Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Dickens in Rome: An Execution

Dickens in Rome: An Execution

In 1845, whilst in Rome, Dickens witnessed an execution of a murderer. The murder itself was callous and brutal. A thief trailed, robbed then killed an elderly Bavarian lady on her way by foot and travelling alone whilst on pilgrimage to Rome. The execution is described in a quite matter of fact way - which seems to be the attitude of the spectators. He writes as follows:

" Then my tired memory comes out upon a flight of steps, where knots of people are asleep, or basking in the light; and strolls away, among the rags, and smells, and palaces, and hovels, of an old Italian street.

On one Saturday morning (the eighth of March), a man was beheaded here. Nine or ten months before, he had waylaid a Bavarian countess, travelling as a pilgrim to Rome—alone and on foot, of course—and performing, it is said, that act of piety for the fourth time. He saw her change a piece of gold at Viterbo, where he lived; followed her; bore her company on her journey for some forty miles or more, on the treacherous pretext of protecting her; attacked her, in the fulfilment of his unrelenting purpose, on the Campagna, within a very short distance of Rome, near to what is called (but what is not) the Tomb of Nero; robbed her; and beat her to death with her own pilgrim’s staff. He was newly married, and gave some of her apparel to his wife: saying that he had bought it at a fair. She, however, who had seen the pilgrim-countess passing through their town, recognised some trifle as having belonged to her. Her husband then told her what he had done. She, in confession, told a priest; and the man was taken, within four days after the commission of the murder.

There are no fixed times for the administration of justice, or its execution, in this unaccountable country; and he had been in prison ever since. On the Friday, as he was dining with the other prisoners, they came and told him he was to be beheaded next morning, and took him away. It is very unusual to execute in Lent; but his crime being a very bad one, it was deemed advisable to make an example of him at that time, when great numbers of pilgrims were coming towards Rome, from all parts, for the Holy Week. I heard of this on the Friday evening, and saw the bills up at the churches, calling on the people to pray for the criminal’s soul. So, I determined to go, and see him executed.

The beheading was appointed for fourteen and a-half o’clock, Roman time: or a quarter before nine in the forenoon. I had two friends with me; and as we did not know but that the crowd might be very great, we were on the spot by half-past seven. The place of execution was near the church of San Giovanni decollato (a doubtful compliment to Saint John the Baptist) in one of the impassable back streets without any footway, of which a great part of Rome is composed—a street of rotten houses, which do not seem to belong to anybody, and do not seem to have ever been inhabited, and certainly were never built on any plan, or for any particular purpose, and have no window-sashes, and are a little like deserted breweries, and might be warehouses but for having nothing in them. Opposite to one of these, a white house, the scaffold was built. An untidy, unpainted, uncouth, crazy-looking thing of course: some seven feet high, perhaps: with a tall, gallows-shaped frame rising above it, in which was the knife, charged with a ponderous mass of iron, all ready to descend, and glittering brightly in the morning sun, whenever it looked out, now and then, from behind a cloud.

There were not many people lingering about; and these were kept at a considerable distance from the scaffold, by parties of the Pope’s dragoons. Two or three hundred foot-soldiers were under arms, standing at ease in clusters here and there; and the officers were walking up and down in twos and threes, chatting together, and smoking cigars.

At the end of the street, was an open space, where there would be a dust-heap, and piles of broken crockery, and mounds of vegetable refuse, but for such things being thrown anywhere and everywhere in Rome, and favouring no particular sort of locality. We got into a kind of wash-house, belonging to a dwelling-house on this spot; and standing there in an old cart, and on a heap of cartwheels piled against the wall, looked, through a large grated window, at the scaffold, and straight down the street beyond it until, in consequence of its turning off abruptly to the left, our perspective was brought to a sudden termination, and had a corpulent officer, in a cocked hat, for its crowning feature.

Nine o’clock struck, and ten o’clock struck, and nothing happened. All the bells of all the churches rang as usual. A little parliament of dogs assembled in the open space, and chased each other, in and out among the soldiers. Fierce-looking Romans of the lowest class, in blue cloaks, russet cloaks, and rags uncloaked, came and went, and talked together. Women and children fluttered, on the skirts of the scanty crowd. One large muddy spot was left quite bare, like a bald place on a man’s head. A cigar-merchant, with an earthen pot of charcoal ashes in one hand, went up and down, crying his wares. A pastry-merchant divided his attention between the scaffold and his customers. Boys tried to climb up walls, and tumbled down again. Priests and monks elbowed a passage for themselves among the people, and stood on tiptoe for a sight of the knife: then went away. Artists, in inconceivable hats of the middle-ages, and beards (thank Heaven!) of no age at all, flashed picturesque scowls about them from their stations in the throng. One gentleman (connected with the fine arts, I presume) went up and down in a pair of Hessian-boots, with a red beard hanging down on his breast, and his long and bright red hair, plaited into two tails, one on either side of his head, which fell over his shoulders in front of him, very nearly to his waist, and were carefully entwined and braided!

