1906: Four Egyptians for the Denshawai Incident

Add comment June 28th, 2017 Headsman

If her [England’s] empire means ruling the world as Denshawai has been ruled in 1906 — and that, I am afraid, is what the Empire does mean to the main body of our aristocratic-military caste and to our Jingo plutocrats — then there can be no more sacred and urgent political duty on earth than the disruption, defeat, and suppression of the Empire, and, incidentally, the humanization of its supporters.

-George Bernard Shaw

On this date in 1906, four Egyptian villagers were hanged by the British after a UK soldier died in riot begun by a pigeon hunt.

The Denshawai Incident — which is still to this day commemorated by its own museum — as an isolated event was one of those little local indignities that comprise a foreign military occupation. By the intersection of highhandedness on the one side and accumulated anger on the other it would become what George Bernard Shaw dubbed “the Denshawai Horror.”

On June 13, a mere 15 days before the executions in this post, a gaggle of bored Tommies* set out hunting pigeons in the Nile Delta. This was for the locals an irksome pastime inasmuch as the villagers raised these tame birds in brick towers for agrarian use — as Shaw noted:

Try to imagine the feelings of an English village if a party of Chinese officers suddenly appeared and began shooting the ducks, the geese, the hens and the turkeys, and carried them off, asserting that they were wild birds, as everybody in China knew, and that the pretended indignation of the farmers was a cloak for the hatred of the Chinese, and perhaps for a plot to overthrow the religion of Confucius and establish the Church of England in its place!

On this occasion, protesting villagers dared a little more resistance than was usual and before long a gun had discharged in the struggle, injuring several and felling a local woman (she survived, though onlookers took her wound for a mortal one in the moment). As if by metaphor, somewhere in the mayhem, somebody’s wheat caught fire.

Having clumsily escalated the disturbance that their presence had provoked, the Brits at length had to flee a small riot: one of their number died in the flight, the cause never clearly ascertained but attributed by a doctor to “heat apoplexy caused or aggravated by concussion of the brain.”** Several others were collared by the villagers, who abused them but did not kill them.

As Shaw notes, in a domestic English context it might have been the gendarmes who were punished for mismanaging the situation to the detriment of the public peace.

But the English occupation of Egypt disdained the hearts-and-minds approach, preferring bile and spleen. Fifty-two(!) villagers came up on charges of murder(!!) for the heatstroked officer, and the punishments meted out by a British-controlled court† seemingly aimed to maximize rancor with the understanding that cruelty was the only language the native could comprehend.

The husband of the woman shot by the hunting party, Shaw fulminated in an incandescent essay against imperialism,

in consideration of the injury to his wife, was only sentenced to penalty servitude for life … No such sentimentality was shewn to Hassan Mahfouz. An Egyptian pigeon farmer who objects to British sport; threatens British officers and gentlemen when they shoot his pigeons; and actually hits those officers with a substantial stick, is clearly a ruffian to be made an example of.

Penal servitude was not enough for a man of 60 who looked 70, and might not have lived to suffer five years of it. So Hassan was hanged; but as a special mark of consideration for his family, he was hanged in full view of his own house, with his wives and children and grandchildren enjoying the spectacle from the roof. And lest this privilege should excite jealousy in other households, three other Denshavians were hanged with him … ages of the four hanged men respectively, 60, 50, 22 and 20.

Hanging, however, is the least sensational form of public execution: it lacks those elements of blood and torture for which the military and bureaucratic imagination lusts. So, as they had room for only one man on the gallows, and had to leave him hanging half an hour to make sure work and give his family plenty of time to watch him swinging (“slowly turning round and round on himself,” as the local papers described it), thus having two hours to kill as well as four men, they kept the entertainment going by flogging eight men with fifty lashes each: eleven more than the utmost permitted by the law of Moses in times which our Army of Occupation no doubt considers barbarous. But they Moses conceived his law as being what he called the law of God, and not simply an instrument for the gratification of his own cruelty and terror.

It is unspeakably reassuring to learn from the British official reports laid before parliament that “due dignity was observed in carrying out the executions,” that “all possible humanity was shewn in carrying them out,” and that “the arrangements were admirable, and reflect great credit on all concerned.” As this last testimonial apparently does not refer to the victims, they are evidently officially considered not to have been concerned in the proceedings at all. Finally, Lord Cromer certifies that the Englishman in charge of the proceedings is “a singularly humane man, and is very popular amongst the natives of Egypt by reason of the great sympathy he has always shewn for them.” It will be seen that Parliamentary Papers, Nos. 3 and 4., Egypt, 1906, are not lacking in unconscious humor. The official walrus pledges himself in every case for the kindliness of the official carpenter.


Edinburgh Evening News, June 29, 1906

Shaw’s determination to humanize the “natives” by analogy to English country squires unsurprisingly stands in stark contrast to the dominant thrust of domestic reportage — which consistently describes the affair as an unprovoked attack or (still better) an outrage. Shaw, however, was far from alone in his sentiment: many British elites were discomfited by the harsh and arbitrary treatment meted out in the imperial hinterlands. Another writer, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, bemoaned the “abominable case” and took up an editorial pen in the Egyptians’ defense — albeit more in hope than expectation, for as he confided to his diary, “English feeling on these matters has become absolutely callous, and I believe if Cromer ordered a dozen of the villagers to be crucified or impaled, no serious objection would be made to it here.” And he was right to despair.

