1781: Beata Dolores, the last victim of the Spanish Inquisition

1 comment August 24th, 2018 Henry Charles Lea

(Thanks to Henry Charles Lea for the guest post on the last person done to death by the Spanish Inquisition, “Beata Dolores”, who on August 24 of 1781* became in Seville the last person ever sent to the stake by the Spanish Inquisition. Lea’s summary first appeared in his Chapters from the Religious History of Spain Connected with the Inquisition. -ed.)

More remarkable in every respect was the case of Maria de los Dolores Lopez, known as the Beata Dolores, who suffered as a Molinist, in 1781, at Seville.

She was, or pretended to be, blind and ascribed her ability to read and write and embroider to miraculous interposition. At the age of twelve she left her father’s house to live as a concubine with her confessor. Four years later he died, when she went to Marchena and assumed the habit of a beata [a nun -ed.] which she continued to wear.

Her quick intelligence gained for her a high reputation among the people, who imagined that only supernatural gifts could enable a blind person to divine things so readily. The fame of her sanctity and of the special graces enjoyed by her spread far and wide; she held long conversations with her guardian angel, after the fashion of Josepha de San Luis Beltran, but her career at Marchena was brought to an end by her corrupting her confessor. He was relegated to a convent of rigid observance and she went to Seville, where she followed the same hypocritical life for twelve years till, in July, 1779, one of her confessors, pricked by conscience, denounced both herself and himself to the Inquisition, and abundant evidence as to her scandals was easily obtained.

The trial lasted for two years, for she resolutely maintained the truth of her pretensions; since the age of four she had been the object of special grace, she had continual and familiar intercourse with the Virgin, she had been married in heaven to the child Jesus with St. Joseph and St. Augustin as witnesses, she had liberated millions of souls from purgatory, and much more of the same sort.

Had she been content to confess herself an impostor she would have escaped with the customary moderate punishment of reclusion, but she rendered herself guilty of formal and obstinate heresy by maintaining the so-called Molinist doctrine that evil actions cease to be sinful when God so wills it.

Every effort was made to convert her. The most eminent theologians were summoned and vainly exhausted their learning and eloquence; Fray Diego de Cadiz preached to her constantly for two months. She was equally unmoved by the threat of burning; God, she said, had revealed to her that she would die a martyr, after which he would in three days prove her innocence.

Burning was going out of fashion, and the Inquisition honestly endeavored to escape its necessity, but her obstinacy admitted of no alternative, and on August 22, 1781, she was finally condemned and abandoned to the secular arm. She listened unmoved to the sentence, after which, in place of being as usual hurried at once to the stake, she was, as a supreme effort, kept for three days [sic] in the chapel with holy men exhorting her to no purpose.

Then at the auto de fe every one was melted to pity on seeing her with the mitre of flames and demons, while she alone remained impassible during the sermon and ceremony — in fact she had to be gagged to suppress her blasphemy. Finally however on her way to the stake she weakened, she burst into tears and asked for a confessor. The execution was postponed for some hours and her punishment was mitigated, according to rule, with preliminary strangulation.

* Three hundred years after Seville had the first Inquisition auto-de-fe, both events the discerning traveler can explore at the city’s Museo Del Castillo De San Jorge. For reasons that I’m unable to determine there are a number of citations abroad placing this execution on November 7, 1781. I’m affirming the 24th of August based on primary documentation such as this archival document cited by Lea, or the August 25 correspondence reporting the events of the preceding day addressed to Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos. This detailed account is quoted in full in Jovellanos: vida y pensamiento; alternately, this Spanish-language page summarizes the day hour by hour based on that same source. -ed.

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1811: Five at Shrewsbury, “but a ten minutes job”

Add comment August 24th, 2017 William Allen

(Thanks to Quaker humanitarian William Allen for the guest post, originally published in Allen’s early 19th century periodical The Philanthropist — a journal intended “to stimlate to virtue and active benevolence, by pointing out to those who have the disposition and the power the means of gratifying the best feelings of the heart.” We dated the quintuple hanging referred to via CapitalPunishmentUK.org. -ed.)

Remarks on a late Execution at Shrewsbury

As one object of THE PHILANTHROPIST is to diffuse knowledge respecting capital punishment, it may, perhaps, afford a place for the following particulars.

At the last Shrewsbury assizes, George Taylor, aged 43, William Turner, aged 53, Abraham Whitehouse, aged 23, James Baker, aged 19, and Isaac Hickman, aged 19, were, convicted of burglariously breaking into a dwelling-house, and stealing some bank notes and other articles of value. They were all left for death. The three first were considered as old offenders. The two others, however, were understood to have borne a good character; their parents were said to be respectable; the offence, as far as appeared, was the first they had committed; and they were only nineteen.

A general persuasion therefore prevailed, that these unfortunate youths would be permitted to live. Under this impression, it seems, some kind-hearted person, a stranger to them, climbed to the top of the wall overlooking the press yard behind the Shire-hall, where the prisoners were waiting on the day of their condemnation, and cried out, “You are all condemned, but only three of you will suffer.”

