1894: Abbe Albert Bruneau

Add comment August 30th, 2018 Headsman

French priest Albert Bruneau was guillotined on this date in 1894 for murder. (Most of the available information about this case is in French, as are most of the links in this post.)

The Abbe‘s protests of innocence fell on deaf ears considering his history of degeneracy — thefts, seductions, even firing his own parsonage for the insurance money — stretching back to his seminarian days.

He’d been condemned for killing that January at Entrammes another priest, Abbe Fricot — whose body had wound up plundered of valuables and dropped down a well. This epidemic of priest-on-priest violence made for a tremendous public sensation that certainly was not conducive to Bruneau’s efforts to defend himself. Once he became suspected of Fricot’s murder, he was also baselessly implicated in (though never charged with) the unsolved killing of a Laval florist from the previous year.

A thread on guillotine.cultureforum.net draws our attention not only to some wonderful original reportage but to the riveting first-person account of Henri Massonneau in his Devant l’Echafaud (In Front of the Scaffold, available free online from Google Books or Gallica). Massonneau recounts the fury in Laval, where crowds expecting the execution a couple of days previously pelted the prison with taunts for the condemned man.

Bruneau’s cell, very tall in the tower of the Vieux Château, was illuminated. The mobs were screaming:

“Bruneau! It’s for this night! You will dance!”

In the night spots around the city, Massonneau even heard patrons grumbling for the head of Bruneau’s barrister, for having dared to defend the monster.

The magistrate and energetic proto-true crime scribbler Pierre Bouchardon* took up l’Affaire de l’Abbe Bruneau in 1942 and thought the legal proceedings inexcusably slipshod owing to the prejudicial atmosphere. (Unfortunately his Le Puits du Presbytere d’Entrammes (The Well of the Presbytery of Entrammes) falls under the pall of copyright and must be hunted among sellers of antique francophone titles.) Many other retrospectives have reached a similar conclusion.

We return to Massonneau, who has caught wind on the evening of August 29 that the beheading will take place early the next day, and even secured for himself entry into the prison to observe Bruneau’s last hours:

At half-past two in the morning, the van carrying the guillotine arrives, escorted by six gendarmes, at the Place de la Justice. This square is planted with tall trees and surrounded by stone terminals connected by chains. To allow the van to enter the square, the chains at the extreme angles had to be sawed. The square has been evacuated, but the windows of the neighboring houses are full of curiosity, and the square of the Cathedral which opens directly on the place du Palais de Justice, following it, is black with people.

We will attend the spectacle. But there will not be gladiators fighting wild beasts, nor bullfights, nor athletes measuring themselves: it will be the law that will kill an unarmed man. There are men, women, children, bourgeois, farmers, workers, many priests. Kids have climbed into the trees. We can not dislodge them. There are six thousand people around the guillotine. It’s a grand success. The weather is superb, the night is even hot.

From a distance, the crowd follows the assembly of the guillotine. When the sinister machine stands up, erect in the night, joy breaks out. We are finally quiet: Bruneau will be executed. The hour passes. My colleagues and I are entering the prison, but we are numerous and the Prosecutor of the Republic informs us that we will not be able to enter the cell of the convict. We will have to wait for him in the chapel where he will come to hear his last mass. From that moment, we will not leave him.

The magistrates entered his cell at 4 o’clock. Bruneau did not sleep. The Public Prosecutor said to him:

“Bruneau, courage. The time has arrived.”

Bruneau looked around, haggard. Then he said:

“Can I get up?”

“Yes, dress up.”

He put on his pants. The prosecutor asked him if he had a confession to make.

“No,” he replied, “I am innocent, not only of the crimes for which I was acquitted, but also of the one for which I was condemned. I only committed indecent assaults. I am innocent.” He delivered a letter to the Prosecutor.

“You will read it,” he said, “at the same time as my advocate, and you will deliver it to the public.”

In this letter, Bruneau again protests his innocence and says he forgives those who have hurt him. The letter was not published. Despite claiming to forgive them, Bruneau leveled slanderous accusations against some witnesses of the trial.

I go down to the chapel. It is located in a basement. From the chandeliers, a dozen candles flicker a dim light. Soon the chapel is full of people … I have never seen a scene more moving than the appearance of Bruneau in the chapel. He has come down at a brisk pace the twenty steps that lead to it. He wears his beard, very black, which gives him a remarkably energetic appearance. His foot scarcely leaving the last step, the condemned stiffens, and with a sudden movement turns towards the holy water font. His arms are shackled and he must make an incredible effort to take holy water. He looks like an automaton. He crosses himself, not without difficulty, then with a sure step approaches the high altar. There, he drops to his knees. A thump sounds. Bruneau seems lost in a chasm of prayer.

