1796: Thirty Jacobins for the Affaire du camp de Grenelle

Add comment October 9th, 2014 Headsman

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

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

“Song of the Equals”
Babouvist popular song from 1796

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1796: Lesurques, wrongly, and Couriol, rightly, for robbing the Lyons Mail

1 comment October 30th, 2009 Headsman

On this date* in 1796, France enacted what was long held to be one of its most notorious miscarriages of criminal justice by cutting off the head of Joseph Lesurques.

Lesurques was taken for the one of a gang who had sensationally robbed and murdered a mail courier early in 1796, and on the basis of slight eyewitness testimony condemned to die. The only reason he was associated with the crime in the first place was because his friend had been mistakenly accused, and then released, and Lesurques accompanied him to the court to retrieve the friend’s papers where he was “recognized.”

Eyewitness testimony having juridical pull far in excess of its dependability,** this “recognition” was worth the man’s life.

The famous French Revolution executioner Sanson was still in the game at this point, and his grandson (not yet born at this time) used the family notes to pull together this quasi-firsthand account in Memoirs of the Sansons. It’s a tale familiar to any present-day wrongful conviction scenario, of bad evidence snowballing, a blinkered prosecutor intent on conviction, pettifogging appellate authorities, and grim, relentless bureaucratic momentum.

(The names the Memoirs render as “Courriol” and “Dubosc” are also given as “Couriol” and “Dubosc” in other sources.)

the instructing magistrate … instead of imitating the prudence of his Parisian colleague and trying to discover the truth, applied himself to the collection of proofs of the guilt of the prisoners …

Fifteen witnesses on behalf of the defence proved an alibi in favour of Lesurques, eighty-three others spoke highly of his well-known respectability; but their evidence went for nothing in opposition to those who, with singular pertinacity, maintained that Lesurques was one of those who had been seen lurking near the scene of the murder on the night when it was committed …

On hearing his condemnation, Lesurques, who had been firm and collected throughout the trial, lost his self-possession, and raising his hands to heaven he exclaimed:

“The crime which is imputed to me is indeed atrocious and deserves death; but if it is horrible to murder on the high road it is not less so to abuse the law and convict an innocent man. A day will come when my innocence will be recognised, and then may my blood fall upon the jurors who have so lightly convicted me, and on the judges who have influenced their decision!”

On the 9th of Brumaire, year 5 (October 30, 1796), my grandfather and father proceeded to the Conciergerie, and found the convicts in the hall, through which so many had passed during the Reign of Terror. David Bernard† was in a state of utter prostration; Courriol, on the contrary, was excited. As to Lesurques, he was as calm and fearless as ever. When he saw my grandfather, whose white hair sufficiently designated him as the chief executioner, he stepped up to him, and said, holding out a sealed letter:

“Citizen, I hope for the honour of human justice that your functions do not often compel you to shed the blood of a guiltless man; I hope, therefore, that you will grant the last request of a man who is about to suffer for what he has not done. Be good enough to keep this letter, which may hereafter contribute to the restoration of the honour of my wife and poor children, whereof they have been so unjustly deprived.”

While one of his assistants was cutting the unfortunate man’s hair, my grandfather read the paper Lesurques had just given him. It was a letter addressed to Dubosc, the man in whose place he was condemned. It ran as follows:

“To Citizen Dubosc.

“Citizen Dubosc, — I do not even know you, and I am going to suffer the death which was reserved for you. Be satisfied with the sacrifice of my life. Should you ever be brought to account, remember my three children and their mother, who are disgraced for ever, and do not prolong their agony. Confess that you are the man.”

All preparations were now concluded. Lesurques, of his own choice, was dressed in spotless white, symbol of his innocence. He was the first to take his place in the cart; Courriol followed him, and Bernard, who had fainted, was deposited on the straw. Then began the most dismal and extraordinary journey that ever was made from the Conciergerie to the Place de Greve. Lesurques and Courriol stood in front. At every turn of the wheel, Courriol exclaimed in a piercing voice:

“I am guilty! Lesurques is innocent!”