Still, gentlemen of a liberal conscience have the luxury down the decades of forgetting the individual atrocities of empire.‡

Few in the West recognized the allusion when, following 2005 bombings in London by Islamic terrorists, Ayman al-Zawahiri “announced that Britain was one of Islam’s worst enemies; it had been responsible for the deaths of thousands of Muslims across the ages, from Palestine to Afghanistan, Delhi to Denshawai.” (Source)

But it had by that time been long since that the chickens of Denshawai had come home to roost. In his autobiography, Egyptian nationalist president Anwar Sadat mused on the formative influence worked upon his childhood by the sacrifice of one of the Denshawai martyrs.

[T]he ballad which affected me most deeply was probably that of Zahran, the hero of Denshway. I recall my mother reciting it to me as I lay stretched out on top of our huge rustic oven, half-asleep while my younger brothers (and our rabbits) had all fallen asleep. It appealed to me afresh every time I listened to it. Denshway was only three miles away and the ballad dealt with a real incident … Zahran was the hero of the battle against the British and the first to be hanged. The ballad dwells on Zahran’s courage and doggedness in the battle, how he walked with his head held high to the scaffold, feeling proud that he had stood up to the aggressors and killed one of them.

I listened to that ballad night after night, half-awake, half-asleep, which perhaps made the story sink into my subconscious. My imagination roamed free. I often saw Zahran and lived his heroism in dream and reverie — I wished I were Zahran.

His wish would come as near to fruition as wishes do. Sadat had the honor of announcing to the world the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 that would expel the British occupation … and thirty years later, of also giving his life for Egypt.

* Not Dickens nor Kubrick could not have bested the names of shooting party participants Captain Bull (the eventual fatality) or Brevet-Major Pine-Coffin.

** That is, running away from a bombardment of stones. It appears to be permanently obscure (and subject to partisan slanting) precisely how these factors weighed together at the moment of Bull’s death. The diagnosis is quoted in the London Times, June 25, 1906.

† The tribunal featured mixed Egyptian and British personnel, notably including Boutros Ghali, future Egyptian Prime Minister and grandfather of the eventual United Nations head Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

‡ At least, of their own empire. According to Aliens — Uneingeburgerte: German and Austrian Writers in Exile, the Third Reich produced a German-language play about the Denshawai incident by adapting Shaw’s account.

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1643: The Book of Sports

Add comment May 10th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1643, all copies of the Book of Sports were publicly burned by the common hangman.

Product of the queer eddies of a century’s religious reformation, the 1617 edict commonly going under this winsome title was no athletes’ According to Hoyle; rather, it authorized for Sundays “any lawful recreation, such as dancing, either men or women; archery for men, leaping, vaulting, or any other such harmless recreation, nor from having of May-games, Whitsun-ales, and Morris-dances; and the setting up of May-poles and other sports therewith used.”

The day of the week was the decisive thing here. These traditional pastimes had long multiplied upon the numerous feast-days speckling the Catholic medieval calendar, but with the English Reformation this clutch of Papist holidays had been collapsed into just … Sundays. And so sportive Englishmen took their May-poles and Morris-dances to the Sabbath.


The Sabbath Breakers, by J.C. Dollman (1895)

By the late 16th and early 17th century the burgeoning Puritan movement was burnishing its sourpuss bona fides by — among other things — espousing a strict Sabbatarianism requiring that on their one day of rest from holiday-less labor people be “taken up the whole time in the public and private exercises of His [God’s] worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy.” No vaulting or any other such harmless recreation for you!

I allowe not of such excesse of ryot & superfluitie as is there used. I thinke, it convenient for one Friend to visite another (at sometimes) as oportunitie & occasion shall offer it selfe, but wherfore shuld the whole towne, parish, village and cuntrey, keepe one and the same day, and make such gluttonous feasts as they doo? And therfore, to conclude, they are to no end, except it be to draw a great frequencie of whores, drabbes, theives and verlets together, to maintai[n] […] whordome, bawdrie, gluttony, drunkennesse, thiefte, murther, swearing and all kind of mischief and abhomination. For, these be the ends wherto these feastes, and wakesses doo tende.

-Philip Stubbes, 1583

As one might well suppose from the eventual alliances in the English Civil War, the sports stuff was one of the fault lines between high church and low, and between crown and Parliament. Like any proper inbred royal, King James I loved himself a good hunt, and not only of witches — so he was nonplussed when passing through Lancashire to discover citizen grievances over killjoy blackrobes shutting down their Maypoles. He issued the Book of Sports explicitly in response, “to see that no man do trouble or molest any of our loyal and dutiful people, in or for their lawful recreations.”* This gave leisure-seeking commoners something to throw in the faces of their neighborhood nabobs, and Puritans another abomination to grow incensed about.

The Book of Sports remained law of the realm into the reign of James’s Puritan-allergic son Charles I but Puritan muscle grew stronger all the while,** eventually becoming irresistible when Parliament was recalled in 1640 and the high church bishop William Laud was ousted.

The outcome in 1643 was the rough impeachment of the sports book and I don’t mean Vegas.

