1793: The slave Nell

Add comment October 4th, 2016 Headsman

Original from the Calendar of Virginia State Papers and Otner Manuscripts:

Champion Travis to the Governor

Sir:

Enclosed is a statement of the evidence which appeared against Daphne and Nell, two negroes convicted for the murder of Joel Garthright, which would have been sent sooner had the Attorney been in Town.

And am,
Your humble servant.


The evidence against Daphne and Nelly, two Slaves belonging to Col. Champion Travis, who were tried and convicted by the court of James City County in the month of June, for the murder of Joel Gathright, Col. Travis’s overseer, as well as my memory enables me to state it, was in substance follows:

It was proved in plain and positive terms by two negro boys, who were present and saw the greater part of the transaction, that Daphne and Nelly, the two criminals now under condemnation, were at work with ploughs on the day on which the overseer was killed, and the boys themselves leading the oxen to the ploughs.

Gathright, the overseer, came at his usual time to the field where these women were working, and blamed Nelly for suffering the fence to be left open, which had exposed the corn growing to be cropped by the sheep.

Nelly denied the charge and used some impertinent language, which provoked the overseer to strike her. This he did repeatedly with a small cane, till Nelly quitted her plough and ran; the overseer pursued and struck her on the ground after she had fallen.

Nelly recovered from her fall, and immediately engaged him. The woman Daphne, who was at a small distance off, as soon as she saw Nelly closely fighting with the overseer, ran to the place where they were engaged, and together they seized and threw him to the ground. They beat him on the ground with their fists and switches with great fury a considerable time.

The overseer made frequent efforts to raise himself up and get from them in vain, and demanded to know if they intended to kill him.

At length he ordered one of the boys, the witness, to go to a remote part of the field where the negro men were at work, and call one of them to his assistance; after some time, he sent the other boy.

The boys executed their orders, and soon returned to the place they had left; when they returned, the women, Daphne and Nelly, had fled, and an old negro man belonging to Col. Travis assisted to raise the overseer from the ground, who soon after expired.

It was proved by an old negro man, who kept a mill in the neighborhood of Col. Travis’s plantation, that these two women, Daphne and Nelly, in the afternoon of the same day on which they killed the overseer, passed the mill on their way to Williamsburg; and being asked by the old fellow where they were going, and what was the matter — seeing some disorder in their appearances, they replied that they had whipped their overseer, and were going to town to their master.

They were urged by the miller to go on, lest the overseer should overtake them; they observed that they had left him unable to move, and Daphne asked the old man if a woman could be hanged for killing a man.

Several white men who came to the place shortly after the scene was closed, and who were Jurors in the inquest held on his body, proved the violence committed on the body, and a fracture of the skull, which they imagined was made by a stone found a few feet from the head of the unfortunate man.

The Criminals, Daphne and Nelly, were tried separately, and the boys closely and rigidly examined; on each trial they delivered the same clear and unequivocal testimony. The criminals were undefended, but asked themselves many questions of the witnesses, which, as well as I remember, were answered strongly against them.

Ro. Sanders.
Attorney for James City County
July 26, 1793

Elsewhere in antebellum human chattelry: this from the Columbian Gazetteer, Oct. 28, 1793.

The full court record ensues in these same papers, demonstrating the same circumstances. Daphne was duly hanged on July 19, but “it being suggested to the court that the said Nelly is quick and big with child, it is commanded the Sheriff of this county that he cause execution of the above Judgement to be done on Friday the fourth day of October next. The Court also valued the said Nelly at fifty pounds Current money.”

(The timeline here implies that Nelly would have been about six to seven months pregnant when overseer Gathright began thrashing her for leaving the fence gate ajar.)

Nelly’s fate moved enough tender-hearted white neighbors to petition for her reprieve, a petition that was rebutted by a furious confutation with vastly more numerous signatories noting that “not a single circumstance appeared in alleviation of the horrid offence.” Can’t think of a one!

