1572: Johann Sylvan, Antitrinitarian

Add comment December 23rd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1572, Antitrinitarian Calvinist Johann Sylvan lost his head in a Heidelberg market.

Sylvan — or Johannes Slyvanus — was a pastor and theologian in the service of Calvinist Elector Frederick III.

Frederick’s own Calvinist scruples were theoretically anathema in a Holy Roman Empire whose writ of tolerance did not extend past Lutheranism.

But Sylvan gravitated towards a circle of reformers whose concept of the divine left orthodox Calvinism far behind — “a group of ministers within the Palatine church, who were not only prepared to deny the eternal divinity of Christ, but secretly aspired to promote a further reformation of received doctrine with a view to restoring the pristine monotheism of the faith,” according to this pdf volume, The Heidelberg Antitrinitarians.

This rejection of the long-canonical Christian mystery of threefold godhead formed a recurring subtheme of Europe’s Reformations, its exponents — like Michael Servetus — forever prone to martyrdoms administered by any respectable sect.

This proved to be the case for Sylvan as well; given his dubious theological position within the empire, Elector Frederick might have felt it politically necessary to come down hard on these radicals.

Still, while Sylvan was made the example, others in his Antitrinitarian circle lived to expound their heresies in other lands. Matthias Vehe fled to Transylvania — where a Unitarian Church was founded in 1568, protected by a sympathetic prince — and then to other fellow-travelers in Poland. Adam Neuser also escaped, later converting to Islam and defecting to Ottoman Istanbul, an event that did a lot of lifting for anti-Anti-trinitarian propagandists.

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1509: Four Dominicans for the Jetzer affair

Add comment May 31st, 2016 Voltaire

(Thanks for today’s guest post to anti-clerical Enlightenment polemicist Voltaire, whose intervention in (and caustic commentary upon) death penalty cases in his own day we have several times featured. The events described arise from the Dominican order‘s Aquinas-derived dissent from the view, predominant theologically as well as popularly, of the Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception. The Immaculate Conception would later become settled doctrine in the Church. -ed.)

It is well known that the Cordeliers or Franciscans and the Jacobins or Dominicans have detested each other ever since they were founded. They were divided on several points of theology as well as being financial rivals. Their chief quarrel turned on the state of Mary before her birth. The Franciscans argued that Mary had not sinned in her mother’s womb, while the Dominicans were of the opposite opinion. There never was, perhaps, a more ridiculous question, and yet it was this very matter which made these two religious orders quite irreconcilable.

A Franciscan, preaching at Frankfurt in 1503 on the immaculate conception of Mary, happened to see a Dominican called Vigan come into his church. “I thank the Holy Virgin,” he exclaimed “for not having permitted me to belong to a sect which dishonours her and her son.” Vigan eplied that this was a falsehood. The Franciscan then came down from the pulpit, carrying an iron crucifix, and struck the Dominican such a violent blow that he almost killed him, after which he went on to finish his sermon on the Virgin.*

The Dominicans held a meeting to plan their revenge, and, in the hope of heaping greater humiliation on the Franciscans, they resolved to perform miracles. After several fruitless attempts they finally found a favourable opportunity in Berne.

One of their monks was confessor to a simple-minded young tailor named Jetzer, who was particularly devoted to the Virgin Mary and to Saint Barbara. This imbecile seemed to them to be an excellent subject for miracles. His confessor convinced him that the Virgin and Saint Barbara expressly commanded him to become a Dominican and to give all his money to the order. Jetzer obeyed and too the habit. When his vocation had been well tested, four Dominicans, whose names appear in the subsequent trial, disguised themselves on several occasions as best they could, one as an angel, another as a soul in purgatory, a third as the Virgin Mary and the fourth as Saint Barbara. At the end of these apparitions, which it would be too tedious to describe in detail, the Virgin finally revealed to Jetzer that she was born in original sin; that she would have been damned if her son, who was not yet on this earth, had not taken care to regenerate her immediately after she was born; that the Franciscans were impious and had grievously offended her son by claiming that his mother had been conceived without mortal sin, and that she charged him to announce this to all the servants of God and Mary in Berne.

