Unspecified Year: Tess of the d’Urbervilles

2 comments July 28th, 2011 Headsman

On an unspecified July date in an unspecified late-19th century year, the title character of Thomas Hardy‘s Tess of the d’Urbervilles was hanged for murder.

Recent film adaptations of Tess of the D’Urbervilles. The book is available free from Gutenberg.org.

The heroine, “goodness made interesting” — or “A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented,” in the words of the subtitle — has been torn between the man she loves, Angel Clare, and one she loathes, Alec d’Urberville. Alec’s early, unwelcome attentions lead him to forcibly deflower young Tess, and the revelation that she is not a virgin ultimately shatters her prospectively happy marriage to Angel.

Years later, Angel returns from seeking his fortune in Brazil to find Tess miserably wed to her onetime rapist. But no sooner has Tess sent Angel away than she chases him down in the streets of Sandbourne.

“Angel,” she said, as if waiting for this, “do you know what I have been running after you for? To tell you that I have killed him!” A pitiful white smile lit her face as she spoke.

“What!” said he, thinking from the strangeness of her manner that she was in some delirium.

“I have done it — I don’t know how,” she continued. “Still, I owed it to you, and to myself, Angel. I feared long ago, when I struck him on the mouth with my glove, that I might do it some day for the trap he set for me in my simple youth, and his wrong to you through me. He has come between us and ruined us, and now he can never do it any more.”

The two flee together overland, intending to wait out the search that must pursue them and slip away to a ship. They have a few days’ idyllic refuge in an abandoned house, and at once blissful and tragic, Tess foreshadows her fate:

“I fear that what you think of me now may not last. I do not wish to outlive your present feeling for me. I would rather not. I would rather be dead and buried when the time comes for you to despise me, so that it may never be known to me that you despised me.”

Finally forced to move on, they cinematically take their rest at Stonehenge — Tess literally sleeping on an altar.


One of the illustrations of the original serialized version of Tess.

There they are captured — on a pagan shrine, their love long frustrated in its licit form, at last fulfilled on the lam. (“Fulfillment” is the title of the novel’s last section.)

Hardy wastes no words on his heroine’s travail with the judiciary, which is merely inexorable.

The city of Wintoncester, that fine old city, aforetime capital of Wessex, lay amidst its convex and concave downlands in all the brightness and warmth of a July morning. The gabled brick, tile, and freestone houses had almost dried off for the season their integument of lichen, the streams in the meadows were low, and in the sloping High Street, from the West Gateway to the mediæval cross, and from the mediæval cross to the bridge, that leisurely dusting and sweeping was in progress which usually ushers in an old-fashioned market-day.

From the western gate aforesaid the highway, as every Wintoncestrian knows, ascends a long and regular incline of the exact length of a measured mile, leaving the houses gradually behind. Up this road from the precincts of the city two persons were walking rapidly, as if unconscious of the trying ascent — unconscious through preoccupation and not through buoyancy. They had emerged upon this road through a narrow, barred wicket in a high wall a little lower down. They seemed anxious to get out of the sight of the houses and of their kind, and this road appeared to offer the quickest means of doing so. Though they were young, they walked with bowed heads, which gait of grief the sun’s rays smiled on pitilessly.

One of the pair was Angel Clare, the other a tall budding creature — half girl, half woman — a spiritualized image of Tess, slighter than she, but with the same beautiful eyes — Clare’s sister-in-law, ‘Liza-Lu. Their pale faces seemed to have shrunk to half their natural size. They moved on hand in hand, and never spoke a word, the drooping of their heads being that of Giotto’s “Two Apostles”.

When they had nearly reached the top of the great West Hill the clocks in the town struck eight. Each gave a start at the notes, and, walking onward yet a few steps, they reached the first milestone, standing whitely on the green margin of the grass, and backed by the down, which here was open to the road. They entered upon the turf, and, impelled by a force that seemed to overrule their will, suddenly stood still, turned, and waited in paralyzed suspense beside the stone.

The prospect from this summit was almost unlimited. In the valley beneath lay the city they had just left, its more prominent buildings showing as in an isometric drawing — among them the broad cathedral tower, with its Norman windows and immense length of aisle and nave, the spires of St Thomas’s, the pinnacled tower of the College, and, more to the right, the tower and gables of the ancient hospice, where to this day the pilgrim may receive his dole of bread and ale. Behind the city swept the rotund upland of St Catherine’s Hill; further off, landscape beyond landscape, till the horizon was lost in the radiance of the sun hanging above it.

Against these far stretches of country rose, in front of the other city edifices, a large red-brick building, with level gray roofs, and rows of short barred windows bespeaking captivity, the whole contrasting greatly by its formalism with the quaint irregularities of the Gothic erections. It was somewhat disguised from the road in passing it by yews and evergreen oaks, but it was visible enough up here. The wicket from which the pair had lately emerged was in the wall of this structure. From the middle of the building an ugly flat-topped octagonal tower ascended against the east horizon, and viewed from this spot, on its shady side and against the light, it seemed the one blot on the city’s beauty. Yet it was with this blot, and not with the beauty, that the two gazers were concerned.

