Elsje’s fate

In 1664, Rembrandt painted the executed servant girl Elsje Christiaens, hanging in the gallows. The 18-year-old Danish girl had come to Amsterdam for work. Because she was unable to pay her rent she got into an argument with her landlord, who she murdered with an axe in a fit of rage. Elsje was publicly strangled on the Dam, her body brought by boat to Volewijck where it was hung and exposed to the elements and to the hungry birds after which Volewijck (the bird area) is named.

 

Print of Tolhuis

A field of remains

The gallows were both a place of repugnance and of entertainment for a Sunday afternoon outing. Parents brought their children there to learn morals. They rowed across the IJ River to gape at the bodies.

 

Print of Galgenveld (gallows)

Kinderboom (children tree)

Strikingly, legends have it that next to the gruesome gallows pit was a kinderboom, with bunches of innocent babies hanging on its branches. Volewijck played on everybody’s conscience: next to the depravity of criminals was the pure innocence of babies, a portrayal of the chance for a good life. It was the trigger to lead a virtuous and honourable life, even if you were poor. The newborns called out to potential parents “Choose me, choose me, I will sweeten the rest of your days!”Burial regulationBefore this practice was abolished in 1795, about a thousand criminals were exhibited at the gallows pit. Thereafter, even criminals were given a proper burial.

 

Print of Galgenveld (gallows)

Burial regulation

Before this practice was abolished in 1795, about a thousand criminals were exhibited at the gallows pit. Thereafter, even criminals were given a proper burial.