1821: Owen Coffin, main course

5 comments February 6th, 2011 dogboy

On this date in 1821, a first-time whaleship crewman named Owen Coffin was executed by a comrade to feed three starving mates.

Coffin was the second-to-last victim of an event which shocked the whaling community and inspired the novel Moby Dick.

Owen Coffin was a 17-year-old aboard a doomed whaling vessel called the Essex. He was cousin to George Pollard, Jr., who was making his first trek to the Pacific whaling grounds as a ship’s captain.

The Essex sailed from Nantucket Island in 1819, one of dozens of ships to leave port in search of whales and, ultimately, whale oil. In spite of the large numbers of whales slaughtered by whalers around the world, the Essex had the unfortunate honor of taking part in the first documented violent encounter by a sperm whale on a whaleship.

Of the whales available to the whalers of the day, the sperm whale was most prized: aside from the typical blubber found on all whales, which could be processed for its “oil” (actually a free-flowing form of wax), this whale’s head was filled with the clean-burning substance called spermaceti, a name inspired by its resemblance to the sexual fluid. Spermaceti fetched a high price at market when sperm whales were in sufficient abundance to hunt them.


A 1902 photograph of whalers cutting into a sperm whale’s jaw. (cc) image from Curious Expeditions.

There Once Was a Crew from Nantucket

At the time, Nantucket Island was the center of the whaling world.

The industry was primarily run by Quaker businessmen, who negotiated profit-sharing rates for young, largely local crews willing to risk their lives in search of whales. To fill out the ship numbers, poor non-Nantucketers were imported from other New England ports. The Essex was no different: the ship originally held 21 crewmembers, eight of whom came from off-island.

The ship’s journey began inauspiciously by being flattened in a squall, but after repairs, she continued on in pursuit of whales. The ship made its classic trip around the southern tip of South America, put in to port in Ecuador, then traversed 2000 miles of ocean westward in search of a recently-discovered sperm whale hunting ground.

The Essex being rammed by a sperm whale, sketched by crewmember Thomas Nickerson.

And the crew did find whales and made a mildly successful trip of it … until it really pissed off the wrong whale.

The Essex discovered a group of sperm whales consisting of two females and one male. When the call went out, the three small whaleboats — built to be light and fast for the pursuit — launched.

These boats separated the females from the male, and one of the crews made a kill. It was around that time that the male, probably already distraught at being partitioned from his group, first ran into the 38-foot Essex. The jostle, which may have been accidental, apparently further upset the abnormally large whale, which briskly left the area, made a sharp turn, then swam all-out on a direct collision course with the Essex.

The old timber ship didn’t stand a chance.

The crew which had stayed aboard the main vessel watched in horror as the Essex was shattered beneath them. Two of the whaleboat crews noted the sinking and returned quickly, and Captain Pollard immediately set his crew about saving as many of the provisions as they could, including water and food.

But the speed with which the Essex went under left them with too little of both. As the final whaleboat made its way to the carnage, it was clear that the full crew complement was doomed to a long trip on a trio of very small boats.

Call Me Ishmael

Pollard and first mate Owen Chase hatched a plan (crewman Thomas Nickerson indicates that it was largely Chase who pushed the plan) to set sail for South America, thousands of miles distant and through unfavorable currents and winds, rather than for the Pacific Islands, about half as far away and in the direction of both favorable winds and currents.

The choice was sealed by fear of the unknown and a century of tales of South Pacific cannibals. Hopefully they came to appreciate the irony.

The crew went through its supplies in the first month at sea, and finally came ashore at Henderson Island, a raised, uninhabited coral reef that they mis-identified.

The fortunate crew found a temporarily available freshwater spring from which to refill their casks, and they subsisted on local fauna for several days while deciding their next course of action. Though Tahiti lay just a few hundred miles westward (again, in the direction of favorable winds and currents), our wayfarers opted to continue towards South America.

Three of the crew decided to stay behind. The remaining 17 crewmembers set out in late December 1820, and again quickly depleted their supplies.

One of the ships — carrying the second mate but no navigational equipment — was separated from the others during a storm and never heard from again, leaving two to carry on under increasingly desperate circumstances.

Cannibal Corpse

Passengers on both boats began succumbing to want and exposure, and their starving former comrades had little choice but to devour their remains.

The boat containing Owen Chase, Thomas Nickerson, and Benjamin Lawrence was eventually rescued by the Indian off the coast of Chile, and both Nickerson and Chase wrote accounts of the the survivors’ cannibalism.