Jetzer did not fail to do this. Mary appeared again, accompanied by two robust and vigorous angels. She thanked him and said that she had come to imprint upon him the holy stigmata of her son as proof of his mission and as a reward. The two angels tied Jetzer up and the Virgin drove nails into his hands and feet. The next day Brother Jetzer was exhibited on the altar for all to see, freshly bleeding from the heavenly favours he had received. The devout flocked to kiss his wounds. He performed as many miracles as he wanted, but the apparitions still continued. Finally Jetzer recognised the voice of the sub-prior beneath the mask he wore. He cried out and threatened to reveal everything. He followed the sub-prior into his cell, where he found his confessor and the two angels, who were entertaining some girls.

The monks, now that they were unmasked, had only one course open to them, which was to poison Jetzer. They sprinkled a communion wafer with some corrosive which had such a foul taste that Jetzer could not swallow it. He fled from the church crying out against the sacrilegious poisoners. The trial lasted for two years and came before the bishop of Lausanne because at that time laymen were not allowed to judge monks. The bishop sided with the Dominicans. He decided that the apparitions were real and that Jetzer was an imposter; he was even so cruel as to sentence the poor man to torture. But later the Dominicans imprudently degraded Jetzer, stripping him of his monk’s habit. This meant that Jetzer was now a layman again and his case could therefore be heard by the Council of Berne. As a consequence of his testimony the long catalogue of crimes was confirmed. When the ecclesiastical judges were called in from Rome, they were compelled to deliver up the criminals to the secular authorities. The guilty were burnt at the Marsilly gate on 31 May 1509. Records of the trial are now in the archives of Berne and have been printed on several occasions.


The fourteenth panel (click for the full glorious graphic novel) of a woodcut series illustrating the progress of the hoax. (Via).

* The Dominican Wigand Wirt, who denounced the Immaculate Conception so vociferously that he was summoned to Rome in 1507 to answer for it.

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1528: Leonhard Schiemer, Anabaptist pacifist

Add comment January 14th, 2016 Headsman

Forasmuch then as Christ hath suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves likewise with the same mind: for he that hath suffered in the flesh hath ceased from sin.

1 Peter 4:1, a verse very dear to this date’s principal*

Anabaptist Leonhard Schiemer was beheaded on this date in 1528 at Rattenberg.

Schiemer abandoned a Franciscan monastery, preferring to set his table with honest labor as a tailor, and to succor his soul with that that new heresy minting martyrs in northern Europe.

In 1527, Schiemer was both a vigorous missionary and an eloquent proponent of the pacificism for which the sect would eventually become known. In Schiemer’s time, before the catastrophe of Münster’s Anabaptist theocracy, this was quite naturally a hot dispute among the persecuted adherents trying to determine how to make their way in a world where they were considered heretical even by the other heretics: turn the other cheek, or come like Christ with a sword?

Schiemer’s answer was for the true Christian to give himself to the ordeal of Christ’s cross.

[The Holy Spirit] teaches no one, however, unless he despaired of all human comforting and wisdom first. He does not comfort or strengthen anyone unless he feels a horror and turns away from all comforting and power of man. This is why the Lord says, “Do not be called masters.” But this master, Christ, does not accept anyone as His pupil or disciple, unless he renounces and hates everything that he has, and follows Him and carries his cross daily. In doing this, one has to trust in the Lord’s comforting and keep still, as the Scriptures say in many passages, particularly in the Psalms, the Prophets, most of all in Isaiah and the Lamentations of Jeremiah.

The strength of all Christians consists in keeping still, by not forsaking the words of the Lord so quickly, by not losing courage so soon, but by being patient, waiting for the comfort of the Holy Spirit, in the midst of the greatest desolation and misery. This is true weakness of which the Scriptures speak, in particular Paul when he says, “For when I am weak I am strong.”

He also says, “For as we share abundantly in Christ’s suffering, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.” That is what Christ means when He says, “A little while and you will see me no more, again a little while and you will see me.” And when the apostles asked Him what He meant by this, He answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn in to joy … Indeed the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.