At any rate,

She has been delivered of her child some weeks, and now awaits the Execution of her sentence. We have heard with great emotion and concern that much Industry has been exerted to get signatures to a petition to your Excellency and the Hon’ble Board of Council to obtain a Pardon for the said negro woman, Nell; when we consider the alarming commotions which have lately existed among the negroes in this neighborhood, and the dangerous example of such a murder, we humbly conceive it necessary for the public peace that the course of the law should have its full effect in this instance.

And it did.

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1872: John Barclay

Add comment October 4th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1872, John Barclay hanged in Ohio for murder — and was almost reanimated for science.

Barclay was a late-twenties knockabout of the area whom the Cincinnati Enquirer judged “does not look the diabolical murderer he is charged to be.” (“except his eyes”: from the May 23, 1872 edition, as are the subsequent quotes in this section)

Charles Garner, his victim, was a livestock merchant who specialized in supplying the Columbus butchers. On November 28, 1871, Garner headed out of Columbus rich with cash from a successful business trip. Barclay knew both Garner and the butcher with whom he was transacting business, one J.B. Rusk, and had hung about with them during the day — even holding open the bank door as Garner entered to cash Rusk’s check.

In the evening, hearing that Garner was about to depart, Barclay ducked into a nearby general store, inquired about buying a hatchet, and not being able to find a suitable one, settled for buying a yellow-handled hammer instead. Then he apparently hopped on the back of Garner’s wagon just as it set out, where a great heap of merchandise obscured him from the driver’s view.

Four miles out of town, at a bridge over Alum Creek, Barclay presented himself to his unknowing chauffeur and bludgeoned him with the hammer, “crushing in the skull so that the brain was exposed” — then fled on foot, having relieved the victim of several hundred dollars. The mortally wounded Garner somehow managed to drive the wagon to a house two miles further down the road, where he died five days later. A surgeon who attended him later testified that “brain, matter and blood [were] issuing from head and nose … a portion of forehead was an open wound; a portion of the brain was broken in and a portion lost.” Barclay would eventually confess the crime.


A most unusual postscript was appended to the execution of the hanging sentence.

Barclay willed his body to the benefit of the Starling Medical College in town, and there a local high school teacher named Thomas Corwin Mendenhall subjected it to the Frankensteinish jolts of a galvanic battery.

The dream, of course, was to reanimate the corpse altogether — although a history mused that the Supreme Court judges who also took enough interest to attend the experiment “might have to pass upon the uncanny question of Barclay’s legal status as a living person who had already suffered the death penalty.”*

Barclay hanged at 11:49 a.m.; by 12:23 p.m., his flesh was on the table under Mendenhall’s probes. Notwithstanding the dispatch of the scientists they did not accomplish his resuscitation, although the Cincinnati Commercial (Oct. 5, 1872) reported some ghoulish simulations of life:

The first test was on the spine. This caused the eyes to open, the left hand to become elevated, and the fingers to move, as if grasping for something. The hand finally fell, resting on the breast. The battery was then applied to the nerves on the face and neck, which caused the muscles of the face to move as in life. The test was next applied to the phrenic nerve of the left arm, and afterward to the sciatic nerve.

The next year, Mendenhall was hired as a physics instructor by the new Ohio Agricultural and Mechanical College in Columbus: while he would go on to a varied and widely-traveled career in the sciences, Mendenhall has the distinction of being the very first faculty member at the institution known today as Ohio State University, and the namesake of its Mendenhall Laboratory building. (Starling Medical College, site of the galvanic experiments, would also be absorbed into OSU’s college of medicine.)

* It ain’t like they’d be the only ones to ever confront that difficulty.

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1925: Shi Congbin, grievance

Add comment October 4th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1925 the Chinese warlord Sun Chuanfang had a captured enemy commander beheaded. In so doing, he signed his own death warrant too.

Deep into China’s Warlord Era, the chaotic decade-plus after the collapsing empire gave way to a fractured republic. From 1916 to 1928, leagues of rival generals cut China into jigsaw pieces.

