1785: Horea and Closca, Transylvanian rebels

Add comment February 28th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1785, two of the three leaders of Transylvania’s great peasant uprising were broken on the wheel in the city of Alba Iulia — the third having cheated the executioner by hanging himself in his cell.


Left to right: Vasile Ursu Nicola, known as Horea; Ion Oarga (Closca); and, the suicide, Marcu Giurgiu (Crisan).

The Revolt of Horea, Closca and Crisan (English Wikipedia entry | the far more detailed Romanian) featured the usual grievances of feudal serfs, who in this case were Orthodox Christians governed by a Hungarian Catholic nobility. The heavier exactions of the region’s magnates in this period had led to several peasant delegations petitioning for relief from the Habsburg crown, among whose rosters appear this day’s eventual executees, Horea and Closca.

Those grievances were transmuted into rebellion, paradoxically as it might seem, by the 1780 death of Maria Theresa and the consequent ascent to sole rulership of Emperor Joseph II. Remembered as one of history’s great progressive “enlightened despots,” Joseph would surely have thought himself a friend to the peasantry with measures like rolling back serfdom and a broadened mandate for education.*

But the careless injuries his modernizing edicts visited on a precarious dominion of his polyglot empire would help beat ploughshares into swords in the regions of present-day Romania.

Imperial demands for fresh (rationalized, as the empire saw it) cash taxation had excited the countryside’s nobility and peasantry alike, since little specie flowed through their traditional agrarian arrangements, and an attempted census had met widespread resistance as a likely harbinger of the revenue man; but, these rebels from the soil still mostly hated their traditional local overlords and in due course would direct their blades and torches accordingly. Demands they presented to a besieged city on November 11 of 1784 underscore their perspective:

  1. The nobility should be abolished; each noblemen, if he could get a job in the imperial administration, should live on that income.
  2. The noble landlords should leave once for all their nobiliary estates.
  3. The noblemen should pay taxes like any common taxpayer.
  4. The noblemen’s estates should be divided among the common people

Source

The most immediate spark to set all this tinder ablaze would be the apparent prospect of widespread military recruitment — a desideratum for the peasantry, as it offered the prospect of social mobility and an escape from the magnate’s lash — which was then apparently withdrawn or blocked, a cruel trick to put the servile class in mind of its many abuses. In early November, beginning in Zarand, thousands of peasants Romanian, Saxon, and Hungarian alike rose in arms and began putting manors and churches to the sack.

“Letters from Transylvania continue to talk of excesses committed by rebels there,” one bulletin reported.

Not content to kill the feudal lords, they set fire to the habitations of their vassals if these refuse to embrace the party of the insurgents. At Kerespaya they broke into the coffers of the royal treasury and took away all the money. The evangelical pastor of that place, after having seen the throats of his wife and children cut, was taken to the church and decapitated at the foot of the altar. Some Franciscans met the same fate, those who had taken refuge in the bell towers were strangled and thrown into the streets. But they respect the officials of the emperor, as long as they are not nobles … Major Schultz asked one of them the motives for their cruel conduct, he answered: “Do not believe, Sir, that we have joined this party without reason; we were forced into it by the most pressing necessity. Here are authentic copies of several royal orders given out for our benefit that have not been carried out. All our remonstrances in this matter have been useless, and we have been sent away without receiving justice. It is thus only to break the yoke of the most insufferable slavery that we have resolved to vindicate ourselves. We know well that our conduct will be disapproved of, but we pride ourselves at the same time that it will serve to force examination of the conduct of those who have so cruelly deceived us. At any event, we prefer death to a miserable life, and will die content so that our example might guarantee the rights of humanity to our descendants and give the state contented subjects.”

Nuove di diverse corti e paesi, Dec. 27, 1784 (quoted by Franco Venturi)

The tragic aspirations of this rebellion — which lasted only two months, but had managed to assume a proto-national character** — were amply fulfilled once it was crushed and its three principal leaders betrayed to the government. The two who faced the horrors of the breaking-wheel, and Crisan as well, had their corpses quartered and their limbs distributed to the major thoroughfares by way of intimidation. Dozens of others of less eternal fame were also put to death during this period, to add to the innumerable killings in the course of suppressing the rebels.†


Above: detail view (click for the full image) of an 18th century print illustrating the execution. Below: another take on the scene.

