1930: Luigi Versiglia and Callistus Caravario, missionary martyrs

2 comments February 25th, 2018 Headsman

From Butler’s Lives of the Saints: February:


Bishop Versaglia (left) and Father Caravario.

BB Aloysius Versaglia, Bishop and Martyr (1873-1930), and Callistus Caravario, Martyr (1903-1930)

These two martyrs in China are the first two martyrs of the Salesians of Don Bosco (St. John Bosco; 31 Jan.). They belong to a later period than the Martyrs of China considered on 17 February, above, and though they inherited much of the same history, merit separate consideration here. They died in a period marked by continued feuding between local warlords, the rise of the Kuomintang government of Sun-Yat-Sen and then Chiang-Kai-Shek, the birth of the Chinese Communist party, its initial alliance and then break with the Nationalists, and the continued “imperialist” protection of foreign interests and nationals in China.

Aloysius (Luigi) Versaglia was born in Olivia Gessi, near Pavia in the Lombardy region of Italy, on 5 June 1873. Don Bosco sent him to study at his Valdocco “Oratory” in Turin when he was twelve. At that stage his great passions were mathematics and horses, and he told his parents that he was going to study there not to become a priest but to be a veterinary surgeon. He had counted without the extraordinary charism of Don Bosco, however; he changed his mind and joined the Salesians four years later, making his simple profession on 11 October 1889. He studied for a doctorate in philosophy from 1890 to 1893, was ordained in 1895, and spent ten years as superior and novice-master of the new Salesian seminary at Genzano, near Rome. In 1905 the bishop of Macao appealed to the Salesians for missionaries. Aloysius had always longed for a missionary summons; he was appointed leader of the first Salesian missionary expedition to China, setting sail on 7 January 1906 and based initially in Macao. There he was put in charge of a small orphanage, which he transformed into a highly respected school with two hundred pupils and a spiritual centre for the whole town.

A secularizing revolution in Portugal in 1910 deprived the religious of their school, at least for a time, and the bishop sent him into China, on the Heung-Shan mission, between Macao and Canton. This was also the year of the downfall of the Chinese “Heavenly Empire,” which gave way to a republic plunged into civil turmoil. Aloysius organized residences, schools, and hospitals; he trained catechists and dreamed of a wider mission entrusted to the Salesians alone. This was to come about in 1918, when the superior of the College of Foreign Missions in Paris persuaded the pope to split the apostolic vicariate of Kwangtung (Canton and surrounding area) into two, entrusting the northern portion, with its centre at Shiu-Chow (where Matteo Ricci had landed in 1589), to the Salesians. New missionaries were sent from Turin: their leader brought Aloysius a fine chalice as a presence from the superior general of the Salesians in Turin; he took it in his hands and recalled a dream Don Bosco had had — that the Salesian mission in China would grow when a chalice was filled with blood: “It is that chalice you have brought me; it is my task to fill it,” he said. In 1920 the area was constituted an “autonomous apostolic vicariate,” and Aloysius was the obvious person to take charge of this. He was consecrated bishop on 9 January 1920 in the cathedral of Canton.

He took charge at a dangerous time, which made his presentiment of a martyr’s death entirely probable of fulfilment. The Kuomintang government of Sun-Yat-Sen had not succeeded in unifying the country, and local warlords still ruled in the north. The apostolic vacariate [sic] straddled the north-south divide. Sun-Yat-Sen appealed to the newly-formed Communist party for help; its ideology had inherited violent anti-foreign feeling from the Boxers. In such conditions, nevertheless, Aloysius over the next nine years built elementary, secondary, and tertiary schools and colleges, a cathedral, orphanages, and a seminary for Chinese candidates to the priesthood. The continued development of a native clergy was the outstanding missionary achievment [sic] of the 1920s, and Aloysius played a leading part in it. The bishop undertook endless and exhausting pastoral visitations throughout his territory, and the number of Christians trebled. Monsignor, later Cardinal, Constantini, then representative of the Holy See in China, was to say of him:

He was the best type of missionary bishop: simple, courageous, inspired by the apostolic fervour stemming from a deep communion with God and seeking nothing other than God’s reign and glory. Father and brother rather than commander, and so deeply loved and obeyed by missionaries and faithful, from whom he asked no more than he himself had done or was prepared to do.

Callistus (Callisto) Caravario was born into a working-class family in Cuorgne oin Piedmont on 8 June 1903, was educated by the Salesians, and joined the Order, taking his first vows on 19 September 1919. In 1922 he met Bishop Versaglia when the latter made a visit to Turin and promised him that he would rejoin him in China. He was sent on the China mission in October 1924. His first appointment was in Shanghai, where the Salesians had opened a school for orphans; there he learned English, French, and Chinese, began to study theology, and prepared children for baptism. The city was attacked by Nationalist-Communist militia in 1926, and his superior sent him away for safety to the island of Timor in the Indonesian archipelago, then a Portuguese colony. The Nationalists broke with the Communists in 1927, taking charge of Shanghai. After spending two years teaching and studying on Timor, Callistus returned to China, saying that he would die a martyr’s death there; he was ordained by Aloysius Versaglia in Shanghai on 18 May 1829 as a priest for the vicariate of Shiu-Chow. Thereafter the bishop and priest worked in close collaboration for what were to prove the last eight months of Callistus’ life. He was sent to join another priest in the distant mission station of Lin-Chow in a ministry caring for 150 converts and two schools, one for boys and one for girls. He was back in Shiu-Chow on 13 February 1930, when Bishop Aloysius asked him to accompany him on a pastoral visit to Lin-Chow. They were never to get there; Aloysius knew the risks but declared that if they were to wait until the passage was safe, they would never leave.

