Posts filed under 'Judges'

1643: Philippe Giroux, former president of the Dijon Parlement

Add comment May 8th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1643, a remarkable trial-of-the-century political case climaxed when a former judge was beheaded for murdering his noble cousin and the cousin’s valet.

Book CoverPhilippe Giroux’s amazing and disconcerting case is the subject of a page-turning microhistory by James Farr, A Tale of Two Murders: Passion and Power in Seventeenth-Century France, which is the source of essentially every detail about the case in this post. “There is substantial evidence surviving from this case,” Farr writes … “and not all of it points the same way.”

Philippe Giroux had, in the suspicious eyes of his peers in Dijon society, ample motive that would connect him to the September 6, 1638 disappearance of Pierre Baillet and Philibert Neugot: common rumor had him so infatuated with Baillet’s wife, Marie Fyot, as to aspire to marry her.

But Giroux was no ordinary lustful bourgeois: he was the paramount judge at the Parlement of Dijon, a powerful client of an even more powerful patron, the Prince of Conde. Giroux’s kin and allies peopled the Burgundy courts.

Perhaps it is no surprise in the Three Musketeers-era France addicted to dueling that a person of this prominence would attract a nemesis, but rare indeed that a vendetta could pull such a powerful figure so low as the scaffold. This bilious triumph was savored in the end by Giroux’s hated rival Pierre Saumaise de Chasans.

A fellow judge whose enmity with our date’s principal reached back at least to 1627, Saumaise, in Farr’s words, presented his contemporaries

a personality of unrelentingly pious self-righteousness blending seamlessly into base self-interest. A quarrelsome man constantly at odds with his fellow judges, Saumaise was involved in twenty-two quarrels with other judges in Parlement, was reprimanded eleven times as the culprit, and was censored seven times. During the seventeenth century the Parlement as a whole was drifting toward lenience in criminal sentences, but Saumaise swam against this current. For example, in 1633 Saumaise was assigned as a rapporteur to ten cases appealed to Parlement from lower courts across Burgundy. In only one of those cases did Saumaise seek to lessen the punishment imposed by the lower court …

Another gruesome example of Saumaise’s severity. In 1633, for conviction of a murder, the grapegrower Bazille Borde was broken on the wheel (more often murderers were hanged or beheaded). As Saumaise watched, the executioner shattered Borde’s arm and leg bones with a metal rod, and then pitched him onto a raised wheel, face up, to die slowly and in agony. His accomplice merely had his head chopped off, after which Saumaise and the presiding judge split the epices of sixty-six ecus (more than the victims combined would have earned in years).

Most disturbing of all of the examples of Saumaise’s stern, unmerciful jurisprudence is the series of cases for witchcraft that Saumaise prosecuted in March 1633. In other parts of France and Europe a witch hunt swept widely during the early seventeenth century, but with the exception of a few flare-ups, Burgundy was largely spared. Saumaise oversaw one of those flare-ups. For a bloody week in the middle of March, Saumaise signed his name as a rapporteur to seven sentences which capped the trials of twenty-five accused witches. Lower courts had ordered banishment, but under appeal at Parlement (required by law for all capital offenses tried in lower courts) Saumaise and the presiding judge demonstrated their belief that firmer punishment was needed. Saumaise saw to it that several of the victims were tortured, and three were eventually burned at the stake. Saumaise and the president assigned to these cases, by the way, pocketed for their efforts 400 ecus (that is, 1,200£, or more than a journeyman artisan — or any of the victims — might earn in fifteen years). In all, in 1633 alone Saumaise shared with his presidents about 700 ecus in addition to his regular wages. Fellow judges, including Philippe Giroux, were deeply troubled by the severity of Saumaise as a judge. By Giroux’s count, Saumaise submitted fifty-six people accused of crimes to be tortured, broken on the wheel, or beheaded, prompting Giroux to conclude in disgust that Saumaise was “a crow who is most content among dead bodies.”

From the late 1620s and throughout the 1630s these two sniped at each other in the august chambers of the king’s justice and with the less discriminating public squibs facilitated by the era of movable type. On the whole, Saumaise did not get the better of his confrontations with Giroux, even once being forced to perform the amende honorable before their legal peers with a galling public affirmation of his enemy’s honor that must of tasted like ash in Saumaise’s mouth.

That was early in 1639, mere weeks after Giroux allegedly slaughtered Pierre Baillet. It would be prove to be the apex before the wheel of fortune very abruptly threw him down.

Giroux attempted to press his advantage over Saumaise by pursuing a rape charge against him, but the case speedily fell apart with the whiff of suborned perjury about it. Meanwhile, two judges not in Giroux’s network had been detailed to investigate the Baillet murder, and a constellation of evidence was emerging from the Giroux servants and associates who had been interrogated. However much of this was circumstantial and hearsay, it was certainly more than the president of Parlement ought to have said against him per the Caesar’s-wife standard.

