A Most Unfortunate Execution

The volume Celebrated trials of all countries, and remarkable cases of criminal jurisprudence (1835) is a collection of 88 accounts of murders and curious proceedings.
Several of these anecdotes are quite interesting, but a double hanging which took place in 1807 is particularly astonishing for the collateral effects it entailed.

On November 6, 1802, John Cole Steele, owner of a lavander water deposit, was travelling from Bedfont, on the outskirts of London, to his home on Strand. It was deep in the night, and the merchant was walking alone, as he couldn’t find a coach.
The moon had just come up when Steele was surrounded by three men who were hiding in the bushes. They were John Holloway and Owen Haggerty — two small-time crooks always in trouble with the law; with them was their accomplice Benjamin Hanfield, whom they had recruited some hours earlier at an inn.
Hanfield himself would prove to be the weak link. Four years later, under the promise of a full pardon for unrelated offences, he would vividly recount in court the scene he had witnessed that night:

We presently saw a man coming towards us, and, on approaching him, we ordered him to stop, which he immediately did. Holloway went round him, and told him to deliver. He said we should have his money,
and hoped we would not ill-use him. [Steele] put his hand in his pocket, and gave Haggerty his money. I demanded his pocket-book. He replied that he had none. Holloway insisted that he had a book, and if he
did not deliver it, he would knock him down. I then laid hold of his legs. Holloway stood at his head, and swore if he cried out he would knock out his brains. [Steele] again said, he hoped we would not ill-use him. Haggerty proceeded to search him, when [Steele] made some resistance, and struggled so much that we got across the road. He cried out severely, and as a carriage was coming up, Holloway said, “Take care, I’ll silence the b—–r,” and immediately struck him several violent blows on the head and body. [Steele] heaved a heavy groan, and stretched himself out lifeless. I felt alarmed, and said, “John, you have killed the man”. Holloway replied, that it was a lie, for he was only stunned. I said I would stay no longer, and immediately set off towards London, leaving Holloway and Haggerty with the body. I came to Hounslow, and stopped at the end of the town nearly an hour. Holloway and Haggerty then came up, and said they had done the trick, and, as a token, put the deceased’s hat into my hand. […] I told Holloway it was a cruel piece of business, and that I was sorry I had any hand in it. We all turned down a lane, and returned to London. As we came along, I asked Holloway if he had got the pocketbook. He replied it was no matter, for as I had refused to share the danger, I should not share the booty. We came to the Black Horse in Dyot-street, had half a pint of gin, and parted.

A robbery gone wrong, like many others. Holloway and Haggerty would have gotten away with it: investigations did not lead to anything for four years, until Hanfield revealed what he knew.
The two were arrested on the account of Hanfield’s testimony, and although they claimed to be innocent they were both sentenced to death: Holloway and Haggerty would hang on a Monday, February 22, 1807.
During all Sunday night, the convicts kept on shouting out they had nothing to do with the murder, their cries tearing the “awful stillness of midnight“.

On the fatal morning, the two were brought at the Newgate gallows. Another person was to be hanged with them,  Elizabeth Godfrey, guilty of stabbing her neighbor Richard Prince.
Three simultaneous executions: that was a rare spectacle, not to be missed. For this reason around 40.000 perople gathered to witness the event, covering every inch of space outside Newgate and before the Old Bailey.

Haggertywas the first to walk up, silent and resigned. The hangman, William Brunskill, covered his head with a white hood. Then came Holloway’s turn, but the man lost his cold blood, and started yelling “I am innocent, innocent, by God!“, as his face was covered with a similar cloth. Lastly a shaking Elizabeth Godfrey was brought beside the other two.
When he finished with his prayers, the priest gestured for the executioner to carry on.
Around 8.15 the trapdoors opened under the convicts’ feet. Haggerty and Holloway died on the instant, while the woman convulsively wrestled for some time before expiring. “Dying hard“, it was called at the time.

But the three hanged persons were not the only victims on that cold, deadly morning: suddenly the crowd started to move out of control like an immense tide.

