Posts filed under 'Intellectuals'

1942: Georges Politzer and Jacques Solomon, academics in resistance

Add comment May 23rd, 2018 Headsman

Left-wing intellectuals Georges Politzer and Jacques Solomon were shot at Fort Mont-Valerien on this date in 1942 for their exertions in the French Resistance.

Both numbered among interwar France’s great radical intellectuals: Politzer, a Hungarian Jew nicknamed the “red-headed philosopher” and and Solomon, a Parisian physicist, both numbered among interwar France’s great radical scholars.

The red-headed philosopher hung with the likes of Sartre, taught Marxism at the Workers University of Paris, and critiqued psychology. (A few of his works can be perused here.) Solomon, son-in-law of physicist Paul Langevin, made early contributions to the emerging field of quantum mechanics.

Politically both were Communists and supporters of the anti-fascist Popular Front; with the onset of German occupation, they carried their activism into the French Resistance.

They were arrested (separately) in March 1942 and executed (together) with other Resistance hostages on the outskirts of Paris.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Germany,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot,Terrorists,Wartime Executions

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1916: Thomas MacDonagh, Patrick Pearse, and Thomas Clarke

Add comment May 3rd, 2018 Headsman

Thomas MacDonagh, Padraig (Patrick) Pearse, and Thomas Clarke — three of the principal Irish Republican leaders of the Easter Rising against British domination that had been crushed just days before — were shot in Dublin’s Kilmainham Gaol on this date in 1916.


Illustration from the New York Times, May 7, 1916.
“To a Poet Captain”
by Thomas MacDonagh

His songs were a little phrase
Of eternal song,
Drowned in the harping of lays
More loud and long.

His deeds were a single word,
Called out alone
In a night when no echo stirred to laughter,
To laughter or moan.

But his songs new souls shall thrill,
The loud harps dumb,
And his deeds the echoes fill
When the dawn is come.

MacDonagh and Pearse were contemporaries of one another: poets, progressive educators, Gaelic revivalists; men who girded for battle “with a revolver in one hand and a copy of Sophocles in the other.” Each dreamer commanded a unit of Irish Volunteers during the week of April 24-30, MacDonagh occupying Jacobs Factory and Pearse the iconic General Post Office, in which post it was Pearse’s sorrow to issue the surrender order by the end of the quixotic week.

Clarke, cut from another cloth, was a Fenian revolutionist of an older vintage, who had disappeared into British prison after trying to bomb London Bridge in the 1880s, then emigrated for a time to the United States. Drawn to a reviving nationalist movement, Clarke had the honor of affixing his name first upon the Rising’s Proclamation of the Irish Republic. Pearse and MacDonagh signed it too: a fatal endorsement for they three and for each of the other four men to lend it their signatures.

“My comrades and I believe we have struck the first successful blow for freedom,” Clarke said via a statement given out by his impressive wife Kathleen. “And so sure as we are going out this morning so sure will freedom come as a direct result of our action … In this belief, we die happy.”


This traditional Irish song was updated with patriotic verse by Patrick Pearse.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Intellectuals,Ireland,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1928: Xiang Jingyu, Communist

Add comment May 1st, 2018 Headsman

The Chinese Communist Xiang Jingyu was martyred on May Day of 1928.

The preeminent female cadre of her time, Xiang was the 16-year-old daughter of a merchant when imperial China fell in 1911. She came of age, and radicalized, in the tumultuous aftermath, becoming an early advocate for women’s liberation as an essential objective of the revolution. She also became the wife of Mao crony Cai Hesen.

Xiang made her mark with a seminal 1920 essay, published while studying in France, “A discussion of women’s emancipation and remoulding.” In it, “Xiang called upon women who had realized consciousness to form four organizations: a study and propaganda society, a free choice in marriage league, a student loan society, and public nurseries.” (Andrea McElderry, “Woman Revolutionary: Xiang Jingyu,” The China Quarterly, March 1986)

Returning to China the following year, she became one of the Communist Party‘s leading voices in the women’s section, where she dunked on bourgeois feminism (“The result of their efforts will be that the whole bunch of them will enter the pigsties of the capital and the provinces where together with the male pigs, they can preside over the nation’s calamities and the people’s misforturtunes”) and gained only halting traction campaigning for girls’ education and mobilizing female factory workers. Her dour and driven demeanor earned her the nickname “Old Grandma”.

Arrested by French soldiers in Hankou‘s French Concession, Old Grandma had no time for the captors who would betray her to the Kuomintang, and her own death. “I am Xiang Jingyu, a member of the Chinese Communist Party. You can kill me and cut me to pieces. I myself have no hope, but tens of thousands of Xiang Jingyus will rise up in my place.”

The present-day Communist Party esteems her a hero.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Power,Shot,Wartime Executions,Women

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1916: Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, Patrick McIntyre and Thomas Dickson, by Captain Bowen-Colthurst

Add comment April 26th, 2018 Headsman

On the morning of this date in 1916, British Captain John Bowen-Colthurst ordered the summary execution of three Irish journalists in his custody: part of a still-notorious murderous rampage through Dublin amid the Easter Rising.

