1574: Charles de Mornay, sword dance regicide

Add comment September 4th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1574, the courtier Charles de Mornay was executed for an aborted plot against the Swedish king.

The French Huguenot had been a mainstay in the Swedish court for many years, and a favorite of King Erik XIV until that man was deposed in 1568.

From 1572, at the instigation of the French ambassador, de Mornay went to work on a plot to assassinate King John III — Erik’s half-brother and successor. This Mornay Plot would have liberated Erik XIV from prison and enthroned in John’s place either (it’s not clear) this same Erik XIV or else their other brother, Charles.

What the plan lacked in subtlety it compensated in showmanship. The idea was to use the Scottish mercenaries present in Swedish service during a scheduled ceremonial performance of their sword dance in October 1573. It turns out that while wheeling around the sovereign twirling blades, it’s a simple enough matter to just twirl one right through him.


Maybe that’s what gave Shakespeare the idea for the big duel in Hamlet.

Apparently Charles de Mornay lost his nerve at the critical moment and didn’t issue his dancing assassins the go-ahead sign — leaving John on the throne, and several folks involved in the plot in position to inform upon it. Indeed, we’ve brushed up against one such previously in these pages, for prior to de Mornay’s exposure a Scottish officer who caught wind of a rumor of the coup became accused of leading it, and was unjustly beheaded as his rewarded for reporting it.

De Mornay was exposed a few months later. King John had Erik murdered in prison in early 1577.

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1573: Lancelot van Brederode, sea beggar

Add comment July 20th, 2020 Headsman

Dutch revolt general Lancelot van Brederode was beheaded on this date in 1573, bequeathing posterity the gorgeous ruin of his sacked castle.

Lancelot van Bredrode, detail from an illustration of him alongside fellow ‘sea beggar’ Jan van Duivenvoorde, by Johannes Hilverdink.

Lancelot van Brederode (English Wikipedia entry | Dutch) was the bastard half-brother of Hendrick, Lord of Broderode, and both men numbered among the ranks of Calvinist Low Countries nobles determined to break away from Spanish Catholic domination.

This faction became known as the Geuzen, meaning “Beggars”; so prominent was Hendrick that he was the Grote Greus, or “Big Beggar”. Alas, he was chased into exile by the Spanish crackdown and became the Died Young Beggar.

Lancelot’s talents were on the waves, and it’s no surprise that seafaring Watergeuzen were the most prominently successful Beggars of all in the unfolding Dutch Revolt. Unfortunately he was not successful at supporting the defense of Haarlem against Spanish siege: when the Spanish took the city, Lancelot lost his head. To add insult to injury, they destroyed Brederode Castle; the gorgeous ruins were protected as a national monument and partly restored in the 19th century.


The Ruins of Brederode Caste, by Meindert Hobbema. For a more present-day view of the shattered citadel, see here.

Lancelot’s young (at the time of dad’s beheading) son Reinoud van Brederode went on to become a powerful lawyer and diplomat in the Dutch Republic. But not so powerful that he could save his father-in-law, Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, from his own date with Executed Today.

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1571: Sigismondo Arquer, Sardinian scholar

Add comment June 4th, 2020 Headsman

Sardinian scholar Sigismondo Arquer was burned at the stake in Toledo, Spain, on this date in 1571.

Born in the capital of Spanish-governed Sardinia, this gentleman had a hereditary imperial knighthood but also an interest in humanism and religious heterodoxy well-calculated to annoy in Counter-Reformation Spain.


Arquer’s map of his native city of Cagliari, for the Cosmographia universalis, for which compendium he also composed an entry on “dark Sardinia” that “in its blend of ancient sources, personal observations and original narrative structure … played a critical role, even when not explicitly acknowledged, in the development of the image of Sardinia in European culture.” (Source) Today, one of the streets in this very historical core the man once sketched is called Via Sigismondo Arquer.

