(Thanks to Henry-Clement Sanson for the guest post. The former executioner — the last of his illustrious dynasty comprising six generations of bourreaux — was the grandson of that dread figure of the Paris Terror, Charles Henri Sanson. Henry-Clement’s Memoirs of the Sansons: From Private Notes and Documents (1688-1847) describes some famous or infamous executions from the family annals. “If it had for purpose to furnish food for the unhealthy curiosity of people who would seek emotions in a kind of written photograph of the scenes that take place on the scaffold, it should be received with loathsomeness,” our guest author disingenuously explains of his motivations after debts resulted in his dismissal from the family post. Rather, “I have been actuated in the course of my work by an abhorrence for the punishment denounced by so many eloquent voices, the punishment of which I have had the misfortune to be the living impersonation.” Although this document appears to draw from some manner of family records, it deserves a cautious reading as pertains the intimate conversations and beneficent motivations of his kinsmen. -ed.)
Count Antoine-Joseph De Horn was the scion of a princely race; and he was connected with the highest nobility of Europe. At the time when speculation, under Law‘s auspices, was raging in Paris, and the temptation of gain was leading astray many persons of position and family, Count de Horn was living in the capital the life of a young lord of fashion and fortune. The sensation which was produced may easily be imagined when it was heard that he had been arrested and put under lock and key under the twofold charge of having murdered, in company with a Piedmontese, called the Chevalier de Milhe, and a third unknown person, a Jew who speculated in the shares of the Royal Bank, in order to rob him of a pocket-book which contained a sum of 100,000 livres.
The murder was perpetrated in a tavern of the Rue Quincampoix, where, it was alleged, Count de Horn and his accomplices had made an appointment with the Jew, under pretence of purchasing the shares he had in his pocket, but in reality to steal them from him.
The greatest agitation prevailed at Court in consequence of this affair, owing to the illustrious rank or the accused, and of his connection with the loftiest aristocracy of the land. De Horn’s trial was pursued with unprecedented rapidity, and it seems as if the numerous steps taken to save the young man’s life only hurried his fate. When his parents heard of his incarceration, they lost no time in moving heaven and earth on his behalf. On the eve of the trial, a large number of his kinsmen assembled in the Palais de Justice, and waited for the members of the court, to bow to them as they passed, by way of commending the accused to their indulgence. This imposing manifestation, undertaken by the first seigneurs of France, produced no effect: the court of La Tournelle sentenced Count de Horn and the Chevalier de Milhe to be broken on the wheel, and left there until death should follow.
This sentence filled the young man’s friends and parents with terror and surprise. They sent to the Regent a petition in which it was represented that Count de Horn’s father was mad, that his kinsman Prince Ferdinand de Ligne was in a similar condition, that lunacy was a common ailing in his family, and that the young man must have committed the crime when of unsound mind. Among those who signed the petition were Prince Claude de Ligne, Marquis d’Harcourt, the Earl of Egmont, the Duke de la Tremouille, the Duke de la Force, the Archbishop of Cambray, Prince de Soubise, the Princess de Gonzague, and many others of the same rank. All the facts adduced in this petition were certainly authentic. The great race of the Princes de Horn and Overisque had given many examples of mental aberration. All the subscribers of the petition went in a body to the Palais Royal; but the Regent only consented to receive a deputation. He was inflexible with regard to a reprieve; and it was with much difficulty that he consented to a commutation of the sentence into decapitation. He could only be moved by being reminded that he was himself related to the culprit through his mother the Princess Palatine. How he kept his promise will be seen hereafter.
This obstinacy on the part of the Regent was much commented upon. Personal animosity was said to be the cause. M. de Horn, being young, handsome, and captivating, had been something of a lady-killer. Now, morality was not the distinguishing feature of Philip d’Orleans’ court, and it was said that several beauties in fashion had regarded the foreign young lord with more than ordinary favour. Mdme. de Parabere‘s name was particularly mentioned; and it was related that the Regent had once surprised M. de Horn in conversation with the beautiful marchioness. In his fury the prince showed him the door, saying, ‘Sortez’ —to which the Count made the proud and appropriate answer: ‘Monseigneur, nos ancetres auraient dit, sortons.’ To this adventure, whether real or invented, was attributed the Regent’s hatred for Count de Horn, whose life he had sworn to sacrifice. It is not my business to discuss this question. What was most certain was that Law, the minister of finance, and Dubois, the prime minister, showed themselves the bitterest foes of Count de Horn. The influence of the shares of the Royal Bank and of the Mississippi was diminishing; and they were in hopes that this might be mended by a display of unparalleled severity for the punishment of a murder committed with the object of taking possession of some of these shares.
