Posts filed under 'Gruesome Methods'

Feast Day of James, the brother of Jesus

Add comment May 3rd, 2020 Headsman

Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you.

Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are motheaten.

Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire. Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days.

Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of sabaoth.

Ye have lived in pleasure on the earth, and been wanton; ye have nourished your hearts, as in a day of slaughter.

Ye have condemned and killed the just; and he doth not resist you.

Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain.

Be ye also patient; stablish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh.

James 5:1-8

May 3 is the current Catholic feast date of the author of the Epistle of JamesJames, the brother of Jesus, also known as James the Just.

He’s a major leader in the New Testament accounts of the primitive church, closely associated with the traditionalist Jewish side of the movement, wont to give precedence to Mosaic law and ritual — a contrast compared to the Gentile-evangelizer St. Paul. James, however, also appears in Acts of the Apostles as a principal decider of the circa CE 50 Council of Jerusalem edict to the effect that non-Jewish converts to Christianity would not be required to circumcise or observe Jewish dietary strictures.

This James has been debatably conflated at times with the Apostle James, son of Alphaeus and/or James the Less* — as in this passage from the Golden Legend:

James the Apostle is said the Less, how well that was the elder of age than was St. James the More. He was called also the brother of our Lord, because I have resembled much well our Lord in body, in visage, and of manner. He was called James the Just for his right great holiness. He was also called James the son of Alpheus. He sang in Jerusalem the first mass that ever was there, and he was first bishop of Jerusalem.

These associations are all matters of scholarly debate, for the name “James” appears repeatedly in the New Testament, and the contexts do not always make it obvious when one encounters a recurring character. No matter how many other faces we might attribute to him, James the first century Jerusalem patriarch was clearly a figure of great authority among the earliest Christians and a co-leader of the Jerusalem Church. His consanguinity with the Messiah cannot have hurt his cause.

There are various accounts given of his martyrdom in 62 or 69** CE which boil down to falling foul of the Jewish authorities, just like his brother. Importantly, he’s referenced by the ancient historian Josephus in a passage from The Antiquities of the Jews that not only casts light upon his death but provides a contemporary non-Christian source verifying the development of this sect. The setup begins with the ascent of a young and aggressive high priest named Ananus, who

was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity [to exercise his authority]. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned: but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done; they also sent to the king [Agrippa], desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, for that what he had already done was not to be justified; nay, some of them went also to meet Albinus, as he was upon his journey from Alexandria, and informed him that it was not lawful for Ananus to assemble a sanhedrim without his consent. Whereupon Albinus complied with what they said, and wrote in anger to Ananus, and threatened that he would bring him to punishment for what he had done; on which king Agrippa took the high priesthood from him, when he had ruled but three months, and made Jesus, the son of Damneus, high priest.

Given his importance, James finds his way into quite a few extra-canonical Christian texts as well; for example, there’s an apocryphal Gospel of James dating to the second century. Of particular interest to we connoisseurs of death are gnostic texts from papyri discovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt titled the First and Second Apocalypse of James: the Second Apocalypse has an account of James’s martyrdom, very detailed in spite of the fragmentary text, after his preaching in Jerusalem troubled the Jews:

On that day all the people and the crowd were disturbed, and they showed that they had not been persuaded. And he arose and went forth speaking in this manner. And he entered (again) on that same day and spoke a few hours. And I was with the priests and revealed nothing of the relationship, since all of them were saying with one voice, ‘Come, let us stone the Just One.’ And they arose, saying, ‘Yes, let us kill this man, that he may be taken from our midst. For he will be of no use to us.’

And they were there and found him standing beside the columns of the temple beside the mighty corner stone. And they decided to throw him down from the height, and they cast him down. And they […] they […]. They seized him and struck him as they dragged him upon the ground. They stretched him out and placed a stone on his abdomen. They all placed their feet on him, saying ‘You have erred!’

Again they raised him up, since he was alive, and made him dig a hole. They made him stand in it. After having covered him up to his abdomen, they stoned him in this manner.

And he stretched out his hands and said this prayer – not that (one) which it is his custom to say:

My God and my father,
who saved me from this dead hope,
who made me alive through a mystery of what he wills,

Do not let these days of this world be prolonged for me,
but the day of your light […] remains
in […] salvation.

