Posts filed under 'Women'

535: Amalasuntha, daughter of Theodoric

Add comment April 30th, 2016 Headsman

On or around this date in 535,* the Ostrogothic queen Amalasuntha was put to death in the Italian lake island of Martana (You can also find her name rendered Amalasountha and Amalaswintha.)

The Roman-educated princess had inherited rulership of the Ostrogothic Kingdom, a successor state to the lately fallen Roman Empire, from its redoutable founder Theodoric. Technically the crown had passed to Amalasuntha’s 10-year-old kid; ruling as regent in a perilous situation, mom cultivated an alliance with the Byzantine emperor Justinian.

Her son took to boozing and carousing and died as a teenager, so Amalasuntha sought a new male imprimatur for her reign by the expedient of marrying a wealthy cousin, Theodahad. Though the nuptial deal had been for Theo to butt out of actual governance, he immediately strove to convert his power from titular to actual and became his wife’s deadliest rival — and then clapped her in prison. From the History of the Wars of Byzantine scribbler Procopius:

Theodahad, upon receiving the supreme power, began to act in all things contrary to the hopes she had entertained and to the promises he had made. And after winning the adherence of the relatives of the Goths who had been slain by her — and they were both numerous and men of very high standing among the Goths — he suddenly put to death some of the connections of Amalasuntha and imprisoned her, the envoys not having as yet reached Byzantium. Now there is a certain lake in Tuscany called Vulsina, within which rises an island, exceedingly small but having a strong fortress upon it. There Theodatus confined Amalasuntha and kept her under guard.

A Roman diplomat named Peter had already been dispatched by this time from the court of Constantinople to do some routine statecraft with the Goths, and he learned of the surprise reshuffling of power when he met Theodohad’s envoys on the road.

Procopius says — or does he? — that Byzantium tried to twist the Goths’ shaggy arms in support of their matronly ally, but could not prevail against the vengeance of the deposed queen’s foes.

When the Emperor Justinian heard these things, he formed the purpose of throwing the Goths and Theodahad into confusion; accordingly he wrote a letter to Amalasuntha, stating that he was eager to give her every possible support, and at the same time he directed Peter by no means to conceal this message, but to make it known to Theodatus himself and to all the Goths. … Now when Peter arrived in Italy, it so happened that Amalasuntha had been removed from among men. For the relatives of the Goths who had been slain by her came before Theodahad declaring that neither his life nor theirs was secure unless Amalasuntha should be put out of their way as quickly as possible. And as soon as he gave in to them, they went to the island and killed Amalasuntha, — an act which grieved exceedingly all the Italians and the Goths as well. For the woman had the strictest regard for every kind of virtue … Theodahad, such was his stupid folly, while still holding the slayers of Amalasuntha in honour and favour kept trying to persuade Peter and the emperor that this unholy deed had been committed by the Goths by no means with his approval, but decidedly against his will.

The “stupid folly” helped to trigger Justinian’s war against the Goths, which resulted in Byzantium’s conquest of Italy and (temporary) reunification of the empire. It also led Amalasuntha’s son-in-law Vitiges to depose and murder Theodahad in his own turn: just another turn of the wheel among backstabbing aristocrats.

Speaking of which: despite the pious good faith Procopius presents for Byzantium in his history above, his gossipy Secret History rewrites the story to attribute Amalsuntha’s fall not to the Ostrogoths’ internal political rivalries but to a catty assassination by Byzantine empress Theodora, whose low-born origin shows through here in murderous insecurity:

At the time when Amalasuntha, desiring to leave the company of the Goths, decided to transform her life and to take the road to Byzantium, as has been stated in the previous narrative, Theodora, considering that the woman was of noble birth and a queen, and very comely to look upon and exceedingly quick at contriving ways and means for whatever she wanted, but feeling suspicious of her magnificent bearing and exceptionally virile manner, and at the same time fearing the fickleness of her husband Justinian, expressed her jealousy in no trivial way, but she schemed to lie in wait for the woman even unto her death. Straightway, then, she persuaded her husband to send Peter, unaccompanied by others, to be his ambassador to Italy. And as he was setting out, the Emperor gave him such instructions as have been set forth in the appropriate passage, where, however, it was impossible for me, through fear of the Empress, to reveal the truth of what took place. She herself, however, gave him one command only, namely, to put the woman out of the world as quickly as possible, causing the man to be carried away by the hope of great rewards if he should execute her commands. So as soon as he arrived in Italy — and indeed man’s nature knows not how to proceed in a hesitant, shrinking way to a foul murder when some office, perhaps, or a large sum of money is to be hoped for — he persuaded Theodahad, by what kind of exhortation I do not know, to destroy Amalasuntha. And as a reward for this he attained the rank of Magister, and acquired great power and a hatred surpassed by none.

