Archive for the ‘Curiosities’ Category

A ChInese prisoner is interrogated by a magistrate. Engraving from Mason & Dadley's The Punishments of China (1901).

A Chinese prisoner – wearing the long pigtail, or queue, that was mandated for all indigenous subjects of the Celestial Empire – is interrogated by a Qing magistrate. Engraving from Mason & Dadley’s voyeuristic classic The Punishments of China (1901).

China, in the middle of the eighteenth century, was the largest nation in the world – and also, by a distance, the most prosperous. Under the rule of a strong emperor, Hungli, and a well-established family (the Qing, or Manchu, dynasty), the Middle Kingdom was by then half-way through the longest period of calm in its long history. It had grown larger, richer and more cultured, its borders reaching roughly their modern extent. But it had also grown vastly more crowded; political stability, and the introduction of new crops from the Americas, led to a doubling of the population to around 300 million.  At its peak, this growth was accelerating at an annual rate in excess of 13%.

This meant trouble, for it meant that wealth was far from evenly distributed. China remained a country of great contrasts: its ruling classes rich beyond the dreams of avarice, its peasants scraping a bare living from the soil. For those living at the bottom of the  food chain – both metaphorically and literally – starvation was a constant possibility, one that grew ever more starkly real the further one travelled from the rich agricultural floodplains around the Yangtze River. By the late 1760s, many peasants were forced to turn to begging to survive, wandering miles from their homes to throw themselves upon the mercy of strangers. Tens of thousands of such forced migrations led inevitably to conflict. They also led to one of the strangest outbreaks of panic and rumour known to history.

China under the Manchus, showing the growth of empire between 1644 and 1800. the soulstealing panic took place along the country's eastern coast, between the Yangtze and Beijing.

China under the Manchus, showing the empire’s growth between 1644 and 1800. The soulstealing panic took place along the country’s eastern coast, between the Yangtze and Beijing. Click to view in larger resolution.

Among the hundreds of victims of this panic was an itinerant beggar by the name of Chang-ssu, who came from  the province of Shantung. Chang-ssu travelled in company with his 11-year-old son, and between them the pair made an insecure living by singing a romantic folk song, ‘Lotus petals fall,’ to crowds of peasants whom they drummed up in their wanderings from village to village. By the end of July 1768, the two beggars had got as far as the gates of Hsu-chou, a city about 200 miles south of their home, when – at least according to Chang-ssu’s later confession – they were accosted by a tall man whom they did not know. The stranger asked them what they did for a living and, on hearing that they begged, he offered them employment – 500 cash for every peasant pigtail they could clip. (The cash was the imperial currency at the time; 500 cash was worth approximately half an ounce of silver.) The stranger refused to tell Chang-ssu and his son what he wanted the hair for, but he did offer them some help: a pair of scissors and a small packet of powder which, he explained, was a “stupefying drug.” Sprinkle the powder on the head of a victim and he would fall to the ground insensible. Then his pigtail – or queue – could easily be clipped.

The work sounded easy enough, and Chang-ssu accepted the commission – so he said. He and the stranger parted, making arrangements to meet up again later on the border with a neighbouring province, and father and son continued on their way, making for the city of Su-chou. In the course of their journey, at a village named Chao, they tried the stupefying powder on a local labourer. Gratifyingly, the man collapsed; Chang-ssu took out his scissors, snipped off the end of the man’s queue, and tucked scissors and the hair in his travelling pack. The beggars did not get far, however. Only a mile or two outside the village they were overtaken by a group of constables, arrested and hauled off to the county jail – suspected, they were told, of the vile crime of soulstealing.  (more…)

Read Full Post »

A photo sometimes said to depict members of Chiloé’s murderous society of warlocks—founded, so they claimed, in 1786 and destroyed by the great trial of 1880-81.

A photo sometimes said to depict members of Chiloé’s murderous society of warlocks—founded, so they claimed, in 1786 and destroyed by the great trial of 1880-81.