Yet it was aboard Pollard’s boat that the most gruesome events unfolded.

The deaths of two crewmen had provided for the others — but not nearly enough to hope for landfall.

Short on food and water and despairing of bringing all four remaining souls to port, Charles Ramsdell suggested that the quartet draw lots to both remove one consumer from the boat and provide for the remaining three. Pollard objected to subjecting his crew to such a fate, but Barzillai Ray and Owen Coffin agreed to the plan. The lots were cast, and Coffin pulled the black spot. The other three cast again to decide his executioner, and Ramsdell was chosen.

Pollard’s account indicates that he immediately spoke up for Coffin, offering himself up in place, but Coffin demurred and prepared himself for the execution.*

The following day, February 6, Coffin dictated a short note to his mother and declared, as per Pollard’s diary, that “the lots had been fairly drawn.”

Charles Ramsdell shot Owen Coffin, then joined Ray and Pollard in consuming his remains.

Ray died just days later, and Ramsdell and Pollard barely survived the next two weeks. When the Dauphin came up alongside the whaleboat on February 20, its crew thrilled to the spectacle of Ramsdell and Pollard sucking on the bones of their dead crewmates, emaciated beyond recognition.

Based on their statements about the events of the previous 95 days, a vessel was dispatched to find the three Henderson Island survivors. Because the crew had mis-identified the island, however, the search took longer than expected. Not until April 5, 1821, were the three located … out of fresh water and also scarcely alive.

A few books about the Essex

The Essex was a legend in its own time, and the story of the sinking and the harrowing events which followed continue to circle around Nantucket Island. Though the island’s economy collapsed less than 30 years later, Herman Melville kept the story alive through his literary classic Moby-Dick, whose story revolves around the captain of a whaling ship attacked by a vengeful whale.**

It is also suspected that a portion of Edgar Allen Poe’s 1838 novel† The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket is based on the Essex disaster.

Closer to modern times, the rock group Mountain’s album and eponymous song “Nantucket Sleighride”, which was used as the theme song to London Weekend Television’s Weekend World, is dedicated to Coffin.

Coffin is not the only sailor adrift ever selected for cannibalism by lot, but his case is unusual because the particulars are so well-documented. Several other cases are provided in Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea. Arthur Gordon Pym uses a victim by the name of Richard Parker, coincidentally the same name as a man who was actually cannibalized in 1884‡ in an affair leading to the famous common law case R v Dudley and Stephens, wherein the killers were charged with murder and sentenced to 6 months in prison — unlike the 1835 incident of the Francis Spaight, which saw the crew acquitted for three such killings.

* One of the crueler accounts of such lot drawing occurred aboard the Peggy, where crewman David Flatt pulled the short straw. However, prior to the execution the following morning, the crew was rescued. Flatt, however, had a breakdown in the intervening hours and suffered mental illness which persisted even after their rescue.

** He was also inspired by the story of Mocha Dick, a notorious white whale which survived dozens of encounters with whalers and is now available in trenta sizes.

Arthur Gordon Pym is Poe’s only full-length novel.

‡ Richard Parker was also the name of a man executed for the Nore Mutiny, as well as one killed in the wreck of the Francis Spaight in 1846 — not to be confused with the Francis Spaight on which cannibalism occurred 11 years prior.

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1864: Six of Mosby’s Rangers

4 comments September 23rd, 2009 Headsman

It was on this date in 1864* that an infamous Union war crime took place in Front Royal, Virginia.

Union forces in the Old Dominion were bedeviled by John Singleton Mosby, whose bold and legendary guerrilla tactics are commemorated in Herman Melville’s “The Scout Toward Aldie”:

All spake of him, but few had seen
Except the maimed ones or the low;
Yet rumor made him every thing–
A farmer–woodman–refugee–
The man who crossed the field but now;
A spell about his life did cling —
Who to the ground shall Mosby bring?

In 1864, the “Gray Ghost” haunted the Shenandoah Valley, and his spooky brand of warfare eventually goaded the Union into crossing the streams.

Allegedly raging from the murder by Mosby’s troops of a surrendering northern cavalryman, the blues rounded up six captured Mosby men — actually only five, plus one 17-year-old civilian who had opportunistically joined the fray — and summarily executed them.

David Jones, Lucien Love and Thomas Anderson were shot. So was the aforementioned civilian, Henry Rhodes, under the eyes of his shrieking mother.

