“So great a concourse of people has perhaps not been seen”* at Edinburgh’s Grassmarket as assembled on this date in 1765 for the execution of Lieutenant Patrick Ogilvie.
It was, naturally, scandal that brought them out of the woodwork. Lt. Ogilvie’s older brother Thomas in January of that same 1765 had married a young woman named Katharine Nairn. She had barely half of Thomas’s 40 years.
Katharine soon took a shine to the more age-appropriate sibling, just back from his dashing adventures in the East Indies. Within weeks of the marriage, the two people closest to Thomas were making a fool of him in his very own home. Their eventual indictment charged Katharine and Patrick with “yielding to your inordinate desires … in the months of January, February, March, April, May, and June … at different times, and in one or other of the rooms of the house of Eastmiln, and in the out-houses adjacent thereto,” not to mention (we’re guessing during the warmer spring weather) “in the fields.”
Thomas himself seems to have been wise to the cuckoldry rather early on, but either from weakness or inclination made only token attempts to abate it. Great was the astonishment of the neighbors that Patrick wasn’t banned from the house or Katharine disallowed his company.
At length, Thomas died of poison. The suspicions were only natural.
In fact, maybe they were a little bit too natural.
It has been suspected that the true author of Thomas’s destruction and the lovers’ too was not their own unnatural passion but the greed of yet another party in the nest of family vipers living under the eldest brother’s roof: Anne Clark.
The lover of the youngest Ogilvie brother, Alexander, Anne was known as a woman of easy virtue, but she had regardless her sexual continence a potentially compelling motive to be rid of Thomas, or rid of Patrick, or both: as both Thomas and Patrick were childless, the family scandal figured to pour all the family’s estates into the puckish hands of her own man. Patrick and Katharine tried vainly to impugn her at trial as a malicious witness
So when Anne supplied a story that the lovers had openly quarreled with Thomas and even vowed in her presence to murder him — and when Anne plied the court with lurid accounts of creeping up the stairs to listen in on Patrick and Katharine romping in his alcove bed — do we hear the voice of a master villain? That reputed prostitute gave bodice-popping evidence at very great length against her incestuous would-be family —
Mrs. Ogilvie was frequently in a room by herself with the Lieutenant … upon Sunday the nineteenth day of May last, all the family went to church, excepting the two pannels and the deponent [Clarke] … the two pannels left the deponent in the low room, and went up stairs together to the east room above stairs … [and Clarke] in order to discover what was passing, went up the stair, and as the bed in the Lieutenant’s room was an alcove ed, the back of which came to the side of the stair, and there was nothing betwixt the bed and the stair, but a piece of plaster and the timber of the bed, so that a person standing in the stair could hear distinctly what passed in the bed, she stood and listened; and from the motions that she heard, is positive that they were in bed together, and abusing their bodies together, by which she means, they were lying carnally together.
You can read the whole of Anne Clark’s testimony among 130-odd pages of details from the proceedings here.
Ogilvie would hold to his innocence through multiple royal reprieves and all the way to the gallows. When the rope slipped on the first hanging attempt, he was not so daunted by the proximity of the eternal that he feared to repeat the claim: “I adhere to my former confession [profession of innocence], and die an innocent man.”
He also died alone.
His former paramour and possible confederate Katharine had delayed her hanging by pleading her belly — truthfully so, for it seemed that her many springtime frolics had in fact quickened her womb.
She delivered early in 1766 and was bound for execution a few weeks later. But Katharine’s wit supplied what crown sentiment would not and she slipped out of prison in the wardrobe of an old family servant one evening.** She had such a considerable head start before her absence was noted the next day that she reached London, hired a boat to the Netherlands, was blown back to Old Blighty by a gale, and hired another boat for Calais before anyone could catch up to her. She alit on French soil, and vanished into the safety of historical obscurity.
“Such were the different fates of two people, who, as far as we can judge of the affair, appear to have been involved in the same crime,” remarks the Newgate Calendar in an expansive vein. “The one dies, avowing his perfect innocence; the other escapes the immediate stroke of justice, which was suspended over her by the most slender thread.
“Mysterious are the ways of Providence, and, in the language of Scripture, ‘past finding out;’ but it is for mortals humbly to submit to all its dispensations.”
* London Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, Nov. 19, 1765.
“Why, then All-Souls’ day is my body’s doomsday.
This is the day that, in King Edward’s time,
I wish’t might fall on me, when I was found
False to his children or his wife’s allies
Come, sirs, convey me to the block of shame;
Wrong hath but wrong, and blame the due of blame.”
