1871: Generals Lecomte and Thomas, at the birth of the Paris Commune

Add comment March 18th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1871, the Paris Commune was born, with the execution of Generals Lecomte and Thomas.

Paris had come to the brink of revolution by dint of the country’s humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. After a monthslong Prussian siege of the capital, Paris had become thoroughly radicalized and stood at tense loggerheads with the newly elected conservative national government of Adolphe Thiers. A militant National Guard swelled by the city’s large proletariat had defended Paris during its late privations, only to see a government of national humiliation accept punishing peace terms from Bismarck and submit to a Prussian victory parade on the Champs d’Elysees.

Now, it blanched at the national government’s intention to reassert its own long-absent authority in Paris.

These sovereigns’ rivalries chanced to focus in the critical moment upon 400 bronze cannon in Paris, which the National Guard had used in the city’s defense and deployed to working-class neighborhoods with the intention of keeping them out of the government’s hands.

On March 18, upon an order by Thiers which some of his ministers opposed, the army moved upon these guns, intending to seize weapons and authority together. General Claude Lecomte (English Wikipedia entry | French), a rock-ribbed career officer of 63, had charge of this operation so offensive to the Parisian populace.

Lecomte was able to deploy his men at Montmarte where a great portion of the guns would come into his possession, but well did the master observe that “The line between disorder and order lies in logistics” — for a delay in the arrival of the horses and tumbrils by which the artillery would be hauled away gave time for word to spread in the city and an angry crowd assemble to oppose this outrage. Thiers had overruled objections that his soldiery was itself sympathetic to the radicals and would not be reliable in the breach; now, those warnings were vindicated as the soldiery declined to fire on Parisians and instead fraternized as the people took back Montmarte.

Although Lecomte was “merely” seized for the Central Committee of the National Guard, Paris’s blood was up; “the mob wanted to tear their victims to pieces, and it is my opinion they are the culpable judges,” writes John Leighton in Paris Under the Commune.

The first to lay hands on General Lecomte were linesmen and Mobiles, one of the latter observing, as he made a gesture, “Formerly you punished me with thirty days in prison, now I will be the first to fire at you.” Whilst this was going on a new movement was observed in the crowd. It was the arrival of another prisoner, a venerable gentleman, with a white beard, in plain clothes. It was General Clement Thomas, who had been arrested in the Place Pigalle by the National Guards. The General had been advised to run away, but he would remain, saying, “I will walk, it is my right.” This brought about a mob, who conducted him to the Rue des Rosiers, making it still worse for the prisoner Lecomte, for it was well known that Clement Thomas had been pretty severe at the Hotel de Ville and elsewhere, on the battalions of Montmartre and Belleville.

Once in the Rue des Rosiers, General Thomas felt he was lost, but as he would not die without knowing the cause, he mounted some steps and in a loud voice demanded, “What do you reproach me with?” “To death!” replied the crowd. “You are too great cowards to shoot me,” said the General. With these words he was driven into the garden, whilst General Lecomte in the scuffle attempted to escape by the back door, though unfortunately without success. Once in the garden, the old vine-covered walls and chestnut trees became crowded with miserable spectators ready to see the horrible deed perpetrated by a peloton of soldiers of the line and two francs-tireurs. In falling, poor General Lecomte exclaimed, “Oh my poor children! my —-” As he sunk mortally wounded, a villain of the group stepped forward and slapped him in the face. Clement Thomas was shot by National Guards. At first only wounded, he afterwards fell pierced in fourteen places. A National Guard pulled him over by the beard, that his face might be seen, and for two hours afterwards the bodies afforded a ghastly spectacle that was enjoyed by an ignoble procession of spectators.

Outside the garden, with the city in an uproar, the proletarian organs that had grown over the long siege took Paris firmly in hand while national government officials fled as they could — or were rounded up as hostages if they could not. The Commune would be master of Paris for ten tense weeks, until Thiers’s republic drowned it in blood.

For Leighton, no friend of the Commune, all the woe in its suppression could be traced to the ham-handed cannon debacle of March 18, 1871:

One thing appears certain — that General Lecomte did not take prompt measures and proper precautions, and that the Government, which sent him to remove 171 guns, without teams, and so small a force, acted inconsiderately, and must be held morally responsible for the disasters which ensued — disasters that, terrible as they are, might have been worse and have led to the total ruin of France.

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1946: Jean Luchaire, Vichy journalist

Add comment February 22nd, 2020 Headsman

Collaborationist French journalist Jean Luchaire was shot on this date in 1946.

Fortuitously just too young for the trenches of the Great War, Luchaire (English Wikipedia entry | French) was the son of playwright Julien Luchaire, and he — the son — emerged in the interwar years as an important pacifist and advocate for French-German rapprochement.

The 1939-1940 war between those countries obviously dunked this philosophy into the crucible, and not long after the Wehrmacht marched into Paris on June 14, 1940, Luchaire emerged as a friend of the Vichy government.

His Les Nouveaux Temps* — founded in November 1940 with the direct backing of Germany’s Vichy ambassador** — became a premiere outlet of Vichy collaboration, and Luchaire directed the national press association to similar ends. After the liberation of Paris, he spent the war’s waning months in refuge with the remains of the Petain government, running a newspaper and radio station for the dead-enders.

Spurned for asylum by Switzerland after the war, he was captured by American soldiers in the Italian Alps and delivered to his homeland, where he was condemned as an occupation collaborator and shot at Fort de Châtillon, outside Paris.

