proper Renaissance man, Cardano’s interests stretched far beyond pederasty and a good tune. He was, in the backhanded compliment of Sir Thomas Browne, “a great Enquirer of Truth, but too greedy a Receiver of it” and treatised profusely on philosophy, law, geology, astronomy, pedagogy, medicine, and mathematics. The latter two fields brought him his fame, but his musings flashed intermittent prescience across disciplines. Cardano argued for the full mental capacity of the deaf, and correctly inferred that mountains had once been underwater from the presence of seashell fossils upon them. A cryptographic technique, a puzzle, and a gear mechanism all bear the Cardano name. His mathematician’s sure grasp on probability also made him a deft gambler — and he published yet another volume on this subject as a young man.

Cardano the physician’s most famous patient was the Archbishop of St. Andrews, whom Cardano in 1553 cured of a debilitating asthma that had stricken the prelate speechless and was thought untreatable by contemporaries. Thanks to Cardano, Archbishop Hamilton became spry enough to get hanged for murder in 1571.

Yet Cardano the man had a still closer acquaintance with the executioner’s office through the person of his firstborn son … a topic for another day’s post.

* Opera Omnia, vol. 2, p. 354 (Theonoston seu de tranquilitate) Translation via Clement Miller in “Jerome Cardan on Gombert, Phinot, and Carpentras,” The Musical Quarterly, July 1972. The aforementioned Gombert was another composer who got busted for same-sex contact; he caught a term in the galleys.

** Cardano’s wife Lucia died in 1546.

† For more see Guido Giglioni, “Musicus Puer. A note on Cardano’s household and the dangers of music,” Bruniana & Campanelliana, vol. 11, no. 1 (2005).

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1819: John Markham, abominable offence

Add comment December 29th, 2015 Headsman

The diary (pdf) of a man imprisoned at Newgate recorded for this date in 1819 that

A man was hanged this morning for an unnatural crime. Had my windows fastened up but could not sleep. They began putting up the scaffold at 4 o’clock. The tolling of the bell at 8 was frightful. I heard the crash of the drop falling and a woman screech violently at the same moment. Instantly afterwards, the sound of the pye man crying, “all hot, all hot.” ‘Tis dreadful hanging a man for this practice.* There are two, a man and boy now in jail, who were caught in flagrante delictu — and yet only sentenced to two years imprisonment. The poor wretch was half dead, so they told me, before he was hanged.

Of this poor soul fallen away into the indifferent cries of the pye-man we have this from The Morning Post of December 30, 1819 (see also Rictor Norton):

EXECUTION. Yesterday morning the sentence of the law was carried into effect at the usual place in the Old Bailey, on John Markham, convicted at the October Sessions of an abominable offence. Precisely at eight o'clock the wretched culprit was placed on the scaffold, more dead than alive, attended by the Rev. Mr. COTTON, with whom he appeared to join in fervent prayer while the executioner was performing his melancholy office. In a few minutes the drop fell, and the miserable wretch was dead in an instant. Markham was a person of the lowest stamp in society: he had been for some time, and was at the period of the commission of the offence, for which he forfeited his life, a pauper inmate of St. Giles's workhouse. There were fewer spectators than ever attended on any former occasion.

John Markham was obscure, no doubt; his condemnation literally was for unspeakable acts, since it barely rates a line at all in the Old Bailey’s archives.

But the aural observer of his death was not obscure at all.

John Hobhouse, though he would eventually become the first Baron Broughton, was a buddy of the queer-friendly Lord Byron (the fourth canto of Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage is dedicated to Hobhouse). Hobhouse was also a prominent radical rabble-rouser, which is precisely why he was in Newgate on the day of Markham’s hanging.

All of this occurred in the tense wake of the Peterloo Massacre, which saw British cavalry ride down their countrymen in Manchester for assembling to demand the reform of a parliament long grown egregiously unrepresentative. (Manchester was a case in point: it had no M.P. at all based on a centuries-old allocation of boroughs even though it had now boomed into one of the realm’s leading centers of industry.**)

Following the Peterloo outrage, our correspondent Mr. Hobhouse had suggested in one of his many combative pamphlets that absent such brutal exertions the members of Parliament “would be pulled out by their ears” at the hands of an aggrieved populace. Given the all-too-recent aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars — and their antecedent, the French Revolution — the potential threat in these words seemed to the powers that be a step beyond mere colorful rhetoric.

Accordingly, the House of Commons judged Hobhouse guilty of a breach of privilege and had him arrested earlier that same December. His cause more advanced by the martyrdom than inconvenienced by a gentleman’s loose detention — Hobhouse’s at-liberty associates not only held political meetings in his ample prison apartments but planned and advertised them in advance — the man won election to that selfsame House of Commons from Westminster the following March.


