1918: Captain Alexey Schastny

Add comment June 22nd, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1918, Captain Alexey Schastny received the cold thanks of the Bolshevik government for saving its Baltic fleet.

Icebound in the city of Helsingfors (Helsinki) across the Gulf of Finland from his Red homeland, Schastny (English Wikipedia entry | the more substantial Russian) orchestrated an emergency speedy breakout just ahead of a German incursion that seized the city in April and could have grabbed the Soviet Baltic fleet.

Schastny’s decisive action brought 236 vessels, including six battleships, across the frozen sea and safely home to Kronstadt.

The heroism of this operation at a moment of such low ebb for Russian prestige made Schastny a potentially dangerous element, should the onetime tsarist sailor choose to exercise his great prestige in the navy to the detriment of the Bolsheviks. This was the winter of the Russian Civil War, when White insurgents tore at the nascent Revolution.

Leon Trotsky, at this same moment scrambling to organize the Red Army to stabilize the situation, had Schastny arrested as a counterrevolutionary barely a month after the celebrated ice voyage. So grave a threat did this sea dog present that the Soviet state, having briefly abolished the death penalty, restored it in June 1918 specifically so that Schastny could be shot.

Schastny makes his appearance in the slick 2017 serial Trotsky, where he’s played by Anton Khabarov; the first half of episode 7 focuses heavily on Schastny’s arrest, court-martial, and execution.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Milestones,Power,Russia,Shot,Soldiers,USSR,Wartime Executions

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1568: Weyn Ockers, slipper slinger

Add comment June 22nd, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1568 the Dutch Protestant Weyn Ockers was drowned with her maid Trijn Hendricks.

Both were condemned for having taken part in the paroxysm of Calvinist anti-icon riots known as the Beeldenstorm (“icon-fury”) — specifically the 1566 sack of the then-Catholic Oude Kerk in Amsterdam. The Netherlands’ Spanish Catholic overlords were in these months of 1568 busily meting out revenge for the sacrilege.

In a somewhat iconic event of the iconoclasm, Ockers was alleged to have chucked her slipper* at an image of the Virgin Mary perched on the altar — one particularly resented by the reform-minded since the priest encouraged lucrative offerings of parishioners’ valuables to be presented to this icon. One might well doubt the fact of it; Ockers had not been arrested for this offense, but the accusation emerged from the interrogation under torture of other Protestants. Ockers copped to it under torture herself; Hendricks, made of tougher stuff, withstood torture twice and never admitted anything, but still shared her mistress’s fate.

* Not the worst missile that Marian statuary has endured.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drowned,Execution,God,History,Netherlands,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Spain,Torture,Women

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1894: William Whaley, “the horror of the situation”

Add comment June 22nd, 2018 H.M. Fogle

This ghastly description of a botched hanging comes courtesy of the out-of-print The palace of death, or, the Ohio Penitentiary Annex: A human-interest story of incarceration and execution of Ohio’s murderers, with a detailed review of the incidents connected with each case by H.M. Fogle (1908):


Chapter 19

William Whaley
June 22, 1894

A negro robber who beat out the brains of Allen Wilson, near Yellow Springs, Ohio, with a dray pin. Hanged June 22, 1894

A Brutal Robber Meets a Just Fate


William Whaley, serial number 25,257, was executed in the Ohio Penitentiary Annex twelve minutes after the birth of a new day, June 22, 1894, for the brutal murder of Allen Wilson, a thrifty and hard working colored man.

The crime was committed near Yellow Springs, Greene County, Ohio, on the night of June 6, 1893. Robbery was the motive for the crime, and a dray pin the instrument of destruction. He sneaked upon his victim in the dark, and literally beat his brains out.

Whaley was a young man not over twenty-five years of age, and with perhaps one exception, was the most profane man that was ever incarcerated in the Ohio Penitentiary Annex. He refused all spiritual consolation, and cursed his executioners almost with his dying breath. He was a cowardly cur, and betrayed his cowardice while on the scaffold. Three times he sank to his knees as the noose was being adjusted. The attending Guards were compelled each time to assist him to his feet, and finally to hold him up by main strength until the rattle of the lever shot his body through the open trap. Being almost in a total state of collapse, the body instead of plunging straight through the opening, pitched forward, striking the side of the door, thus breaking the force of the fall. For this reason the neck was not broken, and death was produced by the slow and harrowing process of strangulation.

