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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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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1825: Louis August Papavoine, An Execution in Paris

Add comment March 25th, 2017 Robert Macnish

(Thanks to Dr. Robert Macnish, a young Scottish surgeon, writer, and polymath whose wide-roaming intellect earned him the nickname of “the Modern Pythagorean.” While resident in Paris, Macnish witnessed the public beheading of a French murderer on March 24, 1825 … an experience he rendered into the essay below. The crime which occasioned this spectacle was notorious in his brief day; Victor Hugo refers to Papavoine by name as “the horrible madman who killed the children with a knife to the head!” in The Last Day of a Condemned Man. -ed.)

AN EXECUTION IN PARIS.

In the month of March 1825, Louis Auguste Papavoine lost his head. He was guillotined at the Place de Greve for the murder of two children in the Bois de Vincennes. The man was mad, beyond all doubt, and in Great Britain would have been sentenced to perpetual confinement as a lunatic; but the French criminal court refused to admit the plea of insanity, and he was given over to the executioner: the Cour de Cassation having rejected his appeal from the decision of that which tried him.

To my shame be it spoken, I wished to see an execution by the guillotine. There was a sort of sanguinary spell attached to this instrument, which irresistibly impelled me to witness one of its horrid triumphs. When I thought of it, the overwhelming tragedy of the Revolution was brought before my eyes — that Revolution which plunged Europe in seas of blood, and stamped an indelible impression upon the whole fabric of modern society. There was something appalling in the very name of this terrific engine. M. Guillotine, its inventor, was also one of its victims — he perished by his own contrivance. [this popular legend is untrue -ed.] Let no man hereafter invent an instrument of punishment. Perillus contrived the brazen bull, and was among the first to perish by it. Earl Morton, who brought the “Maiden” to Scotland, underwent a like fate; and Deacon Brodie was hanged upon his own drop.

The day on which Papavoine suffered was beautifully fair; and, profiting by this circumstance, the idle population of the French capital flocked in myriads to witness his exit. It was calculated that there were not fewer than eighty thousand spectators. The Place de Greve was literally paved with human beings. A person might have walked upon their heads without difficulty; and so closely were they wedged together, that had any object larger than an apple been thrown among them, it could not have found its way to the ground. Men, women, and children, were clumped into one dense aggregate of living matter; and as the huge multitude moved itself to and fro, it was as the incipient stirring of an earthquake, or as the lazy floundering of the sea, when its waves, exhausted by a recent storm, tumble their huge sides about, like the indolent leviathan which floats upon their surface. There was no spot of the Place unoccupied save immediately around the scaffold, where a portion was squared off, and kept clear by a strong body of mounted gendarmerie, who kept back with their horses the living wall, which was every moment threatening to break asunder by the pressure behind, and intrude its animated materials into the proscribed area. Nor was the Place de Greve the only spot so crowded. The quays along the Seine were equally peopled, and even the opposite banks of that broad stream were filled with multitudes. Notre Dame shone with spectators, who had mounted its beetling towers to catch a dim prospect of the sacrifice; and every window and height, which afforded the most distant view, were similarly occupied.

In Paris, as in London, it is customary to let out those windows where a good view can be obtained; and on any occasion of particular interest — as the present happened to be — considerable sums are asked, and given. Sometimes half a Napoleon is demanded for a single place; and the sum varies from that to half a franc, according to the eligibility of the situation. Many of the windows are so near to the guillotine, that a very favourable prospect of the painful spectacle can be obtained; and these, of course, are crowded with persons who can afford to pay well for the gratification of their curiosity — if there be, indeed, any gratification in witnessing the instantaneous and sanguinary death of a fellow creature. Yet the view, even from the best windows, is not equal to that from within the open area. But into this space, it is no easy matter to get a footing; the few who are admitted being military men, and such of their friends as they choose to bring along with them. Indeed, at this time, there were few or no officers of any rank within the opening. It was mostly occupied by the gendarmes, who were there upon duty; and by a few dozens of common soldiers, whom curiosity or idleness had brought together. This, however, was the spot to which my wishes led me; and under the guidance of a young French officer of hussars, I was led into the area, and placed in front of the guillotine, not ten feet from its dreadful presence. But dreadful as it is from association, and from its destructive rapidity, this machine is by no means so appalling to look at as the gallows. The same feeling of horror does not attach to it; nor is the mind filled with the same blank dismay, or the same overpowering disgust, which are universally felt on beholding the gibbet, with its looped rope, its horrid beam, and its deceitful platform, which, slipping from beneath the feet of its victim, leaves him dangling and gasping in the winds of heaven. Somehow the same strong idea of disgrace is not connected with the axe as with the gibbet; but this may be from the thought that the noble and the good have shed their blood in torrents beneath its edge, thus giving it a sort of factitious interest, and deadening even with the most criminal the ignominy of its punishment. Nor is it coupled with such inveterate disgust, and such decided outrage to the feelings of humanity. Prolonged physical suffering is at all times revolting; and to see a human being struggling with a violent death — writhing in agony, and perishing like a dog — is the most detestable sight in existence. The guillotine distracts the fancy with no such sickening imagery. Whatever agony is sustained, is the more noble and enduring agony of the spirit, previous to the fatal hour. There is no struggle here with the grim tyrant — no painful encounter between life and death — no tortures like those which wrung Laocoön and his miserable offspring. From perfect life, the individual is transported to as perfect annihilation. He does not enter eternity by slow, unwilling steps: the spirit does not quit its fleshly mansion painfully and tardily, but leaves it with a sudden bound, and plunges at once into a new existence, there to be saved or lost, as its fate chances to be decreed in the Book of Life.

