1793: Madame du Barry, who hated to go

5 comments December 8th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1793, Madame du Barry — shrieking pitiably in terror — was guillotined in Paris.

Versaille costume dramas have made great hay with the courtesan who became the mistress of Louis XV, and her catty court rivalry with Marie Antoinette. (Madame Tussaud’s still-on-display Sleeping Beauty figure was also created way back in 1763 in her likeness.)

More portraits of Madame du Barry here.

The sovereign’s bed implied a station of wealth and extravagance, but the low birth that caused Marie to turn up her nose didn’t much help this day’s victim standing with the Jacobins.

Poor Madame du Barry, at 50 years of age, had not lost an ounce of her considerable zest for life … and her apparently ingenuous joie de vivre while the Revolution raged looks somewhere between innocent and daft.

While nobles were scrambling to get out of France, the Comtesse born Jeanne Bécu shuttled back and forth over the English Channel in 1792 to settle her jewelry accounts … and decided to stay in France, returning after the September Massacres no less. Later, she would detail to her gaolers where she had stashed her baubles around her estate, in the delusion that they could buy her life — or at least, “did not each word give her a second of time?”*

She’s remembered for the uncommon scene she made being hauled to the guillotine this date — in a time when the scaffold’s pageantry demanded a stoic public dignity from the guillotine’s victims, the Comtesse came apart, and begged the crowd for her life so frantically and heart-wrenchingly that the executioners felt hurried to dispatch her lest the scene turn against them.

Even to the last, hopeless second she implored Sanson,

Encore un moment, monsieur le bourreau, un petit moment.**

One could make the case that if more clients of the national razor had displayed such naked humanity to onlookers, the guillotine‘s technical and social capacity for mass butchery might have been lessened.

Whether true or not, she gives us a glimpse, oddly unusual in these pages, of unadulterated fright — of that visceral instinct to cling to life, even under the blade, even for one little moment more.

Dostoyevsky, who knew whereof he spoke would write in The Idiot,

After all this honour and glory, after having been almost a Queen, she was guillotined by that butcher, Samson. She was quite innocent, but it had to be done, for the satisfaction of the fishwives of Paris. She was so terrified, that she did not understand what was happening. But when Samson seized her head, and pushed her under the knife with his foot, she cried out: ‘Wait a moment! wait a moment, monsieur!’ Well, because of that moment of bitter suffering, perhaps the Saviour will pardon her other faults, for one cannot imagine a greater agony.

Spare a thought for that moment of bitter suffering, next time you … uh, dine on cauliflower?

* This line, obviously in the vein of her famous last request to the headsman, is from Memoirs of the Comtesse Du Barry, actually a 19th century work of historical fiction by Baron Etienne Leon Lamothe-Langon.

** “One moment more, executioner, one little moment!”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,France,Guillotine,History,Public Executions,Treason,Women

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1849: Not Fyodor Dostoyevsky

16 comments December 22nd, 2007 Ksenia Zanon

“Brother, I am not dejected or crestfallen. Life, life is everywhere, life is in us ourselves, not outside. Near me will be people, and to be a person among persons and stay him forever, to not be cast down or despondent no matter what the misfortunes are – therein lies life, therein lies its purpose. I realized that. This idea entered my flesh and blood. Yes! It’s true! The head that created and got accustomed to the higher demands of the spirit, that head is cut off from my shoulders. What’s left are the memories and images created and not reified by me. They will ulcerate me, indeed! What I have left is my heart and the same flesh and blood, which can love, suffer, pity, and remember, and this is life, after all …” (quote — in Russian; the translation is mine)

The square — now named Pionerskaya Ploschad’ — where Dostoyevsky faced a mock execution. Image used with permission.

This slightly rambling epistle is authored by a titan of the world literature, a schizophrenic, a gambler, a true believer, a sufferer, a humanitarian, an epileptic, a Russian, a philosopher, a St. Petersburger, the Writer. Let us forgive him a certain incongruity of thought, since that letter was his first salute to a newly acquired chance to live.

On this date in 1849, Dostoevsky, along with some 20 other condemned, was brought out to St. Petersburg’s Semyonovsky platz. They were meant to be shot for affiliation with the Petrashevsky circle, a group of idealistic young intellectuals, apologists of Fourier and fervent advocates of socialism. Just like the generation of aristocrats (alas, some of them will be featured on this macabre blog) before them and generations of intelligentsia (whose destiny is equally unenviable) after them, Petrashevtsy gathered at Petersburg’s flats, read articles and concerned themselves with the fate of the permanently-rising-from-the-knees Motherland.

The formal charges brought upon Dostoevsky were quite bizarre: he listened to a story that criticized the army; had in his possession an illegal printing press; read an open letter to the circle from Belinsky to Gogol which excoriated the church and government; and participated in a regicide plot. The latter accusation Fyodor Mikhailovich vehemently denied, for indeed he was not a bloodthirsty revolutionary, but a proponent of the peaceful Christ’s teaching (this affliction with Christian philosophy was incidentally somewhat of a mauvais ton among the predominantly atheistic circle).

It always seemed to me that Dostoevsky’s participation in the Petrashevky circle was a tribute to the epoch’s fad. It was the imperfections of human nature, not the peculiarities of a hypothetical social structure, that concerned him greatly. The world’s wrongdoings result from something rotten in a man’s soul, and once those internal blemishes are erased, the external harmony emerges. “Beauty will save the world”, a cliché instilled in every Russian by a literature teacher in 10th grade, a phrase attributed to Christ-like kniaz’ Myshkin, and one of Dostoevsky’s most important statements: inner beauty is vital, the rest is a consequence.

The military court condemned Dostoevsky to death. The general-auditor amended this decision and recommended a lighter punishment: “… deprive of all fortune and send to hard labor in fortresses for eight years”. The final resolution of Nicholas I reduced the sentence to four years, “and then [relegate] to [the rank of] private … declare clemency only at the moment when everything is ready for execution”.

“Life is a gift, life is happiness, every minute could be a century of happiness …” continued Dostoevsky his letter. In three days, he received a prisoner’s dress, a fur coat, and valenki. He was put in shackles and dispatched to Siberia …

Novels and Short Stories by Dostoyevsky

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Activists,Artists,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Guest Writers,History,Intellectuals,Last Minute Reprieve,Mass Executions,Mock Executions,Not Executed,Other Voices,Pardons and Clemencies,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,Treason

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