According to a note in the memoirs (French, natch) kept by Le Puy master tanner Antoine Jacmon, “the portrait and effigie of the noble Jean de Mourgues” was publicly beheaded in place of the flesh of the noble Jean de Mourgues, as penalty for the latter’s attempt to murder his own uncle.
According to the author’s note, this punishment had so little effect that Jean de Mourgues successfully carried out the assassination in a hail of gunfire two years later.
On this date in 1568, Leonor de Cisneros was burned as a heretic in Valladolid — nine years late, by her reckoning.
Leonor de Cisneros (English Wikipedia entry | a token Spanish Wikipedia entry | the much more detailed German) and her much older husband Antonio Herrezuelo* were among the first converts to the Lutheran circle in Valladolid funded by Don Carlos de Seso. The Inquisition got its hands on these wrongthinkers in the late 1550s and the result was an auto de fe on October 8, 1559 at which King Philip personally witnessed the Christlike suffering of Don Carlos and 12 of his adherents.
However, while 13 died, dozens of others succumbed to the Inquisition’s pressure to recant, and live. Leonor de Cisneros was one of them.
The monstrous spectacle of the auto de fe featured an elaborate symbolic language encoded for the spectators in the ritual sanbenitos in which the accused were made to parade, such as the example pictured at right.** Different patterns denoted which heretics were bound for the stake, and which had reconciled to a wary Church … and it is said that when Antonio, en route to his pyre draped in illustrations of hellfire to represent his fatal obduracy, beheld his wife in the colors of a penitent, he savagely reproached her cowardice.
Obviously shaken, Leonor returned to her prison with a prayer in her soul and a flea in her ear. Soon enough she had relapsed into her heresy, and this time no punishment or exhortation could move her — knowing as she well did that in her stubbornness she solicited her martyrdom.
* Leonor was born in the mid-1530s, so would have married and converted to Protestantism around the age of 18. Antonio was born about 1513.
At noon on this date in 1862, William Robert Taylor was hanged at Lancaster Castle before a large crowd (some reports place the number at 100,000) for a shocking spree of violence that took four people’s lives, three of them children. In the 38yearold man’s pocket was a handkerchief which, he was promised, would be delivered to his wife after his death.
The story that ended with Taylor’s execution began in October 1861, when he rented a shop in Manchester, England, from the real estate agency Evan Mellor and Son. The following month, Taylor complained to Mellor about the boiler, saying it was broken and the pipes were leaking and might burst at any time.
Whether Mellor had the repairs done or not was never established for sure. But the fact of the matter is that a few months later, on one Sunday in January, the pipes froze and then burst, killing one of Taylor’s four children: Maria Jane, aged seven. She was badly scalded and suffered horribly before dying.
Taylor asked Mellor to give him £50 in compensation for the tragedy.* Mellor refused.
The two men had already come into conflict with each other because Taylor was months behind in his rent. Now, they were enemies.
The griefstricken family soon ran into further financial trouble. They were short on food, short on coal, and had to bury little Maria in an unmarked pauper’s grave because they couldn’t afford a funeral. Within weeks, creditors showed up to repossess everything they owned, taking even the laundry that was hung out to dry, and snatching a comb right out of of the oldest child’s hand as she was fixing her hair.
The Taylor family’s belongings were not worth enough to pay the back rent, however, and Mellor instituted eviction proceedings. Taylor had no legal or even practical basis for continued resistance, but he had the embittered vitor of pride and injury to pit against his Dickensian landlord. Stubbornly, Taylor insisted on remaining with his family at their home in Britannia Buildings rather than submitting to a workhouse, even though by this time they were hungry and cold and had no furniture and nothing to wear but the clothes they stood in.
And Taylor pere had a seething grudge against Evan Mellor.
On May 16, 1862, Evan Mellor arrived at his offices at St. James’s Chambers, South King Street, and was met in the stairwell by William and his wife, Martha Ann Taylor. Both of them were armed, Martha with a gun and William with a carving knife ten inches long. Without warning, William Taylor stabbed Mellor in the chest eleven times, once penetrating the heart. The dying man stumbled downstairs and a porter saw him and rushed to his aid. In response, Martha Taylor shot the porter. The couple fled from the scene.
The porter recovered from his injury, but Mellor died a short time later. The Taylors were eventually caught and taken to the police station. William’s response to his arrest was, “Thank God, I have now finished my work.” He gave the police the keys to his home at Britannia Buildings and told them to use the smallest one to unlock the back bedroom.
When two police officers arrived at residence and went in the back, they discovered a tragic scene: lying on the floor were the bodies of the Taylors’ three children. They had been washed and their hair had been combed carefully. They were dressed in long, clean white nightgowns with black sashes, and had black ribbons tied around their wrists and necks. Labels pinned on their chests gave their names and ages: Mary Hannah, age 11, Hannah Maria, age 6, and William Robert Jr., age 4. On the back of each of the labels was an identical note reading:
We are six, but one at Harpurhey Cemetery lies, thither our bodies take. Mellor and Son are our cruel murderers but God and our loving parents will avenge us. Love rules here; we are all going to our sister, to part no more.
