1639: The Duke of Valette, in effigy

Add comment June 8th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1639, the Duke of Valette was beheaded in Paris as a traitor. Having anticipated this cruel stroke, however, he was happily away in England at the time.

Valette (later the Duke of Epernon, like his dad) outlived his execution by 22 years.

Valette‘s father, the Duke of Epernon, was a rival of the realm’s mighty consigliere, Cardinal Richelieu, which was a dangerous thing to be. The rivalry had already impacted the duke’s second son: Valette was married to Richelieu’s niece in 1634, in a vain bid for detente. (Valette preferred his mistress.)

Valette’s military reversal at the French Siege of Fuenterrabia in 1638 set him up for the revenge of his scheming in-law. Blamed for refusing to lead an ill-conceived charge, he got the Iraq War critic treatment when that charge turned into a debacle as he had warned.

But rather than face Richelieu’s summons to answer a charge he obviously had no odds of defeating, Valette crossed the channel and chilled in the exile court of another defeated Richelieu foe, Marie de’ Medici.

The Cardinal de Richelieu not contented with his having left the Kingdom, caus’d a Process to be commenc’d against him,” outrageously fixing the verdict.

Just as Valette lost his head only ceremonially, he lost his homeland only temporarily. When Louis XIII died in 1643, Valette — by this time become the Duke of Epernon — was able to return and re-enter the ranks of respectable nobility, unimperiled by the headsman’s blade for the remainder of his days. He died in 1661.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Executed in Effigy,Execution,France,History,Nobility,Not Executed,Power,Public Executions,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1942: Georges Politzer and Jacques Solomon, academics in resistance

Add comment May 23rd, 2018 Headsman

Left-wing intellectuals Georges Politzer and Jacques Solomon were shot at Fort Mont-Valerien on this date in 1942 for their exertions in the French Resistance.

Both numbered among interwar France’s great radical intellectuals: Politzer, a Hungarian Jew nicknamed the “red-headed philosopher” and and Solomon, a Parisian physicist, both numbered among interwar France’s great radical scholars.

The red-headed philosopher hung with the likes of Sartre, taught Marxism at the Workers University of Paris, and critiqued psychology. (A few of his works can be perused here.) Solomon, son-in-law of physicist Paul Langevin, made early contributions to the emerging field of quantum mechanics.

Politically both were Communists and supporters of the anti-fascist Popular Front; with the onset of German occupation, they carried their activism into the French Resistance.

They were arrested (separately) in March 1942 and executed (together) with other Resistance hostages on the outskirts of Paris.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Germany,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot,Terrorists,Wartime Executions

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1775: A robber under the apartments of Joseph Jekyll

Add comment April 11th, 2018 Headsman

We owe this date’s entry to Joseph Jekyll, a young gentleman (kin to the late judge of the same name whom Alexander Pope had once teased as an “odd old Whig/Who never changed his principle or wig”) who had just taken up residence in Paris in his 22nd year. Just a year later, he would be back in Albion’s soul, bound for his life’s calling as barrister, M.P., and celebrated wit.

Jekyll’s correspondence with his father shows him consumed with a worldly young man’s affairs, alternately French society (in whose salons he left a happy impression) and Europe’s churn of news and rumors. But we catch a glimpse in one of his first letters of a scene to which, perhaps, young Jekyll soon became as inured as most Frenchmen: an exceptionally brutal execution right outside the window of his quarters.

What follows is from Jekyll’s letter dated Ash Wednesday, April 12, 1775.


The police of this country is much commended, and deservedly; yet in Paris I was assured murders were so frequent that it is customary to see five or six bodies to be owned in the morning at a place called the Morgue, and there are nets on the Pont-neuf let down every night to receive persons thrown over by banditti. The morning we saw the Greve there was a gibbet erected. We inquired if there would be much crowd, and were told “No,” for there was generally an execution every day.

The road from Paris hither is full of crosses, with inscriptions to perpetuate the infamy of some robber or murderer. We lodge in a beautiful place or square, and saw from our balcony yesterday evening a criminal broke on the wheel. He arrived at five o’clock in the evening, in a cart guarded by the marechaussee (who constantly patrol the roads). He was attended by a cordelier, and held in his hands two laths nailed together in the form of a cross. He had received the tonsure and unction, and, while he was undressing, the crowd around the scaffold (which was far from being great) sang a voluntary requiem. The executioner, a very spruce fellow in a bag and a bien poudre, extended the criminal’s bare arms and legs on a St. Andrew’s cross, which had two deep notches under the long bones of each limb; then with an iron crow, bent like the blade of a scythe, struck him nine violent blows, the last across the reins. [kidneys] Thus with two fractures in every limb, at each of which he cried out Mon Dieu! the agonising wretch was untied and thrown on the forewheel of a waggon elevated about four feet above the scaffold. The holy father drew a chair near him, and muttered something during his last gasps. At night the body was exposed in the neighbouring forest. Horrible and frequent as these executions are (for there are twelve more now in the chatelet here under the like condemnation), their effects are as insufficient as ours in England. The crime of the unfortunate creature we saw yesterday was burglary, as we learnt from his sentence, which is posted up at every corner in the streets.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Gibbeted,Gruesome Methods,History,Known But To God,Public Executions,Theft

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1794: Madame Lavergne and Monsieur Lavergne, united in love

Add comment March 31st, 2018 Headsman

The below will be found in Elizabet Starling’s Noble Deeds of Woman, Or, Examples of Female Courage and Virtue; similar glosses on the same narrative are afoot in several other public domain volumes.

As will be affirmed by a glance at a converter for France’s revolutionary calendar, this text badly botches its translation of the date of “11 Germinal” — another reminder that nobody cares about the dates. “Germinal” means “seed” and so is of course a spring month; there are rosters of the Paris Terror victims available which confirm that March 31 is the correct execution date for both Monsieur and Madame Lavergne.

CONSTANCY OF MADAME LAVERGNE.

