1619: Melchior Grodziecki, Istvan Pongracz and Marko Krizin, Jesuits

Add comment September 7th, 2019 Headsman

Jesuits Melchior Grodziecki, Istvan Pongracz, and Marko Krizin earned martyrdom at the hands of the Calvinists 400 years ago today.

A Pole, a Hungarian, and a Croat, respectively, they were emissaries of their vast polyglot empire’s official religion who were unlucky to be in the wrong place when theological differences went kinetic and helped launch the Thirty Years War.

That wrong place was the Hungarian city of Kassa (today the Slovakian city of Košice) which was captured by Protestant Transylvanian prince Gabriel Bethlen on September 5, 1619. Confined to the Jesuit residence, these three were assailed by a mob of soldiers who broke in on the morning of September 7 and demanded their immediate apostasy, putting them to summary torture and eventual beheading when they refused.

All three were canonized in the 20th century.

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1588: Eight Catholics after the defeat of the Spanish Armada

Add comment August 28th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1588, Elizabethan England celebrated the defeat of the Spanish Armada with Catholic gallows spread throughout London, claiming eight souls in all.

It was earlier that August that English pluck, Dutch reinforcements, and the Protestant Wind had connived to see off that great Spanish fleet and the prospect of Catholic and continental domination.

Although Catholics were liable for life and limb throughout these years it’s hard to put down the large-scale public hangings (some with full drawing-and-quartering pains) of priests and laymen down to coincidental timing, particularly given the unusual choice to distribute them to several gallows all around London. Here, surely, was a triumphant gloat for the furtive adherents of the old faith to ponder.

The Catholic Encylcopedia’s entry on the Venerable Robert Morton, a priest who was put to death at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, surveys the carnage:

At the same time and place suffered Hugh Moor, a layman, aged 25, of Grantham, Lincolnshire, and Gray’s Inn, London, for having been reconciled to the Church by Fr. Thomas Stephenson, S.J. On the same day suffered (1) at Mile End, William Dean, a priest (q. v.); and Henry Webley, a layman, born in the city of Gloucester; (2) near the Theatre, William Gunter, a priest, born at Raglan, Monmouthshire, educated at Reims; (3) at Clerkenwell, Thomas Holford, a priest, born at Aston, in Acton, Cheshire, educated at Reims, who was hanged only; and (4) between Brentford and Hounslow, Middlesex, James Claxton or Clarkson, a priest, born in Yorkshire and educated at Reims; and Thomas Felton, born at Bermondsey Abbey in 1567, son of B. John Felton,* tonsured 1583 and about to be professed a Minim, who had suffered terrible tortures in prison.

Another priest, plus four additional lay Catholics, quaffed the same bitter cup on August 30.

* No relation, however, to the executed assassin John Felton forty years on: that man’s father made his way in the world hunting Catholic recusants to inform upon.

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1591: Ralph Milner, Roger Dickenson, and Laurence Humphrey

Add comment July 7th, 2019 Alban Butler

(Thanks to the English Catholic Alban Butler for the guest post on three martyrs during Elizabethan England. This entry originally appeared in Butler’s hagiographical magnum opus Lives of the Saints which is in the public domain, although updated recent editions are also to be had from the usual booksellers. July 7 is the feast date for all three men described in this post; Dickenson and Milner were actually put to death on that date, while Humphrey’s execution date appears to be unrecorded. -ed.)

In this year [1591] there suffered at Winchester, on July 7, BB. Roger Dickenson and Ralph Milner, and on a date unknown Bd Laurence Humphrey.

Milner was a small farmer, or even a farm-labourer, and brought up a Protestant. Upon contrasting the lives led by his Protestant and Catholic neighbours, to the great disadvantage of the first, he put himself under instruction and was received into the Church; but on the very day of his first communion he was committed to prison for the change of religion. Here he was kept for a number of years, but his confinement was not strict and he was often released on parole, when he would obtain alms and spiritual ministrations for his fellow prisoners, and also use his knowledge of the country to facilitate the movements and work of missionary priests. In this way he made the acquaintance of Father [Thomas] Stanney, s.j., who afterwards wrote a memoir of him in Latin, and with the same priests assistance a secular priest, Mr Roger Dickenson, came to live in Winchester. He was a Lincoln man, who had made his studies at Rheims, and for several years he worked in the Winchester district, helped by Milner.

