1593: Gabriel Wolff, Nuremberg adventurer

1 comment October 11th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1593, Nuremberg executioner Franz Schmidt beheaded one of that city’s finest con artists.

Gabriel Wolff, a burgher’s son, had gone on a picaresque swindling bender through central Europe and all the way to Constantinople, posing as a V.I.P. in various courts for fun and profit.

As Schmidt recounted it, Wolff first “called himself George Windholz, Secretary to the Elector at Berlin, also took the name of Ernst Haller and Joachim Furnberger, borrowed 1,500 ducats from a councillor here in Nuremberg by means of a forged letter in the Elector’s name and under the seal of the Margrave John George in Berlin; was arrested at Regensburg and delivered over to Nuremberg.”

And this was far from all.

The inveterate trickster had made off with 1,400 crowns from the Duke of Parma in the Netherlands and fled to Ottoman Turkey. He had had a misadventure with an Italian abbess, netting a silver clock for his trouble; conned a Knight of St. John out of his mount; and ensconced himself as the Habsburg emperor’s personal attendant in Prague, where he perpetrated “many other frauds, causing false seals of gentlemen to be cut, wrote many forged documents and was conversant with seven languages; carrying on this for twenty-four years.” In his time he got the best of “a councilor at Danzig, the count of Ottingen, his lord at Constance, two merchants at Danzig, a Dutch master,” and similar worthies crisscrossing Europe from Lisbon to Crete to Krakow to London and seemingly every point worth mentioning in between.

As Schmidt’s biographer observes, it’s more than likely that the crowd under the scaffold beheld Wolff with admiration as much as opprobrium, for this native son’s silver tongue and brass balls had enabled him to spend a lifetime in material luxury, hobnobbing with the masters of Europe — and certainly ensured him an afterlife in pleasurable folklore he could scarcely have conjured had he spent his days respectably haggling for a better price on the ell. Frankly, we in drab modernity could ourselves do with a Gabriel Wolff book.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Pelf,Public Executions,Theft

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1593: Pierre Barrière, undeterringly

1 comment August 31st, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1593, a would-be assassin of France’s King Henri IV was broken on the wheel.

An Orleans boatman turned Catholic League soldier in France’s internecine Catholic-Huguenot wars, he was among the numerous Catholics who looked askance at victorious Huguenot Henri IV‘s expeditious conversion to Catholicism.

In the months while Henri IV still held Paris under siege, the Jesuit father Jacques Commolet had called for his assassination from the pulpit. The Bourbon’s (nominal) switch to Catholicism with the words “Paris is worth a mass” had not persuaded hard-core Catholic partisans of the king’s sincerity.

Henri was a practical guy. And with civil slaughter afoot for most of the late 16th century, he took a dim view to loose talk about assassinations, especially his.

The safety of the king’s person was a paramount consideration of magistrates during this period. Thirty years of political assassinations during which the rule of law proved largely ineffective in bringing the guilty to justice had ultimately left a fundamental law of France, the inviolability of the king’s person, subverted. Magistrates … focused their attention on re-establishing the enforcement of this law …

Pierre Barriere was nabbed for planning to subvert that inviolability — arrested August 27, tried August 30, horribly broken on the wheel August 31.

Henri would keep the throne 17 more years, laying the basis for French absolutism. But continual assassination bids — nearly 20 documented — would pursue him throughout his reign … until one finally got him.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Assassins,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Dismembered,Execution,France,Gruesome Methods,History,Notable for their Victims,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Soldiers,Torture,Treason

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1593: John Penry, Shakespeare’s midwife?

4 comments May 29th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1593, a Welsh divine with a poor impression of the Church of England was hustled off from dinner to be strung up for sedition.

Dismayed by the poor quality of pastors in his native Wales — men of poor character, poor education, and poor command of Welsh — John Penry was one of many calling for a reformed Episcopal clergy. Critiques of his type formed the germ of the Puritan movement already underway, which would blossom after his death.

Penry would have been around to see all that if he hadn’t hacked off the realm’s chief vicar by running a salty underground press, most notably publishing the pseudonymous Martin Marprelate.

(These satiric treats can be savored here. The identity of their author(s) has always been debated — Penry himself is one candidate, though not a fashionable one today, as his attributed writing seems too earnest to have come from the same pen as Martin Marprelate.)

Hold the Dessert

The Oxford man dodged the law for a good three years in the Scottish reaches, until he couldn’t resist moving to London, where (fittingly) a local clergyman recognized him.

The mere draft — nasty, but uncirculated — of a petition sufficed for the condemnation on grounds of sedition, and the annoyed Archbishop had the pleasure of inking his John Hancock on the Welshman’s death warrant.

Penry seems to have had a few friends in high places and some hope of cheating the executioner; he must have been taken by surprise when the sheriff burst in during the late afternoon this day to haul him immediately to a gallows at St. Thomas a Watering — unannounced, the better to keep attendance down,* with the prisoner denied the customary parting speech.

“Hang him with his pen”

But was Penry’s ill turn a boon to the world of literature?

The day after Penry’s execution, star English playwright Christopher Marlowe was killed in a fray whose timing some find a bit suspicious.

Some enthusiasts think Marlowe faked his death and went on to write Shakespeare under a pen name. And if he did that, his confederates would have needed a body to pass off as Marlowe’s … the body, perhaps, of a man of Marlowe’s age and class who’d just been hanged a couple of miles up the road.

The Welsh Martyr

Shakespeare aside, Penry remains “the Welsh martyr” to this day, reckoned the greatest Protestant martyr of his land. (For more about him, a sympathetic 19th century tract, John Penry, the Pilgrim Martyr, is available free from Google books.)

The injury of his draconian sentence is so far from forgotten in Wales that — hot off the presses — the 21st century Archbishop of Canterbury is being asked for a mea culpa on behalf of his 16th century predecessor.

Coincidentally, John Penry is also the name of a murderer and longtime death row prisoner in the USA, once the subject of a landmark decision** permitting the execution of the mentally retarded. That modern Penry is now serving a life sentence.

* Penry’s family and friends didn’t know about the hanging until it had already happened.

** Since reversed.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Famous,God,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Ripped from the Headlines,Treason,Wales,Wrongful Executions

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