1640: Bishop John Atherton, buggerer

1 comment December 5th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1640, John Atherton achieved the unenviable distinction of being the only Anglican bishop hanged for buggery.* (His proctor, and alleged lover, John Childe, got the same treatment a few months later.)


Suppose a Devill from th’infernall Pit,
More Monsterlike, then ere was Devill yet,
Contrary to course, taking a male fiend
To Sodomize with him, such was the mind
Of this Lord Bishop, he did take a Childe
By name, not years, acting a sinne so vilde
-From the text of the pamphlet this image decorates

The Oxford-educated Englishman was appointed Lord Bishop of Waterford and Lismore by King Charles‘s hated governor Thomas Wentworth.

It may well have been the internecine politics of the day that claimed Atherton’s life, just as the civil wars they engendered in the ensuing decades claimed the original trial records.

While posterity is left to speculation, Atherton was defended in print in those years as well. (Defended as no homo, that is — not defended on principle against ubiquitous anti-gay laws.) If it wasn’t really a voracious sexual appetite (not exclusively same-sex**), goes this argument, it was intra-Protestant infighting, with Atherton’s successful clawback of land for the weak Irish Anglican church stepping on the toes of the local land barons who had recently expropriated it.

This politics outside the boudoir argument gets compelling treatment in Mother Leakey and the Bishop, a historical investigative thriller that links Atherton to a weird ghost story† in his native Somerset — that of “Old Mother Leakey,” the Minehead ghost.

Mother Leakey was Atherton’s mother-in-law, and Somerset family members claimed she haunted them — including with a message for the bishop that one of his sisters-in-law actually went to deliver in Ireland. The message isn’t known; in legend, this was a warning from beyond against the prelate’s ungodly behavior; in reality, it was more probably a family shakedown.‡

Despite the skepticism of the Leakey family’s own contemporaries, the facts, allegations, suppositions, and pure flights of fancy somehow managed to blend and recombine into a lasting tale of the paranormal that Minehead still retails to this day.

And it goes right back to the public opprobrium Bishop Atherton endured — as described in that 1641 hanging pamphlet:

“demonstrates the link between the stories of Mother Leakey and Bishop John Atherton … in a highly readable and often entertaining fashion”

… through pride, high fare, and lustfull life,
Incest committed with the Sister of his wife,
For which he sued his pardon, and then fled
To Ireland, where a worser life he led

He surely warned was to mend his life,
By his own Sister Master Leakies wife,
Which Master Leakies Mother being dead,
And in her life-time conscious how he led
His lustfull life, her Ghoast in gastful wise
Did oft appeare before her Sisters Eyes,
But she feare-strucken durst not speak unto it,
Till oft appearing forced her to doe it:
Then thus she spake, Mother in Law what cause
You from your rest, to my unrest thus drawes?
Who answered, daughter tis the wicked life
Your Brother leads, warne him to mend his life;
If not, then plainely tell him tis decreed,
He shall be hangd, bid him repent with speede:
Then shall my restless spirit be at rest,
And not till then; Thus vanisht. She addrest
Herselfe for travaile, Into Ireland went
With this sad message unto him was sent:
Which how he tooke to heart may plaine appeare
By the slight answer he returned her,
What must be, shalbe: If I must, I must dye,
Mariage, and hanging, come by destiny.
Thus scoft her counsell, sent her back, and when
Shee was returnd, he grew farre viler then
He was before, if Viler man may be,
For one bad Act before, committed three.

* According to Who’s Who in Gay and Lesbian History, Atherton and Childe were the second pair of alleged homosexual lovers executed in the British Isles. The first was the Earl of Castlehaven in 1631, along with his manservants.

** “[O]ne should note the compound sexual nature of the ‘sodomy’ charge in this context, a portmanteau omnibus of non-procreative sex, which is what ’sodomy’ was widely held to be.”

† Walter Scott footnotes this legend in Rokeby: “Mrs Leakey … dispatched her [daughter-in-law] to an Irish prelate, famous for his crimes and misfortunes, to exhort him to repentance, and to apprize him that otherwise he would be hanged; and how the bishop was satisfied with replying, that if he was born to be hanged, he should not be drowned.”

