In every civilized society, in every society where the distinction of ranks has once been completely established, there have been always two different schemes or systems of morality current at the same time; of which the one may be called the strict or austere; the other the liberal, or, if you will, the loose system. … The vices of levity are always ruinous to the common people, and a single week’s thoughtlessness and dissipation is often sufficient to undo a poor workman for ever, and to drive him, through despair, upon committing the most enormous crimes. … The disorder and extravagance of several years, on the contrary, will not always ruin a man of fashion; and people of that rank are very apt to consider the power of indulging in some degree of excess, as one of the advantages of their fortune; and the liberty of doing so without censure or reproach, as one of the privileges which belong to their station.
On this date in 1734, Judith Defour (or Dufour; she was also known as Judith Leeford) was hanged at Tyburn, and afterwards anatomized.
Defour’s four companions in death were (male) robbers, highwaymen and housebreakers, feared but commonplace scourges of London’s propertied. Defour was a different type of terror to panic the moral sense of a metropolis that daily outgrew its denizens’ comprehensions: she throttled her two-year-old daughter “and sold the Coat and Stay for a Shilling, and the Petticoat and Stockings for a Groat. We parted the Money, and join’d for a Quartern of Gin.”
Maternal care has gone by the wayside in this detail view (click for the full image) of William Hogarth‘s 1751 print “Gin Lane”, a shocking figure who might allude to Judith Defour. This is not Hogarth’s only comment on the gin craze; in his “The Idle Prentice Executed at Tyburn” there appears to be commerce in Madame Geneva taking place in the cart to the right hand side of the frame.
Gin — short for Geneva, a corruption of the Dutch word jenever which denoted not a city in Switzerland but the potent elixir’s juniper flavoring — boomed in popularity as production advances sank its price in the early 1700s. “Cheap, widely available, and several times stronger than the traditional alcoholic beverages of the English working classes, gin was the first modern drug,” writes Jessica Warner in Craze: Gin and Debauchery in an Age of Reason.* And per-capita consumption of it increased nearly eightfold over the first half of the 18th century.
The specter of rampant alcoholism within the financial means of the working-class terrified the respectable.
“There is that predominant bewitching of naughtiness in these fiery liquors, as strongly and impetuously carries men on to their certain destruction … To recover him from this condition, he must be, as it were, forced into his liberty and rescued in some measure from his own depraved desires: he must be dealt with like a madman and be bound down to keep him from destroying himself,” wrote the Anglican clergyman and scientist Stephen Hales around the same time as Defour suffered. His earnest leap from moral shock to questionable social science inference — and even a proto-eugenics appeal — could have sprung word by word from the pen of a present-day drug warrior.
How many does it reduce to suffer the hardships of the extremest poverty, not only by wasting their substance by the continual drain to satisfy a false, vitiated appetite, but also by so enfeebling and disabling them that they have neither will nor power to labor for an honest livelihood; which is a principal reason of the great increase of the poor in this nation, as also of the much greater number of robberies that are committed of late years than were in former ages …
It is evident that in proportion as the contagion spreads farther and farther among mankind, so must the breed of human species be proportionably more and more depraved, and will accordingly degenerate more and more from the more manly and robust constitution of preceding generations. (Source)
Gin projected existential threats more imminent than the potential mongrelization of the species.
From the standpoint of Great Britain’s national output, gin’s production devoured a growing share of the grain harvest, with the perverse result that distillers keen to reassure lawmakers that their product posed no threat to the bread supply made pains to insist that they brewed their potion using only the lowest-quality crap not fit for consumption. On a more microeconomic level, gin was slated with sapping its adherent’s aptitude for the strictures of gainful employment while siphoning his revenues from more reputable tradesmen of whom, addled by alcoholic thirst, the drukard no longer cared to purchase even the barest essentials.** And the gin-houses, “some thousands of such, more than was ever known before” that popped up all over London came to be viewed as scofflaw cesspools — where the iniquitous planned their next larcenies or disposed of the proceeds from the last.