At the period of my admission, it was two o’clock — one hour exactly from the time of execution; and I had, therefore, abundant leisure to contemplate the engine of death, and to witness the behaviour of the vast multitude around it. Things were as quiet as could well be expected in so great an assemblage. There was plenty of talking, but much less disturbance than would have occurred in England upon any similar occasion. In truth, the only quarter which manifested tumult, was in the immediate neighbourhood of the area, which threatened every moment to be broken in, not so much by the fault of those directly in front of it, as by the immense pressure of those in the back-ground. Every now and then its square proportions were destroyed by a portion of the crowd which bulged inwards in a solid mass; and almost at the same moment, this violation of the straight line was repaired by the gendarmes, who kept riding along the square, and pressing back the intruding body into its proper place. The recklessness and fierce temper of the French soldiery were manifest, and formed a strong contrast to the good-humoured forbearance of our own troops. No ceremony was used towards intruders. Whoever came, or was forced into the square by his rearward companions, was thrust back with wanton violence. Where the pressure of the horses was resisted, the gendarmes made use of the flat sides of their sabres, and belaboured the crowd without mercy. The whole scene presented a strange picture of the fearful and the ludicrous. While it was distressing to witness the terrified crowd recoiling before the soldiers, it was amusing to witness the dexterity with which the latter treated the refractory — sometimes pushing them back with their steeds, sometimes beating them with their swords, and sometimes dexterously pitching off their hats into the assemblage. When any unfortunate fellow lost his chapeau in this manner, or received a salutary blow from the weapon of a gendarme, a loud shout of laughter was set up among the spectators. In fact, the whole, except thosewithin reach of punishment, were in excellent humour, and seemed to have come together more to enjoy a farce than witness the horrors of a public execution. Things continued in this state till the hour of three, which, pealing from the clock of the Hotel de Ville, announced the approach of the criminal. Scarcely had the fatal sounds swung upon the air, than the whole host was hushed into silence. They knew that the destined time was at hand, and that Papavoine was on his way to the scaffold; — and every man held his breath with deep interest, and felt, in spite of himself, a solemn awe fall over his spirit. But this dreadful silence did not continue long — for far off, in the direction of the bridge over which the criminal must pass, there was seen a heaving among the assemblage, which moved as if borne on the bosom of a vast wave; and murmurs like the half-suppressed voice of a remote volcano, were heard to proceed from this moving multitude. It was now evident that the procession approached; and every eye was turned towards that direction, and every ear wrought to its keenest pitch to catch the strange sounds which denoted its coming. Each moment the noise became louder, and the motion of the crowd more general. At last the trampling of horses was heard, and a troop of gendarmes, forcing a path through the recoiling people, were seen to approach. Behind them came a cart drawn by two horses; and in this cart sat Papavoine and an old Catholic priest. To the rear of this a second body of gendarmes brought up the procession. The criminal was a small, thin man, of about five feet six. He was dressed in a shabby blue surtout, and brown trowsers, and wore a fur cap upon his head. His arms were pinioned behind him, not by the elbows as with us, but by the wrists. He had no neckcloth on, nor shirt; and the collar of his surtout was drawn some way over his shoulders, so as to leave the neck quite bare and ready for the axe. Though pale and death-like, and seemingly impressed with the marks of sorrow and bad health, he exhibited no signs of terror or dismay. His demeanour was quiet and composed; and to the exhortations of his spiritual adviser he appeared to pay deep attention.


Source

Now, here a scene took place which baffles description. No sooner had the wretch entered the area appropriated for his fate, than a shout of deafening execration arose from the hitherto silent multitude. No preparatory murmurs of hatred and revenge preceded this ebullition of feeling. It sprung up simultaneously, and as if those from whom it proceeded were animated with one soul, and felt one pervading vengeance thrilling through their hearts. “Wretch!” “Villain!” “Miscreant!” “Assassin!” arose in a wild swell from the crowd; and above the deeper voices of the men were heard the shrill imprecations of females, denouncing, with even more bitter wrath, the murderer. Had it been for almost any other crime, the women would have felt towards him more kindly than his own sex; but that for which he was to suffer was one of all others the most heinous to a maternal heart — and the natural fountains of woman’s tears were no longer free to flow in their wonted channel.

But Papavoine did not seem to hear the imprecations which were poured like vials of wrath upon his head — nor did he even appear sensible of the presence of those who so bitterly reviled him in his last moments. The cart stopped at the foot of the scaffold, and descending firmly, he conversed for one moment with the old priest, previous to mounting the fatal steps. I was at this time only a few yards from him, and marked him most distinctly. His look was perfectly calm and composed, and, had he died in a better cause, it would have been impossible not to admire his steady heroism. He said a single word in the ear of the priest who kissed him on the cheek, and left him, apparently much affected. Papavoine now ascended the guillotine rapidly and firmly, and committed himself to the hands of the executioner and his assistant satellite. At this part of the scene the loud execrations of the people had melted into breathless awe. Not a whisper was heard, nor even a movement among the vast and silent assemblage. The whole spectacle was dreadful — the very stillness of the crowd had something appalling in it; and the systematic dispatch with which the executioners proceeded among such universal silence, was sickening to the last degree. While gazing upon the victim, my respiration was almost totally suspended — my heart beat violently, and a feeling of intense anxiety and suffocation pervaded my frame.