The poor young fellows eagerly embraced the assurance. They knew how often mercy was extended to persons under sentence of death, and could not suppose they should be selected as fit objects of peculiar severity.

While they were comforting themselves in confinement with the daily hope of a reprieve, the time appointed for the execution drew near. Two days before that time, one of them received a message from his mother, intended to console him under the expectation of a miserable death, that she would send to fetch away his body! Not till then, had they given themselves up for lost. But from that moment all hope was over. From that moment they had but two days — two days of consternation and despair, to fit themselves for death and eternity. Those two days, the shortest they had ever known, were but too soon gone. The morning of execution came. On that day, the five prisoners, even the two lads of nineteen, were all hanged! The two poor fellows who were executed together, immediately as the drop fell from under them, caught hold of each other’s hands, and expired in a mutual embrace! What a feeling has pervaded the county, among all who could feel, hardly need be described.

The extraordinary circumstance of five men being executed at once, for one offence, attracted vast multitudes of people, of the lower order, from all parts of the country. To see five of their fellow creatures hanged, was as good as a horse-race, a boxing-match, or a bull-baiting. If nothing was intended but to amuse the rabble, at a great loss of their time and a considerable expense, the design was undoubtedly effected. If a public entertainment was not the object, it may be asked, What benefit has a single individual derived from beholding the destruction of these miserable victims? Perhaps that question may be answered by stating, that many of the spectators immediately afterwards got intoxicated, and some cried out to their companions, with a significant gesture in allusion to the mode of punishment, “It is but a ten minutes job!” If such is the sentiment excited on the very spot, it cannot be supposed to be more salutary at a distance; and notwithstanding the sacrifice of these five men, the people of Shropshire must still fasten their doors.

But if, on the other hand, in time to come, a compassionate Shropshire jury should rather acquit some unhappy young culprit, when charged with a capital felony, and suffer hm to go unpunished, rather than consign him to the executioner, — if house-breakers should learn to think lightly of human life, and adopt the precaution of committing a murder the next time they commit a robbery, since the danger of detection would be less, and the punishment no greater, — what will the inhabitants of the county have to thank for it, but this very spectacle! — a spectacle which cannot soften one heart, but may harden many; which confounds moral distinctions, and draws away public indignation from the guilt of the offender, to turn it against the severity of the law.

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1792: Arnaud de La Porte

Add comment August 24th, 2016 Headsman

Ancien regime minister Arnaud de La Porte was guillotined on this date in 1792* by the new order.

Stock of a long line of Versailles courtiers, de La Porte (English Wikipedia entry | French) followed his father into administration with a specialty in naval finances. He knocked around maritime bureaus from the time he was a whelp of 18 in 1755; he was at last named Louis XVI‘s Minister of the Navy on July 12, 1789 — two days before the Bastille fell.

He had both the wisdom to immediately expatriate himself to Spain, and the loyalty to answer his harried sovereign’s summons to return; by December 1790, he was appointed intendant of the Civil List and minister of the king’s household.

This made de La Porte the bagman in the king’s campaign to buttress the Revolution’s moderating forces — writers, thinkers, and artists in the constitutional monarchist camp, as against the Marats — to which end some 200,000 livres dropped from his fingers every month. All was to little avail.

De La Porte’s position made him a close confidante of the royal family. When the latter attempted the ill-starred flight to Varennes, it was de La Porte who was entrusted to present the absconded king’s Dear John note to his jilted subjects in the Constituent Assembly.

With the king’s embarrassing capture, the Capets’ confinement became ever more uncomfortably close, and with them that of a loyal aide who must have passed a few moments contemplating the Iberian charms he had abandoned to share this bitter draught — until the following summer when Danton et. al. finally overthrew the monarchy on August 10, 1792.


A bad day for Arnaud de La Porte: the storming of the Tuileries Palace on August 10, 1792, by Jean Duplessis-Bertaux.

De La Porte was overthrown with them.

While revolutionary Paris is synonymous to posterity with frightful political trials, it was in the aftermath of the August 10 revolution that they began, and then as novelties. (The guillotine at this point was itself just a few months old.)

Endeavoring to cement their triumph, the revolutionaries constituted a tribunal to try the deposed royalist ministers as traitors for their maneuverings. (They also obviously blocked any prosecution of their own number for massacring hundreds of Swiss Guards who fought to defend the king.) These can be accounted among the first overt political trials of the revolution, the harbingers of the coming Terror and ill omen for the judgments the Revolution would levy against king, queen, and royals all. De La Porte in his closing address to the court fervently hoped his nation would not follow that dark road.

Citizens — I die innocent, notwithstanding that appearances are against me. May my blood, which is to be shed for the expiation of a crime of which I am not guilty, restore tranquility to this empire: And may my sentence be the last unjust arret which shall be pronounced by this Tribunal. (via the London Times, Aug. 30, 1792)

With the post-Napoleonic restoration, the man’s son — also named Arnaud — was created a hereditary baron in recognition of his ancestor’s service to the crown.

