1887: Henri Pranzini, repentant?

3 comments August 31st, 2012 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had obtained the sign I requested.

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

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

On this day..

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

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1894: Emile Henry, because there are no innocent bourgeois

3 comments May 21st, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1894, Emile Henry was guillotined in Paris for bombing the Cafe Terminus three months before.

Yale history professor John Merriman (see him lecturing on the Paris Commune) explores how Henry’s bombing “ignited the age of modern terror.” (Review.) (Another.)

A bourgeois youth who, disgusted at the gross economic exploitation of the Gilded Age, had turned against his class with the fury only the apostate can command, Émile Henry had chucked a bomb into the chic cafe of the Parisian Gare Saint-Lazare a week after the execution of Auguste Vaillant.

Henry’s act killed only one, but electrified the country.

The Terminus bombing stood out in an era of violent anarchist ferment for its target selection: not a prince or president or parliamentarian, but the faceless multitudes of the bourgeoisie (formerly) secure in their metropolitan repose — who, in their indifference to the misery of workers assented to and profited from the more infamous repressions wrought by their plenipotentiaries.

Henry was completely explicit about his intent: “there are no innocent bourgeois.”

Recognizing the hopelessness of his legal position, he proudly admitted the charges against him and mounted an eloquent defense for the wider world of his version of anarchist terror.

I had returned to Paris at the time of the Vaillant affair, and I witnessed the frightful repression that followed the explosion at the Palais Bourbon. I saw the draconian measures which the government decided to take against the anarchists. Everywhere there were spies, and searches, and arrests. A crowd of individuals were indiscriminately rounded up, torn from their families, and thrown into prison. Nobody was concerned about what happened to the wives and children of these comrades while they remained in jail.

The anarchist was no longer regarded as a man, but as a wild beast to be hunted everywhere while the bourgeois Press, which is the vile slave of authority, loudly demands his extermination.

But, gentlemen of the bourgeoisie, you have reckoned a little too much without your host. You arrested hundreds of men and women, you violated scores of homes, but still outside the prison walls there were men unknown to you who watched from the shadows as you hunted the anarchists, and waited only for the moment that would be favourable for them in their turn to hunt the hunters.

… The bomb in the Cafe Terminus is the answer to all your violations of freedom, to your arrests, to your searches, to your laws against the Press, to your mass transportations, to your guillotinings. But why, you ask, attack these peaceful cafe guests, who sat listening to music and who, no doubt, were neither judges nor deputies nor bureaucrats? Why? It is very simple. The bourgeoisie did not distinguish among the anarchists. Vaillant, a man on his own, threw a bomb; nine-tenths of the comrades did not even know him. But that meant nothing; the persecution was a mass one, and anyone with the slightest anarchist links was hunted down. And since you hold a whole party responsible for the actions of a single man, and strike indiscriminately, we also strike indiscriminately.

Perhaps we should attack only the deputies who make laws against us, the judges who apply those laws, the police who arrest us? I do not agree. These men are only instruments. They do not act in their own name. Their functions were instituted by the bourgeoisie for its own defence. They are no more guilty than the rest of you. Those good bourgeois who hold no office but who reap their dividends and live idly on the profits of the workers’ toil, they also must take their share in the reprisals. And not only they, but all those who are satisfied with the existing order, who applaud the acts of the government and so become its accomplices, those clerks earning three or five hundred francs a month who hate the people even more violently than the rich, that stupid and pretentious mass of folk who always choose the strongest side — in other words, the daily clientele of Terminus and the other great cafés.

That is why I struck at random and did not choose my victims! The bourgeoisie must be brought to understand that those who have suffered are tired at last of their sufferings; they are showing their teeth and they will strike all the more brutally if you are brutal with them. …

We will not spare the women and children of the bourgeois, for the women and children of those we love have not been spared. Must we not count among the innocent victims those children who die slowly of anaemia in the slums because bread is scarce in their houses; those women who grow pale in your workshops, working to earn forty sous a day and fortunate when poverty does not force them into prostitution; those old men whom you have made production machines all their lives and whom you cast on to the waste heap or into the workhouse when their strength has worn away?

At least have the courage of your crimes, gentlemen of the bourgeoisie, and grant that our reprisals are completely legitimate.

In that pitiless war which we have declared on the bourgeoisie, we ask for no pity. We give death, and we know how to endure it. So it is with indifference that I await your verdict. I know that my head is not the last you will cut off; yet others will fall, for the starving are beginning to know the way to your great cafes and restaurants, to the Terminus and Foyot. You will add other names to the bloody list of our dead.

You have hanged in Chicago, decapitated in Germany, garotted in Jerez, shot in Barcelona, guillotined in Montbrison and Paris, but what you will never destroy is anarchy. Its roots are too deep. It is born in the heart of a society that is rotting and falling apart. It is a violent reaction against the established order. It represents all the egalitarian and libertarian aspirations that strike out against authority. It is everywhere, which makes it impossible to contain. It will end by killing you.

Clemenceau, who witnessed the beheading at the Place de la Roquette, saw in the ghastly white 21-year-old crying “long live anarchy!” in the predawn gloom this morning in 1894 “the face of a tormented Christ, terribly pale, implacable in expression, trying to impose his intellectual pride upon his child’s body … let those for the death penalty go, if they dare, to smell the blood of La Roquette.”

Five weeks later, the French president who had refused to spare Henry was himself assassinated by another anarchist.

The clip above uses an actual 1893 anarchist hymn to dynamite, that fruit of the chemical science whose pyrotechnics were held to catalyze social change. Henry, who probably hummed the song a few times in his life, must have approved the songwriter’s philosophy.

Tant mieux s’il éclate parfois en faisant beaucoup de victimes
Chez nos ennemis les bourgeois cela nous venge de leurs crimes

For more on Henry’s place in the era’s revolutionary ferment, enjoy this lecture by Dynamite Club author John Merriman as part of his course European Civilization, 1648-1945.

[audio:http://openmedia.yale.edu/projects/courses/fall08/hist202/mp3/hist202_14_102208.mp3]

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous Last Words,France,Guillotine,History,Infamous,Martyrs,Murder,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Terrorists

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