90: Cornelia, Vestal Virgin

1 comment June 9th, 2015 Headsman

How happy is the blameless Vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot:
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each prayer accepted, and each wish resign’d.

Alexander Pope

June 9 in ancient Rome was the festival of the Vesta, the acme of the Vestalia festival extending until June 15.*

We hope this hearth-goddess will accept the homage Pluto‘s emissaries here propose to pay her most famous servants, the Vestal Virgins.

An ancient order of priestesses reaching back to Rome’s mythical founding period, perhaps even rooted in Rome’s matriarchal Etruscan predecessors, the Virgins by the time of the classical era numbered six — selected from among candidate girls aged 6 to 10 who would be whisked away from their families to serve for thirty years.

Vestal Virgins enjoyed great prestige and a number of social prerogatives (they had the power to pardon condemned prisoners, among other things). In exchange, they were tasked with maintaining Rome’s favor with her temperamental gods by tending diligently to the city’s most cherished religious observances.


The remains of the House of the Vestals on the Roman Forum ((cc) image from Milos Kravcik.) Here’s a reconstructed view of what the residence might have looked like in its glory.

From the moment of their selection, Vestal Virgins became a sort of personification of Rome itself — Rome’s civic virtue; Rome’s standing with the gods. Rome and the Vestals, joined by the sacred eternal hearth-flame whose perpetual kindling was the virgins’ chief ceremonial duty, drew succor from one another. Pliny wrote that they “have the power, by uttering a certain prayer, to arrest the flight of runaway slaves, and to rivet them to the spot, provided they have not gone beyond the precincts of the City” — but Rome’s greatness, too, was attributed to the citizenry’s dutiful maintenance of the Vestals through the centuries.

For such an empyreal creature to indulge the fleeting pleasures of the flesh was quite beyond question. Vesta, said Ovid,

was always unable to tolerate men.
What wonder if a virgin delights in virgin servants,
And only allows chaste hands to touch her sacred relics?
Realize that Vesta is nothing but living flame,
And you’ll see that no bodies are born from her.
She’s truly a virgin, who neither accepts seed
Nor yields it, and she loves virgin companions.

But over the centuries, not all of Vesta’s servants kept that same hard line on unchaste hands** — and in so doing risked punishment by an unusual execution of living burial. Even defiled Vestals were inviolate in their persons: their blood could not be shed, and the hands of the common executioner could not touch them. They had to be dispatched without direct violence, by immuring them alive under the earth. (Not so their seducers: getting busy with a Vestal Virgin would cost a man as many strokes of a scourge as required to kill him.)

Back to Ovid:

Now sacred flames you shine brightly under Caesar’s rule:
The fire on the Ilian hearths is there, and will remain,
It won’t be said that under him any priestess disgraced
Her office, nor that she was buried alive in the earth.
So the unchaste die, being entombed in what they
Have violated: since divine Earth and Vesta are one.

We have no specific calendar dates to go with any of these, but the British Museum antiquarian G.H. Noehdon compiled the available information about Vestals’ executions at some length in this public domain text:

a subterraneous chamber or cell of small dimension was formed, into which you descended from above. There were placed in it a couch or bed, a burning lamp, and a few necessaries of life, such as bread, water, milk, and oil. It would have been impious, according to Plutarch, to destroy by hunger, a life that had been consecrated by the most holy rites. The wretched victim, it is to be imagined, chiefly perished by suffocation. For the cell was closely shut, and overlaid with earth, as soon as she was descended.

The whole proceedings were terrific. The delinquent was conveyed to that place of horror in a litter, so fastened up and covered from without, that not even a sound or groan could escape from it. She was thus carried through the market-place, while the people, in fearful silence, made way, and followed speechless, impressed with the awe of this frightful ceremony. No sight, says Plutarch, could be more shocking, nor was there ever a day at Rome more gloomy and sorrowful.


Detail view (click for the full image) of Execution of a Vestal Virgin, by Heinrich Friedrich Fuger.

Per Noehdon, the oldest case on record was of one Pinaria, executed for impurity under Tarquin the Elder. A Vestal named Minucia suffered the same fate in the 4th century BCE; two more, Opimia and Floronia, were condemned in the 3rd century, though one committed suicide in preference to immurement. Dionysius of Halicarnassus attributes a plague to the incontinence of the Vestal Urbenia, and its abatement to her punishment. Cassius Dio credits no fewer than three Vestals with execution for unchastity in 114 BCE — but one can hardly fail to note that this is a period of deepening class tension in Rome in the aftermath of the Gracchi. One wonders if carnal indulgences were merely a pretext to purge Aemilia, Licinia, and Marcia for the wrong factional alignment.

Probably the best-attested and best-known Vestal Virgin executed was Cornelia, the Virgo Maxima (chief Vestal) entombed by order of the notorious tyrant Domitian. (Domitian had also executed three other Vestals some years prior.) Pliny the Younger recorded her going to her death effecting (as did her purported lover) a persuasive mien of indignant innocence.

