Unspecified Year: Vilem, the Forest King

Add comment May 2nd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in an unspecified year, the bandit Vilem is broken on the wheel and beheaded in the classic Czech poem Maj, by Karel Hynek Macha.

Maj (“May”) commences with a lass called Jarmila on the first day of that month who waits on the shores of a Bohemian lake now named for Macha for her outlaw lover … only to be told by a boatman that her sweetheart in fact reposes across that body of water, weighted with irons in a castle dungeon, where he awaits a dawn execution for murdering his own father, who was also Jarmila’s seducer. All concerned reflect and pine through a melancholy night, and come morning Vilem is put to death as planned and gibbeted on his breaking-wheel; years later, his still-visible remains occasion a traveler-narrator to discover and somberly reflect on the events, and the ephemerality of all things: “My youth, alas, my youth! My season and song are May! / An eventide of May on a rocky, desolate shore: / Light laughter on the lips, deep grief in the heart’s core.”

This tale, recognizable to every Czech, has been put to the silver screen on several occasions. Macha’s timing was impeccable, for he self-published it in 1838, right when central Europe’s romantic social banditry mythos was forming. According to Mohmir Grygar, the name “Vilem” (Wilhelm, William) might allude to the executed Tyrolean chancellor Wilhelm Biener, although Biener himself — a fallen overmighty politico, not a gold-hearted brigand — bears little resemblance to his alleged literary descendant.

1

Late evening, on the first of May—
The twilit May—the time of love.
Meltingly called the turtle-dove,
Where rich and sweet pinewoods lay.
Whispered of love the mosses frail,
The flowering tree as sweetly lied,
The rose’s fragrant sigh replied
To love-songs of the nightingale.
In shadowy woods the burnished lake
Darkly complained a secret pain,
By circling shores embraced again;
And heaven’s clear sun leaned down to take
A road astray in azure deeps,
Like burning tears the lover weeps.

A haze of stars in heaven hovers—
That church of endless love’s communion—
Each jewel blanches and recovers
As blanch and burn long-parted lovers
In the high rapture of reunion.
How clear, to her full beauty grown,
How pale, how clear, the moon above,
Like maiden seeking for her love,
A rosy halo round her thrown!
Her mirrored image she espied,
And of self-love, beholding, died.
Forth from the farms pale shadows strayed,
Lengthening longing to their kind,
Till they embraced, and close entwined,
Coiled low into the lap of shade,
Grown all one twilight unity.
Tree in the shadows writhes to tree.
In the far mountains’ dark confine
Pine leans to birch and birch to pine.
Wave baunting wave the streamlets move.
For love’s sake—in the time of love—
Anguished goes every living thing.

A fair girl at the rim of land
Watches the evening’s rosy phases;
Under the oak-tree by the strand
Far out across the lakes she gazes.
Blue to her feet it coils and glimmers,
And green beyond, and greener, sleeps,
Till in the distances and deeps
In clear, pale light all melts and shimmers.
Over the wide and watery plain
The girl has fixed her weary gaze;
Over the wide and watery plain
Only the glint of starlight plays.
A lovely girl, an angel ravaged,
A bud that April winds have savaged,
In her pale cheeks doomed beauty hastens.
One hour has swallowed up her morrow,
One hour her promise chills and chastens,
Marries her May to grief and sorrow.

Of twenty days the last has died;
Still dreams the quiet countryside.
The last light hastens to its close,
And heaven, like a great, clear rose,
Over the deep blue mountains flushes.
“He comes not! Ah, such anguish takes me!
Another spoiled, and he forsakes me!”
A heavy sigh her sad voice bushes,
Her aching heart burns in her breast,
And with the water’s plaint unsleeping
Mingles the note of bitter weeping.
Snared in her tears the stars find rest,
Down her pale cheeks like bright sparks flowing
Till like quenched stars they burn to shades there,
On her cold countenance briefly glowing.
And where they fall, the blossom fades there.

At the rock’s rim she glimmers whitely;
A silken standard flies her gown,
In evening zephyrs fluttering lightly.
Her eyes on distance fix and frown—
In haste she dries her blinding tears,
Beneath her shading hand she peers,
And on the distant shore she fastens,
Where in the hills the lake creeps hiding;
Over the waves live sparks go gliding,
Star after watery starlet bastens.

Even as snow-white virgin doves
Against dark wastes of cloud in flight,
On water-lily flowering white
On deepest blue—so something moves—
Where in the hills the lake creeps hiding—
Over the dark waves nearer gliding,
Nearer in haste. A moment proves
Now as the stork’s grave flight it looms,
No dove so flies nor lily blooms,
But a white sail rocked by hasting breezes.
A slender oar the blue wave teases,
With flaming furrows the surface bazing.
The golden rose of heaven’s hold,
High in the mountain oakwoods blazing,
Gilds the ripples with rosy gold.
“Swift litlle boat! Near, nearer bounding!
‘Tis be! ‘Tis be! Those plumes bright beaming,
The hat, the eyes beneath it gleaming—
His cloak—” The boat in the beach is grounding.

Over the rocks his light step rings,
By a known path he climbs and closes.
The girl’s pale face flowers into roses;
From the tree’s shade in wild hope flying
She runs, high-calling, runs and springs,
And on the rower’s breast she’s lying-
“Alas, my heart!: The moonlight shows
In its full flood a face she knows.
Her pounding blood to terror knells her.
Where is Vilem?”

“See, by the lake,”
In low grim tone the boatman tells her,
“Above the night the forests make
Rises a tower, its image white
Deep in the lake’s heart drowned from sight;
But deeper, see, at the water’s rim,
From a little window a lantern’s gleam;
This night to vigil Vilem is giving:
Tomorrow sets him free from living.
His heavy guilt and yours he carries:
Deep your seducer’s blood has stained him,
That stroke a parricide arraigned him.
Still, still revenge the avenger barries!
A felon’s death! Peace to him bring,
Lord, when that face, the rose outshining,
In its high place stands withering,
And in the wheel his limbs are twining!
So dies the dreaded Forest King!
Bear for his guilt, and your own shame,
My bitter curse, and the world’s blame!”

He turns. His voice to silence falls;
Down he climbs through the rocky walls,
Outward his boat goes gliding.
Swift as the stork’s flight, beating fast,
Dwindling, dwindling, a lily at last,
Over the lake in the mountains hiding.

Hushed are the waters, dark, forlorn,
In deep dusk all things crouch to cover.
A white dress gleams on the waves that mourn
Over her: “Jarmila!” like a lover,
And the woods sigh: “Jarmila!” over and over.

Late evening, on the first of May—
The twilit May-the time of love.
To dalliance woos the turtle-dove:
“Jarmila! Jarmila!! Jarmila!!!”

2

Out of heaven a star falls questing,
Dying through the wastes of space,
Endlessly it falls unresting
Through its endless resting-place;
From the unbounded grave wild crying
Beats at heaven with bitter breath.
“Is there then no end of dying?”
Nowhere—never an end of death.
Around the white tower breezes shiver,
Beneath, the whispering wavelets quiver.
On the blanched walls in silver glance
The argent moon sheds radiance.
But deep within the tower is darkness only,
For the clear moon’s pale wealth of light
Through narrow window into the cell gropes lonely,
And dims into the assault of night.
Column by column the sombre vault’s recesses
Melt into darkness. The entering wind sighing
Circles the cell like murdered felons crying,
And stirs the prisoner’s tresses.
Beside a table hewn of stone,
His head upon his hands inclining
Half-sits, half-kneels this wretched one,
To deeps of thought his soul resigning.
As clouds the moon’s face veil and cover,
He draws their web his spirit over;
Thought into thought flows undesigning.

