In September 1761, a man named Francois Rochette was detained in Toulouse, France, having been arrested traversing the nearby countryside on suspicion of being one of that area’s robbers.
Rochette was not a robber.
He was much, much worse: a Huguenot minister.
Interrogation soon made the situation clear. Technically, his heretical calling could subject Rochette to the death penalty, but the authorities weren’t going to be unreasonable about this — and “as Rochette was not surprised in the exercise of his function, he might easily have escaped by concealing his profession. Those, who interrogated him went even so far as to point out to him this means of acquittal.”
Every legal regime needs a bit of discretion, a bit of look-the-other-wayism, lest the letter of the law excite a judicial slaughter that public sentiment could never support.
Francois Rochette wasn’t interested in signing himself off a clerk or a cloth-merchant and being on his cagey way. He would not elide his calling: would not abet an other-way look.
Rochette’s obstinately overt Protestantism and the prospect of juridical proceedings against him put the whole city on edge. Catholics and Huguenots armed themselves, bracing for a horrid St. Bartholomew’s Day replay. Three brothers named Grenier hastened to Toulouse to aid their fellow-Huguenots, and were arrested; miraculously, the feared citywide bloodbath never quite materialized.
But now Francois Rochette and his Grenier backers would stand trial, in an environment where authorities were disposed to view their offense as one not merely of wrongthink but of stirring up a civic disturbance and endangering the city itself. They were accordingly condemned to death by a now-stringent court for their literally dangerous heresy on February 18, 1762.
That night, the Huguenots’ last on earth, inevitably featured a visitation of Catholic priests come to save their souls.
“It is for your salvation,” said they, “that we are here.” The answer of one of the prisoners was, “If you were at Geneva, ready to die in your bed (for no one is slain there on account of his religion), would you be pleased if four ministers came, under the pretence of zeal, to persecute you until your last breath? Do not, then unto others that which you would not wish to be done unto yourselves.”
On the 19th of February, at two o’clock in the afternoon, the mournful procession started on its way. Rochette was, according to the terms of the sentence, bare-headed, bare-footed, with a halter hung about his neck, from which, before and behind, labels were suspended, with these words, Minister of the pretended Reformed religion.
When the array passed before the church of Saint Etienne, an attempt was made to force him, in pursuance of the terms of the Parliament’s condemnation, to kneel with a torch of yellow wax in his hand, and to ask pardon of God, the king, and justice, for all his crimes and misdeeds.
Rochette stepped down from the tumbril, and instead of abjuring or making a confession which his heart denied, he pronounced on his knees the following words: “I beseech God to pardon me for all my sins, and I firmly believe that they have been washed away by the blood of Jesus Christ, who has redeemed us so dearly. I have no pardon to ask of the king, whom I have ever honoured as the Lord’s annointed, and loved as the father of my native land; I have ever been a good and faithful subject, and of this I believe my judges to be convinced. I have always preached to my flock patience, obedience, and submission; and my sermons, which you possess, are summed up in these words: ‘Fear God, honour the king.’ If I have contravened the law touching religious assemblies, it was by God’s commandments I contravened them; God must be obeyed before men. As for justice and the law, I am guilty of no offence against them, and I pray God may pardon my judges.”
Every door, balcony, window, roof, and approach near to the place of execution, was covered with spectators. “Toulouse,” says Count de Gebelin, an eye-witness, who related these circumstances, “Toulouse, that city drunk with the blood of martyrs, seemed a Protestant town. People asked what was the creed of these heretics; and when they heard our martyrs speak of Jesus Christ and of his death, every one was surprised and afflicted. They were infinitely touched, also, with the lofty, yet mild bearing of the three brothers, which compelled their admiration almost as much as the inexpressible serenity of the minister, whose graceful and spiritual physiognomy, whose words full of firmness and courage, and whose youth, filled every beholder with interest, knowing, as all did, that he only died because he disdained to save his life by a lie.”
