Posts filed under 'Freethinkers'

1546: Etienne Dolet, no longer anything at all

Add comment August 3rd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1546, which was his 37th birthday, the French linguist and translator Etienne Dolet was burned at the stake in Paris over a few little words.

Dolet (English Wikipedia entry | French) was a young polymath with a pugilistic streak both literary and literal. While a law student at Toulouse, he won both a stint in prison and the patronage of King Francis I.

Dolet might have rated the latter a sturdier shield than it proved to be in practice, for his satires — so irreverent as to be heretical in a time when heresy really mattered — landed him back in the clink in Lyons from 1542 to 1544, charged with atheism.

Dolet’s real concern was language: he was a prolific translator of books into French (including some of his own work in Latin), and he produced a lengthy commentary on classical Latin and, in 1540, Europe’s first vernacular treatise on translation.

But for a smart guy he could be a little dumb.

Having pulled strings with the bishop to weasel out of his dungeon, Dolet made tracks for Italy … but then cockily returned to Lyons where he was once again arrested as a heretic. He didn’t get a second chance to learn his lesson.

Dolet’s condemnation turned on a philistine misapprehension of the humanist art of translation.

“While translating, you must not be enslaved to the extent of rendering word for word,” he had counseled in his treatise. “Concentrate on the meaning and handle things so that the intention of the author is expressed, while heedfully maintaining the propriety of both languages.” This is nearly a banality for the modern art of translation, but at the time pitted him against a long Christian tradition that prized textual fidelity over literary elegance.

Rendering a complex bit of Plato into French, Dolet reworked the passage into his target language thus:

Since it is certain that death is not at all among the living: and as for the dead, they no longer are: therefore, death touches them even less. And hence death can do nothing to you, for you are not yet ready to die, and when you have died, death will also not be able to do anything, since you will no longer be anything at all.

If you’re going to be executed over a block of text, that’s a pretty good block.

It’s the anything at all (we added the emphasis) that got Dolet in this instance: Plato had not literally said that, and Dolet’s hostile interlocutors decided to read this flourish of artistry and emphasis as proof of a sly atheist denying the immortality of the soul. No less an authority than the Sorbonne theological faculty signed off on this reading. (Calvin also denounced Dolet; he’s sometimes regarded as a freethinker martyr, which is a more generous spin than “clever asshole.”)

Dolet’s surname chances to double as a declension of the apt Latin verb “to hurt”; en route to the stake, the impious polyglot is said to have exploited the overlap in one final — shall we say dolorous? — witticism:

Non dolet ipse Dolet, sed pia turba dolet
Dolet himself does not suffer, but the pious crowd grieves

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1944: Max Sievers, freethinker

1 comment January 17th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1944, German freethinker Max Sievers was beheaded at Brandenburg Prison for “conspiracy to commit high treason along with favouring the enemy.”

A working-class Berliner, Sievers (English Wikipedia entry | German) became a prominent communist and atheist writer in the interwar years. He directed the Association of Freethinkers for Cremation from the early 1920s, and in 1927 became the chair of the German Freethinkers League.

This was not a demographic Adolph Hitler was courting. In the wake of the 1933 Reichstag Fire, the Nazis stamped out atheistic movements, even converting the Freethinkers’ building into a Protestant recruitment venue.

Briefly imprisoned, Sievers fled Germany upon his release later in 1933 and from exile in Belgium — and then, after Belgium was conquered, in hiding in France — he kept up a drumbeat of antifascist propaganda, notably the 1939 book Unser Kampf gegen das Dritte Reich: von der nazistischen Diktatur zur sozialistischen Demokratie.

He was finally arrested by the Gestapo on June 3, 1943, and condemned to death by Roland Freisler.

Sievers was posthumously exonerated in 1996, and is today — and on January 17th in particular — an honored martyr for German humanist, atheist, and freethinker groups.

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1674: The Chevalier de Rohan and Franciscus van den Enden

Add comment November 27th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1674, the former Grand Huntsman of France was beheaded in Paris for conspiring to betray Normandy during the Franco-Dutch War.

Your basic debt-mired noble and court cad, the Chevalier de Rohan (French Wikipedia link) through an accomplice “intimated that Normandy was very much dispos’d to a revolt, & that if hee would send a fleet with 6 thousand men, & armes for twenty thousand, with necessaries for sieges & two million of livres, that there was a greate man who would engage himself upon the assurance of thirty thousand crownes pension …”

The correspondence was discovered and Rohan arrested, but his role in the plot was sufficiently anonymized that even an absolutist state didn’t have the goods to convict him. Meanwhile, Rohan’s accomplice was hunted to ground and killed in Rouen during the attempt to arrest him.

