1974: Khosrow Golsorkhi and Keramat Daneshian, Iranian revolutionaries

Add comment February 18th, 2018 Headsman

Death is our most modest gift to the people. Each death is a small window closing on nihilism. And each death is a panel of mystery closing on lies, corruption, poverty, and hunger. Thus, a window will open that lets in the light of life. Let us sacrifice our life for this light — this light.

People’s Fadaee, Keramat Daneshian
February 8, 1974

Khosrow Gol(e)sorkhi* and Keramat Daneshian, poets and revolutionaries, were shot on this date in 1974 by the Shah of Iran.

Stock of a provincial family with ties to the Communist Tudeh party, Golsorkhi — much the more famous of the two — became a noted writer of radical prose and poetry in the 1960s and 1970s.

Their defiance — Golsorkhi’s especially — of a military court trying them on a trumped-up charge of attempting to kidnap Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi‘s son made them Che Guevara-like figures for young Iranian leftists of the time.**

Badly misreading the direction of the wind, the Shah televised their prosecution as a show trial — and the poets used the platform to completely upstage not only their judges but the rotting monarchy they were there to uphold. Farsi speakers can enjoy Golsorkhi on video —

— while this version has English subtitles:

by Khosrow Golsorkhi
(translated by Sherry Laici)

The teacher was shouting at the board.
He flushed angrily
and his hands were covered with chalk dust.
The students in the last row of seats were eating fruits and making noises;
on the other side of the class a student was flipping through a magazine.
None of the students were paying attention
because the teacher was shouting and pointing to the algebraic equations.

The teacher wrote on the blackboard, which reminded us of darkness and cruelty,
one is equal to one.

One of the students rose
(always one must rise)
and said softly,
“The equation is a blunder.”

The teacher was shocked
and the student asked,
“If one human being was one unit
Does one equal one, still?”
It was a difficult question and the students were silent.
The teacher shouted,
“Yes, it is equal!”

The student laughed,
“If one human being was one unit,
the one who had power and money would be greater than the poor one
who had nothing but a kind heart.
If one human being was one unit,
the one who was white would be greater than the one who was black.
If one human being was one unit,
equality would be ruined.
If one were equal to one
how would it be possible for the rich to get richer?
Or who would build China’s wall?
If one were equal to one,
who would die of poverty?
or who would die of lashing?
If one were equal to one,
who would imprison the liberals?”

The teacher cried:
“Please write in your notebooks
one is not equal to one.”

Abdy Javadzadeh notes in Iranian Irony: Marxists Becoming Muslim that Golsorkhi’s lyrical self-vindication — one could hardly call it a “defense” addressed to the parameters of a court that he openly scorned — “spoke volumes on how Marxism developed within the Iranian opposition,” marrying the language of revolution with that of Islam.

“Life is nothing but a struggle for your belief.”

I will begin my talk with a quotation from Hussein, the great martyr of the people of the Middle East. I, a Marxist-Leninist, have found, for the first time, social justice in the school of Islam and then reached socialism. In this court, I am not bargaining for my life or even my life span. I am but a drop in the great struggle of the Iranian people … I am not bargaining for my life, because I am the child of a fighting people.

The real Islam in Iran has always played its part in liberation movements … When Marx says, in a class society, wealth is accumulated on one side and poverty, hunger, and misery on the other, whilst the producer of wealth is the poor, and Ali says, a castle will not be built unless thousands become poor, we cannot deny that there are great similarities. This is the juncture of history in which we can claim Ali to be the world’s first socialist … and we too approve of such Islam, the Islam of Hussein.

Golsorkhi also scored points by dunking on the military brass sitting in judgment — shooting back at the chief judge when admonished to stay on topic, “Don’t you give me any orders. Go and order your corporals and squadron leaders.”

The more you attack me the more I pride myself, for the further I am from you the closer I am to the people. The more your hatred for my beliefs, the stronger the kindness and support of the people. Even if you bury me — and you certainly will — people will make flags and songs from my corpse.

For his part, Daneshian kept to a more straightforward secular-revolutionary tone.

Millions of people in the armed forces, without having an active role in society or production, are busy in a useless game … such force has no other purpose than the suppression of people’s voice of liberation. The shootings of farmers, peasants, and people’s fighters are their principle duty … Liberated people, social movements on their way to liberation, reverberates the news of shedding poverty, corruption and injustice in the world.

Three others condemned with them were not so eager as our principals to embrace revolutionary martyrdom, and bent the knee to the Shah in exchange for their lives.

* The name “Golsorkhi” means “rose bush”. According to Iranian cleric Mohammad-Ali Abtahi — popularly known as the “blogging mullah” — the censors at the time proceeded to suppress a forthcoming children’s book with the entirely coincidental title We Wake the Rose Bush as potentially Golsorkhi-sympathetic. “In a country where a colonel is running the cultural section, how can you answer such reasoning?”

** The Che analogy was drawn by Hooman Majd in The Ayatollah Begs To Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran, noting that “his bravery … only served to make him a hero and a symbol of the Shah’s merciless dictatorship.”

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1634: John Bartendale survives hanging and burial

1 comment March 27th, 2017 Sabine Baring-Gould

(Thanks to Sabine Baring-Gould for (another) guest post. This report in Baring-Gould’s Yorkshire Oddities, Incidents and Strange Events glosses a rhyming Latin squib of Richard Brathwait‘s Drunken Barnaby’s Four Journeys to the North of England, several versions of which survive.)

The Piper.

In the reign of King Charles I a strolling musician, a poor piper, named John Bartendale, was brought, in 1634, before the Assizes, and was convicted of felony.

