1849: Ugo Bassi, nationalist priest

4 comments August 8th, 2012 Headsman

Measure thy life by loss instead of gain;
Not by the wine drunk, but the wine poured forth
For love’s strength standeth in love’s sacrifice;
And whoso suffers most hath most to give.

-From Harriet King‘s poem “Ugo Bassi’s Sermon in the Hospital”

On this date in 1849, the Garibaldian priest Ugo Bassi was shot in Bologna along with fellow-nationalist Count Livraghi.


Statue of Ugo Bassi at Bologna’s via Ugo Bassi.(cc) image from Biblioteca Salaborsa.

Detail view (click for full image) of Bassi and Livraghi being escorted to execution.

Bassi was a penniless Barnabite priest famous for his powerful oratory* and his national enthusiasms. He signed right up for Garibaldi‘s national movement in the heady liberal revolutions of 1848-49.

“Italy is here in our camp,” he would say of the Garibaldian forces readying their (ultimately unsuccessful) defense of the Roman Republic.** “Italy is Garibaldi; and so are we.”

Alas, in this engagement, Italy had a lot fewer guns than the French.

The new French ruler Napoleon III, who had himself been in youth a revolutionary carbonaro in Rome, saw foreign policy advantage in backing the exiled Papacy and overthrew the Republic.†

Garibaldi escaped to exile, but many of his subalterns did not. Bassi was captured unarmed — he didn’t even bear arms in battle — and Pius IX, once thought a fellow-traveler by the liberals, did not hesitate to hand him to the Austrians for punishment. The Habsburgs stood equally to lose from any gains of the Risorgimento, and accordingly gave Bassi a perfunctory military trial, then had him shot immediately in Bologna.

For crowning his open-hearted life with this sacrifice, Ugo Bassi instantly became, from that day to this, one of the best-honored Italian patriots.

He possessed at once the simplicity of a child, the faith of a martyr, the knowledge of a scholar, and the calm courage of a hero … If ever Italy comes to be united may God restore her the Voice of Ugo Bassi … The name of Ugo Bassi will be the watchword of the Italians on the day of vengeance!

Garibaldi

* Anecdote associated with Bassi once he came to firing up the Bolognese for Garibaldi: a poor girl who could give nothing to the cause spontaneously chopped off her own hair and handed it to him. This is the event depicted by Bassi’s fellow-Bolognese Napoleone Angiolini, Ugo Bassi sui gradini di San Petronio.

** Topical incidental: the Roman Republic lasted only a few months, but its constitution abolished the death penalty … so it can count as the first nation to abolish capital punishment in constitutional law.

† Earning Napoleon III the permanent wrath of Italian nationalists.

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1849: Anna Koch of Appenzell

1 comment December 3rd, 2010 Headsman

This date’s pastoral story of adolescent avarice — and impressive disobedience at the scaffold — comes to us from the tiniest of Swiss cantons,* as related in this public-domain text


Anna Maria Koch and Magdalene Fessler were girls — each about seventeen years of age — living in Gonten in the year 1849. On June 12 of that year the dead body of the latter was found lying in a ditch in one of the village pastures. There were upon it no marks of violence, and a coroner’s jury was led to conclude that the girl had come to her death by falling into the ditch in the dark. A little later, the discovery was made that on June 10 Anna Koch had sold to a silversmith in Gonten a chain, a locket, and a rosary. These articles on examination were proved to have belonged to Magdalene Fessler. Anna Koch was placed under arrest and asked to make explanation. The story related by her is as follows: –On the Sunday following Frohnleichnamsfest she met Jean-Baptiste Matezenauer, a young man of the village, and he gave her the articles of jewellery, saying that he had found them. He told her that she must sell the things and put the money in a bag which she was to hide in a field. She must then take with her a friend, stroll through the field and, as though by chance, spy the bag, pick it up and say, “Oh! I have found something!” With the money she was to buy a wedding dress, Matzenauer promising in a short time to marry her. Matzenauer was arrested and confronted with his accuser. He protested innocence, but the girl adhered to her story. She did even more, she enlarged upon it. She said that on the morning of Frohnleichnamsfest she had been in Matzenauer’s company; that he had then told her he meant to kill Magdalene Fessler in the afternoon, and had asked her to station herself in the field where the ditch was. This, she said, she had done, and that while there she saw Matzenauer drag thither the body of his victim. Despite the inherent improbability of her whole account, the girl vehemently reiterated it, each time challenging Matzenauer to a denial. At last the bewildered inquisitorial fathers before whom the examination was being conducted — perhaps with some recollection of the efficacy of torture in eliciting actionable testimony in the case of Landamman Suter — ordered Matzenauer to be brought under the lash. This was done, but without the hoped-for result. Matzenauer remained obdurate.