The Threefold Grace

It is often suspected that Schiemer’s execution on January 14 might have inspired the Rattenberg grandee Pilgram Marpeck to convert — for he was dismissed from a post as a mining magistrate on January 28, and thereafter became an influential, itinerant Anabaptist “wandering citizen of heaven” crisscrossing southern Germany.

* According to an essay on Schiemer in The Anabaptists and Contemporary Baptists: Restoring New Testament Christianity.

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1559: The remains of David Joris, Anabaptist fugitive

Add comment May 13th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1559, the corpse of “Johann van Brugge” — recently exposed as underground Anabaptist leader David Joris, even though Brugge/Joris was three years dead — was burned in Basel.

The flame-bearded Joris (English Wikipedia entry | the more detailed Dutch) was a glass-painter by trade who came to the fore of the Anabaptist movement following its catastrophe at Muenster.

His home city of Delft in 1528 had flogged him and bored his tongue for his religious scruples, but Joris maintained a strong following among the re-baptized in that city. Many of those followers had occasion to try their faith against the torturers’ tongs, and dozens of arrestees impressively concealed their leader’s whereabouts from his enemies. The man’s own mother was executed in 1539.

He could only duck in and out of Delft — once he had to slip out in a basket innocuously loaded onto a boat* — or any other city. From the 1530s, his was a life on the run in Reformation Europe, where Anabaptists were no safer from Protestants than they were from Catholics.

(Sample dangerous heresy: Joris was a very early adopter of the idea that the devil was best understood as an allegorical figure, not an actual entity.)

With a literal price on his head he wandered to Strassburg, to England, back to the continent in Westphalia and Oldenburg, Strassburg again, then Antwerp, and on to Basel, Switzerland in 1544.

In Deventer in 1542 his ecstatic Wonder Boeck was printed. (We recommend the engravings.)

In Basel our hunted man was able to settle in as Brugge and live out the balance of his life, still pouring out voluminous writings in secret — a very impressive retirement considering his notoriety and his distinctive facial hair. Joris was in his fifties when he died: the years of rough living on the run had done him no favors.

Three years after his death, his son-in-law — who disagreed with Joris theologically — exposed his real identity. Basel had nothing left to do about it but to visit on his bones the punishment David Joris’s living flesh escaped to the end of his days.

* From Gary Waite’s “Staying Alive: The Methods of Survival as Practiced by an Anabaptist Fugitive, David Joris” in the January 1987 Mennonite Quarterly Review.

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1857: Jean-Louis Verger, doctrinaire

Add comment January 30th, 2014 Headsman

On Saturday, January 3, 1857, the Archbishop of Paris Marie-Dominique-Auguste Sibour had just reached the church of Saint-Etienne-du-Mont when Jean-Loiuis Verger stepped out of a crowd — out of obscurity — and plunged a long Catalan knife fatally into Sibour’s chest.

The assassin Verger (English Wikipedia entry | French) was a 30-year-old ordained priest who had accumulated a quarrelsome reputation among his ecclesiastical peers. The previous year, he had been laid under an official interdiction for preaching against the Catholic Church’s controversial new doctrine of the Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception.

Some reports had Verger crying out “No goddesses!” as he daggered the archbishop. “It is nowise the person of the Archbishop of Paris whom I wished to strike, but, in his person, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception,” Verger told the magistrates who judged him within days. There wasn’t a whole lot of doubt about the trial, so why wait around? But Verger’s vendetta wasn’t only theological; his suspension meant he wasn’t getting paid, and as his fury mounted over it he went so far as to post himself at the door of a church with a placard proclaiming that he was starving.

Archbishop of Paris was a surprisingly dangerous job in the mid-19th century. Sibour got the post because his predecessor was shot dead negotiating at a barricade during the 1848 revolution; in 1871, Archbishop Georges Darboy was taken hostage by the Paris Commune and executed by his captors when the national government invaded the city.

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1739: Michael Blodorn, “selvmordsmord”

1 comment June 1st, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1739, Michael Blödorn was stretched out on a scaffold at Copenhagen’s beautiful Kongens Nytorv (King’s Square), where an executioner set about smashing his limbs with heavy wagon wheels.


A 1727 illustration of Danish prisoners broken on the wheel.

