Posts filed under 'France'

1919: Frank Willis, but not by Bill Fisk

3 comments May 27th, 2019 Headsman

The futile last appeal of Australia-born artillerist Frank Willis — before his execution at La Havre a century ago today for killing a British policeman — ran thus:

I am 20 years of age. I joined the Australian Army in 1915 when I was 16 years of age. I went to Egypt and the Dardanelles. I have been in a considerable number of engagements there, & in France. I joined the British Army in April 1918 and came to France in June 1918. I was discharged from the Australian Army on account of fever which affected my head contracted in Egypt. I was persuaded to leave my unit by my friends and got into bad company. I began to drink and gamble heavily. I had no intention whatever of committing the offences for which I am now before the Court. I ask the Court to take into consideration my youth and to give me a chance of leading an upright and straightforward life in the future.

This young man’s shooting detail was to have been commanded by Second Lieutenant Bill Fisk of the King’s Liverpool Regiment the father of the great Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk. Fisk has written frequently about his father’s refusal to conduct the execution, which the son says cost his father his military career and was also “the noblest act of his life” although it made no difference at all to the fate of Frank Willis.

Thanks to the investigatory exertions of the Great War Forum, it appears that “Frank Willis” was a pseudonym, and the true name under which this man joined and deserted the Australian army before his British enlistment was Richard Mellor. Mellor’s mother spent the rest of her life vainly petitioning authorities for information about her son’s fate.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,France,History,Murder,Shot,Soldiers

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1855: Giovanni Pianori

Add comment May 14th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1855, Giovanni Pianori submitted to the guillotine for an unsuccessful assassination attempt — pictured above — on the French Emperor Napoleon III.

Himself an Italian nationalist in his youth, Napoleon as prince had gutted his former cause by intervening to crush the revolutionary Roman Republic and restore the exiled pope to power. No small number of fellow-travelers in the patriotic cause thought Napoleon’s betrayal deserved a bullet.

Pianori’s were launched, without effect, on the Champs-Elysees on April 28, 1855, just sixteen days before his execution.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Italy,Notable for their Victims,Public Executions

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1643: Philippe Giroux, former president of the Dijon Parlement

Add comment May 8th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1643, a remarkable trial-of-the-century political case climaxed when a former judge was beheaded for murdering his noble cousin and the cousin’s valet.

Book CoverPhilippe Giroux’s amazing and disconcerting case is the subject of a page-turning microhistory by James Farr, A Tale of Two Murders: Passion and Power in Seventeenth-Century France, which is the source of essentially every detail about the case in this post. “There is substantial evidence surviving from this case,” Farr writes … “and not all of it points the same way.”

Philippe Giroux had, in the suspicious eyes of his peers in Dijon society, ample motive that would connect him to the September 6, 1638 disappearance of Pierre Baillet and Philibert Neugot: common rumor had him so infatuated with Baillet’s wife, Marie Fyot, as to aspire to marry her.

But Giroux was no ordinary lustful bourgeois: he was the paramount judge at the Parlement of Dijon, a powerful client of an even more powerful patron, the Prince of Conde. Giroux’s kin and allies peopled the Burgundy courts.

Perhaps it is no surprise in the Three Musketeers-era France addicted to dueling that a person of this prominence would attract a nemesis, but rare indeed that a vendetta could pull such a powerful figure so low as the scaffold. This bilious triumph was savored in the end by Giroux’s hated rival Pierre Saumaise de Chasans.

A fellow judge whose enmity with our date’s principal reached back at least to 1627, Saumaise, in Farr’s words, presented his contemporaries

a personality of unrelentingly pious self-righteousness blending seamlessly into base self-interest. A quarrelsome man constantly at odds with his fellow judges, Saumaise was involved in twenty-two quarrels with other judges in Parlement, was reprimanded eleven times as the culprit, and was censored seven times. During the seventeenth century the Parlement as a whole was drifting toward lenience in criminal sentences, but Saumaise swam against this current. For example, in 1633 Saumaise was assigned as a rapporteur to ten cases appealed to Parlement from lower courts across Burgundy. In only one of those cases did Saumaise seek to lessen the punishment imposed by the lower court …

Another gruesome example of Saumaise’s severity. In 1633, for conviction of a murder, the grapegrower Bazille Borde was broken on the wheel (more often murderers were hanged or beheaded). As Saumaise watched, the executioner shattered Borde’s arm and leg bones with a metal rod, and then pitched him onto a raised wheel, face up, to die slowly and in agony. His accomplice merely had his head chopped off, after which Saumaise and the presiding judge split the epices of sixty-six ecus (more than the victims combined would have earned in years).

