1682: Ivan Khovansky

Add comment September 17th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1682, the boyar Ivan Andreyevich Khovansky went from being the power behind the throne to one of the skulls under it.

A veteran military commander, Khovansky (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) became a key figure in the months after the death of Tsar Feodor III of Russia. This perilous political moment left the throne in the hands of two underage half-brothers overseen by a female regent.

With benefit of hindsight we know that 10-year-old (in 1682) Peter will emerge from this troika to become the mighty Tsar Peter the Great. In 1682, it was anybody’s guess whether any of these dubious prospective autocrats might survive at all.

Peter in particular had cause to fear for his life in May 1682 when the Streltsy, a hereditary guard of Moscow musketeers, bloodily rebelled in favor of his co-heir’s privileges and against his own, rampaging through the Kremlin murdering princes in Peter’s circle. And at the head of these furies stood Khovansky.

Many years later, Peter would revenge himself upon the Streltsy for this horror but in the moment it carried the day, incidentally also carrying Khovansky to a preeminent position in the state.

But he was pitted almost immediately against his erstwhile patron and ally, the regent Sophia Alekseyevna.

Even though the Streltsy rebellion had been conducted on Sophia’s behalf, she could see as well as the next tsar the perils of embracing these latter-day praetorians‘ authority to remake the government by force … and the Streltsy made sure to remind her of it almost immediately when the “Old Believer” movement that predominated among its ranks started raising complaints about Sophia’s religious accommodations.*

Fearing an overmighty nobleman at the head of a treasonable host — and Khovansky has been suspected by both his contemporaries and posterity of coveting the regency for himself — Sophia and the young co-tsars briefly fled Moscow “because we could not tolerate the many offences, unlawful and gross actions and violations committed by criminals and traitors.” Meanwhile she maneuvered adroitly to isolate him politically and had the boyar Duma vote his attainder.

His fate was sealed by the discovery of an anonymous (probably fabricated) letter of denunciation. On 17 September, her own name day, Sophia succeeded in luring Ivan Khovansky and his son Ivan to the royal summer residence at Vozdvizhenskoe outside Moscow. The charges against them centred on their ‘evil designs upon the health and authority of the great sovereigns’ which involved no less than plotting to use the strel’tsy to kill the tsars, Tsaritsa Natalia, Sophia and the patriarch, then to raise rebellion all over Moscow and snatch the throne. The lesser charges included association with ‘accursed schismatics’, embezzlement, dereliction of military duty, and insulting the boyars. The charges were full of inconsistencies and illogicalities, but their sheer weight sealed the Khovanskys’ fate and Prince Ivan and his son were beheaded on the spot … The strel’tsy were forced to swear an oath of loyalty based on a set of conditions, the final clause of which threatened death to anyone who ‘speaks approvingly of the deeds of late, or boasts of committing murder or makes up phrases inciting rebellion as before, or stirs up people to commit criminal acts.’ (Source)

He’s the subject of the Mussorgsky opera Khovanshchina.

* Old Believers wanted a rollback of religious reforms decreed in recent years; Sophia said no dice. Once Peter the Great took over, Sophia and Old Believers alike would end up in the same boat.

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1689: Fyodor Shaklovity, marking the arrival of Peter the Great

Add comment October 11th, 2015 Headsman

On this date* in 1689, Fyodor Shaklovity was beheaded in Russia: a signal of the transfer of imperial power just days before to the young Peter the Great.

A commoner who rose to the apex of political power — or at least its orbit — Shaklovity (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) was the “second favorite”** of Sophia Alekseyevna during her run as the Russian regent in the 1680s.

She was able to occupy this position because the last tsar had died without issue in 1682. The result was a shaky power-share split between two male tsars who could not rule: Ivan, who was mentally disabled, and Peter, who was 10 years old.

But the problem with 10-year-olds is that, seven years later, they become 17-year-olds.

By 1689, Peter was chafing at his sister’s power. As the regent, how much longer could she expect to rule the tsar now that he was no longer a boy?

A disturbance on the night of August 7, 1689 brought the matter to a head. Moscow’s Streltsy, a body of soldiers who had murderously run amok in the Kremlin in 1682, paraded or demonstrated near the Kremlin.