“Deep night, now in your veiling hold
My native village you enfold,
And friends weep for my end there.
Weep?—and for me? A dream outworn!
Long since I have no friend there.
The first gleam of tommorow’s morn
Over her forest breaking,
Will send me to my death forlorn,
And gild, as when her child was born,
Her merry, mild awaking.”

Silent he falls; but through the night,
About the high vault flying,
Far, far his voice goes sighing,
Till as with horror frozen in flight
At the cell’s end it chills there,
And into darkness stills there.

The silence in the darkness grieving
Calls back to heart the days departed;
Again in waking dreams he’s living
The long-lost life of a boy light-hearted.
Remembrance of green years and kind
Brings back a young man’s dreams to mind;
The prisoner’s eyes with tears are flowing,
And in his heart a great pain growing—
A lost world how shall the seeker find?

Mountain on mountain westward presses
Beyond the lake high-piled
And there in the pinewoods’ sweet recesses,
He dreams himself once more a child.
Early thrust from his father’s care,
Bred up by brigands in strifes and stresses,
Last to their leader fallen heir,
Gallant and daring they acclaim him.
Known to all men, thus all men name him,
Lord of the Woods, a name of fear.
Till the love of a broken rose inflames him;
His hand, to bitter vengeance straying,
Seeks the seducer, strikes him, claims him,
His stranger father strangely slaying.
Wherefore a prisoner he lies,
Doomed to the wheel’s embrace that kills;
Lord of the Woods, at dawn he dies,
At the first kindling of the hills.

Now at a table hewn of stone,
His head upon his hands reposing,
Half-sits, half-kneels this wretched one,
The abyss of thought his soul enclosing:
As clouds the moon’s face veil and cover,
He draws their web his spirit over,
Thought evermore new thought disclosing.

“He, sire and foe!-I, death and seed!
And he my love’s betrayer!
I knew him not! My fearful deed
recoiled and slew the slayer.
Why was I banished from his sight
The lawless woods to barry?
Whose crime does the dawn’s death requite?
Whose guilt is this I carry?
Not mine! ab, surely I was bent
A mute, unwitting instrument
God’s judgment to deliver.
Not mine the deed! Why, then, ah, why
Out to this hideous death go I
So soon-and, ah, for ever?
Soon, and for ever! Endless—death—”
For horror fails the prisoner’s breath,
Echoing from the dungeon wall;
The voiceless shadow of the night
In iron grip shuts sound and sight.
A new dream holds his mind in thrall.

“Ah, she, my saint, my rose embowered!
Why lost ere ever she was found?
Why at my father’s hands deflowered?
Accursed I!—” Deep anguish drowned
The struggling words. With sudden sound
Of clamorous chains he springs upright,
And from the little window strains
Over the waves his tortured sight.
Cloud veils the moon, and shadow reigns
Over the earth, but no shade mars
The zenith glittering with stars;
With points of fire the lake they stain,
That flash and fade in waters hollow.
Their glimmering flight his fixed eyes follow,
And all his heart is wrenched with pain.
“How fair the world! How rich the night!
Silver and shade agreeing!
Ah, tomorrow shuts my dying sight
On all the bliss of seeing!
And as grey cloud across the skies
Far, far and wide goes flying,
So—” Down he sinks, his hungering eyes
Torn from the scene, his chains’ harsh cries
Soon into silence dying.

A monstrous bird’s extended wing,
From peak to peak the cloud is driven,
Under one vast pall gathering
In blackest marriage earth and heaven.
Hark! from the high hills lost to sight
A poignant voice is trilling,
A forest piper of the night,
The song of heaven distilling.
To all things which bave wakeful lain
It charms down sleep’s completeness;
The prisoner in his mortal pain
Finds Lethe in its sweetness.
“How beautiful, dear voice, the song
On the night’s breast you’re flinging!
But one more night-ah, God, not long!-
And deaf to your enchanted tongue,
No more I’ll hear such singing.”
Again be sings-the clank of chains
Rings through the cell, despairing-
Deep silence. Once again the pains
Of death his heart are tearing,
And fading far the voice complains
An anguish beyond bearing.
“Time yet to come? Tomorrow’s day?
Still, still some dream will time repay,
Or sleep too deep for dreaming?
Perhaps this life which here I live
Is but a sleep, and dawn will give
Only another seeming?
Or that best rose, long longed-for here,
That fruit the wide earth did not bear,
Will dawn and death disclose?
Who knows?—Ah, no one knows!”

Silence again. The hush of night
On all the earth is draped there.
Quenched is the moon’s benignant light,
Quenched are the stars, and all around
Is purest darkness, black, profound,
As if the grave’s mouth gaped there.
No winds blow more, nor waves complain,
Nor even the far, sweet pipe of pain,
And in the bosom in the cell
Dead silence, utter darkness dwell.
“How deep the night-how dark the night!
On me a darker closes—
Away, thought!” Panic shuts from sight
The grave his thought discloses.

Deep silence. From the streaming wall
Flows down a small, slow river,
And echoing drops the silence fret;
Through the long cell their hollow fall,
Measuring night’s moments of regret,
Chimes—ceases—chimes and ceases ever,
Chimes—ceases—chimes and ceases yet.

“How long the night—how long the night!
On me a longer closes—
Away, thought!” Horror shuts from sight
The grave his thought discloses.
Deep silence. Once again the chime
Of slow drops falling metes out time.

“A darker night! Here in the womb
Of veriest midnight shines some beam
Of moon or star—there—hideous gloom,
There never—never—never a gleam,
Only the dark for ever.
All’s one there, without part-they send
no hours, no moments to befriend,
Night fails not, never dawns the day,
For there time passes never.
There never—never—never an end!
From death that passes not away
Who shall my soul deliver?
“There utter emptiness, beneath,
Around, above, the void of death,
Quenching all live’s endeavour.
Unending silence—never a sound—
Unending space, night, time, surround
The dead mind dreaming on decay—
Mere nothingness—for ever!
And I to nothing—but one more day,
And I to nothing am cast away—”
He faints, he falls aquiver.

Lightly the waves at play come springing
Under the tower, their small spray flying,
Ever a gentle murmur bringing,
A cradle-song for captive singing,
Who in a deep half-death is lying.

The fearful clash of chains awakes
The guard, who with his lamp comes hasting;
So light a step, it scarcely breaks
The prisoner’s trance of dread unresting.
Pillar to pillar the lantern bright
Puts forth its little gleaming:
Still paler, paler grows its light,
Till fails at last the exhausted spark,
And absolute and moveless dark
On all beyond lies dreaming.
But still the prisoner’s eyes, adaze
As if night shrouded still their gaze,
Strain forward, nothing seeing,
Althought the lantern’s reddening ray
Lights his wan face, and drives away
The timid shadows fleeing.
Beside the table hewn of stone,
His head upon his hands inclining,
Half-sits, half-kneels the wredched one,
To sick despair his soul resigning;
And the faint whispering of his breath
Tells forth tormenting dreams of death.

