Posts filed under 'Power'

1868: Stefan Karadzha, Bulgarian national hero

Add comment July 31st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1868, the Ottoman Turks executed Bulgarian revolutionary Stefan Karadzha.

Karadzha was one of several nationalist cheta (guerrilla) leaders aspiring to father the future sovereign Bulgaria.

Operating from adjacent, and conveniently independent, Romania, around 1866-1867, Karadzha and others of his ilk — Hadzhi Dimitur Nikolov, Filip Totyu, and the dramatically mustachioed Panayot Hitov — slipped over the mountainous border to organize revolutionary cells and foment ill-feeling towards the Sublime Porte.

In Bulgaria’s late 19th century progress towards independence, these figures are transitional characters between the vanguard leadership of Georgi Rakovski, and the ensuing primacy of Vasil Levski.

Levski himself was a guerrilla in this period; after the cheta legions suffered some backbreaking defeats in the field — one of which saw our man Karadzha captured so badly wounded that he was “half-dead before the emergency Turkish court”* when condemned to hang — Levski set about honeycombing his country with the revolutionary network that would shape the future revolutionary struggle.

A national hero of lesser stature than Levski, which is sure no disgrace, Karadzha has a village named after him.

* The quote is from the unimpeachable source of Karadzha’s Wikipedia page.

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1847: Manuel Antonio Ay, Caste War harbinger

Add comment July 26th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1847, the execution of Maya leader Manuel Antonio Ay in Valladolid kicked off the Yucatan’s decades-long Caste War.

Under Spanish administration, Mexico had a dizzying 16-tiered racial caste hierarchy.

The casta system was officially abolished when Mexico attained independence in 1821, but for Amerindians the newfound equality was more aspirational than real. It’s just that now they were looking up at Mexican-born criollo elites instead of Iberia-born peninsulares.

Either caste’s powers that be had long found found the Maya especially contumacious subjects; a Yucatan Mayan stronghold had, indeed, been the very last unconquered indigenous realm of the Americas to fall to Europeans — as late as 1697.

In 1846, a heavily Maya Yucatecan peasantry, strained by the economic extractions the Mexican state was imposing for its disastrous war with the United States, began rising against the overweening local gentry.

The progress and organization of these disturbances varied, but it’s the execution of our man, the 27-year-old chief of the village Chichimila, that traditionally marks turning-point galvanizing a full-scale rebellion. On July 18, as armed Maya regiments gathered in nearby Tihosuco, Valladolid’s authorities seized Miguel Antonio Ay for planning a rebellion. He had in his possession a letter from Bonifacio Novelo, a major Maya chief who would become one of the Caste War’s leading figures in the years to come — indeed, Terry Rugeley says in Yucatan’s Maya Peasantry and the Origins of the Caste War that Ay served for his persecutors as “a temporary substitute for Novelo, whom officials feared and hated more than any Maya.”

They’d never lay hands on Novelo, but his substitute was executed in the town square of Valladolid, and the body returned to exhibit in Chichimila in a futile attempt to cow resistance: Ay had, instead, become the first martyr of the coming war. Three days later, the gathering Maya army sacked the village of Tepich, beheading the colonel who commanded its defenses — the onset of generations of general war that persisted into the 20th century.

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1683: Lord Russell, Whig martyr

Add comment July 21st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1683 at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London the great Whig parliamentarian William, Lord Russell was beheaded with a legendary want of dexterity by Jack Ketch.

The third son of the Earl (later Duke) of Bedford, Lord Russell emerged from a decade of comfortable obscurity in the Parliament’s back benches to become a leading exponent of the nascent Whigs* opposed to royal absolutism and to Catholicism — two heads of the same coin, for the Whigs, given that the heir presumptive James had controversially converted to Catholicism.

The national freakout from 1678 over an alleged “Popish Plot” to undo Old Blighty gave Russell his cause; his leadership of the resulting parliamentary bid to exclude James from royal succession made the gregarious Russell “the governing man in the House of Commons”.

Lord Russell was a man of great candour, and of general reputation; universally beloved and trusted; of a generous and obliging temper,” his friend Gilbert Burnet recorded of our man. “He had given such proofs of an undaunted courage and of an unshaken firmness, that I never knew any man have so entire a credit in the nation as he had.”