The chiefs of these shifting statelets, being warlords, fought numerous wars.

Sun Chuangfang, one of the generals of a warlord party known as the Zhili clique, was engaged in the south in 1925 in a campaign whose successful resolution would ultimately install him in Nanking with effective control of five provinces. In the service of achieving such a power base he must have thought little about destroying an enemy commander caught in a counterattack and mounting the man’s severed head on a pike to cow any opposition.

According to Eugenia Lean’s book about the amazing incident,

On October 3, 1925, while leading the Superior Iron Brigade (Tiejia jun), a brigade of mercenary troops, in an attempt to capture Guzhen, Shandong, Shi Congbin was surrounded by Sun Chuanfang’s troops with no support in sight. Shi’s four thousand soldiers were slaughtered, while Shi himself was taken prisoner and beheaded the next day upon Sun’s personal order. Shi Jianqiao [Shi Congbin’s daughter] related in heart-wrenching detail how her family would not have learned the truth except for the bravery and loyalty of one of Shi Congbin’s personal servants. “Only a single servant was able to flee home. When we asked him about news from the front line, he threw himself to the ground in tears. We knew the news was not good.” The servant had been too grief-stricken to speak. Only after he Shi family had gone to Tianjin did they learn all the facts behind Shi Congbin’s death.

The named daughter Shi Jianqiao was about 20 years old when she received this devastating news.

Years elapsed. The general, as we have said, rose to his acme, and then fell, and retired, and like as not he had never in the following decade tarried over the destruction Shi Congbin.

But Shi Jianqiao did. She nursed her grievance and her sense of filial honor until when she was 30, she at last found her opportunity to strike back at her father’s slayer. Approaching the by-then-long-retired general as he performed Buddhist meditations, the faithful daughter shot him three times.

The supporting cast in Shi’s tale of revenge included the grieving widow and the suffering family her father had left behind. Even though there is little indication that the Shi family underwent any real financial strain, Shi Jianqiao nonetheless insisted that Shi Conbin’s death meant that a poor widow and six children, four of whom were still young, were left to fend for themselves. Sun Chuanfang was directly to blame for her family’s plight. The way in which Shi portrayed her mother was particularly important. Traditionally, dutiful daughters and chaste wives were expected to commit suicide if their fathers o husbands were killed unjustly. Such an extreme gesture was meant as an ultimate expression of loyalty and protest against injustice. But in this twentieth-century tale, Shi Jianqiao did not commit suicide and, moreover, justified her decision to live in terms of her filial piety to her mother. She portrayed her mother as particularly grief-stricken by the affair and argued that she needed to right the wrong committed against her father on behalf of her mother. In her GGRS, Shi declared, “Although all I wanted to do was die, my elderly moter’s illness gave me the will to live.” In her will, she stated, with similar effect, “To my dear mother … what I have been hiding from you for years, I can no longer hide. Our enemy has not yet been retaliated [against]. Father’s death can no longer be obscured … A sacrifice should be made for father’s revenge. In the future, five children will still be able to wait on you. They are all dutiful.” Shi Jianqiao’s act of revenge would be the ultimate gesture of filial piety, while her remaining siblings would be able to wait on her elderly mother in more mundane ways throughout the rest of her mother’s life.

Shi Jianqiao’s family loyalty attracted so much sympathy in China that she received a free pardon and even became a symbol of national resistance against the Japanese occupation. She died in 1979.

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1648: Alice Bishop

1 comment October 4th, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1648, 32-year-old Alice Bishop was hanged on the gallows in Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts for the murder of her young daughter — an apparently motiveless crime which must have shocked her fellow settlers.

Almost nothing is known about Alice’s early life. She probably, although not definitely, came over on the Mayflower. The prevailing theory is that her parents were Mayflower passengers Christopher Martin and Marie Prower. They died within a week of each other in January 1621, before the actual settlement of Plymouth even began.

