Feast Day of St. Erasmus (St. Elmo)

Add comment June 2nd, 2019 Headsman

June 2 is the feast date of early Christian martyr Saint Erasmus of Formia.

If a real historical figure, Erasmus of Formia was a martyr from the persecutions of Diocletian, but the most sure thing about him is that his legend has accumulated like barnacles a variety of “spurious” myth and folklore. It’s an agglomeration that reached a critical mass sufficient to elevate him to the ranks of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, medieval Christendom’s roster of popular big-time intercessors.

He was supposedly a Syrian who landed in Italy as a prelate; there’s a St. Erasmus of Antioch who might either be the same guy in his previous guise or a completely different fellow whose conflated feats explain how Erasmus (of Formia) was both a bishop and a hermit. Oddly enough the Roman Martyrology doesn’t even say that he was put to death for the faith, for Erasmus “was first scourged with leaded whips and then severely beaten with rods; he had also rosin, brimstone, lead, pitch, wax, and oil poured over him, without receiving any injury. Afterwards, under Maximian, he was again subjected to various most horrible tortures at Mola, but was still preserved from death by the power of God for the strengthening of others in the faith. Finally, celebrated for his sufferings, and called by God, he closed his life by a peaceful and holy end.”

Later legends do much him much better for drama and Executed Today eligibility, crediting him with a gory disemboweling death. It’s possible that this association proceeds from Erasmus’s official patronage of sailors: it is he who is the namesake of St. Elmo’s Fire, the electric blue light that gathers to a ship’s mast during a storm,* and his nautical portfolio made his iconographic device the windlass, a winch-and-rope crank that devotees have found suggestive (since so many saints are depicted carrying the instruments of their own martyrdoms) of a device for spooling a man’s intestines. Over time, execution by mechanical evisceration became by popular consensus the passion of Saint Elmo.

“This is one example,” writes Rosa Giorgi in Saints in Art “where imagery influenced hagiography.”


The Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus, by Sebastiano Ricci (c. 1694-1697).


The Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus, by Nicolas Poussin (1628).


Central panel of a triptych of Saint Erasmus’s martyrdom by Dieric Bouts (before 1466).

For wincingly obvious reasons, he’s also the saint to call on for any variety of abdominal distress, from stomach and intestinal maladies to the pangs of birth.

* And also a Brat Pack film.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Disemboweled,Execution,God,Gruesome Methods,History,Italy,Not Executed,Popular Culture,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Torture,Uncertain Dates

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1453: Alvaro de Luna, Spanish favorite

Add comment June 2nd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1453, the man who was once the power behind Castile’s throne became its foremost cautionary metaphor.

The greatest privado — royal favorite — in Spain’s annals, Alvaro de Luna (English Wikipedia entry | the far more detailed Spanish) sprang from noble albeit illiterate stock. He came to the Castilian court in 1410 as a witty and talented young page and adroitly got his hooks into the five-year-old crown prince, the future Juan II.

Quite uncommonly for a royal favorite, Don Alvaro held his king’s affection for many decades, and even while enriching himself into the mightiest subject in the land, he energetically served his prince’s interest.

Chief among these was managing the truculent nobility who would surely have dominated the weak-willed Juan but for his capable lieutenant — who was known from 1423 as the Constable of Castile and Count of San Esteban de Gormaz in 1423. Don Alvaro proved a consummate politico, scheming to deflect the ambitions of Juan’s rivals and to consolidate the power of the throne … which meant his own power, too. To a very great degree the favorite was the real sovereign, until he suddenly wasn’t.

“Alvaro de Luna would probably not be particularly consoled by the judgement of modern historians,” observes a wry James Boyden in The World of the Favourite** — for they “praise his efforts on behalf of Juan II for opening the way to royal absolutism in Castile, citing his own arbitrary death sentence as the clinching proof of the newfound powers of the crown.”

Don Alvaro’s downfall from his post of seemingly unassailable preeminence satisfied every literary device imaginable, beginning with poetic justice.

When Juan’s first wife, Maria of Aragon, died in 1445 — and Don Alvaro’s own hand has been suspected in that death — the Constable managed Juan’s pivot to 19-year-old Portuguese princess Isabella as the successor queen.

From her advantageous position in the king’s bed, Isabella soon began to work against Don Alvaro. She resented his intrusions into even their most intimate chambers, and she surely feared sharing the fate of her predecessor, Maria. Eventually, her arguments carried the day. Boyden once again:

It is difficult to imagine a more striking illustration of the transitory nature of earthly fortune than the spectacle of the constable’s execution in a public square of Valladolid on 2 June 1453. Certainly the event caught the imagination of contemporary poets. ‘Look then to that great Constable,’ wrote Jorge Manrique, ‘the Master whom we knew so deeply favoured by the king / And yet even of him nothing more need be said than that we saw him beheaded. / His limitless treasures, his towns and villages, his power of command / What did they bring him but tears? / What were they to him except sorrows at the leaving?’

According to Juan II, Don Alvaro’s principal crime was that he ‘has for a long time held and usurped a chief position near me and in my household and court’, and despite having been admonished about his excessive pride and effrontery ‘he has persevered in it … grasping more power to himself each day, excessively, without temperance or measure, so that there remains to me no more room to rule and administer my kingdoms personally, nor to maintain my towns in justice and truth and law …’

Not surprisingly, the constable saw matters in another light. While the king alleged usurpation of his royal authority, Don Alvaro responded with a charge of ingratitude, levelled in a tone meant to convey the sadness and resignation of a loyal servant stripped at last of his illusions. Rather than withdraw into a well-deserved retirement after forty-five years of service, he wrote,

I chose … to serve as I was in duty bound and as I felt the situation demanded; I deceived myself, for this service has been the cause of my misfortune. How bitter that I should find myself deprived of liberty who more than once have risked life and fortune to preserve your highness’s freedom! I am well aware that for my great sins I have angered God, and I will consider it a boon if I can placate his rage through these travails.

This appeal to justice was accompanied by an offer of treasure, but neither swayed the king, who was so intent upon Don Alvaro’s destruction that he would finally order his execution despite the failure of a hand-picked tribunal to render a clear sentence of death.

