On this date in 1882, George Henry Lamson was hanged at England’s Wandsworth Prison for poisoning his brother-in-law in pursuit of an inheritance.
Once decorated for his volunteer medical practicioning in the benighted lands of eastern Europe, Dr. Lamson fell prey upon his return to England to morphine addiction which cleaned out his assets.
Desperate to resolve his debts, he administered a lethal aconitine dose to the paraplegic 18-year-old Percy John.
Apparently, the good doctor had learned all about this efficacious chemical at the knee of Queen Victoria’s own physician, Robert Christison.
Unfortunately, Lamson hadn’t been keeping up with his technical journals in the meantime: Christison had taught him that aconitine poisoning was undetectable, but a forensic technique to identify it had subsequently been developed.
(Minor-league milestone: Lamson’s was the first recorded criminal defense that attempted to blame ptomaine poisoning, a now-discredited theory that death can be induced by alkaloid toxins from decomposing food. But the lawyer making that defense would later write that he not only believed his client guilty, he also thought Lamson had iced his wife’s older brother, Herbert.)
The particulars of Lamson’s trial are recounted at length in this free book, from which we excerpt the interesting description of executioner William Marwood’s craft in arranging the scene.
Lamson was a more powerfully built man than he appeared, weighing upwards of 11 stone 12 Ibs., and the executioner, evidently fearing that hie strength would operate somewhat against a sharp and quick fall, fastened back his shoulders in a manner which precluded all possibility of the culprit resisting the action of the drop …
When the convict was pinioned the procession moved on, the clergyman the meanwhile reading the service of the Church appointed for the burial of the dead, the doomed man respondnig almost inaudibly to the words as they were uttered by the chaplain. It was with great difficulty now that he could walk at all; indeed, it is certain that had he not been supported by the two warders who stood on either side of him, he would have fallen to the earth. Suddenly he came in sight of the gallows, a black structure, about 30 yards distant. The grave, newly dug, was close at hand. The new and terrible spectacle here acted once more with painful effect upon the condemned man, for again he almost halted and fell. But the warders, never leaving hold of him, moved on, while Marwood came behind. At last the gallows was reached, and here the clergyman bade farewell to the prisoner, while Marwood began his preparations with the rope and the beam overhead. With a view to meet any accretion of fear which might now befall the culprit, a wise provision had been made. The drop was so arranged as to part in the middle, after the fashion of two folding doors ; but, lest the doomed man might not be able to stand upon the scaffold without assistance, two planks of deal had been placed over the drop, one on either side of the rope, so that up to the latest moment the two warders supporting the convict might stand securely and hold him up, without danger to themselves or inconvenience to the machinery of the gallows. In this way Lamson was now kept erect while Marwood fastened his legs and put the cap over his eyes. He must have fallen had the arrangement been otherwise, for his effort to appear composed had by this time failed. Indeed, from what now occurred it is evident that the convict yet hoped for a few moments more of life, for, as Marwood proceeded to pull the cap down over his face he pitifully begged that one more prayer might be recited by the chaplain. Willing as the executioner possibly might have been to listen to this request, he had, of course, no power to alter the progress of the service, and was obliged to disregard this last demand of the dying man. Signalling to the warders to withdraw their arms, he drew the lever, which released the bolt under the drop, and so launched the prisoner into eternity, [the] clergyman finished the Lord’s Prayer, in the midst of which he found himself when the lever had been pulled, and then, pronouncing the benediction, moved slowly back to the prison.
Though aconitine poisoning dates back to antiquity (the Greeks figured that the original dog from hell, Cerberus, drooled aconitine) and has been used as a literary device by Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, and J.K. Rowling, Dr. Lamson’s was long the last known case of criminal homicide by aconitine — until the 2009 conviction of a west London woman for slipping this illustrious mickey to her paramour in his chicken curry.
On this date in 1865, Henry Wirz was hanged in Washington, D.C. for running a notorious Confederate prison camp.
A Swiss-born doctor (“Henrich” was the real handle) whom time and tide found practicing in Louisiana at the onset of the Civil War, Wirz apparently got into the prison-guarding ranks when a war injury left him unfit for the front lines.
But it was front-line fitness in the northern army that would set the scene for his controversial hanging.
[Grant] said that I would agree with him that by the exchange of prisoners we get no men fit to go into our army, and every soldier we gave the Confederates went immediately into theirs, so that the exchange was virtually so much aid to them and none to us.
