1570: John Felton, papal bull promulgator

Add comment August 8th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1570, the English Catholic martyr John Felton suffered hanging, disemboweling, and quartering at St. Paul’s Churchyard in London for the Old Faith.

Not to be confused with the 17th century assassin of the same name, our John Felton was reported by the biography from his daughter’s hand to be a wealthy Southwark gentleman whose wife had gamboled in her own childhood with the future Queen Elizabeth.

John’s crime was to hang up publicly in the dark of night before Corpus Christi the papal bull excommunicating Queen Elizabeth — an act not merely of religious dissidence but of overt political rebellion, inasmuch as the bull released English subjects from their obedience to “the pretended Queen of England” and exhorted them on pain of damnation to ignore her edicts. This directive from Rome was to prove so taxing for Catholics that it was soon modified to permit outward obedience in civil matters, pending the overthrow of the heresiarchess.

Following a decade of uneasy religious tolerance — in which, not coincidentally, Elizabeth entertained the suits of assorted continental royalty, some of them Catholic — Regnans in Excelsis marked the onset of open hostilities. The Catholic “Ridolfi plot” would be hatched this very year, for instance, and lead the Duke of Norfolk to the scaffold by 1572.

And then he said, O Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit, in English; and as he was saying it in Latin, In munus tuas Domine, he was turned off the ladder; and hanging there six turns, he was cut down, and carried to the block, and there his head was smitten off, and held up, that the people might see it: whereat the people gave a shout, wishing that all Traitors were so served. Then he was quartered, and carried to Newgate to be parboiled, and so set up as the other rebels were. — God save the Queen.

John Felton’s son Thomas Felton was also martyred, in 1588. Both have since been beatified.

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1574: Joseph Boniface de La Mole, La Reine Margot’s lover

1 comment April 30th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1574, nobleman Joseph Boniface de La Mole was beheaded in Paris for a supposed plot against the king.

As the year would imply, La Mole was a casualty of France’s decades-long Wars of Religion.

Two years prior, in an attempt to cement an unsteady peace, the king’s sister Marguerite de Valois had been married off to the Protestant Henri of Navarre. As Paris teemed with Huguenots in town to celebrate the nuptials, the Catholic party sprang the infamous St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.

As if things weren’t awkward enough with the in-laws, Henri was now made to live at the royal court, feigning conversion to Catholicism. His relationship with Marguerite went off to a rocky start; both took other lovers.

Joseph Boniface de La Mole (English Wikipedia entry | French) was one of Marguerite’s. You’ll find this adulterous couple steaming up the screen in the 1994 film La Reine Margot, which is based on a Dumas novel of the same title.


In real life, La Mole was 27 years Marguerite’s senior.

Meanwhile, civil strife ebbed and flowed.

Desperate to escape his gilded cage, Henri in 1574 was part of a Protestant coup attempt that boldly aimed to seize the sickly King Charles IX and his mother Catherine de’ Medici at Saint-Germain.

The conspiracy failed, but its principals — including not only our Henri, but also the King’s Protestant-friendly brother the Duke of Alencon, and the Duke of Montmorency* — were too august for severe punishment. Catherine de’ Medici, whose children kept dying on her (Charles IX would do likewise in May of 1574), was desperately trying to navigate the civil war with a Valois heir in place who had enough political support to rule; going all-in with the realm’s Catholic ultras (most characteristically represented by the House of Guise, which wanted Henri beheaded for this treason) would have permanently alienated all the Huguenots.

The likes of La Mole, however, were not so safe.

He and one Annibal de Coconnas, members of the court’s Huguenot circle who “had nothing of the divinity that hedged the princes of the blood,” were seized on April 8 and interrogated for an alleged scheme to murder the sovereign — possibly at the instigation of the Guises, trying to implicate through this pair the more powerful Huguenot lords.