Scholar Tyge Krogh’s new book titled (and about) The Lutheran Plague of suicide-murder.

As he lay suffering, Blödorn sang vigorously — a joyful hymn to lift his soul to heaven.

That, indeed, was why he was being broken on the wheel in the first place.

Blödorn was part of an alarming trend in Lutheran countries that waxed especially strong in Denmark: a homicide-to-heaven loophole apparently licensed by the Reformation theology.

Crudely put, the scam is this: you have a sure ticket to salvation if you die with no un-repented sin on your soul. But the only real way to know when you’re going to die is to kill yourself … and since that’s a mortal sin, that’s even worse than risking the everyday mischance of life.

But do like Mike and kill a random stranger to incur a death sentence, and you get to check out pure as the driven snow: assured last-minute repentance with no suicidal downside. Everybody wins!

Um.

Actually carrying out this plan required what you might call a deep commitment to your theology: in an effort to discourage the practice without backing off the death penalty for murder, penalties for apparent suicide-by-executioner cases had been ramped up into an archaic bloody theater. Blödorn, a soldier, had already been suffering weekly floggings leading up to the execution. Civilian murderers could look forward to having the flesh ripped with red-hot tongs.


Ouch. A 1727 illustration of judicial penalties that might attend a suicide-murder: tearing with hot tongs, the breaking-wheel, and severed hands.

Still, selvmordsmord persisted (Danish link: or, here’s the same story in Norwegian).

At last in 1767, the Danes reversed course abandoned capital punishment for “melancholy and other dismal persons [who committed murder] for the exclusive purpose of losing their lives,” implementing instead sentences of humiliating hard labor: a punishment to fit the crime and also meet the larger society’s need for deterrence.

“This made Denmark a pioneer when it came to abolishing the death penalty,” said Danish academic Tyghe Kroghe, author of a new book about the suicide-murder phenomenon. “But it was not something they did proudly. The decision violated the religious understanding of the criminal system.”

Here’s Kroghe discussing his research … in Danish.

Crazy, right?

Executions of men and women who not only decline to fight their sentences, but even commit their capital crimes with the intent to engineer their own executions, are hardly confined to the foreign country that is the past.

Maybe you wouldn’t point the finger at Martin Luther any longer, but Denmark’s very last civil execution was of an arsonist so insistent about attempting murder that the authorities finally gave him the peace of the grave that he desired. We’ve seen in these pages the headsman courted by people motivated by depression and by romantic love.

And numerous more modern criminals right into the 21st century look every bit like selvmordsmord cases. For example:

  • Christopher Newton, who killed his cellmate to draw a death sentence and was executed in Ohio in 2007;
  • Daniel Colwell, who gunned down a couple randomly to “win” a death sentence in Georgia in 2003 but died before reaching execution;
  • Mamoru Takuma, the mentally disturbed author of Japan’s notorious Osaka school massacre, who committed the crime with no intent to escape and immediately demanded a death sentence (carried out in 2004).

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1324: Petronilla de Meath, the first Irish woman burned for heresy

1 comment November 3rd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1324, Ireland entered the witch-burning club by burning to death servant Petronilla de Meath for the infernal traffickings of her escaped mistress.

Alice Kyteler, the stock of a successful family in the prosperous medieval trading hub, was the real target of what Jeffrey Burton Russell reckoned “complex machinations prompted by politics and greed.”

Kyteler was on to her fourth husband and had done well from her previous matches: a little too well, in fact. The various stepchildren from Kyteler’s various marriages were aggrieved that she took the assets she married into, and lavished them on her own son from the first union — a lad sporting the unfortunate handle of William Outlaw, and the unfortunate profession of moneylender.

When these restive relations presented to the local bishop a complaint couched in a supernatural hocus-pocus, family spat met an emerging and violent continent-wide jurisprudence around hunting impiety. That bishop was English-born and French-trained Franciscan Richard de Ledrede, who saw behind the tissue of rumor and folklore a diabolical hand bent on tearing down the edifice of faith.

