1724: Willem Mons, head grafter

1 comment November 16th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1724, Willem Mons was beheaded in St. Petersburg for peculation.

Mons was the brother of the German commoner Anna Mons, a beautiful young woman who segued from being the May-December lover of Peter the Great‘s trusted admiral Franz Lefort to the mistress of the teenage emperor himself. Peter and Anna had a famous (famously scandalous) romance through her twenties, but as she entered her thirties and heard the clock ticking, her bid to make Peter put a ring on it by flirting with a Prussian diplomat came to grief and got her briefly tossed in prison.

Willem Mons was still a minor when his big sister fell from Peter’s graces. He would prove to have an equally adroit instinct for imperial bedchamber politics.

“One of the best-made and most handsome men that I have ever seen,” in the French ambassador’s estimation, Mons hustled his way into the train of the woman Peter had married instead of Anna — Catherine.

There Willem Mons and his other sister Matryona Balk monopolized the access routes to the empress and lucratively tolled all petitioners who traveled them. Wealth and status accumulated; the immigrant bourgeois’s son even stopped going by William in favor of the more impressive “Moens de la Croix”.

Not surprisingly, the emperor himself was the last to discover the open secret of his wife’s household’s river of graft.* Peter, who could be quite the moralist, was incensed; he interrogated the chamberlain so terribly that the young man fainted dead away.

“Moens de la Croix” was no longer. In both senses.

Having issued the confessions to condemn himself under the very credible threat of torture, Mons was socked away in Peter and Paul Fortress. Catherine made bold to defy Peter’s edict that nobody petition him for Mons’s life; in response, the enraged tsar smashed a Venetian mirror with his bare hand and roared, “thus I can annihilate the most beautiful adornment of my palace!” Court observers reported that marital relations between the two were visibly strained well after the scandal.

These weren’t happy days for the oft-sickly Peter; indeed, they were the last months of his life. Early the next year, he would succumb to a gangrenous bladder and leave the throne to this very Catherine. Perhaps his decrepit state accounts for the likely scurrilous rumor that the handsome chamberlain’s real offense wasn’t so much corruption as cuckoldry. It’s fair to say that such an affair would have been an extraordinarily reckless thing for Catherine.

On November 16, 1724, William Mons and Matrena Balk were taken in sledges to the execution site. Mons behaved courageously, nodding and bowing to friends he saw in the crowd. Mounting the scaffold, he calmly took off his heavy fur coat, listened to the reading of the sentence of death and laid his head on the block. After his death, his sister received eleven blows of the knout, very lightly administered so that not much harm was done, and was exiled for life to Tobolsk in Siberia. Her husband, General Balk, was given permission to marry again if he wished. (Source)

The late courtier’s severed head was preserved in alcohol (legend says that the fuming Peter made Catherine contemplate it). It was eventually deposited in the Kunstkamera museum, famous for housing Peter’s gross horde of collected pickled fetuses, dwarves, and other medical curios. Mons’s head still resides there today.

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1686: A man and a woman broken on the wheel in Hamburg

1 comment March 22nd, 2012 Headsman

The New York Times of Dec. 30, 1900 provides this date’s entry, featuring the unusual scene of a woman being broken on the wheel.


In the diary of that remarkable man, Gen. Patrick Gordon, who left Scotland in 1651 a poor, unfriended wanderer, and, when he died, in 1699, had his eyes closed by the affectionate hands of his sorrowing master, the Czar Peter the Great, the following entry is to be found, under date Hamburg, March 22, 1686:

This day, a man and a woman, a burgher of the towne being the womans master, for murthering, were carted from the prisone to the house where the murder was committed; and there before this house, with hotte pinsers, the flesh was torren out of their armes, and from thence were carted to the place of justice without the towne, and there broken and layed on wheeles.


Executions by breaking wheel: early 18th century engraving. (Source: Wikipedia).

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1719: Mary Hamilton, lady in waiting

1 comment March 14th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1719, Mary (Marie) Hamilton, lady-in-waiting upon the tsaritsa Catherine I, was beheaded in St. Petersburg for infanticide.

A frightened Mary Hamilton contemplates her imminent execution in this 1904 painting by Pavel Svedomsky.

Lady Hamilton — her Scottish family had emigrated generations earlier — did not like to wait on her libido.

She could tell you if Peter the Great deserved his nickname, and dish on any number of other courtiers, nobles, and hangers-on.

This pleasing sport, of course, assumes with it the risks imposed by an equally impatient biology. Hamilton’s gallantries two or three times quickened her womb.

Her decision to dispose of these unwanted descendants in the expedient way — once by abortion, and again by infanticide — was done on the sly (voluminous court gowns helped) but surely also with no expectation of such a severe sanction in the unlikely event of detection.

But according to Eve Levin,* Russia’s longtime slap-on-the-wrist policy for infanticide was changing, and beginning “to distinguish between a woman who killed her child to hide illicit sexual conduct, and a woman who killed her child because she was too poor to care for it. In the first instance, the killing of the child reflected selfish behavior and was considered to be murder.”