His daughter Corinne Luchaire, a silver screen star in the late 1930s who became a society fixture in occupied Paris, published a postwar memoir defending her father’s conduct. She died of tuberculosis in 1950.

* Luchaire had founded and edited a newspaper called Notre temps in the interwar period. It’s not the same journal as the present-day publication of the same name, which was founded in 1968.

** The Francophile Ambassador Otto Abetz married Luchaire’s French secretary. Two of Abetz’s nephews, Peter and Eric Abetz, have had political careers in Autralia.

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1819: Pierre Charles Rodolphe Foulard, Henry-Clement Sanson’s first execution

Add comment February 17th, 2020 Henry-Clement Sanson

(Thanks to Henry-Clement Sanson for the guest post. The former executioner — the last of his illustrious dynasty comprising six generations of bourreaux — was the grandson of that dread figure of the Paris Terror, Charles Henri Sanson. Henry-Clement’s Memoirs of the Sansons: From Private Notes and Documents (1688-1847) describes some famous or infamous executions from the family annals. We have observed in previous Sanson “guest posts” that his annals merit caution as pertains to the adventures of his forefathers; in this instance, however, he communicates — albeit in dramatized form, through an interlocutor ghost-writer — his firsthand recollection of his own debut. -ed.)

MY FIRST EXECUTION.

The first year of my marriage was calm and peaceable. I had every reason to be happy. Thanks to the cares of my good mother, we had very little to think of beyond our pleasures and comforts. My young wife was as cheerful and kind as she was pretty, and our union promised to be one of undisturbed harmony.

My father made no allusion to my promise to take his office;* but that promise was constantly in my mind; it was the only thought that clouded my happiness. Sometimes I looked with sadness at my young partner, thinking that a time should come for her to assume in her turn the title of Madame de Paris. The fulfilment of my pledge was even nearer at hand than I expected. My father was taken ill in the middle of the winter of 1819, and he was laid up for two months. His constant preoccupation during his illness was a sentence of death passed by the assize court of the Seine on a soldier of the Royal Guard, Pierre Charles Rodolphe Foulard, who had murdered two unfortunate women, to steal a watch and a pair of earrings. Foulard was barely twenty years of age, but his crime was so atrocious that there was no hope of a reprieve for him. Foulard’s case, however, had still to pass before the Court of Revision; but my father felt that his health would not permit him to superintend the execution. He was thinking of appealing to one of his provincial colleagues. This was rather awkward, as it was well known that I was to be my father’s successor, and the judicial authorities might well inquire why I did not act as his substitute. Since my marriage I had made a point of following my father in the few executions that had occurred, but I had taken no active part in them. I may add that my father’s part was hardly more active than mine; he had said the truth when he told me that almost everything was done by the assistants, and that the executioner only superintended what his servants did.

The time came for Foulard’s execution; it came sooner than my father expected, so that he was unable to secure some one else’s services. He was much better, but certainly not well enough to resume his duties; and my conscience smote me when he expressed his determination to risk his health, perhaps his life, and execute Foulard. I said to myself that, since I must begin, I had better begin at once, and I proposed to my father to take his place.

He gladly acquiesced, and gave me all the necessary instructions; he also pointed out two assistants on whose zeal I could especially rely; and finally I was assured that my attendance at the execution was little more than a formality. The assistants entered my father’s room just as I was leaving it, and he made them a short speech in which he urged them to afford me their best help and protection.

I was very nervous and frightened; nevertheless, I strictly acted upon the instructions furnished to me, and I gave the necessary directions to the carpenters. As night came on, my discomfort increased. I could scarcely eat any dinner. Fortunately my father was in his room, otherwise he might have insisted on doing the work himself My mother and my wife were as uneasy as I was, but they abstained from making any observation on the matter. After dinner I retired to my room, and passed one of the worst nights of my life. When I got up next morning I was feverish and tired. The assistants were waiting for me in the courtyard. My father had ordered out his carriage for me, and with my new servants I silently proceeded to the Conciergerie. The horses went slowly enough, yet the journey seemed to me fearfully short.

It was yet dark when we entered that dismal prison. My assistants followed me at a short distance. I thought I saw an expression of disdain on the faces of the turnkeys and prison officials. I was in no humour to brook the contempt of men whose position, after all, did not much differ from mine. I assumed a sharp and imperative tone calculated to make them understand that I was not to be imposed upon, and ordered the head gaoler to hand us over the culprit. He led us into a low-ceilinged hall, where Foulard shortly after appeared, accompanied by the worthy Abbe Montes, a priest whose friendship I afterwards acquired. Foulard’s consternation struck me. The unfortunate boy was under age;** had his father left him the smallest sum of money he could not have touched it; nevertheless he was considered responsible. This appeared to me iniquitous, the more so as I was only a year older than he. Foulard was a tall and handsome fellow, and his face betrayed no signs of the perversity he had shown in the perpetration of his horrible deed.

Fauconnier, my chief assistant, saw I was flurried; he came forward and told Foulard to sit down. When the young man’s hair was cut, we got into the cart: the Abbe Montes and Foulard were behind us, and I stood in front with my two assistants.† The almoner of the Conciergerie doubtless perceived that I required encouragement and support as well as the man whose life I was going to take, for he spoke to me with much kindness: “I see, sir, that you are now attending to your father’s duties. Such missions as yours demand no small amount of courage. We are invested with duties which in some degree are akin: you represent the justice of men, I represent the mercy of God. You may be assured of my good disposition towards you, and of my readiness to assist you whenever it is in my power.”

