On this date in 1718,* the vengeful tsar Peter the Great staged a horrible execution on Moscow’s Red Square.
Stepan Glebov was the collateral damage of Peter’s ferocious conflict with his ill-favored crown prince Tsarevich Alexei — the whelp who had only recently been repatriated to his glowering father after fleeing Russia altogether, to cap a lifetime of letting dad down. Alexei was back in Peter’s clutches, and a few months from the events in this post would be shockingly knouted to death at Peter’s orders.
This Freudian clash also mapped sharply onto Russia’s political schisms (and many of the links in this post are to Russian pages). Alexei was the son of Peter’s first wife, Eudoxia [or Evdokia] Feodorovna Lopukhina, a princess whom the teenage Peter had been required to wed as part of the political logrolling involved in overcoming the 1680s regency of his sister Sofia.
Peter had achieved that victory, definitively, and once it was secured it didn’t take him long to tire of both Eudoxia and of the stagnant boyar class she represented. Peter was all about westernizing the motherland; what better way to start than by immuring his Russian bride in a monastery** and grabbing a German merchant’s daughter for a mistress?
The blows were borne together by Eudoxia, by her devout son Alexei, and by that part of traditional and Orthodox Russia horrified by Peter’s innovations. Resentments ran along the familiar channels, here to an immoderate fantasy of deliverance come Peter’s death and there to dangerous plans to immanentize same.
When exposed by to Peter’s hostile gaze little distance would there seem between these varietals.
When Alexei returned to face Peter’s investigation, the old man turned his harsh scrutiny on the ex, knowing her to be a locus of opposition. She was found living outside the monastery in secular garb, having taken an officer named Stepan Glebov as her lover. Their correspondence was ransacked by persecutors determined to discover indicia of treasonable scheming therein. Dozens of associates and monastery monks and nuns would be caught up in the affair, damned for anything from failing to prevent the former queen’s dalliance to plotting against the life of Tsar Peter. Most were stripped of rank and sent to exile with various forms of corporal punishment — whipping, severed nostrils, tongues sliced out — but several would be tortured to death or executed on the breaking-wheel including Dositheus, Bishop of Rostov, a confidante of Eudoxia who had allegedly prophesied Alexei’s triumph over his father, and Alexander Kikin, a mentor of Alexei’s who had helped to arrange his escape from Russia.
But upon Glebov, miserable man, Peter would give free rein to his amazing talent for cruelty: the lover to be impaled alive on a stake artfully inserted to miss all vital organs so as to maximize his suffering; some accounts even give it out that the naked Glebov was bundled in furs for the freezing winter’s execution, that he might endure his pains the longer.
Glebov survived impalement for over 14 hours, only dying after 7 a.m. on the morning of March 16. Folklore (it’s probably just that) has it that, importuned on that stake by the tsar to admit to the treasonable conspiracy, Glebov justifiably retorted that he had refused such a confession under unspeakable torment in Peter’s dungeons, so why would he break now? “Depart, and let me die in peace so that you may live without peace.”
Eudoxia’s brother Avram was also put to death in December 1718. She herself was shut up in Shlisselburg fortress for the balance of Peter’s life, but she would survive to see her grandson (Alexei’s son) take the throne in 1727 as Peter II.
* Julian date: it was March 26 on the Gregorian calendar.
On this date in 1718,* Peter the Great’s hand-picked court condemned his son and onetime heir apparent Tsarevich Alexei to death for plotting treason.
Probably no single figure more strikingly underscored Peter’s violent rupture of the old Russia than Alexei: “timid, secretive and lacking in self-confidence,” he was Peter’s opposite in nearly every particular — his nemesis, literally from birth.
The product of Peter’s unsatisfactory first dynastic marriage to a conservative boyar princess, Alexei got abandoned along with his mother Eudoxia Lopukhina when Peter went on his years-long jag through western Europe.
Peter eventually forced the tsaritsa into a convent so he could take up with the ambitious emigre beauty Anna Mons, but the firstborn son was not so easily discarded.
Often malignantly ignored in his youth, Alexei spent his teen years being browbeaten by Peter who rightly despaired of ever making the boy into a king who could carry Peter’s legacy.