But there was, too, that examination they desired forced upon the emperor, who promulgated a decree abolishing serfdom in 1785, eliminated noble control over marriages, and expanded the peasantry’s grazing rights. These reforms were at best only partially successful (the true end of serfdom still lay decades in the future) but they betokened on parchment just as the rebels had done in fire and blood the crisis striking at the ancien regime — for, alongside condemnations of the peasantry, there were during those revolutionary years also vindications of them, written in the language of the Enlightenment:

The Walachian uprising is an important lesson for sovereigns. It confirms the observation that the human spirit is mature for a general ferment, that it yearns for laws that respect equality, justice, and the order corresponding to its nature. How could it have been that under the most beneficent and mild government in the world, that of Joseph II, such an event could occur? It is because the principles of liberty, justice, and equality are woven into our hearts; they are a part of our natural destiny.

Wilhelm Ludwig Wekhrlin

* Joseph also abolished the death penalty in 1787. (He died in 1790, and the abolition with him.)

** And even more so in hindsight; see, for instance, this 1937 tributary obelisk.

† “I will leave you to judge the excesses they committed. Among others twenty-seven peasants were arrested, whose heads were cut off by nobles in one day without any kind of procedure.” One reported decree — we hope never effected in reality — threatened to impale a random citizen of any town that gave sanctuary to the “villainous low people.” (Both nuggets from Venturi, op. cit.)

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Austria,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Cheated the Hangman,Death Penalty,Execution,Gruesome Methods,Habsburg Realm,History,Not Executed,Power,Revolutionaries,Roman Empire,Treason

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1785: Alexander Stewart, the first to hang at the Tolbooth

Add comment April 20th, 2016 Headsman

We’ve recently featured in these pages the very last hanging at Edinburgh’s old Grassmarket, scene of innumerable executions potent in Scottish history.

Beginning in 1785, public hangings were relocated to the Tolbooth, a medieval civic building that had been converted into a notorious prison — an era that was officially christened on this date in 1785 with the sacrifice of a juvenile delinquent.

the first person executed at the west end of the old city gaol, was Alexander Stewart, a youth of only fifteen, who had committed many depredations, and at last had been convicted of breaking into the house of Captain Hugh Dalrymple, of Fordell in the Potterrow, and Neidpath Castle, the seat of the Duke of Queensberry, from which he carried off many articles of value. It was expressly mentioned by the judge in his sentence that he was to be hanged in the Grassmarket, “or any other place the magistrates might appoint,” thus indicating that a change was in contemplation; and accordingly, the west end of the old Tolbooth was fitted up for his execution, which took place on the 20th of April, 1785.

Demolished in 1817, the Tolbooth survives today as a much-spat-upon heart design in the cobblestones marking the gaol’s former location.

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1785: Three at Shrewsbury, in depraved times

Add comment March 26th, 2016 Headsman

The assize model we’ve been featuring this week surely underscores during the Bloody Code days the law as a wholesale instrument.

For a site like this which prefers to zero in on a story for the day, the phenomenon is most discomfiting. But even if executions in the Anglo world have for the past century or two mostly unfolded as individual tragic stories arcing from beginning through middle and end, they have still merely sat atop a legal machine that grinds up lives by thousands.

The specter of the noose perhaps highlights the trend in a way that “mere” terms of years does not quite dramatize for us. Even so, now as then, no small number of convicts prefer the hemp to the life-destroying “mercy” of a lengthy prison sentence or penal transportation overseas.

All of this is mere commentary for today’s hanging trio, who are criminals of no consequence with misdeeds but scantily attested; their trials, like most in that period, would have spanned only minutes or at most a couple of hours, and been determined by gentlemen already looking ahead to the next case. “The hungry judges soon the sentence sign, and wretches hang that jurymen may dine”: Alexander Pope had set that line down in The Rape of the Lock more than 70 years before.