Rochette was executed first. He exhorted his companions until the end, and sang the canticle of the Protestant martyrs: This is the blessed day. “Die a Catholic,” said the executioner, moved with pity. “Judge which is the better religion,” replied Rochette, “that which persecutes, or that which is persecuted.”
The youngest of the thre brothers (he was only twenty-two years of age), hid his face in his hands to shut out this tragic scene. The two others contemplated it with calmness. As they were gentlemen, their sentence was, to be beheaded. Tyembraced each other, recommending their souls to God. The eldest offered his head to the axe first. When it came to the turn of the last, the executioner said: “You have seen your brothers die; change, lest you perish like them.” “Do thy duty,” said the martyr, and his head rolled upon the scaffold.
Count de Gebelin adds, as he concludes his recital: “Everyone present returned home in silence, in a state of consternation, and unable to persuade themselves that there could be such courage and such cruelty in the world; and I, who describe it, cannot refrain from tears of joy and sadness, as I contemplate their blessed lot, and that our church should be still capable of affording examples of piety and firmness that will compare with the most illustrious monuments of the primitive church.”
It was only days later — March 10, 1762 — that Toulouse followed up this example of piety and firmness by breaking Jean Calas on the wheel in another prosecution of a Huguenot driven by sectarian sentiment (albeit not directly for heresy, in the Calas case).
Backlash against the Calas case, led by Voltaire, helped put to the fore the long-percolating Enlightenment values of tolerance. Official persecution of Protestants slackened greatly in the years to come and never again rose to a death penalty situation; the whole policy was officially revoked in 1787.
Danvers, already a career criminal, signed on as a farmhand at age 22 in 1907 — a period when capital punishment in France was in abeyance owing to the presidency of a death penalty opponent who systematically blocked executions.
On February 1, 1908, he shot that farmer dead to steal some money he learned was available in the house … and for good measure shot his wife too, as she begged him on her knees for her life. He got caught trying to dump the burlap-sacked corpses in the Rhone. (Here’s a French-language summary, from the original Le Figaro report.)
Because of the de facto death penalty moratorium, Danvers didn’t sweat his death sentence too much. However, the outrages of the Bonnet gang finally restored the guillotine to the French criminal justice scene earlier in January of 1909. Danvers turned out to be the very next victim in its path.
Shortly before the sentence was carried out, the public prosecutor appeared in Danvers’ cell to advise the doomed man of his appeal’s rejection, and the consequent imminent removal of his head. Fortified by rum, a visibly upset Danvers managed to get through it, but execution-starved French crowds crowded a scene that authorities attempted to restrict, and snapped this photo:
The unruly public, the New York Times opined, “undoubtedly will hasten Parliamentary action toward making future executions private.”
The Affair of the Placards was the September 11 of the early French Reformation when the overnight posting of anti-Catholic placards sent the polity off the rails, claimed six victims on this date in 1535.
The formerly indulgent Renaissance-king Francis I was obliged by this late-1534 effusion of propagandizing to dissociate violently from heretical tolerance.
And maybe that would have been that. But the first placard incident was repeated by a follow-up posting on the night of Jan. 12-13 of an anti-sacramental pamphlet by Antoine Marcourt — the anthrax mailings to the hijacked planes, as it were — charging (French) that the Catholic “Mass has plunged half the world into an abyss of public idolatry.”
Francis flipped out. He closed bookstores and suppressed publishing. “One does not argue with heretics,” the Sorbonne agreed. What, do you want the terrorists to win?
So on this date in 1535, a grand Catholic procession — representing all the city’s guilds, all its religious orders, all its holy relics, and all its princes of the blood, with Francis himself modestly carrying a penitential taper to absolve his capital — wound through the city, punctuated by the torching of six accused Protestants.
At the ensuing feast, the king announced his intention to destroy heresy.
