On this date* in 1796, France enacted what was long held to be one of its most notorious miscarriages of criminal justice by cutting off the head of Joseph Lesurques.
Lesurques was taken for the one of a gang who had sensationally robbed and murdered a mail courier early in 1796, and on the basis of slight eyewitness testimony condemned to die. The only reason he was associated with the crime in the first place was because his friend had been mistakenly accused, and then released, and Lesurques accompanied him to the court to retrieve the friend’s papers where he was “recognized.”
Eyewitness testimony having juridical pull far in excess of its dependability,** this “recognition” was worth the man’s life.
The famous French Revolution executioner Sanson was still in the game at this point, and his grandson (not yet born at this time) used the family notes to pull together this quasi-firsthand account in Memoirs of the Sansons. It’s a tale familiar to any present-day wrongful conviction scenario, of bad evidence snowballing, a blinkered prosecutor intent on conviction, pettifogging appellate authorities, and grim, relentless bureaucratic momentum.
(The names the Memoirs render as “Courriol” and “Dubosc” are also given as “Couriol” and “Dubosc” in other sources.)
the instructing magistrate … instead of imitating the prudence of his Parisian colleague and trying to discover the truth, applied himself to the collection of proofs of the guilt of the prisoners …
Fifteen witnesses on behalf of the defence proved an alibi in favour of Lesurques, eighty-three others spoke highly of his well-known respectability; but their evidence went for nothing in opposition to those who, with singular pertinacity, maintained that Lesurques was one of those who had been seen lurking near the scene of the murder on the night when it was committed …
On hearing his condemnation, Lesurques, who had been firm and collected throughout the trial, lost his self-possession, and raising his hands to heaven he exclaimed:
“The crime which is imputed to me is indeed atrocious and deserves death; but if it is horrible to murder on the high road it is not less so to abuse the law and convict an innocent man. A day will come when my innocence will be recognised, and then may my blood fall upon the jurors who have so lightly convicted me, and on the judges who have influenced their decision!”
On the 9th of Brumaire, year 5 (October 30, 1796), my grandfather and father proceeded to the Conciergerie, and found the convicts in the hall, through which so many had passed during the Reign of Terror. David Bernard† was in a state of utter prostration; Courriol, on the contrary, was excited. As to Lesurques, he was as calm and fearless as ever. When he saw my grandfather, whose white hair sufficiently designated him as the chief executioner, he stepped up to him, and said, holding out a sealed letter:
“Citizen, I hope for the honour of human justice that your functions do not often compel you to shed the blood of a guiltless man; I hope, therefore, that you will grant the last request of a man who is about to suffer for what he has not done. Be good enough to keep this letter, which may hereafter contribute to the restoration of the honour of my wife and poor children, whereof they have been so unjustly deprived.”
While one of his assistants was cutting the unfortunate man’s hair, my grandfather read the paper Lesurques had just given him. It was a letter addressed to Dubosc, the man in whose place he was condemned. It ran as follows:
“To Citizen Dubosc.
“Citizen Dubosc, — I do not even know you, and I am going to suffer the death which was reserved for you. Be satisfied with the sacrifice of my life. Should you ever be brought to account, remember my three children and their mother, who are disgraced for ever, and do not prolong their agony. Confess that you are the man.”
All preparations were now concluded. Lesurques, of his own choice, was dressed in spotless white, symbol of his innocence. He was the first to take his place in the cart; Courriol followed him, and Bernard, who had fainted, was deposited on the straw. Then began the most dismal and extraordinary journey that ever was made from the Conciergerie to the Place de Greve. Lesurques and Courriol stood in front. At every turn of the wheel, Courriol exclaimed in a piercing voice:
“I am guilty! Lesurques is innocent!”
And for twenty minutes, that is during the whole way to the guillotine, he perseveringly repeated his awful protest against justice. The crowd was horrified, and there were few who did not believe the murderer who confessed his crime, but who proclaimed his companion’s innocence. Courriol again repeated his words at the foot of the scaffold with extraordinary energy and vehemence, and the thump of the knife but just covered his supreme shriek:
“Lesurques is innocent!”
The judicial authorities have perseveringly refused to recognise this flagrant miscarriage of justice. And yet the innocence of Lesurques was amply demonstrated a short time after his execution: all the real murderers of the courier of Lyons designated by Courriol were captured; Dubosc himself, whose fatal resemblance to Lesurques was the cause of the latter’s death, was taken and tried … he was executed just four years after Lesurques …
The Lesurques heirs were left paupers by the state’s punitive confiscation of the “bandit’s” effects; after a quarter-century (during which the widow died in a madhouse), they were at least able to recoup their material loss, but although repeatedly challenged, the conviction itself was never reversed.
Judicial and literary skirmishing over the Lesurques matter continued for decades, gradually forming into a general consensus (whatever the courts might admit) that the man was wrongly accused.
As a result, Lesurques remained a potent symbol of capricious criminal justice overreach throughout the 19th century and into the 20th: this 1874 reader, Famous Cases of Circumstantial Evidence, has a full chapter on the case; a popular Victorian play titled The Lyons Mail was translated into a now-lost 1915 silent film and a 1931 talkie … albeit with a happy ending.
To a certain, inevitably well-represented, authoritarian demographic, any credence given to the self-evident proposition that wrongful convictions happen smacks of effrontery towards betters, and the Lesurques case was no exception … especially when paired with the coincident low ebb of public esteem for Power during the Dreyfus affair, which hit while The Lyons Mail was in vogue.
An advert insert in an unrelated 1903 book plumps a “Lesurques was guilty” position, riffing on the then-current Dreyfus controversy (“recent efforts in France to bring about the revision of a celebrated case”). This book is listed, but unavailable, on Amazon.com.
L’ affaire Lesurques never (so far as I can determine) reached a resolution; it simply faded away, 140 years or so after its namesake lost his head.
A late (1930) review of its particulars in the Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology (“The Moving Story of the Lyons Stage,” by Max Radin of UC-Berkeley, May 1930) proceeds with ingenuousness embarrassingly unbecoming a professor of the law.
Judicial errors do not occur in the United States. [!!!] Under these circumstances, we can look with some satisfaction on times and places in which this happy condition did not prevail. If in the cycle of existences our perfection should ever become visibly tainted, it may happen that we shall hang men or electrocute them and subsequently regret the fact. Perhaps some one will then recall the moving story of the Lyons stage.
Sounds like it’s ready for a revival.
* A few sources say March 10, 1797, but the most and best clearly lean to October 30, 1796.
** “Juries have an unfortunate faith in the accuracy of eyewitnesses,” William Davis Gross observes. “The propensity for blunder is so great that it is nearly equal to all other forms of error combined.” (“The Unfortunate Faith: A Solution to the Unwarranted Reliance Upon Eyewitness Testimony,” Texas Wesleyan Law Review, spring 1999)
† Bernard is a footnote in the story, but he seems to have received a raw deal himself: he was the liveryman who procured the horses for the highwaymen, but did not participate in the crime. Sanson passingly refers to Bernard as “but slightly guilty.”