1962: Gottfried Strympe, purported terrorist

Add comment June 21st, 2014 Headsman

The novel East German polity was coming in the late 1950s to a crossroads that saw security paranoia ratchet up dramatically.

Emigration to West Germany accelerated considerably as the 1960s began, eventually giving rise to the infamous Berlin Wall.

In the countryside, forced collectivization implemented in 1960 produced resistance all its own. Agricultural output plummeted (the knock-on effects of a 1959 drought helped too); according to Patrick Major’s Behind the Berlin Wall: East Germany and the Frontiers of Power, groceries and everyday household items became markedly more difficult to procure in the early 1960s, sapping productivity throughout the economy as city workers queued for hours and black-market exchanges proliferated.

Following the Soviet Union’s great tradition of attributing economic trouble to running-dog wreckers, East Germany introduced the death penalty for politically motivated economic sabotage* — for example, the 206 cases of arson it attributed among 862 rural fires in 1960. (Figures as per Major.)

Our figure today, Gottfried Strympe, fell foul of these laws. In reality, he was no cackling secret agent but a disturbed loner.

He lurked about the eastern city of Bautzen opportunistically by turns the petty thief or the peeping tom.

Unfortunately for Strympe, who did some spells in psychiatric wards, his deviance extended past the titillation of spying a Housefrau in her bustier to the much more menacing diversions of pyromania.

The poor man needed a social worker; what he got was the executioner. The charge sheet dramatically attributed his 28 acts of arson (crimes that each caused only minor property damage, and no human casualties) to the inspiration of “West German and American imperialists.”

Strympe, you see, had often visited a father (deceased in 1958) in West Berlin, back before the Wall sealed that city. Of course on those trips, Strympe picked over a Whitman’s sampler of western decadences, from pornography to Social Democracy. On this basis, the Stasi attributed his incendiarism to “terrorism” rooted in “an antisocial attitude strengthened by his stays in West Berlin.”

Strympe had a public show trial, the better that “the population of Bautzen will recognize the danger of communication and travel to West Berlin” (with props of said population — workers’ and civic groups — obligingly supplying the requisite demands for the traitor’s execution).

He was beheaded by Fallbeil at Leipzig on June 21, 1962.

* See Politische Strafjustiz in der Ära Ulbricht: Vom bekennenden Terror zur verdeckten Repression by Falco Werkentin.

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1475: Four Jews of Trent

4 comments June 21st, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1475, four members of Trent, Italy’s small Jewish community were burned at the stake outside St. Martin’s Gate for the ritual murder of a Christian child.

One of early modern Europe’s most outstanding “blood libel” instances, the Trent case proceeded from the widespread (among Christians) suspicion that Jews used Christian blood in their blasphemous rituals.

Latent under normal circumstances, belief in the blood libel was, er, liable to actuate a violent anti-Semitic outbreak if a Christian child disappeared in a spot where elites didn’t protect Jews. And in the 15th century, this was an increasingly likely situation.

As R. Po-Chia Hia puts it in Trent 1475: Stories of a Ritual Murder Trial, “Overnight the Jews, familiar and somewhat intimate neighbors, were transformed into strange murderers.”

This transformation began at the Good Friday service in 1475, when Master Andreas Unferdorben approached the celebrant, Trent’s Prince-Bishop Johannes Hinderbach. Master Unferdorben hadn’t seen his two-year-old son since last night and searches had turned up nothing. He must have been frantic.

Hinderbach ordered the news, and a description of the lost child, promulgated throughout the city. But when that didn’t turn up any new leads, Unferdorben appealed to the podesta to “send his servants to search the houses of the Jews, and see whether it [the lost child] could be found because he had heard in many places in the city that during these holy feast days the Jews want to kidnap Christian children secretly and kill them.” In fact, it was not such a general suspicion as that. Andreas Unferdorben had been specifically advised to look in the Jews’ houses by a shady character named der Schweizer, the Swiss.*

Trent was a mixed city of Italians and German immigrants, and both languages could be heard in the streets. (Both were used by various different parties in the Simon of Trent investigation.) Its Jewish population, however, consisted of a mere three households — the extended families of Samuel, Tobias, and Engel. Samuel, an emigrant moneylender from Nuremberg, had the largest Jewish household with nine family members ranging in age from toddlerhood to 80, plus two family servants.

