1819: John Markham, abominable offence

Add comment December 29th, 2015 Headsman

The diary (pdf) of a man imprisoned at Newgate recorded for this date in 1819 that

A man was hanged this morning for an unnatural crime. Had my windows fastened up but could not sleep. They began putting up the scaffold at 4 o’clock. The tolling of the bell at 8 was frightful. I heard the crash of the drop falling and a woman screech violently at the same moment. Instantly afterwards, the sound of the pye man crying, “all hot, all hot.” ‘Tis dreadful hanging a man for this practice.* There are two, a man and boy now in jail, who were caught in flagrante delictu — and yet only sentenced to two years imprisonment. The poor wretch was half dead, so they told me, before he was hanged.

Of this poor soul fallen away into the indifferent cries of the pye-man we have this from The Morning Post of December 30, 1819 (see also Rictor Norton):

EXECUTION. Yesterday morning the sentence of the law was carried into effect at the usual place in the Old Bailey, on John Markham, convicted at the October Sessions of an abominable offence. Precisely at eight o'clock the wretched culprit was placed on the scaffold, more dead than alive, attended by the Rev. Mr. COTTON, with whom he appeared to join in fervent prayer while the executioner was performing his melancholy office. In a few minutes the drop fell, and the miserable wretch was dead in an instant. Markham was a person of the lowest stamp in society: he had been for some time, and was at the period of the commission of the offence, for which he forfeited his life, a pauper inmate of St. Giles's workhouse. There were fewer spectators than ever attended on any former occasion.

John Markham was obscure, no doubt; his condemnation literally was for unspeakable acts, since it barely rates a line at all in the Old Bailey’s archives.

But the aural observer of his death was not obscure at all.

John Hobhouse, though he would eventually become the first Baron Broughton, was a buddy of the queer-friendly Lord Byron (the fourth canto of Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage is dedicated to Hobhouse). Hobhouse was also a prominent radical rabble-rouser, which is precisely why he was in Newgate on the day of Markham’s hanging.

All of this occurred in the tense wake of the Peterloo Massacre, which saw British cavalry ride down their countrymen in Manchester for assembling to demand the reform of a parliament long grown egregiously unrepresentative. (Manchester was a case in point: it had no M.P. at all based on a centuries-old allocation of boroughs even though it had now boomed into one of the realm’s leading centers of industry.**)

Following the Peterloo outrage, our correspondent Mr. Hobhouse had suggested in one of his many combative pamphlets that absent such brutal exertions the members of Parliament “would be pulled out by their ears” at the hands of an aggrieved populace. Given the all-too-recent aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars — and their antecedent, the French Revolution — the potential threat in these words seemed to the powers that be a step beyond mere colorful rhetoric.

Accordingly, the House of Commons judged Hobhouse guilty of a breach of privilege and had him arrested earlier that same December. His cause more advanced by the martyrdom than inconvenienced by a gentleman’s loose detention — Hobhouse’s at-liberty associates not only held political meetings in his ample prison apartments but planned and advertised them in advance — the man won election to that selfsame House of Commons from Westminster the following March.


(Via)

* A few days later, Hobhouse will record in his diary that he has been told that Markham “had committed his crime with a pauper in a workhouse on a coffin.”

** The U.K. finally enacted parliamentary reform in 1832. A few years after that, it even stopped hanging people for sodomy.

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1792: Three of the H.M.S. Bounty mutineers

2 comments October 29th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1792, three men were hanged from the yardarms of the H.M.S. Brunswick in Portsmouth Harbor.

Their crime was participating in that famous or infamous act of seaborne resistance, the Mutiny on the H.M.S. Bounty.

There are so many excellent resources already for enthusiasts of this adventure that a generalist site such as this one can scarcely hope to contribute. Much of the commentary through the years has gravitated towards asserting (by implication at least) the ought between the allegedly oversensitive first mate Fletcher Christian and his allegedly tyrannous captain William Bligh.

Their confrontation is too well mythologized to require commentary here. We only wish to note that this workplace spat occurred in furtherance of a mission whose purpose was the application of the lash to other laborers than the Bounty‘s Able Seamen.

Lord Byron fictionalized Bligh’s and other mariners’ accounts to render “The Island”, a poem surprisingly sympathetic (given Byron’s radical proclivities) to the officers mutinied upon. In it, he depicts the Eden-like plenty of Otaheiti

The gentle island, and the genial soil,
The friendly hearts, the feasts without a toil,
The courteous manners but from nature caught,
The wealth unhoarded, and the love unbought;
Could these have charms for rudest sea-boys, driven
Before the mast by every wind of heaven?

