Posts filed under 'Guillotine'

1938: Two anti-Nazi spies

1 comment October 4th, 2017 Headsman

The Third Reich on this date in 1938 guillotined two civilians as French spies.

Seventy-one-year-old merchant Ludwig Maringer had sent French intelligence notes on German industrial production and armaments factories from Berlin.
Thirty-nine-year-old Marie Catherine Kneup had turned mole from the advantageous position of domestic in the household of a German spy.

The latter case specifically — both the execution of Marie Catherine and the prison sentence given her husband Albert — is the subject of the German-language novel Spatzenkirschen.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,France,Germany,Guillotine,History,Spies

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1952: Johann Burianek, East German saboteur

Add comment August 2nd, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1952, Johann Burianek became the first person executed by East Germany.

A machinist and a World War II Wehrmacht soldier, Burianek (English Wikipedia entry | German) caught a one-year sentence in the postwar Communist East Germany for having the misbegotten initiative in the dying days of the war to go out of his way to arrest a deserter who was nearly executed as a result.

From about 1950 he became affiliated with the western-back anti-communist resistance network Kampfgruppe gegen Unmenschlichkeit (KgU) — Strike Force Against Inhumanity. Crossing liberally between East and West Berlin, which easy movement East German authorities were fretting, Burianek had a two-year stint irritating the German Democratic Republic with graffiti, subversive posters, and eventually, sabotage.

He was arrested in March 1952 shortly ahead of what would have been his derringest do, the bombing of a rail bridge; a judge named Hilde Benjamin, who in the course of 1950s show trials made her name synonymous with politically motivated severity,* hammered him with a demonstrative sentence** — the very first judicial execution meted out by the DDR, in fact. It was administered in Dresden by beheading with a fallbeil.

* Benjamin, who died on the eve of the Berlin Wall‘s fall, enjoys a poor reputation in the post-Cold War state with a variety of uncomplimentary sobriquets to prove it — such as the “Red Guillotine” and “Red Freisler“.

** She would also impose the death sentence against a fellow KgU operative, Wolfgang Kaiser, who went under the fallbeil five weeks after Burianek.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,East Germany,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Martyrs,Milestones,Terrorists,Treason

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1852: Louis Lullier, wife in a cask

2 comments July 14th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1852, Louis Lullier lost his head for an Edgar Allan Poe-esque murder that was very nearly the perfect crime. He would be the the last person guillotined in Pontoise.*

The stonemason Lullier was caught out by an eagle-eyed bank manager passing a forged bill of exchange. A search of his effects revealed several other such bills under different signatures being readied for circulation … but it turned out that Lullier was laboring under much heavier sins.

“When questioned by the examining magistrate, he appeared labouring under great anxiety, and incoherent words escaped from him,” ran a report published across the channel. (here quoted in The Huddersfield Chronicle and West Yorkshire Advertiser, June 12, 1852)

At length he said he had a horrible revelation to make; and he proceeded to state that nearly a year before he had strangled his wife, had thrust the dead body into a cask, and had deposited it in a cellar, which he indicated. The magistrate was for a moment thunderstruck at this statement, but the prisoner seemed greatly relieved at having made it, and he gave full details of his crime with the greatest sang-froid.

The couple had grown quarrelsome, and when his wife/victim threatened to leave him, Lullier

seized her by the throat and strangled her. He kept the body in his room for two days, and then, having stripped it, he forced it into a cask, and conveyed the cask in a wheelbarrow to a cellar in which he was accustomed to place his tools. The cellar was at some distance from his lodgings, but he wheeled the cask along the streets with the greatest confidence in open day.

No sooner, however, was the murder perpetrated than he became seized with remorse; he neglected his work, and at times stood gloomily before it with his arms folded; he broke off from his friends, abandoned his aged mother, to whom he had been very good, and treated his little child with great brutality, though he had always before shown him great attention. He also took to drinking, and spent a good deal of his time in public-houses with girls of bad character. It was observed that he was almost constantly hanging about the cellar, though no one could tell why, and he was dreadfully agitated when any one approached it.

Jump ahead a year as his last appeals are refused and the Versailles prison chaplain shakes him awake to deliver the news that his imminent beheading will decorate the country’s Bastille Day festivities and a pensive Lullier muses, “I did not think the news could have affected me so much.” (The Lincoln, Rutland and Stamford Mercury, July 23, 1852)

* Birthplace — just his luck — of Francois Villon.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,Murder,Public Executions

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1794: Rosalie Filleul, painter

1 comment June 24th, 2017 Headsman

Pastel painter Rosalie Filleul (English Wikipedia entry | the far more detailed French) was guillotined on this date in 1794, during the Paris Terror.

The prodigy daughter of a Paris, young Rosalie Boquet — as she was born — exhibited several times in the 1770s when she was barely out of her teens.

Famous for her beauty as well as her brushstrokes, she married into a comfortable sinecure held by the Superintendant of the Chateau de la Muette. As this fine post by history writer Melanie Clegg describes, Filleul cultivated an Enlightenment artist’s friendships with both revolution (Benjamin Franklin, whose portrait she painted) and ancien regime (Marie Antoinette, who commissioned more canvasses — like this one, of children of the Comte d’Artois).


The baby of this eldest trio of kids of the future King Charles X has been sighted on this here blog for his 1820 exit at an assassin’s hands.

Moved like many whom the Revolution would come to devour by hope in its possibilities, she declined to flee France. She came within a month of surviving the crucible but her relationship with the beheaded king and queen played fatally against her in the end.

