1526: Bianca Maria Gaspardone, the Insatiate Countess

Add comment October 20th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1526, Bianca Maria Gaspardone was beheaded at Milan’s Castello di Porta Giova, the present-day Castello Sforzesco.

She was only about 26 years old, but onto her second* dynastic marriage — this to Renato di Challant.

As the story was later recorded in Matteo Bandello‘s Novelle,** the young woman had wealth and options, and with her husband off fighting in Milan’s war against France, she indulged a series of boudoir intrigues — critically for our purposes, one Ardizzino Valperga, Count of Masino.

Per Bandello, the Lady of Challant grew annoyed by him and tried to dispose of him by provoking a quarrel between he and another of her lovers, the Count of Gaiazzo — but the two men compared notes and simply arrived at a mutual contempt for her.

The count made the sign of the cross, and all full of wonder said: Fie, shameless slut that she is. If it weren’t a dishonor for a knight to imbrue his hands in the blood of a woman, I would gouge out her tongue through the back of her neck; but first I would like her to confess how many times she begged me with her arms on the cross, that I have you killed! And so they repeated in public and private the crimes of this dishonest woman until they were on every person’s lips. She, hearing what these gentlemen said about her, even if she pretended no concern for it, was angry with indignation and thought of nothing else but to be highly avenged.

It was in those days in Milan there was one Don Pietro di Cardona, a Sicilian, who governed the company of his legitimate brother Don Artale. This Don Pietro was a young man of twenty-two, dark-faced but proportionate in body and melancholy appearance, who one day seeing Mrs. Bianca Maria fell wildly in love with her. She judging him to be a pigeon of first feather and instrument capable of doing what she so longed for, lured him to better ensnare and dazzle him. He, who had never before loved a woman of account, considering her to be one of the first in Milan, pined miserably for her sake. In the end she made it one night to go and sleep with him, and took such loving pleasure together that he believed himself to be the happiest lover in the world, and not long after asked the young man to kill the Count of Gaiazzo and Signor Ardizzino.

Don Pietro obligingly ambushed Signor Ardizzino and did him to death. Arrested thereafter, he was equally obliging in giving up his paramour as the moving spirit, and she foolishly admitted as much by trying to bribe her way out of trouble.

Don Pietro was permitted to flee from prison. But the unfortunate young woman, having confirmed her lover’s confession with her own mouth, was condemned to have her head cut off. She, having heard this sentence, and not knowing that Don Pietro had run away, could not be prepared to die. At the end, being led onto the ravelin of the castle facing the square and seeing the block, she began to cry in despair and beg for the grace that, if they wanted her to die happy, they would let her see her Don Pietro; but she sang to the deaf. So the poor woman was beheaded. And whoever longs to see her face portrayed in life, should go to the Chiesa del Monastero Maggiore, and there he will see her painted.


Bandello’s closing remark about her painting has commonly been understood to claim her as the model for this fresco of Saint Catherine of Alexandria by Leonardo da Vinci follower Bernardino Luini (1530). More recent research has cast doubt on that notion: scholars now prefer to reckon her image as that of a kneeling patron (along with her first husband) in a different image.

This tale made its way from Bandello’s pen into subsequent literature, notably a Jacobean English sex-romp tragedy called The Insatiate Countess, and a 19th century Italian play, La Signora di Challant; the whole thing appears overall to have unrealized potential for digital-age revival as sultry costume drama for prestige television.

* First hubby Ermes Visconti was beheaded in 1519.

** Bandello’s Novelle stories, which mix history and folklore, also include a version of the pre-Shakespeare Italian Romeo and Juliet drama.

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1943: Julius Fučík, Notes from the Gallows

Add comment September 8th, 2020 Headsman

Czechoslovakian journalist Julius Fučík was executed by the Third Reich on this date in 1943.

Nephew of a great composer of the same name, our Julius Fučík was an 18-year-old left-wing activist when the Social Democrat party he was a part of founded the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. Fučík and his pen grew up in this world, together generating a substantial corpus of essays and analysis on pregnant years.

Hitler’s occupation of Czechoslovakia drove his party and his work underground, which eventually resulted in his arrest.

He’d eventually be deported to Germany and hanged at Berlin’s Plötzensee Prison, but Fučík made his lasting fame to posterity through the clandestine diary notes, bursting with anticipation for a bright Communist future, that he scribbled during his initial detention at Prague’s Pankrác Prison from 1942-1943.

After the war, these would be published as Notes from the Gallows — a text so scriptural in Communist Czechoslovakia that it weighed like manacles.

In Milan Kundera‘s The Joke, one of the characters standing trial is browbeaten by a prosecutor using Fučík’s words, while Fučík’s “fervent, pure” portrait gazes in judgment. (Consonant with the stature of Notes from the Gallows, its author was saluted via many street names, public monuments, and so forth. Quite few still remain today, in Germany as well as the former Czechoslovakia.)

