1869: Katkeena and John Anayitzaschist, Glyphs and Gallows

Add comment July 29th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1869, two men of the aboriginal Hesquiat nation of Vancouver Island off British Columbia’s Pacific coast were hanged outside their village by the white colonial authorities, on the charge of gratuitously murdering the (again, white) survivors of a shipwreck.

The English-built barque John Bright foundered in a gale just offshore from the location of the eventual gallows in February of that same year, with all aboard lost — including apparently the wife of the captain, their children, and the pretty young English nursemaid who looked after them.* Although within sight of a Hesquiat village also called Hesquiat, the violent surf put the vessel beyond aid.

The tale of a ship lost to the sea soon became in the eyes of Vancouver Island’s European capital city, Victoria, a very different tale of villainous “West Coast savages.” An unprincipled trader named James Christenson was the first to report the shipwreck in Victoria and put about his suspicions that at least some of the John Bright‘s denizens had reached shore alive. His evidence for this claim was seeing several headless bodies. A more generous interlocutor might proceed from this observation to indict the implacable violence of the rough open-ocean surf that would have carried the drowned to shore, crashing through the John Bright‘s timbers and tossing boulders hither and yon.

Instead the most diabolical inferences were immediately bandied as fact, with the city’s preeminent journalist D.W. Higgins categorically broadcasting that the ship’s personnel “were without doubt murdered by the Indians” and whipping political pressure that forced the colonial government into action. The HMS Sparrowhawk was dispatched to investigate with its conclusions so firmly determined that the refusal of the ship’s doctor to endorse a finding of homicide relative to the bodies he examined did not save native canoes from a cannonade meant to force the village to surrender some suspects. In the end the gunboat returned to Victoria with seven new passengers, two of whom wound up on the gallows: a man named John Anayitzaschist, whom some witnesses accused in contradictory accounts of shooting survivors on the beach, and a wretch named Katkeena (or Kahtkayna) who wasn’t even present in Hesquiat Village at the time of the shipwreck. The former man was a factional rival of the Hesquiat chief. The latter “was a simpleton of inferior rank and considered so worthless that not one woman of his tribe would take him as a husband,” according to the Catholic missionary Augustin Brabant, who lived for many years afterward among the Hesquiat people. He seems to have been given over to the executioner because he was disposable.

The case has receive a bit of renewed scrutiny in the 21st century: the British Columbia government issued a statement of regret in 2012, and an empathetic musician composed a string quartet (“Cradle Song for the Useless Man”) in honor of the forlorn Katkeena.

Executed Today comes by the affair via a wonderful 1997 book, Glyphs and Gallows: The Art of Clo-oose and the Wreck of John Bright. Author Peter Johnson weaves the wreck of the John Bright and the legal shambles that ensued with his exploration of native art — including the titular petroglyphs etched into coastal stone by native artists where still they sit to this day.

Drawn to the story by (accurate) reports of glyphs depicting European ships, Johnson hiked to the petroglyph site at Clo-oose where he sketched and photographed these amazing productions. The glyphs tantalize with the never-consummated possibility that they might directly allude to the John Bright affair, but more than this: in Johnson’s telling, they’re a priceless point of contact offered us by the hand of the artist to a cosmology in the moment before it is irrevocably lost to the tectonic action of European settlement.

Soon after the John Bright affair, things changed on the coast. The Colony of British Columbia joined Confederation, and the Royal Navy no longer sent its gunboats to intimidate worrisome Aboriginals. Settlement occurred, law and order prevailed, the potlatch and the totem poles were taken away. Disease forced a good many Natives to sanitoria, and Native children were sent to the residential schools run by Roman Catholic and Anglican missionaries. Families were disconsolate. The soul of a race was broken, and the moss-wet forest slowly reclaimed the longhouses and the welcome figures of a once proud people. A whole culture was literally on the brink of being wiped out completely. And then, from the very edge of oblivion, the elders began to retell their stories. It was these bits of remembered tales, called up from a desperate soul’s interior like images forced onto stone, that would enable everything to begin again.

The motive for metaphor is the motive to create a story: it is the artistic drive. The impulse to use symbols is connected to our desire to create something to which we can become emotionally attached. Symbols, like relationships, involve us with deeply human attributes. Raven and Bear can speak to us directly. I can smile at the glyph of a seal, with its curious smiling head poking just above the water, and I am filled with wonder at the image of a bird carrying a small child or a bodiless head. A symbols is at once concrete, palpable, and sensual — like a rose. At the same time, it reaches beyond itself to convey an idea of beauty, of fragility, and of transience. The great thing about art is that it continually forces us to see new sets of resemblances. Those long-gone artists who created the petroglyphs at Clo-oose used two sets of symbols — their own and those of nineteenth-century Western Europeans — in order to depict a vignette that was firmly grounded in their point of view. Like the carvers of the Rosetta Stone, they wisely used sets of metaphors and imaginative icons against materialist images of nineteenth-century commercial technology. Unlike the Rosetta Stone, however, the petroglyphs of Clo-oose do not use one set of images to explicate the other; the petroglyphs of Clo-oose are stunning because they incorporate one set of images into the other. Like a series of lap dissolves in modern film, we are drawn to ponder one story while at the same time being faced with the jarring reality of another … They are rich metaphors of the interior world of Native spirituality and history, and they have been juxtaposed with metaphors of European conquest. As such, they are eloquent indeed.