The process was incredibly short. In a few seconds Papavoine was bound to a board which stood upright, and reached to the middle of his breast. The board moved on a pivot, and as soon as the malefactor was buckled to it, it was depressed, and shoved with its burden towards the groove of the guillotine, at the top of which hung the axe, ready to descend, on the pulling out of a small peg which kept it in its situation. A moveable piece of wood being now drawn down upon the root of the neck, to prevent all attempt at motion, and everything being ready, the executioner pulled a cord, and with the impetuosity of lightning, down came the axe upon its victim. Papavoine was annihilated in a moment. I saw his head slip from the body and tumble into a basket ready to receive it, while the blood spouted forth in little cataracts from the severed trunk, and dyed the scaffold with a purple tide. From the time when he appeared upon the guillotine till the head was severed, only twenty-five seconds elapsed — such is the appalling, yet humane rapidity of a French execution.

I looked attentively to observe if there was any motion in the trunk — any convulsive start at the instant of decapitation, but there was none. It lay from the first perfectly motionless, nor exhibited the slightest shudder — the least quivering — or the faintest indication that, the moment before, it was part of a sentient being, instinct with all the energies of life. This I did not expect. I conceived that a strong muscular spasm would have convulsed it at the fatal instant: and such, I am told, was the case with Brochetti, an Italian, executed some time before, and whose trunk sprung violently from its situation, and shook with universal tremor.

The momentary silence which pervaded the crowd previous to the axe’s descent was now broken, and an instantaneous movement ensued among its before tranquil numbers. The windows were deserted by their occupants; the doors poured their population into the streets; and the house-tops and black Gothic towers of Notre Dame were rid of the crowds which sat perched like eagles upon their lofty summits. But long ere this assembly had melted away, the guillotine had disappeared from the Place de Greve. Two minutes were allowed to elapse, that the head and body of the criminal might part with their blood.

They were then thrown into a long basket, and sent in the cart — which brought them alive — to the Ecole de Medecine for dissection. And the scaffold, after being cleansed of the gore, by having several buckets of water dashed over it, was taken to pieces, and deposited in the Hotel de Ville, till its sanguinary services were again required. The execution, together with the process of cleansing and dismantling the guillotine, did not occupy above seven minutes.

Next morning, the same curiosity which led me to witness this revolting sight took me to the Ecole de Medecine, to witness the remains of Papavoine. There were a number of scientific men present — among others, the celebrated Doctor Gall, who was employed in investigating the developements of the head, and pointing them out to several of his pupils. [A topic of great interest to Macnish, who also wrote a book about phrenology. -ed.] There was no portion whatever of the neck remaining attached to the trunk. It, as well as the head, had been severed from the body. The axe had struck at its very root, and even grazed the collar bone where it is fixed to the sternum. This is not in general the case, the neck being in most instances pretty accurately cut through the middle — one half of it adhering to the head, the other to the trunk.

I am not sure that I had done right in making such a scene as the above the subject of an article. There is something in the minute details of an execution, at which the mind shudders; and it is probable the reader may think that my impressions of the spectacle just related, should have been confined to my own bosom instead of being made public.

(For writerly firsthand accounts of the guillotine in action in the 19th century, compare to Tolstoy or Turgenev. -ed.)

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1591: Barnabe Brisson, at the hands of the Sixteen

Add comment November 15th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1591, the summary execution of Barnabe Brisson and two other French doctors of law signaled the beginning of the end of France’s Wars of Religion.

After the untimely death of Henri II in a freak jousting accident, his widow Catherine de’ Medici employed three frustrating decades shuttling the late monarch’s uninspiring offspring onto the throne only to see each in his turn die young and without issue. We are by these late years on to the last of Henri II’s sons — Henri III of France.

Actually, Henri wasn’t the last: just the last left alive. He had a younger brother, Francis, Duke of Anjou, who dropped dead in 1584 of malaria and left Henri III as the only Valois male. The heir presumptive after Henri III was his Calvinist brother-in-law Henri of Navarre. Spoiler alert: by the end of this post, Henri of Navarre is going to get there as King Henri IV.

The Catholic-vs.-Huguenot Wars of Religion had raged in France for many years but the last major installment of the bloody serial was the War of the Three Henrys: the two Henris aforesaid, plus the Duke of Guise, also named Henri — the standard-bearer of Catholic zealots.

Our present-day presumption of live-and-let-live spirituality was bequeathed from the Enlightenment only after it had been hard-won by centuries previous. In France of the 1500s, the most extreme (but by no means marginal) Catholic party saw the very existence of a Huguenot faction — and the fact that more moderate Catholic politiques were prepared to tolerate and treat with them — as an existential threat to the kingdom. Catholicism in the literal universal sense was intrinsic to France itself: if she should cease to be so, what would become of her? A 1589 pamphlet extolled what

an admirable thing [it is] to view the ardor and the devotion of everyone in France, the air resounding with prayer and processions of our youth who are purified by our prayers and by the common voice which is spread throughout this kingdom; we demonstrate that the benedictions and maledictions of a people have great effects.

