1568: Ivan Fedorov, zemshchina boyar

Add comment September 11th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1568, the Russian boyar Ivan Petrovich Fedorov-Chelyadnin was personally “executed” by Ivan the Terrible.

The vengeful tsar suspecting this man of aspiring to his position had him dressed in royal robes and sat him on the throne, then mockingly paid obeisance before stabbing him to death. It’s unclear whether this great lord had the benefit beforehand of any semblance of judicial process.


Detail view (click for the full image) of Nikolai Nevrev‘s painting of Ivan the Terrible, coiled in fury with dagger drawn, about to “depose” Ivan Fedorov.

The poet A.K. Tolstoy* (cousin of the Tolstoy) sketched the scene in an 1858 verse, “The Staritsky Voivode”:

When the old governor was accused,
That, proud of the nobility and antiquity of the family,
He dreamt of assigning himself a royal dignity,
Ivan ordered him to appear before his eyes.
And to the condemned he brought a rich crown,
And a garment of pearls and gold,
And he laid on the barmi,** and seated him on his own throne
He raised the guilty one on silk carpets.
And, dropping his gaze before him, he fell in the middle of the chamber,
And, bowing to the ground in mock obedience,
Said: “Satisfied in your majesty,
Behold, your slave smites your brow!”
And, having risen with merciless malice,
Plunged a knife into his heart with a greedy hand.
And, bending his face over the overthrown enemy,
He stepped on the corpse with a patterned boot
And he looked into the eyes of the dead, and with trembling unsteady
Sovereign lips snaked a smile.

The late 1560s bring us to the crescendo of Ivan’s oprichnina, years of terror and purging visited by the paranoid sovereign on his internal foes — actual, potential, or imagined.

Although remembered as the name for Ivan’s policy, the oprichnina was also a literal physical territory — created in 1565 when Ivan successfully forced his nobles to give him absolute power over life and death in the appanage of the oprichnina.† Over the succeeding years, Ivan extended both the physical reach of that realm, and the reach of the dictatorial authority that it embodied — threatening the zemschina, a distinct geographical area where terrified boyars administered the incumbent, non-Ivan Russian state.

“Ivan’s open hostility towards the zemshchina could not fail to alarm its leaders,” not Maureen Perrie and Andrei Pavlov in this biography of Ivan the Terrible … and this fact could not fail to catalyze those much-feared internal foes.

It is quite probable in the circumstances that the idea of removing the tsar and transferring the throne to his cousin Prince Vladimir Staritskii might have been discussed among zemshchina boyars. Two foreign observers — the Germans Heinrich von Staden and Albert Schlichting, who both served in the oprichnina — refer to a conspiracy of the zemshchina boyars in favour of Vladimir. An unofficial Russian chronicle also mentions the ‘inclination’ of the opposition to promote Vladimir’s candidature for the Russian throne. But according to a chronicle account there was no overt conspiracy, only discussions (‘words’), for which the boyars who opposed the oprichnina paid a heavy price.

Our date’s principal, Ivan Fedorov, attracted Ivan’s attention in the ensuing investigation. A prince from a venerable noble family, Fedorov had been a pillar of the state, an important governor and military commander, for three-plus decades. It availed him little under Ivan’s suspicion.

Fedorov was placed in disgrace and exiled to Kolomna. Nobles and officials among his supporters were arrested and executed, and many of the equerry’s armed servants were exterminated. The oprichniki [Ivan’s personal army, the enforcers of the oprichnina -ed.] carried out several punitive raids against Fedorov’s lands. Many of the inhabitants were slaughtered (some were put to the sword, while others were herded into their cottages and burned alive). According to Staden, women and girls were stripped naked ‘and forced in that state to catch chickens in the fields’. Buildings were demolished, livestock was slaughtered and chancellery officials were put to death, along with about 300 boyars’ servants.

* A.K. Tolstoy also wrote a tragedy for the stage (banned in tsarist Russia), The Death of Ivan the Terrible.

** Barmi: an ornamental mantle or collar that comprised part of the royal regalia.


It’s the semicircle between Tsar Alexis‘s beard and his crucifix.