“‘Death, you have been long in coming. And yet it was my hope to postpone our meeting until many years hence. To go on living the life of a free man, to work more, love more, sing more, and wander the world over …'” I recognized Fucik’s Notes from the Gallows.

“‘I loved life, and for the sake of its beauty I went to war. I loved you, good people, rejoicing when you returned my love, suffering when you failed to understand me …'”

That text, written clandestinely in prison, then published after the war in a million copies, broadcast over the radio, studied in schools as required reading, was the sacred book of the era. Zemanek read out the most famous passages, the ones everyone knew by heart.

“‘Let sadness never be linked with my name. That is my testament to you, Papa, Mama, and sisters, to you, my Gustina, to you, Comrades, to everyone I have loved …'” The drawing of Fucik on the wall was a reproduction of the famous sketch by Max Svabinsky, the old Jugendstil painter, the virtuoso of allegories, plump women, butterflies, and everything delightful; after the war, or so the story goes, Svabinsky had a visit from the Comrades, who asked him to do a portrait of Fucik from a photograph, and Svabinsky had drawn him (in profile) in graceful lines in accord with his own taste: almost girlish, fervent, pure, and so handsome that people who had known him personally preferred Svabinsky’s sublime drawing to their memories of the living face.

Fučík, and the idealized Max Švabinský portrait of him — one of several times it’s been used on postage stamps.

Meanwhile Zemanek read on, everyone in the hall silent and attentive and the fat girl at the table unable to tear her eyes away from him; suddenly his voice grew firm, almost menacing; he had come to the passage about Mirek the traitor: “‘And to think that he was no coward, a man who did not take flight when bullets rained down on him at the Spanish front, who did not knuckle under when he ran the gauntlet of cruelties in a concentration camp in France. Now he pales under the club of a Gestapo agent and turns informer to save his skin. How superficial was his bravery if so few blows could shake it. As superficial as his convictions … He lost everything the moment he began to think of himself. To save his own life, he sacrificed the lives of his friends. He succumbed to cowardice and through cowardice betrayed them …'” Fucik’s handsome face hung on the wall as it hung in a thousand other public places in our country, and it was so handsome, with the radiant expression of a young girl in love, that when I looked at it I felt inferior not just because of my guilt, but because of my appearance as well. And Zemanek read on: “‘They can take our lives, can’t they, Gustina, but they cannot take our honor and love. Can you imagine, good people, the life we might have led if we had met again after all this suffering, met again in a free life, a life made beautiful by freedom and creation? The life we shall lead when we finally achieve everything we’ve longed for and fought for and I now die for?'” After the pathos of these last sentences Zemanek was silent.

In the post-Communist era Fučík has had a critical re-examination, with an updated version of Notes published now including for the first time the bits his widow had judiciously excised, wherein Fučík admits to breaking under torture — although he also records that he “confessed” only inaccurate information that would not endanger comrades. He’s also been knocked for failing to use his firearms on either his captors or himself at the time of his arrest.

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1558: Toqui Caupolicán

Add comment June 27th, 2020 Headsman

Es algo formidable que vio la vieja raza:
robusto tronco de árbol al hombro de un campeón
salvaje y aguerrido, cuya fornida maza
blandiera el brazo de Hércules, o el brazo de Sansón.
Por casco sus cabellos, su pecho por coraza,
pudiera tal guerrero, de Arauco en la región,
lancero de los bosques, Nemrod que todo caza,
desjarretar un toro, o estrangular un león.
Anduvo, anduvo, anduvo. Le vio la luz del día,
le vio la tarde pálida, le vio la noche fría,
y siempre el tronco de árbol a cuestas del titán.
«¡El Toqui, el Toqui!» clama la conmovida casta.
Anduvo, anduvo, anduvo. La aurora dijo: «Basta»,
e irguióse la alta frente del gran Caupolicán.

-“Caupolican” by Ruben Dario

On this date in 1558, the Spanish executed Mapuche revolutionary Caupolicán by impalement.

A toqui (war chief) for the Mapuche as they launched in 1553 their decades-long insurrection against Spanish domination, Caupolican (English Wikipedia entry | the well-illustrated Spanish). It is he who had the conquistador Pedro de Valdivia put to death after one early Mapuche victory.

The Spanish were able to recover and throw back the indigenous rebels. Caupolicán’s force was destroyed, and he shortly after taken prisoner, when whilst besieging a Spanish fort called Cañete a Spanish double agent lured the Mapuche into a devastating ambush.

His end verges into the mythic thanks to Alonso de Ercilla‘s lengthy epic poem from a decade after Caupolicán’s death, La Araucana. (Full text at archive.org.) Two key events stand out.

In the first, the bound Caupolicán is reviled by his wife, Fresia, for permitting himself to be captured alive. Her gesture of scornfully abandoning their infant child in at Caupolicán’s feet has been captured on canvas numerous times, although Fresia’s historicity outside of Ercilla’s pen is quite dubious.


