Sept Générations d’Exécuteurs, 1688-1847 (by H. Sanson, 1863)
For rather more than a year one of the strangest books of our generation has been in the course of publication at Paris, and it is now just completed. It is a book in six handsome volumes, containing the memoirs of the family of Sanson, which supplied executioners to the town of Paris for 159 years. The office passed during the whole of this time in regular succession from father to son, and went out of the family at last chiefly because the present author had only daughters. We live in an age when curiosities of all sorts are rapidly passing away, but certainly the presence in such a city as Paris of a quasi-hereditary executioner, the living depositary of the traditions of such scenes as the execution of Damiens and Count Horn, to say nothing of the Reign of Terror, was about as strange a curiosity as could well be imagined. The memoirs themselves are perhaps even more singular than the facts of which they relate the history. The last of the Sansons writes very good French in the modern style. He is a convert to all the modern anti-capital-punishment theories, and has evidently caught the style of French sensation novelists. A lover carries off his mistress on horseback in a storm—“Ils passaient dans la nuit comme un groupe de spectres qu’emporte un tourbillon." Scenes of professional robbers talking argot are introduced which read like bits of the Mystères de Paris or Les Misérables. In a word, the book is the natural product of an age of feuilletons. Notwithstanding this blemish, which is a great one, the tone of the work is by no means bad. It is neither vulgar nor, even when the topics to be dealt with are in the last degree repulsive, is it disgusting. It is the work of a man of feeling and education, who obviously respects himself, and who has a genuine feeling of disgust in thinking of the functions which he himself discharged for nearly a quarter of a century, and which his ancestors had discharged since 1688.
The founder of the Sanson family was a certain Sanson de Longval, who was, as his descendant declares, a gentilhomme by birth, and highly connected. He lived in Normandy in the middle of the seventeenth century, and was in early life a sailor, and afterwards an officer in the army. In giving an account of his adventures his descendant falls into the regular novel style—so much so that it is hardly unfair to assume that some professional novelist has given him a helping hand. The story of Sanson de Longval is not worth repeating. It is made up of a variety of unpleasing incidents about his brother's widow and an executioner’s daughter, the last of whom he marries on condition of adopting her father's business. He started in his profession at Rouen, whence he was promoted to Paris, where he lived in a good deal of splendour for many years. If the present M. Sanson is right—and he can hardly he wrong—the original position of the executioners of Paris was marvellous. They had various rights in the nature of import duties on the goods sold in the markets of Paris. The most important of these was the droit de havée, or right to take a handful of flour from every sack brought in for sale. This right was worth at one time as much as 60,000 livres a year. It is remarkable that one of precisely the same character existed till quite lately in Scotland, where the hangman was called the lockman, from the lock or bowl in which the meal was taken. With his droit de havée and a considerable number of assistants who did the coarser parts of the work, Sanson de Longval appears to have lived in a sort of semi-feudal state, his tranquility being disturbed only by the occasional obligation of beheading a noble, or superintending the process of breaking on the wheel some more vulgar criminal. At last he died, and his son Charles Sanson reigned in his stead.
Charles Sanson was of a pious and retiring disposition. He had a very handsome house, a large garden, a large income, and except on execution days, not very much to do. Indeed, he and all his family filled up their time by an unauthorized practice of surgery and medicine. Their historian observes that Sanson do Longval first set the fashion, thinking that the number of dead bodies which came under his care afforded an excellent opportunity for acquiring a knowledge of anatomy. “We have preserved from him,” says his descendant, “curious observations on the play of the muscles and joints, and several recipes against affections of this part of the frame." Charles Sanson, however, had hideous interruptions to his pursuits. He had to break on the wheel Count Horn, who murdered the Jew in the Rue Quincampoix during the South Sea excitement. He had also to perform the same office for the famous robber Cartouche and his band. Cartouche was a sort of Parisian Robin Hood, who, by means of ingenious robberies spiced with a dash of audacious wit, had obtained, not merely fame, but something not altogether unlike a kind of popularity. His fate, and that of his followers, are horrible illustrations of the barbarity of the old French law. He was broken on the wheel, after being frightfully tortured, and several of his companions met with the same fate. It is remarkable that, after going through the torture—which one would have supposed was the hardest trial of all—-these poor wretches made a whole series of confessions with no other object than that of putting off their death during the short time occupied in making them. In consequence of these disclosures, between 200 and 300 persons were arrested, all of whom, if we rightly understand M. Sanson, were punished, many being either hung or broken on the wheel.
