On this date in 1844, Eliza Joyce was hanged on the roof of Cobb Hall at Lincoln Castle for the murders by poison of her two daughters and her stepson.
She was the fifth and last woman to be publicly hanged at the castle during the 19th century, and she remains the last woman in England to be hanged for a crime she’s pleaded guilty to.
Eliza had married William Joyce, a gardener, in 1840. He had two children by his prior marriage, Emma and William Jr., and he and Eliza went on to have a daughter together, Ann.
However, Emma died suddenly in October 1841 and William took sick the following year. In September 1842 he was visited by a doctor, who prescribed medicine for him. Eliza went to the chemist’s, but picked not that medication, but arsenic.
Her husband found out and took the poison back to the chemist’s, where they realized some of it was missing. By then William Jr.’s condition had worsened considerably and he was showing symptoms of arsenic poisoning. Before his death at Christmastime he gave a statement, confirming his stepmother had given him the arsenic. He was fifteen years old.
Early in 1843, Eliza’s baby daughter Ann also died. Eliza was charged with William Jr.’s murder, but the indictment was thrown out on a technicality. She was then re-charged with attempted murder, which at the time carried the same penalty: death. But at her trial she claimed William Jr.’s poisoning was accidental: she’d spilled some of the arsenic powder on the floor, she said, and picked it up with a spoon, and later without washing it she used the same spoon to give William his medication.
The jury bought the story and Eliza was freed in the summer of 1843.
However, in light of what had happened, her husband cast her out and she had to move into the workhouse.
Eventually, her conscience began to trouble her and she confessed she’d been guilty all along of William Jr.’s murder, and that she had also poisoned both Emma and Ann with laudanum.
When asked why she’d done such terrible things, she plaintively replied, “I don’t know, except I thought it was such a troublesome thing to bring a family of children into this troublesome world.”
By now fully resigned to her punishment, she offered no defense to the court and pleaded guilty to both girls’ murders. (She couldn’t be charged with her stepson’s murder a second time.) William Calcraft handled her execution, and (for once) he didn’t botch it; she died quickly and quietly.
The prisoner walked with tolerable firmness, being only occasionally supported; and once, when about midway on the platform, she paused for a second, and turned to take a parting glance at the sunny scenery by which she was surrounded, and, as if to bed a lingering farewell to the bright and glorious world which she had sacrificed: her face and features wore an aspect of ghastly agony which none can forget who gazed upon her. Having ascended to the top of the tower on which the scaffold was erected, her bonnet was removed, her arms pinioned, and the cap placed over her face. She then ascended the step of the gallows. The effect of her appearance on the immense crowd was awfully striking. In an instant, the hootings, bellowings, and imprecations, which ever distinguish such enormous assemblages, were hushed, and a profound stillness reigned throughout the living mass.
-The Hull Packet and East Riding Times, Aug. 9, 1844
O my dear Friends — Take Warning by me. Here I come to Dy, and if God be not Merciful to my Soul, I shall be undone to all Eternity — If I do not turn by Repentance. I Bless God, I have found more Comfort in Prison, than ever before. O Turn to God now. O how hard it is to Repent; If you go on in Sin, God may give you up to a hard Heart. Oh! Turn whilst the Day of Grace lasts.
These, shouted to a crowd of thousands, were the last uttered by repentant sex worker and infanticide Esther Rodgers at her hanging in Ipswich, Mass., on this date in 1701. Esther Rodgers’s life story and jailhouse conversion in New England are richly explored by author and sometime Executed Today guest blogger Anthony Vaver on his site, Early American Crime. Take a look here.
On this date in 1722, Cartouche’s redoubtable lover “Big Jenny” was executed on Paris’s Place de Greve.
