1793: Jean-Sylvain Bailly, moonstruck

Add comment November 12th, 2011 Headsman

See Bailly, likewise of Paris, time-honoured Historian of Astronomy Ancient and Modern. Poor Bailly, how thy serenely beautiful Philosophising, with its soft moonshiny clearness and thinness, ends in foul thick confusion — of Presidency, Mayorship, diplomatic Officiality, rabid Triviality, and the throat of everlasting Darkness! Far was it to descend from the heavenly Galaxy to the Drapeau Rouge: beside that fatal dung-heap, on that last hell-day, thou must ‘tremble,’ though only with cold, ‘de froid.’ Speculation is not practice: to be weak is not so miserable; but to be weaker than our task. Wo the day when they mounted thee, a peaceable pedestrian, on that wild Hippogriff of a Democracy; which, spurning the firm earth, nay lashing at the very stars, no yet known Astolpho could have ridden!

Carlyle

On this date in 1793, French astronomer turned revolutionary Jean-Sylvain Bailly was guillotined during the Paris Terror.

Bailly ditched a family trade in the arts — his father was a supervisor at the Louvre — and turned his gaze skyward.

Studying astronomy under Lacaille, Bailly made a quick splash in astronomical circles with meticulous work on Halley’s Comet and the moons of Jupiter. He was inducted into the French Academy of Sciences while still in his twenties. Not quite the guy every schoolchild knows, but a significant scientist in his time. As one twentieth-century reviewer put it,*

Bailly was not a great thinker or the discoverer of new concepts; no case can be made for placing his name beside those of Newton, Leibnitz, and Laplace. But he should not be denied a niche among the numerous competent and persevering work-a-day scientists who, perhaps, in the long run make possible the achievements of a few great men. His observations and reductions, his application of a mathematical discipline to the movements of the heavenly bodies, and his detailed publications had brought him, by 1766, considerable credit among fellow scientists.

His “considerable credit” in the public sphere, enhanced by his widely-admired writing, set him up for election to the Estates-General in 1789. Indeed, Bailly was elected to head the body’s Third Estate.

On June 20th of that pregnant year, days after the Estates-General had constituted itself a National Assembly with ambitions far outstripping the limited purpose of revenue collection the king intended them for, Louis XVI locked the delegates out of their meeting-room.

Bailly, in consequence, would lead one of the pivotal actions of the embryonic French Revolution. “I do not need to tell you in what a grievous situation the Assembly finds itself,” he said to the assembly reconvened at a nearby tennis court. “I propose that we deliberate on what action to take under such tumultuous circumstances.” The result of that deliberation was the Tennis Court Oath.


Detail view (click for the full image) of Jean-Sylvain Bailly administering the Tennis Court Oath, in Jacques-Louis David‘s sketch of the event.

When the Paris provost — an archaic municipal office — was shot by the mob on Bastille Day, Bailly became the City of Light’s first mayor.

But as with other principals of the Revolution’s earliest stirrings, like Bailly’s ally Lafayette, the man was left behind by the rapid progress of events. He’d been two years retired out of public service in Nantes when he was hailed before the Revolutionary Tribunal on the preposterous charge of having conspired in Louis XVI’s attempted flight and guillotined on that basis.

A lunar crater — the largest crater visible from earth — is appropriately named after this prolific observer of the heavens.

* Edwin Burrows Smith, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Series, Vol. 44, No. 4 (1954).

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1818: Matthew Clydesdale, galvanic subject

3 comments November 4th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1818, murderer Matthew Clydesdale was publicly hanged at Glasgow’s High Court building, along with a habitual burglar named Simon Ross.*

This was the city’s first hanging in a decade and accordingly drew a throng of gawkers.

But they weren’t there only to mete out justice to the killer of elderly Alexander Love: there as another attraction, too. Ross, the small-timer, was done for after his hanging and buried away unceremoniously.

But Clydesdale’s body “was put into a coffin, and was forthwith conveyed, for the purpose of dissection, to the Professor of Anatomy. The cart was followed by a large portion of the crowd.” (London Times, Nov. 11, 1818)

Before a mob of rubbernecking — sometimes fainting — onlookers, the flesh that had lately belonged to Matthew Clydesdale was subjected to the fashionable and creepy science of galvanism.

