1643: Philippe Giroux, former president of the Dijon Parlement

Add comment May 8th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1643, a remarkable trial-of-the-century political case climaxed when a former judge was beheaded for murdering his noble cousin and the cousin’s valet.

Book CoverPhilippe Giroux’s amazing and disconcerting case is the subject of a page-turning microhistory by James Farr, A Tale of Two Murders: Passion and Power in Seventeenth-Century France, which is the source of essentially every detail about the case in this post. “There is substantial evidence surviving from this case,” Farr writes … “and not all of it points the same way.”

Philippe Giroux had, in the suspicious eyes of his peers in Dijon society, ample motive that would connect him to the September 6, 1638 disappearance of Pierre Baillet and Philibert Neugot: common rumor had him so infatuated with Baillet’s wife, Marie Fyot, as to aspire to marry her.

But Giroux was no ordinary lustful bourgeois: he was the paramount judge at the Parlement of Dijon, a powerful client of an even more powerful patron, the Prince of Conde. Giroux’s kin and allies peopled the Burgundy courts.

Perhaps it is no surprise in the Three Musketeers-era France addicted to dueling that a person of this prominence would attract a nemesis, but rare indeed that a vendetta could pull such a powerful figure so low as the scaffold. This bilious triumph was savored in the end by Giroux’s hated rival Pierre Saumaise de Chasans.

A fellow judge whose enmity with our date’s principal reached back at least to 1627, Saumaise, in Farr’s words, presented his contemporaries

a personality of unrelentingly pious self-righteousness blending seamlessly into base self-interest. A quarrelsome man constantly at odds with his fellow judges, Saumaise was involved in twenty-two quarrels with other judges in Parlement, was reprimanded eleven times as the culprit, and was censored seven times. During the seventeenth century the Parlement as a whole was drifting toward lenience in criminal sentences, but Saumaise swam against this current. For example, in 1633 Saumaise was assigned as a rapporteur to ten cases appealed to Parlement from lower courts across Burgundy. In only one of those cases did Saumaise seek to lessen the punishment imposed by the lower court …

Another gruesome example of Saumaise’s severity. In 1633, for conviction of a murder, the grapegrower Bazille Borde was broken on the wheel (more often murderers were hanged or beheaded). As Saumaise watched, the executioner shattered Borde’s arm and leg bones with a metal rod, and then pitched him onto a raised wheel, face up, to die slowly and in agony. His accomplice merely had his head chopped off, after which Saumaise and the presiding judge split the epices of sixty-six ecus (more than the victims combined would have earned in years).

Most disturbing of all of the examples of Saumaise’s stern, unmerciful jurisprudence is the series of cases for witchcraft that Saumaise prosecuted in March 1633. In other parts of France and Europe a witch hunt swept widely during the early seventeenth century, but with the exception of a few flare-ups, Burgundy was largely spared. Saumaise oversaw one of those flare-ups. For a bloody week in the middle of March, Saumaise signed his name as a rapporteur to seven sentences which capped the trials of twenty-five accused witches. Lower courts had ordered banishment, but under appeal at Parlement (required by law for all capital offenses tried in lower courts) Saumaise and the presiding judge demonstrated their belief that firmer punishment was needed. Saumaise saw to it that several of the victims were tortured, and three were eventually burned at the stake. Saumaise and the president assigned to these cases, by the way, pocketed for their efforts 400 ecus (that is, 1,200£, or more than a journeyman artisan — or any of the victims — might earn in fifteen years). In all, in 1633 alone Saumaise shared with his presidents about 700 ecus in addition to his regular wages. Fellow judges, including Philippe Giroux, were deeply troubled by the severity of Saumaise as a judge. By Giroux’s count, Saumaise submitted fifty-six people accused of crimes to be tortured, broken on the wheel, or beheaded, prompting Giroux to conclude in disgust that Saumaise was “a crow who is most content among dead bodies.”

From the late 1620s and throughout the 1630s these two sniped at each other in the august chambers of the king’s justice and with the less discriminating public squibs facilitated by the era of movable type. On the whole, Saumaise did not get the better of his confrontations with Giroux, even once being forced to perform the amende honorable before their legal peers with a galling public affirmation of his enemy’s honor that must of tasted like ash in Saumaise’s mouth.

That was early in 1639, mere weeks after Giroux allegedly slaughtered Pierre Baillet. It would be prove to be the apex before the wheel of fortune very abruptly threw him down.

