Posts filed under 'Religious Figures'

Feast Day of St. Erasmus (St. Elmo)

Add comment June 2nd, 2019 Headsman

June 2 is the feast date of early Christian martyr Saint Erasmus of Formia.

If a real historical figure, Erasmus of Formia was a martyr from the persecutions of Diocletian, but the most sure thing about him is that his legend has accumulated like barnacles a variety of “spurious” myth and folklore. It’s an agglomeration that reached a critical mass sufficient to elevate him to the ranks of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, medieval Christendom’s roster of popular big-time intercessors.

He was supposedly a Syrian who landed in Italy as a prelate; there’s a St. Erasmus of Antioch who might either be the same guy in his previous guise or a completely different fellow whose conflated feats explain how Erasmus (of Formia) was both a bishop and a hermit. Oddly enough the Roman Martyrology doesn’t even say that he was put to death for the faith, for Erasmus “was first scourged with leaded whips and then severely beaten with rods; he had also rosin, brimstone, lead, pitch, wax, and oil poured over him, without receiving any injury. Afterwards, under Maximian, he was again subjected to various most horrible tortures at Mola, but was still preserved from death by the power of God for the strengthening of others in the faith. Finally, celebrated for his sufferings, and called by God, he closed his life by a peaceful and holy end.”

Later legends do much him much better for drama and Executed Today eligibility, crediting him with a gory disemboweling death. It’s possible that this association proceeds from Erasmus’s official patronage of sailors: it is he who is the namesake of St. Elmo’s Fire, the electric blue light that gathers to a ship’s mast during a storm,* and his nautical portfolio made his iconographic device the windlass, a winch-and-rope crank that devotees have found suggestive (since so many saints are depicted carrying the instruments of their own martyrdoms) of a device for spooling a man’s intestines. Over time, execution by mechanical evisceration became by popular consensus the passion of Saint Elmo.

“This is one example,” writes Rosa Giorgi in Saints in Art “where imagery influenced hagiography.”


The Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus, by Sebastiano Ricci (c. 1694-1697).


The Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus, by Nicolas Poussin (1628).


Central panel of a triptych of Saint Erasmus’s martyrdom by Dieric Bouts (before 1466).

For wincingly obvious reasons, he’s also the saint to call on for any variety of abdominal distress, from stomach and intestinal maladies to the pangs of birth.

* And also a Brat Pack film.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Disemboweled,Execution,God,Gruesome Methods,History,Italy,Not Executed,Popular Culture,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Torture,Uncertain Dates

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1661: James Guthrie, protester

Add comment June 1st, 2019 Headsman

With the words “the covenants, the covenants, shall yet be Scotland’s reviving!” Presbyterian minister James Guthrie was executed on this date in 1661 at Edinburgh’s Mercat Cross, after the post-Oliver Cromwell restoration of the Stuarts.

Guthrie was a principal combatant in the interregnum-specific schism of resolutioners versus protesters.

The protesters were protesting against their opposite numbers’ hasty alliance with the exiled then-pretender King Charles II after the beheading of Charles I: correctly perceiving the Stuart heir hostile to the substantive object of presbyterian church governance, the protesters warned not “to promise any power to the King before he had evidenced the change of his principles, and the continuing of that power in his hand was sinful till that change did appear.”

Notably, and in his case fatally, Guthrie made an early exit from the royalist cause and butted heads personally with Stuart loyalist John Middleton — an officer whom Charles would advance to an earldom, and appoint to adjudicate Guthrie’s own trial. Guthrie’s prosecution has often been read as an excess of personal pique on the part of Middleton for the sharp words Guthrie had given him many years before.

He hanged together with a Scottish army deserter (who was very much the undercard attraction on this occasion) named William Govan. Guthrie claimed in his last speech that he eschewed opportunities to escape his prison so as “not [to] stain my conscience with the suspicion of guiltiness by my withdrawing.”

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Religious Figures,Scotland

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1538: John Forest and the image of Saint Derfel Gadarn

Add comment May 22nd, 2019 Headsman

English Franciscan John Forest was burned at Smithfield on this date in 1538 … the undercard to the simultaneous “execution” of a downthrown idol of Saint Derfel Gadarn.

