1726: Étienne-Benjamin Deschauffours

Add comment May 24th, 2020 Headsman

Etienne-Benjamin Deschauffours (or Duchauffour) was burned at Paris’s Place de Greve on this date in 1726.

Although executed on a sodomy conviction, it wasn’t mere same-sex indulgence but a monstrous, Jeffrey Epstein-like project of elite sexual depravity that cinched his fate, at least if the trial records are to be believed.

“Under a variety of pseudonyms, and in various lodgings, Deschauffours earned a living by spotting ‘likely lads’ and supplying them on payment of commission to wealthy clients, both French and foreign (perhaps some 200 in all),” quoth Who’s Who in Gay and Lesbian History: From Antiquity to World War II.

Deschaffours frequently tried out his finds (young and very young), and found his pleasure in their pain (it is difficult not to think forward to the Marquise de Sade, or backward to Gilles de Rais). He castrated a young Italian whose admirer hoped this might render him more compliant.

Reportedly, he procured these semi- or unwilling charges for overmighty magnates who were — as with the previous century’s Affair of the Poisons — far too powerful and numerous to bring to book without inviting systemic crisis. Their vices thus remain mere rumors even down to our remove of posterity, for whom shadowy and redacted documentation yet conceals god knows what monstrosities.

Jim Chevallier, in The Old Regime Police Blotter II: Sodomites, Tribads and “Crimes Against Nature”, notes a 1734 doggerel capturing the scandal-mongering that became as the popular impression of the affair.

Du Chauffour and d’Oswal
are two unparalleled buggers,

There’s the resemblance.

One burned for his crime,
The other was made cardinal,

There’s the difference.

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

Add comment February 17th, 2020 Henry-Clement Sanson

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

MY FIRST EXECUTION.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Shinichi Sakamoto: The Sansons in tragic manga.

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

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

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

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1661: Jacques Chausson, “Great Gods, where is your justice?”

Add comment December 29th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1661, the French customs officer and writer Jacques Chausson (English Wikipedia entry | French) was burned at Paris’s Place de Greve for sodomy.

Chausson with another man, Jacques Paulmier, forced themselves upon a handsome 17-year-old aristocratic youth, “and [Chausson] while embracing him [the victim] undid the button of his pants at the same time, and then Paulmier began knowing him carnally, and committing with him the crime of sodomy. Having felt this, he began to shout and struggle, and then an old woman, working that day at the home of Mr. Petit, merchant and head of the house, came running.”

As we’ve noted before in these pages, Chausson entered French letters as the subject of verse by Claude le Petit, himself later executed, disdaining the hypocrisy of executing for a diversion widely practiced among the elites.

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.

That was written in the weeks between Chausson’s condemnation and his execution. Le Petit returned to the subject in evident disgust once the deed was done.

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.

Nor was this the only poet incensed by events. Taking note that yet another sexually flexible nobleman Guillaume de Guitaut was to be elevated on the subsequent New Year’s Day to the Order of the Holy Spirit, the poet Charles de Saint-Gilles Lenfant mused,

Grands Dieux! Quelle est vôtre justice?
Chausson va périr par le feu;
Et Guitaut par le même vice
A mérité le Cordon bleu.

Meaning …

Great Gods! Where is your justice?
Chausson is about to die in the fire;
And Guitaut for the same vice
Has deserved the Cordon bleu.

This quatrain can be heard in vocal recital in a brief Soundcloud clip here.

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1662: Claude Le Petit, dirty poet

Add comment September 1st, 2019 Headsman

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

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

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

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

After Chausson was indeed executed, Le Petit wrote:

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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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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