This left the authorities in the position, common to every cop show and not a few real-life cases, of requiring a confession from the accused to proceed at all. Rohan’s friends realized this too, and tried desperately to warn him against self-incrimination.

Persons attached to the chevalier de Rohan went every evening round the Bastile, crying through a speaking trumpet, “La Tuanderie is dead, and has said nothing;” but the chevalier did not hear them. The commissioners, not being able to get any thing from him, told him, “that the king knew all, that they had proofs, but only wished for his own confession, and that they were authorized to promise him pardon if he would declare the truth.” The chevalier, too credulous, confessed the whole. Then the perfidious commissioners changed their language. They said, “that with respect to the pardon, they could not answer for it: but that they had hopes of obtaining it, and would go and solicit it.” This they troubled themselves very little about; and condemned the criminal to lose his head. He was conducted on a platform to the scaffold, by means of a gallery raised to the height of the window of the armoury in the arsenal, which looks towards the little square at the end of the Rue des Tournelles. He was beheaded on November 27, 1674.

It is hoped that, should the reader ever become a person of police interest, s/he will recall from Rohan’s example that inspectors do not have suspects’ best interests in mind.

A couple of other nobles also lost their heads along with our chevalier.

Hanged for his trouble was Franciscus van den Enden (English Wikipedia page | Dutch), the elderly Dutchman — and accused Dutch agent — who recruited these toffs for the purpose of seizing Le Havre.

Van den Enden is an interesting, perhaps underappreciated, radical intellectual of secular-democratic persuasion (he attracted the suspicion of atheism, and his Vrye Politijke Stellingen made an unabashed case for democratic government). He’s best known for being a schoolmaster of philosopher Baruch Spinoza; W.N.A. Klever, in an October 1991 paper in the Journal of the History of Philosophy (“A New Source of Spinozism: Franciscus Van den Enden”) traces the connections between the philosophy of the master and that of the pupil and rather dramatically argues that

Van den Enden must be considered as a kind of “Proto-Spinoza.” … He was the hidden agent behind Spinoza’s genius … [t]he origin of Spinoza’s anomalous philosophy.

A variety of (untranslated) references to the “Proto-Spinoza” from 17th century correspondence are available here.

Those inclined more towards geopolitics than philosophy might enjoy Victor Magagna’s podcast lecture on the great-power calculus driving France’s conflict with the Netherlands — which, as we have noticed in these pages, claimed the life of the longtime Dutch leader Johan de Witt.

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1772: The Marquis de Sade and his servant, in effigy

2 comments September 12th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1772, straw effigies of the (in)famous French libertine Marquis de Sade and his servant Latour were executed in Marseilles for sodomy.

“It is always by way of pain one arrives at pleasure.”

The aristocrat christened Donatien Alphonse François (even the name would become taboo for later use among his family) was at this point just 32 years old, but already cultivating the reputation that would make his name a byword for violent sex. He had in 1768 got the boot from Paris in view of the many courtesans who complained of his mistreatment.

Five more would do so for the incident that triggered his “execution”: de Sade took his baroque pleasure from these “very young girls” obtained by his manservant Latour (who also took part in the bisexual debauch). The whole scene was spiced with liberal dosage of the poison/aphrodisiac* spanish fly.

“Cruelty, very far from being a vice, is the first sentiment Nature injects in us all.”

One of these working girls seriously overindulged on the the love potion and spent the next week puking up “a black and fetid substance.” The authorities got interested, and de Sade and Latour bolted to Italy.**

Back in Marseilles, proceedings against the fugitives saw them sentenced for (non-fatal) poisoning and sodomy

for the said Sade to be decapitated … and the said Latour to be hanged by the neck and strangled … then the body of the said Sade and that of the said Latour to be burned and their ashes strewn to the wind.

This was duly carried out against straw effigies of de Sade and Latour on September 12, 1772.

“Lust is to the other passions what the nervous fluid is to life; it supports them all, lends strength to them all: ambition, cruelty, avarice, revenge, are all founded on lust.”

