1793: Ezra Mead, “in one of these fits of insanity”

2 comments May 31st, 2013 Headsman

The July 13, 1793 Wyndham (Conn.) Herald quotes the last dying words of Ezra Mead, hanged May 31 at Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

I, Ezra Mead, aged forty years, was born at Stamford in the State of Connecticut, of honest and credible parents, with whom I lived until I was about ten years of age; when I was bound as an apprentice to learn the Cooper’s trade. After having served the time of my apprenticeship, I went to Fish Kill and married my wife Catherine Rogers; since which time I have been in several parts of the World working at my trade, in order to get something in an honest way by my industry for the support of my wife and children, who resided in the town of Fish Kill. Having returned to my family, I resided with them, but being afflicted by a certain neighbor of mine, in words and actions, was driven by turns to drinking to excess; and in one of these fits of insanity, I committed the crime for which I suffer. But I declare to the world, that I was not willfully guilty of the crime aforesaid; at that present moment I might have suspected he had injured me, but not being master of my reason, have been guilty of what I never intended to have done, as appeared in the course of my trial. And I do further declare that I never have been guilty of any other crime deserving such punishment, as has been represented or reported by many evil minded persons since my imprisonment. And that I forgive all mankind, and hope the Lord and they will forgive me, and that they will take warning by my untimely end. Farewell. Ezra Mead.

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1793: 213 or so Lyonnaise

Add comment December 22nd, 2011 Headsman

Upon learning of the recent Republican capture of Toulon from the British and anti-revolutionary allies — a military achievement authored by a 24-year-old artillerist by the name of Napoleon Bonaparte — Joseph Fouche dispatched the following missive from the city where he his iron-fisted occupation was earning the epithet “Executioner of Lyon(s)”

Despite showing himself a ferocious Jacobin during the Terror, the Machiavellian Fouche helped author Robespierre‘s downfall and later became ennobled as the Duke of Otranto under Bonaparte. Needled by the Corsican about having voted for Louis XVI’s execution, Otranto aptly riposted, “Yes, sire; and that is the first service I had the honour of rendering your majesty!”

Joseph Fouche to Collot d’Herbois
22nd December 1793

And we likewise, my friend, have contributed to the surrender of Toulon, by spreading terror amongst the traitors who had entered the town, and by exposing to their view the dead bodies of thousands of their accomplices.

The war will be at an end if we know how to profit by this memorable victory; let us show ourselves terrible, that we may not fear becoming weak or cruel; let us annihilate in our anger, and at one single blow, every conspirator, every traitor, that we may not feel the pain, the long torture of punishing them as Kings would do.

Let us follow the example of nature in the exercise of justice. Let us be avenged as a nation, let us strike as quick as lightning, and let even the ashes of our enemies disappear from the land of liberty.

Let the perfidious and ferocious English be assailed from every quarter; let the whole republic turn into a volcano, and pour forth the devouring lava upon them: may the infamous island that produced those monsters, who no longer belong to the human species, be hurled for ever in the waves.

Farewell, my friend: tears of joy gush from my eyes, and overflow my heart. The courier is setting off. I shall write to you by the post.

FOUCHE

P.S. We have but one means of celebrating our victory. We shall this evening send 213 rebels to the place of execution: our loaded cannons are ready to salute them.

(Translation primarily as rendered in the London Times, July 18, 1815)

Whether this horrifying last bit of revolutionary braggadocio was in fact effected does not seem to be quite clear. This book claims that Fouche had 192 executed that day for the amusement of a party of Jacobins and prostitutes, which has the suspicious whiff of propaganda about it.

Hubert Cole, in Fouche: The Unprincipled Patriot reckons it “only” 67, with Fouche routinely inflating his atrocity figures a la military body counts for the benefit of ardent revolutionaries in Paris.

The use of cannon loaded with anti-personnel grapeshot — condemned tied together in pairs and then indiscriminately blasted; troops on hand to finish off survivors with bayonets — was an innovation in death-dealing technology that the National Convention did not appreciate, and Fouche was obliged to return to the more decorous methods of regular firing squads and that newfangled beheading machine.