I could not find a single word to answer, although I felt intensely grateful to the Abbe Montes for his kindness. Foulard was taciturn, but when we reached the quay he became very excited, and cried out in a loud voice:

Fathers and mothers! behold the consequences of neglect of one’s children! I am guilty, but my parents are responsible for my crime, for they gave me neither advice nor education.

We reached the Place de Greve. The guillotine raised her two red arms, and the pale rays of a winter sun were reflected by the polished steel of the knife. A great many people were looking on. Foulard embraced the priest, and looked round before ascending the steps. In the first rank of the soldiers who surrounded the guillotine he saw a sergeant of his company. “Come to me, my old comrade,” he cried to him, “and let me bid you farewell.” The old soldier did not hesitate; he came forward and embraced the dying man. Foulard was very excited. He suddenly turned to me: “Let me embrace you too,” he said, “if only to show that I forgive everybody.” This, I confess, gave me a fearful blow. I stepped back. I really think that if the unfortunate man had embraced me I could not have given the signal for his death.

But even in this I am mistaken; this signal I did not give. My assistants saw my movement of retreat and understood the peril. They pushed Foulard up the steps. In less time than I take to write it he was strapped down and his head fell. I looked stupidly at the bloody scene. I saw one of the assistants pushing the headless trunk into a basket, while another was sponging the blood which had spurted on the scaffold.

I was seized with irresistible terror, and I ran away as fast as my legs could carry me. I wandered about town hardly knowing what I was about. I thought people were following and hooting me. It was only when I found myself at Neuilly that I recovered, and even then my conscience smote me bitterly. At last I made up my mind. I had crossed the line, there was no help for it; I had, as it were, passed my examination of executioner, and I could not return on my steps. I went home subdued, if not comforted, and I found some relief in the thought that the first step was made, and the first bitterness had passed.


Shinichi Sakamoto: The Sansons in tragic manga.

* Narrated by the author in the preceding chapter, in which he solicits an interview with his father for the twofold purpose of announcing that “I have thought the matter over for the last two years, and I have now to express my resolve to select no other profession than yours” and also soliciting the old fella’s permission to marry his sweetheart. (Dad approved both of these questionable decisions.)

** The age of majority was 21; it had been lowered during the Revolution from its ancien regime threshold of 25 — a blow against the prolonged authority of a family’s patriarch. (See Suzann Desan, The Family on Trial in Revolutionary France.) This is distinct from marriageable age, which had been increased by revolutionaries from 12 or 14 (for girls or boys, respectively) to 15 or 18. In today’s France all these ages — full legal adulthood, and marriageability — have converged at 18, regardless of gender.

† Sanson himself has a footnote here, noting a deviation from the traditional arrangement of passengers on the fatal cart with a defensiveness that suggests he got some stick about it: “Until then my father and grandfather had occupied a back seat beside the priest, and assigned a front place to the culprit. I was the first to alter this custom. My object was to leave the culprit with his last friend, the priest. I hope this does not appear childish. I acted with the best intention, and I believe I acted rightly.”

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1836: Pierre François Lacenaire, Manfred of the gutter

Add comment January 9th, 2020 Headsman

The French murderer Pierre François Lacenaire, guillotined on this date in 1836, aspired to be a man of letters … and at least ended up a man in letters.

Lacenaire (English Wikipedia entry | the more considerable French) was a respectable merchants’ son turned ne’er-do-well, dipping in and out of prison after deserting the army in 1829 to wallow in the vices of crime and poetry.

The ensuing years alternate prison stints for various thefts with scrabbling attempts to make a go of it with his quill on the outside that invariably collapse into more thefts. As criminal biographies go, his silverware-robberies and such scarcely leap off the page but his writings in prison flashed even before his homicidal infamy — notably his Villonesque “Petition d’un Voleur a un Roi Voisin” (“Petition of a Thief to his Neighbor, the King”)

Sire, de grâce, écoutez-moi!
Sire, je reviens des galères …
Je suis voleur, vous êtes roi,
Agissons ensemble en bons frères …
Les gens de bien me font horreur,
J’ai le coeur dur et l’âme vile,
Je suis sans pitié, sans honneur,
Ah! faites-moi sergent de ville.

Bon, je me vois déjà sergent,
Mais, sire, c’est bien peu, je pense,
L’appétit me vient en mangeant,
Allons, sire, un peu d’indulgence.
Je suis hargneux comme un roquet,
D’un vieux singe j’ai la malice;
En France, je vaudrais Gisquet,
Faites-moi préfet de police.

Grands dieux! que je suis bon préfet!
Toute prison est trop petite.
Ce métier pourtant n’est pas fait
Pour un homme de mon mérite;
Je sais dévirer un budget,
Je sais embrouiller un registre,
Je signerai “Votre sujet”
Ah! Sire, faites-moi ministre.

Sire! que Votre Majesté
No se mette pas en colére!
Je compte sur votre bonté,
Car ma demande est téméraire.
Je suis hypocrite et vilain,
Ma douceur n’est qu’une grimace;
J’ai fait… se pendre mon cousin,
Sire, cédez-moi votre place.n

Sire, please, listen to me!
Sire, I return from the galleys
I am a thief, you are king,
Let’s act together like brothers …
Good people abhor me,
I have a hard heart and a vile soul,
I am without pity, without honor,
Ah! make me a city sergeant.

Well, I already see myself as a sergeant,
But, sire, it’s very little, I think,
Appetite comes to me while eating,
Come, sire, a little indulgence.
I’m snarling like a pug,
As malicious as a monkey;
In France, I would be worth Gisquet,
Make me the prefect of police.

