1749: Fontauban, spy

Add comment March 5th, 2019 Headsman

A spy named Fontauban was hanged at the northern city of Lille on this date in 1749.

From the scanty information to be had he appears among the more pathetic traitors. Disinherited by his father he had gone into his peculiar trade to great effect during the continent-spanning War of Austrian Succession.

Demobilization was a tough transition for spooks as for everyday soldiers; needing to maintain his income, he made an fatally unsuccessful attempt to engage service with the British — and not for any mere document-copying, but for betraying the king himself.

Despite having been open to outright regicide in exchange for a few grotes, Fontauban’s sentence was commuted to hanging (from the proposed burning and quartering) as a gesture of mercy.

On this day..

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1749: Richard Coleman, solemnly declaring

Add comment April 12th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1749, five men were hanged at Kennington Common.

We wish well the restive shades of Patrick Rena, Thomas Dobbings, Thomas Walker, and Arthur Gibbons; the former two died for a violent robbery upon the roads, and the latter two for a violent robbery upon the Thames.

But our attention for this date is to the fifth man. Richard Coleman also drew the attention of those present, both for the monstrous crime he was accused of, and for his steady assertion of innocence. The minister assigned to salvage these wrongdoers’ souls, which was also a not entirely reputable marketing business in selling scaffold exclusives, knew a lead story when he saw one.

Coleman was executed for being part of a gang of three men who raped to death a woman named Sarah Green on the night of July 23, 1748. He was in no way implicated in this horrific crime for well over a month, a time when the victim lay precariously in hospital.

But by the next April, well … he was the man as far as the law was concerned. Coleman protested his innocence in vain, via Rev. Wilson; the latter’s hanging-day chapbook made Coleman the distinct feature attraction.

The following Paper was delivered to me at the Place of Execution, by Richard Coleman, which he earnestly desired I would publish.

To all Christian People.

The dreadful Sentence passed upon me, I shall meet with Cheerfulness, being in no Degree conscious of the least Guilt of that most inhuman and most unnatural Crime that I have been found guilty of.

I am very sensible that it is not in my Power to make the incredulous World believe me innocent. I leave the following Account with the Rev. Mr. Wilson, who I am very greatly obliged to, and return him my hearty Thanks, for the comfortable Relief I have received from him in a Preparation for a future State of Bliss, and I hope he will cause it to be published for m Satisfaction, that it may pass the impartial Examination of all Persons.

Here Coleman proceeds to give a detailed, almost hour-by-hour account of his activities on the night of the murder … and the activities of those around him.

Coleman was at pains to do this not only to assert his own innocence, but to decry a particular witness who ought to have supported his alibi but instead made it known “that if he was subpoenaed he should do me more Harm than Good … The Occasion of expressing himself in that severe Manner, I suppose, was owing to his being unluckily found by me with Mrs. B—t in very indecent Actions soon after her Husband’s Death; and having been often detected by me in the same Manner, it has caused ill Blood between us.”

Whether this man’s testimony would have made the difference one can only guess. At any rate, Coleman insisted,

On Monday the 25th of July I heard that a Woman had been used very ill by three of our Men, but no-body was taken up for it till a Quarrel happened between me and one [Daniel] T[rotma]n, at the Queen’s Arms Alehouse in Bandy-Leg Walk, which was as follows:

— On the 27th of August last … I was very much in Liquor; we had a Pint of Bumbo in the publick Room; and as I was stirring it with a Spoon, Trotman, an entire Stranger to me, very abruptly asked me what was done with the Pig, (meaning a Pig that our Men had taken and killed belonging to a Neighbour, and had been in Custody for it.) … I said to Trotman, Damn the Pig, what is it to me. He damn’d me, and I him; we gave each other very bad Language, and because it had been reported that three or four of our Men committed the Cruelty on Sarah Green, he made use of the following aggravating Words, namely (says he) Don’t you know Kennington Lane. I reply’d yes, I do, damn you, what of that? He said again don’t you know the Woman that was so cruelly treated, Yes, said I, Damn you what of that? Said he, was not you one of the Persons concerned in doing it; I reply’d if I was, you Dog what then, and immediately threw the Spoon at him. He returned it in the same Manner at me, and had it not been for the Persons present we should have fought.

