1494: Joan Boughton, “old cankered heretic”

Add comment April 28th, 2019 Headsman

Lollard heretic Joan Boughton was burned on this date in 1494 — purportedly England’s first female Christian martyr.

Followers of pre-Luther English church reformer John Wyclif(fe) had been thick on the ground in the early 15th century, terrifying the English state into a violent suppression.

But these years of headline repression did not suffice to drive Lollardy into the grave … only underground. The Lollard heresy continued to persist, quietly, its trajectory and dimensions largely undocumented, barely surfacing here and there with the odd arrest. “Between 1450-1517, Lollardy was almost wholly restricted to the rural districts, and little mention is made of it in contemporary records,” notes this history. “How extensively Wyclif’s views continued to be secretly held and his writings read is a matter of conjecture.”

Its adherents still had the stuff of martyrdom, for on this occasion decades on from the heyday of Lollardy and into the reign of Henry VII,

an old cankered heretic, weak-minded for age, named Joan Boughton, widow, and mother unto the wife of Sir John Young — which daughter, as some reported, had a great smell of an heretic after the mother — burnt in Smithfield. This woman was four score years of age or more, and held eight opinions of heresy which I pass over, for the hearing of them is neither pleasant nor fruitful. She was a disciple of Wycliffe, whom she accounted for a saint, and held so fast and firmly eight of his twelve opinions that all the doctors of London could not turn her from one of them. When it was told to her that she should be burnt for her obstinacy and false belief, she set nought at their words but defied them, for she said she was so beloved with God and His holy angels that all the fire in London should not hurt her. But on the morrow a bundle of faggots and a few reeds consumed her in a little while; and while she might cry she spoke often of God and Our Lady, but no man could cause her to name Jesus, and so she died. But it appeared that she left some of her disciples behind her, for the night following, the more part of the ashes of that fire that she was burnt in were had away and kept for a precise relic in an earthen pot.

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1708: William Gregg, spy of slob

Add comment April 28th, 2018 Headsman

William Gregg was hanged and quartered on this date in 1708 as a French spy.

Given a recent near-miss prosecution for counterfeiting — his pregnant wife saved Gregg’s bacon by taking the blame, and had her hand branded for the trouble — Gregg wasn’t the type who would get a security waiver in the diplomatic corps nowadays.

But the job market is all about who you know, and Gregg’s father knew the previous Home Secretary.* The young man therefore pulled an impecunious appointment to an underclerkship for that same office under the management of Robert Harley.

Harley was a powerful minister who among other things consummated the tricky union of England and Scotland. He was also — according to the writer Daniel Defoe, whose able quill Harley had obtained by relieving the writer’s debts when they were so heavy as to land him in prison — an inveterate slob. Defoe claims that he reprimanded his boss for the “most complete disorder” in his office, in which strewn everywhere “papers of the gravest import were open to the inspection of every clerk, doorkeeper, or laundress in the establishment.”

Gregg was the man who would succumb to the temptation.

Getting by on Bob Cratchit wages, Gregg realized that he was essentially working in a gold mine … and he started selling the bullion to France, by copying interesting documents and sending them abroad.

The treason was detected by a Brussels postmaster late in 1707: evidently Gregg sent his copies to the French ministry with a helpful cover letter identifying himself by name.

This crime had deep political ramifications; Whigs who had within living memory suffered the indignity of seeing their greatest leaders sent to the block by the Tories after the Monmouth rebellion entertained some vivid plans for the Tory Harley once Gregg was arrested.

But the man who would sell his country for gold would not sell his boss for his life. Condemned to die a traitor’s death on January 9, Gregg languished more than three months while Whig lords inveigled him with promises of mercy if he should condescend to expose a wider Tory plot. Gregg staunchly stuck to his story: that it was he alone who committed espionage, and the means was nothing but Harley’s untidiness. The scandal was sufficient to force Harley’s resignation, but Gregg’s failure to cooperate denied Harley’s enemies a wider and bloodier purge.

Gregg was convicted on the statute of Edward III, which declares it high treason ‘to adhere to the king’s enemies, or to give them aid either within or without the realm.’