The prisoner Caupolicán and Fresia, by Raymond Monvoisin.

However, the conquered toqui redeems his valor at the last by kicking away the executioner and hurling himself upon the spike meant to impale him.

Eslo dicho, y alzando el pié derecho
aunque de las cadenas impedido,
dió tal coz al verdugo, que gran trecho
Je echó rodando abajo mal herido;
reprehendido el impaciente hecho,
y del súbito enojo reducido,

Je sentaron después con poca ayuda,
sobre la punta de la estaca aguda.

It is said that, raising his right foot
although impeded by the chains,
he dealt the hangman such a mighty kick
that the man was thrown from the scaffold;
that impatient reprimand delivered,
his fury abated
and he sat himself unaided
upon the tip of the sharp stake.

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1950: The Martyred, at the outset of the Korean War

Add comment June 25th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1950, the opening salvos of the Korean War were fired … and behind North Korea’s lines, in Richard E. Kim‘s novel The Martyred, 12 imprisoned Christian pastors were on that same day executed.

This psychologically complex novel takes place months later, when United States/United Nations forces backing South Korea have surged northward, capturing Pyongyang. Here the narrator, a South Korean intelligence officer named Captain Lee, is detailed to investigate how it came to pass that these 12 were killed … and that two others with them were spared.

One of those two has gone mad from the experience. The other is suspected of abandoning God to save his life.

We discover otherwise: that in fact, Rev. Shin was spared by his jailers because they admired his firmness whereas the executed men were the ones who turned coward. Even so, Rev. Shin refuses to publicize his innocence, preferring to embrace the unjust suspicion of his faithlessness in order to elevate the so-called martyrs — in turn giving heart and faith to his congregants.

We followed the chaplain up the aisle, flanked by the congregation that still sang, standing. Only a few of the chandeliers were lighted. A cold draft chilled my bare head, though I felt the warmth of human bodies surrounding me. Halfway up the aisle, I looked up toward the altar, behind which stood the elders, Park and a few others, and Mr. Shin. Soon Colonel Chang and I were with them, facing the congregation. Mr. Shin stepped forward. The candles on the lectern flickered. The congregation sat, hushed.

“Dear brethren,” he began quietly. “You all know who I am, and I know you. I know you, yes, I know you so well that I do not hesitate to say that I belong to you and you belong to me. I am you, you are me, and we are one. And I stand here in the shadow of my inglorious past, and say to you, welcome to the house of our Lord. This house of our Lord is filled tonight, and I am out there with you and you are up here with me. We are here together as one to worship our God and praise Him. Amen.”

Scattered voices in the congregation said, “Amen.”

“I know you well, so well that I know you did not come tonight to this house of our Lord to worship Him. You came to hear me. And I shall speak to you and you shall hear me. I am you and you are me. But who am I?” He paused. “I am a sinner.”

He paused again for a long moment; then, suddenly, his powerful voice boomed. “You came to hear me, a sinner, and you shall hear me, a sinner! Open your eyes! Bare your hearts! And hear! It was I who betrayed our martyrs!” He stopped, his hands clutching the lectern, his body bent slightly forward. He had stressed “I” so strongly that the high-ceilinged interior of the church rang with a vibrating “I” in a tremulous echoing that pervaded the dim, cold air — “… I … I … ” Not a soul stirred.

He said quietly, “On the eighteenth day of June, as you all know, the Communists imprisoned fourteen ministers, and I was one of them. On the twenty-fifth day, twelve ministers were murdered. For seven days and nights, they tortured our martyrs. My dear brethren, I say to you that they tormented the flesh of your martyrs for seven days and nights. I say, ‘flesh of your martyrs,’ for they could not harm their spirits. But how did they torture your martyrs?”

To my surprise — and uneasiness — Mr. Shin, for the next twenty minutes or so, described to the congregation in the minutest detail how each ministers was tortured, one after another, all twelve of them. Mr. Hann, said Mr. Shin, collapsed after three ays and nights of torture and becme ill. At first it seemed that the silent congregation was spellbound by the blood-smeared description, but gradually it began to bestir itself, the rustling of clothes, coughing, and concentrated heavy breathing disturbed the cold air.

Suddenly a woman shrieked. Cries went up. The entire congregation stirred with agitation. Some of the elders rose to their feet. Chaplain Koh hurried over to Mr. Shin, who stood unmoved, rigidly facing the crowd.

A voice from the back shouted, “Away with you!” and another voice, “We don’t want to hear from you!”

Then a woman hissed, “You — a sinner! How dare you defile our martyrs!”

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1485: William de La Marck, the Wild Boar of the Ardennes

Add comment June 18th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1485, the German warrior William de La Marck was beheaded at Maastricht.