The chaplain approaches him and speaks to him in a low voice; Bruneau resumes his prayer; the chaplain comes to ask the prosecutor for permission to isolate himself with the condemned man to hear his confession. The prosecutor hesitates, but consents in the end. The chaplain returns near Bruneau, helps him get up, and they both head for a corner of the chapel hidden by a curtain. They disappear behind it. Two guards come to stand near the curtain.

The confession lasts ten endless minutes. Finally, Bruneau comes to take his place, on his knees, in front of the maître-hôtel. And the mass begins. Another twenty minutes pass. The assistants suffer visibly for the convict throughout; Bruneau communes. Finally the ceremony is over. Bruneau, before going out, again takes holy water, and he has the same difficulties as before. He is very calm. He climbs the stairs without weakness. It feels like a man walking in a dream. From the chapel, one goes into the courtyard to go to the registry where the last toilette is to be made. It is a small room on the ground floor. Through the door, left open, I attend these funereal preparations. Quietly, without affectation, he says he is hungry. It’s a new delay. Priests usually eat immediately after communion. It is habit that he is hungry.

He leaves the registry. I run forward and I come near the scaffold. The police commissioner who is there says to me: “It’s not him already?”

“Yes, yes, here he is.”

“But it’s impossible! It is not legal time. I cannot yet permit the execution.”

Then all that I thought during the Mass about the mental state of the condemned returns to me, and I say to the commissioner:

“Well! Have a chair brought there, near the guillotine, and sit down until it is legal time. I’m sure he will not protest … ”

“No, no, it’s not possible,” he said. “We have to wait for the hour.”

And he makes as if to go to the prison, just as the procession emerges. I stop him:

“Do not worry for so little. In Paris, we always guillotine before the hour.”

“You think?”

“I’m sure.”

“Ah! so …”

Bruneau is near the scaffold. It is exactly 4:47. Legally, indeed, it is at 5:15 that the execution should have taken place. We are half an hour ahead. Bruneau has crossed without faltering the two hundred meters that separate the prison from the scaffold. Contrary to all the condemned, he does not want to see the guillotine. Two meters from the bascule he turns his head with affectation so as not to behold it. The chaplain presents him a crucifix. Bruneau kisses it twice, then he drops into the arms of the chaplain and kisses it for a long time.

The executioner’s assistants seize him but he tears free with a sudden movement and turns to the chaplain begging again to kiss the cross. He can not take his lips off the crucifix. The chaplain speaks to him, exhorts him to courage, and with a movement of exquisite gentleness pushes him towards the assistants who seize him and precipitate him onto the bascule.

When Bruneau entered the Palace Square, a huge “Ah!” came out of the crowd. But once he is here, we hear no sound; no word is uttered; nobody budges. Bruneau’s struggle against death at the foot of the scaffold lasted two minutes, two centuries.

The knife falls. Society is avenged. Its representatives on the Cathedral Square record this victory by frantic applause. It is interminable, already, the head is thrown in the basket with the body, the basket in the van, and the van rolls towards the cemetery. The crowd is still clapping. By the Place du Pilier-Vert, the Place des Arts, the Rue Neuve, the Pont-Neuf, the Rue de la Paix, in ten minutes the convoy arrives at the cemetery, between two curious hedges. Since three before days the pit was dug and the coffin was waiting.

Bruneau is buried at the end of an alley on the right, in the section of mass graves. The following year, passing Laval, I went to the cemetery. I found in front of the tomb two kneeling nuns who were praying. Many people, indeed, in the religious world, did not believe the culpability of Bruneau. But it is incorrect, as has been said, as I myself reported then, that the bishop of Laval made every effort to obtain pardon for the condemned. The bishop of Laval was stricken with immense sadness when Bruneau’s crimes were discovered. He cried, remained silent, and died of sorrow.

Wikipedia claims that the scandal of the murderer-priest inspired the French journalist Paul Bourde‘s 1902 play Nos deux consciences (Our Two Consciences), a piece adapted to cinema by Alfred Hitchcock in 1953 as I Confess. (review)

* Most famously, Bouchardon prosecuted Mata Hari.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,Murder,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Theft

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1910: Hawley Harvey Crippen

7 comments November 23rd, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1910, the notorious wife-murdering doctor Hawley Harvey Crippen was hanged at London’s Pentonville Prison.