* Not to be confused with Nazi torturer Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon. We hope the good people of Lyon will not require too many more synonymous sobriquets.

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1793: Jean-Sylvain Bailly, moonstruck

Add comment November 12th, 2011 Headsman

See Bailly, likewise of Paris, time-honoured Historian of Astronomy Ancient and Modern. Poor Bailly, how thy serenely beautiful Philosophising, with its soft moonshiny clearness and thinness, ends in foul thick confusion — of Presidency, Mayorship, diplomatic Officiality, rabid Triviality, and the throat of everlasting Darkness! Far was it to descend from the heavenly Galaxy to the Drapeau Rouge: beside that fatal dung-heap, on that last hell-day, thou must ‘tremble,’ though only with cold, ‘de froid.’ Speculation is not practice: to be weak is not so miserable; but to be weaker than our task. Wo the day when they mounted thee, a peaceable pedestrian, on that wild Hippogriff of a Democracy; which, spurning the firm earth, nay lashing at the very stars, no yet known Astolpho could have ridden!

Carlyle

On this date in 1793, French astronomer turned revolutionary Jean-Sylvain Bailly was guillotined during the Paris Terror.

Bailly ditched a family trade in the arts — his father was a supervisor at the Louvre — and turned his gaze skyward.

Studying astronomy under Lacaille, Bailly made a quick splash in astronomical circles with meticulous work on Halley’s Comet and the moons of Jupiter. He was inducted into the French Academy of Sciences while still in his twenties. Not quite the guy every schoolchild knows, but a significant scientist in his time. As one twentieth-century reviewer put it,*

Bailly was not a great thinker or the discoverer of new concepts; no case can be made for placing his name beside those of Newton, Leibnitz, and Laplace. But he should not be denied a niche among the numerous competent and persevering work-a-day scientists who, perhaps, in the long run make possible the achievements of a few great men. His observations and reductions, his application of a mathematical discipline to the movements of the heavenly bodies, and his detailed publications had brought him, by 1766, considerable credit among fellow scientists.

His “considerable credit” in the public sphere, enhanced by his widely-admired writing, set him up for election to the Estates-General in 1789. Indeed, Bailly was elected to head the body’s Third Estate.

On June 20th of that pregnant year, days after the Estates-General had constituted itself a National Assembly with ambitions far outstripping the limited purpose of revenue collection the king intended them for, Louis XVI locked the delegates out of their meeting-room.

Bailly, in consequence, would lead one of the pivotal actions of the embryonic French Revolution. “I do not need to tell you in what a grievous situation the Assembly finds itself,” he said to the assembly reconvened at a nearby tennis court. “I propose that we deliberate on what action to take under such tumultuous circumstances.” The result of that deliberation was the Tennis Court Oath.


Detail view (click for the full image) of Jean-Sylvain Bailly administering the Tennis Court Oath, in Jacques-Louis David‘s sketch of the event.

When the Paris provost — an archaic municipal office — was shot by the mob on Bastille Day, Bailly became the City of Light’s first mayor.

But as with other principals of the Revolution’s earliest stirrings, like Bailly’s ally Lafayette, the man was left behind by the rapid progress of events. He’d been two years retired out of public service in Nantes when he was hailed before the Revolutionary Tribunal on the preposterous charge of having conspired in Louis XVI’s attempted flight and guillotined on that basis.

A lunar crater — the largest crater visible from earth — is appropriately named after this prolific observer of the heavens.

* Edwin Burrows Smith, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Series, Vol. 44, No. 4 (1954).

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1793: Philippe Egalite, hoisted on his own petard

6 comments November 6th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1793, Philippe Egalite was hoisted on his own petard.

To hoist with one’s own petard actually has an older derivation, dating to siege warfare engineers whose primitive bombs, petards, were liable to detonate unexpectedly and gave their makers a “hoist.”

