On this date in 1678, Covenanter radical James Mitchell was hanged at Edinburgh for attempting to murder the Archbishop of St. Andrews.
Mitchell’s intended victim, James Sharp by name, is one of Scottish history’s great villains — tasked as he was to cheat Presbyterians of the religious reform they had spent a generation seeking. After Cromwell had King Charles I beheaded, his heir Charles II was nothing but an exile pretending to the throne his father had been deposed from.
Desperate for allies, he made a reluctant pact with Scottish to promulgate Presbyterianism throughout the realm should he regain the kingdom: this meant, in practice, bottom-up church governance as against the top-down authority of bishops characterizing Episcopacy. For a king, this would entail ceding considerable power over religious matters.
Such a promise was more readily given than honored. When Charles II regained the English throne in 1660, he instead restored Episcopacy in the north and everywhere else — selecting our man James Sharp, up until then a Presbyterian minister of the moderate faction, to boss Scotland’s most exalted ecclesiastical post. “The great stain will always remain, that Sharp deserted and probably betrayed a cause which his brethren intrusted to him,” Walter Scott wrote.
From this position, whose very existence was obnoxious to his former friends, our Judas* was Charles’s point man for reintroducing and enforcing all those ecclesiastical prerogatives of the monarchy that the Presbyterians had been so desperate to abolish.
He drove from the church irreconcilable Covenanter ministers — so named for their adherence to the objectives of those discarded covenants. That faction despised Sharp, and he returned the sentiment. On one occasion, he had to call for the militia to disperse an angry mob, only to be told that the militia’s members had joined the mob too. After a Covenanter rising was put down at the Battle of Rullion Green, Sharp okayed the withdrawal of quarter for surrendered foes with the taunt “You were pardoned as soldiers, but you are not acquitted as subjects” — putting his episcopal imprimatur on numerous ensuing hangings.
It was only a matter of time before someone tried to murder him.
On the 11th of July in 1668, James Mitchell — a zealous but unordained freelance preacher and dyed-in-the-wool Covenanter — stepped to a carriage the archbishop was embarking and took a shot at him. Mitchell missed, and pinged one of the prelate’s companions in the wrist, crippling the hand.
Mitchell managed to escape and live for several years with sizable sum on his head and nobody interested in claiming it** before Sharp’s own brother finally captured him in 1674. The proceedings against him are surprisingly protracted considering the famous vindictiveness of his target, and resolved by (as Mitchell said at his hanging) “an extrajudicial confession, and the promise of life given to me thereupon by the chancellor, upon his own and the public faith of the kingdom.” Given his party, he ought not have been surprised that the promise was not kept; as an added bonus, his retraction of the confession — which was the only evidence against him — resulted in his torture by the boot.
In 1679, a different bunch of Covenanters finally succeeded in assassinating the hated Archbishop Sharp.
The Murder of Archbishop Sharpe on Magus Muir near St. Andrews, 1679, by William Allen (c. 1840).
There’s a public domain biography friendly to Sharp (and perforce extremely hostile to the Covenanters) here.
The pair we feature today were casualties of all that cloak-and-dagger, specifically the latter.
The story (Italian link) goes that the Carbonari became convinced (correctly) that one of their number, a Filippo Spada, was informing against them; thereupon, our Angelo Targhini — very much the impressionable young zealot — was tasked with stabbing the turncoat to death in an alley. The victim, known familiarly as “Spontini”, survived the attack. Montanari, a physician, was one of the first on the scene but arriving policemen perceived that the “treatment” he was applying to the victim was actually deepening his wounds, and seized him as a conspirator.
Montanari admitted nothing of the kind and was accused solely on the impressions of police plus the information of another informant. But he was in no position to impeach this information because it was a secret court of the automcratic Pope Leo XII that condemned both men for treason — solicitous of neither defense nor appeals.
In his diaries, as detailed here as ever, the headsman Mastro Titta reports receiving death threats. Security on the Piazza del Popolo, “thick with people, as I never saw her,” in Titto’s words, was extremely tight — but no public disturbance or carbonari raid disturbed proceedings. That was left only to the prisoners, who declined to receive the sacrament of confession or acknowledge themselves assassins.