The first time Mr Dickenson was arrested his guards got so drunk that he was able to escape, but the second time, Milner being with him, they were both committed for trial: Dickenson for being a priest, Milner for “relieving” him. At the trial the judge, being somewhat pitiful for Blessed Ralph, who was old and had a wife and eight children looking to him, recommended him to make one visit as a matter of form to the Protestant parish church, and so secure his release. But, says [Richard] Challoner, Milner answered, “Would your lordship then advise me, for the perishable trifles of this world, or for a wife and children, to lose my God? No, my lord, I cannot approve or embrace a counsel so disagreeable to the maxims of the gospel.” As Father Stanney states that Milner was entirely illiterate, we must assume that this is a paraphrase of his reply. These two suffered together, one of the most moving couples in the whole gallery of English martyrs.

At the same assizes seven maiden gentlewomen were sentenced to death for allowing Bd Roger to celebrate Mass in their houses, but were immediately reprieved; whereupon they asked that they might die with their pastor, seeing that they undoubtedly shared his supposed guilt and should share also in his punishment: but they were returned to prison.

Laurence Humphrey was a young man of Protestant upbringing and good life who, having undertaken to dispute with Father Stanney (referred to above), was instead himself converted. Father Stanney in a brief memoir speaks very highly of the virtues of his neophyte and his energy in instructing the ignorant and relieving the needs of those in prison for their faith. But Humphrey being taken seriously ill, he was heard to say in delirium that “the queen was a whore and a heretic”; his words were reported to the authorities, and before he was well recovered he was committed to Winchester gaol. At his trial he confessed his religion, but denied memory of ever having spoken disrespectfully of the queen; he was nevertheless condemned, and hanged, drawn, and quartered in his twenty-first year.

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1942: Michael Kitzelmann

Add comment June 11th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1942, Wehrmacht lieutenant Michael Kitzelmann was executed for his stubborn conscious. The last diary entry in this post is going to show a June 12 date which I would ordinarily take as a preeminent source. Because June 11 is so universally described as the execution date, including in a public memorial plaque, I’m warily bowing to that date myself and putting the diary translation down to a botch of some kind. Whether or not this is correctly adjudicated on my part, it’s another reminder that everyone is aggravatingly slipshod when it comes to dates.

An aspiring Catholic priest, Kitzelmann (English Wikipedia entry | German) embarked his mandatory military service in 1937, foreseeing two boring years.

“For two years I must endure this terrible yoke of dreary, ridiculous military drills,” he wrote to a friend. The yoke would grow more terrible, and less ridiculous: Germany was at war before Kitzelmann’s conscription expired. Holy Orders would have to wait.

The young man proved a capable soldier (Iron Cross, second class) as well as a dutiful correspondent to parents and friends — his letters showing proud his own advancement in the ranks but also troubled by the horrors of war. Over time, he was increasingly troubled by the horrors his own side inflicted.

By the last months of 1941, his conscience and his piety could no longer reconcile the atrocities of the terrible eastern front, and he made bold in both letters home and loose talk with comrades to voice his disgust with his own side. “At home they tear the crosses from the schools,” he mused of the regime’s contempt for earnest Christianity. “Here we are made to fight against godless Bolshevism.”

While convalescing from an illness in March 1942, Kitzelmann was denounced for his seditious opinions by a zealous fellow troop. He had seen enough that he should have known that his fulfillment of military obligation would not protect him.

On 11 April 1942, I walked into the military prison of the fortress of Orel. The fortress, a huge squat building, distempered pink, with massive round turrets at each corner, lies to the north of the town on the steep banks of the river Oka. There is a dark stone passage on the upper floor where the air is dank and chill; and here I was handed over to the prison guards.