In 1726 Charles Sanson died, and was succeeded by his son Jean Baptiste, who at the time was only seven years old. His mother, however, made interest for him, and succeeded in having him appointed to his father’s place. As he could not perform the duties of the office personally, he was brought up, whenever an execution took place, to look on and legalize the proceedings, which were conducted by people hired for the purpose. As Sanson remarks, he was too young to keep a journal, and therefore nothing but traditions of his impressions survive. Considering that these impressions relate to scenes of the most exquisite torture, prolonged sometimes over several hours, he certainly must have had the strangest education that ever fell to a child’s lot. It is difficult to the imagination to realize the fact that, within a hundred and forty years, it was considered impossible in Paris to have a man properly broken on the wheel unless a little child of seven years old stood by to see it done decently and in order. In 1754 Jean Baptiste was struck by paralysis at the age of thirty-five, and it may be charitably hoped that the terrible scenes in which his early life had been passed had something to do with it. This was a fortunate deliverance for him, for in 1757 an incident occurred which may be considered as the culminating point of the old system of executions, and as the most shameful and horrible scene that has in modern times disgraced a civilized country by public authority. This was the execution of Damiens. He appears to have been a half-rogue, half-madman, and, partly from excitement, partly from a prurient love of crime, he inflicted a wound on Louis XV. which might have been serious if he had used the large blade of his knife instead of the small one. For this offense he was first frightfully tortured at Versailles itself. The garde des sceaux, having, as soon as he was arrested, amused himself by heating the tongs red hot and pinching his legs with. them, he was then strapped down on a mattress in the Conciergerie in such a way that he could hardly move hand or foot for nearly two months. After this, he was put to the torture of the boot, and at last his hand was burnt with sulphur, while the fleshy parts of his body were torn with rod-hot pincers, and the wounds scalded with melted lead, wax, sulphur, and resin. Finally, he was quartered by four horses, the whole operation lasting for about three hours in broad daylight in the most public part of Paris.
This part of the story was sufficiently familiar long ago. But M. Sanson gives it from the executioner's point of view. The proper person to execute the sentence was a certain Gabriel Sanson, who was the Court executioner—a species of sinecure which for this once became an insupportable burden. Gabriel was altogether incompetent to do the work, and had to let his nephew, Charles Henry, the son of Joan Baptiste, to help him. Charles Henry was only seventeen, but he appears to have been equal to the occasion. He got together his staff, one of whom was an old torturer, who in his youth had heard, as a tradition of his family, all the details of the execution of Ravaillac. They contrived between them to go through the business. M. Sanson tells the story with hideous accuracy. He knows the names of all the assistants, one of whom got drunk before the execution began, and failed to bring the proper materials, whilst another undertook the most horrible part of the task for a special fee of 100 livres. Gabriel Sanson resigned his office in his nephew's favour, and the nephew himself thus began a career which has given his name as unenviable an immortality as has fallen to the lot of almost any human creature who was not a positive criminal. He was the Sanson of the Reign of Terror.
