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William I, Prince of Orange – better known as William the Silent – holds the unenviable place in history of being the first person in the world assassinated with a handgun in 1584.

Born into a wealthy family in the Spanish Netherlands, William became active in politics and grew to dislike the way the Spanish leaders were treating the people in the Netherlands. He helped some “political activists” (as we would call them now) in some successful fights against the Spaniards and eventually ran afoul of the Spanish king.

In 1580, he was declared an outlaw and became a wanted man. Enter Balthasar Gérard, a loyal subject of Spain’s King Philip II.

On July 10, 1584, Gérard purchased a pair of wheellock pistols and went to a previously-arranged meeting with William at his house. There, he pulled out the pistols and fired both of them at the prince, killing him.

Gérard was captured and sentenced to death, but first he was tortured, which included whipping, being hung from a pole with weights attached to his feet, burning his feet and pulling the flesh off, branding his armpits, putting him in an alcohol-soaked shirt, pouring burning fat on him, and driving nails underneath his fingernails and toenails.

All of this was in addition to his actual execution, which was equally excessive. First, his right hand was to be burned off with a hot iron. Then, sharp pincers would be used to tear at his flesh in six places, after which he would be quartered and disembowelled alive, his heart ripped from his chest, flung at his face, and finally, his head was to be chopped off.

I have been informed by an arms scholar from the Netherlands that the pistols were destroyed, despite what the internet says. However, William’s home still stands, and the bullet holes are still clearly visible in the wall.

Logan Metesh is a firearms historian and consultant who runs High Caliber History LLC. Click here for a free 3-page download with tips about caring for your antique and collectible firearms.

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  1. You got 1854 as the date in the top of the story.

  2. When torture was standard procedure, it’s a wonder that anyone ever allowed themselves to be captured alive.

    • Not really standard… a lowly criminal simply gets hanged.
      But an Assassin (the distinction being the relative importance of the victim) must be made an example of. We can’t have people thinking the Elite can be killed when they tick us off, can we?

    • “So that’s where the cartels got all their creative ideas.”

      I recently read a *fascinating* book on Europe from that time period, ‘The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century’, by Harrington.

      It’s basically the personal executioner journal by a guy who’s family got ‘into the business’ by bad luck, literally being at the wrong spot at the wrong time. The author kept the journal as an attempt to regain his family’s honor, and eventually succeeded. He did so by being an honest, honorable civil servant, which was very unusual, as most executioners were human scum, drunkards most of them.

      Anyways, I have read a number of books from that time, about places like London’s infamous Tyburn, and was struck by the crimes that led people to the gallows. From the accounts, you’d think stealing a loaf of bread would get you hung. The truth is far more nuanced, you really had to be a local problem to get the rope (or sword, if you were ‘honorable).

      The torture aspect was religion-based more than anything. The church wanted the rabble ‘confessing their sins’, it made things much simpler in their ‘legal system’. Once the criminal finally confesses, it takes guilt away from the system doing the executing. But if your crime was considered especially heinous, you could expect to get the full torture ‘treatment’. Followed by your execution. Like the guy mentioned in the article. Sometimes after you were dead they tortured your corpse.

      A really fascinating read, highly recommended…

  3. Did the humane execution of Gerard prevent more copycat assassin’s? I’m am still advocating our system of justice use, Hung from the neck until dead, for all to veiw on the court house lawn. How many copycats would want to jump on the ” me too ” wagon after watching the murder beg, plead and fight that noose until the trap door dropped

    • Gerard’s execution wasn’t ‘humane’ in the least, it was done like that to make a *point*.

      ‘Humane’ executions were done to those who were considered ‘honorable’ and confessed their ‘sins’ properly. They got the sword, a sharp one if they were lucky and could afford it. As the condemned, your family could pay additional for a sharp sword.

      But in their ‘legal system’ at the time, brutal torture like hot pincers were used to extract that necessary confession. It was all good, they were after all, ‘saving their eternal souls’…

  4. Perhaps the first assassinated with a “modern pistol”. In the West.

    The Chinese invented gunpowder around the 9th C, and had a variety of handheld weapons using it as a propellant for projectiles. I’m gonna go out on a limb, and suggest that in the intervening 700-ish years, somebody “important” in China found themselves on the wrong end of a piece bamboo.

    Chinese historians please chime in with a good example.

  5. Yeesh, the description of the torture made me cringe! Why can’t we do that to MS13 gang members, Black Panthers, ISIS members, and school shooters? That would send a clear message that extreme actions have extreme consequences.

    • Because we’re more civilized than that. Part of what makes American exceptionalism used to be our refusal to stoop to their level.

      • Fight fire with fire, that’s what I say. Being nice and honorable gets us only so far. It’s time we got our hands dirty. Just because we are nice, doesn’t mean we’ve forgotten how to be vicious. We should use torture only for extremely heinous crimes against humanity and nature.

      • Even if we torture a person (either for information or as punishment) it is not ‘stooping to their level’. That would require randomly executing people and torturing people for the pleasure of it. Torture is a method and a tool, not to be misused or flippantly applied. It is rough, dirty, and taxing, but sometimes necessary (like voting for a squishy politician over a hardcore communist).

        I view it no different than the death penalty or community service. It should be applied only when there is a clear advantage to such a sentence, not for ‘feelz’.

