1792: Three cadavers, to test the first guillotine

Add comment April 17th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1792, the French Revolution’s iconic execution machine made its quiet experimental debut on the grounds of a suburban Paris hospital.

For all the long and terrible shadow it would cast, the first guillotine was a ridiculous rush job — courtesy of a legislature too squeamish to deal in the particulars of the humane head-chopper it had insisted upon. A ghastly farce ensued, as detailed by Paul Friedland in his Seeing Justice Done: The Age of Spectacular Capital Punishment in France,* wherein during a matter of weeks in the spring of 1792 the thing was practically willed into existence by French physician Antoine Louis by virtue of being the one guy who was willing to get into the technical journals on the matter of crunching a heavy blade through a man’s spine.**

The invention would initially be known as a louisette or louison in his honor, before that moniker was supplanted by the surname of a different physician who had become known (derisively, at first) for proposing a mechanical beheading device: Joseph-Ignace Guillotin.

Lawmakers’ shyness stems as Friedland sees it from their ambivalence about the entire project of public executions with their unruly rabble, pornographically agape: in this courtly sketch of the proposed machine, even the executioner — and this behavior is explicit in its original caption — coyly averts his eyes as his sword-arm releases the blade.

It was on March 20, 1792 that Assembly’s Committee on Legislation authorized deploying the as-yet uninvented device and “almost immediately, there followed an urgent, almost frenzied effort to build a decapitating machine as quickly as possible.” Executions remained suspended in the interim but Louis worked with dispatch, and an efficient carpenter named Guidon,† and the device performed its first real execution a mere five weeks after the enabling legislation, on April 25.

This date was its dry run, courtesy of a few fresh cadavers at the Bicêtre Hospital, which the chief surgeon, one Cullerier, was very happy to make Dr. Louis’s arrangements.

Sir,

You will find at Bicetre all the facilities that you desire for the trial of a machine that humanity cannot see without shuddering, but which justice and the welfare of society make necessary. I will keep the corpses of those unfortunates who die between today and Monday. I will arrange the amphitheater … [and if] the ceiling does not accommodate the height of the machine, I can make use of a little isolated courtyard situated next to the amphitheater. The honor that you are bestowing on the House of Bicetre, Sir, is a very nice gift that you are giving me, but it would be even more so if you wished to accept a simple and frugal meal, such as a bachelor can offer.

Several more VIPs multiplied the honor. Rejoining Friedland’s narrative,

On April 17 the first trial of the guillotine took place. On hand to witness the event were: Sanson, the executioner of Paris, along with his son and an aide; the carpenter who built the machine and his aides; and several members of the medical establishment including Drs. Louis, Cullerier, and Pierre Jean George Cabanis, the prominent physician and friend of Mirabeau. Reportedly also in attendance that day were several members of the National Assembly and last, but certainly not least, an individual who was both a politician and a physician: Dr. Guillotin himself. By all accounts the trial was a wonderful success. As Dr. Louis enthused in his report to [politician and intellectual Pierre-Louis] Roederer, the machine decapitated three cadavers “so neatly that one was astonished by the force and celerity of its action.” Dr. Cabanis would later describe the blade’s descent as having “severed the heads faster than one could see, and the bones were cleanly cut.”

The reports ring with awe, and well they might. For an Enlightenment audience that theretofore had known beheadings only via the error-prone action of an executioner’s muscle, it must have been a wondrous spectacle, a triumph of ingenuity and philosophy for a humane new age.

* Executed Today long ago interviewed Dr. Friedland about this book.

** A rival proposal called for automating death via a sort of proto-gas chamber: the executioner to “attach the condemned by the neck, feet, and hands behind the back [to a post on the scaffold], all of which he would cover or enclose in a kind of booth, 5 feet square, equipped with panes of glass on all four sides and with a tight-fitting cap on top … charcoal, sulfur, and other materials that cause asphyxiation could be introduced into the booth by means of an inverted funnel in such a way that the condemned would suffocate and expire instantaneously.” Yet another proposal called for a strangling machine.

† “Who charged 5,500 francs for it,” report the memoirs of the Sansons, which also notes that by way of experimentation, two of the cadavers were beheaded with the familiar-to-us oblique knife, and the third less satisfactorily with a crescent-shaped alternative.

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1635: Elizabeth Evans, “Canonbury Besse”

Add comment April 17th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1635, Elizabeth Evans (known as “Canonbury Besse”) was hanged for murder.