When the Sect needs a new Invunche, the Council of the Cave orders a Member to steal a boy child from six months to a year old. The Deformer, a permanent resident of the Cave, starts work at once. He disjoints the arms and legs and the hands and feet. Then begins the delicate task of altering the position of the head. Day after day, and for hours at a stretch, he twists the head with a tourniquet until it has rotated through an angle of 180, that is until the child can look straight down the line of its own vertebrae.

There remains one last operation, for which another specialist is needed. At full moon, the child is laid on a work-bench, lashed down with its head covered in a bag. The specialist cuts a deep incision under the right shoulder blade. Into the hole he inserts the right arm and sews up the wound with thread taken from the neck of a ewe. When it has healed the Invunche is complete.

The world’s last great witch trial took place as recently as 1880. It was held on the remote Chilean island of Chiloé, and featured remarkable allegations of mass murder, child mutilation and sorcery, all committed in the name of a strange sort of alternative government known as La Provincia Recta – ‘The Righteous Province’ – a sect of warlocks, based in a hidden cave and given to flying about the island wearing magical waistcoats stitched from the flayed skin of the recently deceased.

The native Chilotes believed these warlocks had real powers. Bruce Chatwin, in In Patagonia, wrote a memorable description of their rites and rituals. (And fans of Swamp Thing era Alan Moore will spot the source of one of his more disturbing plots.) But – truly unusual though the story is, was it ever rooted in reality? This week’s Smithsonian essay explores the evidence. But it’s not for the faint-hearted.

Read Full Post »

A plan of Baiae’s mysterious “Oracle of the Dead,” showing the complex layout of the tunnels and their depth below ground level.

In 1932, the entrance to a hitherto unknown tunnel was discovered in the ruins of the old Roman resort of Baiae, on the Bay of Naples. Packed with rubble, wreathed in choking gases, and heated to more than 120 degrees Fahrenheit by nearby magma chambers, it was difficult and dangerous to excavate. But when, after 10 long years of work, the amateur team exploring it finally broke through to lower levels, they uncovered something truly remarkable: a complex, pre-dating the Romans, built around a boiling underwater stream that seemed to have been designed to ape a visit to the Greeks’ mythical underworld.

Who built the tunnels at Baiae – and for what purpose? When and why were they blocked up? And do the theories proposed by the discoverers really add up? This week’s Smithsonian essay weighs the evidence.

Read Full Post »

The Land of Cockaigne, in an engraving after a 1567 painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Cockaigne was a peasant’s vision of paradise that tells us much about life in the medieval and early modern periods. A sure supply of rich food and plenty of rest were the chief aspirations of those who sang the praises of this idyllic land.

Men and women have always dreamed of paradise – and for many, in the years before the world was fully explored, it was somewhere that might have a physical existence in some distant corner of the earth. This week’s Smithsonian essay takes a look at what’s been said about an earthly arcadia, from the medieval Land of Cockaigne (a villein’s playground that offered a mirror image of life as it was led in this period, with plenty of rest, a ban on work, and food that literally threw itself into the mouths of inhabitants) to Russia’s much more spiritual peasant paradise, Belovode, the “Kingdom of White Waters.” More intriguingly, it tracks some of the many very real expeditions that set out over the years to locate these lands of dreams – and focuses on one especially remarkable myth in particular: widespread belief among the first Irish convicts who were transported to Australia that it was possible to walk from the penal colony near Sydney all the way to sanctuary China.

Read Full Post »

Port Louis, Mauritius, August 1782. The French Indian Ocean colony—highly vulnerable to British attack at the height of the American Revolutionary War—is in a state of alert. The governor, Viscomte François de Souillac, has been warned that a flotilla of 11 ships is approaching his island. Fearing that this is the long-awaited invasion fleet, De Souillac orders a sloop-of-war out to reconnoiter. But before the vessel can report, the panic ends. De Souillac is informed that the fleet has altered course and is now steering away from Mauritius. A few days later, when the sloop returns, the governor gets confirmation: the ships were actually East Indiamen, British merchant vessels making for Fort William in India.