Bowen-Colthurst’s subsequent “insanity” skate has been a sore subject in the century since its predictable enactment.

The product of landed Anglo-Irish elites — his childhood manor, Dripsey Castle, still stands — had trotted the globe in service of the empire: the Boer Wars, India, Tibet, and the western front.

It’s the sort of background that should have made Bowen-Colthurst a calm hand in a tight spot.* Instead, the Easter Rising panicked him. Atrocities against Irish nationalists are not exactly surprising in the abstract here, but Bowen-Colthurst’s behavior in these hours was so erratic and violent that his men would remark that he had lost his head … although they strikingly never disobeyed his patently illegal orders.

At Portobello Barracks in Dublin, which in this week swarmed chaotically with off-duty leave soldiers reporting themselves for duty in the face of the armed insurrection, the Third Royal Irish Rifles’ commander was absent on sick leave and evidently took command discipline with him. “Captain Colthurst, although not the equal in rank of Major Rosborough, was the senior office in point of service and, according to all the evidence, considered himself at liberty to ignore his brother-officers,” Francis Sheehy-Skeffington’s widow explained.

Sheehy-Skeffington — a gentle pacifist affectionately known among antiwar socialists and the women’s movement as “Skeffy” — had been arrested on sight on April 25th, while out and about trying to dissuade looters. Bowen-Colthurst marched him out overnight as a human shield for a random patrol, and did not mind murdering before his eyes a passing young man caught out after curfew.

Proceeding along, Bowen-Colthurst grenades a tobacconist’s shop, mistakenly thinking that its owner, named Kelly, was Sinn Fein man Tom Kelly. In fact, the tobacconist Kelly was a loyalist, as were the two publishers that Bowen-Colthurst arrested at his place: Patrick McIntyre and Thomas Dickson.

Ignoring their protests, our unstable captain brought all three men back to the barracks. By morning’s light, he had decided on no authority but his own to have them executed.

“I am taking these prisoners out and I am going to shoot them because I think it is the right thing to do” was all the justification that he submitted. Later, he would say that he feared the prisoners would escape; that, believing that Germans were landing and revolutionaries were gunning down Black and Tans throughout Dublin, “I took the gloomiest view of the situation and felt that only desperate measures would save the situation.” So he shot the one guy who didn’t want to fight and two guys who were on his own team. According to later testimony, he would even order Skeffy to be re-shot upon being informed that the man was still moving several minutes after execution.

Still, the tilting captain had enough self-possession to openly worry to a brother-officer that he might have committed a hanging offense … and to actively conceal the evidence of it. Had events not been exposed by a courageous whistleblower, Sir Francis Vane, everything surely would have been obfuscated into the soupy fog of war. Embarrassingly compelled by Vane’s tattling to court-martial Bowen-Colthurst only to pass him off to an asylum (and later, to Canada), the brass took it out on Vane by terminating his career a few months later: “this officer was relegated to unemployment owing to his action in the Skeffington murder case in the Sinn Fein rebellion.”

Uproar at the Bowen-Colthurst affair had some interesting knock-on effects: for one thing, the naked impunity available to an officer at a time when enlisted men in France were being shot at dawn for minor disciplinary lapses might have contributed to the British command’s decision later in 1916 to permit the execution of a shellshocked lieutenant. And, an associate of the loyalist British commander in Ireland during the Easter Rising claimed that Sheehy-Skeffington blowback subsequently led to the execution reprieve granted to Eamon de Valera: that future president of independent Ireland just so happened to have his name “first on the list” when the matter came to a head.

Today, a visitor center at the former Portobello Barracks (now called Cathal Brugha Barracks) memorializes the three men executed there on April 26, 1916.

* We don’t mean to be cavalier about the psychological strains inflicted by violence. Bowen-Colthurst seemed to exhibit signs of shell shock in the trenches, whether due to the shells themselves or to having lost his younger brother in the war.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Innocent Bystanders,Intellectuals,Ireland,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Shot,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1423: William Taylor, Lollard

Add comment March 2nd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1423 the Lollard theologian William Taylor was burned at Smithfield.

We have only fleeting glimpses of this excommunicate priest but the Oxford master made a scintillating entrance to the historical record by preaching a Wycliffite sermon for Advent of 1406 — which stirred a hornet’s nest and saw him excommunicated by the Lollard-quashing Archbishop Thomas Arundel. This denunciation of clerical privilege survived to our digital age as a single, damaged manuscript, and was published in 1993.