Eleven o’clock struck and still nothing happened. A rumour got about, among the crowd, that the criminal would not confess; in which case, the priests would keep him until the Ave Maria (sunset); for it is their merciful custom never finally to turn the crucifix away from a man at that pass, as one refusing to be shriven, and consequently a sinner abandoned of the Saviour, until then. People began to drop off. The officers shrugged their shoulders and looked doubtful. The dragoons, who came riding up below our window, every now and then, to order an unlucky hackney-coach or cart away, as soon as it had comfortably established itself, and was covered with exulting people (but never before), became imperious, and quick-tempered. The bald place hadn’t a straggling hair upon it; and the corpulent officer, crowning the perspective, took a world of snuff.

Suddenly, there was a noise of trumpets. ‘Attention!’ was among the foot-soldiers instantly. They were marched up to the scaffold and formed round it. The dragoons galloped to their nearer stations too. The guillotine became the centre of a wood of bristling bayonets and shining sabres. The people closed round nearer, on the flank of the soldiery. A long straggling stream of men and boys, who had accompanied the procession from the prison, came pouring into the open space. The bald spot was scarcely distinguishable from the rest. The cigar and pastry-merchants resigned all thoughts of business, for the moment, and abandoning themselves wholly to pleasure, got good situations in the crowd. The perspective ended, now, in a troop of dragoons. And the corpulent officer, sword in hand, looked hard at a church close to him, which he could see, but we, the crowd, could not.

After a short delay, some monks were seen approaching to the scaffold from this church; and above their heads, coming on slowly and gloomily, the effigy of Christ upon the cross, canopied with black. This was carried round the foot of the scaffold, to the front, and turned towards the criminal, that he might see it to the last. It was hardly in its place, when he appeared on the platform, bare-footed; his hands bound; and with the collar and neck of his shirt cut away, almost to the shoulder. A young man— six-and-twenty—vigorously made, and well-shaped. Face pale; small dark moustache; and dark brown hair.

He had refused to confess, it seemed, without first having his wife brought to see him; and they had sent an escort for her, which had occasioned the delay.

He immediately kneeled down, below the knife. His neck fitting into a hole, made for the purpose, in a cross plank, was shut down, by another plank above; exactly like the pillory. Immediately below him was a leathern bag. And into it his head rolled instantly.

The executioner was holding it by the hair, and walking with it round the scaffold, showing it to the people, before one quite knew that the knife had fallen heavily, and with a rattling sound.

When it had travelled round the four sides of the scaffold, it was set upon a pole in front—a little patch of black and white, for the long street to stare at, and the flies to settle on. The eyes were turned upward, as if he had avoided the sight of the leathern bag, and looked to the crucifix. Every tinge and hue of life had left it in that instant. It was dull, cold, livid, wax. The body also.

There was a great deal of blood. When we left the window, and went close up to the scaffold, it was very dirty; one of the two men who were throwing water over it, turning to help the other lift the body into a shell, picked his way as through mire. A strange appearance was the apparent annihilation of the neck. The head was taken off so close, that it seemed as if the knife had narrowly escaped crushing the jaw, or shaving off the ear; and the body looked as if there were nothing left above the shoulder.

Nobody cared, or was at all affected. There was no manifestation of disgust, or pity, or indignation, or sorrow. My empty pockets were tried, several times, in the crowd immediately below the scaffold, as the corpse was being put into its coffin. It was an ugly, filthy, careless, sickening spectacle; meaning nothing but butchery beyond the momentary interest, to the one wretched actor. Yes! Such a sight has one meaning and one warning. Let me not forget it. The speculators in the lottery, station themselves at favourable points for counting the gouts of blood that spirt out, here or there; and buy that number. It is pretty sure to have a run upon it.

The body was carted away in due time, the knife cleansed, the scaffold taken down, and all the hideous apparatus removed. The executioner: an outlaw ex officio (what a satire on the Punishment!) who dare not, for his life, cross the Bridge of St. Angelo but to do his work: retreated to his lair, and the show was over."

In the Papal States, the last stage of the appeal process was an appeal to the Pope (Gregory XVI) which in this case failed. Executions were carried out in The Papal States until 1870, when the Papacy lost its temporal jurisdiction and the Kingdom Of Italy came into being.

From 1796 to 1864, the public executioner was Giovanni Battista Bugatti, whose nickname Mastro Titta, ("Master Titta"), became legendary. During his 70-year long activity, he performed 516 executions 'Mastro Titta' became the local synonym for 'executioner'; even the few ones who came after him were addressed with this nickname.

Public executions used to be held on fixed spots: Piazza del Popolo [the large central square with an obelisk], the small square at one end of the bridge in front of Sant'Angelo Castle, and in or near Via de' Cerchi [where the Church of San Giovanni Decollato still stands].