It is impossible to completely crack the codes of the sailing-ship glyphs of Clo-oose because the meaning of the Native spiritual images cast upon the rocks on that lonely shore has died with those to whom it was relevant. Our interpretations are approximations born of respect for the images themselves and of a renewed feeling for the time. We are left to ponder one significant story born of cultural collision. The petroglyphs of Clo-oose have served us well. They have, like any great code, prompted us to express, and urged us to remember, what might otherwise have been ignored. They have brought some light to an obscure world.

“Petroglyphs, monuments, art, music, dance, poetry, etc. are at the core of any culture,” Peter Johnson told us in an interview. “Where a mix of cultures occurs, then look to its art as a means of understanding the complex motives of such clashes.”

Executed Today: It’s the “Gallows” that draws our site‘s eye but can you introduce the native-carved petroglyphs of Clo-oose, including glyphs of 19th century ships akin to the ones involved in your narrative? Twenty-plus years after your book, have these treasures become any better appreciated as art and cultural heritage, or any better preserved and curated at their site?

Peter Johnson: An excerpt of the Clo-oose affair from D. W. Higgins’s The Passing of a Race (Toronto: William Briggs Publisher, 1905) is included in the back of Glyphs and Gallows. Being directly facing the Pacific, the Clo-oose site is one of many that Higgins suggests captures Native / Indigenous interactions in the 19th century. The four ships at the Clo-oose Site, Higgins suggests, are: the Sparrowhawk (long thin one that the Royal Navy used as a gunship to apprehend the so-called guilty tribesmen who “murdered the crew of the John Bright as it foundered just offshore”); the John Bright (the other long one, a barkentine freighting lumber from the coast to Valpariso, Chile); and, the smaller two ships may have been ships that sailed to the site and “discovered” the bodies. The official name of the site (anthropologically speaking) is DdSf 1 or commonly called Blowhole Site, because of a spout of water that comes shooting out of a cleft in the rocky shore at high tide. Other sites nearby are Hill Site, nearby on a sandstone ledge showing a huge beaked bird, and a copulating couple. Southeast of Clo-oose about 6 miles away, is Carmanah Lighthouse; there is a site there that contains several petroglyphs of human figures (one seemingly impregnated with a child) and other sites nearby show huge, fat, birds, and various fishes. These don’t say anything we can understand about first contact with “whites” and are likely religious figures which had a role in Native cosmology or family organization.


Peter Johnson’s sketch of the Blowhole Site, circa mid-1990s: there’s no way to conclusively identify any of the ship images with any one specific vessel, but if we are to suppose that association then in Johnson’s estimation the ship at the top would be the Sparrowhawk and the one at just left of center at the bottom the John Bright. The image is (c) Peter Johnson and used with permission.

The maps, mention and location of the sites are no longer found in recent books about the West Coast Trail, and the sites themselves have been left to erode away along the shore. Since Glyphs and Gallows, there has been no attempt, that I am aware of, to cover, reveal or understand more of their cultural and artistic messages. It’s as if the Natives don’t wish any further trace of information to be transmitted to other cultures and perhaps, they don’t know any more about the sites than we do. For example, totem poles of other indigenous peoples are left, as part of their meaning, to rot in the bush. We have a different predilection, and that is to save objects from the past. Which is more important? Who knows? Perhaps, the one that serves the intent of the original artist is most important?

As sandstone erodes fairly quickly, these important cultural sites will be gone in 100 years. I personally believe they are very important artistically and historically. Were they found in Britain, like the monoliths on the Orkneys, (at Scara Brae) or Stonehenge and other henges, they would be covered and revered. Here, the new Natives at Clo-oose don’t seem to know much more detail about such petroglyphs at Clo-oose, or do not wish to preserve them as culturally important artifacts. Perhaps, too, they are too difficult to decipher, much like Champolion’s translation of Egyptian hieroglyphics, that previously to him took many hundreds of years. Native myths do not seem to be currently studied as much as they are simply appreciated … appreciation is good, but it’s only a start of understanding. Digging for meaning, beyond a purely aesthetic appreciation, is equally, if not more important.

One of the questions you set out to explore was whether these glyphs directly depict the events around the John Bright wreck and the subsequent hangings. Your answer is indeterminate on that … but how should we understand what they say more generally about the cultural upheavals concerning contact with Europeans, and about the civilization that preceded that contact?

The context of what happened during the first 50 years of European contact with West Coast natives, needs to be read about and understood by more “Whites” and Natives alike. D. W. Higgins believes whiskey traders destroyed many Native lives through the products they brought. (I don’t entirely believe this.) Higgins suggests in July 1858, the Native population in Victoria was 8,500, and goes on to say that at least 100,00 Natives perished from booze-related afflictions. I believe smallpox wiped out great numbers as Natives were moved away from Victoria up-country and spread the disease (like Covid), as they met other indigenous groups. Many were vaccinated, but Gov. Douglas at the time (1862), needed to save some vaccine for his own Europeans who settled in Victoria. They did not cruelly withhold the vaccine from the Natives, several European governors helped them as much as possible … that so-called dismissal today is a more popular misreading of the history of the time which serves a current, darker political purpose.

Once the idea that the John Bright survivors had reached shore only to be murdered by the Hesquiat got around, it’s comprehensible how a racist “tunnel vision” fit all facts into this understanding. However, I struggled with why this idea was initially formulated at all — it’s not the null hypothesis when a ship founders in a gale and nobody survives. Was it the shock value of “headless bodies” even though the Europeans on Vancouver Island should have been familiar with the devastating force of the surf? Was it a wholly cynical formulation by James Christenson to, as you put it, “elicit regular naval protection from Natives that he and other unscrupulous traders had cheated”?

