1571: Anneken Hendriks, cursed Mennonist

Add comment November 10th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1571, Anneken Hendriks was martyred in Amsterdam as an Anabaptist.

She was about 53 years old and illiterate, and had come to Amsterdam from Frisia, and considering her outlaw faith could have done better than to move in next to the underbailiff. He soon apprehended his neighbor for “having forsaken the mother, the holy church, now about six years ago and having adopted the cursed doctrine of the Mennonists, by whom she had been baptized on her faith.”

That’s per the Martyrs’ Mirror catalog of Protestant martyrdoms. For the 1685 edition of this volume, Dutch illustrator Jan Luyken favored poor Anneken Hendriks with one of his grisly illustrations.

Anabaptists — practitioners of adult baptism — were heavily persecuted in the Low Countries and throughout Europe, particularly after right-thinking folk were shocked by the short-lived Anabaptist commune at Muenster. Anneken Hendriks, sure enough, had by the words of the sentence against her “not been for six or seven years at confession, or at the holy, reverend sacrament, but went to the meetings of the cursed sect of Mennonists or anabaptists, so that they have even held secret meetings or assemblies at her house.” She also threatened traditional marriage by “marrying” her husband “by night, at a country seat, after the manner of the Mennonists.”

Our source here notes that Anneken Hendriks was tortured by rack and strappado for the names of other Anabaptists. She refused to divulge any, but she was chatty enough on the way to her burning — warning her former neighbor that God would punish him if he kept up the Judas act, and spurning her Catholic would-be confessors — that they stuffed her mouth with gunpowder to still her heretical tongue.

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1668: A Dutch suicide, posthumously gibbeted

2 comments June 26th, 2013 Headsman

A man … who was in the habit of asking his wife for money to buy brandy, would on her refusal say that he would go hang himself. When on 23 June 1668 he again asked for two pennies to buy brandy, his wife said she had no money, whereupon he replied, “I will hang myself or may the devil take me.” His wife replied, “Do whatever you like, you always say that,” and went back to her cleaning. Shortly thereafter, she found that her husband had hanged himself in their home. She then called for the neighbors, who have all made declarations and given evidence. On a charge by the bailiff, his corpse has been taken to the Volewijk on 26 June 1668 and hanged on a gibbet.

This excerpt, via Machiel Bosman’s chapter “The Judicial Treatment of Suicide in Amsterdam” in From Sin to Insanity: Suicide in Early Modern Europe, represents the last documented case of the Dutch posthumously punishing a suicide.

Well … a certain class of suicide.

It seems that Dutch law from about the 16th century, and certainly in the 17th century, began drawing a categorical distinction between suicides driven by madness or despair, and those ob conscientiam criminis — criminals who took their life to cheat the law.

Posthumous execution was inflicted upon the latter all the way up until the French Revolution reached the Low Countries in 1795. Bosman, for example, notes the case of a thief gibbeted in Amsterdam in 1792 after he hanged himself in jail. For non-criminal suicides, “punishment” was more typically a silent night-time burial, perhaps in unconsecrated ground: a meaningful deterrent for at least some of the living, but very distinct from judicial infamy. The widower of a 1532 suicide had even successfully appealed Amsterdam’s attempt to levy a punitive fine on the estate.

Hans Bontemantel, one of Amsterdam’s sheriffs, was incensed by the archaic sentence executed in 1668: “I am not responsible for this,” he noted in the margin of his summary. “And it is against the law.”

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1945: Bruno Dorfer and Rainer Beck, Wehrmacht deserters

2 comments May 13th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1945, five days after the Germans had surrendered to the Allies in World War II, two deserting sailors were shot at Amsterdam.


Dorfer (top) and Beck.

The strangest thing: Bruno Dorfer and Rainer Beck were deserters of the Wehrmacht’s Kriegsmarine … and they were shot by a court-martial conducted by the Wehrmacht itself.

This surprising and shameful story is told in full by Chris Madsen in “Victims of Circumstance: The Execution of German Deserters by Surrendered German Troops Under Canadian Control in Amsterdam, May 1945,” a 1993 Canadian Military History journal article available online in pdf form.

