On this date in 1792, the French Revolution’s iconic execution machine made its quiet experimental debut on the grounds of a suburban Paris hospital.
For all the long and terrible shadow it would cast, the first guillotine was a ridiculous rush job — courtesy of a legislature too squeamish to deal in the particulars of the humane head-chopper it had insisted upon. A ghastly farce ensued, as detailed by Paul Friedland in his Seeing Justice Done: The Age of Spectacular Capital Punishment in France,* wherein during a matter of weeks in the spring of 1792 the thing was practically willed into existence by French physician Antoine Louis by virtue of being the one guy who was willing to get into the technical journals on the matter of crunching a heavy blade through a man’s spine.**
The invention would initially be known as a louisette or louison in his honor, before that moniker was supplanted by the surname of a different physician who had become known (derisively, at first) for proposing a mechanical beheading device: Joseph-Ignace Guillotin.
Lawmakers’ shyness stems as Friedland sees it from their ambivalence about the entire project of public executions with their unruly rabble, pornographically agape: in this courtly sketch of the proposed machine, even the executioner — and this behavior is explicit in its original caption — coyly averts his eyes as his sword-arm releases the blade.
It was on March 20, 1792 that Assembly’s Committee on Legislation authorized deploying the as-yet uninvented device and “almost immediately, there followed an urgent, almost frenzied effort to build a decapitating machine as quickly as possible.” Executions remained suspended in the interim but Louis worked with dispatch, and an efficient carpenter named Guidon,† and the device performed its first real execution a mere five weeks after the enabling legislation, on April 25.
This date was its dry run, courtesy of a few fresh cadavers at the Bicêtre Hospital, which the chief surgeon, one Cullerier, was very happy to make Dr. Louis’s arrangements.
You will find at Bicetre all the facilities that you desire for the trial of a machine that humanity cannot see without shuddering, but which justice and the welfare of society make necessary. I will keep the corpses of those unfortunates who die between today and Monday. I will arrange the amphitheater … [and if] the ceiling does not accommodate the height of the machine, I can make use of a little isolated courtyard situated next to the amphitheater. The honor that you are bestowing on the House of Bicetre, Sir, is a very nice gift that you are giving me, but it would be even more so if you wished to accept a simple and frugal meal, such as a bachelor can offer.
Several more VIPs multiplied the honor. Rejoining Friedland’s narrative,
On April 17 the first trial of the guillotine took place. On hand to witness the event were: Sanson, the executioner of Paris, along with his son and an aide; the carpenter who built the machine and his aides; and several members of the medical establishment including Drs. Louis, Cullerier, and Pierre Jean George Cabanis, the prominent physician and friend of Mirabeau. Reportedly also in attendance that day were several members of the National Assembly and last, but certainly not least, an individual who was both a politician and a physician: Dr. Guillotin himself. By all accounts the trial was a wonderful success. As Dr. Louis enthused in his report to [politician and intellectual Pierre-Louis] Roederer, the machine decapitated three cadavers “so neatly that one was astonished by the force and celerity of its action.” Dr. Cabanis would later describe the blade’s descent as having “severed the heads faster than one could see, and the bones were cleanly cut.”
The reports ring with awe, and well they might. For an Enlightenment audience that theretofore had known beheadings only via the error-prone action of an executioner’s muscle, it must have been a wondrous spectacle, a triumph of ingenuity and philosophy for a humane new age.
** A rival proposal called for automating death via a sort of proto-gas chamber: the executioner to “attach the condemned by the neck, feet, and hands behind the back [to a post on the scaffold], all of which he would cover or enclose in a kind of booth, 5 feet square, equipped with panes of glass on all four sides and with a tight-fitting cap on top … charcoal, sulfur, and other materials that cause asphyxiation could be introduced into the booth by means of an inverted funnel in such a way that the condemned would suffocate and expire instantaneously.” Yet another proposal called for a strangling machine.
† “Who charged 5,500 francs for it,” report the memoirs of the Sansons, which also notes that by way of experimentation, two of the cadavers were beheaded with the familiar-to-us oblique knife, and the third less satisfactorily with a crescent-shaped alternative.
(Thanks to Dr. Robert Macnish, a young Scottish surgeon, writer, and polymath whose wide-roaming intellect earned him the nickname of “the Modern Pythagorean.” While resident in Paris, Macnish witnessed the public beheading of a French murderer on March 24, 1825 … an experience he rendered into the essay below. The crime which occasioned this spectacle was notorious in his brief day; Victor Hugo refers to Papavoine by name as “the horrible madman who killed the children with a knife to the head!” in The Last Day of a Condemned Man. -ed.)
AN EXECUTION IN PARIS.
In the month of March 1825, Louis Auguste Papavoine lost his head. He was guillotined at the Place de Greve for the murder of two children in the Bois de Vincennes. The man was mad, beyond all doubt, and in Great Britain would have been sentenced to perpetual confinement as a lunatic; but the French criminal court refused to admit the plea of insanity, and he was given over to the executioner: the Cour de Cassation having rejected his appeal from the decision of that which tried him.
To my shame be it spoken, I wished to see an execution by the guillotine. There was a sort of sanguinary spell attached to this instrument, which irresistibly impelled me to witness one of its horrid triumphs. When I thought of it, the overwhelming tragedy of the Revolution was brought before my eyes — that Revolution which plunged Europe in seas of blood, and stamped an indelible impression upon the whole fabric of modern society. There was something appalling in the very name of this terrific engine. M. Guillotine, its inventor, was also one of its victims — he perished by his own contrivance. [this popular legend is untrue -ed.] Let no man hereafter invent an instrument of punishment. Perillus contrived the brazen bull, and was among the first to perish by it. Earl Morton, who brought the “Maiden” to Scotland, underwent a like fate; and Deacon Brodie was hanged upon his own drop.