Great gods! such a good prefect am I!
Any prison is too small.
However, this job is not done
For a man of my merit;
I know how to divert a budget,
I know how to confuse a register,
I will sign myself “Your subject”
Ah! Sire, make me minister.

Sire! that your majesty
Does not anger!
I count on your kindness,
Because my request is reckless.
I’m hypocritical and naughty,
My sweetness is only a grimace;
I made … hang my cousin,
Sire, cede me your place.

His cells, he said, were his “university of crime” although they scarcely turned him into a mastermind. He earned the valedictory hood in December 1834 when with an accomplice named Victor Avril he ax-butchered a transvestite pauper and his mother in Passage du Cheval-Rouge. Lacenaire and Avril had the mistaken belief that the victims were flush with cash.

What he lacked in criminal chops he atoned for in theatrical flair. At the men’s trial in November 1835, Lacenaire made the courtroom the anteroom of a society salon where he delighted fashionable intellectuals, taking “command of the proceedings by confessing all of his crimes in detail and stunned the courtroom with an improvised closing soliloquoy. Rumors circulated that he was to be pardoned after conviction and be made chief of a special branch of police. This sounded much like the familiar case of the bandit, Vidocq. In fact, Lacenaire claimed to have been inspired by Vidocq’s memoirs.”

“I kill a man like I drink a glass of wine,” he exaggeratedly memed to the journalist Jacques Arago — one of numerous philosophical bon mots. (“Whilst I had the capacity to write a play, I had also the capacity to kill. I chose the easiest.” “I love life and its pleasures, but if it ends, what does it matter? The punishment of death? A contradiction in terms: it is no punishment to send a being back again to insensibility and nothingness.”)

He occupied his last weeks producing poems and memoirs that were published after his death but the true success of his performance lay in its echoes through 19th century literature: Baudelaire would call him “one of the heroes of modern life,” and no wonder — in the judgment of Executed Today guest-blogger Henry Brodribb Irving, “no French criminal, except perhaps Cartouche, has left so distinct an impression on the minds of his countrymen.”

Gautier wrote a poem about his hand, which although uncomplimentary also salutes its owner the “Manfred of the gutter”; Balzac made room for this Manfred in La Muse du Departement; Stendahl modeled the brigand Valbayre in Lamiel upon him. Victor Hugo, apparently unimpressed with the guy’s literary pretensions, worked him into Les Miserables as the crowning monster of society’s underbelly, “what is called in theaters a third sub-stage. It is the grave of the depths. It is the cave of the blind.”

The savage outlines which prowl over this grave, half brute, half phantom, have no thought for universal progress, they ignore ideas and words, they have no care but for individual glut. They are almost unconscious, and there is in them a horrible defacement. They have two mothers, both step-mothers, ignorance and misery. They have one guide, want; and their only form of satisfaction is appetite. They are voracious as beasts, that is to say ferocious, not like the tyrant, but like the tiger. From suffering these goblins pass to crime; fated filiation, giddy procreation the logic of darkness. What crawls in the third sub-stage is no longer the stifled demand for the absolute, it is the protest of matter. Man there becomes a dragon. Hunger and thirst are the point of departure: Satan is the point of arrival. From this cave comes Lacenaire.

Nor in the 19th century could a touchstone of French literature remain confined within the Republic’s borders. Oscar Wilde referenced Lacenaire in The Picture of Dorian Gray; and Dostoyevsky mentioned Lacenaire in The Idiot and perhaps modeled the famous axe murder in Crime and Punishment upon the same.

Although his fame has faded somewhat this curious figure remains of interest to more contemporary eyes. Michel Foucault juxtaposed him against the Vidocq — an underworld creature who becomes an agent of law, the opposite of Lacenaire’s path from respectability to gutter — and perhaps captured the man’s appeal to his era’s novelists.

As for Lacenaire, he is the token of another phenomenon, different from but related to the first — that of the aesthetic and literary interest beginning to be felt in crime: the aesthetic cult of crime.

Up to the eighteenth century crimes were only heroised in two modes: a literary mode when, and because, they were the crimes of a king, and a popular mode found in the broadsheets which narrate the exploits of Mandrin, or of a great murderer. Two genres which absolutely do not communicate with each other.

Around 1840 there appears the figure of the criminal hero, a hero because a criminal, and neither aristocratic nor plebeian. The bourgeoisie produces its own criminal heroes. This is the same moment when the separation is effected between criminals and the popular classes: the criminal cannot be allowed to be a popular hero, he must be an enemy of the poor. The bourgeoisie constitutes for itself an aesthetic in which crime no longer belongs to the people, but is one of those fine arts of which the bourgeoisie alone is capable.

Lacenaire is the model for this new kind of criminal. His origins are bourgeois or petit-bourgeois.

His parents have done some bad things, but he has been properly brought up, he has been to school, he can read and write. This enabled him to act the leader in his milieu. The way he speaks of other criminals is typical: they are brutal animals, cowards and incompetents. He, Lacenaire, is the cold, lucid brain. Thus the new hero is created, displaying all the signs and tokens of the bourgeoisie. That brings us in turn to Gaboriau and the detective novel, in which the criminal is always of bourgeois origins. You never find a working class criminal in nineteenth-century detective novels.

Cinemaphiles should look to Lacenaire in the 1945 classic film Les Enfants du Paradis (clip below) as well as a 1990 biopic, Lacenaire.

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1943: Désiré Pioge, abortionist

Add comment October 22nd, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1943, French abortionist Désiré Pioge was guillotined in Paris by the family-values Vichy regime.