The pressure of the crowd was such, that before the malefactors appeared, numbers of persons were crying out in vain to escape from it: the attempt only tended to increase the confusion. Several females of low stature, who had been so imprudent as to venture amongst the mob, were in a dismal situation: their cries were dreadful. Some who could be no longer supported by the men were suffered to fall, and were trampled to death. This was also the case with several men and boys. In all parts there were continued cries “Murder! Murder!” particularly from the female part of the spectators and children, some of whom were seen expiring without the possibility of obtaining the least assistance, every one being employed in endeavouring to preserve his own life. The most affecting scene was witnessed at Green-Arbour Lane,
nearly opposite the debtors’ door. The lamentable catastrophe which took place near this spot, was attributed to the circumstance of two pie-men attending there to dispose of their pies, and one of them having his basket overthrown, some of the mob not being aware of what had happened, and at the
same time severely pressed, fell over the basket and the man at the moment he was picking it up, together with its contents. Those who once fell were never more enabled to rise, such was the pressure of the crowd. At this fatal place, a man of the name of Herrington was thrown down, who had in his hand his younger son, a fine boy about twelve years of age. The youth was soon trampled to death; the father recovered, though much bruised, and was amongst the wounded in St. Bartholomew’s Hospital.

The following passage is especially dreadful:

A woman, who was so imprudent as to bring with her a child at the breast, was one of the number killed: whilst in the act of falling, she forced the child into the arms of the man nearest to her, requesting him, for God’s sake, to save its life; the man, finding it required all his exertion to preserve himself, threw the infant from him, but it was fortunately caught at a distance by anotner man, who finding it difficult to ensure its safety or his own, disposed of it in a similar way. The child was again caught by a person, who contrived to struggle with it to a cart, under which he deposited it until the danger was over, and the mob had dispersed.

Others managed to have a narrow escape, as reported by the 1807 Annual Register:

A young man […] fell down […], but kept his head uncovered, and forced his way over the dead bodies, which lay in a pile as high as the people, until he was enabled to creep over the heads of the crowd to a lamp-iron, from whence he got into the first floor window of Mr. Hazel, tallow-chandler, in the Old Bailey; he was much bruised, and must have suffered the fate of his companion, if he had not been possessed of great strength.

The maddened crowd left a scene of apocalyptic devastation.

After the bodies were cut down, and the gallows was removed to the Old Bailey yard, the marshals and constables cleared the streets where the catastrophe had occurred, when nearly one hundred persons, dead or in a state of insensibility, were found in the street. […] A mother was seen to carry away the body of her dead son; […] a sailor boy was killed opposite Newgate, by suffocation; in a small bag which he carried was a quantity of bread and cheese, and it is supposed he came some distance to witness the execution. […] Until four o’clock in the afternoon, most of the surrounding houses contained some person in a wounded state, who were afterwards taken away by their friends on shutters or in hackney coaches. At Bartholomew’s Hospital, after the bodies of the dead were stripped and washed, they were ranged round a ward, with sheets over them, and their clothes put as pillows under their heads; their faces were uncovered, and there was a rail along the centre of the room; the persons who were admitted to see the shocking spectacle, and identified many, went up on one side and returned on the other. Until two o’clock, the entrances to the hospital were beset with mothers weeping for their sons! wives for their husbands! and sisters for their brothers! and various individuals for their relatives and friends!

There is however one last dramatic twist in this story: in all probability, Hollow and Haggerty were really innocent after all.
Hanfield, the key witness, might have lied to have his charges condoned.

Solicitor James Harmer (the same Harmer who incidentally inspired Charles Dickens for Great Expectations), even though convinced of their culpability in the beginning, kept on investigating after the convicts death and eventually changed his mind; he even published a pamphlet on his own expenses to denounce the mistake made by the Jury. Among other things, he discovered that Hanfield had tried the same trick before, when charged with desertion in 1805: he had attempted to confess to a robbery in order to avoid military punishment.
The Court itself was aware that the real criminals had not been punished, for in 1820, 13 years after the disastrous hanging, a John Ward was accused of the murder of Steele, then acquitted for lack of evidence (see Linda Stratmann in Middlesex Murders).

In one single day, Justice had caused the death of dozens of innocent people — including the convicts.
Really one of the most unfortunate executions London had ever seen.

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I wrote about capital punsihment gone wrong in the past, in this article about Jack Ketch; on the same topic you can also find this post on ‘Bloody Murders’ pamphlets from Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (both articles in Italian only, sorry!).