“There is, moreover, in the land, a nobleman of good descent, and fame in warlike affairs, but otherwise, so to speak, Lapis offensionis et petra scandali — and a stumbling block of offence to the countries of Burgundy and Flanders. His name is William de la Marck.”

“Called William with the Beard,” said the young Scot, “or the Wild Boar of Ardennes?”

“And rightly so called, my son,” said the Prior, “because he is as the wild boar of the forest, which treadeth down with his hoofs and rendeth with his tusks. And he hath formed to himself a band of more than a thousand men, all, like himself, contemners of civil and ecclesiastical authority, and holds himself independent of the Duke of Burgundy, and maintains himself and his followers by rapine and wrong, wrought without distinction upon churchmen and laymen.”

Sir Walter Scott, Quentin Durward. The boar is a major antagonist in this novel, but Scott has him killed, ahistorically, in melee.

Le Sanglier des ArdennesThe Wild Boar of the Ardennes, so christened for his resemblance to that ferocious beast; “he affected to delight in this surname, and endeavoured to deserve it by the unvarying cruelty and ferocity of his life” — tusked his way onto history’s stage in the power vacuum following the collapse of Burgundy as an independent power.

Among other effects, Burgundy’s fall greatly widened the local autonomy of the city of Liege, in present-day Belgium — a city that Burgundy in its recent heyday had violently brought to heel.

And not merely the city, but the entire Prince-Bishopric of Liege.

A tasty truffle for the snuffling, to porcine eyes.

In 1482, the Wild Boar assassinated the sitting Prince-Bishop of Liege, Louis de Bourbon. It’s a scene captured in dark melodrama by Executed Today‘s court painter Eugene Delacroix.

He intended by this stroke to set up his son Jean de La Marck as the Prince-Bishop. Instead he kicked off a civil war and in lieu of the mitre he obtained a payoff from the Prince-Bishopric as Liege turned to resisting the inroads of the Austrian Empire. The Boar now allying with Liege in this endeavor, he was ingloriously ambushed by imperial forces and brought in for butchering.

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1908: Chester Gillette, A Place in the Sun inspiration

Add comment March 30th, 2020 Headsman

Theodore Dreiser‘s classic novel An American Tragedy was inspired by an infamous 1906 murder whose author, Chester Gillette, was electrocuted at Auburn Prison on this date in 1908.

It was a crime tailor-made for the burgeoning mass media, popular and pretty 20-year-old Grace Brown gone to work at the Cortland, N.Y. Gillette Skirt Factory where the owner’s nephew seduced and impregnated her.

That, of course, is our man Chester Gillette, who further distressed his lover by tomcatting around town, especially charging the love triangle with class rivalry with his rumored interest in a socialite while he stalled for time with Ms. Brown. Dreiser’s novel — which is freely available from the public domain — spins on this axis, although the real-life heiress in question put out an arch press release averring that “I have never been engaged to Chester E. Gillette … Our acquaintance was of … a limited duration.”

That was also true of Gillette’s acquaintance with Grace Brown. At length he induced the future mother of his child to elope to the Adirondacks upon the apparent prospect of finally regularizing their situation. Instead, after making a couple of stops in upstate New York, they paused on July 11 at Big Moose Lake for a nice canoe outing. While out on the water, Gillette bashed his lover’s head with his tennis racket and forced her into the water to drown.

Letters the two had exchanged would establish that Gillette knew Brown could not swim … and the fact that he’d brought his whole suitcase with him for this supposed day trip would establish his premeditated intent. Gillette schlepped his stuff along with his guilty conscience through the woods to another lake and checked into a hotel under his real name(!). He was as careless with his coverup, alibi, and escape as he had been with his heart; Brown’s body was recovered the very next day and the trail led directly back to Gillette, who was not difficult to find and couldn’t stick to a story — alternately claiming that the drowning was an accident, a suicide, or something that happened when he wasn’t there at all.

The snake was public enemy number one by the time he came to his trial, making the case a national sensation. Dreiser improved it to literature in 1925, and it was such a hit that he was immediately called upon to adapt it for the stage. A version hit the silver screen as soon as 1931, but its best-known rendering is the 1951 classic A Place in the Sun, which earned Academy Award nominations for both Shelley Winters and Montgomery Clift, who portrayed the young lovers.

It’s had an enduring appeal for the century since; rumors of Grace Brown’s ghost haunting Big Moose Lake brought the case to the Unsolved Mysteries television program in the 1990s, and an award-winning 2003 novel A Northern Light centers around a fictional friend of Grace Brown’s. There’s even an A Place in the Sun opera.

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1836: Pierre François Lacenaire, Manfred of the gutter

Add comment January 9th, 2020 Headsman

The French murderer Pierre François Lacenaire, guillotined on this date in 1836, aspired to be a man of letters … and at least ended up a man in letters.

