An event horribly underscoring the heartlessness of the brass against frail flesh in their ghastly war of machines, this shooting succeeded a surprise German attack on November 27 whose short-lived push into the French line momentarily drove part of the 298th Regiment to fall back out of their forward trench, before the French rallied and retook their own position to restore the status quo ante. The whole back-and-forth consumed spanned mere minutes — just another snapshot of the trench war stalemate that would become so grindingly familiar to all belligerents in the years ahead.
French commanders in the earliest months of the war had shown a notable lack of empathy for any vexation of plans arising from the fog of war; indeed, exemplary executions became policy for enforcing military discipline to an unrealistic expectation. So, as punishment for their units’ “unauthorized* retreat,” six were selected for execution as an example to their fellows.
Some heartbreaking (or blood-boiling) last letters of the doomed survive.
Corporal Henri Floch (to his wife)
My darling Lucie,
By the time you receive this letter I shall be dead by firing squad. This is why: on 27th November, around 5pm, after 2 hours of heavy shelling in a trench on the front line, just as we were finishing our supper, Germans got into the trench. They captured me and two others. In the confusion I was able to escape from the Germans. I followed my comrades and then I was accused of dereliction of duty in the face of the enemy.
Twenty-four of us went before the War Council last night. Six were condemned to death and one of them was me. I am no more guilty than the others, but they want to make an example of us. My wallet will be sent home to you along with its contents.
In haste I say my last farewell to you, with tears in my eyes and a heavy heart. I humbly beg your forgiveness for all the grief that I will cause you and the difficulties that you will have to face because of me.
My dear Lucie, again, please forgive me. I’m going to Confession now and I hope to see you again in a better place. I die innocent of the crime of desertion of which I stand accused. If, instead of escaping from the Germans, I had remained a prisoner, my life would have been spared. It must be fate.
My last thoughts are for you, right to the end.
Jean Quinault (to his wife)
I am writing to you my latest news. It’s over for me. I do not have the courage. We had a story in the company. We went to the court martial. We are 6 condemned to death. I am in the six and I am no more guilty than the comrades, but our life is sacrificed for others. Last farewell, dear little woman. It’s over for me. Last letter from me, deceased for a reason of which I do not know well the reason. The officers are all wrong and we are condemned to pay for them. I should never have thought of finishing my days at Vingre, and especially of being shot for so little and not guilty. It never happened, a case like this. I am buried in Vingré
Jean Blanchard (to his wife)
3 December 1914, 11.30 pm
My dear Beloved, it is in great distress that I begin to write to you and if God and the Blessed Virgin do not come to my aid it is for the last time …
I will try in a few words to tell you my situation but I do not know if I can, I do not feel the courage. On November 27, at night, as we occupied a trench facing the enemy, the Germans surprised us, and panicked us, in our trench, we retreated into a trench behind, and we returned to resume our places almost immediately, with this result: a dozen prisoners in the company of which one was in my squad, for this fault our squad (twenty-four men) spent today before the council of war and alas! We are six to pay for all, I can not explain it further to you, my dear friend, I suffer too much; friend Darlet will be able to explain to you better, I have a calm conscience, and submit entirely to the will of God who wants it so; It is this which gives me strength to be able to write to you these words, my dear beloved, who have made me so happy the time that I spent with you and of which I had so much hope to find. December 1 morning we were deposed on what had happened, and when I saw the charge that was brought against us and which no one could suspect, I cried a part of the day and have not had the strength to write to you …
Oh! Blessed be my parents! My poor parents, my poor mother, my poor father, what will become of them when they learn what I have become? O my beloved, my dear Michelle, take good care of my poor parents so long as they are of this world, be their consolation and support in their grief, I leave them to your good care, tell them I have not deserved this hard punishment and we will all find each other in the other world, assist them in their last moments and God will reward you for it, beg my forgiveness of your good parents for the punishment that they will experience by me, tell them well that I loved them very much and that they do not forget me in their prayers, that I was happy to have become their son and to be able to support and care for them their old days but since God has judged otherwise, that His will be done and not mine. Goodbye up there, my dear wife.
* The “cowards” contended that a falling-back had been ordered by a lieutenant who no doubt was as war-befogged as everyone else. Since this order could have set up Lt. Paulaud himself to be the guy shot for example, he naturally denied issuing it; when the six were exonerated after the war, Paulaud was indicted for perjury, but acquitted.
On this date in 1678, Catholic courtier Edward Col(e)man was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn — the second victim of Titus Oates’s “Popish Plot” concotion.
Colman was a Catholic convert whose zeal for the old faith led him into a variety of treacherous intrigues with the French court — although Colman’s eager and fruitless offices more annoyed than profited his allies.
His behavior was sufficiently indiscreet that fabulist Titus Oates had Colman queued up by name* as a Catholic plotter in the first round of 1678 Catholic terrorism allegations that would roil the realm for the next three years.