On 24 February the bishop and priest with others, including two male Chinese teachers, a sister of each of these, and a young woman catechist destined for the Lin-Chow mission, embarked by boat on the Pak-Kong Rier. The three young women were Mary Tong Su-lien, aged twenty-one, returning home to inform her parents of her decision to become a nun; Pauline Ng Yu-che, aged sixteen; and the catechist, Clare Tzen Tz-yung. The presence of these attractive young women on the boat was to play a decisive part in the subsequent course of events.

The previous year, Chiang-Kai-Shek had defeated a Communist force under General Chang-Fat-Kwai, whose soldiers were roaming the countryside living by brigandage. The bishop’s junk, after a day’s journey, happened on a band of river pirates, who regularly operated on the river and generally let missionaries pass unharmed. But this group had been joined by some soldiers from the defeated Communist army, who had been indoctrinated with anti-foreign and anti-Christian attitudes. They demanded $500 to allow the boat to proceed, threatening to shoot its occupants if this was not paid. Aloysius and Callistus protested that they were missionaries, who had usually been treated with respect, but the soldiers called them “European devils” and boarded the junk. there they found the young women and tried to drag them off to rape them. (It is possible that one of them may have been a rejected suitor of Mary Tong.) The bishop and priest stood in the doorway of their cabin to prevent this but were knocked to the ground with rifle-butts and bamboo canes.

They were all dragged on to the river bank, where Aloysius and Callistus were bound and shoved into a clump of bamboo. The women were asked why they wanted to follow the missionaries to their death; they were told that the Communists were going to destroy the Catholic Church and that they should follow them instead. Callistus made a last attempt to save them, offering to send money, but the soldiers replied that they no longer wanted the money, only to kill them because they belonged to the hated foreign religion. Aloysius begged them to kill him only, as he was old, and to spare the young, but to no avail. The brigands shot him and Callistus, battering in their skulls and putting out their eyes after they were dead. The two teachers were sent on their way on the junk. Their sisters and the catechists were taken off into the mountains. They were freed three days later by soldiers of the Nationalist army and told the whole story, declaring that Aloysius and Callistus had given their lives for them. The soldiers had paid some local villagers to bury the two bodies, which were recovered two days later. They were given an honourable burial in Shiu-Chow on 13 March. The two martyrs were regarded locally as heroes by both Christians and non-Christians because they had died to defend the women. The evidence of the specifically anti-Christian motives of the soldiers was sufficient for the Vatican to decide that they had died for the Faith; both were beatified by Pope John Paul II on 15 May 1983.

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1984: Ten members of the Tudeh party

3 comments February 25th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1984, the Islamic Republic of Iran completed its destruction of the Tudeh party with ten executions.

In the 1940s, the Tudeh was Iran’s largest mass party and a fair bet to take power in the near future but state repression after Mossadegh was overthrown in 1953 had largely driven the Communist movement to the skulking margins.

Its fragments hung on underground, preparing and organizing for the proletarian revolution — an orientation that would leave the Tudeh entirely unprepared for the Iranian Revolution that really occurred. In fairness, few from Tehran to Moscow to Washington could read those tea leaves: who in the winter of the Cold War anticipated a great regional prize like Iran being captured by … the mullahs?

The Revolution released the once-banned party onto terra incognita as a minor outlet for leftward sentiment and perhaps a show of democratic good faith. But from the start it awkwardly existed on sufferance of an entirely incompatible regime. The venerable English journalist Robert Fisk, who covered the Iranian Revolution, filed a wry dispatch for the Times (Nov. 26, 1979) from the Tehran offices of Tudeh leader Nouredin Kianouri — unconvincingly trying to position his own movement within the events sweeping everyone along.

Tudeh is involved in “the radical struggle against imperialism”, and “the struggle for the reorganization of social life, especially for the oppressed strata of society” … and in so far as it is possible, Tudeh — Iran’s oldest political party — stands for the same things as Ayatollah Khomeini.

That, at least, is the theory: and Mr Kianouri holds to it bravely.

Tudeh demands a “popular front” government in Iran and Mr Kianouri professes to see little difference between this and Ayatollah Khomeini’s desire for national unity. “Popular Front”, however, is not an expression that has ever crossed the Imam’s lips and it is difficult to see how Iran’s new fundamentalist religious administration could form any cohesion with the materialist aims of Mr Kianouri’s scientific Marxism.