On the request of the lost boy’s father, these three homes were searched by the municipal authorities. There was no trace of Simon.

But on Easter night, Samuel’s family cook ducked into the cellar to draw some water for dinner and made a horrifying discovery: the body of the missing little boy, in the water of a bath.

After what must have been a fearful consultation, Samuel and the other two heads-of-households Tobias and Engel reported the find — strictly forbidding anyone to succumb to the entirely reasonable temptation to blow town, lest one flight incriminate all. Nevertheless, every one of Trent’s Jews realized that Simon’s appearance among them could easily trigger pogroms, expulsion, forced conversions … or worse. Much, much worse.

Now, it should be said that a ditch communicating with the outside fed Samuel’s cellar cistern. In the absence of indoor plumbing, it was possible for someone to literally throw a body into a home from the outside; the Trent Jews, in fact, reported discussing this possibility when news of Simon started making the rounds on Good Friday, and made sure to lock up their cellar windows to prevent someone dumping the body from the streets. But the remains of a very small child could also, perhaps, be entrusted to the flow of the public ditch to wash into a house.

This sort of thing might also explain why the child’s penis was gashed. Maybe, maybe not.

Of course, since the hypothesis of freaky Semitic blood rite was already “out there” and then the body went and turned up in a Jewish house, the presence of a gash on the sex organ was always going to be interpreted in a different vein

During the evening of Easter, the arrest of Trent’s Jews began. A pitiless judicial process which almost immediately became committed to the notion of a blood sacrifice soon began grinding these now-powerless people into dust.

The only other actual evidence touching Simon himself here — besides the admittedly powerful appearance of the body in the basement — was a Christian woman’s recollection that she had been near Samuel’s house on Good Friday and happened to hear an unseen child sobbing … somewhere. She thought it might have sounded like the lost boy.

But they’d soon be pointing fingers at one another.

Subjected one by one — the men, at least — to drops on the excrutiating strappado (“letting the prisoner jump,” in the words of the manuscript that forms the principal primary source about this event), they started to break down.

Tobias provided the critical (though not the first) crack. Looking “senseless or ruined” (in his interrogators’ records) after his strappado session, Tobias

spun this tale of murder, duly recorded and perhaps elaborated by the scribe: on the eve of Passover, Samuel suggested they should get a child; the task fell upon Tobias. He enticed Simon with sweet words to come with him and handed the sacrificial victim over to Samuel. On the day of Passover, Old Moses covered the boy’s mouth while the others stuck the child with pins and tore out his flesh; his blood was collected and distributed. Later, the dead child was thrown into the water by Samuel and Isaac. Tobias was not present at the killing, only rabbis possessed the knowledge of the rituals. In the minds of the prosecuting magistrates, Tobias’s confession established the scenario of the “real crime.” … With details embellished by the moral indignation of the Christians, this fantastic tale would become in time the history of the Trent ritual murder.

For the investigators, they were unraveling an obstinate criminal conspiracy while also attempting to document an arcane ritual. The present-day reader is likelier to see what amounts to a collaborative storytelling process in which torturers and prisoners reciprocally cued one another to the evolving needs of the script. “Tell me what I should say and I will say it,” one household servant at his wits’ end told his judges. This stuff still happens today.

they persisted in asking details of the Seder, trying to reconstruct every shade of meaning of blood symbolism, and recording with great care every Hebrew word associated with the imagined killing rite …

Some of the Jews held out, repeating their innocence over the screams of torment and stern questions; others broke down, blaming themselves and others in this grotesque elaboration of the fictive murder ritual. Still others retracted their confessions during moments of lucidity and respite from the rope, only to be tortured more severely into retracting their retractions. A few wanted to confess but could not anticipate the murder script written in the minds of the magistrates and, thus, continued to suffer; a handful, who desperately held onto reality, tried to incriminate themselves while excusing their loved one and subordinates from the charge, willing victims in a coercive sacrifice that demanded live offerings.