In July 1640 Giroux was arrested and although his confinement was comfortably befitting his station it would continue for the remainder of his life — Giroux powerless while the case gathered against him to do aught but issue learned public factums savaging the case against him as a concoction of Saumaise’s vendetta. Indeed, as a purely juridical matter, this prosecution did suffer from some debilitating flaws which help to explain the protracted three-year gap from arrest to judgment and execution. Most notably, it lacked bodies, which were legally required to prosecute a murder case in the absence of a confession or an eyewitness, neither of which proved forthcoming. Had Giroux, as a servant had alleged, efficiently pitched the victims undetected into his latrine where quicklime had dissolved their remains into the ordure? If so, it might never be possible to conclude a judgment; certainly the magistrate Giroux remained wisely steadfast in his denials and could be relied upon to perceive where his prosecutors’ claims were most vulnerable. In Giroux’s telling the prosecution and the hand of his personal enemy had veered into an outright stitch-up, with every witness favorable to himself excluded and the prejudicial evidence of his rivals’ kin granted outsized credence. Are we seriously to believe this senior judge butchered his own cousin in his own home, that the victims or “victims” had not instead (as other rumors suggested) upped sticks and left the country or fallen prey to some wilderness brigands?

In such a gap might a litigant preserve his life. Still and all, O.J. Simpson was acquitted but also permanently stripped of his public stature and respectability. How much more these pains would have weighed on a dignitary of the king’s courts, in a society where family, honor, and reputation were the true coin of the realm. However stoutly he defended himself from his cell, Giroux found events running away from him, and even the favor of the Prince of Conde coldly withdrawn — as discovered when his father presented himself in the prince’s court to petition for his son and was advised that he’d be seeing the inside of the Bastille should he not speedily fly. His son contemplated the same strategem, but his jailbreak plot was detected before it could be implemented.

When a sack apparently containing the remains of the victims was finally uncovered — the identification dramatically cinched by a playing card that a tailor had sewn into one of the men’s collars to stiffen it — the fallen president of Parlement knew his doom was sealed although even to his confessors he staked his immortal soul upon his innocence. The courts so long uncertain about the fate of their former colleague now had a clincher. They imposed financial penalties that, while irrelevant to his own final hours, devastated and permanently diminished Giroux’s family’s house thereafter, plus the sentence of beheading, a merciful abatement considering the more brutal executions at the law’s disposal for cases of murder.

After hearing the sentence of death [early afternoon of May 8], Giroux was led into the holding cell of the courthouse and prepared for execution. He was stripped of the symbols of his presidential office — ritually divested of his bonnet carre and his scarlet robe, which in any case he had not been permitted to wear since his incarceration. Such a ritual officially cast the felon into the dishonorable netherworld of social disgrace. Execution everywhere in early modern Europe “imported infamy” upon the condemned, and this was made visible by the physical treatment of the criminal’s body. The body in those days was not thought of as simply the integral possession of the individual human being but rather as a socially defined entity that signified status and standing in a highly stratified system. This system, as Giroux knew as well as anyone, was held together and given meaning by that pervasive notion of honor that so preoccupied men like him. The loss of honor could ruin a family, most directly by ending descendents’ [sic] prospects of marrying. It was undoubtedly because of this fear of dishonor that upon being led into the holding cell, Giroux turned to Comeau and said with tears in his eyes, “I beg you to assure my Lord the Prince [of Conde] that I remain his servant, and I beg him that this poor innocent who is my son and who has the honor to carry [Conde’s] name must not suffer from the disgrace of his father. Perhaps he will be more fortunate that I.” …

Spared both the humiliation and the pain of being broken on the wheel, Giroux gasped, “God be praised! These men have much charity and mercy, because according to the crimes of which I have been accused, I ought to be more rudely treated.” Opting for beheading was one indication that the judges were trying not to dishonor Giroux. Another was that they withheld a customary phrase in the sentence of death. Usually death sentences called for actions that would obliterate the memory of the convicted felon and destroy in posterity the honor of his or her family. The body might be burned and its ashes scattered to the wind, or dismembered and buried in an unmarked grave, or documents from the trial declaring the innocence of the accused, such as factums, might be destroyed. The judges ordered none of these steps.