With such great effects at stake, the pious ought not abide any fooling around with Providence. “If your brother, your friend, and your wife all of whom you hold dear wish to strip you of your faith,” wrote Louis D’Orleans in 1588, “kill them, cut their throats and sacrifice them to God.”*

This was a faction for whom Henri of Navarre’s prospective succession was absolutely intolerable, which makes it somewhat ironic that they themselves soon turned prospect into reality.

King Henri III was a Catholic himself, of course, and this irreconcilable Catholic League was part of what you might call his base. But though initially allied, the League’s attempts to dominate the young king led Henri III to execute a daring breakout: on December 23, 1588, he summoned the Duke of Guise to confer with him at the Chateau de Blois and there had his bodyguards murder Guise on the spot.


Just two Henries now …** (Executed Today’s court painter Paul Delaroche interprets that same scene here.)

The resulting fury of the Catholic League was so great that the king soon fled Paris and made common cause with Henri of Navarre. Now the civil war was the two Henris together — and the Catholic League opposing them. We come here to our date’s principal character, Barnabe Brisson (English Wikipedia entry | French), a distinguished jurist† in the Parlement of France. While most of this chamber followed the king out of Paris, Brisson chose to remain. “The Sixteen,”‡ the council of Catholic militants who now ruled Paris with the support of a populist militia, elevated Brisson to President of the Parlement.

In 1589 the Henris besieged staunchly Catholic Paris in an attempt to bring the civil war to a close. In a classic Pyrrhic victory, the League defeated this attempt by having a priest assassinate King Henri.


… and now we’re down to the last Henri.

While this action did break the siege, and avenge the murder of Guise, it made Henri of Navarre into King Henri IV. (Told you we’d get there.) The Catholic League’s attempt to recognize the new king’s uncle, a Cardinal, as the successor went nowhere at all, and at any rate this man himself died in 1590.

This succession greatly deepened the internal tension among Paris Catholics between the uncompromising men of the Sixteen and the moderate politiques, and the latter party’s interest in finding with the legitimate king a settlement that looked increasingly inevitable. After all, were these armed commoners really going to rule Paris indefinitely?


An armed march of the Holy League in Paris in 1590. (Anonymous painting)

The situation provoked the ultras among Paris’s ruling Sixteen to more desperate measures in a vain effort to maintain control. Their faction’s own post-Guise leader among the high nobility, the Duke of Mayenne, had refused inducements to seize the crown himself or to seat a sovereign provided by the League’s Hapsburg allies. He too was visibly sliding towards an accommodation with the heretic king. (He would reach one in 1596.) In much the same camp was an establishment figure like Brisson whose staying behind in Paris during the confused situation of 1588-1589 was scarcely intended to declare that his allegiance to creed surpassed all care for order. The man was a lawyer, after all.

During Mayenne’s absence from the capital in the autumn of 1591, the Sixteen mounted a radical internal coup and attempted to purge the city’s moderates. Brisson was arrested walking to work on the morning of the 15th and subjected along with two other jurists to a sham snap trial. All three were hung by lunchtime, and per a proposal floated among the council that afternoon were the next morning fitted with denunciatory placards and displayed on gibbets at the Place de Greve.

Barnabé Brisson, a chief traitor and heretic

Claude Larcher, an instigator of treacherous politiques

Jean Tardiff, an enemy of God and of Catholic princes

Their shocking exhibition was intended to incite a “St. Barthelemy des politiques” — a St. Bartholomew’s Day-esque pogrom against the politique moderates.

But the Sixteen had badly misjudged the mood of the city. The crowd beheld the mangled corpses silently, full of horror or pity — emblematic of the turning-point France was nearing in its interminable confessional strife. Despite the Catholic League’s strength in Paris, most Parisians were losing their appetite for bloodshed. The Duke of Mayenne was back in the capital by the end of the month and underscored the coming arrangements by seizing four of the Sixteen for summary execution themselves.

Two years later, Henri IV at last took Paris in hand by making a nominal conversion to Catholicism with the legendary (alleged) remark, “Paris is worth a Mass.”§

French speakers may enjoy this 19th century pdf biography of Brisson by Alfred Giraud.

* “Du Contemnement de la mort. Discours accomode a la miserable condition de ce temps” (blockquoted section) and Replique pour le Catholique Anglois, contre le Catolique associe des Huguenots (D’Orleans quote). Both via Dalia Leonardo in “Cut off This Rotten Member”: The Rhetoric of Heresy, Sin, and Disease in the Ideology of the French Catholic League,” The Catholic Historical Review, April 2002.

** Also of interest: this 1908 silent film of the assassination of the Duc de Guise, scored by Saint-Saens.

† Brisson’s dictionary of Justinian legal terminology remained in print until 1805. He also in 1587 produced a compilation of the laws of France as Le Code du Roy Henri III.

