1635: Sawney Cunningham, an abandoned Villain

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From the Newgate Calendar:

SAWNEY CUNNINGHAM

An abandoned Villain who inveigled and murdered his Wife’s Lover, murdered his Uncle, terrorised the Country-side, and was executed at Leith, 12th of April, 1635

This person had no reason to say he was come of mean parents, or that good education or tuition was denied him, whereby he might have avoided the several pernicious actions and villainies he committed, as will presently be shown in the sequel. His family lived in tolerable good repute at Glasgow in Scotland, where he was born; but, in spite of all the learning his parents had given him, or good examples they had set before him to regulate his passions and direct his conduct right, he abandoned himself, from his earliest acquaintance with the world, to little shuffling and pilfering tricks; which growing habitual to him as he advanced in age, he increased in his wicked practices, till at last he became a monster of profaneness and wicked living.

However, these (which one would take to be) great disadvantages hindered him not from making a very honourable match in wedlock. As his parents could not be blamed with any misconduct, but still kept up an honest and genteel character in the neighbourhood where they lived; and as it would have been infamous to have reproached them for those miscarriages in the son which they had strove all they could to root out of his mind, and could not help, so an old gentleman, who had preserved for a long time an inviolable friendship for the family, entered into an alliance with Mr Cunningham the elder, which at last terminated in giving his daughter to Sawney, and an estate in portion with her of above one hundred and forty pounds per annum, thinking that marriage might be a means to reclaim our adventurer from his ill course of life, and at last settle his mind, to the mutual satisfaction of both families, for which he thought his daughter’s portion would be a good purchase, and well laid out.

But how are mankind deceived, and, in short, all our foresight and consultation.

Sawney no sooner found himself in possession of an estate able to support his extravagances but he immediately gave a more violent loose to his passions than he had hitherto done.

He made taverns and alehouses the frequent places of his resort; and, not content idly to waste the day in debauches and drunkenness, the night too must come in to make up the reckoning.

These destructive steps could not be attended but with hurtful consequences, and he was too soon an eye-witness of some of them; for not having always wherewithal to indulge his usual expenses and method of living, he was forced to have recourse to indirect measures, which ended in pawning everything he had, not only of his wife’s but of his own. Melancholy things were unavoidably to follow, if some redress or care was not taken to put a restraint on this destructive course.

Sawney laughed at his follies, and could not bring himself to believe he should ever want while he had either hands or heart to support him. He was determined to enter upon business as soon as possible —- I mean such business as generally brings so many unhappy men to the gallows. His wife, who was vastly beautiful and handsome, saw this, but with a prudence that became her sex stifled her uneasiness so long, till, no longer able to bear the torment upon her mind, she first began with kind entreaties, since all they had in the world was gone, to fall into some honest way of livelihood to support themselves, for it was much and more commendable to do so than for him to give his countrymen every day so many instances of his riotous and profuse living.

Had Sawney been so good to himself as to have given ear to this remonstrance, without doubt things had succeeded well, and we should never have read the miserable end he suffered. But all admonition was lost on a man abandoned to wickedness, and determined to support his usual extravagances at any rate.

The poor young gentlewoman, instead of being answered civilly for her love and affection to him, met with nothing but harsh and terrifying words, attended with a thousand oaths and imprecations. The parents on both sides, observing this, were in extreme grief and concern, and determined, after a serious consultation, to dissolve the couple; but the young and handsome wife would never consent to part from her husband, though so base to her.

Before we enter upon the first remarkable transaction of Sawney’s life, we think ourselves under an obligation to lay before our readers some account of this young bride’s rare qualifications. In the first place, as I have taken notice above, she was extremely beautiful, not only in a perfect symmetry of features, but likewise to these were joined an exquisite person. She was tall, finely shaped, full-breasted, and had all the other exterior ornaments of her sex. For her temper and the qualifications of her interior part or soul, she was sincere in her love to the last, ever patient under the greatest difficulties, and ready at all times to extricate her husband out of the misfortunes he involved himself in, by lawful and justifiable methods; she had a nice conduct, and an extraordinary restraint upon every passion that might betray her into unforeseen miscarriages.


In Glasgow, where a university was, and consequently young gentlemen of fortune and address, it was impossible for Mrs Cunningham to hide the charms of her face and person so as not to be taken notice of. Several immediately offered their respects, and money was not wanting to promote their suits; but all were below the prudent sentiments of her mind. She could not endure to think of dishonouring the bed of her husband by a base compliance with the richest man in the kingdom, and always she put off her suitor with a frown and a seemingly disdainful air.

But this only served to animate her lovers the more, who now seemed to attack her with a resolution not to quit the siege till she had either capitulated or surrendered herself. Amongst the rest was a certain lawyer, who was so frequent in his importunities that she was quite tired out. However, she was so discreet all the while as to conceal from her husband Sawney the importunities of her several lovers; but their solicitations increasing, and being determined to be delivered of them as soon as possible, she one night, as she lay in bed with her husband, began to discourse to him in words to the following effect:

You are sensible, my dear, of the inviolable love I have, from the first day of my marriage to you, preserved for you, which shall still, let whatever will happen, be as chastely maintained; for the infernal regions shall sooner open and receive me alive than I will dare to break the laws of your bed, or bring dishonour to my person, by a shameless prostitution of my person in the embraces of any man alive. As a proof of what I tell you, you need only be acquainted that for these several months I have been strongly importuned by Mr Hamilton the lawyer to consent to his embraces, but still I have warded off from his addresses, yet cannot be free from him; which makes me now discourse thus, in order to hear your opinion in the matter, and see which will be the safest and best expedient to be delivered of his company.

Here she ended, and Sawney, being thoroughly convinced of his wife’s loyalty and fidelity, first answered her with a desire she should forget all his irregularities, confessing their present poverty had been the immediate consequences of his too liberal and profuse livings but that for the future she should see a good alteration in his conduct, and he would make one of the best of husbands.

“As for Mr Hamilton,” said he,

it is my advice that you do not give him an absolute refusal, but pretending a kind of love at a distance, make him think that a considerable sum of money will finish his expectations, and gain him what he so much longs for. You have youth and beauty on your side, and you may, consequently, command him as you please: for I am not so much a stranger to Mr Hamilton’s temper and inclination but that I know love will influence him to perform generous things. My dear, I have no occasion to acquaint you with our poverty at this time, which, to my extreme grief, has been the consequence of my irregular and profane living; but our wants and necessities may be amply made up by dextrously managing this adventure, the prosecution of which I leave to your own prudence and conduct; and for my part, I shall take effectual care to extricate you and myself out of any consequences that may happen upon it.

Mrs Cunningham, after this conference with her husband, had a thousand thoughts in her head how to manage this scheme so as to make the most advantage of it. She saw that the want of money in her family must oblige her to it, though never so much against the bent of her inclination to the contrary, and therefore, determining to put it in execution as soon as possible, she composed herself to rest for that night.

The next day Sawney got purposely out of the way, but not without a longing expectation of receiving extraordinary matters from his wife’s conduct. Hamilton appeared as usual; and, protesting his love for her was the sincerest in the world, said that it was impossible for him to enjoy a moment’s rest without tasting those joys she could so easily afford him.

Mrs Cunningham at first reproved him for such a bare declaration of his desires, and said that so long as her husband lived she could not, without the most manifest breach of conjugal fidelity, and an eternal infamy to herself, give way to comply with his demands.

“Your person, Mr Hamilton,” said she, “is none of the worst, neither is your sense to be despised; but, alas! heaven has decreed it that I am already another man’s wife, and therefore deprived from gratifying you as I would were the case otherwise. And I have apprehensions of my husband, who is a choleric person, and presently urged into a passion upon the most trifling affairs, which either he doth not like, or squares not with his happiness or interest.”

“Interest!” replied Hamilton. “Why, if that be the case, neither your husband nor you shall have any reason to complain; for, let me tell you once and for all, I do not require a gratification from anyone without making a suitable return. Your circumstances, madam, are not unknown to me; and I am sorry to think that, after having brought Mr Cunningham so plentiful a fortune, I should have a just occasion to say that you are poor. But mistake me not, I scorn to make a handle of your circumstances; neither do I believe Mrs Cunningham would ever consent to my desires on such servile terms.”

Upon this madam answered him with a great deal of prudence and art: she told him that he pleaded handsomely for himself, and if she was not a married woman there should be nothing to obstruct their desires.

Mr Hamilton, finding this, made her a long harangue, in which he endeavoured to show how weak her objection was, with respect to her husband, concluding that what they did might be so artfully contrived that neither Mr Cunningham nor the world should know anything of it. In fine, the lawyer pleaded as if it were for life for her consent, which madam observing, and not caring to prolong the time too far, but dispatch a great deal of business in a little time, she artfully told him that since her stars had so directed the actions of her life that she had no power of herself to contradict them, she resigned herself to him, and said that it was to no purpose to stifle her inclinations for him any longer; for, to be plain with him, she had loved him from their first acquaintance together, before all the men she had ever seen, and that she hoped there was no transgression in an affair which her destiny overruled; and if the world proved censorious, she did not care, and left her cause to be determined by the stars, who, together with Mr Hamilton’s fine person, had influenced her to it.

To be short, an assignation was made, and a porch of one of the churches in Glasgow designed to be the place where these two lovers were to meet. Nothing in the world gave the lawyer so much satisfaction as the thought of having obtained the consent of his fair mistress, who had declared her love to him, and resigned herself up to his arms.

Hamilton promised to make her a present of a purse of a hundred pounds sterling before anything was done, and she on her side assured him she would please him to the utmost, and acquainted him that he might expect all the kindness she was able to afford him. Here they parted, and the lawyer thought the time contained a thousand days till the hour appointed was come, and he in the arms of his mistress.