Sometimes characterized as one of early modern Europe’s pioneer serial killers, Evans was not driven to slaughter by compulsion — merely by its emoluments. Using an early version of the timeless “Lonely Hearts killer” scheme familiar to a later era of classified adverts and Craigslist postings,* Evans and her beau Tom Sherwood committed at least five homicides via the expedient of Canonbury Besse’s allures.

Once the prospect had been enticed to a private rendezvous, Sherwood — “Country Tom” — would jump him, and the couple would rob the body. A straightforward enterprise, with a straightforward consequence. (Sherwood had already gone to the gallows on April 14th.)

The ballad “Murder Upon Murder” blames Evans for seducing Sherwood, “a man of honest parentage”, both bodily and spiritually:

she sotted so his minde,
That unto any villany,
fierce Sherwood was inclind,
His coyne all spent he must have more,
For to content his filthy (Whoore).

So shocking was the spree these lovebirds carried out — as reflected in nicknames that denote a degree of celebrity — that they were doomed to posthumous terrors as well.

Sherwood was hung in chains near St. Pancras Church where he so notably failed to deter crime that a later group of thieves, frustrated at finding their mark penniless, contempuously lashed him naked to Country Tom’s gibbet.

“Oh pity! Still running on to more mischief, having such a fearful spectacle before their eyes as Country Tom, which should rather have frightened and hindered them from doing this bold and insolent act,” laments Henry Goodcole in Heaven’s Speedie Hue and Cry, a narrative pamphlet trading on that same “fearful spectacle.”


Detail view (click for the full image) of Heaven’s Speedie Hue and Cry, a pamphlet narrating the crimes of Sherwood and Evans.

Canonbury Besse was bound over to the surgeons for anatomizing — well before this particular terror became a common extension of murder sentences. According to The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the Human Body in Renaissance Culture, both Sherwood’s and Evans’s skeletons would ultimately became ornaments on permanent display at Inigo Jones‘s 1636 London anatomy theater,** and could be seen there as late as 1784.

* Consider, for instance, America’s Lonely Hearts Killers, Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck — or Henri Landru, French predator of World War I widows.

** Diarist Samuel Pepys described a visit to this theater in 1663.

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1954: Lucretiu Patrascanu, purged Romanian

Add comment April 17th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1954, Lucretiu Patrascanu was shot in Jilava Prison outside Bucharest.

The widow’s-peaked longtime pol was one of the first inductees of the Romanian Communist Party (PCR) after its 1921 founding. Patrascanu (English Wikipedia entry | Romanian) was 21 years old then: the spirited politicking within the Communist movement would define the whole of his adult life.

By the 1930s, he held a position of national leadership. Patrascanu served in the Romanian legislature, and became a party representative to the Comintern.

It might have been at a Comintern road trip to Moscow in the 1930s that Patrascanu’s disillusionment with Stalin began. If so, it was beside the point: leftists in Romania (like everywhere else) had the more immediate threat of fascism to contend with.

After spending most of the war years under arrest, Patrascanu re-emerged as a state minister. He personally helped to author the August 23, 1944 coup that flipped Romania out of the Axis camp. But by the very next year he was under police surveillance.

He fell in the Soviet-driven late 1940s purge of Eastern European Titoists, for having such insufficiently internationalist notions as “before we are Communists, we are Romanians.” His time in prison was long enough for authorities to model his show trial on the 1952 Czechoslovakian Slansky trial, though Patrascanu himself disdained to denounce himself, or even to dignify the proceedings with a defense.

I have nothing to say, except [that I] spit on the charges brought against me.

He was posthumously rehabilitated in 1968 by Nicolae Ceausescu.

* Poignantly, Patrascanu was said to have read Koestler’s dystopian novel of the Soviet purges, Darkness at Noon, while an envoy to the 1946 Paris Peace Conference.

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1680: John Marketman, jealous chirurgeon

Add comment April 17th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1680, an unusual public execution took place in West Ham.

John Marketman (Manchetman) was a ship’s surgeon, which he spelled “chirurgeon” because it was olden days. Being away at sea gave him a lots of time to picture how his wife Mary Snerlin back home might be cuckolding him, and when he arrived back one time to apparent corroborating information, he went a little nutso.

