We owe this date’s entry to Joseph Jekyll, a young gentleman (kin to the late judge of the same name whom Alexander Pope had once teased as an “odd old Whig/Who never changed his principle or wig”) who had just taken up residence in Paris in his 22nd year. Just a year later, he would be back in Albion’s soul, bound for his life’s calling as barrister, M.P., and celebrated wit.
Jekyll’s correspondence with his father shows him consumed with a worldly young man’s affairs, alternately French society (in whose salons he left a happy impression) and Europe’s churn of news and rumors. But we catch a glimpse in one of his first letters of a scene to which, perhaps, young Jekyll soon became as inured as most Frenchmen: an exceptionally brutal execution right outside the window of his quarters.
What follows is from Jekyll’s letter dated Ash Wednesday, April 12, 1775.
The police of this country is much commended, and deservedly; yet in Paris I was assured murders were so frequent that it is customary to see five or six bodies to be owned in the morning at a place called the Morgue, and there are nets on the Pont-neuf let down every night to receive persons thrown over by banditti. The morning we saw the Greve there was a gibbet erected. We inquired if there would be much crowd, and were told “No,” for there was generally an execution every day.
The road from Paris hither is full of crosses, with inscriptions to perpetuate the infamy of some robber or murderer. We lodge in a beautiful place or square, and saw from our balcony yesterday evening a criminal broke on the wheel. He arrived at five o’clock in the evening, in a cart guarded by the marechaussee (who constantly patrol the roads). He was attended by a cordelier, and held in his hands two laths nailed together in the form of a cross. He had received the tonsure and unction, and, while he was undressing, the crowd around the scaffold (which was far from being great) sang a voluntary requiem. The executioner, a very spruce fellow in a bag and a bien poudre, extended the criminal’s bare arms and legs on a St. Andrew’s cross, which had two deep notches under the long bones of each limb; then with an iron crow, bent like the blade of a scythe, struck him nine violent blows, the last across the reins. [kidneys] Thus with two fractures in every limb, at each of which he cried out Mon Dieu! the agonising wretch was untied and thrown on the forewheel of a waggon elevated about four feet above the scaffold. The holy father drew a chair near him, and muttered something during his last gasps. At night the body was exposed in the neighbouring forest. Horrible and frequent as these executions are (for there are twelve more now in the chatelet here under the like condemnation), their effects are as insufficient as ours in England. The crime of the unfortunate creature we saw yesterday was burglary, as we learnt from his sentence, which is posted up at every corner in the streets.