Cause and effect make a jumble, but as the Gin Craze unfolded every form of disorder, criminality, and social breakdown seemed but a link or two distant from the influence of Geneva.
We don’t know when this dark moon first threw a shadow over Judith Defour — only that she would transform her into a beast.
The daughter of poor and honest French-descended Spitalfields weavers, she was about 30 years old when she hanged. To reconstruct a timetable of her life from the scanty biographical details available us, she went to work by the time she was 10 or 12 years old as the silk winder for another weaver; she worked 11 years for that weaver, a woman, and then four more for a male weaver at which point the Newgate Ordinary says that “she fell into bad Company, and had a Bastard-Child, which died; and then she had another, the unfortunate Child lately murder’d by her.” Reading between the lines, she we might infer that her out-of-wedlock pregnancy was the cause of her dismissal. She had no education, and was not among the weaving industry’s skilled artisans. Hers was a perilous situation.
Did she fall into life’s waiting snares because of gin, or the other way around? The record gives us no indication — only that as she approaches Tyburn’s pall three or four years after her dismissal she is far along in dissipation and her employment prospects appear fleeting and piecemeal. Maybe she was already begging, thieving, or whoring, ills commonly imputed to Gin Lane. Judith’s mother would tell the court that “she never was in her right Mind, but was always roving,” although she was trying to save her daughter’s life when she said this.
In any event, Judith was shuttling her young daughter in and out of a workhouse at this point. On January 29, barely five weeks before her execution, Judith picked up little Mary from the workhouse as was her wont (forging a release order from the church), and brought her along as she went out boozing with a friend named Sukey† — “one of the most vilest of Creatures in or about the Town.”
The girl had been new-clothed at the workhouse, and as day wore on to evening and the gin ran dry, Sukey convinced Judity “to sell the Child’s Clothes, and carry it into the Fields and leave it there.” Maybe the kid would be taken in by some passing stranger, or returned to the workhouse; maybe Judith could retrieve her from the field later that night. Nasty, brutish, and short was this life and the only thing that mattered at that moment was the next drink. But in the attempt to silence the whimpering toddler they “ty’d a linen Rag very hard about the Child’s Neck, to prevent its crying out, which strangled her.” Then they walked away and sold those clothes for drink.
[S]he said, she was very sorry for what was done, that she never was at Peace since it happened, that she scarce desired to live; and therefore she made a voluntary Confession she had been always of a very surly Disposition, and untractable Creature, a Despiser of Religion, negligent in her Duty to God and Man, and would take no good Advice of her Friends, nor of any good or sober People. She drank and swore much, and was averse to Virtue and Sobriety, delighting in the vilest Companies, and ready to Practice the worst of Actions. She acknowledged the Justice of her Sentence, and died in Peace with all Mankind.
** “Those that keep large numbers of cows near the town will tell you, that they have not had near the demand for their milk, and have been forced to sell off some part of their stock; which they attribute to mothers and nurses giving their children gin.” -Reformer Thomas Wilson, quoted in Patrick Dillon’s Gin: The Much-Lamented Death of Madame Geneva.
On this date in 1715, the legendary outlaw Filip Mengstein was broken on the wheel in Dresden’s marketplace, along with four henchmen.
With the wiseguy nickname “Lips Tullian”, our cutthroat’s gangland derring-do cuts a truly timeless profile. But it happens that Lips did his cutting in the environs of Saxony and Bohemia, exploiting for many years lax domestic security in the Holy Roman Empire occasioned by the preoccupations of the Great Northern War. Legend has it that he was a former dragoon forced to take to the road around 1702 when he slew a comrade in a duel.
From wilderness haunts — there’s still a “Lips Tullian Hill” in Saxony’s Tharandt Forest — Tullian’s “Black Guard” gang sallied into towns to raid prosperous homes and churches. When caught, he had a knack for the dramatic breakout, returning again and again to his gang.