As befits a thief intrepid enough to grace the execution playing cards, the great French outlaw Cartouche boasted a veritable harem of mistresses whose offices were no less valuable for their contributions to Cartouche’s criminal enterprises: “‘La Catin,’ ‘La Bel-Air,’ ‘La Galette,’ ‘La Petite Poulailliere,’ ‘La Mion,’ ‘La Belle-Laitiere,’ ‘Margot-Monsieur,’ ‘La Religieuse,’ ‘La Bonne,’ ‘La Blanche,’ “Tape-dru,’ &c. &c. But far beyond them all stands out, in rich relief, the name of that most celebrated, most accomplished, most devoted of all the (titular) wives of Cartouche — Big Jenny!” (Source)
Under the guise of an innocent fruit-pedlar, Marie-Jeanne Roger, alias La Grande-Jeanneton “flitt[ed] about from place to place, spying, plotting, drinking, fighting, robbing, and being robbed — the terror and admiration (according to the spectator’s point of view) of every one that approached her.” And she and the robber prince had by accounts that might admittedly be colored by sentimental projection a passionate romance. (Parlement’s published condemnation traduces her as a “debauched woman, concubine” of a number of disreputable characters. Our doomed principal tartly replied that Paris would halve her vices if only greedy innkeepers were not so eager to play procurer.)
La Grande-Jeanneton‘s well-known dalliance with Cartouche made her a prime target after authorities started rolling up that brigand’s gang, and they were mean enough to deny her request to go to the scaffold with her man.
Her sex did not spare her the horrible torture of the Brodequin; posterity has not seen fit to blame her overmuch for succumbing to the leg-crusher to the extent of yielding 52 names, especially since she at least salvaged the opportunity to embarrass many distinguished merchants.
Depuis un an logeait, vers le Palais-Royal,
Une fille de bien qui se gouvernait mal.
Cartouche fréquentait cette tendre poulette;
Salope, s’il en fut, d’ailleurs assez bien faite.
Oeil fripon, petit nez retroussé, teint fleuri,
Friande d’un amant, bien plus que d’un mari,
Fourbe au dernier degré, mutine jusqu’à battre,
Son coeur fut captivé par ce jeune tendron,
Que chacun appelait ta Grande Jeanneton.
Marie Margarethe (Grete) Beier, the daughter of the late Mayor of Brand-Erbisdorf, was beheaded on the fallbeil on this date in 1908 for murdering her fiance. While her crime was banal, the consequent spectacle lit up newswires all the globe ’round.
Despite the marquee half of this contradictory headline in the Adelaide, Australia Advertiser (Aug. 26, 1908), the execution occurred behind prison walls. About two hundred tickets were distributed to members of the public (all men), but thousands of applicants (which included many women) were denied them. These “ticket holders rushed in pell mell in their eagerness to get the best places. Men fell and fought wildly.”
Secretly carrying on with a lover named Johannes Merker, Beier (German Wikipedia link was forced by her parents — a working-class couple made good — into pledging her troth to a respectable engineer named Heinrich Pressler.
With “the face of an angel and the heart of a fiend”* the charming Beier contrived a plan to truly have it all: on May 13, 1907, she visited her would-be husband and spiked his drink with potassium cyanide — then to be sure of her project, had him close his eyes and open his mouth on her flirty promise of a sweet surprise. Then she shoved his own revolver between his lips and fired, abandoning at the scene of her crime a forged will to her benefit, a forged suicide note lamenting a purported affair with a vengeful Italian woman, and forged love letters corroborating the latter, fictional, relationship.
She was some weeks on towards her way to getting away with it — the coroner did indeed take Herr Pressler for a suicide — before suspicions as to the dead man’s testament led police to set a watch on her and unravel the web. Grete Beier confessed, in an unsuccessful gambit to secure mercy.
She reportedly died bravely, albeit slightly appalled by the size of the audience that had been admitted to gawk at her disgraceful finale.
