Feast Day of James, the brother of Jesus

Add comment May 3rd, 2020 Headsman

Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you.

Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are motheaten.

Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire. Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days.

Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of sabaoth.

Ye have lived in pleasure on the earth, and been wanton; ye have nourished your hearts, as in a day of slaughter.

Ye have condemned and killed the just; and he doth not resist you.

Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain.

Be ye also patient; stablish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh.

James 5:1-8

May 3 is the current Catholic feast date of the author of the Epistle of JamesJames, the brother of Jesus, also known as James the Just.

He’s a major leader in the New Testament accounts of the primitive church, closely associated with the traditionalist Jewish side of the movement, wont to give precedence to Mosaic law and ritual — a contrast compared to the Gentile-evangelizer St. Paul. James, however, also appears in Acts of the Apostles as a principal decider of the circa CE 50 Council of Jerusalem edict to the effect that non-Jewish converts to Christianity would not be required to circumcise or observe Jewish dietary strictures.

This James has been debatably conflated at times with the Apostle James, son of Alphaeus and/or James the Less* — as in this passage from the Golden Legend:

James the Apostle is said the Less, how well that was the elder of age than was St. James the More. He was called also the brother of our Lord, because I have resembled much well our Lord in body, in visage, and of manner. He was called James the Just for his right great holiness. He was also called James the son of Alpheus. He sang in Jerusalem the first mass that ever was there, and he was first bishop of Jerusalem.

These associations are all matters of scholarly debate, for the name “James” appears repeatedly in the New Testament, and the contexts do not always make it obvious when one encounters a recurring character. No matter how many other faces we might attribute to him, James the first century Jerusalem patriarch was clearly a figure of great authority among the earliest Christians and a co-leader of the Jerusalem Church. His consanguinity with the Messiah cannot have hurt his cause.

There are various accounts given of his martyrdom in 62 or 69** CE which boil down to falling foul of the Jewish authorities, just like his brother. Importantly, he’s referenced by the ancient historian Josephus in a passage from The Antiquities of the Jews that not only casts light upon his death but provides a contemporary non-Christian source verifying the development of this sect. The setup begins with the ascent of a young and aggressive high priest named Ananus, who

was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity [to exercise his authority]. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned: but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done; they also sent to the king [Agrippa], desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, for that what he had already done was not to be justified; nay, some of them went also to meet Albinus, as he was upon his journey from Alexandria, and informed him that it was not lawful for Ananus to assemble a sanhedrim without his consent. Whereupon Albinus complied with what they said, and wrote in anger to Ananus, and threatened that he would bring him to punishment for what he had done; on which king Agrippa took the high priesthood from him, when he had ruled but three months, and made Jesus, the son of Damneus, high priest.

Given his importance, James finds his way into quite a few extra-canonical Christian texts as well; for example, there’s an apocryphal Gospel of James dating to the second century. Of particular interest to we connoisseurs of death are gnostic texts from papyri discovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt titled the First and Second Apocalypse of James: the Second Apocalypse has an account of James’s martyrdom, very detailed in spite of the fragmentary text, after his preaching in Jerusalem troubled the Jews:

On that day all the people and the crowd were disturbed, and they showed that they had not been persuaded. And he arose and went forth speaking in this manner. And he entered (again) on that same day and spoke a few hours. And I was with the priests and revealed nothing of the relationship, since all of them were saying with one voice, ‘Come, let us stone the Just One.’ And they arose, saying, ‘Yes, let us kill this man, that he may be taken from our midst. For he will be of no use to us.’

And they were there and found him standing beside the columns of the temple beside the mighty corner stone. And they decided to throw him down from the height, and they cast him down. And they […] they […]. They seized him and struck him as they dragged him upon the ground. They stretched him out and placed a stone on his abdomen. They all placed their feet on him, saying ‘You have erred!’

Again they raised him up, since he was alive, and made him dig a hole. They made him stand in it. After having covered him up to his abdomen, they stoned him in this manner.

And he stretched out his hands and said this prayer – not that (one) which it is his custom to say:

My God and my father,
who saved me from this dead hope,
who made me alive through a mystery of what he wills,

Do not let these days of this world be prolonged for me,
but the day of your light […] remains
in […] salvation.

Deliver me from this place of sojourn!
Do not let your grace be left behind in me,
but may your grace become pure!

Save me from an evil death!
Bring me from a tomb alive, because your grace –
love — is alive in me to accomplish a work of fullness!

Save me from sinful flesh,
because I trusted in you with all my strength,
because you are the life of the life!

Save me from a humiliating enemy!
Do not give me into the hand of a judge who is severe with sin!
Forgive me all my debts of the days (of my life)!

Because I am alive in you, your grace is alive in me.
I have renounced everyone, but you I have confessed.
Save me from evil affliction!

