August 3rd, 2012 Headsman
On this date in 1788, France’s last attempt at an execution by breaking-wheel was thwarted by a vast crowd sympathetic to the condemned … which stormed the scaffold in Versailles and liberated the victim.
As neat a parable as one might like to find of the entire revolutionary storm then rising on France’s horizons, Jean Louschart’s tale begins with a conflict at home between the young man Jean — neck-deep in Voltaire, Rousseau, and the rest of Enlightenment thought — and his father, a respected and conservative smith not to keen on the boy’s books. Then add to this, that the Louschart family took on one Madame Verdier as a boarder, and Jean grew smitten with that woman’s daughter Helen, to the chagrin of Madame Verdier … who wanted to marry that girl off to Jean’s own father.
So Mathurin Louschart eventually got into it with his son Jean over the boy’s subversive reading. When Mathurin ordered Jean to be silent, the young man just feeling his oats retorted that this was a novel way of settling the dispute. This jab at the elder’s native prerogatives led Mathurin to drive Jean from the house full stop.
That might have been all there was to it if not for the pull of Helen. The Greeks would have understood.
Jean eventually snuck back intending to elope with the willing Helen and salvage her from her father’s hand, but Helen’s mother sniffed out the plan … and the boy entered his former domicile to find Helen being soundly thrashed by Madame. This led Jean to try to protect her, which led Mathurin to intervene, which led to a dramatic bout of father-son violence in which Mathurin was fatally struck with a smithy hammer. Madame Verdier would accuse the young man of willful murder; Jean’s supporters insisted that he had merely tossed the hammer back into the house as he fled it (having overpowered the father’s own murderous rampage), accidentally causing the father’s death. Jean himself kept mum at trial, certain that he could never convince the judges of this version of events and content to suffer for having shed his father’s blood.
We’ll take it here from the Memoirs of the Sansons. The voice here is the grandson of the venerable French Revolution executioner Charles Henri Sanson, who was before that the venerable executioner of the ancien regime. (The mob addresses him familiarly as “Charlot” here.) Fathers and sons had this much in common at least.
the court sentenced [Jean Louschart] to die on the wheel. The prisoner, however, was not condemned to amende honorable, which included the amputation of the hand; and the judges added a retentum to their sentence by which Jean Louschart was to be secretly strangled before his limbs were crushed.
Now public opinion, in Versailles, had already settled that Jean was innocent, and the news of his forthcoming execution caused general excitement. The execution was appointed to take place on August 3. On the morning of the 2nd, Charles Henri Sanson sent from Paris two carts containing the instruments of torture, and beams and boards for the erection of the scaffold. He himself went to Versailles in the afternoon. The emotion caused by Jean Louschart’s impending fate was limited to Versailles; and my grandfather was so thoroughly convinced that he had to deal with a vulgar criminal that he was greatly surprised when he found the whole town in a fever. The Place Saint-Louis was covered with so great a multitude that the assistants and carpenters could hardly go on with their work. No hostility was manifested, however; the crowd was noisy, but its mood was gay; the name of Jean was scarcely pronounced; and the workmen who were erecting the platform were merely jeered. One of the carpenters having, however, struck an urchin who was throwing stones at him, cries of ‘Death!’ were uttered; in an instant all the mocking faces became dark and threatening ; the assistants and carpenters were attacked, and their lives were in great danger. But a body of a hundred men, who could easily be identified as smiths by their athletic proportions and brawny faces, interfered, and partly by strength, partly by persuasion, they induced the crowd to retreat.
My grandfather had not bestowed much attention on this popular demonstration, but he became more attentive when the interference of the smiths took place. He felt convinced that the crowd was obeying a by-word, and that if it had retreated it was merely because it preferred to wait for a more favourable time for action. He directed his assistants to finish the erection of the scaffold as quickly as possible, and returned to Paris, where he lost no time in acquainting the proper authorities with his apprehensions.
Political emotion had already given rise to many storms in the provinces. Normandy, Bretagne, Bear n had risen on behalf of their parliaments, attacked in their privileges. Dauphine had taken a decisive step; after a long series of riots, the representatives of the three orders, nobility, clergy, and tiers-tiat, had assembled, and proclaimed their provincial independence. Paris, however, had heard with indifference of the arrest of two members of the Parliament d’Espremenil and Monsabert; and the authorities had no idea that a struggle between the Government and the people could take place in the very town inhabited by the King and his Court, so that only a few soldiers were sent to Versailles.