The procession of January 1535, with the inclusion of the sacrament, the number of holy objects transported, and the involvement of so many notables, was unprecedented. The elaborate character of the ritual is a good indication of the seriousness with which the authorities viewed this most recent evidence of the inclusion of heresy into French territory. The posting of the placards was regarded as a pollution of the king’s realm, the perceived danger being that the disease contaminating and “infecting some of his subjects” would multiply, undermining the very constitution of the social body … An attack upon the holy sacrament, according to the logic of the symbolism employed in the procession, presents a direct threat to the sacral character of the community, to the nation’s well-being, and hence amounts to an oblique attack on the person of the sovereign. Given the close association established between the sacrament and the monarch, it is no wonder that those implicated in the affair of the placards were regarded as being guilty not only of heresy but also of lese-majeste. (Source)
And maybe early modern France had a point with that weird old sacred-monarch stuff. The very same date two and a half centuries later saw a Parisian mob which had clearly lost any sense of the sacral sovereign behead the king himself.
There exists a receipt for January 9, 1386, in which the executioner of Falaise, France, acknowledges payment of ten sous and ten deniers
for his efforts and salary for having dragged and then hanged at the [place of] Justice in Falaise a sow of approximately three years of age who had eaten the face of the child of Jonnet le Macon, who was in his crib & who was approximately three months old, in such a way that the said infant died from [the injuries], and [an additional] ten s. tournoise for a new glove when the Hangman performed the said execution: this receipt is given to Regnaud Rigaut, Vicomte de Falaise; the Hangman declares that he is well satisfied with this sum and that he makes no further claims on the King our Sire and the said Vicomte.
From this tiny kernel of primary documentation — the only primary source that exists — an impressive legend has grown up around the “Sow of Falaise”. It’s been alleged by subsequent interlocuters that the condemned sow was dressed up as a person for execution, that other pigs were made to attend in order to take warning by their swinish sister’s fate, and even that the incident became so famous as to merit depiction in a church fresco.
The supposed fresco has been whitewashed, but Arthur Mangin’s L’Homme et la Bete (1872) took a stab at reconstructing it.
This bizarre scenario can’t help but raise the question for we later observers — just what was the objective in trying and “executing” a farm animal? Did the human supporting cast to this scene not feel itself ridiculous?
“Punishment may be about many things, but in the last instance, we citizens of the modern world have an almost visceral need to believe that it is primarily about one thing: deterrence,” Friedland opines.
“The punishment of a pig for murder violates our modern understanding of the essential purpose of punishment because it punishes an animal, which we ordinarily do not believe to be capable of criminal intent, and because it does not lend itself very well to the principle of exemplary deterrence.” The tale’s evolution in later centuries “allowed an incomprehensible anecdote from the past to fit neatly into the modern paradigm of penal deterrence.”
Seeing Justice Donesituates that murderous pig within an unfolding saga of penal theory and practice stretching from the Roman Empire to the 20th century. And while Friedland’s study focuses on France in particular, the historical threads he teases out will look familiar much further afield.
We had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Frieldand about his book recently, and we’re pleased to present it here not in our customary Q&A form, but as Executed Today‘s debut podcast. The mediocre sound quality is on me, but Dr. Friedland’s insights are more than worth it. (Unlike your host, Friedland is a podcasting natural; catch him in a July 2012 episode of the New Books In Human Rights podcast.)
Trouble seeing the podcast player? Access the interview on podbean.
On this date in 1942, just two days after he had assassinated Admiral Francois Darlan, Fernand Bonnier de La Chapelle was shot by the Vichy army in Algiers.
Despite its shorthand reputation as a Nazi puppet, Vichy France — especially in 1940-42 — was a more nuanced animal that’s enjoyed increased study of late. Vichy controlled southern France under the obvious pressure of the next-door German occupation and effected state collaboration with Berlin including deportations, but it also maintained diplomatic relations with the U.S. Vichy France even shot German spies.
Vichy was one contender among several for political legitimacy in the aftermath of France’s disastrous 1940 defeat at German hands. The most obvious (and here, topical) rival was de Gaulle’s Free French.
Appropriately, the classic film Casablanca premiered in November 1942, featuring Claude Rains as the unprincipled Vichy Captain Renault. The film’s pro-Free French, anti-Vichy slant was not, however, representative of American foreign policy at the time.