Giroux attempted to press his advantage over Saumaise by pursuing a rape charge against him, but the case speedily fell apart with the whiff of suborned perjury about it. Meanwhile, two judges not in Giroux’s network had been detailed to investigate the Baillet murder, and a constellation of evidence was emerging from the Giroux servants and associates who had been interrogated. However much of this was circumstantial and hearsay, it was certainly more than the president of Parlement ought to have said against him per the Caesar’s-wife standard.

In July 1640 Giroux was arrested and although his confinement was comfortably befitting his station it would continue for the remainder of his life — Giroux powerless while the evidence compounded to do aught but issue learned public factums savaging the case against him as a concoction of Saumaise’s vendetta. Indeed, as a purely juridical matter, this prosecution did suffer from some debilitating flaws which help to explain the protracted three-year gap from arrest to judgment and execution. Most notably, it lacked bodies, which were legally required to prosecute a murder case in the absence of a confession or an eyewitness, neither of which proved forthcoming. Had Giroux, as a servant had alleged, efficiently pitched the victims undetected into his latrine where quicklime had dissolved their remains into the ordure? If so, it might never be possible to conclude a judgment; certainly the magistrate Giroux remained wisely steadfast in his denials and could be relied upon to perceive where his prosecutors’ claims were most vulnerable. In Giroux’s telling the prosecution and the hand of his personal enemy had veered into an outright stitch-up, with every witness favorable to himself excluded and the prejudicial evidence of his rivals’ kin granted outsized credence. Are we seriously to believe this senior judge butchered his own cousin in his own home, that the victims or “victims” had not instead (as other rumors suggested) upped sticks and left the country or fallen prey to some wilderness brigands?

In such a gap might a litigant preserve his life. Still and all, O.J. Simpson was acquitted but also permanently stripped of his public stature and respectability. How much more these pains would have weighed on a dignitary of the king’s courts, in a society where family, honor, and reputation were the true coin of the realm. However stoutly he defended himself from his cell, Giroux found events running away from him, and even the favor of the Prince of Conde coldly withdrawn — as discovered when his father presented himself in the prince’s court to petition for his son and was advised that he’d be seeing the inside of the Bastille should he not speedily fly. His son contemplated the same strategem, but his jailbreak plot was detected before it could be implemented.

When a sack apparently containing the remains of the victims was finally uncovered — the identification dramatically cinched by a playing card that a tailor had sewn into one of the men’s collars to stiffen it — the fallen president of Parlement knew his doom was sealed although even to his confessors he staked his immortal soul upon his innocence. The courts so long uncertain about the fate of their former colleague now had a clincher. They imposed financial penalties that, while irrelevant to his own final hours, devastated and permanently diminished Giroux’s house thereafter, plus the sentence of beheading, a merciful abatement considering the more brutal executions at the law’s disposal for cases of murder.

After hearing the sentence of death [early afternoon of May 8], Giroux was led into the holding cell of the courthouse and prepared for execution. He was stripped of the symbols of his presidential office — ritually divested of his bonnet carre and his scarlet robe, which in any case he had not been permitted to wear since his incarceration. Such a ritual officially cast the felon into the dishonorable netherworld of social disgrace. Execution everywhere in early modern Europe “imported infamy” upon the condemned, and this was made visible by the physical treatment of the criminal’s body. The body in those days was not thought of as simply the integral possession of the individual human being but rather as a socially defined entity that signified status and standing in a highly stratified system. This system, as Giroux knew as well as anyone, was held together and given meaning by that pervasive notion of honor that so preoccupied men like him. The loss of honor could ruin a family, most directly by ending descendents’ [sic] prospects of marrying. It was undoubtedly because of this fear of dishonor that upon being led into the holding cell, Giroux turned to Comeau and said with tears in his eyes, “I beg you to assure my Lord the Prince [of Conde] that I remain his servant, and I beg him that this poor innocent who is my son and who has the honor to carry [Conde’s] name must not suffer from the disgrace of his father. Perhaps he will be more fortunate that I.” …

Spared both the humiliation and the pain of being broken on the wheel, Giroux gasped, “God be praised! These men have much charity and mercy, because according to the crimes of which I have been accused, I ought to be more rudely treated.” Opting for beheading was one indication that the judges were trying not to dishonor Giroux. Another was that they withheld a customary phrase in the sentence of death. Usually death sentences called for actions that would obliterate the memory of the convicted felon and destroy in posterity the honor of his or her family. The body might be burned and its ashes scattered to the wind, or dismembered and buried in an unmarked grave, or documents from the trial declaring the innocence of the accused, such as factums, might be destroyed. The judges ordered none of these steps.