Mary Hamilton was obviously not too poor to raise children.

In 1717, an unrelated investigation of another of Hamilton’s lovers led him to accuse the libertine lady-in-waiting of practicing post-natal birth control, which Mary admitted to,** certainly expecting her mistress the queen and her paramour the king to look forward, not back.

Peter, the towering and intense “learned druzhina” with his eye fixed on the West and a modernity that Russia lagged behind, was a liberal man in many respects. But he remained eminently capable of ruthlessness in service of an idea. This affair played out, after all, in his brand-new capital St. Petersburg, built on the bones of thousands peasants who threw up the city over swampland at Peter’s command. In 1718, he’d had his own son knouted to death.

Apparently infanticide was one of those ideas.

After all, executing women for infanticide was happening where the Hamiltons had come from. And it would still be good enough for late 18th century Enlightenment philosophers.

On the day of the execution, the prisoner appeared on the scaffold in a white silk gown trimmed with black ribbons. Peter climbed the structure to stand beside her and spoke quietly into her ear. The condemned woman and most of the spectators assumed that this would be her last-minute reprieve. Instead, the Tsar gave her a kiss and said sadly, “I cannot violate the laws to save your life. Support your punishment with courage, and, in the hope that God may forgive you your sins, address your prayers to him with a heart full of faith and contrition.” Miss Hamilton knelt and prayed, the Tsar turned away and the headsman struck.

Then, the bystanding tsar picked up the severed head that had once shared his pillow and discoursed to the multitude on its anatomical features — another idea imported from the West. That strange tsar afterward had the disembodied dome preserved in a jar until Catherine the Great ran across it and (after remarking that the woman’s youthful beauty had been preserved this half-century) had it decently buried.

Something else of Mary Hamilton outlasted her pickled cranium, however.

In one of those unaccountable twists of history, Hamilton maybe became conflated with the “four Marys”, Ladies-in-Waiting of Mary, Queen of Scots — and the story seemingly became translated backwards into this altogether different time and place. This is a much-disputed hypothesis† but for purposes of a blog post is well worth the noticing, while resigning to wiser heads the literary forensics at stake.

There was no “Mary Hamilton” among the Queen of Scots’s attendants, but in at least some of the many different versions of this ballad that survive, a person of this name is held to have become the lover of the king (“the highest Stuart,” in this case) and been put to death for killing her illegitimate child.‡ It is, at the very least, rather difficult to miss the parallel.

O little did my mother ken,
The day she cradled me,
The lands I was to travel in,
Or the dog’s death I wad d’ee!

Variants of this ballad remain popular to this day.

* “Infanticide in Pre-Petrine Russia,” Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas, Neue Folge, Bd. 34, H. 2 (1986).

** She had also pilfered some effects from the Queen.

† Dissenting opinions on identifying the “Mary Hamilton” of the ballad with our Mary Hamilton can be read here and here.

Presumed basis for the conflation: an actual 1563 infanticide scandal featuring the illicit offspring of Mary’s apothecary and “a Frenchwoman that served in the Queen’s bedchamber.”

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Murder,Nobility,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Russia,Women

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1707: Johann Patkul, schemer

Add comment October 10th, 2011 Headsman

On ths date (N.S.) in 1707, Livonian nobleman Johann Patkul was broken on the wheel at Kazimierz Biskupi, Poland for a decade’s treasonable scheming against the Swedish crown.

Livonia — essentially present-day Latvia, plus a chunk of Estonia — was at this time a part of the Swedish Empire in the latter’s twilight as a world power.

Financially pinched after the protracted and bloody but indecisive Scanian War, the Swedish king Charles XI imposed his great reduction — a heavy tax on the landed aristocracy allowing the crown to reclaim as its own any property that it had held formerly and granted out. There was a lot of such land mortgaged out generations before to raise capital for the Thirty Years War. War giveth, war taketh away. Hands up everyone who feels bad for the nobility.

Of course, all the 17th century nobles felt bad for the nobility.

Johann Patkul was the young — maybe too young — man deputized by Livonian bluebloods to go complain about it to Charles. When sharp but respectful eloquence predictably failed to obtain his ends, he dropped the “respectful” part — and for this lese majeste had to bug out of Sweden with an in absentia death sentence at his heels.

Having failed to obtain pardon from the offended monarch or from his heir Charles XII, Patkul just decided to change teams full stop. You could call this treachery (Charles XII did) but this is an age before nationalism. What was the Swedish royal house to a Latvian noble if he could get a better deal elsewhere?

“Elsewhere” for Johann Patkul meant Polish-Lithuanian king Augustus the Strong, and/or Russian tsar Peter the Great. Our refugee aristocrat spent the 1700s conducting vigorous behind-the-scenes shuttle diplomacy to engineer an alliance against his former masters and carve their respective pounds of flesh out of Sweden. Patkul himself, of course, would get a healthy bite from Livonia for his trouble.