Then, two last unfortunates were hanged. William Thomas Overton spurned an offer of clemency in exchange for information on Mosby’s hideouts with the memorable parting, “Mosby will hang 10 of you for every one of us.”

Not quite so … but not an empty threat, either. Weeks later, Mosby would order the retaliatory executions of a like number** of randomly-selected Union prisoners of war, and communicate this intelligence to his foes along with his (successful) suit to resume more gentlemanly methods of killing one another.

* Some sources (including some cited in this post) claim September 22nd. The consensus of authoritative sources appears to be clearly September 23rd. The Gray Ghost himself may be one source of the confusion; according to Custer and the Front Royal Executions, “In his memoirs, which were published over 50 years after the event, Mosby got the date wrong, apparently based upon one of the newspaper accounts … [which] stated that the Front Royal incident occurred on September 22, not September 23, the date upon which it actually did occur.”

** Seven were condemned in retaliation, for these six plus a separate execution that occurred Oct. 13.

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1842: Philip Spencer, Samuel Cromwell and Elisha Small, on the ship yardarm

11 comments December 1st, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1842, three American sailors were hanged at sea for attempted mutiny.

To meet the circumstances of the only Americans put to death for mutiny, we travel a long way back to a time long before the U.S. Navy was (or could claim to be) this:

Here in the antebellum Atlantic, bereft for weeks of any outside communication, every ship is a world — and sometimes a law — unto itself.

Philip Spencer. From the Chi Psi Fraternity, which Spencer co-founded and which maintains a Philip Spencer Memorial Trust.

Aboard the USS Somers, the law was a disciplinarian captain named Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, who received report that ne’er-do-well brat Philip Spencer — whose dad just happened to be John Tyler’s Secretary of War — was talking mutiny with enlisted sailors chafing under Mackenzie’s liberal use of the flog.

Spencer was a midshipman; the cadets largely untested youth whose purpose in going to sea was to get their feet wet.

Rashomon-like, the viewer can draw dramatically different conclusions from the actions thereupon ensuing. Underneath it all is this: aboard a ship that had no recourse to outside aid or communication, that was its inhabitants’ sole lifeline athwart a vast ocean, and that was held by its officers against the overwhelming numerical superiority of its crew, every misapprehension became magnified and every decision became one of life or death.

The bare facts are that Mackenzie became convinced that the intention was real, and as he held first Spencer, and then two supposed conspirators, Samuel Crowell and Elisha Small, in chains on the deck, his fears hourly grew that the plot was metastasizing and might strike with effect at any moment.

No semblance of due process attended this determination; Mackenzie got the officers he did have to vouchsafe their opinion of the situation in writing:

the evidence which has come to our knowledge is of such a nature, that, after as dispassionate and deliberate a consideration of the case as the exigency of the time would admit, we have come to a cool, decided, and unanimous opinion, that they have been guilty of a full and determined intention to commit a mutiny on board of this vessel of a most atrocious nature, and … we are convinced that it would be impossible to carry them to the United States, and that the safety of the public property, the lives of ourselves, and of those committed to our charge, requires that … they should be put to death.

Spencer, Cromwell and Small were hanged with ten minutes’ notice from the yardarm of the ship, Spencer protesting that the others were innocent.


The USS Somers … with its supposed mutineers hanged from the yardarm, just under the American flag. This and other images of the Somers can be found at a Department of the Navy page.

As one might imagine, there was a bit of an uproar when the vessel finally made port stateside. Oddly (or maybe not so odd) Mackenzie was initially the toast of the town for putting down a mutiny, before that Secretary of War guy and others started picking apart the case.

Though Mackenzie won acquittal at a court martial* — a verdict that could not possibly not have been colored by the competing pressures of Spencer’s influential (and enraged) father on the one hand, and the navy’s institutional need for a whitewash on the other — the cloud of the USS Somers would hover over him for the rest of his life.

And no wonder.

The ominous suggestions of treachery that Mackenzie perceived all around him looked to some others like phantoms; having taken the conviction into his head that a mutiny was afoot, he perceived it everywhere — a doodle of a pirate ship! stealthy glances! men standing about talking! — and panicked. One politician of the day even wrote years later that he believed “the éclat which would follow the hanging of a son of the Secretary of War as a pirate” influenced the captain towards hanging, the opposite of one what might assume.