* The allusion to April 30 comes from Procopius but is ambiguously presented. When it comes to the age of antiquity, however, we’re typically grateful to get any date whatever.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Borderline "Executions",Cycle of Violence,Execution,Heads of State,History,Italy,No Formal Charge,Ostrogothic Kingdom,Politicians,Power,Royalty,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates,Women

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1895: A quintuple lynching in Greenville, Alabama

Add comment April 21st, 2016 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1895, three black women and two black men were lynched in Greenville, Alabama for the murder of Watts Murphy, white.

Watts was a “young man of great prominence” who was said to be the nephew of Alabama’s former governor, Thomas H. Watts. He was killed on April 17, aged about thirty. When he failed to arrive home, his family began looking for him. Finally, one of the family servants confessed to what he knew: Watts had been working in the field with six black people, three men and three women, and one of the men hit him on the head with a tree limb. The others beat him unconscious and carried his body to a secluded area, where the women gathered loose brush, piled it on top of Watts’s body, and set the heap ablaze.

Newspapers reported grisly details about the crime, saying that the murderers kept piling wood on the fire until there was nothing left but the victim’s teeth, his heart and his liver, which “for some unknown reason failed to burn.”

Just why the murder happened has been lost to history, and various contradictory rumors floated around. According to one story, one of the men planned to kill him in revenge for “an imaginary wrong of a trivial nature.” In another account, it was an impulsive act of violence, the result of an argument.

Daily Inter Ocean (Chicago, Ill.), April 22, 1895

Zeb Caley or Calley, Martha Greene, Alice Greene, Mary Deane, and John Rattler were arrested on April 20 near Butler Springs, Alabama, and charged with murder. (The third man who was implicated, left unnamed in press reports, got away.) A group of men was charged with transporting the five prisoners sixteen miles to the security of jail in Greenville. They set off at 11:00 p.m. At 3:00 a.m., while the party was en route, a mob of approximately 100 men brandishing Winchester rifles surprised the party on the road, surrounded them and took the prisoners away.

The members of the mob tied each person’s hands, lead them one by one to the side of the road, and hanged them from trees. Later that day the bodies were seen by people passing by on their way to church.

On April 29, the sixth suspect in the crimes, who has never been identified, was found hanging from a tree in the same general area as the other ones. He had been dead for about a day.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Alabama,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Lynching,Mass Executions,Murder,Other Voices,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Summary Executions,USA,Women

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316 BCE: Olympias, mother of Alexander the Great

Add comment April 17th, 2016 Headsman

On an unknown date about the spring of 316 BCE, Alexander the Great’s snake-worshipping mother Olympias surrendered to the siege of the former regent’s ambitious son — whereupon she was put to summary death.

The Epirote princess married Philip II of Macedon. Though Philip had put her aside for a younger queen, Olympias adroitly maneuvered her brilliant son* Alexander to the throne from which he conquered Babylonia and Persia, and history is not confident that she stopped short of regicide to secure Alexander’s precedence.

Olympias was famed for her snake-handlin: Plutarch says that Philip’s interest in her waned when he beheld “a serpent … lying stretched out by the side of Olympias as she slept,” which led him to fear “that she was the partner of a superior being.” Sigmund Freud, eat your heart out.

Sired by the gods or no, Olympias’s son certainly outstripped his father — but once Alexander’s coruscating star burned itself out, Olympias had another kind of snakepit to contend with: the conqueror’s former generals jockeying for preeminence in their engorged empire.

The patina of dynastic legitimacy Olympias maintained as Alexander’s kin was not sufficient to prevent the situation collapsing into war; indeed, we have met this this civil strife previously in these pages, when Olympias had the upper hand in a battle in 317 BCE and ordered the execution of Alexander’s mentally disabled half-brother. Olympias gets her share of stick as old time Macedonia’s deadly ophiomormous femme fatale, but this was cruelty with a purpose: the addled king was the catspaw in whose name her foe Cassander (as his father Antipater before him) claimed power as “regent”.