The term, now so dreadful in Russian historiography, originally denoted an inheritance of land left to a widow, as distinct from that left to her children.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,History,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Power,Put to the Sword,Russia,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Treason

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1803: John Hatfield, Beauty of Buttermere deceiver

Add comment September 3rd, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1803, the Maid of Buttermere was widowed by the hangman. (She only used to be a Maid, of course.)

Before he was the presenter of BBC’s venerable In Our Time program, Melvyn Bragg wrote a historical novel about (and titled) The Maid of Buttermere

This legendary beauty bound for legendary sorrow entered literary annals and the nation’s romantic consciousness courtesy of a 1792 travelogue by Joseph Budworth (aka Joseph Palmer) titled A Fortnight’s Ramble to the Lakes of Westmoreland, Lancashire, and Cumberland. The 35-ish Budworth/Palmer met the girl in her Cumbrian village and honored or embarrassed her with a breathless chapter celebrating Mary Robinson’s allure:

Mary of Buttermere

Her mother and she weere spinning woollen yarn in the back kitchen. On our going into it, the girl flew away as swift as a mountain sheep, and it was not until our return from Scale Force that we could say we first saw her. She brought in part of our dinner, and seemed to be about fifteen. Her hair was thick and long, of a dark brown, and, though unadorned with ringlets, did not seem to want them; her face was a fine oval, with full eyes, and lips as red as vermilion; her cheeks had more of the lily than the rose; and, although she had never been out of the village (and I hope will have no ambition to wish it), she had a manner about her which seemed better calculated to set off dress, than dress her. She was a very Lavinia,

Seeming, when unadorn’d, adorn’d the most.

When we first saw her at her distaff, after she had got the better of her first fears, she looked an angel; and I doubt not but she is the reigning Lily of the Valley.

Ye travellers of the Lakes, if you visit this obscure place, such you will find the fair Mary of Buttermere.

After this, a side trip to ogle the Lily of the Valley became part of the regular itinerary of Lake District visitors for a couple of years. How Mary felt about, or leveraged, her strange celebrity can only be guessed at but ten years onward she was still unmarried.

Enter John Hatfield.

This fellow made his wastrel’s way by imposture and cozening, having charmed his way into the company of the Duke of Rutland and two different heiresses. He overdrafted all these fortunes and paid some visits to debtors’ prison.

By the time he turned up in the Lake District, he was impersonating an M.P. named Colonel Hope, and under this name wooed and won our fair Lavinia. The poet Samuel Coleridge, who happened to be in the area on a walking tour, wrote up the event for the Oct. 11 edition of London’s Morning Post.

Romantic Marriage

On the 2d instant a Gentleman, calling himself Alexander Augustus Hope, Member for Linlithgowshire, and brother to the Earl of Hopetown, was married at the church of Lorten, near Keswick, to a young woman, celebrated by the tourists under the name of The Beauty of Buttermere. To beauty, however, in the strict sense of the word, she has small pretensions, for she is rather gap-toothed, and somewhat pock-fretten. But her face is very expressive, and the expression extremely interesting, and her figure and movements are graceful to a miracle. She ought indeed to have been called the Grace of Buttermere, rather than the Beauty. — She is the daughter of an old couple, named Robinson, who keep a poor little pot-house at the foot of the small lake of Buttermere, with the sign of the Char, and has been all her life the attendant and waiter, for they have no servant. She is now about thirty, and has long attracted the notice of every visitor by her exquisite elegance, and the becoming manner in which she is used to fillet her beautiful long hair; likewise by the uncommonly fine Italian hand-writing in which the little bill was drawn out. Added to this, she has ever maintained an irreproachable character, is a good daughter, and a modest, sensible, and observant woman. That such a woman should find a husband in a man of rank and fortune, so very far above her sphere of life, is not very extraordinary; but there are other circumstances which add much to the interest of the story. Above two months ago, Mr. Hope went to Buttermere upon a fishing expedition, in his own carriage, but without any servants, and took up his abode at the house kept by the father of the beauty of Buttermere, in the neighbourhood of which he was called the Honourable Charles Hope, Member for Dumfries. Here he paid his addresses to a lady of youth, beauty, and good fortune, and obtained her consent. The wedding clothes were bought, and the day fixed for their marriage, when he feigned a pretence for absence, and married the beauty of Buttermere. The mistake in the name, the want of an establishment suited to his rank, and the circumstance of his attaching himself to a young lady of fortune, had excited much suspicion, and many began to consider him an impostor. [sic] His marriage, however, with a poor girl without money, family, or expectations, has weakened the suspicions entertained to his disadvantage, but the interest which the good people of Keswick take in the welfare of the beauty of Buttermere, has not yet suffered them to entirely subside, and they await with anxiety the moment when they shall receive decisive proofs that the bridegroom is the real person whom he describes himself to be. The circumstances of his marriage are sufficiently to satisfy us that he is no impostor; and, therefore, we may venture to congratulate the beauty of Buttermere upon her good fortune. The Hon. Alexander Hope, the member for Linlithgowshire, is a Colonel in the army, a Lieut. Colonel of the 14th regiment of foot, brother, to the Earl of Hopetoun, and Lieutenant Governor of Edinburgh Castle.

