Posts filed under 'France'

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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Feast Day of Rufinus and Valerius

Add comment June 14th, 2017 Headsman

Rufinus and Valerius, Roman tax collectors who converted to Christianity and were martyred at Soissons during the Diocletian persecution in 287, are honored by the Roman martyrology on this date.

They’re saints of a lesser firmament, although Rufinus has a spot of archaeological distinction as the intercessor honored on the Darenth Bowl, a beautiful fifth-century glass artifact that somehow survived to us intact. (Note, however, that there are 11 saints Rufinus.)

They figure indirectly in one of the martyrology’s recurrent themes, the Saul-like conversion of Roman persecutors to the Christian faith: Rufinus and Valerius were held to have been martyred by the Roman prefect Rictius Varus,* who presents as a recurrent tormenter of Christians and in the martyrology arrives to dispatch our taxmen straightaway after doing the same to future Shakespeare monologue superstars Crispin and Crispinian.

In fact, Rictius Varus figures in no fewer than nine late third century martyrologies, compassing 20+ champions of the faith … the last of whom was the great Saint Lucy who is said to have induced Varus to embrace the same persecution and suffer martyrdom right along with her.

* Sometimes rendered Rictiovarus or Rixiovarus. He is no relation to the Varus from the Battle of Teutoburg Forest: that (in)famous man‘s cognomen was not Varus, but Quinctilius.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,God,Martyrs,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Uncertain Dates

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1942: Jacques Decour

Add comment May 30th, 2017 Headsman

The last letter of French Resistance fighter Jacques Decour (an alias for Daniel Decourdemanche) to his family on the morning of his execution, May 30, 1942. (From here.)

Saturday, May 30, 1942 — 6:45 am

My dear parents,

You have been expecting a letter from me for a long time. You did not expect to receive this one. I, too, hoped I would not cause you this grief. Say that I have remained up to the very end worthy of you, of our country, which we love.

You see, I might very well have died in war, or even in the bombardment of that night. So I do not regret having given meaning to this end. You know very well that I have committed no crime, you have no reason to blush at me, I have done my duty as a Frenchman. I do not think that my death is a catastrophe; remember that at this moment thousands of soldiers from all countries die every day, swept along, in a great wind that carries me away too. You know that I had been expecting this morning for two months, so I had time to prepare myself, but since I have no religion, I did not fall into the Meditation of death; I consider myself a little like a leaf that falls from the tree to make potting soil. The quality of the soil will depend on the quality of the leaves. I speak of the French youth, in whom I place all my hope.

My beloved parents, I shall doubtless be at Suresnes; you can if you wish request my transfer to Montmartre. You must forgive me for this sorrow. My only concern for three months has been your anxiety. At this moment, it is to leave you thus without your son, who has caused you more sorrows than joys. You see he is content, however, with the life he has lived, which has been very beautiful.

And now here are some commissions. I would send word to the one I love. If you see her, soon I hope, give her your affection, it is my dearest wish. I would also like you to take care of her parents who are in trouble. Excuse me for leaving them thus; I console myself by thinking that you will want to replace their “guardian angel”. Give them things that belong to me and belong to their daughter: the Pleiades editions, the Fables of La Fontaine, Tristan, the 4 Seasons, the little chickens, the two watercolors (Vernon and Issoire) the map of the 4 Paves du Roy. I would like my friend Michel to have my personal belongings (pen, pencil, wallets, watch, lighter). Embrace them all for me.