Exploiting Arquer’s associations with Swiss Protestants as well as his talent for making powerful enemies — skewering clergy in the Cosmographia, nettlesome lawsuits against Spanish oligarchs — the Inquisition bagged him for heresy in 1563. He was 33.

In between bouts of interrogation, Arquer used his long confinement to knock out a Passion in Catalan, heavy with personal resonance. The Christ parallels ran all the way to the Plaza de Zocodover, where a soldier — motivated by anger at the heretic or pity for the sufferer, only God can say — speared him through the side during his death throes.

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1577: Eight English Gypsies condemned

Add comment April 18th, 2020 Headsman

The influx into Great Britain from the start of the 16th century of itinerant Romani — also known as Romanichal, English Travellers,* or (for their supposed Egyptian ancestry**) Gypsies — began the outbreaks of racism and moral panic that continue to this day.

April 18, 1577 marks the condemnation of six Gypsies: the date that sentence was executed — there’s little reason to suppose it would have been stayed — is not specifically recorded.. They’d forged official documents, which made them liable to a treason charge; but, merely being a Gypsy in England had been criminalized by a 1530 Act and the penalty of this crime upgraded to death in 1554.

“[A]n outlandish people, calling themselves Egyptians, using no craft nor feat of merchandise, who have come into this realm, and gone from shire to shire, and place to place, in great company; and used great subtlety and crafty means to deceive the people — bearing them in hand that they, by palmistry, could tell men’s and women’s fortunes; and so, many times, by craft and subtlety, have deceived the people for their money; and also have committed many heinous felonies and robberies, to the great hurt and deceit of the people that they have come among,” runs the description of the 1530 Act. Similar legislation was being promulgated all around continental Europe in this same period.

In practice neither law triggered wholesale genocide or expulsion, but lurking at the fringes of settled English habitation and bearing the stigma of crime and deviance, Romani stood in perpetual precarity. Little wonder that many became buyers in a black market of forged documents confirming their legitimate occupation. In this case, six Gypsies were apprehended in Berkshires in March 1577 making use of the counterfeit products of a Cheshire schoolmaster named Richard Massey.

Massey was lucky himself not to swing for this offense. The Gypsies, less so; according to David Cressy

Their leaders were tried to Aylesbury for high treason, for falsifying warrants under the Great Seal, though one, Philip Bastien, was set aside ‘because he may give evidence against others’. Roland Gabriel, Thomas Gabriel, William Gabriel, Lawrence Bannister, Christopher Jackson, George Jackson, Richard Jackson, and the widow Katherine Deago were all found guilty of ‘counterfeiting, transferring, and altering themselves in dress, language, and behaviour to such vagabonds called Egyptians, contrary to statute’. All were sentenced to be hanged, though whether all went to the gallows is uncertain. Katherine Deago was most likely reprieved, for a Gypsy with that name appeared in Essex a year later.

* Not to be conflated with Irish Travellers, who are of different heritage. The distinction is fraught political terrain in the U.K.

** Actually, this ethnic group hails from India, migrating thence around the 11th century.

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1572: Annecke Lange, Gesche Herbst, and Annecke Rotschroeder

Add comment March 28th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1572, Annecke Lange, Gesche Herbst, and Annecke Rotschroeder were all condemned and burned at Neustadt am Rübenberge, as witches and poisoners.

Although commoners, they were the luckless casualties of misbegotten marital politics in the Holy Roman Empire, and in the words of Tara Nummedal in Anna Zieglerin and the Lion’s Blood: Alchemy and End Times in Reformation Germany, “the entire incident laid bare simultaneously the fear of poison and sorcery and the reluctance to advance witch accusations against women of elite status in the princely courts of central Europe.”

The particular princely court of interest for us is that of Eric(h) II, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, a Lutheran convert who married a House of Wettin princess called Sidonie of Saxony. It was one of those love-matches by which the bluebloods slip the bonds of arranged dynastic alliances and often, of historical irrelevancy. ‘Tis a likely antechamber to the volumes of Executed Today.

