On this date in 1977, the guillotine claimed its last head.
The famous and infamous blade dropped for the last time at Les Baumettes prison in Marseilles on Hamida Djandoubi, a Tunisian immigrant convicted of the torture-murder of the naive young girlfriend he had forced into prostitution. Oddly, he had already had another appendage — a leg — amputated as a result of a work accident; it was while recuperating that he caught the fascination of his hospital roommate’s 19-year-old daughter, Elisabeth Bousquet.
Though the death penalty was grinding to a halt in 1970’s France, Djandoubi was not the last person condemned (the link is French); the guillotine was only abolished with the election of the Francois Mitterand government in 1981.
Today, Executed Today discusses the case with the man who wrote the book on Djandoubi:* expat Canadian writer Jeremy Mercer. Be sure to check his photo series on the Djandoubi case — including discomfiting shots of Djandoubi re-enacting his crime with a police secretary playing the victim, and the killer in happier times.
ET: Thanks for joining us.
JM: Thanks for the opportunity to speak with Executed Today. I moved to Marseille in 2003 and shortly after I stumbled upon the rather arcane fact that the last man guillotined in France was executed at the local prison on September 10, 1977. I thought it was interesting angle on capital punishment and I decided to try and write a book that mixed true crime and death penalty philosophy. As a result, I’ve been immersed in the death penalty debate for the better part of five years.
Let’s start with Hamida Djandoubi himself — 31 years on, he looks like a nasty but fairly run-of-the-mill criminal. Was it strictly coincidental that he became the last man executed?
It was absolutely random fate. It was really odd – during the 1970s, the death penalty debate was raging in France and most capital cases became national news. But the Djandoubi case went completely under the radar, partly because his lawyer didn’t drum up any attention and partly because his victim was a presumed prostitute and the media prefers ‘sexier’ victims – the elderly, little children, a dentist of good standing walking her dog at night.
Even odder, if you surveyed most French people today, they would tell you that Christian Ranucci was the last man guillotined. Ranucci was a young white man who was accused of killing a little girl. He claimed his innocence, but was nonetheless executed in June 1976 (14 months before Djandoubi). Afterward, a best-selling book and major film were released that argued Ranucci was innocent so his name really sticks in the minds of the French.
Obviously, there’s plenty of tension with North African communities in France still today. Djandoubi was Tunisian, and he was convicted of murdering a white woman. How significant was racial marking in the way his case was handled, inside the courts and out?
This is really curious. In the 1960s and 1970s, the French courts were tainted by racism and one of the national papers even ran an editorial saying that it is better to be named “Marius than Mohamed” when appearing before a French judge. But, in this case, it was Djandoubi’s own lawyer who was a member of a far-right party and staunchly anti-Arab so his case was undermined even before it went to court.
It is one of those frustrating moments. You assume that a death penalty case is of such importance that top professionals are involved. Instead, Djandoubi chose the civil lawyer who negotiated his accident benefits after he had an accident at work and ended up with a very poor defence.
As I said above, his murder victim had worked as a prostitute, which diminished some of the public outrage. As well, his three rape victims were all Algerian girls aged 14 – 16. I guarantee you the case would have been much more explosive if those three girls had been white.
Your book is partly about Djandoubi himself, and partly about the history of the death penalty and especially the guillotine in France. How had the guillotine shifted in France’s identity by the time of this execution?
At first, when the guillotine was introduced, it was public sensation and executioners became celebrities with special edition postcards in their honour and fan mail and all that. As late as the 1860s, tour groups like Thomas Cook were actually organizing execution trips so English tourists could see the guillotine at work. But, bit by bit, the French became a little embarrassed by the fame of the machine. First, they removed the scaffolding that raised the guillotine above the crowds so that it would be brought down to earth and spectators’ views would be impaired; then, they stopped holding executions in the afternoon and held them at the less fan-friendly time of dawn; then, instead of guillotining people right downtown, they did it outside a prison in an obscure neighborhood at the edge of Paris; and, finally, in the 1930s they moved the guillotine inside the prison walls and it was no longer a public event. By the 1970s, the guillotine held such a low profile that many people thought it was defunct and that the French government was using the electric chair.
Interestingly enough, the fall from glory of the guillotine mirrors the general attitude toward capital punishment. By the late 1800s, many countries were already abolishing the death penalty and by the 1970s France was the last country in Western Europe to resort to capital punishment. In the end, the guillotine became the country’s dirty little secret that they kept hidden in their closet.