Unfortunately Coleridge labored under a false Hope, and the wide publicity of this union instantly validated the locals’ suspicions of the suitor: plenty of Londoners knew that the real Colonel Hope was off in Vienna. Within a month (Nov. 8) the very same journal printed a lengthy article under a less flattering headline:

Fraudulent Marriage

[The following advertisement has been issued for apprehending the pretended Colonel Hope, who lately married the Buttermere Beauty]

Notorious Imposter, Swindler, and Felon. — John Hatfield, who lately married a young woman (commonly called the Beauty of Buttermere), under an assumed name. Height about five feet ten inches, aged about 44, full face, bright eyes, thick eye-brows, strong but light beard, good complection with some colour, thick but not very prominent nose, smiling countenance, fine teeth, a scar on one of his cheeks near the chin; very long, thick, light hair, with a great deal of it grey, done up in a club; stout, square shouldered, full breast and chest, rather corpulent and stout limbed, but very active, and has rather a spring in his gait, with apparently a little hitch in bringing up one leg; the two middle fingers of his left hand are stiff from an old wound, and he frequently has a custom of putting them straight with his right: has something of the Irish brogue in his speech, fluent & elegant in his language, great command of words, frequently puts his hand to his heart, very fond of compliments, and generally addressing himself to persons most distinguished by rank or situation, attentive in the extreme to females, and likely to insinuate himself where there are young ladies; he was in America during the war, is fond of talking of his wounds and exploits there, and on military subjects, as well as of Hatfield Hall, and his estates in Derbyshire and Chester, of the antiquity of his family, which he pretends to trace to the Plantagenets; all which are shameful falsehoods, thrown out to deceive. He makes a boast of having often been engaged in duels; he has been a great traveller also (by his own account), and talks of Egypt, Turkey, Italy, and in short has a general knowledge of subjects, which, together with his engaging manner, is well calculated to impose on the credulous. He was seven years confined in Scarborough gaol, from whence he married, and removed into Devonshire, where he has basely deserted an amiable wife and young family. He had art enough to connect himself with some very respectable merchants in Devonshire as a partner in business, but having swindled them out of large sums of money he was made a separate bankrupt, in June last, and has never surrendered to his commission, by which means he is guilty of felony. He cloaks his deceptions under the mask of religion, appears fond of religious conversation, and makes a point of attending divine service and popular preachers. To consummate his villainies he has lately, under the very respectable name of the Hon. Col. Hope, betrayed an innocent but unfortunate young woman near the Lake of Buttermere. He was on th 25th of October last, at Ravenglass in Cumberland, wrapped in a sailor’s great coat and disguised, and is supposed to be now secreted in Liverpool, or some adjacent port, with a view to leave the country.

He was indeed captured, convicted on three counts of felony forgery related to his pretense, and hanged on market day at Carlisle.

For the Beauty of Buttermere, the addition of this humiliating personal tragedy only deepened her charm to the literary set. William Wordsworth‘s lengthy autobiographical poem The Prelude contains in Book VII a meditation on the now-older Mary as a doting mother settled in with a respectable farmer, her youthful beauty and her consequent fame both receding into time.