Most disturbing of all of the examples of Saumaise’s stern, unmerciful jurisprudence is the series of cases for witchcraft that Saumaise prosecuted in March 1633. In other parts of France and Europe a witch hunt swept widely during the early seventeenth century, but with the exception of a few flare-ups, Burgundy was largely spared. Saumaise oversaw one of those flare-ups. For a bloody week in the middle of March, Saumaise signed his name as a rapporteur to seven sentences which capped the trials of twenty-five accused witches. Lower courts had ordered banishment, but under appeal at Parlement (required by law for all capital offenses tried in lower courts) Saumaise and the presiding judge demonstrated their belief that firmer punishment was needed. Saumaise saw to it that several of the victims were tortured, and three were eventually burned at the stake. Saumaise and the president assigned to these cases, by the way, pocketed for their efforts 400 ecus (that is, 1,200£, or more than a journeyman artisan — or any of the victims — might earn in fifteen years). In all, in 1633 alone Saumaise shared with his presidents about 700 ecus in addition to his regular wages. Fellow judges, including Philippe Giroux, were deeply troubled by the severity of Saumaise as a judge. By Giroux’s count, Saumaise submitted fifty-six people accused of crimes to be tortured, broken on the wheel, or beheaded, prompting Giroux to conclude in disgust that Saumaise was “a crow who is most content among dead bodies.”

From the late 1620s and throughout the 1630s these two sniped at each other in the august chambers of the king’s justice and with the less discriminating public squibs facilitated by the era of movable type. On the whole, Saumaise did not get the better of his confrontations with Giroux, even once being forced to perform the amende honorable before their legal peers with a galling public affirmation of his enemy’s honor that must of tasted like ash in Saumaise’s mouth.

That was early in 1639, mere weeks after Giroux allegedly slaughtered Pierre Baillet. It would be prove to be the apex before the wheel of fortune very abruptly threw him down.

Giroux attempted to press his advantage over Saumaise by pursuing a rape charge against him, but the case speedily fell apart with the whiff of suborned perjury about it. Meanwhile, two judges not in Giroux’s network had been detailed to investigate the Baillet murder, and a constellation of evidence was emerging from the Giroux servants and associates who had been interrogated. However much of this was circumstantial and hearsay, it was certainly more than the president of Parlement ought to have said against him per the Caesar’s-wife standard.

In July 1640 Giroux was arrested and although his confinement was comfortably befitting his station it would continue for the remainder of his life — Giroux powerless while the evidence compounded to do aught but issue learned public factums savaging the case against him as a concoction of Saumaise’s vendetta. Indeed, as a purely juridical matter, this prosecution did suffer from some debilitating flaws which help to explain the protracted three-year gap from arrest to judgment and execution. Most notably, it lacked bodies, which were legally required to prosecute a murder case in the absence of a confession or an eyewitness, neither of which proved forthcoming. Had Giroux, as a servant had alleged, efficiently pitched the victims undetected into his latrine where quicklime had dissolved their remains into the ordure? If so, it might never be possible to conclude a judgment; certainly the magistrate Giroux remained wisely steadfast in his denials and could be relied upon to perceive where his prosecutors’ claims were most vulnerable. In Giroux’s telling the prosecution and the hand of his personal enemy had veered into an outright stitch-up, with every witness favorable to himself excluded and the prejudicial evidence of his rivals’ kin granted outsized credence. Are we seriously to believe this senior judge butchered his own cousin in his own home, that the victims or “victims” had not instead (as other rumors suggested) upped sticks and left the country or fallen prey to some wilderness brigands?

In such a gap might a litigant preserve his life. Still and all, O.J. Simpson was acquitted but also permanently stripped of his public stature and respectability. How much more these pains would have weighed on a dignitary of the king’s courts, in a society where family, honor, and reputation were the true coin of the realm. However stoutly he defended himself from his cell, Giroux found events running away from him, and even the favor of the Prince of Conde coldly withdrawn — as discovered when his father presented himself in the prince’s court to petition for his son and was advised that he’d be seeing the inside of the Bastille should he not speedily fly. His son contemplated the same strategem, but his jailbreak plot was detected before it could be implemented.

