Archive for June, 2011

1876: Kenneth Brown, father of Edith Cowan

Add comment June 10th, 2011 Headsman

Australian liberal campaigner Edith Cowan — a notable suffragist, and later an activist for disadvantaged children — enjoys the distinction of being her country’s first female Member of Parliament.

But Cowan was disadvantaged herself in her own childhood by the hanging on this date in 1876 of her father, explorer Kenneth Brown.

While Kenneth entered this world in England, his family emigrated to Australia in his infancy, and there established the pastoral outpost Glengarry Station.

Is this sufficient to justify a wholly unrelated excerpt from Glengarry Glen Ross? Reader, it is.

Kenneth Brown would come to spend a lot of time at that station, in between jaunts exploring Western Australia. Edith Cowan — nee Edith Brown, obviously — was born there, though her mother (Brown’s first wife) died in childbirth a few years later.

Brown’s remarriage to Mary Tindall was less than an unqualified success.

He and Mary regularly argued about both Kenneth’s drinking, and his suspicion that Mary was unfaithful. After an afternoon of drinking and arguing, Kenneth shot and killed Mary. There were three trials and two juries were discharged before a third reached a guilty verdict, all amid embarrassing publicity and gossip. Brown’s appeal for clemency was denied and in 1876, when Edith was 15, he was executed for his wife’s murder. More than 100 years later, Edith Cowan’s grandson wrote that the effect on the family was crippling, and extended on into later generations. (Source)

Even “crippled” by the family tragedy, Edith went on to earn the Order of the British Empire and grace Australia’s $50 note.

Edith Cowan isn’t the only notable family connection for this date’s featured act: Kenneth Brown’s younger brother was politician Maitland Brown, infamous to Australia’s aboriginals as the leader of the La Grange expedition/massacre.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Notably Survived By

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1904: Mart Vowell, aged Civil War veteran

25 comments June 9th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1904, a 61-year-old veteran of the U.S. Civil War was hanged for murder at Paragould, Ark.

“Hanging Day 1904”: this is apparently a photo either from Vowell’s execution, or the July 9, 1904 hanging at Paragould of Nathan H. Brewer

Mart Vowell, the hanged man, was anomalously the former city marshall of Rector, Arkansas — and his victim the town troublemaker, whom Vowell had previously arrested.

(Vowell fought in the Confederate army under Nathan Bedford Forrest. If it’s the same Mart Vowell described in this Reconstruction-era report, he apparently stuck around in Tennessee after the fighting stop and followed Forrest into the Ku Klux Klan.)

Even the grand jury summoned to indict the killer had to be dismissed after repeatedly returning only second-degree charges.

This case cries out for primary research beyond the scope of this blog’s daily deadlines further to the motivations of the characters involved, but the bottom line is that Vowell hanged before a highly sympathetic crowd — calling “Good-bye, Mart!” as he “died game” — in Paragould, Ark.

Arkansas Governor Jeff(erson) Davis — named after, but not related to, the Confederate president* — was himself hanged in effigy the next day for his refusal to spare Vowell in the face of thousands of petitioners. Davis being an open advocate of lynching (“without apology to any tribunal on the face of the earth”) we suppose the populist governor could hardly have been sore about a little mannequin, however “carefully prepared.”

* Given the famous characters evoked by name, we need to note that our day’s principal, Mart, was actually named Martin Van Buren Powell, which would presumably make him a namesake of abolitionist former U.S. President Martin Van Buren.

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1675: The murderers of John Sassamon, precipitating King Philip’s War

2 comments June 8th, 2011 dogboy

On this date in 1675, Puritan colonists’ hanging of three Wampanoag Indians helped trigger a brutal bout of ethnic cleansing, King Philip’s War.

The condemned men’s victim, Wassausmon — known by his Christian, Anglicized name of John Sassamon — was a converted Massachuseuk, briefly a Harvard attendee (1653)*, and eventually a translator for several tribes when dealing with the early settlers. Sassamon fought on the colonists’ side during the Pequot War, which has graced these pages before, and was generally seen as very sympathetic to the colonial cause, at one point becoming a schoolmaster at the inception of the towns of Natick and Ponkapoag.

After his work as a translator, Sassamon returned to the Puritan fold to become a minister in the Plymouth Colony.

Because of his high position in both the white and native worlds, though, he drew some resentment from both sides. It was Sassamon’s sense of loyalty to both sides of the growing tension between the natives and colonists that led to his demise.