Where the father was preternaturally energetic, the son was feeble and reticent; Peter’s irritated letters to Alexei frequently complain of his laziness. (“I am incapable of exertion,” Alexei whinged.) Where the father had a curious mind for the Age of Enlightenment, the son was a dreamer who preferred the mysteries of the Orthodox religion. The boy showed little interest in politics or statecraft, but his position as the firstborn son meant that politics and statecraft were interested in him. Alexei just wanted to go to church and fool around with his Finnish mistress; he feigned or induced illness to avoid the instructional tasks his father appointed him, and once even tried to shoot himself in the hand to duck work.
The father called on all of his legendary severity fruitlessly trying to twist this malformed sapling into a sovereign when the boy’s every characteristic seemed to reproach Peter’s mission of a new and reborn Russia.
“How often have I scolded you for this, and not merely scolded but beaten you,” Peter wrote the boy when the latest assignment was not accomplished to his satisfaction. “Nothing has succeeded, nothing is any use, all is to no purpose, all is words spoken to the wind, and you want to do nothing but sit at home and enjoy yourself.” Start with scolding, proceed to beating — Peter’s philosophy of management as well as child-rearing.
Ever more fearful of his hated father, Alexei in 1716 gave Peter one final and greatest embarrassment by spurning his father’s last ultimatum to join the Russian army on campaign. Instead, the tsarevich fled to the protection of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI. Charles put him up in Naples for a year until Peter’s courtier Count Tolstoy** finally persuaded Alexei to return.
Alexei hoped he had arranged to get out of the royal-succession game and live as a private citizen, but where princes of the blood are concerned this option is more easily conceived than arranged. Peter well knew that the Orthodox clergy and many aristocrats awaited his death as their opportunity to roll back his reforms; the pious Alexei was inevitably a focus of these hopes and the boy embraced rather than shunned the association. Moreover, the twerp had made Peter look the fool before all of Europe with his running-away act.
Instead, the prince — whose return to Russia under the circumstances really was quite naive — found himself faced with a cruel inquisition.
Detail view (click for the full image) of Nikolai Ge’s 1871 painting “Peter the Great Interrogating the Tsarevich Alexei Petrovich in Peterhof” (via Wikimedia Commons)
Gibbon wrote of Marcus Aurelius that in permitting his notorious son Commodus to become his heir, “he sacrificed the happiness of millions to a fond partiality for a worthless boy, [and] chose a successor in his own family, rather than in the republic.”
Peter the Great easily possessed the iron resolution that the ancient Stoic lacked.
The tsar had learned seamanship in his youth by working in European dockyards; had learned soldiery by enrolling himself in the ranks and working his way up from drummer-boy. In his childhood he had seen the palace guard run amok in the Kremlin slaughtering his own family, bided his time until he could topple the power of his half-sister and take Russia in hand, and then wrought on those mutinous soldiers a terrible revenge.
And he had set for his reign a self-consciously world-historic mission, to force an unwilling nation into the European family. This enterprise of relentless, exhausting hubris the tsar applied everywhere from the cut of his noblemen’s facial hair to the whole-cloth creation of the Westward-facing capital city St. Petersburg.
Just so did Peter address himself to his truculent son.
“I will deprive you of the succession, as one may cut off a useless member,” he threatened in a come-to-Jesus letter of 1715, when Alexei was already 25 years old.
Do not fancy that, because I have no other child but you, I only write this to terrify you. I will certainly put it in execution if it please God; for whereas I do not spare my own life for my country and the welfare of my people, why should I spare you who do not render yourself worthy of either? I would rather choose to transmit them to a worthy stranger than to my own unworthy son.
Peter, to borrow a phrase redolent in Russian historiography, mourned not the cracked eggs that made his omelette.
And sometime after Alexei’s flight to Naples, Peter had clearly come to the understanding that for the good of his nation that unworthy son must indeed be spattered.
