On this date in 1705, two men were burned at the stake and two others broken on the wheel — Camisards all, put to death in Nimes, France.
The Camisards* were French Protestants of the mountainous southern Cevennes region who make their entry into these pages because the crown in 1685 revoked the Edict of Nantes, France’s guarantee of multiconfessional toleration.
Protestants were going to be bullied into conversion — or, in many cases, flight. (London’s Spitalfields textile industry, for instance, got a welcome shot in the arm from refugee Huguenot weavers.)
In 1702, the Cevennes Protestants pushed back.
“A persecution unsurpassed in violence had lasted near a score of years,” Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in his 19th century travelogue of the region. “This was the result upon the persecuted; hanging, burning, breaking on the wheel, had been in vain; the dragoons had left their hoof-marks over all the countryside; there were men rowing in the galleys, and women pining in the prisons of the Church; and not a thought was changed in the heart of any upright Protestant.”
Two years of dirty neighbor-on-neighbor violence mostly petered out in 1704 with the loss of the Camisards’ two main leaders — Jean Cavalier, the brilliant peasant-turned-commander who was bought off by an army commission and a royal pension, and Roland Laporte, who was betrayed as by Judas for 200 pieces of gold.
The prospect of a renewed rising drew them back — a bold and terrible stroke to mount a surprise massacre and kidnap the exiled English Duke of Berwick. Catinat returned from his hidey-hole in Geneva; Ravanel came the bush where he was the last notable Camisard commander in the field.
An informer spilled the secret and the conspirators were busted in Nimes before they could spring their trap.
They faced immediate trial and condemnation — Catinat and Ravanel, along with two younger fighters named Jonquet and Villas.
After a long bout of pre-execution torture on April 21 to reveal their conspirators,**
The next day, the 22nd April, 1705, they were taken from the prison and drawn to the place of execution in two carts, being unable to walk, on account of the severe torture to which they had been subjected, and which had crushed the bones of their legs. A single pile of wood had been prepared for Catinat and Ravanel, who were to be burnt together; they were in one cart, and Villas and Jonquet, for whom two wheels had been prepared, were in the other.
The first operation was to bind Catinat and Ravanel back to back to the same stake, care being taken to place Catinat with his face to windward, so that his agony might last longer, and then the pile was lit under Ravanel.
As had been foreseen, this precaution gave great pleasure to those people who took delight in witnessing executions. The wind being rather high, blew the flames away from Catinat, so that at first the fire burnt his legs only — a circumstance which, the author of the History of the Camisards tells us, aroused Catinat’s impatience. Ravanel, however, bore everything to the end with the greatest heroism, only pausing in his singing to address words of encouragement to his companion in suffering, whom he could not see, but whose groans and curses he could hear; he would then return to his psalms, which he continued to sing until his voice was stifled in the flames. Just as he expired, Jonquet was removed from the wheel, and carried, his broken limbs dangling, to the burning pile, on which he was thrown. From the midst of the flames his voice was heard saying, “Courage, Catinat; we shall soon meet in heaven.” A few moments later, the stake, being burnt through at the base, broke, and Catinat falling into the flames, was quickly suffocated. That this accident had not been forseen and prevented by proper precautions caused great displeasure to spectators who found that the three-quarter of an hour which the spectacle had lasted was much too brief a time.
Villas lived three hours longer on his wheel, and expired without having uttered a single complaint.
A hecatomb of Camisard executions followed, fed by the denunciations of frightened or avaricious people; still others were “merely” condemned to the galleys … bringing at last a sullen peace of arms to the turbulent province.
William Brodie, respectable burgher by day, Deacon of the Guild of Wrights, wasn’t the type for the gallows. Actually, the upright citizen is said to have proposed an improvement in the old Tolbooth gallows, replacing the old-school ladders with a forward-thinking drop mechanism.
“Brodie,” says Traditions of Edinburgh, “was the first who proved the excellence of [the] improvement … He inspected the thing with a professional air, and seemed to view the result of his ingenuity with a smile of satisfaction.”*
Insouciance in the face of mortality … but Brodie had plenty of practice in compartmentalization.
With a gambling habit, a couple of mistresses, and five kids, Brodie the oleaginous society man had a double life, or treble, or more. By and by, the well-known tendency of such profligate pastimes to lead a man to venture his neck in order to keep up appearances worked its will upon Brodie, who began using his contracts with Edinburgh’s upper crust to case their houses and copy their keys … returning at night to burgle his employers.
It was taking on partners that did in the budding master thief; inevitably, someone flipped to dodge the gallows himself. Brodie’s cover was blown, and he hanged with his confederate George Smith, keeping up appearances to the very end.
Brodie himself is supposed to have made his own bid to live on by surviving the hanging. William Roughead in Classic Crimes describes these machinations whose generally attested failure is now and again disputed anew.
Of the plans, various and futile, formed for the resuscitation of the Deacon there are two contemporary and competing versions. One is that the hangman was bribed to tamper with the rope, so as to give a short fall and avoid dislocation of the vertebrae. But by an excess of caution that officer first made it too short and then too long. The body, when cut down, was placed in a cart and driven furiously round the back of the Castle to the Deacon’s woodyard at the foot of Brodie’s Close, so that animation might be restored as in the historic case of “half-hangit Maggie Dickson,” a lady whose departed spirit was recalled by similar Jehu methods. In his own workshop his veins were opened by a French surgeon, whose services had been retained to that end; but all the resources of science could not bring the Deacon back to life. According to another account, he had, before leaving his cell for the last time, been supplied with a small silver tube for insertion in his throat at the final ceremony in order to prevent suffocation, and wires were carried down both his sides from head to foot to counteract the jerk of the fall. In spite of these precautions and of subsequent bleeding by a surgeon, his friends had reluctantly to admit that “Brodie was fairly gone.”
Of the many picturesque legends of old Edinburgh which, in defiance of truth, cling like ivy about her vanished past, one of the most persistent is that Deacon Brodie was the first to suffer upon the new drop which he himself designed. This myth, upon research, I found myself reluctantly compelled to disprove. He may have planned the “moveable platform for the execution of criminals,” which the Town Council caused to be erected in 1786 at the west end of the Tolbooth; but it was certainly not of his construction, nor was he the first to benefit by its ingenuity. The place of execution was the roof of a low building which projected from the west gable of the prison — roughly where the Buccleuch statue now stands. A beam was drawn out from an aperture in the wall above the platform and from this depended the fatal rope.