1707: Baron Otto Arnold Peikel

1 comment February 4th, 2018 Headsman

A few line breaks have been removed for readability, and most of the author’s original footnotes excised, from this source text.

CHARLES XIIS TREATMENT OF
LIEUTENANT-GENERAL BARON PEIKEL.

By Charles Dalton, Esq.,
Editor of English Army Lists and Commission Registers, 1661-1714.

BARON PEIKEL (or Pykul) has been mistaken by several writers for his kinsman the better-known Count Patkul, the famous Livonian patriot, who was executed, after being mercilessly broken on the wheel, at a village near Casimir, in Great Poland, October 10th, 1707, by order of Charles XII. The confusion occasioned by the similarity in names may also be traced to the remarkable fact that both Peikel and Patkul held the rank of lieut.-general in the Polish Army; and the former succeeded the latter in command of the Saxon contingent which fought on the side of Augustus, King of Poland, against Charles XII. Fate decreed that both Peikel and Patkul should fall into the hands of the iron-hearted King of Sweden, and after a long imprisonment be executed within a few months of each other.

Here the parallel between these two Livonian patriots stops, as Peikel (English Wikipedia entry | Latvian) was neither a great commander nor a diplomatist, but he possessed one remarkable talent which alone makes him intrinsically interesting and worthy of a niche in the Temple of Fame. Baron Peikel claimed, and was allowed by impartial and trustworthy witnesses, to have discovered the secret of making gold!

The Province of Livonia [present-day Latvia and Estonia -ed.], which had been a bone of contention between the northern countries of Europe for centuries, was ceded by Poland to Sweden in 1660. The confiscation of Livonian estates, and the heavy taxes imposed by Charles XI, alienated the Livonian nobility and people from Sweden and Swedish rule.

The sympathies of the conquered province were with Poland, and thus it came to pass that when Russia and Poland engaged in war with Sweden, in 1700, some of the leading Livonian noblemen were found ranged against Charles XII, whose proclamation summoning them to return to their allegiance was treated with open defiance. Prominent among the Livonian revolters was Baron Peikel, who sided with Augustus II, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony.

Passing over the fluctuating fortunes of the Polish arms under Augustus the Strong (who was deposed in 1704, but re-elected some years later to the Polish Crown), we find that a battle was fought near Warsaw, in the summer of 1705, between the Saxons and Poles on one side, and the Swedes on the other. In this engagement the Saxons are said to have fought well, but not being supported by the Poles, who fled on the first discharge, had to retire. The loss on both sides was equal. General Bond (the Swedish commander) was killed, and Baron Peikel (the Saxon general) was taken prisoner. Peikel and several other Saxon officers taken on this occasion were sent to Stockholm, where they suffered a rigorous imprisonment.

In November, 1706, a treaty was concluded between Charles XII and Augustus II The cessation of hostilities only hastened Peikel’s doom. He was tried by the Advocate Fiscal in Stockholm as a traitor to his country, and being found guilty was sentenced to death. On the face of the evidence against Peikel, this sentence was doubtless a just one. But the prisoner had a strong argument in his favour against his condemnation, as appears from a contemporary MS.

Peikul (sic) happened to be born in Poland about three miles from the Livonian border, and this fact was used against him in a law-suit he had with an uncle for a considerable estate. After going through all the Livonian Courts it was, as is customary, brought to the King for decision, for to him is the last appeal in all civil causes. The King gave judgment against Peikul for this only reason because he was an alien and not his natural-born subject. However, this determination, unjust as it was, afterwards was brought as a good argument for Peikul against the King, when his Majesty condemned him as a natural-born subject of Sweden. But it seems, though his being born out of the King’s dominions proved a good reason for depriving him of his estate, it proved ineffectual to the saving of his life.

The sympathy of the Queen of Sweden (who was acting as Regent of the Kingdom during her grandson’s absence with the army), her ineffectual efforts to obtain a pardon for Peikel, the condemned nobleman’s extraordinary offers to the Queen and Senate for filling the Swedish Treasury, then at a very low ebb, provided his life were spared, and the remarkable proof he gave before witnesses of his ability to perform what he promised, are fully and graphically detailed by the British Envoy at Stockholm in his official letters to the Right Hon. Robert Harley, Secretary of State:

Mr. Robert Jackson to the Secretary of Stale.
Stockholm, January 5th, 1707.

An order is now come from the King to suffer all the Saxon officers now prisoners in Sweden to go where they please, except one Lieutenant General Pykull (sic), a native of Liefland [Livonia], who was taken about two years ago in Poland, and in November last was condemned here as a traitor for serving against this Crown, which sentence the King not only lately confirmed, but gave also at the same time express order for his execution as on the 7th instant; but the Queen-Mother and all the Royal family here having interceded for him, and not yet got his Majesty’s answer, her Majesty has therefore by her own authority reprieved him for a month, yet it is thought his pardon will not be granted at last.


Mr. Robert Jackson to the Secretary of State.
Stockholm, January 30th, 1707.

The King has renewed his former orders for the execution of Lieutenant-General Pykull, not having thought fit to hearken to the Queen-Mother’s intercession on that gentleman’s behalf.


