1676: Matoonas, a Nipmuc shot on Boston Common

Add comment July 27th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1676, an indigenous Nipmuc named Matoonas was marched into Boston, condemned by a summary judicial proceeding, and immediately shot on Boston Common.

Though he was a so-called “Jesus Indian” — a converted Christian — Matoonas had become a principal adversary of the European colonists once long-building tensions exploded into King Philip’s War.

To the communal grievances that made up this war, Matoonas brought a very personal injury: back in 1671, his son Nehemiah had been accused by English colonists of murder and executed on that basis. And not just executed, but his rotting head set up on a pike at the gallows, to really rub it in.

Matoonas bided his time, but when the opportunity to fight back arrived he joined King Philip (Metacomet) with gusto. On July 14, 1675, Nipmuc warriors under his command raided the town of Mendon, Massachusetts, leaving five dead — the very first Anglo casualties of the war.

“A dark cloud of anxiety and fear now settled down upon the place,” a bicentennial a Rev. Carlton Staples recalled in a bicentennial address on Mendon’s history 1867. “With tears and lamentations they tenderly gathered the bodies of the slain and laid them away in some pleasant spot, we know not where. The houses and farms remote from this central point were abandoned, and the people fled to other places, or gathered here to save their flocks and growing crops. All sense of security was gone. They only dared to go abroad in companies. While some worked in the fields and gardens, others watched for the lurking foe.” A few months later, the settlers had to abandon Mendon altogether, and the Nipmuc burned the ghost town to the ground.

But the tide of the war soon turned against the natives, and Matoonas would find that he had his own lurking foe.

Sagamore John comes in, brings Mattoonus and his sonne prisoner. Mattoonus shot to death the same day by John’s men.

diary of Samuel Sewall

A mysterious Nipmuc leader known as Sagamore John (“Sagamore” designates a sachem or chief) betrayed Matoonas in exchange for a pardon from the Massachusetts colony, marching Matoonas and his son right into Boston on the 27th of July.

After an improvised tribunal set down the inevitable punishment, Matoonas was lashed to a tree on Boston Common. Sagamore John performed the execution himself — although whether he volunteered or “volunteered” is not quite clear. The late Nipmuc raider’s head, too, was set on a pole — just opposite Nehemiah’s.


Memorial to Sagamore John in Medford, Mass. (cc) image from David Bruce.

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1676: George Bromham and Dorothy Newman, on the Combe Gibbet

1 comment March 3rd, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1676, the Combe Gibbet was put to its first and only use.

Adulterous lovers George Bromham (or Broomham) and Dorothy Newman had been doomed by the Winchester Assize for murdering the wife and son of Bromham’s inconvenient marriage. “With a staff,” the trial record says. Ouch.

The two were sentenced to hang together “in chaynes near the place of the murder,” which demonstrative sentence required the erection of a brand-new purpose-built double gibbet just for the occasion, high atop Inkpen Beacon, the 975-foot hill overlooking the countryside.* After execution, they were taken down, laid out a nearby barn (inevitably to become known as “Gibbet Barn”), and then strapped back up on the double-gallows in chains for a few days.

Although this dreadful landmark has never been used again, it’s stood ever since. Or, technically, a succession of different versions have stood, but the point is that there’s still today a large, black execution device looming over scenic Berkshire. It’s a nice place for a walk. (pdf)

When next in West Berkshire, top your visit to the Combe Gibbet with a refreshing Gibbet Ale at Inkpen Common’s Crown and Garter Bed & Breakfast. (That’s where the Gibbet Barn used to be.)

The murder behind the gibbet was the the subject of a student film called Black Legend in 1948 — the first movie made by future legendary director John Schlesinger.

* Bromham was from Combe, and Newman from neighboring Inkpen, and the murder itself took place on the towns’ border. In the great tradition of municipal politics, there was a consequent dispute over the bill for setting up this gibbet; they were forced to split the bill.

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1676: Anna Schmieg and Barbara Schleicher, Langenburg witches

Add comment November 8th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1676, the tiny German principality of Hohenlohe strangled and burned to death its last convicted “witches”.

