1749: Maria Renata Singer, theological football

5 comments June 21st, 2009 Headsman

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1525: Thomas Müntzer, prophet of the Peasants’ War

9 comments May 27th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1525, radical religious reformer and Peasants’ War leader Thomas Müntzer lost his head in the town of Mühlhausen.

Müntzer, a university-educated theologian, caught the whiff of Lutheranism in the Zeitgeist; following Luther’s call to study the Biblical text directly without the intervention of the doctors of Rome, Müntzer swiftly discerned a heavenly admonition to set to rights the many wrongs of an unjust world.

Luther had not had in mind dispossessing the haves, particularly not when imperial electors defended him from the Pope’s inquisitors.

When in 1517 opposition against the dogmas and the organisation of the Catholic church was first raised by Luther, it still had no definite character. Not exceeding the demands of the earlier middle-class heresy, it did not exclude any trend of opinion which went further. It could not do so because the first moment of the struggle demanded that all opposing elements be united, … Luther’s sturdy peasant nature asserted itself in the stormiest fashion in the first period of his activities. “If the raging madness [of the Roman churchmen] were to continue, it seems to me no better counsel and remedy could be found against it than that kings and princes apply force, arm themselves, attack those evil people who have poisoned the entire world, and once and for all make an end to this game, with arms, not with words. If thieves are being punished with swords, murderers with ropes, and heretics with fire, why do we not seize, with arms in hand, all those evil teachers of perdition, those popes, bishops, cardinals, and the entire crew of Roman Sodom? Why do we not wash our hands in their blood?”

This revolutionary ardour did not last long. The lightning thrust by Luther caused a conflagration. A movement started among the entire German people. In his appeals against the clergy, in his preaching of Christian freedom, peasants and plebeians perceived the signal for insurrection. Likewise, the moderate middle-class and a large section of the lower nobility joined him, and even princes were drawn into the torrent. While the former believed the day had come in which to wreak vengeance upon all their oppressors, the latter only wished to break the power of the clergy, the dependence upon Rome, the Catholic hierarchy, and to enrich themselves through the confiscation of church property. The parties became separated from each other, and each found a different spokesman. Luther had to choose between the two. Luther, the protégé of the Elector of Saxony, the respected professor of Wittenberg who had become powerful and famous overnight, the great man who was surrounded by a coterie of servile creatures and flatterers, did not hesitate a moment. He dropped the popular elements of the movement, and joined the train of the middle-class, the nobility and the princes. Appeals to war of extermination against Rome were heard no more. Luther was now preaching peaceful progress and passive resistance.

Muntzer became adopted into the Marxist pantheon sufficiently to grace East Germany’s five-mark bill.

That’s Engels in The Peasant War in Germany, revisiting the theological conflicts at the birth of the Protestant Reformation from the perspective of 19th century Marxism.

Projecting backwards, Engels saw in Müntzer a distant forerunner of their own day’s class conflicts — the man whose language was Biblical and apocalyptic but whose subject matter was the peasantry’s demand for material justice.

[Luther] says in his booklet on commerce that the princes should make common cause with thieves and robbers. But in this same writing he is silent about the source of all theft … Behold, the basic source of usury, theft, and robbery is our lords and princes, who take all creatures for their private property. The fish in the water, the birds in the air, the animals of the arth must all be their property, Isaiah 5[:8]. And then they let God’s commandment go forth among the poor and they say, “God has commanded, ‘Thou shalt not steal’.” But this commandment does not apply to them since they oppress all men — the poor peasant, the artisan, and all who live are flayed and sheared, Micah 3[:2f]. But, as soon as anyone steals the smallest thing, he must hang. And to this Doctor Liar says, “Amen.” The lords themselves are responsible for making the poor people their enemy. They do not want to remove the cause of insurrection, so how, in the long run, can things improve? I say this openly, so Luther asserts I must be rebellious. So be it!*

In this detail view of East German artist Werner Tübke’s weird panorama of the Battle of Frankenhausen, a crestfallen Müntzer realizes divine aid is not forthcoming.

Müntzer embraced the cause of a massive peasant revolt in central Europe in 1524-25. Luther said God wanted them “knocked to pieces, strangled and stabbed, secretly and openly, by everybody who can do it, just as one must kill a mad dog!”

