1830: Agnus Magnusdottir and Fridrik Sigurdsson, Iceland’s last executions

Add comment January 12th, 2017 Headsman

Iceland last used the death penalty on January 12, 1830 with the beheading of farm servants Agnes Magnusdottir and Fridrik Sigurdsson.

Only threadbare details survive to posterity about their crime: one night in 1828, Agnes roused a neighboring farm to give the alarm that Natan Ketilsson’s farmhouse, where she worked, was afire. Neighbors were able to quench the blaze quickly enough to realize that Ketilsson himself had not died because he was trapped in the flame — but because he had been stabbed to death, along with another man known as a criminal, Petur Jonsson.

Agnes, 33, and teenager Fridrik were arrested for murder and eventually beheaded on a desolate hill on the frozen northern coast where a mossed-over stone still silently marks the spot.*


(cc) photo taken by Jennifer Boyer on the walking path to be found at the site of crime.

Why were these men killed? The trial record attributes it to Fridrik’s “hatred of Natan, and a desire to steal,” which are answers that ask their own questions. If the stones remember, they aren’t telling and in the scantiness of documentation the job has fallen to literature instead, for there is something to be said for an mysterious double murder in the ashes of a half-burned farm and the novelty of a woman being the very last human to have her head chopped off in Iceland. (On execution day, Fridrik went first.)

Agnes was Natan’s lover, but the farmer had a reputation for womanizing and, so all suspect, eyes for Fridrik’s young girlfriend;** the inference of a jealous domestic psychodrama cast on the fringe of the Arctic Sea, of chilly twilit tables gathering furtive eyes above with wandering hands below, seems hard to resist. One of Natan’s other paramours was the poet Skald-Rosa, who addressed an anguished quatrain to Agnes in the weeks after the murder, helping to fix the latter’s place in national lore as the wicked moving spirit behind the whole disaster.

Don’t be surprised by the sorrow in my eyes
Nor at the bitter pangs of pain that I feel:
For you have stolen with your scheming he who gave my life meaning,
And thrown your life to the Devil to deal.

And then there was the strange coda, while verdicts were sent to Denmark for confirmation,† of the condemned simply living and working among the community waiting to execute them. Nineteenth century rural Iceland was a little short on jail cells and surplus provisions.

After studying on an exchange program in Iceland, Australian Hannah Kent found this speculative environment a rich source for her well-received first novel, Burial Rites. (There’s a lengthy and interesting podcast interview with her by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation here.)

Kent’s drama has made headway in Hollywood, with Jennifer Lawrence said to be keen on playing the tragic lead; if it someday does hit the silver screen, however, it won’t even be the first on its subject matter — witness the 1995 film Agnes.


As of this writing, the full movie can also be searched on YouTube…

The criminals Fridrik Sigurdsson and Agnes Magnusdottir were today moved out of custody to the place of execution, and following them to the execution site were the priests Reverend Tomasson and Reverend Thorvardur Jonsson, an assistant priest. The criminals had wished that the latter two help them prepare for their deaths. After the priest Johann Tomasson completed a speech of admonition to the convict Fridrik Sigurdsson, Fridrik’s head was taken off with one blow of the axe. The farmer Gudmundur Ketilsson,‡ who had been ordered to be executioner, committed the work that he had been asked to do with dexterity and fearlessness. The criminal Agnes Magnusdottir, who, while this was taking place, had been kept at a remote station where she could not see the site of execution, was then fetched. After the Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jonsson had appropriately prepared her for death, the same executioner cut off her head, and with the same craftsmanship as before. The lifeless heads were then set upon two stakes at the site of execution, and their bodies put in two coffins of untreated boards, and buried before the men were dismissed. While the deed took place, and there until it was finished, everything was appropriately quiet and well-ordered, and it was concluded by a short address by Reverend Magnus Arnason to those that were there.

Actum ut supra.

B. Blondal, R. Olsen, A. Arnason
(From the Magistrate’s Book of Hunavatn District, 1830 — as quoted in the epilogue of Kent’s Burial Rites)

* The milestone murderers, or at least their heads, rest in Tjörn.

** This young woman, Sigridur Gudmundsdottir, was condemned to death with the other two but got to keep her head in the end.

