1630: Guglielmo Piazza and Giangiacomo Mora, colonna d’infamia

Add comment August 1st, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1630, a ludicrous disease panic sent two innocent men to the scaffold in Milan.

Terrified as their family and neighbors dropped dead around them of a raging bubonic plague outbreak, the surviving Milanese sprouted buboes on their brains.


1630 illustration of the plague-wracked Milanese doing the bring-out-your-dead thing.

Just days before the executions marked in this post, a city official named Guglielmo Piazza was noticed by some busybodies “strolling down the street writing from an ink-horn at his belt and wiping his ink-stained fingers on the walls of a house.” They promptly reported him not for misdemeanor property damage but for spreading plague poison, whatever that would be.

Investigators to their shame gave this accusation enough credence to interrogate Piazza under torture, a decision which obviously was tantamount to the execution itself. He broke he sealed his own fate when he broke and confessed, and sealed same for a misfortunate barber named Giangiacomo Mora whom Piazza was made to accuse.

Milan was proud enough of this obvious injustice to stand up an colonna d’infamia (“column of infamy”) denouncing both “poisoners” until a storm finally knocked the lying marble down in 1788. It read,

Here, where this plot of ground extends, formerly stood the shop of the barber Giangiacomo Mora, who had conspired with Guglielmo Piazza, Commissary of the Public Health, and with others, while a frightful plague exercised its ravages, by means of deadly ointments spread on all sides, to hurl many citizens to a cruel death. For this, the Senate, having declared them both to be enemies of their country, decreed that, placed on an elevated car, their flesh should be torn with red-hot pincers, their right hands be cut off, and their bones be broken; that they should be extended on the wheel, and at the end of six hours be put to death, and burnt. Then, and that there might remain no trace of these guilty men, their possessions should be sold at public sale, their ashes thrown into the river, and to perpetuate the memory of their deed the Senate wills that the house in which the crime was projected shall be razed to the ground, shall never be rebuilt, and that in its place a column shall be erected which shall be called Infamous. Keep afar off, then, afar off, good citizens, lest this accursed ground should pollute you with its infamy.

August, 1630.

Prior to the column’s overturning, the Milanese Enlightenment intellectual Pietro Verri wrote a meditation upon it titled Sulla tortura e singolarmente sugli effetti che produsse all’occasione delle unzioni malefiche, alle quale si attribui la pestilenza che devasto Milano l’anno 1630. Italian speakers can enjoy it here.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Innocent Bystanders,Italy,Milan,Murder,Public Executions,Terrorists,Torture,Wrongful Executions

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Feast Day of Gervasius and Protasius

Add comment October 14th, 2018 Headsman

October 14 is the original feast date* and alleged martyrdom date of early Christian saints Gervasius and Protasius.

Reputedly the twin sons of two other martyrs, their iconographic devices are the scourge, the club, and the sword, all of which implements were rudely employed by Nero’s (or possibly Domitian’s) executioners

Although put to death in Ravenna, their relics repose in macabre magnificence at Milan’s Basilica of Saint’Ambrogio; for this reason, the Roman church considers them patron saints of that city, and keeps their feast date on June 19, the anniversary of their relics’ translation. The Orthodox still mark the October 14 feast, which, being the execution date, is of considerably more interest to these grim annals.


Remains of Gervasius and Protasius at Milan’s Basilica Sant’Ambrogio, along with the remains of the cathedral’s builder and namesake, Saint Ambrose. (cc) image from BáthoryPéter.

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1418: Beatrice di Tenda

Add comment September 13th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1418, the Duke of Milan annulled his marriage at the headsman’s block.

Beatrice (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) was initially the wife of the condottiero Facino Cane, a brutal but successful warrior who gained de facto control of the Duchy of Milan when it was inherited by a teenage Duke.

That teen’s younger brother, Filippo Visconti, spent the early 1400s packed away in Pavia, sickly and marginal, wondering which of the deadly machinations of state playing out above him might unexpectedly come crashing down on his own head. It seems doubtful that Beatrice ever had reason to give the little twerp a thought.

Delivery for Filippo came in May 1412. Big brother was assassinated while Facino Cane lay dying and suddenly the 19-year-old called the shots in Milan. In his day, he would become known as a cunning and cruel tyrant, and would make Milan the dominant power in northern Italy.

And it all was possible because of May 1412, which not only elevated Filippo but widowed our principal Beatrice. From her puissant late husband she inherited 400,000 ducats and huge … tracts of land. Her virtues could hardly fail to appeal to the whelp of a Duke, even at twenty years his senior; indeed, it was Cane himself who sketched out this succession plan from his deathbed.