Shaklovity would claim that this was nothing but a bodyguard for the routine procession of Sophia, but Peter — either actually alarmed or simulating it — bolted to the Trinity Monastery of St. Sergius north of Moscow and “immediately threw himself upon a bed and fell a weeping bitterly.”†

Peter accused Shaklovity of attempting to incite another Streltsy rising to win power for Sophia, and maybe that’s exactly what happened. But it might also have been the case that Peter’s party cynically engineered the crisis to force a confrontation.

In either event, the two rivals were now holed up in their respective compounds (Sophia’s was the Kremlin). The standoff never came to blows, for it soon demonstrated that Sophia’s support was distinctly inferior to Peter’s, to whom the legitimate government apparatus increasingly gravitated.‡ Muscovite soldiers, foreign diplomats, and even the Streltsy began abandoning Moscow for Peter’s monastery.

Sophia’s regency ended in September, and the proof of her capitulation was acceding to Peter’s demand that she hand over the “blatant criminal” Shaklovity for condign punishment as a failed regicide. Despite the late hour (10 p.m.), a vast concourse of commoners and elites alike saw Shaklovity’s head axed off by torchlight on the main road near the Trinity-St. Sergius monastery.

Peter had arrived: and over the next two generations, he would bend all Russia to his will.

* Per the Julian calendar still in use in Russia at the time.

** Per Peter the Great: A Biography, by Lindsey Hughes. The first favorite was Golitsyn, whom Peter exiled.

† Hughes, op. cit., quoting the diaries of the fascinating Scottish general Patrick Gordon, whose loyalty to Peter in 1689 helped to decide the conflict.

‡ The disastrous Russian performance in Crimean campaigns launched by Sophia did the regent no favors.

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1698: The last Streltsy executed in October

Add comment October 31st, 2013 Johann Georg Korb

This entry in our Corpses Strewn series on the October 1698 extirpation of the Streltsy is courtesy of the diaries of Austrian diplomat Johann Georg Korb, an eyewitness to the events.

Again, in front of the Kremlin Castle two others, whose thighs and extremities had been broken, and who were tied alive to the wheel, with horrid lamentations throughout the afternoon and the following night, closed their miserable existence in the utmoft agony. One of them, the younger of the two, survived amidst his enduring tortures until noon the following day. The Czar dined at his cafe (commode) with the Boyar Leo Kirilowicz Narefkin, all the representatives and the Czar’s ministers being present. The successive and earnest supplications of all present induced the monarch, who was long reluctant, to give command to that Gabriel who is so well known at his court that an end might be put with a ball to the life and pangs of the criminal that still continued breathing.

For the remainder of the rebels, who were still guarded in places round about, their respective places of confinement were also their places of execution, lest by collecting them all together this torturing and butchery in the one place of such a multitude of men, should smell of tyranny. And especially left the minds of the citizens, already terror-stricken at so many melancholy exhibitions of their perishing fellow men should dread every kind of cruelty from their sovereign.

But considering the daily perils to which the Czar’s Majesty was hitherto exposed, without an hour’s security, and hardly escaping from many snares, he was very naturally always in great apprehension of the exceeding treachery of the Strelitz, so that he fairly concluded not to tolerate a single Strelitz in his empire, — to banish all of them that remained to the farthest confines of Muscovy after having almost extirpated the very name. In the provinces, leave was given to any that preferred to renounce military service for ever, and with the consent of the Voivodes to addict themselves to domestic services. Nor were they quite innocent: for the officers that were quartered in the camp at Azov to keep ward against the hostile inroads of the enemy, told how they were never secure, and hourly expected an atrocious outbreak of treason from the Strelitz; nor was there any doubt but that they had very ambiguous sympathies for the fortunes of the other rebels. All the wives of the Strelitz were commanded to leave the neighbourhood of Moscow, and thus experienced the consequences of the crimes of their husbands. It was forbidden by Ukase, under penalty of death, for any person to keep any of them or afford them Secret harbour, unless they would send them out of Moscow to serve upon their estates.