All these quotes, again, are R. Po-Chia Hsia, whose book handles all the horrible details of who copped to which story on what particular day, for the two-plus months of investigation, eventually coalescing into an official version that became the myth of the boy-martyr “Simonino”.**

In the end, nine of Trent’s male Jews were condemned to the stake for June 21-22 in Simon’s blasphemous murder: the three heads of households, plus all the male Jews in Samuel’s own house. The 80-year-old guy we mentioned before had also been tortured in the interrogation and was also among the condemned … but he blessedly committed suicide in prison before they could execute the sentence.

This first date was the turn of the household heads plus Israel, Samuel’s 25-year-old son — and like his father, one of the longest holdouts against the torture. They only broke at the end.

The remaining four were all to die on June 22. Two requested baptism, however, which bought them an extra day of life, plus the easier end of beheading on June 23.

* Der Schweizer, a known personal enemy of Samuel, was suspected by a follow-up apostolic investigation of himself murdering Simon and dumping the body to bring suspicion upon the Jews.

** Rome had long been nonplussed by the blood libel story, and the contemporary-to-Simon curia shut down Bishop Hinderbach’s Trent proceedings. But a century later, Pope Sixtus V promoted Simon of Trent to the official Catholic martyrology. Simon was only stripped of his official martyrs’ laurels, and his cult suppressed, in 1965.

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1989: A day in the death penalty around post-Tiananmen China

3 comments June 21st, 2012 Headsman


Yue Minjun, who still lives in China, says Tiananmen was “the catalyst for conceiving” of his Execution but that it is most certainly not about the famous protest and ensuing crackdown.

Although 1989 protests toppled dictatorships in Eastern Europe, this pregnant year’s great rally in China brought a bloody (pdf) crackdown.

The student-led Tiananmen Square protests packed hundreds of thousands into that Beijing plaza — with sympathy protests in other major cities — demanding liberalization.

For seven weeks, they seemed on the brink of making another world.

Then on June 4th came the crackdown.

The masters of China must have been holding their breath that day: would the soldiers follow their orders? Would the rebellion shrink away, or metastasize? You really never know.

By night, the masters of China could exhale.

Judicial reprisals were mere days in commencing … and June 21 appears to mark the first known executions* resulting from that tragic movement. And while most “perpetrators” didn’t die for the affair, it seems from the distance of a generation as if their cause did.

There was likewise, it was noticed in the American press, no comment on this date’s signal executions from the United States president. Washington and Beijing, these regimes west and east, alike weathering the end of the Cold War — they had a future in common.

Despite the harsh crackdown on protest, Chinese leaders and mass media have been almost desperately urging foreign businesses to maintain their ties with the country.

The New China News Agency carried a whole series of reports aimed at promoting international economic ties. These included:

— A report that foreign businesses will in the future be permitted to set up officially recognized chambers of commerce in China.

— An announcement that 10 large international industrial exhibitions will be held this year in Shanghai.

— A report that a Japanese businessman said investors from his country have confidence in China’s economy. “Some businessmen from the United States and the European Community have expressed their desire to continue to invest in China,” the report added.

— A statement by Ma Shizhong, vice governor of Shandong province, stressing that his part of China has “a favorable environment for import of foreign capital and introduction of up-to-date overseas technology.”


Only eleven days after the June 4th massacre that cleared Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, the first trial of pro-democracy protesters saw three workers condemned to death in Shanghai.

According to this pdf on the aftermath of Tiananmen, Xu Guoming, a brewery worker, Bian Hanwu, unemployed, and Yan Xuerong, a factory worker, were all convicted of “setting fire to a train and indiscriminate destruction of transport and transport equipment in a serious riot at the Guangxin Road Rail Crossing of Huning Railroad on June 6.”

According to Nick Kristof, that “riot” had been a sit-in on a rail line to protest the June 4 military incursion — until a train actually rammed the demonstrators, who retaliated by torching the machine. Some firefighters were beaten in the disturbance, but nobody was killed.