Domitian generally raged most furiously where his evidence failed him most hopelessly. That emperor had determined that Cornelia, chief of the Vestal Virgins, should be buried alive, from an extravagant notion that exemplary severities of this kind conferred lustre upon his reign.

Accordingly, by virtue of his office as supreme pontiff, or, rather, in the exercise of a tyrant’s cruelty, a despot’s lawlessness, he convened the sacred college, not in the pontifical court where they usually assemble, but at his villa near Alba; and there, with a guilt no less heinous than that which he professed to be punishing, he condemned her, when she was not present to defend herself, on the charge of incest, while he himself had been guilty, not only of debauching his own brother’s daughter, but was also accessory to her death: for that lady, being a widow, in order to conceal her shame, endeavoured to procure an abortion, and by that means lost her life.

However, the priests were directed to see the sentence immediately executed upon Cornelia. As they were leading her to the place of execution, she called upon Vesta, and the rest of the gods, to attest her innocence; and, amongst other exclamations, frequently cried out, “Is it possible that Caesar can think me polluted, under the influence of whose sacred functions he has conquered and triumphed?” Whether she said this in flattery or derision; whether it proceeded from a consciousness of her innocence, or contempt of the emperor, is uncertain; but she continued exclaiming in this manner, til she came to the place of execution, to which she was led, whether innocent or guilty I cannot say, at all events with every appearance and demonstration of innocence. As she was being lowered down into the subterranean vault, her robe happening to catch upon something in the descent, she turned round and disengaged it, when, the executioner offering his assistance, she drew herself back with horror, refusing to be so much as touched by him, as though it were a defilement to her pure and unspotted chastity: still preserving the appearance of sanctity up to the last moment; and, among all the other instances of her modesty, “She took great care to fall with decency.”

Celer likewise, a Roman knight, who was accused of an intrigue with her, while they were scourging him with rods in the Forum, persisted in exclaiming, “What have I done? — I have done nothing.”

The Vestal Virgins were finally suppressed (and their eternal flame quenched) by the Christian emperor Theodosius, in 394.†

A few years later, Rome was sacked for the first time in 800 years.

* There are mixed accounts as to whether June 9 or June 7 was the first day of the Vestalia, but the 9th was unquestionably the most important.

** Legend has it that Rome’s founders, Romulus and Remus, were sons of a Vestal Virgin, Rhea Silvia: again, this tradition could well be the refracted memory of Etruscan priestesses, or princesses, or both. The man who was to kill these unholy offspring instead took pity on them and cast them adrift on the Tiber — and that’s how they ended up being famously suckled by wolves.

† Eliminating pagan holdovers was a great sport in this period for Rome’s now-Christian emperors. Theodosius also ended the Olympic Games; his son Honorius got rid of gladiatorial combat.

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1543: Jakob Karrer, Vesalius subject

1 comment May 12th, 2015 Headsman

osing his head on May 12, 1543 made Jakob Karrer von Gebweiler’s name in the annals of art and and medicine.

The remains of the Basel felon — who attacked his wife with a knife when she discovered his bigamous marriage — were turned over after execution to Andreas Vesalius.

That brilliant Flemish doctor was in the midst of a proper Renaissance leveling up of medicine, lifting it past the centuries-long thrall of ancient Greek physician Galen.

Human dissection was essential to Vesalius’s project, as it was alike to many other medical men and to artists too. In his career, Vesalius’s cunning scalpel stripped numerous cadavers for students and urban grandees. With Karrer, Vesalius performed a public dissection, articulating Karrer’s skeleton.

Gifted to the university there, the skeleton was restored in 1985 and can be seen to this day at the Institute of Anatomy in Basel, Switzerland — one of the very earliest still-preserved articulated skeletons.

Why is it a Basel criminal who enjoys this distinction?


From Wikipedia’s library of De Humani illustrations.

Because in 1543, Vesalius was in that city* to work with printer Johannes Oporinus, even then publishing the physician’s magnum opus De Humani Corporis Fabrica. Vesalius personally transported to Oporinus the famously gorgeous and detailed woodcuts of Titian’s pupil Joannes Stephanus Calcarensis that made De Humani a smash hit in Vesalius’s own time and one of the most treasured artifacts of Renaissance scholarship.

* There’s still a street named for Vesalius in Basel.

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1573: Hans von Erschausen, Seeräuber

Add comment September 10th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1573, the Hanseatic city of Hamburg beheaded the Seeräuber Hans von Erschausen with his crew, leaving naught but a vast row of pike-mounted heads and some excellent woodcuts.

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Feast Day of Saint Agnes

1 comment January 21st, 2014 Headsman

January 21 is the feast date and traditional martyrdom date (in the year 304) of Agnes of Rome, a 13-year-old put to death in the Diocletian persecutions who has the distinction of being among the seven women mentioned by name in the Catholic Canon of the Mass.

Agnes means “chaste” in Greek,* and this was precisely the problem.