Reader, if you have never seen a sight of this kind you cannot understand or comprehend the horror of the situation. Time after time the limbs were drawn up with a convulsive motion, and then straightened out with a jerk. The whole body quivered and shook like one might with the ague; while the most hideous and sickening sounds came from the throat. This continued for eighteen minutes; but to one looking on it seemed an age. After eighteen minutes the sounds ceased; the body became perfectly still; the limbs began to stiffen; the heart-beats to weaken. In just twenty-six minutes after the drop fell the last pulsation was felt, and the doctor solemnly said: “Warden, I pronounce the man dead.”

The outraged law had been avenged, and a soul unprepared had been ushered into Eternity.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Murder,Ohio,Other Voices,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Theft,USA

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1936: Edward Cornelius, vicarage murderer

Add comment June 22nd, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1936, Edward Cornelius hanged at Victoria’s Pentridge Gaol for the vicarage murder.

The Murder at the Vicarage also happens to be the title of Agatha Christie’s very first Miss Marple novel, published several years before the very real vicarage murder of Rev. Cecil.

One lonesome night the preceding December, Cornelius, a mechanic, turned his spanner on the aged head of plain-living 60-year-old Rev. Harold Laceby Cecil of St. Saviour’s — the horrible conclusion to Rev. Cecil’s 18-year ministry in Fitzroy, then one of Melbourne’s roughest neighborhoods.

Cornelius’s motive was robbery, and it was hardly the first time that Rev. Cecil had been braced for the few quid in donatives he kept on hand for charity cases. Though undeterred from his mission, Cecil was philosophical about repeated robberies: “I will get them, or they will get me.” According to Cornelius’s confession, it was the getting that got Cecil killed: surprised in the course of a midnight stealth pilfering of the vicarage study, Cornelius grabbed the tool of his other trade and clobbered the intercessor, repeatedly: there would be 17 distinct head wounds discerned by investigators.

He fled the vicarage with £8 and few gold and silver trinkets. Some, like a silver watch, he would discard as too incriminating; others, like a gold crucifix, he pawned to obtain ready cash and readier eyewitnesses against him.

A death-house chum of similarly notorious Arnold Sodeman — the two passed Sodeman’s last hours on earth together, playing draughts — Cornelius followed the latter’s steps to the same gallows three weeks later.

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1940: Three saboteurs and a spy, “Fusilles et oublies”

Add comment June 22nd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1940, the collapsing French state “shot and forgot” four subversives at Pessac. These cases are heavily covered by the French-language blog Histoire penitentiaire et Justice militaire; many links in this post point to well-illustrated articles on that site, which make recommended reading for those inclined to delve deeper.

Late June finds France in the dark weeks after Dunkirk — the very day, in fact, when Marshall Petain’s government formally surrendered to the German blitz.

Elsewhere, the remains of the Third Republic had fled west to Bourdeaux, taking along its death row prisoners. The state that condemned them did not mean to let its imminent disappearance cheat it of their blood.

Jean Amourelle, a stenographer in the French Senate whose duties included shorthanding the secret proceedings of its military commissions, was caught routing intelligence to Germany.

Set to join him for this date’s execution were two pairs of brothers: Roger and Marcel Rambaud, and Leon and Maurice Lebeau. Seventeen-year-old Maurice Lebeau had his sentence commuted to hard labor, however, and was spared from the firing detail.

The Rambauds and Lebeaus were factory workers sentenced as saboteurs for compromising the engine of a French military plane, causing it to explode mid-flight: strange behavior for Communist proletarians explained by the temporary peace between Germany and the Soviet Union that (for the moment) positioned the Comintern-directed French Communist Party as an opponent of the war.

Despite the sacrifice of the Rambauds and Lebeaus, this posture was short-lived. Just one year later — June 22, 1941, in fact — Germany’s invasion of the USSR thrust Europe’s Communist movements into common fronts with anti-fascist parties, and France’s Communists into the forefront of French Resistance martyrs.

On this day..

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1906: Richard Ivens, hypnotized?

Add comment June 22nd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1906, “with terror stamped on his colorless face and almost in a state of collapse,” Richard Ivens hanged for a murder that remains to this day an unsettling indictment of witness reliability — even when it is his own crime the witness describes.

The tenor of the crime and of its consequent sensation — a Chicago society matron sexually assaulted by a young hoodlum who proceeds to garrot her with a wire — is readily apparent in the headlines of the day; editors from coast to coast plunged into their thesauruses to titillate their subscribers with the most bombastic invective


Baltimore American, Jan. 14, 1906.