Yes, it was a cynical formulation by Christenson and others to elicit naval protection from bald-faced raiding of their Native resources (lumber, fish, etc.). Shock value of the headless bodies certainly inculcated White racist reaction against Native action.

Victoria’s precarity at this moment, as a city that aspired to political leadership but was still a muddy frontier settlement, riven by class conflict, so bereft of women that they arranged bride ships — another of your books — and with a politically uncertain future between England, Canada, and the U.S. … felt eerily resonant with our treacherous current historical moment. Can we interpret the rush to judgment and the hangings here as to some extent expressions of a civic psychological insecurity? If so, did anyone involved in the prosecution later express any misgivings about it as Victoria grew and Canadian confederation became settled?

Yes I think so, not so much insecurity as fear. Myths had been perpetrated about Native violence (Natives attacked and killed white settlers on Lummi Island and in Cowichan Bay about this same time). So certainly, the Indigenous peoples gained much “bad press” about their time. That probably led to the gunboat frontier mentality of the time and the not-so-much later movement to remove the diminishing numbers of children in Native settlements to the White residential schools. This movement is usually interpreted as Native genocide on the part of ingigenous peoples and many Europeans themselves believe this. A few felt it was the only way to save what they believed was a dying culture by giving them proficiency in English so they could survive and integrate among a juggernaut of white settlers that became Canada. I guess the anxiety here is about the meaning on the word “integration.’

The debate over that issue remains. Too bad the petroglyphs are ignored today, they (and pictographs, etc.) could shed more light on the complex cosmology of the region’s Native cultures. Protest, and not an understanding of the historical context, seems to get more coverage. Real knowledge, not bitterness on both sides, is the answer. Proper historical co-operation would help immensely here.

One of the threads in your narrative is teasing out this undercurrent of skepticism about the verdict that stretches back to the European coroner who would not support a finding of homicide and includes the missionary priest Augustin Brabant, who extensively rebutted the D.W. Higgins narrative of native guilt … but only in private. Do we have any direct native sources from the time, or any later traditions, that tell us how the John Bright affair has been remembered in that community? And why did Brabant never publish his extensive personal knowledge from decades of living with the Hesquiat?

Father Brabant had a Catholic ulterior motive. His answer was to turn the Natives away from their own cosmology to a belief in Catholicism. That kind of religious zeal and “cultural blindness” led to the divisions we are trying to solve today. I bet very few remember the John Bright Affair or even care to, as an example and a means to dismiss and/or destroy early Native humanity. It took him years to write about his own view, likely because the Catholic Church would have condemned or excommunicated him.

[Brabant told Higgins in private correspondence that Christenson was at Hesquiat Village when the John Bright wrecked, but fled without attempting to render aid for fear that he would “expose myself to be killed by the Indians.” (That’s Brabant quoting Christenson at third hand.) Brabant thought Christenson only returned, weeks later, to cover up his own cowardice by bearing “to town a tale of cruelty, and barbarism, of which there is not a particle of truth.” Since Higgins extensively published the tale of cruelty and barbarism, it’s no surprise that he didn’t buy what Brabant was selling. Brabant also witnessed another shipwreck in 1882 — he wasn’t there for the John Bright itself — and described victims washing up on the beach in pieces, arms and legs horrifically torn from their torsos by the incredible force of the surf. -ed.]

* We lack a precise complement of the ship and especially of the women-and-children contingent, who were renumbered and rearranged by conflicting reports. Rumors that one or more of the children lived on as wards of this or that tribe circulated for years afterwars.

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1945: Theo van Gogh, famous name

Add comment March 8th, 2020 Headsman

Theo van Gogh, a Dutch resistance fighter of portentous lineage, was executed by the German occupation on this date in 1945.

This man was the grandson of the famous Theo van Gogh, art dealer and brother to troubled, brilliant painter Vincent van Gogh.

Our Theo was a 23-year-old university student in Amsterdam pulled into anti-Nazi resistance by the imposition of a hated loyalty oath on university personnel and was arrested several times, repeatedly tolling his father for bribes to extract him.

The arrest he couldn’t buy his way out of was a home raid on March 1, 1945 — the very last weeks of the war, while these Germans were in the process of being stranded in the Low Countries. Evidently the collapse of the Reich didn’t dampen their enthusiasm for the cause, because on March 8 the Germans imposed a collective punishment of 100+ executions in revenge for the Dutch resistance’s attempt to assassinate a prominent SS officer.* Theo van Gogh was one of them.

Besides his name-brand ancestry, Theo the World War II resistance figure is also the uncle (quite posthumously — this man wasn’t born until 1957) of film director Theo van Gogh, who’s a far-right martyr in his own right thanks to the vociferous anti-Islamic work that resulted in his 2004 assassination.


Prisoners’ Round (after Gustave Doré) (1890), by Vincent van Gogh.

* That officer, Hanns Albin Rauter, was executed for war crimes in 1949.

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1919: Wesley Everest lynched during the Centralia Massacre

1 comment November 11th, 2019 Headsman

A century ago today, an Armistice Day parade turned the Pacific Northwest logging town of Centralia, Washington into a battlefield. By the time night fell on the Centralia Massacre* four American Legionnaires had been shot dead … and then the cover of darkness was used to revenge them with the lynching that evening of Wobbly labor agitator Wesley Everest.

