May 5th, 2012
On this date in 1760, Laurence Shirley, 4th Earl Ferrers became the last member of the House of Lords to hang.
A violent-tempered man — madness was said to run in the family, and this was in fact the Earl’s defense at this trial — Ferrers’ nastiness ran his wife right out of the house. Consider this was the 18th century, he must have been some kind of intolerable.
Though it was directed at another member of the household, this anecdote from the Newgate Calendar may prove illustrative of the sort of fellow we’re dealing with:
Some oysters had been sent from London, which not proving good, his lordship directed one of the servants to swear that the carrier had changed them; but the servant declining to take such an oath, the earl flew on him in a rage, stabbed him in the breast with a knife, cut his head with a candlestick and kicked him on the groin with such severity, that he was incapable of a retention of urine for several years afterwards.
We’ve seen in these pages how a certain sort of ill-humored man would sooner go to the scaffold than subsidize his ex. Ferrers was this sort.
The arrangement for the Ferrers spouses (they weren’t divorced, just separated) was that Ferrers would pay her support via his old household steward. Chafing at the payments and resenting the middleman, Ferrers one day in January summoned him to his, theatrically accused him of breaking faith, and shot him through the chest.
The Earl was tried before the House of Lords (a jury of his peers, and Peers!),* but his sentence was straight from the Old Bailey: not just hanging, but anatomization.
However, his exalted rank did draw a few odd perquisites.
Most noticeably, perhaps, was the fact that Ferrers was allegedly hanged with a rope of silk, rather than hemp. For only the softest coiling around noble throats, you see.
The other, and in hindsight more consequential, was that he didn’t get the low-rent treatment of being shoved off a cart. Instead, the scaffold was surmounted with a small platform supporting a set of trap doors whose opening would suspend the malefactor for his asphyxiatory journey to the hereafter.
This, one of many illustrations of the hanging, suggests this novel feature:
This innovation presents us an obvious forebear of the now-familiar “drop” method of hanging which evolved over the subsequent centuries. Though the drop was not repeated at Tyburn, it became wholesale practice when hangings moved to Newgate Gaol; the drop itself thereafter became the very art of the hanging when it was lengthened and scientifically measured to snap the neck of the condemned on the fall instead of strangling him or her.
And you could trace it all back to May 5, 1760.
To judge from other engravings, this red-letter day did not want for witnesses.
Perhaps stage-frightened by all these eyeballs on their noteworthy prey, the executioners put on an amateur-hour show. They openly fought over the £5 tip Ferrers gave (he accidentally handed it to an assistant), and likewise again over the rope that conducted the sentence.
When next in London, wet your whistle at Streatham’s The Earl Ferrers, a local pub.
* Ferrers defended himself: a norm for the time, but to latter-day eyes rather hard to square with his insanity defense. You’ve got a lucid defendant relying upon his wits to save him in a juridical proceeding inquiring of his own witnesses, “Was I generally reputed a Madman?” (Ferrers’s defense, specifically, was “I’m periodically insane.” But when the wind is southerly, he knows a hawk from a handsaw.)
Also on this date
Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Nobility,Public Executions
Tags: 1760, 1760s, alimony, anatomized, laurence shirley, london, may 5, Tyburn
January 31st, 2012
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.
Also on this date
Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Netherlands,Public Executions,Theft
Tags: 1630s, 1632, amsterdam, anatomized, anatomy, art history, january 16, medicine, nicolaes tulp, rembrandt