Posts filed under 'France'

1793: Antoine Barnave, constitutional monarchist

Add comment November 29th, 2014 Headsman

I want a hero: an uncommon want,
When every year and month sends forth a new one,
Till, after cloying the gazettes with cant,
The age discovers he is not the true one

Barnave, Brissot, Condorcet, Mirabeau,
Petion, Clootz, Danton, Marat, La Fayette
Were French, and famous people, as we know;
And there were others, scarce forgotten yet,
Joubert, Hoche Marceau, Lannes, Desaix, Moreau,
With many of the military set,
Exceedingly remarkable at times,
But not at all adapted to my rhymes.

-Lord Byron, Don Juan

On this date, French Revolution orator Antoine Barnave — a founder of the short-lived Feuillants faction — became short-lived himself courtesy of the Paris Terror.

Just one of the side courses when the Revolution devoured its own children, Barnave (English Wikipedia entry | French) was a smart young avocat in the 1780s who distinguished himself at the Parlement of Grenoble.

Avant-garde ideas like political power redistributed to reflect “the new distribution of wealth” were just the sort of revolution that a wealthy lawyer could get behind.

Duly elected at the ripe old age of 27 to France’s watershed (and last) Estates-General of 1789, Barnave was a very early member of the Jacobin Club. You know, before it was cool.

Barnave’s genteel vision of the Revolution transferring the estates of the ancien regime into the mercantile hands of his friends in the bourgeoisie fell spectacularly to pieces in 1791.

That April, Mirabeau died. He was Barnave’s great debating rival in the Jacobin Club, but both men actually represented the same fundamental persuasion: constitutional monarchy. Needless to say, this Revolution was not built to halt at that particular milepost.

Within mere weeks, almost as if the players had been awaiting the literal death of Mirabeau’s moderation, events hurtled past Barnave’s sensibilities. The desperate royal family made its ill-chosen flight to Varennes in June, and the well-regarded Barnave was one of the Constituent Assembly delegates sent to escort Louis XVI back to a Paris now boiling with republican sentiment. Did not the sovereign’s literally attempting to desert from his patrimony entail an abandonment of his station?

In perhaps the pinnacle of Barnave’s rich career in political oratory, he delivered to the National Assembly on July 15 a thundering no to that proposition, challenging his fellow delegates to choose “between attachment to the Constitution and resentment against a man.”

I ask to-day of him among you who may have conceived every kind of prepossession and the deepest and most violent resentment against the executive power — I ask him to tell us whether his anger with that power is greater than his attachment to the law of his country.

Those who would thus sacrifice the Constitution to their resentment against one man seem to me far too liable to sacrifice liberty in their enthusiasm for another; and since they love a republic, now is the time to say to them: How can you wish for a republic in a nation where you hope that the action, easily pardoned after all, of an individual who has much to plead in his justification, that the action of an individual, who though certain qualities of his are now condemned, long possessed the people’s affection — when, I say, you hoped that the deed he has done might change our Government, how was it that you were not afraid that this same variableness of the people, if once they were moved by enthusiasm for a great man, by gratitude for great deeds — because the French nation, you know it, can love much better than it can hate — would overthrow your absurd republic in one day? (Source)

Barnave, to his grief, was entirely clear on what he desired in July of 1791: “all change is fatal now; all prolongation of the Revolution is disastrous now; the real question to my thinking is this, and the national interest is bound up with it; are we going to end the Revolution, or are we going to begin it again?”

His speech carried the motion on July 15th: Louis remained king. Still, the Revolution did not exit into past tense on Barnave’s say-so, and certainly not on so insubstantial a basis as “a resolve to be peaceful, a common resolve, a drawing together.”

He had the applause of the Assembly, which printed his speech for national distribution. But tempestuous debates broke out in Jacobin clubs and other radical circles, and amid intemperate accusations of treasonable conduct by the all-change-is-fatal-now crowd there were oaths sworn never to recognize the kingship of Louis XVI.

On July 17, a huge crowd led by Georges Danton filled the Champs de Mars to petition Louis’s removal. And in response to the Jacobin Club’s announced intention to support this demonstration — which turned into a galvanizing massacre when the Marquis de Lafayette had his national guardsmen fire on the protesters — Barnave with his friends and political allies Adrien Duport and Alexandre Lameth dramatically abandoned the Jacobins and split off the rival Feuillants.

In their day, this so-called “triumvirate” had been the Jacbins’ left wing. By now, they were the the revolution’s conservatives: the monarchists against the republicans, and the guys who liked the Revolution’s existing changes just fine.

“If the Revolution takes one more step, it cannot do so without danger,” Barnave intoned in that July 15 address of his. (Source) “If it is in the direction of liberty, the first act to follow could be the destruction of royalty; if it is in the direction of equality, the first act to follow could be the violation of property … is there still to be destroyed an aristocracy other than that of property?”**

Not everyone found those one-more-steps quite so terrible to contemplate as did the the silver-tongued Grenoble barrister.


Political cartoon of the Janus-faced Barnave — the man of the people in 1789, turned the man of the royal court in 1791.

If we have the luxury from posterity to smile at the notion of the Revolution’s peacably halting itself in 1791, the Feuillants had cause in their moment to think they could pull the trick.

Their move at first dramatically weakened the Jacobins, as the ranks of moderates flocked to Barnave’s prestige and eloquence. The Paris Jacobin Club lost three-quarters of its membership almost overnight, and most of its Assembly deputies. Public sentiment, at least so well as its contemporaries could discern, veered towards Barnave as well, and he was able to finalize the long-awaited Constitution of September 1791 preserving a number of important executive powers for the king’s own person.

The period of governance under that constitution opened with an address by the king that Barnave had written for him; its first few months are the “Feuillant Ministry”. Barnave was the beleaguered royal family’s chief advisor in this period.

But the Feuillant Ministry was crumbling almost from its inception. Its supporting club was founded on abhorrence for the popular politics whose force was still being uncovered in the Revolution; Barnave wanted nothing so much as the end of such societies altogether. So while the monarchists had secretaries exchanging delegated backslaps at private confabs, the reduced Jacobins — now the most passionate rump, helpfully purged of their milquetoast liberals — redoubled themselves under the sway of men like Marat and Robespierre. Barnave’s apparent alignment with the now-constitutional monarch gave legs to the “royalist” charge that was more and more laid at his feet, and Jacobin Clubs soon began receiving as prodigals former members who had found their dalliances with the Feuillants unsatisfactory.

Barnave and his faction came under relentless siege by pamphleteers, journalists, and radical democrats. One wonders if, in the end, Barnave took some cold comfort in having seen an implacable antagonist like Brissot precede him to the guillotine when his own Girondin faction, formerly the fire-eaters, tipped over the Revolution’s starboard bulwarks.

Meanwhile, the impolitic demand emanating from Marie Antoinette’s brother, the Holy Roman Emperor that the French royal family be safeguarded put France on its way to war with Austria, an outcome entirely contrary to not taking one more revolutionary step.