Certainly we great cause to weep if we behold the nobility, glory and cleanness of the church in Christ’s time and his apostles … for in that time the people fervently loved God and his law, and were diligent in the keeping thereof, and dreaded the hideous sins of usury, simony, whoredom, forswearing, manslaughter, and the unmeasurable filthiness of lechery …

So wonderful is our church in comparison to the time here before … shiningly arrayed and delicately fed with poor men’s goods, it lifts its voice in gladness — and great weeping. And so the voice of him that makes mirth and the voice of the weeping of the people being melded together. But the voice of the weepers, taking heed to their own wretchedness bodily and ghostly, desiring for to be relieved from bodily discomfort and to be lightened in soul by the word of God, bewail their own discomfort and others’ both. But that voice is so thin and so low that it may not be heard among the voice of those that make joy, the which, not reckoning the health of their own soul neither of others entrusted to their care, say in effect in the words of Zachary, “Blessed be God we are made rich!” and live as delicately and recklessly as though they despaired of the life to come.

We have scant evidence of him in the succeeding generation, but references in his 1420s legal difficulties to his ongoing excommunication make plain that Taylor did not reconcile: instead, he seems to have retreated to the fringes of the high church’s writ, preaching in his native Worcestershire and availing the protection of sympathetic elites during Lollardy’s apex years.

Taylor was finally run to ground in 1420 when he was forced to do penance to resolve his excommunication, and then once again made to abjure his heresies in 1421 — an occasion that might easily have been construed as his second offense and resulted in his execution.

His submissions entirely lacked sincerity, however, and each time returned to his subversive doctrines. His last arrest in February 1423 saw him “brachio seculari traditus fuerat, ac igni combustus in Smythfeld, secundo die Martii, A.D. MCCCCXXII,* et regis Henrici sexti primo,” as described in Fasciculi Zizaniorum (see “Sententia lata contra Willelmum taylor Wycclevistam” on p. 412) on a host of charges that confirm his unreconstructed Lollardy: for denouncing clerical alms; for calling on the devout to pray to God alone, sans intercessors; for insisting that “in no way does Christ wish priests of the church to rule” in the sense of any secular authority. (Translation per Lollards and Reformers: Images and Literacy in Late Medieval Religion.)

* 1423 by present reckoning, or 1422/23 as one often sees it rendered: England at the time marked the New Year on March 25.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,God,Heresy,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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1799: Andrea Serrao, Bishop of Potenza

1 comment February 24th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1799, the Bishop of Potenza was lynched by the faithful.

Andrea Serrao English Wikipedia entry | Italian) was a late disciple of the reformist Jansenist movement which tended among many other things to such Enlightenment-friendly notions as liberty of conscience, the reduction of the papal authority, and “regalism” — the doctrine of secular supremacy over ecclesiastical.

According to Owen Chadwick’s The Popes and European Revolution, Serrao as Bishop of the southern Italian city of Potenza

found a cathedral in disrepair, a seminary closed for the last eleven years. He raised the money for a rebuilding of the cathedral, reopened the seminary, of which the products were suspect for their ideas of liberty. He was as strong a reformer as [fellow Jansenist Bishop Scipione de’]Ricci,* and with many of the same ideas. He held a diocesan synod which is unknown because the acts were afterwards destroyed by government; but evidently its conclusions resembled those of Ricci’s Synod of Pistoia. He may have been more radical than Ricci, for he wanted clergy to be allowed to marry.

In December of 1798, Bourbon authority collapsed in the Kingdom of Naples — which ruled all of southern Italy, including Potenza — leading to the formation of the Parthenopean Republic. Serrao fully embraced it, “and urged them to obey the new government; and at the end of his address the people cried ‘Long live the French government. Long live liberty!’ and rushed out into the piazza to plant a tree of liberty. Bishop Serrao then accepted the office of civil commissioner of Potenza.” (Chadwick again)

But this Republic was destined for an imminent and bloody conclusion.

The most immediate reaction, and the one that led to Serrao’s abrupt death, was the summons of Fabrizio Cardinal Ruffo to a popular anti-Republican movement, called Sanfedismo (“Holy Faith”). In early February, a bare two weeks after the Parthenopean Republic’s establishment, Ruffo ventured from the royal refuge on Sicily and landed at his native Calabria like Che Guevara, with nothing but a handful of companions.

“Brave and courageous Calabrians, unite now under the standard of the Holy Cross and of our beloved sovereign,” Ruffo’s summons to a resistance implored. “Do not wait for the enemy to come and contaminate our home neighbourhoods. Let us march to confront him, to repel him, to hunt him out of our kingdom and out of Italy and to break the barbarous chains of our holy Pontiff. May the banner of the Holy Cross secure you total victory.”

Ruffo’s message was a winner and almost instantly began attracting holy guerrillas by the hundreds; in a few months’ time, Ruffo secured the surrender of the Republicans in Naples itself, by which time his army is reputed to have numbered 17,000.

And even in its earliest promulgation, it attained — seemingly to Andrea Serrao’s surprise — strength enough to overwhelm that tree of liberty stuff in Potenza within days of Ruffo’s landing. Back to Chadwick:

When Ruffo’s bands drew near to Potenza, many peasants and some priests regarded Bishop Serrao as ‘the enemy of the Pope, the king, and God’. Warned to escape, he said that he trusted his fellow-citizens. When the professors and students at the seminary wanted to make a bodyguard, he forbade them to arm.