As designed, then, the South began piling up more and more POWs to maintain with its ever-straitened resources late in the war. And if exchange was out, that really only left one form of “release”.
Andersonville — officially, Camp Sumter, located near the tiny Georgia town of Andersonville — was only established in 1864, but acquired considerable notoriety in northern propaganda for the year and change that Wirz ran it. The prisoners didn’t enjoy it much, either.
Wuld that I was an artist & had the material to paint this camp & all its horors or the tounge of some eloquent Statesman and had the privleage of expresing my mind to our hon. rulers at Washington, I should gloery to describe this hell on earth where it takes 7 of its ocupiants to make a shadow.
Out of some 45,000 prisoners held at Andersonville during its existence (not all at one time), nearly 13,000 succumbed to disease and malnutrition.* After the war, photos of wasted survivors inflamed (northern) public opinion, already tetchy over Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Walt Whitman wrote of Andersonville,
There are deeds, crimes that may be forgiven but this is not among them. It steeps its perpetrators in blackest, escapeless, endless damnation.
Damnation is up to higher powers, of course, but the North wanted somebody to answer for Andersonville on this mortal coil. Lincoln’s successor Andrew Johnson overruled mooted charges against Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his Secretary of War James Seddon, leaving — in that great American tradition — Heinrich Wirz holding the bag.**
The trial had an undeniable aspect of victor’s justice.† Even at the gallows, the Union guards chanted, “Wirz, remember Andersonville!” as the condemned man was readied for the noose, and then dropped. The hanging failed to break the man’s neck, and he strangled as the chant continued.
So long as Southern leaders continue to distort history (and rekindle embers in order to make the opportunity for distorting it), so long will there rise up defenders of the truth of history … To deny the horrors of Andersonville is to deny there was a rebellion. Both are historic facts placed beyond the realm of doubt.
But of course, it does not require denying the horrors of Andersonville to notice the circumstances — the privation of the entire South late in the war — and to wonder that Wirz and Wirz alone was held to account. Plenty of people think he got a bum rap.
Pro-Wirz marker in Andersonville, Ga. (Click for easier-on-the-eyes version, reading in part, “Had he been an angel from heaven, he could not have changed the pitiful tale of privation and hunger unless he had possessed the power to repeat the miracle of the loaves and fishes”). (cc) image from Mark D L.
Recommended for general reading: the UMKC Famous Trials page on this case, several of whose pages have been linked in this entry. A number of nineteenth-century texts by (or citing) Andersonville survivors are available from Google books, including:
Since this is a controversy of the Civil War — and one that can be engaged without having to get into that whole slavery thing — there have been thousands of published pages written about it, with many more sure to come in future years.
A few books about Henry Wirz and Andersonville
As an interesting aside, Civil War POW camps including Andersonville (but not only Andersonville) gave us the term “deadline,” which had a more startlingly literal definition in the 1860s — a perimeter beyond which prisoners would be shot on sight, which policy could make a handy stand-in for walls. Gratuitously killing an insane prisoner who crossed Camp Sumter’s “dead line” was one of the atrocities laid to Wirz, who we take it would not have been at home to the word’s decreasingly urgent appropriation in the wider culture.
* Wirz’s defense showed, to no avail, that the prisoners and the guards received the same rations, with similarly deleterious effects among both, and that the commandant was on record pleading with his superiors for more.
** Wirz’s attorney claimed that his man was offered (and refused to take) a last-minute pardon on November 9 in exchange for implicating Jefferson Davis.
† Wirz and borderlands guerrilla Champ Ferguson were the only Confederates executed for their “war crimes”. There was at least one other prison guard who faced similar charges of prisoner maltreatment, John Henry Gee; Gee was acquitted and released in 1866. (For more on the latter, see “A Little-known Case from the American Civil War: The War Crimes Trial of Major General John H. Gee” by Guénaël Mettraux in the Journal of International Criminal Justice, 2010.)
On this date in 1948, seven SS men were hanged at Germany’s Landsberg Prison, condemned for war crimes and crimes against humanity in the so-called Doctors Trial.
Four of the hanged were doctors; three were non-physicians who assisted them. Their trial (which included 16 others, variously acquitted or sentenced to prison terms) by an American military tribunal was a conscious attempt to establish criminal responsibility among the medical profession.
