1772: Bryan Sheehen, cuck

Add comment January 16th, 2018 Headsman

Colonial Massachusetts sailor Bryan Sheehen culminated a life of warped relations with the opposite sex at his hanging on this date in 1772.

According to the pamphlet An Account of the Life of Bryan Sheehen, as a child in Ireland, Sheehen‘s family split up by gender with the Catholic father taking the boys and the Anglican mother taking the girls. While the legacy of this childhood trauma can only be guessed at, it looks suggestive in hindsight

Sheehen migrated to Newfoundland and then to Massachusetts where he eventually indentured himself as a household servant to colonial shipwright Benjamin Hallowell, a “father” from whom the young adult Sheehen again fled, this time to fight in the Seven Years’ War.

Unfortunately upon his return from only six years away he found that his wife had impatiently [re]married herself to a Frenchman, a humiliating risk and fear of the seagoing set. Sheehen forced the woman to choose between the rivals but when she chose Sheehen, the latter found that he was still so disgusted with her that he preferred to abandon the wife, and the child she had borne him, and the child she had borne the Frenchman. Psychologists have a lot to unpack here already.

Relocating to Marblehead, Mass. our reborn swinging single now developed “the character of a wicked, profligate person” and eventually began stalking a woman named Abial Hollowell … her surname eerily echoing that of Sheehen’s own former master. In fact, Abial’s husband was also named Benjamin Hollowell. His advances rebuffed, Sheehen

went up, in the middle of the night, to the room where Mrs. Hollowell lay, found her asleep, awaked her, and swore, if she made the least noise, he would kill her; and then stopping her mouth, perpetrated the atrocious crime. After which (to prevent, it seems, a pregnancy) he abused her with his hand, in an unheard-of, cruel and shocking manner: Insomuch that her life was for some time almost despaired of; and she was not able for ten days after to get off her bed without help.

That’s as per a case summary appended to “A Sermon Preached at Salem, January 16, 1772” by the Salem Rev. James Diman. The good preacher was so chagrined that Sheehen’s persistent denials had led some citizens to murmur against Mrs. Hollowell that for “justice to the woman’s character” he devotes about a page and a half to traducing Sheehen’s. Sheehen, Diman charged, was just the sort of vicious wretch who would imperil his soul by going to the gallows with a lie upon his lips, perhaps because, as a Catholic, “he might swear falsely, he might doubtless speak falsely to Hereticks, as they call all whose religious principles differ from theirs.”

Last and most important, Diman claimed to have it on good authority from “two credible persons”

that there was a young woman, daughter of one Williams, of Goldsborough, in the Eastern part of this province, abased in the same manner Mrs. Hollowell was. That she was way-layed in the the evening, between her father’s house and a neighbour’s; was seized, forced, and wounded to such a degree, that her friends were obliged to carry her home, she being unable to walk, and that the next morning early she died. That the villain, who perpetrated this crime, returned after he had done it, to his companions, who, it seems, were before, or then, made acquainted with his enterprize; for such wretches declare their sin as Sodom: And that one of them told him he would probably have a child to maintain: He answered so, that he had taken care to prevent that, and that she would never have a child by him, nor by any other man.

This guy, his informants said, was an Irishman named something like Bryan Sheehen — and he had escaped town after the incident.

* The Hallowells were notable British loyalists during the American Revolution, and returned to England when their estates were sacked by Patriots. The grandson of Bryan Sheehen’s employer, Admiral Sir Benjamin Hallowell Carew, was one of Lord Nelson‘s Band of Brothers. During the Battle of the Nile, Admiral Hallowell’s supplied the literal fireworks by defeating the French battleship Orient — whose spectacularly exploding magazines highlighted all the artistic commemorations of that victory. He later presented to Nelson as a gift a coffin fashioned from the Orient‘s mast, “that when you have finished your military career in this world you may be buried in one of your trophies.” Nelson was indeed laid to rest in Hallowell’s trophy in 1805.


The flaming Orient illuminates Thomas Luny’s Battle of the Nile, August 1st 1798 at 10 pm.

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1772: Mary Hilton

Add comment April 6th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1772, Mary Hilton was burned at the stake in Lancaster for “petty treason”: poisoning with arsenic her husband, John, a blacksmith.

She was drawn on a sledge to the execution site, hanged to death as a mercy, and her body burnt to ashes.