The multitude which had thronged the Place Saint-Louis retired during the night; only a few young men remaining to watch what took place around the scaffold. It was rumoured that Helen Verdier had thrown herself at the Queen’s feet, imploring the reprieve of the culprit, and that Marie Antoinette had prevailed on the King to grant it. The news had doubtless led to the dispersion of the crowd.
Charles Henri Sanson made the most of the circumstance. He caused a strong paling to be erected around the scaffold; and, on their side, the executive magistrates took upon themselves to advance the hour of execution.
It was two o’clock in the morning when my grandfather left the Place Saint-Louis for the prison, and he remarked that the men who were still in the place dispersed in different directions as he went away. Jean Louschart was stretched on his pallet when he entered his cell. The doomed man rose and calmly surveyed him. The clerk of the parliament read aloud the sentence, to which he listened with much attention. He then murmured a few words, among which only those of ‘ Poor father!’ were heard, and he added in a loud voice:
‘In two hours I shall justify myself before him.’ On being told that it was time to depart for the scaffold, he turned to the executioner, saying, ‘You can be in no greater hurry than I am, sir.’
At half-past four o’clock the cart moved in the direction of the Place Saint-Louis. The executive magistrates were in hopes that, owing to the retentum, everything could be finished before the population awoke. But they soon perceived their mistake. The streets were swarming with people. The whole of the population was astir. Deafening clamours burst from the crowd as the cart appeared, and it was with the greatest difficulty that it made its way. The prisoner did not even seem to suspect that all this movement was caused by the sympathy people felt for him. At the corner of the Rue de Satory a piercing cry was heard, and a girl was seen waving her handkerchief. Jean Louschart looked up, and rising to his feet, he tried to smile, and exclaimed, ‘Farewell, Helen, farewell!’ At that moment a smith of high stature and herculean proportions, who was walking near the cart, cried in a thundering voice: ‘It is an revoir you should say, Jean. Are good fellows like you to be broken on the wheel?’
A horseman drove him back, but applause and cheers came from every quarter. It was obvious, by the pale faces of the clerk, the policemen, and the soldiers who surrounded the cart, that the agents of the law were anything but confident. The scaffold, however, was reached without accident. The crowd was thickly packed on the Place Saint-Louis. As the cart stopped Jean Louschart addressed a question to the priest who was sitting near him, and my grandfather heard the latter answer, ‘To save you.’ ‘No, father,’ said the doomed man in a feverish voice and with some impatience; ‘if I am innocent of the intention of committing the crime, my hands are nevertheless stained with blood. I must die, and I wish to die.—Be quick, sir,’ he added, turning to my grandfather.
‘Sir,’ answered Charles Henri, pointing to the infuriated masses that were already breaking through the paling, ‘if there is a man here who is in danger of death it is not you.’
Hardly were the words out of his mouth than a tempest of groans and screams burst forth. The paling was broken and trodden under foot, and hundreds of men rushed on the scaffold. The smith who had already spoken to Louschart was among the foremost. He seized the prisoner in his muscular arms, cut his bonds, and prepared to carry him off in triumph. An extraordinary scene now took place; Jean Louschart struggled violently against his saviours, turned towards the executioner and begged for death with the earnestness usually displayed by other culprits in asking for mercy. But his friends surrounded him, and at length succeeded in carrying him away.
My grandfather’s position was perilous in the extreme. Separated from his assistants, alone amidst a crowd that knew him but too well, he really thought that his last hour was at hand. His countenance probably betrayed his thoughts, for the tall smith came up to him, and seized his arm: ‘Fear nothing, Charlot,’ he cried; ‘we don’t want to harm you, but your tools. Henceforth, Charlot, you must kill your customers without making them suffer.’ And speaking to the crowd: ‘Let him pass, and take care he is not hurt.’
This harangue calmed the crowd, and my grandfather was allowed to withdraw. In less time than it takes to write this account the scaffold and all its accessories were broken into pieces, which were thrown on the pile prepared for the burning of the prisoner’s body; and the terrible wheel was placed on the summit as a kind of crown. Fire was set to the heap, and men and women, holding each other by the hand, formed an immense ring and danced around the crackling pile until it was reduced to ashes.
Louis XVI pardoned the unwillingly liberated Jean Louschart, and abolished the breaking-wheel.
Part of the Themed Set: Scary Escapes.
Also on this date
- 1949: Jacob Bokai, the first Israeli spy executed
- 1573: William Kirkcaldy of Grange, former king's man
- 1976: Valery Sablin, Hunt for Red October inspiration
- 1726: Mary Standford, shunning convict transportation
- 1916: Sir Roger Casement
Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Escapes,Execution,Executions Survived,France,Gruesome Methods,History,Lucky to be Alive,Milestones,Murder,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Public Executions,Wrongful Executions