That indiscretion was very real, however, and extended to a careless presumption of his own safety. He seems to have been tipped to his danger by the judge who first took Oates’s evidence, a friend named Sir Edmund Godfrey, but he failed to use this advance intelligence to destroy his own correspondence. Godfrey in his own turn went on to a starring role in the Popish Plot debacle when he turned up murdered in October of 1678, a crime whose immediate attribution to the Catholic conspiracy that Oates had unfolded for him sent England clear round the bend.**
Colman’s case had already begun and half-fizzled by that point but with the apparent assassination of the judge a cry for his own blood now shook Parliament — “Colman’s letters!” alluding to that correspondence he surely wished he had burned: its volumes unfolded intelligence leaks, offers to exert French influence in the government even so far as dissolving Parliament, and applications for King Louis’s gold.
There are some incriminating examples in the trial transcript that, Lord Chief Justice William Scroggs charged, show “That your Design was to bring in Popery into England, and to promote the interest of the French King in this place, for which you hoped to have a Pension.” While Oates was a legendary perjurer and his fables destined to take the lives of 20-odd innocent souls in the months to come, the fact was that Colman really was caught out. His scheming ought not have merited such spectacular punishment under less extraordinary circumstances, but the things Colman really did do made it easy for Oates to position him as a paymaster in the fictitious regicidal conspiracy. “Mr. Colman, your own papers are enough to condemn you,” Scroggs said when his prisoner asserted innocence.
Nor could he protect himself with position. (Men even higher than Colman would succumb to the panic in time.) As detestably elevated as Colman looked to the average commoner, he was not himself a lord and was already (pre-Oates) regarded by King Charles II and many members of the court as a loose cannon. Everything pointed to sacrificing him … and they did. But as events would prove, the popular rage was not quenched on Colman’s bones alone.
* By name — not by face: Oates would be embarrassed at Colman’s eventual trial by the prisoner pointing out that Oates, who now claimed to have been personally paid out by Colman for various seditious errands, had utterly failed to recognize his “conspirator” when Oates appeared before the Privy Council to lay his charges in September.
** Godfrey’s murder has never been satisfactorily explained. There’s a good chance that it was a wholly unrelated affair with amazing bad timing; the revenge of the truculent Earl of Pembroke, whom Godfrey had prosecuted for murder a few months previous, is one leading possibility.
(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)
“The time will come when my innocence will be proven, and then Bob Dodge will haunt you for his murder.”
— Robert S. Dodge, convicted of murder, hanging, California.
Executed November 8, 1866
Borrowing a double-barrel shotgun, ostensibly to hunt quail, Dodge could not account for his whereabouts when a man who was quarreling with his brother was shot. Dodge went through two trials and during the second was found guilty of first-degree murder. In prison, he attempted suicide by taking opium.
To Elder’s hanging-day sketch (and since blog column-inches are free) we add the report of the San Francisco Evening Bulletin, Nov. 10, 1866 — itself channeling the Nevada Transcript. (Meaning Nevada City, Calif., not the state of Nevada.)
[Dodge] was twice tried and convicted of the murder of Mark P. Hammock, and after both trials the case was taken to the Supreme Court, whence the case was once sent back.
The verdict after the second conviction was sustained and the District Court ordered to fix a day for the execution.
The testimony against Dodge was entirely circumstantial.
Sheriff Gentry read the death-warrant, after which Dodge stepped to the rail in front and addressed those in the yard in a speech of ten minutes. He said he had once more the privilege of addressing them in this dark and gloomy world. He alluded to his home, his mother and friends, speaking of them in affectionate terms, and picturing the grief they would feel on hearing that their youngest son had died upon the gallows.
He spoke of the anxiety manifested to witness his death, and warned those present that the time would come when they would repent having seen it, and that when they discovered, as they surely would, that he was innocent, remorse would forever follow them.
He declared that he suffered on account of false testimony offered against him. He alluded to the future, saying that in “eternity Bob Dodge would be seen coming in glory.”
At the conclusion of the speech he turned to Sheriff Gentry and requested him to finish the work quickly. When asked if he had anything further to say by the Sheriff, he replied only “I am innocent.”
He then bid those on the platform good-bye, shaking hands with them, and then stepped upon the trap. His limbs were lashed with cords and the black cap placed over his head.
He then said, in a loud voice, “Boys, I want you all to hear, I am innocent.”
A prayer was read by Mr. Anderson, and at 18 minutes past 1 o’clock the trap fell, and the soul of Dodge was sent to a higher court for judgment.
Hugh Cahun had been in Scotland since probably 1565, in the service of a unit commanded by his older brother William. It was one of three Scottish cavalry commands in Sweden at this time; French and German troops too joined the polyglot coalition.*
In the summer of 1573, Cahun caught wind of recruitment among these foreign auxiliaries for a plot to depose the Swedish King John III in favor of his imprisoned predecessor Erik XIV. Cahun reported the plot, but he didn’t know enough about it to make it stick to someone else — so perversely, he himself became the one suspected of seditious design.
King John appears by his vacillation not to have been all that convinced of the turn justice had taken in this case, twice reprieving Cahun and ultimately sparing him the horrors of the breaking-wheel for a simple beheading — sort of the early modern equivalent of the calculating modern governor who, faced with compelling evidence of innocence, consents to send a condemned man to a dungeon for the rest of his life instead of letting the law take its course. (There’s an account of the back-and-forth run-up to Cahun’s execution in this public domain book, provided you’re packing your Swedish proficiency.)
