1772: The Marquis de Sade and his servant, in effigy

2 comments September 12th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1772, straw effigies of the (in)famous French libertine Marquis de Sade and his servant Latour were executed in Marseilles for sodomy.

“It is always by way of pain one arrives at pleasure.”

The aristocrat christened Donatien Alphonse François (even the name would become taboo for later use among his family) was at this point just 32 years old, but already cultivating the reputation that would make his name a byword for violent sex. He had in 1768 got the boot from Paris in view of the many courtesans who complained of his mistreatment.

Five more would do so for the incident that triggered his “execution”: de Sade took his baroque pleasure from these “very young girls” obtained by his manservant Latour (who also took part in the bisexual debauch). The whole scene was spiced with liberal dosage of the poison/aphrodisiac* spanish fly.

“Cruelty, very far from being a vice, is the first sentiment Nature injects in us all.”

One of these working girls seriously overindulged on the the love potion and spent the next week puking up “a black and fetid substance.” The authorities got interested, and de Sade and Latour bolted to Italy.**

Back in Marseilles, proceedings against the fugitives saw them sentenced for (non-fatal) poisoning and sodomy

for the said Sade to be decapitated … and the said Latour to be hanged by the neck and strangled … then the body of the said Sade and that of the said Latour to be burned and their ashes strewn to the wind.

This was duly carried out against straw effigies of de Sade and Latour on September 12, 1772.

“Lust is to the other passions what the nervous fluid is to life; it supports them all, lends strength to them all: ambition, cruelty, avarice, revenge, are all founded on lust.”

Although the Marquis eventually got this sentence overturned, it did in a sense mark an end to his life as it had been. Later in 1772, he’d be arrested in Italy; though he escaped and went back on the orgy circuit, most of the four-plus decades left to his life would be spent imprisoned or on the run — an ironic situation for the man Guillaume Apollinaire would celebrate as “the freest spirit that has yet existed.”

(Astonishingly, de Sade also avoided execution during the French Revolution: he was supposed to have been in the last batch guillotined before Robespierre fell; either through bureaucratic bungling or efficacious bribery, he avoided the tumbril.† De Sade also cheated death when a man whose daughter the marquis had outraged attempted to shoot him point-blank … only to have the gun misfire.)

“My manner of thinking, so you say, cannot be approved. Do you suppose I care? A poor fool indeed is he who adopts a manner of thinking for others!”

From this latter half of the infamous satyr’s life — when he often had time on his hands not available to dispose in more corporal pursuits — date the pornographic/philosophic writings that would stake de Sade’s disputed reputation for posterity.

* Alleged aphrodisiac.

** With another lover, his sister-in-law Anne … who was also a Benedictine canoness.

† It was on some firsthand authority, then, that de Sade took a dim view of capital punishment: “‘Til the infallibility of human judgements shall have been proved to me, I shall demand the abolition of the penalty of death.” This and other pithy de Sade quotes in this entry are from here.

Part of the Themed Set: Executions in Effigy.

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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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1833: Captain Henry Nicholas Nicholls, sodomite

13 comments August 12th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1833, Captain Henry Nicholas Nicholls was hanged in London for sodomy.

Sodomy — “buggery,” in the more evocative British phrase, often bowdlerized in court records as b-gg–y or the like — was a capital offense in England until 1861, when the penalty was reduced to “merely” life imprisonment.

The London Courier reported the event:

Captain Henry Nicholas Nicholls, who was one of the unnatural gang to which the late Captain Beauclerk belonged, (and which latter gentleman put an end to his existence), was convicted on the clearest evidence at Croydon, on Saturday last, of the capital offence of Sodomy; the prisoner was perfectly calm and unmoved throughout the trial, and even when sentence of death was passed upon him. In performing the duty of passing sentence of death upon the prisoner, Mr. Justice Park told him that it would be inconsistent with that duty if he held out the slightest hope that the law would not be allowed to take its severest course. At 9 o’clock in the morning the sentence was carried into effect. The culprit, who was fifty years of age, was a fine looking man, and had served in the Peninsular war. He was connected with a highly respectable family; but, since his apprehension not a single member of it visited him.

The popular broadside on the case was scarcely more sympathetic. [Here’s another version of the gallow lit]

Even though once or twice a year someone would hang for it and the scandal would send family fleeing his name, Old Blighty still had a vigorous underground gay scene in the 19th century. While Lord Byron was enjoying the easier same-sex access of the Ottoman lands, a friend wrote to him, “that what you get for £5 we must risque our necks for; and are content to risque them.” (Cited here)

Quite accidentally, the senseless destruction this day of a respectable veteran helped set the put-upon gay underground upon its long march towards mainstream acceptance.

