Feast Day of Saint Denis, cephalophore

Add comment October 9th, 2011 Headsman

October 9 marks the feast date of the early Christian martyr Saint Denis.

Guess how he died:


(cc) image from minifig of the saint’s statue at Notre Dame.

When this missionary bishop to Paris got the Roman chop* for his conversions sometime after 250, he scooped up his own severed noggin and carried it to his preferred burial spot.

Upon that eventual pilgrimage site would spring up a medieval basilica whose 12th century renovation turned it into a pioneer of Gothic architecture.

(Denis is also sort of the namesake for the Parisian hill Montmarte where he’s supposed to have been put to death: “mountain of Mars” in heathen times, it Christianized to mons martyrium, “Martyrs’ Mountain”.)

While many Christian martyrs carry the instruments of their martyrdom in iconography, and a few others roll with the bits of severed flesh exacted by those martyrdoms, Denis is only the most notable of an entire designated sub-class who carry their own heads: cephalophores.

This subject, seemingly tailor-made for a They Might Be Giants song, finally got one in 2011: “You Probably Get That A Lot”.


A most profane footnote was appended to our holy man’s legend during the French Revolution.

Journalist Camille Desmoulins once recklessly sneered of Robespierre‘s vain lieutenant Saint-Just, “He carries his head like a sacred host.”

Saint-Just is supposed to have retorted upon hearing the slight, “I’ll make him carry his like Saint Denis.” He did it, too.

* Two companions, Rusticus and Eleutherius, were doing the same conversions and suffered the same execution. Nobody named cathedrals after them.

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1793: Charlotte Corday, Marat’s murderess

13 comments July 17th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1793, Charlotte Corday lightly dropped her head beneath the guillotine for the murder of Jean-Paul Marat.


The Death of Marat, by David.

She is of stately Norman figure; in her twenty-fifth year; of beautiful still countenance: her name is Charlotte Corday, heretofore styled d’Armans, while Nobility still was … A completeness, a decision is in this fair female Figure: ‘by energy she means the spirit that will prompt one to sacrifice himself for his country.’ What if she, this fair young Charlotte, had emerged from her secluded stillness, suddenly like a Star; cruel-lovely, with half-angelic, half-demonic splendour; to gleam for a moment, and in a moment be extinguished: to be held in memory, so bright complete was she, through long centuries!–Quitting Cimmerian Coalitions without, and the dim-simmering Twenty-five millions within, History will look fixedly at this one fair Apparition of a Charlotte Corday; will note whither Charlotte moves, how the little Life burns forth so radiant, then vanishes swallowed of the Night.

Carlyle’s voluptuous prose is well-suited to our heroine (for so she has officially seemed, since fall of Robespierre, or from the very first): in the mere hours from striking dead the ferocious Jacobin Jean-Paul Marat on July 13 to her beheading this day, she captivated the country and immortalized her name.

Hapless beautiful Charlotte; hapless squalid Marat! From Caen in the utmost West, from Neuchatel in the utmost East, they two are drawing nigh each other; they two have, very strangely, business together.

Or was it strange at all?

Implacable in her purpose, utopian in her design, unafraid to plant a butcher’s knife into the chest of an enemy of France, Corday has a little something in common with her mortal foe.


Charlotte Corday, by Paul-Jacques-Aime Baudry.

These make casting too easy: Marat, bad because he was ugly and ugly because he was bad; Charlotte, therefore, just the reverse. (She was also a virgin; they made sure to check at the autopsy.) Our Norman assassin’s looks have inordinately exercised her interlocutors from the moment of her arrest; her prosecutors, too, understood them as essential.

“Not at all pretty,” a contemporaneous government article (cited in Crisis in Representation) put about. “She was a virago, brawny rather than fresh, without grace, untidy as are almost all female philosophers and eggheads … an old maid … with a masculinized bearing … [who] had thrown herself absolutely outside of her sex.”

And there it is. Charlotte Corday’s power to excite both rapture and repulsion is plainly rooted in the unexpected contradiction between her sex and her crime. If she is a resolute political assassin, surely she is not feminine … or is it the other way around?