It is this day ordered by the Lords and Commons in Parliament, that the Booke concerning the enjoyning and tollerating of Sports upon the Lord’s Day be forthwith burned by the hand of the common Hangman in Cheape-side, and other usuall places: and to this purpose, the Sheriffs of London and Middlesex respectively are hereby required to be assistant to the effectuall execution of this order, and see the said Books burnt accordingly. And all persons who have any of the said Books in their hands, are hereby required forthwith to deliver them to one of the Sheriffes of London, to be burnt according to this Order.

John Browne, Cler. Parl.
Henry Elsynge, Cler. P.D. Com.

The Sheriffes of London and Middlesex have assigned Wednesday next the 10th of this instant May, at twelve of the clock, for the putting in execution of the foresaid Ordinance; and therefore doe require all persons that have any of the Bookes therein mentioned, to bring them in by that time, that they may be burned accordingly.

John Langham,
Thomas Andrewes

London

Printed for Thomas Underhill in Great Wood strete, May 9, 1643

Obviously this is not an “execution” even in the metaphorical sense of executions by effigy but part of the wider remit of the hangman, whose duties ran to all sorts of public law enforcement as well as to cajoling society’s untouchables.

Still, “purging by fire” of the printed word was extraordinary treatment reserved for blasphemous or seditious books, not uncommonly accompanied by corporal punishment or even death for their authors. It would not far stretch matters to see in the Puritan Parliament’s disdainful lese-majeste against the hand of the past king its imminent regicidal stroke upon the neck of the current one.

* The Book of Sports wasn’t all license; for the amusements it authorized, it prohibited them to those who “are not present in the church at the service of God, before their going to the said recreations.” Even for the godly it evinced explicit preference for “such exercises as may make [subjects’] bodies more able for war,” therefore excluding “all unlawful games to be used upon Sundays only, as bear and bull-baitings, interludes and at all times in the meaner sort of people by law prohibited, bowling.”

This was a man with a philosophy on exercise as rigorous as any personal fitness coach. James, who was a prolific scribbler, elsewhere “debarre[d] all rough and violent exercises, as the footeball; meeter for laming, than making able the users thereof.” In four centuries since James so pronounced, England have only ever won the football World Cup once.

** Numerous Puritans fled oppressively pleasurable off-days and took their dour Sabbaths to New England where their descendants could one day propound several of the world’s most obnoxious sporting concerns.

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1824: John Thurtell, the Radlett murderer

1 comment January 9th, 2017 Headsman

They cut his throat from ear to ear,
His head they battered in.
His name was Mr William Weare,
He lived in Lyons Inn.

At noon this date in 1824, upon a fresh-built black gallows adjoining Hertford Prison, John Thurtell hanged for one of regency England’s most infamous crimes.

Son of the Norwich mayor, John Thurtell was rubbish with money and had twice crashed his bombazine business into insolvency while stiffing his creditors. (John’s brother Tom served time for defrauding an insurance company with a suspicious warehouse fire.)

But these were merely business matters.

When Thurtell fell into a £300 gambling debt to thanks to Weare’s cheating at cards, maybe it was a matter of honor. Thurtell invited the Lyon’s Inn barrister to a gaming piss-up at Thurtell’s cottage in the village of Radlett. They’d be joined by Thurtell’s mates Joseph Hunt and William Probert, “Turpin lads” in Thurtell’s estimation.

Just short of their destination, on a street later to be known as “Murder Lane”, Thurtell shot Weare in the face. The shot scored only a glancing hit against his victim’s cheekbone, but Thurtell was in for a penny, in for a pound: he tackled the fleeing Weare, opened his throat from ear to ear, and pistol-whipped his skull into bloody-brained bits.

Whatever malice aforethought had moved Thurtell to this vengeful crime did not contain near enough calculation. “The whole history of the murder, and the scenes which ensued, are strange pictures of desperate and short-sighted wickedness,” Sir Walter Scott marveled.

Abandoning the gun at the scene — it was one of a paired set of which Thurtell owned the other — the killer and his friends hauled the corpse to a nearby pond, then proceeded unperturbed to the night’s revelry fresh from homicide, even donning Weare’s own clothes in subsequent days.

Worst of all from the perfect-crime standpoint, Thurtell had undertaken the crime himself (openly popping off, per the subsequent court record, “if Weare comes down, I will do him, for he has done me out of several hundred pounds”) and his companions turned on him when the investigation inevitably bore down on them. Probert went crown’s evidence immediately in exchange for immunity, even leading authorities to the body; Hunt stalled and lied for a while, but cracked soon enough.

To the nationwide outrage at this shocking callousness among obnoxious society rakes was added the whiff of scandal about Thurtell’s involvement in “the Fancy” — the semi-illicit sport of amateur boxing.

Frequented then as now both by underworld elements and society gentlemen, boxing was officially illegal but widely celebrated and openly advertised without much fear of police intervention. At the same time, the burgeoning sport — with its naked brutality, more-than-occasional fatalities, multiracial proletarian cast, and associations with various unsavory characters, had ample moral-panic potential. The Fancy, said a judge in 1803,

draws industrious people away from the subject of their industry; and when great multitudes are so collected, they are likely enough to be engaged in broils. It affords an opportunity for people of the most mischievous disposition to assemble, under the colour of seeing this exhibition, and to do a great deal of mischief; in short, it is a practice that is extremely injurious in every respect and must be repressed.

But many of his peers were there in the audience, laying their own mischievous wagers.