According to the trial record from the spring 1680 Chelmsford Assizes,

the circumstances of the bloody Deed was sworn to as followeth, the Prisoner being newly come on Shore, having been at Sea for a considerable time, was informed that she had been over lavish of her Favours to a Neighbour of hers, being by profession a Shoemaker; he being newly come from Sea and coming home as it is said surprized her too familiar with the said Shoemaker, whereupon he in a Rage threatned [sic] her, yet notwithstanding the Rage of Jealousie, he seemed reconciled, but to the contrary retaining an inward hatred, which she perceiving, fled to a neighbours house, thinking to stay whilst his Anger was overpast, yet he with a seem’d Reconciliation, came to invite her home, and came up to her as if he would imbrace her, but with his bloody hands he stab’d her with a Knife under her Right Breast, about four inches deep,* of which Wound she in a little time died, only confessing her innocence, at his Trial he did not deny the Fact, and after his being convicted did confess his Rashness in proceeding on such Cruelty, without the least remorse, after he was found Guilty of wilful Murder and received Sentence of Death, he seemed exceeding Penitent, and did bewail his cruel Crime, shedding many Tears, that he had given himself over to the suggestions of the Prince of darkness, and so continued to the utmost.

There are somewhat different twists on the underlying facts of the case from different sources — like the profession of the alleged lover, and the question of whether Marketman caught them in flagrante delicto or merely heard town gossip, and the matter of whether he took revenge with cold calculation or in more of a drunken fury. Fill it out however you like; in outline we have one of the stock classics of homicide.

But at receiving his sentence, Marketman did something remarkable: he asked the judge to alter the sentence and be hung not at the usual execution spot in Chelmsford, but in West Ham — “the town where he did perpetrate the wicked act.”

Marketman, you could say, really went all-out from that very first moment to put on a full-dress, no-holds-barred scaffold performance par excellence. He should have been in the business of scripting deaths.

Besides hanging in West Ham, Marketman had his mother (“poor Soul drowned in Sorrow,” in the words of a pamphlet titled “True Narrative of the Execution of John Marketman”**) lead him personally to the gallows. There a minister preached on 2 Corinthians 7:9, “I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting” — demonstratively comforting Marketman that his imminent strangulation would stand “a monument to divine justice … in and thorow you, God sheweth the consequences of a sinful and wicked life.”

This was the evolving principle of executions as exemplary deterrence, and Marketman was ready to play the part in his final turn. He spoke for a long time, with the swooning mother right there as evidence, on how he

had been very disobedient to his too indulgent parents, and that he had spent his youthful days in profanation of the Sabbath and licentious evils of debaucheries beyond expression, and that he had been over penurious in his narrow observance of his wive’s ways, desirous that all should pray to the Eternal God for his everlasting welfare, and with many pious expressions ended this mortal life.

In focusing on the theatrical aspects of Marketman’s execution, we don’t mean to suggest that the sea-chirurgeon’s encounter with his death was in any way insincere: present-day executions too comprise a ritualized performance in which a good many dying prisoners are very willing to participate. (Modern American executions behind prison walls don’t map to the take-warning-from-my-fate discourse, but it’s quite common for those on the gurney to offer victims’ witnesses the “closure” shibboleth.)

The early-modern condemned were widely expected to give a pedagogical account of themselves before execution, and widely complied with the expectation. Marketman simply underscores the surprising extent to which a fellow will not only comply but actively assert his part in his own death. Marketman wanted his hanging to embody redemption, instruction, and the majesty of the law that hanged him. Maybe in his heart of hearts he even wanted that before he knifed poor Mary Snerlin.

The chirurgeon went so far as to write a prison letter to his supposed rival: “As for the injury you have done me, I freely from my heart forgive you, begging God to give you grace that you may unfeignedly repent of all your sins, that God may have mercy on your soul.”

See J.A. Sharpe, “Last Dying Speeches: Religion, Ideology and Public Execution in Seventeenth-Century England,” Past & Present, May 1985.

* Say what you will about chirurgeons, they know about killing.

** This source also says his wife was pregnant, which must have added some vinegar to Marketman’s cuckoldry suspicions.

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1689: William Bew, flatterer

1 comment April 17th, 2012 Headsman

This was the hanging-date in 1689 of William Bew, the less-noted younger brother of a more impressive (but by this time deceased) highwayman “Captain Bew”.

Will, too, took to the road. His thieving career might not have been outstanding, but it did give the Newgate Ordinary occasion to wax smug over the nigh-literary comeuppance young Bew once delivered to feminine vanity.