In this he was merely a man before his time. Civil law in these parts had previously treated witchcraft as a petty criminal offense, but in the century to come it would be promoted to existential menace, with the body count to match. That transformation was already well underway closer to Europe’s continental heart.

A veritable witches’ brew of dangerous charges against Alice ensued: that she spellbound men to steal their money; that she conducted arcane magical rituals to summon demonic aid; that she took a supernatural familiar to bed; and more. Alice and William had their own clout, however, and the case graduated into a rousing political donnybrook against the controversial bishop, “this vile, rustic vagabond from England”** — who, not obtaining the cooperation expected, outraged and/or terrified his congregants further by placing his diocese under an interdict.*

Alice eventually escaped Ireland no worse the wear — at least bodily — while William Outlaw got off with a penance.

But their politically punchless servant Petronilla (or Petronella) de Meath was left holding the bag and achieving an unwanted milestone. She would be made to confess to a litany that, while familiar by now, must have been exotic stuff in 1324 Kilkenny — a brand-new import courtesy of the church hierarchy. We’ll give this as translated from the Latin Contemporary Narrative of the proceedings by William Renwick Riddell in “The First Execution for Witchcraft in Ireland,” Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology, Mar. 1917

On this same day was burned Petronilla of Midia, the heretic, one of the accomplices of the said Dame Alice, who after she had been flogged by the Bishop through six parishes for her sorceries, then being in custody, confessed publicly before all the clergy and the people that at the instance of the said Alice she had wholly denied the faith of Christ and of the Church, and that she had at Alice’s instigation sacrificed in three places to devils, in each of which places she had sacrificed three cocks at cross-roads without the city to a certain demon. who called himself Robert Artson (filiam Artis) one of the inferior order from Hell, by shedding their blood and tearing them limb from limb, from the intestines of which, with spiders and black worms like scorpions with a certain plant called millefoil and other plants and disgusting worms along with the brain and the swaddling bands of a child dead without baptism, she, in the skull of a certain thief who had been beheaded, and on the instruction of the said Alice, made many confections, ointments, and powders for afflicting the bodies of the faithful, and for producing love and hatred and for making the faces of certain women on the use of certain incantations appear to certain persons to be hored like goats. She also confessed that many times she at the instance of the said Alice and sometimes in her presence had consulted devils and received responses; and that she had agreed with her (Alice) that she (Alice) should be the mediator between her and the said devil Robert, her (Alice’s) friend.

She also confessed publicly that with her own eyes she was a witness when the said demon in the form of three Ethopians carrying three iron rods in their hands appeared to her said mistress (Alice) in broad daylight and (while she was looking on) knew her (Alice) carnally, and after such a shameful act he with his own hand wiped clean the place where the crime was committed with linen from her bed.

Amongst other things she said that she with her said mistress often made a sentence of excommunication against her own husband with wax candles lighted and repeated expectoration, as their rules required. And though she was indeed herself an adept in this accursed art of theirs, she said she was nothing in comparison with her mistress, from whom she had learned all these things and many more; and indeed in all the realm of the King of England there was none more
skilled or equal to her in this art …

Publicly confessing her detestable crimes, she was burned in presence of an infinite multitude of people with due solemnity.

And this was the first heretical sorceress burned in Ireland.

A podcast about this case for Irish Heritage Week can be found here or here. (Two different links, but the same podcast.)

Feminist artist Judy Chicago set a place for this unfortunate woman at her Dinner Party, an installation piece featuring dining places for 39 notable women from history.

Here’s a picture of Petronilla’s place setting at the “dinner party”, and an interpretive description from the Brooklyn Museum.

* More on the political jousting in Bernadette Williams, “The Sorcery Trial of Alice Kyteler,” History Ireland, Winter 1994.

** Comment by one of Dame Kyteler’s kinsmen and allies.

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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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1527: Felix Manz, the first Anabaptist martyr

3 comments January 5th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1527, Anabaptist Felix Manz was trussed hand and foot and shoved into the Limmat in Zurich — the first martyr of the Radical Reformation.

As the Protestant Reformation made theologians of everyone without a concomitant social embrace of religious pluralism, it wasn’t long before men who would have been fire-eating heretics in Catholic eyes a decade before were turning their swords on one another for deviation from their own new orthodoxies.