As prosperous as she was pulchritudinous, she was pious even moreso and spurned the many suitors for her hand and bed. Eventually one or the other of them peevishly reported her as a Christian.

Upon arrest, the abstinent youth was allegedly subjected to an official program of sexual assault, including displaying her naked in public and forcing her into a brothel. It’s said that divine intervention prevented her violation in these ordeals. (The flowing locks in the Ribera portrait of her at right are part of that myth, supposed to have sprouted long enough to save her from her public shaming.)

Considering that her defining characteristic is her virginity, Agnes has quite the lurid legend — and that does not exclude her very martyrdom. Per the erotically-charged poetic account of the 4th-5th century Christian poet Prudentius,** Agnes rejoiced sensually in the executioner sent to to render her to her heavenly bridal-bed:

I rejoice that there comes a man like this,
A savage, cruel, and wild warrior,
Rather than a languid, soft,
Womanish youth fragrant with perfume,
Come to destroy my life with the death of my honor.

This lover, this one at last, I confess, pleases me.
I shall rush to his eager steps
And not demur from his hot ardor.
I shall welcome the entire length of
His blade into my bosom, drawing the sword-blow
To the depths of my breast.

Original Latin here from Prudentius’s Liber Peristephanon (Crowns of Martyrdom)†

Agnes, whose purported relics are interred in the Roman church Sant’Agnese in Agone, is the patron saint of an entire pantheon of feminine sexual incipience: chastity, virgins, young women, and betrothed couples.‡

Little surprise, then, that the legend arose in Christendom that a maid could invoke the vision of her future husband by performing certain suggestive rituals — like lying supine and naked on her bed — on the eve of St. Agnes (that is, the night of January 20).

It’s upon this occasion that Keats pins his narrative poem The Eve of St. Agnes§ (full text here or here), in which a young woman performing these rites is in her dreamlike state deflowered by the desired suitor her family forbids — and then the two slip away by night “o’er the southern moors.”

Beyond a mortal man impassion’d far
At these voluptuous accents, he arose,
Ethereal, flush’d, and like a throbbing star
Seen mid the sapphire heaven’s deep repose;
Into her dream he melted, as the rose
Blendeth its odour with the violet,–
Solution sweet: meantime the frost-wind blows
Like Love’s alarum pattering the sharp sleet
Against the window-panes; St. Agnes’ moon hath set.


The Eve of St. Agnes, by John Everett Millais (1863) shows Keats’s Madeleine about to disrobe before taking to bed on that occasion. The Keats poem was very popular with Millais’s pre-Raphaelite crowd.

* It’s also similar to the Latin word for lamb, agnus; consequently, the lamb is Agnes’s usual iconographic symbol.

** Prudentius, best-known for his seminal allegorical verse Psychomachia, composed a number of hymnal poems. Some are still in use today — such as “Of the Father’s Love Begotten”.

† Translation has a few tweaks of my own but is primarily that of Colbert I. Nepaulsingh in “The Afrenta de Corpes and the Martyrological Tradition,” Hispanic Review, Spring, 1983.

‡ She’s also the patron saint of rape victims.

§ Tennyson later wrote a short poem of his own touching the same theme, “St. Agnes’ Eve”.

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399 BCE: Socrates

2 comments May 19th, 2013 Headsman

It might have been May 19, 399 BCE* — and if not, we’re in the neighborhood — that the original gadfly** philosopher Socrates obeyed a death sentence from his native Athens and quaffed a cup of deadly hemlock. It’s one of the most famous executions in history, and arguably one of the most consequential.

Socrates left no original writings that survive for us. Posterity sees him via the works of his students Xenophon and especially Plato, but he was a well-known figure to contemporaries in the polis.

For decades, the man with the method and the familiar daemon had been philosophizing around town. Socrates comes in for mockery in an Aristophanes play lampooning newfangled intellectual trends in the 420s BCE


“Like Ozzy Osbourne, [Socrates] was repeatedly accused of corruption of the young.”

The weird and unsatisfying corrupting-the-young and impiety charges which putatively caused the man’s trial and death sentence have been much-debated in the centuries since. It seems clear that at some level the “real” crime in the eyes of the hundreds of fellow-citizens who judged Socrates had to do with the students who weren’t reverential successor-eggheads, but toxic contemporary politicians. Socrates tutored the treacherous demagogue Alcibiades, who convinced Athenians to mount a catastrophic invasion of Sicily that cost Athens the Peloponnesian War; he rolled with Critias, one of the notorious tyrants of Athens during the 404-403 Spartan puppet dictatorship that resulted from losing that war.

All the while, Socrates had openly preached a dim view of the Athenian democratic system. Again, we don’t have the master’s direct words here, but something like the dialogue presented by the Socrates character in Plato’s allegory of the cave — in which non-philosophers are a lot of purblind morlocks — is difficult to square with anything but an elitist take of civilization. There’s a reason this could be a bit of a sore subject in a city that had just seen the glories of its late imperial apex possessed by Spartan hoplites, especially when espoused by a guy who rubbed chitons with the tyrants themselves.

