1794: Rosalie Filleul, painter

1 comment June 24th, 2017 Headsman

Pastel painter Rosalie Filleul (English Wikipedia entry | the far more detailed French) was guillotined on this date in 1794, during the Paris Terror.

The prodigy daughter of a Paris, young Rosalie Boquet — as she was born — exhibited several times in the 1770s when she was barely out of her teens.

Famous for her beauty as well as her brushstrokes, she married into a comfortable sinecure held by the Superintendant of the Chateau de la Muette. As this fine post by history writer Melanie Clegg describes, Filleul cultivated an Enlightenment artist’s friendships with both revolution (Benjamin Franklin, whose portrait she painted) and ancien regime (Marie Antoinette, who commissioned more canvasses — like this one, of children of the Comte d’Artois).


The baby of this eldest trio of kids of the future King Charles X has been sighted on this here blog for his 1820 exit at an assassin’s hands.

Moved like many whom the Revolution would come to devour by hope in its possibilities, she declined to flee France. She came within a month of surviving the crucible but her relationship with the beheaded king and queen played fatally against her in the end.

We catch a glimpse of this woman and her vanished possibilities through the memoirs of her fellow-artist contemporary Madame Lebrun:

drew from nature and from casts, often working by lamplight with Mlle. Boquet, with whom I was closely acquainted. I went to her house in the evenings; she lived in the Rue Saint Denis, where her father had a bric-à-brac shop. It was a long way off, since we lodged in the Rue de Cléry, opposite the Lubert mansion. My mother, therefore, insisted on my being escorted whenever I went. We likewise frequently repaired, Mlle. Boquet and I, to Briard’s, a painter, who lent us his etchings and his classical busts. Briard was but a moderate painter, although he did some ceilings of rather unusual conception. On the other hand, he could draw admirably, which was the reason why several young people went to him for lessons. His rooms were in the Louvre, and each of us brought her little dinner, carried in a basket by a nurse, in order that we might make a long day of it.

Mlle. Boquet was fifteen years old and I fourteen. We were rival beauties. I had changed completely and had become good looking. Her artistic abilities were considerable; as for mine, I made such speedy progress that I soon was talked about

On Sundays and saints’ days, after hearing high mass, my mother and my stepfather took me to the Palais Royal for a walk. The gardens were then far more spacious and beautiful than they are now, strangled and straightened by the houses enclosing them. There was a very broad and long avenue on the left arched by gigantic trees, which formed a vault impenetrable to the rays of the sun. There good society assembled in its best clothes. The opera house was hard by the palace. In summer the performance ended at half-past eight, and all elegant people left even before it was over, in order to ramble in the garden. It was the fashion for the women to wear huge nosegays, which, added to the perfumed powder sprinkled in everybody’s hair, really made the air one breathed quite fragrant. Later, yet still before the Revolution, I have known these assemblies to last until two in the morning. There was music by moonlight, out in the open; artists and amateurs sang songs; there was playing on the harp and the guitar; the celebrated Saint Georges often executed pieces on his violin. Crowds flocked to the spot.

We never entered this avenue, Mlle. Boquet and I, without attracting lively attention. We both were then between sixteen and seventeen years old, Mlle. Boquet being a great beauty. At nineteen she was taken with the smallpox, which called forth such general interest that numbers from all classes of society made anxious inquiries, and a string of carriages was constantly drawn up outside her door.

She had a remarkable talent for painting, but she gave up the pursuit almost immediately after her marriage with M. Filleul, when the Queen made her Gatekeeper of the Castle of La Muette. [Marie Antoinette designated the position to Madame Filleul after her husband’s death. -ed.] Would that I could speak of the dear creature without calling her dreadful end to mind. Alas! how well I remember Mme. Filleul saying to me, on the eve of my departure from France, when I was to escape from the horrors I foresaw: “You are wrong to go. I intend to stay, because I believe in the happiness the Revolution is to bring us.” And that Revolution took her to the scaffold! Before she quitted La Muette the Terror had begun. Mme. Chalgrin, a daughter of Joseph Vernet, and Mme. Filleul’s bosom friend, came to the castle to celebrate her daughter’s wedding – quietly, as a matter of course. However, the next day the Jacobins none the less proceeded to arrest Mme. Filleul and Mme. Chalgrin, who, they said, had wasted the candles of the nation. A few days later they were both guillotined.