Immediately after his conviction, both houses of Parliament petitioned the queen that he might be executed; and he accordingly hanged at Tyburn, with Morgridge, on the 28th April, 1708.

Gregg, at the place of execution, delivered a paper to the sheriff of London and Middlesex, in which he acknowledged the justice of his sentence, declared his sincere repentance of all his sins, particularly that lately committed against the queen, whose forgiveness he devoutly implored.

He likewise expressed his wish to make all possible reparation for the injuries he had done; begged pardon in a particular manner of Mr Secretary Harley, and testified the perfect innocence of that gentleman, declaring that he was no way privy, directly or indirectly, to his writing to France. He professed that he died an unworthy member of the Protestant church, and that the want of money to supply his extravagances had tempted him to commit the fatal crime which cost him his life.

Newgate Calendar

* The Home Office technically only dates to 1782. Its predecessor post as it existed in the first years of the eighteenth century was actually Secretary of State for the Northern Department.

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1909: A triple execution in Chalco

Add comment April 28th, 2017 Headsman

The composed image in this date’s post would almost lead one to believe it posed, but Mexican campesinos Arcadio Jiménez, Hilario Silva, and Marcelino Martínez really were all shot together at Chalco on this date in 1909, for killing a policeman during the tense twilight of dictator Porfirio Diaz, on the verge of the Mexican Revolution. It’s believed to have been taken by Augustin Casasola.


From this lengthy dissertation pdf. (See the 384th page of the pdf, or page 354 as numbered within the document.)

According to Photographing the Mexican Revolution: Commitments, Testimonies, Icons, the event was luridly covered by the magazine El Imparcial, which described the execution in these words:

The bodies fell simultaneously, slowly backward, and a hoarse whisper flowed from either the enormous holes made by the bullets or their tightly pressed lips. The clothing smoked from the gunpowder, and their contractions denoted an extraordinarily cruel suffering. A death rattle, like that of a sheep with its throat cut, escaped from the three bodies. Their families sobbed, and their cries filled the countryside. Those of us who were present will never forget it.

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1770: King David Hartley, Yorkshire coiner

1 comment April 28th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1770, the King of Yorkshire counterfeiters hanged (along with one of his subjects) at York’s Tyburn gallows.

Hartley was the chief of a band of currency manipulators who achieved surprising success and longevity operating from the haunting moors of England’s north.* Known (in order of least to greatest geographical specificity) as the Yokrshire, or West Riding, or Cragg Vale coiners, their operation was a straightforward shaving precious metal from coins but found its edge — so to speak — in their lair’s remoteness from the capital.


Illustration of the coining tools for Portuguese money seized from King David’s band, from The Yorkshire Coiners, 1767-1783. (Portuguese coins, a Cragg Vale specialty, were in active and legal circulation in England at this time, along with other continental coinage.)

According to this public domain volume about the criminals, the first recognition of their activities by law enforcement occurred in 1767, when a coin-clipper named Greenwood “confessed who learnt him the art of clipping in your neighbourhood” — which makes it sound like those artists were already both numerous and practiced. The next year, a man named Joseph Stell hanged for the crime, but the Leeds Intelligencer editorialized in 1769 against “the number of Sweaters and Filers of Gold coin [who] still continue to infest the Western part of this County with impunity” because “if they are suffered to go on a few years in this public and daring manner, it is supposed the current gold coin of the nation in general will be reduced a fifth part.” (A parliamentary inquiry in 1773 found that the overall weight of the country’s coinage came up a full 9% short of its face value: certainly not entirely the work of Cragg Vale, but an alarming state of affairs.)

The business had an undeniable appeal despite the occupational hazard of the gallows. With England awash in the whole world’s specie as the dominant mercantile power, the West Riding became a veritable Silicon Valley for currency entrepreneurs. It’s thought their number might have ranged into the hundreds.