Upon the cornice of the tower a tall staff was fixed. Their eyes were riveted on it. A few minutes after the hour had struck something moved slowly up the staff, and extended itself upon the breeze. It was a black flag.

“Justice” was done, and the President of the Immortals, in Aeschylean phrase, had ended his sport with Tess. And the d’Urberville knights and dames slept on in their tombs unknowing. The two speechless gazers bent themselves down to the earth, as if in prayer, and remained thus a long time, absolutely motionless: the flag continued to wave silently. As soon as they had strength, they arose, joined hands again, and went on.

Among the numerous potential inspirations for the character of Tess was a woman we have already met in these pages: Elizabeth Martha Brown, an battered wife who slew her husband. The teenaged Hardy saw her publicly executed one rainy morning in Dorset in 1856.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Fictional,Hanged,Murder,Sex,Uncertain Dates,Women

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1856: Elizabeth Martha Brown, Tess of the D’Urbervilles inspiration

3 comments August 9th, 2010 Headsman

On a drizzly morning this date in 1856, Elizabeth Martha Brown (or Browne) was hanged for murder as a young and fascinated Thomas Hardy looked on.

Brown was born Clark(e), but she took the name of a husband 20 years younger than she, which is how she got into this mess.

Said John Brown was rumored to have made the match for money, though his older wife sure seems to have held her own in the looks department. (More on that in a bit.)

In due time, John afflicted their already-tempestuous wedded life with an affair — courtesy of one Mary Davis, a young woman stuck in her own unhappy May-December marriage.

According to the confession Elizabeth provided two days before her own death, she had a fantastic row with her drunken husband when he came home at 2 a.m. one night and Elizabeth accused him of being

“to Mary Davis’s?”

He then kicked out the bottom of the chair on which I had been sitting, and we continued quarrelling until 3 o’clock, when he struck me a severe blow on the side of the head, which confused me so much I was obliged to sit down.

He then said (supper being on the table at the time) “Eat it yourself and be damned,” and reached down from the mantelpiece a heavy hand whip, with a plaited head and struck me across the shoulders with it 3 times, and every time I screamed out I said “if you strike me again, I will cry murder” He replied “if you do I will knock your brains through the window,” and said hoped he should find me dead in the morning, and then kicked me on the left side, which caused me much pain.

He immediately stooped down to unbuckle his boots, and being much enraged, and in an ungovernable passion at being so abused and struck, I seized a hatchet that was lying close to where I sat, and which I had been making use of to break coal for keeping up the fire to keep his supper warm, and struck him several violent blows on the head – I could not say how many – and he fell at the first blow on his side, with his face to the fireplace and he never spoke or moved afterwards.

Unfortunately, this confession broke a protracted* attempt to stick to an implausible “the horse kicked him dead” story whose maintenance seriously complicated any bid to secure clemency for the woman.

She received, instead, a different kind of life: literary immortality that hardly any in Dorchester that gray morning could have aspired to.

Thomas Hardy, not yet the canonical novelist famous enough for his own Monty Python sketch but a 16-year-old architectural apprentice, was among the three or four thousand who braved the inclement weather to witness Brown’s hanging** — the mandatory sentence then for a circumstance the courts would handle differently today.

Even seven decades later, Hardy could recall the vividly sensual effect of this macabre scene.

I saw — they had put a cloth over the face — how, as the cloth got wet, her features came through it. That was extraordinary.

and

I remember what a fine figure she showed against the sky as she hung in the misty rain and how the tight black silk gown set off her shape as she wheeled half round and back.

Recent film adaptations of Tess of the D’Urbervilles. The book is available free from Gutenberg.org.

In both her tragic life and her hempen death, Brown is thought to have informed Hardy’s title character in the 1891 novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles, slyly subtitled “A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented.”

“Justice” was done, and the President of the Immortals, in Aeschylean phrase, had ended his sport with Tess.

-Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles

* Everything is relative, of course. In Brown’s instance, less than five weeks separated murder from execution, so she had scarcely had time to be obstinate about withholding the confession.

** Brown was said to have died with great firmness, and the report from the scaffold brings us the classically Victorian detail that executioner William Calcraft, having departed the platform to spring the trap after pinioning his prisoner, was obliged to make a return trip when he realized he’d forgotten to tie down her dress against any immodest billowing.

An ironic precaution, given that we remember this hanging precisely because of Hardy’s captivation with the more refined eroticism of the “wet hanging gown contest” tableau.

Part of the Themed Set: Thomas Hardy.

On this day..