We catch a glimpse of this woman and her vanished possibilities through the memoirs of her fellow-artist contemporary Madame Lebrun:

drew from nature and from casts, often working by lamplight with Mlle. Boquet, with whom I was closely acquainted. I went to her house in the evenings; she lived in the Rue Saint Denis, where her father had a bric-à-brac shop. It was a long way off, since we lodged in the Rue de Cléry, opposite the Lubert mansion. My mother, therefore, insisted on my being escorted whenever I went. We likewise frequently repaired, Mlle. Boquet and I, to Briard’s, a painter, who lent us his etchings and his classical busts. Briard was but a moderate painter, although he did some ceilings of rather unusual conception. On the other hand, he could draw admirably, which was the reason why several young people went to him for lessons. His rooms were in the Louvre, and each of us brought her little dinner, carried in a basket by a nurse, in order that we might make a long day of it.

Mlle. Boquet was fifteen years old and I fourteen. We were rival beauties. I had changed completely and had become good looking. Her artistic abilities were considerable; as for mine, I made such speedy progress that I soon was talked about

On Sundays and saints’ days, after hearing high mass, my mother and my stepfather took me to the Palais Royal for a walk. The gardens were then far more spacious and beautiful than they are now, strangled and straightened by the houses enclosing them. There was a very broad and long avenue on the left arched by gigantic trees, which formed a vault impenetrable to the rays of the sun. There good society assembled in its best clothes. The opera house was hard by the palace. In summer the performance ended at half-past eight, and all elegant people left even before it was over, in order to ramble in the garden. It was the fashion for the women to wear huge nosegays, which, added to the perfumed powder sprinkled in everybody’s hair, really made the air one breathed quite fragrant. Later, yet still before the Revolution, I have known these assemblies to last until two in the morning. There was music by moonlight, out in the open; artists and amateurs sang songs; there was playing on the harp and the guitar; the celebrated Saint Georges often executed pieces on his violin. Crowds flocked to the spot.

We never entered this avenue, Mlle. Boquet and I, without attracting lively attention. We both were then between sixteen and seventeen years old, Mlle. Boquet being a great beauty. At nineteen she was taken with the smallpox, which called forth such general interest that numbers from all classes of society made anxious inquiries, and a string of carriages was constantly drawn up outside her door.

She had a remarkable talent for painting, but she gave up the pursuit almost immediately after her marriage with M. Filleul, when the Queen made her Gatekeeper of the Castle of La Muette. [Marie Antoinette designated the position to Madame Filleul after her husband’s death. -ed.] Would that I could speak of the dear creature without calling her dreadful end to mind. Alas! how well I remember Mme. Filleul saying to me, on the eve of my departure from France, when I was to escape from the horrors I foresaw: “You are wrong to go. I intend to stay, because I believe in the happiness the Revolution is to bring us.” And that Revolution took her to the scaffold! Before she quitted La Muette the Terror had begun. Mme. Chalgrin, a daughter of Joseph Vernet, and Mme. Filleul’s bosom friend, came to the castle to celebrate her daughter’s wedding – quietly, as a matter of course. However, the next day the Jacobins none the less proceeded to arrest Mme. Filleul and Mme. Chalgrin, who, they said, had wasted the candles of the nation. A few days later they were both guillotined.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Public Executions,Treason,Women

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1794: The neighbors of Susan Sorel, the female atheist

1 comment May 28th, 2017 Lewis Goldsmith Stewarton

(Thanks to Lewis Goldsmith aka “Stewarton” for the guest post, cribbed from his The Female Revolutionary Plutarch -ed.)

Susan Sorel

The Female Atheist

Mais tout passe, et tout meurt, tel est l’arret du sort;
L’instant ou nous naissons est un pas vers la mort.

That the hardened criminal should silence or repulse the clamour of his conscience, and in a trembling despair call out “There is no God!” cannot be surprising; his enormities bid defiance to a divinity; he cannot endure to think of what he has such dreadful reason to fear; the very idea of an omnipotent God must to him be a hell upon earth. But that modest virtue, pure morality, honour, and loyalty, should be misled, to embrace the shocking, despairing, and destructive tenets of atheism, and disbelieve and deny a remunerator of good and evil, after all the abominations witnessed in France since the revolution, loudly proclaims the dangerous progress infidelity has made in that country, as well as the dangerous effects of the sophistical notions disseminated in the works of a Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Helvetius, Raynal, and other French philosophers.

Susan Sorel had inherited from her parents property producing about nine thousand livres (375 l.) per annum, near Metz, in ci-devant Lorrain. She had from her youth evinced an inclination for literary information and for a studious life; and when at the age of twenty-five, by the death of her parents, she became mistress of her fortune, she declined all offers of marriage entirely, to avoid all interruption to the gratification of her leading passion for reading. The revolution, and the famine and the horrors that accompanied it, gave her an opportunity to gain the admiration of all her neighbours by acts of generosity, that announced a heart as tender and liberal as a mind noble and philanthropic. She not only distributed among the poor all her superfluities, but frequently refused herself the necessaries of life to relieve suffering humanity. She paid no visits, and received but little company. Though she never went to church herself, she advised her servants never to neglect mass or vespers. She frequently presented the curate of her parish with liberal donations; and when in the beginning of 1794 the republicans proscribed and pursued him with all other christian priests, she, at the risk of her own life, concealed him in her house, and paid the same attention and respect to him as if she had belonged to his flock, or been one of the faithful. Four days before her death she presented him with a purse containing one hundred louis-d’ors, and a passport which would carry him safe to Germany, for which she had paid the same sum.

On the 21st of May 1794, she invited forty-four children of her neighbours to a dinner and ball, which continued till past midnight. She seemed not only composed and tranquil, but lively and gay, partaking with pleasure in the enjoyments and amusements of innocence and youth. When they retired she gave them each a louis-d’or in money, to be spent when monarchy was restored in France, and six yards of white riband to decorate themselves with on the same occasion.

A few weeks before, she had caused a small summer-house, or rather hut of dry wood, to be constructed in her garden, which she furnished in a neat and plain manner. Half an hour after the children had left her, the gardener heard reports of pistols, and looking out observed the hut on fire on all sides; and before he could procure any water or assistance to extinguish it, the hut was consumed, and Mademoiselle Sorel reduced to ashes. She probably had this hut built only to serve her as a funeral pile.

