This Day in Jewish History

1491: Jews Burned at Stake in Spain After ‘anti-Christian Sorcery’

Their execution in the bizarre ‘Holy Child of La Guardia’ case was the precursor for expelling all Jews from Spain in 1492.

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1491, nine men – six New Christians (converted Jews) and three Jews – were burned at the stake in Avila, in the province of Castile, Spain. All nine had been convicted of involvement in the kidnapping and murder of a Christian boy, whose heart they allegedly required for the performance of an act of anti-Christian sorcery. Their trial and execution are seen by historians as helping to pave the way for the declaration by Ferdinand and Isabella, a little over four months later, of their intention to expel the Jews from Spain.

What made the case all the more bizarre, at least in modern terms, was the fact no victim’s body was ever produced, nor was the boy’s name ever firmly established. The legend that developed around the martyrdom of the “Holy Child of La Guardia,” as the victim became known, fits all the characteristics of of the standard blood libel accusations that had been circulating in Europe since the mid-12th century.

The story began with the arrest, in June 1490, of Benito Garcia, a converso textile worker from La Guardia, outside Toledo. In his belongings was found a consecrated host (communion wafer), that was said to be conspicuous because of the light supposedly emanating from it. Under torture, Garcia confessed to having returned to the Jewish faith several years earlier, with the encouragement of two other men, Yuce Franco and Juan de Ocana.

As the case came together, the conspirators were alleged to have vowed to take revenge on the Inquisition after witnessing a public burning of heretics. According to one version, their plan was to mix the blood of a Christian child with a consecrated host, and use that to poison the wells that supplied the water drunk by the inquisitors. Supposedly, they even admitted to receiving the plan from the chief rabbis of France.

The investigation was carried out by three churchmen appointed by the Grand Inquisitor Tomas de Torquemada, who believed in the principle of “purity of blood,” which held that even after conversion, Jews could never become true Christians because of their tainted blood. Thus, there would always be a danger that they would subvert others from the true faith. This concern was a major part of the argument used to convince the crown to agree to the expulsion.

After his arrest and torture, Yuce Franco described the kidnapping, outside the Toledo cathedral, of a young child, who was then brought back to La Guardia and subjected to a mock trial that paralleled that of Jesus Christ. On Good Friday of 1491, the men admitted, they crucified the boy and removed his heart, which Benito Garcia was then charged with bringing to Zamora, where he expected to receive assistance in carrying out the magical spell. (The accused included one resident of Zamora, Moses Abenamia.) If no body was found, it was, went the narrative, because following his death and burial, the Holy Child was resurrected and transported to heaven.

The trial of the suspects – who, in addition to Garcia, Franco, Ocana and Abenamia, included Ca Franco (father of Yuce), and the brothers Alonso, Garcia, Lope and Juan Franco, from La Guardia – began on December 17, 1490, and ended with their conviction the following November 16, when they were turned over to the secular authorities for execution.

Anton Gonzalez, the notary of Avila, oversaw the burnings, at the town’s Brasero de la Dehesa (Meadow of Execution), and reported that those who confessed and did penance were shown mercy and had their necks broken before being put to the flames, whereas those who died continuing to profess their innocence were “tortured with red hot pincers, and burnt alive over a slow fire.”

In short time, a cult developed around the memory of the “Holy Child of La Guardia,” who was said to have caused the miraculous healings of several people. And on March 31, 1492, the joint monarchs of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella, issued the Alhambra Decree, giving their Jewish subjects four months to vacate the country.