Alas, it was an unsuccessful escape attempt in 1713 that finally caused his captors of the day to realize who they had and put him to torture and, eventually, the brutal breaking-wheel execution.
Immortalized in subsequent folklore, especially in Bohemia, Lips Tullian is best noted recently as the subject of a popular 1970s Czech comic published (until Communist authorities suppressed it) by Mlady Svet. The illustrator Kaja Saudek based his Lips Tullian on the romantic 19th century interpretation of Kvidon de Felses — presenting him as a gold-hearted rogue with an impressively chiseled physique.
You recall the time when the Jesus Indians of the Delawares lived near the Americans, and had confidence in their promises of friendship, and thought they were secure, yet the Americans murdered all the men, women, and children, even as they prayed to Jesus?
This incident during the American Revolution took place in the Ohio River basin, a vast and fertile flashpoint whose part in not only the revolution but the antecedent French and Indian War perhaps entitles it to claim the midwifery of the coming American empire.
After victory in the French and Indian War, the British closed the area west of the Appalachian mountains to European settlement. This proclamation:
Made good a wartime pact Britain had made to secure the support of the Iroquois, Lenape (Delaware) and Shawnee tribes; and
Trailed facts on the ground the moment it was issued.
European settlements and land claims already existed in the supposed Indian Reserve, and land-hungry settlers did not let the supposed frontier deter them from advancing new ones. Confrontations between these arriving claimants and the native inhabitants not infrequently came to atrocious resolutions.
By 1768, a new treaty pushed the line further west, effectively ceding to the colonists everything south of the Ohio River — present-day Kentucky and West Virginia.*
Map of the disputed area: the frontier moved from the yellow line along the Applachians to the orange line along the Ohio.
Ohio Country, the remaining territory in dark green shading north of the Ohio River, lay at the time of the American Revolution between the British garrison at Fort Detroit and colonial outposts along the nascent United States’s western marches, such as Fort Pitt (Pittsburgh).
The Lenape Indians in Ohio Country had a difficult calculation to make as to which side (if any) and how to support during the British-American fighting. The question split the Lenape internally.
In this cauldron, a strange morsel: Lenape who were Moravian** Christian converts had established a little missionary village. “Gnadenhutten” literally means “huts of grace”.
As one might imagine, Gnadenhutten and its sister settlements of pacifistic, Christian Lenape stood in a terribly ambiguous position in the brutal irregular war going on around them. Their fellow Lenape distrusted them because they were Christians; their fellow Christians, because they were Lenape.
Suspected by the British of being friendly enough with the American colonists to pass intelligence to their eventual murderers, these converts were in 1781 forced out of Gnadenhutten by British-allied Lenape to a new settlement aptly named “Captive Town”.
Starving there in the ensuing winter, the Moravians dispatched nearly 100 of their number back to Gnadenhutten to retrieve food abandoned at that settlement.
The Moravians were still at their village when a raiding party of Pennsylvanians descended on the town. Under no authority but the militiamen’s own festering grievances from the ongoing dirty war, the Pennsylvanians rounded up the Delaware and heartlessly declared their deaths.
Here were Indians who would pay for the violence Indians had done. And they were the best kind: the kind who didn’t fight back.
After spending a night praying and preparing for the end, the Moravian Lenape were systematically butchered on the morning of March 8† with mallet blows and scalpings.
Depending on your source, there were either 90 or 96 scalps to take that morning – women, men, and children in nearly equal proportions. At least one young boy survived the death squad and reported the massacre. Nor were all the militia themselves at peace with their deed.
one Nathan Rollins & brother had had a father & uncle killed took the lead in murdering the Indians, & Williamson was opposed to it; & Nathan Rollins had tomahawked nineteen of the poor Moravians, & after it was over he sat down & cried, & said it was no satisfaction for the loss of his father & uncle after all. — So related Holmes Jr. who was there — who was out on both Moravian campaigns, & Crawford’s. (Source)
Ah, Crawford’s campaign.