As soon as it was day-light the servants sent for the justice of peace (in France they have ho coroners), who, after taking an inventory of her effects, put a seal on the house. He found upon the table in her study a letter addressed to himself. In it she made him a present of fifty louis-d’ors, desiring him to have her ashes collected to be thrown into the river Moselle. She informed him that it was not by accident but by design, that she had burned the hut and herself, having chosen that death as the most agreeable and the most clean in departing from a world she detested so much, that she preferred to it even an annihilation, of which she was certain. She stated that, not to surwive the day she had calmly fixed on for her exit, she had set the hut on fire before she shot herself. She asked him to have her last will read at the department, as well as the papers accompanying it, some of which she hoped would give consolation to the wretched, and explain and palliate her conduct to the good and loyal.

My Last Will and Testament

In the name of no God! I, Susan Sorel, sound in mind and body, de bequeath all my landed property and estate, all my household furniture, money, and valuables; in few words, every thing that can be called mine upon earth, (after two years wages have been paid to each of my servants), to his Majesty the king of France and Navarre, Louis XVII or his heirs and successors, to be disposed of by him or by them, as he or they judge and think proper, to some unfortunate sufferer whom the revolution has ruined for his attachment to his lawful sovereign. Until the restoration of royalty, Nicholas Nerein and Jacques Meunier, my neighbours, whom I appoint my executors, are requested to see that my lands are well cultivated and my rents paid; and to distribute the same to the full amount among all the poor of our parish, deducting only six hundred livres (25 l.) a year each for their trouble. They may either let or occupy themselves my principal dwelling, upon condition of keeping it in the best possible repair, until it with every thing else can be delivered up to the rightful owner; such a one as is nominated by the first Bourbon who is acknowledged a King of France and Navarre. Written, signed, and sealed by myself, at ten o’clock in the morning, May 21st, 1794; or, in the republican jargon, Floreal 30th, year II of the republic, one and indivisible.

(Signed)
SUSAN SOREL.

My Last Creed.

The world has never been created, but produced by incomprehensible, mechanical causes and occurrences, and has by degrees become nearly as it is. It will remain with little variation in the same state’ to all eternity.

A God is the invention of fear, and the idol of folly and ignorance. I too in my youth worshipped a God, adored his Son, prayed to a virgin-mother, and knelt before human saints. I too confessed, fasted, subjected myself to mortifications, and wore relics. I too attended church, followed processions, prostrated myself before the host, sung hymns, and made vows. My sincere piety, my ardent devotion, was first shaken by seeing the prosperity of crime, the sufferings of innocence, and the misfortunes of virtue.

When I saw the best and most virtuous king that ever ruled France, in return for his pure and patriotic wishes to make his subjects free and happy, rewarded by ingratitude, insults, and pains — I said, No, there is no God!

When his loyal life-guards were murdered in doing their duty, and their known assassins remained unpunished — I said, No, there is no God!

When this good king was carried to Paris, and there detained a prisoner by those very subjects to whom he had offered liberty, and outrage was added to confinement — I said, No, there is no God!

When with his nobly resigned queen and family, he was arrested and ill-treated in a journey he had undertaken to restore order to his kingdom, and tranquillity and happiness to his subjects — I said, No, no, there is no God!.

When first treacherously assaulted in his own palace, and afterwards barbarously dragged from the throne he was so worthy to occupy, to a prison his virtues purified and sanctified — No! no! no! said I, there can be no God!

When, in the course of a few months, his innocent blood was shed by the hands of criminals on a scaffold erected for criminals — It is impossible, said I, it is impossible there can be any God!

When I saw honour and loyalty bleeding and flying, and robbers, rebels, and regicides victorious — No! no! said I, there is no God!

When I saw altars erected to Marat, and heard that his sanguinary accomplices pronounced his apotheosis, without being crushed by the thunder of heaven — No! no! no! said I, there is no God!

When I read that a prostitute was worshipped upon an altar consecrated to a God who did not revenge this sacrilegious outrage — No! no! said I, there is no God!

When Marie Antoinette, whose courage, sufferings, and resignation, were so great and so edifying, and whose faults and errors were so few and so exaggerated, ascended the same scaffold where her royal consort Louis XVI had bled — No! no! no! said I, there is no God!

When the model of fennale virtue and purity, of religious sanctity, of parental and sisterly heroism, the royal Princess Madame Elizabeth, was condemned by regicide murderers to die like the parricide or assassin — No! no! no! said I, there never has been, there never can be a God!

It is time, said I, to depart from a world where every thing vile, corrupt, and guilty, is fortunate, and where every thing elevated, good, generous, and honourable, is wretched. If there is another world, what have I to apprehend? My life is pure; the blood of no being have I shed; the property of no person have I plundered; the rights of no individual have I invaded, and the reputation of no person have I injured. I may therefore, said I, reduce myself to ashes, to annihilation, with as much indifference as I strip myself of my garment when I undress to go to bed. Should a God, a supernatural being, whom I am unable to comprehend or to believe in ; should he really exist, and have created such vile creatures as man and woman, I — humble I, am no shame, no disgrace to his work, to his performance! Though not confiding in him myself, I have not only not prevented any body from doing so, but have encouraged and enjoined many to trust in his justice and his bounty. It is also true, I observed that those I thus advised had neither energy of character, for strength of mind, to see in themselves every thing inferior, equal, and above them. For their repose they required some terrific superior — a Robespierre in the heavens to bow to, to tremble before.

To my young neighbours, whose innocent enjoyments made my last hours so happy, and my journey into the shades of oblivion so easy.

