1440: Gilles de Rais, unholy

Add comment October 26th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1440, the wealthiest man in France, a noble who had once fought under Joan of Arc‘s banner, was hanged for an outlandishly demonic crime spree.


This dashing Gilles opposite Milla Jovovich in The Messenger; you’d never think he would sodomize hundreds of children.

Rivaling Hungarian blood-bather Erzsebet Bathory for the reputation of most bewitchingly depraved aristocratic sex-killer of early modern Europe, Gilles de Rais (or de Retz) hanged for abducting numberless legions of anonymous young commoners (boys, mostly) for rape and murder.

It’s a rap sheet trebly astounding given that a decade before, de Rais’s reputation for posterity would have figured to be his role as Saint Joan’s chief lieutenant when she raised the siege of Orleans, culminating with elevation to the rank of Marshall of France on the very day Charles VII was crowned in Reims. Talk about a fall from grace.

A 1440 investigation triggered by de Rais’s attack on a priest during an intra-aristocracy dispute turned up a Gacy‘s floorboards’ worth of Nantes-area kids allegedly disappeared into the Marechal’s creepy castle. Remarkably detailed trial records preserve a heartbreaking cavalcade of parents who entrusted their children to de Rais’s service or just sent them out one morning never to be heard from again. “It is notorious,” one added, “that infants are murdered in the said chateau.” (Many of these depositions and other original trial records can be read here.)

His servants and co-deviants Henriet and Pouitou admitted the most shocking stuff —

that de Rais then raped [the typical captive] as he was hanged from a hook by the neck. Before the child died, Gilles took him down, comforted him, repeated the act and either killed him himself or had him slain.

Poitou testified that the child victims were murdered sometimes by decapitating them, sometimes by cutting their throats, sometimes by dismembering them, sometimes by breaking their necks with a stick …

Gilles de Rais rarely left a child alive for more than one evening’s pleasure, Poitou claimed.

Now, it needs to be said that the servants were induced to these confessions by the threat of physical harm — and that when de Rais reversed his own denials he had likewise been menaced with torture. Nobody had been tortured, mind. But they had been given to understand that they would be corroborating the witnesses with self-incriminating statments, and we can do this the easy way or the hard way. In a world without dispositive forensics, confessions were the evidentiary gold standard … and torturing to obtain them was standard operating procedure.

It’s for that reason that there has also long persisted a revisionist thesis that de Rais was actually innocent, framed up by elite rivals who cannibalized the man’s estates. A 1992 “rehabilitation tribunal” re-tried the affair, and returned an acquittal.

Arguably, the populace — font of all those damning accusations — did likewise on the day de Rais hanged with his two servants. A crowd one might expect to be frenzied with rage actually sympathized with the doomed noble, even rescuing his hanged body from the fire. A monument his daughter put up became an unsanctioned popular pilgrimage site until it was destroyed during the French Revolution.

Whether as fact or fable, there’s something gorgeously baroque about de Rais’s dungeon mastering — especially when considered vis-a-vis his historical casting call opposite the abstemious Maid.

As a text for our latter-day edification, de Rais appears a carnivore devoured by his own appetites (and not only sexual: he also blew through the gargantuan family fortune). Reduced from hero to beast, he’s almost a literal werewolf or vampire; he’s often cast as such in video games and the like.

And he transfixes us because he personifies this uncanny bridge from the atomized digital age with its iconic serial killers, alone and psychologically deconstructed, back into the medieval — feudal, irrational, communal, violent and physical but also suffused with an omnipresent alien-to-us paranormal spirit world. It is enough to glance to experience the pull of the abyss gazing back.

Sabine Baring-Gould anticipated the modern afterlife of Gilles de Rais in the mid-19th century Book of Were-Wolves — which incorporated an extended account of de Rais’s trial into a wider narrative of folklore shapeshifting.

De Rais himself shapeshifts even within the brief arc of his dramatic trial: from indignant defendant into contrite supplicant, every drop sincere so far as one can perceive. His very prosecutors, indeed his very victims, wept for the fallen Marechal, and the “monster” reversed with this display his excommunication. (This may have been the part of the punishment de Rais feared most: again, we encounter the alien cosmology.)