Even so, Socrates was only narrowly convicted. Once convicted, the legal game had both the prosecution and the defendant propose a punishment, and the jury select one.

Were this system still practiced somewhere, game theorists would have a field day with it. But Socrates just opted out of the match by proposing that he be “punished” with a public pension for his services to the polis. There’s being a gadfly, and then there’s telling your jury to go take a long walk off a high rock: he was death-sentenced by a larger margin than had voted to convict. Plato makes this a much more martyr-like scene than Xenophon; the latter emphasizes that the septuagenarian chin-waggler didn’t much mind being excused from the frailties of advancing age.

Plato used Socrates repeatedly in various dialogues, and it goes without saying that these are cornerstones of the literary canon. The dialogues of most relevance† for his execution specifically are:

  • the Apology, Plato’s account of the defense Socrates mounted at trial: it’s in this text that Socrates is reported to utter the words, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
  • Crito, a conversation between a wealthy guy of that name and the condemned Socrates in which the philosopher expounds his theory of citizenship and social contract in refusing Crito’s blandishments to escape before execution.
  • the Phaedo, in which Socrates argues for the immortality of the soul, and then gets down to the business of swallowing his fatal draught.

Soon the jailer, who was the servant of the Eleven, entered and stood by him, saying:—To you, Socrates, whom I know to be the noblest and gentlest and best of all who ever came to this place, I will not impute the angry feelings of other men, who rage and swear at me, when, in obedience to the authorities, I bid them drink the poison—indeed, I am sure that you will not be angry with me; for others, as you are aware, and not I, are to blame. And so fare you well, and try to bear lightly what must needs be—you know my errand. Then bursting into tears he turned away and went out.

Socrates looked at him and said: I return your good wishes, and will do as you bid. Then turning to us, he said, How charming the man is: since I have been in prison he has always been coming to see me, and at times he would talk to me, and was as good to me as could be, and now see how generously he sorrows on my account. We must do as he says, Crito; and therefore let the cup be brought, if the poison is prepared: if not, let the attendant prepare some.

Yet, said Crito, the sun is still upon the hill-tops, and I know that many a one has taken the draught late, and after the announcement has been made to him, he has eaten and drunk, and enjoyed the society of his beloved; do not hurry—there is time enough.

Socrates said: Yes, Crito, and they of whom you speak are right in so acting, for they think that they will be gainers by the delay; but I am right in not following their example, for I do not think that I should gain anything by drinking the poison a little later; I should only be ridiculous in my own eyes for sparing and saving a life which is already forfeit. Please then to do as I say, and not to refuse me.

Crito made a sign to the servant, who was standing by; and he went out, and having been absent for some time, returned with the jailer carrying the cup of poison. Socrates said: You, my good friend, who are experienced in these matters, shall give me directions how I am to proceed. The man answered: You have only to walk about until your legs are heavy, and then to lie down, and the poison will act. At the same time he handed the cup to Socrates, who in the easiest and gentlest manner, without the least fear or change of colour or feature, looking at the man with all his eyes, Echecrates, as his manner was, took the cup and said: What do you say about making a libation out of this cup to any god? May I, or not? The man answered: We only prepare, Socrates, just so much as we deem enough. I understand, he said: but I may and must ask the gods to prosper my journey from this to the other world—even so—and so be it according to my prayer. Then raising the cup to his lips, quite readily and cheerfully he drank off the poison. And hitherto most of us had been able to control our sorrow; but now when we saw him drinking, and saw too that he had finished the draught, we could no longer forbear, and in spite of myself my own tears were flowing fast; so that I covered my face and wept, not for him, but at the thought of my own calamity in having to part from such a friend. Nor was I the first; for Crito, when he found himself unable to restrain his tears, had got up, and I followed; and at that moment, Apollodorus, who had been weeping all the time, broke out in a loud and passionate cry which made cowards of us all. Socrates alone retained his calmness: What is this strange outcry? he said. I sent away the women mainly in order that they might not misbehave in this way, for I have been told that a man should die in peace. Be quiet then, and have patience. When we heard his words we were ashamed, and refrained our tears; and he walked about until, as he said, his legs began to fail, and then he lay on his back, according to the directions, and the man who gave him the poison now and then looked at his feet and legs; and after a while he pressed his foot hard, and asked him if he could feel; and he said, No; and then his leg, and so upwards and 118upwards, and showed us that he was cold and stiff. And he felt them himself, and said: When the poison reaches the heart, that will be the end. He was beginning to grow cold about the groin, when he uncovered his face, for he had covered himself up, and said—they were his last words—he said: Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt? The debt shall be paid, said Crito; is there anything else? There was no answer to this question; but in a minute or two a movement was heard, and the attendants uncovered him; his eyes were set, and Crito closed his eyes and mouth.

Such was the end, Echecrates, of our friend; concerning whom I may truly say, that of all the men of his time whom I have known, he was the wisest and justest and best.