      • Used to be is correct. I remember being taught in elementary school one of the things that set us Americans apart was equal justice for all and that we didn’t torture prisoners. These proved our assertion we were better than other people in other countries. Look what’s happened to us since those days.

    • You forget that MS-13 and drug cartels do much of the same to their captives, whether informants or members of rival gangs. Most headless corpses show evidence of being tortured. There are any number of mutilations including cutting of all the limbs, electric shock, whippings or beatings, cutting, and rape. No, we have not greatly improved the human animal in the last five hundred years. Now ISIS, when it came execution time, usually just shot you in the back of the head, decapitated you, hung you, or tossed you off a building, but not in combination. Pretty humane by comparison to what the Mexicans are up to.

  6. In 1972, I visited William’s house in Delft, Holland, and heard the story of his death. Saw that same plaque and the holes. He was a great freedom fighter for both liberty of the Seven Provinces and for Protestantism. Eventually, his countrymen would free themselves from Spanish rule.

  7. We can’t do it because that’s what the “cruel and unusual punishment” clause was designed to prevent. Of course, the modern judicial interpretation of “cruel and unusual” doesn’t jibe with the punishments that were normal back in the Founders’ day. Take hanging, for example. In the 18th c., a hanging consisted of simply putting a cowboy-style noose around the perpetrator’s neck and letting him/her swing until they choked to death. In the 19th c., the hangman’s noose (positioned behind the criminal’s ear) and the gallows trapdoor were invented to result in a more merciful and much quicker death. Of course, authorities later decided against making hangings public exhibitions was cruel and unusual, so they were carried out in the prisons. And then Old Sparky came along to make things even more humane, and so forth down to the present day. I believe we have taken this humaneness thing too far in this regard, with officials falling all over themselves to make sure the executee doesn’t feel pain, &c. I am also a believer in public humiliation of criminals (especially the young ones), and that executions should be public to send a message.

    • Realistically, executions should be very cheap. A couple skilled marksmen can make it quick and painless. This whole mess with lethal injections is bullshit. A couple bullets and a pine box, that’s all that should be needed. Of course, the actual execution would be quick. What I propose is making the bastard suffer before his (or her) death.

    • The problem with execution is that it doesn’t seem to send a message; there are any number of miscreants waiting to commit a crime that will result in the same penalty. You have got to remember that most criminals are violent and stupid, and they really believe that they will not be caught–so the death penalty is no deterrent to their criminal activities. If it was, you would think that after five thousand years of public executions, we’d be done with capital crimes. NOT!

      • Wether it works as a deterrent or not, isn’t so important, as is a sense of justice to the victims and society. Think about it this way, would the majority of Americans be happy with Bin Laden being alive, in a cell, getting 3 hots and a cot on the taxpayers dime? Hell no. Wether putting bin laden down like an animal stopped any would be jihadist isn’t important, but our psyche as a nation is. In short, some people just need killin.

      • Keep in mind, most common crimes wouldn’t warrant an execution. I’m talking about seriously nasty crimes. Ones where they know they would get caught and did it anyway or ones that caused such devastation and such suffering, that it doesn’t matter whether it was on purpose or accidental.

    • “What would they do to you if you assassinated the king?”

      If you were a nobleman, you would get the sword.

      For the rabble, like us, it would be your last long and painful experience…

  8. With sensible background checks in place, and a ban on assault wheel locks, this assassination would never have taken place.

  9. With clothes like that, you could conceal carry all kinds of arms. Get your tactical cape, and strap on your AR…. You could easily stick a plate in that nice tunic. Probably even hide in LCP in that nice lacey collar. And be nice and cozy for those European winters.

    • What impressed me was the evidence of good penetration. I really hadn’t expected to see a clean pass-through from a wheellock pistol punching through layers of fabric, bones and squishy bits.

  10. First major political assassination maybe, but I’m sure plenty of people had been assassinated before given guns had been around for decades by that point.

    • As I recall “Otzi” or “Iceman” that Murdered ~3100 to ~3400 BC, cause of death was an Arrow Head. Because of the Expensive Ornate Copper Ax that he carried. Only problem being that after death, he was covered in Snow. And murderer unknown never recovered the ax. I suspect Murders were quite common and easily explain off as accidental death by those that committed them during the Ice Age…

      • A ban on ice ages is needed. Or at least a federal safe ice block storage law. Ice trays should be limited to no more than 8 cubes.

        It’s for the children.

  11. No joke about the Torture and Execution of B. Gerard! If our self-proclaimed Authoritarian DemoCRAP representatives decide to cement themselves into government forever….That will probably be the penalties for going against THEIR Anti-2nd Amendment/ Gun. Control initiatives….I kid you not….History might repeat itself….

  12. Let me tell you the story of the rattlesnake.
    You find a rattlesnake in your backyard, near your kids. What are your choices?
    1) Scoop him up with a rake and hold him over the grill (barbaric torture)
    2) Toss him over the fence into the neighbors yard (deportation, someone else’s problem)
    3) Put him in a cage (jail), and keep him there until he’s no longer a snake. (???)
    4) Cut his head off and bury the remains (execution)

    One choice make you part of the problem
    One choice puts off the problem
    One choice makes it someone else’s problem
    One choice solves the problem
    What do you do?

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