He would have cause to regret his severity soon enough: in the months to come, it would emerge that the plot was actually being spearheaded by a French loyalist of Erik named Charles de Mornay, who would himself be executed the following September.
On this date in 1914, the French army shot Lt. Jean-Julien Chapelant as a coward.
Most resources about Lt. Chapelant are in French, as are almost all the links in this post — but within France this case has been contested since the interwar years when his father fought in vain ferocity to reinstate the honor of his son.
Four days before his execution, Chapelant, commanding a machine gun section near a village in the Somme, was captured with four other gunners when the Germans overran their position. Though he’d been shot in the leg, Chapelant managed to escape his captors and return to French lines. (Three of the other gunners escaped, too.)
While the categorical rehabilitation of Great War soldiers “shot at dawn” as cowards or deserters has been a going concern in recent years, Chapelant also has a compelling individual argument that he ought not have been construed such even by the standards of his time.
The luckless lieutenant was shot for “capitulating in open country”. This was at best an extremely prejudicial interpretation of the facts, seemingly one that commanding officers themselves still adjusting to the unexpected prowess of German arms had already settled upon before any proper investigation, out of their pique at losing the position. The verdict was so certain that Chapelant’s commanding officer gave him his revolver back urging him to “burn out his own brains” and save everyone the trouble.
Chapelant refused, insisting that he had done his proper duty, and military justice was edified by the spectacle of a crippled man who could not stand propped up in his stretcher against an apple tree for the tender ministry of his firing squad.
“I die innocent. You will all know it later,” he told his executioners — then added, futile wish, “do not tell my parents.”
Although we have been treated in these pages to the heartbreaking scene of an officer comforting a man about to be shot with the remark that “yours also is a way of dying for France,” the idea has until very recently been confined to the precincts of personal sentiment and certainly not to the institutions responsible for the dying.
On November 11, 2012 — the centennary of Lt. Chapelant’s execution* — he was ceremonially rehabilitated and his death officially ascribed to that same cause that laid so many of his comrades low: “mort pour la France.”
On this date in 1989, Sierra Leone politician Francis Minah was hanged at Freetown’s Pademba Road Prison as a traitor.
A veteran minister of state under the country’s dictatorial first president Siaka Stevens — a reign recalled in Sierra Leone historiography as the “17-year plague of locusts” that looted the country and set the country upon the path to its horrific civil war.
Nearing 80 years old in 1985, Stevens stepped down and handed power off to another officer as self-dealing and authoritarian as he, Joseph Saidu Momoh.
In early 1987, Momoh dramatically announced the discovery and defeat of an alleged coup attempt against him* and arrested his own Vice President Minah as its instigator. In a farcical trial — Minah denied his guilt to the last — Minah was convicted and death-sentenced with 15 other alleged participants. Most had their sentences commuted to prison terms, but Minah and five others all hanged on October 7, 1989.
On this date in 1822, French Lt. Col. Augustin Joseph Caron was shot at Strasbourg as a rebel.
Little is known of his background, but Caron (English Wikipedia entry | French) enlisted in his army during the revolutionary year of 1791 and advanced into command positions under Napoleon. From his later conduct it’s apparent that these years shaped a political passion that would be starkly at odds with the post-Napoleon Bourbon restoration.
As we have noted elsewhere on this site France’s Liberal (often Bonapartist) opposition during these years was urged by the persecution of the monarchist party into conspiracy as the common coin of its politics.
Out of this mire grew both charbonnerie (France’s analogue to the carbonariterrorists who proliferated in Italy) and an overvigilant secret police whose campaigns of entrapment and threat exaggeration did nothing so well as to further obscure the line between mundane opposition and treason.
The strange interplay between these midnight foes would shape the fate of Col. Caron.
Caron’s path to execution begins with the thwarted rising of the Belfort garrison for New Year’s 1822 — a real plot that the government spies were able to squelch. This resulted in a number of executions, by dint of which it has detailed in these very pages.
Caron enters this story in its second chapter: a pensioned former officer of known Bonapartist sympathies, Caron was (with another man named Roger) baited by police spies into mounting an attempted raid on Colmar prison where the arrested Belfort conspirators were being held. Officers chosen to play the part were detailed to meet him as “conspirators” and march with him to Colmar, allowing Caron to make compromising “Vive l’Empereur” exhortations along the way, before finally arresting him.
the means employed to net such a minor, and such a vulnerable, agitator gave the critics of the regime and the defenders of other conspirators the opportunity to assimilate all the operations of the political police to this contemptible one. The government was placed on the defensive from the first. It proved difficult to demonstrate the Caron and Roger had initiated the seditious proposals … Two entire squadrons of chasseurs had conducted their brilliant operation to net only the two original suspects. And then there was the abrasive question of who, under what circumstances, shouted out “Vive l’Empereur!” — that is, tempted innocent passersby-into political crime. The original story … described the squadrons as riding through the countryside crying “Vive l’Empereur,” and innocently wondered whether these purveyors of seditious slogans would be arrested along with Caron, their alleged “leader.”
