Posts filed under 'Women'

1889: Louisa Collins, the last woman hanged in New South Wales

Add comment January 8th, 2020 Headsman

The last woman hanged in New South Wales, Australia was the “Botany Murderess” Louisa Collins, on this date in 1889.

A transport convict’s daughter from near Merriwa, Collins was accused in the courts and the common run of opinion of murdering both her husbands with arsenic — first Charles Andrews, 13 years her senior and father to nine of her 10 children* — and then Michael Collins, the lover with whom she scandalously fell into bed while husband’s body was still warm, and indeed before: desperate to relieve the financial pressure of their large family, Charles and Louisa had taken in boarders, of whom Michael Collins was one — at least until Charles threw him out for getting too familiar with the lady of the house.

The fact that this adulterous couple immediately shacked up (and, as our principal’s surname will have signaled, shortly thereafter wed) after a stomach ailment felled the husband set tongues a-wag and eyebrows a-cock. The subsequent death of Michael and Louisa’s only child together,** and then of Michael himself, could not but appear confirmation of the very worst.

Although accused, she was only convicted once over the course of four trials.

Where murder is concerned, any one will do for the law no matter the conviction ratio. But the chain obviously smacks of an unseemly jury-shopping, facilitated by the first three panels’ failure to reach any verdict rather than acquit outright and cinched by the Crown’s convincing the court to admit at her last trial previously-barred testimony.

The hard evidence remained stubbornly circumstantial as usual with arsenic cases: her paramour and an insurance policy on her husband supplied a motive that was positive but far from dispositive, and the alleged means was nothing more than a commercial pest controller called Rough On Rats whose presence in the house would have incriminated half of Australia.† (Arsenic was also used in the sheepskin tanning industry where both of Louisa’s late men sweated their daily bread.) Neighbors fleshed out these bare bones with eye-of-the-beholder judgments against Louisa’s comportment, such as the insufficient-mourning canard that’s still a staple of wrongful convictions.

Moreover, Louisa Collins’s case became enmeshed in the era’s web of gender politics: the campaign soliciting clemency on grounds of femininity overlapped but also contradicted the simultaneous campaign for women’s suffrage, goring oxes left and right.

That gore still spatters latter-day observers of this still-fascinating affair, who in recent years have enjoyed two different volumes illuminating the respective silhouette-halves that Louisa Collins presents posterity: a woman railroaded (Last Woman Hanged, by Caroline Overington (author interview)); and, cold-blooded murderess (Black Widow: The true story of Australia’s first female serial killer, by Carol Baxter (author interview)). There’s also a recent historical novel, The Killing Of Louisa, by Janet Lee (author interiew).

Two things that all parties can agree on: first, that her quadruple prosecution makes for a troubling legal spectacle — “a collusion between the prosecution and the state and the judiciary to keep her going to trial until the desired result,” as Baxter put it; and second, that Collins’s eventual hanging at Darlinghurst was a ghastly botch. The next day’s Sydney Morning Herald reported how

The executioner signalled to his assistant to pull the lever, but the handle refused to move. It could be seen that pressure was applied, and also that the pin which held the handle in its place was fast in its slot. The assistant endeavoured to remove the pin, but failed, and in a few seconds a mallet was used. Four or five blows were applied Mrs Collins meanwhile standing perfectly upright and motionless-before the pin gave way.

The delay caused could not have been short of one minute, when the lever moved and the body fell through in a slightly curved position. After one swing to the side and in a moment it was suspended perpendicularly, with the face towards the yard. There was a slight spurt of blood, followed by a thin stream which ran down the dress and spotted the floor beneath. Nearer examination showed that the strain of the drop had so far opened the neck as to completely sever the windpipe, and that the body was hanging by the vertebra. Slowly the body turned round on the rope until the front part faced the doorway, and there it remained stationary until lowered by the executioner on to a wicker bier. Death was instantaneous. After hanging for 20 minutes the corpse was conveyed to the inquest room, and again given over to the female warders.