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

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1402: False Olaf

2 comments September 28th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1402, a Prussian commoner was put to death on the road between Falsterbo and Skanor in Sweden for masquerading as the long-dead King Olaf IV.

The real Oluf IV Haakonsson — or Olav, or Olaf — had inherited the crowns of Denmark and Norway and a claim to that of Sweden’s but died at the age of 17 in 1387. His mother, Margaret I (or Margrethe I), the real power behind the teenager, ruled outright upon her son’s death.

She proved an able hand and far-sighted ruler, cautiously welding Denmark, Sweden and Norway into the Kalmar Union that would hold until the 16th century. They called her “the Semiramis of the North,” centuries before Catherine the Great nicked the nickname.

But her son’s youthful demise had set persistent rumors abroad — that he was poisoned, for instance, and more to the point for our purposes, that he wasn’t dead at all.

So when his spitting image was recognized, and hailed as the prince of the realm … well, back in the day, equally audacious identity theft was attempted for much smaller stakes than a throne.

Anyway, “Olaf” got some robes befitting Olaf’s station and banged out some letters to Margaret demanding his kingdom back, and Margaret said, come on down.

That goes to show how far looks will take you in life.

Unfortunately for Olaf, his regal jawline wasn’t capable of enunciating Danish speech … so the jig was up as soon as he got to Margaret. One hopes he got a good ride out of his brief masquerade, because he was burned to ashes — possibly after being broken on the wheel — along with those presumptuous letters.

The date of False Olaf’s death comes from Horace Marryat’s 19th century Scandinavian travelogues, One Year in Sweden; including a visit to the isle of Gotland and A Residence in Jutland, the Danish Isles, and Copenhagen (both free reads at Google Books). In both volumes, Marryat identifies the date as the morning before Michaelmas.

The traditional last day of the harvest season celebrated on September 29, Michaelmas was once a four-star holiday on the medieval calendar.

There’s a fair amount of commentary online saying that an “Old Michaelmas” used to be celebrated on October 10 or 11. But that looks to this writer like an interesting inversion stemming ultimately from the celebration’s fall into obscurity as the entity once known as Christendom has become more secular and less agrarian — although it’s admittedly nothing to do with the fate of False Olaf, or Semiramis for that matter.

In 1752, when England finally switched to the Gregorian Calendar, the switch took place in early September.*

For logistical pragmatism (the harvest wasn’t going to come in 11 days earlier just because the calendar changed), the then-imminent Michaelmas got pushed back 11 days to October 10. October 10 then became known as “Old Michaelmas,” no longer Michaelmas by the church calendar but the 365-day interval from when it used to be celebrated, and more importantly, the real end of the harvest season.**

In the next century, the difference between Julian and Gregorian calendars would have advanced to 12 days, placing Old Michaelmas on the 11th; by this present day, it’d be 13 days in principle, but the original meaning of the holiday and the host of cultural traditions associated with it have fallen away … so “Old Michaelmas” is a footnote still pinned to October 10th or 11th, and moderns rediscovering it suppose from the name that it’s the former date of the feast.

* People inclined to think of their death dates as foreordained in heaven’s celestial notebook protested the switch: “give us back our 11 days!” This reform, incidentally, also moved the official beginning of the New Year to January 1 from Michaelmas’ springtime “Quarter Day” counterpart, March 25; winter dates from years prior are often written with both years, e.g. 1738/9. “Old Lady Day“, April 6, is still the beginning of the fiscal year in England, and Thomas Hardy uses its traditional contractual character in Tess of the D’Urbervilles (Aside: Tess’s hanged real-life inspiration) when the title character takes a farm job running through that date:

Tess was so wrapt up in this fanciful dream that she seemed not to know how the season was advancing; that the days had lengthened, that Lady-Day was at hand, and would soon be followed by Old Lady-Day, the end of her term …

At length it was the eve of Old Lady-Day, and the agricultural world was in a fever of mobility such as only occurs at that particular date of the year. It is a day of fulfilment; agreements for outdoor service during the ensuing year, entered into at Candlemas, are to be now carried out. The labourers — or “work-folk”, as they used to call themselves immemorially till the other word was introduced from without — who wish to remain no longer in old places are removing to the new farms.

… With the younger families it was a pleasant excitement which might possibly be an advantage. The Egypt of one family was the Land of Promise to the family who saw it from a distance, till by residence there it became it turn their Egypt also; and so they changed and changed.

** Residents of the former Soviet Republics who switched to the Gregorian calendar in the 20th century still celebrate both the familiar January 1 New Year’s and “Old New Year’s” 13 days later, and the same trick with the (lesser, there) holiday of Christmas too … packing four party occasions into a three-week span.

Part of the Themed Set: Semiramis.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,20th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,Hanged,History,Known But To God,Murder,No Formal Charge,Power,Pretenders to the Throne,Prussia,Public Executions,Summary Executions,Sweden,Treason

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