My cell is in the north-east turret and is about 14 feet wide and the same height. It has a wooden floor and a vaulted brick ceiling. To the west an arched window pierces the wall, which is over three feet thick, and across the window there are strong iron bars, let into the wall. In the evening and then only, a few golden sunrays briefly penetrate to my dreary solitude. A massive oak door, reinforced by heavy iron-work, shuts out the world. Darkness and terror paralyse my being. The stillness is unbearable. Helpless and abandoned I am left to myself, alone, sentenced to death. . .! Now I know the full fury of these Military Laws. Overnight I was branded as a criminal just for making a few derogatory remarks about the government. And for that apparently I must lose my life, my honour, my friends and my place in human society. How could all this happen? I had a good enough reputation up to now, and so far as I know I was regarded as a decent man with a normal sense of duty. What are right and justice in this world? Haven’t I served my country honourably for four years? I was at the front for two years, took part in three campaigns and proved my loyalty often enough. Is this the thanks I get from my country?

Apart from all that I am beginning to be afraid for my family at home. Letters have been taken from my trunk, and others from the post, and confiscated by the Court, letters from my father and mother and from friends. What will happen to them? Will the law get on to them too? That would be terrible. But I suppose there is nothing to be done and . . . events must take their course. I am so much afraid: my fears follow me day and night like horrifying ghosts, and all the time this awful loneliness, this claustrophobia, this oppressive silence. For hours on end I pace up and down my cell, just to hear my own footsteps. I light a fire in the stove just to hear it’s crackling. I pray aloud to hear my own voice; and I call upon Heaven, asking God to help me in my agony.

He sought comfort in his faith:

I pray to Jesus the Crucified, who has led the way through the most bitter pain. And He answers me: “If you will be My disciple, take up your cross and follow me!”

But I appeal to Him: “Lord, I am still so young, too young for such a heavy cross; I have not lived my life, all my hopes, plans and aims are unfulfilled.” And he says : “Behold, I too was young, I had yet to live my life, and as a young man I carried the cross and sacrificed my young life.”

Again my soul complains: “Behold my bitter home-sickness, the sufferings of my family. Let me return to life and let me not hurt their love.”

But Jesus replies: “If you cannot leave your belongings and all your earthly love, you cannot be my disciple. Follow me!”

Again my soul rebels: “O Lord, the burden is too heavy; relieve me of this terrible yoke; shorten my sufferings and dry my tears!”

Lovingly He speaks: “My son, be brave and do not despair! I have suffered so greatly for humanity, and for you too; I have opened Heaven for you. And I shall remain with you until the end.”

I answer my Saviour: “Thank you a thousand times for your endless love, my Redeemer! I shall be your disciple and I will carry your cross after you. So take me by the hand and lead me to my blessed end in all eternity.”

And at last — here’s that date — he closed his diary with this momentous note:

On 11 June 1942, at 5 p.m., I was told that my petition for mercy had been rejected and that the sentence would be carried out on 12 June 1942 at S a.m. Lord, Thy will be done. In the evening I knew great joy. Dear, good Pastor Schmitter has come back and wants to stay with me during my last hours on earth. He was here till after midnight. I told him my final wishes, asked him to give my love to my people at home and talked over with him what would happen at the end. He has promised to return punctually at 6 a.m. Then I will confess once more, for my whole life. We shall celebrate Nfass and take Communion together. . . .

God has granted me great joy, for the hour of my death is a merciful one

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1595: Henry Walpole, martyred at York

Add comment April 7th, 2019 Headsman

Jesuit priest Henry Walpole died a traitor’s death outside York on this date in 1595.

The Cambridge-educated Walpole was a recusant Catholic of about 23 years and seemingly no more than moderate religious commitment when he witnessed the scaffold martyrdom of Edmund Campion.

After beholding such a sight — and, it is said, the spatter of the saint’s very blood upon his garments — a now-radicalized Walpole published a verse eulogy for Campion* and fled for the continent to take up holy orders. He spent a decade in studies and ministry in Italy, France, Spain, and the Low Countries.

But he never managed a spell as an underground priest on native soil, for when putting ashore in Yorkshire in December 1593 he was instantly betrayed and arrested, and passed the remainder of his days in various dungeons, and upon various racks. As a former lawyer, Walpole found a clever line of argument in his case, noting that the law required priests landing in England to surrender themselves to authorities within three days, and he had not violated it since he had been captured within hours.

