Unspecified Year: The Last Day of a Condemned Man

1 comment October 11th, 2010 Headsman

On an unspecified date around this time in the late 1820s, the narrator of Victor Hugo’s Last Day of a Condemned Man leaves off his diary — bound for the guillotine.

An illustration from The Last Day of a Condemned Man.

The young Hugo‘s first major work of fiction, this 1829 story dramatizes the torment of an unnamed man doomed for an unstated crime. By abstracting its central character, Hugo generalizes its unabashed anti-death penalty message … but one of the few morsels of specificity places the man’s conviction on “a beautiful morning at the close of August,” with the action unfolding over the ensuing six weeks until his date with the guillotine.

If not exactly Hugo’s greatest work, this emotional rendering of a man’s anguish awaiting death well befits an artist deeply sensitive to the passion of the scaffold — and a period when many writers witnessed, critiqued, contested, and even faced the phenomenon of public execution.

They say that it is nothing,–that one does not suffer; that it is an easy death. Ah! then, what do they call this agony of six weeks,–this summing-up in one day? What, then, is the anguish of this irreparable day, which is passing so slowly and yet so fast? What is this ladder of tortures which terminates in the scaffold? Are they not the same convulsions whether life is taken away drop by drop, or intellect extinguished thought by thought?

Now I must fortify myself, and think firmly of the Executioner, the cart, the gendarmes, the crowd in the street and the windows.

I have still an hour to familiarize myself with these ideas. All the people will laugh and clap their hands, and applaud; yet among those men, now free, unknown to jailors, and who run with joy to an execution,–in that throng there is more than one man destined to follow me sooner or later, on the scaffold.

More than one who is here to-day on my account, will come hereafter on his own.


Hungarian painter Mihaly Munkacsy‘s The Last Day of a Condemned Man has no relationship to Hugo’s book, but deals in a similar mood. It won an award from the Paris salon in 1870.

The Last Day of a Condemned Man is available free online (English | French), or in throwback print form from Amazon.com.

* The prisoner finds in his cell the names of then-notable criminals who previously occupied it — a concession to period specificity. The last of these names is Castaing, meaning our man’s story takes place after that poisoner’s 1823 beheading. A subsequent reference to Louis-Auguste Papavoine, executed in 1825, would push the execution to the even narrower window of October 1825, 1826, 1827, or 1828.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,Execution,Fictional,France,Guillotine,Known But To God,Public Executions

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1823: Dr. Edme Castaing, the first to kill with morphine

1 comment December 6th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1823, French physician Edme Castaing expiated upon the scaffold history’s first conviction for murder with morphine.

The good doc used the drug, a new twist on an ancient remedy only recently brought to market, apparently to poison off one of two wealthy brothers with the connivance of the other wealthy brother, the latter of whom stood in danger of being disinherited.

And then, the beneficiary of that crime wrote a will of his own to the profit of the poisoner.

Do not try this at home.

Castaing, naturally, poisoned off the other brother, too, and relieved some considerable financial distress along with, one must think, the burdensome company of a complete dullard.

The science of toxicology,” however, “was not greatly advanced at this time, and … the above conclusion was based on presumption rather than fact.”

While today, such a case might be ripped from CSI, in 1823 it entailed an uncertain trial with varying (and wrong) medical testimony and a circumstantial trail of witnesses drawing flailing rebuttals from the accused that ran towards the unconvincing and the contradictory. (Follow the twists and turns from a contemporary chronicle here.)

Quite convicted in the public eye (a verdict history has had little cause to revisit), Castaing was judicially acquitted of the murder of Hippolyte Ballet, and doomed by the barest 7-5 majority verdict for the second Ballet boy. The London Times complained in its report of the execution (printed Dec. 9, 1823), that

[t]he faculty speak in very harsh and unmeasured terms of Dr. Pellatan, who neither described with care and accuracy, what he himself observed on opening of the body of Ballet, nor gave them the means of forming an opinion themselves, by bringing to Paris the intestines of the deceased. The physicians join the rest of the world in ascribing Ballet’s death to substances administered by Castaing, but they regret that criminal justice could not, owing to the neglicence or ignorance of Pellatan, obtain more satisfactory proofs of the crime. Beyond his own confessions, contradictions, and admissions, there was confessedly no ground to convict him.

A few years later, Victor Hugo (we keep meeting him here) had the title character in “The Last Day of a Condemned Man” occupying Castaing’s former cell, and evidently thought the matter possessed sufficient notoriety to name-check the headless poisoner decades afterwards in Les Miserables.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Doctors,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Milestones,Murder,Notable Sleuthing,Pelf,Public Executions

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