Mr. Robert Jackson to the Secretary of State.
Stockholm, February 9th, 1707.

The Saxon Lieutenant-General Peikel was beheaded on Monday last;* he chose to be executed with an axe (though it be esteemed very dishonourable in this country) rather than with a sword, by reason of the unskilfulness of the executioner. There was no other crime laid to his charge in the Fiscal’s accusation than that he, being a native of Liefland, presumed in disobedience to his Majesty’s avocatoria** to serve his enemy, wherefore it was thought here that the King’s neither hearkening to the many high intercessions made on his behalf, nor the advantageous proposals he made to save his life, proceeded from the knowledge his Majesty must have of some other crimes of a blacker nature.

But the morning Peikel suffered he told the divines which assisted him, and administered the Sacrament to him, that having heard of a report spread as if he had been one who had particularly encouraged King Augustus to begin this war, on the prospect of the Lieflanders, his countrymen, revolting from Sweden; and also of another that he had been engaged in a design upon the King of Sweden’s person, he therefore took that opportunity to declare in that solemn manner that all such reports were false, and that he never had acted anything against his Swedish Majesty’s person, or Kingdom, contrary to the principles of a man of honour. And since his one crime was that he was born in the Swedish dominions, he could not allow to have deserved death merely for that reason.

But he added that it having pleased God some time ago to bring him wonderfully to the knowledge of a great secret in Nature, whereby he could not only himself have lived in the greatest happiness, but likewise have been capable of doing much good in the world. Yet he nevertheless suffered his ambition to prevail against his reason, which led him to accept the command of those troops amongst which he was taken prisoner, and for that he said he had justly incurred the punishment which was to be inflicted on him.

The secret he speaks of was making gold to a prodigious advantage; and he actually gave such proofs to the archiater at the Court, as well as some other knowing persons, of his profound knowledge in chemistry, that nobody now doubts of his having been able to perform what he pretended, and also proposed in case the King would have given him his life; and for your Honour’s curiosity I shall presume in my next humble account to send your Honour an extract of the said proposals (whereby, if he could have fulfilled his promise, would have arose a yearly revenue of five hundred thousand ducats to this Crown), and also an authentic relation of an experiment of his having had that secret performed by the Advocate Fiscal, and one Colonel Hugo Hamilton, a native of Ireland, who is Commandant of this city, and had the custody of Monsr. Peikel during his imprisonment, which papers being but lately come to my hands I have not yet had time to translate them.


Mr. Robert Jackson to the Secretary of State.
Stockholm, February 16th, 1707.

Having in my last presumed to mention several things relating to the lately executed Baron Peikel, I therefore now further presume to transmit, along with this, the translation of his proposals together with Colonel Hamilton’s relation of the experiment he made, both which papers I humbly take the liberty to beg may be managed with a little secrecy for fear of injuring some persons here, who are thought to have employed themselves too much in favour of the said Baron.

Translation of the extract of Lieut.-General Peikel’s proposals to the Queen and Senate.

That it having pleased God to bless his study and labour for bringing him to the knowledge of a great secret; and he now laying under sentence of death was willing, in case he could thereby save his life, not only to reveal the said secret to any one person, to be under an oath of secrecy, whom his Majesty should think proper to appoint, but would likewise oblige himself to make at his own charge this year four hundred thousand ducats for his Majesty; and in case he performed not he then desired no mercy, but that not only the punishment of death might be inflicted upon him by virtue of the sentence lately pronounced against him, but that also there might be added any further punishment, as a just reward, for his demerits in presuming to abuse his Majesty.

He further obliged himself to make yearly, so long as he lived, the same quantity of gold for the King’s use, his Majesty building only a proper house for carrying on the work, and being at the charge of providing materials, and maintaining the servants which should be found necessary to be employed therein, the whole charge of which he computed would not amount to twenty thousand ducats yearly.

When he had performed what he thus proposed two years he then desired to have a reasonable enlargement, but in the meantime to be under the strictest confinement that was possible, and besides he would bind himself by the most solemn oath never to endeavour to make his escape, neither during the time of his confinement nor when he should have his liberty; and for further security he would forthwith dispose of his estate in the Brandenburg country and buy other lands of like value in Sweden and establish his family here.

And to confirm the probability of his being able to perform what he proposed, he desired that Colonel Hugo Hamilton and the Advocate Fiscal might be commanded to give an account of the experiment they were eye-witnesses to, or rather had themselves performed by his directions, he only having now and then been present during the operation. The whole charge of which operation cost not above twelve crowns and yet produced the weight in gold of forty-nine ducats, and the officers of the Mint attested the gold to be perfectly fine as any they ever saw.

These proposals were presented along with a petition to the King, January 4th, 1707.

Translation of Colonel Hugo Hamilton’s relation.