Still, the phrase sounds like something that ought to come right out of the French Revolution, redolent (as are petards themselves: the explosive word is from the French “to fart”) of angry mobs hoisting aristocrats, as was their wont, up on pikestaffs and lampposts and … petards. Whatever those are.

Philippe Egalite — the Duke of Orleans, as he was known for most of his life — was such an aristocrat: in fact he was royalty, the First Prince of the Blood and a cousin to Louis XVI.

And he was the member of the royal house who most vibed on the revolutionary spirit of the times, literally bankrolling the Jacobins before the Revolution. Hilary Mantel* notes that Orleans made the Palais Royal “into a sort of demagogue’s shopping centre — Paris’s most volatile public space, crammed with cafés and bookshops, a gathering place for the disaffected. In July 1789, three days of orchestrated violence began there, and culminated in the taking of the Bastille.”

Now that is a petard.

Philippe’s class-traitor politics obviously exposed him to the wrath of the monarchists — a particular irony since the man’s son Louis-Philippe, was France’s last king from 1830 to 1848 — but as usual in Paris during the Terror, it was the the Revolution devouring its children that did him in.

Despite taking up during the Revolution the very Republican name Egalite by which we know him, and despite Egalite‘s vote in the Convention in favor of guillotining Louis XVI (this is sometimes described with more melodrama than accuracy as the “decisive” vote), and despite his many years’ prior revolutionary sympathy, the Duke of Orleans was rounded up with the rest of the available Bourbons when the French General Dumouriez‘s spring 1793 defection prompted a panicky revolutionary purge in Paris. Philippe’s own son, the future king, had gone over with Dumouriez to the Austrians.

Rosebud

The Duc d’Orleans employed Choderlos de Laclos, author of the notoriously delicious Dangerous Liaisons.

As an individual citizen turned politician turned guillotinee, Egalite doesn’t much stand out in those perilous years: one more vulnerable Convention delegate outmaneuvered by Robespierre et al.

As the Daddy Warbucks of the Rights of Man, however, Egalite was a titanic figure for his contemporaries. Not many held him in high personal esteem, but movements need moneybags, and the Prince of the Blood bankrolled his from the bottomless revenues he earned on estates that would dwarf entire departements.

The Duke of Orleans and those around him, according to George Armstrong Kelly in “The Machine of the Duc D’Orléans and the New Politics” (The Journal of Modern History, Dec. 1979)

invented something novel in the history of French politics: the massive use of wealth, research, and propaganda** for the purpose of forming public opinion and swaying public policy. No doubt there are analogues among the Romans and the eighteenth-century English; but here we are almost reminded of the Rockefellers and Kennedys.

Orleans was accused of generating all this mayhem to make his own bid for the throne; those accusations may even hold a bit of truth. Such machinations remain for the conspiratorial among posterity a shadow-play upon the wall; one is left to guess at their potential dimensions from shreds of evidence and the vying vituperations of various contemporary revolutionary factions.

But if extant, such schemes were fatally compromised by the mediocrity of the figurehead who lost his head this day. Though a revolutionary in his philosophy, he was still a doughy Bourbon scion in his soul, and heir to the many shortcomings that characterized that dynasty in its decadence.

Dissolute in the enjoyment of privilege; irresolute in the conquest of power; blithely rearing wolves to his own destruction. That was some petard.


Philippe Egalite and his onetime lover Grace Elliott are the titular characters of the 2001 Eric Rohmer movie The Lady and the Duke.

* Hilary Mantel is the same author who penned the acclaimed historical novel Wolf Hall, about Thomas Cromwell.

** Kelly claims that Egalite funded Marat.

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1793: Adam Philippe, Comte de Custine

Add comment August 28th, 2010 Headsman

The best defense would have been a good offense for French General Adam Philippe, Comte de Custine — guillotined in Paris this date in 1793 for inadequacy in command of the French revolutionary armies fighting continental monarchist armies.