When a sack apparently containing the remains of the victims was finally uncovered — the identification dramatically cinched by a playing card that a tailor had sewn into one of the men’s collars to stiffen it — the fallen president of Parlement knew his doom was sealed although even to his confessors he staked his immortal soul upon his innocence. The courts so long uncertain about the fate of their former colleague now had a clincher. They imposed financial penalties that, while irrelevant to his own final hours, devastated and permanently diminished Giroux’s house thereafter, plus the sentence of beheading, a merciful abatement considering the more brutal executions at the law’s disposal for cases of murder.

After hearing the sentence of death [early afternoon of May 8], Giroux was led into the holding cell of the courthouse and prepared for execution. He was stripped of the symbols of his presidential office — ritually divested of his bonnet carre and his scarlet robe, which in any case he had not been permitted to wear since his incarceration. Such a ritual officially cast the felon into the dishonorable netherworld of social disgrace. Execution everywhere in early modern Europe “imported infamy” upon the condemned, and this was made visible by the physical treatment of the criminal’s body. The body in those days was not thought of as simply the integral possession of the individual human being but rather as a socially defined entity that signified status and standing in a highly stratified system. This system, as Giroux knew as well as anyone, was held together and given meaning by that pervasive notion of honor that so preoccupied men like him. The loss of honor could ruin a family, most directly by ending descendents’ [sic] prospects of marrying. It was undoubtedly because of this fear of dishonor that upon being led into the holding cell, Giroux turned to Comeau and said with tears in his eyes, “I beg you to assure my Lord the Prince [of Conde] that I remain his servant, and I beg him that this poor innocent who is my son and who has the honor to carry [Conde’s] name must not suffer from the disgrace of his father. Perhaps he will be more fortunate that I.” …

Spared both the humiliation and the pain of being broken on the wheel, Giroux gasped, “God be praised! These men have much charity and mercy, because according to the crimes of which I have been accused, I ought to be more rudely treated.” Opting for beheading was one indication that the judges were trying not to dishonor Giroux. Another was that they withheld a customary phrase in the sentence of death. Usually death sentences called for actions that would obliterate the memory of the convicted felon and destroy in posterity the honor of his or her family. The body might be burned and its ashes scattered to the wind, or dismembered and buried in an unmarked grave, or documents from the trial declaring the innocence of the accused, such as factums, might be destroyed. The judges ordered none of these steps.

Now Saumaise had the satisfaction of seeing the amende honorable ritual reversed to his advantage, as a bound Giroux begged public forgiveness on his knees during his shameful procession to death. “Ah, my father! My son! My kin! My friends! What will you not suffer from this affront that will burst upon you all!” Farr has him exclaiming. He had a quarter-mile yet to walk to the Place du Morimont (present-day Place Emile-Zola).*

The streets were lined with a hundred armed men who held in check a crowd “so numerous” and packed so densely, according to Larme, “that one could suffocate among them.” Giroux apparently regained his composure, for he now strode between the two priests “with constancy and firmness,” as Larme reports. The former president had the presence of mind to bid adieu to several people whom he recognized along the way. He even smiled, showing no evidence that he was suffering inside. It was in this state that he entered the chapel beneath the scaffold where, still clutching the crucifix, he bade a final goodbye to his son and asked him always to remember his father with respect and love. He then prostrated himself before the altar, saying, “Receive, O Lord, my death in expiation for my sins.” He rose, turned to the priests, and asked them to promise to take his body to the family estate at Marigny for burial. He emerged from the chapel and climbed the steps of the scaffold. He faced the crowd, and bowed deeply three times. Then, his back to the executioner, he dropped to his knees. He heard his sentence of death read to him yet again, this time by an assistant to the royal prosecutor general named Deschamps, and then recited a series of litanies. After that, Deschamps drew close and said that he had orders to ask Giroux one last time whether he had killed Monsieur Baillet, whether Marie Fyot was involved in the conspiracy, and who his accomplices were. Giroux, steadfast in his innocence to the end, replied, “I have told you everything I know.”