This story is the subject of the recent book The Last Witch of Langenburg: Murder in a German Village by Thomas Robisheaux. (Interview with the author.)

Almost a full year had elapsed since Anna Fessler had received a few shrovetide cakes from the daughter of the neighboring millers.* Hours later, Fessler (who had delivered a child just a week before) took painfully ill and died in her bed.

The cakes led back to the miller’s wife Anna Schmieg, of course. But decades after the Thirty Years’ War, the whole witchcraft construct was on its way out. Robisheaux builds a powerful micro-history of the local magistrate’s painstaking effort to satisfy the era’s rigorous legal standards for witch-persecution.

These standards would soon break down entirely, but in the here and now (or there and then), the authorities had to establish Schmieg’s malevolent reputation, and figure out if there was sufficient evidence to license torture. There wasn’t, the legal doctors whom Hohenlohe consulted advised; Hohenlohe made up a justification to do it anyway.

Hey, times hadn’t changed that much. Maybe still haven’t.

Anyway, the torture did to a co-accused what torture usually does. That luckless itinerant local woman was named Barbara Schleicher: she’d been under a pall from the accusation of a previously-tortured “witch” in a nearby village a few years before, and with the requisite pressure she soon copped to everything. Schmieg denied and fought and repelled, but eventually she too broke down and made the fatal confession. So, on November 8, 1676, before a court constituted of local grandees,

Anna Elisabeth Schmieg and Barbara Schleicher had to confess one more time, openly and publicly.

This was the moment of danger. Were Anna now to curse the judges as she had cursed the executioner before she was tortured, “asking them to join her for God’s Judgment in the Valley of Jehosaphat,” the proceedings might break up. She could be tortured again, but the curse would have had a shocking effect and raised the question about whether an injustice was about to be committed.

Because of these dangers, instead of asking the women to speak for themselves, the county’s officer spoke for them, saying that the two poor sinners had freely confessed their crimes and were ready to be given over to justice. The scribe read of Anna’s use of witchcraft and murder, as well as her seduction by Satan. He pronounced that she had done so many evil things that she could not even remember them all. He then read out a list of Schleicher’s crimes, which included witchcraft, murdering two husbands, turning herself into a wolf, and attempting to commit suicide. Whoever these two poor sinners had been before that day, they were now publicly branded as witches, poisoners, and murderers.

Talk about speak now or forever hold your peace. For not raising a ruckus, the court threw a bone to the wicked and now-confessed hags and mitigated the sentence of tearing at their flesh with iron tongs followed by burning at the stake to tearing at their flesh with iron tongs followed by strangulation followed by burning at the stake.

Chief Justice Assum turned to the court assessors and asked them whether the sentence had been decided as the court scribe had read it. Together they replied yes. Assum then rose, broke the ceremonial staff in two, and threw the pieces to the floor. With this old legal gesture, the blood court was symbolically breaking its staff over the lives of the prisoners. Then he said, “God help their poor souls.” [Local Count] Heinrich Friedrich’s representative then asked that the executioner carry out the sentence. According to prescription, the command to the executioner was repeated three times. At the close the chief justice forbade everyone present, on penalty of bodily punishment, from seeking revenge for this act of justice. No one was to take up violence against the law or question what was being done. The court scribe repeated his admonition.

The executioner then led the women out of the court, across the drawbridge, and over into the market square, where they joined the procession that had assembled. Drummers beat out a cadence, schoolboys sang hymns, and the sober procession marched down Langenburg’s long main street and out the gate at the east end of the town.

Once past the town gate, Anna’s and Barbara’s expulsion from the community was complete. From many perspectives, as we have seen, Anna’s emotional world was not like our own. It would be wrong to assume that Anna and Barbara felt the same anxiety and fear that we would today as they climbed the “Path of Straw” to Gallows Hill. The belief that someone who received absolution before an execution, and who did not sin again by resisting, would go right to heaven may help explain why prisoners rarely resisted at this point. Most tried to meet their fate as best as they could. Considering the suffering of the last ten months, Anna may have welcomed her end. She and Schleicher may also have been fortified for the ordeal by wine. Prayer may have brought them solace. However she felt about her fate, no record mentions her resisting or cursing the executioner or members of the court.