Although it cut no ice with his king, Alvaro de Luna’s posture of betrayed fidelity — his courage and dignity on the scaffold, ere his throat was cut and his severed head mounted on a hook — helped to salvage what might easily have become a hateful reputation among Spaniards. The annalist Pedro de Escavias recorded that Don Alvaro “struck terror into all who saw him” but “he died with a good countenance and good courage, as a knight and a faithful Christian should. May God forgive him, for he handled many great matters in the days when he enjoyed the king’s favour.” (Quoted in the out-of-print volume The Greatest Man Uncrowned: A Study of the Fall of Don Alvaro de Luna) This respectful epitaph is evident in the numerous artistic treatments around the Constable’s corpse.


Collection to Bury the Body of Alvaro de Luna, by Ramirez Ibanez Manual (1884)

Collection to Bury the Body of Alvaro de Luna, by Jose Maria Rodriguez de Losada (1867)

Burial of Alvaro de Luna, by Eduardo Cano de la Pena (19th century).

Juan’s rancor did not extend to denying his favorite an ornate tomb in Toledo Cathedral. Like all the best sovereign-favorite pairs — Richelieu comes to mind — Juan II soon followed to the grave his secret-sharer, dying in July 1454 allegedly stricken with remorse.† His daughter was Isabella of Castile, famed of Christopher Columbus sponsorship.

* There appears to be some ambiguity among sources between June 2 and June 3 whose resolution lies beyond the reach of myself and perhaps of any human. I tentatively prefer June 2 based on a preponderance of citations, and because June 3 was a Sunday.

** There’s also a fine essay on our principal to be found in The Emergence of León-Castile c.1065-1500: Essays Presented to J.F. O’Callaghan.

† However, Juan’s knowledge of his own failing health and a desire to disencumber his successors of this overmighty minister have also been suggested as reasons for Don Alvaro’s destruction. The favorite treads a very treacherous road indeed.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Heads of State,History,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Spain

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1621: John Rowse, unnatural father

Add comment June 2nd, 2017 John Taylor

(Thanks for the guest post to Thames boatman and picaresque pamphleteer John Taylor, the self-described “Water Poet”. Taylor has a minor cottage industry of social historians devoted to his varied output, like one of the first credited palindromes, “Lewd did I live, & evil I did dwel” … which would exactly suit John Rowse, the early modern sybarite turned murderer whom the Water Poet favored with the prose below, under the original title of “The Unnatural Father.” We’ve filled in wiktionary links to some of the more interesting archaic usages here; for the writer’s rich supply of loose-women synonyms please consult the Dungeons & Dragons random harlot table. — ed.)

As a chain consists of divers links, and every link depends, and is invoked upon one another, even so our sins, being the chain wherewith Satan doth bind and manacle us, are so knit, twisted, and soldered together, that without our firm faith ascending, and God’s grace descending, we can never be freed from those infernal fetters; for sloth is linked with drunkenness, drunkenness with fornication and adultery, and adultery with murder, and so of all the rest of the temptations, suggestions, and actions, wherewith miserable men and women are insnared and led captive into perpetual perdition, except the mercy of our gracious God be our defence and safeguard.

For a lamentable example of the devil’s malice, and man’s misery; this party, of whom I treat at this time, was a wretch, not to be matched, a fellow not to be fellowed, and one that scarce hath an equal, for matchless misery, and unnatural murder. But to the matter.

This John Rowse being a fishmonger in London, gave over his trade and lived altogether in the town of Ewell, near Nonsuch, in the county of Surrey, ten miles from London, where he had land of his own for himself and his heirs for ever to the valne of fifty pounds a year, with which he lived in good and honest fashion, being well reputed of all his neighbours, and in good estimation with gentlemen and others that dwelt in the adjoining villages.

Until at the last he married a very honest and comely woman, with whom he lived quietly and in good fashion some six months, till the devil sent an instrument of his to disturb their matrimonial happiness; for they wanting a maidservant, did entertain into their house a wench, whose name was Jane Blundell, who in short time was better acquainted with her master’s bed than honesty required, which in time was found out and known by her mistress, and brake the peace, in such sort, between the said Rowse and his wife, that in the end, after two year’s continuance, it brake the poor woman’s heart, that she died and left her husband a widower, where he and his whore were the more free to use their cursed contentments, and ungodly embracements.

Yet that estate of being unmarried, was displeasing to him, so that he took to wife another woman, who for her outward feature, and inward qualities was every way fit for a very honest man, although it were her hard fortune to match otherwise.

With this last wife of his he lived much discontented, by reason of his keeping his lewd trull in his house, so that by his daily riot, excessive drinking and unproportionable spending, his estate began to be much impoverished, much of his land mortgaged and forfeited, himself above two hundred pounds indebted, and in process of time to be, as a lewd liver, of all his honest neighbours rejected and contemned.

His estate and credit being almost past recovery wasted and impaired, he forsook his wife, came up to London with his wench, where he fell into a new league with a corrupted friend; who, as he said, did most courteously cozen him of all that ever he had, and whom at this time I forbear to name, because it was John Rowse his request before his execution, that he should not be named in any book or ballad, but yet upon a die his name may be picked out betwixt a Cinq and a Trois. This false friend of his, as he said, did persuade him to leave his wife for altogether, and did lodge and board him and his paramour certain weeks in his house, and afterward caused him and her to be lodged, having changed his name, as man and wife in an honest man’s house near Bishops-gate, at Bevis Marks.