Basically, a pocket of fortified German resistance remained hunkered down in the Netherlands as the war approached its close. That force of 150,000 surrendered to a much smaller number of Canadians on May 5 on terms that maintained German responsibility for administering its armed forces and the civilian areas under its control — a highly anomalous situation in an occupied country as the Third Reich winked out of existence altogether.

Canadians and Germans, according to Madsen, enjoyed a collegial relationship as the Canadians gradually took German forces into custody … or received German forces who helpfully marched themselves into custody. But even under guard, these “imprisoned” Germans still retained significant autonomy and a German command structure that Canadians were loath to interfere with — an arrangement so expedient that it severely tested the bounds of propriety. So invested were the Canadians in maintaining their opposite numbers’ unit cohesion* that they handed some deserters (and plenty of men were deserting the German army) back over to the nominal prisoners!

Rainer Beck had been deserted for the best part of a year: the son of a Social Democratic father and a Jewish mother, he’d ditched harbor defense the previous September and had been laying low with his sister in Amsterdam. Bruno Dorfer was a more recent deserter. They naturally assumed that with the Canadian takeover, they’d be good to go: they turned themselves in to Canadian soldiers with an eye towards regularizing their status.

They were in for quite a surprise, as Madsen relates:

Major Oliver Mace, acting commanding officer of the Canadian regiment, ordered Major J. Dennis Pierce, the company commander in charge of the former factory [where the German prisoners were being held], to place the two deserters inside the compound because “they were certainly Germans and we had no other place to put them.” …

At 1005 hours on 13 May 1945, Pierce informed 2 Canadian Infantry Brigade of the intended German course of action: “German Marine deserters being tried this morning. German Commander intends [to] shoot them.” The German camp leadership established a Standgericht or a court martial within the camp … [and] brought Dorfer and Beck before three officers, a team of military lawyers “whom Pierce himself had ‘put in the bag’ in the streets of Amsterdam earlier in the week.” [Fregattenkapitan Alexander] Stein regarded the proceedings as a show trial for his authority. At the insistence of the German naval commander, the entire camp population witnessed the event. A parade state, taken earlier that morning, counted 1,817 German marines inside the camp. The two accused, represented by a German military lawyer, underwent rigorous cross-examination before this large staring crowd … Oberleutnantnginieur Frank Trmal, a young German officer present at the fifteen-minute trial, remembered Beck’s defense:

For some reason Beck, who was older, decided to defend himself and told the court that we (the Germans) all knew several weeks ago the war was all over for us and that it was a matter of time before we surrendered. He told the captain and the court that any further fighting by us against the Canadians would be senseless bloodshed. With this the captain jumped to his feet in a rage, screaming at Beck that he was calling all ofus, his comrades, and his officers, murderers. It is something that I will never forget.

After the inevitable-yet-incredible conviction, Stein appealed to his Canadian guards for a bit of comradely assistance in carrying out the court-martial’s order.

The Seaforth Highlanders obligingly delivered up eight captured German rifles with ammunition, plus a heavy truck to help their “prisoners” execute their deserters. A Canadian military cable testifies in its clipped and plaintive language to the egregious moral vacuum afflicting the chummy occupation: “German marines in Amsterdam have picked up some of their own deserters. They have been tried by military law and sentenced to be shot. May they do this.”

The answer was determined not by any senior Canadian officer, but by the German high commander who had surrendered the Dutch pocket the week before, Johannes Blaskowitz. It was on his approval that Dorfer and Beck were shot against an air raid shelter wall at 1740, not eight hours after their bizarre public trial.

When the story surfaced publicly in 1966 as a result of Der Spiegel investigations, Stein was unrepentant. “Beck would never have been a credit to Germany anyway,” he told the Globe and Mail (Oct. 28, 1966). “Deserters only turn into criminals in civil life too.”

This execution is dramatized in the 1969 Italian-Yugoslav film Dio è con noi (The Fifth Day of Peace, also released as Gott mit Uns and The Firing Squad).