The Morning after the Quarrel happened I called at the Queen’s Arms Alehouse; and Mr. C—t, who keeps the House, said to me Mr. Coleman you was silly last Night … and he repeated the Discourse aforesaid, and told me I did not consider what Advantage bad People might make of such unguarded Expressions. I reply’d that I was much in Liquor, and did not remember what I said.

But as prophesied, the offended Daniel Trotman and a woman in the pub who witnessed the exchange did indeed proceed on the basis of this “admission” to swear out an oath against Coleman who

was carried to the poor Woman in St. Thomas’s Hospital, to see if she knew any Thing of me; and when I came before her I was particularly pointed out by Mr. C— P—e, who laid his Hand on me, and said, is this one of the Men; which was not fair, for she should [not] have fixed upon me without being dictated. Upon that she said I believe he is one. I said to her consider well what you say, for my Life is at Stake. Will you swear I am one of the Persons. She reply’d, No I won’t, and likewise said if I was one of them we walked a good Way, and talk’d of indifferent Things, and you behav’d much like a Gentleman; but when she was assaulted, I ran away, which was not behaving like a Man.

Coleman’s story was that he wasn’t with Sarah Green as friend or foe at all that night. The justice of the peace clearly thought little enough of Green’s sketchy witness guesstimate that Coleman was released on his own word to return for more questioning.

The next scene at Sarah Green’s bedside begins with Coleman outside the room, and the victim asked

what sort of a Man Mr. Coleman was. She reply’d that he wore his Hair, and had a Carroty Beard. As to having my own Hair she was mistaken, for I have not wore it these 14 Years.

His Worship asked the Deceased if she could swear that I aided or assisted in the Assault. She said No, I cannot, for it was dark.

I was called in, and she made the following Information.

This Informant on her Oath says, that on Saturday Night the 23rd of July last between the Hours of 11 and 12 o’Clock, as she was going thro’ Newington Church-Yard to her Lodging in Bandy-Leg-Walk, she was assaulted and cruelly beaten by two Men to her unknown, and that R. Coleman was present in her Company at the Time she was assaulted and cruelly treated.

Coleman would say in his last publication that he believed Sarah Green was coached. Being conscious of innocence — we’ll come to that — the evidence aligning against him must have struck the young man as the product of an evil hand. Maybe it was just a lot of circumstantial stuff and half-mistaken witnesses falling into a terrible pattern.

The next mischance to befall the accused was that his victim/accuser succumbed to her injuries prior to the formal September 19 hearing.

This made the charge against him murder. Well, rape was already a capital crime, so no real change for Coleman … except that he had now lost the chance to confront openly a witness whose testimony sounds from the hospital interviews like it was eminently impeachable. Now, Green’s last affidavit was going to her final word on the matter.*

Coleman fled the warrant consequently taken out for him, which was read as evidence of guilt by neighbors who had the luxury of not reckoning their own survival odds upon a jury-box. Coleman says he tried to place an advertisement which a lily-livered editor rejected, reading

I, Richard Coleman, seeing myself advertised in the Gazette as absconding on Account of the Murder of Sarah Green, knowing my self not any ways culpable, do assert, that I have not absconded from Justice, but will readily and willingly appear at the Assizes, knowing my Innocence will acquit me.

Ha.

From some combination of partiality, malice, and groupthink, some additional eyewitness testimony — people who think they might have seen him that night, people who swear they talked to Coleman and Green together but never thought to bring it up to the authorities until he was arrested, and alibi witnesses of his own whom jurors disbelieved — Coleman was judged guilty and doomed to the noose.

Basically, the evidence against him was that he’d popped off to Daniel Trotman while in his cups, Sarah Green (mostly) ID’d him, and some people thought he’d been seen with her in the dark that night while some of Coleman’s own friends and relatives claimed otherwise. There isn’t exactly going to be crime lab evidence here, nor was there an explicit threshold for jurors to require near-certainty to convict. It probably looked to the court like a pretty darn good case.

Coleman had no recourse but to commit his futile self-vindication to posterity.

I do also most solemnly protest, that I am not in any Manner of Degree guilty of that most inhuman Murder of Sarah Green, neither was I at Newington, or in Kennington-Lane that Night that the cruel Fact was committed on Sarah Green.