The day on which Papavoine suffered was beautifully fair; and, profiting by this circumstance, the idle population of the French capital flocked in myriads to witness his exit. It was calculated that there were not fewer than eighty thousand spectators. The Place de Greve was literally paved with human beings. A person might have walked upon their heads without difficulty; and so closely were they wedged together, that had any object larger than an apple been thrown among them, it could not have found its way to the ground. Men, women, and children, were clumped into one dense aggregate of living matter; and as the huge multitude moved itself to and fro, it was as the incipient stirring of an earthquake, or as the lazy floundering of the sea, when its waves, exhausted by a recent storm, tumble their huge sides about, like the indolent leviathan which floats upon their surface. There was no spot of the Place unoccupied save immediately around the scaffold, where a portion was squared off, and kept clear by a strong body of mounted gendarmerie, who kept back with their horses the living wall, which was every moment threatening to break asunder by the pressure behind, and intrude its animated materials into the proscribed area. Nor was the Place de Greve the only spot so crowded. The quays along the Seine were equally peopled, and even the opposite banks of that broad stream were filled with multitudes. Notre Dame shone with spectators, who had mounted its beetling towers to catch a dim prospect of the sacrifice; and every window and height, which afforded the most distant view, were similarly occupied.
In Paris, as in London, it is customary to let out those windows where a good view can be obtained; and on any occasion of particular interest — as the present happened to be — considerable sums are asked, and given. Sometimes half a Napoleon is demanded for a single place; and the sum varies from that to half a franc, according to the eligibility of the situation. Many of the windows are so near to the guillotine, that a very favourable prospect of the painful spectacle can be obtained; and these, of course, are crowded with persons who can afford to pay well for the gratification of their curiosity — if there be, indeed, any gratification in witnessing the instantaneous and sanguinary death of a fellow creature. Yet the view, even from the best windows, is not equal to that from within the open area. But into this space, it is no easy matter to get a footing; the few who are admitted being military men, and such of their friends as they choose to bring along with them. Indeed, at this time, there were few or no officers of any rank within the opening. It was mostly occupied by the gendarmes, who were there upon duty; and by a few dozens of common soldiers, whom curiosity or idleness had brought together. This, however, was the spot to which my wishes led me; and under the guidance of a young French officer of hussars, I was led into the area, and placed in front of the guillotine, not ten feet from its dreadful presence. But dreadful as it is from association, and from its destructive rapidity, this machine is by no means so appalling to look at as the gallows. The same feeling of horror does not attach to it; nor is the mind filled with the same blank dismay, or the same overpowering disgust, which are universally felt on beholding the gibbet, with its looped rope, its horrid beam, and its deceitful platform, which, slipping from beneath the feet of its victim, leaves him dangling and gasping in the winds of heaven. Somehow the same strong idea of disgrace is not connected with the axe as with the gibbet; but this may be from the thought that the noble and the good have shed their blood in torrents beneath its edge, thus giving it a sort of factitious interest, and deadening even with the most criminal the ignominy of its punishment. Nor is it coupled with such inveterate disgust, and such decided outrage to the feelings of humanity. Prolonged physical suffering is at all times revolting; and to see a human being struggling with a violent death — writhing in agony, and perishing like a dog — is the most detestable sight in existence. The guillotine distracts the fancy with no such sickening imagery. Whatever agony is sustained, is the more noble and enduring agony of the spirit, previous to the fatal hour. There is no struggle here with the grim tyrant — no painful encounter between life and death — no tortures like those which wrung Laocoön and his miserable offspring. From perfect life, the individual is transported to as perfect annihilation. He does not enter eternity by slow, unwilling steps: the spirit does not quit its fleshly mansion painfully and tardily, but leaves it with a sudden bound, and plunges at once into a new existence, there to be saved or lost, as its fate chances to be decreed in the Book of Life.