To kill, to maim, and to torture is criminal under all modern systems of law. These defendants did not kill in hot blood, nor for personal enrichment. Some of them may be sadists who killed and tortured for sport, but they are not all perverts. They are not ignorant men. Most of them are trained physicians and some of them are distinguished scientists. Yet these defendants, all of whom were fully able to comprehend the nature of their acts, and most of whom were exceptionally qualified to form a moral and professional judgment in this respect, are responsible for wholesale murder and unspeakably cruel tortures.
It is our deep obligation to all peoples of the world to show why and how these things happened. It is incumbent upon us to set forth with conspicuous clarity the ideas and motives which moved these defendants to treat their fellow men as less than beasts.
Some of this was combat-related. How long can a downed pilot survive in the North Sea? Throw a POW into freezing water and find out.
Some was more conventional medical advancement, shorn of any ethical sense. How can we treat malaria? Inject some untermenschen and start testing.
And some of it was straight from the Nazis’ racial purification theology: euthanizing the disabled, castrating and murdering Jews and Gypsies, that sort of thing. It’s all a rich tapestry.
The doctors hanged this date included
Karl Brandt, Hitler’s personal physician and the co-director of the Aktion T4 euthanasia program**
SS hygienist Joachim Mrugowsky, for experiments with concentration camp prisoners
SS surgeon and German Red Cross head Karl Gebhart, who enjoyed experimenting with operations on unanaesthetized prisoners
Waldemar Hoven, chief doctor at Buchenwald
They kept company with three others who didn’t see the “patients” but pushed around the paper for those who did.
* In 1970, Telford wrote Nuremberg and Vietnam: An American Tragedy, arguing that American officials had committed war crimes in Vietnam because “we failed ourselves to learn the lessons we undertook to teach at Nuremberg.”
** Karl Brandt was actually condemned to death by a Nazi court in the closing days of the war and only narrowly avoided execution. His crime? Moving his family out of Berlin so that they could surrender to the Americans instead of the Russians.
On the run from the Gestapo — as a Jew or a Gypsy, a common criminal or a Resistance fighter whose cover is blown — you get wind of a man who can help.
“Dr. Eugène” will (for a fee) spirit you over the Pyrenees and thence to South America. In his house at rue le Sueur, you make the arrangements. One small matter: the tropics requires an inoculation, which le bon docteur will readily provide. One small prick of the needle and then …
The needle contained cyanide and the destination turned out to be a lime pit, and so “Dr. Eugène” — Marcel Petiot — was guillotined this date in 1946.
His opportunistic exploitation of the dangerous Vichy years is what he’s famous for, but Petiot had decades of crime behind him by the time he got his phony “underground railroad” up and running.
From youthful compulsive thieving, Petiot graduated into a shady medical practice in Villeneuve-sur-Yonne where he was the resident black market abortionist.
He’s thought to have killed a mistress there, and maybe a couple of others, but was able to segue into a political career by winning the mayoralty of Villaneuve when he sabotaged his opponent’s campaign appearances. The sticky-fingered Petiot naturally plundered the town treasury and was forced out of office in 1931.
By the time the war years had rolled around, Petiot had judiciously relocated to Paris where he retained his capacity for professional advancement in the face of profoundly disturbed behavior: he was institutionalized for kleptomania the same year he was appointed an official médecin d’état-civil.
So he had the requisite two-faced background for his whackadoodle wartime “escape route”, which he creepily code-named “Fly-Tox.”
Twists and turns elided — trutv.com and crimemagazine.com both have detailed biographies/case histories — Petiot’s enterprise was quasi-exposed early in 1944 when the stink of incinerating bodies prompted neighbors to summon the police and uncover his charnel house.
Amazingly, Petiot was able to beg off with the claim that he was a Resistance activist — these were French police — and that the victims were Nazis or collaborators who had been eliminated by his network on orders. The Gestapo had sniffed him out too late in the war to do anything about him, but its judgment that Petiot was a “dangerous lunatic” actually turned out to bolster the deranged doctor’s case that he was an anti-fascist.
The alibis fell apart as the war wrapped up, and Petiot was finally recognized in a Paris manhunt and brought to trial for 27 homicides. Police thought 60-plus was more like it — maybe even into the hundreds — but secured 26 of the 27 counts. That’s more than enough to do a man to death, especially since they were the for-fun-and-profit murders of desperate people already on the run from the late and hated occupying army. Bit of a touchy subject in France in ’46.