“Alas, my soul-Alas, my love-”
Single and slow the sad words move
Out of his shut lips sighing.
Scarcely they reach the straining ear
When, newly born in pain and fear,
Already they are dying.

The gaoler’s light before him goes,
And on the prisoner’s face it glows.
The prisoner’s face—ah, dread and pain!—
His fixed eyes glare in wild distress
After an end of endlessness,
Tears, sweat and blood his pallor stain,
For speech his lips contend in vain.

The frightened gaoler stoops to snare
The thread of utterance from the air,
Lighter than lightest breeze he hears
The prisoner’s tale of blood and tears.
Lower he leans, and closer yet
To the wan mouth his ear is set,
Hard on the labouring lips now leaning,
Till fainting, fainting, they forget
Speech, as if sleep came unawares.

Still stands the guard in dreadful dreaming,
Like bees in swarm his tears come teeming,
Sorrow his heart within him sears.
Long he stands frozen there aghast,
Till thrusting off his helpless fears,
Out of the cell he flies in haste.
Long as he lived, he told no word
Of what his ears this night had heard:
Rather his whole life through thereafter
His pale lips said farewell to laughter.

The guard is fled, fast-closed the door.
Deep darkness shrouds the cell once more;
And through the night once more the chime
Of slow drops falling metes out time.

Beside the table hewn of stone
Half-sits, half-kneels Vilem alone;
His face a sight for fear and pain,
With fixed eyes staring in distress
After an end of endlessness—
Tears, sweat and blood his pallor stain.

Incessantly the watery chime
Of slow drops falling metes out time,
And wind and wawes as one complain;
To Vilem’s ear of death they tell.
He faints beneath the thought appalling.
Far through the night an owl is calling,
And louder beats the midnight bell.

Intermezzo I

Midnight

(a lonely place in the countryside)

In the wide plains sleeps sound the pale moon’s argent light,
Darkness is on the hills, the lake with stars is bright.
A hillock by the lake-shore rises,
A stake thereon, a wheel raised lightly,
Whereon a bleached skull glistens whitely,
While ghostly rout a dance devises,
About the high wheel revelling rightly.

Chorus of Phantoms

“Silent the midnight graveyard lies;
Through the graves the marshlight flies,
Its dead blue radiance lights the head
Of the newly-buried dead,
Who, while his fellows sleep, stands guard,
Last of the sepulchred, dead today,
Beside his own cross keeping ward.
A grey cloud in the zenith stays,
No moon beneath it but the ray
Of the dead man’s glassy gaze,
And through half-open lips beneath
The glitter of his gnashing teeth.”

A Voice

“This is the hour! The place prepare!
Lord of the Woods, the lord of fear,
Is one with us at dawn of day.”

Chorus of Phantoms (lifting down the skull)

“From death’s dim threshold come away,
Inherit life – a voice receive.
Be one among us, know us well,
No more be doomed alone to dwell.
Another must your place achieve.”

The Skull (joining in their dance)

“How my limbs long to join again
In one whole creature, only one!
What is this rout of terror and pain?
My newest dream – I still dream on!”

Voice

“His place of honour ready see!
When tomorrow’s course is o’er
The storm shall bear us here once more.
Glorious may his burial be!”

Chorus of Phantoms

“His place of honour ready see!
When tomorrow’s course is o’er
The storm shall bear us here once more.
Glorious may his burial be!”

Voice

Fly, voice, across the fields with power!
At midnight is the funeral hour.
His votive gift let each make known!

The Stake and Wheel

“I’ll be the coffin to his repose.”

Frogs in the Marsh

“The burial anthem we’ll intone.”

Storm over the Lake

“The gale funeral music knows.”

The Moon in the Zenith

“I’ll cover him with snow-white pall.”

Mist on the Mountains

“With veils I’ll drape his funeral.”

Night

“I’ll give black weeds to mourn the dead.”

The Hills Standing Round

“Give veils and garments to us all.”

The Falling Dew

“And I will give you tears to shed.”

The Barren Soil

“I’ll incense with sweet smoke his head.”

The Sinking Cloud

“With rain will I asperge his bed.”

The Falling Blossom

“I will weave garlands for his bier.”

Light Breezes

“We’ll bear them to the coffin lightly.”

St John’s Fireflies

“Our tiny candles shall burn up brightly.”

Thunder out of the Depths

“I’ll wake the great bell’s hollow tone.”

The Mole under the Earth

“I’ll dig his grave, I, lowly here.”

Time

“Over his bones a tomb I’ll rear.”

Flocks of Night-Birds Crossing the Moon

“We’ll make the funeral feast our own.”

Voice

“All honour to his grave we pay!
The moon pales in the heaven’s heart,
The gates of morning draw apart—
It is day! It is day!”

Chorus of Phantoms (as they vanish)

“It is day! It is Day!”

3

Over the dark hills rosy day
Arises, the May valley wakes;
Above the woods, as morning breaks,
Like mist lies long the dream of May.
Out of the forests bluely lifting
Faint vapours climb the rose-flushed sky,
And on the lake more bluely drifting
In delicate colours melt and die;
And on the shore, and in the shadow
Of hills and valleys flowering,
Shine out white courts through wood and meadow,
Waking; till like a mighty king—
Colossal as the shade of night
Against thwe heaven’s rosy light—
The highest peak stands towering.

But now the sun his first red blessing gives
Over the blue, dark hills, and by that token
Suddenly all the spell of dreams is broken,
And joy possesses everything that lives.
Whitely the lake’s green glass the flight of birds receives,
And fleets of little craft, and small, swift-rowing shallops,
Pattern the dim blue waves with glancing, fiery scallops.
Murmurous by the shore the pinewoods greet the day,
Sweet with the song of birds, the thrush’s shower of pearls,
And mingling with their psalm the mirth of straying girls,
As all that lives draws breath to praise the youthful May.
The morning wind, like song, through the green valley blowing,
Bears on its incensed breath a sweet white foam of flowers,
And wild geese ride its flight above the forest bowers,
And to its touch young trees unfold their eager growing.
One scene, and only one, the fair young morn defaces,
Where to the wide lake’s heart a narrow isle goes straying,
Bearing the little town, and the white tower, whose shade
Deep in the waters green in quiveringly laid.
Here wakes a clamorous cry, babel of human baying,
As from the gates of the town the hungry man-pack races.
From far the people haste, a swift stream rushing by,
And ever swells the food, a river strongly rolling,
A mighty multitude, its voice to thunder tolling;
The unhappy felon comes, led forth at dawn to die.

Now from the little town a troop of guards comes swinging,
In slow and sombre march the hapless prisoner bringing,
Whose old, proud habit soon the eager watchers spy.
The clamour stills around—a hush falls on the crowd—
Till babel bursts anew, with many a cry and loud:
“Tis he! The flowers, the plumes he’s wearing,
The hat, the eye beneath it glaring—
His very cloak—’Tis he,’tis he! The dreaded Forest King!”
About him beats the cry, his old name echoing;
And louder still it rings, as thundering waters clear,
As with a heavy step the criminal draws near.
Round him darkens the throng—like heavy clouds in heaven—
A sword flames from the dark—as heaven’s lightnings flare;
Slowly the doomed man goes, his gaze to earth is given.
The town bell tolls; the crowd pities and falls to prayer.

