1591: John Dickson, “broken on ane rack”

3 comments April 30th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1591, Scotsman John Dickson was condemned to death (which he immediately suffered) for murdering his father.

“The criminal record,” observes this volume of Scottish crime, “contains neither the particulars of the murder, nor the evidence against the prisoner.”

What is particular to this case is the method of execution: the breaking-wheel, or something very similar to it, a tortuous death used throughout continental Europe but that never caught on in the British Isles.

John Dickson, younger of Belchester, being apprehended, ta’en, and brought to Edinburgh, was put to the knawledge of ane assize for the slaughter of his awn natural father [in July 1588], and also for the lying for the said offence at the process of excommunication. [Being convicted, he was] brought to the scaffold, and at the Cross broken on ane rack, [and] worried—where he lay all that night, and on the morn [was] carried to the gallows of the Burgh-moor, where the rack was set up, and the corpse laid thereupon. (Passage from here or here.)

Dickson’s is the first of only two such “breaking” death sentences, in which the doomed is staked out spread-eagled and has his limbs shattered one by one, documented in Scotland. (The other is that of Robert Weir in 1604; an assassin in 1571 “is said, also” to have suffered such a fate, but actual documentation has been lost.)


Sort of like this. (Source)

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Milestones,Murder,Public Executions,Scotland

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1611: Louis Gaufridi, sorceror-prince

3 comments April 30th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1611, the pathetic figure of a former priest — his body shaved to expose Devil’s marks, a noose about his neck — was conveyed to the secular powers to be tortured one last time, then hauled through the streets of Aix-en-Provence and burned to ashes.

Witchsmellers were thick on the ground in pre-Thirty Years’ War France, as elsewhere.

In our scene in the south of France, we find a characteristic entry in this horrible catalogue.

Parish priest and lothario Louis Gaufridi, having seduced a local teenager, found himself in hot water when she contracted the trendy disorder of demonic possession and started raving about the times she went with the cleric to see Black Sabbath.


Not this Black Sabbath.

Other inmates at the convent to which Gaufridi’s paramour had been conveyed were soon in on the act, indicting him for cannibalism, exotic sexual perversions, and — of course — devil-worship.

Gaufridi’s denials were overcome in the usual way, with the support of doctors who filed a report scientifically vouching that the infernal powers had laid their mark upon the subject. The priest soon saw the wisdom in copping to the charges, and not only his torture-adduced confessions (which he vainly attempted to repudiate in court) but the veritable original contract specifying the terms of his demoniacal servitude was produced for magisterial consideration.

I, Louis, a priest, renounce each and every one of the spiritual and corporal gifts which may accrue to me from God, from the Virgin, and from all the saints, and especially from my patron John the Baptist, and the apostles Peter and Paul and St. Francis. And to you, Lucifer, now before me, I give myself and all the good I may accomplish, except the returns from the sacrament in the cases where I may administer it; all of which I sign and attest.

I, Lucifer, bind myself to give you, Louis Gaufridi, priest, the faculty and power of bewitching by blowing with the mouth, all and any of the women and girls you may desire; in proof of which I sign myself Lucifer.

That’s right. He did it all for the nookie.

(That, and to “be esteemed and honored above all the priests of this country.” Thomas Wright, in his omnivorous and freely available chronicle of European witch trials, remarks that these two attributed motives suggest “the reason why Gaufridi was persecuted by the rest of the clergy.” And oh, but the ladykiller — or rather, the reverse — still starred in the fantasies of the possessed years after his death. (French link))

Gaufridi’s execution immediately freed his erstwhile lover from her satanic affliction. Madeleine de la Palud, however, having officially established herself as susceptible to the penetrations of the Evil One, would remain suspect in the eyes of the inquisition for the 60 years remaining of her life. She twice faced witchcraft charges herself.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,God,History,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Sex,The Supernatural,Torture,Witchcraft

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1315: Enguerrand de Marigny, on Montfaucon

9 comments April 30th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1315, an obscure petty noble who had become the king’s right-hand man was hanged by his rivals a few months after his royal sponsor expired.

Late in the epoch-making reign of King Philip the Fair — under whose rule the papacy was hijacked to Avignon and the Templars were crushedEnguerrand de Marigny was the man loyally keeping the books.

Since Philip was a stubbornly spendthrift fellow, that meant Marigny’s chief pursuit was the creative extraction of new revenues, through fresh taxes and the debasement of coinage. His public esteem suffered commensurately, little aided by the fact that his duties made him fabulously wealthy and the most powerful man in the country, give or take a king.

Said monarch was vigorous in that age-old pastime of the feudal monarchy, centralization of the power scattered among the nobility, further to which end he was happy to promote a competent administrator of scanty lineage and dependable loyalty.

Aggrieved lords, like the grasping Charles de Valois, were ready with their grudges against the unpopular minister when Philip shuffled off in November 1314. When charges of financial impropriety didn’t stick, they cooked up an allegation of sorcery — just then coming into vogue as a trump card in the game of judicial homicide.

Enguerrand hung two years upon the monumentally terrifying Montfaucon Gibbet (the link is to the structure’s French Wikipedia page), but everyone felt just terrible about it later. (the link is French, again) An actual inquiry — they skipped that step when they strung him up — exonerated the luckless minister, allowing his heirs to retrieve his body and a chunk of his fortune from the sympathetic king; Charles was so pursued by guilt that on his deathbed, he sent out a fat dispensation of alms with the request that recipients pray for both Enguerrand de Marigny and himself.