The scene at the gallows must have been crowded. The execution was seen as an example, and it was considered essential that the Langenburg schoolchildren be let out of school to join the procession. There, with the rest of their neighbors, they would have watched Anna and Barbara torn with hot irons and then strangled with a rope. After the bodies were burned to ashes, the last ritual gesture was made. “Lord Chief Justice,” Master Endris asked, “Have I carried out the law?” To which Assum would have replied, “If you have executed what the law and the sentence require, then the law has been fulfilled.”

This verbal exchange was critical for the execution to have fulfilled its purpose. At this moment the law, formally in suspense since Anna’s arrest, had been restored. The breach in public order that had opened on Shrove Tuesday was now mended. Count Heinrich Friedrich had seen to it. The chief justice and the assessors filed back into town and into the courtroom. Once they took their seats, it was announced that justice had been done. A lavish feast awaited them.

Just stay away from the cakes.

* A delicious tradition. Here’s a recipe for vanilla-frosted custard-filled shrovetide buns, from Denmark. Deadly deadly Satanpoison is optional.

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1676: Col. Thomas Hansford, the first American independence martyr

5 comments November 13th, 2010 Headsman

Col. Thomas Hansford was hanged “a loyal subject and a lover of my country” on this date in 1676 — America’s first executed political martyr, since that “country” was not England, but Virginia.

Robert Beverly‘s 1705 History of Virginia recalls the genesis of that milestone dispute between settlers and mother England.

The occasion of this rebellion is not easy to be discovered: but ’tis certain there were many things that concurred towards it. For it cannot be imagined, that upon the instigation of two or three traders only, who aimed at a monopoly of the Indian trade, as some pretend to say, the whole country would have fallen into so much distraction; in which people did not only hazard their necks by rebellion, but endeavored to ruin a governor, whom they all entirely loved, and had unanimously chosen; a gentleman who had devoted his whole life and estate to the service of the country, and against whom in thirty-five years experience there had never been one single complaint. Neither can it be supposed, that upon so slight grounds, they would make choice of a leader they hardly knew, to oppose a gentleman that had been so long and so deservedly the darling of the people. So that in all probability there was something else in the wind, without which the body of the country had never been engaged in that insurrection.

Four things may be reckoned to have been the main ingredients towards this intestine commotion, viz., First, The extreme low price of tobacco, and the ill usage of the planters in the exchange of goods for it, which the country, with all their earnest endeavors, could not remedy. Secondly, The splitting the colony into proprieties, contrary to the original charters; and the extravagant taxes they were forced to undergo, to relieve themselves from those grants. Thirdly, The heavy restraints and burdens laid upon their trade by act of Parliament in England. Fourthly, The disturbance given by the Indians.

Tobacco aside, these are grievances straight from the next century’s Declaration of Independence at the outset of the (more successful) American Revolution:

cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

… imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

So, tax revolt + political self-determination + impatience about arrangements with Indians who could be wiped out instead. Eventually, this would germinate a mighty empire.

In 1676, it germinated a colonial rebellion against the mighty empire — Bacon’s Rebellion, an unsuccessful rising that is easily read in retrospect as a prototype for the more illustrious revolt one century later.

The suppression of Bacon’s Rebellion also involved a rash of executions, which we’ve touched on before. King Charles II would complain that his Virginia governor’s severity “has taken more lives in that naked country than I have taken for the murder of my father.”

The man dignified to be the first of these executions — and therefore, if you like, the first man put to death in the service of American liberty — was actually nabbed by our historian’s father, also named Robert Beverly, “a parson calculated to the Lattitude of the Servis, which required descretion, Curage, & Celerity, as qualetys wholly subservant to military affares.” (source)

