Posts filed under 'Lawyers'

1651: Wilhelm Biener, faithful counsellor

Add comment July 17th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1651, Wilhelm Biener, late the chancellor of Tyrol, lost his head to the rancor of Tyrol’s landed aristocracy.

A barrister by training and eventually a judge, Biener or Bienner (English Wikipedia entry | German) transitioned into a court position under Leopold V, Archduke of Austria. Leopold’s death in 1632 left a four-year-old heir, Ferdinand Charles; the boy’s mother, Claudia de’ Medici, leaned increasingly on Biener’s counsel as she ably kept Tyrol in order (and out of the devastating Thirty Years’ War) while little Ferdinand aged towards his majority.

As a commoner, no dynastic entanglements of his own divided his attentions from the state’s own interest, a fact that Claudia de’ Medici recognized in elevating Biener to the chancellorship in 1638, and that the land’s magnates recognized in the strictly levied taxes Biener extracted from their resentful purses.


Detail view (click for full image) of Karl Anrather’s 1891 painting of Wilhelm Biener holding forth against the Tiroler Landtag, from the Ferdinandeum at Innsbruck.

We’ve seen quite often enough in these pages that the danger undertaken by such figures should their enemies ever find power over them mitigates the honors and emoluments they are like to enjoy while in office. One gets a sense of the undercurrent of biding violence from the remark of the Bishop of Brixen, directed to forward the required revenues in a letter less deferential than a senior cleric thought he was due: “The man deserves to lose the fingers that could write such an intemperate effusion!”

For Biener, the volcano opened under him with the death of his patron Claudia de’ Medici on Christmas Day 1648. Her boy Ferdinand Charles was all of 20 years old now, wet behind the ears and enamored of courtly profligacy. Despite his affection for Biener and his long service to his mother, the young prince would vacillate on sparing the consigliere until it was too late.

Biener’s enemies struck with a secret trial accusing him of wetting his own beak on the imposts he had imposed on Tirol; the account below of what followed from a travelogue probably reflects the posthumous myth of Biener more faithfully than it does the real man.

[Biener] was ultimately condemned, in 1651, to lose his head. Biener sent a statement of his case to the Archduke Ferdinand Karl; and the young prince, believing the honesty of his mother’s faithful adviser, immediately ordered a reprieve. The worst enemy and prime accuser of the fallen favourite was Schmaus, President of the Council … and he contrived by detaining the messenger to make him arrive just too late in Rattenberg, then still a strong fortress, where he lay confined, and where the sentence was to be carried out.

Biener had all along steadfastly maintained his innocence; and stepping on to the scaffold, he had again repeated the assertion, adding, “So truly as I am innocent, I summon my accuser before the Judgment-seat above before another year is out.” When the executioner stooped to lift up the head before the people, he found lying by its side three fingers of his right hand, without having had any knowledge that he had struck them off, though he might have done so by the unhappy man having raised his hand in the way of the sword in the last struggle. [more likely they were folded in prayer. -ed.] The people, however, saw in it the fulfilment of the words of the bishop, as well as a ghastly challenge accompanying his dying message to President Schmaus. Nor did they forget to note that the latter died of a terrible malady some months before the close of the year.

Biener’s wife lost her senses when she knew the terrible circumstances of his death; the consolations of her director and of her son, who lived to his ninetieth year in the Franciscan convent at Innsbruck, were alike powerless to calm her. She escaped in the night, and wandered out into the mountains no one knows whither. But the people say she lives on to be a witness of her husband’s innocence, and may be met on lonely ways proclaiming it, but never harming any. Only, when anyone is to die in Büchsenhausen, where her married life passed so pleasantly, the ‘Bienerweible’ will appear and warn them.

Living on in Tyrol folk tradition, Biener took a leap into the Romantic-era national consciousness thanks to writer Hermann Schmid, who popularized Biener’s legend with a 19th century historical novel, The Chancellor of Tyrol; public domain versions can be read online in two volumes (1, 2); a theatrical adaptation by Josef Wenter is still staged to this day. It’s possible that this imprint on the Zeitgeist led a Bohemian writer to christen his fictional executed outlaw “Vilem” in the Czech poem Maj.


Marker honoring Wilhelm Biener in the Austrian Tyrol town of Rattenberg, where Biener was executed on July 17, 1651.

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1731: Jose de Antequera, Paraguayan comunero rebel

Add comment July 5th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1731, Jose de Antequera had his head cut off in Lima for leading a comunero rebellion against the Spanish crown in Paraguay.

Antequera, a judge, began his revolution legally in 1721 by affirming an impeachment the city council of Asuncion (Paraguay’s present-day capital) against the unpopular Spanish governor. Antequera, conveniently, also happened to be the guy who would succeed the unpopular territorial governor.