It arrives, and both appear in the porch; they caress and toy, but no further than the laws of modesty permitted. Hamilton wants to know where Mr Cunningham, her husband, is, and is acquainted that he has gone a short journey into the country, which, however, will take him up eight days; whereas madam has posted him, or he has done it himself, in a private place in his chamber at home. Hamilton seems extraordinarily pleased at his success, and the repose he should find in humouring his appetites now his antagonist was out of the way, as he thought.

In a little time both these lovers come to Sawney’s house, and having entered his bed-chamber, where he was concealed, and a good fire burning, Mr Hamilton pulls out two purses of gold and gives them to her; and then, going to undress himself, Sawney springs out from his secret place, and with one stroke lays Mr Hamilton flat on the floor with a club he had in his hand; for, not contented with his wife’s having received the two purses of gold, he must have the lawyer’s clothes too; and therefore, to make sure of them, he redoubles his blows, till the poor gentleman gave up the ghost at Mrs Cunningham’s feet.

This was a sacrifice to love with a witness.

The lawyer had contributed handsomely before for a night’s lodging, and must he give his life into the bargain? I know not how mankind may think on it; but the affair was carried to a desperate length.

Now Mrs Cunningham, not dreaming her husband would have carried matters to such an issue, seemed frightened to the last extreme at what had been done; but Sawney endeavoured to give her ease by telling her that he would work himself out of the scrape immediately, and, so saying, hoisted the body on his shoulders and went out at a back door which led directly to Hamilton’s house, which easily opening, as a profound sleep in the family and the darkness of the night favoured him, he carried the lawyer to the vault, and placed him upright upon the seat, to the end that the first who found him there might conclude he had died in that place and posture.

Now it seems Mr Hamilton, the day before, had acquainted a particular friend who lived in his house with his success, and how he was to have a meeting with Mrs Cunningham that night. This friend had had the gripes upon him for three or four days, which made him have a very violent looseness, and being obliged to untruss a point about midnight, rises in his night-gown and steps down to the vault, where, opening the door, he spies Mr Hamilton sitting, as he supposed; and taking it that he was come there on the very same errand as himself, stays without a while to let him have a quiet play.

But finding he made no motion to stir, after having waited a considerable time, to his own uneasiness, he opens the door again, and taking him by the sleeve of his coat was surprised to find him fall down. He stoops to take him up, but finds him dead; at which, being in a thousand perplexities, and fearing to be thought the murderer, he brings to mind his acquainting him with the assignation between him and Mrs Cunningham; upon which he concludes his friend had found no fair play there, knowing the husband to be none of the easiest of men.

What should this lodger do in this case? Why, he takes up the body, throws it upon his shoulders, and carries it to Sawney’s house door, where he sets it down. Madam, a little after midnight, having occasion to discharge, gets out of bed and, opening the door, lets the body of her late lover tumble into the house, which putting her into a fright, she runs upstairs into the chamber and tells Sawney how that the lawyer has come back.

“Aye, aye,” says he (just waking out of his sleep), “I’ll warrant he shall come back no more, I’ll secure him presently”; and so saying, gets immediately out of bed, puts on his clothes, and hoists the dead lawyer once more on his shoulders, with a design to carry him to the river and throw him in; but seeing some persons at some distance coming towards him, he steps up to the side of the street till they were got by, fearing his design might be discovered, and consequences were dangerous.

But what should these persons be but half-a-dozen thieves, who were returning from a plunder they had made of two large flitches of bacon out of a cheese-monger’s shop, and as they came along were talking of a vintner hard by, who sold a bottle of extraordinary wine.

Sawney was somewhat relieved from his fears (for fears he could not miss from having) at hearing this conversation. He had not been in his post long before he had the satisfaction of seeing this company put their bacon, which was in a sack, into an empty cellar, and knock the master of the tavern up to let them in.

The coast being now clear, Sawney conveys the dead lawyer into the cellar, and taking out the purloined goods, put his uneasy cargo in the room, and then marches home. Meanwhile the thieves were carousing, little dreaming what a change they should presently find in their sack. Little or no money was found amongst them, and the flitches were to answer the full reckoning, so that they continued drinking till they thought the bacon was become an equivalent for the wine they had drank. One of them, who pretended to be spokesman, addressing the landlord, told him that he must excuse him and his comrades for bringing no money in their pockets to defray what they had expended, especially at such an unseasonable time of night, when he had been called out of his bed to let them in; “but, landlord, in saying this, we have no design of doing you any wrong, or drinking your wine for nothing. For if we cannot answer the shot with the ready cole, we will make it up by an exchange of goods. Now we have got two flitches of bacon in a cellar hard by, which will more than answer our expenses, and if you care to have them, they are at your service; otherwise we must be obliged to leave word with you where we live, or you lie under a necessity of trusting us till the morning, when, on sending anybody along with us, you may depend on receiving the money.”

“Gentlemen,” says the vintner, “you are all mere strangers to me, for to my eyes and knowledge I cannot say I ever saw one of you before; but we will avoid making any uneasiness about my reckoning. I do not care to purchase a commodity I never saw, or, as the saying is, to buy a pig in a poke. If the flitches of bacon you say you have are good, I’ll take them off your hands, and quit scores with you so they but answer my demands.”

Immediately one of them, who had drunk more plentiful than the rest, said he would go and fetch them, and accordingly coming into the cellar, strove to hoist the sack up. “Zounds,” says he, “why, I think the bacon’s multiplied, or I am damnably deceived. What a pox of a load is here to gall a man’s shoulders! Tom might well complain they were heavy, and, by gad! heavy and large ones they are, and the vintner will have a rare bargain of them; much good go along with them!”

And, so saying, he lugs the corpse on his shoulders to the tavern. On coming to open the mouth of the sack, lord! what a surprise were all in to see a man’s head peep out. Mr Dash presently knew the lineaments of the deceased’s face, and cried out: “You eternal dogs! did you think to impose a dead corpse on me for two flitches of bacon? Why, you rascals, this is the body of Mr Hamilton the lawyer, and you have murdered him, have you, you miscreants! But your merits shall soon be soundly rewarded, I’ll warrant you.”

At this all the six were in the saddest plight that could be imagined; nothing but horror and dismay sat on their looks, and they really appeared as the guilty persons. But the vintner, observing them bustling to get away, made such a thundering noise of murderers, murderers, murderers, that immediately all the family were out of their beds, and the watch at the house door to know the reason of such an alarm. The thieves were instantly conveyed to a place of durance for that night, and in the morning were sent to the main prison, when after a little time they took their trials, were found guilty (though innocent) of Mr Hamilton’s death, and executed accordingly.


Sawney came off very wonderfully from this matter, though neither his wife’s admonitions nor his own frequent asseverations to her to leave off his irregular course of life were of any force to make him abandon it. The bent of doing ill, and living extravagantly, was too deeply rooted within him ever to suppose now that any amendment would come; nay, he began to show himself a monster in iniquity, and committed every wickedness that could exaggerate the character of a most profane wretch. For it is impossible to enumerate, much more to describe, the quantity and qualities of his villainies, they being a series of such horrid and incredible actions, that the very inserting them here would only make the reader think an imposition were put upon him in transmitting accounts so shocking and glaring.

The money he had obtained of Mr Hamilton was a dear purchase; it was soon played away with and consumed, which made him throw himself on other shifts to support his pockets; to which end he visited the highway, and put those to death who offered to oppose him.

His character was too well known in the west of Scotland to want any further information about him, which obliged him to retract towards Edinburgh, where, meeting with a gang of his profession who knew him to be most accomplished in their way, he was constituted generalissmo of their body, and each man had his particular lodging in the city.

But Sawney, who ever chose to act the principal part in all encounters, industriously took lodgings at a house noted for entertaining strangers, where he was not long in insinuating himself into their acquaintance, by making them believe that he was a stranger as well as they, and was come to Edinburgh on no other account than purely to see the city, and make his observations upon its public buildings and other curiosities; and that his ambition has been always to procure honest and genteel acquaintance.

Sawney, indeed, had a most artful method to conceal the real sentiments of his mind and hide his actions, which in a little time so gained upon the belief of these strangers, that they could not help taking him for one of the sincerest men breathing. For it was his custom sometimes to take them along with him two or three miles out of the city to partake of some handsome dinner or supper, when he was sure never to let them be at a far thing expense, but generously discharge the reckoning himself.

The design of all this was to make his advantage of them, and force them to pay an extravagant interest for the money he had been out of pocket in treating them. For constantly were persons planted in one place or other of the road by his immediate direction, who fell upon them as they returned to the city, and robbed them of what they had. But the cream of all was, that to avoid suspicion they always made Sawney their first prize, and rifled him, who was sure in the morning to obtain his own loss back again, and a considerable share of the other booty into the bargain.

Some time after this our adventurer, with two of his companions, meeting on the road with three citizens of Edinburgh, affronted them in a very audacious manner, and threw such language at them as plainly discovered that either death or bloodshed was near at hand. He had the impudence to tell the person who seemed the genteellest and best dressed of the three that the horse he rode on was his, and had been lately stolen from him, and that he must return it to him, or else the sword he wore should do him right. Sawney’s companions began with the others after the same manners and would needs force them to believe that the horses they rode upon were theirs. The citizens, astonished at this gross piece of impudence, endeavoured to convince them the horses they rode on were their own, and they had paid for them, and wondered how they durst pretend to dispute an affair which was so essentially wrong; but these words were far from having any effect on Cunningham, and the citizens, in the conclusion, were forced to dismount and give them their horses, and money into the bargain, being somewhat satisfied they had suffered no worse consequences, for Sawney, by this time, was drenched in all manner of villainy, and bloodshed was now accounted a trifle, so little value did he set on the lives of any persons.

Sawney having run a merry course of roguery and villainy in and about Edinburgh for some time, where he made a considerable advantage to himself, so that fortune seemed to have requited him for all the poverty and want he had before endured, determined now to go home to his wife, and spend the remainder of his days agreeably with her, on the acquisitions and plunder he had made on his countrymen.