Crucifixion workshop

I see before me crosses not all alike,
but differently made by different peoples:
some hang a man head downwards
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some force a stick upwards through his groin,
some stretch out his arms on a forked gibbet.
I see cords, scourges,
and instruments of torture for each limb and each joint:
but I see Death also.
(Seneca, Consolatio ad Marciam, translated by Aubrey Stewart)

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Easter is coming and, like every year, on Good Friday the believers will commemorate the Passion of Jesus, nailed to the wood on the Golgotha. Are we really sure that the traditional representation of Christ on the cross is realistic? After all, also in the endless variations of the punishment’s scene that art history has been producing for many centuries, there always seem to be some discrepancies: sometimes the nails are driven through the Redeemer’s hands and feet, sometimes through his wrists. This confusion goes back a long time ago, to the early, rough translations of the Gospel of John in which the Greek word for “limb” was misinterpreted as “hand“.

How exactly did the crucifixion take place? And what caused the death of the condemned person?
Both historian and scientists have tried to answer these questions.

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Coeval sources lead to the assumption that the word “crucifixion” in Latin and Greek referred to different methods of execution, such as the impalement and the tying on a simple tree, and most likely these methods varied according to time and place.
The only thing we know for sure is that it was the most humiliating, long and painful punishment provided for by the judicial system at that time (at least in the Mediterranean Basin). Cicero himself defined it as “
the most cruel and sombre of all punishments“: the sufferings of the condemned person, hanged naked and exposed to public ridicule, were prolonged as much as possible by means of drugged drinks (myrrh and wine) or mixtures of water and vinegar which served to quench one’s thirst, stanch bleeding, revive and so on.
In rare cases death was accelerated. This happened to keep law and order, because some friend or relative of the condemned person had intervened, or according to specific local customs: the two methods most frequently used to put an end to the pain of the crucified were the spear thrust to the heart, that Jesus himself is traditionally believed to have received, and the so-called
crucifragium, namely the fracture of the legs by means of hammers or sticks, in order to take every support away from the condemned person, who choked because of the hyperextension of the ribcage.

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Three kinds of crosses were used by Romans for judicial punishments at the time of Jesus: the crux decussata, or St Andrew’s cross, consisted of two stakes fastened to form a X; the crux commissa, with stakes forming a T-shape; the crux immissa, the most famous cross, in which the horizontal beam (patibulum) was placed at two-thirds of the length of the vertical one (stipes). This arrangement allowed to put up the so-called titulus, a notice including the personal details of the condemned person, the charge and the sentence.

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Another rather ascertained detail was the presence of a support half-way of the stipes, that was called sedile in Latin. It offered a support to the body of the condemned person, so that he/she could carry its weight without collapsing, thus preventing her/him from dying too fast. From sedile is apparently derived the phrase “to sit on the cross”. More complicated was the use of the suppedaneum, the support which the feet were nailed to and maybe rested on, often represented in paintings of the crucifixion but never mentioned in ancient manuscripts.

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Although we now know many details about the cross itself, the methods of fastening were debated for a long time. The only skeleton ever found of a person condemned to crucifixion (discovered in 1968 around Jerusalem) had fractured legs and a nail into the outside of the ankle, which suggests that the feet were tied to the sides of the cross. But this doesn’t resolve the doubts that for many centuries have been tormenting theologians and believers. Where were the nails exactly driven? Through the hands or the wrists? Were the feet nailed to the front or to the sides of the stipes? Were the legs upright or bent at the knee?

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It may seem strange but this matter was long debated also in the field of science, especially towards the end of the nineteenth century. Medical researchers could rely on a continuous supplying of corpses, and amputated arms and legs, to sieve different hypothesis.

The theory that the nails were driven through the wrists, precisely between carpus and radius, had the advantage that this method probably allowed to slice the thumb’s median nerve and long flexor tendon, but without affecting arteries nor fracturing bones. On the other side, the idea that the Redeemer had been nailed through the wrists was considered – if not exactly heretic – at least risky by a part of Christian scientists: it certainly meant to disprove most of the traditional representations, but there was much more at stake. The actual theological issue concerned the stigmata. If Jesus had been nailed through the wrists, how could we explain the wounds that invariably appeared on the palms of people in the odour of sanctity? Maybe Our Lord Himself (that used to inflict stigmata as a punishment, but also as a sign of blissfulness) didn’t know where the nails had been driven? To accept the wrists theory meant to admit that the stigmatized person had been more or less unconsciously influenced by a wrong iconography, and that the origin of the sores was anything but ultramundane…

In order to repress these ignominious assumptions, around 1900, Marie Louis Adolphe Donnadieu, professor at the Catholic Faculty of Sciences in Lyon, decided to try once and for all a true crucifixion. He nailed a corpse to a wooden board, and even by a single hand.

