1256: Marie of Brabant, on suspicion of infidelity

Add comment January 18th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1256, Louis II, Duke of Bavaria, had his wife Marie of Brabant beheaded at Donauworth for adultery.

Louis II depicted with the first two of his three wives: Marie, and the more fortunate Anna of Glogau.

This 26-year-old uncle of the doomed Conradin was kept away from his spouse for many months on state affairs.

At some point, he returned furiously convinced of his wife’s infidelity.

One representative version of the legend has it that

[Lewis] held his Court in Heidelberg, and by him stood ever his dearest friend, Henry, Count of Leiningen, and to him one day the anxious wife sent a letter, beseeching he would use his influence to quicken her husband’s return. Another missive was dispatched at the same time to Duke Lewis … The old mistake was made, Duke Lewis received the letter destined for his friend, wherein the artless Duchess had assured Henry of Leiningen that, if he accompanied her lord in his return, her pleasure in welcoming him would be great.

Etcetera.

That Marie really did exist and really was beheaded on her husband’s authority for adultery appears to be about the extent of the certain information available to us.

This poignant scenario became embroidered into popular legend (and is supposed to have inspired the tale of one of the classic medieval faithful-accused-wife tales: that of Genevieve of Brabant).

The accusation evidently appeared quite doubtful in real life, since her husband and executioner Louis subsequently founded the Cistercian Furstenfeld Abbey in penitence.

She is not to be confused with Marie de Brabant, Queen of France later in the 13th century and a suspect in the poisoning death of the French heir … an affair that cost chamberlain Pierre de la Brosse his life. The words Dante wrote of that later Marie of Brabant would have suited our day’s heroine, too.

may the Lady of Brabant
while she’s still in this world, watch
her ways—or end among a sadder flock

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Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Myths,Nobility,Scandal,Sex,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1676: Joshua Tefft, drawn and quartered in Rhode Island

6 comments January 18th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1676, Puritan colonist Joshua Tefft (or Tifft, or Tift) became perhaps the only person ever to suffer the traitor’s death of hanging and quartering in what is now the United States.

The 30-ish Rhode Island farmer got sucked into King Philip’s War and was captured by colonists apparently fighting for the Narragansett Indians during a the Great Swamp Fight.

Lacking a first-person account from Mr. Tefft, we are left to descry (or project) his purpose. Tefft himself claimed that he had been enslaved by the Indians, but he made this claim in the context of trying to avoid a grisly execution; opposing witnesses said he’d been much more enthusiastic in the fight, raising an evident horror of civilized man gone native.

Without English clothes and with a weather-beaten face, he looked like an Indian to the English. Tefft was a troubling example of what happened to a man when the Puritan’s god and culture were stripped away and Native savagery was allowed to take over. (Source)

He was one man caught up in a war, so of course he could have been many things. But Tefft invites speculation on racial self-identification on this still-tenuous New World frontier.

Living immediately adjacent to the Narragansett, Tefft was probably on good terms with the natives, something that at least some Anglos had keenly worked after for fifty-plus years. Some sources report (or charge) that he had taken an Indian wife,* and the Narragansett redoubt attacked in the Great Swamp Fight was a fortified encampment full of non-combatant types, hundreds of whom were eventually slaughtered.

And Rhode Island had a long-running border dispute with its Puritan fellow-colonists that intersected their historical differences on religious toleration. (Tefft is also decried as irreligious, though whether that’s literally true or just an extra heaping of opprobrium is anyone’s guess.) Why, after all, should a man not cohabit among the friendly peoples of his wife, and assist them when attacked — for the Narragansett were not at war until they were attacked — by a bunch of Connecticut and Plymouth colony prigs who’d want to shanghai him into their army?

One colonist able to sympathize with the Indians’ situation wrote of them that “perhaps if Englishmen, and good Christians too, had been in their case and under like temptations, possibly they might have done as they did.” Who knows but that some were, and they did.

Our Scouts brought in Prisoner one Tift, a Renegadoe English man, who having received a deserved punishment from our General, deserted our Army, and fled to the Enemy, where had good entertainment, and was again sent out by them with some of their forces; he was shot in the knee by our scouts, and then taken before he could discharge his musket, which was taken from him and found deep charged, and laden with Slugs: He was brought to our army, and tryed by a counsel of war, where he pretended that he was taken prisoner by the Indians, and by them compelled to bear Arms in their Service; but this being proved to be false, he was condemned to be hanged and Quartered, which was accordingly done. (Source)

But while some Indian tribes allied with some whites, European identification ultimately proved much too strong to admit any possibility of not banding together against the “savages.” When vengeful Narragansett warriors raided Providence the following spring and torched the house of Rhode Island founder Roger Williams, Massachusetts in sympathy lifted its 39-year-old exile on the man they’d have hung as a heretic in days gone by.