But now is the time and the hour.
O Holy Spirit, send me salvation […] the light […]
the light […] in a power […].’

After he spoke, he fell silent … [text ends]

* Saint James the Great was definitely a different fellow.

** The proximity of this martyrdom to the Jewish-Roman War (66-73 CE) led some subsequent ancient writers — not Josephus himself — to cite it as a cause of the great Roman Siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE, which famously destroyed the Second Temple.

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1766: Edmund Sheehy, James Buxton, and Buck Farrell, Whiteboys

Add comment May 3rd, 2019 Headsman

This account from the London Chronicle, June 5, 1766 refers to the disappearance and alleged murder of the informer John Bridge. We’ve visited this case previously, in the form of Father Nicholas Sheehy, who had also been drawn and quartered a few months previous for the Bridge affair; collectively, these cases are pretext for state reprisal against the Irish Whiteboys movement, which opposed large landholders’ moves to consolidate estates, expel tenants, and let people starve while the land that once fed them was shifted towards commercial agriculture.


The Trials of Mr. Edmund Sheehy, Mr. James Buxton, and Mr. John Farrell, at Clonmel Assizes in Ireland, for the Murder of John Bridge, on the Night of the 18th of October, 1764

Mr. Edmund Sheehy being put to the bar, the lawyers for the crown first called upon John Toohy, who declared, that the prisoner was within two or three yards of John Bridge, when he received the fatal blow from John Mechan.

Mary Brady swore that she came up immediately after the murder, and that the prisoner was present, together with the Rev. Mr. Sheehy, and Edmund Mechan, and that the latter held in his hand a bill hook all bloody, and that the Priest commended the action.

Mr. James Herbert, Farmer, declared, that on Sunday Oct. 28, 1764, he was called upon by Roger Sheehy, then on horseback, behind whom he rode to a meeting of twenty or thirty persons, on the lands of Shanbally, near Clogheen, where they were sworn by Father Sheehy to murder John Bridge, John Bagwell, Esq; William Bagnell, Esq; the Rev. Dr. Hewetson, and every other person who should oppose them; that they would be faithful to the French King, and conquer Ireland.

After having thus sworn, they came to the house of one English, on the lands of Shanbatly, where Bridge was; they took him to a field, where was another party of about a hundred and thirty; here they accused him of giving information against the White Boys, and insisted that he should by oath contradict whatever he had given information of, which he refused to do; hereupon one Byrne made a stroke at him with a turf-slane, which he kept off with his arm; then Edmond Meehan took a bill hook from under his coat, with which he struck Bridge on the back part of his head, which so cleft his scull, that he instantly expired; that the Priest was then within the distance of two yards, with a hook in his hands. After this (being first sworn not to divulge what had been done) they put the body in a blanket, which they conveyed to a ploughed field, where they buried it; but in about eight days after, lest the plough should turn up the body, it was taken up and carried to a church-yard about two miles off.

John Lenorgan swore, that being sent by his uncle, Guynan, to the house of English, where the Bridge had been, between ten and twelve at night, he heard the noise of a number of people; that not caring to be seen, he concealed himself in a ditch, where he was discovered by Thomas McGrath, who put him on horseback behind the Priest, with whom he rode some time, and on the way discovered the body of a dead man, wrapt up in a blanket, before a person on horseback, and through a hole in the blanket, saw the head bloody, and that there was a number of persons attending it, both on foot and horseback, of whom he knew Father Sheehy, Edmond Meehan, Buck Sheehy, Thomas McGrath, Bartholomew Kenneley, and John Toohy; and that when they came to the turn of the road, the Priest let him down, directing him the shortest way home, and gave him three half crowns, charging him not to mention to any one what he had seen; and that he understood the dead body was that of John Bridge.

Here was closed the evidence for the crown. James Prendergast, Esq, attempted to prove an alibi, by swearing that, on the 28th of October, 1764, he and the prisoner, with their wives, dined at the house of Mr. Joseph Tennison, near Ardfinan, in the county of Tipperary; where they continued until after supper, and that it was about eleven o’clock when he and the prisoner left the house of Mr. Tennison, and rode a considerable way together on their return to their respective homes, and that the prisoner had his wife behind him; that when they parted, he (Mr. Prendergast) rode directly home, where, on his arrival, he looked at the clock, and found it to be the hour of twelve exactly, and as to the day he was positive, the 29th being the fair day of Clogheen; that he had desired the prisoner to sell some bullocks for him at the fair, not being able to give his attendance; and that Paul Webber, of Cork, Butcher, was in treaty for the said bullocks with the prisoner, on the 29th.