King Philip (natively known as Metacomet) became head (Sachem) of the Wampanoag Confederacy in 1662 after his brother’s death.

Though initially trade-friendly with the burgeoning colonies to the north and east, the Wampanoag were also feeling the squeeze from the Iroqouis Confederation gaining power to the west. In 1671, the colonies presented the Wampanoag with an ultimatum: give up their arms and submit to English law, or be forced out.

The colonists had tried this tactic before with the Pequot (hence the Pequot War), Narragansett, and other native tribes with great success. As expected, Philip blinked, and the English moved in.

But the Sachem was predictably unhappy with the relationship. Three years later, he had assembled a band of warriors and was ready to, er, renegotiate.

Sassamon got wind of Philip’s planned attack on Plymouth Colony and warned its governor Josiah Winslow. Two months later, Sassamon was fished out from under the ice of Assawompset Pond.

With one witness claiming that a trio of King Philip’s men had knocked off the translator and dumped the corpse, the Puritans became convinced that Philip was already getting involved in their affairs.

In June 1675, four months after Sassamon’s body was found, a mixed jury of Indians and colonists convicted three Pokanoket Indians of murdering Sassamon, and on June 8, they were hanged.**

The executions helped bring tensions to the breaking point, and Philip decided it was his time.

On June 18, he launched an attack on homesteads in Swansea, and the war was on. The colonists struck back, laying siege to Mount Hope with the thought of gutting the insurgency by capturing its leader. That move failed, and King Philip escaped to recruit more tribes to his cause. Eventually, the forces included five major native tribes fighting colonists and two other major tribes.

Things got ugly fast: the conflict would become one of North America’s bloodiest colonial wars, and touch everyone who lived in the region. In September, the New England Confederation officially declared war on the Native Americans of the area.

After suffering months of casualties, the colonists finally gained a foothold in the conflict in December. By spring, King Philip’s War was in full swing, with atrocities happening on both sides. But the native forces were being worn down, and the colonists began clawing back. Despite rampant destruction of towns across the colonies (including complete abandonment of a dozen or more), the colonists had fortresses to retreat to and boats to resupply them; the natives needed to trade with the colonists to get their arms. The situation was unsustainable, and when Canadian supply lines fell through, King Philip’s adventure was over.

Persistent enemies of many of the raiding tribes, the Plymouth-allied Mohegans took the offensive and broke up Philip’s warrior bands, scattering them across the Northeast. By the following summer, the Narragansett were defeated and dispersed, and the colonists were granting amnesty to natives who surrendered and could document non-participation. (Others were not so lucky.) In July, King Philip himself was isolated and on the run, taking refuge in Mount Hope. It was there that John Alderman, a Native American, shot him on August 12, 1676.


1857 Harpers magazine engraving of the attack on King Philip’s last redoubt.

Philip’s body was mutilated: he was quartered and beheaded, and his head was displayed in Plymouth Colony Fort for years to come.

After the war, Mary Rowlandson, who was taken captive by Philip’s men, wrote a memoir about her experience. Philip’s escapades were also later made into a play.

* Harvard, founded in 1636, started its “Indian Harvard” in 1655 which saw a total of five students: Caleb Cheeshahteamuck (Aquinnah Wampanoag) took a degree in 1665 and died of tuberculosis a year later; classmate Joel Iacoombs (Aquinnah Wampanoag) disappeared in a shipwreck off Nantucket before walking; John Wampus (Aquinnah Wampanoag) bailed after a year and went to sea; and Benjamin Larnell and an otherwise unnamed “Eleazer” caught smallpox and died the year they enrolled.

** One account reports that only two of the Indians died on the first drop; the third was spared by his rope breaking, and after confessing the guilt of all three, he was re-executed.

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1811: George Watson, the last horse thief hanged in Scotland

Add comment June 7th, 2011 Headsman

Earlier this year, a gentleman named John Nelson made the news for a 150-mile horse ride in Scotland — tracing the route his great-great-great-grandfather had taken in 1811 on a legendarily Javert-like pursuit of a horse thief.

“I didn’t expect to see you, Knockburnie” a surprised George Watson is supposed to have said to that relentless ancestor, naming place where farmer John Kerr had given the itinerant tinker shelter.

“I didn’t expect you would steal my horse,” Kerr replied.

He’d had a full week in the saddle to think of the right action-hero one-liner for this moment, ever since spontaneously setting out in pursuit of the absconded equine on the morning of the theft.