Shortly afterwards, Charles Sanson received a visit from the Marquis de Creqy, the nobleman who had been the instigator and leader of all the attempts made to save the unfortunate youth. He seemed convinced that the Regent would keep his word, and showed him a letter in which the Duke de Saint-Simon expressed his conviction that Count de Horn would be decapitated. The Marquis added that his royal highness had also promised that the execution should take place in the court of the Conciergerie, to spare the culprit the shame of being led through the crowd. The only thing was to spare the unhappy young man as many sufferings as possible. M. de Creqy expressed a wish to see the sword which was to be used for his execution; he turned pale when my ancestor produced the broad double-edged blade, sharp and flashing, which could hardly be styled a weapon. On one side was engraved the word Justitia; on the other a wheel, emblem of torture. It was the sword with which the Chevalier de Rohan had been decapitated.
M. de Creqy could hardly refrain from weeping when he begged Charles Sanson to be as lenient as possible in the execution of his fearful mission, to uncover only the neck of the victim, and to wait until he received the priest’s absolution before giving him the fatal blow.
The conversation then turned to the measures to be taken for the remittance of the body, which M. de Creqy claimed in the name of the family. He requested my ancestor to procure a padded coffin wherein to place the remains of De Horn, which were then to be taken away in a carriage sent expressly for the purpose. Charles Sanson promised to see to the accomplishment of these lugubrious details.
When he left, M. de Creqy, wishing to reward my ancestor for the services he asked, presented him with 100 louis, and insisted on his accepting the gift. But Charles Sanson firmly refused. M. de Creqy appeared moved, and retired. I may be forgiven for dwelling with some complacency on this trait of disinterestedness on the part of one of those who preceded me in the office I held for many years; it may be considered as an answer to the charge of cupidity which has been launched at a profession which did not appear sufficiently soiled by blood.
Only a few hours had elapsed since the visit of the Marquis de Creqy, when Charles Sanson received the order to take, on the next morning at six o’clock, from the Conciergerie, Count Antoine de Horn; to convey him to the Place de Greve, after passing through the torture-chamber, and carry out the sentence of Parliament in its cruel tenour. My ancestor’s expectation was justified; the Regent did not keep his word; Law and Dubois had won the day against the Duke de Saint-Simon and the nobility.
To my ancestor’s extreme surprise, the sentence did not even contain the secret restriction of a retentum, which spared horrible sufferings to the accused, by ordering the executioner to strangle him before breaking his limbs. How could he now keep the promise he had made to the Marquis de Creqy? Charles Sanson passed the night in anything but pleasant reflections.
It was broad daylight when my ancestor arrived at the Conciergerie with his sinister cortege. He immediately entered the prison, and was conducted to a lower room in which were the Count de Horn and M. de Milhe, who-had just been tortured. Both were horribly mangled, for they had supported the boot to the eighth spike. The Count was extremely pale. He cast a haggard look around him, and kept speaking to his companion, who seemed much more resigned and listened with religious attention to the priest who was consoling him. As to M. de Horn, instead of being plunged in the state of prostration which usually followed the abominable sufferings he had just borne, he gesticulated with feverish animation and pronounced incoherent words which almost seemed to justify what had been alleged in his defence concerning the unsoundness of his mind. He violently repulsed the priest, who was dividing his attention between the two sufferers, and repeatedly asked for Monsignor Francois de Lorraine, Bishop of Bayeux, from whom he had received the communion the day before.
The fatal moment came. The culprits were carried to the executioner’s cart. Charles Sanson sat down next to the Count, while the priest continued speaking to the Piedmontese. Seeing the unhappy young man’s extreme agitation, my ancestor thought he might quiet him by giving him some hope, even were that hope to remain unrealised.
