There’s a small road in Palermo called “Via dei Decollati,” which means “Street of the Beheaded People.”
In medieval times, this area was just outside the city and criminals were beheaded here. Unfortunately the Sicilian government was corrupt in those days – not any more, of course! – and many innocent people were beaheaded, too.
For a time, anyone with a lot of money, or a beautiful house, was at risk of attracting the jealous attention of some government official, who would accuse him of a trumped-up charge and have him condemned, so that he could sequester his assets after he had been put to death. I have been told by a Syrian man that similar events were perpetrated by the government officials in Syria, contributing to the outbreak of the tragic civil war there.
The severed heads of the people beheaded in Via de Decollati were stacked up in pyramids and put on display, to deter others from committing criminal acts, or perhaps from having overly nice houses.
Their bodies, meanwhile, were tossed into an open mass grave across the road. The street was said to be haunted by the screams and shouts of decapitated people. History records that many people went to their deaths screaming and protesting their innocence, railing in fury at those who had falsely accused them and howling with angry protests till their very last breath. It is easy to imagine why many people continued to hear these voices echoing in the street at all hours, and were terrified of walking along the road. Either it was that, or else perhaps the unbearable stench of the bodies – it goes up to 40 degrees here in summer.
Innocent people killed in this way were almost martyrs, and so people prayed to them to grant wishes and help them in their moments of utter desperation. The Cult of The Beheaded Ones was a cult for the truly desperate. Some prayers written in Sicilian still survive, where people would list various victims of execution and ask them to band together to help them avoid the type of injustices they themselves had died for.
In time the executions stopped and, in 1785, a church was built on the execution site, dedicated to St. John the Baptist. There is an oil painting of his head – just his head, on a plate – hanging in the church. If you’re looking for them, the “severed head” theme is visible all over the church. I think most of it was the result of baroque interior design, and unintentional, though.
When the church was built, it was still on the outskirts of Palermo, surrounded by trees and shrubbery.
Everyone called the church “The Church of The Beheaded Ones” and, eventually, this became its official name. The beheaded criminals from then onwards were buried in a graveyard in front of the church. For protestants this is normal, but to Catholics, having a graveyard in front of a church is unusual and creepy.
The Cult of the Beheaded People was followed mainly by the women of Palermo, who attested to many miracles that had been granted by the beheaded ones. They left hundreds of votive offerings thanking the Beheaded Ones for wishes they had granted and help they had given. Some are displayed in a glass case in the church. The cult has died out now, but the church still stands and is used to celebrate mass every week.