Accordingly he came to Glasgow, where, among a few acquaintances he conversed with, for he did not care to make himself too public, he gave signs of amendment, which struck those who knew him with such astonishment that at first they could hardly be brought to believe it.

One night, being in bed with his wife, they had a close discourse together on all their foregoing life, and the good woman expressed an extraordinary emotion of joy at the seeming alteration and change in her husband; she could not imagine what reason to impute it to, for she had been so much terrified from time to time with his barbarities that she had no room to think his conversion was real; neither, on reflecting on the many robberies and murders he had committed, could she persuade herself that he could so soon abandon his licentious and wicked courses; for she supposed, if his altered conduct (as she thought) was real, it was miraculous, and an original piece of goodness hardly to be met with.

The sequel will prove that this woman had better notions of her husband than the rest of his acquaintance and those who knew him, and that she built all her fears on a solid and good foundation. The proverb says: “What is bred in the bone wiIl never be out of the flesh”; and this will be remarkably verified in Cunningham, as we shall endeavour to show in its proper place.

For all the signs he gave of an altered conduct, and all the plausible hints to rectify his former mistaken steps, were no other than only to amuse the world into a good opinion of him, that so he might make his advantage, through this pretended conversion, with the greater freedom and impunity. And he was not out in his aim; for it seems, whenever he committed anything sinister, or to the disadvantage of any of his countrymen, and he was pitched on as the transgressor, the town would say: “It could not be, for Mr Cunningham was too much reclaimed from his former courses ever to give in to them again.”


I shall insert a very notable adventure Sawney had with a conjurer, or fortune-teller, to which end I shall trace it up from the fountain-head, and give my readers the first cause that induced him to it. When Sawney was an infant, he was put out to nurse to a poor countrywoman in a little village a mile or two out of Glasgow. The woman, as the boy grew up, could not help increasing in her love for him, and he being an exceeding snotty child, would often say to her neighbours: “Oh, I shall see this lad a rich man one day!” This saying coming to the ears of his parents, they would frequently make themselves merry with it, and thought no more of it than as a pure result of the nurse’s fondling.

Sawney, having enriched himself with the spoils about Edinburgh, actually thought his old nurse’s words were verified, and sent for her to give her a gratification for her prediction. She came, but Sawney had changed his clothes, so that the poor woman did not know him at first. He told her that he was an acquaintance of Mr Cunningham’s, who, on her coming, had ordered him to carry her to Mr Peterson the astrologer’s, where she would be sure to see and speak to him; for he was gone there to get some information about an affair that nearly concerned him.

The nurse and her pretended conductor went to the fortune-teller’s, where, desiring admittance, Peterson thought they were persons who wanted his assistance, and bade them sit down when Sawney, taking a freedom with the reverend old gentleman, as he was known to use with all mankind, began to give a harangue about astrology, and the laudable practice of it.

“I and this old woman,” said he,

are two of the most accomplished astrologers or fortune-tellers in Scotland; but I would not, reverend sir, by so saying, seem to depreciate from your knowledge and understanding in so venerable a science. I came to communicate a small affair to you, to the end that, not relying on my judgment and this woman’s, I might partake of yours.

You are to know, sir, that from six years of age I have led a very untoward life, and been guilty of many egregious sins, too numerous to tell you at present, and what your ears would not care to hear; for my employment has been to lie with other men’s wives, make a share of other people’s money, bilk my lodging, and ruin the vintners; for a whore and a bottle I have sold the twelve signs in the zodiac, and all the houses in a horoscope; neither sextile, quartile, nor trine ever had power over me to keep my hands out of my neighbours’ pockets; and if I had not a profound respect for the persons of my venerable order and profession, I should call Mercury the ascendant in the fourth house at this minute, to lug half-a-score pieces of yours.

By my exceeding deep knowledge in astrology I can perfectly acquaint all manner of persons, except myself, with every occurrence of their lives; and were it not to frighten yourself, I would conclude, from the appearance and conjunction of Saturn and Vulcan, that your worship would be hanged for your profession. But, sir, though destiny hangs this unfortunate death over your head, it is at some distance from it, and may be some years before it strikes you.

Is it not surprising that a man shall be able to read the fates of mankind, and not have any preknowledge of his own? And is it not extremely afflicting to think that one who has done so much good in his generation, and assisted so many thousands to the recovery of things that would have been inevitably lost, without his advice, should come at last to meet with an ignominious halter, as a fit recompense for his services? Good heavens! where is the equity of all this? Certainly, sir, if we are to measure the justice of things by the laws of reason, we must naturally conclude that laudable and good actions deserve a laudable and good recompense; but can hanging be said to be this good recompense? No: but the stars will have it so, and how can mankind say to the contrary?

Sawney Cunningham with the astrologer

Cunningham paused here a while, and the astrologer and old nurse wondered who in the devil’s name they had got in company with.

Mr Peterson could not help staring, and well he might, at the physiognomy of our adventurer, And, in spite of himself, began to be in a panic at his words, which so terribly frightened him.

The nurse was in expectation of seeing Sawney come in every minute, little dreaming the person she was so near was the man she wanted.

Cunningham’s harangue was a medley of inconsistencies and downright banter. It is true the man had received tolerable education in his youth, and consequently might obtain a jingle in several sciences, as is evinced from the foregoing.

“Well, venerable sir,” says he,

do not be terrified at my words, for what cannot be avoided must be submitted to. To put you out of your pain, I’ll tell you a story.

A gentleman had a son who was his darling and consequently trained up in all the virtuous ways that either money could purchase or good examples teach. The youth, it seems, took to a kind and laudable course of life, and gave promising signs of making a fine man; nor indeed were their expectations deceived, for he led a very exemplary life of prudence, excellent conduct and good manners, which pleased the parents so much, that they thought everything they could do for him too little.

But the mother, out of an inexpressible fondness for him, must needs go to an astrologer, and inquire how the remaining part of his life must succeed.

Accordingly the horoscope is drawn, but a dismal appearance results from it; it acquaints the mother that her son shall remain virtuous for two and thirty years, and then be hanged.

“Monstrous and incredible,” says she, “but I’ll take care to secure him in the right way; or all my care will be to no purpose.”

Well, the family are all soon acquainted with this threatening warning. The person determined to be the sacrifice is already nine and twenty years old, and surely they suppose they can easily get the other three years, when all shall go well with their kinsman.

But what avails all the precaution of mankind? This same son obtains a commission of a ship, goes to sea, and, acting quite contrary to his orders, turns pirate, and in an encounter happens to kill a man, for which, on his return to his native country, he is tried, condemned and hanged.

What think you of this, venerable brother? Is not he a sad instance of an overruling influence of the stars? But, not to prolong too much time on a discourse of this nature, let us come to the purpose. You are now, as I cannot do it myself, to tell me my fortune, and this old woman is to confront you if you tell me a lie. There is no excuse to be made in the matter; for, by heavens, on your refusal, I’ll ease this room of your damnable trumpery,* and send you packing to the devil after them!

These words were enough to frighten any man out of his senses; nor could Peterson well discover the intention or drift of his talkative and uneasy visitant.

“What would you be at?” says the astrologer. “Why, do not you see what a terror you have put that good woman into, who trembles like an aspen leaf? I am not used, friend, to have persons come into my house and tell me to my face that I am to be hanged, and then to confirm it, as you pretend, tell me an old woman’s cock-and-bull story of a young man who went to sea, and was hanged for robbing, for which he certainly deserved the punishment he met with. As for telling your fortune, I’ll be so plain with you, that you’ll swing in a halter, as sure as your name is “Sawney Cunningham.”

“Sawney Cunningham!” quoth the mawk, who straight way throwing her arms about his neck, began to kiss him very eagerly, and then, looking earnestly in his face, cried aloud: “O laird! and art thou Sawney Cunningham? Why, I thought thou wouldst come to be a great man, thou wast such a Scotty lad!”

“Do you see now,” says Sawney, “what a damnable lie you have told me, in impudently acquainting me that I shall be hanged, when my good prophetess here tells me, I am a great man; for great men can never be hanged.”

“I do not care for what she says, nor you neither, for hanged you’ll be, and that in a month’s time, or else there never was a dog hanged in Scotland.”

“Pray, brother, how came you to know this, without consulting my horoscope?”

“Know it! Why, your very condition tells me you have deserved hanging these dozen years, but the laws have been too favourable to you, else Mr Hamilton’s death had been revenged before this time of day. Now, to convince you of my superior knowledge in astrology, I mean in telling how far their influence extends over any man’s actions, I will point to you the very action and persons that will bring you to the gallows. This very day month you shall go, in spite of all your foresight and endeavour to the contrary, to pay a visit to Mr William Bean, your uncle by the mother’s side, who is a man of an unblamable character and conversation. Him shall you kill, and assuredly be hanged.”

Was there ever such a prophetic or divining tongue, especially in these modern days, heard of? For the sequel will presently discover how every circumstance of this prediction fell out accordingly.

Sawney, having observed the air of gravity wherewith Mr Peterson delivered his words, could not help falling into a serious reflection about them, and thinking the place he was in not convenient enough to indulge the thought he found rising within him, abruptly left the fortune-teller, and giving his old nurse five shillings returned home.

But what does he determine on now? After having seriously weighed on the several particulars of Peterson’s words, he could not for his heart but think that the old man, in order to be even with him for telling him of being hanged, had only served him in his own coin; so that, after a few hours, every syllable was vanished out of his mind, and he resolved to keep up to his usual course of life.


King James I, sitting on the throne of Scotland at this time, and keeping his Court at Edinburgh, the greatest part of the Scottish nobility resided there, when our adventurer used frequently to go to make the best hand he could of what spoil he found there.

