1854: John Tapner, the last hanged on Guernsey

Add comment February 10th, 2016 Victor Hugo

(Thanks to guest writer Victor Hugo, who having haunted these pages in many a post kindly permits us to republish the open letter he wrote on February 11, 1854 to Home Secretary (and future Prime Minister) Lord Palmerston. This is the English version as published by London’s Daily News on February 17 of that year; here is a French version of the same. Hugo at the time was living as an exile from the French Empire in the British-controlled Channel Island of Jersey; the case concerned was the highly controversial hanging of John Tapner on the nearby island of Guernsey for the murder of an aged Frenchwoman. Nobody ever hanged again on Guernsey after this possible wrongful execution.

The footnote appears in the original. -ed.)

Sir, —

I lay before you a series of facts which have transpired in Jersey within the last few years:

Fifteen years ago Caliot, a murderer, was condemned to death, and pardoned. Eight years ago Thomas Nicolle, a murderer, was condemned to death, and pardoned. Three years ago, in 1851, Jacques Fouquet, a murderer, was condemned to death, and pardoned.* In each of these cases the penalty of death was commuted for transportation.

In each case, to obtain a commutation of the sentence, a petition signed by the inhabitants of the island was sufficient.

In 1851 transportation was thought a sufficient punishment for Edward Carlton, who murdered his wife under circumstances of the most horrible description.

All this has taken place within fifteen years in the island from which I now address you.

Let us shift the scene from Jersey to Guernsey.

Tapner, a murderer, an incendiary, and a robber, is condemned to death.

At present, and the facts above stated prove the truth of the assertion, the penalty of death is virtually abolished in the opinion of every sane, well thinking man.

No sooner is Tapner condemned than a cry is heard, petitions are multiplied; one, energetically establishing itself on the principle of the inviolability of human life, was signed by 600 of the most enlightened of the inhabitants of the island.

And it is worthy of notice that not one minister of any Christian sect has deigned to affix his signature to either of these petitions. These men are probably ignorant that the cross is a gallows. — The people cried: “Mercy!” The priest cried: “Death!” — Let us pity the priest and resume our subject.

These petitions have been forwarded to you — a repsite has been granted. In similar cases a respite was equal to a commutation of the sentence — the island draws breath — the gallows is not to be erected — cruel error! the gallows is erected — Tapner is hung! and this after mature consideration.

Why?

Why should Guernsey be refused that which has been so often granted to Jersey?

Why deal to one concession and to the other affront? — Why should pardon be sent here and the executioner there?

Why this difference where all things else are equal? — What use was the respite but to aggravate the torture? — Was some mystery involved? To what purpose has been consideration?

Things are whispered, sir, to which I dare not listen. No! it cannot be true. What! a voice, and that of the most obscure, if it be the voice of an exile, cannot ask pardon from an insignificant corner of Europe for a man about to die without being heard by M. Bonaparte, without M. Bonaparte’s interference. What, M. Bonaparte, who has the guillotine of Bellay, the guillotine of Draguignan and the guillotine of Montpellier, not satisfied with all these! Has he still an appetite left for a gallows in Guernsey.

What — in such a case could you have refused justice to the proscribed for fear of giving umbrage to the proscriber. If so, the man was hung to accommodate, and the gallows erected as an act of courtesy, and could you have done all this to strengthen your alliance. No, no; I do not, I cannot believe it. I cannot even admit the idea, although I shudder at it.

Before the great and generous English nation can your Queen have the right of pardon, and M. Bonaparte that of a veto. At the same time that there is an omnipotent in heaven, can there be an omnipotent on earth? No.

I merely say that it was not possible for the French journals to speak of Tapner. I state the fact, but I draw no conclusion from it. However this may be, you have determined to use the terms of the despatch, that justice should take its course, and all is over.

However this may be, Tapner, after having been three times respited, and had his case three times under consideration, was hung yesterday, the 10th of February, and if there be any truth in the conjectures, which for myself I utterly reject, I present you, sir, with the bulletin of the day. you may, if such be the case, transmit it to the Tuileries. These details cannot be offensive to the Empire of the 2nd of December. The Eagle will hover with delight over the field of this victory! He is a gallows Eagle!

A garden joined the prison. In this garden the scaffold was erected. A breach was made in the wall for the prisoner to pass through. At 8 o’clock in the morning the neighbouring streets were crowded with spectators, of whom 200 of the privileged were admitted into the garden. The man appeared in the breach. He walked erect and with a firm step; he was pale, the red circle caused by anxious wakefulness surrounded his eyes.

The month just passed had added twenty years to his age — a man thirty years of age appeared fifty.

“A cotton night-cap was drawn over his head and turned up in front (says an eye-witness); he was dressed in a brown coat, which he wore during the trial, and an old pair of slippers.”

He walked partly round the garden, in a walk gravelled expressly for the occasion. The javelin men, the sheriff, the under-sheriff, and the Queen’s solicitor surrounded him. His hands were tied loosely, as we shall presently see.

According to English custom, while the hands were crossed upon the breast, a cord bound the elbows behind the back.

Behind him, the chaplains, who had refused to sign the petition for mercy, followed weeping.

The gravel walk led to the ladder — the cord was swinging — Tapner ascended the ladder — the executioner trembled: inferior executioners are at times susceptible of pity. Tapner placed himself under the noose, and pressed it over his head, and his hands not being firmly tied, he desired the executioner, who seemed quite confused, to arrange the rope. Then, “as if he had had a presentiment of what was to follow,” says the same eye-witness, “he said, ‘Tie my hands tighter.’ ‘That is unnecessary,’ replied the executioner.” Tapner standing thus with the rope round his neck, and his feet on the trap, the executioner drew the night-cap over his eyes, and nothing more could be seen of that pale face but the mouth moving as in prayer.

After some moments, the man destined to this high office pressed a spring — the drop fell, and the body fell abruptly through — the cord tightened, the body turned, and the man was considered dead.