It seems, however, that having taking possession of the wealth and legitimacy that came with Beatrice’s hand, Filippo soon grew irritated with the rest of her — enough so that he at last determined to put her aside. His paranoid Excellency wasn’t the quietly-retire-you-to-a-monastery type; instead, he went for the full Anne Boleyn.

Accusing his consort of consorting with a young troubadour in her court, Michele Orombelli, Filippo had the accused cuckolder and two of Beatrice’s handmaidens tortured until they produced the requisite confession/accusation of faithlnessness. Upon that basis he had Orombelli and Beatrice di Tenda both beheaded at the castle of Binasco. A plaque placed there to commemorate the spurned wife is still to be seen today.


(cc) image from Jk4u59.

Bellini’s second-last opera was based on this tragic story. Beatrice di Tenda premiered in 1833; it’s noteworthy in Bellini’s biography because deadline disputes in its composition ruined the composer’s longstanding collaboration with librettist Felice Romani.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Italy,Milan,Nobility,Sex,Torture,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1480: Cicco Simonetta

Add comment October 30th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1480, Francesco Simonetta — known as Cicco to his contemporaries — was beheaded at the Castello of Pavia.

Simonetta (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) was your basic 15th century polyglot Italian humanist, whose aptitude saw him into the service of the condottiero Francesco Sforza.

Simonetta’s honors and appointments multiplied as Sforza’s reach expanded; when Sforza died, and then Sforza’s heir was assassinated, a 7-year-old became Duke of Milan.

The late 1470s saw a bitter power struggle during the child duke’s minority for effective control of the state: on the one hand, the boy’s uncle Ludovico; on the other, the boy’s mother Bona of Savoy. Simonetta was the able minister of state for Bona, and his faction briefly prevailed and saw Ludovico into exile.

Simonetta had put several years of hustle into balancing the political factions that kept Bona — and via Bona, himself — in control. Alas for their cause, Bona was eventually induced via her lover, a natural rival of Simonetta’s, to just go and invite Ludovico to return to Milan

Simonetta looked grave, as he well might, when he heard the news. “Most illustrious duchess,” he said to Bona the next day, “do you know what will happen? My head will be cut off, and before long you will lose this state.”

And so it was.

Bad news for Francesco Simonetta, sure, but Ludovico would one day use his position to commission Da Vinci’s The Last Supper.

Simonetta’s legacy beyond peninsular politics is somewhat less august. His treatise on code-breaking, Regule ad extrahendum litteras ziferatas sine exemplo (Rules for Decrypting Coded Documents), is a tipsheet for busting elementary substitution ciphers: determine the language, look for common words, exploit the letter patterns caused by standardized word endings (like -ing and -ed in English), isolate the vowels.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Italy,Political Expedience,Politicians,Power,Torture,Treason

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1548: Francesco Burlamacchi, Lucca republican

Add comment February 14th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1548, Francesco Burlamacchi lost his head … for a united Italy?

A humanist patrician with a soft spot for Plutarch, Burlamacchi had orchestrated a bid to break away an independent federation of Tuscan cities — Florence, Pisa, and his own city of Lucca.

The dream of the Republic and liberty lived long after Rome’s legions had ceased to tromp. It’s just that said dream got reliably tromped over whenever it threatened to materialize in reality.

These prospectively-liberated cities existed with formal independence under the aegis of the allied Holy Roman Emperor Charles V — and were locally bullied by the Medici Duke Cosmo. That made two Caesars who would not be keen on fragmented city-states coalescing into Burlamacchi’s Republic of Tourist Hotspots; for good measure, Burlamacchi threw in some religious reform and anti-clericalism that would be sure to go down poorly with the church. (Lucca was notorious in the Vatican’s eyes as a center of heterodoxy.)

Against this likely formidable opposition, our plotter counterpoised an astonishing rolling-putsch plan.

His scheme was to march a militia, under cover of “training,” out to the environs of Pisa where he would appeal to the Pisans to throw off their Florentine shackles, then march the resulting larger troop to Florence and appeal to the Florentines to kick out the Medici. Revolution accomplished, the neighboring cities — Siena, Arezzo, Lucca itself — would naturally adhere to this new confederation.* He meant, he later told his judges, to “free all of Tuscany.”

Pretty ambitious. Or optimistic. Or … bonkers.

Once the impossible dream plot was betrayed from the inside, Duke Cosmo, as the most direct target of the intended march, wanted Burlamacchi delivered to his own hands for interrogation and punishment; the elders of Lucca could not do this without making an impolitic show of submission to their neighbor.** Charles V resolved the impasse by taking Burlamacchi to the imperial seat of northern Italy, Milan, and cutting his head off there.