Although the Marquis eventually got this sentence overturned, it did in a sense mark an end to his life as it had been. Later in 1772, he’d be arrested in Italy; though he escaped and went back on the orgy circuit, most of the four-plus decades left to his life would be spent imprisoned or on the run — an ironic situation for the man Guillaume Apollinaire would celebrate as “the freest spirit that has yet existed.”

(Astonishingly, de Sade also avoided execution during the French Revolution: he was supposed to have been in the last batch guillotined before Robespierre fell; either through bureaucratic bungling or efficacious bribery, he avoided the tumbril.† De Sade also cheated death when a man whose daughter the marquis had outraged attempted to shoot him point-blank … only to have the gun misfire.)

“My manner of thinking, so you say, cannot be approved. Do you suppose I care? A poor fool indeed is he who adopts a manner of thinking for others!”

From this latter half of the infamous satyr’s life — when he often had time on his hands not available to dispose in more corporal pursuits — date the pornographic/philosophic writings that would stake de Sade’s disputed reputation for posterity.

* Alleged aphrodisiac.

** With another lover, his sister-in-law Anne … who was also a Benedictine canoness.

† It was on some firsthand authority, then, that de Sade took a dim view of capital punishment: “‘Til the infallibility of human judgements shall have been proved to me, I shall demand the abolition of the penalty of death.” This and other pithy de Sade quotes in this entry are from here.

Part of the Themed Set: Executions in Effigy.

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1619: Lucilio Vanini, aka Giulio Cesare

2 comments February 9th, 2010 Headsman

On this date* in 1619, Italian freethinker Lucilio Vanini was adorned with a placard reading ‘Ateiste et blasphemateur du nom de Dieu’ and taken to Toulouse’s Place du Salin where he had his blasphemous tongue cut out,** then was strangled and burned at the stake.

You can think of Vanini as a sort of Giordano Bruno mini-me — a bit less intellectually distinguished, a bit less famous, but doing the same peripatetic, pantheistic act before orthodoxy ran him down.

Ordained a priest (like Bruno), Vanini’s 34 years were spent perambulating (like Bruno): France, Switzerland, the Low Countries, even England, where he briefly auditioned Anglicanism.

Alas, (like Bruno) the libertine monk’s occult philosophy had no real home; he fled Paris for Toulouse (the place Bruno earned his doctorate), and was there charged with blasphemy.

Vanini veiled his dangerous speculations in nominally pietistic cant, but he probably could have done better misdirection than a title like De Admirandis Naturae Reginae Deaeque Mortalium Arcanis (Of the Marvelous Secrets of the Queen and Goddess Nature — available in Latin from Google books).

Vanini was bold enough to suggest an equivalency between human and animal souls, and reckon both mortal. Though his works purported to prove the existence of God, and he even made to his accusers a version of the “first cause” argument, they thought (probably rightly) he wasn’t being serious.

They also thought (again, probably rightly) Vanini and his aristocratic patrons were debauched; Vanini’s execution kicked off a dangerous crisis for hedonists in France and elsewhere in the 1620s.

There’s much more about Vanini in French here, and in English in this chapter of the public-domain The Skeptics of the Italian Renaissance.

* Some sources report Feb. 19. The source of this discrepancy isn’t clear to me; the then-10-day gap between the Julian and Gregorian calendars is an obvious suspect, but as this execution took place in Catholic France, the modern Gregorian calendar had been adopted decades before.

In any event, primary documentation appears to me to support the 9th.

” le samedi neuvième du mois de février … fut donné arrêt au rapport de M. de Catel, conseiller au parlement, par lequel il [Vanini] fut condamné à être traîné sur une claie, droit à l’Eglise Saint-Etienne, où il serait dépouillé en chemise, tenant un flambeau ardent en main, la hart [la corde avec laquelle on étranglait les criminels.] au col, et, tout à genoux devant la grande porte de la dite église, demanderait pardon à Dieu, au roi, à la justice, et de là … serait conduit à la place du Salin où, assis sur un poteau, la langue lui serait coupée, puis serait étranglé, son corps brûlé et réduit en cendres; ce qui fut exécuté le même jour.”

** “Before putting fire to the stake, Vanini was ordered to put forth his sacrilegious tongue for the knife. He refused; it was necessary to employ pincers to draw it forth, and when the executioner’s instrument seized and cut it off never was heard a more horrible cry. One might have thought that he heard the bellowing of an ox which was being slaughtered.” (Source) This account of the magistrate Gramont has to be considered in view of his interest in showing the condemned inadequate to his jaunty resolve, “Let us go, let us go joyfully to die, as becomes a philosopher.”