A few books about the death of Socrates

* The Phaedo places Socrates’ trial on the day after Athens consecrated a ritual boat for its annual pilgrimage. (This was supposed to be the very boat that the hero Theseus had sailed back after defeating the minotaur in time immemorial, and the Athenians maintained it for centuries in a seaworthy state to make ceremonial voyages to the island of Delos, a sanctuary for Theseus’s patron Apollo. This is also the very conveyance in question in the “Ship of Theseus” paradox, a philosophical conundrum proceeding from the question of whether the thing was still “Theseus’s ship” if every single component of it had been replaced in the intervening years.) Anyway, Theseus aside, that mention of the consecration gives us Mounichion 7 on the confusing lunisolar Attic calendar for the trial of Socrates.

During the ship’s sacred voyage, Athens was to remain ritually “cleansed.” This condition included not conducting any executions. A date for the death of Socrates is established by Xenophon and Seneca reporting that the boat returned after 30 days — which was about twice as long as ordinarily required, but the archaic craft was very vulnerable to bad weather. 30 days is an eminently doubtable nice round number, but where ancient dates are concerned, we takes what we can gets.

“Counting inclusively, as was then the custom, Socrates died on Thargelion 6, which is the very day recorded for his birth,” notes Reason and Religion in Socratic Philosophy. It’s possible that Socrates’s birthday became associated with Thargelion 6 because Thargelion 6 was associated with Socrates via his execution … but Thargelion 6 became known as man’s execution date. It also happened to be the Athenian festival “Thargelia” (and the day before Plato’s Thargelia 7 birthday).

There are other dates out there. In particular, a number of easily accessible pages claim that the hemlock was downed on May 7, 399. I’m not positive, but it appears to me that this might have originally been arrived at by counting 30 days exclusively from Mounichion 7 to reach Thargelion 7, then noticing that Thargelion typically began sometime in May, and smushing together “May” and “7” from alien calendars … after which it’s been repeated on the basis of previous source’s authority. If there’s better support for this date than I infer, I welcome correction.

For my part, I’ve dated this entry based on the astounding Hellenic Month Established Per Athens calendar, specifically its dates for Thargelion of the 1st year of the 95th Olympiad. Thargelion 6 corresponded to May 18/19, says HMEPA — Greek days began at sundown — and since Socrates died at the end of daylight, just before sunset, that’s a Gregorian May 19th. Again, though, all this is built upon a chain of questionable inferences based on a few questionable passing remarks from just a couple of ancient sources. In the end, one just can’t know for sure.

** Plato reports in the Apology Socrates characterizing himself as such this way — “a sort of gadfly, given to the state by God; and the state is a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life” by his stings — bequeathing to us the evocative metaphor.

† Find these essential execution-related dialogues here, here, or here, or just the highlights here.

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1751: James Field, pugilist

1 comment February 11th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1751, Irish boxer James Field was hanged at Tyburn.

He had ditched his criminal record in Dublin for the burgeoning London metropolis and hung out a shingle at a pub on Drury Lane. (Perhaps he knew the Muffin Man.)


“dustmen, scavengers, flue-fakers, gardeners, fish-fags, and brick-layer’s labourers … the Hibernian was relating the ill usage he had been subjected to, and the necessity he had of making a hasty retreat from the quarters he had taken up” (Description of Drury Lane … from 1821. Close enough.)

Field soon developed a blackhearted reputation in London, and because he was a big bad boxer on the brute squad, constables were known to “fail to recognize” him the better to get home safe to dinner.

Even in a city without a professional police force, though, that’s a thin reed to rest one’s liberty upon. Eventually the mighty British Empire marshaled the marshals necessary to run Field to ground for a violent heist. This time, his hulking build clinched his sure identification, and he earned the hemp for his felonies.

Field lives on in William Hogarth‘s anti-animal cruelty engravings Four Stages of Cruelty, published later in 1751. He’s the model for the hanged corpse being carved apart in the dissection theater in the last plate.

Second Plate:

In Hogarth’s Second Stage of Cruelty, a small poster in the background advertises a James Field bout against George Taylor.
Fourth Plate:

In Hogarth’s Reward of Cruelty, the hanged corpse laid out for dissection (and dog food) is modeled on James Field.

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1923: Eligiusz Niewiadomski, assassin-artist

1 comment January 31st, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1923, Polish nationalist painter Eligiusz Niewiadomski was executed for assassinating Poland’s first president.

After more than a century under German, Austrian, and (most especially hated) Russian domination, Poland had established itself an independent republic in the first world war’s imperial wreckage.

Niewiadomski (English Wikipedia entry | Polish), whose father had taken part in the 19th century’s anti-Russian January Uprising, was a talented painter with a serious nationalist streak.

And that was really the done thing for his time and generation: his painting career from the 1890’s into the early 20th century maps the Young Poland movement of up-and-coming artists experimenting with new forms and celebrating romantic attachment to their prostrate homeland.


“The conscience of Polish literature,” Young Poland writer Stefan Zeromski, as depicted by Niewiadomski.