The Bread-tree, which, without the ploughshare, yields
The unreaped harvest of unfurrowed fields,
And bakes its unadulterated loaves
Without a furnace in unpurchased groves,
And flings off famine from its fertile breast,
A priceless market for the gathering guest …

Those fertile-breasted breadtrees were the object of Bligh’s voyage: they were to be acquired, potted, and sailed onward to the Caribbean where they’d be transplanted in hopes of providing a cornucopia … of profits to sugar plantations whose slaves’ hands an “unreaped harvest of unfurrowed fields” would free for an added margin in the export economy.*

The Bounty bartered for and potted up over 1,000 specimens during a protracted five-week layover Tahiti, a literal Bounty that the crew would prove to prefer to the floating despotism under Capt. Bligh.

Those mutineers turned the breadfruit-ship ’round and settled themselves back on Tahiti or on Pitcairn Island,* burning the Bounty in hopes of simply disappearing from imperial Britain’s circuits of maritime accumulation.

Cast adrift in the Pacific, Bligh somehow guided the 7-meter open launch 6,700 kilometers to Timor, losing only one of his 18 loyal passengers along the way — a feat of seamanship Bligh himself told all about in a first-person account. From the East Indies, Bligh caught a ride back to England and reported the insurrection to the Admiralty in March 1790, more than two years after his ill-starred voyage had set sail from Spithead.

So in 1791, a 24-gun ship called Pandora set out carrying a box of evils for the mutineers. The latter had, in this time, found the comforts of the South Pacific at least somewhat less congenial now that they proposed to make themselves permanent residents and moreover anticipated native deference to their race despite having opted themselves out of the authority that underwrote said privilege. Fletcher Christian himself is thought to be among the mutineers who died in conflicts with the natives.†

Still, the Pandora found 14 of the Bounty‘s former crew to round up and return for British judgment. (The Pitcairn settlement escaped notice altogether; it was only chanced upon by an American ship in 1808 by which time nobody had any interest in persecuting the last remaining mutineer.)

The three featured today were, perhaps surprisingly, the only ones to pass through all the filters from detention to execution, filters that one might have thought would winnow only fleetingly in the case of such an impudent rebellion.

  • To begin with, the Pandora ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef on its return voyage. Only at the last moment did a boatswain unlock the cell where the prisoners were being held — and only 10 of the 14 managed to escape being swallowed up by the seas.

  • The ensuing court-martial acquitted outright four of those remaining ten — men whom Bligh himself described as innocent loyalists who had been forced to remain with the mutineers.

The Admiralty court-martial had a job to fix the six other sailors in their right spots along the spectrum from “enthusiastic mutineer” to “passive participant” to “had to go along with events outside of their control.” It took a good deal of testimony from Bligh’s loyalists about who was armed, who gave a sharp word, and so forth, during the critical moments of Fletcher Christian’s coup. (Legal proceedings in the Bounty case are collected in their entirety here, part of a rich trove of primary sources related to the incident.)

In the end, all six whom Bligh did not vouch for got the same sentence — death — but the court endorsed several for royal mercy. The three who eventually hanged on October 29, 1792 were:

  • Able Seaman Thomas Burkitt or Burkett. Multiple witnesses made him an armed and active member of the mutiny from its very first stroke, assisting Fletcher Christian’s nighttime seizure of the sleeping captain.
  • Able Seaman John Millward. He too was placed among the armed mutineers by witnesses; in fact, prior to the mutiny, he had attempted with two other crewmates to abscond from the Bounty and spent three weeks hiding out in Tahiti before recaptured.
  • Able Seaman Thomas Ellison. Just 16 or 17 years old at the time of the mutiny, Ellison was made to hand over his watch at the helm to a mutineer. His efforts at court to portray himself as loyal to Bligh and only unwillingly swept up in events were contradicted by one of the men set adrift with the ex-captain, but have been favorably received by many later interlocutors. The Charles Nordhoff-James Hall novelization Mutiny on the Bounty presents Ellison as an innocent.

Three others condemned with this trio at the same court-martial who might have shared their execution date were spared that fate.

  • Able Seaman William Muspratt copped a stay and eventually a commutation of sentence based on having been prevented from calling his desired witnesses. He returned to active duty at sea.
  • James Morrison, notable for having built a schooner on Tahiti with which he attempted unsuccessfully to sail for the East Indies, was recommended for mercy by the court which condemned him. While incarcerated, Morrison wrote a journal giving his account of the mutiny; he too returned to active service as a gunner.
  • Midshipman Peter Heywood, the only officer charged, was like Morrison pardoned at the court’s recommendation. He put in many years of respectable service at sea, eventually retiring with the rank of post-captain. Anticipating his being tongue-tied when the pardon was announced to him, he had a note ready-written to hand the angel of his deliverance: “when the sentence of the law was passed upon me, I received it, I trust, as became a man; and if it had been carried into execution, I should have met my fate, I hope, in a manner becoming a Christian … I receive with gratitude my Sovereign’s mercy; for which my future life shall be faithfully devoted to his service.” (London Times, Oct. 30, 1792)

* This breadfruit scheme was the brainchild of Joseph Banks, an empire-minded botanist who was also a leading advocate of diverting the convict labor formerly exported to America to Australia instead.

