1762: Jean Calas, intolerably

2 comments March 10th, 2012 Mary OGrady

(Thanks to Mary O’Grady for the guest post. -ed.)

In the 1760s, Toulouse was no place for a Huguenot, not even for an affable, prosperous paterfamilias like Jean Calas. The whole southwestern region of France barely tolerated Protestants.

The Calas household included two adult sons, Louis, who had converted to Roman Catholicism, and Marc-Antoine, their sisters, as well as their parents, Jean Calas and his wife, and a longtime maid who was Catholic. Monsieur and Madame Calas and their daughters were Protestant, as was Marc-Antoine. Friends and associates described the ménage as placid, except for occasional outbursts of misbehavior by elder son Marc-Antoine.

Jean Calas was a textile dealer. On October 13, 1761, young Marc-Antoine Calas was found hanged in his father’s shop. Wishing to spare the family’s reputation from the stigma of suicide as well as his son’s corpse from the mutilation which was customary for suicides, Jean Calas at first claimed to the authorities that an intruder killed his son.

An ugly rumor swept Toulouse: Marc-Antoine was murdered by his own parents, because he planned to convert to Catholicism. (Never mind that Jean Calas kept his Catholic son Louis in the bosom of his family and employed a Catholic servant.) Jean Calas was arrested and subjected to a trial that was anything but fair; by this time, he had admitted, too late, that his son had hanged himself, probably over gambling debts.

No dice. The appellate court of Toulouse condemned Jean Calas to death on March 9, 1762. The execution was set for the following day.

Murder of a family member was held to be a particularly hideous crime, and hideous was the penalty: breaking on the wheel. Jean Calas was tied to a cartwheel in the main square of Toulouse. His limbs were broken with iron rods. He proclaimed his innocence until the executioner finally strangled him to death.

L’affaire Calas inspired Voltaire to new vigor in his fight for religious toleration. In 1763 he published A Treatise on Tolerance, a landmark document which remains well-read today.

O different worshippers of a peaceful God! if you have a cruel heart, if, while you adore he whose whole law consists of these few words, “Love God and your neighbor,” you have burdened that pure and holy law with false and unintelligible disputes, if you have lighted the flames of discord sometimes for a new word, and sometimes for a single letter of the alphabet; if you have attached eternal punishment to the omission of a few words, or of certain ceremonies which other people cannot comprehend, I must say to you with tears of compassion for mankind: “Transport yourselves with me to the day on which all men will be judged and on which God will do unto each according to his works.

“I see all the dead of past ages and of our own appearing in his presence. Are you very sure that our Creator and Father will say to the wise and virtuous Confucius, to the legislator Solon, to Pythagoras, Zaleucus, Socrates, Plato, the divine Antonins, the good Trajan, to Titus, the delights of mankind, to Epictetus, and to many others, models of men: Go, monsters, go and suffer torments that are infinite in intensity and duration. Let your punishment be eternal as I am. But you, my beloved ones, Jean Châtel, Ravaillac, Damiens, Cartouche, etc. who have died according to the prescribed rules, sit forever at my right hand and share my empire and my felicity.”

May all men remember that they are brothers! May they hold in horror tyranny exerted over souls, just as they do the violence which forcibly seizes the products of peaceful industry! And if the scourge of war is inevitable, let us not hate one another, let us not destroy one another in the midst of peace, and let us use the moment of our existence to bless, in a thousand different languages, from Siam to California, [God’s] goodness which has given us this moment.

-Voltaire, A Treatise on Tolerance

As a result of Voltaire’s efforts, 50 French judges were appointed to a panel to review Jean Calas’s case. Their charge was to decide whether anti-Huguenot prejudice had cost Jean Calas his life. They reversed Calas’s conviction on March 9, 1765, the third anniversary of the poor man’s condemnation.

A few French books about Jean Calas

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Broken on the Wheel,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,France,God,Gruesome Methods,Guest Writers,History,Murder,Other Voices,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Wrongful Executions

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1764: The Sirven family, in effigy

1 comment September 11th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1764, Pierre-Paul Sirven and his wife — who lay beyond the reach of the law, in Switzerland — were burned in effigy at Mazamet, France, for murdering their daughter.

The Sirvens actually had three daughters; the purported victim, Elisabeth, was mentally unbalanced. The Protestant Pierre-Paul Sirven had had a recent run-in with the Catholic hierarchy in his native Castres, when Elisabeth was shanghaied to a convent for Catholic indoctrination under a lettre de cachet.

The Sirvens moved away to Saint Alby, near Mazamet, but when Elisabeth turned up dead in a well there early in 1762, the official presumption was that her schismatic parents had done her in to prevent her returning to the true church. It could have been that she just fell down the well accidentally, or went and committed suicide; as often in such cases, investigations commencing from a suspicion of foul play are liable to find that suspicion self-affirming.

To make matters worse, all this transpired during the dangerous run-up to the execution of Jean Calas in Toulouse, another instance where a doubtful criminal case was pursued against a Protestant.

Wisely, the Sirvens (parents and two remaining daughters) blew town.

They made it to Switzerland, where they holed up with Voltaire. Back in Mamazet, the parents were condemned to death and the other two children to exile for participating in the purported murder of Elisabeth. “This judgment was equally absurd and abominable,” Voltaire wrote.

If the father, in concert with his wife, had strangled his daughter, he ought to have been broken on the wheel, like Calas, and the mother to have been burned — at least, after having been strangled — because the practice of breaking women on the wheel is not yet the custom in the country of this judge. To limit the punishment to hanging in such a case, was an acknowledgment that the crime was not proved, and that in the doubt the halter was adopted to compromise for want of evidence.

The death sentences — further compromised by the absence of their objects — were nevertheless carried out in effigy on September 11, 1764.

Meanwhile, Voltaire turned his pen to the service of the Sirven cause; a French pamphlet he wrote vindicating both the Sirvens and Calas can be perused here. (Deadly religious persecution in France kept Voltaire quite preoccupied in the 1760s.)

After spending the decade trying to clear the family name from abroad, Pierre-Paul Sirven sensed an opening to return and gave himself up in 1769. The anti-Protestant hostility of the early 1760s had cooled by this time; the Calas execution was widely regretted.

Pierre-Paul Sirven was officially tried and exonerated in 1771, leading Voltaire to remark,

It only took two hours to sentence a virtuous family to death and it took us nine years to give them justice.

Part of the Themed Set: Executions in Effigy.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Executed in Effigy,Execution,France,History,Murder,Not Executed,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Wrongful Executions

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