If that’s the case, Alice had been an orphan for the better part of a year by the time the first Thanksgiving rolled around. She was presumably raised by one of the other families. She would marry twice and have three daughters: Abigail, Martha and Damaris.

By 1648, Alice was living with her second husband, the Plymouth newcomer Richard Bishop, who was Damaris’s father. The family seems to have been unexceptional, just another household trying to eke out a living in a harsh and unforgiving environment.

Somewhere along the line, something went very wrong.

On July 22, 1648, while Richard Bishop was away from home, family friend Rachel Ramsden dropped by the Bishops’ residence and spent some time with Alice. Alice’s four-year-old middle child, Martha Clark, was asleep in bed in the loft, which was accessible by ladder. (Where the other two children were has not been recorded.)

At some point, Alice gave Rachel a kettle and asked her to go fetch some buttermilk from a neighbor’s house.

When Rachel returned, she noticed blood on the floor beneath the ladder. Alice was “sad and dumpish,” and when Rachel asked her what was going on, she wordlessly pointed up at the loft.

Rachel climbed up to have a look: there was blood everywhere; Martha’s mattress was drenched in it.

Rachel fled the house in a panic, found her parents and told them she thought Alice had murdered her daughter. Her father rushed to find the colonial governor. A posse of twelve armed men assembled and went to the Bishop house. By the time the men arrived, Alice was in hysterics.

Ascending to the loft, they found Martha’s body. The child was lying on her left side, “with her throat cut with divers gashes crose wayes, the wind pipe cut and stuke into the throat downward, and the bloody knife lying by the side.” Nothing could be done for her.

Alice freely admitted she had murdered her daughter and said she was sorry for it, but she claimed she had no recollection of the crime. When they asked her why she’d done it, she had no answer for them.

She was the fifth person hanged in the Plymouth Colony, and the first woman.

We will never know why Alice Bishop killed her daughter Martha, and why she did it in such a ferocious manner. One of her descendants has a website about her that attempts to answer that question.

Severe mental illness, perhaps post-partum psychosis, is an obvious answer, but not the only one. The site notes another potentially significant fact: both of Alice’s parents died when she was four years old, and she killed her daughter at the same age.

Richard Bishop survived his wife by nearly a quarter-century. As for the children: youngest child Damaris Bishop grew up, married and had three sons, but Abigail Clark, Alice’s oldest child, vanishes from history after her mother’s execution.

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1570: Rev. John Kello, the Parson of Spott

Add comment October 4th, 2012 Headsman

This date in 1570 marked the remarkable Edinburgh hanging of a preacher for murdering his wife.

It’s one of Twelve Scots Trials featured in William Roughead‘s public-domain true-crime tome of that title

“The time,” muses our correspondent, “was the year of grace 1570.”

Calvinism had triumphed, and the cause of Queen Mary and the ‘Auld Faith’ was lost. That unhappy lady was safely in Elizabeth’s parlour, the gallant Kirkcaldy still kept the flag of his Royal mistress flying on the castle of Edinburgh, and the ambition of her ambiguous brother, the ‘Good Regent,’ had lately been abridged by the bullet of Bothwellhaugh at Linlithgow. The scene was the hill parish of Spott, on the eastern slope of the Lammermuirs, near the coast town of Dunbar … celebrated, too, as being the scene of the last witch-burnings in Scotland, for so late as October 1705, only two years before the Union, the minutes of the Kirk Session significantly record: ‘Many witches burnt on the top of Spott Loan.’

In the sixteenth century a strange fatality attached to the incumbency of this quiet rural parish … Robert Galbraith, parson of Spott … was murdered in 1543 by one John Carkettle, a burgess of Edinburgh. The next rector, John Hamilton … [became] the Archbishop Hamilton of Queen Mary’s reign. He was taken prisoner at the capture of Dumbarton Castle in 1571, and was hanged at Stirling for complicity in the assassination of the Regent Moray … The fate of the archbishop’s successor in the manse of Spott, the first minister of the new and purified Kirk, forms the subject of the present study.