As magistrates it may have been their duty to discountenance, but as county gentleman it was their privilege to support, the noble champions of the art, especially when they had their money on the event.

Thurtell, briefly an amateur pugilist himself, was a trainer and promoter on the boxing circuit.


Detail view (click for full image) of “A correct view of the execution, taken on the spot by an eminent artist.” (Source)

Thurtell was anatomized after execution; a wax likeliness of the hated murderer stood in Madame Tussaud’s until the 1970s.

As for Thurtell’s confederates: Joseph Hunt’s cooperation was sufficient to cop a last-second commutation of his death sentence; he was transported to Australia instead. William Probert completely avoided prosecution thanks to his expeditious turn to crown’s evidence, but the career criminal (now practically disbarred from honest labor by dint of his nationwide infamy) found himself in hangman Foxen‘s hands not long thereafter for stealing a horse.

The foreman of the jury that convicted Thurtell went on to become the Prime Minister.

And Thurtell’s victim Weare did his own posthumous bit for the annals of English publishing when a printer multiplied its customary revenue stream on a Thurtell gallows broadsheet with a second edition headed “WE ARE alive”. Printed in such a way to intentionally make the first two words appear to read “WEARE”, its handsome sales to the gullible allegedly originated the term “catchpenny”.

There are a number of 19th century accounts of this case available in the public domain, including here, here and here.

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Feast Day of St. Gordius

1 comment January 3rd, 2016 Headsman

January 3 is the feast date of Saint Gordius, a centurion said to have abandoned his spatha and scutum in favor of a pious hermit’s desert solitaire.

While we have many examples of martyrs attributed to Diocletian‘s persecution, Gordius belongs to the subsequent, transitional era. His purported death in 320 would have been a mere five years before the Council of Nicaea convened by the empire’s Christian ruler Constantine.

But in Gordius’s time, Constantine only ruled half the Roman world — the western half. The eastern half, where Gordius munched his insects, was in the hands of the empire’s last pagan baddie,* Licinius.

Gordius is said to have tied a knot in some games being staged in the Anatolian city of Caesarea to honor “a war-loving deity” (presumably Mars). “The whole people were collected above the hippodrome, and not a Gentile or a Jew was absent. No small portion of the Christians was mingled with them, who guarded not their lives from sin, but sat in the assemblies of vanity.”

We are quoting here from one of our primary sources on the life of Gordius, or at least of how it was understood just a few generations distant: it is a homily on the martyr delivered by St. Basil in the late fourth century — a native son of Caesarea, and then its bishop, who says of Gordius that “we are the more attached to him, inasmuch as he is our peculiar ornament … having grown up in our native soil, and attained the very height of glory.”

Per Basil, his late countryman, “mighty in soul, sublime in resolution, descended from the mountains upon the theatre” to harangue the impious spectators — and to solicit his own martyrdom.

The eyes of the whole theatre were instantaneously fixed on the unwonted prodigy. They beheld a man of aspect wild, and savage, through his long abiding in the mountains: his hair was matted, his beard bushy, his garments squallid, his whole body parched and shrivelled: he bore in his hand a staff; a wallet was suspended by his side; and beaming around him from an unknown source, a certain grace ineffable threw a charm upon the whole.

As soon as he was recognized, a loud and commingled shout was raised by all; those who were allied to him in faith, crying out for joy; and those who were enemies to the truth, exciting the judge to murder him, and before his trial, condemning him to death …

Being immediately apprehended, he was dragged before the governour, who sat in the theatre, and directed the contention of the chariots. At first, he addressed the prisoner in a gentle, and benignant tone … [Gordius] said, I am present here, by deeds to attest at once, my disregard of thine imperial mandate, and my faith in that God upon whom my hopes repose. Having heard that thou art eminent in harshness and severity, I have chosen this, as the fittest season for accomplishing my desire.

When he thus spake, his words lighted up the fury of the ruler, and drew upon himself his accumulated rage. Call the Lichtors hither. Where are the leaden weights? Where are the scourges? Let him be stretched on the wheel; let his limbs be racked: let all modes of punishment be prepared: the wild beasts; the fire; the sword; the cross; the pit …

While the tyrant thus felt, and purposed, the saint, looking unto God, was weaving round his heart, the enchantment of a holy psalm. “The Lord,” he exclaimed, “is my helper. I will not be affrighted at what man shall do unto me. I will not e affrighted at evil things, for thou art with me.” Other passages akin to these, and inspiring courage, he repeated; such as ye may imagine him to have been deeply imbued with; him, who was so far from trembling at the threatened evils, that he even provoked and challenged them. Wherefore do ye linger? he exclaimed. Wherefore do ye stand inactive? Let my body be torn: let my limbs be racked: torture them as much as ye desire: do not envy me the blessed hope I cherish; for in proportion as ye extend my sufferings, ye acquire for me a brighter retribution.