The hounded Barnave retired to Grenoble in January 1792 by which time the constitution he had so diligently promulgated had already virtually ceased to function, and he himself lost influence with both the king and the Assembly. In the months to follow the war tocsin undid his fellow-constitutionalists remaining in Paris. Consigned to the sidelines, their faction was arrested as royalists after the August 10, 1792 overthrow of the Bourbons.

Barnave’s papers were inventoried for hints of treasonable correspondence with the fallen king and queen, but as the curtain had not yet raised on the Terror — and Barnave had not been deported to the prisons of the capital in time for the September Massacres — he had an uncommonly lengthy period of political imprisonment. Barnave exercised this time composing his De la Révolution et de la Constitution (later published as Introduction à la révolution française), an economic history arguing that the rise of industry and manufacturing had transferred the leading role from France’s aristocrats to her bourgeoisie.

With the onset of the Terror, he was shipped to Paris to face treason charges owing to correspondence with Marie Antoinette, where his famous oratory took its last public turn for an audience that had stopped up its ears.

Finally, citizens, I recall this to you; I might have left France in all safety. Perhaps those who still love me will have reason to lament that I did not do what was so easy for me; but, whatever happens, I shall not have to reproach myself with having challenged the judges of my country, with having cast doubts on their integrity, their justice. I shall be sacrificed perhaps, but I had rather owe my ruin to human error than have pronounced my own condemnation. I shall carry to the scaffold the same calmness which you have seen me show in the debate, and to the last moment I shall pray for the welfare of my country. (Source)

He was beheaded with four other people at the Place de la Revolution on the morning of the very next day.

French speakers might enjoy this public domain book by Jules Gabriel Janin. This post has also quoted several times from Eliza Dorothy Bradby’s 1915 English biography of the man.

* It later emerged that Mirabeau was being paid by the royalist party.

** One of the steps towards equality so troubling to Barnave had been a push among Jacobin radicals to resolve upon the emancipation of black slaves in the colonies. Fretting the loss of, e.g., the lucrative sugar revenues of Saint-Domingue (Haiti), Barnave staunchly opposed this; he was one of the leading lights of the pro-slavery Massiac Club. (French link)

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1591: Barnabe Brisson, at the hands of the Sixteen

Add comment November 15th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1591, the summary execution of Barnabe Brisson and two other French doctors of law signaled the beginning of the end of France’s Wars of Religion.

After the untimely death of Henri II in a freak jousting accident, his widow Catherine de’ Medici employed three frustrating decades shuttling the late monarch’s uninspiring offspring onto the throne only to see each in his turn die young and without issue. We are by these late years on to the last of Henri II’s sons — Henri III of France.

Actually, Henri wasn’t the last: just the last left alive. He had a younger brother, Francis, Duke of Anjou, who dropped dead in 1584 of malaria and left Henri III as the only Valois male. The heir presumptive after Henri III was his Calvinist brother-in-law Henri of Navarre. Spoiler alert: by the end of this post, Henri of Navarre is going to get there as King Henri IV.

The Catholic-vs.-Huguenot Wars of Religion had raged in France for many years but the last major installment of the bloody serial was the War of the Three Henrys: the two Henris aforesaid, plus the Duke of Guise, also named Henri — the standard-bearer of Catholic zealots.

Our present-day presumption of live-and-let-live spirituality was bequeathed from the Enlightenment only after it had been hard-won by centuries previous. In France of the 1500s, the most extreme (but by no means marginal) Catholic party saw the very existence of a Huguenot faction — and the fact that more moderate Catholic politiques were prepared to tolerate and treat with them — as an existential threat to the kingdom. Catholicism in the literal universal sense was intrinsic to France itself: if she should cease to be so, what would become of her? A 1589 pamphlet extolled what

an admirable thing [it is] to view the ardor and the devotion of everyone in France, the air resounding with prayer and processions of our youth who are purified by our prayers and by the common voice which is spread throughout this kingdom; we demonstrate that the benedictions and maledictions of a people have great effects.

With such great effects at stake, the pious ought not abide any fooling around with Providence. “If your brother, your friend, and your wife all of whom you hold dear wish to strip you of your faith,” wrote Louis D’Orleans in 1588, “kill them, cut their throats and sacrifice them to God.”*

This was a faction for whom Henri of Navarre’s prospective succession was absolutely intolerable, which makes it somewhat ironic that they themselves soon turned prospect into reality.

King Henri III was a Catholic himself, of course, and this irreconcilable Catholic League was part of what you might call his base. But though initially allied, the League’s attempts to dominate the young king led Henri III to execute a daring breakout: on December 23, 1588, he summoned the Duke of Guise to confer with him at the Chateau de Blois and there had his bodyguards murder Guise on the spot.


Just two Henries now …**

The resulting fury of the Catholic League was so great that the king soon fled Paris and made common cause with Henri of Navarre. Now the civil war was the two Henris together — and the Catholic League opposing them. We come here to our date’s principal character, Barnabe Brisson (English Wikipedia entry | French), a distinguished jurist† in the Parlement of France. While most of this chamber followed the king out of Paris, Brisson chose to remain. “The Sixteen,”‡ the council of Catholic militants who now ruled Paris with the support of a populist militia, elevated Brisson to President of the Parlement.

In 1589 the Henris besieged staunchly Catholic Paris in an attempt to bring the civil war to a close. In a classic Pyrrhic victory, the League defeated this attempt by having a priest assassinate King Henri.


… and now we’re down to the last Henri.

While this action did break the siege, and avenge the murder of Guise, it made Henri of Navarre into King Henri IV. (Told you we’d get there.) The Catholic League’s attempt to recognize the new king’s uncle, a Cardinal, as the successor went nowhere at all, and at any rate this man himself died in 1590.

This succession greatly deepened the internal tension among Paris Catholics between the uncompromising men of the Sixteen and the moderate politiques, and the latter party’s interest in finding with the legitimate king a settlement that looked increasingly inevitable. After all, were these armed commoners really going to rule Paris indefinitely?


An armed march of the Holy League in Paris in 1590. (Anonymous painting)

The situation provoked the ultras among Paris’s ruling Sixteen to more desperate measures in a vain effort to maintain control. Their faction’s own post-Guise leader among the high nobility, the Duke of Mayenne, had refused inducements to seize the crown himself or to seat a sovereign provided by the League’s Hapsburg allies. He too was visibly sliding towards an accommodation with the heretic king. (He would reach one in 1596.) In much the same camp was an establishment figure like Brisson whose staying behind in Paris during the confused situation of 1588-1589 was scarcely intended to declare that his allegiance to creed surpassed all care for order. The man was a lawyer, after all.

