1887: Georgette and Sylvain Thomas, guillotine couples act

Add comment January 24th, 2019 Headsman

Georgette Thomas was guillotined on this date in 1887 at Romorantin, followed moments later by her husband Sylvain.

This farming couple had burned to death Georgett’s mother Marie Lebon six months previous, aided by Georgette’s brothers Alexander and Alexis who both caught life sentences for their participation.

Lebon’s offense? The family had become convinced that mom was a sorceress on the strength of a compounding series of rural disasters: lost hay, failed harvests, sickness striking down horses and chickens and even the human kids.

To exorcise her infernal influence, they doused her with oil and holy water, set her ablaze, and forced her into the farmhouse fireplace … right in front of those kids she had bewitched.

Some two thousand people crowded the public square for this rare spectacle of a husband-wife joint marital severing. So shocking was the execution of the struggling Georgette Thomas in particular — and so distressed was that veteran taker of heads Louis Deibler, who asked out of any female chops in the future — that France never again publicly guillotined a woman.

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1697: The Paisley Witches

1 comment June 10th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1697, the Paisley, Renfrewshire Gallow Green played stage for the strangling and burning of six “witches.” They’re known as the Paisley witches, the Renfrewshire witches, or the Bargarran witches, and are sometimes acclaimed the last mass-executed witches in western Europe.

This book posits a more than incidental resemblance between Salem and Renfrewshire, given that the “possessed child” figure was not a usual ornament for Scottish witchcraft cases.

In a setup bearing a disturbing similarity to the Salem witch trials,* an 11-year-old brat named Christian Shaw, the daughter of a local laird, got a tongue-lashing from the family servant and then turned around and accused her a sorceress.

The psychological mechanisms at play make interesting speculation in such cases. Was she merely a spiteful little monster, or did she believe in accordance with the superstitions of her time that the servant’s curses had effect, and suffer real afflictions that ensued upon this belief? Can we see her in the end as a creature necessarily produced by her nation in its troubled hour, unmoored as it was by the political and religious dislocations of the Glorious Revolution, gnawed by famine, and hurtling towards an unwilling union with England? (The bizarre execution of an Edinburgh university student for blasphemy also unfolded in 1696-1697.)

We leave such speculations to the reader as we plunge into the onset of supernatural doings in these environs almost a year before the consequent executions — via a 1698 pamphlet titled “A True Narrative of the Sufferings and Relief of a Young Girle Strangely Molested, by Evil Spirits and their Instruments, in the West”

August 22 [1696], the Child went to Bed in good health; but so soon as she fell asleep, began to struggle and cry, Help, Help: And then suddenly got up, and did fly over the top of a Resting-bed, where she was lying (her Father, Mother, and others being in the Room, and to their great Astonishment and Admiration) with such violence, that probably her Brains had been dasht out, if a Woman, providentially standing by, and supported by a Door at her back, had not broke the force of the Childs motion, who being laid in another Bed, remained stiff and insensible as if she had been dead, for the space of half an Hour; but for Fourty eight Hours thereafter could not sleep, crying out of violent Pains thorow her whole Body, and no sooner began to sleep or turn drowsie but seemed greatly affrighted, crying still Help, Help.

These frightening spasms continued for days, contorting her body and robbing her of speech; helpless doctors bled her to no effect.

Some dayes thereafter was an alteration in her Fitts, so far, that she got speaking, during the time of them; and while she was in the fits, fell a crying, that Katharine Campbel and Agnes Naismith were cutting her side, and other parts of her Body; Which parts were in that time violently Tormented. And when the fit was over she still averred, that she had seen the same Persons doing the same things which she complained of while under the fit (it being remarkable that in the intervals she was still as well and sensible as ever) and would not believe but that others present saw them as well as she!

Katharine Campbell was servant who had chewed her out. Agnes Naismith was an old lady with a witchy reputation. In time they would headline the execution that occasions this post.

We must here pause to remark that the decision of the adults around Christian Shaw to steer this crisis in the girl’s life towards a judicial witch hunt was by no means predetermined. While capital statutes against bewitchment remained on the books, they were fading in practice; according to the invaluable Survey of Scottish Witchcraft database, there had been only a single witchcraft prosecution in Scotland since 1683, and that one did not result in execution. The sudden eruption of a dormant and vanishing cosmology, with sufficient force to devour seven humans, shocks the eye.