Cassander, a mate of Alexander dating back to their Aristotle study group days, was not captured in this affair, nor was he driven from the field by it. Soon thereafter he turned the tables and trapped Olympias in Pydna, where she was obliged to surrender to his discretion. That same logic of murder in statecraft turned now against the queen. First century (BCE) Greek historian Diodorus Siculus:

Although Cassander had shut Olympias into Pydna in Macedonia, he was not able to assault the walls because of the winter storms, but by encamping about the city, throwing up a palisade from sea to sea, and blockading the port, he prevented any who might wish to aid the queen from doing so. And as supplies were rapidly exhausted, he created such famine among those within that they were completely incapacitated. In truth, they were brought to such extreme need that they gave each soldier five choenices of grain per month, sawed up wood and fed the sawdust to the imprisoned elephants, and slaughtered the pack animals and horses for food. While the situation of the city was so serious and while Olympias was still clinging to hopes of rescue from outside, the elephants died from lack of nourishment, the horsemen that were not in the ranks and did not receive any food whatever nearly all perished, and no small number of the soldiers also met the same fate. Some of the non-Greeks, their natural needs overcoming their scruples, found flesh to eat by collecting the bodies of the dead. Since the city was being quickly filled with corpses, those in charge of the queen’s company, though they buried some of the bodies, threw others over the city wall. The sight of these was horrible, and their stench was unbearable, not merely to ladies who were of the queen’s court and addicted to luxury, but also to those of the soldiers who were habituated to hardship.

As spring came on and their want increased from day to day, many of the soldiers gathered together and appealed to Olympias to let them go because of the lack of supplies. Since she could neither issue any food at all nor break the siege, she permitted them to withdraw. Cassander, after welcoming all the deserters and treating them in most friendly fashion, sent them to the various cities; for he hoped that when the Macedonians learned from them how weak Olympias was, they would despair of her cause. And he was not mistaken in his surmise about what would happen: those who had resolved to fight on the side of the besieged forces changed their minds and went over to Cassander; and the only men in Macedonia to preserve their loyalty were Aristonoüs and Monimus, of whom Aristonoüs was ruler of Amphipolis and Monimus of Pella. But Olympias, when she saw that most of her friends had gone over to Cassander and that those who remained were not strong enough to come to her aid, attempted to launch a quinquereme and by this means to save herself and her friends. When, however, a deserter brought news of this attempt to the enemy and Cassander sailed up and took the ship, Olympias, recognizing that her situation was beyond hope, sent envoys to treat of terms. When Cassander gave his opinion that she must put all her interests into his hands, she with difficulty persuaded him to grant the single exception that he guarantee her personal safety. As soon as he had gained possession of the city, he sent men to take over Pella and Amphipolis. Now Monimus, the ruler of Pella, on hearing the fate of Olympias, surrendered his city; but Aristonoüs at first was minded to cling to his position … [until] Olympias wrote to him demanding his loyalty and ordering him to surrender, he perceived that it was necessary to do as ordered and delivered the city to Cassander, receiving pledges for his own safety.

Cassander, seeing that Aristonoüs was respected because of the preferment he had received from Alexander, and being anxious to put out of the way any who were able to lead a revolt, caused his death through the agency of the kinsfolk of Cratevas. He also urged the relatives of those whom Olympias had slain to accuse the aforesaid woman in the general assembly of the Macedonians. They did as he had ordered; and, although Olympias was not present and had none to speak in her defence, the Macedonians condemned her to death. Cassander, however, sent some of his friends to Olympias advising her to escape secretly, promising to provide a ship for her and to carry her to Athens. He acted thus, not for the purpose of securing her safety, but in order that she, condemning herself to exile and meeting death on the voyage, might seem to have met a punishment that was deserved; for he was acting with caution both because of her rank and because of the fickleness of the Macedonians. As Olympias, however, refused to flee but on the contrary was ready to be judged before all the Macedonians, Cassander, fearing that the crowd might change its mind if it heard the queen defend herself and was reminded of all the benefits conferred on the entire nation by Alexander and Philip, sent to her two hundred soldiers who were best fitted for such a task, ordering them to slay her as soon as possible. They, accordingly, broke into the royal house, but when they beheld Olympias, overawed by her exalted rank, they withdrew with their task unfulfilled. But the relatives of her victims, wishing to curry favour with Cassander as well as to avenge their dead, murdered the queen, who uttered no ignoble or womanish plea.