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1698: Old Believer popes and Princess Sophia’s petitioners

1 comment October 27th, 2013 Johann Georg Korb

This entry in our Corpses Strewn series on the October 1698 extirpation of the Streltsy is courtesy of the diaries of Austrian diplomat Johann Georg Korb, an eyewitness to the events.

Today was assigned for the punishment of the popes — that is to say, of those who by carrying images to induce the serfs to side with the Strelitz, had invoked the aid of God with the holy rites of his altars for the happy success of this impious plot. The place selected by the judge for the execution was the open space in front of the church of the most Holy Trinity, which is the high church of Moscow. The ignominious gibbet cross awaited the popes, by way of reward in suit with the thousands of signs of the cross they had made, and as their fee for all the benedictions they had given to the refractory troops. The court jester, in the mimic attire of a pope, made the halter ready, and adjusted it, as it was held to be wrong to subject a pope to the hands of the common hangman. A certain Dumnoi struck off the head of another pope, and set his corpse upon the ignominious wheel. Close to the church, too, the halter and wheel proclaimed the enormity of the crime of their guilty burden to the passers by.

The Czar’s Majesty looked on from his carriage while the popes were hurried to execution. To the populace, who flood around in great numbers, he spoke a few words touching the perfidy of the popes, adding the threat, “Henceforward let no one dare to ask any pope to pray for such an intention.” A little while before the execution of the popes, two rebels, brothers, having had their thighs and other members broken in front of the Castle of the Kremlin, were set alive upon the wheel: twenty others on whom the axe had done its office lay lifeless around these wheels. The two that were bound upon the wheel beheld their third brother among the dead. Nobody will easily believe how lamentable were their cries and howls, unless he has well weighed their excruciations and the greatness of their tortures. I saw their broken thighs tied to the wheel with ropes strained as tightly as possible, so that in all that deluge of torture I do believe none can have exceeded that of the utter impossibility of the least movement. Their miserable cries had struck the Czar as he was being driven past. He went up to the wheels, and first promised speedy death, and afterwards proffered them a free pardon, if they would confess sincerely. But when upon the very wheel he found them more obstinate than ever, and that they would give no other answer than that they would confess nothing, and that their penalty was nearly paid in full, the Czar left them to the agonies of death, and hastened on to the Monastery of the Nuns, in front of which monastery there were thirty gibbets erected in a quadrangular shape, from which there hung two hundred and thirty Strelitz. The three principal ringleaders, who presented a petition to [Peter’s half-sister and rival] Sophia, touching the administration of the realm, were hanged close to the windows of that princess, presenting, as it were, the petitions that were placed in their hands, so near that Sophia might with ease touch them. Perhaps this was in order to load Sophia with that remorse in every way, which I believe drove her to take the religious habit, in order to pass to a better life.

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1698: 350 Streltsy by the boyars’ own hands

Add comment October 23rd, 2013 Johann Georg Korb

This entry in our Corpses Strewn series on the October 1698 extirpation of the Streltsy is courtesy of the diaries of Austrian diplomat Johann Georg Korb, an eyewitness to the events.

This differed confiderably from those that preceded. The manner of it was quite different, and hardly credible. Three hundred and thirty at a time were led out together to the fatal axe’s stroke, and embrued the whole plain with native but impious blood: for all the Boyars, Senators of the realm, Dumnoi, Diaks, and so forth, that were present at the council constituted against the rebel Strelitz, had been summoned by the Czar’s command to Bebraschentsko, and enjoined to take upon themselves the hangman’s office. Some struck the blow unsteadily, and with trembling hands assumed this new and unaccustomed task. The most unfortunate stroke among all the Boyars was given by him whose erring sword struck the back instead of the neck, and thus chopping the Strelitz almost in halves, would have roused him to desperation with pain, had not Alexasca* reached the unhappy wretch a surer blow of an axe on the neck.

Prince Romadonowski, under whose command previous to the mutiny these four regiments were to have watched the turbulent gatherings in Poland on the frontier, beheaded, according to order, one out of each regiment. Lastly, to every Boyar a Strelitz was led up, whom he was to behead. The Czar, in his saddle, looked on at the whole tragedy.