He received sentence, and on March 27th was hung on the gallows, outside Micklegate Bar, York. There were no houses there at that time — it was open country. After he had remained swinging for three-quarters of an hour, and was to all appearance dead, he was cut down, and buried near the place of execution. The officers of justice had accomplished their work carelessly in both particulars, as it afterwards transpired, for he had been neither properly hung nor properly buried.

Earth has a peculiarly invigorating and restorative effect, as has been recently discovered; and patients suffering from debility are by some medical men now-a-days placed in earth baths with the most salutary effects. In the case of gangrened wounds a little earth has been found efficacious in promoting healthy action of the skin. John Bartendale was now to experience the advantages of an earth-bath.

That same day, in the afternoon, a gentleman, one of the Vavasours of Hazlewood, was riding by, when he observed the earth moving in a certain place. He ordered his servant to alight; he himself descended from his horse; and together they threw off the mould, and discovered the unfortunate piper alive. He opened his eyes, sat up, and asked where he was, and how he came there. Mr. Vavasour and his servant helped him out of his grave, and seated him on the side. The man was sent for water and other restoratives, and before long the news had spread about down Micklegate that the poor piper was come to life again. A swarm of wondering and sympathising people poured out to congratulate John the Piper on his resurrection, and to offer their assistance. A conveyance was obtained, and as soon as Bartendale was in a sufficient condition to be moved he was placed in it covered with Mr. Vavasour’s cloak, — for he had been stripped by the executioner before he was laid in the earth — and was removed again to York Castle.

It was rather hard that the poor fellow, after he had obtained his release, should have been returned to his prison; but there was no help for it. The resurrection of the piper was no secret; otherwise Mr. Vavasour would doubtless have removed him privately to a place of security till he was recovered, and then have sent him into another part of the country.

At the following Assizes, Bartendale was brought up again. It was a nice point of law whether the man could be sentenced to execution again after the Sheriff had signed his affidavit that the man had been hung till he was dead. Mr. Vavasour was naturally reluctant to supply the one link in the chain of evidence which established the identity of the prisoner with the piper who had been hung and buried for felony; he made earnest intercession that the poor fellow might be reprieved, popular sympathy was on his side, the judge was disposed to mercy, and Bartendale was accorded a full and free pardon; the judge remarking that the case was one in which the Almighty seemed to have interfered in mercy to frustrate the ends of human justice, and that therefore he was not disposed to reverse the decree of Providence according to the piper a prolongation of his days on earth.

Drunken Barnaby in his “Book of Travels” alludes to Bartendale, when he stops at York:

Here a piper apprehended,
Was found guilty and suspended;
Being led to t’fatal gallows,
Boys did cry, “Where is thy bellows?
Ever must thou cease thy tuning,”
Answered he, “For all your cunning,
You may fail in your prediction.”
Which did happen without fiction;
For cut down, and quick interred,
Earth rejected what was buried;
Half alive or dead he rises,
Got a pardon next Assizes,
And in York continued blowing —
Yet a sense of goodness showing.

After his wonderful deliverance the poor fellow turned hostler, and lived very honestly afterwards.

When asked to describe his sensations on being hung, he said that when he was turned off, flashes of fire seemed to dart before his eyes, and were succeeded by darkness and a state of insensibility.

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1939: Maurice Pilorge, Le Condamné à mort

1 comment February 4th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1939, the murderer Maurice Pilorge dropped his beautiful head under the blade.

This strange execution by retrospect almost marks the pivot between eras of crime and culture. Public executions were about to disappear entirely; the Third Republic that ordered them would not long outlive them.

And Pilorge’s death specifically would prove to be the last performance of the guillotine in Rennes. It was also to have been the 396th in the legendary career of 75-year-old headsman Anatole Deibler … except that Deibler dropped dead on a Paris metro platform two days before, as he set out for the lethal rendezvous.

So too did Pilorge’s crime belong to that interwar moment of cosmopolitan decadence. He fatally slashed the throat of a Mexican visitor named Escudero after what Pilorge claimed, in an unsuccessful attempt to leverage the “gay panic” defense, was an indecent proposition. The facts of the case appear better to fit the hypothesis that indecent propositions were Pilorge’s stock in trade: a black book full of dates and initials whose owners he would not identify, a short late-night visit to Escudero’s hotel room, and a total refusal to explain his activities.

Pilorge, who maintained a wry and mirthful attitude throughout his trial, could not but laugh at the judge’s speculation — inspired by the swarthiness of his victim in the case at hand? — that his prisoner was involved in traite des blanches, the white slave trade: “I was never cut out for that. I assure you that I have never fallen so low.”

If Pilorge’s character entered the public gaze awash in same-sex eros, he was fixed in the firmament as such by the pen of Villonesque criminal/writer Jean Genet after the war years.

Claiming (falsely) to have had a prison intimacy with this doomed “Apollo”, Genet dedicated to Pilorge, “assasin de vingt ans,” one of his breakthrough works. Written in prison in 1942, Le Condamné à mort is a homoerotic hallucination of lovemaking ahead of a gathering doom and it helped to launch the theretofore Genet into literary superstardom. I’ve found the lengthy poem available online only in the original French, but here’s a translated excerpt via The Columbia Anthology of Gay Literature:

O come my beautiful sun, o come my night of Spain,
Arrive in my eyes which will be dead tomorrow.
Arrive, open my door, bring me your hand,
Lead me far from here to scour the battleground.

Heaven may awaken, the stars may blossom,
Nor flowers sigh, and from the meadows the black grass
Gather the dew where morning is about to drink,
The bell may ring: I alone am about to die.

O come my heaven of rose, o my blond basket!
Visit in his night your condemned-to-death.
Tear away your own flesh, kill, climb, bite,
But come! Place your cheek against my round head.