And even if Spencer really were guilty, Mackenzie had less good cause for suspicion about Small, and practically nothing but his gut on Cromwell. Other sailors Mackenzie considered certainly culpable were returned to dry land, held in chains, and eventually released uncharged because the evidence was so paltry. These three were hanged in part because Mackenzie thought he would have more prisoners than he could control on his small ship.

It’s a debatable premise, and among the point author James Fenimore Cooper later assailed in Mackenzie’s defense.

That these are complaints issued after the fact and from the safety of land does not invalidate them. Mackenzie had command of the ship, and with power to order boys hanged from the yardarm came as much responsibility for steady judgment as for a firm hand. At the same time, others look at the same set of facts and approve Mackenzie’s actions.

Mackenzie may have been a Queeg-like commander, temperamentally ill-suited to his charge of blooding young cadets. And Spencer may have been a dangerously irresponsible character with no business aboard a ship at all. Neither man’s character flaws, however, resolve the inquiry however much they may have contributed to the tragedy.

The Somers incident was the spur towards important reforms in the navy. Three years later, the U.S. Naval Academy opened at Annapolis, Md., institutionalizing cadet instruction away from the haphazard stick-a-boy-on-a-boat routine that was understood to have set the scene for this day’s hangings.

George Bancroft was the father of the professional school at Annapolis, but Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, in association with Philip Spencer, were among the academy’s remoter forebears. (The Captain Called It Mutiny, by Frederic Franklyn Van de Water)

In 1850, flogging was abolished — another issue that permeated the Somers case.**

And Spencer et al may have left a literary legacy as well: this event is often cited as a likely inspiration for Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, through Melville’s cousin Guert Gansevoort, a lieutenant on the Somers and one of the signatories of the officers’ opinion that the prisoners ought to hang.†

Of less literary pretention but more suitable for sending-off as we return young Masters Spencer, Cromwell and Small to the deep: this weirdly wonderful anime mashup to the shanty “Curse of the Somers” falls in the category of “you can find anything on YouTube.”

* The court of inquiry which preceded the court martial produced a report that can be read here.

** Ironically, the USS Somers was returning from a trip to the African coast to deliver dispatches to the USS Vandalia, which in 1838 had become a pioneering vessel in the reduction of corporal punishment under the command of Uriah Levy.

Aptly, the Somers never caught up with the Vandalia to deliver those dispatches.

† Gansevoort retired an admiral; a World War II destroyer was named for him.

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1849: Frederick and Marie Manning, a Dickensian scene

7 comments November 13th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1849, husband-and-wife murderers Frederick and Marie Manning (or Maria Manning) were publicly hanged together outside Horsemonger Lane Gaol in London.

An image of Marie Manning (nee Marie de Roux) from the Victorian popular press — from this romantic biography of Tolstoyan length available free from Google books.

The felonious pair — she a Swiss-born domestic; he a shifty laborer with a penchant for the inside job — lured to dinner in their Bermondsey home a wealthy friend who had designs on the redheaded knockout, then murdered him for his loot and stuffed the limed body under the floorboards. They were apprehended separately on the lam.

As is typical when a heartthrob femme fatale stands in the dock, a sensational trial of the “here today, gone tomorrow” variety ensued. The crime, nicknamed “the Bermondsey Horror” (here (pdf) is a book chapter-scale recounting), had each accusing the other, with the outcome usual for this site.

A massive, jeering throng turned out to see the two off (Mrs. Manning’s choice of black satin for the occasion is said to have caused the look to go out of fashion).

Among that crowd was Charles Dickens,* who took a break from working on David Copperfield to write The Times a letter published Nov. 14 demanding that executions be removed within prison walls on account of the unedifying conduct of the spectators.

Sir — I was a witness of the execution at Horsemonger-lane this morning. I went there with the intention of observing the crowd gathered to behold it, and I had excellent opportunities of doing so, at intervals all through the night, and continuously from daybreak until after the spectacle was over.