There stahd a little mound, on the lake-shore leaning lightly,
A long stake raised thereon, a wheel above it rearing,
A steep hill looms above, twin peaks its summit sharing,
And on the higher point a chapel gleaming whitely.
In sombre march thereto company is come;
Now all men move aside—the felon stands alone.
A last time led forth here, still he beholds his own,
The dark, deep-breasted hills which were his early home,
Where the lost coin was spent, the golden childhood days.
Yet once more, only once, in the rosy dawning light,
Let forth to the hills, a shade before the chapel white,
To the lord of heaven and earth his reverence he pays.
And deep compassion folds its hands on every heart.
His grief their grief inflames, they suffer his despair,
Fixing their eyes through tears on the summit where he stands
Adoring the fair earth well-fashioned at God’s hands,
A murderer praising God in the humbled hush of prayer.

The rising sun with ruddy grace
Flushes the prisoner’s pallid face;
His eyes, through mists of weeping,
A last love-tryst are keeping.
Beneath him deep the lovely vale
Dreams in its rugged mountain pale,
By forests circled greenly.
The lucid lake serenely
Nursed in the flowering valley drowses.
Blue to the shore it coils and glimmers,
And green beyond, and greener, sleeps,
Till in the distances and deeps
In clear, pale light all melts and shimmers.
About the wheel the white farmhouses
Dimpling the sunlit lake-shore lie.
Across the mirroring waters fast
Flocks of white birds and small boats fly,
Till bluely hides the lake at last,
Far in the hills retreating.
And white craft in the scalloped beaches—
The tower-the town-the white birds’ flight—
Hillocks and shadowy mountain reaches—
Gaze on that mirror with delight,
Their deep-drowned beauty greeting.
Rocks are piled heavy on that far shore
Where flowering land and lake are meeting,
And there an oak-tree old and hoar
Roots in the rocks-once, once the dove
Called there deliciously to love—
Oh, fair lost hour and fleeting!
Never again! The mound is nearing,
The column an the wheel appearing.
Beyond the hill there slips away
A young wood, murmuring mournfully;
Radiant the sun on vale and lea—
The morning dew—the morning May.

Beauty once more the felon’s eyes receive,
Beauty which now for ever he must leave,
And passionate regret his heart possesses:
Deeply he sighs—tear after tear flows over—
One last long look, lingering as looks the lover,
Then to the sky his tear-dimmed eyes he raises.
In the azure vault of heaven the blanching mists are dancing,
In light dissolving zephyrs tattered,
And on the far horizon scattered
White cloudlets over the placid sky go glancing.
The grieving prisoner greets them as they race:
“You clouds, who in your wandering course embrace
Like secret circling arm the earth her own course keeping,
You dissolutions of stars, shades in the blue of heaven,
You mourners ever to mutual sorrow given,
Who know so well the ways of silent weeping—
Bear you my charge, of all things that have birth.
Where you pass from me on your long, wide way
To the distant shore, there for a moment stay,
There, pilgrim clouds, greet reverently the earth.
Ah, well-beloved earth, beautiful earth,
My cradle and grave, the womb that gave me birth,
My sweet, sole land, left to my spirit’s keeping,
Ah, vast and single of beauty as of worth!-
Seek there that rock, and when your swift sails gain it—
If you shall see—by the shore—a woman weeping—”
There fails his voice, the strangling tears have slain it.
Down from the height the guards their prisoner lead
By a wide pathway through young pinewoods threading,
Down and still down; now on the mound they’re treading;
And now the multitude is hushed indeed.
The executioner with his sword stands ready.
Yet one more time the prisoner lifts his eyes,
Worships the sweet, encircling world-once sighs-
And on the approaching death his soul makes steady.
His breast and throat he bares, kneeling to earth he leaves it;
Back steps the headsman-an age the frozen mind believes it!—
The sword flashes; a rapid forward stride—
The sword circles; the bent white neck receives it—
The head falls—a tremor—and yet a tremor beside—
And falls the body after, one with the grieved earth growing.
Into the earth, so beautiful, so beloved.
His cradle and grave, the womb that gave him birth,
His sweet, sole land, his heritage approved,
In the generous earth, the single, holy earth,
Into the mother’s heart the blood of her son is flowing.

The prisoner’s shattered shell, limb after long limb broken,
Twined in the wheel’s embrace is raised, a terrible token,
And over the wheel his head, a blind, oblivious thing.
So died the lord of the woods, the dreaded Forest King.
On the dead countenance the last dream lingers still.
Gazing upon his face, mute round the little hill
The unquiet multitude awaits the long day’s ending,
Till the declining sun draws to the west once more,
Into the head’s blind eyes its gay last laughter sending.
Hushed is the broad lake-hushed is the evening shore.

Above the far dark hills the last radiance blazed.
The pale, dead face of the head is softly silvered o’er,
Silvered the silent mound, hushed by the lake-shore,
As in the evening hush the moon’s fair face is raised.
Distant are grown the towns, far as a cloud in air,
Beyond to the edge of seeing the dead eyes steadily stare,
To the edge of sight, to his youth-Oh, brief, bright childhood day!

Time in its headlong flight has carried that Spring away.
Far fled is his dream, a shadow no more found,
Like visions of white towns, deep in the waters drowned,
The last indignant thoughts of the defeated dead,
Their unremembered names, the clamour of old fights,
The worn-out northern lights, after their gleam is fled,
The untuned harp, whose strings distil no more delights,
The deeds of time gone by, quenched starlight overhead,
Heresy’s pilgrimage, the loving, lovely dead,
The deep forgotten grave, eternal board and bed;
As the smoke of burned-out fires, as the shattered bell’s chime,
Are the dead years of the dead, their beautiful childhood time!

Late eve—the second eve of May—
The twilit May—the time of love—
Meltingly calls the turtle-dove:
Vilem! Vilem! Vilem!!

Intermezzo II

Close the hills lean to each other,
Underneath a dark cloud hiding,
Like a vaulted ceiling riding
Taut from one peak to his brother.
Dark this place by evening gloom is,
Dark and silent as the tomb is.
In the portal deeply-shaded,
Where the hills shrink back dividing,
Sharp rocks in the opening spaces
Steeply rear their frowning faces,
Lower, narrower, blackly biding;
Underneath the cloud dark-braided
Shuts this gate of rocks and boulders.
In the valley’s heart deep-gladed,
Darkly red a camp-fire smoulders,
Broken from the west bright-beaming,
A long sliver of the sunset;
Round its red nocturnal gleaming
Circle night-birds, wheeling, plaining,
In a red and restless onset,
Till the blue of night they borrow.
Sinks the fire, still waning-waning,
Till the broad and bounteous heaven
Melts in nightly dews of sorrow,
And the earth to grief is given.

Oaks a hundred years a-growing,
Darkness within darkness throwing,
Hide a company of friends there.
Cloaked in white, as in the bright time,
Sit the comrades of the night-time.
Each before him groundward bends there,
Wordless, motionless, his vision,
As if terror’s chill transition
Into stone their flesh had stricken.
Through the valley seems to quicken
Whispered breath of lamentation
Round the moveless men who plain him,
Secretly, without cessation:
“Lost, our leader!—they have slain him!”