Mr. Tennison declared he remembered the prisoner and Mr. Prendergast dining with him some time in the month of October, 1764, but was inclined to believe it was earlier in the month than the 28th, for that on the 29th he dined with the Corporation of Clonmell; that on the Wednesday following he dined with the prisoner and Mr. Prendergast, at the prisoner’s house, and that day he invited the prisoner and his wife, with Mr. Prendergast and his wife, to dine with him the Sunday following, and was positive that company did not dine with him on any other day in October.

Paul Webber, of Cork, Butcher, swore, that he was at the fair of Clogheen on the 29th of October, 1764, where he saw the prisoner, but was not in treaty with him for any bullocks belonging to Mr. Prendergast, but the prisoner told him, that Mr. Prendergast had some bullocks on his hands to dispose of, on which he sent a person to Mr. Prendergast’s house, who bought them for him.

Thomas Mason, Shepherd to the prisoner, swore to the night and hour of the prisoner’s return abovementioned, and that he took him from his master his horse, and turned him out to the field. The following persons were also produced to discredit the testimony of John Toohy: viz. Bartholomew Griffith, Surgeon, Daniel Griffith, and John Day, servants to Brooke Brasier, Esq.

The purport of the evidence given by Bartholomew Griffith was to confront Toohy, who, being asked by the prisoner, who gave him the new cloaths he then had on, answered they were given him by his uncle Bartholomew Griffith, who being examined, denied it. Daniel Griffith declared, that Toohy was, on the 28th and 29th of October, 1764, at his house at Cullen.

John Day swore, that Toohy lived for six weeks with his master Brooke Brasier, Esq, when he behaved very ill, and was a person of bad characer; but Mr. Brasier declared he did not know the said Toohy, but that a person was in his family, for that time, of a very bad character, but that he did not know him.

The evidence of James Herbert, for the Crown, was not attempted to be invalidated. Mr. Herbert came to the Assizes, in order to give evidence in favour of Father Sheehy; the Grand Jury, who before had found bills of high treason against him, sent for Toohy, who said he knew him very well, and would assist to take him; upon this William Bagnell, Esq, attended Toohy, with some of the light-horse, went and took him; when being told on what occasion he was secured, he said he would discover the rise and meeting of the White Boys, and their intentions; and acknowledged himself guilty of what he was accused.

Mr. James Buxton, commonly called Capt. Buxton, on account of the power he had over the people he commanded, was the next person put to the bar to be tried. The testimony, which has been already related, was in every particular supported by the additional evidence of Mr. Thomas Bier, who was an accomplice, and acknowledged being present when they all swore allegiance to the French King, and to murder John Bridge, &c. and that too in consequence of a letter he received from Father Sheehy. Mr. Bier declared, that, at the time Bridge was murdered, the Priest was within two or three yards of the unfortunate man, holding the book, on which he a little before pressed and exhorted him to swear for the purpose, as has been mentioned.

Mr. James Farrell, commonly called Buck Farrell, a young man of a genteel appearance, was the last convicted, and on the joint evidence of the prosecutors.

Tuesday, the 15th of April, they received sentence to be executed the 3d of May, at Clogheen.

The general characters of the prisoners, until this unfortunate affair, were very respectable. Their influence must have been considerable, otherwise they could not have brought after them, and inlisted, the number of people they did, who were subject to martial law, by which they were tried on misbehaviour. It was in resentment of a whipping, which was inflicted on John Bridge with remarkable severity, to which he was sentenced by one of the Court-martials, that he was led to give evidence against them, by which he lost his life.

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1916: Thomas MacDonagh, Patrick Pearse, and Thomas Clarke

Add comment May 3rd, 2018 Headsman

Thomas MacDonagh, Padraig (Patrick) Pearse, and Thomas Clarke — three of the principal Irish Republican leaders of the Easter Rising against British domination that had been crushed just days before — were shot in Dublin’s Kilmainham Gaol on this date in 1916.


Illustration from the New York Times, May 7, 1916.
“To a Poet Captain”
by Thomas MacDonagh

His songs were a little phrase
Of eternal song,
Drowned in the harping of lays
More loud and long.

His deeds were a single word,
Called out alone
In a night when no echo stirred to laughter,
To laughter or moan.

But his songs new souls shall thrill,
The loud harps dumb,
And his deeds the echoes fill
When the dawn is come.

MacDonagh and Pearse were contemporaries of one another: poets, progressive educators, Gaelic revivalists; men who girded for battle “with a revolver in one hand and a copy of Sophocles in the other.” Each dreamer commanded a unit of Irish Volunteers during the week of April 24-30, MacDonagh occupying Jacobs Factory and Pearse the iconic General Post Office, in which post it was Pearse’s sorrow to issue the surrender order by the end of the quixotic week.