On Sunday se’nnight the body of a new-born male infant, with its throat cut, was discovered, concealed in a small tub, among some cordwood, in a cellar at Fairlight in the county of Sussex. The fact appearing to have been recently committed, and suspicion falling on a young woman, resident in an adjoining apartment, named Lavender, she was taken into custody and a surgeon sent for, who declared she had been very lately in travail; and the Coroner’s Jury having on view of the body, returned a verdict of wilful murder against the said Lavender, she was committed to Horsham gaol. The wretched girl hath scarcely attained her eighteenth year.
London Oracle and Daily Advertiser, July 19, 1799
LEWES. — At our Assizes, which commence here on Friday morning next, before Lord Chief Justice Buller,* we have the satisfaction to say, there are but seven prisoners for trial, viz.
Elizabeth Lavender, aged 19 years, charged with the wilful murder of her male bastard child at Fairlight.
James Medhurst, alias Miles, aged 24 years, for feloniously stealing one barrow hog, the property of Thomas Davis.
Daniel Noyell, aged 20 years; John Gardiner, 21 years; and John Twiney, 22 years, for divers felonies in the town of Brighton.
William Jackson, aged 23 years, for feloniously entering the dwelling-house of Henry Karn, of Tillington, in June last, and stealing therein to the amount of twelve shillings in money, a silver watch, some wearing apparel, and other articles, the property of the said Henry Karns.
William Hodson, otherwise Powell, aged 28 years, charged with having stolen on Westbourn Common, a black gelding, the property of William Churcher; also with having stolen and rode away from a lane, in the parish of New Fishbourn, a grey poney gelding, the property of John Hardham.
Should the business at nisi prius prove as light as that on the Crown side, we shall have a very short Assize.
London Sun, July 25, 1799
LEWES, July 22
At the Assizes for this County, which ended here on Saturday morning last, seven prisoners were tried, five of whom were capitally convicted, and received sentence of death, viz.
Elizabeth Lavender, for the wilful murder of her male bastard child, at Fairlight. — John Gardiner and John Twiney, for felonies in the town of Brighton. — William Jackson, for a felony in the dwelling house of Henry Karn, at Tillington. — And William Hodson, otherwise Powell, for horse-stealing.
The four men were reprieved before the Judges left the town; but the unhappy woman was left for execution, and is this day to suffer at Horsham, after which her body is to be dissected and anatomized.
True Briton, Aug. 2, 1799
LEWES, July 29
Last Monday Elizabeth Lavender was executed at Horsham, pursuant to her sentence at our late Assizes, for the murder of her male bastard child. Her behaviour at the gallows was such as became one in her unhappy situation. She trembled and wept much, but nevertheless seemed to listen to the Clergyman who attended her, and having expressed a hope that all other females would take warning by her untimely fate, she was turned off about half past twelve, and expired without any apparent agony.
* Buller is most (in)famous now for allegedly issuing the judicial standard permitting a man to beat his wife with a rod, provided it was no thicker than his thumb. It’s quite dubious whether he ever did so rule, and indeed whether any such rule has ever existed; nevertheless, Buller was lampooned in his own day as “Judge Thumb”.
On this date in 1762, Sarah Metyard and her daughter, Sarah Morgan “Sally” Metyard, were hanged at Tyburn for the horrible murder of their apprentice girl.
Sarah, a milliner, and Sally, her assistant, had taken on several female apprentices. One of those, a thirteen-year-old workhouse orphan named Anne Naylor or Nailor, was cruelly treated by the Metyards, who beat her, confined her to the attic and fed her nothing but bread and water. Twice she escaped and asked for help and twice she was dragged back by her mistresses to be tortured all over again.
…put [Anne] into a back room on the second storey, tied a cord round her waist, and her hands behind her, and fastened her to the door in such a manner that it was impossible for her either to sit or lie down. She was compelled to remain in this situation for three successive days; but they permitted her to go to bed at the usual hours at night. Having received no kind of nutriment for three days and two nights, her strength was so exhausted that, being unable to walk upstairs, she crept to the garret, where she lay on her hands and feet.
