Posts filed under 'France'

1800: Suleiman al-Halabi, assassin of General Kleber

Add comment June 17th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1800 — which was the same date they buried his victim — the 23-year-old student Suleiman al-Halabi was put to death in Cairo for assassinating French General Jean Baptiste Kleber.

Casualty of the brief Napoleonic adventure in Egypt, Kleber had received supreme command of the expedition when Napoleon himself returned to France the previous year — a mission which involved running the English naval blockade that trapped the Armee d’Orient.

Kleber, a product of the French Revolution’s military meritocracy who had attained his rank capably suppressing the Vendee royalists, was certainly up to the martial tasks at hand. He routed a larger Ottoman-English-Mamluk force in March of 1800, and then smashed a revolt in Cairo.

But the Napoleonic invasion often figures as a periodization marker for this region: the germ of liberalism and nationalism that would tear apart the Ottoman Empire and set the scene for a recognizably modern Middle East. So it’s somewhat fitting that Kleber would be undone by a figure who could be lifted from the evening news,* the anti-occupation insurgent.

Suleiman al-Halabi (English Wikipedia entry | French) was a Syrian Kurd hailing from Aleppo. (“al-Halabi” means “of Aleppo”)

He had been in Cairo to study, but after a return visit home was induced by the Turks to attend himself to punishing the invader instead. He then made his way back to to Egypt where, disguising himself as a beggar, where he was able to approach the general innocuously and dagger him to death.

The French, of course, had just a few years before this point introduced its most distinctive execution device in place of the ghastly old methods, and employed it with egalite for commoner and king alike. Nor was France, as an imperial power, reluctant about exporting its invention to the every corner of earth.

But in this particular instance, the French decided to prioritize, er, cultural sensitivity.

The committee, after carrying through the trial with all due solemnity and process, thought it necessary to follow Egyptian customs in its application of punishment; it condemned the assassin to be impaled after having his right hand burned; and three of the guilty sheikhs to be beheaded and their bodies burned.

The “guilty sheikhs” in question were men to whom the killer had confided — not his plan, exactly, but the fact that he was on a jihad mission. Hey, close enough.

As for Suleiman al-Halabi himself,

The executioner Barthèlemy sat down on Suleiman’s belly, drew a knife from his pocket, and made a large incision to widen the rectum, then hammered the point of the stake into it with his mallet. Then he bound the patient’s arms and legs, raised the stake the air and mounted it in a prepared hole. Suleiman lived for four hours, and he had lived longer save that, during the absence of Barthèlemy, a soldier gave him a drink which caused his immediate death.

(Impaling victims could live for agonizing days, but the water caused Suleiman, mercifully, to quickly bleed out.)

Not content with going all Vlad the Impaler, the French then paid homage to the invasion’s scientific sub-theme** by shipping Suleiman’s remains back to France for use as an anthropological exhibit.† His skull still remains at the Musee de l’Homme to this day. What’s left in his homeland(s) is a martyr’s memory.

According to the scholar al-Jabarti, whose chronicle is one of the principal sources on this episode, the investigation indicated that Suleiman undertook his mission for no ideology save his family’s desperate need of the purse the Porte was willing to offer. But in the ensuing decades’ growth of nationalism and, eventually, anti-colonialism, the brave young Muslim dying on a spike to slay the French commander could not help but be viewed in an exalted light. (Notably, at the acme of Arab nationalism, the Egyptian writer Alfred Farag celebrated Suleiman as an avatar of resistance in a 1965 play. “I do not kill for revenge,” Farag’s Suleiman avers — and when pressed for the reason, he has a one-word reply: “Justice.”)

* Indeed, the name has been in the news: there’s a Suleiman al-Halabi neighborhood in Aleppo that has seen fighting during the ongoing Syrian civil war. Since it’s even a Kurdish neighborhood one can’t but suspect that it’s named for the man featured in this post; however, I haven’t been able to establish that with certainty. If any reader knows, a comment would be most welcome.

** Napoleon brought a corps of scientists and intellectuals along on his invasion, kicking off the modern Egyptology craze. His mission also uncovered the Rosetta Stone — although that artifact now resides in the British Museum because of the aforementioned naval blockade.

† According to Dark Trophies: Hunting and the Enemy Body in Modern War, phrenologists hailed Suleiman’s skull as an outstanding exemplar of criminality and fanaticism.

