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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Given 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.)
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.)
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.
In 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).
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 date in 1635, the aged cunning-woman Hester Jonas was beheaded as a witch in the city of Neuss.
Torture chair-illustrated title page of Hetty Kemmerich’s study of German witchcraft prosecutions, including but not limited to Hester Jonas’s. Sagt, Was Ich Gestehen Soll! has not been translated from German, but is available from Amazon.de.
She was around 64 years of age when longstanding rumors of her witchiness triggered her arrest in the Hexenprozesse-crazed atmosphere of the Thirty Years War. The city’s mayor came right out and accused her of taking the devil into her bed, signaling that Jonas would have a difficult time escaping the scaffold.
Although the accused denied the charges at proceedings in November, ten hours naked in a spike-studded torture chair secured the customary confession — in this case, to fornicating in the turnip field with a black man named “Hans Beelzebub” who gave her magical powers. (Source, in German)
She managed to escape confinement the very night after she made these “admissions” but was re-taken, and her attempts to repudiate her previous self-incriminations flogged out of her.
After the executioner struck off her head, burned her body, and scattered her ashes to the four winds, her husband got the executioner’s bill for 65 Thalers.
20th century Dusseldorf poet Peter Maiwald wrote a “Ballade von der Hester Jonas” in honor of our date’s victim. The German band Cochise released an interpretation of this ballad on its 1979 album Smoke Signals.
(Thanks for the guest post to Robert Wilhelm, author of the Murder By Gaslight historic crime blog, and of the book Murder And Mayhem in Essex County. Executed Today readers are sure to enjoy Wilhelm’s detailed investigations into long-lost historic crime. -ed.)
On September 28, 1637, two men convicted on separate counts of murder in the Puritan colony north of Boston — in what is now Essex County — were executed on the same gallows. The first was William Schooler, convicted a year earlier of killing Mary Scholy on the path to Pascataquack; the second was John Williams convicted of killing John Hoddy near Great Pond in Wenham.
In the autumn of 1636, an Agawam Indian walking through the Winnacunnet woods, north of the town of Newbury, found the body of a young white woman, lying in a thick swamp about three miles north of the Merrimack river. From the condition of the body, he could tell that the woman had been dead for several months. She lay naked, with her clothing still in a pile not far from the body. The Indian took the news to Newbury, and led the Englishmen to the spot so they could see for themselves.
The woman’s name was Mary Sholy. She was identified more by the circumstance than by appearance, since the flesh had begun to rot. Mary had left Newbury several months earlier, traveling north to her home at the English settlement at Pascataquack. The people of Newbury were also fairly certain who had killed her; they believed she had been ravished and murdered by the man she had hired to guide her journey home, an outsider named William Schooler.
In London, England, William Schooler had been a vintner with intemperate habits. Schooler was, by his own admission, a common adulterer. After wounding a man in a duel he fled to Holland to escape the law; then, leaving his wife behind, he traveled to New England. In 1636 he was living in a shack by the Merrimack River within the limits of Newbury but outside the boundaries of sanctioned Christian behavior.
Mary Sholy, a servant girl, was looking for someone to guide her to Pascataquack, to return to her master. Pascataquack — now Portsmouth, New Hampshire — was a small settlement, about twenty-three miles north of Newbury. It is not known why Mary Sholy had come to Newbury; it is unlikely that her master would have sent her there without providing a guide back. The journey from Newbury to Pascataquack would have been too perilous for a young woman to take alone, first crossing the Merrimack River in a canoe, then following the route to Pascataquack, which was described as little more than a path through the woods. In 1636, even the well-traveled path between Ipswich and Newbury was too narrow for a horse cart. In addition to the possibility of losing her way and becoming hopelessly lost in the woods between the two settlements, there was a very real danger of being attacked by wild animals or hostile Indians.
Seeing an opportunity to make a little money, William Schooler sought out Mary and offered to guide her home for fifteen shillings. He did not tell her that he himself had never made the trip to Pascataquack before. Two days after their departure, William Schooler was back in Newbury alone. When asked why he had returned so soon Schooler replied that he had guided Mary to within two or three miles of Pascataquack, where she stopped, saying she would go no further. Schooler left her there and returned to Newbury.
The people of Newbury remained suspicious and Schooler was questioned by the magistrates in Ipswich. When he returned from the trip he had blood on his hat and a scratch on his nose the “breadth of a small nail.” He explained that the blood was from a pigeon he had killed and the scratch on his nose was from walking into some brambles. He was released, as there was no evidence then that a crime had been committed.
The following year the Pequod tribe took up arms against the English colonists and Schooler was drafted to serve in the militia. He deemed this service to be an oppression and publicly spoke out against it. His outspoken opposition was considered “mutinous and disorderly,” and the governor issued a warrant against him. When he was arrested, Schooler assumed it was about Mary Sholy and began to vehemently defend himself against the charge of her murder. Schooler;s behavior made the magistrates suspicious and, since they now knew Mary Sholy had been murdered, they decided to reopen the case.