‡ Archbishop William Laud dispatched a team of ghost-whisperers to investigate the Leakey story well before the ectoplasm hit the fan for Atherton, and they weren’t buying: “certainly it is a fiction and a practice … it may be some money business.” Bishop Atherton had left home under a cloud with the suspicion that he’d had an affair with his wife’s sister, and this was part of the eventual Irish complaint against the horny goat.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Homosexuals,Ireland,Milestones,Political Expedience,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Sex,The Supernatural,Wrongful Executions

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1492: Sir Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington, Nearly Headless Nick

5 comments October 31st, 2010 Elizabeth M. Hull

(Thanks to Elizabeth M. Hull for the guest post. -ed.)

Post-mortem resident of Gryffindor House, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Hogsmeade, U.K.

A minor character in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter saga, Nearly Headless Nick remains one of the most memorable. Executed — badly — on Halloween of 1492, Sir Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington became the ghost of Gryffindor House. The school has about 20 resident ghosts: the Grey Lady (Helena Ravenclaw) and the Bloody Baron of Slytherin House died violently as well, in a murder-suicide.

Rowling says that her editor suggested that she cut a ballad Mimsy-Porpington wrote about himself from The Chamber of Secrets. In the song, the ghost claimed to have been executed for “a mistake any wizard could make,” a “piffling error,” a case of wizardry gone wrong. Asked by Lady Grieve (otherwise unknown) to straighten her teeth, Mimsy-Porpington seems to have given her a tusk. “They” imprisoned the piffler immediately, though he cried all night that he could fix his mistake, and his beheading followed the next morning.

Unfortunately for Mimsy-Porpington, his was not the only incompetence: “they’d mislaid the rock/Where they usually sharpened the axe”! The “cack-handed twit” of a headsman said “this may sting a bit” to the gibbering wizard, and swung the axe in the air. Alas, unable to sharpen the blade, the executioner was reduced to bestowing numerous blows: “But oh the blunt blade! No difference it made,” the ghost sang,

My head was still definitely there.
The axeman he hacked and he whacked and he thwacked,
“Won’t be too long,” he assured me,
But quick it was not, and the bone-headed clot
Took forty-five goes ’til he floored me.

(The full ballad is here and here; the original handwritten version can be seen here.)

After repeated strokes of the edgeless axe, Mimsy-Porpington finally expired. On festival occasions, he re-enacts his near-beheading, a show quite popular with the Hogwarts student body (Prisoner of Azkaban, p. 159).

However, the bone-headed, cloddish headsman was unable to completely behead the wizard. As Ron Weasly notes, the ghost is merely nearly headless.


Nick, as played in the Harry Potter films by John Cleese. Rowling’s own original sketch of Nearly Headless Nick is here.

While he gets a great deal of pleasure from entertaining Hogwarts residents by swinging “his whole head . . . off his neck and . . . onto his shoulder as if it was on a hinge” (Sorceror’s Stone, p. 124), his condition limits his access to the dizziest heights of post-mortem society. Beheading was an aristocratic execution, meant to bring a swift death to the privileged, those able to hunt legally in their lifetime. In the afterlife, the beheaded aristocrats have established a “Headless Hunt” Club, and have blackballed Mimsy-Porpington, who misses their entrance requirements by that much: “‘half an inch of skin and sinew holding my neck on.'” Unable to participate in Club sports like “Horseback Head-Juggling and Head Polo,” Mimsy-Porpington is denied admission into the elite society (Chamber of Secrets, p. 124).

Sadly, their scorn for his crippling condition is not limited to exclusion from their company.

Mimsy-Porpington’s five hundredth Deathday anniversary party, held on Halloween 1992, welcomes hundreds of ghosts from as far away as Kent to a feast of rotten fish, putrid, “maggoty haggis,” and a tombstone cake with grey icing, while an orchestra of 30 musical saws plays waltzes. The Deathday Boy’s speech is interrupted by the members of the Headless Hunt: “Sir Properly Decapitated-Podmore” begins a game of Head Hockey, sending his own head sailing past the humiliated Mimsy-Porpington as he tries to address his guests (Chamber of Secrets, p. 132-7).