So it was with Müntzer, who was captured in the decisive Battle of Frankenhausen, tortured into recanting his heretical doctrines,** and beheaded.

Whether one thinks of politics leading Müntzer’s theology or theology leading his politics† or some sort of dialectic between them, we see Müntzer latterly through a glass darkly — the wasted root of a lost Reformation.

* From a 1524 pamphlet vituperatively entitled “Highly provoked defense and answer to the spiritless, soft-living flesh at Wittenberg, who has most lamentably befouled pitiable Christianity in a perverted way by his theft of holy Scripture,” reprinted in Revelation and Revolution.

** Müntzer’s theology included rejection of infant baptism, which ranks him as an early anabaptist.

† “I have done nothing but say that a Christian should not so wretchedly sacrifice someone else on the butcher’s table. And if the political bigwigs do not cease to do so, the government should be taken from them. Whenever I have seriously proclaimed this to Christendom, it either refused to act or was too scared to do so. What more shall I do? Should I perhaps be silent, like a dumb dog? Why should I then make a living off the altar?”

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1521: The Comuneros of Castile

1 comment April 24th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1521, the day after winning the decisive battle in the Castilian War of the Communities, royalist forces beheaded its three principal leaders in Villalar.

Even while the Spanish Empire was burgeoning in the New World, its home peninsula remained a house divided.

The Iberian Kingdoms of Aragon and Castile had joined in a personal union with the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella in the late 15th century.

When the couple passed, it was not a given that their conjoined territory would become, as it did, the germ of a unified Spain.

Instead, the royal power couple’s crazy daughter was kept under lock and key while her infant son grew into the redoubtable Emperor Charles V. To exacerbate the local annoyance, Chas had continent-spanning territories, and ambitions; Spain was not his base, merely one of his provinces. (He’d grown up in Flanders. Ah, dynastic politics.)

The Emperor was only a teenager when his Castilian subjects rose against his levies, and against the paradoxical perception that the first true King of Spain was a foreign ruler.

A riot in Toledo mushroomed into a revolt, and everyone started drawing up sides. (Spanish link) Things went south when the commoner rebels started adopting an unwelcome radicalism (beyond rebelling against the king, that is), enabling the imperial rep (and future pope) Adrian of Utrecht to pull back into the royalist camp rebellious nobles increasingly fearful of expropriation at the hands of the firebrands.

After the balance of forces decided in Charles V’s favor, all that remained was to give the chop to the primary troublemakers. Juan Lopez de Padilla, Juan Bravo and Francisco Maldonado were obligingly captured after the Battle of Villalar.


The Execution of the Comuneros of Castile, by Antonio Gisbert. Segovian Juan Bravo allegedly asked to die first, so as not to witness the death of so good a knight as Padilla.

The demise of the “Caballeros Comuneros” pretty much squelched the revolt — although Padilla’s widow Maria Pacheco defended the rebel ground zero of Toledo for several months more.

The comuneros have lived on ever since as a symbol in literature and propaganda, among monarchists (for whom they are a symbol of perfidy), liberals (rather the reverse) and Castilian nationalists. Though “comuneros” was for a period an all-purpose smear against agitators in the Spanish dominions, April 23 (the date of the fateful battle) has been Castile and Leon Day, a public observance, since 1986.


This monolith in the Villalar town plaza commemorates the Comuneros. Image (c) Julio Alvarez, and used with permission.

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1841: Hermano Pule and his surviving followers

1 comment November 4th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1841, Apolinario de la Cruz was shot at Tayabas for leading a revolt against Spanish occupation of the Philippines.

Known to history as Hermano Pule, the young de la Cruz had dreamt of entering the priesthood — but finding that most barred native Filipinos, he founded the Cofradia de San José (Confraternity of St. Joseph).

Organizing secretly and outside of the approved channels, it gained the enmity of both civilian and religious authorities, though it doesn’t on the surface look like a seditious entity; rather, it attracted Filipinos (and Filipinas) excluded from the official organs. Suddenly, that looked like trouble to Spain.

