1794: Jean-Baptiste Carrier, of the Noyades de Nantes

5 comments December 16th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1794,* a revolutionary Montagnard who had overstayed his welcome made his departure through the guillotine’s window.

Carrier (English Wikipedia entry | French) was the Revolutionary Convention’s proxy in Nantes where he distinguished himself in bloodthirstiness while putting down a counterrevolutionary revolt.

He’s most particularly noted for the Noyades de Nantes, a series of mass drownings in the Loire that claimed two thousand or more victims — mostly priests and civilians viewed as refractory. Overall the casualties in the Vendee ran to six figures; there’s been latter-day debate over whether the Republican policy there rose to the level of genocide.


Les noyades de Nantes en 1793, by Joseph Aubert (1882).

He was “one of those inferior and violent spirits, who, in the excitement of civil wars, become monsters of cruelty and extravagance” Adolphe Thiers judged him. (Ironically, considering Thiers’ subsequent career.) “This frantic wretch imagined that he had no other mission than to slaughter.”

Now, one could author a bloodbath in the provinces and still stick around for posterity, but that play depended on a timely volte-face with the Thermidorean reaction.

Unlike Fouche and Tallien, Carrier couldn’t pull that off. He was left in an increasingly untenable position after Robespierre fell.

What would follow Robespierre? Carrier’s own person and the Noyades de Nantes were central to this question in the tumultuous latter half of 1794. His beheading would be the climax of a string of pivotal trials.

Ninety-four Bretons already under arrest by the revolutionary committee were put to trial in the weeks following Thermidor. En route to their spectacular acquittal, these accused

subpoenaed as witnesses the members of the Nantes revolutionary committee, who had also been arrested … [and] charged that they were guilty of summary executions and of mass drownings in the Loire; they acknowledged these acts but placed the responsibility for them on Carrier. This meant that there were three trials — that of the ninety-four, that of the Nantes revolutionary committee, and that of Carrier — each revealing ghastly atrocities, which were given wide coverage in the anti-Jacobin press throughout France. (Gilded Youth of Thermidor)

The atrocious stories from Nantes promulgated in Paris by these first trials soon had the city in an uproar and dealt the already-reeling Jacobins “a terrible blow in public opinion” according to one newspaper also quoted in Gilded Youth. The Nantes revelations would provide the impetus (or the pretext) for the riots that soon shuttered the Jacobin Club and placed the Parisian bourgeoisie firmly in control.

If Carrier was the casualty in all this, well, he wasn’t exactly in a position to complain about being sacrificed for someone’s ideology.

Gracchus Babeuf, later to drop his own head into the basket, campaigned against Carrier furiously during a robust pamphlet war.

Carrier: this horrible name strikes all ears, is issued from all mouths. Merely speaking it causes a shiver of horror. There is not a single Frenchman for whom this word does not suffice to tell the story of the man it designates. It reminds all of his contemporaries of the most irascible of carnivorous beings. Posterity will not be able to find in any tradition an exterminator who was his equal. The crimes of this master villain are recognized by, and proven to, all, and yet he has unofficial defenders in the National Convention, and it even appears that there exists a strong party that wants to save him. Even more, there are signs that announce that there are those who want to influence, even terrify the just tribunal that, with its usual wisdom, is investigating the affair of the infamous drowner who has far surpassed Nero and all the other great executioners. …

they’ll justify the mass killer of the west with the excuse that the terrorism he provided the earth an example of was necessary for the salvation of the Fatherland.

Exterminable system! It was necessary for the salvation of France to erase the entire population of its western parts! It was necessary for the salvation of the Fatherland to turn its most beautiful countryside into a horrible desert, to make it the lair of voracious animals both terrestrial and aquatic by covering the waters, fields, and woods with corpses! …

In order to save the Fatherland were the 23 noyades of Nantes, one of 600 children, needed? Were “republican marriages” necessary, where young boys and girls tied together naked were knocked unconscious with saber blows and then tossed into the Loire? (Deposition by Philippe Tronjoli and Bourier) Was it necessary (another deposition of 25 Vendémiaire) to cause to die in the prisons of Nantes through hunger, infection, and misery, 10,000 citizens, 30,000 if we include the executions and noyades? Were the sabrades necessary (deposition of Laéné) on the departmental square, which occupied 300 men for six weeks filling the mass graves with those who perished from this torture? Was it necessary for Carrier (deposition of Tronjoli of the 27) to sleep with three beautiful women and then drown them? Was it necessary to execute (deposition of Renaudot) infantry and cavalry detachments of the rebel army who had voluntarily surrendered? Was it necessary to drown or execute (deposition of Thomas) 500 children, the oldest of whom wasn’t fourteen and who Carrier called vipers that must be suppressed? Was it necessary (same deposition) to drown 30-40 women eight and eight and a half months pregnant and to offer horrified eyes the still palpitating corpses of the babies tossed into a tub filled with excrement? Was it necessary (deposition of Abraham and goodwife Puchotte) to kill in one night by suffocation (caused by infection and lack of air) 50-60 prisoners in a galleon whose side panels were shut expressly to cause suffocation?