During Mayenne’s absence from the capital in the autumn of 1591, the Sixteen mounted a radical internal coup and attempted to purge the city’s moderates. Brisson was arrested walking to work on the morning of the 15th and subjected along with two other jurists to a sham snap trial. All three were hung by lunchtime, and per a proposal floated among the council that afternoon were the next morning fitted with denunciatory placards and displayed on gibbets at the Place de Greve.

Barnabé Brisson, a chief traitor and heretic

Claude Larcher, an instigator of treacherous politiques

Jean Tardiff, an enemy of God and of Catholic princes

Their shocking exhibition was intended to incite a “St. Barthelemy des politiques” — a St. Bartholomew’s Day-esque pogrom against the politique moderates.

But the Sixteen had badly misjudged the mood of the city. The crowd beheld the mangled corpses silently, full of horror or pity — emblematic of the turning-point France was nearing in its interminable confessional strife. Despite the Catholic League’s strength in Paris, most Parisians were losing their appetite for bloodshed. The Duke of Mayenne was back in the capital by the end of the month and underscored the coming arrangements by seizing four of the Sixteen for summary execution themselves.

Two years later, Henri IV at last took Paris in hand by making a nominal conversion to Catholicism with the legendary (alleged) remark, “Paris is worth a Mass.”§

French speakers may enjoy this 19th century pdf biography of Brisson by Alfred Giraud.

* “Du Contemnement de la mort. Discours accomode a la miserable condition de ce temps” (blockquoted section) and Replique pour le Catholique Anglois, contre le Catolique associe des Huguenots (D’Orleans quote). Both via Dalia Leonardo in “Cut off This Rotten Member”: The Rhetoric of Heresy, Sin, and Disease in the Ideology of the French Catholic League,” The Catholic Historical Review, April 2002.

** Also of interest: this 1908 silent film of the assassination of the Duc de Guise, scored by Saint-Saens.

† Brisson’s dictionary of Justinian legal terminology remained in print until 1805. He also in 1587 produced a compilation of the laws of France as Le Code du Roy Henri III.

‡ The Sixteen were delegates of Paris’s quarters, assembled by the Duke of Mayenne. For detail on the composition and internal history of The Sixteen, see J.H.M. Salmon, “The Paris Sixteen, 1584-94: The Social Analysis of a Revolutionary Movement,” The Journal of Modern History, December 1972.

§ In the end, of course, an entirely unreconciled Catholic extremist assassinated Henri IV in 1610.

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1793: Madame Roland, éminence grise

Add comment November 8th, 2014 Amelia Fedo

(Thanks to Amelia Fedo, a graduate student in French literature, for the guest post.)

On this date in 1793, Manon Roland (née Phlipon)* was guillotined as part of the Girondist purges in the Paris Terror.

As Olympe de Gouges — who preceded her to the guillotine by only a few days — observed, being a woman may have prevented her from holding political power under her own name, but it didn’t stop her from losing her own head.

Born in Paris to a bourgeois engraver, she married up through her alliance with quasi-aristocrat Jean-Marie Roland de la Platière. Twenty years her senior, he was chosen by her for his class status and intellect rather than for the love he inspired.

Ambitious from the start, Madame Roland took advantage of her husband’s (and later, her Girondin not-quite-lover François Buzot‘s) engagement in civic life to catapult herself into the role of behind-the-scenes stateswoman. She had been prepared for this role since childhood, when she had voraciously read Rousseau and Plutarch. Unlike Olympe de Gouges, she internalized the idea that women did not belong in politics — yet still she yearned to have an influence on the Republic.

And she did indeed succeed in wielding political power, with enough competence that Robespierre wanted her guillotined at least as much as her husband: everyone knew that she was the real force to be reckoned with.

Her political career was inextricably tied to her husband’s. Unable to hold political office herself, she lived vicariously through him. At first he was a bureaucrat, and she his secretary and personal assistant; but then he became involved in Parisian politics and was eventually appointed Minister of the Interior.

It was his wife who encouraged him to accept the position; for a year now she had been hosting salons frequented by a wide range of political movers and shakers, and she was itching to get in the game.

Monsieur Roland did not have a brilliant career as minister. His wife was the one with the vision and energy (the historian Lucy Moore claims that every good idea he had was hers); although devoted to Republican ideals he remained something of a milquetoast, and was attacked both by the snobby old guard (the lack of buckles on his shoes caused a scandal) and by the extreme left.

Although Madame Roland identified with Robespierre and was a good deal more radical than the Girondins (especially in her feelings about the monarchy), she and her husband were still officially associated with them. As such, they were swept up in Robespierre’s purges.

There were a few pre-Terror false alarms: a warrant was issued for Monsieur Roland’s arrest after the September Massacres, which Danton put the kibosh on; and in 1792, Madame Roland was dragged into court on trumped-up charges of corresponding with émigrés, but was able to use her oratorical skills to get herself acquitted.

When the Terror began, Monsieur Roland opted to keep his head down in the hopes of keeping it on, and resigned from his post as minister.

It was too late. In May 1793 Madame Roland was arrested again — unaccompanied by her husband, who had managed to escape into hiding.

She was subjected to a show trial like so many before and after her; although she had prepared a defense, she was not allowed to read it. Given that she was accused of “conspiring against the unity and the indivisibility of the Republic and attempting to introduce civil war,” neither her verdict nor her sentence are much of a surprise.

She was preoccupied with her husband (whom she declared would be driven to suicide by her execution), with Buzot (who was in grave danger of suffering her same fate), and with her own legacy. She seized the opportunity to be a martyr like the men she so admired — men who had been able to act in the open, rather than behind the scenes — and took advantage of the free time she had in prison to write her memoirs.

Most sources give similar accounts of her behavior before and during the execution. Content to die for her principles — or, perhaps, simply resolved to make a show of contentment — she maintained great calm and resignation in her final hours. The only favor she asked of anyone was that her childhood friend Sophie Grandchamp wait for her on the Pont-Neuf so that they could see each other when the tumbrel passed.

Influencing people up to the very end, Roland’s last political act was an attempt to impart some of her courage to the man who would share her tumbrel, a forger of assignats named Lamarche.

Lacking the sort of great social narrative that would give meaning to his death (such as a personal feud with Robespierre), Lamarche did not share Roland’s sanguine attitude; he thus found himself the recipient of a performance designed to alter his mood, consisting mostly of jokes, distractions, and modeled behavior. The events surrounding her execution have passed into legend, but various sources agree that she quipped to Lamarche after his hair was cut, “It suits you wonderfully. You have the head of a Roman.”

She also urged the executioner to leave her own hair long enough to serve as a suitable handle — for him to show her head to the crowd, of course.

As much as she detested Danton, it appears she had a few things in common with him after all.

Counterintuitively, it was considered a privilege to be guillotined first; it was merciful, the reasoning went, to kill someone before they could see others die. Roland chose to pass up this “privilege”; most attribute this to her desire to spare Lamarche the sight of her death, but Lucy Moore points out in Liberty: The Lives and Times of Six Women in Revolutionary France that she may have rejected the logic of such a “mercy” altogether and wished to live — like Madame du Barry — even a few moments longer.