‘My lord,’ he said, ‘there is perhaps some hope. Your relations are powerful.’
The prisoner violently interrupted him. ‘They have abandoned me,’ he exclaimed; ‘the Bishop — where is the Bishop? He promised to return.’
‘Who knows?’ my ancestor ventured to say; ‘reprieve may yet come.’
The young man’s lips turned up contemptuously. ‘If they wanted to spare my life, they would not have crippled me in this fashion,’ he replied, bitterly, casting a look at his lacerated legs and feet.
Charles Sanson says in his notes that he really hoped and expected that some attempt would be made to save De Horn. But nothing occurred. The Pont-au-Change was passed, and in another minute the cortege reached the Place de Greve. The Count looked at Sanson reproachfully as if upbraiding him for what he had said; but he was now quite collected and the fear of death had left him.
At length the cart stopped at the foot of the scaffold. The culprits, owing to the torture they had undergone, could not move unaided. Charles Sanson therefore took Count de Horn in his arms and carried him up the steps. At the same time he whispered in his ear the advice that he should ask permission to make revelations, as a means of gaining time; but the unfortunate young man had again lost his self-possession and gave vent to incoherent exclamations. ‘I knew they would not allow the Bishop to come,’ he said; … ‘they have arrested him because he had shares also. But I shall sell my life dearly; only give me arms! … they cannot refuse to give me arms!’ … While he was thus expressing himself, Charles Sanson stepped back, motioning to his assistants to begin their work which consisted in tying him to the plank on which he was to be broken. When this was done, the priest, who had just left the Piedmontese, approached De Horn: ‘My son,’ he said, ‘renounce the sentiments of anger and revenge which trouble your last moments. Only think of God: He is the sovereign author of all justice, if you appear before Him with a contrite and humbled heart.’
The Count at length seemed moved, and he joined in the priest’s prayer. As to my ancestor, he remembered M. de Creqy’s request as to priestly absolution, and in this respect his conscience was firm; but he had also promised not to make the young man suffer. In an instant he decided on the course he should adopt. Simulating sudden illness, he passed his iron bar to Nicolas Gros, his oldest assistant, took the thin rope used for the secret executions of the retentum, passed it round the Count’s neck, and before Gros had raised the heavy bar wherewith he was about to break the culprit’s limbs, he pulled the rope, and thus spared him the most atrocious sufferings ever devised by human cruelty.
On the other hand, the Chevalier de Milhe, who was being broken, uttered wild shrieks. In vain did the priest wipe the perspiration from his brow, and pour a few drops of water into his mouth. Charles Sanson was struck with the inequality of the sufferings of the two men, and told Gros to give him the coup de grace — the blow which broke the chest.
Gros obeyed, but not without casting an uneasy look at the commissaire, who was viewing the execution from the balcony of the Hotel-de-ville. No doubt the latter cared little for executions of this kind, of which, perhaps, he had seen but too many, for he perceived nothing. At this moment the priest, surprised not to hear the cries of Count de Horn, returned to exhort him to repentance: he saw that death had forestalled him. The rope was still hanging from the young man’s neck, and my ancestor hastened to conceal it while the ecclesiastic was standing between the Hotel-de-ville and himself; then, placing a finger on his lips, he solicited the priest’s discretion.
Both passed the remainder of the day beside the mangled remains. Shortly after the execution, a carriage drawn by six horses, preceded by a mounted servant, and followed by six servants in gorgeous livery, entered the Place de Greve. It was the Duke de Croy d’Havre, whose arms could be descried on the panels of his carriage through the black crape which covered it. He was soon followed by three other carriages, which stopped on the north sideof the square. They were all in deep mourning, as also the harness of the horses and the liveries of the servants. The blinds were closed, as much to avoid public curiosity as to conceal the cruel sight of the scaffold. But it was whispered in the crowd that the last comers were the Prince de Ligne, the Duke de Rohan, and a Crouiy, the last scion of the illustrious race of Arpad, which traced its origin to Attila, and put forth more legitimate rights to the crown of Hungary than the house of Hapsburg.
