1872: Communards Serizier, Boin and Boudin

1 comment May 25th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1872, three adherents of the late Paris Commune were shot at Satory (which was doing steady business in the execution of Communards).

We take this story from the dispatch filed the same day for the London Telegraph and reprinted in the New York Times. Paragraph breaks have been added for readability.


Dilatory as the French authorities are in bringing culprits to trial, they dispatch them with terrible haste so soon as their guilt has been certified by the final Court of Appeal. No public notice is ever given of an execution, and few people ever hear of it until it is all over.

A paragraph appeared in an evening paper last night to this effect: “The Commission of Pardons has commuted the sentenced passed on PASCAL and LUCIPIA; the appeals of SERIZIER, BOIN and BOUDIN have been rejected.” To the world at large this paragraph conveys no hint as to the date of execution; the initiated read between the lines that on the following morning, dawn will rise on a dismal military pageant on the plains of Satory.

There is, nevertheless, a certain amount of uncertainty in the matter, so very closely are all such secrets kept in France; and it was only on the receipt of a hint from a high authority that some time after midnight I determined to start with a friend for Satory. The impression made upon me by the ghastly spectacle I shall try to describe in the plainest possible language.

SATORY.

A finer exercising ground than the plain of Satory it is not possible to imagine. The ground is as flat as a billiard-table, and it is not devoid of a certain beauty — the thick turf being singularly fresh, and he vast square plain surrounded by a belt of fine trees.

Troops are marching in companies to take up their appointed positions on the ground. A raised battery is a prominent object, and opposite to it, at some distance, is a huge earthen mound, against which a target stands out distinctly in black and white. The troops are forming in three sides of a square, which is completed by this butt.

It is not until you get quite close to the mound that you perceive on the lower ground immediately in front three white sticks ranged in a line, each about four feet high and five feet apart. These are the poteaux against which the culprits are to stand.

A good many soldiers, not on duty, have turned out en amateur to see the show; they collect on the top of a mound near the butt, but they are driven down by the artillery sentinels and mounted police, who, dressed in a little authority, canter about with superfluous fidgety zeal.

The morning air is chill, and everybody on duty or off duty tries to comfort himself with a smoke. “Nous avons encore trente-cinq minutes,” says a sergent-de-ville, in a grumbling, querulous tone. And the condemned men? They only had thirty-five minutes, and methinks they had as much reason to complain.

A soldier proceeds to work at the target, sqwing it off short; he is going to take it away, perhaps, that it may not divert the soldiers’ aim; and one feels irritated with him for being so slow.

One wonders, too, that they have allowed the red signal flag to remain at the top of the butt. Would not a Communist see an omen or an augury in the accident?

An engineer close to me is coolly fashioning wedges, in preparation for the artillery practice, which is to begin “aussitot que cette affaire est finie.”

Another protests impatiently that he wants his breakfast. Three dogs, which are perpetually frightening the horses of the mounted police, as well as the riders, excite continual merriment. There are scarcely more than a dozen civilians present, but I observe two women.

One — a brazen-looking creature, with a black mustache, and wearing that peculiar kind of hooded cloak which you see constantly in Belgium — was laughing a hoarse, harsh laugh, that chilled one’s blood. The other was charmingly dressed in black silk, and looked like a lady; she spoke to nobody; her face was deadly pale; her eyes were large with tears, and yet there was a strange compression about the lips that told of intesnse firmness of purpose. Her bearing was rigidly calm, but I fancied that the stick of her dainty black parasol was snapped in two.

What had that woman to do at such a scene? I know not; but, assuredly, it was not curiosity that brought her there. There was now a slight diversion. A cart drove up covered with black cloth, and hid itself away to the left of the poteaux.

THE EXECUTIONERS AND THE CONDEMNED.

Then the pelotons or firing parties marched in and piled arms opposite the same slim sticks about which everything in that huge plain seemed to gather of its own accord.

The pelotons were taken, one from the line, two from the Chasseurs de Vincennes. Hardened though they must be by this time and embittered though they are against the Communists, I do not think, to do them justice, that they liked their duty. They looked pale, they were perpetually falling out, and they smoked with suspicious eagerness.