‡ The Sixteen were delegates of Paris’s quarters, assembled by the Duke of Mayenne. For detail on the composition and internal history of The Sixteen, see J.H.M. Salmon, “The Paris Sixteen, 1584-94: The Social Analysis of a Revolutionary Movement,” The Journal of Modern History, December 1972.

§ In the end, of course, an entirely unreconciled Catholic extremist assassinated Henri IV in 1610.

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1820: Louis Pierre Louvel, anti-Bourbon assassin

4 comments June 7th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1820, Louis Pierre Louvel was guillotined at Paris’s Place de Greve for murdering the heir to the French throne.

Louvel (French link) was a Bonapartist saddler, so embittered by the return of the ancien regime that he vowed on the day of the Restoration to exterminate all the Bourbons.

While his attempt to greet the returning Louis XVIII in April 1814 with a dagger came to naught, Louvel’s patience paid off six years later.

On February 13, 1820, he surprised the Duke of Berry outside the opera and plunged a knife into his chest.

The Duke, who expired the next morning, was not the heir to the throne: he was the younger of two sons of the Comte d’Artois, who was the brother of the still-reigning Louis XVIII. These Bourbons, however, seemed congenitally unable to reproduce: Louis XVIII would die childless, leaving the aforesaid Comte d’Artois to inherit as Charles X; the oldest of Artois’s children also had a childless marriage.

So the potential future of the dynasty looked a murky thing in 1820. The Duke of Berry had an infant daughter, and the guy looked like maybe the only male in the royal family’s younger generation who might be capable of fathering a son. Louvel’s blow potentially set the stage for an eventual succession crisis.*

The killer was promptly arrested and made no bones about his action, avowing that he acted without aid or accomplice. He had, he said, no particular personal beef with the Duke: it’s just that he considered the guy’s entire family traitors whose presence dishonored the nation. (Here’s a complete French account of his trial.)

Because Louvel had his head cut off by the guillotine, he was not around to experience the miraculous September delivery by Louvel’s widow of a posthumous son and heir. In time, this son would become the Legitimist pretender to the French throne.

As a matter of fact, the prideful Count of Chambord could have become king after the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune wiped away the Second Empire. But to the grief of practical-minded monarchists, he publicly refused to accept the offered throne that he’d been waiting all his life for unless the nation also gave up the beloved tricolore flag associated with the regicidal Revolution. France said no thanks, and hasn’t had a monarch since.

* One more immediate consequence of Louvel’s strike: the liberal monarchist prime minister Elie Decazes came under opportunistic attack by ultra-royalists for giving aid and comfort to the terrorists with his moderate policies. Decazes was forced to resign and briefly went into exile in England due to the Ultras’ fulminations.

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1824: Antonio Brochetti, galley-dodger

Add comment May 22nd, 2014 Headsman

From Henry-Clement Sanson‘s memoirs:

On May 22 the scaffold was again erected for the execution of an Italian, a native of Rome, named Antonio Brochetti. He was imprisoned at Bicetre at the time of the murder, he having been previously sentenced to hard labour for life. He killed one of the turnkeys, with no other object than putting an end to his own life. Life in a prison or in the hulks seemed to him a much more severe punishment than death. His wish was fulfilled; he was condemned to death, and executed on the Place de Greve five days after, at four o’clock in the afternoon.

He went to the scaffold with eagerness. “I would rather die a thousand times than go to the hulks!” he exclaimed several times. Since Brochetti’s execution the severity displayed in French penitentiaries has increased; and his example has been followed by many.

“Galley slavery” in the antique Ben-Hur sense had been a mainstay of European navies since France got the bright idea to address a shortage of oarsmen by making press gangs out of magistrates. This idea was widely copied, and intensified.

At their peak in 1690, French galleys had 15,000 under oars — captured Turks, defeated Huguenots, slaves seized from Africa and North America, and, of course, criminals or anyone who could be construed as such.

Yet even by this time the galley was virtually obsolete as a military asset; Paul Bamford argues that they were maintained for pageantry and (internal) state-building for the French crown. Thus, as the 18th century unfolded, “galley” slaves were increasingly used for hard labor on the docks and in the arsenals — still-brutal punishment in a similar spirit, but no longer literally pulling an oar. By 1748, they were at last formally subsumed into a network of port prisons.

By this late date, however, usage had established the word galérien for convict galley-slaves so firmly that it persisted even now with the new redefinition.** (Italian still to this day has la galera for prison: the acme of seagoing Italian city-states coincided with that of the galley.)


Galleys’ greatest day: the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.

* Lionel Casson (in “Galley Slaves” from the Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, vol. 97 (1966)) dates this to a January 22, 1443 edict of Charles VII conferring on merchant Jacques Coeur the right to impress vagabonds into his fleet.

** Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean (Les Miserables) was a galley-slave; he would have been by Antonio Brochetti’s time just a few years out of the galleys himself.

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1574: Joseph Boniface de La Mole, La Reine Margot’s lover

1 comment April 30th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1574, nobleman Joseph Boniface de La Mole was beheaded in Paris for a supposed plot against the king.

As the year would imply, La Mole was a casualty of France’s decades-long Wars of Religion.

Two years prior, in an attempt to cement an unsteady peace, the king’s sister Marguerite de Valois had been married off to the Protestant Henri of Navarre. As Paris teemed with Huguenots in town to celebrate the nuptials, the Catholic party sprang the infamous St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.