Deliver me from this place of sojourn!
Do not let your grace be left behind in me,
but may your grace become pure!

Save me from an evil death!
Bring me from a tomb alive, because your grace –
love — is alive in me to accomplish a work of fullness!

Save me from sinful flesh,
because I trusted in you with all my strength,
because you are the life of the life!

Save me from a humiliating enemy!
Do not give me into the hand of a judge who is severe with sin!
Forgive me all my debts of the days (of my life)!

Because I am alive in you, your grace is alive in me.
I have renounced everyone, but you I have confessed.
Save me from evil affliction!

But now is the time and the hour.
O Holy Spirit, send me salvation […] the light […]
the light […] in a power […].’

After he spoke, he fell silent … [text ends]

* Saint James the Great was definitely a different fellow.

** The proximity of this martyrdom to the Jewish-Roman War (66-73 CE) led some subsequent ancient writers — not Josephus himself — to cite it as a cause of the great Roman Siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE, which famously destroyed the Second Temple.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,Israel,Jews,Martyrs,Palestine,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Stoned,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates

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1327: Beomondo di San Severo

Add comment April 15th, 2020 Headsman

An Italian friar known as Beomondo di San Severo was flogged to death in Naples on this date in 1327 at the behest of the Inquisition.

Little is known of him; the case was unearthed from the Neapolitan archives in the 20th century, striking to audiences of that period for the man’s surprising presagement of … evolutionary biology?

Man therefore, in his original and primordial condition, was immersed almost in a mixture of elements, and came to light by chance, as [writes] Augustine in the books of the Trinity: for this reason God is called only Conditor ac Administrator, because man did not arise from the mud of the earth by the will of God. For this reason also the psalms say that man was born from the earth. Therefore, so men descend from men as God descends from God.

In context this can’t have been merely an idea about the origins of life on earth, however heretical: the whiff of radical egalitarianism is clear enough here, and would be right at home in these years of a many-headed bottom-up challenge to pontifical authority — the Friars Minor (to which Beomondo belonged), the Beghards and Beguines, and millenarian rebels like Fra Dolcino. 1327 is the very hear in which Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose unfolds.

Alas, the scanty documentary trail means that a similarly perspicacious novelist will be required to imagine Beomondo’s own life and thought in full. One question that volume have to grapple with is the reason for the anomalous and very brutal execution by lash, when the pyre would ordinarily be anticipated for heresy.

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1542: Margaret Davy, poysoner

Add comment March 17th, 2020 Headsman

Seventeenth century Jurist John Brydall‘s “An abridgment of the lawes of England, touching treasons, rebellious murthers, conspiracies, burning of houses, poysonings, and other capital offences (1679):

Whether killing a man by poyson be more detestable, than by any other means?

To kill a man by poyson, sayes Coke, is the most detestable of all, because it is most horrible and fearful to the nature of man, and of all others can be least prevented, either by Manhood, or providence: This offence was so odious, that by Act of Parliament it was made High Treason, and it inflicted a more grievous and lingring death, than the common Law prescribed, viz. That the Offendor shall be boyled to death in hot water: upon which Statute Margaret Davy [or Davie, or Davey -ed.] a young woman was attainted of High Treason for poysoning her Mistress, and some others, was boyled to death in Smithfield the Seventeenth of March in the same year: But this Act was afterwards repealed by 1. E. 6. c. 12. and 1. Mar. c. 1.

This appears to be the last documented execution by boiling alive in English history. (The far better-known boiling of Richard Roose for attempting to poison John Fisher occurred 11 years earlier, during the run-up to Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn.)

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1653: Felim O’Neill

Add comment March 10th, 2020 Headsman

Irish rebel Felim (or Phelim) O’Neill of Kinard was executed on this date in 1653.

“A well-bred gentleman, three years at court, as free and generous as could be desired, and very complaisant; stout in his person, but, not being bred anything of a soldier, wanted the main art, that is, policy in war and good conduct” by a contemporary assessment, O’Neill numbered among the leaders of the 1641 Irish Rebellion against English governance. He issued a noteworthy manifesto of the affair known as the Proclamation of Dungannon.