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1600: Giordano Bruno, freethought martyr

12 comments February 17th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1600, gadfly philosopher Giordano Bruno was burnt for heresy in Rome’s Campo dei Fiori.

A figure of ridicule in the 17th century, Bruno got this statue at the site of his execution in the 19th — when the world finally began to catch up with him.

A Dominican inductee in his teens, Bruno was cast out of the order for his heterodoxy.

There followed a lifetime seemingly always on the run, with each successive safe harbor turned against his pantheistic principles and abrasive personal manner.

Bruno has been understood with hindsight to have grasped, fleetingly, the world-upending implications of the Copernican system. In “a time when more than 99% of the intellectuals believed that the Earth was the center of the Universe, and a few others, like Copernicus and Galileo, believed that it was the Sun, instead, at the center of the Universe,” Bruno intuited modern cosmology — wherein both earth and sun were merely heavenly bodies among many others, situated in an infinite universe that did not revolve around them.

More than that, he intuited the expanse of philosophical, scientific and spiritual inquiry that would follow from that idea’s comprehensive destruction of the medieval order, centuries ahead of his time.

That little of Bruno’s own scientific work has withstood the test of time, and other scientific contemporaries did not sympathize with him, enables a hostile source like the Catholic Encyclopedia to sniff that

the exaggerations, the limitations, and the positive errors of his scientific system; his intolerance of even those who were working for the reforms to which he was devoted; the false analogies, fantastic allegories, and sophistical reasonings into which his emotional fervour often betrayed him have justified, in the eyes of many, Bayle’s characterization of him as “the knight-errant of philosophy.” His attitude of mind towards religious truth was that of a rationalist. Personally, he failed to feel any of the vital significance of Christianity as a religious system.

These latter traits are precisely the reason for his reclamation by Age of Reason deists.

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But the sixteenth century had no place for him.

This historical thriller — the first of a series — features Bruno in England, where some think he might have spied for Francis Walsingham.

Bruno fled Italy for Geneva, where he was soon excommunicated by Calvinist authorities, and thence to France, impressing King Henri III before wearing out his welcome. He spent time in England and Lutheran Germany, running afoul of each new host with his radical ideas, his contempt for the dead hand of Aristotelianism, and his decided want of tact.

He returned at last to Italy and these pages, perhaps counting on the Venetians’ historic rivalry with the papacy in accepting a sponsorship in the maritime republic. There the Inquisition clapped him in irons and shipped him to Rome where for unclear reasons he spent six-plus years imprisoned before facing trial as a heretic.

“Perhaps you, my judges, pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it.”

Refusing all opportunity to recant, Bruno was led to the stake this morning gagged against any last outrages against St. Peter’s throne, and the friar who recorded Bruno’s unyielding end — famously mythologized in turning away from the proffered crucifix — could hardly have thought he was writing Bruno’s heroic epitaph as a martyr to the spirit of critical inquiry and passionate dissent.

But he insisted till the end always in his damned refractoriness and twisted brain and his mind with a thousand errors; yes, he didn’t give up his stubborness, not even when the court ushers took him away to the Campo de’ Fiori. There his clothes were taken off, he was bound to a stake and burned alive. In all this time he was accompanied by our fraternity, who sang constant litanies, while the comforters tried till the last moment to break his stubborn resistance, till he gave up a miserable and pitiable life.

That end serves as the climax to the forgettable 1973 Italian flick Giordano Bruno.

Sole bird of the sun, thou wandering phoenix!
That measurest thy days as does the world
With lofty summits of Arabia Felix.
Thou art the same thou wast, but I what I was not:
I through the fire of love, unhappy die;
But thee the sun with his warm rays revives;
Thou burn’st in one, and I, in every place;
Eros my fire, while thine Apollo gives.
Predestined is the term of thy long life;
Short span is mine,
And menaced by a thousand ills.
Nor do I know how I have lived, nor how shall live,
Me does blind fate conduct;
But thou wilt come again, again behold thy light.

-From Bruno’s esoteric The Heroic Enthusiasts, available on gutenberg.org

A few recent books about Giordano Bruno

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1887: Parsons, Spies, Fischer and Engel, the Haymarket Martyrs

10 comments November 11th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1887, the Chicago political machine hanged four at Cook County Jail to defend civilization from the eight-hour day.

