1526: Bianca Maria Gaspardone, the Insatiate Countess

Add comment October 20th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1526, Bianca Maria Gaspardone was beheaded at Milan’s Castello di Porta Giova, the present-day Castello Sforzesco.

She was only about 26 years old, but onto her second* dynastic marriage — this to Renato di Challant.

As the story was later recorded in Matteo Bandello‘s Novelle,** the young woman had wealth and options, and with her husband off fighting in Milan’s war against France, she indulged a series of boudoir intrigues — critically for our purposes, one Ardizzino Valperga, Count of Masino.

Per Bandello, the Lady of Challant grew annoyed by him and tried to dispose of him by provoking a quarrel between he and another of her lovers, the Count of Gaiazzo — but the two men compared notes and simply arrived at a mutual contempt for her.

The count made the sign of the cross, and all full of wonder said: Fie, shameless slut that she is. If it weren’t a dishonor for a knight to imbrue his hands in the blood of a woman, I would gouge out her tongue through the back of her neck; but first I would like her to confess how many times she begged me with her arms on the cross, that I have you killed! And so they repeated in public and private the crimes of this dishonest woman until they were on every person’s lips. She, hearing what these gentlemen said about her, even if she pretended no concern for it, was angry with indignation and thought of nothing else but to be highly avenged.

It was in those days in Milan there was one Don Pietro di Cardona, a Sicilian, who governed the company of his legitimate brother Don Artale. This Don Pietro was a young man of twenty-two, dark-faced but proportionate in body and melancholy appearance, who one day seeing Mrs. Bianca Maria fell wildly in love with her. She judging him to be a pigeon of first feather and instrument capable of doing what she so longed for, lured him to better ensnare and dazzle him. He, who had never before loved a woman of account, considering her to be one of the first in Milan, pined miserably for her sake. In the end she made it one night to go and sleep with him, and took such loving pleasure together that he believed himself to be the happiest lover in the world, and not long after asked the young man to kill the Count of Gaiazzo and Signor Ardizzino.

Don Pietro obligingly ambushed Signor Ardizzino and did him to death. Arrested thereafter, he was equally obliging in giving up his paramour as the moving spirit, and she foolishly admitted as much by trying to bribe her way out of trouble.

Don Pietro was permitted to flee from prison. But the unfortunate young woman, having confirmed her lover’s confession with her own mouth, was condemned to have her head cut off. She, having heard this sentence, and not knowing that Don Pietro had run away, could not be prepared to die. At the end, being led onto the ravelin of the castle facing the square and seeing the block, she began to cry in despair and beg for the grace that, if they wanted her to die happy, they would let her see her Don Pietro; but she sang to the deaf. So the poor woman was beheaded. And whoever longs to see her face portrayed in life, should go to the Chiesa del Monastero Maggiore, and there he will see her painted.


Bandello’s closing remark about her painting has commonly been understood to claim her as the model for this fresco of Saint Catherine of Alexandria by Leonardo da Vinci follower Bernardino Luini (1530). More recent research has cast doubt on that notion: scholars now prefer to reckon her image as that of a kneeling patron (along with her first husband) in a different image.

This tale made its way from Bandello’s pen into subsequent literature, notably a Jacobean English sex-romp tragedy called The Insatiate Countess, and a 19th century Italian play, La Signora di Challant; the whole thing appears overall to have unrealized potential for digital-age revival as sultry costume drama for prestige television.

* First hubby Ermes Visconti was beheaded in 1519.

** Bandello’s Novelle stories, which mix history and folklore, also include a version of the pre-Shakespeare Italian Romeo and Juliet drama.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Italy,Milan,Murder,Nobility,Public Executions,Scandal,Sex,Women

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

25: Aulus Cremutius Cordus

Add comment February 9th, 2020 Tacitus

(Thanks for the guest post to Roman Senator and historian Tacitus. It originally appeared in Book IV, Chapter 34 of his Annals, and concerns the undated death of a historian some 30 years before Tacitus’s birth, Aulus Cremutius Cordus — accused of treasonable historying during the oppressive reign of Tiberius.)

In the year of the consulship of Cornelius Cossus and Asinius Agrippa, Cremutius Cordus was arraigned on a new charge, now for the first time heard. He had published a history in which he had praised Marcus Brutus and called Caius Cassius the last of the Romans. His accusers were Satrius Secundus and Pinarius Natta, creatures of Sejanus. This was enough to ruin the accused; and then too the emperor listened with an angry frown to his defence, which Cremutius, resolved to give up his life, began thus: —

Then is there one Cremutius
Cordus, a writing fellow, they have got
To gather notes of the precedent times,
And make them into Annals; a most tart
And bitter spirit, I hear; who, under colour
Of praising those, doth tax the present state,
Censures the men, the actions, leaves no trick,
No practice unexamined, parallels
The times, the governments; a profest champion
For the old liberty.

-The Sejanus character from the 1603 Ben Jonson play Sejanus His Fall. Shakespeare himself appeared in this play when it was performed; however, it was not performed for long and its author was menaced by the Privy Council … seemingly because authorities believed that it “tax[ed] the present state” of late Elizabethan/early Jacobean politics as veiled comment on purged English elites like the Earl of Essex or Walter Raleigh.

It is my words, Senators, which are condemned, so innocent am I of any guilty act; yet these do not touch the emperor or the emperor’s mother, who are alone comprehended under the law of treason. I am said to have praised Brutus and Cassius, whose careers many have described and no one mentioned without eulogy. Titus Livius [Livy], pre-eminently famous for eloquence and truthfulness, extolled Cneius Pompeius in such a panegyric that Augustus called him Pompeianus, and yet this was no obstacle to their friendship. Scipio, Afranius, this very Cassius, this same Brutus, he nowhere describes as brigands and traitors, terms now applied to them, but repeatedly as illustrious men. Asinius Pollio‘s writings too hand down a glorious memory of them, and Messala Corvinus used to speak with pride of Cassius as his general. Yet both these men prospered to the end with wealth and preferment. Again, that book of Marcus Cicero, in which he lauded Cato to the skies, how else was it answered by Caesar the dictator, than by a written oration in reply, as if he was pleading in court? The letters of Antonius, the harangues of Brutus contain reproaches against Augustus, false indeed, but urged with powerful sarcasm; the poems which we read of Bibaculus and Catullus are crammed with invectives on the Caesars. Yet the Divine Julius, the Divine Augustus themselves bore all this and let it pass, whether in forbearance or in wisdom I cannot easily say. Assuredly what is despised is soon forgotten; when you resent a thing, you seem to recognise it.

