Posts filed under 'France'

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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1943: France Bloch-Serazin, bombmaker

Add comment February 12th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1943, French resistance heroine France Bloch-Serazin was executed by the Germans in Hamburg.

Bloch-Serazin English Wikipedia entry | French) was a Jewish Communist who had supported the Spanish Republican cause, so she was right in line for some official persecution after the Germans blitzed France.

No longer employable as a chemist, she put her training to good use manufacturing explosives in her apartment. (Today, a plaque in the 19th arrondissement marks the building.)

Arrested by French police on May 16, 1942, she was condemned to death by a German military court but deported to Germany to suffer that punishment. Her husband, Fredo Serazin, was subsequently murdered by the Gestapo in prison.

As France Bloch-Serazin was born in 1913, she has recently enjoyed a renewed appreciation around the centennial of her birth, including the homage (French link) of her native city of Poitiers.

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1857: Jean-Louis Verger, doctrinaire

Add comment January 30th, 2014 Headsman

On Saturday, January 3, 1857, the Archbishop of Paris Marie-Dominique-Auguste Sibour the church of Saint-Etienne-du-Mont when Jean-Loiuis Verger stepped out of a crowd — out of obscurity — and plunged a long Catalan knife fatally into Sibour’s chest.

The assassin Verger (English Wikipedia entry | French) was a 30-year-old ordained priest who had accumulated a quarrelsome reputation among his ecclesiastical peers. The previous year, he had been laid under an official interdiction for preaching against the Catholic Church’s controversial new doctrine of the Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception.

Some reports had Verger crying out “No goddesses!” as he daggered the archbishop. “It is nowise the person of the Archbishop of Paris whom I wished to strike, but, in his person, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception,” Verger told the magistrates who judged him within days. There wasn’t a whole lot of doubt about the trial, so why wait around? But Verger’s vendetta wasn’t only theological; his suspension meant he wasn’t getting paid, and as his fury mounted over it he went so far as to post himself at the door of a church with a placard proclaiming that he was starving.

Archbishop of Paris was a surprisingly dangerous job in the mid-19th century. Sibour got the post because his predecessor was shot dead negotiating at a barricade during the 1848 revolution; in 1871, Archbishop Georges Darboy was taken hostage by the Paris Commune and executed by his captors when the national government invaded the city.

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1253: P. Morret, poor guesser

Add comment January 29th, 2014 Headsman

Henry Charles Lea‘s A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages brings us the following anecdote of the Kafkaesque legal trap in which those denounced to the Inquisition found themselves.

In reality no advocate could be of material service to the accused, save in the most exceptional cases. The men who organized the Holy Office knew too well what they wanted to leave open any possibilities of which even the shrewdest advocate could take advantage, and it was admitted on all hands as a recognized fact that there was no method of defence save disabling the witnesses for the prosecution. It has been seen that enmity was the only source of disability in a witness, and this had to be mortal — there must have been bloodshed between the parties, or other cause sufficient to induce one to seek the life of the other. If, therefore, the case rested on witnesses of this kind, their testimony had to be rejected and the prosecution fell. As this was the only possible mode of escape, the cruelty of withholding from the prisoner the names of the adverse witnesses becomes doubly conspicuous. He was forced to grope around in the dark and blindly name such persons as he imagined might have a hand in his misfortunes. If he failed to hit upon any who appeared in the case, the evidence against him was conclusive, as far as it went. If he chanced to name some of the witnesses, he was interrogated as to the causes of enmity; the inquisitor examined into the facts of the alleged quarrel, and decided as he saw fit as to the retention or the rejection of their testimony. Conscientious jurists like Gui Foucoix and inquisitors like Eymerich warned their brethren that as the accused had so slender a chance of guessing the sources of evidence, the judge ought to investigate for himself and discard any that seemed to be the product of malice; but there were others who sought rather to deprive the poor wretch of every straw that might postpone his sinking. One device was to ask him, as though casually, at the end of his examination, whether he had any enemies who would so disregard the fear of God as to accuse him falsely, and if, thus taken unawares, he replied in the negative, he debarred himself from any subsequent defence; or the most damaging witness would be selected and the prisoner be asked if he knew him, when a denial would estop him from claiming enmity. It is easy to imagine other tricks by which shrewd and experienced inquisitors could save themselves the trouble of admitting the accused to even the nugatory form of defence to which alone he was entitled. As to allowing him to call witnesses in his favor, except to prove enmity of the accusers, it was never thought of in ordinary cases. By a legal fiction, the inquisitor was supposed to look at both sides of the case, and to take care of the defence as well as of the prosecution. If the accused failed to guess the names of enemies among the witnesses and to disable their testimony, he was condemned.