Russell was, Burnet allowed, “a slow man, and of little discourse, but he had a true judgment, when he considered things at his own leisure: his understanding was not defective; but his virtues were so eminent, that they would have more than balanced real defects, if any had been found in the other.”

Chief among those virtues was his wholehearted sincerity for his cause — a passion the source of both his renown, and his destruction. Russell was heard to espouse the view that James ought not merely be excluded from succession, but executed like his father.

Matters never quite approached that point, but the crisis provoked by the Exclusion Bill firebrands led King Charles II to dissolve parliament in 1681, depriving the Whigs of their legal perch. In the ensuing years politics played out not as legislation but conspiracy, and the crown’s rather more successful harassment of same: many of the chief Whig actors were driven offstage to scaffolds, dungeons, or continental exile.

The half-dozen most eminent Whigs remaining — to whom, besides Lord Russell, we number the king’s illegitimate son Monmouth, the Earl of Essex, Baron Howard of Escrick,** Algernon Sidney, and John Hampden† — formed a sort of informal Council of Six who met secretly to consider the bad options available to the fractured Whig movement. Some section of the wider Whig network in which this Council operated turned eventually to considering the most desperate of measures.

Their Rye House Plot schemed to waylay and assassinate the royal person near a fortified manor handily on the king’s route back to London from the Newmarket races. It was owned then by a radical former soldier of Cromwell‘s New Model Army.

It has been long debated to what extent any of the top Whigs knew of or actively participated in this Guy Fawkesian plot, or its complement, a projected armed rising of the sort that Monmouth would indeed mount in 1685. One school of thought is that the Tories seized it as an expedient to eviscerate the remaining Whig leadership by conflating the entire movement with a regicidal scheme; another is that the Whig insistence upon its martyrs’ innocence — and Lord Russell is the chief man in this pantheon — has amounted to a fantastic propaganda coup.‡

In June 1683, a salter who was in on the Rye House planning got a cold sweat and informed on the Whigs. This backstab earned a royal pardon for himself, and started a familiar policing sequence of incriminated conspirators turning crown’s evidence and informing in their turn on the next part of the network.

Many of the Whigs fled to the Netherlands, received there by the House of Orange which would seat itself on the English throne inside of six years.

Lord Russell, however, refused to fly. He landed in the Tower of London by the end of the month, to face trial as a traitor on the evidence of his association with other Whigs and his entertaining the plan of raising an armed revolt. The judge’s summation to the jury even underscored that “You have not Evidence in the Case as there was [in other Rye House cases] against the Conspirators to kill the King at the Rye. There was a direct Evidence of a Consult to kill the King, that is not given you in this Case: This is an Act of contriving Rebellion, and an Insurrection within the Kingdom, and to seize his Guards, which is urged an Evidence, and surely is in itself an Evidence, to seize and destroy the King.”

Lord Russell’s case shifted around the fringes of actual innocence — those plans for Insurrection within the Kingdom, he said, occurred sometimes at meetings he happened to attend but only off on the side, or without Lord Russell’s own involvement or support. (Speaking from the scaffold, he would several times insist that his acts were at worst misprision of treason, which was no longer a capital crime at this point.)

Against this the crown produced Lord Howard, a cravenly interested party to be sure, who saved his own skin by testifying that the six-headed cabal was down to planning the specifics of the places where a rebellion might best be stirred up, the procurements of arms and bankroll that would be necessary to same, and how to draw Scotland into the fray as an ally. “Every one knows my Lord Russell is a Person of great Judgment, and not very lavish in Discourse,” Howard allowed on the point of Russell’s active assent to the plans. “We did not put it to the Vote, but it went without Contradiction, and I took it that all there gave their Consent.”

David Hume would observe in his History of Great Britain that Russell’s “present but not part of it” parsing didn’t make for a very compelling story. “Russell’s crime fell plainly under the statute … his defence was very feeble.”