This I declare as a dying Man, and I sincerely believe (as the Rev. Mr. Wilson told me several Times) if I was either directly or indirectly guilty of that Murder, and should go out of the World with denying it, that eternal Damnation would be my Portion.

… I have the Satisfaction to declare myself to the World (as I have often done to the Rev. Mr. Wilson) that I never was so serene in Mind, or so easy in my Conscience in my Life, as I am at this Time, and I heartily wish that every wicked Sinner may have the Opportunity of so good a Divine as the Rev. Mr. Wilson has been unto me, which must be a great Means to the Enjoyment of eternal Bliss.

It is an inexpressible Pleasure to me, that I am soon to leave this very wicked World; and I hope that GOD Almight of his infinite Mercy and Goodness, will, through the Merits and Intercession of my blessed Redeemer, his only Son our Saviour Jesus Christ, pardon all my Sins, and receive my Soul into eternal Happiness …

There is nothing that gives me so much Concern as the Distress that I leave my poor Wife and two Infants in. She has been very good to me under my unhappy Misfortune and so have my poor afflicted Brothers. I hope that the Almighty will be the Guardian of my Wife and Children.

Oops

We’ve been speaking of Coleman as categorically innocent but presented only conflicting and doubtful witnesses.

The resolution of the matter did not come until two full years after Coleman serenely strangled to death. The rest of the story was incautiously blabbed by a gentleman named James Welch to a companion as they walked the road to Newington Butts.

“Their conversation,” says the Newgate Calendar, “happened to turn on the subject of those who had been executed without being guilty; and Welch said: ‘Among whom was Coleman. Nichols, Jones and I were the persons who committed the murder for which he was hanged.'”

Maybe he should have chatted about the weather.

In the course of conversation Welch owned that, having been at a public-house called Sot’s Hole, they had drunk plentifully, and on their return through Kennington Lane they met with a woman, with whom they went as far as the Parsonage Walk, near the churchyard of Newington where she was so horridly abused by Nichols and Jones that Welch declined offering her any further insult.

Welch’s companion informed on him, but upon arrest there was no better evidence against Welch, Nichols, and Jones than there had been against Coleman. Actually, this later case was much weaker: one guy’s alleged hearsay statement.

In a classic prisoner’s-dilemma scenario, John Nichols was finally persuaded to turn crown’s evidence on the other two before they turned on him, and his testimony to the vile end of Sarah Green got his former mates hanged.

“The poor woman was treated in a manner too shocking to be described,” our correspondent relates. And “it appeared that at the time of the perpetration of the fact the murderers wore white aprons, and that Jones and Welch called Nichols by the name of Coleman — circumstances that evidently led to the conviction of the unfortunate man of that name.”

Mistakes Happen…

The hangings in the case of Sarah Green — both the right ones and the wrong one — occurred at the acme of Britain’s “Bloody Code” days.

It’s instructive to note that the reality of wrongful executions seems to have been widely accepted. In the case at hand, the Newgate Calendar does not mince words in describing Richard Coleman as innocent.

And while doubt about individual defendants’ guilt often led jurors to acquittals or the ad hoc “pious perjury” downgrading of potentially capital charges, the existence of this or that wrongful execution in no way imperiled the capital statutes as a whole. It was merely another risk in a brutal world all too full of them.

Just a few months after Welch and Jones went to the gallows, another woman controversially on trial for her life received from one of her correspondents a lament that “We see nothing more frequent than Persons confessing the Crimes that others had suffer’d for before.”

* Although Green’s case was a bit different since she actually had time to swear a statement, the legal footing of “dying declarations” vis-a-vis the usual right of a defendant to confront an accuser has long remained a jurisprudential sticky wicket.

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1749: Bosavern Penlez, whorehouse expropriator

1 comment October 18th, 2012 Headsman

To the memory of the unfortunate
BOSAVERN PEN LEZ
Who finished a Life, generall well reported of,
By a violent and ignominious Death.
He was the Son of a Clergyman,
To whom he was indebted for an Education, which he so wisely improv’d
As to merit the Love and Esteem of all that knew him.
But actuated by Principles, in themselves truly laudable
(When rightly directed, and properly restrain’d)
He was hurried by a Zeal for his countrymen,
And an honest Detestation of Public Stews
(The most certain Bane of Youth, and the Disgrace of Government)
To engage in an Undertaking, which the most Partial cannot defend,
And yet the least Candid must excuse.
For thus indeliberately mixing with Rioters, whom he accidentally met with,
He was condemn’d to die:
And of 400 Persons concerned in the same Attempt, he only suffer’d,
Tho’ neither Principal, nor Contriver.