Poor service: hangman Robert Rice Howard, aka “Nosey Bob” after a distinctive disfigurement of that appendage courtesy of a horse’s backheel.

* Seven of these nine children by Charles Andrews survived infancy. At the time of the alleged murders, five of these children still shared the house with their parents.

** The possible murder of the infant Collins child wasn’t on Louisa’s charge sheet but remains an understandable suspicion.

† As a brand name for arsenic, Rough On Rats became a ready resource for numerous aspiring suicides and homicides.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1739: Elizabeth Harrard

Add comment December 21st, 2019 Richard Clark

(Thanks to Richard Clark of Capital Punishment U.K. for the guest post, a reprint of an article originally published on that site with some explanatory links added by Executed Today. CapitalPunishmentUK.org features a trove of research and feature articles on the death penalty in England and elsewhere. -ed.)

The recovery of the body of a tiny baby boy was carried out by the Beadle of Isleworth, Mr. John Thackery, on Saturday the 14th of July 1739. He had been summoned to the bank of the Powder Mills River by a local farmer, one Mr. Ions who had discovered the baby floating in the river. Mr. Ions had taken the baby from the water and placed it on the grass beside the bank. The Beadle examined the corpse and noted that it had only been in the water a short while and was not bloated. He also noted that the little boy had received a severe blow to the left side of the head and that there was congealed blood around the wound. John Thackery took the child to the Stock House and the Middlesex Coroner, Mr. Wright, was informed of the death. Whilst there Mr. Thackery was told that there was a suspicion that one Elizabeth Harrard, of Isleworth was the mother of the baby and he duly investigated this. Elizabeth was detained by the Overseers of the Poor for neighbouring Teddington and bought back to Isleworth. She was in a very weak condition and Thackery was ordered to get her a bed as she was too ill to be sent to Newgate prison.

After Elizabeth’s arrest a Mrs. Elizabeth Nell examined the prisoner in her capacity as a midwife. Elizabeth told Mrs. Nell that she had given birth to a baby, claiming that it had been born on the previous Monday in a field and that she had been disturbed by some men and left the baby. Mrs. Nell replied that she did not believe this story and Elizabeth told her that the child was stillborn. Again Mrs. Nell said she did not believe this as she could tell from the corpse that the baby had been born alive. It seems that Elizabeth did not realise that Mrs. Nell was a professional midwife and when this was pointed out to her, Elizabeth gave another version of events. She now told Mrs. Nell that the baby had been born alive and had survived for just fifteen minutes. Elizabeth was resting by the river bank after giving birth and had the child on her lap when it rolled off and fell into the river. Mrs. Nell persisted with her questioning and the story changed a little, with Elizabeth now saying that the baby had lived for thirty minutes and that she wrapped it part of her apron and threw it into the river after it had been dead for an hour. Mrs. Nell had examined the corpse after it was recovered and noted that there was no water in it, in other words it had not drowned and felt that the cause of death was a severe blow to the head.

The Inquest was held on Wednesday the 18th of July and the coroner directed Mr. Thackery to show the body to Elizabeth. She begged him not to saying “’tis my own child, born of my own body.” Thackery asked her how she could tell that it was her child without seeing it. Elizabeth continued to insist that it was her child and implored the Beadle not to open the coffin.

The coroner’s court found that the child had been murdered by its mother and Elizabeth was committed for trial at the Old Bailey. This took place on the 6th of September 1739 and evidence was brought against her by John Thackery, Mrs. Elizabeth Nell and Mrs. Elizabeth Thackery (the Beadle’s wife), with Samuel Goodwin giving evidence for Elizabeth. John Thackery related the above story to the court.

