On this date in 1870, a spy of the Franco-Prussian War was shot in Paris.
Barely a month old at this point, the Franco-Prussian War was a fast-unfolding fiasco for the Franco side. For three weeks, French reverses as the Prussians pressed through the frontier had been the talk of the capital.
The action at this moment was the huge Prussian siege of Metz, for whose relief the French emperor Napoleon III — Marx’s original “first as tragedy, then as farce” guy — was even then mobilizing a relief force. Napoleon was ridiculously out in the field, personally “leading” the army; on September 1, his column would be intercepted by the Germans and the resulting Battle of Sedan ended with the emperor’s own capture and the demise of his Second French Empire.
“Discussing the War in a Paris Cafe”: Illustrated London News, September 17, 1870. Within a few months the burghers will have fled these uproarious cafes with the rise of the Paris Commune.
For the moment, however, that empire is still alive in its final hours; Charles Harth must number among the last executions it ever carried out. The London Standard reported the story under an August 27 dateline (we excerpt here from the Milwaukee Daily Sentinel‘s reprint of September 16):
Prussian blood has been drawn for the first time since the declaration of war within the enceinte of Paris.
Charles Harth, found guilty of having visited France for the purpose of spying out its weakness, died the death this morning. His trial took place on Monday, as you will remember, and after a very brief procedure, the court martial that tried the man condemned him without a single dissenting voice. The Prussians (who, by the way, are accused in the Paris Press to-day of having hanged a woman at Gorse) will protest, no doubt, against the manner in which their countryman was treated, but military law is short and sharp in its decrees, and his judges were satisfied of Harth’s culpability. If he was guilty, as we are bound to believe, there is no room for protest. He deserved his fate.
After his condemnation, in the first instance, he had the privilege of appeal, which was availed of, on his behalf, by his council, but the Court of Revision, which considered the case on Thursday, found no reason to reverse the judgment. M. Weber, the advocate assigned by the prisoner, appears to have stuck generously by him, and even to have forwarded a petition for mercy to the Empress Regent. However much it must have cost the Empress to refuse it, as Regent no other course was open to her. Mercy could not be extended to the enemy’s spy, while the enemy himself was on French soil, and French blood was bieng shed in torrents on the battle-field.
Accordingly the order was given that the sentence should be carried out. At 5 o’clock this morning Harth was awakened in his cell in the military prison in the Rue du Cherche Midi by a messenger, who announced to him that his hour had come. He received the news calmly, like a man who had given up all hope, and was expecting it; more than that, like a man who was prepared to meet the worst, with the courage of dogged resignation.
M. Roth de Lille, the Protestant pastor of the gaol, was shown into the cell of the doomed man, and remained with him until the cellular van that was to convey him to the scene of his execution drew up with a rumble and a clatter of horses hoofs at the prison gate. Harth entered it boldly, and the vehicle drove off through the quiet streets with their early freshness upon them escorted by twelve mounted gendarmes, armed cap a pie, and making music to the ride of death with their clunking accoutrements.
The Ecole Militaire, that huge pile of barracks that will be familiar to those who visited the Exposition of 1867, from its position facing the Champs de Mars, was fixed on as the place of execution. The Polygon of Vincennes is the spot usually designed, but the Ecole Militaire was nearer, and this is no time for the formalities of precedent. Whatever is done to paralyze the invader had better be done quickly.
The courtyard of the barracks was occupied by all the troops quartered there in marching order. The battalion of the Grenadiers of the Guard, that serves as depot, was there in line with fixed bayonets, and detachments of Lancers with their gay pennons, and brown, brawny Cuirassiers, and the guides — the daintiest of all the French cavalry — in their heavily-embroidered jackets, were there too. A pretty sight for a military man, these flashing arms and helmets and polished cuirasses in the cheerful morning sunshine.
How did it strike Charles Harth, for he had been a military man by his own admission, a Lieutenant in the Prussian infantry. When the prisoner stepped from the van and threw a rapid look over the assembled troops, he gave a few nervous twitches of his head.
The clock over the centre of the building chimed the quarter to six. Six precisely was the hour fixed for the shooting. The prisoner had yet fifteen minutes to live.
He was led into an angle of the court yard, where the troop horses are usually shod, and which forms a quiet corner to itself. Here he was placed close to the wall, and in front of a squad of twelve men of the Forty-second Regiment of the line, namely, two sergeants, four corporals, and half-a-dozen privates. The firing party stood in two ranks, the two sergeants being stationed in the rear.
As the prisoner was approached by the turnkeys of the military prison whose duty it was to tie his hands behind his back, he shrunk back and said, ‘No! I wish to die like a soldier.’ But on representations being made to him that there was no exception to the rule, he yielded. His eyes were then bandaged, when he expressed a wish to be allowed to give the word ‘fire.’ Adjt. Codont, who had acted as registrat to the court-marshal [sic], came forward and read the sentence amid an impressive silence.
At a pause at one of the paragraphs in the document, the prisoner, fancying the reading had been finished, cried” ‘Tirez, coquns, et ne me manquez pas.’ ‘Fire, you rascals, and mind you don’t miss!’ But the squad did not stir; it was waiting another signal.
As the last syllable died away on the Adjutant’s lips the officer commanding the firing party drew his sword, the soldiers raised their Chassepots to their shoulder and took aim, the sword was lowered, and a dozen shots went off like one, with a sudden startling detonation. Before the report of the discharge had smitten the straining ears of those who looked on, the prisoner fell forward with an inclination to his right side. Over his left breast, in the region of his heart, his shirt was torn into a jagged hole, where the bullets had entered.
As he lay motionless on the ground one of the sergeants in the rear of the firing party advanced through the little cloud of smoke and discharged his piece into the dead man’s brain. Dead man, I say, for Harth must have died before he reached the ground in his fall.
The troops were marched past the body, which was then lifted, limp and warm, and put, dressed as it was, into a coffin, and trotted off to the Cemetery of Mont Parnasse, where it was dropped into a grave which had been opened to receive it, and hastily hidden from view.