Monday, January 21, 2008

January 21

Today is the Feast of St. Agnes, when Roman Catholics honor the most important of the virgin martyrs. According to legend, Agnes of Rome, a young Christian girl twelve or thirteen years of age, was executed on this date sometime in the third or fourth century anno domini. Agnes' transgression, evidently, was to refuse an offer of marriage from the son of a Roman prefect; when she refused, the prefect ordered her to be raped, tortured and burnt at the stake. In one account by the fourth-century Roman Catholic poet and hymnist Aurelius Prudentius Clemens, one of her would-be violators was stricken blind and comatose when he cast a lewd eye upon her. Thus, while her virginity was spared, Agnes' life was not. At her execution, the wood surrounding her body failed to ignite. According to the fourth-century account by St. Ambrose -- included in his three-part meditation de virginis ("Concerning Virgins") -- Agnes greeted her death without hesitation:
She stood, she prayed, she bent down her neck. You could see the executioner tremble, as though he himself had been condemned, and his right hand shake, his face grow pale, as he feared the peril of another, while the maiden feared not for her own. You have then in one victim a twofold martyrdom, of modesty and of religion. She both remained a virgin and she obtained martyrdom.
Although the conventional accounts of her execution are ghastly, little is actually known of Agnes' life aside from its brevity. Traditionally, her execution was believed to have occurred during the Diocletian persecutions, sometime around the year 304 or 305; other evidence, however, suggests that her martyrdom may have occurred some years before during the reign of Gaius Decius, a half century or more prior to Diocletian. Regardless of her date of death, Agnes came to be known as the patron saint of young girls. He body was placed in sepulchre, and during the reign of Constantine St. Agnes was honored with a basilica constructed around her final resting place. She remains there to this day.


A man of considerably less sanctity than Agnes, Howard Unruh, turns 87 today in the Trenton Psychiatric Hospital. He has been there since 1949, when the unemployed World War II tank soldier shot up his pleasant Camden, New Jersey neighborhood on September 6 of that year. Unruh believed his neighbors were talking about him behind his back, and he soon began to compile a hit list of local enemies. When someone stole a new gate he had installed at his mother's house -- where he still lived -- Unruh at last snapped and decided to shoot everyone on his roster. He carried out his plan the next morning after a breakfast of fried eggs, although he did not exactly stick to the list. In twelve minutes, he managed to shoot 26 people, half of whom died. And so it was that Howard Unruh became the first single-episode mass murderer in United States history.

"I'm no psycho," he told an investigator. "I have a good mind. I'd have killed a thousand if I had bullets enough."

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