Mightier far
Than strength of nerve or sinew, or the sway
Of magic potent over sun and star,
Is love, though oft to agony distrest,
And though his favorite seat be feeble woman’s breast.

-WORDSWORTH.

Madame Lavergne had not long been married when her husband, who was governor of Longwy, was obliged to surrender that fort to the Prussians. The French however, succeeded in regaining possession of the place, when M. Lavergne was arrested and conducted to one of the prisons in Paris. His wife followed him to the capital: she was then scarcely twenty years of age, and one of the loveliest women of France. Her husband was more than sixty, yet his amiable qualities first won her esteem, and his tenderness succeeded to inspire her with an affection as sincere and fervent as that which he possessed for her. While the unfortunate Lavergne expected every hour to be summoned before the dreaded tribunal, he was attacked with illness in his dungeon. At any other moment this affliction would have been a subject of grief and inquietude to Madame Lavergne; under her present circumstances, it was a source of hope and consolation. She could not believe there existed a tribunal so barbarous as to bring a man before the judgment-seat who was suffering under a burning fever. A perilous disease, she imagined, was the present safeguard of her husband’s life; and she flattered herself that the fluctuation of events would change his destiny, and finish in his favor that which nature had so opportunely begun. Vain expectation! The name of Lavergne had been irrevocably inscribed on the fatal list of the 11th Germinal, of the second year of the republic, (June 25th, 1794,) [sic; see above -ed.] and he must on that day submit to his fate.

Madame Lavergne, informed of this decision, had recourse to tears and supplications. Persuaded that she could soften the hearts of the representatives of the people by a faithful picture of Lavergne’s situation, she presented herself before the Committee of General Safety: she demanded that her husband’s trial should be delayed, whom she represented as a prey to a dangerous and afflicting disease, deprived of the strength of his faculties, and of all those powers, either of body or mind, which could enable him to confront his intrepid and arbitrary accusers. ‘Imagine, oh citizens!’ said the agonized wife of Lavergne, ‘such an unfortunate being as I have described dragged before a tribunal about to decide upon his life, while reason abandons him, while he cannot understand the charges brought against him, nor has sufficient power of utterance to declare his innocence. His accusers, in full possession of their moral and physical strength, and already inflamed with hatred against him, are instigated even by his helplessness to more than ordinary exertions of malice: while the accused, subdued by bodily suffering and mental infirmity, is appalled or stupefied, and barely sustains the dregs of his miserable existence. Will you, oh citizens of France! call a man to trial while in the phrensy of delirium? Will you summon him, who perhaps at this moment expires upon the bed of pain, to hear that irrevocable sentence, which admits of no medium between liberty or the scaffold? and, if you unite humanity with justice, can you suffer in old man — ?’ At these words, every eye was turned on Madame Lavergne, whose youth and beauty, contrasted with the idea of an aged and infirm husband, gave rise to very different emotions in the breasts of the members of the committee from those with which she had so eloquently sought to inspire them. They interrupted her with coarse jests and indecent raillery. One of the members assured her, with a scornful smile, that, young and handsome as she was, it would not be so difficult as she appeared to imagine to find means of consolation for the loss of a husband, who, in the common course of nature, had lived already long enough. Another of them, equally brutal and still more ferocious, added, that the fervor with which she had pleaded the cause of such a husband was an unnatural excess, and therefore the committee could not attend to her petition.

Horror, indignation, and despair, took possession of the soul of Madame Lavergne; she had heard the purest and most exalted affection for one of the worthiest of men condemned as a degraded passion; she had been wantonly insulted, while demanding justice, by the administrators of the laws of a nation; and she rushed in silence from the presence of these inhuman men, to hide the bursting agony of her sorrows.

One faint ray of hope yet arose to cheer the gloom of Madame Lavergne’s despondency. Dumas was one of the judges of the tribunal, and him she had known previous to the Revolution. Her repugnance to seek this man, in his new career, was subdued by a knowledge of his power and her hopes of his influence. She threw heiself at his feet, bathed them with her tears, and conjured him, by all the claims of mercy and humanity, to prevail on the tribunal to delay the trial of her husband till the our of his recovery. Dumas replied, coldly, that it did not belong to him to grant the favor she solicited, nor should he choose to make such a request of the tribunal; then, in a tone somewhat animated by insolence and sarcasm, he added, ‘And is it, then, so great a misfortune, madame, to be delivered from a troublesome husband of sixty, whose death will leave you at liberty to employ your youth and charms more usefully?’

Such a reiteration of insult roused the unfortunate wife of Lavergne to desperation; she shrieked with insupportable anguish, and, rising from her humble posture, she extended her arms towards Heaven, and exclaimed, ‘Just God! will not the crimes of these atrocious men awaken Thy vengeance? Go, monster!’ she cried to Dumas; ‘I no longer want thy aid, — I no longer need to supplicate thy pity; away to the tribunal! — there will I also appear; then shall it be known whether I deserve the outrages which thou and thy base associates have heaped upon me.’ From the presence of Dumas, Madame Lavergne repaired to the hall of the tribunal, and mixing with the crowd, waited in silence for the hour of trial. The barbarous proceedings of the day commenced, and on M. Lavergne being called for, the unfortunate man was carried into the hall by the gaolers, supported on a mattress. To the few questions which were proposed to him, he replied in a feeble and dying voice, and the fatal sentence of death was pronounced upon him.

“Scarcely had the sentence passed the lips of the judge, when Madame Lavergne cried, with a loud voice, ‘Vive le roi!’ The persons nearest the place whereon she stood eagerly surrounded, and endeavored to silence her; but the more the astonishment and alarm of the multitude augmented, the more loud and vehement became her cries of ‘Vive le roi!’ The guard was called, and directed to lead her away. She was followed by a numerous crowd, mute with consternation and pity; but the passages and staircases still resounded every instant with ‘Vive le roi!’ till she was conducted into one of the rooms belonging to the court of justice, into which the public accuser came to interrogate her on the motives of her extraordinary conduct.