While she remained tied up on the second floor the other apprentices were ordered to work in an adjoining apartment, that they might be deterred from disobedience by being witnesses to the unhappy girl’s sufferings; but they were enjoined, on the penalty of being subjected to equal severity, against affording her any kind of relief.
On the fourth day she faltered in speech, and presently afterwards expired. The other girls, seeing the whole weight of her body supported by the strings which confined her to the door, were greatly alarmed, and called out: “Miss Sally! Miss Sally! Nanny does not move.” The daughter then came upstairs, saying: “If she does not move, I will make her move”; and then beat the deceased on the head with the heel of a shoe.
This is a sad epitome of what will appear at large in too many dreadful examples on the great day of account, when all those who have counteracted, or ill discharged their relative duties of parent and child, ruler and subject, pastor and people, or any other of the superior and inferior relations in this state of trial, will look aghast at each other, in frantic despair, charging the neglect of duty, of relaxed discipline, of disobedience, and evil example to each other’s account; when all that seduce and betray each other into sin, will fill up the dire and dreadful number.
Learn hence ye parents and children of every rank, the force and importance of that admonition, preparative to a general reformation of life and manners, the neglect of which is a sure presage of a general corruption and impending destruction.
Anne died a short time afterwards, and Sarah and Sally hid this fact and told everyone she had run away. They hid her body in a box in the garret for two months until the smell became too offensive, then dismembered the corpse and dumped it in a gully-hole in Chick Lane. Two watchmen found the remains on December 5, 1758.
The crime went undiscovered for years, and Sally eventually moved out of the house and in with a Mr. Rooker. Sarah, however, was afraid her daughter might tell someone what happened, and began stalking her and threatening her life. Her attempts to frighten Sally into silence backfired when Sally confronted her and alluded to the murder in front of Mr. Rooker.
the Metyards had to be separated in prison lest they attack each other, and would always blame the other if asked about the crimes. Unbeknownst to the gaolers, the mother had been starving herself (a fitting fate) in an attempt to cheat the gallows; a few days before the due date she fell into a fit and swooned away. She never spoke again. On 19 July 1762, before 9:00 a.m., the women were put into the cart. The ordinary had to fight to get them through the enormous crowds, and found the mother stretched out like a statue, not even seeming to breathe, though her chest twitched convulsively now and then. The daughter begged for prayers from the crowd (over the jeers and boos*), and looked about for Mr. Rooker. She added that ‘she died a martyr to her innocence.’
After they were hanged, their bodies were displayed before the public at the Surgeons’ Hall, then dissected.
…has got to be one of the most agonizing exits from the world we can imagine… Its effects are horrific… The sensations experienced have been described as the sense of having a burning ball of hot metal in the gut; on top of that, the victim has vicious diarrhea, vomiting and spasms in the joints, dizziness and consequent depression.
Frederick Bryant was to die that way.
Charlotte was born and raised in Ireland. She and Frederick met there in 1922, where he was serving with the military police. Charlotte, who was only about nineteen at the time, had the reputation as a girl who would sleep with anyone. Frederick didn’t seem to mind her reputation, though, and they so they married and moved to a tiny, rural village in Dorset, and he sought work as a farm laborer.
Charlotte’s open promiscuity continued, and soon evolved into prostitution. Everyone in the neighborhood knew her for her gallantries. It was said that, when someone asked Frederick how he felt about this, he pointed out he was earning less than said £2 a week as a cowman and said, “Four pounds a week is better than thirty bob [shillings]. I don’t care a damn what she does.”
Charlotte ultimately bore five children, some of whom may have been Frederick’s.
This situation continued until 1933, when Charlotte met Leonard Edward Parsons, a man who was himself married, and fell in love. Not only did the easygoing Frederick accept this relationship, he actually invited Parsons to live with them. Parsons did, and things actually went quite well for some time. Parsons paid the Bryants room and board, which made Frederick happy. Parsons and Charlotte got to have sex all the time, which made them happy. Win-win.
But finally Frederick asked Parsons to move out.