Where they continued so long, till his money was gone, as indeed he never had much; but now and then small petty sums from his secret friend aforesaid, and he being fearful to be smooked out by his creditors, was counselled to leave his country and depart for Ireland. And before his going over sea, his friend wrought so, that all his land was made over in trust to him, and bonds, covenants, and leases made, as fully bought and sold for a sum of two hundred and threescore pounds. Of all which money the said Rowse did take the Sacrament at his death, that he never did receive one penny, but he said now and then he had five or ten shillings at a time from his said friend, and never above twenty shillings. And all that ever he had of him, being summed together, was not above three and twenty pounds, the which moneys his friend did pay himself out of his rents. But some more friend to him, than he was to himself, did doubt that he was cheated of his land; whereupon, to make all sure, he said that his false friend did so far prevail with him, that he the said Rowse took an oath in the open court at Westminster Hall, that he had lawfully sold his land, and had received the sum above said, in full satisfaction and payment, and his said friend did vow and protest many times unto him, with such oaths, and vehement curses, that he never would deceive his trust, but that at any time when he would command all those forged bonds and leases, that he would surrender them unto him, and that he should never be damnified by them or him, to the value of one half penny. Upon which protestations, he said, he was enticed to undo himself out of all his earthly possessions, and by a false oath to make hazard of his inheritance in heaven.

In Ireland he staid not long, but came over again, and was by his friend persuaded to go into the low countries; which he did, never minding his wife and two small children which he had by her, having likewise a brace of bastards by his whore, as some say, but he said that but one of them was of his begetting. But he, after some stay in Holland, saw that he could not fadge there, according to his desire and withal, suspecting that he was cheated of his land, and above all, much perplexed in his conscience for the false oath that he had taken, pondering his miserable estate, and rueing his unkindness to his wife, and unnatural dealing to his children, thinking with himself what course were best to take to help himself out of so many miseries which did incompass him, he came over again into England to his too dear friend, demanding of him his bonds and leases of his land which he had put him in trust withal. But then his friend did manifest himself what he was, and told him plainly, that he had no writings, nor any land of his, but what he had dearly bought and paid for. All which, Rowse replied unto him, was false, as his own conscience knew. Then said the other, have I not here in my custody your hand and seal to confirm my lawful possession of your land? and moreover, have I not a record of an oath in open court, which you took concerning the truth of all our bargain? And seeing that I have all these especial points of the law, as an oath, indentures, and a sure possession, take what course you will, for I am resolved to hold what I have.

These, or the like words, in effect passed betwixt Rowse and his friend, trusty Roger, which entering at his ears, pierced his heart like daggers; and being out of money and credit, a man much infamous for his bad life, indebted beyond all possible means of payment, a perjured wretch to cozen himself, having no place or means to feed or lodge, and fearful of being arrested, having so much abused his wife, and so little regarded his children, being now brought to the pit’s brim of desperation, not knowing amongst these calamities which way to turn himself, he resolved at last to go home to Ewell again to his much wronged wife for his last refuge in extremity.

The poor woman received him with joy, and his children with all gladness welcomed home the prodigal father, with whom he remained in much discontentment and perplexity of mind. The devil still tempting him to mischief and despair, putting him in mind of his former better estate, comparing pleasures past with present miseries; and he revolving that he had been a man in that town, had been a gentleman’s companion of good reputation and calling, that he had friends, lands, money, apparel, and credit, with means sufficient to have left for the maintenance of his family, and that now he had nothing left him but poverty and beggary, and that his two children were like to be left to go from door to door for their living.

Being thus tormented and tossed with restless imaginations, he seeing daily to his further grief, the poor case of his children, and fearing that worse would befall them hereafter, he resolved to work some means to take away their languishing lives by a speedy and untimely death, the which practice of his, by the devil’s instigation and assistance, he effected as followeth.

To be sure that nobody should stop or prevent his devilish enterprise, he sent his wife to London on a frivolous errand for a riding coat; and she being gone somewhat timely and too soon in the morning, both her children being in bed and fast asleep, being two very pretty girls, one of the age of six years, and the other four years old, none being in the house but themselves, their unfortunate father and his ghostly counsellor, the doors being fast locked; he having an excellent spring of water in the cellar of his house, which to a good mind that would have employed it well would have been a blessing, for the water is that of crystalline purity and clearness, that Queen Elizabeth of famous memory would daily send for it for her own use, in which he purposed to drown his poor innocent children sleeping. For he going into the chamber where they lay, took the youngest of them named Elizabeth forth of her bed and carried her down the stairs into his cellar, and there put her in the spring of water, holding down her head under that pure element with his hands, till at last the poor harmless soul and body parted one from another.

Which first act of this his inhuman tragedy being ended, he carried the dead corpse up three pair of stairs, and laying it down on the floor, left it, and went down into the chamber where his other daughter named Mary was in bed; being newly awakened, and seeing her father, demanded of him where her sister was? To whom he made answer that he would bring her where she was. So taking her in his arms he carried her down towards the cellar, and as he was on the cellar stairs she asked him what he would do, and whither he would carry her? Fear nothing, my child, quoth he, I will bring thee up again presently; and being come to the spring, as before he had done with the other, so he performed the last unfatherly deed upon her; and to be as good as his word, carried her up the stairs and laid her by her sister. That done, he laid them out and covered them both with a sheet, walking up and down his house weeping and lamenting his own misery and his friend’s treachery, that was the main ground of all his misfortunes and the death of his children; and though there was time and opportunity enough for him to fly, and to seek for safety, yet the burthen and guilt of his conscience was so heavy to him, and his desperate case was so extreme, that he never offered to depart, but as a man weary of his life, would, and did stay, till such time as ho was apprehended and sent to prison, where he lay till he was rewarded with a just deserved death.

What his other intents were after be had drowned his children is uncertain, for he drew his sword and laid it naked on a table, and after he gat a poor woman down into the cellar, and in the same place where the two infants lost their lives, he did help the woman to wring a buck of his clothes, and then he requested her to help to convey his goods out of his house, for he said that be feared that the sheriff of Surrey would come and seize upon all. But the woman not thinking of any of the harm that was done, imagined that he had meant that his goods would be seized for debt and not for murder.