Very much overshadowed by the like fate shared by Marie-Louise Giraud a few weeks before, Pioge doesn’t even boast his own French Wikipedia entry — just a passing mention on Giraud’s. (Many other Giraud posts aver that she was the last or only abortionist executed by Vichy France, glossing over Pioge entirely.)

According to the scanty available notes collected by this site, this 46-year-old horse-gelder from Saint-Ouen-en-Belin already had two prewar convictions for abortion, in 1935 and 1939. He’d served 18 months for manslaughter in the latter case, when his services caused the death of the mother.

Abortion had been criminalized in some form in France since the Napoleonic era (after being legalized during the French Revolution), but the wartime Vichy government escalated it to a capital crime. As best I can determine, Giraud and Pioge appear to be the only people who actually suffered the full extent of the law.

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1662: Claude Le Petit, dirty poet

Add comment September 1st, 2019 Headsman

Poet Claude Le Petit was burned in Paris on this date in 1662 for “verse and prose full of impieties and blasphemies, against the honor of God, the Virgin and the State”.

Although in his youth he had fled abroad to escape the custody of the Jesuits, Le Petit was back in Paris studying law when he took up the pen to lampoon the scandals of the great and the good. He’s most famous for Le Bordel des Muses, a collection of 73 little sonnets, songs, and other tidbits plus five great lampoons about several of the European capitals his expatriate feet had trod: Paris Ridicule, Madrid Ridicule, London RidiculeVienna Ridicule, and Venice Ridicule. Alas, of this magnum opus only the first two of these Ridicules, plus eight of the little poems, survive to us.

He’s known for scabrous verse but Le Petit had a subversive outlook that made him far more dangerous in the eyes of France’s gathering absolutism than some mere pornographer, as in two surviving pieces that he wrote against the 1661 execution of Jacques Chausson, for sodomy.*

If we burned all those
Who do like them
In a very short time alas
Several lords of France
Great prelates of importance
Would suffer death.
Do you know the storm that rises
Against all good people?
If Chausson loses his case,
The arse (“le cu“) will not serve any more.
If Chausson loses his case,
The cunt (“le con”) will prevail.
I am this poor boy
Named Chausson
If I was roasted
At the flower of my age
It’s for the sake of a page
Of the Prince of Conde. [a bisexual lord -ed.]
If the bastard D’Assouci. [a raunchy poet who was possibly the lover of Cyrano de Bergerac -ed.]
Had been taken
He would have been roasted
In the flames
Like these infamous two
Chausson and Fabri.

After Chausson was indeed executed, Le Petit wrote:

Friends, we burned the unfortunate Chausson,
That rascal so famous, with a curly head;
His death immortalized his virtue:
Never will we expire in a more noble way.
He sang cheerfully the lugubrious song
And bore without blanching the starched shirt,
And the hot fagots at the fiery stake,
He looked at death without fear or shudder.
In vain his confessor exhorted him in the flame,
The crucifix in hand, to think of his soul;
Then lying under the stake, when the fire had conquered him,
The infamous one towards the sky turned his foul rump,
And, to die finally as he had lived,
He showed his naughty ass to everyone.

Writing behind the mask of anonymity Le Petit was obscene, yes, but more important was that he deployed obscenity to mock the powerful extending even to the sovereign and the organs of society that upheld his authority. In his tour of Paris Ridicule — lingering stanza by stanza over various landmarks and institutions — we’re drawn to his commentary on the site of his own future passion, the Place de Greve where public executions were staged:

Unhappy plot of land
At the dedicated public gibbet,
Where we massacred
A hundred times more men than at war.

It’s said that Le Petit was exposed when a gust of wind incidentally whipped a leaf from his latest profane commentary out an open window and into the hands of a passing normie who reported the smut and thereby cascaded an avalanche upon the young writer. (Le Petit was only 23 at his death.)

“I believe this punishment will contain the unbridled license of impious and the rashness of printers,” one official noted** — underscoring the overt intention of the execution to intimidate other practitioners on the growing print culture scene. Le Petit’s fame and that of his outlaw pasquinades only grew as a result of his punishment — but this outcome was by no means detrimental to the intended policy, since each impression also came with the murmured recollection of its creator’s fate.


Claude Le Petit verse on the ceiling of a porch at rue de Nevers near Pont Neuf. (cc) image by vpagnouf.

* The original French verse is from Chausson’s French Wikipedia page.

** Cited in this Francophone academic paper on the affair.

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1391: Amerigot Marcel, cast down

Add comment July 12th, 2019 Jean Froissart

(Thanks to medieval scribbler Jean Froissart for the guest post, an episode narrated in his famous chronicle. -ed.)

During the time of the assembling of this body of men-at-arms in France, for an expedition to extend the Christian faith, and gain renown, there were other men-at-arms wholly given up to plunder in Limousin, Auvergne, and Rouergue, who, in spite of the truce [pausing the Hundred Years’ War], were continually doing mischief to the countries which thought themselves in security.

The King of France had caused the truce to be publicly notified to the captains of the freebooters, particularly to Perrot le Béarnois, governor of Chaluçet, Amerigot Marcel, and others, who were publicly named in the act, and were assured that if the truce were in the smallest degree infringed, those guilty of it should be corporally punished, without hope of mercy. Some of the captains, fearful of a disgraceful death, or of incurring the king’s indignation, kept the peace very well; others did not, for which they paid severely, as you will hear in the continuation of this history. You have before heard it related in these chronicles, indited and arranged by me, Sir John Froissart, treasurer and canon of Chimay, how peace had been agreed upon with many of the captains of castles in Auvergne and other places, by the mediation of John, Count d’Armagnac, and the Dauphin of Auvergne, to whom they had surrendered their castles for different sums of money; and that they had undertaken to accompany the count to Lombardy, or whithersoever he might lead them.