The latter had been ripped from its shrine at Llandderfel in Gwynedd, Wales: the place gets its name from Derfel himself and its devotion to its Celtic patron had not waned in the centuries since but fostered a thriving pilgrimage site where the icon received the offerings of devotees in trust of the saint’s supernatural protection.

Such rituals really infuriated the iconoclastic, monastery-shuttering reformers abroad in England in Henrician England post-Anne Boleyn and in 1538 Derfel G. came in for special “punishment.”

“There is an image of Derfel Gadarn within the said diocese, in whom the people have so great confidence, hope, and trust, that they come daily on pilgrimage unto him, some with kyne, other with oxen or horses, and the rest with money,” fumed the king’s own scaffold-bound Lord Chancellor, Thomas Cromwell. “In so much that there was five or six hundred pilgrims, to a man’s estimation, that offered to the said Image the fifth day of this present month of April.”

Cromwell and team were very keen to show up the superstition, hypocrisy, and money-grubbing wrapped up in these quaint old idols, to expose to the public gaze the contraptions that allowed statues to weep or the priests that dined hearty on the victuals sacrificed by poor pilgrims … and so it came to pass that the May 22, 1538 death of John Forest at the stake was also a great demystifying of old Saint Derfel. Hauled to London from its native haunts, this image was railed at in a showboating sermon by the scaffold-bound Bishop of Worcester, Hugh Latimer.

In this spectacle designed for the cheap seats, Latimer spent hours ceremonially exhorting the patiently trussed John Forest to abjure his heresies. Forest predictably declining, the image of Saint Derfel was then produced and challenged to intervene for his spiritual bannerman, even engaged in a stagey grappling match — until finally the discredited simulacrum was tossed as mere fuel into the pyre that swallowed John Forest. (Forest has the distinction of being the only Catholic martyr burned at the stake during the English Reformation.)

The always enjoyable History of England podcast delves into the frightful fate of Saint Derfel’s icon and Blessed John Forest’s living flesh in episode 236.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Inanimate Objects,Martyrs,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Religious Figures

1952: Jan Bula, Czechoslovakian priest

Add comment May 20th, 2019 Headsman

Catholic priest Jan Bula was hanged on this date in 1952 at Jihlava

A Rokytnice pastor, Bula (English Wikipedia entry | the more detailed Czech and German) put himself in the gunsights of the postwar Communist state by defying its strictures on proselytization and commenting publicly against them.

Although perhaps a gadfly from the state’s perspective he was by no means a dissident consequential enough to have merited his eventual treatment; however, he was cruelly rolled into a notorious 1951 show trial called the Babice Case. Occasioned by a fatal raid launched by anti-Communist terrorists, the Babice trials targeted a huge number of ideological enemies and eventually resulted in 107 convictions and 11 death sentences.* Bula was among them, speciously condemned a traitor for complicity in the attack — a move that also opportunistically accelerated a case that state agents had for some time been attempting with little success to construct by means of entrapment.

“We human beings do not love God enough,” he wrote in a letter to his parents before his hanging. “That is the only thing for which we must ask forgiveness.”

The Catholic Church is currently considering this modern martyr for beatification.

* After the Cold War these sentences were retrospectively overturned or reduced, and a judge in the Babice case, Pavel Vitek, was prosecuted for his role in it.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Czechoslovakia,Death Penalty,Execution,God,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Power,Religious Figures,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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Feast Day of Saint Mocius

Add comment May 11th, 2019 Headsman

May 11 is the feast date in the Orthodox confession* of Saint Mocius or Mucius, Hieromartyr of Amphipolis, Macedonia.

Mosaic image of Mocius from the Greek monastery of Hosios Loukas. (cc) image from Hans A. Rosbach.

A hieromartyr is someone who was clergy when he died for the faith; Mocius, as a Christian presbyter, rallied his flock against a public festival for the wine-god Bacchus, allegedly destroying an icon of that hedonic deity.

Since this occurred during the anti-Christian crackdown under the Emperor Diocletian, Mocius got what what was coming to him from this behavior although not until they were able to take him to Byzantium for beheading: attempts to punish him by fire and by throwing him to wild animals were divinely interdicted.