Now Saumaise had the satisfaction of seeing the amende honorable ritual reversed to his advantage, as a bound Giroux begged public forgiveness on his knees during his shameful procession to death. “Ah, my father! My son! My kin! My friends! What will you not suffer from this affront that will burst upon you all!” Farr has him exclaiming. He had a quarter-mile yet to walk to the Place du Morimont (present-day Place Emile-Zola).*

The streets were lined with a hundred armed men who held in check a crowd “so numerous” and packed so densely, according to Larme, “that one could suffocate among them.” Giroux apparently regained his composure, for he now strode between the two priests “with constancy and firmness,” as Larme reports. The former president had the presence of mind to bid adieu to several people whom he recognized along the way. He even smiled, showing no evidence that he was suffering inside. It was in this state that he entered the chapel beneath the scaffold where, still clutching the crucifix, he bade a final goodbye to his son and asked him always to remember his father with respect and love. He then prostrated himself before the altar, saying, “Receive, O Lord, my death in expiation for my sins.” He rose, turned to the priests, and asked them to promise to take his body to the family estate at Marigny for burial. He emerged from the chapel and climbed the steps of the scaffold. He faced the crowd, and bowed deeply three times. Then, his back to the executioner, he dropped to his knees. He heard his sentence of death read to him yet again, this time by an assistant to the royal prosecutor general named Deschamps, and then recited a series of litanies. After that, Deschamps drew close and said that he had orders to ask Giroux one last time whether he had killed Monsieur Baillet, whether Marie Fyot was involved in the conspiracy, and who his accomplices were. Giroux, steadfast in his innocence to the end, replied, “I have told you everything I know.”

Giroux was confessed a final time by Father Chaudot, received absolution, and awaited the approach of the hooded headsman. The executioner removed Giroux’s flowing wig to blindfold his eyes. Giroux clutched the crucifix and drew it close to his heart just before the executioner’s sword flashed toward Giroux’s exposed neck. The first blow did not sever the former president’s head, not did the second. The crowd gaped in horror and then erupted in sympathy for Giroux while he was being hacked to death. Larme too looked on horrified, and reported that many in the crowd tried to storm the scaffold and wanted to tear the executioner limb from limb, shouting “Death to the headsman!” And they would have done so, Larme assures us, if the soldiers posted all around the gallows had not kept them at bay. It ultimately took the headsman five blows of the broadsword to cut off Philippe Giroux’s head.

* Find here a grim French-language tour through the notable public punishments administered at this location down the years.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Judges,Lawyers,Murder,Public Executions

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1625: Not Helene Gillet, beheading survivor

Add comment May 12th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1625, Helene Gillet went to the scaffold in Dijon to suffer beheading for infanticide.

But it was the executioner and not Helene who came down from it in pieces.

Helene was the beautiful 21-year-old daughter of a royal chatelain, the sort of well-to-do folks who would own monogrammed blankets that proved quite incriminating when found wrapped around an abandoned dead infant in the woods. Helene would claim that its origin was a family tutor who forced himself upon her, and also insist without further explanation on her innocence of the child’s fate — though the latter little entered the picture since an edict from 1556 made it capital crime to conceal pregnancy and childbirth.

Thanks to her status, she was entitled to the dignity of a beheading, rather than an ignoble dispatch by rope. But all else for Helene Gillet was shame: her father disowned her and forbade any intervention on her behalf; only Helen’s mother accompanied her to Dijon to appeal against the sentence.

It is said that in the course of her appeals to the Parlement of Dijon, the mother attracted the sympathy of the Bernadine abbey there, one of whose inmates ventured to prophesy that “whatever happens, Helene Gillet will not die by the hand of the executioner, but will die a natural and edifying death.”

Parlement begged to differ.

On Monday, May 12th, the young woman was led to the hill of Morimont (present-day Place Emile-Zola) by the executioner of Dijon, Simon Grandjean. Monsieur Bourreau was in an agitated state that day, whether from pity for his victim, or from an ague that had afflicted him, or from whatever other woes haunted his life. When you’re the executioner of Dijon you can’t just call in sick or take a mental health day.

