1721: Cartouche, French bandit

7 comments November 28th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1721, the French outlaw Cartouche was broken on the wheel in Paris.

Your basic superstar robber during that archetype’s golden age, Louis Dominique Garthausen, aka Bourguignon, aka Cartouche was the son of a German mercenary-turned-French wineseller.

Little Cartouche — his nickname came from a Francophone corruption of his German surname — distinguished himself from childhood as the most charismatically intrepid of the local hooligans, and by adolescence was already the leader of a troupe of rascally thieves.

By his twenties, after a detour through the army, Cartouche and his merry men (the Cours des Miracles gang, after the slum they operated out of) were raiding the lucrative Versailles-Paris route, plundering the virtue of marchionesses, distributing stolen booty the poor, maintaining perfect courtesy in the society of gentlemen, and generally becoming the heroes of that species of literature that revels in bodice-busting sybaritic rakes who play by their own rules but have a heart of gold. (Sample escapade: walking a carnival parade with a cart full of police effigies — whipping them all the way, to the glee of the crowd. Thackeray celebrates more Cartouche folklore here.)

The flesh-and-blood police started to roll up this group around 1719, turning arrestees into informants and hunting ringleaders to ground. True to character, Cartouche defied with his liberty the growing price on his head, deftly giving gendarmes the slip until a confederate betrayed him into his enemies’ hands literally while his pants were down.


18th century engraving of the arrest of Cartouche.

The guy very nearly broke out of prison — tunneling out of a dungeon of the Chatelet into a neighboring basement, only to have the clank of his chains rouse the family dog into a woofing frenzy that betrayed him before he could vanish out the front door. But even back in the clink,

came a period of splendid notoriety: he held his court, he gave an easy rein to his wit, he received duchesses and princes with an air of amiable patronage … His portrait hung in every house, and his thin, hard face, his dry, small features were at last familiar to the whole of France. M. Grandval made him the hero of an Epic — “le Vice Puni.”

Cartouche was doomed to breaking on the wheel after a morning suffering the tortures of the boot in an unavailing effort to extract further incriminations from the rogue.*

Cartouche seems to have fully expected his troupe to reciprocate this heroism by rising to the dramatic occasion of a rescue from the very scaffold. But as the prisoner arrived at the Place de Greve, he perceived at last that like Christ he had been abandoned at the critical hour by the men who had sworn oaths with him. The great desperado’s final act was to retaliate upon these faithless friends (and family!) by taking aside his prosecutors and detailing his every accessory in crime, even his lovers. What the worst extremities of medieval torture could not procure from him, the compelling incentive of revenge instantly conjured.

Our hero went to his death this day but his revenant spirit stalked France for many months thereafter as dozens succumbed (pdf) to Cartouche’s scaffold indictment. One diarist recorded the following July,

Nothing but hangings and breakings on the wheel! Every day some Cartouchian executed.

* Available sources are flatly contradictory between the story that Cartouche was to die on the 27th and his confessions stalled things until the 28th, or was to die on the 28th all along, or was to die and did so on the 27th.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,France,Gruesome Methods,History,Murder,Outlaws,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Theft,Torture

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1323: Jourdain de l’Isle-Jourdain, Gascon rascal

Add comment May 7th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1323, Jourdain de l’Isle-Jourdain, lord of Casaubon, was “stripped naked, drawn on a hurdle from the Chatelet to the gibbet, and hanged there.” (Source)

This robber-baron‘s offense had been nothing less than the years-long defiance of his every actual and potential liege — consequence of the wide scope of action available to feudal nobles before the ascendance of absolutism.

Jourdain was the younger son of a lord, but managed to inherit a good chunk of land and marry into more of it … giving him power well beyond his merely nominal aristocratic rank.

Jourdain’s stomping ground was Gascony in the southwest of France, which in this period was a contested fringe of English and French authority* and so was under little true authority at all.

An unscrupulous operator could have a field day — or in Jourdain’s case, a field decade or two.

Joseph Klicklighter, “The Nobility of English Gascony: the case of Jourdain de l’Isle” in the Journal of Medieval History 13 (1987), pp. 327-342 documents Jourdain de l’Isle-Jourdain’s run of rapine in the “chaos and lawlessness” of 14th century Gascony.