Sidonie was a decade Eric’s senior, leading one wise grandee to predict, “All sorts of things will happen inside this marriage after the kissing month ends.”

Just so. Eric reverted to Catholicism and the childless couple became bitterly estranged — not only over religion, but money, and the want of a child. (Eventually Eric would die without an heir, and pass his realm to a cousin.) So intense would the couple’s antipathy become that they began to suspect one another of seeking an abrupt annulment by the hand of the poisoner.

That hypothesis became self-confirming when Eric fell ill in 1564, and Eric (this is Nummedal again) “initiated an investigation, accusing four women in Neustadt am Rübenberge, close to Hannover, of both trying to poison him and using sorcery to disrupt his marriage, keep him away ‘from his land and people,’ and make Sidonie barren.”

Three of these four women broke under torture and admitted not only poisoning but witchcraft; they were burned in 1568. But the fourth woman, Gesche Role, had the fortitude to withstand her interrogators and was released.

It’s by way of Gesche Role that we arrive at our day’s principals — for in some fresh turn of the diplomatic jockeying between the estranged power couple, Eric renewed his accusation and re-arrested the poor woman upon fresh claims of fiendery. This time she succumbed and confessed — adding, as is the style, a series of charges against five other acquaintances: our three victims, Annecke Lange, Gesche Herbst, and Annecke Rotschroeder; plus, Annecke’s husband Hans Lange, who died under torture; and, a woman named Margarethe Ölse or Ölsin, whose fate was stayed by dint of her pregnancy. Hans Lange had actually been a barber and surgeon who had been in ducal employment, affording some material connection to the “victim’s” plate, but of course all confessions were secured in the usual violent manner.

On the 28th of March, our three victims were condemned at Neustadt and immediately sent to the stake. Several others in the widening witch inquiry shared a like fate later that same year; the overall number of Neustadt “witches” executed from the various procedures initiated by Eric is not known, but might run up towards 60.

The reader will mark that all these souls were merely humble folk destroyed as flies to wanton boys. Witch fires were usually quenched once their flames licked titled estates, and so it was in this case, as the 1572 Hexenprozesse “also implicated a cluster of noblewomen (Anna von Rheden, Katharina Dux, and Margaretha Knigge), and it was not long before Duke Erich’s estranged wife, Sidonie, herself was accused of directing the poison plot against her husband, purportedly because of his relationship with his mistress, Katharina von Weldam. This escalation of the trial as it reached into the nobility proved to be too much, apparently, even for Duke Erich II, who halted the trial before the noblewomen were sentenced,” and after a pause the Holy Roman Emperor reconvened a hearing at which all concerned were exonerated.

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1573: Hans Boije af Gennäs

Add comment January 1st, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1573, the Swedish commander of Weissenstein (present-day Paide, Estonia), Hans Boije af Gennäs was executed when his fortress was overrun by Russian troops, during the Livonian War.


Ruins of (cc) image from Ivo Kruusamägi.

A walled city with a Teutonic Knights-built keep, Weissenstein sat at a crossroads in interior Livonia and changed hands several times during this decades-long multilateral conflict involving Russia, Sweden, Denmark-Norway, Poland, and Lithuania — the latter two of which united into a Commonwealth during the war.

Big picture, the Livonian War ran from 1558 to 1583; the stakes were, as one might guess, control of Livonia — essentially, the present-day Baltic states of Estonia and Latvia. Long ago this precinct had been the medieval remit of those same Teutonic Knights; after 1561, it was controlled in the south by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (that’s Latvia), and in the north by Sweden (that’s Estonia, containing Weissenstein).