Take Andre Chenier‘s engorged ode: “Fair, young, resplendent, led to the executioners, you seemed to be riding in your bridal car … You alone were a man and vindicated the human race. And we, vile eunuchs, a cowardly and soulless herd, we know how to repeat some womanly whimper, but the steel would weigh heavy in our feeble hands. … One scoundrel less crawls in this slime. Virtue applauds you. Hear the majestic sound of its virile praise, heroic maid.” This is “throwing herself outside of her sex” in the affirmative sense of uplifting herself beyond mere womanhood, a girl so heroic she might almost qualify as a dude.

Place it at the historical pivot into a modernity unready to reckon with the place of the woman, and confusion reigns.

“The spectacle of such wickedness, beauty, and talent united in the same person,” a newspaper recorded, “the contrast between the magnitude of her crime and the weakness of her sex, her appearance of actual gaiety, and her smile before the judges, who could not fail to condemn her, all combined to create an impression on the spectators that is difficult to portray.”*

Still, this judgment offers more insight than some latterly “tributes,” like this Anglo magazine piece 30 years later: “an ornament and an honour to the sex of woman … Woman is the child of feeling. From this source spring up all her good and bad qualities. It is seldom ambition or policy which leads her on to any enterprise: it is the passions. … it was under the influence of such feelings that Charlotte Corday performed that act, which virtuous and generous minds, so far from considering a crime, will look upon as one of the most heroic deeds of recorded history.”

Which is a fascinating form of sexism, since it was precisely Corday’s unearthly calm — masculine virtue! — that awed the Revolutionary Tribunal. But everything about Charlotte Corday is up for interpretive grabs; Nina Rattner Gelbart even argues, in “The Blonding of Charlotte Corday” (Eighteenth-Century Studies 38.1 (2004)) that though a real-life brunette, her depictions trend increasingly flaxen-haired.**

As for Charlotte Corday her work is accomplished; the recompense of it is near and sure. The chere amie, and neighbours of the house, flying at her, she ‘overturns some movables,’ entrenches herself till the gendarmes arrive; then quietly surrenders; goes quietly to the Abbaye Prison: she alone quiet, all Paris sounding in wonder, in rage or admiration, round her. …

On Wednesday morning, the thronged Palais de Justice and Revolutionary Tribunal can see her face; beautiful and calm: she dates it ‘fourth day of the Preparation of Peace.’ A strange murmur ran through the Hall, at sight of her; you could not say of what character. Tinville has his indictments and tape- papers the cutler of the Palais Royal will testify that he sold her the sheath-knife; “all these details are needless,” interrupted Charlotte; “it is I that killed Marat.” By whose instigation?–“By no one’s.” What tempted you, then? His crimes. “I killed one man,” added she, raising her voice extremely (extremement), as they went on with their questions, “I killed one man to save a hundred thousand; a villain to save innocents; a savage wild-beast to give repose to my country. I was a Republican before the Revolution; I never wanted energy.” There is therefore nothing to be said. The public gazes astonished: the hasty limners sketch her features, Charlotte not disapproving; the men of law proceed with their formalities. The doom is Death as a murderess. To her Advocate she gives thanks; in gentle phrase, in high-flown classical spirit. To the Priest they send her she gives thanks; but needs not any shriving, or ghostly or other aid from him.

On this same evening, therefore, about half-past seven o’clock, from the gate of the Conciergerie, to a City all on tiptoe, the fatal Cart issues: seated on it a fair young creature, sheeted in red smock of Murderess; so beautiful, serene, so full of life; journeying towards death,–alone amid the world. Many take off their hats, saluting reverently; for what heart but must be touched? Others growl and howl. Adam Lux, of Mentz, declares that she is greater than Brutus; that it were beautiful to die with her: the head of this young man seems turned. At the Place de la Revolution, the countenance of Charlotte wears the same still smile. The executioners proceed to bind her feet; she resists, thinking it meant as an insult; on a word of explanation, she submits with cheerful apology. As the last act, all being now ready, they take the neckerchief from her neck: a blush of maidenly shame overspreads that fair face and neck; the cheeks were still tinged with it, when the executioner lifted the severed head, to shew it to the people. ‘It is most true,’ says Foster, ‘that he struck the cheek insultingly; for I saw it with my eyes: the Police imprisoned him for it.’†