(The Taylors kept their silence as to the manner of the children’s deaths. Authorities had the little ones autopsied but could never fix on a cause: their organs were healthy, their bodies unbruised, and there were no evident indications of either poisoning or suffocation.)
William was charged with the murder of Evan Mellor, and Martha with being an accessory to murder. (She told police that she and not her husband had killed Mellor, but the evidence proved otherwise.) They appeared at their joint trial dressed in mourning. In court, no mention was made of Mary, Hannah and William Jr.’s deaths.
There was no question of William having committed the crime; multiple witnesses had seen what happened, he’d been arrested with the bloody knife still in his possession, and he had confessed. His lawyer had no alternative but to plead insanity: that William’s mind had snapped under the weight of his grief and financial ruin. The defense attorney stressed that, although his client was a killer, this didn’t mean he would be dangerous in the future:
He asked them carefully to consider the character and circumstances of the murder itself. Horrible as it was, fierce and violent as it was, it was of such a nature as could hardly be accounted for by any of the ordinary mental conditions in which men are placed. They were not dealing with a man who up to this time had given any indication of a ruffianly or brutal disposition; but with a father of the deepest affection who succeeded in inspiring the woman standing beside him with a devotion almost unparalleled. They were not dealing with a bloodthirsty man.
It didn’t work, and the judge’s summation seemed calculated to crush any empathy the jurymen might have felt for the murderer. William, he remarked, was “acting under a strong feeling of resentment” and so he was “a perfectly sane man, acting under a sane impulse.”
Guilty (left), not guilty (right).
In the end, Martha was acquitted of being an accessory to Mellor’s murder after her defense counsel called the eyewitness testimony into question, but William was convicted of murder.
Mary, Hannah and William Jr. would have been consigned to a pauper’s grave like their sister, but the community took up a subscription and raised £60 to pay for their funerals and a fine headstone, next to where Maria is buried in Harpurhey Cemetery.
Their father lies buried elsewhere, in a mass grave with other executed convicts.
Phrenology fans will surely enjoy the Liverpool Mercury‘s September 15, 1862 gallows reportage.
Hanged along with Taylor on the same occasion was a Lancashire trade unionist named John Ward. Ward and some fellow bricklayers had by cover of darkness destroyed some 18,000 bricks belonging to a combative boss. Britain’s grand tradition of machine wrecking was by this point no longer a capital crime by its own right, but returning from a satisfactory operation the masked workers were challenged by two policemen in Ashton-under-Lyne and one of those cops was shot dead in the resulting affray. Ward paid that forfeit.
* Historical inflation measurements get a little dodgy when the increments are centuries, but this 50 quid would equate to a demand for several thousand pounds today.
On this date in September 10, 1893, the same day that they admitted to their roles in a murder conspiracy, Mehaley (or Mahaley) Jackson and Louisa Carter were lynched in the town of Quincy in eastern Mississippi, 137 miles east of Memphis.
The two black women’s slayings were only part part of a grisly tragedy that resulted in the deaths of six people, perhaps more.
In late August or early September 1893, a white gentleman named Thomas Woodruff fell ill along with his entire family. Two of his five children died. Two weeks later, what was left of the Woodruff family were all still languishing in the hospital, and there was little hope that any of them would recover. Neighbors who nursed the sick family also became ill.
A search of the Woodruff property turned up three packages of Rough-on-Rats, an arsenic-based poison, in the well.
Suspicion fell on Ben Woodruff, a local black man. The previous fall, Ben had “entered Woodruff’s house violently, and so excited his wife, who was in a delicate condition from childbirth, that she died in a few hours.” Ben had faced criminal charges in connection with the incident, and Woodruff was one of the witnesses against him, which, it was thought, provided motive to for Ben to kill him. (The news report below prefers a stolen wagon as the source of the friction.)
New Orleans Times-Picayune, September 10, 1893.
On September 9, during the inquest following Ben Jackson’s arrest, a group of unmasked men dragged him away from the police who had custody of him and hanged him. The murder inquiry continued without the suspect and, a day later, his widow, Mehaley Jackson, and mother-in-law, Louisa Carter, testified before the jury. They admitted they had known of Ben’s plan to poison the Woodruffs’ well. The two women were not arrested, but it would have been better for them if they had been: when they left the courthouse, an armed mob was waiting for them and hanged them as well.
Vigilante justice wasn’t finished yet: Mehaley and Louisa had said a neighborhood man named Rufus Broyles had given Ben Jackson the money to buy the poison. Broyles fled the area after Ben’s death and went into hiding in a nearby town.
On September 14, he was caught there, and strung up like the others.
Circuit court judge Newman Cayce made a “forcible and peremptory” order to the grand jury to identify and indict the lynchers. Predictably, there’s no record of any charges being brought against anyone.