The Haymarket martyrs, as they would be remembered ere the hysterical atmosphere of their sentencing had passed, were four from a group of eight anarchist agitators rounded up when a never-identified person threw a bomb at Chicago police breaking up a peaceful rally. The bomb killed one cop; the indiscriminate police shooting that followed killed several more in friendly fire, plus an uncertain number of civilians.

The incident occurred just days after nationwide strikes began on May 1, 1886, in support of the eight-hour day. Nowhere were the tensions greater than Chicago, an epicenter of militant organizing. When tens of thousands poured into the streets on May 1, the Chicago Mail darkly said of high-profile radicals Albert Parsons and August Spies,

Mark them for today. Hold them responsible for any trouble that occurs. Make an example of them if trouble does occur.

Sure enough …

Most of the eight hadn’t even been present at the time the bomb was thrown, but the state put anarchism itself on trial under the capacious umbrella of “conspiracy,” in a proceeding so absurdly rigged that a relative of a slain cop was on the jury. Quoth the prosecutor,

Law is upon trial. Anarchy is on trial. These men have been selected, picked out by the grand jury and indicted because they were leaders. They are no more guilty than the thousand who follow them. Gentlemen of the jury; convict these men, make examples of them, hang them and save our institutions, our society.

That was the argument for hanging them. And right-thinking burghers applauded it.

Seven of the eight were condemned to die; two had their sentences commuted, but the other five refused to ask for clemency on the grounds that, innocent, they would “demand either liberty or death.” One of those five, Louis Lingg, painfully cheated the hangman by setting off a blasting cap in his mouth the night before his execution. (Lingg might have made, though seemingly not thrown, the mysterious bomb.)

The others — Parsons and Spies, along with Adolph Fischer and George Engel — hanged together, with their epitaphs upon their lips — literally so for Parsons, whose parting remark is at the base of the Haymarket Martyrs Monument*

“The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today.”

“Throttle” was right, as the Chicago Tribune reported the next day, taking up when the trap was sprung:

Then begins a scene of horror that freezes the blood. The loosely-adjusted nooses remain behind the left ear and do not slip to the back of the neck. Not a single neck is broken, and the horrors of a death by strangulation begin.

Six years later, Illinois Gov. John Altgeld granted the free pardon the hanged men had demanded to the three surviving Haymarket anarchists. There is no institutional mechanism to determine erroneous executions in American jurisprudence — a fact that occasionally leads to smugly circular avowals that nobody recently executed has ever been “proven” innocent — and death penalty researchers Michael Radelet and Hugo Bedau believed as of this 1998 paper (pdf) that Altgeld’s executive statement flatly asserting the injustice of the Haymarket convictions was the most recent official acknowledgment of a wrongful execution in U.S. history. If true, its uniqueness would be understandable: the gesture cost Altgeld his political career.

Long gone as all these principals are, the legacy of Haymarket remains very much with us, and not just as a magnet for digital archives like this, this and this (don’t miss the brass gallows pin).

May 1, now rich with the symbolism of the Haymarket Passion, was soon selected by the international labor movement as the date to resume the eight-hour-day push — thus becoming the global workers’ holiday it remains to this day.

* Opposing interpretations of the Haymarket affair — which can be the “Haymarket riot” or the “Haymarket massacre,” depending on where you line up — were marked by opposing memorials. The police memorial was itself eventually bombed by the Weather Underground, and subsequently squirreled away from easy public view. Paradoxically, the Haymarket Martyrs Monument has been federally dignified as a National Historic Landmark.

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1793: Olympe de Gouges, a head of her time

9 comments November 3rd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1793, Olympe de Gouges’ forward thoughts were removed from her shoulders in the Place de la Revolution.

Most recognizable today for her Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Citizen* — a proto-feminist call for equality of the sexes issued in response to the day’s revolutionary but guy-centric Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizende Gouges was much more than a one-issue woman.

Fully engaged with the liberal intellectual currents of the Enlightenment, de Gouges spent the 1770’s and 1780’s in Parisian salon circles cranking out plays (over 40) and petitions, pamphlets and manifestos on animal welfare, poverty, the treatment of orphans, and ending slavery.

The latter issue, and not women’s rights, was the cause her contemporaries would have most associated with her.