We had not finished speaking to each other of love.
We had not finished smoking our gitanes.
Well we might ask why the Courts condemn
A murderer so beautiful he makes the day to pale.

Love come to my mouth! Love open your doors!
Run through the hallways, come down, step lightly,
Fly down the stairs more supple than a shepherd,
More borne up by the air than a flight of dead leaves.

O cross the walls; so it must be walk on the brink
Of roofs, of oceans; cover yourself with light,
Use menace, use prayer,
But come, o my frigate, an hour before my death.

The poem was one of several that Genet wrote later set to music by herhis friend, Helene Martin. (It’s also been covered and reinterpreted by several others.)

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1915: Cordella Stevenson lynched

1 comment December 8th, 2016 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1915, a mob visited Cordella Stevenson’s cabin, dragged her out, and lynched her.

The good citizens of Columbus, Mississippi, found her body the next day, hanging from a tree limb. The site of her lynching was only 50 yards north of the Mobile and Ohio Railroad, and rail passengers who came in and out of the city that day saw her corpse thus displayed. She had been “maltreated” (that is, raped) and stripped naked before being strung up.

Several months before, Gabe Frank, a local white man, lost his barn to fire. Although there was no direct evidence to implicate him and he had not been seen in the area for months prior to the fire, Cordella and Arch Stevenson’s son came under suspicion of arson.

The parents were respectable people who had worked for the same white employer for over a decade, but the son had a “worthless” reputation. Frank tried tracking the young man with bloodhounds, but was unsuccessful. The local police arrested Cordella and kept her locked up for several days, hoping she might know something of her son’s whereabouts, but they eventually released her without charge.

The Stevensons thought or hoped that would be the end of the matter.

Arch and Cordella had already gone to bed that Wednesday night in December when, at about 10:00 p.m., they heard someone pounding on their door. Before they could get to the door to answer it, the vigilantes had broken it down. They seized Cordella, pointed their rifles at Arch, and threatened to shoot him if he moved. At some point he managed to flee, bullets whizzing miraculously past him in the dark, and he ran to town for help. Arch knew what was good for him; after reporting what happened to the authorities, he fled the area for parts unknown. Meanwhile, somewhere out there in the night, the mob fell on his wife.

Kerry Segrave recorded in his book Lynching of Women in the United States: Recorded Cases, 1851-1946:

Sheriff Bell telephoned to Justice of the Peace McKellar to hold an inquest. He was out of town and did not return until Thursday night. As a result, the naked body was left hanging in view of the “morbid” crowd that came to see it until Friday morning when it was cut down and the inquest was held. That inquest jury returned a verdict that Cordella Stevenson came to her death at the hands of persons unknown.

The Chicago Defender, a (still-extant) black newspaper noted for its accurate reporting of Jim Crow era violence, bitterly editorialized, “This these southern culprits did. No law below the Mason and Dixon line that would cause them to fear. No officer in the police department that would dare to do his duty. No man in the government circles in Washington that has enough backbone to enforce the Constitution of the United States. This mob knew and they went on with their ghastly work.”

A century later, Cordella Stevenson’s ghastly death has still not been forgotten. In 2013, a poem for her, titled “What the Dark Said”, was published in the collection Ain’t No Grave, by Tennessee poet TJ Jarrett.

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1591: Arnold Cosbie, writing his own elegy

Add comment January 27th, 2016 Arnold Cosbie

The manner of the death and execution of Arnold Cosbie, for murdering the Lord Burke, who was executed at Wanswoorth town's end on the 27 of January 1591. With certain verses written by the said Cosby in the time of his imprisonment, containing matter of great effect, as well touching his life as also his penitencie before his death.

ultimum vale to the vain world.

An Elegy written by himself
in the Marshalsea after his condemnation.

Break heart, be mute my sorrows past compare,
Cosbie complain no more, but sit and die,
Tears are no tokens of such dreriment,
As thy true grief pours to the angry heavens,
The heavens offended with thy foul misdeeds,
O great Commander of this glorious round,
The workmanship of thine immortal hand,
Thou that doest ride upon the Cherubins,
And tunest the deeps in dreadful harmony,
Cast down thine eye upon a wretched soul,
And from thy throne of grace great Jacob’s God
Rain mercy on me miserable man,
Fallen into snares of sin and shameful death,
From thee sweet Savior, Savior of the world.
O world, vain world, unconstant, & unkind,
Why hast thou bred me, nursed me, brought me up,
To see this day of sorrow and of shame:
Cosbie complain. Captains and men of war,
With whom I wholime spent my careless days,
Days dated but to this, to end in shame,
Farewell, adieu to you and all the rest
That follow armes, and armes and life adieu,
From armes and life I pass drenched in the pit
Digged by my desperate hands, hands full of blood.
Bleed heart to think what these accursed hands
Have perpetrated, Pardon heaven and earth,
And gentle Lord misled by my amis,
Foully by me sent to this longest home,
O pardon Cosbie’s cruel mind,
His mind enraged, and gentle blood by wrath
And fury tainted and empoisoned.
Why do I kill my doleful dying heart,
With sad rehearsal of this heavy chance.
O death rock me asleep, Father of heaven
That hast sole power to pardon sins of men,
Forgive the faults and folly of my youth,
My youth misspent in waste and wantonness,
And for sweet Jesus sake forgive my soul,
Foully defiled with this above the rest,
And lastly you whose fame I have defiled,
My kin, my Countrymen, friends, and allies,
Pardon, o pardon, such as men to men
Can give, I beg for wronging you in all,
For shaming you in this my wretched end,
The fruitless crop, the meed of my desert,
My bad, my base deserves, sweet Friends forget,
Friends, countrymen, and kinsfolks all forget,
My name, my face, my fact, o blot me out,
Out of the world, put me out of your thoughts,
Or if you think, o think I never was,
Or if you think I was, think that I fell,
Before some fort, some hold in Belgia,
With this suppose beguile your sorrows friends,
Think that I fell before the Canon’s mouth,
Even in mine honors heigth that blessed day,
When in advancement of my name, I left
My countries enemy in his base reuolie:
A wretched man to talk of honors high,
Fallen so basely into the pit of shame,
The pit of death: my God, my God forgive me,
Next to my God, my country pardon me,
Whose honor I have stained and laws infringe,
And thou my sovereign Mistress and my Queen,
Bright star of England’s globe, forgive my fact,
Nor let it touch thy Royal Princely heart,
That Cosbie hath misdone so heinously.
The circle of my time is compassed,
Arrived to the point where it began.
World, country, kin, and friends farewell farewell,
Fly thou my soul to heaven the haven of bliss,
O body bear the scourge of thine amiss.