Andrew Ure and James Jeffray hooked up a galvanic battery and for an hour excited the corpse with various electrically-charged proddings. Ure, at least, dreamt of the hypothesis that the right jolt to the right spot might in principle achieve a Frankenstein-like reanimation.

We are almost willing to imagine, that if, without cutting into and wounding the spinal marrow and blood-vessels in the neck, the pulmonary organs had been set a-playing at first … life might have been restored. This event, however little desirable with a murderer, and perhaps contrary to law, would yet have been pardonable in one instance, as it would have been highly honourable and useful to science.

I mean, you’d have to think it would at least be good enough for tenure.

Regrettably failing in this honourable endeavor, the gentlemen of science did make such grisly sport with their subject as to strike awe and terror into the astonished crowd.

every muscle of the body was immediately agitated with convulsive movements … the leg was thrown out with such violence as nearly to overturn one of the assistants, who in vain attempted to prevent its extension …

Every muscle in his countenance was simultaneously thrown into fearful action: rage, horror, despair, anguish,and ghastly smiles united their hideous expression in the murderer’s face …

When the one rod was applied to the slight incision in the tip of the forefinger, the fist being previously clenched, that finger extended instantly; and from the convulsive agitation of the arm, he seemed to point to the different spectators, some of whom thought he had come to life.

* Two others condemned for the same date’s harvest of souls — James Boyd (housebreaking) and Margaret Kennedy (passing forged notes) — were reprieved.

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1769: Nicolas de Lafreniere and four others for the Louisiana Rebellion

3 comments October 25th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1769, five French Creoles were shot in New Orleans for a revolt the previous year against a Spanish takeover.

This date’s story begins with the French King Louis XV getting his French clock cleaned in the French and Indian War. This conflict blew an ill wind all over Francophone North America, much of which was taken by the British. Result: a quarter-millennium later, this blog is in English.

Even what France kept, she did not keep. In a secret pact, France ceded to wartime ally Spain “the country known as Louisiana, as well as New Orleans and the island in which the city is situated.”

This projection onto New World colonists of Old World diplomatic horse-trading was rife with potential hostility among the traded horses. In this instance, Louisianans were widely dismayed when they were finally informed that they’d become Spaniards.

When they did get the memo — and Louis XV declined to reconsider — they launched the Louisiana Rebellion of 1768, expelling the new Spanish govenror Antonio de Ulloa.*

These weren’t mere rabble who showed Ulloa “insubordination … a sense of liberty and independence,” but elites of French New Orleans. Nicolas de Lafreniere was the attorney general.

“The name of Lafreniere deserves rank with those of foremost American patriots,” Americans later reckoned. O’Reilly’s reputation did not fare as well in the patriotic literature, but he perhaps had the best of the law.

Between a rock and a hard place, the leftover French adjutant Charles-Philippe Aubry refused to support the rebels, but also refused to fire on fellow Frenchmen. Meanwhile, Ulloa refused to provide his credentials to the uppity colonists. Louis XV refused to receive the delegations sent to implore him to keep Louisiana.

All these refuseniks found the matter adjudicated by immigrant Irish officer Alejandro O’Reilly, plucked out of Cuba to replace Ulloa and lay down the law. He spoke softly when he landed, but the amnesty he offered was followed a few months later by the surprise arrest of the chief rebels.

Lafreniere, Joseph Milhet, Jean-Baptiste Noyan, Pierre Caresse, and Pierre Marquis were ordered hanged on this date. Noyan, nephew of the city’s founder and a young man just married, was offered his pardon, but melodramatically refused.

It was found that there was no hangman in the colony, so the condemned prisoners were ordered to be shot. When the day of execution came, hundreds of people left the city. Those who could not leave went into their houses, closed the doors and windows and waited in an agony of sickening dread to hear the fatal shots. Only the tramping of soldiers broke the deathlike stillness which brooded over the crushed and helpless city. At three o’clock on a perfect October afternoon in 1769, the condemned men were led to the Spanish barracks. Lafreniere, it is said, gave the order to fire. A volley of muskets broke out on the still air, and five patriots went to their death, — the first Louisianians to give their blood for the cause of freedom.