Buckingham — Henry Stafford by name — resided firmly in the 1% of the 1% for 15th century England: a dangerous neighborhood since the War of the Roses was afoot, felling noblemen hither and yon. (Henry Stafford became the Duke of Buckingham as a toddler when his father was mortally wounded at the Battle of St. Albans.)
But every family has its black sheep. Buckingham wasn’t keen on the Woodvilles despite his presence on their Christmas card list, and when King Edward died relatively young in 1483, Buckingham backed the succession in power not of the Woodvilles, but of Edward’s brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester — the man who indeed became king as Richard III.
Technically, Richard started out as Lord Protector on behalf of the boy-king Edward V and his little brother Richard, before he had the twerps declared illegitimate and disappeared them in 1483 into the Tower of London. Buckingham himself is one of the lead suspects for the man who urged or even carried out the murder of these Princes in the Tower.
The prospect that Buckingham’s alliance with Richard III extended all the way to regicide makes quite curious the former’s turn later that same year to rebellion — for as Thomas More would write, “hereupon sone after [the murder of the princes] began the conspiracy or rather good confederacion, between ye Duke of Buckingham and many other gentlemen against [Richard III]. Thoccasion wheruppon the king and the Duke fell out, is of divers folks diverse wyse pretended.”
Buckingham’s right to the marquee of the autumn 1483 “Buckingham’s Rebellion” has been doubted, for leadership of the various uprisings in southern England and Wales appears to belong to those “other gentlemen” of the gentry.
Buckingham himself was captured, condemned as a traitor, and publicly beheaded at Salisbury on November 2, 1483. He was one of numerous principals in the rising to go to the scaffold, but Henry’s cause continued to accumulate adherents — until not two years later, Henry defeated Richard at the Battle of Bosworth Field.
In Shakespeare’s treatment, the ghost of the executed Buckingham aptly appears to Richard III on the eve of this climactic moment of English history to prophesy his former ally’s defeat:
The last was I that helped thee to the crown;
The last was I that felt thy tyranny:
O, in the battle think on Buckingham,
And die in terror of thy guiltiness!
Dream on, dream on, of bloody deeds and death:
Fainting, despair; despairing, yield thy breath!
Buckingham left a five-year-old heir, Edward Stafford, who was spirited into hiding from the vengeful King Richard. This third Duke of Buckingham would in the fullness of time grow to to be executed by Henry Tudor’s son, Henry VIII.
On this date in 1833, Ira West Gardner [Gardiner] hanged in Warren, Ohio — the only person ever executed in Trumbull County.
Gardner reads like the kind of rotter to inspire a Lifetime TV obsessed-stalker thriller: in the tiny township of Gustavus, he married a widow named Anna Buel[l] with a teenage daughter. Even the trial records are delicate on what transpired between young Maria and her stepfather — “for some reason, not very satisfactorily shown in the proof, she, for a short time before her death, evinced a strong desire to leave your roof, under circumstances which induced her friends to believe she was in fear of you.” The girl “was seen running from home disordered” and took refuge with a nearby farmer named Mills, where she turned up “barefooted, and without a handkerchief to put on her neck.” This was just two or three days before her murder on August 8, 1832; if the reader is getting a distinct whiff of sexual assault, well, one neighbor “told Gardner, that Maria had said, he had had criminal intercourse with her in a manner that would send him to the penitentiary.” Gardner denied it, but his obsessive behavior tells a different tale.
For Mills, Gardner showed the reasonable neighbor, and tried to persuade his absconded stepdaughter to return — but also agreed she was of age to go her own way if she preferred.
But to others, he made less compromising and much more sinister intimations, like “Maria has got to go home and live contented or I will be the death of her — I will have my revenge.” That’s actually less a sinister intimation than a highly specific threat.
Dad was able to put off his menacing aspect as a temporary fury that had come and gone, and he eventually negotiated with Maria via another neighbor, Bidwell, to allow her to return for her clothes. As soon as she got there, with Bidwell right there in the house too, Gardner suddenly produced a butcher’s knife and stabbed the unhappy object of his obsession in her chest and stomach. Though he was instantly subdued by Bidwell, the deed was done: Maria expired in ten painful minutes while Gardner ranted demonically to the arriving neighbors.
“I told you you had outwitted me last night, but that I would match you yet,” he said to one who had tried to reason with him. “I have done it, and got my revenge.” The killer was fixated on the idea of townsfolk who had lately tried to smooth out the situation as adversaries to “outwit”; to another he taunted, “I have now outgeneraled you as I told you I would — I did the deed, and did it effectually.”