“Nothing seems to me to be more beautiful –- and farthest away from our mentality of today — than the crowd of parents of the victims praying for this soul’s salvation,” one modern observed. “That is spiritual nobility.”

Agonizing ecstacist Georges Bataille wrote a whole book about de Rais, characteristically taken by the intersection of repugnance and transcendence. For Bataille, Christianity even reconciles our prisoner’s stupendous villainy with his unfeigned anticipation of spiritual salvation that “ultimately summarize the Christian situation.”

“Perhaps,” Bataille mused, “Christianity is even fundamentally the pressing demand for crime, the demand for the horror that in a sense it needs in order to forgive.”

A Few Books About Gilles de Rais

There are also several free public-domain books, such as Bluebeard: an account of Comorre the cursed and Gilles de Rais, with summaries of various tales and traditions and (already alluded to, the one with the original trial documents) Blue-beard, a contribution to history and folk-lore. Gilles de Rais is popularly, though I think not very persuasively, believed to have helped inspire the “Bluebeard” legend of the murderous aristocrat.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Hanged,History,Homosexuals,Infamous,Murder,Nobility,Public Executions,Rape,Scandal,Serial Killers,Sex,Soldiers,Torture,Wrongful Executions

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1870: Jean-Baptiste Troppmann, mass murderer

9 comments January 19th, 2009 Headsman

Outside Paris’s La Roquette prison this morning in 1870, mass murderer Jean-Baptiste Troppmann was guillotined for the sensational butchery of a family of eight.

Katherine Taylor’s In the Theater of Criminal Justice conceptualizes Troppmann‘s crime and trial as a test case for the evolving public performance of justice.

The Alsatian-born Troppmann, or Traupmann (French Wikipedia page | German) was apprehended trying to catch a ship for America shortly after a murdered woman and her five murdered children were discovered on the Plaine de Pantin on the outskirts of Paris.

The horrific state of the bodies (caution: link displays grisly post-mortem photos) produced a public sensation with the curious phenomenon of mass citizen pilgrimmages to the “field of cadavers” such that the Parisian police chief would later remember that “[i]t was necessary to close the entrance gate of the train station on the crowd that could no longer go in or out, that screamed from every direction in explosions of terror and rage: ‘Yet another victim of Pantin!'”

Troppmann had last been seen accompanying family father Jean Kinck on a business trip from which the latter was destined never to return … and it soon came to light that Jean Kinck had been the first of Troppmann’s victims, followed by the eldest son, interspersed with letters written to Kinck’s unwitting widow requesting bank transfers in the name of his deceased business partner.

As a judicial matter, this case was open and shut; Troppmann was convicted three months after his arrest, and went under the blade three weeks after that.

But the immense public fascination he generated would be a milestone in the development of the French tabloid press, which did brisk business* stoking the lucrative hysteria.

Small wonder such a staggering throng assembled for the dawn beheading — assembled even from the previous evening, to catch a glimpse of the grim apparatus being assembled for the next day’s play.

Among the multitude were various intellectual worthies, including the liberal Russian author Ivan Turgenev. His subsequent “Kazn’ Tropmana” (“The Execution of Troppmann” — the link is in Russian; I haven’t found a full English version), which includes meeting the remorseless prisoner and witnessing his pre-execution “toilette,” reflects the writer’s discomfiture with Madame Guillotine. Too appalled to watch the beheading, he turns away and narrates its sound.

a light knocking of wood on wood — that was the sound made by the top part of the yoke with the slit for the passage of the knife as it fell round the murderer’s head and kept it immobile … Then something suddenly descended with a hollow growl and stopped with an abrupt thud … Just as though a huge animal had retched … I felt dizzy. Everything swam before my eyes. … None of us, absolutely none looked like a person who realized that he had been present at the implementation of an act of social justice; each one tried mentally to turn aside and, as it were, throw off any responsibility for this murder

“I will not forget that horrible night,” Turgenev later wrote to a friend (pdf link), “in the course of which ‘I have supp’d full of horrors’ and acquired a definite loathing for capital punishment in general, and in particular for the way it is carried out in France.”