To the Queen’s Majesty most humble relation:—

Whereas Peikel, who lies under the sentence of death, has, in all humility, informed your Majesty of his having the knowledge of making gold and likewise offered to reveal the said secret, agreeable to what I also in all humility lately had the honour to acquaint your Majesty; wherefore in obedience now to your Majesty’s most gracious commands that I should in writing give a further humble account of that matter, therefore with the same humble intention for the service and advantage of my most gracious Sovereign as in all humility I formerly represented, I do now, by the oath and duty wherewith I am bound, declare that when Peikel first intimated to me his having that secret I suspected the truth of it a long time, and looked on his making me that confidence as a design he had the better by one means or other to make his escape.

Wherefore I also took care to have him the better guarded; but he several times after repeating the matter, and withal offering in my presence to make a proof thereof, to convince me that what he said was a real truth, I thought that such an opportunity of serving my most gracious King ought not to be neglected, and therefore I asked him if he was willing that I might take a second person to be also present, whereto he agreeing I thought none could be more properly employed than the Advocate Fiscal, Thomas Fehman, his accuser, whom, Peikel approving of, I acquainted the said Advocate Fiscal therewith and requested him to be a witness at the operation, who thereupon expressed himself that in case there was any reality in the thing he could not be a faithful subject who would not endeavour to forward so important a work; yet for his own person he was unwilling to be concerned therein lest he should thereby incur too many undeserved censures, however I importuned him till he at length promised to be present.

I forthwith permitted Peikel to begin the operation, which he did by dissolving of a powder of mineral antimony and winestone from Montpelier; this was set forty days in digestion, and afterwards was burnt with a prepared spirit that produced a greyish-coloured metal, which being beaten to powder was likewise set forty days in fermentation; when that time was expired it was taken out and mixed with powdered common antimony, brimstone, and a little lead, and was afterwards melted in a melting-pot and cast into a pot of brass metal, at the bottom whereof it left a weighty and substantial white metal, which being afterwards again melted in a melting-pot produced the same pure and fine gold that I showed your Majesty; and lest that any other than the true powder should be conveyed into the said pot, the Advocate Fiscal and I did by ourselves make the experiment, and found that the like quantity of the powder by us weighed produced the same effect as when Peikel was present.

I must acknowledge that during this operation I always suspected some deceit would be therein practised, and therefore more narrowly observed everything that Peikel undertook, as did likewise the Advocate Fiscal, whereto we frequently admonished each other. And whereas the best opportunity to practise the deceit seemed to be by conveying gold among the common antimony wherewith the chemical prepared powder was to be mixed, I therefore directed Peikel, the evening before, to weigh the same, but when he was gone I cast it away and took the same quantity of other common antimony, and the effect the virtue of the other powder produced both the Advocate Fiscal and I were witnesses to; and I do further declare upon my salvation, and the disfavour of my most gracious Master, that I do firmly believe, and do not otherwise know, but he the said Peikel is really possessed of the knowledge he pretends, and this the Advocate Fiscal must likewise, as a faithful servant of his Majesty, confirm whenever he is called upon.†

It was further between us agreed and resolved on, according to the oath and duty wherewith we are bound, to make a discovery of this affair, whatever sentence Peikel should receive; that this has thus been transacted I own, but the great secret, which consists in a very small composition, and which he prepared in an hour’s time, and is laid at the last melting amongst the other powder, I neither know, nor desire to know, it only having been both our sincere intentions to promote what we judged might conduce to the advantage and service of our most gracious King.

(Signed) Hugo Hamilton.‡

The refusal of Charles XII to entertain the proposals made to him by Baron Peikel, or to allow the Queen Regent’s intercession to turn him aside from his fixed resolve, does not in any way throw discredit on Peikel’s honesty of purpose or belief in his ability to carry out what he had undertaken. Charles’s utter recklessness where money was concerned is a matter of history. When this monarch ascended the throne in 1697, at the age of fifteen, he found a full treasury and the country at the height of prosperity. In a few years’ time the treasury was well-nigh exhausted, and Sweden was engaged in a gigantic struggle with Russia.

Any other monarch, at the period in question, would have taken Peikel at his word and put him to the crucial test. Had the promised gold not flowed from Peikel’s crucible, Charles could have satisfied his own revengeful spirit by putting Peikel to death in the same barbarous manner that disgraced the execution of the unfortunate Count Patkul. The Lutheran minister who attended Patkul in his last hours, and who wrote a MS. narrative of the Count’s chequered career and miserable death, has left on record the following anecdote regarding Baron Peikel, which story, if true, leaves an indelible stain on the character of Charles XII whose many noble qualities were marred by an implacable spirit which neither knew how to forgive nor how to forget.

After King Charles had entirely got the better of Augustus (King of Poland), and the latter was forced to comply with everything required of him, Augustus, in order to put the best face he could on a bad matter, made great entertainment for the King of Sweden at a very fine pleasure-house not far distant from Dresden. Peikul’s poor lady and children had taken a great journey from Stockholm, on purpose to solicit for her husband’s pardon; and King Augustus with his courtiers, as well as several of the King of Sweden’s officers, had promised her to make use of the utmost of their interest in his behalf; and had contrived the matter so, that after the usual jollity and good humour, caused by a great feast, she, with her children, should unexpectedly come into the dining-room, and fall at the King of Sweden’s feet, imploring his mercy for her husband; to which King Augustus, with all the other noble guests, were to join their intercession.