But to return to the miserable mother of the murdered children, she said that her heart throbbed all the day, as fore-boding some heavy mischance to come; and having done her business that she came about to London, as soon as she came home she asked for her children, to whom her husband answered that they were at a neighbour’s house in the town. Then said she, I will go thither to fetch them home. No, quoth he, I will go myself presently for them. Then said his wife, let the poor woman that is here go and bring them home. But at last she saw such delay was used, she was going herself, then her husband told her that he had sent them to a kinsman’s of his at a village called Sutton, four miles from Ewell, and that he provided well for them, and prayed her to be contented and fear nothing for they were well. These double tales of his made her to doubt somewhat was amiss, therefore she entreated him for God’s sake to tell her truly where they were. Whereupon he said, “If you will needs know where they are, go but up the stairs into such a chamber and there you shall find them. But in what a lamentable perplexity of mind the poor woman was when she perceived how and which way they lost their lives, any Christian that hath an heart of flesh may imagine. Presently the constable was sent for, who took him into his custody, who amongst other talk, demanded of him why and how he could commit so unnatural a fact as to murder his children? To whom he answered that he did it because he was not able to keep them, and that he was loth they should go about the town a begging; and moreover, that they were his own, and being so, that he might do what he would with them, and that they had their lives from him, and therefore he had taken their lives from them, and was contented to lose his life for them; for he was sure that their miseries were past, and for his part, he had an assured hope to go to them, though they could not come to him.

So being had before justice his examination was very brief, for he confessed all the whole circumstances of the matter freely, so that he was sent to the common prison of Surrey called the White Lion, where he remained fourteen or fifteen weeks a wonderful penitent prisoner, never, or very seldom, being without a bible or some other good book meditating upon; and when any one did but mention his children, he would fetch a deep sigh and weep, desiring every one to pray for him; and upon his own earnest request, he was prayed for at Paul’s Cross, and at most of the churches in London, and at many in the country, and at the Sessions holden at Croydon the latter end of June last. He made such free confession at the bar, declaring the manner of his life, his odious drinking, his abominable whoring, his cruel murder, and the false dealing of his deceitful friend, which was the cause of his final wreck, with which relations of his pronounced with such vehemency and protestations, he moved all that heard him to commiseration and pity.

So according to law and justice, he was there condemned and judged for the murdering of his two children to be hanged; which judgment was executed on him at the common gallows at Croydon, on Monday the second day of June, 1621, where he died with great penitency and remorse of conscience.

This was the lamentable end of John Rowse, a man of the age of fifty years, and one that might have lived and died in better fashion, if he had laid hold on the grace of heaven, and craved God’s protection and fatherly assistance. But of all that herein is declared, this one thing which I now declare, is most lamentable and remarkable, which is that Ewell being a market town not much above ten miles from London, in a Christian kingdom, and such a kingdom where the all-saving Word of the ever-living God is most diligently, sincerely, and plentifully preached; and yet amidst this diligence, as it were in the circle or centre of his sincerity, and in the flood of this plenty, the town of Ewell hath neither preacher nor pastor. For although the parsonage be able to maintain a sufficient preacher, yet the living being in a layman’s hand, is rented out to another for a great sum, and yet no preacher maintained there. Now the chief landlord out of his portion doth allow but seven pounds yearly for a reader, and the other that doth hire the parsonage at a great rent doth give the said reader four pounds the year more out of his means and courtesy. And by this means the town is served with a poor old man that is half blind, and by reason of his age can scarcely read. For all the world knows that so small a stipend cannot find a good preacher, books, and very hardly bread to live on; so that the poor souls dwelling there are in danger of famishing for want of a good preacher to break the Bread of Life unto them. For a sermon amongst them is as rare as warm weather in December or ice in July; both which I have seen in England though but seldom.

And as the wolf is most bold with the sheep when there is either no shepherd or an impotent, insufficient one, so the devil perhaps took his advantage of this wretched man, seeing he was so badly guarded and so weakly guided to withstand his force and malice; for where God is least known and called upon, there Satan hath most power and domination. But howsoever, I wish with all my heart, that that town and many more were better provided than they are, and then such numbers of souls would not be in hazard to perish; nor so many sufficient scholars that can preach and teach well, live in penury through want of maintenance. I could run further upon this point, but that I shortly purpose to touch it more to the quick in another book.

By this man’s fall we may see an example of God’s justice against drunkenness, whoredom and murder. The devil being the first author, who was a murderer from the beginning; who filled Cain with envy that he murdered his brother Abel; who tempted David first to adultery and afterwards to murder; who provoked Herod to cause the blessed servant of God, John Baptist, to lose his head, because he told him it was not lawful for him to marry his brother Philip’s wife; and who was the provoker of the aforesaid Herod to murder all the innocent male children in his kingdom. And let us but mark and consider the plagues and punishments that God hath inflicted upon murderers, adulterers, and incestuous persons. First Cain, although by his birth he was the first man that ever was born, a prince by his birth, and heir apparent to all the world, yet for the murder by him committed on his brother, he was the first vagabond and runagate on the face of the earth, almost fearful of his own shadow; and after he had lived a long time terrified in conscience, was himself slain, as is supposed, by Lamech, Simeon, and Levi. The sons of Jacob were accursed of their Father for the slaughter of the Sichemites; Joab, the captain of David’s host, was slain for the murdering of Abner; David himself, for the death of Urias and the adultery committed with Bethsheba, was continually plagued and vexed with the sword of war, with the rebellion of his own sons, and with the untimely deaths of Amnon and Absalom. Banuah and Rechab, for the slaying of Ishbosheth the son of Saul, they were both by David’s commandment put to death, who had both their hands and feet cut off, and were afterwards hanged over the Pool in Hebron, (Samuel 2. 4.) The examples are infinite out of divine and human histories, that God did never suffer murder to go unrewarded; and this miserable man, of whom I have here related, is a most manifest spectacle of God’s revenging vengeance for that crying and heinous sin.