I have imagined, lately, the good meals we would share when I was released. You will have them without me, as a family, but not sadly, I beg of you. I do not want your thoughts to dwell on the beautiful things that could have happened, but on all those we have experienced. I have been reborn during these two months of isolation, without reading, without all my travels, all my experiences, all my meals. I even planned a novel. Thoughts of you have not left me, and I wish you much patience and courage, and especially no rancor. Give all my affection to my sisters, to the indefatigable Denise, who has devoted herself so much to me, and to the pretty mother of Michael and Denis. I had a great dinner with Sylvain on February 17, I often thought of it with pleasure as well as the famous meal of New Year’s Eve with Pierre and Renée. It was because the question of food had become more important! Give Sylvain and Pierre all my affection and also to Jean Bailly, my best comrade, say that I thank him very much for all the good times I have spent with him. If I had gone home on the evening of the 17th, I would have ended up arriving here, so there is no regret. I will write a note for Brigitte at the end of this letter, you will copy it to her. God knows how I thought of her. She has not seen her dad for two years …

That I thank him very much for all the good times I have spent with him. If I had gone home on the evening of the 17th, I would have ended up arriving here, so there is no regret. I will write a note for Brigitte at the end of this letter, you will copy it to her. God knows if I thought of her. She has not seen her dad for two years … That I thank him very much for all the good times I have spent with him. If I had gone home on the evening of the 17th, I would have ended up arriving here, so there is no regret. I will write a note for Brigitte at the end of this letter, you will copy it to her. God knows if I thought of her. She has not seen her dad for two years …

If you have the opportunity, have my students in Première* tell my substitute that I thought of the last scene of Egmont and the letter of Th. Körner to his father under any reserve of modesty. .. All my friendships to my colleagues and friend for whom I translated Goethe without betraying.

It is eight o’clock, it will be time to leave. I ate, smoked, drank coffee. I do not see any business to settle. If there are objects belonging to Madame Politzer, 170 bis, rue de Grenelle, (books, especially those of the lycee, phono, etc.) try to recover them. There is also your Memorial of St. Helena.

My dear parents, I embrace you with all my heart. I am near you and thoughts of you do not leave me.

Your Daniel

My beloved little Brigitte

Your daddy has not seen you much for some time but he has thought of you. Tell your mom that I trust her to make you a good, firm, cheerful girl who stands strong on her own two legs. Work hard and try to become a good pianist. Often think of your father and friend and all the good times we have shared together.

I embrace you with all my heart as I love you and embrace your mother.

Your Daniel

* The school he taught at — which, after the war, was renamed College-lycee Jacques-Decour.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Shot,Wartime Executions

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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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1755: Louis Mandrin

Add comment May 26th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1755, the French outlaw Louis Mandrin was broken on the wheel.

In common with the whole French populace, Mandrin had a beef with the Ferme general — the country’s tax-farming concern — but Mandrin was the one who did something about it.

Specifically, he built a vast smuggling network in the 1750s that all along a vast north-south corridor from Burgundy to Savoy moved tobacco, cotton, and everything else the farm wanted to harvest — scoring political points along the way by thrashing the tax collectors whenever possible. It’s said that he took pains to have his merry contrabanders stay out of the violence business, unless they had the opportunity to direct it at the revenue men.

In the end, the Farmers General — a wealthy consortium that would one day soon commission a chunk of Paris’s city walls — provoked an international incident by illegally raiding Savoy to capture him, then having him tried and executed with speed to forestall any possibility of his return being negotiated.

But the popular bandit entered the popular culture where he has long outlived the rapacious Farmers; he’s been the subject of multiple film treatments, most recently in 2011, and the pensive folk song “La complainte de Mandrin” still today maintains its currency.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,France,Gruesome Methods,History,Organized Crime,Pelf,Public Executions,Theft

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1940: Julien Vervaecke, Tour de France cyclist

Add comment May 25th, 2017 Headsman

On or around this date — exactly when is forever obscure* — the former Tour de France cyclist Julien Vervaecke was summarily executed by Polish and British soldiers in German-occupied Belgium.

The Belgian velocipeddler raced professionally from 1924 to 1936 and reached the top ten of cycling’s signature event four times — capped by a third-place ride in 1927.

He’s most famous in the annals of his sport for his controversial victory in the 1930 Paris-Roubaix race, when he crossed the finish line second after getting the worst of a late collision with French cyclist Jean Marechal, but was awarded the win by judges who faulted Marechal for the incident. (Vervaecke got the medal but not the branding: it’s known as l’affaire Marechal.)