The crown had an even better reply, in the form of the invitation to swear the Oath of Supremacy admitting Queen Elizabeth the head of the English church, the demand upon which so many priests founded their martyrdom. Walpole refused as he ought and, together with another priest named Alexander Rawlins, went to his death at the “York Tyburn” gallows in Knavesmire, his heart perhaps fortified by remembrance of the words with which he had once celebrated Campion.

Can dreary death, then, daunt our faith, or pain?
Is’t lingering life we fear to loose, or ease?
No, no, such death procureth life again.
‘Tis only God we tremble to displease,
Who kills but once, and ever since we die
Whose whole revenge torments eternally.

We cannot fear a mortal torment, we.
These martyrs’ blood hath moistened all our hearts:
Whose parted quarters when we chance to see
We learn to play the constant Christian parts.
His head doth speak, and heavenly precepts give
How we that look should frame ourselves to live.

His youth instructs us how to spend our days;
His flying bids us learn to banish sin;
His straight profession shows the narrow ways
Which they must walk that look to enter in;
His home return by danger and distress
Emboldeneth us our conscience to profess.

His hurdle draws us with him to the cross;
His speeches there provoke us for to die;
His death doth say, this life is but a loss;
His martyr’d blood from heaven to us doth cry;
His first and last and all conspire in this,
To shew the way that leadeth us to bliss.

Blessed be God, which lent him so much grace;
Thanked by Christ, which blest his martyr so;
Happy is he which seeth his Master’s face;
Cursed all they that thought to work him woe;
Bounden be we to give eternal praise
To Jesus’ name, which such a man did raise.

Although condemned to hanging, drawing, and quartering, both Rawlins and Walpole were graciously suffered to die at the end of the rope before the horrors of disemboweling and quartering were inflicted on their lifeless corpses.

* The publisher of this poem was fined £100 and sentenced to have his ears cropped … but he did not attempt to mitigate his pains by exposing the identity of the author.

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1595: Robert Southwell

Add comment February 21st, 2019 Headsman

February 2O, 1594-5, [Father Robert] Southwell, a Jesuit, that long time had lain prisoner in the Tower of London, was arraigned at the King’s-bench bar. He was condemned, and on the next morning drawn from Newgate to Tyburn, and there hanged, bowelled and quartered.

-Chronicle of John Stow

Youngest child in a gentry household of Catholic-leaning Norfolk, Robert Southwell was for holy orders and martyr’s laurels from the jump; in 1576 at the tender age of 15, he made for Douai and its English seminary, noted for training missionary priests who would return secretly to Elizabethan England to court torture and death for the Word. Within a decade he was a prefect at the English College in Rome and a fully armed and operational member of the Society of Jesus.

In 1586, Southwell sailed for his homeland with fellow Jesuit Henry Garnet, who would one day go to the gallows for Guy Fawkes’s Gunpowder Plot.

For Southwell, the pen was mightier than such detonations.

“St. Peter’s Complaint” (Excerpt)
by Robert Southwell

Ah! life, sweet drop, drown’d in a sea of sours,
A flying good, posting to doubtful end;
Still losing months and years to gain new hours,
Fain times to have and spare, yet forced to spend;
Thy growth, decrease; a moment all thou hast.
That gone ere known; the rest, to come, or past.

Ah! life, the maze of countless straying ways,
Open to erring steps and strew’d with baits.
To bind weak senses into endless strays,
Aloof from Virtue’s rough, unbeaten straits
A flower, a play, a blast, a shade, a dream,
A living death, a never-turning stream.

Quietly nestled in as the house confessor to Catholic noblewoman Anne Howard, Southwell scratched out page after page to fortify the hearts of the beleaguered Old Faith — standard stuff like martyrology testimony concerning his brother priests, overt manifestos like An humble supplication to Her Maiestie, and literary bestsellers admired by Protestant countrymen like Mary Magdalene’s Funeral Tears and his verse collection St. Peter’s Complaint, and Other Poems.*

This last appeared posthumously. After three years’ imprisonment — “I am decayed in memory with long and close imprisonment, and I have been tortured ten times,” the imminent martyr said of his handling by notorious Catholic-hunter Richard Topcliffe; “I had rather have endured ten executions” — Southwell was brought to the bar on February 20, 1595, to answer as a traitor and put to the traitor’s death the very next day.