A History of Louisiana

The details and historiography of this event are the subject of this 146-page master’s thesis. (pdf)

Whether or not all that stuff about Louisiana planters as freedom-loving patriots trod down by the barbarous Spanish has any real merit to it, that’s the way they’ve been memorialized.

Lafreniere Park in Metairie, La. — home of anti-death penalty VIP Sister Helen Prejean — is named for Nick Lafreniere.

When next visiting the Louisiana State House, keep an eye out for this day’s victims on the frieze to the right of the main entrance. And when next visiting New Orleans, keep an ear out for the ghost of the priest that buried them.

* Ulloa was also a scientist and gave his name to the Ulloa Halo, a “physical illusion consisting of a white luminous ring or arch that can sometimes be seen in mountainous regions, typically in foggy weather, while facing an area opposite the Sun.”

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1794: Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, father of modern chemistry

7 comments May 8th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1794, French scientist Antoine Laurent Lavoisier was guillotined in Paris for “adding water to the people’s tobacco.”

Portrait of Monsieur de Lavoisier and his Wife, chemist Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze, by Jacques-Louis David (1788) Marie assisted Lavoisier in the laboratory; she also studied art under David the better to illustrate the resulting publications.

Tobacco-watering was the least of Lavoisier’s pastimes.

The man’s resume* of 50 busy years in chemical and biological experimentation included

  • Proving the law of conservation of mass
  • Naming oxygen and hydrogen
  • Demonstrating oxygen’s role in combustion and respiration
  • Writing the first chemistry textbook, with the first list of elements

Unfortunately, Lavoisier funded these eggheaded avocations with an investment in the Ferme générale, the hated tax-farming syndicate to which the crown outsourced its revenue-squeezing operations.

This is just the sort of operation one would expect to find in the crosshairs of the French Revolution’s Terror: hence, watering the people’s tobacco.

(Allegedly, Jean-Paul Marat also had it in for Lavoisier personally, on account of the latter’s having blown off Marat’s pre-Revolution scientific efforts.)

The company was shut down in 1790.

But at the height of the Terror, Lavoisier and 27 fellow tax-farmers of the Ferme were rounded up and quickly condemned.

Lavoisier’s appeal for a stay of execution to complete some experiments met a brusque refusal from the people’s tribunal: “The Republic has no need for scientists.”

Mathematician Joseph Louis Lagrange, whom Lavoisier had helped escape the Revolution’s proscription, left the chemist his epigrammatic epitaph:

It took only an instant to cut off that head, and a hundred years may not produce another like it.

* And yet,

[i]n spite of his great services it is impossible to overlook the sins of Lavoisier in appropriating to himself discoveries made by chemists who were his contemporaries or predecessors. Oxygen was first discovered by Hales in 1727, and had already been prepared from mercuric oxide by Priestley in 1774, by Bayen in the same year, and still earlier by Scheele in 1771. It was at a dinner at Lavoisier’s house that Priestley confidentially communicated his discovery to Lavoisier, in 1774; in 1778 Lavoisier then claimed for himself the discovery of the composition of water, whilst, as is now known, Blagden, a friend of Cavendish, when visiting Paris in 1781, told Lavoisier that Cavendish had discovered the composition of water in a very simple manner by burning inflammable air (hydrogen), as water alone was formed during this combustion.

Lavoisier and Laplace immediately repeated the experiment and then communicated the discovery to the French Academy in 1783.

These facts certainly do not obscure the fame of the great scientist when we remember his eminent services, but in the interests of historic accuracy and justice it is impossible to pass them over in silence.

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1771: Green Tea Hag, the beginning of Dutch Learning

7 comments March 4th, 2010 dogboy

The typical turning-point execution features an illustrious protagonist upon the scaffold: a royal dethroned, a politician overthrown, a revolutionary laid low.

On this day in 1771, an obscure woman executed for everyday crimes launched a new era in Japan.

The Kyoto resident, nicknamed “Aochababa” — roughly translated as the Green Tea Hag — sparked a scientific revolution that would span decades, push Japan into its own Age of Reason called Dutch Learning, and keep an island nation astride goings-on from thousands of miles away in spite of isolationist practices.