All this is remarkable chiefly for the source of De Souillac’s intelligence. The governor had his information not from signals made by ships sailing far offshore, nor from land-based lookouts armed with high-powered telescopes, but from a minor member of the local engineering corps, one Étienne Bottineau. And Bottineau was chiefly renowned in Mauritius (or “Île de France,” to give it its contemporary French name) as a man who won a lot of bets in waterfront taverns thanks to his uncanny ability to foresee the arrival of ships that were anywhere from 350 to 700 miles from the island when he announced their approach.

Read Full Post »

The Great Pyramid–built for the Pharaoh Khufu in about 2570 B.C., sole survivor of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, and still arguably the most mysterious structure on the planet.

No structure in the world is more mysterious than the Great Pyramid. But who first broke into its well-guarded interior, and when? And what did they find there?

A reinvestigation of a neglected mystery. Old Arab accounts say that it was the Caliph Ma’mun who first broke into the Great Pyramid in 820 AD – driving a new tunnel into the north face of the monument and, by an astounding coincidence, striking the interior network of passages at precisely the point where the hidden upper network of tunnels leading to the King’s Chamber branches off from the main descending passage.

How credible is this story? Why has every writer on the pyramids since the mid-nineteenth century misdated Ma’mun’s visit to Giza by more than a decade? And what exactly is the lost source for some of the most remarkable of the details given in traditional accounts?

Fresh research in medieval Muslim chronicles provides at least some of the answers… and you can read the full story here.

Read Full Post »

Early on the morning of 18 February 1848, two men and a woman walked into the square in front of the Porte de Hal, in Brussels [below left], where a public execution was due to take place shortly after dawn. They were there to conduct a ground-breaking scientific study, and, by prior arrangement with the Belgian penal authorities, were permitted to climb onto the scaffold and wait next to the guillotine at the spot where the severed heads of two condemned criminals were scheduled to drop into a blood red sack.

One of the men was Antoine Joseph Wiertz, a well known Belgian painter and also a fine hypnotic subject. With him were his friend, Monsieur D_____, a noted hypnotist, and a witness. Wiertz’s purpose on that winter’s day was to carry out a unique and extraordinary experiment. Long haunted by the desire to know whether a severed head remained conscious after a guillotining, the painter had agreed to be hypnotised and instructed to identify himself with a man who was about to be executed for murder.

Wiertz – the plan went – ‘was to follow [the murderer’s] thoughts and feel any sensations, which he was to express aloud. He was also ‘suggested’ to take special note of mental conditions during decapitation, so that when the head fell in the basket he could penetrate the brain and give an account of its last thoughts.’ [Shepard II, 648]  And, incredible as it may seem to us, his scheme appeared to work – indeed, it worked rather too well. As soon as the tumbrel carrying the condemned men to their deaths appeared, Wiertz began to panic. ‘It seemed to the painter that the guillotine’s blade was cleaving his own flesh. It crushed his spine and tore his spinal cord.’ It was not until killers ascended the scaffold that Wiertz recovered himself sufficiently to ‘ask Monsieur D to put me in rapport with the cut off head, by means of whatever new procedures seemed appropriate to him… He made some preparations and we waited, not without excitement, for the fall of a human head.’

As the large crowed watched for the fatal moment, though, it became clear that the painter was still identifying all too closely with his subject’s extreme predicament. Wiertz ‘became entranced almost immediately and… manifested extreme distress and begged to be demagnetised, as his sense of oppression was insupportable. It was too late, however – the knife fell.’ [Wiertz pp.491-2; Benjamin p.250; Shepherd op.cit.]

The Porte du Hal, Brussels. Once part of the city walls, later a prison, and in 1848 site of Wiertz’s unusual experiment with a severed head. 

