I DIDN’T HEED THE WARNING, and I walked to the Street of the Beheaded in Palermo. The day before I had finished the “sacred circuit,” a self-guided tour of the city’s historic churches. I kept track of my progress by crossing off names on the limp paper ticket crumpled in my purse: San Matteo, Sant’Antonio, more than one Santa Maria. At my last stop, the man checking tickets at the door noticed I was finished with the circuit. I told him I wasn’t quite done with churches yet; I planned to visit a few that were further afield—including the Sanctuary of the Souls of the Beheaded, a small parish church on a street of the same name. He frowned and said I shouldn’t go alone. “I’ll be fine,” I said. He tried again, more pointedly: “You came all the way to Sicily, stay around Sicilians.” The souls of the beheaded didn’t frighten him, but the markets with Chinese names and the sounds of African people speaking French in the street did.
Generally, Sicily considers itself a melting pot and points to its Greek-Arab-French-Spanish-Italian heritage with pride. But the man at the church was repeating what I had heard a new wave of populist politicians say on the news: that these new people from “there” are inextricably bound up with crime, that their presence is illegal, their very existence somehow a violation of the law.
Outside the city core of Palermo, baroque churches give way to blocky postwar apartment buildings. There are no souvenir shops selling yarn pompoms or miniature donkey carts. What is sold in this neighborhood isn’t the idea of “here,” a place you can take back home with you as a souvenier, but “there,” the mundane things imported from the place where you are from.
My destination, the Street of the Beheaded, is really more like an alley. A literal translation would be “the street of the taken off,” but in Palermo everyone knows that the things taken off were heads. It’s a third of a mile long and runs perpendicular to roads named after Sicilian writers, scientists, scholars, and politicians. These were people who changed the landscape of Palermo, at first figuratively and now literally. So did the beheaded, though their social status was much lower than that of the average name given to a street. The beheaded were Palermo’s executed criminals—men and women who, through the efforts of their fellow citizens, collectively earned the honor of having a street and church named after them, despite being known only for their death sentences.
Their rise to prominence began when the Spanish imported their deadly Inquisition to Sicily. In 1487 Tomás de Torquemada, a Spanish Dominican friar and son of a Jewish convert, began sending inquisitors to Spanish-ruled Sicily. He was already the architect of the expulsion of Jews from Spain, and within six years he was responsible for the extortion and expulsion of Sicilian Jews. This exodus still shapes the religious landscape of Palermo today. In 2017 a Catholic oratory built on the site of Palermo’s fifteenth-century synagogue (curiously renamed Holy Mary of Saturday) was finally rededicated as a synagogue—Palermo’s first since the days of Torquemada.
Under such extreme religious persecution, Sicily became the deeply Catholic region it is today. But the Inquisition wasn’t satisfied with a professing Catholic population. As it settled in, it found more work investigating false converts and alleged blasphemers. It rooted out Sicilian Catholic rituals that veered too far from Spanish ones and thus, in the opinion of the colonizers, verged upon witchcraft. In 1601, the Inquisition established a headquarters in Palermo just off the Piazza Marina. Today the square is known for the thicket of strangler fig trees at its center, but in the seventeenth century it was known for its scaffold that elevated the bodies of men and women strangled by the noose.
If you examine execution records from the days of Palermo’s Inquisition, the way people died can tell you a little about how they lived. Nobles were beheaded, the executioner never touching their bodies with his hands. They were allowed to die quickly in a pious kneeling position, and privately if they were important enough. People from the lower classes were publicly hanged, their deaths hastened by the executioner’s assistant, who jumped up and hung from their feet. (The word for “minion” in Italian is tirapièdi—literally “pull on feet.”) Those who were hanged were beheaded posthumously. Women were treated more gently than men, except when they weren’t, like Thofania d’Adamo, the expert poisoner who was sentenced to death by manual strangulation, or Giovanna Bonanno, another poisoner for whom the scaffold was built unusually high. Other intensifiers could be added depending on the severity of the crime. The amputation of limbs or drawing and quartering were common, but these punishments were inflicted on the recently executed more often than the living. It wasn’t pain that was important, but marking the soul as unfit for heaven.