Now Saumaise had the satisfaction of seeing the amende honorable ritual reversed to his advantage, as a bound Giroux begged public forgiveness on his knees during his shameful procession to death. “Ah, my father! My son! My kin! My friends! What will you not suffer from this affront that will burst upon you all!” Farr has him exclaiming. He had a quarter-mile yet to walk to the Place du Morimont (present-day Place Emile-Zola).*

The streets were lined with a hundred armed men who held in check a crowd “so numerous” and packed so densely, according to Larme, “that one could suffocate among them.” Giroux apparently regained his composure, for he now strode between the two priests “with constancy and firmness,” as Larme reports. The former president had the presence of mind to bid adieu to several people whom he recognized along the way. He even smiled, showing no evidence that he was suffering inside. It was in this state that he entered the chapel beneath the scaffold where, still clutching the crucifix, he bade a final goodbye to his son and asked him always to remember his father with respect and love. He then prostrated himself before the altar, saying, “Receive, O Lord, my death in expiation for my sins.” He rose, turned to the priests, and asked them to promise to take his body to the family estate at Marigny for burial. He emerged from the chapel and climbed the steps of the scaffold. He faced the crowd, and bowed deeply three times. Then, his back to the executioner, he dropped to his knees. He heard his sentence of death read to him yet again, this time by an assistant to the royal prosecutor general named Deschamps, and then recited a series of litanies. After that, Deschamps drew close and said that he had orders to ask Giroux one last time whether he had killed Monsieur Baillet, whether Marie Fyot was involved in the conspiracy, and who his accomplices were. Giroux, steadfast in his innocence to the end, replied, “I have told you everything I know.”

Giroux was confessed a final time by Father Chaudot, received absolution, and awaited the approach of the hooded headsman. The executioner removed Giroux’s flowing wig to blindfold his eyes. Giroux clutched the crucifix and drew it close to his heart just before the executioner’s sword flashed toward Giroux’s exposed neck. The first blow did not sever the former president’s head, not did the second. The crowd gaped in horror and then erupted in sympathy for Giroux while he was being hacked to death. Larme too looked on horrified, and reported that many in the crowd tried to storm the scaffold and wanted to tear the executioner limb from limb, shouting “Death to the headsman!” And they would have done so, Larme assures us, if the soldiers posted all around the gallows had not kept them at bay. It ultimately took the headsman five blows of the broadsword to cut off Philippe Giroux’s head.

* Find here a grim French-language tour through the notable public punishments administered at this location down the years.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Judges,Lawyers,Murder,Public Executions

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1517: Konrad Breuning, Tübingen Vogt

1 comment September 27th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1517, aged magistrate Konrad Breuning was beheaded as a traitor for helping negotiate a landmark limitation of the Duke of Württemberg’s powers.

Fruit of a wealthy Tübingen family — one can still see in the church there the donative Breuning BellKonrad Breuning was a Vogt, one of the Holy Roman Empire’s important municipal administrators.

In 1514, crushed by taxation and written out of political power, commoners both urban and rural mounted a rebellion known as “Poor Konrad”. (Its title had nothing to do with our post’s star character; “Konrad” was just a common name that had come to denote the everyman.)

Wealthy elites were able to leverage the rebellion’s pressure,* and Duke Ulrich‘s increasingly desperate need for revenues that only they could authorize, into a sort of Magna Carta for the duchy: the Treaty of Tübingen. As the name implies, it was negotiated right in Konrad Breuning’s stomping-ground; the site was his own suggestion.

This great coup was attained at a great cost, for Duke Ulrich was a mercurial fellow who would eventually be run out of Württemberg altogether after he outright murdered a guy. That murder, in 1515, perhaps drove Ulrich to an attempted (and backfiring) show of authority with the 1516 arrest of Bruening, his brother Sebastian (who was Vogt of a different town), and Konrad Vaut (yet another Vogt, and see what we mean about the popularity of the name?). Their rank did not protect them from the torture necessary to extract confessions.

All three were condemned to death for treason in a stacked trial in December 1516. For reasons that are not self-evident to me from the mostly-German sources that I have found, the other two Vogts lost their heads more or less promptly after their conviction but Konrad Bruening was maintained as Ulrich’s most unwilling guest for most of a year before he finally followed them. Maybe it was the duke protracting the savor of his revenge upon Tübingen’s bourgeoisie for that treaty.

* Despite the role of Poor Konrad in catalyzing the Treaty of Tübingen, the urban lower orders got much less out of the deal than the 1% types, and the peasantry was shut out altogether. It would not be long before the frustration of the latter class again conjured an insurrection: the devastating 1524-1525 Peasants War.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Holy Roman Empire,Judges,Lawyers,Politicians,Public Executions,Torture,Treason

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1849: Zsigmond Perenyi, by the Hangman of Arad

1 comment October 24th, 2015 Headsman

In the weeks following his defeat of Hungary’s 1848-49 revolution, the Austrian general Julius Jacob von Haynau consolidated his victory with enough cruelty to merit the title “Hangman of Arad.” On this date in 1849, he advanced Zsigmond Perényi, of late the speaker of revolutionary Hungary’s House of Magnates, to the ranks of Magyar martyrs.