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According to professor Donnadieu, the cruel photograph of the dead hanging by an arm, published in his Le Saint Suaire de Turin devant la Science (1904), undoubtedly proved that Jesus’ hands could support his body on the cross. The other scientists should recant their theories once and for all; Donnadieu’s only regret was not a moral one, but concerned the fact that “the light in the photograph didn’t offer the best aesthetic conditions“.

Unfortunately his dramatic demonstration didn’t silence opponents, not even in the ranks of the Catholic. Thirty years later doctor Pierre Barbet, first surgeon at the Paris Saint Joseph Hospital, criticized Donnadieu’s experiment in his text La passion de Jésus Christ selon le chirurgien (1936): “The picture shows a pathetic body, small, bony and emaciated. […] The corpse that I had crucified, instead […] was absolutely fresh and fleshy“. In fact, also Barbet had started to nail corpses, but in a more serious and programmatic way than Donnadieu.

 

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The meticulous research of Pierre Barbet undoubtedly includes him among the pioneers (they were few, to be pedantic) of medical studies about the Crucifixion, concerning in particular the wounds that marked the Shroud of Turin. Barbet came to the conclusion that the man represented on the Shroud had been nailed through the wrists and not the palms; that in the Shroud’s mark the thumb was missing because the median nerve had been cut off by the nail; that the man of the Shroud died of suffocation, when legs and arms were no more capable of supporting him.

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The last hypothesis, that was considered as the most reliable for many decades, was disproven by the last great expert in crucifixion, the famous American forensic pathologist and anthropologist Frederick Zugibe. He mainly studied between the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s. He didn’t have corpses to nail in his garage (as you can imagine, the vogue for crucifying corpses in order to investigate this kind of questions had definitely died out) and he carried out his researches thanks to a team of volunteers. Incidentally, to find these volunteers was easier than expected, because the members of a Christian congregation near his home queued up to play the role of the Saviour.
Zugibe built a handmade cross on which he tied his test subjects, constantly measuring their body functions – pressure, heartbeat, respiration, etcetera. He concluded that Jesus didn’t die of asphyxia, but of traumatic shock and hypovolemia.

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To complete the picture, other scholars assumed different causes of death for a crucified person: heart attack, acidosis, arrhythmia, pulmonary embolism, but also infections, dehydration, wounds caused by animals, or a combination of these factors. Whatever the ultimate cause, there was clearly only one way to get down off the cross.

Regarding the notorious nails and their entry wound, Zugibe believed that the upper part of the palm was perfectly capable to support the weight of the body, without causing bone fractures. He proved his theorem many times in the course of some dissections in the laboratory.

 

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Then, after dozens of years, “an unbelievable and unexpected event, extremely meaningful, took place in the coroner’s office, confirming the existence of this passage [inside the hand]. A young woman had been brutally stabbed on her entire body. I found a defence wound on her hand, because she had raised it in the attempt to protect her face from the ferocious aggression. The examination of this wound on the hand proved that […] the blade had crossed the “Z” area and the point had gone out on the back of the wrist exactly as can be seen on the Shroud. A radiography of the area proved that there were no fractures at all!“.

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The fact that a pathologist gets excited to the point of using an exclamation mark, during a murder victim autopsy, while thinking about the correlations between a stab, the Shroud of Turin and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ… well, this is not surprising in the slightest. After all, at stake here are a thousand years of religious imagery.

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The English new edition of the text by Pierre Barbet is A Doctor at Calvary. The conclusions of Zugibe are summed up in his essay Pierre Barbet Revisited, that can be consulted online.

Il boia maldestro

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Londra, durante i circa trent’anni della Restaurazione (1660-1688), era una città in preda alla violenza, immersa in un clima di paranoia e terrore. Oltre ai “classici” crimini come furti, rapine, omicidi e via dicendo, si rischiava anche di venire denunciati come cattolici, o peggio ancora nemici della corona: i processi, religiosi e politici, colpivano chi non era devotamente aderente all’ortodossia anglicana, così come chi aveva avversato il ritorno di Re Carlo II. E la pena capitale era inflitta con inquietante leggerezza, soprattutto durante le famigerate “assise sanguinose” nel 1685, presiedute dal temibile giudice Jeffreys che mandò al patibolo quasi 300 uomini senza battere ciglio.