He would occupy lands to extract official concessions, rip off the sailors and merchants crossing his territory, play English and French power off against one other (not neglecting to drag in the Avignonese pope John XXII, who had our crooked noble’s back as his kinsman), even rape, murder, and plunder outright. When forced to fight a judicial duel that turned out inconclusively, he peevishly razed a castle of his opponent.

“For years,” Klicklighter notes, “Jourdain de l’Isle was able to … pursue his wars and crimes and to flaunt ducal [English] and French authorities alike.”

Mind, he was hardly the only Gascon noble amok, but he seems to have been the most offensively undiplomatic of the lot. When the new French King Charles IV** sent armed envoys to summon him (along with other lords) to Paris, Jourdain had the envoys beheaded.

At last someone prevailed upon our man to make the trip, and despite arriving “in grand array and with great arrogance,” the French clapped him in prison with what we can only assume was relief. The Pope’s frantic appeals on Jourdain’s behalf didn’t do him any good: in fact, our man was hanged in a garment derisively sporting the papal insignia.

Though this date’s execution put an end to one man’s depravities, the violence attributable to his contumacious native region was just getting started. Fourteen years later, the next French monarch, Philip VI, went to put an end to this foolishness by definitively reclaiming Gascony for France … and triggered the Hundred Years War.

* Formally, Gascony was an English fief of the French crown. Functionally, that meant that whenever the English seneschal issued an edict, the local lords could ignore it by appealing to Parlement.

** Charles IV was the last ruler of the House of Capet … thanks in part to the dynasty-destroying Tour de Nesle scandal.

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1790: Thomas de Mahy, Marquis de Favras

Add comment February 19th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1790, Thomas de Mahy, Marquis de Favras, became a penal milestone: the first French noble executed without class distinction from commoners.

At least he made history.

The scion of an ancient and penurious noble line, Favras was trying to make a different kind of history: he’d hitched onto a plot of the future Louis XVIII to reverse the still-infant French Revolution and rescue the king and queen from captivity in the Tuileries.

The royal couple were ultimately destined to escape this palatial dungeon only to the guillotine.

But in Mahy’s day, it was possible to dream of counterrevolution. And that terrifying machine of the revolution hadn’t even been invented.

For that matter, the machinery of revolutionary justice had also not been born; this was Lafayette‘s year, the revolution in its moderate phase.

It was ancien regime jurists of the Chatelet who were here appointed to judge the enemies of the nation. Having just acquitted the guy who commanded monarchist forces in Paris on Bastille Day, these establishment magistrates proceeded to throw the revolutionary left a bone by condemning Favras to the democratic capital expiration of … hanging. (Back in the good old days, he would have had the right to a beheading. Plus ça change.)

The crowd was said to be quite enthusiastic.


“Thomas de Mahy, Marquis of Favras Making Honourable Amends before Notre-Dame,” engraving by Pierre-Gabriel Berthault (French link).

Little less interested in Favras’s elimination — he was executed the day after sentence — were his fellow conspirators and other sympathetic members of the royalist party. (Future-Louis XVIII hurriedly washed his hands of the scheme.) These were quite pleased to suppress any wider exploration of

the project that this lost child of royalist enthusiasm had formed in the interest of the royal family. Among those participating in this project, but with a cowardice that is well known, were persons that an important consideration prevented from naming at the time.*

You’ve got to look forward, not back.

Despite the mob scene surrounding him as he carried his damning information to the grave, Favras had the sang-froid to remark upon being handed a copy of the order for his execution, “I see that you have made three spelling mistakes.”

“It can be said,” wrote Camille Desmoulins, “that all the aristocrats have been hung through him.”

And since they did such a metaphorically comprehensive job through this single unfortunate, it’s no wonder that Favras was the only aristocrat executed for counterrevolutionary activity during the entire first three years of the Revolution.*

* Barry Shapiro, “Revolutionary Justice in 1789-1790: The Comité des Recherches, the Châtelet, and the Fayettist Coalition,” French Historical Studies, Spring 1992.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous Last Words,France,Gallows Humor,Hanged,History,Milestones,Nobility,Power,Public Executions,Soldiers,Treason

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