Such was the end of Olympias, who had attained to the highest dignity of the women of her day, having been daughter of Neoptolemus, king of the Epirotes, sister of the Alexander who made a campaign into Italy, and also wife of Philip, who was the mightiest of all who down to this time had ruled in Europe, and mother of Alexander, whose deeds were the greatest and most glorious.

Cassander would emerge from all this mess in a sturdy enough position to declare himself king. His sons, however, were unable to sustain the family in power and this particular general proved merely the precursor of a different general‘s more successful post-Alexander dynasty.

A monumental tomb recently discovered in the Kasta burial mound at Amphipolis — said to beggar the gorgeous Vergina tomb in scale and grandeur — has been speculatively associated with Olympias and/or Alexander. (“Hopefully” might be the better word, since the bare hint of such a link would be a boon for the tourism sector.) The site is still being excavated, and is not yet open to the public.

* Legend holds that Olympias gave birth to Alexander on the same day Herostratus torched the Temple of Artemis.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Execution,Greece,History,No Formal Charge,Power,Royalty,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates,Wartime Executions,Women

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1725: Maria Romberg, her lover, her maid, and her witch

Add comment April 14th, 2016 Headsman

Infamous Swedish murderer Maria Romberg and three accomplices were beheaded in the city of Boras on this date in 1725.

Romberg (English Wikipedia entry | Swedish) was the daughter of a magistrate in that town and given in an arranged marriage to a merchant 27 years her senior. Anders Boberg was said to be an abusive drunk; it’s a sure bet that even at his best he had quite a bit less in common with his wife than did her childhood friend Haqvin Wijndruf. These two carried on a years-long affair heedless of appearances; when later implicated in murder, numerous servants and confidantes were availiable to paint the adulterers in scarlet, as did the 500-odd love letters that they had helped the pair shuttle back and forth.

By December 1724, Maria and Haqvin had been trying for going on two years to get rid of the sot. Once again evincing a mind-boggling want of discretion, they had enlisted two other outsiders into the plot: a maid named Karin Andersdotter, and a folk magician named Romans Ingeborg (who was initially hired to bewitch Haqvin to his death, but got to stay in the game even when her sorcery proved unequal to assassination).

Three days after Christmas, the three women in the conspiracy — Maria, Karin, and Romans — simply crept into Anders’s bedroom and battered him to death as he slept, afterwards positioning the body in an attempt to make it look like he had simply fallen near the fireplace and cracked open his head.

Forensic science wasn’t exactly CSI quality in the 1720s, but it was good enough to see through that story. The lovers and killers had not the wit or steel to throw up a veil of silence, and at the first cock of an inquisitorial eyebrow, they all started blabbing and pointing fingers.

According to this Swedish blogger, the site where they all lost their heads is a placid hill on a biking path near Lake Ramnasjön.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Murder,Public Executions,Sex,Sweden,Women

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1546: Alice Glaston, age 11

Add comment April 13th, 2016 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1546, one Alice Glaston was hanged in the town of Much Wenlock in Shopshire, England together with two other prisoners.

The court records for that time and place have been lost, so so the crime for which Alice was hanged is not known. We do know one thing about her, though: she was, at eleven years old, the youngest girl to be executed in England’s history. (But not the youngest person. That honor goes to eight-year-old John Dean, who was hanged for arson in Abingdon in 1629.)

In 2014, Paul Evans released a radio play about Alice’s death titled The Spirit Child.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Other Voices,Public Executions,Women

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1947: Louise Peete, Tiger Woman

Add comment April 11th, 2016 Headsman

Louise Peete died in the Caliornia gas chamber on this date in 1947.

Stock of “cultured, educated people” — her words — she turned teenage delinquent, got kicked out of her private school, and commenced a colorful career as an itinerant prostitute and scam artist. Her gallantries — and larcenies — are supposed to have driven two early husbands to suicide, though given her subsequent career one can’t help but wonder.

Lofie Louise Preslar (as she was born) or Louise Gould (as she came to style herself) got the surname by which she is best known from a Denver salesman named Richard Peete. Though this pair fought wantonly and soon separated, Louise still bore his name when her wealthy lover Jacob Denton mysteriously went missing, days after Louise moved into his Los Angeles mansion. Eventually, he turned up … under the floorboards. Louise had been signing checks in his name, and when her bad forgeries were noticed concocted a cockamamie alibi about a “Spanish woman” who had got the man’s arm amputated.