Credit must go to Shaw for a rare commitment to the performance, as her symptoms continued intermittently for months, and accumulated a growing roster of accused supernatural tormentors. She was taken to Glasgow for treatment, and taken again; she went on regimens of prayer and fasting; at one point she began pulling debris out of mouth like a prestidigitator, in such number and variety that her doctor remarked that “Were it not for the hairs, hay, straw, and other things wholly contrary to human nature, I should not despair to reduce all the other symptoms to their proper classes in the catalogue of human diseases.”

Although modernity will doubt that they bewitched the child, the accused women, Agnes and Katharine, knew exactly what was up when they were brought to confront their accuser. They addressed their common peril with opposite strategems. Agnes, “did (tho not desired) pray for her, viz. that the Lord God of Heaven and Earth might send the Damsel her health,” which prayer cured Christian Shaw of continuing to accuse Agnes of muddling her (“upon the contrary, as she apprehended, defending her from the fury of the rest” of the witches) — whereas the saltier Katharine “could by no means be prevailed with to pray for the Damsel, but upon the contrary when desired by some, cursed them and all the Family of Bargarran, and in particular the Damsel and all that belonged to her, withal adding this grievous Imprecation; The Devil let her never grow better, nor any concern’d in her, be in a better condition than she was in, for what they had done to her.” I like this Katharine, but Laird Bargarran had the sheriff throw her forthwith into the dungeon; the reader may recall from our foreshadowing that Agnes’s more diplomatic approach did not ultimately serve her any better.

By January, five months after Christian’s first fits, the doctors and ministers had been defeated and the Privy Council appointed a tribunal to investigate the matter and shoo away the hags bothering Christian Shaw. The annals of their actions makes for repellent reading, even by the standards of judges. Readers with strong eyeglass prescriptions can enjoy the full pdf here, but most will probably prefer this lucid summary by Undine, a onetime Executed Today guest blogger. We also have a Victorian compilation of records related to the affair here.

The hunt swept up a 14-year-old boy and his 11-year-old brother, a 17-year-old girl who was made to furnish accusations that incriminated still more people besides. One can see in our credulous 1698 account the enspelled little shit begin to revel in her theatrics and the power she held over her neighbors.

February 12. Margaret Laing and her Daughter Martha Semple, being delated by the three Confessants, and accused by the Girl to have been active instruments in her Trouble, came of their own accord to Bargarran’s House, and before they came up Stairs the Girl said, she was now bound up, and could not accuse Margaret Laing to her face: And accordingly the Girl’s Mother having desired somer of those who were sitting by her to feel some parts of her Body, and they having done it, found her Body so stiff and inflexible, that there was no moving of it, and immediately again found some parts of her Body contracted and drawn hard togethe [sic], as if by Cords; after this Margaret Lang and her Daughter, having gone to the Chamber of the Girle, did in presence of the Ministers and others, desire the Damsel to come to her; for she would do her no Harm, and laying her Arms about her, spake very fairly to her, and question’d her if ever she had seen her other Daughter among her Tormentors, to which the Girle did positively reply, she had frequently seen her Daughter; but declined thorow fear to accuse herself, saying faintly No, after which Margaret and her Daughter returning into the Hall, and the Minister enquiring at her why she said No, seeing she had accus’d her before, she answered, take me contrar, upon which she was seiz’d with a grievous Fit; yet after her recovery being urg’d again by those present to tell her Mind freely, whether or not Margaret Lang was one of her Tormentors the Child thereupon Essaying to say Yes, and having half-pronounced the Word, was cast into unexpressible Anguishes; and again in the interval of the Fit, she Essay’d to express the same thing, and saying only the word Tint (that is soft) was on a sudden struck with another fit, and when the fit was over, and the Child returned to the Chamber, Margaret Lang who was sitting near the Hall door, spoke these words after her. The Lord bless thee, and ding (that is beat, or drive) the Devil out of thee. A little after which words, Margaret going down stairs, the Damsel came to the Hall and said, her Bonds were now loos’d, and that now she could accuse Margaret Lang to her Face, and declar’d the occasion of her being so Restrain’d and Bound up while Margaret was present, was her letting fall a parcel of Hair at the Hall door as she came in; being a Charm made by her for that end, which also had been the occasion of her uttering the word Tint in the former fit: And accordingly a parcel of Hair had been found at the Hall-door, after Margaret Lang had gone straight from the Hall to the Chamber, which immediately was cast into the Fire and burnt. And its remarkable, that it could be attested that there was no Hair, or any other thing else in that place before Margaret Lang came in, and the Girle being enquired, what way she knew Margaret Lang had laid the forementioned Charm upon her, replyed, something speaking distinctly to her as it were above her Head, had suggested that to her.