Detail view (click for the full image) of an 1825 painting of Lord Russell’s trial, commissioned of George Hayter by Lord Russell’s admiring kinsman John Russell, Duke of Bedford. John Russell also wrote a biography of his famous ancestor. The unbroken succession of Dukes of Bedford from William Russell’s father continues to the present day; the current Duke of Bedford, 15th of that line, is one of Britain’s richest men.

Conscious of the great pulpit his scaffold would offer, Lord Russell drafted with the aid of his wife a last statement vindicating his own person and the Whig cause that flew into print before the onlookers at Lincoln’s Inn Fields were dipping their handkerchiefs into his martyrs’ blood.

Nor did I ever pretend to a great readiness in speaking: I wish those gentlemen of the law who have it, would make more conscience int he use of it, and not run men down by strains and fetches, impose on easy and willing juries, to the ruin of innocent men: For to kill by forms and subtilties of law, is the worst sort of murder …

I never had any design against the king’s life, or the life of any man whatsoever; so I never was in any contrivance of altering the government. What the heats, wickedness, passions, and vanities of other men have occasioned, I ought not to be answerable for; nor could I repress them, though I now suffer for them.

These notices drew furious confutations from Tory pamphleteers aghast at the face these traitors had to forswear their malice against King Charles; a battle of broadsides to control the historical narrative ensued, and was resolved in the Whigs’ favor by the imminent conquest of power by the aforementioned House of Orange. The Whig-aligned William and Mary reversed Lord Russell’s attainder in 1689 — but that’s never stood in the way of historians’ debates.

In a much lower historical register, Lord Russell’s execution was egregiously bumbled by the London headsman Jack Ketch, who had to bash repeatedly at the man’s neck before he could remove it from the shoulders. It is largely from this event that Ketch derives his lasting reputation as an incompetent and/or sadistic butcher, mutually reinforcing with Russell’s martyr status.

Ketch would later claim in a published “Apologie” issued against “those grievous Obloquies and Invectives that have been thrown upon me for not Severing my Lords Head from his Body at one blow” that his prey

died with more Galantry than Discresion, and did not dispose him for receiving of the fatal Stroke in such a posture as was most suitable, for whereas he should have put his hands before his Breast, or else behind him, he spread them out before him, nor would he be persuaded to give any Signal or pull his Cap over his eyes, which might possibly be the Occasion that discovering the Blow, he somewhat heav’d his Body

and besides that Ketch “receav’d some Interruption just as I was taking Aim, and going to give the Blow.” How would you like it if someone came to your workplace and did that?

The damage to Ketch’s reputation was already done. Two years later, en route to the block for a subsequent failed bid to topple the Stuarts, the Duke of Monmouth tipped Ketch with the scornful charge not to “hack me as you did my Lord Russell.” When Ketch botched that execution too, he was nearly lynched — but escaped the scaffold to live on in Punch and Judy and in the English tongue as the definitive lowlife executioner.

* Short for “Whiggamores”, who were Covenanter rebels in the 1640s. “Tories”, by contrast, took their name from Irish Catholic outlaws: each party became known by the slur its foes attached to it.

** Yes, another one of those Howards: this Howard’s great-grandfather lost his head for the Ridolfi intrigue.

† Hampden survived the suppression of Whig intrigues long enough to coin the term “Glorious Revolution” when the Stuarts were finally overthrown

‡ See for instance Lois Schwoerer, "William, Lord Russell: The Making of a Martyr, 1683-1983" in Journal of British Studies, January 1985 for a skeptical-of-Russell reading of the evidence. “The government did not concoct the plot; it was frightened by the revelations, whatever use it made of them. There is no doubt that proposals for an insurrection of some kind were discussed; Russell’s impetuosity and extremism make it more likely than not that he was an active party to these discussions. What is in doubt, since nothing came of the discussions, is how far the parties had gone in developing a concrete plan for a rising.”

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1476: Hans Bohm, the Drummer of Niklashausen

1 comment July 19th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1476, a peasant preacher who nearly stirred a revolution was consigned to the flames in Wurzburg.

Hans Behem (or similar variations on that surname, e.g. Bohm or Boheim) is known to posterity as the Drummer of Niklashausen, for when he descended into that Tauber River town for Carnival he performed with this instrument.