Sweet children! die soon, or misery is your lot; die soon, or you will deplore existence as a curse. Die soon, or the assassin’s dagger will stab you, the poisoned tooth of the calumniator wound you; or, what is worse, and more insupportable, the arrow of wretchedness will pierce your tender bosom without killing you, suspend you for years between existence and annihilation, and leave you just enough of life to feel all its horrors. Die soon, or you will, like myself, witness that what disgraces human nature prospers, what degrades it succeeds. Die soon, or you will see modesty trampled upon by impertinent or rude audacity; folly and impertinence tyrannize over wisdom and prudence; and unpunished ferocity intimidate equally the brave and the coward, the good and the bad, the virtuous and the wicked. Die soon, or you will die a thousand times before you expire. To die is nothing; you must all die sooner or later: it is only the agony of death that is terrible, insufferable.

To my good neighbours, Nicholas Nerein and Jacques Meuitier.

My will and the charge entrusted to you, my friends, prove how sincerely I esteem you, and my confidence in you. Shew yourselves worthy of it by discharging your duty faithfully. You know since the death of my nephews I have no relations left: I therefore do not infringe on the ties of consanguinity in presenting my offering to loyalty. As the last proof of my friendship for you both when, tired of living, I bequeath you my example of dying. Embrace your wives and children on the part of your and their departed friend,

SUSAN SOREL.


The department of the Moselle, instead of approving of the will of Susan Sorel, considered her as an enemy of the republic, who by suicide had prevented the effect of national justice, and therefore confiscated her property for the benefit of the nation. Nicholas Nerein and Jacques Meunier they caused to be arrested as suspected, and delivered up to the revolutionary tribunal, which condemned them both to death as accomplices of Susan Sorel. They were executed on the 28th of May, 1794.

On the back of the paper containing what she called Her Last Creed, were written the following lines:

On a vue souvent des athees
Vertueux malgre leurs erreurs:
Leurs opinion infectees
N’avoient point infectes leurs moeurs.
Spinosa fut doux, juste, aimable:
Le Dieu que son esprit coupable
Avoit follement combattu,
Prenant pitie de sa foiblesse,
Lui laissa l’humain sagesse,
Et les ombres de la vertu.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guest Writers,Guillotine,History,Innocent Bystanders,Other Voices,Public Executions

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1889: Fulgence-Benjamin Geomay, at the Paris Exposition

Add comment May 22nd, 2017 Headsman

Attendees at the 1889 Paris Exposition had the opportunity of a dawn side excursion on May 22 to see the French soldier Fulgence-Benjamin Geomay beheaded.

This Exposition was the event that gave Paris its signature landmark, the Eiffel Tower — a design whose defeated counterproposals included, among other things, a giant-sized kitsch guillotine replica. (The fair coincided with the centenary of the French Revolution.)


This could have been the National Razor instead. (cc) image by Alex Lecea.

What an opportunity squandered! Gawkers would have to make do with the real thing instead … although as usual at this late date the scene was staged to expose minimum visible spectacle to onlookers.

Paris was considerably excited by an execution which took place at La Roquette at 20 minutes past four on Wednesday morning. The weather was eminently favourable for the lovers of the gruesome spectacles which M. Deibler directs. The nocturnal and matutinal scenes around the prison were similar to those which were enacted before and during the execution of Pranzini and Prado.

Howling, shouting, gesticulating, eating, drinking, and coarse joking were carried on all over the neighbourhood. The windows of the houses were full of spectators, and the foul nightbirds, male and female, were abroad in scores. Women in light summer costumes and big hats, who had been in the Boulevard cafes until two o’clock in the morning, were there in dozens. They were standing up in hackney carriages, supported by their temporary adorers or permanent protectors, and were craning their necks in order to catch a glimpse of the guillotine.

A still stranger sight was that of a youthful bride in her white dress and orange blossoms, who, with her husband, was having a nocturnal honeymoon on the Place de la Roquette.

The felon who was guillotined that morning was a soldier who made away with an old widow woman — a Madame Roux — who kept a wineshop in the shabby part of the Boulevard St. Germain. He was Corporal Geomay of the Eighty-seventh regiment of the Line, in garrison at St. Quentin, in the North, and while on a short furlough in Paris he entered Madame Roux’s shop at midnight on Jan. 13.

After he had partially closed her shop Geomay seized her, knocked her down, and battered in her skull with a heavy hammer. The murderer then robbed his victim, caroused in the markets during the night, and next day returned to St. Quentin, where he treated his comrades lavishly, and bestowed a watch and gold chain on a woman with whom he kept company.

Geomay was condemned to death on March 27. He met his fate without flinching, and had resolved, he said, to die like a soldier.

When he arrived at the foot of the guillotine he looked calmly at the spectators, and then in a firm voice thanked the governor and warders of the prison for the kindness which they had shown him during the period of suspense preceding his execution.

M. Deibler, the executioner, was less nervous than usual, and pulled down the knife by touching a handle, and not pressing a button.

When the head was severed from the body the remains were taken off for interment, and, in accordance with the last wishes of the deceased, were not handed over to the Faculty of Medicine. After the execution, when the cordon of police and guards was withdrawn, a rush was made by the ribald crowd to the spot, marked by four stones, which was still sprinkled with blood. Men and women exchanged obscene jokes and repartees, until, wearied out at last by their night’s watch, they slunk away to their homes in the slums.

-Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, May 26, 1889

We have a taste of that obscene repartee in this a scrap of doggerel courtesy of entertainer Aristide Bruant:

Une nuit qu’il était en permission,
V’là qu’i tue la vieille d’un coup d’sion,
C’est ti bête!

L’autre matin Deibler d’un seul coup,
Place de la Roquette,
i a coupé la tête!

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Murder,Pelf,Public Executions,Soldiers

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1792: Three cadavers, to test the first guillotine

Add comment April 17th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1792, the French Revolution’s iconic execution machine made its quiet experimental debut on the grounds of a suburban Paris hospital.