During Italy’s 19th century risorgimento, the Italian writer Carlo Minutoli rediscovered Burlamacchi and popularized him as a forerunner of the new Italian nationalists. (Burlamacchi had long been forgotten as an embarrassment in the intervening centuries.)

Accordingly, with the (proto-)unification of Italy, Tuscan sculptor Ulisse Cambi was commissioned to produce a monumental statue of Francesco Burlamacchi. This would-be Aratus still keeps watch on Lucca’s Piazza San Michele.


(cc) image from alphaorionis. Note that, according to The Renaissance in the Streets, Schools, and Studies (whose chapter “Fortune’s Fool” by Mary Hewlett was invaluable to this post), the historical Burlamacchi actually never carried a sword and hated bloodshed.

* The confederated city-states model was really big in the family. Burlamacchi’s teenage — at the time of the execution — son Michele later emigrated to Geneva, in the Swiss Confederation, and converted to Calvinism.

** Lucca was declining as a power at this time, and all the more insistent about jealously guarding a maximal appearance of sovereignty. The city-state’s major project in the 16th century was throwing up city-girding defensive walls meant to preserve her independence.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Florence,Habsburg Realm,History,Italy,Lucca,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Torture,Treason

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1938: Anthony Chebatoris, in death penalty-free Michigan

5 comments July 8th, 2011 Andrew Gustafson

This post was contributed by Andrew Gustafson, a writer and cartographer based in Brooklyn, NY. Andrew’s work can be found on his website, and he regularly blogs about New York City history and culture for Urban Oyster Tours.

On this date in 1938, Anthony Chebatoris was hanged at the federal prison in Milan, Michigan, becoming the only person executed in Michigan since it gained statehood in 1837.

Chebatoris and an accomplice, Jack Gracy, rolled into Midland, Michigan on September 29, 1937, with the intention to rob the Chemical State Bank. They never did get their hands on the cash, and only one of them would leave the town alive, though with a proverbial noose dangling from his neck. The two men, armed with a pistol and a sawed-off shotgun, entered the bank and approached the bank manager, Clarence Macomber, with guns drawn. In the ensuing scuffle, Chebatoris shot Macomber and another bank employee, Paul Bywater. Upon hearing the shots, Frank Hardy, a dentist whose office was next to the bank, grabbed the loaded deer rifle he kept handy and went to the window to see what the commotion was about. As Chebatoris and Gacy abandoned the botched robbery empty-handed, Hardy began firing at the fleeing robbers, hitting Chebatoris in the arm and causing him to crash the getaway car he was driving. As the wounded men looked for another escape route, Chebatoris spotted a uniformed truck driver named Henry Porter, whom he mistook for a police officer, and shot him. The men then tried to hijack a truck to make their escape, but as Gacy attempted to climb into the cab, the sharpshooter Hardy shot him in the head from 150 yards away, killing him instantly.* Chebatoris took off on foot and was apprehended a short distance away, exhausted and bleeding.

Chebatoris would survive his injuries, as would the bank employees Macomber and Bywater. But the innocent bystander Henry Porter put our convict on the road to the gallows: after two weeks in the hospital, Porter would succumb to his injuries, and murder would be added to the charges against the surviving bank robber. Michigan had outlawed the death penalty for murder in 1846, becoming the first U.S. state to do so. But Chebatoris found himself subject to a legal system that had been changed by New Deal politics and the public’s panic over escalating violence and criminality. Federal prosecutors took on the case, under the authority of the National Bank Robbery Act of 1934, which was passed in response to the rash of bank holdups across the country. The law gave the federal government the authority to prosecute anyone involved in the robbery of a bank that was a member of the Federal Reserve System or the newly created Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Unluckily for Chebatoris, Chemical State Bank was a member of both.

With a mountain of evidence against him, Chebatoris was easily convicted, and on November 30, 1937, he was sentenced to death by federal judge Arthur Tuttle. The case set off a political controversy in Michigan, one that would pit an anti-death-penalty governor against federal judges and prosecutors who wanted the sentence passed down and carried out in the state. Under the federal statute, federal death sentences could only be carried out in states that had their own death penalty. While Michigan had long abolished capital punishment for murder and other crimes, it still kept an obscure law on the books allowing execution for treason (which has never been exercised, as it is unclear how one would commit treason against the state of Michigan). This loophole allowed the federal capital prosecution and execution to proceed within the confines of the staunchly abolitionist state.