He spake: he signed himself with the symbol of the cross, and went forward to receive the blow. No fear blanched the hue of his complexion, or dimned the glory of his countenance. He seemed, not as if he were delivering himself to the Lictors, but as if consigning himself to the hands of angels; those angels, who in the moment of his liberation, wafted him to the blessed life, as once they wafted Lazarus. — But oh! who can describe the terrific shout, which arose from the assembled multitude? What thunder, pealing from the clouds, ever transmitted such a sound to earth, as then thundred from earth to heaven? This is the very stadidum in which he was enwreathed. This very day beheld that wonrous spectacle; whose impression, no time can obliterate; no familiarity can weaken; no future achievements can surpass. For as we ever behold the sun, and ever admire his brightness; even so, will the memory of the Martyr be ever blooming and efflorescent. “The just man is for an everlasting memorial;” a memorial with the inhabitants of earth, as long as the earth endureth; a memorial with the Saints in Heaven; a memorial with the all-righteous Judge; unto whom be ascribed glory, and dominion, through eternity.

Amen.

* Bar Julian the Apostate‘s short-lived attempt to revive the ancient rites.

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404: St. Telemachus, gladiator-slayer

1 comment January 1st, 2014 Headsman

January 1, 404 is the date of the last known gladiatorial combat in Rome, and therefore also the traditional martyrdom date of St. Telemachus — who gave his life to end the games.

Rome’s infamous bloodsport dated to the foggy natal days of the Republic, perhaps beginning as funerary rituals borrowed from the Etruscans or Campanians. Its efflorescence into ubiquitous public entertainment diversified for special occasions by stupefyingly wasteful grotesques like naval battles in a flooded stadium or exotic animal fights marks — moralistically if not materially — the empire’s decadence and decline. Fitting indeed that Rome’s most impressive lower-class rebellion originated with a gladiator, Spartacus.

The spectacle was as popular as it was dangerous. For trainers and recruiters, it was also enormously lucrative, yet it was simultaneously distasteful in its own time and gladiators (for their brief lives) were a stigmatized caste.

No public crime scandalized Rome’s Senatorial class historians like an emperor who showed genuine relish for the games. Cassius Dio had to personally sit in the stands and applaud the notorious tyrant Commodus who styled himself Hercules and fought personally on the blood-drunk sands of the Colosseum; he revenges himself in his history expanding sneeringly on his former sovereign’s degrading exploits — Commodus “took great pride in the fact that he was left-handed. His antagonist would be some athlete or perchance a gladiator armed with a wand; sometimes it was a man that he himself had challenged, sometimes one chosen by the people, for in this as well as in other matters he put himself on an equal footing with the other gladiators, except for the fact that they enter the lists for a very small sum, whereas Commodus received a million sesterces from the gladiatorial fund each day.” Commodus “of course won” his fights against opponents who had no choice but to yield to the emperor; the bouts were “like child’s play.”

Gladiatorial games’ long-term decline might have set in motion because they were so godawful expensive and a Rome gradually less vast and omnipotent just didn’t have the resources to burn on a new Super Bowl every time some frontier general marched into town to proclaim himself emperor for the next six months.

But Christians especially lodged early and vociferous critiques of the games and curtailing — and finally eliminating — gladiatorial combat is a signal contribution to humanity by the early faith. Tertullian composed a letter On Spectacles is dedicated to proving to Christians with a weakness for low pleasures that men slaying one another for sport are idolatry and murder.

Christianity’s growing strength in the empire would eventually position it to put a stop to the evil show. The upstart faith’s first regnant champion, Constantine, laid down the first imperial ban on gladiator fights (“Those who were condemned to become gladiators for their crimes are to work from now on in the mines. Thus they pay for their crimes without having to pour their blood.”). As was his wont, Constantine was less than constant about following his own directive, intermittent directives by emperors over the decades to come testify to the ancient sport’s deep-rooted popularity but also to the steady pressure that ascendant Christianity continued to apply against it.

Its fade was gradual, but the closest thing we have to a specific end point is January 1, 404, games sponsored by the teenage Western Roman emperor Honorius to celebrate Stilicho‘s parrying the latest Gothic thrust.

Into this carnage, it is said, strode a Greek monk, Telemachus who publicly objected to the unfolding spectacle. For his trouble he was killed by mob action or official order. The story of what exactly happened has evolved over time but its upshot was that Honorius proceeded to ban the ungodly exhibition. It never again resumed (at least in the West), leaving the field clear in future centuries for Rome’s other degenerate sport, charioteering.

In these games of Honorius, the inhuman combats of gladiators polluted for the last time the amphitheatre of Rome. The first Christian emperor may claim the honour of the first edict which condemned the art and amusement of shedding human blood; but this benevolent law expressed the wishes of the prince, without reforming an inveterate abuse which degraded a civilised nation below the condition of savage cannibals. Several hundred, perhaps several thousand, victims were annually slaughtered in the great cities of the empire; and the month of December, more peculiarly devoted to the combats of gladiators, still exhibited to the eyes of the Roman people a grateful spectacle of blood and cruelty. Amidst the general joy of the victory of Pollentia, a Christian poet exhorted the emperor to extirpate, by his authority, the horrid custom which had so long resisted the voice of humanity and religion. The pathetic representations of Prudentius were less effectual than the generous boldness of Telemachus, an Asiatic monk, whose death was more useful to mankind than his life. The Romans were provoked by the interruption of their pleasures; and the rash monk, who had descended into the arena, to separate the gladiators, was overwhelmed under a shower of stones. But the madness of the people soon subsided: they respected the memory of Telemachus, who had deserved the honours of martyrdom; and they submitted, without a murmur, to the laws of Honorius, which abolished for ever the human sacrifices of the amphitheatre. The citizens, who adhered to the manners of their ancestors, might perhaps insinuate that the last remains of a martial spirit were preserved in this school of fortitude, which accustomed the Romans to the sight of blood, and to the contempt of death: a vain and cruel prejudice, so nobly confuted by the valour of ancient Greece and of modern Europe! (Gibbon)

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1649: Saint Jean de Brébeuf, missionary to the Huron

1 comment March 16th, 2013 Headsman

It was on this date that the Jesuit missionary Saint Jean de Brébeuf was martyred by indigenous Iroquois near present-day Midland, Ontario.

