2001: Robert Lee Massie, who spent a lifetime dying 1720: Charles Vane, an unsinkable pirate

1757: Robert-Francois Damiens, disciplined and punished

March 28th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1757, Robert-Francois Damiens became the last Frenchman to suffer the dreadful punishment of drawing and quartering.

Damiens attempted to assassinate King Louis XV, inflicting, however, only a slight dagger wound.

He may be best-known today as the subject of the jarring opening passage of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, in which the full flower of this medieval torture* is described in detail by way of contrasting it with the regimented penal institutions that would sprout up in a few decades’ time. Here’s Foucault’s rendering of the scene:

On 1 March 1757 Damiens the regicide was condemned “to make the amende honorable before the main door of the Church of Paris”, where he was to be “taken and conveyed in a cart, wearing nothing but a shirt, holding a torch of burning wax weighing two pounds”; then, “in the said cart, to the Place de Grève, where, on a scaffold that will be erected there, the flesh will be torn from his breasts, arms, thighs and claves with red-hot pincers, his right hand, holding the knife with which he committed the said parricide, burnt with sulphur, and, on those places where the flesh will be torn away, poured molten lead, boiling oil, burning resin, wax and sulphur melted together and then his body drawn and quartered by four horses and his limbs and body consumed by fire, reduced to ashes and his ashes thrown to the winds” (Pièces originales…, 372-4).

“Finally, he was quartered,” recounts the Gazette d’Amsterdam of 1 April 1757. “This last operation was very long, because the horses used were not accustomed to drawing; consequently, instead of four, six were needed; and when that did not suffice, they were forced, in order to cut off the wretch’s thighs, to sever the sinews and hack at the joints…

“It is said that, though he was always a great swearer, no blashemy escaped his lips; but the excessive pain made him utter horrible cries, and he often repeated: ‘My God, have pity on me! Jesus, help me!’ The spectators were all edified by the solicitude of the parish priest of St Paul’s who despite his great age did not spare himself in offering consolation to the patient.”

Bouton, an officer of the watch, left us his account: “The sulphur was lit, but the flame was so poor that only the top skin of the hand was burnt, and that only slightly. Then the executioner, his sleeves rolled up, took the steel pincers, which had been especially made for the occasion, and which were about a foot and a half long, and pulled first at the calf of the right leg, then at the thigh, and from there at the two fleshy parts of the right arm; then at the breasts. Though a strong, sturdy fellow, this executioner found it so difficult to tear away the pieces of flesh that he set about the same spot two or three times, twisting the pincers as he did so, and what he took away formed at each part a wound about the size of a six-pound crown piece.

“After these tearings with the pincers, Damiens, who cried out profusely, though without swearing, raised his head and looked at himself; the same executioner dipped an iron spoon in the pot containing the boiling potion, which he poured liberally over each wound. Then the ropes that were to be harnessed to the horses were attached with cords to the patient’s body; the horses were then harnessed and placed alongside the arms and legs, one at each limb.

“Monsieur Le Breton, the clerk of the court, went up to the patient several times and asked him if he had anything to say. He said he had not; at each torment, he cried out, as the damned in hell are supposed to cry out, ‘Pardon, my God! Pardon, my Lord.’ Despite all this pain, he raised his head from time to time and looked at himself boldly. The cords had been tied so tightly by the men who pulled the ends that they caused him indescribable pain. Monsieur le [sic] Breton went up to him again and asked him if he had anything to say; he said no. Several confessors went up to him and spoke to him at length; he willingly kissed the crucifix that was held out to him; he opened his lips and repeated: ‘Pardon, Lord.’

“The horses tugged hard, each pulling straight on a limb, each horse held by an executioner. After a quarter of an hour, the same ceremony was repeated and finally, after several attempts, the direction of the horses had to be changed, thus: those at the arms were made to pull towards the head, those at the thighs towards the arms, which broke the arms at the joints. This was repeated several times without success. He raised his head and looked at himself. Two more horses had to be added to those harnessed to the thighs, which made six horses in all. Without success.

“Finally, the executioner, Samson, said to Monsieur Le Breton that there was no way or hope of succeeding, and told him to ask their Lordships if they wished him to have the prisoner cut into pieces. Monsieur Le Breton, who had come down from the town, ordered that renewed efforts be made, and this was done; but the horses gave up and one of those harnessed to the thighs fell to the ground. The confessors returned and spoke to him again. He said to them (I heard him): ‘Kiss me, gentlemen.’ The parish priest of St Paul’s did not dare to, so Monsieur de Marsilly slipped under the rope holding the left arm and kissed him on the forehead. The executioners gathered round and Damiens told them not to swear, to carry out their task and that he did not think ill of them; he begged them to pray to God for him, and asked the parish priest of St Paul’s to pray for him at the first mass.