The following story, which Bew himself used to tell, is of an adventure of Bew with a young lady, whom he overtook on the road, with her footman behind her. He made bold to keep them company a pretty way, talking all along of the lady’s extraordinary beauty, and carrying his compliments to her to an unreasonable height. Madam was not at all displeased with what he said, for she looked upon herself to be every bit as handsome as he made her. However, she seemed to contradict all he told her, and professed with a mighty formal air that she had none of the perfections he mentioned, and was therefore highly obliged to him for his good opinion of a woman who deserved it so little. They went on in this manner, Bew still protesting that she was the most agreeable lady he ever saw, and she declaring that he was the most complaisant gentleman she ever met with. This was the discourse till they came to a convenient place, when Bew took an opportunity to knock the footman off his horse; and then addressing himself to the lady, “Madam,” says he, “I have been a great while disputing with you about the beauty of your person; but you insist so strongly on my being mistaken, that I cannot in good manners contradict you any longer. However, I am not satisfied yet that you have nothing handsome about you, and therefore I must beg leave to examine your pocket, and see what charms are contained there.” Having delivered his speech he made no more ceremony, but thrust his hand into her pocket and pulled out a purse with fifty guineas in it. “These are the charms I mean,” says he; and away he rode, leaving her to meditate a little upon the nature of flattery, which commonly picks the pocket of the person it is most busy about.

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1457: The Wallachian boyars

2 comments April 17th, 2011 Headsman

This date was Easter Sunday in 1457, which would make it the date associated with one of the more memorable displays of theatrical brutality by Wallachian proto-vampire Vlad Tepes, aka Vlad Dracula or Vlad the Impaler.

Having only just ascended the less-than-secure throne of Wallachia, a frontier principality pinched between the Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, the 25-ish prince and onetime Ottoman hostage had a bone-chilling inauguration plan to shore up his security both internal and external.

He threw a big party in Targoviste for the nobles of the realm … and had a little surprise waiting for them. It wasn’t an Easter egg hunt.

He asked the assembled noblemen:
“How many princes have you known?”
The latter answered
Each as much as he knew best.
One believed that there had been thirty,
Another twenty.
Even the youngest thought there had been seven.
After having answered this question
As I have just sung it,
Dracula said: “Tell me,
How do you explain the fact
That you have had so many princes
In your land?
The guilt is entirely due to your shameful intrigues.”

With ample proof of the boyars’ deceit and treacherous intents, Dracula decided it was timely to inflict upon them an exemplary punishment … mass impalement …

The oldest Romanian historical chronicle records the event two centuries later. It had taken place in the spring of 1457, during the Easter celebrations that the boyars were attending at the palace … “when Eastern Day came, while all the citizens were feasting and the young ones were dancing he [Dracula] surrounded them [the boyars] … led them together with their wives and children, just as they were dressed up for Easter, to Poenari, where they were put to work until their clothes were torn and they were left naked.” In actual fact, this episode, which is also recalled by the Greek historian Chalcondyles and firmly anchored in popular folklore, involved some two hundred boyars and their wives, as well as leading citizens of Tirgoviste … They were seized by Dracula’s men as they were finishing their meal in the main banqueting hall of the palace, following the elaborate Easter ritual at the Paraclete Chapel. In Dracula’s ingenious mind, one aspect of the punishment had a utilitarian purpose: the reconstruction of the famous castle high up on the Arges … On the way out of the chapel the old boyars and their wives were apprehended by Dracula’s henchmen and impaled beyond the city walls. The young and able-bodied were manacled and chained to each other and then marched northward under the vigilant eye of Dracula’s men.

This was revenge a decade in the making for the boyar class having toppled Vlad’s father and murdered Vlad’s elder brother in 1447.

But personal score-settling aside, Vlad’s sanguinary housekeeping had a statecraft dimension as well. It enabled him to centralize power in his own person, and had the happy side effect of speeding creation of a secure mountain fastness — Poenari Castle, which is one of several structures answering to the lucrative name of Castle Dracula.

While Vlad is (in)famous for his iron fist (and well-oiled spikes), it’s perhaps harder to say with confidence how much good this slaughter did him. Wallachia’s security situation was fundamentally defined by its neighbors no matter how cruel Vlad Tepes might be.

Vlad got some more impaling under his belt defending his country from Ottoman invaders (you’ll be shocked to learn that many boyars were more than happy to help the sultan get rid of this tyrant), but he was clapped in prison by the Hungarian ruler Matthias Hunyadi in 1462, lived most of the rest of his life in exile, and then died in battle attempting a Wallachian comeback in 1476. So basically, he got a few good years in … plus that whole latter-day afterlife he enjoys as tourist magnet, alleged literary inspiration, and nationalist icon.

