October 1st, 2008 Headsman
On this date in 1957, the dissolute son of a wealthy banker went to see Jesus on the guillotine at Paris’ La Santé Prison.
Annoyed that his estranged father wasn’t keen to finance his dream of moving to the South Pacific for a life on permanent vacation, Jacques Fesch robbed a moneychanger on the Rue Vivenne to raise the revenue — and then shot dead a police officer who gave him chase, orphaning a four-year-old girl.
Outrage at the murder of a policeman was redoubled as the callow hedonism — adultery, an abandoned illegitimate kid, and nary a hard day’s work in his life — of its privileged perp became widely known. Then, too, there’s the novelty of a financial sector scion requiring a firearm for larceny.
Fesch’s Catholic lawyer, Paul Baudet, undertook the Dostoyevskyan mission of saving client’s life and soul alike. The disinterested kid called him “Pope Paul” or “Torquemada,” but gradually — and then all of a sudden — something got through there.
Little by little I was led to change my ideas. I was no longer certain that God did not exist. I began to be open to Him, though I did not yet have faith. I tried to believe with my reason, without praying, or praying ever so little! And then, at the end of my first year in prison, a powerful wave of emotion swept over me, causing deep and brutal suffering. Within the space of a few hours, I came into possession of faith, with absolute certainty. I believed, and could no longer understand how I had ever not believed. Grace had come to me. A great joy flooded my soul and above all a deep peace. In a few instants everything had become clear. it was a very strong, sensible joy that I felt. I tend now to try, perhaps excessively, to recapture it; actually, the essential thing is not emotion, but faith. (Source)
Almost overnight he gave himself to monklike asceticism, but the legal situation was not as promising as the spiritual. French President Rene Coty declined to spare him under pressure from police, and on grounds that leniency to a cop-killer would blow back on officers then trying to quell rebellion in Algeria.
Tell your client that he has all my esteem and that I wanted very much to reprieve him. But if I did that, I would put the lives of other police officers in danger. (Source)
Fesch didn’t want to die, but he accepted his penalty with resignation.
Now, my life is finished. ‘Like a little spring flower which the divine Gardener plucks for His pleasure,’* so my head will fall — glorious ignominy — with heaven for its prize! (Source)
His prison writings have filtered out widely since his beheading, and fed a burgeoning personal cult; he is often compared with the penitent “good thief” crucified with Christ. The valence of that conversion for the death penalty as a contentious political or theological issue, however, is not necessarily abolitionist. Fesch himself mused that imminent execution might have been the very thing that moved his soul.
Do you know, sometimes I think, in good faith and with horror, that the only way I can be saved [in God] is perhaps not to be saved [from the guillotine] in the human sense of the word? (Source)
Controversially, the layabout who slew a policeman has been latterly proposed for canonization within the Catholic Church — although Fesch’s defenders here observe that saints from Paul on down have often had unsavory backstories.
The young man is much better known in Romanic lands than among Anglophones — here’s an Italian homily for him:
Also on this date
- 1567: Pietro Carnesecchi, Florentine humanist and heretic
- 1926: Tony Vettere, who put up a fierce fight
- 1903: Willis, Frederick, and Burton van Wormer
- 1950: The Leningrad Affair "culprits"
- 1788: William "Deacon" Brodie, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde inspiration
Tags: 1957, canonization, catholic church, catholicism, conversions, cop killer, jacques fesch, la sante prison, october 1, paris, paul baudet, rene coty, rue vivenne, saint, st. paul, st. therese of lisieux, the good thief