The conflict between the two would-be governors spiraled into a wider revolt for local autonomy pitting criollo settlers against the crown, though it would likely be overstating matters to call this a true bid for independence. One notable sore spot between the two parties was the prerogatives of Jesuit Reductions: these mission settlements for Christianizing natives (particularly prominent in Paraguay for the Guarani people) had originally been placed at the far fringes of Spain’s New World reach, and they enjoyed a wide autonomy, sustaining themselves economically with the yerba mate trade. For the Guarani, these were also welcome refuges from the brutal encomiendas; Guarani militias stoutly repelled slave raiders.

For these prerogatives, the Jesuits and the Guarani were loyal to the Spanish crown as against the local settlers better inclined to view the Reductions (and the potential slaves who inhabited them) as assets they’d like to get their own hands around. Antequera accordingly expelled the Jesuits near Asuncio and for a few years his word was law in Paraguay. Guarani troops mustered by the crown helped put the rebellion down, taking Antequera into custody and forwarding him to the notoriously severe Marquis of Castelfuerte, the Peruvian viceroy.

Society at Lima was in [Antequera’s] favor. Great efforts were made to delay his trial. But the viceroy was resolved to punish him, and sentence of death was passed. The judges, the university, the municipality, petitioned for pardon, as well as the people of all classes. The stern old marquis refused to listen, and Antequera was brought out for execution in the great square of Lima on July 5, 1731. There were cries for pardon, and the mob began to throw stones. Hearing the tumult, the viceroy came out on horseback and ordered his guards to fire. Antequera fell dead, as well as the two priests by his side, and several others. The viceroy then ordered the body to be taken to the scaffold and beheaded. His conduct received the approval of the king by decree of September, 1733. (Source)

The Spanish had not heard the end of Antequera.

During his imprisonment, Antequera befriended and inspired a fellow-prisoner named Fernando Mompo. After Antequera’s execution, Mompo returned to Paraguay brandishing the late rebel governor’s banner: “The authority of the commune is superior to that of the King himself!” Mompo launched a recrudescence of the comunero rebellion in the early 1730s. Mompo too shared Antequera’s fate.

A change in the political winds decades later led to the Spanish king Charles III himself expelling the Jesuits — and posthumously exonerating Jose de Antequera.

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1340: Nicholas Behuchet, Battle of Sluys naval commander

Add comment June 24th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1340, the English and French fought an early naval engagement of the Hundred Years’ War: the Battle of Sluys.

The English won the battle … and the French admiral wound up hanging from a mast.

At the outset of the Hundred Years’ War in 1337, the French bossed the Channel and inflicted devastating sea raids on the English coast. In the long war’s first major battle at sea, a French fleet in September 1338 overwhelmed an English flotilla carrying valuable English wool to the Low Countries.

Nicholas Behuchet, one of the French commanders at this earlier battle, did not hesitate to massacre his prisoners.

Thus conquering did these said mariners of the king of France in this winter take great pillage, and especially they conquered the handsome great nef called the Christophe, all charged with the goods and wool that the English were sending to Flanders, which nef had cost the English king much to build: but its crew were lost to these Normans, and were put to death.

England’s allies were in the Low Countries, so too many battles like this stood to strangle the English cause in the crib. For near two years, French privateers had leave to ravage the English coast, while French troops overran Flanders and made the English Queen Philippa* hostage.

Seeking a breakout, King Edward III requisitioned English merchant cogs — there was no standing navy at the time — into a fleet of perhaps 160 or 200 vessels, heavy with soldiers to invade Flanders.

On June 24, two days after setting out from the Orwell estuary at Ipswich, Edward’s armada boldly fell upon a larger French fleet anchored at the Flanders port of Sluys.

The medieval chronicler Froissart’s account makes for riveting reading.** This was no stately ballet of seamanship but a gory close-quarters melee: as was characteristic for the time, the “sea” battle was mostly just about coming together for the respective fleets’ marines to board one another’s ships and murder anyone on board who wasn’t worth a ransom. The French admiral Behuchet lashed his ships together across the mouth of the harbor, a sort of floating breastwork that would enable the French soldiery to shimmy up and down the entire line no matter where the English focused their attack.

To the sound of “scores of trumpets, horns and other instruments,”

Fierce fighting broke out on every side, archers and crossbowmen shooting arrows and bolts at each other pell-mell, and men-at-arms struggling and striking in hand-to-hand combat. In order to come to closer quarters, they had great iron grappling-hooks fixed to chains, and these they hurled into each others’ ships to draw them together and hold them fast while the men engaged. Many deadly blows were struck and gallant deeds performed, ships and men were battered, captured and recaptured. The great ship Christopher [a large English cog previously captured by the French and situated in the French front row -ed.] was recovered by the English at the beginning of the battle and all those on board were killed or taken prisoner …


An illustration of the Battle of Sluys from Froissart’s chronicle. Note the mast of the ship at far left: it displays the English arms quartered with the French, Edward III’s heraldic assertion of sovereignty over both realms.