Mrs. Thackery, the Beadle’s wife, also gave evidence against Elizabeth. Her husband had initially taken Elizabeth to a pub called the Sign of the Bell after her arrest and had asked his wife to look after her. She told the court that she had asked Elizabeth if she was the mother of the baby that had been found and Elizabeth agreed that she was. She also named the father as one John Gadd whom she had lived with for some time but who had deserted her when she became pregnant. She had also had a previous pregnancy by him which had miscarried. Elizabeth confessed to Mrs. Thackery that the baby had been born alive and that she had put it into the river. She told Mrs. Thackery that she was very poor indeed and had nothing to wrap the baby in, other than an old piece of apron.

In her own statement Elizabeth told the court that on the day the baby died she had walked to Richmond to seek work and had to rest because she had gone into labour. The Beadle of Richmond came to her and refused to get a woman to help her, instead threatening her and telling her to leave the parish immediately. She was similarly treated by Beadle of Twickenham and left in the field by the river to sort out her problems by her self. She told the court that she was in a very poor physical condition by this time and that she did not know whether the baby was dead or alive. Mrs. Nell confirmed that Elizabeth had told her of the Beadle of Richmond refusing her any form of assistance.

The only witness for the defence, other than Elizabeth herself, was Samuel Goodwin. He told the court that he has seen Elizabeth with John Gadd on several occasions and that she had told him that Gadd had taken the apron from her after the baby was born, torn off a piece of it and wrapped the baby in it before taking it away. He implied that it was therefore Gadd who had thrown it into the river and not Elizabeth. Against the rest of the evidence this was not really convincing and the jury returned a verdict of guilty against Elizabeth.

The Folly, Extravagance, and Luxury of young Gentlemen at this Time, especially of those about the Inns of Court, is but too notorious: Would they take warning by my Example, they would undoubtedly prevent those shocking Evils that are the sure Attendants upon Extravagance and Debauchery. Let them in the full Career of their Pleasures, reflect upon me. I have enjoy’d all the mad Delights the World could supply me with, have exhausted my Patrimony, impair’d my Health, and embarrass’d my Circumstances, in the Pursuit of Pleasure, and the Gratification of the Passions; the Consequence of which Conduct and Indulgence, (with bitterness of Soul I speak it) is my inevitable Destruction. Dear Friends, let Moderation and Temperance guide you in pursuit of Pleasure, acquiesce in the Dispensations of Providence, rest satisfy’d with the Portion that Heaven has bless’d you with, and be scrupulously tender of every Man’s Property. I am now upon the Point of bidding an eternal Adieu to the World, and what I speak is, from the very bottom of my Soul, and from the clear Ideas I have of the Beauty and Excellence of Virtue and Sobriety, and the pernicious Result of Vice and Immorality. Finally, my Brethren, whatsoever Things are honest, whatsoever Things are just, whatsoever Things are lovely, whatsoever Things are of good Report, if there be any Praise, if there be any Honour, think on these Things.

-last letter of William Barkwith, another condemned executed on Elizabeth Harrard’s same hanging-day

She was returned to Newgate to await sentence at the end of the Sessions and was duly condemned to hang. The Recorder did not recommend leniency in Elizabeth’s case and so she was scheduled for execution on the next “hanging day” which was to be Friday the 21st of December 1739. With her in the carts that morning were John Albin, John Maw, William Barkwith, James Shields, Charles Spinnel and Thomas Dent, all of whom had been convicted of highway robbery, Richard Turner who was to hang for stealing in dwelling house and Edward Goynes who had murdered his wife.

The usual procession set off for the journey to Tyburn where the prisoners were prepared by John Thrift and his assistants before all ten were launched into eternity together as the carts were drawn from under them. After they were suspended Susanna Broom was led to a stake that had been set up near the gallows and strangled and then burned for the Petty Treason murder by stabbing of her husband, John.

Elizabeth was one of seven women who were hanged nationally in 1739, and one of four to die for the murder of her bastard child.