“It was thought (says the eye-witness) that Tapner was killed at once by the rupture of the spinal marrow, he having fallen 4 feet,” but the witness further adds, “the relief of our oppressed hearts did not last two minutes.” Suddenly the man not yet a corpse, but already a spectre, moved.

The legs were thrown convulsively about, as if seeking some stay in the empty space; what could be discovered of the face was horribly disfigured; and the hands, which had become loose, were clasped and relaxed, as if to implore assistance. The cord around the elbows had snapped in the fall. Amidst these convulsions the rope began to swing, the elbows of the poor wretch came in contact with the edge of the trap, he clung to it with his hands, rested his right knee upon it, raised his body, and seemed to lean towards the crowd. Again he fell; and twice, says the eye witness, was the same scene repeated. He then raised his cap, and the crowd gained a sight of his face. This, it seemed, was too much. It was necessary to close the scene. The executioner reascended the scaffold, and caused the sufferer (I still quote the eyewitness) to let go his hold. The executioner and the victim struggled for a moment; the executioner triumphed. Then this wretch, himself like one condemned, threw himself into the aperture where Tapner was hanging, straightened his knees, and hung to his feet. The rope oscillated for a moment, bearing the victim and the executioner, the crime and the law. At last the executioner himself relaxed his hold; all was over; the man was dead.


Also a prolific drawer, Victor Hugo produced this Ecce in 1854, and several other depictions of the gallows in the ensuing years — possibly inspired by his horror at Tapner’s fate. Ecce is also known as John Brown, although that American slavery abolitionist was not executed until 1859.

You see, sir, how things were managed; the effect was completed; for the town, being built as an amphitheatre, everything was seen from the windows, all eyes were fixed on the garden. If it were the object to excite a feeling of horror, it was done: the crowd cried “Shame, shame,” and several females fainted.

During this time, Fouquet, who had been pardoned in 1851, is repeating. The executioner has converted Tapner into a corpse; Mercy, Fouquet into a man!

Between the time when Tapner fell into the trap, and that in which the executioner, no longer perceiving any motion, let go his feet, 12 minutes elapsed. Twelve minutes! Let that time be calculated, if any one knows by what clock to number the moments of suffering. Such, sir, was the mode of Tapner’s death.

The theory of example is satisfied; the philosopher alone mourns, and asks himself if this be what is called allowing justice to take its course? We must believe the philosopher to be wrong. The punishment has been frightful, but the crime was hideous. Must not society be defended? What will become of us if, &c. &c. The audacity of criminals would meet with no restraint. There would be nothing but atrocities and murders. A check is absolutely necessary. At least, it seems your opinion, Sir, that Tapners should be hung unless they be emperors. Let the will of statesmen be done!

Theorists, dreamers, those visionary spirits who have formed some notion of good and evil, cannot sound, without difficulty, certain depths of the problem of destiny.

Had Tapner, instead of killing one woman, destroyed 300, adding to the heap some hundreds of old men and children — had he instead of breaking a door, violated an oath — had he, instead of purloining a few shillings, stolen 25 millions — had he, instead of burning the house Saujon, overawed Paris by force of arms, he would have an ambassador at London.

It might, however, be as well to define a little more precisely the point at which Tapner ceases to be a robber, and Schinderhannes commences politician. Sir, this is horrible! We are members, you and I, of the infinitely small. I am only a refugee, you are only a minister — I am ashes, you are dust — Atom may surely speak freely to atom — where each is nothing, truth may be spoken. Well then, be assured, whatever may be the actual success of your policy, however glorious the alliance of M. Bonaparte, however honourable it may be for you to act in strict union with him, however far famed and magnificently may be your common triumph in Turkish affairs, this rope, which was fastened round a human sack, the trap which opened under his feet, the hope that, in falling, he would break his spine, the face become livid beneath the deep shadow of the gallows, the bloodshot eyes bursting from their sockets, the tongue lolling from the throat, that groan of anguish only stifled by the knot, the terrified soul which still clings to its tenement, the convulsed knees which seek some support, those bound hands mutely clasped and asking help — and that other man, that man of darkness, who throws himself upon these last struggles, who clings to the knees of the dying wretch, and himself hangs upon the hanging — Sir, these things are frightful!


Victor Hugo, The Hanged Man, c. 1855-1860.

And if haply the conjectures which I disavow be true, if the man who hung to the feet of Tapner were indeed M. Bonaparte, it would be monstrous. But, I repeat, I do not believe this. You have yielded to no influence; you simply said — let justice take its course; you gave this order, as you would have done any other, the prolonged discussions concerning capital punishment do not interest you. To hang a man, and to drink a glass of water are the same things in your estimation — you did not comprehend the importance of the act; it was the oversight of a statesman, nothing more. Sir, keep your blinders for earth, and do not offer them to eternity! Do not trifle with such deep interests, mix nothing of your own with them; it would be impudent. I can see more deeply into those interests than you — Beware! Exul sicul mortuus. I speak as from the tomb.

Bah! what matters it? A man is hung; and what more? a coil of rope to be wound up; some timber work to be taken to pieces a corpse to be buried. Certainly these are great matters! We will fire the cannon, a little smoke in the East, and all will be over. A microscope will be required to detect Guernsey and Tapner. Gentlemen, this rope, this beam, this corpse, this dreadful though invisible gallows, this suffering, carry us into immensity. They involve the social question, which is more important than the political; they do more — they carry us beyond earth. That, which is of little consequence, is your cannon, your politics, and your smoke. The assassin who to-morrow becomes the victim, as a soul which takes its flight holding the end of the gallows-rope — it is this which is frightful. Statesmen, who between two protocols, two dinners, and two smiles, carelessly press with white-gloved hand the spring of the gibbet, and the trap falls under the feet of the victim. Know you what you do? The infinite appears; the unfathomable and the unknown; the mighty shade which rises suddenly and terribly beneath your littleness.

Proceed! Let us observe the men of the old world at their work. Since the past still struggles let us examine it. Let us observe its successive phases.