In response to the decision, Michigan Governor Frank Murphy said, “There hasn’t been a hanging in Michigan for 108 years. If this one is carried out in Michigan, it will be like turning back the clock on civilization.” Illinois, which had its own electric chair, offered to finish off Chebatoris, but Judge Tuttle ordered that the execution should proceed in Michigan, noting, “The just verdict having been returned, the law was mandatory in the three respects, namely that the penalty should be death, that it should be hanging, and that it should be within the state of Michigan. These last two requirements resulted from the fact that Michigan has one statute providing for the death penalty by hanging. If the sentence had been different in any one of these respects, it would have been unlawful. I have neither the power nor the inclination to change the sentence.”

Chebatoris was transferred from the Saginaw County Jail, where he had been held throughout his trial, to the federal prison in Milan. At 5 a.m. on July 8, 1938, he was brought to the gallows, and before 23 witnesses, including an inebriated hangman named Phil Hanna, he was hanged. In the middle of the night before the execution, Hanna had arrived at the prison demanding that his three drunken friends be admitted to the hanging. After an argument with the warden and a call to the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Hanna was allowed to proceed with execution, and the warden acceded to his demands (though at the time of the execution, the warden barred the three friends from the proceedings, knowing that the room was too dark, and Hanna too drunk, for him to notice their absence).**

Chebatoris’ execution was both a unique event and a bellwether for things to come in the federal death penalty system. Since 1927, he is the only person to be executed for a murder committed in a state that does not have its own death penalty statute. After World War II, executions, both federal and state, went into a steep decline across the United States, culminating in the 1972 Supreme Court decision Furman v. Georgia, which struck down every capital punishment statute in the land. Four years later, the death penalty was revived in Gregg v. Georgia, and it took barely six months for states to resume executions. The federal government was slower, however, and the first post-Furman federal death penalty statute did not appear until 1988. Since that date, however, we have seen the steady expansion of the federal death penalty, building on the precedents set by the National Bank Robbery Act. Rather than targeting bank robberies, the federal government has used the death penalty to take aim at other perceived scourges, employing it is a weapon in the various domestic “wars” on crime, drugs, and terrorism.

In the past twenty years, the federal death penalty has been transformed from a seldom-used punishment for pirates and crimes committed in the territories to an expansive weapon that can be imposed in a wide range of jurisdictions, leading the Criminal Defense Network to conclude that “virtually every homicide occurring within federal jurisdiction is now death-eligible.”† The greatest expansion of the federal death penalty came with the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which greatly expanded federal jurisdiction and authorized the death penalty for nearly 60 different crimes. And the reach of the federal death penalty has continued to expand, even into states like Michigan that have rejected capital punishment.

There are currently 58 people sitting on the federal death row, nine of whom committed their crimes in states that either do not have a constitutionally valid state death penalty statute or have active moratoriums on the death penalty.‡ Interestingly, all of those nine were sentenced to death during the tenures of Attorneys General John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzalez, and their decisions to pursue capital prosecutions marked a departure from the actions of their predecessors. Early in his term, John Ashcroft revised the U.S. Attorneys Manual and removed language about the Department of Justice’s policy towards seeking the death penalty in states that did not have their own capital punishment statutes. Previously the manual stated that in these states, “penalty-driven decisions to file federal charges are inappropriate.” That language was removed, and presumably this opened the door for the increase in prosecutions, convictions, and death sentences handed out in federal districts located within abolitionist states. Since Chebatoris’ execution, no one who falls into this category has been executed, and current Attorney General Eric Holder has signaled a return to the earlier practices, meaning the federal government will be less inclined to pursue these kinds of cases. Nevertheless, it is likely that at least one of these nine will eventually be executed.

When that happens, Anthony Chebatoris will no longer be a solitary historical footnote.

* Hardy was a hero, but he is not nearly as celebrated as another bank robbery foiler, Northfield, Minnesota’s Joseph Lee Hayward, who is remembered annually at the town’s “Defeat of Jesse James Days.” Perhaps Midland could build its own tourist attraction around Hardy?

** For a detailed account of the case of Anthony Chebatoris, read Aaron Veselenak’s article in the May/June 1998 issue of Michigan History Magazine, “The Execution of Anthony Chebatoris.”

† From Burr, Dick, David Bruck and Kevin McNally (2009). “An Overview of the Federal Death Penalty Process.” Capital Defense Network.

‡ These death row inmates are: Carlos Caro (WV), Donald Fell (VT), Marvin Gabrion (MI), Dustin Honken and Angela Johnson (IA), Ronald Mikos (IL), Alfonso Rodriguez (ND), Gary Sampson (MA), and Kenneth Lighty (MD). For a description of their cases, visit the Death Penalty Information Center. All are held in the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, IN, with the exception of Gary Sampson, who is being held in New Hampshire. For more information on these cases, visit the Death Penalty Information Center.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Michigan,Milestones,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Other Voices,Pelf,Theft,U.S. Federal,USA

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