† Iceland did not become independent of Denmark until 1944.

‡ The victim’s brother was the executioner.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,History,Iceland,Milestones,Murder,Public Executions,Women

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1781: Diego Corrientes Mateos, Spanish social bandit

Add comment March 30th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1781, the Spanish social bandit Diego Corrientes Mateos was hanged and quartered in Seville.

A robber who plied the roads from Portugal to his native Seville, Corrientes (English Wikpedia entry | Spanish) was said to be of farmworker stock himself. His consequent good treatment of the rural common folk enabled him to operate with great freedom and situated him as a Robin Hood character; folklore has consequently inflated the valor of his exploits and the bile of Sheriff of Nottinghamesque pursuers like the lieutenant governor of Seville. For example, surprising his adversary on one occasion, Corrientes is supposed to have remarked, “I have learned that you boast you will be able to capture me.”

“Yes, and hang you,” shot back Francisco de Bruna.

“Then I must spare your life so you can fulfill your promise,” the sporting Corrietes allowed. (The reader will discern that Francisco de Bruna soon made good his threat.)

By the 19th century, he’d become a positive fixture of romantic and nationalist literature.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Dismembered,Execution,Famous,Hanged,History,Outlaws,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Spain,Theft

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Unspecified date: Mariotto Mignarelli, proto-Romeo

Add comment March 21st, 2016 Headsman

On a never-specified date in 15th century Siena, the tragic lover Mariotto Mignarelli was beheaded in Masuccio Salernitano‘s story Mariotto and Ganozza — the apparent wellspring (via an English interlocutor) for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Masuccio’s tale is itself an Italian Renaissance gloss on an old Ovid story; its outline will be instantly recognizable to devotees of the Capulets and Montagues. But instead of dueling suicides, Masuccio ends one of the star-crossed lovers with an executioner’s blade.

In Mariotto and Ganozza, which can be enjoyed for free in the original Italian here or here, the young lovers secretly wed only to find “that wicked and hostile fortune reversed all their present and future desires.”


These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder …

“Fortune’s” inscrutable hand turns out to be that of Mariotto himself, who gets into a fight with some other nobleman and, slaying him, must flee into exile. Posterity must excuse Mariotto/Romeo his hotheadedness, for were he not the type to wreck his own life by murdering a guy in a street fight he also wouldn’t be the type to pursue forbidden tragic romance. That’s art.


Fortune’s fool …

“How great was the supreme grief of the two most wretched lovers, so lately wed, and how bitter their tears at the thought of what they believed to be their endless separation, he alone who has been pricked by such wounds can truly tell.” (Translation source.)

“So deep and bitter it was, that at their last parting, they seemed for a long while to have died in each other’s arms.”

It next comes to pass that Gianozza’s father, ignorant of her secret marriage to the town fugitive, arranges a match for her. This development leads our Juliet figure to seek out the aid of the friar who has secretly wed them in a scheme that is precisely Shakespearean.

The friar “made up a certain water with certain concoctions of various powders that, when the draught was ready and she had drunk it, it would not only make her sleep for three days, but seem to be really dead.” With this potion they stage Gianozza’s death; then, the friar secretly steals her hibernating “corpse” from its tomb, revives her, and packs her off to find her beloved.

He, of course, has separately received word of Gianozza’s death — and (also of course) the courier that had been dispatched pre-death elixir to clue him into the plan has been waylaid by pirates and left his essential plot spoilers at the bottom of the sea.

Disconsolate, Mariotto returns to Siena with the unproductive object of mooning over Gianozza’s grave and “weep[ing] as if their lives were ended.” Don’t worry, he has a backup plan! “If by misfortune he was recognized, he thought he would gladly be condemned as a murderer, knowing that she was already dead whom he loved more than himself and who loved him with equal love.”

This works as well as you expect, albeit with less panache than Shakespeare’s crypt climax: Mariotto gets caught in a transport of the macabre trying to break into Gianozza’s sepulcher, and is recognized as a condemned outlaw.

Before dawn, all Siena was full of the news, which reached the ears of the Court, who ordered the mayor to go and arrest him and quickly do that which the laws and the State commanded.