Count d’Armagnac and the dauphin had laboured hard to gain over these captains, and the country had submitted to be heavily taxed in order to get rid of them: however, Amerigot Marcel and his garrison still continued to do much mischief, and could not be induced to join the count.

Fond of plundering, he resolved to continue it, and having a desire to gain possession of a strong fort called La Roche de Vendais, he and his companions set out thither, and when they had gained the place fortified it, and made it as strong as they could. This done, they began to overrun the neighbouring country — to make prisoners and ransom them. They laid in stores of flesh, meal, wax, wine, salt, iron, steel, and other necessaries; for nothing came amiss to them that was not too hot or too heavy. The inhabitants of the country were much astonished at this, for they thought themselves in perfect security on account of the truce; but these robbers seized whatever they pleased in their houses, or in the fields, calling themselves the Adventurers. Amerigot and his men became the terror of the whole neighbourhood. The countries of Auvergne and Limousin were in a continual state of alarm because of him, and the knights and squires, with the townsmen of Clermont Montferrant, and Riom, and the towns on the Allier, resolved to send notice of their situation to the King of France.

When it was known to those companies who had been disbanded, and were now out of pay, that Amerigot Marcel was continuing the war, many of them came to offer him their services, and he had very soon more than he wished; none of them asked for pay, but solely to be retained by him, for they well knew that those under him would gain a sufficiency from the overplus of the plunder which he gave up to his men. Sometimes he made excursions in the upper parts of the district, and sometimes in an opposite direction; nothing was talked of in Auvergne and Limousin but the robbers of La Roche de Vendais, and greatly was the country frightened by them.

The garrison of Chaluçet, under command of Perrot le Béarnois, steadily adhered to the truce, and were much angered when they learnt that Amerigot was thus harassing the country. The King of France and his council, on hearing the harm that Amerigot and his companions were doing, immediately turned their attention to the matter, and sent the Viscount de Meaux with a large body of men to oppose them. Amerigot was preparing to ravage the country between Clermont and Montferrant, when it was told him that the viscount was advancing, and this intelligence made him defer his intended excursion, for he foresaw that his fortress would be attacked.

Tolerably near to La Roche de Vendais was another fort, called St. Soupery, under the government of Amerigot, where his wife resided, and whither he had sent the greater part of his wealth; he gave orders for the servants and horses to be received into the fort until better times. La Roche de Vendais was naturally strong, and the present garrison had fortified it by every means in their power; it was separated from the high mountains that surround it, and seated on an insulated rock, one side of which the garrison had so strongly fortified that it could only be approached in front, and attacked by skirmishes. The force under command of the Viscount de Meaux advanced and laid siege to the place; it was about the middle of August, the weather was warm and pleasant, and all the knights were comfortably lodged under huts made of green boughs.

The siege of La Roche de Vendais lasted nine weeks, and during it there were constant skirmishes between the two parties, in which many were wounded. The garrison had much the advantage of the besiegers, and I will tell you how; they could sally out whenever they pleased, for it would have required at least 6,coo men to have completely surrounded this castle. When the siege first took place Amerigot felt that he was acting wrong; but to turn the matter as much to his advantage as he could, and if possible to preserve La Roche de Vendais, he determined to send one of his men to England with credential letters to the king and the Duke of Lancaster. Accordingly, with the advice of his uncle, Guyot du Sel, who was with him in the fort, he instructed a well-educated varlet, and sent him off with three letters, one to the king, another to the Duke of Lancaster, and the third to the king’s council. The man performed his journey satisfactorily, and was fortunate enough to find the king, his two uncles of Lancaster and York, with the council, at the palace of Westminster, considering the affairs of Northumberland, and what force they should send thither, for the Scots no way observed the truce.

The messenger of Amerigot soon obtained a hearing, and having been well tutored, and not afraid of speaking, after delivering the letters, he explained so eloquently the reason of his coming, and the wishes of his master, that he was attentively listened to, and was at length told that the king would write to the Viscount de Meaux, and the Duke of Berry, in the manner Amerigot had desired. The Duke of Lancaster promised to do the same, and that the letter should be delivered by an English squire attached to him; that Derby the herald should cross the sea, and accompany them when they gave their letters, in order to aid their success, for he was well known to many lords in Auvergne, particularly to the Duke of Berry. Amerigot was delighted on his messenger’s return, and told him that he had done justice to his commission, for which he would reward him handsomely. The English Squire and Derby set out at once for La Roche de Vendais, and, when arrived at the place where the besiegers lay, inquired for the quarters of the Viscount de Meaux, to whom they presented their letters. The viscount, after examining the seals, read the contents of the letters several times over, and then said to the squire and the herald, “My fair sirs, the intelligence you have brought demands full consideration; I will advise upon it, and you shall soon have my answer.”

The Squire and herald then withdrew, and a council was moved, before which the viscount laid the letters he had received; the knights were much surprised how intelligence of the siege could have been carried to England for such letters to come from them, as the siege had not lasted one month. “I will tell you what I imagine,” said the viscount: “this Amerigot is a cunning fellow, and the moment he perceived we intended to besiege him, he sent a person to England to request such letters might be written as these now before you, which I shall obey or not as I please.” Upon this the messengers were introduced again, and the viscount told them to take back word that he was a subject of the King of France, and had been ordered thither by him: “In consequence, my fair sirs,” he continued, “I shall strictly obey the commands I have received, and loyally acquit myself of my duty; of course, then, I shall not move hence until I have possession of the fort and garrison, which now holds out against me and my companions.”