His vocation — his peasant’s lot in life — was sheep-herding.

One frigid Lent night in 1476, a year when the protracted winter freeze promised gaunt months ahead for the peasantry, Hans was wrapped in his heavy cloak watching his flock when he had an unexpected visitor:

Book CoverThe Virgin Mary appeared to him.

Richard Wunderli’s very appealing Peasant Fires: The Drummer of Niklashausen situates this queer episode in the foreign world of the early modern peasantry, when the supernatural suffused everyday life and the seasons of the year elapsed in “ritualized joy, laughter, deprivation, and seriousness.”

Carnival, just ended, was “liminal time”: time for inversion of natural orders, time for foolishness, time for liberation. If the rite confined and discharged potential social pressures, “liminal time” also held a latent threat to the ordered world of lords and bishops. What happened if sublime religious revelation burst the calendar’s boundaries and flooded ordinary time with the liminal?

[The Virgin] told him that both God and her Son were angry with mankind and were chastising all peoples with the dreadful cold and snow. People were consumed by their vanities, she said, and did not worship the Heavenly Family as was their due … Hans was ordered to go to the portal of the village church of Niklashausen, the Frauen kirche, the church dedicated to the Virgin, and there publicly he was to burn his drum and his shepherd’s pipe. Then he was to preach in Niklashausen, and the Mother of God would instruct him what to say. (Wunderli)

Thanks to this vision, 1476 would be a year out of time.

Hans apparently knew a Beghard mystic who dwelled in the hills where he pastured sheep. In the fullness of time, this anonymous man would die with the drummer; the precise nature of their association is a matter for speculation, though some would later charge (the better to derogate the illiterate boy’s supposed divine revelation) that the Beghard orchestrated the whole thing.

Nevertheless, the proximity to the Drummer of Niklashausen of an adherent of the suppressed Beghard movement underscores the link between Hans’s subsequent preaching and the centuries-old tradition of radical poverty. Elites long viewed these movements as seditious, and why not? Poverty was the material lot of most people just as it had been for Christ himself, but it was self-evidently not the lot of Christ’s vicars, who in fashionable attire bought with forced tithes and the sale of get-out-of-purgatory indulgences breezed obnoxiously past the everyday tolls and levies that crushed their flocks. Arrogant, predatory lords made out even better than that.

Sacralized poverty ever sat next door to levelling — next door to revolution.

The German abbot Johann Trithemius would complain of the “rustic, ignorant people [who] gathered together daily in Niklashausen,” and their terrifying-to-him vision “that peasants would become free and the clergy placed in servitude.”

What could peasants find more agreeable than that they had been freed from all payments of rents and tenant services, and that thereafter they would hold everything in common with the clergy and princes? Truly, what could a layman find more desirable than that he should see the clergy and priests immediately stripped of all privileges and liberties, and denied their collection of tithes, rents, and the proceeds of the holy altar?

Madness … or divinest sense.

Hans Behem preaching from a window, with his sinister adviser at his side. Detail (click for the full image) of a 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle illustration. (via Wikipedia)

Hans, of course, obeyed the Virgin’s charge to him.

Just after Easter, he publicly burned his drum — his own little vanity — and began preaching in Niklashausen.

Maybe the words came from the Beghard, or from the alleged mendicant friar who was rumored to whisper to Hans. Maybe the young man had a natural gift for oratory and a few lucky breaks.

But to tens of thousands of German peasants who soon began arriving, he was a holy youth, the vessel for heaven. Hans’s prayers lifted the interminable frost, sparing at least some portion of the year’s crop. Peasants from all around the region caught wind of the supernatural event and began up and disappearing from their places without notice or excuse, leaving work half-done to join troops of their fellows making pilgrims’ tracks to Niklashausen.

There, they too were summoned to cast aside all their own vanities as well,* and into the flames went stylish clothes, sinful cards and dice.

“They cut the long points off their shoes,” wrote a disdainful chronicler Georg Widman. “And trimmed their hair, and it seemed as though a dozen carts would not suffice to haul away the hair and shoes being discarded that day, to say nothing of embroidered kerchiefs, robes, doublets.”