For all the long and terrible shadow it would cast, the first guillotine was a ridiculous rush job — courtesy of a legislature too squeamish to deal in the particulars of the humane head-chopper it had insisted upon. A ghastly farce ensued, as detailed by Paul Friedland in his Seeing Justice Done: The Age of Spectacular Capital Punishment in France,* wherein during a matter of weeks in the spring of 1792 the thing was practically willed into existence by French physician Antoine Louis by virtue of being the one guy who was willing to get into the technical journals on the matter of crunching a heavy blade through a man’s spine.**

The invention would initially be known as a louisette or louison in his honor, before that moniker was supplanted by the surname of a different physician who had become known (derisively, at first) for proposing a mechanical beheading device: Joseph-Ignace Guillotin.

Lawmakers’ shyness stems as Friedland sees it from their ambivalence about the entire project of public executions with their unruly rabble, pornographically agape: in this courtly sketch of the proposed machine, even the executioner — and this behavior is explicit in its original caption — coyly averts his eyes as his sword-arm releases the blade.

It was on March 20, 1792 that Assembly’s Committee on Legislation authorized deploying the as-yet uninvented device and “almost immediately, there followed an urgent, almost frenzied effort to build a decapitating machine as quickly as possible.” Executions remained suspended in the interim but Louis worked with dispatch, and an efficient carpenter named Guidon,† and the device performed its first real execution a mere five weeks after the enabling legislation, on April 25.

This date was its dry run, courtesy of a few fresh cadavers at the Bicêtre Hospital, which the chief surgeon, one Cullerier, was very happy to make Dr. Louis’s arrangements.

Sir,

You will find at Bicetre all the facilities that you desire for the trial of a machine that humanity cannot see without shuddering, but which justice and the welfare of society make necessary. I will keep the corpses of those unfortunates who die between today and Monday. I will arrange the amphitheater … [and if] the ceiling does not accommodate the height of the machine, I can make use of a little isolated courtyard situated next to the amphitheater. The honor that you are bestowing on the House of Bicetre, Sir, is a very nice gift that you are giving me, but it would be even more so if you wished to accept a simple and frugal meal, such as a bachelor can offer.

Several more VIPs multiplied the honor. Rejoining Friedland’s narrative,

On April 17 the first trial of the guillotine took place. On hand to witness the event were: Sanson, the executioner of Paris, along with his son and an aide; the carpenter who built the machine and his aides; and several members of the medical establishment including Drs. Louis, Cullerier, and Pierre Jean George Cabanis, the prominent physician and friend of Mirabeau. Reportedly also in attendance that day were several members of the National Assembly and last, but certainly not least, an individual who was both a politician and a physician: Dr. Guillotin himself. By all accounts the trial was a wonderful success. As Dr. Louis enthused in his report to [politician and intellectual Pierre-Louis] Roederer, the machine decapitated three cadavers “so neatly that one was astonished by the force and celerity of its action.” Dr. Cabanis would later describe the blade’s descent as having “severed the heads faster than one could see, and the bones were cleanly cut.”

The reports ring with awe, and well they might. For an Enlightenment audience that theretofore had known beheadings only via the error-prone action of an executioner’s muscle, it must have been a wondrous spectacle, a triumph of ingenuity and philosophy for a humane new age.

* Executed Today long ago interviewed Dr. Friedland about this book.

** A rival proposal called for automating death via a sort of proto-gas chamber: the executioner to “attach the condemned by the neck, feet, and hands behind the back [to a post on the scaffold], all of which he would cover or enclose in a kind of booth, 5 feet square, equipped with panes of glass on all four sides and with a tight-fitting cap on top … charcoal, sulfur, and other materials that cause asphyxiation could be introduced into the booth by means of an inverted funnel in such a way that the condemned would suffocate and expire instantaneously.” Yet another proposal called for a strangling machine.

† “Who charged 5,500 francs for it,” report the memoirs of the Sansons, which also notes that by way of experimentation, two of the cadavers were beheaded with the familiar-to-us oblique knife, and the third less satisfactorily with a crescent-shaped alternative.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",France,Guillotine,History,Innocent Bystanders,Known But To God,Milestones,Posthumous Executions

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1825: Louis August Papavoine, An Execution in Paris

Add comment March 25th, 2017 Robert Macnish

(Thanks to Dr. Robert Macnish, a young Scottish surgeon, writer, and polymath whose wide-roaming intellect earned him the nickname of “the Modern Pythagorean.” While resident in Paris, Macnish witnessed the public beheading of a French murderer on March 24, 1825 … an experience he rendered into the essay below. The crime which occasioned this spectacle was notorious in his brief day; Victor Hugo refers to Papavoine by name as “the horrible madman who killed the children with a knife to the head!” in The Last Day of a Condemned Man. -ed.)

AN EXECUTION IN PARIS.

In the month of March 1825, Louis Auguste Papavoine lost his head. He was guillotined at the Place de Greve for the murder of two children in the Bois de Vincennes. The man was mad, beyond all doubt, and in Great Britain would have been sentenced to perpetual confinement as a lunatic; but the French criminal court refused to admit the plea of insanity, and he was given over to the executioner: the Cour de Cassation having rejected his appeal from the decision of that which tried him.

To my shame be it spoken, I wished to see an execution by the guillotine. There was a sort of sanguinary spell attached to this instrument, which irresistibly impelled me to witness one of its horrid triumphs. When I thought of it, the overwhelming tragedy of the Revolution was brought before my eyes — that Revolution which plunged Europe in seas of blood, and stamped an indelible impression upon the whole fabric of modern society. There was something appalling in the very name of this terrific engine. M. Guillotine, its inventor, was also one of its victims — he perished by his own contrivance. [this popular legend is untrue -ed.] Let no man hereafter invent an instrument of punishment. Perillus contrived the brazen bull, and was among the first to perish by it. Earl Morton, who brought the “Maiden” to Scotland, underwent a like fate; and Deacon Brodie was hanged upon his own drop.

