1789: The Canadian Burglars 1946: A triple execution in Washington, DC

1909: Valgrand in place of Fantomas

December 19th, 2010 Headsman

On this date* in 1909, in the first novel of the hit French Fantomas crime serial, the title character escapes the guillotine by having a duped actor beheaded in his place.

Fantomas’s Wikipedia entry calls the character “a transition from Gothic novel villains of the 19th century to modern-day serial killers“: he’s a swashbuckling anti-hero who’s a master of disguise and perfectly okay with getting his hands bloody.

His own personal Javert, an inspector by the name of Juve who has stalked him for years,** has finally managed to have Fantomas convicted of a murder and sent to await execution. (Here’s a synopsis of the book.)

The widow of that crime’s victim — also Fantomas’s lover — subsequently contrives to arrange a tete-a-tete with an actor then portraying Fantomas’s lurid crime spree on the Parisian stage. She wants him to come in costume, which excites the actor as a seriously macabre kink: little does this Valgrand suspect that his own tete will be swapped for the murderer’s by next light.

That following day finds a drugged Valgrand infiltrated into Fantomas’s cell, in a sort of travesty of the noble Sydney Carton‘s guillotine switcheroo. Still suffering the effects of the potion his supposed inamorata has plied him with only hours before, and still made up to resemble the condemned man, he’s incapable of objecting as he’s hustled to the scaffold.

Juve was watching the unhappy wretch, and could not restrain a word of admiration.

“That man is a brave man! He has not even turned pale! Generally condemned men are livid!”

The executioner’s assistants had bound the man upon the plank; it tilted upwards. Deibler grasped the head by the two ears and pulled it into the lunette, despite one last convulsive struggle of the victim.

There was a click of a spring, the flash of the falling knife, a spurt of blood, a dull groan from ten thousand breasts, and the head rolled into the basket!

But Juve … sprang towards the scaffold. He thrust the assistants away, and plunging his hands into the bran that was all soaked with blood, he seized the severed head by the hair and stared at it.

“Good God!” he cried in tones of anguish.

“It isn’t [Fantomas] who has just been put to death!” Juve panted brokenly. “This face has not gone white because it is painted! It is made up — like an actor’s! Oh, curses on him! Fantomas has escaped! Fantomas has got away! He has had some innocent man executed in his stead! I tell you Fantomas is alive!”

And so he was … to the tune of a staggering 32 books over three years. Eat your heart out, J.K. Rowling.

Fantomas on the silver screen

This series has enjoyed a number of adaptations to the screen, and indeed it’s a media milestone as well since the books were cranked out at record pace by a team of writers working simultaneously on modular chapters to meet publication deadlines that fed immediately into cinema deals. There were also comic and radio spinoffs, though they’re not known to have been forward-thinking enough to have had a website.

In the classic first silent adaptation of Fantomas in 1913 (the book was published in 1911), poor Valgrand catches a break: he’s recognized and spared beheading at the last moment. There’s a very thorough guide for viewing that film here.

* The book situates the action where Valgrand is seduced and tricked on December 18, and the narrative makes it clear that the execution itself is at dawn the next morning.

It can be placed in 1909 because a guard mentions the execution of Henri Duchemin, a real historical figure guillotined earlier in 1909. (That year marked a resumption of executions in France; a death penalty opponent serving as President of the Third Republic systematically blocked executions from 1905 through 1908.)

Lady Beltham, whose feminine wiles spring the master criminal, subsequently commits suicide in 1910, which leaves only the one possibility.

** Juve is a big fan of the then-trendy, now-discredited system of Bertillonage; Fantomas consistently runs circles around this “scientific” crime-fighting. Academics, if you please?

Through the incorporation of Alphonse Bertillon’s anthropometrics — the dominant mode of criminal investigation at the time –, as both the narratological and criminological impetus for its exponentially serialized representations of criminality, Fantomas articulates resistance to the representational strategies of the numerical classification of criminals as a means of social and “scientific” control, while compelling the ongoing modern capitalist cycle of mass literary production and consumption.

-Nanette Fornabai, “Criminal Factors: ‘Fantômas’, Anthropometrics, and the Numerical Fictions of Modern Criminal Identity,” Yale French Studies, No. 108 (2005)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Entertainers,Escapes,Execution,Fictional,France,Guillotine,History,Innocent Bystanders,Murder,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Serial Killers

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