The Earl of Inchiquin, having a considerable post under the King, and several valuable matters being under his care, had a sentinel assigned, who constantly kept guard at this lord’s lodgings’ door. Guards were not much in fashion at this time, and about two or three hundred in the same livery were kept only on the establishment.

Cunningham having a desire of breaking into this minister’s lodgings, and having no way so likely to succeed as by putting on a soldier’s livery, went in that dress to the Sentinel, and after some little talk together they dropped accidentally into some military duty and exercise; which Cunningham so well displayed that the sentinel, seeming to like his brother’s notions, and smile extraordinarily, it made Cunningham stay a considerable time, till in the end he asked the sentinel to partake of two mugs of ale, and put sixpence into his hand to fetch them from an ale-house at some distance from his post, giving some reason for it that it was the best drink in the city, and none else could please his palate half so well as that. Hereupon the sentinel acquainted him that he could not but know the consequences that attended leaving his post, and that he had rather enjoy his company without the ale, than run any risk by fetching it. “Oh!” says our adventurer, “I am not a stranger to the penalties we incur on such an action, but there can no harm come of it if I stand in your place while you are gone.” And with that the sentinel gives Cunningham his musket, and goes to the place directed for the drink; but, on returning, he must needs fetch a pennyworth of tobacco from the same place, during which some of our adventurer’s companions had broken into the lord’s apartments, and rifled the same of three hundred pounds’ value. Cunningham was, however, so generous as to leave the sentinel his musket. The poor soldier returns in expectation of drinking with his friend, and enjoying his company some time longer; but alas! the bird has flown, and he is taken up to answer for his forthcoming, and committed to the Tolbooth Prison, where he was kept nine months in very heavy irons, and had only bread and water all the while allowed him to subsist on. At length he is tried, condemned and hanged. Thus did several innocent persons suffer death for that which ought to have been the portion of our adventurer.

We draw on to his last scene now, which shall be dispatched with all the brevity we are masters of.

Sawney having thus escaped so many dangers, and run through so many villainies with impunity, must needs go to his Uncle Bean’s house, who was a very good Christian, and a reputable man, as we have before observed, to pay him a visit, with no other design than to boast to him of his late successes, and how fortune had repaired the injuries his former misconduct and remissness had done him.

He went, and his uncle, with his moral frankness, bade him sit down, and call for anything his house could afford him. “Nephew,” says he, “I have desired a long time to see an alteration in your conduct, that I might say I had a nephew worthy of my acquaintance, and one to whom I might leave my estate, as deserving of it; but I am acquainted from all hands that you go on worse and worse, and rather than produce an amendment, abandon yourself to the worst of crimes.” The good old man followed this with a long exhortation, after which he issued a flood of tears, which pity and compassion had forced from his eyes; nor could Sawney forbear shedding a tear or two at hearing.

But it was all pretence, and an imitation of the crocodile; for he was determined to take this reverend old gentleman out of the world to get possession of his estate, which, for want of male issue, was unavoidably to devolve upon him after his death.

With this view, after he had made an end of his exhortation, he steps up and, without once speaking, thrusts a dagger to his heart, and so ends his life. Thus fell a venerable old uncle for pronouncing a little seasonable advice to a monster of a nephew who, finding the servant maid come into the room at the noise of her master’s falling on the floor, cut her throat from ear to ear, and then to avoid a discovery being made, set fire to the house, after he had rifled it of all valuable things in it.

But the divine vengeance was resolved not to let this barbarous act go unpunished; for the neighbourhood, observing a more than ordinary smoke issuing out of the house, concluded it was on fire, and accordingly unanimously joined to extinguish it, which they effectually did, and then going into the house, found Mr Bean and his maid inhumanly murdered. Our adventurer was got out of the way, and no one could be found to fix these cruelties upon; but it was not long before justice overtook Cunningham, who being impeached by a gang of thieves that had been apprehended, and were privy to several of his villainies, was taken up and committed a close prisoner to the Tolbooth, where so many witnesses appeared against him that he was condemned and hanged for his tricks at Leith, in company with the same robbers that had sworn against him.

When he went to the place of execution he betrayed no signs of fear, nor seemed any way daunted at his approaching fate. As he lived, so he died, valiantly and obstinately to the last, unwilling to have it said that he, whose hand had been the instrument of so many murders, proved pusillanimous at the last.

* An apposite contribution from the annals of old-tyme English slang, “trumpery” denotes Old Ware, old Stuff, as old Hats, Boots, Shoes,’ etc. (B. E.); goods of no value, rubbish (Grose): also trash and trumpery, and (proverbial), For want of good company, welcome trumpery. Whence (modern) generic for showy trashiness, and as adj., meretricious, worthless (1574).

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1634: John Bartendale survives hanging and burial

1 comment March 27th, 2017 Sabine Baring-Gould

(Thanks to Sabine Baring-Gould for (another) guest post. This report in Baring-Gould’s Yorkshire Oddities, Incidents and Strange Events glosses a rhyming Latin squib of Richard Brathwait‘s Drunken Barnaby’s Four Journeys to the North of England, several versions of which survive.)

JOHN BARTENDALE,
The Piper.

In the reign of King Charles I a strolling musician, a poor piper, named John Bartendale, was brought, in 1634, before the Assizes, and was convicted of felony.

He received sentence, and on March 27th was hung on the gallows, outside Micklegate Bar, York. There were no houses there at that time — it was open country. After he had remained swinging for three-quarters of an hour, and was to all appearance dead, he was cut down, and buried near the place of execution. The officers of justice had accomplished their work carelessly in both particulars, as it afterwards transpired, for he had been neither properly hung nor properly buried.

Earth has a peculiarly invigorating and restorative effect, as has been recently discovered; and patients suffering from debility are by some medical men now-a-days placed in earth baths with the most salutary effects. In the case of gangrened wounds a little earth has been found efficacious in promoting healthy action of the skin. John Bartendale was now to experience the advantages of an earth-bath.

That same day, in the afternoon, a gentleman, one of the Vavasours of Hazlewood, was riding by, when he observed the earth moving in a certain place. He ordered his servant to alight; he himself descended from his horse; and together they threw off the mould, and discovered the unfortunate piper alive. He opened his eyes, sat up, and asked where he was, and how he came there. Mr. Vavasour and his servant helped him out of his grave, and seated him on the side. The man was sent for water and other restoratives, and before long the news had spread about down Micklegate that the poor piper was come to life again. A swarm of wondering and sympathising people poured out to congratulate John the Piper on his resurrection, and to offer their assistance. A conveyance was obtained, and as soon as Bartendale was in a sufficient condition to be moved he was placed in it covered with Mr. Vavasour’s cloak, — for he had been stripped by the executioner before he was laid in the earth — and was removed again to York Castle.

It was rather hard that the poor fellow, after he had obtained his release, should have been returned to his prison; but there was no help for it. The resurrection of the piper was no secret; otherwise Mr. Vavasour would doubtless have removed him privately to a place of security till he was recovered, and then have sent him into another part of the country.

At the following Assizes, Bartendale was brought up again. It was a nice point of law whether the man could be sentenced to execution again after the Sheriff had signed his affidavit that the man had been hung till he was dead. Mr. Vavasour was naturally reluctant to supply the one link in the chain of evidence which established the identity of the prisoner with the piper who had been hung and buried for felony; he made earnest intercession that the poor fellow might be reprieved, popular sympathy was on his side, the judge was disposed to mercy, and Bartendale was accorded a full and free pardon; the judge remarking that the case was one in which the Almighty seemed to have interfered in mercy to frustrate the ends of human justice, and that therefore he was not disposed to reverse the decree of Providence according to the piper a prolongation of his days on earth.

Drunken Barnaby in his “Book of Travels” alludes to Bartendale, when he stops at York:

Here a piper apprehended,
Was found guilty and suspended;
Being led to t’fatal gallows,
Boys did cry, “Where is thy bellows?
Ever must thou cease thy tuning,”
Answered he, “For all your cunning,
You may fail in your prediction.”
Which did happen without fiction;
For cut down, and quick interred,
Earth rejected what was buried;
Half alive or dead he rises,
Got a pardon next Assizes,
And in York continued blowing —
Yet a sense of goodness showing.

After his wonderful deliverance the poor fellow turned hostler, and lived very honestly afterwards.

When asked to describe his sensations on being hung, he said that when he was turned off, flashes of fire seemed to dart before his eyes, and were succeeded by darkness and a state of insensibility.

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1637: Tabaniyassi Mehmed Pasha, former Grand Vizier

Add comment February 2nd, 2017 Headsman

Ottoman politician Tabaniyassi (“Flat-Footed”) Mehmed Pasha was executed by drowning on this date in 1637, having fallen foul of the tyrannous Sultan Murat IV.

It hadn’t been long since Mehmed Pasha (English Wikipedia entry | Turkish) was the one inflicting the sultan’s chastisements instead of receiving them; he was appointed Grand Vizier in 1632 to crush a Janissary revolt* in Egypt, and did so with brutal aplomb.

His career thereafter saw him carry Turkish arms to Persia and Armenia, and bully client princes in the Porte’s European sphere. Murat eventually grew suspicious that his aide might be conspiring against him and had him imprisoned at the capital’s imposing Yedikule Fortress.

* The sultan had reason to fear these mercurial praetorians; he had the throne thanks to that same clique’s 1622 murder of a predecessor.

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1639: The auto de fe of Lima, Peru

Add comment January 23rd, 2017 Headsman

Lima, Peru on this date in 1639 celebrated a huge auto de fe featuring 72 prisoners. Of these, 12 were executed at the stake, one of whom had the consolation of being already dead by his own hand. (He was punished in effigy.)

Their crime, per the Inquisition, was Judaizing — but we might better consider it today in the vein of terrorism, an idee fixe crawling from a swamp of public insecurities both real and projected: race, religion, geopolitics, and crass opportunism all vying for precedence under the Inquisitor’s cowl.