More atmospheric Elizabethan movable type:

First pamphlet: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9

Second pamphlet: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9

… and, the source of the poem: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

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1648: Sir Charles Lucas and Sir George Lisle, royalists

2 comments August 28th, 2015 Headsman

The Death of Sir Charles Lucas and Sir George Lisle, Monday, Aug. 28, 1648

By the old wall at Colchester,
With moss and grass o’ergrown,
The curious, thoughtful wanderer
Will note a small, white stone.
Tis sunken now — yet slight it not;
That stone can speak, and tell
A tale of blood; it marks the spot
Where Lisle and Lucas fell.

On earth there is no abject thing
So abject as a fallen king.
And Charles, despoiled, cashiered, discrowned,
In his own halls a captive bound,
Spurned, crushed by countless ills forlorn,
Drinks to the dregs the cup of scorn.

Yet in that hour of blank despair,
Lisle, Lucas, Capel, Compton dare
Their wrecks of shattered strength to call
To Colchester’s beleaguered wall;
Round Charles, in hope ‘gainst hope to cling
Proclaim, e’en yet, that Charles is king;
And one more mighty effort try
For honour, love, and loyalty.

Vain all the dauntless venture — vain
Their valour, piety, and pain.
Who in the field the foe repels
Grim Famine in the city quells.
The soldier, gaunt and staggering, crawls
From post to post along the walls;
With leaden eyes the townsmen meet,
Like spectres, in the howling street.
No bread within — without, the foe —
No friend, no succour nigh —
The leaguer closer drawn — they know
They needs must yield, or die.

They yield — and Fairfax, bloody heart!
Ere yet the shades of evening part,
Dooms to a sudden, felon grave
Lisle, Lucas, bravest of the brave;
And Ireton, in exultant glee,
Hastes on the murderous tragedy.

“Haste on the murderous tragedy!
Nor let them live another night,
Nor mother, sister, brother see;
Nor give them space to order right
Their souls to meet their Maker’s sight!”

One hour — brief respite! So to prayer,
Last refuge of the soul, they went —
To prayer, and blessed Sacrament;
And then rose up, refreshed, to bear
Whate’er of added scorn or sting
The circumstance of death might bring.

“Lead Lucas forth!” Forth Lucas came,
And on the files of musqueteers
Smiled as in scorn; in step and frame
No trembling, and in soul no fears.
But, as from fields of carnage wet,
He oft had marched to victory,
Though vanquished, fettered, doomed to die,
He stands the victor-hero yet;
And cried, “In battle’s stern embrace
Oft I and death met face to face;
See now in death I death defy,
And mark how Lucas dares to die.”

He bowed his knees a little space,
With clasped hands, and eyes lift up;
And craved of Jesu parting grace
To sweeten pain’s last bitter cup;
Then laid his bosom bare, and cried,
“I’m ready: rebels, do your worst;”
Fell on his face, and groaned, and died,
Pierced with four savage wounds accurst.

“Haste on the murderous tragedy!
Yea, howl aloud for victims more;
And with remorseless butchery,
Let Lisle be bathed in Lucas’ gore.”

He treads the stage of death, his eye
Glancing defiance round —
He sees his brother’s body lie
Stretched on the bloody ground.
Tis more than e’en a Lisle can bear —
The mighty heart gives way;
He weeps amain, and kneeling there
Beside his dead, in love’s despair
Kisses the lifeless clay;
And sobs his requiem: “Oh, my friend,
My brother, thou hast reached thy goal!
Christ is thy rest — Christ me defend;
My spirit with thy spirit blend,
Thou peerless and unspotted soul!”

Then stands erect, the anguish past;
And marks in lines the levelled gun —
“Come nearer, men.” “Nay,” answered one,
“Fear not, good Sir, we’ll hit you fast.”
“Ah!” cried the warrior, “oft in fight
Nearer to me than now ye came;
In field and fort, by day and night
I met you, and ye missed your aim.
And oh, how oft as well ye know,
In hottest blood and deadliest strife,
I checked my hand, and spared the blow,
And sheathed my sword, and gave you life.
I die content; my God shall bring
Grace for my soul’s anneal;
I die for faith, for Charles my King,
And for my country’s weal.”

With invocations loud and deep
On Jesu’s blessed name.
E’en as he prayed, he fell asleep
When the death-volley came.
Where Lucas fell, there Lisle lay dead —
They slept on one same gory bed.
One in their common death; in life
One in the same dread, glorious strife;
As one to live in honour high,
So one in mighty heart to die.
One grave contains the sacred dead —
Go, ponder there awhile;
Then say with pride, “My country bred
A Lucas and a Lisle.”