The attempted coup helped to launch the English Civil War,* whose local-to-Ireland theater was known as the Irish Confederate Wars — Irish Catholics versus Protestant English and Scottish colonists. Felim O’Neill passed these years as a parliamentarian of the rebel (to English eyes) Confederate Ireland whose destruction required the bloody intervention of Oliver Cromwell.

O’Neill officered troops in this conflict, to no stirring victories. Although far from Confederate Ireland’s most important player, he was significant enough to merit an exception to the 1652 Act for the Settlement of Ireland — which made him an outlaw with a price on his head. He was captured in February 1653 and tried for treason in Dublin, refusing the court’s blandishments to abate the horrible drawing-and-quartering sentence by shifting any blame for the rising to the lately beheaded King Charles I.

* Or for a somewhat broader periodization, the rebellion fit into the Britain-wide breakdown that delivered the Wars of the Three Kingdoms.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Ireland,Martyrs,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Separatists,Soldiers,Treason

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1590: Christopher Bales, Nicholas Horner, and Alexander Blake

1 comment March 4th, 2020 Charles George Herbermann

(Thanks to Charles George Herbermann for the guest post. Herbermann emigrated from Prussia to the United States in childhood and became a prominent scholar of Catholicism at the institution now known as New York University. Herbermann was the chief editor of the gigantic originally published in a volume of Catholic Encyclopedia in the early 20th century, where this text originally appeared; many other contributors were involved, and it’s impossible to tell . -ed.)

Christopher Bales. Priest and martyr, b. at Coniscliffe near Darlington, County Durham, England, about 1564; executed 4 March, 1590. He entered the English College at Rome, 1 October, 1583, but owing to ill-health was sent to the College at Reims, where he was ordained 28 March, 1587. Sent to England 2 November, 1588, he was soon arrested, racked, and tortured by Topcliffe, and hung up by the hands for twenty-four hours at a time; he bore all most patiently. At length he was tried and condemned for high treason, on the charge of having been ordained beyond seas and coming to England to exercise his office. He asked Judge Anderson whether St. Augustine, Apostle of the English, was also a traitor. The judge said no, but that the act had since been made treason by law. He suffered 4 March, 1590, “about Easter”, in Fleet Street opposite Fetter Lane. On the gibbet was set a placard: “For treason and favouring foreign invasion”. He spoke to the people from the ladder, showing them that his only “treason” was his priesthood. On the same day Venerable Nicholas Horner suffered in Smithfield for having made Bales a jerkin, and Venerable Alexander Blake in Gray’s Inn Lane for lodging him in his house.

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1998: Three Afghan men under a toppled wall

Add comment February 25th, 2020 Headsman

This jaw-dropping story, reported here via an Amnesty International report, made the rounds of international press and appears to be well-founded — and indeed not the only instance of execution by wall toppling in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.*

Three Afghan men, Fazalur Rehman, Ahmad Shah and Abdul Qahir were convicted earlier this year [1998] by a Taleban Shari’a court of committing sodomy with young boys. On 25 February 1998, a stone wall was felled on them by a battle tank before thousands of spectators at Kotal Morcha north of city of Kandahar. They were seriously injured but did not die immediately. The Taleban leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar who had reportedly gone to witness the execution ordered that they remain buried for half an hour saying their lives would be spared if they survived. As the men were still alive at the end of their ordeal, he ordered that they should be taken to the city’s hospital. Two of them died the next day. The third survived but it is not known if he is still in hospital. Agence France Presse quotes the Taleban’s daily newspaper, Anis, as reporting that the three men from the Sangin area in Helmand province, some 100 kilometres northwest of Kandahar, “who had committed the obscene act of buggery were publicly put under a wall after a verdict of the Shari’a court and the Shari’a punishment was thus applied to them. His eminence the Amirol Momenin [Mollah Mohammad Omar] attended the function to give Shari’a punishment to the three buggerers in Dasht-e Sufi area of Kandahar.”

* The same Amnesty report describes a like punishment visited on March 22, 1998, on Abdul Sami, 18, and Bismillah, 22 — again, for sodomy.

