On this date in 1839, Honore de Balzac’s crusade to save a condemned man got the chop.
Sebastien-Benoit Peytel was a notary and minor journalist death-sentenced that August for murdering his wife and their servant, one of those countless local outrages whose passing notice flies before the years.
Driven by sentimentality or opportunism or literary conceit — but with a genuine sense of aggrieved justice — the French writer Balzac, who had met Peytel, took up his pen on the condemned man’s behalf.
I am extremely agitated by a horrible case, the case of Peytel. I have seen this poor fellow three times. He is condemned; I start in two hours for Bourg.
Blowing through 10,000 francs of his own money on travel and investigation, Balzac could never make the case to the public as compellingly as it evidently appeared to him.
Perhaps Monsieur de Balzac helped to smother what little sparks of interest might still have remained for the murderous notary. Balzac put forward a letter in his favor, so very long, so very dull, so very pompous, promising so much, and performing so little, that the Parisian public gave up Peytel and his case altogether.
Thackeray’s own (yawn) account won’t bring the rhetoricians out of their seats. Conniving Frenchmen: fresh take.
I am not going to entertain you with any sentimental lamentations for this scoundrel’s fate, or to declare my belief in his innocence, as Monsieur de Balzac has done. As far as moral conviction can go, the man’s guilt is pretty clearly brought home to him. But … [i] t is a serious privilege, God knows, that society takes upon itself, at any time, to deprive one of God’s creatures of existence. But when the slightest doubt remains, what a tremendous risk does it incur! In England, thank heaven, the law is more wise and more merciful: an English jury would never have taken a man’s blood upon such testimony: an English judge and Crown advocate would never have acted as these Frenchmen have done; the latter inflaming the public mind by exaggerated appeals to their passions: the former seeking, in every way, to draw confessions from the prisoner, to perplex and confound him, to do away, by fierce cross-questioning and bitter remarks from the bench, with any effect that his testimony might have on the jury.
[Y]ou may see how easy a thing it is for a man’s life to be talked away in France, if ever he should happen to fall under the suspicion of a crime.
Eventually, he pivots from Peytel’s execution this date to state a more general argument against the death penalty, at least in its public form.
Down goes the axe; the poor wretch’s head rolls gasping into the basket; the spectators go home, pondering; and Mr. Executioner and his aides have, in half an hour, removed all traces of the august sacrifice, and of the altar on which it had been performed. Say, Mr. Briefless, do you think that any single person, meditating murder, would be deterred therefrom by beholding this — nay, a thousand more executions? It is not for moral improvement, as I take it, nor for opportunity to make appropriate remarks upon the punishment of crime, that people make a holiday of a killing-day, and leave their homes and occupations, to flock and witness the cutting off of a head. Do we crowd to see Mr. Macready in the new tragedy, or Mademoiselle Ellssler in her last new ballet and flesh-colored stockinnet pantaloons, out of a pure love of abstract poetry and beauty; or from a strong notion that we shall be excited, in different ways, by the actor and the dancer? And so, as we go to have a meal of fictitious terror at the tragedy, of something more questionable in the ballet, we go for a glut of blood to the execution. The lust is in every man’s nature, more or less. Did you ever witness a wrestling or boxing match? The first clatter of the kick on the shins, or the first drawing of blood, makes the stranger shudder a little; but soon the blood is his chief enjoyment, and he thirsts for it with a fierce delight. It is a fine grim pleasure that we have in seeing a man killed; and I make no doubt that the organs of destructiveness must begin to throb and swell as we witness the delightful savage spectacle.
Lost among literature’s towering oaks, our day’s humble shrub has a literary footnote of his own for authoring, in 1832, Physiologie de la Poire (“The Physiology of the Pear”), a protracted satire exploiting Louis-Philippe‘s reputation as “the Pear King.” (Contrary to some reports, Peytel does not appear to have invented this image.)
According to these antiquarians, the book contains the author’s “hilarious” predictions of the ways he will not die.
* Thackeray argued that the trial was badly done and the evidence insufficient for execution but expressly stopped well short of expressing confidence in Peytel’s innocence.