In the end — and posterity unfortunately lacks the original trial record — there were seven condemned to death and although their names in the surviving accounts “are not very distinctly stated” they appear to comprise our two original accused, Katharine Campbell and Agnes Naismith, the aforementioned Margaret Lang, the 14-year-old child James Lindsay and an apparent kinsman named John Lindsay, and also John Reid and Margaret Fulton. (Some accounts more mawkishly make it little James Lindsay with his 11-year-old brother Thomas, but that’s not indicated by the primary sources which repeatedly note that Thomas is “under the age of pupilarity.”)

John Reid managed to hang himself in prison and cheat the executioner. Katharine Campbell did him one better by fighting her persecutors all the way to the stake, and deservedly showering everyone in earshot with curses. The legend has it that Campbell’s malediction lurks behind any civic setback endured by Paisley down the years, such as the 1810 Paisley canal disaster. A horseshoe placed over the embittered sorceress’s grave to keep ill fortune at bay was lost in the 1960s; in 2008, a brass horseshoe plaque was installed in its place at the intersection of Maxwellton and St. George Streets — the memorial admitting the injustice done to all the Renfrewshire witches.


(cc) image by Paisley Scotland.

As for the witches’ accuser, Christian Shaw mirrored in her own life’s story the epochal shift that transformed witches from a legally recognized threat to a ridiculous superstition — as she grew up to become essentially the founder of Paisley’s distinctive (and still to this day important) thread industry by creating the “Bargarran Thread” .

* Coincidentally, the first execution of the Salem trials also occurred on June 10.

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1948: Tessie Hutchinson, Lottery winner

Add comment June 27th, 2015 Headsman

June 27 — of 1948, implicitly — was the setting for Shirley Jackson‘s classic short story “The Lottery”.


Before we dive into the grim stuff, here’s a hilariously campy pulp cover (mis)interpretation.

Less an “execution” than a human sacrifice — the village old feller’s folksy “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon,” evokes a primal flash of blood trickling off the maize-god’s altar — the titular event is an annual tradition for a tiny American town. Though unnamed, the town and some of its denizens were patterned on North Bennington, Vermont, where Jackson was living as the wife of a professor at Bennington College.

The setting was entirely contemporary to the story’s publication, right down to the day: it hit print in the June 26, 1948 edition of The New Yorker magazine. And what took Jackson two hours to write has continued to disturb and perplex generations of readers.

In “The Lottery” (available online here (pdf)), friendly townsfolk gather “in the square, between the post office and the bank” to enact a curious civic ritual dating to a time and purpose they no longer even remember.

We see each household’s father draw a slip of paper from a battered old box and although we do not understand the reason we grasp from the dark atmosphere afoot in the crowd that something ominous is unfolding.

After the last slip is drawn,

there was a long pause, a breathless pause, until Mr. Summers. holding his slip of paper in the air, said, “All right, fellows.” For a minute, no one moved, and then all the slips of paper were opened. Suddenly, all the women began to speak at once, saving. “Who is it?,” “Who’s got it?,” “Is it the Dunbars?,” “Is it the Watsons?” Then the voices began to say, “It’s Hutchinson. It’s Bill,” “Bill Hutchinson’s got it.”

“Go tell your father,” Mrs. Dunbar said to her older son.

People began to look around to see the Hutchinsons. Bill Hutchinson was standing quiet, staring down at the paper in his hand. Suddenly. Tessie Hutchinson shouted to Mr. Summers. “You didn’t give him time enough to take any paper he wanted. I saw you. It wasn’t fair!”