This post will speak of “Jews” but it’s important to remember that the Spanish empire at this point officially had no Jews: it had forced its Jewish population into exile or conversion. That latter set, Jews who had converted to Christianity under that very Catholic realm’s pressure, thereafter became suspected down the generations of sustaining their Hebraic rites in secret, sapping the Church from within while looking for the odd opportunity to sacrifice a Christian child.

It is uncertain in the end in what proportions these forced converts and their descendants did maintain Jewish devotions versus absorbing themselves into Christianity. But by whatever opinion, these are our “Jews”, conflating as the word often does both faith and race; the terms “New Christians” or “conversos” or “crypto-Jews” are also widely used in the literature and all refer to the same universe of suspected and former (at least somewhere up the family tree) Jews who presented themselves publicly as Christians.

No matter the loyalty of individual converso, the suspicion each was born under placed them in an obvious practical difficulty, and it was compounded in the 17th century as Jewry, that eternal bugbear, also came to stand in for a host of other worries dogging the Spanish state.

To begin with, many Jews had in their day fled from Spanish conversion to Portugal, but had recently become re-absorbed when the Spanish crown added Portugal as an unwilling bride to its imperial conquests in 1580. So, the Portuguese, and the tensions thereto, became equated with the Jew in the Spanish imagination.*

In the New World, the already onion-layered specter of the secret Jew further aligned with the menaces of an unknown frontier, where unfamiliar opportunities abounded and dangers too.**

Spain’s rival on the Caribbean coast was its very own disobedient former possession, the Netherlands, and the latter offered Jews a liberal grant toleration. Spanish conversos’ loyalty to their own crown, already doubted on principle, was doubly suspect for the proximity of rival settlements with unconcealed synagogues — no mere paranoid fantasy, as Jews on Spanish soil were prominent among the collaborators who aided Dutch incursions in the 17th century.

Jews also came to be credited more generally with a scary affinity for the subject populations of conquered Indians and imported African slaves — their pagan magicks, their unusual tongues, and their frightful potential for revolt. And of course, there was all that odious money-handling.

“For the past six to eight years, a great number of Portuguese [read: Jews] have entered the kingdom of Peru and there were a great number already there,” Don Leon de Alcayaga wrote of Lima in 1636. “They came to rule over all commerce, which from the brocade to the sackcloth, and from the diamond to the cony, all run through their hands. The Castilian without a Portuguese partner could expect no success in trade.”

Commerce is cutthroat, and the evident power of Jews among the colonies’ emerging mercantile elites — and not just in Lima, but in Cartagena, Buenos Aires, and elsewhere — seems to have co-evolved with appeals from New World Castilians for the Inquisition’s scrutiny of this potentially disloyal element. Strictly out of piety and patriotism, you understand.

Juan de Manozca became Archbishop of Mexico in 1643.

The arrival from Cartagena of Inquisitor Juan de Manozca, who had prosecuted crypto-Jews in that city as well as native “witches”, set the scene for one of the Spanish colonies’ bloodiest purges.

In 1635, a great wave of arrests seized upwards of 100 of these “Portuguese” for La Complidad Grande, a supposed grand conspiracy among the heretics whose contours are little described in the documentation that survives for us. Was the “conspiracy” essentially Judaism itself? Or did Inquisitors perceive a more daring and tangible plot?

“Apropos of the famous auto de fe of the Portuguese, Pelliza y Tovar, the famous chronicler of Aragon, says that on the day the Spanish authorities took possession of the letters and correspondence of the resident Portuguese they found keys and letters in code and they discovered that the synagogues of America were in intimate relations with the Jews of Holland.”† Manozca apparently communicated to the mother country that the Hebrews were stockpiling munitions.

They were bound ultimately for the auto this day — years afterwards — via the Inquisition’s cumbersome judicial machinery. The two most famous of them mark the entire futile spectrum of choices available to the New Christian whom the Old Christian was sufficiently motivated to destroy:

  • Francisco Maldonado da Silva, a Jewish physician who had been imprisoned since 1627 for returning to Judaism, and been completely unapologetic about it, even evangelizing other prisoners held near him. “This is the doing of the Lord God of Israel, so that I may now look upon Him face to face,” he said at the stake.
  • Manuel Bautista Perez, a powerful merchant reputed to be the wealthiest man in Lima — his fortune built on mining, shipping, and the slave trade.‡ Perez hailed from a New Christian family but unlike da Silva he insisted on his fidelity to the Church and refused to admit any heresy. Indeed, he had always been conspicuous in his devotions, and (his words) “never let it be known, either to persons from his household or outside it, that he was a New Christian … because he always tried to be taken for an Old Christian.”

This purge devastated not only New Spain’s Jewish populace but her economy too; with many of the wealthiest magnates clapped in irons from 1635 and their assets suddenly demobilized, other operators be they ever so devout immediately faced an epidemic of financial reversals and bankruptcies.

* Even though a Portuguese Inquisition also existed, predating the 1580 union of the two realms.

** See Irene Silverblatt, “New Christians and New World Fears in Seventeenth-Century Peru,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, July 2000, who notes that

The colony’s take on the Jewish menace, then, elaborated a familiar but divergent set of charges: New Christians had usurped trade and merchandising to the detriment of Castilians; New Christians, with international ties, were not loyal to the Spanish empire; New Christians — merchants and traitors — aligned themselves with potentially subversive groups within the Colony (namely, indios and negros) …

† The comment is that of Peruvian historian Ricardo Palma, quoted by Seymour Liebman in “The Great Conspiracy in Peru,” The Americas, October 1971.

‡ For a detailed exposition of Perez’s career in slaving, see From Capture to Sale: The Portuguese Slave Trade to Spanish South America in the Early Seveacnteenth Century.

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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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1638: Stepan Ostryanin, Cossack hetman

Add comment October 14th, 2015 Headsman

(Thanks to friend of the blog Sonechka for research, translation, and background information touching this post. -ed.)

October 14 (October 1 O.S.) is a liturgical feast celebrating the protective intercession of the Virgin Mary, a date of particular significance in Russia and Ukraine. Indeed, Red Square’s St. Basil’s Cathedral is actually the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos [i.e., Mary] on the Moat, just one of many Orthodox churches so named.

Also known as Pokrov — a quaint Slavic term for covering, denoting safeguarding — the holiday celebrates an incident from 10th century Byzantium when a saint beheld Mary descend through the dome of the church, then spread her garment protectively over the entire congregation.

It is of special significance in Ukraine where the ecclesiastical celebration pulls double duty as the Day of the Ukrainian Cossacks. And it is in honor of Pokrov that we dedicate this post.


17th century icon of the Madonna’s broad cloak protecting Ukrainians.

On an unspecified date in 1638, a Cossack named Ostryanin was broken on the wheel in Warsaw … maybe.

The Ostryanin Uprising of 1638 was one of the ongoing cycle of Cossack disturbances in the southern reaches of the Polish-Lithuanian Empire — modern-day Ukraine. Like many of these, it was a short-lived affair considered on its own, but the pattern of disaffected Cossacks struggling against the Polish crown for some combination of recognition, largesse, and autonomy was an ongoing pattern in the 17th century — and by the 1650s it would begin tearing apart the formerly mighty Polish-Lithuanian realm and transferring Ukrainian territory from Polish to Russian domination.

Tradition held that after the rising was stamped out in the summer of 1638, Stepan Ostryanin himself was treacherously seized and taken to Warsaw for execution. A late 18th century chronicle* of a distinctly patriotic bent called Istoriya Russov embroiders upon that death by breaking-wheel with racist gusto:

in accord with their treachery, insidious and duplicitous, having learned through their Jew spies that hetman Ostryanin’s would travel unguarded … the Lyakhs [term for “Poles”; it’s derogatory in present-day Russian but may have been less so at the time -ed.] surrounded him in Kanev monastery with a host of men. They, having tied the hetman and his men, altogether thirty seven people, … prepared an execution for them in Warsaw unprecedented in its cruelty, which posterity will scarcely believe to be true, because it would not occur to even the most barbarous and ferocious Japanese (!) and the reality of which would terrify the very beasts and monsters.

On the other hand, a Cossack named Yakiv Ostryanin was to be found on Russian soil in the subsequent years, until he was murdered in 1641. Some historians think that he was the very same namesake Cossack rebel escaped from Polish vengeance, and the story about him being broken on the wheel in Poland is pure sentimental folklore; alternatively, Stepan and Yakiv might have just been two different Cossacks named Ostryanin who met two different fates.

Quite a difference for our supposed Stepan Ostryanin, but a minor mystery from this distance in time. Nevertheless, our man, whoever he was, had a posthumous contribution yet to make to the letters of his Slavic brethren.

Polish historian Szymon Okolski rode along with the Polish commander Mikolaj Potocki in Potocki’s successful campaign of the spring-summer 1638 to suppress this rebellion. Okolski’s field diaries of the campaign are a key historical source on the Cossacks and are thought to have been used extensively by the Cossack-descended writer Nikolai Gogol in composing his short story Taras Bulba.

A product of Gogol’s youth, Taras Bulba has a rough romanticism — and a romanticism for the Cossack (read: national Ukrainian) cause specifically that nonplussed Russian authorities at the time. (And probably now, too.)

Taras Bulba‘s title character is a mature Cossack patriot who with his two sons joins the Cossack risings against Poland. Its location in time is indeterminate, not unlike the unending cycle of risings themselves. Taras Bulba is a nearly eternal character, almost a fixture of nature, because his war seemed eternal too.

And of course it contains some cracking execution scenes. The execution by breaking-wheel of Taras Bulba’s son might have been inspired by the Istoriya Russov‘s outraged account of that full Japanese barbarism. The excerpt below hails from this public-domain English translation.