I tried to impress on my own mind that these fellows were murderous ruffians who had slain unoffending fellow-creatures in cold blood. SERIZIER and BOIN, Colonel and Lieutenant in the Communist army, had tortured and killed the very priests who had devoted themselves to the task of tending the wounded on both sides, for no reason but that they were good men. BOUDIN had actually shot down a chemist in the Rue Richelieu because he protested against his son, a mere lad, being impressed into working at a barricade.

But, with the best will in the world, I could not persuade myself that it was right and proper for 5,000 soldiers to be brought out under arms for the mere sake of killing three defenceless wretches. Meanwhile the minutes passed on; the officers rolled up cigarettes, compared watches, and consoled each other with the reflection, “Soyez tranquille, mon cher, ca sera l’heure militaire.”

And so it was; for just as the first silvery tones of a distant church clock were wafted across the heath, striking the hour, the trumpets rang, the drums beat Aux champs, the troops dressed up, and the three ambulance wagons dashed into the square at a sharp trot.

The prisoners had not been apprised of their appeal hvaing been rejected until four o’clock in the morning, but they seem to have accepted their fate with singular philosophy. They had all eaten and drunk, and SERIZIER had asked for a “pipe of tobacc” for the last time. In driving along he said to the two gendarmes by whom he was accompanied, “Wat a mistake I made to quit Belgium! Quelie belle affaire j’ai fait la. C’est egal, je saurai bien mourir.

Strangely enough, he confessed to a Dominican, a priest of the ver order against which he had shown such diabolical hatred.

Each man was accompanied by two gendarmes. And here I cannot help noting one of the strange peculiarities of an over-excited state of mind. When the drums beat “Aux champs,” the merely dramatic feeling of the scene was intensely moving.

And yet when, a moment later, I first caught sight of the tops of the jack-boots of the first tell gendarme who appeared at the ambulance doors, I was so forcibly reminded of “Le Petit Faust,” and scores of other pieces wherein these functionaries are held up to ridicule, that I almost burst out into hysterical laughter.

The tragedy, however, soon proved too terrible, for the gendarme was closely followed by BOIN, who had scarcely touched the ground before he exclaimed, waving his hat in the air, “Vive la Commune!”

The three men walked quickly to the poteaux, and placed themselves in position as coolly as though it were the most natural thing in the world. They then, as though with one accord, flung their hats or caps into the air, and shouted several times in thrilling tones, “Vive la Commune!”

They all three were smoking. SERIZIER threw away his pipe, but BOIN kept his cigar in his hand, and BOUDIN was actually smoking as he fell. The face of the latter was so covered up by the handkerchief with which he alone allowed his eyes to be bandaged that his features could not be discerned.

SERIZIER, who was in the middle, indignantly threw down the handkerchief with such force as to cast it far beyond him. BOIN also refused the bandage wherewith the soldier stationed beyond him offered to cover his eyes, and by an involuntary action he put it into his pocket.

BOUDIN was coarsely clad; and SERIZIER, an undersized man, with heavy sensual features, looked like the type of a London rough. BOIN was a tall, well-built man, having good, clean-cut features and black mustaches. He was dressed in a light-brown velvet coat, Garde Nationale trousers, and a colored-scarf round the waist.

THE EXECUTION.

The priest, going up to each in turn, kissed him on both cheeks, in what seemed to me a hurried and perfunctory manner.

Then, while the sentence was being read to the prisoners in a quick, low, quite inaudible tone, BOIN made a long harangue, much of which was lost in the perpetual rolling of those ghastly drums.

But one could distinguish snatches of sentences such as “Soldiers, you are children of the people as we are, and we will show you how children of the people can die. Nous mourons innocents,” and then opening wide his light coat — he wore no waistcoat — he offered his white shirt-front for a mark, and, striking his heart with his open palm, he exclaimed: “Portez armes en joue! feu! tirez au coeur!”

This he repeated several times, and while he was yet speaking, standing out clear away from the poteaux and looking death at ten paces literally in the face, a sword flashed in the sun, and the three men leaped from the ground only to fall to it in horrible contortions.

The smoke and the report were unheeded, for all the senses of the horrified spectator were arrested by the awful spectacle of writhing limbs and twisting hands.