You must be this tall to go on the General Moustache* ride, and poor results in the field at this time could leave you shorter. Losing to the enemy looked an awful lot like conspiring with the enemy, especially when there was a “Comte” in your name.

Custine spent the winter of 1792-1793 coughing up French conquests across the Rhine. (In his defense, several of them were things that he’d previously conquered himself.)

Recalled once to Paris to justify himself, the bewhiskered general was defended by no less than Robespierre, and thereafter returned to the field. Given this background, it was not wise of him to resume the losing streak — but he did.*

The resultant second recall saw the moustache — and its associated head — permanently shaved for treacherously throwing battles like the 1919 White Sox. This met with the great approval** of Hebert‘s Pere Duchesne :

“Epitaph on General Custine”

Here lies an headless General—(I’ll say dead)
As many living Generals want an head.

You have just done something worthy of me by denouncing Custine. You have brought into broad daylight his plots and his treason. If we had waited a few more days to recall him freedom would have been fucked. This infamous rascal, after having had the French in Frankfurt massacred, after having abandoned Mainz, after having allowed Valenciennes to be encircled, after having delivered Condé, only awaited the right moment to lead his army into a slaughter and to deliver the coup de grace to the republic by sacrificing its last resources. Fortunately, the bugger has been put to the side. His crimes have been proved, let his head promptly fall under the national razor, but let his not be the only one! Let all the scoundrels who compose his headquarters also be shortened. Pursue, denounce without rest the infamous Tourville, who was the right arm of Lameth, and who will deliver Maubeuge if we leave him in command. Make known the swindler Lapallière, and especially the ci-devant marquis de Verigni, known in all the gaming houses under the name of Debrulis. Tell the Sans Culottes in the army that this rat has emigrated twice. Don’t forget Leveneur, the intimate friend of Lafayette, and the henchman of Custine. Don’t allow these bandits a moments rest until they’ve been chased and punished as traitors.

Custine’s son also got the chop for defending his old man.

Surviving the purge: Adam Philippe’s then-three-year-old grandson, Astolphe Custine. Custine would become famous as “the de Tocqueville of Russia,” and for his aphoristic and still-current travelogue La Russie en 1839.

* Actual nickname.

** And characteristically profane. Pere Duchesne would not have had a lot of patience for coy little cunnilingus references where a salty sans-culotte f-bomb would do instead.

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1793: The smitten Adam Lux

2 comments November 4th, 2009 Headsman

Among all the strange and pathetic love-stories of the Revolution, when hearts were won within prison walls and wedded by the guillotine, is there another as fantastic and wonderful as that of Adam Luchs? (Source)

Adam Lux (as he’s better known, and a fitter name to his character could hardly be invented), German Republican turned French Revolution representative, was so lovestruck by the arresting figure of Charlotte Corday that it was downright … mortifying.

Many were men to whom the Norman maid played muse, like the poet Andre Chenier.

But Lux was something else.

Thrilled by this chaste heroine’s sacrificial blow against the Revolution’s monster, Lux was supposed to have fallen madly in love with the murderess the one time he actually saw her, on her serene way to the scaffold.

Eros thus yoked to Thanatos, the besotted fellow promptly hurled himself after the exaltation of death. Imitation, after all, is the sincerest form of flattery.

Certainly knowing it to be fatal, Adam Lux published under his own name a vindication of Ms. Public Enemy #1 and her “tyrannicide,” and generally went extravagantly mooning about in this sort of vein as he prepared to get his head cut off this date in 1793:

The guillotine is no longer a disgrace. It has become a sacred altar, from which every taint has been removed by the innocent blood shed there on the 17th of July. Forgive me, my divine Charlotte, if I find it impossible at the last moment to show the courage and the gentleness that were yours! I glory because you are superior to me, for it is right that she who is adored should be higher and more glorious than her adorer!

Adam came off a little needy, you’d have to say.

Not surprisingly, he didn’t get the girl in the end.