He’s not to be confused with the quasi-mythical Gaius Mucius Scaevola, a hero of Rome’s Etruscan Wars whose legendary steel in the face of execution in the Etruscan camp — “Watch so that you know how cheap the body is to men who have their eye on great glory,” he declared as he thrust his right hand into a brazier without flinching in pain — led his astonished enemies to release him instead. “Scaevola”, meaning “lefty”, is the honorary cognomen his countrymen bestowed upon him thereafter; the feat has inspired later harm-seeking imitators ranging from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Friedrich Nietzsche to Paul Atreides.

* Catholics mark the feast on May 13.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Beheaded,By Animals,Byzantine Empire,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,Heresy,History,Macedonia,Martyrs,Religious Figures,Uncertain Dates

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1623: Nicolas Antoine, Judaizer

Add comment April 20th, 2019 Headsman

Protestant theologian turned apostate Judaizer Nicolas Antoine was burned at the stake in Calvinist Geneva on this date in 1623.

Antoine (English Wikipedia entry | French) had followed a religious journey from the Catholicism of his birth, on to Protestantism as a young man. This arc in the first decades of the 17th century was potentially dangerous but scarcely uncommon.

But Antoine took an incredible and taboo step beyond the schism in Christendom as his religious studies unfolded in Geneva and the short-lived independent Huguenot enclave the Principality of Sedan: he became steadily less convinced of the New Testament full stop, investing priority only in the Old. He became interested in Judaism.

As a reformed pastor in the city of Metz on the French-German frontier, Antoine approached the local rabbinate to explore conversion. Fearing the reprisals such a scandal could draw, these worthies advised him to try Italy. Those Metz rabbis fancied the religious climate on the peninsula more accommodating, but they were mistaken: their brethren in both Venice and Padua spurned Antoine in the same way, and for the same reason. One of them suggested that he content himself to practice secretly, as a Crypto-Jew.

This dangerous path he followed for some years. Become then a pastor in the village of Divonne — presently in France but Geneva-governed in his day — Antoine “secretly observed a thoroughly Jewish mode of life, saying his prayers in Hebrew and observing all the Mosaic rites,” according to the Jewish Encyclopedia, but his position on the pulpit eventually stretched past breaking his capacity to serve both conscience and vocation.

In his public services he pronounced the name of Jesus as seldom as possible. He was never known to read the apostolic confession audibly. In the communion service, instead of the words “This is my body, this is my blood,” he was once heard to say, “Your Savior remembers you.” His sermons, the texts for which were taken exclusively from Isaiah and the other prophets, became celebrated far and wide; yet they lacked any peculiarly Christian characteristics. The peasants of Divonne were perfectly satisfied with their pastor, who was eloquent in the extreme and full of kindness toward them; they were not shocked by the vague form of his sermons. But the lord of the adjoining manor was outraged. One Sunday, Antoine preached on the second Psalm, which, according to orthodox Christian theology, announces the coming of the son of God. [“Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee. Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession. Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” -ed.] Antoine, on the contrary, permitted himself to declare that God had no son and that there was but the one God. This was too much for the lord; he remonstrated loudly with the heretical pastor and threatened to denounce him to the synod. Antoine fell into gloomy despair; a nervous attack deprived him of his reason. To several colleagues from Geneva who had come to see him he began to chant the seventy-fourth Psalm; then he suddenly stopped, and, exclaiming that he was a Jew, blasphemed Christianity …

A charge of heresy could no longer be avoided; the chief of the Geneva police arrested Antoine, and instituted proceedings. While he was in prison the clergy were tireless in seeking his reconversion, trying in vain to make him sign a declaration of orthodox faith. Bidden to formulate his religious belief, he drew up twelve articles, which were submitted to an ecclesiastical court. In them he gave the tenets of Judaism in the style of Maimonidesthirteen articles of faith, and added “eleven philosophical objections against the dogma of the Trinity.” At the same time he addressed to the judges three memorials, two of which have been preserved. In spite of the exertions of Metrezat, a pastor of Paris, and others, the judges were immovable. The trial commenced April 11; Antoine’s attitude, full of dignity, aroused much sympathy. The threats of the judges were of no more avail than the persuasions of his colleagues. He repeated constantly: “I am a Jew; and all I ask of God’s grace is to die for Judaism.” The court sought to show that he had promulgated his heretical doctrines at Geneva: this he contradicted most forcibly. All the efforts of the judges were met with the unchanging reply, “With the help of God I am determined to die in my present belief.” Fifteen clergymen or professors of theology were summoned as witnesses. Several of them begged for a light sentence, since, in their opinion, Antoine had committed no sin by becoming a Jew, though for his hypocrisy he deserved unfrocking or banishment, or, at the worst, excommunication. Furthermore, they said that the matter ought not to be hastened, and that the advice of the various churches and academies should be sought. A fanatical majority, however, insisted that the judges should seize the present opportunity to demonstrate their faith, since it was most dangerous to absolve one who had professed Judaism while wearing the garb of a Christian priest. For some days longer the judges waited for Antoine to recant. As his recantation was not forthcoming, they pronounced sentence April 20, 1632; condemning him to be loaded with chains, placed upon a pyre, to be there strangled, and then burned. In vain the clergy petitioned for a respite; Antoine was executed the same day. He went to his death serenely, and died imploring the mercy of the God of Abraham.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,God,Heresy,History,Martyrs,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Switzerland