* The dates for these trials are very sloppily accounted for; this is also true of Durosoy, whose head was chopped off the next day.

As of this writing, de La Porte’s Wikipedia entries both French and English misdate his execution to August 23 (actually the date his examination began), and one will find sources placing it as late as August 28 whose attribution traces all the way back to the erroneous initial publications of the tribunals. To be sure, the trial against de La Porte had an unusual internal clock reflecting the revolution’s ad hoc process: it unfolded over the two days, and after conviction the accused was beheaded the same day, but not immediately — instead, de La Porte was returned from his court to prison for a few hours, where he dined before going to the scaffold in the evening.

By way of substantiation, we find that under an August 25 dateline (printed in the August 29 edition), the London Times correspondent reports from the scene thus:

The new criminal Tribunal, instituted for the trial of persons supposed to be concerned in treasonable correspondence with the late Executive Government, proceed in a very summary manner on the trial of those persons who have been so unfortunate as to fall into the hands of the mob. M. de la Porte, the late Intendant of the Civil List, was yesterday convicted, after a trial of 37 hours. Sentence of death was immediately passed on him, and at night he was conducted to the Place de Carrousel, where he was executed. During the whole of his examination at the bar, as well as at the place of execution, he behaved with great firmness, and declared his innocence to the last …

The principal evidence against M. de la Porte was, that he had employed the public money to libel the new Constitution, by employing different Journalists to write down the Jacobin faction … The proof against him was so slight and contradictory, that it was with great surprise and indignation that the sober part of the citizens heard of his conviction. He certainly fell a victim to the Royal cause and to justice.

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1851: Samuel Whittaker and Robert McKenzie lynched in San Francisco

2 comments August 24th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1851 — mere hours after a similar exercise of summary justice took place in Sacramento — the San Francisco Vigilance Committee strung up two accused crooks.

This was the throes of the California Gold Rush — and San Francisco was its epicenter.

San Francisco entered the gold rush an unassuming port of perhaps a thousand souls … but she exited it as one of the American West’s leading cities.

It made an unruly adolescence for the boom town as penniless treasure-hunters poured in from every quarter of the globe. “Turbulent, gold-hungry men,” wrote Herbert Asbury in his The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld “transformed the once peaceful hamlet of San Francisco into a bawdy, bustling bedlam of mud-holes and shanties.” Suddenly, San Francisco had a huge crime problem — not to mention the conflagrations* that repeatedly devastated the fast-growing tangle of tinderworks shacks.


San Francisco in 1850

In an effort to sustain some measure of order, a number of the city’s respectable citizens banded together to create a famous or infamous Vigilance Committee.

Sworn in their published constitution of June 9, 1851 “to do and perform every lawful act for the maintenance of law and order,” the Committee declared itself “determined that no thief, burglar, incendiary or assassin shall escape punishment, either by the quibbles of the law, the insecurity of prisons, the carelessness or corruption o the Police, or a laxity of those who pretend to administer justice.”

Two days later, they proved their chops by hanging on no authority but their own emigre from Australia named John Jenkins for stealing a safe. A month later, James Stuart, also late of Sydney, was lynched at the Vigilance Committee’s hands, too.

Detail view (click for full image) of Whittaker and McKenzie’s lynching.

Though not the first Vigilance Committee hangings, Samuel Whittaker and Robert McKenzie might be the best-known.

Like their predecessors, Whittaker and McKenzie had arrived from Australia** — which had aptly bequeathed to gold rush San Francisco a criminal colony of its own in the form of a network known as the Sydney Ducks. Scrambling to save his own neck, Stuart had informed on a number of these confederates.

Whittaker and McKenzie were arrested based on Stuart’s information, as the Vigilance Committee tried to smash up the Ducks. Though extrajudicial, the Committee’s investigations were at least as meticulous as one might expect from the law at this moment in time, and the minutes of its witness interviews can be read here.

In the end, the two were basically convicted not so much for any individual crime as for their lengthy careers of robbery, often violent — for “divers offences, whereby the safety of Lives and property have been endangered” (as read the executive report on Whittaker) that rendered each “a hardened offender, and dangerous to this community … it would be unsafe to hand him over to the Authorities or mete out to him a less Penalty than Death” (as read the report on McKenzie).

Such an arrangement of juridical powers, exercised in lieu of “unsafe” Authorities, can scarcely persist long-term. Here, the governor of California, John McDougall determined to intervene in order that the fracturing of the Australians’ vertebrae would also vindicate the majesty of the law.

McDougal arrived to San Francisco and secured a writ to seize the suspects from the Vigilance Committee’s hands, tucking them away in the county jail.

Although in principle this orderly and lawful prosecution of malefactors was exactly what the Committee wanted to see happen, Gov. McDougal’s intervention when they were on the brink of consummating their own process left everyone with a frustrating sensation of justice interruptus.