As if things weren’t awkward enough with the in-laws, Henri was now made to live at the royal court, feigning conversion to Catholicism. His relationship with Marguerite went off to a rocky start; both took other lovers.

Joseph Boniface de La Mole (English Wikipedia entry | French) was one of Marguerite’s. You’ll find this adulterous couple steaming up the screen in the 1994 film La Reine Margot, which is based on a Dumas novel of the same title.


In real life, La Mole was 27 years Marguerite’s senior.

Meanwhile, civil strife ebbed and flowed.

Desperate to escape his gilded cage, Henri in 1574 was part of a Protestant coup attempt that boldly aimed to seize the sickly King Charles IX and his mother Catherine de’ Medici at Saint-Germain.

The conspiracy failed, but its principals — including not only our Henri, but also the King’s Protestant-friendly brother the Duke of Alencon, and the Duke of Montmorency* — were too august for severe punishment. Catherine de’ Medici, whose children kept dying on her (Charles IX would do likewise in May of 1574), was desperately trying to navigate the civil war with a Valois heir in place who had enough political support to rule; going all-in with the realm’s Catholic ultras (most characteristically represented by the House of Guise, which wanted Henri beheaded for this treason) would have permanently alienated all the Huguenots.

The likes of La Mole, however, were not so safe.

He and one Annibal de Coconnas, members of the court’s Huguenot circle who “had nothing of the divinity that hedged the princes of the blood,” were seized on April 8 and interrogated for an alleged scheme to murder the sovereign — possibly at the instigation of the Guises, trying to implicate through this pair the more powerful Huguenot lords.

After the inevitable blade fell on them, Marguerite supposedly kept her former lover’s severed head in a jeweled box. But the nobleman had at least the consolation of a rich literary afterlife. Besides the Dumas novel aforementioned, the La Mole family — our man’s supposed descendants — feature prominently in Stendhal’s The Red and the Black.

‘Let us take a turn in the garden,’ said the Academician, delighted to see this chance of delivering a long and formal speech. ‘What! Is it really possible that you do not know what happened on the 30th of April, 1574?’ ‘Where?’ asked Julien, in surprise. ‘On the Place de Greve.’ Julien was so surprised that this name did not enlighten him. His curiosity, the prospect of a tragic interest, so attuned to his nature, gave him those sparkling eyes which a story-teller so loves to see in his audience. The Academician, delighted to find a virgin ear, related at full length to Julien how, on the 30th of April, 1574, the handsomest young man of his age, Boniface de La Mole, and Annibal de Coconasso, a Piedmontese gentleman, his friend, had been beheaded on the Place de Greve. ‘La Mole was the adored lover of Queen Marguerite of Navarre; and observe,’ the Academician added, ‘that Mademoiselle de La Mole is named Mathilde-Marguerite. La Mole was at the same time the favourite of the Duc d’Alencon and an intimate friend of the King of Navarre, afterwards Henri IV, the husband of his mistress. On Shrove Tuesday in this year, 1574, the Court happened to be at Saint-Germain, with the unfortunate King Charles IX, who was on his deathbed. La Mole wished to carry off the Princes, his friends, whom Queen Catherine de’ Medici was keeping as prisoners with the Court. He brought up two hundred horsemen under the walls of Saint-Germain, the Due d’Alencon took fright, and La Mole was sent to the scaffold.

In Stendhal’s novel, it is Julien’s sexual conquest of the pretty young Mathilde de La Mole that sets in motion Julien’s ruin and execution.

Joseph Boniface de La Mole’s lover fared far better than that of his fictional descendant. Henri would eventually make his escape after all, and through fortune and intrepidity made Marguerite the Queen of all France** when he decided at last that Paris was worth a Mass.

* The man in our story was the second Duke of Montmorency; his nephew, the fourth duke, was beheaded in 1632.

** The marriage was never comfortable, and Henri and Marguerite continued to live and love separately until they finally annulled the union in 1599.

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1721: Jean-Pierre Balagny, Cartouche lieutenant

1 comment December 2nd, 2012 Headsman

On this day in 1721, Jean-Pierre Balagny, alias Capuchin, was broken on the wheel in Paris. He was one of the lieutenants and boon companions of legendary French outlaws Cartouche.

We have noted that that renowned bandit crowned his fame at the last by enduring all tortures, only to voluntarily give up the names of his companions as he approached the scaffold and perceived that they had failed to arrange a rescue.

“Capuchin”, who was with Cartouche when he was captured and subject to much the same interrogation, proved as good as his captain. He, too, endured the boot without breaking. And he, with two companions, likewise reached the scaffold and only there coughed it up.

They gave information as to their accomplices, and made, at the foot of the scaffold, confessions which torture had failed to elicit from them.

They implicated so many persons, that another series of trials began, which lasted as long as the declarations of convicted prisoners compromised other persons, and threw new light on the immense ramifications of an association of miscreants which had for many years defied the police. More than sixty persons were under lock and key at the time of the execution of Cartouche and Balagny. This number increased every day in consequence of the confession of those who hoped to save their lives by denouncing their accomplices, and in June of the following year it rose to one hundred and fifty … all this blood, instead of washing the affair away, seemed rather to make it more serious. Every day brought to light some new discovery; and this shows how profoundly mistaken were those who denied that Cartouche, the centre and wire-puller of this horrible association, possessed the organising spirit without which he could not have extended this immense net over the Parisian society.