A first-person narrative written* in 1833 under the name of Lord Byron (who was in fact nine years dead, but whose queer identity clearly informs the work), Don Leon was a signal piece of literature: the first overt literary defense of homosexuality in English.**

It opens with a scene said to be inspired by Captain Nicholls:

Thou ermined judge, pull off that sable cap!
What! Cans’t thou lie, and take thy morning nap?
Peep thro’ the casement; see the gallows there:
Thy work hangs on it; could not mercy spare?
What had he done? Ask crippled Talleyrand,
Ask Beckford, Courtenay, all the motley band
Of priest and laymen, who have shared his guilt
(If guilt it be) then slumber if thou wilt;
What bonds had he of social safety broke?
Found’st thou the dagger hid beneath his cloak?
He stopped no lonely traveller on the road;
He burst no lock, he plundered no abode;
He never wrong’d the orphan of his own;
He stifled not the ravish’d maiden’s groan.
His secret haunts were hid from every soul,
Till thou did’st send thy myrmidons to prowl,
And watch the prickings of his morbid lust,
To wring his neck and call thy doings just.

The author — whose identity is still debated† — continues writing more or less autobiographically of Byron’s life, and using his illicit desires and lifestyle (with digressions into historical precedent) to defend homosexuality as ultimately natural and harmless.

The tree we plant will, when its boughs are grown,
Produce no other blossoms than its own;
And thus in man some inborn passions reign
Which, spite of careful pruning, sprout again.
Then, say, was I or nature in the wrong,
If, yet a boy, one inclination, strong
In wayward fancies, domineered my soul,
And bade complete defiance to control?

Though law cries “hold!” yet passion onward draws;
But nature gave us passions, man gave laws,
Whence spring these inclinations, rank and strong?
And harming no one, wherefore call them wrong?
What’s virtue’s touchstone? Unto others do,
As you would wish that others did to you.
Then tell me not of sex, if to one key
The chords, when struck, vibrate in harmony.
No virgin I deflower, nor, lurking, creep,
With steps adult’rous, on a husband’s sleep.
I plough no field in other men’s domain;
And where I delve no seed shall spring again.

Look, how infected with rank disease
Were those, who held St. Peter’s holy keys,
And pious men to whom the people bowed,
And kings, who churches to the saints endowed;
All these were Christians of the highest stamp-
How many scholars, wasting over their lamp,
How many jurists, versed in legal rules,
How many poets, honoured in the schools,
How many captains, famed for deeds of arms,
Have found their solace in a minion’s arms!
Nay, e’en our bard, Dame Nature’s darling child,
Felt the strange impulse, and his hours beguiled
In penning sonnets to a stripling’s praise,
Such as would damn a poet now-a-days.
To this conclusion we must come at last:
Wise men have lived in generations past,
Whose deeds and sayings history records,
To whom the palm of virtue she awards,
Who, tempted, ate of that forbidden tree,
Which prejudice denies to you and me.
Then be consistent; and, at once confess,
If man’s pursuit through life is happiness,
The great, the wise, the pious, and the good,
Have what they sought not rightly understood;
Or deem not else that aberration crime,
Which reigns in every caste and every clime.

To this conclusion we must come at last:
Wise men have lived in generations past,
Whose deeds and sayings history records,
To whom the palm of virtue she awards,
Who, tempted, ate of that forbidden tree,
Which prejudice denies to you and me.
Then be consistent, and, at once confess;
If man’s pursuit through life is happiness,
The great, the wise, the pious, and the good,
Have what they sought not rightly understood;
Or deem not else that aberration crime,
Which reigns in every caste and every clime.

Statesmen, in your exalted station know
Sins of omission for commission go;
Since ships as often founder on the main
From leaks unstopped as from the hurricane.
Shore up your house; it totters to the base;
A mouldering rot corrodes it; and the trace
Of every crime you punish I descry:
The least of all perhaps is sodomy.

I stand a monument, whereby to learn
That reason’s light can never strongly burn
Where blear-eyed prejudice erects her throne,
And has no scale for virtue but her own.

* Don Leon circulated initially in manuscript form, and was not published in England until years later — a known printing in 1866, and possibly another lost edition from before 1853.

** Here lagging well behind France, which had burned only a bare handful of homosexuals under monarchist anti-sodomy laws in the 18th century, and decriminalized homosexuality full stop in 1791. In Philosophy in the Boudoir the Marquis de Sade preened casually triumphant over the bad old days while Lord Byron was still a boy.

We wonder that savagery could ever reach the point where you condemn to death an unhappy person all of whose crime amounts to not sharing your tastes … Nature, who places such slight importance upon the essence that flows in our loins, can scarcely be vexed by our choice when we are pleased to vent it into this or that avenue.

† Candidates include parliamentarian William Bankes, who was arrested for sodomy in 1833 but acquitted later in the year; fellow MP John Cam Hobhouse; and playwright and Byron-idolizer George Coleman.