I mean, O distant Friend! a story drawn From our own ground, — the Maid of Buttermere, — And how, unfaithful to a virtuous wife Deserted and deceived, the Spoiler came And wooed the artless daughter of the hills, And wedded her, in cruel mockery Of love and marriage bonds. These words to thee Must needs bring back the moment when we first, Ere the broad world rang with the maiden’s name, Beheld her serving at the cottage inn; Both stricken, as she entered or withdrew, With admiration of her modest mien And carriage, marked by unexampled grace. We since that time not unfamiliarly Have seen her, — her discretion have observed, Her just opinions, delicate reserve, Her patience, and humility of mind Unspoiled by commendation and the excess Of public notice — an offensive light To a meek spirit suffering inwardly. From this memorial tribute to my theme I was returning, when, with sundry forms Commingled — shapes which met me in the way That we must tread — thy image rose again, Maiden of Buttermere! She lives in peace Upon the spot where she was born and reared; Without contamination doth she live In quietness, without anxiety: Beside the mountain chapel, sleeps in earth Her new-born infant, fearless as a lamb That, thither driven from some unsheltered place, Rests underneath the little rock-like pile When storms are raging. Happy are they both — Mother and child! — These feelings, in themselves Trite, do yet scarcely seem so when I think On those ingenuous moments of our youth Ere we have learnt by use to slight the crimes And sorrows of the world. Those simple days Are now my theme; and, foremost of the scenes, Which yet survive in memory, appears One, at whose centre sate a lovely Boy, A sportive infant, who, for six months’ space, Not more, had been of age to deal about Articulate prattle — Child as beautiful As ever clung around a mother’s neck, Or father fondly gazed upon with pride. There, too, conspicuous for stature tall And large dark eyes, beside her infant stood The mother; but, upon her cheeks diffused, False tints too well accorded with the glare From play-house lustres thrown without reserve On every object near. The Boy had been The pride and pleasure of all lookers-on In whatsoever place, but seemed in this A sort of alien scattered from the clouds. Of lusty vigour, more than infantine He was in limb, in cheek a summer rose Just three parts blown — a cottage-child — if e’er, By cottage-door on breezy mountain-side, Or in some sheltering vale, was seen a babe By Nature’s gifts so favoured. Upon a board Decked with refreshments had this child been placed ‘His’ little stage in the vast theatre, And there he sate, surrounded with a throng Of chance spectators, chiefly dissolute men And shameless women, treated and caressed; Ate, drank, and with the fruit and glasses played, While oaths and laughter and indecent speech Were rife about him as the songs of birds Contending after showers. The mother now Is fading out of memory, but I see The lovely Boy as I beheld him then Among the wretched and the falsely gay, Like one of those who walked with hair unsinged Amid the fiery furnace. Charms and spells Muttered on black and spiteful instigation Have stopped, as some believe, the kindliest growths. Ah, with how different spirit might a prayer Have been preferred, that this fair creature, checked By special privilege of Nature’s love, Should in his childhood be detained for ever! But with its universal freight the tide Hath rolled along, and this bright innocent, Mary! may now have lived till he could look With envy on thy nameless babe that sleeps, Beside the mountain chapel, undisturbed. Four rapid years had scarcely then been told Since, travelling southward from our pastoral hills, I heard, and for the first time in my life, The voice of woman utter blasphemy — Saw woman as she is, to open shame Abandoned, and the pride of public vice; I shuddered, for a barrier seemed at once Thrown in that from humanity divorced Humanity, splitting the race of man In twain, yet leaving the same outward form. Distress of mind ensued upon the sight And ardent meditation. Later years Brought to such spectacle a milder sadness, Feelings of pure commiseration, grief For the individual and the overthrow Of her soul’s beauty; farther I was then But seldom led, or wished to go; in truth The sorrow of the passion stopped me there.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Pelf,Public Executions

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2015: Khaled al-Asaad, Palmyra archaeologist

Add comment August 18th, 2020 Headsman

Syrian archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad was beheaded by the Islamic State on this date in 2015 for refusing them the ancient artifacts of his native Palmyra.

Eighty-two years old — Palmyra was still a French colony at the time of this birth — Al-Asaad was involved in excavations around that city throughout his adult life. He became the custodian of the archaeological site in 1963 and held the post for 40 years.