‘I am not actuated,’ she answered, ‘by any sudden impulse of despair or revenge for the condemnation of M. Lavergne, but from the love of royalty, which is rooted in my heart. I adore the system that you have destroyed. I do not expect any mercy from you, for I am your enemy; I abhor your republic, and will persist in the confession I have publicly made, as long as I live.’

Such a declaration was without reply, and the name of Madame Lavergne was instantly added to the list of suspected persons: a few minutes afterwards, she was brought before the tribunal, where she again uttered her own accusation, and was condemned to die. From that instant, the agitation of her spirits subsided, serenity took possession of her mind, and her beautiful countenance announced only the peace and satisfaction of her soul.

On the day of execution, Madame Lavergne first ascended the cart, and desired to be so placed that she might behold her husband. The unfortunate Lavergne had fallen into a swoon, and was in that condition extended upon straw in the cart, at the feet of his wife, without any signs of life. On the way to the place of execution, the motion of the cart had loosened the bosom of Lavergne’s shirt, and exposed his breast to the scorching rays of the sun, till his wife entreated the executioner to take a pin from her handkerchief and fasten his shirt. Shortly afterwards, Madame Lavergne, whose attention never wandered from her husband for a single instant, perceived that his senses returned, and called him by his name; at the sound of that voice, whose melody had been so long withheld from him, Lavergne raised his eyes, and fixed them on her with a look at once expressive of terror and affection. ‘Do not be alarmed,’ she said; ‘it is your faithful wife who called you; you know I could not live without you, and we are going to die together.’ Lavergne burst into tears of gratitude, which relieved the oppression of his heart, and he became once more able to express his love and admiration of his virtuous wife. The scaffold, which was intended to separate, united them forever.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Mass Executions,Public Executions,Soldiers,Women

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1720: Antoine-Joseph de Horn, humanity from an executioner

Add comment March 26th, 2018 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. “If it had for purpose to furnish food for the unhealthy curiosity of people who would seek emotions in a kind of written photograph of the scenes that take place on the scaffold, it should be received with loathsomeness,” our guest author disingenuously explains of his motivations after debts resulted in his dismissal from the family post. Rather, “I have been actuated in the course of my work by an abhorrence for the punishment denounced by so many eloquent voices, the punishment of which I have had the misfortune to be the living impersonation.” Although this document appears to draw from some manner of family records, it deserves a cautious reading as pertains the intimate conversations and beneficent motivations of his kinsmen. -ed.)

Count Antoine-Joseph De Horn was the scion of a princely race; and he was connected with the highest nobility of Europe. At the time when speculation, under Law‘s auspices, was raging in Paris, and the temptation of gain was leading astray many persons of position and family, Count de Horn was living in the capital the life of a young lord of fashion and fortune. The sensation which was produced may easily be imagined when it was heard that he had been arrested and put under lock and key under the twofold charge of having murdered, in company with a Piedmontese, called the Chevalier de Milhe, and a third unknown person, a Jew who speculated in the shares of the Royal Bank, in order to rob him of a pocket-book which contained a sum of 100,000 livres.

The murder was perpetrated in a tavern of the Rue Quincampoix, where, it was alleged, Count de Horn and his accomplices had made an appointment with the Jew, under pretence of purchasing the shares he had in his pocket, but in reality to steal them from him.

The greatest agitation prevailed at Court in consequence of this affair, owing to the illustrious rank or the accused, and of his connection with the loftiest aristocracy of the land. De Horn’s trial was pursued with unprecedented rapidity, and it seems as if the numerous steps taken to save the young man’s life only hurried his fate. When his parents heard of his incarceration, they lost no time in moving heaven and earth on his behalf. On the eve of the trial, a large number of his kinsmen assembled in the Palais de Justice, and waited for the members of the court, to bow to them as they passed, by way of commending the accused to their indulgence. This imposing manifestation, undertaken by the first seigneurs of France, produced no effect: the court of La Tournelle sentenced Count de Horn and the Chevalier de Milhe to be broken on the wheel, and left there until death should follow.

This sentence filled the young man’s friends and parents with terror and surprise. They sent to the Regent a petition in which it was represented that Count de Horn’s father was mad, that his kinsman Prince Ferdinand de Ligne was in a similar condition, that lunacy was a common ailing in his family, and that the young man must have committed the crime when of unsound mind. Among those who signed the petition were Prince Claude de Ligne, Marquis d’Harcourt, the Earl of Egmont, the Duke de la Tremouille, the Duke de la Force, the Archbishop of Cambray, Prince de Soubise, the Princess de Gonzague, and many others of the same rank. All the facts adduced in this petition were certainly authentic. The great race of the Princes de Horn and Overisque had given many examples of mental aberration. All the subscribers of the petition went in a body to the Palais Royal; but the Regent only consented to receive a deputation. He was inflexible with regard to a reprieve; and it was with much difficulty that he consented to a commutation of the sentence into decapitation. He could only be moved by being reminded that he was himself related to the culprit through his mother the Princess Palatine. How he kept his promise will be seen hereafter.

This obstinacy on the part of the Regent was much commented upon. Personal animosity was said to be the cause. M. de Horn, being young, handsome, and captivating, had been something of a lady-killer. Now, morality was not the distinguishing feature of Philip d’Orleans’ court, and it was said that several beauties in fashion had regarded the foreign young lord with more than ordinary favour. Mdme. de Parabere‘s name was particularly mentioned; and it was related that the Regent had once surprised M. de Horn in conversation with the beautiful marchioness. In his fury the prince showed him the door, saying, ‘Sortez’ —to which the Count made the proud and appropriate answer: ‘Monseigneur, nos ancetres auraient dit, sortons.’ To this adventure, whether real or invented, was attributed the Regent’s hatred for Count de Horn, whose life he had sworn to sacrifice. It is not my business to discuss this question. What was most certain was that Law, the minister of finance, and Dubois, the prime minister, showed themselves the bitterest foes of Count de Horn. The influence of the shares of the Royal Bank and of the Mississippi was diminishing; and they were in hopes that this might be mended by a display of unparalleled severity for the punishment of a murder committed with the object of taking possession of some of these shares.