We’ll return to Antoine Wiertz and his severed head in a moment. First, though, let’s sketch in a little of the background of this unfortunately macabre tale. Versions of the implement we now know as the guillotine have been around for hundreds of years – since the 1520s at least, and arguably as early as the first years of the fourteenth century. [Laurence p.70]  For much of that time, and certainly since the name of Dr Joseph-Ignace Guillotin became indelibly associated with it at the time of the French Revolution, there has been speculation as to just how painless and how quick death by this invention really is. It’s fair to say that – at least among that small handful who have given the subject proper thought – there has long been a suspicion, amounting in some cases to near certainty, that a head may retain consciousness, however briefly, after its severing. The subject was considered as early as 1796 in a French pamphlet, Anecdotes sur les Décapités, and again, briefly, in English, by John Wilson Croker in his History of the Guillotine (1853). Doctors, for the most part, insisted that the shock of the blade must cause immediate unconsciousness, and that loss of the blood supply to the brain brings on actual death a matter of seconds later – there is a cardiologists’ maxim that when a heart stops, the brain can retain consciousness for no more than four seconds if the person concerned is standing, eight if he is sitting, and 12 if he is lying down. That implies that any movements of a detached noggin’s eyes or lips “are merely convulsive, and that the severed head does not feel.” [Wilson p.115]  But, over the years, a small and frankly dubious body of evidence has accumulated to suggest this view is wrong, and that – in a handful of cases at least – the severed head remains aware of what has happened to it.

There’s no denying that this awful thought is gruesomely compelling, in much the same way as is the idea of being buried alive. It has a “My God, what if that happened to me?” quality about it. And, while it was never Guillotin’s intention to do anything other than supply a humane alternative to the notoriously slow and painful business of executing criminals by rope or axe (and hardly the good doctor’s fault that the fascination of a device designed solely to kill makes the guillotine – like the gas chamber and the electric chair – at least as horrifying as a gallows in its own mechanically ingenious way), the fact remains that the device became a victim of its own success. It was so quick, so clean, so bloodily final that it was hard for an execution-going public accustomed to the protracted struggles of a hanged man to believe that life could be extinguished quite so swiftly.

Murky and unsubstantiated rumours concerning the survival of consciousness in severed heads swirled through France throughout the nineteenth century, and it is not hard to find versions of the same stories today in the less reputable crannies of the internet. For example, tall tales about at least two of the guillotine’s most noted victims abound: Lavoisier, the chemist, is supposed to have agreed with an assistant that he would blink as many times as he could after his execution in 1794 – and the assistant is said to have counted 15 or 20 blinks, at the rate of one a second. Similarly, when the executioner held up the head of Charlotte Corday, who had stabbed Marat in his bath, and delivered a sharp slap to its cheek, the head is said – on the authority of one Dr Sue – to have blushed and displayed “unequivocal marks of indignation.” [Croker p.70; Gelbart p.201]  Neither story, though, rests on a solid contemporary source.

Despite such early manifestations of interest in the subject, moreover, it remains equally difficult to uncover reputable sources for several nineteenth- and early twentieth-century incidents in which doctors are popularly believed to have conducted some gruesomely suggestive experiments to finally answer the question. Accounts of several such experiments can be found in the secondary literature – see, for example, Richard Zacks’s influential counterculture classic An Underground Education, and most texts mention tests supposedly done on the head of “a necrophile rapist by the name of Prunier,” or the story of an unnamed doctor who took an unknown head and pumped it full of blood from a vivisected dog. The cultural historian Philip Smith, who dissects several such tales, suggests they form little more than “a stubborn counter-discourse of wild speculation and morbid popular inquiry” [Smith p.139] – and he has a valid point, for the most part. Yet some quite extensive digging does eventually reveal that at least three sets of experiments on severed heads really were carried out in France between 1879 and 1905, albeit with less than spectacular results. Since these cases form a useful counterpoint to the experiences of Antoine Wiertz, it seems a good idea to summarise them briefly here.

