1815: William Sawyer, guns and roses

Add comment May 15th, 2016 Headsman

William Sawyer hanged on this date in 1815* at London’s Newgate Gaol for a murder he committed while in Portugal.

Dispatched to Iberia during the 1814 mopping-up stages of the Peninsular War, Sawyer preferred to make time with a young Englishwoman named Harriet Gaskett who was supposed to be there as the mistress of Sawyer’s friend and fellow-officer. (Both of the men in question had wives back in Blighty.)

When this third wheel discovered their liaison,** Sawyer and Gaskett fell into that death-seeking tragic mooning that lovers do and after dinner one night in April they wandered off to the garden. Other guests soon heard three pistol shots crack the evening air. The reports proved to correlate with a dead Harriet, and a severely (but not mortally) wounded William.

After he was cleaned up — and after he once more failed to kill himself by slashing his own throat — his friends solicited a forthright confession.

Having laid violent hands upon myself, in consequence of the death of Harriet, I think it but justice to mankind and the world, being of sound mind, solemnly to attest that her death was occasioned by her having taken part of a phial of laudanum and my discharging a pistol at her head, provided for the occasion. I took the residue of the laudanum myself, and discharged two pistols at my head. They failing in their effect, I then retired to the house and endeavoured to put an end to my life, leaving myself the unfortunate object you now behold me.

William Sawyer

Besides doing the tragic lover thing, Sawyer was obviously intent on doing the officer-and-a-gentleman thing. His friends did very well believe the convenient-sounding version of events that he presented, such was his rectitude and lovesickness.

But under any construction of motive and circumstance, this narrative of “discharging a pistol at her head” amounted to confession to a hanging crime and Sawyer was convicted with ease.

Sympathetic to a fault, the Lord Chief Justice Ellenborough who personally tried the case reserved judgment as to the penalty pending a review by a panel of the king’s judges of several technical legal points. These were all defeated as entirely as was Sawyer’s wife’s attempt to see him in prison.

Despite his avoiding such an awkward interview Sawyer went to the gallows “very dejected,” in the words of the Newgate Calendar.

During the ceremony a profound silence prevailed throughout the populace. He died under evident symptoms of paroxysm, and a quantity of blood gushed from his mouth, from the cut in his throat. At nine o’clock the body was taken to Bartholomew’s Hospital in a cart, attended by the under-sheriff and officers. He was dressed in a suit of black, and [it] was not ironed.

* The Newgate Calendar, whose command of detail is often unreliable, mistakenly gives May 22 as the execution date — a week later than the true event.

** Intent on layering on the melodrama, Sawyer’s story was that the friend had actually given the two lovebirds leave to go live together. Great! Except Gaskell was convinced the permission was insincere and that he meant on killing himself once they did so and “although she had promised not to live with me, she had not promised not to die with me.” Anything for love.

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1603: Marco Tulio Catizone, the false Dom Sebastian

Add comment September 23rd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1603, a man claiming to be the long-lost Portuguese king was publicly hanged on a square in the Andalusian city of Sanlucar.

Not Marco Tulio Catizone, but pretty close: the real Dom Sebastian

Dom Sebastian — so named because he was born on the Feast of St. Sebastian in 1554 — would be remembered longingly after his untimely death at age 24 as o Desejado, the Desired. What was truly desired was a return to Portugal’s golden age.

In its day, little Portugal had flourished as a great maritime empire of the Age of Discovery

One could say that trade was the calling-card of this realm of venturesome explorers, but there is no empire but that bears a sword, too. Sebastian, his young head probably bursting dreams of Alexander, undertook in 1577-78 to intervene under the glorious banner of Crusade in a disputed succession of the Moorish kingdom of Morocco.

This sort of personal valor makes for great press in the woodblocks when things go to script, and the allure must be correlated to the disproportionate odds engaged in gratuitously chancing one’s royal person to war. Sebastian was unmarried and had no children; his own father had succumbed to consumption at age 17 so he had no siblings, either. When this sole pillar of royal authority suicidally crashed himself headlong into a superior Moroccan force at the so-called Battle of Three Kings, his chivalrous self-immolation exacted a crippling toll on his kingdom.