Though less widely familiar now, his literary output was well-known and highly regarded long after he died, and perhaps influenced many other writers including Shakespeare. The Catholic Church elevated Southwell to sainthood in 1970.

* A couple of Southwell’s epistles are preserved in the 1741 volume Memoirs of Missionary Priests.

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1726: Franz Laubler, Hermann Joachim Hahn’s murderer

Add comment July 18th, 2018 Headsman

Franz Laubler was broken on the wheel in Dresden on this date for assassinating Protestant deacon Hermann Joachim Hahn.

Hahn was a well-connected pastor who had been plying his trade in the Lutheran Kreuzkirche for nigh 20 years. That trade consisted heavily in the evangelization of Catholics in a confessionally split city;* indeed, his murderer, a Catholic-reared butcher and mercenary, had himself once upon a time been converted by Deacon Hahn.

Said Franz Laubler had in time returned his soul to the Roman fold but the unsettled mind suggested by his sectarian vacillation is supported by Laubler’s strange conviction that a communion wafer taken in 1720 had lodged permanently in his gullet. “Schlaget mir den Kopt ab, und ihr werdet noch die Hostie in meinem Halse finden!” he exclaimed: “Cut off my head, and you’ll still find the Host in my throat!”


Not to be confused with the Ghost to the Post.

On May 21 of that same year of our Lord 1726, the Host-throatened Laubler presented himself at the divine’s residence under the guise of seeking spiritual counsel, but instead sent Hahn straight to his maker with a hidden blade.** He’d thrown down Dresden’s Lucifer, he explained to the gendarmes who took him into custody — and made his heavy heart light.

The murder triggered a massive Protestant pogrom against Catholics which required several days to quell.

There’s a public domain volume from 1826 about these events available free here, as well as a 2009 book Die Hostie im Hals. (The Host in the Throat | here’s a review) Both titles are in German. Hahn’s Wikipedia page itemizes a number of other German pamphlets about his murder dating to the 1720s.

Hahn’s tomb can be found in the Trinitatiskirche Cemetery, where it was transferred in the mid-19th century from the old Johanniskirchof.

* Dresden, and Saxony in general, were predominantly Protestant. However, Catholics enjoyed a broad grant of tolerance thanks in part to the Elector of Saxony, Augustus the Strong, who converted to Catholicism in 1697 in order to become King of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

** Okay, it wasn’t straight to his maker: Laubler started by trying to strangle Hahn with a rope, and resorted to the knife as his victim resisted him.

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1798: Father John Murphy, Wexford Rebellion leader

Add comment July 2nd, 2018 Headsman

Catholic priest John Murphy was executed on this date in 1798 for his part in the Irish Rebellion of 1798.


The Black 47 jam “Vinegar Hill” celebrates Father Murphy, imagining him confronting and embracing the choice to rebel …

I return to my prayers
And reflect upon Your tortured lips
But not a word do I hear
Just a veil of silence around the crucifix
And I remember the Bishop’s words
“When faith is gone, all hope is lost”
Well, so be it
I will rise up with my people
And to hell with the eternal cost!

An exemplar of that rare type persuadable to follow his moral commitments all the way out of the safety of a status quo sinecure, Father Murphy initially eschewed the trend towards armed rebellion in 1798.

This outbreak was itself a response to a violent martial law-backed campaign of repression to crush Ireland’s growing United Irishmen movement for self-rule, republicanism, and Catholic emancipation — each of them scarlet fighting words to the Crown. The risings that finally broke out had only scanty success, weakened as they were by months of arrests.

By far the strongest rising occurred in Wexford, so much so that the Wexford Rebellion is nearly metonymous for the Irish Rebellion as a whole. And our man, John Murphy, was a priest in Wexford Town.

Giving due heed to Ecclesiastes, Murphy pivoted quickly from his previous counsel that prospective rebels surrender their arms once he saw an enemy patrol gratuitously torch some homes, a decision that would immortalize his name at the cost of greatly shortening his life.

During the brief existence of the Wexford Republic, the padre surprisingly became one of its prominent combat commanders, and also one of the signal martyrs after the rebels were shattered at the Battle of Vinegar Hill on June 21, 1798.*

Murphy escaped that tragic battlefield only to have his remnant definitively routed a few days later.

