1887: Henri Pranzini, repentant?

3 comments August 31st, 2012 Headsman

On this date 125 years ago, a notorious French triple murderer was guillotined outside La Roquette Prison.

This condemned murderer, so infamous that anarchist bomber Ravachol planned to invoke his name as an emblem of crime in a suppressed courtroom speech, slaughtered a prostitute, her maid, and the maid’s child so that he could plunder the apartment’s jewelry.

Your basic sensational common butchery, given added legs by comparison to the next year’s apparition across the channel of the Whitechapel murderer.*

That’s just one of several more famous (or infamous) contemporaries for whom Pranzini was a sort of subplot character.

The artist Paul Gauguin — though he couldn’t quite remember the name right — suspected that this particular killer plotted his crime at the cafe that both he and Vincent Van Gogh frequented. (Van Gogh painted the proprietress, who was also possibly his lover.)

According to Van Gogh, the whole Pansini [Pranzini] affair, as well as many others, was hatched in this place … From this Pansini case sprang another case, also, according to Van Gogh, hatched in this famous cafe, the Prado case

We’ve noticed in these pages Gauguin’s disturbing severed-head jug, and its seeming inspiration from that other guillotinee, Prado.

While Gauguin’s meditations on the guillotine veered to the grotesque, a Norman teenager fresh off an apparition of Jesus Christ found spiritual sublimity in this villain. The woman eventually known as St. Therese of Lisieux later recollected

I heard talk of a great criminal just condemned to death for some horrible crimes; everything pointed to the fact that he would die impenitent…. I felt in the depths of my heart certain that our desires would be granted, but to obtain courage to pray for sinners I told God I was sure He would pardon the poor, unfortunate Pranzini; that I’d believe this even if he went to his death without any signs of repentance or without having gone to confession. I was absolutely confident in the mercy of Jesus. But I was begging Him for a “sign” of repentance only for my own simple consolation.

My prayer was answered to the letter! In spite of Papa’s prohibition that we read no papers, I didn’t think I was disobeying when reading passages pertaining to Pranzini. The day after the execution I found the newspaper “La Croix.” I opened it quickly and what did I see? Ah! my tears betrayed my emotion and I was obliged to hide. Pranzini had not gone to confession. He had mounted the scaffold and was preparing to place his head in the formidable opening, when suddenly, seized by an inspiration, he turned, took hold of the crucifix the priest was holding out to him and kissed the sacred wounds three times! Then his soul went to receive the merciful sentence of Him who declares that in heaven there will be more joy over one sinner who does penance than over ninety-nine just who have no need of repentance.

I had obtained the sign I requested.

Nameless citizens on the square when the blade fell settled for less exalted signs, like the ancient superstition of dipping into the spattered blood. (“Such scenes would disgust the black savages of Dahomey and the Gold Coast,” the London Times sniffed (September 1, 1887), and in vain urged the French government to take up legislation for private executions.)

* Pranzini found himself in Madame Tussaud’s for a spell.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Murder,Pelf,Public Executions,Theft

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1888: Prado, before Gauguin

3 comments December 28th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1888, “Prado” — also known as “Count Linska de Castillon”; he never copped to his real identity — was beheaded as a thief and murderer at Paris.

The trial of this intrepid criminal promised, in the London Times‘ Nov. 6, 1888 preview, to be “one of the most extraordinary of our times”

He [Prado] is a Spaniard, and was brought up at Gijon, but he refused to say who he was. When 14 years of age he visited Mozambique, India, China, California, the West Indies, and North America. In 1872 he was a sub-lieutenant in the Carlist bands. He then lived by his wits. He once crossed the French frontier and stole 8,000f. At the battle of Somorrostro he was wounded by a shell, and removed to a hospital, from which he enticed the sister of the Order of Saint Vincent de Paul who nursed him. She belonged to one of the first families in England. He married her, and with her visited the Holy Land, but her health failed, and she died on their return to Italy. Prado says he married a second wife at Lima, with a dowry of 1,200,000f., and that after her death he committed many daring robberies.

He’s the most interesting man in the world.

This vagabond upon the overgrown lost highways of fortune eventually ditched wife #2 in penury in Spain and proceeded to France where he mooched off a local girl and her absentee American sugar daddy, until one night he slashed the throat a dame named Marie Aguetant, the lover of a late-working croupier, and plundered their domicile of chattels.

Prado eluded capture for some time, keeping his lover, taking another — both of whom ended up in the dock with their insolent Don Juan, along with various male intimates in various aspects of accesorizing. None of those others drew a death sentence, but as the interest of the London Times suggests — it fronted near-daily trial dispatches from Paris — all this stuff about cabals of swarthy men ravishing women of their virtue and their valuables made global news.

It also moved Third Republic bodice-ripping true crime like this zippy little volume, “Prado ou Le Tueur de Filles,” with a copyright notice as late as 1931.

A savage crime by a strange character, but now that it’s long departed all living memory, it scarcely stands out. Legion are the lotharios who have slain for the pedestrian motivation of gold.

In a post-bourgeois order, “we will no longer see men like Pranzini, Prado, Berland, Anastay and others who kill in order to have this metal,” the French terrorist Ravachol‘s suppressed address to the courtroom declared in 1892. “The cause of all crimes is always the same, and you have to be foolish not to see this.”

Yes, I repeat it: it is society that makes criminals and you, jury members, instead of striking you should use your intelligence and your strength to transform society. In one fell swoop you’ll suppress all crime. And your work, in attacking causes, will be greater and more fruitful than your justice, which belittles itself in punishing its effects.

-Ravachol


Just a few days before this headline-grabbing execution, impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh undertook the most famous thing he ever did off-canvas: after his latest dispute with roommate and fellow-artist Paul Gauguin, van Gogh sliced off his own left earlobe.*

It was in this abnormal circumstance that Gauguin, fresh to Paris fleeing from the scene of the self-mutilation in Arles, attended Prado’s beheading, even forcing his way through a line of gendarmes to obtain a closer view.

“[H]e may have had the counterphobic desire to reassure himself of his courage by taking an unflinching look at Prado’s execution,” writes Bradley Collins. “Gauguin may have identified with both the executioner and his victim. On the one hand, by watching the state kill a man, he could vicariously release some of his pent-up aggression toward Vincent. On the other, by identifying with Prado he could vicariously atone for the guilt he felt about precipitating Vincent’s breakdown and abandoning [Arles].”

Aptly for Gauguin’s personal demons, the guillotine managed to botch this job, too — giving Prado a non-fatal facial injury and requiring the now-wounded condemned to be repositioned for another chop.

All this pate-slashing sure seems to have found its way into Gauguin’s next creation:


Gauguin’s grotesque “Jug in the form of a Head, Self-Portrait”. “Within one work, he has become both the bloody, earless Vincent [Van Gogh] and the guillotined Prado.” –Collins

* Latter-day revisionist hypothesis: Gauguin actually cut off van Gogh’s ear in a fight, but both painters kept to a cover story to keep everyone out of trouble. That version would only thicken the psychological stew for Gauguin’s pilgrimage to the guillotine and subsequent “self-portrait”.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Murder,Pelf,Public Executions,Theft

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