As this image also indicates, Ivens confessed soon after he was detained. (He reported finding, or “finding”, the body to his father and the two of them went to the police; the police immediately detained the youth, separated from Ivens pere.)

Usually, a confession is the “and shut” part of an open-and-shut case. Indeed, for most of human history, given a paucity of useful forensic evidence, legal cases have come down to eyewitnesses and confessions: hence the formalization of torture as part of the investigative process courts of bygone years.* A perpetrator’s own testimony against himself is the evidentiary gold standard.

Today, this long-unquestioned bedrock of criminal justice is dissolving. A quarter or more of the wrongful-conviction exonerations from death row have been cases involving false confessions; witness testimony by victims or third parties has frequently been shown to be unreliable. Our behavioral models once implied that the brain stored memories like a faithful photograph, a view suggesting that witnesses could be either accurate or liars without much room in between. Today, it’s ever more widely understood that memories are constructed, and reconstructed, amid the interpolations of fragmentary data and the subtle feedback of others’ suggestion and influence.

But Ivens put this idea to the test more than a century ago. Backed by friendly alibi witnesses who placed him away from the scene of the murder, Ivens recanted his confession and “declared that the police locked him up in a room at the police station with a number of officers and that their questioning so confused him that he said ‘yes’ to everything they asked him.”**

Perhaps this was just the gambit of a desperate defense counsel with few cards to play. But it did briefly make the Ivens case a referendum on the reliability of the confession.

Ivens intimated that the circumstances of his interrogation might have intimidated him into confessing, but his subsequent claim to have no memory at all of those events led a defense “alienist”, J. Sanderson Christison, to argue that the whole story of the crime had been planted in his mind when he was in a hypnotic state.

According to Christison, this Chicago Tribune photo of the accused a few hours after his arrest “shows the hypnotic expression of face in passive attitude.”

Christon’s pamphlet excoriating the way the young man was handled makes interesting reading. Titled “The ‘Confessions’ of Ivens”, its core thesis that Ivens was “dominated by police statements” is a strikingly forward-thinking one.†

we find in the “confessions” a mixture of fact with “suggested” fiction … he was first forcefully charged with the crime in a brutal manner and after being confounded and subjugated, a current of leading questions were put to him on a stupid police hypothesis, so that the first “confession” is composed of a few vague and contradictory statements. And it is both evident and acknowledged that all the other official “confessions” are the products of question suggestions, almost entirely.

For Christison, Ivens was a dull and easily controlled personality; the doctor’s explication of “hypnosis” suggests to modern eyes a laughably Mephistophelean sleepy, verrrry sleeeeepy caricature. But maybe we would do better to view it as the best framework available in 1906 to grasp the incomprehensible circumstance of a person accusing himself of a crime: the most ready illustration of outside influences entering the mind. A century later, we are only just now developing an understanding of wrongful confessions that might be shared widely enough to speak with mutual understanding about disorientation, suggestibility, leading questions, confirmation bias, and the malleability of memory.

But by any name, the notion was not ridiculous to Christison’s peers.

Christison consulted with Hugo Munsterburg, the German-American psychologist credited with founding the field of forensic psychology: Munsterburg shared Christison’s opinion, and expounded on it (without mentioning Ivens by name) in his subsequent magnum opus On The Witness Stand:

the accused was hanged; yet, if scientific conviction has the right to stand frankly for the truth, I have to say again that he was hanged for a crime of which he was no more guilty than you or I, and the only difference which the last few months have brought about is the fact that, as I have been informed on good authority, the most sober-minded people of Chicago to-day share this sad opinion.

I felt sure from the first that no one was to be blamed. Court and jury had evidently done their best to find the facts and to weigh the evidence; they are not to be expected to be experts in the analysis of unusual mental states. The proof of the alibi seemed sufficient to some, but insufficient to others; most various facts allowed of different interpretation, but all hesitation had to be overcome by the one fundamental argument which excluded every doubt: there was a complete confesslon. And if the sensational press did not manifest a judicial temper, that seemed this time very excusable. The whole population had been at the highest nervous tension from the frequency of brutal murders in the streets of Chicago. Too often the human beast escaped justice: this time at last they had found the villain who confessed — he at least was not to escape the gallows.