Comment. It is impossible in this day and age to imagine the mental and physical condition that Elizabeth was in at the time the baby died. She was totally destitute, abandoned by her boyfriend, in great pain, very weak from having just given birth and denied assistance of any kind by the authorities. If indeed she did kill her baby it is not hard to understand the total desperation that led her to do so. However none of these factors, all of which were either known to the court at the time, or were basically self evident facts, were seen as an excuse for her crime in 1739.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Mass Executions,Murder,Other Voices,Public Executions,Women

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1953: Carl Hall and Bonnie Brown Heady

Add comment December 18th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1953 — six months after the execution of a more notorious couple, the Rosenbergs — two Missouri kidnappers were gassed together for the abduction-murder of a millionaire car dealer’s son.

Robert Greenlease owed his millions to a string of midwestern GM dealerships planted at the very flowering of America’s interstate system and suburbanization.

Carl Hall and Bonnie Brown Heady reckoned he’d owe some of those millions to them, too.

On September 28 of 1953, those two snatched little Bobby Greenlease Jr from the grounds of a Catholic school in Kansas City via the all-too-easy expedient of Heady presenting herself as Bobby’s aunt.

Then they extorted Sr. to the tune of $600,000, and after several days’ negotiations, Greenlease paid it through an intermediary — a record US ransom sum that would not be surpassed until 1971.

But the motor magnate never saw his son again. Even by the time they’d sent their first ransom note, the kidnappers had shot little Bobby dead at a deserted farm just over the state line in Kansas.

Although this audacious attack on a minor oligarch made national headlines — it couldn’t help but remind of the Lindbergh baby case — the crooks basically had an opportunity to get away scot-free with all their ill-gotten gains. Bobby Greenlease’s body wasn’t discovered until a couple of days after the ransom was paid, and nobody knew who the abductors were at that point.

Hall and Heady absconded to St. Louis but the wealth, like the crime itself, was just too much for these small-time shoulders to bear. Instead of lying low, Hall — after ditching Heady and taking most of the ransom with him, a reckless provocation of his co-conspirator that might itself have blown up his cover in short order — took up residence in an expensive hotel and started throwing money around. A cabbie reported the shabby character’s suspicious spending, and in no time at all the two were in custody.

A further mystery, never solved, entered the case on the night of Hall’s arrest: half the ransom money disappeared. The mob-connected lieutenant who collared Hall and brought him to the station less $300,000 of the score eventually resigned from the force in disgrace and faced federal prosecution for misappropriation and perjury; the cop indicted with him earned a presidential pardon by turning on his comrade. Other ideas were that the criminals had buried half the money (they claimed this, for a while) and that better-connected figures higher up the food chain had taken in. All the bills’ serial numbers had been recorded but only a few were ever known to have surfaced again in later years, in Michigan and Mexico; where these trace remains of a family tragedy might rest today is anybody’s guess.

As for Hall and Heady, they emerged into the glare of national infamy and — because they had crossed the Kansas-Missouri state line — a federal prosecution. Heady remains to this day the last woman executed under U.S. federal auspices.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has a detailed photographic retrospective here.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Gassed,History,Kidnapping,Milestones,Missouri,Murder,Pelf,U.S. Federal,USA,Women

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1669: Susanna One-Ear

Add comment December 13th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1669, a slave of the Dutch East India Company named Susanna was sewn into a rock-weighted sack and tossed into Table Bay as punishment for infanticide in the Cape Colony (present-day South Africa).

The spare narration of the company’s journal describes Susanna’s speedy progress from the (not further explained) strangulation of her “half-caste” infant girl — reported on December 11, tried on December 12, and executed on December 13.

December 11th. — In the evening meeting the Fiscal [Cornelis de Cretzer] reported that a female slave of the Company, named Susanna of Bengal, lying stiff and stinking of the small-pox in the slave house, had not hesitated to strangle her infant, a half-caste girl; he likewise submitted the sworn declaration of the surgeon, which mentioned that the poor innocent child had died in consequence. The Council having considered this serious affair at once, ordered that the murderous pig should be placed in confinement in order to be punished according to her deserts.

