Crime, Torture and Punishment under the Knights

Crime, Torture and Punishment under the Knights

On the evening of Thursday 23rd March, Dr William Zammit’s gave a talk on his book ‘Kissing the Gallows’, which covers crimes committed in Malta during the period 1600 – 1798, how the justice system actually worked, how criminals were tortured, and role of the public during execution rituals.  The event, organized by Flimkien ghal Ambjent Ahjar, was held at the Palazzo De La Salle in Valletta.

Dr. Zammit began his talk by briefing the audience on where he sourced the information for a history of crime in Malta during the period when Malta was under the Order of the Knights of St. John.  The actual histories of cases were found at;

  • The Magna Curia Castellania and other court records, which are official documents.
  • Correspondence and Diaries:  The Inquisitional news sheets with visual descriptions.
  • The Execution Register: 1689 – 1795.

Cases of murder were dealt with in days and weeks by the Castellania which was the supreme court of justice of the Maltese islands and the Grand Master had absolute power to preside over the Institution.  With the presence of the Inquisition, the Holy See considered Malta similar to a colony and the Inquisitor at the time reported to Rome.  Torture of those convicted was carried out by the State and not by the Inquisition.

In Maltese Society between 1600 and 1798, those who broke the law were made up of clearly distinct classes;

  • Members of the Order.
  • The Church, the Inquisition and all their dependents.
  • The Non-privileged Maltese, subjects of the Grand Master.
  • The Underworld buon voglia convicts and slaves (if not executed, would end up rowing on galleys).

There was a special court for members of the Knights, the Church, or the Inquisitors’ families.  The Grand Master’s ruling was sovereign over the Maltese in 90% of the cases.  Crimes committed were mainly murder, thefts and robberies, physical assaults, sexual crimes, but also suicides, gambling, fraud, duelling, escape from quarantine on Manoel Island, and escape of slaves and convicts. In the case of death by hanging, the body would be exposed for months as an example to the population.

Dr. Zammit spoke about the Judicial System, which comprised;

  • The Grand Corte (High Court) della Castellania of Valletta and its counterpart in Mdina and Gozo,
  • The Ecclesiastical Court in Vittoriosa (Bishops Court and Dungeons),
  • The Inquisitors Court,

where the Grand Master, the Bishops, the Inquisitor respectively presided.  Criminals were often put on display on a Pillory on the corner of Merchants Street and St. John’s Street in Valletta, where the public would throw objects at them.

Under the Knights there were 500 churches in Malta where people could claim sanctuary.  (ref: Non Gode L’Immunita Ecclesias).  Towards the end of the 1760’s there was an agreement to limit sanctuary in churches.  Dr. Zammit related two accounts of criminals who had taken refuge in sanctuary;

  • In order to recapture someone hiding in sanctuary authorities disguised themselves e.g. as fruit and vegetable sellers and would position themselves outside the church.  Then when the starving criminal or suspect was lured out of the church, he would be captured (as he was no longer protected by the sanctuary of the church).
  • In Zebbug in July 1691, someone planned a murder outside the church, and then took sanctuary inside the church.  Soldiers of the Grand Master surrounded the church.  The criminal ventured out to throw out his excrement and as he climbed back in the soldiers shot him halfway in, so was he in the church or was he outside the church?  The case went to court.

Dr. Zammit ended his talk by describing the different types of torture, localities of torture, and some tales of executions;

  • Judicial Torture – torture for the culprits “good”.
  • Retributive Torture – if culprits had done something particularly bad, part of sentence would include torture, but less and less after 1770.
  • Mutilation after death, terrorizing the people into submission and used in serious cases.  Body parts then placed in different localities after death.
  • Valletta bastions were a macabre place where culprits were tortured.
  • During the Order of St. John, gallows used for public executions were situated where the War Memorial is today.
  • Gallows were also located on top of the peninsula at the entrance to the Grand Harbour.

Finally Dr Zammit described one of the most atrocious executions in Malta when two slaves who were found guilty of attempting to murder Grand Master Pinto, were quartered alive.

This well attended event was sponsored by: Da Vinci Hospital, Attard & Co, Dhalia Ltd, and Mizzi Motors.

Derek Moss

FAA Member