But there was good news.
This London Times (May 27, 1946) observed that Petiot’s beheading marked
the first time that the guillotine has been used since the war. Until now executions have been by firing squads. Although gruesome, it is one more indication of the return of this country to normal civil ways of life.
On this date in 1845, John Tawell was publicly hanged in Aylesbury (while broadsheets were hawked beneath the scaffold to the crowd of thousands) for the murder of his mistress — making history as the first criminal apprehended with the use of the telegraph.
Tawell had had an interesting 60-plus years on the planet. He did well as a young banker on the make to avoid the halter for the capital crime of forging banknotes.*
In those sanguinary days of our penal code, this crime, if brought home, would have led to his certain condemntion and ignominious execution as a felon. The particulars of the affair were, however, suppressed as far as possible, on account of the insuperable disinclination of the bankers to be in any way instrumental in taking away human life.**
Clapped in irons and sent to Australia, he waxed wealthy — “by his fortunate, and, it is to be presumed, honest trading,” our wry biography remarks. (As a pharmacist. That’s what we in the biz call “foreshadowing.”)
Tawell returned to England in 1831, got Sarah Hart as a bit on the side (she’d initially been hired to nurse Tawell’s dying wife), and then married a respectable Quaker woman. To conceal the affair — or perhaps because the payola Tawell was obliged to send for the maintenance of his mistress and the kids he begat with her was chewing into his straitened finances — Tawell poisoned Hart on New Year’s Day 1845.
Unfortunately for him, he was noticed leaving the scene of the crime by a neighbor, who found the victim before she had even expired.
Tawell had hopped a slow train for London ahead of apprehension, but it transpired that the station had installed the newfangled telecommunications device, the telegraph, which was requisitioned to dispatch to Paddington station a famous missive.
A murder had just been committed at Salt Hill and the suspected murderer was seen to take a first class ticket to London by the train that left Slough at 7.42pm. He is in the garb of a Kwaker with a brown great coat on which reaches his feet. He is in the last compartment of the second first-class carriage.
(The telegraph didn’t have a “Q”, so they had to improvise a phonetic spelling. k l8r.)
(This landmark police event is not to be confused with the first use of wireless telegraphy to apprehend a criminal — the next century’s very similar philandering-apothecary-on-the-lam case of Dr. Crippen.)
Caught, convicted,† condemned. (And confessed, secretly, to the prison chaplain.) The usual. Botched strangulation hanging. Hardly unusual. Love triangle murder? Downright trite.
But still: Tawell’s strange and variegated life left a strange and variegated legacy. (pdf)
In Australia, the memory of Tawell lingered for many years after his death because considerable legal argument took place about the validity of the Crown’s hndling of his property there. The Governor, Sir William Denison, affixed the Great Seal of the colony to the grant documents on his own initiative, which creted a serious difference between him and his chief minister. Known as the “Great Seal case”, it dragged on for some 16 years before it was resolved. It provided a dramatic epilogue to Tawell’s activities.
John Tawell had pharmacy qualifications of a sort, and he was no better or worse than many of the doctors around Sydney at the time who had received no regular professional instruction. When Tawell ventured into competition with the medical establishment in the colony it was a huge gamble because until 1820 many government doctors saw private patients and had clerks to do their dispensing, usually from hospital stores. He showed that independent pharmacy could thrive away from the medical shadow, but the commercial nature of his success also showed that the founding of independent pharmacy in Australia occurred as a retailing activity rather than as a needed profession.
* As a teen, Tawell was friends with a Quaker linen-draper who was himself ultimately executed for forgery, Joseph Hunton.
** This claim for bankers’ gentility is advanced in the context of the story of a banker who in fact went on to commit murder. Aside from that obvious paradox, it will come as no surprise to any denizen of the post-bailout neoliberal era that bankers proved more than ready to involve themselves in human misery, sufficiently remunerative. If Tawell’s sweetheart plea bargain reveals anything about the financier class, it’s that bankers aren’t keen on precedents for taking away bankers’ lives.
† John Tawell’s trial lawyer, the eminent jurist and politician Sir Fitzroy Kelly disputed the coroner’s poisoning conclusion by arguing that Sarah Hart might have just eaten too many apple seeds. (Prussic acid, aka hydrogen cyanide, does occur naturally in many fruits.)