“Truth is stranger than fiction.” In how many ways is this aphorism verified! Nowhere is it more strangely true than in the dark and mysterious records of crime. That a perilous sea, only occasionally visited by the ships of commerce and civilization, should witness the development of bands of pirates whose bold and cruel deeds have terrified the voyagers, and furnished themes with which the romancer could charm the morbid tastes of the lovers of the gruesome, is a thing to be expected. That a wild and sparsely settled region, abounding in fastnesses and hiding places, yet crossed by trains bearing rich treasures, should be the field in which a drove of dehumanized desperadoes carried on their nefarious trade, is in no way surprising. Storm-tossed, wreck-strewn seas and hurricane-swept prairies, nurture, or at least harbor, such characters as their appropriate children. There is nothing strange in the fact that wild regions should be the home of wilder men. The romancer can make his story as wild and improbable as he chooses; there is no one who will rise to contradict him.
It is strange, however, that such men should spring up amid peaceful surroundings. It is stranger still that a penchant for crime, carried out into deeds of more reckless daring than those of the wild and unrestrained West, should be nurtured in the quiet rural districts of Northwestern Ohio. Yet, strange to say, in this almost Arcadian corner of a great civilized state, a corner whose agrarian peacefulness was never broken by harsher sounds than the melody of church bells, or the cheerful call of the locomotive, there have been conceived and carried into execution crimes that would stand out boldly even on the pages of the wildest fiction. This corner of the state was the home of the now famous “Jack Page” band of arsonists, who terrorized the country a quarter of a century ago. Here, also, lived the man who furnished the occasion of this sketch, Frank Van Loon. Of his dare-devil deed let the reader judge.
The Supremacy of Nerve
On the seventh day of August, 1891, the village of Columbus Grove, Putnam County, Ohio, was startled out of its quiet, humdrum routine by a daring daylight robbery and murder. A young man, unknown to the few chance stragglers about the streets of the quiet village, entered a hardware store. By sheer force he compelled the person in charge to give him two loaded .38-caliber revolvers. With the dash of a true desperado, he rushed across the street to the bank. He entered the bank, broke the glass in front of the cashier’s desk, reached through and secured $1,365. The bank officials, terrified by the suddenness of the attack, dropped through a trap-door into the cellar. One of them, by venturing to look out of his hiding place, was shot by the nervy robber. The ball took effect in the shoulder, producing a painful, though not fatal wound. While the desperado was holding the bank employees at bay, an old man by the name of William Vandemark entered the bank to transact some business. Vandemark was ignorant of the fact that a desperate robbery was at that moment being committed. The robber, hearing some one enter, turned quickly and fired at the innocent intruder. The shot was fatal and Vandemark was instantly killed. As the desperate man rushed out of the bank, he shot at a man who was peacefully driving along the street. The daring young man made his escape across the fields without being recognized.
A Mother-in-Law’s Vengeance
Who this daring robber and murderer was might have remained an undiscovered fact, had it not been that a certain young farmer by the name of Frank Van Loon had, by his innate meanness, incurred the implacable hatred of his wife’s mother. Ever suspicious of her son-in-law, the woman entered his room on the morning of the day following his crime, noted that his boots were muddy, and found in his pockets the guns and the stolen money. This woman, having heard in the intervening time of the crime committed in Columbus Grove, reported her findings to the officers. The officers, knowing of the unhappy condition of things in the Van Loon home, for a time paid no heed to the advices which they received, thinking it was only a mother-in-law’s spite [at] work. But when the information had been several times repeated they concluded to investigate, and found things as the mother-in-law had reported. Van Loon was arrested. He was given a speedy trial, convicted of murder in the first degree, and sentenced to be hanged.
In the Palace of Death
Frank Van Loon, serial number 23,313, on the twelfth day of May, 1892, entered the Annex of the Ohio Penitentiary. It was his final leave-taking of God’s beautiful world of sunshine and fragrance. Never again was he to see the earth and sky meet. When he left that Place of Doom it would be as a lifeless body.
Through the law’s delay Van Loon was permitted to drag on a miserable existence between hope and despair for fifteen months. In these months of waiting he employed a part of the time in writing a history of his life. In this composition the natural selfishness and brutality of his nature were plainly manifest. It was evident from the underlying tone of his autobiography that he did not recognize that his fellow-man had any rights which he was bound to respect, especially if those rights stood in the way of his wishes being attained. His towering egotism was undoubtedly the soil which nurtured and brought to maturity the disposition which made possible his cruel crime. [editor’s note: my researches have failed to locate this interesting artifact for the modern reader’s edification.]
This egotism was constantly being made evident by his actions during his stay in the Annex. Much of the time during his waking hours was passed in quarreling with his keeper. These contentions one day led to a desperate struggle between Van Loon and Guard Bowman for the possession of an ice pick. When Van Loon had been let out of the cage for some purpose, he endeavored to get possession of an ice pick, as the only available weapon with which to kill the Guard. Both men being well developed and powerful, a desperate struggle ensued, in which the superior skill and greater endurance attained by careful training gave the victory to Guard Bowman.
