Murderers in Love: Until Death Do Us Apart | Orbis Lituaniae
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Murderers in Love: Until Death Do Us Apart

Love between Barbara Radziwiłł and the Grand Duke of Lithuania Sigismund II Augustus has been exalted by literature to such an extent that it leaves no room for any other love story from the Renaissance period in the historical consciousness of Lithuanians. Life and love, however, thrived not only in royal courts and in palaces of the elite. We all know that love can overcome people of all ages and from any social classes. Historical sources help us uncover the colours of love, but not from before the middle of the 16th century. Remarkably, the colours are somewhat bleak and the documents usually do not contain the Romeo-and-Juliet-type stories; they reveal instead the baneful passions that, according to the contemporaries, bordered on insanity.

The unbridled beauty

In May 1553, the Court of the Elder of Samogitia in Šaukėnai started the hearing of the case in which Piotr Adamkowicz, a local noble, accused his brother Aleksander and Hanna Osteikowa of murdering Adam Adamkowicz who was a brother of Piotr and Aleksander, and a husband to Hanna. Despite the fact that almost two years had passed since the day murder, but in line with the court procedures of the time, Adam’s body was exhumed and delivered to court as a material evidence. As the plaintiff was presenting new arguments supporting his claim and the defendants were trying to fend them off, slowly a dramatic story emerged. Hanna Osteikowa, who apparently was born into the family of lower-rank nobility, was forced by her parents to marry a representative of the Adamkowicz family, which was rich and powerful in Samogitia.

In terms of social status and wealth, the husband and the wife were way apart, which leads to the assumption that beauty was Hanna’s main asset.

She had many admirers and flirted with them even after her marriage before getting into indecent relationships with some of them. This kind of behaviour was not extraordinary at that time, because noble women would usually lead an insular way of life in their manors after marriage, overseen by their maidservants and servants of their husbands. Manors mostly were in remote areas outside cities where every stranger immediately appeared in suspicious sight of everybody. Despite that, as Hanna later confessed, she slept with one Andrziej soon after her marriage. Her husband killed the unfortunate man after learning about that.

We do not know how Hanna became acquainted with her brother-in-law Aleksander Adamkowicz. We do know though that their sinful liaison went on for a long time and that her husband and other people eventually became aware of it. Later Piotr Adamkowicz told the court that his sister-in-law “fell into sin while her husband was still alive, in other words, she fornicated [with other men], which is incompatible with God’s commandments and marital law. In addition to that, her late husband had some knowledge about the presents she gave Aleksander, including rings, jewels and other signs of favour.” The example outlined above gives us some understanding about the ways of solving family problems of that kind in the society of the nobility of that time. Piotr Adamkowicz told the court:

“And then he [Adam Adamkowicz] punished her [Osteikowa] for that, and he threw [accusations] at her a number of times in the presence of his fellows. And she swore several times in his presence she would not do the same things again.”

The furious husband accused his brother in public, while the latter felt uncomfortably because he was married too. Publicly, Aleksander claimed he was innocent. In the eve of Adam’s murder, Aleksander was in Kražiai on market day, in the home of a resident of that town. There he threatened his brother in public, apparently after several beers. He said he would not bear his brother’s accusations and slander any longer and he would put an end to that. The latter fact was later used against him in the court.

A passionate drama turns into an intricate detective

The family row had a startling upshot. In the morning of the 19th of September 1553, Adomas Adamkavičius and several of his administrators left the small manor in Pilsūdai and set off for Kražiai where Adomas had to resolve certain legal issues. He had planned the trip in advance, and that’s why Adamkowicz’s wife knew about it. She sent a servant Motiejus Lietuvis to sniff out the route of her husband and bring that information to Aleksandras. As the horseback travellers were approaching the border of the Karšuva rural district, an administrator named Astreika who rode at the head of the group whistled abruptly and immediately a shot blasted out. A court official who inspected the crime scene and the body of the victim later witnessed that Adamkowicz had been killed by two bullets that hit his chest in the region of heart. During the inspection, Astreika confessed he had been aware about the Osteikowa-led conspiracy against his master. He also said he had seen Aleksander and his accessory Valentinas Prinkis leaving the scene of the murder. Thus, the name of the murderer became known as soon as the next day after the killing but it took quite a while before he was arrested.

Who wanted the death of Adam Adamkowicz? No surviving documents answer this question directly. They mention on several occasions that Osteikowa urged Aleksander to kill his brother so that they could live together afterwards. There are some revealing hints too. According to one of them, Piotr Adamkowicz, a brother of the murdered Adam, stormed the manor of Pilsūdai run by Osteikowa on Christmas Day in 1553 together with about 200 (!) horsemen. They captured Osteikowa and her six-week-old baby and took the two to the prison in the Plateliai Castle despite bitter cold. The baby got ill and died during the trip. Asteikaitė was sure her brother-in-law Piotr was behind the incident, but the Court of the Elder of Samogitia rejected her complaint.

We know the approximate birth date of the baby, which leads us to a guess that Osteikowa was pregnant in the summer of 1553 and that her pregnancy was a public secret. Her husband Adam’s potshots against his brother Aleksandras also coincide with the period. We can presume that Adomas knew that his brother, rather than he himself, was a real father of the baby. It is possible that Adomas Adamkavičius travelled to the court with a very concrete aim in mind, because he intended to renounce his fatherhood. Was it the reason that prompted Osteikowa to persuade Aleksander to take the fateful decision?

Hunger for love and desire for wealth

Although the guilt of Aleksander Adamkowicz and Hanna Osteikowa was evident, the legal proceedings took quite some time. Piotr Adamkowicz was the one in a position to accelerate the process or to discontinue it altogether. In the beginning, he was in doubt for some time as to whether to charge the two at all. Later he realised that charging his sister-in-law with the involvement in murder and “removing” her newborn baby, who was an official heir to the killed man, would leave him the only inheritor of the property of his murdered brother. That is why he took part in the seizure of Osteikowa and her newborn baby on Christmas Day in 1553. That can also explain why he did not take proper care of her baby. His deeds, including the later arrest of Aleksander and his eventual imprisonment in Vilnius, were unlawful. That is why the two suspects were finally released from prison: Osteikowa was freed in March 1554, while Aleksander left the prison probably in the early days of spring in 1555. Now we can observe the signs of bilateral attraction again, because Osteikowa went to Vilnius and returned back home together with Aleksander, in the same carriage.

The public huffed at them but they still enjoyed several months of happiness, the present of destiny.

The trial was completed on the 30th of May 1555. The two lovers were found guilty and sentenced to death. The execution followed immediately, in line with the traditions of the time.

Literature: Saviščevas E., Apie bajorų gyvenimą, aistras ir mirties bausmę XVI a. Žemaitijoje, Istorijos šaltinių tyrimai, t.2, 2010, p. 179–208.

Eugenijus Saviščevas