“Be a good sport, Tessie.” Mrs. Delacroix called, and Mrs. Graves said, “All of us took the same chance.”

“Shut up, Tessie,” Bill Hutchinson said.

Tessie has good cause to fear. A second drawing now ensues among the five members of the Hutchinson family — Tessie and Bill, plus their three children.

And as soon as Tessie reveals the slip of paper with the black spot, her friends and even her family (“someone gave little Davy Hutchinson a few pebbles”) immediately turn on her and stone her to death.

“I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives,” Jackson explained.

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1644: Goodwife Cornish

3 comments December 2nd, 2013 Meaghan

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

Sometime in December 1644 in Maine, one Goodwife Cornish was executed for the murder of her husband, Richard Cornish. Her first name has been lost to history.

The couple had married in the town of Weymouth in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1634. It was a match made in hell.

According to Daniel Allen Hearn, writing of this case in his book Legal Executions in New England, 1623-1960, Richard Cornish was “a tireless worker” but his wife as “a woman of loose habits.”

The couple moved north to the settlement York in modern-day Maine in 1646, and “Goodwife Cornish wasted no time in reestablishing her notoriety.”

In 1644, Goodman Cornish’s body was found floating in the York River. He’d been killed in an unusual way: impaled on a stake, then placed in his canoe, which was weighted with stones. As Hearn records:

A cry of murder was raised. The sensational news swept the town and surrounding countryside. Had hostile Indians killed Richard Cornish? Probably not. Although the man’s skull had been crushed as if by a war club no one could imagine an Indian being so wasteful as to purposefully sink a good canoe. Such a craft would have been desirable plunder to an Indian. Moreover, what Indian, it was asked, would squander precious time by weighting down a canoe when he could be making good his escape? For these reasons it was determined that the murder of Richard Cornish was the work of some crafty white person. Suspicion fell upon the wife of the decedent. She had openly despised her husband. She was also rumored to have committed adultery.

Goodwife Cornish, when questioned, denied having murdered her husband.

But she admitted to multiple extramarital affairs and named her latest boyfriend as Edward Johnson. The authorities subjected both of them to “trial by touch,” acting on the old superstition that a murdered person’s corpse would bleed if the killer touched it.

When Goodwife Cornish and Goodman Johnson were brought before Richard Cornish’s body and made to touch it, blood supposedly oozed from his wounds. The ensuing trial, Hearn says, was “a farce.”

Much was made of Goodwife Cornish’s infidelity, but the only actual “evidence” against either her or Johnson was the fact that they’d both flunked the touch test. “It was reputation more than anything else,” Hearn notes, “that counted against Goodwife Cornish.”

Johnson was ultimately acquitted, but Goodwife Cornish was convicted of murder and condemned to die. Having maintained her innocence to the end, she was hanged in York.

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1865: An unnamed Obeah man

1 comment October 21st, 2012 Headsman

From William James Gardner’s (public domain) A History of Jamaica:

On the 21st a circumstance occurred which created much controversy. A reputed Obeah-man was tried by court-martial and convicted. One of the favourite assertions of these people has been that “Buckra can’t hurt them.” Colonel Hobbs directed him to be placed on a hill-side, about four hundred yards from the firing party. The bullets caused almost instantaneous death, and it is stated that the effect on the minds of the prisoners was so great, that the colonel felt at liberty to release a considerable number then in his camp, many of whom were heard to say they never would believe in Obeah again.

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1688: Philip Standsfield

2 comments February 15th, 2011 Headsman

Oh Gentlemen, see, see dead Henrys wounds,
Open their congeal’d mouthes, and bleed afresh.
Blush, blush, thou lumpe of fowle Deformitie:
For ’tis thy presence that exhales this blood
From cold and empty Veines where no blood dwels.
Thy Deeds inhumane and unnaturall,
Provokes this Deluge most unnaturall.

Lady Anne Neville in Shakespeare’s Richard III

There long persisted superstition* of ancient vintage that the wounds of a murder victim will bleed in the presence of the murderer.**

This date in 1688 saw the execution in Edinburgh of one Philip Standsfield (sometimes Stansfield or even Standfield) for parricide, his conviction being secured in part by the supposed accusation of his father’s corpse.