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1772: John Jones, John Sunderland, John Chapman, and John Creamer

Add comment October 14th, 2012 Headsman

The Old Bailey Online site — “A fully searchable edition of the largest body of texts detailing the lives of non-elite people ever published, containing 197,745 criminal trials held at London’s central criminal court” — is one of the scaffold-chaser’s most outstanding resources and well worth perusing by anyone whose interests even remotely touch English crime and law from the Bloody Code to the eve of World War I.

Today’s post touches four such men, very distinctly non-elite fellows all sharing the same common Christian name, all hanged together at Tyburn for burglary. (Technically, John Creamer was hanged for returning from transportation, but he was transported in the first place for burglary.)

We begin as is our wont at the unhappy end. Here the Ordinary of Newgate — that “great Bishop of the Cells”, whose business was salvaging the souls of men whose flesh was forfeit — details the last hours of the doomed. Theirs is typical, even forgettable among scores of such accounts.

The condemned array themselves in various cuts of pathos, contrition, resignation. (Only Creamer somewhat objects to his sentence; this is almost beside the point.)

The clock ticks inexorably.

They’re turned off in the passive voice — who turned them? — crying out to God.

The prisoners were brought down from their cells about a quarter before seven. Their behaviour was every way becoming their unhappy situation.

The appearance of Sunderland and Jones was really moving and affecting by reason of their late illness of a bad fever, of which Sunderland was never expected to have recovered: He was so weak and low that he could scarcely support himself.

Chapman, while his irons were unloosing, said, ‘Ah! these will soon fall to the lot of some poor unhappy fellow!’ Sunderland and Jones were not fettered, the low and sickly condition they were in not requiring it.

Being now ready they went up to chapel, except Creamer, who was of the Catholic persuasion: Sunderland went up first: it was a few minutes before Jones and Chapman followed. In this short interval of time Sunderland said, ‘O how cold am I! I am now as cold as I have been lately hot and distracted with a fever, when I was so light-headed, that nothing run in my mind but a respite was come down, and wondered at their keeping me in my cells. Once upon a time little did I think of coming to this untimely end!’

When Jones came up (who had occasion to wait a little behind) he, with a very decent and christian-like behaviour, fell on his knees to ask God’s blessing.

After being severalty spoken to and prayed with, they were admitted to the Lord’s table, of which they partook, ’tis hoped, to their everlasting comfort.

They were then again recommended in prayer to the mercy of Christ; desiring them stedfastly to look to him as crucified for them, and to be sensible that their sentence was just, but that he, the innocent and immaculate Lamb of God, suffered, the Just for the unjust, and was treated with the greatest shame and ignominy, to take away their curse. They were once more reminded to look unto him, and to let nothing, that might pass on their way, divert their attention from him.

The clock striking eight, Sunderland listed up his hands and said, “We have not three hours more to live in this world.”

Service being ended, they went down from chapel to be made ready. Creamer, while the halter was fixing about him, wrung his hands and wept bitterly, and said, at going out, “God forgive them that have taken away my life for returning back to my own country!”

They arrived at the place of execution at half past ten; and when tied up, I went to perform the last office to them. They behaved with decency. And having again acknowledged that their sentence was just, except Creamer, who thought it rather hard, as he had committed no robbery since his return; but he was told to remember, that he had deserved to die before, and had received mercy: “True, says he, it is so; well, God forgive every one.”

They were once more recommended in prayer to the mercy of God, and then soon were turned off, crying out, Lord, receive our spirits.

Four burglars gone to the Tyburn tree.

In the period after the Seven Years’ War, housebreaking was a boom industry — there was a jaw-dropping eightfold increase in documented burglaries in London from 1766 to 1770. “The material civilization of the urban bourgeoisie became more refined, its belongings — ever increasing in variety and number — became arranged with a view to display and security.” (Linebaugh) Said period also corresponded to the demobilization of some 100,000 soldiers, blithely dumped from the late global war into an economy destitute of social welfare buttressing.

Each veteran “must return to some vocation which he has forgot, or which is engrossed by others in his absence,” lamented The Gentleman’s Magazine. “He must sue for hard labour, or he may starve. If human nature cannot submit to that, cannot he lie down in a ditch and die. If this disbanded brave man should vainly think he has some right to share in the wealth of his country which he defended, secured, or increased, he may seize a small portion of it by force — and to be hanged.”

For the enterprising criminal, the growing quantities of plunder available from a domestic raid exceeded by orders of magnitude the coppers one might riskily expropriate in the streets by main force or dextrous digits.