Before Amazon and Starbucks and Microsoft and even before Boeing, the economic engine of early Washington state consisted of cutting down its mighty ancient trees.

The spruce and fir trees were torn from the verdant Northwest by rough men working dangerous jobs in brutally exploitive conditions. “Loggers dealt with adulterated food, fleas and other vermin in their overcrowded housing, straw for bedding, the smell of disgusting wet socks drying near the bunkhouse’s one heater, latrines located directly next to the dining hall so that they could smell feces when they sat down to eat, etc.,” writes labor historian Erik Loomis. “They were paid next to nothing for their work and frequently ripped off by a collusion of timber operators and employment agencies.”

Small wonder that this part of the world yielded ready soil for radical labor organizers. The syndicalist labor union Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, familiarly nicknamed “Wobblies”) made notable inroads there.


Section of the map of the Northern Pacific rail network (rail lines in red), circa 1900.

In the town of Centralia, inland and convenient to the continent-straddling Northern Pacific Railway which whisked away the produce of her logging camps, Wobblies’ presence dated back at least as far as 1914.

They’d been the locus of violence previous to the events in this post: in 1918, a Red Cross parade addled on wartime jingoism turned into the sack of the IWW’s union hall. Vowing that they’d not suffer invasion again the Wobblies armed themselves, and they were on guard for the large parade Centralia had scheduled for the first anniversary of the Great War’s end — suspiciously routed to pass right in front of the new IWW hall.

Every history of the Centralia Massacre says at this point that the facts are in dispute as to who started what on that day, but it can be fairly said that a deliberate provocation deliberately provoked and before you knew it war veterans of the then-newformed American Legion were storming the Wobblies, under gunfire.

Ere the hive of radicalism was overrun, three Legionnaires had been shot dead.

Meanwhile, fleeing via an adjacent alley as he reloaded his .44 pistol went one of the hall’s armed defenders, Wesley Everest. The enraged mob pursued him, and as the IWW’s (obviously partisan) official site observes, this fact likely saved other Wobblies in the hall from summary execution. Instead they were bundled into jail where they’d soon be joined by Mr. Everest.

Running pell-mell down the alley the mob gave a shout of exaltation as Everest slowed his pace and turned to face them. They stopped cold, however, as a number of quick shots rang out and bullets whistled and zipped around them. Everest turned in his tracks and was off again like a flash, reloading his pistol as he ran. The mob again resumed the pursuit. The logger ran through an open gateway, paused to turn and again fire at his pursuers; then he ran between two frame dwellings to the open street. When the mob again caught the trail they were evidently under the impression that the logger’s ammunition was exhausted. At all events they took up the chase with redoubled energy. Some men in the mob had rifles and now and then a pot-shot would be taken at the fleeing figure. The marksmanship of both sides seems to have been poor for no one appears to have been injured.

DALE HUBBARD

This kind of running fight was kept up until Everest reached the river. Having kept off his pursuers thus far the boy started boldly for the comparative security of the opposite shore, splashing the water violently as he waded out into the stream. The mob was getting closer all the time. Suddenly Everest seemed to change his mind and began to retrace his steps to the shore. Here he stood dripping wet in the tangled grasses to await the arrival of the mob bent on his destruction. Everest had lost his hat and his wet hair stuck to his forehead. His gun was now so hot he could hardly hold it and the last of his ammunition was in the magazine. Eye witnesses declare his face still wore a quizzical, half bantering smile when the mob overtook him. With the pistol held loosely in his rough hand Everest stood at bay, ready to make a last stand for his life. Seeing him thus, and no doubt thinking his last bullet had been expended, the mob made a rush for its quarry.

“Stand back!” he shouted. “If there are ‘bulls’ in the crowd, I’ll submit to arrest; otherwise lay off of me.”

No attention was paid to his words. Everest shot from the hip four times, — then his gun stalled. A group of soldiers started to run in his direction. Everest was tugging at the gun with both hands. Raising it suddenly he took careful aim and fired. All the soldiers but one wavered and stopped. Everest fired twice, both bullets taking effect. Two more shots were fired almost point blank before the logger dropped his assailant at his feet. Then he tossed away the empty gun and the mob surged upon him.

The legionaire who had been shot was Dale Hubbard, a nephew of F.B. Hubbard, the lumber baron. He was a strong, brave and misguided young man — worthy of a nobler death.

“LET’S FINISH THE JOB!”

Everest attempted a fight with his fists but was overpowered and severely beaten. A number of men clamoured for immediate lynching, but saner council prevailed for the time and he was dragged through the streets towards the city jail. When the mob was half a block from this place the “hot heads” made another attempt to cheat the state executioner. A wave of fury seemed here to sweep the crowd. Men fought with one another for a chance to strike, kick or spit in the face of their victim. It was an orgy of hatred and blood-lust. Everest’s arms were pinioned, blows, kicks and curses rained upon him from every side. One business man clawed strips of bleeding flesh from his face. A woman slapped his battered cheek with a well groomed hand. A soldier tried to lunge a hunting rifle at the helpless logger; the crowd was too thick. He bumped them aside with the butt of the gun to get room. Then he crashed the muzzle with full force into Everest’s mouth. Teeth were broken and blood flowed profusely.

A rope appeared from somewhere. “Let’s finish the job!” cried a voice. The rope was placed about the neck of the logger. “You haven’t got guts enough to lynch a man in the daytime,” was all he said.