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1820: Louis Pierre Louvel, anti-Bourbon assassin

2 comments June 7th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1820, Louis Pierre Louvel was guillotined at Paris’s Place de Greve for murdering the heir to the French throne.

Louvel (French link) was a Bonapartist saddler, so embittered by the return of the ancien regime that he vowed on the day of the Restoration to exterminate all the Bourbons.

While his attempt to greet the returning Louis XVIII in April 1814 with a dagger came to naught, Louvel’s patience paid off six years later.

On February 13, 1820, he surprised the Duke of Berry outside the opera and plunged a knife into his chest.

Louvel, who expired only the next morning, was not the heir to the throne: he was the younger of two sons of the Comte d’Artois, who was the brother of the still-reigning Louis XVIII. These Bourbons, however, seemed congenitally unable to reproduce: Louis XVIII would die childless, leaving the aforesaid Comte d’Artois to inherit as Charles X; the oldest of Artois’s children also had a childless marriage.

So the potential future of the dynasty looked a murky thing in 1820. The Duke of Berry had an infant daughter, and the guy looked like maybe the only male in the royal family’s younger generation who might be capable of fathering a son. Louvel’s blow potentially set the stage for an eventual succession crisis.*

The killer was promptly arrested and made no bones about his action, avowing that he acted without aid or accomplice. He had, he said, no particular personal beef with the Duke: it’s just that he considered the guy’s entire family traitors whose presence dishonored the nation. (Here’s a complete French account of his trial.)

Because Louvel had his head cut off by the guillotine, he was not around to experience the miraculous September delivery by Louvel’s widow of a posthumous son and heir. In time, this son would become the Legitimst pretender to the French throne.

As a matter of fact, the prideful Count of Chambord could have become king after the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune wiped away the Second Empire. But to the grief of practical-minded monarchists, he publicly refused to accept the offered throne that he’d been waiting all his life for unless the nation also gave up the beloved tricolore flag associated with the regicidal Revolution. France said no thanks, and hasn’t had a monarch since.

* One more immediate consequence of Louvel’s strike: the liberal monarchist prime minister Elie Decazes came under opportunistic attack by ultra-royalists for giving aid and comfort to the terrorists with his moderate policies. Decazes was forced to resign and briefly went into exile in England due to the Ultras’ fulminations.

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1871: Archbishop Georges Darboy, Paris Commune hostage

Add comment May 24th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1871, the doomed Paris Commune martyred Archbishop Georges Darboy.

When Darboy (English Wikipedia entry | French) was tapped for the job in 1863, there had already been two recent occupants of the seat of Notre Dame killed violently over the generation preceding.*

A “learned, conscientious, and respected prelate,” Darboy’s own cross to shoulder was the collapse of the Second Empire with France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War.

That conflict in turn triggered the 1871 working-class revolution in Paris which briefly drove the established government to the old Bourbon haunts at Versailles while maintaining the capital as the Paris Commune.

Darboy declined to follow the many Parisian bourgeoisie who escaped the city in those brief months, but his importance as a visible envoy of the rival order was not so easily refused. The Communards seized Darboy as perhaps the crown jewel among dozens of hostages against the anticipated Versailles counterattack.

Versailles declined to bargain for Darboy or any of the other human shields.** Instead, the city’s cobblestones drank the blood of 20,000 or more in a seven-day urban invasion in late May that has become known as the “bloody week” (semaine sangiante) — and the Commune’s hostages would mingle their blood with the those on the barricades, suffering in their few individual persons the vengeance the Parisian workers longed to visit upon an entire class.

When the Versaillese fixed his eye upon you, you must die; when he searched a house, nothing escaped him. “These are no longer soldiers accomplishing a duty,” said a conservative journal, La France. And indeed these were hyenas, thirsting for blood and pillage. In some places it sufficed to have a watch to be shot. The corpses were searched, and the correspondents of foreign newspapers called those thefts the last perquisition. And the same day M. Thiers had the effrontery to tell the Assembly: “Our valiant soldiers conduct themselves in such a manner as to inspire foreign countries with the highest esteem and admiration.”