Somehow the courageous Gryffindor ghost overcomes this diabolical heads-up-manship and several months as a petrified cloud to live a useful afterlife, helping Harry many times. Most significantly, in the final pages of The Order of the Phoenix, a traumatized and grieving Harry turns to Mimsy-Porpington, hoping to discover a way to keep his dead friend and guardian Sirius Black alive. “‘You’re dead,'” Harry says, “‘But you’re still here, aren’t you? … People can come back, right? As ghosts. They don’t have to disappear completely.'” Mimsy-Porpington gently tells Harry that he can only “‘walk palely'” where his living self once trod, “‘neither here nor there,'” hovering between life and death for fear of the unknown. However, Black risked his life joyously and died laughing; he will not linger between death and life. Harry must live on without him.

There may be historical precedent for Mimsy-Porpington’s death in the botched execution of James Scott, Duke of Monmouth (1685), when the notorious Jack Ketch took five blows to kill the rebel, and finally had to use a knife to sever the last “skin and sinew” connecting the head to the corpse. Monmouth’s hairstyle in portraits from the late 1600s resembles that drawn by Rowling in her sketch of Nearly Headless Nick, although that sketch shows a beard style from the early 1600s, nearly 70 years earlier. Moreover, the ghost enters Harry Potter’s life wearing an Elizabethan neck ruff and says that he has not eaten in nearly 400 years, implying a death in the late 1500s.

In spite of this wibbly-wobbly timeline, Mimsy-Porpington’s deathdate establishes the firm chronology of Rowling’s series: the five hundredth anniversary of his death in 1492 would fall in 1992; therefore the events of Chamber of Secrets (published in 1997) must occur in 1992. The dating of the series is confirmed five books later by the tombstones of Harry’s parents, who died on Halloween Day, 1981 (Deathly Hallows, p. 328). For J.K. Rowling, death, the last enemy — not life — marks the measure of this world’s time.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Fictional,Guest Writers,History,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Other Voices,Summary Executions,The Supernatural

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1689: John Chiesly, for alimony

3 comments April 3rd, 2010 Headsman

Q. Why is divorce so expensive?
A. Because it’s worth it!

This date brings us a cautionary parable of the dangers of wedlock.

John Chiesly (or Chiesley, or Cheisly), an ill-tempered bloke with a wife he’d wished to put aside, had been ordered in arbitration to support her (and their 11-strong brood) to the tune of a £93 annuity.

Chiesly had a counteroffer to this liberal award: he shot dead the magistrate, Sir George Lockhart, the highest-ranking judicial officer in Scotland.* And he did it in broad daylight, making no attempt to fly.

“I have taught the President how to do justice,” Chiesly boasted as he was arrested.

That was on March 31, 1689.

On April 1, he was tried and convicted (torture was authorized “for discovering if ther were any accomplices, advysers, or assisters to him in that horrid and most inhumane act … yet the samen shall be no preparative or warrand to proceed to torture at any tyme hereafter, nor homologatione of what hes bein done at any tyme bypast”).

On April 3, he was drawn to execution at either Drumsheugh or at the Gallowlee, had the offending right hand cut off while still alive, then was hanged in chains with the murder weapon around his neck.

Then his spirit went on to haunt Dalry as “One-Armed Johnny,” until his remains were discovered and properly buried in 1965.

Still.

If you think this guy had relationship issues, consider the fate of his daughter, Rachel.

She inherited dad’s hot temper and took it to her own marriage.

When her husband tried to ditch her, the woman now known as Lady Grange stalked him so relentlessly that Lord Grange kidnapped her, faked her death, and held her secretly imprisoned in the Hebrides for 15 years. (More in this pdf)

Now that is an expensive divorce.

* Chiesly’s murder orphaned George Lockhart, later a notable anti-union politician; George’s brother Philip Lockhart was himself executed for the 1715 anti-Hanoverian Jacobite rising.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Murder,Pelf,Public Executions,Scotland,Sex,The Supernatural,Torture

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1679: The hot-blooded Lady Christian Nimmo

1 comment November 12th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1679, a spurned lover laid her head on the block in Edinburgh and began her career as a spook.

Decadent widower James Forrester (or Forester), having run through his cash, was marking his time at the pub and in the arms of Lady Christian Nimmo.