Later in 1782, another expedition of frontiersmen under Col. William Crawford set out “to destroy with fire and sword” a different Lenape settlement in Ohio. Instead, the Lenape met and routed the expedition, taking Crawford prisoner. He and the other captives from that misadventure would be burned to death, in part to avenge Gnadenhutten.
This, and whatever like tit for tat could be exacted in the field, was all the justice the Lenape could ever hope to have for the hecatomb of Gnadenhutten. American authorities declined to prosecute or sanction any members of the militia.
“Here triumphed in death ninety Christian Indians March 8, 1782″: inscription at the base of a memorial obelisk in Gnadenhutten. (cc) image from Mike Drabik.
* This might have been a nice solution, except that said treaty was made by the Iroquois — and only the Iroquois. For the Shawnee who actually lived and hunted in this cessation, this was two outside powers bartering their land. They didn’t mean to give it up on the say-so of the Iroquois. Another nasty frontier war followed, and even when that was won by Virginian militia, dissatisfied Shawnee continued targeting settlements in Kentucky; it’s partly for this reason that the Declaration of Independence slates King George III with having “endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”
For more on the long and tragic Shawnee struggle in this period, see “‘We Have Always Been the Frontier': The American Revolution in Shawnee Country” by Colin G. Calloway in American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Winter 1992).
** The Moravian Church‘s name harkens to its Czech origins. It’s a successor to the reform tradition of Jan Hus.
† There are a few cites out there for the day before or the day after March 8.
For Orwell, the “great period” elapsed in part because the 20th century’s monumental destruction of human life dwarfed the meaning of individual homicides, and in part because the crimes themselves (and even their frequent medium, arsenic) connected to frustrated (usually domestic) Victorian passions and imbued “dramatic and even tragic qualities which make [them] memorable and excite pity for both victim and murderer.”
But that was then. Orwell wants these newfangled atavistic hoodlums and their crummy American films to get off his damn terrace.
Sure, but where’s the heart? (London Times, Jan. 24, 1945)
Now compare the Cleft Chin Murder. There is no depth of feeling in it. It was almost chance that the two people concerned committed that particular murder, and it was only by good luck that they did not commit several others. The background was not domesticity, but the anonymous life of the dance-halls and the false values of the American film. The two culprits were an eighteen-year-old ex-waitress named Elizabeth Jones, and an American army deserter, posing as an officer, named Karl Hulten. They were only together for six days, and it seems doubtful whether, until they were arrested, they even learned one another’s true names. They met casually in a teashop, and that night went out for a ride in a stolen army truck. Jones described herself as a strip-tease artist, which was not strictly true (she had given one unsuccessful performance in this line); and declared that she wanted to do something dangerous, “like being a gun-moll.” Hulten described himself as a big-time Chicago gangster, which was also untrue. They met a girl bicycling along the road, and to show how tough he was Hulten ran over her with his truck, after which the pair robbed her of the few shillings that were on her. On another occasion they knocked out a girl to whom they had offered a lift, took her coat and handbag and threw her into a river. Finally, in the most wanton way, they murdered a taxi-driver who happened to have £8 in his pocket. Soon afterwards they parted. Hulten was caught because he had foolishly kept the dead man’s car, and Jones made spontaneous confessions to the police. In court each prisoner incriminated the other. In between crimes, both of them seem to have behaved with the utmost callousness: they spent the dead taxi-driver’s £8 at the dog races.