After mounting the scaffold, she addressed a statue of Marianne, left over from a festival held in the Place de la Révolution; she is traditionally said to have exclaimed, “O liberty, what crimes are committed in your name!”, although a less reputable source (i.e., the apocryphal Sanson memoirs) assigns her the more prosaic last words, “Oh! Liberty, how they’ve tricked you!”

As she had predicted, her husband committed suicide two days later, falling on his sword as soon as he learned of her fate.

*This is only one of many names she has been called; Siân Reynolds explains in Marriage and Revolution: Monsieur and Madame Roland that “Manon” is a childhood name, and her adult name remains mysterious; it was either “Marie,” “Jeanne,” or “Marie-Jeanne.”

A few books about Madame Roland

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1796: Thirty Jacobins for the Affaire du camp de Grenelle

Add comment October 9th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1796, 30 Jacobins were shot by a military commission in under the French Directory for attempting to subert the army.

This final, failed enterprise of Gracchus Babeuf‘s “Conspiracy of Equals” took place months after Babeuf himself had been arrested on the eve of his envisioned revolution.

“Song of the Equals”
Babouvist popular song from 1796

For too long a wretched code
Enslaved men to men:
May the reign of the brigands fall!
Let us finally know what our condition is
Awaken to our voice
And leave the darkest night behind,
People! Take hold of your rights,
The sun shines for all.

You created us to be equal,
Nature, oh beneficent mother!
Why, in property and labors,
This murderous inequality? Awaken!

People, smash the ancient charm
Of a too lethargic slumber:
With the most terrible of awakenings
Spread alarm to grinning crime.
Lend an ear to our voice
And leave the darkest night behind.
People, take hold of your rights,
The sun shines for all.

In the uncertain aftermath of Robespierre’s fall, the interregnum of the Directory saw both royalists and republicans jockey for a restoration of their former prerogatives (and jockey against one another, of course). Babeuf’s conspiracy might have been the boldest stroke of all had it come off; instead, a projected rising for May 11, 1796 was scotched by Babeuf’s pre-emptive arrest.

But to strike the head was not to slay the movement. The economy was a mess and the political authority a rudderless, unpopular clique. The coup attempt didn’t happen but Jacobin agitation continued to mount — met in its turn by royalist agitation, the two parties dangerously hellbent for one another’s blood. The imprisoned Babeuf (he wouldn’t be guillotined until the following year) made one such focus of agitation — and eventually, of more conspiring.

Babeuf’s allies conceived a plan of swaying the regiment of dragoons then encamped on the plain of Grenelle outside of Paris. (Today, part of the 15th arrondissement.)

On the night of September 9-10, several hundred armed Jacobins assembled and descended on the camp of Grenelle — intending not to fight, but to fraternize, hoping that sympathetic soldiery could be swung to liberate Babeuf and mount a rising against the Directory. This strange and desperate episode was in the end the acme of babouvisme, and was crushed out of hand by officers of the regiment.

Most of the would-be fraternizers scattered but 132 were arrested. At snap military trials — legally questionable since most of the instigators were civilians — 33 death sentences were meted out. Three were delivered in absentia; the 30 others were all enforced by musketry on this date.

The most notable casualties among those 30 were (these are French Wikipedia links all):


More about Babeuf, “the first modern communist”, by the speaker in this lecture here.

* All three had in their day voted the death of King Louis XVI.

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1914: Seven retreating Frenchmen, with surprising results

Add comment September 7th, 2014 Headsman

One hundred years ago today, during the Battle of the Marne, seven French soldiers were shot without trial for retreating. Most of the resources about this Gallic tragedy are in French, and so are most of the links in today’s post.

The French book Fusille Vivant traces the life of Francois Waterlot, a prolific correspondent who wrote some 250 letters after surviving this date’s execution, before finally dying at the front the following year.

All were enlistees of France’s 327th Infantry Regiment. On the night of September 6, German shelling panicked their sister 270th Regiment into a disorderly retreat away from the front lines. That rout ran right into the 327th, behind them, and panicked that regiment too.

Further in the army’s rear, by the hubbub awoke from his farmhouse bivouac division commander Gen. Rene Boutegourd. Boutegard had a simple solution, and ordered seven of the soldiers caught away from their posts to be executed the next morning by way of example. While the war’s later years would feature notoriously unfair courts-martial with predetermined sentences, Gen. Boutegourd didn’t even see the need to pay that much tribute to procedural regularity in this case.

The Battle of the Marne was still ongoing, and the situation in the field, pre-trench warfare, was fluid. Shoot them out of hand and be done with it! Then, the rest of the division will understand the consequences of unauthorized retreat.

Barbieux, Caffiaux, Clement, Delsarte, Dufour, Hubert, and Watrelot were stupefied to learn that they suddenly had mere hours left to live.

According to a postwar newspaper article — printed in 1922, when the bizarre case came to public attention and led to a posthumous pardon — they immediately began pleading for their lives. “Put us in the first wave of the next attack, but I beg you not to subject us to French balls,” Delsarte cried.

In those opening weeks of what was supposed to be a short war, with men’s minds still half at home in the pleasurable prewar idyll, the cruel frequency of the execution pour l’exemple had not yet set its stamp on things. The first such instance had occurred only the week before.

Maybe the men detailed to kill the “deserters” were equally stunned: it is hard to put down the results of the shootings merely to the uncertainties of technology or the hardiness of flesh and bone.

Palmyr Clement survived the fusillade and only died two agonizing days later from his firing squad injuries. This is a bizarre outcome even for those occasional cases where a fellow survives the scaffold. Implicit in such a fate is that there was no coup de grace administered after the volley. Is this oversight intentional — even an expression of distaste for the justice of the sentence soldiers had been tasked with visiting on their comrades?

And could distaste extend so far as an intentional or an indifferent failure of marksmanship by the firing details?

Such doubtful speculation can point to Francois Waterlot, who did Clement one better: he survived the execution full stop (dropping to the ground with the volley even though he was actually uninjured) and returned to the ranks, dying in battle on June 10, 1915. This uncommon feat earned him the nickname “le fusillé vivant”, “the shot alive” (somewhat literally) or “the living corpse” (more to the sense of it). That sobriquet is the title of a French book about Waterlot.

France executed about 600 of her own soldiers during World War I, the second-most (to Italy) of all belligerents in that conflagration. There is a great deal about this particular execution on this French page.

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1806: Johann Philipp Palm, press martyr

Add comment August 26th, 2014 Headsman

Nuremberg bookseller Johann Philipp Palm was shot on this date in 1806 for publishing a manifesto against the French occupation.

For centuries a proud Free Imperial City, Nuremberg had over the few months preceding Palm’s martyrdom been smushed up by the conquering Grande Armee into an amalgamated French client, the Confederation of the Rhine.