The article’s headline was “Ayatollah tolerates Communists until they become too popular,” but Tudeh never fulfilled its clause: it was blown out in the 1980 election, failing to win even a single seat, and maneuvered ineffectually for two years until a crackdown shattered its remnants with over 1,000 arrests early in 1983,* heavily targeting Tudeh-sympathizing army officers.** (The aforesaid Mr. Kianouri was forced to make a humiliating televised self-denunciation in 1983, although he surprisingly avoided execution.)

Those arrests culminated in a large show trial of 101 Tudeh principals in December 1983-January 1984, followed by smaller trials of lesser Tudeh figures in several cities over the months to come.

Eighty-seven Tudeh officials caught prison sentences ranging from eight months to life; these “lucky” ones, along with hundreds of other Tudeh adherents arrested in the years to come, would later be well-represented among the victims of Iran’s 1988 slaughter of political prisoners.

That left ten† reserved for execution on February 25 on charges compassing espionage, treason, and the weapons they had once naively stockpiled to fight against a monarchist coup. Notable among them were four high-ranking military officers: Col. Houshang Attarian, Col. Bezhan Kabiri, Col. Hassan Azarfar, and the chief catch, former Navy Commander Admiral Bahram Afzali.

Formally banned in Iran, the Tudeh party does still exists to this day, an exile shadow of its former glory.

* The U.S., officially abhorred of Iran, was in this period covertly aiding Tehran to raise funds to illegally bankroll Central American death squads — the Iran-Contra scandal. According to the American Tower Commission investigation of those events, the Tudeh were one of the lesser casualties this foreign policy misadventure when U.S. intelligence about the Tudeh network, largely obtained via a KGB defector, was passed to Tehran as a pot-sweetener: “In 1983, the United States helped bring to the attention of Tehran the threat inherent in the extensive infiltration of the government by the communist Tudeh Party and Soviet or pro-Soviet cadres in the country. Using this information, the Khomeini government took measures, including mass executions, that virtually eliminated the pro-Soviet infrastructure in Iran.” (See Appendix B here.)

** Iran at this moment was two years deep into its war with Saddam Hussein‘s Iraq, having in 1982 stalled out with a bloody and ineffectual offensive.

Other background of note: a different, Maoist party had in early 1982 launched a failed rising against the Islamic Republic.

† This doesn’t add up to 101. According to Tortured Confessions: Prisons and Public Recantations in Modern Iran, “when a Japanese correspondent asked why the numbers of those sentenced did not tally with those originally brought to trial, he [Mohammed Reyshahri] hedged, it was rumoured some had died during their interrogation.”

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1881: Edwin C. Hayden, Vermonster

Add comment February 25th, 2016 Headsman

From the New York Times, Feb. 26, 1881:

WINDSOR, Vt., Feb. 25. — This was the day set for the hanging of Edwin C. Hayden, after a delay of four years, during which time he has been at work in the State prison. His last night was passed, until 11 o’clock, with his counsel, and after that, until 1 o’clock, with Superintendent Rice and Warden Oakes. He was busy writing letters to friends and arranging his statement for publication until 3 o’clock this morning, when he undressed, went to bed, and slept until 7 o’clock. He then arose, dressed, and ate a light breakfast, after which he received a few of his friends. At 10 o’clock Sheriff Anderson received a telegram, saying that there was no prospect of a reprieve, and that Hayden must surely be hanged. Hayden, upn hearing the Sheriff and his assistants erecting the gallows, which was in the west wing of the prison, asked for permission to go out and see how the trap worked, as he wished to understand fully the whole arrangement. He walked up the stairs to the scaffold, and gave directions as to how he wished to be pinioned. He said he wanted everything done securely, so that no accident should happen to cause delay, but that his death might be instantaneous. He then retired to his cell, where he passed the remainder of his time in quiet. At 1:30 o’clock a large iron door was opened, and then the witnesses were admitted.

The Sheriff and his Deputies were admitted to Hayden’s apartments at 1:34 p.m. Five minutes later the door was opened and the procession to the gallows was formed. Hayden was then seated while Sheriff Amsden read the reprieve and death warrant, during which time Hayden looked around, smiling and bowing to all whom he recognized. The Sheriff then said: “Edwin C. Hayden, have you anything to say why the sentence of the law should not be carried out?” Hayden said that he was not surprised at the result of his trial, as every effort had been made to prejudice public opinion; that he had not been fairly treated, and that the friends of his wife had especially worked against him.

He denied that he had either abused his wife or extorted money by threats, or that he had horse-whipped her, saying that she was too much of a lady to submit to that. He said that he had always treated her kindly. It was wrong to leave his case of insanity to one man like Dr. Dwyer, or Brattleboro. If he could have been permitted to have brought his 45 witnesses before a competent jury, the result of the verdict would have been far different.

He wished to thank all who had aided or assisted him. Hayden then shook hands with the chaplain, and said to Superintendent Rice: “Good-bye, my good friend, good-bye.” He then stepped upon the drop, put out his hands to be pinioned and adjusted his feet, giving directions all the time. Looking up, he said good-bye to Mr. Ballard and Mr. Oakes. The noose was then placed around his neck and he arranged it to suit himself; the black cap was placed over his face, and Sheriff Amsden said: “The time has now come when the extreme penalty of the law must be passed upon you, and may God have mercy upon your soul.” The spring was touched, and at 2:07 o’clock Hayden’s body dropped. At the end of 9 minutes the prison physician pronounced the murderer dead. After hanging 20 minutes, the body was taken down and placed in a coffin. A moment afterward the chest, with a groan, expelled the air, causing some consternation among those present.