The Tokugawa Shogunate, which ruled Japan from the early 1600s through the mid-1800s, was widely regarded as anti-Western for closing down trade with several European nations.

Concerned with what it saw as colonial aspirations in the Americas, the Shogunate clamped down on Catholic missionaries from Spain and Portugal. Starting in the 1630s, the island nation officially enacted the Seclusion Laws, which effectively allowed trade only with China, Korea, and the Netherlands; contact with the last was only legitimated through the Dutch trading outpost in Dejima, an isolated island with strictly controlled access.* Because of these limitations, Japan became a repository of non-Christian Dutch paraphernalia.**

The execution of Aochababa itself is practically forgotten: she was hanged in Kyoto’s Kozukappara (the present day Arakawa ward) in Meiwa 8, the second year of a 15-year drought gripping Japan. Her crime is unknown, and her execution would have been as un-noteworthy as dozens of others that year had her body not been secured for science.

However, under the reign of (though little due to) Shogun Tokugawa Ieharu, Dutch influence was increasing dramatically in Japan.

As a result, Aochababa’s corpse was brought to a medical facility, where Sugita Genpaku, Maeno Ryotaku, Nakagawa Jun’an, Toyo Yamawaki, and others performed and viewed an autopsy. Their medical training was Chinese; their medical texts were a mixture of Chinese and Dutch; as Genpaku reports in his later book Rangaku Kotohajime:†

Ryotaku opened the book and explained according to what he had learned in Nagasaki the various organs such as the lung called “long” in Dutch, the heart called “hart,” the stomach called “maag” and the spleen called “milt.” They looked so different from the pictures in the Chinese anatomical books that many of us felt rather dubious of their truths before we should actually observe the real organs.

Comparing the things we saw with the pictures in the Dutch book Ryotaku and I had with us, we were amazed at their perfect agreement. There was no such divisions either as the six lobes and two auricles of the lungs or the three left lobes and two right lobes of the liver mentioned in old medical books. Also, the positions and the forms of the intestines and the stomach were very different from the traditional descriptions.

After the dissection was over, we were tempted to examine the forms of the bones too, and picked up some of the sun bleached bones scattered around the ground. We found that they were nothing like those described in the old books, but were exactly as represented in the Dutch book. We were completely amazed.

In short, their medical results matched those of the Dutch and flew in the face of a millennium of Chinese anatomical teachings.

Genpaku was intrigued. As he tells it (40-some years after the fact), Ryotaku, Jun’an, and he immediately laid down a plan to translate the Dutch text into Japanese.

The process was a slog. Lacking a dictionary or translator for anatomical studies, the team — bolstered by the Shogun physician Katsuragawa Hoshu — was forced to reverse-engineer the Dutch language using a short phrase book, occasional contacts with the Dutch themselves, and a host of educated guesses based on the anatomical features they were attempting to describe. In addition to the problems of simple translations — turning a language with definite and indefinite articles into one with no such concept — many anatomical features had never been named in Japanese before; Genpaku and his collaborators invented dozens of words just to get by. A brief history is given here.

Finally, in 1774, Kaitai ShinshoThe New Book of Anatomy — based mostly on the Dutch book Ontleedkundige Tafelen (itself a translation from German), was published, the first translation of a Western text into Japanese. The book was four volumes (three of text, one of illustrations) and scribed in a Chinese-based writing style known as Kanbun.‡


An image (more can be seen here) from the 1774 Japanese anatomy treatise.

Topical historical literature, recommendation via Reddit.

The translation was the first in a long line of texts that the Japanese would eventually use to quietly capture the technology of the West.§

Genpaku was at the forefront of Dutch Learning, and his second masterwork, Rangaku Kotohajime (“Beginnings of Dutch Learning”), published in 1815, provides a thorough description of the events which led to these advances in science and medicine in Japan.

It would be 80 years before the United States Navy forced its way into Japanese harbors and used gunship diplomacy to end Japan’s seclusion. During that time, the Japanese reproduced everything from telescopes to automata to steam engines using borrowed texts and dissection of imported goods. Dutch Learning kept Japan abreast scientific advancements even while it maintained its isolation.