(It was later found that this Scipio had also readied a pitchfork and an axe should he have the opportunity to chase after her.)
was escorted to the place of hanging by a great procession and band … people who had children away at school brought them home to witness the execution. We now wonder how these parents reasoned, but one of the young men who was thus brought many miles remembers that his father said he might never have another chance to see another hanging, and he was right. The children of the sixties were not like those of thirties, for the former always shivered as they passed the corner of South and Chestnut streets on the way to the cemetery, and dare not look towards the tree from which Gardner is supposed to have swung. Whether the tree was still standing at that time is not certain. Possibly children are like men and horses, less afraid where many people are congregated.
Sheriff Mygatt said that he did not believe he was going to be able to discharge his duty in the case of Gardner, but that he did work himself up to the point. He took the prisoner in his own carriage, led by Warren’s first band, which played a dire. The military organization formed a hollow square around the scaffold. Elder Mack, a Methodist minister, walked with Mr. Mygatt and the prisoner to the scaffold. A hymn was sung, in which the prisoner joined, and he was then swung to a great overhanging limb where he breathed his last.
“The young, beautiful & innocent Frances Maria Buel who was butchered by her stepfather” still has a marker in the East Gustavus Cemetery. Gardner rests in an unmarked grave.
For this just-in-time-for-Halloween wicked stepmother, we are indebted to the highly browsable The Word On The Street, a collection of highlight broadsides held by the National Library of Scotland.
ELIZABETH WARRINER was indicted for the Murder of J. Warriner, her Step-Son, at Surfleet, by administering poison to him. The prisoner was the second wife of a Farmer. The deceased was his Son by a former marriage, about 12 years of age. From the period of her marriage, the prisoner treated the child with great cruelty. On various occasions she was heard to say she would be the death of him. At length on the morning stated in the indictment, the boy, immediately after breakfast, which consisted of bread and milk, was taken ill. Medical aid was called in, but he breathed his last in the course of the day. After she had poisoned the unfortunate boy, she dragged him out of the house, and put him in the stable, and hanged him up, with a rope round his neck, to make people believe he had hung himself, as there was no marks of violence round the neck. The body was opened by a surgeon, when the stomach and intestines were found to exhibit all the appearance of arsenic having been administered. It was afterwards ascertained that a quantity of arsenic was in the possession of the father, who used it for some husbandry purpose, [and to] which the prisoner had access. It further turned out, that a small quantity was found [in t]he basin from which he had eaten his breakfast: and that the prisoner had given him his breakfast in that basin. This circumstance, added to a variety of others, which in the [cou]rse of the examination of the witnesses, seven in numher, came out, led to to the conclu[sion], that the prisoner administered the poison.
Mr. Justice Holroyd summed up tne evidence, and the Jury found her gulity, The [judge] in passing sentence, obserted to the prisoner, that the crime of murder in all cases [was] an heinous one, and in all countries was punished with death; but there were gradations e[ven] in this crime, and her’s [sic] was of the worst nature. She had destroyed her Step-Son; and no other motive could be assigned than that arising from a cruel, hardened, and vicious disposition — her crime was that of muder, the most heinous and cruel. — He hoped she would sincerely repent of her crime, and take all possible care of her soul during the few hours she had to live, so to be reconciled to her offended Maker; he feared she was not so convinced of the necessity of this as she ought to be, but trusted she would seek for that advice which would satisfy her of that necessity, and enable her to meet her future Judge, with a well-rounded hope in his mercy from the sincerity of her contrition; all that remained for him to do was to pass sentence upon her which the law required, which was, that she should be taken from whence she came, and on Saturday the 27th October, 1821, to be taken from thence, to the place of execution, there to be hanged by the neck till she was dead, and that her body should be delivered to the surgeons for dissection — concluding with — “and may the Lord have mercy on your soul.”
The moment she heard that her life was to be forfeited for the barbarous murder, and her cruel treatment to her Step-Son, she jumped up from the floor in the greatest agony, wringing her hands, and other symptoms of distraction.
About ten o’clock on Saturday morning, she ascended the fatal scaffold with a greater degree of fortitude and resignation than could have been expected; and addressed the numerous spectators around her in nearly the following words: “Good people, you see now before you an unfortunate woman, cut off just in the prime of life, and for the most dreadful of al [sic] crimes, Murder! let my dreadful fate be a warning to you not to suffer your passion to work forcibly on your minds, which has been the cause of the melancholy situation in which I am now placed; let me beg your prayers — good people pray for me; O pray for me.”
On the morning of her awful execution, she was dressed all in white, with a child suckling at her breast, which was taken from her by the executioner and her melancholy cries was heard at a great distance. It was shocking to the surrounding multitude.