* Conceivably as part of a policy to have Wehrmacht troops in readiness in case the western allies segued directly into war with the Soviet Union. Jacques Pauwels writes in The Myth of the Good War: America in the Second World War:

it is a fact that many captured German units were secretly kept in readiness for possible use against the Red Army. Churchill, who not without reason had a high opinion of the fighting quality of the German soldiers, gave Field Marshall Montgomery an order to that effect during the last days of the war, as he was to acknowledge publicly much later in November 1954. He arranged for Wehrmacht troops who had surrendered in northwest Germany and in Norway to retain their uniforms and even their weapons, and to remain under the command of their own officers, because he thought of their potential use in hostilities against the Soviets. In the Netherlands, German units that had surrendered to the Canadians were even allowed to use their own weapons on May 13, 1945, to execute two of their own deserters!

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1664: Elsje Christiaens, Rembrandt model

1 comment May 3rd, 2013 Headsman

On or about this date in 1664, a Danish teenager named Elsje Christiaens was strangled at Amsterdam for murder.

The date is a little shaky; I don’t know if it’s directly documented (the verdict, we know, came down on May 1). Whenever the execution took place was, it culminated an extremely short stay in Amsterdam for the young woman.

This was boom time for the Dutch Republic, the last apex years before it all went to hell. Naturally, wealthy Amsterdam drew immigrants: for a penniless Jutland 18-year-old like Elsje Christiaens (English Wikipedia entry | Dutch), here was opportunity.

In mid-April 1664, she took a room to lay her head while she looked for domestic employment.

Two weeks later, she still hadn’t found a job but her landlady expected rent. When she came to demand it and Christiaens tried to stall her, the confrontation turned tragic: the landlady started thwacking her shiftless boarder with a broomstick, and Christiaens defensively grabbed a nearby hand-axe and knocked the poor woman down a flight of steps — to her death.

The sentence called for her killer to be strangled while being beaten with the very same axe. Then her body was to be hung up publicly with the same weapon, and left “until the winds and birds devour her.”

Of course that happened long ago. But at this time, veteran corpse-painter and Dutch Golden Age master Rembrandt van Rijn was hanging out in Amsterdam, living in reduced circumstances after creditors dunned him into the poorhouse.

This was the first woman executed in 21 years, and Rembrandt did not mean to miss his opportunity to sketch it. On May 3, presumably the same day as Elsje Christiaen’s execution, he hired a boat to row him out to the Volewijck moor where the body had been hung up. That day the master sketched the immigrant girl’s freshly-executed corpse, and its shameful axe.

The novelist Margriet de Moor has dramatized the sketchy backstory of Elsje Christiaens and her chance intersection with one of the art world’s greatest names in De schilder en het meisje. Unfortunately for most, this book appears to be available only in Dutch, which is also the language of these reviews: 1, 2, 3.

Rembrandt wasn’t the only Dutch painter haunting Amsterdam’s execution-grounds in 1664.

In this landscape — serene despite its landmarks — Elsje Christiaens is visible on the right. The little copse of gibbets she’s a part of comprises prisoners executed since 1660, according to Michiel Plomp.*


Anthonie van Borssom‘s 1664 ink-and-watercolor painting of the Volewijck execution site.

The gallows stood at the Volewijck until 1795. Today, that once-hard-to-reach peninsula is a residential district in Amsterdam-Noord.

* “Rembrandt and His Circle: Drawings and Prints,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Summer 2006.

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1656: Joris Fonteyn, anatomized and painted

2 comments January 28th, 2013 Headsman

“On January 28th 1656, there was punished Joris Fonteyn [or Fonteijn] of Diest, who by the worshipful lords of the law court was granted to us an anatomical specimen. On the 29th Dr. Joan Deyman made his first demonstration on him in the Anatomy Theatre, three lessons altogether”.”

-Records of the Amsterdam Anatomy Theatre (cited in this pdf)

Dr. Joan Deyman had succeeded Dr. Nicolaes Tulp in the redoubtable position of the guild’s Praelector Anatomiae — the physician entrusted with the guild’s once-per-year public anatomical reading over the dissection of an executed criminal. In his day, Tulp and his dissection had been painted by Rembrandt.

With the new praelector in the wealthy city came its guild’s need for fresh art to keep up with the Joneszes.

New subject, new work … but the same artist. A mere sapling when he rendered Dr. Tulp, Rembrandt was a fully mature painter of 50 when he put this scene to canvas.

Sadly, this painting was damaged in a 1731 fire, destroying most of its figures, including the titular one.