Clarke, cut from another cloth, was a Fenian revolutionist of an older vintage, who had disappeared into British prison after trying to bomb London Bridge in the 1880s, then emigrated for a time to the United States. Drawn to a reviving nationalist movement, Clarke had the honor of affixing his name first upon the Rising’s Proclamation of the Irish Republic. Pearse and MacDonagh signed it too: a fatal endorsement for they three and for each of the other four men to lend it their signatures.

“My comrades and I believe we have struck the first successful blow for freedom,” Clarke said via a statement given out by his impressive wife Kathleen. “And so sure as we are going out this morning so sure will freedom come as a direct result of our action … In this belief, we die happy.”


This traditional Irish song was updated with patriotic verse by Patrick Pearse.

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1919: Rudolf Egelhofer, Bavarian Soviet commandante

Add comment May 3rd, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1919, the commandante of the “Red Army” of the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic was shot by the German soldiers and Freikorps that had just overrun the revolutionary republic.

The son of a pauper basketweaver, Rudolf Egelhofer enlisted in the navy in World War I and was involved in a naval revolt in the war’s closing days. Transplanting to Munich in the chaotic postwar environment, Egelhofer joined the Communist Party and became a fixture of the revolutionary movement; the socialist writer Oskar Maria Graf would record of Egelhofer’s stature at a parade that he stood “determined and sincere, in a sailor’s uniform, sometimes raising his fist. Those who heard him, had to believe in him.”

After a left-wing coup claimed Bavaria in early April, Egelhofer’s steel and magnetism received the impossible mandate of organizing a Red Army before Munich went the way of the Paris Commune. But the Bavarian Soviet was overwhelmed in less than a month.

In the first days of May, Egelhofer’s fate was shared by something like 700 supporters of the defeated Soviet.


The fierce “victim” dominates his executioner in Execution by Firing Squad of the Sailor Egelhofer, by Heinrich Ehmsen (1931). This is only the central panel of a triptych depicting the White storming of Red Munich; the piece is described in this post.

Ehmsen has a similar idea about relative stature at work in Execution by Firing Squad (Red Jacket) (1919).

Though little memorialized at the place of his glory and martyrdom — which fell on the western side of the Iron Curtain — numerous East Germany streets, public buildings, and naval vessels bore Egelhofer’s name in tribute during the Cold War.

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1867: Modiste Villebrun, but not Sophie Boisclair

Add comment May 3rd, 2016 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1867, Modiste Villebrun was hanged in Sorel, Quebec, in what would be the last execution before Canada became its own country. His partner in crime, Sophie Boisclair, might very well have been executed alongside him had she not been pregnant.

Villebrun, a lumberjack from St. Zephirin, was having an affair with Boisclair and they wanted to get married. They had two slight problems to deal with, in the form of their respective spouses. In those times, divorce was unthinkable. Murder, apparently, was not.

Jeffrey E. Pfeifer details their crimes in his book Death By Rope: An Anthology of Canadian Executions:

The first victim was Villebrun’s wife, and their plan seemed to work well. No one suspected foul play when the previously healthy woman died, or at least no one could prove anything. Braced by their success, the lovers soon turned their attention to Boisclair’s husband, Francois-Xavier Jutras. Boisclair suggested to her husband that they should allow Villebrun to move in with them since the death of his wife had left him all alone. Jutras agreed to his wife’s request and almost immediately Boisclair began to lace his food with her “special” ingredient. It was not long before the strychnine took effect and Jutras was dead.

Unfortunately for the two lovers, a suspicious doctor demanded an autopsy, which revealed the dead man’s body was saturated with poison. Villebrun and Boisclair soon found themselves arrested.

They were tried separately and both were convicted in short order and sentenced to death. When asked, at sentencing, whether she had anything to say, Boisclair announced she was expecting a baby. She got a temporary reprieve until delivery, and got the opportunity to watch Villebrun’s execution from the window in her cell.

Ten thousand people attended his hanging.

Seven months later, Boisclair gave birth to his child, and her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

“Boisclair ended up serving 20 years in the penitentiary,” records Pfeifer, “before being released, a broken woman.”

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1606: Henry Garnet, Gunpowder Plot confessor

Add comment May 3rd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1606, the English Jesuit Henry Garnet was hanged, drawn and quartered in the churchyard of Old St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Garnet, “the prime scholar of Winchester College” as a gifted young student, left England to enter the Society of Jesus and study under Robert Bellarmine, a theologian so Catholic that he would later bring the hammer down on Galileo’s heliocentrism.

After eleven years in letters on the continent, the Society called Garnet to return to England in 1586 as the lead missionary to his native realm’s Catholic minority. It was a lonely burden for Garnet, especially after his opposite number Robert Southwell was arrested in 1592. (Southwell, too, went to the scaffold.) But Garnet carried it off as well as anyone. He remained free for nearly twenty years — creating an underground press and numerous illegal cells.