The crime for which E.C. Hayden paid the penalty of his life to-day was committed in the little village of Derby Line, and was one of the most atrocious which is recorded in the history of Vermont. Miss Gertrude Spaulding was the acknowledged belle of the village in 1871, when Hayden married her. She was then between 16 and 17 years of age, and he was 20. He was a very dissipated young man, and on this account the friends of Miss Spaulding opposed the marriage very bitterly, but without avail. Just before the wedding the bride inherited $50,000, and her friends insisted that this money was all that Hayden sought in making her his wife.

After the marriage, the couple removed to Boston, where Hayden started a corset factory, his wife advancing him the money. In the great fire of 1872 his factory was burned down and he lost $25,000. Immediately after his marriage he resumed his dissipated habits, abusing his wife at times most brutally, but she still clung to him, and after the Boston fire went with him to Canada, where she again supplied him with money to go into business. He opened a tavern at Stanstead Plains, and here, with his dissipated habits, he soon squandered the remainder of his wife’s fortune of $50,000.

In the meantime his abuse of his wife increased, and in 1875 she fled from him, and took up her residence with a sister living at Allston, Mass., just outside of Boston. Hayden made several attempts to secure a reconciliation and induce his wife to live with him again, but as he refused to give up his drinking she refused to trust her happiness to his keeping again. In August, 1876, Mrs. Hayden went to Derby Line to live with her brother-in-law, C.O. Brigham, and her sister, at the hotel where they were then staying. Hayden was then working as a clerk in a hotel at St. Leon Springs, and on Aug. 30 he went to Derby Line to persuade his wife to live with him again. On the way he became intoxicated, and when he reached Derby Line, on Aug. 31, he was in a fit condition to commit the terrible crime for which he has just suffered.

At 10 o’clock in the morning he called at a store and borrowed a revolver, saying that a dog had bitten him and he wanted to shoot it. he showed a scar on his leg which he said was the mark of the bite. Securing the revolver he went directly to the hotel where his wife was staying, and, when Mr. Brigham refused to let him see Mrs. Hayden, he shot him without a word, the ball passing below the nipple of the right side, striking a rib and passing into his lungs.

Mrs. Hayden and Mrs. Brigham were in an adjoining room, and, hearing the report of the pistol, opened the door. Hayden walked deliberately in, and, aiming at his wife’s head, shot her. She turned half around, exclaiming: “Oh, Edwin,” when he shot her again in the back. He tried to shoot again, but the pistol hung fire. Mr. Brigham, although wounded, had rushed in by this time, and with two or three other gentlemen succeeded in overpowering the murderer and securing him. Mrs. Hayden, before her death, said that her husband had often knocked her down, and at one time had extorted $16,000 in bonds from her by threatening to shoot her. Mr. Hayden lived for 10 days in terrible agony, and Mr. Brigham recovered and was a witness against Hayden, who was tried in September, 1877. He was convicted of murder in the first degree, and when the verdict was announced the court asked him what he had to say. He answered quite calmy: “I have several requests to make, your Honor. The first is that I be allowed, in company with proper officers, to visit the grave of my wife. The second, that my sentence be given me at once, and that the execution take place at once; that it be as public as possible, that the enemies who have driven me to this death may have the satisfaction which they ask for, and which I believe, in their own judgment, they feel they are justified in having.”

Exceptions were taken, and his sentence was delayed until November, 1878, when, at a session of the Supreme Court at Montpelier, he was sentenced to be hanged Jan. 7, 1881. The case was brought before the Legislature last Fall, when a Committee recommended that the newly discovered evidence be brought before the Judges, who were to decide upon its merits. He was then reprieved by Gov. Farnham until Feb. 25, in order to give time for a hearing, which was held at Montpelier Feb. 16, before Judges Pierpoint and Fewsey. They did not consider that the evidence was important enough to change the verdict, and decided that “it did not disclose anything which relieved Hayden from responsibility for his acts; the evidence disclosed the desperation that led him to do such acts, but not such infirmity as would relieve him of the responsibility for the act; that he was sane in the act — as sane as ever men are in the moment of committing such unnatural and horrible crimes, and with a malignity far too manifest for reasonable doubt.”

Hayden has seen four murderers go to the gallows since his incarceration — Henry Grovelin, for the murder of Albert White, near Windsor; John P. Phair, for the murder of Anna Frieze, in Rutland; Asa Magoon, for the murder of Rufus Streeter, in Barre; and Edward Tatro, for the murder of Alice Butler, in Highgate.