The day on which Papavoine suffered was beautifully fair; and, profiting by this circumstance, the idle population of the French capital flocked in myriads to witness his exit. It was calculated that there were not fewer than eighty thousand spectators. The Place de Greve was literally paved with human beings. A person might have walked upon their heads without difficulty; and so closely were they wedged together, that had any object larger than an apple been thrown among them, it could not have found its way to the ground. Men, women, and children, were clumped into one dense aggregate of living matter; and as the huge multitude moved itself to and fro, it was as the incipient stirring of an earthquake, or as the lazy floundering of the sea, when its waves, exhausted by a recent storm, tumble their huge sides about, like the indolent leviathan which floats upon their surface. There was no spot of the Place unoccupied save immediately around the scaffold, where a portion was squared off, and kept clear by a strong body of mounted gendarmerie, who kept back with their horses the living wall, which was every moment threatening to break asunder by the pressure behind, and intrude its animated materials into the proscribed area. Nor was the Place de Greve the only spot so crowded. The quays along the Seine were equally peopled, and even the opposite banks of that broad stream were filled with multitudes. Notre Dame shone with spectators, who had mounted its beetling towers to catch a dim prospect of the sacrifice; and every window and height, which afforded the most distant view, were similarly occupied.

In Paris, as in London, it is customary to let out those windows where a good view can be obtained; and on any occasion of particular interest — as the present happened to be — considerable sums are asked, and given. Sometimes half a Napoleon is demanded for a single place; and the sum varies from that to half a franc, according to the eligibility of the situation. Many of the windows are so near to the guillotine, that a very favourable prospect of the painful spectacle can be obtained; and these, of course, are crowded with persons who can afford to pay well for the gratification of their curiosity — if there be, indeed, any gratification in witnessing the instantaneous and sanguinary death of a fellow creature. Yet the view, even from the best windows, is not equal to that from within the open area. But into this space, it is no easy matter to get a footing; the few who are admitted being military men, and such of their friends as they choose to bring along with them. Indeed, at this time, there were few or no officers of any rank within the opening. It was mostly occupied by the gendarmes, who were there upon duty; and by a few dozens of common soldiers, whom curiosity or idleness had brought together. This, however, was the spot to which my wishes led me; and under the guidance of a young French officer of hussars, I was led into the area, and placed in front of the guillotine, not ten feet from its dreadful presence. But dreadful as it is from association, and from its destructive rapidity, this machine is by no means so appalling to look at as the gallows. The same feeling of horror does not attach to it; nor is the mind filled with the same blank dismay, or the same overpowering disgust, which are universally felt on beholding the gibbet, with its looped rope, its horrid beam, and its deceitful platform, which, slipping from beneath the feet of its victim, leaves him dangling and gasping in the winds of heaven. Somehow the same strong idea of disgrace is not connected with the axe as with the gibbet; but this may be from the thought that the noble and the good have shed their blood in torrents beneath its edge, thus giving it a sort of factitious interest, and deadening even with the most criminal the ignominy of its punishment. Nor is it coupled with such inveterate disgust, and such decided outrage to the feelings of humanity. Prolonged physical suffering is at all times revolting; and to see a human being struggling with a violent death — writhing in agony, and perishing like a dog — is the most detestable sight in existence. The guillotine distracts the fancy with no such sickening imagery. Whatever agony is sustained, is the more noble and enduring agony of the spirit, previous to the fatal hour. There is no struggle here with the grim tyrant — no painful encounter between life and death — no tortures like those which wrung Laocoön and his miserable offspring. From perfect life, the individual is transported to as perfect annihilation. He does not enter eternity by slow, unwilling steps: the spirit does not quit its fleshly mansion painfully and tardily, but leaves it with a sudden bound, and plunges at once into a new existence, there to be saved or lost, as its fate chances to be decreed in the Book of Life.

At the period of my admission, it was two o’clock — one hour exactly from the time of execution; and I had, therefore, abundant leisure to contemplate the engine of death, and to witness the behaviour of the vast multitude around it. Things were as quiet as could well be expected in so great an assemblage. There was plenty of talking, but much less disturbance than would have occurred in England upon any similar occasion. In truth, the only quarter which manifested tumult, was in the immediate neighbourhood of the area, which threatened every moment to be broken in, not so much by the fault of those directly in front of it, as by the immense pressure of those in the back-ground. Every now and then its square proportions were destroyed by a portion of the crowd which bulged inwards in a solid mass; and almost at the same moment, this violation of the straight line was repaired by the gendarmes, who kept riding along the square, and pressing back the intruding body into its proper place. The recklessness and fierce temper of the French soldiery were manifest, and formed a strong contrast to the good-humoured forbearance of our own troops. No ceremony was used towards intruders. Whoever came, or was forced into the square by his rearward companions, was thrust back with wanton violence. Where the pressure of the horses was resisted, the gendarmes made use of the flat sides of their sabres, and belaboured the crowd without mercy. The whole scene presented a strange picture of the fearful and the ludicrous. While it was distressing to witness the terrified crowd recoiling before the soldiers, it was amusing to witness the dexterity with which the latter treated the refractory — sometimes pushing them back with their steeds, sometimes beating them with their swords, and sometimes dexterously pitching off their hats into the assemblage. When any unfortunate fellow lost his chapeau in this manner, or received a salutary blow from the weapon of a gendarme, a loud shout of laughter was set up among the spectators. In fact, the whole, except thosewithin reach of punishment, were in excellent humour, and seemed to have come together more to enjoy a farce than witness the horrors of a public execution. Things continued in this state till the hour of three, which, pealing from the clock of the Hotel de Ville, announced the approach of the criminal. Scarcely had the fatal sounds swung upon the air, than the whole host was hushed into silence. They knew that the destined time was at hand, and that Papavoine was on his way to the scaffold; — and every man held his breath with deep interest, and felt, in spite of himself, a solemn awe fall over his spirit. But this dreadful silence did not continue long — for far off, in the direction of the bridge over which the criminal must pass, there was seen a heaving among the assemblage, which moved as if borne on the bosom of a vast wave; and murmurs like the half-suppressed voice of a remote volcano, were heard to proceed from this moving multitude. It was now evident that the procession approached; and every eye was turned towards that direction, and every ear wrought to its keenest pitch to catch the strange sounds which denoted its coming. Each moment the noise became louder, and the motion of the crowd more general. At last the trampling of horses was heard, and a troop of gendarmes, forcing a path through the recoiling people, were seen to approach. Behind them came a cart drawn by two horses; and in this cart sat Papavoine and an old Catholic priest. To the rear of this a second body of gendarmes brought up the procession. The criminal was a small, thin man, of about five feet six. He was dressed in a shabby blue surtout, and brown trowsers, and wore a fur cap upon his head. His arms were pinioned behind him, not by the elbows as with us, but by the wrists. He had no neckcloth on, nor shirt; and the collar of his surtout was drawn some way over his shoulders, so as to leave the neck quite bare and ready for the axe. Though pale and death-like, and seemingly impressed with the marks of sorrow and bad health, he exhibited no signs of terror or dismay. His demeanour was quiet and composed; and to the exhortations of his spiritual adviser he appeared to pay deep attention.