The prodigal firstborn of James Standsfield was an incorrigible scoundrel, and the state had a considerable circumstantial case to the effect that said scoundrel finally popped the old man to prevent disinheritance. (It also appeared that he’d tried to do it other times over the years.)

Circumstantial evidence is nice.

But how about some forensic evidence to really cinch a conviction? No DNA evidence here in the 17th century, so maybe something a little more … supernatural?


From A True Relation of a Barbarous Bloody Murther etc., available here.

The King’s Advocate insisted — over the objections of a defense attorney that “it was a superstitious observation, founded neither upon law nor reason” — that the corpse’s having bled on Philip Standsfield but none of the others in his party simultaneously attempting to move it “he must ascribe … to the wonderful Providence of God, who in this manner discovers murder.”

Divine forensics. That’s even better than the arson evidence Texas used to kill Cameron Willingham.

And it had the same result, to wit,

the said Philip Standsfield to be taken upon Wednesday next, being the 15th of February instant, to the Market-cross of Edinbrugh, and there, betwixt two and four o’clock in the afternoon, to be hanged on a gibbet till he be dead, and his tongue to be cut out and burnt upon a scaffold, and his right hand to be cut off and affixed to the east port of Haddingtoun, and his body to be carried to the Gallowlie betwixt Leith and Edinburgh, and there to be hanged up in chains; and ordains his name, fame, memory, and honours to be extinct, his arms to be riven forth and delete out of the books of arms …†

Well, you get the idea. Executed Today would like to apologize to the dempster of Edinburgh for keeping Philip Standsfield’s name, fame, and memory alive.

In our defense, we are hardly the only ones: this is thought to be the last time that Scottish law employed the bleeding-corpse “test”.

* Some other instances of purported “bleeding at the touch” may be perused here.

** In a 1927 piece in the Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology, Canadian jurist William Renwick Riddell says this folk belief “was wide spread and is not dead yet” and offers in a footnote (perhaps by way of explaining his interest) that “when at the Bar, I was once offered such evidence by my client; but I declined to use it.”

† The execution was botched, and the gibbeted body illicitly pulled down and tossed in a ditch — which is where the elder Standsfield’s had been discovered.

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1591: Euphane MacCalzean, witch

5 comments June 25th, 2010 Headsman

If there’s one thing King James VI of Scotland (eventually to also become James I of England) worried a lot about, it was witches.

The Al Qaeda of the 16th century imagination, those shadowy yet omnipresent necromancers were especially feared around this time for their powers of supernatural mayhem, and you can take your pick on the phenomenon’s psychosocial explanation. (It was hardly limited to Scotland.)

Whatever it was, King James had it in spades.

The son of one executed monarch and father of another, James kept head tightly fixed to shoulders all his own days, and he used it to write the (well, a) book on witch-hunting.

THE fearefull aboundinge at this time in this countrie, of these detestable slaues of the Deuill, the Witches or enchaunters, hath moved me (beloued reader) to dispatch in post, this following treatise of mine, not in any wise (as I protest) to serue for a shew of my learning & ingine, but onely (mooued of conscience) to preasse / thereby, so farre as I can, to resolue the doubting harts of many; both that such assaultes of Sathan are most certainly practized, & that the instrumentes thereof, merits most severly to be punished: against the damnable opinions … not ashamed in publike print to deny, that ther can be such a thing as Witch-craft.

Daemonologie

You couldn’t fault the guy for a lot of daylight between his principles and his practices.


With a deft political touch, Shakespeare wrote Macbeth after James ascended the English throne as James I.

In 1589, Jamie sailed to Denmark to wed a Danish princess. When ferocious storms nearly wrecked the royal convoy on its return trip, there was only one possible explanation: witchcraft. And security theater for 16th century Scotland wasn’t taking your shoes off when ferrying across the nearby loch — it was publicly burning human beings to death for consorting with the devil.

So once the king made it back home, he initiated the North Berwick Witch Trials, the first notable witch-hunt of his reign.

It was what you’d expect. Seventy people accused, the doomed tortured into confessions like Jack Bauer would do, and a respectable harvest of souls, most famously (because interrogated by the king himself) Agnes Sampson. “Most of the winter of 1591,” writes one chronicler, “was spent in the discovery and examination of witches and sorcerers.”