By the time war clouds had gathered anew, Vervaecke (English Wikipedia entry | German | French) had retired to proprietorship of a restaurant in Menen, on the French border.

As the Wehrmacht blitz overran Belgium, Vervaecke’s home chanced to fall within the British pocket pinned to Dunkirk, 70 kilometers away away. The famous evacuation would commence on May 26.

On May 24, scrambling soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force, apparently including some officers of the exiled Polish army,* tried to ransack Vervaecke’s place for supplies, and the ex-cyclist resisted. As with Marechal all those years ago, Vervaecke had the worst of this collision, and the tetchy troopers led him away.

Nobody witnessed what happened to him; his body only turned up weeks later, over the border in France. It’s guessed that he might have been detained and then shot out of hand hours later — more prey to the fog of war.


At least he didn’t die of lung cancer: In a different era for athletics, Vervaecke and Maurice Geldhof take a trip to flavor country during the Tour de France.

* Poland had already been occupied by Germany and the USSR, in September 1939.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Athletes,Belgium,Borderline "Executions",Businessmen,England,Entertainers,Execution,France,History,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Shot,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates,Wartime 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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1679: La Bosse, Poison Affair culprit

1 comment May 8th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1679, the French soothsayer Marie Bosse went to the stake as France dealt out death for the Affair of the Poisons.

After the disgrace and 1676 execution of that aristocrat Locusta, the Madame de Brinvilliers, Louis XIV set his pathbreaking police chief on the trail of the “divineresses” whose potions were sought and feared as the remedy to every domestic ill.

Over six-odd years some 36 souls would succumb to this investigation, 34 upon the scaffold and two tortured to death in prison. Perhaps the best-known of these was a woman named La Voisin, whom we have met in these grim pages before. Our subject today is the woman who named La Voisin to her prosecutors.

Too deep in her cups at a Christmas 1678 party — a time at which the few arrests of alchemists and folk magicians could not yet really be said to be a Poison Affair — our principal La Bosse dropped some indiscreet braggadocio as to her prowess and market share in the poisoning game.

When word got back to the torchlit cowls at the Chambre Ardente, she’d be arrested and interrogated to great profit for investigators. La Bosse blabbed all about other poisoners, including the king’s own lover, the Madame de Montespan and the aforementioned La Voisin.

This was fatal to La Bosse as well as to La Voisin but proved less so to highest muckity-mucks. Accusations reaching the king’s own bedchamber and perhaps even compassing contemplated regicide were thought dangerous to explore and helped to drop the curtain on the entire poison-hunt: “the enormity of their crimes proved their safeguard,” in the supposed words of the investigator.

Later in 1679, a Thomas Corneille-Jean Donneau de Vise comedy ridiculing poisoners and pretended magicians debuted. La Divineresse, whose title character was named “Jobin” and had an associate named “Du Clos”, was a smash hit, running for several months — which was more than could be said by that time for these characters’ real-life inspirations. (La Voisin went to the stake in February 1680.)

Recommended: an eight-part blog series on Poison at the Court of Louis XIV begins here; scroll down to advance installment by installment.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Public Executions,Scandal,Women

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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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1730: A Natchez woman tortured to death at New Orleans

Add comment April 11th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1730, French-allied Tunica Indians put a captured Natchez woman to grisly public death under the walls of New Orleans.

This is the English translation of Marc-Antoine Caillot’s Relation du voyage de la Louisianne ou Nouvelle France fait par le Sr. Caillot en l’année 1730, a key firsthand source for the incident in this post.

Months earlier the Natchez had risen in rebellion against the colonists in Louisiana — a bloody settling of accounts the that answered a French push to colonize more land with an attack meant to drive them out of Louisiana altogether. The initial, surprise attacks slew 237 French subjects, many in stomach-turning fashion. Friend of the site Dr. Beachcombing details a particularly atrocious murder in his post on the affair at Beachcombing’s Bizarre History Blog.