At Tunis it is impaling; with the Czar the knout; with the Pope it is the garrot; in France the guillotine; in England the gallows; in Asia and America the slave market. All this will be swept away. We, the anarchists, the demagogues, the blood-drinkers, tell you, the protectors and saviours of the world, that human liberty is to be respected, human intelligence is holy, human life is sacred, and the human soul divine. Now go on hanging! But beware! The future opens. You think that living which is dead, and that dead which is living. The ancient form of society, but it is dead. You are deceived. You have stretched out your hand to the spectre of darkness, and chosen her for your bride. You turn your back upon life: it will soon arise behind you. When we pronounce the words Progress, Revolution, Liberty, Humanity, you smile, unhappy man, and point to the darkness in which we both are involved. Do you indeed know what that night is? Learn the truth; ere long the ideas will burst forth in all their strength and glory. Democracy yesterday took the name of France; to-morrow it will take that of Europe. The eclipse does but conceal the increasing magnitude of the star.

I am, sir, your obedient servant,

VICTOR HUGO.
Marine-terrace, Feb. 11

* We read in the Jersey newspapers, of January 7, 1851:

James Fouquet — We are informed that James Fouquet, condemned to death by our Royal Court, for the murder of Derbyshire, and whose punishment was commuted by her Majesty into transportation for life, was removed, about six months ago, from the prison at Milbank, where he had hitherto remained, to Dartmoor. He is nearly cured of the wound in his neck, and his conduct has been such, while at Millbank, that the governor of that prison thinks it extremely possible, there will be a further commutation of his sentence into banishment from the English territories.

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1812: Claude-Francois de Malet and his conspirators

Add comment October 29th, 2012 Headsman

Two centuries ago today,* the author of one of the weirdest attempted coups in history was shot with his co-conspirators.

Picture Valkyrie in Napoleonic Europe.

Claude-Francois de Malet (English Wikipedia entry | French) had spent the years of his confinement for republican sensibilities painstakingly readying bogus orders and decrees for the eventual rollout of the most audacious putsch you’d ever want to putsch.

While Bonaparte was off on campaign trashing Russia, Malet broke out of his sanitarium and went to work.

Donning a general’s uniform, Malet on Oct. 23, 1812 presented a forged announcement of the Emperor’s recent demise … and started issuing orders. He bluffed the release of imprisoned allies, and got a legitimate general to order the arrest of Napoleon’s most prominent deputies in Paris. (It’s a good job that general obeyed Malet, because when one officer asked to kindly see the arrest warrant Malet was using on him, Malet responded by shooting him in the face.)

For a few hours that morning the Malet conspirators almost put themselves in control, almost normalized their sudden rearrangement of authority with its reassuringly familiar official paperwork. Later, when interrogated for the identities of his accomplices, Malet would retort, “You, yourself, Sir, and all of France — if I had succeeded!”

But the attempted coup which aimed so high ultimately made for little but tantalizing counterfactual history. Officers with clearer heads soon realized that they had received communiques from the Emperor dated after his purported October 7 death; one of those officers arrested Malet.

A tribunal was constituted later that same date. It had little difficulty condemning 14 (French link) during the small hours of the morning on Oct. 29. They were shot later that same day (at least, most of them were; there are oddly conflicting accounts on this point). This public-domain French text preserves a first-person narration of the scene, in which Malet himself — usurping authority to the very last — commands the firing platoon that’s lined up to shoot his comrades.

120 bullets riddled these unfortunates, who fell all except Malet. He stood on his hands and knees and raised his hands to his chest as he was only wounded, and retreated to the wall on which he leaned:

“And me, my friends!” cried he, “You forgot me!”

(One of the executed fellow-officers was Gen. Victor Lahorie. Lahorie’s lover was Sophie Trebuchet, and his lover’s son, Victor Hugo, was about to catapult himself to literary fame.)

While the Malet plot failed on its own terms, it got quite a lot farther than it had any right to expect — and this fact rightly alarmed the Corsican.

“Bad News From France”, by Vasily Vereshchagin, depicts a retreating Napoleon — bunking in an Orthodox church — finding out about Malet.

Was his position that precarious? And why, if some officers genuinely believed him dead, did nobody hail as emperor his infant son and designated heir?

Napoleon had already begun his catastrophic retreat from Russia when he got word of Malet’s attempted coup d’etat; the struggling Grande Armee was dwindling daily under the battering of cold, desertion, and Russian snipers. Now this?

Upon discovering his late narrow escape from a homefront conspiracy, Napoleon left his miserable troops under the command of Murat* and raced ahead of them back to Paris to secure his own position.

This new confluence of domestic vulnerability and foreign defeat marks the beginning of the end for Napoleon. Europe ganged up on the weakened French, and less than 18 months after Malet faced his executioners, France’s own generals forced Napoleon to abdicate.

* Murat soon ditched the army himself to try to preserve himself as King of Naples. (That didn’t end well.) The once-gigantic army’s remnants finally straggled home under the third-string leadership of Eugene de Beauharnais — the capable son of Josephine’s guillotined first husband.

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1484: Olivier le Daim, diabolical barber

1 comment May 21st, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1484, the onetime royal barber turned noble scoundrel was hanged at the terrifying Montfaucon gibbet.

Jolly grotesque “Olivier le Necker” (“Olivier the Devil”) statue in Tielt, Belgium. (cc) image from Zeisterre.

The scheming Olivier le Daim (English Wikipedia page | French), who ought to be patron saint of networking, got himself a gig as the sovereign’s coiffeur and glad-handed his way from straight razors all the way to the aristocracy. A presumably smooth-shaved Louis XI created him comte de Meulant.

Louis was an inveterate schemer known as the “Universal Spider”, and Olivier — excuse me, the comte — from his sprawling fortified manor proved an eager confederate. As Louis had a gift for infuriating the realm’s noble houses, he liked to elevate commoners into his entourage, men like our “Meulant” and Cardinal Balue whose loyalty could be relied upon since they owed their positions to the crown.