For their part in this — whatever part that was — Xu, Bian and Yan were deprived of their political rights, and expeditiously shot on June 21. Eight other people got prison sentences shortly thereafter for the same “riot”, having pleaded guilty (all but one of them) to “smashing railway cars, setting fire to nine railway cars and six public security motorcycles, turning over police boxes, beating up firemen to impede them from putting the fire out and fabricating rumors to mislead the people.”


Lin Zhaorong, Zhang Wenkui, Chen Jian, Zu Jianjun, Wang Hanwu, Luo Hongjun, and Ban Huijie, meanwhile, were sentenced for “vandalism and arson in a counter-revolutionary riot” on June 17, 1989, by the Beijing Intermediate People’s Court — stuff like burning a military vehicle, looting supplies from it, and beating up (although again, not killing) a soldier.

(This pdf gives the execution date as June 22; most other sources list June 21.)

An eighth member of their same party, Wang Lianxi, received a suspended death sentence instead. She was spared.


“An undetermined number of anti-government demonstrators,” according to a UPI report, were among 17 prisoners publicly convicted and immediately shot in Jinan on a generic charge of endangering public order on June 21. (UPI is explicit as to the date, but some reports say June 20.)

State radio reported that 10,000 people attended the trial, which meted out 45 sentences in all on a variety of charges and is said to have mixed political prisoners with common criminals.


We note in passing a gentleman who has never qualified for an entry in this blog, and we hope never will.

The identity and fate of the figure at the center of those protests’ most indelible images, the so-called “Tank Man”, remain an enduring mystery.

There exist widespread rumors and ill-substantiated press reports of his execution. But who Tank Man was and what really became of him remains utterly unknown.

* Amnesty International’s appeal for the three workers — and this is the Spanish version; if the English is available, I have not found it — very plausibly alleges that secret, summary executions were already underway before this date’s grim milestone.

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1924: Not Onisaburo Deguchi or Morihei Ueshiba, Japanese new religion exponents

3 comments June 21st, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1924, a group of Japanese Oomoto* sect members was lined up for execution by a Manchurian warlord — only to be saved at the last moment by the intervention of the Japanese consulate.

These inordinately lucky folk were the remnants of a bizarre “spiritual army” under Onisaburo Deguchi, who set out to plant a utopian colony on the Mongolian steppe.


Onisaburo (left) and Ueshiba, shackled together for deportation after their near-execution. Onisaburo’s part of this image looks a little touched-up.

Oomoto got started as a splinter sect from Shinto with an illiterate peasant woman named Nao Deguchi, who began receiving spiritual visions in the in the 1890’s. Onisaburo was her follower, and then her son-in-law, and certainly the foundling cult’s greatest exponent.

With his guidance, it blossomed as one of the early 20th century’s most successful “new religions”, a term encompassing the dizzying array of novel religious movements in Japan after the Meiji Restoration.**

A born showman and innovative communicator, Onisaburo was a natural to

[mediate] between traditional and modern Japan in a time of national transformation.

… he was no less a master at what Eric Hobsbawm termed the “invention of tradition.” …

Onisaburo’s imaginative rituals and personal presentation (he loved to star in movies, and to dress as a shaman or Shinto deity) combined enough folk tradition to seem familiar, yet always with a new twist suggesting up-to-date modernity and “scientific” awareness to boot.

-Robert Ellwood’s Feb. 2011 review in Nova Religio of Nancy Stalker’s Prophet Motive: Deguchi Onisaburo, Oomoto, and the Rise of New Religion in Japan

In private communication with this site, Ellwood compared the advent of new religions like Oomoto to the roughly contemporaneous advent in the west of movements like Christian Science and Religious Science. Both of these, like Oomoto, explicitly aimed to yoke tradition and modernity together.

“In Japan the leap from a closed-off feudal society to a modern industrial powerhouse was particularly profound, and naturally disturbing to a lot of ordinary people,” Ellwood said. “The new religions tried to combine old and new, giving people baffled by change and the breakup of traditional peasant communities and ways of life something to hold on to. They said in effect, ‘We understand your problems; we can show how it all makes sense, how it will come out good in the end, and how you can fit in, be part of exciting times, and gain power in the process.'”