snapt up one Coll: Hansford, and his party … It is saide that Hansford, at (or a little before) the onslaut, had forsaken the Capitole of Marss, to pay his oblations in the Temple of Venus; which made him the easere preay to his enemies; but this I have onely upon report, and must not aver it upon my historicall reputation: But if it was soe, it was the last Sacryfize he ever after offered at the Shrine of that Luxurious Diety, for presently after that he came to Accomack, he had the ill luck to be the first Berginian borne that dyed upon a paire of Gallows. When that he came to the place of Execution (which was about a Mile removed from his prisson) he seemed very well resalved to undergo the utmost mallize of his not over kinde Destinie, onely Complaineing of the manner of his death: Being observed neather at the time of his tryall (which was by a Court Martiall) nor afterwards, to suplicate any other faviour, then that he might be shot like a Soulder, and not to be hang’d like a Dog. But it was tould him, that whwat he so passionately petitioned for could not be granted, in that he was not condem’d as he was merely a Soulder, but as a Rebell, taken in Arms against the King, whose Laws had ordained him that death. Dureing the short time he had to live, after his sentance, he approved to his best advantage for the well fare of his soule, by repentance and contrition for all his Sinns, in generall, excepting his Rebelellion, which he would not acknowledg; desireing the People, at the place of execution, to take notis that he dyed a Loyall Subject, and a lover of his Countrey; and that he had never taken up arms, but for the destruction of the Indians, who had murthered so many Christians.

(A modernized, and less atmospheric, version of the same passage can be read here.)

Hansford’s story and the larger one of Bacon’s Rebellion are treated at second hand in several public-domain histories available online — see here, here, and here.

It also seems that, besides being the first martyr to American liberty, Hansford also had the distinction of being the first native-born Virginian (white Virginian, we presume) ever executed.

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1676: Marie-Madeleine-Marguerite d’Aubray, Marquise de Brinvilliers

2 comments July 16th, 2010 Headsman

This date’s story is amply but succinctly conveyed by the public-domain entry in the 19th century tome Biography, or Third Division of the “English Encyclopedia”.

(Paragraph breaks have been added for readability.)


Brinvilliers, Marie Marguerite, Marquise de (English Wikipedia entry | French) who obtained infamy as a poisoner in the time of Louis XIV, was a daughter of the Dreux d’Aubrai, a lieutenant civil, or judge having a certain limited jurisdiction, at whose hands she received a careful education.

In 1651, whilst still very young, she became the wife of the Marquis de Brinvilliers, with whom she resided at her father’s house, in Paris. Her husband, who was the colonel of the Regiment de Normandie, entertained at his house a young officer of cavalry of the Regiment de Tracy, named Gaudin de Sainte-Croix, a native of Montauban, and the illegitimate member of an illustrious family. He was unprincipled enough to encourage the unlawful passion which the marchioness conceived for him; and her father, in consequence, procured in 1663 a lettre de cachet against Sainte-Croix, who underwent a year’s incarceration in the Bastille.

During his confinement he learned from a fellow-prisoner, an Italian named Exili, the art of preparing subtle poisons; a secret which, upon his enlargement, he communicated to his mistress, who determined to poison her father and the other members of her family. Having first wantonly essayed her art upon the patients of the Hotel-Dieu, she proceeded, with the aid of a servant named Jean Amelin, or La Chaussee, to take the lives of her father, her two brothers, and her sister.

This feat she accomplished gradually between the years 1666 and 1670. More than once she poisoned her husband; but Sainte-Croix, whose prudence shrank from the obligation of marrying the terrible widow, each time preserved the life of the Marquis by the administration of an antidote.

Sainte-Croix died suddenly in July, 1672, in the act, it is said, of compounding a subtle poison, against the effects of which he was left unprotected by the accidental fracture of a glass mask which he wore as a defence against the fumes of his deadly drugs.*

As no relative came forward to claim his property, it was taken possession of by the public authorities, who, instead of complying with the written instructions of Sainte-Croix,** dated May 25th, 1672, that a particular casket should be delivered to Madame de Brinvilliers, examined it, together with above thirty letters which he had received from her. There was also found a promise on her part to pay Sainte-Croix a sum of 30,000 libres, bearing the date of June 20th, 1670, eight days after the poisoning of the “lieutenant civil,” her father. The casket proved to be full of packets of various poisons, to each of which was affixed a label indicating the peculiar effects it was calculated to produce.

The Marchioness, fatally compromised by these and other circumstances, sought safety in flight, repairing first to England, then to Germany, and finally to Liege, where she was apprehended.