Condemnation helped the Confradia’s numbers burgeon, and forced its programme towards radicalism: where freedom of religion was forbidden, worship was a revolutionary act.

Matters came to a head when a government raid precipitated armed resistance by Pule and his followers, with the inevitable closing act postponed by an inspiring but short-lived rebel victory at arms. Pule and his followers were overrun on Nov. 1, rounded up as fugitives by the next day, and put to death outside the Tayabas courthouse — with Pule’s head, hands and feet cut off for salutary public display in his adjacent hometown of Lucban (or Lukban).

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1962: Arthur Lucas and Ronald Turpin

17 comments December 11th, 2007 Headsman

Forty-five years ago today, two men linked by nothing but fate stood back to back on the gallows of Toronto’s Don Jail and became the last hanged in Canada.

Book CoverToday, Executed Today interviews author Robert Hoshowsky, whose new book The Last to Die explores how this day’s events came to pass.

The doomed men were far from Canada’s greatest criminals. The 29-year-old Turpin was a small-time thief who shot a policeman while fleeing a restaurant robbery; the 54-year-old Lucas was convicted of killing an FBI informant despite lingering questions over his guilt and his mental impairment. Both were petty criminals with little previous violence to their history, seemingly almost too small for the historical role that even on the night of their hanging they seemed probable to play.

The Last to Die is the first book about Canada’s last execution, and has been met with general acclaim. CourtTV Canada recently profiled the story:

Executed Today: Why you, why now, why this book? What brought you to it?

Robert Horshowsky: I’ve worked as a freelance writer for almost 20 years now, and in that time, some stories were assigned to me, while others were the product of my own imagination. This book, like many before it, got its start as an article.

In 2001, I was in the library at Maclean’s magazine, where I worked as a Researcher-Reporter. They have a large section on Canadian history, and I saw a book by John Robert Colombo, who is very well known for his works on history and trivia. I believe the book was 1001 Questions About Canada. Picking up Colombo’s paperback, the first page I turned to asked, “When was the last execution in Canada?” The brief paragraph mentioned Ronald Turpin, a Canadian criminal, and Arthur Lucas, a Black man from Detroit. Both men were hanged on Dec. 11, 1962. Since it was a book of trivia, there wasn’t much more information than that, which got me thinking, “I wonder if I can pitch a story on the 40th anniversary for the December 2002 issue of Maclean’s?” Although it is a weekly news magazine, Maclean’s often ran articles on subjects of historic note, and the story I submitted on Turpin and Lucas was very well-received by the editors.

The one thing I have been accused of my entire working life is over-researching a subject, and the piece entitled “The Last Night of the Condemned” was no exception. My editor at the time said, “You’re not writing a book” in regard to the amount of research I had conducted, and I took this, perhaps subconsciously, as a challenge.

I was hooked by the stories of Turpin and Lucas for a number of reasons. There had never been a book about them, a fact that still boggles my mind. The end of the death penalty in different countries is a subject that is widely covered. The last two men to hang in England, for example, were Peter Anthony Allen and Gwynne Owen Evans. They were executed in 1964, and a book was published about them a year later. Turpin and Lucas were hanged in 1962, and my book was published in 2007, 45 years after the fact. Of course, there were newspaper and articles about them, a chapter here and there, or a mention in a law textbook, but not much else, certainly not a book. Through my research I soon discovered that others had attempted plays and documentaries about the two, with little success. This made me wonder if the subject was cursed, which is certainly how I felt sometimes.

ET: What effect did writing the book have on you?

The book took a toll on me physically and mentally. Research at times was slow and painful, and obtaining documents – especially from the Canadian government – was a tedious and frustrating process. In Canada, we have something called the Freedom of Information and Access to Privacy Act, which I used over and over again to obtain jail records, court documents and the like on Turpin and Lucas. In the United States, I used the Freedom of Information Law to access documents on Arthur Lucas; since he was an American from Detroit, I figured there would be rap sheets and the like on him, which there were. All these documents were very useful, but getting hold of them was a real challenge, since you have to prove the person you’re inquiring about is dead, that no other persons will be incriminated or named in the documents, etc.