A career politician and judge, Perenyi (English Wikipedia entry | the more detailed Hungarian) was a stately 74 years of age when the barricades went up. He was a baron, but a member of the reform-minded faction of that class who in the 19th century came more and more to see themselves in a national, Hungarian context. This historical thrust would lead, 18 years after the events of this post, to the official arrangement of an Austro-Hungarian Empire, the promotion of Hungary to titular imperial partnership but never to a fully satisfactory settlement of the tensions between Hungarian patriotic aspiration and Habsburg imperial prerogatives.

Perenyi signed the April 14, 1849 Hungarian Declaration of Independence; he and others who had set their hand to this treasonable document and played a role in the national government — they were just the sort of people to invite the attention of the hangman of Arad.

“Many government commissioners who had supported Kossuth were summarily court-martialled and led to the gallows,” Alan Walker notes in Franz Liszt: The Weimar Years, 1848-1861, Volume 2.

Baron Jeszenak, lord-lieutenant of the county of Nyitra; Szacsvay, the young secretary of the Diet; and Csernus of the treasury board all swung from the end of a rope. Baron Zsigmond Perenyi, of the court of justice, listened carefully to the charges against him and replied: “I have to complain that the accusation is incomplete. I request to add that I was the first to press the resolution that the House of Habsburg-Lorraine should be declared to have forfeited the throne of Hungary.”


By Hungary’s own Franz Liszt.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Austria,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Habsburg Realm,History,Hungary,Judges,Lawyers,Martyrs,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Power,Separatists,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1945: Anacleto Diaz, Philippines Supreme Court Justice

1 comment February 10th, 2015 Headsman

Supreme Court justice Anacleto Diaz and his two sons were among 300 Filipinos machine-gunned by the Japanese on this date in 1945 during the Battle of Manila.

The distinguished 66-year-old jurist had served in his youth in the forces of independence fighter Antonio Luna. Diaz was captured by the Americans, and honed his English so well as a POW that he later built a career as a legal scholar in the American-governed archipelago. He was appointed to the Philippines Supreme Court by U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Diaz and his comrades were far from the only civilians to suffer during the bloody monthlong Battle of Manila: Japanese troops conducted intermittent atrocities both wholesale and retail, collectively known as the Manila Massacre. Japan’s commanding general, Tomoyuki Yamashita, was hanged as a war criminal in 1946 due to the Manila Massacre in a highly controversial case — since the Manila Massacre’s atrocities couldn’t be attributed directly to Yamashita’s own orders. But the U.S. war crimes tribunal found, and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed, that the subordinate troops’ actions redounded to the account of their superiors who “fail[ed] to discharge his duty as a commander to control the acts of members of his command by permitting them to commit war crimes.”

This is one of the foundational cases for that opportunistically observed precedent known as “command responsibility” (indeed, this is the “Yamashita Standard”).

As one might guess by the late date and the juridical aftermath, this Battle of Manila ended in an American victory reconquering a now-devastated Philippines capital, and driving the Japanese from the Philippines — making good Gen. Douglas MacArthur‘s famous promise to return there.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Execution,History,Intellectuals,Japan,Judges,Lawyers,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Philippines,Shot,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1578: Kort Kamphues, outlaw judge

Add comment December 9th, 2014 Headsman

Most judges are content to inflict their atrocities with a gavel, but on this date in 1578, a magistrate turned freebooter named Kort Kamphues was beheaded at Bevergern.

Just a few months before his July 1553 death, Prince-Bishop Franz von Waldeck set Kamphues up for his interesting career arc by appointing him Stadtrichter of Coesfeld.

Kamphues’s overbearing presumptions on the perquisites of that sinecure, coming on more than one occasion to physical violence, led other city leaders to petition unsuccessfully for his removal in 1569.

But his attempt in 1572 to assemble a mercenary army on the pretext of getting involved in Spain’s war in the Netherlands led to a definitive break with Coesfeld — which tried to arrest him, and then outlawed him when he escaped with his armed posse into the Westphalian countryside.

For several years, Kamphues and gang marauded merrily until a clumsy bid to frighten a new Coesfeld magistrate led to an arson attack on the city. Kort Kamphues was captured on June 19, 1578, and tortured into confessing to arson, banditry, and breaching the peace — gaining a permanent place in folklore at the small expense of his head.

The Kamphues Dagger, a beautiful 14th century artifact later documented in the Coesfeld treasury, is supposed on sketchy evidence to have been captured from this brigand.