Very early on 24 February 1799 soldiers of the Potenza guard smashed the tree of liberty, and raided the bishop’s palace. They came upon Serrao still in bed, and killed him with two shots of a pistol. Bleeding to death, he uttered the words ‘Long live the faith of Jesus Christ! Long live the Republic!’ The guards broke into the seminary next door, and murdered the rector as his students fled. After sacking palace and seminary they cut off the heads of bishop and rector and carried them in triumph round the city on pikes.

* There’s an interesting public domain biography of Ricci which, without any direct reference to Serrao, delves into the theological and political conflicts of the age that would have been of interest to our principal.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Execution,God,History,Intellectuals,Italy,Lynching,Naples,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Power,Religious Figures,Shot,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1707: Baron Otto Arnold Peikel

1 comment February 4th, 2018 Headsman

A few line breaks have been removed for readability, and most of the author’s original footnotes excised, from this source text.

CHARLES XIIS TREATMENT OF
LIEUTENANT-GENERAL BARON PEIKEL.

By Charles Dalton, Esq.,
Editor of English Army Lists and Commission Registers, 1661-1714.

BARON PEIKEL (or Pykul) has been mistaken by several writers for his kinsman the better-known Count Patkul, the famous Livonian patriot, who was executed, after being mercilessly broken on the wheel, at a village near Casimir, in Great Poland, October 10th, 1707, by order of Charles XII. The confusion occasioned by the similarity in names may also be traced to the remarkable fact that both Peikel and Patkul held the rank of lieut.-general in the Polish Army; and the former succeeded the latter in command of the Saxon contingent which fought on the side of Augustus, King of Poland, against Charles XII. Fate decreed that both Peikel and Patkul should fall into the hands of the iron-hearted King of Sweden, and after a long imprisonment be executed within a few months of each other.

Here the parallel between these two Livonian patriots stops, as Peikel (English Wikipedia entry | Latvian) was neither a great commander nor a diplomatist, but he possessed one remarkable talent which alone makes him intrinsically interesting and worthy of a niche in the Temple of Fame. Baron Peikel claimed, and was allowed by impartial and trustworthy witnesses, to have discovered the secret of making gold!

The Province of Livonia [present-day Latvia and Estonia -ed.], which had been a bone of contention between the northern countries of Europe for centuries, was ceded by Poland to Sweden in 1660. The confiscation of Livonian estates, and the heavy taxes imposed by Charles XI, alienated the Livonian nobility and people from Sweden and Swedish rule.

The sympathies of the conquered province were with Poland, and thus it came to pass that when Russia and Poland engaged in war with Sweden, in 1700, some of the leading Livonian noblemen were found ranged against Charles XII, whose proclamation summoning them to return to their allegiance was treated with open defiance. Prominent among the Livonian revolters was Baron Peikel, who sided with Augustus II, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony.

Passing over the fluctuating fortunes of the Polish arms under Augustus the Strong (who was deposed in 1704, but re-elected some years later to the Polish Crown), we find that a battle was fought near Warsaw, in the summer of 1705, between the Saxons and Poles on one side, and the Swedes on the other. In this engagement the Saxons are said to have fought well, but not being supported by the Poles, who fled on the first discharge, had to retire. The loss on both sides was equal. General Bond (the Swedish commander) was killed, and Baron Peikel (the Saxon general) was taken prisoner. Peikel and several other Saxon officers taken on this occasion were sent to Stockholm, where they suffered a rigorous imprisonment.

In November, 1706, a treaty was concluded between Charles XII and Augustus II The cessation of hostilities only hastened Peikel’s doom. He was tried by the Advocate Fiscal in Stockholm as a traitor to his country, and being found guilty was sentenced to death. On the face of the evidence against Peikel, this sentence was doubtless a just one. But the prisoner had a strong argument in his favour against his condemnation, as appears from a contemporary MS.

Peikul (sic) happened to be born in Poland about three miles from the Livonian border, and this fact was used against him in a law-suit he had with an uncle for a considerable estate. After going through all the Livonian Courts it was, as is customary, brought to the King for decision, for to him is the last appeal in all civil causes. The King gave judgment against Peikul for this only reason because he was an alien and not his natural-born subject. However, this determination, unjust as it was, afterwards was brought as a good argument for Peikul against the King, when his Majesty condemned him as a natural-born subject of Sweden. But it seems, though his being born out of the King’s dominions proved a good reason for depriving him of his estate, it proved ineffectual to the saving of his life.

The sympathy of the Queen of Sweden (who was acting as Regent of the Kingdom during her grandson’s absence with the army), her ineffectual efforts to obtain a pardon for Peikel, the condemned nobleman’s extraordinary offers to the Queen and Senate for filling the Swedish Treasury, then at a very low ebb, provided his life were spared, and the remarkable proof he gave before witnesses of his ability to perform what he promised, are fully and graphically detailed by the British Envoy at Stockholm in his official letters to the Right Hon. Robert Harley, Secretary of State:

Mr. Robert Jackson to the Secretary of Stale.
Stockholm, January 5th, 1707.