In this manner have the Beautifullest and the Squalidest come in collision, and extinguished one another. Jean-Paul Marat and Marie-Anne Charlotte Corday both, suddenly, are no more. ‘Day of the Preparation of Peace?’ Alas, how were peace possible or preparable, while, for example, the hearts of lovely Maidens, in their convent-stillness, are dreaming not of Love- paradises, and the light of Life; but of Codrus’-sacrifices, and death well earned? That Twenty-five million hearts have got to such temper, this is the Anarchy; the soul of it lies in this: whereof not peace can be the embodyment! The death of Marat, whetting old animosities tenfold, will be worse than any life. O ye hapless Two, mutually extinctive, the Beautiful and the Squalid, sleep ye well,–in the Mother’s bosom that bore you both!

In Carlyle’s third volume on the French Revolution, “Charlotte Corday” is the first chapter in Book IV: The Terror.

While the assassin went contentedly to her death, and left smitten admirers in her passing, more realistic politicians saw that all her magnificent stoicism, all her self-sacrifice, had doomed the liberals who were her political fellow-travelers and opened the door to the very Terror she meant to avert. (And also that the gesture might have been better directed elsewhere, since Marat was already dying.)

“She has killed us,” prophesied Girondin deputy Pierre Vergniaud. “But she has taught us how to die.”

What meaning this leaves one with — any at all? — is the subject of the Peter Weiss play-within-a-play Marat/Sade, which sets a cast of lunatics in the Napoleonic era under the direction of the Marquis de Sade to portraying Marat’s rendezvous with Charlotte Corday.

* Cited by Elizabeth R. Kindleberger in “Charlotte Corday in Text and Image: A Case Study in the French Revolution and Women’s History,” French Historical Studies, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Autumn, 1994).

** Also of interest from Gelbart is the Vichy government’s affinity for our murderess: “Antisemitism made of Marat a Jew and a vile creature, dark, dirty, satanic, a bloodthirsty monster. In contrast, Corday was pure, saintly, beautiful, virginal, and of course fair.”

† The slap given Charlotte Corday’s severed head is historically attested by the French press (which was aghast); the famous story about it of a much more fantastic quality is that the severed head blushed — and, in the phrasing of Englishwoman Helen Maria Williams, “exhibited this last impression of offended modesty.” The legend of Charlotte’s crimsoned cheeks always comes up in the backstory of the guillotine’s experiments to determine if a head retained consciousness; Charlotte’s blush may in fact be credited as one of the reasons these experiments actually came to pass.

Part of the Themed Set: The Feminine Mystique.

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1864: Doctor Edmond-Désiré Couty de la Pommerais, poisoner

1 comment June 9th, 2009 Headsman

At dawn this morning before the walls of La Roquette, a homeopath convicted of poisoning his mistress was beheaded for one of Paris’s most sensational crime dramas of the 1860’s.

The ill-fated Madame de Pauw had fallen suddenly ill and expired in the doctor’s care; means and opportunity were obvious, and motive readily adduced from the handsome life insurance policies of the expired woman.

La Pommerais was convicted on this basis of killing his paramour in the midst of a farcical insurance scam, with noted forensic scientist Ambroise Tardieu establishing to the court’s satisfaction the presence of the poison digitalin.

(One can read a detailed 1865 critique of Tardieu’s conclusions and testimony, a reminder that the criminal justice system’s struggles with the uses and limitations of forensic science are a longstanding concern. This (if one takes it as such) murder, which reads in retrospection like a classic in the genre of comedic criminality, might have been the perfect crime absent an obvious pecuniary design: the death was put down to a routine cause and only scrutinized when an anonymous tip and/or the suspicious insurance adjusters led the authorities to exhume the body 13 days after burial.)

American newsman George Alfred Townsend chanced to be abroad in Paris on this occasion, and recorded the scene as “thousands of Parisians bent their steps the night before the execution” in Campaigns of a Non-combatant — excerpted at length here for its topicality to this blog.