But the natural-born gadfly didn’t pick her battles with injustice, and the Terror was a bad period to be indiscriminate. Like some of her Girondist associates, she risked the Paris mob’s wrath by openly opposing Louis XVI‘s execution — right in character, Olympe was down on the whole idea of the death penalty — and she carried principle into foolhardiness by printing broadsides savaging Robespierre.

Show trial time.

There can be no mistaking the perfidious intentions of this criminal woman, and her hidden motives … calumniating and spewing out bile in large doses against the warmest friends of the people, their most intrepid defender.

Misogynist condescension veined the prevailing interpretation of this misbehavior.

Olympe de Gouges, born with an exalted imagination, mistook her delirium for an inspiration of nature. She wanted to be a man of state. She took up the projects of the perfidious people who want to divide France. It seems the law has punished this conspirator for having forgotten the virtues that belong to her sex.

And strange to say, that condescension outlived Robespierre by centuries.

Only recently, as mainstream thought has (sort of) caught up with de Gouges, has the scope of her work (French link) attracted renewed appreciation, and Olympe been acknowledged an Olympian herself.

* Article 10: “Woman has the right to mount the scaffold; she must equally have the right to mount the rostrum.” The work was dedicated to Marie Antoinette.

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1794: The last cart of the Terror, not including the Marquis de Sade

July 27th, 2008 Headsman

July 27th, 1794 — the 9th of Thermidor, year II — is inscribed in history as the day Robespierre fell, when a parliamentary coup d’etat between the right and the remnants of the parties he had destroyed shouted him down as he readied the National Convention for his next purge.

This scene from the multinational bicentennial epic La Revolution Francaise conflates the events of 8 Thermidor — when Robespierre delivered a menacing two-hour address but provoked outcries by failing to name the deputies he implicated in “conspiracy” — and 9 Thermidor, when Robespierre’s lieutenant Saint-Just was shouted down from the podium and Robespierre ended up staggering through the benches appealing against the imprecations of his colleagues as his arrest is decreed.

Even as the month of Thermidor’s eponymous epochal event was unfolding, the daily gears of Revolutionary justice were turning: the usual haul of unfortunates condemned, including seven women from the previous day’s batch of Saint Lazare prison conspirators who had pled their bellies to buy a day.

That day was one day too little.

Stanley Loomis is overtly hostile to the Revolution, but his middlebrow sensibilities are well-tuned for the pathos of the scene:

Indifferent to the storms that were raging in the Convention, the Revolutionary Tribunal continued to go about its implacable business with cold efficiency. The arrest of its President [the Robespierrist Rene-Francois Dumas (the link is French), who was taken in the courtroom] startled no one. Since its inception that court had been witness to too many dramas to be astonished any further. Dumas quietly departed; the trials continued. Forty-two prisoners were sentenced to death. By four o’clock their hair had been cut and they were ready to be sent on their way. But Samson, aware of disturbances in the St. Antoine quarter of the city, suggested to [prosecutor] Fouquier[-Tinville] that the executions be deferred until the morrow.*

“Justice must take its course,” snapped the Public Prosecutor. “Do your work.”

And so the last “batch” lumbered off in the direction of the Faubourg St. Antoine and the Place de la Nation. With the exception of the Princesse de Monaco, they were nearly all obscure and humble members of the petite bourgeoisie. Hanriot, waving his sabre, conducted the procession to the place of execution. By seven o’clock that evening, as the minutes of the military escort poignantly show, the unfortunate victims, who had been so close to deliverance, had all been executed.

Henriot proceeded directly from his escort service to the Convention to liberate Robespierre for the night’s brief pitched battle against the Convention, and here we take our leave of them, for now. We shall meet both of them on the scaffold tomorrow.

Not on the wagon** with the Princess of Monaco was a man whom Loomis would have pitied rather less.

The bloated, penniless 54-year-old fruit of an ancient noble house, Donatien Alphonse François de Sade, Marquis de Sade had, in the most recent chapter of his astounding career, navigated the Revolution in the improbable guise of a proletarian section head and revolutionary tribunal judge, until his own arrest late the previous year.

This day, de Sade’s name was on a list of prisoners to be seized from Madelonnettes Prison — “Sade, former count, captain of Capet’s guards in 1792, has corresponded with enemies of the republic,” it said — which he had occupied until a recent transfer to Picpus, a monastery converted into a prison adjacent to the guillotine’s place at the Place de la Nation. Whether the result of another of the many bureaucratic snafus we’ve witnessed this week or a well-placed bribe from his friend and/or mistress Marie-Constance Quesnet, the guards were in the wrong place, didn’t find him, and didn’t care to dig any further.