The case of Hayden has excited much attention, from the high social position of Mrs. Hayden’s family, and from the fact that there seem to be no extenuating circumstances connected with the case. Hayden was born in Cincinnati Aug. 25, 1849, where he remained until about the age of 6 years, when the family moved to Vermont, and Edwin went to live with his grandfather, Russel Perry, at Montpelier, where he remained about six years. He was sent to Williston to school about two years, and after his mother’s death was taken to Montpelier. He afterward attended Barre Academy, under the care of the late Dr. Spaulding, where he partially fitted for college. In the Summer of 1864, when the country was calling for volunteers, Hayden enlisted as Assistant Paymaster, and remained with his guardian, Gen. Pitkins, until the close o the rebellion. He then attended the Academy at South Woodstock for a year, then went to Boston and engaged as errand boy for Jordan, Marsh & Co., where he remained for two years. At this time he engaged as traveling agent for Champney Brothers, and it was while in their employ that he first met his future wife, the youngest daughter of the late Hon. Levi Spaulding.

There have been 15 hangings in Vermont. The first was that of David Redding, in 1778, at Bennington; the second, Cyrus B. Dean, in 1808, at Burlington; the third, Samuel E. Godfrey, in 1818, at Woodstock; the fourth, Virginia, a colored man, in 1820, at St. Albans; the fifth, Archibald Bates, in 1839, at Bennington. This last was the last public hanging in the State. It is said that fully 15,000 people witnessed this hanging. The following-named have been hanged in Windsor, and all upon the same gallows: Sandy Kavanagh and William Barnet, for wife murder, both at the same time, the gallows being double. Jan. 20, 1864; John Ward, March 20, 1868; Hiram Miller, June 25, 1869; Henry Welcome, Jan. 20, 1871; Henry Gravlin, March 14, 1879; John P. Phair, April 10, 1879; Asa Magoon, November, 1879; Edward Tatro, April, 1880, and Hayden, Feb. 25, 1881. There now remain Royal S. Carr, to be hanged the last Friday in April, 1881, and Almon Meeker, in 1883. Miss Meeker has not yet received her sentence, but is awaiting the action of the court. She is at present confined in the House of Correction at Rutland.

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1601: Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex

Add comment February 25th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1601, Queen Elizabeth’s last great favorite became the last man beheaded in the Tower of London.

Vain and dashing Robert Devereux rolled into the royal court in 1584 around age 19 and immediately established himself as the new favorite of the monarch, 30-some years his senior. They spent long walks and late nights in enchanted private company, and Devereux “commeth not to his owne lodginge tyll the birdes singe in the morninge.” Ye olde walke of shayme.

In becoming the (presumed) lover* of the aging Virgin Queen, the Earl of Essex was only following the family** trade: his stepfather Robert Dudley was the younger Elizabeth’s longtime intimate.

It is up to the artists to postulate the relative measures of passion and cynicism in these dalliances; many have tried, inspired by the scaffold sundering of one of history’s great May-December affairs. The Essex-Elizabeth drama was a popular topic for broadsides, ballads, and stage treatments from the 17th century to the present day.


Benjamin Britten put the Elizabeth-Essex romance into opera in Gloriana, based on Lytton Strachey’s popular book.

He was wildly popular in London, but Essex was also afflicted by the follies of youth. Rash, temperamental, vainglorious; he aspired to leverage the favor of his sovereign into statesmanship and he achieved heroic repute for his swashbuckling raid on Cadiz.

Yet Essex reads like a whelp who never quite grew into a man’s boots. Every sketch of Essex includes, because it seems so starkly illustrative of his unstable character, the story of the time his impertinence led the queen to box his ears publicly — and the hothead’s hand flew instinctively to his sword-hilt. Everyone reconciled over this brush with lese-majeste, but only after Essex scribbled some skulking reproaches (“What, cannot princes err? cannot subjects receive wrong? is an earthly power or authority infinite?”) that he had the petulance to actually send to Elizabeth.

The less mercurial Earl of Salisbury, Robert Cecil, who was the son of Elizabeth’s earliest close advisor and the protege of her spymaster, was just two years Essex’s senior but smoothly outmaneuvered the loverboy in their mutual pursuit of England’s Secretaryship of State.†

Essex chased martial glory with mixed results. His last great enterprise was an ill-starred 1599 offensive in Ireland to bring Gaelic rebels to heel in the Nine Years’ War.

Not for the last time an Englishman found this conquest more easily aspired than achieved. Essex liberally overused his authority to knight men as a reward for their service, but his soldiers mostly slogged to and fro with little headway to show for it. After a frustrating campaign season chasing his tail, Essex defied the increasingly strident directives to attack issuing from Elizabeth’s irate pen, and made terms with the Irish commander Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone. Then he defied Elizabeth’s order to remain in Ireland and hastened back to London to justify himself. It was said of him that he “never drew sword but to make knights.”

This was the beginning of Essex’s end. Elizabeth’s fury at the aimless military campaign was compounded when her churlish captain turned up from Ireland unbidden and burst into her private chambers while she was still dressing to report on his unauthorized summit. Cecil et al, whose ascendance Essex had meant to reverse with the triumph of his arms, now murmured that the earl had strayed near outright treason to parley with the rebel whom he was supposed to be routing. The Privy Council put him under house arrest.