She then dropped a handkerchief she held in her hand, as a signal, crying, O my Child! my Child! and was immediately launched into a dreadful eternity.
These malefactors were father and son; and their final exit from this life was attended by circumstances of the most heart-rending and melancholy description.
The father was a man of good property, and lived on his own estate at Llwyney Mapsis, in Shropshire; and he and his son were indicted for uttering a note of hand for twenty pounds, purporting to be that of Mr. Richard Coleman of Oswestry, knowing the same to have been forged.
It was proved on their trial that Mr. Coleman never had had any transactions with Mr. Phipps that required the signing of any note whatever; that about the Christmas before, Mr. Coleman was served with a copy of a writ at the suit of Mr. Phipps the elder, which action Mr. Coleman defended, and for want of further proceedings on the part of the plaintiff, a non pros. was signed, with two pounds three shillings costs of suit against Phipps.
Upon this an affidavit was drawn up and sworn by Phipps the elder, Phipps the younger, and William Thomas, their clerk, for the purpose of moving the Court of Exchequer to set aside the judgment of non pros. and therein they swore that the cause of action was a note of the said Coleman’s for twenty pounds, which was given as satisfaction for a trespass by him committed in carrying some hay off the land of one of Mr. Phipps the elder’s tenants.
The Court thereupon granted a rule to show cause why the judgment should not be set aside; but Mr. Coleman insisting that the note was a forgery, the present prosecution was instituted against the father, son, and Thomas.
After a full hearing at the assizes at Shrewsbury, the father and son were pronounced “Guilty of uttering and publishing the note, knowing it to be forged;” and William Thomas was found “Not Guilty.”
Though convicted on the fullest evidence, the unhappy men, until the morning of their execution, persisted in their innocence; but when about to leave the jail, young Phipps made the following confession: “It was I alone who committed the forgery: my father is entirely innocent, and was ignorant of the note being forged when he published it.”
They were taken in a mourning-coach to the place of execution, accompanied by a clergyman and a friend who attended them daily after their condemnation.
On their way to the fatal tree the father said to the son, “Tommy, thou hast brought me to this shameful end, but I freely forgive thee;” to which the son made no reply. It being remarkably wet weather, their devotions were chiefly performed in the coach.
When the awful moment arrived, Mr. Phipps said to his son, “You have brought me hither; do you lead the way!” which the youth immediately did, and in the most composed manner ascended the ladder to a temporary scaffold erected for the purpose of their execution, followed by his father.
When their devotions were finished, and the halters tied to the gallows, this most wretched father and son embraced each other, and in a few moments the scaffold fell, and they were hand-in-hand launched into eternity, September the 5th 1789, amid a vast concourse of pitying spectators.
The father was forty-eight, and the son just twenty years of age.
On this date in 1762, Sarah Metyard and her daughter, Sarah Morgan “Sally” Metyard, were hanged at Tyburn for the horrible murder of their apprentice girl.
Sarah, a milliner, and Sally, her assistant, had taken on several female apprentices. One of those, a thirteen-year-old workhouse orphan named Anne Naylor or Nailor, was cruelly treated by the Metyards, who beat her, confined her to the attic and fed her nothing but bread and water. Twice she escaped and asked for help and twice she was dragged back by her mistresses to be tortured all over again.
…put [Anne] into a back room on the second storey, tied a cord round her waist, and her hands behind her, and fastened her to the door in such a manner that it was impossible for her either to sit or lie down. She was compelled to remain in this situation for three successive days; but they permitted her to go to bed at the usual hours at night. Having received no kind of nutriment for three days and two nights, her strength was so exhausted that, being unable to walk upstairs, she crept to the garret, where she lay on her hands and feet.
While she remained tied up on the second floor the other apprentices were ordered to work in an adjoining apartment, that they might be deterred from disobedience by being witnesses to the unhappy girl’s sufferings; but they were enjoined, on the penalty of being subjected to equal severity, against affording her any kind of relief.
On the fourth day she faltered in speech, and presently afterwards expired. The other girls, seeing the whole weight of her body supported by the strings which confined her to the door, were greatly alarmed, and called out: “Miss Sally! Miss Sally! Nanny does not move.” The daughter then came upstairs, saying: “If she does not move, I will make her move”; and then beat the deceased on the head with the heel of a shoe.
This is a sad epitome of what will appear at large in too many dreadful examples on the great day of account, when all those who have counteracted, or ill discharged their relative duties of parent and child, ruler and subject, pastor and people, or any other of the superior and inferior relations in this state of trial, will look aghast at each other, in frantic despair, charging the neglect of duty, of relaxed discipline, of disobedience, and evil example to each other’s account; when all that seduce and betray each other into sin, will fill up the dire and dreadful number.