It was indeed a bloody and murderous battle. Sea-fights are always fiercer than fights on land, because retreat and flight are impossible. Every man is obliged to hazard his life and hope for success, relying on his own personal bravery and skill … [it] rage[d] furiously from early morning until afternoon, during which time there were many notable feats of arms and the English were hard put to it to hold their own, since they were opposed by hardened soldiers and seamen, who outnumbered them by four to one.

Edward III took an arrow or crossbow bolt to the leg — great-man historical legend has it that it was fired by Nicholas Behuchet himself — but captained his flotilla to an overwhelming victory, capturing most of the French ships and destroying the French, their Genoese allies, “and all who were with them … [they were] killed or drowned, not a single one escaping in the general slaughter.” Poetic license aside, it was a spectacular triumph for the English — and a crushing defeat for the French.†

In the 1596 play Edward III, which might have been co-written by Shakespeare, imagined the scene in the report of an escaped mariner:

Purple the sea, whose channel filled as fast
With streaming gore that from the maimed fell
As did the gushing moisture break into
The crannied cleftures of the through-shot planks.
Here flew a head dissevered from the trunk,
There mangled arms and legs were tossed aloft
As when a whirlwind takes the summer dust
And scatters it in middle of the air.
Then might ye see the reeling vessels split
And tottering sink into the ruthless flood,
Until their lofty tops were seen no more.

Let it not be said that in this instance the commander escaped the consequences of his folly. Behuchet, who insisted against advice on lashing the boats together and thereby sacrificed all maneuverability, didn’t have much room for maneuver himself when the victorious English hanged him at battle’s end from the mast of his own ship.

* Seen elsewhere in these pages successfully begging her husband’s pardon of the famed Six Burghers of Calais later in the war. Philippa was a homegrown native of the Low Countries, and her marriage to Edward III reflects the alliance between their respective regions.

** For a snappy modern gloss on the battle, check this excerpt of Dan Jones’s The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England.

It is said that no courtier dared give King Philip VI of France the horrifying news until a jester availing his station’s license for cheek informed him that “Our knights are much braver than the English.” Asked why, the fool replied, “The English do not dare jump into the sea in full armour.”

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Arts and Literature,At Sea,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,France,Hanged,History,Lawyers,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Power,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1871: Edward Rulloff

1 comment May 18th, 2014 Robert Wilhelm

(Thanks for the guest post to Robert Wilhelm, author of the Murder By Gaslight historic crime blog, and author of the book Murder And Mayhem in Essex County. Executed Today readers are sure to enjoy Wilhelm’s detailed investigations into long-lost historic crime, including his more detailed exploration of Edward Rulloff. -ed.)

An 1871 biography of Edward Rulloff was entitled The Man of Two Lives. This was an understatement.

Rulloff — also known as James Nelson, E. C. Howard, James Dalton, Edward Lieurio, etc. — had been a doctor, a lawyer, a schoolmaster, a photographer, a carpet designer, an inventor, and a phrenologist. Most notably, Rulloff was a philologist, who could speak Latin, Greek and six modern languages and in 1870, was working on a manuscript, Method in the Formation of Language, which he believed would revolutionize the field. But the real dichotomy of Edward Rulloff’s life was the fact that he financed his research by theft and did much of his philological work in prison.

Rulloff started both sides of his life early, working in a law firm and spending two years in the penitentiary for theft, both before age twenty. In 1844 his wife and daughter disappeared and Rulloff was charged with their murder. He handled his own defense and managed to beat the murder charge but was convicted of abduction and spent ten years in Auburn Prison.

After being released, Rulloff divided his time between is intellectual and criminal pursuits, and saw the inside of a jail more than once. In 1870 he was living in New York City, working on his book and running with a gang of petty thieves.

The morning of August 17, 1870, Rulloff and two others broke into Halbert’s dry goods store in Binghamton, New York. A gunfight ensued which left night watchman Fred A. Merrick dead. Rulloff was captured in the manhunt that followed.

Rulloff’s trial for the murder Fred Merrick was sensational, receiving national press coverage and attracting thousands of spectators. Once again Rulloff handled his own defense but this time he was found guilty of murder and sentenced to hang on March 3, 1871.

Unsuccessful appeals delayed the hanging by two and a half months. While awaiting execution, the case became a subject of national debate. Some said it was wrong to take the life of such a learned man who may be on the verge of a great intellectual breakthrough. Horace Greely, owner of the New York Tribune wrote: “In the prison in Binghamton there is a man awaiting death who is too curious an intellectual problem to be wasted on the gallows.”