At this juncture a woman brushed through the crowd and took the rope from Everest’s neck. Looking into the distorted faces of the mob she cried indignantly, “You are curs and cowards to treat a man like that!”

There may be human beings in Centralia after all.

Wesley Everest was taken to the city jail and thrown without ceremony upon the cement floor of the “bull pen.” In the surrounding cells were his comrades who had been arrested in the union hall. Here he lay in a wet heap, twitching with agony. A tiny bright stream of blood gathered at his side and trailed slowly along the floor. Only an occasional quivering moan escaped his torn lips as the hours slowly passed by.

Dead in the fray outside the union hall were three World War I soldiers: Arthur McElfresh, Ben Cassagranda, and Warren Grimm, the last of whom had the distinction of participating in the unsuccessful American invasion of Bolshevik Russia — plus Dale Hubbard, the man shot dead while attempting to apprehend Everest. All four were Legionnaires who have been honored as martyrs by that organ ever since.**

The IWW, conversely, says the same for Everest, for once night fell he was hauled from his cell and lynched to Mellen Street Bridge: “Hangman’s Bridge” as it was later known — although the present-day bridge dates only to 1958, replacing Everest’s gallows.

And even though anyone involved is long dead by now the affair has remained a charged topic for the hundred years from that day to this; a local newspaper marked the centennial by noting that memorial events by the respective factions’ descendants brought “confrontation even now, even about how to memorialize the dead and imprisoned.” (Although Everest was the only Wobbly lynched, a number of his comrades tossed into prison for years on trumped-up charges, prey to the Red Scare run amok in those years; even the union’s lawyer was prosecuted, albeit unsuccessfully. It goes without saying that nobody ever answered for the lynching.)

There has been for many decades a memorial in Centralia’s George Washington Park commemorating the dead Legionnaires; more recently, Centralia’s cityscape was also enhanced by a rival mural celebrating Everest.


“The Resurrection of Wesley Everest” by activist muralist Mike Alewitz (1997). (cc) image by Richard Colt.

* Also sometimes called the “Centralia Tragedy”. It’s not to be confused with the U.S. Civil War’s Centralia Massacre — which occurred in 1864 in a town of the same name in the bloody border state of Missouri. North America has numerous settlements called Centralia including several with no massacre at all, yet.

** Four Legionnaires plus Wesley Everest make five victims for Armistice Day. There’s a sixth man whose death can be attributed to the affair: a sheriff’s deputy who was mistakenly shot dead a couple of days later when he was unable to give the countersign to a paranoid posse.

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1941: Alexandru Bessarab, fascist artist

1 comment July 8th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1941, the fascist artist Alexandru Bassarab was killed in World War II — generally believed to be among captured Romanian prisoners of war summarily executed by Soviet troops.

A woodcut/linocut specialist — as evidenced by his gaunt self-portrait to the right — Bassarab was an early adherent of the Iron Guard and became one of its outstanding propagandists.

His very Deus Vult-vibing work Arhangel, for example, was used by the Guard as a banner at the 1940 state funeral it threw for far-right martyr Corneliu Codreanu. (The Iron Guard was shorthand nomenclature for an organ formally named the Legion of the Archangel Michael — and its members hence known as Legionnaires.)

But the Iron Guard’s moment at the political apex was a brief one, and when it was sidelined by a different right-wing strongman, Ian Antonescu, Bessarab found himself arrested and forced into a front-line army unit recapturing (appropriately) Bessarabia. He disappeared into presumed Soviet custody and execution near Tiganca, in present-day Moldova.

His work, including apolitical pieces, was taboo in postwar Communist Romania, but has enjoyed a bit of rediscovery since the end of the Cold War

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Feast Day of St. Erasmus (St. Elmo)

Add comment June 2nd, 2019 Headsman

June 2 is the feast date of early Christian martyr Saint Erasmus of Formia.

If a real historical figure, Erasmus of Formia was a martyr from the persecutions of Diocletian, but the most sure thing about him is that his legend has accumulated like barnacles a variety of “spurious” myth and folklore. It’s an agglomeration that reached a critical mass sufficient to elevate him to the ranks of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, medieval Christendom’s roster of popular big-time intercessors.

He was supposedly a Syrian who landed in Italy as a prelate; there’s a St. Erasmus of Antioch who might either be the same guy in his previous guise or a completely different fellow whose conflated feats explain how Erasmus (of Formia) was both a bishop and a hermit. Oddly enough the Roman Martyrology doesn’t even say that he was put to death for the faith, for Erasmus “was first scourged with leaded whips and then severely beaten with rods; he had also rosin, brimstone, lead, pitch, wax, and oil poured over him, without receiving any injury. Afterwards, under Maximian, he was again subjected to various most horrible tortures at Mola, but was still preserved from death by the power of God for the strengthening of others in the faith. Finally, celebrated for his sufferings, and called by God, he closed his life by a peaceful and holy end.”

Later legends do much him much better for drama and Executed Today eligibility, crediting him with a gory disemboweling death. It’s possible that this association proceeds from Erasmus’s official patronage of sailors: it is he who is the namesake of St. Elmo’s Fire, the electric blue light that gathers to a ship’s mast during a storm,* and his nautical portfolio made his iconographic device the windlass, a winch-and-rope crank that devotees have found suggestive (since so many saints are depicted carrying the instruments of their own martyrdoms) of a device for spooling a man’s intestines. Over time, execution by mechanical evisceration became by popular consensus the passion of Saint Elmo.

“This is one example,” writes Rosa Giorgi in Saints in Art “where imagery influenced hagiography.”


The Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus, by Sebastiano Ricci (c. 1694-1697).


The Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus, by Nicolas Poussin (1628).


Central panel of a triptych of Saint Erasmus’s martyrdom by Dieric Bouts (before 1466).

For wincingly obvious reasons, he’s also the saint to call on for any variety of abdominal distress, from stomach and intestinal maladies to the pangs of birth.

* And also a Brat Pack film.

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1945: Hendrik Nicolaas Werkman

Add comment April 10th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1945, during the last weeks of World War II, Dutch print artist Hendrik Nicolaas Werkman was shot by the Gestapo in the forest near Bakkeveen for his resistance activities.

Werkman’s 1938 self-portrait (source)

Werkman English Wikipedia entry | Dutch) grew up and worked in the city of Groningen and participated in an artists’ collective there called De Ploeg (The Plough) but he was

Werkman ran printing and publishing shops in Groningen that commanded most of his attention; he traveled abroad only once, in 1929. Nevertheless, he experimented through the 1920s and 1930s with creative use, largely self-taught, of typography and printing (he tried his hand at verse, too).

For a time he circulated his own English-titled magazine The Next Call, which he exchanged for work by other artists and designers to keep abreast of the era’s artistic ferment. He was noted for his druksels — “a word impossible to translate, a suffix joined to the word for typographic impression which adds to it a sense of modesty as well as affectionate irony. Perhaps it can best be rendered by ‘printlet’ rather than by ‘booklet’,” in the words of this British Library explainer.

These druksels could be quite independent of any text, or they could complement and enrich words to which they related. The technique used to make them — by means of letter types or other pieces from the type case stamped on to the paper by hand, of impressions of colour from stencils or their addition with the ink-roller held evenly or at varying angles — needed much time in preliminary design work, in proof impressions, and finally in the most careful and laborious execution. The most complex druksels might have needed up to fifty different handlings in and out of the press and allowed no more than one or at the most two or three copies to be made … they are considered works of art in their own right and have become very expensive collectors’ items.

With the German occupation, his became work and art in resistance. He rolled the presses for an underground publishing house called De Blauwe Schuit, but got arrested in a sweep of suspected subversives on March 13, 1945. Four weeks later, he was one of ten prisoners shot just three days ahead of Groningen’s liberation; “there had not even been a semblance of charges or trial,” continues the British Library bio, and “the pretence for his arrest had been the incomprehensible, decadent nature, as his captors saw it, of his art, his obvious Jewish sympathies and the suspected unauthorized use of paper.”


From left to right: Composition with letters ‘X’, Paul Robeson Sings, and one of his wartime renderings of various Hasidic Legends. Behold more works by Mr. Werkman at Wikimedia or Artnet. The best place to see his output in the flesh is surely Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, which acquired an ample Werkman collection in the late 1930s thanks to the fortuitous notice of its curator.

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304: Saint Eulalia

Add comment December 10th, 2018 Headsman

December 10 is the aptly wintry feast date of Saint Eulalia of Merida, a virginal girl of age 12 to 14 who was martyred for the Christian faith under Diocletian‘s western empire wingman Maximian.

With the headstrong zeal of youth, Eulalia escaped from a pastoral refuge arranged by her mum and belligerently presented herself to the pagan authorities, daring them to martyr her. The pagans were game.

Because God abhors immodesty, He sent a timely snowfall to protect the martyr’s nudity from the prurient gaze of her killers, making Eulalia the informal patron saint of snow. (More officially, she’s a patron of runaways, as well as of Merida, Spain, where she died, and Oviedo, Spain, where her remains are enshrined in the cathedral.)

A hymn to St. Eulalia by the ancient poet Prudentius which greatly multiplied her fame in Christendom salutes her for “[making] her executioners tremble by her courage, suffering as though it were sweet to suffer.”

[She] stood before the tribunal, amidst the ensigns of the empire, the fearless Virgin.

“What madness is this,” she cried,

which makes you lose your unthinking souls? Wasting away your love in adoring these chiselled lumps of stone, whilst you deny God the Father of all? O wretched men! You are in search of the Christians: lo! I am one; I hate your worship of devils: I trample on your idols; and with heart and mouth I acknowledge but one God.

Isis, Apollo, Venus, all are nothing; Maximian, too, is nothing; they, because they are idols; he, because he worships idols; both are vain, both are nothing.

Maximian calls himself lord, and yet he makes himself a slave of stones, ready to give his very head to such gods. And why does he persecute them that have nobler hearts?

This good Emperor, this most upright Judge, feeds on the blood of the innocent. He gluts himself on the bodies of the saints, embowelling those temples of purity, and cruelly insulting their holy faith.

Do thy worst, thou cruel butcher; burn, cut, tear asunder these clay-made bodies. It is no hard thing to break a fragile vase like this. But all thy tortures cannot reach the soul.

At these words the Praetor, maddening with rage, cried out:

Away, Lictor, with this senseless prattler, and punish her in every way thou canst. Teach her that our country’s gods are gods, and that our sovereign’s words are not to be slighted.

Yet stay, rash girl! Would I could persuade thee to recall thy impious words before it is too late! Think on all the joys thou thus wilt obtain; think on that noble marriage which we will procure thee.

Thy family is in search of thee, and thy noble house weeps and grieves after thee, their tender floweret so near its prime, yet so resolved to wither.

What! are nuptials like these I offer not enough to move thee? Wilt thou send the grey hairs of thy parents into the tomb by thy rash disobedience? Tremble at least at all these fearful instruments of torture and death.