How well he deserved Life, appears
From his generous Contempt of it, in forbidding a Rescue of himself;
And what Returns he would have made to Royal Clemency,
Had it been extended to him, may fairly be presumed
From his noble Endeavours to prevent the least Affront to that Power,
Which, tho greatly importun’d, refused to save him.

What was denied to his Person, was paid to his Ashes,
By the Inhabitants of St. Clement Danes,
Who order’d him to be interr’d among their Brethren,
Defray’d the Charges of his Funeral,
And thought no Mark of Pity or Respect too much
For this Unhappy Youth,
Whose Death was occasioned by no other Fault
But a too warm Indignation for their Sufferings.

By his sad Example, Reader be admonish’d
Of the many ill Consequences that attend an intemperate Zeal.
Learn hence to respect the Laws — even the most oppressive;
And think thyself happy under that Government
‘That doth truly and indifferently administer Justice,
‘To the Punishment of Wickedness and Vice,
‘And to the Maintenance of God’s True Religion and Virtue.’

On this date in 1749, Bosavern Penlez — surely one of the all-time great names to hang on a gibbet — was put to death to the sorrow of all of England. You know how they say that horse thieves are not hanged for stealing horses, but that horses might not be stolen? Bosavern Penlez was hanged that whorehouses might not be torn down by mobs of angry sailors.

(Fourteen other less remarkable folk were hanged for less remarkable crimes at the same time. Just another mass execution day at Tyburn.)

A petition of over 300 St. Clement Danes residents for sparing the two men condemned in the riots. (From the General Advertiser, Oct. 11, 1749.) John Wilson received the solicited pardon; Bosavern Penlez did not.

On the first three days of July in 1749, the Strand in London saw a running series of riots after a mob of angry sailors descended on a whorehouse where some of their brethren had been robbed and abused. Those sailors pulled down that bordello and then moved on to the nearby bawdy-houses, eventually also ransacking the Star Tavern owned by a character named Peter Wood.

Gendarmes had to be called out to control the situation (and this done without proper legal authorization), but somehow not the mob’s ringleaders nor its inciters nor its most enthusiastic wreckers wound up in legal jeopardy.

Only two faced death: John Wilson, a journeyman shoemaker. And Bosavern Penlez, a young wig-maker who’d been out drinking in the neighborhood. And both of these seemed to have just been caught up accidentally or opportunistically in events.

They were comprehensively damned by the testimony of Peter Wood, the aggrieved procurer of Star Tavern, and his wife — disreputable people of whom a neighbor remarked, “I would not hang a dog or a cat upon their evidence.” But then, besides the eyewitness testimony, Bosavern Penlez was also apprehended with a bundle of linens he had evidently liberated from the Wood’s devastated cathouse, linens whose source he unconvincingly claimed not to remember. So the picture one has is that Wilson was perhaps little more than a passerby … but Penlez was a distinct, if minor, participant who could more or less be shown to have got himself tanked and treated the mayhem like it was a gift certificate to Bed, Bath & Beyond.

Not exactly saintly but also not a cardinal sin. Public sentiment for these fellows’ clemency was intense, starting right with the jury that convicted them but also recommended mercy.

Only Wilson was spared, however.

According to the Newgate Calendar, George II was mightily disposed to pardon both, but justice John Willes, who heard the case personally, vigorously opposed the royal mercy for “no regard would be paid to the laws except one of them was made an example of.”

Penlez, in the end, was the one made example of.

His hanging this date in 1749 would bleed into an election held later that same autumn, almost dealing a serious setback to the sitting Pelham government. Those events are detailed in Malvin Zirker’s introduction to this out-of-print volume.

And the resultant fusillade of pamphlets and public protests asserting a maximalist take on Penlez’s purity induced novelist Henry Fielding to enter the fray with a manifesto of his own strongly supporting the young man’s execution.

Readers of Fielding’s fiction might start at the rigidity of his editorial line.

