Around this date in the unspecified 18th-century year of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the titular family’s servant is put to death for the murder of their youngest child, William.
In the novel, smarty-pants university student Victor Frankenstein has created (and immediately rejected) his famous monster. Not long after, he receives a letter (dated May 12, “17–“) from his father informing him of the murder of his youngest brother.
About five in the morning I discovered my lovely boy, whom the night before I had seen blooming and active in health, stretched on the grass livid and motionless; the print of the murder’s finger was on his neck.
Covering the 600-plus kilometers home to Geneva, Victor becomes convinced that his creation is the culprit.* But upon reaching his destination, he finds that circumstantial evidence has accused the family’s blameless (and ironically named) servant, Justine.
He’s back just in time to watch, in horror, as she’s convicted — impotent (or at least that’s what he tells himself) to help her with his fantastical truth, and despairingly watching her friends abandon her to her fate.
Justine has grown up with Victor and the others, so the entire Frankenstein family remains convinced of the servant’s innocence, though they’re practically alone in Geneva in that belief.
Shelley includes an interesting passage in which Justine (having already been convicted) is battered by her priest into falsely confessing to the crime. Though clearly anti-clerical in intent, it’s also a moment with remarkable current resonance given the prevalence of false confessions in modern wrongful conviction scenarios:
“I did confess, but I confessed a lie. I confessed, that I might obtain absolution; but now that falsehood lies heavier at my heart than all my other sins. The God of heaven forgive me! Ever since I was condemned, my confessor has besieged me; he threatened and menaced, until I almost began to think that I was the monster that he said I was. He threatened excommunication and hell fire in my last moments if I continued obdurate. Dear lady, I had none to support me; all looked on me as a wretch doomed to ignominy and perdition. What could I do? In an evil hour I subscribed to a lie; and now only am I truly miserable.”
The poor woman’s fate is sealed either way — and in her parting conversation with Victor and his future wife Elizabeth, we find Justine more at peace than the monster’s creator:
“I do not fear to die,” [Justine] said; “that pang is past. God raises my weakness and gives me courage to endure the worst. I leave a sad and bitter world; and if you remember me and think of me as of one unjustly condemned, I am resigned to the fate awaiting me. Learn from me, dear lady, to submit in patience to the will of heaven!”
During this conversation I [Victor] had retired to a corner of the prison room, where I could conceal the horrid anguish that possessed me. Despair! Who dared talk of that? The poor victim, who on the morrow was to pass the awful boundary between life and death, felt not, as I did, such deep and bitter agony.
“In these last moments I feel the sincerest gratitude towards those who think of me with kindness. How sweet is the affection of others to such a wretch as I am! It removes more than half my misfortune, and I feel as if I could die in peace now that my innocence is acknowledged by you, dear lady, and your cousin.”
Thus the poor sufferer tried to comfort others and herself. She indeed gained the resignation she desired. But I, the true murderer, felt the never-dying worm alive in my bosom, which allowed of no hope or consolation. Elizabeth also wept and was unhappy, but hers also was the misery of innocence, which, like a cloud that passes over the fair moon, for a while hides but cannot tarnish its brightness. Anguish and despair had penetrated into the core of my heart; I bore a hell within me which nothing could extinguish. We stayed several hours with Justine, and it was with great difficulty that Elizabeth could tear herself away. “I wish,” cried she, “that I were to die with you; I cannot live in this world of misery.”
Justine assumed an air of cheerfulness, while she with difficulty repressed her bitter tears. She embraced Elizabeth and said in a voice of half-suppressed emotion, “Farewell, sweet lady, dearest Elizabeth, my beloved and only friend; may heaven, in its bounty, bless and preserve you; may this be the last misfortune that you will ever suffer! Live, and be happy, and make others so.”
And on the morrow** Justine died. Elizabeth’s heart-rending eloquence failed to move the judges from their settled conviction in the criminality of the saintly sufferer. My passionate and indignant appeals were lost upon them. And when I received their cold answers and heard the harsh, unfeeling reasoning of these men, my purposed avowal died away on my lips. Thus I might proclaim myself a madman, but not revoke the sentence passed upon my wretched victim. She perished on the scaffold as a murderess!
Shelley gives us quite the gentle picture of the Frankenstein family, in which Victor is practically the only exponent of vengeance after the dreadful crime. Even the father’s initial letter home, written in the immediate shock after discovering the boy’s body, summons his son to come
not brooding thoughts of vengeance against the assassin, but with feelings of peace and gentleness, that will heal, instead of festering, the wounds of our minds.
After the hanging, dad again endeavors to keep Victor from wasting himself on rage … which it seems that Victor would have readily assented to had he not carried his secret burden of guilt:
“Do you think, Victor,” said he, “that I do not suffer also? No one could love a child more than I loved your brother” — tears came into his eyes as he spoke — “but is it not a duty to the survivors that we should refrain from augmenting their unhappiness by an appearance of immoderate grief? It is also a duty owed to yourself, for excessive sorrow prevents improvement or enjoyment, or even the discharge of daily usefulness, without which no man is fit for society.”
This advice, although good, was totally inapplicable to my case; I should have been the first to hide my grief and console my friends if remorse had not mingled its bitterness, and terror its alarm, with my other sensations.
Frankenstein is available free at Project Gutenberg. Of course, it has been adapted many times into other cultural artifacts; these are somewhat famous for their infidelity to the original work, and Justine tends to get short shrift in most (although she’s hanged in quite an over-the-top spectacle in the 1994 Kenneth Branagh vehicle Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (review here)).
If Justine is usually pulled from the story, Hollywood has found a role for the scaffold elsewhere. Where Shelley has Victor haunting “charnel houses” and the like, the seminal and oft-imitated 1931 Boris Karloff film makes a point to include a hanged criminal for some of the creature’s parts — although “the brain is useless”:
But a criminal brain finds its way into the monster just the same, an explanation of its behavior completely antithetical to Mary Shelley’s:
* He’s right, of course — the creature later admits it — but you could certainly quibble with Victor’s methodology:
Nothing in human shape could have destroyed the fair child. HE was the murderer! I could not doubt it. The mere presence of the idea was an irresistible proof of the fact.
** The precise date is never disclosed, but the events are roughly dated by Victor’s subsequent narration, “it was about the middle of the month of August, nearly two months after the death of Justine, that miserable epoch from which I dated all my woe.”