Onisaburo’s brand of evangelical, grassroots millenialism hit the big time in the 1910s and 1920s.

It also attracted official censure from authorities wary of deviation from the official Shinto religion.

Onisaburo did a short stint in prison for subversion in 1921, and shifted his attentions abroad.

“Onisaburo considered himself strongly internationalist in an idealistic way, and therefore was led to challenge the increasing nationalism of his time and even the Emperor himself, whereas many of the other new religions accommodated themselves to the prevailing political currents,” Ellwood observed. Later, Onisaburo would actually be prosecuted for lese majeste for his insufficient accommodation to imperial authority.

At any rate, as part of feeling out the proper spiritual direction after his first stint as a ward of the state, Onisaburo and some followers quietly slipped out of Japan in early 1924.

They made for Manchuria, then a de facto independent principality under the Tokyo-allied warlord Zhang Zuolin.

There, they recruited one of Zhang’s subordinates on a mission to form up a “spiritual army” to invade Outer Mongolia.

According to Stalker, this adventure initially had Zhang’s blessing — but he quickly soured on the freelance militia, a leader now calling himself the Dalai Lama, and the gang’s escalating aspiration to unite all of Mongolia on his borders. Zhang surrounded and suppressed the expedition, summarily executing most of the Chinese personnel.

On this day, the Japanese too were about to be disposed of. Onisaburo was reciting death poetry.

Even if my body is exposed
on the plains of Mongolia
I will still keep the dignity of a Japanese

Farewell!
I will ascend to Heaven and protect
not only Japan but the whole world

Far away from Japan
I will now join the gods
in the sky of Mongolia

But the execution was dramatically aborted when Onisaburo was fortuitously able to hail a Japanese consular official who protected his countrymen.

Scarcely chastened — indeed, the adventure with its miraculous escape drew romantic media coverage back home — Onisaburo returned to Japan to rebuild Oomoto. He would continue dabbling in both internationalism (Oomoto adopted the sometimes-persecuted artificial language Esperanto) and Japan’s right-wing fringe (Stalker says that Onisaburo wisely declined Ikki Kita‘s invitation to finance a disastrous right-wing revolt).

Oomoto was violently suppressed in the 1930s, but retained many adherents and still exists today.

Martial artist Morihei Ueshiba was one of Onisaburo’s disciples to escape execution this date. Upon returning to Japan, the man parted ways with Oomoto and instead created the martial art form aikido.

* Alternatively, Omoto, or Omotokyo.

** And continuing to the present day. While Oomoto is also a going concern, the “new religion” most widely familiar to most readers will be the Aum Shinrikyo sect — notorious for carrying out the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway.

This master’s thesis (pdf) sets the scene for new religions (and specifically Oomoto) in early 20th century Japan.

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1734: Marie-Joseph Angélique, for burning Montreal

1 comment June 21st, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1734, a Portuguese-born slave known as Marie-Joseph Angélique was publicly hanged before the burned ruins of old Montreal on an accusation of having set the blaze.

Having recently been caught attempting to abscond with her lover, a white servant named Claude Thibault, Angelique was the instant consensus community suspect when Montreal caught fire on April 10. Forty-six buildings in the still-small frontier town burned; Angelique was arrested the very next morning.

(Thibault fled town, his fate unknown but presumptively no worse than what befell his paramour.)

Nobody died in the fire, but conflagrations were deadly serious back in the bucket brigade era.

The sentence

calls for the said Marie Joseph Angelique in reparation for the Fire caused by Her and other issues brought forward at the trial, to be condemned to make honourable amends Disrobed, a Rope around her Neck, holding in her hands a flaming torch weighing two Pounds before the door and main entrance of the parish Church of the said City of Montreal, where She will be led by the Executor of the high Court And there on her knees state and declare in a loud and intelligible voice that she maliciously and defiantly and wrongly set the Said fire for which She is repentant, [and] ask Forgiveness from God, the King and the Court; this done she is to be taken to the public square of the said City of Montreal to be Hanged until dead at the gallows erected for this Purpose at the said square, and then her dead Body is to be placed on a flaming pyre and burned and her Ashes Cast to the wind, her belongings taken and confiscated by the King; prior to this the said Marie Joseph Angelique is to be subjected to torture in the ordinary and extraordinary ways in order to have her reveal her accomplices …

And so she was.