* Alexasca was a nickname for the (future) Gen. Aleksandr Menshikov, one of young Peter’s loyal boon companions.

Peter scornfully reproached many of the nobles who trembled at being compelled to behead some rebels; adding in a strain of sanguinary justice, “No victim is more acceptable to the Deity than a wicked man.” Mentchikof, however, did not labour under such delicate feelings; for as a prelude to the execution of one hundred and fifty Strelitz, he drove through the streets of Moscow in a sledge, brandishing a naked sword, and boasted of his adroitness in cutting off twenty heads. (Source)

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1698: 250 Streltsy from the walls of Moscow

Add comment October 21st, 2013 Johann Georg Korb

This entry in our Corpses Strewn series on the October 1698 extirpation of the Streltsy is courtesy of the diaries of Austrian diplomat Johann Georg Korb, an eyewitness to the events.

To prove to all the people how holy and inviolable are those walls of the city [of Moscow], which the Strelitz rashly meditated scaling in a sudden assault, beams were run out from all the embrasures in the walls near the gates, on each of which two rebels were hanged. This day beheld about two hundred and fifty die that death. There are few cities fortified with as many palisades as Moscow has given gibbets to her guardian Strelitz.

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1698: Six Streltsy of rank

Add comment October 17th, 2013 Johann Georg Korb

This entry in our Corpses Strewn series on the October 1698 extirpation of the Streltsy is courtesy of the diaries of Austrian diplomat Johann Georg Korb, an eyewitness to the events.

Only six were beheaded today, who had the advantage of rank over the others, if rank be a distinction of honour in executed criminals.

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Corpses Strewn: The Streltsy

1 comment October 10th, 2013 Headsman

Peter the Great’s ruthless destruction of the Streltsy played out as bloody public theater in October of 1698.

A strelets (or strelitz in a more Germanic transliteration) was a professional guardsman stationed in the Russian capital. Ivan the Terrible had formed the corps initially in the 16th century to give himself a standing musketeer* force when he otherwise had to depend on dicey peasant recruits.

By the 18th century, they were just one more sclerotic Russian bureaucracy.

Their nominal duty to garrison Moscow against invaders was nearly superfluous. Top-level Streltsy had ample time to exploit their tax-favored treatment to become merchants … from which some made enough money to hire out other underemployed Streltsy to fill their occasional duty shifts. Once elite recruits, they now handed down their cushy appointments father to son. Further down the lists, rank-and-file Streltsy politicized as pro-peasant, anti-foreigner, and supportive of the Old Believer movement.

So an institution of 22,000 armed men in the capital with grievances and free time: any government would find this dangerous.


The fall of the Streltsy is connected intimately with the rise of Peter the Great, and some backstory on the latter will be necessary to make sense of the former.

Peter’s father was Alexis I, who ruled Russia from 1645 to 1676. (He’s notable for backing the church reforms that opened the schism between mainline Orthodoxy and the unreconstructed Old Believers.)

Alexis had two wives and sixteen legitimate children, but at his death he left a shaky succession. The crown passed initially to the sickly teenager Fyodor III, but Fyodor died in 1682 without an heir of his own.

Who would rule next? The families of Tsar Alexis’s two wives, the Miloslavskys and the Naryshkins, contended for power.

Ivan, the only remaining son of Alexis’s Miloslavsky first wife, was mentally infirm. Peter, the son of Alexis’s (still-surviving) Naryshkin second wife, wasn’t even 10 years old yet.

A boyar duma selected Peter, the younger son of the younger wife.

On this, the Miloslavsky family incited the Streltsy to revolt with rumors that the upstart Naryshkins had poisoned off Fyodor and shoved aside the legitimate heir, nicely marrying these grievances to long-overdue Streltsy back pay the cash-poor government had been withholding. The result was a savage May 1682 mutiny of guardsmen who ran amok through the undefended Kremlin. Scenes of unspeakable horror played out before young Peter’s own eyes: shaggy praetorians ransacking the palace in search of noblemen whom Peter had grown up around, and who were now wildly accused of regicide, treason, and tight-fistedness. These men would be put to savage and summary death by the armed mob: hurled onto spearpoints, tortured to death in the dungeons, or just cut apart on the streets. To abate the rampaging death squad after several harrowing days, Peter’s mother was forced to give up her own brother Ivan — especially hated of the Streltsy — to torture and murder.