And the wind, the smoke-wreaths plying,
To the moveless men is crying:
“Lost, our leader!-they have slain him!”

And the restless leaves aquiver
Underneath the cold cliff-faces,
Trembling, murmuring, utter ever
These insistent, changeless phrases:
“Lost, our leader!-they have slain him!”

All the forests in their station
Sound the great, sad accusation:
“They have slain him—slain him!!—slain him—!!!”

4

Beautiful May is passed, withered the bloom of Spring;
The summer fire burns high, wanes, and as soon is gone,
Autumn, and winter after; another Spring comes on,
As time bears off the years on its unresting wing.

The seventh year it was, the seventh year’s last day;
Deep on it lay the night, and with the midnight chime
A new year would be born. The cold earth dreaming lay.
Lone hoof-beats by the lake troubled the silent time.
I was that wayfarer, bound for the town by night,
Led by chance to the mound, where, long ago at rest,
The dreaded Forest King lingered a quiet guest;
There first I saw Vilem- a bare skull glistening white.
There in the midnight land, far as the eye’s reach ranging,
Through valleys, over hills, by forest, lake and meadow,
A wide, white pall of snow lay level and unchanging,
Over the skull and wheel-all white without a shadow.
Deep clouds hemmed in the moon, which seemed to droop and sicken;
Sometimes the weird owl cried, ever the sad wind’s shaking
Plucked at the wheel above, and set the loud bones quaking,
So that my horse and I with panic dread were stricken.
Forward I spurred in fear, there where the safe town hailed me,
And asked what wheel, what bones were these which grimly grew there,
The old innkeeper told the story all men knew there-
The story I have told-and on that wheel impaled me.

Far I went through the world-and the world has enough of pain,
Many a storm of heart blew over me and bled me;
But still this old, worn woe beckoned me back again,
Till in a young Spring season home to the mound it led me.
Under the stake I sat, just as the sun descended,
Under the wheel which bore the skeleton and skull there,
Gazing sad-eyed on Spring, whose cup was fair and full there,
Even to the misty rim where earth and heaven blended.

Evening once more, the first of May-
The twilit May-the time of love.
Meltingly called the turtle-dove,
Where rich and sweet the pinewoods lay.
Whispered of love the mosses frail,
The flowering tree as sweetly lied
The rose’s fragrant sigh replied
To love-songs of the nightingale.
The lake within the dark woods straying
Softly complained a secret pain,
By circling shores embraced again
As brother sister in their playing.
About the head the sunset bright
Lay like a wreath of roses growing,
Gilding the bony face with light,
On fretted skin and white jaw glowing.
In the hollow skull the breezes sped
As if grim laughter mocked the dead,
and lifted lightly here and there
What time had left of his long hair;
Beneath his brows the dewdrops borrow
The sunset light, as if, discerning
The evening beauty of May’s returning,
His dead eyes brim with tears of sorrow.

There I sat on, until the young moon’s light
Blanched both my face and his with rays as pale as bright;
Now like a snowy pall its whiteness spreads before him
Over the vales and woods to the distant hills that bore him.
Sometimes from far away the cuckoo’s greeting sounds here,
Flung from the flowering vale, sometimes the owl’s grave warning;
From many a farmyard near the bark of dogs rebounds here;
Out of the dust arises a sweet incense of mourning,
The little tears of the Virgin upon the hill are flowering,
Deep in the heart of the lake a secret light is burning;
And the fireflies, shooting stars, about the wheel are showering,
Glittering in their play, touching the pale skull brightly,
Lighting to launch again, and launch again ac lightly,
Like fiery falling tears, all his spent tears embowering.

And in my grieving eyes two hot tears rise and break,
Glittering down my cheeks as sparks play in the lake;
For my young years, mine too, my childhood golden-gay,
Time in its headlong flight has seized and borne away.
Far is that lost dream now, a shadow no more found,
Like visions of white towns, deep in the waters drowned,
The last indignant thoughts of the defeated dead,
Their unremembered names, the clamour of old fights,
The worn-out northern lights after their gleam is fled,
The untuned harp, whose strings distil no more delights,
The deeds of time gone by, quenched starlight overhead,
Heresy’s pilgrimage, the loving, lovely dead,
The deep, forgotten grave, eternal board and bed,
The smoke of burned-out fires, the scattered bell’s chime—
Like the song of dead swam, like Eden snatched away,
So is my childhood time—
But what of following time?
My youth, alas, my youth! My season and song are May!
An eventide of May on a rocky, desolate shore:
Light laughter on the lips, deep grief in the heart’s core.

See you the pilgrim there, hastening on his quest
Through the long, sunset fields, beneath the dimming west?
Strain your eyes as you will, the end you cannot see,
As over the edge of vision he falters and finds no rest.
Never-ah, never! And this is all life offers me!
Comfort? Who comforts me? What charm this heart can move?
Love is without an end!—And bitter is my love!

Late evening, on the first of May—
The twilit May-the time of love—
Meltingly calls the turtle-dove:
“Hynek! Vilem! Ah, Jarmila!!!”

On this day..

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Feast Day of St. Dismas, the penitent thief

1 comment March 25th, 2018 Headsman

March 25* is the feast date (per the Roman tradition) of the penitent thief crucified alongside Jesus Christ.

“The Good Thief”, by Michelangelo Cerquozzi.

The Crucifixion — Christ flanked by the “bad thief” who taunts Him and the “good thief” who capes for the Messiah — is deeply planted in the western canon. All four of the Gospels refer to two thieves although it is not until Luke — chronologically the latest, and hence the most embroidered and least reliable, of the synoptic gospels — that these nameless extras are surfaced as contrasting archetypes of the damned and the saved.

And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us. But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss. And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:39-43)

This is as much as the New Testament has to offer on these characters, but the theme of the Savior’s redemption poured out to flesh-and-blood sinners at the hour of death had a powerful resonance for Christendom and would furnish a good thief cult down the centuries; topical for this site, said thief would headline countless execution sermons to the condemned. (Example) As Mitchell Merback puts it in The Thief, the Cross and the Wheel: Pain and the Spectacle of Punishment in Medieval and Renaissance Europe

For suffering patiently and obediently, for his literal realization of the ideal of imitatio Christi, he is rewarded with the crown of martyrdom. The spectacle of his death, his ‘immediate beatitude’, was therefore consummately edifying: a beautiful death, redeemed and redeeming, not despite but because of the abjection that accompanied it. To the philopassianic late Middle Ages he served as a powerful inspiration for penitents. One could only wish to die so thoroughly cleansed of sin as the man in the image.

We have already seen how a similar wish obtained, individually and collectively, in the theatre of public punishments. Confessed and penitent convicts became, in the eyes of the people, the living counterparts of the historical martyrs and, consequently, the objects of a quasi-cultic veneration … Like his condemned counterparts in the Middle Ages, then, the Good Thief’s worthiness for redemption resided in part in the purity of his self-examination, confession and repentance … [and] also sprang directly from his fleshly pains. As both spectacle and image, the demolished body of the Penitent Thief constituted a sign of this soul’s lightning progress through purgation and towards redemption. Within the purview of a Christian ‘piety of pain’, his torments were both abject and redemptive, fearful and enviable, unbearable and fascinating.