So far matters were well concerted; but the King of Sweden, having by some means or other got an inkling of this design, after he was come to the place appointed for the feast, and being resolved that nothing should prevent his intention, desired leave to retire for a few minutes before dinner, into a private closet, where he called for pen, ink, and paper, and wrote and signed an order which he sent by express for Peikul’s immediate execution upon receipt of it. After this he came out to dinner, which being ended, the poor woman and her children came in and flung herself at King Charles’s feet, as it had been forecasted, in the midst of the mirth, King Augustus with all the company mixing their intercessions with her tears.

The King of Sweden, after some seeming struggle, granted the pardon which was desired, and signed an instrument to that purpose, which by Peikul’s friends was presently despatched away. But the King’s courier arrived first at Stockholm, and poor Peikul was beheaded about four hours before the second got thither.§

Voltaire tells us in his History of Charles XII that when King Augustus (whose Saxon subjects had been heavily subsidised by the Swedish monarch) heard that Peikel had been executed, he said “he did not wonder that the King of Sweden had so much indifference for the Philosopher’s Stone as Charles had found it in Saxony.”

Baron Peikel’s great secret died with him. By his own showing he had expected the greatest happiness from his chemical discovery, but the path he pursued was not the “golden mean” which Horace recommended when he wrote the lines:—

Auream quisquis mediocritatem
Diligit, tutus caret obsoleti
Sordibus tecti, caret invidenda
Sobrius aula.

[Whoever cultivates the golden mean avoids both the poverty of a hovel and the envy of a palace. -ed.]

* We’ve grappled often with calendar ambiguity in these pages, but this one is a fun case. England was still on the Julian calendar at this point so the most recent Monday as of Jackson’s letter would have been Monday, February 3.

However, Sweden in the first years of 18th century was trying its own calendar: a strategy to “catch up” to the Gregorian calendar gradually over a period of 40 years instead of all at once. So, locally in Sweden, the calendar was off from both the Julian (one day ahead) and the Gregorian (ten days behind) and the beheading occurred on Monday, February 4. This is also the date supplied by Swedish volumes that have primary source access; by the same token, correspondence on the same event from a German perspective reports (p. 234) the equivalent Gregorian date of Monday, February 14. (Protestant German states, together with Denmark and the Netherlands, had adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1700.)

Incidentally, Sweden’s strange attempt at calendar incrementalism proved a massive bust. A few years after Baron Peikel lost his head, Charles XII gave the Nordic calendar the chop too — ordering Sweden reverted back to the Julian schedule by the expedient of doubling the next leap-day. As a result, Sweden had a February 30, 1712. A free pack of Executed Today playing cards for anyone who can document a February 30 execution for the annals!

** Dalton’s original footnote on this word reads: “Royal Proclamation for all the King of Sweden’s subjects to return out of foreign service.”

† Sweden’s Royal Coin Cabinet still preserves the medal that was struck by the triumphant alchemist or prestidigitator out of his transmutation, stamped hoc aurum arte chimica conflavit holmle 1706 O. A. V. paykhull. (O. A. Von Paykhull cast this gold by chemical art at Stockholm, 1706.) This post badly wants an image of said artifact.

‡ A Scots-Irish officer, heir to the long tradition of Celtic involvement in Sweden.

§ Dalton’s footnote sources this anecdote to vol. 13 of Lord Somers’s Tracts by Walter Scott.

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1573: Hugh Cahun, unjustly

Add comment October 21st, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1573, miscarried justice took the head of Scottish cavalryman Hugh Cahun in Stockholm.

Modernizing in the 16th century, Sweden flattered Scotland with deepening ties not excluding marriage feelers for Mary, Queen of Scots. When a rising Sweden’s ambitions brought her into conflict with Russia, Sweden summoned thousands of Scots soldiers to her banner.


1555 illustration of a Scottish sword dance in the chronicle of Swedish monk Olaus Magnus. (Source).

Hugh Cahun had been in Sweden since probably 1565, in the service of a unit commanded by his older brother William. It was one of three Scottish cavalry commands in Sweden at this time; French and German troops too joined the polyglot coalition.*

In the summer of 1573, Cahun caught wind of recruitment among these foreign auxiliaries for a plot to depose the Swedish King John III in favor of his imprisoned predecessor Erik XIV. Cahun reported the plot, but he didn’t know enough about it to make it stick to someone else — so perversely, he himself became the one suspected of seditious design.

King John appears by his vacillation not to have been all that convinced of the turn justice had taken in this case, twice reprieving Cahun and ultimately sparing him the horrors of the breaking-wheel for a simple beheading — sort of the early modern equivalent of the calculating modern governor who, faced with compelling evidence of innocence, consents to send a condemned man to a dungeon for the rest of his life instead of letting the law take its course. (There’s an account of the back-and-forth run-up to Cahun’s execution in this public domain book, provided you’re packing your Swedish proficiency.)

He would have cause to regret his severity soon enough: in the months to come, it would emerge that the plot was actually being spearheaded by a French loyalist of Erik named Charles de Mornay, who would himself be executed the following September.