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1573: Hans Boije af Gennäs

Add comment January 1st, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1573, the Swedish commander of Weissenstein (present-day Paide, Estonia), Hans Boije af Gennäs was executed when his fortress was overrun by Russian troops, during the Livonian War.


Ruins of (cc) image from Ivo Kruusamägi.

A walled city with a Teutonic Knights-built keep, Weissenstein sat at a crossroads in interior Livonia and changed hands several times during this decades-long multilateral conflict involving Russia, Sweden, Denmark-Norway, Poland, and Lithuania — the latter two of which united into a Commonwealth during the war.

Big picture, the Livonian War ran from 1558 to 1583; the stakes were, as one might guess, control of Livonia — essentially, the present-day Baltic states of Estonia and Latvia. Long ago this precinct had been the medieval remit of those same Teutonic Knights; after 1561, it was controlled in the south by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (that’s Latvia), and in the north by Sweden (that’s Estonia, containing Weissenstein).

Needless to say, this brought enormous suffering to Livonian, which Livonian chroniclers like Johann Renner, Balthasar Russow and Salomon Henning blamed mostly on the Russians. As Charles Halperin summarizes,

To the Livonian chroniclers, the Russians were barbaric, sadistic monsters, whose atrocities they described in graphic, sensational detail. According to Renner, the Russians were cruel, bloodthirsty, and inhumane. They massacred men, women, and children among fishermen. They hanged Livonian women from trees and robbed them of their clothing, silver, and gold. They impaled babies on stakes or sharp picket fences, and hacked little children in two and left them, or hacked adults into pieces. They placed a huge stone on the stomach of a pregnant women [sic] to force her foetus from her womb. They burned alive a woman hiding in an oven. They cut off the breasts of maidens and women and hacked off the hands and feet of men. They threw fifty children into a well and filled it with stones. They flayed a man and cut open his side, poured in gunpowder, and blew him apart. They decapitated captives after flaying them and cutting off their fingers and toes. They massacred peasants young and old. They flayed captives in Moscow with whips of braided flails, marched them five miles to a cemetery and then beheaded them with axes. They drove naked peasants into great fires and nailed one peasant to a post and suffocated him with smoke. They tied a captured noble to a tree, cut open his body, and let his intestines fall out. They nailed a ferryman to a door and then killed him with arrows. They killed an old forest overseer by cutting open his body, nailing one end of his intestines to a tree, and then beating him with whips to make him run, pulling out his intestines and bringing about his death. Peasants were drawn and quartered. They murdered captives by snapping their necks in such a way that they suffered for one, two, or three days before expiring. The Tatars cut out the heart of one prisoner (killing him, of course), and ate it, saying that doing so would give them courage.

Russow adds that Russians committed terrible acts of murder, theft, and arson during their invasion. They tortured and tormented Livonians, massacred them, threw poor peasant, their wives and children to their deaths off city walls, hacked to death servitors of Magnus,* roasted captives on spits for days, stole the blanket off a dead woman, deposited children on the ice to die of overexposure or drown, put out a noble’s eyes before flaying him to death, drowned, tortured, and executed captives, sabered captives, plucked out the heart of the living body of a mayor, ripped a preacher’s tongue from his throat, sold captives into slavery, raped maidens and women, threw captives to their deaths off the walls of conquered cities, and starved captives nearly to death. They left the bodies of their victims for wild beasts to eat …

According to Henning, the Russians were bloodthirsty “ignorant barbarians”, who raged like savages, and tortured and killed their enemies in inhuman fashion, including stretching them and breaking them on the wheel. They cut down even the young and the old, women and children, who surrendered with their hands raised, or subjected them to inhuman barbarities and atrocities, and then barbaric slavery. Everywhere they went, they plundered, slew, roasted, and burned. They hacked pregnant women in two, impaled foetuses on fence stakes, slit men’s sides, inserted gunpowder and blew them up, and slit men’s throats and let them bleed to death. They smeared people with thick pine pitch, bound them, and burned them. They gang-raped women and girls, and sold the survivors into slavery to the Tatars. They tore nursing babes from their mothers’ breasts, chopped off hands, feet, and heads, and gutted the remainder of the bodies, stuck bodies on spits and roasted or baked them, and then ate them to satisfy their “diabolical, bloodthirsty hunger” … They massacred innocent Livonian townsmen, wives, and children in retribution for anti-Russian plots in which they had no part. They butchered poor little schoolchildren. Despite safe-conducts to the surrendered occupants of assaulted cities, they sabered them as they departed. Captives too old or infirm to be led into captivity, even nobles, were killed on the spot. Survivors of a castle whose occupants chose to blow themselves up rather than surrendered were sabered, hacked to bits, mutilated, and left unburied to be eaten by birds, dogs, and other wild beasts.