Shortly afterwards, Charles Sanson received a visit from the Marquis de Creqy, the nobleman who had been the instigator and leader of all the attempts made to save the unfortunate youth. He seemed convinced that the Regent would keep his word, and showed him a letter in which the Duke de Saint-Simon expressed his conviction that Count de Horn would be decapitated. The Marquis added that his royal highness had also promised that the execution should take place in the court of the Conciergerie, to spare the culprit the shame of being led through the crowd. The only thing was to spare the unhappy young man as many sufferings as possible. M. de Creqy expressed a wish to see the sword which was to be used for his execution; he turned pale when my ancestor produced the broad double-edged blade, sharp and flashing, which could hardly be styled a weapon. On one side was engraved the word Justitia; on the other a wheel, emblem of torture. It was the sword with which the Chevalier de Rohan had been decapitated.

M. de Creqy could hardly refrain from weeping when he begged Charles Sanson to be as lenient as possible in the execution of his fearful mission, to uncover only the neck of the victim, and to wait until he received the priest’s absolution before giving him the fatal blow.

The conversation then turned to the measures to be taken for the remittance of the body, which M. de Creqy claimed in the name of the family. He requested my ancestor to procure a padded coffin wherein to place the remains of De Horn, which were then to be taken away in a carriage sent expressly for the purpose. Charles Sanson promised to see to the accomplishment of these lugubrious details.

When he left, M. de Creqy, wishing to reward my ancestor for the services he asked, presented him with 100 louis, and insisted on his accepting the gift. But Charles Sanson firmly refused. M. de Creqy appeared moved, and retired. I may be forgiven for dwelling with some complacency on this trait of disinterestedness on the part of one of those who preceded me in the office I held for many years; it may be considered as an answer to the charge of cupidity which has been launched at a profession which did not appear sufficiently soiled by blood.

Only a few hours had elapsed since the visit of the Marquis de Creqy, when Charles Sanson received the order to take, on the next morning at six o’clock, from the Conciergerie, Count Antoine de Horn; to convey him to the Place de Greve, after passing through the torture-chamber, and carry out the sentence of Parliament in its cruel tenour. My ancestor’s expectation was justified; the Regent did not keep his word; Law and Dubois had won the day against the Duke de Saint-Simon and the nobility.

To my ancestor’s extreme surprise, the sentence did not even contain the secret restriction of a retentum, which spared horrible sufferings to the accused, by ordering the executioner to strangle him before breaking his limbs. How could he now keep the promise he had made to the Marquis de Creqy? Charles Sanson passed the night in anything but pleasant reflections.

It was broad daylight when my ancestor arrived at the Conciergerie with his sinister cortege. He immediately entered the prison, and was conducted to a lower room in which were the Count de Horn and M. de Milhe, who-had just been tortured. Both were horribly mangled, for they had supported the boot to the eighth spike. The Count was extremely pale. He cast a haggard look around him, and kept speaking to his companion, who seemed much more resigned and listened with religious attention to the priest who was consoling him. As to M. de Horn, instead of being plunged in the state of prostration which usually followed the abominable sufferings he had just borne, he gesticulated with feverish animation and pronounced incoherent words which almost seemed to justify what had been alleged in his defence concerning the unsoundness of his mind. He violently repulsed the priest, who was dividing his attention between the two sufferers, and repeatedly asked for Monsignor Francois de Lorraine, Bishop of Bayeux, from whom he had received the communion the day before.

The fatal moment came. The culprits were carried to the executioner’s cart. Charles Sanson sat down next to the Count, while the priest continued speaking to the Piedmontese. Seeing the unhappy young man’s extreme agitation, my ancestor thought he might quiet him by giving him some hope, even were that hope to remain unrealised.

‘My lord,’ he said, ‘there is perhaps some hope. Your relations are powerful.’

The prisoner violently interrupted him. ‘They have abandoned me,’ he exclaimed; ‘the Bishop — where is the Bishop? He promised to return.’

‘Who knows?’ my ancestor ventured to say; ‘reprieve may yet come.’

The young man’s lips turned up contemptuously. ‘If they wanted to spare my life, they would not have crippled me in this fashion,’ he replied, bitterly, casting a look at his lacerated legs and feet.

Charles Sanson says in his notes that he really hoped and expected that some attempt would be made to save De Horn. But nothing occurred. The Pont-au-Change was passed, and in another minute the cortege reached the Place de Greve. The Count looked at Sanson reproachfully as if upbraiding him for what he had said; but he was now quite collected and the fear of death had left him.

At length the cart stopped at the foot of the scaffold. The culprits, owing to the torture they had undergone, could not move unaided. Charles Sanson therefore took Count de Horn in his arms and carried him up the steps. At the same time he whispered in his ear the advice that he should ask permission to make revelations, as a means of gaining time; but the unfortunate young man had again lost his self-possession and gave vent to incoherent exclamations. ‘I knew they would not allow the Bishop to come,’ he said; … ‘they have arrested him because he had shares also. But I shall sell my life dearly; only give me arms! … they cannot refuse to give me arms!’ … While he was thus expressing himself, Charles Sanson stepped back, motioning to his assistants to begin their work which consisted in tying him to the plank on which he was to be broken. When this was done, the priest, who had just left the Piedmontese, approached De Horn: ‘My son,’ he said, ‘renounce the sentiments of anger and revenge which trouble your last moments. Only think of God: He is the sovereign author of all justice, if you appear before Him with a contrite and humbled heart.’

The Count at length seemed moved, and he joined in the priest’s prayer. As to my ancestor, he remembered M. de Creqy’s request as to priestly absolution, and in this respect his conscience was firm; but he had also promised not to make the young man suffer. In an instant he decided on the course he should adopt. Simulating sudden illness, he passed his iron bar to Nicolas Gros, his oldest assistant, took the thin rope used for the secret executions of the retentum, passed it round the Count’s neck, and before Gros had raised the heavy bar wherewith he was about to break the culprit’s limbs, he pulled the rope, and thus spared him the most atrocious sufferings ever devised by human cruelty.