* The Scottish were suffered their Calvinist religious devotions because of their foreign tongue — “otherwise their heresy could have infected others.”

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1584: Anders Bengtsson, unchristian man and tyrant

Add comment October 22nd, 2014 Meaghan

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

Sometime in October 1584 in the city of Stockholm, Sweden, one Anders Bengtsson was sentenced to death for his crimes “against the law and justice and the subjects of His Royal Majesty.”

Anders, according to trial records, had a reputation as a violent criminal and “an unchristian man and a tyrant.” The crime that lead to his death sentence? He had “murderously beaten his son to death.”

The book Five Centuries of Violence in Finland and the Baltic Area provides some details of the crime,

A witness in the case testified to having seen him carry out this savage assault and stated that he had called on Anders a score of times to stop beating his child. After the father’s mishandling, the boy was said to be “so weak and battered that both his head and his body sagged limply.”

As the book explains, the Swedish justice system at the time did not rely heavily on the death penalty, even in cases of killing. However, because of its cruelty, Bengttson’s was considered no ordinary crime, and it was not dealt with in the ordinary way:

The town court stated in its grounds that the normal penalty prescribed by the law of Sweden under the Accidental Manslaughter Code for parents who chastised their children too harshly was a fine. However, in this case, it was not a question of an accident. Anders’s action is described as “tyrannical and inhuman.” He had not chastised his son for his betterment; rather, he had acted “like an executioner, in an unchristian way that was contrary to natural love.” The town court found that the deed could not be atoned for with a fine, and so it sentenced Anders Bengtsson to execution by the wheel.

He was put to death on some unknown date shortly thereafter.

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1743: Gen. Charles Emil Lewenhaupt, scapegoat

Add comment August 4th, 2014 Headsman

There’s a good chance that you experience an unpleasant degree of performance pressure from time to time in your environs, whatever they might be. Lord knows even the executioner is not immune to it.

But it’s doubtful very many are under the sort of professional pressure that Swedish general Charles Emil Lewenhaupt succumbed to on this date in 1743, when he was beheaded for command incompetence thanks to his country’s defeat in the 1741-1743 Russo-Swedish War.

An aggressive political faction of “Young Turks” — er, Young Swedes — known as the Hats had kicked the country’s cautious former president to the curb and aimed to restore the great power status Sweden had coughed up to Russia decades prior. In Sweden, their engagement with Russia would become known as the Hats’ War.

Lewenhaupt himself was elevated to command of Sweden’s Finland forces — for Finland was Swedish territory at this point, although it had been brutally occupied by Russia from 1714 to 1721 and only returned when Sweden ceded its Baltic possessions to Peter the Great — over a general who opposed the adventurous scheme. Ironically, the whole thing would ultimately redound to the benefit of Peter the Great’s daughter.

In 1741 as the War of Austrian Succession consumed the rest of Europe, Lewenhaupt was placed in charge of the opening gambit, an invasion of Karelia. Russia’s autocratic Empress Anna had just died in 1740, leaving her niece Anna Leopoldovna in charge as regent for the the infant Ivan VI. The idea from the Swedish side was to pair the invasion (with a short line to St. Petersburg, then the capital) with an internal coup against the shaky monarch; further to that latter end, Swedish diplomats* maneuvered behind the scenes to position Peter the Great’s popular daughter Elizaveta to seize power, whereupon she would cede back to Sweden (either out of gratitude or by compulsion of the arriving Swedish armies) the Baltic lands recently torn from Stockholm’s hands.

Make sense?

The entire project was a fiasco for Sweden.

Sweden’s Hats-dominated Riksdag declared war on Russia in July of 1741, but the joint land and naval attack that was supposed to ensue completely failed to materialize: the Swedish fleet had been ravaged by an epidemic while awaiting the action, and the Swedish army massing at Villmanstrand had not yet finished assembling. So having thrown down the gauntlet, the Swedes just stood flat-footed, and it was the Russians who launched the invasion by routing the army at Villmanstrand. Our Gen. Lewenhaupt only arrived at that army two weeks after the battle.

Things went pear-shaped from that point for Sweden, but back in St. Petersburg the invasion’s prospective beneficiary was doing just fine.

Elizaveta had cagily accepted the aid of her French and Swedish “benefactors” but without committing any reciprocal promise to paper. Far from being a catspaw of foreign interests, this daughter of Russia’s conquering tsar was a popular figure in her own right, especially with the elite Preobrazhensky Regiment; on the evening of November 24, 1741, Elizaveta displayed herself at the regimental barracks dramatically clad in a breastplate and wielding a silver cross, summoning her supporters to mount a coup that the guards themselves had long sought. It was achieved (by Elizaveta’s own insistence) without bloodshed** that very night.

Duly installed, Elizaveta simply continued prosecuting a war that was going quite nicely for her side thank you very much, eventually forcing Sweden to conclude the war with a treaty ceding yet more territory to Russia.

The tribulations of this embarrassing (and costly) war led for Sweden to an internal rebellion — but the Hats were able to crush it and hold onto power by farming out blame for their failed war of choice onto the generals in the field. In 1743, Gen. Lewenhaupt and Gen. Henrik Magnus von Buddenbrock were sentenced to death for command negligence. Buddenrock was executed on schedule on July 27, but Lewenhaupt managed to escape — briefly. He was recaptured aboard a ship fleeing for Gdansk and beheaded on August 4.

Needless to say the great classical tradition of “with your shield or on it” did not extend to the Hats’ civilian leadership. These fellows maintained their hold in the Riksdag long enough to fling Sweden into yet another costly war of choice with Prussia in 1757, where they got their ass kicked again by Frederick the Great.

* Joined by French diplomats, whose interest in Elizaveta’s takeover was to abort Russia’s alliance with Austria and England in the continental war. The Hats had aligned Sweden with France; the latter helpfully supplied the cash Elizaveta needed as the intrigue unfolded over 1741.

** Never the violent type, Elizaveta is especially notable in these pages for her pledge never to approve a death warrant under her reign. Russia would not see another execution until 1764, under Catherine the Great.

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1756: Four members of the Swedish Hovpartiet

Add comment July 23rd, 2010 Headsman

This date in 1756 saw the decapitation in Stockholm of four nobles tight with Queen Louisa Ulrika for an attempted coup d’etat.

Louisa Ulrika was a sister to Prussia’s Frederick the Great, married off to the Swedish crown for reasons of statecraft. Old Fritz had, all the same, suggested a different sibling to the Scandinavians inasmuch as Louisa was “an arrogant, temperamental intriguer.”

They probably should have taken the hint. Instead, they were taken with the beauty and the brains.

As Frederick predicted, Louisa found the Swedish setup during its 18th century Age of Liberty quite unsatisfactory: the monarchy played second fiddle to a powerful parliament, the Riksdag.

Before long, she commenced her temperamental intriguing.

Some well-placed bakhsheesh among the parliamentarians enabled Louisa to exercise some pull behind the scenes. But overall, the Queen thought much better of that Prussian system she had left behind: enlightened despotism, with an accent on the despotism. Wasn’t this supposed to be the Age of Absolutism?

Comely and charismatic, she soon began gathering supporters of this idea around her court, the so-called Hovpartiet (Swedish link) of strong-monarchy types. And eventually, Louisa felt strong enough herself to throw off the shackles of the estates — dragging along in this scheme the king, Adolf Frederick.

To finance this ambitious project, Louisa literally pawned the crown jewels.

Naturally, putting the crown jewels in hock is a slightly different matter from fencing a hot Rolex. The bankers who obtained this impressive debt security started making their own inquiries, and diplomatic rumors started circulating. That obnoxious Riksdag started demanding to see and inventory the royal hoard on the presumptuous grounds that it was state property.

Stalling for time against these persistent auditors, Louisa managed to gather some of the armaments intended for her project and set about hiring Stockholm criminals for a false flag operation which would enable the crown to restore order against some manufactured civic disturbances and thereby seize state power.

Erik Brahe (the one who was executed on this date). Image from this public domain German text; German speakers can get more on this day’s doing here.

These henchmen, notably bastard noble son Ernst Angel, indiscreetly boasted about the coming royal putsch down at the local watering-hole, and pretty soon the whole embarrassing thing had been blown wide open.

Embarrassing to Louisa, that is. The royals got to keep their jobs — though Adolf Frederick had feared he might go the way of Charles Stuart.

But for the less pedigreed members of the plot, there was a heavier price to pay than shame: eight men in the Hovpartiet lost their heads.

This date saw the end of Erik Brahe (Swedish Wikipedia link), Johan Puke (and his), Jakob Gustav Horn and Magnus Stålsvärd.

Three days later, the loose-lipped Ernst Angel joined them, along with Gabriel Mozelius, Per Christernin and Israel Escholin. (Names-to-dates associations from this Swedish article.)

A Genealogical Digression…

One is caught up by the distinguished name “Brahe”, one of those among the first batch of beheadings on July 23, 1756. This aristocratic cavalryman was indeed a member of the redoubtable Brahe family (more Swedish) whose most illustrious offspring was Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe. (Although there was also a Brahe among the casualties of the Stockholm Bloodbath: they go way back.)

At any rate, this date’s Erik was a distant relative to Tycho, and a relative as well of Tycho’s Swedish cousin also named Erik Brahe, who was at Tycho Brahe’s deathbed in 1601. That other, older Erik Brahe has lately come in for some suspicion as a guy who might have murdered Tycho Brahe. Growing misgivings about the circumstances of the astronomer’s sudden death have just this year caused Tycho Brahe’s remains to be exhumed for further study. (But so far, no smoking gun.)

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1792: Jacob Johan Anckarström, assassin of Gustav III

1 comment April 27th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1792, Jacob Johan Anckarström lost his right hand and his center head for murdering Gustav III.

Like some other nobles, this officer considered the “theater king” and enlightened despot Gustav III a, well, despot.

Times being what they were, regicide was in order, to usher in an age of constitutional liberalism.