One Liberal deputy sneeringly pictured future French veterans boasting of their service, “I was in those squadrons that rode through the countryside of the Haut-Rhin shouting ‘Vive l’Empereur!’ in order to test the disposition of the inhabitants.” Indeed, what if the dispositions had been otherwise? It had been only a few years since the emperor really had returned from exile and raised a brief civil war; the idea that the military had risked triggering “the insurrection of a town and the massacre of its inhabitants” for no better reason than to compromise an utter nobody blossomed into a gigantic scandal. Caron became France’s metonym for a patsy;* demands to grant Caron leniency and turn the investigation against his persecutors multiplied discomfitingly.
But this was only one of several high-profile trials against anti-Bourbon plotters unfolding in 1822, and the Liberal denunciations against them practically staked the government’s credibility upon their outcome. So the government saw to the outcome it required — by invoking Caron’s military rank to have him transferred out of the civilian justice system and tried by a military tribunal that would be sure to convict him. Just to complete the shambles, the execution was then hurriedly conducted before Caron’s appeal could be brought before the Court of Cassation.
The Journal of the Lower Rhine gives the following details concerning the execution of Colonel Caron: —
Colonel Caron, who was unanimously condemned to death for the crime of embauchage [“hiring” -ed], by the first permanent council of war of this division, the judgment of which was likewise unanimously confirmed by the council of revision, was executed at two o’clock in the afternoon, in the presence of a small detachment of the garrison, and a numerous concourse of people who were attracted by curiosity. The Abbe Schittig zealously administered to him the consolations of religion, which he received with humility, and he died with the courage of a Christian and an old soldier. Caron was alone in a carriage, amidst the retinue which conducted him to the place of execution. At the entrance of the horn-work, called Finkmatt, where the execution took place, he alighted from the carriage without the assistance of the driver. On arriving in front of the 12 men who were to be his executioners, he refused to have his eyes bandaged. With his hat on, he himself gave the signal. Immediately the muskets were fired, and Caron was no more.
On this date 1354, the Provencal mercenary Montreal d’Albarno was beheaded in Rome by order of the tribune Cola di Rienzi.
Known locally as Fra Moriale (English Wikipedia entry | Italian), our man was a former Knight Hospitaller who turned his knack for violence into an entrepreneurial career — for he led one of the very first of those condottiero companies whose profitable ravaging the peninsula would pave the way for generations of unscrupulous mercenaries.
It was really Moriale’s predecessor, a Swabian knight named Werner von Urslingen, who first perceived that Italy’s wars had potential for such lucrative disruption. Reputed to have rode into battle with a breastplate blazoned with his Thielesque motto “The enemy of God, of pity and of mercy”, Urslingen had about 1342 founded a swords-for-hire business known as “The Great Company”.
While not literally the first gang of condottieri, it was the gang that changed the way Italians fought. By 1385 one pact between city-states cursed Werner in its preamble as the man who “first devised this plague of societies.”*
Fielding a massive army of some 3,000 cavalrymen at the outset — its fighting strength was north of 10,000 by Moriale’s day — the Great Company could put more muscle in the field than Italy’s little principalities could readily deal with, and Werner et al were soon realizing dividends hand over mailed fist by alternately hiring themselves out to this or that city, or squeezing them for tributary payoffs by the threat of pillage.
As the inability of the squabbling communes to suppress this racket became manifest, mercenaries fast multiplied into “a multitude of villains of various nations associated in arms by the greed to appropriate the fruits of labor of innocent and unarmed people, let loose to every cruelty, to extort money, methodically devastating the countryside.”** Condottieri would plague, and often dominate, Italy into the 16th century, with some of their more illustrious number ascending ducal palaces and others the scaffold.
By the time we reach events in this post, Werner von Urslingen is several years into comfortable retirement. But like any successful startup, the firm he launched still thrived.
Indeed, the Great Company had a stable, nigh-professional organization to match its bottom-line objectives. “Structurally, [the Great Company] resembled a corporation,” according to William Caferro. It had “a well-articulated hierarchy” which a governing board comprised “of Werner and a council made up of the leaders (corporals) of the various contingents.”
The booty derived from pillage and plunder was carefully divided by the leader and the council among the company’s rank and file. The company drew to its service lawyers and notaries to deal with legal issues and make contracts (condotte), treasurers and bankers to handle money, priests and prostitutes to cater respectively to spiritual and carnal needs.
In the early 1350s, Moriale delighted all these vendors by banking record profits in central Italy. And in the freebooting business, the balance sheets pleasingly compounding the success: “Because of the enormous booty which the company was taking, many soldiers, having completed their terms of service, without wanting further pay, went off to join Fra Moriale,” the Florentine chronicler Matteo Villani wrote in 1354. “Sometimes they had themselves dismissed in order to join him.” Matteo also notes that the businesslike Moriale “guaranteed safety to the purchasers [of his pillage] and treated them correctly in order to facilitate his commercial dealings [and] set up councillors and secretaries through whom he directed everything.” (Via Michael Mallett’s Mercenaries and their Masters: Warfare in Renaissance Italy)
A few books about the emergent mercenary business
In August of 1354, this captain of industry rode to Rome to collect on a debt: his brothers’ loan to Cola di Rienzi which had helped the latter re-establish his power in Rome after a spell in exile.