I believe that a sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the immense crowd collected at that execution this morning could be imagined by no man, and could be presented in no heathen land under the sun. The horrors of the gibbet and of the crime which brought the wretched murderers to it, faded in my mind before the atrocious bearing, looks and language, of the assembled spectators. When I came upon the scene at midnight, the shrillness of the cries and howls that were raised from time to time, denoting that they came from a concourse of boys and girls already assembled in the best places, made my blood run cold. As the night went on, screeching, and laughing, and yelling in strong chorus of parodies on Negro melodies, with substitutions of “Mrs. Manning” for “Susannah,” and the like, were added to these. When the day dawned, thieves, low prostitutes, ruffians and vagabonds of every kind, flocked on to the ground, with every variety of offensive and foul behaviour. Fightings, faintings, whistlings, imitations of Punch, brutal jokes, tumultuous demonstrations of indecent delight when swooning women were dragged out of the crowd by the police with their dresses disordered, gave a new zest to the general entertainment. When the sun rose brightly — as it did — it gilded thousands upon thousands of upturned faces, so inexpressibly odious in their brutal mirth or callousness, that a man had cause to feel ashamed of the shape he wore, and to shrink from himself, as fashioned in the image of the Devil. When the two miserable creatures who attracted all this ghastly sight about them were turned quivering into the air, there was no more emotion, no more pity, no more thought that two immortal souls had gone to judgment, no more restraint in any of the previous obscenities, than if the name of Christ had never been heard in this world, and there were no belief among men but that they perished like the beasts.

… I am solemnly convinced that nothing that ingenuity could devise to be done in this city, in the same compass of time, could work such ruin as one public execution, and I stand astounded and appalled by the wickedness it exhibits. I do not believe that any community can prosper where such a scene of horror and demoralization as was enacted this morning outside Horsemonger-lane Gaol is presented at the very doors of good citizens, and is passed by, unknown or forgotten.

Dickens would base a French maid named Mademoiselle Hortense in his next novel, Bleak House on Marie Manning.

This question of public as opposed to private hangings was a lively debate at the time, and Dickens’s view was hardly uncontested. A letter in response from one F.B. Head of Oxenton countered thus:

The merciful object of every punishment which the law inflicts is not so much to revenge the past crime as to prevent its recurrence. Now, Mrs. Manning’s last moments clearly explain, or rather indisputably prove, the benefit which society practically derives from a public execution. … as for a few fleeting moments she stood, with bandaged eyes, beneath the gibbet, how unanswerably did the picture mutely expound the terror which the wicked very naturally have of being publicly hanged before the scum and refuse of society! “The whistlings — the imitations of Punch — the brutal jokes and indecent delight of the thieves, low prostitutes, ruffians and vagabonds,” so graphically described by Mr. Charles Dickens were — by her own showing — not only the most fearful portion of her sentence but, under Providence, these coarse ingredients may possibly have effected that momentary repentance which the mild but fervent exhortations of the chaplain had failed to produce.

But, besides the impolicy of divesting the death by law of a murderer of the most effective portion of its terrors, there are, Sir, I submit, higher and infinitely more important reasons, which make it our bounden duty to require that every criminal who suffers death should be executed in public.

So long as it shall be deemed advisable by us, by laws divine as well as human, to deprive the murderer of his life, the whole process of his trial, ending in an act of such awful responsiblity, ought to be performed in open day, in order that the community may at all events clearly see what it is they are doing — what it is they have done. The purple hands of the wretched sufferer sufficiently explain what the white nightcap hypocritically conceals, namely, the dreadful act that has been performed; and, although thieves and prostitutes may ridicule the convulsions they witness, there will, it is to be hoped, in a free country and with a free press, always be found among an English crowd some one fellow-creature possessing the kindly feelings of Mr. Charles Dickens, who, should he see sufficient reasons for doing so, will not only call upon the country most seriously to consider whether the punishment he delineates has not exceeded the offence, but, as an honest witness, will condemn and expose any unnecessary harshness or cruelty that may have accompanied it.”

Even the legendary British humor magazine Punch weighed in, with a famous cartoon skewering the mob who turned up for public hangings.**


“The Great Moral Lesson at Horsemonger Lane Gaol”, Punch magazine’s rendition of the Mannings’ execution — turning its gaze not on the scaffold but on the unruly crowd beneath it. It comes with a poem.

Public executions would continue in England until 1868.

* Not the only literary big wheel in the crowd: Herman Melville also checked it out. No indication they bumped into each other, and no surprise: the crowd was so huge that at least one spectator was crushed to death against a police barricade. (As reported by Hanging in the Balance: A History of the Abolition of Capital Punishment in Britain, which numbers the onlookers at 30,000 and claims 2.5 million execution broadsheets were sold.)

** According to Dickens and Crime, Dickens actually observed the hanging with the Punch cartoonist who sketched “The Great Moral Lesson” (the two went in together to rent out a well-placed roof “for the extremely moderate sum of Ten Guineas”). That artist, John Leech, had illustrated Dickens’ A Christmas Carol a few years before.