“After two or three attempts, the executioner Samson and he who had used the pincers each drew out a knife from his pocket and cut the body at the thighs instead of severing the legs at the joints; the four horses gave a tug and carried off the two thighs after them, namely, that of the right side first, the other following; then the same was done to the arms, the shoulders, the arm-pits and the four limbs; the flesh had to be cut almost to the bone, the horses pulling hard carried off the right arm first and the other afterwards.

“When the four limbs had been pulled away, the confessors came to speak to him; but his executioner told them that he was dead, though the truth was that I saw the man move, his lower jaw moving from side to side as if he were talking. One of the executioners even said shortly afterwards that when they had lifted the trunk to throw it on the stake, he was still alive. The four limbs were untied from the ropes and thrown on the stake set up in the enclosure in line with the scaffold, then the trunk and the rest were covered with logs and faggots, and fire was put to the straw mixed with this wood.

“…In accordance with the decree, the whole was reduced to ashes. The last piece to be found in the embers was still burning at half-past ten in the evening. The pieces of flesh and the trunk had taken about four hours to burn. The officers of whom I was one, as also was my son, and a detachment of archers remained in the square until nearly eleven o’clock.

“There were those who made something of the fact that a dog had lain the day before on the grass where the fire had been, had been chased away several times, and had always returned. But it is not difficult to understand that an animal found this place warmer than elsewhere” (quoted in Zevaes, 201-14).

Among the throngs in attendance that day was Casanova who, according to his memoirs, rented out a windowed flat to watch that stomach-churning torture for four hours with some male friends and female companions.

One of the legendary libertine’s friends found this moment, serenaded by the prisoner’s “piercing shrieks”, opportune for an altogether different adventure of the flesh:

The three ladies packing themselves together as tightly as possible took up their positions at the window, leaning forward on their elbows, so as to prevent us seeing from behind. The window had two steps to it, and they stood on the second; and in order to see we had to stand on the same step, for if we had stood on the first we should not have been able to see over their heads. I have my reasons for giving these minutiae, as otherwise the reader would have some difficulty in guessing at the details which I am obliged to pass over in silence.

Tiretta kept the pious aunt curiously engaged during the whole time of the execution, and this, perhaps, was what prevented the virtuous lady from moving or even turning her head round.

Finding himself behind her, he had taken the precaution to lift up her dress to avoid treading on it. That, no doubt, was according to the rule; but soon after, on giving an involuntary glance in their direction, I found that Tiretta had carried his precautions rather far, and, not wishing to interrupt my friend or to make the lady feel awkward, I turned my head and stood in such a way that my sweetheart could see nothing of what was going on; this put the good lady at her ease. For two hours after I heard a continuous rustling, and relishing the joke I kept quiet the whole time. I admired Tiretta’s hearty appetite still more than his courage, but what pleased me most was the touching resignation with which the pious aunt bore it all.

Casanova’s Complete Memoires are available free online; this episode is recounted in the first chapter of “Paris and Holland”.

* Damiens’ punishment was in fact already archaic at the point when it was inflicted. Somewhat unsure of itself, the court sought precedent in the last regicide executed — Francois Ravaillac, who in 1610 was also the most recent person to suffer this horrific penalty. The clumsiness of the Damiens’ execution can surely be attributed to the art being a century and a half out of practice.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,Execution,France,Gruesome Methods,History,Infamous,Mature Content,Notable for their Victims,Notable Jurisprudence,Power,Public Executions,Torture,Treason

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16 thoughts on “1757: Robert-Francois Damiens, disciplined and punished”

  1. Clarke Barry says:

    The execution of Damiens was without question the low point for both the Parlement of Paris who were acting against the expressed wishes of the King and selected the punishment in an attempt to show their independence and supremacy in such matters, and for the Family Sanson (note: NOT “Samson”) the multi-generational, essentially hereditary Executioners of Paris.

    By the time of the Revolution and Terror, roughly 35 years later, the Sansons had perfected their craft once again and the son (Charles Henri Sanson) of Damiens’ executioner (Charles John Baptiste Sanson) presided [the fourth and third respectively of this family to hold the post] over all such events including the dispatching of Louis XV’s grandson, the luckless Louis XVI.

    It is recorded Charles Henri Sanson, while taking no pleasure in executing many of the persons placed before him said, “As my Office demanded and my God required I carried out my work, this work that has damned me, to the highest standard possible.”

    I is also noted in the literature that Charles Henri Sanson was, as an individual, abhorred by violence, suffering and bloodshed, but felt he had no choice in terms of his vocation. “I was,” he is reported saying, “doomed to Hell in the womb by my blood and its cursed work.”

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