1440: Gilles de Rais, unholy

Add comment October 26th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1440, the wealthiest man in France, a noble who had once fought under Joan of Arc‘s banner, was hanged for an outlandishly demonic crime spree.


This dashing Gilles opposite Milla Jovovich in The Messenger; you’d never think he would sodomize hundreds of children.

Rivaling Hungarian blood-bather Erzsebet Bathory for the reputation of most bewitchingly depraved aristocratic sex-killer of early modern Europe, Gilles de Rais (or de Retz) hanged for abducting numberless legions of anonymous young commoners (boys, mostly) for rape and murder.

It’s a rap sheet trebly astounding given that a decade before, de Rais’s reputation for posterity would have figured to be his role as Saint Joan’s chief lieutenant when she raised the siege of Orleans, culminating with elevation to the rank of Marshall of France on the very day Charles VII was crowned in Reims. Talk about a fall from grace.

A 1440 investigation triggered by de Rais’s attack on a priest during an intra-aristocracy dispute turned up a Gacy‘s floorboards’ worth of Nantes-area kids allegedly disappeared into the Marechal’s creepy castle. Remarkably detailed trial records preserve a heartbreaking cavalcade of parents who entrusted their children to de Rais’s service or just sent them out one morning never to be heard from again. “It is notorious,” one added, “that infants are murdered in the said chateau.” (Many of these depositions and other original trial records can be read here.)

His servants and co-deviants Henriet and Pouitou admitted the most shocking stuff —

that de Rais then raped [the typical captive] as he was hanged from a hook by the neck. Before the child died, Gilles took him down, comforted him, repeated the act and either killed him himself or had him slain.

Poitou testified that the child victims were murdered sometimes by decapitating them, sometimes by cutting their throats, sometimes by dismembering them, sometimes by breaking their necks with a stick …

Gilles de Rais rarely left a child alive for more than one evening’s pleasure, Poitou claimed.

Now, it needs to be said that the servants were induced to these confessions by the threat of physical harm — and that when de Rais reversed his own denials he had likewise been menaced with torture. Nobody had been tortured, mind. But they had been given to understand that they would be corroborating the witnesses with self-incriminating statments, and we can do this the easy way or the hard way. In a world without dispositive forensics, confessions were the evidentiary gold standard … and torturing to obtain them was standard operating procedure.

It’s for that reason that there has also long persisted a revisionist thesis that de Rais was actually innocent, framed up by elite rivals who cannibalized the man’s estates. A 1992 “rehabilitation tribunal” re-tried the affair, and returned an acquittal.

Arguably, the populace — font of all those damning accusations — did likewise on the day de Rais hanged with his two servants. A crowd one might expect to be frenzied with rage actually sympathized with the doomed noble, even rescuing his hanged body from the fire. A monument his daughter put up became an unsanctioned popular pilgrimage site until it was destroyed during the French Revolution.

Whether as fact or fable, there’s something gorgeously baroque about de Rais’s dungeon mastering — especially when considered vis-a-vis his historical casting call opposite the abstemious Maid.

As a text for our latter-day edification, de Rais appears a carnivore devoured by his own appetites (and not only sexual: he also blew through the gargantuan family fortune). Reduced from hero to beast, he’s almost a literal werewolf or vampire; he’s often cast as such in video games and the like.

And he transfixes us because he personifies this uncanny bridge from the atomized digital age with its iconic serial killers, alone and psychologically deconstructed, back into the medieval — feudal, irrational, communal, violent and physical but also suffused with an omnipresent alien-to-us paranormal spirit world. It is enough to glance to experience the pull of the abyss gazing back.

Sabine Baring-Gould anticipated the modern afterlife of Gilles de Rais in the mid-19th century Book of Were-Wolves — which incorporated an extended account of de Rais’s trial into a wider narrative of folklore shapeshifting.

De Rais himself shapeshifts even within the brief arc of his dramatic trial: from indignant defendant into contrite supplicant, every drop sincere so far as one can perceive. His very prosecutors, indeed his very victims, wept for the fallen Marechal, and the “monster” reversed with this display his excommunication. (This may have been the part of the punishment de Rais feared most: again, we encounter the alien cosmology.)

“Nothing seems to me to be more beautiful –- and farthest away from our mentality of today — than the crowd of parents of the victims praying for this soul’s salvation,” one modern observed. “That is spiritual nobility.”

Agonizing ecstacist Georges Bataille wrote a whole book about de Rais, characteristically taken by the intersection of repugnance and transcendence. For Bataille, Christianity even reconciles our prisoner’s stupendous villainy with his unfeigned anticipation of spiritual salvation that “ultimately summarize the Christian situation.”

“Perhaps,” Bataille mused, “Christianity is even fundamentally the pressing demand for crime, the demand for the horror that in a sense it needs in order to forgive.”