The drummer’s preaching veered apocalyptic. Medieval people would have believed of a course that God’s pleasure or disfavor went abroad in the world; the awful winter (only the latest in a series) and, for peasants, a generation of deteriorating material conditions and multiplying taxes, would have stood witness to the Lord’s dissatisfaction. The miracles attributed to Hans — healing the lame, the blind, and the mute; even raising a drowned child from the dead — were of a piece with his words, with the bonfires, with the favor of the Virgin Mary.

Hans’s call to renewal was not a summons to save individual souls but a charge to right the evils in the world that had laid divine afflictions upon all: “If they do not forthwith mend their lives, the whole world will be made to suffer affliction for their sins.” (Source)

The Emperor is a miscreant, and the Pope a nonentity. It is the Emperor who gives to princes, counts, and knights authority to tax and burden the common people. Alas! for you, poor devils!” Spies in the crowds, no doubt paraphrasing prejudicially, captured for the alarmed archbishop and lords the dangerous sentiments being preached in Niklashausen to crowds swollen into the tens of thousands who might not easily be controlled.

Princes, civil and ecclesiastical, ought to possess no more than common folk, and then all would have plenty. The time would come when princes and nobles would have to labour for a day’s wage. The fish in the water, and the game upon the land, ought to be common. Tolls, road-money, servitudes, rents, taxes, and tithes to spiritual or temporal superiors were to be wholly done away with.

Most frightful of all was the open threat to slay worthless priests, that soon clerics would cover their head with their hand for fear of being caught out with a tonsure. Hans Behem’s crowds rejoiced at the prospect; a clergyman would write later that summer of the pilgrims’ “hateful song”: “O God in Heaven, on you we call / Help us seize our priests and kill them all.”**

On the night of July 12, 1476 — the eve before the Drummer was to preach a sermon for which he had asked his followers to arrive armed — 34 mounted knights burst into the farmhouse and hustled the firebrand into custody before anyone could resist.

The movement was beheaded and it fractured quickly: after a day of confusion, some of them set off on a march to nearby Wurzburg, where the Drummer languished in the Archbishop’s fortress, a position that the rabble was in no position to take by main force. Many gave up the enterprise, but dozens, maybe a hundred or more, were captured and filled Wurzburg’s dungeons to overflowing.

Almost all were ultimately released. Only three were put to trial: Hans himself, the mysterious Beghard, and a peasant who had risen up after Hans’s arrest to incite the crowd to kill the Wurzburg clergy. Hans was tortured by the the rope, hoisted into the air by his pinioned hands then dropped with all the weight of his body tearing at his shoulders. They did this to him over and over, until he said that he was a fraud, that Mary never came to him, that he never worked a miracle, that that “wandering, cunning mendicant friar contrived everything.”

Hans was burnt flesh either way: this is the fate of martyrs. It was essential that he also be discredited, though the effect was scarcely immediate.

Certainly, there were those who with imprudent faith believed that his whole affair originated in heaven … they hoped that God would preserve him from being killed; or if God allowed him to die, then He would take immediate vengeance on the courts that condemned the Youth.

Others, who were more sane, among whom were the bishop and his clergy, did not fear the vengeance of God for the death of this wicked man; rather, they earnestly, sensibly, and rationally feared that spiteful, evil spirits — who take delight in possessing superstitious people — would scheme some plot of guile and deceit at the execution. For they judged that little Hans was not a man of God but was possessed by the devil.

At last the judgment of death to little Hans was to be carried out … After he had been led to a level piece of ground, which is behind my monastery near the house of the lepers, he was seated and bound with ropes. Nearly all the citizens of the town stood by armed, waiting for him to be delivered to the fires. In the meantime, two evildoers who were with him received a sentence to have their heads cut off.

After they were beheaded, little Hans asked the magistrate: “Are you going to hurt me?” The magistrate replied: “No, but someone has prepared a bath for you” — for the Youth had not yet seen the pile of wood for the fire, or if he had seen it, he perhaps did not know what it was.