Adam Lux to Charlotte Corday
by William James Dawson

Red is the garb thou wearest, red is the deed thou hast done,
And red on a land of blood rises the morning sun.
Kings have ridden this road, conquerors mailed in gold,
But none in such red triumph as this that we behold.

Rose, thro’ a rose-red dawn, go to thy valourous fate,
Queen of all roses thou, splendid and passionate.
And lo ! at thy feet I fling, here, in the gallows-cart,
Passionate even as thine, the rose-flower of my heart.

Turn but a moment toward me, stoop in thy raiment red,
I answer thee look for look, I am warmed and comforted.
Twins are we of one womb, fated sister and brother,
Nursed on the bare bruised breasts of Freedom our great Mother!

Thou, whom none could master, proud and glorious head,
Come, O Rose, to my bosom, come when thou art dead!
They have shorn the beautiful hair, they have bound the strong fair hands,
Signal me with your eyes that love still understands!

Signal, and I will follow : I dwell where thou must dwell,
I shall know thy blood-red raiment either in heaven or hell!
Lo! at thy feet I fling, here, in the gallows-cart,
Passionate even as thine, the red rose of my heart!

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1793: Charlotte Corday, Marat’s murderess

13 comments July 17th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1793, Charlotte Corday lightly dropped her head beneath the guillotine for the murder of Jean-Paul Marat.


The Death of Marat, by David.

She is of stately Norman figure; in her twenty-fifth year; of beautiful still countenance: her name is Charlotte Corday, heretofore styled d’Armans, while Nobility still was … A completeness, a decision is in this fair female Figure: ‘by energy she means the spirit that will prompt one to sacrifice himself for his country.’ What if she, this fair young Charlotte, had emerged from her secluded stillness, suddenly like a Star; cruel-lovely, with half-angelic, half-demonic splendour; to gleam for a moment, and in a moment be extinguished: to be held in memory, so bright complete was she, through long centuries!–Quitting Cimmerian Coalitions without, and the dim-simmering Twenty-five millions within, History will look fixedly at this one fair Apparition of a Charlotte Corday; will note whither Charlotte moves, how the little Life burns forth so radiant, then vanishes swallowed of the Night.

Carlyle’s voluptuous prose is well-suited to our heroine (for so she has officially seemed, since fall of Robespierre, or from the very first): in the mere hours from striking dead the ferocious Jacobin Jean-Paul Marat on July 13 to her beheading this day, she captivated the country and immortalized her name.

Hapless beautiful Charlotte; hapless squalid Marat! From Caen in the utmost West, from Neuchatel in the utmost East, they two are drawing nigh each other; they two have, very strangely, business together.

Or was it strange at all?

Implacable in her purpose, utopian in her design, unafraid to plant a butcher’s knife into the chest of an enemy of France, Corday has a little something in common with her mortal foe.


Charlotte Corday, by Paul-Jacques-Aime Baudry.

These make casting too easy: Marat, bad because he was ugly and ugly because he was bad; Charlotte, therefore, just the reverse. (She was also a virgin; they made sure to check at the autopsy.) Our Norman assassin’s looks have inordinately exercised her interlocutors from the moment of her arrest; her prosecutors, too, understood them as essential.

“Not at all pretty,” a contemporaneous government article (cited in Crisis in Representation) put about. “She was a virago, brawny rather than fresh, without grace, untidy as are almost all female philosophers and eggheads … an old maid … with a masculinized bearing … [who] had thrown herself absolutely outside of her sex.”

And there it is. Charlotte Corday’s power to excite both rapture and repulsion is plainly rooted in the unexpected contradiction between her sex and her crime. If she is a resolute political assassin, surely she is not feminine … or is it the other way around?