Gold Coin, which has heretofore been so scarce among us as to command a large Premium against Bills of Exchange, flows in upon us with great Rapidity from all parts of the Island; and by the Hocus Pocus Touch of a Number of experimental Philosophers and Chymists (not by an addition to its weight, but by an ingenious Multiplication of its Numbers) is so greatly increased, that all Payments in Paper will soon be at an end … [they] are in a fair Way of drawing Half the Gold in the two Kingdoms into this happy Country … If you wish to be rich, and can sacrifice a few nonsensical Scruples to that Deity, make haste hither, and you may soon be instructed in these Mysteries, which, (with great Ease and Pleasure) will enable you to convert a thousand of your old-fashioned Guineas into Twelve Hundred, and, with a moderate Industry, to repeat the Process every Week.

-Letter from Halifax, July 14, 1769

This letter reflects an alarming situation: not merely the extent of the operation but the degree to which it had become normalized, winked-at, and even integrated into Yorkshire’s economic circuits. “It had become a common practice of the moneyed people — the merchant and manufacturers of the Parish of Halifax — and of those by which that Parish was surrounded, comprising a large portion of the West Riding of the County of York, to carry on a somewhat lucrative business with the Coiners,” one observer wrote. “The central body, if such it may be called, with, for a time, ‘King David’ at its head, was constituted into a kind of Banking Company, with whom certain capitalists deposited large amounts in the shape of guineas.” After all, this bank could offer steady guarantees of investment return.

But bubbles are blown for the bursting, and however many Yorkshiremen had been looking the other way while chymists multiplied guineas, it was about this time that officers of the law started putting the screws to the Yorkshire coiners. (Needless to say, the illicit bank’s merchant customers weren’t handled quite the same way.)

Confrontation came into the open with the 1769 arrests of our man David Hartley (nicknamed “King” for self-evident reasons) and at least a half-dozen others. York Castle’s bowels began to fill up with coiners and collaborators, courtesy of a crown excise officer named William Dighton (or Deighton). Dighton bgan rolling up the gang in a very modern way: starting with bribes to obtain informants and then using their information to smash through the cells.

But so vaunting were the Yorkshire coiners that David Hartley’s brother Isaac put up a £100 reward for the murder of William Dighton — and two guys duly ambushed him in a dark lane in Halifax in November 1769 and shot Dighton dead. This gambit by Isaac was much more loyal than it was wise, for the effrontery to murder an agent of the state invited a ferocious counterattack. (It also didn’t help David Hartley in the least: there was no plan to break him out, only vindictiveness against his persecutor.) the Marquess of Rockingham — the once (1765-66) and future (1782) Prime Minister — was dispatched to the scene to avenge the murdered Dighton, and had 30 coiners in custody by Christmas.

The coiners were done shooting back by this point, and the remaining tales form a tissue of outlaw desperation — flight from manhunts, maneuvering to mitigate death sentences, informing on one another. (Its particulars, and the evidence marshaled against various coiners, can be read in detail at the public domain history already cited.) David Hartley was brought up on capital charges at the next assizes;** his former comrades, including the assassins of Dighton, were hunted to ground. Soon, such counterfeiters as might still be found were reduced to their customary posture, in hidey-holes leaching a few dank groats from the neglected plumbing under the economy, rather than as retail concerns with banking ledgers and armed toughs.

But they left countless others besides — passive co-conspirators, whose wealth their shaving and filing had enlarged and who like King Charles‘s regicides could never fully be brought to book. And they’re not done to this very day: a coiners’ museum is reportedly in the works to capture a few tourist dollars, too.

* Wuthering Heights takes place in Yorkshire, and the Cragg Vale outside of Halifax is within a tormented moonlight ramble of the real locations that inspired its settings.

** Death sentences came down liberally at the assizes, but were (almost) as liberally reprieved — including, for the instance at hand, all of the following: “Thomas Harrison and Benjamin Smith, for Burglary; Benjamin Parkinson, for returning from Transportation; Richard Whitfield, for stealing Linen Cloth from a Bleaching Field; William Dalby, and Robert Moor, alias William Moor, for Horse-stealing; William Owen, George Carr, and John Tunningly, for Cow-stealing; and Robert Allerton, for Sheep-stealing.” (London Public Advertiser, April 13, 1770.)

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1634: Mikhail Borisovich Shein, for failing to take Smolensk

Add comment April 28th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1634, the Russian general Mikhail Borisovich Shein was executed on Red Square for losing to the Poles.