The Deepening Shadows
Frank Van Loon’s long stay in the Annex was drawing to a close. The brief day of his earthly career was rapidly nearing the end. The shadows were growing deeper. Soon his sun would set in utter darkness. Van Loon had lived but twenty-three years of mortal life. They had, however, been years fruitful of enormous results in crime and meanness.
August 4, 1895, was his last day on earth. It was a dark and stormy night which preceded that day, but not more dark or more stormy than had been the young life that was that night to be taken as a forfeit to the State. Frank Van Loon’s life had been a rebellion against the laws of God and man. While the officers of human law were preparing to take satisfaction for the outrage that had been committed against it, the artillery of heaven was flashing defiance and thundering menaces and pouring down torrents of rain, as if to make it known to the universe that the sin-scorched soul which the laws of man had decreed should no longer dwell among the habitations of earth, should not rise into that world where “no wicked thing cometh,” but must turn away from heaven and wander forever in the “outer darkness.”
When the midnight hour had come, the march from the Guard Room began. Noiselessly the guards moved over the sawdust covered corridors to the Annex. The Warden, Hon. C.C. James, read the warrant to the condemned man. The same nerve that characterized the attack on the bank was manifest in this last and closing ordeal of his life. Unassisted and unfalteringly he mounted the steps to the gallows and and took his place on the trap.
While standing on the trap Van Loon sang in a strong, clear voice, “Nearer My God to Thee.”
There was no tremor in his voice, nor quaking in his limbs. Apparently without fear he gave voice to the familiar hymn. Strangely the music floated out on the midnight air, while the terrific electrical storm, raging without, seemed playing the accompaniment. The deep diapason of Nature’s orchestra, blending with the stentorian voice of the singer, echoed and reverberated through the adjoining corridors of the prison until many of the prisoners were startled from their slumbers. On hearing the hymn and its wild accompaniment, and remembering that it was the night of Van Loon’s execution, they listened with bated breath, scarcely knowing whether to attribute the unwonted disturbance to earth, heaven or hell; wondering whether the voice was that of man, angel or demon.
At the close of this strange oratorio, the trap was sprung; the body shot downward. The execution was a success. Frank Van Loon was no more.
On this date in 1925, Cornelius “Con” O’Leary* was hanged in Ireland for the murder of his brother, Patrick. He, his mother and his two sisters had all been charged in the crime, but in the end, Con was the only one to swing for it. The story of his brother’s slaying and his execution is told in Tim Carey’s book Hanged For Murder: Irish State Executions.
In early 1924, five adults occupied the O’Leary farm in the village of Kilkerran in Cork: the elderly mother of the family, the oldest son Patrick, his younger brother Con, and their sisters, Hannah and Maryanne. All of the children were unmarried. (There had originally been eight of them, but one had died and three others had moved away.) Their father had died a few years before and left the farm to his wife, with the stipulation that Patrick would inherit after her death.
Forty-six-year-old Patrick and 40-year-old Con didn’t get along and everyone knew it. Con, contrary to tradition, didn’t work the family farm but had a job as a laborer at a farm nearby, leaving his older brother, a large man with a “quarrelsome” nature, to manage the O’Leary farm alone.
Patrick thought his brother should either start working the family’s land or else pack up and move elsewhere, but Con refused to budge.
The two men hadn’t spoken to each other in years and went to great lengths to avoid each other: Patrick spent his nights in a loft in the barn and got up early, and Con wouldn’t go to the barn until after his brother had left and wouldn’t go to the house until after his brother had gone to bed. Maryanne also spent her nights away from home, at an elderly female neighbor’s house.
On March 7, 1924, a child tending cows in a field near the O’Leary farm noticed a potato sack under some bushes, opened it up and discovered a horrifying sight: a severed head, badly decomposed and beaten to a pulp.
The gardai were summoned and launched a search of the area. They found a severed right arm and a torso. Although the authorities recognized the dead man, they summoned Con O’Leary to make an official identification.
By the time Con O’Leary was brought to the field it was dark. When they shook the head out of the sack the guards shone torches to help him see. Con looked at the head for some time before saying, “Yes, that is my brother Pat.”
“Con, are you sure now?” the sergeant asked.
“Yes, that’s my brother Pat all right.”
At this point a garda inspector arrived. However, when he asked Con if he could identify the head he said he couldn’t. When the sergeant asked, “How is it you identified it for me and you cannot identify it now?” Con said nothing.
Patrick’s head, arm and torso were then brought to the back room of a pub in the nearby village of Milltown. Lit by candles and a bicycle lamp, the head was rested on a bit of hay on a table.
Hannah was brought in, and claimed she did not recognize the remains. Maryanne, however, immediately identified her brother. Con kept insisting that he wasn’t sure, then started rubbing his hands together repeating, “I am innocent, my hands clean.”
When the gardai checked the loft where Patrick slept, it was obvious they’d found the crime scene. The rafters were clearly bloodstained in spite of an apparent attempt to wash them, and although the bedclothes were clean, there was blood on the floor under the bed. He had probably been beaten to death in his sleep; there were no indications of a struggle.