Take Andre Chenier‘s engorged ode: “Fair, young, resplendent, led to the executioners, you seemed to be riding in your bridal car … You alone were a man and vindicated the human race. And we, vile eunuchs, a cowardly and soulless herd, we know how to repeat some womanly whimper, but the steel would weigh heavy in our feeble hands. … One scoundrel less crawls in this slime. Virtue applauds you. Hear the majestic sound of its virile praise, heroic maid.” This is “throwing herself outside of her sex” in the affirmative sense of uplifting herself beyond mere womanhood, a girl so heroic she might almost qualify as a dude.

Place it at the historical pivot into a modernity unready to reckon with the place of the woman, and confusion reigns.

“The spectacle of such wickedness, beauty, and talent united in the same person,” a newspaper recorded, “the contrast between the magnitude of her crime and the weakness of her sex, her appearance of actual gaiety, and her smile before the judges, who could not fail to condemn her, all combined to create an impression on the spectators that is difficult to portray.”*

Still, this judgment offers more insight than some latterly “tributes,” like this Anglo magazine piece 30 years later: “an ornament and an honour to the sex of woman … Woman is the child of feeling. From this source spring up all her good and bad qualities. It is seldom ambition or policy which leads her on to any enterprise: it is the passions. … it was under the influence of such feelings that Charlotte Corday performed that act, which virtuous and generous minds, so far from considering a crime, will look upon as one of the most heroic deeds of recorded history.”

Which is a fascinating form of sexism, since it was precisely Corday’s unearthly calm — masculine virtue! — that awed the Revolutionary Tribunal. But everything about Charlotte Corday is up for interpretive grabs; Nina Rattner Gelbart even argues, in “The Blonding of Charlotte Corday” (Eighteenth-Century Studies 38.1 (2004)) that though a real-life brunette, her depictions trend increasingly flaxen-haired.**

As for Charlotte Corday her work is accomplished; the recompense of it is near and sure. The chere amie, and neighbours of the house, flying at her, she ‘overturns some movables,’ entrenches herself till the gendarmes arrive; then quietly surrenders; goes quietly to the Abbaye Prison: she alone quiet, all Paris sounding in wonder, in rage or admiration, round her. …

On Wednesday morning, the thronged Palais de Justice and Revolutionary Tribunal can see her face; beautiful and calm: she dates it ‘fourth day of the Preparation of Peace.’ A strange murmur ran through the Hall, at sight of her; you could not say of what character. Tinville has his indictments and tape-papers the cutler of the Palais Royal will testify that he sold her the sheath-knife; “all these details are needless,” interrupted Charlotte; “it is I that killed Marat.” By whose instigation? — “By no one’s.” What tempted you, then? His crimes. “I killed one man,” added she, raising her voice extremely (extremement), as they went on with their questions, “I killed one man to save a hundred thousand; a villain to save innocents; a savage wild-beast to give repose to my country. I was a Republican before the Revolution; I never wanted energy.” There is therefore nothing to be said. The public gazes astonished: the hasty limners sketch her features, Charlotte not disapproving; the men of law proceed with their formalities. The doom is Death as a murderess. To her Advocate she gives thanks; in gentle phrase, in high-flown classical spirit. To the Priest they send her she gives thanks; but needs not any shriving, or ghostly or other aid from him.

On this same evening, therefore, about half-past seven o’clock, from the gate of the Conciergerie, to a City all on tiptoe, the fatal Cart issues: seated on it a fair young creature, sheeted in red smock of Murderess; so beautiful, serene, so full of life; journeying towards death,–alone amid the world. Many take off their hats, saluting reverently; for what heart but must be touched? Others growl and howl. Adam Lux, of Mentz, declares that she is greater than Brutus; that it were beautiful to die with her: the head of this young man seems turned. At the Place de la Revolution, the countenance of Charlotte wears the same still smile. The executioners proceed to bind her feet; she resists, thinking it meant as an insult; on a word of explanation, she submits with cheerful apology. As the last act, all being now ready, they take the neckerchief from her neck: a blush of maidenly shame overspreads that fair face and neck; the cheeks were still tinged with it, when the executioner lifted the severed head, to shew it to the people. ‘It is most true,’ says Foster, ‘that he struck the cheek insultingly; for I saw it with my eyes: the Police imprisoned him for it.’†