By then, it had long been over for Joshua Tefft, whose trial preceded execution by only two days. Joshua’s son Peter and other descendants of the Tefft family, however, would be fruitful and multiply.

By the time these New World settlements became the United States a century later, drawing and quartering was still on the books in England. But the New York legislature expressed (pdf) the sense of that realm’s North American offspring that this sentence even for treason was “marked by circumstances of Savage Cruelty, unnecessary for the Purpose of public Justice, and manifestly repugnant to that Spirit of Humanity, which should ever distinguish a free, a civilized, and Christian People.”

* Joshua Tefft’s previous wife, Sara, had died from childbirth a few years before. For Sara, also notable as the owner of what was once thought to be the oldest marked headstone in New England, it was her second husband … the first, Thomas Flounders, was hanged for murder.

Part of the Themed Set: Resistance and Rebellion in the Restoration.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Gruesome Methods,Guerrillas,History,Milestones,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Rhode Island,Soldiers,Treason,USA,Wartime Executions

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1803: George Foster, and thence to the reanimator

9 comments January 18th, 2009 dogboy

It’s not too often that a typical convicted murderer becomes a source for not just law, but also literature and science. George Foster (sometimes spelled George Forster despite few, if any, contemporaneous spellings as such) managed just that on this date in 1803, and his legacy lives on to this day.

Foster’s case was, in the annals of capital punishment, unremarkable.

He was accused in the drowning of his wife and youngest child in the Paddington Canal, one of the many canals being improved at the time to connect various parts of England by water. Foster was found guilty based on circumstantial evidence and sentenced to hang at Newgate Prison on 18 Jan 1803.

Shortly after 8 a.m., Foster was executed; minutes later, he was a science experiment.

Professor Giovanni Aldini was the nephew of biological electricity guru Luigi Galvani, and he wanted to electrify a body. Galvani had shown that frog legs responded to electricity, twitching when current was passed through the muscle, and he was in academic competition with his associate and sometime dissident Alessandro Volta over why this occurred. Galvani claimed that an electrical fluid flowed through the corpse, activating the muscles; Volta said that the cells passed electrical signals between one another. It was this latter assertion that led to the development of Volt’s first battery, a voltaic pile.* Aldini was convinced that his uncle was right about electrical fluid, but he was keen on Volta’s ideas for creating portable electricity.

His stated reason for delving into what was known as galvanic reanimation was to aid the recently drowned, who, he said, might be resuscitated. Galvani leaned on some earlier experience with beheaded victims in Bologna, as well as animal experiments, to convince British government agents of the viability of the plan. As one witness to those events stated:

A very ample series of experiments were made by Professor Aldini which show the eminent and superior power of galvanism beyond any other stimulant in nature. In the months of January and February last, he had the courage to apply it at Bologna to the bodies of various criminals who had suffered death at that place, and by means of the pile he excited the remaining vital forces in a most astonishing manner. This stimulus produced the most horrible contortions and grimaces by the motions of the muscles of the head and face; and an hour and a quarter after death, the arm of one of the bodies was elevated eight inches from the table on which it was supported, and this even when a considerable weight was placed in the hand.

Which is not to say it was really difficult to get permission.

Aldini’s experiments were a very public roadshow demonstration of Galvani’s ideas. London’s Royal College of Surgeons was, at that time, fascinated with the boundaries of life and death, and Aldini was more than happy to offer his services. As well, the 1751 (or 1752) Murder Act would not allow hanged criminals to be buried, and their corpses were often used for scientific discovery. Foster’s body, which had hung for an hour in slightly sub-zero temperatures, was the first complete corpse Aldini acted upon, but he wasn’t the first to get a chance.**

The Newgate Calendar summarizes the events:

On the first application of the process to the face, the jaws of the deceased criminal began to quiver, and the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion. Mr Pass, the beadle of the Surgeons’ Company, who was officially present during this experiment, was so alarmed that he died of fright soon after his return home.