Needless to say, this brought enormous suffering to Livonian, which Livonian chroniclers like Johann Renner, Balthasar Russow and Salomon Henning blamed mostly on the Russians. As Charles Halperin summarizes,

To the Livonian chroniclers, the Russians were barbaric, sadistic monsters, whose atrocities they described in graphic, sensational detail. According to Renner, the Russians were cruel, bloodthirsty, and inhumane. They massacred men, women, and children among fishermen. They hanged Livonian women from trees and robbed them of their clothing, silver, and gold. They impaled babies on stakes or sharp picket fences, and hacked little children in two and left them, or hacked adults into pieces. They placed a huge stone on the stomach of a pregnant women [sic] to force her foetus from her womb. They burned alive a woman hiding in an oven. They cut off the breasts of maidens and women and hacked off the hands and feet of men. They threw fifty children into a well and filled it with stones. They flayed a man and cut open his side, poured in gunpowder, and blew him apart. They decapitated captives after flaying them and cutting off their fingers and toes. They massacred peasants young and old. They flayed captives in Moscow with whips of braided flails, marched them five miles to a cemetery and then beheaded them with axes. They drove naked peasants into great fires and nailed one peasant to a post and suffocated him with smoke. They tied a captured noble to a tree, cut open his body, and let his intestines fall out. They nailed a ferryman to a door and then killed him with arrows. They killed an old forest overseer by cutting open his body, nailing one end of his intestines to a tree, and then beating him with whips to make him run, pulling out his intestines and bringing about his death. Peasants were drawn and quartered. They murdered captives by snapping their necks in such a way that they suffered for one, two, or three days before expiring. The Tatars cut out the heart of one prisoner (killing him, of course), and ate it, saying that doing so would give them courage.

Russow adds that Russians committed terrible acts of murder, theft, and arson during their invasion. They tortured and tormented Livonians, massacred them, threw poor peasant, their wives and children to their deaths off city walls, hacked to death servitors of Magnus,* roasted captives on spits for days, stole the blanket off a dead woman, deposited children on the ice to die of overexposure or drown, put out a noble’s eyes before flaying him to death, drowned, tortured, and executed captives, sabered captives, plucked out the heart of the living body of a mayor, ripped a preacher’s tongue from his throat, sold captives into slavery, raped maidens and women, threw captives to their deaths off the walls of conquered cities, and starved captives nearly to death. They left the bodies of their victims for wild beasts to eat …

According to Henning, the Russians were bloodthirsty “ignorant barbarians”, who raged like savages, and tortured and killed their enemies in inhuman fashion, including stretching them and breaking them on the wheel. They cut down even the young and the old, women and children, who surrendered with their hands raised, or subjected them to inhuman barbarities and atrocities, and then barbaric slavery. Everywhere they went, they plundered, slew, roasted, and burned. They hacked pregnant women in two, impaled foetuses on fence stakes, slit men’s sides, inserted gunpowder and blew them up, and slit men’s throats and let them bleed to death. They smeared people with thick pine pitch, bound them, and burned them. They gang-raped women and girls, and sold the survivors into slavery to the Tatars. They tore nursing babes from their mothers’ breasts, chopped off hands, feet, and heads, and gutted the remainder of the bodies, stuck bodies on spits and roasted or baked them, and then ate them to satisfy their “diabolical, bloodthirsty hunger” … They massacred innocent Livonian townsmen, wives, and children in retribution for anti-Russian plots in which they had no part. They butchered poor little schoolchildren. Despite safe-conducts to the surrendered occupants of assaulted cities, they sabered them as they departed. Captives too old or infirm to be led into captivity, even nobles, were killed on the spot. Survivors of a castle whose occupants chose to blow themselves up rather than surrendered were sabered, hacked to bits, mutilated, and left unburied to be eaten by birds, dogs, and other wild beasts.

To skip past various twists of state- and warcraft, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was taking a breather from the fight in the early 1570s, leaving Russia and Sweden mano a mano.

The Russians invaded Swedish-defended Estonia in 1572 with Tsar Ivan the Terrible personally leading the army, and put the small garrison of Weissenstein/Paide to irresistible siege. Nevertheless, it did resist, and these defenders have the distinction of killing during this siege the sinister operative of the tsar — Malyuta Skuratov, so much the emblem of Ivan’s terrible Oprichnina that in Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, the titular Margarita at an infernal ball can’t help but notice one “face ringed by a fiery beard, the face of Malyuta Skuratov”.