The news had gone abroad that la Pommerais would not be pardoned. It was also generally credited that this would be the last execution ever held in Paris, since there is a general desire for the abolition of capital punishment in France, and a conviction that the Legislature, at its next session, will substitute life-imprisonment.* This, with the rarity of the event, and that terrible allurement of blood which distinguishes all populaces, brought out all the excitable folk of the town; and at dusk, on the night before the expiation, the whole neighborhood of La Roquette was crowded with men and women. All classes of Parisians were there, — the blouses, or workingmen, standing first in number; the students from the Latin Quartier being well represented, and idlers, and well-dressed nondescripts without enumeration, — distributing themselves among women, dogs, and babies.

Venders of galeaux, muscles, and fruit were out in force. The “Savage of Paris,” clothed in his war plumes, paint, greaves, armlets, and moccasins, was selling razors by gaslight; here and there ballad-mongers were singing the latest songs, and boys, with chairs to let, elbowed into the intricacies of the crowd, which amused itself all the night long by smoking, drinking, and hallooing. At last, the mass became formidable in numbers, covering every inch of ground within sight of the prison, and many soldiers and sergeants de ville, mounted and on foot, pushed through the dense mass to restore order.

At midnight, a body of cavalry forced back the people from the square of La Roquette. A number of workmen, issuing from the prison-gates, proceeded to set up the instrument of death by the light of blazing torches. The flame lit up the dark jail walls, and shone on the helmets and cuirasses of the sabre-men, and flared upon spots of the upturned faces, now bringing them into strong, ruddy relief, now plunging them into shadow. When the several pieces had been framed together, we had a real guillotine in view, — the same spectre at which thousands of good and bad men had shuddered; and the folks around it, peering up so eagerly, were descendants of those who stood on the Place de la Concorde to witness the head of a king roll into the common basket. Imagine two tall, straight timbers, a foot apart, rising fifteen feet from the ground. They are grooved, and spring from a wide platform, approached by a flight of steps. At the base, rests a spring-plank or bascule, to which leather thongs are attached to buckle down the victim, and a basket or pannier filled with sawdust to receive the severed head. Between these, at their summit, hangs the shining knife in its appointed grooves, and a cord, which may be disconnected by a jerk, holds it to its position. Two men will be required to work the instrument promptly, — the one to bind the condemned, the other to drop the axe. The bascule is so arranged that the whole weight and length of the trunk will rest upon it, leaving the head and neck free, and when prone it will reach to the grooves, leaving space for the knife to pass below it. The knife itself is short and wide, with a bright concave edge, and a rim of heavy steel ridges it at the top; it moves easily in the greased grooves, and may weigh forty pounds. It has a terrible fascination, hanging so high and so lightly in the blaze of the torches, which play and glitter upon it, and cast stains of red lights along its keen blade, as if by their brilliance all its past blood-marks had become visible again. A child may send it shimmering and crashing to the scaffold, but only God can fasten together the warm and throbbing parts which it shall soon dissever. And now that the terrible creature has been recreated, the workmen slink away, as if afraid of it, and a body of soldiers stand guard upon it, as if they fear that it might grow thirsty and insatiate as in the days of its youth. The multitude press up again, reinforced every hour, and at last the pale day climbs over the jail-walls, and waiting people see each other by its glimmer. The bells of Notre Dame peal out; a hundred towers fall into the march of the music; the early journals are shrieked by French newsboys, and folks begin to count the minutes on their watches. There are men on the ground who saw the first guillotine at work. They describe the click of the cleaver, the steady march of victims upon the scaffold-stairs, the rattle of the death-cart turning out of the rue Saint Honore, the painted executioners, with their dripping hands, wiping away the jets of blood from the hard, rough faces; nay! the step of the young queen, white-haired with care, but very beautiful, who bent her body as she had never bent her knee and paid the penalty of her pride with the neck which a king had fondled.