Young Kello presumably fancied Spott a station on his own cursus honorum towards archbishoprics and assassinated regents; he found himself irksomely constrained by the cheapness of the parish wage (which drove him into speculative debt) and by his “amiable but plebeian consort” Margaret Thomson.

“Thir wer the glistering promises whairwith Sathan, efter his accustomed maner, eludit my senses,” Kello’s eventual confession would sigh. Specifically, Sathan suggested he lose the wife and upgrade to a socially-advantageous match with a lord’s daughter.

On September 24, 1570, Kello came upon his spouse defenseless in prayer, and strangled her with a towel.

“In the verie death,” he admits, “she could not beleive I bure hir ony evill will, bot was glaid, as sche than said, to depairt, gif hir death could doe me ather vantage or pleasoure.”

“Verily,” Roughead adds, “it is difficult to write with patience of the Reverend John.”

Reverend John strung up his infinitely self-sacrificing wife to make it look like she’d done herself to death, went out, preached — it was Sunday — and returned home with some guests, ever-so-casually coming upon the poor woman’s dangling body to great surprise and chagrin in the presence of witnesses.

And this ruse worked, at first. Kello began entertaining sympathy calls from neighbors; it’s unremarked in the existing documentation, but it’s conceivable that the body of the presumed suicide might even have been mutilated or dishonored as was the style at the time.

Overacting the part a bit, Kello sought out the counsel of a brother-minister by the name of Andrew Simpson over the question of the probable disposition of his self-murdering wife’s soul. This Rev. Simpson had tended Kello during a sickness prior to Kello’s wife’s passing, when the Parson of Spott had Sathan’s cogitations in mind. And apparently, Kello related at that time a strange dream that Simpson would on the subsequent visit turn into a supernatural Colombo moment, reciting back that past phantasm plus Simpson’s interpretation of it that it denoted the dreamer’s blood guilt.

This gave the heretofore icily hypocritical Reverend John such a case of the heebie-jeebies that he proceeded to Edinburgh to turn himself in.

And so, on October 4, he preached his last sermon — this one from the scaffold, enjoining advice of timeless utility:

Measoure not the treuth of Godis word altogether be the lyvis of sic as are apointed pastouris ower you, for thei beir the self same fleshe of corruptioune that ye doe, and the moir godlie the charge is whairunto thai are called, the readier the Enemie to draw thame bak from Godis obedience.

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1843: Allen Mair, irate

1 comment October 4th, 2011 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1843, 84-year-old Allan Mair was hung in Stirling, Scotland.

He was condemned for the murder of his wife. Mair is notable not only for being the oldest person ever executed in Scotland, but also for his unusually long, bitter scaffold speech, as recorded in Alex Young’s book The Encyclopaedia of Scottish Executions 1750 to 1963.

The meenister o’ the paarish invented lees against me. Folks, yin an’ a, mind I’m nae murderer, and I say as a dyin’ man who is about to pass into the presence o’ his Goad. I was condemned by the lees o’ the meenister, by the injustice of the Sheriff and Fiscal, and perjury of the witnesses. I trust for their conduct that a’ thae parties shall be overta’en by the vengeance of Goad, and sent into everlasting damnation. I curse them with the curses in the Hunner an’ Ninth Psalm: “Set thou a wicked man o’er them” — an haud on thee, hangman, till I’m dune — “An’ let Satan stand at their richt haun. Let their days be few, let their children be faitherless, let their weans be continually vagabonds”; and I curse them a –

At this point, the executioner drew the bolt, but Allen wasn’t done raging against the dying of the light. The old fella got his hands free and grabbed the rope, delaying his strangulation; the slipshod executioner had to fight off his prey’s clutches to hang him.

There’s an original broadside from this execution here.

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1922: C.C. Stassen, white miner

2 comments October 5th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1922, white miner Carel Christian Stassen was hanged in South Africa for murdering two blacks during the recent Rand Rising.