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90: Cornelia, Vestal Virgin

1 comment June 9th, 2015 Headsman

How happy is the blameless Vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot:
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each prayer accepted, and each wish resign’d.

-Alexander Pope

June 9 in ancient Rome was the festival of the Vesta, the acme of the Vestalia festival extending until June 15.*

We hope this hearth-goddess will accept the homage Pluto‘s emissaries here propose to pay her most famous servants, the Vestal Virgins.

An ancient order of priestesses reaching back to Rome’s mythical founding period, perhaps even rooted in Rome’s matriarchal Etruscan predecessors, the Virgins by the time of the classical era numbered six — selected from among candidate girls aged 6 to 10 who would be whisked away from their families to serve for thirty years.

Vestal Virgins enjoyed great prestige and a number of social prerogatives (they had the power to pardon condemned prisoners, among other things). In exchange, they were tasked with maintaining Rome’s favor with her temperamental gods by tending diligently to the city’s most cherished religious observances.

The remains of the House of the Vestals on the Roman Forum ((cc) image from Milos Kravcik.) Here’s a reconstructed view of what the residence might have looked like in its glory.

From the moment of their selection, Vestal Virgins became a sort of personification of Rome itself — Rome’s civic virtue; Rome’s standing with the gods. Rome and the Vestals, joined by the sacred eternal hearth-flame whose perpetual kindling was the virgins’ chief ceremonial duty, drew succor from one another. Pliny wrote that they “have the power, by uttering a certain prayer, to arrest the flight of runaway slaves, and to rivet them to the spot, provided they have not gone beyond the precincts of the City” — but Rome’s greatness, too, was attributed to the citizenry’s dutiful maintenance of the Vestals through the centuries.

For such an empyreal creature to indulge the fleeting pleasures of the flesh was quite beyond question. Vesta, said Ovid,

was always unable to tolerate men.
What wonder if a virgin delights in virgin servants,
And only allows chaste hands to touch her sacred relics?
Realize that Vesta is nothing but living flame,
And you’ll see that no bodies are born from her.
She’s truly a virgin, who neither accepts seed
Nor yields it, and she loves virgin companions.

But over the centuries, not all of Vesta’s servants kept that same hard line on unchaste hands** — and in so doing risked punishment by an unusual execution of living burial. Even defiled Vestals were inviolate in their persons: their blood could not be shed, and the hands of the common executioner could not touch them. They had to be dispatched without direct violence, by immuring them alive under the earth. (Not so their seducers: getting busy with a Vestal Virgin would cost a man as many strokes of a scourge as required to kill him.)

Back to Ovid:

Now sacred flames you shine brightly under Caesar’s rule:
The fire on the Ilian hearths is there, and will remain,
It won’t be said that under him any priestess disgraced
Her office, nor that she was buried alive in the earth.
So the unchaste die, being entombed in what they
Have violated: since divine Earth and Vesta are one.

We have no specific calendar dates to go with any of these, but the British Museum antiquarian G.H. Noehdon compiled the available information about Vestals’ executions at some length in this public domain text:

a subterraneous chamber or cell of small dimension was formed, into which you descended from above. There were placed in it a couch or bed, a burning lamp, and a few necessaries of life, such as bread, water, milk, and oil. It would have been impious, according to Plutarch, to destroy by hunger, a life that had been consecrated by the most holy rites. The wretched victim, it is to be imagined, chiefly perished by suffocation. For the cell was closely shut, and overlaid with earth, as soon as she was descended.

The whole proceedings were terrific. The delinquent was conveyed to that place of horror in a litter, so fastened up and covered from without, that not even a sound or groan could escape from it. She was thus carried through the market-place, while the people, in fearful silence, made way, and followed speechless, impressed with the awe of this frightful ceremony. No sight, says Plutarch, could be more shocking, nor was there ever a day at Rome more gloomy and sorrowful.

Detail view (click for the full image) of Execution of a Vestal Virgin, by Heinrich Friedrich Fuger.

Per Noehdon, the oldest case on record was of one Pinaria, executed for impurity under Tarquin the Elder. A Vestal named Minucia suffered the same fate in the 4th century BCE; two more, Opimia and Floronia, were condemned in the 3rd century, though one committed suicide in preference to immurement. Dionysius of Halicarnassus attributes a plague to the incontinence of the Vestal Urbenia, and its abatement to her punishment. Cassius Dio credits no fewer than three Vestals with execution for unchastity in 114 BCE — but one can hardly fail to note that this is a period of deepening class tension in Rome in the aftermath of the Gracchi. One wonders if carnal indulgences were merely a pretext to purge Aemilia, Licinia, and Marcia for the wrong factional alignment.

Probably the best-attested and best-known Vestal Virgin executed was Cornelia, the Virgo Maxima (chief Vestal) entombed by order of the notorious tyrant Domitian. (Domitian had also executed three other Vestals some years prior.) Pliny the Younger recorded her going to her death effecting (as did her purported lover) a persuasive mien of indignant innocence.

Domitian generally raged most furiously where his evidence failed him most hopelessly. That emperor had determined that Cornelia, chief of the Vestal Virgins, should be buried alive, from an extravagant notion that exemplary severities of this kind conferred lustre upon his reign.

Accordingly, by virtue of his office as supreme pontiff, or, rather, in the exercise of a tyrant’s cruelty, a despot’s lawlessness, he convened the sacred college, not in the pontifical court where they usually assemble, but at his villa near Alba; and there, with a guilt no less heinous than that which he professed to be punishing, he condemned her, when she was not present to defend herself, on the charge of incest, while he himself had been guilty, not only of debauching his own brother’s daughter, but was also accessory to her death: for that lady, being a widow, in order to conceal her shame, endeavoured to procure an abortion, and by that means lost her life.