Our day’s principal, whose name has various different renderings (such as Eufame Mackalzeane), was the last to suffer for some months.

Euphan McCalzeane was a lady possessed of a considerable estate in her own right. She was the daughter of Thomas McCalzeane, lord Cliftenhall, one of the senators of the college of justice, whose death in the year 1581 spared him the disgrace and misery of seeing his daughter fall by the hands of the executioner. She was married to a gentleman of her own name, by whom she had three children. She was accused of treasonably conspiring of the king; of raising storms to hinder his return from Denmark; and of various other articles of witchcraft. She was heard by counsel in her defense; was found guilty by the jury, which consisted of landed gentlemen of note; and her punishment was still severer than that commonly inflicted on the weyward sisters; she was burned alive, and her estate confiscated. Her children, however, after being thus barbarously robbed of their mother, were restored by act of parliament against the forfeiture. The act does not say that the sentence was unjust, but that the king was touched in honour and conscience to restore the children. But to move the wheels of his majesty’s conscience, the children had to grease them, by a payment of five thousand merks to the donator of escheat, and by relinquishing the estate of Cliftonhall, which the king gave to sir James Sandilands, of Slamanno.

As a striking picture of the state of justice, humanity, and science, in those times, it may be remarked, that this sir James Sandilands, a favourite of the king’s, ex interiore principis familiaritate, who got this estate, which the daughter of one lord of session forfeited, on account of being a witch, did that very year murder another lord of session in the suburbs of Edinburgh, in the public street, without undergoing either trial or punishment. (Source

Like any number of other executed “witches,” this one professed innocence at the scaffold.

Before she was strangled and burnt, the poor woman “tooke it on her conscience that she was innocent of all the crymes layed to her charge.”

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1314: Jacques de Molay, last Templar Grand Master

9 comments March 18th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1314, the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar was burned in Paris.


Illustration of Jacques de Molay and Geoffroi de Charney burning on Paris’s Île de la Cité.

In a boring materialist history, Jacques de Molay was simply the head of an overrich military order whose crusading raison d’etre had become passe* with the Templars’ expulsion from the Holy Land.

Scores of trumped-up heresy charges did the work of ecclesiastical assassination for this renowned brotherhood originally founded to safeguard pilgrims in the Holy Land. (There’s a fine podcast episode on the Templars’ history here.)

This appears to be some sort of legitimate history. How droll!

Ruthless French King Philip the Fair, who owed the Templar banks a ton of cash, mounted in 1307 a, um, surprise nationalization — with the magnificently coordinated arrest of hundreds of members of the order on Friday, Oct. 13, 1307.**

This was, on the face of it, quite an infringement by the secular power upon the Church, but since Pope Clement V was Philip’s very own sock puppet — to the extent of relocating the papacy to Avignon the better to attend to his master — it was all good. Plus, of course, everyone made out with a big pile of loot.

As the interested parties jockeyed over those confiscated estates, there ensued for the once-powerful, now-proscribed order a years-long saga of torture, burnings (of lower-ranking Templars), salacious Baphomet-worship revelations, juridical maneuvering, and, finally, a compromise life-saving confession which Molay and his associate Geoffroi de Charney dramatically spurned.

The cardinals dallied with their duty until March 1314, when, on a scaffold in front of Notre Dame, Jacques de Molay, Templar Grand Master, Geoffroi de Charney, Master of Normandy, Ilugues de Peraud, Visitor of France, and Godefroi de Gonneville, Master of Aquitaine, were brought forth from the jail in which for nearly seven years they had lain, to receive the sentence agreed upon by the cardinals, in conjunction with the Archbishop of Sens and some other prelates whom they had called in. Considering the offences which the culprits had confessed and confirmed, the penance imposed was in accordance with rule—that of perpetual imprisonment. The affair was supposed to be concluded when, to the dismay of the prelates and wonderment of the assembled crowd, de Molay and Geoffroi de Charney arose. They had been guilty, they said, not of the crimes imputed to them, but of basely betraying their Order to save their own lives. It was pure and holy; the charges were fictitious and the confessions false. Hastily the cardinals delivered them to the Prevot of Paris, and retired to deliberate on this unexpected contingency, but they were saved all trouble. ‘When the news was carried to Philippe he was furious. A short consultation with his council only was required. The canons pronounced that a relapsed heretic was to be burned without a hearing; the facts were notorious and no formal judgment by the papal commission need be waited for. That same day, by sunset, a pile was erected on a small island in the Seine, the Isle des Juifs, near the palace garden. There de Molay and de Charney were slowly burned to death, refusing all offers of pardon for retraction, and bearing their torment with a composure which won for them the reputation of martyrs among the people, who reverently collected their ashes as relics.’