At four minutes to six o’clock on Thursday morning, the wicket in the prison-gate swung open; the condemned appeared, with his hands tied behind his back, and his knees bound together. He walked with difficulty, so fettered; but other than the artificial restraints, there was no hesitation nor terror in his movements. His hair, which had been long, dark, and wavy, was severed close to his scalp; his beard had likewise been clipped, and the fine moustache and goatee, which had set off his most interesting face, no longer appeared to enhance his romantic, expressive physiognomy. Yet his black eyes and cleanly cut mouth, nostrils, and eyebrows, demonstrated that Couty de la Pommerais was not a beauty dependent upon small accessories. There was a dignity even in his painful gait; the coarse prison-shirt, scissored low in the neck, exhibited the straight columnar throat and swelling chest; for the rest, he wore only a pair of black pantaloons and his own shapely boots. As he emerged from the wicket, the chill morning air, laden with the dew of the truck gardens near at hand, blew across the open spaces of the suburbs, and smote him with a cold chill. He was plainly seen to tremble; but in an instant, as if by the mere force of his will, he stood motionless, and cast a first and only glance at the guillotine straight before him. It was the glance of a man who meets an enemy’s eye, not shrinkingly, but half-defiant, as if even the bitter retribution could not abash his strong courage … he seemed to feel that forty thousand men and women, and young children were looking upon him to see how he dared to die, and that for a generation his bearing should go into fireside descriptions. Then he moved on between the files of soldiers at his shuffling pace, and before him went the aumonier or chaplain, swaying the crucifix, behind him the executioner of Versailles — a rough and bearded man — to assist in the final horror.

It was at this intense moment a most wonderful spectacle. As the prisoner had first appeared, a single great shout had shaken the multitude. It was the French word “Voila!” which means “Behold!” “See!” Then every spectator stood on tiptoe; the silence of death succeeded;** all the close street was undulant with human emotion; a few house roofs near by were dizzy with folks who gazed down from the tiles; all the way up the heights of Pere la Chaise, among the pale chapels and monuments of the dead, the thousands of stirred beings swung and shook like so many drowned corpses floating on the sea. Every eye and mind turned to the little structure raised among the trees, on the space before La Roquette, and there they saw a dark, shaven, disrobed young man, going quietly toward his grave.

He mounted the steps deliberately, looking towards his feet; the priest held up the crucifix, and he felt it was there, but did not see it; his lips one moment touched the image of Christ, but he did not look up nor speak; then, as he gained the last step, the bascule or swingboard sprang up before him; the executioner gave him a single push, and he fell prone upon the plank, with his face downward; it gave way before him, bearing him into the space between the upright beams, and he lay horizontally beneath the knife, presenting the back of his neck to it. Thus resting, he could look into the pannier or basket, into whose sawdust lining his head was to drop in a moment. And in that awful space, while all the people gazed with their fingers tingling, the legitimate Parisian executioner gave a jerk at the cord which held the fatal knife. With a quick, keen sound, the steel became detached; it fell hurtling through the grooves; it struck something with a dead, dumb thump; a jet of bright blood spurted into the light, and dyed the face of an attendant horribly read; and Couty de la Pommerais’s head lay in the sawdust of the pannier, while every vein in the lopped trunk trickled upon the scaffold-floor! They threw a cloth upon the carcass and carried away the pannier; the guillotine disappeared beneath the surrounding heads; loud exclamations and acclaims burst from the multitude; the venders of trash and edibles resumed their cheerful cries, and a hearse dashed through the mass, carrying the warm body of the guillotined to the cemetery of Mt. Parnasse. In thirty minutes, newsboys were hawking the scene of the execution upon all the quays and bridges. In every cafe of Paris some witness was telling the incidents of the show to breathless listeners, and the crowds which stopped to see the funeral procession of the great Marshal Pelissier divided their attention between the warrior and the poisoner, — the latter obtaining the preponderance of fame.

(This attention-getting execution attracted an apocryphal story† (pdf) that the severed head of La Pommerais was subject to a “wink test” to determine whether consciousness survived the fall of the blade.)

The doctor bequeathed the world a book on homeopathic medicine, which the discerning reader of French can peruse free.

* Actually, the last execution in France was still 113 years away.