For the Bad Thief, who in stubborn blindness turns away from Christ and dies in despair, unregenerate and damned, this surplus of earthly pain is something else: a foretaste of eternal torments. The same violent death transforms one Thief into a likeness of the Crucified, and hence a figure worthy of compassion, admiration and veneration; the other is marked as an everyday scapegoat, worthy of mockery and scorn. Together, then, the two figures, though marginal in the Passion narrative, become central in the medieval economy of response: they become antithetical models for a culture tuned to pain’s instrumentality in the pursuit of redemption.

In the language of the canvas, Christ gestures at that redemption by inclining his head to the right, towards the Good Thief, and didactic works will sometimes add a cherub retrieving this dying penitent’s soul whilst some infernal monster snatches the nasty one.


“Crucifixion” by Vitale da Bologna, circa 1335.

Both thieves attained their legendary names later in antiquity from the Gospel of Nicodemus, Dismas, Dysmas or Demas (the good one) and Gestas or Gesmas (the other one).** Other apocraphal texts build these two out like spinoffs in a blockbuster franchise; The Story of Joseph of Arimathaea gives us one bloodthirsty murderer and one proto-social bandit with a heavy dollop of anti-Semitism:†

The first, Gestas, used to strip and murder wayfarers, hang up women by teh feet and cut off their breasts, drink the blood of babes: he knew not God nor obeyed any law, but was violent form the beginning.

The other, Demas, was a Galilean who kept an inn; he despoiled the rich but did good to the poor, even burying them, like Tobit. He had committed robberies on the Jews, for he stole (plundered) the law itself at Jerusalem, and stripped the daughter of Caiaphas, who was a priestess of the sanctuary, and he took away even the mystic deposit of Solomon which had been deposited in the (holy) place.

And in a credulity-straining prequel, the Gospel of the Infancy stages a scene where these same two guys (as Titus and Dumachus) mug the Holy Family on the latter’s flight to Egypt only for the Good Thief in a spasm of conscience to call off the attack. Baby Jesus rewards his clemency with the depressing prophesy that they’ll all be crucified together.

Present-day namesakes of the penitent thief include the Christian rock band Dizmas, and Bill and Ted’s hometown of San Dimas, California.

* It shares a calendar date with the Feast of the Annunciation, which is the date that an angel informed the Virgin Mary of her miraculous pregnancy. (March 25 = Christmas Day minus nine months.) Medieval belief cottoned to the symmetry of the divine conception and the passion of the cross falling on the same day.

** The understood arrangement is that Dismas was crucified on Christ’s privileged right side. However, Merback notes that like Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern these two halves of a whole are easily confused with one another, for “one of the surviving manuscripts containing the legend places Gestas on the right and Dysmas on the left; and several works discussed in these pages show the name ‘Gestas’ inscribed near the Thief on Christ’s right. Whether these are the outgrowths of a primitive literary tradition or the result of iconographic confusions or misappropriations is unclear.” As an example, in Conrad von Soest‘s Altarpiece from Bad Wildungen it appears that Dismas is the one bound for perdition:

† In The Story of Joseph of Arimathaea, damnation is explicitly framed as the fate of the Jews, with Christ assuring Dismas/Demas that “the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and Moses shall be cast out into the outer darkness.”

On this day..

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1957: Larbi Ben M’Hidi, in the Battle of Algiers

1 comment March 4th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1957, Algerian revolutionari Larbi Ben M’Hidi — more familiarly referred to as Si Larbi or Ben M’Hidi — was extrajudicially executed in French custody.

He was one of the founders of the militant nationalist National Liberation Front (FLN) and was a critical commander in the guerrilla war against French occupation, the Battle of Algiers. Small wonder he also features prominently in the cinematic masterpiece of the same name, where he and his opposite number, the French Col. Mathieu, are bracingly clear-eyed as to their respective sides’ necessary forms of terror.

In this scene,* for instance, the captured Ben M’Hidi is asked by a journalist whether it is not cowardly to have women kill people with bombs hidden in their baskets.

“It’s it even more cowardly to attack defenseless villages with napalm bombs that kill many thousands of times more?” the shackled M’Hidi replies. “Obviously, planes would make things easier for us. Give us your bombers, sir, and you can have our baskets.”

This exchange adapts a conversation that “Col. Mathieu’s” real-life model, Marcel Bigeard, reportedly had with his prisoner over dinner.

Bigeard respected Ben M’Hidi too much to torture him but the French brass was not so sanguine — perceiving that the Algerian would present a great danger to the occupation as a political prisoner. This was a dirty war, and men like Ben M’Hidi met dirty fates.

Major Paul Aussaresses,** the officer eventually tasked with dispatching the revolutionary, described how it happened in his The Battle of the Casbah: Terrorism and Counterterrorism in Algeria 1955-1957.

Ben M’Hidi didn’t want to cooperate and Bigeard knew full well what the consequences of such a refusal would be … would he have talked under torture? We knew that Ben M’Hidi was responsible for most of the attacks and that he deserved the gallows ten times over, yet it wasn’t absolutely certain that he would be found guilty in court.

On March 3, 1957, [General Jacques] Massu and I discussed the problem in the presence of [Massu’s second-in-command Roger] Trinquier. We agreed that a trial of Ben M’Hidi was not a good idea. There would have been international repercussions …

“So what do you think?” asked Massu.

“I don’t know why Ben M’Hidi should get preferential treatment compared to the other rebels. When it comes down to terrorism the leaders don’t impress me any more favorably than their underlings. We’ve already executed many poor devils who were carrying out this guy’s orders and here we are hesitating for three weeks just to find out what we’re going to do about him!”

“I agree with you completely, but Ben M’Hidi is not just some cipher who will be quickly forgotten. We can’t just make him simply disappear into thin air.”

“There’s no way we can hand him over to the police either. They claim they’ll give him the third degree to make him talk but I’m convinced he won’t say a word. If there were to be a trial and he hasn’t confessed, he could actually walk away free, along with the entire FLN cadre. So let me take care of him before he becomes a fugitive, which is bound to happen if we keep on hesitating.”

“Very well, go ahead and take care of him,” answered Massu with a sigh. “Do the best you can. I’ll cover you.”

I understood that Massu already had the government’s approval to proceed.

I picked up Ben M’Hidi the following night at El-Biar. Bigeard made sure he was somewhere else because he had been told ahead of time that I was coming to take the prisoner away. I came with a few Jeeps and a Dodge pick-up. There were about a dozen men from my first squad, all of them armed to the teeth. Captain Allaire was in charge and had a little combat group lined up and presenting arms. I asked him to go get Ben M’Hidi and hand him over to me.

“Present arms!” ordered Allaire, when Ben M’Hidi, who had just been awakened, was escorted out of the building.

To my amazement the paratroopers of the 3rd RPC gave the defeated FLN leader his final honors. It was Bigeard in effect paying his respects to a man who had become his friend. This spectacular and somewhat useless demonstration didn’t make my job any easier. Obviously at that instant Ben M’Hidi fully understood what was in store for him. I quickly shoved him into the Dodge. We traveled very fast since an ambush to free him was always a possibility. I gave very strict orders to the NCO guard sitting next to the FLN leader:

“If we’re ambushed, you shoot him immediately, even if we come out unharmed. Make sure you knock him off without hesitating!”