The enduring legacy of Dutch Learning was the late-19th century Meiji Restoration, wherein a Japan now officially opened swiftly modernized efficiently enough to trounce Russia in the Russo-Japanese War at the end of the century.

A fairly complete description of the evolution of Japan under Dutch Learning is given in Wakabayashi’s Modern Japanese Thought and De Bray et al‘s Sources of Japanese Tradition (Vol 2).

Today, many of the Dutch words imported to describe new objects, anatomical and otherwise, remain in the Japanese language as a testament to Dutch Learning. Sugita Genpaku is also the namesake of a modern-day attempt to translate texts to Japanese. And Toyo Yamawaki, through his help with dissections of the era, prompted an interesting ritual of memorializing cadaver donors in medical schools. For physical specimens, a museum with sections devoted to Dutch Learning can also be visited at Nakatsu.

* The Dutch were allowed to stay because they weren’t Catholic. The Shogun also enacted laws forbidding missionaries and Christian prosteletyzing, as well as officially outlawing the practice of Christianity; however, an underground group of Christians remained in the country.

** Initially, all foreign texts were outlawed. However, beginning with Shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune, Dutch texts were allowed into the country, generating a new wave of books that were, for several decades, largely illegible to their owners. To go with the anti-Christian theme, however, the Japanese authorities continued to blot out all Christian references.

† Translation by Ryozo Matsumoto, available here.

Kanbun is a mapping of Chinese ideograms and writing style into Japanese-comprehensible language using classic symbolic meanings (a standardized shape to represent a tree) and sound equivalents (using the same standard shape to represent the the sound of the word “tree” rather than its meaning), as well as sentence structure and purpose markings. Using this style, direct Chinese-to-Japense translation is possible, but the onus is on the author to properly annotate the text.

§ Strangely, there is as yet no Dutch-Japanese dictionary in print.

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1624: Marco Antonio de Dominis, posthumously

4 comments December 21st, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1624, the recently-deceased body of unscrupulous Croatian prelate Marco Antonio de Dominis was burned at Rome’s Campo dei Fiori, along with all his manuscripts.

Hypothesizing

As a precocious young man Dominis taught mathematics, rhetoric and philosophy; in 1611, he produced a scientific treatise on the formation of rainbows through light refraction, De radiis visus et lucis. A century later, Isaac Newton would write* in Opticks that

it is now agreed upon, that this Bow is made by Refraction of the Sun’s Light in drops of falling rain. This was understood by some of the Antients, and of late more fully discover’d and explain’d by the famous ANTONIUS DE DOMINIS Archbishop of Spalato.**

More opportune was his advocacy of a moon-induced tide, which idea his contemporary Galileo erroneously scorned.†

Though he makes a “great men of Croatian science” list, the scientific dabblings are not what the man was chiefly known for.

Apostatizing

A caricature of Dominis made an appearance, around the time of the man’s bodily demise, in Thomas Middleton’s play A Game at Chess, as the “fat bishop” who switches sides from black to white and back.

And that’s the man’s legacy, in a nutshell.

Elevated to Bishop of Senj, and then Spalato, he got the Inquisition after him and raised dust for England and the Anglican church in 1616.

They called you great-bellied-Doctour, made fat under Antichrist; and some there were also that sayd, that before you ranne away from the Pope, you got your owne Neece with child, and that feare to be punished for it, made you trudge away with your great load of flesh in such hast.

John Floyd

In Albion the absconded archbishop settled into a fine tenured appointment on the king’s dole to denounce the papists like only a convert can do. As A Game at Chess would indicate, he also earned fame for his avarice and gluttony, and who knows how many other deadly sins.

The rep for opportunism grew when Dominis defected back to Holy Mother Church upon the election of an old intimate as Pope Gregory XV. His well-worn welcome in England as anti-papal vituperator had, too, become complicated by the progress of the proposed Spanish Match to wed Prince Charles to Europe’s leading Catholic monarchy — an ultimately abortive project, but nearing the acme of its fortunes at the time Dominis returned to Italy.

(The Spanish Match is the protracted political and diplomatic dance whose progress A Game at Chess allegorically tells. Dominis arranged his return to the Catholic fold through the Spanish ambassador in England, making the former a fit character for the playwright to project the double-dealing and skullduggery of the rivals’ negotiations.)