Lacenaire (English Wikipedia entry | the more considerable French) was a respectable merchants’ son turned ne’er-do-well, dipping in and out of prison after deserting the army in 1829 to wallow in the vices of crime and poetry.

The ensuing years alternate prison stints for various thefts with scrabbling attempts to make a go of it with his quill on the outside that invariably collapse into more thefts. As criminal biographies go, his silverware-robberies and such scarcely leap off the page but his writings in prison flashed even before his homicidal infamy — notably his Villonesque “Petition d’un Voleur a un Roi Voisin” (“Petition of a Thief to his Neighbor, the King”)

Sire, de grâce, écoutez-moi!
Sire, je reviens des galères …
Je suis voleur, vous êtes roi,
Agissons ensemble en bons frères …
Les gens de bien me font horreur,
J’ai le coeur dur et l’âme vile,
Je suis sans pitié, sans honneur,
Ah! faites-moi sergent de ville.

Bon, je me vois déjà sergent,
Mais, sire, c’est bien peu, je pense,
L’appétit me vient en mangeant,
Allons, sire, un peu d’indulgence.
Je suis hargneux comme un roquet,
D’un vieux singe j’ai la malice;
En France, je vaudrais Gisquet,
Faites-moi préfet de police.

Grands dieux! que je suis bon préfet!
Toute prison est trop petite.
Ce métier pourtant n’est pas fait
Pour un homme de mon mérite;
Je sais dévirer un budget,
Je sais embrouiller un registre,
Je signerai “Votre sujet”
Ah! Sire, faites-moi ministre.

Sire! que Votre Majesté
No se mette pas en colére!
Je compte sur votre bonté,
Car ma demande est téméraire.
Je suis hypocrite et vilain,
Ma douceur n’est qu’une grimace;
J’ai fait… se pendre mon cousin,
Sire, cédez-moi votre place.n

Sire, please, listen to me!
Sire, I return from the galleys
I am a thief, you are king,
Let’s act together like brothers …
Good people abhor me,
I have a hard heart and a vile soul,
I am without pity, without honor,
Ah! make me a city sergeant.

Well, I already see myself as a sergeant,
But, sire, it’s very little, I think,
Appetite comes to me while eating,
Come, sire, a little indulgence.
I’m snarling like a pug,
As malicious as a monkey;
In France, I would be worth Gisquet,
Make me the prefect of police.

Great gods! such a good prefect am I!
Any prison is too small.
However, this job is not done
For a man of my merit;
I know how to divert a budget,
I know how to confuse a register,
I will sign myself “Your subject”
Ah! Sire, make me minister.

Sire! that your majesty
Does not anger!
I count on your kindness,
Because my request is reckless.
I’m hypocritical and naughty,
My sweetness is only a grimace;
I made … hang my cousin,
Sire, cede me your place.

His cells, he said, were his “university of crime” although they scarcely turned him into a mastermind. He earned the valedictory hood in December 1834 when with an accomplice named Victor Avril he ax-butchered a transvestite pauper and his mother in Passage du Cheval-Rouge. Lacenaire and Avril had the mistaken belief that the victims were flush with cash.

What he lacked in criminal chops he atoned for in theatrical flair. At the men’s trial in November 1835, Lacenaire made the courtroom the anteroom of a society salon where he delighted fashionable intellectuals, taking “command of the proceedings by confessing all of his crimes in detail and stunned the courtroom with an improvised closing soliloquoy. Rumors circulated that he was to be pardoned after conviction and be made chief of a special branch of police. This sounded much like the familiar case of the bandit, Vidocq. In fact, Lacenaire claimed to have been inspired by Vidocq’s memoirs.”

“I kill a man like I drink a glass of wine,” he exaggeratedly memed to the journalist Jacques Arago — one of numerous philosophical bon mots. (“Whilst I had the capacity to write a play, I had also the capacity to kill. I chose the easiest.” “I love life and its pleasures, but if it ends, what does it matter? The punishment of death? A contradiction in terms: it is no punishment to send a being back again to insensibility and nothingness.”)

He occupied his last weeks producing poems and memoirs that were published after his death but the true success of his performance lay in its echoes through 19th century literature: Baudelaire would call him “one of the heroes of modern life,” and no wonder — in the judgment of Executed Today guest-blogger Henry Brodribb Irving, “no French criminal, except perhaps Cartouche, has left so distinct an impression on the minds of his countrymen.”

Gautier wrote a poem about his hand, which although uncomplimentary also salutes its owner the “Manfred of the gutter”; Balzac made room for this Manfred in La Muse du Departement; Stendahl modeled the brigand Valbayre in Lamiel upon him. Victor Hugo, apparently unimpressed with the guy’s literary pretensions, worked him into Les Miserables as the crowning monster of society’s underbelly, “what is called in theaters a third sub-stage. It is the grave of the depths. It is the cave of the blind.”