Others however believed that Rulloff was an intellectual fraud, among them Mark Twain, who satirized Greely’s position saying: “If a life be offered up to the gallows to atone for the murder Rulloff did, will that suffice? If so … I will bring forward a man who, in the interest of learning and science, will take Rulloff’s crime upon himself and submit to be hanged in Rulloff’s place.”

Edward Rulloff was hanged on May 18, 1871. Before his execution, he confessed to killing his wife by smashing her skull with a pestle he used to grind medicine. Rulloff requested that his body be put in a vault so it would not be desecrated, but his request was not honored. Before his lawyer could claim the body, it was placed on public display and the owner of a local art gallery made a plaster death mask. His lawyer gave the body to Dr. George Burr of the Geneva Medical College who promised to bury the body in a private cemetery if he could keep the head for study. After the body was buried it was dug up and stolen by medical students. Edward Rulloff’s brain still exists as part of the Wilder Brain Collection at Cornell University.

Visit Murder by Gaslight for more information on the life and crimes of Edward Rulloff.

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1605: Niklaus von Gulchen, Nuremberg privy councillor

Add comment December 23rd, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1605, Nuremberg privy councillor Niklaus von Gulchen (or Gilgen) was beheaded for his scandalous corruption. The wheeler-dealer’s graft had problematically extended to playing false with and backstabbing any number of elite patrons, from Nuremberg burghers all the way up to the Prince of Sulzbach, and even gone so far as to provide advice to foreigners against the interest of his own city.

The great executioner Franz Schmidt, whose many diary entries record (often tersely) the hundreds of hangings, beheadings, drownings, burnings, and breakings on the wheel he performed for Nuremberg over his lifetime, made an unusually voluminous entry for this shocking treachery. And from the sound of it, the duplicitous Master Doctor earned every drop of his executioner’s opprobrium — even if, according to Schmidt’s biographer, the malefactor’s misused position still entitled him to the privilege of execution by the sword, exemption from torture, and a dignified black cloak to wear to his last performance.

December 23rd (a Monday).* Master Doctor Nicholas von Gilgen, who was by appointment a privy councillor in an honourable council and was bound to that council by oaths he did not observe; for the sake of money received wrote for and advised two (opposite) parties in many affairs; also gave evidence and sat in council for deliberations and decisions; also stole from my lords of this town the allowances for beer and wine, causing it to be stored by his servants.

Also he debauched before her marriage, forcing her to do his will, his servant whom he brought from Trier to this town, and whom he gave as a wife to his clerk Philip Tumbler, by a promise of 50 florins and large presents. According to her declaration she brought forth five children by him, three of which miscarried during delivery or by fright in the twelfth week, two remaining alive, a boy and girl, he being sponsor to the boy at baptism.

Similarly, by like promises, he forced his under-maid to consent to his will a year ago, and tried likewise to persuade his brother’s two daughters; one, the wife of Doctor Wurffbaum, he tried to compel, but she resisted, the other the wife of Doctor Calrot, who yielded to his will and consorted with him before and after her marriage, according to her account through fear and compulsion and the promise of many presents and a wedding portion (he did not admit he compelled her, and I do not believe he forced her).

Lastly he played false when serving the Prince of Sultzbach, whose advocate he was; he also mediated dishonestly between the families of Nuremberg, and between the noble families of Leschwitz and Redwitz, writing to, and advising both parties in one affair. Likewise he counselled the Italian Charles Albert Nello and other Italians against the rulers of our town; also stole the decrees from the office of an honourable councillor.

In Italy too, at Padua, he produced a false certificate, when he figured as a doctor there by means of a false certificate, for he became a doctor at Basel only long after. For his evil deeds he lay in prison for thirty-eight weeks in Lugins Land and in the jail. He was led out on Monday by favour in a long mourning cloak, his arms bound behind him with a black silk cord, and led by a cord, a black cloth being spread on the seat (on the scaffold).


Niklaus von Gulchen’s beheading, from the Nuremberg chronicle. Note that the illustration portrays the doomed pol kneeling, when in fact he was beheaded in a chair. In any stance, von Gulchen “was a mischievious, gold-grubbing man,” according to the chronicler.

When he had been beheaded his body was wrapped in the cloth and laid in a wooden coffin, nailed down and taken to St. Peter’s church by the assistant executioner, but removed at night in a cart to St. John’s by the little gate that leads to the Butts, and buried in the graveyard by the walls.

* Nuremberg, a Protestant city, was still on the Julian calendar.