And so that next Sunday — August 24, 1851 — when prisoners were removed from their cells to a chapel for the salvation of their souls and the jail’s guard detail was reduced by the proportion of gendarmes attending services of their own, a party of 36 Vigilance Committee men barged into the jail, overpowered all concerned, and seized their prey.

“Never before was San Francisco so excited,” editorialized the Steamer Alta California (Sept. 1, 1851).

Through every street, in all directions, the hurrying crowd of humanity rushed with the utmost precipitation — no one knew whither, no one knew for what. The bell of the Vigilance Committee had sounded its alarum note — and instantly the streets were living, swaying masses of human beings — uncertainty and conflicting fears and hopes ruled the hour … with a sweep like the rushing of a torrent of lava they bend their course towards the Rooms of the Vigilance Committee. Almost instantly California street, Battery street, and all their approaches, are filled with one dense mass of human beings. From lip to lip the news flies that the two criminals, Mackenzie and Whittaker, have been taken by force from the jail, by an armed posse of the Vigilance Committee. On the eager and excited multitude press toward the Rooms. On, on, on — the crowd becomes denser and broader. Wonder is stamped on every face — a solemn, almost awful silence pervades the thousands who are anxiously gazing up at the building, when quickly the doors are opened — a moment of preparation — and the numberless multitude holds its breath as the two malefactors are seen suspended by the neck — a struggle or two, a spasmodic heaving of the chest — and each spectator feels a thrill of terror coursing his veins as he involuntarily utters — dead, dead, dead!

Yes, they were dead! The two men — Whittaker and Mackenzie — who were taken from the hands of the Vigilance Committee a few nights since, by virtue of a write of habeas corpus, had been torn from the ail by force, in the middle of the day, and at the risk of life, hurried to the Committee rooms, and executed without scarcely a moment’s preparation. It is a most terrible tragedy! Well, indeed, might one exclaim, “I have supped full with horrors!”

Such are the terrible effects of misrule — these are the fruits of maladministered laws — these the results of official corruption, neglect and malfeasance. Well may the patriotic and the good turn in sadness and grief from the contemplation of such horrors. The timid may shrink from beholding them — the quiet desire an end to them; but neither fear, regret, nor desire will accomplish our security. It must go abroad over the land that this community possesses the power and the will to protect itself against every species of wrong, and that it is resolved to do it at all hazards.

Whilst we regret that the Vigilance Committee have by this act, been brought into direct collision with the constituted authorities, we cannot but approve their course in executing the two criminals. This condition of affairs was not sought by the committee; it was rather forced upon them by the action of the authorities. True, the authorities acted rightly in rescuing the men; but the course they took has proved to be unnecessary and injudicious. No one doubts the guilt of the men executed, and no one believes but that they deserved the punishment they received. The Vigilance Committee felt this, and believing that the public welfare would be promoted by the act, they had resolved to execute Whittaker and Mackenzie. But the officers of the law, with unusual adroitness, prevented the decision from being carried into effect. The Vigilance Committee have now redeemed their honor, and carried out their original determination, by recapturing the prisoners and executing them. The line of division between the legitimate civil power and the Vigilance Committee is therefore plain, broad and unmistakable.

And what is to result? We see nothing disheartening or dispiriting in the prospect. On the contrary, we think we perceive that settled determination on the part of the body politic to have justice done, which is to be the great lever of our salvation. When crime is convinced, as it must now be, that nothing is capable of preserving it from speedy and avenging punishment — when the abandoned feel, as they will now feel, that there is no safety for them here — when all bad men shall understand, as they may now understand, that their unworthy acts will surely be visited with condign reward — then will the country rise above its tribulations and its sorrows.

But this is a dreadful storm! If we did not know the ship, the crew and the passengers, we might despair of our reaching port. As it is, we speak confidently. We feel that there is gloom around us, but there is nothing to alarm the honest and patriotic. The guilty may, and ought to, flee before the gale of popular indignation; but it is through such trials that our voyage is ultimately to become a prosperous and fortunate one. Through the watches of the night of darkness which now surrounds us, there is a gentle voice whispering “Be firm, be calm, be just, and the welcome daylight will soon come!”

The Vigilance Committee disbanded itself a few weeks later. Its last act in 1851† was to prevent the lynching of a sea captain by sailors angered at his brutality, an expression of class solidarity in the definition and punishment of crime as timeless as America herself. (Source)

* These fires were widely feared to be the product of arson motivated by the opportunity to loot. This is likely a reversal of cause and effect. One inclines here to reckon with Tolstoy that cities have a natural tendency to kindling fire, and those fires are liable to blaze out of control in inverse proportion to the city’s administrative faculties.

The late San Francisco police officer and amateur historian Kevin Mullen puts together an argument here that merchants opportunistically torching excess stock to sustain gold rush price gouging was also a contributing factor.

** Both men were born in England; many of the Sydney Ducks hailed originally from the British Isles.

† Like Batman, the Vigilance Committee later emerged from retirement to fight crime again, in 1856.