Learn hence ye parents and children of every rank, the force and importance of that admonition, preparative to a general reformation of life and manners, the neglect of which is a sure presage of a general corruption and impending destruction.
Anne died a short time afterwards, and Sarah and Sally hid this fact and told everyone she had run away. They hid her body in a box in the garret for two months until the smell became too offensive, then dismembered the corpse and dumped it in a gully-hole in Chick Lane. Two watchmen found the remains on December 5, 1758.
The crime went undiscovered for years, and Sally eventually moved out of the house and in with a Mr. Rooker. Sarah, however, was afraid her daughter might tell someone what happened, and began stalking her and threatening her life. Her attempts to frighten Sally into silence backfired when Sally confronted her and alluded to the murder in front of Mr. Rooker.
the Metyards had to be separated in prison lest they attack each other, and would always blame the other if asked about the crimes. Unbeknownst to the gaolers, the mother had been starving herself (a fitting fate) in an attempt to cheat the gallows; a few days before the due date she fell into a fit and swooned away. She never spoke again. On 19 July 1762, before 9:00 a.m., the women were put into the cart. The ordinary had to fight to get them through the enormous crowds, and found the mother stretched out like a statue, not even seeming to breathe, though her chest twitched convulsively now and then. The daughter begged for prayers from the crowd (over the jeers and boos*), and looked about for Mr. Rooker. She added that ‘she died a martyr to her innocence.’
After they were hanged, their bodies were displayed before the public at the Surgeons’ Hall, then dissected.
These noble heads rolled a bare 10 weeks after the death of King Edward IV to whom Woodville was certainly quite loyal: the Earl’s sister, Elizabeth Woodville, was Edward’s queen Consort.
This marked the acme of the family’s meteoric, single-generation rise from gentleman nobodies. Anthony’s dad, Richard Woodville, vaulted the family into the nobility with an illicit marriage to the Duke of Bedford’s widow. Their pretty daughter Elizabeth scandalized Britain’s elite by conquering Edward’s heart and his hand in 1464 — though this was her second marriage: the first, to Sir John Grey of Groby, had produced two children, one of whom was the Richard Grey who went to the block with Sir Anthony Woodville.
The reason that Anthony Woodville and not his father was the current Earl Rivers was because dad had his own head cut off when King Edward was temporarily deposed in 1469. (Exile to Bruges was also the reason that the second Earl Rivers met William Caxton.)
After Edward came roaring back at the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471, the Woodville family would have been feeling pretty well set up: their Yorkist faction seemed to have won as decisive a victory as could be imagined over the Lancastrians.
But King Edward’s early death meant that Anthony’s nephew Edward V inherited all too early — which is to say that he did not truly inherit at all. The 12-year-old Edward and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York, both of them children of Elizabeth Woodville, were the boy-princes left to the care of Edward IV’s brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester.
Now, they believe it; and withal whet me
To be revenged on Rivers, Vaughan, Grey:
But then I sigh; and, with a piece of scripture,
Tell them that God bids us do good for evil:
And thus I clothe my naked villany
With old odd ends stolen out of holy writ;
And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.
The next part of the story is quite notorious, and it directly concerns the Woodvilles: the reason that Richard infamously disappeared those tragic princes into the Tower of London was because they were in Elizabeth Woodville’s own custody — and Richard, soon to seize power for himself as King Richard III, feared that if given the opportunity to gather themselves the Woodvilles and not he would dominate English politics.
Events could easily have turned out differently — even with Richard on the blade end of the Woodvilles’ executioner. In the chaotic days following Edward’s death, as news made its way ponderously around the realm, Richard raced to get ahead of the Woodvilles before they were secure in their patrimony. On April 30 of 1483, Richard intercepted the royal party traveling to London and took king into custody along with Rivers, Thomas Vaughan, and Richard Grey.
Gloucester-cum-Richard III acted with dispatch from that point. He had Elizabeth Woodville’s marriage to the late king invalidated, effectively disinheriting her children. While Gloucester made ready for his coronation, Anthony Woodville and his friends made sad poetry and last wills and testaments.
On this date in 1718,* Peter the Great’s hand-picked court condemned his son and onetime heir apparent Tsarevich Alexei to death for plotting treason.
Probably no single figure more strikingly underscored Peter’s violent rupture of the old Russia than Alexei: “timid, secretive and lacking in self-confidence,” he was Peter’s opposite in nearly every particular — his nemesis, literally from birth.