Before arriving at this eminence, he passed through a variety of strange experiences. He and his father, Jean Baptiste who came forward on that occasion only, beheaded the famous Lally De Tollendal. M. Sanson works up the story of the execution into a romance. Lally, when a young man, he says, happened with a party of friends to lose his way, and was taken in by Jean Baptiste Sanson, who that night gave his marriage supper. After the ball, having learnt his host's name, Lally asked to see the tools of his trade, and had his fancy greatly taken by a particular sword with which Sanson promised, in case of need, to behead him. Thirty-five years afterwards he was beheaded accordingly. The old man came with the intention of merely looking on, but the young Charles Henry having made a false stroke which inflicted only a wound, the old man seized the sword and cut off Lally's head with his own hand. The present M. Sanson says that his grandfather told him this story. There is a difficulty in point of dates about it which makes the whole matter suspicious. Jean Baptiste Sanson, we are told, was seven years old when his father died in 1726. He was therefore born in 1719. But Lally was beheaded in 1766, and if Sanson's marriage took place thirty-five years before—namely, in 1731—he must have been married at the early age of twelve. This makes a considerable hole in the fidelity of M. Sanson's traditions.
Soon after executing Lally, Charles Henry Sanson had to execute the Chevalier De la Barre, who was supposed to have been guilty of profanity at Abbeville. A crucifix had been disfigured, and as it was proved that De la Barre had on another occasion passed a procession without taking off his hat, he appears to have been made responsible. He showed wonderful courage at his execution, refusing even to kneel down, and Sanson, to make up for his mistake in the case of Lally, cut off his head so neatly that it did not fall for the first moment. The execution of La Barre was one of the last of the old aristocratic executions. Several others which took place before the French Revolution are referred to by M. Sanson, but they are not interesting except for their horror, and the history of the crimes which led to them is thrown into a quasi-romantic shape. He gives a long account, for instance, of the last occasion on which the punishment of the wheel was employed. A young man who had killed his father—as he said by accident, as the Court found by design—was sentenced to undergo this punishment at Versailles in 1788. The mob rescued him, and burnt the wheel and the scaffold on the spot. One of their number is represented as observing very appropriately to Sanson, “Laissons l'enfer au bon Dieu.” The wonder is how so hideous a spectacle was ever permitted. The description of it makes the blood run cold. The criminal's arms and legs were smashed in eight places with a heavy iron bar, he received a ninth blow over the chest, and was then laid over a wheel placed horizontally on the scaffold till he died. This punishment was horribly common. It was, for some strange reason, the favourite punishment of the Parliament of Paris, and when they decided on appeals from inferior jurisdictions, the common result, if we are to believe M. Sanson, was the substitution of the wheel for the gallows. Such, up to the time of the Revolution, were the official duties of the Parisian executioners. Their descendant gives a singular picture of their private life. Jean Baptiste Sanson was very fond of anatomy, and had a great practice amongst both rich and poor, of whom, as his great grandson observes, the first paid him very handsomely, whilst the others received advice gratis. He was a very busy man. There was a good deal of correspondence about provincial executions, and, as he was at the head of his profession, all the young country executioners used to come to his house as pupils before entering on their own professional careers. The executioners formed a kind of clan; for obvious reasons they intermarried almost exclusively amongst each other. Jean Baptiste had a large family, and his sons became executioners in every part of France. They used to come home at Christmas, and in order to avoid the difficulties which arose from the variety of Christian names, the servants (who were assistant executioners) spoke of them as M. de Strasbourg, M. d’Orleans, &c., the head of the family or caste being “M. de Paris.”
Jean Baptiste Sanson was a good deal reduced from the splendour of his ancestors in the matter of money. His ancient droit de havée was commuted for sixteen thousand livres a year, very irregularly paid. At one time he received from the Regent fifty thousand livres in Law's notes. These were the greenbacks of the period. “I have them still,” says M. Sanson, “in the pocket-book where they were put at the end of the audience.” M. Sanson's own recollections of the vestiges of the old régime in which he and his ancestors played so singular a part are exceedingly curious. He recollects an old man, called Chesneau, who gave him a gun in 1803, and who was then a sort of pensioner at large in the family house of M. de Paris. This old man had been a servant of the Comte de Charolais, who laboured (falsely according to M. Sanson) under the imputation of having shot a tiler to amuse himself, and of having been pardoned by Louis XV, with the pleasing observation that a pardon was ready for any one who liked to assassinate the Comte de Charolais. From the service of the Comte de Charolais, he passed successively into those of Louis XV. and Louis XVI., whom he served as a gunmaker. In the course of his career, Sanson cured him of a wound caused by the bursting of a gun; and when his last master was turned out of house and home by the Revolution, M. Chesneau betook himself to his old friend the executioner. By way of paying for his board, he made him all sorts of handsome arms, and at last took to grinding the knife of the guillotine, and setting its grooves to rights. He thought the least he could do for his old friends was to have their heads cut off promptly and smoothly. “Tuez-les,” he said to the servants, “puisqu'on vous y force, mais ne les massacrez pas.”