But Rienzi, who was short on cash himself (the exhausted treasury would in a few weeks’ time cost the tribune his life) resolved the debt and did a little opportunistic expropriation of his own by having his wealthy creditor seized and condemned to death. This strangely attracted the opprobrium of treachery among contemporaries, as if its victim were not a man who had founded his devastating career on infidelity. But the definitions of honor and knightly conduct at this juncture were flexible enough to admit the legitimacy of Moriale’s operation: indeed, Caferro even gives us the priceless scene of the buccaneering Hospitaller being dragged to his Roman executioner as he howls, “Don’t you see that I’m a knight? How can you be so despicable?”
After the beheading, a fighter named Konrad von Landau took leadership of the Great Company. The cutthroat business continued profitably shaking down city-states until 1363, when a burgeoning new rival startup, John Hawksood‘s White Company,† thrashed its predecessor into irrelevance at the Battle of Canturino.
* Cited in Caferro’s Mercenary Companies and the Decline of Siena; the book argues (pdf review) that its titular commune slipped into its spiral towards political irrelevance and eventual absorption due largely to the military and financial ravages imposed by the condottieri. From a historical perspective safely distant from the companies’ day-to-day predations, the condottieri arguably helped to drive the slow consolidation of Italy’s many micro-states into a handful of larger polities.
** The words are those of Pope Urban V in a 1364 bull, cited by Caferro’s “Italy and the Companies of Adventure in the Fourteenth Century” in The Historian, June 1996.
For this date’s post we welcome back to Executed Today the prolific pen of Alexandre Dumas, here working on the “fictional” side of his familiar historical fiction genre.
Dumas’s novel The Black Tulip (La Tulipe Noire) begins with the very real Aug. 20, 1672 lynching of Dutch statesmen Cornelis and Johann de Witt, and from that point unfolds the story of a fictional godson, Cornelius van Baerle — whose green thumb will nurture the titular flower along with a love for the jailer’s daughter Rosa. (To the very great wrath of van Baerle’s neighbor and murderous rival gardener, Isaac Boxtel.)
Dumas has already sown both seeds when he dates his narrative via van Baerle’s will, written when the fictional main character is in danger of succumbing to the same cataclysm that swallowed up his godfather: already smitten with Rosa, he purposes to bequeath her the bulbs, whose rare product will be worth a bounty.
On this day, the 23d of August, 1672, being on the point of rendering, although innocent, my soul to God on the scaffold, I bequeath to Rosa Gryphus the only worldly goods which remain to me of all that I have possessed in this world, the rest having been confiscated; I bequeath, I say, to Rosa Gryphus three bulbs, which I am convinced must produce, in the next May, the Grand Black Tulip for which a prize of a hundred thousand guilders has been offered by the Haarlem Society, requesting that she may be paid the same sum in my stead, as my sole heiress, under the only condition of her marrying a respectable young man of about my age, who loves her, and whom she loves, and of her giving the black tulip, which will constitute a new species, the name of Rosa Barlaensis, that is to say, hers and mine combined.
So may God grant me mercy, and to her health and long life!
Cornelius van Baerle.
And having done this, van Baerle is escorted directly to the scaffold, where we pick up Dumas’s narrative courtesy of Gutenberg.org:
Chapter 12: The Execution
Cornelius had not three hundred paces to walk outside the prison to reach the foot of the scaffold. At the bottom of the staircase, the dog quietly looked at him whilst he was passing; Cornelius even fancied he saw in the eyes of the monster a certain expression as it were of compassion.
The dog perhaps knew the condemned prisoners, and only bit those who left as free men.
The shorter the way from the door of the prison to the foot of the scaffold, the more fully, of course, it was crowded with curious people.
These were the same who, not satisfied with the blood which they had shed three days before, were now craving for a new victim.
And scarcely had Cornelius made his appearance than a fierce groan ran through the whole street, spreading all over the yard, and re-echoing from the streets which led to the scaffold, and which were likewise crowded with spectators.
The scaffold indeed looked like an islet at the confluence of several rivers.
In the midst of these threats, groans, and yells, Cornelius, very likely in order not to hear them, had buried himself in his own thoughts.
And what did he think of in his last melancholy journey?
Neither of his enemies, nor of his judges, nor of his executioners.
He thought of the beautiful tulips which he would see from heaven above, at Ceylon, or Bengal, or elsewhere, when he would be able to look with pity on this earth, where John and Cornelius de Witt had been murdered for having thought too much of politics, and where Cornelius van Baerle was about to be murdered for having thought too much of tulips.
“It is only one stroke of the axe,” said the philosopher to himself, “and my beautiful dream will begin to be realised.”
Only there was still a chance, just as it had happened before to M. de Chalais, to M. de Thou, and other slovenly executed people, that the headsman might inflict more than one stroke, that is to say, more than one martyrdom, on the poor tulip-fancier.
Yet, notwithstanding all this, Van Baerle mounted the scaffold not the less resolutely, proud of having been the friend of that illustrious John, and godson of that noble Cornelius de Witt, whom the ruffians, who were now crowding to witness his own doom, had torn to pieces and burnt three days before.