An uncle in the cardinalate, Henry, was surprised to find himself suddenly elevated to the now-precarious Portuguese throne; Henry was 66 years old at the time and had taken vows of chastity that he could not maneuver to shed before he too died in 1580 with no heir at all.* In the ensuing succession crisis, the Spanish king soon swallowed up Portugal in a personal union.

It was only natural that the many Portuguese distressed by this staggering sequence of events would indulge the dream of their late king. Besides having the advantage of being frozen in time at the height of his youthful potential, Sebastian had never actually been found after that bloody Battle of Three Kings — or, at least, the identity of the body that the Spanish produced in the way of ending discussion was deeply doubted. Without convincing royal remains, such a dream began to spawn here and there pretenders who would emerge from unhappily unified Iberia to claim the name and the patrimony of the lost desired king.


The Recovering of the Desired King’s Body at Alcácer Quibir by Caetano Moreira da Costa Lima (1888)

The wild cast of longshot characters, according to Bryan Givens in Braudel Revisited, featured the likes of “the anonymous ‘King of Pernamacor’ in 1584; Mateus Alvares, the ‘King of Ericeira’ in 1585; and Gabriel Espinosa, the ‘Pastry-Maker of Madrigal’ in 1595.” These guys are claimants to a sleeping-king tradition aptly named “Sebastianism” which also fronted the prophecy of a visionary Azores blacksmith named Balthasar Goncalves who insisted to the Inquisition that the fallen King would return like a Messiah to liberate Portugal from Spain — and conquer Africa and the Holy Land — and defeat the Antichrist.** These beliefs in turn eddied out of currents of already-existing mystical eschatology, like the Trovas of Antonio Goncalves de Bandarra from earlier in the 16th century, mystically prophesying the return of a Hidden King.

Our man Marco Tulio Catizone (Italian link), a native of the south Italian town of Taverna, was one of these. In Venice he had made the chance acquaintance of an Italian mercenary who had joined Dom Sebastian’s catastrophic crusade, and this soldier was amazed by Catizone’s resemblance to the late king.

Thus handed a compelling calling in life, Catizone announced himself the very man himself, who had wandered the world in penance after the battle but now would like Portugal back if you please. The Venetians jailed and then expelled him (in the vein of the “King of Ericeira” and the “Pastry-Maker of Madrigal”, this one is the “Prisoner of Venice”); the Florentines re-arrested him and eventually deported him to Spain; and in Spain under the gentle suasions of hostile interrogators he coughed up his real name and purpose and was condemned a galley slave for life in 1602.

But no such sentence could squelch the desiring of a return to king and country, and for such a purpose the least plausible pretender could serve a sufficient rallying-point. João de Castro, the illegitimate son of a Portuguese nobleman who would become “the St. Paul of the sebastianista religion”† met the imprisoned “Sebastian” in Italy and became the convinced herald of his return as Bandarra’s Hidden King, the restorer of Portuguese glory and the scourge of Spain and Islam alike.

De Castro was nothing daunted by Catizone’s confession and confinement and from exile in Paris wrote a tome “with the license of the King” entitled Discurso da Vida do Sempre Bem Vindo et Apparecido Rey Dom Sebiao nosso Senhor o Encuberto, advancing the Prisoner of Venice’s claims. An attempt by De Castro and others like-minded to stir a Sebastianist rebellion in Lisbon in 1603 on Catizone’s behalf led to the latter’s trial for treason, with the outcome we have already noted.

Yet even this did not abate de Castro’s prophetic vigor.

“The man executed by the Spanish had, in fact, been Catizone, de Castro admitted, but Catizone had been switched with Sebastian by the Spanish so that they could quell the growing support for Sebastian without having the guilt of royal blood on their hands,” writes Givens. Our St. Paul would spend the remaining quarter-century of his life churning out treatises in exile “to prove Sebastian’s providential destiny, citing predictions from the full range of the Western prophetic corpus to prove that Sebastian was destined to rule the world.”