(cc) image from Patrick Shanks

Brebeuf was of Norman stock, kin to poet Georges de Brebeuf.

Ordained in 1622, Brebeuf soon decamped to the New World to Christianize the natives.

There he teamed up with another Jesuit missionary named Gabriel Lalemant and established the Sainte-Marie among the Hurons mission.

As the name advertises, this outpost aimed to minister to the Hurons (Wyandot); to that end, Brebeuf — who learned the local tongue well enough to write a catechism and a dictionary — composed the still-beloved Christmas song “Huron Carol”.

Brebeuf’s own missives recording Huron established him an energetic chronicler who has been styled Canada’s first serious ethnographer. For instance, Brebeuf on the POW treatment he saw the Huron dish out:

when they seize some of their enemies, they treat them with all the cruelty they can devise. Five or six days will sometimes pass in assuaging their wrath, and in burning them at a slow fire; and they are not satisfied with seeing their skins entirely roasted, — they open the legs, the thighs, the arms, and the most fleshy parts, and thrust therein glowing brands, or red-hot hatchets … After having at last brained a victim, if he was a brave man, they tear out his heart, roast it on the coals, and distribute it in pieces to the young men; they think that this renders them courageous … we hope, with the assistance of Heaven, that the knowledge of the true God will entirely banish from this Country such barbarity. (From the Jesuit Relations, volume 10)

Well … not just yet.

Brebeuf regrettably foreshadowed his own ghastly fate, for during his ministry, the Huron and Iroquois went to war. No fewer than eight men posted to Brebeuf’s mission were martyred during 1640s Huron-Iroquois wars.

On March 16, 1649, Iroquois captured Brebeuf and Lalemant, and subjected them to a horrific death just like the sort of thing Brebeuf had seen inflicted by the Huron. Other Jesuit missionaries recorded the tortures from eyewitness accounts given in the subsequent weeks:

As soon as they were taken captive, they were stripped naked, and some of their nails were torn out; and the welcome which they received upon entering the village of St. Ignace was a hailstorm of blows with sticks upon their shoulders, their loins, their legs, their breasts, their bellies, and their faces, — there being no part of their bodies which did not then endure its torment.

Father Jean de Brebeuf, overwhelmed under the burden of these blows, did not on that account lose care for his flock; seeing himself surrounded with Christians whom he had instructed, and who were in captivity with him, he said to them: “My children, let us lift our eyes to Heaven at the height of our afflictions; let us remember that God is the witness of our sufferings, and will soon be our exceeding great reward. Let us die in this faith; and let us hope from his goodness the fulfillment of his promises. I have more pity for you than for myself; but sustain with courage the few remaining torments. They will end with our lives; the glory which follows them will never have an end.” “Echon,” they said to him (this is the name which the Hurons gave the Father), “our spirits will be in Heaven when our bodies shall be suffering on earth. Pray to God for us, that he may show us mercy; we will invoke him even until death.”

Some Huron Infidels — former captives of the Iroquois, naturalized among them, and former enemies of the Faith — were irritated by these words, and because our Fathers in their captivity had not their tongues captive. They cut off the hands of one, and pierce the other with sharp awls and iron points; they apply under their armpits and upon their loins hatchets heated red in the fire, and put a necklace of these about their necks in such a way that all the motions of their bodies gave them a new torture. For, if they attempted to lean forward, the red-hot hatchets which hung behind them burned the shoulders everywhere; and if they thought to avoid that pain, bending back a little, their stomachs and breasts experienced a similar torment; if they stood upright, without leaning to one side or the other, these glowing hatchets, touching them alike on all sides, were a double torture to them. They put about them belts of bark, filled with pitch and resin, to which they set fire, which scorched the whole of their bodies.

At the height of these torments, Father Gabriel Lallement lifted his eyes to Heaven, clasping his hands from time to time, and uttering sighs to God, whom he invoked to his aid. Father Jean de Brebeuf suffered like a rock, insensible to the fires and the flames, without uttering any cry, and keeping a profound silence, which astonished his executioners themselves: no doubt, his heart was then reposing in his God. Then, returning to himself, he preached to those Infidels, and still more to many good Christian captives, who had compassion on him.

Those butchers, indignant at his zeal, in order to hinder him from further speaking of God, girdled his mouth, cut off his nose, and tore off his lips; but his blood spoke much more loudly than his lips had done; and, his heart not being yet torn out, his tongue did not fail to render him service until the last sigh, for blessing God for these torments, and for animating the Christians more vigorously than he had ever done.