The next day, the O’Leary family held a traditional Irish wake in their home — including the requisite open casket, with the body parts carefully arranged inside. The neighbors attended and openly discussed their suspicions that Con had committed the murder. He only repeated that he was innocent and his hands were clean. That night, of the three remaining O’Learys, only Maryanne stayed up to keep a vigil by the coffin.
Further searches commenced and in the end eight body parts turned up, all within 650 yards of the farmhouse. The final discovery was Patrick’s other arm, which the family sheepdog was seen carrying around; it had already eaten most of it.
On March 14, a week after the discovery of Patrick’s head, his mother, brother and sisters were all charged with his murder. The gardai decided he had probably been killed on February 26, which is the last day he was seen alive. Curiously, the family hadn’t raised the alarm after he disappeared. They later said they thought he’d simply dropped out of sight of his own accord and would return soon enough.
While awaiting trial, Maryanne died of cancer in prison. She claimed, probably truthfully, that she had been away on the night Patrick died and had no knowledge of what happened to him.
Because Mrs. O’Leary was elderly and in poor health, the charges against her were dropped and she was released from prison. She returned to the family home and lived there alone until her death in 1928.
Con and Hannah went to trial on June 23, 1925, and both pleaded not guilty. The jury deadlocked on reaching a verdict for either of them, however, and a second trial began a week later. It lasted two days.
There was virtually no evidence to implicate Hannah, but that didn’t stop the judge from suggesting in his summingup about how she might have been involved: he said changing Patrick’s goresoaked bedsheets for clean ones might “might be a woman’s job” but chopping him into bits and pieces was probably “a man’s job.”
In less than an hour, the jury convicted both of them, but with a recommendation for mercy in Hannah’s case.
Con, who maintained his innocence to the end, went to his death a month after his conviction. He was executed by Thomas Pierrepoint and buried in an unmarked grave. Hannah was sent to Mountjoy Women’s Prison. She was released in 1942, at age 56, and went to live in a Magdalen laundry.
On an uncertain date perhaps around late July of 321,* the Roman emperor Constantine the Great had his son and also his wife mysteriously put to death.
It’s mysterious because besides execution, Constantine had a damnatio memoriae passed over his former family to bury any record of their sins in Time’s obscurity. These edicts didn’t always work … but in this case, if there were any who dared to record what happened, that illicit account did not survive its journey from antiquity.
But it was surely a shocking scandal in its time.
Crispus was Constantine’s first-born son and very much in the father’s favor. He was the child of a wife or concubine named Minervina. In 307, Constantine put this woman aside to make a more politically expedient marriage to Fausta, the daughter of Diocletian‘s retired-now-unretired co-emperor Maximian who with his son Maxentius held sway in Italy at that moment of the Roman Tetrarchy‘s ongoing collapse.**
Although Crispus didn’t offer his dad much in this situation by way of family alliances, Constantine kept him in his favor — by all appearances grooming him as an heir. Call it paying it forward: as a young man, Constantine himself had been in a similar position when his father Constantius dumped Constantine’s peasant mother in favor of an imperial marriage. That moment might have strangled a world-historic career before it even began, but Constantius instead chose to keep Constantine on the paternal cursus honorum.
So it went with Crispus — for a while.
In 317, Constantine, now emperor in the western part of the empire,† made Crispus into his Caesar; the boy ruled in Gaul and Germania for several years, thrashing barbarian tribes as he ought. Dad, meanwhile, was maneuvering towards victory over his eastern opposite number Licinius, with Crispus contributing an important naval victory in 324.
The young man (in his twenties at this time; his precise year of birth is uncertain) seemed on his way to a scintillating future.
Bronze coin from the mint of Rome depicting Crispus.
Things went pear-shaped suddenly in 326 when his father had him executed without any kind of warning that survives in the scant records available to us — and not only Crispus, but also Constantine’s own wife, that Fausta whose marriage might have threatened the boy’s status.
We don’t know why but the rumor as trafficked by the much later Byzantine historian Zosimus suggests a possible Parisina and Ugo scenario: “He put to death his son Crispus, styled Caesar, on suspicion of debauching his mother-in-law Fausta, without any regard to the ties of nature … [and] causing a bath to be heated to an extraordinary degree, he shut up Fausta in it, and a short time after took her out dead.”
It is down to conjecture what one ought to make of this nth-hand scandal-mongering; for impugning someone’s character one can hardly do better than an incest accusation. The story does appear to fit the few available facts, however, and Fausta was much closer in age to Crispus than to Constantine. It might also be noteworthy that three of Fausta’s sons went on to become Emperor and one daughter Empress but none of them ever rehabilitated mom.