* The best who could be advanced as the Cardinal-King’s homegrown successor candidate was an illegitimate cousin of the late Dom Sebastian.

** Instead of burning this fellow as a heretic, the Inquisition instead mercifully judged him a lunatic and released him to some intensive personal indoctrination.

† J.L. de Azevedo in A evolucao do sebastianismo (1918), cited in Portuguese Studies Review, vol. 17, no. 1 (2009).

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1624: Antonio Homem, at the hands of the Portuguese Inquisition

Add comment May 5th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1624, Coimbra University theologian Antonio Homem was burned at the stake in a Lisbon auto de fe.

Homem came from a “neo-Christian” family, Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity. Considering the compulsion, one could fairly question the piety of such “Christians”; in a great moment in damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t, the Spanish Inquisition fired up to probe the potential un-Christian activity of neo-Christians.

Neighboring Portugal was just a beat behind Spain in all this; Spain expelled its Jews — the ones who weren’t willing to convert — in 1492, and Portugal did so in 1497. The Portuguese Inquisition began in 1536 and, like Spain’s, took conversos as a primary focus.*

Homem’s family’s response was to be more Catholic than the Pope and have Antonio trained for the clergy; he became canon of the Cathedral of Coimbra and a doctor at the University of Coimbra.

Homem was in his fifties when it became known among his colleagues that he was of New Christian stock, and this circumstance soon attracted unwanted attention — and eventually, his denunciation for allegedly leading a secret Judaic cell. Homem, it is said, “often took the part of priest”; The Other Within: The Marranos, Split Identity and Emerging Modernity describes a Kippur ceremony from the Inquisition records.

The public, all fasting and dressed in white, used the Christian Bible (the Vulgate) to recite Latin Psalms that expressed a Jewish-Marrano sentiment (Psalms such as “When Israel came out of Egypt,” “On the rivers of Babylon,” and “From the Abyss I called you, O God”). In those ancient Jewish poems the Marranos expressed their own, specific sense of exile and yearning for redemption. A few “priests of the Law of Moses,” replicating a Catholic ceremony, dressed Homem in a long elegant garment and put “a sort of miter” on his head, decorated with golden plaque. There was an altar there, and incense, and painted images of Moses and of a Marrano martyr or saint “who had been … burned as a Jew.”

The inner life of the converso is a great riddle from our distance of time and context. It is immediately tempting to perceive religious martyrs here, people who were forced underground but still kept what they could of the faith of their fathers at risk of life and limb.

Such a reading paradoxically allies us with their persecutors, for it is by the Inquisition’s hand that we have the evidence — and this is a source whose evidence we greet very skeptically when it, for instance, charges conversos with murdering Christian children. Inquisitors all around Europe were after all involved in these very years in scaring up secret witches’ covens to incinerate, and it was not unknown for the deadly judicial apparatus to be borrowed here and there from restraining the minions of Hell in order to service business opportunities, political aspirations, or private grudges of the personal or professional variety. Try asking a present-day academic how easy they’d sleep knowing their colleagues on the tenure committee also had a few buddies in the Holy Inquisition.

Antonio Jose Saraiva’s The Marrano Factory: The Portuguese Inquisition and Its New Christians 1536-1765** contends that most “Judaizing” Christians were just plain Christians — caught up like accused witches and warlocks could be in some specious neighborhood rumor that became a self-fulfilling accusation. “Inevitably,” says Saraiva, “a family quarrel or a commercial intrigue would lead to several series of denunciations, followed by arrests. Arrests led to trials which spiraled into new rounds of arrests and trials.” Saraiva argues that Homem’s recently-exposed Jewish heritage probably just made him a ready target when a commercial dispute of some sort led the Inquisition’s Coimbra tribunal to seize “scores of merchants engaged in the triangular commerce between Brazil, Oporto and Amsterdam.”