Dal 1666 al 1678, il più celebre fra i boia era certamente Jack Ketch. Forse di origini irlandesi, la sua data di nascita non si conosce, né si sa quale mestiere svolgesse prima di diventare carnefice della corona. Molto spesso gli aguzzini avevano una carriera di macellaio alle spalle, e in effetti Ketch mostrava una certa dimestichezza nello squartare i cadaveri dei condannati.

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All’epoca, infatti, la pena più severa fra tutte era riservata agli accusati di alto tradimento, e veniva denominata hanged, drawn and quartered: il condannato veniva legato a un’asse e trascinato da un cavallo fino alla pubblica piazza; qui, veniva completamente denudato e legato ad una scala in legno. (Per legge, le donne accusate del medesimo crimine andavano a questo punto arse vive – perché denudarle pubblicamente avrebbe offeso il comune pudore…).
Il collo veniva assicurato ad uno dei pioli della scala con una corda stretta a nodo corto, in modo da soffocare il suppliziato ma senza ucciderlo. Gli venivano tagliati pene e testicoli, e gettati in un braciere; ancora vivo, il condannato veniva poi sbudellato, e le sue viscere erano estratte dal boia che le bruciava di fronte ai suoi occhi. Infine si procedeva a decapitare il condannato, e a squartarne il corpo in quattro parti.

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Ma non era finita qui: i resti del giustiziato dovevano essere esposti in vari punti strategici di Londra, come ad esempio lungo il London Bridge o a Temple Bar, affinché servissero da monito. Ecco che Ketch procedeva quindi, nelle segrete della prigione di Newgate, chiamate appropriatamente Jack Ketch’s Kitchen, a bollire i “quarti” dei condannati. Nel 1661 un visitatore di nome Ellwood descrisse quanto vide, come in una scena di un moderno film horror: “teste venivano portate per essere bollite, dentro a sporchi cesti di vimini, e i boia compiaciuti e beffardi le canzonavano”. Le teste venivano gettate nelle pentole e bollite nella canfora per prevenire la putrefazione, prima di essere esposte nei luoghi di maggior passaggio.

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Ketch dovette occuparsi di diversi condannati a questo tipo di supplizio, perché quando Carlo II cominciò la restaurazione vennero mandati a morte tutti i regicidi (responsabili di aver firmato la condanna di Carlo I) che erano ancora in vita. Ma la maggior parte dei suoi servigi riguardavano le “semplici” impiccagioni, nelle quali eccelleva.

Purtroppo per lui, un punto debole Ketch ce l’aveva. Per quanto fosse a suo agio con cappi e coltelli, non sapeva proprio maneggiare l’ascia. A sua discolpa, c’è da dire che le decapitazioni erano relativamente rare e riservate ai nobili; fino a pochi anni prima, si faceva addirittura arrivare un boia dal Continente, esperto nell’utilizzo dell’ascia. Fatto sta che Ketch (a causa di tagli nel budget giudiziario?) si prese carico anche di quest’arte in cui non aveva alcuna esperienza, e che avrebbe macchiato per sempre il suo buon nome.

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Il primo grosso scandalo che riguardò il boia fu l’esecuzione di Lord Russell nel 1683. Secondo la legge, il nobiluomo andava decapitato con un solo fendente, e una volta sul patibolo Lord Russell pagò, com’era d’uso a quel tempo, una bella somma a Ketch affinché svolgesse il suo lavoro in maniera decisa e pulita.
Mai soldi furono spesi peggio.

Secondo alcuni, il boia esagerava spesso con l’alcol – abitudine che, come si sa, non aiuta la mira. Fatto sta che Ketch sollevò la mannaia, ma il colpo che si abbattè sul condannato ferì il collo senza staccare la testa; la seconda stoccata ancora una volta non bastò. Lord Russell era ancora vivo, fra spruzzi di sangue e urla disumane. Un altro paio di colpi, e finalmente la lama fece rotolare via la testa di Lord Russell. Quell’infinita agonia fu talmente straziante da impressionare perfino le folle abituate al sangue, che seguivano avidamente e con regolarità le esecuzioni. Ketch fu costretto a pubblicare un opuscolo intitolato Apologie, in cui si scusava per la barbarie dello spettacolo, adducendo come attenuante il fatto che Lord Russell aveva sbagliato a “posizionarsi nel modo corretto” sui ceppi.