On the other hand, the Chevalier de Milhe, who was being broken, uttered wild shrieks. In vain did the priest wipe the perspiration from his brow, and pour a few drops of water into his mouth. Charles Sanson was struck with the inequality of the sufferings of the two men, and told Gros to give him the coup de grace — the blow which broke the chest.

Gros obeyed, but not without casting an uneasy look at the commissaire, who was viewing the execution from the balcony of the Hotel-de-ville. No doubt the latter cared little for executions of this kind, of which, perhaps, he had seen but too many, for he perceived nothing. At this moment the priest, surprised not to hear the cries of Count de Horn, returned to exhort him to repentance: he saw that death had forestalled him. The rope was still hanging from the young man’s neck, and my ancestor hastened to conceal it while the ecclesiastic was standing between the Hotel-de-ville and himself; then, placing a finger on his lips, he solicited the priest’s discretion.

Both passed the remainder of the day beside the mangled remains. Shortly after the execution, a carriage drawn by six horses, preceded by a mounted servant, and followed by six servants in gorgeous livery, entered the Place de Greve. It was the Duke de Croy d’Havre, whose arms could be descried on the panels of his carriage through the black crape which covered it. He was soon followed by three other carriages, which stopped on the north sideof the square. They were all in deep mourning, as also the harness of the horses and the liveries of the servants. The blinds were closed, as much to avoid public curiosity as to conceal the cruel sight of the scaffold. But it was whispered in the crowd that the last comers were the Prince de Ligne, the Duke de Rohan, and a Crouiy, the last scion of the illustrious race of Arpad, which traced its origin to Attila, and put forth more legitimate rights to the crown of Hungary than the house of Hapsburg.

My ancestor was surprised not to see the Marquis de Creqy. But his astonishment was short-lived, for a rumour at the other end of the Place announced the arrival of two other carriages, in an apparel still more pompous. They drove up to the other carriages and took up a position in the same line. The Marquis de Creqy stepped out, and advanced on to the square clad in the uniform of a colonel-general and general inspector of the King’s armies, and wearing the insignias of the Golden Fleece, the grand crosses of Saint-Louis and Saint-Jean of Jerusalem. His countenance bore the traces of profound grief. He traversed the Greve with a firm step; the crowd stepped back respectfully before this great personage, who was one of Louis XIV’s godsons.

As soon as the commissaire saw M. de Creqy, he retired from the balcony of the Hotel-de-ville, as if only waiting for this final protest to bring the scene to a conclusion. This meant that justice was satisfied. The Marquis walked straight up to my ancestor with a severe face, and looking at him almost threateningly:

‘Well, sir,’ said he, in a stern voice, ‘what of your promise?’

‘Monseigneur,’ answered Charles Sanson, ‘at eight o’clock this morning M. le Comte de Horn was dead, and the bar of my assistant struck a dead body.’

The priest confirmed my ancestor’s words.

‘Well,’ said M. de Creqy, in a milder tone, ‘our house shall remember that if it could obtain nothing from the clemency of the Regent and from the justice of Parliament, it is at least indebted to the humanity of the executioner.’

The Count’s body was then untied and taken to one of the carriages. It was so mutilated that the limbs seemed ready to separate from the trunk. As a protest against the cruelty of the sentence, M. de Creqy insisted on holding one of the legs, which only adhered to the corpse by the skin. When this was done the carriages moved away in a file, and stopped before the house of the Countess de Montmorency-Lagny, nee De Horn, where the Count’s remains were placed in a bier and deposited in a chapel. It remained there for two days, surrounded by a numerous clergy who sang the mass of the dead. Meanwhile Prince Francois de Lorraine, Bishop of Bayeux, had returned to Paris. He expressed much grief at having been unable to attend his unfortunate kinsman to the scaffold, thinking that the execution was to take place at a later date. He nevertheless arrived in time to join his prayers to those of the clergy, and, in company with MM. de Creqy and de Plessis-Belliere, he escorted the body to the Castle of Baussigny, in the Netherlands, where the Prince de Horn, eldest brother of the defunct, and head of the family, usually resided.

This extraordinary affair greatly irritated the highest personages of the State against the Regent and his favourites: it proved of no assistance to Law, whose fall was unavoidable. On his return from his country-seat the Duke de Saint-Simon hastened to write to the Duke d’Havre to express his regret at what had occurred, and to say how he himself had been deceived by the false promises of the Duke d’Orleans.

I quote here the Duke d’Havre’s answer, because it not only expressed the sentiments of all the French nobility, but it corroborates what I have said concerning Charles Sanson’s conduct:

My dear Duke, — I accept with gratitude, and I understand quite well, the regret you are kind enough to express. I do not know whether the Marquis de Parabere or the Marquis de Creqy obtained of the executioner of Paris the charity which is attributed to him; but what I do know is that the death of Count de Horn is the result of a false policy, of the financial operations of the Government, and, perhaps, also of the policy of the Duke d’Orleans. You know my sentiments of consideration for you.

CROY D’HAVRE

Was Count de Horn really innocent? We have no right to judge the merits of those it was our mission to put to death. Nevertheless I have taken the liberty to allude to the rumours which were current at the time of De Horn’s arrest, and which made him out to be the victim of the Regent’s personal animosity. Another version tended to establish his innocence, or, at least, so to diminish his responsibility in the Jew’s murder, that, were the version correct, the sentence he suffered could only be regarded as a monstrous iniquity. It was said that M. de Horn and the Chevalier de Milhe had not made an appointment with the Jew with the intention of murdering and robbing him, but merely with the object of obtaining from him a large sum in shares of the Bank which the Count had really entrusted to him; that not only did the Jew deny the deposit, but that he went so far as to strike Antoine de Horn in the face. Upon this the young man, who was hot-blooded and passionate, seized a knife that lay on the table and wounded the Jew in the shoulder. It was De Milhe who finished him and took the pocket-book, of which the Count refused to have a share. If the affair occurred in this way, it must be acknowledged that the Regent, and the magistrates who served his hatred, had a heavy reckoning to answer for.