Penlez’s defenders couldn’t really argue that he was completely innocent. Still, they contested the justice of the death penalty for such a character whose involvement in the whole thing was so tertiary and happenstance, not to mention influenced by drink. Doubly so that it was attested by the word of such a villain as Peter Wood. In the words of one pro-Penlez polemic, Wood would “run at every one, like a mad Dog, … indifferent who it was he hang’d by his Oath.”

Fanny Hill author John Cleland entered the fray on the side of the accused; his The Case of the Unfortunate Bosavern Penlez is aghast at “shedding the Blood of this young Man for the Example-sake … such a Severity being too much for the Nature of the Guilt actually chargeable on him, [and] will serve rather to confound and destroy all Ideas of Right and Wrong.”

Penlez was convicted not as a thief — which charge would have given the jury leave to find that the value of his linens amounted to less than the threshold necessary to hang him — but under the Riot Act which directly mandated death for “unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously assembled together, to the disturbance of the publick peace.” Wood’s eyewitness testimony to the effect that Penlez (and Wilson, too) smashed up windows and furniture in his house and threatened him was essential to establishing a part in the tumultuous assembly.*

As this level of guilt was popularly doubted, our friend Henry Fielding — himself the very magistrate** who had engineered the suppression of the disturbance, having returned on the third day of it from a weekend away from London — took up his pen post-hanging to support the government’s handling of Penlez from arrest all the way to the scaffold. His A True State of the Case of Bosavern Penlez produces the witness accounts sworn before him as magistrate during the riots themselves, and reproves those Penlez supporters whose anger at his execution made the “malefactor” into “an object of sedition, when he is transformed into a hero, and the most merciful prince who ever sat on any throne is arraigned of blameable severity, if not of downright cruelty, for suffering justice to take place.”

If, after perusing the evidence which I have here produced, there should remain any private compassion in the breast of the reader, far be it from me to endeavour to remove it. I hope I have said enough to prove that this was such a riot as called for some example, and that the man [Penlez] who was made that example deserved his fate. Which, if he did, I think it will follow, that more hath been said and done in his favour than ought to have been; and that the clamour of severity against the government hath been in the highest degree unjustifiable.

* The Ordinary of Newgate reported that Penlez, who long remained cagey on the point, admitted in the end entering the bawdy-house during the riot, but disavowed any attack upon its owner. Wilson, for what it’s worth, always denied having entered the house and insisted Wood had misidentified him.

** Henry Fielding was the half-brother of magistrate and policing pioneer John Fielding. The Fieldings’ mutual roles in the creation of London’s first professional investigators to supplant the problematic “thief-taking” system of private, rewards-driven prosecution, is the subject of The First English Detectives: The Bow Street Runners and the Policing of London, 1750-1840.

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1749: Samuel Henzi, excluded

1 comment July 17th, 2010 Headsman

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Langston Hughes

Those lines, written for 20th century America’s struggle with racism, are rooted in the timeless conflict between the haves and the have-nots, and those “exploding” dreams deferred have provided more than a few subjects for these morbid pages.

This date in 1749 saw the beheading of writer and reluctant revolutionary Samuel Henzi (German Wikipedia page), along with two fellow-conspirators in a plot to overthrow the aristocratic government of Bern(e).

Still operating off a 13th century constitution, Berne had ossified into an oligarchic society with privilege derived from heredity and the capable but low-born frustratingly locked out. This arrangement had provoked intermittent uprisings and challenges, but as of the mid-18th century, it was still going strong, and “patricians mockingly observed that the citizens must be stripped of their feathers, that they might not want to fly.” (Source)

Henzi was a man with the ambition and the talent to soar above his place.

Eloquent, cultured, a guy to bang out some French poetry on the side, Henzi had been among a group of lower gentry who in 1744 petitioned for a change to Bern’s governing council, which at that time had become a privately held dynastic trust among a few top burghers.

For a suggestion as incendiary as allocating council seats by lot the better to represent the class, Henzi was treated as a rebel and exiled to Neuchatel.

dass ein eingewurzelter Staatskrebs mit Demuth nicht geheilt werden kann; nein! man muss den Degen in die Faust nehmen, wenn man die verlorne Freiheit wieder erobern will.*

Returning on a pardon, he found that not much had changed. The doors to employment in the civil administration shut tight against him, and not being bought off with a minor sinecure he fell in with a circle of malcontents dreamily conspiring to blow the whole thing up.