There is a sword which will sever thy head; there are wild beasts to tear thee to pieces; there are fires on which to burn thee, leaving to thy family but thy ashes to weep over.

And what do we ask of thee in order that thou mayest escape these tortures? Do, I beseech thee, Eulalia, touch but with the tip of thy finger these grains of salt and incense, and not a hair of thy head shall be hurt.

The Martyr answered him not: but full of indignation, spat in the tyrant’s face; then, with her foot, upsets idols, cakes, and incense.

Scarce had she done it, two executioners seize her: they tear her youthful breast, and, one on each side, cut off her innocent flesh even to the very ribs. Eulalia counts each gash, and says:

See, dear Jesus, they write thee on my flesh! Beautiful letters, that tell of thy victory! O, how I love to reac them! So, this red stream of my blood speaks thy holy name!

Saint Eulalia by John William Waterhouse (1885) is one of the most unique and outstanding exemplars of the Pre-Raphaelite style.

Thus sang the joyous and intrepid virgin; not a tear, not a moan. The sharp tortures reach not her soul. Her body is all stained with the fresh blood, and the warm stream trickles down the snow-white skin.

But this was not the end. It was not enough to plough and harrow up her flesh: it was time to burn: torches, then, are applied to her sides and breast.

Her beauteous locks dishevelled fell veiling her from worse than all their butchery, the stare of these wretches.

The crackling flame mounts to her face, and, running through her hair, surrounds and blazes over her head. The virgin, thirsting for death, opens her mouth and drinks it in.

Suddenly is seen a snow-white dove coming from the martyr’s mouth, and flying up to heaven. It was Eulalia’s spirit, spotless, eager, innocent.

Her soul is fled: her head droops, the fire dies out: her lifeless body sleeps in peace, while her glad spirit keeps feast in its ethereal home, and this sweet dove rests in the house of her most High God.

The executioners, too, see the dove issuing from the martyr’s mouth: astonished and trembling they flee from the spot. The lictor, too, is seized with fear and takes to flight.

‘Tis winter, and the snow in thick flakes falls on the forum, covering the tender corpse of Eulalia, which lay stiffening in the cold, with its fair pall of crystal.

Ye men that mourn at funerals, weeping and sobbing out your love for the dead, ye are not needed here: give place. God bids his elements, O Eulalia, do the honours of thy exequies.

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1293: Capocchio, Inferno-bound

Add comment August 15th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1293, the heretic and alchemist Capocchio was burned at the stake in Siena.

Little is known about about this man’s life, but thanks to his contemporary Dante we know a great deal about his afterlife. Capocchio appears among the “Falsifiers” or “Imposters” haunting the eighth circle of hell in Cantos XXIX and XXX of the Inferno.

We meet Capocchio butting into a conversation Dante is having with a different (also executed) shade — Capocchio crying out to support their mutual disdain for the “flighty” Sienese.

“But should you want to know who seconds you
Against the Sienese, direct your eyes to me
So that my face can give you a clear answer:
 
“See, I am the shade of Capocchio
Who falsified base metals through alchemy
And, if I read you rightly, you recall
 
“How fine an ape of nature I have been.”

This remark implies that Dante might have known Capocchio in life. Dante had a vivid destiny in mind for his maybe-acquaintance a few passages later, when

two shadows I saw, stripped and pallid,
Biting and running in the selfsame way
A hog behaves when let out of the sty.
 
One came straight at Capocchio and sank
His tusks into his scruff and, dragging him,
Scraped his stomach against the stony floor.
 
And the one left behind, the Aretine,
Shivering said, “That ghoul is Gianni Schicchi,
And he goes rabid, like that, mauling others.”

The attacker was another notorious imposter, with an artistic legacy of his own in the form of Puccini’s opera Gianni Schicchi … or both together on canvas via William-Adolphe Bouguereau.


Dante e Virgilio by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1850) has the two named characters contemplating from the background as Gianni Schicchi takes a bite out of Capocchio.

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1533: The witch of Schiltach

Add comment April 21st, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1533, a German woman, nameless to posterity, was burnt as a witch in the town of Schiltach.


Engraving of Schiltach from 1643, a century after the events in this post. (From Wikimedia Commons)

Top: Der Teufel von Schiltach (1930), by Eduard Trautwein. Bottom: Der Teufel von schiltach (1926), by Karl Eyth

This Black Forest idyll had been ravaged by fire on Maundy Thursday, the 10th of April.

We have seen many times in these pages how frightful was the scourge of fire for early modern cities, and the haste by which it was liable to be attributed to a malevolent plot.

In this case, common superstition soon acclaimed the fire an arson by the hand of an unpopular former maid of Schiltach’s mayor, who had recently been dismissed under a cloud of suspected diabolism. (This summary in German of the German book Der Teufel von Schiltach delves into the particulars.)

One problem: upon her dismissal, she had returned to her native Oberndorf. Not being in Schiltach at all during the events in question seemed like a pretty good alibi.

But since witchery was contributing means and motive, why not opportunity as well? Everyone knew that witches could fly. She was proximate, if not spatially then conceptually, to a disaster, and this was reason enough.

The luckless woman was retrieved from Oberndorf to answer the tortures of her disgruntled ex-boss, and consigned to the stake … and, as the images accompanying this post will attest, to local legend.