Being taken to Paris, she denied her guilt; but after her condemnation made a confession, in which, and in a kind of autobiography, she charged herself with more and greater horrors than had seemed possible to rumour or suspicion.


The Marquise de Brinvilliers, shortly before her execution, by Charles LeBrun

She was executed at seven o’clock on the evening of the 16th of July, 1676, being first beheaded and afterwards burnt. As her application and use of poison, which went by the name of poudre de succession, seemed to be growing prevalent, Louis XIV instituted a special court for the investigation and punishment of this species of crime.


This tale, uniting the attractions of bodice-ripper, true crime, and costume drama, has been adapted to stage and literature numerous times.

Alexandre Dumas pere, a true aficionado of historical crime and scandal, turned it into a much lengthier piece, from which we morbidly excerpt his description of the water torture the criminal endured prior to beheading — beginning with the sentence of the court.


“That by the finding of the court, d’Aubray de Brinvilliers is convicted of causing the death by poison of Maitre Dreux d’Aubray, her father, and of the two Maitres d’Aubray, her brothers, one a civil lieutenant, the other a councillor to the Parliament, also of attempting the life of Therese d’Aubray, her sister; in punishment whereof the court has condemned and does condemn the said d’Aubray de Brinvilliers to make the rightful atonement before the great gate of the church of Paris, whither she shall be conveyed in a tumbril, barefoot, a rope on her neck, holding in her hands a burning torch two pounds in weight; and there on her knees she shall say and declare that maliciously, with desire for revenge and seeking their goods, she did poison her father, cause to be poisoned her two brothers, and attempt the life of her sister, whereof she doth repent, asking pardon of God, of the king, and of the judges; and when this is done, she shall be conveyed and carried in the same tumbril to the Place de Greve of this town, there to have her head cut off on a scaffold to be set up for the purpose at that place; afterwards her body to be burnt and the ashes scattered; and first she is to be subjected to the question ordinary and extraordinary, that she may reveal the names of her accomplices. She is declared to be deprived of all successions from her said father, brothers, and sister, from the date of the several crimes; and all her goods are confiscated to the proper persons; and the sum of 4000 livres shall be paid out of her estate to the king, and 400 livres to the Church for prayers to be said on behalf of the poisoned persons; and all the costs shall be paid, including those of Amelin called Lachaussee. In Parliament, 16th July 1676.

The marquise heard her sentence without showing any sign of fear or weakness. When it was finished, she said to the registrar, “Will you, sir, be so kind as to read it again? I had not expected the tumbril, and I was so much struck by that that I lost the thread of what followed.”

The registrar read the sentence again. From that moment she was the property of the executioner, who approached her. She knew him by the cord he held in his hands, and extended her own, looking him over coolly from head to foot without a word. The judges then filed out, disclosing as they did so the various apparatus of the question. The marquise firmly gazed upon the racks and ghastly rings, on which so many had been stretched crying and screaming. She noticed the three buckets of water prepared for her, and turned to the registrar — for she would not address the executioner — saying, with a smile, “No doubt all this water is to drown me in? I hope you don’t suppose that a person of my size could swallow it all.” The executioner said not a word, but began taking off her cloak and all her other garments, until she was completely naked. He then led her up to the wall and made her sit on the rack of the ordinary question, two feet from the ground. There she was again asked to give the names of her accomplices, the composition of the poison and its antidote; but she made the same reply as to the doctor [namely, that she had no accomplices besides Sainte-Croix and did not know how to make the poison or its antidote], only adding, “If you do not believe me, you have my body in your hands, and you can torture me.”

The registrar signed to the executioner to do his duty. He first fastened the feet of the marquise to two rings close together fixed to a board; then making her lie down, he fastened her wrists to two other rings in the wall, distant about three feet from each other. The head was at the same height as the feet, and the body, held up on a trestle, described a half-curve, as though lying over a wheel. To increase the stretch of the limbs, the man gave two turns to a crank, which pushed the feet, at first about twelve inches from the rings, to a distance of six inches. And here we may leave our narrative to reproduce the official report.

“On the small trestle, while she was being stretched, she said several times, ‘My God! you are killing me! And I only spoke the truth.’