As concerning lust and incontinency, it is a short pleasure bought with long pain, a honeyed poison, a gul of shame, a pickpurse, a breeder of diseases, a gall to the conscience, a corrosive to the heart, turning man’s wit into foolish madness, the body’s bane and the soul’s perdition. It is excessive in youth and odious in age, besides God himself doth denounce most fearful threats against fornicators and adulterers, as the apostle saith, that whoremongers and adulterers shall not inherit the kingdom of heaven, (1 Cor. 6. 9). And God himself saith, that he will be a swift witness against adulterers, (Mal. 3. 5). And the wise man saith, that because of the whorish woman, a man is brought to a morsel of bread, and a woman will hunt for the precious life of a man; for saith he, can a man take fire in his bosom, and his clothes not be burnt 1 or can a man go up on hot coals, and his feet not be burnt? So he that goeth into his neighbour’s wife, shall not be innocent, (Prov. 6, 27, 28, 29). Abimeleoh, one of the sons of Gideon, murdered three-score and ten of his brethren, and in reward thereof, by the just judgment of God, a woman with a piece of a millstone beat out his brains, after he had usurped the kmgdom three years (Judges 9th). Our English chronicles make mention that Roger Mortimer, Lord Baron of Wallingford, murdered his master, King Edward the second, and caused the King’s uncle, Edmund, Earl of Kent, causelessly to be beheaded; but God’s justice overtook him at last, so that for the said murders he was shamefully executed. Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, was murdered in the Abbey of Bury by William de la Poole, Duke of Suffolk, who afterwards was beheaded himself on the sea by a pirate. Arden of Faversham, and Page of Plymouth, both their murders are fresh in memory, and the fearful ends of their wives and their aiders in those bloody actions will never be forgotten.

It is too manifestly known what a number of stepmothers and strumpets have most inhumanly murdered their children, and for the same have most deservedly been executed. But in the memory of man, nor scarcely in any history, it is not to be found, that a father did ever take two innocent children out of their beds, and with weeping tears of pitiless pity and unmerciful mercy, to drown them, showing such compassionate cruelty and sorrowful sighing, remorseless remorse in that most unfatherly and unnatural deed.

All which may be attributed to the malice of the devil, whose will and endeavour is that none should be saved who lays out his traps and snares, entangling some with lust, some with covetousness, some with ambition, drunkenness, envy, murder, sloth or any vice whereto he sees a man or a woman most inclined unto, as he did by this wretched man lulling him, as it were, in the cradle of sensuality and ungodly delight, until such time as all his means, reputation, and credit was gone, and nothing left him but misery and reproach. Then he leads him along through doubts and fears to have no hope in God’s providence, persuading his conscience that his sins were unpardonable, and his estate and credit unrecoverable.

With these suggestions he led him on to despair, and in desperation to kill his children and make shipwreck of his own soul, in which the diligence of the devil appeareth, that he labours and travels incessantly; and as Saint Bernard saith, in the last day shall rise in condemnation against us, because he hath ever been more diligent to destroy souls than we have been to save them. And for a conclusion, let us beseech God of his infinite mercy to defend us from all the subtle temptations of Satan.


JOHN ROWSE his prayer for pardon of his lewd life, which he used to pray in the time of his imprisonment.

God of my soul and body, have mercy upon me; the one I have cast away by my folly, and the other is likely to perish in thy fury, unless in thy great mercy thou save it. Sly sins are deep seas to drown me; I am swallowed up in the bottomless gulf of my own transgressions. With Cain I have been a murderer, and with Judas a betrayer of the innocent. My body is a slave to Satan, and my wretched soul is devoured up by hell. Black have been my thoughts, and blacker are my deeds. I have been the devil’s instrument, and am now become the scorn of men; a serpent upon earth, and an outcast from heaven. What therefore can become of me, miserable caitiff? If I look to my Redeemer, to him I am an arch-traitor, if upon earth, it is drowned with blood of my shedding, if into hell, there I see my conscience burning in the brimstone lake. God of my soul and body have mercy therefore upon; save me, O save me, or else I perish for ever. I die for ever in the world to come, unless, sweet Lord, thou catchest my repentant soul in thine arms. O save me, save me, save me.


JOHN ROWSE of Ewell, his own arraignment, confession, condemnation, and judgment of himself whilst he lay prisoner in the White Lion, for drowning of his two children.

I am arraign’d at the black dreadful bar,
Where sins, so red as scarlet, judges are;
All my indictments are my horrid crimes,
Whose story will affright succeeding times,
As, now, they drive the present into wonder,
Making men tremble as trees struck with thunder.

If any asks what evidence comes in?
O ’tis my conscience, which hath ever been
A thousand witnesses: and now it tells
A tale, to cast me to ten thousand hells.

The jury are my thoughts, upright in this,
They sentence me to death for doing amiss:
Examinations more there need not then,
Than what’s confess’d here both to God and men.

That crier of the court is my black shame,
Which when it calls my jury doth proclaim,
Unless, as they are summon’d, they appear,
To give true verdict of the prisoner,
They shall have heavy fines upon them set,

Such, as may make them die deep in heaven’s debt;
About me round sit and innocence and truth,
As clerks to this high court; and little Ruth
From peoples eyes is cast upon my face,
Because my facts are barbarous, damn’d and base.

The officers that ’bout me, thick, are plac’d,
To guard me to my death, when I am cast,
Are the black stings my speckled soul now feels,
Which like to furies dog me, close at heels.
The hangman that attends me, is despair,
And gnawing worms my fellow-prisoners are.

His Indictment for Murder of his Children.

The first who, at this Sessions, loud doth call me
Is murder, whose grim visage doth appal me;
His eyes are fires, his voice rough wind out-roars,
And on my head the Divine vengeance scores;
So fast and fearfully I sink to ground,
And wish I were in twenty oceans drownd.

He says, I have a bloody villain been,
And, to prove this, ripe evidence steps in,
Brow’d like myself, justice so brings about,
That black sins still hunt one another out;
‘Tis like a rotten frame ready to fall,
For one main post being shaken, pulls down all.

To this indictment, holding up my hand,
Fettered with terrors more than irons stand,
And being asked what to the bill I say,
Guilty, I cry. O dreadful Sessions day!

His Judgment

For these thick Stygian streams in which th’ast sworn,
Thy guilt hath on thee laid this bitter doom;
Thy loath’d life on a tree of shame must take
A leave compelled by law, e’er old age make
Her signed pass-port ready. Thy offence
No longer can for days on earth dispense.
Time blot thy name out of this bloody roll,
And so the Lord have mercy on my soul.

His speech what he could say for himself.