He had only a few days remaining him at that point, days of hiding out with his bodyguard, James Gallagher. At last they were captured at a farm on July 2, and subjected that same day to a snap military tribunal and execution delayed only by the hours required to torture him.

After hanging to death, Murphy was decapitated so that the British could mount his head on a pike as a warning.

This 1798 rebellion they were able to crush, but Murphy has survived into legend. He flashes for only an instant in the sweep of history, springing almost out of the very soil into the firmament as an allegory of revolutionary redemption, brandishing together (as Black 47 puts it above) both his missal and his gun.


The ballad “Boolvague” by Patrick Joseph McCall for the 1898 centennial of the rebellion pays tribute to Father Murphy:

At Vinegar Hill o’er the River Slaney
our heroes vainly stood back to back
And the yeos of Tullow took Father Murphy
and burned his body upon the rack
God grant you glory brave Father Murphy
and open heaven to all your men
The cause that called you may call tomorrow
in another fight for the Green again.

* There was a “Second Battle of Vinegar Hill” … comprising Irishmen but not in Ireland, for it was a convict rebellion in Australia in 1804. One of its leaders, Phillip Cunningham, was a survivor of the 1798 Irish Rebellion.

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1681: Archbishop Oliver Plunkett, the last Catholic martyr in Great Britain

Add comment July 1st, 2018 Headsman

Archbishop Oliver Plunkett earned the last Catholic martyr’s crown in Britain on this date in 1681.*

Product of County Meath blood and Italian seminary, Plunkett had been back floating around Ireland as its chief prelate since 1670. In this decade, the English-imposed laws burdening Catholics had been relaxed; Plunkett was able to minister his flock, openly at first and after 1673 as a fugitive whom Irish authorities did not much wish to pursue.

Plunkett’s safety speedily expired with the emergence in England of the Popish Plot, a security panic catalyzed like its modern-day analogues by equal parts bad faith and malice.

The concoctions of an opportunistic fabulist caused the English populace to become convinced in 1678 that a vast and treasonable Catholic conspiracy menaced the land; in its day, it was a delusion held so widely and deeply as to cow into silence and compliance all skeptics, even King Charles himself. Charles’s Lord Lieutenant in Ireland, the Earl of Essex, cynically leaned into the hysteria by whipping fears of a Plunkett-hatched invasion of Ireland by the French, although he well knew that Plunkett was “of a … peaceable temper & … comforable to ye Government.”

Plunkett spent months in hiding, refusing to flee Ireland, until he was finally arrested in December 1679. After proceedings in Ireland collapsed, the prelate was moved to London for a more manageable show trial, the entire transcript of which can be perused here.

In it, the Lord Chief Justice Sir Francis Pemberton chastises Plunkett for soliciting time to collect his witnesses, and concludes with a denunciation of the enemy religion that would not look far out fo place in many a present-day comments section.

truly yours is Treason of the highest Nature, ’tis a Treason in truth against God and your King, and the Country where you lived. You have done as much as you could to dishonour God in this Case; for the Bottom of your Treason was, your setting up your false Religion, than which there is not any Thing more displeasing to God, or more pernicious to Mankind in the World. A Religion that is ten Times worse than all the Heathenish Superstitions; the most dishonourable and derogatory to God and his Glory, of all Religions or pretended Religions whatsoever, for it undertakes to dispense with God’s Laws, and to pardon the Breach of them. So that certainly a greater Crime there cannot be committed against God, than for a Man to endeavour the Propagation of that Religion; but you to effect this, have designed the Death of our lawful Prince and King: And then your design of Blood in the Kingdom where you lived, to set all together by the Ears, to destroy poor innocent People, to prostitute their Lives and Liberties, and all that is dear to them, to the Tyranny of Rome and France.

Now tormented that his opportunistic fear-mongering was actually going to lay the archbishop in his grave, Essex implored the Catholic-sympathetic King Charles to spare Plunkett. “Then, my lord, be his blood on your own conscience,” snapped Charles, politically constrained from a beneficence he would have dearly loved to grant. “You could have saved him but would not, I would save him and dare not.”