BOIN seemed to be rewarded for his bravery by suffering less than the others, but SERIZIER literally rolled over, and BOUDIN also moved. The surgeon then went up, examined BOUDIN first, and then directed one of the sergeants in reserve to give the coup de grace in the ear. Then SERIZIER was examined and treated in the same way; and lastly, after a considerable interval, BOIN was dragged into position and dispatched.

I cannot give you any idea of the sickening impression produced by this seemingly deliberate butchery.

I say seemingly, for the men may have been dead, but, in any case, surely if the coup de grace must be given, it should be done at once. I did not time the proceedings, but, long as my description is, I believe that not more than two minutes elapsed from the time that the ambulance wagons came on to the ground to the time that the volley was fired.

Several more minutes, however, elapsed before the dull thud of the last coup de grace delivered a bout pontant right into the poor wretch’s ear struck upon the ground. I have seen something of the horrors of war at Sedan and Strasbourg; I have witnessed the degradations of a public hanging in England, but have never seen anything so horrible as this supplemental butchery of the coup de grace.

AN AFTER SCENE.

When the surgeon and his attendants retired fro the poteaux, it became evident that painfully long as the interval had been, he had not been sparing of trouble. For with an eye to dramatic effect, he had disposed the bodies symmetrically, so that their feet should point towards the defiling troops.

Then the trumpets struck up a lively tune, and all the troops present — three batteries of artillery, carbineers and other caalry, four or five battalions of the line, engineers, &c. — some five thousand men — marched at quick step before the stark, stiff, staring bodies.

I cannot think that such a sight can have any other effect than that of exciting sympathy for the guilty. To see a man lying on his back there, his head a shapeless mass and the large red spot on his breast growing every moment larger and larger, and to think that not ten minutes ago he was speaking with passionate eloquence — this tended rather to make one forget his crimes than to remember his cruelty.

Yet I am bound to confess that this feeling is not shared by all, for when the troops had passed by, and the black van had driven up and unladen its dreadful burden of plain coffins, I saw an officer point with his foot at the yet warm brains of BOIN, and I heard him say, “C’est avec celui qu’il a fait son discours.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Murder,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Shot

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1871: Louis Rossel, Théophile Ferré, and Sergeant Bourgeois, Communards

1 comment November 28th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1871, three very disparate men of the recently quashed Paris Commune were shot together at Satory.


Louis Rossel (top) and Theophile Ferre. The mysterious Bourgeois will have to be imagined.

Louis Rossel (French Wikipedia link | English) got the press — the public sighs, the clemency campaign, the big show by Adolphe Thiers of considering mercy. “Rossel,” French scribbler Jules Barthelemy-Saint-Hilaire wrote, “is a man whose hand we grasp even when we shoot him.”

Rossel, to the elites of the Third Republic, was one of them. (Here’s a very sympathetic extended biography via Google books.)

The highest-ranking officer (a colonel) to serve the Commune, a writer of books and thinker of thoughts, the fuzzily lefty Rossel had gone to Paris to serve “the people” when France’s capitulation during the Franco-Prussian War put the capital at the mercy of the Germans.

Rossel was briefly Minister of War for the Commune, but he broke with its leadership’s fire-eating ways and then hung about the city while events played out around him. For his adherents, he was the loyal patriot who had renounced the rebellion. For the rebels … pretty much the same (Rossel resigned/was forced from power three weeks before the Commune fell).

But for the brass, the youngster’s March resignation letter abandoning the Thiers government for the Parisian masses was a little more dangerous than your garden-variety liberalism.

Having learned … that two parties are struggling for mastery of the country, I do not hesitate in joining the side which has not concluded peace [with the Germans], and which has not included in its ranks generals guilty of capitulation. (Source)

Without doubt, Theophile Ferre (French Wikipedia link | English) was a true believer, a radical agitator from way back. Ferre was part of the Commune leadership, and directly involved in the execution of hostages during its desperate last week.*

As such, his sympathy from the bourgeois public was zero, and his prospects of commutation were even worse than that. Ferre took his solace from his faith in the cause.

Joining these two in a sort of literary triad was one “Sergeant Bourgeois” (seriously), a straight-from-central-casting grunt “condemned to death for having struck one of his officers, and for having afterwards taken part in the Commune.”** His role in the story is to be the virtuous avatar of The People, understood to have died in a manner confirming the interlocutor’s take on the Commune, whatever that take might be.