After the inevitable blade fell on them, Marguerite supposedly kept her former lover’s severed head in a jeweled box. But the nobleman had at least the consolation of a rich literary afterlife. Besides the Dumas novel aforementioned, the La Mole family — our man’s supposed descendants — feature prominently in Stendhal’s The Red and the Black.

‘Let us take a turn in the garden,’ said the Academician, delighted to see this chance of delivering a long and formal speech. ‘What! Is it really possible that you do not know what happened on the 30th of April, 1574?’ ‘Where?’ asked Julien, in surprise. ‘On the Place de Greve.’ Julien was so surprised that this name did not enlighten him. His curiosity, the prospect of a tragic interest, so attuned to his nature, gave him those sparkling eyes which a story-teller so loves to see in his audience. The Academician, delighted to find a virgin ear, related at full length to Julien how, on the 30th of April, 1574, the handsomest young man of his age, Boniface de La Mole, and Annibal de Coconasso, a Piedmontese gentleman, his friend, had been beheaded on the Place de Greve. ‘La Mole was the adored lover of Queen Marguerite of Navarre; and observe,’ the Academician added, ‘that Mademoiselle de La Mole is named Mathilde-Marguerite. La Mole was at the same time the favourite of the Duc d’Alencon and an intimate friend of the King of Navarre, afterwards Henri IV, the husband of his mistress. On Shrove Tuesday in this year, 1574, the Court happened to be at Saint-Germain, with the unfortunate King Charles IX, who was on his deathbed. La Mole wished to carry off the Princes, his friends, whom Queen Catherine de’ Medici was keeping as prisoners with the Court. He brought up two hundred horsemen under the walls of Saint-Germain, the Due d’Alencon took fright, and La Mole was sent to the scaffold.

In Stendhal’s novel, it is Julien’s sexual conquest of the pretty young Mathilde de La Mole that sets in motion Julien’s ruin and execution.

Joseph Boniface de La Mole’s lover fared far better than that of his fictional descendant. Henri would eventually make his escape after all, and through fortune and intrepidity made Marguerite the Queen of all France** when he decided at last that Paris was worth a Mass.

* The man in our story was the second Duke of Montmorency; his nephew, the fourth duke, was beheaded in 1632.

** The marriage was never comfortable, and Henri and Marguerite continued to live and love separately until they finally annulled the union in 1599.

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1571: James Hamilton, Archbishop of St. Andrews and uncle of a crack shot

4 comments April 6th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1571, the Archbishop of St. Andrews hanged in his clerical vestments at the Mercat Cross in Stirling.

John Hamilton‘s fate was tied up in that of his Romish church during the strife-wearied years of Queen Mary. There was a sure reckoning for the Church due in those years, but whose?

After the transition in England from the Catholic Queen Mary to the Protestant Queen Elizabeth, an alliance of Protestant Scottish nobles moved to overthrow the authority Mary of Guise, the French Catholic who ruled Scotland as regent for her expatriate daughter Mary, Queen of Scots.

As she was pushed back, Mary of Guise called in French reinforcements, and the Protestant lords English reinforcements. But Mary of Guise dropped dead of dropsy in 1560 and put the Protestants in the driver’s seat, shattering Scotland’s centuries-long Auld Alliance with France.

Political maneuvering in Scotland over the next decade makes for a tangled skein with many unexpected accommodations and alliances. But the religious direction of the realm would be the knottiest thread of them all.

James Stuart, Earl of Moray, one of the most prominent Protestant lords, was the illegitimate half-brother of Mary, Queen of Scots — Mary of Guise’s very Catholic daughter, who soon returned to rule a native land she had not laid eyes upon since the age of five.* The practical Moray became at first the real power behind the throne of the teenage queen, but the two also increasingly maneuvered against one another for, among other things, the future of Scottish Christianity.