This was a huge political shakeup. Even the Empire of which Nuremberg had been a Free Imperial City was no more: the 854-year-old Holy Roman Empire was dissolved in 1806, a casualty of the Battle of Austerlitz. At just 25,000 residents and far removed from its mercantile preeminence of yesteryear,* Nuremberg wasn’t even one of the Confederation of the Rhine’s 16 constituent polities: it had been rolled up into Bavaria, in a partial cleanup of the tiny Kleinstaaten pocking the old German map.

Nuremberg’s prostration in this arrangement mirrored Germany’s as a whole vis-a-vis the Corsican. Napoleon was the official “protector” of the Confederation of the Rhine, and its end of the protection racket entailed shipping conscripts to the French army.

The Confederation of the Rhine ultimately included four kingdoms, five grand duchies, 13 duchies, 17 principalities, and the Free Hansa towns of Hamburg, Lübeck, and Bremen, and covered much of the territory of present-day Germany (sans Prussia). For some odd reason, Germans whose dreams of national unification were beginning to stir weren’t too enthusiastic about having it marshaled by France.

In July of 1806, Palm gave voice to the sentiment by publishing a 144-page treatise, Germany in its Deep Humiliation. The identity of the seditious author(s) he resolutely kept secret, but it’s attributed now to Count Friedrich Julius Heinrich von Soden.

Palm had the fortune or sense to be safely away in Prussia by the time irate Frenchmen raided his shop, but was caught after he boldly slipped back into the city against all sensible advice. He was transferred to a fortress at Braunau am Inn, and shot there.

His death made him an early national martyr (“involuntary hero”, in the words of a 2006 Braunau bicentennial remembrance), and his name is still preserved on a variety of streets in German cities. In Palm’s native Schorndorf, the Palm Pharmacy building sports plaques honoring the martyr. And a Palm Foundation awards, every two years, a Johann Philipp Palm Prize journalism prize. It’s announced on this date, each even-numbered year. (Update: Salijon Abdurakhmanov of Uzbekistan and Nazikha Saeed of Bahrain received the 2014 Palm awards.)

A publishing house, Palm und Enke, actually founded post-Napoleon by the uncle under whom our Johann Palm completed his apprenticeship, still exists today. (It is no longer in the control of any Palm relative, however.)

* Back when being the executioner of Nuremberg was a plum assignment.

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1877: Leon Vitalis, inamorato

2 comments August 17th, 2014 Harry Brodribb Irving

(Thanks to Harry Brodribb Irving for the guest post, originally published in his Book of Remarkable Criminals. Some formatting has been adjusted for readability. -ed.)

In the May of 1874, in the town of Montpellier, M. Boyer, a retired merchant, some forty-six years of age, lay dying. For some months previous to his death he had been confined to his bed, crippled by rheumatic gout. As the hour of his death drew near, M. Boyer was filled with a great longing to see his daughter, Marie, a girl of fifteen, and embrace her for the last time. The girl was being educated in a convent at Marseilles. One of M. Boyer’s friends offered to go there to fetch her. On arriving at the convent, he was told that Marie had become greatly attracted by the prospect of a religious life. “You are happy,” the Mother Superior had written to her mother, “very happy never to have allowed the impure breath of the world to have soiled this little flower. She loves you and her father more than one can say.”

Her father’s friend found the girl dressed in the costume of a novice, and was told that she had expressed her desire to take, one day, her final vows. He informed Marie of her father’s dying state, of his earnest wish to see her for the last time, and told her that he had come to take her to his bedside. “Take me away from here?” she exclaimed. The Mother Superior, surprised at her apparent reluctance to go, impressed on her the duty of acceding to her father’s wish. To the astonishment of both, Marie refused to leave the convent. If she could save her father’s life, she said, she would go, but, as that was impossible and she dreaded going out into the world again, she would stay and pray for her father in the chapel of the convent, where her prayers would be quite as effective as by his bedside. In vain the friend and the Mother Superior tried to bend her resolution.

Happily M. Boyer died before he could learn of his daughter’s singular refusal. But it had made an unfavourable impression on the friend’s mind. He looked on Marie as a girl without real feeling, an egoist, her religion purely superficial, hiding a cold and selfish disposition; he felt some doubt as to the future development of her character.

M. Boyer left a widow, a dark handsome woman, forty years of age.

Some twenty years before his death, Marie Salat had come to live with M. Boyer as a domestic servant. He fell in love with her, she became his mistress, and a few months before the birth of Marie, M. Boyer made her his wife. Madame Boyer was at heart a woman of ardent and voluptuous passions that only wanted opportunity to become careless in their gratification. Her husband’s long illness gave her such an opportunity. At the time of his death she was carrying on an intrigue with a bookseller’s assistant, Leon Vitalis, a young man of twenty-one. Her bed-ridden husband, ignorant of her infidelity, accepted gratefully the help of Vitalis, whom his wife described as a relative, in the regulation of his affairs. At length the unsuspecting Boyer died. The night of his death Madame Boyer spent with her lover.

The mother had never felt any great affection for her only child.

During her husband’s lifetime she was glad to have Marie out of the way at the convent. But the death of M. Boyer changed the situation. He had left almost the whole of his fortune, about 100,000 francs, to his daughter, appointing her mother her legal guardian with a right to the enjoyment of the income on the capital until Marie should come of age. Madame Boyer had not hitherto taken her daughter’s religious devotion very seriously. But now that the greater part of her husband’s fortune was left to Marie, she realised that, should her daughter persist in her intention of taking the veil, that fortune would in a very few years pass into the hands of the sisterhood. Without delay Madame Boyer exercised her authority, and withdrew Marie from the convent. The girl quitted it with every demonstration of genuine regret.

Marie Boyer when she left the convent was growing into a tall and attractive woman, her figure slight and elegant, her hair and eyes dark, dainty and charming in her manner. Removed from the influences of convent life, her religious devotion became a thing of the past. In her new surroundings she gave herself up to the enjoyments of music and the theatre. She realised that she was a pretty girl, whose beauty well repaid the hours she now spent in the adornment of her person.

The charms of Marie were not lost on Leon Vitalis.

Mean and significant in appearance, Vitalis would seem to have been one of those men who, without any great physical recommendation, have the knack of making themselves attractive to women. After her husband’s death Madame Boyer had yielded herself completely to his influence and her own undoubted passion for him. She had given him the money with which to purchase a business of his own as a second-hand bookseller. This trade the enterprising and greedy young man combined with money-lending and he clandestine sale of improper books and photographs.

To such a man the coming of Marie Boyer was a significant event. She was younger, more attractive than her mother; in a very few years the whole of her father’s fortune would be hers. Slowly Vitalis set himself to win the girl’s affections. The mother’s suspicions were aroused; her jealousy was excited. She sent Marie to complete her education at a convent school in Lyons. This was in the April of 1875. By this time Marie and Vitalis had become friendly enough to arrange to correspond clandestinely during the girl’s absence from home. Marie was so far ignorant of the relations of Vitalis with her mother.