On the first of July, he was drawn to Tyburn (a stained glass depiction of it can be found in this post), where he was hanged and quartered. (The strange Anglo-Irish plotter Edward Fitzharris preceded Plunkett on the scaffold, as an undercard attraction.) “He won more credit and repute, as well for himself as for his country, by one hour of suffering, than he could have acquired perhaps by hundreds of years of life,” one observer wrote.

This might very well be so. Aside from being the last Catholic martyr in the Isles, Plunkett is among the most warmly remembered, as evidenced by his recent remit as the patron saint of peace and reconciliation in post-Troubles Ireland — not to mention the loving preservation of his relics at St. Peter’s cathedral in Drogheda.

Readers might enjoy this 68-minute lecture on Plunkett’s life and times.


St. Oliver Plunkett’s head preserved in a shrine at Drogheda, Ireland. Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

* July 1 by the Julian calendar still then employed in England; by the Gregorian calendar adopted in most Catholic countries at this point, the date was July 11 — and some Catholic primary sources use the latter date.

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1806: Dominic Daley and James Halligan, hated foreigners

Add comment June 5th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1806, immigrants Dominic Daley and James Halligan were hanged at Northampton, Massachusetts. In the words of one widely reproduced report, “They persisted in their innocence to the last moment, although there were perhaps not a single one of the numerous spectators present, which was presumed to amount to nearly 15,000, who entertained a doubt of their guilt.”

Today, nearly everyone thinks them innocent.

The case began, as many wrongful convictions do, with a particularly outrageous crime — a young farmer, Marcus Lyon, found dead in a Massachusetts creek en route to his home in Connecticut. He’d been shot through the chest and his brains battered out of his skull. The motive: robbery.

In the absence of substantive evidence, some witnesses with vague reports of strangers on the fatal turnpike furnished tissue for an entire theory of the case, and through the misapprehended focus of tunnel vision the strangers became Irishmen, and the Irishmen became Dominic Haley and James Halligan.

In the close aftermath of American independence, New England was still overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon and Protestant. Most of the Irish people about at this moment were also Protestants: large-scale Irish Catholic immigration into the region only began in the 1820s and it panicked the normies when it came, with preachers and politicians railing against the insidious incursions of idolatrous papists.

So in 1805, when the hunt for strangers settled on two Irish-born Catholic immigrants … well, what was left to know? Just days later, a North Wilbraham Congregationalist minister thundered from the pulpit,

We see the evil attending a continued influx of vicious and polluted foreigners in this country. Many of the outrages we suffer proceed from this source. Who break open our homes in the unsuspecting hours of sleep? Who set fire to our large cities and towns for the sake of plunder? And who rob and commit murder on our highways? We are far from exculpating all of our own native citizens; we regret, indeed, that so many of them disgrace themselves and injure society by evil deeds. But these things notwithstanding, we are doubtless justified in saying, that a great proportion of the crimes above mentioned, together with many others which might be named, are committed by foreigners. And that atrocious deed which has so recently congealed all our blood with horror, in this place, is supposed to have been perpetrated by foreigners. Look at the annual reports of the overseers of the prisons and you will find them be principally occupied by foreigners

The first planters of this country were, generally speaking, men of pure lives and good morals and they were induced to come here for the sake of religion. And, for a long time, they maintained a wholesome and orderly state of society. But since the rapid increase of our commerce with other nations, and the great ingress of foreigners, many of whom are said to come here for the sake of escaping the retribution of justice in their own country; we have ripened apace in all the arts of vice and depravity. Some, who come among us from abroad, we readily acknowledge to be worthy and good men, and we cordially welcome their approach. But the number of these is comparatively small. The best and most useful citizens are cautiously retained, while the worst are readily parted with. Hence the rapid influx upon us, of late, of the most violent and abandoned of the human race. The late and present disturbances in foreign countries have greatly increased the calamity. The prisons of Europe and the West Indies are now disgorging themselves upon our shores; and this country is thus becoming the general asylum of convicts. This is a sore evil, and will furnish an increasing number of inhabitants for our prisons and victims for the halter.