Whether Homem really did head a covert cult with 100-plus adherents reading Old Testament verses from the Latin Bible — or whether this was what an inquisitor goaded by Homem’s enemies supposed a secret Jew might do — he was left to rot in prison several years† after his 1619 condemnation while the Inquisition investigated dozens of his alleged adherents. These included other cathedral canons, professors and students at the university, nuns from four nearby convents, and other persons of some stature. (Homem, to his credit, refused to accuse anyone else.)

Homem was eventually among eight burned (Portuguese link) at an auto this date at the Ribeira de Lisboa, and his house was torn down to be replaced with a pillar inscribed “Praeceptor infelix”. Prior to their destruction they were favored with the preachings of Friar Antonio de Sousa who railed against the insidious Semitic threat to homeland security.

For our sins of the last years people of quality have been cross-breeding with these perverse Jews to whom I am referring. They became corrupted by their contact with them and have become Jews like they are. Just a few years ago only low-class, trashy Jews were paraded at the autos-da-fe. See what now appears for sentencing in the autos-da-fe and in this very one at which I am preaching: ecclesiastical personnel, friars, nuns, holders of master’s degrees, licentiates, doctors and professors with family connections to the nobility, people only half of New Christian origin, or a quarter, or an eighth, all confessing and convicted of Judaism. (Translated excerpt via Saraiva)

Readers with Portuguese proficiency can find more on this case in this 1999 book exploring the Inquisition’s Coimbra archives, or in Antonio Homem e a inquisição.

* For the setting of this post, the 1620s, Spain and Portugal are under the personal union of a common monarch, Philip IV.

** We’ve mentioned it before.

† One of the great (and eventually fatal) inefficiencies of the auto-de-fe system was its tendency to leave its future exhibits to languish for years in prisons before the prescribed spectacle could be properly arranged.

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1761: Gabriel Malagrida, Jesuit nutter

2 comments September 21st, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1761,* the Jesuit Gabriel Malagrida became a late casualty of the Tavora Affair and the Lisbon earthquake when he was garroted for heresy.

Malagrida (English Wikipedia entry | Portuguese) was a 72-year-old Italian with decades of missionary service to the Portuguese New World colonies under his belt.

He had, in his time, been a prominent exponent of the Jesuits missions’ policy in the Amazon, which amounted to asserting their own jurisdiction against the secular government’s attempt to order its overseas territories. (There’s more on that conflict here.)

And this only exacerbated his principal sin of being a Jesuit — an order whose diminution was eagerly sought by the rising statesman of Enlightenment Portugal, the Marquis of Pombal.

The shock of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake would deal Pombal the trump hand he needed to start reshaping both city and society to his liking.

Malagrida, meanwhile, carped that the earthquake’s causes

“are not comets, are not stars, are not vapors or exhalations,** are not phenomena, they are not natural contingencies or causes; but they are solely our intolerable sins … I do not know how a Catholic subject dares to attribute the present calamity of this tragic earthquake to causes and natural contingencies. Do not these Catholics understand this world is not a house without an owner?”

This published pamphlet merely echoed what many of the order were saying in the pulpits, and Pombal was not about to let the backwards, superstitious crowd** own the catastrophe.

Malagrida was banished from Lisbon: and, when the Tavora family was implicated in an attempt to assassinate the Portuguese king, Malagrida, their confessor, found himself clapped in prison.

Though the now-septuagenarian priest did not share the Tavoras’ grisly public butchery, he was left to molder. A couple years in a dungeon saw him go a bit strange, and supposedly he published treatises with such eccentric features as God’s personal instructions to Malagrida, and Malagrida’s fascination with St. Anne’s uterus. Catholic sources, which consider Malagrida a martyr, doubt that he ever published any such thing; if he did, it seems apparent that it was dementia rather than heresy that afflicted the old man.

But Pombal had installed his own brother as judge of the tribunal, so the matter was prearranged. The execution itself was

staged in a dramatic way, even to the point of Malagrida’s appearing on the scaffold in Jesuit habit, to impress upon the Portuguese and the world at large that an old order had come to an end and a new one was to be established … one might say that … symbolism at the cost of one human life was a relatively humane procedure in comparison with the symbolic elimination of whole classes of society in the twentieth century.