For many years no murder case had so deeply excited the whole city. Truly, as long as a demand for further psychological inquiry appeared to the masses simply as “another way of possibly cheating justice” and as a method tending “towards emasculating court procedure and discouraging and disgusting every faithful officer of the law,” the newspapers were almost in duty bound to rush on in the tracks of popular prejudice.

[I]f I examine these endless reports for a real argument why the accused youth was guilty of the heinous crime, everything comes back after all to the statement constantly repeated that it would be “inconceivable that any man who was innocent of it should claim the infamy of guilt.” Months have passed since the neck of the young man was broken and “thousands of persons crowded Michigan Street, jamming that thoroughfare from Clark Street to Dearborn Avenue, waiting for the undertaker’s wagon to leave the jail yard.” The discussion is thus long since removed to the sphere of theoretical argument; and so the hour may be more favourable now for asking once more whether it is really “inconceivable” that an innocent man can confess to a crime of which he is wholly ignorant. Yet the theoretical question may perhaps demand no later than tomorrow a practical answer, when perhaps again a weak mind shall work itself into an untrue confession and the community again rely thereon satisfied, hypnotised by the spell of the dangerous belief that “murder will out.” The history of crime in Chicago has shown sufficiently that murder will not “out.”

It is important that the court, instead of bringing out the guilty thought, shall not bring it “in” into an innocent consciousness. Of course in a criminal procedure there cannot be any better evidence than a confession, provided that it is reliable and well proved. If the accused acknowledges in express words the guilt in a criminal charge, the purpose of the procedure seems to have been reached; and yet at all times and in all nations experience has suggested a certain distrust of confessions.

Munsterburg wrote this under the heading of “Untrue Confessions” but he did not exempt himself from susceptibility to the hypnotic tricks of the mind: Munsterburg himself once found his house burgled, and realized that the evidence he subsequently gave about what he found was wildly inaccurate. “In spite of my best intentions, in spite of good memory and calm mood, a whole series of confusions, of illusions, of forgetting, of wrong conclusions, and of yielding to suggestions were mingled with what I had to report under oath, and my only consolation is the fact that in a thousand courts at a thousand places all over the world, witnesses every day affirm by oath in exactly the same way much worse mixtures of truth and untruth, combinations of memory and of illusion, of knowledge and of suggestion, of experience and wrong conclusions.”

We do know at a minimum that Ivens was being interrogated alone for a number of hours by officers who evidently presumed him to be guilty. Right down to the present day, any number of fully cogent adults (many still languishing in dungeons as I write this) have falsely implicated themselves in terrible crimes during similar confinements, under manipulative interrogation techniques evincing much more interest in getting to “yes” than probing truth. (Just one of many reasons we caution the reader against ever talking to the police.)


Lexington Herald, March 20, 1906.

The Richard Ivens case, needless to say, is impossibly cold. It is quite difficult from several generations’ distance to form a convincing affirmative confidence in Ivens’s innocence. But as all those involved for good or ill have gone to their own graves too, perhaps it is enough for us to leave that door open just crack — enough to let in the humility before we print a man’s epitaph.


Wilkes-Barre Times, June 22, 1906.

* Of relevance: a suspect tortured into a confession was usually required to repeat the confession free of torture in open court in order for it to count. Such people did sometimes refuse to do so and even blame the torture for having given a previous incriminating statement; the standard reward for such reticence was, naturally, more torture.

** Baltimore American, March 20, 1906. This is the Chicago Police Department we’re talking about.

† Christison is also noted for theories about the shapes of the ears as criminal indicators, and the pamphlet explicitly cites Ivens’s phrenological characteristics as exculpatory. We all have our hits and our misses.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Illinois,Murder,Rape,USA

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1310: Badoer Badoer, Venetian rebel

Add comment June 22nd, 2014 Headsman

A Venetian rebel was beheaded on this date in 1310.

Our grim tale actually tacks back to an altogether different death: the sudden January 31, 1308 demise of Azzo VIII d’Este, lord of Venice’s neighbor Ferrara.*

The resulting power vacuum saw Venice under the Doge Pietro Gradenigo tangle for influence in Ferrara with the Papal States of Pope Clement V.

This controversial intervention briefly put a Venetian puppet ruler in charge of Ferrara, but it also led Clement to excommunicate Gradenigo and place La Serenissima under a papal interdict.