Most others present are presumed to have experienced the opposite sensation, as made plain in this more democratic English-language account freely available from Google books. Nevertheless, Troppmann enjoyed a literary afterlife with a poetic name-check in Maurice Rollinat’s Les Nevroses (French link; “Soliloque de Troppmann” is about 75% of the way down the page); and as noted in Richard Burton’s Blood in the City, death-obsessed Georges Bataille used the infamous surname for both a pen name and the name of a main character in two separate works more than half a century later. (Update: Victor Hugo got in on the act, too. See the comments.)

Although Troppmann’s name appears on some lists of serial killers, his eight homicides do not fit the term’s usual definition of a compulsive pattern of murders spread over time. Troppmann’s blood offerings were meant for no other idol but Mammon.

* According to Thomas Cragin’s Murder in Parisian Streets: Manufacturing Crime and Justice in the Popular Press, 1830-1900, the circulation of everyman broadsheet Le Petit Journal surged by 50% overnight after the discovery of Troppmann’s victims — “But just as cases such as this one could boost sales, their absence temporarily reduced circulation … [and] its publishers tried to ensure a steady supply [of murder stories].”

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,Mature Content,Murder,Pelf,Public Executions,Theft

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1905: Fou Tchou-Li, by a thousand cuts

16 comments April 10th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1905, Fou Tchou-Li suffered the last execution by lingchi in Beijing, for the murder of a Mongolian prince.

Lingchi, or slow slicing, involved the public dismemberment of the victim. As such, it became iconic to westerners as an image of exotic Chinese cruelty — albeit iconic in a mythicized form, the accounts conflicting, undependable, Orientalist. (Many different ones are collected at the Wikipedia page.)

Lingchi is especially notable — apart from fathering the phrase “death by a thousand cuts” in the English lexicology — for its overlap with the era of photography.

Fou Tchou-Li’s death was captured on film, and the images famously captivated Georges Bataille for the expression of seeming ecstasy on the face of the dying (or dead) man.

Bataille was said to meditate daily upon the image below in particular — “I never stopped being obsessed by this image of pain, at the same time ecstatic and intolerable.”

Agony and ecstasy? A sequence of images, strong stuff in spite of their low quality, describing Fou Tchou-Li’s execution can be viewed here. Notice, however, that it’s not the one pictured here — the scholar who maintains this page claims the man’s identity became confused by western interlocutors. The different, unnamed man who as “Fou Tchou-Li” riveted Bataille is pictured here.

In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag explained the mystical nexus of pleasure and pain Fou Tchou-Li’s torture suggested to the French theorist, aptly comparing it to graphic but pre-photographic exaltations of torture in the western artistic tradition, such as Saint Sebastian:

To contemplate this image, according to Bataille, is both a mortification of the feelings and a liberation of tabooed erotic knowledge — a complex response that many people must find hard to credit. … Bataille is not saying that he takes pleasure in the sight of this excruciation. But he is saying that he can imagine extreme suffering as a kind of transfiguration. It is a view of suffering, of the pain of others, that is rooted in religious thinking, which links pain to sacrifice, sacrifice to exaltation — a view that could not be more alien to a modern sensibility.

It’s no idle point to say that all this reads quite a lot into a single frame that may not be all that representative of the moment, though that wouldn’t necessarily diminish Bataille’s gist. More, these are western interpretations of — projections upon — an image marked as fundamentally outside in a tableau irresistibly blending the colonizer and the colonized.

The execution was ordered in the last days of the Qing Dynasty, which had long been substantially beholden to European states, especially the British; the prisoner was apparently administered opium to numb the pain, the very product Britain had gone to war to force China to accept.

Taiwanese video artist Chen Chieh-jen interpreted the photography that so captivated Bataille, and its colonial context, in Lingchi: Echoes of a Historical Photograph (review).

Two weeks after this date, China abolished the punishment for good.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,China,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Language,Lingchi,Mature Content,Milestones,Popular Culture,Public Executions

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