(Via)

* A few days later, Hobhouse will record in his diary that he has been told that Markham “had committed his crime with a pauper in a workhouse on a coffin.”

** The U.K. finally enacted parliamentary reform in 1832. A few years after that, it even stopped hanging people for sodomy.

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1781: Benjamin Loveday and John Burke, “for the detestable Crime of Sodomy”

1 comment October 12th, 2015 Headsman

October 12, 1781 saw the hanging at Saint Michael’s Hill in Bristol of Benjamin Loveday and John Burke — “for the detestable Crime of Sodomy; they were both capitally convicted on the clearest Evidence, which is shocking to Human Nature to describe.”

The newspaper reporting, both slight and heartbreaking, can be perused at the website of gay history expert Rictor Norton, here. Between the lines, it suggests Loveday as the proprietor of a molly house or something very like it — an establishment catering to the underground market in same-sex desire, the like of which periodically surfaced in moral panic episodes in the 1700s and early 1800s. (See Norton’s topical Mother Claps Molly House: Gay Subculture in England 1700-1830.)

Loveday, “about 41 years of age … was formerly waiter at a principal inn in Bristol, but had lately kept a public-house in Tower Lane.” The younger Burke “had acted as a midshipman in the impress service, and he was the unlucky one. Three other men, Joseph Giles, James Lane, and William Ward, also faced potentially lethal charges of committing sodomy with Loveday at the same assizes; Giles and Lane got off with misdemeanor convictions and Ward was acquitted outright.

About Twelve o’Clock they were brought out of Newgate, and being placed in a Cart, moved in slow Procession to the fatal Tree, preceded by the Under-Sheriff on Horse-back, and other proper Offices; and attended in a Chariot by the Rev. Mr. Easterbrooke and two other Clergymen, who have frequently visited them since their Conviction, and earnestly laboured to bring them to a due Sense of their Crime, and a Confession of their Guilt. To and at the Place of Execution, their Behaviour was decent, and becoming their awful Situation; and though their Convicted was founded on clear and positive Evidence, yet with their last Breath, they both, in the most solemn Manner, protested their Innocence respecting the Crime for which they were doomed to suffer; but at the same Time acknowledged themselves to have been guilty of many heinous Offences. (Oxford Journal, Oct. 20, 1781)

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1482: Richard Puller von Hohenburg and Anthony Mätzler

2 comments September 24th, 2015 Headsman


The Alsatian knight Richard Puller von Hohenburg and his servant, Anthony Mätzler, burned for sodomy at Zurich. From illustration in Die Grosse Burgunderchronik by Diebold Schilling de Altere, c. 1483.

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1292: Johann de Wettre, medieval Europe’s first documented sodomy execution

1 comment September 8th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1292, Johann de Wettre, “a maker of small knives,” was condemned to die at Ghent for sodomy.

De Wettre was consequently (whether on September 8 or subsequently) “burned at the pillory next to St. Peter’s” in what appears to be the earliest documented execution of homosexuality in Christian Europe. Whether he was a habitual or a one-time offender, how he was detected and prosecuted, and the fate of his male partner — all of these are obscure.

One can safely suppose that de Wettre was not the first European executed for sodomy; perhaps the scanty lines we have of his death are only fortuitously preserved because he suffered his very public fate in one of Europe’s largest and most prosperous cities.

However accidental, de Wettre’s stake is a landmark for Christendom’s emerging conception of same-sex desire as not only a capital crime, but a downright existential threat.*

No matter what Leviticus might say on the subject, the late Middle Ages furnish no documented examples of official persecutions but a rich corpus of same-sex literary amour, often penned by monks — a class of men whose debauchery (real or alleged) would come to invite violent attacks in the coming centuries.

O would that I had been my own messenger
Or been that letter which your hand softly touched;
And tht I had had then the same power to feel I have now,
And that you could ot recognize me until I wanted you to.
Then I would have explored your face and spirit as you read,
That is, if I could have restrained myself long enough.
The rest we would have left to nature and the gracious gods.
For God is readier than man to grant indulgence.

Baudri of Bourgueil, the eventual bishop of Dol-en-Bretagne (via Rictor Norton)

Horace composed an ode about a certain boy
Whose face was so lovely he could easily have been a girl,
Whose hair fell in waves against his ivory neck,
Whose forehead was white as snow and his eyes black as pitch,
Whose soft cheeks were full of delicious sweetness
When they bloomed in the brightness of a blush of beauty,
His nose was perfect, his lips flame red, lovely his teeth —
An exterior formed in measure to match his mind.