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1683: John Nisbet the Younger

Add comment April 14th, 2019 Headsman


Marker located at the entrance to the Burns Mall from Kilmarnock Cross. (cc) image from @mafleen.

John Nisbet was hanged on this date in 1683 for having participated four years prior in the Battle of Bothwell Bridge that shattered the Covenanter rebellion.

“Here lies John Nisbet, who was taken by Major Balfour’s party, and suffered at Kilmarnock, 14th April, 1683, for adhering to the word of God and our Covenants,” reads his grave.

Come, reader, see here pleasant Nisbet lies,
His blood doth pierce the high and lofty skies;
Kilmarnock did his latter hour perceive,
And Christ his soul to heaven did receive.
Yet bloody Torrence did his body raise,
And buried it in another place;
Saying, ‘Shall rebels lye in graves with me?
We’ll bury him where evil-doers be.’

Nisbet, we learn from Robert Wodrow, “sang the 16th Psalm, from the 5th verse to the close, with a great deal of affection and joy; and then read the 8th chapter to the Romans, and prayed again.”

When he had delivered his bible to his uncle, he made himself ready for the executioner, not expecting to get leave to say any thing to the specattors; but essaying to speak, and not being interrupted, he continued a good while in an extemporary discourse, pressing them to godliness, and recommending religion to them, from his own feeling and experience. He notices, that this is the first execution of this kind at that place, and is of the opinion, it is not like to be the last; he tells them, death is before them all, and if it were staring them in the face, as nearly as it was him at present, he doubts not there would be many awakened consciences among them; but as for himself, though death be naturally terrible, and a violent death yet more terrible, yet the sting of it is taken away, and he can say, he reckons every step of the ladder to be a step nearer heaven.

He’s not to be confused with his more famous uncle, John Nisbet of Hardhill, who suffered as a Covenanter martyr in 1685. (He surely cannot be the uncle referenced by Wodrow.) The Nesbitt Nisbet Society has more on this family’s role in the Covenanter movement.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,God,Hanged,Martyrs,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Scotland

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1595: Henry Walpole, martyred at York

Add comment April 7th, 2019 Headsman

Jesuit priest Henry Walpole died a traitor’s death outside York on this date in 1595.

The Cambridge-educated Walpole was a recusant Catholic of about 23 years and seemingly no more than moderate religious commitment when he witnessed the scaffold martyrdom of Edmund Campion.

After beholding such a sight — and, it is said, the spatter of the saint’s very blood upon his garments — a now-radicalized Walpole published a verse eulogy for Campion* and fled for the continent to take up holy orders. He spent a decade in studies and ministry in Italy, France, Spain, and the Low Countries.

But he never managed a spell as an underground priest on native soil, for when putting ashore in Yorkshire in December 1593 he was instantly betrayed and arrested, and passed the remainder of his days in various dungeons, and upon various racks. As a former lawyer, Walpole found a clever line of argument in his case, noting that the law required priests landing in England to surrender themselves to authorities within three days, and he had not violated it since he had been captured within hours.

The crown had an even better reply, in the form of the invitation to swear the Oath of Supremacy admitting Queen Elizabeth the head of the English church, the demand upon which so many priests founded their martyrdom. Walpole refused as he ought and, together with another priest named Alexander Rawlins, went to his death at the “York Tyburn” gallows in Knavesmire, his heart perhaps fortified by remembrance of the words with which he had once celebrated Campion.