“Under his care the Jesuits in the English mission increased from one to forty, and that not a single letter of complaint, it is said, was sent to headquarters against him,” lauds the Catholic Encyclopedia.

Theologically, Garnet was noted for his defense of the doctrine of equivocation — that is (in the hostile reading of its Protestant interlocutors) of finding hair-splitting rationales for lying. It was an intellectual exercise of many centuries’ vintage, but for England’s beleaguered Catholics it was as urgent as life and death. Most specifically, this doctrine reckoned an oath insufficient to compel a truthful response to official inquiries as to the whereabouts and activities of fellow-Catholics who’d be liable with discovery to attain martyrdom. The liberal definition of “truth” to include an outright lie with a “secret meaning reserved in [one’s] mind” was obviously ripe for the scorn of persecutors for whom it was little but treason neatly clothed.

Knock, knock! Who’s there, in th’ other devil’s name?
Faith, here’s an equivocator that could swear in both
the scales against either scale, who committed
treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not
equivocate to heaven. O, come in, equivocator.

Macbeth (c. 1606), Act 2, Scene 3

Much of Garnet’s last weeks in custody ahead of his execution were spent in harrowing the doctrine of equivocation; indeed, this is even the very last exchange he had with doctors of the English church sent to accompany him.

One of those standing near him then asked him, “Whether he still held the same opinion as he had formerly expressed about equivocation, and whether he thought it lawful to equivocate at the point of death?” He refused to give an opinion at that time; and the Dean of St. Paul’s sharply inveighing against equivocation, and saying that seditious doctrine of that kind was the parent of all such impious treasons and designs as those for which he suffered, Garnet said, “that how equivocation was lawful, and when, he had shewn his mind elsewhere, and that he should, at any rate, use no equivocation now.”

There were nevertheless equivocations that Garnet would never countenance. His A Treatise of Christian Renunciation, compiling quotes from Church fathers detailing the things a good Catholic must be prepared to renounce for his faith, excoriated those who attended Anglican chuches. Their pretense, he said, was nothing but their own comfort.

Certaine private persons, who have wholly addicted them selves to make them Gods either of their belly and ease, or of the wicked mammon, setting God behind all things which may delight them … refuse also to beleeve that the do amisse …

Judas with a kisse dost thou betray me? amongst hereticks dost thou professe me? no other place to professe chastity, but in the bedd of a harlott?

Harried as they were, England’s Catholics greeted with anticipation the 1603 accession of King James: raised Protestant, but the son of the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots. Garnet shared Catholics’ hope that James would ease off harassment of the Old Faith; he even authorized the betrayal of fellow-Catholics’ regicidal Bye Plot as a show of loyalty and to pre-empt a possible backlash. “Quiete et pacifice,” he begged.

But toleration was still not quickly forthcoming, and soon Catholics had reverted to “a stage of desperation.” James was only in his thirties: would the trials be neverending?

Garnet continued endeavouring to keep Catholics calm and give the new sovereign the political space necessary to relax persecution. But many of his flock soon tired of quiete et pacifice.

In 1605, there would be another try — one that is still remember, remembered to this day.

Here Garnet again gets into hot water with theological doctrine. Garnet caught indirect wind of Guy Fawkes’ terrorist plot — but he heard it kind-of-sort-of under the seal of the confessional: another priest who himself had heard the design under confession told it to Garnet in a more ambiguous circumstance.

Garnet’s excuses here might strike the reader as far too fine; certainly that is how his prosecutors viewed it. The circumstances of the plot’s revelation certainly appeared to give the priest enough leave to find a way to reveal it, especially since he knew about it for many months before that almost-fateful Fifth of November. Garnet seems to have wanted the resolution — or loathed to plant another Judas-kiss. Maybe he thought his exhortations could stop it without anyone winding up drawn on a hurdle. Maybe, after 19 furtive years knowing every morning that his next sleep might be in a dungeon, his heart of hearts wanted to see it to go ahead.

When the attempt to explosively decapitate the English state was discovered Garnet was hunted to ground; his last days of “liberty” were spent stuffed in a coffin-sized priest hole at Hindlip Hall before the “customs of nature which must of necessity be done” finally forced him to out into the sight of his captors.

His fate looks like a foregone conclusion in retrospect, but Garnet did fight it — for two months before his condemnation, and five more weeks after from trial until his execution during which he maneuvered to exculpate himself. (See Investigating Gunpowder Treason for an exploration of this.) Since Reformation English law of course did not recognize the seal of the confessional, the most charitable reading of Garnet’s own admissions start at misprision of treason. It is but a single step from there to the scaffold if one supposes his long silence shrouded any sort of approval of or aid to the plotters.