•   On 13 November 1879, a father-and-son duo, Drs E. and G. Descaisne, witnessed the execution of Théotime Prunier, who had been found guilty of the rape and subsequent murder of an elderly woman at Beauvais. A report in the British Medical Journal, 13 December 1879, notes that the doctors were given ready access to the killer’s head and “tried certain experiments” on it, concluding: “We have ascertained, as far as it is humanly possible to do so, that the head of the criminal in question had no semblance whatever of the sense of feeling; that the eyes lost the power of vision; and, in fact, the head was perfectly dead to all intents and purposes.” A fuller report, published in the Gazette Médicale de Paris, noted some of the tests the doctors subjected the head to: shouting “Prunier!” in the dead man’s ear, pinching his cheek, inserting a brush soaked with ammonia into his nostrils, pricking the face with needles, and holding a lighted candle to an eyeball. Since secondary sources invariably stress that these experiments were conducted only moments after Prunier’s head was severed, the complete lack of any response might be considered good evidence for the conventional medical view that shock causes instant unconsciousness and death. The key detail in this instance, however, is one reported by the BMJ: the doctors took charge of the killer’s head only “about five minutes after the execution.” This suggests that the experiments must be regarded as inconclusive; even the most optimistic proponent of the idea that a head remains briefly alive after severing rarely suggests that consciousness endures for more than 15 or 20 seconds at best. [Everard & Decaisne pp.629-30; Verplaeste p.372; Gerould p.55]

• A year later, in September 1880 – at least according to the later account of a certain Dr Dassy de Lignères, of whom nothing else seems to be known – some experiments were conducted on the head of a particularly unpleasant murderer named Louis Menesclou. Menesclou, who had lured a little girl into his room with a spray of violets, raped her and killed her, was a man “of limited intelligence… frequently guilty of sexual perversity” – as suggested by the fact that he then dismembered his victim; parts of her body were found in his pockets. [London Evening News, 15 October 1888; Stewart]  In this case, apparently, Dassy de Lignères was provided with his head three hours after the execution, and claimed to have connected the principal veins and arteries to a supply of blood provided by a living dog. A quarter of a century later, when the doctor gave an interview to the French newspaper Le Matin (3 March 1907), he claimed that colour almost immediately returned to the face, the lips swelled and the dead man’s features “sharpened.” Perhaps. What’s really incredible is Dassy de Lignères’ insistence that “as the transfusion proceeded, suddenly, unmistakably, for a period of two seconds, the lips stammered silently, the eyelids twitched and worked, and the whole face wakened into an expression of shocked amazement. I affirm… that for those two seconds, the brain thought.” This reads as either spectacularly shoddy research or, more likely, simple sensationalism on the part of either the doctor or the newspaper.


• Finally, on 30 June 1905, Dr Gabriel Beaurieux obtained permission to attend the guillotining of Henri Languille, a “bandit who had terrorised the Beauce and the Gatinais [in the valley of the Loing, between Paris and Orléans] for several years.” [Morain p.300]  His report concluded that Languille retained some form of consciousness for about half a minute after his execution:

“The head fell on the severed surface of the neck and I did not therefore have to take it up in my hands, as all the newspapers have vied with each other in repeating; I was not obliged even to touch it in order to set it upright. Chance served me well for the observation which I wished to make.

“Here, then, is what I was able to note immediately after the decapitation: the eyelids and lips of the guillotined man worked in irregularly rhythmic contractions for about five or six seconds. This phenomenon has been remarked by all those finding themselves in the same conditions as myself for observing what happens after the severing of the neck…

“I waited for several seconds. The spasmodic movements ceased. The face relaxed, the lids half closed on the eyeballs, leaving only the white of the conjunctiva visible, exactly as in the dying whom we have occasion to see every day in the exercise of our profession, or as in those just dead. It was then that I called in a strong, sharp voice: “Languille!” I saw the eyelids slowly lift up, without any spasmodic contractions – I insist on this peculiarity – but with an even movement, quite distinct and normal, such as happens in everyday life, with people awakened or torn from their thoughts.


“Next Languille’s eyes very definitely fixed themselves on mine and the pupils focused themselves. I was not, then, dealing with the sort of vague dull look without any expression, that can be observed any day in dying people to whom one speaks: I was dealing with undeniably living eyes which were looking at me. “After several seconds, the eyelids closed again, slowly and evenly, and the head took on the same appearance as it had had before I called out.

“It was at that point that I called out again and, once more, without any spasm, slowly, the eyelids lifted and undeniably living eyes fixed themselves on mine with perhaps even more penetration than the first time. The there was a further closing of the eyelids, but now less complete. I attempted the effect of a third call; there was no further movement – and the eyes took on the glazed look which they have in the dead.