From the Nuremberg Chronicle

When he was tied to the stake for burning, however, he sang certain songs or verses in a high voice about Our Lady, which he had composed in the German language. Among the bystanders were many who believed that the man could not be burned because of the merit of his holiness, by which they thought he would be preserved by the Mother of God. Hence, they were afraid to stand near him. They were terrified that perhaps the fire would be scattered about by divine fury and would consume those observing the execution. Others feared that the Youth could not be burned because of the protection of demons or of some other sorcery. Therefore, the executioner — who also feared this — caused all the Youth’s hairs to be shaved, so that no evil spirit or demon would be able to hide in them.

Bound to the post, the Youth shouted his songs. But as soon as the fire was set below him and he felt the flames, he cried out three times with a weeping voice: “Ow, ow, ow.” He was then engulfed by the flames. His voice uttered nothing again. Consumed by the voracious fire, he was reduced to ashes. No miracles happened, nothing that demonstrated that Innocence had been consumed by fire. Nevertheless, so that the frivolous devotion and fear of stupid people not fashion him into a martyr, the executioner ordered that all his ashes be thrown into the river. After this was done, the gathering of the people at Niklashausen came to an end.

The “gathering” did not quite blow away with the Drummer’s ashes, not just like that.

Despite edicts from nearby cities against the practice, pilgrims continued journeying to Niklashausen over the following months: not with the number and character sufficient to threaten revolution, but more than enough to make the authorities jumpy. The Archbishop was so desperate to quash these pilgrimages that in 1477 he had the church at Niklashausen razed.

In those years and long after, chroniclers as one scorned the Drummer and his flock; Sebastian Brant’s 1494 satire Ship of Fools also singles out des sackpfeifers von Nickelshusen (the bagpiper of Niklashausen) and those who followed him.† Hans’s people, illiterate commoners, don’t have a voice in the histories.

The grievances were never really answered. It was not until 1518 that authorities finally deemed it safe enough to rebuild the Niklashausen church … but even then, Germany had not heard the last of peasant revolution.

* Bonfires of the vanities were all the rage

** Wunderli notes the movement’s apparent indifference to Jews, despite its falling in the immediate wake of one of Europe’s most inflammatory blood libel cases. These peasants were not assembled for a pogrom; it was their Christian oppressors whom they hated.

† See the German version Das Narrenschiff, under “verachtung der gschrift”, “contempt of scripture”.

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1651: Wilhelm Biener, faithful counsellor

Add comment July 17th, 2014 Headsman

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living on in Tyrol folk tradition, Biener took a leap into the Romantic-era national consciousness thanks to writer Hermann Schmid, who popularized Biener’s legend with a 19th century historical novel, The Chancellor of Tyrol; public domain versions can be read online in two volumes (1, 2); a theatrical adaptation by Josef Wenter is still staged to this day.


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

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1517: Cardinal Alfonso Petrucci, plotter

Add comment July 16th, 2014 Headsman

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 condottiero Francesco 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.

* Riario’s legacy can still be seen around the Vatican to this day: he’s the guy who brought Michelangelo to Rome.

** Leo’s coup deposed one Petrucci and raised up a different, more compliant Petrucci.

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756: Yang Guifei, favored concubine

Add comment July 15th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 756, the imperial consort Yang Guifei was expediently executed during the An Lushan Rebellion.

The Tang dynasty Emperor Xuanzong, whose beloved concubine Yang was, undertook this cruel extremity only in great duress. Initially married to one of the emperor’s sons, Yang so enamored the emperor that he usurped the prince’s place and got the kid a different wife. In the c. 800 classic poem “Song of Everlasting Sorrow” the poet Bai Juyi mused on the smitten sovereign rushing headlong into waiting tragedy.

The emperor neglected the world from that moment,
Lavished his time on her in endless enjoyment.
She was his springtime mistress, and his midnight tyrant.
Though there were three thousand ladies all of great beauty,a
All his gifts were devoted to one person.

Indeed, over the 740s Yang’s relations rose at court on the strength of her hold over the emperor, causing no few resentments among courtiers now obliged to flatter them. She’s been cast as a femme fatale, a siren whose chords called the emperor to capsize his own ship of state.

The general An Lushan was the rock of his ruin. Though An Lushan’s revolt would one day claim Yang’s life, he was a great favorite of hers and eventually adopted as Yang’s son; it was whispered that the imperial gifts showered on this commander might reflect favor with the concubine quite surpassing the bounds of propriety.