Judging from her letters, the girl’s case has a certain amount of psychological interest, but this murder probably captured the headlines because it provided distraction amid the doodle-bugs and the anxieties of the Battle of France. Jones and Hulten committed their murder to the tune of V1, and were convicted to the tune of V2. There was also considerable excitement because — as has become usual in England — the man was sentenced to death and the girl to imprisonment. According to Mr. Raymond, the reprieving of Jones caused widespread indignation and streams of telegrams to the Home Secretary: in her native town, “SHE SHOULD HANG” was chalked on the walls beside pictures of a figure dangling from a gallows. Considering that only ten women have been hanged in Britain this century, and that the practice has gone out largely because of popular feeling against it, it is difficult not to feel that this clamour to hang an eighteen-year-old girl was due partly to the brutalizing effects of war. Indeed, the whole meaningless story, with its atmosphere of dance-halls, movie-palaces, cheap perfume, false names and stolen cars, belongs essentially to a war period.
Perhaps it is significant that the most talked-of English murder of recent years should have been committed by an American and an English girl who had become partly Americanized. But it is difficult to believe that this case will be so long remembered as the old domestic poisoning dramas, product of a stable society where the all-prevailing hypocrisy did at least ensure that crimes as serious as murder should have strong emotions behind them.
This dull peasant spent at least the latter half of the 1850s (and maybe the first half, too) visiting Lyon where he would lure impecunious girls with the promise of good wages in a domestic position.
We know very well that there was no job awaiting these young women, but the twist is that Dumollard wasn’t a sex-killer, either — he just wanted to throttle his marks, drink their blood, and steal their poor clothes and meager possessions to re-sell them.
And in Second Empire France, with its haunting specters of Communism and nationalism, the migration of country bumpkins like Dumollard into urban areas, and the existential threat posed the entire polity by the rise of neighboring Prussia … in that France, Dumollard’s shocking spree really agitated the id of the respectable French bourgeoisie.
Relentless and grim — Dumollard had actually seen his own father put to death when the family fled as refugees to Italy during his boyhood — the illiterate, middle-aged murderer as presented to the public heedlessly stuffed his face with food while maintaining a near-total disinterest in the criminal case that would claim his head. He’d also shown no interest in subterfuge, leading the courts to castigate police for not detecting him years earlier even though several girls had escaped from him. His wife abetted the whole thing, dutifully washing out the victims’ stained clothes before market days. (She got a sentence of hard labor.)
Dumollard must have looked to his betters like some vengeful golem arisen from the soil, a homicidal automaton not even impelled by any recognizable human avidity, and a frightening warning of what might befall them.
According to Albert Borowitz, the unveiling a few months later of Jean-Francois Millet’s unnerving painting The Man with the Hoe raised hackles in France (and it did raise hackles) partly because of the farmer’s perceived resemblance to Martin Dumollard.
On this date in 1951, the made-for-tabloids killer couple Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck were electrocuted at New York’s Sing Sing prison for murder.
He was a toupeed middle-aged lothario with a knack for conning personal ad denizens. She was a lovelorn obese single mother* with a serious dark side. Together — through a chance meeting through the personals — they became the Lonely Hearts Killers.
Martha Beck started off as just another of Raymond Fernandez’s targets: charm them, promise engagement or undergo a faux-wedding, and then rob them. He’d pulled this off a few times before; he might have even killed at least one of them.
Fernandez did the love ‘em and leave ‘em routine with Martha, whom he soon realized was penniless. But their passionate hotel rendezvous had been spied by the local bluenoses, who promptly got Martha fired for her indiscretions. She showed up unannounced at Fernandez’s door, and pushed her way right into his life.
Ere long, they were cohabiting — lurid media accounts would later savor their “abnormal sexual practices” and their, er, lifestyle relationship. She caused near-riots among the crush of spectators at their circus trial when she got into specifics of freaky stuff like voodoo fetish play.
“A request from Mr. Fernandez to me is a command,” Martha testified. Since this was so — though the power dynamic between them really seems to have run in the other direction — she willingly joined in Mr. Fernandez’s scam, posing as his “sister” when he went to meet and charm his next mark.