However, the priests were directed to see the sentence immediately executed upon Cornelia. As they were leading her to the place of execution, she called upon Vesta, and the rest of the gods, to attest her innocence; and, amongst other exclamations, frequently cried out, “Is it possible that Caesar can think me polluted, under the influence of whose sacred functions he has conquered and triumphed?” Whether she said this in flattery or derision; whether it proceeded from a consciousness of her innocence, or contempt of the emperor, is uncertain; but she continued exclaiming in this manner, til she came to the place of execution, to which she was led, whether innocent or guilty I cannot say, at all events with every appearance and demonstration of innocence. As she was being lowered down into the subterranean vault, her robe happening to catch upon something in the descent, she turned round and disengaged it, when, the executioner offering his assistance, she drew herself back with horror, refusing to be so much as touched by him, as though it were a defilement to her pure and unspotted chastity: still preserving the appearance of sanctity up to the last moment; and, among all the other instances of her modesty, “She took great care to fall with decency.”

Celer likewise, a Roman knight, who was accused of an intrigue with her, while they were scourging him with rods in the Forum, persisted in exclaiming, “What have I done? — I have done nothing.”

The Vestal Virgins were finally suppressed (and their eternal flame quenched) by the Christian emperor Theodosius, in 394.†

A few years later, Rome was sacked for the first time in 800 years.

* There are mixed accounts as to whether June 9 or June 7 was the first day of the Vestalia, but the 9th was unquestionably the most important.

** Legend has it that Rome’s founders, Romulus and Remus, were sons of a Vestal Virgin, Rhea Silvia: again, this tradition could well be the refracted memory of Etruscan priestesses, or princesses, or both. The man who was to kill these unholy offspring instead took pity on them and cast them adrift on the Tiber — and that’s how they ended up being famously suckled by wolves.

† Eliminating pagan holdovers was a great sport in this period for Rome’s now-Christian emperors. Theodosius also ended the Olympic Games; his son Honorius got rid of gladiatorial combat.

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1536: Anne Boleyn’s supposed lovers

4 comments May 17th, 2015 Headsman

Beware, trust not in the vanity of the world, and especially in the flattering of the court … if I had followed God’s word in deed as I did read it and set it forth to my power, I had not come to this.

-From the last statement of George Boleyn

This was the execution date in 1536 of Anne Boleyn‘s co-accused, the undercard to the deposed queen’s beheading.

It was the accusation of adultery that furnished Anne’s downfall; some adulterers were perforce required. These were William Brereton, Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, Mark Smeaton … and the ex-queen’s own brother, George Boleyn.

They had just days prior been subjected to a trial whose outcome was a foregone conclusion. All pleaded their innocence save Smeaton, a commoner court musician who could not withstand torture and “admitted” fooling around with Queen Anne.*

Along with Smeaton, three gentlemen-doomed plucked from the Tudor court’s shadowy recesses — joined to the legendary queen at the chopping-block, if not very probably in her bed.

  • Norris, the Groom of the Stool
  • Weston, a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber
  • Brereton, a Groom of the Privy Chamber

“Everyone was moved at their misfortune, especially at the case of Weston, who was young and of old lineage and high accomplishments,” one contemporary recorded of the fearful pall cast upon King Henry’s court by the purge. “But no one dared plead for him, except his mother, who, oppressed with grief, petitioned the King, and his wife, who offered rents and goods for his deliverance.”

The most egregious charge, naturally, did not concern these men. To put the fallen queen beyond the reach of sympathy it was alleged that she

following daily her frail and carnal lust … procured and incited her own natural brother, Geo. Boleyn, lord Rocheford, gentleman of the privy chamber, to violate her, alluring him with her tongue in the said George’s mouth, and the said George’s tongue in hers, and also with kisses, presents, and jewels; whereby he, despising the commands of God, and all human laws, violated and carnally knew the said Queen, his own sister, at Westminster; which he also did on divers other days before and after at the same place, sometimes by his own procurement and sometimes by the Queen’s.

This outrageous smear on the extremely specious grounds that big brother “had been once found a long time with her, and with certain other little follies,” invited as much skepticism among the Boleyns’ contemporaries as it does for posterity. Even after Anne had been condemned for adultery and incest in her stage-managed trial, George — the last of the bunch to face the tribunal — fought his corner so vigorously “that several of those present wagered 10 to 1 that he would be acquitted, especially as no witnesses were produced against either him or her, as it is usual to do, particularly when the accused denies the charge.”

A foolish bet, but perhaps one placed from a position of willful hope. If a peer of the realm could be condemned a traitor for hanging out with his sister, then no Henrician nobleman could hope to sleep securely.

Little could their dread fathom the bloody years to come. Many who saw the Boleyns’ heads drop would in time have cause to make of their gambling winnings a purse to tip their own executioners.

Thomas Cromwell, who engineered the Boleyn faction’s fall, outlived it by barely four years. The Earl of Surrey, who sat in judgment on this occasion, lost his head in 1547; his father the Duke of Norfolk,** who was the presiding judge, only avoided execution because Henry VIII died hours before Norfolk was to go to the block. George Boleyn’s wife, Lady Rochford, is supposed to have provided evidence against him; she was later swept up in the fall of Catherine Howard and beheaded for her trouble on that occasion.

But those were tragedies for later days.