This attempted Chewbacca defense earned the barrister the nickname “Apple-pip Kelly”. However, since the cutting-edge technology of the day was only telegraph and not Twitter, the case does not appear to have launched any of Apple-pip Kelly’s progeny into lucratively pointless careers as famous-for-being-famous socialites.
This date’s observance marks the systematic execution by (West) Pakistani forces of the intellectual class of East Pakistan at the end of the civil war which would detach the east as the independent nation Bangladesh — an unavenged war crime as cynical as it was brutal.
Executed intellectuals in the Dhaka Rayerbazar, 1971.
This was not a single discrete massacre, but a continuing policy during the March-December 1971 war. December 14, just two days before the Pakistani army surrendered, was the peak date of a dreadful endgame paroxysm that saw hundreds of scholars, teachers, lawyers, doctors, artists, writers, engineers, and the like rounded up and summarily executed in a bid to decapitate the new Bengali state’s intelligentsia.
Though the martyrs were subsequently venerated in Bangladesh, the higher-stakes regional geopolitics have always made effective redress a nonstarter.
On this date in 1823, French physician Edme Castaing expiated upon the scaffold history’s first conviction for murder with morphine.
The good doc used the drug, a new twist on an ancient remedy only recently brought to market, apparently to poison off one of two wealthy brothers with the connivance of the other wealthy brother, the latter of whom stood in danger of being disinherited.
And then, the beneficiary of that crime wrote a will of his own to the profit of the poisoner.
Do not try this at home.
Castaing, naturally, poisoned off the other brother, too, and relieved some considerable financial distress along with, one must think, the burdensome company of a complete dullard.
“The science of toxicology,” however, “was not greatly advanced at this time, and … the above conclusion was based on presumption rather than fact.”
While today, such a case might be ripped from CSI, in 1823 it entailed an uncertain trial with varying (and wrong) medical testimony and a circumstantial trail of witnesses drawing flailing rebuttals from the accused that ran towards the unconvincing and the contradictory. (Follow the twists and turns from a contemporary chronicle here.)
Quite convicted in the public eye (a verdict history has had little cause to revisit), Castaing was judicially acquitted of the murder of Hippolyte Ballet, and doomed by the barest 7-5 majority verdict for the second Ballet boy. The London Times complained in its report of the execution (printed Dec. 9, 1823), that
[t]he faculty speak in very harsh and unmeasured terms of Dr. Pellatan, who neither described with care and accuracy, what he himself observed on opening of the body of Ballet, nor gave them the means of forming an opinion themselves, by bringing to Paris the intestines of the deceased. The physicians join the rest of the world in ascribing Ballet’s death to substances administered by Castaing, but they regret that criminal justice could not, owing to the neglicence or ignorance of Pellatan, obtain more satisfactory proofs of the crime. Beyond his own confessions, contradictions, and admissions, there was confessedly no ground to convict him.
After losing the subsequent civil war, the former President was trapped for a nervous few years in Kabul — blocked from joining his family in flight to India by the offices of former Soviet client and present-day American client Abdul Rashid Dostum.
When Kabul finally surrendered to the Taliban in 1996, the hated onetime Communist viceroy — whose stepping-stone to that post was heading the hated Afghan secret police — had a problem.
At the instigation of future Taliban second-in-command Mohammad Rabbani, Najibullah and his brother were hauled out of the U.N. compound where they had taken refuge, publicly beaten, tortured and castrated, and strung up on a traffic barricade.
At dawn this morning before the walls of La Roquette, a homeopath convicted of poisoning his mistress was beheaded for one of Paris’s most sensational crime dramas of the 1860′s.
The ill-fated Madame de Pauw had fallen suddenly ill and expired in the doctor’s care; means and opportunity were obvious, and motive readily adduced from the handsome life insurance policies of the expired woman.
(One can read a detailed 1865 critique of Tardieu’s conclusions and testimony, a reminder that the criminal justice system’s struggles with the uses and limitations of forensic science are a longstanding concern. This (if one takes it as such) murder, which reads in retrospection like a classic in the genre of comedic criminality, might have been the perfect crime absent an obvious pecuniary design: the death was put down to a routine cause and only scrutinized when an anonymous tip and/or the suspicious insurance adjusters led the authorities to exhume the body 13 days after burial.)