Once such assets as could be had were signed over, the pigeon was disposed of: often, they’d just make the “honeymoon” so unbearable that the target got the picture and left, so humiliated she wouldn’t dare come forward with the story.
And sometimes — nobody seems to know exactly how many times — Raymond and Martha killed together.
Martha (whose own sob story of ostracism and childhood neglect is really quite sad) supplied much of the vengeful energy that impelled the murders. One of their victims was a woman Beck attacked in a jealous rage when Fernandez actually slept with her. (The “sister” would often impose on the sleeping arrangements to obstruct consummation.)
The Lonely Hearts Killers’ crime spree is thoroughly covered elsewhere. It carried them to Michigan, a non-death penalty state where they were arrested. There, they confessed in a ploy to draw a local sentence and avoid execution.
Michigan instead extradited them to New York to stand trial in a sweltering courtroom and on every Gotham newspaper’s daily headlines for the murder of a Long Island widow. That confession given in Michigan helped seal their fate in New York.
Though separated from one another on death row (but they kept up the treacly correspondence), Martha and Raymond were joined in death.
On International Women’s Day of 1951, both were executed in New York’s electric chair, along with two unconnected, run-of-the-mill murderers.
My story is a love story. But only those tortured by love can know what I mean … in the history of the world, how many crimes have been attributed to love?
Given the newspaper ink spilled over these two, it’s no surprise that they’ve inspired plenty of subsequent writers and directors. The Honeymoon Killers (review) is a creepy 1970 classic, with a couple of latter-day imitators.
* She abandoned her two kids to the Salvation Army when she hitched her wagon to Fernandez.
And in fact, Philemon the Actor’s martyrdom would have occurred towards the very end of the reign which saw the very last major anti-Christian persecutions. Already by this time, the young man whose sword arm would bear Christianity to its political triumph was a major political figure in the Empire.
The very next year, Constantine received the imperial purple, and over the ensuing years overcame his partners and rivals in that station to win unchallenged hegemony over the Roman World.
Laurels for Philemon and many others of his ilk would soon be policy for the empire that had put him to death, as celebration (perhaps exaggeration) of such travails cemented the newfound legitimacy of the formerly illicit religion elevated by Constantine.
Dickens spent a good part of the mid-1840’s abroad, with extended stays in North America, Italy and Switzerland, although without much abating his prodigious output. He intended the travelogue Pictures From Italy to help finance his journeys; it met an unenthusiastic reception and rates distinctly among Dickens’ minor works.
This day’s events took place during the latter stages of Dickens’ stay in Italy and — as the distinctly proscriptive last paragraphs of this excerpt indicate — touch a social theme very pressing to the author, one to which he would soon return again. Years later, the utterly unedifying scene of the public guillotine would be fodder for Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, whose tragic protagonist has already appeared in these pages.
Of note also is Dickens’ implication — though he doesn’t quite state it outright — that the criminal was uncovered by a secret revealed under the seal of confession, a touchy point for the priesthood as any viewer of television crime dramas will certainly be aware. We have to allow a considerable latitude for a misapprehension on the traveler’s part here, especially given that Pictures as a whole caught considerable heat from the moment of its publication for its relentless anti-Catholicism. (Update: More on the use of confessionals in Papal Rome in this post about the Vatican’s headsman.)
Here’s the scene in its entirety:
On one Saturday morning (the eighth of March), a man was beheaded here. Nine or ten months before, he had waylaid a Bavarian countess, travelling as a pilgrim to Rome – alone and on foot, of course – and performing, it is said, that act of piety for the fourth time. He saw her change a piece of gold at Viterbo, where he lived; followed her; bore her company on her journey for some forty miles or more, on the treacherous pretext of protecting her; attacked her, in the fulfilment of his unrelenting purpose, on the Campagna, within a very short distance of Rome, near to what is called (but what is not) the Tomb of Nero; robbed her; and beat her to death with her own pilgrim’s staff. He was newly married, and gave some of her apparel to his wife: saying that he had bought it at a fair. She, however, who had seen the pilgrim-countess passing through their town, recognised some trifle as having belonged to her. Her husband then told her what he had done. She, in confession, told a priest; and the man was taken, within four days after the commission of the murder.