This was the background when, in 1942, the US spearheaded Operation Torch to invade Vichy-controlled French North Africa. “This is not the end,” Churchill epigrammed of the Torch landings. “It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”*
At the time of that operation, Admiral Darlan happened to be in Algiers. He was the former number two man in the Vichy government, but also a guy whose cooperation with the Nazis had been half-hearted … which is the reason he was the former number two man.
Darlan nevertheless remained the chief of the Vichy armed forces, which meant that it was worth the Torch commanders’ while to come to an arrangement with him when Darlan proved amenable to cooperation.
They cut that deal. Darlan shut down armed resistance and took Vichy North Africa over to the Allies’ side. (He had, indeed, hinted previously to American diplomats that he was prepared to switch sides; see Arthur Funk, “Negotiating the ‘Deal with Darlan’” in Journal of Contemporary History, April 1973.) In exchange, the Allies installed him as High Commissioner of France for North and West Africa — big man on campus for French North Africa.
Like all good compromises, it satisfied nobody.
De Gaulle was enraged: a Vichy official remained in charge of a Vichy state now under Allied auspices. Would Allied recognition set Darlan up to direct France’s postwar direction?
Equally pissed by the defection, Hitler triggered the German contingency plan to occupy Vichy France.† This is why the “especially in 1940-1942″ proviso above: after Operation Torch, Vichy France had no independent military muscle, and was significantly more beholden to Nazi Germany.
Back in North Africa, we finally come to our date’s principal.
A 20-year-old student of monarchist and anti-fascist political proclivities, Fernand Bonnier de La Chapelle (English Wikipedia entry | French) decided with a couple of friends to cut the Gordian political knot that Darlan’s adoption had created.
Bonnier de La Chapelle drew the short straw (literally, they drew straws) for the privilege/responsibility of murdering the Vichy admiral.
Officially, the young man acted alone. Unofficially, there’s been no end of speculation as to the secret intrigues at work. Nobody’s really clear on exactly how murdering Darlan was supposed to advance the gunman’s supposed agenda. And the Vichy French disposed of the killer with suspicious haste.
Just after lunch on December 24, Fernand Bonnier de La Chapelle surprised Darlan upon the latter’s return to his study and shot him through the mouth and torso at point-blank range. He was arrested attempting to flee.
The very next evening, he was condemned by a tribunal at Algiers. There was already a coffin on order before that body gaveled into session.
For some reason, the condemned thought his perceived service to the nation would out. “They will not shoot me. I have liberated France,” he assured his confessor. “The bullets will be blank cartridges.” They weren’t. Churchill recorded that Bonnier de La Chapelle was “surprised to be shot.”
Darlan was laid to rest later that morning at a dry-eyed requiem service. One British intelligence officer remembered that Darlan’s “murder fell like a stone into a small pond and the ripples were only brief. It was as if Darlan had never been.” (Source for the quotes in the last two paragraphs)
Henri Giraud, a French general who escaped German custody and took refuge in Vichy France — Vichy refusing to return him to the Germans, who openly intended to kill him — succeeded Darlan’s command of the now-Allied-aligned French North African forces and maintained the objectionable Vichy institutions. He joined the Allied Casablanca Conference a few weeks later. Giraud had already secretly arranged with the Allies to take exactly this position and had repaired to North Africa in anticipation of the invasion before being aced out by Darlan.
Giraud’s Vichy North African government gradually increased cooperation with de Gaulle’s Free French; the two eventually co-founded the French Committee of National Liberation, which de Gaulle, of course, eventually took control of.
In 1945, a postwar appeals court posthumously reversed Bonnier de La Chapelle’s conviction — on the grounds that he’d pulled the trigger “in the interest of liberation of France.”
* Stalin, whose Red Army was then fighting the Wehrmacht tooth and claw at Stalingrad, begged to differ. He’d been imploring the western allies to open a second front, and was none too impressed with their calculation that they weren’t ready to invade continental Europe in 1942. “A man who was not prepared to take risks could not win a war,” Stalin griped to Churchill.