He knelt down, said his prayers, and observed, not without a feeling of sincere joy, that, laying his head on the block, and keeping his eyes open, he would be able to his last moment to see the grated window of the Buytenhof.
At length the fatal moment arrived, and Cornelius placed his chin on the cold damp block. But at this moment his eyes closed involuntarily, to receive more resolutely the terrible avalanche which was about to fall on his head, and to engulf his life.
A gleam like that of lightning passed across the scaffold: it was the executioner raising his sword.
Van Baerle bade farewell to the great black tulip, certain of awaking in another world full of light and glorious tints.
Three times he felt, with a shudder, the cold current of air from the knife near his neck, but what a surprise! he felt neither pain nor shock.
He saw no change in the colour of the sky, or of the world around him.
Then suddenly Van Baerle felt gentle hands raising him, and soon stood on his feet again, although trembling a little.
He looked around him. There was some one by his side, reading a large parchment, sealed with a huge seal of red wax.
And the same sun, yellow and pale, as it behooves a Dutch sun to be, was shining in the skies; and the same grated window looked down upon him from the Buytenhof; and the same rabble, no longer yelling, but completely thunderstruck, were staring at him from the streets below.
Van Baerle began to be sensible to what was going on around him.
His Highness, William, Prince of Orange, very likely afraid that Van Baerle’s blood would turn the scale of judgment against him, had compassionately taken into consideration his good character, and the apparent proofs of his innocence.
His Highness, accordingly, had granted him his life.
Cornelius at first hoped that the pardon would be complete, and that he would be restored to his full liberty and to his flower borders at Dort.
But Cornelius was mistaken. To use an expression of Madame de Sevigne, who wrote about the same time, “there was a postscript to the letter;” and the most important part of the letter was contained in the postscript.
In this postscript, William of Orange, Stadtholder of Holland, condemned Cornelius van Baerle to imprisonment for life. He was not sufficiently guilty to suffer death, but he was too much so to be set at liberty.
Cornelius heard this clause, but, the first feeling of vexation and disappointment over, he said to himself —
“Never mind, all this is not lost yet; there is some good in this perpetual imprisonment; Rosa will be there, and also my three bulbs of the black tulip are there.”
But Cornelius forgot that the Seven Provinces had seven prisons, one for each, and that the board of the prisoner is anywhere else less expensive than at the Hague, which is a capital.
His Highness, who, as it seems, did not possess the means to feed Van Baerle at the Hague, sent him to undergo his perpetual imprisonment at the fortress of Loewestein, very near Dort, but, alas! also very far from it; for Loewestein, as the geographers tell us, is situated at the point of the islet which is formed by the confluence of the Waal and the Meuse, opposite Gorcum.
Van Baerle was sufficiently versed in the history of his country to know that the celebrated Grotius was confined in that castle after the death of Barneveldt; and that the States, in their generosity to the illustrious publicist, jurist, historian, poet, and divine, had granted to him for his daily maintenance the sum of twenty-four stivers.
“I,” said Van Baerle to himself, “I am worth much less than Grotius. They will hardly give me twelve stivers, and I shall live miserably; but never mind, at all events I shall live.”
Then suddenly a terrible thought struck him.
“Ah!” he exclaimed, “how damp and misty that part of the country is, and the soil so bad for the tulips! And then Rosa will not be at Loewestein!”
Chapter 13: What was going on all this Time in the Mind of one of the Spectators
Whilst Cornelius was engaged with his own thoughts, a coach had driven up to the scaffold. This vehicle was for the prisoner. He was invited to enter it, and he obeyed.
His last look was towards the Buytenhof. He hoped to see at the window the face of Rosa, brightening up again.
But the coach was drawn by good horses, who soon carried Van Baerle away from among the shouts which the rabble roared in honour of the most magnanimous Stadtholder, mixing with it a spice of abuse against the brothers De Witt and the godson of Cornelius, who had just now been saved from death.
This reprieve suggested to the worthy spectators remarks such as the following:—
“It’s very fortunate that we used such speed in having justice done to that great villain John, and to that little rogue Cornelius, otherwise his Highness might have snatched them from us, just as he has done this fellow.”
Among all the spectators whom Van Baerle’s execution had attracted to the Buytenhof, and whom the sudden turn of affairs had disagreeably surprised, undoubtedly the one most disappointed was a certain respectably dressed burgher, who from early morning had made such a good use of his feet and elbows that he at last was separated from the scaffold only by the file of soldiers which surrounded it.
Many had shown themselves eager to see the perfidious blood of the guilty Cornelius flow, but not one had shown such a keen anxiety as the individual just alluded to.
The most furious had come to the Buytenhof at daybreak, to secure a better place; but he, outdoing even them, had passed the night at the threshold of the prison, from whence, as we have already said, he had advanced to the very foremost rank, unguibus et rostro — that is to say, coaxing some, and kicking the others.
And when the executioner had conducted the prisoner to the scaffold, the burgher, who had mounted on the stone of the pump the better to see and be seen, made to the executioner a sign which meant —
“It’s a bargain, isn’t it?”