After all the mutiny business had been sorted out, Bligh commanded a second, do-over voyage to dump breadtrees on Jamaica. Slaves’ distaste for the delicacy caused the voyage’s immediate objectives to fail; however, the imported fruit would eventually become a Jamaican culinary staple.

** Descendants of the Bounty mutineers and native women still inhabit Pitcairn to this day. It’s the smallest self-governing national jurisdiction in the world.

† The last mutineer on Pitcairn gave vague and contradictory accounts of Christian’s death. It was long rumored that he might actually have escaped Pitcairn and secretly returned to England: if so, he was never exposed.

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1810: Tommaso Tintori, the first guillotined in Rome

3 comments February 28th, 2010 Headsman

It’s easy enough to accuse the Catholic Church of being behind the times.

But this date two hundred years ago found it in the criminological progressive vanguard (just ask Lord Byron!), conducting Rome’s first beheading by guillotine, that brave new instrument of egalitarian execution.

Okay, granted: it wasn’t the ecclesiastical authorities but the French occupiers who introduced the guillotine, as was their wont.

But when the Papal States were restored a few years later, after the Napoleonic Wars, the vicars of Christ were enlightened enough to keep this efficient device (and its sunk capital cost) around … at least as one option among the restored traditional sentences of hanging, quartering, and the local specialty, mazzolatura.

Biographical details of our milestone criminal are scarce on the ground, but we have his name, date of execution, and crime — omicidio — courtesy of the Italian list kept by the famed executioner Mastro Titta.

Seguono Le Giustizie Eseguite Nel Nuovo Edifizio Per Il Taglio Della Testa Nel Governo Francese.

106. Tommaso Tintori, reo di omicidio, li 28 febbraio 1810.

As one might guess, that “106” means that the prolific Titta had already notched 105 official kills in his 14 years as executioner prior to the guillotine. He would run his career total north of 500.

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1817: Three criminals in Rome, as witnessed by Lord Byron

5 comments May 19th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1817, the day before he left his Roman holiday for Venice, Lord Byron saw three criminals beheaded at the Piazza del Popolo.

He wrote all about it in his correspondence with John Murray.

The day before I left Rome* I saw three robbers** guillotined. The ceremony — including the masqued priests; the half-naked executioners; the bandaged criminals; the black Christ and his banner; the scaffold; the soldiery; the slow procession, and the quick rattle and heavy fall of the axe; the splash of the blood, and the ghastliness of the exposed heads — is altogether more impressive than the vulgar and ungentlemanly dirty ‘new drop’, and dog-like agony of infliction upon the sufferers of the English sentence. Two of these men behaved calmly enough, but the first of the three died with great terror and reluctance, which was very horrible. He would not lie down; then his neck was too large for the aperture, and the priest was obliged to drown his exclamations by still louder exhortations. The head was off before the eye could trace the blow; but from an attempt to draw back the head, notwithstanding it was held forward by the hair, the first head was cut off close to the ears: the other two were taken off more cleanly. It is better than the oriental way, and (I should think) than the axe of our ancestors. The pain seems little; and yet the effect to the spectator, and the preparation to the criminal, are very striking and chilling. The first turned me quite hot and thirsty, and made me shake so that I could hardly hold the opera-glass (I was close, but determined to see, as one should, see every thing, once, with attention); the second and third (which shows how dreadfully soon things grow indifferent), I am ashamed to say, had no effect on me as a horror, though I would have saved them if I could.

— Venice, May 30, 1817

* The date is not stated directly in Byron’s missive, but his movements are known in some detail — for instance, this timeline.

** According to the notes of executioner Mastro Titta, the three criminals “‘decapitati’ al Popolo, per omicidi e grassazioni” this day were Giovanni Francesco Trani, Felice Rocchi and Felice De Simoni.

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1355: Marino Faliero, Doge of Venice

4 comments April 17th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1355, Marino Faliero* was escorted to the spot where he had been crowned Doge of Venice scant months before. There, he was ceremoniously relieved of his robes of state … and then his head.


The Execution of Marino Faliero, by Eugene Delacroix (1827).

Some fog surrounds the day’s proceedings, product not only of time but of the Doge’s executioners’ damnatio memoriae upon their victim. What was written was circumspect; even Faliero‘s portrait in the great hall of the Doge’s Palace was veiled.

What is known — or at any rate, was admitted by the elderly first citizen — is that the ruler attempted a coup against the overweening power of Venice’s great families.