** Rashomon-like, not all observers concurred as to the event’s quiet solemnity. The New York Times reported that

[t]he language of those non-official persons who assembled to witness this expiation of a great crime was brutal to the last decree. They hissed and hooted as the convict was about to mount the ladder, and were loudest in their brutal demonstrations when the crucifix was pressed to his lips. The blade had scarcely severed his head from his body, when a rush was made to do violence to the trunk. The troops were obliged to interfere, and had some difficulty in repelling the crowd, which was excited by the sight of a ‘gentleman criminal’ to a pitch of savage ferocity … The Pays, in noticing this expiation of a great crime, states that the crowd retired in silence. But I am in a position to affirm that the contrary was the cxase.

† Put about — as a hoax? — by Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam.

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1977: Hamida Djandoubi, Madame Guillotine’s last kiss

17 comments September 10th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1977, the guillotine claimed its last head.

The famous and infamous blade dropped for the last time at Les Baumettes prison in Marseilles on Hamida Djandoubi, a Tunisian immigrant convicted of the torture-murder of the naive young girlfriend he had forced into prostitution. Oddly, he had already had another appendage — a leg — amputated as a result of a work accident; it was while recuperating that he caught the fascination of his hospital roommate’s 19-year-old daughter, Elisabeth Bousquet.

Though the death penalty was grinding to a halt in 1970’s France, Djandoubi was not the last person condemned (the link is French); the guillotine was only abolished with the election of the Francois Mitterand government in 1981.

Today, Executed Today discusses the case with the man who wrote the book on Djandoubi:* expat Canadian writer Jeremy Mercer. Be sure to check his photo series on the Djandoubi case — including discomfiting shots of Djandoubi re-enacting his crime with a police secretary playing the victim, and the killer in happier times.

ET: Thanks for joining us.

JM: Thanks for the opportunity to speak with Executed Today. I moved to Marseille in 2003 and shortly after I stumbled upon the rather arcane fact that the last man guillotined in France was executed at the local prison on September 10, 1977. I thought it was interesting angle on capital punishment and I decided to try and write a book that mixed true crime and death penalty philosophy. As a result, I’ve been immersed in the death penalty debate for the better part of five years.

Let’s start with Hamida Djandoubi himself — 31 years on, he looks like a nasty but fairly run-of-the-mill criminal. Was it strictly coincidental that he became the last man executed?

It was absolutely random fate. It was really odd – during the 1970s, the death penalty debate was raging in France and most capital cases became national news. But the Djandoubi case went completely under the radar, partly because his lawyer didn’t drum up any attention and partly because his victim was a presumed prostitute and the media prefers ‘sexier’ victims – the elderly, little children, a dentist of good standing walking her dog at night.

Even odder, if you surveyed most French people today, they would tell you that Christian Ranucci was the last man guillotined. Ranucci was a young white man who was accused of killing a little girl. He claimed his innocence, but was nonetheless executed in June 1976 (14 months before Djandoubi). Afterward, a best-selling book and major film were released that argued Ranucci was innocent so his name really sticks in the minds of the French.

Obviously, there’s plenty of tension with North African communities in France still today. Djandoubi was Tunisian, and he was convicted of murdering a white woman. How significant was racial marking in the way his case was handled, inside the courts and out?

This is really curious. In the 1960s and 1970s, the French courts were tainted by racism and one of the national papers even ran an editorial saying that it is better to be named “Marius than Mohamed” when appearing before a French judge. But, in this case, it was Djandoubi’s own lawyer who was a member of a far-right party and staunchly anti-Arab so his case was undermined even before it went to court.

It is one of those frustrating moments. You assume that a death penalty case is of such importance that top professionals are involved. Instead, Djandoubi chose the civil lawyer who negotiated his accident benefits after he had an accident at work and ended up with a very poor defence.

As I said above, his murder victim had worked as a prostitute, which diminished some of the public outrage. As well, his three rape victims were all Algerian girls aged 14 – 16. I guarantee you the case would have been much more explosive if those three girls had been white.

Your book is partly about Djandoubi himself, and partly about the history of the death penalty and especially the guillotine in France. How had the guillotine shifted in France’s identity by the time of this execution?