Marbodius, bishop of Rennes (via Scott Bidstrup)

Now, the Church was still issuing plenty of edicts proscribing same-sex activity around this period, so whether or not the ability of these men and many others to produce overtly homoerotic verse while still prospering within the holy orders constitutes “toleration” is a lively scholarly debate. Suffice it to say that around the 12th and 13th centuries there was a social and legal shift underway from treating sodomy predominantly as a vice for personal penance, to treating it as, well …

If a sodomite had been executed, and subsequently several times back to life, each time he should be punished even more severely if this were possible: hence those who practice this vice are seen to be enemies of God and nature, because in the sight of God such a sin is deemed graver than murder, for the reason that the murderer is seen as destroying only one human being, but the sodomite as destroying the whole human race.

-Neapolitan jurist Lucas de Penna, Commentaria in Tres Libros Codicis (c. 1360) (via Johansson and Percy)

For this diabolical new construction of homosexuality Warren Johansson coined the term “the sodomy delusion”:** “a complex of paranoid beliefs … to the effect that non-procreative sexuality in general, and sexual acts between males in particular, are contrary to the law of Nature, to the exercise of right reason, and to the will of God and that sodomy is practiced by individuals whose wills have been enslaved by demonic powers.” It was a conception that would find its way into law and popular prejudice in the centuries following our Ghent knifemaker’s immolation — and would continue thereafter, evolving across revolutions† religious, political, and economic to shape public discourse about homosexuality down to the present day.

* And also a potent political weapon. Same-sex deviance featured prominently in the charges used to destroy the Knights Templar in 1307.

** Johansson explicitly sets “the sodomy delusion” alongside “the witchcraft delusion” and “the Judeophobic delusion” as analogous phenomena.

† A piquant coincidence: Thomas Cromwell, the great Henrician minister of state, when he fell shared the scaffold with the first man executed under England’s new (in the 16th century) Buggery Act.

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1660: Jan Quisthout van der Linde condemned to drown in New Amsterdam

Add comment June 17th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1660, in the Netherlands’ little settlement on the tip of Manhattan Island, New Amsterdam, Jan Quisthout van der Linde was sentenced “to be taken to the place of execution and there stripped of his arms, his sword to be broken at his feet, and he to be then tied in a sack and cast into the river and drowned until dead.”

We do not have an indication of the date this sentence was carried out, if it were not immediate.

It was an unusual execution for an unnatural crime: Quisthout had been found guilty of sodomizing his servant.

New Amsterdam is here just four years away from its seizure by the English, who rechristened it New York;* dour, peg-legged Calvinist Peter Stuyvesant had been hustling for 13 years to put the tenuous little settlement on some sort of sustainable, defensible footing even as its neighbor English colonies in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island grew to dwarf little Manhattan.

Stuyvesant was a crusty boss.** He’d been crestfallen on arrival to his new assignment to find New Amsterdam a rough-edged melting pot city with livestock roaming the streets, a slurry of languages (and religions), and dockside brawls spilling out of seedy taverns.†


The “Castello Plan” map from 1660 shows the germ of Manhattan’s present-day layout. The defensive wall spanning the island on the right gives us Wall Street.

His horror was practical as well as moral: the little colony, a few hundred souls when he took over and perhaps 1,500 when the English finally deposed him, was in danger on all sides and the cash-strapped West India Company was both slow and miserly in response to Stuyvesant’s desperate pleas for men and material. But the horror was also moral. Stuyvesant enforced a whole slew of unpopular injunctions against drunkenness, fisticuffs, and fouling public streets with refuse, and actually had to be reined in by the West India Company board when he got so overbearing as to try shouldering out Jews and prying into the devotional habits of suspected Quakers.

A paragon of rectitude like Stuyvesant was in no way about to turn a blind eye to casual Atlantic-world buggery.

Even his lax predecessor had come down hard on a previous sodomy case, viewing that sin as an existential threat to their depraved port: “such a man is not worthy to associate with mankind and the crime on account of its heinousness may not be tolerated or suffered, in order that the wrath of God may not descend upon us as it did upon Sodom.”

The crime that we might see here with modern eyes, rape, was in no way foremost to Stuyvesant et al. The boy, an Amsterdam orphan named Hendrick Harmensen, stayed out of the drowning-sack — but he was whipped for same-sex contact and ordered “sent to some other place by the first opportunity” even though that very sentence acknowledged that it was Quisthout who had “committed by force the above crime” on the lad.


View of Dutch Manhattan … and its gallows.

* In honor of the then-Duke of York, the future King James II.

** Try a web search on “Peter Stuyvesant martinet” to see what we mean.

† And slavery.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drowned,Execution,History,Homosexuals,Netherlands,New York,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Rape,Scandal,Sex,USA

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