Shein (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) was an accomplished boyar officer who had made his bones during Russia’s Time of Troubles.

During the Time of Troubles — 15 war-torn years following the end of Ivan the Terrible‘s dynasty — the neighboring Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had eagerly exploited Russia’s chaos, invading Russia, backing an imposter who tried to claim the throne, and at last settling for tearing off a chunk of territory in war.

By the 1630s, Russia had her shit back together under the first Romanov tsar, and when the Polish king died in 1632 saw an opportunity to return stripe for stripe on its opportunistic neighbor.

This was the Smolensk War, so named because the recapture of that city was its primary objective. Shein, the respected elder military statesman who had lost Smolensk to a Polish siege twenty-odd years before, was just the man to lead the campaign.

The span of time tested by the 1632-1633 Russian siege was not merely that measured by the larder of Smolensk’s vastly outnumbered garrison — but that of Poland-Lithuania’s unwieldy succession process. Although the successor king was self-evident, the span required for his actual election left a six-month interregnum: nothing compared to the Time of Troubles, but perhaps enough for a frontier reversal.

But as it happened, Shein could not force Smolensk’s capitulation in 1633 and by the latter half of that year a superior Polish army was arriving. By October of 1633, a year after the Russians had begun hostilities, not only was the siege of Smolensk broken, but the Russian camp itself was encircled by the Poles. Having no prospect of a relief force such had just delivered his enemies, Shein could not hold out for even a single Friedman Unit and soon surrendered. He received liberal terms: the Russians had to abandon their artillery, but Shein’s army returned to Moscow unharmed, with its standards.


The Surrender of the Russian Garrison of Smolensk before Vladislaus IV Vasa of Poland, by an unknown Polish artist (c. 1634)

Having seen their jolly war of choice come to such a humilitating pass, the Moscow boyars received their defeated commander in a rage. A tribunal vengefully condemned Shein, his second-in-command Artemii Vasilevich Izmailov, and Izmailov’s son Vasili, to death for treason and incompetence in command.

(According to Nancy Kollmann, a German scholar present in Russia in 1634 recorded that the execution took the men by surprise, as they had been led to believe that they would receive a last-minute commutation.)

In even the most slightly longer term, the debacle proved to be only a minor strategic setback. Poland was unable to follow up its victory with any inroads on Russian soil. That June, the two belligerents came to a peace restoring the status quo ante bellum — and they managed to pass a whole generation before they fought again.

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1876: The slave Francisco, Brazil’s last execution

Add comment April 28th, 2014 Headsman

Brazil carried out the last civil execution in its history on April 28, 1876.

The beloved and long-serving Emperor Pedro II — Brazil’s last emperor, for he was deposed in 1889 in favor of a Republic — had developed a strong aversion to the death penalty.

“I am not a supporter of capital punishment,” Pedro II mused in his diary on New Year’s Day, 1862,

but conditions in our society still make it necessary, and it exists in law. However, employing of the prerogatives of the regulating power, I commute death sentences, whenever the circumstances of the case justify so doing it.

Just two months before writing that entry, Pedro had failed to stop the execution of Jose Pereira de Sousa.

But as the years went on, Pedro would find his sought-for justification to intercede ever more frequently … and in time, universally. There were still death sentences handed down in the last decade-plus of the Brazilian Empire, but the sovereign’s pen sustained a standing moratorium.

Jose Pereira de Sousa’s 1861 hanging proved to be the last civil execution of a free man in Brazil’s history — the qualifier courtesy of Brazil’s status as the Western world’s last slave state. (Slavery wasn’t abolished in Brazil until 1888.)

The black slave Francisco was the very last condemned man whose execution the Emperor Pedro II failed to block. Francisco was one of a trio of slaves who had two years prior bludgeoned to death their former masters, João Evangelista de Lima and his wife. One of Francisco’s confederates was killed on the run; the second died in prison. (Source, in Portuguese like most of the little to be found about Francisco.)

Its distinguishing characteristic from the standpoint of posterity is simply that it was the last; and, that its milestone characteristic underscores Brazil’s painful slaving history.