“I have just recounted to you with rigorous exactness what I was able to observe. The whole thing had lasted twenty-five to thirty seconds.” [Anon, ‘Revue des journaux…’]

This is the best – indeed the only apparently credible, medically attested – evidence for the survival of any sort of consciousness in the head of an executed man, so it is important to note that the anonymous author of the Bois De Justice site, which features some excellent research into the history of the guillotine, questions whether the experiment on Languille actually took place as claimed. There are at least two reasons to doubt accounts of this execution: first, a widely circulated photo [above left] showing the condemend man standing by the guillotine is, in fact, a clumsy fake, with the figures painted in – as can be demonstrated by an examination of the original snap [above right]; second, the doctor’s presence is not mentioned in contemporary newspaper coverage, and Beaurieux’s account does not mesh with the actual photos taken on the day, which show no horizontal surface on which the severed head could possibly have fallen before it entered the waiting bucket. To have conducted his experiment, the doctor would have had to pull the head from the bucket by hand.

Bearing those mixed results in mind, then, let’s return to the Porte de Hal in Brussels in February 1848 (and you’ll note that the experiments of Antoine Wiertz predated all three of the French experiments outlined above.) According to Wiertz’s biographer, the subject of his study was a nasty and incompetent burglar by the name of François Rosseel, who had – with his accomplice Guillelme Vandenplas – broken into the apartment of Rosseel’s landlady, Mlle. Evanpoel, the previous September and bludgeoned her and two female servants to death for the sake of a few hundred francs. This crime horrified all Belgium, and Wiertz followed the resulting newspaper coverage intently, suggesting that his choice of the double execution of Mlle. Evanpoel’s murderers for his experiment was a deliberate one. [Anon, Causes Célèbres… I, 109-16; Annales de l’Université de Bruxelles pp.173-5; Van der Haeghen, V, 94; Watteau p.232; Metdepenningen]

As Rosseel’s head rolled into the sack in front of him, anyway, the hypnotised Wiertz was asked to place himself inside the dying brain. The description that follows is drawn from the text that the artist himself wrote to accompany a triptych that he later painted to illustrate his experience, which was, in turn, incorporated into that work in the form of a painted inscription on a trompe-l’oeil frame and printed, later, in the first catalogue of his work. The description is rather long and rather overwrought, and part of it is in the first person, as Wiertz [below left] describes what he identifies as Rosseel’s own final thoughts. It has been somewhat abbreviated here, and several sharply differing versions of the text have been merged as best I am able to reconcile them. [Watteau pp.132-41; Benjamin pp.250-2; Shepard II, 648]:

Monsieur D_____ took me by the hand… led me before the twitching head, and asked: ‘‘What do you feel? What do you see?’ Agitation prevented me from answering him on the spot. But right after that I cried in the utmost horror: “Terrible! The head thinks!” … It was as if an oppressive nightmare held me in its spell. The head of the executed man thought, saw, suffered. And I saw what he saw, understood what he thought, and felt what he suffered. How long did it last? Three minutes, they told me. The executed man must have thought: three hundred years.

What the man killed in this way suffers, no human language can express. I wish to limit myself here to reiterating the answers I gave to all the questions during the time that I felt myself in some measure identical to the severed head.

First minute: On the scaffold

A horrible buzzing noise… It’s the sound of the blade descending. The victim believes that he has been struck by lightning, not the axe.

Astonishingly, the head lies here under the scaffold and yet still believes it is above, still believes itself to be part of the body, and still waits for the blow that will cut it off.

Horrible choking! No way to breathe. The asphyxia is appalling. It comes from an inhuman, supernatural hand, weighing down like a mountain on the head and neck… Oh, even more horrible suffering lies before him.

A cloud of fire passes before his eyes. Everything is red and glitters.

Second minute: Under the scaffold

Now comes the moment when the executed man thinks he is stretching his cramped, trembling hands towards the dying head. It is the same instinct that drives us to press a hand against a gaping wound. And it occurs with the intention, the dreadful intention, of setting the head back on the trunk, to preserve a little blood, a little life.

Delirium redoubles his strength and energy.