A conspiracy of Swedish nobles surrounded the royal victim at a masquerade ball on March 16, 1792, and shot him in the back. Alas for them, the scene was immediately sealed and the attendees unmasked before the gang could get away.

Although in the confusion nobody knew whodunit among those disguised revelers, it was only a matter of time before the discarded murder weapon was identified as Anckarström’s.

(Actually, it was a much longer matter of time before it became a “murder” weapon. The king only succumbed to the infection 13 days later.)

Five were condemned to death, but the four who hadn’t pulled the trigger were commuted to exile instead. Exile for regicide? Maybe that’s making you wonder why they all thought it was such an oppressive regime they all lived under.

Jacob Johan Anckarström could give them the answer. He was said to have met his beheading joyfully, which would only be natural after he’d been flogged in chains in three different parts of the city over the preceding three days.*

For readers of Swedish (or exploiters of online translation), there’s much more about Jacob and his dastardly plot here and here.

Appropriately, given the murder’s stagey venue, the Anckarstrom assassination was great performance art material in the 19th century. Verdi based Un Ballo in Maschera on it, although he’s given the principals a generic love-triangle relationship — and because of mid-19th century censorship, the iteration of it below is set in colonial Boston with “Anckarstrom” sporting the very New England name “Rennato”.

Although this particular plot didn’t achieve the revolutionary thing its authors intended, it didn’t have the opposite effect either. The king’s teenage son Gustav IV Adolf succeeded the throne, with an unsurprising hatred of Jacobinism. But in the tumult of the Napoleonic Wars (that also cost Sweden its dominion over Finland), Gustav IV was deposed and a liberal constitution adopted.

* He wasn’t handled with kid gloves in prison, either, but you can take in the scene over the libation of your choice at the present-day cafe that occupies Anckarstrom’s onetime dungeon. The joint is named for another Swedish political martyr, Sten Sture.

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1676: Johan Johansson Griis, the Gävle Boy

4 comments November 20th, 2009 Headsman

On an uncertain date in November 1676, the Gävle Boy paid the penalty for his elders’ credulity.

Only 13 years old at his death, he’d spent the foregoing months as the star witness in Stockholm’s witch trials. Like the hysteria itself, he’d migrated to the capital from the provinces; it’s said that in his native town of Gävle, he’d orphaned himself with a witchcraft accusation against his own mother.

Sent off by relatives to live in Stockholm, young Johann Johansson Griis (or Grijs) found his previous evidence made him an expert courtroom authority on the infernal arts; driven by some blend of blandishments and cajolery sufficient to stimulate the youthful imagination’s potent capacity for blending fancy insensibly with fact, Griis was in no time at all sending fresh victims to the scaffold with his freaky stories about Blåkulla.

Dracula‘s soul brother, deadlier even than he …”

No, Blåkulla, a sort brunch buffet for Swedish sorcerors.

Hard to imagine this kid and a few others like him were given carte blanche to destroy people’s lives with increasingly ludicrous Satanic abuse stories.

When authorities reined in the witch hysteria, it wasn’t the authorities who were going to end up with a hemp necktie for structuring and managing a legal system that allowed a gaggle of impressionable adolescents to railroad innocent people. No, it was the adolescents themselves who would pay the penalty for the perjury that they had so recently been solicited to provide. And of course, when pressured by the Man to cop to lying about everything, Gävle Boy did exactly that.

“A vicious and mendacious rascal,” is how our short-lived character was being described by the time he got his comeuppance. (Quote from this detailed Swedish paper about the witch hunts.)

Well, maybe. He wouldn’t exactly be the first callow, naughty adolescent. But give the Swedes this much: after they hanged the Gävle Boy (and some fellow youths with tall tales to tell), they stopped executing witches. Only one more person would ever again die for the “crime” in the country’s history.

Johan’s namesake town would prefer you remember a different Yuletime tradition, the Gävle Goat.

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1676: Anna Zippel, Brita Zippel and the body of Anna Mansdotter

1 comment April 29th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1676, two sisters were beheaded in Stockholm in one of Sweden’s most famous witch trials.

The great Swedish witch hunt of 1668-1676 was at its crescendo, having spread from the provinces to the capital. Here was repeated pattern by now familiar — children accusing adult women of taking them to witches’ sabbaths, and various and sundry infernally-inspired offenses against the civic order.

Brita Zippel (or Britta Sippel) was a natural magnet for accusations. Born well-off but fallen into poverty, and hot-tempered (as we shall see) besides, she had already survived two previous witch trials.

Her sister Anna remained a member of the town’s elite, but her status proved no use to her when suspicion fell on the family. Rumors and accusations snowballed over a period of months — that the sisters kidnapped children; that they committed arson; that both Anna’s wealth and Brita’s poverty proved their diabolical affiliations. That Anna Zippel and her business partner Anna Mansdotter made money selling medicines to the rich and powerful hardly decreased suspicion. The children who drove all this really made the most of the limelight — fainting spells, supernatural tales, the whole nine yards.

While the well-heeled Annas maintained a dignified stoicism during their trial — which only served to condemn them — Brita gave rein to all her furious indignation — which only served to condemn her. Anna Zippel defended herself calmly. Brita threatened witnesses, attacked her sister, and poured invective on her persecutors. Same result.