At first, when the guillotine was introduced, it was public sensation and executioners became celebrities with special edition postcards in their honour and fan mail and all that. As late as the 1860s, tour groups like Thomas Cook were actually organizing execution trips so English tourists could see the guillotine at work. But, bit by bit, the French became a little embarrassed by the fame of the machine. First, they removed the scaffolding that raised the guillotine above the crowds so that it would be brought down to earth and spectators’ views would be impaired; then, they stopped holding executions in the afternoon and held them at the less fan-friendly time of dawn; then, instead of guillotining people right downtown, they did it outside a prison in an obscure neighborhood at the edge of Paris; and, finally, in the 1930s they moved the guillotine inside the prison walls and it was no longer a public event. By the 1970s, the guillotine held such a low profile that many people thought it was defunct and that the French government was using the electric chair.

Interestingly enough, the fall from glory of the guillotine mirrors the general attitude toward capital punishment. By the late 1800s, many countries were already abolishing the death penalty and by the 1970s France was the last country in Western Europe to resort to capital punishment. In the end, the guillotine became the country’s dirty little secret that they kept hidden in their closet.

What are the bits of guillotine folklore you found most interesting?

The most popular stories involve the life in the head after it is severed from the body. It all began with the guillotining of Charlotte Corday, who had stabbed Jean-Paul Marat to death as he soaked in his bathtub. After she was guillotined, the executioner held her head up to the crowd and slapped her on the cheek. But, according to newspaper accounts, both cheeks reddened, as if Corday was indignant by this treatment. Suddenly, everyone began to wonder what a severed head can feel or think.

This curiosity became even more intense a few weeks later when the chief executioner, Charles Henri Sanson, guillotined two political rivals one after the other. He told friends that when he looked in the basket where he kept the heads, one politician’s head was biting the other politician’s head!

So, all this got the scientists really excited and the experiments began. One doctor, Dassy de Ligières, was allowed to take a head back to his laboratory where he connected it to a living dog and pumped blood back into it. He kept hoping the head would speak, but alas, no.

The definitive experiment was conducted in 1905 when Dr. Beaurieux was given permission to wait beside the guillotine and examine the head the moment it was cut. Dr. Beaurieux interviewed the condemned man in prison and came up with a pre-arranged set of signals. The day of the execution, the doctor had incredible luck –the head did a little twist when falling and landed on the stump, slowing the loss of blood. Dr. Beaurieux then called the man’s name three times. At 5 seconds, the man was able to look at the doctor and his recognize him; at 15 seconds, the man was able to look at the doctor but his eyes were unfocussed; and at 25 seconds, the man could barely glance at the doctor. So, to the best of our knowledge, a guillotined head maintains some level of consciousness for more than 20 seconds.

You’re working with Robert Badinter — tell us about him, and his upcoming tour in the U.S.

Robert Badinter is simply the greatest man I’ve ever had the honor of working with. He became a dedicated abolitionist after one of his clients was unjustly guillotined in 1972 and dedicated the next decade of his life to fighting the death penalty. In the end, he saved six lives and ultimately wrote the legislation that abolished the death penalty in 1981 when François Mitterrand named him Minister of Justice.

I interviewed Badinter for my own book in 2005 and he asked me if I could look into translating one of his books into English. When I had time in 2007, I set about the task and now Abolition has been released by Northeastern University Press.

Badinter’s Abolition, in French and in Mercer’s translation

To mark the book’s release, Badinter will be holding three conferences in America on the death penalty and strategies to abolish it:

Why, in your judgment, did France abolish the death penalty? And even before abolition, why did its use abate so dramatically in the postwar era?

For many people, it was a tremendous humiliation for France, the birthplace of human rights and the Enlightenment, to be the last country in Western Europe to use the death penalty. The abolition movement began when “>Portugal abolished the death penalty for common crimes in 1867 and by the late 1970s, nobody was using it in Europe. Even in Spain, one of the first things they did after the death of Franco was abolish the death penalty.