“That terrible Figaro whom Providence, the great maker of dramas, mingled so artistically in the long and bloody comedy of the reign of Louis XI,” Victor Hugo wrote of our man in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. “This barber of the king had three names. At court he was politely called Olivier le Daim (the Deer); among the people Olivier the Devil. His real name was Olivier le Mauvais.” [Meaning “the bad”, as with “Charles le Mauvais”, the king Charles the Bad — a real bastard.]

With the disintegration of Burgundy following the death of Charles the Bold, le Daim was sent to that duchy’s Belgian reaches to connive them into French hands.

In the great tradition of commoners handpicked for royal favor “the Devil” attracted plenty of resentment displaced from the king himself.

And if, according to everyone else, Oliver the Bad was a swaggering, nasty villain, he still remained loyal to Louis all the way to the latter’s deathbed. Louis recommended him to his successors’ favor, but once the Spider King was gone the put-upon lords of the realm vented their blueblooded spleens upon Olivier. (A servant of Olivier’s named Daniel also suffered the same fate.)

It’s not clear to me that history records the exact charge furnishing the pretext for his execution this date — this suggests abuse of his power to order executions — but it does certainly bequeath us this epitaph:

Cii gist le Diable
Baptisé le Dain
Jugé pendable
Barbier suzerain

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Unspecified Year: The Last Day of a Condemned Man

1 comment October 11th, 2010 Headsman

On an unspecified date around this time in the late 1820s, the narrator of Victor Hugo’s Last Day of a Condemned Man leaves off his diary — bound for the guillotine.

An illustration from The Last Day of a Condemned Man.

The young Hugo‘s first major work of fiction, this 1829 story dramatizes the torment of an unnamed man doomed for an unstated crime. By abstracting its central character, Hugo generalizes its unabashed anti-death penalty message … but one of the few morsels of specificity places the man’s conviction on “a beautiful morning at the close of August,” with the action unfolding over the ensuing six weeks until his date with the guillotine.

If not exactly Hugo’s greatest work, this emotional rendering of a man’s anguish awaiting death well befits an artist deeply sensitive to the passion of the scaffold — and a period when many writers witnessed, critiqued, contested, and even faced the phenomenon of public execution.

They say that it is nothing,–that one does not suffer; that it is an easy death. Ah! then, what do they call this agony of six weeks,–this summing-up in one day? What, then, is the anguish of this irreparable day, which is passing so slowly and yet so fast? What is this ladder of tortures which terminates in the scaffold? Are they not the same convulsions whether life is taken away drop by drop, or intellect extinguished thought by thought?

Now I must fortify myself, and think firmly of the Executioner, the cart, the gendarmes, the crowd in the street and the windows.

I have still an hour to familiarize myself with these ideas. All the people will laugh and clap their hands, and applaud; yet among those men, now free, unknown to jailors, and who run with joy to an execution,–in that throng there is more than one man destined to follow me sooner or later, on the scaffold.

More than one who is here to-day on my account, will come hereafter on his own.


Hungarian painter Mihaly Munkacsy‘s The Last Day of a Condemned Man has no relationship to Hugo’s book, but deals in a similar mood. It won an award from the Paris salon in 1870.

The Last Day of a Condemned Man is available free online (English | French), or in throwback print form from Amazon.com.

* The prisoner finds in his cell the names of then-notable criminals who previously occupied it — a concession to period specificity. The last of these names is Castaing, meaning our man’s story takes place after that poisoner’s 1823 beheading. A subsequent reference to Louis-Auguste Papavoine, executed in 1825, would push the execution to the even narrower window of October 1825, 1826, 1827, or 1828.

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1794: Jacques Hebert and his followers

4 comments March 24th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1794, firebrand revolutionary pamphleteer Jacques Hebert and his eponymous party of Convention radicals mounted the scaffold during the Paris Terror.

As a 32-year-old, Hebert started putting out his foul-mouthed blog radical newspaper Le Pere Duchesne in the Revolution’s early months.

In this increasingly vituperative rag, Hebert — incongruously writing in the voice of “Old Man Duchesne” — savaged first the royal couple, and then (after that pair lost their well-coiffed heads) whatever the retrograde element of the unfolding Revolution happened to be on any given day: the constitutional monarchist Lafayette; the bourgeois liberal Girondists. His paper valorized the Parisian working-class sans-culottes, and lustily demanded heads for the satisfaction of their various grievances.

Here, he literally channels Marat:

All of these thoughts trouble my brain, and the memory of Marat follows me without end. Last night I saw him in a dream: his wound was still bleeding, dammit. Upon seeing it I cried. Friend of the people, I shouted, is it you? Yes, good Père Duchesne, it’s Marat who comes from the dead to talk with you, because — dammit — the love of freedom pursues me even beyond the grave. Content to have lost my life for my republic, there only remains to me the regret of not having seen it delivered, before my death, from all the scoundrels who tear away at its breast. Père Duchesne, you must do what I couldn’t do. You closely followed me in the revolution; like me you consecrated you life to the defense of the rights of the people. You speak the language of the Sans Culottes, and your foul mouth, which makes little mistresses faint, sounds beautiful to free men, for free men shouldn’t be sought among the beautiful souls. Your joy and your anger have done more than all the dreams of statesmen. They know this well, the worthless fucks, and that’s why they’ve persecuted you like they did me. Courage, old man; don’t back off when you suffer the same trials as me, don’t be afraid: is there a more beautiful death than mine? But since you’re useful to your fellow citizens, try to avoid the daggers of statesmen. Live a while longer in order to denounce them and to complete, if you can, the task I’d undertaken.

Yes, Père Duchesne, you have to go after them hammer and tong, and not take it easy on anyone. When three months ago I proposed planting three hundred nooses on the terrace of the Tuileries in order to hang there the perfidious representatives of the people, some took me for a madman, and others as someone thirsty for blood. But nevertheless, if I’d been believed how much bloodshed would have been avoided! More than a million fewer men would have perished! So when I made that proposition I wasn’t speaking as a bloody monster, on the contrary I spoke as a friend of humanity. The moderates have buried more victims than those that fell before the steel of our enemies. Nothing is more harmful in a revolution than half measures. We have finally arrived at the era when we must pare things right down to the bone. … No more quarter for the defeated party, because, dammit, if the statesmen had the upper hand for one moment there wouldn’t exist a single patriot in six months.*

Late in his run, Hebert was on to venting dissatisfaction with the party of Danton, who had followed the monarchists and the liberals off the starboard of acceptable revolutionary opinion. Sensible centrist Maximilien Robespierre would indeed strike that faction down — just two weeks after he’d purged the radical Hebertist gaggle itself.**

Eleven days after Le Pere Duchesne last hit the streets, its author’s head hit the basket.