Damned memory be damned, Crispus was rediscovered during the Renaissance and favored with several dramatic renditions embellishing the young man as a tragic hero, often with speculation that he was wrongly condemned to Constantine’s everlasting shame.‡ The events surrounding Crispus’s death being almost entirely obscured, writers could really go nuts with it; for example, Sir Walter Scott‘s Count Robert of Paris (set in Constantinople during the Crusades) features the story of an entirely fictitious penance built into subsequent Byzantine execution rituals by a remorseful Constantine:
But the death-blow had no sooner struck the innocent youth, than his father obtained proof of the rashness with which he had acted. He had at this period been engaged in constructing the subterranean parts of the Blacquernal palace, which his remorse appointed to contain a record of his paternal grief and contrition. At the upper part of the staircase, called the Pit of Acheron, he caused to be constructed a large chamber, still called the Hall of Judgment, for the purpose of execution. A passage through an archway in the upper wall leads from the hall to the place of misery, where the axe, or other engine, is disposed for the execution of state prisoners of consequence. Over this archway was placed a species of marble altar, surmounted by an image of the unfortunate Crispus — the materials were gold, and it bore the memorable inscription, TO MY SON, WHOM I RASHLY CONDEMNED, AND TOO HASTILY EXECUTED. When constructing this passage, Constantine made a vow, that he himself and his posterity, being reigning Emperors, would stand beside the statue of Crispus, at the time when any individual of their family should be led to execution, and before they suffered him to pass from the Hall of Judgment to the Chamber of Death, that they should themselves be personally convinced of the truth of the charge under which he suffered.
* Approximate times around the spring and summer of 326 have been proposed by various authors based on the very vague allusions of ancient sources. This author argues that numismatic evidence permits a more precise triangulation. Constantine in 326 journeyed from his new capital in the east to Rome: an imperial mint traveled with him, striking coins as it went — and some of those coins show Crispus. His presence on coins from various stops of this journey indicates that Crispus must have been alive as the procession reached Rome on July 21, 326, but the Caesar vanishes from them, and from history, immediately thereafter.
** The History of Rome Podcast narrates this period, with Constantine’s rise into political relevance in episode 130.
† The Tetrarchy was still tetrarching along pending Constantine’s victory over all: the system featured separate senior emperors East and West each dignified Augustus, and each Augustus had a junior fellow-emperor and heir titled Caesar. Constantine was Augustus of the West, and Crispus was a Caesar.
‡ Fausta tends to get somewhat shorter shrift than her putative lover. Crispus’s presence in the literary culture would appear to make him the namesake of the Boston American Revolution martyr Crispus Attucks. African-descended men in North America often carried Roman names, though “Crispus” was by no means a common one.
Orelesitse Thokamolelo caught six death sentences in Botswana for slaughtering six family members, and on this date in 2013 he suffered the first of them at Gaborone Central Prison.
It all started on a nice visit he paid to his brother Landane Thokamolelo.
The Botswana Gazette reported (May 29, 2013) that “on the second day of his visit, Thokamolelo woke up and demanded to cook food where upon [sic] his brother’s wife and mother-in-law refused.” Whether this was the women’s exacting spirit of hospitality or their fear for the state of the kitchen, their houseguest didn’t appreciate the denial. In the ensuing argument, he “took a knobkerrie and beat his brother’s mother-in-law and his brother’s wife to death.” In for a penny, in for a pound, Thokamolelo then turned the bloodied club on the wife’s four-month-old child.
The brother during all this was out collecting firewood with two other children, and when they returned later that day, Thokamolelo served them the same way, albeit with fresh bludgeons: the brother he overpowered and battered to death with a hammer, after which he pursued the fleeing children into the bush and “killed them with a log.” The doggedness and calculation implied in murdering the second trio must have weighed heavily against Thokamolelo’s attorney’s attempt to float an insanity argument. Not even reefer drives a man that crazy: “After anxious inquiring of mind of this matter, I also find no misdirection by the trial court in considering the effect of dagga taken by the appellant and giving it weight,” an appellate judge ruled in April 2013.
Successful though their line might prove, theirs was a house divided and the parents’ rivalry for precedence in their territory transferred to their two sons. Thus Giulio, the father’s favorite, makes his first appearance on history’s stage invading Massa with a cohort of gendarmes to seize power from his own mother.
The success of his rude maneuver was short-lived and mom soon restored her authority — backed by the imperial forces haunting the land during the interminable Italian Wars. Although Giulio was married to the daughter of the Genoese admiral Andrea Doria,* whose word was law in that city, the in-laws frustratingly stiffed him out of the dowry payment that Giulio intended to use to restore his Freudian conquest.
These material grievances, and a young man’s wide streak of tragic impetuousity,** drove Giulio into the arms of Giovanni Luigi Fieschi. The latter was a Genoese nobleman whose dramatic plot to topple Doria failed with operatic† absurdity in 1547 when Fieschi mid-coup fell off a gangway and drowned in the harbor. Only in Genoa.
Cybo’s complicity in this scheme could not be proven because he arrived too late to do anything other than make a politic show of support for the already-victorious Doria. But now, encouraged by the French — the Habsburg empire’s enemy in the aforementioned Italian Wars and therefore the sponsor of its every rival faction — Cybo gathered some fellow malcontents in Venice and began working up a plot to oust Doria, restore the liberty of Genoa, and really put all the parents in their place. Once bitten, however, the wily old Doria was on the lookout for these troublemakers and had Cybo’s circle infiltrated early. The young man was arrested en route back to Genoa to implement his design.