Also known as the Rand Rebellion or Rand Revolt, this rising saw a strike by white miners transmuted into outright insurrection … before being ruthlessly suppressed.

This seminal event in 20th century South Africa is also a classic study in the indeterminate solidarity of race and class, and would help set the stage for the apartheid system to come.

In the years preceding the Rand Revolt, an aristocracy of skilled white miners found itself, er, undermined by the sinking price of gold and the vast pool of underpaid black miners who had long been consigned to strictly unskilled jobs.

When white miners went on strike as the calendar turned to 1922, it was — self-consciously — in defense of white privilege: specifically, a color bar protecting white semi-skilled positions from black competition which white mine owners intended to breach.

In a context where the vast majority of mine workers overall were black, the strikers rallied under the banner,

“Workers of the world, unite and fight for a white South Africa!”


Note the sign in the lower left with the racialized twist that old labor slogan.

Inspiring stuff.

The strike’s peculiar dynamics bear all manner of historical inquiry. In its opening months, South Africa’s native black laborers were entirely left out, neither engaged as potential allies (obviously) nor targeted as “scabs” or enemies (more surprisingly).

But this just-among-whites dispute broke out of the family around March 7-9 when — on the very eve of military conflict with Jan Smuts‘ government — rumors swept the white strikers’ communities “that the natives were fighting the Whites … and that the Strikers and Police were working in conjunction to suppress the natives,” that “the kaffirs will kill us all.”

The quotes are actual period citations given in Jeremy Krikler’s 1999 article “The Inner Mechanics of a South African Racial Massacre,” in The History Journal, Dec. 1999. Krikler’s subsequent book, White Rising: The 1922 Insurrection and Racial Killing in South Africa, explores this topic in much greater detail.

In Richard Seymour’s summary,

they took their appeal to be part of the white community seriously, and in their murders dramatised their desire to be in solidarity with the institutions of white supremacy that were about to massacre them: it was as if to re-direct the fire onto the ‘real’ menace, as opposed to the respectable white workers who only wanted their fair share.

C.C. Stassen was one of those conducting dramatic murder — in his case, of two natives in what Stassen insisted was self-defense against an aggressive black mob.

As one can discern from his presence in these pages, however, Stassen’s homicides did not arouse a sentiment of solidarity among the country’s owners. Shortly after crushing the revolt in March (around 200 people died) they gave notice of their preference for class consciousness above race consciousness, hanging Stassen over the objections of labor unions in South Africa and abroad.

The legacy of the Rand Rising and the hangings of Stassen and others was the Pact Government, an alliance of white miners and Afrikaans farmers that ousted Smuts in a 1924 election.

Even though this new state arrangement proceeded to firm up race privilege in the mining sector with the piquantly named “Colour Bar Act”,* it did so on the basis of the victors’ terms established by the Rand Revolt.

The Pact Government … … ensure[d] that skilled work on the mines remained the preserve of whites, [but] it made no attempt to reverse what the mine owners had achieved: the expulsion of whites from a range of semi-skilled occupations … White wages fell markedly and labour militancy was terminated. The Rand — site of enormous battles in the early twentieth century — never again saw a significant white mineworkers’ strike. The curtain came down upon an epoch of white labour. Whatever revolutionary tradition it had had, was rooted out forever.

-White Rising

* The National Party that enacted the Colour Bar Act would, when it next controlled the government in 1948, establish apartheid.

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1689: Quirinus Kuhlmann, mystic poet

1 comment October 4th, 2010 Headsman

“Seldom is a poet burned alive, no matter how critics may roast his work!”

-Robert Beale

On this date in 1689, German poet and mystic Quirinus Kuhlmann was roasted in Moscow for heresy.

This Silesian millenarian (English Wikipedia entry | German) experienced a mystical conversion and spent his law school hours instead scribbling visionary poetry and devouring visionary texts.

Inflamed with Bohmian fire, I read Bohme with fiery eagerness and capacity. I did not know the Bohmian texts and I knew them the same day. What an admiration (o Jesus!) overcame me when I heard Bohme tell his revelations which I had learned from the universe of nature, with God as my teacher, it were the revelations the first outlines of which I just had begun to delineate in my own works.