So, a prisoner in fetters, Mariotto was led to the palace of the mayor. When he was flogged, without needing long tortures, he faithfully confessed the cause of his desperate return. Though all alike had the greatest pity for him, and amongst the women he was bitterly wept for and thought the only perfect lover in the world, and each of them would have willingly redeemed him with her own life, yet he was at once condemned by the law to be beheaded. When the time arrived, without his friends or parents being able to aid him, the sentence was carried out.

Three days later, Gianozza — having reached Mariotto’s former refuge of exile and there learned of his misapprehension — turns up in Siena again only to discover that she is too late. Rather than stabbing herself to death right then and there as the Bard’s heroine would do, she shuts herself up in a convent “with intense grief and tears of blood and little food and no sleep, continually calling for her dear Mariotto, [and] in a very short time ended her wretched days.”


Prokofiev’s unwilling balletic finale

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Fictional,Italy,Murder,Myths,Nobility,Popular Culture,Sex,Torture,Uncertain Dates

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1825: Angelo Targhini and Leonidas Montanari, carbonari

Add comment November 23rd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1825, alleged carbonari plotters Angelo Targhini and Leonidas Montanari were guillotined by Papal executioner Mastro Titta.

This excommunicate revolutionary secret society was spending the 1820s — a decade in-between revolutions — harrying the restored crowned heads of Italy and France with assassination plots.

It was accordingly much-harried in its own turn, to the repeated profit of this grim chronicle.

The pair we feature today were casualties of all that cloak-and-dagger, specifically the latter.

The story (Italian link) goes that the Carbonari became convinced (correctly) that one of their number, a Filippo Spada, was informing against them; thereupon, our Angelo Targhini — very much the impressionable young zealot — was tasked with stabbing the turncoat to death in an alley. The victim, known familiarly as “Spontini”, survived the attack. Montanari, a physician, was one of the first on the scene but arriving policemen perceived that the “treatment” he was applying to the victim was actually deepening his wounds, and seized him as a conspirator.

Montanari admitted nothing of the kind and was accused solely on the impressions of police plus the information of another informant. But he was in no position to impeach this information because it was a secret court of the automcratic Pope Leo XII that condemned both men for treason — solicitous of neither defense nor appeals.

In his diaries, as detailed here as ever, the headsman Mastro Titta reports receiving death threats. Security on the Piazza del Popolo, “thick with people, as I never saw her,” in Titto’s words, was extremely tight — but no public disturbance or carbonari raid disturbed proceedings. That was left only to the prisoners, who declined to receive the sacrament of confession or acknowledge themselves assassins.

“All attempts to persuade them to repent came to nothing,” Titta laments. “They invariably replied only: ‘We have no account to render to anyone. Our God plumbs the fathoms of our conscience.'”

The young men are the subjects of the 1969 Luigi Magni film Nell’anno del Signore.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Assassins,Attempted Murder,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guillotine,History,Italy,Papal States,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Terrorists,Treason

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1750: James Maclaine

Add comment October 3rd, 2015 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

Thus I stand like the Turk with his doxies around.


(Via the British Museum)

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

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

Derry down derry, etc.

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

Derry down derry, etc.

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

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

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

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

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1685: Krystof Alois Lautner, Witch Hammer victim

Add comment September 18th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1685, Catholic priest Kryštof* Alois Lautner was degraded from the clergy and burnt at the stake as a sorcer — but his real crime was standing athwart a witch hunt.

The term “witch craze” doesn’t quite seem the just one for the Northern Moravian witch trials since they spanned 18 terribly systematic years until the gouty main inquisitor mercifully retired in 1696, having put about 100 people to the sword and stake.

Generally understood in the context of Catholic hostility to reform denominations on the soil of the present-day Czech Republic, this dreadful affair started when a Vernirovice woman was caught sneaking the Host out of Easter Mass in 1678, intending to use it as a charm for a folk spell to enhance the fertility of her cows.

By 1679, that woman was burned at the stake — along with two others whom she was induced to accuse by the threat of torture.

These executions were the fruit of a witchcraft commission that had been empaneled to pursue the original desecration of the communion bread, but now that the witch team was an institution it began finding more and more necromancers, in a self-justifying spiral of accusations.