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1673: La Chaussee, for the giblet pie

Add comment March 24th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1673, a footman named La Chaussee paid the forfeit for acting the agent of fugitive poisoner.

The malevolent concoctions of the Marquise de Brinvilliers have already been detailed in these pages. The sudden death of her lover and accomplice St. Croix in the summer of 1672 had exposed his incriminating effects to unwelcome scrutiny, as a consequence of which said Marquise was at this moment on the lam.

A mere valet might very much aspire to melt into the scenery when an accusing gaze is cast; indeed, La Chaussee — Jean Amelin was his real name — had been the vehicle for delivering the fatal draught* to that lady’s two brothers via a giblet pie which the servant poisoned. Although the widowed Madame d’Aubray became greatly and rightly suspicious of her sister-in-law — who by the murder of her brothers now stood to inherit a good deal of money — it seems never to have occurred to anyone that the help was in on the plot.

That is, until La Chaussee most unwisely emerged from the background at the sensitive moment of St. Croix’s death, daring to assert his rights as the former servant of that man to a bag of money whose position in the late poisoner’s apartment he could precisely describe. Having volunteered and (by his accurate description) substantiated this eyebrow-raising intimacy, La Chaussee promptly received not the 1,700 livres aspired after but a speedy arrest.

Hours before he underwent his sentence on March 24, 1673, he was put to torture to discover his accomplices, and as intended the pain loosened his previously reluctant tongue. From the public domain Madame de Brinvilliers and her times, 1630-1676:

“I am guilty. Madame de Brinvilliers gave poison to Sainte-Croix. He told me about it.”

“What did he tell you?”

“Sainte-Croix told me that she gave it in order that her brothers might be poisoned.”

“Was it a powder, or a liquid?”

“A liquid. It was administered in wine and in soup.”

“What did you put in the dish at Villequoy?”

“A clear liquid, taken from Sainte-Croix’s casket. I gave poison to both the brothers. Sainte-Croix promised me one hundred pistoles.”

“Did you report to Sainte-Croix the effect of the poison on Monsieur d’Aubray?”

“Yes, and he gave me some more poison.”

“You are exhorted to tell the truth. Who were your accomplices?”

“Sainte-Croix always told me that Madame de Brinvilliers knew nothing about the matter. But I believe that she knew everything.”

“What makes you think so?”

“Because she often used to speak about poisons.”

“Was it ever suggested that Madame d’Aubray [the widow of the eldest brother -ed.] should be poisoned?”

“Sainte-Croix was not able to get me into her household. Some days before the death of Sainte-Croix, Belleguise took from his lodgings two boxes, but I do not know what was inside. I knew Belleguise ever since I was in the service of Sainte-Croix. Madame de Brinvilliers asked me to tell her where the casket had been placed, and if I knew what was inside. I did not think it was in Sainte-Croix’s rooms, because for a long while it had been placed in the care of a woman called Guedon, who had been working with me in the Rue de Grenelle. I do not know whether Guedon was acquainted with its contents.”

La Chaussee was again asked if Sainte-Croix had given poison to Madame Villarceau d’Aubray.

“No,” he replied. “But if he could have introduced anyone into her household he would have done so.”

The lackey was then taken to the prison chapel to rest for an hour before being carried to the place of execution. Upon being asked if he had anything further to add, he made some rambling observations about a certain Lapierre who had been living with Belleguise, and who was sent away. The sense is difficult to arrive at, and after his torture he may have been slightly delirious and light-headed.

He was then taken in a cart to the Place de Greve, and his limbs broken with an iron bar, a singularly atrocious punishment which was not abolished until the age of the great revolution. Like all cruelties of this nature, it never prevented a single crime. Indeed the brigands and thieves, for whom it was chiefly intended, were in the habit of hardening their flesh against its agonies, and in their moments of recreation used to carry out mock but painful tortures of the wheel, which enabled them to suffer on the public scaffold with fortitude and resignation.

The Marquise de Brinvilliers was eventually captured, and faced torture and execution in 1676.

* The dark arts of chemistry required for this affair were said to have been learned by St. Croix when he was imprisoned in the Bastille and there chanced to meet the Italian poisoner Exili.

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1794: The Comte de Feuillide, Jane Austen in-law

Add comment February 22nd, 2018 Headsman

To Madame la Comtesse de Feuillide this novel is inscribed by her obliged humble servant The Author.

-Jane Austen’s author’s dedication in Love and Freindship

On this date in 1794, the guillotine brought tragedy to Jane Austen’s family.

The blade’s more immediate victim was Jean Gabriel Capotte, the Comte de Feuillide and the husband of Eliza de Feuillide (nee Hancock), Jane Austen’s “outlandish cousin.”

Fourteen years the novelist’s senior, Eliza was born in India to Jane’s Aunt Philadelphia who went abroad seeking a mercenary marriage and landed an unhappy one to a surgeon twice her age, Tysoe Saul Hancock. Eliza Hancock might possibly have been the illegitimate daughter of colonial administrator Warren Hastings, who stoked rumors by establishing a trust for the young woman. (Eliza also later named her only son “Hastings”.)

Either way, she didn’t grow up in the colonies but in England and France, where her vivacity conquered the heart of a prosperous French officer on the make, a barrister’s son who self-aggrandized his rank of Comte de Feuillide. As a gadabout exile “French countess” during the French Revolution, the charming Eliza de Feuillide was a hit both with London society and with her debutante cousin Jane, “whose kind partiality to me” Eliza would write in a letter “indeed requires a return of the same nature.”