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1962: James Dukes, philosophical

Add comment August 24th, 2014 Robert Elder

(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)

A circled passage in the section “He Is Sentenced to Death,” in Plato’s Apology:

The hour of departure has arrived and we go our ways, I to die and you to live. Which is better God only knows.

— James Dukes, convicted of murder, electric chair, Illinois.
Executed August 24, 1962

Dukes was executed for killing Detective John Blyth Sr., who had pursued him after he had beaten his girlfriend in church and shot two other men who tried to stop him. On Dukes’s execution day, Detective Daniel Rolewicz, who took part in the final gun battle, told a newspaperman, “I’ve been waiting a long time for this night.”

Dukes made no oral statement but left behind a copy of the Apology for the press.

(Dukes was the last person executed in Illinois prior to the national death penalty hiatus of the late 1960s. He was also the last person electrocuted in Illinois, and the last put to death in Chicago’s Cook County. -ed.)

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1290: Zavis of Falkenstein

2 comments August 24th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1290, the vaunting nobleman Zavis of Falkenstein was beheaded below the walls of Hluboka Castle.

For from this eminence ye shall discern
Better the acts and visages of all,
Than in the nether vale among them mix’d.
He, who sits high above the rest, and seems
To have neglected that he should have done,
And to the others’ song moves not his lip,
The Emperor Rodolph call, who might have heal’d
The wounds whereof fair Italy hath died,
So that by others she revives but slowly,
He, who with kindly visage comforts him,
Sway’d in that country, where the water springs,
That Moldaw’s river to the Elbe, and Elbe
Rolls to the ocean: Ottocar his name:
Who in his swaddling clothes was of more worth
Than Winceslaus his son, a bearded man,
Pamper’d with rank luxuriousness and ease.

-Dante’s ungenerous assessment of Wenceslaus in the Purgatorio

The Bohemian Premyslid dynasty was at the height of its power in the 13th century. King Ottokar II, ruling a vast swath of central Europe, twice mounted unsuccessful bids for election to the imperial throne.

The second man to defeat him, Rudolph,* Ottokar refused to recognize, and open warfare ensued between the men — a war that Rudolph won when Ottokar was killed in battle in 1278.

The late sovereign left to his six-year-old son Wenceslaus II a reduced patronage, a betrothal to Rudolph’s daughter, and a strong domestic noble faction like to oppose the crown internally.

Zavis of Falkenstein was among the foremost of the many complications afflicting the young Wenceslaus. His Vitkovci family had been among the late Ottokar’s most potent domestic opponents,** and Claudius-like slithered right into the royal bed with Ottokar gone. Zavis paid court to the widow of his great foe, the Queen Regent Kunhunta, and married her in 1285. He was the first man in the kingdom for several years.

Wenceslaus, still a teenager, was becoming frantic at the prospect of Zavis usurping him altogether. When Kunhunta died and Zavis left town to marry again, the monarch turned the tables on his “protector”. When Zavis returned to Prague, he found himself clapped in prison. Wenceslaus then packed Zavis up for a Bohemian tour, where the hostage was brandished at belligerent Vitkovci fortresses to force their submission. Hluboka Castle, commanded by Zavis’s brother, refused to knuckle under, so the threat — and Zavis — were executed.

When your South Bohemia holiday stops over for a visit to this still-extant castle consider a stay at Hluboka nad Vltavou‘s four-star Hotel Zavis z Falkenstejna. Zavis himself is interred much further south at the borderlands’ Vyssi Brod monastery, which also boasts a jeweled crucifix donated for the salvation of the ambitious magnate’s soul.

* Rudolph I (Formerly Count Rudolph IV) was the first Habsburg king.

** Ottokar founded the city of Ceske Budejovice to project his power into the Vitkovci’s South Bohemia stomping-grounds. The city is still going strong; from its name derives the disputed Budweiser beer brand.

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1889: Auguste Neel, on St. Pierre

Add comment August 24th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1889, the only guillotine execution in North America took place on the tiny French remnant colony of Saint Pierre, just off Newfoundland.

August(e) Neel had capped a Dec. 30, 1888 drinking binge with fellow fisherman Louis Ollivier by breaking into a boat captain’s cabin they expected to find empty. Instead, they found the armed captain ready to defend himself … so they overpowered him and stabbed him to death.

And then, for some reason — “because we were sloshed and we wanted to find out how much fat the old seadog had in his body,” Neel told the court — the murderous sots dismembered the body.

While the murder was not particularly premeditated, it occurred during a perceived crime wave, and the post-mortem butcher’s act really grossed out the court. (They probably also didn’t do themselves any favors at the bar by having attempted to sail to Newfoundland.) All in all, a prime case for example-setting: Neel, as the lead culprit in the caper, was sentenced to the worst example possible. His partner got 10 years at hard labor.

Now, St. Pierre hadn’t had an execution and didn’t have the infrastructure for it. But French law didn’t let the locals in far-flung islands just do a practical straightforward thing like hang a bloke or shoot a bloke. And it wouldn’t do to have the colony send Neel somewhere where executions were a done thing. It was there in black and white that executions had to be conducted by guillotine, near the site of the crime. And so an old spare guillotine was disassembled, boxed up, and shipped up to St. Pierre from Martinique, expressly to sever Neel’s head.