1533 woodcut illustration (click for larger version with German narrative text) about the Schiltach witch. (From Wikimedia Commons)

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Feast Day of St. Dismas, the penitent thief

1 comment March 25th, 2018 Headsman

March 25* is the feast date (per the Roman tradition) of the penitent thief crucified alongside Jesus Christ.

“The Good Thief”, by Michelangelo Cerquozzi.

The Crucifixion — Christ flanked by the “bad thief” who taunts Him and the “good thief” who capes for the Messiah — is deeply planted in the western canon. All four of the Gospels refer to two thieves although it is not until Luke — chronologically the latest, and hence the most embroidered and least reliable, of the synoptic gospels — that these nameless extras are surfaced as contrasting archetypes of the damned and the saved.

And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us. But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss. And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:39-43)

This is as much as the New Testament has to offer on these characters, but the theme of the Savior’s redemption poured out to flesh-and-blood sinners at the hour of death had a powerful resonance for Christendom and would furnish a good thief cult down the centuries; topical for this site, said thief would headline countless execution sermons to the condemned. (Example) As Mitchell Merback puts it in The Thief, the Cross and the Wheel: Pain and the Spectacle of Punishment in Medieval and Renaissance Europe

For suffering patiently and obediently, for his literal realization of the ideal of imitatio Christi, he is rewarded with the crown of martyrdom. The spectacle of his death, his ‘immediate beatitude’, was therefore consummately edifying: a beautiful death, redeemed and redeeming, not despite but because of the abjection that accompanied it. To the philopassianic late Middle Ages he served as a powerful inspiration for penitents. One could only wish to die so thoroughly cleansed of sin as the man in the image.

We have already seen how a similar wish obtained, individually and collectively, in the theatre of public punishments. Confessed and penitent convicts became, in the eyes of the people, the living counterparts of the historical martyrs and, consequently, the objects of a quasi-cultic veneration … Like his condemned counterparts in the Middle Ages, then, the Good Thief’s worthiness for redemption resided in part in the purity of his self-examination, confession and repentance … [and] also sprang directly from his fleshly pains. As both spectacle and image, the demolished body of the Penitent Thief constituted a sign of this soul’s lightning progress through purgation and towards redemption. Within the purview of a Christian ‘piety of pain’, his torments were both abject and redemptive, fearful and enviable, unbearable and fascinating.

For the Bad Thief, who in stubborn blindness turns away from Christ and dies in despair, unregenerate and damned, this surplus of earthly pain is something else: a foretaste of eternal torments. The same violent death transforms one Thief into a likeness of the Crucified, and hence a figure worthy of compassion, admiration and veneration; the other is marked as an everyday scapegoat, worthy of mockery and scorn. Together, then, the two figures, though marginal in the Passion narrative, become central in the medieval economy of response: they become antithetical models for a culture tuned to pain’s instrumentality in the pursuit of redemption.

In the language of the canvas, Christ gestures at that redemption by inclining his head to the right, towards the Good Thief, and didactic works will sometimes add a cherub retrieving this dying penitent’s soul whilst some infernal monster snatches the nasty one.


“Crucifixion” by Vitale da Bologna, circa 1335.

Both thieves attained their legendary names later in antiquity from the Gospel of Nicodemus, Dismas, Dysmas or Demas (the good one) and Gestas or Gesmas (the other one).** Other apocraphal texts build these two out like spinoffs in a blockbuster franchise; The Story of Joseph of Arimathaea gives us one bloodthirsty murderer and one proto-social bandit with a heavy dollop of anti-Semitism:†

The first, Gestas, used to strip and murder wayfarers, hang up women by teh feet and cut off their breasts, drink the blood of babes: he knew not God nor obeyed any law, but was violent form the beginning.

The other, Demas, was a Galilean who kept an inn; he despoiled the rich but did good to the poor, even burying them, like Tobit. He had committed robberies on the Jews, for he stole (plundered) the law itself at Jerusalem, and stripped the daughter of Caiaphas, who was a priestess of the sanctuary, and he took away even the mystic deposit of Solomon which had been deposited in the (holy) place.

And in a credulity-straining prequel, the Gospel of the Infancy stages a scene where these same two guys (as Titus and Dumachus) mug the Holy Family on the latter’s flight to Egypt only for the Good Thief in a spasm of conscience to call off the attack. Baby Jesus rewards his clemency with the depressing prophesy that they’ll all be crucified together.

Present-day namesakes of the penitent thief include the Christian rock band Dizmas, and Bill and Ted’s hometown of San Dimas, California.

* It shares a calendar date with the Feast of the Annunciation, which is the date that an angel informed the Virgin Mary of her miraculous pregnancy. (March 25 = Christmas Day minus nine months.) Medieval belief cottoned to the symmetry of the divine conception and the passion of the cross falling on the same day.

** The understood arrangement is that Dismas was crucified on Christ’s privileged right side. However, Merback notes that like Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern these two halves of a whole are easily confused with one another, for “one of the surviving manuscripts containing the legend places Gestas on the right and Dysmas on the left; and several works discussed in these pages show the name ‘Gestas’ inscribed near the Thief on Christ’s right. Whether these are the outgrowths of a primitive literary tradition or the result of iconographic confusions or misappropriations is unclear.” As an example, in Conrad von Soest‘s Altarpiece from Bad Wildungen it appears that Dismas is the one bound for perdition:

† In The Story of Joseph of Arimathaea, damnation is explicitly framed as the fate of the Jews, with Christ assuring Dismas/Demas that “the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and Moses shall be cast out into the outer darkness.”

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