“The water was given: she turned and twisted, saying, ‘You are killing me!’


The torture of the Marquise de Brinvilliers. (Click for a larger image.)

“The water was again given.

“Admonished to name her accomplices, she said there was only one man, who had asked her for poison to get rid of his wife, but he was dead.

“The water was given; she moved a little, but would not say anything.

“Admonished to say why, if she had no accomplice, she had written from the Conciergerie to Penautier, begging him to do all he could for her, and to remember that his interests in this matter were the same as her own, she said that she never knew Penautier had had any understanding with Sainte-Croix about the poisons, and it would be a lie to say otherwise; but when a paper was found in Sainte-Croix’s box that concerned Penautier, she remembered how often she had seen him at the house, and thought it possible that the friendship might have included some business about the poisons; that, being in doubt on the point, she risked writing a letter as though she were sure, for by doing so she was not prejudicing her own case; for either Penautier was an accomplice of Sainte-Croix or he was not. If he was, he would suppose the marquise knew enough to accuse him, and would accordingly do his best to save her; if he was not, the letter was a letter wasted, and that was all.

“The water was again given; she turned and twisted much, but said that on this subject she had said all she possibly could; if she said anything else, it would be untrue.”

* According to Anne Somerset in The Affair of the Poisons: Murder, Infanticide, and Satanism at the Court of Louis XIV, this story of Sainte-Croix’s death by accidental exposure to his own toxins is “a myth” that developed in view of subsequent events.

“In fact,” writes Somerset, “his end was far more prosaic. He died after a long illness, having received the last rites and performed his final devotions with terrible piety.”

** Because Sainte-Croix died in debt, and his possessions were inventoried for his creditors.

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1676: Joshua Tefft, drawn and quartered in Rhode Island

4 comments January 18th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1676, Puritan colonist Joshua Tefft (or Tifft, or Tift) became perhaps the only person ever to suffer the traitor’s death of hanging and quartering in what is now the United States.

The 30-ish Rhode Island farmer got sucked into King Philip’s War and was captured by colonists apparently fighting for the Narragansett Indians during a the Great Swamp Fight.

Lacking a first-person account from Mr. Tefft, we are left to descry (or project) his purpose. Tefft himself claimed that he had been enslaved by the Indians, but he made this claim in the context of trying to avoid a grisly execution; opposing witnesses said he’d been much more enthusiastic in the fight, raising an evident horror of civilized man gone native.

Without English clothes and with a weather-beaten face, he looked like an Indian to the English. Tefft was a troubling example of what happened to a man when the Puritan’s god and culture were stripped away and Native savagery was allowed to take over. (Source)

He was one man caught up in a war, so of course he could have been many things. But Tefft invites speculation on racial self-identification on this still-tenuous New World frontier.

Living immediately adjacent to the Narragansett, Tefft was probably on good terms with the natives, something that at least some Anglos had keenly worked after for fifty-plus years. Some sources report (or charge) that he had taken an Indian wife,* and the Narragansett redoubt attacked in the Great Swamp Fight was a fortified encampment full of non-combatant types, hundreds of whom were eventually slaughtered.

And Rhode Island had a long-running border dispute with its Puritan fellow-colonists that intersected their historical differences on religious toleration. (Tefft is also decried as irreligious, though whether that’s literally true or just an extra heaping of opprobrium is anyone’s guess.) Why, after all, should a man not cohabit among the friendly peoples of his wife, and assist them when attacked — for the Narragansett were not at war until they were attacked — by a bunch of Connecticut and Plymouth colony prigs who’d want to shanghai him into their army?

One colonist able to sympathize with the Indians’ situation wrote of them that “perhaps if Englishmen, and good Christians too, had been in their case and under like temptations, possibly they might have done as they did.” Who knows but that some were, and they did.