When not promoting patriotic appreciation of the Tatra Mountains, Niewiadomski enjoyed supporting Polish National Democracy, a right-wing movement raging against the Cossack yoke.

Niewiadomski was a true enough believer to serve time in a tsarist prison, but he was far from the leading light of either the artistic or political movements. By the time Poland attained independence (Niewiadomski worked for Polish intelligence during World War I, and even finagled a cameo on the front lines), he was in his fifties and seemingly settling in for a slow moulder into obsolescence in bureaucratic posts and artistic monographs.

(Of course, had he done so, the next decades would have brought him their own surprises.)

Instead, the 1922 election for President of the Polish Republic, which was decided in that country’s National Assembly, saw parliamentary horsetrading elevate an engineer on the strength of the left parties’ votes — a shock victory over Niewiadomski’s preferred right-wing candidate Count Maurycy Klemens Zamoyski, the infant republic’s Bush v. Gore.

It came to street disturbances, to assaulting members of parliament, to demonstrations “for” and “against.” There were casualties. Lumps of dirty snow were thrown at the carriage of the president-elect as it drove across the town. Newspapers dreamt of “a lump of snow that will change into an avalanche” and about removal of that man-“hindrance,” that man-“obstacle.” … The infamous ride through the streets of Warsaw was a ride down death’s lane. Someone hit the first president of the republic in the head with a stick, someone else waved brass knuckles in his face …

-Anna Bojarska in From the Polish Underground

So, five days into Gabriel Narutowicz‘s term, Niewiadomski did what any violent, disaffected patriot would do: he gunned down the new Polish president at the Zacheta art gallery. It’s always great to see artists participating in the political dialogue.

This event is the subject of the 1977 Polish film Smierc prezydenta (Death of a President).

The shots by Niewiadomski marked an end to the week of hatred. Poland suffered a shock — even the Right did. National reconciliation bloomed like a thousand flowers. The president’s funeral became an occasion for a deeply disturbed society to demonstrate. Half a million people walked in the funeral procession!

-Bojarska, again

Less than seven weeks later, Niewiadomski christened that national reconciliation with his blood … at a fortress the Russians had once used to garrison his country, Warsaw Citadel.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Artists,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Intellectuals,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Poland,Public Executions

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1801: James Legg, crucified ecorche

1 comment November 2nd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1801, 73-year-old James Legg(e) was hanged for murdering his mate William Lamb(e) at Chelsea Hospital.

Both men were pensioned ensigns from His Majesty’s service. According to the trial transcript, Legg was sinking into obvious depression. A nurse of long acquaintance remarked on

a lowness, a melancholy and deranged state; knowing him so long, I took the opportunity of asking him what was the matter with him, and the reason of his melancholy; he told me his mind was confused; that he had no rest night or day; that he was hurried from place to place, and could not tell what he was doing; and I really was afraid he would make away with himself; I was always unhappy when he was out of my sight, for fear he should do himself an injury; I never mentioned it to the doctor, because he was harmless … sometimes when I spoke to him, he would start like a person surprized out of a sleep; sometimes he would give me an answer, and sometimes only just a bow; I still observed that lowness and melancholy, and that his head was always confused down to the time of this unfortunate event.

Ah. The “unfortunate event.” Legg took it to mind that Lamb was “a tyrannical tempered man” who gave him “repeated insults” and challenged him to a duel. (Lamb’s widow, the only witness to the murder, said her husband had no beef with his killer.)

When Lamb quizzically (or scornfully) discarded the pistol that the irate Legg had forced into his hand, Legg just shot him dead.

He probably had no expectation that he’d just punched his ticket to artistic immortality.

Legg hanged exactly a month after the homicide. During the interval, three Royal Academy of Arts members — sculptor Thomas Banks and painters Benjamin West and Richard Cosway — pulled some strings with the Chelsea Hospital surgeon Joseph Carpue to get Legg’s body after death.

These gentlemen had an idea that centuries of artistic representation of Christ’s crucifixion were nonsense from a physiological point of view.


Giotto crucifixion fresco, c. 1300.

It was a natural outgrowth of Europe’s long fascination with anatomical accuracy — a fascination that made liberal use of executed bodies.

Despite the centrality of Christ’s crucifixion to western culture, nobody had seen an actual crucifixion — not for centuries. So, sure, you can make the guy on the cross look like a proportioned, three-dimensional human being …


Possible Michelangelo (otherwise, Marcello Venusti) Crucifixion with the Madonna, St. John and Two Mourning Angels.

… but is this really what a proportioned, three-dimensional human being would look like when nailed to a cross?

That Chelsea surgeon Carpue and his artist friends had the best way to find out. (Well … the second-best.)

“A building was erected near the place of the execution; a cross provided,” Carpue recorded. After hanging, “the subject was nailed on the cross; the cross suspended … the body, being warm, fell into the position that a dead body must fall into … When cool, a cast was made, under the direction of Mr. Banks, and when the mob was dispersed it was removed to my theatre.” West supposedly exclaimed that he had “never before seen the human hand” until he saw James Legg’s nailed and stretched.