At half-past seven a great noise was heard before the prison of La Roquette, where the day before the three hundred hostages, detained until then at Mazas, had been transported. Amidst a crowd of guards, exasperated at the massacres, stood a delegate of the Public Safety Commission, who said, ‘Since they shoot our men, six hostages shall be executed. Who will form the platoon?’ ‘I! I!’ was cried from all sides. One advanced and said, ‘I avenge my father,’ another, ‘I avenge my brother.’ ‘As for me,’ said a guard, ‘they have shot my wife.’ Each one brought forward his right to vengeance. Thirty men were chosen and entered the prison.

The delegate looked over the jail register, pointed out the Archbishop Darboy, the President Bonjean, the banker Jecker, the Jesuits Allard, Clerc, and Ducoudray; at the last moment Jecker was replaced by the Curé Deguerry.

They were taken to the exercise-ground. Darboy stammered out, ‘I am not the enemy of the Commune. I have done all I could. I have written twice to Versailles.’ He recovered a little when he saw death was inevitable. Bonjean could not keep on his legs. ‘Who condemns us?’ said he. ‘The justice of the people.’ ‘0h, this is not the right one,’ replied the president. One of the priests threw himself against the sentry-box and uncovered his breast. They were led further on, and, turning a corner, — met the firing-party. Some men harangued them; the delegate at once ordered silence. The hostages placed themselves against the wall, and the officer of the platoon said to them, ‘It is not we whom you must accuse of your death, but the Versaillese, who are shooting the prisoners.’ He then gave the signal and the guns were fired. The hostages fell back in one line, at an equal distance from each other. Darboy alone remained standing, wounded in the head, one hand raised. A second volley laid him by the side of the others.

The blind justice of revolutions punishes in the first-comers the accumulated crimes of their caste.

-Lissagaray

The six who fell on this occasion would be followed in the Commune’s few remaining days by many more of their fellow hostages — and by countless communards. Theophile Ferre, who authorized the May 24 reprisal execution (and specifically called for Archbishop Darboy’s selection) was himself executed by the victorious bourgeois government that November.

* One of those violent deaths sent an assassin to the guillotine in 1857.

** Specifically, the Commune attempted to exchange Darboy and other hostages for Louis Auguste Blanqui, the great socialist leader whom Versailles had taken prisoner.

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1824: Antonio Brochetti, galley-dodger

Add comment May 22nd, 2014 Headsman

From Henry-Clement Sanson‘s memoirs:

On May 22 the scaffold was again erected for the execution of an Italian, a native of Rome, named Antonio Brochetti. He was imprisoned at Bicetre at the time of the murder, he having been previously sentenced to hard labour for life. He killed one of the turnkeys, with no other object than putting an end to his own life. Life in a prison or in the hulks seemed to him a much more severe punishment than death. His wish was fulfilled; he was condemned to death, and executed on the Place de Greve five days after, at four o’clock in the afternoon.

He went to the scaffold with eagerness. “I would rather die a thousand times than go to the hulks!” he exclaimed several times. Since Brochetti’s execution the severity displayed in French penitentiaries has increased; and his example has been followed by many.

“Galley slavery” in the antique Ben-Hur sense had been a mainstay of European navies since France got the bright idea to address a shortage of oarsmen by making press gangs out of magistrates. This idea was widely copied, and intensified.

At their peak in 1690, French galleys had 15,000 under oars — captured Turks, defeated Huguenots, slaves seized from Africa and North America, and, of course, criminals or anyone who could be construed as such.

Yet even by this time the galley was virtually obsolete as a military asset; Paul Bamford argues that they were maintained for pageantry and (internal) state-building for the French crown. Thus, as the 18th century unfolded, “galley” slaves were increasingly used for hard labor on the docks and in the arsenals — still-brutal punishment in a similar spirit, but no longer literally pulling an oar. By 1748, they were at last formally subsumed into a network of port prisons.

By this late date, however, usage had established the word galérien for convict galley-slaves so firmly that it persisted even now with the new redefinition.** (Italian still to this day has la galera for prison: the acme of seagoing Italian city-states coincided with that of the galley.)


Galleys’ greatest day: the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.

* Lionel Casson (in “Galley Slaves” from the Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, vol. 97 (1966)) dates this to a January 22, 1443 edict of Charles VII conferring on merchant Jacques Coeur the right to impress vagabonds into his fleet.

** Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean (Les Miserables) was a galley-slave; he would have been by Antonio Brochetti’s time just a few years out of the galleys himself.