Giroux was confessed a final time by Father Chaudot, received absolution, and awaited the approach of the hooded headsman. The executioner removed Giroux’s flowing wig to blindfold his eyes. Giroux clutched the crucifix and drew it close to his heart just before the executioner’s sword flashed toward Giroux’s exposed neck. The first blow did not sever the former president’s head, not did the second. The crowd gaped in horror and then erupted in sympathy for Giroux while he was being hacked to death. Larme too looked on horrified, and reported that many in the crowd tried to storm the scaffold and wanted to tear the executioner limb from limb, shouting “Death to the headsman!” And they would have done so, Larme assures us, if the soldiers posted all around the gallows had not kept them at bay. It ultimately took the headsman five blows of the broadsword to cut off Philippe Giroux’s head.

* Find here a grim French-language tour through the notable public punishments administered at this location down the years.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Judges,Lawyers,Murder,Public Executions

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1813: Adriana Bouwman, guillotined at The Hague

Add comment May 1st, 2019 Headsman

The young maid Adriana Bouwman was guillotined on this date in 1813 for theft and arson; it was the second and last use of that notorious machine in The Hague, during the three years that the Netherlands was directly incorporated into Napoleon’s First Empire.

Arijaantje Apersdr Bouman was condemned for robbing and torching a farmhouse where she worked as a domestic. She was four months shy of her 20th birthday when beheaded.

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

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1477: Hugonet and Humbercourt, in the wreck of Burgundy

Add comment April 3rd, 2019 Headsman

Willem Hugonet and Guy van Brimeu, officials of the collapsing Burgundian polity, were executed in Ghent on this date in 1477 for their failed diplomatic intrigue.

This moment fell just weeks after Burgundy itself had received her own fatal blow, at least as far as independent political standing goes: the death in battle on January 5 of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. Charles had proven himself an energetically expansionist prince.

Charles’s dominions compassed not only Burgundy itself, but a swath of territory running up to Flanders and the Low Countries, a strip that was being squeezed by the rising powers of France to the west and Austria to the east. He had no male heir, so his 19-year-old daughter Mary succeeded him in title — but not in power. France and Austria immediately began sizing up Burgundy for dismemberment, a mission they accomplished within a few short years. And while both dynasties sought Mary’s inheritance via matrimony, more direct methods were also employed.

Before January was out, the French king Louis XI had already pressed into Picardy and Artois* with a scheming mix of armed intimidation and invocation of feudal rights — seeking Flanders and its rich trading cities like Ghent, where our executions will take place. These places, too, saw their opportunity to seek their own advantage; Burgundy had enforced its authority in Ghent at the point of the sword, bloodily crushing a revolt not 30 years before. In Flanders and Brabant, “the confirmation of the tidings of [Charles the Bold’s] death had been received with general feelings of relief and joy,” according to the Cambridge Modern History. “And throughout the Netherlands it was resolved to make the most of the opportunity.” There was no love lost between these locales and their Burgundian overlords, yet these places also feared the potential domination of Burgundy’s rivals. As a first step, the principal cities of the Low Countries immediately forced the weakened sovereign — who was personally stuck in Ghent when the dread news of her father’s fate arrived — to cede them a wide grant of privileges.

Meanwhile, Mary herself extended feelers to the neighboring empires, and it is here that our principal characters enter the story. Charles’s old chancellor, Willem Hugonet and the Picardy-born knight Guy of Brimeu, Sire of Humbercourt** — French-friendly Burgundians both reviled of Ghent — prevailed on Mary to seek what terms they could France. Returning to the Cambridge Modern History,

Louis seems to have, by private communications with Hugonet and d’Himbercourt, secured their adherence to the marriage-scheme [between Mary of Burgundy and the six-year-old French Dauphin]. At Arras, of which he took possession in March, 1477, he received a deputation from Ghent, and — playing the kind of double game which his soul loved — revealed to them the confidence reposed by Mary in the privy councillors detested by the city.