The case in court would comprise 24 witnesses not one of whom had witnessed the crime; at most they could suggest that two strangers had taken the same well-trafficked public road on the same day as the victim, who was also a stranger in these parts. Even this much was not certain among the witnesses; their renderings were vague, tentative, contradictory — but witness recollections and prejudicial readings of circumstance soon shaped themselves around the shared understanding of events, and from so much smoke they wove the hemp.

The friendless immigrants’ court-appointed attorney, Francis Blake, who had been tasked with this first capital case of his life a bare 48 hours before the trial opened, made a vehement, eloquent, and futile address to the jury against “this illiberal, this inhuman prejudice” closing around the throats of his clients.

That the prisoners have, however, been tried, convicted, and condemned, in almost every bar-room, and barber’s-shop, and in every other place of public resort in the county, is a fact which will not be contested. That the sentence of the law has not been anticipated, and that they have not already suffered the penalty of death, may be ascribed rather to defect of power, than to lenity of disposition, in many of their accusers …

There is yet another species of prejudice, against the influence of which it is my duty to warn you. I allude to the inveterate hostility against the people of that wretched country, from which the Prisoners have emigrated, for which the people of New-England are peculiarly distinguished …

Pronounce then a verdict against them! Condemn them to the gibbet! Hold out an awful warning to the wretched fugitives from that oppressed and persecuted nation! Tell them that although they are driven into the ocean, by the tempest which sweeps over their land, which lays waste their dwellings, and deluges their fields with blood; — though they float on its billows upon the broken fragments, of their liberty and independence; — yet our inhospitable coast presents no Ararat upon which they can rest in safety; that although we are not cannibals, and do not feast upon human flesh, yet with all our boasted philanthropy, which embraces every circle on the habitable globe, we have yet no mercy for a wandering and expatriated fugitive from Ireland. That the name of an Irishman is, among us, but another name, for a robber and an assassin; that every man’s hand is lifted against him; that when a crime of unexampled atrocity is perpetrated among us, we look around for an Irishman; that because he is an outlaw, with him the benevolent maxim of our law is reversed, and that the moment he is accused, he is presumed to be guilty, until his innocence appears! …

The lives of the prisoners are now consigned to your disposal. Before you proceed to the performance of this awful duty, let me borrow the language of one of their countrymen, not degraded by the ignominious reproaches against his nation, but elevated to the highest rank among the orators of the elder world by the most splendid talents, the purest patriotism, and the most unsullied integrity. Let me beseech you to “remember that there is another than a human tribunal, where the best of us, will, on one day, have occasion to look back on the little good we may have done. In that solemn trial may your verdict on this day give assurance to your bones and afford you strength and consolation in the awful presence of an adjudging God!”

The words fell on deaf ears.

Daley and Halligan maintained their innocence from arrest to execution, but in the end they would require the offices of another foreign refugee, Father Jean-Louis de Cheverus, a French-born priest in Boston, who had fled the anti-clerical paroxysms of his own homeland. (Later, he would become the first Catholic Bishop of Boston.) It’s said that he stayed in jail with his charges, as no one in Northampton would suffer the papist priest to sleep under their own roof — and that his ministrations to them included the first Catholic mass said in that city.

Folklore cropped up around the 1830s to the effect that a local man had given a deathbed confession exonerating the hanged Irishmen … and that this murderer was the kinsman of one of the witnesses against Daley and Halligan. I cannot establish that this is any more than a just-so story, a fable, but even so it speaks to the continuing injury done by this execution to the now-growing Irish Catholic community. In time that demographic’s maturing numbers and political muscle flipped the story of Daley and Halligan from one of foreigners ripened in depravity to a sobering caution against bigotry and rush to judgment.

We have no real way, now, to access a definitive assessment of guilt or innocence; we can certainly say with confidence that the evidence was appallingly flimsy to hang a man even for the time. Both Daley and Halligan were posthumously exonerated by a writ of Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis in 1984. Dukakis discussed that action, and history’s view of the Daley-Halligan railroading, in a 2011 panel available in podcast form here.

For additional resources, check this Historic Northampton page (already linked several times within this post). Below, you can read the entirety of an 1806 publication reporting the trial, from which the defense lawyer’s remarks have been drawn.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Murder,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Theft,USA,Wrongful Executions

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