The moral force which the condition of society lent to such a measure was immense … It paralyzed trade; it dried up the sources of industrial wealth; it laid a country under every civil and religiou disability; it shed over society an atmosphere of gloom; it affected every relation of life … At home it fomented agitation, gave colour and pretext to the worst motives, and evoked all the latent distempers of the public mind. Abroad, it legitimized rebellion, imparted to moribund antipathies a new vitality, and transformed wavering allies into open enemies. (From History of the Venetian Republic, vol. II, whose detailed narrative of the events relevant to this post continues in Volume III)

Clement also had more temporal weapons to fight with, and he used them to ruthless effect.

In August 1309, papal troops overran the Venetian garrison at the Ferrara fortress of Tedaldo and handled the prisoners like they had the Dolcinians, choking the Po with Venetian corpses.

Conditions were ripe for some disturbances in La Serenissima. The Ferrara thing was a complete debacle, and not only was the same guy still in charge, but his previous foreign policy resume basically consisted of being repeatedly outmaneuvered by Genoa.

Hotheads of three leading families of the Venetian opposition who had vainly counseled neutrality in the Ferrara affair, the Quirini, the Badoer, and the Tieopolo, embarked an audacious plot to mount a coup d’etat toppling the Doge and the whole Ground Council of noblemen by whom he ruled. The conspirators were to act on the morning of June 15 — but hours before that, a vacillating confederate had betrayed them. As a result, when the ferocious Marco Quirini arrived at the Piazza San Marco that morning with his men-at-arms, the Doge had a surprise force waiting to rout him under a furious downpour.

Quirini at least had the honor of dying in hopeless battle for his cause. His son-in-law and co-conspirator Bajamonte Tiepolo, who was to arrive at the same square via the Mercerie, dithered and showed up only when Quirini was already defeated and dead. Legend has it that a woman named Giustina Rosso killed Tiepolo’s standard-bearer dead by hurling (or just accidentally dropping) a mortar upon the rebels as they advanced up the street. (Present-day tourists traversing this upscale shopping street can catch a small bas-relief commemorating this character near the clock tower where the Mercerie opens onto St. Mark’s.)

Tiepolo belatedly charged the square, and was like Quirini repulsed; however, he was able to fall back across the Grand Canal, cutting the bridge against his pursuers, and holed up in a makeshift fortress hoping for reinforcements from the last-arriving of their fellows, Badoer Badoer.

The latter, however, was intercepted on his way to reinforcing the revolutionaries’ position and taken prisoner, which defeat of his hopes led Tiepolo and Doge alike to prefer a negotiated surrender to the charnel house that would have resulted from storming the redoubt. His followers were amnestied and Tiepolo himself sent into exile.

But Badoer Badoer was not covered by this deal. The Council he had proposed to overturn instead tried him for treason, and voted his condemnation on June 22 — a sentence put into immediate effect.

The exiled Tiepolo’s home was razed to the ground and replaced with a column eternally damning his memory:

This land belonged to Bajamonte
And now, for his iniquitous betrayal,
This has been placed to frighten others
And to show these words to everyone forever.

That column today has been removed to a museum — evidently one needs special permission to find it — but a worn stone outside a souvenir shop labeled “Loc. Col. Bai. The. MCCCX” marks the spot where it stood for four centuries.

The plot’s other legacy to Venice was the Council of Ten, a sort of inner secretariat of the Grand Council. Introduced in July 1310 as an emergency measure, the Ten soon became a permanent feature of the state, and an increasingly powerful one into the 17th century. The “temporary” council ended up lasting until the Napoleon finally toppled a by-then tottering Venetian Republic in 1797.

* In the Inferno, Dante accuses Azzo of assassinating his father.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Italy,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Revolutionaries,Treason,Venice

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1934: William Cody Kelley, the first in Colorado’s gas chamber

7 comments June 22nd, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1934, “the most successful and painless [execution] ever conducted at the penitentiary” claimed the life of William Cody Kelley in Colorado’s brand-new gas chamber.

Nevada had debuted this American contribution to the art of killing 10 years before. Colorado was the second state to gas a prisoner, and stood on the leading edge of gas chamber adoption during the 1930s by a half-dozen states in the American West. (… plus North Carolina.)

Kelley was condemned for bludgeoning pig-rancher Russell Browning to death with a pipe, and his otherwise forgettable case was a milestone for a reason besides the method: Kelley was the first executed in the state of Colorado without review by the state supreme court.