This wasn’t even the murder that Ms. Peete was executed for, but it made her a national celebrity: a black widow who had preyed on a magnate from the shadow of yellow journalism’s newbuilt Xanadu.

American Newspapers (Hearst and otherwise) from sea to sea ran breathless updates from the trial of the “Tiger Woman”, and local interest in Tinseltown — well, it was intense.


Olympia (Wash.) Daily Recorder, Jan. 19, 1921.

In a 2½-week trial, Peete was convicted of Denton’s murder, but the all-male jury declined to hang her and ordered a life sentenced instead. While she served it, a despondent Richard Peete — who continued to profess his absconded wife’s innocence — shot himself. She just had some way with men.

Paroled for good behavior in 1939, Louise proved that prison had not sapped her gift for attracting convenient deaths to her proximity.

The notorious Tiger Woman, now nearing 60, was a sensation of the past but Peete still had advocates who believed in her innocence, worked for her release, and took her in when she was paroled. Peete went to work for one of those advocates as her housekeeper (until the advocate died), and then got the same gig for her parole officer (until the officer died), and then moved in as the live-in caregiver for two more of her jailyears advocates, Arthur and Margaret Logan.

This couple had actually taken in Peete’s daughter for a time during her prison sentence, and in gratitude, Peete reprised for them all her greatest hits.

In June 1944, Margaret Logan disappeared (just like Mr. Denton had); then, posing as his sister, Peete had the dementia-addled Arthur committed.

Living now in the victims’ house (as with Denton’s), Peete began plundering their assets (as with Denton’s). Eventually (as with Denton) someone noticed the forged signature, and when that happened the inquiry brought Tiger Woman into the light yet again: Margaret Logan’s corpse was mouldering away in the back yard.

First as tragedy, then as farce. Even her new lover when all this stuff broke proceeded to commit suicide.

She still claimed innocence — sans “Spanish woman” this time — but the evidence at hand coupled with the suspicious pall of violent death that had always seemed to shadow her career made that an impossible sell. A jury of mostly women sent her to death row.

She was the second (of four) women gassed in California.

A few books about Louise Peete

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Gassed,Murder,Pelf,USA,Women

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1698: Katharina Sommermeyer, Beierstedt witch

Add comment April 1st, 2016 Headsman

The last witch executed in the Saxon city of Braunschweig — Brunswick, in English — burned on this date in 1698.

Hers was a distinction that was long thought to adhere to the much better-documented Tempel Anneke, who suffered back in 1663. The eventual discovery in city archives of records for at least three later trials — Lucke Behrens in 1671, Elizabeth Lorentz in 1671, and our Katharina Sommermeyer in 1698 — corrected the record.

Unfortunately, only sketchy details are known about any of these women. Sommermeyer, the subject of our date’s small milestone, was a young woman of about 20, hailing from the tiny nearby village of Beierstedt. (Present-day population, according to Wikipedia: 386.)

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Milestones,Public Executions,Witchcraft,Women

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1785: Three at Shrewsbury, in depraved times

Add comment March 26th, 2016 Headsman

The assize model we’ve been featuring this week surely underscores during the Bloody Code days the law as a wholesale instrument.

For a site like this which prefers to zero in on a story for the day, the phenomenon is most discomfiting. But even if executions in the Anglo world have for the past century or two mostly unfolded as individual tragic stories arcing from beginning through middle and end, they have still merely sat atop a legal machine that grinds up lives by thousands.

The specter of the noose perhaps highlights the trend in a way that “mere” terms of years does not quite dramatize for us. Even so, now as then, no small number of convicts prefer the hemp to the life-destroying “mercy” of a lengthy prison sentence or penal transportation overseas.

All of this is mere commentary for today’s hanging trio, who are criminals of no consequence with misdeeds but scantily attested; their trials, like most in that period, would have spanned only minutes or at most a couple of hours, and been determined by gentlemen already looking ahead to the next case. “The hungry judges soon the sentence sign, and wretches hang that jurymen may dine”: Alexander Pope had set that line down in The Rape of the Lock more than 70 years before.