The putsch was supposed to occur on April 15, with the bell of St. Mark’s Cathedral tolling on a fabricated hue and cry. In the tumult, the Doge’s supporters meant to cut down the nobles who flexed the real political muscle in the maritime republic and consolidate ducal power.

Why?

The salacious version has the old goat in a tiff with a noble, who made fun of his May-December marriage —

Marino Faliero of the beautiful wife,
Others enjoy her while he maintains her

A tribunal of fellow-nobles let the rascal off with a slap on the wrist.

Power being what it is, and princes and nobilities being born for conflict with one another across the centuries in Europe, one may as well discern a straightforward political intent — heightened, perhaps, by the then-dire state of Venice’s naval contest with Genoa.

Downright Byronic under either scenario … and Byron wrote a play about Faliero. The doomed ruler gives throat to quite a magnificent curse upon his city, with all the foresight of Byron’s half-millennium of hindsight:

I perish, but not unavenged; far ages
Float up from the abyss of time to be,
And show these eyes, before they close, the doom
Of this proud city, and I leave my curse
On her and hers for ever! —

          — She shall be bought
And sold, and be an appanage to those
Who shall despise her! — She shall stoop to be
A province for an empire, petty town
In lieu of capital, with slaves for senates,
Beggars for nobles, panders for a people!

Amidst thy many murders, think of mine!
Thou den of drunkards with the blood of princes!
Gehenna of the waters! thou sea Sodom!
Thus I devote thee to the infernal gods!
Thee and thy serpent seed!
[Here the Doge turns, and addresses the executioner.]
          Slave, do thine office!
Strike as I struck the foe! Strike as I would
Have struck those tyrants! Strike deep as my curse!
Strike — and but once!

This sort of thing knocking about among litterateurs in the 19th century practically guarantees an opera.

* Or simply “Marin Falier”, in the Venetian dialect.

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1783: The first hangings at Newgate Prison

9 comments December 9th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1783, London’s colorful penal history moved across town.

For centuries, public executions had been carried out at the storied Tyburn gallows, a ribald, rambunctious affair that involved carting the doomed from Newgate Prison through teeming city streets, by way of ale house pit stops.

The Tyburn era drew to a close late in the 18th century. Five weeks before, its last victim swung there.


The former hanging grounds of Tyburn, sketched by William Capon in 1785. The gallery still standing was privately erected, to sell tickets to spectators eager for a view.

Little more than a month later, the curtain raised and the trap fell on a new chapter for the London hanged.

Henceforth, the processional would be dispensed with, and the condemned simply walked across a courtyard and up a flight of stairs to a public gallows just outside the prison.

These were still public executions, and hardly eliminated the carnival atmosphere as this c. 1789 sketch will attest:

But it marked a move towards, if not altogether to, a version of the death penalty more familiar to modern eyes. For one thing, the prison itself became the site of punishment, absent the elaborate and occasionally dangerous theater of the trip to Tyburn; at Newgate, they were regularized, an extension of the frightful dungeon, and as the crowd itself was controlled and separated from the elevated platform, the natural next step would be at last to withdraw inside the prison’s walls.

At the same time, there is a technological advance towards “scientific” hangings geared to minimize suffering: the ‘New Drop’.

This system, whereby a trap sprung beneath the prisoner’s feet suspended him on the gallows, was not strictly new — a form of it had been used at Tyburn as early as 1760, though not repeated.* But the new drop (still just a variety of short drop, where strangulation is likely) marks a distinct shift towards a mechanistic punishment, clearly removed from the sometimes fraught physical confrontation between a prisoner and a hangman attempting to force him or her from the cart, and an antechamber into the grim 19th century science of reckoning hangman’s drops for the precise effect of snapping (without severing) the neck.

Of course, progress always has its detractors.

74-year-old Samuel Johnson groused at the “innovation” of leaving Tyburn:

[T]hey object that the old method drew together too many spectators. Sir, executions are intended to draw spectators; If they do not draw spectators, they don’t answer their purpose. The old method was most satisfactory to all parties; the public were gratified by a procession and the criminal was supported by it.

Approaching the matter from a very different perspective, Lord Byron found the Italian beheadings of Mastro Titta “altogether more impressive than the vulgar and ungentlemanly dirty ‘new drop’, and dog-like agony of infliction upon the sufferers of the English sentence.”

* In the correspondence of an early 19th century Secretary of the Admiralty, we have confirmation of this in a letter of Sir Peter Laurie, available from Google Books here and here. Laurie reports that “something like a drop in hanging criminals”

was not adopted as the general mode of execution till 1783, when ten felons were executed on the 9th of December in that year for the first time in front of Newgate, on a new drop or scaffold hung with black … The gallows used at Tyburn was purchased by a carpenter who, having no sentiment in his composition, converted it into stands for beer butts in the cellars of a public house called the “Carpenter’s Arms” in Adam Street.