The hardest thing for me to deal with was the cancer that took my mother’s life in March of this year. Her last wish was that I finish this book, and I struggled against two deadlines: the publisher’s, and my mother’s. As soon as I finished a chapter, I gave it to mom to read, followed by the next. Completing the book was a bittersweet experience: although she read the entire thing, mom didn’t live long enough to see it published, passing away six weeks before it was printed. In hindsight, I’m shocked I didn’t fall to pieces. The most difficult section for me to write was the funeral of Frederick Nash, the policeman shot to death by Turpin. I wrote this after interviewing his widow, and three of his four daughters – the eldest was 11, and one of them, Karen, was only two months old when he died. That was tough, the mental image of these little kids holding flowers outside the church, not quite realizing that their father was never coming home again. That was one of the reasons I wanted to write an entire chapter about those people left behind, like officer Nash’s children, the Salvation Army chaplain who was with Turpin and Lucas when they died, and many others involved in the cases. Far too often, true crime books focus almost entirely on the killers, and not enough on the families of the victims.

ET: Canada was trending towards abolition, and Lucas and Turpin knew themselves that they might be the last ones hanged. Was it just happenstance, or was there some intentionality in pushing these cases in particular? What was the fallout in Canada?

RH: In the early 1960s, there was a push in many countries to eliminate capital punishment, and Canada was no exception. As early as 1914, a Canadian Member of Parliament named Robert Bickerdike introduced a private members’ bill for the abolition of the death penalty. Although it was defeated, there were other members’ bills over the years. In 1935, a woman named Thomasina Sarao was unintentionally decapitated during her hanging in Montreal, which led to more and more executions in Canada taking place behind closed doors. Sarao’s beheading didn’t directly lead to the end of capital punishment, but the idea of a woman dying in such a gruesome fashion certainly didn’t help the pro-death penalty camp!

Ronald Turpin

By the 1950s, more changes were made to Canada’s Criminal Code, limiting the reasons a person could be executed. By 1961, changes were made which divided murder into a capital and a non-capital crime. One of the reasons you would die was for the murder of a police officer, a crime committed by Roland Turpin when he shot Fred Nash in February of 1962. There was always the possibility that even though you were found guilty of murder, the jury could recommend mercy, sparing your life. This didn’t happen in either Turpin or Lucas’s case.

Prior to the executions of Turpin and Lucas, there were a number of appeals for both men. The Salvation Army chaplain who was spiritual advisor to both men, Cyril Everitt, even appealed to the Prime Minister at the Time, John Diefenbaker. Law professors tried to fight the hangings, with no effect.

There was no doubt Ronald Turpin killed the police officer. I believe he suffered from some sort of mania or persecution complex. This certainly wouldn’t absolve him of shooting and killing a cop, but there is no doubt – to me at least – that Turpin was mentally unstable.

Arthur Lucas

As for Arthur Lucas, there was a lot of evidence against him, and all of it was circumstantial. Chaplain Everitt wasn’t to save both men body and soul, and he believed with all his heart that Arthur Lucas was innocent.

There wasn’t so much fallout after the hangings as there was serious doubt. Doubt about the guilt of either man, especially Lucas, who was convicted entirely on circumstantial evidence. Doubt about the competency of their legal representation, which was conducted by a brilliant but alcoholic lawyer named Ross MacKay, who acted for both Turpin and Lucas. Imagine it: MacKay was just 29 years old and inexperienced. Turpin and Lucas were his first and last capital cases, and he had no budget, compared to the estimated $40,000 spent by the government to prosecute Lucas alone. On top of that, Mackay had less than three weeks between the trial of Arthur Lucas, and the trial of Ronald Turpin. There is evidence that MacKay showed up to court hung over on some days. And the majority of the newspapers were against Turpin – who had a lengthy criminal record for break-ins and the like – and Lucas, who was slow (his IQ was just 63, borderline retarded), and happened to look like a killer. Read More

ET: What about some of the other participants in this drama? Who’s the unsung character in this story?