The prelate Hamilton naturally held for out to keep reforms within the pale of orthodoxy. He had printed a noteworthy “Hamilton’s catechism” of Catholic doctrine in the 1550s, in the vernacular for popular consumption.**

So as the Moray-Mary relationship went pear-shaped in the late 1560s and the country fell into civil war, Hamilton of course gravitated to the side of the Catholic queen. Mary by this time had been forced to abdicate the throne in favor of her son, James VI (eventually also James I of England). Moray was now “Regent Moray” and exercised power in the infant king’s name. He also drove Mary to England, and her eventual execution.

He certainly had no shortage of mortal enemies.

On January 23, 1570, from the window of a house Archbishop Hamilton owned with his brother in Linlithgow, their kinsman James Hamilton shot Regent Moray dead as he passed in a procession en route to a diplomatic rendezvous in Edinburgh.†


James Hamilton prepares to win your barstool bet by becoming the first firearm assassin in history on January 23, 1570. (via)

This appears to be the first assassination with firearm on record (beating William the Silent‘s murder by a good 14 years), and it would set an encouraging precedent for Team Assassin: the gunman sprang onto a ready-saddled horse and successfully escaped his pursuers by desperately daggering his own mount in the hindquarters to spur it to leap over a creek. James Hamilton took refuge with others of the Hamilton clan in the town of that name.

As his subsequent course suggests, James Hamilton was not a lone gunman: a number of family members knew of and aided his plot. (He had actually been stalking Moray over several cities on his travels, looking for the right opportunity.)

Through them, the killer escaped to France. His uncle the archbishop was not so fortunate.

John Hamilton fled to the refuge of Dumbarton Castle following the assassination, but this citadel loyal to Mary was taken by surprise at the start of April 1571 by a daring nighttime escalade. John Hamilton was captured there and hailed to Stirling, where he was put to immediate death without benefit of trial.

* It was a bit of a step down from the French court for Mary, who had briefly been Queen consort of France when her frail husband unexpectedly succeeded the throne following the death of Henri II in a joust.

** Also in the 1550s, Bishop Hamilton granted the townspeople of St Andrew perpetual access to its Old Course, the legendary birthplace of golf.

† Two other short-lived regents succeeded Regent Moray until in 1572 the post fell to the hands of James Douglas, Earl of Morton.

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1571: Anneken Hendriks, cursed Mennonist

Add comment November 10th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1571, Anneken Hendriks was martyred in Amsterdam as an Anabaptist.

She was about 53 years old and illiterate, and had come to Amsterdam from Frisia. Considering her outlaw faith could have done better than to move in next to the underbailiff. He soon apprehended his neighbor for “having forsaken the mother, the holy church, now about six years ago and having adopted the cursed doctrine of the Mennonists, by whom she had been baptized on her faith.”

That’s per the Martyrs’ Mirror catalog of Protestant martyrdoms. For the 1685 edition of this volume, Dutch illustrator Jan Luyken favored poor Anneken Hendriks with one of his grisly illustrations.

Anabaptists — practitioners of adult baptism — were heavily persecuted in the Low Countries and throughout Europe, particularly after right-thinking folk were shocked by the short-lived Anabaptist commune at Muenster. Anneken Hendriks, sure enough, had by the words of the sentence against her “not been for six or seven years at confession, or at the holy, reverend sacrament, but went to the meetings of the cursed sect of Mennonists or anabaptists, so that they have even held secret meetings or assemblies at her house.” She also threatened traditional marriage by “marrying” her husband “by night, at a country seat, after the manner of the Mennonists.”

Our source here notes that Anneken Hendriks was tortured by rack and strappado for the names of other Anabaptists. She refused to divulge any, but she was chatty enough on the way to her burning — warning her former neighbor that God would punish him if he kept up the Judas act, and spurning her Catholic would-be confessors — until they stuffed her mouth with gunpowder to still her heretical tongue.

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1571: Hans Haslibacher, Bern Anabaptist

1 comment October 20th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1571, Anabaptist Hans Haslibacher was martyred in Bern, Switzerland.