At the period of my admission, it was two o’clock — one hour exactly from the time of execution; and I had, therefore, abundant leisure to contemplate the engine of death, and to witness the behaviour of the vast multitude around it. Things were as quiet as could well be expected in so great an assemblage. There was plenty of talking, but much less disturbance than would have occurred in England upon any similar occasion. In truth, the only quarter which manifested tumult, was in the immediate neighbourhood of the area, which threatened every moment to be broken in, not so much by the fault of those directly in front of it, as by the immense pressure of those in the back-ground. Every now and then its square proportions were destroyed by a portion of the crowd which bulged inwards in a solid mass; and almost at the same moment, this violation of the straight line was repaired by the gendarmes, who kept riding along the square, and pressing back the intruding body into its proper place. The recklessness and fierce temper of the French soldiery were manifest, and formed a strong contrast to the good-humoured forbearance of our own troops. No ceremony was used towards intruders. Whoever came, or was forced into the square by his rearward companions, was thrust back with wanton violence. Where the pressure of the horses was resisted, the gendarmes made use of the flat sides of their sabres, and belaboured the crowd without mercy. The whole scene presented a strange picture of the fearful and the ludicrous. While it was distressing to witness the terrified crowd recoiling before the soldiers, it was amusing to witness the dexterity with which the latter treated the refractory — sometimes pushing them back with their steeds, sometimes beating them with their swords, and sometimes dexterously pitching off their hats into the assemblage. When any unfortunate fellow lost his chapeau in this manner, or received a salutary blow from the weapon of a gendarme, a loud shout of laughter was set up among the spectators. In fact, the whole, except thosewithin reach of punishment, were in excellent humour, and seemed to have come together more to enjoy a farce than witness the horrors of a public execution. Things continued in this state till the hour of three, which, pealing from the clock of the Hotel de Ville, announced the approach of the criminal. Scarcely had the fatal sounds swung upon the air, than the whole host was hushed into silence. They knew that the destined time was at hand, and that Papavoine was on his way to the scaffold; — and every man held his breath with deep interest, and felt, in spite of himself, a solemn awe fall over his spirit. But this dreadful silence did not continue long — for far off, in the direction of the bridge over which the criminal must pass, there was seen a heaving among the assemblage, which moved as if borne on the bosom of a vast wave; and murmurs like the half-suppressed voice of a remote volcano, were heard to proceed from this moving multitude. It was now evident that the procession approached; and every eye was turned towards that direction, and every ear wrought to its keenest pitch to catch the strange sounds which denoted its coming. Each moment the noise became louder, and the motion of the crowd more general. At last the trampling of horses was heard, and a troop of gendarmes, forcing a path through the recoiling people, were seen to approach. Behind them came a cart drawn by two horses; and in this cart sat Papavoine and an old Catholic priest. To the rear of this a second body of gendarmes brought up the procession. The criminal was a small, thin man, of about five feet six. He was dressed in a shabby blue surtout, and brown trowsers, and wore a fur cap upon his head. His arms were pinioned behind him, not by the elbows as with us, but by the wrists. He had no neckcloth on, nor shirt; and the collar of his surtout was drawn some way over his shoulders, so as to leave the neck quite bare and ready for the axe. Though pale and death-like, and seemingly impressed with the marks of sorrow and bad health, he exhibited no signs of terror or dismay. His demeanour was quiet and composed; and to the exhortations of his spiritual adviser he appeared to pay deep attention.
Now, here a scene took place which baffles description. No sooner had the wretch entered the area appropriated for his fate, than a shout of deafening execration arose from the hitherto silent multitude. No preparatory murmurs of hatred and revenge preceded this ebullition of feeling. It sprung up simultaneously, and as if those from whom it proceeded were animated with one soul, and felt one pervading vengeance thrilling through their hearts. “Wretch!” “Villain!” “Miscreant!” “Assassin!” arose in a wild swell from the crowd; and above the deeper voices of the men were heard the shrill imprecations of females, denouncing, with even more bitter wrath, the murderer. Had it been for almost any other crime, the women would have felt towards him more kindly than his own sex; but that for which he was to suffer was one of all others the most heinous to a maternal heart — and the natural fountains of woman’s tears were no longer free to flow in their wonted channel.
But Papavoine did not seem to hear the imprecations which were poured like vials of wrath upon his head — nor did he even appear sensible of the presence of those who so bitterly reviled him in his last moments. The cart stopped at the foot of the scaffold, and descending firmly, he conversed for one moment with the old priest, previous to mounting the fatal steps. I was at this time only a few yards from him, and marked him most distinctly. His look was perfectly calm and composed, and, had he died in a better cause, it would have been impossible not to admire his steady heroism. He said a single word in the ear of the priest who kissed him on the cheek, and left him, apparently much affected. Papavoine now ascended the guillotine rapidly and firmly, and committed himself to the hands of the executioner and his assistant satellite. At this part of the scene the loud execrations of the people had melted into breathless awe. Not a whisper was heard, nor even a movement among the vast and silent assemblage. The whole spectacle was dreadful — the very stillness of the crowd had something appalling in it; and the systematic dispatch with which the executioners proceeded among such universal silence, was sickening to the last degree. While gazing upon the victim, my respiration was almost totally suspended — my heart beat violently, and a feeling of intense anxiety and suffocation pervaded my frame.
The process was incredibly short. In a few seconds Papavoine was bound to a board which stood upright, and reached to the middle of his breast. The board moved on a pivot, and as soon as the malefactor was buckled to it, it was depressed, and shoved with its burden towards the groove of the guillotine, at the top of which hung the axe, ready to descend, on the pulling out of a small peg which kept it in its situation. A moveable piece of wood being now drawn down upon the root of the neck, to prevent all attempt at motion, and everything being ready, the executioner pulled a cord, and with the impetuosity of lightning, down came the axe upon its victim. Papavoine was annihilated in a moment. I saw his head slip from the body and tumble into a basket ready to receive it, while the blood spouted forth in little cataracts from the severed trunk, and dyed the scaffold with a purple tide. From the time when he appeared upon the guillotine till the head was severed, only twenty-five seconds elapsed — such is the appalling, yet humane rapidity of a French execution.
I looked attentively to observe if there was any motion in the trunk — any convulsive start at the instant of decapitation, but there was none. It lay from the first perfectly motionless, nor exhibited the slightest shudder — the least quivering — or the faintest indication that, the moment before, it was part of a sentient being, instinct with all the energies of life. This I did not expect. I conceived that a strong muscular spasm would have convulsed it at the fatal instant: and such, I am told, was the case with Brochetti, an Italian, executed some time before, and whose trunk sprung violently from its situation, and shook with universal tremor.
The momentary silence which pervaded the crowd previous to the axe’s descent was now broken, and an instantaneous movement ensued among its before tranquil numbers. The windows were deserted by their occupants; the doors poured their population into the streets; and the house-tops and black Gothic towers of Notre Dame were rid of the crowds which sat perched like eagles upon their lofty summits. But long ere this assembly had melted away, the guillotine had disappeared from the Place de Greve. Two minutes were allowed to elapse, that the head and body of the criminal might part with their blood.