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1833: Captain Henry Nicholas Nicholls, sodomite

13 comments August 12th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1833, Captain Henry Nicholas Nicholls was hanged in London for sodomy.

Sodomy — “buggery,” in the more evocative British phrase, often bowdlerized in court records as b-gg–y or the like — was a capital offense in England until 1861, when the penalty was reduced to “merely” life imprisonment.

The London Courier reported the event:

Captain Henry Nicholas Nicholls, who was one of the unnatural gang to which the late Captain Beauclerk belonged, (and which latter gentleman put an end to his existence), was convicted on the clearest evidence at Croydon, on Saturday last, of the capital offence of Sodomy; the prisoner was perfectly calm and unmoved throughout the trial, and even when sentence of death was passed upon him. In performing the duty of passing sentence of death upon the prisoner, Mr. Justice Park told him that it would be inconsistent with that duty if he held out the slightest hope that the law would not be allowed to take its severest course. At 9 o’clock in the morning the sentence was carried into effect. The culprit, who was fifty years of age, was a fine looking man, and had served in the Peninsular war. He was connected with a highly respectable family; but, since his apprehension not a single member of it visited him.

The popular broadside on the case was scarcely more sympathetic. [Here’s another version of the gallow lit]

Even though once or twice a year someone would hang for it and the scandal would send family fleeing his name, Old Blighty still had a vigorous underground gay scene in the 19th century. While Lord Byron was enjoying the easier same-sex access of the Ottoman lands, a friend wrote to him, “that what you get for £5 we must risque our necks for; and are content to risque them.” (Cited here)

Quite accidentally, the senseless destruction this day of a respectable veteran helped set the put-upon gay underground upon its long march towards mainstream acceptance.

A first-person narrative written* in 1833 under the name of Lord Byron (who was in fact nine years dead, but whose queer identity clearly informs the work), Don Leon was a signal piece of literature: the first overt literary defense of homosexuality in English.**

It opens with a scene said to be inspired by Captain Nicholls:

Thou ermined judge, pull off that sable cap!
What! Cans’t thou lie, and take thy morning nap?
Peep thro’ the casement; see the gallows there:
Thy work hangs on it; could not mercy spare?
What had he done? Ask crippled Talleyrand,
Ask Beckford, Courtenay, all the motley band
Of priest and laymen, who have shared his guilt
(If guilt it be) then slumber if thou wilt;
What bonds had he of social safety broke?
Found’st thou the dagger hid beneath his cloak?
He stopped no lonely traveller on the road;
He burst no lock, he plundered no abode;
He never wrong’d the orphan of his own;
He stifled not the ravish’d maiden’s groan.
His secret haunts were hid from every soul,
Till thou did’st send thy myrmidons to prowl,
And watch the prickings of his morbid lust,
To wring his neck and call thy doings just.

The author — whose identity is still debated† — continues writing more or less autobiographically of Byron’s life, and using his illicit desires and lifestyle (with digressions into historical precedent) to defend homosexuality as ultimately natural and harmless.

The tree we plant will, when its boughs are grown,
Produce no other blossoms than its own;
And thus in man some inborn passions reign
Which, spite of careful pruning, sprout again.
Then, say, was I or nature in the wrong,
If, yet a boy, one inclination, strong
In wayward fancies, domineered my soul,
And bade complete defiance to control?

Though law cries “hold!” yet passion onward draws;
But nature gave us passions, man gave laws,
Whence spring these inclinations, rank and strong?
And harming no one, wherefore call them wrong?
What’s virtue’s touchstone? Unto others do,
As you would wish that others did to you.
Then tell me not of sex, if to one key
The chords, when struck, vibrate in harmony.
No virgin I deflower, nor, lurking, creep,
With steps adult’rous, on a husband’s sleep.
I plough no field in other men’s domain;
And where I delve no seed shall spring again.

Look, how infected with rank disease
Were those, who held St. Peter’s holy keys,
And pious men to whom the people bowed,
And kings, who churches to the saints endowed;
All these were Christians of the highest stamp-
How many scholars, wasting over their lamp,
How many jurists, versed in legal rules,
How many poets, honoured in the schools,
How many captains, famed for deeds of arms,
Have found their solace in a minion’s arms!
Nay, e’en our bard, Dame Nature’s darling child,
Felt the strange impulse, and his hours beguiled
In penning sonnets to a stripling’s praise,
Such as would damn a poet now-a-days.
To this conclusion we must come at last:
Wise men have lived in generations past,
Whose deeds and sayings history records,
To whom the palm of virtue she awards,
Who, tempted, ate of that forbidden tree,
Which prejudice denies to you and me.
Then be consistent; and, at once confess,
If man’s pursuit through life is happiness,
The great, the wise, the pious, and the good,
Have what they sought not rightly understood;
Or deem not else that aberration crime,
Which reigns in every caste and every clime.