Thus, on the return of the civic deputies to Ghent, the storm broke out. The city was already in a condition of ferment; some of the partisans of the old regime had been put to death; and the agitation, which had spread to Ypres and as far as Mons, was increased by the claims put forward at Ghent on behalf of the restoration of Liegeois independence by the Bishop of Liege … distracted by her fears, Mary seems actually to have countenanced Hugonet’s final proposal that she should quit Flanders and place herself under the protection of the French King, when at the last moment Ravenstein induced her to reveal the design. He immediately informed the representative of the vier landen, and the deans of the trades of Ghent, and on the same night (March 4) Hugonet, d’Himbercourt and de Clugny were placed under arrest. A rumour having been spread that their liberation was to be attempted, and news having arrived of the resolute advance of the French forces, new disturbances followed; and Mary issued an ordinance naming a mixed commission of nobles and civic officials to try the accused with all due expedition (March 28). She afterwards interceded in favour of one or both of the lay prisoners (for de Clugny was saved by his benefit of clergy), and at a later date expressed her sympathy with the widow and orphans of d’Himbercourt, the extent of whose share in the Chancellor’s schemes remains unknown. After being subjected to torture, both were executed on April 3. They met with short shrift at the hands of their judges; but they cannot be said to have been sacrificed to a mere gust of democratic passion; and Mary and her Council, and the other Estates of the Netherlands assembled at Ghent, were with the city itself and the sister Flemish towns one and all involved in the responsibility of the deed.

This backlash closed all avenues to French nuptials; within weeks, Mary was engaged to the Habsburg Archduke Maximilian (they wed that August) and France and Austria fell into outright war over the Burgundian patrimonies, the resolution of which boiled down to Habsburg authority in the Low Countries and French absorption of most of the rest, including Burgundy proper.

* As well as, further inland, Franche-Comte, bordering the Duchy of Burgundy itself.

** Two years before this, Guy had personally extradited the rebellious Louis of Luxembourg to France for execution.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Beheaded,Belgium,Burgundy,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Torture,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1953: Abel Danos, le mammouth

Add comment March 14th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1953, the French gangster and Nazi collaborator Abel Danos was shot as a traitor.

Once a small-time crook for the milieu criminal syndicate, Danos upon his arrest went way beyond turning state’s evidence and offered his goon talents to the German police. From 1941 to 1944 he murdered people — he’s believed to have personally executed over 100 French Resistance members during the war — for salary as a member of the French Gestapo. Though arrested at the end of the war, he made a sensational escape and got into the robbery outfit Gang des Tractions Avant; he fatally shot both Italian and French police in that vocation. Career-wise you have to credit the man for focusing on his core value-adds while remaining flexible to embrace new opportunities.

“Le mammouth” — so nicknamed for his heavy build — went extinct courtesy of a firing squad at Fort Monte-Valerien, refusing a blindfold after a last swig of rum.

There’s a 2006 French-language biography of Abel Danos, by Eric Guillon.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Organized Crime,Shot,Treason

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1749: Fontauban, spy

Add comment March 5th, 2019 Headsman

A spy named Fontauban was hanged at the northern city of Lille on this date in 1749.

From the scanty information to be had he appears among the more pathetic traitors. Disinherited by his father he had gone into his peculiar trade to great effect during the continent-spanning War of Austrian Succession.

Demobilization was a tough transition for spooks as for everyday soldiers; needing to maintain his income, he made an fatally unsuccessful attempt to engage service with the British — and not for any mere document-copying, but for betraying the king himself.

Despite having been open to outright regicide in exchange for a few grotes, Fontauban’s sentence was commuted to hanging (from the proposed burning and quartering) as a gesture of mercy.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,France,Hanged,History,Public Executions,Spies,Treason

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1794: Jean-Pierre du Teil, Napoleon mentor

1 comment February 27th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1794, the French artillery general Jean-Pierre du Teil was guillotined at Lyon.

The baron du Teil (English Wikipedia entry | French) numbered among many ancien regime officers whose talents were needed but allegiances were suspect in the citizens’ army of revolutionary France. Such figures were forever vulnerable to attack as secret royalists; du Teil while serving in the Army of the Alps fell prey to that very charge made by the ferocious Jacobin rulers of Lyon, Collot d’Herbois and Joseph Fouche.

He’s noteworthy to posterity as a mentor to the young Napoleon Bonaparte at the Royal Artillery School of Auxonne. Du Teil took notice of the precocious teenage artillerist and honored him with special assignments — “a mark of unheard-of favor,” Napoleon gushed in private correspondence.

Napoleon upon his death left 100,000 francs in his will to du Teil’s son “as a token of gratitude for the care this great general took in me.”

