On the 18th August 1612, the trials of nine Lancashire women and two men known as the Pendle Witches began. Accused of various murders, twelve people were charged of whom was found not guilty and another died in prison before going to trial. The other ten were found guilty and executed by hanging.

The trials of the Lancashire witches are not only some of the most famous, but also some of the best recorded witch trials in British history. This is due to a published account called The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster by Thomas Potts, the clerk to the Lancaster Assizes where all but one of the trials took place.

One of the most interesting things about the trial is that the majority of the defendants self-identified as witches, or at least as village healers who practised what they referred to as ‘magic’ in return for payment. A number of the accused even admitted to Roger Nowell, the justice of the peace for Pendle and chief prosecutor at the trials, that witchcraft had been practised by a number of people in the area around Pendle Hill for many years.

In historical terms, the Pendle Witch trials were significant for their scale. Despite a popular belief that witch trials were a common occurrence in the early modern period, only around 500 people were executed for witchcraft throughout the 300 year period when they were carried out. This means that the ten found guilty in Pendle represented an astounding 2% of all British witches to face trial during the period.

I’m very grateful to Giselle K. Jakobs for her thorough research and detailed website about the focus of today’s podcast – her grandfather, Josef Jakobs. You can visit her website at http://www.josefjakobs.info/

The last execution at the Tower of London took place on the 15th August 1941. Josef Jakobs was a German spy who was arrested after he signalled for help after breaking his ankle when he parachuted into Britain.

Jakobs had served in the German Army during the First World War, and became a dentist in the interwar period. However, due to impact of the worldwide depression he turn to selling fake gold, for which he served two and a half years in jail.

After his release, Jakobs became involved in providing counterfeit passports to German Jews fleeing Hitler’s regime. However, he was arrested in 1938 and sent to a concentration camp from which he was released in 1940.

Within six months Jakobs had begun training with the Abwehr – the intelligence wing of the Germany Army – and on the 31st January 1941 dressed in a business suit and parachuted into England. Having broken his ankle, he was found the next morning in a field near Dovehouse Farm in Huntingdonshire.

Jakobs was taken into custody, and was held at Dulwich Hospital in London while complications with his broken ankle were treated. Eventually he was transferred to Wandsworth Prison, where he was formally charged with espionage and tried by General Court Marshall in early August since he didn’t have British nationality and was a formal member of the Germany Army.

Found guilty, he was taken to the miniature firing range at the Tower of London on the 15th. Having been strapped to a wooden Windsor chair, he was killed by firing squad at 7:12 a.m.

In the early hours of the 17th July 1918 the Russian Imperial Romanov family were shot dead in the basement of the Ipatiev House in the Russian city of Ekaterinburg. Their death took place during the ongoing Russian Civil War, at a time when White Russian forces were approaching the house where the family were held captive. The execution was led by Yakov Yurovsky, a member of the Bolshevik secret police known as the Checka, and commandant of the house which had become known as The House of Special Purpose.

The Romanov family – Nicholas and his wife, and their four daughters and son, had first arrived in Ekaterinburg at intervals from the 30th April onwards. They were accompanied by a small number of servants. Their time inside the house was heavily regulated by the guards, who blocked all contact with the outside world.

As the White Army advanced on Ekaterinburg, the Bolsheviks became concerned that the royal family might fall into their hands and act as a rallying point for the White cause. Similarly, their release could encourage other European nations to view them as the legitimate rulers of Russia, and thus undermine the revolutionary Bolshevik government.

Shortly after midnight on the 17th July therefore, the family were woken and led to a small basement room in the house. A group of Bolshevik secret police then entered the room and read out the order for the deaths. All were shot or stabbed by bayonets, their bodies taken away in a truck and disposed of in a forest 12 miles north of the city.

On the 13th July 1793, the radical French journalist Jean-Paul Marat was stabbed to death in his bathtub by Charlotte Corday.

Marat, the second of nine children, had left home at sixteen in search of opportunities to pursue his interest in medicine. Having decided to move to northern England in 1770, he settled in Newcastle upon Tyne where he gained a reputation as a highly effective doctor, but also developed an increasing suspicion of the established political order.

Marat moved back to France six years later where his medical skills earned him the patronage of various members of the aristocracy. He used the wealth he earned from this position to establish a scientific laboratory where he engaged in research regarding fire, heat, electricity and light. Although he was visited by the American polymath Benjamin Franklin, the French Academy of Sciences was sceptical of his conclusions, and relations between Marat and the powerful Academy quickly broke down.

Despite Marat’s wealth and privilege, he maintained his passion for social justice throughout the years preceding the French Revolution. As Louis XVI struggled to secure his rule in the late 1780s, Marat put his scientific and medical career on hold, and instead dedicated his time to writing arguments in favour of political, economic and social reform. In the wake of the Storming of the Bastille on the 14th July 1789, he established his own radical newspaper which soon adopted the name L’Ami du peuple (“The People’s friend”).

Marat’s writings were vicious in their attacks on all those he perceived as being enemies of the people, by whom he meant the lower classes of the Third Estate. His newspaper often called for violence against the upper class and members of the government, even resulting in him fleeing to London for a few months in early 1790. On his return to Paris he continued his fierce criticism of the government, and even began to target less radical revolutionaries with his call for their execution as enemies of the people. He continued to have to go into hiding on occasion, and began to utilise Paris’ extensive sewer network, where it is believed he developed the debilitating skin condition that later saw him confined to a medicinal bath for hours on end.

Despite his reputation as a radical agitator, Marat was elected to the National Convention in September 1792 where he was a passionate supporter of the decision to declare France a Republic. He soon turned his anger on the members of the Girondin component of the National Convention who opposed the execution of the King. Within six months these moderates had been ousted from the government, and Marat turned to working from home due to his worsening skin condition.

On the 13th July 1793 Marat granted an audience to a young woman from Normandy while he soaked in his medicinal bath. The 24-year old Charlotte Corday claimed to have information about Girondin deputies who had escaped Paris, and presented Marat with a list of names of supposed traitors. Corday, however, was actually a Girondin sympathiser. After Marat told her that he would arrange for the execution of the Norman Girondins, she pulled out a five-inch kitchen knife and stabbed him once in the chest, severing a major artery and causing him to die almost immediately of massive blood loss.

Corday was placed on trial and was guillotined in Paris just four days after killing Marat. She claimed in her trial to be a supporter of Republicanism, but described Marat as a ‘monster’. She explained that she had ‘killed one man to save 100,000’, but the assassination contributed to the growing fear of counter-revolution that fuelled the subsequent Terror – in which thousands of moderate and conservative Frenchmen and women were guillotined on charges of treason.

In the immediate aftermath of the murder, Marat was virtually deified by the revolutionaries. At his funeral, the Marquis de Sade – the infamous sexual predator who had joined with the most radical elements of the National Convention after being freed from prison – gave the eulogy. Marat’s bathtub, and the knife that he was killed with, were later bought by the Musée Grévin in Paris and are now on display as part of a waxwork scene depicting the assassination.

Interestingly, Madame Tussaud’s waxwork museum had also offered to buy the bathtub – but their letter got lost in the post and arrived after a sale had already been agreed. Madame Tussaud’s in London does, however, own the guillotine blade that beheaded the former queen Marie Antoinette on October 16th 1793. The founder of the museum, Marie Tussaud, was a famed wax sculptor before the revolution, and had even had her hair cut in preparation for execution during the Terror due to her connections to the aristocracy. However, it was decided that her talents could better serve the Revolution, and so she was spared in order to create death masks of the guillotine’s many famous victims.

The guillotine is, of course, synonymous with the worst violence of the French Revolution, but the machine was actually created to represent equality. In France prior to 1789, beheading as a form of execution had been reserved for the nobility.  Commoners were usually subjected to longer and more painful deaths through hanging, or worse. To end the privilege of the nobility, and to bring about equality in death as well as life, the new revolutionary National Assembly therefore made decapitation the only legal form of execution.

It was recognised that manual beheading was, however, still a gruesome way to carry out the death sentence.  Mary Queen of Scots, who I mentioned earlier as someone who visited the town of Buxton where we are recording this episode of HistoryPod, was only beheaded after three blows of the executioner’s axe. The Yorkshire town of Halifax had tried to improve the precision of beheadings with the creation of the Halifax Gibbet – a guillotine-like machine in which an axe head was fitted to the base of a heavy wooden block that ran in grooves between two tall uprights – a whole two centuries before the French invention. However, this device didn’t make it out of Yorkshire. In the face of continued manual beheadings therefore, on 10th October 1789 French physician Joseph Guillotin argued that the new government of France should ensure that every execution was both swift and mechanical. The National Assembly agreed, acknowledging that capital punishment should simply end life, not purposefully cause pain as well.

Another physician, Antoine Louis, was appointed to lead a committee to develop a quick and efficient decapitation machine.  Although Guillotin was a member of this committee, it is actually therefore Antoine Louis who should be credited with the device’s invention, even though it carries Guillotin’s name.

The first execution using the device was conducted on 25th April 1792.  Nicolas Jacques Pelletier, a French highwayman found guilty of killing a man during one of his robberies, had the dubious honour of being the guillotine’s first victim. Contemporary accounts reveal that the execution went smoothly – much to the disappointment of the crowd who expected better ‘entertainment’.  Excited to see the new machine in action, they were disappointed at its speed and efficiency…although this was, of course, the whole point.

The Australian outlaw Ned Kelly was arrested following a violent shoot-out with police at Glenrowan in Victoria.

Edward ‘Ned’ Kelly’s father, John ‘Red’ Kelly had arrived in Australia after serving a sentence in Van Diemen’s land for stealing two pigs in his hometown in Ireland. He later married and started a family but was sentenced to hard labour for cattle theft, after which he unexpectedly died. His eldest son, Ned, soon found himself in trouble with the law for assisting the bushranger Harry Power in a number of robberies. He was later sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for stealing horses.

In April 1878, Kelly allegedly shot police constable Alexander Fitzpatrick. Ned and his brother Dan fled into the bush and a reward of £100 was offered for their capture. In October three policemen who had located the brothers and their associates, Joe Byrne and Steve Hart, were shot and killed. The government soon declared the gang outlaws, but they evaded capture and turned to robbing banks.

On the night of 26 June 1880 the Kelly Gang killed a police informant, and then rode to the town of Glenrowan where they held dozens of hostages in the town’s hotel. A police train was alerted to the situation, and the hotel was soon surrounded. The gang engaged in a raging gunfight, wearing homemade metal armour. The hostages were later freed and, with only the gang members left inside the hotel, it was set on fire.

Steve Hart, Joseph Byrne and Dan Kelly were killed, but Ned survived the night and emerged from the bush to make one final stand the next morning. He was soon shot in his unprotected legs and arrested. Found guilty of two of the police murders, he was sentenced to death and executed by hanging on 11 November 1880.

On the 30th May 1431, Joan of Arc was executed by being burned at the stake.  The Maid of Orleans had been found guilty of heresy for a second time, which made it a capital offence.

Although Joan was accused of being a witch and a heretic due to the voices she heard and visions she witnessed, the crime that condemned her to death was that of wearing men’s clothing.  Joan had worn male military clothing and armour during campaigns against the English army in the Hundred Years War, and this was deemed heretical.

At trial, Joan faced 70 charges relating to heresy and witchcraft.  These gradually dwindled to 12 but, having been found guilty of these crimes and afraid of immediate execution if she continued to plead innocence, Joan admitted her guilt and also promised to stop wearing men’s clothing.

However, a few days later Joan said the voices told her she had made a mistake.  Additionally, although she began to wear female clothing again in prison, she said that someone had attempted to rape her in her cell and so began to again wear men’s clothing to deter further attacks. Combined with the voices this was interpreted as a relapse into heresy, and she was condemned to death.

Joan died of smoke inhalation before the flames fully consumed her, but her remains were burned a further two times to reduce them to ashes. They were scattered in the River Seine. On the 7th July 1456, after a retrial, Joan was declared to have been innocent.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sentenced to death in the United States for conspiracy to commit espionage.

 Julius and Ethel Rosenberg met when they were members of the Young Communist League in New York. It was only after his previous membership of the organisation was discovered that Julius was dismissed from his position at the Army Signal Corps Engineering Laboratories at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. He had worked as an engineer-inspector for nearly 5 years during the Second World War, and it was during this time that he was recruited to spy for Russia.

Rosenberg went on to recruit a number of other people who were able to supply secret information, including Ethel’s brother David Greenglass who worked on the Manhattan Project at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. He was arrested following a tip-off in May 1950, and named Julius Rosenberg as his contact.

During both a secret grand jury testimony and their subsequent trial the Rosenbergs refused to divulge information about their connections to the Communist Party. Despite this, they were found guilty of espionage and sentenced to death for their role in passing information about the US nuclear programme to the Soviet Union.

Although there have been subsequent attempts to clear their names, the publication of decrypted messages from the United States’ VERONA project in 1995 clearly showed that Julius Rosenberg was guilty of espionage and that Ethel was fully aware of her husband’s activities and actively assisted him. The general consensus among historians, therefore, is that the couple were guilty of the charge. However, debate still rages over whether or not their crime justified their executions.

On the 1st March 1692, the Salem witch trials began when Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne and Tituba were brought before local magistrates in Salem Village, Massachusetts. The paranoia and hysteria that ensued eventually led to the executions of twenty men and women, and the deaths of seven more accused whilst in prison.

Salem’s witch hysteria began in January 1692 when the daughter and niece of the Reverend Samuel Parris began to suffer violent fits. The local doctor couldn’t find a physical cause for their illness, and so blamed the supernatural. Other young girls in the community soon began to display similar symptoms, and three local women were accused of bewitching them.

Significantly, the three women were all in some way social outcasts – Tituba was a slave; Sarah Good was a homeless beggar and Sarah Osborne was a poor elderly woman who rarely attended church. They were brought in front of local magistrates Jonathan Corwin and John Hathorne, and although both Good and Osborne denied their guilt Tituba confessed to being “the Devil’s servant”. The reason for her confession is unclear, but it is presumed that she sought to act as an informer in a bid to save herself.

Over the next few weeks dozens more people were accused of witchcraft including the four-year old Dorothy Good, Sarah’s Good’s daughter, who was imprisoned for nine months before being released on bond for £50.

Of the three women first accused of witchcraft in Salem, only Sarah Good was executed. Sarah Osborne died in jail while on trial while Tituba was eventually freed from jail after an anonymous person paid her fees.

On the 22nd February 1943, the first three members of the White Rose resistance group were put on trial and executed by guillotine in Germany. Active from June 1942, the first arrests took place after Sophie Scholl was seen throwing anti-Nazi leaflets from the top floor of the atrium of the University of Munich.

Centred around Hans Scholl and his sister Sophie, the small group of university friends who formed the White Rose printed and distributed their first leaflet in June 1942. They printed six leaflets in total, which were distributed around Germany. The Gestapo itself estimated that 10,000 copies had been produced of the fifth leaflet, entitled “A Call to All Germans!”

Over the course of three nights in early-to-mid February, some members of the group had painted “Freedom” and “Down with Hitler” around Munich. Then, on the 18th February 1943, Hans and Sophie distributed over a thousand copies of their sixth leaflet in the hallways of the university. However, they realised that a few copies were still nestled in the bottom of the suitcase they had brought them in and so chose to fling them from the top of the atrium.

They were seen by university janitor, and Nazi Party member, Jakub Schmid who called the Gestapo. The siblings were taken away for interrogation before being sent to trial on the 22nd February. A third member, Christoph Probst, was also tried his handwriting was matched to a draft of a seventh leaflet found in Hans’ possession. They were found guilty of treason, and beheaded later that day by guillotine in the grounds of Stadelheim Prison.

On the 8th February 1587 Mary Stuart, more commonly known as Mary, Queen of Scots, was executed in the great hall of Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire. Having been imprisoned for 19 years in a variety of castles and manor houses, Mary was accused and found guilty of plotting to kill Queen Elizabeth I of England in 1586.

Mary was put under house arrest in 1568 as she was a threat to Elizabeth, due to her strong claim to the English throne through her paternal grandmother Margaret Tudor (Henry VIII’s sister). Furthermore Mary was a rallying point for Catholic and Spanish plots that sought to overthrow Elizabeth and install her as the new queen of England. Mary herself didn’t hide her belief that she should be queen, as Catholics viewed Elizabeth as illegitimate due to her being born to Anne Boleyn – Henry VIII’s wife after his divorce from Catherine of Aragon.

Mary’s imprisonment continued until a case could be made against her. She was finally charged with treason, despite not being an English citizen, after the spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham intercepted coded letters in which Mary approved of the Babington Plot to assassinate Elizabeth. Mary’s trial took place in October 1586, and she was convicted on the 25th. However, Elizabeth was reluctant to sign the death warrant and didn’t do so for over three months.

On the 8th February 1587, Mary made her way from her chambers to the scaffold that had been erected in Fotheringhay Castle’s great hall. It took the executioner three strokes of his axe to behead her.