“The capital convictions of the late Lent assizes, exhibit a most melancholy picture of the depravity of the times,” lamented the Leeds Intelligencer taking stock on April 5, 1785 of that season’s legal bulletins. “The following short list will prove it; — at Shrewsbury 11, York 7, Derby 6, Lincoln 9 (executed), Gloucester 11, Nottingham 4, (executed) Stafford 3, (executed) and Dorchester 5. There were 112 tried at Gloucester.”

Shrewsbury split its sentences, five for the scaffold and six for reprieve; the last three of the doomed lost their lives on this date in 1785 for various property crimes. These few words on the Salopean assizes were printed in several newspapers, and are quoted here from The British Chronicle, or, Pugh’s Hereford Journal, March 31, 1785:

At the assizes for Shropshire, which ended at Shrewsbury on Wednesday night last, John Green, for the wilful murder of his wife Elizabeth Green, by shooting her through the head, in a cellar in his own house, at Bromfield near Ludlows, and Ann Hancock, for the wilful murder of her male bastard child, at her lodgings in the Castle-foregate, in Shrewsbury, being fully convicted, received sentence of death, and were on Friday [March 18, 1785] executed at the Old Heath, pursuant thereto, and their bodies were delivered to the surgeons to be anatomized. At the place of execution Ann Hancock comfessed the fact for which she suffered, but Green did not.

Here the Shropshire narrative breaks, consigning the remaining death sentences to the newspaper’s dregs.

Image: 'For the Remainder of these Pests, see the last Page.'

… where we find:

The nine following persons were also capitally convicted, and received sentence of death, viz. William Williams, for burglariously stealing 130l. and upwards, the property of Mr. Edw. Jeffreys; Edward Edwards, for burglariously stealing a considerable sum of money, the property of Robert Pemberton, Esq; Sarah Davies, for housebreaking; William Griffiths, for stealing a black mare; Mary Davies, Rich. Pyfield, Mary Boulton, alias Bolton, William Evans, and William Hotchkins, for burglaries. The six latter were reprieved; and William Williams, Edward Edwards, and Sarah Davies, left for execution.

The hangings took place on March 26.

Part of the Themed Set: Shropshire.

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1785: Barbara Erni, the Golden Boos

2 comments February 26th, 2015 Headsman

Tiny Liechtenstein last conducted an execution 230 years ago today: Barbara Erni — the legendary “Golden Boos”.

Nicknamed for her strawberry blond hair, the Golden Boos had an ingenious scam that required every bit of her Bunyanesque strength: she would wander the countryside and check into inns with a large chest or pack. Intimating that the parcel contained something of great value, she would insist upon its overnight safekeeping in a very secure room.

Once the inn had tucked in for the night, a diminutive accomplice would emerge from the trunk, plunder the lonely room of its valuables, and the two would escape into the night. Evidently, secure rooms in 18th century Liechtenstein were never secured from the inside.

She admitted to 17 such thefts. Liechtentein, whose population at the present time numbers fewer than 40,000 souls, had to import the executioner to chop off Barbara Erni’s Golden Boos on a public scaffold in Vaduz on February 26, 1785.

Liechtenstein officiall abolished the death penalty in 1987.

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1785: John Winship, family planner

2 comments July 25th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1785, a Sunderland-area farmer named John Winship was hanged for killing his maidservant Grace Smith with a poisonous draught of corrosive mercury sublimate which Winship had intended to induce an abortion.

His body was delivered to a local surgeon, who autopsied it and “in the presence of many gentlemen of the faculty” lectured on Winship’s organs as he dug them out (and extracted two intestinal worms).

the doctrine of the late Mr. Hewson, F.R.S. was demonstrated, that, in executions of this kind, death is not produced, as has been generally supposed, by an extravation of blood, occasioned by the rupture of the vessels of the brain, but by suffocation: as in the case of drowning, etc. (Newcastle Courant, July 30, 1785, quoted in this anti-abortion tract)

Grace Smith, who died four agonizing days after she ingested the toxin, perhaps did not sympathize overmuch with her killer’s unpleasant strangulation.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions

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