O wretched caitiff! what persuasive breath,
Can call back this just sentence of quick death?
I beg no boon, but mercy at God’s hands,
The King of Kings, the Sovereign that commands
Both soul and body, O let him forgive
My treason to his throne, and whilst I live,
Jibbets and racks shall torture limb by limb,
Through worlds of deaths I’ll break to fly to him.
My birth-day gave not to my mother’s womb,
More ease, than this shall joys, whene’er it come.
My body mould to earth, sins sink to hell,
My penitent soul win heaven, vain world farewell.

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1882: Sandy Mathews, in Memphis

Add comment June 2nd, 2016 Headsman

From the June 3, 1882 Chicago Tribune:

Six Thousand People Present at the Execution of Sandy Mathews.

MEMPHIS, Tenn., June 2 — Sandy Mathews, colored, who murdered Essick Polk, colored, twele miles north of this city last October, was hanged in the county-jail yard this afternoon at 1 o’clock. The execution was witnessed by fully 6,000 people, a majority of whom were colored. The condemned man made a speech from the gallows, in which he confessed the killing, and implored his hearers to repent of their sins and go with him to Heaven. His neck was broken by the fall.

THE GALLOWS

had been erected in the southern portion of the jail-yard and was built high enough to give a full view to the ccrowd that jammed the streets running parallel with the jail. Matthews [sic] slept well last night, and partook of a hearty breakfast this morning. He bade farewell to his wife about 11 o’clock, and began making preparations for the hanging. A few weeks ago he embraced Catholicism, and was attended in his cell by the Rev. Father Lucius, of St. Mary’s Catholic Church. He called for his dinner at noon, and ate heartily, and afterwards smoked a cigar. At half-past 12 o’clock he was brought from his cell and conveyed to the scaffold, where he addressed the crowd for twenty minutes in

A DISCONNECTED SPEECH,

confessing to having killed Polk, and at the same time imploring his hearers to repent of their sins ere too late, and be forgiven, as he had done. He then knelt and repeated the Lord’s Prayer, after which the Rev. Father Lucius said the prayers for the dying. The condemned man was handcuffed, and his arms, and legs, and ankles strapped. The black cap was adjusted, and, as he uttered the words

“FAREWELL FRIENDS, FAREWELL WORLD,”

the drop was sprung, and his body shot down. His neck was broken by the fall, and ther was but very slight convulsions of the body. During the speech many of the colored people responded to his implorations by shouting, “Bless the Lord, Amen.” Sandy Mathews killed Essick Polk for having enticed his wife from him. He struck him three blows with an ax. Several hours afterwards he took the dead remains and buried them in a field near his house. The hole not being large enough, he chopped the dead body in pieces, and thus buried them. The crime was kept concealed for five months, but revealed by a stepdaughter of Mathews, who was the only witness to the killing, and upon whose testimony he was convicted. Gov. Hawkins was appealed to, but declined to interfere with the sentence of the lower court, which was afterwards confirmed by the Supreme Court.

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1581: James Douglas, Earl of Morton

Add comment June 2nd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1581, James Douglas, the Earl of Morton was beheaded on the Maiden.

The fourth and last of little King James‘s regents, Morton was arguably the most able of the bunch and distinguished his span of authority by winning the raging civil war against James’s mother Mary.

Regent Morton had a reputation for avarice during his run in the 1570s. However, deriving as it does from his executive impingement on the treasures of courtiers and clans no less grasping than himself, that reputation probably ought to be taken with a grain of salt.


Rimshot

If nothing else, Regent Morton had the excuse of king and country. Sir Walter Scott, for one, favored this Red Douglas with a much more charitably statesmanlike gloss in The Monastery and The Abbott.

As one example, Morton irked divines by enforcing with a minimum of pious exceptions a pre-existing statute requiring a one-third cut of ecclesiastical revenues.

Likewise, he made an enemy of Lady Agnes Keith — the widow of the assassinated first regent — and her (subsequent) husband, the Earl of Argyll by forcing them to turn over crown jewels that were being held in their quote-unquote safekeeping.

In 1578, this Argyll kidnapped King James VI and induced the 12-year-old to declare his majority and dismiss the Earl of Morton. Argyll landed a Chancellorship out of the deal: Morton — well, you know. He would eventually be accused, 14 years’ belatedly but not inaccurately, of complicity in the 1567 murder of Lord Darnley.

Argyll in the end lost his head to that distinctive Scottish proto-guillotine known as the Maiden. Though the apparatus actually dates back to 1564,* a legend as moralistic as it is specious holds that the Regent Morton was himself the man who ordered construction of the device that would eventually end his own life. Sir Walter could hardly be asked to resist that kind of material:

“Look you, Adam, I were loth to terrify you, and you just come from a journey; but I promise you, Earl Morton hath brought you down a Maiden from Halifax, you never saw the like of her — and she’ll clasp you round the neck, and your head will remain in her arms.”

“Pshaw!” answered Adam, “I am too old to have my head turned by any maiden of them all. I know my Lord of Morton will go as far for a buxom lass as anyone; but what the devil took him to Halifax all the way? and if he has got a gamester there, what hath she to do with my head?”

“Much, much!” answered Michael. “Herod’s daughter, who did such execution with her foot and ankle, danced not men’s heads off more cleanly than this maiden of Morton. ‘Tis an axe, man, — an axe which falls of itself like a sash window, and never gives the headsmen the trouble to wield it.”

“By my faith, a shrewd device,” said Woodcock; “heaven keep us free on’t!”

-Sir Walter Scott, The Abbott

When next in Edinburgh, quaff Scots engineering acumen with the friendly backpackers crashing at the High Street Hostel — the glorious stone town house that was once Regent Morton’s very own crib.


By Kim Traynor (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Heads of State,History,Maiden,Murder,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Scotland

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1666: Andreas Koch, witch hunt skeptic

1 comment June 2nd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1666, the pastor Andreas Koch suffered the pains of standing up against witch hunts in his town of Lemgo: Koch himself was beheaded as a wizard.