Theosophizing

Unfortunately for our unprincipled Renaissance man, Gregory himself yielded up the ghost almost immediately and left the Church in the hands of the aggressive Urban VIII. (Urban is the guy who forced Dominis’s old tidal rival Galileo to retract heliocentrism.)

Dominis — who seems to have been an ecumenical guy, maybe just a fancy way of saying he could accommodate any doctrine amenable to his ambition‡ — was evidently still trafficking with the unorthodox even after he returned, recanted, and renounced. (Renunciation in English | Latin).§

One contemporary reportedly said of Dominis

he was a malecontent knave when he fled from us, a railing knave while he lived with you, and a motley parti-coloured knave now he is come back.

The Inquisition imprisoned Dominis, and his death in Castel Sant’Angelo was not sufficient to end heresy proceedings against such as he left behind.

[H]is body was put into a well-pitched coffin, and that into another greater than it … until such time as the cause of the said Archbishop, still depending, should be determined by the Sacred Congregation; that according to their sentence, whatever justice did require, might be done upon him.

The sentence being framed and ready to be put in execution, the said body was … taken the twentieth of this present month of December, forth from the convent where it was left, and carried to the church of Minerva, and there laid upon a table in an eminent place, together with his picture and a little sack of books which he had printed; and where it stood all the night.

The next morning … the most illustrious and most reverend lods cardinals, supreme inquisitors, with many others … proceeded unto a definitive sentence, which was, to declare him unworthy of the favour of the Holy See apostolic, to deprive him of all his honour, benefit, or dignity, confiscate his goods, and give him over to the secular powers, as de facto they then gave him over, that he and his picture, together with the books he had written, should be burned …

INSCRIPTIO

MARCUS ANTONIUS DE DOMINIS,

LATE ARCHBISHOP OF SPALATRO,

Most impiously bent his style against the Church of God, which had extraordinarily well deserved of him; having wounded her and stabbed her through, he so left her without cure, and wretchedly betook himself to the English altars, that thence the swine might the more securely gruntle against the Pope and Catholics. Returning home again, but no convert, his apostatic spirit he forsook not. He died (and the voice of a penitent man would he had not uttered) impenitent. (Source)

* Dominis is still today sometimes credited as the first to explain both primary and secondary rainbows, in preference to Descartes, who nailed them 20 years later. According to The Rainbow Bridge: Rainbows in Art, Myth, and Science, that gave far too much credit to Dominis for either originality or accuracy, and may have been written intentionally to undercut Descartes. (R.E. Ockenden made the same claim about Newton’s exaggeration in “Marco Antonio de Dominis and His Explanation of the Rainbow” in the not-exactly-current Dec. 1936 Isis).

Maybe Newton explicator and Executed Today guest blogger Thomas Levenson of the Inverse Square blog could refract some light on this.

** Spalato, i.e., Split, the scenic Dalmatian city where the great Roman Emperor Diocletian famously retired to tend his cabbages.

† “Lately,” Galileo sniffed, “a certain prelate has published a little tract wherein he says that the Moon, wandering through the sky, attracts and draws up toward itself a heap of water which goes along following it.” As cited in Understanding the Heavens: Thirty Centuries of Astronomical Ideas from Ancient Thinking to Modern Cosmology.

There’s an interesting treatment of Galileo’s stubborn adherence to a wrong idea about the tides in a history-of-ideas context in “Galileo’s Claim to Fame: The Proof That the Earth Moves from the Evidence of the Tides,” by W. R. J. Shea in The British Journal for the History of Science, Vol. 5, No. 2 (Dec., 1970)

‡ Though he’s frequently read as a mere trimmer, it’s possible to give Dominis a much more sympathetic take. King James VI and I and the Reunion of Christendom argues that

it is difficult to explain his movements on this basis alone. Both in his journey to England and in his journey to Rome he took great risks, and in both cases gave up a reasonably secure position for one much less certain. Hacket, in the late seventeenth century, saw him not only as a place-seeker but as a man obsessed with an idea: “He lived and died with General Councils in his Pate, with Wind-Mills of Union to concord Rome and England, England and Rome, Germany with them both, and all other Sister-Churches with the rest, without asking leave of the Tridentine Council.” … [he] died for an ecumenical ideal which is only now, perhaps, beginning to be understood and appreciated … [and his] move [back to Rome] was the desperate attempt of a lonely, egotistical, and gifted man to find personal and spiritual fulfillment and, at the same time, to help to restore unity and coherence to a Europe being torn apart by religious conflict and war.