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Public Executions,Soldiers,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1852: Hélène Jégado, serial arsenic murderer

Add comment February 26th, 2019 Headsman

Prolific French poisoner Hélène Jégado was guillotined on this date in 1852.

An orphaned peasant, Jegado (English Wikipedia entry | French) made her way as a domestic servant which was a very fine situation for exploring her true passion of insinuating arsenic into folks’ meals.

This Jegado did with astonishing frequency in her 18 years as Brittany’s Locusta: though condemned for just three successful murders, her body count is thought to run well into the twenties or thirties. Although she was a habitual petty thief as well, she was a true serial killer for whom only a handful of her many murders redounded to some palpable benefit for her. She killed from a compulsion.

For example, as the servant of a village cure, she brazenly poisoned off seven people in 1833,* including the priest himself and her own sister Anne Jegado. But the village had been ravaged by cholera in recent months and Helene Jegado by all accounts made for a convincingly bereaved tragic actress. Amazingly, nobody got suspicious, enabling her to poison off her own aunt and two other people when she returned to her own town to bury that dearly departed sister. For the next several years she kept moving and moving, new lodgings in new towns throughout Brittany but over and over again in a position to season the soup. Surprising and sudden deaths repeatedly occurred in her proximity but the pattern never caught anyone’s eye.

Her fire for the inheritance powder mostly burned out by about 1841 when she had a suspected 23 victims to her name. “I am going into retreat,” she’s said to have strangely declared to an employer who caught her stealing in 1841. “God has forgiven me my sins!” Then the suspicious deaths stopped.

At this point, Helene Jegado was pushing 40. Maybe she thought to cleanse her soul and make a fresh and un-homicidal start, or simply to retire her murder spree while she was so very far ahead. Maybe the sensational Marie Lafarge arsenic case of 1840 scared her straight and made her aware of dangerous forensics advances. There was also some idea that she had somehow procured a large stockpile of arsenic at the outset of her career, but discarded it in a panic the first time that she felt herself in danger of being accused.

Whatever the reason for her lull, she seems to have managed the cold turkey program admirably for a good long time … but surely somewhere inside her lurked the hunger to again give rein to her compulsion.

The last days of 1849 find her at Rennes, where she resumed just as suddenly as she had stopped: the ailing son of a couple who employed her as their only servant was suddenly finished off through his porridge, and then the couple themselves sickened by another meal (they survived). Now the bit was again in her teeth and she ran with it through a series of employers: in the course of just weeks she made fresh attacks in the Ozanne household, upon the family’s little son (he died); in the hotel owned by Monsieur Roussell, upon the proprietor’s mother (she survived) and a rival servant (she died).

By the autumn of 1850 she again had her fresh — and her final — employment, with the law professor and sometime politician Theophile Bidard.

Yet it was not the sharp observations or relentless deductions of her scholar-master that exposed Helene Jegado: it was a want of sangfroid downright shocking in one who had already filled so many tombs. When another servant of the Bidards died unexpectedly, Rennes medical men who suspected poisoning called on Bidard. Jegado answered the door, and upon hearing them announce their mission to the man of the house she unnecessarily blurted out an assertion of innocence. Nobody had even mentioned her.

Once she invited everyone’s suspicion the rest followed inevitably. Bodies she had given Rennes households to bury during the preceding year showed clear evidence of arsenic poisoning when exhumed, and the pattern of deaths associated with her — even though they lay beyond prosecution — seemingly confirmed the worst. Helene denied all but went to the guillotine on the Champ-de-Mars at Rennes on February 26, 1852.

* These seven and most of the others attributed to Helene Jegado’s potions are merely irresistible inference; she was detected long past any opportunity to establish direct proof of her hand behind any of the pre-1849 deaths.

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

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1525: Jacques de La Palice, “lapalissade”

Add comment February 24th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1525, a French marshal’s was executed during a crucial battle of the France-vs-Habsburg Italian War, beginning a long posthuous journey to a wordplay gag.


The Battle of Pavia, by Ruprecht Heller (1529).

The Battle of Pavia is best remembered for the fate — not lethal, but much more damaging to statecraft — of King Francis I of France, who was captured on the field by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.* Francis spent two years in comfortable but discomfiting imperial custody until he agreed to the humiliating Treaty of Madrid ceding vast tracts of French territory (notably Burgundy) to Charles.**

For all that, Francis kept his head and eventually resumed his station. Jacques de La Palice (English Wikipedia entry | the much longer French) did not exit the Battle of Pavia nearly so well.