Braaaaaaaaaaaaaiiiiinnnnnssssssssss! Dr. Deyman’s hands are all that remain of him. The cadaverous Joris Fonteyn, however, belongs to the ages.

Since it was part of the anatomization law for the unfortunate subjects to be given a decent burial, Fonteyn’s exit from the annals of history is another entry (pdf) in the surgeon’s guilds records:

Wednesday, February 2, at 9 o’clock in the evening the body was interred with fitting dignity in the South Churchyard.

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1632: Aris Kindt, Rembrandt subject

10 comments January 31st, 2012 Headsman

We can trace to this date the event commemorated in young Rembrandt van Rijn‘s striking The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp … resolving to the public hanging the same day* of the Lesson‘s ashen exhibit, a robber by the name of Aris Kindt.


The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp.

Art history footnote: notice that the cadaver’s navel is a stylized “R”: the artist was playing around with his signatures during this period. Also, note the hand under dissection. The scene was actually re-enacted in 2006 to establish that Rembrandt’s done the forearm tendons incorrectly — it does look wonky. Additionally, the very fact that the anatomist is beginning with the arm rather than the usual trunk has led to speculation over whether this was an artistic choice or the doctor’s actual procedure in the thrall of a temporary medical vogue.

The 25-year-old painter had only moved to Amsterdam at the end of the previous year.

He broke through almost immediately with a commission — it was his first major group portrait and it would become known as his first major masterpiece (source), instantly establishing his preeminence in the city’s art scene — from the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons to render one of its most important events: the annual public dissection of a criminal.**

Prior to the systematic medicalization of the corpse, when anatomizing a human was still a fraught and transgressive act, Netherlands cities were permitted only one such exposition per year. Its subject could only be a male criminal who would be given a Christian burial thereafter. (Contrary to the English model, posthumous dissection was not used to intensify a death sentence with a further terror.)

The affair would have been crowded not only with other doctors but city council members, intellectuals, and well-dressed respectable burghers. Anyone, in short, who was anyone (they paid for the privilege).

And, of course, its overseer, Nicolaes Tulp; Rembrandt’s framing will leave you no doubt as to which figure in the painting is in charge. The city’s most respected surgeon, Tulp was the Guild’s Praelector Anatomiae, “reader in anatomy”, dignified with the responsibility of publicly lecturing on the unfolding dissection.

The silent but essential final party was Aris Kindt, the alias of a Leiden†-born criminal around Rembrandt’s own age named Adriann Adriannsz. His life was forfeit as a recidivist thief who had lately mugged a gentleman for his cloak.

This common crook’s ghastly lifeless image‡ is more alive for us in posterity than nearly any of his more law-abiding contemporaries. The expressive composition surrounding him is pregnant with all of the moment’s paradoxes: the advance of humanism on the back of a cruel penal regime; the exaltation of the mind with the unsentimental commodification of the flesh; excellence and status bowing over that old emblem of mankind’s final equality in the tomb.

Evil men, who did harm when alive, do good after their deaths:
Health seeks advantages from Death itself.

-Dutch intellectual Casper Barlaeus in 1639 (quoted here)

Rembrandt must have agreed: he painted the Guild’s criminal dissection again in 1656.

* Some sources give January 16, 1632 for the execution. This possibility appears to me to be disbarred by the apparent January 17 dating of a Rembrandt portrait of Marten Looten; indeed, confusion over this Rembrandt-related January date may even be the ultimate source of the misattribution, if January 16 is indeed mistaken. Scholarly sources overwhelmingly prefer the 31st, apparently from primary documentation that both the hanging and a Tulp lecture took place on that date. (See, e.g., the out-of-print seminal academic work.)

** The 17th century Dutch left a number of similar “anatomy lesson” works. That same Amsterdam guild commissioned a new one every few years as part of its keeping up appearances; the last had been a 1619 portrait from Nicolaes Eliaszoon Pickenoy, The Osteology Lesson of Dr Sebastiaen Egbertsz.

† Speaking of Leiden: see this pdf thesis for a very detailed excursion into the anatomizing scene as practiced in that city.

‡ Needless to say, we can hardly presume that this painting is strictly representational. Still, this is Kindt for us, even if Kindt looked nothing like the fellow being taken apart.

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