The case dragged on till November 13. It was then suddenly terminated by the confession of Anna Koch that she alone had planned and committed the murder. The details of the confession were substantially these: –She, a poor girl, had for a long time felt hurt in pride that she had not the money with which to provide herself the chains and trinkets commonly worn by the girls of her acquaintance. So keen was this feeling that finally she resolved to purchase a chain from one of the silversmiths of Gonten and trust to fortune to enable her to pay for it. She obtained the chain, but failing to pay for it by the time agreed on with the silversmith, was asked to return it. The necessity of doing so was fully impending when, on Frohnleichnamsfest, she met Magdalena Fessler in the churchyard, at the beginning of afternoon service. The latter had about her neck a beautiful chain, and Anna Koch, seeing it, was prompted to kill her, take the ornament, sell it, and with the money realised meet her own debt to the silversmith. She told her friend that she had lost her rosary, and asked her to go with her to find it. The two girls walked on together, soon passing into the field containing the ditch. As they were crossing the latter on a plank Anna Koch pushed Magdalene Fessler, causing her to lose her footing and fall into the water. She then jumped into the ditch herself, seized the head of her victim and, holding the mouth open with her fingers, kept the head under water until death ensued from strangulation. Having made her confession, Anna Koch asked that she might suffer the extreme penalty for her crime. Young people of her acquaintance petitioned the Great Council for a pardon. This was refused, the vote standing only six for pardon and ninety-six for punishment. Decree was then entered that the guilty one be beheaded on the block.

The day before that fixed for the execution (the latter being December 3) the condemned girl spent quietly in prayer and in communion with her confessor. She expressed herself as being entirely reconciled to her fate and, in fact, as anxious to meet it. But when led forth on the day of execution, her manner changed. The wild instincts of her Appenzell nature reasserted themselves. She declared that she could not and would not die, and with fierce cries drowned the voice of the officer who read her death-warrant before the people. The reading finished, four strong men seized the girl and bound her on a sled. Thus secured she was dragged to the headsman’s block in the market-place. But here a fresh difficulty was encountered. On being released from the sled her struggles were so frantic and determined that the executioner could not perform his task. After several vain attempts he sent the Reichsvogt (the same mediaeval official personage that had figured at the execution of Dr. Anton Leu and Landamman Suter) to report the situation of affairs to the Great Council and ask advice. The reply returned was that the headsman must do his duty. After an hour and a half of cries and resistance on the part of the condemned, her head was firmly secured to the block by the braids of her hair, and the fatal stroke given.


Gonten (it’s the long collection of buildings along the valley road, at the base of the slope) and environs. (cc) image from Michael Beat.

* Appenzell Innerrhoden is the smallest canton by population, and is larger by area only than the urban canton of Basel-City.

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1849: Frederick and Marie Manning, a Dickensian scene

7 comments November 13th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1849, husband-and-wife murderers Frederick and Marie Manning (or Maria Manning) were publicly hanged together outside Horsemonger Lane Gaol in London.

An image of Marie Manning (nee Marie de Roux) from the Victorian popular press — from this romantic biography of Tolstoyan length available free from Google books.

The felonious pair — she a Swiss-born domestic; he a shifty laborer with a penchant for the inside job — lured to dinner in their Bermondsey home a wealthy friend who had designs on the redheaded knockout, then murdered him for his loot and stuffed the limed body under the floorboards. They were apprehended separately on the lam.

As is typical when a heartthrob femme fatale stands in the dock, a sensational trial of the “here today, gone tomorrow” variety ensued. The crime, nicknamed “the Bermondsey Horror” (here (pdf) is a book chapter-scale recounting), had each accusing the other, with the outcome usual for this site.

A massive, jeering throng turned out to see the two off (Mrs. Manning’s choice of black satin for the occasion is said to have caused the look to go out of fashion).