And for twenty minutes, that is during the whole way to the guillotine, he perseveringly repeated his awful protest against justice. The crowd was horrified, and there were few who did not believe the murderer who confessed his crime, but who proclaimed his companion’s innocence. Courriol again repeated his words at the foot of the scaffold with extraordinary energy and vehemence, and the thump of the knife but just covered his supreme shriek:

“Lesurques is innocent!”

The judicial authorities have perseveringly refused to recognise this flagrant miscarriage of justice. And yet the innocence of Lesurques was amply demonstrated a short time after his execution: all the real murderers of the courier of Lyons designated by Courriol were captured; Dubosc himself, whose fatal resemblance to Lesurques was the cause of the latter’s death, was taken and tried … he was executed just four years after Lesurques …

The Lesurques heirs were left paupers by the state’s punitive confiscation of the “bandit’s” effects; after a quarter-century (during which the widow died in a madhouse), they were at least able to recoup their material loss, but although repeatedly challenged, the conviction itself was never reversed.

Judicial and literary skirmishing over the Lesurques matter continued for decades, gradually forming into a general consensus (whatever the courts might admit) that the man was wrongly accused.

As a result, Lesurques remained a potent symbol of capricious criminal justice overreach throughout the 19th century and into the 20th: this 1874 reader, Famous Cases of Circumstantial Evidence, has a full chapter on the case; a popular Victorian play titled The Lyons Mail was translated into a now-lost 1915 silent film and a 1931 talkie … albeit with a happy ending.

To a certain, inevitably well-represented, authoritarian demographic, any credence given to the self-evident proposition that wrongful convictions happen smacks of effrontery towards betters, and the Lesurques case was no exception … especially when paired with the coincident low ebb of public esteem for Power during the Dreyfus affair, which hit while The Lyons Mail was in vogue.

An advert insert in an unrelated 1903 book plumps a “Lesurques was guilty” position, riffing on the then-current Dreyfus controversy (“recent efforts in France to bring about the revision of a celebrated case”). This book is listed, but unavailable, on Amazon.com.

L’ affaire Lesurques never (so far as I can determine) reached a resolution; it simply faded away, 140 years or so after its namesake lost his head.

A late (1930) review of its particulars in the Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology (“The Moving Story of the Lyons Stage,” by Max Radin of UC-Berkeley, May 1930) proceeds with ingenuousness embarrassingly unbecoming a professor of the law.

Judicial errors do not occur in the United States. [!!!] Under these circumstances, we can look with some satisfaction on times and places in which this happy condition did not prevail. If in the cycle of existences our perfection should ever become visibly tainted, it may happen that we shall hang men or electrocute them and subsequently regret the fact. Perhaps some one will then recall the moving story of the Lyons stage.

Sounds like it’s ready for a revival.

* A few sources say March 10, 1797, but the most and best clearly lean to October 30, 1796.

** “Juries have an unfortunate faith in the accuracy of eyewitnesses,” William Davis Gross observes. “The propensity for blunder is so great that it is nearly equal to all other forms of error combined.” (“The Unfortunate Faith: A Solution to the Unwarranted Reliance Upon Eyewitness Testimony,” Texas Wesleyan Law Review, spring 1999)

† Bernard is a footnote in the story, but he seems to have received a raw deal himself: he was the liveryman who procured the horses for the highwaymen, but did not participate in the crime. Sanson passingly refers to Bernard as “but slightly guilty.”

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1796: Francois de Charette, Vendee rebel

3 comments March 29th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1796, Republican France subdued the troublesome Vendee with the execution of its last great rebel.

Royalist officer Charette (English Wikipedia link | French) had assumed leadership of the anti-Republican revolt that broke out in the Vendee in 1796 — albeit with some turf rivalry with other anti-Republican figures in the area.

After a capable stretch of guerrilla campaigning, Charette had no sooner laid down his arms than the desperately counterrevolutionary English pushed for an ill-considered resumption of hostilities.

This time, the rebels took it in the culottes.