Can dreary death, then, daunt our faith, or pain?
Is’t lingering life we fear to loose, or ease?
No, no, such death procureth life again.
‘Tis only God we tremble to displease,
Who kills but once, and ever since we die
Whose whole revenge torments eternally.

We cannot fear a mortal torment, we.
These martyrs’ blood hath moistened all our hearts:
Whose parted quarters when we chance to see
We learn to play the constant Christian parts.
His head doth speak, and heavenly precepts give
How we that look should frame ourselves to live.

His youth instructs us how to spend our days;
His flying bids us learn to banish sin;
His straight profession shows the narrow ways
Which they must walk that look to enter in;
His home return by danger and distress
Emboldeneth us our conscience to profess.

His hurdle draws us with him to the cross;
His speeches there provoke us for to die;
His death doth say, this life is but a loss;
His martyr’d blood from heaven to us doth cry;
His first and last and all conspire in this,
To shew the way that leadeth us to bliss.

Blessed be God, which lent him so much grace;
Thanked by Christ, which blest his martyr so;
Happy is he which seeth his Master’s face;
Cursed all they that thought to work him woe;
Bounden be we to give eternal praise
To Jesus’ name, which such a man did raise.

Although condemned to hanging, drawing, and quartering, both Rawlins and Walpole were graciously suffered to die at the end of the rope before the horrors of disemboweling and quartering were inflicted on their lifeless corpses.

* The publisher of this poem was fined £100 and sentenced to have his ears cropped … but he did not attempt to mitigate his pains by exposing the identity of the author.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,God,Gruesome Methods,Heresy,History,Lawyers,Martyrs,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Torture,Treason

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1536: Michael Seifensieder, Hieronymus Kals and Hans Oberecker, incriminating abstention

Add comment March 31st, 2019 Headsman

From The Mennonite encyclopedia: a comprehensive reference work on the Anabaptist-Mennonite movement, Volume 1:

The earliest Anabaptist confession, The Seven Articles of Schleitheim (1527), forbade in Article 4 the patronage of drinking places. Capito, the reformer of Strasbourg, states in a contemporary letter that the Anabaptists had undertaken to refrain, among other things, from drinking (“zu meiden das üppige Spielen, Saufen, Fressen, Ehebrechen, Kriegen, Totschlagen”). Bullinger, Zwingli‘s successor in Zürich, in his 1560 work against the Anabaptists (Von der Wiedertaufferen Ursprung) states that they drank only unfermented sweet cider (Süssmost) and water. Anabaptists were often identified as such because they refused in the inns to drink alcoholic liquors to the health of other guests, whereupon they were arrested and executed. An illustration of this is Michael Seifensieder, a preacher of the Hutterites, who with two associates [Hieronymus Kals and Hans Oberecker -ed.] was arrested on Jan. 8, 1536, in an inn in Vienna for the above reason,* having been discovered by his refusal to drink, and was finally burned at the stake on March 31, 1536.

* The episode as described in the Martyrs Mirror runs thus:

While they were eating supper, the people tried to ascertain their character by drinking to their health; but when they perceived that they would not respond, the host had some paper brought, and wrote a letter in Latin, which, among other things, read as follows, “Here are three persons who appear to me to be Anabaptists.” But he did not know that Brother Jerome [Hieronymus Kals] understood Latin. Then said Jerome to the other brethren, they would watch together, let things go as the dear Lord should please. Two hours afterwards the constables came and brought them bound before the judge, and when they had been examined they were put in prison.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Austria,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,Habsburg Realm,Heresy,History,Martyrs,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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2007: Six Bangladesh bombers

Add comment March 30th, 2019 Headsman

Bangladesh on this date in 2007 hanged six Islamic militants* for a terrorist bombing wave two years prior.

Several were agents of the terrorist organization Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, notable for a headline-grabbing coordinated bombing on August 17, 2005 that saw hundreds of explosions throughout Bangladesh. That organization’s chief Shaykh Abdur Rahman was among those executed on March 30, 2007, as was “Bangla Bhai” (Siddique ul-Islam), the leader of the Al Qaeda-aligned Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB).

* Four different prisons were used for the executions.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Assassins,Bangladesh,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Murder,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Ripped from the Headlines,Terrorists

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