Bizzare & Odd

“Mistresses of Death”: How Italian female executioners kept their secret

The “mistresses of death,” or Italian female executioners, were present in Sardinia, now part of Italy, until the mid-20th century. However, details about the Accabadors’ activities are scarce. These women were adept at keeping their secrets. They chose not to discuss their “work,” and only those directly involved were privy to it.

Scientists have noted that the practice of euthanizing the elderly and infirm was widespread, reflecting a stage in the evolution of primitive societies. This practice stemmed from a unique perspective on the elderly, sick, or injured, who were seen as burdensome because they could not contribute to work, hunting, fighting, or migration.

To the ancestors, such individuals consumed resources without contributing, thus depriving others. To mitigate the perception of cruelty in these killings, the deceased were often depicted as self-sacrificing heroes, believed to achieve a more honorable afterlife through a noble death rather than a disgraceful natural one.

Lethal Aid

Considering its isolated location, Sardinia developed a unique community with distinct beliefs and customs, particularly regarding death. They approached the end of life with a certain calmness, especially towards the elderly who were unable to care for themselves due to health issues. Historians suggest that this tradition gave rise to the concept of “sardonic laughter.”

When the community decided to part with someone, they would administer poisonous herbs. The resulting grimace resembled a smile, and as the individual was cast off a cliff amidst laughter, the term was born. This practice also led to the emergence of the “mistresses of death” on the island.

The Accabador women made their living by ending the lives of the severely wounded, gravely ill, or elderly. They typically carried a wooden mallet for this purpose, although sometimes they could carry out the relatives’ wishes with their hands alone.

The death of a person in Sardinia was seen as a symbol of bravery if they passed quickly and easily, or a symbol of disgrace if their death was prolonged and painful. The elderly who had recovered, the sick, and the injured were cast into an abyss. Notably, during the ritual, both the victims and their families would laugh.

The term “accabadora” derives from the Spanish verb “acabar,” meaning “to end” or “to finish.” In Sardinian culture, another term for this role was “mastra’ molte,” translating to “mistress of death.” The “mastra’ molte” offered their services exclusively in situations involving terminally ill “patients.” An accabadora would be summoned to the home by the family of a gravely sick individual, and these “mistress of death” assisted the person in transitioning to the next world, thus ending their intense suffering. Concurrently, this act of “euthanasia” was considered an act of liberation for the departing soul.

Working solo

The mistress of death was typically middle-aged, possessing arms strong enough to deliver a fatal blow. Cloaked entirely in black, her face partially obscured by a black scarf, she emerged when the doctor’s efforts proved futile and the dying man’s relatives wearied of comforting the semi-lifeless, summoning the accabadora.

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The Accabadora visited the client twice. During her initial visit, she brought a small yoke, symbolizing the bond between the human soul and its body. She placed a miniature yoke under the pillow of the dying man, vowing to return after three days and nights. This served as a test: if the individual clung to life, maintaining the connection symbolized by the yoke, their condition would improve within the allotted time. These days also provided the dying man time for reflection—to reconsider his readiness to part with life, or to confront any fears. If, after three days, the client was prepared for death, the Accabadora would commence her duties.

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Initially, the death’s handmaiden requested to be left alone with the dying man, and for all icons, crosses, and other Christian symbols to be removed from the room. The Accabadora was not rushed in her task and allowed the dying their time. The ritual was conducted when both were mentally prepared. The Sardinian’s release from the Black Death could be achieved in various ways: the Accabadora might suffocate him with a black pillow, slowly strangle him while encircling her legs around his back and singing a lullaby, or deliver a fatal blow with an olive wood hammer.

Sardinian life traditionally started and ended at the hearth. Women typically gave birth there, and it was also where the dying were laid to rest. Interestingly, the Accabadors were known not only for ushering souls into the afterlife but also for bringing new life into the world, sometimes acting as midwives, donning all white for the occasion.

Commonly, Accabadors would asphyxiate their “clients” using a pillow they carried, and on occasion, they employed a wooden hammer crafted from a single piece of wood to end the lives of the gravely ill or fatally injured.

After delivering a fatal blow with a hammer, the accabadora would mourn the deceased, as is the custom for mourning a hero who has fallen in battle. If a Sardinian on their deathbed did not succumb to the first attempt, the Accabadora would not proceed with the ritual, as it might indicate that the individual had committed an unforgivable sin in their lifetime, such as killing a cat—a grave sin among Sardinians.

The “finisher” received little payment for her services but was provided with food. In Sardinia, the Accabadora was both respected and feared. The Church and civil authorities attempted to suppress the Accabadors, but the Sardinians defended and protected them at all costs, making it easier for priests to overlook the non-Christian practices. Perhaps this is why, even in the 20th century, Sardinians who encountered these dark angels of death were reluctant to speak of them to ethnographers. They acknowledged their existence but offered no proof. Euthanasia is a sensitive topic in Sardinia, deemed inappropriate for outsiders to understand.

There is a prevailing belief that Accabadors may still be active on the island. Paola Sirigu of the University of Cagliari has stated that the most recent documented instances of people being euthanized by Accabadors occurred in the twentieth century, specifically in 1929 and 1952.

Nonetheless, Gino Cabbidu, an expert in folk traditions, recounted a more recent incident. In 2003, a woman approached a priest in central Sardinia, confessing to assisting an acquaintance in ending his life at his request. When the priest probed for more details, she fled, suggesting that Accabadors might still exist in Sardinia.

Honor and respect

The Accabadors of Sardinia were seen as a family tradition. If a “mistress of death” had a daughter, she typically followed in her mother’s footsteps.

The Accabadors were discreet about their work, and unsurprisingly, no documentary evidence exists of women in this profession, with few oral accounts available. Sardinians have historically been reticent to discuss these “mistresses of death,” as doing so could imply complicity in a relative’s demise.

Some reports suggest the last recorded instances of the Accabadors’ involvement in deaths were in 1929 in Luras and 1952 in Oristano. Despite this, some journalists assert that these “mistresses of death” still operate on the island. For instance, a central Sardinian priest reportedly heard a confession in 2003 from a woman who claimed to have assisted an acquaintance in ending his life. However, these claims remain unverifiable.

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