Charette, having upheld the monarchist cause long past his fellows — and much past any hope of success — became the figure the Republic had to eliminate to pacify the region. As English historian Archibald Alison has it, Charette paid a grim price for refusing to just be bought off.

Anxious to get quit of so formidable an enemy on any terms, the Directory offered [Charette] a safe retreat into England with his family and such of his followers as he might select, and a million of francs for his own maintenance. Charette replied, “I am ready to die with arms in my hands; but not to fly, and abandon my companions in misfortune. All the vessels of the Republic would not be sufficient to transport my brave soldiers into England. Far from fearing your menaces, I will myself come to seek you in your own camp.” …

This indomitable chief, however, could not long withstand the immense bodies which were now directed against him. His band was gradually reduced from seven hundred to fifty, and at last, ten followers. With this handful of heroes he long kept at bay the Republican forces; but at length, pursued on every side, and tracked out like a wild beast by bloodhounds, he was seized after a furious combat, and brought, bleeding and mutilated, but unsubdued, to the Republican headquarters. … Maltreated by the brutal soldiery, dragged along, yet dripping with blood from his wounds, before the populace of the town, weakened by loss of blood, he had need of all his strength of mind to sustain his courage; but, even in this extremity, his firmness never deserted him.

He was shot in Nantes after a perfunctory trial, refusing a blindfold and giving the orders to his own firing squad.

The execution of Charette. Mid-19th century illustration.

Execution of General Charette, in Nantes, March 1796, by Julien Le Blant.

Napoleon, who had done well to duck a possibly career-killing assignment to the Vendee the year before and was in consequence at this very moment the Revolution’s emergent man on horseback,* paid tribute from his suitable distance to Charette’s brilliance.

Charette was a great character; the true hero of that interesting period of our Revolution, which, if it presents great misfortunes, has at least not injured our glory. He left on me the impression of real grandeur of mind; the traces of no common energy and audacity, the sparks of genius, are apparent in his actions.

* Having made his name by efficiently putting down a royalist putsch in Paris a few months before, Napoleon had wed Josephine just three weeks before Charette’s execution.

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1796: Jose Leonardo Chirino, Venezuelan slave revolt leader

1 comment December 10th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1796, insurrectionary Jose Leonardo Chirino was hanged in Caracas for leading a slave revolt in Spain’s oppressive New World sugar plantations.

Nearly all the information readily available online about Chirino is in Spanish, and all the links in this post are to Spanish pages.

The influence of the Haitian Revolution, and the philosophical precepts of the French Revolution that had helped spawn it, sent waves through the Caribbean washing up on every shore it touched.

Most of those lands had a ready audience under the lash of European colonial masters; the eastern Venezuelan city of Coro, home to the sugar aristocracy and the groaning underclass that crop implied, must have had one of the readiest.

On May 10, 1795, Chirino — a Zambo of mixed African and Amerindian blood who was himself a free farmer — led an uprising of the Congolese slaves in the area who worked the sugarcane and declared a Republic under the “Law of the French,” with slavery and white privilege abolished.


The rebellion’s attempt on Coro itself failed, and it was swiftly put down by the colonial authorities. Though many involved were killed summarily, the Spanish took their sweet time after capturing Chirino in August 1795: only the following year was he transferred to Caracas for execution, after which his body was dismembered and his head set in an iron cage displayed on the road to Coro. (For good measure, they sold his family into slavery.)

(Video from here)

Of course, Chirino was on the right side of history. The city square in Caracas where Chirino hung is now Plaza Bolivar, named for Latin America’s eponymous liberator.

Coro itself is today served by Jose Leonardo Chirino airport, and for the African diaspora in Venezuela, Chirino is a special inspiration.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Like any worthwhile symbol, he’s also contested territory — claimed as a forerunner (if a questionable one) of socialism by the “Bolivarian Republic” now governed by Hugo Chavez.

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1796: Mastro Titta’s first execution of many

11 comments March 22nd, 2008 dogboy

A Catholic man with the name Giovanni Battiste (“John the Baptist”) Bugatti could hardly have had a more ironic role in church history than the man who, on this date in 1796, dispatched his first victim as official executioner of the Papal State. Nicholas Gentilucci was hanged for killing a clergyman and his coachman, then robbing two friars while on the lam; Gentilucci’s corpse was subsequently quartered.