These circumstances have recommended Francisco’s last passion to annual re-enactments (more Portuguese) on the anniversary of his execution, in the city of Pilar, Alagoas where it all took place.

After Francisco, Pedro’s already-dogged obstruction of the death penalty became absolute, persisting over the last 13 years of his reign. By the time he yielded the executive power to the Republic of Brazil, his persistence had put capital punishment permanently beyond the pale for Brazil’s subsequent authorities.

Even Brazil’s 20th century dictatorships, while implicated in extrajudicial killings, never made bold to break the taboo on a formal judicial execution.

Theoretically, the death penalty is still to this day available in Brazil though only for a major wartime crime. (It would be carried out by firing squad.) In reality, as Emperor Pedro observed with satisfaction after his involuntary retirement from politics, it’s as dead as a letter can be.

This reminds of what I have done for the abolition of the death penalty by law, rather than in practice, since I achieved that some 30 years ago through always commuting the penalty.

-Pedro II, June 15, 1890 (Source for both Pedro’s diary pull-quotes)

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1899: Not J.M. Olberman, spared by Oregon’s governor

1 comment April 28th, 2013 Headsman

This date in 1899 was the one appointed for the Roseburg, Ore. hanging of a miner named J.M. Olberman for murdering his partner-in-prospecting.

But as described in this April 28, 1899 story from the Portland Oregonian (transcribed in its entirety), a governor willing to “take a larger and less restricted view” of a case than the courts would do spared Olberman on the eve of his hanging.


SALEM, April 27. — The sentence of J.M. Olberman, who was to have been hanged in Roseburg tomorrow for the murder of J.N. Casteel, his mining partner, near Myrtle Creek, last year, has been commuted to life imprisonment. At 5 o’clock this afternoon Governor Geer sent a telegram to Sheriff Stephens, of Douglas county, advising him of the commutation. When asked tonight to give his reasons for extending clemency to Olberman, Governor Geer said:

I finally concluded to commute Olberman’s sentence to life imprisonment for the reason that there were many extenuating circumstances that remove his crime from the class of deliberately planned murders. His victim had not only viciously warned him the night before that he would kill him when he was least expecting it, but had refused to go to bed, lying on the lounge al lnight, and muttering his threats long after Olberman had retired. Reputable citizens of Mytle Creek have proven to me that Casteel had not only threatened Olberman’s life, but that of several other men, and that he was a ‘bully’ by natre, and a dangerous man. I have petitions signed by 62 citizens of Myrtle creek, where the tragedy occurred, stating that Casteel ‘frequently threatened to kill people, drove his son-in-law from home by threats to kill him; that he threatened to kill Olberman, and we believe he would have carried the threat into execution had he not himself been killed.’

To my mind, these facts, which are well established, make a wide distinction between Olberman’s crime and that which is committed by a highwayman, who deliberately murders for gain, or the brute who takes human life purely for revenge, and there should be a distinction between the degrees of punishment following their commission.

Courts are sometimes prohibited from going outside the forms of law and the record, although convinced, perhaps, that the equities of the case would warrant a different finding. It is to correct such conditions that the right to take a larger and less restricted view of the circumstances surrounding a case is given to the executive. It is great power to place in the hands of one man, and should be used very sparingly and rarely.

I have an abundance of testimony from Myrtle Creek and Portland, where he lived for four years, that Olberman is a man of steady habits, and of a peacable disposition, and has never associated with the criminal class. The commutation of his sentence was asked by most of the people in the vicinity where the murder was committed, and the same request was made by letter to me by both the daughters of the murdered man, one of his sons-in-law, and three of the trial jurors.

Olberman committed a great crime, but the provocation surrounding him makes him less guilty, in my judgment, than the other man who deliberately murders for either gain or revenge; and his crime being less his punishment should be less. I do not think I have erred in saving this man’s life, but if I have it has been on the side of mercy, and to do so is sometimes a positive virtue.

Among those who signed petitions and sent personal letters to the governor in Olberman’s behalf were Governor Bradley, of Kentucky; a member of congress from Kentucky; United States Senator Joseph Simon, H.M. Martin, William Flocks and George McDougall, three of the trial jurors, and Mrs. May Stewart and Mrs. June Reynolds, daughters of the murdered man.