Carpue proceeded to flay the cadaver and make a second cast from the grisly skin-less ecorche … an artistic/anatomical practice of the age whose best-known product is Smugglerius, also cast from a hanged man.

That latter ecorche still survives, and the despondent veteran James Legg’s last pose, hypothetically in the manner of the Savior, can be seen to this day the Royal Academy.

(Debate and experimentation over the particulars of an execution by cross also continue to this day.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Crucifixion,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Murder,Public Executions

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1994: Not Arthur Judah Angel, death row artist

1 comment August 2nd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1994, 38 people were executed at Nigeria’s Enugu Prison … but artist Arthur Judah Angel somehow was not among them.

Angel was convicted of armed robbery and murder: tortured and framed, he says, by corrupt police under the military dictatorship of Gen. Ibrahim Babangida.

At the time, Nigeria was liable to put to death condemned prisoners without warning at any time, like Japan does today … except that Nigeria carried out such executions by the dozens. In one instance Angel witnessed, there were 58 executions in a single day.

On August 2, 1994, a Tuesday, that occasion finally arrived for Arthur Judah Angel — or so it seemed.

“I was chained; I was given my last meal that was August 2, 1994,” Angel said in an interview. “38 others were executed that very day. Only God knew how I was spared. He was the one that made my name disappeared in the book. I did not know how it happened. But it happened. I died, in fact, every person on the death row dies every day.”

Who exactly it was that saved Angel on that date I have not seen conclusively documented, but they say that God helps those who help themselves. In this case, Angel helped himself with his charcoal sketches on death row, which soon brought him to the attention of some well-placed people in the prison bureaucracy, a Catholic bishop — even a British arts organization which organized exhibitions of his work in 1993 and 1994.

Angel’s death sentence was commuted in 1995, and he was released outright in 2000. He well knows that, like those other 38 people who hanged this date, he’d be forgotten if not for his fortuitous escape. Life is just too damn cheap for exonerating the dead.

“I am able to clear my name because I am alive,” Angel said. “If I had been executed, nobody would believe that I was innocent. If I didn’t make it, no one would know. I knew many people who were innocent in prison. Yet they died in prison. Only people like me, who were close to them until their death, knew they were innocent. The rest of the world learnt that armed robbers were executed on so and so day; nobody knew they were innocent.”

But Angel did survive, and is remembered — not only for his exoneration, but for the 51 startling sketches he made of Nigeria’s death row. They (and other anti-death penalty art Angel has created since) have been exhibited worldwide by human rights NGOs.

Angel, who’ll turn 50 this November, continues to work as an artist from a studio outside Lagos — and uses his art to campaign against the death penalty, as one might imagine. He has written a book, I Refused to Die; unfortunately for its prospective international readership, the book requires expensive shipping from Nigeria.

(There’s also a bit of video from a news report here.)

Part of the Themed Set: Scary Escapes.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Artists,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Innocent Bystanders,Lucky to be Alive,Mass Executions,Nigeria,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Torture,Wrongful Executions

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1680: A Madrid auto de fe

2 comments June 30th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1680, the Spanish capital of Madrid celebrated an enormous auto de fe, culminating with 18 executions plus eight people posthumously burned and 22 fugitives “executed” in effigy. (Source of the numbers)

This signal event needed every drop of sunlight from the long summer’s day. Staged for the appearance of the royal family itself, it likewise pulled in every available case from around Spain: the regional cities shipped their apostates and heretics to Madrid to dignify the main event with a suitable quantity of prey.

It began with a morning ceremonial procession of prisoners, nearly a hundred — every source seems to have a slightly different figure — in the traditional Inquisitorial manner. This account comes from an English contemporary, as reprinted in Human Judgment: The Eye of the Beholder. (Note: paragraph breaks added, and ubiquitous capitalization of nouns removed, for better readability.)

A scaffold, fifty feet in length, was erected in the Square, which was raised to the same height with the balcony made for the King to sit in. At the end, and along the whole breadth of the scaffold, at the right of the King’s balcony, an amphitheatre was raised, to which they ascend by twenty-five or thirty steps; and this was appointed for the Council of the Inquisition, and the other Councils of Spain. Above these steps, and under a canopy, the Grand Inquisitor’s rostrum was placed so that he was raised much higher than the King’s balcony. At the left of the scaffold and balcony, a second amphitheatre was erected of the same extent with the former, for the criminals to stand in.

A month after proclamation had been made of the Act of Faith, the ceremony opened with a procession [on June 29], which proceeded from St. Mary’s church in the following order. The march was preceded by an hundred coal merchants, all arm’d with pikes and muskets; these people furnishing the wood with which the criminals are burnt. They were followed by Dominicans, before whom a white cross was carried. Then came the Duke of Medina-Celi, carrying the Standard of the Inquisition. Afterwards was brought forwards a green cross covered with black crepe; which was followed by several grandees and other persons of quality, who were familiars of the Inquisition. The march was clos’d by fifty guards belonging to the Inquisition, clothed with black and white garments and commanded by the Marquis of Povar, hereditary Protector of the Inquisition.