Lemgo recorded a busy witch-hunt record with an estimated 250 cases in the 16th and 17th centuries. But the bulk of those cases came surprisingly late — from 1653 to 1681, the period after the Thirty Years’ War witch-smelling acme.

As we’ve seen before in these grim annals, elites were not safe from the Hexenverfolgung; this, perhaps, is the reason that even we latter-day seculars still have such a visceral reaction to the term “witch hunt”.

Great is the honor for the one bold enough to stand athwart the inquisitor’s path, for great is the danger.

Andreas Koch, a Protestant pastor of the church of St. Nicolai, was a confessor to several condemned witches of Lemgo. As his position would indicate, Koch was no firebrand: he did not deny the presence of sorcerers and diabolical power in the world. But in 1665, he made bold to express skepticism about goings-on and even preached from the pulpit caution against reckless witchcraft accusations. He had found himself unsettled by the contradictory and illogical stories in supposed witches’ confessions, and finally convinced by the vow of innocence a condemned woman named Elisabeth Tillen gave him on the way to the stake. Lemgo was putting innocent people to death on spurious charges.

This epiphany, so obvious in retrospect, was a little too far ahead of his audience.

Rev. Koch was suspended from his ministry by that October, and amid new rumors circulating that he had himself been seen at the witches’ sabbaths, was arrested and put to torture the following spring. Koch was no better able to resist the interrogators’ torments than Elisabeth Tillen and her ilk had been, and obligingly confessed to diablerie. His only mercy was to die by the sword, rather than the flame; that he died before 5 in the morning might have been a mercy for his persecutors to minimize the public attendance at a potentially embarrassing scene.

Needless to say, it is Koch who has the judgment of posterity here. A present-day walking tour of Lemgo’s historic witch-hunt sites will not fail to stop at the monument that now stands in St. Nicolai’s to its devilishly skeptical former clergyman.


Detail view (click for full image) of the memorial to Andreas Koch at his former church in Lemgo. (cc) image from M. Ehret.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Witchcraft,Wrongful Executions

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1810: Leatherlips, tomahawked

1 comment June 2nd, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1810, Ohio’s Wyandot (aka Huron) tribe executed Leatherlips by tomahawk.

This evocative name,* and his proper Wyandot name of Chief Shateyaronyah, appears among the signatories of the Treaty of Greenville — a pact secured after military action ceding Ohio to white settlers. It’s just an early installment of the rolling continental conquest with its familiar Hobson’s choice for natives: resist or accommodate?

Leatherlips was a leader of the accommodationist strand, advocating peacable relations with neighboring whites.

And in a few years, this would become a very big problem for the leader of the resistance camp — Tecumseh. This soon-to-be-renowned Shawnee would shortly raise a broad confederation up in arms against whites.

To do this, Tecumseh felt it necessary to eliminate the go-along, get-along types.

On June 1, 1810, six Wyandot warriors showed up at the historic Black Horse Tavern, a regular Leatherlips haunt at the Sells Settlement. This germ of present-day Dublin, Ohio, was the Scioto River property of the settler John Sells,** a friend of Leatherlips.

Sells heard about this unsettling visit the next morning, and immediately set out on horseback to find the party. He came upon them in a lodge, with Leatherlips bound, being tried for witchcraft — a charge that was all the vogue after the recent death of a Lenape chief who was thought to have been enspelled. Leatherlips was pushing 80 years of age.

Sells’s attempts to save the elderly Wyandot’s life were in vain. That afternoon, Leatherlips painted his face, sang a war chant, and knelt by his own grave, where one of the braves slew him by tomahawking his head. The Wyandot warriors allegedly drew the Sells party’s attention to Leatherlips’s sweating face as he died, viewing this phenomenon as an indicium of guilt.


Monument to Leatherlips in Dublin, Ohio. (cc) image from future15pic. The monument marks the spot of Leatherlips’s execution, but its plaque attributing the execution date of June 1 appears to me to be mistaken.

* As much as it sounds like the poor guy needed some lip balm, “Leatherlips” was actually a nickname conferred (by whites) for his trustworthiness … as in, any promise that passes his lips is strong as leather, just like RUN-DMC.

** Today, there’s a John Sells Middle School in Dublin in this pioneer’s honor. Leatherlips, for his part, has his name on a street.

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1967: Luis Monge, America’s last pre-Furman execution

4 comments June 2nd, 2012 Headsman

Forty-five years ago today, Luis Monge was gassed in Colorado for murder — the last execution in the United States before a decade-long lull in capital punishment in the U.S.

Monge, an insurance salesman with no prior history of violence, had a hearty brood of 10 children, but when his wife found out he was having an incestuous relationship with one of them, Monge bludgeoned the wife to death, and killed three of the young children just for good measure.

Monge pleaded insanity, and then when doctors found him sane enough to stand trial, just pleaded guilty — eventually dropping all appeals and asking to be hanged in public at the Denver City and County Building.

Despite the culprit’s preferences, his execution was stayed for all of 1966 while Colorado voters weighed a referendum on continuing the death penalty. They ultimately voted 3-1 in favor. (See this detailed history of the death penalty in the Columbine State.)

Even though Monge himself embraced execution willingly, his seven remaining children (also the children of, and siblings of, his victims: surely a difficult position) still fought for clemency, and shared Monge’s last meal with him.

Had Monge maintained his appeals, he — like four other Colorado inmates whose death dates were also on hold in 1966 — would likely have made it into the nationwide unofficial moratorium on executions that settled in while courts sorted out death penalty standards in the late 1960s and early-to-mid 1970s.* That period led into 1972’s landmark Supreme Court decision Furman v. Georgia, invalidating all existing death sentences in the country and sparing men much more nefarious than Luis Monge.

Instead, this date’s principal went to his death clutching a black rosary (and allegedly, and one must suspect apocryphally, asking if the gas would trouble his asthma)** and became a nigh-forgotten denouement from a closed chapter of death penalty jurisprudence, and the last man put to death in America until Gary Gilmore almost ten years later.

Apart from his milestone status vis-a-vis capital punishment nationwide, Monge is also the last person to die in the Colorado gas chamber.