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1882: George Henry Lamson, aconitine poisoner

1 comment April 28th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1882, George Henry Lamson was hanged at England’s Wandsworth Prison for poisoning his brother-in-law in pursuit of an inheritance.

Once decorated for his volunteer medical practicioning in the benighted lands of eastern Europe, Dr. Lamson fell prey upon his return to England to morphine addiction which cleaned out his assets.

Desperate to resolve his debts, he administered a lethal aconitine dose to the paraplegic 18-year-old Percy John.

Apparently, the good doctor had learned all about this efficacious chemical at the knee of Queen Victoria’s own physician, Robert Christison.

Unfortunately, Lamson hadn’t been keeping up with his technical journals in the meantime: Christison had taught him that aconitine poisoning was undetectable, but a forensic technique to identify it had subsequently been developed.

(Minor-league milestone: Lamson’s was the first recorded criminal defense that attempted to blame ptomaine poisoning, a now-discredited theory that death can be induced by alkaloid toxins from decomposing food. But the lawyer making that defense would later write that he not only believed his client guilty, he also thought Lamson had iced his wife’s older brother, Herbert.)

The particulars of Lamson’s trial are recounted at length in this free book, from which we excerpt the interesting description of executioner William Marwood’s craft in arranging the scene.

Lamson was a more powerfully built man than he appeared, weighing upwards of 11 stone 12 Ibs., and the executioner, evidently fearing that hie strength would operate somewhat against a sharp and quick fall, fastened back his shoulders in a manner which precluded all possibility of the culprit resisting the action of the drop …

When the convict was pinioned the procession moved on, the clergyman the meanwhile reading the service of the Church appointed for the burial of the dead, the doomed man respondnig almost inaudibly to the words as they were uttered by the chaplain. It was with great difficulty now that he could walk at all; indeed, it is certain that had he not been supported by the two warders who stood on either side of him, he would have fallen to the earth. Suddenly he came in sight of the gallows, a black structure, about 30 yards distant. The grave, newly dug, was close at hand. The new and terrible spectacle here acted once more with painful effect upon the condemned man, for again he almost halted and fell. But the warders, never leaving hold of him, moved on, while Marwood came behind. At last the gallows was reached, and here the clergyman bade farewell to the prisoner, while Marwood began his preparations with the rope and the beam overhead. With a view to meet any accretion of fear which might now befall the culprit, a wise provision had been made. The drop was so arranged as to part in the middle, after the fashion of two folding doors ; but, lest the doomed man might not be able to stand upon the scaffold without assistance, two planks of deal had been placed over the drop, one on either side of the rope, so that up to the latest moment the two warders supporting the convict might stand securely and hold him up, without danger to themselves or inconvenience to the machinery of the gallows. In this way Lamson was now kept erect while Marwood fastened his legs and put the cap over his eyes. He must have fallen had the arrangement been otherwise, for his effort to appear composed had by this time failed. Indeed, from what now occurred it is evident that the convict yet hoped for a few moments more of life, for, as Marwood proceeded to pull the cap down over his face he pitifully begged that one more prayer might be recited by the chaplain. Willing as the executioner possibly might have been to listen to this request, he had, of course, no power to alter the progress of the service, and was obliged to disregard this last demand of the dying man. Signalling to the warders to withdraw their arms, he drew the lever, which released the bolt under the drop, and so launched the prisoner into eternity, [the] clergyman finished the Lord’s Prayer, in the midst of which he found himself when the lever had been pulled, and then, pronouncing the benediction, moved slowly back to the prison.

Though aconitine poisoning dates back to antiquity (the Greeks figured that the original dog from hell, Cerberus, drooled aconitine) and has been used as a literary device by Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, and J.K. Rowling, Dr. Lamson’s was long the last known case of criminal homicide by aconitine — until the 2009 conviction of a west London woman for slipping this illustrious mickey to her paramour in his chicken curry.

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2010: Zheng Minsheng, child-stabbing doctor

2 comments April 28th, 2010 Headsman

This morning in Nanping, China, former doctor Zheng Minsheng was shot to death for a headline-grabbing knife attack on schoolchildren just five weeks ago.

