1857: Jean-Louis Verger, doctrinaire

Add comment January 30th, 2014 Headsman

On Saturday, January 3, 1857, the Archbishop of Paris Marie-Dominique-Auguste Sibour had just reached the church of Saint-Etienne-du-Mont when Jean-Loiuis Verger stepped out of a crowd — out of obscurity — and plunged a long Catalan knife fatally into Sibour’s chest.

The assassin Verger (English Wikipedia entry | French) was a 30-year-old ordained priest who had accumulated a quarrelsome reputation among his ecclesiastical peers. The previous year, he had been laid under an official interdiction for preaching against the Catholic Church’s controversial new doctrine of the Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception.

Some reports had Verger crying out “No goddesses!” as he daggered the archbishop. “It is nowise the person of the Archbishop of Paris whom I wished to strike, but, in his person, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception,” Verger told the magistrates who judged him within days. There wasn’t a whole lot of doubt about the trial, so why wait around? But Verger’s vendetta wasn’t only theological; his suspension meant he wasn’t getting paid, and as his fury mounted over it he went so far as to post himself at the door of a church with a placard proclaiming that he was starving.

Archbishop of Paris was a surprisingly dangerous job in the mid-19th century. Sibour got the post because his predecessor was shot dead negotiating at a barricade during the 1848 revolution; in 1871, Archbishop Georges Darboy was taken hostage by the Paris Commune and executed by his captors when the national government invaded the city.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,God,Guillotine,History,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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1857: Gaspard Matraccia, parrot-lover

Add comment March 21st, 2013 Headsman

From the London Times, March 26, 1857.

AN EXECUTION AT MARSEILLES. — Matraccia, the Italian who, as reported in the Messenger, was some short time back condemned to death by the Court of Assizes of Aix for a series of extraordinary murders at Marseilles, was executed in the latter city on Saturday morning.

At 4 o’clock he was awakened by the chaplain and director of the prison, and told that the petition for a commutation of punishment which he had sent to the Emperor was rejected, and that he was about to be executed. He received the announcement with the greatest calmness, and getting up, seated himself on the side of the bed, and took some coffee and smoked several cigars.

At 6 o’clock he attended mass, and during the service he appeared very devout. The mass was followed by a sermon, which seemed to make a great impression on him. The service was attended by all the prisoners.

When it was concluded, Matraccia was taken back to his cell, and supplied with breakfast. Shortly before 7 o’clock the clerk of the Court of Assizes read to him the text of his condemnation, the chaplain translating it into Italian. He listened to the reading and translation with great resignation, and when they were concluded embraced the clerk and all the persons present, most of whom were so affected that they shed tears.

Shortly after the executioners of Aix and Nismes, accompanied by an assistant, arrived, and proceeded to pinion the condemned. He was then freed from the irons on his legs and he asked if he could not be allowed to walk to the scaffold, but was told that he must be conveyed in a cellular van.

He then begged, as a special favour, that he might be accompanied by one of his friends, a countryman, who had been with him all the morning, and that his parrot, which was in a cage in his cell, might be taken with him to the scaffold. Both these requests were granted, and he was placed in a van, the chaplain being in attendance on him.

Arrived at the scaffold, which was erected in the Place St. Michel, and which was surrounded by an immense crowd, consisting of at least 30,000 persons, the vehicle stopped, and the cage containing the parrot was, to the surprise of the spectators, first placed on the scaffold; the criminal, his friend, and the chaplain then alighted from the van, Matraccia cast a glance at the guillotine, and embraced several persons who were present.

Then, supported by his friend and the chaplain, he ascended the steps of the scaffold, and in doing so it was observed that he slightly trembled.

When he reached the platform he kissed with great fervour the crucifix which the chaplain presented; then he embraced the chaplain and his friend, and then, turning to the parrot, he said in Italian, “Your master is about to die, and he embraces you for the last time.”