On this date in 1811 at Ayr, said George Watson paid with his neck for abusing the hospitality of such an implacable victim. He was the last man executed for horse theft in Scotland.

The stolen mare came home with its rightful owner, and an appropriate new name: Tinker.

(The date of the hanging is provided here, and in this broadside catalogue of Scottish executions.)

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1879: John Blan, panicked

2 comments June 6th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1879, there was a public hanging in St. Charles, Missouri.

John Blan or Bland had murdered his brother-in-law in a log cabin following a dispute about money: Blan clobbered him with a club, then fled into the surrounding woods, only to return after his victim’s family had patched the poor fellow up and put him to bed and finish the guy off with a shotgun. It’s a murder that smacks of irresolution; Blan would later say that he was “scared and did not know what [he] was scared about” and that, afflicted by “the haunts,” he fancied the victim he had just shot pursuing him through the darkened forest. (Blan was also drunk.)

We’re attracted to this story because of the humanizing glimpse of a weak man terrified under the shadow of death that the newspaper reports of his hanging provide. On the scaffold or otherwise, we don’t all check out with a haughty disdain for the reaper.

The story below comes from the June 7, 1879 St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat, which source had previously (March 6, 1879) reported the prisoner’s unsteady conduct “during the days the evidence was being taken, manifested a great deal of bravado, but after the jury had gone out yesterday evening he grew solemn and seemed to realize his terrible danger. When he came into Court this morning to hear the verdict, he had a haggard expression, as if he had passed a night of intense anxiety. When the verdict was read perfect quiet pervaded the Court-room, and the prisoner turned very pale and supported himself by holding to the arms of his chair. He had evidently not expected such a verdict.”

The doomed man’s nerves had not improved in the interim.

By 6 o’clock Blan began to weaken and frequently shed tears. … At 7:30 o’clock Blan with sobs, told the Sheriff he was afraid he could not stand it. At 7:35 there was a sudden call for the guards at the outside door of the jail and quite a commotion inside. It was soon ascertained that Blan had made a desperate break for liberty. Rev. Mr. Morton and the Jailer were in the cell with him, and just as Dr. Johns, the County Physician, opened the cell door with a drink for Blan, he pushed the Jailer and minister aside, rushed to the door, struck at the Doctor, hitting him on the shoulder and knocking him out of the way, passed through the entry into the Jailer’s kitchen (the only way out) and there ran into the arms of Sheriffs Rienzi and Cook and a number of his deputies, who secured him after a hard struggle …

In a very few minutes Blan was taken on to the scaffold, and there, supported by several Deputy Sheriffs, the death warrant was read to him by Sheriff Rienzi.

Blan was much agitated, was very pale, and his legs seemed too weak to support him … after a short prayer … Blan then asked, “How much time have I got? Can I live till 9 o’clock?” He was told to step on the trap, which he did, and his feet were bound. He asked for water, and when it was given him said to those assembled: “I wish everybody well. May the good stay good, and the bad get better. I have no bad feeling against anybody. I did the deed.” The Sheriff then placed the black cap, and Blan cried out: “Farewell to everybody. Whisky [sic] and trouble got me into this scrape. I don’t deserve hanging.” The rope was adjusted and the trap sprung at 7:52 o’clock.

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

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1963: Nora Parham, the only woman hanged in Belize

7 comments June 5th, 2011 Headsman

Belize, B. Honduras, June 5. — Nora Parham, aged 36, the East Indian mother of eight sons, was hanged today for the murder of the man with whom she had been living.

So ran a minute, page-10 wire story in the London Times* from the British Central American possession soon to become self-governing as the country of Belize.

The unfortunate subject of the story was the first, and remains to date the only, woman put to death in Belize.

But she’s very much more than a bit of trivia.

A domestic violence victim hanged for murdering her batterer — who just happened to be a cop — Parham remains a lively source of controversy down to the present day.

Nora’s position as the victim in an abusive marriage, combined with serious doubt about whether she truly killed her husband at all, have given her enduring appeal. There’s a going campaign to issue her a posthumous pardon. In fact, there was a going campaign before she died to issue her a humous pardon, opposed by a governing party paper on the grounds that “sympathy” ought not “change court rulings.”

And it’s hard not to feel sympathy for Nora Parham and the years of beatings she’s reported to have endured in her relationship with Ketchell Trapp. One doubts even the harshest magistrate would condemn a person in her situation to hang today.