Frederick Bryant became inexplicably ill in May 1935 after eating tea Charlotte had prepared for him. He recovered within a few days and he and his doctor shrugged and passed it off as gastroenteritis. In August he got sick again with the same symptoms as before, and as before, he soon recovered.
In November, Leonard Parsons told Charlotte he was going to leave her and find another job somewhere else. She was devastated.
By the time the Christmas season rolled around, Frederick was sick again. This time his symptoms were serious and he writhed in agony, “saying there was something inside him like a red-hot poker that was driving him mad.” He was sent to Sherbourne Hospital for treatment, but died a few days before Christmas.
Frederick’s doctor, who had treated him through these mysterious bouts of gastric illness, was suspicious: the symptoms the dead man had complained of corresponded exactly to arsenic poisoning, and like everyone else in the area he knew Charlotte as something less than the good wife. The doctor refused to sign a death certificate and notified the police of his suspicions.
A very thorough investigation began. A chemistry expert from Scotland Yard was given
complete organs, including the stomach and contents, small and large intestines, urine in the bladder, vomit and excreta, complete lungs, portions of skin and hair, brain and nails. In addition, these were taken from the area around the body: samples of soil from above the coffin, below the coffin and from the adjacent ground, sawdust from the coffin, and a portion of the shroud.
Sure enough: the results showed that Frederick’s flesh and the environs of his corpse were positively dripping with arsensic. Altogether 4.09 grains were discovered. Anywhere between 2 and 4 grains comprises a fatal dose.
While the chemist was at work analyzing his myriad of evidence, the police were questioning Charlotte. She denied having harmed her husband and said she had not recently purchased arsenic or anything containing it. However, a friend of the couple had some interesting things to say: Charlotte had a tin of arsenic-laced Eureka brand weed killer and said “I must get rid of this … If nothing is found, they can’t put a rope round your neck!”
After a search, the police found a partially burned tin of Eureka weed killer. Dirt and ash samples from the rubbish heap where it had been discarded tested positive for elevated levels of arsenic.
But they still had to prove Charlotte bought that tin of weed killer.
The Scotland Yard analyst had a look at Charlotte’s coat and found arsenic dust in the right-hand pocket at a staggering 58,000 parts per million. (By comparison, the average amount of arsenic found in ordinary soil is about 18 parts per million.)
Records showed that someone had purchased Eureka weed killer from a local chemist’s shop at around the right date, signing their name on the poison register with only an X. Charlotte was illiterate and could not have signed her name, but would have used her mark instead. The chemist said he knew the woman who came in to buy the poison but claimed that in spite of this, he would be unable to identify her now. He was probably trying cover his own tracks: it was illegal for a chemist to sell arsenic to anyone they didn’t know.
Parsons was questioned about Frederick’s murder. He had an alibi and was cleared of suspicion, but the police decided they’d accumulated enough against Charlotte, and arrested her for murder.
At her trial in May 1936, her attorney stressed the circumstantial nature of the evidence and warned the jury not to take Charlotte’s promiscuity into account. After all, she was on trial for murder, not for sleeping around. No one had seen Charlotte poison any food or give poisoned food to her husband, and the chemist still couldn’t or wouldn’t identify her as the woman who bought the weed killer at his shop.
Nonetheless, the verdict was guilty. Desperate efforts were made on her behalf to get her a new trial; some people believed the chemistry expert’s evidence had been faulty. These efforts came to nothing. Charlotte wrote a letter to the King, begging for a royal pardon, but this was ignored. She died protesting her innocence.
A footnote to this sad and sordid story: Charlotte left a pitiful estate worth 5 shillings, 8½ pence and willed it all to her five children. (She’d learned to write her name in jail; her will was the first legal document she signed with her name rather than her mark.) Her children were trucked off to an orphanage. Mrs. Violet van der Elst, a noted anti-death penalty activist, heard of their plight and vowed to make sure they were cared for. (Van der Elst featured this case among numerous others in her 1937 tract On the Gallows.)