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1625: Not Helene Gillet, beheading survivor

Add comment May 12th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1625, Helene Gillet went to the scaffold in Dijon to suffer beheading for infanticide.

But it was the executioner and not Helene who came down from it in pieces.

Helene was the beautiful 21-year-old daughter of a royal chatelain, the sort of well-to-do folks who would own monogrammed blankets that proved quite incriminating when found wrapped around an abandoned dead infant in the woods. Helene would claim that its origin was a family tutor who forced himself upon her, and also insist without further explanation on her innocence of the child’s fate — though the latter little entered the picture since an edict from 1556 made it capital crime to conceal pregnancy and childbirth.

Thanks to her status, she was entitled to the dignity of a beheading, rather than an ignoble dispatch by rope. But all else for Helene Gillet was shame: her father disowned her and forbade any intervention on her behalf; only Helen’s mother accompanied her to Dijon to appeal against the sentence.

It is said that in the course of her appeals to the Parlement of Dijon, the mother attracted the sympathy of the Bernadine abbey there, one of whose inmates ventured to prophesy that “whatever happens, Helene Gillet will not die by the hand of the executioner, but will die a natural and edifying death.”

Parlement begged to differ.

On Monday, May 12th, the young woman was led to the hill of Morimont (present-day Place Emile-Zola) by the executioner of Dijon, Simon Grandjean. Monsieur Bourreau was in an agitated state that day, whether from pity for his victim, or from an ague that had afflicted him, or from whatever other woes haunted his life. When you’re the executioner of Dijon you can’t just call in sick or take a mental health day.

The scaffold on which the whole tragedy was to unfold was a permanent edifice, albeit far less monumental than the likes of Montfaucon. Its routine employment was attested by the permanent wooden palisade and the small stone chapel comprising the arena — features that would factor in the ensuing scene.

Having positioned Gillet on the block, our troubled executioner raised up his ceremonial sword and brought it crashing down … on her left shoulder. The blow toppled the prisoner from the block, but she was quite alive. To cleanly strike through a living neck with a hand-swung blade — to do so under thousands of hostile eyes — was never a certain art; there are many similar misses in the annals. Often, an headsman’s clumsiness in his office would incite the crowd: the legendary English executioner Jack Ketch was nearly lynched for his ten-thumbed performance beheading Lord Monmouth.

The Dijonnaise were no more forgiving of Grandjean. Hoots and missiles began pelting the platform as the pitiable condemned, matted with blood, struggled back to the block — and Grandjean must have felt the rising gorge and sweated hands of the man who knows an occasion is about to unman him.

Grandjean’s wife, who acted his assistant in his duties, vainly strove to rescue her man’s mettle and the situation. One chop would do it: the struggling patient would still, the archer detail would restrain the angry crowd. Madame Grandjean forced Gillet back to the block, thrust the dropped sword back into the executioner’s hands with who knows what exhortation.

What else could he do? Again the high executioner raised the blade and again arced it down on the young woman’s head — and again goggled in dismay. Somehow, the blow had been half-deflected by a knot of Helene Gillet’s hair, and nicked only a small gash in the supplicant’s neck. Now hair is a decided inconvenience for this line of work and it was customary to cut it or tie it up — even the era of the guillotine gives us the infamous pre-execution toilette. Even so, the idea of a strong and vigorous man brandishing a heavy executioner’s sword being so entirely frustrated by a braid puts us in mind of an athlete short-arming a free throw or skying a penalty kick for want of conviction in the motion.

This is, admittedly, a retrospective interpretation, but if Grandjean had any inkling of what was to follow one could forgive him the choke.

Having now seen the vulnerable youth survive two clumsy swipes, the crowd’s fury poured brickbats onto the stage in a flurry sufficient to drive the friars who accompanied the condemned to flee in fear for their own lives. Grandjean followed them, all of them retreating to the momentary safety of the chapel as the attempted execution collapsed into chaos.

The steelier Madame Grandjean tried to salvage matters by completing what her husband could not — and seized the injured Gillet to haul her off the platform to the partial shelter of the stone risers by which they had ascended, like a tiger dragging prey to its lair. No longer bothering with the ceremonial niceties of the office, Madame Grandjean simply began kicking and beating Gillet as she drew out a pair of shears to finish her off in violent intimacy.