“All attempts to persuade them to repent came to nothing,” Titta laments. “They invariably replied only: ‘We have no account to render to anyone. Our God plumbs the fathoms of our conscience.'”
Two hundred years ago today, an Irish serving-girl named Eliza Fenning hanged for poisoning her master’s family. The reliability of the judgment against her was widely questioned in 1815 and has not improved with age.
Robert Turner’s family, along with one of his apprentice stationers all sat down to a meal of dumplings that Eliza, a cook, had prepared for dinner on March 21 of that same year. Within minutes, all were in agony. As Charlotte Turner, who was the mistress of the house even though only a few months older than Ms. Fenning, told the Old Bailey:
I was taken ill myself in less than three minutes afterwards; the effect was so violent, that I had hardly time to get into the yard before my dinner came up. I felt considerable heat across my stomach and chest, and pain.
Q. Was the vomitting of a common kind?
I never experienced any thing before like it for violence; I was terribly irritated; it was not more than a quarter of an hour my apprentice Roger Gadsell was taken very ill in a similar way to myself.
It appeared from the symptoms — and from the blackened dough of the dumplings — that the meal had been laced with arsenic, that cunningly ubiquitous terror of the 19th century. The inference of family, Crown, and eventually court was that Eliza had availed the opportunity of preparing the food to revenge herself on the Turners because Charlotte Turner had caught her some days before sneaking into the apprentices’ room for a snog.
It’s a sure thing that homo sapiens has murdered for feebler reasons than this, but the insufficiency of the provocation, the vociferous denials of the condemned, and the puzzling fact that she too ate the noxious dumplings — all these things militated against confidence in the verdict which was hotly disputed in the public at large. Methods of establishing the presence and quantity of arsenic in a sample were extremely primitive in general, and painfully specious as applied by the surgeon who came to that verdict in the Fenning case.
The court inconclusively pursued the various ingredients in the dish: the same flour had been used for a meat pie that had brought up nobody’s dinner, so that was out; Eliza suggested the milk might be to blame, or a new yeast the house obtained on the eve of the dinner party. There is a wide-ranging effort in the transcript to establish the young woman’s access to an arsenic packet that Robert Turner kept in a desk drawer to poison mice, but this seems little relevant; it was an unlocked desk drawer in a busy household, plus arsenic was widely available in town. Everyone had effective access to arsenic, should she or he have a mind to find it.
As friend of the site (and occasional guest blogger) Richard Clark puts it in his overview, “it is difficult to be sure whether Eliza was guilty or not” even all these years later. But it’s a certainty that what was developed against her in 1815 would fall leagues short of any present-day standard for a confident conviction. Was she really unbalanced enough to try to murder the entire household over a tongue-lashing, yet steely enough to eat the poisoned dish herself to dispel suspicion, yet incautious enough not to have readied any other alibi for the moment when attention would turn to the cook? What possible basis could she have had for believing that she could salt in enough of the toxin to kill everyone else but eat a safely sub-lethal dose herself?
And maybe, as with Cameron Willingham, we might best begin with the premise: was there actually a dose of arsenic, laid in by a sinister hand — or might some contaminant carelessly proximate to the food supply of an unruly metropolis have been the true and undetected culprit?*
Whatever it was that the family puked up, everyone did so speedily enough to remain among the living. Attempted murder, however, was still a capital crime in England, and would remain so until 1861.
Though her case would attract widespread sympathy and public controvrsy, Eliza Fenning’s defense before the bar was all but nonexistent: four good-character witnesses, plus this statement:
My lord, I am truly innocent of all the charge, as God is my witness; I am innocent, indeed I am; I liked my place, I was very comfortable; as to my master saying I did not assist him, I was too ill. I had no concern with the drawer at all; when I wanted a piece of paper I always asked for it.
That’s the whole of it — complete and unabridged. It is a pathetic thought to consider this helpless plea in light of the idea that the food might have been poisoned accidentally; tunnel vision had already settled on a semi-coherent story of the embittered serving-girl’s revenge,** and without the art to draw out some different interpretation of the few facts available, Eliza found her place fixed by the self-validating suspicions cast upon her.