RH: There are a number of unsung characters in the book. The two that stand out most remain Ross MacKay and Chaplain Everitt. MacKay the lawyer had a problem with the bottle all his life, but representing the last two men to be hanged in Canada just made his predicament much worse. After the trials, a popular Halloween costume among lawyers was a noose worn ‘round the neck. One lawyer would ask the other, “Who are you supposed to be?” and the response was, “One of Ross MacKay’s clients.” It was very sad, since MacKay didn’t have a hell of a lot to work with. The Canadian courts had thousands of dollars, veteran detectives, top prosecutors and forensic experts at their disposal; MacKay had a unrepentant client who murdered a policeman and left his four daughters without a father, and a menacing-looking Black American pimp who was accused of coming to Canada and murdering a witness in an FBI drug trial. Neither man drew much sympathy from the press or the public, but MacKay did his best to represent them.

Chaplain Cyril Everitt

The other key unsung hero is Chaplain Everitt. He was the Salvation Army Chaplain at Toronto’s Don Jail, where Turpin and Lucas were hanged. He befriended both men about 10 months before they were hanged, and went to see them several times a day to talk, pray, or play chess or checkers. Everitt truly believed people could be rehabilitated, and did everything he could to save the lives of these two men. Both Turpin and Lucas had lousy childhoods full of neglect and abuse, and Everitt was probably the only decent men they ever knew in their lives.

In many ways, Everitt’s bond of friendship with the two cost him more than I’m sure even he could imagine. Everitt devised a signal with the hangman, and shared it with Turpin and Lucas. The key word in the scripture he would read as they stood on the gallows was “Salvation,” and they knew the second they heard it that it meant they were about to die. He not only saw them hang, but conducted their funeral service at three in the morning with the full moon over his head. He said he would be with them “to the end,” and the man kept his word.

Perhaps there are those of us who could bear to see a stranger hanged, but a friend? Two friends? I’m not suggesting Everitt lost his mind over what happened – the man continued to do work for the Salvation Army for many years afterwards – but the experience of befriending Turpin and Lucas and seeing them die affected him for the rest of his life. He visited their unmarked graves all the time until he simply got too old and couldn’t do it any longer.

ET: It’s clear from the promotional copy that the botched hanging is a specific area you cover. What happened, and how did it stay so hush-hush in such a high-profile event?

RH: The code of secrecy among police officers is strong, but the code of silence among jail guards is virtually unbreakable. The few Don Jail guards I talked to would not go on the record under any circumstances, and one of them said he feared losing his pension if he discussed in detail what really happened to Arthur Lucas. This was 40 years after the fact. The retired police officers I spoke to were much more forthcoming, especially the homicide cops, who are a pretty fearless bunch. The extreme reluctance to talk is one of the reasons why details of the hangings didn’t come to light until many years later – in fact, some people thought Turpin and Lucas were buried on the Don Jail grounds, another common misconception.

The Don Jail’s former gallows area

The story of what happened the night of the hangings became blurred over time, even by people who were there, like Chaplain Everitt. He gave a number of interviews to the media over the years, usually on the anniversary of the hangings. In a 1981 documentary, Everitt said Turpin fainted on the way to the gallows. “They had to carry him,” said Everitt, who believed Turpin never regained consciousness. In every single interview he gave before 1981, Everitt never once mentioned Turpin fainting, nor did he reveal what happened to Lucas until a few years before he himself died in 1986.

One of the rumours is that Turpin did not just faint when he saw the noose hanging in mid-air, but that he actually dropped dead on the spot of a heart attack. If this happened today, there would have been a great kerfuffle to revive the condemned man or woman, only to have them put to death at a later time. In Canada, the common belief was callous but pragmatic: he’s going to die in a few moments, so why delay the inevitable? There was no other word except Everitt’s that Turpin fainted; one of the police detectives present at the hanging told me, “Turpin didn’t faint. He hanged.” I put a lengthy footnote in the book about this. All accounts I tracked down said Turpin was conscious when he died on the gallows. The only odd thing about his death is that there is a cemetery record that has the word “accidental” written next to his name. I’ve never had a satisfactory explanation about that one. It could be some past cemetery employee’s idea of a joke, or a one-word protest against capital punishment.