But the raging mob by this time had pushed through the guards and overrun the palisades, and fell on the melee in the midst of Madame Grandjean’s fevered slashing. The executioner’s wife was ruthlessly torn to pieces, and the cowering executioner himself soon forced from his refuge to the same fate.

Helene Gillet, who had survived a beheading, was hauled by her saviors bloody and near-senseless to a nearby surgeon, who tended her injuries and confirmed that none of them ought be fatal.

What would happen to her now?

The prerogatives of the state insist against the popular belief in pardoning an execution survivor.

We don’t have good answers for this situation even today; that a person might leave their own execution alive seems inadmissible, even though it does — still — occur.

But Helene Gillet was obviously a sympathetic case, and as a practical matter, the office of Dijon executioner had suddenly become vacant. The city’s worthies petitioned as one for her reprieve.

As it happened, King Louis XIII’s younger sister Henrietta Maria had on the very day preceding the execution been married by proxy to Louis’s ill-fated English counterpart Charles I. This gave the French sovereign good occasion for the very palatable exercise of mercy, “at the recommendation of some of our beloved and respected servants, and because we are well-disposed to be gracious through the happy marriage of the Queen of Great Britain.”

The Parlement of Dijon received the royal pardon on June 2, and formally declared Helene Gillet’s official acquittal.

The fortunate woman, having had a brush with the sublime, is said to have retired herself to a convent and lived out the best part of the 17th century there in prayer.

There’s a 19th century French pamphlet of documents related to this case available from Google books.

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1574: Joseph Boniface de La Mole, La Reine Margot’s lover

Add comment April 30th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1574, nobleman Joseph Boniface de La Mole was beheaded in Paris for a supposed plot against the king.

As the year would imply, La Mole was a casualty of France’s decades-long Wars of Religion.

Two years prior, in an attempt to cement an unsteady peace, the king’s sister Marguerite de Valois had been married off to the Protestant Henri of Navarre. As Paris teemed with Huguenots in town to celebrate the nuptials, the Catholic party sprang the infamous St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.

As if things weren’t awkward enough the in-laws, Henri was now made to live at the royal court, feigning conversion to Catholicism. His relationship with Marguerite went off to a rocky start; both took other lovers.

Joseph Boniface de La Mole (English Wikipedia entry | French) was one of Marguerite’s. You’ll find this adulterous couple steaming up the screen in the 1994 film La Reine Margot, which is based on a Dumas novel of the same title.


In real life, La Mole was 27 years Marguerite’s senior.

Meanwhile, civil strife ebbed and flowed.

Desperate to escape his gilded cage, Henri in 1574 was part of a Protestant coup attempt that boldly aimed to seize the sickly King Charles IX and his mother Catherine de’ Medici at Saint-Germain.

The conspiracy failed, but its principals — including not only our Henri, but also the King’s Protestant-friendly brother the Duke of Alencon, and the Duke of Montmorency* — were too august for severe punishment. Catherine de’ Medici, whose children kept dying on her (Charles IX would do likewise in May of 1574), was desperately trying to navigate the civil war with a Valois heir in place who had enough political support to rule; going all-in with the realm’s Catholic ultras (most characteristically represented by the House of Guise, which wanted Henri beheaded for this treason) would have permanently alienated all the Huguenots.

The likes of La Mole, however, were not so safe.

He and one Annibal de Coconnas, members of the court’s Huguenot circle who “had nothing of the divinity that hedged the princes of the blood,” were seized on April 8 and interrogated for an alleged scheme to murder the sovereign — possibly at the instigation of the Guises, trying to implicate through this pair the more powerful Huguenot lords.

After the inevitable blade fell on them, Marguerite supposedly kept her former lover’s severed head in a jeweled box. But the nobleman had at least the consolation of a rich literary afterlife. Besides the Dumas novel aforementioned, the La Mole family — our man’s supposed descendants — feature prominently in Stendhal’s The Red and the Black.