Afterwards he advanced towards the front of the scaffold, and cried to the people, “I demand pardon of the inhabitants of Marseilles for the scandal I have occasioned. Pray for me, for in a few minutes I shall pray for you.”

He was then seized by the executioners, and in a few seconds all was over.


(cc) image from Danny Chapman.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Murder,Public Executions

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1857: Return Ward, dismemberer

3 comments June 12th, 2012 Headsman

Headline: Shocking Murder of a Female - The Body Burned: Arrest of her husband!

On this date in 1857, a “hulking lout” with the unusual handle of Return Jonathan Meigs Ward was hanged in Toledo for Sylvania, Ohio’s most shocking murder.

Ward makes his notorious entry in the annals of Ohio crime by killing his wife after which, in the words of a wire story, he “sits up nights, with his door locked, cuts her into small pieces, and burns up her remains in the stove. This process occupied several days, in which time he drew largely on the shops around for shavings, and the unsavory scent went forth from the chimney, and filled the nostrils of those who happened to be in that vicinity.”

That’s from the April 2, 1857 Lowell (Mass.) Daily Citizen and News, and indicates that this itinerant character had become a national story. Ward, indeed, appears to have perpetrated a couple of theretofore unsolved homicides in his past, and the experience of dislimbing a previous murder victim to box him in a crate is just the sort of thing to give a man the sang-froid to dice up and incinerate his late spouse.

Anyway, the neighbors being unsatisfied with Ward’s accounts of his wife’s absence, they started poking around his place and turned up the bone fragments he hadn’t been able to completely burn away. Though the evidence against him was circumstantial, it was pretty overwhelming — and a jury took less than a half-hour in a standing-room-only courtroom to convict.

Ward went with the old “accidentally killed her during a domestic fight and cut her all to pieces in my panic” story. You know, the classic. In a post-conviction quasi-confession to the Toledo Blade, he took that tack while giving a stomach-churning description of how he annihilated the corpse (here reprinted by the Newark Advocate, April 15, 1857). Warning: Skip this if detailed descriptions of human dismemberment aren’t your thing.

I tore the clothes open, from the throat down. I then took a small pocket knife and opened the body, took out the bowels first, and then put them on the stove, upon the wood; they being filled with air would make a noise in exploding, so I took my knife and pricked holes through them to prevent the noise; then took out the liver and heart, and put them in the stove; found it very difficult to burn them; had to take the poker and frequently stir them before they could be destroyed; found the lungs very much decayed. I then took out the blood remaining in the cavity of the body, by placing a copper kettle close to the same and scooping it out with my hands. I then dipped portions of her clothing in the same, and burnt it together, fearing if I put the blood in the stove alone, that it might be discovered. I then made an incision through the flesh, along down each side, broke off the ribs and took out the breast bone, and throwing it into a large boiler, unjointed the arms at the shoulders, doubled them up and placed them in the boiler; then severed the remaining portions of the body, by placing a stick of wood under the back and breaking the back bone over the same, cutting away the flesh and ligament with a knife. Then tried to sever the head from the body; it proving ineffectual, I put the whole upper portion of the body into the boiler. Then took a large carving knife and severed the lower portion of the body, unjointed the legs at the knee, and again at the hip joint; cut the thighs open and took out the bones and burnt them up; they burned very rapidly.

On Thursday night, I commenced burning the body, by placing the upper and back portions of the same, together with the head, in the stove. On Friday morning, finding it had not been consumed, I built a large fire by placing wood around and under it, and in a short time it was wholly consumed, except some small portions of the larger bones and of the skull. The remaining portions of the body were kept in the boiler and in tubs, under the bed, covered up with a corded petticoat, and were there at the time the first search was made on Saturday, by Constable Curtis. — Hearing on Saturday evening that the citizens were not satisfied with the search made by Mr. Curtis, I proceeded on Sunday morning to destroy the remainder of the body by burning the same in the stove, cutting the fleshy parts of the thighs in small strips, the more readily to dispose of them. On Monday morning I took up the ashes in a small bag, sifting out the larger pieces of bone with my hands, placing the same in my overcoat pockets, which I scattered in various places in the fields, at different time. Also took the major portion of the trunk nails, together with the hinges, and scattered them in different places. I then burned her trunk and every vestige of her clothing, disposing of small portions at a time, to prevent their creating too much smoke.