-Quoted in Toward the Millennium: Messianic Expectations from the Bible to Waco

Quirinus’s particular vibe was an end-times kingdom of Jesus thing with the Catholic Church as the Antichrist. He cast about Europe vainly imploring princes to ally — Protestants with Orthodox with Mussulmen — to destroy the papal whore of Babylon. This

Prince of Fanatics … wrote a book, entitled Prodromus Quinquennii Mirabilis, and published at Leyden in 1674, in which he set forth his peculiar views. He stated that in that same year the Fifth Monarchy or the Christian Kingdom was about to commence, that he himself would bring forth a son from his own wife, that this son by many miracles would found the kingdom, and that he himself was the Son of God. On account of these mad ravings he was exiled by the Chief of the United Provinces of the Netherlands, and expelled with infamy from the University of Leyden. But his strange mission did not cease. He wandered for some time in France and England … He then proceeded to Turkey on his mission, and presented himself to the Sultan. Although ignorant of the language of the country, he persuaded himself that he could speak in any tongue; but when they led him into the presence of the Sultan he waited in vain for the burning words of eloquence to flow. The Turks dealt with him according to his folly, and bestowed on him a sound thrashing. Thence he proceeded to Russia …

Kuhlmann could have picked a better time to evangelize Russia than the reign of Peter the Great. This progressive despot did indeed look west for Russia’s future: in industry, in law, in war, even in fashion. But certainly not in holy alliances.

It was a fellow-German in Moscow, a Lutheran pastor, who denounced Kuhlmann as a dangerous heretic. He and a follower were duly burned as such.

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1917: Jesse Robart Short, Etaples mutineer

Add comment October 4th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1917, Jesse Robart Short was shot in Etaples, France, for mutiny.


Jesse Robart Short’s sentence, as confirmed by General Haig, from the UK National Archives. (Transcribed more legibly.)

The fraught relationship between the enlisted and the officers had boiled over in the Etaples Mutiny just a few weeks before, which saw military police fire into a crowd of troops protesting the heavy-handed arrest of a fellow for slipping into the town of Etaples for a little (unauthorized, but widely practiced) R&R.

The shooting left a man dead and the camp in an uproar for several days, with some enraged rank-and-file men trying to break into army facilities hunting for MPs.

The excellent, but now defunct, site Shot At Dawn had a thorough recounting of the Etaples mutiny, still archived at the Wayback Machine.

Short, whose disciplinary record was otherwise clean, was picked out seemingly more or less arbitrarily to be the demonstration execution for this affair. He was doomed for an (unsuccessful) incident of incitement to mutiny, described by the officer thus:

“The picket was armed as regards 150 & the remainder were unarmed. At about 9.10 pm a lot of men, about 70 or 80 with notice boards torn away from the camps and waving flags which were handkerchiefs of all colours including red attached to sticks approached me. These men pushed through, the picket practically standing on one side … officers who stood out were also pushed aside. The picquet was absolutely unreliable at that moment so I called the officers together & made them fall their men in by Regts. I then addressed the picket & whilst doing so … [Short] came back from the crowd of men who had just broken through & told the men they were not to listen to men. ‘What you want to do to the Bugger is to put a stone round his neck & throw him into the river’… he told the men to fall out & join the mob who had just broken through.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,England,Execution,France,History,Military Crimes,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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1621: Not Katharina Kepler, thanks to her son Johannes

3 comments October 4th, 2008 Headsman

On October 4, 1621, the Duke of Württemberg declared Katharina Kepler free of a witchcraft charge for which she had barely avoided execution … with the help of her son, the astronomer Johannes Kepler.

The famous scientist was very well along his career, and his mother (German Wikipedia link) a too-old-for-this-crap 69, when authorities in her native town of Leonberg initiated proceedings in 1615.