In the spring of 1536, from his window in the Tower, the poet Thomas Wyatt witnessed this date’s executions: the young Anne’s last lover before the king descended on her, Wyatt too had been initially implicated in debauching the queen and he was fortunate not to be among their number. (Wyatt’s son would not be as lucky.) The shaken Wyatt wrote his fellow courtiers’ heartbreaking eulogy, and perhaps that of his era too, in his verse reflection on that terrible fall from fortune. (Via)

V. Innocentia
Veritas Viat Fides
me inimici mei

by Sir Thomas Wyatt, the Elder

Who list his wealth and ease retain,
Himself let him unknown contain.
Press not too fast in at that gate
Where the return stands by disdain,
For sure, circa Regna tonat.†

The high mountains are blasted oft
When the low valley is mild and soft.
Fortune with Health stands at debate.
The fall is grievous from aloft.
And sure, circa Regna tonat.

These bloody days have broken my heart.
My lust, my youth did them depart,
And blind desire of estate.
Who hastes to climb seeks to revert.
Of truth, circa Regna tonat.

The bell tower showed me such sight
That in my head sticks day and night.
There did I learn out of a grate,
For all favour, glory, or might,
That yet circa Regna tonat.

By proof, I say, there did I learn:
Wit helpeth not defence too yerne,
Of innocency to plead or prate.
Bear low, therefore, give God the stern,
For sure, circa Regna tonat.

* In the Tower awaiting execution, Anne would voice worry for Smeaton’s soul when she learned that he had failed to retract this confession at the block. But Smeaton and all the men were beheaded in preference to a sentence of drawing and quartering, and had reason to be cautious about their comportment on the scaffold lest crueler torments be reinstated for them.

** Norfolk was Anne Boleyn’s uncle.

Circa Regna tonat: “Around the throne it thunders”, from Seneca’s Phaedra.

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1555: Robert Ferrar, Bishop of St. David’s

Add comment March 30th, 2015 Headsman

The Martyrdom of Bishop Farrar [sic]

by Ted Hughes

Burned by Bloody Mary‘s Men at Caermarthen

“If I flinch from the pain of the burning, believe not the doctrine that I have preached.
 — His words on being chained to the stake.

Bloody Mary’s venomous flames can curl;
They can shrivel sinew and char bone
Of foot, ankle, knee and thigh, and boil
Bowels, and drop his heart a cinder down;
And her soldiers can cry, as they hurl
Logs in the red rush: “This is her sermon.”

The sullen-jowled watching Welsh townspeople
Hear him crack in the fire’s mouth: they see what
Black oozing twist of stuff bubbles the smell
That tars and retches their lungs: no pulpit
Of his ever held their eyes so still,
Never, as now his agony, his wit.

An ignorant means to establish ownership
Of his flock! Thus their shepherd she seized
And knotted him into this blazing shape
In their eyes, as if such could have cauterized
The trust they turned towards him, and branded on
Its stump her claim, to outlaw question.

So it might have been: seeing their exemplar
And teacher burned for his lessons to black bits,
Their silence might have disowned him to her,
And hung up what he had taught with their Welsh hats:
Who sees his blasphemous father struck by fire
From heaven, might well be heard to speak no oaths.

But the fire that struck here, come from Hell even,
Kindled little heavens in his words
As he fed his body to the flame alive.
Words which, before they will be dumbly spared,
Will burn their body and be tongued with fire
Make paltry folly of flesh and this world’s air.

When they saw what annuities of hours
And comfortable blood he burned to get
His words a bare honouring in their ears,
The shrewd townsfolk pocketed them hot:
Stamp was not current but they rang and shone
As good gold as any queen’s crown.

Gave all he had, and yet the bargain struck
To a merest farthing his whole agony,
His body’s cold-kept miserdom on shrieks
He gave uncounted, while out of his eyes,
Out of his mouth, fire like a glory broke,
And smoke burned his sermon into the skies.

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1601: Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex

Add comment February 25th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1601, Queen Elizabeth’s last great favorite became the last man beheaded in the Tower of London.

Vain and dashing Robert Devereux rolled into the royal court in 1584 around age 19 and immediately established himself as the new favorite of the monarch, 30-some years his senior. They spent long walks and late nights in enchanted private company, and Devereux “commeth not to his owne lodginge tyll the birdes singe in the morninge.” Ye olde walke of shayme.

In becoming the (presumed) lover* of the aging Virgin Queen, the Earl of Essex was only following the family** trade: his stepfather Robert Dudley was the younger Elizabeth’s longtime intimate.

It is up to the artists to postulate the relative measures of passion and cynicism in these dalliances; many have tried, inspired by the scaffold sundering of one of history’s great May-December affairs. The Essex-Elizabeth drama was a popular topic for broadsides, ballads, and stage treatments from the 17th century to the present day.

Benjamin Britten put the Elizabeth-Essex romance into opera in Gloriana, based on Lytton Strachey’s popular book.

He was wildly popular in London, but Essex was also afflicted by the follies of youth. Rash, temperamental, vainglorious; he aspired to leverage the favor of his sovereign into statesmanship and he achieved heroic repute for his swashbuckling raid on Cadiz.

Yet Essex reads like a whelp who never quite grew into a man’s boots. Every sketch of Essex includes, because it seems so starkly illustrative of his unstable character, the story of the time his impertinence led the queen to box his ears publicly — and the hothead’s hand flew instinctively to his sword-hilt. Everyone reconciled over this brush with lese-majeste, but only after Essex scribbled some skulking reproaches (“What, cannot princes err? cannot subjects receive wrong? is an earthly power or authority infinite?”) that he had the petulance to actually send to Elizabeth.