Source

Now, here a scene took place which baffles description. No sooner had the wretch entered the area appropriated for his fate, than a shout of deafening execration arose from the hitherto silent multitude. No preparatory murmurs of hatred and revenge preceded this ebullition of feeling. It sprung up simultaneously, and as if those from whom it proceeded were animated with one soul, and felt one pervading vengeance thrilling through their hearts. “Wretch!” “Villain!” “Miscreant!” “Assassin!” arose in a wild swell from the crowd; and above the deeper voices of the men were heard the shrill imprecations of females, denouncing, with even more bitter wrath, the murderer. Had it been for almost any other crime, the women would have felt towards him more kindly than his own sex; but that for which he was to suffer was one of all others the most heinous to a maternal heart — and the natural fountains of woman’s tears were no longer free to flow in their wonted channel.

But Papavoine did not seem to hear the imprecations which were poured like vials of wrath upon his head — nor did he even appear sensible of the presence of those who so bitterly reviled him in his last moments. The cart stopped at the foot of the scaffold, and descending firmly, he conversed for one moment with the old priest, previous to mounting the fatal steps. I was at this time only a few yards from him, and marked him most distinctly. His look was perfectly calm and composed, and, had he died in a better cause, it would have been impossible not to admire his steady heroism. He said a single word in the ear of the priest who kissed him on the cheek, and left him, apparently much affected. Papavoine now ascended the guillotine rapidly and firmly, and committed himself to the hands of the executioner and his assistant satellite. At this part of the scene the loud execrations of the people had melted into breathless awe. Not a whisper was heard, nor even a movement among the vast and silent assemblage. The whole spectacle was dreadful — the very stillness of the crowd had something appalling in it; and the systematic dispatch with which the executioners proceeded among such universal silence, was sickening to the last degree. While gazing upon the victim, my respiration was almost totally suspended — my heart beat violently, and a feeling of intense anxiety and suffocation pervaded my frame.

The process was incredibly short. In a few seconds Papavoine was bound to a board which stood upright, and reached to the middle of his breast. The board moved on a pivot, and as soon as the malefactor was buckled to it, it was depressed, and shoved with its burden towards the groove of the guillotine, at the top of which hung the axe, ready to descend, on the pulling out of a small peg which kept it in its situation. A moveable piece of wood being now drawn down upon the root of the neck, to prevent all attempt at motion, and everything being ready, the executioner pulled a cord, and with the impetuosity of lightning, down came the axe upon its victim. Papavoine was annihilated in a moment. I saw his head slip from the body and tumble into a basket ready to receive it, while the blood spouted forth in little cataracts from the severed trunk, and dyed the scaffold with a purple tide. From the time when he appeared upon the guillotine till the head was severed, only twenty-five seconds elapsed — such is the appalling, yet humane rapidity of a French execution.

I looked attentively to observe if there was any motion in the trunk — any convulsive start at the instant of decapitation, but there was none. It lay from the first perfectly motionless, nor exhibited the slightest shudder — the least quivering — or the faintest indication that, the moment before, it was part of a sentient being, instinct with all the energies of life. This I did not expect. I conceived that a strong muscular spasm would have convulsed it at the fatal instant: and such, I am told, was the case with Brochetti, an Italian, executed some time before, and whose trunk sprung violently from its situation, and shook with universal tremor.

The momentary silence which pervaded the crowd previous to the axe’s descent was now broken, and an instantaneous movement ensued among its before tranquil numbers. The windows were deserted by their occupants; the doors poured their population into the streets; and the house-tops and black Gothic towers of Notre Dame were rid of the crowds which sat perched like eagles upon their lofty summits. But long ere this assembly had melted away, the guillotine had disappeared from the Place de Greve. Two minutes were allowed to elapse, that the head and body of the criminal might part with their blood.

They were then thrown into a long basket, and sent in the cart — which brought them alive — to the Ecole de Medecine for dissection. And the scaffold, after being cleansed of the gore, by having several buckets of water dashed over it, was taken to pieces, and deposited in the Hotel de Ville, till its sanguinary services were again required. The execution, together with the process of cleansing and dismantling the guillotine, did not occupy above seven minutes.