In his imagination, it seems that his head is on fire and spins in a dizzying motion, that the universe collapses and turns with it, that a phosphorescent liquid swirls around and merges with his skull… In a moment more, his head is plunging into the depths of eternity.

But is it only the body that writhes and cries out in anguish, which produces the torture suffered by the guillotine? No, because here comes the intellectual and moral agony. The heart, which beats in his chest, is still beating in the brain.

That’s when a crowd of images, each more terrible than the others, crowd into a soul beaten by the fiery breath of nameless pain. The guillotined head sees his coffin, sees his trunk and limbs collapse, ready to be enclosed in the wooden box in which thousands of worms are about to devour his flesh. Physicians explore the tissue of his neck with the tip of a scalpel. Every nick is a bite of fire.

He sees his judges, too…  They sit well served at a table, talking  quietly of business and pleasure…

The exhausted brain sees… the smallest of his children close to him. Oh! he likes that. That’s him: his hair blond and curly, his little cheeks round and pink … And meanwhile, he feels the brain continue to sink and feels sharp stabs of pain…

Third minute: In eternity

It is not yet dead. The head still thinks and suffers.

Suffers fire that burns, suffers the dagger that dismembers, suffers the poison that cramps, suffers in the limbs, as they are sawn through, suffers in his viscera, as they are torn out, suffers in his flesh, as it is hacked and trampled down, suffers in his bones, which are slowly boiled in bubbling oil. All this suffering put together still cannot convey any idea of what the executed man is going through.

And here a thought makes him stiff with terror:

Is he already dead and must he suffer like this from now on? Perhaps for all eternity?…

No, such suffering cannot endure for ever; God is merciful. All that belongs to earth is fading away. He sees in the distance a little light glittering like a diamond. He feels a calm stealing over him. What a good sleep he shall have! What joy!”

Human existence fades way from him. It seems to him slowly to become one with the night. Now just a faint mist – but even that recedes, dissipates, and disappears. Everything goes black… The beheaded man is dead.

It is difficult to know how best to handle Wiertz’s bizarre evidence. How much of his remarkable experience was noted down at the time remains uncertain; the painter did not actually produce the strange triptych he entitled Dernières pensées et visions d’une tête coupee (Last Thoughts and Visions of a Decapitated Head) [right]  until five years later, in 1853, so he had plenty of time to think through the events of 1848 again and again, perhaps so often that his recollections became distorted, romanticised, exaggerated and unreliable – if they ever were reliable in the first place, that is.

Wiertz’s impressions, too, were so vivid, so melodramatic, that it hard to believe that they did not come to him as he penetrated a dying brain, but were actually generated somewhere deep within his own morbid imagination. For this, after all, was a painter whose works scandalised contemporaries, and is nowadays pretty much ignored (the Musée Wiertz, in Brussels, based in the painter’s old studio, currently averages no more than 10 visitors a day, “many of them dragooned in school parties.” [Anon, ‘A Belgian national champion’]). A look at some of his other works certainly reveals an obsession with death; they include Two Young Ladies (which depicts a naked beauty contemplating a skeleton), Premature Burial (in which an anguished figure bursts from a coffin lying in a crypt) and – perhaps the most over-the-top of many over-the-top creations – Ravishing of a Belgian Woman. In this last painting, as one critic remarks, “Wiertz breaks with convention by equipping his heroine with a pistol (although not with any clothes). She duly shoots the soldier molesting her, causing his head to explode, an event Wiertz depicts in gory detail.” [Ibid]

Last Thoughts and Visions of a Decapitated Head survives, although in a sadly decayed state; it was painted in an experimental style that has not stood up at all well to the passage of the years. A close look at its three panels reveals that they correspond quite closely to the description Wiertz left of his experiences on the Brussels scaffold. The severed head of Rosseel can be seen tumbling down in the bottom right hand corner of the central panel, and, in the third and final portion of the triptych, the murderer’s slide into eternity can still just be discerned.