Portrait of Skuratov by a contemporary painter, the late Pavel Ryzhenko.

Considering the flaying and intestine-ripping that mere passersby were liable to expose themselves to, the Swedes earned no quarter from Ivan for compounding their resistance with the death of the tsar’s hand. Our man Hans Boije af Gennais (English Wikipedia entry | Swedish) and his chief aides were all impaled and slowly roasted over flames immediately upon Weissenstein’s New Year’s Day capture.

* Magnus, Duke of Holstein was Ivan’s unsuccessful puppet king in Livonia in the early 1570s, but he lost favor after being repeatedly thumped by the Swedes and eventually outright turned against the Russians. Ivan captured him and (alas for Executed Today) did not put him to death, but gratuitously brutalized anyone in Magnus’s train.

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1578: Jacob Hessels, “to the gallows, to the gallows!”

Add comment October 4th, 2019 Headsman

Flanders magistrate Jacob Hessels (Dutch link, as are most that follow) was hanged on this date in 1578.

He was a feared hanging judge — the story about him is that he would drift to sleep at the bench and awake with a start exclaiming, “to the gallows, to the gallows!” — who by profession and disposition was ideally suited for the so-called “Council of Blood” that would be seated in 1567 to help the Spanish Duke of Alba suppress the emerging revolt of the Low Countries against Habsburg sovereignty.


In this 1616 engraving by Simon Frisius, the cadaverous Duke of Alba presides over his Council of Troubles or Council of Blood.

He’s credited in particular with drafting the infamous sentence against Counts Egmont and Hoorn, but these were only highlights among a prolific career that earned him the hatred of the parties that chafed under imperial domination.

This was bad news for Hessels when one of those parties, Calvinists, mounted a coup d’etat that took control of Ghent in late 1577. We have in these pages previously encountered this period, in the form of the Calvinists’ persecution of Catholic monks; they also in the course of things imprisoned a number of secular officials associated with Habsburg/Catholic rule. Most of these would in time be ransomed unharmed; however, one of the principal leaders of the short-lived Calvinist Republic was Francois van Ryhove, who considered Hessels and another captive state’s attorney named Visch to be personal enemies and resolved upon their destruction.

Without color of any law or juridical proceeding, according to this Dutch-language history,

On October 4, 1578, he took the two prisoners out of their dungeon and had them carried outside of the gate in an armed carriage. Not far from town, the carriage stopped at Ryhove’s order, the prisoners were made to climb down, and Ryhove announced that they would be hung on a nearby tree immediately. He then mocked the old Hessels in a shameful way, and he went so far as to mistreat him viciously by grabbing his beard and pulling out a fistful of gray hair, which he put on his hat like a feather as an insignia of his revenge! His companions followed the mocking example of their unworthy leader; then the two unfortunates were hung to the tree.

Hessels and Visch, but especially the former, undoubtedly deserved death, and if that punishment had been imposed on them as a result of a legal judgment, few would have complained. But now they fell as the victims of a shameful, personal vengeance. Ryhove, the head of the Ghent party of revolution, the friend of Orange, had killed them without trial and his crime remained unpunished, for the prince had not power enough to make him feel his displeasure. Was it a miracle that the malcontents were crying out for revenge, that they were using the horrific crime committed by that one man as a pretext to also justify on their part to such atrocities against the Protestants, and that the angry Gentenaars in their turn again took revenge by assaulting the Catholic priests and looting the monasteries?

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1572: Johann Sylvan, Antitrinitarian

Add comment December 23rd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1572, Antitrinitarian Calvinist Johann Sylvan lost his head in a Heidelberg market.

Sylvan — or Johannes Slyvanus — was a pastor and theologian in the service of Calvinist Elector Frederick III.

Frederick’s own Calvinist scruples were theoretically anathema in a Holy Roman Empire whose writ of tolerance did not extend past Lutheranism.