A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages, Vol III

Not bad, but the for a real plot twist, check the Templars’ turn — most famously in Dan Brown’s leaden bestseller The Da Vinci Code, but more entertainingly rendered as nonfiction “speculative history” in Holy Blood, Holy Grail — as mystic guardians of Christological secrets.†

Their most sensational secret: the Holy Grail.

In this reworking, the Cup of Christ is not the San Greal but the Sang Real, God’s own royal bloodline, by way (for some reason) of the French Merovingian dynasty.

The Templars and Jacques de Molay himself, this story goes, are just part of a centuries-long vanguard of Christianity’s mystical underground. Say, is that Jacques on the Shroud of Turin?

Thither this blog dares not venture, but those with the requisite inclination towards the occult will find limitless explorations of the theme for ready sale. All we ask, gentle reader, is that you kindly cut us in on the action by using our handy affiliate links.

In what may be yet another mystical just-so story, Molay is said to have foretold, as the flames consumed him, the deaths of his persecutors.

Pope Clement, Chevalier Guillaume de Nogaret [the prosecuting inquisitor], King Philip! I summon you to the Tribunal of Heaven before the year is out!

The curse worked: none of those gentlemen lived to see 1315. Someone, somewhere, has also attributed every bum turn for the French crown since then to Molay’s anathema. There’s a legend that an onlooker at Louis XVI‘s execution dipped his handkerchief in Citizen Capet’s Sang Real and cried out, “Jacques de Molay, tu es vengé!”

* Other expeditions called “Crusades” did continue after the Templars, but Christendom’s occupation of the Holy Land was toast until Lawrence of Arabia days.

** The date of this action is a possible origin of the whole paraskevidekatriaphobia superstition.

† It is a fact that these guys liked sweeping their crusading conquests for supposed holy relics, like this Roman nail recently unveiled from a Templar fort that was reverentially “handled by a lot of people over a long period of time.”

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1751: Thomas Colley, witch-killer

7 comments August 24th, 2009 Headsman

Supposed witches are a staple of history’s scaffold-rolls, and we may well take relief at the passing of this superstition.

England’s last witchcraft executions were in 1682; the law that hanged them was repealed in 1736. But the human story is not confined to parliamentary parchment, and popular belief in witches was not instantly dispelled at the stroke of a pen. Indeed, the belief never has been dispelled altogether.

In our mid-18th-century scene, figures who might have once been thought “witch”-like can now achieve mass-market fame. But old traditions died hard — and on this date* in 1751, Thomas Colley died for believing them to the extent of killing a “witch” himself.

Aging beggar Ruth Osborne got herself on the bad side not of Colley but a Tring farmer prosperously named John Butterfield when she pooh-poohed his refusal to spare her some scraps, and Butterfield’s livestock thereafter got sick.

Obviously, witchcraft!

Whether Butterfield was animated by genuine supernatural paranoia or merely by dick-swinging, he organized a witch-ducking of Ruth and her husband John: organized to the extent of having criers announce it days in advance.

Now, granted, witch-ducking was now illegal. But Mr. Butterfield draws a lot of water in this community, and he turned out a mob to wreck a couple of suspected hiding-places before the two were captured, trussed-up, and paraded to Marlston Meer.**

Butterfield got local yokel Thomas Colley drunk and agitated enough to do for him the dirty work of casting two impoverished souls into a pond so shallow they could scarcely sink, and therefore were obviously guilty for floating. This public torture continued until Ruth died† — Colley prodding the victims with a pole and passing the hat for community underwriting.


“The Ducking of John Osborn”, as reprinted (pdf) by the Hertfordshire Countryside.