To skip past various twists of state- and warcraft, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was taking a breather from the fight in the early 1570s, leaving Russia and Sweden mano a mano.

The Russians invaded Swedish-defended Estonia in 1572 with Tsar Ivan the Terrible personally leading the army, and put the small garrison of Weissenstein/Paide to irresistible siege. Nevertheless, it did resist, and these defenders have the distinction of killing during this siege the sinister operative of the tsar — Malyuta Skuratov, so much the emblem of Ivan’s terrible Oprichnina that in Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, the titular Margarita at an infernal ball can’t help but notice one “face ringed by a fiery beard, the face of Malyuta Skuratov”.


Portrait of Skuratov by a contemporary painter, the late Pavel Ryzhenko.

Considering the flaying and intestine-ripping that mere passersby were liable to expose themselves to, the Swedes earned no quarter from Ivan for compounding their resistance with the death of the tsar’s hand. Our man Hans Boije af Gennais (English Wikipedia entry | Swedish) and his chief aides were all impaled and slowly roasted over flames immediately upon Weissenstein’s New Year’s Day capture.

* Magnus, Duke of Holstein was Ivan’s unsuccessful puppet king in Livonia in the early 1570s, but he lost favor after being repeatedly thumped by the Swedes and eventually outright turned against the Russians. Ivan captured him and (alas for Executed Today) did not put him to death, but gratuitously brutalized anyone in Magnus’s train.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Estonia,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Impaled,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Russia,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Sweden,Torture,Wartime Executions

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1583: Edward Arden, Shakespearean kin

Add comment December 20th, 2019 William Camden

(Thanks to historian William Camden for the guest post, via the 1583 chapter of his Annales. The gentleman in the second paragraph below, Edward Arden — second cousin to William Shakespeare’s mum — was executed on the 20th of December, 1583. -ed.)

And not onely these men troubled the Church at home, but also some which proceeded from these did the like abroad, namely Robert Browne a Cambridge man, a young student in Divinity, of whom the new sectaries were called Browniste, and Richard Harison a pety schoolmaster. for these two presuming but of their owne spirit to judge of matters of Religion, by bookes set forth at this time in Zeland and dispersed all over England condemned the Church of England as no Church, and intangled many in the snares of their new schisme, notwithstanding that their bookes were suppressed by the Queenes authority and soundly confuted by learned men, and that two of the Sectaryes, one after another, were excuted at Saint Edmunds Bury.

On the other side some Papists bookes against the Queene and Princes excommunicate drew some which had the Popes power in great reverence for their obedience, and amongst others they so distracted one Somervill, a gentilman, that in haste he undertooke a journey privily to the Queenes Court, and breathing nothing but blood against the Protestants, he furiously set upon one or two by the way with his sword drawne. Being apprehended, hee professed that hee would have killed the Queene with his owne hands. Whereupon he, and by his appeachment Edward Ardern his wives father, a man of very ancient gentility in the County of Warwicke, Ardern’s wife, their daughter Somervill, and Hall a Priest, as accessaries, were arrraigned and condemned. After three daies Somervill was found strangled in prison; Arderne, being condemned, was the next day after hanged and quartered; the woman and the Priest were spared. This woefull end of this gentleman, who was drawne in by the cunning of the Priest and cast by his own testimony, was commonly imputed to Leicesters malice. For certaine it is that hee had incurred Leicesters heavie displeasure, and not without cause, against whom hee had rashly opposed himselfe in all hee could, had reproached him as an adulterer, and detracted him as a new upstart.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,God,Gruesome Methods,Guest Writers,History,Martyrs,Other Voices,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Torture,Treason

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1452: Antonio Rizzo, cannonaded