Although the torture broke Angelique’s now-useless denial of her own guilt, she maintained her defense of Claude Thibault, insisting that she acted alone. It’s up for debate whether she did, in fact, act alone, or act at all — and if Angelique was guilty, what meaning or intent one can ascribe to her action.

There’s a fascinating exploration of this case, including the available primary documents, available in English or French.

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1749: Maria Renata Singer, theological football

5 comments June 21st, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1749, an aged subprioress of the Unterzell nunnery was beheaded and burnt in Wurzburg for witchcraft … and for the principle of witchcraft.

Maria Renata Singer (or Singerin — here’s her German Wikipedia page) had been a reclusive denizen of the convent for half a century.

A dying nun accused her of working black magic, and everything snowballed in the usual way: other nuns got into the act, often in the throes of exorcism. Confinement and interrogation (torture is not recorded) eventually induced her to confess to having been a witch for more than 60 years. (Details of the unfolding procedure here, in German.)

On this morning 260 years ago, her sentence — moderated from burning alive — was carried out: Singer’s head was struck off and mounted on a pole, and her body burned to ashes.


Witnesses reported seeing a vulture appear when the body was burned.

Nothing so remarkable, really, in the annals of witchcraft. Nothing except the date. Witch-burnings in 1749! Voltaire was in his fifties. Thomas Jefferson was alive. Wurzburg itself hadn’t seen witchcraft executions since the madness of the Thirty Years’ War.

But even in the Age of Enlightenment, the benighted world got its licks in. And in this instance, the case of the witch-nun of Bavaria was bulletin-board material in an unfolding public debate over witchcraft.

Scholars and theologians were burdening the mid-18th century printing presses with treatises on the legitimacy of witchcraft persecutions. Singer herself, when first confronted with the accusation, had not simply denied it: she had denied there was any such thing as a witch.

That same year of 1749, Girolamo Tartarotti‘s influential Congresso notturno delle lammie skewered witchcraft jurisprudence.

Tartarotti’s work fit into a growing critique naturally animated by the rationalist spirit of the times.

Partly through Singer’s execution, the witchsniffers’ intellectual defenders mounted their last defense.

Jesuit Georg Gaar, who had been Singer’s confessor before death, preached a sermon at her cremation “praising the wise severity of laws against these crimes, and speculating that this might be God’s warning against the men of our time who do not believe in witches, or magic, or the devil, or God. Father Gaar plainly thought himself, and told the people, that they only needed to read the evidence from Unterzell to be persuaded of the justice of the sentence and the truth about witchcraft.”

Tartarotti reprinted this sermon with a critical commentary. But some theologians (and not only Bavarians*) were ready to go to bat for the traditional superstitions.**

According to Brian Copenhaver, writing in the Journal of the History of Philosophy (January, 1979):

The rigorist Dominican Daniele Concina [Italian link -ed] argued that God permits witchcraft “for the greater confirmation of faith,” and he disposed of the skeptical sections of the Canon episcopi as a forger’s work. In a variation on Pangloss’s reasoning about noses and spectacles, Benedetto Bonelli deduced the reality of witchcraft from the existence of laws against witches.

As another critic of Tartarotti fretted, “Does not the denial of the existence of demons open the way and lead directly to the denial of the existence of God?”

Interestingly, Tartarotti accepted the reality of “magic” while denying the existence of witches, ascribing the latter’s survival as folklore to incomplete Christianization. While (see Copenhaver once again) this tack could be read as a tactical choice of moderation on Tartarotti’s part to achieve the pragmatic end of eliminating witchcraft trials, it put him in the crossfire between more rigorously rationalist intellectuals and the likes of Georg Gaar.

This angle of Tartarotti’s, especially given his simultaneous interest in the occult, has led to his work’s subsequent adoption as an antecedent to the still-popular if academically disreputable theory that underground sects of pagan practitioners really did persist in Europe, and were the true targets of witch-hunts like the one that killed Maria Renata Singer.