She also started a charitable fund for the children of executed convicts. The first donation to the fund, from van der Elst herself, was £50,000. As for the Bryant children, nothing further is known of them.
Less an “execution” than a human sacrifice — the village old feller’s folksy “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon,” evokes a primal flash of blood trickling off a maize-god’s altar — the titular event is an annual tradition for a tiny American town. Though unnamed, the town and some of its denizens were patterned on North Bennington, Vermont, where Jackson was living as the wife of a professor at Bennington College.
The setting was entirely contemporary to the story’s publication, right down to the day: it hit print in the June 26, 1948 edition of The New Yorker magazine. And what took Jackson two hours to write has continued to disturb and perplex generations of readers.
In “The Lottery” (available online here (pdf)), friendly townsfolk gather “in the square, between the post office and the bank” to enact a curious civic ritual dating to a time and purpose they no longer even remember.
We see each household’s father draw a slip of paper from a battered old box and although we do not understand the reason we soon feel there is something ominous about it.
After the last slip is drawn,
there was a long pause, a breathless pause, until Mr. Summers. holding his slip of paper in the air, said, “All right, fellows.” For a minute, no one moved, and then all the slips of paper were opened. Suddenly, all the women began to speak at once, saving. “Who is it?,” “Who’s got it?,” “Is it the Dunbars?,” “Is it the Watsons?” Then the voices began to say, “It’s Hutchinson. It’s Bill,” “Bill Hutchinson’s got it.”
“Go tell your father,” Mrs. Dunbar said to her older son.
People began to look around to see the Hutchinsons. Bill Hutchinson was standing quiet, staring down at the paper in his hand. Suddenly. Tessie Hutchinson shouted to Mr. Summers. “You didn’t give him time enough to take any paper he wanted. I saw you. It wasn’t fair!”
“Be a good sport, Tessie.” Mrs. Delacroix called, and Mrs. Graves said, “All of us took the same chance.”
“Shut up, Tessie,” Bill Hutchinson said.
Tessie has good cause to fear. A second drawing now ensues among the five members of the Hutchinson family — Tessie and Bill, plus their three children.
And as soon as Tessie reveals the slip of paper with the black spot, her friends and even her family (“someone gave little Davy Hutchinson a few pebbles”) immediately turn on her and stone her to death.
“I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives,” Jackson explained.
On this date in 1621, Christenze (or Christence) Kruckow was beheaded as a witch — the only known noblewoman to suffer that fate in Danish history.
Kruckow first came under the witchsmeller’s nose in the 1590s. As a young woman, she lived in the household of a man named Eiler Brockenhuus — common practice at the time in Danish high society. The supposition is that when the lady of the house died in 1582, Kruckow might have aspired to make a permanent move. Instead, the position of wife no. 2 went to another woman named Anne Brille.
From the sound of it, Anne Brille spent the ensuing decade-plus in a state of continual pregnancy, punctuated only by periods of mourning as all 15* of her prospective progeny miscarried or died in infancy. Pick your environmental toxin or genetic abnormality of choice, but it’s no surprise this started to give the poor would-be mother the heebie-jeebies. Eventually, two of the estate’s servants got caught up in a 1596 witchcraft interrogation and were burned at the stake — but not before implicating Christenze Kruckow as part of the coven.
On that occasion, the usual reticence to visit on elites the sanctions intended for their lessers prevailed, and Christenze simply had to relocate to a sister’s household in Alborg.
But a reputation for black magic wasn’t the best thing to have to one’s name in early 17th century Europe, when witch-hunting reached a horrifying acme. Like his brother-in-law James VI of Scotland (also James I of England), the long-reigning Danish king Christian IV developed a personal obsession with the diabolical, leading to an effusion of witchcraft trials in the 1610s and early 1620s.
