1909: Les Chauffeurs de la Drome

At daybreak this date in 1909, three French rural bandits dubbed “Les Chauffeurs de la Drôme” were publicly guillotined in Valence to the hurrahs of a great crowd.

Most of the (plentiful) information online about these charmers is in French; in their day about 1905 to 1908 they enjoyed quite a lot of notoriety in southern France for their bloody crime spree, comprising at least 11 murders amid numerous home invasion burglaries. They were a throwback gang whose niche the 20th century would eradicate as surely as they themselves. In the time before ubiquitous mass communication and high-speed transport, a sufficiently bold band of robbers could have their way with a rural residence miles from any possible aid: this was one of the great terrors of Europe, and early crime broadsheets from centuries previous dwell often on the terrors of an isolated farmer or miller made prey in his own home by a band of cutthroats.*

The root of the word chauffeur is the French verb “to heat” — think stoking an engine, for the word’s familiar meaning of professional driver — and the specialty of the Chauffeurs de la Drome was torturing their hostages by scorching their feet with hot irons until the sufferers yielded up the hidey-holes of whatever treasure they had on premises. Their trial was a fin-de-siecle circus, and their executions likewise to a discomfiting degree. Though nothing specifically scandalous occurred as the chauffeurs were snuffed out on a public street, there are a number of pictures of this event, some of them made into postcards and circulated.

This was a trend not very much appreciated by the French government, but of course such images make arresting historical artifacts.

We’re here featuring select images of Octave David. When David walked the few steps through a sea of early-rising spectators to the portable guillotine erected on the streetcar tracks directly in front of the prison gates, his companion Pierre Berruyer had already been beheaded. (The chauffeurs were nos. 126 through 128 in the prolific Anatole Deibler’s career.)

He would have glimpsed Berruyer’s headless trunk already rolled into the large box that would soon receive his body as well. (The box had accommodations for four.) And while the execution team washed down the blade between uses, the grotesque bloody puddles and remains of fresh gore were a constant source of complaint. All three executions were completed in a six-minute span; it’s safe to assume that the smell and the feel of Pierre Berruyer’s violent death surrounded David as he walked to the used chopper. As the events here transpired, the third robber Urbain Liottard still awaited his own turn just inside the prison walls — in a few moments, Liottard would see two steaming neckless corpses stacked up in the rude bin gaping to receive him.

Looking alarmingly Christlike, the half-naked form of the condemned murderer emerges from the prison’s maw amid a throng of indistinct, black-clad voyeurs.

David reaches the guillotine; the assistant executioners are about to tip him onto the board that will carry him into place. The identification on these photos is from Bois de Justice, an invaluable site on the history of the guillotine; I’m unsure from my own observation whether to equate the figure in these pictures with the one in the first, above.

One of the beheadings (I’m not certain that it’s David’s) has been completed; the body and head are being transferred to their receptacles. Again, Bois de Justice has details on this scene.

Following one of the beheadings, the visibly stained blade is raised for cleaning before the third criminal is brought out.

* For some examples, see Joel Harrington’s The Faithful Executioner, a book we’ve previously profiled.

On this day..

2 thoughts on “1909: Les Chauffeurs de la Drome

  1. Not quite right.
    The notorious ‘Bande Pollet’ of northern France were the first executed during the presidency of Fallières, guillotined in Béthune on 11 January 1909.
    This opened the door for the Chauffeurs de la Drôme to suffer the same fate in Valence on 22 September that year.
    And there were two Pollet brothers who were guillotined, Abel and Auguste, along with two other gang members, Canut Vromant and Theophile Deroo.

  2. Hello,

    ( Please make allowances for any English mistakes I may make, I am French. )

    It is noteworthy that these executions were the first in France under the presidency of Armand Fallières, a very likable man and a staunch abolitionist as far as death penalty was in question.
    From the very start of his mandate, President Fallières, when a lawyer petitioned him a presidential reprieve ( grâce présidentielle ) for a client sentenced to death, invariably and automatically granted the reprieve. Making no distinctions as to whatever the crime or the person of the condemned was.
    This of course attracted attacks by Fallières’ political opponents but he maintained his line.
    As early as 1906 a bill was drafted by Aristide Briand the Garde des Sceaux ( Minister of Justice ) in order to abolish death penalty in France – except for military crimes and in wartime – .
    The first measure was a technicality : not to vote the credits for the executioner’s salary, his aides and the material, the guillotine, etc. in the law of finances ( loi de finances ) for the following year. This law pas passed. This rendered executions not carriable in practice until such credits were voted.
    The bill to abolish death penalty in itself was still under discussion in the Parliament when an atrocious murder was committed in 1907. Albert Soleilland, a Parisian laborer, had proposed his neighbours to take their young daughter Marthe Eberling to see the Bataclan, a popular attraction. When alone with the child he raped and killed her and mutilated her body and concealed it in gare Saint-Lazare – or elsewhere, I’m unsure of the location – .
    Soleilland was sentenced to death and even his wife approved openly this court decision.
    But the lawyer of Soleilland submitted the petition for reprieve to President Fallières. Many people, as well in politics as in the general population, were expecting Fallières to make an exception to his established line of granting a reprieve to any death sentence, given the atrocity of this particular crime. However Fallières did not part from his line : he reprieved Soleilland whose death sentence was thus automatically commuted to hard labor in the penal colony at the bagne in French Guyana. Soleilland was sent there and died there, or later returned to the Metropole, I don’t know.
    The case of Soleilland had the effect that the bill to abolish death penalty was never put to vote, discussions in Parliament were ended and the bill withdrawn in 1908.
    A poll conducted at that time showed that a vast majority in the population were in favor of retaining death penalty.
    In France although many decades elapsed, not a single Government, all tendencies mixed, would ever dare to propose another bill to abolish death penalty. Until 1981, so 75 years after the first essay of 1906, and it was a bill set forth by Robert Badinter the Garde des Sceaux, at the initiative of President François Mitterrand. So was death penalty only abolished in 1981 in France.

    To return to the case of today, the executions of the Chauffeurs de la Drôme in 1909.
    As said, this time Armand Fallières decided not to grant reprieves to the three men you have mentioned. It was not so much because he had changed his mind about his abolitionist stance. He would perhaps been prepared to reprieve these men as well as all the others before. But there had been the reprieve granted to Soleilland which had been fiercely criticized. The public opinion demanded the application of death penalty. And, to turn more specifically to the case of the Chauffeurs de la Drôme, their criminal spree had caused a huge outrage in that region.
    These factors led Fallières to act against his own stance and to refuse the reprieves, thus letting justice take its course, to use this standardized formula.

    Here are some links to articles I saw today related to Armand Fallières and his abolitionist views.
    One article is about the brothers Pollet – they were four – who were guillotined in Béthune in Northern France, also in 1909 and thus were with the Chauffeurs de la Drôme among the earliest instances of President Fallières’ breaching his abolitionist line.
    A side effect was that year 1909 the establishment of censorship rules regarding cinema, what in executions matters the cinema people were allowed to film or not.





    Armand Fallières, un Président abolitionniste

    Best Regards

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