“By refusing to treat the pair as wife and husband, not just cop slayer and cop,” argues this volume on gender politics in colonized Belize, “the government deepened its own highly political silence about domestic and community gender oppression and violence and added a threatening element to its re-call to ‘domestic womanhood.'”

That cop/husband was doused with gasoline and set afire, but admitted as he expired from these ghastly injuries that he had been beating Parham before the fatal fire.

Even so, it sounds like a calculated way to kill a person.

But many believe, as Parham testified at her trial** that it wasn’t homicide at all … that Trapp was incidentally splattered with gasoline during his donnybrook with his wife, then carelessly set himself ablaze lighting a cigarette while off in the outhouse. (While naked, no less. What a way to go.)

“While he came back in the bedroom, I had a gasoline iron [in] my hand with a pan of gasoline.

“He came in the bedroom with a stick in his hand and hit me on my head. When he was going to hit me another hit, I threw the gasoline on him and he grabbed away the pan from me, and I went through the backdoor and he stone me with the said pan.

“After he stoned [me], I ran around the house and he never see where I got to. I went in the house through the front door, then I took the gasoline iron from where I left it and put it in the box.

“While I was inside I heard a noise and I run to see what it was. When I went I saw Ketchell Trapp come out of the latrine under fire. I then run up to help him but I see I could not, then I continued running towards the Hospital back street, running towards the station.

-Nora Parham, at trial

That trial excerpt is drawn from a strongly pro-Nora account with more details about the case here.

Belize still hands down death sentences, but has not carried one out on anybody, man or woman, since 1985.

* June 6, 1963

** All-male jury, which was true of all juries in Belize until 1970.

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1516 and 1530: Autos de fe in the Spanish Canary Islands

Add comment June 4th, 2011 Headsman

From The Inquisition in Spanish Dependencies, available free from Google books here:

That Columbus, on his first voyage, took his departure from Gomera indicates the importance assumed by the Canaries in the development of trade with the New World and this, conjoined with their productiveness, as they became settled and cultivated, rendered them a centre of commerce frequented by the ships of all maritime nations, as well as an object of buccaneering raids, in an age when trade and piracy were sometimes indistinguishable. Their proximity to Morocco and the Guinea coast moreover exposed them to attacks from the Moors and gave them an opportunity of accumulating Moorish and negro slaves, whom the piety of the age sought to convert to Christians by the water of baptism. In various ways, therefore, there came to be abundant material for inquisitorial activity, although the Judaizing New Christians, who furnished the Spanish tribunals with their principal business, appear to have been singularly few.

There was no haste in extending the Spanish Inquisition to the Canaries … It is not until the time of Diego de Muros [Spanish link], who was consecrated in 1496, that we have any evidence of such action … [and even then] every act, from the preliminary arrest to the final decision, was regulated from Seville …

Irregular and imperfect as may have been the organization of the tribunal, it yet managed to accomplish some convictions. In 1510 there was held an auto de fe in which there were three reconciliations for Judaism and one, of a Moorish slave, for reincidence in Mahometan error, while a fifth culprit was penanced for Judaism. Then in 1513 occurred the first relaxation, that of Alonso Fatima, a native Morisco, who had fled to Barbary. This was always deemed sufficient evidence of relapse to former errors, and he was duly burned in effigy. It was probably also to 1516* that may be attributed the first relaxation in person — that of Juan de Xeres of Seville, for Judaism. It shows that the tribunal was indifferently equipped that, when he was sentenced to torture, the physician whose presence was obligatory on such occasions, Doctor Juan Meneses de Gallegas, was required personally to administer it. It was exceedingly severe, extending to eleven jars of water; the accused was unable to endure it; he confessed his faith, was sentenced to relaxation as a relapsed and for fictitious confession, and was executed on Wednesday, June 4th. …

on June 4, 1530, another oblation was offered to God, in an auto celebrated with the same ostentation as the previous one [in 1526, with seven executions]. This time there were no relaxations in person, but there were six effigies burnt of as many Moorish slaves, who had escaped and were drowned in their infidelity while on their way to Africa and liberty. There were also the effigy and bones of Juan de Tarifa, the husband of the Ynes de Tarifa who had denounced herself in 1524; he was of Converso descent and had committed suicide in prison, which was equivalent to self-condemnation. There were three reconciliations, of which two were for Judaism and one for Islam and five penitents for minor offences.