But Sylvan gravitated towards a circle of reformers whose concept of the divine left orthodox Calvinism far behind — “a group of ministers within the Palatine church, who were not only prepared to deny the eternal divinity of Christ, but secretly aspired to promote a further reformation of received doctrine with a view to restoring the pristine monotheism of the faith,” according to this pdf volume, The Heidelberg Antitrinitarians.

This rejection of the long-canonical Christian mystery of threefold godhead formed a recurring subtheme of Europe’s Reformations, its exponents — like Michael Servetus — forever prone to martyrdoms administered by any respectable sect.

This proved to be the case for Sylvan as well; given his dubious theological position within the empire, Elector Frederick might have felt it politically necessary to come down hard on these radicals.

Still, while Sylvan was made the example, others in his Antitrinitarian circle lived to expound their heresies in other lands. Matthias Vehe fled to Transylvania — where a Unitarian Church was founded in 1568, protected by a sympathetic prince — and then to other fellow-travelers in Poland. Adam Neuser also escaped, later converting to Islam and defecting to Ottoman Istanbul, an event that did a lot of lifting for anti-Anti-trinitarian propagandists.

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1575: Archbishop Leonid of Novgorod

Add comment October 20th, 2017 Headsman

Jack Culpepper’s “The Kremlin Executions of 1575 and the Enthronement of Simeon Bekbulatovich” (Slavic Review, September, 1965) notes a single anonymous chronicle dating to the early 17th century alluding to a mysterious Kremlin purge … several years after the notorious Oprichnina.

Regarding the other executions of the same year in Moscow on the square near the Uspensky Cathedral, the Tsar disgraced many individuals, ordering the execution within the Kremlin and in his presence, on the square near the Uspensky Cathedral, of the following: the boyar Prince Petr Kurakin, Protasii Iur’ev, the archbishop of Novgorod, the protopope of the Arkhangel’sky Cathedral, Ivan Buturlin, Nikita Borozdin, the archimandrite of the Chudov Monastery, and many others. Their heads were thrown before the residences of Prince Ivan Mstislavsky, the metropolitan, Ivan Sheremetev, Andrei Shchelkalov, and others.

According to Culpepper that Archbishop of Novgorod, Leonid by name, faced the executioner on October 20, 1575 after being summoned to a sobor — but no records preserve the conclave’s deliberations or the proceedings against Archbishop Leonid. Others both secular and ecclesiastical shared his fate throughout that autumn. (Ivan had no compunctions when it came to burdening his soul with the death of a clergyman.)

A Holy Roman Empire courtier who reached Moscow late that year would record by way of explanation for the bloodbath that the perennially paranoid Ivan had put to death some forty nobles for a suspected interest in his assassination.

This supposed plot against him is one possible reason for Ivan’s strange decision around the same time to faux-abdicate the throne. In September or October of 1575, Ivan plucked the ruler of a vestigial khanate dependency and made this gentleman, Simeon Bekbulatovich, Grand Prince of Rus’.

Ivan, of course, maintained the real power; he would claim to an English visitor that it was a ruse to throw off his murderers, telling him:

we highlye forsawe the varyable and dungerous estate of princes and that as well as the meanest they are subiect unto chaunge which caused us to suspect oure owne magnificence and that which nowe inded ys chaunced unto us for we have resyned the estate of our government which heathertoo hath bene so royally maynteyned into the hands of a straunger whoe is nothinge alyed unto us our lande or crowne. The occasion whereof is the perverse and evill dealinge of our subiects who mourmour and repine at us for gettinge loyaull obedience they practice againste our person. The which to prevent we have gyvene them over unto an other prince to governe them but have reserved in our custodye all the treasure of the lande withe sufficient trayne and place for their and our relyefe.

Ivan did indeed relieve his proxy tsar the very next year, demoting him to Prince of Tver and Torzhok. Despite the approaching “Time of Troubles” crisis following Ivan’s death when nobles would struggle for the right to sire the next Muscovite dynasty, the still-living former Grand Prince was such an absurd character that he never figured as a contender for the crown. (He would be forced into a monastery, however.) Bekbulatovich died naturally in 1616.