Haslibacher (German link) joined the oft-suppressed movement in 1532 and quickly established himself as one of the most energetic proselytizers in the Emmental in Bern canton.

Condemned at last in 1571 after a lifetime of arrests, he was honored in a 32-stanza anonymous poem “Das Haslibacherlied” (German) alleging that Haslibacher prophesied that his death would be marked with three signs:

  1. His head when struck off would spring into a hat and laugh aloud;
  2. The sun would turn blood-red;
  3. The town fountain would spew blood.

According to the poem, all three prophesies came to pass … and “the hangman too was heard to say: / ‘Tis guiltless blood I’ve shed today.”

The Swiss Anabaptists are noteworthy as the confessional ancestors of the present-day Amish: the latter sect is named for 17th century Bern canton Anabaptist Jakob Ammann, who was the leader of one faction in a 1693 schism within the Swiss Anabaptist community.

Fortunately (though not for this here site) that schism emerged too late in the day for a classic religious martyrdom. Hans Haslibacher, in fact, was the last Anabaptist put to death for his faith in Bern.

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1578: Thee Bruges Minnenbroder

2 comments July 26th, 2013 Headsman

During the Dutch Revolt — a proto-nationalist conflict pitting the Low Countries against the Habsburg Empire, overlaid with a religious conflict pitting Calvinist against Catholic — the Low Countries principals came to an expedient arrangement to lay off fighting with one another in order to concentrate on controlling their respective internal revolts.

As we’ve previously discussed, this truce helped set up now-unmolested local religious majorities to do some internal purging.

Whereas Calvinist Ghent went after some Catholic monks on accusations of homosexuality, Catholic Bruges (today in Belgium) … went after some not-Catholic-enough monks on accusations of homosexuality.

The results, as described in Same-Sex Desire in the English Renaissance: A Sourcebook of Texts, 1470-1650, were depressingly similar.

In [illustrator Franz] Hogenberg‘s Scenes an engraving dated May 18, 1578, shows a lengthy procession of monks being marched out of a monastery in Bruges under armed guard. The title and verses explain that two Franciscans of Calvinist leanings were whipped and then interrogated (probably on account of their Protestantism). But they revealed that many in their order were tained by sodomy (Sodomi). The other monks admitted this (under torture?), and “they were all taken prisoners and led away to the gate for their godlessness.” Presumably depicting a result of this … [is] Execution for Sodomitical Godlessness in the City of Bruges … Three monks are about to be burned in a public square while two are being beaten. Underneath, the verses state, “in well-known Bruges in Flanders three Franciscans (Minnenbroder) have been burned. Also two others were well beaten with switches and two had to be banished. For they were young and inexperienced and had been seduced by the old ones, so that they unjustly practiced sodomy (unzuchtt) upon their bodies.” Though the circumstances of the monks’ trial are as yet unclear, such sentences were carried out by secular authorities. Minnenbroder (Franciscans) may be a satiric pun on the word minne (which had come to mean debauchery), suggesting “brothers in lust” as opposed to brotherly love. Hogenberg connects sodomy with “godlessness,” as was common.

… The investigations, convictions, and punitive displays in these monastic cases [in Bruges and in Ghent] had special topicality for inclusion because they not only afforded titillations of sexual scandal, censure, and public punishment, but also added alleged religious transgression and appealed to Protestant-Catholic rivalries of the time. Although Hogenberg’s sodomites are ecclesiastics, his engravings indicate how these public spectacles were managed, while also providing us one contemporary view of the attitudes attendant crowds displayed.

Detail view (click for the full images) of Hogenberg prints from this British Museum collection. Also see this slightly different version of the arrest print.

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1573: Meister Frantz Schmidt’s first execution

6 comments June 5th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1573, 19-year-old Frantz Schmidt — heretofore only an apprentice to his father’s craft — conducted his first solo hanging. As the body of the thief hung there, his father or perhaps another established Scharfrichter stepped forward and ritually slapped the teenage hangman three times, announcing his successful passage into the ranks of Germany’s master executioners.