An illustration of Aldini’s experiments with executed corpses. His notes of George Foster record that “the jaw began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and the left eye actually opened … The action even of those muscles furthest distant from the points of contact with the arc was so much increased as almost to give an appearance of re-animation … vitality might, perhaps, have been restored, if many circumstances had not rendered it impossible.” (cited in Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters)

Aldini’s act was yet another public showcase of strange new technologies, this time sparking the imaginations of the Brits. Within a generation, Scottish experimenters were performing similar feats, and the College of Surgeons had, after further attempts similar to Aldini’s, revived the heart of another convicted murderer, John Bellingham. It was the first recorded heart shock revival in modern medical history.† (Even today’s scientists turn to electricity to instantiate life’s precursors in trying to solve the riddle of abiogenesis.)

But even more than that was the effect these results had on popular culture, where Mary Shelley, well aware of Aldini’s work (as well as that of Erasmus Darwin, a proponent of evolution well before the concept of “natural selection” was framed by his more famous grandson), used the idea of reanimation — such as was attempted on her husband’s first wife after she drowned — to inspire her signature characters, Victor Frankenstein and his “monster.”

As a cultural icon, Frankenstein did exceedingly well. Considered a true Gothic novel, the story was remade for stage as early as 1887, turned into a variety of films which were subsequently parodied (c.f. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, “Treehouse of Horror II”, The Re-Animator, etc.), retold on radio, brought up in song, and re-written in novels.

Galvanization was never mentioned directly in that book, but the studies at the College of Surgeons were clearly an inspiration. And galvanization transcended that book, striking a chord in the public imagination. It continued to pop up in publication for decades after the Aldini/Foster event, for instance in the 1836 illustration “A Galvanized Corpse”, in which the editor of the Washington Globe, Francis Preston Blair, is shown being “galvanized” by two demons, who represent the interests of Andrew Jackson.

* The Voltaic pile was originally used to disprove Galvani’s fluids theory. However, the two were largely non-adversarial, so Volta actively advanced Galvani’s name through the word “galvanism” and, by the time of Foster’s death, “galvanize.” The term “galvanized” metal refers to a conductive element coated with something non-conductive and dates from the late 1830s. Volta, of course, is the recognizable source of the the electrical potential unit of the “Volt.”

** Indeed, the College of Surgeons was receiving all hanging victims from London since 1752, and most were put through rigorous postmortems. Such scientific experimentation is also often blamed for the revival of Patrick Redmond in 1767, who received a windpipe incision following his hanging in Cork, Ireland; Redmond, however, was documented as hanging for just nine minutes, only slightly longer than the average person takes to die if deprived of oxygen.

† Those interested in the history of cardiology in general should take a look at Louis J. Acierno’s The History of Cardiology; those interested in the use of human remains in medical science should seek out Human Remains: Dissection and Its Histories by Helen MacDonald.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Language,Murder,Notable Participants,Popular Culture,Public Executions

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1985: Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, progressive Islamic theologian

Add comment January 18th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1985 progressive Islamic theologian Mahmoud Mohamed Taha was publicly hanged at a prison in Khartoum North, Sudan.

Seventy-five years old at his death, Taha spent his youth in the nationalist movement against British control of Sudan where he emerged as the standard-bearer of the liberal/secular Republican Party.

After Sudan won independence in 1956, both Taha and his party maintained — in the face of official hostility that waxed and waned with the changing regimes — nonviolent support for political openness, national unity between Muslims and non-Muslims, and a theology pointing to reform within Islam. Specifically, Taha embraced a women’s movement and opposed the imposition of sharia, at least in the absence of a radical modernization of the Islamic religious law.

The introduction of sharia in 1983 brought matters to a head, and not only with Taha: civil war broke out — the conflict between the Muslim north and the Christian and animist south only recently and imperfectly abated.

Taha and four other Republicans were tried for their intransigence in a two-hour trial under a seemingly muddled mixture of secular and religious law.

Among the hundreds of attendees of Taha’s hanging this day were his four “co-conspirators.” They were themselves under sentence of death to be carried out January 20th, unless they should recant. All four recanted. Hundreds of other Republicans were held around the country on lesser charges until they did likewise.

The next year, with a new government in place, the Sudanese Supreme Court declared the proceedings against the Republicans to have been in error.

Little of Taha’s work has been translated, but his Second Message of Islam is available in English and presents a conception of the faith so unfamiliar in the west that one reviewer mitigates his praise with the regret that “it is nonsensical to talk of reforming Islam, a religion which is doctrinally irreformable.”

Taha’s thought also has a scholarly evaluation in Quest for Divinity: A Critical Examination of the Thought of Mahmud Muhammad Taha. More information by and about Taha and the Republicans is here.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,God,Hanged,Heresy,History,Intellectuals,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Sudan,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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