Next morning, the same curiosity which led me to witness this revolting sight took me to the Ecole de Medecine, to witness the remains of Papavoine. There were a number of scientific men present — among others, the celebrated Doctor Gall, who was employed in investigating the developements of the head, and pointing them out to several of his pupils. [A topic of great interest to Macnish, who also wrote a book about phrenology. -ed.] There was no portion whatever of the neck remaining attached to the trunk. It, as well as the head, had been severed from the body. The axe had struck at its very root, and even grazed the collar bone where it is fixed to the sternum. This is not in general the case, the neck being in most instances pretty accurately cut through the middle — one half of it adhering to the head, the other to the trunk.

I am not sure that I had done right in making such a scene as the above the subject of an article. There is something in the minute details of an execution, at which the mind shudders; and it is probable the reader may think that my impressions of the spectacle just related, should have been confined to my own bosom instead of being made public.

(For writerly firsthand accounts of the guillotine in action in the 19th century, compare to Tolstoy or Turgenev. -ed.)

On this day..

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1954: Ernst Jennrich, for 17 June 1953

Add comment March 20th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1954, East Germany beheaded Ernst Jennrich for the previous June’s short-lived popular protests.

A Magdeburg gardener of socialist proclivities, Jennrich was nothing more than an enthusiast who got swept up in events when metalworkers at the Ernst-Thälmann factory struck for better pay and lower food prices — a protest that quickly metastasized into what looked to the Communist authorities like a treasonable movement calling for liberalization, a release of political prisoners, and reunification with West Germany.

The movement was crushed within a day by Russian tanks — although some Soviet soldiers notably (and sacrificially) refused to fire on protesting workers. But before events played out, Jennrich had disarmed a guard at the prison in nearby Sudenburg. He fired the guard’s carbine twice, then destroyed the weapon.

It’s not certain how many people lost their lives in the suppression of this affair — hostile western estimates ran into the thousands — but two policemen were killed at Sudenburg prison, and in a cruel show of official impunity Jennrich got tapped to answer for their deaths. He said he’d just fired the carbine into a wall or the air in order to empty it … but the state said he’d emptied it into those two luckless officers.

On scant evidence, Jennrich harshly received a life sentence that August. But even this did not suffice for officials racing to manifest their righteous indignation against the late subversion. “The protection of our peaceful state requires the death penalty for the crimes committed by the defendant,” huffed the prosecutor, and appealed the sentence to Germany’s high court … which accordingly upgraded the sentence to “the extermination of the defendant from our society, and therefore the death penalty.”

Jennrich was beheaded on the fallbeil at Dresden still protesting his innocence. A post-unification court finally vindicated that protest in 1991, posthumously rehabilitating Jennrich as having been condemned without evidence even by the terms of East Germany’s 1950s laws.

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1939: Maurice Pilorge, Le Condamné à mort

1 comment February 4th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1939, the murderer Maurice Pilorge dropped his beautiful head under the blade.

This strange execution by retrospect almost marks the pivot between eras of crime and culture. Public executions were about to disappear entirely; the Third Republic that ordered them would not long outlive them.

And Pilorge’s death specifically would prove to be the last performance of the guillotine in Rennes. It was also to have been the 396th in the legendary career of 75-year-old headsman Anatole Deibler … except that Deibler dropped dead on a Paris metro platform two days before, as he set out for the lethal rendezvous.

So too did Pilorge’s crime belong to that interwar moment of cosmopolitan decadence. He fatally slashed the throat of a Mexican visitor named Escudero after what Pilorge claimed, in an unsuccessful attempt to leverage the “gay panic” defense, was an indecent proposition. The facts of the case appear better to fit the hypothesis that indecent propositions were Pilorge’s stock in trade: a black book full of dates and initials whose owners he would not identify, a short late-night visit to Escudero’s hotel room, and a total refusal to explain his activities.

Pilorge, who maintained a wry and mirthful attitude throughout his trial, could not but laugh at the judge’s speculation — inspired by the swarthiness of his victim in the case at hand? — that his prisoner was involved in traite des blanches, the white slave trade: “I was never cut out for that. I assure you that I have never fallen so low.”

If Pilorge’s character entered the public gaze awash in same-sex eros, he was fixed in the firmament as such by the pen of Villonesque criminal/writer Jean Genet after the war years.

Claiming (falsely) to have had a prison intimacy with this doomed “Apollo”, Genet dedicated to Pilorge, “assasin de vingt ans,” one of his breakthrough works. Written in prison in 1942, Le Condamné à mort is a homoerotic hallucination of lovemaking ahead of a gathering doom and it helped to launch the theretofore Genet into literary superstardom. I’ve found the lengthy poem available online only in the original French, but here’s a translated excerpt via The Columbia Anthology of Gay Literature:

O come my beautiful sun, o come my night of Spain,
Arrive in my eyes which will be dead tomorrow.
Arrive, open my door, bring me your hand,
Lead me far from here to scour the battleground.

Heaven may awaken, the stars may blossom,
Nor flowers sigh, and from the meadows the black grass
Gather the dew where morning is about to drink,
The bell may ring: I alone am about to die.

O come my heaven of rose, o my blond basket!
Visit in his night your condemned-to-death.
Tear away your own flesh, kill, climb, bite,
But come! Place your cheek against my round head.

We had not finished speaking to each other of love.
We had not finished smoking our gitanes.
Well we might ask why the Courts condemn
A murderer so beautiful he makes the day to pale.

Love come to my mouth! Love open your doors!
Run through the hallways, come down, step lightly,
Fly down the stairs more supple than a shepherd,
More borne up by the air than a flight of dead leaves.

O cross the walls; so it must be walk on the brink
Of roofs, of oceans; cover yourself with light,
Use menace, use prayer,
But come, o my frigate, an hour before my death.

The poem was one of several that Genet wrote later set to music by herhis friend, Helene Martin. (It’s also been covered and reinterpreted by several others.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Homosexuals,Murder,Pelf

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