“Leinhardt Russ of Zeyern, a thief. Executed with the rope at the city of Steinach. Was my first execution.” Those words begin Meister Frantz’s remarkable diary* of 361 hangings, beheadings, breakings-on-the-wheel, drownings, and burnings — as well as many other sub-capital punishments, primarily as the executioner of Nuremberg from 1578 to 1617.

Nuremberg executioner Frantz Schmidt at work in 1584.

Executioners occupied a strange outcast social niche, with charge not only of death sentences but of other dishonorable public tasks. Either as cause or consequence of this, the profession carried its own stigma for underworld less-than-respectable behavior; it was not unheard-of for a shady executioner to wind up climbing the scaffold as patient rather than hangman.

But in his 45-year career, the sober Meister Frantz operated with ahead-of-his-time dignity and sobriety, so much so that Schmidt was granted citizenship in Nuremberg and eventually had his civic honor officially restored. He freed himself and his heirs from the social pollution inherent to his life’s work.

Joel Harrington of Vanderbilt has authored a new book titled The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century, a fascinating account not only of Frantz Schmidt’s life but the world he inhabited. Dr. Harrington was good enough to chat with Executed Today.**


Book CoverET: Your book is built around a sort of life’s mission by Frantz Schmidt to return himself and his family to respectable-ness. Certainly he accomplished this marvelously in the end, but I’m curious how firm do you feel is the inference that this was his specific intent from the start?

JH: I have no doubts that as a child, Frantz Schmidt was repeatedly told the tale of his family’s fall from grace, especially since he can still remember so many details even as an old man. We also know from his own words in his appeal to the emperor to restore that lost honor that his grandfather, father, and his own children all felt the sting of this stigma. Finally, the late-in-life struggles to assert that regain honor — against the challenges of his bitter successor — further underscore the centrality of this mission in Frantz Schmidt’s life.

Executioners often had a family trade at this point, but the Schmidts — specifically the father, Heinrich Schmidt — had a bizarre path into this business via the German nobility’s old prerogatives. Could you explicate the “ancient custom” that allowed Albrecht Alcibiades to force Frantz’s father Heinrich, who was not an executioner, to become one? And for that matter, the social customs that then led Heinrich’s neighbors in Hof to treat him as a dishonored untouchable after he was forced to carry out these three executions — rather than viewing him, as we might today, as himself a victim who ought to be helped to get back to his real life?

Most European laws in the early sixteenth century were customary and highly localized. Legal codification throughout jurisdictions was just getting underway. This meant that two villages only a few miles apart might have very different traditions regarding something like execution. In the larger cities, such as Nuremberg, and well organized territorial states, such as the prince-bishopric of Bamberg, standing executioners on salary were the norm. But in many of the hundreds of tiny German states during this period, execution by the victim’s oldest male relative or by another local male was still practiced.

In the case of Hof, the margrave intentionally invoked an ancient and outdated tradition because he was in a hurry to get the job done. The stigma around the job of executioner in general was, by contrast, nearly universal. There seems to have been a little less hostility in southern German states but nobody would have openly socialized with an executioner or his family. As I describe in the book, the severity of this stigma — like all social prejudices — would depend on the individual or occasion in question. So, while some people clearly had sympathy for Meister Frantz, there were still stark boundaries of propriety as to how they might express that sympathy.

Executioners had charge of a variety of disreputable tasks and spheres of civil live: refuse, prostitutes, lepers, torture, and so forth. I’m struck by the importance of Schmidt’s Nuremberg assistant, “the Lion”, in allowing the faithful executioner to (somewhat) separate some of the most visibly dishonorable tasks from Schmdit’s direct purview. Just as a realistic matter, could Frantz Schmidt have reached respectability had he himself had to handle everything personally?