The letters of the Fieschi [family] which were found on his person left no room to doubt his guilt. Some tell us that he was several times tortured and confessed that Farnese, Maffei, Ghisa and the Pope himself were accomplices in the plot, and that the Fieschi and Farnese were its instigators.
The emperor did not wish to execute Cybo; and we find evidence in documents of the period that even the bloodthirsty Gonzaga made every exertion to save him. On the other hand Graneville and Doria laboured with all their power to secure his punishment. In fact, so soon as Doria heard of this plot, committed rather in intention than act and excusable by the youth of the conspirator, “the prince (I use the words of Porzio) inflamed to wrath by the offence and full of vengeful animosity, disregarded the double tie which bound him to the young man, and made incessant appeals to Caesar for the blood of his relative.”
Many Italian and foreign princes asked grace for the prisoner, and the emperor was at first undecided; but severity triumphed over mercy — Doria desired vengeance and he obtained it. The victim met his fate with manly intrepidity. He was beheaded and his body exposed between two wax candles in the public square … on the 18th of May, 1548. He was scarcely twenty years of age.
Porzio says: —
His courage and military capacity inspired all who knew him with the conviction that, if he had not perished in boyhood, he would have become one of the first captains of his age. He made a single mistake: that of endeavouring to expel one foreigner with another — to drive out the Spaniards in order to establish the French in Italy.
* This man, one of the great naval captains of his age, was of course the namesake of the Genoese ocean liner Andrea Doria that sank in 1956.
** Cybo “liked not to rest contented in the battle of life,” was James Bent’s judgment, although it is difficult to tell that he ever had the option to do so.
** Well, stage-worthy at any rate: Fieschi’s fiasco is the basis of Schiller’s play Fiesco.
On this date in 1836, a troubled (ex-)family man named Isaac Young — latterly going by Isaac Heller — was publicly hanged in Liberty, Indiana for axing his entire family to death in a fit of madness.
Young hailed from Pennsylvania, and the reason he had changed his name and moved to Indiana was that he had done a similar thing in his native haunts.
As a teenager in the 1820s, Isaac Young had been seized strangely by the spiritual tremors abroad during America’s Second Great Awakening. A baptized zealot who fancied himself blessed with the power of prophesy, Young was also captive to an inescapable — and seemingly defeatist — impression of being forever pursued and haunted by the devil. Young’s religious thunderings tended to produce more interest in the utterer’s state of mind than in the listener’s state of soul, and the youth was known to succumb to “gusts of passion.”
Eventually, those gusts blew a hurricane.
Young lived with his brother, who had a wife and a 10-year-old orphan girl — and, little did they know, the devil watching over them all. One night in 1830, Young awoke with a start at a sound he perceived upon the stair, convinced that some entity had entered the room he shared with the little girl; his religious eccentricities jumbling him right into lunacy.
“The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” Young bellowed at the dragon from Revelations come to visit him in his nightshirt in Dauphin County. He tried to grapple with the phantom but missed it, and of a sudden he turned his frenzy on the girl, battering her furiously. Young would later say that he was “forcibly impelled” to the attack by an overwhelming “duty” to “destroy” the child; his brother and his sister-in-law attempted to intervene but Young seized a club and with a berserker rage chased them from the house — then returned to his cowering little roommate, and sawed off her head with his knife.
He was acquitted of this murder by reason of his manifest insanity, but this was not a time and place with resources to aid the mentally ill. All anyone could think to do was to keep him chained in the poor house until after a few months he appeared to return to reason — at which point he was finally released and blew town, now rechristened with his mother’s maiden name.
In the hamlet of Liberty, the new man Heller escaped the devil … for a few years. He opened a grocery store and married a woman named Elizabeth McCollam with whom he had a happy brood of three children.
Until one day the gusts returned to swirl his soul again.
“The first symptom of insanity noticed in this county was about three years ago [i.e., 1833], by a young man who was going home with him on a Sabbath evening,” the Connersville (Ind.) Watchman reported in a profile that was widely reprinted around the Republic.*
The young man noticed something very extraordinary in his manner, and was much affected. At length he asked him what was the matter. He replied in effect that a superhuman influence or inspiration was upon him. Soon after he became very much excited on religious subjects … Witnesses stated that for several days at a time, during the last two or three years, he would act like a wild man or a raving maniac. During that time he was twice taken into the care of the overseers of the poor and kept some time as an insane person.