Of the Greeks I say nothing; with them not only liberty, but even license went unpunished, or if a person aimed at chastising, he retaliated on satire by satire. It has, however, always been perfectly open to us without any one to censure, to speak freely of those whom death has withdrawn alike from the partialities of hatred or esteem. Are Cassius and Brutus now in arms on the fields of Philippi, and am I with them rousing the people by harangues to stir up civil war? Did they not fall more than seventy years ago, and as they are known to us by statues which even the conqueror did not destroy, so too is not some portion of their memory preserved for us by historians? To every man posterity gives his due honour, and, if a fatal sentence hangs over me, there will be those who will remember me as well as Cassius and Brutus.

He then left the Senate and ended his life by starvation. His books, so the Senators decreed, were to be burnt by the aediles; but some copies were left which were concealed and afterwards published. And so one is all the more inclined to laugh at the stupidity of men who suppose that the despotism of the present can actually efface the remembrances of the next generation. On the contrary, the persecution of genius fosters its influence; foreign tyrants, and all who have imitated their oppression, have merely procured infamy for themselves and glory for their victims.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Intellectuals,Italy,Other Voices,Roman Empire,Starved,Treason,Uncertain Dates

Tags: , , , , ,

1894: Abbe Albert Bruneau

Add comment August 30th, 2018 Headsman

French priest Albert Bruneau was guillotined on this date in 1894 for murder. (Most of the available information about this case is in French, as are most of the links in this post.)

The Abbe‘s protests of innocence fell on deaf ears considering his history of degeneracy — thefts, seductions, even firing his own parsonage for the insurance money — stretching back to his seminarian days.

He’d been condemned for killing that January at Entrammes another priest, Abbe Fricot — whose body had wound up plundered of valuables and dropped down a well. This epidemic of priest-on-priest violence made for a tremendous public sensation that certainly was not conducive to Bruneau’s efforts to defend himself. Once he became suspected of Fricot’s murder, he was also baselessly implicated in (though never charged with) the unsolved killing of a Laval florist from the previous year.

A thread on guillotine.cultureforum.net draws our attention not only to some wonderful original reportage but to the riveting first-person account of Henri Massonneau in his Devant l’Echafaud (In Front of the Scaffold, available free online from Google Books or Gallica). Massonneau recounts the fury in Laval, where crowds expecting the execution a couple of days previously pelted the prison with taunts for the condemned man.

Bruneau’s cell, very tall in the tower of the Vieux Château, was illuminated. The mobs were screaming:

“Bruneau! It’s for this night! You will dance!”

In the night spots around the city, Massonneau even heard patrons grumbling for the head of Bruneau’s barrister, for having dared to defend the monster.

The magistrate and energetic proto-true crime scribbler Pierre Bouchardon* took up l’Affaire de l’Abbe Bruneau in 1942 and thought the legal proceedings inexcusably slipshod owing to the prejudicial atmosphere. (Unfortunately his Le Puits du Presbytere d’Entrammes (The Well of the Presbytery of Entrammes) falls under the pall of copyright and must be hunted among sellers of antique francophone titles.) Many other retrospectives have reached a similar conclusion.

We return to Massonneau, who has caught wind on the evening of August 29 that the beheading will take place early the next day, and even secured for himself entry into the prison to observe Bruneau’s last hours:

At half-past two in the morning, the van carrying the guillotine arrives, escorted by six gendarmes, at the Place de la Justice. This square is planted with tall trees and surrounded by stone terminals connected by chains. To allow the van to enter the square, the chains at the extreme angles had to be sawed. The square has been evacuated, but the windows of the neighboring houses are full of curiosity, and the square of the Cathedral which opens directly on the place du Palais de Justice, following it, is black with people.

We will attend the spectacle. But there will not be gladiators fighting wild beasts, nor bullfights, nor athletes measuring themselves: it will be the law that will kill an unarmed man. There are men, women, children, bourgeois, farmers, workers, many priests. Kids have climbed into the trees. We can not dislodge them. There are six thousand people around the guillotine. It’s a grand success. The weather is superb, the night is even hot.

From a distance, the crowd follows the assembly of the guillotine. When the sinister machine stands up, erect in the night, joy breaks out. We are finally quiet: Bruneau will be executed. The hour passes. My colleagues and I are entering the prison, but we are numerous and the Prosecutor of the Republic informs us that we will not be able to enter the cell of the convict. We will have to wait for him in the chapel where he will come to hear his last mass. From that moment, we will not leave him.

The magistrates entered his cell at 4 o’clock. Bruneau did not sleep. The Public Prosecutor said to him:

“Bruneau, courage. The time has arrived.”

Bruneau looked around, haggard. Then he said:

“Can I get up?”

“Yes, dress up.”

He put on his pants. The prosecutor asked him if he had a confession to make.

“No,” he replied, “I am innocent, not only of the crimes for which I was acquitted, but also of the one for which I was condemned. I only committed indecent assaults. I am innocent.” He delivered a letter to the Prosecutor.

“You will read it,” he said, “at the same time as my advocate, and you will deliver it to the public.”

In this letter, Bruneau again protests his innocence and says he forgives those who have hurt him. The letter was not published. Despite claiming to forgive them, Bruneau leveled slanderous accusations against some witnesses of the trial.