The savage outlines which prowl over this grave, half brute, half phantom, have no thought for universal progress, they ignore ideas and words, they have no care but for individual glut. They are almost unconscious, and there is in them a horrible defacement. They have two mothers, both step-mothers, ignorance and misery. They have one guide, want; and their only form of satisfaction is appetite. They are voracious as beasts, that is to say ferocious, not like the tyrant, but like the tiger. From suffering these goblins pass to crime; fated filiation, giddy procreation the logic of darkness. What crawls in the third sub-stage is no longer the stifled demand for the absolute, it is the protest of matter. Man there becomes a dragon. Hunger and thirst are the point of departure: Satan is the point of arrival. From this cave comes Lacenaire.

Nor in the 19th century could a touchstone of French literature remain confined within the Republic’s borders. Oscar Wilde referenced Lacenaire in The Picture of Dorian Gray; and Dostoyevsky mentioned Lacenaire in The Idiot and perhaps modeled the famous axe murder in Crime and Punishment upon the same.

Although his fame has faded somewhat this curious figure remains of interest to more contemporary eyes. Michel Foucault juxtaposed him against the Vidocq — an underworld creature who becomes an agent of law, the opposite of Lacenaire’s path from respectability to gutter — and perhaps captured the man’s appeal to his era’s novelists.

As for Lacenaire, he is the token of another phenomenon, different from but related to the first — that of the aesthetic and literary interest beginning to be felt in crime: the aesthetic cult of crime.

Up to the eighteenth century crimes were only heroised in two modes: a literary mode when, and because, they were the crimes of a king, and a popular mode found in the broadsheets which narrate the exploits of Mandrin, or of a great murderer. Two genres which absolutely do not communicate with each other.

Around 1840 there appears the figure of the criminal hero, a hero because a criminal, and neither aristocratic nor plebeian. The bourgeoisie produces its own criminal heroes. This is the same moment when the separation is effected between criminals and the popular classes: the criminal cannot be allowed to be a popular hero, he must be an enemy of the poor. The bourgeoisie constitutes for itself an aesthetic in which crime no longer belongs to the people, but is one of those fine arts of which the bourgeoisie alone is capable.

Lacenaire is the model for this new kind of criminal. His origins are bourgeois or petit-bourgeois.

His parents have done some bad things, but he has been properly brought up, he has been to school, he can read and write. This enabled him to act the leader in his milieu. The way he speaks of other criminals is typical: they are brutal animals, cowards and incompetents. He, Lacenaire, is the cold, lucid brain. Thus the new hero is created, displaying all the signs and tokens of the bourgeoisie. That brings us in turn to Gaboriau and the detective novel, in which the criminal is always of bourgeois origins. You never find a working class criminal in nineteenth-century detective novels.

Cinemaphiles should look to Lacenaire in the 1945 classic film Les Enfants du Paradis (clip below) as well as a 1990 biopic, Lacenaire.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Intellectuals,Murder,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Theft

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1740: Ned Darcy, of the Kellymount Gang

Add comment November 3rd, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1740,* Ned “Darcy, one of the Kellymount gang, was tried at Carlow, on the Proclamation; and, being proved to be the man, in ten minutes he was taken from the dock and hanged, and his head fixed on the Court House.”

The Kellymount gang — named for a County Kilkenny town it frequented — was a band of outlaws who were the terror of Leinster in 1740, a famine year due to a brutal frost.

Numbering as many as 30 strong, this troop had the boldness even to lay siege to manors and the ferocity to put gentlemen in mortal terror; we find our same principal just weeks before his execution going the full monster:

August 30 — Yesterday morning, one Ned Darcy went to the house of one Doran, in the County of Carlow, took him out of his bed and, naked as he was, put him on horseback, and in that manner carried him through part of the Counties of Carlow and Kilkenny; and being met by several, were asked where they intended to take him, to which they replied they were going to hang him, he having been the occasion of hanging a brother and a father of Darcy’s; and we have been since informed that, having taken him into Kellymount Wood, they cut out his tongue, cut off his ears, and pulled out one of his eyes, then desired him to go to Sir John, in Capel Street, give in his examination to him of their proceedings, and tell him they would serve him in the same manner were he in their power, as also Mr. Bush.

Mr. Bush, who came from Carlow three days ago, had one hundred men armed to guard him, and Mr. Gore, the same from Waterford; so by this you may see in what fear we travel in this country.

The Kellymount Gang was mostly busted up in these months with no small number of executions, but its remnants survived to launch the career of one of Ireland’s most celebrated bandits, James Freney — for a few years later, Freney, a failed tavernkeeper mired in debt, chanced to find himself neighbor to “one John Reedy, who had formerly been one of the robbers, commonly known by the name of the Kellymount Gang, but who had been pardoned for making some discoveries.” Reedy advised Freney in a moment of financial desperation that “there was a fair at hand, and that there was a number of drovers to be there; who, he said would have a great deal of cash; and told me, that my only remedy to extricate myself from my creditors, was to make to the highway, and that he would get three or four men to assist me.”

