Help the Poor Struggler - NIGHT 1: SOUND - Five Nights in Paris: After Dark in the City of Light - John Baxter

Five Nights in Paris: After Dark in the City of Light - John Baxter (2015)


Chapter 16. Help the Poor Struggler

One, two! One two! And through and through

The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!

He left it dead, and with its head

He went galumphing back.

LEWIS CARROLL, Through the Looking-Glass

At times, the movable feast of Paris carries one in strange, even sinister directions. When I pause at a nondescript house in the Cour du Commerce Saint-André to explain that it was here Doctor Joseph-Ignace Guillotin perfected the instrument of execution that bore his name, I expect the occasional grimace, even a shudder. One client, however, a pale young man with something of Norman Bates about him, showed more interest. Lagging behind the group, he took out a notebook.

“Is the guillotine still in use?”

“Oh, no,” I said. “The last execution was in 1977. France abandoned capital punishment in 1981.”

He made a note. “And where did they … er … ?”

“Well, it depended. Usually at the Santé prison.”

He licked the end of his pencil. “How do you spell that?”

Why the guillotine became, literally overnight, France’s official method of execution illustrates the advice to be careful what you wish, since you may get it.

Dr. Guillotin, far from favoring capital punishment, was a vigorous opponent. He loathed the way executions had become a public show, with mobs, including children, gathering to watch felons hanged, burned at the stake, broken on the wheel, or hacked to death with blunt swords or axes. That was only for the poor, however. The wealthy often bribed the executioner to drug them, knock them out, or even, occasionally, kill someone in their place. This tradition survived in Britain right up to the abolition of capital punishment. A member of the House of Lords convicted of a capital crime could elect to be hanged with a rope of slippery silk, not rough hemp.

Guillotin argued for the abolition of capital punishment on the grounds that its methods contravened the equality provision of the Revolution’s motto Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. Surely every criminal, rich or poor, should be killed in the same way. The Assemblée Nationale accepted his argument and set up a committee that included Guillotin to develop an alternative. Guillotin was delighted. Once a machine did the job, he reasoned, executions would become boringly repetitive and the whole practice would wither away.


The group found designs for a decapitation device used in Italy and Scotland and took them to a maker of harpsichords named Tobias Schmidt. He created a prototype, testing it out first on sheep, then on a highwayman. It worked perfectly. But when Guillotin reported his success to the Assemblée, he was a little too enthusiastic. “With my machine,” he boasted in a widely reported speech, “you feel no more than a breeze on the back of your neck.”

This was a boast too far, and it backfired. People came to see the device in action, and liked what they saw. Every town in France wanted one; Schmidt became rich, particularly during the mass slaughter of aristocrats, intellectuals, and clergy known as The Terror.

Though he hadn’t invented the guillotine, Guillotin’s name became attached to it. A Dr. J. M. V. Guillotin from Lyon was executed, sparking the rumor that the device’s inventor had also become its victim. Plenty of people would have liked to see him decapitated as their friends and relatives had been, but vanity saved the doctor. So many people, particularly foreigners, associated him with the machine and, what was almost worse, mispronounced it, calling the instrument “Madame la Guillotine,” that he changed his name.

Having embraced the guillotine, France was reluctant to let it go. Until capital punishment ended, it was the sole civil method of execution; the military retained the firing squad. While prison authorities in most countries remove the theatrical element from executions, decapitations in France were positively flamboyant. Until 1939, they took place in public. Someone snatched a film of that particular termination, so thereafter they were held in prison yards. People with apartments or houses overlooking such places hired out their rooms to sensation seekers who watched, trembling with excitement, as the prisoner was led out.

By tradition, the condemned was carried to the site in a horse-drawn cart lit by a lantern and saluted with a flourish of sabers from the military guard before mounting the scaffold. The executioner also had the right to wear a red flower behind his ear or in his buttonhole and to tutoyer the prisoner, addressing him not as vous but tu, as one would a friend.

Beforehand, the machine was tested with a bundle of straw with the same resistance as the neck. The prisoner, dressed in shirtsleeves, was then strapped face-down to a plank and slid into place. A board with a half-moon-shaped gap, called a lunette, was swung down to hold his head, and the blade fell. An instant later, the body rolled sideways into a wicker basket while the executioner’s assistant held up the head by the hair to show justice had been down.

This particular ritual collected a wealth of mythology. At the execution of Charlotte Corday for murdering another revolutionary leader, Jean-Paul Marat, a carpenter named Legros who was repairing the guillotine grabbed the head and, curious to test a theory that the brain remained alive after separation, slapped its cheeks as he held it up. Witnesses reported an expression of “unequivocal indignation” on Corday’s face. For taking such a liberty with a woman of good reputation, murderess or not, Legros was jailed for three months and barely escaped with his life.

Much as the crowd loved the spectacle of a good execution, the authorities also treated it as a guilty secret, disassembling the guillotine after each use and storing the parts in a secret location. Putting it back together and testing it was time-consuming. As timbers warped and pieces disappeared, it could take weeks to reassemble the device, with much use of spirit levels and plumb bobs to make sure it was completely true.

In common with the British hangman but unlike those in the United States, the French executioner was a private individual and the job was a family business. Two families, the Sansons and the Deiblers, performed every execution between 1792 and 1981. Traditionally anonymous, the executioner was always referred to as “Monsieur de Paris.” Between executions, he pursued an ordinary profession. Britain’s longtime hangman, Albert Pierrepoint, ran a pub called, ghoulishly, Help the Poor Struggler. Most French executioners were discreet but Henri-Clément Sanson, who had the job in the middle of the nineteenth century, was an exception. An alcoholic, he raised money by giving public demonstrations, cutting off the heads of sheep. Before the authorities could execute the next criminal, they had to redeem the guillotine from where Sanson had pawned it. They let him supervise that execution, and then they fired him.