Alexei Korzukhin’s 1882 depiction of the Streltsy dragging Ivan Naryshkin to his death as a young Peter the Great consoles his mother.

The Streltsy had threatened to slaughter every last boyar in the Kremlin had she not done so.

Their depredations forced the appointment of the infirm Miloslavsky candidate Ivan as Peter’s co-tsar, both sovereigns under the regency of Ivan’s strong-willed elder sister Sophia.

They carried that day and, by virtue of Sophia’s rule, the remainder of the 1680s. But as Peter aged into manhood, the two parties were bound for confrontation once again, and Peter finally took Russia in hand and forced Sophia into a convent in 1689.

So that’s the scene: Peter’s in charge. He has a living rival locked up in a nunnery. And the Streltsy have a definite preference between them.


For obvious reasons, Peter returned the low opinion of the Streltsy.

Due care for his throne dovetailed conveniently with payback for uncle Ivan’s murder, and Peter took every opportunity to reduce the privileged position of this dangerous body in favor of his new Preobrazhensky and Semenovsky regiments. After the Azov campaigns in the mid-1690s, Peter returned in triumph with his prized western-trained armies, leaving Streltsy to garrison his Black Sea outpost.

Disaffected Streltsy started thinking that Sophia would look real good back on the throne.

In June 1698, incensed by an order to march hundreds of miles to the Polish-Lithuanian frontier — and having been secretly in contact with Sophia — four Streltsy regiments mutinied and made for the capital. Peter was away in Vienna, but his general Alexei Shein intercepted the rebels 30 miles from the city and routed them. “Not one got away,” in the words of the communique to Peter. Shein himself executed well over 100 of the captured Streltsy right in the field. Another nineteen hundred were left to wait the pleasure of their returning sovereign and enemy.

Peter was not a man for half-measures; his city, St. Petersburg, remains today a monument to his vision but was thrown up on a fetid quagmire over the bones of countless laborers. Progressive despots don’t always encounter a backward army whose claims to semi-feudal privileges throw the country into commotion, but when they do, they purge wholesale.

“How sharp was the pain, how great the indignation to which the Czar’s Majesty was mightily moved, when he knew of the rebellion of the Strelitz, betrayed openly a mind panting for vengeance,” wrote the Austrian diplomat Johann Georg Korb — present in Moscow for the occasion, and a man whom the xenophobic Streltsy might well have lynched given the opportunity.

[Peter] began to have suspicions of everybody’s loyalty, and began to cogitate about a fresh investigation. The rebels that were kept in custody, in various places in the environs, were all brought in by four regiments of the guards, to a fresh investigation and fresh tortures … No day, holy or profane, were the inquisitors idle; every day was deemed fit and lawful for torturing. As many as there were accused there were knouts, and every inquisitor was a butcher.


The Morning of the Execution of the Streltsy by Vasily Surikov (1881). In fact, there were several different Streltsy executions in October 1698, which Surikov has pictorially conflated.

The journal of the astonished Korb is our guide for the Streltsy executions. “The whole month of October was spent in butchering the backs of the culprits with knout and with flames: no day were those that were left alive exempt from scourging or scorching, or else they were broken upon the wheel, or driven to the gibbet, or slain with the axe,” he notes.

For the occasion, we’re introducing a new post series concept. These executions did not occur on consecutive days, but on several different days over the course of October 1698 — each occasion with a macabre new twist on the proceedings to make the lesson really stick. Intermingled with our regular fare, we’ll cover each distinct execution anniversary as the days come, looping back to this parent series post on each occasion.

In all, 1,182 Streltsy prisoners were put to death. Most of the rest were exiled to Siberia. By 1705 the Streltsy force had been completely abolished.

One last footnote: Peter interrogated his half-sister Sophia personally over her role in the potential coup, and he threatened to handle her like Queen Elizabeth handled Mary, Queen of Scots. (Kinship was no safeguard from brutality where Peter was concerned.) In the end he decided to spare her — but forced her into a cloister under heavy guard, never allowed to receive visitors until her death six years later.