Heller’s neglect of his work soon exhausted his family’s modest reserves and left wife and children surviving on the charity of neighbors, spiraling Heller even deeper into depression, and in his “great horror of the poor house” he owned “that he would rather die than be separated from his family.” One hears in these words a man with the walls closing in about him … or else, a man hammering out the rationale for the madness he has already determined to undertake. There was calculation in Heller’s fatal outburst; a neighbor visited on the morning of his hecatomb and found the family in good spirits and Heller cogent. The disturbed patriarch waited until the guest was well away before he
took his axe from under the bed, went to the fire, turned round [and] commenced rubbing the fingers of one hand over the edge. His wife asked him what he was going to do — he replied he was going to chop some wood. About this time the woman told the children to get some apples out from under the bed. the two little ones immediately crawled under the bed, and the little sister-in-law stood near the bed looking at Heller. She saw him raise the axe and strike his wife one full blow about the chin and neck. Seeing this she sprang to the door, threw it open and fled for the nearest neighbor’s between a quarter and a half a mile off, crying murder as she ran. After she had fled some two hundred yards, she saw Heller come round the end of the house and look after her. Heller states that after he had despatched his wife he went out of the house and looked after the little girl — that he then went back into the house — his little boy came towards him, when he split him down and chopped his head off. He then dragged his little daughter Sarah out from under the bed — placed his foot upon her breast — she raised her hands for protection, and at the first blow he cut off the fingers of one hand and nearly took off her head. He then went and rolled the mother off of the infant on which she had partly fallen, and cut its head off.
His spiritual torments and probable schizophrenia here are the framework — a cynic might say, the excuse — for a much more commonplace scourge: the murderer said “in justification of the act ‘that they were likely to become a county charge, and that he would rather see them in their present situation.'” (Connecticut Courant, Mar. 21, 1836) In the confession he willingly supplied later, he admitted having attempted to set his homicidal plan in motion several times prior, once even brandishing a butcher’s blade over his wife like the Psycho shower scene before she soothed him. Elizabeth Heller must have been a woman of remarkable calm under pressure; unfortunately for her, resources for abused spouses were about as plentiful as those for the mentally ill.
“Nearly all … who know any thing about the case, regard it as incomprehensibly mysterious,” the newspaper reports concluded. “Many who know the most about it, say they hardly know how or what to think of it. It is doubted whether the annals of crime can produce a parallel case, and it is devoutly hoped they never may!”
But the annals of crime hold many mansions, as readers of this here site surely know.
Heller’s final, “successful” outburst was actually just one of a number of grisly mass-murders by family fathers who through the closely intimate exertion of a bloody blade drenched their domestic idylls with the gore of their loved ones — enough even to form a discernible pattern. Struggling to come to grips with this “homicidal insanity” or “monomanie-homicide”, the early American psychologist Isaac Raylamented the “painful frequency” of cases “where the individual, without provocation or any other rational motive, apparently in the full possession of his reason, and oftentimes in spite of his most strenuous efforts to the contrary, imbrues his hands in the blood of others, — oftener than otherwise, of the partner of his bosom, of the children of his affections.” Incomprehensible perhaps, but scarcely unparalleled: what could make sense of this “horrid phenomenon”?
Pious family men turning Middle America domiciles into charnel houses was the going postal of settler-era America, and maybe Ray even had the Young/Heller-style addled religiosity in mind when he noted that absent some rational accounting the mind would default “to that time-honored solution of all the mysteries of human delinquency, the instigation of the devil.”
In a review of the period’s “familicide” cases, Daniel Cohen (“Homicidal Compulsion and the Conditions of Freedom: The Social and Psychological Origins of Familicide in America’s Early Republic,” Journal of Social History, Summer, 1995) speculates that the revolutionary grant of personal autonomy exacted a dangerous emotional toll upon men who felt themselves failures or simply could not pay “the high psychic costs of economic freedom, particularly for men prone to anxiety and depression.” Isaac was surely prone.
The efforts of those men to submit to supernatural authority were less single-minded pursuits of spiritual perfection than desperate attempts to evade seemingly irresolvable personal conflicts, most importantly between moral demands (or social obligations) and destructive urges or desires. It was ultimately less important for them to avoid sin than to resolve dilemmas or evade choice. When the breathless individual freedom of the early republic collided with the relentless responsibilities of paternal stewardship, the result was an implosion of self-destructive violence … the beginning not the end of a disturbing national tradition …
Many social barriers had fallen in post-Revolutionary America, but several unhappy men could still not control the rain, or the currency, or their own darker impulses. Where others may have perceived boundless opportunities, they experienced gnawing fears and terrifying compulsions. Situations of free choice did not inspire them with a “heady feeling of command” or a “sense of marvelous potential,” to use Robert Wiebe’s expansive phrases, but drove them instead to desperation. Physical unsettlement, economic insecurities, and religious speculations all combined to baffle and torment them. Unable to cope with the perplexities of life in a free society, they constructed internal imperatives to evade and annul that very freedom. By their actions, each tacitly endorsed John Cowan’s conclusion in prison: “Liberty would be more horrible to me than death.” Thus did a handful of troubled Americans confront freedoms profound enough to transform sober Christians into deluded visionaries, loving husbands into axe-wielding assassins, and tidy republican households into slaughterhouses.
Where Pennsylvania acquitted, Indiana convicted — but within even a few years the cooling of passions stirred by the slaughter led many to regret the judgment. According to this volume, even the judge later acknowledged that he ought to have set aside the verdict owing to Heller’s state of mind.
* We’re channeling this via the Gloucester (Mass.) Telegraph of May 4, 1836.