Detail view (click for the full image) of Malagrida executed at a Lisbon auto de fe. CC image from Ricardo Mealha, original provenance unknown.

Pitying the superstitious Jesuit at the stake, Enlightenment secularist Voltaire inveighed against Enlightenment secularist Pombal for conducting the execution … just part of Voltaire’s queer ideas about not killing people over their religious beliefs.

“It is all pity and horror,” Voltaire wrote in a private correspondence. “The Inquisition has found the secret to inspire compassion for the Jesuits.”

Voltaire’s appraisal in Candide (already published by this time) of a country in the grip of religious superstition unjustly stands as one of the lasting literary monuments to an event that actually rolled back clerical influence: “the sages of [Portugal] could think of no means more effectual to prevent utter ruin than to give the people a beautiful auto-da-fé; for … the burning of a few people alive by a slow fire, and with great ceremony, is an infallible secret to hinder the earth from quaking.” That the philosophe who penned those words waxed so immoderately outraged at the demonstrative chastisement of a man who preached precisely all that hocus-pocus — that Voltaire ascribed his execution to “the Inquisition” — plants the cherry on the irony sundae.‡

But Pombal’s expedient use of the Inquisition’s medieval machinery to make an example of Father Malagrida would not be the start of a pattern; the Pombaline reforms of the years to come brought the Inquisition sharply to heel, and it was Malagrida himself who was its last victim (pdf) in Portugal in its classical ecclesiastic form.


The house where Malagrida was born in Menaggio, Italy is marked with a plaque. Image (c) kallipyg and used with permission.

* Some sources give September 20 as the date.

** The “God is pissed” hypothesis was posited against theories of earth’s vapors promulgated by the Pombal-sponsored scientist Ribeiro Sanches.

† Anti-Jesuit sentiment was widely abroad in Europe at this time; increasingly resented as political manipulators, the Society would be suppressed by papal order in 1773, only to revive during the post-Napoleonic reaction.

‡ Malagrida was well-known to contemporaries in Europe, but that does not mean sympathy for him was universal. The British pol Lord Shelburne was satirized as “Malagrida” for his putative duplicity.

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1759: The Tavora family

15 comments January 13th, 2009 Headsman

Two and a half centuries ago today, Portugal’s noble Tavora family was extirpated in Belem.

[A] scaffold eighteen feet in height was erected in the market-place of Lisbon, during the night of the 13th, round which was drawn up a cordon of military. Precisely at 7 o’clock in the morning, the old Marchioness of Tavora, as the most guilty, was brought upon the scene, her hands bound, and a rope round her neck. She was placed on a chair, and her eyes being bound, the executioner struck her head off without the previous utterance by her of any complaint. After her came the twenty-one-year-old son, Joseph Maria de Tavora. They bound him on a cross raised aloft, broke his arms and legs with iron clubs, and then strangled him with a rope. The same fate befell [Tavora son-in-law] Jeronimo de Ataide, Count of Atouguia, the young Marquis Luiz Bernard de Tavora, colonel of cavalry, his servant Blasius Joseph Romeiro, Corporal Emanuel Alvarez Fereira, valet of the Duke of Aveira, and the body-page, John Michael. Their corpses were all flattened upon wheels, which were placed on poles, and this proceeding took up so much time that fully half an hour elapsed before another execution could be proceeded with.


Other outstandingly gory images of this day’s business are here.

After the page Miguel or Michael, the executioner took the old Francis d’Assis de Tavora, bound him on a St. Andrew’s cross, gave him three blows on the chest with an iron rod that resounded to a distance, shattered his arms and legs, and then gave him his coup de grace through the heart. The executioner’s men then, amidst wild shrieks, shattered the arms, legs, and thighs of the ninth victim, the old Duke of Aveiro, while still alive, then killed him by a blow on the chest, and threw him into the blazing fire. Finally, the tenth delinquent, the valet Anton Alvarez Fereira, brother of the above-mentioned Emanuel, was conducted before the corpses of the nine who had been previously executed, each one being shown to him; he was then bound to a stake, round which was placed a heap of wood, and this being set fire to, was raked together until he was completely consumed* … When the execution was over, the scaffold, together with all the dead bodies, was set on fire and burnt to ashes, which were thrown into the Tagus.