A replica of the Kamphues Dagger, at the city museum in Walkenbrückentor. (cc) image from Günter Seggebäing.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arson,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Judges,Lawyers,Outlaws,Public Executions,Theft,Torture

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1591: Barnabe Brisson, at the hands of the Sixteen

Add comment November 15th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1591, the summary execution of Barnabe Brisson and two other French doctors of law signaled the beginning of the end of France’s Wars of Religion.

After the untimely death of Henri II in a freak jousting accident, his widow Catherine de’ Medici employed three frustrating decades shuttling the late monarch’s uninspiring offspring onto the throne only to see each in his turn die young and without issue. We are by these late years on to the last of Henri II’s sons — Henri III of France.

Actually, Henri wasn’t the last: just the last left alive. He had a younger brother, Francis, Duke of Anjou, who dropped dead in 1584 of malaria and left Henri III as the only Valois male. The heir presumptive after Henri III was his Calvinist brother-in-law Henri of Navarre. Spoiler alert: by the end of this post, Henri of Navarre is going to get there as King Henri IV.

The Catholic-vs.-Huguenot Wars of Religion had raged in France for many years but the last major installment of the bloody serial was the War of the Three Henrys: the two Henris aforesaid, plus the Duke of Guise, also named Henri — the standard-bearer of Catholic zealots.

Our present-day presumption of live-and-let-live spirituality was bequeathed from the Enlightenment only after it had been hard-won by centuries previous. In France of the 1500s, the most extreme (but by no means marginal) Catholic party saw the very existence of a Huguenot faction — and the fact that more moderate Catholic politiques were prepared to tolerate and treat with them — as an existential threat to the kingdom. Catholicism in the literal universal sense was intrinsic to France itself: if she should cease to be so, what would become of her? A 1589 pamphlet extolled what

an admirable thing [it is] to view the ardor and the devotion of everyone in France, the air resounding with prayer and processions of our youth who are purified by our prayers and by the common voice which is spread throughout this kingdom; we demonstrate that the benedictions and maledictions of a people have great effects.

With such great effects at stake, the pious ought not abide any fooling around with Providence. “If your brother, your friend, and your wife all of whom you hold dear wish to strip you of your faith,” wrote Louis D’Orleans in 1588, “kill them, cut their throats and sacrifice them to God.”*

This was a faction for whom Henri of Navarre’s prospective succession was absolutely intolerable, which makes it somewhat ironic that they themselves soon turned prospect into reality.

King Henri III was a Catholic himself, of course, and this irreconcilable Catholic League was part of what you might call his base. But though initially allied, the League’s attempts to dominate the young king led Henri III to execute a daring breakout: on December 23, 1588, he summoned the Duke of Guise to confer with him at the Chateau de Blois and there had his bodyguards murder Guise on the spot.


Just two Henries now …** (Executed Today’s court painter Paul Delaroche interprets that same scene here.)

The resulting fury of the Catholic League was so great that the king soon fled Paris and made common cause with Henri of Navarre. Now the civil war was the two Henris together — and the Catholic League opposing them. We come here to our date’s principal character, Barnabe Brisson (English Wikipedia entry | French), a distinguished jurist† in the Parlement of France. While most of this chamber followed the king out of Paris, Brisson chose to remain. “The Sixteen,”‡ the council of Catholic militants who now ruled Paris with the support of a populist militia, elevated Brisson to President of the Parlement.

In 1589 the Henris besieged staunchly Catholic Paris in an attempt to bring the civil war to a close. In a classic Pyrrhic victory, the League defeated this attempt by having a priest assassinate King Henri.


… and now we’re down to the last Henri.

While this action did break the siege, and avenge the murder of Guise, it made Henri of Navarre into King Henri IV. (Told you we’d get there.) The Catholic League’s attempt to recognize the new king’s uncle, a Cardinal, as the successor went nowhere at all, and at any rate this man himself died in 1590.

This succession greatly deepened the internal tension among Paris Catholics between the uncompromising men of the Sixteen and the moderate politiques, and the latter party’s interest in finding with the legitimate king a settlement that looked increasingly inevitable. After all, were these armed commoners really going to rule Paris indefinitely?


An armed march of the Holy League in Paris in 1590. (Anonymous painting)

The situation provoked the ultras among Paris’s ruling Sixteen to more desperate measures in a vain effort to maintain control. Their faction’s own post-Guise leader among the high nobility, the Duke of Mayenne, had refused inducements to seize the crown himself or to seat a sovereign provided by the League’s Hapsburg allies. He too was visibly sliding towards an accommodation with the heretic king. (He would reach one in 1596.) In much the same camp was an establishment figure like Brisson whose staying behind in Paris during the confused situation of 1588-1589 was scarcely intended to declare that his allegiance to creed surpassed all care for order. The man was a lawyer, after all.