I go down to the chapel. It is located in a basement. From the chandeliers, a dozen candles flicker a dim light. Soon the chapel is full of people … I have never seen a scene more moving than the appearance of Bruneau in the chapel. He has come down at a brisk pace the twenty steps that lead to it. He wears his beard, very black, which gives him a remarkably energetic appearance. His foot scarcely leaving the last step, the condemned stiffens, and with a sudden movement turns towards the holy water font. His arms are shackled and he must make an incredible effort to take holy water. He looks like an automaton. He crosses himself, not without difficulty, then with a sure step approaches the high altar. There, he drops to his knees. A thump sounds. Bruneau seems lost in a chasm of prayer.

The chaplain approaches him and speaks to him in a low voice; Bruneau resumes his prayer; the chaplain comes to ask the prosecutor for permission to isolate himself with the condemned man to hear his confession. The prosecutor hesitates, but consents in the end. The chaplain returns near Bruneau, helps him get up, and they both head for a corner of the chapel hidden by a curtain. They disappear behind it. Two guards come to stand near the curtain.

The confession lasts ten endless minutes. Finally, Bruneau comes to take his place, on his knees, in front of the maître-hôtel. And the mass begins. Another twenty minutes pass. The assistants suffer visibly for the convict throughout; Bruneau communes. Finally the ceremony is over. Bruneau, before going out, again takes holy water, and he has the same difficulties as before. He is very calm. He climbs the stairs without weakness. It feels like a man walking in a dream. From the chapel, one goes into the courtyard to go to the registry where the last toilette is to be made. It is a small room on the ground floor. Through the door, left open, I attend these funereal preparations. Quietly, without affectation, he says he is hungry. It’s a new delay. Priests usually eat immediately after communion. It is habit that he is hungry.

He leaves the registry. I run forward and I come near the scaffold. The police commissioner who is there says to me: “It’s not him already?”

“Yes, yes, here he is.”

“But it’s impossible! It is not legal time. I cannot yet permit the execution.”

Then all that I thought during the Mass about the mental state of the condemned returns to me, and I say to the commissioner:

“Well! Have a chair brought there, near the guillotine, and sit down until it is legal time. I’m sure he will not protest … ”

“No, no, it’s not possible,” he said. “We have to wait for the hour.”

And he makes as if to go to the prison, just as the procession emerges. I stop him:

“Do not worry for so little. In Paris, we always guillotine before the hour.”

“You think?”

“I’m sure.”

“Ah! so …”

Bruneau is near the scaffold. It is exactly 4:47. Legally, indeed, it is at 5:15 that the execution should have taken place. We are half an hour ahead. Bruneau has crossed without faltering the two hundred meters that separate the prison from the scaffold. Contrary to all the condemned, he does not want to see the guillotine. Two meters from the bascule he turns his head with affectation so as not to behold it. The chaplain presents him a crucifix. Bruneau kisses it twice, then he drops into the arms of the chaplain and kisses it for a long time.

The executioner’s assistants seize him but he tears free with a sudden movement and turns to the chaplain begging again to kiss the cross. He can not take his lips off the crucifix. The chaplain speaks to him, exhorts him to courage, and with a movement of exquisite gentleness pushes him towards the assistants who seize him and precipitate him onto the bascule.

When Bruneau entered the Palace Square, a huge “Ah!” came out of the crowd. But once he is here, we hear no sound; no word is uttered; nobody budges. Bruneau’s struggle against death at the foot of the scaffold lasted two minutes, two centuries.

The knife falls. Society is avenged. Its representatives on the Cathedral Square record this victory by frantic applause. It is interminable, already, the head is thrown in the basket with the body, the basket in the van, and the van rolls towards the cemetery. The crowd is still clapping. By the Place du Pilier-Vert, the Place des Arts, the Rue Neuve, the Pont-Neuf, the Rue de la Paix, in ten minutes the convoy arrives at the cemetery, between two curious hedges. Since three before days the pit was dug and the coffin was waiting.

Bruneau is buried at the end of an alley on the right, in the section of mass graves. The following year, passing Laval, I went to the cemetery. I found in front of the tomb two kneeling nuns who were praying. Many people, indeed, in the religious world, did not believe the culpability of Bruneau. But it is incorrect, as has been said, as I myself reported then, that the bishop of Laval made every effort to obtain pardon for the condemned. The bishop of Laval was stricken with immense sadness when Bruneau’s crimes were discovered. He cried, remained silent, and died of sorrow.

Wikipedia claims that the scandal of the murderer-priest inspired the French journalist Paul Bourde‘s 1902 play Nos deux consciences (Our Two Consciences), a piece adapted to cinema by Alfred Hitchcock in 1953 as I Confess. (review)

* Most famously, Bouchardon prosecuted Mata Hari.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,Murder,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Theft

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

1483: William Hastings, trusting too much

Add comment June 13th, 2018 Headsman

This honourable man, a good knight and a gentle; of living somewhat dissolute; plain and open to his enemy, secret to his friend, easy to beguile, as he that of good heart and courage forestudieth no perils; a loving man, and passing well-beloved; very faithful, and trusty enough — trusting too much.

Thomas More‘s assessment of William Hastings

The Baron Hastings arose this date as the trusted councillor of the Lord Protector. Before dinner, he’d had his head chopped off over a log in the Tower of London.


Lord Hastings sported this fancy badge of a handsomely endowed manticore.
Richard III, Act 3, Scene 4
by William Shakespeare

Richard III (Duke of Gloucester).
I pray you all, tell me what they deserve
That do conspire my death with devilish plots
Of damned witchcraft, and that have prevail’d
Upon my body with their hellish charms?

Lord Hastings.
The tender love I bear your grace, my lord,
Makes me most forward in this noble presence
To doom the offenders, whatsoever they be
I say, my lord, they have deserved death.

Richard III (Duke of Gloucester).
Then be your eyes the witness of this ill:
See how I am bewitch’d; behold mine arm
Is, like a blasted sapling, wither’d up:
And this is Edward’s wife, that monstrous witch,
Consorted with that harlot strumpet Shore,
That by their witchcraft thus have marked me.