Little is known about Gentilucci, but much is known of his then-17-year-old executioner, for Bugatti, who would become known simply as Mastro Titta, turned out to be the most individually prolific taker of life in turn-of-the-19th century Rome.

Bugatti was born in Rome in 1779 and, even while putting criminals of the state to death, lived and worked on the west side of the Tiber River as an umbrella painter. Executions were a side job, and these ghastly deeds were recognized as such by the church, which compensated him a paltry three cents of a Roman lira for each body.

“Minister of Justice”

Mastro Titta brandishes an executed woman’s head.

The original Mastro Titta — the titular corruption of the “Minister of Justice” — took responsibility for each of his “patients” (as he called them, and as they were notoriously referred to by others), dutifully noting each of the 516 in his memoir. He stood for 69 years as the primary administrator of the death penalty in papal Rome, killing variously by beheading, hanging, and use of the mallet. Some were charged with murder, others with conspiracy, others with more petty crimes, but all were found guilty by the court of judges chosen by the Church’s bishops and cardinals.

The Minister’s performances were not without an (increasingly practiced) flair, heavy on the religious symbolism. Bugatti’s residence on the west side of the river meant that, when he was to carry out a punishment, he had first to cross the river.

Initially, the executions were carried out in the Piazza del Popolo, but that location was retired in the 1820’s; it’s not clear how consistent the location was after this, but at least one later execution occurred near San Giovanni decollato, home to the group of monks dedicated to comforting the condemned even when the final blow didn’t occur at its doorstep. Regardless of the locale, a spectacle soon arose surrounding that crossing and the parade which followed, as documented by Italian dialect poet G.G. Belli in 1835 (presumably for the execution of Giovanni Orioli di Lugo on July 11 of that year):

The Dilettante at the Bridge

They approach: Attention: the ceremony is brief.
Behold the condemned, neck bare and stretched.
He is the first man of the opera, the Patient,
The Ace of Spades, lord of the fesitval.

And behold the professor that will soon be
The surgeon acting for the people
For three pence, the community,
He will cure the ills of their pained head!

But not the man on the left: the other, to the right.
He in the second place is the Assistant.
The proceedings wait for Mastro Titta.

Do you want the usual from me, who takes the head?
I who never miss it: I am consistent;
And I know him as well as I know the Pope.

The translation is largely mine, with help on some difficult sections from a well-written and complete description of Mastro Titta’s life and work here and here.

Just a Job

A pinch of snuff before I snuff you?

Bugatti was known for playing the role of executioner in a manner which left no doubt as to his feelings towards the act: it was his job, his service to the Church itself, undisturbed by any personal animus towards the condemned — particularly early in his career.

He often offered snuff to his victims and spoke briefly and quietly with them prior to the execution, likely ploys to ease the victim into his role in the spectacle. Dickens viewed one of Mastro Titta’s beheadings on 8 March 1845*, and, in his Pictures From Italy, he remarked on the callousness of the event.

In keeping with this attitude, most of the entries in Mastro Titta’s memoir are fewer than 20 words. They reflect a man who seeks to distance himself from the crowd’s bloodlust. A selection:

  • Tommaso Tintori, guilty of homicide, 28 February 1810″ (The first using the “new edifice for beheading from the French government” — that is, the guillotine)
  • “Pecorari Angel, of Poli, aged 29. Peasant guilty of premeditated homicide of one woman, condemned to «death as an example» in Poland on 21 January 1847.” (There were a number of prisoners sentenced in other Catholic parts of Europe sent to Rome for Titta’s ministrations.)

  • “Sabbatino Proietti, aged 25, «decapitated» in Rieti for petty theft and highway robbery and murder on 20 August 1853, died converted, executed through administration of justice at the public square at the Bridge.”
  • “Angelo Lisi di Alatri, found guilty of premeditated highway robbery and murder in Frosinone, «dead» on 30 April 1862.”