It says here she was an eccentric, cantankerous old dame, just the sort liable to face a gossip campaign that would promote her into partnership with the Evil One. She was only one of a number of people targeted in the town’s witch-spasm, noticeably occurring as the Catholic-Protestant conflict was stoking that crucible of modernity, the Thirty Years’ War — a fine time and place for infernal superstition.

Several of the suspected were put to death.*

Kepler, whose heterodoxy and heliocentrism made him a touchy figure in a fraught time for scientists, might have done her no favors with his trippy Dream, whose overt musings on “daemons” and the like might have drawn suspicion onto the family. Johannes made six years of atonement struggling — ultimately successfully — to keep his mother alive and untortured.

Commuting back and forth from his work in Linz (showing an admirable capacity for keeping his head while others about him were in danger of losing theirs, Kepler discovered his third law of planetary motion in 1618; apparently he also read Galileo’s father on one of the trips between Linz and Leonberg), he organized his mother’s defense and wrote her briefs in his own hand.

It finally paid off.

The judicial college at the University of Tübingen — Kepler had matriculated there as a younger man — opened the door to Katharina’s release by declaring the evidence insufficient either way, and issuing a split-the-baby conviction directing that she be shown but not subjected to the instruments of torture.

On September 28, 1620, the Feast of St. Wenceslas, the executioner showed Katharina Kepler the instruments of torture, the pricking needles, the rack, the branding irons. Her son Johannes Kepler was nearby, fuming, praying for it to be over. He was forty-nine and, with Galileo Galilei, one of the greatest astronomers of the age — the emperor’s mathematician, the genius who had calculated the true orbits of the planets and revealed the laws of optics to the world. Dukes listened to him. Barons asked his advice. And yet when the town gossips of Leonberg set their will against him, determined to take the life of his mother on trumped-up charges of witchcraft, he could not stop them.

There were tidal forces at work in this little town. The events around the duchy of Württemberg would gather into themselves all the violent changes of the day, for by their conviction of Katharina, the consistory (the duke’s council), the magistrates, and the Lutheran church authorities had bundled together their fear of Copernicus and their anger against Johannes, a man they had already convicted of heresy. The Reformation, like an earthquake, had cracked Western Christianity, stable since the fifth century, into Catholics and Protestants, and the Protestants into Lutherans, Zwinglians, Calvinists, Anglicans, and Anabaptists, with the many camps drifting apart like tectonic plates. Even the heavens had begun changing, and Kepler had been a part of that change. … Fear ruled Europe — fear of difference, fear of change.

And there, in one corner of Swabia in southern Germany, the mother of a famous man, a mathematician and scientist, a respected, pious Lutheran, nearly paid with her life.

Early that morning, she was led to the torturer by Aulber, the bailiff of Güglingen, who was accompanied by a scribe for recording her confession, and three court representatives. The torturer, with the bailiff standing to one side, then shouted at her for a long time, commanding her to repent and tell the truth and threatening her if she didn’t. He showed her each instrument and described in detail all that it would do to her body — the prickers, the long needles for picking at the flesh; the hot irons for branding; the pincers for pulling and tearing at the body; the rack; the garrote; and the gallows for hanging, drawing, and quartering. He adjured her to repent, to confess her crimes, so that even if she would not survive in this world, she could at least go to God with a clear conscience.

Stubborn Katharina was having none of it.

Do with me what you want. Even if you were to pull one vein after another out of my body, I would have nothing to admit. (Source)

Having survived the “torture,” she was in the clear; at her son’s relentless insistence, the Duke ordered her released six days later.

Katharina Kepler died naturally the following April. There’s a school named for her (German link) in nearby Güglingen, Germany, where ma Kepler spent 14 months in prison. (German again)

* This German timeline of Leonberg says the witchsmeller got nine out of 10 targets. Other versions have slightly different head counts for the persecution; at any rate, Katharina wasn’t alone.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Habsburg Realm,History,Not Executed,Notable Participants,Notably Survived By,Torture,Witchcraft,Women

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