Garnet received the mercy of being hanged to death before he was cut down for the public butchery part of his sentence.

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1740: Elizabeth and Mary Branch, tyrannical mistresses

Add comment May 3rd, 2014 Headsman

From the Newgate Calendar:

These cruel women were born at Philips Norton, in Somersetshire. The mother was distinguished from her childhood by the cruelty of her disposition. She married a farmer, named Branch, but the husband soon found what an unfortunate choice he had made; for his wife no sooner came into possession of her matrimonial power than she began to exercise her tyranny on her servants, whom she treated with undeserved and unaccountable cruelty, frequently denying them the common necessaries of life, and sometimes turning them out of doors at night in the midst of winter; but their wages in these cases were sent them by Mr Branch, who was as remarkable for his humanity and justice as his wife for the opposite qualities. Mary Branch, the daughter, was an exact resemblance of her mother in every part of her diabolical temper.

Mr Branch dying, and leaving an estate of about three hundred pounds a year, he was no sooner buried than all the servants quitted the family, determined not to live with so tyrannical a mistress; and her character became so notorious that she could obtain no servants but poor creatures who were put out by the parish, or casual vagrants who strolled the country.

It is needless to mention the particulars of the cruelties of this inhuman mother and daughter to their other servants, at whom they used to throw plates, knives and forks on any offence, real or supposed; we shall therefore proceed to an account of their trial and execution for the murder of Jane Buttersworth, a poor girl, who had been placed with them by the parish officers.

At the assizes held at Taunton, in Somersetshire, in March, 1740, Elizabeth Branch and Mary, her daughter, were indicted for the wilful murder of Jane Buttersworth; when the principal evidence against them was in substance as follows: Ann Somers, the dairymaid, deposed that the deceased, having been sent for some yeast, and staying longer than was necessary, excused herself to her old mistress on her return by telling a lie; on which the daughter struck her violently on the head with her fist, and pinched her ears. Then both of them threw her on the ground, and the daughter knelt on her neck, while the mother whipped her with twigs till the blood ran on the ground, and the daughter, taking off one of the girl’s shoes, beat her with it in a cruel manner. The deceased cried for mercy, and after some struggle ran into the parlour, where they followed her and beat her with broomsticks till she fell down senseless; after which the daughter threw a pail of water on her, and used her with other circumstances of cruelty too gross to mention. Somers now went out to milk her cows, and on her return, at the expiration of half-an-hour, found her mistress sitting by the fire and the girl lying dead on the floor; but she observed that a clean cap had been put on her head since she went out, and that the blood had run through it. At night the body was privately buried.

This transaction, added to the character of the mistress, having raised a suspicion in the neighbourhood, a warrant was issued by the coroner to take up the body, and an inquest being made into the cause of the girl’s death, Mr Salmon, a surgeon, declared that she had received several wounds, almost any one of which would have proved mortal. The jury found both prisoners guilty, and they were sentenced to die. As the country people were violently enraged against them, they were conducted to the place of execution between three and four in the morning, attended only by the jailer and about half-a-dozen people, lest they should have been torn in pieces.

When they came to the spot, it was found that the gibbet had been cut down; on which a carpenter was sent for, who immediately put up another, and mother and daughter were executed before six o’clock, to the disappointment of the country to witness the death of two such unworthy wretches.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions,Women

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1664: Elsje Christiaens, Rembrandt model

2 comments May 3rd, 2013 Headsman

On or about this date in 1664, a Danish teenager named Elsje Christiaens was strangled at Amsterdam for murder.

The date is a little shaky; I don’t know if it’s directly documented (the verdict, we know, came down on May 1). Whenever the execution took place was, it culminated an extremely short stay in Amsterdam for the young woman.

This was boom time for the Dutch Republic, the last apex years before it all went to hell. Naturally, wealthy Amsterdam drew immigrants: for a penniless Jutland 18-year-old like Elsje Christiaens (English Wikipedia entry | Dutch), here was opportunity.

In mid-April 1664, she took a room to lay her head while she looked for domestic employment.

Two weeks later, she still hadn’t found a job but her landlady expected rent. When she came to demand it and Christiaens tried to stall her, the confrontation turned tragic: the landlady started thwacking her shiftless boarder with a broomstick, and Christiaens defensively grabbed a nearby hand-axe and knocked the poor woman down a flight of steps — to her death.

The sentence called for her killer to be strangled while being beaten with the very same axe. Then her body was to be hung up publicly with the same weapon, and left “until the winds and birds devour her.”

Of course that happened long ago. But at this time, veteran corpsepainter and Dutch Golden Age master Rembrandt van Rijn was hanging out in Amsterdam, living in reduced circumstances after creditors dunned him into the poorhouse.

