1566: Bartholome Tecia, Geneva sodomite

2 comments June 10th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1566, student Bartholome Tecia was drowned in Geneva as a sodomite.

Trial documents make him a youth from the valleys of northwest Italy’s Piedmont, where pockets maintained loyalty to the Evangelical Church of Vaud — Vaud being an adjacent Swiss canton that had been annexed by Calvinist Geneva. He was in the big city to study under Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor in theological preeminence.

He’s been rediscovered by a more queer-friendly posterity. An eponymous play by Jean-Claude Humbert received a Geneva municipal literary prize in 2005, and the present-day Geneva visitor will see a commemorative marker for Tecia unveiled in 2013.


Plaque in Geneva honoring Bartholome Tecia, which reads “BARTHOLOME TECIA. Piedmontese student aged 15, denounced, tortured and sentenced on June 10, 1566 to be drowned in this place, for crime of homosexuality. Today, sexual orientation and gender identity must be universally recognized as basic human rights. Around the world, people continue to be discriminated against, persecuted and sentenced simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.” (cc) image by MHM55.

There’s been a bit of pushback against this memorialization in view of the coercion alleged against him by two younger students. Executed Today would be the last to disclaim adolescents’ capacity for sexual predation, but it’s also the case that all three boys as participants in same-sex rendezvous would have feared themselves under the pall of the executioner: Geneva had drowned a similar trio for sodomy in 1554. While it’s obviously impossible at our remove to have anything better than a guess at the motivations and perspectives of the people involved, it does bear consideration that the accusers were powerfully incentivized to put the entire onus on someone other than themselves. For what it’s worth, Tecia militantly refused to confess, even when put to torture.

It happens that one of Tecia’s accusers was Theodore Agrippa d’Aubigne, the son of a participant in the Huguenot Amboise conspiracy to depose King Francis II. Agrippa d’Aubigne would go on to a scintillating military career during the French Wars of Religion, eventually settling in as Governor of Maillezais when his guy Henri IV won that war. That would have been a nice capstone to his career, except that France’s anti-Reformation turn following Henri’s assassination obliged him to flee a French death sentence for exile … to Geneva. He left an impressive literary legacy containing, to the best of my knowledge, no comment on l’affaire Tecia.

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1623: Nicolas Antoine, Judaizer

Add comment April 20th, 2019 Headsman

Protestant theologian turned apostate Judaizer Nicolas Antoine was burned at the stake in Calvinist Geneva on this date in 1623.

Antoine (English Wikipedia entry | French) had followed a religious journey from the Catholicism of his birth, on to Protestantism as a young man. This arc in the first decades of the 17th century was potentially dangerous but scarcely uncommon.

But Antoine took an incredible and taboo step beyond the schism in Christendom as his religious studies unfolded in Geneva and the short-lived independent Huguenot enclave the Principality of Sedan: he became steadily less convinced of the New Testament full stop, investing priority only in the Old. He became interested in Judaism.

As a reformed pastor in the city of Metz on the French-German frontier, Antoine approached the local rabbinate to explore conversion. Fearing the reprisals such a scandal could draw, these worthies advised him to try Italy. Those Metz rabbis fancied the religious climate on the peninsula more accommodating, but they were mistaken: their brethren in both Venice and Padua spurned Antoine in the same way, and for the same reason. One of them suggested that he content himself to practice secretly, as a Crypto-Jew.

This dangerous path he followed for some years. Become then a pastor in the village of Divonne — presently in France but Geneva-governed in his day — Antoine “secretly observed a thoroughly Jewish mode of life, saying his prayers in Hebrew and observing all the Mosaic rites,” according to the Jewish Encyclopedia, but his position on the pulpit eventually stretched past breaking his capacity to serve both conscience and vocation.

In his public services he pronounced the name of Jesus as seldom as possible. He was never known to read the apostolic confession audibly. In the communion service, instead of the words “This is my body, this is my blood,” he was once heard to say, “Your Savior remembers you.” His sermons, the texts for which were taken exclusively from Isaiah and the other prophets, became celebrated far and wide; yet they lacked any peculiarly Christian characteristics. The peasants of Divonne were perfectly satisfied with their pastor, who was eloquent in the extreme and full of kindness toward them; they were not shocked by the vague form of his sermons. But the lord of the adjoining manor was outraged. One Sunday, Antoine preached on the second Psalm, which, according to orthodox Christian theology, announces the coming of the son of God. [“Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee. Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession. Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” -ed.] Antoine, on the contrary, permitted himself to declare that God had no son and that there was but the one God. This was too much for the lord; he remonstrated loudly with the heretical pastor and threatened to denounce him to the synod. Antoine fell into gloomy despair; a nervous attack deprived him of his reason. To several colleagues from Geneva who had come to see him he began to chant the seventy-fourth Psalm; then he suddenly stopped, and, exclaiming that he was a Jew, blasphemed Christianity …