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1573: Gilles Garnier, loup-garou

Add comment January 18th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1573, Gilles Garnier was burned at the stake as a lycanthrope.


Detail view (click for the full image) of The Werewolf, or the Cannibal by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1509)

The “Werewolf of Dole” was a scavenging hermit resident on the outskirts of that Burgundian town when a little girl was strangled and partially eaten in October of 1572. Townsfolk feared a maneating wolf but a subsequent pattern of attacks would point at something even more frightful.

As kitsch as it becomes for us in modernity, it is not difficult to discern in the werewolf legend the shadow of a truly terrifying era when predatory wolves and predatory men alike prowled the dangerous byways in Europe, especially France.

And a sure way to conflate the two was through a figure like Garnier (English Wikipedia entry | French), who, in a starving winter, monstrously ate the flesh of his victims. He would later confess — we can only guess through what combination of disordered mind and torturer’s suggestion — that as he foraged one day, wracked by hunger, a phantom appeared to him and offered him an ointment that would confer the lifesaving hunting prowess of the wolf.

Like any opportunistic carnivore, the loup-garou Garnier knew enough to prey upon the weakest.

Shortly after slaying that first victim, Garnier grabbed another little girl and was in the process of a bestial hands-and-teeth attack when some villagers came upon the scene. Garnier fled, but at least some of these accidental witnesses were convinced that they had seen a wolf attack — for what man tears into his still-dying quarry with his bare teeth?

Then again, as observed by Sabine Baring-Gould* — whose The Book of Were-Wolves makes for a goosefleshing Halloween read — there would even post-Garnier in 1573 be an edict promulgated against what Parlement suspected was continuing werewolfery in the vicinity, directing all and sundry “to assemble with pikes, halberts, arquebuses, and sticks, to chase and to pursue the said were-wolf in every place where they may find or seize him; to tie and to kill, without incurring any pains or penalties.” Lycanthropy is stirring deep within this society, authorities, onlookers and offender(s?) all suggestible to one another.

Garnier killed a little boy later that same November, perhaps his most gruesome as he not only cannibalized the fresh corpse but tore off the child’s leg to save for later.

His fourth known victim was his last and resulted in his capture when he was again surprised on the scene. (This time, the witnesses saw only the man — not the wolf.)

His trial, which was for all its fantastic content notably a secular one, was a monument to the fear that must have gripped Dole while children vanished only to turn up as carrion: some fifty witnesses were summoned, many to make connections between Gilles Garnier and canis lupus that one would strain to credit as speculative but were probably quite sincere. Everyone knew there was a werewolf, and then everyone knew Gilles Garnier was that werewolf.

Like the French peasantry, posterity has seen in Garnier what it hopes or expects to see. Do we witness the grim and commonplace effects of torture upon a bystander being scapegoated for the natural incursions of wolves? The predations of a “normal” serial killer refracted through his society’s superstitions? A mentally ill man truly convinced (as with the wendigo psychosis) of his own beastliness? An entirely false confession reflecting Garnier’s own complicity in the same evolving myth that captivated his neighbors?

Or might we allow with Montague Summers the genuine historicity of the monster?

As Nabuchodonosor was so punished by God, so Heaven may also well have permitted Gilles Garnier and the sorcerers of Savoy owing to their vile appetites and their lust for human flesh to have become wolves, losing human form.

From whatever cause this shape-shifting may arise, it is very certain by the common consent of all antiquity and all history, by the testimony of learned men, by experience and first-hand witness, that werewolfism which involves some change of form from man to animal is a very real and very terrible thing. (The Werewolf)

If you prefer your rending human flesh in podcast form, Stuff You Missed In History Class covered this story in a (graphic) Halloween episode.

* An occasional Executed Today guest blogger, through the magic of public domain.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Murder,Public Executions,Serial Killers,The Supernatural,Torture

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