When the Salafist militant army rolled up on his oasis city that spring.* he helped to evacuate the town’s museum and Daesh put him to torture to extract the whereabouts of the priceless cultural treasures he’d concealed from them. He made himself a hero to Syrians and antiquarians alike by denying his captors any satisfaction save his death — which was accomplished by a public beheading.

At least one other scholar, Qassem Abdullah Yehya, the Deputy Director of DGAM Laboratories, was also killed by ISIS/ISIL for protecting the dig site.

after Khaled al-Asaad

bonepole bonepole since you died
there’s been dying everywhere
do you see it slivered where you are
between a crown and a tongue     the question still
more god or less     I am all tangled
in the smoke you left     the swampy herbs
the paper crows     horror leans in and brings
its own light     this life so often inadequately
lit     your skin peels away     your bones soften
your rich unbecoming     a kind of apology

when you were alive your cheekbones
dropped shadows across your jaw     I saw a picture
I want to dive into that darkness     smell
the rosewater     the sand     irreplaceable
jewel how much of the map did you leave
unfinished     there were so many spiders
your mouth a moonless system
of caves filling with dust
the dust thickened to tar
your mouth opened and tar spilled out

“Palmyra”, by Kaveh Akbar

* The modern city of Palmyra (also called Tadmur) is adjacent to but not synonymous with the ancient city/archaeological site of Palmyra.

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1469: Andrea Viarani

1 comment August 12th, 2020 Headsman

The August 12, 1469 beheading of a Ferrara nobleman named Andrea Viarani is the subject of a chapter in the very fine volume The Art of Executing Well: Rituals of Execution in Renaissance Italy.

This scholarly tome explores via six chapters with different authors and several translated texts the spiritual and ritual experience of execution, particularly as mediated by confraternities of lay comforters who worked to steady the condemned for their ordeal and — as they prayed — their salvation.

Notably, The Art of Executing Well favors the reader with a 100-page translation of a Bolognese Comforters’ Manual and its associated hymnal. This resource was used by the Compagnia di Santa Maria della Morte to train its brethren for their weighty task of counseling the doomed.

This manual is, in the first place, a philosophical text for the counselor — to get his mind right, fully versed in Church doctrine concerning the afterlife and approaching his somber task full of contrition, humility, and piety.

Those doing this work must put their heart in it and act only out of love for God, and also out of charity for and the salvation of the neighbor. And they must make a great effort to do this, otherwise it would be displeasing to God. And take note that it will not gain you anything for eternal life if it is done for any vain reasons: any aspect of glory or mundane pomp, or to be held in high esteem by the people of this world, or to avoid disrespect of your fellow man, or for any worldly gain, or to be on everyone’s lips, or to be praised, or to be able to learn the secrets or the deeds of those people, or out of revenge, or out of ill will, or for faction, or for reward. But you should only do it out of reverence for God and to observe his commandment.

And in the second place, it’s a practical handbook for navigating the many reactions and considerations that people in their last hours might have, as part of guiding the sufferer towards reconciliation with God. “You must not tire of speaking” to those who wish to listen and pray with you, but also bring several enumerated volumes for those who prefer to read; in many other cases, “you will find those who do not willingly accept their death and for whom it is a very big thing” and who must be guided empathetically when their thoughts are preoccupied by concern for their family, or by writing their will, or by their raw resistance to death. At times the guidance reads strikingly modern; set aside the figure of the executioner and words like these would not be amiss to aid you or I in a 21st century personal crisis:

There are those whom you will find hard-hearted in the beginning and who do not want to hear anything you say … Be very careful not to unsettle him with words or harshness. Because sometimes those who are so hardened and miserable may react quite violently against one word they don’t like, with the result that you risk never being able to say anything that they do like, and this leads to worse. And if you see that in spite of your words he doesn’t wish to repent and remains hard-hearted, let it be and say nothing to him. Rather, let him say what he wants. And then tell some appropriate story or some example to your companion [i.e., a brother emissary from the confraternity -ed.] or with whoever is around, and tell in such a way that he who is to die hears you. And when his anger subsides and he is just there not doing anything, then go and put your hand on his back and ever so gently reprove him for his folly and place him on the proper road.

We’ve previously seen in these annals an example of lay brother and condemned prisoner working together to ready a soul for the block, in the person of Niccolo Machiavelli associate Pietro Boscoli, who was involved in (or perhaps merely adjacent to) an anti-Medici plot.