She was a great deal younger than himself, and a niece of his first wife’s. This near relationship greatly increased the scandal, which was aggravated by Lord Forester having always professed to be a religious man, and a rigid Presbyterian. [Edinburgh’s rigid Presbyterians had a recurring misconduct problem. -ed.] Mrs. Nimmo, besides being a very beautiful woman, was of a violent and impulsive nature. She was believed always to carry a sword under her petticoats, and so was not a person to be treated lightly, especially by those who reflected what blood ran in her veins, — Mrs. Bedford, who had murdered her husband a few years before, being her cousin-german. She was also related to the unhappy Lady Warriston, who suffered death for the same crime in 1600. Lord Forester’s passion for her appears to have cooled; and, shutting his eyes to possible consequences, he permitted himself in one of his carouses to speak more than lightly of her. This came to her ears, and, seized with fury, she went at once to his castle at Corstorphine … a violent altercation took place between them. In the midst of it, she snatched the sword from his side, ran him through the body, and killed him.

… She confessed her crime, but pleaded that Lord Forester, being ferocious and intoxicated with drink, had drawn his sword; that, to save herself, she had snatched it from him, and that in the struggle he had fallen upon it, and so killed himself. In spite of this defence, sentence of death was passed upon her … [she was] beheaded at the Market Cross on the 12th November 1679. At her execution she appeared dressed in deep mourning, with a long veil, which, before laying her head on the block, she took off, and replaced with a white taffeta hood. She met her fate with great courage. It was said at the time that, in spite of his professed Presbyterianism, a dispensation from the Pope to marry Mrs. Nimmo was found among Lord Forester’s papers, and that his delay in using it had caused her fury. (Source)

An apparition known as “the white lady” is supposed to haunt the site of the murder with a melodramatic bloody sword.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Murder,Nobility,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Scotland,Sex,The Supernatural,Women

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Seven Generic Halloween Costumes You Can Spice Up With an Execution Story

5 comments October 22nd, 2008 Headsman

Executed Today’s Guide to Halloween, Part II (Click here for Part I.)

Not enough time to assemble an individual masterpiece to play Halloween make-believe? Looking at that off-the-rack costume, that witch outfit from last year, and sighing that it’ll have to do?

No sweat.

Let Executed Today help you go from so generic to sui generis with a horrible backstory that adds conversation-starting depth to the most bland of disguises.

Witch

The Halloween standby has a few hundred thousand real-life executions of which we’ve covered a bare handful.

Anne de Chartraine, a Walloon teenager burnt for witchcraft during the Thirty Years’ War, makes a good characterization of the classic black-hat-and-broomstick outfit.

More complex occultist disguises might consider presenting themselves as poisoner La Voisin, author Jacques Cazotte or the Weirs.

Pirate

Avast, ye sea-dog — there be more pirates than Blackbeard.

Men (especially leftists, anarchists and Bostonians — but I repeat myself) will enjoy answering the inevitable question when representing as William Fly. Ladies — think Anne Bonny and Mary Read.

Ghost

Appropriately, the Great White North has interesting specters to round out the old white-sheet look. Haunt the scene of the kegstand as Madame Marie Josephte Corriveau or assassin Patrick Whelan.

Roman

Cicero is an obvious choice for the toga set, but consider writing Catiline on the nametag instead.

For the whole centurion look, call yourself Sejanus and start settling scores.

Soldier

There are many military looks for many times and places, of course, lots of them liable to be politically touchy in the wrong crowd.

Partisans like Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya and Evagoras Pallikarides cut heroic figures with a plain set of clothes, some basic military gear, and a knapsack full of consonants.

More formally equipped modern-ish choices of various different lands include Francisco Caamano, Breaker Morant, Mikhael Tukhachevsky, Claus von Stauffenberg, Dmytro Bilinchuk, Emil August Fieldorf, and Theophile Maupas et al.

Werewolf

This blog will always have a special place at the stake for supposed real-life lycanthrope Peter Stubbe, the “Werewolf of Bedburg” who was profiled in our very first post: he was executed October 31, 1589.

Executioner

Of course, there is one ubiquitous character in these pages — and his face isn’t always well-hidden.

Klutzy Brit Jack Ketch, prolific French Revolution headsman Sanson, U.S. President Grover Cleveland and (helpfully, for Halloween) flamboyantly costumed Italian executioner Mastro Titta are among the famous characters to tread the scaffold boards.

Creative Commons pumpkin image courtesy of fabbio

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