Lautner, a well-liked deacon of Sumperk, spoke against the witch hunt when it came to that city and for his pains he was arrested there in 1680 … then leisurely broken by torture over a period of four years until he was at last undone by accusations wrenched from the torture of the wealthy Sattler family. (Whose valuables the commission did not neglect to appropriate.) It was standard witchcraft fare: black sabbaths, incestuous orgies, pacts with Satan.

Milder tortures were used against him initially” the records say. “But those he admirably resisted, and remained obdurate. Then came harsher steps. Lautner began to confess, but when he was removed from the devices he recanted his admissions. So he was put to torture again and again, to defeat the devil’s secrecy. He was interrogated in June 1684 — twelve days in a row, except Sunday.” The case progressed so deliberately in part because the prosecution of a clergyman required the signoff of church heirarchy** … and in part because Lautner’s own friends intervened to try to free him. (One such ally, the priest Tomáš König, wrote a letter to the bishop on Lautner’s behalf and thereby became an object for investigation himself; it’s thought that he was about to be arrested by the witchsmellers when he fortuitously died in 1682.)

In the end the cleric could not hope to withstand the pressure. 20,000 people are reported to have swelled Sumperk for his execution by fire.

His case — which has latterly been commemorated by public monuments celebrating Lautner as a hero of conscience — was dramatized in the historical novel Witch Hammer by Vaclav Kaplicki. Otakar Vavry adapted the story for the silver screen; Kladivo na Carodejnice is available online in its entirety, but you’ll need to be up on your Czech.

* Hacek courtesy of Jan Hus!

** Pope Innocent XI ultimately signed off on proceedings, on the sententious grounds that clergy can’t be above the law when they traffic with devils.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Czechoslovakia,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Torture,Witchcraft,Wrongful Executions

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1824: Johann Christian Woyzeck, non compos mentis?

Add comment August 27th, 2015 Headsman

Johann Christian Woyzeck was publicly beheaded on this date in 1824 for fatally daggering his lover in a jealous wrath.

He was a rudderless orphan to whom the Napoleonic Wars gifted the stopgap profession of soldiering, but once the fighting stopped, Woyzeck wandered back to his native Leipzig and gave rein to his many vices.

Suicidal, drinking heavily, and unable to hold down steady work, Woyzeck frequently abused his special lady friend, the widow Johanna Christiane Woost. He would later say that he was often urged by voices in his mind to slay her — and on the night of June 21, 1821, after she canceled a rendezvous, he did so at last.

A pathetic exit from life turned out to be an entrance into judicial and literary history.

There was no question but that Woyzeck’s hand had taken Woost’s life, but proceedings against the killer dragged on for three years as courts vacillated on his mental competence. Woyzeck had been wildly depressed and owned to hallucinations and unbalanced moods that his contemporaries could readily recognize as falling near the pall of madness.

Nevertheless, Woyzeck had initially been slated for execution in November 1822 based on the evaluation of celebrated Leipzig physician Johann Christian August Clarus, but another doctor — academics will recognize the irksome intervention of reviewer no. 2 here — horned in with a missive questioning the conclusion.

That stay invited an 11th-hour stay and five more examinations worth of billable hours for Dr. Clarus, who studied up his man again and came to the same conclusion: that Woyzeck, though disturbed, was cogent enough to bear responsibility for his actions. It was in the end by this verdict that the executioner’s sword-arm swung.

The lost soul’s end on a Leipzig scaffold on this date would eventually inspire the writer Georg Buchner to pen the play Woyzeck. Though left unfinished when Buchner died young, the play has been frequently staged down to the present day, and even adapted for the silver screen by Werner Herzog:

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,Germany,History,Murder,Public Executions,Sex

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1990: Sam Cayhall in Grisham’s “The Chamber”

1 comment August 8th, 2015 Headsman

In John Grisham’s The Chamber, it is on August 8, 1990 that the titular enclosure receives its victim in a cloud of lethal gas.

In The Chamber, Sam Cayhall, a Ku Klux Klansman who had long avoided conviction for bombing a Jewish civil rights lawyer in 1967, has at last been condemned in Mississippi twenty years later.

The action centers around the futile and increasingly hopeless efforts of Cayhall’s grandson Adam Hall to save the old man working pro bono for a Chicago law firm.