His printed editorials (like the one above) often assert a modish conviction in his own coming martyrdom, but as proof against a fatal political reversal, Hebert had trusted overmuch to his power base in the Paris commune. When he was carted out this morning, the mob whom his own paper once played to reveled in old Pere Duchesne’s fall just as readily as it had reveled in his enemies’.

some men carrying long sticks, at the end of which were suspended braziers of burning charcoal, symbolical of the “Charcoal-burners” of the “Pere Duchesne,” thrust them into the face of Hebert, insulting him with the same bitter railleries with which he tormented so many other victims (Alphonse de Lamartine)

Hebert was executed at the Place de la Revolution in a batch of 20 fellow-radicals, among whom we also find the eloquent “orator of mankind,” anticlerical† wordsmith Anacharsis Cloots. (Victor Hugo on his revolutionary leader in Les Miserables: “he had too much of Saint-Just about him, and not enough of Anacharsis Cloots.”)

The original La Pere Duchesne was dead, but just as the hot-selling mag had attracted ripoffs in its original run, the name lived on as a symbol of popular revolutionary menace — to be reclaimed by later generations in print and song.


La chanson du pere duchesne (live at RMZ)

* I know, right? Hebert was such a wild man, he thought ill of slavers.

Everywhere and at all times men of commerce have had neither heart nor soul: their cash-box is their God; they only know how to thieve and deceive; they would shave an egg, they would kidnap their own fathers; they traffic in all things, even human flesh; theirs are the ships which sail to the African coasts to capture negroes whom they then treat as worthless cattle.

** These rival factions linked as fellow-victims of Robespierre’s Terror are neatly symbolized by the spouses of their respective antipathetic scribblers: Jacques Hebert’s wife Marie, and Lucile Duplessis, wife of the Dantonist journalist Camille Desmoulins. Marie and Lucile were guillotined together that April, having forged a friendship while awaiting the chop.

† “The personal enemy of Jesus Christ,” Cloots called himself. He also remarked, “What is man’s chief enemy? Each man is his own.” A lot of enemies, this one had.

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1823: Dr. Edme Castaing, the first to kill with morphine

1 comment December 6th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1823, French physician Edme Castaing expiated upon the scaffold history’s first conviction for murder with morphine.

The good doc used the drug, a new twist on an ancient remedy only recently brought to market, apparently to poison off one of two wealthy brothers with the connivance of the other wealthy brother, the latter of whom stood in danger of being disinherited.

And then, the beneficiary of that crime wrote a will of his own to the profit of the poisoner.

Do not try this at home.

Castaing, naturally, poisoned off the other brother, too, and relieved some considerable financial distress along with, one must think, the burdensome company of a complete dullard.

The science of toxicology,” however, “was not greatly advanced at this time, and … the above conclusion was based on presumption rather than fact.”

While today, such a case might be ripped from CSI, in 1823 it entailed an uncertain trial with varying (and wrong) medical testimony and a circumstantial trail of witnesses drawing flailing rebuttals from the accused that ran towards the unconvincing and the contradictory. (Follow the twists and turns from a contemporary chronicle here.)

Quite convicted in the public eye (a verdict history has had little cause to revisit), Castaing was judicially acquitted of the murder of Hippolyte Ballet, and doomed by the barest 7-5 majority verdict for the second Ballet boy. The London Times complained in its report of the execution (printed Dec. 9, 1823), that

[t]he faculty speak in very harsh and unmeasured terms of Dr. Pellatan, who neither described with care and accuracy, what he himself observed on opening of the body of Ballet, nor gave them the means of forming an opinion themselves, by bringing to Paris the intestines of the deceased. The physicians join the rest of the world in ascribing Ballet’s death to substances administered by Castaing, but they regret that criminal justice could not, owing to the neglicence or ignorance of Pellatan, obtain more satisfactory proofs of the crime. Beyond his own confessions, contradictions, and admissions, there was confessedly no ground to convict him.

A few years later, Victor Hugo (we keep meeting him here) had the title character in “The Last Day of a Condemned Man” occupying Castaing’s former cell, and evidently thought the matter possessed sufficient notoriety to name-check the headless poisoner decades afterwards in Les Miserables.

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1468: Charles de Melun, governor of Paris

Add comment August 22nd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1468, Charles de Melun (French link) was executed at Andelys by Louis XI on a trumped-up treason charge.

The execution stemmed from a civil war fought by crown against nobles struggling to preserve their feudal rights — and specifically, a 1465 battle won by the nobles’ intrepid standard-bearer Charles the Bold. Louis was grumpy at his governor of Paris for not relieving him in time, and when the wheel of courtly politics turned sufficiently, that incident supplied enough suspicion to destroy Melun.

Hear now of Melun from The History of the Bastile, and of Its Principal Captives.

The war, caused by the League of the Public Good, which restored liberty and fortune to Chabannes, deprived his enemy, the count de Melun, not only of both, but of life also. When we are told that Melun was so addicted to pleasure, luxury and sloth, as to have acquired the name of the Sardanapalus of his times, we can form no very flattering estimate of his character. Yet he stood high in the good graces of Louis XI, and participated largely in the spoils of Chabannes. In his capacity of governor of Paris and the Bastile, he was also entrusted with the custody of that nobleman. It was not till after the battle of Montlheri that Louis began to suspect him. The monarch had, indeed, some excuse for suspicion. Melun had at least been criminally negligent, in a post which demanded the utmost vigilance. He had prevented a sally from the city during the battle, which might have turned the scale in the king’s favour, and he had been ignorant of, or winked at, a correspondence carried on with the chiefs of the League by some of the disaffected citizens. These indications of treachery were strengthened by two circumstances; some of the cannon of the Bastile had been spiked, and the gates of the fortress, on the side next the country, had been left open while the besiegers were making an attack. The escape of Chabannes might also afford a reason for doubting his keeper’s fidelity. Louis, however, was, at this moment, too closely pressed by his numerous enemies to enter into an investigation of the subject; and he, therefore, only dismissed the governor.