The scaffold on which the whole tragedy was to unfold was a permanent edifice, albeit far less monumental than the likes of Montfaucon. Its routine employment was attested by the permanent wooden palisade and the small stone chapel comprising the arena — features that would factor in the ensuing scene.

Having positioned Gillet on the block, our troubled executioner raised up his ceremonial sword and brought it crashing down … on her left shoulder. The blow toppled the prisoner from the block, but she was quite alive. To cleanly strike through a living neck with a hand-swung blade — to do so under thousands of hostile eyes — was never a certain art; there are many similar misses in the annals. Often, an headsman’s clumsiness in his office would incite the crowd: the legendary English executioner Jack Ketch was nearly lynched for his ten-thumbed performance beheading Lord Monmouth; the hangman of Florence had been stoned to death by an enraged mob after a badly botched execution in 1503.

The Dijonnaise were no more forgiving of Grandjean. Hoots and missiles began pelting the platform as the pitiable condemned, matted with blood, struggled back to the block — and Grandjean must have felt the rising gorge and sweated hands of the man who knows an occasion is about to unman him.

Grandjean’s wife, who acted his assistant in his duties, vainly strove to rescue her man’s mettle and the situation. One chop would do it: the struggling patient would still, the archer detail would restrain the angry crowd. Madame Grandjean forced Gillet back to the block, thrust the dropped sword back into the executioner’s hands with who knows what exhortation.

What else could he do? Again the high executioner raised the blade and again arced it down on the young woman’s head — and again goggled in dismay. Somehow, the blow had been half-deflected by a knot of Helene Gillet’s hair, and nicked only a small gash in the supplicant’s neck. Now hair is a decided inconvenience for this line of work and it was customary to cut it or tie it up — even the era of the guillotine gives us the infamous pre-execution toilette. Even so, the idea of a strong and vigorous man brandishing a heavy executioner’s sword being so entirely frustrated by a braid puts us in mind of an athlete short-arming a free throw or skying a penalty kick for want of conviction in the motion.

This is, admittedly, a retrospective interpretation, but if Grandjean had any inkling of what was to follow one could forgive him the choke.

Having now seen the vulnerable youth survive two clumsy swipes, the crowd’s fury poured brickbats onto the stage in a flurry sufficient to drive the friars who accompanied the condemned to flee in fear for their own lives. Grandjean followed them, all of them retreating to the momentary safety of the chapel as the attempted execution collapsed into chaos.

The steelier Madame Grandjean tried to salvage matters by completing what her husband could not — and seized the injured Gillet to haul her off the platform to the partial shelter of the stone risers by which they had ascended, like a tiger dragging prey to its lair. No longer bothering with the ceremonial niceties of the office, Madame Grandjean simply began kicking and beating Gillet as she drew out a pair of shears to finish her off in violent intimacy.

But the raging mob by this time had pushed through the guards and overrun the palisades, and fell on the melee in the midst of Madame Grandjean’s fevered slashing. The executioner’s wife was ruthlessly torn to pieces, and the cowering executioner himself soon forced from his refuge to the same fate.

Helene Gillet, who had survived a beheading, was hauled by her saviors bloody and near-senseless to a nearby surgeon, who tended her injuries and confirmed that none of them ought be fatal.

What would happen to her now?

The prerogatives of the state insist against the popular belief in pardoning an execution survivor.

We don’t have good answers for this situation even today; that a person might leave their own execution alive seems inadmissible, even though it does — still — occur.

But Helene Gillet was obviously a sympathetic case, and as a practical matter, the office of Dijon executioner had suddenly become vacant. The city’s worthies petitioned as one for her reprieve.

As it happened, King Louis XIII’s younger sister Henrietta Maria had on the very day preceding the execution been married by proxy to Louis’s ill-fated English counterpart Charles I. This gave the French sovereign good occasion for the very palatable exercise of mercy, “at the recommendation of some of our beloved and respected servants, and because we are well-disposed to be gracious through the happy marriage of the Queen of Great Britain.”

The Parlement of Dijon received the royal pardon on June 2, and formally declared Helene Gillet’s official acquittal.

The fortunate woman, having had a brush with the sublime, is said to have retired herself to a convent and lived out the best part of the 17th century there in prayer.

There’s a 19th century French pamphlet of documents related to this case available from Google books.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Executions Survived,France,History,Lucky to be Alive,Murder,Nobility,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Public Executions,Women

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