The luxurious and patriarchal position of the old executioners passed away, like other picturesque but cumbrous institutions, after the Revolution; but, for about two years, the Sanson family put into such a position as no people ever occupied before in a civilized country. Charles Henry Sanson kept a journal during the Reign of Terror, of which his grandson, who well remembers him, has republished the greater part. There is a dreadful sameness about it which is not unimpressive. Day after day comes a long list of persons—some known to all the world, others completely obscure—whom he and his assistants put to death by tens, by twenties, and at last by fifties at a time. Some of the scenes which he describes, such as the execution of the King, and those of Charlotte Corday, the Girondins, Danton, and Robespierre, are matters of history, but a few are less well known. Perhaps the most singular is the account of the execution of the magistrates of the old Parliament of Paris, from whom for nearly forty years Sanson had taken his orders. He was, he says, horrified at what he had to do, and at the dignified courage of the sufferers. One venerable old President encouraged him in his task:—“Faites, la loi même injuste est toujours la loi.” The particular men were no doubt worthy of pity and respect, but the thought of their own sentences, the wheel, the pincers, and the torture-chamber, recalls other recollections. There is something very impressive in their destruction by the very man who had at their bidding performed such indescribable cruelties. Of all the revolutionary executions, those of Fouquier Tinville and Hebert perhaps inspire the most disgust. The brutal ferocity of the first ruffian and the contemptible cowardice of the second are illustrations of the capacity of human nature for infamy which will hardly be surpassed.
After finishing his grandfather's journal, M. Sanson comes down to his father's and his own experiences. They are not very impressive—indeed, they take the form of short notices of the most remarkable crimes of the first half of the present century. To do M. Sanson justice, they are not at all prurient. He obviously has a genuine hatred for capital punishments, and 's real disgust at having been so long concerned in them. Personally, both he and his father were little more than sinecurists. Their business was to be present at executions, and to give the signal for the fall of the knife; but they never even ascended the said themselves, so that there was nothing menial in their occupation, It is not surprising that in course of time it should have occurred to the Government that 400L. a year was a high salary to pay to a man who did absolutely nothing except nod to his servant to pull a cord; and in the year 1847 the last of the Sansons—much to his delight, as he says, and as we can readily believe—laid down for ever the position of M. de Paris, which he and his ancestors had held for nearly 160 years.
The Mémoires des Sanson are intended by their author to furnish an argument against capital punishments, but they add nothing to a very old controversy. They prove abundantly that an execution is a very dreadful thing, but that is the case for the other side. We do not hang people to please them. If an execution was not horrible, it would not be worth while to have executions. The only arguments in the book, if they can be so called, consist in dwelling upon the old phrases about the sacredness of human life. One of the strongest reasons for upholding capital punishment is that they are a practical protest against a monstrous absurdity which these words, as generally used, assert. They are a protest against the notion that mere animal existence has anything specially sacred about it; and they emphatically assert the true doctrine, that many other things are much more important, and that a man cannot behave himself with moderate inoffensiveness in this world, he ought to be turned out of it. What would have been the good of keeping a man like Palmer or Rush, or like the assassin Lacenaire, whom M. Sanson executed, locked up for life in some dungeon? He is much better dead. There is a limit of atrocity, after passing which it may fairly be said that a man has had his chance, and shown himself a public evil unfit to be tolerated any longer. To hang him, or cut of his head and have done with him, is a much better way of recognising this fact than to shut him up, perhaps for thirty or forty years, in a cell where he can do nothing worth doing. It may be said he could repent. For aught we know, he can do that just as well elsewhere. We can hardly suppose that the justice and mercy of God depend upon the acts of man. At all events he is not fit for this world, and it is with this world that we are concerned, and for it and its interests that our laws ought to be made. To admit that mere animal life, mere physical existence, is so sacred a thing that it ought in no case to be taken away, that it is in no degree dependent upon human conduct, is to fly in the face of all the analogies of nature, and to admit a doctrine which is fundamentally base and cowardly.