* Strelets derives from the Russian verb to shoot; when formed around 1550, they were armed with arquebuses.

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1698: The Streltsy executions begin

Add comment October 10th, 2013 Johann Georg Korb

This entry in our Corpses Strewn series on the October 1698 extirpation of the Streltsy is courtesy of the diaries of Austrian diplomat Johann Georg Korb, an eyewitness to the events.

To this exhibition of avenging justice the Czar’s Majesty invited all the ambassadors of foreign fovereigns, as it were to aflert anew on his return that fovereign prerogative of life and death which the rebels had disputed with him.

The barracks in Bebraschentsko end in a bare field which rises to the summit of a rather steep hill. This was the place appointed for the executions. Here were planted the gibbet stakes, on which the foul heads of these confessedly guilty wretches were to be fet, to protract their ignominy beyond death. There the first scene of the tragedy lay exposed. The strangers that had gathered to the spectacle were kept aloof from too close approach; the whole regiment of guards was drawn up in array under arms. A little further off, on a high tumulus in the area of the place, there was a multitude of Muscovites, crowded and crushing together in a dense circle. A German Major was then my companion; he concealed his nationality in a Muscovite dress, besides which he relied upon his military rank and the liberty that he might take in consequence of being entitled by reason of his being in the service of the Czar to share in the privileges of the Muscovites. He mingled with the thronging crowd of Mufcovites, and when he came back announced that five rebel heads had been cut off in that spot by an axe that was swung by the noblest arm of all Muscovy. [i.e., Peter’s own] The river Jaufa flows pall the barracks in Bebraschentsko, and divides them in two.

On the opposite fide of this stream there were a hundred criminals set upon those little Muscovite carts which the natives call Sbosek, awaiting the hour of the death they had to undergo. There was a cart for every criminal, and a soldier to guard each. No priestly office was to be seen; as if the condemned were unworthy of that pious compassion. But they all bore lighted tapers in their hands, not to die without light and cross. The horrors of impending death were increased by the piteous lamentations of their women, the sobbing on every fide, and the shrieks of the dying that rung upon the sad array. The mother wept for her fon, the daughter deplored a parent’s fate, the wife lamenting a husband’s lot, bemoaned along with the others, from whom the various ties of blood and kindred drew tears of sad farewell. But when the horses, urged to a sharp pace, drew them off to the place of their doom, the wail of the women rose into louder sobs and moans. As they tried to keep up with them, forms of expression like these bespoke their grief, as others explained them to me: “Why are you torn from me so soon? Why do you desert me? Is a last embrace then denied me? Why am I hindered from bidding him farewell?” With complaints like these they tried to follow their friends when they could not keep up with their rapid course. From a country seat belonging to General Schachin [Shein] one hundred and thirty more Strelitz were led forth to die. At each side of all the city gates there was a gibbet erected, each of which was loaded with six rebels on that day.

When all were duly brought to the place of execution, and the half dozens were duly distributed at their several gibbets, the Czar’s Majesty, dressed in a green Polish cloak, and attended by a numerous suite of Muscovite nobles, came to the gate where, by his Majesty’s command, the imperial Lord Envoy had flopped in his own carriage, along with the representatives of Poland and Denmark. Next them was Major-General de Carlowiz, who had conducted his Majesty on his way from Poland, and a great many other foreigners, among whom the Muscovites mingled round about the gate. Then the proclamation of the sentence began, the Czar exhorting all the bystanders to mark well its tenor. As the executioner was unable to dispatch so many criminals, some military officers, by command of the Czar, came under compulsion to aid in this butcher’s task. The guilty were neither chained nor fettered; but logs were tied to their legs, which hindered them from walking fast, but still allowed them the use of their feet. They strove of their own accord to ascend the ladder, making the sign of the cross towards the four quarters of the world; they themselves covered their eyes and faces with a piece of linen (which is a national custom); very many putting their necks into the halter sprang headlong of themselves from the gallows, in order to precipitate their end. There were counted two hundred and thirty that expiated their flagitious conduct by halter and gibbet.

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