American newsman George Alfred Townsend chanced to be abroad in Paris on this occasion, and recorded the scene as “thousands of Parisians bent their steps the night before the execution” in Campaigns of a Non-combatant — excerpted at length here for its topicality to this blog.
The news had gone abroad that la Pommerais would not be pardoned. It was also generally credited that this would be the last execution ever held in Paris, since there is a general desire for the abolition of capital punishment in France, and a conviction that the Legislature, at its next session, will substitute life-imprisonment.* This, with the rarity of the event, and that terrible allurement of blood which distinguishes all populaces, brought out all the excitable folk of the town; and at dusk, on the night before the expiation, the whole neighborhood of La Roquette was crowded with men and women. All classes of Parisians were there, — the blouses, or workingmen, standing first in number; the students from the Latin Quartier being well represented, and idlers, and well-dressed nondescripts without enumeration, — distributing themselves among women, dogs, and babies.
Venders of galeaux, muscles, and fruit were out in force. The “Savage of Paris,” clothed in his war plumes, paint, greaves, armlets, and moccasins, was selling razors by gaslight; here and there ballad-mongers were singing the latest songs, and boys, with chairs to let, elbowed into the intricacies of the crowd, which amused itself all the night long by smoking, drinking, and hallooing. At last, the mass became formidable in numbers, covering every inch of ground within sight of the prison, and many soldiers and sergeants de ville, mounted and on foot, pushed through the dense mass to restore order.
At midnight, a body of cavalry forced back the people from the square of La Roquette. A number of workmen, issuing from the prison-gates, proceeded to set up the instrument of death by the light of blazing torches. The flame lit up the dark jail walls, and shone on the helmets and cuirasses of the sabre-men, and flared upon spots of the upturned faces, now bringing them into strong, ruddy relief, now plunging them into shadow. When the several pieces had been framed together, we had a real guillotine in view, — the same spectre at which thousands of good and bad men had shuddered; and the folks around it, peering up so eagerly, were descendants of those who stood on the Place de la Concorde to witness the head of a king roll into the common basket. Imagine two tall, straight timbers, a foot apart, rising fifteen feet from the ground. They are grooved, and spring from a wide platform, approached by a flight of steps. At the base, rests a spring-plank or bascule, to which leather thongs are attached to buckle down the victim, and a basket or pannier filled with sawdust to receive the severed head. Between these, at their summit, hangs the shining knife in its appointed grooves, and a cord, which may be disconnected by a jerk, holds it to its position. Two men will be required to work the instrument promptly, — the one to bind the condemned, the other to drop the axe. The bascule is so arranged that the whole weight and length of the trunk will rest upon it, leaving the head and neck free, and when prone it will reach to the grooves, leaving space for the knife to pass below it. The knife itself is short and wide, with a bright concave edge, and a rim of heavy steel ridges it at the top; it moves easily in the greased grooves, and may weigh forty pounds. It has a terrible fascination, hanging so high and so lightly in the blaze of the torches, which play and glitter upon it, and cast stains of red lights along its keen blade, as if by their brilliance all its past blood-marks had become visible again. A child may send it shimmering and crashing to the scaffold, but only God can fasten together the warm and throbbing parts which it shall soon dissever. And now that the terrible creature has been recreated, the workmen slink away, as if afraid of it, and a body of soldiers stand guard upon it, as if they fear that it might grow thirsty and insatiate as in the days of its youth. The multitude press up again, reinforced every hour, and at last the pale day climbs over the jail-walls, and waiting people see each other by its glimmer. The bells of Notre Dame peal out; a hundred towers fall into the march of the music; the early journals are shrieked by French newsboys, and folks begin to count the minutes on their watches. There are men on the ground who saw the first guillotine at work. They describe the click of the cleaver, the steady march of victims upon the scaffold-stairs, the rattle of the death-cart turning out of the rue Saint Honore, the painted executioners, with their dripping hands, wiping away the jets of blood from the hard, rough faces; nay! the step of the young queen, white-haired with care, but very beautiful, who bent her body as she had never bent her knee and paid the penalty of her pride with the neck which a king had fondled.