December 12th. — This evening the Council decreed that the female slave, above mentioned, should be tied up in a bag and thrown into the sea. The minister [Adrianus de Voogd] and sick comforter [Joannes à Bolte(n)] were accordingly sent to her, to admonish her to repentence [sic] of what she had done, so that she might in a Christian manner prepare herself for death to-morrow afternoon.

December 13th. — About 11 o’clock the sentence was read here on the square in presence of the murderess and the public, and afterwards carried out on the roadstead in the presence of all the slaves. For the maintenance of justice it was executed with death [by drowning?].

Unsurprisingly we know little else about Susanna … but we do know something.

A documentation project on the first decades of the Cape Colony features a series called “Uprooted Lives”, by Mansell Upham focusing on the lives of slaves and aboriginals affected by the settlement has a fantastic article (pdf) on “Susanna van Bengale” or “Susanna Een Oor” (Susanna One-Ear). It’s a highly recommended read, not only illuminating the judicial perspectives on infanticide that would have informed her judges, but tracing other, fleeting glimpses of Susanna supplied by the documentary record and illuminating the context of her case in view of two other important trials of mothers that preceded it.

It’s worth the click to read it here.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Drowned,Execution,History,Murder,Netherlands,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Slaves,South Africa,Torture,Women

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2011: Amina bint Abdul Halim bin Salem Nasser

Add comment December 12th, 2019 Headsman

Per the BBC’s report of a Saudi Interior Ministry statement, a woman named Amina bint Abdul Halim bin Salem Nasser was beheaded for sorcery in the northern province of Jawf on this date in 2011.

The London-based newspaper, al-Hayat, quoted a member of the religious police as saying that she was in her 60s and had tricked people into giving her money, claiming that she could cure their illnesses.

Our correspondent said she was arrested in April 2009.

But the human rights group Amnesty International, which has campaigned for Saudis previously sentenced to death on sorcery charges, said it had never heard of her case until now, he adds.

Amnesty says that Saudi Arabia does not actually define sorcery as a capital offence. However, some of its conservative clerics have urged the strongest possible punishments against fortune-tellers and faith healers as a threat to Islam.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Public Executions,Saudi Arabia,Witchcraft,Women

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851: Saints Flora and Maria of Cordoba, militants

1 comment November 24th, 2019 Headsman

November 24, 851 was distinguished by the beheadings of Saints Flora and Maria of Cordoba.

These Christian denizens of Muslim Spain embraced their own martyrdoms by purposefully denouncing Islam before a Qadi. In Flora’s case, she qualified as an apostate by virtue of her Muslim father.

While in Cordoban prison being entreated by Islamic scholars to reconsider their path, they were admonished to militancy by another inmate, St. Eulogius, himself a future martyr in a like cause. Citing the example of courageous Biblical heroes like Esther, Elogius’s Exhortation to Martyrdom calls on the virgins not to shrink in the face of of their impending tribulations, even if they were to be threatened with rape.

Unfortunately we don’t have the voice of Flora and Maria, even at second-hand. Their actions certainly announce that they like Eulogius were not ecumenical where Islam was concerned. As Charles Tieszen notes in Christian Identity amid Islam in Medieval Spain Eulogius’s language in his confrontational epistle is determinedly martial, with much about arming oneself for battle with the enemy while calling Muhammad

“forerunner of the … possessed man, servant of Satan, full of lies and son of death and perpetual ruin.” Eulogius goes further, coupling his criticism of Islam and its Prophet with a condemnation of the wider Cordovan Christian community (nostra ecclesia), which in his opinion, approved of Islam by its silence. Accordingly, Flora and Maria must not recant upon their previous insults of Muhammad when they faced the qadi again. If they did, their recantations were to be equated with telling outright lies.

Likewise, any retreat by Flora and Maria was to be equated with Christians who remained silent when it came to passing judgment on Islam. In the end, Flora and Maria could do nothing but uphold their public decrials of Muhammad, for if they “… den[ied] having cursed their prophet, [they] will be cursed; and if [they] have not rejected what the Lord rejects, [they] will be guilty of double sin … And surely whomever we do not curse, on the contrary we bless, and whoever we do not reject, we admit in our fellowship as if we were befriending him.” Threats like these, as we have noted, were commonplace in martyrologies, especially texts that exhorted Christians to stay the course towards martyrdom. In the context of Muslim Cordova, it is difficult not to read the threats as a means for equating recanters with the enemy.

