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Killing a Man Twice... in the 17th Century and the 20th

Edward Wightman sometimes engages in debate with the local Puritan ministers. He has also written books from which he is glad to recite at length in the public square. Edward came to the attention of the Bishop of Litchfield probably because Edward offered an opinion on the the disposition of the soul of a recently departed official. Edward gave testimony to the Bishop and sent a written defense of his religious position to everyone he could think of, including King James the 1st of Great Britain. King James takes his title of "Defender of the Faith" seriously... really, really seriously. Edward's fate is sealed. Now he has been tied to the stake in the public square and is being burned to death... a second time. The first time, he felt the flames and witnesses thought they heard him recanting, so they pulled him out of the fire. They wrote up a formal retraction letter but he refused to sign it. That is how Edward ended up burning at the stake... twice. Nothing remains of him today except for a small plaque in the public square acknowledging him as the last man to be burned for heresy. 17th century England is done killing men and women for religious dissent. [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7]

My Take by Alex Shrugged
In 1992, Robert Alton Harris was executed by the State of California for the murder of two teenage boys. Harris was taken to the gas chamber, and strapped in but at the last minute a judge issued a stay of execution. Harris was taken back to his cell while public officials worked this out. This wasn't a pardon from the governor. It was a delay issued by a lower court judge to consider whether capital punishment using the gas chamber was cruel and unusual punishment. Within the hour the question went to the Supreme Court which vacated the stay. The lower court issued a 2nd stay and a 3rd. After the 4th stay the Supreme Court ordered that no more stays be issued. On that 1st walk to the gas chamber, everyone was professional, including Harris. We follow procedure and discipline ourselves so that we don't become the same as the monsters that we are putting to death. My own memory of the Harris execution is that he broke down the 2nd time that he had to take that walk. Killing a man twice, regardless of how it is done, has to be cruel and unusual. An old proverb comes to mind: "Those who will be kind when they should be cruel will one day be cruel when they should be kind." [8] [9] [10] [11]

Witches Are All Wet and Lights are Magical *

This year a new test is used to find suspected witches. They are dunked in the water. If they float, they are witches. If they sink, they are not. (There is a modern notion that this test caused death in either case but a rope was tied to the subject so that they could be pulled out if they sank.) The Witches of Northamptonshire were tried for various bewitchings. Their crimes were not sensational but this new method of testing witches began with them. A few weeks later the Pendle Hill Witch Trials got started. Out of the ten accused, only one was found not guilty. One woman openly confessed that she had bewitched a man. She was hanged along with all the others found guilty. While it looks bad in England, it's a whole lot worse in Europe... especially Germany. Lots of people are going to die, many of them professing their guilt and grateful for being caught. [12] [13]

My Take by Alex Shrugged
OK... what's really going on here? King James the 1st was pressing the local authorities to make sure that everyone was going to church and taking communion. Communion is a significant Christian religious ritual and it was considered a crime if you refused to participate. In the midst of this crack down some folks were pointed out as witches. At the time witches were local healers, herbalists, seers and makers of joint pain medicines. Today we call these people therapists, life coaches and moonshiners. While these professions have nothing to do with magic, in the 17th century it was difficult to distinguish between a love potion and distilled alcohol. Franz Mesmer won't be born for another 100 years, but people can still be mesmerized and hypnotized. They just don't know what to call it yet so they call it witchcraft. As Arthur C. Clarke said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." For most people in the modern day, an electric light is magic. They have no idea how it works. They just flip a switch and it works. Simply because their jaws don't drop every time they turn one on makes it no less magical from a Clarke perspective.

This Year on Wikipedia

Year 1612, Wikipedia.