The lord of La Palice (or Lapalisse), grandson to a comrade of Joan of Arc, our man had spent a lifetime bearing French arms; he’d been personally knighted by King Charles VIII for his prowess at age 15 in his very first engagement.

The great bulk of his time ever since had been spent on various campaigns in Italy, where France remained more or less continuously at war against the Holy Roman Empire until 1559.

Fighting up and down the peninsula, La Palice earned the impressive rank of Grand Master of France, and it had nothing to do with his chess acumen. He’d actually retired to the pleasures of domesticity after being captured in 1513 at the Battle of the Spurs — so named for the panicked spurring a fleeing French cavalry gave to their horses — only to be recalled to his post in 1515.

Late in 1524 he was among the host accompanying King Francis’s march to recover France’s on-again, off-again transalpine beachhead of Milan. This objective the French achieved with scant resistance, but the expedition turned disastrous in a further advance to Pavia. There, 9,000 imperial troops were dug in to defend; unable to take the city by storm the French put it to siege, fatally overextending themselves.

Come the following February, the Habsburgs had cut Pavia off from Milan and the French encampment was weakened by defecting mercenaries. On the morning of February 24, the imperial forces mounted an attack on the French that turned into a comprehensive slaughter. La Palice was captured early on by the Habsburgs’ landsknecht mercenaries and executed by them at some point later on during the fight. Although his fate was a bit more premeditated, he was only one of many blue-blooded commanders who lost their lives on the field that dark day for France† — suspending French ambitions in Italy, if only for a few years.

The knight’s alleged feats are celebrated in a ballad known as “La chanson de la Palisse” (“The Song of La Palice”). Rather, there are dozens of versions of that ditty, dating from the 16th to the 18th century, of unknown original authorship but agglomerated by the French poet Bernard de la Monnoye into a humorous caper in the 18th century.

This poem presumably (though not certainly) began as a genuine praise song for the dead marshal, opening with this garment-rending stanza:

Hélas, La Palice est mort,
Il est mort devant Pavie ; 
Hélas, s’il n’était pas mort, 
Il ferait encore envie.

Alas, La Palice is dead, 
He died before Pavia; 
Alas, if he were not dead, 
He would still be envied.

Somewhere along the way fulsome became winsome — perhaps via deliberate spoof or maybe the well-known phenomenon of old-timey letter s written to look like f, transforming the verse into a comical tautology:

s’il n’etait pas mort, / Il ferait encore envie (“if he was not dead he would still be envied”)

s’il n’etait pas mort, / Il serait encore en vie (“if he was not dead he would still be alive”)

It’s thanks to this amusing misreading that the French tongue today enjoys the term lapalissade, meaning a laughably obvious truism — and in Monnoye’s composition the entirety of the lyrics consist of such jests; e.g.

Monsieur d’la Palisse is dead,
He died before Pavia,
A quarter of an hour before his death,
He was still alive.

He was, by a sad fate, 
wounded with a cruel hand.
It is believed, since he is dead,
that the wound was mortal.

Regretted by his soldiers,
he died worthy of envy;
And the day of his death
was the last day of his life.

He died on Friday,
the last day of his age;
If he had died on Saturday,
he would have lived more.

(That’s just an excerpt; the much longer full French verse is available at the song’s French Wikipedia page.)

* Ample unverifiable folklore attaches an event so memorable as the capture of a king; a site such as this is bound to note the one that reports that Francis might have been killed on the spot by rampaging foes but for the timely intercession of a young Spanish soldier named Pedro de Valdivia … who would go on to become the conquistador of Chile, and eventually an execution victim himself.

** Francis renounced the treaty as soon as he was released, on the accurate grounds that it was made under duress. In this betrayal of honor, he did his kingdom much the better turn than his distant predecessor John II had done when, captured by the English during the Hundred Years’ War, he dutifully set about extracting from his subjects the ruinous ransom and even returned voluntarily to English custody when he could not fulfill the terms of his parole.

† Another corpse at the Battle of Pavia was Richard de la Pole, Plantagenet pretender to the English throne ever since his brother had been executed back in 1513.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Habsburg Realm,History,Holy Roman Empire,Italy,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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