An order is now come from the King to suffer all the Saxon officers now prisoners in Sweden to go where they please, except one Lieutenant General Pykull (sic), a native of Liefland [Livonia], who was taken about two years ago in Poland, and in November last was condemned here as a traitor for serving against this Crown, which sentence the King not only lately confirmed, but gave also at the same time express order for his execution as on the 7th instant; but the Queen-Mother and all the Royal family here having interceded for him, and not yet got his Majesty’s answer, her Majesty has therefore by her own authority reprieved him for a month, yet it is thought his pardon will not be granted at last.


Mr. Robert Jackson to the Secretary of State.
Stockholm, January 30th, 1707.

The King has renewed his former orders for the execution of Lieutenant-General Pykull, not having thought fit to hearken to the Queen-Mother’s intercession on that gentleman’s behalf.


Mr. Robert Jackson to the Secretary of State.
Stockholm, February 9th, 1707.

The Saxon Lieutenant-General Peikel was beheaded on Monday last;* he chose to be executed with an axe (though it be esteemed very dishonourable in this country) rather than with a sword, by reason of the unskilfulness of the executioner. There was no other crime laid to his charge in the Fiscal’s accusation than that he, being a native of Liefland, presumed in disobedience to his Majesty’s avocatoria** to serve his enemy, wherefore it was thought here that the King’s neither hearkening to the many high intercessions made on his behalf, nor the advantageous proposals he made to save his life, proceeded from the knowledge his Majesty must have of some other crimes of a blacker nature.

But the morning Peikel suffered he told the divines which assisted him, and administered the Sacrament to him, that having heard of a report spread as if he had been one who had particularly encouraged King Augustus to begin this war, on the prospect of the Lieflanders, his countrymen, revolting from Sweden; and also of another that he had been engaged in a design upon the King of Sweden’s person, he therefore took that opportunity to declare in that solemn manner that all such reports were false, and that he never had acted anything against his Swedish Majesty’s person, or Kingdom, contrary to the principles of a man of honour. And since his one crime was that he was born in the Swedish dominions, he could not allow to have deserved death merely for that reason.

But he added that it having pleased God some time ago to bring him wonderfully to the knowledge of a great secret in Nature, whereby he could not only himself have lived in the greatest happiness, but likewise have been capable of doing much good in the world. Yet he nevertheless suffered his ambition to prevail against his reason, which led him to accept the command of those troops amongst which he was taken prisoner, and for that he said he had justly incurred the punishment which was to be inflicted on him.

The secret he speaks of was making gold to a prodigious advantage; and he actually gave such proofs to the archiater at the Court, as well as some other knowing persons, of his profound knowledge in chemistry, that nobody now doubts of his having been able to perform what he pretended, and also proposed in case the King would have given him his life; and for your Honour’s curiosity I shall presume in my next humble account to send your Honour an extract of the said proposals (whereby, if he could have fulfilled his promise, would have arose a yearly revenue of five hundred thousand ducats to this Crown), and also an authentic relation of an experiment of his having had that secret performed by the Advocate Fiscal, and one Colonel Hugo Hamilton, a native of Ireland, who is Commandant of this city, and had the custody of Monsr. Peikel during his imprisonment, which papers being but lately come to my hands I have not yet had time to translate them.


Mr. Robert Jackson to the Secretary of State.
Stockholm, February 16th, 1707.

Having in my last presumed to mention several things relating to the lately executed Baron Peikel, I therefore now further presume to transmit, along with this, the translation of his proposals together with Colonel Hamilton’s relation of the experiment he made, both which papers I humbly take the liberty to beg may be managed with a little secrecy for fear of injuring some persons here, who are thought to have employed themselves too much in favour of the said Baron.

Translation of the extract of Lieut.-General Peikel’s proposals to the Queen and Senate.

That it having pleased God to bless his study and labour for bringing him to the knowledge of a great secret; and he now laying under sentence of death was willing, in case he could thereby save his life, not only to reveal the said secret to any one person, to be under an oath of secrecy, whom his Majesty should think proper to appoint, but would likewise oblige himself to make at his own charge this year four hundred thousand ducats for his Majesty; and in case he performed not he then desired no mercy, but that not only the punishment of death might be inflicted upon him by virtue of the sentence lately pronounced against him, but that also there might be added any further punishment, as a just reward, for his demerits in presuming to abuse his Majesty.

He further obliged himself to make yearly, so long as he lived, the same quantity of gold for the King’s use, his Majesty building only a proper house for carrying on the work, and being at the charge of providing materials, and maintaining the servants which should be found necessary to be employed therein, the whole charge of which he computed would not amount to twenty thousand ducats yearly.

When he had performed what he thus proposed two years he then desired to have a reasonable enlargement, but in the meantime to be under the strictest confinement that was possible, and besides he would bind himself by the most solemn oath never to endeavour to make his escape, neither during the time of his confinement nor when he should have his liberty; and for further security he would forthwith dispose of his estate in the Brandenburg country and buy other lands of like value in Sweden and establish his family here.