These plotters were exposed and three considered ringleaders — merchant Samuel Niklaus Wernier, Stadtlieutenant Emanuel Fueter, and Henzi — were beheaded on this date, each reputedly requiring more than one stroke of the sword.

On embarking with their two sons to quit the Helvetic territory, the wife of Henzi exclaimed, “I would rather see these children sink in the Rhine-stream than they should not one day learn to avenge the murder of their father.” However, when the sons came to manhood, they displayed more magnanimity than their mother; and one of them, who rose to distinction in the service of the Netherlands, requited with good offices to the burghers of his native town the unmerited misfortunes which they had brought upon his family. (Source)


Henzi’s fate greatly excited German dramaturg (and original Conehead) Gotthold Lessing — indeed, he would remark that no other event moved him so deeply.

Almost immediately after Henzi’s decapitation, Lessing wrote his first tragedy, the never-finished but aptly-titled Samuel Henzi, which is available in the original German here.**

Wann man des Staates Flehn, der sie aus Gunst erkoren,
Der nur aus Nachsicht fleht, empfängt mit tauben Ohren;
Wann wer der Freiheit sich das Wort zu reden traut,
Zum Lohn für seine Müh ein schimpflich Elend baut;
Freiheit! wann uns von dir, du aller Tugend Same,
Du aller Laster Gift, nichts bleibet als der Name:
Und dann mein weichlich Herz gerechten Zorn nicht hört,
So bin ich meines Bluts –– ich bin des Tags nicht wert.

* That is, “humility cannot cure the cancer of the state; one must take the sword in fist.” The comment is cited in Edward M. Batley, “‘Tu executes comme tes maitres jugent!’ – The Henzi Affair and the question of Lessing’s political judgment”, German Life and Letters, July 1984.

** Lessing’s next stab at stagecraft in the key of seria produced what’s generally described as the German theater’s first domestic or bourgeois tragedy, Miss Sara Sampson (German Wikipedia entry).

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1749: Antonio Camardella

Add comment September 24th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1749, an unrepentant Antonio Camardella was hanged in Rome’s Piazza di Ponte Sant’Angelo (Italian link).

Camardella offed prelate Donato Morgigni for stiffing him in a business arrangement, and repelled all sanctimonious summons to contrition. When a priest mounted the scaffold with him to make one last go of it, verse has it, Camardella insisted on dying impenitent, crying “vendetta!” even as he dropped.

Dannato fu alle forche un delinquente
Per preticidio, detto Camardella.
Un santo fratacchion ch’era assistente
Dichiarollo per anima rubella,
Perche egli morir volle impenitente.
Invano a pentimento ei lo rappella,
Vendetta grida il reo, ne altrui da retta;
Penzolon cade e grida ancor vendetta.

This devil-may-care display of ferocity evidently made an impression on the denizens of a city still ruled by the papacy: they were still talking about it a century later, when Roman sonneteer Giuseppe Gioachino Belli anachronistically situated him on the scaffold with Belli’s own contemporary, renowned executioner Mastro Titta.

This pairing (written in the Roman dialect) of iconic criminal with iconic headsman, observed by our youthful narrator and his father, makes for a vivid scene of coming-of-age in an Eternal City where the Catholic Church extends ritual control over both life and death.

Il giorno che impiccarono Camardella
Io mi ero appena cresimato.
Mi sembra adesso, che il padrino al mercato
mi comprò un pupazzo e una ciambella.
Mio padre prese poi il carrozzino
Ma prima volle godersi l’impiccato:
E mi teneva in alto sollevato
Dicendo: “Guarda la forca quant’è bella!”
Nello stesso istante al condannato mastro Titta
Applicò un calcio nelle terga, e papà a me
Uno schiaffone alla guancia destra.
“Prendi”, mi disse, “e ricordati bene
Che questa stessa fine è destinata
A mille altri che sono migliori di te.”
The day they hanged Camardella
I had just been confirmed.
It seems to me now that my godfather took me to the market
I bought myself a top and a sweet roll.
My father then took the buggy
But first he wanted to enjoy the hanging:
He lifted me up high
Saying, “See how beautiful the gallows!”
Suddenly Mastro Titta struck the condemned
A kick in the rear, my father struck me
A slap to the right cheek.
“Take it,” he said, “and remember well
That this same fate is destined
A thousand others who are better than you.”