Carrier’s likeness is preserved in wax at Madame Tussaud’s.

* A few sources give November 16; this is unambiguously mistaken. (See e.g. London Times, Jan. 15, 1795, reporting the December 16 execution.)

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Murder,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Scandal

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1440: Gilles de Rais, unholy

Add comment October 26th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1440, the wealthiest man in France, a noble who had once fought under Joan of Arc‘s banner, was hanged for an outlandishly demonic crime spree.


This dashing Gilles opposite Milla Jovovich in The Messenger; you’d never think he would sodomize hundreds of children.

Rivaling Hungarian blood-bather Erzsebet Bathory for the reputation of most bewitchingly depraved aristocratic sex-killer of early modern Europe, Gilles de Rais (or de Retz) hanged for abducting numberless legions of anonymous young commoners (boys, mostly) for rape and murder.

It’s a rap sheet trebly astounding given that a decade before, de Rais’s reputation for posterity would have figured to be his role as Saint Joan’s chief lieutenant when she raised the siege of Orleans, culminating with elevation to the rank of Marshall of France on the very day Charles VII was crowned in Reims. Talk about a fall from grace.

A 1440 investigation triggered by de Rais’s attack on a priest during an intra-aristocracy dispute turned up a Gacy‘s floorboards’ worth of Nantes-area kids allegedly disappeared into the Marechal’s creepy castle. Remarkably detailed trial records preserve a heartbreaking cavalcade of parents who entrusted their children to de Rais’s service or just sent them out one morning never to be heard from again. “It is notorious,” one added, “that infants are murdered in the said chateau.” (Many of these depositions and other original trial records can be read here.)

His servants and co-deviants Henriet and Pouitou admitted the most shocking stuff —

that de Rais then raped [the typical captive] as he was hanged from a hook by the neck. Before the child died, Gilles took him down, comforted him, repeated the act and either killed him himself or had him slain.

Poitou testified that the child victims were murdered sometimes by decapitating them, sometimes by cutting their throats, sometimes by dismembering them, sometimes by breaking their necks with a stick …

Gilles de Rais rarely left a child alive for more than one evening’s pleasure, Poitou claimed.

Now, it needs to be said that the servants were induced to these confessions by the threat of physical harm — and that when de Rais reversed his own denials he had likewise been menaced with torture. Nobody had been tortured, mind. But they had been given to understand that they would be corroborating the witnesses with self-incriminating statments, and we can do this the easy way or the hard way. In a world without dispositive forensics, confessions were the evidentiary gold standard … and torturing to obtain them was standard operating procedure.

It’s for that reason that there has also long persisted a revisionist thesis that de Rais was actually innocent, framed up by elite rivals who cannibalized the man’s estates. A 1992 “rehabilitation tribunal” re-tried the affair, and returned an acquittal.

Arguably, the populace — font of all those damning accusations — did likewise on the day de Rais hanged with his two servants. A crowd one might expect to be frenzied with rage actually sympathized with the doomed noble, even rescuing his hanged body from the fire. A monument his daughter put up became an unsanctioned popular pilgrimage site until it was destroyed during the French Revolution.

Whether as fact or fable, there’s something gorgeously baroque about de Rais’s dungeon mastering — especially when considered vis-a-vis his historical casting call opposite the abstemious Maid.

As a text for our latter-day edification, de Rais appears a carnivore devoured by his own appetites (and not only sexual: he also blew through the gargantuan family fortune). Reduced from hero to beast, he’s almost a literal werewolf or vampire; he’s often cast as such in video games and the like.

And he transfixes us because he personifies this uncanny bridge from the atomized digital age with its iconic serial killers, alone and psychologically deconstructed, back into the medieval — feudal, irrational, communal, violent and physical but also suffused with an omnipresent alien-to-us paranormal spirit world. It is enough to glance to experience the pull of the abyss gazing back.