This episode places Peter in a monstrous light, just as would Marcus Aurelius appear to us had he contrived to murder the future tyrant Commodus when the latter was a mere callow youth. We do not have the luxury of seeing the path not taken, but it ought be said in the towering tsar’s defense that his disdain for the crown prince’s ability is difficult not to share. Alexei’s character stacks flaw upon flaw; no doubt Peter’s upbringing, by turns distant and brutal, was stamped upon it. Let the father bear that failure, but it does not relieve the sovereign’s choice: was he to confide his country and his legacy to the hands of this goblin? Was it even tolerable to leave this firstborn cooling his heels in a monastery, waiting for Peter’s death to cast off cowl and abdication and be acclaimed king by Old Russia?
Peter’s own youth, when he was part of an unresolved dynastic rivalry awkwardly sharing power, had been mired in plots and counterplots. Now, he could scarcely help but suspect that Alexei was also a piece of some conspiracy intending to undo Peter — whether in life or in death.
He forced the son to name his confidantes, then put those confidantes to torture and followed their accusations. In March of 1718, several men were broken on the wheel in Red Square; Alexei’s mother, long ago exiled to a convent, was menaced through her lover who was publicly impaled. Others got off with whippings, brandings, beatings, exile.
Not long after, that Finnish mistress of Alexei returned to the rodina herself. During his mission to Italy, Count Tolstoy had compromised her, and now she willingly supplied Peter the evidence of his son’s treason: that he spoke often of the succession, and how he would abandon St. Petersburg, let the navy rot, and restore the rights of the church; that he thrilled to every rumor of Peter’s illness and even to a mutiny. (Alexei would later acknowledge to his father’s face that had the mutineers acclaimed him tsar, he would have answered the summons.)
Peter empowered a very reluctant secular court to examine Alexei as a traitor without deference to his royal person. In a word, this meant torture — and on June 19, the frail Alexei was lashed 25 times with the knout, a terrible whip reinforced with metal rings that flayed a man’s back into carrion-meat and could even break the spine. Alexei managed to endure it, so on June 24 his suppurating wounds were reopened with another 15 strokes of the cruel scourge.
Under this inhuman torment, Alexei admitted wishing his father’s death — not much of an admission since he had already said as much to dad in the weeks before. But this gave his magistrates enough to condemn the tsarevich to death later that same night, for compassing the death of the king. The reality was that Alexei, vapid and indolent, had only one design on the death of his father: to await it with hope.
What we do not quite know is whether or how this sentence was actually effected. Peter wavered and did not sign the sentence — but as contemporaries saw it, God signed it.
On the morning of June 26, Peter and a number of other court dignitaries went to Peter and Paul Fortress. The fortress’s logs do not specify whether this was yet another round of torture for Alexei; stories would later circulate that Peter or a subaltern murdered the boy here by crudely beating him to death or privately beheading him, sparing the realm the spectacle of the broken crown prince mounting the scaffold.
But the official story, that an already-faltering Alexei begged Peter’s forgiveness as he succumbed to the shock notice of his condemnation, could easily be true: 40 strokes of the knout were enough to take the life of a much firmer constitution than Alexei’s.
By any measure, Peter authored the death of his son under the pall of execution, if not its literal fact — and for all the instances of royal-on-royal violence supplied by the annals, this filicide is nearly unique: Peter the Great, Emperor of All Russia, tortured his disappointing son to death.
Peter the Great died in 1725 at age 52 — according to legend, catching his death by forging into the freezing Finnish Gulf to rescue some drowning soldiers. (“I do not spare my own life for my country and the welfare of my people …”) Peter’s wives had borne him eight legitimate sons over the years, but Alexander, Pavel, Peter, another Pavel, another Peter, yet another Pavel, and yet another Peter had all died in early childhood. This was to be (after the brief reign later in the 1720s of Alexei’s sickly son Peter II) the end of the direct male line of Romanovs.
Instead, Peter was succeeded by his remarkable wife Catherine, by origin a Latvian peasant — and the 18th century would be dominated by female monarchs, culminating with Catherine the Great.
* It was June 24 by the Julian calendar still in use in Russia at that time. By the modern Gregorian calendar, Alexei Petrovich was condemned on July 5, and died on July 7.
On this date in 1718, the Barbados buccaneer Stede Bonnet was hanged for piracy in Charleston, S.C.
