1939: Maurice Pilorge, Le Condamné à mort

1 comment February 4th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1939, the murderer Maurice Pilorge dropped his beautiful head under the blade.

This strange execution by retrospect almost marks the pivot between eras of crime and culture. Public executions were about to disappear entirely; the Third Republic that ordered them would not long outlive them.

And Pilorge’s death specifically would prove to be the last performance of the guillotine in Rennes. It was also to have been the 396th in the legendary career of 75-year-old headsman Anatole Deibler … except that Deibler dropped dead on a Paris metro platform two days before, as he set out for the lethal rendezvous.

So too did Pilorge’s crime belong to that interwar moment of cosmopolitan decadence. He fatally slashed the throat of a Mexican visitor named Escudero after what Pilorge claimed, in an unsuccessful attempt to leverage the “gay panic” defense, was an indecent proposition. The facts of the case appear better to fit the hypothesis that indecent propositions were Pilorge’s stock in trade: a black book full of dates and initials whose owners he would not identify, a short late-night visit to Escudero’s hotel room, and a total refusal to explain his activities.

Pilorge, who maintained a wry and mirthful attitude throughout his trial, could not but laugh at the judge’s speculation — inspired by the swarthiness of his victim in the case at hand? — that his prisoner was involved in traite des blanches, the white slave trade: “I was never cut out for that. I assure you that I have never fallen so low.”

If Pilorge’s character entered the public gaze awash in same-sex eros, he was fixed in the firmament as such by the pen of Villonesque criminal/writer Jean Genet after the war years.

Claiming (falsely) to have had a prison intimacy with this doomed “Apollo”, Genet dedicated to Pilorge, “assasin de vingt ans,” one of his breakthrough works. Written in prison in 1942, Le Condamné à mort is a homoerotic hallucination of lovemaking ahead of a gathering doom and it helped to launch the theretofore Genet into literary superstardom. I’ve found the lengthy poem available online only in the original French, but here’s a translated excerpt via The Columbia Anthology of Gay Literature:

O come my beautiful sun, o come my night of Spain,
Arrive in my eyes which will be dead tomorrow.
Arrive, open my door, bring me your hand,
Lead me far from here to scour the battleground.

Heaven may awaken, the stars may blossom,
Nor flowers sigh, and from the meadows the black grass
Gather the dew where morning is about to drink,
The bell may ring: I alone am about to die.

O come my heaven of rose, o my blond basket!
Visit in his night your condemned-to-death.
Tear away your own flesh, kill, climb, bite,
But come! Place your cheek against my round head.

We had not finished speaking to each other of love.
We had not finished smoking our gitanes.
Well we might ask why the Courts condemn
A murderer so beautiful he makes the day to pale.

Love come to my mouth! Love open your doors!
Run through the hallways, come down, step lightly,
Fly down the stairs more supple than a shepherd,
More borne up by the air than a flight of dead leaves.

O cross the walls; so it must be walk on the brink
Of roofs, of oceans; cover yourself with light,
Use menace, use prayer,
But come, o my frigate, an hour before my death.

The poem was one of several that Genet wrote later set to music by herhis friend, Helene Martin. (It’s also been covered and reinterpreted by several others.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Homosexuals,Murder,Pelf

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1909: Les Chauffeurs de la Drome

1 comment September 22nd, 2013 Headsman

At daybreak this date in 1909, three French rural bandits dubbed “Les Chauffeurs de la Drôme” were publicly guillotined in Valence to the hurrahs of a great crowd.

Most of the (plentiful) information online about these charmers is in French; in their day about 1905 to 1908 they enjoyed quite a lot of notoriety in southern France for their bloody crime spree, comprising at least 11 murders amid numerous home invasion burglaries. They were a throwback gang whose niche the 20th century would eradicate as surely as they themselves. In the time before ubiquitous mass communication and high-speed transport, a sufficiently bold band of robbers could have their way with a rural residence miles from any possible aid: this was one of the great terrors of Europe, and early crime broadsheets from centuries previous dwell often on the terrors of an isolated farmer or miller made prey in his own home by a band of cutthroats.*

The root of the word chauffeur is the French verb “to heat” — think stoking an engine, for the word’s familiar meaning of professional driver — and the specialty of the Chauffeurs de la Drome was torturing their hostages by scorching their feet with hot irons until the sufferers yielded up the hidey-holes of whatever treasure they had on premises. Their trial was a fin-de-siecle circus, and their executions likewise to a discomfiting degree. Though nothing specifically scandalous occurred as the chauffeurs were snuffed out on a public street, there are a number of pictures of this event, some of them made into postcards and circulated.

This was a trend not very much appreciated by the French government, but of course such images make arresting historical artifacts.