This was the first woman executed in 21 years, and Rembrandt did not mean to miss his opportunity to sketch it. On May 3, presumably the same day as Elsje Christiaen’s execution, he hired a boat to row him out to the Volewijck moor where the body had been hung up. That day the master sketched the immigrant girl’s freshly-executed corpse, and its shameful axe.

The novelist Margriet de Moor has dramatized the sketchy backstory of Elsje Christiaens and her chance intersection with one of the art world’s greatest names in De schilder en het meisje. Unfortunately for most, this book appears to be available only in Dutch, which is also the language of these reviews: 1, 2, 3.

Rembrandt wasn’t the only Dutch painter haunting Amsterdam’s execution-grounds in 1664.

In this landscape — serene despite its landmarks — Elsje Christiaens is visible on the right. The little copse of gibbets she’s a part of comprises prisoners executed since 1660, according to Michiel Plomp.*


Anthonie van Borssom‘s 1664 ink-and-watercolor painting of the Volewijck execution site.

The gallows stood at the Volewijck until 1795. Today, that once-hard-to-reach peninsula is a residential district in Amsterdam-Noord.

* “Rembrandt and His Circle: Drawings and Prints,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Summer 2006.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Murder,Netherlands,Public Executions,Women

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1738: Katherine Garret, Pequot infanticide

4 comments May 3rd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1738, before “a Vast Circle of people, more Numerous, perhaps, than Ever was gathered together before, On any Occasion” in Connecticut, Pequot servant Katherine “Indian Kate” Garret was hanged for murdering her newborn child.

As an unmarried young woman, Garret didn’t want a child to begin with, but she managed to pass off the pregnancy in her master’s house as just putting on a few extra pounds. Finally, one day, she slipped out to the household barn and delivered. The mistress of the house said they later found the dead infant, clubbed to death with a handy wood block.

It took an unusually protracted six-odd months to bring Garret’s case so far as the actual scaffold, giving the ministrations of a local pastor plenty of time to move the once-truculent lass to such devoutness that “with her hands lifted up, as she cou’d, she past out of life, in the posture of one praying.” We have her pious purported dying statement:

The Confession & Dying Warning of Katherine Garret.

I Katherine Garret, being Condemned to Die for the Crying Sin of Murder, Do Own the Justice of GOD in suffering me to die this Violent Death; and also Acknowledge the Justice of the Court who has Sentenced me to die this Death; and I thank them who have Lengthned the Time to me, whereby I have had great Opportunity to prepare for my Death: I thank those also who have taken pains with me for my Soul; so that since I have been in Prison, I have had opportunity to seek after Baptism & the Supper of the Lord & have obtained both. I Confess my self to have been a great Sinner; a sinner by Nature, also guilty of many Actual Transgressions, Particularly of Pride and Lying, as well as of the Sin of destroying the Fruit of my own Body, for which latter, I am now to Die. I thank God that I was learn’d to Read in my Childhood, which has been much my Exercise since I have been in Prison, and especially since my Condemnation. The Bible has been a precious Book to me. There I read, That JESUS CHRIST came into the world to Save Sinners, Even the Chief of Sinners: And that all manner of Sins shall be forgiven, One only Excepted; For His Blood Cleanseth from all Sin. And other good Books I have been favoured with, by peoples giving and lending them to me, which has been blessed to me.

I would Warn all Young People against Sinning against their own Consciences; For there is a GOD that Knows all things. Oh! Beware of all Sin, Especially of Fornication; for that has led me to Murder. Remember the Sabbath day to keep it Holy. Be Sober and wise. Redeem your Time, and Improve it well.

Little Children I would Warn you to take heed of Sinning against God. Be Dutiful to your Parents; For the Eye that Mocks at his Father and despiseth to Obey his Mother, the Ravens of the Valley shall pick it out, and the Young Eagles shall eat it. Little Children, Learn to Pray to God, Sit still on the Lord’s Day, and Love your Books.

I would also Warn Servants, Either Whites or Blacks, to be Obedient to your Masters & Mistresses. Be Faithful in your places and diligent: Above all Fear God; fear to Sin against Him: He is our Great Master.

I would also Intreat Parents and Masters to set a good Example before their Children and Servants, for You also must give an Account to God how you carry it to them.

I desire the Prayers of all God’s People for me, Private Christians, as well as Ministers of the Gospel, that I may while I have Life Improve it aright; May have all my Sins Pardoned and may be Accepted through CHRIST JESUS. Amen.

New London, May 3. 1738.
Katherine Garret.

The spiritual counselor who achieved this transformation, Eliphalet Adams, preached a lengthy sermon on the occasion.

