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.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Doctors,England,Execution,Famous Last Words,Gallows Humor,History,Intellectuals,Notably Survived By,Power,Public Executions,Scotland,Sweden,Torture,Treason

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1520: Stockholm Bloodbath

7 comments November 8th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1520, four days after the Danish King Christian II gained the Swedish throne, nearly 100 prominent supporters of Swedish independence were executed en masse as a civil war’s apparent victors purged their enemies.

The Stockholm Bloodbath followed years of conflict between supporters of the Danish-dominated Kalmar Union and independence advocates under the banner of Sten Sture the Younger. With Sture’s death in battle earlier in 1520, the unionists had gained the upper hand. Stockholm, the last outpost of resistance, had held against four months’ siege before accepting a general amnesty in exchange for capitulation.

But with the city in hand, Christian — known to Swedish history as “Christian the Tyrant” — had its leaders charged for having deposed during the conflict the pro-union Archbishop Gustav Trolle, construed as an offense against the Church not in the temporal authority’s power to reprieve. Less than 24 hours after this legal maneuver was sprung, public beheadings of prelates, merchants and burgomasters were underway at Stortorget* — and Sture’s remains were exhumed and posthumously burnt at the stake.

Stortorget

It proved a Pyrrhic victory for the Danish party.

Inside of three years, Christian himself had been deposed with multiple lands and factions throughout his realm in open revolt. Gustav Vasa, whose father had been one of the Stockholm Bloodbath’s victims, would not only decisively break Denmark’s hold on Sweden but found the Vasa Dynasty under which Sweden would burgeon into one of Europe’s great powers.

*One Hans Brask survived the purge despite having endorsed the removal of Archbishop Trolle. Brask supposedly placed a note under his seal on this document saying “To this I am forced and compelled.” This cunning device gave the Swedish tongue the word Brasklapp — a secret reservation.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Denmark,Famous,God,Language,Mass Executions,Notably Survived By,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Popular Culture,Posthumous Executions,Power,Public Executions,Summary Executions,Sweden,Treason,Wartime Executions

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