The sensational trial, which saw the American-born homeopath convicted for dismembering his shrewish and unfaithful wife Cora in an attempt to take up with his young mistress, fitted Crippen for both a noose and a likeness at Madame Tussaud’s. (More trial background here.) It has also made his case twice a landmark in the history of crime and technology: once at the time of his arrest, and again just last month as of this writing.

The core of a case a jury found so open-and-shut as to require just 27 minutes to convict was the poorly explained disappearance of Crippen’s wife, followed by the discovery of a considerably mutilated female corpse under the Crippens’ home.

Although much of the crown’s evidence was speculative and circumstantial — to say nothing of the bodice-ripping gossip of nymphomania and infidelity — a corpse under the floorboards tends to be a compelling circumstance to a jury.

Presumably that anticipation prompted Crippen to flee the Scotland Yard investigation with his mistress Ethel le Neve under assumed names on an ocean liner bound for Canada. The case made criminological history as the first use of wireless communication to apprehend a suspect when the ship’s alert captain telegraphed Crippen’s presence to land as the ship steamed away — enabling a policeman to board a faster boat and arrest the pair as they docked in Quebec.

In the century since Crippen went to the gallows still maintaining his innocence, the case has endured in popular notoriety. The killer’s life has been novelized, meditated upon and borrowed for fiction, offering a draught of inspiration to Alfred Hitchcock along the way.

Books inspired by the Crippen case …

Given his suspicious behavior, scant had been the credence given Crippen’s protestation of innocence.

Until now.

In a meeting of Edwardian crime and cutting-edge technology, two scientists from Crippen’s home state of Michigan stunningly announced in October that DNA testing proves the body was not Cora Crippen after all.

If true, it would appear to void Crippen’s conviction in its particulars without quite exonerating the hanged man from the natural question: whose was the corpse? The manufacture of clothes on the body dated it to the Crippens’ occupancy of the house.

One of Crippen’s modern sleuths, in a wholly speculative vein, thinks it might harken to an altogether different sort of crime: a botched back-alley abortion, just the sort of thing a financially struggling physician might have been involved in.

Maybe.

But if the test invites a modern investigator to look 97 years backwards, it also suggests a posture of epistemological humility. It’s just possible that the light this test casts on our own time is as searching as that it shines on 1910.

The Prejudice of Science

The Crippen case was a classic 19th century-style detective job — the inspector who made the arrest cut his teeth as a younger man on a Jack the Ripper murder — but it took place on the brink of a revolution in forensic science.

Just a few years before, fingerprinting had been embraced by British and American law enforcement and begun its march towards total institutionalization. On the heels of fingerprinting came a multiplicity of biometric approaches to crime scenes — hair and fiber analysis, blood typology, and most recently and dramatically, DNA.

And they, in turn, have brought a rising faith in science to adjudicate the law.

While the “CSI Effect” — jurors’ expectation of case-breaking scientific evidence — conventionally plays as a hindrance for prosecutors who usually have no such thing, the excess deference given to less-than-conclusive forensic evidence can likewise cut against the defense. Evidence mishandled at crime labs, even cooked outright, factors into numerous recent post-conviction exonerations. The once ironclad credibility of fingerprint evidence has itself been undermined by subsequent forensic advances.

In short, for all its undoubted contributions to criminal justice, forensic science packs along its own set of pitfalls, caveats and blinders reflexively privileging evidence of the laboratory.

This is not a reflex to indulge uncritically. History grants the benefit of hindsight, but rarely the luxury of certitude.

A waxwork Dr. Crippen at Madame Tussaud’s. Image used with permission.

So if the prospect of Crippen’s innocence intrigues, that unexplained body — that sudden flight for Canada — that (permanent) failure of Cora Crippen to resurface — nevertheless remain. They might lead us to question our implicit faith in the finality of DNA’s verdict on history rather than the other way around.

Are we certain that an unbroken line of blood relations really connects Cora Crippen to the modern DNA donors of her “family”?

Are we certain that a reliable chain of custody has preserved the original tissue samples unsullied across a century?

And if we are certain, what do we make of that body after all?

It is humans who must ultimately interpret and contextualize even the firmest forensic science. Whatever we might believe of Dr. Crippen we retain the burden of that belief, with all its intrinsic potential for grievous wrong.

The tales Hawley Crippen has yet to unfold from the grave might or might not shed still another different light on our understanding of what happened at 39 Hilldrop Crescent a century ago.

The gentleman’s place as a continuing attraction at Madame Tussaud’s, however, seems assured.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Common Criminals,Doctors,England,Hanged,Infamous,Milestones,Murder,Notable Sleuthing,Popular Culture,Ripped from the Headlines,Sex,Wrongful Executions

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