Sabine Baring-Gould anticipated the modern afterlife of Gilles de Rais in the mid-19th century Book of Were-Wolves — which incorporated an extended account of de Rais’s trial into a wider narrative of folklore shapeshifting.

De Rais himself shapeshifts even within the brief arc of his dramatic trial: from indignant defendant into contrite supplicant, every drop sincere so far as one can perceive. His very prosecutors, indeed his very victims, wept for the fallen Marechal, and the “monster” reversed with this display his excommunication. (This may have been the part of the punishment de Rais feared most: again, we encounter the alien cosmology.)

“Nothing seems to me to be more beautiful –- and farthest away from our mentality of today — than the crowd of parents of the victims praying for this soul’s salvation,” one modern observed. “That is spiritual nobility.”

Agonizing ecstacist Georges Bataille wrote a whole book about de Rais, characteristically taken by the intersection of repugnance and transcendence. For Bataille, Christianity even reconciles our prisoner’s stupendous villainy with his unfeigned anticipation of spiritual salvation that “ultimately summarize the Christian situation.”

“Perhaps,” Bataille mused, “Christianity is even fundamentally the pressing demand for crime, the demand for the horror that in a sense it needs in order to forgive.”

A Few Books About Gilles de Rais

There are also several free public-domain books, such as Bluebeard: an account of Comorre the cursed and Gilles de Rais, with summaries of various tales and traditions and (already alluded to, the one with the original trial documents) Blue-beard, a contribution to history and folk-lore. Gilles de Rais is popularly, though I think not very persuasively, believed to have helped inspire the “Bluebeard” legend of the murderous aristocrat.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Hanged,History,Homosexuals,Infamous,Murder,Nobility,Public Executions,Rape,Scandal,Serial Killers,Sex,Soldiers,Torture,Wrongful Executions

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1941: Forty-eight French hostages

1 comment October 22nd, 2011 Headsman

On “a beautiful autumn day” this date in 1941, four dozen French leftists were executed by that country’s occupiers as punishment for the murder of a German officer.

On October 20, 1941 — sixteen months into the German occupation — a pair of Communist commandos assassinated the Feldkommandant of Nantes, Lt. Col. Karl Hotz (French link).

News of this crime went straight to Adolf Hitler himself, who personally ordered a fearful reprisal.

The list of the executed hostages as published Oct. 23 in L’oeuvre

Accordingly, the collaborationist Petain government was induced to select 50 persons from among the ranks of detained German political prisoners. Pierre Pucheu, who would later be executed himself,* intentionally selected Communist types in an effort to confine the retaliation to fellow-travelers.

On this date, those 50 — well, 48, but who’s counting?; the numbering can get dodgy in these mass-execution scenarios — were put to death at three different locations: five at Fort Mont-Valerien; sixteen at Nantes; and most notoriously, 27 internees of Choisel (French link) at Chateaubriant.**

In three different batches of nine, the 27 reds and trade unionists were fusilladed into the ranks of Gallic martyrdom. They remain among the most emblematic French martyrs of the occupation; there’s a cours des 50-Otages named for them in Nantes, and various streets that bear individual victims’ names — such as Rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud in Paris. (Timbaud was a Communist steelworker.)


Monument to the martyrs of Chateaubriant. Image (c) Renaud Camus and used with permission.

The youngest, 17-year-old Guy Moquet (you can find his name on the Paris Metro) was the son of an exiled Communist parliamentarian (French link).

He made headlines in 2009 when current French President Nicolas Sarkozy had added to the educational curriculum the reading of Moquet’s brave-but-sad last letter to his family: the decision drew some rather mean-tempered fire because of Moquet’s political persuasion. In the end, the text bore a fairly universal reading that could play inoffensively to posterity — like its postscript injunction,

“You who remain, be worthy of the 27 of us who are going to die!”

There’s a thorough roundup of the Oct. 22 executions (including poetic tribute) here.

* Vindicating Winston Churchill’s prophecy to the Times upon receiving news that “These cold-blooded executions of inocent people will only recoil upon the savages who order and execute them.” (Oct. 25, 1941, as cited in the The Churchill War Papers, vol. 3)

** Fifty more were supposed to be executed if the assassins weren’t promptly turned in, but that second batch never took place. (There was, however, a different batch of 50 executed on October 24 in retaliation for a different political assassination. Maybe they just all ran together.)

Part of the Themed Set: Illegitimate Power.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,France,Germany,History,Hostages,Innocent Bystanders,Martyrs,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Ripped from the Headlines,Shot,Wartime Executions

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