Hundreds of documented cases of crime were committed in Malta during the 17th and 18th centuries, from petty theft to gruesome murders. Some 400 years later, Dr. William Zammit’s book Kissing the Gallows helped unearth some shocking stories.
To get you in the mood, here are six spine-chilling stories from a time you would not want to be caught red-handed. Warning: these are all not for the faint of heart.
1. An attempted escape on a ship punished by mutilation
On Sunday 5th March 1673 at around 8pm, 14 slaves (consisting of a mix of crew members of the Order’s fleet and of other slaves belonging to private persons) attempted to escape. Boarding another ship, they assaulted the four men that they found on board, shooting and killing one of them. They managed to quickly cut off the anchor, raise the sails, and even made it to ten miles away from the harbour before being caught by two galleys and a warship that chased them down.
Two months later, the 14 slaves had their noses and ears cut off.
2. An escape from Quarantine ends badly
Quarantine was taken extremely important in Malta under the Knights, and this case is the perfect proof. It was the middle of summer 1699, and nineteen-year-old Antonio Cachia from Żurrieq was condemned to death after having escaped from Quaratine.
He was executed on the islet in Marsamxett Harbour, and his corpse was left hanging from the gallows until it decayed.
3. A week and a half of executions, because pirates never prosper
A ship carrying a crew of 12 Greek of mutineers-turned-pirates was brought into the harbour in September 1740. The crew had been aided by a 70-year-old Turkish man, who was also placed in chains and prosecuted with the rest of the mutineers.
The seamen had murdered their captain, and the government wanted to inspire fear in the people to make sure this did not happen again. Three of the Greeks were quartered following their execution, including their leader who also had this hands cut off. Over the following ten days,the rest of the corsairs were gradually hanged and beheaded, and by the end of October, the severed heads of twelve corsairs were placed on the guard posts, while the corpses of the last three executed were quartered.
4. A trespassing ends up in the castration of a boy
In August 1745, a man broke into an orchard of fig trees. A boy who was guarding the orchard, aged around eight or nine, started shouting to attract attention. The intruder threatened the boy that unless he stopped, he would castrate him, but instead of obeying, the boy shouted out louder, in the hope of drawing his father’s attention.
The intruder was very quick to keep to his promise, grabbing the boy and castrating him. He even off his penis, leaving him half-dead on the ground. Because the boy gradually recovered and did not end up dying, the man avoided execution. He was instead made to kiss the gallows and then sent to the galleys for life.
5. A priest murders his mistress
In March 1746, Don Pino Rizzo, a priest of Birgu, murdered a woman near the monastery of the nuns of St. Scholastica after lunch. The rumours were that the murder was motivated by the fact that the woman did not want to let the priest into her house, being expressly prohibited to do so by her husband before he left the island the previous evening. Apparently, they had been together for at least 18 years.
The woman was stabbed in the chest and left covered in her own blood. The murderer allegedly licked the blood of the dagger and escaped to sanctuary in a church. During the last day of Carnival four years later (and still being detained in the Bishop’s prison), the priest was extremely drunk and tumbled down a staircase. A stone balustrade at the top of the staircase fell on his head and killed him. The word on the street was that “he had evaded the justice of the world, but not that of God.”
6. The case of the drowning of a pregnant woman
This case from 1748 is one of the most detailed, allowing for much discussion on various points. The corpse of a drowned pregnant woman was discovered in the harbour. Following an examination of the corpse, the doctors concluded that the woman had most likely been strangled and then thrown into the sea. While the perpetrator was not instantly identified, her husband was of course the first suspect.
The husband quickly admitted to the crime after a few minutes of being subjected to the corda, a torture technique including hanging a victim off a rope and gradually ending up in dislocated shoulders.
According to the man’s confession, he had murdered his wife to be able to marry another young woman to whom he had already promised marriage. While showing very visible signs of true repentance after admitting to the crime, it took a long time for the man to be condemned to the gallows, since evidence was proven of a defective way the trial was conducted.
Eventually, after a mistrial and months of deliberation, the man was hanged, with his corpse quartered at the same place of his execution. During that evening, the quarters, together with the rest of his corpse, were carried in procession by the Confraternity of the Beheading of St. John, ironically enough.