Add comment December 8th, 2019 Headsman

From Charles Stanton in Medieval Maritime Warfare:


In the months preceding the final fall of Constantinople in 1453, the great Ottoman sultan Mehmed (II), the Conqueror, caused to be constructed in less than twenty weeks on the European bank of the Bosporus just north of the city a colossal castle which he called Bas-kesen, meaning ‘Decapitator’ or ‘Throat-cutter’. Later called Rumeli Hisar (‘Castle of the Roman Lands’), it stood opposite the Anadolu Hisar (‘Castle of Anatolia’), built in 1394 by his great-grandfather Bayezit I at the narrowest part of the strait (less than 1km across). It consisted of three main towers and fourteen smaller ones connected by inner and outer curtain walls, covering an area of 31,250 sq. m (almost 7.75 acres). The fortress still stands to this day, glowering down upon passing maritime traffic much as it did when it was completed on 31 August 1452.


The view from the still-standing fortress shows its commanding view over the narrow strait. (cc) image from Olga Petrovska.

The main tower in the middle was 22m (72ft) high and 23.3m (76ft 5 in) in diameter, with 6.5m (21ft 4in) thick walls. Named the Halil Pasha after the sultan’s vizier who built it, it stood closest to the shoreline. On it, Mehmed had positioned what were described as ‘bronze tubes capable of discharging balls weighing over six hundred pounds’. He then gave the citadel’s commander, one Firuz Aga, the following explicit instructions:

Do not allow ships sailing from the Hellespont [Dardanelles] to the Black Sea or from the Black Sea to the Hellespont, no matter under whose flag they may be sailing — Genoese, Venetian, Constantinopolitan, Kaffatinian, Trapezundian, Amisinian, Sinopean, or even under my own flag, and no matter what class they are — triremes, biremes, barques, or skiffs — to sail through without first lowering their sails and paying the customs duties; only after they have done so will you permit them to proceed on their way. Use the cannon to sink the ship that does not comply and submit.

Early the following November two Venetian ships destined for the Dardanelles ignored the injunction and passed through the Bosporus without stopping as ordered. Luckily, they survived the consequent cannonade. A third, carrying grain for Constantinople a short time later, was not so fortunate. The earlier experience had evidently served to provide Firuz Aga’s gunners with the proper range. A single stone from one of the cannon ‘shattered the ship’. The crew of thirty, including the captain, a certain Antonio Rizzo, were subsequently captured and taken to the sultan in Didymoteichos (in Thrace, about 37km or 23 miles south of Adrianople — modern Edirne). ‘He gave orders to behead them all except the captain whose life was to be taken by a stake through the anus,’ recorded a fifteenth-century chronicler known only as ‘Doukas’, who claimed he himself saw Rizzo’s rotting corpse only ‘a few days later’. The impact on maritime warfare was just as dramatic. The advent of a true ship-killing weapon spelled the end of one age and the beginning of another.

In his watershed study Gunpowder and Galleys, early modern military historian John Francis Guilmartin concluded that the one technological innovation most responsible for ushering in a new age of warfare was ‘the use of effective heavy cannon’. It was, therefore, fitting that Mehmed II employed perhaps the largest cannon ever built up to that point to vanquish the first great naval power of the passing medieval period. In his campaign to conquer Constantinople, the Ottoman sultan engaged a Hungarian engineer named Orban to produce a sort of supergun which could smash the several-feet thick Theodosian Walls that had protected the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire for a millennium. ‘In three months’ time a terrifying and extraordinary monster was forged,’ testified Doukas. Mehmed’s Greek biographer, Michael Kritovoulos, provided precise dimensions: the barrel was cast in bronze some 20cm (8in) thick; it measured about 8m (26ft 8in) long, with a bore at the muzzle of 76m (30in) in diameter. In a test, the cannon discharged a 544kg (1,200-pound) stone ball which burrowed itself almost 2m (6ft) into the ground over 1.6km (1m) away. Doukas said that thirty wagons pulled by sixty oxen and 200 men were required to haul it from Adrianople to Constantinople where it was positioned to batter the walls south of the Blachernae Palace.