Three months later, he was — for the last time in his life — a free man.

One could hardly say that the Revolution made the author of Justine the man he so (in)famously was — but having lived within sight of the blade that might any day be called upon to chop off his own head, and the entire tableau of the years preceding, left their impression. Hundreds of bodies from the Terror were stuffed in the unpropitious clay of the makeshift jail’s yards under de Sade’s cell. “Those few months in the shadow of the guillotine did me more harm than all the years of my incarceration under the King,” he wrote a friend.

According to Writing the Orgy: Power and Parody in Sade, Revolutionary France would inexorably influence his subsequent work,

strangely mixing real memories with very Sadean embellishments … Plots, betrayals, denunciations, beheadings: these fictional motifs and Sadean phantasies are linked with the reality and the imaginary of the Revolution.

Good for what ails you.

* Sanson’s diaries — a memoir of the family business constructed by the famous executioner’s grandson — leave off before the events of Thermidor and suggest that the hecatombs of the Terror were taking their toll on the aging headsman. Other accounts of this day have the tumbrils stopped in the streets by clemency-inclined onlookers, only to be forcibly extricated by Henriot.

** Also not (really) on the cart: the fictional occultist Zanoni, who is beheaded in this batch in the novel of the same title by legendary awful writer Edward George “it was a dark and stormy night” Bulwer-Lytton.

Part of the Themed Set: Thermidor.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous Last Words,France,Freethinkers,Guillotine,History,Infamous,Innocent Bystanders,Known But To God,Lucky to be Alive,Mass Executions,Milestones,Nobility,Notable Participants,Political Expedience,Public Executions,Treason,Women

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1794: Not Thomas Paine

11 comments July 24th, 2008 Headsman

An avidity to punish is always dangerous to liberty. It leads men to stretch, to misinterpret, and to misapply even the best of laws. He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself. -Thomas Paine

On this date in 1794, revolutionary firebrand Thomas Paine got a date with the guillotine when the public prosecutor Antoine-Quentin Fouquier-Tinville put his name on the list for the next batch of heads.

Paine — “Mad Tom” to foes of his fire-eating opposition to despotic church and crown — is best-known for his part in the American Revolution; his pamphlet “Common Sense” made an incendiary and influential case for revolution.

More so than any other high-profile compatriot in the cause of American independence, Paine took to heart the age’s revolutionary spirit, the fine principles of solidarity, the zeal to put life and fortune at liberty’s service.

Not content to retire to the estate granted him for his services to the fledgling United States of America — Paine coined that name, by the way — the hellraiser sailed for the Old World to help overthrow the sclerotic Bourbon despotism whose geopolitically-minded aid* had had such material effect for American liberty.

Paine served in France’s National Convention, one of the highest-profile and least-impeachable members of that body as well as one of only two foreigners. These distinctions offered him some safety in the Revolution’s internecine tempests — some, but not quite enough. He drew the ire of the Montagnards by opposing the execution of Louis XVI.

The terrible gears of mass fratricide which apparently doomed Paine as the Terror unfolded turned out to be his refuge, and that of three fortunate fellows with him. Had he gone to the scaffold as a single high-profile traitor, there would have been no mistake about it; now, at the height of the Terror, jailers marked dozens for death by the fallible expedient of chalking their cell doors. If the guillotine made mass execution feasible, the bureaucratic apparatus to manage it was still catching up.

Here’s the version of a Paine’s preservation that he himself later related — albeit second-hand, since he was suffering this day “a violent fever which had nearly terminated my existence” and “was not in a condition to be removed, or to know of what was passing, or of what had passed, for more than a month. It makes a blank in my remembrance of life. The first thing I was informed of was the fall of Robespierre.”

[T]he manner in which I escaped that fate is curious, and has all the appearance of accident.

The room in which I was lodged was on the ground floor, and one of a long range of rooms under a gallery, and the door of it opened outward and flat against the wall; so that when it was open the inside of the door appeared outward, and the contrary when it was shut. I had three comrades, fellow-prisoners with me, Joseph Vanhuile, of Bruges, since president of the municipality of that town, Michael Robins, and Bastini, of Louvain.