The sound of the sermon — especially considered next to the protracted delay for Garret’s hanging — hints at a communal controversy over employing the death penalty in this case. Adams spends most of it fulminating against acquittals, jury nullification, and the insidious operation of sentimentality such as one might imagine might have attended an unmarried girl having rid of her unwanted infant: “What moving Expressions do sometimes come out of the mouths of poor people on such Occasions! … Judges are melted into tears, Yet they must not be so mollified thereby as to neglect Justice; With tears in their Eyes they must pronounce the righteous Sentence and commend them to the mercy of God, who have forfeited all Claim to be suffered any longer among men; Oh, piteous case, when the[y] cry for Mercy, Mercy must no longer be regarded! They must have Judgment without mercy, who have shewed no mercy.”

Stern stuff, ultimately straight from the dialogue around crime and punishment (capital and otherwise) down to the present day. Most of it, anyway. Some parts have changed:

Tho’ they may be great & Considerable persons who are guilty and they, whose blood they have done Violence unto, may be but Comparatively mean. This should not be so considered as to stop a prosecution, or stifle a testimony, or favour or forward an Escape, A Barbarian is of the meanest Nation, a Servant is of the lowest rank, an Infant is of the most imperfect age, Yet even their blood is required by God and the Laws, when it hath been unjustly shed; Rich and great people are most Honoured, Masters over Servants and Parents over Children, may seem to have most power and authority (I say nothing now of Princes over Subjects, that being a curious Argument and which may need very Cautious handling) Yet even these may not be protected by their greatness, authority or priviledge, if they have done Violence to blood, If they have defaced the Image of God in which every man is made and destroyed his workmanship, they also must flee to the pit and none may stay them.

It’s supposed to be the first hanging in New London. Original documents about Katherine Garret’s sad story are linked from the pamphlet about her case hosted here.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Connecticut,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA,Women

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1909: Jesus Malverde, narco patron saint

2 comments May 3rd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1909, a Mexican bandit was executed by the police. Maybe. Unusually for these pages, the date is quite certain but the existence of the executed man is not.

If he existed — and this caveat is standard in practically every profile of the fascinating cultural phenomenon fathered by the man or phantom — Jesus Malverde was a Robin Hood-esque “social bandit” who preyed on Mexico’s plutocratic agricultural lords and distributed the spoils to the poor.

According to Patricia Price (“Bandits and Saints: Jesus Malverde and the Struggle for Place in Sinaloa, Mexico”, Cultural Geographies 2005; 12; 175), the Malverde of legend entered the world as Jesus Juarez Mazo, but his

own parents died of hunger or a curable illness, and that this was the catalyst for his turn to a life of crime. While Malverde was said to have worked variously on the railroads, as a carpenter, or as a tailor, he soon joined the ranks of bandits that roamed Mexico’s countryside at the end of the nineteenth century. He reportedly stole gold coins from the rich hacienda owners living in Culiacan and threw them in the doorways of the poor at night.

Truly a figure who, if he did not exist, it were necessary to invent.

All the particulars about his legendary exploits are a bit fuzzy, right down to his end on May 3, 1909 — possibly gunned down, possibly left to die of exposure with his feet hacked off, or possibly (and certainly more picturesquely) summarily hanged from a mesquite tree by a posse.

(In a version that appealingly combines these threads, he’s said to have been dying of gangrene after being shot, and in a last act of charity prevailed upon his friend to bring in his body to collect the reward. The police gibbeted his corpse.)

In the years since, Malverde has become a popular divine intercessor for the marginal social classes who could identify with such a figure, like Sinaloa’s poor farmers of corn and beans.

And other cash crops.

Malverde is also the patron saint — decidedly unofficial, of course — of the region’s robust narcotics trade.

His shrine stationed across the way from a government compound in Sinaloa’s capital city draws a bustle of devotees.* Offerings like produce and shrimp share space with icons of marijuana and AK-47s, and votive notes appreciating “how things turned out, and how nobody was grabbed.” Breaking Bad gave him a shout-out from the mouths of disdainful DEA agents north of the border.

The underworld angle may draw the gawking Yankees, but Jesus Malverde — man, legend, shrine, all — is a genuine civic institution who meets a genuine need for solace not unlike his very namesake. In the words of a researcher quoted by Price, Malverde draws

the poorest, the handicapped, pickpockets, thugs, prostitutes, drug traffickers and drug addicts, in sum, the stigmatized who, in civil or religious iconography don’t find anyone who looks like them, in whom to confide and in whose hands to put their lives.

We’ll drink to that.

* So does Malverde’s Facebook page.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Drugs,Execution,Famous,Fictional,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Lynching,Mexico,Myths,No Formal Charge,Outlaws,Popular Culture,Religious Figures,Shot

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