Saturday, 26 January 2013

The Wracking Wrecking of the Broken Butterfly

                  In February 1967, Mr Michael Jagger and Mr Keith Richards of the popular beat-combo the Rolling Stones (and their art-dealer chum, Robert Fraser) were arrested for the possession of drugs when eighteen police officers raided Redlands, the country home of Mr Richards. The prosecution case against them was based on the few amphetamine tablets found at the scene and the smell of cannabis in the house, which might, or might not, have really been the scent of burning incense. 

Mr Richards at his Redlands home, accompanied by Mr Jagger

There were four tablets in Jagger’s jacket, and Fraser had four more in his pockets, and so all three men were charged with, and found guilty of, possession of Class A drugs. Fraser was sentenced to six months imprisonment, Jagger to three months and Richards to twelve months, which many people thought was a little too excessive for them having a few pills about their persons. William Rees-Moggs, editor of The Times newspaper, wrote an editorial Who Breaks a Butterfly on a Wheel?, rhetorically asking if these famous musicians would have received the same treatment if they had been just ordinary citizens. Was it not the case that they were being made an example of, that they were getting what was coming to them? 

William Rees-Moggs - Who Breaks a Butterfly on a Wheel?

On appeal, the sentences were reduced to conditional discharges; Jagger had spent three nights in gaol and Richards one night (Fraser’s case was slightly different, he later pleaded guilty to the possession of heroin and served six months hard labour). Rees-Moggs editorial headline is a slight mis-quotation of a line from Alexander Pope’s satirical poem, Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot, which actually reads, “Who Breaks a Butterfly upon a Wheel?” 

Detail - Pieter Brughel - The Triumph of Death

It is a phrase that means ‘Why expend such force on such a fragile victim?’; in effect, why use a sledgehammer to crack a walnut? I have written earlier this month (see here and the following half dozen posts) about various methods of capital punishment used in the past and had intended to add a piece on breaking on the wheel but thought twice about it. However, in the light of yesterday’s post, which ended with a mention of Francesco Arcangeli’s execution, I have had a rethink of my second thoughts (I think). 

Breaking on the Wheel - detail from Hogarth's South Sea Bubble

Breaking on the Wheel was a dreadful punishment (not that beheading, pressing, hanging, etc aren’t, but bear with me), with its origins lost in history – Aristophanes mentions a torturer’s wheel in his Lysistrata (411 BCE), and Athenaeus, Lucian and Josephus, amongst other classical writers, also refer to the wheel. 

Breaking on the Wheel

There were a variety of ways that wheels were used as methods of torture and execution, from simply driving a cart over a person’s body, tying them to the outside rim of a wheel and rolling them along, tying them to the spokes and rotating the wheel, or tying them to the spokes and breaking their limbs by striking them with a club or rod. 

Breaking the long bones with big stick

A variation was to fasten a person inside a barrel lined with nails and roll that along the ground, or wrap them around the outside of the barrel and roll them over spikes or sharp rocks. 

Nailed into a nailly barrel with nails

By far the commonest method was to tie the victim to the spokes of the wheel, or to a pair of beams in an X shape (the St Andrew’s cross), and strike the long bones of the arms and legs with a sledgehammer, a cudgel or an iron bar, ending with the coup de grâce (blow of mercy) to the stomach. 

Breaking the long bones with a big stick [Two] (oh, and pulling toe-nails out too)

At times, a judge might sentence a criminal to remarkably cruel torture, as in the case of the eighty-six year old Jean Calas of Toulouse, who was suspected of being complicit in the strangling his own son Anthony, in 1761, and to make him reveal the names of his accomplices was sentenced to be,  
“… broken alive upon the wheel, to receive the last stroke after he had lain two hours, and then to be burnt to ashes.” 

Jean Calas broken on the wheel - 1761

Although rare, breaking on the wheel was used in Britain, as in the case recorded by Robert Birrel in his Diary
Robert Weir broken on ane cart-wheel, with ane coulter of ane pleuch, in the hand of the hangman, for murdering the Laird of Warriston, quhilk he did, 2 Julii 1600.” 
[‘ane coulter of ane pleuch’ is ‘a coulter of a plough’, a coulter being the knife that cuts the soil ahead of the ploughshare.] 
A variety of ways to kill people - Spot the Breaking on the Wheel

Of all the people whose names are associated with the wheel, surely the most familiar is that of St Catherine of Alexandria, which is somewhat ironic as there is no evidence whatsoever that she ever actually existed. The legend is that the young pagan Catherine lived in Alexandria, where her studies introduced her to Christianity, to which she then converted. When the emperor Maxentius began his persecutions, an eighteen-year-old Catherine went and began to rebuke him for his tyranny. 

St Catherine of Alexandria (with her wheel)

He could find no defence to her arguments so sent for fifty philosophers, none of whom could answer her either, so he had the lot of them executed. He offered to marry the beautiful maiden but she refused him, claiming she was the Bride of Christ, so he had her flogged and thrown into gaol, where she was visited by his wife and an army officer, both of whom were converted, along with two hundred soldiers assigned as guards. Maxentius had the whole bunch of this lot executed too, and Catherine was sentenced to be killed on a spiked wheel. When she was placed up it, it miraculously broke into pieces, the flying pieces of which killed several onlookers, so Maxentius had her beheaded with a sword instead. Quite why the sword didn't burst into shards and take out a few more pagans is something left to your imagination (maybe Christ thought it was safer for the rest of creation if his Bride was just that little bit nearer to him).

Catherine's Wheel

The story is now best remembered through the firework called the Catherine Wheel.

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