Newbury residents who knew him came forward to volunteer information on Schooler’s character. In a Puritan court the character of the accused was as important as the physical evidence against him.
Schooler denied that he murdered Mary Sholy but the jury found him guilty and he was sentenced to hang. The court and the clergy tried desperately to persuade Schooler to confess but he would not. Schooler was contrite, saying he had told many lies to excuse himself, but vehemently denied that he had killed or ravished Mary Sholy. Some ministers argued that the evidence against him was not sufficient to take away his life, but Governor Winthrop denied Scholler a reprieve, saying: “but the court held him worthy of death, in undertaking the charge of a shiftless maid, and leaving her (when he might have done otherwise) in such a place, as he knew she must needs parish, if not preserved by means unknown.”
John Williams was a ship carpenter who had recently come to America from England. In 1637, he was in prison in Boston for theft. Williams and another prisoner, John Hoddy, escaped from the jail and traveled north. They had gone beyond Salem and were on the road to Ipswich, on the east end of the Wenham Great Pond when they had a falling out. The two men had a fight that ended with the death of John Hoddy.
There are two versions of what happened next. In one story John Hoddy’s dog held Williams at bay until the noise drew the attention of enough residents of Wenham to apprehend Williams and take him to jail in Ipswich. The more likely story says that Williams took everything belonging to Hoddy, including his clothes, and buried his body under a pile of stones. Williams proceeded to Ipswich where he was apprehended, after having been recognized as a criminal. Though his clothes were bloody when arrested, he would confess to nothing until a week later, when the body of John Hoddy was found. Cows at a farm near Great Pond smelled the blood and made such a “roaring” that they got the attention of the cow keeper, who on investigation found Hoddy’s naked body under a heap of stones.
Around the same time the justice of the peace in Ipswich learned that both Williams and Hoddy were escaped prisoners. Williams was indicted for the murder of John Hoddy and tried by the Court of Assistants in Boston. Though he confessed to the murder, the court insisted on enforcing Williams’s right to due process, and tried the case before a jury. Williams was, of course, found guilty and sentenced to death.
The double hanging, on September 28, 1637, took place on Boston Common, where all executions in the Massachusetts Bay Colony were held.
Art history footnote: notice that the cadaver’s navel is a stylized “R”: the artist was playing around with his signatures during this period. Also, note the hand under dissection. The scene was actually re-enacted in 2006 to establish that Rembrandt’s done the forearm tendons incorrectly — it does look wonky. Additionally, the very fact that the anatomist is beginning with the arm rather than the usual trunk has led to speculation over whether this was an artistic choice or the doctor’s actual procedure in the thrall of a temporary medical vogue.
The 25-year-old painter had only moved to Amsterdam at the end of the previous year.
He broke through almost immediately with a commission — it was his first major group portrait and it would become known as his first major masterpiece (source), instantly establishing his preeminence in the city’s art scene — from the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons to render one of its most important events: the annual public dissection of a criminal.**
Prior to the systematic medicalization of the corpse, when anatomizing a human was still a fraught and transgressive act, Netherlands cities were permitted only one such exposition per year. Its subject could only be a male criminal who would be given a Christian burial thereafter. (Contrary to the English model, posthumous dissection was not used to intensify a death sentence with a further terror.)
The affair would have been crowded not only with other doctors but city council members, intellectuals, and well-dressed respectable burghers. Anyone, in short, who was anyone (they paid for the privilege).
And, of course, its overseer, Nicolaes Tulp; Rembrandt’s framing will leave you no doubt as to which figure in the painting is in charge. The city’s most respected surgeon, Tulp was the Guild’s Praelector Anatomiae, “reader in anatomy”, dignified with the responsibility of publicly lecturing on the unfolding dissection.
The silent but essential final party was Aris Kindt, the alias of a Leiden†-born criminal around Rembrandt’s own age named Adriann Adriannsz. His life was forfeit as a recidivist thief who had lately mugged a gentleman for his cloak.
This common crook’s ghastly lifeless image‡ is more alive for us in posterity than nearly any of his more law-abiding contemporaries. The expressive composition surrounding him is pregnant with all of the moment’s paradoxes: the advance of humanism on the back of a cruel penal regime; the exaltation of the mind with the unsentimental commodification of the flesh; excellence and status bowing over that old emblem of mankind’s final equality in the tomb.
Evil men, who did harm when alive, do good after their deaths:
Health seeks advantages from Death itself.
Rembrandt must have agreed: he painted the Guild’s criminal dissection again in 1656.
* Some sources give January 16, 1632 for the execution. This possibility appears to me to be disbarred by the apparent January 17 dating of a Rembrandt portrait of Marten Looten; indeed, confusion over this Rembrandt-related January date may even be the ultimate source of the misattribution, if January 16 is indeed mistaken. Scholarly sources overwhelmingly prefer the 31st, apparently from primary documentation that both the hanging and a Tulp lecture took place on that date. (See, e.g., the out-of-print seminal academic work.)
We have touched in the past on the odd practice of executing effigies of criminals, a custom for which France had a particular penchant.