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1942: Henryk Landsberg, Lvov Judenrat

Add comment September 1st, 2013 Headsman

[Adolf Eichmann] did not expect the Jews to share the general enthusiasm over their destruction, but he did expect more than compliance, he expected — and received, to a truly extraordinary degree — their cooperation. This was “of course the very cornerstone” of everything he did … Without Jewish help in administrative and police work — the final rounding up of Jews in Berlin was, as I have mentioned, done entirely by Jewish police — there would have been either complete chaos or an impossibly severe drain on German manpower …

To a Jew this role of the Jewish leaders in the destruction of their own people is undoubtedly the darkest chapter of the whole dark story.

-Hannah Arendt in Eichmann in Jerusalem

Among the many horrors of the Holocaust were the Judenräte, Jewish administrative councils set up under the aegis of Nazi Germany’s occupation of Eastern Europe.

Typically recruited from local elites and granted special privileges by the Germans, these collaborators managed the day-to-day operations of the ghettos, up to and including the horrible sharp end of Final Solution: confiscating Jewish property for the Germans, registering and organizing Jews destined for slave labor or extermination, and even managing deportations with the desperate hope that willingly engaging a sacrifice they could never prevent might enable them to save some others. Once all the deportations were done, the Judenrat itself would be executed or deported: Faust had nothing on this bargain.

Chaim Rumkowski, perhaps the most (in)famous Judenrat administrator, issued posterity the definitive howl of a collaborator’s agony when he was forced by the imminent Lodz Ghetto children’s action to implore Lodz’s families to peaceably surrender their young people to certain death: “I never imagined I would be forced to deliver this sacrifice to the altar with my own hands. In my old age, I must stretch out my hands and beg. Brothers and sisters: Hand them over to me! Fathers and mothers: Give me your children!”

Rumkowski, a deeply checkered figure who fended off liquidation of his ghetto until the very late date of 1944, well knew that Judenrat personnel were entirely disposable. After all, he delivered this plaintive speech on September 4, 1942 — just three days after his counterpart in the Lvov Ghetto had been publicly strung up on a balcony.


Six Jews (including Henryk Landsberg) hanged in the Lvov Ghetto, September 1, 1942 (via). The US Holocaust Memorial Museum also identifies this clearly distinct execution as a picture of Lvov Jewish Council members being hanged in September 1942.

The city of Lwow/Lvov (or to use its present-day Ukrainian spelling, Lviv) had had a centuries-old Jewish population when the Soviet Union seized it from Poland in consequence of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. That population almost immediately doubled as Jewish refugees fleeing the half of Poland that Germany got in the deal poured into the city.

Practically on the frontier of the German/Soviet border, Lvov was captured in the opening days of Germany’s June 1941 surprise invasion of the USSR. In November-December 1941, the 100,000-plus Jews* still surviving in Lvov (after several post-conquest massacres) were crammed cheek to jowl into the new Lvov Ghetto. There they endured the usual litany of privations for World War II ghettos: starvation rations, routine humiliation, periodic murders. forced labor at the nearby Janowska concentration camp.

The ghetto’s first chairman, Dr. Josef Parnas, didn’t live to see 1942 before he was killed in prison for non-cooperation. Dr. Adolf Rotfeld followed him, and died of “natural” causes in office a few months later.

Dr. Henryk Landsberg, a lawyer, succeeded Rotfeld. He had been a respected community figure before the war, but was disposable to the Nazis as his predecessors; during a large-scale Aktion to cull the camp and further reduce its boundaries, a Jewish butcher resisting the SS killed one of his persecutors. Landsberg and a number of the Jewish policemen employed by the Judenrat were summarily put to death.

“I have gladly accepted the nomination,” Landsberg’s successor remarked. “Maybe they will shoot me soon.” He was indeed shot (or perhaps committed suicide to avoid that fate) in the first week of January 1943. (All this from Judenrat: The Jewish Councils in Eastern Europe Under Nazi Occupation)

The Lvov Ghetto was liquidated June 1, 1943; a bare handful of its former inmates escaped into the sewers or managed to avoid death in the camps before the war ended. After the Red Army took back the city, a 1945 survey of the Jewish Provisional Committee in Lvov tallied just 823 Jews. Today, there are all of 5,000.

* Among the Lvov Ghetto residents was Simon Wiesenthal.

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1584: Balthasar Gerard, assassin of William the Silent

1 comment July 14th, 2013 dogboy

“If you succeed in your enterprise, the King will fulfill all his promises, and you will gain an immortal name besides.”

Christoffel d’Assonleville, to Balthasar Gérard

After 4 days of torture, on this date in 1584, Balthasar Gérard (Geeraerts) finally met his end by beheading on the wheel.

Gérard managed to be both historically important and wholly forgettable: an assassin working for Spain against the Netherlands, his regicide was met with a predictably stiff punishment. Then, no fault of his own, the subsequent course of history** pushed the assassin into obscurity while elevating his prey.

