1909: Les Chauffeurs de la Drome

At daybreak this date in 1909, three French rural bandits dubbed “Les Chauffeurs de la Drôme” were publicly guillotined in Valence to the hurrahs of a great crowd.

Most of the (plentiful) information online about these charmers is in French; in their day about 1905 to 1908 they enjoyed quite a lot of notoriety in southern France for their bloody crime spree, comprising at least 11 murders amid numerous home invasion burglaries. They were a throwback gang whose niche the 20th century would eradicate as surely as they themselves. In the time before ubiquitous mass communication and high-speed transport, a sufficiently bold band of robbers could have their way with a rural residence miles from any possible aid: this was one of the great terrors of Europe, and early crime broadsheets from centuries previous dwell often on the terrors of an isolated farmer or miller made prey in his own home by a band of cutthroats.*

The root of the word chauffeur is the French verb “to heat” — think stoking an engine, for the word’s familiar meaning of professional driver — and the specialty of the Chauffeurs de la Drome was torturing their hostages by scorching their feet with hot irons until the sufferers yielded up the hidey-holes of whatever treasure they had on premises. Their trial was a fin-de-siecle circus, and their executions likewise to a discomfiting degree. Though nothing specifically scandalous occurred as the chauffeurs were snuffed out on a public street, there are a number of pictures of this event, some of them made into postcards and circulated.

This was a trend not very much appreciated by the French government, but of course such images make arresting historical artifacts.

We’re here featuring select images of Octave David. When David walked the few steps through a sea of early-rising spectators to the portable guillotine erected on the streetcar tracks directly in front of the prison gates, his companion Pierre Berruyer had already been beheaded. (The chauffeurs were nos. 126 through 128 in the prolific Anatole Deibler’s career.)

He would have glimpsed Berruyer’s headless trunk already rolled into the large box that would soon receive his body as well. (The box had accommodations for four.) And while the execution team washed down the blade between uses, the grotesque bloody puddles and remains of fresh gore were a constant source of complaint. All three executions were completed in a six-minute span; it’s safe to assume that the smell and the feel of Pierre Berruyer’s violent death surrounded David as he walked to the used chopper. As the events here transpired, the third robber Urbain Liottard still awaited his own turn just inside the prison walls — in a few moments, Liottard would see two steaming neckless corpses stacked up in the rude bin gaping to receive him.


Looking alarmingly Christlike, the half-naked form of the condemned murderer emerges from the prison’s maw amid a throng of indistinct, black-clad voyeurs.


David reaches the guillotine; the assistant executioners are about to tip him onto the board that will carry him into place. The identification on these photos is from Bois de Justice, an invaluable site on the history of the guillotine; I’m unsure from my own observation whether to equate the figure in these pictures with the one in the first, above.


One of the beheadings (I’m not certain that it’s David’s) has been completed; the body and head are being transferred to their receptacles. Again, Bois de Justice has details on this scene.


Following one of the beheadings, the visibly stained blade is raised for cleaning before the third criminal is brought out.

* For some examples, see Joel Harrington’s The Faithful Executioner, a book we’ve previously profiled.