To this conclusion we must come at last:
Wise men have lived in generations past,
Whose deeds and sayings history records,
To whom the palm of virtue she awards,
Who, tempted, ate of that forbidden tree,
Which prejudice denies to you and me.
Then be consistent, and, at once confess;
If man’s pursuit through life is happiness,
The great, the wise, the pious, and the good,
Have what they sought not rightly understood;
Or deem not else that aberration crime,
Which reigns in every caste and every clime.

Statesmen, in your exalted station know
Sins of omission for commission go;
Since ships as often founder on the main
From leaks unstopped as from the hurricane.
Shore up your house; it totters to the base;
A mouldering rot corrodes it; and the trace
Of every crime you punish I descry:
The least of all perhaps is sodomy.

I stand a monument, whereby to learn
That reason’s light can never strongly burn
Where blear-eyed prejudice erects her throne,
And has no scale for virtue but her own.

* Don Leon circulated initially in manuscript form, and was not published in England until years later — a known printing in 1866, and possibly another lost edition from before 1853.

** Here lagging well behind France, which had burned only a bare handful of homosexuals under monarchist anti-sodomy laws in the 18th century, and decriminalized homosexuality full stop in 1791. In Philosophy in the Boudoir the Marquis de Sade preened casually triumphant over the bad old days while Lord Byron was still a boy.

We wonder that savagery could ever reach the point where you condemn to death an unhappy person all of whose crime amounts to not sharing your tastes … Nature, who places such slight importance upon the essence that flows in our loins, can scarcely be vexed by our choice when we are pleased to vent it into this or that avenue.

† Candidates include parliamentarian William Bankes, who was arrested for sodomy in 1833 but acquitted later in the year; fellow MP John Cam Hobhouse; and playwright and Byron-idolizer George Coleman.

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1425: Parisina Malatesta and Ugo d’Este, for incest

Add comment May 21st, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1425, the Marquess of Ferrara had his wife and son beheaded for an incestuous affair, along with a courtier who had kept their secret.

The “incest” was social rather than sanguinary: the lovers were not related. Like many a Renaissance despot, Niccolò III d’Este produced a multitudinous assortment of illegitimate children and underaged dynastic wives. Small wonder, one might think, that the 14-year-old (at her marriage) Parisina Malatesta (the link is to her Italian Wikipedia page) should come to prefer the attentions of the Duke’s eldest bastard Ugo (one year her junior) to those of a spouse more than twenty years older.

Awww.

Still, the affair has its curious aspect, apart from the obvious. The Duke was on that timeless monarchical quest for legitimate male issue; Parisina Malatesta would bear him two surviving daughters and a son who died in infancy during her teenage years.

One can hardly fail to think of that more renowned decapitated queen of the next century Anne Boleyn. Like Anne, Parisina lost her head to an incest allegation after a few years’ failure to give her husband an heir.

The need for specifically legitimate succession, however, was somewhat less pressing in tightly run Ferrara than early Tudor England. As the oldest illegitimate son, Ugo himself had a chance to succeed by his father’s appointment — in fact, the second illegitimate son Leonello ultimately did just that. For this reason, Ugo and Parisina — the latter threatening to supplant the former with a legitimate child of her own — might have been natural rivals, and there is some hint of initial enmity between the two. One wonders if there might not have been a twist of obscured courtly skullduggery about this day’s bloody climax.

In any event, interlocutors have preferred the personal aspect, and little wonder. The Marquess played his part by being stricken with anguish and remorse for his ruthless treatment of a favored son, possibly aided by a general reaction of horror among most contemporaries.*

Retold in later years as scandal (though never with much sympathy for the marquess**) its Byronic potential as tragic love story was eventually seized by, well, Lord Byron. His “Parisina” gives us two true hearts in the flower of youth crushed by the cruel weight of their unjust world … although he found it more apt to conclude with only the boy losing his head while the wail of his lover signals a more ambiguous fate.

With all the consciousness that he
Had only passed a just decree;
That they had wrought their doom of ill;
Yet Azo’s† age was wretched still.
The tainted branches of the tree,
If lopped with care, a strength may give,
By which the rest shall bloom and live
All greenly fresh and wildly free:
But if the lightning, in its wrath,
The waving boughs with fury scathe,
The massy trunk the ruin feels,
And never more a leaf reveals.

Mascagni also adapted it for the opera in 1913 — a legendarily tiresome four-hour affair. One review’s famous recommendation (apt enough for the subject as well as the performance) was “Cut, cut, cut!”