Eulogius lamented those Christians that so willingly accepted the presence of Muslims, their leadership, and their customs:

But we wretches, delighting in [Muslims’] crimes, rightfully condemn ourselves by the prophecies of the psalmist who says: “but they mingled with the gentiles and learned their works, they served their idols, and a scandal took place among them.” Oh, what agony, that we consider it a pleasure to be submitted to gentiles and we do not oppose carrying our yoke with the unfaithful. And thus, in our daily business, we participate in their sacrileges and desire their company more than, according to the example of Lot the patriarch, fleeing the territory of Sodom in order to save ourselves in the mountains.

The mid-9th century was an apogee of such militancy with a number of martyrs into the bargain … but the Christian community of Cordoba nevertheless remained submitted to the gentiles (pleasurably or otherwise) until 1236.

If a ready translation of the prelate’s text into English exists online I have not located it; flex your classical learning and peruse Documentum martyriale in Latin here or (adjacent a Danish translation) here.

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Entry Filed under: Al-Andalus,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Early Middle Ages,Execution,God,History,Martyrs,Religious Figures,Spain,Women

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1789: Ann Davis, the first woman hanged at Sydney Cove

Add comment November 23rd, 2019 Headsman

The first woman hanged in colonial Australia was Ann(e) Davis, on this date in 1789.

Convicted in London “for feloniously stealing, on the 27th day of April, eight pair of silk stockings, value 8s. the property of James Atkinson,” Davis was one of 101 female convicts transported to Sydney Cove with the First Fleet aboard the Lady Penrhyn.* Davis would have been in the crowd of onlookers the year before when the fledgling colony conducted its very first execution.

This spectacle did not un-sticky Davis’s fingers, for she was sentenced in Sydney Cove for again plundering wardrobes to the tune of

four linen shirts of the value of twenty nine shillings and six pence; one cheque shirt of the value of four pence; one linen waistcoat of the value of two shillings; two cambrick handkerchiefs of the value of three shillings; one silk waistcoat of the value of two shillings; one dimety waistcoat of the value of eighteen pence of the goods and chattels of the said Robert Sidaway; and one linen bed gown of the value of two shillings; one linen apron of the value of eighteen pence; two linen caps of the value of sixpence; one piece of a cap of the value of one penny; one muslin handkerchief of the value of six pence; and one pair of linen pockets of the value of one penny of the goods and chattels of Mary Marshall in the same dwelling house.

Davis attempted to plead her belly, failing to impress a jury of matrons impaneled to scrutinize her for pregnancy.

Seaman Jacob Nagle piteously recorded her end:

Some time after this, one of the wimen [Ann Davis] stole some wet clothes and was condemned and hung. She strove to bring a free man in guilty that belonged to our ship that was on duty on shore, it being proved by a number of witnesses that he was innocent and new nothing of it. Otherwise, she might have been saved, as the Governor left it to Captain Hunter, but he would not for give her, and when brought to gallos, leading her by two wimen, she was so much intocsicated in liquor that she could not stand without holding her up. It was dreadful to see heir going to aternity out of this world in such a senceless, shocking manne.

As noted by Australia’s Dark Heart the experience of dispatching this creature might have been especially traumatizing to the colony’s unwilling executioner James Freeman — for he was found roaring drunk a few days later and punished with 100 lashes.

* After discharging its human cargo, the Lady Penrhyn proceeded upon further circulating in the Pacific and the Far East; in 1788, she sighted and named the Cook Islands atoll of Penrhyn.

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

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1716: Maria of Curacao, slave rebel

Add comment November 9th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1716, a woman named Maria was burned for leading a slave rebellion on the West Indies island of Curacao.

