1768: Francesco Arcangeli, Winckelmann-Mörder

Add comment July 20th, 2016 Headsman

For murdering German Enlightenment intellectual Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Habsburg Trieste on this date in 1768 inflicted a breaking-wheel execution straight out of antiquity.

A Saxon cobbler’s son, Winckelmann (German Wikipedia link) showed academic aptitude from youth and spent his twenties reading theology and medicine at the Universities of Halle and of Jena while he tutored to pay the bills. This scuffling scholar got his big break when his gifts were noticed by the visiting papal nuncio, who recruited him to court service in Rome on condition of his conversion to Catholicism — a spiritual epiphany which dovetailed perfectly with his growing interest in art and drew him to Italy. (pdf)

Winckelmann traveled and read widely in Italy. He was a great admirer of the restrained classical Grecian aesthetic whose celebrated exemplars were being unearthed throughout the Mediterranean world;* some papers he wrote during the 1760s are regarded as seminal documents in the study of art history and of archaeology, and he in turn became a celebrity intellectual sought-after in the salons of visiting art-fanciers.

Having begun so mean and climbed so very high, Winckelmann was set up for golden years savoring the view from the pinnacle — but he was never destined to receive them.

Taking ill on a trip with friend and fellow classicist Bartolomeo Cavaceppi in 1768, Winckelmann tapped out and returned alone to Trieste where he shared a room at a seaside hotel** with a chance acquaintance of the road: our post’s subject, Francesco Arcangeli. (German Wikipedia again)

Arcangeli, it turned out, was a thief who had already been expelled from Vienna and now compounded his villainy by throttling and stabbing Winckelmann. Though the wounds were mortal, Winckelmann lived on for several hours in full command of his senses, evenly providing every bit of information that would be needed to avenge his murder. The self-evident inference of robbery forms Arcangeli’s accepted motive, but alternative hypotheses have attracted attention over the years: in particular, Winckelmann is thought to have been homosexual, so it’s possible their shared lodging was really an assignation that went very bad; more exotic is the idea that Winckelmann was intentionally assassinated further to some inscrutable plot among Vatican rivals or art cognoscenti.

A Winckelmann Society in the man’s hometown of Stendal, Germany maintains its native son’s scholarly focus on classical antiquity. Readers of German might also appreciate Goethe’s essay on the man.

* Notably, the excavation of Pompeii and Herculaneum had only just begun in 1748; Winckelmann visited the sites.

** It’s the present-day Grand Hotel Duchi d’Aosta.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Austria,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Gruesome Methods,Habsburg Realm,History,Italy,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Public Executions,Theft

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1867: Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico, “Archdupe”

4 comments June 19th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1867, a firing squad disabused a Habsburg heir of his pretensions to the throne of Mexico.

A little bit loopy, a little bit liberal, and fatally short of common sense, Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph* decamped from the easy life at his still-under-construction dream palace outside Trieste for an exalted title that really meant playing catspaw for Napoleon III‘s Mexican land grab.

(To assuage the pangs of imperial adventurism upon our tender-headed hero, Maximilian had been “invited” to assume the Mexican throne by a convention handpicked to do just that.)

There the puppet emperor with the silver spoon in his mouth found himself pitted in civil war against the Amerindian peasant from the school of hard knocks: Benito Juarez, one of Mexico’s great liberal statesmen.

As the tide turned in favor of Juarez and the liberals, and Napoleon’s attention increasingly fixated on problems closer to home, the French threw in the towel.

But Maximilian had too much honor or too little sense to heed his patron’s advice to get out while the getting was good; sticking it out with “his people,” he was captured in May, 1867.

Juarez desiring to give any future bored European nobles second thoughts about New World filibustering, Maximilian got no quarter.**

While Louis Napoleon emceed a world’s fair on the other side of the planet, Maximilian was shot with two of his generals, Miguel Miramon and Tomas Mejia.


Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian, showing an obvious compositional debt to Goya’s Executions of the Third of May. Further analysis: written English; video Spanish.

Maximilian’s widow Charlotte — “Carlota”, when trying to blend with her adoptive subjects — descended into a long-lived madness back in the Old World, but was rumored to have borne with one of Maximilian’s French officers an illegitimate child who would go on to become an infamous Vichy collaborator.

Books about Emperor Maximilian

This sensational affair attracted plenty of coverage in the ensuing years; as a result, there is a good deal of topical material from near-contemporaries now in the public domain. Maximilian in Mexico: A Woman’s Reminisces of the French Intervention 1862-1867 (Gutenberg | Google Books) is a zippy read.

* Brother to Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph.

** Spanish trial records are here. European appeals for clemency poured in, but Maximilian had doomed himself with the “Black Decree” of 1865, ordering summary executions of captured Republicans.