A charge of heresy could no longer be avoided; the chief of the Geneva police arrested Antoine, and instituted proceedings. While he was in prison the clergy were tireless in seeking his reconversion, trying in vain to make him sign a declaration of orthodox faith. Bidden to formulate his religious belief, he drew up twelve articles, which were submitted to an ecclesiastical court. In them he gave the tenets of Judaism in the style of Maimonidesthirteen articles of faith, and added “eleven philosophical objections against the dogma of the Trinity.” At the same time he addressed to the judges three memorials, two of which have been preserved. In spite of the exertions of Metrezat, a pastor of Paris, and others, the judges were immovable. The trial commenced April 11; Antoine’s attitude, full of dignity, aroused much sympathy. The threats of the judges were of no more avail than the persuasions of his colleagues. He repeated constantly: “I am a Jew; and all I ask of God’s grace is to die for Judaism.” The court sought to show that he had promulgated his heretical doctrines at Geneva: this he contradicted most forcibly. All the efforts of the judges were met with the unchanging reply, “With the help of God I am determined to die in my present belief.” Fifteen clergymen or professors of theology were summoned as witnesses. Several of them begged for a light sentence, since, in their opinion, Antoine had committed no sin by becoming a Jew, though for his hypocrisy he deserved unfrocking or banishment, or, at the worst, excommunication. Furthermore, they said that the matter ought not to be hastened, and that the advice of the various churches and academies should be sought. A fanatical majority, however, insisted that the judges should seize the present opportunity to demonstrate their faith, since it was most dangerous to absolve one who had professed Judaism while wearing the garb of a Christian priest. For some days longer the judges waited for Antoine to recant. As his recantation was not forthcoming, they pronounced sentence April 20, 1632; condemning him to be loaded with chains, placed upon a pyre, to be there strangled, and then burned. In vain the clergy petitioned for a respite; Antoine was executed the same day. He went to his death serenely, and died imploring the mercy of the God of Abraham.

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1610: Pierre Canal, Geneva sodomite

Add comment February 2nd, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1610* a Genevan official named Pierre Canal was twice capitally punished — broken on the wheel (for treason) and burned (for sodomy).

A longtime city official, as well as an Italian-educated doctor, Canal was progeny of city worthies. Although his own father was a hero of L’Escalade, Geneva’s successful defense against a 1602 attack on Geneva by the Duke of Savoy,** Canal was rounded up for alleged adherence to Savoy’s threatened (never executed) Escalade sequel in 1610.

Under torture for treason, he also copped to dozens of homosexual liaisons over many years, a behavior that he said he’d picked up in Italy.†

Canal’s roster of names named became fodder for a sodomy-hunt spasm in the ensuing months. At least three of his claimed lovers confessed under torture and were executed, and a fourth only survived because he managed to break jail. Others either withstood torture without admitting to an affair, or managed to confine their stipulated activities to non-capital versions of the perversions, such as oral sex without ejaculation. (The latter class ended up with punishments ranging from fines to banishment, but got to keep their limbs.)‡ Echoes of the affair continued in now-queer-vigilant Geneva in the form of several additional prosecutions running until 1623.

* Sources I’ve found are keenly divided between a February 2 and a February 3 execution.

The dispositive primary source, The Archives d’etat de Geneve Proces Criminels, does not appear to me to be digitized for the public, notwithstanding the canton’s exhibitions of a few choice artifacts. I’m going with the 2nd, gingerly, because the secondary sources that seem the most rigorous and credible (such as this Swiss historical dictionary and to me tend towards that date.

** The Escalade is the event commemorated in the Genevan “national” anthem “Cé qu’è l’ainô”.

† We’ve seen gay sex euphemized as le vice italien in the 19th century British navy, too.

‡ Canal named over 20 people, though not all were pursued. There are thirteen additional people named for prosecution by Judicial Tribunals in England and Europe, 1200-1700: Abel Benoit (20, soldier), Francois Felisat (24, carder), Pierre Gaudy (18, porter), George Plongon (25, Sieur Bellerive), Mathieu Berjon (36, printer), Antoine Artaut (30, carder), Jean Bedeville (23), Paul Berenger (23, tailor), Noelle Destelle (25, baker), Jean Maillet (61), Paul Andre (23), Claude Bodet (45, baker), Jean Buffet (23, tailor).