This use of religious terror in service of slavery — the burning of those effigies who had been “drowned in their infidelity on their way to Africa and liberty” — was an overt policy of the tribunal.

Pious zeal for the salvation of these poor savages led to their baptism after capture; they could not be intelligent converts or throw off their native superstitions, and no one seemed able to realize the grim absurdity of adding the terrors of the Inquisition to the horrors of their enslaved existence. When a negro slave-girl was bemoaning her condition, she was kindly consoled with the assurance that baptism preserved her and her children from hell, to which she innocently replied that doing evil and not lack of baptism led to hell. This was heresy, for which she was duly prosecuted.

Under the inquisitorial code the attempt to escape from slavery thus was apostasy, punishable as such if unsuccessful, and expiated if successful by concremation in effigy. This is illustrated in an auto, held by Zayas and Funez, June 24, 1576, in which among sixteen effigies of absentees were those of eight slaves, seven negroes and one Moor. They had undergone baptism, had been bougt by Dona Catalina de la Cuevas and were worked on her sugar plantation. They seized a boat at Orotava and escaped to Morocco, for which they were duly prosecuted as apostates and their effigies were delivered to the flames — a ghastly mockery which does not seem to have produced the desired impression in preventing other misguided beings from flying from their salvation.

Related: Jews in the Canary Islands: Being a calendar of Jewish Cases extracted from the records of the Canariote inquisition in the collection of the Marquess of Bute.

* A footnote in the text of our source notes that “in the record concerning Juan de Xeres, the year is omitted, but as Wednesday fell on June 4 in 1511, 1516, 1533 and 1539, the probable date is 1516.”

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1955: Barbara Graham, of “I Want to Live” fame

5 comments June 3rd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1955, Barbara Graham was gassed at California’s San Quentin Prison, along with two confederates in the brutal murder of an elderly widow.

Following the classic sob-story vector from orphan to juvenile delinquent to petty criminal, Graham found her calling as femme fatale.

She entered adulthood with World War II, and spent the war years alternating between failed marriages and the working-girl beat for Pacific military bases.

“Sure, I was a prostitute — and a damn good one,” she later confided to a reporter. “Why do people make so much of sex anyway? It’s part of our natural make-up, like getting hungry for food. If you want to eat, you go to a grocery store or a restaurant. If you need sleep, you sleep. If you want sex, why not get it?” (Source, a thorough .doc file)

Police made a bigger deal of perjury when she unwisely tried to help out some underworld friends by swearing to a demonstrably bogus alibi for them. She did some real time, tried to go straight in a boring Nevada town, and inevitably — for the likes of this site — returned to the siren lures of California.

It was back to the familiar job servicing the familiar hunger … but now with a new hunger of her own: heroin.

And heroin meant a now-ravenous appetite for cash.

Barbara Graham’s trip to the gas chamber and to California crime history began when she and some fellow-addicts tried to satiate that latter craving by burgling the Burbank home of Mabel Monohan, who was rumored to live alone with a lot of portable valuables.

The job was a botch from beginning to end: someone bludgeoned the crippled woman to death, but nobody found the supposed boodle. And as the police investigation led back towards the culprits, two of them flipped on their confederates.

(The first of them was kidnapped and murdered to prevent his testimony while everyone was still on the lam. The second happily took his place as the stool pigeon once everyone was in custody. Graham, proving that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, got caught on a wire trying to suborn perjury on her own behalf, dramatically destroying her alibi defense mid-trial.)

Shock murder authored by vamp courtesan? (The informant would testify that Graham personally pistol-whipped the victim into a bloody heap.) Hellooooo, California noir.

In its day, Graham’s case prompted all the moralistic hand-wringing familiar to the condemned-hottie tableau down to our present age. And at least that much unconcealed voyeurism. On the eve of her death, the Los Angeles Times palpitated:

“Nothing can be done now — I’m lost,” Mrs. Graham sobbed yesterday when told that Federal judges here and in San Francisco had turned down the latest bids for a stay of execution …

Two years in prison waiting for death have taken their toll of the once attractive convicted murderess.

Her reddish-blond hair has reverted to its natural black color. She has lost about 30 pounds. She is gaunt, tense and near hysteria.