In this campaign Patkul was merely an “unhappy instrument” (as a British correspondent quoted here put it): the antagonists in question had ample reason of their own for this statecraft; had they not, some itinerant conspirator pining for a lost manor could scarcely have conjured it.

But Patkul was a useful instrument: energetic, discreet, willful, and so he could surely claim some ownership of the product. Think of him as the convenient enabler — the Ahmed Chalabi of the Great Northern War that tore apart the Baltic environs for the first two decades of the 18th century.

It was rather fitting, then, that Patkul was devoured by his offspring when Sweden forced a peace upon Poland that resulted in Patkul’s being handed over to the Swedish authorities. The man’s extradition was specified by name in the treaty.

Patkul’s brutal execution inflamed some outside opinion against the Swedes (which presumably mattered not a whit to the progress of hostilities); a purported account of his execution-eve conversation with his confessor is given in this extremely sympathetic English pamphlet.

Though it’s safe to say that Patkul didn’t get what he wanted — let’s guess that the public shattering of his bones prior to a protracted death by exposure was towards the “worst case scenario” end of the calculus — the Great Northern War did indeed loose Livonia from the Swedish yoke … in favor, instead, of the Russian. Peter the Great accepted Livonia’s capitulation in 1710.

Mission accomplished.

Patkul is not to be confused with Baron Peikel/Pykul, a different fellow who was also executed for disobedience to Sweden in 1707.

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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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1764: Lt. Vasily Mirovich, for attempting to topple Catherine the Great

3 comments September 26th, 2009 Headsman

On this date* in 1764, one of history’s greatest monarchs cemented her still-uncertain hold on power by beheading a rebellious lieutenant.

Ivan VI: Born under a bad tsar.

Succession in the Russian Empire had been disputatious ever since Peter the Great killed off his last male son, eventually putting far-flung branches of the family into a contest for power.

To skip over much regal jockeying, Peter’s vicious niece Anna, who reigned in the 1730s, had installed her infant nephew Ivan VI as successor just before her own death.

The little Tsar of All the Russias was displaced before his second birthday by Peter the Great’s daughter Elizabeth, who clapped the former emperor in a dungeon in Schlusselburg fortress to grow up ignorant and alone, isolated from the parties who might scheme to bid for power in his name. Two Caesars are too many.

Into this dangerous scene stepped Sophia Augusta Frederica, better known to posterity by the name she took upon her politically savvy conversion to Orthodoxy: Catherine.

This Catherine immigrated to wed Elizabeth’s simpleminded heir, then overthrew him a few months into his reign.

Catherine had ultimate power, but she wasn’t yet “Catherine the Great”: as a foreigner with the late Romanov’s blood on her hands (if only indirectly), it was nowhere written that she would rule Russia for 34 brilliant years. And with the throne came its rival claimants … like Ivan, now an adult and potentially more “legitimate” than this imported German princess.

Ivan was held in secrecy, known only as “Nameless Prisoner Number One”, and his warders had strict orders to murder him on the spot if any attempt were made to liberate him.

Two years into Catherine’s reign, Lt. Vasily Mirovich, “a tormented young officer … with dreams of restoring his family’s fortunes,” attempted just that. As commanded, the guards put an end to Ivan’s troubles.

Those guards got cash rewards and promotions for their diligence. Mirovich got death. (Other soldiers whom he had rallied to his cause were condemned to run the gauntlet; I have been unable to ascertain if any were killed by this punishment.)

Mirovich was executed in St. Petersburg. When his head was held up to the crowd, it had a terrifying impact, the death penalty not actually having been exercised in Russia for 22 years.** Mirovich himself faced his execution calmly, convincing some of the bystanders that he was expecting to be pardoned at the last minute. His remains were left on public display until the evening, when they were burnt along with the gallows.

And so the first two years of the reign of Catherine II, who set so much store by reason and enlightened principles, had included two assassinations and an execution.

The woman of letters, the correspondent of philosophers, the Semiramis of the North … like the age’s other great enlightened despot, Frederick the Great, Catherine had to rule. She had not the luxury to dispense with statecraft’s cruel necessities.

Her admirers would have to be content with making her excuses. Fortunately, admirers always are.

“These are family matters with which I do not meddle,” wrote Voltaire. “Besides, it is not a bad thing to have a fault to repair; this engages her to make great efforts in order to force the public to esteem and admiration”

* September 26 (pdf) was the date on the Gregorian calendar then prevalent in Europe; it was September 15 by the older Julian calendar still used in Russia at the time.

** Not carrying out the death penalty had been a signature policy of Ivan’s usurper Elizabeth. The elimination of capital punishment in “backwards” Russia for an entire generation during the Age of Absolutism surely urges caution against any assumption that death penalty repeal is a one-way street.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Milestones,Power,Public Executions,Russia,Soldiers,Treason

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