Ostap had been seized and bound before his very eyes, and that he was now in the hands of the Lyakhs. Grief overpowered him. He pulled off and tore in pieces the bandages from his wounds, and threw them far from him; he tried to say something, but only articulated some incoherent words. Fever and delirium seized upon him afresh, and he uttered wild and incoherent speeches. Meanwhile his faithful comrade stood beside him, scolding and showering harsh, reproachful words upon him without stint. Finally, he seized him by the arms and legs, wrapped him up like a child, arranged all his bandages, rolled him in an ox-hide, bound him with bast, and, fastening him with ropes to his saddle, rode with him again at full speed along the road.

“I’ll get you there, even if it be not alive! I will not abandon your body for the Lyakhs to make merry over you, and cut your body in twain and fling it into the water. Let the eagle tear out your eyes if it must be so; but let it be our eagle of the steppe and not a Polish eagle, not one which has flown hither from Polish soil. I will bring you, though it be a corpse, to the Ukraine!”

Thus spoke his faithful companion. He rode without drawing rein, day and night, and brought Taras still insensible into the Zaporozhian Setch itself. There he undertook to cure him, with unswerving care, by the aid of herbs and liniments. He sought out a skilled Jewess, who made Taras drink various potions for a whole month, and at length he improved. Whether it was owing to the medicine or to his iron constitution gaining the upper hand, at all events, in six weeks he was on his feet. His wounds had closed, and only the scars of the sabre-cuts showed how deeply injured the old Cossack had been. But he was markedly sad and morose. Three deep wrinkles engraved themselves upon his brow and never more departed thence. Then he looked around him. All was new in the Setch; all his old companions were dead. Not one was left of those who had stood up for the right, for faith and brotherhood. And those who had gone forth with the Koschevoi in pursuit of the Tatars, they also had long since disappeared. All had perished. One had lost his head in battle; another had died for lack of food, amid the salt marshes of the Crimea; another had fallen in captivity and been unable to survive the disgrace. Their former Koschevoi was no longer living, nor any of his old companions, and the grass was growing over those once alert with power. He felt as one who had given a feast, a great noisy feast. All the dishes had been smashed in pieces; not a drop of wine was left anywhere; the guests and servants had all stolen valuable cups and platters; and he, like the master of the house, stood sadly thinking that it would have been no feast. In vain did they try to cheer Taras and to divert his mind; in vain did the long-bearded, grey-haired guitar-players come by twos and threes to glorify his Cossack deeds. He gazed grimly and indifferently at everything, with inappeasable grief printed on his stolid face; and said softly, as he drooped his head, “My son, my Ostap!”

The square on which the execution was to take place was not hard to find: for the people were thronging thither from all quarters. In that savage age such a thing constituted one of the most noteworthy spectacles, not only for the common people, but among the higher classes. A number of the most pious old men, a throng of young girls, and the most cowardly women, who dreamed the whole night afterwards of their bloody corpses, and shrieked as loudly in their sleep as a drunken hussar, missed, nevertheless, no opportunity of gratifying their curiosity. “Ah, what tortures!” many of them would cry, hysterically, covering their eyes and turning away; but they stood their ground for a good while, all the same. Many a one, with gaping mouth and outstretched hands, would have liked to jump upon other folk’s heads, to get a better view. Above the crowd towered a bulky butcher, admiring the whole process with the air of a connoisseur, and exchanging brief remarks with a gunsmith, whom he addressed as “Gossip,” because he got drunk in the same alehouse with him on holidays. Some entered into warm discussions, others even laid wagers. But the majority were of the species who, all the world over, look on at the world and at everything that goes on in it and merely scratch their noses. In the front ranks, close to the bearded civic-guards, stood a young noble, in warlike array, who had certainly put his whole wardrobe on his back, leaving only his torn shirt and old shoes at his quarters. Two chains, one above the other, hung around his neck. He stood beside his mistress, Usisya, and glanced about incessantly to see that no one soiled her silk gown. He explained everything to her so perfectly that no one could have added a word. “All these people whom you see, my dear Usisya,” he said, “have come to see the criminals executed; and that man, my love, yonder, holding the axe and other instruments in his hands, is the executioner, who will despatch them. When he begins to break them on the wheel, and torture them in other ways, the criminals will still be alive; but when he cuts off their heads, then, my love, they will die at once. Before that, they will cry and move; but as soon as their heads are cut off, it will be impossible for them to cry, or to eat or drink, because, my dear, they will no longer have any head.” Usisya listened to all this with terror and curiosity.

The upper stories of the houses were filled with people. From the windows in the roof peered strange faces with beards and something resembling caps. Upon the balconies, beneath shady awnings, sat the aristocracy. The hands of smiling young ladies, brilliant as white sugar, rested on the railings. Portly nobles looked on with dignity. Servants in rich garb, with flowing sleeves, handed round various refreshments. Sometimes a black-eyed young rogue would take her cake or fruit and fling it among the crowd with her own noble little hand. The crowd of hungry gentles held up their caps to receive it; and some tall noble, whose head rose amid the throng, with his faded red jacket and discoloured gold braid, and who was the first to catch it with the aid of his long arms, would kiss his booty, press it to his heart, and finally put it in his mouth. The hawk, suspended beneath the balcony in a golden cage, was also a spectator; with beak inclined to one side, and with one foot raised, he, too, watched the people attentively. But suddenly a murmur ran through the crowd, and a rumour spread, “They are coming! they are coming! the Cossacks!”

They were bare-headed, with their long locks floating in the air. Their beards had grown, and their once handsome garments were worn out, and hung about them in tatters. They walked neither timidly nor surlily, but with a certain pride, neither looking at nor bowing to the people. At the head of all came Ostap.

What were old Taras’s feelings when thus he beheld his Ostap? What filled his heart then? He gazed at him from amid the crowd, and lost not a single movement of his. They reached the place of execution. Ostap stopped. He was to be the first to drink the bitter cup. He glanced at his comrades, raised his hand, and said in a loud voice: “God grant that none of the heretics who stand here may hear, the unclean dogs, how Christians suffer! Let none of us utter a single word.” After this he ascended the scaffold.

“Well done, son! well done!” said Bulba, softly, and bent his grey head.

The executioner tore off his old rags; they fastened his hands and feet in stocks prepared expressly, and—We will not pain the reader with a picture of the hellish tortures which would make his hair rise upright on his head. They were the outcome of that coarse, wild age, when men still led a life of warfare which hardened their souls until no sense of humanity was left in them. In vain did some, not many, in that age make a stand against such terrible measures. In vain did the king and many nobles, enlightened in mind and spirit, demonstrate that such severity of punishment could but fan the flame of vengeance in the Cossack nation. But the power of the king, and the opinion of the wise, was as nothing before the savage will of the magnates of the kingdom, who, by their thoughtlessness and unconquerable lack of all far-sighted policy, their childish self-love and miserable pride, converted the Diet into the mockery of a government. Ostap endured the torture like a giant. Not a cry, not a groan, was heard. Even when they began to break the bones in his hands and feet, when, amid the death-like stillness of the crowd, the horrible cracking was audible to the most distant spectators; when even his tormentors turned aside their eyes, nothing like a groan escaped his lips, nor did his face quiver. Taras stood in the crowd with bowed head; and, raising his eyes proudly at that moment, he said, approvingly, “Well done, boy! well done!”

But when they took him to the last deadly tortures, it seemed as though his strength were failing. He cast his eyes around.

O God! all strangers, all unknown faces! If only some of his relatives had been present at his death! He would not have cared to hear the sobs and anguish of his poor, weak mother, nor the unreasoning cries of a wife, tearing her hair and beating her white breast; but he would have liked to see a strong man who might refresh him with a word of wisdom, and cheer his end. And his strength failed him, and he cried in the weakness of his soul, “Father! where are you? do you hear?”

“I hear!” rang through the universal silence, and those thousands of people shuddered in concert. A detachment of cavalry hastened to search through the throng of people. Yankel turned pale as death, and when the horsemen had got within a short distance of him, turned round in terror to look for Taras; but Taras was no longer beside him; every trace of him was lost.


Despite his cunning escape on this occasion, Taras Bulba himself is also in the end put to death: the story ends with him going to the stake as his soul summons the brethren he can still see in the distance to resume the fight, again and again.


[A] band of Lyakhs suddenly rushed up, and seized him by the shoulders. He struggled with all might; but he could not scatter on the earth, as he had been wont to do, the heydukes who had seized him. “Oh, old age, old age!” he exclaimed: and the stout old Cossack wept. But his age was not to blame: nearly thirty men were clinging to his arms and legs.

“The raven is caught!” yelled the Lyakhs. “We must think how we can show him the most honour, the dog!” They decided, with the permission of the hetman, to burn him alive in the sight of all. There stood hard by a leafless tree, the summit of which had been struck by lightning. They fastened him with iron chains and nails driven through his hands high up on the trunk of the tree, so that he might be seen from all sides; and began at once to place fagots at its foot. But Taras did not look at the wood, nor did he think of the fire with which they were preparing to roast him: he gazed anxiously in the direction whence his Cossacks were firing. From his high point of observation he could see everything as in the palm of his hand.

“Farewell, comrades!” he shouted to them from above; “remember me, and come hither again next spring and make merry in the same fashion! What! cursed Lyakhs, have ye caught me? Think ye there is anything in the world that a Cossack fears? Wait; the time will come when ye shall learn what the orthodox Russian faith is! Already the people scent it far and near. A czar shall arise from Russian soil, and there shall not be a power in the world which shall not submit to him!” But fire had already risen from the fagots; it lapped his feet, and the flame spread to the tree…. But can any fire, flames, or power be found on earth which are capable of overpowering Russian strength?

Broad is the river Dniester, and in it are many deep pools, dense reed-beds, clear shallows and little bays; its watery mirror gleams, filled with the melodious plaint of the swan, the proud wild goose glides swiftly over it; and snipe, red-throated ruffs, and other birds are to be found among the reeds and along the banks. The Cossacks rowed swiftly on in the narrow double-ruddered boats—rowed stoutly, carefully shunning the sand bars, and cleaving the ranks of the birds, which took wing—rowed, and talked of their hetman.