The former publican took up the offer to good effect, and proceeded to make his name and fortune on the roads.

We hope our readers will recognize this famous criminal from the stickup he perpetrates upon the title character in Thackeray‘s 1844 serial The Luck of Barry Lyndon, and likewise in Stanley Kubrick‘s masterpiece 1975 adaptation, Barry Lyndon. (He’s called “Feeney” in the film.)

* Julian date: the quoted blurb comes from Reilly’s Dublin News-Letter of November 8th, 1740.

** Much to the disadvantage of Executed Today, Freney/Feeney was the rare outlaw who was able to retire with his earnings, emigrating abroad and eventually returning to work as a customs official in Inistioge. The account of his criminal origins we have from Freney’s own memoirs.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Ireland,Murder,Outlaws,Public Executions,Theft

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1943: Amos Pampaloni, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin inspiration

Add comment September 21st, 2019 Headsman

Italian artillerist Amos Pampaloni, the real-life model for the title character of the novel and film Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, miraculously survived execution on this date in 1943.

It occurred at the outset of the Cephalonia Massacre on September 21, 1943, which began a dayslong slaughter on that Greek island by German soldiers of their former Italian comrades. With some 5,000 victims, it’s one of the largest POW massacres of the Second World War.

Captain Pampaloni was among 500-odd officers deployed with the 12,000-strong Acqui Infantry Division. This formation had been part of fascist Italy’s invasion of Greece in 1940-41; after victory in that campaign, the Acqui Division occupied several Greek islands over the succeeding years, where German troops were also stationed.

The Pact of Steel uniting these powers melted abruptly in early September of 1943, when the Allies forced Italy into an armistice. For Italian forces standing in the field cheek-by-fascist epaulette, this forced a sudden and dangerous reckoning. Some units had barely even heard of the new situation before they were under German guns; in a best-case scenario, they had to decide within a few hours or days between radically different attitudes towards their up-to-now comrades-in-arms.

The Acqui on the Ionian island of Cephalonia (Kefalonia) was a case in point. In the days following the Italian armistice, the much larger German force presented its commanders an ultimatum to decide among three alternatives:

  1. Continue fighting alongside the Germans
  2. Fight against the Germans
  3. Surrender, disarm, and repatriate

While the last of these might seem the obvious course, disarming was contrary to the Italian high command’s ambiguous order neither to initiate hostilities with Germans, nor to cooperate with them. Moreover, the Cephalonia division got some reports in those confused days that the Germans weren’t always repatriating units that surrendered. The soldiery was polled on the options, and went for resistance.

Unfortunately the Italians were thoroughly outgunned in this fight, and the Allies refused to permit dispatching reinforcements from Italy that might easily be captured by the Germans. Within days the Acqui had been roughly brought to heel.

Outnumbered and suffering under accurate mortar fire, Pampaloni decided to surrender. The captain protested that it was against the rules of war when his men were systematically robbed of their wallets and watches, only to be told by the German commanding officer that those rules applied to prisoners, not to traitors.

The officer then shot the captain through the back of the neck, and the rest of his men, including the wounded, were mown down with machine gun fire. Miraculously still alive, Pampaloni remained conscious as a German soldier removed his own watch from his apparently lifeless body.

Captain Pampaloni was not, in fact, the only soldier from his company to survive. “The mule handlers were spared, because every mule responds best to his own master,” he said. “Ten minutes after the massacre the German soldiers left, singing.”

Captain Pampaloni went on to fight for a year with the Greek resistance on the mainland. Having witnessed the brutality of the conflict on Cephalonia, he was still shocked by the sight of partisans slitting the throats of German prisoners with their daggers — ammunition was too precious to be wasted on executions.

Cefalonia – crimine di guerra 1 from Va.Le. Cinematografica 78 on Vimeo.

Cefalonia – crimine di guerra 2 from Va.Le. Cinematografica 78 on Vimeo.

Numerous summary executions disgraced the German victory. (There’s a monument to the victims in Verona.) Our man Amos Pampaloni faced his on the first day of the general massacre; according to a 2001 profile in the Guardian,

Outnumbered and suffering under accurate mortar fire, Pampaloni decided to surrender. The captain protested that it was against the rules of war when his men were systematically robbed of their wallets and watches, only to be told by the German commanding officer that those rules applied to prisoners, not to traitors.*

The officer then shot the captain through the back of the neck, and the rest of his men, including the wounded, were mown down with machine gun fire. Miraculously still alive, Pampaloni remained conscious as a German soldier removed his own watch from his apparently lifeless body.

Captain Pampaloni was not, in fact, the only soldier from his company to survive. “The mule handlers were spared, because every mule responds best to his own master,” he said. “Ten minutes after the massacre the German soldiers left, singing.”