The reason? Dead broke, Kelley couldn’t scrape together $200 required for the appeal.

Journalist Lorena Hickok heard of Kelley’s plight and was about to front the cash when she was talked off it, on the grounds that her sticking up for a condemned murderer might throw a politically difficult light on her close friend Eleanor Roosevelt.

Hickok swallowed her principles but a later letter to the First Lady — the two had a voluminous correspondence; they may well have had a romantic relationship, too — drips with Hickok’s regret.

The thing has nearly driven me crazy. How can you have any faith or hope in us if we do things like that in this supposedly enlightened age? … I feel as though we were living in the Dark Ages, and I loathe myself for not having more courage and trying to stop it, no matter what the consequences were. You would have done it. Well — I guess I’d better not think about it any more.

-From One Third Of A Nation, quoted here

While an inconceivable fortune stood between Kelley and his life, the execution materiel — a dozen acid capsules — set Colorado back just 90 cents. Such a pittance bought a killing method so reliable that “there was no cutting out of the victim’s heart, as was done after executions under the State’s old system of hanging, to make sure of death,” a gross if wellfounded precaution.

Kelley’s partner in the murder, Lloyd Frady, testified against Kelley (both men claimed the other had committed the murder), and had his own death sentence commuted for his trouble. Frady was eventually released in 1949, but not before he made his fortune behind prison walls selling artsy “curio goods”. Those without the capital, as they say, get the punishment — and in this case, vice versa.

Colorado used the gas chamber for all its executions until 1967.

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1627: Francois de Montmorency and his second, for dueling

2 comments June 22nd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1627, the Comte de Bouteville plus his cousin Des Chapelles lost their heads for fighting a duel — ultimately (because of the execution) one of the most notorious duels in French history.

Though this is the duel that everyone knows, Francois de Montmorency-Bouteville (English Wikipedia entry | French) had engaged in 22 such affairs of honor between the tender ages of 15 and 28. Like as not, he was the duellist par excellence in an age where demanding lethal satisfaction was all the rage among devil-may-care aristocratic straplings.

And this, of course, is why he was nominated for condign punishment in Louis XIII’s struggling anti-dueling campaign. One might say he nominated himself.

Dueling, a mano-a-mano vindication of feuds between fops, was an archaic holdover of Burgundian clan violence turned preposterous baroque ritual of conspicuous consociation.

It was also incredibly epidemic in France at this period.

During the reign of Louis’s predecessor Henri IV, 7,000 to 8,000 people are reported to have died in duels, which works out to the suspect rate of one per day for the entire period. Then again, France did have an excess supply of noble progeny whose violent impulses were no longer preoccupied by fratricidal religious warfare.*

Henri IV had tried to ban dueling, even in 1610 executing for lese majeste a couple members of his own guard who defied the ban. Just weeks later, and for no reason connected to dueling, Henri was assassinated. Then-nine-year-old heir Louis XIII was in no position at the time to follow up his father’s policy, and the naughty sport continued to flourish.

“Duels had become so common among the French nobility that the streets of Paris usually served as the field of combat,” according to the Mercure Francois. And as Richard Herr described in his “Honor versus Absolutism: Richelieu’s Fight against Dueling” (The Journal of Modern History, September 1955; this is also the source of all other quotes in this post), they often arose over utterly trivial “slights.”**

Typical was a duel in Lent of 1626 in which Bouteville [i.e., the subject of our post] with two seconds engaged the Comte de Thorigny and his two seconds. The fight was over a dispute between Thorigny and the Marquis de Chalais, who was in prison accused of treason. Bouteville was merely defending the honor of a friend. All six spent the night before the engagement in an inn outside Paris, and in the course of a fairly amicable conversation, they expressed regret that being good friends, they were going to kill each other over another gentleman’s quarrel. But they agreed that they had gone too far to be able to abandon the project without loss of honor. The next day Bouteville killed Thorigny after the latter’s sword broke.

By the 1620s, Louis was old enough to make another run at this intractable elite-on-elite crime wave, and did so with the full encouragement of his famous consigliere Cardinal Richelieu. Depriving the aristocracy of this weird extra-judicial prerogative fit right into the latter’s going campaign to centralize the French state and bring its quarrelsome lords to heel.

What with all those duels he liked to fight, Francois de Montmorency-Bouteville was a great test case. Fighting a public duel in January 1627 — at which his second was slain — made Bouteville a target, and he fled to the Netherlands for safety.