In England, under the barbarous custom of the peine forte et dure, a prisoner who refused to plead either guilty or not guilty was pressed to death, because the trial could not go on without either confession or defence. Cruel as was this expedient, it was the outcome of a manly sense of justice, which based its procedure on the rule that the worst felon should have a fair opportunity to prove his innocence. Far worse was the system of the Inquisition, which was equally resolved that its culprits should have no such easy method of escape as a refusal to plead. It had no scruples as to proceeding in such cases, and the obstinacy of the accused only simplified matters. The refusal was an act of contumacy, equivalent to disobeying a summons to appear, or it was held to be tantamount to a confession, and the obdurate prisoner was forthwith handed over to the secular arm as an impenitent heretic, fit only for the stake. The use of torture, however, rendered such cases rare.

The enviable simplicity which the inquisitorial process thus assumed in the absence of counsel and of all practical opportunities for defence can perhaps best be illustrated by one or two cases. Thus in the Inquisition of Carcassonne, June 19, 1252, P. Morret is called up and asked if he wishes to defend himself against the matters found in the instructio or indictment against him. He has nothing to allege except that he has enemies, of whom he names five. Apparently he did not happen to guess any of the witnesses, for the case proceeded by reading the evidence to him, after which he is again asked thrice if he has anything further to say. To this he replies in the negative, and the case ends by assigning January 29 for the rendering of sentence. Two years later, in 1254, at Carcassonne, a certain Bernard Pons was more lucky, for he happened to guess aright in naming his wife as an inimical witness, and we have the proceedings of the inquest held to determine whether the enmity was mortal. Three witnesses are examined, all of whom swear that she is a woman of loose character; one deposes that she had been taken in adultery by her husband; another that he had beaten her for it, and the third that he had recently heard her say that she wished her husband dead that she might marry a certain Pug Oler, and that she would willingly become a leper if that would bring it about. This would certainly seem sufficient, but Pons appears nevertheless not to have escaped. So thoroughly hopeless, indeed, was the prospect of any effort at defence, that it frequently was not even attempted, and the accused, like Arnaud Fabri at Carcassonne, August 26, 1252, when asked if he wished a copy of the evidence against him, would despairingly decline it. It was a customary formula in a sentence to state that the convict had been offered opportunity for defence and had not availed himself of it, showing how frequently this was the case.

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1868: Three Italian bandits

Add comment January 27th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1868, a trio of notorious Italian brigands went under the French guillotine in Marseilles.

Joseph Coda-Zabetta, the leader, had escaped a hard labor sentence in Italy and fled to France where he founded a large band of robbers who terrorized France’s Mediterranean countryside from Nice to Marseilles for some months in 1867.

From raiding unoccupied country homes the gang soon progressed to bold invasions of occupied houses and waylaying travelers. “In one instance,” a press report of their trial reported,* “six of the band attacked a convoy of carriers, one of whom received a pistol-shot in the breast and a stab with a knife, from which injuries he afterwards died.”

Twelve of the band faced trial, and four of their number received death sentences. (Seven others had long prison sentences; a man named Muletto was acquitted.)

Coda, Antoine Quaranta, and Felix Mardi (Italian pdf) were all guillotined on this date in 1868. (They died, it was said, repentant (French).) The fourth condemned prisoner, Jacques Mulatere, had his death sentenced commuted to life at hard labor.