Entrepreneurial thieves accordingly developed an astonishing felicity for breaking and entering, often (as was the case with all this day’s hanged Johns) penetrating occupied domiciles where the soon-to-be-dispossessed owners dozed.

The blind magistrate and police reformer Sir John Fielding was at this time leading the uphill struggle to control the breaking-and-entering epidemic. (His testimony to Parliament is the source of those “octupling burglary rate” figures.)

Fielding’s anti-burglary agenda included strengthening the city’s embryonic policing, as well as killjoy social measures like shuttering taverns and suppressing the Beggar’s Opera; that very year of 1772, he debuted a (still-extant) magazine to circulate the descriptions of wanted fugitives. And trying to force pawnbrokers and other potential fences into monitoring their inventory sources, Fielding successfully prevailed on Parliament to expose the receivers of stolen goods to the same criminal sanctions as the thieves themselves. (See The First English Detectives: The Bow Street Runners and the Policing of London, 1750-1840)

All these would have limited effect against London’s ingenious burglars. But our four Johns were the kind of men Fielding meant to put out of business.

John Jones and John Sunderland were a team. Six weeks before their hanging, they broke into a home and bent their backs under an entire wardrobe’s worth of booty: “one silver saucepan, value 10 s. one pair of silver knee buckles, value 4 s. and one pair of silver-garter buckles, value 2 s. the property of the said Aaron Franks, Esq; one gold watch-chain, value 20 s. two seals set in gold, value 10 s. six linen stocks, value 3 s. eight pair of silk stockings, value 30 s. two silk pocket handkerchiefs, value 4 s. five other pocket handkerchiefs, value 5 s. five linen-shirts, value 40 s. one pair of pocket pistols, value 40 s. one flannel waistcoat, value 5 s. and one pair of laced ruffles, value 40 s. the property of Jacob Franks, Esq; one cloth coat, value 20 s. one cloth waistcoat, value 5 s. two other linen shirts, value 4 s. one cornelian seal set in silver, value 2 s. one pair of silk stockings, value 1 s. and one pair of thread stockings, value 6 d. the property of Joseph Grover; four other shirts, value 16 s. two pair of worsted stockings, value 3 s. the property of Phineas Ghent, and one thickset frock, value 15 s. the property of Richard Varley , in the dwelling house of the said Aaron Franks, Esq.” (Grover and Ghent were servants. Everyone got cleaned out … and nobody woke up.)

The tricky and essential part of the burglary business, as Sir John Fielding recognized, was getting rid of the loot. Jones and Sunderland were shopped by a suspicious man to whom they attempted to sell some of the clothes.

John Chapman jimmied open the shuttered and barred window of a St. George in the East residence while its owner slept upstairs and emptying the place of “a silk handkerchief, and two linen handkerchiefs, value 2 s. four China bowls, value 20 s. one earthen bowl, value 6 d. one pair of gold weights and scales, value 1 s. one leather box, value 1 s. and thirty-six half-pence.” The theft was only discovered in the morning when a neighbor noticed the broken window and raised the alarm; Chapman was traced when one of the China bowls later turned up, but by that time he’d already notched another successful midnight home invasion. He drew death sentences in both cases.

His 17-year-old accomplice turned crown’s evidence, and described the method in that latter instance:

John Chapman had a chissel in his pocket, a long chissel, a rusly one; he bid me look out that no-body came by; I stood within a yard or two of him; he put his shoulder to the bolt, and pulled very hard, and broke it open; after we had broke it open, the watchman came by to call the hour, past one; we put the shutters to and went a little further down a turning, till he went to his box again. When the watchman went to his box we got in; John Chapman struck a light; we both went in, and shoved the window up; we pulled the window shutter to again, and he had a key that he pulled out of his pocket, or was in the bureau; he pulled the door open; he had a candle in his pocket, wrapped up in a bit of paper, and a tinder box and matches, and pulled the drawers open, one at a time, and took out what was in them; there was a blackish gown, and some cotton to make shirts of, some striped cotton, and a great large table cloth flowered; there were a great many more things I cannot justly mention.

Bonanza.

we went on three or four steps the same side of the room, where there was a good deal of china; we saw the pepper castor with some pepper in it, and a silver spoon; one spoon bigger than a tea spoon; there were two bottles with liquor, one wine I believe; Chapman drank, and then said to me drink; I did; we laid the things upon the ground. I went backwards and searched where the coppers were, there I found half a dozen of tea spoons, in a cupboard where was victuals; the handles of the spoons did not turn up, they went downwards.