So the French were in a state of rage and fright on April 10 — the day after Easter — when an allied tribe, the Tunica, showed up at the Big Easy with six Natchez captives in tow, three women and three children. Chief among them was a woman readily recognized by the French as the wife of a once-friendly Natchez chief now “known for being an enemy of the French.” Indeed, escapees from Natchez captivity slated her with having given the go-ahead for the torture-murder of three of their countrymen.

And this hated foe the Tunica proceeded to offer to the French, as a gesture of goodwill.

As Sophie White explains in her “Massacre, Mardi Gras, and Torture in Early New Orleans” (The William and Mary Quarterly, July 2013),* Louisiana territory governor Etienne Perier in slyly declining the prisoner intentionally condemned her to a speedy and spectacular death. Rather than taking her into official custody for disposal by the French judiciary or diplomatic organs, Perier put her up for a night in the French jail while her captors prepared a performance for the morrow calculated to slake the bloodlust of French and native alike.

White’s narrative is worth excerpting at length here; all the parentheticals come from White’s original text.

Officially, Governor Perier could claim that he had maintained French notions of justice by rejecting the Tunica offer of the prisoner of war (even though at a later date he would openly write of another four male and two female Natchez having “been burnt here”). Yet he allotted a space for the Tunica to torture her and arranged for her to be kept in jail overnight while the Tunica danced the black “calumet of death” in preparation for her execution. In the morning, after gathering firewood, erecting a frame, and painting their faces and bodies, the Tunica “began to run as if possessed by the devil and, while yelling (it is their custom), they ran to the jail where she was in chains”; she was engaged in a final assertion of sartorial self-preservation, “fixing a ribbon to her braided hair,” hair that she knew would soon be scalped.

Like Perier, the colonial populace also became involved in exacting revenge on this member of the Natchez nation. Not only were “all the Sauvages who were in New Orleans” present at the torture ritual but colonists also attended the performance as spectators, as they might in France attend a public execution. They watched as the Tunica tied her to a frame and as a Natchez man who had abandoned his kin and been adopted by the Tunica stepped forward to burn her, starting with “the hair [poil, or body hair] of her … then one breast, then the buttocks, then the left breast” (the ellipses represent a deliberate authorial omission on the part of Caillot). Commentators described the methodical burning of torture victims as a form of slow-cooking (“a petit feu”). For Caillot, the ritual burning of the victim’s genitals, breasts, and buttocks was marked by the carefully observed but gruesome sight of “the abundance of grease mixed with blood that ran onto the ground.” His description evoked the cooking of meat basted in fat, with the frame simulating a spit on which the victim was roasted; if this frame/spit did not physically turn its meat, the torturers made sure that she was evenly roasted on all sides by their methodical movement across her body. This food preparation imagery was followed by other cooking analogies. As they were about to kill her (in contrast to the procedure in France, where spectators waited for the execution to be complete before grabbing souvenir pieces of the criminal’s body), “the French women who had suffered at her hands at the Natchez [settlement] each took a sharpened cane and larded her,” just as French culinary techniques called for piercing meat with a sharp stick prior to the insertion of thin strips of lard.

The Natchez woman was not impressed, but “during that long and cruel torture never shed a tear. On the contrary, she seemed to deride the unskilfulness of her tormenters, insulting them, and threatening that her death would soon be avenged by her tribe.”


Detail view (click for the full image) of a generic depiction of the torture frame, from Jean-Francois-Benjamin Dumont de Montigny’s memoir. Sophie White notes that this figure is identifiably female based on her genitalia and the long scalped hair mounted on the adjacent pole.

Over the next several years, the French not only turned back the attack but largely shattered and Natchez peoples, dispersing their remnants to fragmented communities throughout the U.S. South. Today only a few thousand Natchez souls remain, and their interesting language has died out entirely.

* Though it’s a bit tangential to the subject of this post, readers interested in this milieu might cotton to White’s Wild Frenchmen and Frenchified Indians: Material Culture and Race in Colonial Louisiana.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Flayed,France,Gruesome Methods,History,Louisiana,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Torture,USA,Wartime Executions,Women

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