She held to her innocence all the way to the end; it was put about that a Newgate screw had overheard her father bid her do so no matter what lest he lose all honor after she died. One last character assassination for the road.
Supporters — and she has had many, down to the present day — flocked to Eliza’s Irish wake in the days after her hanging (the body “being placed in the kitchen of the house, and dressed out in ribbons, flowers, &c.”†) and then thronged a funerary procession from Red Lion Square to the tombs of St. George Bloomsbury.
* In 1900, to the consternation of brewers, around 6,000 pub-fanciers in northern England fell ill from beer that turned out to be contaminated with arsenic present in an ingredient (sulphuric acid) that made a different ingredient (glucose) that went into the beer.
** As Fenning was condemned just a few weeks before Waterloo, the paranoia that England’s burghers nurtured over the prospect of incipient Jacobinism must be presumed a relevant part of the scenario … doubly so, considering the young lady’s nationality.
† The Lincoln, Rutland and Stamford Mercury, Aug. 4, 1815. Reports that the family had the effrontery to accept 40 quid worth of gifts from well-wishers were also lamely represented by Fenning’s persecutors as black marks on the family name.
Surprising the undefended sovereign on the latter’s morning constitutional near Winter Palace, Soloviev couldn’t connect with his revolver from four meters’ distance. As Alexander fled, Soloviev gave chase, firing four more times in the process to no effect before the gathering crowd wrestled him to the cobblestones.
Soloviev admitted the crime — the admission was hardly necessary — and hanged before a crowd of 70,000 souls. Despite the ensuing police crackdown on subversives (resulting in still more executions), many of those 70,000 surely numbered among the gawkers two years later for the hanging of the Narodnaya Volya terrorists who at last successfully assassinated Alexander.
* May 28 was the local (Julian calendar) date for the execution; by the Gregorian calendar prevailing outside Russia, it was June 9.
osing his head on May 12, 1543 made Jakob Karrer von Gebweiler’s name in the annals of art and and medicine.
The remains of the Basel felon — who attacked his wife with a knife when she discovered his bigamous marriage — were turned over after execution to Andreas Vesalius.
That brilliant Flemish doctor was in the midst of a proper Renaissance leveling up of medicine, lifting it past the centuries-long thrall of ancient Greek physician Galen.
Human dissection was essential to Vesalius’s project, as it was alike to many other medical men and to artists too. In his career, Vesalius’s cunning scalpel stripped numerous cadavers for students and urban grandees. With Karrer, Vesalius performed a public dissection, articulating Karrer’s skeleton.
Gifted to the university there, the skeleton was restored in 1985 and can be seen to this day at the Institute of Anatomy in Basel, Switzerland — one of the very earliest still-preserved articulated skeletons.
Why is it a Basel criminal who enjoys this distinction?
From Wikipedia’s library of De Humani illustrations.
Because in 1543, Vesalius was in that city* to work with printer Johannes Oporinus, even then publishing the physician’s magnum opus De Humani Corporis Fabrica. Vesalius personally transported to Oporinus the famously gorgeous and detailed woodcuts of Titian’s pupil Joannes Stephanus Calcarensis that made De Humani a smash hit in Vesalius’s own time and one of the most treasured artifacts of Renaissance scholarship.
The names of the Roman Empire’s various client kings are, when not utterly lost to history, deeply obscure to a present-day general audience. The best exception bar Cleopatra is surely the Judean ruler King Herod of Biblical villainy.
Christ‘s antagonists were actually two* different men of the same name: the tyrannical Herod the Great, the one whom the Gospel of Matthew accuses of massacring Bethlehem infants in a vain attempt to kill the baby Jesus; and, his son Herod Antipas, the successor credited with beheading John the Baptist and with taking a pass on Jesus’s own case when Pontius Pilate tried to drop it on him.
But for fickle fortune, Herod Antipas’s annual Advent vilifications might belong instead to Antipater, who was put to death around this time in 4 BCE by command of his dying father Herod the Great.
Named for his grandfather who founded the Herodian dynasty, Antipater was Herod the Great’s first-born son and for most of the decade preceding his death had been in Herod’s succession plans.