Heaped in debt and deprived of the prestigious proximity to power he had enjoyed literally throughout his adulthood, the man’s turbulent spirit stirred strangely in York House. We have seen that Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, was a man to abhor an indignity even past the point of self-preservation. He unwisely sent secret missives to try to turn the ongoing succession negotiations‡ against Robert Cecil; when the Privy Council caught wind of this intrusion, he refused its demand that he present himself to account for his actions. Instead, he made matters worse by mounting a pathetic march through London with his supporters.

This “Essex Rebellion” was meant to rally the citizenry to him and turn some sort of coup against Robert Cecil. It seems so foolhardy and ill-considered that it’s difficult to think what was in the earl’s head. If you squint at it just so, it perhaps had a big-R Romantic quality, a gallant band of brothers saving the nation from its duplicitous ministers; the night before the rebellion, Essex (a liberal arts patron in his time) splurged to have William Shakespeare’s company§ stage a special performance of Richard II — a play wherein the English monarch is deposed. Presumably this was his inspirational pregame speech.

Thinking much more clearly than Essex, Londoners vigorously ignored his summons and the marching party trudged alone — and surely increasingly frightened — through the city until it was stopped by a barricade. Its participants then fled back to Essex House where they soon found themselves surrounded.

Whatever the fancy that led the Earl of Essex on his fatal February 8 march, and whatever the extent of his ambitions for that occasion, the careless threat to the public peace went several bridges beyond a boyish foible that Elizabeth could overlook in her impulsive courtier. He was prosecuted for treason within days and Elizabeth signed his death warrant on February 20th. The only mercy extended the ex-favorite was to suffer the noble execution of beheading, rather than a traitor’s drawing and quartering. Essex also successfully appealed for a private execution within the walls of the Tower, away from the gawks of those London masses who had so signally failed to rebel along with him.

On the specially built wooden platform, Essex favored his select audience with a bog-standard execution-day mea culpa:

My sins are more in number than the hairs on my head. I have bestowed my youth in wantonness, lust and uncleanness; I have been puffed up with pride, vanity and love of this wicked world’s pleasures. For all which, I humbly beseech my Saviour Christ to be a mediator to the eternal Majesty for my pardon, especially for this my last sin, this great, this bloody, this crying, this infectious sin, whereby so many for love of me have been drawn to offend God, to offend their sovereign, to offend the world. I beseech God to forgive it us, and to forgive it me — most wretched of all.

He prayed a Psalm. Then, stretching out his neck on a low block and thrusting his arms from his sides, he bid the headsman strike. The executioner had to oblige his patient in triplicate in order to sever the puffed-up head.

The Earl of Essex has the distinction of being the last person beheaded on the Tower Green, within the walls off the Tower of London — the last name on the little placard of headless notables photographed by tour groups. Note that Essex was not the last person beheaded at the Tower, when the adjacent Tower Hill is included (that distinction belongs to Jacobite rebel Simon Fraser); nor was he the last person executed within the Tower (that distinction belongs to World War II spy Josef Jakobs, who was not beheaded but shot).

Weary and depressed, Elizabeth died little more than two years afterwards.

* There’s a mind-bending speculative hypothesis out there — cousin to the Shakespeare-focused Prince Tudor theory — that Essex was actually Elizabeth’s secret, illegitimate son. This secret history is obviously more congenial with the queen’s early favoritism for Essex than with her eventually chopping off his head.

** Essex was also a distant cousin of Elizabeth herself: his maternal great-grandmother was Mary Boleyn, sister of Anne Boleyn — who was Elizabeth’s mother.

Walter Raleigh was a notable Cecil ally in this factional conflict. Raleigh attended Essex’s execution … and, of course, shared that fate many years afterwards.

‡ Elizabeth was nearing age 70; her childless death was imminent. James VI of Scotland was being vetted by Robert Cecil as the successor. Essex tried to stick his thumb in the pie by warning James that the Cecil faction would conspire to foist the English crown on the Spanish infanta — daughter of the Spanish king who had been the Catholic Mary Tudor’s husband. (The infanta was not Mary’s own daughter.) This was no idle threat, as at this point it was only a few years since the Spanish Armada had sallied for English seas.

§ Another noteworthy Shakespeare connection: one of the participants in the Essex Rebellion was the Earl of Southampton (he was spared execution). Southampton, whose given name was Henry Wriothesley, is often identified as the “Fair Youth” to whom Shakespeare dedicated numerous love sonnets. (Some of those are directly addressed to a Mr. “W.H.”)

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1716: Four Jacobite rebels at Liverpool

1 comment February 25th, 2011 Headsman

We doubt this entry can stack up to the one preceding for melodrama, but not every rebel on the gallows can be a peer of the realm or a guardian of the chalice of Christ. Big names get the big headlines, but other folk make up their smaller fame by their greater volume.

From the interesting Lancashire Memorials of the Rebellion, we learn of the unhappy fate of several dozen Jacobite rebels in a chapter titled, “The Prisoners Tried at Liverpool, and Their Sentences.”