During Mayenne’s absence from the capital in the autumn of 1591, the Sixteen mounted a radical internal coup and attempted to purge the city’s moderates. Brisson was arrested walking to work on the morning of the 15th and subjected along with two other jurists to a sham snap trial. All three were hung by lunchtime, and per a proposal floated among the council that afternoon were the next morning fitted with denunciatory placards and displayed on gibbets at the Place de Greve.

Barnabé Brisson, a chief traitor and heretic

Claude Larcher, an instigator of treacherous politiques

Jean Tardiff, an enemy of God and of Catholic princes

Their shocking exhibition was intended to incite a “St. Barthelemy des politiques” — a St. Bartholomew’s Day-esque pogrom against the politique moderates.

But the Sixteen had badly misjudged the mood of the city. The crowd beheld the mangled corpses silently, full of horror or pity — emblematic of the turning-point France was nearing in its interminable confessional strife. Despite the Catholic League’s strength in Paris, most Parisians were losing their appetite for bloodshed. The Duke of Mayenne was back in the capital by the end of the month and underscored the coming arrangements by seizing four of the Sixteen for summary execution themselves.

Two years later, Henri IV at last took Paris in hand by making a nominal conversion to Catholicism with the legendary (alleged) remark, “Paris is worth a Mass.”§

French speakers may enjoy this 19th century pdf biography of Brisson by Alfred Giraud.

* “Du Contemnement de la mort. Discours accomode a la miserable condition de ce temps” (blockquoted section) and Replique pour le Catholique Anglois, contre le Catolique associe des Huguenots (D’Orleans quote). Both via Dalia Leonardo in “Cut off This Rotten Member”: The Rhetoric of Heresy, Sin, and Disease in the Ideology of the French Catholic League,” The Catholic Historical Review, April 2002.

** Also of interest: this 1908 silent film of the assassination of the Duc de Guise, scored by Saint-Saens.

† Brisson’s dictionary of Justinian legal terminology remained in print until 1805. He also in 1587 produced a compilation of the laws of France as Le Code du Roy Henri III.

‡ The Sixteen were delegates of Paris’s quarters, assembled by the Duke of Mayenne. For detail on the composition and internal history of The Sixteen, see J.H.M. Salmon, “The Paris Sixteen, 1584-94: The Social Analysis of a Revolutionary Movement,” The Journal of Modern History, December 1972.

§ In the end, of course, an entirely unreconciled Catholic extremist assassinated Henri IV in 1610.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Gibbeted,God,Hanged,History,Intellectuals,Judges,Lawyers,Politicians,Power,Summary Executions,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1651: Wilhelm Biener, faithful counsellor

Add comment July 17th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1651, Wilhelm Biener, late the chancellor of Tyrol, lost his head to the rancor of Tyrol’s landed aristocracy.

A barrister by training and eventually a judge, Biener or Bienner (English Wikipedia entry | German) transitioned into a court position under Leopold V, Archduke of Austria. Leopold’s death in 1632 left a four-year-old heir, Ferdinand Charles; the boy’s mother, Claudia de’ Medici, leaned increasingly on Biener’s counsel as she ably kept Tyrol in order (and out of the devastating Thirty Years’ War) while little Ferdinand aged towards his majority.

As a commoner, no dynastic entanglements of his own divided his attentions from the state’s own interest, a fact that Claudia de’ Medici recognized in elevating Biener to the chancellorship in 1638, and that the land’s magnates recognized in the strictly levied taxes Biener extracted from their resentful purses.


Detail view (click for full image) of Karl Anrather’s 1891 painting of Wilhelm Biener holding forth against the Tiroler Landtag, from the Ferdinandeum at Innsbruck.

We’ve seen quite often enough in these pages that the danger undertaken by such figures should their enemies ever find power over them mitigates the honors and emoluments they are like to enjoy while in office. One gets a sense of the undercurrent of biding violence from the remark of the Bishop of Brixen, directed to forward the required revenues in a letter less deferential than a senior cleric thought he was due: “The man deserves to lose the fingers that could write such an intemperate effusion!”

For Biener, the volcano opened under him with the death of his patron Claudia de’ Medici on Christmas Day 1648. Her boy Ferdinand Charles was all of 20 years old now, wet behind the ears and enamored of courtly profligacy. Despite his affection for Biener and his long service to his mother, the young prince would vacillate on sparing the consigliere until it was too late.

Biener’s enemies struck with a secret trial accusing him of wetting his own beak on the imposts he had imposed on Tirol; the account below of what followed from a travelogue probably reflects the posthumous myth of Biener more faithfully than it does the real man.

[Biener] was ultimately condemned, in 1651, to lose his head. Biener sent a statement of his case to the Archduke Ferdinand Karl; and the young prince, believing the honesty of his mother’s faithful adviser, immediately ordered a reprieve. The worst enemy and prime accuser of the fallen favourite was Schmaus, President of the Council … and he contrived by detaining the messenger to make him arrive just too late in Rattenberg, then still a strong fortress, where he lay confined, and where the sentence was to be carried out.