It worked … at least for Marigny’s reputation.

None can tell, after this lapse of time, whether this remorse proceeded from weakness of mind or sincerity of heart, and which of the two personages was really guilty; but, ages afterwards, such is the effect of blind, popular clamor and unrighteous judicial proceedings, that the condemned lives in history as a victim and all but a guileless being. (Source)

It was no hard feelings from Enguerrand’s little brother, Jean. The family influence had landed him a bishopric, and he held the job until his death in 1350, even repelling an English siege of Beauvais during the Hundred Years’ War.

A European Haman?

Enguerrand de Marigny comes in for a passing notice as T.H. White affectionately surveys the Middle Ages in The Once and Future King:

What an amazing time the age of chivalry was! Everybody was essentially himself — was riotously busy fulfilling the vagaries of human nature … [a] coruscating mixture of oddities who reckoned that they possessed the things called souls as well as bodies, and who fulfilled them in the most surprising ways.

[Y]ou might have seen Enguerrand de Marigny, who built the enormous gallows at Mountfalcon, [sic] himself rotting and clanking on the same gallows, because he had been found guilty of Black Magic.*

That Marigny erected the gallows on which he hung is an oft-repeated claim, an instance of a whole subgenre of moralistic folklore in which death-dealing inventors are hoisted on their own petard. These stories are not always dependablecontra rumor, for instance, Dr. Guillotin was not guillotined — and today’s protagonist may not have a firm hold on this small consolation, either.

Here is Victor Hugo’s rendering of the structure’s history in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Montfauçon was, as Sauval says, “the most ancient and the most superb gibbet in the kingdom.” …

Let the reader picture to himself, crowning a limestone hillock, an oblong mass of masonry fifteen feet in height, thirty wide, forty long, with a gate, an external railing and a platform; on this platform sixteen enormous pillars of rough hewn stone, thirty feet in height, arranged in a colonnade round three of the four sides of the mass which support them, bound together at their summits by heavy beams, whence hung chains at intervals; on all these chains, skeletons; in the vicinity, on the plain, a stone cross and two gibbets of secondary importance, which seemed to have sprung up as shoots around the central gallows; above all this, in the sky, a perpetual flock of crows; that was Montfauçon.

At the end of the fifteenth century, the formidable gibbet which dated from 1328, was already very much dilapidated; the beams were wormeaten, the chains rusted, the pillars green with mould; the layers of hewn stone were all cracked at their joints, and grass was growing on that platform which no feet touched. The monument made a horrible profile against the sky; especially at night when there was a little moonlight on those white skulls, or when the breeze of evening brushed the chains and the skeletons, and swayed all these in the darkness. The presence of this gibbet sufficed to render gloomy all the surrounding places.

The mass of masonry which served as foundation to the odious edifice was hollow. A huge cellar had been constructed there, closed by an old iron grating, which was out of order, into which were cast not only the human remains, which were taken from the chains of Montfauçon, but also the bodies of all the unfortunates executed on the other permanent gibbets of Paris. To that deep charnel-house, where so many human remains and so many crimes have rotted in company, many great ones of this world, many innocent people, have contributed their bones, from Enguerrand de Marigni, the first victim, and a just man, to Admiral de Coligni, who was its last, and who was also a just man.

Hugo — who, let us admit, is not to be depended upon for history — has elevated Marigny to the very first victim of the Montfaucon gallows, but the reader will also notice that the same passage dates the edifice’s construction thirteen years after Marigny’s own execution.

Helpless Historiography

Montfaucon the execution site had a rich history. There seem to have been at least two separate gallows sites (the link is French) on the hill, and its vintage as an execution space dates back to the 13th century. (more French)

About this point, this blog runs against the limits of its writer’s access to primary documentation and werewithal to pursue it. Sources seem mightily confused on the embryonic era of Montfaucon; at least two other ministers — Pierre de La Brosse, a confidante of the previous king, and Pierre Remy, another royal treasurer hanged a generation after Marigny — also have their own claim to have been hanged on the structure they erected.

It may be that this was actually true of Remy, a less dramatically captivating figure with an official portfolio similar to Marigny’s, and the two simply became conflated in legend. Something certainly seems to have been built during his time, and it may have been the stone replacement for the original gallows.

The suggestion of someone who researched it more thoroughly than I have (another French page, but worth the visit if only for the pictorial schematics) is that the landmark structure may have predated all these men.** Brosse and Marigny, in this conception, may simply have worked various repairs upon it that became magnified in the retelling, while the gallows Remy set up might have been those on the secondary location, erected as a stopgap during a more thorough reconstruction of the permanent site, and/or reserved for more vulgar elements than ministers of the crown.

* Readers may appreciate an annotation of other references White makes in his fantasy classic.

** We find repeated claims that the alleged “sorceror” Marigny engaged for his capital crime was hanged below him, which would support that notion; I have been unable to identify the provenance of this detail, however.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Nobility,Notably Survived By,Occupation and Colonialism,Pelf,Politicians,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Public Executions,The Worm Turns,Witchcraft,Wrongful Executions

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