One is left to infer from this entry in the memoirs of the Parisian hereditary executioner-family Sanson that Balagny likewise did in his friends over some ornate notion of honor … although if the anecdote is true, one could as easily suppose any number of less “creditable” reasons.

At any rate, Balagny’s evidence added to that of Cartouche’s snowballed into a bloody cycle of tortures and executions and fresh denunciations over the year to come.

Of course, getting rid of all the criminals did not get rid of crime.

“In spite of the executions at La Greve, there are more thieves than ever in Paris,” lamented one observer (quoted here). “Cartouche has died on the wheel; but his name and memory engender robbers.”

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1722: Cartouche’s brother, hanged by the armpits

8 comments July 31st, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1722, the younger brother of the great French outlaw Cartouche was punished with a bizarre non-fatal hanging in Paris’s Place de Greve.

At least, it was supposed to be non-fatal.

Little Louison was a whelp of 15 years and already condemned to hard labor in the months-long smashing-up of the gang that followed the ringleader’s 1721 execution. “Nothing but hangings and breakings on the wheel!” one diarist scribbled in July 1722. “Every day some Cartouchian executed.”

As a sort of piece de resistance for the month, a judge named Arnould de Boueix, sore about the murder of a gendarme in his family, ordered the young Louison “hanged” under the armpits (the rope about his chest) for two hours as an additional punishment/humiliation. Judge de Boueix apparently devised this thing without any sort of precedent or anatomical expertise that would actually confirm the safety of the procedure.

[Louison] cried out very loudly at first, and begged that he might be put out of pain at once, as the weight of his body seemed to force every drop of blood down to his feet. “Ce-qui” (adds Barbier) “est la souffrance des pendus.” [“Such is the suffering of the hanged” -ed.]

Later, his tongue protruded, and he spoke no more. Without waiting for the ordained two hours to expire, the lad was taken down and placed in medical care; but it was too late. He was already dead. “He was very wicked for his years,” says Barbier, “and had been an accomplice of his brother from a very early age.”

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1789: Joseph-Francois Foulon, corrupt financier, lynched

1 comment July 22nd, 2012 Headsman

On this date, just days after the Bastille fell, so did the head of widely-loathed ancien regime pol Joseph-Francois Foulon (or Foullon) de Doue.

“This is that same Foulon,” says Carlyle, “named ame damnee du Parlement; a man grown gray in treachery, in griping, projecting, intriguing and iniquity: who once when it was objected, to some finance-scheme of his, ‘What will the people do?’ — made answer, in the fire of discussion, ‘The people may eat grass:’ hasty words, which fly abroad irrevocable, — and will send back tidings!”

Marie Antoinette, eat your cake out.

Foulon’s grass tidings would arrive courtesy of the king‘s July 11, 1789 dismissal of Finance Minister Jacques Necker and attempt to rule through an ultra-royalist government. It was fury over this apparent reactionary coup that led to the storming of the Bastille and catalyzed the French Revolution.

Foulon, now the Controller-General of Finances — and as Carlyle puts it, “a scoundrel; but of unmeasured wealth,” who had gorged himself at the public trough while the kingdom’s finances grew thin, and who was widely suspected of having manipulated the food supply out of cruel rapacity — apprehended the danger and fled town. He even staged a lavish funeral to put about word that he had died suddenly.

But “some living domestic or dependant, for none loves Foulon,” betrayed him (Carlyle’s version) — or by whatever means, the Parisian mob sniffed him out. Then it quickly did to him what the Parisian mob would soon become famous for. “His old head, which seventy-four years have bleached, is bare; they have tied an emblematic bundle of grass on his back; a garland of nettles and thistles is round his neck: in this manner; led with ropes; goaded on with curses and menaces, must he, with his old limbs, sprawl forward; the pitiablest, most unpitied of all old men.”

Carlyle spares little but the most animal pity for Foulon, but the mob did not even muster that. Summoned to be judged at the Hotel de Ville — the Marquis de Lafayette and the new mayor of Paris, Bailly, unsuccessfully attempted to intercede for proper procedure — Foulon found himself instead subject to the revolutionary judgment of the masses.

For Dickens, in A Tale of Two Cities, this incident forms one of the mileposts of the Revolution, when the waiting sans-culottes of Saint Antoine are transfigured, and leads the fictional long-time revolutionary conspirator Defarge to sigh to his even more implacable wife, “At last it is come, my dear!”

“Does everybody here recall old Foulon, who told the famished people that they might eat grass, and who died, and went to Hell?”

“Everybody!” from all throats.

“The news is of him. He is among us!”

“Among us!” from the universal throat again. “And dead?”

“Not dead! He feared us so much—and with reason—that he caused himself to be represented as dead, and had a grand mock-funeral. But they have found him alive, hiding in the country, and have brought him in. I have seen him but now, on his way to the Hotel de Ville, a prisoner. I have said that he had reason to fear us. Say all! Had he reason?”

Wretched old sinner of more than threescore years and ten, if he had never known it yet, he would have known it in his heart of hearts if he could have heard the answering cry.