Eliza exerted a magnetic influence on her kinswoman, and she’s popularly suspected to be the model for the Mansfield Park character Mary Crawford.* There’s even a book theorizing that this peripatetic polyglot was the true author of Jane Austen’s canon.


Lucy Cohu as Eliza de Feuillide makes some guillotine banter in Becoming Jane.

Back in France, where he served in the army, the hubby with an emigre wife and an aristocratic pretension made a decidedly poorer impression upon the Jacobins, as Maggie Lane observes in Jane Austen’s Family:

On 22 February 1794 the Comte de Feuillide fell victim to the guillotine. He had foolishly, if gallantly, tried to bribe one of the Secretaries of the Committee of Safety to secure the liberty of the widow of an army colleague, Jacques Marboeuf, Marquis and Marechal-de-camp. The fifty-five-year-old Marquise stood accused of laying down certain arable lands on her estate to fodder crops, with the idea of producing a famine in an effort to undermine the Republic.

De Feuillide was double-crossed by the Secretary and arrested at his lodging in the rue Grenelle et St Honore, where incriminating documents and sums of money parcelled up for the bribery were seized. The Marquise, the Comte and the Marquise’s man of business who had acted as a go-between in the attempt, all were sentenced to death.

After a few years as a merry widow, Eliza wed her cousin Henry Austen — Jane’s brother and Eliza’s “perpetual sunshine”. Eliza Austen died in 1813, with Jane Austen at her bedside.

* In Jane Austen and the French Revolution, Warren Roberts argues that the Comte de Feuillide has his own literary doppelganger in the unfinished Austen novel Catherine, in the form of Edward Stanley.

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1917: Marguerite Francillard, seamstress and spy

Add comment January 10th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1917 — with the parting cry, “Je demande pardon à la France! Vive la France!” — 18-year-old Grenoble seamstress Marguerite Francillard was shot at Paris’s St. Lazare prison as a German spy.

Her lover, a German agent posing as a traveling silk salesman, had induced the naive young woman to act as his courier and in this capacity she shuttled his messages treasonably between Paris and Geneva. Eventually, German intelligence sacrificed her: a nothing loss for an empire at war.

The cell Marguerite Francillard inhabited while awaiting execution was subsequently occupied by a more famous (albeit similarly marginal) German asset, Mata Hari.

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1806: Cesar Herbaux, Vidocq’s path not taken

Add comment January 6th, 2018 Headsman

French criminal turned seminal criminologist Eugene Francois Vidocq on this date in 1806 witnessed the fate he might have shared when his former underworld collaborator went under the guillotine at Paris for murder.

The son of an Arras baker, the young Vidocq (English Wikipedia entry | French) presented as an incipient Villonesque picaro. He had the first of his many theft-and-arrest events at the tender age of 13 courtesy of his father who summoned the gendarmes when he stole the family silver. Nothing daunted, Vidocq robbed the house again a few months later and ran away to join troupes of itinerant entertainers, soon transitioning into the French Revolution’s new citizen-army where the rogue by turns impressed with his competence and deserted ahead of some scandal, equally prolific in affairs of honor (he was an expert fencer) and those of the heart (same).

While in prison for his latest misadventures in 1795-1796 he fell in with another inmate — our day’s principal, César Herbaux or Herbault — and forged a pardon order for one of their fellows. Vidocq, as we shall see, would always blame the others for inducing him (their story was the reverse). In either event, for their trouble they caught a sentence that was cruel even though “galleys” by this time just meant prison hulks.

The tribunal … sentences Francois Vidocq and Cesar Herbaux to the punishment of the galleys for eight years …

[And] the said Francois Vidocq and Cesar Herbaux shall be exposed for six hours on a scaffold, which whall be for that purpose erected on the public square of this commune.

The sentence Vidocq himself published in his ghost-written memoirs, where the later, respectable man would situate it in the midst of his life’s chrysalis.

Vidocq did not serve his sentence; he escaped custody and lived the first decade of the 19th century on his society’s periphery, under a succession of aliases and with a succession of lovers, the episodes punctuated by re-arrests and re-escapes. In one close escape, Vidocq was lodging in Melun as “a travelling seller of fashionable commodities” when ill rumors induced him to flee for the capital. Resuming his memoir …

I learnt … from the landlord of the inn at which I had put up, that the commissary of police had testified some regret at not having examined my papers; but what was deferred was not ended, and that at my next visit, he meant to pay me a visit. The information surprised me, for I must consequently have been in some way an object of suspicion. To go on might lead to danger, and I therefore returned to Paris, resolving not to make any other journeys, unless I could render less unfavourable the chances which combined against me.

Having started very early, I reached the faubourg Saint Marceau in good time; and at my entrance, I heard the hawkers bawling out, “that two well-known persons are to be executed to-day at the Place de Greve.” I listened, and fancied I distinguished the name of Herbaux. Herbaux, the author of the forgery which caused all my misfortunes? I listened with more attention, but with an involuntary shudder; and this time the crier, to whom I had approached, repeated the sentence with these additions:

Here is the sentence of the criminal tribunal of the department of the Seine, which condemns to death the said Armand Saint Leger, an old sailor, born at Bayonne, and Cesar Herbaux, a freed galley-slave, born at Lille, accused and convicted of murder.

I could doubt no longer; the wretch who had heaped so much misery on my head was about to suffer on the scaffold. Shall I confess that I felt a sentiment of joy, and yet I trembled? … It will not excite wonder, when I say that I ran with haste to the palace of justice to assure myself of the truth; it was not mid-day, and I had great trouble in reaching the grating, near which I fixed myself, waiting for the fatal moment.

At last four o’clock struck, and the wicket opened. A man appeared first on the stage. It was Herbaux. His face was covered with a deadly paleness, whilst he affected a firmness which the convulsive workings of his featured belied. He pretended to talk to his companion, who was already incapacitated from hearing him. At the signal of departure, Herbaux, with a countenance into which he infused all the audacity he could force, gazed round on the crow, and his eye met mine. He started, and the blood rushed to his face. The procession passed on, and I remained as motionless as the bronze railings on which I was leaning; and I should probably have remained longer, if an inspector of the palace had not desired me to come away. Twenty minutes afterwards, a car, laden with a red basket, and escorted by the gendarme, was hurried over the Pont-au-Change, going towards the burial ground allotted for felons. Then, with an oppressed feeling at my heart, I went away, and regained my lodgings, full of sorrowful reflections.