As the Martyrs Mirror put it,

this was also the century in which Luther in Germany, Zwingli in Switzerland, and afterwards Calvin in France, began to reform the Roman church; and to deny, oppose and contend with the authority of God’s holy Word against the supposed power of the Roman Pope, and many papal superstitions, however, in order to avoid too great dissatisfaction, as it seems, they remained in the matter of infant baptism, in agreement with the Roman church

They also have retained with the papists, the swearing of oaths, the office of secular authority, war against enemies, and sometimes also against each other, etc.

In Zurich, former Zwingli follower Felix Manz (sometimes spelled Felix Mantz) co-founded a splinter group of Anabaptists and picked a fight with city hall over adult vs. infant baptism.

Zwingli has been dinged by many a true believer then and now for his compromises, but the man had a city to run and better reason to worry about the movements of nearby Catholic armies than an endless disputation over baptism. When the city had had enough, it declared drowning for adult baptism (“rebaptism,” to its opponents). Water for water, see?

Manz got first in line. (He wouldn’t be the last.)

Zwingli’s eventual successor recorded the scene.

As he came down from the Wellenberg to the fish market and was led through the shambles to the boat, he praised God that he was about to die for His truth. For Anabaptism was right, and founded on the Word of God, and Christ had foretold that His followers would suffer for the truth’s sake. And the like discourse he urged much, contradicting the preacher who attended him. On the way his mother and brother came to him, and exhorted him to be stedfast; and he persevered in his folly, even to the end. When he was bound upon the hurdle, and was about to be thrown into the stream by the executioner, he sang with a loud voice: “In manus Tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum.” (“Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.”) And herewith was he drawn into the water by the executioner, and drowned.


Felix Manz drowned in the Limmat.

If this dispute seems rather shallow cause for spilling human blood, it’s part of a fathomless theological debate only now becoming water — ahem — under the bridge.

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1892: Jens Nielsen, the last in Denmark

2 comments November 8th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1892, serial arsonist Jens Nielsen was beheaded with an axe in the courtyard of Horsens prison — the last civil execution ever conducted in Denmark.

According to this Danish biography, Nielsen had incurred a long prison sentence for burning several farms in July 1883.

(He’d just returned from a fruitless stint in the New World, torching a warehouse in England on the return voyage.)

Apprehended immediately and sentenced to a long prison term, Jens confronted an age-old dilemma which was evidently noticeably acute among melancholy Danes: effecting state-assisted suicide on the scaffold.

These cases must have once been fairly frequent because Denmark, by an ordinance of December 18, 1767, deliberately abandoned the death penalty in cases where “melancholy and other dismal persons [committed murder] for the exclusive purpose of losing their lives.” The background for the provision was, in the words of Orste, “the thinking that was then current among the unenlightened that by murdering another person and thereby being sentenced to death, one might still attain salvation, whereas if one were to take one’s own life, one would be plunged into eternal damnation.”

The ordinance was ineffective in one case, at least, that of Jens Nielsen, who was born in 1862 and spent a most unhappy and unfortunate childhood. In 1884 he was sentenced to 16 years of hard labor for theft and arson. The following year he tried to kill a prison guard. He was tried, sentenced to death and received a commutation to life. He was then placed in solitary confinement. A year later he tried again to kill a guard, “realizing that he could not stand solitary confinement, did not have the nerve to commit suicide and wanted to force his execution.” He was again tried, sentenced to death and the sentence commuted. In 1892, having remained in solitary confinement all that time, he tried again to kill a guard. This time he got his wish, was sentenced to death and executed. (Source.)

He even managed to crack wise, “Thank you!” to the mayor who wished him God’s help on the way to the scaffold — envoy of the powers both temporal and ethereal that would finally loose his shackles.

Denmark’s death penalty law lingered into the 1930’s, but even the occasional death sentences were no longer carried out. Apart from a brief revival after World War II to punish war crimes committed the Nazi occupation, nobody has been put to death in Denmark in — as of today — 116 years.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arson,Attempted Murder,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,Gallows Humor,Milestones,Notable Jurisprudence,Pardons and Clemencies

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