At the beginning of January 1716, the Government sent down a commission of Oyer and Terminer, to try the prisoners who had been distributed in the various prisons of Lancaster, Chester, and Liverpool. As Liverpool had the reputation of being in the Whig interest [i.e., the Hanoverian, anti-Jacobite party], having sent to Parliament two Members of this party, it was conceived expedient, that the trials of so many rebels, which, under the most favourable circumstances, could not fail to have caused much factious excitement and sensation, should take place in a town, more devoted to the Whig cause than any other in Lancashire.

The judges appointed for the trial were Mr. Baron Burry, Mr. Justice Eyre, and Mr. Baron Montague, who, on the 4th of January, set out, with all their attendants, from London. For the sake of making an impression upon the country, they travelled leisurely through all the towns upon the route, so as to occupy seven days on the journey. On the 11th of the same month, they arrived at Liverpool.

Upon the day following, January 12th, the judges opened their commission; the Grand Jury were summoned, and the court sat. There had been Commissioners previously appointed to take precognitions of such as were made witnesses in reference to the fact of rebellion at Preston; which, having been laid before the Grand Jury, bills of indictment were found against 48 of the prisoners.

Copies of the Indictments were then given to the persons against whom the bills were found, and the court was adjourned for eight days, in order to afford the prisoners legal time to prepare their defense …

n the 20th of January the Court again sat, between which date and that of the 9th of February following, it is said that 74 persons were tried.

Thirty-four of these wretches drew death sentences, which were meted out in a sort of traveling road show in the realm’s northern reaches to make sure everybody got the message.

That show’s closing performance was on this date.

Liverpool, Feb. 25th. — The circuit of the Hangmen here ended.On this day suffered Mr. Burnett of Carlops, a most active gentleman in the Rebellion, along with Alexander Drummond, and two Northumberland gentlemen, viz., George Collingwood and John Hunter.

In the High Sheriff’s account is the following item: “Feb. 25. Charge of executing Bennet” [Burnet] “and three more at Leverpoole, £10, 3s.”

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1922: Henri Landru, French Bluebeard

Add comment February 25th, 2010 Headsman

“Widower with two children, aged 43, with comfortable income, serious and moving in good society, desires to meet widow with a view to matrimony.”

The personal ads sections of the Parisian papers were the stalking-grounds of French Bluebeard Henri Désiré Landru, guillotined in Versailles this date in 1922.

A former soldier himself, Landru trawled the Craigslists of World War I for their ample population of ample war widows.

His M.O.: enchant one into letting him get his hands on her huge … fortune.

(No, really. Her fortune.)

Then, kill her and incinerate the body in his kitchen stove.

Repeat x10 (plus one teenage son of one the widows), and you’ve got yourself your basic Bluebeard.

Landru’s story inspired the 1947 Charlie Chaplain flick Monsieur Verdoux.

And that’s not the only thing of Landru’s that made it to Hollywood. His severed dome is on exhibit at the Museum of Death.

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1536: Jacob Hutter, Anabaptist leader

4 comments February 25th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1536, the namesake of a major Anabaptist strain “gave a great sermon through his death” by fire at Innsbruck.

Jacob (or Jakob) Hutter, a hatmaker from the south Tirol, became the leader of a thriving Anabaptist community in Moravia where he shocked authorities with adult baptism and managed the heretics’ affairs so smoothly that the heirs of those who survived the hard years ahead still call themselves Hutterites.

Hutter pulled multiple fractured and sometimes fractious Anabaptist groups together and instilled structure that arguably saved these communities from extinction. (More about this in Hutterite Society.)

His effective evangelism only heightened the persecution of the Habsburgs, who exasperatedly reported on “more than 700 persons” executed or expelled, adding that the re-baptizers “have no horror of punishment but even report themselves; rarely is one converted nearly all only wish to die for their faith.”

Hutter himself was so pursued that he had to take his leave of his community, by that time expelled en masse and living as vagrants;* he did not long outlive his return to his native Tirol. He was captured there, hauled to Innsbruck, and tortured for three months before suffering public burning at the express directive of Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I.

* Hutter’s letter of remonstrance to a governor during this period makes affecting reading; this excerpt is from The Anabaptist Story:

Now we are camping on the heath, without disadvantage to any man. We do not want to wrong or harm any human being, not even our worst enemy. Our walk of life is to live in truth and righteousness of God, in peace and unity. We do not hesitate to give an account of our conduct to anyone. But whoever says that we have camped on a field with so many thousands, as if we wanted war or the like, talks like a liar and a rascal. If all the world were like us there would be no war and no injustice. We can go nowhere; may God in heaven show us where we shall go. We cannot be prohibited from the earth, for the earth is the heavenly Father’s; may He do with us what He will.

Here‘s a German site all about Jakob Hutter.

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1879: Charles Peace, Victorian cat burglar

25 comments February 25th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1879 was hanged one of the most colorful — and, subsequently, romanticized — career criminals of 19th century England, for the murder of a onetime friend whose wife he had endeavored to seduce.

Charles Peace told a clergyman who had an interview with him in prison shortly before his execution that he hoped that, after he was gone, he would be entirely forgotten by everybody and his name never mentioned again.