That’s not dissimilar from the situation of our day’s principal. Andrea Viarani came from a cultured noble family numbering diplomats, doctors, and astrologers among its ranks — and he came to his grief by his involvement in a conspiracy against the local tyrant, Borso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara.*

Not much is really known about this man’s life, but he comes alive in Alfredo Troiano’s examination of three poems that the man wrote while awaiting execution. These poems later made their way to Bologna, where the aforementioned Compagnia di Santa Maria della Morte incorporated them into its own corpus and for Troiano, that’s no coincidence: they exhort the reader to attitudes characteristic of confraternities, revealing the unrecorded exertions these lay brethren must have made in Viarani’s cell.

If the blind, false, and treasonous world,
full of injustice, betrayal, and deception
has held you many years
far from your Maker and the Supreme Good,

Shows now both the shadowy and the fleeting nature
of hoping for vain pleasures, which
that foolish desire inclines towards
never thinking of its true salvation:

Now that heaven has given you much grace
and you are brought back to the point,
Andrea, that God has made you
repentant of the wrong committed.

Lift your mind to God, move your hard heart
and do not be so obstinate with him
but with devout tears,
repentant of having erred, ask for forgiveness.

Ah! Don’t wish to abandon your soul,
being diffident of eternal grace,
for it never is tired of gathering
he who, repentant, so asks.

This sirvente runs to 35 stanzas, and the translation is original to The Art of Executing Well where the reader may peruse it at length; Viarani also wrote two sonnets, one addressed to the Eternal Father and the other the Eternal Queen (that is, to God and to the Virgin Mary), which also appear in that book.

* The son of Niccolo d’Este, a name distinguished in execution annals by meting that fate out to his young wife and his son for their shocking affair. (The lovers weren’t kin themselves.)

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Ferrara,History,Italy,Nobility,Power,Public Executions,Treason

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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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3rd Century BCE: Grauballe Man

Add comment April 26th, 2020 Headsman

We’ll never have the actual execution date, of course, but April 26 in 1952 was the date that researchers in Jutland hauled out of a peat bog the 3rd century BCE body of Grauballe Man, so spectacularly preserved that his fingerprints could still be taken. His throat slashed, Grauballe Man is thought to have been subjected to either an execution or a ritual sacrifice, and his body dumped into this oxygen-sparse slough so congenial to natural mummification.

The Grauballe Man
By Seamus Heaney

As if he had been poured
in tar, he lies
on a pillow of turf
and seems to weep

the black river of himself.
The grain of his wrists
is like bog oak,
the ball of his heel

like a basalt egg.
His instep has shrunk
cold as a swan’s foot
or a wet swamp root.

His hips are the ridge
and purse of a mussel,
his spine an eel arrested
under a glisten of mud.


Grauballe Man on display at Denmark’s Moesgaard Museum. (cc) image from Colin.

The head lifts,
the chin is a visor
raised above the vent
of his slashed throat

that has tanned and toughened.
The cured wound
opens inwards to a dark
elderberry place.

Who will say ‘corpse’
to his vivid cast?
Who will say ‘body’
to his opaque repose?

And his rusted hair,
a mat unlikely
as a foetus’s.
I first saw his twisted face

in a photograph,
a head and shoulder
out of the peat,
bruised like a forceps baby,

but now he lies
perfected in my memory,
down to the red horn
of his nails,

hung in the scales
with beauty and atrocity:
with the Dying Gaul
too strictly compassed

on his shield,
with the actual weight
of each hooded victim,
slashed and dumped.

These same bogs have yielded other eerily well-preserved time-travelers from antiquity, including Tollund Man (believed to have been hanged in the 4th century BCE) and Elling Woman (believed to have been hanged in the 3rd century BCE). Peat bogs ranging from Ireland and England to Germany and the Low Countries have overall yielded numerous other specimens, ranging up to 10,000 years old — quite a few of them victims of evident violence.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Denmark,Execution,Known But To God,Put to the Sword,Uncertain Dates

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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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1773: Levi Ames, Boston burglar

Add comment October 21st, 2019 Headsman

Must Thieves who take men’s goods away
Be put to death? While fierce blood hounds,
Who do their fellow creatures slay,
Are sav’d from death? This cruel sounds.