As gruesome as Turpin’s death was, Lucas’ end was far more disturbing. It was a double execution, two nooses, with both Turpin and Lucas standing back-to-back on the same platform, black hoods over their heads. No one talked about what happened to Lucas for years afterward, and many believe the hangman was drunk and responsible for the mistake, which was not the case. Lucas was practically decapitated. The image of two men dropping to their deaths is horrific enough, but I can’t imagine what it would be like to see blood spraying everywhere when one of them hits the bottom of the rope. Lucas’ head was barely clinging to the rest of his body. Now, try to imagine blood everywhere, and having to climb on a stepladder and press a stethoscope against the chest of each man in turn, listening to their dying heartbeats for almost 20 minutes. That was the responsibility of the jail doctor. The media was told the deaths of the two was “practically instantaneous,” and that’s the story that stuck for decades. Everitt only revealed what happened in 1985, a year before his own death. When he did tell his story, Everitt said the hangman miscalculated Lucas’s weight. This was not the case, since Lucas lost about 50 pounds in jail. It is likely Lucas had syphilis, which would have weakened his muscles, connective tissue and blood vessels, resulting in his near-decapitation. The awful way that Lucas died was a secret Everitt kept from his wife and son all those years.

ET: The Conservative party has made some noises about death penalty reinstatement and backed off supporting Canadian nationals on death row in the U.S. Are there any lessons today’s policymakers ought to be learning from Canada’s last hanging?

RH: Great question. First, anyone who thinks the subject of reinstatement won’t continue to be debated is fooling themselves. Bringing back capital punishment is often mentioned when names like Clifford Olson or Paul Bernardo come up, or when there is a random killing of a young person who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. There will always be those who believe that the death penalty is a deterrent, which I don’t believe, for a number of reasons. The majority of us are law-abiding citizens, and few people – with the possible exception of a hit man – don’t get up the morning and think, “I’m going to kill someone today.” What often happens instead is some fool gets drunk, gets into an argument with another drunk, and punches him until he falls and bleeds to death. Is the death penalty a deterrent in that case? Being drunk isn’t an excuse, but was the man or woman’s intent to commit murder? In some instances, the reminder of capital punishment might stop someone from pulling his trigger aimed at a police officer, if they know that that move will result in their own life being taken.

If there’s anything to be learned from the lessons of the past, it is that there is often considerable doubt about a man’s guilt or innocence, despite DNA evidence and expert testimony. For every monster like Paul Bernardo there is a Guy Paul Morin, a David Milgaard, and most recently, William Mullins-Johnson, who was convicted largely on the flawed testimony of a coroner. It cost Mullins-Johnson 12 years of his life, which he will never get back. The same can’t be said for earlier Canadian convictions, like that of Wilbert Coffin, who was hanged in 1956. I wouldn’t trust the testimony of less than three independent experts in any one field if my life were on the line (one Canadian, one U.S., one European), and I certainly wouldn’t expect a Canadian court to rely on anything less.


The Last to Die: Ronald Turpin, Arthur Lucas, and the End of Capital Punishment in Canada

By Robert Hoshowsky

Published by Dundurn, whose blog also hosts a radio interview with the author. Update: And also a ping to this post.

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1936: Edgar André

2 comments November 4th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1936, communist politician Edgar Andre was beheaded in Fuhlsbüttel Prison for treasonous complicity in the Reichstag Fire.

This 1936 German pamphlet denouncing Andre’s execution concludes: “Edgar André lives. In his spirit, we march: Despite all.”

A politician raised in Belgium, Andre had bolted the Socialist Party of Germany for the Communist Party in the early 1920’s, becoming a major labor leader in Hamburg. Andre was arrested within days of the 1933 Reichstag Fire as Adolf Hitler crushed official leftist opposition.

But Andre was not brought to trial for over three years — by which time torture had crippled and deafened him, and the political climate made the doubtful nature of the evidence against him scant protection in the courts. His conviction and sentence were a foregone conclusion.

The Spanish Civil War, which erupted over the summer of 1936 between Andre’s trial and execution, saw the service of a battalion in the International Brigades named for Edgar Andre.

Just days after Andre was beheaded, that battalion entered its first action — with German volunteers helping stave off fascist capture of Madrid. The unit’s hymn commemorated their namesake:

[audio:Das_Batallion_Edgar_Andre.mp3]

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Arson,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Martyrs,Politicians,Power,Torture,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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