The executioner answered by another sign, which was meant to say —
“Be quiet, it’s all right.”
This burgher was no other than Mynheer Isaac Boxtel, who since the arrest of Cornelius had come to the Hague to try if he could not get hold of the three bulbs of the black tulip.
Boxtel had at first tried to gain over Gryphus to his interest, but the jailer had not only the snarling fierceness, but likewise the fidelity, of a dog. He had therefore bristled up at Boxtel’s hatred, whom he had suspected to be a warm friend of the prisoner, making trifling inquiries to contrive with the more certainty some means of escape for him.
Thus to the very first proposals which Boxtel made to Gryphus to filch the bulbs which Cornelius van Baerle must be supposed to conceal, if not in his breast, at least in some corner of his cell, the surly jailer had only answered by kicking Mynheer Isaac out, and setting the dog at him.
The piece which the mastiff had torn from his hose did not discourage Boxtel. He came back to the charge, but this time Gryphus was in bed, feverish, and with a broken arm. He therefore was not able to admit the petitioner, who then addressed himself to Rosa, offering to buy her a head-dress of pure gold if she would get the bulbs for him. On this, the generous girl, although not yet knowing the value of the object of the robbery, which was to be so well remunerated, had directed the tempter to the executioner, as the heir of the prisoner.
In the meanwhile the sentence had been pronounced. Thus Isaac had no more time to bribe any one. He therefore clung to the idea which Rosa had suggested: he went to the executioner.
Isaac had not the least doubt that Cornelius would die with the bulbs on his heart.
But there were two things which Boxtel did not calculate upon:—
Rosa, that is to say, love;
William of Orange, that is to say, clemency.
But for Rosa and William, the calculations of the envious neighbour would have been correct.
But for William, Cornelius would have died.
But for Rosa, Cornelius would have died with his bulbs on his heart.
Mynheer Boxtel went to the headsman, to whom he gave himself out as a great friend of the condemned man; and from whom he bought all the clothes of the dead man that was to be, for one hundred guilders; rather an exorbitant sum, as he engaged to leave all the trinkets of gold and silver to the executioner.
But what was the sum of a hundred guilders to a man who was all but sure to buy with it the prize of the Haarlem Society?
It was money lent at a thousand per cent, which, as nobody will deny, was a very handsome investment.
The headsman, on the other hand, had scarcely anything to do to earn his hundred guilders. He needed only, as soon as the execution was over, to allow Mynheer Boxtel to ascend the scaffold with his servants, to remove the inanimate remains of his friend.
The thing was, moreover, quite customary among the “faithful brethren,” when one of their masters died a public death in the yard of the Buytenhof.
A fanatic like Cornelius might very easily have found another fanatic who would give a hundred guilders for his remains.
The executioner also readily acquiesced in the proposal, making only one condition — that of being paid in advance.
Boxtel, like the people who enter a show at a fair, might be disappointed, and refuse to pay on going out.
Boxtel paid in advance, and waited.
After this, the reader may imagine how excited Boxtel was; with what anxiety he watched the guards, the Recorder, and the executioner; and with what intense interest he surveyed the movements of Van Baerle. How would he place himself on the block? how would he fall? and would he not, in falling, crush those inestimable bulbs? had not he at least taken care to enclose them in a golden box — as gold is the hardest of all metals?
Every trifling delay irritated him. Why did that stupid executioner thus lose time in brandishing his sword over the head of Cornelius, instead of cutting that head off?
But when he saw the Recorder take the hand of the condemned, and raise him, whilst drawing forth the parchment from his pocket — when he heard the pardon of the Stadtholder publicly read out — then Boxtel was no more like a human being; the rage and malice of the tiger, of the hyena, and of the serpent glistened in his eyes, and vented itself in his yell and his movements. Had he been able to get at Van Baerle, he would have pounced upon him and strangled him.
And so, then, Cornelius was to live, and was to go with him to Loewestein, and thither to his prison he would take with him his bulbs; and perhaps he would even find a garden where the black tulip would flower for him.
Boxtel, quite overcome by his frenzy, fell from the stone upon some Orangemen, who, like him, were sorely vexed at the turn which affairs had taken. They, mistaking the frantic cries of Mynheer Isaac for demonstrations of joy, began to belabour him with kicks and cuffs, such as could not have been administered in better style by any prize-fighter on the other side of the Channel.
Blows were, however, nothing to him. He wanted to run after the coach which was carrying away Cornelius with his bulbs. But in his hurry he overlooked a paving-stone in his way, stumbled, lost his centre of gravity, rolled over to a distance of some yards, and only rose again, bruised and begrimed, after the whole rabble of the Hague, with their muddy feet, had passed over him.
One would think that this was enough for one day, but Mynheer Boxtel did not seem to think so, as, in addition to having his clothes torn, his back bruised, and his hands scratched, he inflicted upon himself the further punishment of tearing out his hair by handfuls, as an offering to that goddess of envy who, as mythology teaches us, wears a head-dress of serpents.
On an uncertain date perhaps around late July of 321,* the Roman emperor Constantine the Great had his son and also his wife mysteriously put to death.
