On this date in 1892, French anarchist François Claudius Koenigstein — better known as Ravachol — was guillotined at Montbrison for a series of bomb attacks on right-wing judges.
He took the name “Ravachol”, his mother’s, after his Dutch father ditched his mom, leaving the family in poverty.
Young Ravachol supported himself as best he could in proletarian labor and crime, as he attempted to observe* at his trial.
Ravachol, as painted by Charles Maurin.
There are many people who will feel sorry for the victims, but who’ll tell you they can’t do anything about it. Let everyone scrape by as he can! What can he who lacks the necessities when he’s working do when he loses his job? He has only to let himself die of hunger. Then they’ll throw a few pious words on his corpse. This is what I wanted to leave to others. I preferred to make of myself a trafficker in contraband, a counterfeiter, a murderer and assassin. I could have begged, but it’s degrading and cowardly and even punished by your laws, which make poverty a crime. If all those in need, instead of waiting took, wherever and by whatever means, the self-satisfied would understand perhaps a bit more quickly that it’s dangerous to want to consecrate the existing social state, where worry is permanent and life threatened at every moment.
Personal want segued into political conviction for Ravachol, whose crimes were justified by the principle of reprise individuelle.
And the political led him to reprisals of a less individual nature, when French state violence against radicals caused him to dynamite several magistrates’ homes.
He was caught in a restaurant,** brought to trial, and let off with penal servitude for life. Then another jury, intimidated by public outcry, reversed the decision and sent him to the guillotine.
–The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France 1885 to World War I, which argues that anarchists “unsettle[d] the political smugness of the Third Republic … [and] challenge[d] any formulated aesthetic. The dynamism of prewar artistic activity ran a close parallel to anarchism; postwar Dada and surrealism look like its artistic parodies†.”
Anarchism, that revolutionary specter stalking fin-de-siecle Europe, burnt its fuse at both ends, but Ravachol’s falling head‡ left a legacy for his fellow-travelers. The next year, Auguste Vaillant tossed a bomb into the French Chamber of Deputies to avenge Ravachol. (Vaillant was himself guillotined, and himself avenged by Emile Henry and Sante Geronimo Caserio.)
* This incendiary speech was cut off by the court.
** The table where the terrorist was nabbed got its own inscription: “Here ate Ravachol the day of his arrest.”
† e.g., Dadaist Marcel Janco‘s recollection:
We had lost confidence in our culture. Everything had to be demolished. We would begin again after the ‘tabula rasa’. At the Cabaret Voltaire we began by shocking common sense, public opinion, education, institutions, museums, good taste, in short, the whole prevailing order.
‡ Ravachol was guillotined midway through a parting exclamation, “Vive la Re-“. Initial newspaper reports implausibly rendered this as the patriotic classic “Vive la Republique!” rather than a much more in-character word like, oh, “Revolution”.
Weeks of controversy ensued over some witnesses’ claims that the head post-severing had actually completed the word “-publique”, a notion of a piece with the idea that the severed head survives decapitation by a few seconds. Scienticians countered that obviously excited witnesses were maybe hearing air escaping from the headless trunk and filling in the rest of the scene in their heads.