Among that crowd was Charles Dickens,* who took a break from working on David Copperfield to write The Times a letter published Nov. 14 demanding that executions be removed within prison walls on account of the unedifying conduct of the spectators.

Sir — I was a witness of the execution at Horsemonger-lane this morning. I went there with the intention of observing the crowd gathered to behold it, and I had excellent opportunities of doing so, at intervals all through the night, and continuously from daybreak until after the spectacle was over.

I believe that a sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the immense crowd collected at that execution this morning could be imagined by no man, and could be presented in no heathen land under the sun. The horrors of the gibbet and of the crime which brought the wretched murderers to it, faded in my mind before the atrocious bearing, looks and language, of the assembled spectators. When I came upon the scene at midnight, the shrillness of the cries and howls that were raised from time to time, denoting that they came from a concourse of boys and girls already assembled in the best places, made my blood run cold. As the night went on, screeching, and laughing, and yelling in strong chorus of parodies on Negro melodies, with substitutions of “Mrs. Manning” for “Susannah,” and the like, were added to these. When the day dawned, thieves, low prostitutes, ruffians and vagabonds of every kind, flocked on to the ground, with every variety of offensive and foul behaviour. Fightings, faintings, whistlings, imitations of Punch, brutal jokes, tumultuous demonstrations of indecent delight when swooning women were dragged out of the crowd by the police with their dresses disordered, gave a new zest to the general entertainment. When the sun rose brightly — as it did — it gilded thousands upon thousands of upturned faces, so inexpressibly odious in their brutal mirth or callousness, that a man had cause to feel ashamed of the shape he wore, and to shrink from himself, as fashioned in the image of the Devil. When the two miserable creatures who attracted all this ghastly sight about them were turned quivering into the air, there was no more emotion, no more pity, no more thought that two immortal souls had gone to judgment, no more restraint in any of the previous obscenities, than if the name of Christ had never been heard in this world, and there were no belief among men but that they perished like the beasts.

… I am solemnly convinced that nothing that ingenuity could devise to be done in this city, in the same compass of time, could work such ruin as one public execution, and I stand astounded and appalled by the wickedness it exhibits. I do not believe that any community can prosper where such a scene of horror and demoralization as was enacted this morning outside Horsemonger-lane Gaol is presented at the very doors of good citizens, and is passed by, unknown or forgotten.

Dickens would base a French maid named Mademoiselle Hortense in his next novel, Bleak House on Marie Manning.

This question of public as opposed to private hangings was a lively debate at the time, and Dickens’s view was hardly uncontested. A letter in response from one F.B. Head of Oxenton countered thus:

The merciful object of every punishment which the law inflicts is not so much to revenge the past crime as to prevent its recurrence. Now, Mrs. Manning’s last moments clearly explain, or rather indisputably prove, the benefit which society practically derives from a public execution. … as for a few fleeting moments she stood, with bandaged eyes, beneath the gibbet, how unanswerably did the picture mutely expound the terror which the wicked very naturally have of being publicly hanged before the scum and refuse of society! “The whistlings — the imitations of Punch — the brutal jokes and indecent delight of the thieves, low prostitutes, ruffians and vagabonds,” so graphically described by Mr. Charles Dickens were — by her own showing — not only the most fearful portion of her sentence but, under Providence, these coarse ingredients may possibly have effected that momentary repentance which the mild but fervent exhortations of the chaplain had failed to produce.

But, besides the impolicy of divesting the death by law of a murderer of the most effective portion of its terrors, there are, Sir, I submit, higher and infinitely more important reasons, which make it our bounden duty to require that every criminal who suffers death should be executed in public.

So long as it shall be deemed advisable by us, by laws divine as well as human, to deprive the murderer of his life, the whole process of his trial, ending in an act of such awful responsiblity, ought to be performed in open day, in order that the community may at all events clearly see what it is they are doing — what it is they have done. The purple hands of the wretched sufferer sufficiently explain what the white nightcap hypocritically conceals, namely, the dreadful act that has been performed; and, although thieves and prostitutes may ridicule the convulsions they witness, there will, it is to be hoped, in a free country and with a free press, always be found among an English crowd some one fellow-creature possessing the kindly feelings of Mr. Charles Dickens, who, should he see sufficient reasons for doing so, will not only call upon the country most seriously to consider whether the punishment he delineates has not exceeded the offence, but, as an honest witness, will condemn and expose any unnecessary harshness or cruelty that may have accompanied it.”