They were then thrown into a long basket, and sent in the cart — which brought them alive — to the Ecole de Medecine for dissection. And the scaffold, after being cleansed of the gore, by having several buckets of water dashed over it, was taken to pieces, and deposited in the Hotel de Ville, till its sanguinary services were again required. The execution, together with the process of cleansing and dismantling the guillotine, did not occupy above seven minutes.
Next morning, the same curiosity which led me to witness this revolting sight took me to the Ecole de Medecine, to witness the remains of Papavoine. There were a number of scientific men present — among others, the celebrated Doctor Gall, who was employed in investigating the developements of the head, and pointing them out to several of his pupils. [A topic of great interest to Macnish, who also wrote a book about phrenology. -ed.] There was no portion whatever of the neck remaining attached to the trunk. It, as well as the head, had been severed from the body. The axe had struck at its very root, and even grazed the collar bone where it is fixed to the sternum. This is not in general the case, the neck being in most instances pretty accurately cut through the middle — one half of it adhering to the head, the other to the trunk.
I am not sure that I had done right in making such a scene as the above the subject of an article. There is something in the minute details of an execution, at which the mind shudders; and it is probable the reader may think that my impressions of the spectacle just related, should have been confined to my own bosom instead of being made public.
(For writerly firsthand accounts of the guillotine in action in the 19th century, compare to Tolstoy or Turgenev. -ed.)
On this date in 1563, Jean de Poltrot de Méré was ripped apart in the streets of Paris for assassinating the Duke of Guise.
The opening act of the civil war between Catholics and Huguenots that would devour France in the late 16th century was but a year old at this moment, and Guise was the very man who had set off the powderkeg with a notorious massacre of Huguenots the previous March that had sent agitated confessional armies into the fields.
During the ensuing months, Guise stood at the fore of Catholic forces, opposite the Huguenot commander Conde.
Come early 1563, Guise was besieging the Huguenot-held city of Orleans when Poltrot (English Wikipedia page | French) contrived to ambush him on a nearby road. Poltrot shot Guise with a pistol* and fled; he’d be arrested a day later.
In the Wars of Religion, each previous atrocity justified the revenge that followed it; Guise’s death — and Poltrot’s confession under torture** that it was the Huguenot Admiral Coligny who directed his hand — would help to set the scene for the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre visited by Catholics on the Huguenots nine years later. (In fairness we ought also to add that this was not Guise’s first brush with Protestant assassins.) And heavily Catholic Paris was even before the Guise murder violently agitated against Huguenots. During the fighting in 1562,
Reputed Huguenots were struck down in the streets. Sometimes mock trials were held; the attackers grilled the captives on their religious beliefs and, when not satisfied with the answers, killed them on the spot. Officials who tried to intervene were themselves in danger, and edicts against violence were bitterly protested. As one anonymous memoirist described it, “The people wanted nothing less than permission to kill and exterminate the Huguenots without any form of trial; but the consequences were too dangerous.” He implied that permission might have been given, had it been possible to contain the violence.†
All this rage, when focused on the assassin of the Catholic party’s champion, was enough to tear a man limb from limb.
Poltrot’s sentence was to be publicly ripped apart by horses straining his limbs to the four points of the compass. It didn’t quite work: sinew and muscle is too dense and tough to shred by main force, even for a horse; it was only by dint of the the executioner’s helpful hacking that the beasts could dismember their prey.
Quartering by horses is a punishment so preposterously horrific that it could only belong to an age of intentional spectacle.
Indeed, Florike Egmond and Peter Mason argue‡ that until the 16th century such a theatrical execution “was a purely fictional punishment in Europe, which ever since Roman times emerged occasionally in literature, legend and folk-tales as an outrageous form of retribution for (high) treason and related offences” — such as Livy’s mythic rendering of the end given faithless ex-ally Mettius Fufetius, the treatment of St. Hippolytus, and foggy distant Frankish legends.
Although the concept might have existed in imaginations for centuries before, equine execution was at best a vanishingly rare event in reality; certainly when Poltrot was butchered, nobody present had ever before beheld such a sight. For Egmond and Mason, this was an innovation of his judges who “jumped the gap between fiction and historical records” in pursuit of ever “more expressive forms of punishment in order to emphasize the outrageousness of the offense.”
It was an outrage whose time had come, however, for quartering by horses was employed several times more for regicidal offenses in the ensuing decades — including for the Catholic militant who assassinated the Huguenot King Henri IV.
* This event would appear to dislodge the 1570 murder of Scotland’s Regent Moray from its popular acclamation as history’s earliest firearm assassination. As Guise lingered for six days and finally succumbed to effects of his doctor’s own bloodletting, perhaps the view is that Poltrot’s pistol only earned half-credit.
** Poltrot would later retract the claim, when not under torture.
† Barbara Diefendorf, “Prologue to a Massacre: Popular Unrest in Paris, 1557-1572,” The American Historical Review, Dec. 1985.
‡ “Domestic and Exotic Cruelties: Extravagance and Punishment,” The Irish Review, Autumn 1999
Comprised of foreign communists whose backgrounds amply motivated them to desperate resistance, FTP-MOI was a notably aggressive partisan unit; a few months before this date’s executions, it had stunningly assassinated SS Col. Julius Ritter on the streets of Paris. Risky tactics, including larger-scale operations like the one that claimed Ritter (these required more partisans to know each other) entailed greater risk of penetration, and the November 1943 arrest of the Armenian commander Missak Manouchian and his group devastated FTP-MOI. After the customary interlude of torture, these were subjected to a show trial with 23 condemned to execution.*
As a gaggle of foreign terrorists, heavily Semitic, this clique looked to the occupation like a marvelous tar with which to blacken the Resistance. To that end the Germans produced a scarlet poster denouncing the Resistance as an “Army of Crime,” its soldiery labeled with strange names and alien nationalities converging on the swarthy Manouchian.**
Soon known as l’Affiche Rouge, the poster instead apotheosized its subjects. In the postwar period it became an emblem of the best of the Resistance — its multinational unity, France as an idea powerful enough that men and women of distant birth would give their lives for her. (Not to mention the postwar French Communists’ claim on le parti des fusillés.)