But, ah! Alas it seems to me,
That Murder now is passed by
While Priests and Rulers all agree
That this poor Criminal must die.

What can they no compassion have?
Upon the poor distressed Thief,
Will none appear his life to save
Or pray that he may have relief?

Oh no! The Ministers they say,
For him there can be no reprieve;
He must be hang’d upon the day,
And his just punishment receive.

-“Theft and Murder! A Poem on the Execution of Levi Ames” (1773 broadside)

On this date in 1773, burglar Levi Ames was hanged in colonial Boston for burglary.


Illustration from a 1773 broadside announcing Levi Ames’s controversial execution (click for an image of the entire document).

This young thief’s death — and his surprising purchase on public sympathy in view of the recent politically charged gallows escape by crown loyalist Ebenezer Richardson for killing patriot protester Christopher Seider — are extensively excavated by Anthony Vaver (author of the books Bound with an Iron Chain and Early American Criminals) at his site Early American Crime. I can’t begin to improve upon this series.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Public Executions,Theft,USA

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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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1651: Christopher Love

Add comment August 22nd, 2019 Robert Wild

(Thanks to English Presbyterian poet Robert Wild for the guest post in verse, celebrating the martyrdom of his coreligionist Christopher Love. Love died for seditious correspondence with the exiled Stuart then-pretender Charles II. Days after Love lost his head, Charles very nearly did likewise when he lost the decisive Battle of Worcester to Oliver Cromwell — famously escaping the rout by a harrowing, six-week flight that repeatedly came within an ace of landing him with his father in our deck of execution playing cards. -ed.)

THE TRAGEDY OF CHRISTOPHER LOVE AT TOWER HILL August 22. 1651.

Prologue.
New from a slaughtred Monarchs Herse I come,
A mourner to a Murthr’d Prophet’s Tombe:
Pardon, Great Charles his Ghost, my Muse had stood
Yet three years longer, till sh’had wept a flood;
Too mean a Sacrifice for Royall Blood.
But Heaven doe by Thunder call
For her attendance at Love’s Funerall.
Forgive Great Sir, this Sacriledge in me,
The Tear he must have, it is his Fee;
‘Tis due to him, and yet ’tis stol’n from Thee.

ARGUMENT.
‘Twas when the raging Dog did rule the Skies,
And with his Scorching face did tyrannize,
When cruell Cromwell, whelp of that mad Star,
But sure more firery than his Syre by far;
Had dryed the Northern Fife, and with his heat
Put frozen Scotland in a Bloody sweat:
When he had Conquered, and his furious Traine
Had chas’d the North-Bear, and pursu’d Charle’s waine
Into the English Orb; then ’twas thy Fate
(Sweet Love) to be a present for our State.
A greater Sacrifice there could not come,
Then a Divine to bleed his welcome home
For He, and Herod, think no dish so good,
As a Iohn Baptists Head serv’d up in blood.

ACT I.
The Philistins are set in their High Court,
And Love, like Sampsons, fetch’d to make them sport:
Unto the Stake the smiling Prisoner’s brought,
Not to be Try’d, but baited, most men thought;
Monsters, like men, must worry him: and thus
He fights with Beasts, like Paul at Ephesus.
Adams, Far and Huntington, with all the pack
Of foysting Hounds were set upon his back.
Prideaux and Keeble stands and cries A’loe;
It was a full Cry, and it would not doe.
Oh how he foyl’d them, Standers-by did swear,
That he the Judge, and they the Traytors were:
For there he prov’d, although he seem’d a Lambe,
Stout, like a Lyon, from whose Den he came!

ACT II.
It is Decreed; nor shall thy Worth, dear Love,
Resist their Vows, nor their revenge remove.
Though prayers were joyn’d to prayers, & tears to tears,
No softnesse in their Rocky hearts appears;
Nor Heaven nor Earth abate their fury can,
But they will have thy Head, thy Head, good Man.
Sure some She sectary longed, and in hast
Must try how Presbyterian Blood did tast.
‘Tis fit she have the best, and therefore thine,
Thine must be broach’d, blest Saint, its drink Divine.
No sooner was the dreadfull Sentence read,
The Prisoner straight bow’d his condemned Head:
And by that humble posture told them all,
It was an Head that did not fear a fall.