And that’s more than one can say for most of the 15th century rulers who weren’t impaling their boyars.

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1222: An apostate deacon

1 comment April 17th, 2010 Headsman

Thirteenth century England was a dicey place for theological heterodoxy.

On this date in 1222, Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton held at Oxford a provincial council that ordered for immediate execution

an apostate deacon, who for the love of a Jewess had circumcised himself. When he had been degraded he was burnt by the servants of the lord Fawkes.

The story of this nameless and foreskinless deacon — and the link includes several congruent descriptions from primary sources — is sometimes conflated with that of Robert of Reading, another Christian divine who converted in the late 13th century.

Robert’s fate — or Haggai’s, to use the new name he took — seems to be officially unknown, and might have unfolded overseas: Edward I expelled Jews from England in 1290. Nevertheless, the mixed Robert-anonymous deacon story was commemorated with a plaque at Osney Abbey.

Whomever this date’s deacon really was, he wasn’t the only one for whom this council ordained a dreadful end for having the wrong idea about the Almighty.

And there was brought thither into the council an unbelieving youth along with two women, whom the archdeacon of the district accused of the most criminal unbelief, namely that the youth would not enter a church nor be present at the blessed sacraments, nor obey the injunctions of the Catholic Father, but had suffered himself to be crucified, and still bearing in his body the marks of the wounds had been pleased to have himself called Jesus by the aforesaid women. And one of the women, an old woman, was accused of having long been given to incantations and having by her magic arts brought the aforesaid youth to this height of madness. So both being convicted of this gross crime, were condemned to be imprisoned between two walls until they died. But the other woman, who was the youth’s sister, was let go free, for she had revealed the impious deed.

Our source thinks this means life imprisonment rather than being bricked up behind the amontillado. Whatever. It’s not every day we get to use the “immured” tag.

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1355: Marino Faliero, Doge of Venice

4 comments April 17th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1355, Marino Faliero* was escorted to the spot where he had been crowned Doge of Venice scant months before. There, he was ceremoniously relieved of his robes of state … and then his head.


The Execution of Marino Faliero, by Eugene Delacroix (1827).

Some fog surrounds the day’s proceedings, product not only of time but of the Doge’s executioners’ damnatio memoriae upon their victim. What was written was circumspect; even Faliero‘s portrait in the great hall of the Doge’s Palace was veiled.

What is known — or at any rate, was admitted by the elderly first citizen — is that the ruler attempted a coup against the overweening power of Venice’s great families.

The putsch was supposed to occur on April 15, with the bell of St. Mark’s Cathedral tolling on a fabricated hue and cry. In the tumult, the Doge’s supporters meant to cut down the nobles who flexed the real political muscle in the maritime republic and consolidate ducal power.

Why?

The salacious version has the old goat in a tiff with a noble, who made fun of his May-December marriage —

Marino Faliero of the beautiful wife,
Others enjoy her while he maintains her

A tribunal of fellow-nobles let the rascal off with a slap on the wrist.

Power being what it is, and princes and nobilities being born for conflict with one another across the centuries in Europe, one may as well discern a straightforward political intent — heightened, perhaps, by the then-dire state of Venice’s naval contest with Genoa.

Downright Byronic under either scenario … and Byron wrote a play about Faliero. The doomed ruler gives throat to quite a magnificent curse upon his city, with all the foresight of Byron’s half-millennium of hindsight:

I perish, but not unavenged; far ages
Float up from the abyss of time to be,
And show these eyes, before they close, the doom
Of this proud city, and I leave my curse
On her and hers for ever! —

          — She shall be bought
And sold, and be an appanage to those
Who shall despise her! — She shall stoop to be
A province for an empire, petty town
In lieu of capital, with slaves for senates,
Beggars for nobles, panders for a people!

Amidst thy many murders, think of mine!
Thou den of drunkards with the blood of princes!
Gehenna of the waters! thou sea Sodom!
Thus I devote thee to the infernal gods!
Thee and thy serpent seed!
[Here the Doge turns, and addresses the executioner.]
          Slave, do thine office!
Strike as I struck the foe! Strike as I would
Have struck those tyrants! Strike deep as my curse!
Strike — and but once!

This sort of thing knocking about among litterateurs in the 19th century practically guarantees an opera.

* Or simply “Marin Falier”, in the Venetian dialect.

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