Oh, and one last thing:

[T]he palaces of the high nobility who had been executed were pulled to pieces and levelled to the ground, and salt strewed on the places where they had stood, as a sign that they should never be built up again.

Yikes.


This stone marker was placed on the site of the razed palace of Jose Mascarenhas, the Duke of Aveiro. “On this infamous land,” it announces, “nothing may be built for all time.” Copyrighted image courtesy of Ludgero Paninho.

Seems someone got the idea that the Tavoras tried to kill (and more problematically, failed to kill) Portuguese king Joseph I.

Circumstantial, torture-adduced evidence put the scheming Marchioness Eleonora de Tavora and clan behind an apparent assassination attempt, wherein a couple of assailants had shot at the king’s unmarked carriage as it returned on a little-used road from a rendezvous with his mistress. (One of the circumstances was that the mistress was a Tavora, which put the accused in a position to know the king’s secret travel plans. Others argue the gunmen might have just been common highwaymen who had no idea they were setting upon the royal person.)

Whatever the facts of the matter, obscure behind a quarter-millennium, its attribution to the Tavoras and the spectacular revenge thereupon visited was effected by the king’s competent and ruthless minister, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, the future Marquis de Pombal.


A monumental plinth surmounted by Pombal dominates the present-day Lisbon plaza named for him.

His able handling of the recent Lisbon earthquake had cemented his position as the throne’s right-hand man in a trend of centralizing absolutism not much appreciated by the old aristocracy (nor by the hidebound clerical orders, which explains why the aforesaid gory account of the execution ground comes from a German anti-Jesuit polemic).

And he would not miss the opportunity an attack on the king’s person gave him to sweep away his opponents.

The peers of the realm were summoned to witness their fellow blue-bloods so nauseatingly dispatched, and the Jesuits — “reported to have inflamed the Tavora family to their [the Jesuits’] desired pitch … in revenge for what had justly been done to them in South America”** — were forthwith suppressed.

(Functionally a progressive secular dictator — or an enlightened despot, to use a more 18th-century description — Pombal would eventually push political conflict with Rome so near the brink of outright schism that the Catholic Encyclopedia’s entry on Melo characterizes it as “a sort of disguised Anglicanism,” adding that “many of the evils from which the Church now suffers are a legacy from him.” His ascendancy is the “Pombaline Terror” in Catholic annals.)

Melo/Pombal exercised the power of the state for the rest of Joseph’s life, but the king’s daughter and successor Maria I dismissed him — though she did not take punitive action against Pombal for his persecutions, as his enemies demanded.

* Also doomed to burning alive was one Joseph Policarpo, who was able to escape the mass arrest a few weeks before and fled the kingdom. He was executed by effigy.

** This comment is from the letters of Christopher Hervey, an Englishman abroad in Portugal at the time of the execution whose 100+ pages’ worth of correspondence include live-at-the-scene reporting and English translations of the public pronouncements against the supposed culprits. As to the South American roots of Pombal’s conflict with the Jesuits, the order had resisted Pombal’s early schemes to reorganize and rationalize Portugal’s New World holdings in order to make the country a more competitive colonial power. Jesuit resistance to giving up the order’s control of education, and its humanitarian efforts to protect Indians, had been seen as contributing to an Indian rebellion that broke out in Jesuit-controlled territory — even to the point that Jesuits themselves were suspected of arming Indians in an effort to carve out church-controlled states. Hervey’s version has the Jesuits behind the plot in order to eliminate Pombal’s threat to their power. Others share this opinion … and Pombal, obviously, was keen to have his rivals inculpated for lese majeste in the public mind.

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