You’re right, the Lion played a key role in this respect. The broader evolution of the job was also significant, from a kind of catch-all for various unpleasant tasks to a civic professional focused on interrogation and punishment. You can also see this in the clothing that executioners start to wear in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, usually either colorful bourgeois outfits or military garb.

Frantz Schmidt’s later entries have a great deal of detail, and you use that to tease out the executioner’s psychology, and the way he thinks about crime, sin, choice, and misfortune in his mature adulthood. It’s quite intriguing. Why, however, did Schmidt begin his journal in the first place? Is there something his shorter, earlier entries tell us about the younger man and the evolution of his views of the “poor sinners” he handled?

After a long time — and especially after I found the oldest version of the journal — I figured out that he started the journal upon his 1578 appointment in Nuremberg. This means that he reconstructed the executions of the previous five years from memory (and without dates).

Why then? The timing strongly suggested to me that he was already thinking about using the journal as a supporting document in his eventual appeal to have his honor restored.

As for changes over time, the most obvious ones are that his passages become much longer, more detailed, and more concerned with motivations and explanations than the earlier, bare-bones accounts. The main evolution in his thinking about poor sinners shows both harsher judgments of those who squandered countless chances to reform and greater pity for those who simply make a bad decision in the heat of the moment.

You have a fascinating chapter devoted to Schmidt’s sidelight as a healer, and to the important ways this practice intersected with executioners’ expertise in [harming] the body. I was amazed that Frantz Schmidt himself also took part in the era’s dissection trend. If one were a regular Nuremberger at this time, would one have any compunctions about a medical consultation with the executioner, a man one might otherwise shun? If a non-executioner physician were available too, would there be any intrinsic preference for the physician as a more respectable figure?

Yes, it’s quite a paradox. You would think that most people would be squeamish or embarrassed about consulting an executioner on medical matters, but by his own estimate Frantz Schmidt saw 15,000 patients over the course of 45 years — fifty times the number of individuals he executed. So he must have been doing something right.

This journal was (re-)discovered at an interesting point, at the beginning of the 19th century when public executions are ending but romantic German nationalism is beginning. How has “Frantz Schmidt” the present-day cultural figure been used and misused by we moderns? What’s the most important misapprehension that reading his diary ought to dispel for us?

This is really the focus of my epilogue, which discusses how “medieval” executioners have been used for the purposes of “enlightened” penal reform, nineteenth-century gothic fantasies, and in modern tourism to elicit disgust, amusement, or even the glorification of pain and suffering. My chief goal in writing the book was to get closer to understanding one such man in his own terms and in the context of his own society. To the degree that the book succeeds, parts of his world will look bizarre and alien, while other aspects (especially how people treat each other) will be strikingly familiar.

* Print-on-demand editions of Schmidt’s original diary are on the market. Although these derive from what I believe to be public domain translations, I have not been able to locate a free English copy online; German speakers can read it here.

** Also recommended: this podcast interview with Dr. Harrington.

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1578: Blessed John Nelson, martyr

2 comments February 3rd, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1578, John Nelson was martyred at Tyburn.

A Catholic who had popped across to Flanders to train as a priest, Nelson was captured after about a year’s ministry in December 1577.

Matters with this minor martyr proceeded according to the usual script from that point. Interrogators put it to him whether Queen Elizabeth was the proper head of the Church of England — that old chestnut. The wrong answer would be treason.

[Nelson] was brought forth to be examined before the high commissioners. Here they tendered him the oath of the queen’s supremacy, which he refused to take; and being asked, why he would not swear, he answered, because he had never heard, or read, that any lay prince could have that pre-eminence. And being farther demanded, who then was the head of the church, he answered, sincerely and boldly, that the pope’s holiness was, to whom that supreme authority in earth was due, as being Christ’s vicar, and the lawful successor of St. Peter.