The squire and herald then took their leave, by no means contented with the message they had received. “We have had ill-success,” said the squire, “we must wait on the Duke of Berry.” “Yes, he is lord of the whole country,” said Derby, “and if he will order the viscount to decamp he must do so, for he dare not disobey him.” They went accordingly to the duke, who when he received the letters read them twice over, and then gave such courteous answers that both were satisfied; for he said, from his affection to his cousins, he would do all in his power to comply with their request; he therefore exerted himself to have the siege of La Roche de Vendais raised, and wrote to the viscount to this effect, engaging that if Amerigot Marcel were left in quiet possession of his fort, he should not hereafter molest the country, and that he should make reparation to the King of France for having offended him.

The viscount, on receiving this intimation, said to his companions, “Gentlemen, we shill never have peace, since the Duke of Berry supports Amerigot; the duke commands me to raise the siege the instant I have read his letter; but, by my faith, I will do no such thing.”

I must now relate what happened to Amerigot, and to his fort. Amerigot had a quick imagination, and concluding from the continuance of the siege that the letters from the King of England and the Duke of Lancaster had failed, he thought of another expedient, which was to leave his castle, and ride night and day to the garrisons in Perigord, and other places, to seek succour from other pillagers, and entice them by fair speeches to enter Auvergne for the sake of plunder, and then to advance some morning or evening to La Roche de Vendais, and capture the knights and Squires before it, which would bring them more than 1oo,ooo francs for their ransoms, without counting smaller articles of pillage. He explained his whole plan to his uncle, Guyot du Sel, and asked his opinion. Guyot replied that he very much approved of it. “Well, uncle,” said Amerigot, “since you approve I will undertake it, only I must beg that during my absence you never sally out of the castle, nor open the barriers.” “It shall be so,” answered Guyot: “we will remain shut up here until we hear from you.”

Within three days after Amerigot left the castle attended only by a page, and without the besiegers being aware of his absence. The castle continued to be assaulted as usual, and on one occasion Guyot du Sel, forgetful of his promise to Amerigot, was induced to sally forth, when he was surprised by an ambuscade, and obliged to surrender the place. News of the loss of La Roche de Vendais was carried to Amerigot Marcel as he was raising troops to break up the siege, and on learning that it was occasioned by an imprudent sally of Guyot du Sel, he exclaimed, “Ah, the old traitor by St. Marcel, if I had him here I would slay him; he has disgraced me and all my companions; this misfortune can never be recovered.”

Amerigot Marcel was indeed sadly cast down; he knew not from whom to ask advice, nor whether to return to Auvergne or to go to Bordeaux, send for his wife, and have his fortune brought thither by little at a time. If he had followed this plan, he would have done well; but he acted otherwise, and, as the event will show, suffered for it. It is thus Fortune treats her favourites; when she has raised them to the highest pitch of her wheel, she suddenly plunges them in the dirt — witness Amerigot Marcel.

The foolish fellow was worth, as was believed in Auvergne, more than 100,000 francs in money, which he lost in one day, together with his life. I therefore say that Dame Fortune played him one of her tricks, which she has played to several before, and she will do the same to many after him. In his tribulation, Amerigot bethought himself of a cousin he had in Auvergne, a squire, by name Tournemine, to whom he resolved to apply and ask for advice. This he did, and attended only by one page entered the castle of his cousin, with whom he thought to meet with a good reception, but he was disappointed; for his cousin immediately arrested him, and shortly after he was conveyed to Paris, where his head was cut off, and his four quarters affixed over four different gates. Such was the sad end of Amerigot Marcel; I know not what became of his wife, or of his wealth. I have dwelt very long on his actions, that I might illustrate his life and death; for, in such a history as this, both good and bad actions must be spoken of, that they may serve as an excitement or warning in times to come. Had Amerigot turned his mind to virtue he would have done much good, for he was an able man-at-arms, and of great courage; but having acted in a different manner, he came to a disgraceful death.


Detail view (click for the full image) of an illustration of Amerigot Marcel’s execution from a gorgeously illustrated 1470s edition of Froissart’s chronicle.

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1729: Philippe Nivet, “Fanfaron”

Add comment May 31st, 2019 Headsman

On the last day of May in 1729, the French outlaw Philippe Nivet was put to death in Paris.

Although some at the time considered that the legendary bandit Cartouche (executed in 1721) was “nothing as compared to Nivet,” it is Cartouche only whom time has remembered.

Nivet — “Fanfaron” by his pseudonym — was nothing to his predecessor when it came to the romance of the road, a consideration understandably overlooked by contemporaries who had their own pocketbooks to consider. To such men, Nivet loomed very large indeed.

Commanding a sophisticated Paris-based network of highwaymen, fences, and safe houses, Nivet was slated with 38 armed robberies from 1723 to 1728, six of them resulting in fatalities — including his last.