In this manner have the Beautifullest and the Squalidest come in collision, and extinguished one another. Jean-Paul Marat and Marie-Anne Charlotte Corday both, suddenly, are no more. ‘Day of the Preparation of Peace?’ Alas, how were peace possible or preparable, while, for example, the hearts of lovely Maidens, in their convent-stillness, are dreaming not of Love- paradises, and the light of Life; but of Codrus’-sacrifices, and death well earned? That Twenty-five million hearts have got to such temper, this is the Anarchy; the soul of it lies in this: whereof not peace can be the embodyment! The death of Marat, whetting old animosities tenfold, will be worse than any life. O ye hapless Two, mutually extinctive, the Beautiful and the Squalid, sleep ye well,–in the Mother’s bosom that bore you both!

In Carlyle’s third volume on the French Revolution, “Charlotte Corday” is the first chapter in Book IV: The Terror.

While the assassin went contentedly to her death, and left smitten admirers in her passing, more realistic politicians saw that all her magnificent stoicism, all her self-sacrifice, had doomed the liberals who were her political fellow-travelers and opened the door to the very Terror she meant to avert. (And also that the gesture might have been better directed elsewhere, since Marat was already dying.)

“She has killed us,” prophesied Girondin deputy Pierre Vergniaud. “But she has taught us how to die.”

What meaning this leaves one with — any at all? — is the subject of the Peter Weiss play-within-a-play Marat/Sade, which sets a cast of lunatics in the Napoleonic era under the direction of the Marquis de Sade to portraying Marat’s rendezvous with Charlotte Corday.

* Cited by Elizabeth R. Kindleberger in “Charlotte Corday in Text and Image: A Case Study in the French Revolution and Women’s History,” French Historical Studies, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Autumn, 1994).

** Also of interest from Gelbart is the Vichy government’s affinity for our murderess: “Antisemitism made of Marat a Jew and a vile creature, dark, dirty, satanic, a bloodthirsty monster. In contrast, Corday was pure, saintly, beautiful, virginal, and of course fair.”

† The slap given Charlotte Corday’s severed head is historically attested by the French press (which was aghast); the famous story about it of a much more fantastic quality is that the severed head blushed — and, in the phrasing of Englishwoman Helen Maria Williams, “exhibited this last impression of offended modesty.” The legend of Charlotte’s crimsoned cheeks always comes up in the backstory of the guillotine’s experiments to determine if a head retained consciousness; Charlotte’s blush may in fact be credited as one of the reasons these experiments actually came to pass.

Part of the Themed Set: The Feminine Mystique.

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1793: Madame du Barry, who hated to go

5 comments December 8th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1793, Madame du Barry — shrieking pitiably in terror — was guillotined in Paris.

Versaille costume dramas have made great hay with the courtesan who became the mistress of Louis XV, and her catty court rivalry with Marie Antoinette. (Madame Tussaud’s still-on-display Sleeping Beauty figure was also created way back in 1763 in her likeness.)

More portraits of Madame du Barry here.

The sovereign’s bed implied a station of wealth and extravagance, but the low birth that caused Marie to turn up her nose didn’t much help this day’s victim standing with the Jacobins.

Poor Madame du Barry, at 50 years of age, had not lost an ounce of her considerable zest for life … and her apparently ingenuous joie de vivre while the Revolution raged looks somewhere between innocent and daft.

While nobles were scrambling to get out of France, the Comtesse born Jeanne Bécu shuttled back and forth over the English Channel in 1792 to settle her jewelry accounts … and decided to stay in France, returning after the September Massacres no less. Later, she would detail to her gaolers where she had stashed her baubles around her estate, in the delusion that they could buy her life — or at least, “did not each word give her a second of time?”*

She’s remembered for the uncommon scene she made being hauled to the guillotine this date — in a time when the scaffold’s pageantry demanded a stoic public dignity from the guillotine’s victims, the Comtesse came apart, and begged the crowd for her life so frantically and heart-wrenchingly that the executioners felt hurried to dispatch her lest the scene turn against them.