M. Sanson constantly dwells on the inconsistency which he says exists between the popular contempt for executioners and the legalization of capital punishments. Why despise a man for discharging a lawful and necessary act? The answer is plainness itself. Executioners are despised, not for doing a lawful and necessary act, but for choosing for their profession a way of life which can please no one but a brute; and every one is presumed to like his profession. An execution is a necessary and righteous act, but it is a dreadful one, and it is rendered necessary by the humiliating fact that human nature is very far no from righteousness. It is also an act which requires no remarkable gifts, either mental or bodily, and which is free from all risk. Hence, if a person voluntarily makes his living by hiring himself out to perform these acts, it is impossible not to have a low opinion of him. No one in England thinks the worse of a sheriff for putting to death, by his paid agent, a man convicted of murder; for he is bound by his oath, and compelled by the law of the land, to do so. No one ought to blame him if he did it himself, supposing that no agent was to be found; and, in fact, no one thinks of blaming soldiers or sailors who take part in a military execution. But where a man chooses for money to undertake such a duty, he can hardly complain if the public at large think that he shows a degraded character. M. Sanson’s own book shows conclusively that his family did so for generations. His own reason for adopting the profession was, he says— no doubt truly—that he wished to please his father, who would have felt that, if his son refused the office, ho would show disrespect to those who had held it. All that can be said is, that the father asked the son to sacrifice himself, and that the son did so; but how could the public know anything of that? With the elder Sansons—with Jean Baptiste, or rather with his mother, and with Charles Henry—the place was obviously an object of ambition, and it would not be easy to persuade any reasonable person to doubt that the high pay attached to the place had as much to do with this as more sentimental reasons. The true inference from M. Sanson’s book is that, like many other French institutions, the institution of executioners was monstrously absurd. The English plan is obviously the right one. Compel the sheriff to execute all judgments, and leave him to provide for details.
It must not be forgotten, moreover, that the old French criminal law was so horribly cruel that no one who voluntarily associated himself with the worst part of its cruelties can escape a certain share of blame. This, no doubt, bears on the judges as well as on the executioner; but they had other functions to discharge of the highest importance, and calling for the exercise of the highest powers. The executioner had only to mangle and torture living creatures as a wild beast might have mangle them. The morals of one age are not those of another, but it is hard to acquit entirely the man who lived by breaking people on the wheel. Even those who accepted an office of which it was one of the duties to cause people to be broken on the wheel, after being horribly tortured, stand in a rather questionable position. There is a point at which the fact that a system exists does not excuse those who work it. If a general ordered a soldier to shoot prisoners of war in cold blood, it would be hard to excuse the soldier, and the old French penal law came unpleasantly near the line. The same, indeed, may be said of some of our own laws. It would not be pleasant for a man to think, in old age or on a dying bed, that he had in his youth contributed, as a barrister or as a judge, to the execution of a number of poor wretches for shoplifting or sheep-stealing. As to the Reign of Terror, it is surely not unjust to say that a man of the proper stamp would have said, “No earthly power shall make me the agent of your infernal butcheries. Exterminate me and mine if you will, but I will have neither part nor lot in the guilt of your den of assassins.” A man is not to be blamed for not being a hero, but neither is he to be praised for it. Charles Henry Sanson had the opportunity of doing an act of heroism of no common order. He thought of it, his grandson tells us, his wife urged him to it, and he shrank from it for the sake of his son. It may be doubted whether his grandson ought to thank him, though no one who has not been tried has the right to condemn him.
Saturday Review, November 7, 1863.