The two men who shared her crime, her sentence, and her fate, did not endure a similar public microscope. Why would they? Jack Santo and Emmett Perkins — and this is the first we’ve even bothered to name them in this post — were just two dude hoods from central casting. Three hours after “Bloody Babs” succumbed to the fumes,* Santo and Perkins were gassed together as the forgettable postscript, “chatt[ing] amiably” with one another in the little metal shed while San Quentin’s personnel did all the preparatory business. (Los Angeles Times, June 4, 1955)

Graham’s persistence with a decreasingly plausible innocence story similarly amplified the pathos of her situation.

It also set up a highly sympathetic post-execution cinematic portrayal, the 1958 I Want to Live! — which garnered leading lady Susan Hayward an Oscar for Best Actress. Director Robert Wise actually personally witnessed the real Graham’s gassing as part of his research for the film.

A 1983 television remake starred former Bionic Woman Lindsay Wagner.

* Given the standard advice for gas chamber clientele that breathing deeply makes it all go down easy, Graham aptly retorted, “How in the hell would you know?”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Gallows Humor,Gassed,History,Murder,Pelf,USA,Women

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1572: Thomas Howard, Ridolfi plotter

5 comments June 2nd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1572, the Duke of Norfolk lost his head for a conspiracy to overthrow Queen Elizabeth.

Thomas Howard was a born plotter. Literally.

The fourth Duke of Norfolk, he inherited the title from the third Duke of Norfolk — his eponymous grandfather, the scheming courtier who had maneuvered nieces Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard into disastrous matrimony with Henry VIII.

Having run afoul of his ruthless sovereign, this elder Howard then had the distinction of dodging execution only because the king himself dropped dead the very day before Howard was to have been beheaded.

The Norfolk title, however, did skip a generation, because grandpa Howard’s son Henry Howard was not so lucky, and abdicated his birthright at the block.*

That left our day’s principal, a mere boy of 10 when his father got axed, as his lucky grandfather’s heir apparent — to carry on the Howard scheming against his second cousin, Anne Boleyn’s lucky daughter Queen Elizabeth.

And young Thomas Howard would prove to be a chop off the old block.

Howard’s sympathies for Catholicism and for swinging an ever-bigger dick led him into a machination to wed Elizabeth’s northern rival Mary, Queen of Scots.

Lucky to get off with just a slap on the codpiece, Howard went right back at it with an unabashed Spanish-supported conspiracy to depose Elizabeth, again in favor of Mary — the Ridolfi Plot.

This chicanery was sniffed out by Elizabeth’s pervasive spy network, and while Mary’s royal status enabled her to survive the revelation, Norfolk had already got down to his last chance.

The conflict between Elizabeth and Norfolk, heavily fictionalized and climaxing in the Ridolfi Plot, is essentially the plot of of the 1998 movie Elizabeth.

Having endured so much trouble from these nettlesome Howards, the crown left the Duke of Norfolk title vacant for nearly a century after this date’s beheading. It was finally restored to a mentally deficient Howard descendant with the post-Cromwell Stuart restoration.

* And that’s just on the dad’s side. His maternal grandfather and great-grandfather from the Stafford family also met their ends on the scaffold.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,England,Execution,God,History,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Public Executions

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1307: Fra Dolcino, Apostle

8 comments June 1st, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1307, radical preacher Fra Dolcino was gruesomely put to death in a daylong public torture at the Piedmontese town of Vercelli.

Dolcino was the millenarian successor of Gerard Segarelli, whose itinerant commune of impoverished penitents — Apostles, they called themselves, to the chagrin of the Church hierarchy — had attracted followers for near half a century before the powers that be smashed it.

The shade of the burned firebrand (and the corporeality of his refugee onetime followers) haunt the murderous monastery of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Here, the paternal Franciscan unraveling the novel’s mystery explains Fra Dolcino’s illicit movement to his naive protege.

We were talking about those excluded from the flock of sheep. For centuries, as pope and emperor tore each other apart in their quarrels over power, the excluded went on living on the fringe, like lepers … all of them were ready to hear, or to produce, every sermon that, harking back to the word of Christ, would condemn the behavior of the dogs and shepherds and would promise their punishment one day. The powerful always realized this. The recovery of the outcasts demanded reduction of the privileges of the powerful, so the excluded who became aware of their exclusion had to be branded as heretics, whatever their doctrine …

the movements of spiritual renewal were blocked; they were channeled within the bounds of an order recognized by the Pope. But what circulated underneath was not channeled. It flowed, on the one hand, into the movements of the flagellants, who endanger no one, or into the armed bands like Fra Dolcino’s …

From the cinematic adaptation of The Name of the Rose. The monk’s semi-coherent summons to “penitenziagite” is significant because it marks him as a former adherent of the penance-focused movement. An Italian metal band called Dolcinian had a song (and album) of that exact title.