Though the hanging itself occurred behind prison walls — and just as well, since the jittery Ward was unmanned and incoherent — Toledo was reportedly thronged with curiosity-seekers on the day of the execution.

That curiosity hasn’t disappeared in the intervening years.

Just in time for the 150th death-iversary of Return Ward in 2007, Gaye Gindy recaptured the case for these latter days in her Murder in Sylvania, Ohio: As Told in 1857.

Part of the Themed Set: Ohio.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Mature Content,Murder,Ohio,USA

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1857: Francis Richeux, witnessed by Tolstoy

Add comment April 6th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1857, a robber-murderer named Francis Richeux was publicly guillotined in Paris before a crowd of 12,000 to 15,000 people.

One of those onlookers was a 28-year-old Russian noble, fresh from the Crimean War and abroad on his first European trip: Leo Tolstoy.*

Overcome with curiosity, Tolstoy (as he recorded in his diary; here it is in Russian)

rose at seven o’clock and drove to see an execution. A stout, white, healthy neck and breast: he kissed the Gospels, and then — Death. How senseless … I have not received this strong impression for naught. I am not a man of politics. Morals and art I know, love, and [understand]. The guillotine long prevented my sleeping and obliged me to reflect.

And he developed the impression into a full-on rant that same day, in his running correspondence with Russian litterateur Vasily Botkin. The following is as translated in Dialogues with Dostoyevsky: The Overwhelming Questions.

The spectacle made such an impression on me that it will be long before I get over it. I have seen many horrors in war and in the Caucasus, but if a man were torn to pieces in my presence it would not have been so repulsive as this ingenious and elegant machine by means of which they killed a strong, hale, healthy man in an instant. There [in war] it is not a question of the rational [will], but the human feeling of passion, while here it is a question of calm and convenient murder finely worked out, and there’s nothing grand about it. The insolent, arrogant desire to carry out justice, the law of God. Justice, which is determined by lawyers every one of whom, basing himself on honor, religion, and truth, contradicts each other. With these same formalities they have murdered both the king and Chenier, both republicans and aristocrats.† . . Then the repulsive crowd, the father explaining to his daughter what a convenient and ingenious mechanism it is, and so forth. The law of man — rubbish! The truth is that the state is a conspiracy not only for exploitation, but chiefly to corrupt its citizens. But all the same states exist, and moreover in this imperfect form. And they cannot pass from this system into socialism . . . For my part, I can only see in all this repulsive lie what is loathsome, evil, and I do not want to, and cannot, sort out where there is more and where there is less. I understand moral laws, the laws of morality and religion, binding on no one, that lead people forward and promise a harmonious future; I feel the laws of art which always bring happiness; but the laws of politics constitute for me such an awful lie that I cannot see in them a better or worse. All this is what I felt, understood, and recognized today. And this recognition at least to some extent relieves the burden of the impression for me . . . From this day forward I will not only never go to see such a thing again, but I will never serve any government anywhere.**

He wasn’t kidding about that long insomnia, either: the impression startled him, permanently. Recalling the effect years later in his Confessions, Tolstoy still attributed to it an important confirmation of his egalitarian philosophy.

When I saw the head separate from the body, and how they both thumped into the box at the same moment, I understood, not with my mind but with my whole being, that no theory of the reasonableness of our present progress can justify this deed; and that though everybody from the creation of the world, on whatever theory, had held it to be necessary, I know it to be unnecessary and bad; and therefore the arbiter of what is good and evil is not what people say and do, and is not progress, but is my heart and I.

