16 October: On this day in history

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16 October 1793: Marie Antoinette is executed

The French Revolution claims one of its most famous victims

On her last morning, Marie Antoinette dressed simply in white, and fastened black mourning ribbons to her wrists. Since the execution of her husband, Louis XVI, some nine months earlier, her fate had probably been inevitable. So when, at 10 that morning, the judges of the Revolutionary Tribunal entered her cell to pronounce the sentence of death, she was not at all surprised. “This is quite useless,” she said simply. “I know the sentence only too well.”

To those who observed her final hours, Marie Antoinette seemed almost unnaturally composed. When, a little later, the executioner Henri Sanson began to cut her hair, she gave a start as the blade touched her neck, but generally she remained astonishingly calm. Even as the cart rattled towards the guillotine, wrote one Victorian historian, she maintained “a grave, resolute look, gazing straight before her, pale, with red, even blood-shot eyes, but carrying her head high”. As she passed, crowds shouted “Austrian bitch!” but she never so much as flinched.

At a quarter past 12 she took her last steps on Earth. On the way up to the guillotine, she accidentally trod on Sanson’s toe. “Pardon, monsieur,” she politely apologised. Then, moving quickly and professionally, the executioner tied her to the plank, pulled off her neckerchief – and it was done. A heartbeat later, Sanson raised her severed head to show the crowd. The revolution had claimed one of its most famous victims, and certainly its most romantic.

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Marie Antoinette’s corpse was thrown into an unmarked grave. Exhumed after the fall of Napoleon, her body is now buried in the basilica of St Denis, alongside that of her husband. | Read more about the final days of Marie Antoinette

Julian Humphrys rounds up smaller anniversaries…

16 October 1612

Frederick, Elector Palatine arrived in England to marry Princess Elizabeth, the daughter of James VI and I and Anne of Denmark. Despite her mother’s concerns that she was marrying beneath her station, the pair wed at Whitehall in February 1613.

16 October  1730

French explorer, adventurer and colonial governor Antoine Laumet de Lamothe Cadillac died in Castelsarrasin in south-west France. In 1701 he had founded Detroit. The Cadillac automobile company is named after him.

16 October 1859

In a bid to foment a slave insurrection, abolitionist John Brown with 21 men stormed the Federal armoury, Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Two days later it was recaptured by future Confederate general Robert E Lee. Brown was later hanged.

16 October 1908

American showman Samuel Franklin Cody makes the first powered aeroplane flight in Great Britain at Farnborough in a machine he designed and built himself.

16 October 1927 

Birth in Danzig of Nobel Prize-winning author Gunter Grass.

16 October 1951

Liaquat Ali Khan, the first prime minister of Pakistan, was assassinated during a public meeting of the Muslim City League in Rawalpindi. His assassin, Saad Akbar Babrak, was shot dead by police.

16 October 1888: ‘Jack the Ripper’ posts a gruesome memento

Half a human kidney is delivered – but is it really a gory souvenir cut from a recent victim of the serial killer?

The autumn of 1888 found George Lusk most agitated. Lusk was one of Whitechapel’s most prominent local figures, a self-employed builder and churchwarden who had been elected chairman of the area’s Vigilance Committee. Like his fellow volunteers, Lusk was horrified by the police’s inability to solve the crimes of Jack the Ripper, and his name featured prominently in posters appealing for information. But as the tension mounted, Lusk began to worry that somebody – a mysterious bearded man, he thought – was watching his house.

On 16 October, a little parcel arrived at Lusk’s house in the evening mail, its postmark showing that it had been sent the day before. Lusk read the accompanying letter. “From hell,” it began, and continued in ungrammatical, misspelled English: “Mr Lusk. Sor, I send you half the Kidne I took from one women prasarved it for you tother piece I fried and ate it was very nise. I may send you the bloody knif that took it out if you only wate a whil longer. signed Catch me when you can Mishter Lusk.”

  • Read more: Hallie Rubenhold: “To most people, the women killed by the Ripper are just corpses. I want to tell a different story”

In the parcel he found a little lump, preserved in alcohol. Initially thinking it a hoax, Lusk put away the box in his desk drawer, but next day he was persuaded to take it for medical tests. The results were chilling. It was indeed half of a human kidney; according to a newspaper report, one medical expert thought it had come from a woman aged about 45 who drank heavily. The Ripper’s second victim, Catherine Eddowes, had been 46 and was a drinker – and it was known that her kidney had been cut out. Could Lusk’s gory gift have been sent by the Ripper?

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Journal of Human Hypertension

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