The Battle of Montlhery

Melun retired to his estates, and imagined that the storm was blown over. He was mistaken. As soon as Louis had disembarrassed himself, he instituted a rigid enquiry into the conduct of his disgraced favourite. One of the most active in pushing it on was a man who was indebted to the count for his rise in life; the cardinal Balue, of whom further mention is about to be made. The result of the enquiry was, a charge of having maintained a secret correspondence with the heads of the League, especially with the duke of Britanny. Melun was in consequence arrested, and conveyed to Chateau Galliard, in Normandy, by the provost Tristan l’Hermite, of infamous memory.*

The trial was commenced without delay, and, as he refused to confess to any crime, he was put to the torture. With respect to his correspondence with the chiefs of the League, he avowed it, but pleaded that it had the king’s sanction. It is probable that this was really the case. Many motives might have induced the king to allow of his officer corresponding with the enemy. But Louis had now resolved upon the destruction of Melun; and, as he never scrupled at falsehood when he had any point to gain by it, he denied that he had given the permission. By adding that he had long had cause to be dissatisfied with the prisoner, he gave a broad hint as to what kind of verdict he desired.** The judges, as in duty bound, pronounced Melun guilty, and he was consigned to the scaffold. His execution took place in 1468. Of his confiscated property, a considerable portion was bestowed on Charbannes.

It is said, that the executioner having only wounded him at the first stroke, Melun raised his head from the block, and declared, that he had not deserved death, but that, since the king willed it, he was satisfied. If this be true, we must own that tame submission to the injustice of a despot was never more strikingly displayed.

Had Melun lived but a little longer, he might have triumphed in the downfall and punishment of his ungrateful enemy, the cardinal, which took place in 1469 … The cardinal, and his his friend and agent William d’Harancourt, bishop of Verdun, were in close correspondence with his enemies.†

Though Melun generally goes down as a guy who caught a bum rap — probably even Louis XI thought so, given the subsequent fall of Melun’s rivals — this 19th century history of France observes that such consideration turns on noblesse oblige, for while “such crime on the part of a burgess was considered worthy of death, nobles practised breach of faith as a pastime, and a lucrative one, until it was rendered a serious matter by sending the guilty to the scaffold.”

* For instance, in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Tristan l’Hermite is the man dispatched by Louis XI to seize Esmeralda from the cathedral for hanging.

** According to The Law of Treason and Treason Trials in Later Medieval France, Louis XI actually testified at Melun’s trial. Talk about a star witness.

† More about Balue’s disgrace here.

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1832: Not Javert, spared by Jean Valjean

5 comments June 6th, 2009 Headsman

On this, the second day of the abortive 1832 June Rebellion in Paris, police inspector Javert is faux-executed — and mercifully released — by his longtime quarry Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo’s classic Les Miserables.


Javert depicted in an theatrical poster, from the Les Miserables Gallery. The site identifies this as an 1899 poster, which may be mistaken since the actor billed for Javert died in January 1898.

Hugo’s monumental novel is structured by the implacable policeman’s pursuit of Jean Valjean, an absconded ex-con with a heart of gold.

Fate brings them together accidentally at the barricade of the (historical, but now forgotten) student uprising — Javert to spy on the student revolutionaries, who unmask him, and Jean Valjean to keep an eye on his adoptive daughter’s idealistic lover.

Jean Valjean’s timely contribution to the hopelessly outgunned revolutionaries gives him the pull to ask the favor of being the one to execute the spy.* Since Valjean has been hunted relentlessly by the lawman since breaking parole nearly two decades before, the hero has ample motivation to turn executioner.

Instead…

When Jean Valjean was left alone with Javert, he untied the rope which fastened the prisoner across the middle of the body, and the knot of which was under the table. After this he made him a sign to rise.

Javert obeyed with that indefinable smile in which the supremacy of enchained authority is condensed.

Jean Valjean took Javert by the martingale, as one would take a beast of burden by the breast-band, and, dragging the latter after him, emerged from the wine-shop slowly, because Javert, with his impeded limbs, could take only very short steps.

Jean Valjean had the pistol in his hand.

In this manner they crossed the inner trapezium of the barricade. The insurgents, all intent on the attack, which was imminent, had their backs turned to these two.

Marius alone, stationed on one side, at the extreme left of the barricade, saw them pass. This group of victim and executioner was illuminated by the sepulchral light which he bore in his own soul.

Jean Valjean with some difficulty, but without relaxing his hold for a single instant, made Javert, pinioned as he was, scale the little entrenchment in the Mondetour lane.

When they had crossed this barrier, they found themselves alone in the lane. No one saw them.

Jean Valjean thrust the pistol under his arm and fixed on Javert a look which it required no words to interpret: “Javert, it is I.”

Javert replied:

“Take your revenge.”

Jean Valjean drew from his pocket a knife, and opened it.

“A clasp-knife!” exclaimed Javert, “you are right. That suits you better.”

Jean Valjean cut the martingale which Javert had about his neck, then he cut the cords on his wrists, then, stooping down, he cut the cord on his feet; and, straightening himself up, he said to him:

“You are free.”

Javert was not easily astonished. Still, master of himself though he was, he could not repress a start. He remained open-mouthed and motionless.

Jean Valjean continued:

“I do not think that I shall escape from this place. But if, by chance, I do, I live, under the name of Fauchelevent, in the Rue de l’Homme Arme, No. 7.”

Javert snarled like a tiger, which made him half open one corner of his mouth, and he muttered between his teeth:

“Have a care.”

“Go,” said Jean Valjean.