A lengthy 19th-century treatment of the case is available in German in a public domain Google books entry here.

* 18th century English theologian John Wesley, feeling himself pinned by the Old Testament verses about not-suffering-a-witch-to-live and all that, insisted that “giving up witchcraft is, in effect, giving up the Bible” and “the credit of all history, sacred and profane.”

** Conversely, a German scholar sneered at the backward prejudices of “the common rabble, especially in our beloved Bavaria.”

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1621: Bohemia’s “Day of Blood”

5 comments June 21st, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1621, the Habsburg crown took 27 nobles’ heads in Prague’s Old Town Square for attempting to lead Bohemia to independence.

A century into the Protestant Reformation, the many conflicts between the prerogatives of princes and prelates were about to spawn the Thirty Years’ War — a settling of accounts eventually to lay the cornerstone of modern national sovereignty.

And it all got started in the mother of cities.

Predominantly Protestant Bohemia was at loggerheads with the doctrinaire Catholic slated to become the next Holy Roman Emperor, and as rising tensions in Prague between the faiths took on a patriotic tone, a mob chucked a couple of imperial representatives out the window of Prague Castle.

The Defenestration of Prague. It’s a great word for a great political tradition — there are multiple Defenestrations of Prague in Czech history.

The royal retainers survived the plunge, thanks to miraculous angelic intervention [Catholic version], or to fortuitously landing on a dunghill [Protestant version]. (Maybe the truth lies somewhere in between.)

Either way, it was game on. The Protestant nobility refused to recognize the Habsburg heir and offered the crown to a Calvinist toff instead.

This Frederick V, Elector Palatine answers to the nickname “the winter king” — because by the next winter, the Catholics had overrun Bohemia and driven Frederick off to the dissolute life of exiled nobility, where he anonymously knocked around the Low Countries and accidentally sired the modern line of British royalty.

Good choice: the Czech lands soon felt the monarch’s wrath.

J.E. Hutton’s History of the Moravian Church — which treats especially a distinctive strain of local Christianity with roots in the pre-Lutheran Hussite movement, and which although shattered by the failed revolt still persists today — narrates the result for the 27 unluckiest nobles:

There fell the flower of the Bohemian nobility … Among these were various shades of faith — Lutherans, Calvinists, Utraquists, Brethren; but now all differences were laid aside, for all was nearly over …


Detail view (click for the full image) of the Bohemian nobles’ execution. Note the block on the scaffold foreground for chopping off hands.

Swiftly, in order, and without much cruelty the gory work was done. The morning’s programme had all been carefully arranged. At each corner of the square was a squad of soldiers to hold the people in awe, and to prevent an attempt at rescue. One man, named Mydlar, was the executioner; and, being a Protestant, he performed his duties with as much decency and humanity as possible. He used four different swords … The first of these swords is still to be seen at Prague, and has the names of its eleven victims engraven upon it. … In every instance Mydlar seems to have done his duty at one blow. At his side stood an assistant, and six masked men in black. As soon as Mydlar had severed the neck, the assistant placed the dead man’s right hand on the block; the sword fell again; the hand dropped at the wrist; and the men in black, as silent as night, gathered up the bleeding members …

Much more general reprisals were in store, too. One of Europe’s most liberal writs of religious toleration was swiftly revoked. Catholicism was imposed from above, with Marian columns thrown up in every town. German became the official language. Books were burned by the thousand. Protestants fled or were expelled over the years to come in such numbers that (combined with the general devastation of a war that wrought famine on Europe), modern Czechia’s population had dropped by a third by the Peace of Westphalia.

And while the war the Bohemians helped touch off would win recognition for several small polities breaking away from dynastic imperial formations and cement the principle for other such states to follow, Bohemia itself would remain yoked to the Habsburgs until World War I.

Nobody’s nursing any grudges against the headless nobles for all this, however. Now that the Czech Republic has finally got a place to hang its hat in the community of nations, it keeps 27 white crosses in the Old Town Square bricks as homage to the Day of Blood.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Austria,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Czechoslovakia,Death Penalty,Execution,God,Habsburg Realm,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Separatists,Treason

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