Secondly, [t]hey asked him his opinion of the religion now practised in England; to which he answered, without any hesitation, that it was both schismatical and heretical. Whereupon they bid him define what schism was; he told them, it was a voluntary departure from the unity of the catholic Roman faith. Then (seeking to ensnare him) they farther urged, what is the queen then, a schismatic or no? … he answered, conditionally, if she be the setter forth [of Anglicanism], said he, and defender of this religion, now practised in England, then she is a schismatic and a heretic.

After he was cut down alive from his hanging so that he could be disemboweled and quartered, Nelson’s last words were reportedly “I forgive the queen and all the authors of my death.”

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1570: Rev. John Kello, the Parson of Spott

Add comment October 4th, 2012 Headsman

This date in 1570 marked the remarkable Edinburgh hanging of a preacher for murdering his wife.

It’s one of Twelve Scots Trials featured in William Roughead‘s public-domain true-crime tome of that title

“The time,” muses our correspondent, “was the year of grace 1570.”

Calvinism had triumphed, and the cause of Queen Mary and the ‘Auld Faith’ was lost. That unhappy lady was safely in Elizabeth’s parlour, the gallant Kirkcaldy still kept the flag of his Royal mistress flying on the castle of Edinburgh, and the ambition of her ambiguous brother, the ‘Good Regent,’ had lately been abridged by the bullet of Bothwellhaugh at Linlithgow. The scene was the hill parish of Spott, on the eastern slope of the Lammermuirs, near the coast town of Dunbar … celebrated, too, as being the scene of the last witch-burnings in Scotland, for so late as October 1705, only two years before the Union, the minutes of the Kirk Session significantly record: ‘Many witches burnt on the top of Spott Loan.’

In the sixteenth century a strange fatality attached to the incumbency of this quiet rural parish … Robert Galbraith, parson of Spott … was murdered in 1543 by one John Carkettle, a burgess of Edinburgh. The next rector, John Hamilton … [became] the Archbishop Hamilton of Queen Mary’s reign. He was taken prisoner at the capture of Dumbarton Castle in 1571, and was hanged at Stirling for complicity in the assassination of the Regent Moray … The fate of the archbishop’s successor in the manse of Spott, the first minister of the new and purified Kirk, forms the subject of the present study.

Young Kello presumably fancied Spott a station on his own cursus honorum towards archbishoprics and assassinated regents; he found himself irksomely constrained by the cheapness of the parish wage (which drove him into speculative debt) and by his “amiable but plebeian consort” Margaret Thomson.

“Thir wer the glistering promises whairwith Sathan, efter his accustomed maner, eludit my senses,” Kello’s eventual confession would sigh. Specifically, Sathan suggested he lose the wife and upgrade to a socially-advantageous match with a lord’s daughter.

On September 24, 1570, Kello came upon his spouse defenseless in prayer, and strangled her with a towel.

“In the verie death,” he admits, “she could not beleive I bure hir ony evill will, bot was glaid, as sche than said, to depairt, gif hir death could doe me ather vantage or pleasoure.”

“Verily,” Roughead adds, “it is difficult to write with patience of the Reverend John.”

Reverend John strung up his infinitely self-sacrificing wife to make it look like she’d done herself to death, went out, preached — it was Sunday — and returned home with some guests, ever-so-casually coming upon the poor woman’s dangling body to great surprise and chagrin in the presence of witnesses.

And this ruse worked, at first. Kello began entertaining sympathy calls from neighbors; it’s unremarked in the existing documentation, but it’s conceivable that the body of the presumed suicide might even have been mutilated or dishonored as was the style at the time.

Overacting the part a bit, Kello sought out the counsel of a brother-minister by the name of Andrew Simpson over the question of the probable disposition of his self-murdering wife’s soul. This Rev. Simpson had tended Kello during a sickness prior to Kello’s wife’s passing, when the Parson of Spott had Sathan’s cogitations in mind. And apparently, Kello related at that time a strange dream that Simpson would on the subsequent visit turn into a supernatural Colombo moment, reciting back that past phantasm plus Simpson’s interpretation of it that it denoted the dreamer’s blood guilt.