“The capital convictions of the late Lent assizes, exhibit a most melancholy picture of the depravity of the times,” lamented the Leeds Intelligencer taking stock on April 5, 1785 of that season’s legal bulletins. “The following short list will prove it; — at Shrewsbury 11, York 7, Derby 6, Lincoln 9 (executed), Gloucester 11, Nottingham 4, (executed) Stafford 3, (executed) and Dorchester 5. There were 112 tried at Gloucester.”

Shrewsbury split its sentences, five for the scaffold and six for reprieve; the last three of the doomed lost their lives on this date in 1785 for various property crimes. These few words on the Salopean assizes were printed in several newspapers, and are quoted here from The British Chronicle, or, Pugh’s Hereford Journal, March 31, 1785:

At the assizes for Shropshire, which ended at Shrewsbury on Wednesday night last, John Green, for the wilful murder of his wife Elizabeth Green, by shooting her through the head, in a cellar in his own house, at Bromfield near Ludlows, and Ann Hancock, for the wilful murder of her male bastard child, at her lodgings in the Castle-foregate, in Shrewsbury, being fully convicted, received sentence of death, and were on Friday [March 18, 1785] executed at the Old Heath, pursuant thereto, and their bodies were delivered to the surgeons to be anatomized. At the place of execution Ann Hancock comfessed the fact for which she suffered, but Green did not.

Here the Shropshire narrative breaks, consigning the remaining death sentences to the newspaper’s dregs.

Image: 'For the Remainder of these Pests, see the last Page.'

… where we find:

The nine following persons were also capitally convicted, and received sentence of death, viz. William Williams, for burglariously stealing 130l. and upwards, the property of Mr. Edw. Jeffreys; Edward Edwards, for burglariously stealing a considerable sum of money, the property of Robert Pemberton, Esq; Sarah Davies, for housebreaking; William Griffiths, for stealing a black mare; Mary Davies, Rich. Pyfield, Mary Boulton, alias Bolton, William Evans, and William Hotchkins, for burglaries. The six latter were reprieved; and William Williams, Edward Edwards, and Sarah Davies, left for execution.

The hangings took place on March 26.

Part of the Themed Set: Shropshire.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Public Executions,Theft,Women

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1752: Helen Torrence and Jean Waldie

1 comment March 18th, 2016 Headsman

Helen Torrance and Jean Waldie were executed this day, for stealing a child, eight or nine years of age, and selling its body to the surgeons for dissection. Alive on Tuesday, when carried off, and dead on Friday, with an incision in the belly, but sewn up again.

-Tolbooth’s log for March 18, 1751/2*

This date in 1752 marks a milestone in the mutation of the Enlightenment’s piercing medical gaze into the beginnings of a macabre and sordid niche industry that kept doctors well-supplied with cadavers into which to gaze.

The March 18 hanging in Edinburgh of Helen Torrence and Jean Waldie appears to be the first known execution for an anatomy murder.

In the bad old days when dissection subjects were so hard to come by that medical students were known to snatch fresh bodies from the grave like Dr. Frankenstein, the Scots Magazine reported that the two women “frequently promised two or three surgeon-apprentices to procure them a subject” in exchange for a small fee. That fee really was quite small: two shillings, and a few extra pence they haggled for, not at all a favorable rate to sell one’s soul and maybe little more than enough to cover their costs.

Torrence and Waldie were supposed to obtain the subject while sitting on a ceremonial death watch with a dead child, but having no such deceased moppet to hand and really needing a couple of shillings, the ladies went the far more perilous route of snatching a real live eight-year-old while his parents were away. They plied little John Dallas with ale and suffocated his breath away, and Torrence even schlepped the cadaver to the apprentice surgeons in her own apron for an added tip.

The prisoners’ hair-splitting defense, a masterpiece of legal black comedy, was that they could only be shown guilty of kidnapping a living child and then selling a dead child — and neither of these acts constituted a capital crime. Considering the deep-rooted public loathing of resurrectionists’ grave-raiding, the court readily made free to infer from the juxtaposition of these circumstances the hated women’s culpability for John Dallas’s demise.

* 1752 was the last year that England maintained the old Julian calendar, and with it, the recognition of New Year’s Day on Lady Day (March 25) rather than January 1, so the documents of the time make this execution March 18, 1751. The change to the Gregorian calendar took place that summer.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Public Executions,Scotland,Women

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1619: The Witches of Belvoir

3 comments March 11th, 2016 Headsman

The family of the Earl of Rutland enjoyed closure on this date in 1619* when two daughters of a notorious local sorceress were hanged at Lincoln Castle for bewitching the Rutland heirs to death.