But were they really an “armed band”?

Executed Today is pleased to mark this portentous anniversary in conversation with historian Dr. Jerry Pierce, currently working on a book about the outlaw movement.

ET: Who were the Dolcinians?

JP: A lot of people get kind of caught up in the Dolcino part. It’s not about him until the very end.

The group itself originated in 1260, and it lasted 40-some years before it ran into any trouble. Their whole goal when they start is essentially, live a life of poverty like the original Apostles. And apparently that’s a problem for people later.

That’s really all it was about. It’s communal living, it’s not owning things at all, including houses. By 1260, they were better Franciscans than the Franciscans were.

And the Franciscans had a big presence in the city of Parma, where this thing got started, so they were slightly peeved.

So it’s a challenge to the Franciscans?

It’s not trying to show up the Franciscans, but it becomes a challenge.

The “Apostles” wander around, they beg for their food, they tell people to do penance.

The early Franciscans started off the same way, all about poverty, but once they became established, the order became all about money.

And the Apostles are not the only ones mounting this challenge.

Right. Waldensians in France predate the Franciscans by about 30 years or so.* You just have a guy in France who’s a businessman who hears a reading of the gospel saying to give up your possessions and follow Christ. And that’s what he does. He even pays someone to translate the Bible into vernacular French, which is a big no-no.

His group and Segarelli’s group are not an issue as long as they don’t say anything about the doctrine. So long as they don’t say anything about the Trinity or the Eucharist, they’re just calling people to penance — they’re okay.

But the reason these groups come along is that in that period, around 1150 — Europe is experiencing a big economic change. The haves are on the side of the church. This is the core of all of them, and it’s the core of the Dolcino philosophy as well — the church is preaching poverty, but it’s living wealthy.

So they were doing something within the practice of the Church’s community for decades. How did they get so dangerously on the outs?

The bishop of Parma actually patronizes the Apostles and grants indulgences to people who give money to them. They’re not just some kooky group that’s out there even though the main writings about them are by their opponents.**

But what happens is they become really, really popular, and people start following them, and the Franciscans get the hierarchy involved.

There’s nothing doctrinal about them until Dolcino that becomes heresy.

And what specifically is that?

You take Segarelli’s stuff about poverty and radical egalitarianism, and you have Dolcino either witness or know about the execution of Segarelli, and that sort of crystallizes for him that members of the Church are forces of evil.

Basically, Dolcino says that if they would kill this guy for preaching nothing other than poverty, which is their own message, then there’s something wrong.

Because of the persecution — Segarelli’s execution, the Inquisition moving in and questioning people — that kind of pressure is what spurs Dolcino to take off to the northern mountains. That’s sort of the catalyst for him to become apocalyptic.

But even suppressing that takes the Church years.

The chronology is muddy because we only have about three sources, but we think he joined the order before Segarelli was executed. And between 1300 and 1302 or 1303, he’s off in the northeast of Italy near Trento.

He’s from Valsesia, a river valley in the Piedmont, and he eventually returns with a bunch of followers across the mountains — between Novara and Vercelli. It’s an important area because the bishops of the two cities have been fighting each other for access to the valleys, and fighting the local feudal lords, the Biandrate.

This family that’s been controlling the region, they’ve been extending their influence far up the river valley and the farther you go up the valley, the more independent the people are up there; they hate people who encroach on their autonomy and they’ve recently rebelled and kicked them out.

Essentially, Dolcino enters this sovereign territory, and he’s saying to the inhabitants, the wealthy church and the people who live down on the plain are wicked and they’re going to assault you, and sure enough …

And that’s the rebellion that takes place, it’s these farmers and families who live up there against the Crusader army.

A Crusade?

The Pope† allowed a papal indulgence for people going on Crusade up there. They essentially recruit a mercenary army.

The irony of it is that the things that Dolcino and his followers are accused of is raiding people’s houses and stealing all their stuff, and raiding churches and stealing all the gold. Well, guess who actually did that? And all the mercenaries needed to say when they plundered was, “uh, yeah, Dolcino did that.”

You have these non-Valsesian Crusaders and mercenaries who sort of move into these territories and basically get beat by the locals several times.