* The Marquess was less troubled about his wife, and promulgated a decree imposing like punishment for any other wife guilty of such a crime. The sentence was actually carried out upon a magistrate’s wife.

** Gibbon tut-tutted the affair, simultaneously helping circulate it anew:

Under the reign of Nicholas III, Ferrara was polluted with a domestic tragedy. By the testimony of a maid, and his own observation, the Marquis of Este discovered the incestuous loves of his wife Parisina, and Hugo his bastard son, a beautiful and valiant youth. They were beheaded in the castle by the sentence of a father and husband, who published his shame, and survived their execution. He was unfortunate, if they were guilty: if they were innocent, he was still more unfortunate; nor is there any possible situation in which I can sincerely approve the last act of the justice of a parent.

† Niccolo is “Azo” in the poem, for metric convenience. The House of Este had produced a number of lords named Azzo over the preceding centuries.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Ferrara,History,Italy,Nobility,Scandal,Sex,Women

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1796: Mastro Titta’s first execution of many

11 comments March 22nd, 2008 dogboy

A Catholic man with the name Giovanni Battiste (“John the Baptist”) Bugatti could hardly have had a more ironic role in church history than the man who, on this date in 1796, dispatched his first victim as official executioner of the Papal State. Nicholas Gentilucci was hanged for killing a clergyman and his coachman, then robbing two friars while on the lam; Gentilucci’s corpse was subsequently quartered.

Little is known about Gentilucci, but much is known of his then-17-year-old executioner, for Bugatti, who would become known simply as Mastro Titta, turned out to be the most individually prolific taker of life in turn-of-the-19th century Rome.

Bugatti was born in Rome in 1779 and, even while putting criminals of the state to death, lived and worked on the west side of the Tiber River as an umbrella painter. Executions were a side job, and these ghastly deeds were recognized as such by the church, which compensated him a paltry three cents of a Roman lira for each body.

“Minister of Justice”

Mastro Titta brandishes an executed woman’s head.

The original Mastro Titta — the titular corruption of the “Minister of Justice” — took responsibility for each of his “patients” (as he called them, and as they were notoriously referred to by others), dutifully noting each of the 516 in his memoir. He stood for 69 years as the primary administrator of the death penalty in papal Rome, killing variously by beheading, hanging, and use of the mallet. Some were charged with murder, others with conspiracy, others with more petty crimes, but all were found guilty by the court of judges chosen by the Church’s bishops and cardinals.

The Minister’s performances were not without an (increasingly practiced) flair, heavy on the religious symbolism. Bugatti’s residence on the west side of the river meant that, when he was to carry out a punishment, he had first to cross the river.

Initially, the executions were carried out in the Piazza del Popolo, but that location was retired in the 1820’s; it’s not clear how consistent the location was after this, but at least one later execution occurred near San Giovanni decollato, home to the group of monks dedicated to comforting the condemned even when the final blow didn’t occur at its doorstep. Regardless of the locale, a spectacle soon arose surrounding that crossing and the parade which followed, as documented by Italian dialect poet G.G. Belli in 1835 (presumably for the execution of Giovanni Orioli di Lugo on July 11 of that year):

The Dilettante at the Bridge

They approach: Attention: the ceremony is brief.
Behold the condemned, neck bare and stretched.
He is the first man of the opera, the Patient,
The Ace of Spades, lord of the fesitval.

And behold the professor that will soon be
The surgeon acting for the people
For three pence, the community,
He will cure the ills of their pained head!

But not the man on the left: the other, to the right.
He in the second place is the Assistant.
The proceedings wait for Mastro Titta.

Do you want the usual from me, who takes the head?
I who never miss it: I am consistent;
And I know him as well as I know the Pope.

The translation is largely mine, with help on some difficult sections from a well-written and complete description of Mastro Titta’s life and work here and here.

Just a Job

A pinch of snuff before I snuff you?

Bugatti was known for playing the role of executioner in a manner which left no doubt as to his feelings towards the act: it was his job, his service to the Church itself, undisturbed by any personal animus towards the condemned — particularly early in his career.

He often offered snuff to his victims and spoke briefly and quietly with them prior to the execution, likely ploys to ease the victim into his role in the spectacle. Dickens viewed one of Mastro Titta’s beheadings on 8 March 1845*, and, in his Pictures From Italy, he remarked on the callousness of the event.

In keeping with this attitude, most of the entries in Mastro Titta’s memoir are fewer than 20 words. They reflect a man who seeks to distance himself from the crowd’s bloodlust. A selection:

  • Tommaso Tintori, guilty of homicide, 28 February 1810″ (The first using the “new edifice for beheading from the French government” — that is, the guillotine)
  • “Pecorari Angel, of Poli, aged 29. Peasant guilty of premeditated homicide of one woman, condemned to «death as an example» in Poland on 21 January 1847.” (There were a number of prisoners sentenced in other Catholic parts of Europe sent to Rome for Titta’s ministrations.)