‘Let us take a turn in the garden,’ said the Academician, delighted to see this chance of delivering a long and formal speech. ‘What! Is it really possible that you do not know what happened on the 30th of April, 1574?’ ‘Where?’ asked Julien, in surprise. ‘On the Place de Greve.’ Julien was so surprised that this name did not enlighten him. His curiosity, the prospect of a tragic interest, so attuned to his nature, gave him those sparkling eyes which a story-teller so loves to see in his audience. The Academician, delighted to find a virgin ear, related at full length to Julien how, on the 30th of April, 1574, the handsomest young man of his age, Boniface de La Mole, and Annibal de Coconasso, a Piedmontese gentleman, his friend, had been beheaded on the Place de Greve. ‘La Mole was the adored lover of Queen Marguerite of Navarre; and observe,’ the Academician added, ‘that Mademoiselle de La Mole is named Mathilde-Marguerite. La Mole was at the same time the favourite of the Duc d’Alencon and an intimate friend of the King of Navarre, afterwards Henri IV, the husband of his mistress. On Shrove Tuesday in this year, 1574, the Court happened to be at Saint-Germain, with the unfortunate King Charles IX, who was on his deathbed. La Mole wished to carry off the Princes, his friends, whom Queen Catherine de’ Medici was keeping as prisoners with the Court. He brought up two hundred horsemen under the walls of Saint-Germain, the Due d’Alencon took fright, and La Mole was sent to the scaffold.

In Stendhal’s novel, it is Julien’s sexual conquest of the pretty young Mathilde de La Mole that sets in motion Julien’s ruin and execution.

Joseph Boniface de La Mole’s lover fared far better than that of his fictional descendant. Henri would eventually make his escape after all, and through fortune and intrepidity made Marguerite the Queen of all France** when he decided at last that Paris was worth a Mass.

* The man in our story was the second Duke of Montmorency; his nephew, the fourth duke, was beheaded in 1632.

** The marriage was never comfortable, and Henri and Marguerite continued to live and love separately until they finally annulled the union in 1599.

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1793: Philibert Francois Rouxel de Blanchelande, governor of Saint-Domingue

Add comment April 15th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1793, Philibert Francois Rouxel de Blanchelande was guillotined in Paris — victim of two revolutions an ocean apart.

Blanchelande (English Wikipedia entry | French) was a comfortable henchmen of the ancien regime, descended of a marshal.

At the outbreak of the French Revolution, Blanchelande was the governor of the Caribbean sugar colony of Saint-Domingue.

Like other New World colonies, Saint-Domingue’s brutal slave plantations generated vast wealth for the grand blancs, a tiny white oligopoly which was massively outnumbered by its black servile chattel. The demographics made for a perpetual source of conflict and danger — but that was the price of doing business for Europe’s sweet tooth.

The promised liberte, egalite, fraternite of 1789 fell into this tinderbox like a torch.

By 1791, slaves were in full rebellion. Mirabeau had once said that Saint-Domingue’s masters “slept at the foot of Vesuvius”; when it exploded, Blanchelande fell into the caldera with the grand blancs. The slave rebellion quickly overran the western third of Saint-Domingue — the germ of the imminent Republic of Haiti. But the situation on the ground in the early 1790s was extremely fluid, and perilous from the French perspective: Great Britain lurked at nearby Jamaica, scheming to swipe the lucrative island away from its rival amid the chaos. So here Britain accepted Saint-Domingue’s white refugees, and there she treated with black rebels to grant their emancipation in exchange for their allegiance.

The old royal hand Blanchelande was impotent to control the cataclysm with only a handful of troops, and he must have looked increasingly antiquated by the rapid progress of the Revolution too. A 1792 relief force of 6,000 soldiers arrived bearing word of the National Assembly’s too-little-too-late grant of political rights to free blacks, and bearing also Blanchelande’s replacement: a Girondin envoy named Leger-Felicite Sonthonax.

Both these steps were also swiftly overrun by the eruption. Blanchelande returned to Paris and was forgettably guillotined as a counterrevolutionary on April 15, 1793, not long after France and Britain officially went to war. “For losing Saint-Domingo,” Carlyle says a bit dismissively, and maybe that’s even right. But if so the loss reounded to the glory of the Jacobins. The Revolution’s ideals would soon come to mesh with the pragmatics of maintaining the allegiance of Saint-Domingue.

On February 4, 1794 — 16 Pluviose Year II, if you like the revolutionary calendar — the National Convention thrilled to “launch liberty into the colonies” (Danton) with a momentous proclamation abolishing slavery throughout the empire.

Slavery of the blacks is abolished in all the colonies … all men living in the colonies, without distinction of color, are French citizens and enjoy all the rights guaranteed by the constitution.


“Les Mortels sont égaux, ce n’est pas la naissance c’est la seule vertu qui fait la différence…” (Via).