Neel seems to have been the calmest man on the island, almost philosophically indifferent to the the head-chopper. The community he had aggrieved could not say the same: St. Pierre had to recruit a local petty criminal to serve as executioner, and the guy was so ostracized that he left for France afterwards. They hadn’t thought through the execution procedure to determine who would give the order to drop the blade, so after an uncomfortable pause, Neel himself shouted at the executioner to do it. By the time it hit bottom, human flesh was left grotesquely clinging to the dull imported blade.

The prosecutor vowed in the face of this dog’s breakfast never to seek another death sentence.

Never used again, this infamous device remains in St. Pierre to this day. It can be seen there behind the stairs at the Musée de l’Arche.


The St. Pierre guillotine. (cc) image from The Tedster, who also thoughtfully provides photos of the museum’s explanatory placards. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

The Neel story was “re-imagined” — nigh rewritten — for the heavily fictionalized 2000 Juliette Binoche film La Veuve de St. Pierre.

The primary source for this account — apart from the museum placards linked in the caption above — is the invaluable Bois de Justice, an astonishingly encyclopedic resource on the history of the guillotine.

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1782: David Tyrie, the last hanged, drawn, and quartered

12 comments August 24th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1782, a crowd contemporaries pegged at 100,000 mobbed the gruesome public execution of David Tyrie — the last man hanged, drawn, and quartered in British history.

Tyrie was a Scotsman clerking at a Portsmouth naval office, who was caught in a treacherous correspondence with the French. He lacked political pull of his own and either the means or inclination to shop confederates, and therefore faced the full weight of the treason statute.

Said venerable statute, a theatrically bloody relic of the Middle Ages popularized by Edward I for terrorizing malcontent subjects, had persisted for half a millennium or so and in its grisly Tudor efflorescence crowned the careers of saints, terrorists, lovers, fighters, and Shakespeare characters.

Tyrie might have been small time by those standards, but he wore it well this date — “played the man,” in the old parlance — before the throng on Southsea Common.


Southsea Common today. (cc) image from Roo Reynolds.

From the time he was put on the sledge, till be came to the gibbet, he continued in an unconcerned conversation with the gaoler, in which he expressed that he thought there were not three better, sounder, or honester hearts in the kingdom, than his own, which was just going to be burnt. That there was only one thing which gave him concern, which was, that his father was living, and he feared this misfortune would bring his grey hairs with sorrow to the grave. He declined saying a word to the populace, observing, that he knew not why he was to feed or gratify the idle curiosity of the multitude. He never hung his head the whole time. — When arrived at the place of execution, no halter was provided, upon which he smiled, and expressed astonishment as the inattention and neglect of his executioners; and indeed the business would have been retarded for some time, had not a rope and pulley been procured out of a lugger that lay under shore, during which time he read several passages in a bible he carried in his hand. – Before he was drawn up, he delivered a paper, setting forth, that he had authorised no person to publish any account of his life, nor was there any one who knew sufficiently of him to give any genuine particulars of his transactions in the world.

After hanging exactly twenty-two minutes, he was lowered upon the sledge, and the sentence literally put in execution. His head was severed from his body, his heart taken out and burnt, his privities cut off, and his body quartered. He was then put into a coffin, and buried among the pebbles by the sea-side; but no sooner had the officers retired, but the sailors dug up the coffin, took out the body, and cut it in a thousand pieces, every one carrying away a piece of his body to shew their messmates on board. — A more dreadful, affecting execution was perhaps never seen.


Before disemboweling, he was probably stretched out somewhat like David Tyree.

In fact, it was so dreadful (including many injuries in the distasteful rush for souvenirs) that they stopped doing it. Only gradually: Edward Marcus Despard, for instance, was sentenced to drawing and quartering, but they only hanged him to death and cut off his head posthumously. In 1814, that sentence — hanging plus posthumous beheading — formally replaced the old disemboweling-and-quartering bit as the penalty for treason.

(The invaluable CapitalPunishmentUK.org says that one James O’Coigley suffered hanging, drawing, and quartering in 1798 for that year’s Irish Rebellion; however, the Newgate Calendar’s record says that O’Coigley was “merely” hanged and beheaded, like Despard.)

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Espionage,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Milestones,Public Executions,Spies,Treason

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1460: The residents of Amlas, impaled by Vlad Dracula

5 comments August 24th, 2010 Headsman

This date is the 550th anniversary of (in)famous Wallachian dictator/vampire prototype Vlad III Tepes‘s destruction of the town of Amlas, impaling all its surviving citizens.

The signature execution form of “Vlad the Impaler” was as nasty as it sounds: still-living victim mounted on a long, oiled stake driven through the rectum and emerging through the mouth to expire agonizingly over a period of hours or days. Or, alternatively, stuck through the midsection, leaving the subject horizontally mounted like a flopping fish.