A lawyer by trade, Gérard was a fervent Catholic and supporter of the Spanish crown, which controlled the territory up the coast through the present-day Netherlands. At the peak of its power, Spain’s monarchy — led by King Philip II — had significant cause for concern at the rise in Protestantism.

The Spanish were Europe’s paladins of staunch Catholicism, and the sight of her troops did little to endear Spain to her colonized neighbors to the North.

For both religious reasons and political ones, the Dutch were looking for a way out from under the Spanish thumb, and a former noble named William, Duke of Orange, was a major instigator in the struggle. In his collected letters and addresses from the period, An apology or defence of William the First of Nassau, William states that, starting in 1559, he became increasingly concerned with plans against Protestants by the Spanish monarchy.

That also happens to be the year William was bestowed with stadtholdership of Holland, Zeeland, and Utrecht; in effect, he controlled the Dutch coast.

Though he was known as William the Silent, the Duke was endowed with both financial resources and widespread popularity, and he didn’t keep his mouth shut when it came to Inquisition courts in his realms.†

When the head enforcer of that policy, Cardinal Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle, left town, William got even noisier — declaring before the Council of State that Spanish policies were squelching religious freedom.

In 1566, the nobleman signed onto the Compromise of Nobles and began funding insurgencies across the northern provinces. As religious unrest grew, Calvinists and Protestants in the French and Germanic portions of Spain’s holdings quickly formed up behind William. An early attempt in 1568 to invade the Netherlands using German mercenaries and French Huguenots failed, but the resultant executions of Egmont and Hoorn put Spain on a long and winding road toward defeat.

The Dutch War was afoot, with William leading the way.

It would take and dozens of small-scale military victories over the next 15 years (during which William declared himself a Calvinist and fully broke his Spanish ties) for the Dutch to move to independence. The 1580 Union of Utrecht and 1581 Act of Abjuration officially ousted King Phillip II from the Netherlands and installed a new government.

Needless to say, Phillip reciprocated William’s love.

In 1580, Spain’s top man put a price on William’s head. Juan de Jáuregui tried to collect two years later by shooting the stadtholder, but the man holding the new title of Prince William I of Nassau recovered, while de Jáuregui was killed on the spot.

With 25,000 crowns at stake, there were bound to be other takers.

Our man Balthasar Gérard started looking for a close encounter with William the Target. At first, he joined the army in Luxembourg, which didn’t get him very far. It was time to gin up a real plot, which Gérard shopped to the Duke of Parma, Alessandro Farnese, in April 1584. Though the Duke offered no funding for the operation — Gérard ponied up the startup money he needed for the trip — and held out little hope that the lawyer would be successful, he gave Gérard assurances that his family would be taken care of in case of disaster.

Gérard first presented himself to William in June as the son of a martyred Calvinist from France. On 8 July, he returned and, badly in need of new clothes, managed to beg 50 crowns for a new set.

Instead, he bought a pair of pistols and, on 10 July, made history with a point-blank shot to William’s chest.


Detail view (click for the full image) of William the Silent’s 1585 assassination at the hands of Balthasar Gerard.

This assassination attempt didn’t fail. William became the second head of state to be killed by an assassin’s bullet,† — and his shooter the first such man to be juridically punished for the deed.

And, oh, how he was punished.

The regicide was beaten immediately after his capture, then subjected to a variety of cruelties, from wet leather boots which, when heated, both crushed and burned the feet, to daily floggings while hanging on a post outside the jail.

But on this day, his time of torture was up, and Gérard was finally put to death. You know, the usual:

It was decreed the right hand of Gerard should be burned off with a red-hot iron, that his flesh should be torn from his bones with pincers in six different places, that he should be quartered and disembowelled alive, that his heart should be torn from his bosom and flung in his face, and that, finally, his head should be taken off.


Gerard’s execution.

For all that he suffered as a regicide, Gérard left his family an impressive inheritance. Making good Parma’s assurances, King Phillip II gave them William’s former lands in three French provinces and took his siblings and their issue into his peerage.

Gérard’s cause carried on for another 60 years, until it was finally extinguished by the signing of the Peace of Münster by the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands and Spain.

* Foucault mistakenly identifies the torture as lasting 18 days, and the additional details he lays down for Gérard’s time on death row may be less-than-believable. However, all sources indicate that the tortures Gérard endured were quite spectacular, even by the standards of the day.

** See Dissident identities in the early modern Low Countries for a complete treatment of this period in The Netherlands and Belgium.

† For example, the city of Antwerp (Belgium), then under possession of the Spanish crown and considered the mercantile center of Europe for its vast sugar trade, featured over 100 executions for heresy from 1557-1562, twice as many as in all of Spain during that time.

‡ The first was James Stewart, 1st Earl of Moray, then Regent of Scotland. Stewart’s shooter, James Hamilton, escaped into exile, though others of the Hamilton clan answered for the murder.