Lord Hastings.
If they have done this thing, my gracious lord —

Richard III (Duke of Gloucester).
If? thou protector of this damned strumpet —
Tellest thou me of ‘ifs’? Thou art a traitor:
Off with his head! Now, by Saint Paul I swear,
I will not dine until I see the same.
Lovel and Ratcliff, look that it be done:
The rest, that love me, rise and follow me.

[Exeunt all but HASTINGS, RATCLIFF, and LOVEL]

Lord Hastings.
Woe, woe for England! not a whit for me;
For I, too fond, might have prevented this.
Stanley did dream the boar did raze his helm;
But I disdain’d it, and did scorn to fly:
Three times to-day my foot-cloth horse did stumble,
And startled, when he look’d upon the Tower,
As loath to bear me to the slaughter-house.
O, now I want the priest that spake to me:
I now repent I told the pursuivant
As ’twere triumphing at mine enemies,
How they at Pomfret bloodily were butcher’d,
And I myself secure in grace and favour.
O Margaret, Margaret, now thy heavy curse
Is lighted on poor Hastings’ wretched head!

Sir Richard Ratcliff.
Dispatch, my lord; the duke would be at dinner:
Make a short shrift; he longs to see your head.

Lord Hastings.
O momentary grace of mortal men,
Which we more hunt for than the grace of God!
Who builds his hopes in air of your good looks,
Lives like a drunken sailor on a mast,
Ready, with every nod, to tumble down
Into the fatal bowels of the deep.

Lord Lovel.
Come, come, dispatch; ’tis bootless to exclaim.

Lord Hastings.
O bloody Richard! miserable England!
I prophesy the fearful’st time to thee
That ever wretched age hath look’d upon.
Come, lead me to the block; bear him my head.
They smile at me that shortly shall be dead.

A longtime Yorkist pillar during the Wars of the Roses, Hastings parlayed his many years of proximity to King Edward IV into still-extant architectural glories like Ashby Castle and Kirby Castle.

Of greater moment for the pivotal year of 1483 was Hastings’s bitter enmity with the Woodville family — the kin of widowed queen when Edward died suddenly in 1483. In his life, the king had checked the rivalry between Woodvilles and York magnates. But “the king’s death at once broke up the unity of the court, the peace of the country, and the fortunes of the house of York.”

Before Edward’s body went cold, both factions raced into the power vacuum: the heir was a 12-year-old who wasn’t event present in the capital when his father died. Power in the realm hinged on the actions of men like Hastings in April and May of 1483.

And Hastings made the most of his moment — to his own later grief. While the Woodvilles flexed during the first days of the regency, Hastings drug his feet, threatened to start a civil war, and successfully negotiated for the respective sides to minimize their armed retinues when they arrived for the coronation of young Edward V. He also wrote urgently to the new de facto captain of Team York, the late king’s brother, Richard of Gloucester.

Hastening to answer the call, Gloucester hijacked a too-lax royal convoy en route to London, acquiring custody of the heir, and rolled into town that May as the master of both the boy king’s person and the political situation. Edward V and his brother were the urchins destined to disappear into the Tower of London; Gloucester would eventually crown himself King Richard III. The Woodvilles fled from power and danger, to the sanctuary of an obliging cathedral.

Big win for Bill Hastings, right? He

was extremely elated at these changes to which the affairs of the world are so subject, and was in the habit of saying that hitherto nothing whatever had been done except the transferring of the government of the kingdom from two of the queen’s blood to two more powerful persons of the king’s; and this, too, effected without any slaughter, or indeed causing as much blood to be shed as would be produced by the cut of a finger. In the course, however, of a very few days after the utterance of these words, this extreme of joy of his supplanted with sorrow. (Croyland Chronicle)

The sorrow arrived like a thunderbolt at a particularly infamous royal council meeting on June 13, 1483, when Gloucester seemingly out of nowhere denounced Hastings as a traitor, along with three others. The others we set aside; they were politically insulated from membership in the pages of Executed Today. But not so Hastings, who was detailed for immediate beheading on Gloucester’s say-so, and never mind the trial.

Politics on this plane was intrinsically cutthroat; nevertheless, this shock destruction of an essential ally puts Richard in a pretty unflattering light. Was he really, as Gloucester claimed, plotting against him? Perhaps Gloucester perceived Hastings too loyal to Edward V at a moment when he was resolved upon usurpation? Had it factored, as the proclamation alleged, that Hastings took up with the late king’s remarkable mistress Jane Shore,* “one of his secret counsel in this heinous treason, with whom he lay nightly, and namely the night past before his death”? Claims and counterclaims around this black June 13 grow thick on the ground, none of them rooted in any decisive evidence.

The estimable David Crowther deals with these perilous months in Episode 187 of the History of England Podcast. The guest episode 187a in that same series explores the aforementioned mistress of William Hastings, whose humiliating public penance inspired the Walk of Shame scene in Game of Thrones.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Power,Summary Executions,Treason

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1806: Cesar Herbaux, Vidocq’s path not taken

Add comment January 6th, 2018 Headsman

French criminal turned seminal criminologist Eugene Francois Vidocq on this date in 1806 witnessed the fate he might have shared when his former underworld collaborator went under the guillotine at Paris for murder.

The son of an Arras baker, the young Vidocq (English Wikipedia entry | French) presented as an incipient Villonesque picaro. He had the first of his many theft-and-arrest events at the tender age of 13 courtesy of his father who summoned the gendarmes when he stole the family silver. Nothing daunted, Vidocq robbed the house again a few months later and ran away to join troupes of itinerant entertainers, soon transitioning into the French Revolution’s new citizen-army where the rogue by turns impressed with his competence and deserted ahead of some scandal, equally prolific in affairs of honor (he was an expert fencer) and those of the heart (same).