Our Scouts brought in Prisoner one Tift, a Renegadoe English man, who having received a deserved punishment from our General, deserted our Army, and fled to the Enemy, where had good entertainment, and was again sent out by them with some of their forces; he was shot in the knee by our scouts, and then taken before he could discharge his musket, which was taken from him and found deep charged, and laden with Slugs: He was brought to our army, and tryed by a counsel of war, where he pretended that he was taken prisoner by the Indians, and by them compelled to bear Arms in their Service; but this being proved to be false, he was condemned to be hanged and Quartered, which was accordingly done. (Source)

But while some Indian tribes allied with some whites, European identification ultimately proved much too strong to admit any possibility of not banding together against the “savages.” When vengeful Narragansett warriors raided Providence the following spring and torched the house of Rhode Island founder Roger Williams, Massachusetts in sympathy lifted its 39-year-old exile on the man they’d have hung as a heretic in days gone by.

By then, it had long been over for Joshua Tefft, whose trial preceded execution by only two days. Joshua’s son Peter and other descendants of the Tefft family, however, would be fruitful and multiply.

By the time these New World settlements became the United States a century later, drawing and quartering was still on the books in England. But the New York legislature expressed (pdf) the sense of that realm’s North American offspring that this sentence even for treason was “marked by circumstances of Savage Cruelty, unnecessary for the Purpose of public Justice, and manifestly repugnant to that Spirit of Humanity, which should ever distinguish a free, a civilized, and Christian People.”

* Joshua Tefft’s previous wife, Sara, had died from childbirth a few years before. For Sara, also notable as the owner of what was once thought to be the oldest marked headstone in New England, it was her second husband … the first, Thomas Flounders, was hanged for murder.

Part of the Themed Set: Resistance and Rebellion in the Restoration.

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1676: Johan Johansson Griis, the Gävle Boy

4 comments November 20th, 2009 Headsman

On an uncertain date in November 1676, the Gävle Boy paid the penalty for his elders’ credulity.

Only 13 years old at his death, he’d spent the foregoing months as the star witness in Stockholm’s witch trials. Like the hysteria itself, he’d migrated to the capital from the provinces; it’s said that in his native town of Gävle, he’d orphaned himself with a witchcraft accusation against his own mother.

Sent off by relatives to live in Stockholm, young Johann Johansson Griis (or Grijs) found his previous evidence made him an expert courtroom authority on the infernal arts; driven by some blend of blandishments and cajolery sufficient to stimulate the youthful imagination’s potent capacity for blending fancy insensibly with fact, Griis was in no time at all sending fresh victims to the scaffold with his freaky stories about Blåkulla.

Dracula‘s soul brother, deadlier even than he …”

No, Blåkulla, a sort brunch buffet for Swedish sorcerors.

Hard to imagine this kid and a few others like him were given carte blanche to destroy people’s lives with increasingly ludicrous Satanic abuse stories.

When authorities reined in the witch hysteria, it wasn’t the authorities who were going to end up with a hemp necktie for structuring and managing a legal system that allowed a gaggle of impressionable adolescents to railroad innocent people. No, it was the adolescents themselves who would pay the penalty for the perjury that they had so recently been solicited to provide. And of course, when pressured by the Man to cop to lying about everything, Gävle Boy did exactly that.

“A vicious and mendacious rascal,” is how our short-lived character was being described by the time he got his comeuppance. (Quote from this detailed Swedish paper about the witch hunts.)

Well, maybe. He wouldn’t exactly be the first callow, naughty adolescent. But give the Swedes this much: after they hanged the Gävle Boy (and some fellow youths with tall tales to tell), they stopped executing witches. Only one more person would ever again die for the “crime” in the country’s history.

Johan’s namesake town would prefer you remember a different Yuletime tradition, the Gävle Goat.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Notable for their Victims,Public Executions,Sweden,The Worm Turns,Uncertain Dates

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1676: Anna Zippel, Brita Zippel and the body of Anna Mansdotter

1 comment April 29th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1676, two sisters were beheaded in Stockholm in one of Sweden’s most famous witch trials.

The great Swedish witch hunt of 1668-1676 was at its crescendo, having spread from the provinces to the capital. Here was repeated pattern by now familiar — children accusing adult women of taking them to witches’ sabbaths, and various and sundry infernally-inspired offenses against the civic order.

Brita Zippel (or Britta Sippel) was a natural magnet for accusations. Born well-off but fallen into poverty, and hot-tempered (as we shall see) besides, she had already survived two previous witch trials.