At four minutes to six o’clock on Thursday morning, the wicket in the prison-gate swung open; the condemned appeared, with his hands tied behind his back, and his knees bound together. He walked with difficulty, so fettered; but other than the artificial restraints, there was no hesitation nor terror in his movements. His hair, which had been long, dark, and wavy, was severed close to his scalp; his beard had likewise been clipped, and the fine moustache and goatee, which had set off his most interesting face, no longer appeared to enhance his romantic, expressive physiognomy. Yet his black eyes and cleanly cut mouth, nostrils, and eyebrows, demonstrated that Couty de la Pommerais was not a beauty dependent upon small accessories. There was a dignity even in his painful gait; the coarse prison-shirt, scissored low in the neck, exhibited the straight columnar throat and swelling chest; for the rest, he wore only a pair of black pantaloons and his own shapely boots. As he emerged from the wicket, the chill morning air, laden with the dew of the truck gardens near at hand, blew across the open spaces of the suburbs, and smote him with a cold chill. He was plainly seen to tremble; but in an instant, as if by the mere force of his will, he stood motionless, and cast a first and only glance at the guillotine straight before him. It was the glance of a man who meets an enemy’s eye, not shrinkingly, but half-defiant, as if even the bitter retribution could not abash his strong courage … he seemed to feel that forty thousand men and women, and young children were looking upon him to see how he dared to die, and that for a generation his bearing should go into fireside descriptions. Then he moved on between the files of soldiers at his shuffling pace, and before him went the aumonier or chaplain, swaying the crucifix, behind him the executioner of Versailles — a rough and bearded man — to assist in the final horror.
It was at this intense moment a most wonderful spectacle. As the prisoner had first appeared, a single great shout had shaken the multitude. It was the French word “Voila!” which means “Behold!” “See!” Then every spectator stood on tiptoe; the silence of death succeeded;** all the close street was undulant with human emotion; a few house roofs near by were dizzy with folks who gazed down from the tiles; all the way up the heights of Pere la Chaise, among the pale chapels and monuments of the dead, the thousands of stirred beings swung and shook like so many drowned corpses floating on the sea. Every eye and mind turned to the little structure raised among the trees, on the space before La Roquette, and there they saw a dark, shaven, disrobed young man, going quietly toward his grave.
He mounted the steps deliberately, looking towards his feet; the priest held up the crucifix, and he felt it was there, but did not see it; his lips one moment touched the image of Christ, but he did not look up nor speak; then, as he gained the last step, the bascule or swingboard sprang up before him; the executioner gave him a single push, and he fell prone upon the plank, with his face downward; it gave way before him, bearing him into the space between the upright beams, and he lay horizontally beneath the knife, presenting the back of his neck to it. Thus resting, he could look into the pannier or basket, into whose sawdust lining his head was to drop in a moment. And in that awful space, while all the people gazed with their fingers tingling, the legitimate Parisian executioner gave a jerk at the cord which held the fatal knife. With a quick, keen sound, the steel became detached; it fell hurtling through the grooves; it struck something with a dead, dumb thump; a jet of bright blood spurted into the light, and dyed the face of an attendant horribly read; and Couty de la Pommerais’s head lay in the sawdust of the pannier, while every vein in the lopped trunk trickled upon the scaffold-floor! They threw a cloth upon the carcass and carried away the pannier; the guillotine disappeared beneath the surrounding heads; loud exclamations and acclaims burst from the multitude; the venders of trash and edibles resumed their cheerful cries, and a hearse dashed through the mass, carrying the warm body of the guillotined to the cemetery of Mt. Parnasse. In thirty minutes, newsboys were hawking the scene of the execution upon all the quays and bridges. In every cafe of Paris some witness was telling the incidents of the show to breathless listeners, and the crowds which stopped to see the funeral procession of the great Marshal Pelissier divided their attention between the warrior and the poisoner, — the latter obtaining the preponderance of fame.
** Rashomon-like, not all observers concurred as to the event’s quiet solemnity. The New York Times reported that
[t]he language of those non-official persons who assembled to witness this expiation of a great crime was brutal to the last decree. They hissed and hooted as the convict was about to mount the ladder, and were loudest in their brutal demonstrations when the crucifix was pressed to his lips. The blade had scarcely severed his head from his body, when a rush was made to do violence to the trunk. The troops were obliged to interfere, and had some difficulty in repelling the crowd, which was excited by the sight of a ‘gentleman criminal’ to a pitch of savage ferocity … The Pays, in noticing this expiation of a great crime, states that the crowd retired in silence. But I am in a position to affirm that the contrary was the cxase.