An Anomalous Man

Bugatti was born just seven years prior to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany becoming the first of the Italian states to abolish the death penalty. There, Leopold II barred torture and punishment of death, a decision heavily influenced by Cesare Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments and a desire to distance his nation from Rome.

In the neighboring Papal State, however, the practice continued, the embodiment of the church’s power over its people in matters earthly and spiritual. Executions of the time performed for various reasons, but with a handful of exceptions, they were almost exclusively performed on persons in the lower class. Many relied on the use of torture or testimony from confessionals. Papal executions were carried out until the 1870s and only declared unnecessary (though not banned by the Church) by Pope John Paul II in the 1990s.

A complete discussion of the role of executions in the Catholic Church is too much for this space,** but a man like Bugatti serves usefully to exemplify the absurdity endowed in these killings by the Catholic Church. Where the half-dozen popes who served over Bugatti thought such executions to be necessary for the control of the masses, they had no such ideas about nobles who committed crimes.

The execution itself consisted of a parade with masked priests, banners, scriptural readings, and sermonizing, culminating in the death of the condemned. John L Allen of the National Catholic Reporter described the treatment of these executions in that day as “a liturgy”, and descriptions from writers such as Lord Byron show a scene which could only be described as a mix of Catholic Mass and town festival.

Such ritualized killing came to contrast starkly with the Italian celebration of an anti-death penalty position, and the two stood at odds for over a century. In 1909, the topic was hot enough that a plaque glorifying two Italians executed by Bugatti in 1825 was erected; a dozen years later, its contents were concealed out of deference to Rome until after the Second Vatican Council. The commemorated, Angiolo Targhini and Leonida Montanari (here’s their Italian Wikipedia page), were convicted essentially of riling the people, and they were summarily beheaded; their story was the inspiration for Luigi Magni’s 1969 classic Nell’anno del Signore:

“So ends the long list of Bugatti.”

Mastro Titta was given an official residence, and at the end of his term, he was handsomely rewarded with a pension for his service — 30 scudi per year. His final executions were carried out on 17 August 1864, wearing his traditional red cloak (now on display at the Criminology Museum of Rome): Antonio Olietti of Rome and Domenico Antonio Demartini were beheaded for homicide.

The Minister of Justice was 85, four and some years from the end of his life, and the final line in his memoir reads, “So ends the long list of Bugatti. May that of his successor be shorter.”

Indeed it was.

The final executions in Rome occurred on 24 November 1868 at the hands of Antonio Balducci, Bugatti’s long-time apprentice; the event was marked by Pope Pius IX famously intoning in response to calls for a stay, “I can’t, and I don’t want to.” The last execution in the Papal State was of Agatino Bellomo on 9 July 1870, in Palestrina, shortly before the nascent unified Italy absorbed Rome.

Mastro Titta is still known in Italy,† but, adrift amid a particularly violent period of revolution, his legacy as papal executioner is largely lost to the rest of the world.

* The day’s guillotinee was Giovanni Vagnarelli, 26, from Augustine; he killed Bavarian Anna Cotten and robbed her, and her wife’s statement at confessional was used to convict Vagnarelli. Such confessional convictions were not uncommon, as Bugatti’s own memoir confirms.

** There’s surprisingly little reading out there about this topic, though it would seem ripe for a book or two. Here’s what I can find:

  • “Fear and Loathing in Bologna and Rome: The Papal Police in Perspective”, Steven Hughes, Journal of Social History, 1987.
  • “Capital Punishment: The Curious History of its Privileged Place in Christendom”, James J. Megivern, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 2003.
  • For a discussion of current discourse in Catholic teachings, this is rather interesting: “To Kill or Not to Kill: The Catholic Church and the Problem of the Death Penalty”, lecture by E. Christian Brugger, Asst. Prof. of Ethics, Dept. of Religious Studies, Loyola University, 2001.

† A half dozen kilometers from the bridge that Mastro Titta crossed on his way to carry out Papal justice now stands the Mastro Titta Pub. It is reportedly “tastefully done” and serves mostly Belgian beers.

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