The time for indulgence has gone by: it would only encourage the despotism of bands of incendiaries, of thieves, of highwaymen, and of murderers of old men and defenseless women.

The government, strong in its power, will henceforth be inflexible in meting out punishment when the laws of civilization, humanity, or morality demand it.

Juarez answered the clemency appeal of Princess Salm-Salm with solemn words:

If all the Kings and Queens in Europe [pled for Maximilian] I could not spare that life. It is not I who take it; it is the people and the law, and if I should not do their will the people would take it and mine also.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Hanged,Heads of State,History,Mexico,Murder,Notably Survived By,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Royalty,Shot,Wartime Executions

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1798: Rigas Feraios, Greek poet

Add comment June 13th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1798, the Greek revolutionary Rigas Feraios and five co-conspirators were strangled by their Ottoman captors on the Danube River en route to Constantinople to prevent their rescue.

A Vlach by blood, Feraios was a hero — and ultimately a martyr — of Greek independence years before the revolution against Ottoman rule that would deliver it.

A Renaissance man for the Greek Enlightenment, Feraios had a variegated youthful career knocking about the Ottomans’ Balkan possessions and absorbing the revolutionary Zeitgeist abroad in Europe.

Settling in Vienna in his mid-thirties, he brandished his pen in the service of an imagined pan-Balkan, pan-Hellenic uprising to shake off the Turkish yoke. He edited the first Greek newspaper, published a map* and constitution for the imagined realm of the “Inhabitants of Rumeli, Asia Minor, the Islands of the Aegean, and the principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia”, and churned out blood-stirring poetry in Demotic, the vernacular tongue — most memorably, the Thourio, i.e., “War Hymn”.

… and a little taste of the gist, in English:

How long, my heroes, shall we live in bondage,
alone,like lions on ridges, on peaks?
Living in caves, seeing our children turned
from the land to bitter enslavement?
Losing our land, brothers, and parents,
our friends, our children, and all our relations?
Better an hour of life that is free
than forty years in slavery.

This sort of fire-breather is not the sort of man the Ottomans were keen on seeing involve himself with Bonaparte, most especially now that the French kingpin had started outfitting Oriental adventures. The Turks’ Austrian allies nabbed Feraios in Trieste en route to confer with Napoleon’s Italian subalterns about interfering in the Balkans.

Shipped to the governor of Belgrade, Feraios was to be sent to Constantinople for adjudication by Sultan Selim III. A Turkish buddy of the poet’s, however, happened to be blocking the way with a sizable force of his own who’d been administering a rebel statelet carved out of Ottoman territory. Tipped that this gentleman was keen to liberate the Turks’ unwelcome prisoners if they tried to pass, the local authorities had them summarily strangled and their bodies dumped in the Danube.


A Rigas Feraois monument in Belgrade. (Author’s photograph, in terrible light.)

* Including Constantinople. The dream of “Greater Greece” would persist long, and die hard.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Greece,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Ottoman Empire,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Strangled,Summary Executions,Torture,Treason

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1882: Guglielmo Oberdan

4 comments December 20th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1882, Italian nationalist Guglielmo Oberdan was hanged for attempting to assassinate Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph.

“I will throw my corpse between the emperor and Italy and Italian youth will at least have an example.” (quote)

A native of Trieste, a melting pot of Italian and Slovenian ethnicities, Oberdan was of mixed parentage but identified with an Italy coming of age just as he himself did.

Trieste was a treasured Habsburg jewel, the empire’s most consequential port. So Franz Joseph’s visit to celebrate the city’s 500th anniversary under the Austrian crown was undertaken with no less heartfelt sincerity than the enthusiastic student had in packing a suitcase full of explosives in greeting.

Police intercepted this memorable gift and young Oberdan as well, and in short order he swung from the gallows — thousands of worldwide petitioners, Victor Hugo among them, notwithstanding — still urging cocksure verses of national redemption.

As a handsome young martyr who had chosen his Italian identity, Oberdan’s name and face became fare for boulevards, piazzas and monuments … doubly so for the boy’s dispatch contemporaneous with Italy’s cynical Triple Alliance pact with Austria-Hungary that sternly apprenticed the infant nation’s irredentist spirit to realpolitik under the sway of the man now reviled as the “Emperor of the Hangmen.” Nor would it appear a fate unworthy of his deed that he should personify in death all the impulsive romanticism his country had not strength enough to effect.

Oberdan is the subject of a rousing (and murderous — the refrain is “Morte a Franz, viva Oberdan!”) patriotic song dating from the 1880’s:

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Austria,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Habsburg Realm,Hanged,History,Italy,Martyrs,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Treason

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