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1794: Simon-Nicholas Henri Linguet, who defended Nero

1 comment June 27th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1794, Simon-Nicholas Henry Linguet was guillotined during the French Revolution for having written praise of foreign tyrants.

Linguet (English Wikpiedia entry | French) was a brilliant lawyer and a prolific but prickly man of letters. Famous in his own day for his prose, he’s of less account to a modernity that’s long forgotten the various axes he had to grind.

The one sure constant in his life was a gift for making enemies.

Linguet was an Enlightenment philosophe at the start of his public life, and made an early name for himself when his forceful intervention in the case of the Chevalier de la Barre helped save La Barre’s friends from sharing his fate.

He soon apostatized from the Reason-worshipping “fanatical” philosophes, and eventually found himself disbarred for irritating too many fellow barristers. Turning instead to journalism, his Annales politiques, civiles et litteraires — published mostly in exile from 1777 to 1792 — became, as his biographer put it, “a quasi-independent force for molding opinion and policy in the power centers of Europe. Maneuvering among the great powers of Europe wielding the power of his public’s opinion, Linguet institutionalized political influence for himself, and liberty as well.” And of course the writing business really let Linguet’s native gift for pissing people off shine.

He scalded the French Academy and settled scores with rivals old and new. Eventually a suit by one of them landed Linguet in the Bastille when the latter tried to return to Paris in 1780.

Linguet got out (and left France again) in 1782, turning his spell in the Bourbon dungeons into a Memoirs of the Bastille,* which didn’t buy him as much sympathy as one might assume come revolutionary times since he had scarcely incurred his sufferings on behalf of the masses.

Linguet was finally able to return to his country with the Austrian embassy courtesy of ennoblement conferred by Marie Antoinette‘s brother Emperor Joseph II. His restored relations with Europe’s crowned heads, however, did not prevent him taking up the cause of Belgium’s Brabant Revolution as well as the Haitian Revolution.

An early member of the Cordeliers and temporary enthusiast of the Revolution, Linguet would later be bold enough to write Louis XVI offering to defend him. He was easy pickings in the end for a revolutionary tribunal that accused him of prostituting his literary gifts to Europes various ancien regimes: Linguet had taken refuge in his time with all of revolutionary France’s principal enemies, and had flattered their princes for his trouble; his provocative pen had set his name to a defense of slavery; and he’d even mounted an attack on Alexander the Great which in the great tradition of contrarian provocateurs compared the legendary conquerer unfavorably (on the body count metric) with the Emperor Nero. Literally defended Nero was the epitaph his prosecutors pinned to him, and it’s never fully come unstuck. It’s unfair, sure … but Linguet was the last man in a position to complain, and not just because he’d had his head cut off.

A manuscript of a history of France Linguet was working on was found among his papers after his visit to the guillotine. It made fine cartridge paper for France’s muskets.

* At one point in this text — an overwrought rant against the rigors of his imprisonment from the pen of a man whose previous treatises had scornfully defended absolutism against his former buddies among the philosophes — he mounts a defense of executioners, who “ought to be much less ignominious in the public opinion.” After all, they

are only the ministers of an indispensible severity: they are officers, and necessary officers, of a lawful power they may sometimes execute unjust orders; but they act constantly in obedience to justice and the laws. They are certain that the unfortunate being who is delivered to them, either has had, or will have, the means of defending himself: they are sure, or at least must believe, that an equitable and impartial enquiry has preceded the rigorous decision under which they act. They are authorized to think that none but the guilty, or at least men justly suspected, have ever been the objects of them.

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1871: Gaston Cremieux, Marseilles Commune leader

Add comment November 30th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1871, Gaston Cremieux was shot at Marseilles for his role in that city’s lately-destroyed Commune.

Cremieux (French Wikipedia page: most external links in this post are also in French) was a gifted young lawyer with a social conscience who was known for taking on indigent-defense cases and working-class causes.

Given his prominence in radical circles, Cremieux was naturally thrust into leadership when word of the Paris Commune brought Marseilles, too, into a popular rising.

Lissagaray called Cremieux “an elegant and effeminate speaker … a mild enthusiast, who beheld the revolution under rather a bucolic aspect.” His admirable principles were not those of bloody revolutionary will, and he was accordingly viewed (or disdained) as a moderate.

The Marseilles Commune lasted only a fortnight: neighboring towns did not rally to it, and elsewhere in the south Toulouse and Narbonne communards were crushed within days.

When troops of the bourgeois Versailles government — the city to which it had fled from Paris — took Marseilles, according to Lissagaray, they “arrested at random, and dragged their victims into the lamp-stores of the station. There an officer scrutinized the prisoners, made a sign to one or the other of them to step out, and blew out his brains. The following days there were rumours of summary executions in the barracks, the forts and the prisons. The number of dead the people lost is unknown, but it exceeded 150.”