The less mercurial Earl of Salisbury, Robert Cecil, who was the son of Elizabeth’s earliest close advisor and the protege of her spymaster, was just two years Essex’s senior but smoothly outmaneuvered the loverboy in their mutual pursuit of England’s Secretaryship of State.†

Essex chased martial glory with mixed results. His last great enterprise was an ill-starred 1599 offensive in Ireland to bring Gaelic rebels to heel in the Nine Years’ War.

Not for the last time an Englishman found this conquest more easily aspired than achieved. Essex liberally overused his authority to knight men as a reward for their service, but his soldiers mostly slogged to and fro with little headway to show for it. After a frustrating campaign season chasing his tail, Essex defied the increasingly strident directives to attack issuing from Elizabeth’s irate pen, and made terms with the Irish commander Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone. Then he defied Elizabeth’s order to remain in Ireland and hastened back to London to justify himself. It was said of him that he “never drew sword but to make knights.”

This was the beginning of Essex’s end. Elizabeth’s fury at the aimless military campaign was compounded when her churlish captain turned up from Ireland unbidden and burst into her private chambers while she was still dressing to report on his unauthorized summit. Cecil et al, whose ascendance Essex had meant to reverse with the triumph of his arms, now murmured that the earl had strayed near outright treason to parley with the rebel whom he was supposed to be routing. The Privy Council put him under house arrest.

Heaped in debt and deprived of the prestigious proximity to power he had enjoyed literally throughout his adulthood, the man’s turbulent spirit stirred strangely in York House. We have seen that Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, was a man to abhor an indignity even past the point of self-preservation. He unwisely sent secret missives to try to turn the ongoing succession negotiations‡ against Robert Cecil; when the Privy Council caught wind of this intrusion, he refused its demand that he present himself to account for his actions. Instead, he made matters worse by mounting a pathetic march through London with his supporters.

This “Essex Rebellion” was meant to rally the citizenry to him and turn some sort of coup against Robert Cecil. It seems so foolhardy and ill-considered that it’s difficult to think what was in the earl’s head. If you squint at it just so, it perhaps had a big-R Romantic quality, a gallant band of brothers saving the nation from its duplicitous ministers; the night before the rebellion, Essex (a liberal arts patron in his time) splurged to have William Shakespeare’s company§ stage a special performance of Richard II — a play wherein the English monarch is deposed. Presumably this was his inspirational pregame speech.

Thinking much more clearly than Essex, Londoners vigorously ignored his summons and the marching party trudged alone — and surely increasingly frightened — through the city until it was stopped by a barricade. Its participants then fled back to Essex House where they soon found themselves surrounded.

Whatever the fancy that led the Earl of Essex on his fatal February 8 march, and whatever the extent of his ambitions for that occasion, the careless threat to the public peace went several bridges beyond a boyish foible that Elizabeth could overlook in her impulsive courtier. He was prosecuted for treason within days and Elizabeth signed his death warrant on February 20th. The only mercy extended the ex-favorite was to suffer the noble execution of beheading, rather than a traitor’s drawing and quartering. Essex also successfully appealed for a private execution within the walls of the Tower, away from the gawks of those London masses who had so signally failed to rebel along with him.

On the specially built wooden platform, Essex favored his select audience with a bog-standard execution-day mea culpa:

My sins are more in number than the hairs on my head. I have bestowed my youth in wantonness, lust and uncleanness; I have been puffed up with pride, vanity and love of this wicked world’s pleasures. For all which, I humbly beseech my Saviour Christ to be a mediator to the eternal Majesty for my pardon, especially for this my last sin, this great, this bloody, this crying, this infectious sin, whereby so many for love of me have been drawn to offend God, to offend their sovereign, to offend the world. I beseech God to forgive it us, and to forgive it me — most wretched of all.

He prayed a Psalm. Then, stretching out his neck on a low block and thrusting his arms from his sides, he bid the headsman strike. The executioner had to oblige his patient in triplicate in order to sever the puffed-up head.

The Earl of Essex has the distinction of being the last person beheaded on the Tower Green, within the walls off the Tower of London — the last name on the little placard of headless notables photographed by tour groups. Note that Essex was not the last person beheaded at the Tower, when the adjacent Tower Hill is included (that distinction belongs to Jacobite rebel Simon Fraser); nor was he the last person executed within the Tower (that distinction belongs to World War II spy Josef Jakobs, who was not beheaded but shot).

Weary and depressed, Elizabeth died little more than two years afterwards.

* There’s a mind-bending speculative hypothesis out there — cousin to the Shakespeare-focused Prince Tudor theory — that Essex was actually Elizabeth’s secret, illegitimate son. This secret history is obviously more congenial with the queen’s early favoritism for Essex than with her eventually chopping off his head.

** Essex was also a distant cousin of Elizabeth herself: his maternal great-grandmother was Mary Boleyn, sister of Anne Boleyn — who was Elizabeth’s mother.

Walter Raleigh was a notable Cecil ally in this factional conflict. Raleigh attended Essex’s execution … and, of course, shared that fate many years afterwards.

‡ Elizabeth was nearing age 70; her childless death was imminent. James VI of Scotland was being vetted by Robert Cecil as the successor. Essex tried to stick his thumb in the pie by warning James that the Cecil faction would conspire to foist the English crown on the Spanish infanta — daughter of the Spanish king who had been the Catholic Mary Tudor’s husband. (The infanta was not Mary’s own daughter.) This was no idle threat, as at this point it was only a few years since the Spanish Armada had sallied for English seas.

§ Another noteworthy Shakespeare connection: one of the participants in the Essex Rebellion was the Earl of Southampton (he was spared execution). Southampton, whose given name was Henry Wriothesley, is often identified as the “Fair Youth” to whom Shakespeare dedicated numerous love sonnets. (Some of those are directly addressed to a Mr. “W.H.”)

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