There are no fixed times for the administration of justice, or its execution, in this unaccountable country; and he had been in prison ever since. On the Friday, as he was dining with the other prisoners, they came and told him he was to be beheaded next morning, and took him away. It is very unusual to execute in Lent; but his crime being a very bad one, it was deemed advisable to make an example of him at that time, when great numbers of pilgrims were coming towards Rome, from all parts, for the Holy Week. I heard of this on the Friday evening, and saw the bills up at the churches, calling on the people to pray for the criminal’s soul. So, I determined to go, and see him executed.
The beheading was appointed for fourteen and a-half o’clock, Roman time: or a quarter before nine in the forenoon. I had two friends with me; and as we did not know but that the crowd might be very great, we were on the spot by half-past seven. The place of execution was near the church of San Giovanni decolláto (a doubtful compliment to Saint John the Baptist) in one of the impassable back streets without any footway, of which a great part of Rome is composed – a street of rotten houses, which do not seem to belong to anybody, and do not seem to have ever been inhabited, and certainly were never built on any plan, or for any particular purpose, and have no window-sashes, and are a little like deserted breweries, and might be warehouses but for having nothing in them. Opposite to one of these, a white house, the scaffold was built. An untidy, unpainted, uncouth, crazy-looking thing of course: some seven feet high, perhaps: with a tall, gallows-shaped frame rising above it, in which was the knife, charged with a ponderous mass of iron, all ready to descend, and glittering brightly in the morning sun, whenever it looked out, now and then, from behind a cloud.
There were not many people lingering about; and these were kept at a considerable distance from the scaffold, by parties of the Pope’s dragoons. Two or three hundred foot-soldiers were under arms, standing at ease in clusters here and there; and the officers were walking up and down in twos and threes, chatting together, and smoking cigars.
At the end of the street, was an open space, where there would be a dust-heap, and piles of broken crockery, and mounds of vegetable refuse, but for such things being thrown anywhere and everywhere in Rome, and favouring no particular sort of locality. We got into a kind of wash-house, belonging to a dwelling-house on this spot; and standing there in an old cart, and on a heap of cartwheels piled against the wall, looked, through a large grated window, at the scaffold, and straight down the street beyond it until, in consequence of its turning off abruptly to the left, our perspective was brought to a sudden termination, and had a corpulent officer, in a cocked hat, for its crowning feature.
Nine o’clock struck, and ten o’clock struck, and nothing happened. All the bells of all the churches rang as usual. A little parliament of dogs assembled in the open space, and chased each other, in and out among the soldiers. Fierce-looking Romans of the lowest class, in blue cloaks, russet cloaks, and rags uncloaked, came and went, and talked together. Women and children fluttered, on the skirts of the scanty crowd. One large muddy spot was left quite bare, like a bald place on a man’s head. A cigar-merchant, with an earthen pot of charcoal ashes in one hand, went up and down, crying his wares. A pastry-merchant divided his attention between the scaffold and his customers. Boys tried to climb up walls, and tumbled down again. Priests and monks elbowed a passage for themselves among the people, and stood on tiptoe for a sight of the knife: then went away. Artists, in inconceivable hats of the middle-ages, and beards (thank Heaven!) of no age at all, flashed picturesque scowls about them from their stations in the throng. One gentleman (connected with the fine arts, I presume) went up and down in a pair of Hessian-boots, with a red beard hanging down on his breast, and his long and bright red hair, plaited into two tails, one on either side of his head, which fell over his shoulders in front of him, very nearly to his waist, and were carefully entwined and braided!