Her daughter sent away, Madame Boyer surrendered herself with complete abandonment to her passion for her lover. At Castelnau, close to Montpellier, she bought a small country house. There she could give full rein to her desire.

To the scandal of the occasional passer-by she and her lover would bathe in a stream that passed through the property, and sport together on the grass. Indoors there were always books from Vitalis’ collection to stimulate their lascivious appetites. This life of pastoral impropriety lasted until the middle of August, when Marie Boyer came home from Lyons.

Vitalis would have concealed from the young girl as long as he could the nature of his relations with Madame Boyer, but his mistress by her own deliberate conduct made all concealment impossible. Whether from the utter recklessness of her passion for Vitalis, or a desire to kill in her daughter’s heart any attachment which she may have felt towards her lover, the mother paraded openly before her daughter the intimacy of her relations with Vitalis, and with the help of the literature with which the young bookseller supplied her, set about corrupting her child’s mind to her own depraved level.

The effect of her extraordinary conduct was, however, the opposite to what she had intended. The mind of the young girl was corrupted; she was familiarised with vice. But in her heart she did not blame Vitalis for what she saw and suffered; she pitied, she excused him. It was her mother whom she grew to hate, with a hate all the more determined for the cold passionless exterior beneath which it was concealed.

Madame Boyer’s deliberate display of her passion for Vitalis served only to aggravate and intensify in Marie Boyer an unnatural jealousy that was fast growing up between mother and daughter.

Marie did not return to the school at Lyons. In the winter of 1875, Madame Boyer gave up the country house and, with her daughter, settled in one of the suburbs of Montpellier. In the January of 1876 a theft occurred in her household which obliged Madame Boyer to communicate with the police. Spendthrift and incompetent in the management of her affairs, she was hoarding and suspicious about money itself. Cash and bonds she would hide away in unexpected places, such as books, dresses, even a soup tureen.

One of her most ingenious hiding places was a portrait of her late husband, behind which she concealed some bearer bonds in landed security, amounting to about 11,000 francs. One day in January these bonds disappeared. She suspected a theft, and informed the police. Three days later she withdrew her complaint, and no more was heard of the matter. As Marie and Vitalis were the only persons who could have known her secret, the inference is obvious.

When, later in the year, Vitalis announced his intention of going to Paris on business, his mistress expressed to him the hope that he would “have a good time” with her bonds. Vitalis left for Paris. But there was now a distinct understanding between Marie and himself. Vitalis had declared himself her lover and asked her to marry him. The following letter, written to him by Marie Boyer in the October of 1876, shows her attitude toward his proposal:

I thank you very sincerely for your letter, which has given me very great-pleasure, because it tells me that you are well. It sets my mind at rest, for my feelings towards you are the same as ever. I don’t say they are those of love, for I don’t know myself; I don’t know what such feelings are. But I feel a real affection for you which may well turn to love. How should I not hold in affectionate remembrance one who has done everything for me? But love does not come to order. So I can’t and don’t wish to give any positive answer about our marriage — all depends on circumstances. I don’t want any promise from you, I want you to be as free as I am. I am not fickle, you know me well enough for that. So don’t ask me to give you any promise. You may find my letter a little cold. But I know too much of life to pledge myself lightly. I assure you I think on it often. Sometimes I blush when I think what marriage means.

Madame Boyer, displeased at the theft, had let her lover go without any great reluctance. No sooner had he gone than she began to miss him. Life seemed dull without him. Mother and daughter were united at least in their common regret at the absence of the young bookseller.

To vary the monotony of existence, to find if possible a husband for her daughter, Madame Boyer decided to leave Montpellier for Marseilles, and there start some kind of business. The daughter, who foresaw greater amusement and pleasure in the life of a large city, assented willingly. On October 6, 1876, they arrived at Marseilles, and soon after Madame bought at a price considerably higher than their value, two shops adjoining one another in the Rue de la Republique. One was a cheese shop, the other a milliner’s.

The mother arranged that she should look after the cheese shop, while her daughter presided over the milliner’s. The two shops were next door to one another. Behind the milliner’s was a drawing-room, behind the cheese shop a kitchen; these two rooms communicated with each other by a large dark room at the back of the building. In the kitchen was a trap-door leading to a cellar. The two women shared a bedroom in an adjoining house.

Vitalis had opposed the scheme of his mistress to start shop-keeping in Marseilles. He knew how unfitted she was to undertake a business of any kind. But neither mother nor daughter would relinquish the plan. It remained therefore to make the best of it.

Vitalis saw that he must get the business into his own hands; and to do that, to obtain full control of Madame Boyer’s affairs, he must continue to play the lover to her. To the satisfaction of the two women, he announced his intention of coming to Marseilles in the New Year of 1877. It was arranged that he should pass as a nephew of Madame Boyer, the cousin of Marie. He arrived at Marseilles on January 1, and received a cordial welcome.

Of the domestic arrangements that ensued, it is sufficient to say that they were calculated to whet the jealousy and inflame the hatred that Marie felt towards her mother, who now persisted as before in parading before her daughter the intimacy of her relations with Vitalis.

In these circumstances Vitalis succeeded in extracting from his mistress a power of attorney, giving him authority to deal with her affairs and sell the two businesses, which were turning out unprofitable. This done, he told Marie, whose growing attachment to him, strange as it may seem, had turned to love, that now at last they could be free. He would sell the two shops, and with the money released by the sale they could go away together.

Suddenly Madame Boyer fell ill, and was confined to her bed. Left to themselves, the growing passion of Marie Boyer for Vitalis culminated in her surrender. But for the sick mother the happiness of the lovers was complete. If only her illness were more serious, more likely to be fatal in its result! “If only God would take her!” said Vitalis. “Yes,” replied her daughter, “she has caused us so much suffering!”

To Madame Boyer her illness had brought hours of torment, and at last remorse.

She realised the duplicity of her lover, she knew that he meant to desert her for her daughter, she saw what wrong she had done that daughter, she suspected even that Marie and Vitalis were poisoning her. Irreligious till now, her thoughts turned to religion. As soon as she could leave her bed she would go to Mass and make atonement for her sin; she would recover her power of attorney, get rid of Vitalis for good and all, and send her daughter back to a convent.

But it was too late. Nemesis was swift to overtake the hapless woman. Try as he might, Vitalis had found it impossible to sell the shops at anything but a worthless figure. He had no money of his own, with which to take Marie away. He knew that her mother had resolved on his instant dismissal.

As soon as Madame Boyer was recovered sufficiently to leave her bed, she turned on her former lover, denounced his treachery, accused him of robbing and swindling her, and bade him go without delay.