A Few Books About Gilles de Rais

There are also several free public-domain books, such as Bluebeard: an account of Comorre the cursed and Gilles de Rais, with summaries of various tales and traditions and (already alluded to, the one with the original trial documents) Blue-beard, a contribution to history and folk-lore. Gilles de Rais is popularly, though I think not very persuasively, believed to have helped inspire the “Bluebeard” legend of the murderous aristocrat.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Hanged,History,Homosexuals,Infamous,Murder,Nobility,Public Executions,Rape,Scandal,Serial Killers,Sex,Soldiers,Torture,Wrongful Executions

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1611: Three accomplices of Elizabeth Báthory, the Countess of Blood

9 comments January 7th, 2011 Headsman

Four hundred years ago today, on Jan. 7 1611, three servants of the legendary “Countess of Blood” Elizabeth Bathory (Báthory Erzsébet, in the Hungarian) were tried, convicted, and immediately put to death for the noblewoman’s stupendous career of homicide.

This date’s entry is occasioned by the deaths of three subalterns — manservant Janos Ujvary, beheaded; and female attendants Ilona Jo and Dorottya Szentes, fingers ripped off and burned — but the headline attraction is their employer, who was never tried or condemned.

Not, at least, juridically. Posterity’s condemnation of this classic vampire inspiration has been little short of … voluptuous.


A 1971 film based on Elizabeth Bathory’s exploits. Horror star Ingrid Pitt later reprised her “role” with guest vocals on a Cradle of Filth concept album devoted to the Countess, Cruelty and the Beast.

Bathory was rarefied Hungarian nobility, the niece of the King of Poland, which is also the biography of countless aristocrats you’ve never heard of.

The world remembers Elizabeth Bathory because she exploited her rank to butcher hundreds of peasant girls, allegedly to bathe in their rejuvenating blood.

On one occasion, a lady’s-maid saw something wrong in [Elizabeth Bathory’s] head-dress, and as a recompence for observing it, received such a severe box on the ears that the blood gushed from her nose, and spirted on to her mistress’s face. When the blood drops were washed off her face, her skin appeared much more beautiful — whiter and more transparent on the spots where the blood had been.

Elizabeth formed the resolution to bathe her face and her whole body in human blood so as to enhance her beauty.


McFarlane Toys figurine of Erzsebet (Elizabeth) Bathory from its grotesque “Faces of Madness” series.

These scrub-ups are what the Countess of Blood is best remembered for, but however striking the visual, it’s an atrocity that actually doesn’t turn up in the trial records.

But she could hardly complain of the embroidery, having given her interlocutors so much material.

Elizabeth Bathory is supposed to be responsible for over six hundred deaths, starting while her husband was away on campaign, and then carrying on into a wholesale operation after he died. When she and her servants were finally busted at Csejte Castle the end of 1610, their captors found a dead girl, a dying girl, and several others imprisoned and awaiting that fate.


Elizabeth Bathory, a sexually charged 1893 painting by Hungarian impressionist Istvan Csok depicting one of the countess’s victims being drenched in icy water for death by exposure.

So although the confessions the servants made this date to seal their own fates were undoubtedly torture-adduced, the documentary record turns out to be amazingly strong for such a fantastical spree. Hungarian King Matthias II convened a tribunal that examined 200 to 300 witnesses.

One can postulate that the woman ran afoul of a patriarchal culture affronted by her exercise of power or that she became a parable for the “unnatural” lust of a middle-aged woman … but so far as we are left to understand, Erzsebet Bathory really did lure young girls to her castle, and then inflict (pdf) a Nazi doctors’ litany of sadism on them … like jabbing them with needles to drain out their blood. She even kept a log of the victims in her own hand.

So, locals disappearing into the creepy castle, never to be seen again, or possibly to turn up pallid and dead. (Disposing of all those corpses became a logistical problem for the creepy castle.) No surprise to find it associated with the vampire legend.*

And no surprise that the tale became magnified, twisted, and reconfigured by popular culture.

In 1817, as accounts of the testimonies about the alleged murders and sadistic tortures were published for the first time, national and international headlines sensationalized the already misconceived story. From that on [sic], the literary countess took on a life of her own: the Grimm brothers wrote a short story about her, the romantic German writer, Johann Ludwig Tieck (1774 – 1853), cast her as a Gothic femme fatale, Swanhilda, in his short story Wake Not the Dead. It is alleged that Sheridan le Fanu shaped his female vampire Carmilla on Elizabeth Bathory. If we can believe some etymological explanation the compound English word blood-bath is of mid-nineteenth century origin possibly connected to the bloody countess’ rising popularity in England.

-László Kürti, “The Symbolic Construction of the Monstrous — The Elizabeth Bathory Story,” Croatian Journal Of Ethnology and Folklore Research, Jan. 2009

A few books about Erzsebet Bathory

To say nothing of the death porn (link not safe for work).

The noblewoman never faced an executioner herself, owing to her rank; she was shut up in the castle.

* As it turns out, a Bathory ancestor actually fought with the “original Dracula” Vlad the Impaler in the 15th century.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Burned,Capital Punishment,Crime,Czechoslovakia,Death Penalty,Execution,Habsburg Realm,History,Hungary,Infamous,Language,Murder,Myths,Nobility,Not Executed,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Scandal,Serial Killers,Torture,Women

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