Biener had all along steadfastly maintained his innocence; and stepping on to the scaffold, he had again repeated the assertion, adding, “So truly as I am innocent, I summon my accuser before the Judgment-seat above before another year is out.” When the executioner stooped to lift up the head before the people, he found lying by its side three fingers of his right hand, without having had any knowledge that he had struck them off, though he might have done so by the unhappy man having raised his hand in the way of the sword in the last struggle. [more likely they were folded in prayer. -ed.] The people, however, saw in it the fulfilment of the words of the bishop, as well as a ghastly challenge accompanying his dying message to President Schmaus. Nor did they forget to note that the latter died of a terrible malady some months before the close of the year.

Biener’s wife lost her senses when she knew the terrible circumstances of his death; the consolations of her director and of her son, who lived to his ninetieth year in the Franciscan convent at Innsbruck, were alike powerless to calm her. She escaped in the night, and wandered out into the mountains no one knows whither. But the people say she lives on to be a witness of her husband’s innocence, and may be met on lonely ways proclaiming it, but never harming any. Only, when anyone is to die in Büchsenhausen, where her married life passed so pleasantly, the ‘Bienerweible’ will appear and warn them.

Living on in Tyrol folk tradition, Biener took a leap into the Romantic-era national consciousness thanks to writer Hermann Schmid, who popularized Biener’s legend with a 19th century historical novel, The Chancellor of Tyrol; public domain versions can be read online in two volumes (1, 2); a theatrical adaptation by Josef Wenter is still staged to this day. It’s possible that this imprint on the Zeitgeist led a Bohemian writer to christen his fictional executed outlaw “Vilem” in the Czech poem Maj.


Marker honoring Wilhelm Biener in the Austrian Tyrol town of Rattenberg, where Biener was executed on July 17, 1651.

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1731: Jose de Antequera, Paraguayan comunero rebel

Add comment July 5th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1731, Jose de Antequera had his head cut off in Lima for leading a comunero rebellion against the Spanish crown in Paraguay.

Antequera, a judge, began his revolution legally in 1721 by affirming an impeachment the city council of Asuncion (Paraguay’s present-day capital) against the unpopular Spanish governor. Antequera, conveniently, also happened to be the guy who would succeed the unpopular territorial governor.

The conflict between the two would-be governors spiraled into a wider revolt for local autonomy pitting criollo settlers against the crown, though it would likely be overstating matters to call this a true bid for independence. One notable sore spot between the two parties was the prerogatives of Jesuit Reductions: these mission settlements for Christianizing natives (particularly prominent in Paraguay for the Guarani people) had originally been placed at the far fringes of Spain’s New World reach, and they enjoyed a wide autonomy, sustaining themselves economically with the yerba mate trade. For the Guarani, these were also welcome refuges from the brutal encomiendas; Guarani militias stoutly repelled slave raiders.

For these prerogatives, the Jesuits and the Guarani were loyal to the Spanish crown as against the local settlers better inclined to view the Reductions (and the potential slaves who inhabited them) as assets they’d like to get their own hands around. Antequera accordingly expelled the Jesuits near Asuncio and for a few years his word was law in Paraguay. Guarani troops mustered by the crown helped put the rebellion down, taking Antequera into custody and forwarding him to the notoriously severe Marquis of Castelfuerte, the Peruvian viceroy.

Society at Lima was in [Antequera’s] favor. Great efforts were made to delay his trial. But the viceroy was resolved to punish him, and sentence of death was passed. The judges, the university, the municipality, petitioned for pardon, as well as the people of all classes. The stern old marquis refused to listen, and Antequera was brought out for execution in the great square of Lima on July 5, 1731. There were cries for pardon, and the mob began to throw stones. Hearing the tumult, the viceroy came out on horseback and ordered his guards to fire. Antequera fell dead, as well as the two priests by his side, and several others. The viceroy then ordered the body to be taken to the scaffold and beheaded. His conduct received the approval of the king by decree of September, 1733. (Source)

The Spanish had not heard the end of Antequera.

During his imprisonment, Antequera befriended and inspired a fellow-prisoner named Fernando Mompo. After Antequera’s execution, Mompo returned to Paraguay brandishing the late rebel governor’s banner: “The authority of the commune is superior to that of the King himself!” Mompo launched a recrudescence of the comunero rebellion in the early 1730s. Mompo too shared Antequera’s fate.

A change in the political winds decades later led to the Spanish king Charles III himself expelling the Jesuits — and posthumously exonerating Jose de Antequera.