And to confirm the probability of his being able to perform what he proposed, he desired that Colonel Hugo Hamilton and the Advocate Fiscal might be commanded to give an account of the experiment they were eye-witnesses to, or rather had themselves performed by his directions, he only having now and then been present during the operation. The whole charge of which operation cost not above twelve crowns and yet produced the weight in gold of forty-nine ducats, and the officers of the Mint attested the gold to be perfectly fine as any they ever saw.

These proposals were presented along with a petition to the King, January 4th, 1707.

Translation of Colonel Hugo Hamilton’s relation.

To the Queen’s Majesty most humble relation:—

Whereas Peikel, who lies under the sentence of death, has, in all humility, informed your Majesty of his having the knowledge of making gold and likewise offered to reveal the said secret, agreeable to what I also in all humility lately had the honour to acquaint your Majesty; wherefore in obedience now to your Majesty’s most gracious commands that I should in writing give a further humble account of that matter, therefore with the same humble intention for the service and advantage of my most gracious Sovereign as in all humility I formerly represented, I do now, by the oath and duty wherewith I am bound, declare that when Peikel first intimated to me his having that secret I suspected the truth of it a long time, and looked on his making me that confidence as a design he had the better by one means or other to make his escape.

Wherefore I also took care to have him the better guarded; but he several times after repeating the matter, and withal offering in my presence to make a proof thereof, to convince me that what he said was a real truth, I thought that such an opportunity of serving my most gracious King ought not to be neglected, and therefore I asked him if he was willing that I might take a second person to be also present, whereto he agreeing I thought none could be more properly employed than the Advocate Fiscal, Thomas Fehman, his accuser, whom, Peikel approving of, I acquainted the said Advocate Fiscal therewith and requested him to be a witness at the operation, who thereupon expressed himself that in case there was any reality in the thing he could not be a faithful subject who would not endeavour to forward so important a work; yet for his own person he was unwilling to be concerned therein lest he should thereby incur too many undeserved censures, however I importuned him till he at length promised to be present.

I forthwith permitted Peikel to begin the operation, which he did by dissolving of a powder of mineral antimony and winestone from Montpelier; this was set forty days in digestion, and afterwards was burnt with a prepared spirit that produced a greyish-coloured metal, which being beaten to powder was likewise set forty days in fermentation; when that time was expired it was taken out and mixed with powdered common antimony, brimstone, and a little lead, and was afterwards melted in a melting-pot and cast into a pot of brass metal, at the bottom whereof it left a weighty and substantial white metal, which being afterwards again melted in a melting-pot produced the same pure and fine gold that I showed your Majesty; and lest that any other than the true powder should be conveyed into the said pot, the Advocate Fiscal and I did by ourselves make the experiment, and found that the like quantity of the powder by us weighed produced the same effect as when Peikel was present.

I must acknowledge that during this operation I always suspected some deceit would be therein practised, and therefore more narrowly observed everything that Peikel undertook, as did likewise the Advocate Fiscal, whereto we frequently admonished each other. And whereas the best opportunity to practise the deceit seemed to be by conveying gold among the common antimony wherewith the chemical prepared powder was to be mixed, I therefore directed Peikel, the evening before, to weigh the same, but when he was gone I cast it away and took the same quantity of other common antimony, and the effect the virtue of the other powder produced both the Advocate Fiscal and I were witnesses to; and I do further declare upon my salvation, and the disfavour of my most gracious Master, that I do firmly believe, and do not otherwise know, but he the said Peikel is really possessed of the knowledge he pretends, and this the Advocate Fiscal must likewise, as a faithful servant of his Majesty, confirm whenever he is called upon.†

It was further between us agreed and resolved on, according to the oath and duty wherewith we are bound, to make a discovery of this affair, whatever sentence Peikel should receive; that this has thus been transacted I own, but the great secret, which consists in a very small composition, and which he prepared in an hour’s time, and is laid at the last melting amongst the other powder, I neither know, nor desire to know, it only having been both our sincere intentions to promote what we judged might conduce to the advantage and service of our most gracious King.

(Signed) Hugo Hamilton.‡

The refusal of Charles XII to entertain the proposals made to him by Baron Peikel, or to allow the Queen Regent’s intercession to turn him aside from his fixed resolve, does not in any way throw discredit on Peikel’s honesty of purpose or belief in his ability to carry out what he had undertaken. Charles’s utter recklessness where money was concerned is a matter of history. When this monarch ascended the throne in 1697, at the age of fifteen, he found a full treasury and the country at the height of prosperity. In a few years’ time the treasury was well-nigh exhausted, and Sweden was engaged in a gigantic struggle with Russia.