On this date in 1638, mannequins of Andre Armand, Gabriel Bonnaud, Sebastien Mareschal, and Simon Armand were “hanged” for murder.
As described in this French text, proceedings were delayed when, the previous November, the wife and mother-in-law of one of the absconded offenders appealed the sentence in their own inimitable way: by vandalizing the mannequins.
Thanks to Sonechka for deciphering the archaic French.
The red eminence had just attained his rank as Louis XIII’s consigliere, and set about using it to centralize the state in the king’s hands.
Toward that end, Richelieu pressed Montmorency to give up his “grand admiral” title, fearing that “grand” military generals running around the realm were liable to become a locus of sedition sooner or later. Similarly, Richelieu reduced Montmorency’s power as governor of Languedoc.* He wanted, altogether, fewer stumbling-blocks of leftover feudal authority laying about his absolute monarchy.
Orleans fled the country, not half so committed to his revolt as Montmorency — who assailed the king’s lines practically alone. The latter, captured wounded on the battlefield, was attested to have given a ferocious account of himself in a hopeless cause: “seeing a single man charge through seven ranks and still fight at the seventh, he judged that that man could be only M. de Motmorency.”
Jolly good show, and all the more reason for Richelieu to take his head, to make an example of the man to other powerful men who demanded clemency for the rebellion as if it were Montmorency’s birthright. Richelieu would argue in his memoirs that this pitiless act to pacify the realm at the risk of his own popularity was the height of patriotism.
Plaque at the spot of Montmorency’s execution in Toulouse. Image (c) [Cova] and used with permission.
* Among Montmorency’s other titles, less obnoxious to Richelieu, was viceroy of New France — that mysterious land across the Atlantic. There’s a Montmorency Falls in Quebec, named for him by Champlain.
On this date in 1634, a Paris tribunal “declare[d] the said Urbain Grandier duly guilty of the crime of sorcery, evil spells, and the possession visited upon some Ursuline nuns of this town of Loudon and of other laywomen mentioned at the trial, together with other crimes resulting from the above. For redress of these, he has been condemned … to be taken to the Place of Saine-Croix of this said town, to be tied to a post on a pile of faggots that is to be built in the said Place. There his body is to be burned alive … and his ashes are to be scattered to the winds.”
The sentence was immediately enforced.
These Loudon possessions were a disgraceful carnival of simulated enspellment by the local Ursuline nuns engineered to destroy Grandier, a parish priest with a knack for acquiring enemies.
Alexandre Dumas, pere would write about Grandier in his Crimes Célèbres, and later in a stand-alone play. In Dumas’s rendering, Grandier arrived in Loudon as a handsome outsider, eloquent in the pulpit and doubly so in pursuit of a pretty girl,* as inexorable as Shylock in his victorious lawsuits against the local grandees.
Most recklessly of all, he made a foe of Cardinal Richelieu — snubbing him, opposing him politically, and (so it was alleged) authoring a scathing and anonymous lampoon of the Grey Eminence.
When Richelieu’s deputy came to town, the locals got the Ursuline nuns into their fits and got Grandier fast-tracked for hell.
The nuns put on a circus of frothing, profane, hip-thrusting demoniac possession accusing Grandier of bewitchment as they melodramatically underwent exorcism. (Fabulously attended, these public displays of possession and exorcism went on for several years after Grandier’s death as a perverse tourist attraction.)
Richelieu’s guy arranged to try Grandier in his own court (no appeal possible) and threatened to arrest for treason anyone who testified in his defense. In case that were insufficient advantage, a contract with Lucifer — a literal, signed document — was produced for the magistrates’ edification.
In fairness, this “contract” must have been a hell of a lot of fun to forge.
Heck, even nuns who tried to recant were turned away. Must be back under Lucifer’s influence!
Before proceeding to the stake, Grandier was subjected to one last “extraordinary” torture. His holy persecutors, “lest the Devils should have the power to resist the blows of a profane man, such as the hangman was, they themselves took the hammers and tortured the unhappy man” until the bone marrow leaked from his legs. Satan’s subcontractor suffered the blows without confessing or naming an accomplice.
In 1952, Aldous Huxley molded the horrible Grandier story into a non-fiction novel, The Devils of Loudun. Huxley’s take helped to popularize the tale — one that polemicists in the 17th century also recognized as an injustice — for the modern era of flesh minced by ideological madness.
From beginning to end, the trial proved a farce in which the condemnation of the accused was a foregone conclusion. By means of a series of trumped-up charges reinforced by an official philosophy and falsified theological dogmas, the resources of the state were mobilized to crush the offending individual. Huxley is not slow to point to the modern counterpart of such proceedings, notably in Fascist or Communist countries.
-Book review by S. van Dantzich, The Australian Quarterly, June 1954
Evidently, it struck a chord.
A 1971 cinematic adaptation of this book, The Devils, a captivating and sacrilegious tapestry of violent, sexual, and religious iconography, won critical praise and censor board bans, as well as an “X” rating in the United States. It’s hard to find, but worth the trouble.