Posterity, in calling over its muster-roll of famous men, has refused to fulfil this pious hope, and Charley Peace stands out as the one great personality among English criminals of the nineteenth century. In Charley Peace alone is revived that good-humoured popularity which in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries fell to the lot of Claude Duval, Dick Turpin and Jack Sheppard.

So declaims H.B. Irving’s rollickingly readable sketch of Victorian England’s most notorious pre-Ripper outlaw.

Peace was a knave all his 47 years, and lost the best part of two decades to various stints in prison. It is chiefly for his last few years — not surprising, perhaps, in a habitue of these annals of execution — that he so colorfully endows his spot in the firmament of criminal history.

A copious string of home burglaries, audacious in both their nature and extent, disturbed South London in 1877-78, arousing the fear of the communities. Police suspected an entire gang must be at work. Irving, once again:

Perhaps [Peace] hardly realised the extent to which his fame was spreading. During the last three months of Peace’s career, Blackheath was agog at the number of successful burglaries committed in the very midst of its peaceful residents. The vigilance of the local police was aroused, the officers on night duty were only too anxious to effect the capture of the mysterious criminal.

Upon capture the master criminal revealed himself a gnarled character at once grandfatherly and fey — “a half-caste about sixty years of age, of repellent aspect,” the police described their catch. As the onion layers fell away, this strange creature of such otherworldly capacity for theft also revealed himself the vanished fugitive of a two-year-old murder — a personal affair (of much less brilliance than his burglary) whose particulars are thoroughly handled by Irving.

Although Peace was known by both name and distinctive appearance for that crime, he had coolly disregarded the price on his head and concealed himself in the infallible cloak of bourgeois respectability. “A period of true splendour,” Charles Whibley called it in his A Book of Scoundrels:

Like Fielding, like Cervantes, like Sterne, Peace reserved his veritable masterpiece for the certainty of middle-life. His last two years were nothing less than a march of triumph. If you remember his constant danger, you will realise the grandeur of the scheme. From the moment that Peace left Bannercross with Dyson’s blood upon his hands, he was a hunted man. His capture was worth five hundred pounds; his features were familiar to a hundred hungry detectives. Had he been less than a man of genius, he might have taken an unavailing refuge in flight or concealment. But, content with no safety unattended by affluence, he devised a surer plan: he became a householder. Now, a semi-detached villa is an impregnable stronghold. Respectability oozes from the dusky mortar of its bricks, and escapes in clouds of smoke from its soot-grimed chimneys. No policeman ever detects a desperate ruffian in a demure black-coated gentleman who day after day turns an iron gate upon its rusty hinge. And thus, wrapt in a cloak of suburban piety, Peace waged a pitiless and effective war upon his neighbours.

Whibley lovingly chronicles Peace’s superb technique and stupendous windfall. The thief’s overt career was in dealing musical instruments — skillful handling of the fiddle was a lifelong avocation; the simpatico that established with Sherlock Holmes earned the tribute, “My old friend Charlie Peace was a violin virtuoso” from Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective in “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client” — and he was obliged to justify wealth so disproportionate to his station with an allusion to marrying into money.

Nothing like a Holmesian surmise from such retrospectively suggestive clues found him out; the police chanced to nab him on the job and commenced the familiar tedium of turning former friends against him (enlivened by Peace’s attempt to escape by hurling himself from a train). The supposed heiress who had lived with Peace as his supposed wife readily cooperated in his doom, for which services she applied on the day after his sentence for the £100 reward. Contemporaries caught up in the allure of the wondrous criminal branded her “traitress Sue”.

Charley did not so ill-use his confederates; he was obstinate in his refusal to yield up the name of his fence, and remained affectionate after his treacherous lover to the very end. Indeed, Whibley notes, in his departing reconciliation with an injurious world, Peace “surrendered himself to those exercises of piety from which he had never wavered”

The foolish have denounced him for a hypocrite, not knowing that the artist may have a life apart from his art, and that to Peace religion was an essential pursuit. So he died, having released from an unjust sentence the poor wretch who at Whalley Range had suffered for his crime,* and offering up a consolatory prayer for all mankind. In truth, there was no enemy for whom he did not intercede. He prayed for his gaolers, for his executioner, for the Ordinary, for his wife, for Mrs. Thompson, his drunken doxy, and he went to his death with the sure step of one who, having done his duty, is reconciled with the world. The mob testified its affectionate admiration by dubbing him ‘Charley,’ and remembered with effusion his last grim pleasantry. ‘What is the scaffold?’ he asked with sublime earnestness. And the answer came quick and sanctimonious: ‘A short cut to Heaven!’

The incidence of Peace-related “penny dreafuls” — sensationalized popular publications — testify to the public imagination captured by this day’s victim. The wonderful site Yesterday’s Papers has posted a variety of fascinating Victorian Peace accounts (some reportedly by way of like-minded fellow-travelers). Executed Today is pleased to reprint several images here with permission.

* After he was condemned to die, Peace confessed to having also shot a constable in order to evade capture some years earlier. He had actually attended the trial where an innocent man, one John Habron, was sentenced to death for that crime. Habron, luckily, had been reprieved two days before his own hanging; on the strength of Peace’s confession, he was exonerated and released.

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