We looked down upon the ground, there was a great deal of copper saucepans and some shoes; I took some of the buckles of …

We tied them up in bundles, and brought them over the fields; he carried me down Old Gravel-lane, to (I believe the place is) Broad-street where Mrs. Nimmy lives; he carried them up stairs, and I lay with him all night … Chapman carried the things away in the morning; I got the cotton to make some shirts of; I brought it to Mrs. Nimmy; I knew her very well; she asked me whose they were; I said my brother bought them for me; I said I was going apprentice, and my mother would pay her, when they were made; I cannot tell where any of the other things were carried; Chapman gave me 12 s. for my share; he sold the things.

John Creamer‘s hanging crime was returning from transportation, but that transportation had been imposed in 1769 for yet another burglary.

Creamer’s was the least impressive heist of the bunch, perhaps little more than a crime of opportunity. Short on cash to pay for a pot of beer late one night at his lodging-house, he went upstairs, broke into a fellow-lodger’s room while the fellow-lodger slept, and absconded with 8 3/4 guineas. He not only paid for the beer, he went right out that night carousing and spending freely in the sight of many witnesses. He was traced because one of the coins he parted with had a distinctive “white spot like silver”; the victim, who suspected Creamer to begin with, was able the next day to track down that coin where it had been spent and tie it back to the miscreant.

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1772: Moses Paul

2 comments September 2nd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1772, the town of New Haven, Connecticut hanged a Mohegan Indian named Moses Paul for a drunken homicide. He’d been kicked out of a tavern as an unruly sot, and vengefully beat to death outside it a (white) fellow-customer with whom he had quarreled.

Notable to the reported “concourse” of attendees as the first execution in those parts for more than twenty years, it comes to posterity as the occasion for an interesting milestone: the first known Native American publication in America was Samson Occom‘s “A Sermon Preached at the Execution of Moses Paul, an Indian”. (pdf)

Occom, himself a Mohegan, was a Presbyterian divine whom the condemned solicited to deliver the hanging sermon. So the multitudes assembled were also treated to the edification of seeing an Indian preach from the scaffold, which may have been yet another first.

Occom’s sermon went predictably long on the hark-ye-to-this-warning Christian boilerplate (as a convert from heathenism, Occom did not want for zeal). But the speaker was also plainly self-conscious of his racial position,and took pains to invoke the egalitarianism of the afterlife:* the same death and judgment awaiting “Negroes, Indians, English, or … what nations soever.”

Given the liquor-induced crime that was even then a stereotype of Indian susceptibilities, Occom concluded “address[ing] myself to the Indians, my bretheren and kindred according to the flesh” with a call to temperance in view of the waste he saw laid to his own communities:

My Poor Kindred,

You see the woeful consequences of sin, by seeing this our poor miserable countryman now before us, who is to die this day for his sins and great wickedness. And it was the sin of drunkenness that has brought this destruction and untimely death upon him … this abominable, this beastly and accursed sin of drunkenness, that has stript us of every desirable comfort in this life; by this we are poor miserable and wretched; by this sin we have no name nor credit in the world among polite nations, for this sin we are despised in the world … when we are intoxicated with strong drink we drown our rational powers, by which we are distinguished from the brutal creation we unman ourselves, and bring ourselves not only level with the beasts of the field, but seven degrees beneath them.

Drunkenness is so common amongst us, that even our young men, (and what is still more shocking) young women are not ashamed to get drunk.

break off from your drunkenness … O let us reform our lives, and live as becomes dying creatures, in time to come. Let us be persuaded that we are accountable creatures to God, and we must be called to an account in a few days … Fight against all sins, and especially the sin that easily besets you, and behave in time to come as becomes rational creatures.

Ava Chamberlain’s “The Execution of Moses Paul: A Story of Crime and Contact in Eighteenth-Century Connecticut”, published in The New England Quarterly (September 2004) has a detailed summary of this case, Paul’s unsuccessful efforts to appeal around the question of premeditation, and the historiographical riddle left by Occom’s voluble commentary vis-a-vis his subject’s near-total silence.

* Our colonial Calvinist anticipated Marxist aphorists with the remark, “whether we concern ourselves with death or not, it will concern itself with us.” The colonists present probably would have appreciated the occasion more had they known they were participating in an Internet meme.