Their contrast in demeanor continued to the scaffold itself.

Shaking her chains, threatening her confessor with her posthumous vengeance, and cursing her onlookers, Brita required the offices of five men to wrestle her to the block for her beheading. (She went first because of the scene she was making.) Anna Zippel followed quietly, and then (quieter still) Anna Mansdotter, who had managed to commit suicide in prison but whose corpse still suffered the same fate of decapitation and burning.

These first witch-hunt victims in Stockholm were not the last, but they would presage the collapse of an enterprise that had consumed some 200 lives over the preceding eight years. According to Witch Hunts in Europe and America,

[i]n the spring of 1676, the court of appeals in Stockholm began investigating cases directly, rather than simply examining the records local officials forwarded. This resulted in the appointment of yet more royal commissions, but these were completely dominated by skeptical Stockholm officials. Turning the pressure on the accusers, the commissions gained several confessions from child accusers stating that they had made the whole thing up. The witch-hunt quickly collapsed, and four accusers, including a boy of 13, were executed.

Of no direct relevance, our dalliance with Scandinavian witchery offers a pretext to excerpt Benjamin Christiensen‘s freaky (and censored) 1922 silent classic Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages.

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1676: Malin Matsdotter and Anna Simonsdotter, ending a witch hunt

6 comments August 5th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1676, two starkly contrasting women were executed for sorcery in Stockholm.

Anna Simonsdotter Hack — also known as “Tysk-Annika” — is the forgotten one of the pair, who played the expected role of a condemned witch and meekly gave herself over to the judgment. There were rewards for good behavior: Tysk-Annika had her head cleanly lopped off.

Malin Matsdotter, however, did not plan any reciprocal back-scratching with the men who came to kill her.

Accused by her own daughters of carrying their children — Malin’s grandchildren — to Satanic masses, “Rumpare-Malin” obstinately refused to cop to the charge. (Naturally, not confessing was a further indicator to the court that Satan was fortifying her defiance.) Without a confession, the authorities couldn’t assuage themselves by giving her the easy-ish death of decapitation; the law required burning at the stake.* A sack of gunpowder around the neck to speed things up was the best they could offer her.

Matsdotter maintained her innocence to the stake, frustrating the confessors, and when one of her daughters called on her to admit the crime, “she gave her daughter into the hands of the devil and cursed her for eternity.”

And maybe it worked. Judges may well have been wearying of the eight-year-old witch craze, but Matsdotter’s discomfiting end was the turning point; the cases dried up, existing sentences were overturned, and the clergy was summoned to draw a line under the proceedings by announcing from the pulpits that witches had been driven out of Sweden for good. Only one more witchcraft execution ever took place in Sweden — and that in 1704.

By the end of 1676, several of the most notorious accusers in the witch trials were being hunted for perjury by those very same courtrooms. Reportedly, Matsdotter’s daughter was herself executed for her fatal accusation.

* Previously, the law had not allowed a witchcraft execution without a confession, and in a notable case a few years before Matsdotter’s burning, two other women had escaped death by refusing to confess. Evidently, they closed that loophole.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous Last Words,History,Milestones,Notable Jurisprudence,Public Executions,Sweden,Witchcraft,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1747: Alexander Blackwell, who left them smiling

4 comments July 29th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1747,* the Swedes beheaded Scottish-born adventurer Alexander Blackwell for meddling with their line of succession.

Blackwell, “a man of mercurial and adventurous temperament,” had his printing business busted in England for having failed to precede it with the required apprenticeship, and was thrown in jail as a debtor.

To extricate the family from poverty, Blackwell’s wife Elizabeth thereupon launched an amazing career as an herbal limner, drawing, engraving, and hand-coloring editions with hundreds of plants that became a standard reference in the field in the late 1730’s, and whose revenues managed to liberate her spouse. (Elizabeth is still remembered on a plaque at the Chelsea Old Church, in her old neighborhood.)

That mercurial ex-deadbeat might have done better to stick close by his now highly esteemed wife (or possibly his brother, a bloviating classicist), but the wanderlust sent Alex abroad to wash ashore in Stockholm as physician to King Frederick I, where he was soon convicted (on evidence uncertain, apart from the torture-extracted confession) of having intrigued to alter the royal line of succession further to enmeshing Sweden in an alliance with Britain.

He protested his innocence on the scaffold. More memorably, perhaps, he laid his head the wrong way upon the chopping block, requiring the executioner to correct him — whereupon Blackwell cracked wise that he, after all, lacked experience at the art of being beheaded.

Mental Floss mined this outstanding exemplar of gallows humor in a cartoon about memorable exits. (Via History News Network.)

* Some sources, like this Google Books biography, offer August 9 as Blackwell’s execution date. The 11-day discrepancy is due to the still-pending adoption of the Gregorian calendar: July 29 was the date on the Julian calendar still in use in the realms both of Blackwell’s birth and death; in 1752 and 1753, respectively, Britain and Sweden would adopt the Gregorian system.

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