Not content with this ostentatious display of military power, Mehmed then brought to bear the full force of his powerful new fleet. The Byzantines had barred the entrance to the Golden Horn with a giant iron chain suspended on wooden pontoons between two fortified towers, one on each side. (This chain currently resides in the Turkish Naval Museum of Istanbul.)


(cc) image from Henri Bergius.

A squadron of ten Greek warships was stationed outside it, while another sixteen from Genoa, Venice and other western maritime cities guarded it from inside. Previous Ottoman assaults on this defensive cordon had failed, so the sultan circumvented it by building a road of greased wooden logs across Galata Hill behind the Genoese colony of Pera on the side of the Golden Horn opposite the city. He then, on 22 April, had seventy to eighty ‘biremes on wheeled cradles’ hauled over said byway and into the harbour behind the chain. The manoeuvre demoralized the defenders and enabled Mehmed’s naval forces to attack the city’s sea walls from the Golden Horn at the same time that his army assaulted the land walls. Inevitably, Constantinople fell on 29 May 1453. Vanquished were the last vestiges of Byzantine imperial power and its maritime thalassocracy remained only as a distant memory.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Beheaded,Byzantine Empire,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Gibbeted,Greece,Gruesome Methods,History,Impaled,Ottoman Empire,Power,Public Executions,Turkey,Wartime Executions

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1620: Michal Piekarski, warhammer wielder

Add comment November 27th, 2019 Headsman

Calvinist nobleman Michal Piekarski was spectacularly executed in Warsaw on this date in 1620 for attempting the life of the Polish-Lithuanian king.

The lengthy reign of Sigismund III Vasa marks Poland’s downward slide out of her golden age, although how much of this trendline is personally attributable to Sigismund embarks scholarly debates well beyond this writer’s ken.

Sigismund III Vasa held both the Polish-Lithuanian and the Swedish thrones in a personal union but he lost the latter realm to rebellion; he meddled unsuccessfully in Russia’s Time of Troubles interregnum; and he faced a rebellion of nobility in 1606-1608 that, although it failed to overthrow him, permanently curtailed the power Polish monarchy.

That conflict with the aristocracy overlapped with a sectarian schism common throughout Europe in the train of the Protestant Reformation — for Sigismund was very Catholic and his nobility divided.

It’s the latter fissure that’s thought to have supplied the proximate motivation for our date’s principal. Piekarski (English Wikipedia entry | Polish), a petty noble, had long been noted as a moody, melancholic man too unstable even to be entrusted with the management of his own estates — the consequence of a childhood head injury.

He was also a staunch Calvinist, but broad-minded enough to find virtue in his opponents’ tactics. In 1610, Catholic ultra Francois Ravaillac had assassinated France’s Henri IV, and it’s thought that Ravaillac’s boldness put the bee into Piekarski’s bonnet.

A decade later, the Pole stung with cinematic flair: he jumped Sigismund in a narrow corridor while the latter was en route to Mass and dealt 1d8 bludgeoning damage by thumping the king in the back with a warhammer; after a second attempted blow only grazed the sovereign’s cheek, the royal entourage subdued Piekarski and started looking up chiropractors.


It’s only a model: replica of the would-be assassin’s instrument on display in Warsaw.

Torture failed to elucidate a coherent motivation from a muddled mind. Reports had him only babbling nonsense, so attribution of the attack to religious grievance remains no more than partially satisfying; there were rumors of other more determined instigators to steer Piekarski’s mind towards regicide for their own ends. (Although he didn’t get the king, he did confer upon the Polish tongue the idiom “plesc jak Piekarski na mekach” — “to mumble like Piekarski under torture”.)

In the end, for Ravaillac’s crime, he took Ravaillac’s suffering: the Sejm condemned him to an elaborate public execution which comprised having his flesh torn by red-hot pincers as he was carted around Warsaw, until reaching a place called Piekielko (“Devil’s Den”) where the hand he had dared to raise against the king was struck off, and then what was left of his ruined flesh was torn into quarters with the aid of four straining horses.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Assassins,Attempted Murder,By Animals,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Disfavored Minorities,Dismembered,Execution,God,Gruesome Methods,History,Nobility,Notable for their Victims,Poland,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Torture,Treason

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