The product of Peter’s unsatisfactory first dynastic marriage to a conservative boyar princess, Alexei got abandoned along with his mother Eudoxia Lopukhina when Peter went on his years-long jag through western Europe.
Peter eventually forced the tsaritsa into a convent so he could take up with the ambitious emigre beauty Anna Mons, but the firstborn son was not so easily discarded.
Often malignantly ignored in his youth, Alexei spent his teen years being browbeaten by Peter who rightly despaired of ever making the boy into a king who could carry Peter’s legacy.
Where the father was preternaturally energetic, the son was feeble and reticent; Peter’s irritated letters to Alexei frequently complain of his laziness. (“I am incapable of exertion,” Alexei whinged.) Where the father had a curious mind for the Age of Enlightenment, the son was a dreamer who preferred the mysteries of the Orthodox religion. The boy showed little interest in politics or statecraft, but his position as the firstborn son meant that politics and statecraft were interested in him. Alexei just wanted to go to church and fool around with his Finnish mistress; he feigned or induced illness to avoid the instructional tasks his father appointed him, and once even tried to shoot himself in the hand to duck work.
The father called on all of his legendary severity fruitlessly trying to twist this malformed sapling into a sovereign when the boy’s every characteristic seemed to reproach Peter’s mission of a new and reborn Russia.
“How often have I scolded you for this, and not merely scolded but beaten you,” Peter wrote the boy when the latest assignment was not accomplished to his satisfaction. “Nothing has succeeded, nothing is any use, all is to no purpose, all is words spoken to the wind, and you want to do nothing but sit at home and enjoy yourself.” Start with scolding, proceed to beating — Peter’s philosophy of management as well as child-rearing.
Ever more fearful of his hated father, Alexei in 1716 gave Peter one final and greatest embarrassment by spurning his father’s last ultimatum to join the Russian army on campaign. Instead, the tsarevich fled to the protection of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI. Charles put him up in Naples for a year until Peter’s courtier Count Tolstoy** finally persuaded Alexei to return.
Alexei hoped he had arranged to get out of the royal-succession game and live as a private citizen, but where princes of the blood are concerned this option is more easily conceived than arranged. Peter well knew that the Orthodox clergy and many aristocrats awaited his death as their opportunity to roll back his reforms; the pious Alexei was inevitably a focus of these hopes and the boy embraced rather than shunned the association. Moreover, the twerp had made Peter look the fool before all of Europe with his running-away act.
Instead, the prince — whose return to Russia under the circumstances really was quite naive — found himself faced with a cruel inquisition.
Detail view (click for the full image) of Nikolai Ge’s 1871 painting “Peter the Great Interrogating the Tsarevich Alexei Petrovich in Peterhof” (via Wikimedia Commons)
Gibbon wrote of Marcus Aurelius that in permitting his notorious son Commodus to become his heir, “he sacrificed the happiness of millions to a fond partiality for a worthless boy, [and] chose a successor in his own family, rather than in the republic.”
Peter the Great easily possessed the iron resolution that the ancient Stoic lacked.
The tsar had learned seamanship in his youth by working in European dockyards; had learned soldiery by enrolling himself in the ranks and working his way up from drummer-boy. In his childhood he had seen the palace guard run amok in the Kremlin slaughtering his own family, bided his time until he could topple the power of his half-sister and take Russia in hand, and then wrought on those mutinous soldiers a terrible revenge.
And he had set for his reign a self-consciously world-historic mission, to force an unwilling nation into the European family. This enterprise of relentless, exhausting hubris the tsar applied everywhere from the cut of his noblemen’s facial hair to the whole-cloth creation of the Westward-facing capital city St. Petersburg.
Just so did Peter address himself to his truculent son.
“I will deprive you of the succession, as one may cut off a useless member,” he threatened in a come-to-Jesus letter of 1715, when Alexei was already 25 years old.
Do not fancy that, because I have no other child but you, I only write this to terrify you. I will certainly put it in execution if it please God; for whereas I do not spare my own life for my country and the welfare of my people, why should I spare you who do not render yourself worthy of either? I would rather choose to transmit them to a worthy stranger than to my own unworthy son.
Peter, to borrow a phrase redolent in Russian historiography, mourned not the cracked eggs that made his omelette.
And sometime after Alexei’s flight to Naples, Peter had clearly come to the understanding that for the good of his nation that unworthy son must indeed be spattered.