* The Istoriya Russov had a great influence on young writers in the early 19th century. The text can be read as advancing a nationalism of all the Russias, or as speaking in a more specifically Ukrainian voice. See The Cossack Myth: History and Nationhood in the Age of Empires.

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1634: Mikhail Borisovich Shein, for failing to take Smolensk

Add comment April 28th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1634, the Russian general Mikhail Borisovich Shein was executed on Red Square for losing to the Poles.

Shein (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) was an accomplished boyar officer who had made his bones during Russia’s Time of Troubles.

During the Time of Troubles — 15 war-torn years following the end of Ivan the Terrible‘s dynasty — the neighboring Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had eagerly exploited Russia’s chaos, invading Russia, backing an imposter who tried to claim the throne, and at last settling for tearing off a chunk of territory in war.

By the 1630s, Russia had her shit back together under the first Romanov tsar, and when the Polish king died in 1632 saw an opportunity to return stripe for stripe on its opportunistic neighbor.

This was the Smolensk War, so named because the recapture of that city was its primary objective. Shein, the respected elder military statesman who had lost Smolensk to a Polish siege twenty-odd years before, was just the man to lead the campaign.

The span of time tested by the 1632-1633 Russian siege was not merely that measured by the larder of Smolensk’s vastly outnumbered garrison — but that of Poland-Lithuania’s unwieldy succession process. Although the successor king was self-evident, the span required for his actual election left a six-month interregnum: nothing compared to the Time of Troubles, but perhaps enough for a frontier reversal.

But as it happened, Shein could not force Smolensk’s capitulation in 1633 and by the latter half of that year a superior Polish army was arriving. By October of 1633, a year after the Russians had begun hostilities, not only was the siege of Smolensk broken, but the Russian camp itself was encircled by the Poles. Having no prospect of a relief force such had just delivered his enemies, Shein could not hold out for even a single Friedman Unit and soon surrendered. He received liberal terms: the Russians had to abandon their artillery, but Shein’s army returned to Moscow unharmed, with its standards.


The Surrender of the Russian Garrison of Smolensk before Vladislaus IV Vasa of Poland, by an unknown Polish artist (c. 1634)

Having seen their jolly war of choice come to such a humilitating pass, the Moscow boyars received their defeated commander in a rage. A tribunal vengefully condemned Shein, his second-in-command Artemii Vasilevich Izmailov, and Izmailov’s son Vasili, to death for treason and incompetence in command.

(According to Nancy Kollmann, a German scholar present in Russia in 1634 recorded that the execution took the men by surprise, as they had been led to believe that they would receive a last-minute commutation.)

In even the most slightly longer term, the debacle proved to be only a minor strategic setback. Poland was unable to follow up its victory with any inroads on Russian soil. That June, the two belligerents came to a peace restoring the status quo ante bellum — and they managed to pass a whole generation before they fought again.

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1635: Elizabeth Evans, “Canonbury Besse”

Add comment April 17th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1635, Elizabeth Evans (known as “Canonbury Besse”) was hanged for murder.

Sometimes characterized as one of early modern Europe’s pioneer serial killers, Evans was not driven to slaughter by compulsion — merely by its emoluments. Using an early version of the timeless “Lonely Hearts killer” scheme familiar to a later era of classified adverts and Craigslist postings,* Evans and her beau Tom Sherwood committed at least five homicides via the expedient of Canonbury Besse’s allures.

Once the prospect had been enticed to a private rendezvous, Sherwood — “Country Tom” — would jump him, and the couple would rob the body. A straightforward enterprise, with a straightforward consequence. (Sherwood had already gone to the gallows on April 14th.)

The ballad “Murder Upon Murder” blames Evans for seducing Sherwood, “a man of honest parentage”, both bodily and spiritually:

she sotted so his minde,
That unto any villany,
fierce Sherwood was inclind,
His coyne all spent he must have more,
For to content his filthy (Whoore).

So shocking was the spree these lovebirds carried out — as reflected in nicknames that denote a degree of celebrity — that they were doomed to posthumous terrors as well.

Sherwood was hung in chains near St. Pancras Church where he so notably failed to deter crime that a later group of thieves, frustrated at finding their mark penniless, contempuously lashed him naked to Country Tom’s gibbet.

“Oh pity! Still running on to more mischief, having such a fearful spectacle before their eyes as Country Tom, which should rather have frightened and hindered them from doing this bold and insolent act,” laments Henry Goodcole in Heaven’s Speedie Hue and Cry, a narrative pamphlet trading on that same “fearful spectacle.”


Detail view (click for the full image) of Heaven’s Speedie Hue and Cry, a pamphlet narrating the crimes of Sherwood and Evans.

Canonbury Besse was bound over to the surgeons for anatomizing — well before this particular terror became a common extension of murder sentences. According to The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the Human Body in Renaissance Culture, both Sherwood’s and Evans’s skeletons would ultimately became ornaments on permanent display at Inigo Jones‘s 1636 London anatomy theater,** and could be seen there as late as 1784.

* Consider, for instance, America’s Lonely Hearts Killers, Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck — or Henri Landru, French predator of World War I widows.

** Diarist Samuel Pepys described a visit to this theater in 1663.

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1631: Giles Broadway and Lawrence Fitzpatrick, for consistency

Add comment July 6th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1631, Giles Broadway and Lawrence Fitzpatrick hanged at Tyburn.

Although the evidence against them was extremely questionable, their trial just nine days prior could hardly have turned out otherwise, for these men were the servants implicated in conniving with the Earl of Castlehaven in the scandalous debauch of his household.

This notorious case had that May resulted in Castlehaven’s execution (wonderfully guest-blogged in these pages by Courtney Thomas). The Earl appears to have run his household as a veritable den of sexual iniquity, but the actual facts upon which a capital conviction had been secured were sketchy and subject to no little public controversy. Castlehaven himself declared on the scaffold that he was a victim of a conspiracy by other members of his family to lay hands on his inheritance.

Manservants

Crucial to the Earl’s condemnation was the testimony of the servants Giles Broadway and Lawrence Fitzpatrick. Broadway owned, under pressure, that he had raped Castlehaven’s wife at the Earl’s direction. Fitzpatrick copped to having sexual relations with the Earl — but crucially claimed that those acts had not entailed actual penetration.

The whole scandal inspired no end of bodice-ripping broadsides and warring doggerel arguing the Earl’s perspective or his wife’s. Crude as this one is, it gets at the key legal issues at stake in the trial — to wit, whether the actual acts that took place in Castlehaven’s Sodom met the legal definition of buggery or of rape:

The prisoner nowe
had leave to shewe
concerninge the rape of his wife

How that hee did it not
but conceived it a plott
to take away him and his Life

But alas twas in vayne
himselfe for to straine
since the Judges delivered it Plano

that to knowe by the tuch
was eaven just as much
as if it had beene in Ano

Its thought their trunke hose
did alsoe suppose
that in concubilu cum faeminis

ther might bee a rape
if lust made an escape
per ejectionem seminis

Book CoverGiven that the court had found the ejectionem seminis here sufficient to lop off the head of a peer of the realm, the man’s low-born servants could hardly be acquitted in the same matter without undermining the verdict’s already tenuous public confidence. As the judges in the servants’ case put it, “We for our parts thought it to stand with the honor of common justice, that seeing their testimony had been taken to bring a peer of the realm to his death, for an offense as much theirs as his, that they should as well suffer for it as he did, lest any jealousy should arise about the truth of the fact, and the justness of the proceedings.” (Quoted in A House in Gross Disorder: Sex, Law, and the 2nd Earl of Castlehaven, a recent book on the scandal.)

Law Orifices

Broadway was the easier condemnation.

Desperately, he tried insisting that his “rape” of the Countess had not achieved actual penetration: the scare quotes here because the boundaries of a body constituted the bright line establishing whether the capital crime of rape had been committed. (Compare for instance this close call from the 18th century.) As the poem implies, Broadway suggested that he suffered premature ejaculation before he crossed the coital, and legal, threshold.

This circumstance required the victim to testify against him. Anne Stanley, fruit of an ancient and powerful family — she had once upon a time had a case as the heir to the throne of England — therefore had to present herself to attest that this mean person “had known her carnally, and that he did enter her body” while her late beheaded husband sadistically held her down. In court she could not bear to look at Broadway, she said, “but with a kind of indignation, and with shame, in regard of that which had been offered unto her, and she suffered by him.”

Fitzpatrick was a tougher trick.

Castlehaven himself had only been convicted by a bare majority on the sodomy charges, and that only by the dubious expedient of expanding the reading of the sodomy statute to compass all same-sex contact: previously, as with rape, penetration had been understood to constitute the crime.

When it came to Fitzpatrick’s trial, he argued vehemently that he could not be made his own accuser. Moreover, as he said in his dying address at the scaffold, “my lord Dorset had entrapped and ensnared him to his destruction; for saying upon his honour, and speaking it in the plural number (as the mouth of the whole [Privy Council]) that whatsoever he delivered should no ways prejudice himself, he thereby got him to declare the earl guilty of the sin of Buggery; wherein himself being a party, was the only cause he came now to suffer death.” That’s a right dirty trick, just another one of many compelling reasons never to talk to cops.

Broadway, for his part, charged under the gallows that his victim Anne Stanley — who remained in the twisted marriage for five-plus years despite having the means to escape it — was herself a principal despoiler of the household’s virtue, “the wickedest woman in the world.” Two other servants, he said, “lay with her commonly,” and one of them had “gotten a child upon her, which she, like a wicked woman, had made away,” leading that vengeful servant to rape at the Earl’s instigation Anne’s 12-year-old daughter by her previous marriage — for which purpose the Earl himself had to apply “oil to open her body.” Home sweet home.