In derision of holy Baptism, — which these good Fathers had so charitably administered even at the breach, and in the hottest of the fight,—those wretches, enemies of the Faith, bethought themselves to baptize them with boiling water. Their bodies were entirely bathed with it, two or three times, and more, with biting gibes, which accompanied these torments. “We baptize thee,” said these wretches, “to the end that thou mayst be blessed in Heaven; for without proper Baptism one cannot be saved.” Others added, mocking, “we treat thee as a friend, since we shall be the cause of thy greatest happiness up in Heaven; thank us for so many good offices, — for, the more thou sufferest, the more thy God will reward thee.”

These were Infidel Hurons, former captives of the Iroquois, and, of old, enemies of the Faith, — who, having previously had sufficient instruction for their salvation, impiously abused it, — in reality, for the glory of the Fathers; but it is much to be feared that it was also for their own misfortune.

The more these torments were augmented, the more the Fathers entreated God that their sins should not be the cause of the reprobation of these poor blind ones, whom they pardoned with all their heart. It is surely now that they say in repose, Transivimus per ignem et aquam, et eduxisti nos in refrigerium.

When they were fastened to the post where they suffered these torments, and where they were to die, they knelt down, they embraced it with joy, and kissed it piously as the object of their desires and their love, and as a sure and final pledge of their salvation. They were there some time in prayers, and longer than those butchers were willing to permit them. They put out Father Gabriel Lallement’s eyes and applied burning coals in the hollows of the same.

Their tortures were not of the same duration. Father Jean de Brebeuf was at the height of his torments at about three o’clock on the same day of the capture, the 16th day of March, and rendered up his soul about four o ‘ clock in the evening. Father Gabriel Lallement endured longer, from six o’clock in the evening until about nine o’clock the next morning, the seventeenth of March.

Before their death, both their hearts were torn out, by means of an opening above the breast; and those Barbarians inhumanly feasted thereon, drinking their blood quite warm, which they drew from its source with sacrilegious hands. While still quite full of life, pieces of flesh were removed from their thighs, from the calves of the legs, and from their arms, — which those executioners placed on coals to roast, and ate in their sight.

They had slashed their bodies in various parts; and, in order to increase the feeling of pain, they had thrust into these wounds red-hot hatchets.

Father Jean de Brebeuf had had the skin which covered his skull torn away; they had cut off his feet and torn the flesh from his thighs, even to the bone, and had split, with the blow of a hatchet, one of his jaws in two.

Father Gabriel Lallement had received a hatchet- blow on the left ear, which they had driven into his brain, which appeared exposed; we saw no part of his body, from the feet even to the head, which had not been broiled, and in which he had not been burned alive,—even the eyes, into which those impious ones had thrust burning coals.

They had broiled their tongues, repeatedly putting into their mouths flaming brands, and burning pieces of bark, — not willing that they should invoke, in dying, him for whom they were suffering, and who could never die in their hearts. I have learned all this from persons worthy of credence, who have seen it, and reported it to me personally, and who were then captives with them, — but who having been reserved to be put to death at another time, found means to escape.

But let us leave these objects of horror, and these monsters of cruelty; since one day all those parts will be endowed with an immortal glory, the greatness of their torments will be the measure of their happiness, and, from now on, they live in the repose of the Saints, and will dwell in it forever.

Brebeuf’s intercultural legacy allegedly lives on in sport form. Though it’s unverifiable folklore, it is said that Brebeuf saw Iroquois tribesmen playing the game of baggataway and, reckoning the sticks used to manipulate the ball resembled bishops’ croziers, conferred upon the game the name lacrosse.

Europeanized versions of this game (“with a few genteel refinements”) remain wildly popular in Canada, and are growing throughout North America. Lax bros can be found especially in the environs of well-heeled private high schools … like Brebeuf Jesuit Prep School (Indianapolis, Indiana).

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2006: Two Egyptians who just wanted to watch the game

Add comment December 11th, 2010 Headsman

Nineteen-year-old shoe-shiner Hosni Ramadan Mahmoud Ahmed and his friend Ramadan Abu Al-Magd Azab were hanged in Qena, Egypt on this date in 2006 for murdering Ahmed’s two-year-old stepdaughter.

“Apparently infuriated that the crying baby was disrupting their viewing of a football match on television,” read the crime blotter. “Ahmed smashed the two year old’s head against a wall and electrocuted her.

“The two men then dumped her body in a nearby school.”


Egypt football fans would like to enjoy the game in peace. (cc) image from blogdroed.

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1812: Daniel Dawson, for the integrity of sport

Add comment August 8th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1812, Daniel Dawson “suffered the awful sentence of the law, at the top of Cambridge Castle, amidst a surrounding assemblage of at least twelve thousand spectators, it being market-day.”

The crowd was an appropriate ornament to the condign punishment of the most famous horse-poisoner in English history — and perhaps the most severely-punished sports cheat in all of modernity.

A tout scrabbling his living about the storied Newmarket tracks of Cambridge, Dawson killed the favorite for a high-profile race (and three other horses besides) by poisoning their trough, intending only to hamper the beasts enough to make good a variety of bookies’ bets against the fair Pirouette.

Although acquitted for that crime, Dawson was promptly returned to the dock for a previous, and previously unsolved, horse-poisoning, and convicted under a “black act” statute to punish livestock-killing.