The execution was spectacle designed to deter. It was the occasion for pick pockets to gather and work amongst the attentive crowd. In a later essay, Dickens remarks on the large number of pickpockets in the crowd and even felt his pocket being felt.

The method of execution was, before 1816, either the axe or the noose, and afterward the guillotine. In special cases, however, Mastro Titta would employ two other techniques.

The first was what the Romans called the mazzatello. In this case the executioner would carry a large mallet, swing it through the air to gather momentum, and then bring it crashing down on the prisoner's head, in the same manner that cattle were put out of commission in the stockyards. The throat would then be cut to be sure the crushing blow killed, rather than merely stunned.

The other alternative was drawing and quartering. Sometimes this method would be employed in combination with the guillotine or axe. The body would be laid on a stone with its arms and legs tied to four different horses. The horses would be spurred at the same moment, pulling the body apart. In both cases, the point was to signal that the crime in question was especially loathsome.

Until the time of Pope Pius XII, the Church defended the moral legitimacy of the use by the State of Capital Punishment. In this connection reference is made to an article written by Fr John Hardon SJ in November 1995 entitled The Legitimacy of Capital Punishment. It can be accessed at

However, in his great encyclical Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II wrote in 1995 that the only time executions can be justified is when they are required “to defend society,” and that “as a result of steady improvements … in the penal system such cases are very rare if not practically nonexistent.”

When the new Catechism of the Catholic Church appeared, it did not ban capital punishment, but expressed a strong preference for “bloodless means.” Such strategies, it said, “better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.”

During a visit to St. Louis in January 1999, John Paul II said that the death penalty is “both cruel and unnecessary.” Human life must not be taken away “even in case of someone who has done great evil.” Society can protect itself without “definitively denying criminals the chance to reform.”

As regards Dickens` own views, they altered as he grew older. His views steadily grew more conservative as he grew older.

In1846, he was in favour of the abolition of Capital Punishment. Later, his view changed to reserving capital punishment to serious and heinous crimes but for the total abolition of public executions. His attitude to capital punishment was shaped by his witnessing of the public execution of the murderer Courvoisier in 1840. He found the experience both attractive and repelling. He witnessed other executions. Another witness to the same execution, Thackeray, found the experience totally repellent. Both men both feared and hated the mob.

The reaction of the crowd in Rome compared to the crowd at a public execution is notable. In John Foster`s memoir entitled The Life of Charles Dickens, Foster wrote:
`Of incidents during these remaining weeks [in Rome] there were few, but such as he mentioned had in them points of humour or character still worth remembering. Two men were hanged in the city; and two ladies of quality, he told me, agreed to keep up for a time a prayer for the souls of these two miserable creatures so incessant that Heaven should never for a moment be left alone: to which end "they relieved each other" after such wise, that, for the whole of the stated time, one of them was always on her knees in the cathedral church of San Lorenzo. From which he inferred that "a morbid sympathy for criminals is not wholly peculiar to England, though it affects more people in that country perhaps than in any other." `

The theme of Capital Punishment manifested itself in his novels. In A Tale of Two Cities, the novel concludes with the judicial execution of Sydney Carton. In Oliver Twist, Fagan is hanged. Bill Sykes dies in a particularly gruesome manner amounting to a very public death while trying to escape the mob after murdering Nancy. In Great Expectations, the shadow of the noose hangs over Magwitch throughout the novel.

People may be bemused by Dickens` reference to time. Romans at this time had their own way of marking time, as had other peoples before the standardisation of time measurement.

Clement XI's sun-dial acted as Rome's official time reference for about one century and a half. Meanwhile, other sun-dials had been built in Rome: one of them was housed in a small tower in piazza del Collegio Romano, behind the church of Sant'Ignazio di Loyola.

However, in the times of Dickens` visit to Rome, "mid-day" was still merely considered an astronomical time reference: in fact, the people in Rome used to count the hours of the day from the last religious function which all churches in the city held at a given time. The function, called by locals Avemmarìa (after the Ave Maria prayer), acted as a time reference for the rest of the evening, and for the following day; expressions such as "at twenty-one hours" actually meant twenty-one hours after the function (i.e. in the afternoon of the following day).

Things were complicated by the fact that the evening prayer was held at about 7:15 PM, but during winter it was brought forward at 6:15 PM: therefore, "at fifteen hours" meant a quarter past ten in June, but a quarter past nine in January.


Pope John Paul II
EVANGELIUM VITAE 25th March 1995
JOHN PAUL II HOMILY St. Louis, January 27, 1999

E-text of Pictures from Italy by Charles Dickens

E-text of The Life of Charles Dickens by John Forster

Dickens Research Web Sites

He executed justice By John L. Allen Jr. National Catholic Reporter, September 14, 2001

Mastro Titta, the Rome executioner

An Execution near S. Giovanni Decollato (Dickens account with pictures of the site and commentary)

Dickens on Capital Punishment


Time System in Rome in Nineteenth Century