Part of the Themed Set: Americana.

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1772: The Marquis de Sade and his servant, in effigy

2 comments September 12th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1772, straw effigies of the (in)famous French libertine Marquis de Sade and his servant Latour were executed in Marseilles for sodomy.

“It is always by way of pain one arrives at pleasure.”

The aristocrat christened Donatien Alphonse François (even the name would become taboo for later use among his family) was at this point just 32 years old, but already cultivating the reputation that would make his name a byword for violent sex. He had in 1768 got the boot from Paris in view of the many courtesans who complained of his mistreatment.

Five more would do so for the incident that triggered his “execution”: de Sade took his baroque pleasure from these “very young girls” obtained by his manservant Latour (who also took part in the bisexual debauch). The whole scene was spiced with liberal dosage of the poison/aphrodisiac* spanish fly.

“Cruelty, very far from being a vice, is the first sentiment Nature injects in us all.”

One of these working girls seriously overindulged on the the love potion and spent the next week puking up “a black and fetid substance.” The authorities got interested, and de Sade and Latour bolted to Italy.**

Back in Marseilles, proceedings against the fugitives saw them sentenced for (non-fatal) poisoning and sodomy

for the said Sade to be decapitated … and the said Latour to be hanged by the neck and strangled … then the body of the said Sade and that of the said Latour to be burned and their ashes strewn to the wind.

This was duly carried out against straw effigies of de Sade and Latour on September 12, 1772.

“Lust is to the other passions what the nervous fluid is to life; it supports them all, lends strength to them all: ambition, cruelty, avarice, revenge, are all founded on lust.”

Although the Marquis eventually got this sentence overturned, it did in a sense mark an end to his life as it had been. Later in 1772, he’d be arrested in Italy; though he escaped and went back on the orgy circuit, most of the four-plus decades left to his life would be spent imprisoned or on the run — an ironic situation for the man Guillaume Apollinaire would celebrate as “the freest spirit that has yet existed.”

(Astonishingly, de Sade also avoided execution during the French Revolution: he was supposed to have been in the last batch guillotined before Robespierre fell; either through bureaucratic bungling or efficacious bribery, he avoided the tumbril.† De Sade also cheated death when a man whose daughter the marquis had outraged attempted to shoot him point-blank … only to have the gun misfire.)

“My manner of thinking, so you say, cannot be approved. Do you suppose I care? A poor fool indeed is he who adopts a manner of thinking for others!”

From this latter half of the infamous satyr’s life — when he often had time on his hands not available to dispose in more corporal pursuits — date the pornographic/philosophic writings that would stake de Sade’s disputed reputation for posterity.

* Alleged aphrodisiac.

** With another lover, his sister-in-law Anne … who was also a Benedictine canoness.

† It was on some firsthand authority, then, that de Sade took a dim view of capital punishment: “‘Til the infallibility of human judgements shall have been proved to me, I shall demand the abolition of the penalty of death.” This and other pithy de Sade quotes in this entry are from here.

Part of the Themed Set: Executions in Effigy.

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1772: Susanna Margaretha Brandt, Faust inspiration

2 comments January 14th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1772, Susanna Margaretha Brandt was beheaded with a sword in Frankfurt am Main for murdering her infant child.

The orphaned maid (German Wikipedia entry), not yet 26, had the previous August given birth to the child of a passing goldsmith who had drugged and seduced/raped her.

Brandt got rid of the child, and when caught hysterically attributed the murder to infernal influence.

Faustian Bargain

Affecting as Brandt’s small tragedy might be, she is remembered today not in her own right but because of her proximity to a 22-year-old lawyer living a few hundred yards from her cell: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Several of Goethe’s family and friends were directly involved in Brandt’s case, and her death through seduction and infanticide are widely taken (pdf) to have inspired the character Gretchen in Goethe’s Faust: the character and the infanticide plotline are additions the German author made to an age-old legend.

Goethe began Faust in this same year of 1772, and continued reworking it throughout his life.

And it was a historically timely juncture to incorporate the baby-killing angle into the old Satanic pact story: infanticide was the subject of philosophical and juridical debate, with the use of capital punishment in infanticide cases sharp declining in forward-thinking German states.

Infanticide likewise became a trendy literary topic; Faust is only the best-known example.

“Seduction, and during the second half of the century infanticide, are possibly the most popular themes in eighteenth-century German literature by men,” according to Susanne Kord.*

Lessing’s Sara Sampson and Emilia Galotti, Schiller’s Luise Millerin (Kabale und Liebe), Goethe’s Marie Beaumarchais (Clavigo) and countless other bourgeois heroines die as a direct result of a man’s — often a nobleman’s — sexual desire. Goethe’s Gretchen (Faust), Heinrich Leopold Wagner’s Evchen Humprecht (Die Kindermorderin), Lenz’ Marie (Zerbin) and many others are put to death for committing infanticide.

Like the woman-as-child, the woman-as-childkiller, fictional or not, teaches sexual morals; mounting the scaffold, the woman admits her guilt, speaks her warning, and, incidentally, absolves society of all blame.

That might be a little too pat. But despite rendering a sympathetic character in Margaret, Goethe’s own biography suggests the problematic nature of this widespread fascination with illicit sexuality.

The writer 11 years later found himself in the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach in position to help decide whether another infanticide should live or die.

Goethe voted for Johanna Catharina Höhn’s execution.

* “Women as Children, Women as Childkillers: Poetic Images of Infanticide in Eighteenth-Century Germany,” Eighteenth-Century Studies, Spring 1993. More in this vein on Goethe in “Infanticide as Fiction: Goethe’s Urfaust and Schiller’s ‘Kindsmörderin’ as Models” by Helga Stipa Madland, The German Quarterly, Winter 1989.

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1772: Johann Friedrich Struensee, the doctor who ran Denmark

2 comments April 28th, 2009 dogboy

The 1700s were a time of radical reform, and as the Enlightenment reached the shores of Denmark, it suddenly became possible to be a professed atheist and not lose your head. That is, of course, as long as you didn’t also try to usurp the crown, undermine the aristocracy, and agitate the commoners while you were at it.

Such was the course that ended the rise of Johann Friedrich Struensee on this date in 1772. His friend and sometime cohort Enevold Brandt (Danish Wikipedia entry) was put on the block on the same day.

Struensee was born in 1738 in present day Germany and educated in Prussia, a doctor by trade and a budding Enlightenment political writer by practice. He seemed an unlikely character to involve himself in the court of King Christian VII of both Denmark and Norway, but Struensee was a vain and social man who managed to befriend the right people at the right time.

The first was Brandt. The second was Count Schack Karl Rantzau. A lawyer and Supreme Court justice, Brandt was a court favorite* and planted Struensee’s name as a capable doctor: young, kind, and competent, he would make a perfect personal physician for a king known for being a bit off: Christian was likely schizophrenic. Rantzau, meanwhile, was Count of the Holy Roman Empire, exiled from Copenhagen some 15 years before he met young Struensee, and eager to get back into politics.

In June 1768, Struensee took a post as the king’s traveling physician in England, and he immediately attached to Christian’s loneliness. The regent was interested in literature, philosophy, and music, and Struensee obliged him with patient regard for his charge, for which he was duly rewarded with access to a social life much more fulfilling than in Prussia. As a traveling physician, though, Struensee’s post had a finite span, and he lobbied hard to become a member of the Danish court.

With some help from others in the king’s court, Struensee managed to retain a permanent post, and his clamber up the nearest cliff to power began.

The young doctor, it seems, had a talent for playing two sides for personal gain. It started with the king, who had immense trust in Struensee and began to confide almost everything. Struensee was tactful with this information, adhering to an early form of patient-doctor privilege that endeared him to Christian. The other side was Queen Mathilde, Princess of Wales, by all accounts a beautiful woman who was not happy in Denmark and even less happy to be married to a mad and deteriorating king.

Mathilde initially disliked Struensee — or, at the very least, was indifferent to his actions. But near the end of 1769, the queen finally admitted Struensee into her chambers, and their relationship took off. He ably gamed Mathilde by convincing her that she was the kingdom’s future; Christian, meanwhile, remained ill, and Struensee remained a steady presence in his life. Come spring, Crown Prince Frederick VI also came under Struensee’s care, and as smallpox ravaged Copenhagen, the doctor pressed for inoculation. The king and queen assented, Frederick survived the epidemic, and Struensee garnered himself an official advisorship. It’s also suspected that, while Struensee and Mathilde watched over Frederick as he recovered from the inoculation,** their love affair began.