See Also


* The asterisk in the section header indicates that it was read on the podcast.
  1. The Age of Reason Begins: A History of European Civilization in the Period of Shakespeare, Bacon, Montaigne, Rembrandt, Galileo, and Descartes: 1558-1648, The Story Of Civilization. Simon and Schuster. “James disgraced himself by having two Unitarians burned for doubting the divinity of Christ despite the proofs which he offered them (1612), but he distinguished himself by never thereafter allowing an execution for religious dissent; these were the last men to die for heresy in England.” 
  2. Edward Wightman - Wikipedia (2015). Retrieved on 26 July 2015. “But what finally spelled his end was his public rejection of Trinitarianism.”
  3. Burnings and Persecutions. churches-of-christ.ws (2010). Retrieved on 24 July 2015. “Edward Wightman (1566 - April 11, 1612), who was burned alive at Lichfield, he the last to suffer in this way in England, future 'heretics' would be starved to death in prison.”
  4. 1612 Last Heretic - Edward Wightman. Burton on Trent Local History (2015). Retrieved on 26 July 2015. “A written retraction was hurriedly prepared and Edward, in pain and weakness, orally agreement as it was read to him. Later, however, no longer fearing the flames, he refused to sign the retraction and blasphemed louder than before.”
  5. Edward Wightman -- Martyr. rootcellar.us (1990). Retrieved on 26 July 2015. “While the flames started to burn his flesh, Edward shouted out unintelligible words that seemed to infer that he had changed his mind and was ready to accept the religion of the Established Church. The crowd rushed forward and assisted the sheriff in releasing him from the stake. Later, however, as he refused to made a formal retraction in writing and continued to preach his heresies, he was again tied to the stake and his body reduced to ashes on April 11th, 1612.”
  6. King James I (1990). Wightman Family - Written order issued by the King for the death of Edward Wightman. rootcellar.us. Retrieved on 26 July 2015. “Whereas, the holy mother church hath not further in this part what it ought more to do and prosecute, the same reverend father hath left to our secular power the same Edward Wightman as a blasphemous and condemned heretick to be punished with the condign punishment as by the letters patent of the aforesaid reverend father, the bishop of Coventry and Litchfield, in this behalf thereupon made, as certified unto us in our Chancery.”
  7. Burnings and Persecutions. churches-of-christ.ws (2010). Retrieved on 26 July 2015. “Below, plaque on the side of St. Mary's Church, Market Place, Lichfield, remembering the execution of Edward Wightman.”
  8. Alex Shrugged notes: I am reciting "Those who will be kind..." proverb from memory so it may not be exact. When I looked for an attribution on the Internet I see it is attributed to the Talmud. Yet, the actual citation is from the Midrash Qohelet Raba, 7:16. So... wherever it comes from, I remember it.
  9. Debate Rages Over Delays in Harris Execution : Forum: Appellate judge calls it a 'disgraceful performance.' Others counter that 14-year case was hardly a rush to judgment. Los Angeles Times (October 24, 1992). Retrieved on 26 July 2015. “Weisberg raised concerns that Pregerson's last-minute stay was essentially a futile act and perhaps even cruel to Harris when there was little realistic possibility that the execution would be delayed more than a few hours.”
  10. Here are the 13 men executed by California since 1978. Los Angeles Times (July 16, 2014). Retrieved on 26 July 2015. “Robert Alton Harris, and his brother abducted two teenage boys from a fast-food restaurant in San Diego in 1978. Harris shot John Mayeski and Michael Baker, both 16, in the head, killing them. He then stole their car. His brother, Daniel Marcus Harris, served six years in prison for his part in the murders.”
  11. Amendment VIII: Thomas Jefferson, A Bill for Proportioning Crimes and Punishments. press-pubs.uchicago.edu (1778). Retrieved on 26 July 2015. “Whenever sentence of death shall have been pronounced against any person for treason or murder, execution shall be done on the next day but one after such sentence, unless it be Sunday, and then on the Monday following.”
  12. Pendle witches - Wikipedia (2015). Retrieved on 26 July 2015. “The twelve accused lived in the area around Pendle Hill in Lancashire, and were charged with the murders of ten people by the use of witchcraft.”
  13. Northamptonshire witch trials - Wikipedia (2015). Retrieved on 26 July 2015. “This was the first recorded use of water-ordeal in England in order to test witches.”

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