Even to the last, hopeless second she implored Sanson,

Encore un moment, monsieur le bourreau, un petit moment.**

One could make the case that if more clients of the national razor had displayed such naked humanity to onlookers, the guillotine‘s technical and social capacity for mass butchery might have been lessened.

Whether true or not, she gives us a glimpse, oddly unusual in these pages, of unadulterated fright — of that visceral instinct to cling to life, even under the blade, even for one little moment more.

Dostoyevsky, who knew whereof he spoke would write in The Idiot,

After all this honour and glory, after having been almost a Queen, she was guillotined by that butcher, Samson. She was quite innocent, but it had to be done, for the satisfaction of the fishwives of Paris. She was so terrified, that she did not understand what was happening. But when Samson seized her head, and pushed her under the knife with his foot, she cried out: ‘Wait a moment! wait a moment, monsieur!’ Well, because of that moment of bitter suffering, perhaps the Saviour will pardon her other faults, for one cannot imagine a greater agony.

Spare a thought for that moment of bitter suffering, next time you … uh, dine on cauliflower?

* This line, obviously in the vein of her famous last request to the headsman, is from Memoirs of the Comtesse Du Barry, actually a 19th century work of historical fiction by Baron Etienne Leon Lamothe-Langon.

** “One moment more, executioner, one little moment!”

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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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1793: The Girondists

9 comments October 31st, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1793, in a revolutionary Paris where the machinery of the Terror was clattering to life, five tumbrils bore to the guillotine twenty former Girondist ministers to the National Convention — plus the corpse of their late colleague Dufriche de Valazé, who had cheated the executioner by killing himself.

Named for the region of Aquitaine from which their leading lights hailed, the Girondists (or Girondins) had in the compressed history of the Revolution ascended from fringe democratic party to governing party even as the political facts shifted under their feet. Finding themselves the conservative party in an assembly increasingly dominated by radical Montagnards and the Paris mob, the Girondists’ tactlessness and stubborn refusal to deal with Georges Danton after his (still historically murky) involvement in the riotous slaughter of prisoners during the September Massacre eroded their position.

As the terrible year of 1793 unfolded, the Girondins discovered themselves successively overthrown, expelled from the Convention, proscribed, and hunted. Though many more — Girondists and others — were to follow in their steps, the trial of these 21 before the Revolutionary Tribunal and subsequent guillotining, the first notable mass-execution of the Revolution, raised the curtain on the Terror.


L’ultime adieu des Girondins le 31 Octobre 1793, by Paul Delaroche

Decades later, the English historian Lord Acton remembered the faction’s doomed heroism.

[The Girondins] stood four months before their fall. During that memorable struggle, the question was whether France should be ruled by violence and blood, or by men who knew the passion for freedom. The Girondins at once raised the real issue by demanding inquiry into the massacres of September. It was a valid but a perilous weapon. There could be no doubt as to what those who had committed a thousand murders to obtain power would be capable of doing in their own defence.

Almost to the last moment Danton wished to avoid the conflict. Again and again they rejected his offers. Open war, said Vergniaud, is better than a hollow truce. Their rejection of the hand that bore the crimson stain is the cause of their ruin, but also of their renown. They were always impolitic, disunited, and undecided; but they rose, at times, to the level of honest men.

They were easily beaten and mercilessly destroyed, and no man stirred to save them. At their fall liberty perished; but it had become a feeble remnant in their hands, and a spark almost extinguished. Although they were not only weak but bad, no nation ever suffered a greater misfortune than that which befell France in their defeat and destruction.

That Pierre Vergniaud who scorned the hollow truce was the last to mount the scaffold this day — a shining orator of the Revolution who captured the calamity engulfing his nation in another well-remembered aphorism, “the Revolution devours its own children.”

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