Now, Kruckow’s elite status served to attract instead of deflect attention; it didn’t help that she was become a never-married hexagenarian. When a neighbor’s wife fell ill in witch-spooked Alborg, the accusations against her snowballed into their customary colorful forms, such as that she’d been seen delivering a pregnant woman (Danish link) of a troll or ogre at some fell sabbath. King Christian took a personal interest in seeing her case prosecuted, and in the end it was his own Privy Council that tried her, and then sentenced her to the privileged death by the sword instead of the stake: the last deferences to her social rank. She confessed at that time to having attempted to lay a curse on the wedding-bed of her long-ago rival, Anne Brille.
In between her witch episodes, Christenze Kruckow had taken an interest in education for poor children in Alborg. She carried her philanthropy (more Danish) even beyond the scaffold, bequeathing 1,000 rigsdalers to a university scholarship that the University of Copenhagen was still awarding into the 20th century — popularly known as the “beheaded virgin grant”.
June 9 in ancient Rome was the festival of the Vesta, the acme of the Vestalia festival extending until June 15.*
We hope this hearth-goddess will accept the homage Pluto‘s emissaries here propose to pay her most famous servants, the Vestal Virgins.
An ancient order of priestesses reaching back to Rome’s mythical founding period, perhaps even rooted in Rome’s matriarchal Etruscan predecessors, the Virgins by the time of the classical era numbered six — selected from among candidate girls aged 6 to 10 who would be whisked away from their families to serve for thirty years.
Vestal Virgins enjoyed great prestige and a number of social prerogatives (they had the power to pardon condemned prisoners, among other things). In exchange, they were tasked with maintaining Rome’s favor with her temperamental gods by tending diligently to the city’s most cherished religious observances.
From the moment of their selection, Vestal Virgins became a sort of personification of Rome itself — Rome’s civic virtue; Rome’s standing with the gods. Rome and the Vestals, joined by the sacred eternal hearth-flame whose perpetual kindling was the virgins’ chief ceremonial duty, drew succor from one another. Pliny wrote that they “have the power, by uttering a certain prayer, to arrest the flight of runaway slaves, and to rivet them to the spot, provided they have not gone beyond the precincts of the City” — but Rome’s greatness, too, was attributed to the citizenry’s dutiful maintenance of the Vestals through the centuries.
For such an empyreal creature to indulge the fleeting pleasures of the flesh was quite beyond question. Vesta, said Ovid,
was always unable to tolerate men.
What wonder if a virgin delights in virgin servants,
And only allows chaste hands to touch her sacred relics?
Realize that Vesta is nothing but living flame,
And you’ll see that no bodies are born from her.
She’s truly a virgin, who neither accepts seed
Nor yields it, and she loves virgin companions.
But over the centuries, not all of Vesta’s servants kept that same hard line on unchaste hands** — and in so doing risked punishment by an unusual execution of living burial. Even defiled Vestals were inviolate in their persons: their blood could not be shed, and the hands of the common executioner could not touch them. They had to be dispatched without direct violence, by immuring them alive under the earth. (Not so their seducers: getting busy with a Vestal Virgin would cost a man as many strokes of a scourge as required to kill him.)
Back to Ovid:
Now sacred flames you shine brightly under Caesar’s rule:
The fire on the Ilian hearths is there, and will remain,
It won’t be said that under him any priestess disgraced
Her office, nor that she was buried alive in the earth.
So the unchaste die, being entombed in what they
Have violated: since divine Earth and Vesta are one.
We have no specific calendar dates to go with any of these, but the British Museum antiquarian G.H. Noehdon compiled the available information about Vestals’ executions at some length in this public domain text:
a subterraneous chamber or cell of small dimension was formed, into which you descended from above. There were placed in it a couch or bed, a burning lamp, and a few necessaries of life, such as bread, water, milk, and oil. It would have been impious, according to Plutarch, to destroy by hunger, a life that had been consecrated by the most holy rites. The wretched victim, it is to be imagined, chiefly perished by suffocation. For the cell was closely shut, and overlaid with earth, as soon as she was descended.