To Vitalis dismissal meant ruin, to Marie it meant the loss of her lover. During her illness the two young people had wished Madame Boyer dead, but she had recovered. Providence or Nature having refused to assist Vitalis, he resolved to fall back on art. He gave up a whole night’s rest to the consideration of the question.

As a result of his deliberations he suggested to the girl of seventeen the murder of her mother. “This must end,” said Vitalis. “Yes, it must,” replied Marie. Vitalis asked her if she had any objection to such a crime. Marie hesitated, the victim was her mother. Vitalis reminded her what sort of a mother she had been to her. The girl said that she was terrified at the sight of blood; Vitalis promised that her mother should be strangled. At length Marie consented. That night on some slight pretext Madame Boyer broke out into violent reproaches against her daughter. She little knew that every reproach she uttered served only to harden in her daughter’s heart her unnatural resolve.

On the morning of March 19 Madame Boyer rose early to go to Mass.

Before she went out, she reminded Vitalis that this was his last day in her service, that when she returned she would expect to find him gone.

It was after seven when she left the house. The lovers had no time to lose; the deed must be done immediately on the mother’s return. They arranged that Vitalis should get rid of the shop-boy, and that, as soon as he had gone, Marie should shut and lock the front doors of the two shops.

At one o’clock Madame Boyer came back. She expressed her astonishment and disgust that Vitalis still lingered, and threatened to send for the police to turn him out. Vitalis told the shop-boy that he could go away for a few hours; they had some family affairs to settle. The boy departed. Madame Boyer, tired after her long morning in the town, was resting on a sofa in the sitting-room, at the back of the milliner’s shop. Vitalis entered the room, and after a few heated words, struck her a violent blow in the chest. She fell back on the sofa, calling to her daughter to come to her assistance. The daughter sought to drown her mother’s cries by banging the doors, and opening and shutting drawers. Vitalis, who was now trying to throttle his victim, called to Marie to shut the front doors of the two shops.

To do so Marie had to pass through the sitting-room, and was a witness to the unsuccessful efforts of Vitalis to strangle her mother. Having closed the doors, she retired into the milliner’s shop to await the issue. After a few moments her lover called to her for the large cheese knife; he had caught up a kitchen knife, but in his struggles it had slipped from his grasp. Quickly Marie fetched the knife and returned to the sitting-room.

There a desperate struggle was taking place between the man and woman. At one moment it seemed as if Madame Boyer would get the better of Vitalis, whom nature had not endowed greatly for work of this kind. Marie came to his aid. She kicked and beat her mother, until at last the wretched creature released her hold and sank back exhausted. With the cheese knife, which her daughter had fetched, Vitalis killed Madame Boyer.

They were murderers now, the young lovers. What to do with the body? The boy would be coming back soon. The cellar under the kitchen seemed the obvious place of concealment. With the help of a cord the body was lowered into the cellar, and Marie washed the floor of the sitting-room. The boy came back. He asked where Madame Boyer was. Vitalis told him that she was getting ready to return to Montpellier the same evening, and that he had arranged to go with her, but that he had no intention of doing so; he would accompany her to the station, he said, and then at the last moment, just as the train was starting, slip away and let her go on her journey alone. To the boy, who knew enough of the inner history of the household to enjoy the piquancy of the situation, such a trick seemed quite amusing. He went away picturing in his mind the scene at the railway station and its humorous possibilities.

At seven o’clock Vitalis and Marie Boyer were alone once more with the murdered woman. They had the whole night before them.

Vitalis had already considered the matter of the disposal of the body. He had bought a pick and spade. He intended to bury his former mistress in the soil under the cellar. After that had been done, he and Marie would sell the business for what it would fetch, and go to Brussels — an admirable plan, which two unforeseen circumstances defeated. The Rue de la Republique was built on a rock, blasted out for the purpose. The shop-boy had gone to the station that evening to enjoy the joke which, he believed, was to be played on his mistress.

When Vitalis tried to dig a grave into the ground beneath the cellar he realised the full horror of the disappointment. What was to be done? They must throw the body into the sea. But how to get it there?

The crime of Billoir, an old soldier, who the year before in Paris had killed his mistress in a fit of anger and cut up her body, was fresh in the recollection of Vitalis. The guilty couple decided to dismember the body of Madame Boyer and so disfigure her face as to render it unrecognisable. In the presence of Marie, Vitalis did this, and the two lovers set out at midnight to discover some place convenient for the reception of the remains. They found the harbour too busy for their purpose, and decided to wait until the morrow, when they would go farther afield. They returned home and retired for the night, occupying the bed in which Madame Boyer had slept the night before.

On the morning of the 20th the lovers rose early, and a curious neighbour, looking through the keyhole, saw them counting joyously money and valuables, as they took them from Madame Boyer’s cash-box. When the shop-boy arrived, he asked Vitalis for news of Madame Boyer. Vitalis told him that he had gone with her to the station, that she had taken the train to Montpellier, and that, in accordance with his plan, he had given her the slip just as the train was starting. This the boy knew to be false: he had been to the station himself to enjoy the fun, and had seen neither Vitalis nor Madame Boyer. He began to suspect some mystery.

In the evening, when the shops had been closed, and he had been sent about his business, he waited and watched. In a short time he saw Vitalis and Marie Boyer leave the house, the former dragging a hand-cart containing two large parcels, while Marie walked by his side. They travelled some distance with their burden, leaving the city behind them, hoping to find some deserted spot along the coast where they could conceal the evidence of their crime. Their nerves were shaken by meeting with a custom-house officer, who asked them what it was they had in the cart. Vitalis answered that it was a traveller’s luggage, and the officer let them pass on. But soon after, afraid to risk another such experience, the guilty couple turned out the parcels into a ditch, covered them with stones and sand, and hurried home.

The next day, the shop-boy and the inquisitive neighbour having consulted together, went to the Commissary of Police and told him of the mysterious disappearance of Madame Boyer. The Commissary promised to investigate the matter, and had just dismissed his informants when word was brought to him of the discovery, in a ditch outside Marseilles, of two parcels containing human remains. He called back the boy and took him to view the body at the Morgue. The boy was able, by the clothes, to identify the body as that of his late mistress.

The Commissary went straight to the shops in the Rue de la Republique, where he found the young lovers preparing for flight. At first they denied all knowledge of the crime, and said that Madame Boyer had gone to Montpellier. They were arrested, and it was not long before they both confessed their guilt to the examining magistrate.

Vitalis and Marie Boyer were tried before the Assize Court at Aix on July 2, 1877. Vitalis is described as mean and insignificant in appearance, thin, round-backed, of a bilious complexion; Marie Boyer as a pretty, dark girl, her features cold in expression, dainty and elegant. At her trial she seemed to be still so greatly under the influence of Vitalis that during her interrogatory the President sent him out of court. To the examining magistrate Marie Boyer, in describing her mother’s murder, had written, “I cannot think how I came to take part in it. I, who wouldn’t have stayed in the presence of a corpse for all the money in the world.”