§ The Catholic Encyclopedia has Dominis re-relapsing when his pension expired along with Pope Gregory.

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1803: Johannes Bückler, “Schinderhannes”

5 comments November 21st, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1803, the famous German bandit “Schinderhannes” and 19 others of his gang were efficiently guillotined in French-occupied Rhineland.

Schinderhannes with mistress Juliana Blasius and their child.

As low-born as they come, Johannes Bückler (English Wikipedia link | German) hailed from a family of executioners and knackers (his appellation means “John the Knacker”).

But this outcast was born to command, and in the wild Rhineland at the close of the 18th century, his audacity, charisma, and deft cruelty made him a legendary bandit king.

He stole, he blackmailed, he slipped his fetters … “he seemed to contest French authority” recently projected by the revolutionary citizen-army, and he preyed heavily on unpopular Jewish merchants, all of which gave Bückler purchase on folk hero status with the boldness to hold a public “robber’s ball” at the ruined castle his band occupied.

His legend grew in his own lifetime, and as such things do, it inflated quite past any capacity of its originator’s character to support.

When things got too hot on the French side of the Rhine, he ducked over the frontier to the Holy Roman Empire in the east, but was nabbed attempting to lay low in the imperial army under an assumed name, and handed back to the French.

The authorities turned his outlaw gallantry to good effect (or at least, that’s the cover story his apologists have made for his stool pigeoning) by threatening to come down on the mistress who bore him a child, leading Schinderhannes to get her off with a slap on the wrist by giving up his bandit brethren.

And with French law came French execution technology, whose proliferation in the train of Napoleon’s Grande Armee would bequeath the German condemned death by the “falling axe” down to Hitler’s time and even after.

A spectacle here as it was in France, tens of thousands turned up in Mainz this date in 1803 for what sounds like an anticlimactic six-minute show of a score of Schinderhannes’ gang losing their heads to the mechanical contraption.

Scottish scribbler Leitch Ritchie helped convey to posterity the legend with Schinderhannes, the robber of the Rhine, which romantically celebrates a knave who must have been less lovable to those who knew him from the business end of his blade. These, nevertheless, are all long gone, and Ritchie has the authority of historical mythologizing to vindicate his text’s last eulogy with its hero’s foot upon the scaffold:

The bandit-chief preserved his intrepidity to the last, and left to other times, unsullied by many of the basenesses of his tribe, the name of SCHINDERHANNES, THE ROBBER OF THE RHINE.

He sure did. From the practically mandatory ballad …

… to the stage …

… to the screen

… to vicious-looking Cambrian anomalocarid Schinderhannes bartelsi

… the outlaw has long outlived his guillotining, to the profit of the tourist trade in his former stomping-grounds.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/20973106@N08/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,France,Germany,Guillotine,History,Mass Executions,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Organized Crime,Outlaws,Pelf,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Theft

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1938: The terrified John Deering

3 comments October 31st, 2009 Headsman

We meet people in these pages who go to the scaffold joking, or sarcastic, or cocksure.

Humans bear up to proximity of death with every psychological defense in the book, but even if surprisingly few die in naked terror, make no mistake this Halloween: there’s a reason the executioner is scary.

Shot Through the Heart

Habitual criminal John Deering had a date with a Salt Lake City firing squad this date in 1938.

If anyone should be nonchalant about being ripped open by bullets, it’s a guy who eschewed a prison sentence in Michigan and confessed to murder to get himself extradited to Utah to face capital murder charges — saying that he and the world would both be better off with him dead.

The 39-year-old put on a cool front, but how steady was he, really? In a weird experiment, Deering agreed to be hooked to an electrocardiogram that measured his heart rate during his last moments.

Here comes the science!

