Turin - Italy
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Before I write anything of this charming little city, I cannot refrain from unburdening my mind, by writing down a few notes of the melancholy scene I witnessed this morning. I had heard, the night of my arrival, that an unhappy wretch was to be beheaded,—I little imagined, broke on the wheel. In my morning walk, I read on the corners of the streets, the affiche, stating his accusation, conviction, and sentence, accompanied with a most useful warning to the people; a call to mark the justice of his execution, and a notice of the place in which he was to be put to death. He was one of those hardened villains, who had watched his victim to the turning of a street, and suddenly stabbed him with a stiletto. One feels little compassion for a wretch who, not content with robbing, strikes from behind, and pillages the victim while weltering in his blood. I thought I could bring myself to witness the execution of so hardened a villain; and continued to walk along the great street which leads directly to the square, still undecided and hesitating; when, all at once, I found myself in the midst of a tumultuous crowd, by which I was carried along, without the power of resistance. The streets of Turin are intersected at right angles, and are almost all equally broad and straight. On a sudden, the crossings were filled with a prodigious mob, hurrying from every quarter—sounds of deep and solemn music were heard; and I beheld the flags and insignia of a procession, which I imagined to be purely religious; when, to my surprise and horror, I found myself exactly opposite to the distracted criminal, whom they were conducting to execution, in all the agonies of terror and despair. He was seated in a black car, preceded by arquebusiers on horse-back, carrying their carabines pointed forward. These were followed by a band of priests, clothed in long black robes, singing, in deep and solemn tones, a slow mournful dirge; part of the service for the dead. A hot burning sun shone with a flood of light; and though it was mid-day, such was the silence, and such the power and effect of this solemn chant, that its sound was re-echoed from every distant street. The brothers of the Misericordia, clothed in black, and masked, walked by the side of the car, and joined in the chant. On the steps of the car sat a man bearing a flag, on which death was represented in the usual forms, and on which was inscribed in Latin, (if I read it rightly,) " Death has touched me with his fingers;" or, " Death has laid his hands on me." On each side of the car, the officiating priests were seated; and in the centre sat the criminal himself. It was impossible to witness the condition of this unhappy wretch without terror, and yet, as if impelled by some strange infatuation, it was equally impossible not to gaze upon an object so wild, so full of horror. He seemed about thirty-five years of age; of large and muscular form; his countenance marked by strong and savage features; half naked, pale as death, agonized with terror, every limb strained in anguish, his hands clenched convulsively,the sweat breaking out on his bent and contracted brow, he kissed incessantly the figure of our Saviour, painted on the flag which was suspended before him; but with an agony of wildness and despair, of which no-thing ever exhibited on the stage can give the slightest conception. I could not refrain from moralizing upon the scene here presented. The horror that the priest had excited in the soul of this savage, was greater than the fear of the most cruel death could ever have produced. But the terrors thus raised, were the superstitions of an ignorant and bewildered mind, bereft of animal courage, and impressed with some confused belief, that eternal safety was to be instantly secured by external marks of homage to the image. There was here none of the composed, conscious, awful penitence of a Christian; and it was evident, that the priest was anxious only to produce a being in the near prospect of death, whose condition should alarm all that looked on him. The at-tempt was successful. But I could not help feeling, that this procession, so like an auto-da-fe, had more the character of revenge, than of the salutary justice of the law The inscription over the bloody hand painted on the the flag, should have been one to teach the people, that murder was doomed to meet with an awful retribution-
"Whosoever sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed."
The procession, winding through deep and narrow streets under a burning sun, while every avenue became more and more choked by an increasing crowd, moved slowly on to the place of execution, which was situated in a solitary piece of waste ground behind the great Church. The punishment had been mitigated at the earnest solicitation of the Brothers of the Misericordia. The coup de grace was immediately inflicted, and the head of the criminal nearly severed from his body at one stroke.* When the execution was over, the body was thrown carelessly over the wheel, (seemingly a common chariot wheel,) and a priest, in an impressive manner, addressed the mob from the scaffold, and then retired.
* The coup de grace was not usually given until every limb of the person condemned had been broken. He then received a violent blow, from the instrument used in breaking the limbs, upon the chest, which generally put an end to his sufferings. This was called the coup de grace, and the head was afterwards severed from the body. When the sentence was remitted, the coup de grace was given at first, which appears to have been the case in the present instance.—ED.
The body continued thus exposed for some hours. I could not help feeling that if the sentence had been carried into full effect, it would have been too sanguinary to suit the ends of public justice. Although it must be confessed, that if cruelty in punishment could ever be justified, it would be so when its object was to prevent the dreadful crime of assassination.
Of 10,000 persons who were present, I do not believe there were twenty women, and those of the lowest description.