Due anni dopo, venne il turno di James Scott, primo Duca di Monmouth, anch’egli condannato alla decapitazione. Il Duca rifiutò il cappuccio o qualsiasi altro trattamento di favore, e una volta sul patibolo allungò la solita, profumata mancia a Ketch. Le sue ultime parole furono: “Non servitemi come avete fatto con Lord Russell. Ho sentito che l’avete colpito tre o quattro volte…”

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Questa volta, se possibile, andò ancora peggio. Il primo fendente colpì addirittura la spalla del povero Duca; il secondo e il terzo non fecero che aprire nuove ferite non fatali. Fra i fischi della folla, Ketch depose l’ascia, deciso a lasciar perdere: lo fecero risalire sul patibolo a completare il lavoro. Ci vollero dai cinque agli otto colpi prima che il condannato finisse di soffrire. La gente era talmente inferocita che, se non ci fossero state le guardie a proteggerlo mentre si allontanava, Ketch sarebbe stato linciato sul posto.

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Un anno dopo, nel 1686, Ketch fu incarcerato per resistenza ad un ufficiale; il suo assistente, Paskah Rose, prese il suo posto ma venne arrestato dopo appena quattro mesi, per rapina. Una volta uscito di prigione, Ketch riprese la sua carica, e ricominciò proprio dall’impiccagione del suo assistente a Tyburn. Verso la fine dello stesso anno, Jack Ketch morì.

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A quanto si dice, Ketch fu un personaggio davvero spiacevole, costantemente ubriaco, ossessivamente avido di denaro, sempre pronto a lamentarsi del proprio compenso e a rivendere i vestiti dei condannati più nobili. Eppure, a causa delle sue ultime, maldestre performance, la figura di Ketch si guadagnò inaspettatamente un posto di rilievo nell’immaginario popolare: protagonista di ballate, poemi, pamphlet, citato da scrittori del calibro di Dickens, divenne il classico spauracchio per minacciare i bambini indisciplinati. E, grazie al tipico black humor inglese, entrò a far parte dei teatri di burattini della tradizione di Punch & Judy: in questi spettacoli, spesso il “boia pasticcione” viene ingannato e finisce immancabilmente per impiccarsi da solo.

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Bloody Murders

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Quando state entrando ad un concerto, o a uno spettacolo teatrale, vi viene consegnato il programma della serata. Una cosa simile accadeva, in Inghilterra, anche per un tipo particolare di spettacolo pubblico: le esecuzioni capitali.

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Nel XVIII e XIX Secolo, infatti, alcune stamperie e case editrici inglesi si erano specializzate in un particolare prodotto letterario. Venivano generalmente chiamati Last Dying Speeches (“ultime parole in punto di morte”) o Bloody Murders (“sanguinosi omicidi”), ed erano dei fogli stampati su un verso solo, di circa 50×36 cm di grandezza. Venivano venduti per strada, per un penny o anche meno, nei giorni precedenti un’esecuzione annunciata; quando arrivava il gran giorno, veniva preparata spesso un’edizione speciale per le folle che si assiepavano attorno al patibolo.

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Sull’unica facciata stampata si potevano trovare tutti i dettagli più scabrosi del crimine commesso, magari un resoconto del processo, e anche delle accattivanti illustrazioni (un ritratto del condannato, o del suo misfatto, ecc.). Usualmente il testo si concludeva con un piccolo brano in versi, spacciato per “le ultime parole” del condannato, che ammoniva i lettori a non seguire questo funesto esempio se volevano evitare una fine simile.

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La vita di questi foglietti non si esauriva nemmeno con la morte del condannato, perché nei giorni successivi all’esecuzione ne veniva stampata spesso anche una versione aggiornata con le ultime parole pronunciate dal condannato – vere, stavolta -, il racconto del suo dying behaviour (“comportamento durante la morte”) o altre succulente novità del genere.

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I Bloody Murders erano un ottimo business, appannaggio di poche stamperie di Londra e delle maggiori città inglesi: costavano poco, erano semplici e veloci da preparare, e alcune incisioni (ad esempio la figura di un impiccato in controluce) potevano essere riutilizzate di volta in volta. Il successo però dipendeva dalla tempestività con cui questi volantini venivano fatti circolare.

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Questi foglietti erano pensati per un target preciso, le classi medie e basse, e facevano leva sulla curiosità morbosa e sui toni iperbolici per attirare i loro lettori. Era un tipo di letteratura che anche le famiglie più povere potevano permettersi; e possiamo immaginarle, raccolte attorno al tavolo dopo cena, mentre chi tra loro sapeva leggere raccontava ad alta voce, per il brivido e il diletto di tutti, quelle violente e torbide vicende.

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La Harvard Law School Library è riuscita a collezionare più di 500 di questi rarissimi manifesti, li ha digitalizzati e messi online. Consultabili gratuitamente, possono essere ricercati secondo diversi parametri (per crimine, anno, città, parole chiave, ecc.) sul sito del Crime Broadsides Project.

I demoni di Loudun

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La piccola cittadina francese di Loudun, situata nella regione Poitou-Charentes, divenne nel 1600 il teatro di uno degli episodi storici più oscuri e affascinanti. Un affaire in cui politica, sesso e fanatismo religioso sono mescolati assieme in un torbido e inquietante ritratto dell’Europa del tempo.

La Francia, all’epoca, era sotto lo scettro di Luigi XIII, ma soprattutto del Cardinale Richelieu, suo primo ministro. Il progetto politico di Richelieu era quello di rendere la monarchia assoluta, assoggettando i nobili e reprimendo qualsiasi ribellione in nome della “ragione di Stato” (che permette di violare il diritto in nome di un bene più alto); dal punto di vista religioso, inoltre, si era in pieno periodo di Controriforma, e Richelieu doveva fare i conti con il pressante problema degli Ugonotti calvinisti, i protestanti francesi. Per far fronte al dilagare dei riformisti, Richelieu era pronto a una guerra senza esclusione di colpi.

Loudun era una città in cui da tempo serpeggiava il protestantesimo, ma a farla finire nell’occhio del ciclone fu il canonico della chiesa di Sainte-Croix, padre Urbain Grandier. Prete coltissimo e controverso, teneva dei sermoni infiammati a cui accorrevano le folle anche dalle città vicine: le posizioni di Grandier erano sempre sul filo del rasoio, il suo spirito era rivoluzionario e anticonformista, e non temeva di contraddire o attaccare i canoni della Chiesa o Richelieu stesso.

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Seduttore impenitente, Grandier aveva intrattenuto relazioni sessuali e affettive con diverse donne in maniera sempre più aperta e spavalda, fino ad arrivare a mettere incinta la figlia quindicenne del procuratore del Re. Dopo questo scandalo, incominciò una relazione con Madeleine de Brou, orfanella di nobile casata a cui egli faceva da guida spirituale; i due si innamorarono, e Urbain Grandier commise il primo dei suoi errori diplomatici. Avrebbe potuto mantenere nascosta la loro relazione, anche se in realtà le voci circolavano da mesi; invece, decise che avrebbe sposato Madeleine, in barba ai precetti della Romana Chiesa e della Controriforma. Scrisse un pamphlet intitolato Trattato contro il celibato dei preti, e in seguito officiò con la sua amata una messa di matrimonio, notturna e segretissima, in cui egli ricoprì il triplice ruolo di marito, testimone e prete. Arrestato, riuscì a vincere il processo e tornare a Loudun, ma le cose non si misero a posto così facilmente.

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Qui entra infatti in gioco Jeanne de Belcier, priora del convento di Suore Orsoline di Loudun, chiamata anche suor Jeanne des Anges. Anima tormentata, dedita secondo la sua stessa autobiografia al libertinaggio nei primi anni di clausura e in seguito duramente repressa e ossessionata dal sesso, la madre superiora comincia ad avere delle fantasie erotiche su Urbain Grandier dopo aver sentito parlare delle sue avventure amatorie, nonostante non l’abbia mai conosciuto di persona. Gli propone quindi di diventare il confessore della comunità delle Orsoline, ma padre Grandier rifiuta. La scelta di Jeanne cade quindi su padre Mignon, un canonico nemico giurato di Grandier che comincia fin da subito a complottare contro il prete. Nei dieci anni successivi, assieme ad alcuni nobili della città (incluso il padre della giovane che Grandier aveva ingravidato), intenterà diversi processi contro Grandier, accusandolo di empietà e di vita debosciata.

Nel 1631 la tensione politica si innalza, perché Richelieu ordina che il castello di Loudun sia distrutto. Egli infatti aveva appena fondato, poco distante, una cittadina che portava il suo stesso nome, e non desiderava affatto che Loudun rimanesse un covo di Ugonotti, per di più fortificato. Urbain Grandier si oppose strenuamente all’abbattimento delle mura, scrivendo violenti pamphlet contro Richelieu e ponendosi quindi in aperto contrasto con le disposizioni del cardinale. Loudun diventò così una roccaforte sotto virtuale assedio delle guardie del Re, e a peggiorare le cose all’inizio del 1632 arrivò una terribile epidemia di peste a colpire la città.