** One knock-on effect of Operation Torch: the Germans reinforced North Africa against the Allies’ imminent push. It was in this campaign that future Hitler almost-assassin Claus von Stauffenberg lost a hand and an eye, leading to his transfer back to the Berlin desk job that would give him his opportunity to try to kill the Fuhrer.
† This resulted in Vichy France’s gesture of resistance, scuttling the Toulon fleet to keep it out of German hands … although this also irritated de Gaulle, who wanted the fleet to defect to North Africa instead.
On this day in 1721, Jean-Pierre Balagny, alias Capuchin, was broken on the wheel in Paris. He was one of the lieutenants and boon companions of legendary French outlaws Cartouche.
We have noted that that renowned bandit crowned his fame at the last by enduring all tortures, only to voluntarily give up the names of his companions as he approached the scaffold and perceived that they had failed to arrange a rescue.
“Capuchin”, who was with Cartouche when he was captured and subject to much the same interrogation, proved as good as his captain. He, too, endured the boot without breaking. And he, with two companions, likewise reached the scaffold and only there coughed it up.
They gave information as to their accomplices, and made, at the foot of the scaffold, confessions which torture had failed to elicit from them.
They implicated so many persons, that another series of trials began, which lasted as long as the declarations of convicted prisoners compromised other persons, and threw new light on the immense ramifications of an association of miscreants which had for many years defied the police. More than sixty persons were under lock and key at the time of the execution of Cartouche and Balagny. This number increased every day in consequence of the confession of those who hoped to save their lives by denouncing their accomplices, and in June of the following year it rose to one hundred and fifty … all this blood, instead of washing the affair away, seemed rather to make it more serious. Every day brought to light some new discovery; and this shows how profoundly mistaken were those who denied that Cartouche, the centre and wire-puller of this horrible association, possessed the organising spirit without which he could not have extended this immense net over the Parisian society.
One is left to infer from this entry in the memoirs of the Parisian hereditary executioner-family Sanson that Balagny likewise did in his friends over some ornate notion of honor … although if the anecdote is true, one could as easily suppose any number of less “creditable” reasons.
At any rate, Balagny’s evidence added to that of Cartouche’s snowballed into a bloody cycle of tortures and executions and fresh denunciations over the year to come.
Of course, getting rid of all the criminals did not get rid of crime.
“In spite of the executions at La Greve, there are more thieves than ever in Paris,” lamented one observer (quoted here). “Cartouche has died on the wheel; but his name and memory engender robbers.”
On this date in 1871, Gaston Cremieux was shot at Marseilles for his role in that city’s lately-destroyed Commune.
Cremieux (French Wikipedia page: most external links in this post are also in French) was a gifted young lawyer with a social conscience who was known for taking on indigent-defense cases and working-class causes.
Given his prominence in radical circles, Cremieux was naturally thrust into leadership when word of the Paris Commune brought Marseilles, too, into a popular rising.
Lissagaray called Cremieux “an elegant and effeminate speaker … a mild enthusiast, who beheld the revolution under rather a bucolic aspect.” His admirable principles were not those of bloody revolutionary will, and he was accordingly viewed (or disdained) as a moderate.
The Marseilles Commune lasted only a fortnight: neighboring towns did not rally to it, and elsewhere in the south Toulouse and Narbonne communards were crushed within days.
When troops of the bourgeois Versailles government — the city to which it had fled from Paris — took Marseilles, according to Lissagaray, they “arrested at random, and dragged their victims into the lamp-stores of the station. There an officer scrutinized the prisoners, made a sign to one or the other of them to step out, and blew out his brains. The following days there were rumours of summary executions in the barracks, the forts and the prisons. The number of dead the people lost is unknown, but it exceeded 150.”