Tolstoy developed the same theme further a few years later in What Is to Be Done? … the shade of the long-forgotten Francis Richeux still haunting the great man of letters.

Thirty years ago in Paris I once saw how, in the presence of thousands of spectators, they cut a man’s head off with a guillotine. I knew that the man was a dreadful criminal; I knew all the arguments that have been written in defence of that kind of action, and I knew it was done deliberately and intentionally, but at the moment the head and body separated and fell into the box I gasped, and realized not with my mind nor with my heart but with my whole being, that all the arguments in defence of capital punishment are wicked nonsense, and that however many people may combine to commit murder — the worst of all crimes — and whatever they may call themselves, murder remains murder, and that this crime had been committed before my eyes, and I by my presence and nonintervention had approved and shared in it. In the same way now, at the sight of the hunger, cold, and degradation of thousands of people, I understood not with my mind or my heart but with my whole being; that the existence of tens of thousands of such people in Moscow — while I and thousands of others over-eat ourselves with beef-steaks and sturgeon and cover our horses and floors with cloth or carpets — no matter what all the learned men in the world may say about its necessity — is a crime, not committed once but constantly; and that I with my luxury not merely tolerate it but share in it. (PDF source | Original Russian)

* Among Tolstoy’s other activities in Paris was hanging around Turgenev … but the two mostly irritated one another. Nevertheless, they shared a distaste for the guillotine, at least to judge by Turgenev’s repulsion at seeing it in action years later.

** Two days after the execution, Tolstoy left Paris for Geneva. Execution-disgust is a suggestive speculation, although Henri Troyat argues that it merely gave him a “dramatic excuse” to stop putting off travel plans he had already made.

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1857: Twelve blown from cannons in British Punjab

8 comments June 13th, 2011 Headsman

An account from the February 15, 1862 Harper’s Weekly of a very messy spectacle orchestrated to maintain British control of Punjab.

Another execution of a similar nature took place on the 13th of June, at Ferozepore. All the available troops and public establishments were convened to witness the scene. Some of the mutineers were to be hung, and around the gallows, erected during the night previous, the soldiers were drawn up. The mutineers were then brought into the centre, and the proceedings of the general Court-Martial was read. Upon being informed that if they would become Queen’s evidence they would be reprieved, twelve of the criminals accepted the offer and were marched to the rear. Two were taken to the gallows. They ascended the ladder with firm steps, and to the last moment betrayed no emotion of fear.

The remaining ten were now led away to the artillery guns, and while their irons were being struck off some cried, “Do not sacrifice the innocent for the guilty!” Two others rejoined, “Hold your sniveling: die men and not cowards — you defended your religion, why then do you crave your lives? Sahibs! they are not Sahibs, they are dogs!” Others then began to upbraid their commanding officer. The wretched beings were quickly fastened to the muzzles of ten guns, charged with blank cartridge.

The commanding officer directed port-fires to be lit. “Ready!” “Fire!” and the drama was played out. An eye-witness says: “The scene and stench were overpowering. I felt myself terribly convulsed, and could observe that the numerous native spectators were awe-stricken — that they not only trembled like aspen-leaves, but also changed into unnatural hues. Precaution was not taken to remove the sponge-and-load men from the muzzles of the guns; the consequence was that they were greatly bespattered with blood, and one man in particular received a stunning blow from a shivered arm!


A lengthier account, no less riveting and we suppose more accurate on account of its primary sourcing, is to be found in this memoir or the British campaign against the Sepoy rebellion.

June 13 The morning of June 13 was fixed upon for the execution. A gallows was erected on the plain to the north side of the fort, facing the native bazaars, and at a distance of some 300 yards. On this two sepoys were to be hanged, and at the same time their comrades in mutiny were to be blown away from guns.

We paraded at daylight every man off duty, and, with the band playing, marched to the place of execution, and drew up in line near the gallows and opposite the native quarter.

Shortly after our arrival the European Light Field Battery, of six guns, appeared on the scene, forming up on our left flank, and about twenty yards in front of the Light Company.