While in prison for his latest misadventures in 1795-1796 he fell in with another inmate — our day’s principal, César Herbaux or Herbault — and forged a pardon order for one of their fellows. Vidocq, as we shall see, would always blame the others for inducing him (their story was the reverse). In either event, for their trouble they caught a sentence that was cruel even though “galleys” by this time just meant prison hulks.

The tribunal … sentences Francois Vidocq and Cesar Herbaux to the punishment of the galleys for eight years …

[And] the said Francois Vidocq and Cesar Herbaux shall be exposed for six hours on a scaffold, which whall be for that purpose erected on the public square of this commune.

The sentence Vidocq himself published in his ghost-written memoirs, where the later, respectable man would situate it in the midst of his life’s chrysalis.

Vidocq did not serve his sentence; he escaped custody and lived the first decade of the 19th century on his society’s periphery, under a succession of aliases and with a succession of lovers, the episodes punctuated by re-arrests and re-escapes. In one close escape, Vidocq was lodging in Melun as “a travelling seller of fashionable commodities” when ill rumors induced him to flee for the capital. Resuming his memoir …

I learnt … from the landlord of the inn at which I had put up, that the commissary of police had testified some regret at not having examined my papers; but what was deferred was not ended, and that at my next visit, he meant to pay me a visit. The information surprised me, for I must consequently have been in some way an object of suspicion. To go on might lead to danger, and I therefore returned to Paris, resolving not to make any other journeys, unless I could render less unfavourable the chances which combined against me.

Having started very early, I reached the faubourg Saint Marceau in good time; and at my entrance, I heard the hawkers bawling out, “that two well-known persons are to be executed to-day at the Place de Greve.” I listened, and fancied I distinguished the name of Herbaux. Herbaux, the author of the forgery which caused all my misfortunes? I listened with more attention, but with an involuntary shudder; and this time the crier, to whom I had approached, repeated the sentence with these additions:

Here is the sentence of the criminal tribunal of the department of the Seine, which condemns to death the said Armand Saint Leger, an old sailor, born at Bayonne, and Cesar Herbaux, a freed galley-slave, born at Lille, accused and convicted of murder.

I could doubt no longer; the wretch who had heaped so much misery on my head was about to suffer on the scaffold. Shall I confess that I felt a sentiment of joy, and yet I trembled? … It will not excite wonder, when I say that I ran with haste to the palace of justice to assure myself of the truth; it was not mid-day, and I had great trouble in reaching the grating, near which I fixed myself, waiting for the fatal moment.

At last four o’clock struck, and the wicket opened. A man appeared first on the stage. It was Herbaux. His face was covered with a deadly paleness, whilst he affected a firmness which the convulsive workings of his featured belied. He pretended to talk to his companion, who was already incapacitated from hearing him. At the signal of departure, Herbaux, with a countenance into which he infused all the audacity he could force, gazed round on the crow, and his eye met mine. He started, and the blood rushed to his face. The procession passed on, and I remained as motionless as the bronze railings on which I was leaning; and I should probably have remained longer, if an inspector of the palace had not desired me to come away. Twenty minutes afterwards, a car, laden with a red basket, and escorted by the gendarme, was hurried over the Pont-au-Change, going towards the burial ground allotted for felons. Then, with an oppressed feeling at my heart, I went away, and regained my lodgings, full of sorrowful reflections.

I have since learnt, that during his detention at the Bicetre, Herbaux had expressed his regret at having been instrumental in getting me condemned, when innocent. The crime which had brought this wretch to the scaffold was a murder committed, in company with Saint Leger, on a lady of the Place Dauphine. These two villains had obtained access to their victim under pretence of giving her tidings of her son, whom they said they had seen in the army.

Although, in fact Herbaux’s execution could not have any direct influence over my situation, yet it alarmed me, and I was horror-struck at feeling that I had ever been in contact with such brigands, destined to the executioner’s arm: my remembrance revealed me to myself, and I blushed, as it were, in my own face. I sought to lose the recollection, and to lay down an impassable line of demarcation between the past and the present; for I saw but too plainly, that the future was dependent on the past; and I was the more wretched, as a police, who have not always due powers of discernment, would not permit me to forget myself. I saw myself again on the point of being snared like a deer.

Forever abroad on a false passport, watching over his shoulder for the next inquisitive policeman, the next chance encounter with a bygone criminal acquaintance, Vidocq was in his early thirties now and aching to go straight lest he follow Herbaux’s path to the guillotine. At last in 1809 he was able to find the perfect port of entry for a man of his underworld expertise: policing.

Beginning first as a snitch and informer, Vidocq uncovered a genius for the still-nascent field of professional law enforcement and made himself the field’s towering presence. His last arrest was in 1809; by 1812, he had created La Surete, France’s civil investigative organ. This still-extant entity became the model for Great Britain’s Scotland Yard (1829), with Vidocq consulting for his Anglo imitators.

His subalterns were heavily lawbreakers like himself, men and also women recruited from the streets and prisons for whom the cant of outlaws was native tongue and who took readily to Vidocq’s training in disguise and subterfuge: Vidocq trafficked in information, seeking crime in its native habitat where the easy-to-spot predecessors to the beat cop could not penetrate. The payoffs in robbers ambushed red-handed and turncoats delightedly unmasking themselves made the man a sensation.

Yet alongside his swashbuckling flair, Vidocq’s prescient interest in then-novel police techniques ranging from forensic science to controlling crime scenes to logging permanent records about criminals have established him as either a or the father of criminology.

A few books about Vidocq

All along, the master himself continued to adventure in the field too, and began compounding a sizable income from deploying his investigative talents for a private clientele. His mother who had once been accustomed to shelter him as a fugitive had a requiem mass at Notre Dame on her death in 1824.

In 1833, retired from Surete, Vidocq founded perhaps the first private detective agency. But as had been the case while he was in public service he had a zest for skirting the edges of the legally or ethically permissible, which was eventually the ruin of his business and his fortune. For all his legendary charisma, his heirs at the Surete in the late 19th century all but wrote out of their institutional history the thief who literally wrote the book on their field.