Even the legendary British humor magazine Punch weighed in, with a famous cartoon skewering the mob who turned up for public hangings.**


“The Great Moral Lesson at Horsemonger Lane Gaol”, Punch magazine’s rendition of the Mannings’ execution — turning its gaze not on the scaffold but on the unruly crowd beneath it. It comes with a poem.

Public executions would continue in England until 1868.

* Not the only literary big wheel in the crowd: Herman Melville also checked it out. No indication they bumped into each other, and no surprise: the crowd was so huge that at least one spectator was crushed to death against a police barricade. (As reported by Hanging in the Balance: A History of the Abolition of Capital Punishment in Britain, which numbers the onlookers at 30,000 and claims 2.5 million execution broadsheets were sold.)

** According to Dickens and Crime, Dickens actually observed the hanging with the Punch cartoonist who sketched “The Great Moral Lesson” (the two went in together to rent out a well-placed roof “for the extremely moderate sum of Ten Guineas”). That artist, John Leech, had illustrated Dickens’ A Christmas Carol a few years before.

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1849: Lajos Batthyány and the 13 Martyrs of Arad

8 comments October 6th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1849, the shining lights of Hungary’s 1848 revolution met the Austrian Empire’s firing squadsexecutioners. (Correction: Most were hanged, not shot. See comments.)

Probably no polity in Europe stood more fundamentally in danger from the wave of 1848 revolutions than the Habsburg Empire. While governments would be overthrown and power renegotiated across the continent, the Austrian state’s dynastically welded hodgepodge of mingled ethnicities appeared existentially at odds with the nationalist stirrings afoot.

And none of those ethnicities answering to Vienna stirred as vigorously as the Hungarians.

The Hungarian Diet established a national government under Lajos Batthyány (English Wikipedia page | Hungarian) (or Louis Batthyani) in the spring of 1848* and soon pushed for more self-determination than Austria was prepared to countenance.

When Austrian troops turned on Hungary, the aspiring nation issued an 1849 declaration of independence full of vituperation for the ancient noble line.

[T]he house of Hapsburg-Lorraine, as perjured in the sight of God and man, has forfeited its right to the Hungarian throne …

Three hundred years have passed since the Hungarian nation, by free election, placed the house of Austria upon its throne, in accordance with stipulations made on both sides, and ratified by treaty. These three hundred years have been, for the country, a period of uninterrupted suffering.

This dynasty … which can at no epoch point to a ruler who based his power on the freedom of the people, adopted a course toward this nation from father to son, which deserves the appellation of perjury.

The house of Austria has publicly used every effort to deprive the country of its legitimate independence and constitution, designing to reduce it to a level with the other provinces long since deprived of all freedom, and to unite all in a common link of slavery.

Guess how that turned out.

Lajos Batthyany portrait by Hungarian painter Miklos Barabas.

It wasn’t much of a contest in the field, leaving this day’s doings the shooting of Batthyany at Pest (the city later merged with Buda and Obuda to form Budapest) and 13 Hungarian generals — the so-called 13 martyrs of Arad — in a Translyvanian city that is today part of Romania.

This was not, however, the last the Habsburg dynasty would hear of Hungary’s frustrated national aspirations.

Three years later, a Hungarian nationalist attempted to assassinate the youthful Emperor Franz Joseph,** and the strength of the Magyar lands’ self-determination movements would eventually drive a formal ratification of Hungarian privileges that rechristened the state as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or simply Austria-Hungary.

All that stuff we said about you Habsburgs? Bygones.

While becoming half of a dual capital opposite Vienna meant a late 19th-century renaissance for Budapest, this cure by the Empire for its internal pressures proved almost as harmful as the disease. The pressures immediately discharged would pale in comparison to the conflicts Hungarians’ now-privileged status helped provoke with Slavs and other ethnic minorities (exacerbated by Hungarians’ ability to block Austrian foreign policy). In an early preview of a now-familiar pattern, the proto-nation-state of Hungary was a nastier piece of work for its ethnic minorities than the decadent old melting-pot ruled from Vienna … and the road from this day’s executions to the Austro-Hungarian Compromise ran straight on to 1914 Sarajevo and the graveyard of Habsburg history.