And if Antoine Wiertz’s pioneering experiment remains little more than an enigmatic anomaly, and he himself is long forgotten, there is at least a delicious irony in the tail end of his career. A few years before his death, while at the height of his fame, Wiertz wrote to the Belgian government, offering to exchange 220 of his largest and most gaudy paintings for a “huge, comfortable and well-lit studio” to be funded by the state. Remarkably, the interior minister of the day agreed to this presumptuous request, though the government baulked at the idea of setting Wiertz up in expensive premises in the centre of the capital.

Instead, the painter was provided with a new studio in a cheap and dismal suburb, albeit one that the artist cheerfully predicted might someday become “the centre of an immense and rich population.” He may have been a rotten painter, wrong about hypnotism, and wildly out of his depth in experimental parapsychology, but Antoine Wiertz was at least right about that. Today, the little-visited Musée Wiertz stands no more than 20 metres from the very centre of Europe, in the shape of the gleaming towers of the European Parliament. And that monolith’s address? The Parliament stands proudly on Rue Wiertz. [Ibid]


Anon. ‘A Belgian national champion.’ The Economist, 9 July 2009.

____. Annales de l’Université de Bruxelles: Faculté de Médecine. Brussels: Université Libre, 1880.

____. Causes Célèlebres de Tous les Peoples. Brussels: Libraries Ethnographique, 1849.

____. La Belgique Judiciaire: Gazettes des Tribunaux Belges et Étrangers. Brussels, np. Volume 9, 1851 .

____. ‘Letters, notes, and answers to correspondents.’ British Medical Journal, January 1880.

____. ‘Revue des journaux et sociétés savantes execution de Languille. Observation prise immédiatement après décapitation. Communiquée à la Société de médecine du Loiret le 19 juillet 1905…’ Archives de l’Anthropologie Criminelle, de Criminologie et de Psychologie Normale et Pathologique. Volume 20 (1905).

____. ‘Special correspondence. Paris.’ British Medical Journal, 13 December 1879.

‘A medical man’. ‘A theory of the Whitechapel murders.’ Evening News, 15 October 1888.

M. Auberive. Anecdotes sur les Décapités. Paris: Sobry, 1796.

Walter Benjamin. The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media. Cambridge [MA]: Harvard University Press, 2008.

John Wilson Croker. History of the Guillotine. Revised from the ‘Quarterly Review’. London: John Murray, 1853.

Everard & G. Decaisne. ‘Expériences physiologiques sur un décapité.’ Gazette Médicale de Paris, 1879.

Nina Rattner Gelbart. ‘The blonding of Charlotte Corday.’ Eighteenth Century Studies vol.38 (2004).

Daniel Gerould. Guillotine. Its Legend and Lore. New York: Blast Books, 1993.

Louis Labarre. Antoine Wiertz: Etude Biographique Avec les Lettres de l’Artiste et la Photographie du Patrocle. Brussels: Muequardt, 1867.

John Laurence. A History of Capital Punishment. New York: Citadel Press, 1960.

Marc Metdepenningen. ‘L’effroyable triple crime de la place Saint-Géry.’ Le Soir (Brussels), 12 July 2006.

Alfred Morain. The Underworld of Paris: Secrets of the Sûreté. London: Jarrolds, 1930.

Leslie Shepard [ed]. The Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology. Detroit: Gale Research, 1984.

Philip Smith. Punishment and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Harry E. Stewart. ‘Jean Genet’s favourite murders.’ The French Review vol.60 no.5 (1987)

Ferdinand Van der Haeghen. Bibliographie Gantoise. Recherches Sur la Vie et les Travaux des Imprimeurs de Gand (1483-1850). Ghent: privately published, 1860.

Jan Verplaetse. Localizing the Moral Sense: Neuroscience and the Search for the Cerebral Seat of Morality, 1800-1930. Dordrecht: Springer, 2009.

Antoine Joseph Wiertz. Oeuvres Littéraires. Brussels: Parent et Fils, 1869.

Louis Watteau. Catalogue Raisoné du Musée Wiertz. Brussels: Musées Royeux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, 1865.

Andrew Wilson. ‘Leaves from the notebook of a naturalist.’ Part X.  The Living Age, vol.31, 1851.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »