Five Times Being Dead Didn’t Prevent Someone from Being Executed
Imagine getting ready to kill someone and finding out they’ve died. Talk about a pain in the ass. You were all prepared to fuck ‘em up, only to have life beat you to it. Inconvenient or what?
Of course, you could always re-kill them. Make an example of them, create a really grisly spectacle, go out of your way to add insult to injury and really rub it in. Call that dead? I’ll show you dead, you bastard!
In 1600, for instance, two would-be assassins were killed while trying to off James I of Scotland. To prove the point that nobody else should try such a thing, their dead bodies were hanged in a square in Edinburgh, then beheaded, then cut into bits and pressed onto spikes all over the city. That’s so unpleasant.
History is littered with occasions where post-death capital punishment has been deployed and corpses — not even always that recent — have been shown a thing or two. It’s all pretty grim!
The Dead Pope Who Was Dug Up and Put on Trial
Popes used to last nowhere near as long as they do today. In the first millennium, it was fairly common to go through a few popes in a year — they’d be deposed, banished or killed, or sometimes just sort of die, because it was the first millennium and life was tough.
Pope Formosus managed five years before dying at 80 in the year 896. His successor, Pope Boniface VI, lasted only 16 days before dying of gout. He in turn was followed by Pope Stephen VI, who wanted to make a big impression. Six months into his reign, he ordered Formosus’ corpse be dug up and placed on trial.
The trial, known as the Cadaver Synod, was arguably slightly unfair given the partially decomposed nature of the defendant. Predictably enough, things didn’t swing Formosus’ way. He was found guilty of perjury, illegitimately serving as a bishop and contravening various holy sees. Formusus’ corpse was stripped of everything papal, as his pope-ness was declared null and void, and the three fingers he had used for blessings were cut off. Eventually it had weights tied to it and was sunk in the River Tiber.
Unfortunately for Stephen, rather than being impressed, the public was rather disgusted by all this, especially once Formosus’ body washed up on shore and rumors spread that it was performing miracles. Stephen was deposed and imprisoned a few months later, then strangled in prison.
Denouncing the Long-Dead Emperor
Occasionally, in a bid to really make a point, wannabe executioners almost — almost — become archeological in their approaches. This happened in 1966 during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
Zhu Yijun, better known as the Wanli Emperor, reigned from 1572 to 1620, which at 48 years was the longest reign of the Ming Dynasty. He spent the last 20 years, however, mainly occupied with building a massive mausoleum for himself and his two favorite concubines, allowing imperial duties to pass him by and leading to the end of the dynasty.
Their remains lay in the Dingling Mausoleum for more than 300 years. In 1956, the mausoleum was excavated and turned into a museum. Then, 10 years later, during the revolution, members of the Red Guards (the group led by Mao Zedong) stormed the museum — part of rejecting the feudal system of the past — finding the remains of the Wanli Emperor and his companions and publicly denouncing them before destroying their coffins and burning their bodies.
The Founding Father Who Didn’t Need His Head Cut Off
Dr. Joseph Warren was one of the key figures in the early days of the American Revolution, a Boston-based patriot who was massively influential in stirring up support for the cause. After he was nearly killed at the Battle of Lexington and Concord, Warren is said to have been asked by his mother not to fight any more, and replied, “Wherever danger is, dear mother, there will your son be. Now is no time for one of America’s children to shrink from the most hazardous duty; I will either set my country free, or shed my last drop of blood to make her so.”
As ways of making your mom cry, it was at least pretty inspiring.
Despite being made a major-general before it, Warren chose to fight the Battle of Bunker Hill as a private, in the thick of it rather than commanding. He was shot in the head and died. British soldiers then repeatedly bayoneted his body until it was unrecognizable and threw it in a ditch. A few days later, British Lieutenant James Drew dug up the body and beat the shit out of it, spitting and stamping on it, before finally cutting off Warren’s head, a rather pathetic act of pettiness however you look at it.
But, as these things have a tendency to do, the above-and-beyond assholeness of this might have worked against the British much more powerfully than they anticipated. Warren’s death was seen as a martyrdom, and the sadism surrounding it galvanized even more support for the revolution.
The Unhappy Half-Brother
King Harold Harefoot ruled England for just five years, 1035 to 1040, following his father, the awkwardly-named, easily-mistyped and historically misunderstood King Cnut. Harold’s younger half-brother Harthacnut — whose name is very difficult to say after a few beers — had a stronger claim to the throne after Cnut’s declaration that his second marriage was more binding, but was fighting a war in Denmark.
One of Harold’s first moves as king was to have Harthacnut’s other half-brother Alfred (an older son from Harthacnut’s mother Emma’s first marriage) killed. When Harold mysteriously died (described at the time as being “elf-shot,” a catch-all term for “no idea what he’s got but he’s not well”), Harthacnut returned to England to claim the throne.
Emma is said to have insisted on avenging Alfred’s death, so despite Harold being dead, Harthnacnut had him dug up. His body was then dragged around the streets before being publicly beheaded and thrown into, depending on the historical source, either a sewer or a pen of animals. Whichever one it was, the result was the same: gross!
The Slain Soldiers Who Weren’t Quite Slain Enough
At times, re-killing a dead person has almost been the battle equivalent of the post-match highlight reel you get when watching sports — instead of seeing that sweet dunk or sick touchdown again, you get to watch the most notable opponent who fell get sliced up again. Simon de Montford, the sixth Earl of Leicester, had that fate in 1265 after being killed by a spear to the neck in the Battle of Evesham.
By the way, interesting guy to read about, Simon de Montford. He did huge amounts in solidifying the modern idea of representative democracy, upon which most of the developed world’s governments are based, to the point that there’s a bust of him in the House of Representatives. He was determined to take power out of the hands of the king and give it to the people, and for a while was kind of like prime minister before such a term existed. Massive, horrendous, disgraceful, disgusting anti-Semite, however. History, you bastard, you do it every time.
Anyway, after Montford’s death at the hands of Henry III’s loyalist army, his body was treated like an Amazon warehouse, with parts of it sent far and wide. His limbs were ritualistically cut off and sent to distant enemies while his head was chopped off and sent — along with one of his testicles attached to it on either side of his nose — to the wife of the man who killed him. And people say romance is dead!