Nivet’s final highway robbery victimized Louis David and his wife, dry-goods merchants of Amiens. In August 1728 the couple were returning home, mounted on fine horses, from the Guibray fair where they had done a large volume of business. Nivet and two accomplices joined the Davids and, posing as merchants themselves, accompanied them to a forest near Rouen. Once in the forest, these bandits slit the Davids’ throats, stole their considerable money and jewelry, and rode immediately to the home of a receiver where they broke down the couple’s jewelry to render it unrecognizable. Then, to frustrate pursuers, Nivet and his men secured new mounts from an accomplice who ran a livery stable and rode to Vernon, where they again changed transport by boarding the postal coach for Paris. (Source)

Despite his precautions, Nivet was captured by chance in Paris: bad luck for him on this specific occasion but a mischance asymptotically approaching certainty over the extent of his prolific career. Fanfaron had several months in prison informing on his band — the arrests ran to 68 — before being broken on the wheel. As with Cartouche eight years before, every window opening on the Place de Greve, and every stone of the square itself, was crowded with gawkers.

There’s a short French-language biography from that period that can be purchased online. (There’s a wee summary here.)

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1345: Arnaud Foucaud, jobbing trooper

Add comment May 28th, 2019 Headsman

The unmourned fate of Arnaud Foucaud, a peasant swept into the maelstrom of the Hundred Years’ War as a sword-arm for hire in English service, was excavated as an incidental microhistory in Jonathan Sumption’s The Hundred Years War: Trial by Battle.

[F]ighting fell to volunteers drawn from a growing military underworld of disparaged gentry, refugees, drifters, malcontents and petty criminals. The court records and letters of pardon of the period are filled with the stories of their lives. The tale of Arnaud Foucaud could stand for many of them.

He came from the small village of Clion in Saintonge. His family seem to have been rich peasants. He had learned how to fight on horseback and could handle a lance. When Foucaud was about fourteen or fifteen years old he got involved in a village feud and killed one of his antagonists in a fight. This was in 1337, the first year of the war, as the French were overrunning English-occupied Saintonge.

When the Seneschal‘s officers came to arrest him he fled to the nearest ‘English’ garrison, which was at Montendre, an enclave of the duchy about 15 miles from his home. The commander there, a louche petty nobleman from Bearn, hired him as a soldier.

His life at Montendre consisted in keeping watch and periodically pillaging and burning villages. When the castle was captured by the French in July 1338, Foucaud received a safe conduct as part of the terms of capitulation and returned home.

In 1340, after two relatively uneventful years, he went to Jonzac, the nearest market town, and met two relatives of the man whom he had killed. There was a fight. Foucaud himself was badly wounded, but both his antagonists were killed.

Five weeks after this incident, as he was still nursing his wounds, he was arrested. But he never stood trial. The Seneschal only wanted to be rid of him. So he allowed him to go free on condition that he leave the province for good.

Foucaud went to Bordeaux. Here, he took service in the household of Jean Colom, a rich urban knight who employed him as a cavalryman and took him on several expeditions with the army of Oliver Ingham.

In June 1341 another soldier in Colom’s pay persuaded him to join a small armed band which was being formed for some private purpose of the La Motte family. This turned out to be the daring capture of Bourg, by far the most brazen of the [English-allied -ed.] Bordeaux government’s breaches of the truce of Esplechin.

Foucaud fought gallantly in this enterprise and served in the garrison of the town after it had fallen. But his reward was meagre. His wages were unpaid and his share of the spoils amounted to no more than ten livres’ worth of equipment. Moreover, he quarrelled with the garrison commander, who suspected him of being a French sympathizer, and tried to extract a confession by torturing him.

By 1342 he was back in Bordeaux hiring out his services as a jobbing trooper. He joined a band of 100 men recruited by the lord of Pommiers* to carry out long-range raids in Saintonge, but the pillage of this enterprise was worth only fifty livres to be divided between all of them. He fought with Ingham’s army in the campaign of Saintonge and Angoumois in the autumn of 1342, taking part in the capture of Blanzac, and gaining ten livres in cash as his share of the spoil.

At some stage during 1343 he seems to have obtained a pardon from the French royal lieutenant in the south, the Bishop of Beauvais. [the younger brother of Enguerrand de Marigny -ed.] But by the autumn of 1344 he was back in Bordeaux. According to evidence which he gave under torture (and which he tried to retract) he was next hired in Bordeaux by a Bearnais nobleman to take part with twenty-five others in a raid on a small priory not far from the city. He and six men stood guard outside, while the rest went in, tied up the Prior and his servants and stripped the place of gold and silver, horses and everything of value. But the captain of the troop took most of the spoil for himself. Foucaud’s share was only twenty florins.

This incident was his undoing, for it was not covered by his pardon. It is not clear how he fell into French hands. He probably tried to go home. In May 1345 he was taken to Paris and held in the prison of the Chatelet to answer charges of treason, robbery and murder. He was convicted on the 27th and beheaded in Les Halles on the following day.

Foucaud was twenty-three years old when he died. Booty was an incidental bonus for men like him, but it was not booty that drew them to warfare and most of them got very little of it. They were drop-outs, desperados.

* This lord of Pommiers was Guillaume-Sanche III. Guillaume-Sanche IV was destined to end in a very beautiful Froissart chronicle illustration of his 1377 beheading.

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1855: Giovanni Pianori

Add comment May 14th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1855, Giovanni Pianori submitted to the guillotine for an unsuccessful assassination attempt — pictured above — on the French Emperor Napoleon III.

Himself an Italian nationalist in his youth, Napoleon as prince had gutted his former cause by intervening to crush the revolutionary Roman Republic and restore the exiled pope to power. No small number of fellow-travelers in the patriotic cause thought Napoleon’s betrayal deserved a bullet.

Pianori’s were launched, without effect, on the Champs-Elysees on April 28, 1855, just sixteen days before his execution.

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