Captain Pampaloni went on to fight for a year with the Greek resistance on the mainland. Having witnessed the brutality of the conflict on Cephalonia, he was still shocked by the sight of partisans slitting the throats of German prisoners with their daggers — ammunition was too precious to be wasted on executions.

In the novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Pampaloni’s fictional imitator survives thanks to a noble comrade who hurls his body in front of the fusillade.

Pampaloni didn’t appreciate Mandolin all that much, owing to its hostile depiction of the Communist partisan movement that he joined after surviving his execution. For those seeking alternative literatures, there’s also a 1960s novelization of the Greek resistance on Cephalonia by Marcello Venturi; written in Italian (as Bandiera bianca a Cefalonia), it’s long out of print in English as The White Flag.

* Prior to the Italian armistice, the Italian forces on the island were working on an arrangement to obey German command structures; hence, the brutal treatment of Italian prisoners who could be conceived as not merely prisoners of war, but traitors or rebels unprotected by any law of war. A German directive had explicitly demanded as much: “because of the perfidious and treacherous behaviour on Kefalonia, no prisoners are to be taken.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Executions Survived,Germany,Greece,History,Italy,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1662: Claude Le Petit, dirty poet

Add comment September 1st, 2019 Headsman

Poet Claude Le Petit was burned in Paris on this date in 1662 for “verse and prose full of impieties and blasphemies, against the honor of God, the Virgin and the State”.

Although in his youth he had fled abroad to escape the custody of the Jesuits, Le Petit was back in Paris studying law when he took up the pen to lampoon the scandals of the great and the good. He’s most famous for Le Bordel des Muses, a collection of 73 little sonnets, songs, and other tidbits plus five great lampoons about several of the European capitals his expatriate feet had trod: Paris Ridicule, Madrid Ridicule, London RidiculeVienna Ridicule, and Venice Ridicule. Alas, of this magnum opus only the first two of these Ridicules, plus eight of the little poems, survive to us.

He’s known for scabrous verse but Le Petit had a subversive outlook that made him far more dangerous in the eyes of France’s gathering absolutism than some mere pornographer, as in two surviving pieces that he wrote against the 1661 execution of Jacques Chausson, for sodomy.*

If we burned all those
Who do like them
In a very short time alas
Several lords of France
Great prelates of importance
Would suffer death.
Do you know the storm that rises
Against all good people?
If Chausson loses his case,
The arse (“le cu“) will not serve any more.
If Chausson loses his case,
The cunt (“le con”) will prevail.
I am this poor boy
Named Chausson
If I was roasted
At the flower of my age
It’s for the sake of a page
Of the Prince of Conde. [a bisexual lord -ed.]
If the bastard D’Assouci. [a raunchy poet who was possibly the lover of Cyrano de Bergerac -ed.]
Had been taken
He would have been roasted
In the flames
Like these infamous two
Chausson and Fabri.

After Chausson was indeed executed, Le Petit wrote:

Friends, we burned the unfortunate Chausson,
That rascal so famous, with a curly head;
His death immortalized his virtue:
Never will we expire in a more noble way.
He sang cheerfully the lugubrious song
And bore without blanching the starched shirt,
And the hot fagots at the fiery stake,
He looked at death without fear or shudder.
In vain his confessor exhorted him in the flame,
The crucifix in hand, to think of his soul;
Then lying under the stake, when the fire had conquered him,
The infamous one towards the sky turned his foul rump,
And, to die finally as he had lived,
He showed his naughty ass to everyone.

Writing behind the mask of anonymity Le Petit was obscene, yes, but more important was that he deployed obscenity to mock the powerful extending even to the sovereign and the organs of society that upheld his authority. In his tour of Paris Ridicule — lingering stanza by stanza over various landmarks and institutions — we’re drawn to his commentary on the site of his own future passion, the Place de Greve where public executions were staged:

Unhappy plot of land
At the dedicated public gibbet,
Where we massacred
A hundred times more men than at war.

It’s said that Le Petit was exposed when a gust of wind incidentally whipped a leaf from his latest profane commentary out an open window and into the hands of a passing normie who reported the smut and thereby cascaded an avalanche upon the young writer. (Le Petit was only 23 at his death.)

“I believe this punishment will contain the unbridled license of impious and the rashness of printers,” one official noted** — underscoring the overt intention of the execution to intimidate other practitioners on the growing print culture scene. Le Petit’s fame and that of his outlaw pasquinades only grew as a result of his punishment — but this outcome was by no means detrimental to the intended policy, since each impression also came with the murmured recollection of its creator’s fate.


Claude Le Petit verse on the ceiling of a porch at rue de Nevers near Pont Neuf. (cc) image by vpagnouf.

* The original French verse is from Chausson’s French Wikipedia page.

** Cited in this Francophone academic paper on the affair.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Lawyers,Public Executions

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