Cremieux’s own conscience was pretty clean in all this — he’d even advocated against keeping hostages. (Unsuccessfully, but Marseilles did not kill its hostages, unlike Parks.) “Show me those whom Cremieux has shot,” his lawyer would later protest to the military tribunal called to try him.
Cremieux’s own shooting would have to suffice. He died crying “Vive la République!” as the firing squad emptied its barrels into his torso … as per Cremieux’s request to preserve his face lest his parents be too shaken by his corpse. Just call him a family man.
On this date in 1868, Italian revolutionaries Giuseppe Monti and Gaetano Tognetti were guillotined in Rome.
Theirs was a passion of the Risorgimento, the 19th century drive to unify as a single nation the peninsula’s quiltwork of minor kingdoms, duchies, and city-states.
Following the Third Italian War of Independence, this had largely been accomplished … with the notable exception of the Papal States surrounding Rome. You can hardly have Italy without the Eternal City.
Inside Rome, Monti and Tognetti prepared a little morte of their own. Intending to mount a fifth-column uprising to coincide with the arrival of Garibaldi’s army, the two detonated a couple barrels of gunpowder under the Serristori barracks, killing 23 French zouaves and four Roman civilians. (All links in this paragraph are Italian.)
Unfortunately for the bombers, no general rising ensued, and the Papal and French armies subsequently repulsed Garibaldi at the Battle of Mentana on Nov. 3, 1867 — extending the papal enclave’s lease on life only slightly, but just enough to deal with Monti and Tognetti.
Their fate at the hands of the civil and religious authorities (one and the same, at this time), is dramatized in the 1977 Italian film In Nome Del Pap Re. (This Google books freebie purports to relate their final days.)
On this date in 1328, the Inquisition relaxed the heretic Na Prous Boneta (or Bonnet) to the secular authorities at Carcassonne for execution.
Na Prous Boneta was part of the great religious movements towards poverty and spiritual rebirth then shaking Europe — the same impulse that drove men like Segarelli and Dolcino to the stake.
In southern France, the first name in this movement so suspect to Catholic orthodoxy was Peter Olivi, a charismatic prophet of egalitarian poverty from the Franciscan order. The Franciscans were the institutional expression of that same renewal movement, but their incorporation into the church had co-opted their once-radical energy. They were divided internally between the ascetic “Spiritual Franciscans” (or Fraticelli) and their brethren grown comfortable with worldly emoluments.*
After Olivi’s (natural) death in Narbonne, France, in 1298, he became an object of popular veneration for the Fraticelli’s lay admirers, among whom the communities of lay Beguin(e) women were especially prominent.**
As we have seen, the Church would soon resolve upon a fearful suppression of the Fraticelli and the Beguines, who came to be closely identified with one another. Scores went to the flames; the Inquisitor Bernard Gui complained that fugitive Beguines (and their Beghard brethren) had the gall to keep up their own calendar of martyrology. (Executed Today fully endorses this practice.)
According to the confession her adversaries would later extract, a mystical vision on Good Friday 1321 in her home town of Montpellier would transport Na Prous Boneta into Beguine leadership — fully aware of the dangers to life and limb.
“Put your heart and mind into the work of the Holy Spirit,” she preached. And “keep your body prepared for martyrdom if it should be necessary.”
And boy, did she have to be prepared.
Prous was all-in on her heretical denunciation of a church that had committed itself to bloody suppression of her sect. She denied the efficacy of the sacraments, said that salvation followed from good deeds even for “Jews and Saracens” and as for the guy in charge just down the way at Avignon …
this present pope, John XXII, is like Caiaphas, who crucified Christ. Moreover, the poor beguins who were burned, and also the burned lepers, were like the innocents beheaded by Herod’s command. Again, just as Herod procured the death of innocent children, thus this Herod, the devil, procured the death of those burned beguins and lepers. Again, she claims that Christ told her the sin of this pope is as great as the sin of Cain.
Though all these confessions were given in 1325, Na Prous Boneta appears to have been kept in prison for three years in an effort to persuade her to change her tune. That Caiaphas-like pope himself took an interest in the case, even ordering (perhaps suggestive of the woman’s following) that her eventual execution take place not in her own city but in Carcassonne.