(Young Elizabeth Barnham was dynastically married to her stepbrother James, who himself initiated the complaint against his father. Castlehaven appears to have hated his own son, and the son feared that the Earl’s largesse with his favorites and his apparent attempt to have his servant father on Elizabeth an heir that was not of the family’s own blood would destroy the Touchets. Castlehaven was not indicted on this specifically and the other charges against him were sufficient to the purpose. But it was surely a sensitive offense for his fellow-bluebloods. In his exhortation to the condemned Castlehaven, the Lord Steward scarcely mentioned the rape and sodomy stuff. “Although you die not for that,” he intoned, “you have abused your own daughter! And having both honour and fortune to leave behind you, you would have had the impious and spurious offspring of a harlot to inherit!” This quote, like all the quotes from the trials and scaffold, can be found here; this volume, however, proposes not “harlot” but the seemingly more suitable word varlet.)

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1631: Mervyn Touchet, Earl of Castlehaven

Add comment May 14th, 2013 Courtney Thomas

(Thanks to historian Courtney Thomas for the guest post. -ed.)

The crimes of Mervyn Touchet (executed on May 14, 1631), second Earl of Castlehaven, caused a sensation in Stuart England.

Convicted of rape and sodomy by a jury of his aristocratic peers, his crimes were alleged to have taken place under his roof and against members of his own family. While all of the witnesses against Touchet stood to gain materially from his death and various household servants did present evidence which contradicted that of his wife and son (who testified against him), he, as household head, was clearly unable to maintain proper order and obedience within his own house and this was instrumental in ensuring his conviction.

Book CoverIn this sense, although his alleged crimes were themselves horrific, it was Castlehaven’s subversion of expected social roles and modes of conduct in the context of his disordered household which truly shocked contemporaries (as Cynthia B. Herrup has skillfully argued in her study of the Castlehaven case, A House in Gross Disorder: Sex, Law, and the 2nd Earl of Castlehaven).

Mervyn was born in 1593, the eldest son of Lucy Mervyn and George Touchet; the latter was Baron Audley in the English peerage and, from 1616 until his death a year later, first earl of Castlehaven in the Irish peerage. Details of the future Earl’s childhood are scant.

From the time he was seven, in 1600, his family appears to have lived largely in Ireland, first on their estates in Munster and later in county Tyrone and Armagh (although they were in England sporadically, such as in 1594 when the elder Touchets were present at an inn in Beaconsfield to see their daughter Maria clandestinely marry the heir of John and Joan Thynne, Thomas, initiating a prolonged feud between the two families).

In 1608, Mervyn’s father settled the family’s English properties on his son and, while he remained in Ireland, Mervyn took up residence in England in the counties of Somerset and Dorset. In keeping with his new status as a propertied gentleman, he was knighted in the same year.

Sometime in this period Mervyn also embarked on legal studies and, in 1611, he was admitted to the Middle Temple. Around this time he also began his first marriage, taking as his wife Elizabeth Barnham, the daughter (and one of the co-heirs) of Benedict Barnham, a London alderman.

Through this match Mervyn gained additional properties in Middlesex, Hampshire, Kent, and Essex. Roughly a year after the marriage ceremony, in 1612, the couple’s first son, James Touchet, was baptized. The pair went on to have two more sons, George and Mervyn, and three daughters, Lucy, Dorothy, and Frances.

Upon his father’s death in 1617, Mervyn inherited his lands in Ireland and the title of Earl of Castlehaven, becoming the second Earl. It is also possible that he converted to Catholicism during this period. While Castlehaven steadfastly denied this, most of his children later became active Catholics, perhaps as a result of their early upbringing in these years.

Following the death of Elizabeth in 1622, Castlehaven remarried in 1624, this time to Lady Anne Brydges, nee Stanley, who was born in 1580 and was to outlive her husband by sixteen years. The widow of Grey Brydges, Baron Chandos, Anne was roughly thirteen years older than her new husband but she also had several young children from her first marriage and the two families now became one.

This dynastic merger was further consolidated when Anne’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth, was married to Castlehaven’s heir, James, in 1628. Elizabeth was all of 13 years old at the time.

Both marriages proved to be disastrous. In particular, the marriage of Elizabeth and James was dismal affair and ultimately led to the Earl of Castlehaven’s execution. By 1629, James had left the family estate (and his teen wife) at Fonthill Gifford and Elizabeth had become involved with Castlehaven’s favoured servant, Henry Skipwith.

It remains unclear whether this was a consensual relationship or, as was later charged, Castlehaven arranged for Skipwith to rape his step-daughter and daughter-in-law. What is certain is that Castlehaven persisted in showing great favour to Skipwith, which resulted in a confrontation between James and his father and ended with James complaining to King Charles I about his father’s conduct.

With this complaint, a formal inquiry was launched into the allegedly disorderly environment of the Touchet home.

The results of this inquiry, conducted by the Privy Council, revealed abominable crimes, in particular rape and sodomy. On April 25, 1631, the Earl was put on trial, charged with committing sodomy with a servant and assisting another servant, Giles Broadway, with the rape of his own wife, Anne, the Countess of Castlehaven (Anne alleged that the Earl had restrained her while Broadway assaulted her).

Henry Skipwith was never formally charged for his affair with Castlehaven’s daughter-in-law but rumour abounded of Castlehaven’s involvement in this as well (either in terms of instigating the rape, if such it was, or as a panderer who encouraged the illicit affair).

The trial was an early modern media sensation.

Special scaffolding was erected in Westminster Hall to accommodate the huge numbers that turned up to witness the trial and news writers throughout the realm and as far away as colonial North America speculated about the case and the outcome of the trial. Charles I, who prided himself on his happy and close-knit domestic life, was particularly shocked by Castlehaven’s behaviour and remarked that he hoped the “obscene tragedy” would quickly pass.

At the trial itself, twenty-seven peers acted as both judge and jury against Castlehaven and the testimony of six witnesses, including that of the Countess of Castlehaven and her daughter, was recorded by the court.

Their testimony painted a vivid picture of the Castlehaven household at Fonthill Gifford as a den of sexual iniquity and debauchery.

According to the Countess, Castlehaven had sexually and physically abused her from the very beginning of their marriage and this had culminated with Broadway’s rape of her at with Castlehaven’s assistance. Anne revealed that, within a few days of their wedding, the Earl was consorting openly with prostitutes and household serving boys.

She reported that he had commanded the couple’s servants to expose themselves to her and goaded her into illicit relationships with his friends and favoured servants, whom he also encouraged to embezzle money from the estate. She also alleged that, following the marriage of her daughter to Castlehaven’s heir, James, the crazed Earl had concocted a scheme to have Henry Skipwith impregnate the girl with his bastard, whom James would be forced to recognize as his own.

Throughout the trial Castlehaven was described as unstable, erratic, dissolute, and utterly devoid of religious faith and piety.

In his defence, Castlehaven alleged that he was the victim of a plot orchestrated by his family to commit judicial murder and inherit his estate and wealth. The most he would admit was over-generosity to a few of his favoured servants. He countered the charges by accusing his wife of infanticide and adultery and charging his son and daughter-in-law/step-daughter with greed.

As he reminded the court, all the witnesses against him stood to benefit a great deal from his death. Likewise, he told the court that the testimony against him on the rape charges was logically inconsistent and the reports of sodomy did not prove penetration and, without that definitive act, the sodomy charges were not sustainable.

While he was accused of subverting the natural order and not properly governing his household, he painted himself as the victim of his inferiors, who were the ones truly guilty of threatening the natural order by plotting against him.

The preserved records from the trial demonstrate that the evidence against Castlehaven was spotty and ill-sustained. The jury took several hours to deliberate and reach a verdict and, ultimately, twenty-six of the twenty-seven peers voted to convict on the charges of rape but only fifteen were persuaded by the allegations of sodomy.

After his conviction, some members of Castlehaven’s natural family, including his siblings, petitioned the crown for a pardon based on the alleged corruption of the witnesses against him. But Charles I refused to consider it or to investigate the suspicions of corruption while Castlehaven himself refused to confess his guilt and seek a pardon on his own behalf.

When he was taken to the scaffold on Tower Green on May 14, Touchet orally protested the verdict while affirming his acceptance of the King’s right to try and execute him. He also made a final declaration of his loyalty to the Church of England.

Almost immediately after his execution, various broadsides and pamphlets describing the lurid details of the cases and the motivations of those involved began to circulate, ensuring that it remained a topic of discussion and rumour for years to come.

While several writers argued for Castlehaven’s guilt, others, including his sister, Eleanor, authored a number of tracts which proclaimed his innocence and decried the wickedness of his accusers.

In July, two of the Earl’s alleged accomplices were put to death (the household page who was alleged to have committed sodomy with Castlehaven, and Giles Broadway, who aided Touchet in the supposed rape of his wife).

While these two servants had confessed to their crimes (aware that, as Castlehaven had already been convicted and executed, there was little chance that they would be acquitted and confessing meant that some mercy in the manner of their deaths would be shown to them by the state), the details of their confessions offered some support to Castlehaven’s accusations of corruption on the part of his wife and son and so the question of his guilt remained unresolved for many.

With his father’s death, James Touchet had the title of Earl of Castlehaven and his father’s lands conferred upon him by the crown. The executed Earl’s widow did not remarry and James Touchet was never reconciled with his wife, whose alleged misconduct with the servant Henry Skipwith had initiated the prosecution against the Earl.

While the Castlehaven case is often cited as both a potent example of the dangers inherent in the subordination of household discipline and as a celebrated case in the history of the treatment of homosexuality, it also established an important precedent regarding the right of a wife to testify against her husband in cases of marital cruelty and rape.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Homosexuals,Nobility,Notable Jurisprudence,Other Voices,Public Executions,Rape,Sex

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