So, the use of the guillotine simply had to abate because the world was becoming aware that the death penalty is a flawed punishment: the risk of executing innocents, the cost of capital trials, the predominance of poor and minorities on death row, the lack of deterrence value. But, as long as there was a right-wing government in power in France, they couldn’t abolish the death penalty because they wanted to appear tough on crime and polls showed a majority of the French people wanted to keep the guillotine.

Once Mitterrand and the Socialists were elected in May 1981, it was clear the death penalty would be abolished, and sure enough, five months later it was gone

Where do you think the death penalty is going in America? And can one really think of worldwide abolition as a legitimate possibility?

I am absolutely convinced we will see almost worldwide abolition by 2050. There will always be a few rogue states, but the death penalty is such an obviously flawed form of punishment it will inevitably be eliminated.

In terms of America, Badinter and I have discussed it at length. He believes the country is ready for abolition and that all is needed is one trigger case: a middle class white guy with a reasonable claim to innocence who is about to executed. This would really instigate a debate on the penalty and as soon as you bring in all stats – the 130 plus people who have been exonerated while on death row, the work of the Innocence Project, the race bias, the cost of capital trials, the overworked public defenders etc etc – I think it would be a slam dunk.

Personally, I think people are selling the abolition the wrong way. Every time I meet a die-hard death penalty supporter who wants a serial killer or a child rapist killed, I ask him or her “Why are you so merciful?” Because, I honestly believe life in prison is a far worse punishment than being executed.

* Here’s a review of Mercer’s book.

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1905: Henri Languille, a man of science

June 28th, 2008 Headsman

At 5:30 a.m. this date in 1905, a murderer named Languille lost his head on the guillotine in Orleans.

Some thirty seconds later, he finally lost his life — or so suggests the account of an eyewitness who conducted upon Languille’s head one of the most renowned execution experiments in history in pursuit of that timeless question whether a decapitated head survives.

Henri Languille’s execution.

Dr. Beaurieux, if you please?

I consider it essential for you to know that Languille displayed an extraordinary sang-froid and even courage from the moment when he was told, that his last hour had come, until the moment when he walked firmly to the scaffold. It may well be, in fact, that the conditions for observation, and consequently the phenomena, differ greatly according to whether the condemned persons retain all their sang-froid and are fully in control of themselves, or whether they are in such state of physical and mental prostration that they have to be carried to the place of execution, and are already half-dead, and as though paralysed by the appalling anguish of the fatal instant.

The head fell on the severed surface of the neck and I did not therefor have to take it up in my hands, as all the newspapers have vied with each other in repeating; I was not obliged even to touch it in order to set it upright. Chance served me well for the observation, which I wished to make.

Here, then, is what I was able to note immediately after the decapitation: the eyelids and lips of the guillotined man worked in irregularly rhythmic contractions for about five or six seconds. This phenomenon has been remarked by all those finding themselves in the same conditions as myself for observing what happens after the severing of the neck …

I waited for several seconds. The spasmodic movements ceased. The face relaxed, the lids half closed on the eyeballs, leaving only the white of the conjunctiva visible, exactly as in the dying whom we have occasion to see every day in the exercise of our profession, or as in those just dead. It was then that I called in a strong, sharp voice: “Languille!” I saw the eyelids slowly lift up, without any spasmodic contractions –- I insist advisedly on this peculiarity –- but with an even movement, quite distinct and normal, such as happens in everyday life, with people awakened or torn from their thoughts.

Next Languille’s eyes very definitely fixed themselves on mine and the pupils focused themselves. I was not, then, dealing with the sort of vague dull look without any expression, that can be observed any day in dying people to whom one speaks: I was dealing with undeniably living eyes which were looking at me. After several seconds, the eyelids closed again, slowly and evenly, and the head took on the same appearance as it had had before I called out.

It was at that point that I called out again and, once more, without any spasm, slowly, the eyelids lifted and undeniably living eyes fixed themselves on mine with perhaps even more penetration than the first time. The there was a further closing of the eyelids, but now less complete. I attempted the effect of a third call; there was no further movement -– and the eyes took on the glazed look which they have in the dead.

I have just recounted to you with rigorous exactness what I was able to observe. The whole thing had lasted twenty-five to thirty seconds.

Here comes the science.

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