Hotheaded enough in his youth to have joined Robert Devereux‘s ridiculous rebellion, Francis Manners had matured into a solid pillar of James I’s court by 1612 when he succeeded to the Earldom upon the passing of his brother.

Taking up his proper residence at the estate’s noble Belvoir Castle, lord and lady Manners had two noble sons and the consequent prospect of a robust progeniture to carry on the Rutland title, father to manful son onward into trackless posterity.

But witchery (as Shakespeare documented) went boldly abroad in those days. To the Rutlands’ grief it set its fell eye against the prosperity of their house.

Belvoir Castle was then “a continuall Pallace of entertainment, and a daily receptacle for all sorts both rich and poore, especially such auncient people as neighboured the same,” noted a pamphlet of the time.** “Amongst whom one Ioane [Joan] Flower, with her Daughters Margaret and Philip were not onely relieved at the first from thence, but quickly entertained as Char-women, and Margaret admitted as a continuall dweller in the Castle, looking both to the poultrey abroad and the wash-house within dores.”

Someone having detected this clan of hags pilfering from His Lordship, the Flower family was soon dismissed: a reckless show of rectitude by parents who would soon have cause to regret it.

Joan Flower, the mother, “was a monstrous malicious woman, full of oathes, curses, and imprecations irreligious … her eyes were fiery and hollow, her speech fell and envious, her demeanour strange and exotic.” Folk who knew her had come to understand — how could they not? — that her curses had the power to bend infernal servants to her spiteful will; her daughters were likewise suspected of necromantic potency all their own.

Together, they were formidable enemies when roused — and they promptly avenged their dismissal by enchanting the Rutland heir Henry, who fell ill and died in September 1613. (The rest of his family got sick on this occasion, too.) Five years later, they enspelled Henry’s younger brother Francis and sent him to an early grave too.

Under such compelling affliction, the family could not long remain ignorant of the Flowers sorceresses’ enmity, and denounced them to authorities. They were arrested around Christmas of 1618.

The mother-witch soon died in prison under God’s own torture, for she

called for Bread and Butter, and wished it might never goe through her if she were guilty of that whereupon shee was examined; so mumbling it in her mouth, never spake more wordes after that, but fell downe and dyed as shee was carryed to Lincolne Gaole, with a horrible excruciation of soule and body.

As though more evidence were needed, both of Joan’s daughters also admitted turning their occult powers against the little heirs, part of a horrific pattern of infernal connivance:

  • that the late mother kept a feline familiar named Rutterkin, and Joan malevolently stroked the cat with a glove stolen from Henry while uttering incantations that the boy might never thrive
  • that similar treatment was meted out using Rutterkin and a glove discarded by Francis
  • that Margaret kept two evil familiars whom she profanely suckled — “the white sucked under her left breast, and the blacke spotted within the inward parts of her secrets”
  • that Philip “heard her mother often curse the Earle and his Lady, and thereupon would boyle feathers and blood together, using many Devillish speeches and strange gestures”
  • that Margaret “saith, That her mother, and shee, and her sister agreed together to bewitch the Earle and his Lady, that they might have no more children”

While the mother was beyond the reach of the law, both daughters were duly condemned for murder on the evidence of their own confessions, and “executed accordingly, about the 11 of March, to the terror of all the beholders, and example of such dissolute and abominable Creatures.”

Even so, their horrid magic outlived them. The Earl and the Duchess were never again able to conceive; their only surviving child was a daughter, Katherine, who would carry the rich inheritance that should have been her brothers’ into a marriage with King James’s favorite.†


“Two sons, both which dyed in their infancy by wicked practise & sorcerye”: Inscription on a Manners family memorial at Bottesford. (cc) image by J. Hannan-Briggs.

* 1618 by the local reckoning, since the new year at this time began on March 25. It’s 1619 as we would see it retrospectively in view of a January 1 calendar rollover.

** The wonderful discoverie of the witchcrafts of Margaret and Phillip Flower, daughters of Ioan Flower neere Bever Castle: executed at Lincolne, March 11, 1618

† Some scurrilous wags of the present day have suggested that said favorite cunningly poisoned off the brothers himself so that he could get his hands on Katherine’s huge tracts of land.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions,The Supernatural,Torture,Witchcraft,Women

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