Vitalis was condemned to death, and was executed on August 17. He died fearful and penitent, acknowledging his miserable career to be a warning to misguided youth. Extenuating circumstances were accorded to Marie Boyer, and she was sentenced to penal servitude for life. Her conduct in prison was so repentant and exemplary that she was released in 1892.

M. [Louis] Proal, a distinguished French judge, and the author of some important works on crime, acted as the examining magistrate in the case of Vitalis and Marie Boyer. He thus sums up his impression of the two criminals:

Here is an instance of how greed and baseness on the one side, lust and jealousy on the other, bring about by degrees a change in the characters of criminals, and, after some hesitation, the suggestion and accomplishment of parricide, Is it necessary to seek an explanation of the crime in any psychic abnormality which is negatived to all appearances by the antecedents of the guilty pair? Is it necessary to ask it of anatomy or physiology? Is not the crime the result of moral degradation gradually asserting itself in two individuals, whose moral and intellectual faculties are the same as those of other men, but who fall, step by step, into vice and crime? It is by a succession of wrongful acts that a man first reaches the frontier of crime and then at length crosses it.

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1548: Seraphin d’Argences

Add comment August 1st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1548, the Calvinist evangelist Robert de Lievre — better known by his nom de prosélytisme Seraphin d’Argences, or as Antoine Deschamps — was burned at Paris’s Place Maubert.

According to their hagiographies, the martyrs’ steadiness caused their assigned Catholic hector Francois Le Picart to lay off the browbeating and comfort them in their last pains.

This neat trick was achieved by the dread Chambre Ardente, really earning its name in this instance, which wanted the example made of this itinerant preacher to match the scope of his roving heresy. Seraphin d’Argences had even had the temerity to administer reformed Lord’s Suppers, leading the judgment against them to cite not only the obvious heresy stuff but “acts repugnant to the holy Catholic faith and the sight of the Holy Church, outraging the Blessed Sacrament of the altar.”

The show began with the minister’s collaborators, Jean Thuillier, Michel Mareschal and Jean Camus, piled into a cart for the ride to the stakes. Seraphin d’Argences trailed right behind them, drug on a sledge pulled by the tumbril.

At the Place Maubert, they all burned the same, but the heresiarch’s stake was consciously elevated above the other three — a sure nod to the developing age of spectacular capital punishment.

Following his bodily execution, Seraphin d’Argences was re-executed in effigy in various towns where he had been active: Langres, Sens, Blois, Bourges, Angers, and others all hosted ceremonial “executions” of lifelike likenesses of the lifeless schismatic.

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1817: Two-fifths of the condemned in Valenciennes

Add comment July 3rd, 2014 Headsman

From the York Herald and General Advertiser (York, England) of Saturday, Aug. 16, 1817.

Five English soldiers being on guard, the 18th of June last, at one of the gates of Valenciennes, committed a robbery on the house of an individual, and were condemned to be hanged. They were conducted, by the orders of Lord Wellington, on the 3d of July, outside the walls of the town, to undergo their punishment.

The people followed the culprits, invoking, in accents of sorrow, the pity of their officers, and crying “Mercy! Mercy!”

Two of them were executed, and the other three received their pardon at the very moment they were about to part with life. At this news the joy of the numerous spectators was extreme, and the thanks they addressed to the English General were no doubt less eloquent than the joy from which they emanated.

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1413: Pierre des Essarts

Add comment July 1st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1413, France’s treasurer Pierre des Essarts was beheaded and gibbeted on Montfaucon.

The backdrop for this disorderly drumhead execution is a popular rebellion of Parisian artisans and laborers. Known as the Cabochien Revolt after one of its leaders, the butcher Simon Caboche (“Simon the Skinner”), it dovetailed with an intra-French civil war pitting Armagnacs against Burgundians.


Armagnac vs. Burgundy. (Rimshot.)

With the mentally incapacitated Charles VI on the French throne, de facto executive power on the regency council that called the shots in his stead was violently contested by these rival factions.

The Burgundian Duke John the Fearless mounted a systematic push to nail down ultimate say-so in the French government. Were there electoral maps in Hundred Years’ War France — for this civil conflict took place even while English armies were ravaging the countryside — Paris would have been colored wine-red: mercantile Burgundy, whose territories ran up to the trade-happy Low Countries, espoused the more urban economic outlook and favored constraining the king’s own prerogatives — both going interests for Parisian burghers. John the Fearless won popularity proposing those old political chestnuts for the City of Light: tax abatement paid for by reeling in waste and corruption. By contrast, “Armagnac” branded the feudal and royalist party, led by Charles, Duke of Orleans.*

This volatile solution went bang when the Cabochiens rose in Paris a few days after Easter, trapping the king in the city. Though they had some sympatico with the Burgundians, John the Fearless’s attitude towards the Cabochiens is difficult to state with certainty — somewhere between outright conniving with them, and using his popular esteem to rein in the mob. Either way, backlash against the Cabochiens would redound to the favor of the Armagnacs — Backlash against things like hanging the provost on Montfaucon.

Pierre des Essarts had actually been elevated to his post by John the Fearless himself, after the latter took Paris in hand 1409 and executed a previous royal chamberlain, Jean de Montaigu. The Cabochiens, however, besieged him in the Bastille and finally drug him out to prison.

“Many Parisians, who in the previous year had shown great attachment to [Pierre des Essarts] … then changed their minds, which I do not understand,” one chronicler complained (Source). “One cannot explain this love of change, which always torments the capricious rabble. They became deeply resentful of him, harboured a mortal hatred of him, and demanded that another provost replace him.” (According to Karen Green’s introductory essay on the remarkable author Christine Pizan, an observer to these events, it was des Essarts’s willingness to cooperate with Armagnac factors charging peculation on the part of Burgundians that made him a target for his former allies.)

Though they amount to just a blip historically, the Cabochiens for a few months in 1413 stalked elites’ nightmares like the Jacobins would later do. That May, a mob barged into the royal palace of St. Paul and arrested the queen’s brother, adding him to several dozen crammed into prison on their say-so, and eventually having des Essarts’s head on a pike.

And just in time. By August, the wealthier part of the Cabochien movement had been bought off with some reforms, leaving the remnants ripe for smashing — and John the Fearless, popularity waning, ready to abandon Paris to the Armagnacs.

* The Armagnac name arrived via the Duke of Orleans’s marriage to the daughter of the Count of Armagnac. As Orleans was a mere strapling at this point (having inherited young because Burgundy assassinated his father), Armagnac guided the policy.

A few years on from the narrative in this post, Orleans would be captured at the Battle of Agincourt and spend a quarter-century as an English prisoner. Since he had plenty of time to kill, he made his name during his relaxed captivity as a poet. Whatever ravages he might have committed in service of civil strife in his youth, probably none lies heavier on his soul than launching the industry of Valentine’s Day schlock.

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Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!


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