Archive for September 11th, 2010

1764: The Sirven family, in effigy

1 comment September 11th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1764, Pierre-Paul Sirven and his wife — who lay beyond the reach of the law, in Switzerland — were burned in effigy at Mazamet, France, for murdering their daughter.

The Sirvens actually had three daughters; the purported victim, Elisabeth, was mentally unbalanced. The Protestant Pierre-Paul Sirven had had a recent run-in with the Catholic hierarchy in his native Castres, when Elisabeth was shanghaied to a convent for Catholic indoctrination under a lettre de cachet.

The Sirvens moved away to Saint Alby, near Mazamet, but when Elisabeth turned up dead in a well there early in 1762, the official presumption was that her schismatic parents had done her in to prevent her returning to the true church. It could have been that she just fell down the well accidentally, or went and committed suicide; as often in such cases, investigations commencing from a suspicion of foul play are liable to find that suspicion self-affirming.

To make matters worse, all this transpired during the dangerous run-up to the execution of Jean Calas in Toulouse, another instance where a doubtful criminal case was pursued against a Protestant.

Wisely, the Sirvens (parents and two remaining daughters) blew town.

They made it to Switzerland, where they holed up with Voltaire. Back in Mamazet, the parents were condemned to death and the other two children to exile for participating in the purported murder of Elisabeth. “This judgment was equally absurd and abominable,” Voltaire wrote.

If the father, in concert with his wife, had strangled his daughter, he ought to have been broken on the wheel, like Calas, and the mother to have been burned — at least, after having been strangled — because the practice of breaking women on the wheel is not yet the custom in the country of this judge. To limit the punishment to hanging in such a case, was an acknowledgment that the crime was not proved, and that in the doubt the halter was adopted to compromise for want of evidence.

The death sentences — further compromised by the absence of their objects — were nevertheless carried out in effigy on September 11, 1764.

Meanwhile, Voltaire turned his pen to the service of the Sirven cause; a French pamphlet he wrote vindicating both the Sirvens and Calas can be perused here. (Deadly religious persecution in France kept Voltaire quite preoccupied in the 1760s.)

After spending the decade trying to clear the family name from abroad, Pierre-Paul Sirven sensed an opening to return and gave himself up in 1769. The anti-Protestant hostility of the early 1760s had cooled by this time; the Calas execution was widely regretted.

Pierre-Paul Sirven was officially tried and exonerated in 1771, leading Voltaire to remark,

It only took two hours to sentence a virtuous family to death and it took us nine years to give them justice.

Part of the Themed Set: Executions in Effigy.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Executed in Effigy,Execution,France,History,Murder,Not Executed,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Wrongful Executions

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