Our fugitive figured he’d send word that a pardon would be appreciated, and everything would blow over like it always did. But Louis was determined to disabuse this type of any privilege to commit public mayhem, and refused to grant Bouteville his absolution.

Honor offended — his default state, to judge by his career — Bouteville vowed angrily to “fight in Paris and in the Place Royale!” This he did on May 12, 1627, slipping back into France for the express purpose of dueling Guy Harcourt, the Marquis de Beuvron. And Bouteville disdained a private fight for the occasion, insisting, as he had declared, on a daytime melee where everyone could see it at the grand new Place Royale (today, Places des Vosges).


At least the setting was operatic. (cc) image from Christophe Alary.

Bouteville and Beuvron fought to a bloodless stalemate and agreed to call it a draw. But Bouteville’s second Des Chapelles mortally wounded Beuvron’s second.

Everyone fled, and while Beuvron made it out of the country, Montmorency and Des Chapelles were nabbed, and condemned to death by the Parlement of Paris for violating Louis’s royal edict against duels.

From the king’s standpoint, this was just about the most egregious possible arrangement of factors.

  • The guy was a serial offender, and he was already a fugitive for his last duel.
  • The fight had produced a fatality.
  • Worst, the whole scene — sneaking back into Paris, fighting openly within the potential view of the sovereign — had been overtly staged to scorn the royal ban.

If Louis intended his decree to mean anything at all, he had to come down hard on this one. “It is a question of cutting the throat of duels or of your majesty’s edicts,” Richelieu summarized.

But as clear-cut as were the case indicia, this was still a hard one for Louis, and even for the usually-ruthless Richelieu. Bouteville was a well-born noble, with powerful friends and family who were also close to the king, and they besieged the royal person with petitions for mercy. A sorrowing but firm Louis had to personally refuse mercy to Bouteville’s tearful wife. “Their loss affects me as much as it does you,” he said. “But my conscience prevents my pardoning them.”

Although the poor wife couldn’t make any headway for clemency, she had the better of Bouteville’s swordsmanship off the field of honor. The doomed duke bequeathed one last rapier thrust to posterity by leaving his widow-to-be pregnant with a posthumous son who eventually generalled French armies to any number of routs of the Dutch in the late 17th century.

And while Richelieu’s memoirs would depict this instance of executive implacability as a decisive turn, Herr argues that it was nothing but a brief interruption. The pernicious hobby was back in all its glory within a couple of years, an evil that even Richelieu could never master. France’s aspired-to absolutism could not reach that ancient and intimate noble right save in the very most exemplary case.

In Dumas’s Three Musketeers, set in 1620s France, D’Artagnan is charged by his father in the opening pages to “[n]ever fear quarrels … Fight on all occasions. Fight the more for duels being forbidden, since consequently there is twice as much courage in fighting.” And indeed, it is by blundering into silly duels (e.g., the “offense” caused by bumping into Porthos while hurrying down the stairs, the latter of whom considers D’Artagnan’s apology discourteously perfunctory) that D’Artagnan becomes the fourth of their cadre … because Richelieu’s men arrive to break up the illegal D’Artagnan-vs.-Musketeer melees, and D’Artagnan joins with his “foes” to defend, all for one and one for all, their privilege as gentlemen to slaughter one another.

The dueling phenomenon faded significantly under Louis XIV, but still not completely: Voltaire almost fought a duel in 1726; the artist Manet dueled a critic in 1870; and YouTube will favor the viewer with a number of 20th century professors and litterateurs settling long-forgotten affairs of honor — like disputes over wartime collaboration after World War II — in ceremonial swordfights. Dueling pistol shooting (at human silhouettes) was even an event at the 1906 Olympics.†

And elsewhere in Germany, Russia, and everywhere Europe touched, duelling persisted with new practitioners into the 19th and even the 20th and even the 21st centuries.

* Also worth noting relative to the casualty numbers: at this time, each side’s seconds also fought in addition to the principals. A move for taking seconds out of the fight eventually prevailed, long before the end (if there has been a real end) of dueling, but in 1627 that time was not yet come.

** Across the Channel at this time, Francis Bacon was making much the same complaint against English duels.

† This event was an “Intercalated Games” falling between the natural 1904 and 1908 Olympiads. It’s an outlier historical experiment during the modern Olympics’ uncertain early years, and though it was officially sanctioned at the time and winners walked away with proper medals, the International Olympic Committee no longer recognizes the Intercalated Games as an official Olympics.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Nobility,Notable Jurisprudence,Public Executions

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1669: Roux de Marsilly, employer of the Man in the Iron Mask?