We’re here featuring select images of Octave David. When David walked the few steps through a sea of early-rising spectators to the portable guillotine erected on the streetcar tracks directly in front of the prison gates, his companion Pierre Berruyer had already been beheaded. (The chauffeurs were nos. 126 through 128 in the prolific Anatole Deibler’s career.)

He would have glimpsed Berruyer’s headless trunk already rolled into the large box that would soon receive his body as well. (The box had accommodations for four.) And while the execution team washed down the blade between uses, the grotesque bloody puddles and remains of fresh gore were a constant source of complaint. All three executions were completed in a six-minute span; it’s safe to assume that the smell and the feel of Pierre Berruyer’s violent death surrounded David as he walked to the used chopper. As the events here transpired, the third robber Urbain Liottard still awaited his own turn just inside the prison walls — in a few moments, Liottard would see two steaming neckless corpses stacked up in the rude bin gaping to receive him.


Looking alarmingly Christlike, the half-naked form of the condemned murderer emerges from the prison’s maw amid a throng of indistinct, black-clad voyeurs.


David reaches the guillotine; the assistant executioners are about to tip him onto the board that will carry him into place. The identification on these photos is from Bois de Justice, an invaluable site on the history of the guillotine; I’m unsure from my own observation whether to equate the figure in these pictures with the one in the first, above.


One of the beheadings (I’m not certain that it’s David’s) has been completed; the body and head are being transferred to their receptacles. Again, Bois de Justice has details on this scene.


Following one of the beheadings, the visibly stained blade is raised for cleaning before the third criminal is brought out.

* For some examples, see Joel Harrington’s The Faithful Executioner, a book we’ve previously profiled.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Mature Content,Murder,Public Executions,Theft

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1918: Emile Ferfaille, the last in Belgium

1 comment March 26th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1918, Belgium carried out its last execution for ordinary crimes — in fact, its only one since 1863.

Now, that figure excludes a reported 242 people executed from 1944 to 1947, in revenge for the Nazi occupation. (To say nothing of those conducted by the Nazis themselves.) But that’s quite a stunning run, considering that death penalty statutes were on the books until 1996: it’s just that the sentences were routinely commuted.

According to the information in this thread on the lively Francophone guillotine.cultureforum.net (it does what it says in the url), Ferfaille murdered his pregnant girlfriend to further his career tomcatting with his other not-yet-pregnant girls. (This being the fourth year of the Great War, a lot of his competition was fertilizing no-man’s lands.)

And as disreputable as hammering one’s lover to death and stuffing her in the vegetable garden is, we’re comfortable averring that it was probably not the single most villainous act to transpire in Belgium the whole of this past century and a half.

Farfaille’s exceptional fate was a consequence of his committing his particular atrocity during that same Great War that gave him such great odds with Flemish females.

Ferfaille was executed in Veurne, just up the road from Dunkirk in the tiny corner of Belgium not occupied by Germany … and he was executed during Germany’s Spring Offensive on the Western Front, its last desperate (and ultimately unsuccessful) gamble* to secure battlefield victory before the recently-committed Americans threw their corn-fed thumbs on the scale.

Despite the conventionality of the crime, Ferfaille’s capital punishment was decreed by military court, since the perp was a soldier. With shells kerploding in the distance, the rakish junior officer was set up to face a tribunal with a particular shortage of patience for his shenanigans. (Belgium also carried out military executions in World War I — it’s just that the others were for military crimes, like desertion.)

Although what remained of Belgium was not jumpy in the execution of its sentence. Quite the opposite.

Actually conducting this beheading** required requisitioning from France prolific belle epoque headsman Anatole Deibler (French Wikipedia entry), and his assistants, and their portable guillotine. (Belgium had a guillotine of its own, but it would have had to cross the front to get to Emile Ferfaille. War is hell that way.)

This party of death made a hazardous journey skirting the charnel house of the Western front, protected by all the might of two nations’ armies for their mission to kill one man in a season where thousands died namelessly day by day … sort of a Bizarro World Saving Private Ryan.

The train took these rather small-time ministers of doom to Dunkirk, where they transferred to a truck for Veurne, then under direct German bombardment. The execution crew stood in only a little less danger than its client, but it carried out the sentence, “publicly” in the town’s all-but-empty square. Due to German shelling, barely anyone in the public witnessed this milestone event.

* The manpower for a western push was facilitated by the recent removal of Germany’s eastern enemy consequent upon the Russian Revolution.

** The penalty demanded by law. Post-World War II executions all seem to have been firing squad affairs even though the letter of Belgian law still apparently prescribed beheading even then.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Belgium,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guillotine,History,Milestones,Murder,Notable Participants,Sex,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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