Eleven o’clock struck and still nothing happened. A rumour got about, among the crowd, that the criminal would not confess; in which case, the priests would keep him until the Ave Maria (sunset); for it is their merciful custom never finally to turn the crucifix away from a man at that pass, as one refusing to be shriven, and consequently a sinner abandoned of the Saviour, until then. People began to drop off. The officers shrugged their shoulders and looked doubtful. The dragoons, who came riding up below our window, every now and then, to order an unlucky hackney-coach or cart away, as soon as it had comfortably established itself, and was covered with exulting people (but never before), became imperious, and quick-tempered. The bald place hadn’t a straggling hair upon it; and the corpulent officer, crowning the perspective, took a world of snuff.
Suddenly, there was a noise of trumpets. ‘Attention!’ was among the foot-soldiers instantly. They were marched up to the scaffold and formed round it. The dragoons galloped to their nearer stations too. The guillotine became the centre of a wood of bristling bayonets and shining sabres. The people closed round nearer, on the flank of the soldiery. A long straggling stream of men and boys, who had accompanied the procession from the prison, came pouring into the open space. The bald spot was scarcely distinguishable from the rest. The cigar and pastry-merchants resigned all thoughts of business, for the moment, and abandoning themselves wholly to pleasure, got good situations in the crowd. The perspective ended, now, in a troop of dragoons. And the corpulent officer, sword in hand, looked hard at a church close to him, which he could see, but we, the crowd, could not.
After a short delay, some monks were seen approaching to the scaffold from this church; and above their heads, coming on slowly and gloomily, the effigy of Christ upon the cross, canopied with black. This was carried round the foot of the scaffold, to the front, and turned towards the criminal, that he might see it to the last. It was hardly in its place, when he appeared on the platform, bare-footed; his hands bound; and with the collar and neck of his shirt cut away, almost to the shoulder. A young man – six-and-twenty – vigorously made, and well-shaped. Face pale; small dark moustache; and dark brown hair.
He had refused to confess, it seemed, without first having his wife brought to see him; and they had sent an escort for her, which had occasioned the delay.
He immediately kneeled down, below the knife. His neck fitting into a hole, made for the purpose, in a cross plank, was shut down, by another plank above; exactly like the pillory. Immediately below him was a leathern bag. And into it his head rolled instantly.
The executioner was holding it by the hair, and walking with it round the scaffold, showing it to the people, before one quite knew that the knife had fallen heavily, and with a rattling sound.
When it had travelled round the four sides of the scaffold, it was set upon a pole in front – a little patch of black and white, for the long street to stare at, and the flies to settle on. The eyes were turned upward, as if he had avoided the sight of the leathern bag, and looked to the crucifix. Every tinge and hue of life had left it in that instant. It was dull, cold, livid, wax. The body also.
There was a great deal of blood. When we left the window, and went close up to the scaffold, it was very dirty; one of the two men who were throwing water over it, turning to help the other lift the body into a shell, picked his way as through mire. A strange appearance was the apparent annihilation of the neck. The head was taken off so close, that it seemed as if the knife had narrowly escaped crushing the jaw, or shaving off the ear; and the body looked as if there were nothing left above the shoulder.
Nobody cared, or was at all affected. There was no manifestation of disgust, or pity, or indignation, or sorrow. My empty pockets were tried, several times, in the crowd immediately below the scaffold, as the corpse was being put into its coffin. It was an ugly, filthy, careless, sickening spectacle; meaning nothing but butchery beyond the momentary interest, to the one wretched actor. Yes! Such a sight has one meaning and one warning. Let me not forget it. The speculators in the lottery, station themselves at favourable points for counting the gouts of blood that spirt out, here or there; and buy that number. It is pretty sure to have a run upon it.
The body was carted away in due time, the knife cleansed, the scaffold taken down, and all the hideous apparatus removed. The executioner: an outlaw ex officio (what a satire on the Punishment!) who dare not, for his life, cross the Bridge of St. Angelo but to do his work: retreated to his lair, and the show was over.