It’s mysterious because besides execution, Constantine had a damnatio memoriae passed over his former family to bury any record of their sins in Time’s obscurity. These edicts didn’t always work … but in this case, if there were any who dared to record what happened, that illicit account did not survive its journey from antiquity.
But it was surely a shocking scandal in its time.
Crispus was Constantine’s first-born son and very much in the father’s favor. He was the child of a wife or concubine named Minervina. In 307, Constantine put this woman aside to make a more politically expedient marriage to Fausta, the daughter of Diocletian‘s retired-now-unretired co-emperor Maximian who with his son Maxentius held sway in Italy at that moment of the Roman Tetrarchy‘s ongoing collapse.**
Although Crispus didn’t offer his dad much in this situation by way of family alliances, Constantine kept him in his favor — by all appearances grooming him as an heir. Call it paying it forward: as a young man, Constantine himself had been in a similar position when his father Constantius dumped Constantine’s peasant mother in favor of an imperial marriage. That moment might have strangled a world-historic career before it even began, but Constantius instead chose to keep Constantine on the paternal cursus honorum.
So it went with Crispus — for a while.
In 317, Constantine, now emperor in the western part of the empire,† made Crispus into his Caesar; the boy ruled in Gaul and Germania for several years, thrashing barbarian tribes as he ought. Dad, meanwhile, was maneuvering towards victory over his eastern opposite number Licinius, with Crispus contributing an important naval victory in 324.
The young man (in his twenties at this time; his precise year of birth is uncertain) seemed on his way to a scintillating future.
Bronze coin from the mint of Rome depicting Crispus.
Things went pear-shaped suddenly in 326 when his father had him executed without any kind of warning that survives in the scant records available to us — and not only Crispus, but also Constantine’s own wife, that Fausta whose marriage might have threatened the boy’s status.
We don’t know why but the rumor as trafficked by the much later Byzantine historian Zosimus suggests a possible Parisina and Ugo scenario: “He put to death his son Crispus, styled Caesar, on suspicion of debauching his mother-in-law Fausta, without any regard to the ties of nature … [and] causing a bath to be heated to an extraordinary degree, he shut up Fausta in it, and a short time after took her out dead.”
It is down to conjecture what one ought to make of this nth-hand scandal-mongering; for impugning someone’s character one can hardly do better than an incest accusation. The story does appear to fit the few available facts, however, and Fausta was much closer in age to Crispus than to Constantine. It might also be noteworthy that three of Fausta’s sons went on to become Emperor and one daughter Empress but none of them ever rehabilitated mom.
Damned memory be damned, Crispus was rediscovered during the Renaissance and favored with several dramatic renditions embellishing the young man as a tragic hero, often with speculation that he was wrongly condemned to Constantine’s everlasting shame.‡ The events surrounding Crispus’s death being almost entirely obscured, writers could really go nuts with it; for example, Sir Walter Scott‘s Count Robert of Paris (set in Constantinople during the Crusades) features the story of an entirely fictitious penance built into subsequent Byzantine execution rituals by a remorseful Constantine:
But the death-blow had no sooner struck the innocent youth, than his father obtained proof of the rashness with which he had acted. He had at this period been engaged in constructing the subterranean parts of the Blacquernal palace, which his remorse appointed to contain a record of his paternal grief and contrition. At the upper part of the staircase, called the Pit of Acheron, he caused to be constructed a large chamber, still called the Hall of Judgment, for the purpose of execution. A passage through an archway in the upper wall leads from the hall to the place of misery, where the axe, or other engine, is disposed for the execution of state prisoners of consequence. Over this archway was placed a species of marble altar, surmounted by an image of the unfortunate Crispus — the materials were gold, and it bore the memorable inscription, TO MY SON, WHOM I RASHLY CONDEMNED, AND TOO HASTILY EXECUTED. When constructing this passage, Constantine made a vow, that he himself and his posterity, being reigning Emperors, would stand beside the statue of Crispus, at the time when any individual of their family should be led to execution, and before they suffered him to pass from the Hall of Judgment to the Chamber of Death, that they should themselves be personally convinced of the truth of the charge under which he suffered.
* Approximate times around the spring and summer of 326 have been proposed by various authors based on the very vague allusions of ancient sources. This author argues that numismatic evidence permits a more precise triangulation. Constantine in 326 journeyed from his new capital in the east to Rome: an imperial mint traveled with him, striking coins as it went — and some of those coins show Crispus. His presence on coins from various stops of this journey indicates that Crispus must have been alive as the procession reached Rome on July 21, 326, but the Caesar vanishes from them, and from history, immediately thereafter.
** The History of Rome Podcast narrates this period, with Constantine’s rise into political relevance in episode 130.
† The Tetrarchy was still tetrarching along pending Constantine’s victory over all: the system featured separate senior emperors East and West each dignified Augustus, and each Augustus had a junior fellow-emperor and heir titled Caesar. Constantine was Augustus of the West, and Crispus was a Caesar.
‡ Fausta tends to get somewhat shorter shrift than her putative lover. Crispus’s presence in the literary culture would appear to make him the namesake of the Boston American Revolution martyr Crispus Attucks. African-descended men in North America often carried Roman names, though “Crispus” was by no means a common one.