I have since learnt, that during his detention at the Bicetre, Herbaux had expressed his regret at having been instrumental in getting me condemned, when innocent. The crime which had brought this wretch to the scaffold was a murder committed, in company with Saint Leger, on a lady of the Place Dauphine. These two villains had obtained access to their victim under pretence of giving her tidings of her son, whom they said they had seen in the army.

Although, in fact Herbaux’s execution could not have any direct influence over my situation, yet it alarmed me, and I was horror-struck at feeling that I had ever been in contact with such brigands, destined to the executioner’s arm: my remembrance revealed me to myself, and I blushed, as it were, in my own face. I sought to lose the recollection, and to lay down an impassable line of demarcation between the past and the present; for I saw but too plainly, that the future was dependent on the past; and I was the more wretched, as a police, who have not always due powers of discernment, would not permit me to forget myself. I saw myself again on the point of being snared like a deer.

Forever abroad on a false passport, watching over his shoulder for the next inquisitive policeman, the next chance encounter with a bygone criminal acquaintance, Vidocq was in his early thirties now and aching to go straight lest he follow Herbaux’s path to the guillotine. At last in 1809 he was able to find the perfect port of entry for a man of his underworld expertise: policing.

Beginning first as a snitch and informer, Vidocq uncovered a genius for the still-nascent field of professional law enforcement and made himself the field’s towering presence. His last arrest was in 1809; by 1812, he had created La Surete, France’s civil investigative organ. This still-extant entity became the model for Great Britain’s Scotland Yard (1829), with Vidocq consulting for his Anglo imitators.

His subalterns were heavily lawbreakers like himself, men and also women recruited from the streets and prisons for whom the cant of outlaws was native tongue and who took readily to Vidocq’s training in disguise and subterfuge: Vidocq trafficked in information, seeking crime in its native habitat where the easy-to-spot predecessors to the beat cop could not penetrate. The payoffs in robbers ambushed red-handed and turncoats delightedly unmasking themselves made the man a sensation.

Yet alongside his swashbuckling flair, Vidocq’s prescient interest in then-novel police techniques ranging from forensic science to controlling crime scenes to logging permanent records about criminals have established him as either a or the father of criminology.

A few books about Vidocq

All along, the master himself continued to adventure in the field too, and began compounding a sizable income from deploying his investigative talents for a private clientele. His mother who had once been accustomed to shelter him as a fugitive had a requiem mass at Notre Dame on her death in 1824.

In 1833, retired from Surete, Vidocq founded perhaps the first private detective agency. But as had been the case while he was in public service he had a zest for skirting the edges of the legally or ethically permissible, which was eventually the ruin of his business and his fortune. For all his legendary charisma, his heirs at the Surete in the late 19th century all but wrote out of their institutional history the thief who literally wrote the book on their field.

Posterity was bound to reclaim him if for no other reason than that the dashing detective had always been catnip for the literary set. Victor Hugo is thought to have drawn on Vidocq for both the chief antagonists in Les Miserables, the reformed criminal Jean Valjean and his relentless pursuer Inspector Javert; Balzac liberally cribbed from the biography of his good friend Vidocq to create his Human Comedy character Vautrin, a onetime forger become chief of the Surete. American writers invoked Vidocq by name in, e.g., Moby Dick and The Murders in the Rue Morgue, and Edgar Allan Poe‘s interest in turn gestures at the man’s place in the foundational cosmology of the detective story genre. And for all that the real man’s life, however one discounts for literary flourish, was somehow more colorfully impossible than all the Sherlock Holmeses that have followed him — why, by every probability the scoundrel ought to have wound up sharing the stage with a Cesar Herbaux. Accordingly, depictions of this deeply dramatic figure in theater and cinema stretch from the man’s own time all the way to ours, as with this 2011 Gerard Depardieu offering:

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Murder,Notably Survived By,Public Executions,Theft

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1793: Armand Louis de Gontaut

Add comment December 31st, 2017 Headsman

Armand Louis de Gontaut, duc de Lauzun and later duc de Biron, an officer in the American Revolution and and the French Revolution, was guillotined during the Paris Terror on this date in 1793.

Born in 1747, Lauzun had some youthful finding-himself years “wasting his fortune in dissipation in various parts of Europe” before he got serious about being an Enlightenment Man, penned an essay on British colonial defenses, and went and fought them in a colonial skirmish.

Satisfactory performance in West Africa qualified him to twist the lion’s tail again by raising a legion of hussars for the American Revolution. Lauzun fought at the independence-clinching upset of Yorktown, winning promotion back in the home country to marechal de camp.

That Lafayette-like package of liberal sensibility, blue blood, and battlefield competence was just the thing for the more moderate early years of the French Revolution, and just the thing to cost his head by the time of the Terror. Our man found himself by 1793 transferred from the French army on the Rhine to the against War in the Vendee where he arrived already too milquetoast for the extreme violence being demanded for pacification. The Jacobin firebrand Marat had already petitioned for the ex-nobleman’s removal; it was effected by Jean-Baptiste Carrier who in 1793 was busily blackening his name by pacifying the Vendee with indiscriminate slaughter.

Lauzun/Biron/Gontaut was arrested at Carrier’s behest for incivisme, that want of revolutionary ardor that in this moment stood tantamount to treason. Vainly he protested (pdf) from his confinement that “my conscience reproaches me for nothing.” Still, he met the inevitable fate at the Revolutionary Tribunal’s hands with peace and was reported to have gone calmly to the guillotine, the last words upon his lips a self-recrimination:

“I die punished for having been false to my God, my King and my order.”

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