And he had frequent recourse to it during his long struggle for power in the treacherous 1450s and 1460s, the period* when Vlad III became famous for the iron-willed cruelty required to exercise power in a Wallachia squeezed between the expanding Ottoman Empire and Hungary.

It was this terrifying period from the late 1450s that made Vlad Dracula — the titular second name inherited from his father‘s investment into the Order of the Dragon, Draco in Latin — the namesake for Bram Stoker‘s famous bloodthirsty Transylvanian noble, and the granddaddy of all its lucrative latter-day offspring.

(Bram Stoker didn’t invent the vampire myth, and the notion that Vlad Dracula “is” Count Dracula is one of those bits of popular folklore that’s become academically unfashionable. But still.)

The historical Vlad has his latter-day defenders, who see him as a nation-builder. Certainly, both the man himself and his vulnerable frontier principality were menaced by innumerable threats both foreign and domestic.

This date’s massacre was to deal with one such, Germans in the territory of Transylvania, which lay to the north of Vlad’s own Wallachia. Both realms are part of present-day Romania, and they were closely connected in Vlad’s time as well; the young Dracula himself was born in Transylvania, and Transylvanian towns had helped him take the Wallachian throne with the support of Hungary.

So far, everyone was on the same page. But when a power struggle erupted for the Hungarian throne in 1457, the “Saxon” emigres who formed the upper crust of merchants in Transylvania (supported by a vast sea of Romanian peasants) backed the Holy Roman Emperor while Vlad supported the usurping Hunyadi family that had so ably patronized him.** It’s quite a bit more dizzyingly complex than that, but the bottom line is that commercial and political conflicts soon saw Vlad Dracula mounting a campaign of Transylvanian terror from 1458 onward.

During the summer of 1460 Dracula organized his final raid on Transylvania. This time he attacked townships and villages in the district of Amlas known as the “Land of the Forest” or Unterwald … The meistersinger Beheim gives the exact date of the attack as falling on the feast day of Saint Bartholomew in the year 1460: August 24. Dracula struck in the early morning after “passing through the great forest” with his cavalry force. He burned the town of Amlas and impaled all the citizens, a priest having led the procession to the burial scene …

Dracula’s raid on Amlas was aimed at eliminating any remaining dissident resistance and at killing rival contenders to his throne … Dracula knew, for instance, that … the boyar Bogdan Doboca, was hiding in the village of Sercaia, in the Fagaras district. So he had the entire village razed to the ground; it had to be completely repopulated in the following century. Similar was the fat of the village of Mica. The narrator Beheim tells us that Dracula burned or destroyed half the communities in the Amlas district, including the capital city by that name. He “assembled all the citizens and all those he could find” from other villages and hanged them on hooks and pitchforks, after having had his men hack them to pieces with knives, swords, and sabers. Amlas was reduced to a ghost town, as it still is today, and other villages such as Saliste, Apodul de Sus, and Tilisca were similarly destroyed. Beheim claims that altogether some 30,000 Germans were killed during this Dracula raid on the district of Amlas.

Impressive as this date’s butchery would have been — although we know it from German propagandists who figure to have made the most of it — it was simply of a piece with Vlad’s Transylvanian campaign. To this campaign, Florescu and McNally attribute an impressive catalogue of atrocities, such as:

  • Slaughtering all the inhabitants of a village named Bod
  • Impaling one of his own captains who reported an inability to take an enemy position “for the inhabitants are brave and well fortified”
  • Boiling alive 600 Saxon merchants
  • Impaling as spies 41 Saxons who came to Wallachia to learn the Romanian language
  • Forcing one captured rival claimant with Saxon support to go through a Mass for the dead clothed in funerary vestments before personally beheading him

Fleeing Germans carrying spine-tingling eyewitness accounts and rumors of even worse made a happy match with that new media technology, the printing press, giving Dracula continental infamy and a purchase on future literary immortality.

“The horror genre conformed to the tastes of the fifteenth-century reading public as much as it does today,” observe those same authors Florescu and McNally in another volume. “No fewer than thirteen different fiteenth- and sixteenth-century Dracula stories have been discovered thus far in the various German states.”

The St. Bartholomew’s Day 1460 events are seemingly sometimes conflated† with a more famous bloodbath during the spring of 1459, when Vlad arranged a demonstrative mass impaling on the outskirts of Brasov.‡

All those whom he had taken captive, men and women, young and old, chlidren, he had impaled on the hill by the chapel and all around the hill, and under them he proceeded to eat at table and enjoyed himself in that way.

It’s this 1459 event that provides us the most horribly recognizable images of Dracula’s reign, with the insouciant Wallachian prince enjoying his repast amid a thicket of impaled wretches.

* 1456 to 1462, specifically, which was the second (and most consequential) of the three different periods Vlad III was Prince of Wallachia. The Ottomans drove him out in 1462, and he took refuge in Hungary before a return bid in 1476, which ended in his own death in battle.