When persons by scores and hundreds were to be taken out of prison for the guillotine, it was always done in the night, and those who performed that office had a private mark or signal by which they, knew what rooms to go to, and what number to take. We, as I have said, were four, and the door of our room was marked unobserved by us with that number in chalk; but it happened, if happening is a proper word, that the mark was put on when the door was open and flat against the wall, and thereby came on the inside when we shut it at night, and the destroying angel passed by it. A few days after this Robespierre fell, and the American ambassador arrived and reclaimed me and invited me to his house.

During the whole of my imprisonment, prior to the fall of Robespierre, there was no time when I could think my life worth twenty-four hours, and my mind was made up to meet its fate.

Presumably this would have been a short reprieve, had not Jacobin rule (and rulers) promptly expired.

We noticed two days ago the U.S. mission’s willingness to exert itself for Lafayette’s wife, who surely had not done better service for the American Revolution than had Paine himself.

Paine waited in vain for American intervention, and was incandescent with rage at George Washington and his envoy Gouverneur Morris for abandoning him (Morris was replaced by the more Paine-friendly James Monroe a few weeks later). In a wide-ranging 1796 denunciation of Washington’s conduct and American political tilt towards Britain and away from France, Paine accused his country** of giving the Jacobins the green light to cut off a gadfly’s head.

Could I have known to what degree of corruption and perfidy the administrative part of the Government of America had descended, I could have been at no loss to have understood the reservedness of Mr. Washington toward me, during my imprisonment in the Luxembourg. There are cases in which silence is a loud language.

Soon after I was put into arrestation and imprisonment in the Luxembourg, the Americans who were then in Paris went in a body to the bar of the Convention to reclaim me. They were answered … that I was born in England, and … their reclamation of me was only the act of individuals, without any authority from the American Government.

A few days after this, all communication from persons imprisoned to any person without the prison was cut off by an order of the police. I neither saw, nor heard from, anybody for six months; and the only hope that remained to me was that a new Minister would arrive from America to supersede Morris …

One hundred and sixty-nine were taken out of the Luxembourg one night, in the month of July, and one hundred and sixty of them guillotined. A list of two hundred more, according to the report in the prison, was preparing a few days before Robespierre fell. In this last list I have good reason to believe I was included. A memorandum in the hand-writing of Robespierre was afterwards produced in the Convention, by the committee to whom the papers of Robespierre were referred, in these words:

Demander que Thomas Payne soit de decrete d’accusation pour les interets de l’Amerique, autant que de la France.

I had then been imprisoned seven months, and the silence of the Executive part of the Government of America (Mr. Washington) upon the case, and upon everything respecting me, was explanation enough to Robespierre that he might proceed to extremities.

This venomous open letter and the deistic tract The Age of Reason he was banging out during the Revolution, combined with the frightening turn of the French Revolution itself, helped send Paine’s public regard into decline. “Atheist,” they tutted, and he’s been the most untouchable Founding Father ever since.

Next year is the bicentennial of his death in obscurity and pauperhood; his homelessness, so to say, in the annals of political thought and national pantheons testifies in some ways to the defeat his principles suffered in his very lifetime. The American Revolution turned conservative; France’s fell to despotism; England’s was strangled in its crib.

Even so, he fired the imaginations of many troublemakers still to come. A man of no wealth or position who etched in fire the spirit of his times, Paine saw further and spoke plainer than most of his contemporaries. If a prophet is not welcome in his own country, it scarcely diminishes the power of the prophecy.

And/or, enjoy this free biography at Google Books.

* Given by the French crown in opposition to France’s great rival Britain, of course.

** Paine certainly considered himself American, though he wouldn’t have made that inconsistent with being French, too. The matter of his citizenship between England (where his pamphlets had him attainted in absentia on a capital charge), France and the United States was a contested one at a time when the very notion was being reforged in the heat of revolution; at any rate, as diplomatic pretext for failing to ask for his life, citizenship makes a feeble excuse.

Republican radicals in England didn’t mind claiming him as their own, developing this alternate lyric sheet to the national anthem:

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God save great Thomas Paine
His ‘Rights of Man’ explain
To every soul.
He makes the blind to see
What dupes and slaves they be,
And points out liberty,
From pole to pole.

Thousands cry ‘Church and King’
That well deserve to swing,
All must allow:
Birmingham blush for shame,
Manchester do the same,
Infamous is your name,
Patriots vow.

Part of the Themed Set: Thermidor.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,France,Freethinkers,Guillotine,History,Intellectuals,Language,Lucky to be Alive,Not Executed,Politicians,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,The Worm Turns,USA

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