1869: Charles Carpentier

Add comment October 21st, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1869, an impressive crowd packed Arras’s Grande Place for the beheading of Charles Carpentier.*


Photo believed to have been taken shortly before Carpentier’s execution.

According to Bois de Justice, whose collection of guillotine arcana is second to none, this is one of the rare photographs extant of the guillotine in its more classically inspired public-scaffold setup.

Its construction is lovingly detailed in this New York Times report on the following year’s execution of Jean Baptiste Troppmann:

… a square-shaped scaffold, thirteen feet long by about twelve feet six inches wide, supported on four posts six feet in height, and reached by a flight of ten steps. This scaffold is railed in on all sides, with an open balustrade, and at two-thirds of its length are fixed two upright parallel posts, surmounted by a cross-beam which goes by the name of the “chapeau.” They are thirteen feet high, and have a space of about fifteen inches between them. The knife, which is attached to the chapeau, is composed of a triangular blade of steel, fixed by means of three iron pins into a leaden haft, called the “mouton,” which gives it great weight. This mouton is nearly fourteen inches broad and the blade at its greatest width hardly a foot … The criminal, having mounted the scaffold, finds himself in front of the vertical bascule, which extends from just above his ankles to the middle of his breat, and facing him also is the lunette, with its movable portion raised. The executioner pushes the bascule, which falls into the horizontal position, and then pushes it along the table; the head of the victim seems, as it were, to throw itself into the semi-circular opening of the lunette, and an assistant immediately seizes hold of the hair. Two things now remain to be done — one is to press the button which acts upon the mechanism of the upper portion of the lunette, causing it to fall and secure the head of the criminal — the other is to set loose the knife which is to cut the head off. On decapitation taking place the head is thrown into the basket while the executioner, by a single motion slides the body down the inclined plane. The rapidity of the motion is almost inconceivable …

With the best part of a century under its lunette, the guillotine at this point had been improved from the revolutionary original that Marie Antoinette or Robespierre died upon. But it had the same theatrical concept.

However, an assistant executioner and carpenter by the name of Leon Berger was even then in the process of designing a more compact, less monumental version of the device. This technical advance met evolving French social mores with the 1870 abolition of the scaffold and its towering thirteen-foot chapeau in favor of “the Algerian model.”

From then on, the business was to be conducted by a traveling executioner with a portable guillotine at ground level, meant to reduce the carnival atmosphere and centralize administration of justice.

This concession to an age’s liberalism might well have led to an abolition on public executions full stop, had the French state not simultaneously fallen apart.

The upshot was that the French public beheading — sans scaffold — would persist for seven more decades, long enough not only for photography but for film.

* For murder and robbery on the highway, as reported by the September 16, 1869 Le Figaro. Noting the contrast with some recent acquittals of other criminals, the paper remarked apropos its skeptical stand on the death penalty that “though Carpentier is very unattractive at least from what we know of his case, we confess sincerely that his conviction was not sufficient to convince us [of capital punishment], because it proves once again how juries in different places arrive at different verdicts for the same types of crimes.” Le Figaro anticipated that regional inconsistencies in sentencing would contribute to ending the death penalty.

On this day..

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

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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].”

On this day..

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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