A moment of profound silence followed. Defarge and his wife looked steadfastly at one another. The Vengeance stooped, and the jar of a drum was heard as she moved it at her feet behind the counter.

“Patriots!” said Defarge, in a determined voice, “are we ready?”

Instantly Madame Defarge’s knife was in her girdle; the drum was beating in the streets, as if it and a drummer had flown together by magic; and The Vengeance, uttering terrific shrieks, and flinging her arms about her head like all the forty Furies at once, was tearing from house to house, rousing the women.

The men were terrible, in the bloody-minded anger with which they looked from windows, caught up what arms they had, and came pouring down into the streets; but, the women were a sight to chill the boldest. From such household occupations as their bare poverty yielded, from their children, from their aged and their sick crouching on the bare ground famished and naked, they ran out with streaming hair, urging one another, and themselves, to madness with the wildest cries and actions. Villain Foulon taken, my sister! Old Foulon taken, my mother! Miscreant Foulon taken, my daughter! Then, a score of others ran into the midst of these, beating their breasts, tearing their hair, and screaming, Foulon alive! Foulon who told the starving people they might eat grass! Foulon who told my old father that he might eat grass, when I had no bread to give him! Foulon who told my baby it might suck grass, when these breasts were dry with want! O mother of God, this Foulon! O Heaven our suffering! Hear me, my dead baby and my withered father: I swear on my knees, on these stones, to avenge you on Foulon! Husbands, and brothers, and young men, Give us the blood of Foulon, Give us the head of Foulon, Give us the heart of Foulon, Give us the body and soul of Foulon, Rend Foulon to pieces, and dig him into the ground, that grass may grow from him! With these cries, numbers of the women, lashed into blind frenzy, whirled about, striking and tearing at their own friends until they dropped into a passionate swoon, and were only saved by the men belonging to them from being trampled under foot.

Nevertheless, not a moment was lost; not a moment! This Foulon was at the Hotel de Ville, and might be loosed. Never, if Saint Antoine knew his own sufferings, insults, and wrongs! Armed men and women flocked out of the Quarter so fast, and drew even these last dregs after them with such a force of suction, that within a quarter of an hour there was not a human creature in Saint Antoine’s bosom but a few old crones and the wailing children.

No. They were all by that time choking the Hall of Examination where this old man, ugly and wicked, was, and overflowing into the adjacent open space and streets. The Defarges, husband and wife, The Vengeance, and Jacques Three, were in the first press, and at no great distance from him in the Hall.

“See!” cried madame, pointing with her knife. “See the old villain bound with ropes. That was well done to tie a bunch of grass upon his back. Ha, ha! That was well done. Let him eat it now!” Madame put her knife under her arm, and clapped her hands as at a play.

The people immediately behind Madame Defarge, explaining the cause of her satisfaction to those behind them, and those again explaining to others, and those to others, the neighbouring streets resounded with the clapping of hands. Similarly, during two or three hours of drawl, and the winnowing of many bushels of words, Madame Defarge’s frequent expressions of impatience were taken up, with marvellous quickness, at a distance: the more readily, because certain men who had by some wonderful exercise of agility climbed up the external architecture to look in from the windows, knew Madame Defarge well, and acted as a telegraph between her and the crowd outside the building.

At length the sun rose so high that it struck a kindly ray as of hope or protection, directly down upon the old prisoner’s head. The favour was too much to bear; in an instant the barrier of dust and chaff that had stood surprisingly long, went to the winds, and Saint Antoine had got him!

It was known directly, to the furthest confines of the crowd. Defarge had but sprung over a railing and a table, and folded the miserable wretch in a deadly embrace—Madame Defarge had but followed and turned her hand in one of the ropes with which he was tied—The Vengeance and Jacques Three were not yet up with them, and the men at the windows had not yet swooped into the Hall, like birds of prey from their high perches—when the cry seemed to go up, all over the city, “Bring him out! Bring him to the lamp!”

Down, and up, and head foremost on the steps of the building; now, on his knees; now, on his feet; now, on his back; dragged, and struck at, and stifled by the bunches of grass and straw that were thrust into his face by hundreds of hands; torn, bruised, panting, bleeding, yet always entreating and beseeching for mercy; now full of vehement agony of action, with a small clear space about him as the people drew one another back that they might see; now, a log of dead wood drawn through a forest of legs; he was hauled to the nearest street corner where one of the fatal lamps swung, and there Madame Defarge let him go—as a cat might have done to a mouse—and silently and composedly looked at him while they made ready, and while he besought her: the women passionately screeching at him all the time, and the men sternly calling out to have him killed with grass in his mouth. Once, he went aloft, and the rope broke, and they caught him shrieking; twice, he went aloft, and the rope broke, and they caught him shrieking; then, the rope was merciful, and held him, and his head was soon upon a pike, with grass enough in the mouth for all Saint Antoine to dance at the sight of.

That grass-stuffed head on a pike was there waiting when the bloody banquet’s digestif arrived later that evening in the form of Foulon’s son-in-law Louis-Jean Bertier de Sauvigny: another government official arrested that day and drug to the same place, for the same fate.


Bertier de Sauvignon, Intendant of Paris, Is Led to His Punishment (Source, specifically image 25)

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