This gave the heretofore icily hypocritical Reverend John such a case of the heebie-jeebies that he proceeded to Edinburgh to turn himself in.

And so, on October 4, he preached his last sermon — this one from the scaffold, enjoining advice of timeless utility:

Measoure not the treuth of Godis word altogether be the lyvis of sic as are apointed pastouris ower you, for thei beir the self same fleshe of corruptioune that ye doe, and the moir godlie the charge is whairunto thai are called, the readier the Enemie to draw thame bak from Godis obedience.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Scotland

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1575: The intrepid Torii Suneemon

3 comments June 24th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1575* a Japanese soldier was crucified under the walls of his castle … and entered his country’s folklore.

Torii Suneemon was a footman of the Okudaira family late in Japan’s fratricidal Warring States Period.

The Okudaira, allies of the wars’ eventually-victorious Tokugawa clan, found themselves besieged by the Takeda. This would result in the important Battle of Nagashino.


Kurosawa’s masterpiece Kagemusha imagines the Takeda where the (real) late daimyo Shingen was succeeded after his (real) 1573 death (fictitiously) by an imposter thief posing as the great commander. In the film, the imposter is unmasked and deposed, but witnesses the climactic Battle of Nagashino … and then makes a futile charge under the Takeda banner after that side is slaughtered.

After an initial Takeda attempt to take the fortress by storm, the Takeda settled in for a brief siege — knowing the defenders to have only a few days’ supplies on hand. Enter Torii Suneemon.

Under cover of darkness on the night of the 22nd-23rd, Suneemon slipped out of the Yagyu gate and picked his way through Takeda tripwires to escape the investment … and summon help.


Torii Suneemon embarks on his mission: 19th century woodblock print of Yoshitoshi‘s “24 Accomplishments of Imperial Japan” series. The same artist also depicted that event in this triptych.

He made it on the 23rd to Tokugawa Ieyasu and Oda Nobunaga, who upon hearing his report pledged to dispatch a relief force the very next day.

Alas for him, Suneemon’s attempt to sneak back into the encircled fortress to deliver the good news was detected on the 24th, and he came as a prisoner to the Takeda commander. The Takeda prevailed upon their helpless captive to exchange his life for a signal service: approach the fortress walls and shout to the garrison that no help was on the way.

This Suneemon agreed to do.

The legends differ as to whether he walked on up to deliver this bogus bad news, or whether the Takeda lifted him up on a cross to impress upon their new agent the penalty for any funny business. Either way, Torii Suneemon had the last laugh: he immediately began hollering to the defenders that help was coming if they could just hang on a few more days.


Torii Suneemon goes off-script. Another Yoshitoshi creation, from here or from this detailed French post.

The besiegers, of course, crucified him immediately … but everyone could appreciate the doomed man’s heroism.

While the grateful Okudaira elevated his family to samurai rank, even an enemy Takeda commander who witnessed the event was so moved that he adopted the image of the defiantly crucified soldier for his battle standard.

Heck, there’s apparently even a Japanese monument in San Antonio, Texas that compares Suneemon to the Alamo defenders.

Nor was the brave soldier’s sacrifice in vain. The garrison did hold on — and their allies did relieve them, and did rout the Takeda in the resulting Battle of Nagashino. (The scenario is widely reproduced in video games nowadays).

* Some sites give this as “May 16”, but I believe the primary sources here actually indicate the 16th day of the 5th month on the traditional Japanese lunisolar calendar. This date corresponds to June 24, 1575 of the Julian calendar. (1570s conversion aid in this pdf, or use this converter).

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Crucifixion,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Gruesome Methods,History,Japan,No Formal Charge,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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