This episode places Peter in a monstrous light, just as would Marcus Aurelius appear to us had he contrived to murder the future tyrant Commodus when the latter was a mere callow youth. We do not have the luxury of seeing the path not taken, but it ought be said in the towering tsar’s defense that his disdain for the crown prince’s ability is difficult not to share. Alexei’s character stacks flaw upon flaw; no doubt Peter’s upbringing, by turns distant and brutal, was stamped upon it. Let the father bear that failure, but it does not relieve the sovereign’s choice: was he to confide his country and his legacy to the hands of this goblin? Was it even tolerable to leave this firstborn cooling his heels in a monastery, waiting for Peter’s death to cast off cowl and abdication and be acclaimed king by Old Russia?
Peter’s own youth, when he was part of an unresolved dynastic rivalry awkwardly sharing power, had been mired in plots and counterplots. Now, he could scarcely help but suspect that Alexei was also a piece of some conspiracy intending to undo Peter — whether in life or in death.
He forced the son to name his confidantes, then put those confidantes to torture and followed their accusations. In March of 1718, several men were broken on the wheel in Red Square; Alexei’s mother, long ago exiled to a convent, was menaced through her lover who was publicly impaled. Others got off with whippings, brandings, beatings, exile.
Not long after, that Finnish mistress of Alexei returned to the rodina herself. During his mission to Italy, Count Tolstoy had compromised her, and now she willingly supplied Peter the evidence of his son’s treason: that he spoke often of the succession, and how he would abandon St. Petersburg, let the navy rot, and restore the rights of the church; that he thrilled to every rumor of Peter’s illness and even to a mutiny. (Alexei would later acknowledge to his father’s face that had the mutineers acclaimed him tsar, he would have answered the summons.)
Peter empowered a very reluctant secular court to examine Alexei as a traitor without deference to his royal person. In a word, this meant torture — and on June 19, the frail Alexei was lashed 25 times with the knout, a terrible whip reinforced with metal rings that flayed a man’s back into carrion-meat and could even break the spine. Alexei managed to endure it, so on June 24 his suppurating wounds were reopened with another 15 strokes of the cruel scourge.
Under this inhuman torment, Alexei admitted wishing his father’s death — not much of an admission since he had already said as much to dad in the weeks before. But this gave his magistrates enough to condemn the tsarevich to death later that same night, for compassing the death of the king. The reality was that Alexei, vapid and indolent, had only one design on the death of his father: to await it with hope.
What we do not quite know is whether or how this sentence was actually effected. Peter wavered and did not sign the sentence — but as contemporaries saw it, God signed it.
On the morning of June 26, Peter and a number of other court dignitaries went to Peter and Paul Fortress. The fortress’s logs do not specify whether this was yet another round of torture for Alexei; stories would later circulate that Peter or a subaltern murdered the boy here by crudely beating him to death or privately beheading him, sparing the realm the spectacle of the broken crown prince mounting the scaffold.
But the official story, that an already-faltering Alexei begged Peter’s forgiveness as he succumbed to the shock notice of his condemnation, could easily be true: 40 strokes of the knout were enough to take the life of a much firmer constitution than Alexei’s.
By any measure, Peter authored the death of his son under the pall of execution, if not its literal fact — and for all the instances of royal-on-royal violence supplied by the annals, this filicide is nearly unique: Peter the Great, Emperor of All Russia, tortured his disappointing son to death.
Peter the Great died in 1725 at age 52 — according to legend, catching his death by forging into the freezing Finnish Gulf to rescue some drowning soldiers. (“I do not spare my own life for my country and the welfare of my people …”) Peter’s wives had borne him eight legitimate sons over the years, but Alexander, Pavel, Peter, another Pavel, another Peter, yet another Pavel, and yet another Peter had all died in early childhood. This was to be (after the brief reign later in the 1720s of Alexei’s sickly son Peter II) the end of the direct male line of Romanovs.
Instead, Peter was succeeded by his remarkable wife Catherine, by origin a Latvian peasant — and the 18th century would be dominated by female monarchs, culminating with Catherine the Great.
* It was June 24 by the Julian calendar still in use in Russia at that time. By the modern Gregorian calendar, Alexei Petrovich was condemned on July 5, and died on July 7.
On this date in 1885, a vast concourse crowded into Morganfield, Ky. for the satisfaction of seeing the hated Mose Caton hang.
Caton was a Union County, Ky., farmer and cooper who married a widow to secure some land. And he seems like a catch! “Mose Caton seemed to be of the opinion that he had absolute power over the lives of his family,” this contemporaneous chronicler recorded. “The ethics of most people at the present day would prompt them to interfere if his treatment of his family should be practiced toward ordinary domestic animals.”
The poor widow Hester took to her new hubby’s thrashings like the Stanford prison experiment inmates and soon became a beaten, broken soul. Out in the boondocks, Caton had a free hand.