Colley was prevailed upon after his conviction to sign a recantation of the belief that had brought him to his inglorious end, a neat inversion of the forced confessions of previous generations’ “witches”, and no less indicative of the operations of power upon the mind as well as the body of the condemned.

GOOD PEOPLE!

I beseech you all to take warning by an unhappy man’s suffering; that you be not deluded into so absurd and wicked a conceit, as to believe that there are any such beings upon earth as witches.

It was that foolish and vain imagination, heightened and inflamed by the strength of liquor, which prompted me to be instrumental (with others as mad-brained as myself) in the horrid and barbarous murder of Ruth Osborne, the supposed witch, for which I am now so deservedly to suffer death.

I am fully convinced of my former error, and with the sincerity of a dying man, declare that I do not believe there is such a thing in being as a witch; and pray God that none of you, through a contrary persuasion, may hereafter be induced to think that you have a right in any shape to persecute, much less endanger the life of a fellow creature.

I beg of you all to pray to God to forgive me, and to wash clean my polluted soul in the blood of Jesus Christ, my saviour and redeemer.

So exhorteth you all, the dying

Thomas Colley

Whatever the state of Thomas Colley’s mind by the time it was strangled by the halter at Gubblecote Cross, Colley’s come-to-the-Enlightenment moment didn’t exactly impress his former audience.

[T]he infatuation of the greatest part of the country people was so great that they would not be spectators of his death (perhaps from a consciousness of being present at the murder as well as he); yet many thousands stood at a distance to see him go, grumbling and muttering that it was a hard case to hang a man for destroying an old wicked woman that had done so much damage by her witchcraft.‡

As if to prove the point, it is said that Colley’s spirit has haunted the area ever since — in the form of a big black dog. (Colley – collie, is that it?)

* Some sources (incorrectly) give August 22nd as the date of the hanging, which might be a confusion with April 22nd, the date of the crime. Similarly, the Newgate calendar dates Thomas Colley’s hanging to April 24th, which is certainly wrong.

** “It only became possible to restrain collective violence towards witches in England … when from 1856 onwards a paid and uniformed police force came into existence. Up to that point the elected, non-professional constable or his deputy had kept well out of incidents of this sort or had even supported his fellow villagers in their infamous activities.” (Source)

† John Osborne is often reported to have died hours after he was pulled alive from the pond, but at least some (pdf) contemporaneous sources seem to indicate that he lived on and even stayed in the area — where nobody would hire him because of his wizardry stigma.

‡ Cited in W.B. Carnochan, “Witch-Hunting and Belief in 1751: The Case of Thomas Colley and Ruth Osborne” Journal of Social History, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Summer, 1971).

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1809: Mary Bateman, the Yorkshire Witch

4 comments March 20th, 2009 Headsman

It’s the bicentennial today of the unnatural passing of the Yorkshire witch.

Mary Bateman ran her fraudulent fortune-telling business under the name “Mrs. Moore”, and had some years’ success separating fools from their money without running afoul of the law.

In fact, she outlived her fatal crime — plying with poisoned puddings a bilked couple, lest they realize their medium was defrauding them — by months, even continuing to leach money off the surviving husband after her ministrations had killed the wife.

Let’s just say she knew how to pick her clientele.

When the sucker finally got wise to the scam,* the jig was up for Mary in a sensational trial. (It’s recounted at length here — and capped by what must have a grimly comic spectacle when Mary attempted to plead her belly and the women in the courtroom bolted for the exits to avoid impaneling on a jury of matrons to adjudge the claim. The judge ordered the doors shut up before his jury pool could escape.)

Three days after conviction, she was hanged at York Castle before a crowd of thousands, who subsequently paid (.pdf) to see her corpse (and to get cured cuts of her skin as charms: even unto death, Mary had ’em swallowing her snake oil).

After execution, Mary Bateman’s body was given over for dissection in Leeds — remaining a curio worthy of public preservation to this day at that city’s Thackray Medical Museum. (Update: The museum reports that Ms. Bateman’s remains were only on loan from Leeds University, and have since been returned.)

* Source of enlightenment? Not the death of his wife, but the fact that magical financial windfalls promised by the Yorkshire witch had failed to materialize after two-plus years of paying her.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions,Theft,Women

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