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1707: Pierre Fatio, Genevan Gracchus

1 comment September 6th, 2012 Headsman

On the evening of this date* in 1707, Pierre Fatio was secretly shot by arquebusers in a Geneva prison.

This Swiss Gracchus — classically-minded contemporaries could hardly fail to draw the parallel — was a magistrate and a rising member of the patrician oligarchy that ran nominally democratic Geneva.

But despising the side his class bread was buttered, Fatio (English Wikipedia page | French) took up the standard of the masses … or at least the masses of the bourgeoisie, whose universal-propertied-male suffrage was belied by the power exercised by Geneva’s magnates club, the “Petit Conseil” of 25 who actually ran the city-state.

Pierre Fatio really looks less like a revolutionary and more like a would-be liberal reformer. What started all the trouble was Fatio’s January 1707 sponsorship of a measure for a secret ballot and a little less nepotism: a modest downward redistribution of power.

Then as now, the powerful resisted.

From the pulpit the ministers cried at the top of their lungs against the people … accusing the people of rebellion against the magistrates, of insubordination to the laws, of enjoying only disorder and fomenting divisions, violating the oath which promises to be good and loyal to the city. (Source)

Oligarch apologists went on and on about these secret-balloteers having “broken all the bonds of society” (Benedict Calandrini) as the popular clamor for a bit of state accountability grew. In political-philosophy terms, this manifested itself as a debate between whether the sovereignty of the people (again, meaning the propertied male people) actually implied that these sovereigns were entitled to govern.

And the Little Council won the debate the old-fashioned way: by crushing its opponents as seditious, with the military aid of their brother-oligarchs at neighboring Swiss cantons. Several popular-sovereignty types were killed or exiled (French link) in mid-1707.

Its government is a mixture of Aristocracy and Democracy; but as the principal and most ancient families use their utmost endeavours to derogate from, and by slow degrees destroy the privileges of the citizens, in order to draw the power over to themselves, and perpetuate themselves in their posts, this practice is attended with frequent murmurings, and in these last times an insurrection had began, which would have broken out into a great fire, if Zurich and Bern had not sent wise and able deputies to extinguish it, and afterwards a good number of troops to garrison the city, which at present seems to keep quiet, though with evident prejudice to the liberty of its citizens. (Vendramino Bianchi in Relazi one del paese de Svizzeri (1708), quoted in this book

Fatio was the last and most noteworthy to go, and the council was so nervous about the “murmurings” if it should behead him in public, it determined its death sentence in secret: apt climax for a struggle over state accountability.

Rather than risk further disturbances, it simply dispatched its agents directly to Fatio’s cell where they informed him that he was condemned, and had him shot inside the prison without further ado.

“I would look with great honor on being the martyr of liberty,” a cool Fatio is said (by his party, naturally) to have remarked upon hearing his condemnation.

Martyr he may have been, but unlike the Roman Gracchi, Pierre did not have a brother to catch up his falling torch: Pierre’s, who was already among the Little Council, went ahead and voted for his sibling’s execution.

The martyr had more impressive family in cousin Nicolas Fatio de Duillier, a mathematician and Isaac Newton collaborator. Still more noteworthy heirs were kin of spirit, not of blood: one David Rousseau lost his state job for supporting Fatio’s movement … and Rousseau’s famous Genevan grandson would become the favored philosopher of the coming revolutionary age.

There’s a hard-to-find French biography of our man, Pierre Fatio et la crise de 1707, by his descendants Nicole and Oliver Fatio. (Here’s a French interview with Oliver.)

* I really hate to contradict the 7 September date that’s carved into marble, but as best I can interpret the documentation, Fatio’s sentence was finalized on the day of 6 September and executed within just a few hours that very evening. See e.g. the 6 September document excerpted in fn 1 here.

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1535: Etienne de la Forge, John Calvin’s friend

Add comment February 16th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1535, as a 25-year-old religious dissident named John Calvin fled Paris, the merchant who had hosted his circle’s Protestant salons was reduced to ashes in Paris.

Though France would ultimately remain Catholic, the Protestant Reformation found rich soil and enjoyed a measure of early official tolerance for reasons of statecraft.

But a sharp crackdown was provoked when Protestants engineered the placement of anti-Catholic posters in several towns during a single night in October 1534 — the so-called Affair of the Placards.

This spelled the end of the circle of dissidents who met at the Rue Saint-Martin.* Young Calvin high-tailed it out of town — a period of wandering and living incognito that would wash him up on the shores of Lake Geneva — but the owner of that Rue Saint-Martin house, Etienne de la Forge (aka Stephanus Forgeus) was denounced to the authorities.