Adam comes to learn that his grandfather has a long and bloody Klan history, even killing children. (We also find that the missing link in this generational drama, Adam’s father, committed suicide after Sam was sent to death row.)

But Sam is in no way a good guy: still an unreconstructed racist, he refuses to inform on any ex-confederates. As grandpa wends his way towards his date with the executioner, Adam’s torrent of judicial appeals go nowhere and the politically sensitive nature of the case makes executive clemency a non-starter. (When The Chamber was published in 1994, the death penalty was at an acme of popularity.) This is to be expected, of course; as Chekhov might observe, you can’t call the book The Chamber if someone isn’t going to go sit in said chamber by the end.

This bestseller was made into a 1996 film starring Gene Hackman as the grizzled Klansman. (In the film version’s execution scene, the date is changed to April 13, 1996.)

There’s an excerpt of the novel available on Grisham’s site here.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Gassed,History,Mississippi,Murder,Terrorists,USA

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1865: Okada Izo, barbarian-expeller

Add comment July 3rd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1865, the Japanese samurai Okada Izo was dispatched by crucifixion.

He was one of* the “Four Hitokirimanslayers — whose legendary blades coruscated in the Bakumatsu era that marked Japan’s pivot from an isolationist feudal state, one where samurai were big men on prefectures, to a burgeoning modern power ruled by industry and mass conscription.

The irony was that dinosaurs like the Hitokiri helped bring the asteroid down on their own heads.

During the chaotic Bakumatsu period, triggered by Japan’s becoming involuntarily opened to the outside world, the emperor — long a figurehead marginalized by the shogun — entered the political fray under the xenophobic banner “revere the emperor, expel the barbarians.”

Warriors/assassins like the Hitokiri were wooed by the imperial camp and the promise of a policy that would maintain the purpose and privilege of elite swordsmen. But once power was conquered, the Meiji emperor repaid those knights’ exertions by doing the modernization thing that Hitokiri types had hoped to avoid.

Okada Izo was among the first barbarian-expellers to be caught up by the policy swing. After a couple of years running amok in Kyoto, the anti-foreigner movement was suppressed and its leader forced to commit seppuku, which was still more deference than Izo received.

The execution, usually conceived as the end, is the jumping-off point for the surreal time-and-space-hopping 2004 Takasha Miike bloodbath Izo, “one of the most difficult works of art to be made in recent times.”

* Along with fellow-execution victim Kawakami Gensai, and two other guys who met violent deaths that were not (more’s the pity for this site) executions.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Crucifixion,Death Penalty,Execution,Gibbeted,Gruesome Methods,History,Japan,Power,Public Executions,Soldiers,The Worm Turns,Wartime Executions

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1963: Jorge del Carmen Valenzuela Torres, Chacal de Nahueltoro

Add comment April 30th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1963, Jorge del Carmen Valenzuela Torres — better known as Chacal de Nahueltoro — was shot at Chillan for murder.

Perhaps Chile’s most recognizable mass-murderer (in the non-political category) the drink-addled young peasant one summer’s afternoon in 1960 took a scythe to his 38-year-old inamorata — and slaughtered all of her five children besides. (None of the children were Valenzuela’s own.)

The horrifying crime became grist for an acclaimed movie, but “the Jackal” was also noted for his dramatic personal turnaround during the two-plus years he spent awaiting his firing squad. In one of those paradoxes of the poor, Valenzuela was a man whose world cared for him only once he was condemned to death: he learned to read and write in prison and embraced spiritual counseling that made the fellow in front of the guns an altogether different creature from the homicidal brute.

While this rebirth made the execution itself controversial, it has also amazingly helped to elevate Valenzuela into the ranks of Latin America’s criminal folk saints. His tomb in San Carlos is crowded with votive offerings in thanksgiving for his intercessions.

(The actor who played Valenzuela in that film later collaborated on a 2005 documentary Bajo el Sur: Tras la Huella de un Asesino Milagroso — exploring the popular devotions that have arisen around his character’s real-life inspiration.)

For murderabilia that pairs with a juicy cut of meat, don’t miss out on Botalcura Winery’s blood-red Chacal de Nahueltoro merlot.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Chile,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Murder,Popular Culture,Shot

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