Like many princes, Herod was cursed with scheming, rivalrous offspring, and the father was forever revising his last will as their fortunes ebbed and flowed. In 7 BCE he had even executed two of Antipater’s half-brothers, Alexander and Aristobulos. Nearly 70 years old, Herod the Great now designated Antipater as his sole successor. The young man’s prospects for lasting Biblical infamy seemed excellent.
But for Antipater, himself already entering his fifth decade, patience did not appear a virtue.
Josephus describes Antipater complaining to his mother that “he had already gray hairs upon his head, and that his father grew younger again every day, and that perhaps death would overtake him before he should begin to be a king in earnest; and that in case Herod should die, which yet nobody knew when it would be, the enjoyment of the succession could certainly be but for a little time; for that those heads of Hydra, the sons of Alexander and Aristobulos, were growing up.”
Upon learning of Antipater’s consequent plot to speed his inheritance, Herod reportedly went on a paranoid security bender “and had many innocent persons led to the torture, out of his fear lest he should leave any guilty person untortured.” Herod lured Antipater back to Jerusalem and had him handed over to the Roman governor of Syria, Varus,** for trial.
The evidence against the heir — including a captured potion that was given to a condemned prisoner and proved thereby to be a lethal poison — was quite extensive, and Antipater was imprisoned and disinherited in 5 BCE.
Just one year later, the inexorable march of time delivered Herod to his deathbed. Had Antipater but waited …
But the would-be king was still alive and in custody, so perhaps he still stood a chance. Impatient as ever, Antipater jumped the gun when he caught premature word that Herod, who was actually still clinging to life, had finally kicked off.
As soon as Antipater heard that, he took courage, and with joy in his looks besought his keepers, for a sum of money, to loose him and let him go; but the principal keeper of the prison did not only obstruct him in that his intention, but ran and told the king what his design was, hereupon the king cried out louder than his distemper would well bear, and immediately sent some of his guards and slew Antipater; he also gave order to have him buried at Hyrcanium, and altered his testament again, and therein made Archelaus,† his eldest son, and the brother of Antipas, his successor, and made Antipas tetrarch.
So Herod, having survived the slaughter of his son five days, died, having reigned thirty-four years.
** Varus, who seems to have been hated by the Jews for his cruelty, was destined for a specifically Roman notoriety of his own: he led the huge Roman force destroyed by Germanic tribes at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest. “Varus, give me back my legions!” Augustus cried upon hearing that three whole legions had been annihilated.
† Archelaus‘s succession did not last long; the emperor Augustus deposed him in 6 AD, leaving Herod Antipas to govern Judea.
On this date in 1801, four Jacobins were executed in Paris after Napoleon’s secret police entrapped them into a plot against the First Consul.
After seizing power on the 18th Brumaire (November 9, 1799) the new man on horseback needed to consolidate power against the opposition of both royalist and Jacobin opposition. It would prove to be the case that the latter were the declining force and the royalists were the ones in it for the long haul.
But it had not been many years since the Jacobins were the power in Paris, and Napoleon was a proactive type; his 18th Brumaire coup had been effected on the pretext of a phony Jacobin conspiracy. So instead of just waiting around for the attentats aimed at his person, Napoleon set his police chief — Joseph Fouche, the onetime “Executioner of Lyons” — to spin them up himself by the offices of agents provocateur.
Here, a police plant named Harel goaded several radicals into kind of supporting (or at least not resisting) his plot to dagger the Corsican at the opera in October 1800. “It was agreed to exaggerate the danger to which it was appropriate to the First Consul to have been exposed,” wrote the French diplomat Bourienne in his memoirs. Harel himself had to distribute the weapons.
Though the daggers conspirators would probably have been happy to see Napoleon dead, they were so little inspired to achieve that death by their own hands that most of them quailed to appear at the scene where the trap would be sprung. They ended up being arrested in their homes.
Four of the seven Jacobins were guillotined on January 30, 1801 (all these links are to French Wikipedia pages):
The Death of Caius Gracchus, by Jacobin artist Francois Topino-Lebrun (1798). The painting’s contemporary allusion was to Gracchus Babeuf, recently executed (after an unsuccessful suicide attempt in the courtroom) for the Conspiracy of Equals.