What are the bits of guillotine folklore you found most interesting?
The most popular stories involve the life in the head after it is severed from the body. It all began with the guillotining of Charlotte Corday, who had stabbed Jean-Paul Marat to death as he soaked in his bathtub. After she was guillotined, the executioner held her head up to the crowd and slapped her on the cheek. But, according to newspaper accounts, both cheeks reddened, as if Corday was indignant by this treatment. Suddenly, everyone began to wonder what a severed head can feel or think.
This curiosity became even more intense a few weeks later when the chief executioner, Charles Henri Sanson, guillotined two political rivals one after the other. He told friends that when he looked in the basket where he kept the heads, one politician’s head was biting the other politician’s head!
So, all this got the scientists really excited and the experiments began. One doctor, Dassy de Ligières, was allowed to take a head back to his laboratory where he connected it to a living dog and pumped blood back into it. He kept hoping the head would speak, but alas, no.
The definitive experiment was conducted in 1905 when Dr. Beaurieux was given permission to wait beside the guillotine and examine the head the moment it was cut. Dr. Beaurieux interviewed the condemned man in prison and came up with a pre-arranged set of signals. The day of the execution, the doctor had incredible luck –the head did a little twist when falling and landed on the stump, slowing the loss of blood. Dr. Beaurieux then called the man’s name three times. At 5 seconds, the man was able to look at the doctor and his recognize him; at 15 seconds, the man was able to look at the doctor but his eyes were unfocussed; and at 25 seconds, the man could barely glance at the doctor. So, to the best of our knowledge, a guillotined head maintains some level of consciousness for more than 20 seconds.
You’re working with Robert Badinter — tell us about him, and his upcoming tour in the U.S.
Robert Badinter is simply the greatest man I’ve ever had the honor of working with. He became a dedicated abolitionist after one of his clients was unjustly guillotined in 1972 and dedicated the next decade of his life to fighting the death penalty. In the end, he saved six lives and ultimately wrote the legislation that abolished the death penalty in 1981 when François Mitterrand named him Minister of Justice.
I interviewed Badinter for my own book in 2005 and he asked me if I could look into translating one of his books into English. When I had time in 2007, I set about the task and now Abolition has been released by Northeastern University Press.
Badinter’s Abolition, in French and in Mercer’s translation
To mark the book’s release, Badinter will be holding three conferences in America on the death penalty and strategies to abolish it:
September 19th at the New York Public Library;
September 22 at Rice University in Houston;
September 25 at Georgetown University in Washington.
Why, in your judgment, did France abolish the death penalty? And even before abolition, why did its use abate so dramatically in the postwar era?
For many people, it was a tremendous humiliation for France, the birthplace of human rights and the Enlightenment, to be the last country in Western Europe to use the death penalty. The abolition movement began when Portugal abolished the death penalty for common crimes in 1867 and by the late 1970s, nobody was using it in Europe. Even in Spain, one of the first things they did after the death of Franco was abolish the death penalty.
So, the use of the guillotine simply had to abate because the world was becoming aware that the death penalty is a flawed punishment: the risk of executing innocents, the cost of capital trials, the predominance of poor and minorities on death row, the lack of deterrence value. But, as long as there was a right-wing government in power in France, they couldn’t abolish the death penalty because they wanted to appear tough on crime and polls showed a majority of the French people wanted to keep the guillotine.
Once Mitterrand and the Socialists were elected in May 1981, it was clear the death penalty would be abolished, and sure enough, five months later it was gone
Where do you think the death penalty is going in America? And can one really think of worldwide abolition as a legitimate possibility?
I am absolutely convinced we will see almost worldwide abolition by 2050. There will always be a few rogue states, but the death penalty is such an obviously flawed form of punishment it will inevitably be eliminated.
In terms of America, Badinter and I have discussed it at length. He believes the country is ready for abolition and that all is needed is one trigger case: a middle class white guy with a reasonable claim to innocence who is about to executed. This would really instigate a debate on the penalty and as soon as you bring in all stats – the 130 plus people who have been exonerated while on death row, the work of the Innocence Project, the race bias, the cost of capital trials, the overworked public defenders etc etc – I think it would be a slam dunk.
Personally, I think people are selling the abolition the wrong way. Every time I meet a die-hard death penalty supporter who wants a serial killer or a child rapist killed, I ask him or her “Why are you so merciful?” Because, I honestly believe life in prison is a far worse punishment than being executed.
* Here’s a review of Mercer’s book.