The heart of John W. Deering, holdup murderer, beat three times faster than normal just before he was put to death today by a firing squad in the state prison here. The unprecedented recording was termed valuable to heart disease specialists as it showed clearly the effect of fear.

An electro-cardiograph film, recorded with the condemned man’s permission, showed that Deering’s heart beat jumped from normal 72 to 180, although he appeared outwardly calm. It maintained that rate for the several minutes required to complete preliminaries for the execution.

When the doomed man was asked for a last statement his heart beat fluttered wildly, then calmed after he spoke until bullets ended his life. The heart beat stopped 15.6 seconds after the bullets struck, but he was not pronounced dead until two and a half minutes after the five shots rang out. (Chicago Tribune, Nov. 1, 1938)

Still no cure for cancer.

This guy is obviously not to be confused with his tragic Hollywood contemporary of the same name.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Murder,Shot,USA,Utah,Volunteers

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1938: A pig, experimentally

3 comments March 19th, 2009 Headsman

EXECUTION TEST MADE WITH PIG

San Quentin’s Lethal Chamber Tried Out

SAN QUENTIN, March 19 [1938]. (AP) A runt pig* died today in a slow-motion test of San Quentin’s lethal gas chamber.

The test required thirty-five minutes before the pig was formally pronounced dead, but prison officials said “nowhere near that time” would be necessary for execution of a condemned convict in the gas chamber.

The trial execution was conducted in slow motion to enable prison officials and guards to learn details of the operation. The test was conducted by representatives of the manufacturers of the chamber.

* According to the Los Angeles Times (whose March 24, 1938 edition captions a photograph of Warden Court Smith peering inquisitively through the gas chamber’s window), it was “a little thirty-pound brown pig.” According to the backgrounder in When You Read This, They Will Have Killed Me — which concerns an altogether more famous gas chamber subject — the swine was “a 155-pound pig named Oscar, raised on the prison farm.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Animals,Borderline "Executions",California,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Gassed,No Formal Charge,USA

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1924: Gee Jon, debuting the gas chamber

11 comments February 8th, 2009 Headsman

It was the best of intentions. It was the worst of intentions.

As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, the forefathers’ standard means of dispatching an evildoer — a length of rope or a shot of lead — were under re-examination by a technophilic nation convinced its science could find a way to kill a man without inconveniencing him.

The first great American contribution — if you can call it that — to the the art of killing me softly was the electric chair, and its debut did not impress everyone.

Out west, grossed out by electrocution and inspired by the pestilent fogs that had lately enveloped World War I trenches, the Nevada legislature cottoned to the brainchild of one Dr. Allen McLean Hamilton to say it with cyanide.

Unfortunately, the logistics of billowing a plume of lethal gas directly into the prisoner’s cell to take the condemned asleep and unawares — another ostensible mercy that would have opened a path towards a Japan-like system of perpetual apprehension followed by sudden execution — proved insoluble; so, they had to build a little airtight room and give the procedure all the familiar ceremonial trappings.

That little airtight room was used for the first time ever on this date in 1924.

Its occupant was Gee Jon, a Chinese-born resident of San Francisco’s Chinatown who had gunned down a member of a rival tong in the railroad town of Mina not far from the California border.

A minute or two after the sodium cyanide pellets hit the sulphuric acid to release a toxic cloud of hydrogen cyanide gas, Gee Jon fell unconscious. He remained in the chamber, shrouded in gas, for half an hour to make sure: later, the apparatus improved with the addition of a stethoscope to enable a doctor to declare death from outside the cell.

Good enough for government work.

The gas chamber would win a fair following in the American South and West, notably California.

However, the gas chamber’s questionable “humaneness” — including some stomach-churning dying panics by suffocating prisoners, and the paranoia of prison staff that a leak in the seals could give them a snort of HCNnever matched the dream of the zipless kill, and the Zyklon-B associations Nazis later provided did not boost public relations. With the onset of the (seemingly) more humane and (definitely) much cheaper method of lethal injection, the gas chamber vanished from the scene in the 1990’s.

Though it still remains a backup option in Arizona, California, Maryland, Missouri and Wyoming, next month will mark a full ten years since the most recent — and quite possibly last ever — gassing.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Gassed,History,Milestones,Murder,Nevada,Organized Crime,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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