On this date in 1721, the French outlaw Cartouche was broken on the wheel in Paris.
Little Cartouche — his nickname came from a Francophone corruption of his German surname — distinguished himself from childhood as the most charismatically intrepid of the local hooligans, and by adolescence was already the leader of a troupe of rascally thieves.
By his twenties, after a detour through the army, Cartouche and his merry men (the Cours des Miracles gang, after the slum they operated out of) were raiding the lucrative Versailles-Paris route, plundering the virtue of marchionesses, distributing stolen booty the poor, maintaining perfect courtesy in the society of gentlemen, and generally becoming the heroes of that species of literature that revels in bodice-busting sybaritic rakes who play by their own rules but have a heart of gold. (Sample escapade: walking a carnival parade with a cart full of police effigies — whipping them all the way, to the glee of the crowd. Thackeray celebrates more Cartouche folklore here.)
The flesh-and-blood police started to roll up this group around 1719, turning arrestees into informants and hunting ringleaders to ground. True to character, Cartouche defied with his liberty the growing price on his head, deftly giving gendarmes the slip until a confederate betrayed him into his enemies’ hands literally while his pants were down.
18th century engraving of the arrest of Cartouche.
The guy very nearly broke out of prison — tunneling out of a dungeon of the Chatelet into a neighboring basement, only to have the clank of his chains rouse the family dog into a woofing frenzy that betrayed him before he could vanish out the front door. But even back in the clink,
came a period of splendid notoriety: he held his court, he gave an easy rein to his wit, he received duchesses and princes with an air of amiable patronage … His portrait hung in every house, and his thin, hard face, his dry, small features were at last familiar to the whole of France. M. Grandval made him the hero of an Epic — “le Vice Puni.”
Cartouche was doomed to breaking on the wheel after a morning suffering the tortures of the boot in an unavailing effort to extract further incriminations from the rogue.*
Cartouche seems to have fully expected his troupe to reciprocate this heroism by rising to the dramatic occasion of a rescue from the very scaffold. But as the prisoner arrived at the Place de Greve, he perceived at last that like Christ he had been abandoned at the critical hour by the men who had sworn oaths with him. The great desperado’s final act was to retaliate upon these faithless friends (and family!) by taking aside his prosecutors and detailing his every accessory in crime, even his lovers. What the worst extremities of medieval torture could not procure from him, the compelling incentive of revenge instantly conjured.
Our hero went to his death this day but his revenant spirit stalked France for many months thereafter as dozens succumbed (pdf) to Cartouche’s scaffold indictment. One diarist recorded the following July,
Nothing but hangings and breakings on the wheel! Every day some Cartouchian executed.
* Available sources are flatly contradictory between the story that Cartouche was to die on the 27th and his confessions stalled things until the 28th, or was to die on the 28th all along, or was to die and did so on the 27th.