Javert began again:

“Thou saidst Fauchelevent, Rue de l’Homme Arme?”

“Number 7.”

Javert repeated in a low voice: — “Number 7.”

He buttoned up his coat once more, resumed the military stiffness between his shoulders, made a half turn, folded his arms and, supporting his chin on one of his hands, he set out in the direction of the Halles. Jean Valjean followed him with his eyes:

A few minutes later, Javert turned round and shouted to Jean Valjean:

“You annoy me. Kill me, rather.”

Javert himself did not notice that he no longer addressed Jean Valjean as “thou.”

“Be off with you,” said Jean Valjean.

Javert retreated slowly. A moment later he turned the corner of the Rue des Precheurs.

When Javert had disappeared, Jean Valjean fired his pistol in the air.

Then he returned to the barricade and said:

“It is done.”

Or, has played in the modern hit musical adaptation:

In saving his own soul, Jean Valjean (conveniently!) manages to kill his pursuer just the same: the cognitive dissonance for such a hard, emotionless man being on the receiving end of this bit of redemptive mercy leads Javert to break character so far as to allow his man to escape. The inspector then commits suicide.

Les Miserables is available free several places online, including Gutenberg.org and The Literature Network.

* While the recent musical production of Les Miserables soft-pedals what was planned for Javert, Hugo leaves no room for doubt: as the students prepare for the fatal onslaught, their leader Enjolras decrees that “[t]he last man to leave this room will smash the skull of this spy.”

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1870: Jean-Baptiste Troppmann, mass murderer

8 comments January 19th, 2009 Headsman

Outside Paris’s La Roquette prison this morning in 1870, mass murderer Jean-Baptiste Troppmann was guillotined for the sensational butchery of a family of eight.

Katherine Taylor’s In the Theater of Criminal Justice conceptualizes Troppmann‘s crime and trial as a test case for the evolving public performance of justice.

The Alsatian-born Troppmann, or Traupmann (French Wikipedia page | German) was apprehended trying to catch a ship for America shortly after a murdered woman and her five murdered children were discovered on the Plaine de Pantin on the outskirts of Paris.

The horrific state of the bodies (caution: link displays grisly post-mortem photos) produced a public sensation with the curious phenomenon of mass citizen pilgrimmages to the “field of cadavers” such that the Parisian police chief would later remember that “[i]t was necessary to close the entrance gate of the train station on the crowd that could no longer go in or out, that screamed from every direction in explosions of terror and rage: ‘Yet another victim of Pantin!'”

Troppmann had last been seen accompanying family father Jean Kinck on a business trip from which the latter was destined never to return … and it soon came to light that Jean Kinck had been the first of Troppmann’s victims, followed by the eldest son, interspersed with letters written to Kinck’s unwitting widow requesting bank transfers in the name of his deceased business partner.

As a judicial matter, this case was open and shut; Troppmann was convicted three months after his arrest, and went under the blade three weeks after that.

But the immense public fascination he generated would be a milestone in the development of the French tabloid press, which did brisk business* stoking the lucrative hysteria.

Small wonder such a staggering throng assembled for the dawn beheading — assembled even from the previous evening, to catch a glimpse of the grim apparatus being assembled for the next day’s play.

Among the multitude were various intellectual worthies, including the liberal Russian author Ivan Turgenev. His subsequent “Kazn’ Tropmana” (“The Execution of Troppmann” — the link is in Russian; I haven’t found a full English version), which includes meeting the remorseless prisoner and witnessing his pre-execution “toilette,” reflects the writer’s discomfiture with Madame Guillotine. Too appalled to watch the beheading, he turns away and narrates its sound.

a light knocking of wood on wood — that was the sound made by the top part of the yoke with the slit for the passage of the knife as it fell round the murderer’s head and kept it immobile … Then something suddenly descended with a hollow growl and stopped with an abrupt thud … Just as though a huge animal had retched … I felt dizzy. Everything swam before my eyes. … None of us, absolutely none looked like a person who realized that he had been present at the implementation of an act of social justice; each one tried mentally to turn aside and, as it were, throw off any responsibility for this murder

“I will not forget that horrible night,” Turgenev later wrote to a friend (pdf link), “in the course of which ‘I have supp’d full of horrors’ and acquired a definite loathing for capital punishment in general, and in particular for the way it is carried out in France.”

Most others present are presumed to have experienced the opposite sensation, as made plain in this more democratic English-language account freely available from Google books. Nevertheless, Troppmann enjoyed a literary afterlife with a poetic name-check in Maurice Rollinat’s Les Nevroses (French link; “Soliloque de Troppmann” is about 75% of the way down the page); and as noted in Richard Burton’s Blood in the City, death-obsessed Georges Bataille used the infamous surname for both a pen name and the name of a main character in two separate works more than half a century later. (Update: Victor Hugo got in on the act, too. See the comments.)

Although Troppmann’s name appears on some lists of serial killers, his eight homicides do not fit the term’s usual definition of a compulsive pattern of murders spread over time. Troppmann’s blood offerings were meant for no other idol but Mammon.

* According to Thomas Cragin’s Murder in Parisian Streets: Manufacturing Crime and Justice in the Popular Press, 1830-1900, the circulation of everyman broadsheet Le Petit Journal surged by 50% overnight after the discovery of Troppmann’s victims — “But just as cases such as this one could boost sales, their absence temporarily reduced circulation … [and] its publishers tried to ensure a steady supply [of murder stories].”

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1859: John Brown’s body starts a-moulderin’ in the grave

11 comments December 2nd, 2008 Sarah Owocki

That line between “martyr” and “terrorist” is often a matter of historical perspective or even accident.

Were the person’s actions justified?

If not justified, were they at least historically significant?

If not historically significant, did they at least inspire some really great songs?

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Or, movies?John Brown, abolitionist, father of 20 children, advocate of armed insurrection as a direct means of ending slavery, is just such a figure. Before looking at how his actions influenced history, however, it is instructive to consider how history influenced him.