ACT III.
And now I wish the fatall stroke were given;
I’m sure our Martyr longs to be in Heaven,
And Heaven to have him there; one moments blow
Makes him tryumphant; but here comes his woe,
His enemies will grant a months suspence
If’t be but for the nonce to keep him thence:
And that he may tread in his Saviours wayes,
He shall be tempted too, his forty dayes:
And with such baits too, cast thy self but down,
Fall, and but worship, and your life’s your own.
Thus cry’d his Enemies, and ’twas their pride
To wound his Body, and his Soul beside.
One plot they have more, when their other fail,
If Devils cannot, disciples may prevail.
Lets tempt him by his friends, make Peter cry
Good Master spare thy self, and do not die.
One friend intreats, a second weeps, a third
Cries your Petition wants the other word:
I’le write it for you, saith a fourth; your life,
Your life Sir, cries a fift; pity your wife,
And the Babe in her: Thus this Diamond’s cut,
By Diamonds onely, and to terrour put.
Me thinks I hear him still, you wounding heart;
Good friends forbear, for every word’s a dart:
‘Tis cruell pity, this I do professe,
You’ld love me more, if you did love me lesse:
Friends, Children, Wife, Life, all are dear I know,
But all’s too dear, if I should buy them so.
Thus like a Rock that routs the waves he stands,
And snaps a sunder, Sampson-like these bands.

ACT IV.
The day is come, the Prisoner longs to go,
And chides the lingring Sun for tarrying so.
Which blushing seemes to answer from the skie,
That it was loath to see a Martyr die.
Me thinks I heard beheaded Saints above
Call to each other, Sirs, make room for Love.
Who, when he came to tread the fatall Stage,
Which prov’d his glory, and his Enemies rage.
His bloud ne’re run to his Heart, Christs Blood was there
Reviving it, his own was all to spare:
Which rising in his Cheeks, did seem to say,
Is this the bloud you thirst for? Tak’t I pray.
Spectators in his looks such life did see,
That they appear’d more like to die than he.
But oh his speech, me thinks I hear it still;
It ravish’d Friends, and did his enemies kill:
His keener words did their sharp Axe exceed,
That made his head, but he their hearts to bleed:
Which he concludes with gracious prayer, and so
The Lamb lay down, and took the butchers blow:
His Soul makes Heaven shine brighter by a Star,
And now we’re sure there’s one Saint Christopher.*

ACT V.
Love lyes a bleeding, and the world shall see
Heaven Act a part in this black Tragedie.
The Sun no sooner spide the Head o’th’ floore,
But he pull’d in his own, and look’d no more:
The Clouds which scattered, and in colours were,
Met all together, and in black appear:
Lightnings, which fill’d the air with Blazing light,
Did serve for Torches all that dismall night:
In which, and all next day for many howers,
Heaven groan’d in Thunder, and did weep in showers.
Nor doe I wonder that God Thundred so
When his Bonarges murthered lay below:
Witnesses trembled, Prideaux, Bradshaw, Keeble,
And all the guilty Court look’d pale and feeble.
Timerous Ienkins, and cold-hearted Drake
Hold out, you need no base Petitions make:
Your enemies thus Thunder-struck no doubt,
Will be beholding to you to goe out.
But if you will Recant, now thundring Heaven
Such approbation to Loves Cause hath given.
I’le adde but this; Your Consciences, perhaps,
Ere long, shall feele far greater Thunder-claps.

Epilogue.
But stay, my Muse growes fearfull too, and must
Beg that these Lines be buried with thy dust:
Shelter, blessed Love, this Verse within thy shroud,
For none but Heaven dares takes thy part aloud.
The Author begs this, least if he be known,
Whilst he bewailes thy Head, he loose his own.**

FINIS.

* A little wink by the author. The Saint Christopher was a supposed early Christian martyr depicted as either or both of a Canaanite giant or a dog-headed man — real tall-tale stuff. His historicity came under fire from iconoclastic critics of the Humanist and Reformation traditions; for example, Erasmus pooh-poohed this folklore in his In Praise of Folly.

** Wild usually worked anonymously in his time, for obvious reasons.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Other Voices,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Treason,Wartime Executions

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