Posterity was bound to reclaim him if for no other reason than that the dashing detective had always been catnip for the literary set. Victor Hugo is thought to have drawn on Vidocq for both the chief antagonists in Les Miserables, the reformed criminal Jean Valjean and his relentless pursuer Inspector Javert; Balzac liberally cribbed from the biography of his good friend Vidocq to create his Human Comedy character Vautrin, a onetime forger become chief of the Surete. American writers invoked Vidocq by name in, e.g., Moby Dick and The Murders in the Rue Morgue, and Edgar Allan Poe‘s interest in turn gestures at the man’s place in the foundational cosmology of the detective story genre. And for all that the real man’s life, however one discounts for literary flourish, was somehow more colorfully impossible than all the Sherlock Holmeses that have followed him — why, by every probability the scoundrel ought to have wound up sharing the stage with a Cesar Herbaux. Accordingly, depictions of this deeply dramatic figure in theater and cinema stretch from the man’s own time all the way to ours, as with this 2011 Gerard Depardieu offering:

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Murder,Notably Survived By,Public Executions,Theft

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1594: Thomas Merry and Rachel Merry, lamentable tragedie

Add comment September 6th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1594, Thomas Merry (Merrey, Merrye) and his sister Rachel were executed at Smithfield — Thomas for the robbery-motivated bludgeon murder of their neighbor Master Beech, and (too-)loyal* Rachel as an accessory to it.

No original record of this case survives, but we have its date from a registry record of one of the numerous now-lost ballads about the case, The pitifull lamentation of Rachell Merrye, whoe suffred in Smithfield with her brother Thoms Merrye the vj of September 1594.

The one remaining artifact available for specifics, be they ever so embroidered, is a play from 1601; the date alone underscores the hold of the by-then-seven-year-old crime on public imagination.** And small wonder it was the talk of London, considering the cracking action seen in Robert Yarington’s Two lamentable tragedies:† The one, of the murther of Maister Beech a chaundler in Thames-streete, and his boye, done by Thomas Merry. The other of a young childe murthered in a wood by two ruffins, with the consent of his unckle — like this scene where brother and sister figure out how to carve up the victim. (Slightly tidied for readability.)

Enter Merry and Rachel with a bag.

Merry
What hast thou sped? have you bought the bag?

Rachel
I brother, here it is, what is’t to do?

Merry
To beate hence Beeches body in the night.

Rachel
You cannot beare so great a waight your selfe,
And ’tis no trusting of another man.

Merry
Yes well enough, as I will order it,
Ile cut him peece-meale, first his head and legs
Will be one burthen, then the mangled rest,
Will be another, which I will transport,
Beyond the water in a Ferry boate,
And throw it into Paris-garden ditch.
Fetch me the chopping-knife, and in the meane
Ile move the Fagots that do cover him.

Rachel
Oh can you finde in hart to cut and carve,
His stone colde flesh, and rob the greedy grave,
Of his disseuered blood besprinckled lims?

Merry
I mary can I fetch the chopping knife.

Rachel
This deed is worse, then when you tooke his life.

Merry
But worse, or better, now it must be so,
Better do thus, then feele a greater woe.

Rachel
Here is the knife, I cannot stay to see,
This barbarous deed of inhumanitie.

Exit Rachel

Merry begins to cut the body, and bindes the armes behinde his backe with Beeches garters, leaves out the body, covers the head and legs againe.

If we credit the play — and it’s the only source in town — poor Master Beech ended up hacked into many pieces that were secreted in various places around London as a ploy to avoid detection.

Amazingly, this gruesome and obscure drama has been staged in the 21st century, using not only the Sheakespeare-era script but the rehearsal and performance methods common at the time. There’s a site all about it, including a Tedx Talk by director Emma Whipday and her collaborator Freyja Cox Jensen. (Readers interested in the play production challenges might enjoy this pdf paper by Whipday and Jensen.)

We would be remiss on a site such as this not to spare a peep for the actual execution scene. We pick it up with Thomas Merry already standing upon the ladder with the hemp about his throat, exhorting his sister to firmness.

Merry
God strengthen me with patience to endure,
This chastisement, which I confesse too small
A punishment for this my hainous sinne:
Oh be couragious sister, fight it well,
We shall be crown’d with immortallitie.

Rachel
I will not faint, but combat manfully,
Christ is of power to helpe and strengthen me.

Officer.
I pray make hast, the hower is almost past.

Merry
I am prepar’d, oh God receive my soule,
Forgive my sinnes, for they are numberlesse,
Receive me God, for now I come to thee.

Turne of the Lather: Rachel shrinketh.

Officer
Nay shrinke not woman, have a cheerefull hart.

Rachel
I, so I do, and yet this sinfull flesh,
Will be rebellious gainst my willing spirit.
Come let me clime these steps that lead to heaven,
Although they seeme the staires of infamie!
Let me be merror to ensuing times,
And teach all sisters how they do conceale,
The wicked deeds, of brethren, or of friends,
I not repent me of my love to him,
But that thereby I have provoked God,
To heavie wrath and indignation,
Which turne away great God, for Christes sake.
Ah Harry Williams, thou wert chiefest cause,
That I do drinke of this most bitter cup,
For hadst thou opened Beeches death at first,
The boy had liv’d, and thou hadst sav’d my life:
But thou art bronded with a marke of shame,
And I forgive thee from my very soule,
Let him and me, learne all that heare of this,
To utter brothers or their maisters misse,
Conceale no murther, least it do beget,
More bloody deeds of like deformitie.
Thus God forgive my sinnes, receive my soule,
And though my dinner be of bitter death,
I hope my soule shall sup with Iesus Christ,
And see his presence everlastingly.

Dyeth.

Officer
The Lord of heaven have mercy on her soule,
And teach all other by this spectacle,
To shunne such dangers as she ran into,
By her misguided taciturnitie:
Cut downe their bodies, give hers funerall,
But let his body be conveyed hence,
To Mile-end greene, and there be hang’d in chaines.