  • “Sabbatino Proietti, aged 25, «decapitated» in Rieti for petty theft and highway robbery and murder on 20 August 1853, died converted, executed through administration of justice at the public square at the Bridge.”
  • “Angelo Lisi di Alatri, found guilty of premeditated highway robbery and murder in Frosinone, «dead» on 30 April 1862.”

An Anomalous Man

Bugatti was born just seven years prior to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany becoming the first of the Italian states to abolish the death penalty. There, Leopold II barred torture and punishment of death, a decision heavily influenced by Cesare Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments and a desire to distance his nation from Rome.

In the neighboring Papal State, however, the practice continued, the embodiment of the church’s power over its people in matters earthly and spiritual. Executions of the time performed for various reasons, but with a handful of exceptions, they were almost exclusively performed on persons in the lower class. Many relied on the use of torture or testimony from confessionals. Papal executions were carried out until the 1870s and only declared unnecessary (though not banned by the Church) by Pope John Paul II in the 1990s.

A complete discussion of the role of executions in the Catholic Church is too much for this space,** but a man like Bugatti serves usefully to exemplify the absurdity endowed in these killings by the Catholic Church. Where the half-dozen popes who served over Bugatti thought such executions to be necessary for the control of the masses, they had no such ideas about nobles who committed crimes.

The execution itself consisted of a parade with masked priests, banners, scriptural readings, and sermonizing, culminating in the death of the condemned. John L Allen of the National Catholic Reporter described the treatment of these executions in that day as “a liturgy”, and descriptions from writers such as Lord Byron show a scene which could only be described as a mix of Catholic Mass and town festival.

Such ritualized killing came to contrast starkly with the Italian celebration of an anti-death penalty position, and the two stood at odds for over a century. In 1909, the topic was hot enough that a plaque glorifying two Italians executed by Bugatti in 1825 was erected; a dozen years later, its contents were concealed out of deference to Rome until after the Second Vatican Council. The commemorated, Angiolo Targhini and Leonida Montanari (here’s their Italian Wikipedia page), were convicted essentially of riling the people, and they were summarily beheaded; their story was the inspiration for Luigi Magni’s 1969 classic Nell’anno del Signore:

“So ends the long list of Bugatti.”

Mastro Titta was given an official residence, and at the end of his term, he was handsomely rewarded with a pension for his service — 30 scudi per year. His final executions were carried out on 17 August 1864, wearing his traditional red cloak (now on display at the Criminology Museum of Rome): Antonio Olietti of Rome and Domenico Antonio Demartini were beheaded for homicide.

The Minister of Justice was 85, four and some years from the end of his life, and the final line in his memoir reads, “So ends the long list of Bugatti. May that of his successor be shorter.”

Indeed it was.

The final executions in Rome occurred on 24 November 1868 at the hands of Antonio Balducci, Bugatti’s long-time apprentice; the event was marked by Pope Pius IX famously intoning in response to calls for a stay, “I can’t, and I don’t want to.” The last execution in the Papal State was of Agatino Bellomo on 9 July 1870, in Palestrina, shortly before the nascent unified Italy absorbed Rome.

Mastro Titta is still known in Italy,† but, adrift amid a particularly violent period of revolution, his legacy as papal executioner is largely lost to the rest of the world.

* The day’s guillotinee was Giovanni Vagnarelli, 26, from Augustine; he killed Bavarian Anna Cotten and robbed her, and her wife’s statement at confessional was used to convict Vagnarelli. Such confessional convictions were not uncommon, as Bugatti’s own memoir confirms.

** There’s surprisingly little reading out there about this topic, though it would seem ripe for a book or two. Here’s what I can find:

  • “Fear and Loathing in Bologna and Rome: The Papal Police in Perspective”, Steven Hughes, Journal of Social History, 1987.
  • “Capital Punishment: The Curious History of its Privileged Place in Christendom”, James J. Megivern, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 2003.
  • For a discussion of current discourse in Catholic teachings, this is rather interesting: “To Kill or Not to Kill: The Catholic Church and the Problem of the Death Penalty”, lecture by E. Christian Brugger, Asst. Prof. of Ethics, Dept. of Religious Studies, Loyola University, 2001.

† A half dozen kilometers from the bridge that Mastro Titta crossed on his way to carry out Papal justice now stands the Mastro Titta Pub. It is reportedly “tastefully done” and serves mostly Belgian beers.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Italy,Known But To God,Milestones,Murder,Notable Participants,Other Voices,Papal States,Public Executions

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