The artists implicated were both associates of Jacques-Louis David (and the opera being staged was one inspired by David’s The Oath of the Horatii). David had already by this time proved himself a willing lackey of the new regime, but the resulting brush with police scrutiny (David had to testify at the trial) surely underscored to the opportunistic painter that his own revolutionary past could be dropped on his head like Damocles’ sword at any moment Napoleon should choose.
On this date in 1932, Korean nationalist Lee Bong-chang was hanged at Ichigaya Prison for attempting to assassinate Japanese Emperor Hirohito.
The would-be assassin under arrest.
Remembered now as a patriotic hero, Lee on January 9, 1932 chucked a grenade at an imperial procession in Japan as it passed the imperial palace’s Sakuradamon Gate — the aptly-named Sakuradamon Incident. Korea at that point had been directly ruled by Japan since 1910.*
Lee’s hand grenade targeted the wrong carriage, and didn’t even kill the occupants of that conveyance — it just injured a guard. A second grenade failed to explode altogether.
Three months after Lee’s attempt, another Korean, Yoon Bong-gil, also tried to murder Hirohito with a bomb. Both men are interred with garlands at Seoul’s Hyochang Park. A statue of our man Lee, poised with a grenade in hand, stands in the park.
* Newspapers in China — also under Japanese occupation — expressed regret that Lee’s attempt had missed its mark; this impolite language helped to catalyze a Japanese show of force later that month known as the January 28 Incident or the Shanghai Incident.
On this date in 1517, the Italian cardinal Alfonso Petrucci was put to death for a conspiracy to murder Pope Leo X.
Leo had been acclaimed pope in 1513 at a conclave noted for nearly electing the worst possible pontiff when cardinals hedging their first-ballot votes while they took the temperature of the room all happened to vote alike for the feeblest candidate on the expectation that nobody else was voting for that guy.
Chastened by the near-miss, the leading candidate Giovanni de’ Medici promptly cut a deal with his chief legitimate rival for St. Peter’s seat, Raffaele Riario.*
This arrangement boosted to St. Peter’s throne the first of four popes from the Medici, intriguingly done with the acquiescence of Riario, who was kin to one of the prime movers of the anti-Medici Pazzi Conspiracy from many years before. Both Giovanni de’ Medici and Raffaele Riario were too young to have played a part in those events, but the lingering familial animosity might well bear on what transpired in the papacy of Giovanni de’ Medici — or rather, as we shall know him henceforth, Pope Leo X.
Leo was an entirely worldly character, whose enthusiasm for the peninsular politics that shaped his native habitat would help lead a German cleric to nail 95 theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg later this same year of 1517. “Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of Saint Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?” Martin Luther demanded (thesis 86) of Leo’s increasingly shameless indulgences racket.
Acting more the Medici than the Vicar of Christ, Leo in 1516 deposed the tyrant of Florence’s neighbor and rival, Siena. The declining Sienese Republic was a prime target of Florence’s expansionist ambitions, and indeed it would be gobbled up in the mid-16th century by the Florence-based and Medici-led Grand Duchy of Tuscany.
In Leo’s time, his coup shattered Siena’s ruling Petrucci family** to the injury of one of Leo’s fellow churchmen, Cardinal Alfonso Petrucci English Wikipedia entry | the much more detailed Italian). Alfonso now had cause to use his office for the agenda of his family and his city, and sought a countervailing anti-Medici arrangement with the condottieroFrancesco Maria I della Rovere, whom Leo was even then fighting a war against.
The arrangement came to nothing and Leo assured Alfonso of safe conduct for his return to Rome. It was just a lot of scheming Italian oligarchs doing what they always did, some of them while wearing cassocks.
Except upon Alfonso’s return, Leo had the Petrucci cardinal and another cardinal friendly to him clapped in prison for an alleged plot to poison the pontiff.
Cossetted court cardinals suddenly found themselves accused papicides under the threat (and, for some, the reality) of torture. Hard-to-credit “confessions” duly ensued with Leo enlivening the spring and summer of 1517 with preposterous security theatrics.
