1887: Henri Pranzini, repentant?

3 comments August 31st, 2012 Headsman

On this date 125 years ago, a notorious French triple murderer was guillotined outside La Roquette Prison.

This condemned murderer, so infamous that anarchist bomber Ravachol planned to invoke his name as an emblem of crime in a suppressed courtroom speech, slaughtered a prostitute, her maid, and the maid’s child so that he could plunder the apartment’s jewelry.

Your basic sensational common butchery, given added legs by comparison to the next year’s apparition across the channel of the Whitechapel murderer.*

That’s just one of several more famous (or infamous) contemporaries for whom Pranzini was a sort of subplot character.

The artist Paul Gauguin — though he couldn’t quite remember the name right — suspected that this particular killer plotted his crime at the cafe that both he and Vincent Van Gogh frequented. (Van Gogh painted the proprietress, who was also possibly his lover.)

According to Van Gogh, the whole Pansini [Pranzini] affair, as well as many others, was hatched in this place … From this Pansini case sprang another case, also, according to Van Gogh, hatched in this famous cafe, the Prado case

We’ve noticed in these pages Gauguin’s disturbing severed-head jug, and its seeming inspiration from that other guillotinee, Prado.

While Gauguin’s meditations on the guillotine veered to the grotesque, a Norman teenager fresh off an apparition of Jesus Christ found spiritual sublimity in this villain. The woman eventually known as St. Therese of Lisieux later recollected

I heard talk of a great criminal just condemned to death for some horrible crimes; everything pointed to the fact that he would die impenitent…. I felt in the depths of my heart certain that our desires would be granted, but to obtain courage to pray for sinners I told God I was sure He would pardon the poor, unfortunate Pranzini; that I’d believe this even if he went to his death without any signs of repentance or without having gone to confession. I was absolutely confident in the mercy of Jesus. But I was begging Him for a “sign” of repentance only for my own simple consolation.

My prayer was answered to the letter! In spite of Papa’s prohibition that we read no papers, I didn’t think I was disobeying when reading passages pertaining to Pranzini. The day after the execution I found the newspaper “La Croix.” I opened it quickly and what did I see? Ah! my tears betrayed my emotion and I was obliged to hide. Pranzini had not gone to confession. He had mounted the scaffold and was preparing to place his head in the formidable opening, when suddenly, seized by an inspiration, he turned, took hold of the crucifix the priest was holding out to him and kissed the sacred wounds three times! Then his soul went to receive the merciful sentence of Him who declares that in heaven there will be more joy over one sinner who does penance than over ninety-nine just who have no need of repentance.

I had obtained the sign I requested.

Nameless citizens on the square when the blade fell settled for less exalted signs, like the ancient superstition of dipping into the spattered blood. (“Such scenes would disgust the black savages of Dahomey and the Gold Coast,” the London Times sniffed (September 1, 1887), and in vain urged the French government to take up legislation for private executions.)

* Pranzini found himself in Madame Tussaud’s for a spell.

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

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1871: Hostages of the Paris Commune

Add comment May 26th, 2010 Headsman

The fall of the Paris Commune on May 28, 1871 launched many a leftist insurrectionary into the martyrs’ firmament.

But the last semaine sanglante that engulfed the Commune there was blood enough for many martyrdoms.

On this date in 1871, just days before the Commune gave way, it executed a clutch of hostages (French link) in desperate reprisal for the Versailles army’s cruelties. For the Commune, it was too little ruthlessness and much too late. For the 52 who stood up against the wall this date, they were just as dead.

These unfortunates were marched from La Roquette prison — whose inmates by dint of timely resistance only narrowly avoided a more extensive massacre — to Rue Haxo and slaughtered.

A number of them were men of the cloth. In 1938, the Catholic church of Notre Dame des Otages was erected on the site and dedicated to the victims’ memory.


A crucifix at Notre Dame des Otages. Copyrighted image used with permission.

(The markers on the spot have settled on 52 as the number of the victims, which might be the historically authoritative count; different sources, however, provide slightly different numbers.)

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Cycle of Violence,Execution,France,History,Hostages,Innocent Bystanders,Martyrs,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Shot,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1894: Auguste Vaillant, bomb-throwing anarchist

5 comments February 5th, 2009 Headsman

“For too long a time, our voice is responded to with prison, the rope or the fusillade, but don’t delude yourselves: the explosion of my bomb is not only the cry of Vaillant in rebellion, but is the cry of an entire class that calls for its rights and will soon join its acts to its words.”

Auguste Vaillant

On this date in 1894, bomb-throwing anarchist — literally — Auguste Vaillant was beheaded in France.

The preceding December, the young Vaillant (French Wikipedia link) went from impoverished obscurity to national bogeyman by hurling a bomb into the Chamber of Deputies — reprisal for the 1892 execution of the anarchist Ravachol.

This bomb’s symbolic effect greatly exceeded its injury to life and limb: Vaillant said he had not been intending to kill, and in fact he did not. (Vaillant himself was among the wounded. His nose was blown off.)

But his political affiliations brought a suppression of anarchists and their press, and, of course, this day’s operation of the guillotine.*

“Mort à la société bourgeoise! Vive l’anarchie!”

Vaillant’s dying sentiment was taken up by Emile Henry, who bombed a Paris cafe the next week, and Sante Geronimo Caserio, an Italian immigrant who assassinated French President Marie Francois Sadi Carnot four months later.

* “Between the time of Vaillant’s arrival at the guillotine and the closing of the baskets containing his remains,” says the New York Times’ account, “scarcely more than twenty seconds elapsed.”

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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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