The gas chamber that killed Luis Monge, now retired to Colorado’s Museum of Prisons. (cc) image from Cowtools, who also has a photo of Monge’s bullet-riddled grave marker.

In fact, Monge is currently still the second-last put to death in Colorado, period. It would be fully 30 years before Colorado executed again — in 1997, by lethal injection. As of this writing, it hasn’t done so again since.

* If Monge had avoided execution, the “last pre-Furman execution” milestone would be held instead by California’s Aaron Mitchell, the only man executed on the authority of California governor (and future U.S. president) Ronald Reagan.

** The man who pulled the lever for Monge’s execution, Canon City penitentiary warden Wayne Patterson, was not enthusiastic about the job. He describes his experience here, saying that “Monge was a guilt-ridden man who was nearly suicidal before he was executed. Those were the [kind of] guys who were executed — not the people I thought belonged in the chamber.”

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1572: Thomas Howard, Ridolfi plotter

5 comments June 2nd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1572, the Duke of Norfolk lost his head for a conspiracy to overthrow Queen Elizabeth.

Thomas Howard was a born plotter. Literally.

The fourth Duke of Norfolk, he inherited the title from the third Duke of Norfolk — his eponymous grandfather, the scheming courtier who had maneuvered nieces Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard into disastrous matrimony with Henry VIII.

Having run afoul of his ruthless sovereign, this elder Howard then had the distinction of dodging execution only because the king himself dropped dead the very day before Howard was to have been beheaded.

The Norfolk title, however, did skip a generation, because grandpa Howard’s son Henry Howard was not so lucky, and abdicated his birthright at the block.*

That left our day’s principal, a mere boy of 10 when his father got axed, as his lucky grandfather’s heir apparent — to carry on the Howard scheming against his second cousin, Anne Boleyn’s lucky daughter Queen Elizabeth.

And young Thomas Howard would prove to be a chop off the old block.

Howard’s sympathies for Catholicism and for swinging an ever-bigger dick led him into a machination to wed Elizabeth’s northern rival Mary, Queen of Scots.

Lucky to get off with just a slap on the codpiece, Howard went right back at it with an unabashed Spanish-supported conspiracy to depose Elizabeth, again in favor of Mary — the Ridolfi Plot.

This chicanery was sniffed out by Elizabeth’s pervasive spy network, and while Mary’s royal status enabled her to survive the revelation, Norfolk had already got down to his last chance.

The conflict between Elizabeth and Norfolk, heavily fictionalized and climaxing in the Ridolfi Plot, is essentially the plot of of the 1998 movie Elizabeth.

Having endured so much trouble from these nettlesome Howards, the crown left the Duke of Norfolk title vacant for nearly a century after this date’s beheading. It was finally restored to a mentally deficient Howard descendant with the post-Cromwell Stuart restoration.

* And that’s just on the dad’s side. His maternal grandfather and great-grandfather from the Stafford family also met their ends on the scaffold.

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1948: The condemned from the Doctors’ Trial

2 comments June 2nd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1948, seven SS men were hanged at Germany’s Landsberg Prison, condemned for war crimes and crimes against humanity in the so-called Doctors Trial.

Four of the hanged were doctors; three were non-physicians who assisted them. Their trial (which included 16 others, variously acquitted or sentenced to prison terms) by an American military tribunal was a conscious attempt to establish criminal responsibility among the medical profession.

As prosecutor Telford Taylor* said in his opening statement.

To kill, to maim, and to torture is criminal under all modern systems of law. These defendants did not kill in hot blood, nor for personal enrichment. Some of them may be sadists who killed and tortured for sport, but they are not all perverts. They are not ignorant men. Most of them are trained physicians and some of them are distinguished scientists. Yet these defendants, all of whom were fully able to comprehend the nature of their acts, and most of whom were exceptionally qualified to form a moral and professional judgment in this respect, are responsible for wholesale murder and unspeakably cruel tortures.

It is our deep obligation to all peoples of the world to show why and how these things happened. It is incumbent upon us to set forth with conspicuous clarity the ideas and motives which moved these defendants to treat their fellow men as less than beasts.

One of several war crimes trials after the big Nuremberg Tribunal (and held in the same courtroom), the Doctors Trial dealt with the Third Reich’s Frankenstein lab of medical experimentation.

Some of this was combat-related. How long can a downed pilot survive in the North Sea? Throw a POW into freezing water and find out.

Some was more conventional medical advancement, shorn of any ethical sense. How can we treat malaria? Inject some untermenschen and start testing.

And some of it was straight from the Nazis’ racial purification theology: euthanizing the disabled, castrating and murdering Jews and Gypsies, that sort of thing. It’s all a rich tapestry.

The doctors hanged this date included

  • Karl Brandt, Hitler’s personal physician and the co-director of the Aktion T4 euthanasia program**
  • SS hygienist Joachim Mrugowsky, for experiments with concentration camp prisoners
  • SS surgeon and German Red Cross head Karl Gebhart, who enjoyed experimenting with operations on unanaesthetized prisoners
  • Waldemar Hoven, chief doctor at Buchenwald

They kept company with three others who didn’t see the “patients” but pushed around the paper for those who did.

Many of this day’s scaffold clientele died unrepentant; Karl Brandt harangued at such length that the hood was put over his head mid-sentence to move proceedings along.

Landsberg Prison was a fitting site for their expiation. As the New York Times reported (June 3, 1948)

The men died on two black gallows erected in the courtyard of the prison where Hitler wrote “Mein Kampf” while confined after his 1923 Munich putsch.

* In 1970, Telford wrote Nuremberg and Vietnam: An American Tragedy, arguing that American officials had committed war crimes in Vietnam because “we failed ourselves to learn the lessons we undertook to teach at Nuremberg.”

Telford died in 1998, so his commentary on the accountability-free torture of the modern war machine is unavailable.

** Karl Brandt was actually condemned to death by a Nazi court in the closing days of the war and only narrowly avoided execution. His crime? Moving his family out of Berlin so that they could surrender to the Americans instead of the Russians.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Crimes Against Humanity,Death Penalty,Doctors,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,U.S. Military,USA,War Crimes

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