Any other monarch, at the period in question, would have taken Peikel at his word and put him to the crucial test. Had the promised gold not flowed from Peikel’s crucible, Charles could have satisfied his own revengeful spirit by putting Peikel to death in the same barbarous manner that disgraced the execution of the unfortunate Count Patkul. The Lutheran minister who attended Patkul in his last hours, and who wrote a MS. narrative of the Count’s chequered career and miserable death, has left on record the following anecdote regarding Baron Peikel, which story, if true, leaves an indelible stain on the character of Charles XII whose many noble qualities were marred by an implacable spirit which neither knew how to forgive nor how to forget.

After King Charles had entirely got the better of Augustus (King of Poland), and the latter was forced to comply with everything required of him, Augustus, in order to put the best face he could on a bad matter, made great entertainment for the King of Sweden at a very fine pleasure-house not far distant from Dresden. Peikul’s poor lady and children had taken a great journey from Stockholm, on purpose to solicit for her husband’s pardon; and King Augustus with his courtiers, as well as several of the King of Sweden’s officers, had promised her to make use of the utmost of their interest in his behalf; and had contrived the matter so, that after the usual jollity and good humour, caused by a great feast, she, with her children, should unexpectedly come into the dining-room, and fall at the King of Sweden’s feet, imploring his mercy for her husband; to which King Augustus, with all the other noble guests, were to join their intercession.

So far matters were well concerted; but the King of Sweden, having by some means or other got an inkling of this design, after he was come to the place appointed for the feast, and being resolved that nothing should prevent his intention, desired leave to retire for a few minutes before dinner, into a private closet, where he called for pen, ink, and paper, and wrote and signed an order which he sent by express for Peikul’s immediate execution upon receipt of it. After this he came out to dinner, which being ended, the poor woman and her children came in and flung herself at King Charles’s feet, as it had been forecasted, in the midst of the mirth, King Augustus with all the company mixing their intercessions with her tears.

The King of Sweden, after some seeming struggle, granted the pardon which was desired, and signed an instrument to that purpose, which by Peikul’s friends was presently despatched away. But the King’s courier arrived first at Stockholm, and poor Peikul was beheaded about four hours before the second got thither.§

Voltaire tells us in his History of Charles XII that when King Augustus (whose Saxon subjects had been heavily subsidised by the Swedish monarch) heard that Peikel had been executed, he said “he did not wonder that the King of Sweden had so much indifference for the Philosopher’s Stone as Charles had found it in Saxony.”

Baron Peikel’s great secret died with him. By his own showing he had expected the greatest happiness from his chemical discovery, but the path he pursued was not the “golden mean” which Horace recommended when he wrote the lines:—

Auream quisquis mediocritatem
Diligit, tutus caret obsoleti
Sordibus tecti, caret invidenda
Sobrius aula.

[Whoever cultivates the golden mean avoids both the poverty of a hovel and the envy of a palace. -ed.]

* We’ve grappled often with calendar ambiguity in these pages, but this one is a fun case. England was still on the Julian calendar at this point so the most recent Monday as of Jackson’s letter would have been Monday, February 3.

However, Sweden in the first years of 18th century was trying its own calendar: a strategy to “catch up” to the Gregorian calendar gradually over a period of 40 years instead of all at once. So, locally in Sweden, the calendar was off from both the Julian (one day ahead) and the Gregorian (ten days behind) and the beheading occurred on Monday, February 4. This is also the date supplied by Swedish volumes that have primary source access; by the same token, correspondence on the same event from a German perspective reports (p. 234) the equivalent Gregorian date of Monday, February 14. (Protestant German states, together with Denmark and the Netherlands, had adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1700.)

Incidentally, Sweden’s strange attempt at calendar incrementalism proved a massive bust. A few years after Baron Peikel lost his head, Charles XII gave the Nordic calendar the chop too — ordering Sweden reverted back to the Julian schedule by the expedient of doubling the next leap-day. As a result, Sweden had a February 30, 1712. A free pack of Executed Today playing cards for anyone who can document a February 30 execution for the annals!

** Dalton’s original footnote on this word reads: “Royal Proclamation for all the King of Sweden’s subjects to return out of foreign service.”

† Sweden’s Royal Coin Cabinet still preserves the medal that was struck by the triumphant alchemist or prestidigitator out of his transmutation, stamped hoc aurum arte chimica conflavit holmle 1706 O. A. V. paykhull. (O. A. Von Paykhull cast this gold by chemical art at Stockholm, 1706.) This post badly wants an image of said artifact.

‡ A Scots-Irish officer, heir to the long tradition of Celtic involvement in Sweden.

§ Dalton’s footnote sources this anecdote to vol. 13 of Lord Somers’s Tracts by Walter Scott.

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1799: Francesco Conforti, regalist and republican

1 comment December 7th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1799, the subversive priest Francesco Conforti was hanged in the Piazza Mercato for his role in the Naples Parthenopean Republic.

This scholar came on the scene in the 1770s penning apologias for the Enlightenment trend towards the secular authority supplanting the ecclesiastic. For Conforti, Christ had not claimed, and the Vatican ought not wield, civil power.