In a brazen attack as efficient as it was unanticipated, Zheng knifed 13 kids at Nanping City Experimental Elementary School on March 23. Eight of them died.

“The methods used by the defendant Zheng Minsheng were extremely savage, the circumstances of the crime were particularly evil,” the Fujian Province high court said in rejecting his appeal.

The apparent motivation? Being jilted by his girlfriend.

That’s not the sort of trigger calculated to impress Chinese courts that have little sympathy for mental illness claims.

For this shocking crime, justice was swift. But you’d have to question its deterrent effect, since there was yet another high-profile knifing attack on schoolchildren on the very day of Zheng’s execution — part of an “alarming spate of school knifings.”

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1772: Johann Friedrich Struensee, the doctor who ran Denmark

2 comments April 28th, 2009 dogboy

The 1700s were a time of radical reform, and as the Enlightenment reached the shores of Denmark, it suddenly became possible to be a professed atheist and not lose your head. That is, of course, as long as you didn’t also try to usurp the crown, undermine the aristocracy, and agitate the commoners while you were at it.

Such was the course that ended the rise of Johann Friedrich Struensee on this date in 1772. His friend and sometime cohort Enevold Brandt (Danish Wikipedia entry) was put on the block on the same day.

Struensee was born in 1738 in present day Germany and educated in Prussia, a doctor by trade and a budding Enlightenment political writer by practice. He seemed an unlikely character to involve himself in the court of King Christian VII of both Denmark and Norway, but Struensee was a vain and social man who managed to befriend the right people at the right time.

The first was Brandt. The second was Count Schack Karl Rantzau. A lawyer and Supreme Court justice, Brandt was a court favorite* and planted Struensee’s name as a capable doctor: young, kind, and competent, he would make a perfect personal physician for a king known for being a bit off: Christian was likely schizophrenic. Rantzau, meanwhile, was Count of the Holy Roman Empire, exiled from Copenhagen some 15 years before he met young Struensee, and eager to get back into politics.

In June 1768, Struensee took a post as the king’s traveling physician in England, and he immediately attached to Christian’s loneliness. The regent was interested in literature, philosophy, and music, and Struensee obliged him with patient regard for his charge, for which he was duly rewarded with access to a social life much more fulfilling than in Prussia. As a traveling physician, though, Struensee’s post had a finite span, and he lobbied hard to become a member of the Danish court.

With some help from others in the king’s court, Struensee managed to retain a permanent post, and his clamber up the nearest cliff to power began.

The young doctor, it seems, had a talent for playing two sides for personal gain. It started with the king, who had immense trust in Struensee and began to confide almost everything. Struensee was tactful with this information, adhering to an early form of patient-doctor privilege that endeared him to Christian. The other side was Queen Mathilde, Princess of Wales, by all accounts a beautiful woman who was not happy in Denmark and even less happy to be married to a mad and deteriorating king.

Mathilde initially disliked Struensee — or, at the very least, was indifferent to his actions. But near the end of 1769, the queen finally admitted Struensee into her chambers, and their relationship took off. He ably gamed Mathilde by convincing her that she was the kingdom’s future; Christian, meanwhile, remained ill, and Struensee remained a steady presence in his life. Come spring, Crown Prince Frederick VI also came under Struensee’s care, and as smallpox ravaged Copenhagen, the doctor pressed for inoculation. The king and queen assented, Frederick survived the epidemic, and Struensee garnered himself an official advisorship. It’s also suspected that, while Struensee and Mathilde watched over Frederick as he recovered from the inoculation,** their love affair began.

With a taste of power, Struensee pressed King Christian VII for cabinet changes — which he got — and was named Privy Councilor before 1770 was out. Now the principal advisor to the king, Struensee was able to advance his Enlightenment agenda, notably freedom of the press, the abolition of torture, limiting the death penalty, changing the rules of appointments, numbering the houses in Copenhagen, lighting the streets, and, perhaps in anticipation, removing penalties against those who produced illegitimate children. He was a bold visionary, but he also intoxicated by his growing power … and his programme obviously gored many an ox.