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1599: Beatrice Cenci and her family, for parricide

14 comments September 11th, 2008 Headsman

On the morning this day in 1599, the Cenci family — mother Lucrezia, son Giacomo, and immortal tragic heartthrob Beatrice — were put to death at Sant’Angelo Bridge for murdering the clan’s tyrannous father.

Francesco Cenci, the victim, was more accustomed to making victims of his own: detested around the Eternal City, he indulged his violent temper and fleshy lusts with the impunity of a wealthy cardinal’s son. By all accounts, he enjoyed pushing around his family, too.

This much is stipulated. What lies beyond is legend.

But the legend is why we’re dallying with Beatrice today, so we might as well begin there: in fear that her father would rape her, it goes, Beatrice tried to turn to the authorities, who let mean old dad walk on account of his connections. Desperate to protect herself from incest, Beatrice and family arrange to batter his gulliver and toss him over a balcony to make it look like suicide.

Slight problem: it didn’t look very much like suicide.

So the family was hauled in and tortured, and eventually Lucrezia and Beatrice (both beheaded) and Giacomo (quartered after suffering the mazzolatura of an incapacitating hammer blow to the head followed by gory lethal knifework by the executioner) all paid the price while the youngest child watched, spared death but condemned to life in the galleys.

(The papacy gobbled up the patricides’ estate, which puts a fine point on the ironically-named Pope Clement VIII‘s law-and-order stance on the appeal for mercy, and his subsequent edicts to quash public comment on the affair.)

Then Beatrice’s body — the part below the neck — contrived to disrobe when fumbled by the brethren taking it away for burial.

You’ve got to admit it’s pretty romantic. Some versions even hold that the responsible executioners died violently themselves within a month, or that a ghostly Beatrice returns to the scene of her demise on this anniversary.

And not a word of Italian fluency will be necessary to catch the gist of this excerpt from this 1969 Lucio Fulci film:

It’s a little too Romantic, as in capital-R.

While the case was a true sensation Rome at the turn of the 17th century, the legend as we know it was heavily constructed in the 19th century … and specifically Percy Bysshe Shelley, who heard the story in Italy* where it had persevered as local folklore. A girl who killed her despot-father, executed by the despotic agents of the Divine Father? You don’t get into the canon without knowing what to do with that kind of material.

And he had this charming painting of her to boot:

Shelley amped up the menaced-virginal-purity theme, made the bloodshed a lot more demure, and turned it into a long poem, “The Cenci” (available on Google Books, and on Bartleby.com) which in Melville’s description proceeds from putting its protagonist between the “two most horrible crimes possible to civilized humanity — incest and parricide.”

This doesn’t all actually turn out to be well supported: at a minimum, Shelley inflated an incest allegation of doubtful lineage into accomplished fact. Beatrice’s camp did not raise this claim until just before her execution, when it needed a high card for clemency. The loutish victim eventually got his own biographer, who strongly disputed the incest charges. (Francesco also sports his own Italian Wikipedia page.)

From Shelley’s influential quill** into the DNA of western literature: Stendahl tapped the vein, as did Artaud, and risorgimento figure Francesco Domenico Guerrazzi; both Melville and Hawthorne used that painting so captivating to Shelley as plot devices (Dickens loved the painting, too). American sculptor Harriet Hosmer worked Cenci’s complex sensuality in marble.

Remarkable how the tradition in its modern incarnation proceeds root and branch from Shelley’s apprehension of a single painting, and how his reading stamped itself upon the canvas for later observers — like Hawthorne, writing in his journal:

It is the very saddest picture that ever was painted, or conceived; there is an unfathomable depth and sorrow in the eyes; the sense of it comes to you by a sort of intuition. … It is the most profoundly wrought picture in the world; no artist did it, or could do it again. Guido may have held the brush, but he painted better than he knew. I wish, however, it were possible for some spectator, of deep sensibility, to see the picture without knowing anything of the subject or history; for no doubt we bring all our knowledge of the Cenci tragedy to the interpretation of the picture.

He wrote better than he knew: the painting is no longer attributed to Guido Reni, and it’s doubtful whether it’s a portrait of Beatrice at all. One wonders if it would retain its place in Hawthorne’s estimation as a local washer-woman modeling for an allegory.

* Apparently you can still crash at the same place Shelley first got hep to Cenci.

** Kick back with some polysyllabic literary analysis of Shelley’s Cenci stuff.

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