Exeunt omnes.

* At one point in the play described in this text, Rachel Merry muses on the enormity of the crime and the likelihood of its detection — “such cruell deedes can never long be hid / Although we practice nere so cunningly.” Neveretheless, she stands by her kin: “Lo he is my brother, I will cover it, / And rather dye than have it spoken rife, / Lo where she goes, betrai’d her brothers life.

** There’s yet another known play about the case from 1599, also lost.

† This play strangely cuts back and forth between the action in the titular two tragedies, which are the Merry crime and a fictitious murder set in Padua — the whole thing scaffolded by a chorus of narrator-allegories comprising Homicide, Avarice, and Truth. The Italian story also ends in a pair of executions.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Pelf,Public Executions,Theft,Women

Tags: , , , , , , ,

1917: James Smith, Early One Morning

Add comment September 5th, 2017 Headsman

One hundred years ago today, a Bolton private (formerly lance corporal) named James Smith fell to his countrymen’s guns on Belgian soil during World War I.

A career soldier since 1909, Smith had served honorably in India and Egypt before the war. He had the hardiness and luck to survive Gallipoli and the Somme — but their horrors broke him mentally.

According to this biography, “Jimmy almost lost his life on the Somme on 11 October 1916 when a German artillery shell exploded, burying him alive and causing a shrapnel wound ‘the size of a fist’ on his right shoulder.” When he returned from two months’ convalescence leave his mates could see that shellshock had destroyed the old Jimmy Smith.

Erratic behavior that cost him his good conduct badges culminated in a break on July 30, 1917, the eve of the frightful Battle of Passchendaele, when Smith deserted his post and disappeared from the front — to be found later, wandering in a nearby town. In World War I, such an offense invited the brass to make an example of you.

Smith’s own comrades from the 17th Battalion King’s Liverpool Regiment were drafted into the firing squad. Pitying their victim, the executioners pulled their shots and missed the target, only succeeding in wounding the brutalized private. When the firing squad commander faltered at his duty to deliver the coup de grace, the task monstrously fell on a close friend of Smith’s, Private Richard Blundell, to press the revolver to Smith’s temple and blow out his brains. For its service to the war effort, the firing detail got 10 days’ R&R … and a lifetime of shame.

In the weeks before his own death, in February 1989, Blundell was often heard by his son, William, to murmur deliriously: ‘What a way to get leave, what a way to get leave.’

According to historian Graham Maddocks, in his book Liverpool Pals, William Blundell asked his father in a more lucid moment what he meant.

Still desperately upset seven decades after the incident, the dying Richard told his son what had happened. It was clear, that as he faced his own death, Richard had never forgiven himself.

Jimmy Smith was the subject of a 1998 play, Early One Morning.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Belgium,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,Diminished Capacity,England,Execution,History,Military Crimes,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

1820: Stephen Sullivan, for murdering the Colleen Bawn

Add comment July 27th, 2017 Headsman

The hanging this date in 1820 of Stephen Sullivan for killing a 15-year-old a year before closed the real-life case that inspired the popular Irish play The Colleen Bawn.

In the play — which in its own turn is based on the 1829 Gerald Griffin novel The Collegians — an older landowner unhappily wed to an unsuitable younger wife has the marriage murderously annulled by the offices of a loyal factotum.

In The Colleen Bawn, these figures are Hardress (the husband), Eily (the wife),* and Danny (the hunchbacked murderer). It’s still performed today, both on stage and in an operatic adaptation, The Lily of Killarney.

In 1819, their real-life equivalents were John Scanlon, his wife Ellen Hanly, and our man Sullivan, the killer.

Scanlon, the regretful groom and instigator of the murder, had already been captured and executed at a previous assize; Sullivan likewise blamed his patron with his dying breath for “when I looked in her innocent face, my heart shuddered, and I did not know how I could do it!” Somehow he found a way.

The final scene, courtesy of Edinburgh’s Caledonian Mercury, August 14, 1820

* Eily is also the play’s title character — from the Gaelic cailín bán, “fair girl”.

On this day..

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

Tags: , , , , , , ,

1943: Dora Gerson, cabaret singer

1 comment February 14th, 2017 Headsman

Jewish cabaret singer and silent film actress Dora Gerson was gassed with her family at Auschwitz on this date in 1943.

IMDB credits the Berlin entertainer (English Wikipedia entry | the more detailed German) with two silver screen roles,* both in 1920 and both now believed lost.**

Gerson’s cabaret career was the more robust through the roaring twenties but with benefit of retrospection we admit with Liza Minelli that from cradle to tomb, it isn’t that long a stay.

And the ominous next act would not belong to Weimar Jews.

After being elbowed off German stages by Reich race laws, Gerson recorded several songs in German and Yiddish; her “Vorbei” (“Beyond Recall”) hauntingly commemorates the lost world before fascism — “They’re gone beyond recall / A final glance, a last kiss / And then it’s all over.”

Gerson fled Nazi Germany to the Netherlands; once that country fell under its own harrowing wartime occupation, she tried to escape with her family to neutral Switzerland but was seized transiting Vichy France. Gerson, her second husband Max Sluizer, and their two young children Miriam (age 5) and Abel (age 2) were all deported to Auschwitz and gassed on arrival on Valentine’s Day 1943.

* Her first marriage was to film director Veit Harlan, who would later direct the notorious anti-Semitic propaganda film Jud Süß — based on an executed Jewish financier. From the German-occupied Netherlands, Gerson unsuccessfully appealed to this powerful ex for protection.

** Future horror maven Bela Lugosi also appeared in both Gerson films, Caravan of Death and On the Brink of Paradise. Gerson’s German Wikipedia page also identifies her as the voice of the evil queen in the 1938 German-language dub of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Children,Concentration Camps,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Gassed,Germany,History,Jews,Mass Executions,Netherlands,No Formal Charge,Poland,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions,Women

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

1828: Charles French, York printer

Add comment October 23rd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1828, a young printer’s assistant morally corrupted by the theater went to the gallows at York, Upper Canada (soon to become Toronto, Ontario).