Struensee ascended still further early in 1771 when the king became practically unfit to rule. He was mentally faltering, and Struensee was all but running the show, and more.

In early July, the queen gave birth to a daughter who was widely assumed to be Struensee’s child. Days later, and just three years after being introduced to King Christian VII, Johann Friedrich Struensee effectively appointed himself Privy Cabinet Minister with dictatorial authority through one of King Christian’s edicts. Struensee’s orders would now have the force of law, and, as Christian’s proclamation noted, “They shall be immediately obeyed.”


Enevold Brandt (top), not to be confused with Brandt, the Big Lebowski lackey (bottom).

Struensee spent the next six months turning the European aristocracy inside-out and foisting an aggressive set of cabinet orders on the Danish people — over 1,000, by some counts. Having ridden on the coattails of a queen and king, he now pushed them aside. He moved the court to Schleswig-Holstein, in Prussia, and pleasingly enjoyed both the prerogatives of aristocracy and a middle class contempt for them.

Struensee was, to say the least, not a favorite abroad;† that he and his friends dominated the king and queen did not sit well with Danish commoners. Even Brandt was becoming disaffected, writing in a letter asking for either a larger salary or a resignation from the court:

No despot ever arrogated such power as yourself, or exercised it in such a way. The King’s pages and domestics tremble at the slightest occurrence: all are seized with terror. They talk, they eat, they drink, but they tremble as they do so. Fear has seized on all who surround the minister, even on the Queen…

But Brandt stayed on, and as 1771 drew to a close, Copenhagen became hostile territory for the royal family and their favorite doctor.

After the season’s first masquarade ball, on 16 January 1772, the Queen Dowager — Christian’s step-mother — Juliana Marie exposed Struensee’s affair and had Struensee, Brandt, the queen,‡ and many other Struensee accomplices arrested, ostensibly by order of the king.

Struensee was charged with lèse-majesté, a crime against the crown, for his affair with the queen; though he initially denied the charges — and though Mathilde did her best to shield him from harm — he was found guilty. Brandt was charged with the same crime for allegedly assaulting the king after being himself threatened with a flogging for impertinence (he even had a nip at Christian’s finger). Brandt’s punishment was the same. Each had his right hand chopped off, then was beheaded, drawn, and quatertered.

The queen, meanwhile, went into exile in France. Juliana Marie effectively ruled the kingdom through her son for over a decade, rolling back many of Struensee’s reforms and reverting power back to the aristocracy. This also turned out to be unpopular (the Danes and Norwegians are fickle people), and Mathilde’s son Frederick VI was able to regain power for his father in 1784, eventually moving to liberal reforms more in line with his erstwhile physician’s ideals.

Struensee’s epic rise and fall have spawned a variety of writings since his death. A memoir appeared just months after his execution which detailed his final months. He was also the subject of the Per Olov Enquist novel The Royal Physician’s Visit, which examines his life from multiple perspectives. Queen Mathilde’s life was put to ballet by Peter Maxwell Davies. And for a more contemporary cultural artifact, there’s the 2012 film A Royal Affair.

* Brandt was a court favorite, but after attempting to destroy the position of another minister, he was briefly expelled from Copenhagen, shortly after Struensee accepted his post.

** These inoculations predated “safe” inoculations by non-fatal, related disease strains such as cowpox. Frederick would have been made ill through the small pox strain Variola Minor, which had a mortality rate of about 1%. By contrast, Variola Major was fatal in about 30% of cases.

† While Struensee seems to have been book smart, his feel for international politics was limited, and his standing abroad would have unraveled had it ever raveled in the first place. He repeatedly upset the Russians, and Mathilde’s relatives were not pleased with him. Had he not been downed by public sentiment, it seems likely he would have fallen victim to one of his many royal detractors abroad.

‡ In a curious twist, Rantzau was the queen’s arrestor, and one of the principal conspirators in the dowager’s plot was a cabinet minister Struensee was responsible for ejecting very early in his career.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Denmark,Doctors,Drawn and Quartered,Execution,Famous,Gruesome Methods,Heads of State,History,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Scandal,Treason

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