8 comments June 22nd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1669, a French Huguenot agent was publicly broken on the wheel in Paris.

On the dangerous political chessboard of 17th century Europe, the allegiance of Restoration England — governed once again by a dynasty with known Catholic sympathies — was a great prize for contending Catholic and Protestant powers on the mainland.*

While Charles II of England and the Catholic Louis XIV of France maneuvered towards a secret accord that would lead to devastating war against the Protestant Netherlands, Roux de Marsilly was busy in London trying to enlist England into a Protestant alliance against France.

Finding the avenues blocked, Marsilly retired to Switzerland and was there abducted by French spies who knew what he was up to.

A trumped-up rape charge served that country’s statecraft, and despite an offer by the prisoner to spill some beans in exchange for his life — and then a suicide attempt —

hee wounded himself … for he knew before hee should dye, butt he thought by dismembering himself that the losse of blood would carry him out of the world …

— Roux could not avoid his fate. In fact, out of fear that Marsilly could still succumb to his self-injury, they

sent word … which made his execution be hastened. Saturday about 1 of the clock he was brought on the skaffold before the Chastelet and tied to St. Andrew’s Crosse all which was while he acted the Dying man and scarce stirred, and seemed almost breathless and fainting …

they went to their worke and gave [Marsilly] eleven blows with a barre and laid him on the wheele. He was two houres dying.

(Both quotes above from this correspondence.)

For all those two agonizing hours, Roux de Marsilly really only merits a footnote in a different story.

The Man in the Iron Mask

The mysterious Man in the Iron Mask was first documented in French custody later in the summer of 1669, and he would remain a guest of the Bourbon dungeons until 1703.

The identify of this person — or maybe persons, since it’s been argued that there are multiple threads conflated into the one legend — has never been conclusively established, much to the profit of literature.

One of the stronger contenders for the crownmask, however, is a prisoner named “Eustace Dauger”, who may in fact have been Roux de Marsilly’s former valet, one “Martin”.

The case for Martin-as-Dauger-as-masked-man is made most comprehensively by Andrew Lang in The Valet’s Tragedy and Other Stories.

The hypothesis, roughly outlined, is that England and especially France were trying to tie up the loose ends of whatever plots Marsilly had authored, and got hands on his servant to interrogate him about the highly sensitive machinations he might have been privy to.

Possibly having established that Martin/Eustace had no actual information to betray, he still remained under lock and key out of some admixture of bureaucratic inertia and the remorseless paranoia of the security state. Crazy.

[T]he Man in the Iron Mask (if Dauger were he) may have been as great a mystery to himself as to historical inquirers. He may not have known WHAT he was imprisoned for doing! More important is the probable conclusion that the long and mysterious captivity of Eustache Dauger, and of another perfectly harmless valet and victim, was the mere automatic result of the ‘red tape’ of the old French absolute monarchy. These wretches were caught in the toils of the system, and suffered to no purpose, for no crime. The two men, at least Dauger, were apparently mere supernumeraries in the obscure intrigue of a conspirator known as Roux de Marsilly.

Marsilly was publicly tortured to death in Paris on June 22, 1669. By July 19 his ex-valet, Dauger, had entered on his mysterious term of captivity. How the French got possession of him, whether he yielded to cajolery, or was betrayed by Charles II., is uncertain. … By July 19, at all events, Louvois, the War Minister of Louis XIV., was bidding Saint-Mars, at Pignerol in Piedmont, expect from Dunkirk a prisoner of the very highest importance–a valet! This valet, now called ‘Eustache Dauger,’ can only have been Marsilly’s valet, Martin, who, by one means or another, had been brought from England to Dunkirk. It is hardly conceivable, at least, that when a valet, in England, is ‘wanted’ by the French police on July 1, for political reasons, and when by July 19 they have caught a valet of extreme political importance, the two valets should be two different men. Martin must be Dauger.

* And, of course, for the Catholics and Protestants in England. This struggle would come to a head in due time, to the grief of the Stuarts.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,20th Century,Arts and Literature,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Espionage,Execution,France,Gruesome Methods,Hanged,History,Murder,Notably Survived By,Power,Public Executions,Rape,Spies,Torture,Treason

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