The procession having marched in this order before the palace, proceeded afterwards to the square, where the standard and the green cross were placed on the scaffold, where none but the Dominicans stayed, the rest being retired. These friars spent part of the night in singing of psalms, and several Masses were celebrated on the altar from daybreak to six in the morning. An hour after, the King and Queen of Spain, the Queen-Mother, and all the ladies of quality, appeared in the balconies.

At eight o’clock the procession began, in like manner as the day before, with the company of coal merchants, who placed themselves on the left of the King’s balcony, his guards standing on his right (the rest of the balconies and scaffolds being fill’d by the embassadors, the nobility and gentry).

Afterwards came thirty men, carrying images made in pasteboard, as big as life. Some of these represented those who were dead in prison, whose bones were also brought in trunks, with flames painted round them; and the rest of the figures represented those who having escaped the hands of the Inquisition, were outlaws. These figures were placed at one end of the amphitheatre.

After these there came twelve men and women, with ropes about their necks and torches in their hands, with pasteboard caps three feet high, on which their crimes were written, or represented, in different manners. These were followed by fifty others, having torches also in their hands and cloathed with a yellow sanbenito or great coat without sleeves, with a large St. Andrew’s cross, of a red colour, before and behind.


Detail view (click for the full image) of a Goya painting of Inquisition prisoners in the sambenito.

These were criminals who (this being the first time of their imprisonment) had repented of their crimes; these are usually condemned either to some years imprisonment or to wear the sanbenito, which is looked upon to be the greatest disgrace that can happen to a family. Each of the criminals were led by two familiars of the Inquisition.

Next came twenty more criminals, of both sexes, who had relapsed thrice into their former errors and were condemn’d to the flames. Those who had given some tokens of repentance were to be strangled before they were burnt; but for the rest, for having persisted obstinately in their errors, were to be burnt alive. These wore linen sanbenitos, having devils and flames painted on them, and caps after the same manner: five or six among them, who were more obstinate than the rest, were gagged to prevent their uttering any blasphemous tenets. Such as were condemned to die were surrounded, besides the two familiars, with four or five monks, who were preparing them for death as they went along.

[skipping the seating arrangements … ]

About twelve o’clock they began to read the sentence of the condemned criminals. That of the criminals who died in prison, or were outlaws, was first read. Their figures in pasteboard were carried up into a little scaffold and put into small cages made for that purpose. They then went on to read the sentences to each criminal, who thereupon were put into the said cages one by one in order for all men to know them. The whole ceremony lasted till nine at night; and when they had finished the celebration of the Mass the King withdrew and the criminals who had been condemn’d to be burnt were delivered over to the secular arm, and being mounted upon asses were carried through the gate called Foncaral, and at midnight near this place were all executed.


Francisco Ricci‘s grand painting of the Madrid auto de fe represents events from throughout the day simultaneously. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

As best I can determine, two condemned people bought their lives with last-second conversions, leaving 18 to die for Judaizing … or, in one case, for converting to Islam. It will suffice to say that a very large, very ornate, and very long ceremony unfolded, and that at the end of it the flames consumed a number of people (and even more mannequins) associated with the Abrahamic faith.

“These punishments,” observed a French diplomat who witnessed the proceedings, “do not significantly diminish the number of Jews in Spain and above all in Madrid where, while some are punished with great severity, one sees several others employed in finance, esteemed and respected though known to be of Jewish origin.” Actual eliminationist Jew-hunting was so 1492.

Great as were these astounding spectacles, their day was passing. In fact, this was it — the long, sweltering, tiresomely gaudy day that it passed.

Spain in 1680 was in the grip of plague, famine, and deflation; though there’s value to the state in the distraction of a circus, there’s also the very substantial cost of putting the bloody thing on, especially on such a scale, especially when you’re going to let off most of the victims but not until you sock them away in prison and feed them for months or years until the next auto.

It seems that by the 17th century this end-zone spike of the Inquisition had become quite an encumbrance: procedures required the Inquisition to dispose of certain cases in autos de fe, which, because they had to be put on just so, were increasingly rare, and clogged up gaol cells in the meanwhile. There’s a reason besides spectacle that all the rest of Spain gratefully dumped its religious criminals on Madrid on this date.

The model just wasn’t sustainable.

Over the 1680s, practical pushback reconfigured the venerable ritual into something less burdensome to the public purse. This date’s event was very far from the last auto de fe in Spain, but it’s seen as the last of the classic, public-festival spectaculars evoked by the term. They would, in the future, become (mostly) smaller, (usually) shorter, and (somewhat) less garish affairs conducted not on public plazas but on church grounds, and with most cases of reconciliation simply handled quickly, quietly, and locally.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Auto de Fe,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Executed in Effigy,Execution,God,Jews,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Milestones,Not Executed,Posthumous Executions,Public Executions,Spain,Torture

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