Maria was a cook owned by the Dutch West India Company itself who apparently instigated the slaves on her plantation to rise up and slaughter the white staff in September of 1716.

Whether Maria herself was Curacao-born or a recently captured import is not known, but her plantation of St. Maria held many of the latter category; Curacao was a major shipping nexus for the Dutch slave trade. It’s possible that this meant Maria’s newly-arriving peers were more liable to harbor that cocktail of hope and desperation needed to wager their lives on rebellion.

Whatever the case, the rising was quickly put down. Another slave named Tromp, Maria’s lover, told his torturers that she had sought revenge on a white overseer named Muller for killing her husband.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Murder,Netherlands,Netherlands Antilles,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Slaves,Torture,Women

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1810: Metta Fock, embroiderer

Add comment November 7th, 2019 Headsman

Metta Fock was beheaded in Sweden on this date in 1810.

Fock (English Wikipedia entry | Swedish), daughter to the just-hanging-on lesser nobility, got her surname from an impecunious dullard of a sergeant with whom she shared a small farm in Västergötland. At least, she did until Johan Fock and two of her four children suddenly got violently ill and died within days of one another in 1802.

Well might one imagine the rumors that swirled around the widow Fock in these days; she was already suspected of having a lover, so the inference of a libidinous deployment of arsenic was nigh irresistible. She said her family had been stricken by a measles outbreak.

Her contemporaries were as uncertain of the conclusion as is posterity; she was thrown in Carlsten Fortress but spared a death verdict absent a confession — an unusual legal artifact at the time that might have permitted her to live out decades in a dungeon with sufficient obstinacy.

Although she finally buckled and made that confession — under who knows what extremes of misery and resignation; she vainly attempted to retract it later — the most evocative judgment has always been the manifesto of innocence that she embroidered onto 27 strips of linen in 1805, complaining of her unfair treatment. (More conventional writing instruments were being withheld from her.) It’s given Metta Fock a permanent purchase on later sympathies.

There’s a recent historical novel by Ann Rosman, Mercurium, which also casts Fock as a railroaded innocent.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Murder,Sex,Sweden,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1675: Boyarina Morozova, Old Believer

2 comments November 2nd, 2019 Headsman

Boyarina Feodosia Morozova starved to death in the early hours past midnight on the night of November 1-2, 1675.

This wealthy “Old Believer” noblewoman (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) is one of art history’s most famous religious dissidents thanks to Vasily Surikov‘s iconic painting of her being hauled away by the authorities, defiantly making the outlawed two-fingered sign of the cross.

This was big game hunted by Orthodoxy’s controversial reform movement: Boyarina Morozova’s brother-in-law was Boris Morozov, who during Tsar Alexei‘s minority had wielded the power behind the throne; her confessor was the protopope Avvakum Petrov, whose eventual martyrdom at the stake in 1682 rates an appearance on the Executed Today playing cards.

But her writ of privilege had long since run out, for she had been arrested and tortured back in 1671 together with her sister Evdokia Urusova and a fellow-travelling friend, Boyarina Maria Danilova. (This is the event captured by Surikov’s painting.) Perhaps her position saved her from outright execution — which all-grown-up Tsar Alexei reportedly contemplated — but not from being done to death by the state.

After all three women were arrested and so dramatically dragged away, they were locked up in the cellars of a small-town monastery where their guards were eventually ordered to permit them to waste away by deprivation.

Her movement did not carry its contest for religious primacy and was violently persecuted for many years thereafter, but Old Believers still exist to this day — thought to number about one to two million worldwide. As of the 20th century, Old Believers are longer anathema to mainline Orthodoxy, and a fearless martyr such as Boyarina Morozova cannot but inspire respect no matter how many fingers you use to make the blessing. She’s still well-known in Russia and is the subject of a 2006 choral opera.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Famous,God,History,Martyrs,Nobility,Power,Religious Figures,Russia,Starved,Torture,Women

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