Disheveled and too frightened to speak, she ate in the corner, sat on a box separate from the rest of the family, slept on a filthy feather bed and absorbed any humiliation Mose cared to inflict on her … up to and including actually having Mose move his mistress right into the house, and having the mistress physically whip the wife. When Mose built a new house he gave the abused Hester the loft, into which household fire-boxes (rather than fireplaces) emptied their smoke. The woman lived in hell itself.
But she didn’t live there very long.
She died on Sunday, February 22.
As neighbors helped the next day to dress the body for burial, they saw written in the bruised flesh the terrible treatment Hester had endured … including a dreadful abrasion about the neck that looked for all the world like the mark of a cord about her neck.
Though the corpse was buried, reports of its condition soon led to its disinterment — bruised, oozing blood, visibly murdered.
“Mose Caton’s face was the most notable feature of the man. It might well be styled Mongolian in its principal characteristics. The rather scant chin whisker and mustache was the first requisite to this effect. Then the prominent cheek-bones; eyebrows, highest at the outside ends; and a deep sinister wrinkle, starting at the sides of the nostrils, and dropping down past the mustache, heightened the effect. His eyes, more yellow than grey, were not capable of shame, and yet they were not firm and steadfast. He could keep his eyes upon your face, but he could not look steadily into your eyes. His eyes would wander to your forehead, chin, cheeks, back to your eyes, and then away again all over your face.
“His forehead was high, but rather narrow, and retreated from the eyebrows back. The hair was black and slightly tinged with grey. He parted his hair on both sides, and a lock fell down the center of his forehead, not unlike the one commonly seen in the pictures of old Father Time. The ends of the rather long hair was tucked under like Secretary Lamar wears his hair. His clothing was of ordinary woolen goods. He wore a white shirt, and a celluloid turn down collar that was too small for him. He supplemented its length with a red ribbon, which ran through the front button-hole of his shirt collar and tied the ends of his celluloid collar together with the loose ends of the ribbon.” (Source)
“Have him at all hazards,” someone said, voicing the shocked sentiment of all present.
A posse of 25 somewhat fearful men — for Caton had a forbiddingly malevolent public reputation quite apart from the treatment of his spouse — was formed to arrest the tyrannical husband, along with the mistress and the boys. The Catons battened down the hatches and started firing. Their daughter Annie absorbed a breast- and bowel-ful of buckshot in the crossfire, a mortal injury. Only when the posse threatened to burn the house down did the besieged clan give up.
Even then, their trip to the lockup “was interrupted many times by bands of men on foot, emerging from the cypress forests in the icy wilderness, and demanding that the prisoners should be hung then and there.”
Authorities managed to keep the lynching sentiment at bay, but only just. Outraged locals were understood to stand ready to take matters into their own hands at any hint of excess delicacy or dawdling on the part of the judiciary. There were even rumors that an artillery piece had been procured to make certain matters should the need arise to assault the jail, and that the courthouse audience itself had several ropes in hand should it be called upon to issue its summary verdict.
When the jury announced that this would not be necessary, the onlookers bayed in bloodthirsty satisfaction at the sentence. Caton had scarcely a month yet to live, and this was not enough time to dissipate the hatred he had earned of his neighbors: there was an intent to hang Caton privately, but thousands of people pouring into Morganfield, Ky., made it clearly understood that they would riot and pull down the barrier if they were balked of their sight.
On this date in 1884, a Louisiana man named Noah Jackson was hanged at Lake Providence for beating in the brains of his 15-year-old wife during a fit of jealousy. (She’d been only 13 years old when they married.)
Meanwhile, in Corsicana, Tx., Harrison Williams hanged for murdering his sister-in-law Ada Sallard.
“The particulars in the murder case,” reported the Dallas Weekly Herald on June 28, 1883, “are as follows:”
Munroe Sallard and Harrison Williams, two colored men living on adjoining farms about five miles from town, married sisters. Williams has been abusing his wife ever since their marriage; on Monday morning Williams beat his wife in a brutal manner, and on being remonstrated with by her sister, Mrs. Sallard, told her that if she said a word he would kill her. Mrs. Sallard started for town on horseback to have him arrested, and when near the fairgrounds on her way home was way-laid by Williams, who took her from her horse, tied a handkerchief around her throat and then mashed her head to a shapeless mass with his boot heel. He then secreted her body in the woods, and went to her house and occupied the same bed with her husband, leaving yesterday morning [meaning June 26]. Since then he has not been seen. Her body was discovered in the woods yesterday evening, and last night an armed posse of negroes went in search of the murderer. If caught he will certainly dangle.