1920: Four denunciators of Laon

Add comment May 15th, 2020 Alphonse Lemonon

(Thanks to Alphonse Lemonon for the guest post, which originally appeared under the title “Civilization’s Thin Veneer: War Shows the Seamy Side of Human Nature” in The Overland Monthly (July 1920). As noted in the foreword paragraph, it’s substantially an English translation of reporting from May 16, 1920 edition of Le Petit Journal. These were the unlucky half of eight people convicted in a trial touching 44 Frenchmen and -women from the northern regions occupied by Germany at some point during the late war, who were accused of collaborating with those Germans and denouncing their patriotic countrymen. There’s much more about this case (in French) including more pictures (in grainy black and white) in this police magazine. -ed.)

[Almost at the moment when Joan of Arc was being canonized with all the clerical ceremonies at Rome [this occurred on May 16, 1920 -ed.], four political prisoners — one a woman — were tied to stakes and shot according to military and civic ceremony near Paris. The tragic and instructive narrative is here told in a translation from the most popular Paris Newspaper — Le Petit Journal, May 16, 1920.]

FOUR of the condemned informers of Laon, of which affair one has not forgotten the dolorous echo, Georges Toque, Moise Lemoine, Leander Herbert and the woman Alice Aubert were shot yesterday morning, at Vincennes, and if it were an affecting execution, it assuredly was to them. Two of them fell while swearing to their innocence and crying “Viva la France!”

The Last Awakening.

All four were awakened at 4 a.m. Some instants before the officers charged with the transfer of the condemned to execution had presented themselves at several prisons; some at the prison de la Sante where Toque and Lemoine were confined, others at Cherchi-Midi where Herbert was detained, and a third group at the prison de Saint-Lazare, where one other, Alice Aubert, condemned of the same affair, was held. She occupied a cell with Helen Favre, who had been reprieved.

The lawyers of the four condemned were on hand to assist their clients until the last moment. Maitres Delmont and Campinchi arrives at the prison La Sante about the same time as lieutenant-colonel Beyle, commissioner of the government. All were shown together to the cells and Toque was called. He was seated and dressing himself. The usual words on such occasions having been pronounced by the commissioner of the government, the condemned man moved towards the foot of his bed and finished his dressing — never ceasing meantime to protest his innocence.

Maitre Delmont handed the prisoner his shoes which he took with a gesture of indifference and while putting them on remarked: “I go to make the journey to eternity and have no need.” Having completed his dressing he wrote two letters, which he intrusted to Maitre Delmont for delivery. One he addressed to his wife, the other to the minister of Justice. It follows:

Monsieur le Ministre de la Justice.

At the moment of dying, I affirm solemnly my innocence and of you demand vengeance.

I swear that i have never belonged to the spy service of Germany. I swear to have never rendered them any service, nor to have informed on anybody. I swear that Waegele has odiously lied.

Georges Toque.

At that moment the prisoner Lemoine who had been awakened about the same time as Toque passed in the corridor of the prison, and seeing his associate, called out to him:

“Let us go Toque, have courage.”

After the formal entry on the prison register, the two condemned men appeared in the court of the prison, their heads bare but their demeanor calm.

They were placed in the same automobile, seated opposite each other, the prison abbe and a gendarme accompanying them. The journey to the execution grounds began for them. Meantime painful scenes were being enacted at the prisons containing the two other doomed persons, Leandre Herbert the soldier and Alice Aubert. The soldier appeared demented. His lawyer could not calm him and called the prisoner’s attention to the automobile in company with two religienotice of the civilian doctor, Socquet, demanding a reprieve.

The doctor refused declaring that the wards Vincennes. prisoner enjoyed all his faculties.

“You are going to shoot an insane man. I leave the responsibility with you” concluded the lawyer.

Herbert was placed in a voiture and arrived at the scene of execution at Vincennes some minutes after Toque and Lemoine.

The three condemned men were subjected to an atrocious delay of three-quarters of an hour till the third voiture containing Alice Aubert appeared.

To allay the mental sufferings of the delay, when minutes seemed hours, it was proposed to the prisoners to alight from the voitures and walk in the court of the donjon at Vincennes, but Lemoine refused, as being too cold.

At Saint-Lazare.

While the three condemned men awaited death at Vincennes, a touching scene took place at the prison Saint-Lazare, where the condemned woman Aubert shared a cell with Helene Favre, condemned at the same time but commuted. The Favre woman thought she was the one about to be taken to execution and fell in a terrible nervous crisis.

On the contrary Alice Aubert had good control of herself, listened to the official orders without evincing any emotion; but her eyes filled and she cried silently some minutes. Then she began to dress herself, a figure sad and resigned. She said to her lawyer who tried to comfort her:

“If I am sad — if I cry — it is not for me, it is for my sister, it is for my child. It is also for the others condemned.”

She put on her yellow silk hose and patent-leather shoes which contrasted with her simple petticoat and mantle, and all the time she repeated: “Providing that I can go to heaven”; “Providing that I can go to heaven”; “Providing that I can go to heaven.” These words she used till she alighted at the execution ground at Vincennes.