Her sister Anna remained a member of the town’s elite, but her status proved no use to her when suspicion fell on the family. Rumors and accusations snowballed over a period of months — that the sisters kidnapped children; that they committed arson; that both Anna’s wealth and Brita’s poverty proved their diabolical affiliations. That Anna Zippel and her business partner Anna Mansdotter made money selling medicines to the rich and powerful hardly decreased suspicion. The children who drove all this really made the most of the limelight — fainting spells, supernatural tales, the whole nine yards.

While the well-heeled Annas maintained a dignified stoicism during their trial — which only served to condemn them — Brita gave rein to all her furious indignation — which only served to condemn her. Anna Zippel defended herself calmly. Brita threatened witnesses, attacked her sister, and poured invective on her persecutors. Same result.

Their contrast in demeanor continued to the scaffold itself.

Shaking her chains, threatening her confessor with her posthumous vengeance, and cursing her onlookers, Brita required the offices of five men to wrestle her to the block for her beheading. (She went first because of the scene she was making.) Anna Zippel followed quietly, and then (quieter still) Anna Mansdotter, who had managed to commit suicide in prison but whose corpse still suffered the same fate of decapitation and burning.

These first witch-hunt victims in Stockholm were not the last, but they would presage the collapse of an enterprise that had consumed some 200 lives over the preceding eight years. According to Witch Hunts in Europe and America,

[i]n the spring of 1676, the court of appeals in Stockholm began investigating cases directly, rather than simply examining the records local officials forwarded. This resulted in the appointment of yet more royal commissions, but these were completely dominated by skeptical Stockholm officials. Turning the pressure on the accusers, the commissions gained several confessions from child accusers stating that they had made the whole thing up. The witch-hunt quickly collapsed, and four accusers, including a boy of 13, were executed.

Of no direct relevance, our dalliance with Scandinavian witchery offers a pretext to excerpt Benjamin Christiensen‘s freaky (and censored) 1922 silent classic Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Burned,Capital Punishment,Cheated the Hangman,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Posthumous Executions,Public Executions,Sweden,The Supernatural,Witchcraft,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1676: Malin Matsdotter and Anna Simonsdotter, ending a witch hunt

6 comments August 5th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1676, two starkly contrasting women were executed for sorcery in Stockholm.

Anna Simonsdotter Hack — also known as “Tysk-Annika” — is the forgotten one of the pair, who played the expected role of a condemned witch and meekly gave herself over to the judgment. There were rewards for good behavior: Tysk-Annika had her head cleanly lopped off.

Malin Matsdotter, however, did not plan any reciprocal back-scratching with the men who came to kill her.

Accused by her own daughters of carrying their children — Malin’s grandchildren — to Satanic masses, “Rumpare-Malin” obstinately refused to cop to the charge. (Naturally, not confessing was a further indicator to the court that Satan was fortifying her defiance.) Without a confession, the authorities couldn’t assuage themselves by giving her the easy-ish death of decapitation; the law required burning at the stake.* A sack of gunpowder around the neck to speed things up was the best they could offer her.

Matsdotter maintained her innocence to the stake, frustrating the confessors, and when one of her daughters called on her to admit the crime, “she gave her daughter into the hands of the devil and cursed her for eternity.”

And maybe it worked. Judges may well have been wearying of the eight-year-old witch craze, but Matsdotter’s discomfiting end was the turning point; the cases dried up, existing sentences were overturned, and the clergy was summoned to draw a line under the proceedings by announcing from the pulpits that witches had been driven out of Sweden for good. Only one more witchcraft execution ever took place in Sweden — and that in 1704.

By the end of 1676, several of the most notorious accusers in the witch trials were being hunted for perjury by those very same courtrooms. Reportedly, Matsdotter’s daughter was herself executed for her fatal accusation.

* Previously, the law had not allowed a witchcraft execution without a confession, and in a notable case a few years before Matsdotter’s burning, two other women had escaped death by refusing to confess. Evidently, they closed that loophole.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous Last Words,History,Milestones,Notable Jurisprudence,Public Executions,Sweden,Witchcraft,Women,Wrongful Executions

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