To this day in France, the backfiring propaganda sheet is one of the best-recognized artifacts of the Resistance.
The executions were naturally conducted quietly; the Germans strictly forbade public access to or photography of Resistance heroes in their martyrdoms for obvious reasons.
That made it especially surprising when a few pictures of this execution surfaced recently, surreptitiously snapped from an overlooking vantage by German motorbike officer Clemens Rüter, who kept them hidden for decades. They are to date the only known World War II photos of French Resistance members being executed.
* The 23rd, and the only woman in the group, was Romanian Olga Bancic, also known by the nom de guerre Pierrette; she was not shot on this date but deported to Stuttgart and beheaded there on May 10, 1944. There was also a 24th, a man named Migatulski, who was initially part of the same trial; he was instead remanded to French custody. (See coverage in the collaborationist La Matin from Feb. 19, 1944 and Feb. 22, 1944.)
** We’ve noted before that a Polish Jew named Joseph Epstein who was part of the same cell (and a prime candidate for racist demagoguing) avoided a place on l’Affiche Rouge thanks to his preternatural talent for remaining mum under interrogation.
Jean-Marie Arthus (“Marchand” by his nom de guerre), Jacques Baudry (“Andre”), Pierre Benoit (“Francis”), Pierre Grelot (“Paul”) and Lucien Legros (“Jeannot”)* started small with subversive pamphleting and placarding but soon moved on to sabotage and armed opposition in affiliation with the Francs-Tireurs et Partisans.
The arrest of one of their teachers, Raymond Burgard, in 1942 spurred them to lead a student demonstration whose mass arrest they barely escaped. By that time their identities were known, and the boys had to go underground; for their remaining months at liberty they lived on the run and participated in occasional (albeit not very damaging) armed attacks on occupying forces — until that summer, when French intelligence arrested Arthus, Baudry, Grelot and Legros, and French police later caught Benoit.
All five were handed off by their collaborationist countrymen to the eager claws of the Germans, who condemned them as terrorists at a military trial.
* A sixth school chum, Michel Agnellet, could easily have joined them at the execution posts and in the martyrologies, but the five who were captured did not permit their interrogators to extract his name.
On this date in 1755, Henri Mongeot was broken on the wheel for assassinating the husband of his adulterous lover, Marie.
Louis Alexandre Lescombat was a Paris architect; the betrayal of his flighty wife Marie Catherine Taperet was all the talk of Paris after her lover Mongeot slew the husband whilst out on a walk in December of 1754 — then summoned the watch to present a bogus self-defense claim.
For the widow, one good betrayal would deserve another: Mongeot faithfully avoided implicating her in the murder but when he discovered on the very eve of his death that she was already making time with a new fellow, he summoned the judge and revenged himself by exposing her incitement to the crime. His evidence would doom her to follow him many months later, after the sentence was suspended long enough for the widow Lescombat to deliver a son.
Joining Mongeot on the scaffold this date was a 15-year-old heir to the family executioner business apparently conducting just his second such sentence — Charles-Henri Sanson, the famed bourreau destined in time to cut off the head of the king and queen. Mongeot makes a passing appearance in the 19th century Memoirs of the Sansons; in it, Charles-Henri’s grandson remarks from the family notes that “Mdme. Lescombat … was confronted with him [i.e., her doomed lover] at the foot of the scaffold. She was remarkably handsome, and she tried the effect of her charms on her judges, but without avail.”
On this date in 1594, Catholic militant Jean Châtel was dismembered for the near-assassination of King Henri IV.
Just two days before his public butchery, the 19-year-old clothier’s son (English Wikipedia entry | French) had milled about in a crowd awaiting the Huguenot* king’s return from Picardy. As Henri entered the Hotel de Bouchage and bent over to accept the obeisance of two courtiers, Châtel sprang out of the crowd and daggered him. The blade cut Henri’s lip — a glancing blow just a few degrees distant from a history-altering one.
Châtel would cite Jesuitical inspiration, and when his instructors’ quarters were searched they yielded seditious exhortations against Protestant princes. One Guignard, who had authored the most inflammatory tracts (e.g., regretting that Henri had not been slain at the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre), was put to death on January 7; the rest of the order was expelled from Paris — as was Châtel’s family, whose home was razed and replaced with a monument against religious fanaticism.
The pyramid memorial was replaced by a succession of fountains, of which the most recent is the present-day Fontaine Cuvier.
It was of course far too much to hope that this scolding plinth could bring down the dangerous sectarian temperatures raised by a half-century of civil war. In his time Henri IV evaded numerous — some 20 or more — attempts on his life, before a different Catholic enragee, one Francois Ravaillac, successfully murdered him in 1610.
* The threat of pedantry in the comments section obliges us to allow that Henri nominally converted to Catholicism in order to take the throne and end the Wars of Religion — the occasion on which he was purported to murmur that (staunchly Catholic) Paris is worth a Mass.
Norton quotes these reports — luridly horrible, if slightly contradictory — here.
Wednesday 29 October 1783
A correspondent from Paris, who was present at the late execution of the Friar convicted of an unnatural crime, has favoured us with the following particulars: the monk who murdered a young boy that would not submit to his infernal solicitations, was tried at two o’clock in the afternoon, and sentenced to be broke alive on the cross, and then burnt to ashes at four the same day. He was allowed some time in a house to prepare himself for the awful moment, but did not remain there half an hour. He was then taken to the Grève, the place of execution, tied to the cross of St Andrew, and broke with amazing celerity. He had eight bones broken, and was thrown alive into the fire. It is usual for criminals on these occasions to receive the coup de grace, that is, the criminal being tied down on the cross, which is fixed upon a scaffold, the executioner sets a halter round the said criminal’s neck, and passing the ends of the rope through two holes made on purpose in a board of the scaffold, one of Jack Ketch’s* men, who attends underneath, joins the aforesaid ends in a kind of press, and takes care to strangle the malefactor at the very instant he receives the first stroke. The Friar in question was denied this extraordinary favour, though he begged it with many dreadful cries. Monsieur Jack Ketch made his appearance in his own coach, dressed in scarlet laced with gold, with three of his men behind. (Caledonian Mercury)
Thursday 30 October 1783
On Friday, the 10th inst. a friar was executed at Paris for an unnatural crime, and afterwards attempting to murder a young boy of 14, a commissionaire, a kind of porter to waits at the corner of the streets to run of errands. the sentences on criminals are published in France by the Courts of Justice in which they are passed; the present runs in the following manner: Jacques François Paschal, is condemned to the amende honorable, before the principal door of L’Eglise de Paris, where he shall be conducted by the executioner of haute justice, in a tumbril, in his shirt, his feet and head naked, holding in his hand a burning torch of yellow wax of two pounds weight, having a rope about his neck and a label before and behind, on which shall be written these words: Debauche contre nature & assassin: “The crime against nature, and murder”; and there, on his knees shall declare in a loud and intelligible voice that wickedly, rashly, and ill-advisedly, he had delivered himself up to an excess the most criminal towards a young commissionaire, aged fourteen, and had enticed him into his chamber, on the 3d of the present month of October, where, irritated by his resistence [sic], he had attempted to murder him, by giving him a great number of stabs with a knife on the head, reins, and in the back; of which he repents, and demands pardon of God, the King, and Justice: He shall then be taken in the same tumbril to the Place de Greve, to have his arms, legs, thighs, and reins, broken on a scaffold erected for that purpose in the said Place de Greve, and shall afterwards be cast into a burning fire, there to be consumed to ashes, and his ashes scattered in the wind, &c. The boy, though desperately wounded, we hear is not dead.
from Thursday 30 October to Thursday 6 November 1783
A Gentleman who arrived in Town a few Days ago from Paris, was present at the Execution of the Monk on the 10th Inst. for Murder, and an Attempt to commit a detestable Crime, says, the Particulars on the Subject, as stated in some of the English News-papers, are erreoneous; but the following may be depended on as a Fact. — The Monk, who belonged to the Convent of Montmartre, having formed a Design of gratifying his unnatural Passion on a Savoyard Boy, Commisionaire, or Messenger frequenting the Boulevards, Corner of Rue Poissoniere, enticed him to the Convent, and pretending to confess him, took him into his Cell, where, under the Mask of Religion, the Monster in Iniquity attempted to satisfy his brutal Desires, which the Boy resisting, he gagged, and bound him with Cords, to prevent his crying out, or making any Noise, and then stabbed him in several Parts of the Body, locked the Door and fled. Being missed in the Evening at Vespers, the Superior sent to his Cell, the Door of which remaining fastened, notwithstanding being repeatedly knocked at, was ordered to be broke open, when a most shocking Scene presented itself to View, the poor Boy weltering in his Blood, and near expiring. Every possible Assistance was immediately given, but in vain; for he survived no longer than just to be able to relate the dreadful Story, and to discover who was the nefarious Perpetrator of so inhuman a Deed; in pursuit of whom the Police instantly dispatched the Marrechausse, and he was apprehended the next Morning in the Forest of St. Germain, disguised as a Peasant. Being conveyed to the Prison of the Grand Chatelet at Paris, he was privately tried according to the Custom of that Country, though on this particular Occasion his Sentence was not announced so soon as is usual; for it was not till after the Expiration of twenty Days allotted for the Arrival of the Chief Executioners from the provincial Cities, summoned to give their personal Attendance at this Execution extraordinary, that his Sentence was read to him, that within forty-eight Hours he was to be broke on the Wheel, and his Body, whilst yet alive, burnt; at which he seemed very little affected. About one o’Clock on the Day mentioned, under strong Guard, and escorted by a very numerous Procession of Capuchin Friars, bareheaded, with lighted Torches in their Hands, chanting a Requiem for his departing soul, he was brought on Foot to the Church of Notre Dame, where, bare-footed, and stripped to his Shirt, with Labels behind and before, denoting, in Capital Letters, his Crimes, he made his final Confession, and asked Pardon from God, his King, and Country. He was, then, in the same Order, conducted to the Grève, the Place of Execution, where a large Scaffold, with the Apparatus of Death, was erected. At the same Time arrived the Executioner of the Capital, stiled Monsieur de Paris, who alighted from a most elegant Cabriolet, beautifully ornamented with his Arms and Crest on the Pannels, and two Servants in rich Liveries behind. He was a tall, handsome Man, between thirty and forty Years of Age, dressed in Scarlet and Gold, with the Insignia of his Order embroidered over the right Shoulder, a Sword by his Side, and from Head to Foot fashionably and well equipped. After bowing three Times to the Spectators, who were amazingly numerous, he ascended the Scaffold, whereon the Criminal had, in the Interim been placed, and accompanied by a large Body of provincial Executioners, and other Officers of Justice, his Confessor now took leave, and he being fastened to the Cross, Monsieur de Paris, by Means of an Iron Bar, which he used with both Hands, very expeditiously executed Part of the first of the Sentence; and then ordered the Body to be trussed on a Wheel, they were together thrown into a large Fire, kindled at a little Distance from the Scaffold. The poor Wretch mounted the Steps with seeming Composure; but from the Moment he received the first Blow, he continued to utter the most piercing Shrieks, till the Fire put a Period to his Life and Misery. (Derby Mercury)
* The reference here is to the notorious English hangman whose name became the metonym for an executioner. The high executioner of Paris by this point would have been Charles-Henri Sanson, the man who would eventually guillotine Louis XVI. (Sanson was 44 years old at this date, contrary to the estimate in the the excerpt quoted above.)
On this date in 1870, a spy of the Franco-Prussian War was shot in Paris.
Barely a month old at this point, the Franco-Prussian War was a fast-unfolding fiasco for the Franco side. For three weeks, Frenchreverses as the Prussians pressed through the frontier had been the talk of the capital.
The action at this moment was the huge Prussian siege of Metz, for whose relief the French emperor Napoleon III — Marx’s original “first as tragedy, then as farce” guy — was even then mobilizing a relief force. Napoleon was ridiculously out in the field, personally “leading” the army; on September 1, his column would be intercepted by the Germans and the resulting Battle of Sedan ended with the emperor’s own capture and the demise of his Second French Empire.
“Discussing the War in a Paris Cafe”: Illustrated London News, September 17, 1870. Within a few months the burghers will have fled these uproarious cafes with the rise of the Paris Commune.
For the moment, however, that empire is still alive in its final hours; Charles Harth must number among the last executions it ever carried out. The London Standard reported the story under an August 27 dateline (we excerpt here from the Milwaukee Daily Sentinel‘s reprint of September 16):
Prussian blood has been drawn for the first time since the declaration of war within the enceinte of Paris.
Charles Harth, found guilty of having visited France for the purpose of spying out its weakness, died the death this morning. His trial took place on Monday, as you will remember, and after a very brief procedure, the court martial that tried the man condemned him without a single dissenting voice. The Prussians (who, by the way, are accused in the Paris Press to-day of having hanged a woman at Gorse) will protest, no doubt, against the manner in which their countryman was treated, but military law is short and sharp in its decrees, and his judges were satisfied of Harth’s culpability. If he was guilty, as we are bound to believe, there is no room for protest. He deserved his fate.
After his condemnation, in the first instance, he had the privilege of appeal, which was availed of, on his behalf, by his council, but the Court of Revision, which considered the case on Thursday, found no reason to reverse the judgment. M. Weber, the advocate assigned by the prisoner, appears to have stuck generously by him, and even to have forwarded a petition for mercy to the Empress Regent. However much it must have cost the Empress to refuse it, as Regent no other course was open to her. Mercy could not be extended to the enemy’s spy, while the enemy himself was on French soil, and French blood was bieng shed in torrents on the battle-field.
Accordingly the order was given that the sentence should be carried out. At 5 o’clock this morning Harth was awakened in his cell in the military prison in the Rue du Cherche Midi by a messenger, who announced to him that his hour had come. He received the news calmly, like a man who had given up all hope, and was expecting it; more than that, like a man who was prepared to meet the worst, with the courage of dogged resignation.
M. Roth de Lille, the Protestant pastor of the gaol, was shown into the cell of the doomed man, and remained with him until the cellular van that was to convey him to the scene of his execution drew up with a rumble and a clatter of horses hoofs at the prison gate. Harth entered it boldly, and the vehicle drove off through the quiet streets with their early freshness upon them escorted by twelve mounted gendarmes, armed cap a pie, and making music to the ride of death with their clunking accoutrements.
The Ecole Militaire, that huge pile of barracks that will be familiar to those who visited the Exposition of 1867, from its position facing the Champs de Mars, was fixed on as the place of execution. The Polygon of Vincennes is the spot usually designed, but the Ecole Militaire was nearer, and this is no time for the formalities of precedent. Whatever is done to paralyze the invader had better be done quickly.
The courtyard of the barracks was occupied by all the troops quartered there in marching order. The battalion of the Grenadiers of the Guard, that serves as depot, was there in line with fixed bayonets, and detachments of Lancers with their gay pennons, and brown, brawny Cuirassiers, and the guides — the daintiest of all the French cavalry — in their heavily-embroidered jackets, were there too. A pretty sight for a military man, these flashing arms and helmets and polished cuirasses in the cheerful morning sunshine.
How did it strike Charles Harth, for he had been a military man by his own admission, a Lieutenant in the Prussian infantry. When the prisoner stepped from the van and threw a rapid look over the assembled troops, he gave a few nervous twitches of his head.
The clock over the centre of the building chimed the quarter to six. Six precisely was the hour fixed for the shooting. The prisoner had yet fifteen minutes to live.
He was led into an angle of the court yard, where the troop horses are usually shod, and which forms a quiet corner to itself. Here he was placed close to the wall, and in front of a squad of twelve men of the Forty-second Regiment of the line, namely, two sergeants, four corporals, and half-a-dozen privates. The firing party stood in two ranks, the two sergeants being stationed in the rear.
As the prisoner was approached by the turnkeys of the military prison whose duty it was to tie his hands behind his back, he shrunk back and said, ‘No! I wish to die like a soldier.’ But on representations being made to him that there was no exception to the rule, he yielded. His eyes were then bandaged, when he expressed a wish to be allowed to give the word ‘fire.’ Adjt. Codont, who had acted as registrat to the court-marshal [sic], came forward and read the sentence amid an impressive silence.
At a pause at one of the paragraphs in the document, the prisoner, fancying the reading had been finished, cried” ‘Tirez, coquns, et ne me manquez pas.’ ‘Fire, you rascals, and mind you don’t miss!’ But the squad did not stir; it was waiting another signal.
As the last syllable died away on the Adjutant’s lips the officer commanding the firing party drew his sword, the soldiers raised their Chassepots to their shoulder and took aim, the sword was lowered, and a dozen shots went off like one, with a sudden startling detonation. Before the report of the discharge had smitten the straining ears of those who looked on, the prisoner fell forward with an inclination to his right side. Over his left breast, in the region of his heart, his shirt was torn into a jagged hole, where the bullets had entered.
As he lay motionless on the ground one of the sergeants in the rear of the firing party advanced through the little cloud of smoke and discharged his piece into the dead man’s brain. Dead man, I say, for Harth must have died before he reached the ground in his fall.
The troops were marched past the body, which was then lifted, limp and warm, and put, dressed as it was, into a coffin, and trotted off to the Cemetery of Mont Parnasse, where it was dropped into a grave which had been opened to receive it, and hastily hidden from view.
Ancien regime minister Arnaud de La Porte was guillotined on this date in 1792* by the new order.
Stock of a long line of Versailles courtiers, de La Porte (English Wikipedia entry | French) followed his father into administration with a specialty in naval finances. He knocked around maritime bureaus from the time he was a whelp of 18 in 1755; he was at last named Louis XVI‘s Minister of the Navy on July 12, 1789 — two days before the Bastille fell.
He had both the wisdom to immediately expatriate himself to Spain, and the loyalty to answer his harried sovereign’s summons to return; by December 1790, he was appointed intendant of the Civil List and minister of the king’s household.
This made de La Porte the bagman in the king’s campaign to buttress the Revolution’s moderating forces — writers, thinkers, and artists in the constitutional monarchist camp, as against the Marats — to which end some 200,000 livres dropped from his fingers every month. All was to little avail.
De La Porte’s position made him a close confidante of the royal family. When the latter attempted the ill-starred flight to Varennes, it was de La Porte who was entrusted to present the absconded king’s Dear John note to his jilted subjects in the Constituent Assembly.
With the king’s embarrassing capture, the Capets’ confinement became ever more uncomfortably close, and with them that of a loyal aide who must have passed a few moments contemplating the Iberian charms he had abandoned to share this bitter draught — until the following summer when Danton et. al. finally overthrew the monarchy on August 10, 1792.
A bad day for Arnaud de La Porte: the storming of the Tuileries Palace on August 10, 1792, by Jean Duplessis-Bertaux.
De La Porte was overthrown with them.
While revolutionary Paris is synonymous to posterity with frightful political trials, it was in the aftermath of the August 10 revolution that they began, and then as novelties. (The guillotine at this point was itself just a few months old.)
Endeavoring to cement their triumph, the revolutionaries constituted a tribunal to try the deposed royalist ministers as traitors for their maneuverings. (They also obviously blocked any prosecution of their own number for massacring hundreds of Swiss Guards who fought to defend the king.) These can be accounted among the first overt political trials of the revolution, the harbingers of the coming Terror and ill omen for the judgments the Revolution would levy against king, queen, and royals all. De La Porte in his closing address to the court fervently hoped his nation would not follow that dark road.
Citizens — I die innocent, notwithstanding that appearances are against me. May my blood, which is to be shed for the expiation of a crime of which I am not guilty, restore tranquility to this empire: And may my sentence be the last unjust arret which shall be pronounced by this Tribunal. (via the London Times, Aug. 30, 1792)
With the post-Napoleonic restoration, the man’s son — also named Arnaud — was created a hereditary baron in recognition of his ancestor’s service to the crown.
* The dates for these trials are very sloppily accounted for; this is also true of Durosoy, whose head was chopped off the next day.
As of this writing, de La Porte’s Wikipedia entries both French and English misdate his execution to August 23 (actually the date his examination began), and one will find sources placing it as late as August 28 whose attribution traces all the way back to the erroneous initial publications of the tribunals. To be sure, the trial against de La Porte had an unusual internal clock reflecting the revolution’s ad hoc process: it unfolded over the two days, and after conviction the accused was beheaded the same day, but not immediately — instead, de La Porte was returned from his court to prison for a few hours, where he dined before going to the scaffold in the evening.
By way of substantiation, we find that under an August 25 dateline (printed in the August 29 edition), the London Times correspondent reports from the scene thus:
The new criminal Tribunal, instituted for the trial of persons supposed to be concerned in treasonable correspondence with the late Executive Government, proceed in a very summary manner on the trial of those persons who have been so unfortunate as to fall into the hands of the mob. M. de la Porte, the late Intendant of the Civil List, was yesterday convicted, after a trial of 37 hours. Sentence of death was immediately passed on him, and at night he was conducted to the Place de Carrousel, where he was executed. During the whole of his examination at the bar, as well as at the place of execution, he behaved with great firmness, and declared his innocence to the last …
The principal evidence against M. de la Porte was, that he had employed the public money to libel the new Constitution, by employing different Journalists to write down the Jacobin faction … The proof against him was so slight and contradictory, that it was with great surprise and indignation that the sober part of the citizens heard of his conviction. He certainly fell a victim to the Royal cause and to justice.