The date for this execution comes from The Century of the Renaissance, a public domain book available free from Google. It’s also backed in the roster of execution dates from Michelet’s Histoire de France. This looks to me as if it comes from primary documentation, but Feb. 15 is sometimes also reported.

* Calvin apparently had an appointment during this period in Paris to meet a scholar he would later execute, Michael Servetus, but the tete-a-tete never came off.

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1553: Michael Servetus, but not to defend a doctrine

5 comments October 27th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1553, Calvinist Geneva showed it could keep up with the Inquisition by burning the theologian Michael Servetus as a heretic.

A generation or two into the Protestant Reformation, and the ministers of Rome were in full-throated I-told-you-so. The splintered religious authority had set all manner of alien doctrine afoot in the land. Adult baptism! No original sin!

Servetus believed all this queer stuff. He also believed in a unitarian — that is, not trinitarian — deity.

Catholics and Protestants both hunted him from pillar to post for heresy.

After busting out of the Inquisition’s clutches in France, Servetus fled towards Italy, but made an unaccountable stopover in John Calvin’s Geneva. He well knew that capture here would be fatal: he had had an acrimonious correspondence with Calvin. Was he seeking thrills? Martyrdom? A place in this blog?

“I will burn, but this is a mere event. We shall continue our discussion in eternity.”

He quaffed all those bitter cups when he was recognized hanging out at a church service and condemned to death for sundry heresies after a sensational trial heavy with theological artillery, personal vituperation, and municipal politics. Calvin, gracious in victory, requested beheading rather than burning. He was scorned as needlessly merciful.

Of course, all manner of Christian fauna were being martyred by other Christians in the 16th century. Still, the Spanish physician is an interesting dude.

His rejection of the Trinity has secured him honored consideration from various latter-day sects, from Jehovah’s Witnesses to Oneness Pentecostals to general humanists to Unitarian Universalists:

Besides all that stuff, in his day-job capacity as doctor, Servetus was apparently the first European to understand pulmonary respiration. Nobody even noticed that until decades after his death.

“To kill a man is not to defend a doctrine, but to kill a man.”*

The execution of this smart, odd duck for non-violent heresy is not generally considered the highlight of Mr. Predestination’s career, but you can get some of Calvin’s side of the story in this collection of his letters. It’s worth allowing that heretics were being burned by the thousand elsewhere in Europe at this time; Servetus is noticeable in part because what was routine in England or Spain was exceptional in Geneva.

Servetus’ ashes will cry out against [Calvin] as long as the names of these two men are known in the world. –Walter Nigg

* This observation, sometimes attributed to Servetus himself, was in fact uttered by Sebastian Castellio.

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Unspecified Year: Justine Moritz, Frankenstein family servant

5 comments June 23rd, 2008 Headsman

Around this date in the unspecified 18th-century year of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the titular family’s servant is put to death for the murder of their youngest child, William.

In the novel, smarty-pants university student Victor Frankenstein has created (and immediately rejected) his famous monster. Not long after, he receives a letter (dated May 12, “17–“) from his father informing him of the murder of his youngest brother.

About five in the morning I discovered my lovely boy, whom the night before I had seen blooming and active in health, stretched on the grass livid and motionless; the print of the murder’s finger was on his neck.

Covering the 600-plus kilometers home to Geneva, Victor becomes convinced that his creation is the culprit.* But upon reaching his destination, he finds that circumstantial evidence has accused the family’s blameless (and ironically named) servant, Justine.

He’s back just in time to watch, in horror, as she’s convicted — impotent (or at least that’s what he tells himself) to help her with his fantastical truth, and despairingly watching her friends abandon her to her fate.

Justine has grown up with Victor and the others, so the entire Frankenstein family remains convinced of the servant’s innocence, though they’re practically alone in Geneva in that belief.

A woodcut illustration of Justine in prison, by Lynd Ward — as seen here.

Shelley includes an interesting passage in which Justine (having already been convicted) is battered by her priest into falsely confessing to the crime. Though clearly anti-clerical in intent, it’s also a moment with remarkable current resonance given the prevalence of false confessions in modern wrongful conviction scenarios:

“I did confess, but I confessed a lie. I confessed, that I might obtain absolution; but now that falsehood lies heavier at my heart than all my other sins. The God of heaven forgive me! Ever since I was condemned, my confessor has besieged me; he threatened and menaced, until I almost began to think that I was the monster that he said I was. He threatened excommunication and hell fire in my last moments if I continued obdurate. Dear lady, I had none to support me; all looked on me as a wretch doomed to ignominy and perdition. What could I do? In an evil hour I subscribed to a lie; and now only am I truly miserable.”