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1707: Pierre Fatio, Genevan Gracchus

1 comment September 6th, 2012 Headsman

On the evening of this date* in 1707, Pierre Fatio was secretly shot by arquebusers in a Geneva prison.

This Swiss Gracchus — classically-minded contemporaries could hardly fail to draw the parallel — was a magistrate and a rising member of the patrician oligarchy that ran nominally democratic Geneva.

But despising the side his class bread was buttered, Fatio (English Wikipedia page | French) took up the standard of the masses … or at least the masses of the bourgeoisie, whose universal-propertied-male suffrage was belied by the power exercised by Geneva’s magnates club, the “Petit Conseil” of 25 who actually ran the city-state.

Pierre Fatio really looks less like a revolutionary and more like a would-be liberal reformer. What started all the trouble was Fatio’s January 1707 sponsorship of a measure for a secret ballot and a little less nepotism: a modest downward redistribution of power.

Then as now, the powerful resisted.

From the pulpit the ministers cried at the top of their lungs against the people … accusing the people of rebellion against the magistrates, of insubordination to the laws, of enjoying only disorder and fomenting divisions, violating the oath which promises to be good and loyal to the city. (Source)

Oligarch apologists went on and on about these secret-balloteers having “broken all the bonds of society” (Benedict Calandrini) as the popular clamor for a bit of state accountability grew. In political-philosophy terms, this manifested itself as a debate between whether the sovereignty of the people (again, meaning the propertied male people) actually implied that these sovereigns were entitled to govern.

And the Little Council won the debate the old-fashioned way: by crushing its opponents as seditious, with the military aid of their brother-oligarchs at neighboring Swiss cantons. Several popular-sovereignty types were killed or exiled (French link) in mid-1707.

Its government is a mixture of Aristocracy and Democracy; but as the principal and most ancient families use their utmost endeavours to derogate from, and by slow degrees destroy the privileges of the citizens, in order to draw the power over to themselves, and perpetuate themselves in their posts, this practice is attended with frequent murmurings, and in these last times an insurrection had began, which would have broken out into a great fire, if Zurich and Bern had not sent wise and able deputies to extinguish it, and afterwards a good number of troops to garrison the city, which at present seems to keep quiet, though with evident prejudice to the liberty of its citizens. (Vendramino Bianchi in Relazi one del paese de Svizzeri (1708), quoted in this book

Fatio was the last and most noteworthy to go, and the council was so nervous about the “murmurings” if it should behead him in public, it determined its death sentence in secret: apt climax for a struggle over state accountability.

Rather than risk further disturbances, it simply dispatched its agents directly to Fatio’s cell where they informed him that he was condemned, and had him shot inside the prison without further ado.

“I would look with great honor on being the martyr of liberty,” a cool Fatio is said (by his party, naturally) to have remarked upon hearing his condemnation.

Martyr he may have been, but unlike the Roman Gracchi, Pierre did not have a brother to catch up his falling torch: Pierre’s, who was already among the Little Council, went ahead and voted for his sibling’s execution.

The martyr had more impressive family in cousin Nicolas Fatio de Duillier, a mathematician and Isaac Newton collaborator. Still more noteworthy heirs were kin of spirit, not of blood: one David Rousseau lost his state job for supporting Fatio’s movement … and Rousseau’s famous Genevan grandson would become the favored philosopher of the coming revolutionary age.

There’s a hard-to-find French biography of our man, Pierre Fatio et la crise de 1707, by his descendants Nicole and Oliver Fatio. (Here’s a French interview with Oliver.)

* I really hate to contradict the 7 September date that’s carved into marble, but as best I can interpret the documentation, Fatio’s sentence was finalized on the day of 6 September and executed within just a few hours that very evening. See e.g. the 6 September document excerpted in fn 1 here.

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1942: José Abad Santos, Chief Justice

1 comment May 2nd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1942, Jose Abad Santos was shot by the Japanese forces occupying the Philippines.

Brother of a famous socialist agitator who fought the Japanese from the bush, Jose Santos had an impeccably mainline elite career: university degrees in America, corporate lawyering gigs, followed by a stint in the Ministry of Justice and elevation to the high court.

In December 1941, Santos administered the oath of office to re-elected president Manuel Quezon even as the archipelago was being invaded by the Japanese. Quezon would evacuate, forming a government-in-exile.

Santos preferred to stay, and would spend his last remaining weeks as the Philippines’ Acting President.

“It is an honor to die for one’s country,” he would say to his son, after their capture. (The son survived.) “Not everybody has that chance.”


Santos (who’s also been on stamps) is pictured in the back left on the 1000-peso bill. (The woman at bottom front is another executed patriot, Josefa Llanes Escoda.)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Japan,Judges,Lawyers,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Philippines,Politicians,Power,Shot,Wartime Executions

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