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Fu a partire da settembre di quell’anno che scoppiò il vero putiferio. Secondo gli storici Jeanne des Anges, la madre superiora del convento di Orsoline, era ancora fuori di sé per il rifiuto ricevuto da Grandier. Per vendicarsi, nel segreto del confessionale raccontò a padre Mignon che il prete aveva usato la magia nera per sedurla. Accodandosi a lei, diverse altre religiose dichiararono che il prete le aveva stregate, inviando loro dei demoni per costringerle a commettere atti impuri con lui. A poco a poco, le suore vennero prese da un’isteria collettiva. In una di queste crisi di possessioni demoniache, durante le quali le religiose si contorcevano in pose impudiche e urlavano oscenità e bestemmie, una suora fece il nome di Urbain Grandier.

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Fino a pochi anni prima una dichiarazione rilasciata da una persona posseduta dal demonio non sarebbe stata ritenuta legalmente valida, in quanto proveniente dalla bocca del “padre della menzogna” (Giovanni 8:44). Ma il famoso caso delle possessioni di Aix-en-Provence del 1611, il primo nel quale la testimonianza di un indemoniato era stata accolta come prova, aveva creato un precedente.

Grandier venne processato e inizialmente rilasciato, ma non poteva finire lì. Richelieu non aspettava di meglio per mettere a tacere una volta per tutte questo prete scomodo e apertamente indisciplinato, e ordinò un nuovo processo, affidandolo stavolta a un suo speciale inviato, Jean Martin de Laubardemont, parente di Jeanne des Anges; impose inoltre una “procedura straordinaria”, così da impedire che Grandier potesse appellarsi al Parlamento di Parigi. Il prete sovversivo era stato incastrato.

Interrogatorio

Urbain Grandier venne rasato (alla ricerca di eventuali marchi della Bestia) e sottoposto a tortura, in particolare con il terribile metodo dello “stivale”. Si trattava di una delle torture più crudeli e violente, tanto che, a detta dei testimoni, tutti i membri del Consiglio che la ordinava invariabilmente chiedevano di andarsene appena iniziata la procedura. Le gambe dell’accusato venivano inserite fra quattro plance di legno strette e solide, fermamente legate con una corda: dei cunei venivano poi battuti a colpi di martello fra le due tavolette centrali, imprimendo così una pressione crudele sulle gambe, le cui ossa si frantumavano a poco a poco. I cunei erano di norma quattro per la “questione ordinaria”, cioè il primo grado di inquisizione.

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Dopo la tortura, i giudici produssero alcuni documenti come prova dei patti infernali di Grandier. Uno dei documenti era in latino e sembrava firmato dal prete; un altro, praticamente illeggibile, mostrava una confusione di strani simboli e diverse “firme” di diavoli, incluso Lucifero stesso (“Satanas“).

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A questo punto, Grandier venne dichiarato colpevole e condannato a morte. Ma prima, i giudici ordinarono che si procedesse con la “questione straordinaria”. Grandier fu sottoposto nuovamente a tortura, questa volta con otto cunei a stritolargli le gambe. Nonostante le sofferenze, rifiutò di confessare e continuò a giurare di essere innocente. Venne quindi bruciato sul rogo il 18 agosto 1634. Le possessioni demoniache andarono scemando, e terminarono nel 1637.

Condanna

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Jeanne des Anges, vittima di stigmate a partire dal 1635 e poi miracolosamente guarita, godette di crescente reputazione fino ad ottenere addirittura la protezione di Richelieu in persona, garantendo così prosperità al convento. Jean Martin de Laubardemont, l’inviato del cardinale, divenne famoso per aver convertito numerosi protestanti. Il clamore del caso dei demoni di Loudun portò nella città una nuova ondata di curiosi e visitatori che diedero nuova spinta all’economia e al commercio. Richelieu, una volta morto Grandier, riuscì nel suo intento di distruggere il castello.

The Devils

La storia delle possessioni di Loudun è raccontata anche in un romanzo di Aldous Huxley, portato poi sullo schermo da Ken Russell nel suo capolavoro I Diavoli (1971), opera accusata di blasfemia, osteggiata, sequestrata e “maledetta”, tanto che ancora oggi è praticamente impossibile reperirne una copia non censurata.

(Grazie, Nicholas!)