The morning was close and sultry, not a cloud in the sky, and not a breath of wind stirring; and I confess I felt sick with a suffocating sense of horror when I reflected on the terrible sight I was about to witness.

Soon the fourteen mutineers, under a strong escort of our men with fixed bayonets, were seen moving from the fort. They advanced over the plain at our rear, and drew up to the left front of, and at right angles to, the battery of artillery.

I was standing at the extreme right of the line with the Grenadier Company, and some distance from the guns; but I had provided myself with a pair of strong glasses, and therefore saw all that followed clearly and distinctly.

There was no unnecessary delay in the accomplishment of the tragedy. Two of the wretched creatures were marched off to the gallows, and placed with ropes round their necks on a raised platform under the beam.

The order was given for the guns to be loaded, and quick as thought the European artillerymen placed a quarter charge of powder in each piece. The guns were 9-pounders, the muzzles standing about 3 feet from the ground.

During these awful preparations, I watched at intervals the faces of the condemned men, but could detect no traces of fear or agitation in their demeanour. The twelve stood two deep, six in front and six in the rear, calm and undismayed, without uttering a word.

An officer came forward, and, by the Brigadier’s order, read the sentence of the court-martial, and at its conclusion the six men in front, under escort, walked towards the battery.

There was a death-like silence over the scene at this time, and, overcome with horror, my heart seemed almost to cease beating.

Arrived at the guns, the culprits were handed over to the artillerymen, who, ready prepared with strong ropes in their hands, seized their victims. Each of these, standing erect, was bound to a cannon and tightly secured, with the small of the back covering the muzzle. And then all at once the silence which reigned around was broken by the oaths and yells of those about to die. These sounds were not uttered by men afraid of death, for they showed the most stoical indifference, but were the long-suppressed utterances of dying souls, who, in the bitterness of their hearts, cursed those who had been instrumental in condemning them to this shameful end. They one and all poured out maledictions on our heads; and in their language, one most rich in expletives, they exhausted the whole vocabulary.

Meanwhile the gunners stood with lighted port-fires, waiting for the
word of command to fire the guns and launch the sepoys into eternity.

These were still yelling and raining abuse, some even looking over their shoulders and watching without emotion the port-fires, about to be applied to the touch-holes, when the word “Fire!” sounded from the officer in command, and part of the tragedy was at an end.

A thick cloud of smoke issued from the muzzles of the cannons, through which were distinctly seen by several of us the black heads of the victims, thrown many feet into the air.

While this tragic drama was enacting, the two sepoys to be hanged were turned off the platform.

The artillerymen again loaded the guns, the six remaining prisoners, cursing like their comrades, were bound to them, another discharge, and then an execution, the like of which I hope never to see again, was completed.

All this time a sickening, offensive smell pervaded the air, a stench which only those who have been present at scenes such as these can realize — the pungent odour of burnt human flesh.

The artillerymen had neglected putting up back-boards to their guns, so that, horrible to relate, at each discharge the recoil threw back pieces of burning flesh, bespattering the men and covering them with blood and calcined remains.

A large concourse of natives from the bazaars and city had assembled in front of the houses, facing the guns at a distance, as I said before, of some 300 yards, to watch the execution. At the second discharge of the cannon, and on looking before me, I noticed the ground torn up and earth thrown a slight distance into the air more than 200 paces away. Almost at the same time there was a commotion among the throng in front, some running to and fro, while others ran off in the direction of the houses. I called the attention of an officer who was standing by my side to this strange and unaccountable phenomenon, and said, half joking: “Surely the scattered limbs of the sepoys have not been carried so far?”

He agreed with me that such was impossible; but how to account for the sight we had seen was quite beyond our comprehension.

The drama came to an end about six o’clock, and as is usual, even after a funeral or a military execution, the band struck up an air, and we marched back to barracks, hoping soon to drive from our minds the recollection of the awful scenes we had witnessed.