* London Times, Dec. 20, 1867

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1909: The Pollet gang, breaking the French moratorium

Add comment January 11th, 2014 Headsman

Warning: Graphic severed head pictures await at the bottom of this post.

On this date in 1911, the guillotine returned France after an absence of more than three years.

The sitting president was a staunch death penalty opponent and had blocked all executions since his term began in 1906. That was about the same span of time that the Pollet gang had, in the words of a New York Times wire report,* “infested the Belgian-French frontier, robbing churches, houses, and inns, holding up stage coaches and belated travelers, and torturing and slaying their victims according to the old piratical adage that dead men tell no tales.”

Abel Pollet had been a smuggler who put his native gift for leadership to good use organizing his fellow traffickers into a more lucratively violent line of work. Thanks, presumably, to the syndicate’s pre-existing professional aptitude for evasion, it persisted for years and authored a quantity of robberies and murders that authorities could only guess at. (The official homicide estimation ran north of 50.) It was a spree so atrocious that it helped force the end of the whole death penalty moratorium since sentiment was so strong against the Hazebrouck gang .

Incited by the many depredations and perhaps starved from years without the bloody spectacle of public execution, a vast concourse of 30,000 mobbed the guillotine at Bethune.

“At midnight there were 2,000 watchers in the square,” one report ran. “The main street of the town was crowded as on the eve of a fete. Soon after midnight men brought ladders and benches to the square and mounted them to obtain an uninterrupted view. Others climbed into the branches of trees, where their presence was revealed by the glow of cigarettes and pipes in the dark among the branches.”

Undeterred by the steady winter’s drizzle, they would wait all the night through, their numbers continually augmented as road-trippers arrived by train.

At four in the morning the dread traveling executioner Anton Diebler, who had already plied this trade for a generation and more and would continue in the role for another 30 years, arrived with four assistants to set up the guillotine. It was only with difficulty that police restrained the pawing mob.

By half-past five the public prosecutor officially informed the condemned men what they surely already knew — that there would be no mercy. The crowd on the square would have its prey.

As the first robber, Theophile Deroo, emerged at 7:25 a.m., “there was a painful silence, and then an outbreak of hoots and curses from the crowd.” A wilting Deroo had to be hustled to the board amid the jeers. “A mort! A mort!” came the howls.

Three times in the next eight minutes the executioners furiously scrubbed the apparatus clean while guards (per the Times) “held the crowd back with main force.”

Canut Vromant followed coolly; Auguste Pollet was third, fighting and shouting. His brother, the leader Abel Pollet, went under a rain of curses that he answered with the words “Down with the priests! Long live the Republic!”

People are ghoulish. Far be it from us to deny them.


Top: the heads of the Pollet brothers. Middle: The heads of their two accomplices. Bottom: Canut Vromant’s headless trunk awaits autopsy. All images from the invaluable Bois de Justice, via this goregrish forum.


After the quadruple executions, the heads are cleaned up. (Source)

Perhaps, dear reader, you find the public exhibition of these severed heads objectionable. If so, you have an ally in the French state that did the severing.

For years, French elites had been fretting the indecorous behavior of the crowd at what was supposed to be a solemn occasion. The advent of photography only made matters worse, for now the discomfiting head-chopping exercise could be shared with those indisposed to sitting up all night smoking pipes in trees.

But as the moratorium gave way, the rising media form of cinema promised even more debased exhibitions. Enterprising cinematographers were already staging execution re-creations; now there was the prospect for film audiences to be incited to countless bloodlust frenzies by on-the-scene deathporn footage of hated criminals going under the blade. It was in response to just this fear that France a bit later in 1909 promulgated (French link) its first film censorship rules — forbidding in this case the public display of film liable to disturb the public tranquility.

* Jan. 16, 1909 … under the excited headline “THIRST FOR BLOOD AMONG THE FRENCH”,

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