As for the executions this day, Batthyany was saluted by the great Hungarian composer Franz Liszt in his Funerailles:

More prosaically and much more pervasively, a legend that Austrians were jovially toasting the death of the 13 Martyrs as they were being executed translated into a still-active tradition against clinking beer glasses in Hungary.


The Martyrs of Arad (Sixth of October) by Janos Thorma

* Hungary’s March 15 National Day derives from this period.

** Franz Joseph was no mere abstract emblem of imperial absolutism: he had assumed the Austrian throne in December 1848 upon the abdication of his feebleminded uncle specifically to free the crown from the oaths his predecessor had taken to various reforms. From the Hungarian perspective — and the declaration excerpted above dwells at length on the perfidy of this maneuver — he was installed to crush the revolution.

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1849: Not Fyodor Dostoyevsky

16 comments December 22nd, 2007 Ksenia Zanon

“Brother, I am not dejected or crestfallen. Life, life is everywhere, life is in us ourselves, not outside. Near me will be people, and to be a person among persons and stay him forever, to not be cast down or despondent no matter what the misfortunes are – therein lies life, therein lies its purpose. I realized that. This idea entered my flesh and blood. Yes! It’s true! The head that created and got accustomed to the higher demands of the spirit, that head is cut off from my shoulders. What’s left are the memories and images created and not reified by me. They will ulcerate me, indeed! What I have left is my heart and the same flesh and blood, which can love, suffer, pity, and remember, and this is life, after all …” (quote — in Russian; the translation is mine)

The square — now named Pionerskaya Ploschad’ — where Dostoyevsky faced a mock execution. Image used with permission.

This slightly rambling epistle is authored by a titan of the world literature, a schizophrenic, a gambler, a true believer, a sufferer, a humanitarian, an epileptic, a Russian, a philosopher, a St. Petersburger, the Writer. Let us forgive him a certain incongruity of thought, since that letter was his first salute to a newly acquired chance to live.

On this date in 1849, Dostoevsky, along with some 20 other condemned, was brought out to St. Petersburg’s Semyonovsky platz. They were meant to be shot for affiliation with the Petrashevsky circle, a group of idealistic young intellectuals, apologists of Fourier and fervent advocates of socialism. Just like the generation of aristocrats (alas, some of them will be featured on this macabre blog) before them and generations of intelligentsia (whose destiny is equally unenviable) after them, Petrashevtsy gathered at Petersburg’s flats, read articles and concerned themselves with the fate of the permanently-rising-from-the-knees Motherland.

The formal charges brought upon Dostoevsky were quite bizarre: he listened to a story that criticized the army; had in his possession an illegal printing press; read an open letter to the circle from Belinsky to Gogol which excoriated the church and government; and participated in a regicide plot. The latter accusation Fyodor Mikhailovich vehemently denied, for indeed he was not a bloodthirsty revolutionary, but a proponent of the peaceful Christ’s teaching (this affliction with Christian philosophy was incidentally somewhat of a mauvais ton among the predominantly atheistic circle).

It always seemed to me that Dostoevsky’s participation in the Petrashevky circle was a tribute to the epoch’s fad. It was the imperfections of human nature, not the peculiarities of a hypothetical social structure, that concerned him greatly. The world’s wrongdoings result from something rotten in a man’s soul, and once those internal blemishes are erased, the external harmony emerges. “Beauty will save the world”, a cliché instilled in every Russian by a literature teacher in 10th grade, a phrase attributed to Christ-like kniaz’ Myshkin, and one of Dostoevsky’s most important statements: inner beauty is vital, the rest is a consequence.

The military court condemned Dostoevsky to death. The general-auditor amended this decision and recommended a lighter punishment: “… deprive of all fortune and send to hard labor in fortresses for eight years”. The final resolution of Nicholas I reduced the sentence to four years, “and then [relegate] to [the rank of] private … declare clemency only at the moment when everything is ready for execution”.

“Life is a gift, life is happiness, every minute could be a century of happiness …” continued Dostoevsky his letter. In three days, he received a prisoner’s dress, a fur coat, and valenki. He was put in shackles and dispatched to Siberia …

Novels and Short Stories by Dostoyevsky

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