Before quitting the prison Saint-Lazare the condemned woman wished to hear mass, and it was not until she had received communion that she mounted the automobile in company with two religieuses who assisted her until the last moments. The automobile then sped towards Vincennes.

At La Caponniere.

At five hours and a half (5:30 a.m.) an order rang out upon the ground of la Caponniere: “Garde a vous!” (Attention). The voitures containing the condemned advanced upon the road. The soldiers of the 13th artillery, the 23rd dragoons, and the 26th chasseurs, who formed the square, presented arms; the trumpets sounded “Aux champs!” the firing squads rectified their position before the four stakes placed in line at a distance of ten metres from one another.

Slowly the autos came to a a [sic] stop, and from the one at the head descended Toque and Lemoine, absolutely livid but calm.

The abbe Geispitz embraced the two condemned men and they in turn embraced their lawyers, and then Toque addressed his lawyer:

You have seen my memoranda and you know that I am innocent. Preserve well all the pieces show that I am not culpable. After my death — long time after — when calm will be returned to the consciences, make clear my innocence. Rehabillitate my memory, I pray you.

He directed again the attention of his lawyer to certain leaves of his memoranda that were not in their order, nor did he forget any detail.

And that man who came to die insisted again that in the future he be not misrepresented, that he be not disparagingly spoken of as “Toque the traitor”.

The painful and prolonged scene wore out the patience of Lemoine who tugged impatiently on the lapel of his companion’s overcoat and said “Let us go,” and took a step forward. The two condemned men escorted by the gendarmes then began to direct their steps towards the stakes where they were to stand before the firing squads, but were halted as the other two condemned prisoners, had not yet descended from their automobiles.

Turning about, Toque and Lemoine saw Herbert the soldier wearing his blue uniform, his cap turned the wrong way and advancing with long strides. He continued to speak incoherently: “Me also, I wish to say something — say something”. He did not cease to repeat these words and addressing the gendarmes he said: “Do not hold me — do not hold me — You will see — you will see — Ah! ah!”

Behind him came Alice Aubert, without coiffure like Toque and Lemoine and like those marching with firm step.

One moment where she entered the square, by one gesture instinctive of feminine coquetrie, she drew over her light colored dress her manteau of sombre hue.

Toque and Lemoine, who were advancing towards the stakes, turned again to speak the last word to their lawyers, the hands — a dernier au revoir — accompanied by a sign of the hands. And then the four condemned marched in Indian file traversing the square and directing their steps to the stakes at which the gendarmes tied them.

The Execution.

Toque was at the extreme right. Lemoine was at the second stake. Herbert was attached to the third. The fourth stake on the left propped Alice Aubert.

Lemoine and Toque refused the bandage intended to mask the view of the firing squad. Herbert remained mute and let things proceed.

The clerk of the Council of War at this moment appeared between the two firing squads in the centre and read the sentence of death.

All the official details in full had been finished and in the silence impressive the clear and strong voice of Toque elevated itself once more: “I swear that I am innocent; vive la France!”

Also Lemoine, elevating his right hand took the same oath and also cried: “Vive la France!”

As for Herbert, he articulated again the same phrase: “Me also I wish to say something.”

With hand raised Toque again avowed his innocence, until the soldiers of the front rank knelt to fire. All put their pieces to the shoulder. Again Toque cried: “Vive la France!” The officer lowered his sword and the fusil[l]ade crackled. But a frightful rattle, like an appeal for help escaped from the gorge of Toque. He was not dead. The guns had trembled in the hands of the firers.

Maitre Delmont, the lawyer of Toque, cried to an under-officer: “Dispatch him, dispatch him”! The soldier approached the palpitating body, from which escaped continually the heart-rending cries and discharged his revolver twice in the head of the condemned. The rattle ceased but the man still stirred and a third ball found the brain.

Alice Aubert, with her hands clasped upon her breast, and holding in her fingers a crucifix rested upright against the stake. She too received in her turn the coup de grace. Her head fell. Then she became completely erect and sank for the last time to move no more.

The two others also received their coup de grace; but it was unnecessary for Lemoine who had his skull stove in. It was not so with Herbert whose pulse continued to beat and his lips to move at the moment when a doctor examined him.

The civilian doctor Socquet, declared that he was dead, and the body of which one of the legs had been broken by a bullet was placed in a coffin.

After examining the two other cadavers, the doctor Socquet came to certify the death of Alice Aubert. He wished to examine the heart, but the chemise of the woman obstructed. A soldier, by the aid of a knife, cut the shoulder-strap and the doctor plunged his hand which trembled in the gorge of the woman streaming with blood. He drew forth a photograph equally blood-stained — the picture of the child of Alice Aubert. She had placed the photograph on her heart before going to die. It was piteously replaced upon the breast of the dead.

A sonnerie guerriere, resounded then, and to those notes of the trumpets the troops defiled.

All the assistants were paler than the dead.

Some minutes after two wagons, surrounded by dragoons, quitted the scene of execution and proceeded to the cemetery of Vincennes four kilometers distant. In the wagons were four wooden coffins. They contained the stripped bodies of the four executed prisoners.

The bodies not having been reclaimed they have been, after a mock burial, delivered to the faculty of medicine.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,France,Guest Writers,History,Other Voices,Public Executions,Shot,Treason,Women

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