Once the afterlife is considered, it’s easy to see how postmortem punishments functioned as a second kind of death sentence, one even harsher than the first. It wasn’t about killing the person—it was about absolutely shattering the body so it could never rest completely in consecrated ground. It’s why the Inquisition not only burned unrepentant heretics alive but also posthumously or even in effigy, scattering their bodies and souls to the wind.
The eponymous beheaded of Palermo (who were not always beheaded; many were hanged men and women from the lower classes) were not obliterated in the way heretics were. At the time, the Inquisition was just one piece of a fragmented justice system. Each part had its own legal processes, precedents, and officials. While the Inquisition dealt with religious crime, other clusters dealt with violent crime, property crime, or the breech of social taboos. But the new inquisitional processes influenced all other parts of the justice system. People accused of crimes found themselves facing a new kind of adversary.
As the name suggests, inquisitional charges were brought against people as the result of private investigations. Prior to this, in order for there to be a crime, there had to be an accuser. Accusers represented not only themselves, but the voice of the society whose security was threatened by the presence of a lawbreaker. Once the Spanish Inquisition’s investigators began seeking out crimes that were not apparent to the public, the Sicilian people found themselves entangled in an increasingly clandestine legal process conducted either by the Catholic Inquisitors or the Spanish state through its viceroys and their network of local henchmen called familiars. The opaque inquisitional process proved to be the perfect breeding ground for corruption, greed, paranoia, and cronyism. People could now find themselves imprisoned without even knowing the charges.
The logical defense against this influx of a Spanish “them” was the formation of an opposing Sicilian “us.” Today in Palermo, groups based on an idea of “us” can have nationalistic and xenophobic overtones, but colonialism inverted the power relationship of insiders and outsiders. Though not many people cite the era of Spanish rule as a precursor to today’s attitudes, a charitable view of history might find the roots of some of Sicily’s insular tendencies here, in a time when Sicilians were subjugated in their own land.
Given the power dynamics of the time, the Sicilians needed a group of exceptionally influential men to credibly oppose the ruling Spanish. This role was often attributed to the Beati Paoli, a proto-mafia with Robin Hood’s politics that allegedly brought renegade justice to Palermo. Tour guides like to point out their secret tunnels, and there’s even a Beati Paoli museum, questionable in both taste and veracity, illustrating their history with tableaux of department-store mannequins draped in black polyester hoods. But the evidence for their existence is thin.
More likely, it was not black-hooded men who resisted the excesses of the Spanish, but white-hooded ones, the Noble Primary Company of the Most Holy Crucifix. Colloquially they were named for the color of their robes: the Bianchi.
Their work has been most thoroughly documented by social anthropologist Maria Pia di Bella. They were founded in 1541, between the time of the first Inquisitor coming to Sicily and the Inquisition establishing a headquarters there. They worked through 1820, assisting 2,127 condemned prisoners. The Bianchi strove to redeem the condemned not by saving their temporal bodies, but by preparing them for a holy death, elevating their souls to a status close to sainthood.
The road from criminal to saint began three days and nights before the execution. The condemned person was taken from his cell to a room where he met six members of the Bianchi: four laymen, a priest, and a novice. All were cloaked in white with their hoods covering their faces. From now on, the Bianchi would be known as the prisoner’s “comforters.” In their midst, the prisoner would not be called condemned but “afflicted.”
The comforters began by telling the afflicted he was lucky—most people do not know the hour of their death, but now, with their help, the afflicted could prepare his soul and die confident he would enter the kingdom of heaven. The comforters then took off their hoods, revealing their identities only to the afflicted. They accepted him into their aristocratic ranks by kissing his feet. From then on they stayed with him, even while he slept, until the moment he died.