The most important favor was command of all northern China’s garrisons, with 150,000-plus troops.

His influence (and the fact that he was not ethnically Han, but of Turkic and Iranic extraction) made him rivals at the imperial court, even including the concubine Yang’s cousin, chancellor Yang Guozhong.

One can speculate as to who suspected whom first, but as we’ve seen with the Roman Empire a sufficiently strong inducement to treachery inevitably becomes tantamount to the real thing: eventually one’s intemperate supporters or implacable enemies will cast the die for even the most retiring general. An Lushan was Caesar enough to cross the Tang’s Rubicon, which for him was the Yellow River, above which his armies had been confined.

In the winter of 755-756, An crossed this river and marched towards Chang’an (Xi’an, then the imperial capital and the world’s most populous city), styling himself the Emperor of Yan. This aspirant state proved far from durable, and vanished by 763 — but by the time that long term had come into view, all of our principal characters were dead.

Yang Guifei was the first of them. (Plenty of secondary characters — generals, eunuchs, rivals and family of rivals — were being put to death all along and well before Yang, of course.) As the rebel army advanced on the capital, Xuanzong and his court fled in panic, Yang included. One day’s march further inland towards Chengdu, the royal guards themselves rebelled. Embittered like many others by the sway Yang and her family held — and blaming the consort for the ignominious retreat they were embarked upon — the soldiers refused to proceed without Yang’s execution. Xuanzong had little choice under the circumstances but to assent to her summary strangulation.

The Son of Heaven made good his escape, and his kingdom prevailed in the fight. (An was assassinated in 757.) Xuanzong himself, however, had to abdicate in favor of his son before the chaotic summer was out, and lived out his last five years as Taishang Huang, “Retired Emperor”.

One can only guess at the regrets he had in those days for the beloved mistress sacrificed to the safety of his person and throne. It’s a circumstance that has become a staple of Chinese literature over the centuries since, from the aforeentioned Bai Juyi right down to the present day, in every medium imaginable.

In Bai’s “Song of Everlasting Sorrow”, the bereft former emperor at last sends a Taoist priest to the heavens in search of his lost love, whose spirit has not even appeared to him in a dream. Yang Guifei sends the messenger back with a last pledge of sundered love:

“Our spirits belong together, like these precious fragments,
Sometime, in earth or heaven, we shall meet again.”
And she sent these words, by the Taoist, to remind him
of their midnight vow, secret between them.
“On that Seventh night, of the Herdboy and the Weaver,
In the silent Palace we declared our dream was
To fly together in the sky, two birds on the same wing,
To grow together on the earth, two branches of one tree.”

Earth fades, Heaven fades, at the end of days.
But Everlasting Sorrow endures always.

Yang Guifei’s tomb remains a popular tourist destination to this date.

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1962: Talduwe Somarama, Ceylon assassin

Add comment July 7th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1962, the Buddhist monk — turned Christian convert in detention — Talduwe Somarama was hanged for assassinating Ceylon Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. (Ceylon became Sri Lanka in 1972.)

Somarama was a 44-year-old ayurvedic medicine practitioner when he was tapped for the job by a powerful Buddhist named Mapitigana Buddharakkitha, high priest of the Kelaniya temple. The latter had played kingmaker in Bandaranaike’s 1956 election — and had perhaps two interlocking grievances against Bandaranaike:

  1. Buddharakkitha had been balked by the government of lucrative trade concessions he anticipated as the quid for his quo; and,
  2. Buddharakkitha was closely linked to the movement of partisan Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists who in Ceylon’s early years systematically discriminated against the island’s ethnic Tamils — and were angered at Bandaranaike’s halting moves to reach an accommodation.*

Exploiting the prerogatives of clergy, Somarama obtained a September 25, 1959, meeting un-screened by security for one of the Prime Minister’s public-audience days, a revolver secreted in his saffron robes. When Bandaranaike knelt ceremonially to the monk, Somarama shot him in the stomach.