** And specifically, Mihaly Szilagy (Hungarian link), the uncle of the ascendant king Matthias Corvinus. The latter would seek to woo Saxon support, and he had an on-again, off-again relationship with Vlad Dracula. Wallachia was a small buffer state from the standpoint of a greater power like Hungary, and Wallachia’s ruler a political instrument no matter how much impaling he might do.

† Perhaps because Brasov’s Church of St. Bartholomew was among the targets ravaged by Dracula’s force?

‡ Attack staged from picturesquely vampiric Castle Bran.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Impaled,Innocent Bystanders,Known But To God,Mass Executions,Mature Content,No Formal Charge,Notable Participants,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Romania,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1751: Thomas Colley, witch-killer

7 comments August 24th, 2009 Headsman

Supposed witches are a staple of history’s scaffold-rolls, and we may well take relief at the passing of this superstition.

England’s last witchcraft executions were in 1682; the law that hanged them was repealed in 1736. But the human story is not confined to parliamentary parchment, and popular belief in witches was not instantly dispelled at the stroke of a pen. Indeed, the belief never has been dispelled altogether.

In our mid-18th-century scene, figures who might have once been thought “witch”-like can now achieve mass-market fame. But old traditions died hard — and on this date* in 1751, Thomas Colley died for believing them to the extent of killing a “witch” himself.

Aging beggar Ruth Osborne got herself on the bad side not of Colley but a Tring farmer prosperously named John Butterfield when she pooh-poohed his refusal to spare her some scraps, and Butterfield’s livestock thereafter got sick.

Obviously, witchcraft!

Whether Butterfield was animated by genuine supernatural paranoia or merely by dick-swinging, he organized a witch-ducking of Ruth and her husband John: organized to the extent of having criers announce it days in advance.

Now, granted, witch-ducking was now illegal. But Mr. Butterfield draws a lot of water in this community, and he turned out a mob to wreck a couple of suspected hiding-places before the two were captured, trussed-up, and paraded to Marlston Meer.**

Butterfield got local yokel Thomas Colley drunk and agitated enough to do for him the dirty work of casting two impoverished souls into a pond so shallow they could scarcely sink, and therefore were obviously guilty for floating. This public torture continued until Ruth died† — Colley prodding the victims with a pole and passing the hat for community underwriting.


“The Ducking of John Osborn”, as reprinted (pdf) by the Hertfordshire Countryside.

Colley was prevailed upon after his conviction to sign a recantation of the belief that had brought him to his inglorious end, a neat inversion of the forced confessions of previous generations’ “witches”, and no less indicative of the operations of power upon the mind as well as the body of the condemned.

GOOD PEOPLE!

I beseech you all to take warning by an unhappy man’s suffering; that you be not deluded into so absurd and wicked a conceit, as to believe that there are any such beings upon earth as witches.

It was that foolish and vain imagination, heightened and inflamed by the strength of liquor, which prompted me to be instrumental (with others as mad-brained as myself) in the horrid and barbarous murder of Ruth Osborne, the supposed witch, for which I am now so deservedly to suffer death.

I am fully convinced of my former error, and with the sincerity of a dying man, declare that I do not believe there is such a thing in being as a witch; and pray God that none of you, through a contrary persuasion, may hereafter be induced to think that you have a right in any shape to persecute, much less endanger the life of a fellow creature.

I beg of you all to pray to God to forgive me, and to wash clean my polluted soul in the blood of Jesus Christ, my saviour and redeemer.

So exhorteth you all, the dying

Thomas Colley

Whatever the state of Thomas Colley’s mind by the time it was strangled by the halter at Gubblecote Cross, Colley’s come-to-the-Enlightenment moment didn’t exactly impress his former audience.

[T]he infatuation of the greatest part of the country people was so great that they would not be spectators of his death (perhaps from a consciousness of being present at the murder as well as he); yet many thousands stood at a distance to see him go, grumbling and muttering that it was a hard case to hang a man for destroying an old wicked woman that had done so much damage by her witchcraft.‡

As if to prove the point, it is said that Colley’s spirit has haunted the area ever since — in the form of a big black dog. (Colley – collie, is that it?)

* Some sources (incorrectly) give August 22nd as the date of the hanging, which might be a confusion with April 22nd, the date of the crime. Similarly, the Newgate calendar dates Thomas Colley’s hanging to April 24th, which is certainly wrong.

** “It only became possible to restrain collective violence towards witches in England … when from 1856 onwards a paid and uniformed police force came into existence. Up to that point the elected, non-professional constable or his deputy had kept well out of incidents of this sort or had even supported his fellow villagers in their infamous activities.” (Source)

† John Osborne is often reported to have died hours after he was pulled alive from the pond, but at least some (pdf) contemporaneous sources seem to indicate that he lived on and even stayed in the area — where nobody would hire him because of his wizardry stigma.

‡ Cited in W.B. Carnochan, “Witch-Hunting and Belief in 1751: The Case of Thomas Colley and Ruth Osborne” Journal of Social History, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Summer, 1971).

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Public Executions,The Supernatural

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