We stopped at an isolated farm that was occupied by the commando unit belonging to my regiment and located about twenty kilometers south of Algiers, on the left off the main road. A pied-noir had placed the farm at our disposal. It was a modest building and the living quarters were on the ground floor. My second team was waiting for us there.

The commando unit of the 1st RCP included about twenty men, some of whom were draftees, but all of them were completely reliable. Captain Allard, nicknamed Tatave, who was very much devoted to me, was in charge. I had told him what was going on and he had been briefed. I told him to have his men set up in a corner of the room where Ben M’Hidi would be placed. The farm was messy and they had to move a few bales of hay around and sweep the floor. While this was taking place the prisoner was kept isolated in another room, which had been prepared. One of my men was standing guard at the door.

Then I entered with one of the soldiers and together we grabbed Ben M’Hidi and hanged him by the neck to make it look like suicide. Once I was sure he was dead, I immediately had him taken down and brought the body to the hospital. Following my orders, the NCO who was driving left the engine running while the car was parked, in order to be able to drive off at top speed without volunteering any explanations as soon as the emergency room doctor appeared. It was about midnight.

I immediately phoned Massu.

“General, Ben M’Hidi has just committed suicide. His body is at the hospital. I will bring you my report tomorrow.”

Massu grunted and hung up the phone. He knew full well that my report had been ready since early afternoon, just to make sure. Judge [Jean] Berard was the first one to read it. It described in detail the suicide that was to take place the next night. Berard was impressed:

“Well, this is very good! You know, it does make sense!”

Actually the report didn’t make sense for very long. Massu called me to his office a few days later.

“Aussaresses, I’m in the shit. District Attorney [Jean] Reliquet [a torture foe -ed.] has called me in.”

“What? He dared summon you!”

“Yes, to discuss the suicide of Ben M’Hidi.”

“But that’s an outrageous thing to do! Because of your position you shouldn’t have to answer the summons. I’ll go, since I’m your representative to the legal authorities.”

I therefore paid a visit to the judge’s office.

“Mr. District Attorney, I am here to represent General Massu. Because of my position I can discuss the circumstances of Ben M’Hidi’s death. I’m also the author fo the report that you’ve seen.”

The district attorney was absolutely enraged.

“Yes, of course! Let’s discuss your report! What you state in it is purely circumstantial. And only circumstantial! There’s no proof. Can you military types offer any proof at all?”

“I can offer our good faith.”

I think that had I slapped Reliquet across the face it would have had less of an impact than that answer.

“Your good faith!” he answered, choking on the words. “Your good faith as soldiers. Soldiers who are suddenly being candid?”

I put my beret back on, saluted him, clicking my heels, and walked out of the room.

We never heard from the district attorney again after that. The death of Ben M’Hidi was a decisive blow to the FLN in Algiers. The attacks died down and the bulk of the rebels began retreating toward the Atlas Mountains near Blida.

We used the farmhouse again where Ben M’Hidi had been executed. I had the men dig a long ditch and some twenty bodies, including that of a woman, were buried there.

The French military’s success by 1957 in the Battle of Algiers did not clinch its fight to retain Algeria — which attained its independence in 1962, to the horror of the far right. But it did put the army in such a vaunting position vis-a-vis the civilian authorities — one can see it in Aussaresses’s disdainful treatment of Reliquet — that the generals would author a 1958 coup led by Gen. Massu himself which called Charles de Gaulle out of retirement and initiated France’s Fifth (and current) Republic.

Larbi Ben M’Hidi’s name today graces one of the main thoroughfares of Algiers.

* The full film is a must-watch and can often be searched up in the usual places. This press interrogation occurs about 88 minutes in … closely followed by a scene of a spokeman announcing that M’Hidi “hanged himself” and Col. Mathieu allowing that he “appreciated the moral fiber, courage and commitment of Ben M’Hidi to his own ideals. Notwithstanding the great danger he represented, I pay tribute to his memory.” Game recognizes game.

** Eventually, General Paul Aussaresses … although he’d be stripped of this rank (and of his Legion of Honor) for celebrating the use of torture in Algeria in The Battle of the Casbah.

On this day..

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1806: Cesar Herbaux, Vidocq’s path not taken

Add comment January 6th, 2018 Headsman

French criminal turned seminal criminologist Eugene Francois Vidocq on this date in 1806 witnessed the fate he might have shared when his former underworld collaborator went under the guillotine at Paris for murder.

The son of an Arras baker, the young Vidocq (English Wikipedia entry | French) presented as an incipient Villonesque picaro. He had the first of his many theft-and-arrest events at the tender age of 13 courtesy of his father who summoned the gendarmes when he stole the family silver. Nothing daunted, Vidocq robbed the house again a few months later and ran away to join troupes of itinerant entertainers, soon transitioning into the French Revolution’s new citizen-army where the rogue by turns impressed with his competence and deserted ahead of some scandal, equally prolific in affairs of honor (he was an expert fencer) and those of the heart (same).

While in prison for his latest misadventures in 1795-1796 he fell in with another inmate — our day’s principal, César Herbaux or Herbault — and forged a pardon order for one of their fellows. Vidocq, as we shall see, would always blame the others for inducing him (their story was the reverse). In either event, for their trouble they caught a sentence that was cruel even though “galleys” by this time just meant prison hulks.

The tribunal … sentences Francois Vidocq and Cesar Herbaux to the punishment of the galleys for eight years …

[And] the said Francois Vidocq and Cesar Herbaux shall be exposed for six hours on a scaffold, which whall be for that purpose erected on the public square of this commune.

The sentence Vidocq himself published in his ghost-written memoirs, where the later, respectable man would situate it in the midst of his life’s chrysalis.

Vidocq did not serve his sentence; he escaped custody and lived the first decade of the 19th century on his society’s periphery, under a succession of aliases and with a succession of lovers, the episodes punctuated by re-arrests and re-escapes. In one close escape, Vidocq was lodging in Melun as “a travelling seller of fashionable commodities” when ill rumors induced him to flee for the capital. Resuming his memoir …

I learnt … from the landlord of the inn at which I had put up, that the commissary of police had testified some regret at not having examined my papers; but what was deferred was not ended, and that at my next visit, he meant to pay me a visit. The information surprised me, for I must consequently have been in some way an object of suspicion. To go on might lead to danger, and I therefore returned to Paris, resolving not to make any other journeys, unless I could render less unfavourable the chances which combined against me.

Having started very early, I reached the faubourg Saint Marceau in good time; and at my entrance, I heard the hawkers bawling out, “that two well-known persons are to be executed to-day at the Place de Greve.” I listened, and fancied I distinguished the name of Herbaux. Herbaux, the author of the forgery which caused all my misfortunes? I listened with more attention, but with an involuntary shudder; and this time the crier, to whom I had approached, repeated the sentence with these additions:

Here is the sentence of the criminal tribunal of the department of the Seine, which condemns to death the said Armand Saint Leger, an old sailor, born at Bayonne, and Cesar Herbaux, a freed galley-slave, born at Lille, accused and convicted of murder.