Cremieux’s own conscience was pretty clean in all this — he’d even advocated against keeping hostages. (Unsuccessfully, but Marseilles did not kill its hostages, unlike Paris.) “Show me those whom Cremieux has shot,” his lawyer would later protest to the military tribunal called to try him.

Cremieux’s own shooting would have to suffice. He died crying “Vive la République!” as the firing squad emptied its barrels into his torso … as per Cremieux’s request to preserve his face lest his parents be too shaken by his corpse. Just call him a family man.

A posthumously-published French volume of Cremieux’s work contains verse, a play about Robespierre’s fall, and his “Impressions of a Condemned Man”.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Activists,Artists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,France,History,Jews,Lawyers,Politicians,Revolutionaries,Shot,Treason

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1707: Pierre Fatio, Genevan Gracchus

1 comment September 6th, 2012 Headsman

On the evening of this date* in 1707, Pierre Fatio was secretly shot by arquebusers in a Geneva prison.

This Swiss Gracchus — classically-minded contemporaries could hardly fail to draw the parallel — was a magistrate and a rising member of the patrician oligarchy that ran nominally democratic Geneva.

But despising the side his class bread was buttered, Fatio (English Wikipedia page | French) took up the standard of the masses … or at least the masses of the bourgeoisie, whose universal-propertied-male suffrage was belied by the power exercised by Geneva’s magnates club, the “Petit Conseil” of 25 who actually ran the city-state.

Pierre Fatio really looks less like a revolutionary and more like a would-be liberal reformer. What started all the trouble was Fatio’s January 1707 sponsorship of a measure for a secret ballot and a little less nepotism: a modest downward redistribution of power.

Then as now, the powerful resisted.

From the pulpit the ministers cried at the top of their lungs against the people … accusing the people of rebellion against the magistrates, of insubordination to the laws, of enjoying only disorder and fomenting divisions, violating the oath which promises to be good and loyal to the city. (Source)

Oligarch apologists went on and on about these secret-balloteers having “broken all the bonds of society” (Benedict Calandrini) as the popular clamor for a bit of state accountability grew. In political-philosophy terms, this manifested itself as a debate between whether the sovereignty of the people (again, meaning the propertied male people) actually implied that these sovereigns were entitled to govern.

And the Little Council won the debate the old-fashioned way: by crushing its opponents as seditious, with the military aid of their brother-oligarchs at neighboring Swiss cantons. Several popular-sovereignty types were killed or exiled (French link) in mid-1707.

Its government is a mixture of Aristocracy and Democracy; but as the principal and most ancient families use their utmost endeavours to derogate from, and by slow degrees destroy the privileges of the citizens, in order to draw the power over to themselves, and perpetuate themselves in their posts, this practice is attended with frequent murmurings, and in these last times an insurrection had began, which would have broken out into a great fire, if Zurich and Bern had not sent wise and able deputies to extinguish it, and afterwards a good number of troops to garrison the city, which at present seems to keep quiet, though with evident prejudice to the liberty of its citizens. (Vendramino Bianchi in Relazi one del paese de Svizzeri (1708), quoted in this book

Fatio was the last and most noteworthy to go, and the council was so nervous about the “murmurings” if it should behead him in public, it determined its death sentence in secret: apt climax for a struggle over state accountability.

Rather than risk further disturbances, it simply dispatched its agents directly to Fatio’s cell where they informed him that he was condemned, and had him shot inside the prison without further ado.

“I would look with great honor on being the martyr of liberty,” a cool Fatio is said (by his party, naturally) to have remarked upon hearing his condemnation.

Martyr he may have been, but unlike the Roman Gracchi, Pierre did not have a brother to catch up his falling torch: Pierre’s, who was already among the Little Council, went ahead and voted for his sibling’s execution.

The martyr had more impressive family in cousin Nicolas Fatio de Duillier, a mathematician and Isaac Newton collaborator. Still more noteworthy heirs were kin of spirit, not of blood: one David Rousseau lost his state job for supporting Fatio’s movement … and Rousseau’s famous Genevan grandson would become the favored philosopher of the coming revolutionary age.

There’s a hard-to-find French biography of our man, Pierre Fatio et la crise de 1707, by his descendants Nicole and Oliver Fatio. (Here’s a French interview with Oliver.)

* I really hate to contradict the 7 September date that’s carved into marble, but as best I can interpret the documentation, Fatio’s sentence was finalized on the day of 6 September and executed within just a few hours that very evening. See e.g. the 6 September document excerpted in fn 1 here.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Activists,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Judges,Lawyers,Martyrs,Politicians,Power,Switzerland

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