After boozing it up at a performance of Tom and Jerry, or, Life in London* at Frank’s Hotel, 21-year-old Charles French fell into a drunken row with Edward Knowlan or Nowlan and shot him dead, in a case that occasioned a local moral panic about the dangerous carousing nurtured by the nightlife in the small frontier town.

Frank’s Hotel, York’s very first theatrical venue, was “neither under order nor restraint,” French’s respectable parents pleaded in their unsuccessful clemency missive. It was “the haunt of the gay and dissolute, the idle and the profligate, the ruffian and woman of bad fame, those who show in the light of the moon were there — and from its temptations few parents or masters could restrain the youth.” (Source) Theater troupes were banned from York stages for five years after the French affair.

French’s defense had likewise attempted to raise doubts about his mental competency, and although this worked as well as it usually did in a 19th century courtroom there was no small sentiment for French’s reprieve: (K)nowlan was a notorious goon, and the circumstances of the fray seemed muddled enough to bring the shooter’s degree of calculation into question. Two alleged accomplices, acquitted in separate trials, swore that Knowlan had menaced French before French shot him.

The close clemency call carried a sharp political undertone. French was an understudy of the reform publisher William Lyon Mackenzie and his victim a Tory brawler who dealt out bruises in the service of Upper Canada’s “Family Compact” ruling clique. That his petition for mercy was rejected by Lt. Gov. Peregrine Maitland eventually became one of the (lesser) briefs against the Family Compact advanced a decade later during the Upper Canada Rebellion.

* The period’s several Tom and Jerry plays — no overt relationship is known between them and the 20th century Tom and Jerry cartoons — derived from Pierce Egan‘s smash hit Life in London, or, the day and night scenes of Jerry Hawthorn, esq., and his elegant friend Corinthian Tom in their rambles and sprees through the metropolis. The title characters capture vignettes around the city, naturally not excluding the condemned hold at Newgate, which they tour with their friend Bob Logic on the pretext of consoling one of Logic’s old friends.

An opportunity presented itself to our TRIO to visit the Condemned Yard in Newgate. “It was a mournful sight,” Logic observed to the Corinthian; “but as it was the intention of Jerry not to neglect visiting any place that might afford him information during his stay in London, he had been induced to make the proposition to Hawthorn; yet, he was free to confess, it was more especially on his own account, as he was compelled to attend, and companions would, therefore, prove very agreeable to his feelings upon such a melancholy occasion.” “We will accompany you, Bob,” replied Tom and Jerry.

The Plate represents the Morning of Execution, and the malefactors having their irons knocked off previous to their ascending the fatal platform that launches them into eternity. The Yeoman of the Halter [i.e., the hangman — at the time of Egan’s writing this would have been John Foxton] is in waiting to put the ropes about them. The Clergyman is also seen administering consolation to these unfortunate persons in such an awful moment; and the Sheriffs are likewise in attendance to conduct the culprits to the place of execution, to perform the most painful part of their duty, in witnessing the offended laws of their country put in force. It is a truly afflicting scene; and neither the pen nor the PENCIL, however directed by talent, can do it adequate justice, or convey a description of the “harrowed feelings” of the few spectators that are admitted into the Condemned Yard upon such an occasion. The tolling of the bell, too, which breaks in upon the very soul of the already agonized malefactor, announcing to him that he has but a few minutes to live, adds a terrific solemnity to the proceedings: —

Hear it not, Duncan, for ’tis a knell
That summons thee to heav’n or to hell.

The Condemned Yard is long, but narrow, and contains a great number of cells, one above another, forming three stories in height. Each cell measures nine feet in length, and six in width. [Compare with Dickens’s description -ed.] Every indulgence is allowed to those prisoners immediately the “death-warrant” arrives at Newgate, ordering them to prepare for execution. They are then allowed to remain in the Large Room (which the Plate represents), in order that the Clergyman may attend upon them as often as they desire it, and who, generally, previous to the morning on which they are to suffer, sits up praying with them the whole of the night. It is really astonishing, upon most of these occasions, to witness the resignation and fortitude with which these unhappy men conduct themselves: many of the most hardened and desperate offenders, from the kindness, attention, and soothing conduct of the Rev. Mr. Cotton, who is indefatigable in administering consolation to their troubled minds, have become the most sincere penitents; nay more, several prisoners, who have received a free pardon after having been ordered for execution, have since publicly declared that they should never again be in such a fit state to meet eternity. The criminal on the left side of the Plate, lifting up his hands in the attitude of prayer with the Clergyman, was once a character of considerable note at the West End of the Town, and from his vivacity, then designated “Lively Jem!” He soon ran through a fine fortune; and, to keep up his extravagances, he plunged into those destructive habits which ultimately brought him into this ignominious situation. Lively Jem, like most others, saw his error too late to repair it. He had not strength of mind sufficient to bear with the reverses of fortune; to fall from splendour to poverty was too much for his feelings; and, to avoid the jests and sneers of his once dashing acquaintance, under the appellation of “poor fellow!” and being excluded from their company, he thus violently terminated his thoughtless career. Jem had been at college with the Oxonian, and as his last request, lie had sent a message to Logic to attend upon him on this mournful occasion, in order to be the bearer of some important circumstances respecting himself to a female, to whom he had been very much attached, and who had also never been absent from him except this fatal morning. Logic was too much of a man to neglect another in the hour of misfortune; and it was to fulfil the request of a dying unfortunate acquaintance, that he came, accompanied by Corinthian Tom and Jerry, to the condemned Yard of Newgate.

On this day..

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

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Previous Posts


Calendar

October 2020
M T W T F S S
« Sep    
 1234
567891011
12131415161718
19202122232425
262728293031  

Archives

Categories

Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!