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1749: Maria Renata Singer, theological football

5 comments June 21st, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1749, an aged subprioress of the Unterzell nunnery was beheaded and burnt in Wurzburg for witchcraft … and for the principle of witchcraft.

Maria Renata Singer (or Singerin — here’s her German Wikipedia page) had been a reclusive denizen of the convent for half a century.

A dying nun accused her of working black magic, and everything snowballed in the usual way: other nuns got into the act, often in the throes of exorcism. Confinement and interrogation (torture is not recorded) eventually induced her to confess to having been a witch for more than 60 years. (Details of the unfolding procedure here, in German.)

On this morning 260 years ago, her sentence — moderated from burning alive — was carried out: Singer’s head was struck off and mounted on a pole, and her body burned to ashes.


Witnesses reported seeing a vulture appear when the body was burned.

Nothing so remarkable, really, in the annals of witchcraft. Nothing except the date. Witch-burnings in 1749! Voltaire was in his fifties. Thomas Jefferson was alive. Wurzburg itself hadn’t seen witchcraft executions since the madness of the Thirty Years’ War.

But even in the Age of Enlightenment, the benighted world got its licks in. And in this instance, the case of the witch-nun of Bavaria was bulletin-board material in an unfolding public debate over witchcraft.

Scholars and theologians were burdening the mid-18th century printing presses with treatises on the legitimacy of witchcraft persecutions. Singer herself, when first confronted with the accusation, had not simply denied it: she had denied there was any such thing as a witch.

That same year of 1749, Girolamo Tartarotti‘s influential Congresso notturno delle lammie skewered witchcraft jurisprudence.

Tartarotti’s work fit into a growing critique naturally animated by the rationalist spirit of the times.

Partly through Singer’s execution, the witchsniffers’ intellectual defenders mounted their last defense.

Jesuit Georg Gaar, who had been Singer’s confessor before death, preached a sermon at her cremation “praising the wise severity of laws against these crimes, and speculating that this might be God’s warning against the men of our time who do not believe in witches, or magic, or the devil, or God. Father Gaar plainly thought himself, and told the people, that they only needed to read the evidence from Unterzell to be persuaded of the justice of the sentence and the truth about witchcraft.”

Tartarotti reprinted this sermon with a critical commentary. But some theologians (and not only Bavarians*) were ready to go to bat for the traditional superstitions.**

According to Brian Copenhaver, writing in the Journal of the History of Philosophy (January, 1979):

The rigorist Dominican Daniele Concina [Italian link -ed] argued that God permits witchcraft “for the greater confirmation of faith,” and he disposed of the skeptical sections of the Canon episcopi as a forger’s work. In a variation on Pangloss’s reasoning about noses and spectacles, Benedetto Bonelli deduced the reality of witchcraft from the existence of laws against witches.

As another critic of Tartarotti fretted, “Does not the denial of the existence of demons open the way and lead directly to the denial of the existence of God?”

Interestingly, Tartarotti accepted the reality of “magic” while denying the existence of witches, ascribing the latter’s survival as folklore to incomplete Christianization. While (see Copenhaver once again) this tack could be read as a tactical choice of moderation on Tartarotti’s part to achieve the pragmatic end of eliminating witchcraft trials, it put him in the crossfire between more rigorously rationalist intellectuals and the likes of Georg Gaar.

This angle of Tartarotti’s, especially given his simultaneous interest in the occult, has led to his work’s subsequent adoption as an antecedent to the still-popular if academically disreputable theory that underground sects of pagan practitioners really did persist in Europe, and were the true targets of witch-hunts like the one that killed Maria Renata Singer.

A lengthy 19th-century treatment of the case is available in German in a public domain Google books entry here.

* 18th century English theologian John Wesley, feeling himself pinned by the Old Testament verses about not-suffering-a-witch-to-live and all that, insisted that “giving up witchcraft is, in effect, giving up the Bible” and “the credit of all history, sacred and profane.”

** Conversely, a German scholar sneered at the backward prejudices of “the common rabble, especially in our beloved Bavaria.”

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,God,History,Notable Jurisprudence,Public Executions,Witchcraft,Women,Wrongful Executions

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