That execution took place on this date when the visionary, having refused every blandishment to save her soul, caused the inquisitors to declare that
knowing from experience that those who are evil simply get worse by the day when they think they will go unpunished, we, compelled by our office which we are obliged by holy obedience to fulfill diligently, since we neither should nor indeed wish to tolerate any longer such abominations and such dangerous opposition to the entire church and the catholic faith, having obtained counsel concerning the above matters from many religious and secular persons learned in both laws, having God before our eyes and the holy gospels of Jesus Christ placed before us so that our judgment should proceed from God and appear right before God and our eyes should see what is just, on this day, in this place and time assigned by us to hear definitive sentence, sitting as a tribunal, invoking the name of Christ, we pronounce, judge and declare you, Na Prous, to be an impenitent heretic and heresiarch and pertinacious in your obduracy. Since the church can do nothing more with such people, we release you to the secular authorities.
** One need not stretch too far to see a bit of comeuppance in the emergence of a feminine anti-papal voice at this period; the original movement into all-women beguinages is thought to have been facilitated by the surplus population of unmarried or widowed women created by Europe’s recent enthusiasm for sending young men to die on Crusade.
Claude-Francois de Malet (English Wikipedia entry | French) had spent the years of his confinement for republican sensibilities painstakingly readying bogus orders and decrees for the eventual rollout of the most audacious putsch you’d ever want to putsch.
While Bonaparte was off on campaign trashing Russia, Malet broke out of his sanitarium and went to work.
Donning a general’s uniform, Malet on Oct. 23, 1812 presented a forged announcement of the Emperor’s recent demise … and started issuing orders. He bluffed the release of imprisoned allies, and got a legitimate general to order the arrest of Napoleon’s most prominent deputies in Paris. (It’s a good job that general obeyed Malet, because when one officer asked to kindly see the arrest warrant Malet was using on him, Malet responded by shooting him in the face.)
For a few hours that morning the Malet conspirators almost put themselves in control, almost normalized their sudden rearrangement of authority with its reassuringly familiar official paperwork. Later, when interrogated for the identities of his accomplices, Malet would retort, “You, yourself, Sir, and all of France — if I had succeeded!”
But the attempted coup which aimed so high ultimately made for little but tantalizing counterfactual history. Officers with clearer heads soon realized that they had received communiques from the Emperor dated after his purported October 7 death; one of those officers arrested Malet.
A tribunal was constituted later that same date. It had little difficulty condemning 14 (French link) during the small hours of the morning on Oct. 29. They were shot later that same day (at least, most of them were; there are oddly conflicting accounts on this point). This public-domain French text preserves a first-person narration of the scene, in which Malet himself — usurping authority to the very last — commands the firing platoon that’s lined up to shoot his comrades.
120 bullets riddled these unfortunates, who fell all except Malet. He stood on his hands and knees and raised his hands to his chest as he was only wounded, and retreated to the wall on which he leaned:
While the Malet plot failed on its own terms, it got quite a lot farther than it had any right to expect — and this fact rightly alarmed the Corsican.
“Bad News From France”, by Vasily Vereshchagin, depicts a retreating Napoleon — bunking in an Orthodox church — finding out about Malet.
Was his position that precarious? And why, if some officers genuinely believed him dead, did nobody hail as emperor his infant son and designated heir?
Napoleon had already begun his catastrophic retreat from Russia when he got word of Malet’s attempted coup d’etat; the struggling Grande Armee was dwindling daily under the battering of cold, desertion, and Russian snipers. Now this?
Upon discovering his late narrow escape from a homefront conspiracy, Napoleon left his miserable troops under the command of Murat* and raced ahead of them back to Paris to secure his own position.
This new confluence of domestic vulnerability and foreign defeat marks the beginning of the end for Napoleon. Europe ganged up on the weakened French, and less than 18 months after Malet faced his executioners, France’s own generals forced Napoleon to abdicate.