We know there was this final pitched battle. The Dolcinians flee to a mountaintop awaiting the End Times. Essentially what the Crusader army did was they starved them into submission, basically just blockaded the whole area, and then overran a bunch of starving women and children.

“On that day more than a thousand of the heretics perished in the flames, or in the river, or by the sword, in the cruellest of deaths. Thus they who made sport of God the Eternal Father and of the Catholic faith came, on the day of the Last Supper, through hunger, steel, fire, pestilence, and all wretchedness, to shame and disgraceful death, as they deserved.” (Source)

Dolcino also had a female opposite number, and the sect preached egalitarianism. Did they have an egalitarian gender politics as well?

The woman, Margaret or Margherita, it’s hard to tell exactly who she is — there’s all this embellishment. She’s sometimes called the “wife” of Dolcino, or sources call her the “mistress”, which makes it sound seedier. But we don’t actually know if they were involved or not involved. She was a former nun, and we know a little bit about her family, but there’s just not much about her.†

As to gender generally, the sources will say, these Apostles believed that nobody should own any property so they shared all their things and even their women.

So you’re meant to think that they just pass them around, but that wasn’t the case at all; there weren’t orgies and such. In this case, they did stress radical egalitarianism.

This is actually the ideology of the Christians in the first century: they also say, the world we live in is wrong, and it’s about to end — one of the things about the world they live in is, it’s patriarchal, and they come up with radical egalitarianism because there’s not supposed to be any distinctions in heaven and they’re looking forward to that.

We don’t exactly know if, in the end, it was the Dolcinians themselves fighting or the inhabitants of the area who protected them. But whoever it was, the [anti-Dolcino] sources on the battles also say, basically, “oh my God, the women are wearing pants and fighting next to the men.”

What’s the legacy of this whole movement?

In its own time, there were remnants of the Order of the Apostles still in Parma and the area for the next 20 or 30 years. It’s not heresy to be part of the group per se. There are references to sort of straggler parts of the group in France, in Spain, for the next 100 to 200 years, but it’s really hard to tell.

We do know they spread out pretty far. At one point under Segarelli they sent people to Jerusalem.

The people who live in Valsesia still today totally revere Dolcino. You can go on Dolcino hiking tours!

And there’s been this long history of appropriating his meaning.

“Thou, who perchance
Shalt shortly view the sun, this warning thou
Bear to Dolcino: bid him, if he wish not
Here soon to follow me, that with good store
Of food he arm him, lest impris’ning snows
Yield him a victim to Novara’s power,
No easy conquest else.”

-Mohammed, in Dante’s Inferno (He sounds prophetic, but Dante wrote after Dolcino’s death, with the action set while the heresiarch was still alive.)

In 1407, members of the Church went out and built a church consecrated to the fight aganist the heretics near the site where the Dolcinians were wiped out, and the local populace was outraged.

In 1907, Dolcino was appropriated by the Italian socialists. There was a workers’ group that planted a big red flag, and then they built a monument to him, with a plaque on it with the lines from Dante‘s Inferno.

There’s pictures of this monument, with tons of people up on the mountainside and they’re all dressed in their best.

And the monument lasted until the mid-1920s when the fascists blew it up with pro-fascist clerics. It was rebuilt in 1974, and you can see the old Catholic church from it — two opposing claims on Fra Dolcino.

Obviously you’re pretty sympathetic to this movement. What do you think we ought to make of them?

I think for me the key to understanding the whole order is not just to say, “well, everyone understands it wrong.” There’s a sort of willful wrongness to it, that whenever you put apocalypticism in it, it immediately puts people in the crazy category.

But in this period, when people talked about the end of the world, it didn’t necessarily mean they were nuts.

And then the other thing is, they’re not as violent and threatening as they appear on first read. I’m not even sure that they ever lifted a finger against the Crusaders, they may have just fled. Which in a sense means that they hold true to their values to the end.

More reading: A Historical Memoir of Fra Dolcino and His Times -ed.

* The Waldensians hung around into the Protestant Reformation, and still exist today.

** e.g., about Segarelli, by a Franciscan — who calls them something that translates loosely to “ribald bumpkins”.

Pope Clement V: he would prove more effective crushing the Templars.

‡ Margaret was also executed — allegedly turning down several smitten suitors’ offers to marry her if she would abjure. (Margaret was rich.) Although she’s most picturesquely shown burnt to death in front of Fra Dolcino during or before the latter’s torture, the sources seem to be unreliable as to whether she was in fact also executed on June 1, or on some other date.

On this day..

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