With a taste of power, Struensee pressed King Christian VII for cabinet changes — which he got — and was named Privy Councilor before 1770 was out. Now the principal advisor to the king, Struensee was able to advance his Enlightenment agenda, notably freedom of the press, the abolition of torture, limiting the death penalty, changing the rules of appointments, numbering the houses in Copenhagen, lighting the streets, and, perhaps in anticipation, removing penalties against those who produced illegitimate children. He was a bold visionary, but he also intoxicated by his growing power … and his programme obviously gored many an ox.

Struensee ascended still further early in 1771 when the king became practically unfit to rule. He was mentally faltering, and Struensee was all but running the show, and more.

In early July, the queen gave birth to a daughter who was widely assumed to be Struensee’s child. Days later, and just three years after being introduced to King Christian VII, Johann Friedrich Struensee effectively appointed himself Privy Cabinet Minister with dictatorial authority through one of King Christian’s edicts. Struensee’s orders would now have the force of law, and, as Christian’s proclamation noted, “They shall be immediately obeyed.”


Enevold Brandt (top), not to be confused with Brandt, the Big Lebowski lackey (bottom).

Struensee spent the next six months turning the European aristocracy inside-out and foisting an aggressive set of cabinet orders on the Danish people — over 1,000, by some counts. Having ridden on the coattails of a queen and king, he now pushed them aside. He moved the court to Schleswig-Holstein, in Prussia, and pleasingly enjoyed both the prerogatives of aristocracy and a middle class contempt for them.

Struensee was, to say the least, not a favorite abroad;† that he and his friends dominated the king and queen did not sit well with Danish commoners. Even Brandt was becoming disaffected, writing in a letter asking for either a larger salary or a resignation from the court:

No despot ever arrogated such power as yourself, or exercised it in such a way. The King’s pages and domestics tremble at the slightest occurrence: all are seized with terror. They talk, they eat, they drink, but they tremble as they do so. Fear has seized on all who surround the minister, even on the Queen…

But Brandt stayed on, and as 1771 drew to a close, Copenhagen became hostile territory for the royal family and their favorite doctor.

After the season’s first masquarade ball, on 16 January 1772, the Queen Dowager — Christian’s step-mother — Juliana Marie exposed Struensee’s affair and had Struensee, Brandt, the queen,‡ and many other Struensee accomplices arrested, ostensibly by order of the king.

Struensee was charged with lèse-majesté, a crime against the crown, for his affair with the queen; though he initially denied the charges — and though Mathilde did her best to shield him from harm — he was found guilty. Brandt was charged with the same crime for allegedly assaulting the king after being himself threatened with a flogging for impertinence (he even had a nip at Christian’s finger). Brandt’s punishment was the same. Each had his right hand chopped off, then was beheaded, drawn, and quatertered.

The queen, meanwhile, went into exile in France. Juliana Marie effectively ruled the kingdom through her son for over a decade, rolling back many of Struensee’s reforms and reverting power back to the aristocracy. This also turned out to be unpopular (the Danes and Norwegians are fickle people), and Mathilde’s son Frederick VI was able to regain power for his father in 1784, eventually moving to liberal reforms more in line with his erstwhile physician’s ideals.

Struensee’s epic rise and fall have spawned a variety of writings since his death. A memoir appeared just months after his execution which detailed his final months. He was also the subject of the Per Olov Enquist novel The Royal Physician’s Visit, which examines his life from multiple perspectives. Queen Mathilde’s life was put to ballet by Peter Maxwell Davies. And for a more contemporary cultural artifact, there’s the 2012 film A Royal Affair.

* Brandt was a court favorite, but after attempting to destroy the position of another minister, he was briefly expelled from Copenhagen, shortly after Struensee accepted his post.

** These inoculations predated “safe” inoculations by non-fatal, related disease strains such as cowpox. Frederick would have been made ill through the small pox strain Variola Minor, which had a mortality rate of about 1%. By contrast, Variola Major was fatal in about 30% of cases.

† While Struensee seems to have been book smart, his feel for international politics was limited, and his standing abroad would have unraveled had it ever raveled in the first place. He repeatedly upset the Russians, and Mathilde’s relatives were not pleased with him. Had he not been downed by public sentiment, it seems likely he would have fallen victim to one of his many royal detractors abroad.

‡ In a curious twist, Rantzau was the queen’s arrestor, and one of the principal conspirators in the dowager’s plot was a cabinet minister Struensee was responsible for ejecting very early in his career.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Denmark,Doctors,Drawn and Quartered,Execution,Famous,Gruesome Methods,Heads of State,History,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Scandal,Treason

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