1630: Guglielmo Piazza and Giangiacomo Mora, colonna d’infamia

Add comment August 1st, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1630, a ludicrous disease panic sent two innocent men to the scaffold in Milan.

Terrified as their family and neighbors dropped dead around them of a raging bubonic plague outbreak, the surviving Milanese sprouted buboes on their brains.


1630 illustration of the plague-wracked Milanese doing the bring-out-your-dead thing.

Just days before the executions marked in this post, a city official named Guglielmo Piazza was noticed by some busybodies “strolling down the street writing from an ink-horn at his belt and wiping his ink-stained fingers on the walls of a house.” They promptly reported him not for misdemeanor property damage but for spreading plague poison, whatever that would be.

Investigators to their shame gave this accusation enough credence to interrogate Piazza under torture, a decision which obviously was tantamount to the execution itself. He broke he sealed his own fate when he broke and confessed, and sealed same for a misfortunate barber named Giangiacomo Mora whom Piazza was made to accuse.

Milan was proud enough of this obvious injustice to stand up an colonna d’infamia (“column of infamy”) denouncing both “poisoners” until a storm finally knocked the lying marble down in 1788. It read,

Here, where this plot of ground extends, formerly stood the shop of the barber Giangiacomo Mora, who had conspired with Guglielmo Piazza, Commissary of the Public Health, and with others, while a frightful plague exercised its ravages, by means of deadly ointments spread on all sides, to hurl many citizens to a cruel death. For this, the Senate, having declared them both to be enemies of their country, decreed that, placed on an elevated car, their flesh should be torn with red-hot pincers, their right hands be cut off, and their bones be broken; that they should be extended on the wheel, and at the end of six hours be put to death, and burnt. Then, and that there might remain no trace of these guilty men, their possessions should be sold at public sale, their ashes thrown into the river, and to perpetuate the memory of their deed the Senate wills that the house in which the crime was projected shall be razed to the ground, shall never be rebuilt, and that in its place a column shall be erected which shall be called Infamous. Keep afar off, then, afar off, good citizens, lest this accursed ground should pollute you with its infamy.

August, 1630.

Prior to the column’s overturning, the Milanese Enlightenment intellectual Pietro Verri wrote a meditation upon it titled Sulla tortura e singolarmente sugli effetti che produsse all’occasione delle unzioni malefiche, alle quale si attribui la pestilenza che devasto Milano l’anno 1630. Italian speakers can enjoy it here.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Innocent Bystanders,Italy,Milan,Murder,Public Executions,Terrorists,Torture,Wrongful Executions

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1630: Christina Plum, at the stake, in Cologne

1 comment January 16th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1630, the city of Cologne burned Christina Plum.

This aptly-named fruit vendor was a real peach. During Cologne’s 1627-1630 witch hunt, Plum in 1629 denounced a bushel of Cologne’s leading citizens for devilry. While threatening established elites with torture and the stake certainly seems downright bananas with benefit of hindsight, the free city had in 1627 burned an influential woman — and possibly Germany’s first female postmaster — named Katharina Henot. Indeed, it was Plum’s contention that such varied characters as the wife of the Burgermeister, the pastor of St. Alban’s Church, and Katharina Henot’s brother had all been keeping regular dates at the late Katharina’s Black Sabbath orgies.

The city was at that moment facing intense pressure by the Archbishop of Cologne Ferdinand of Bavaria — an imperial elector and enthusiastic hammer of witches — to root out Satan’s earthly minions. It was not at all past thinking that Plum’s accusations could have cut a swath through the city’s upper crust.

Instead, they destroyed the credibility of the witch hunts.

After unsuccessfully pressuring Plum to just pipe down and go away, the city had her arrested as a witch. After all, how did she know so much about who was going to the orgies? And, as was almost inevitable in such cases, the consequent interrogation proved sufficiently vigorous to force a confession from the woman’s lips.

In 1631, as the witch fever abated in Cologne, and elsewhere throughout Germany, the Cologne-educated jurist Friedrich Spee published one of the seminal takedowns of witch-hunting, Cautio Criminalis. (Spee himself lost a kinswoman to the Hexenprozesse.)

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Political Expedience,Power,Public Executions,Torture,Witchcraft,Women

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1630: John Billington, signer of the Mayflower Compact

7 comments September 30th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1630, Massachusetts’ Plymouth Colony held its first hanging — of a guy who’d come over on the Mayflower.

In this unfinished epic poem of the American experience by Stephen Vincent Benet, Billington is mourned at the foot of his gallows as “a man who came with the first and should have thriven.”

John Billington‘s John Hancock is on the Mayflower Compact, but he and his progeny had an ill reputation from the start.

Billington’s son almost torched the Mayflower while the pilgrims were still living in it; the old man himself achieved the distinction of “the first offence since our arrival … for his contempt of the captain’s lawful command with opprobrious speeches, for which he is adjudged to have his neck and heels tied together; but upon humbling himself and craving pardon, and it being the first offence, he is forgiven.”

(It wasn’t all bad. Another Billington kid gave the family name to an inland pond. (pdf))

Billington was condemned for shooting a neighbor.

This year John Billington the elder, one that came over with the first, was arraigned, and both by grand and petty jury found guilty of wilful murder, by plain and notorious evidence. And was for the same accordingly executed. This, as it was the first execution amongst them, so was it a matter of great sadness unto them. They used all due means about his trial and took the advice of Mr. Winthrop and other the ablest gentlemen in Bay of the Massachusetts, that were then newly come over, who concurred with them that he ought to die, and the land to be purged from blood. He and some of his had been often punished for miscarriages before, being one of the profanest families amongst them ; they came from London, and I know not by what friends shuffled into their company. His fact was that he waylaid a young man, one John Newcomen, about a former quarrel and shot him with a gun, whereof he died.
-Plymouth Gov. William Bradford (Source)

Billington is supposed to be a distant ancestor to American President James Garfield.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Milestones,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,USA

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