The whole proceedings were terrific. The delinquent was conveyed to that place of horror in a litter, so fastened up and covered from without, that not even a sound or groan could escape from it. She was thus carried through the market-place, while the people, in fearful silence, made way, and followed speechless, impressed with the awe of this frightful ceremony. No sight, says Plutarch, could be more shocking, nor was there ever a day at Rome more gloomy and sorrowful.
Per Noehdon, the oldest case on record was of one Pinaria, executed for impurity under Tarquin the Elder. A Vestal named Minucia suffered the same fate in the 4th century BCE; two more, Opimia and Floronia, were condemned in the 3rd century, though one committed suicide in preference to immurement. Dionysius of Halicarnassus attributes a plague to the incontinence of the Vestal Urbenia, and its abatement to her punishment. Cassius Dio credits no fewer than three Vestals with execution for unchastity in 114 BCE — but one can hardly fail to note that this is a period of deepening class tension in Rome in the aftermath of the Gracchi. One wonders if carnal indulgences were merely a pretext to purge Aemilia, Licinia, and Marcia for the wrong factional alignment.
Probably the best-attested and best-known Vestal Virgin executed was Cornelia, the Virgo Maxima (chief Vestal) entombed by order of the notorious tyrant Domitian. (Domitian had also executed three other Vestals some years prior.) Pliny the Younger recorded her going to her death effecting (as did her purported lover) a persuasive mien of indignant innocence.
Domitian generally raged most furiously where his evidence failed him most hopelessly. That emperor had determined that Cornelia, chief of the Vestal Virgins, should be buried alive, from an extravagant notion that exemplary severities of this kind conferred lustre upon his reign.
Accordingly, by virtue of his office as supreme pontiff, or, rather, in the exercise of a tyrant’s cruelty, a despot’s lawlessness, he convened the sacred college, not in the pontifical court where they usually assemble, but at his villa near Alba; and there, with a guilt no less heinous than that which he professed to be punishing, he condemned her, when she was not present to defend herself, on the charge of incest, while he himself had been guilty, not only of debauching his own brother’s daughter, but was also accessory to her death: for that lady, being a widow, in order to conceal her shame, endeavoured to procure an abortion, and by that means lost her life.
However, the priests were directed to see the sentence immediately executed upon Cornelia. As they were leading her to the place of execution, she called upon Vesta, and the rest of the gods, to attest her innocence; and, amongst other exclamations, frequently cried out, “Is it possible that Caesar can think me polluted, under the influence of whose sacred functions he has conquered and triumphed?” Whether she said this in flattery or derision; whether it proceeded from a consciousness of her innocence, or contempt of the emperor, is uncertain; but she continued exclaiming in this manner, til she came to the place of execution, to which she was led, whether innocent or guilty I cannot say, at all events with every appearance and demonstration of innocence. As she was being lowered down into the subterranean vault, her robe happening to catch upon something in the descent, she turned round and disengaged it, when, the executioner offering his assistance, she drew herself back with horror, refusing to be so much as touched by him, as though it were a defilement to her pure and unspotted chastity: still preserving the appearance of sanctity up to the last moment; and, among all the other instances of her modesty, “She took great care to fall with decency.”
Celer likewise, a Roman knight, who was accused of an intrigue with her, while they were scourging him with rods in the Forum, persisted in exclaiming, “What have I done? — I have done nothing.”
The Vestal Virgins were finally suppressed (and their eternal flame quenched) by the Christian emperor Theodosius, in 394.†
A few years later, Rome was sacked for the first time in 800 years.
* There are mixed accounts as to whether June 9 or June 7 was the first day of the Vestalia, but the 9th was unquestionably the most important.
** Legend has it that Rome’s founders, Romulus and Remus, were sons of a Vestal Virgin, Rhea Silvia: again, this tradition could well be the refracted memory of Etruscan priestesses, or princesses, or both. The man who was to kill these unholy offspring instead took pity on them and cast them adrift on the Tiber — and that’s how they ended up being famously suckled by wolves.