The poor woman’s fate is sealed either way — and in her parting conversation with Victor and his future wife Elizabeth, we find Justine more at peace than the monster’s creator:

“I do not fear to die,” [Justine] said; “that pang is past. God raises my weakness and gives me courage to endure the worst. I leave a sad and bitter world; and if you remember me and think of me as of one unjustly condemned, I am resigned to the fate awaiting me. Learn from me, dear lady, to submit in patience to the will of heaven!”

During this conversation I [Victor] had retired to a corner of the prison room, where I could conceal the horrid anguish that possessed me. Despair! Who dared talk of that? The poor victim, who on the morrow was to pass the awful boundary between life and death, felt not, as I did, such deep and bitter agony.

“In these last moments I feel the sincerest gratitude towards those who think of me with kindness. How sweet is the affection of others to such a wretch as I am! It removes more than half my misfortune, and I feel as if I could die in peace now that my innocence is acknowledged by you, dear lady, and your cousin.”

Thus the poor sufferer tried to comfort others and herself. She indeed gained the resignation she desired. But I, the true murderer, felt the never-dying worm alive in my bosom, which allowed of no hope or consolation. Elizabeth also wept and was unhappy, but hers also was the misery of innocence, which, like a cloud that passes over the fair moon, for a while hides but cannot tarnish its brightness. Anguish and despair had penetrated into the core of my heart; I bore a hell within me which nothing could extinguish. We stayed several hours with Justine, and it was with great difficulty that Elizabeth could tear herself away. “I wish,” cried she, “that I were to die with you; I cannot live in this world of misery.”

Justine assumed an air of cheerfulness, while she with difficulty repressed her bitter tears. She embraced Elizabeth and said in a voice of half-suppressed emotion, “Farewell, sweet lady, dearest Elizabeth, my beloved and only friend; may heaven, in its bounty, bless and preserve you; may this be the last misfortune that you will ever suffer! Live, and be happy, and make others so.”

And on the morrow** Justine died. Elizabeth’s heart-rending eloquence failed to move the judges from their settled conviction in the criminality of the saintly sufferer. My passionate and indignant appeals were lost upon them. And when I received their cold answers and heard the harsh, unfeeling reasoning of these men, my purposed avowal died away on my lips. Thus I might proclaim myself a madman, but not revoke the sentence passed upon my wretched victim. She perished on the scaffold as a murderess!

Shelley gives us quite the gentle picture of the Frankenstein family, in which Victor is practically the only exponent of vengeance after the dreadful crime. Even the father’s initial letter home, written in the immediate shock after discovering the boy’s body, summons his son to come

not brooding thoughts of vengeance against the assassin, but with feelings of peace and gentleness, that will heal, instead of festering, the wounds of our minds.

After the hanging, dad again endeavors to keep Victor from wasting himself on rage … which it seems that Victor would have readily assented to had he not carried his secret burden of guilt:

“Do you think, Victor,” said he, “that I do not suffer also? No one could love a child more than I loved your brother” — tears came into his eyes as he spoke — “but is it not a duty to the survivors that we should refrain from augmenting their unhappiness by an appearance of immoderate grief? It is also a duty owed to yourself, for excessive sorrow prevents improvement or enjoyment, or even the discharge of daily usefulness, without which no man is fit for society.”

This advice, although good, was totally inapplicable to my case; I should have been the first to hide my grief and console my friends if remorse had not mingled its bitterness, and terror its alarm, with my other sensations.

Frankenstein is available free at Project Gutenberg. Of course, it has been adapted many times into other cultural artifacts; these are somewhat famous for their infidelity to the original work, and Justine tends to get short shrift in most (although she’s hanged in quite an over-the-top spectacle in the 1994 Kenneth Branagh vehicle Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (review here)).

If Justine is usually pulled from the story, Hollywood has found a role for the scaffold elsewhere. Where Shelley has Victor haunting “charnel houses” and the like, the seminal and oft-imitated 1931 Boris Karloff film makes a point to include a hanged criminal for some of the creature’s parts — although “the brain is useless”:

But a criminal brain finds its way into the monster just the same, an explanation of its behavior completely antithetical to Mary Shelley’s:

* He’s right, of course — the creature later admits it — but you could certainly quibble with Victor’s methodology:

Nothing in human shape could have destroyed the fair child. HE was the murderer! I could not doubt it. The mere presence of the idea was an irresistible proof of the fact.

** The precise date is never disclosed, but the events are roughly dated by Victor’s subsequent narration, “it was about the middle of the month of August, nearly two months after the death of Justine, that miserable epoch from which I dated all my woe.”

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