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1505: One Bolognese thief hanged, and another saved by Saint Nicholas

Add comment April 15th, 2017 Cherubino Ghirardacci

(Thanks to Augustinian friar Cherubino Ghirardacci for today’s guest post, from his History of Bologna. The Saint Nicholas in question for this picturesque vignette is not Santa Claus (though that figure’s real-life inspiration also had an averted execution to his hagiography) but the medieval mystic Saint Nicholas of Tolentino … a popular Italian saint who appears to have obtained an informal niche profile as the intercessor who would help a fellow survive a hanging: he had already been credited with saving a man wrongfully accused of murder who hung four days on the gallows in 14th century Aquila. -ed.)

It has happened in these days, that is to say on April 15, Tuesday, that two thieves have been hanged; one sixty years old and one about eighteen, and the execution took place on the usual spot, that is in the cattle market; and the minister of justice ordered that they should be left hanging upon the gallows until the usual hour, when the members of the Company of the Dead came to remove them for burial, and having taken down from the gibbet the old man and having placed him on the bier, they then deposed the youth, called Pietro Antonio of Bologna. He had been adopted by one who dwelt in the Borgo of San Pietro, and was already a novice of San Jacomo; this one was found alive and of so much vivacity it seemed as though he had been reposing on his bed asleep: but however with the neck injured, because the halter had entered into it, and had almost sawn through the throat.

The bystanders, marvelling much at this unusual sight, quickly had him carried to the Hospital to care for him; and there came a messenger from the Senate to see, and to hear everything that had happened; and Pietro Antonio said that he had been helped by the glorious saint Nicholas of Tolentino, to whom he had vowed, that if he escaped this opprobrious death, he would vest himself in his habit, and that he being on the gallows, the glorious St. Nicholas supported him by holding the soles of his feet in his hands. This was considered a marvellous miracle in the city, and every one ran to visit him and hear him discourse.

On Sunday, April 27, the Brothers of San Jacomo came in procession to the Hospital to fetch the above-mentioned Pietro Antonio and to conduct him to San Jacomo, and they pass together with the “Compagnia della Morte” behind San Petronio and before this church, and they go before the palace of the family Antiani, and below the “Madonna del Popolo”; and the condemned man is dressed in white with a black mantle, and with no cap on his head, and with the same halter round his neck with which he was hanged. When he reaches this spot, he falls on his knees and adores the Queen of Heaven, and wishing to rise, the simple women around tear off some of his clothes in devotional excitement; but being covered with another cape, he arrives at the church of San Jacopo, and there in the presence of all the city, the halter is taken from his neck and laid by him on the altar; and by the reverend prior of that said convent, Master Giovanni de Ripis, he was solemnly dressed in the Carmelite habit and called Brother Nicholas, in honour and reverence of St. Nicholas of Tolentino; and the ceremonies of vesting him being over, the friars meanwhile chanting the Te Deum Laudamus, he was presented by the said Prior to the very holy image of the glorious St. Nicholas, which is behind the choir in the chapel of St. Thomas Apostle and St. Nicholas, now called of the Madonna of Heaven, because when he made his vow he had in his mind this venerated image. Then he placed there his votive offering, his true portrait painted on canvas, and also the same halter with which he was hanged, the which things one may still see today in this said church.

He lived four years very devoutly, tending the sick; but then, tempted by the devil, he threw away his habit, and giving himself once more to thieving he was taken and hanged with the golden halter to the long balcony of the Podestà, and died for his sins.

The record of this miracle appears, with all the expenses, in an authentic book of 148 pages, in the Sacristy of these said monks, where are mentioned the sums spent on the procession, and miracle, and of the votive panel picture, which was made by master Ercolese, painter, and cost in all lire 3 and soldi 11.

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1569: Orthodox Metropolitan Philip II of Moscow

Add comment December 23rd, 2016 Headsman

This date in 1569, Orthodox Metropolitan Philip II of Moscow was martyred for his opposition to Ivan the Terrible.

He was elevated in 1566 as Russia’s top prelate* by that same Ivan, who soon regretted and then raged at his selection when Philip righteously withheld the church’s blessing from the tyrant in the midst of Ivan’s Oprichnina bloodbath.

That was in Lent of 1568. Before the year was out Ivan, who did not fear to bully churchmen, had forced Philip’s deposition and had him immured in a Tver monastery.

Safely out of the way there, the tsar’s fell henchman Malyuta Skuratov arrived two days before Christmas of 1569 pretending to bear a message. “My friend, do what you have come to do,” the monk replied. Skuratov strangled him to death.