On June 8 they assembled in Consistory, when the Pope burst out into complaints. He had evidence, he said, that two other Cardinals whom he had trusted had joined in the conspiracy against him; if they would but come forward and confess he would pardon them freely; if they refused to confess he would have them carried to prison and would treat them like the other [accused]. The Cardinals gazed on one another in alarm, and no one moved. The Pope asked them to speak, and each in turn denied … Leo X’s dramatic stroke was a failure; he could not succeed in his unworthy attempt to induce some unsuspected person to criminate himself. (Source)
It’s hardly past thinking that rival factions would poison off a pope, and there’s been some latter-day research suggesting that something really was afoot. For that matter, Leo’s actual death in 1521 has often been suspected of being aided by an apothecary’s philter.
But outside the dramatics, Leo scarcely handled his prisoners in 1517 as if he were much in genuine fear for his life.
Instead, the practical pontifex maximus used it as a shakedown opportunity against anyone who could be denounced a confederate of the hotheaded young Petrucci. The Genoese Cardinal Sauli, arrested together with his friend Petrucci, was forced to buy his liberty for 50,000 ducats; Cardinal Riario, Leo’s old opposite number from the 1513 conclave, was implicated by Petrucci and Sauli as knowing himself the prospective beneficiary of the plot, and Riario was forced to retire to Naples upon payment of an exit tariff of 150,000 ducats plus his Roman palace. (It remains papal property to this day as the Palazzo della Cancelleria.) Further downmarket, Cardinals Soderini and Adrian fled Rome in despair of discharging the 25,000-ducat fines affixed upon each of them.
Money, however, would not suffice for Cardinal Petrucci, the active center of whatever conspiracy existed. Petrucci probably did murmur something one could construct as treason against his Holy Father, if one regarded them in their ecclesiastical rather than their dynastic positions, and he evidently engaged the Pope’s surgeon Giovanni Battista da Vercelli as an instrument of the proposed assassination or at least made loose talk to that effect.
While the doctor, along with Petrucci’s private secretary, were hauled through the streets to a demonstrative gibbeting, Petrucci was strangled privately in his cell on July 16, 1517. It was done by a Moor out of consideration for the impropriety of a Christian slaying a father of the Holy Church.
Beyond the rent-seeking and the rival-eradicating, Leo leveraged the purported plot to appoint 31 new cardinals in July 1517, basically doubling the College of Cardinals at one stroke while stocking the ranks with men who could offer him political support or timely bribes.
On this date in 1902, the Jewish socialist Hirsh Lekert was hanged in Vilna (Vilnius) for his attempt on that city’s governor.
The 22-year-old shoemaker, active in the Bund since childhood, was aggrieved along with many others by repressive measures taken against that leftist council by Vilna governor Victor von Wahl — culminating with the calculated humiliation he inflicted by personally overseeing the flogging of 20 Jews and 6 Poles arrested at a May Day demonstration.
As was thestyleatthetime, Lekert took some retaliatory potshots at the municipal dictator on May 18, 1902. He scored a couple of flesh wounds before the police on hand beat him all to hell.
And that was pretty well that. Lekert got sent to face a military tribunal with a foreordained result. But he made his bones with posterity by refusing to apologize and instead fearlessly vindicating his action as a defense of the Jewish worker’s dignity.
This carried his legend in the early 20th century Jewish community much further than one might assume.
For Jewish Workers Bund, “the first great attempt at the organization of the Jewish masses for secular and independent political activity,”* Lekert’s uncompromising embrace of revolutionary violence created an internal controversy: radical workers saw a martyred hero; elites, and the Bund officially, were much more wary of terrorism provoking official backlash in an empire where Jewish communities were still liable to be targeted by pogroms at any time. All this during a renaissance of cultural and political thought among Eastern European Jewry.
Even decades later, the esteem remaining Lekert from his sacrifice gave his name power. Another generation of Jewish terrorists — in Mandate Palestine — was incensed at the British for flogging some Irgun members, leading Menachem Begin to invoke Lekert as his justification for kidnapping several British soldiers and flogging them. (Source) The British had no stomach for this, and desisted with floggings.
Artistic tributes followed as well — folk songs; plays by Arn Kushnirov and H. Leyvik; the bust that illustrates this post; a monument in Soviet Minsk; even this appearance in a 1927 silent film called His Excellency: