Look Out Below: The Bloody History Of Defenestration

Published January 4, 2022
Updated January 21, 2022

As a method of execution, throwing someone through a window is a bizarre concept. And there's even a word for it: defenestration.

As a method of execution, throwing someone through a window is a bizarre concept. It’s amazing there’s even a word for it, and yet there is: defenestration.

We’ve witnessed it in countless movies — the thrilling opening fight scene in Watchmen, Edward Longshanks hurling his son’s lover through an open window in Braveheart, even the triumphant moment in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves when Friar Tuck pushes the money-laden bishop through the stained glass window of his chapel.

Defenestration

But there is a very real, and very weird history behind the practice.

The Bloody Origins Of Defenestration

Defenestration Of Prague New Town Hall

Left: A painting of the Defenestration of Prague by Adolf Liebscher. Right: The Town Hall in the present day. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

The origin of the term defenestration — the Latin word ‘de’ meaning ‘out of’ and ‘fenestra’ meaning ‘window’ — comes from an incident in Prague, Bohemia (now the Czech Republic), in 1419. A group of anti-Catholic rebels (the Hussites) marched upon the New Town Hall in Charles Square, demanding the release of some of the Hussite prisoners.

When the request was refused and a stone was hurled at their leader, Jan Zelivsky, the Hussites angrily stormed the hall and started tossing the council members out of the windows.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the incensed mob gathered below the windows held up spears for the men to fall upon. Those that weren’t killed by the fall were hastily despatched with the spears.

200 years later, it happened all over again. Fittingly titled The Second Defenestration of Prague, the 1618 act was fuelled by the religious altercation between the protestant Bohemian aristocracy and the ruling catholic Hapsburgs, whereupon members of the former threw two Hapsburg regents out of the windows of Wenceslaus Hall in Prague Castle. Amazingly, however, they survived the 70-foot drop.

The Hapsburgs instantly claimed divine intervention, insisting the men had been miraculously caught by the hands of the Virgin Mary. The generally accepted explanation is far less holy — namely, that the men survived because they landed on a large pile of dung, conveniently situated beneath the window.

So where exactly did the inspiration to start throwing people out of windows come from? According to Czech historian Ota Konrad, from Charles University, “The inspiration for defenestration comes from the Bible, in the story about Jezebel, who was thrown from the window by her people. Defenestration was a very symbolic execution: It is about falling from high to low, symbolising a fall from grace.”

Defenestration Around The World

Fela Kuti Zombie Album

Pictured: The cover of Fela Kuti’s album, Zombie. Kuti’s mother was defenestrated as a response to the recording.

It wasn’t just Prague that practiced the strange art, as there were defenestrations in many other medieval cities. In Scotland in 1452, the 8th Earl of Douglas was ruthlessly defenestrated by King James II. Incensed at the earl’s refusal to pull out of a pact he’d made with other noblemen, the king reacted by stabbing him a total of 26 times before throwing him out of the window of Stirling Castle.

Just over a century later, there was an incident in the Mughal Empire. After murdering the newly-appointed prime minister Ataga Khan in an act of jealousy, General Adham Khan was ordered to be defenestrated by Mughal Emperor, Akbar.

On May 16th, 1562, he was thrown from the ramparts of Agra Fort. When the 40-foot fall broke only his legs, the emperor ordered that Khan simply be marched back up to the top and defenestrated a second time.

On being told, the victim’s mother, Maham Anga — nurse to Emperor Akbar — graciously uttered, “You have done well.” Very loyal words indeed from the mother, but not entirely heartfelt: Anga died of acute depression 40 days later.

Perhaps the most alarming aspect of the tradition is that it didn’t die out in the barbarianism of the middle ages, but continued to surface in the twentieth century.

Nigeria saw a horrific display in 1977, when Nigerian soldiers threw the mother of musician and human rights activist Fela Kuti out of the window, after taking umbrage to her son’s new Afrobeat album, Zombie thatcriticized the military. As if her death wasn’t brutal enough, the commanding officer also defecated on the mother’s head and then burned Kuti’s entire compound to the ground.

Use Under Communism

Self-Defenestration

Jan Masaryk, accused at first of “self-defenestration.”

There is ample historical evidence to suggest that the Communist Party have been prone to using the occasional window shove to deal with opposition.

During the Chinese Cultural Revolution of 1968, Deng Pufang, the son of former communist leader Deng Xiaoping, was tortured and forced to admit to capitalist sympathies.

As a result, Chairman Mao’s guards imprisoned him and allegedly threw him out of a third-story window at Peking University. The fall didn’t kill him, but when he was taken to hospital, he was refused admittance. Pufang’s back was broken and he became a paraplegic, remaining in a wheelchair to this day.

Earlier, in 1948, there was a controversial episode in Czechoslovakia that opened up the idea of ‘self-defenestration.’ After the communists seized power in the post-war elections, the Foreign Minister, Jan Masaryk, was found dead in his pajamas, beneath his bathroom window. The verdict was suicide, or, since he fell through a window, “self-defenestration.”

Subsequent analysis has suggested, in fact, that it was more likely murder (the so-called Third Defenestration of Prague) carried out by the Communist government.

This argument, historian Konrad explains, is based around three distinct pieces of evidence. Firstly, it would have been quite difficult for Masaryk to navigate the window ledge and throw himself out of that particular window (the Czechs have a saying: “Jan Masaryk was such a tidy man that when he jumped, he shut the window after himself.”) Secondly, there was evidence of scratched nail marks on the window frame; and thirdly, the pajamas taken from the crime scene showed that Masaryk had “soiled himself.”

Either way, it is yet another example of windows being used to bring about horrific death in Prague, and acts as a startling warning to us all: If you ever find yourself on a visit to the Czech capital, consider declining an offer to tour the top floors of any tall buildings.


Enjoyed this look at the history of Defenestration? Find out about the most horrific methods of execution throughout history or discover the eight most painful torture devices of the Middle Ages.