Here comes trouble: Metropolitan Philip in prayer as his executioner arrives. (By Aleksandr Nikanorovich Novoskoltsev, 1880s.) For a more mannered and less violent interpretation of the same scene, try this number by Nikolai Nevrev

The Russian Orthodox Church observes this saint’s feast date on January 9. His relics are enshrined today at the Kremlin’s Dormition Cathedral.

* Moscow did not become a patriarchate until 1589, so Philip did not bear that title.

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9: The Battle of Teutoburg Forest

Add comment September 11th, 2016 Headsman


Zum Kampf! Zum Kampf! from Max Bruch‘s 1877 oratorio about Teutoburg Forest victor Arminius. Also be sure to check out the Handel opera.

September 11 in the year 9 AD marked the bloody conclusion of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest — the engagement that permanently scared the Romans off Germany.

One of history’s true turning-point battles, Teutoberg Forest abruptly stanched decades of expansion that had seen Roman arms ascendant from Britain to the Levant. Indeed, the Roman commander who had the dishonor of falling on his sword at this legendary defeat, Publius Quinctilius Varus, was an experienced imperial patrician as well-traveled as the Roman standards who has been seen in these very pages collaborating with the Judean King Herod to execute Herod’s former heir.

But it was in the shadows and bogs of Germany’s primeval forests that Varus made his legacy to the world, which was to have his name famously bemoaned by facepalming Emperor Augustus once news of the disaster made its way back to the Eternal City.

Prior to this cataclysm, the empire had been working a years-long plan to annex fringe chunks of the vast Magna Germania beyond the Rhine and Danube rivers with its customary view towards eventually bossing the whole place. “Upper Germania” and “Lower Germania” to the west of Magna Germania already answered to Rome, testament to recent campaigns launched from neighboring Gaul;* the vast frontier beyond peopled by fractious warring barbarian tribes, with whom Rome cut strategic divide-and-conquer alliances, appeared to promise a future march of Roman glories all the way to the Baltic Sea.

This imperial hubris was shattered at a blow by the Cheruscan chief Arminius, who thereby made his name immortal to Germany.**

He had the element of surprise on his side, because his family had been such loyal Roman allies that Arminius had been trained up in the Roman army as a youth, and even held Roman citizenship. Whatever it was he experienced seems to have nurtured an implacable desire him to keep it away form his homeland. When the time came his familiarity with Roman military orders would be a high card in his hand, too.

Back in Germania, Arminius maintained his overt affiliation with Rome but started sending out feelers to assemble a confederation against the legions. He played this double game so adroitly that Varus still trusted his “ally” implicitly when Arminius reported a Germanic uprising that wanted Roman chastisement. Blind to his danger, Varus duly (and with casual discipline that would read very culpably in retrospect) marched his 17th, 18th, and 19th legions out through the unfamiliar glooms of the Teutoburg Forest.

It was a right massacre.

Their column broken up by rough terrain and pounding autumn rains, the Romans were ripe pickings for German sorties beginning on September 9. Harried by the Germans over two days’ panicked marching, the Romans were pressed into a dead end where palisades trapped the desperate legions at the edge of a slough and put them to slaughter. A bare handful escaped to tell the tale, and no future legion would bear the numerals of those annihilated on this day.


Varusschlacht, by Otto Albert Koch (1909).

The scale of the defeat, by rude tribesmen the empire always counted on being able to bully, beggared the Roman imagination.

“An army unexcelled in bravery, the first of Roman armies in discipline, in energy, and in experience in the field, through the negligence of its general, the perfidy of the enemy, and the unkindness of fortune was surrounded,” Paterculus lamented. “Hemmed in by forests and marshes and ambuscades, it was exterminated almost to a man by the very enemy whom it had always slaughtered like cattle, whose life or death had depended solely upon the wrath or the pity of the Romans.”

To judge by Roman reports — and what gives this event a purchase on the annals of Executed Today — the battlefield rout transitioned directly to the ceremonial butchery of captives. (As well as the posthumous beheading of the suicide Varus.) While some suffered torture and execution, others were offered as ritual sacrifices to the Germanic gods who had so magnificently delivered the day.

Several years later, a Roman force out to re-capture the lost standards of the Teutoburg legions reached the site of the empire’s humiliation. Tacitus describes the scene as a horror.

In the center of the field were the whitening bones of men, as they had fled, or stood their ground, strewn everywhere or piled in heaps. Near lay fragments of weapons and limbs of horses, and also human heads, prominently nailed to trunks of trees. In the adjacent groves were the barbarous altars, on which they had immolated tribunes and first-rank centurions.

Some survivors of the disaster who had escaped from the battle or from captivity, described how this was the spot where the officers fell, how yonder the eagles were captured, where Varus was pierced by his first wound, where too by the stroke of his own ill-starred hand he found for himself death. They pointed out too the raised ground from which Arminius had harangued his army, the number of gibbets for the captives, the pits for the living, and how in his exultation he insulted the standards and eagles.

And so the Roman army now on the spot, six years after the disaster, in grief and anger, began to bury the bones of the three legions, not a soldier knowing whether he was interring the relics of a relative or a stranger, but looking on all as kinsfolk and of their own blood, while their wrath rose higher than ever against the foe.

Despite the devastation, Teutoburg Forest was no extinction-level event for the Roman Empire. The Rhine and Danube frontiers remained an ongoing source of action for the many centuries to come, but despite raids and incursions here or there Rome never more seriously aspired to Magna Germania.

A few books about the Battle of Teutoburg Forest

* The future emperor Tiberius campaigned heavily in Germania, the last of which was post-Varus operations from 10 to 12 AD sufficient to permit the Romans to declare an honorably victorious conclusion to the project. (Tiberius celebrated a Triumph afterwards.)

** Arminius — whose name has been held equivalent with “Hermann” — has been the subject of many literary celebratins in a nationalist vein, great business especially in the 19th century.


The Hermannsdenkmal nomument in the Teutoburg Forest, the life’s labor of sculptor Ernst von Bandel who was able to finish it thanks to a mood of national exultation after the triumph of the Franco-Prussian War. For some reason it has a sister in Minnesota. ((cc) image by Hubert Berberich.)

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1453: The garrison of Poucques, Jacques de Lalaing’s cannonball killers

Add comment July 5th, 2016 Headsman

On or about this date* in 1453, the Burgundians captured the fortress of Poucques (Poeke) during the revolt of Ghent, and put its entire garrison to summary death.

It was merely one of the appetizers the Burgundians had to chew off en route to devouring the main course at the Battle of Gavere, where the revolt was decisively crushed.**

While the battle itself was a footnote — sorry, slaughtered garrison! — it’s remembered for claiming the life of the Burgundian lord Jacques de Lalaing (English Wikipedia entry | French) — the Michael Jordan of 15th century tournament combat, “le chevalier sans reproche.”

About 32 at his death, the “Bon Chevalier” was a member of the prestigious (and still-extant) Order of the Golden Fleece on the strength of a remarkable 1440s ramble around European where he would theatrically stage combats with local knights and never fail to win them. Celebrity and emoluments followed in their turn.

“Above all else, he knew the business of arms,” sighs a chronicle detailing his feats, and on its evidence it would be difficult to disagree.

He achieved his fame besting great champions in Aragon, Castile, Scotland, and Flanders, then set up a pas d’armes — the Monty Python-esque open challenge/invitation to battle all comers who dared him at a set location. In Jacques’s case the challenge lasted a full year at a statue of a weeping woman from which our pugilist derived the brand the Passage of the Fountain of Tears.

These were not intended to be fatal bouts but they featured expert fighters with real weapons so life and limb certainly stood in peril; occasionally our protagonist even deliberately courted danger by suiting up in only partial armor. Some challengers managed to emerge with a satisfying draw, but none could defeat him. At his last tournament in 1452, he even jousted the young future Duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold. (There’s an enjoyable detailed recap of Jacques’s career here.)

As this warrior par excellence was simultaneously noted for the perfection of his outside-of-armor knightly conduct — fidelity, generosity, piety, swooning ladies — Jacques de Lalaing had a fair claim on his contemporaries’ admiration as the very apex of the age of chivalry.

And his own fate poignantly embodied that of his era.

Studying the Burgundian court to which our Walloon nobleman adhered when not doing his gladiator road show, Dutch historian Johan Huizinga reckoned this 15th century the “autumn of the middle ages” — a decadence flowering in decay.

“This hero-worship of the declining Middle Ages finds its literary expression in the biography of the perfect knight,” Huizinga wrote — like our Jacques de Lalaing, “that anachronistic knight-errant” of “fantastic and useless projects.”

The realities of court life or a military career offered too little opportunity for the fine make-belief of heroism and love, which filled the soul. So they had to be acted. The staging of the tournament, therefore, had to be that of romance; that is to say, the imaginary world of Arthur,† where the fancy of a fairy-tale was enhanced by the sentimentality of courtly love.

A Passage of Arms of the fifteenth century is based on a fictitious case of chivalrous adventure, connected with an artificial scene called by a romantic name, as, for instance, the Fountain of Tears or the Tree of Charlemagne. [the latter was another famous pas d’armes defended in 1443 by another Burgundian knight, Pierre de Bauffremont -ed.] … There is an unmistakable connection between these primitive forms of warlike and erotic sport and the children’s play of forfeits. One of the rules of the “Chapters” of the Fountain of Tears runs thus: he who, in a combat, is unhorsed, will during a year wear a gold bracelet, until he finds the lady who holds the key to it and who can free him, on condition that he shall serve her.

Jacques de Lalaing and his ritual delights came to a savage end at the siege of Poucques when he had the apt misfortune to be struck by a ball from a defending veuglaire. The romantic master of the lists thereby became one of the first European elites slain by a cannon: for a junction to modernity one could do a lot worse than this moment.‡

The untimely end of Jacques happens to have hit the news in recent months when the Getty Museum acquired a precious Renaissance manuscript illustration of the event by Simon Bening, never previously exhibited.

In this extraordinarily bright and detailed miniature, our courteous doomed glances upward at the citadel, forming a sharp compositional diagonal with the fatal cannonball speeding towards him … and the fiery plume belched by the chivalry-smashing device that has hurled it.


Detail view (click for the full image) of the Bening miniature.

* The precise date on which this minor siege concluded is elusive and perhaps ambiguous; I’m basing Executed Today‘s dating on the July 13, 1453 correspondence in this archive reporting that “Poucques est tombée en son pouvoir le 5 courant; qu’il a fait démanteler ce deux places fortes et livrer au dernier supplice leurs défenseurs.”

** Maybe so, but Ghent is still with us today whereas independent Burgundy would vanish within 30 years.

† The late 15th century also gives us the apotheosis of the Arthurian legend, Le Morte d’Arthur.

‡ Periodization fans should note that 1453 also marks the Ottoman capture of Constantinople.

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1619: Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, laandsadvocaat

1 comment May 13th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1619, Dutch stadtholder Maurice of Orange beheaded his political and religious rival, jurist Johan van Oldenbarnevelt.

Both men had in their day been instrumental to winning the independence (de facto, if not yet de jure) that the Low Countries were already enjoying: laandsadvocaat van Oldenbarnevelt as the commanding political personality holding together the potentially fractious provinces in the 1580s and 1590s; stadtholder Maurice as the great general* of those provinces, whose sword-arm in the 1590s and 1600s more or less staked out the borders of the present-day Netherlands.

Thanks to their good offices, the once-desperate Dutch Revolt had triumphed in all but name, and in the 1610s paused to savor the fruits of victory during the Twelve Years’ Truce.**

Increasingly after 1600, the two developed a rivalry that was both personal, and political, and religious — for in their prominence they also became the chief exponents of the neighborhood schism, van Oldenbarnevelt championing the Remonstrants or Arminians (they remonstrated against some Calvinist doctrines) and Maurice upholding the orthodox Counter-Remonstrants or Gomarist side. The conflict was no joke; the States of Holland at van Oldenbarnevelt’s urging went so far as to hire its own mercenary army, knowing that it could not trust the national army commanded by the Counter-Remonstrant William. William secured the support of the States-General to forcibly disband this rival militia in July 1618† — and from that point until his death in 1625, William was the strongman in the Low Countries.

And van Oldenbarnevelt, well — he got the kangaroo court. See?


Detail view (click for the full image) of Satire on the trial of Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, by Cornelis Saftleven (1663). Saftleven liked painting animals.

Tried by a special (dubiously legal) court comprised of enemies, the grizzled pol was condemned to death as a traitor. On May 13, the day he went to the block at the Binnenhof in The Hague, his home province the States of Holland saluted him as “a man of great business, activity, memory and wisdom — yes, extra-ordinary in every respect.”

And it added a passage from Corinthians:

Die staet siet toe dat hij niet en valle

He who stands, let him take care that he does not fall


Detail view (click for the full image) of a 17th century engraving of Johan van Oldenbarnevelt’s beheading.

Van Oldenbarnevelt’s son Reinier, lord of Groeneveld was beheaded in 1623 for conspiring to assassinate Maurice in revenge for his father’s execution.

* Maurice of Orange was recognized in his time as perhaps Europe’s greatest and most innovative commander. His introduction of infantry volley fire and highly disciplined drill regimens revolutionized the battlefield — and made the Dutch very difficult for their Spanish masters to handle.

The Indian Ocean island-nation Mauritius, discovered by Dutch explorers in 1598, was named for him.

** Posterity has the luxury of hindsight knowledge that although war would resume for the Low Countries in 1621, the peace of Westphalia would secure an independent Netherlands. However, already during the Twelve Years’ Truce the place was acting as an independent country, and some other states formally recognized it as such.

† One of van Oldenbarnevelt’s supporters was international law pioneer Hugo Grotius. Grotius was clapped in prison with van Oldenbarnevelt’s fall in 1618; he famously escaped this dungeon in 1621 by hiding in a chest of books and lived out his scribbling days in France.

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Feast Day of St. Lucy

1 comment December 13th, 2015 Headsman

Today is the feast of Saint Lucy, a Diocletian martyr and one of Christendom’s best beloved saints.

As her Wikipedia page observes, “all the details of her life are the conventional ones associated with female martyrs of the early 4th century.” Like St. Barbara she had secretly become a Christian; like St. Cecilia, she was betrothed to a mean old pagan; like St. Catherine her sacred body defied the tortures ordered by the Governor of Syracuse, until the Romans just gave up and beheaded her. (Her husband is supposed to have denounced her when he found out that the pious Lucy, with the help of an apparition of the martyred St. Agatha, had convinced her mother to give away the daughter’s ample dowry; this embrace of lonely penury probably explains how she came to be the patron saint of writers.)


Lucy Before the Judge by Lorenzo Lotto, 1523-32.

Iconography often depicts St. Lucy brandishing her own eyeballs, like a Guillermo del Toro monster: this, too, is an allusion to the torments of the Romans, and the story is either the cause or the consequence of her patronage of the blind.

Lucy’s name derives from the Latin root for “light”, and her December 13 feast formerly coincided with the winter solstice; as a result, St. Lucy’s Day became a major holiday some locales — including Italy, Scandinavia, the Philippines, and Omaha, Nebraska. The English poet John Donne meditates upon the occasion in a 1627 noctural, by which time December 13 was not technically the solstice by either Julian or Gregorian calendars.

Since she enjoys her long night’s festival,
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year’s, and the day’s deep midnight is.


Detail view (click for the full image) of Burial of St. Lucy — which was painted for the church in Syracuse that stands on the spot of her purported martyrdom by the fugitive genius Caravaggio.

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Feast Day of St. Nicholas

1 comment December 6th, 2015 Headsman

Today is the feast day of Santa Claus himself, St. Nicholas.

Nicholas was a real-life bishop in fourth century Asia Minor. He’s among the prelates to sign off on the Nicene Creed, Christianity’s official profession of orthodox doctrine hammered out at the emperor Constantine’s epochal Council of Nicaea.

Living as he did amid the triumph of his once-persecuted faith, Saint Nick was not called upon to offer God his own martyrdom. Our death penalty context comes from one of the stories in his hagiography — that on one occasion, returning to the seat of his diocese at Myra, Nicholas discovered that three innocent men had been condemned to imminent execution by a wicked magistrate. Hastening to the scene, he dramatically averted their beheading by seizing the executioner’s sword.

The great Russian artist Ilya Repin depicted the scene.


St. Nicholas Saves Three Innocents from Death, by Ilya Repin (1888).

Repin did not love this painting — he slinked out of its 1889 exhibition, allegedly dissatisfied with its ridigity and melodrama* — but it did express the liberal-minded artist’s distaste for capital punishment. The era we now know to be the late tsarist period in Russia saw violent (and sometimes indiscriminate) crackdowns on revolutionary terrorism following the 1881 assassination of Tsar Alexander II, to the great grief of her dissident intelligentsia. Philosopher Vladimir Solovyov called the death penalty “absolute murder”; with a like attitude, tsarist Russia’s “liberal politicians, academics and journalists repeatedly campaigned against this form of punishment.” (Source)

Around the time that Repin depicted St. Nicholas’s great act of clemency, Leo Tolstoy — who abhorred capital punishment — wrote of his youthful experience witnessing the guillotine in action in Paris, “at the moment the head and body separated and fell into the box I gasped, and realized not with my mind nor with my heart but with my whole being, that all the arguments in defence of capital punishment are wicked nonsense … [that] murder remains murder, and that this crime had been committed before my eyes.”**

Repin was forever being read and misread by the ideologues afoot in Russia, but this Tolstoyan horror at the scaffold he shared unambiguously. In a later era, by which time Repin was the established senior figure of the Russian art scene, the painter was exercised enough by Stolypin‘s wholesale use of capital punishment following Russia’s abortive 1905 revolution to issue a public denunciation of executions. But it was only ever by the hand of St. Nicholas that he had the experience of preventing one.

* See David Jackson, “The ‘Golgotha’ of Ilya Repin in Context”, Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University, Vol. 50, No. 1 (1991).

** Repin also painted Tolstoy in 1887.

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1750: James Maclaine

Add comment October 3rd, 2015 Headsman

Gentleman highwayman James MacLaine hanged at Tyburn on this date in 1750.

The debauched son of a Presbyterian minister, MacLaine wasted first an inheritance and later a dowry on expensive clothes, gambling, and ladies of easy virtue; want, however, was his ticket to the immortality of the gallows when he joined fellow penniless gentleman William Plunkett to seek his revenue on the roads. (Inspiring the 1999 film Plunkett & Macleane — which uses one of several alternate spellings available for our man’s surname.)

For several months in 1749-1750 they prowled the environs of a lawless London, and notably Hyde Park, with the exaggerated courtesy demanded by romance of their profession. They found noteworthy prey: once, they stole a blunderbuss from the Earl of Eglington, though Eglington survived to suffer a noteworthy murder years later; in November 1749, they robbed M.P. Horace Walpole, even skimming his face with a pistol-ball that was inches wide from depriving posterity of the gothic novel.*

When caught** by mischance, the mannered† Maclaine became the object of public celebration, much to the bemusement of Walpole — who professed no ill will for his assailant but wondered that “there are as many prints and pamphlets about him as about the earthquake.”

Three thousand people are reported to have turned up on a sweltering summer Sunday to pay their admiration to the rogue, not excluding the very cream of society. Walpole teased his friends, court beauty Lady Caroline Fitzroy (wife of the Earl of Harrington) and her sidekick Miss Elizabeth Ashe, for presenting themselves among these masses to starfuck this latter-day Duval. “I call them Polly and Lucy,” he wrote, alluding to female conquests of the outlaw Macheath in The Beggar’s Opera, “and asked them if he did not sing,”

Thus I stand like the Turk with his doxies around.


(Via the British Museum)

Maclaine did not have to borrow Macheath’s ballads, for he was celebrated with verse dedicated all to him — like this “Jemmie Maclaine”, to the tune of Derry Down:

Ye Smarts and ye Jemmies, ye Ramillie Beaux,
With golden cocked hats, and with silver laced clothes,
Who by wit and invention your pockets maintain,
Come pity the fate of poor Jemmy Maclaine,

Derry down derry, etc.

He robb’d folks genteely, he robb’d with an air,
He robb’d them so well that he always took care
My lord was not hurt and my Lady not frighted,
And instead of being hanged he deserved to be knighted!

Derry down derry, etc.

William Hogarth‘s 1751 print cycle The Four Stages of Cruelty, one skeleton overseeing the operating theater where a hanged criminal is dissected is subtly labeled — Macleane.

* Walpole once remarked of the ubiquity of violent crime in London that “one is forced to travel, even at noon, as if one was going to battle.”

** Plunkett was never apprehended; it’s alleged that he ultimately escaped to North America.

† Although our man “has been called the gentleman highwayman,” the player-hating Ordinary of Newgate wrote, “and his dress and equipage very much affected the fine gentleman, yet to a man acquainted with good breeding, that can distinguish it from impudence and affectation, there was little in his address or behaviour, that could entitle him to that character.”

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Outlaws,Public Executions,Theft

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1482: Richard Puller von Hohenburg and Anthony Mätzler

2 comments September 24th, 2015 Headsman


The Alsatian knight Richard Puller von Hohenburg and his servant, Anthony Mätzler, burned for sodomy at Zurich. From illustration in Die Grosse Burgunderchronik by Diebold Schilling de Altere, c. 1483.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Homosexuals,Nobility,Public Executions,Sex,Soldiers,Switzerland

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