This was quite an annoyance to the church that had ordained him but Conforti was no red priest. His doctrine was so far from antithetical to sovereigns in the Age of Absolutism that it was known as regalism, and a notable 1771 work was dedicated to the Bourbons’ secular strongman in southern Italy and Sicily.

But clerical reaction after the French Revolution got Conforti run out of his university appointment and even thrown in prison which would drive him into the republican camp — and when those republicans took power in Naples in early 1799 he joined their government as Interior Minister, his duty to shape civil society for “the democratic and republican regime [which] is the most consistent with the Gospel.”

“Democracy is the greatest benefit God has given the human race,” Conforti once intoned. But in 1799 it was a gift to enjoy in small doses: after the Bourbons reconquered Naples that summer, executing 122 republican patriots into the bargain, the human race reverted to the second greatest benefit.

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Feast Day of Pope Pontian and Antipope Hippolytus

1 comment August 13th, 2017 Headsman

August 13 is the shared feast date* of third century saint and antipope — two adjectives rarely held in common — Hippolytus of Rome, and the official pope to whom he reconciled in the end, Pontian.

His legend, including his feast date, has been muddled with another ancient martyr of the same name, and even with the mythological son of Theseus — from which also derives the etymologically apt fancy that St. Hippolytus met his end by the straining of horses.**


The central panel (click for the full image) of the St. Hippolyte Triptych, from the Sint-Salvator Cathedral in Bruges, Belgium. (via the blog of Canadian Archbishop Terrence Prendergast) Attributed to Dieric Bouts and Hugo van der Goes, this image was commissioned by a courtier of Charles the Bold, Hippolyte de Berthoz — who also underwrote other depictions of his namesake’s martyrdom.

But Hippolytus the theologian and cleric was no fable.

Zealous after the correct doctrine in an age of heretical pitfalls like modalism and alogianism, Hippolytus clashed with Pope Zephyrinus and his successor Callixtus over their leniency — not only for heterodoxy but also for sinful conduct like adultery.

This timeless horn-locking between purists and pragmatists led Hippolytus to take his flock out of the Roman communion in opposition to Callixtus, and apparently to maintain himself as antipope for the best part of a generation — the very first recorded antipope, in fact.

Ironically it was the schismatic’s perspicacious quill that would bear to posterity much of our understanding of Christianity in the early third century. Apostolic Tradition, whose attribution to Hippolytus is contested, is a rare source on the early liturgy; Refutation of All Heresies helpfully catalogues dozens of beliefs disfavored of its author among pagan and Christian sects. He wrote a chronicle of the world since its creation, a compendium of ecclesiastical law, and numerous Biblical commentaries.

While world-shaping controversies gripped the sacerdotal space, the temporal world spiraled toward Rome’s Third Century Crisis, a periodization commonly dated to the rise of the cruel barracks-emperor Maximinus in the very year of our rival pontiffs’ martyrdoms, 235.

Maximinus’s years in the purple were short and sanguinary, harbinger of many like decades to come. “Italy and the whole empire were infested with innumerable spies and informers,” Gibbon wrote.

On the slightest accusation, the first of the Roman nobles, who had governed provinces, commanded armies, and been adorned with the consular and triumphal ornaments, were chained on the public carriages, and hurried away to the emperor’s presence. Confiscation, exile, or simple death, were esteemed uncommon instances of his lenity. Some of the unfortunate sufferers he ordered to be sewed up in the hides of slaughtered animals, others to be exposed to wild beasts, others again to be beaten to death with clubs.

Both Pontian and Hippolytus were arrested at Maximinus’s order, which was scarcely an act of pagan reverence on the latter’s part since he was also noted for stripping the traditional temples of valuables that could be melted into currency.

Banished to Sardinia for rough handling that was tantamount to a death sentence, the two men reconciled before attaining the crown of martyrdom.

Numerous cities in France (and one in Quebec) are named for St. Hippolytus.

* It’s the feast date in the Roman church. The Orthodox world honors Hippolytus on January 30.

** He’s the patron saint of horses, too.

† A reading of On Christ and the Antichrist is available free from Librivox.

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1917: Otilio Montaño, Zapatista

Add comment May 18th, 2017 Headsman

One hundred years ago today, Otilio Montaño Sánchez was shot as a traitor to the Mexican Revolution.

Montaño was a rural schoolteacher who came to mentor Emiliano Zapata via Zapata’s cousin.

Montaño had the distinction of helping Zapata draw up his movement’s “sacred scripture,” the egalitarian Plan of Ayala, and rose with his protege to become Secretary of Public Instructions in the Zapatista governing junta.

This association was destined to be displaced by a different (ex-)revolutionary, Venustiano Carranza, who would break with Zapata and emerge from the Revolution as Mexico’s president. Montaño suffered the fate Carranza’s former allies would have wished to impose upon him: being accused of supporting a pro-Carranza revolt, a revolutionary tribunal had him shot (dishonorably, shot in the back) wearing a defamatory sign reading “So die all traitors to the fatherland.”

A small town in Morelos is named for Montaño.

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