My ancestor was surprised not to see the Marquis de Creqy. But his astonishment was short-lived, for a rumour at the other end of the Place announced the arrival of two other carriages, in an apparel still more pompous. They drove up to the other carriages and took up a position in the same line. The Marquis de Creqy stepped out, and advanced on to the square clad in the uniform of a colonel-general and general inspector of the King’s armies, and wearing the insignias of the Golden Fleece, the grand crosses of Saint-Louis and Saint-Jean of Jerusalem. His countenance bore the traces of profound grief. He traversed the Greve with a firm step; the crowd stepped back respectfully before this great personage, who was one of Louis XIV’s godsons.
As soon as the commissaire saw M. de Creqy, he retired from the balcony of the Hotel-de-ville, as if only waiting for this final protest to bring the scene to a conclusion. This meant that justice was satisfied. The Marquis walked straight up to my ancestor with a severe face, and looking at him almost threateningly:
‘Well, sir,’ said he, in a stern voice, ‘what of your promise?’
‘Monseigneur,’ answered Charles Sanson, ‘at eight o’clock this morning M. le Comte de Horn was dead, and the bar of my assistant struck a dead body.’
The priest confirmed my ancestor’s words.
‘Well,’ said M. de Creqy, in a milder tone, ‘our house shall remember that if it could obtain nothing from the clemency of the Regent and from the justice of Parliament, it is at least indebted to the humanity of the executioner.’
The Count’s body was then untied and taken to one of the carriages. It was so mutilated that the limbs seemed ready to separate from the trunk. As a protest against the cruelty of the sentence, M. de Creqy insisted on holding one of the legs, which only adhered to the corpse by the skin. When this was done the carriages moved away in a file, and stopped before the house of the Countess de Montmorency-Lagny, nee De Horn, where the Count’s remains were placed in a bier and deposited in a chapel. It remained there for two days, surrounded by a numerous clergy who sang the mass of the dead. Meanwhile Prince Francois de Lorraine, Bishop of Bayeux, had returned to Paris. He expressed much grief at having been unable to attend his unfortunate kinsman to the scaffold, thinking that the execution was to take place at a later date. He nevertheless arrived in time to join his prayers to those of the clergy, and, in company with MM. de Creqy and de Plessis-Belliere, he escorted the body to the Castle of Baussigny, in the Netherlands, where the Prince de Horn, eldest brother of the defunct, and head of the family, usually resided.
This extraordinary affair greatly irritated the highest personages of the State against the Regent and his favourites: it proved of no assistance to Law, whose fall was unavoidable. On his return from his country-seat the Duke de Saint-Simon hastened to write to the Duke d’Havre to express his regret at what had occurred, and to say how he himself had been deceived by the false promises of the Duke d’Orleans.
I quote here the Duke d’Havre’s answer, because it not only expressed the sentiments of all the French nobility, but it corroborates what I have said concerning Charles Sanson’s conduct:
My dear Duke, — I accept with gratitude, and I understand quite well, the regret you are kind enough to express. I do not know whether the Marquis de Parabere or the Marquis de Creqy obtained of the executioner of Paris the charity which is attributed to him; but what I do know is that the death of Count de Horn is the result of a false policy, of the financial operations of the Government, and, perhaps, also of the policy of the Duke d’Orleans. You know my sentiments of consideration for you.
Was Count de Horn really innocent? We have no right to judge the merits of those it was our mission to put to death. Nevertheless I have taken the liberty to allude to the rumours which were current at the time of De Horn’s arrest, and which made him out to be the victim of the Regent’s personal animosity. Another version tended to establish his innocence, or, at least, so to diminish his responsibility in the Jew’s murder, that, were the version correct, the sentence he suffered could only be regarded as a monstrous iniquity. It was said that M. de Horn and the Chevalier de Milhe had not made an appointment with the Jew with the intention of murdering and robbing him, but merely with the object of obtaining from him a large sum in shares of the Bank which the Count had really entrusted to him; that not only did the Jew deny the deposit, but that he went so far as to strike Antoine de Horn in the face. Upon this the young man, who was hot-blooded and passionate, seized a knife that lay on the table and wounded the Jew in the shoulder. It was De Milhe who finished him and took the pocket-book, of which the Count refused to have a share. If the affair occurred in this way, it must be acknowledged that the Regent, and the magistrates who served his hatred, had a heavy reckoning to answer for.