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1813: Albrecht Ludwig von Berger and Christian Daniel von Finckh, Oldenburgers

Add comment April 10th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1813, the Napoleonic forces occupying Oldenburg, Germany shot Albrecht Ludwig von Berger and Christian Daniel von Finckh as rebels.

The Duchy of Oldenburg in northwest Germany could date its history back to the 12th century — but the end of its run was Napoleon’s takeover in 1810. This action helped break up France’s tenuous arrangement with Russia and lead to continental war, because the tsar’s sister was married to the Duke of Oldenburg. Russia had gone so far as to write Oldenburg’s sovereignty into its treaty with Napoleon.

The ultimate knock-on effects included France’s disastrous invasion of Russia and the collapse of Napoleon’s army.

As we meet Oldenburg in 1813, the French are headed the other way, harried by a vast European coalition. While the overall arc of this war bends towards French retreat, the situation at any given time and place was unpredictable, and Napoleon often gave better than he got.

Such uncertain circumstances offer martyrdom to the unlikeliest of characters. Berger and Finckh were just bureaucratic types, respectable figures in their own day whose peers’ bones presently molder unattended in the forlorn appendices of especially thorough genealogists.

But at a momentary nadir of French authority in Oldenburg in March 1813, local risings and the threat of Russian cavalry temporarily put the French administration to flight — leaving in its place a temporary administrative commission to which both Berger and Finckh belonged.

Had Oldenburg immediately fallen to the Sixth Coalition, that item would be a footnote to a treatise on governance in the duchy. Instead, the French regained authority and decided that our two principals were a little too subversively enthusiastic about running Oldenburg sans France. The notoriously hard-hearted commander Dominique Vandamme had them condemned at a court-martial on April 9, and the sentence put to execution the very next day. (The other commissioners got off with prison sentences.)

Little more than a year later, the two were posthumously rehabilitated by the restored dynasty of the post-French Grand Duchy of Oldenburg. Though minor figures in the scheme of things, every martyr pays the same coin; accordingly, the patriotic German might wish to spare a moment for the memorial to them in Oldenburg’s historic Gertrudenfriedhof cemetery.


Memorial to Berger and Finckh at Gertrudenfriedhof in Oldenburg, Germany. (cc) image from Corradox.

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1920: Albert Fournier

4 comments February 25th, 2014 Headsman

Warning: Disturbing Images Below

Albert Fournier was guillotined on this date in 1920 in Tours, by France’s ubiquitous early 20th century headsman Anatole Deibler.

The previous August, Fournier murdered a M. Monmarche, his sister Mme. Vouteau, and their servant Marie Thillier, also raping the latter victim’s corpse.

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1828: Antoine Berthet, Stendhal inspiration

Add comment February 23rd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1828, Antoine Berthet capped his gift to the arts by going under the guillotine at Grenoble‘s Place Grenette.

You probably haven’t heard of Antoine Berthet, but if you’ve read The Red and the Black (Le Rouge et le Noir) you know his story. Stendhal (a native of Grenoble) published his magnum opus not three years after Berthet lost his head, and the novel’s executed fictional protagonist Julien Sorel bears an unmistakable resemblance to the very real Berthet.

Berthet was a smart seminary student of low birth who hired out as a tutor for the Michoud family but was dismissed under a cloud for an apparent affair with Madame Michoud.

Nothing daunted, Berthet caught on as a tutor in another family — where he proceeded to seduce the lovely daughter Henriette. But a letter from Madame Michoud to the new employers terminated job and liaison alike.

The enraged Berthet stalked his former mistress to Mass and melodramatically shot her right there in the church. He failed to kill his target, and likewise failed his attempted suicide.

Unlike his literary doppleganger — the Julien Sorel character defiantly spurns his former lovers’ attempts to pull strings on his behalf and insists on his responsibility in court — Antoine Berthet mounted an unsuccessful insanity defense. It was the “irresistible derangements of love” drove him to outrage feminine virtue, consecrated grounds, and (maybe most scandalously) the upper classes.

His prosecutor disagreed, attributing all to Berthet’s frustrated “ambitious dreams”: “understanding too late that he could not reach the goal that his pride proposed, Berthet, stripped of his hopes, would perish; but his rage would drag a victim along with him to the tomb that he dug for himself!”

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Attempted Murder,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Public Executions,Scandal,Sex

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