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1794: The last cart of the Terror, not including the Marquis de Sade

July 27th, 2008 Headsman

July 27th, 1794 — the 9th of Thermidor, year II — is inscribed in history as the day Robespierre fell, when a parliamentary coup d’etat between the right and the remnants of the parties he had destroyed shouted him down as he readied the National Convention for his next purge.

This scene from the multinational bicentennial epic La Revolution Francaise conflates the events of 8 Thermidor — when Robespierre delivered a menacing two-hour address but provoked outcries by failing to name the deputies he implicated in “conspiracy” — and 9 Thermidor, when Robespierre’s lieutenant Saint-Just was shouted down from the podium and Robespierre ended up staggering through the benches appealing against the imprecations of his colleagues as his arrest is decreed.

Even as the month of Thermidor’s eponymous epochal event was unfolding, the daily gears of Revolutionary justice were turning: the usual haul of unfortunates condemned, including seven women from the previous day’s batch of Saint Lazare prison conspirators who had pled their bellies to buy a day.

That day was one day too little.

Stanley Loomis is overtly hostile to the Revolution, but his middlebrow sensibilities are well-tuned for the pathos of the scene:

Indifferent to the storms that were raging in the Convention, the Revolutionary Tribunal continued to go about its implacable business with cold efficiency. The arrest of its President [the Robespierrist Rene-Francois Dumas (the link is French), who was taken in the courtroom] startled no one. Since its inception that court had been witness to too many dramas to be astonished any further. Dumas quietly departed; the trials continued. Forty-two prisoners were sentenced to death. By four o’clock their hair had been cut and they were ready to be sent on their way. But Samson, aware of disturbances in the St. Antoine quarter of the city, suggested to [prosecutor] Fouquier[-Tinville] that the executions be deferred until the morrow.*

“Justice must take its course,” snapped the Public Prosecutor. “Do your work.”

And so the last “batch” lumbered off in the direction of the Faubourg St. Antoine and the Place de la Nation. With the exception of the Princesse de Monaco, they were nearly all obscure and humble members of the petite bourgeoisie. Hanriot, waving his sabre, conducted the procession to the place of execution. By seven o’clock that evening, as the minutes of the military escort poignantly show, the unfortunate victims, who had been so close to deliverance, had all been executed.

Henriot proceeded directly from his escort service to the Convention to liberate Robespierre for the night’s brief pitched battle against the Convention, and here we take our leave of them, for now. We shall meet both of them on the scaffold tomorrow.

Not on the wagon** with the Princess of Monaco was a man whom Loomis would have pitied rather less.

The bloated, penniless 54-year-old fruit of an ancient noble house, Donatien Alphonse François de Sade, Marquis de Sade had, in the most recent chapter of his astounding career, navigated the Revolution in the improbable guise of a proletarian section head and revolutionary tribunal judge, until his own arrest late the previous year.

This day, de Sade’s name was on a list of prisoners to be seized from Madelonnettes Prison — “Sade, former count, captain of Capet’s guards in 1792, has corresponded with enemies of the republic,” it said — which he had occupied until a recent transfer to Picpus, a monastery converted into a prison adjacent to the guillotine’s place at the Place de la Nation. Whether the result of another of the many bureaucratic snafus we’ve witnessed this week or a well-placed bribe from his friend and/or mistress Marie-Constance Quesnet, the guards were in the wrong place, didn’t find him, and didn’t care to dig any further.

Three months later, he was — for the last time in his life — a free man.

One could hardly say that the Revolution made the author of Justine the man he so (in)famously was — but having lived within sight of the blade that might any day be called upon to chop off his own head, and the entire tableau of the years preceding, left their impression. Hundreds of bodies from the Terror were stuffed in the unpropitious clay of the makeshift jail’s yards under de Sade’s cell. “Those few months in the shadow of the guillotine did me more harm than all the years of my incarceration under the King,” he wrote a friend.

According to Writing the Orgy: Power and Parody in Sade, Revolutionary France would inexorably influence his subsequent work,

strangely mixing real memories with very Sadean embellishments … Plots, betrayals, denunciations, beheadings: these fictional motifs and Sadean phantasies are linked with the reality and the imaginary of the Revolution.

Good for what ails you.

* Sanson’s diaries — a memoir of the family business constructed by the famous executioner’s grandson — leave off before the events of Thermidor and suggest that the hecatombs of the Terror were taking their toll on the aging headsman. Other accounts of this day have the tumbrils stopped in the streets by clemency-inclined onlookers, only to be forcibly extricated by Henriot.

** Also not (really) on the cart: the fictional occultist Zanoni, who is beheaded in this batch in the novel of the same title by legendary awful writer Edward George “it was a dark and stormy night” Bulwer-Lytton.

Part of the Themed Set: Thermidor.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous Last Words,France,Freethinkers,Guillotine,History,Infamous,Innocent Bystanders,Known But To God,Lucky to be Alive,Mass Executions,Milestones,Nobility,Notable Participants,Political Expedience,Public Executions,Treason,Women

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