I could doubt no longer; the wretch who had heaped so much misery on my head was about to suffer on the scaffold. Shall I confess that I felt a sentiment of joy, and yet I trembled? … It will not excite wonder, when I say that I ran with haste to the palace of justice to assure myself of the truth; it was not mid-day, and I had great trouble in reaching the grating, near which I fixed myself, waiting for the fatal moment.

At last four o’clock struck, and the wicket opened. A man appeared first on the stage. It was Herbaux. His face was covered with a deadly paleness, whilst he affected a firmness which the convulsive workings of his featured belied. He pretended to talk to his companion, who was already incapacitated from hearing him. At the signal of departure, Herbaux, with a countenance into which he infused all the audacity he could force, gazed round on the crow, and his eye met mine. He started, and the blood rushed to his face. The procession passed on, and I remained as motionless as the bronze railings on which I was leaning; and I should probably have remained longer, if an inspector of the palace had not desired me to come away. Twenty minutes afterwards, a car, laden with a red basket, and escorted by the gendarme, was hurried over the Pont-au-Change, going towards the burial ground allotted for felons. Then, with an oppressed feeling at my heart, I went away, and regained my lodgings, full of sorrowful reflections.

I have since learnt, that during his detention at the Bicetre, Herbaux had expressed his regret at having been instrumental in getting me condemned, when innocent. The crime which had brought this wretch to the scaffold was a murder committed, in company with Saint Leger, on a lady of the Place Dauphine. These two villains had obtained access to their victim under pretence of giving her tidings of her son, whom they said they had seen in the army.

Although, in fact Herbaux’s execution could not have any direct influence over my situation, yet it alarmed me, and I was horror-struck at feeling that I had ever been in contact with such brigands, destined to the executioner’s arm: my remembrance revealed me to myself, and I blushed, as it were, in my own face. I sought to lose the recollection, and to lay down an impassable line of demarcation between the past and the present; for I saw but too plainly, that the future was dependent on the past; and I was the more wretched, as a police, who have not always due powers of discernment, would not permit me to forget myself. I saw myself again on the point of being snared like a deer.

Forever abroad on a false passport, watching over his shoulder for the next inquisitive policeman, the next chance encounter with a bygone criminal acquaintance, Vidocq was in his early thirties now and aching to go straight lest he follow Herbaux’s path to the guillotine. At last in 1809 he was able to find the perfect port of entry for a man of his underworld expertise: policing.

Beginning first as a snitch and informer, Vidocq uncovered a genius for the still-nascent field of professional law enforcement and made himself the field’s towering presence. His last arrest was in 1809; by 1812, he had created La Surete, France’s civil investigative organ. This still-extant entity became the model for Great Britain’s Scotland Yard (1829), with Vidocq consulting for his Anglo imitators.

His subalterns were heavily lawbreakers like himself, men and also women recruited from the streets and prisons for whom the cant of outlaws was native tongue and who took readily to Vidocq’s training in disguise and subterfuge: Vidocq trafficked in information, seeking crime in its native habitat where the easy-to-spot predecessors to the beat cop could not penetrate. The payoffs in robbers ambushed red-handed and turncoats delightedly unmasking themselves made the man a sensation.

Yet alongside his swashbuckling flair, Vidocq’s prescient interest in then-novel police techniques ranging from forensic science to controlling crime scenes to logging permanent records about criminals have established him as either a or the father of criminology.

A few books about Vidocq

All along, the master himself continued to adventure in the field too, and began compounding a sizable income from deploying his investigative talents for a private clientele. His mother who had once been accustomed to shelter him as a fugitive had a requiem mass at Notre Dame on her death in 1824.

In 1833, retired from Surete, Vidocq founded perhaps the first private detective agency. But as had been the case while he was in public service he had a zest for skirting the edges of the legally or ethically permissible, which was eventually the ruin of his business and his fortune. For all his legendary charisma, his heirs at the Surete in the late 19th century all but wrote out of their institutional history the thief who literally wrote the book on their field.

Posterity was bound to reclaim him if for no other reason than that the dashing detective had always been catnip for the literary set. Victor Hugo is thought to have drawn on Vidocq for both the chief antagonists in Les Miserables, the reformed criminal Jean Valjean and his relentless pursuer Inspector Javert; Balzac liberally cribbed from the biography of his good friend Vidocq to create his Human Comedy character Vautrin, a onetime forger become chief of the Surete. American writers invoked Vidocq by name in, e.g., Moby Dick and The Murders in the Rue Morgue, and Edgar Allan Poe‘s interest in turn gestures at the man’s place in the foundational cosmology of the detective story genre. And for all that the real man’s life, however one discounts for literary flourish, was somehow more colorfully impossible than all the Sherlock Holmeses that have followed him — why, by every probability the scoundrel ought to have wound up sharing the stage with a Cesar Herbaux. Accordingly, depictions of this deeply dramatic figure in theater and cinema stretch from the man’s own time all the way to ours, as with this 2011 Gerard Depardieu offering:

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Murder,Notably Survived By,Public Executions,Theft

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1942: Ernst Schrämli, Swiss traitor

1 comment November 11th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1942, the Swiss artillerist Ernst Schrämli was shot for treason.

The dogged independence of Switzerland during World War II presented an going irritant to a Third Reich that had swallowed the rest of Europe, enabling von Trapps to escape and idealistic students to cogitate potshots at the Führer. Switzerland had to maintain her place delicately, here with a pragmatic concession to the fascist powers and there with a deterring mountain fortification. The American jouranlist Walter Lippmann celebrated that doughty Alpine confederation’s pluck in a 1943 New York Herald Tribune article (via):

The Swiss nation which is entirely surrounded by the Axis armies, beyond reach of any help from the democracies, that Switzerland which cannot live without trading with the surrounding Axis countries, still is an independent democracy. The “engulfing sea of 125,000,000 hostile neighbors” has not yet engulfed the Swiss.

That is the remarkable thing about Switzerland. The real news is not that her factories make munitions for Germany but that the Swiss have an army which stands guard against invasion, that their frontiers are defended, that their free institutions continue to exist and that there has been no Swiss Quisling, and no Swiss Laval. The Swiss remained true to themselves even in the darkest days of 1940 and 1941, when it seemed that nothing but the valor of the British and the blind faith of free men elsewhere stood between Hitler and the creation of a totalitarian new order in Europe. Surely, if ever the honor of a people was put to the test, the honor of the Swiss was tested and proved then and there … no ordinary worldly material calculation can account for the behavior of the Swiss.

Compared to neighboring countries, Switzerland’s domestic fascist movement was pretty minor, but that ferocious independence could not brook fifth columnists be they ever so minor. Schrämli, a somewhat disordered soldier, delivered a few grenades and some inaccurate sketches of some Swiss bunkers to a German agent. Though ineffectual, it was treason.

He’s the subject of a notable 1976 documentary The Shooting of the Traitor Ernst S., which finds that the man’s motivation was psychological weakness rather than ideological commitment and confers the epitaph De Chliner hanget ehnder als der Grösser (“The small hang instead of the great”). German speakers can take in the entire film:

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1830: Agnes 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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1781: Diego Corrientes Mateos, Spanish social bandit

1 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.


Mid-16th century translation of Romeus and Juliet by Arthur Brooke. (via)

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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