Thus, Lissagaray (French link), eloquently reviling that milquetoast fop Rossel:

For twelve weeks death remained suspended above the heads of the condemned. At last, on the 28th November, at six o’clock in the morning, they were told that they must die. Ferré jumped out of bed without showing the slightest emotion, declined the visit of the chaplain, wrote to ask the military tribunals for the release of his father [also imprisoned -ed.], and to his sister that she should have him buried so that his friends would be able to find him again. Rossel, rather surprised at first, afterwards conversed with his clergyman. He wrote a letter demanding that his death should not be avenged — a very useless precaution — and addressed a few thanks to Jesus Christ. For comrade in death they had a sergeant of the 45th line, Bourgeois, who had gone over to the Commune, and who showed the same calm as Ferré. Rossel was indignant when they put on the handcuffs; Ferré and Bourgeois disdained to protest.

The day was hardly dawning; it was bitterly cold. Before the Butte of Satory 5,000 men under arms surrounded three white stakes, each one guarded by twelve executioners. Colonel Merlin commanded, thus uniting the three functions of conqueror, judge, and hangman.

Some curious lookers-on, officers and journalists, composed the whole public.

At seven o’clock the carts of the condemned appeared; the drums beat a salute, the trumpets sounded. The prisoners descended, escorted by gendarmes. Rossel, on passing before a group of officers, saluted them. The brave Bourgeois, looking on at the whole drama with an indifferent air, leant against the middle stake. Ferré came last, dressed in black and smoking a cigar, not a muscle of his face moving. With a firm and even step he walked up and leant against the third stake.

Rossel, attended by his lawyer and his clergyman, asked to be allowed to command the fire. Merlin refused. Rossel wished to shake hands with him, in order to do homage to his sentence. This was refused. During these negotiations Ferré and Bourgeois remained motionless, silent. In order to put a stop to Rossel’s effusions an officer was obliged to tell him that he was prolonging the torture of the two others. At last they blindfolded him. Ferré pushed back the bandage, and, fixing his eyeglass, looked the soldiers straight in the face.

The sentence read, the adjutants lowered their sabres, the guns were discharged. Rossel and Bourgeois fell back. Ferré remained standing; he was only hit in the side. He was again fired at and fell. A soldier placing his chassepôt at his ear blew out his brains.

By unsurprising contrast, the New York Times reporter found Rossel’s act more convincing than Ferre’s.

Throughout this trying morning ROSSEL was calm and resigned to his fate, and all of his remarks are manly and touching …

It was a cold, dark, November morning, a heavy fog obscuring everything at 6 &frac12, and the street lamps were still lighted. During this time FERRE had dressed himself with unusual care, putting pommade upon his hair, and spending a long time in brushing his clothes … BOURGEOIS rose jauntily from his bed, made his ablutions like a soldier, then listened to the consolation of the priest. After this he lighted a cigar, and went out jauntily, with light military tread, and with his kepi cocked upon one ear. He was cool, but there was no bravado about him, while FERRE seemed to be constantly searching for effect …

ROSSEL … stood calmly before the platoon awaiting the signal to fire.

Meantime Bourgeois had marched gaily to his post, saluting the troops as he passed, and in a business-like way threw down his cigar, threw open his coat, and stood in an easy position, awaiting the word. FERRE was a poseur to the last. A number of times he changed his position, looking at his legs and then at the few spectators, but no position seemed to satisfy him. He then cast a rapid glance toward BOURGEOIS, and immediately struck the soldier’s attitude.

Seeing these archetypes reduced to corpses, the London Times‘ correspondent could hardly resist.

As I cast a last look at them, I could not but feel how different was the spirit which had animated each at the last moment. Rossel had died commending his soul to God; Borugeois had gone through the form of confession, and died probably in the ignorance of a superstitious soldier, while Ferre died, caring as little for his own life as he had for those of others … a Materialist.

* Ferre is supposed to have personally announced the death sentence to Archbishop Georges Darboy, the marquee martyr to the Commune.

** London Times, Nov. 30, 1871.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Notable Jurisprudence,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Shot,Soldiers,Treason

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