According to the inevitable trial pamphlet, freely available from Google Books,

DAWSON behaved with a sullen and impudent levity during the trial, and he frequently abused the witnesses whilst giving their testimony, loud enough to be heard throughout the court … with horrid imprecations, ill becoming his unhappy situation, and at other times he was nodding at and saluting with his hand different persons in court. The verdict of GUILTY had not the slightest effect on him, and his general conduct was altogether depraved. On his return to the castle, his conduct, at times, bordered on insanity, and he appears too illiterate to feel a consciousness of wrong, although he has confessed his guilt to the full extent.

(Katherine Watson adds that although Pirouette’s owner sought a reprieve for the poisoner, Dawson “spoke bitterly of the hypocrisy of the Jockey Club, few of the members of which were above cheating.”)

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1574: Gabriel de Lorges, accidental regicide

5 comments June 26th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1574, Gabriel de Lorges was beheaded in Paris for treason.

Known by the time of his death as the Comte de Montgomery (English Wikipedia entry | French) — though the title was punitively stripped from the man and his heirs, causing him to spit at the scaffold, “tell my children, if they are not able to reclaim their position, I curse them from the grave” — Lorges’ treason was going Protestant and fighting for the Huguenots in the wars of religion ravaging France.

But his claim to fame, and indeed (if quite unjustly) one of the explicit charges laid against him, was a regicide that fueled those wars and helped bring down the Valois dynasty.

The ol’ lance-in-the-eye

The vigorous 40-year-old French king Henri II seemingly had the Valois in good shape and anti-Huguenot policy firmly in the saddle.

In 1559, though, the sporting monarch put his own butt in the saddle at a joust with our day’s principal, then a captain of Henri’s Scots Guards (and a Catholic).

Gabriel’s shattered lance somehow found a chink in the king’s visor and managed to tolchock the royal gulliver just beside the eye.* After a week and a half in agony, Henri succumbed to the injury.**

Henri’s sudden death was bad news for France, because the oldest† of his seven children was only 15 years old, and feeble. He died the next year.

As the widowed Italian queen Catherine de’ Medici struggled over the ensuing decades to find a stable Valois heir among her brood, the aggressively Catholic House of Guise‡ flexed its political muscle to the resentment of the Bourbons and the Huguenot lords, and pitched France towards civil war.

Our errant knight, meanwhile, although forgiven by the dying Henri II, had despairingly retired and hurled himself into study that soon converted him to the Protestant party.

Quickly distinguishing himself as perhaps the ablest Huguenot commander, Montgomery was in Paris in 1572 during an ostensible truce for interparty dynastic nuptials when the Catholic faction sprang the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre.

Though Montgomery was a specific target for assassination that day, he somehow managed to escape. He gave the Catholics fits for the two years left him, enough that the crown tried to buy him off. (Like most Protestants, he was distrustfully defiant after the horrors of St. Bartholomew’s Day.)

He was finally overcome in 1574; as Henri’s second son had just kicked the bucket without an heir, Catherine assumed the regency while a third boy was fetched from Poland, and got herself some gratifying but untoward revenge on the inadvertent author of her family’s unfolding ruin.

No time was lost in condemning [Montgomery] to the penalties of high treason; he was beheaded at the Greve, his body quartered, and his family degraded from their nobility. Previous to his execution, he was cruelly tortured to make him confess the existence of the late admiral‘s conspiracy, but the pain drew no such acknowledgment from him, and mangled and wounded as he was, he went to the scaffold with remarkable serenity. We have an account, given by a contemporary, of his steady attachment to his principles: “He would not confess to the Archbishop of Narbonne, who went to him in the chapel to admonish him; nor would he take or kiss the crucifix, which is usually presented to those who are being led to execution; nor in any way attend to the priest, who had been placed in the cart by his side. A cordelier thinking to draw him out of error, began to speak to him, and said that he had been abused. Looking at him steadily, he answered, ‘How! abused? and if I have been it is by those of your order: for the first person who ever handed me a Bible in French, and made me read it, was a cordelier like you; and therein I have learned the religion which I hold, which alone is the true religion, and in which, having since lived, I wish now by the grace of God to die.'”

(Some sources place Montgomery’s execution on May 27, which I believe confuses his date of death with his date of capture.)

Just like Montgomery himself, the Huguenot cause proved resistant to every policy of Catherine or the Guises; this day’s execution only screwed up the nerve of a party that had been given notice on St. Bartholomew’s Day that their lot must be to conquer or die. Since Henri II’s boys could neither, over 30 years’ time, produce an heir nor master their foes at arms, the Huguenots conquered when the throne finally passed to a Bourbon.

A public-domain biography of Gabriel de Lorges, comte de Montgomery, can be enjoyed by French-speakers here. For the English-speakers, Alexandre Dumas’ fictionalized treatment, The Two Dianas, is freely available in translation.

* French surgeon Ambroise Pare attended the dying monarch. Pare’s grim description of the king’s injuries appears in this biography of the physician, which also reports that Henri’s caregivers

secured the heads of four criminals that had been beheaded and experimented upon them with a lance in order to ascertain the probable course of the splinters.

** The fatal joust is alleged to be one of the vindicated prophecies of Nostradamus. Prophecy or no, the family had bad luck with sports; Henri came in line for the throne when his older brother dropped dead after playing tennis.

† Henri II’s immediate heir Francis II was married to Mary, Queen of Scots. After the death of her husband, she unhappily shipped back out to Scotland to contest the English throne, with unsatisfactory results.

‡ More about the House of Guise before, during and after this period from this public domain text.

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