Bonnet had few of the typical swashbuckler’s resume-builders during this Golden Age of Piracy: he was neither a mariner by trade nor a desperate outlaw by circumstance, but a wealthy English landowner in Bermuda.
“He had the least Temptation of any Man to follow such a Course of Life, from the Condition of his Circumstances,” wrote the pseudonymous author (alleged to be Daniel Defoe) of A General History of the Pyrates. But as age thirty hove into view and the seven-year itch demanded scratching, Bonnet undertook an abrupt career change “said to have been occasioned by some Discomforts he found in a married State.”
Bonnet’s version of a cherry-red convertible was a six-gun sloop named Revenge,* which he tricked out from his ample inherited fortune and took cruising for action on the North American coast.
He raided from New England to the Carolinas, fell in with Blackbeard (which more credible cutthroat charismatic promptly appropriated Bonnet’s hireling** crew), lost his ship, got it back, turned himself in, got a pardon … the rich guy packed plenty of adventure into little more than a year of raiding, but he never seems to have advanced his freebooting skills past the “gentleman hobbyist” level.
Bonnet got gentleman’s quarters upon detention, and his elite education enabled him to favor the colony’s governor with a simpering plea for clemency.
I have presumed, on the Confidence of your eminent Goodness, to throw my self, after this manner, at your Feet, to implore you’ll graciously be pleased to look upon me with tender Bowels of Pity and Compassion; and believe me to be the most miserable Man this Day breathing: That the Tears proceeding from my most sorrowful Soul may soften your Heart, and encline you to consider my dismal State …
if I had the Happiness of a longer life in this World … I’ll voluntarily put [wickedness] ever out of my Power, by separating all my Limbs from my Body, only reserving the Use of my Tongue, to call continually on, and pray to the Lord, my God, and mourn all my Days in Sackcloth and Ashes to work out confident Hopes of my Salvation …
All of which pathos was unwisely belied by an escape attempt which made pardon completely untenable.
Most of Bonnet’s captured crew was hanged en masse on Nov. 8; Bonnet managed to drag on several stays of execution before he followed them from his comfortable digs to the common gallows. A stone monument marks the spot.
On this date in 1718, the former common hangman got a taste of his own medicine.
As the 18th and especially 19th centuries unfolded and executions became more private, orderly and “humane,” the executioner’s office became more subtle and bourgeois. In the early 1700’s, however, it was commonly filled by a character who might just as easily have been on the other end of the rope. And once in a while … they were.
One disreputable character who performed the office for twenty years and more following the Stuart Restoration, Jack Ketch, lent his very name to the position (and its accoutrement — e.g., “Jack Ketch’s knot,” the hangman’s noose).
Our day’s victim, by the Christian name of John Price, was “Jack Ketch” in 1714-1715, and if the Newgate chronicle be believed wasn’t half-bad at the gig. Alas that he lost the position: his life in every other respect is reported by our sanctimonious interlocutors as one of drunken savagery.*
In such a state a couple of years later, he beat a woman to death during an attempted (or actual) rape at Bunhill Fields, at which location the law compelled him, in the parlance of the times, to “dance with Jack Ketch.” The prospect of hanging concentrated old Ketch’s mind wonderfully on the task of not missing one precious moment that might be spent drinking.
[H]e was no sooner confined in the condemned hold, than laying aside all thoughts of preparing himself for his latter end, he appeared quite void of all grace; and instead of repenting for his manifold sins and transgressions, he would daily go up to chapel intoxicated with cursed Geneva [i.e., gin] … As he was riding in the cart he several times pulled a bottle of Geneva out of his pocket to drink before he came to the place of execution
One would imagine that the dreadful scenes of calamity to which this man had been witness, if they had not taught him humanity, would at least have given him wisdom enough not to have perpetrated a crime that must necessarily bring him to a similarly fatal end to what he had so often seen of others: but perhaps his profession tended rather to harden his mind than otherwise.
Price/Ketch was not the only public executioner to find himself on the receiving end of his former trade, but he does seem to have the distinction of being the only one who was also gibbeted — his carcass hung up in an iron cage in the London district of Holloway.