For the next two days, the afflicted prayed with the Bianchi. He repeatedly kissed the hands of the Ecce Homo (“behold the man”), a statue of Christ on his way to be crucified: bloodied, bound, and mocked. To meditate on this image was to look into a trick mirror, one that reflected the best outcome under the worst circumstances. In the image of Christ as a condemned man, the afflicted saw an ideal version of his own death. Christ could be a model, just as he was to Saints Agnes, Sebastian, Lawrence, Lucy, or any of the thousands of Christian martyrs who calmly and even happily affirmed their faith through death. And through the ministrations of the Bianchi, he could hope to participate in that ideal death. If he confessed his sins and was absolved, the state would be executing an innocent man who was calmly choosing the Catholic afterlife over his life on earth. For martyrs, death confers instant sainthood because of the purity of their souls and the strength of their conviction. The hope was that with the proper preparation, the afflicted could join their ranks.
To help him approach death as much like Christ or a martyr as possible, the priest among the Bianchi offered to hear the afflicted’s final confession. This confession could be amended over the three days to ensure its completeness. Once it was finalized, the sacrament absolved the afflicted of all sins, pointedly including the sin of falsely incriminating others, even under torture. Inventive torture was a hallmark of Spanish jurisprudence during the Inquisition, in both Spain and its colonies. It was often used to extract names of others who might be investigated next, drumming up business and the possibility of more confiscated property for the Spanish government. But the Bianchi were clear that the freely given confession was what mattered. Men might use confessions made under duress, but God didn’t.
During the third and final day, the Bianchi and the afflicted completed the most difficult spiritual exercise, the ladder. At the time, the ladder, not the noose, was the symbol of capital punishment. As such, it worked its way into the future as a symbol of bad luck—something to avoid walking under—and into the past, as an anachronistic addition to crucifixion tableaux and paintings from this time forward. The exercise of the ladder was a dress rehearsal, where the Bianchi and the afflicted practiced everything that would happen on the day of the execution. It was done no fewer than four times, until the afflicted was prepared to die.
When that day came, the afflicted had very few lines to remember. On the way to the scaffold, he was blindfolded and only allowed to say, “Pray for me.” Upon arrival, he knelt before the Bianchi priest and was asked if he wanted to die like a Christian. If all went according to plan, he would say yes and receive absolution. The afflicted would then climb the ladder. As he ascended, the priest would recite the Apostle’s Creed. On the words “he suffered and was buried” the noose was put around his neck. At the end of the prayer, he was pushed off the ladder, and the executioner’s assistant would hang from his feet until the afflicted was dead.
Diary entries and letters describe the execution crowds in Palermo as particularly somber and sympathetic to the criminal. The people of the city understood the likelihood of corruption within the various parts of the justice system. As they witnessed the Bianchi prepare the criminal’s soul for the afterlife, the hope it instilled undercut the death sentence imposed by the Spanish.
For this reason, the Spanish mistrusted the Sicilian Bianchi, though the brotherhood was too pious and, more importantly, too powerful for the Inquisition to move against it. To be admitted to the Bianchi a man had to prove noble lineage going back one hundred and fifty years. If he was a priest, he had to hold a doctorate in theology. Their oratory, which suspicious Spaniards called the “secret oratory,” wasn’t far from the Street of the Beheaded. Today it is an art gallery in the gentrified neighborhood known by its informal Arabic name, La Kasla. The neighborhood’s formal name is Mandamento Tribunali, “the district of courts,” as it functioned as the seat of the Inquisition and the other courts of the time.
Other cities in what would eventually become unified Italy had groups of comforters similar to the Bianchi, but none of them elevated the souls of criminals to the status of minor saints. The cult of the beheaded was a uniquely Sicilian phenomenon—probably due to three differences between the Bianchi and other comforters. The first was simply the amount of time the Bianchi spent with the afflicted. While other groups concentrated on soothing and protecting the prisoner on the day of execution, the Bianchi worked to transform a soul over the course of several days.
The second was the power and nobility of the Bianchi. The prominence of its members inspired men from lower classes to form confraternities that complimented its work. In 1614, men from the upper classes but not aristocracy formed a confraternity which prayed for the afflicted during their last three days. Middle-class men formed their confraternity in 1599. Lawyers and aristocrats were specifically banned from this group, which prayed for the release of souls from purgatory into heaven. Artisans formed their own confraternity in 1602 and devoted themselves to burying the bodies of the executed, ensuring that even if they wound up in a mass grave without a head, theirs would still count as a Christian burial. Men of every class in Palermo felt a responsibility for shepherding the soul of the executed to its rightful place in the afterlife. It’s no wonder that the execution crowds in the city were particularly respectful.
The third and crucial difference that allowed the souls of Palermo’s criminals to become folk saints was the Sicilians’ paradoxical relationship to the Spanish. The cult of the beheaded couldn’t have formed without the Inquisition’s corrupt and secretive legal system. It led Sicilians to question the legitimacy of many charges and sympathize with the convicts. However, the cult of the beheaded also couldn’t be fully realized while the Spanish were still in Sicily. Sicilian religious practices were (and are) based on personal relationships to the divine, which often exist outside of the formal Catholic hierarchy of popes, bishops, and priests. The Spanish viewed these Sicilian practices with suspicion, and practitioners risked attracting the attention of the Inquisition—that is, until the Spanish finally left.
The Inquisition in Sicily ended with a whimper and a bang. Sicilians had mustered periods of intense resistance over the two centuries since the first inquisitor arrived. Rule of Sicily turned over several times. By the end of the Inquisition period, Sicily wasn’t even Spanish; it had been ruled by Austria and then by the Bourbons. The Inquisition as Sicily had come to know it was formally abolished in 1783. Sicilians were quick to dismantle the Inquisition’s prisons and deface their insignia, but they could not prevent a final order from Ferdinand I from being carried out: the burning of all records to protect the Spanish Inquisitors.
With the Inquisitors gone, the souls of the beheaded soon came out into the open. The Bianchi and all its related confraternities continued their work assisting men and women condemned to die in Palermo, but in 1799, they stopped burying the executed in mass graves at Saint Bartholomew’s hospital. Instead, they interred them in the church crypt (more of a pit in the courtyard) of the recently constructed Our Lady of the River. Though it still constituted a Christian burial, the bodies were hastily stacked without paperwork or, for that matter, heads. The heads (usually removed from hanged members of the lower classes, since the heads and bodies of decapitated nobles would be taken to private crypts) were arranged in a pyramid-shaped ossuary in the courtyard with small windows that allowed them to be seen. The pyramid bore the inscription “To terrorize and warn the criminal!”—but after hundreds of years of questioning the validity of the death sentence and working to ensure these souls would enter heaven, the people of Palermo didn’t see a warning. Instead, they saw a shrine.
Seeing a human skull in a shrine is not particularly unusual in Palermo, even today. In a side chapel of Sant’Orsola in the city center there are three, all wearing plastic flower crowns among a larger mosaic of human bones. They are relics of saints, many of whom were also martyrs. The bones are venerated body parts that Catholics pray with in order to be closer to the holy dead. These relationships are intensely personal and sometimes quid pro quo. Promises are made by the living, and gifts are brought to the dead when prayers are answered. Once the Inquisition wasn’t watching, the people of Palermo simply treated the skulls of the beheaded the same way they had long treated the skulls of more orthodox saints.
The practice began among the lower classes and women—not coincidentally, the people farthest from the kind of official Catholic power that was condoned by the Spanish. They believed that the souls of the beheaded walked the streets at night, sometimes in the white robes of the Bianchi. They prayed to them, particularly for protection, as it was common knowledge that the souls hated robbers or violence of any kind.
The beheaded also had wisdom or warnings to offer people who asked them for love, money, or any of the other little miracles we need to get by. They spoke in clipped or broken words, or sometimes in a more esoteric language. They communicated through the sounds of the street if they were summoned outside of the church that bore their name or by a candle lit in front of a holy card showing a man on the gallows. Roosters, dogs, whistles, guitars, bells, songs, knocking, fast carriages, or the sound of a window shutting were positive answers. Cats, donkeys, fighting, weeping, farts, or water being flung into the street were negative. Chance words overheard from passersby became their words as well.
Thanking the beheaded for their help required its own kind of prayer and even pilgrimage. In the early part of the twentieth century, folklorists Giuseppe Pitrè and E.S. Hartland documented the rituals taking place on the Street of the Beheaded. Women rose early on Monday and Fridays to walk up the road to the church. They said rhyming prayers in dialect interspersed with a rosary that traded the traditional joyful, sorrowful, or glorious mysteries for something more mysterious—decades of the rosary dedicated to the specific sufferings of the beheaded.
When they arrived at the church, the women offered a rosary for their intentions at the altar of Saint John the Baptist, a side chapel marked by the image of a man’s head on a plate. Then they put an ear to a stone in the floor. The sound of rattling was positive, silence was negative. If a prayer had already been answered, they would leave a gift in the chapel. The chapel was filled with rosaries and amulets hung from the statues and wax votive offerings in the shapes of the things that were prayed for: mostly body parts and babies. There was also a case of small paintings—amateur watercolors of murders, shipwrecks, wounded men, people being crushed by trams, and other calamities. In every painting, the beheaded were shown above the fray in a cloud of purgatorial fire with ropes around their necks. Above them were the Virgin and Child, the church-approved source of miracles. (Although the beheaded are the ones invoked, all interventions are still believed to come from a more orthodox place.) The paintings were signed with VFR or VFGA—shorthand for the Italian phrase “vow made, graces received.” Pitrè wrote of the chapel, “When my foreign friends come to Sicily, I take them to this church and this chapel. When they see what happens there, they’re dumbfounded, unable to comprehend the nature of the world they’ve wandered into.”
However, this was not quite the world I wandered into when I finally made it to the church. By the second half of the twentieth century, many of the physical traces of the cult of the beheaded had vanished in postwar chaos. In 1993, sociologist Michael P. Carroll visited the church and found it nondescript. But a stone bollard bearing a bronze plaque of a hanged man still functioned as a shrine. Carroll photographed it surrounded by red votive candles. I located that monument a short distance from the church, but there were no plaques or inscriptions anymore. It stood crumbling on the sidewalk near a parking lot, hollowed out in the center and barely distinguishable from a public trashcan. A lone red votive and bouquet of wilting flowers betrayed its significance, if only to a few.
The pyramid of decapitated heads is also long gone. As a warning to would-be criminals it was doomed to fail; capital punishment has never proved an effective deterrent. But that’s not the death penalty’s only purpose. While it may not discourage crime, it’s the surest way to remove someone from society. It’s used when a person becomes a threat, his existence a violation of the law—in other words, when a human becomes illegal.
I considered the illegal Sicilians buried beneath my feet under what’s now an ordinary parish church with a colorful name: the Sanctuary of the Souls of the Beheaded. The Spanish had tried to remove them and failed. The living still talked to them, prayed to them, bargained with them and brought them gifts. And, critically, they saw in these souls more than their convictions and transgressions. Sicilians saw the flaws in the system that purportedly brought people to justice, and they saw the divine nature of the souls caught between man’s retribution and God’s forgiveness.
The dead who walk the streets might be a relic of the past, something your Sicilian grandma might tell you about, but the Sanctuary of the Souls of the Beheaded is very much alive. Its community service program and an outreach program on the Street of the Beheaded are well known throughout the city. While the church is off the beaten path for tourists, it’s often a first stop for migrants. Pope Francis ate lunch here, sharing a meal with prisoners in a nod to the past, but also with refugees and immigrants—the people now deemed illegal. Under the Inquisition, Sicilians learned to question the state’s narrative and find true sanctity in what seemed to be the least likely people. The only question is, will anyone remember?
Elizabeth Harper’s essays and photographs have appeared in Slate, Lapham’s Quarterly, Hazlitt, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s catalogue for Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body. Read more at allthesaintsyoushouldknow.com.