Born into a devout family opposed to slavery on religious and moral grounds, Brown grew up in a vehemently anti-slavery district of Ohio and, as a young man, began training in New England to become a Congregationalist minister.

When money ran out, he returned to Ohio and began a series of variously successful business ventures and married his first wife, with whom he would have seven children. When his businesses failed, he moved to Pennsylvania, buried his wife, married his second, and started a tannery, which began to founder as one of his sons died and Brown fell ill. He moved his family –- now with more than a dozen children –- back to Ohio, where he was hit hard by the economic crisis of 1839 (PDF link). In 1842, he was declared bankrupt; the following year, four more of his children died of dysentery.

In spite of these setbacks, Brown remained dogged in his pursuit of ventures to get himself out of debt, becoming a seasoned expert among small sheep farmers and acting as a self-appointed crusader for their empowerment against the encroaching interests of manufacturers. While this backfired and Brown remained impoverished into the 1850s (thought not as much as when he was declared bankrupt), it solidified his interest in helping the underdog.

Bleeding Kansas

Moral and religious interest in the abolition of slavery had been part of Brown’s upbringing, but it wasn’t until 1855, when five of Brown’s adult sons began sending words of often violent pro-slavery machinations in the Kansas territory, that Brown first became committed to drastic action on behalf of the cause. His strategy wasn’t at first overtly violent, but was rather convinced that the anti-slavery cause could win by the ballot box; over the course of the next year, however, he became convinced that the only sure way of preserve Kansas as a free territory was by “fighting fire with fire” (historical opinion as to the precise extent of the pro-slavery violence in relation to Brown’s later actions is divided).

In 1856, with tensions reaching a boiling point, Brown, four of his sons, and a band of other abolitionists killed five pro-slavery settlers in Franklin County, Kansas in what became known as the Pottawatomie Massacre. No legal retribution was possible or likely; Brown and his party escaped handily (although one of his sons was killed the following August), and Brown spent the next three years using various aliases to travel among abolitionists raising funds to launch an all-out assault on slaveowners back East.

“The crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”

That he chose the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) for his historic attack was no accident; it “evinced federal power stained by slavery.”

Brown believed his actions would be the start of a lasting insurrection in which slaves would rise up against their owners in an insurrection that would quickly spread to neighboring counties and throughout the South. While violence was expected, it was to be minimized, and, after the initial raid, used only in self-defense.

Twenty-one men, in total, took part in the raid; Brown’s expected hundreds of recruits never materialized. The slave population never got a chance to rise up against their masters, as townspeople promptly began firing on the raiders; by the morning after the start of the raid, the invaders were surrounded by a company of US Marines.* Brown was captured, along with seven of his men; ten were killed, and four escaped.

Tried in Virginia for murder, treason and conspiracy, Brown was convicted on November 2, just weeks after his failed insurrection, and sentenced to be hanged within a month. His often-cited speech in Court in response to this sentence would become a rallying cry for the abolitionist movement:

This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to “remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them.” I endeavored to act up to that instruction… Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit; so let it be done!

“Make the gallows glorious like the Cross.”

During his last month on Earth, Brown seemed well-aware that he was on his way to be a martyr. Refusing rescue by a supporter who had managed to infiltrate the prison, he wrote letters of valor and conviction which were increasingly picked up by the Northern abolitionst press, and attracted pleas of clemency from sources as removed as Victor Hugo.


Christ-like: The Last Moments of John Brown, by Thomas Hovdenden.

John Brown hanged at Charles Town, Virginia (present-day West Virginia — another thing Virginia lost during the Civil War). This 19th-century drawing is from the Virginia Military Institute archive of the event, which includes eyewitness accounts of soldiers who attended the hanging, including Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.

Hanged in the mid-morning of December 2, 1859, Brown stated ominously: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.”

Brown’s dramatic enactment of an attempted armed insurrection –- even an abortive one –- stoked longstanding Southern fears of slave rebellions, leading the South to reorganize and equip its outdated militias, and the Union to increasingly valorize a man who held, with sheer and utter clarity, the very convictions in which they must needs believe to fight and win the coming War Between the States.

Called a “misguided fanatic” by the man who would lead that war, Brown’s actions nonetheless both hastened the inevitable schism already drawn so dramatically across a nation in which one out of every ten human beings was held in legal bondage, as well as gave moral and spiritual courage to those who would ultimately rise to eradicate it.

“His soul goes marching on…”

Or in the words of Frederick Douglass:

Did John Brown draw his sword against slavery and thereby lose his life in vain? And to this I answer ten thousand times, No! No man fails, or can fail, who so grandly gives himself and all he has to a righteous cause. No man, who in his hour of extremest need, when on his way to meet an ignominious death, could so forget himself as to stop and kiss a little child, one of the hated race for whom he was about to die, could by any possibility fail.

Did John Brown fail? Ask Henry A. Wise in whose house less than two years after, a school for the emancipated slaves was taught.

Did John Brown fail? Ask James M. Mason, the author of the inhuman fugitive slave bill, who was cooped up in Fort Warren, as a traitor less than two years from the time that he stood over the prostrate body of John Brown.

Did John Brown fail? Ask Clement C. Vallandingham, one other of the inquisitorial party; for he too went down in the tremendous whirlpool created by the powerful hand of this bold invader. If John Brown did not end the war that ended slavery, he did at least begin the war that ended slavery. If we look over the dates, places and men for which this honor is claimed, we shall find that not Carolina, but Virginia, not Fort Sumter, but Harpers Ferry, and the arsenal, not Col. Anderson, but John Brown, began the war that ended American slavery and made this a free Republic. Until this blow was struck, the prospect for freedom was dim, shadowy and uncertain. The irrepressible conflict was one of words, votes and compromises.

When John Brown stretched forth his arm the sky was cleared. The time for compromises was gone – the armed hosts of freedom stood face to face over the chasm of a broken Union – and the clash of arms was at hand. The South staked all upon getting possession of the Federal Government, and failing to do that, drew the sword of rebellion and thus made her own, and not Brown’s, the lost cause of the century.

For more John Brown:

* Under the command of future Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

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