Two or three hours after our return news arrived that one native had been killed and two wounded among the crowd which had stood in our front, spectators of the recent execution. How this happened has never been explained. At this time a “cantonment guard” was mounted, consisting of a company of European infantry, half a troop of the 10th Light Cavalry, and four guns, and two of these guns loaded with grape were kept ready during the night, the horses being harnessed, etc. Half the cavalry also was held in readiness, saddled; in fact, every precaution was taken to meet an attack.

As far as I can recollect, there were but two executions by blowing away from guns on any large scale by us during the Mutiny; one of them that at Ferozepore.

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1857: Adolf Schlagintweit, intrepid explorer

3 comments August 26th, 2009 dogboy

Sometimes it’s better to let your curiosity rest for a little while, especially when a violent despot takes charge of the region you want to do geological studies on. That was the takeaway lesson for Adolf Schlagintweit (English Wikipedia page | German) when Wali Khan discharged the German explorer’s head in 1857 in the Kashgar region of present-day China.

Schlagintweit and his brothers, Hermann and Robert, were in pursuit of knowledge, following up Hermann and Adolf’s drab and long-titled work Untersuchungen über die physikalische Geographie der Alpen, in ihren Beziehungen zu den phänomenon der Gletscher, zur Geologie, Meteorologie, und Pflanzengeographie (Studies of the Physical Geography of the Alps, in Relation to the Phenomena of Glaciers, Weather, and Phytogeography) and equally odorless (but far more accessibly titled) successor Neue Untersuchungen über die physikalische Geographie und Geologie der Alpen (New Studies of the Physical Geography and Geology of the Alps), authored by all three.

The Schlagintweits were successfully largely because of their ability to draw: their writing left much to be desired, and their scientific skills were frequently a target of ridicule after the voyage that saw the end of Adolf.

The East India Company funded that venture, which was intended to take magnetic field measurements, beginning in 1854. The trek was spurred on by the then-85-year-old Alexander von Humboldt, who had extensively traversed Latin America and attempted the first scientific description of its geology and wildlife; von Humboldt, a noted scientist throughout Europe, convinced the East India Company to pony up large amounts of money for what he expected to be a significant geological study, one that he long sought but could not undertake himself. This relationship is explored in-depth by Gabriel Finkelstein in his well-written History of Science article “‘Conquerors of the Künlün? The Schlagintweit Mission to High Asia, 1854–57”.

The brothers made their way to central India and from there journeyed north into the Himalayas. They did not travel together, but separated and re-united occasionally to go over samples, pictures, and notes.

After their last meeting in the fall of 1856, Adolf’s itinerary brought him through the mountains of Tibet and into present-day China, near the borders with Kyrgystan and Pakistan. It was in this Kashgar region that the geologist found himself embroiled in what would be the last in a series of revolts by the East Turkestan Khojas, a group claiming nobility in Eastern Kazakhstan from the time of Genghis Khan.*

Adolf’s end is largely shrouded in mystery, but some contemporaneous accounts given to the British government provide a minimal sketch. Schlagintweit’s ostensible goal was to reach the city of Kashgar; despite much of his party deserting, and in spite of a warning from fleeing refugees that the notably cruel Wali Khan had initiated a rebellion, Schlagintweit pressed on.

He was met at the city’s border and brought before the Khan, who, having little use for European interlopers wandering his territory, accused the scientist of being a spy and had Adolf summarily beheaded.

Adolf’s notebook was later purchased by a passing Persian from the tobacco shop, where its pages were being used to wrap tobacco leaves. The purchaser tracked down a skull he believed to be Schlagintweit’s and brought the chartaceous and skeletal evidence to India.

The book published from the travels of the Schlagintweits is available here. It has been widely panned as dull.

* Four years after Wali Khan was deposed once again by the Chinese, Uighurs successfully battled for the region’s brief independence. Tensions in the region, needless to say, have not settled.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,History,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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