The wound was mortal, but the Prime Minister lingered on all that night — long enough even to give a televised address from his hospital bed asking his countrymen to “show compassion to” his assassin “and not try to wreak vengeance on him.”* Only months before the murder, ethnic riots had devastated minority Tamil communities, and another pogrom might have been averted on this occasion only the quick thinking of a government official to promulgate immediate word that the assassin was not Tamil.

Ironically Buddharakkitha was so far above suspicion at that he was solicited for a broadcast eulogy of his victim. One can only imagine his relish at the performance — but it was not to last. Buddharakkitha was tried as a conspirator for orchestrating Somarama’s deed, dodged a prospective death sentence, and died in 1967 serving a prison sentence at hard labor.


Talduwe Somara on the steps of the courthouse …


… and Buddharakkitha likewise.

Bandaranaike’s daughter Sirimavo succeeded him as Prime Minister in 1960, becoming the world’s first elected female head of government. A second daughter, Chandrika, and a son, Anura, have also been prominent Sri Lanka politicians.

This three-part series unpacks some of the primary sources on the murder and speculates as to cui bono: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

* Buddharakkitha, also noted for exploring paths to enlightenment with various Sinhalese elites’ wives, was the high priest of the Kelaniya temple — which is the titular temple in the 1953 Sinhalese nationalist tract The Revolt in the Temple, “a blunt statement that the Tamils are a threat to [the Sinhalese] historic mission.” Its author was Don Charles Wijewardena, who had been a patron of Bandaranaike as a young monk; the (still-extant) Wijewardena dynasty had likewise associated itself with the Kelaniya temple itself, the political and the devotional mutually reinforcing one another.

The Sinhala-Tamil conflict stoked in these years has progressed in the decades since to ever-bloodier consequences.

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1731: Jose de Antequera, Paraguayan comunero rebel

Add comment July 5th, 2014 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

The Spanish had not heard the end of Antequera.

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

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

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1622: Samuel Korecki, defeated magnate

Add comment June 27th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1622, the swashbuckling Ruthenian nobleman Samuel Korecki was strangled by the Ottomans.

Korecki English Wikipedia entry | Polish) was a szlachcic of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth at that empire’s early 17th century peak.

Korecki’s clan hung its zupans at Korets, in present-day western Ukraine, and the young Samuel fought gleefully in the early 1600s in the train of the legendary commander Stanislaw Zolkiewski when the Polish army was ravaging Russia.

Samuel Korecki married the daughter of Jeremi(ah) Mohila or Movila, a boyar who contended for the Moldavian at the turn of the century; it was by this link that he too became drawn into the politics of that frontier realm, along with several other powerful families of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This period is known as the Moldavian Magnate Wars.

Though a dependency of the Ottomans, Moldavia had proven appealing in the past for Polish adventurers. The late Mohila had bequeathed power in Moldavia to his son Constantine but after some years Constantine’s tributary payments to Istanbul started to lag. His resulting deposition by the sultan saw Constantine flee to Polish territory — and his brother-in-law Korecki come to his aid by mounting an armed expedition meant to depose the Ottoman replacement.*

Korecki was captured by the Turks in the process, dramatically escaped via Greece and Italy (and a celebrity-making papal audience into the bargain), then returned to the field only to be captured again at the Battle of Cecora in 1620.

This decisive Ottoman victory portended ill and not just for Korecki personally.


19th century woodcut illustrating the death of Samuel Korecki. (Source)

As our man was hauled back to Istanbul (he would not escape a second time), the rampant Turks drove for Ukraine with the intention of taking a bite out of it for the Sublime Porte.

The Poles were able to stanch the advance with a stand at Khotyn, but the Commonwealth would shift into an unmistakable decline thereafter; by mid-century, rebellious Cossacks had taken Ukraine over to Russian protection, while Swedish incursions from the north so greatly reduced Poland’s reach that the period is known as the Deluge. (For his part, the teenage Ottoman sultan Osman II went home from this campaign determined to reform the Janissary corps whom he blamed for the unsatisfying stalemate of Khotyn; these dangerous slave-soldiers vetoed the plan by murdering Osman instead.)

* Moldavia was a secondary foreign policy concern for the Ottomans, who were absorbed in this period by war with Persia.

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