The Memoirs of the Sansons, A French History of Violence
- by Thibault Ehrengardt
A day at the office for the Sansons.
Sanson is a creepy name in the history of France, borne by a notorious dynasty of executioners. They operated in Paris from 1688 to 1847. So many broken bones, severed heads and spilled blood deserved a book, no doubt. But not the apocryphal memoirs that came out in 1830! Putting the record straight, the true descendant of the Sansons, Henri-Clément (1799-1889), gave his own version of the story in 1862. His book opens with a breath-taking preface that relates the evolution of the means of execution along the centuries. Needless to go any further to shiver with fear and disgust. The memoirs of the Sansons? A French history of violence.
The Mémoires des Sanson (Memoirs of the Sansons) came out in 1830, in Paris. As soon as 1852, Quérard identified them as a “literary deception” in his Supercheries littéraires dévoilées. In fact, they were apocryphal. The bookseller Sautelet had commended them to a group of writers—including the famous Honoré de Balzac and Louis-François L’Héritier—before unscrupulously selling them as authentic. This was an enticing project that capitalized on the taste of the public for blood, and clearly focused on the Sansons’ most notorious deeds, the (exciting) beheadings of numerous French Nobles during the Revolution—including Louis XVI, in 1793. Though based on actual facts, these memoirs are full of made-up details. Furthermore, “their general tone is one of hateful opposition to the Bourbons (kings of France—writer’s note) and the Clergy,” deplores Henri-Clément in his own memoirs of the Sansons (Paris, 1862), entitled Seven Generations of Executioners: the Memoirs of the Sansons. His preface starts with his receiving his revocation from the French government in 1847. That was, he claims, the happiest day of his life. At last, the family curse was lifted! No more should the Sansons live under the heavy load of their vile “charge”. Indeed, the position of executioner depended on a “charge”, or official appointment, passed from father to son. Well—in fact, Sanson lost his position because of his own vices; some of them he shared with a few of his victims.
More than one way to skin a cat
If nothing else, the very serious preface of Henri-Clément’s work makes it worth reading: “I’ll try to show—what a horrible confession!—how far the imagination of man can reach when barbarity and cruelty are concerned.” The death penalty was not abolished in France until 1981, but the Revolution of 1789 brought more humanity to the process—the guillotine then replaced all torments. Prior to that, man had been very creative when it came to murdering man.
The cross: “the most ancient torment, and also the most cruel one,” states Sanson. The victim was tied to a cross, which could take the shape of a T, a Y or a X—depending on the executioner’s creativity. This was nothing new, as Jesus Christ could testify. In the 18th century it was used in a different form as the victim was tied to “a cross of St Andrew” before being broken alive by the executioner—some gaps were left under the legs and arms so that they would break more easily.
Beheading: also very fashionable, especially in the time of Cardinal de Richelieu—the 17th century—, when he forced the Nobles to abide by his rules. Indeed, this torment was a privilege granted to people of quality only. But as “it relied on the ability of the executioner, which was unfortunately depending upon practice, history recalls many failures. Everyone knows that Thou received 11 blows before his head fell off.”
Hanging: for men of no importance. Yet, some Nobles suffered it as well, including the notorious Coligny, who illustrated himself during the religious wars of the 16th century. “His corpse was already rotten when Charles IX went to visit him at the gallows. This young monarch, inspired by the words of a Roman Emperor, durst say to those who stood aside: “Learn that the corpse of an enemy always smells good.”
Burning people alive: another option; used “less to punish the culprits than to terrorize the public,” says Sanson. “First, they planted a post into the ground—roughly eight feet tall. Then they left a void all around, and built a stake made of logs, straw and bundles of sticks. The victim was then attached to the main post and the stake set afire. Usually, the victim was spared with the pains of the flames, as a system of hooks enabled the executioner to pierce his or her heart as soon as the execution began.” They were humans, after all.
Skinning people alive was also a French custom, as well as the most feared torment of impaling. Sanson gives us some valuable details about the latter: “Once the patient lying on the belly, with his hands tied in the back, a man sits upon him to prevent any movement; another one, holding his neck, pushes a pale in his behind—it is then pushed further inside with a hammer. When the pale is set upright, the weight of the body makes it progress through it until it comes out again under the armpit or through the chest.”
Quartering: exclusively reserved to those who had committed a crime of lese-Majesty. Thank God, these people were few—as a matter of fact, when Gabriel Sanson was ordered to quarter Damiens (a mad man who had tried to murder Louis XV) in 1757, he had no clue about how to proceed! And no one else had. Indeed, the last quartering dated form 1610—it was applied to Ravaillac, the murderer of Henri IV. Our executioner grew so anxious that “he fell sick, and stayed in bed for a few days.” But there was no way he could have escaped his duty. A torment hardly ever came alone, but with a series of minor ones—quartering, for instance, came with “tenaillement”; which consisted in tearing some pieces of flesh from someone’s legs and arms with pincers. To make things livelier—or to spare the victim’s life until the final act—, some boiling oil or wax was poured into the fresh wounds. When Damiens endured this part, he became “drunk with pain!”, and “his voice was hardly yet human when, joining the crispy sound of the roasting flesh, he shouted: “More! Give me more!” Quartering itself meant tying the legs and arms of the victim to four separate horses, and to pull them apart by using the strength of the animals. During Damiens’ ordeal, the horses pulled so hard that one of them fell on the ground. Yet, “the human machine resisted this horrible treatment.” The executioners started it over—and over. “It was noticed that Damiens’ legs and arms had now an unusual length; but he was still alive.” This was more than even the witnesses could bear. “The executioners were abased, the priest from Saint-Paul, M. Guéret, had fainted; the clerk was hiding his face in his hands, and a murmur of discontent was dangerously running among the public.” Eventually, Damiens’ arms and legs were partly cut with a sword, and the quartering resumed—“a leg came off, then the second one, then an arm. Damiens was still breathing.” He died a few minutes later, and then his remains were thrown into the fire—phew!
On January 21, 1790, all torments were abandoned in exclusive favour of the guillotine—Louis XVI had abolished torture in 1780. Contrary to what many people think, the guillotine was not the daughter of sadism. Indeed, the Revolutionary Assembly adopted it as a humane and quick way to put an end to someone’s life. “It was a most dignified torment,” states Sanson. “It hit a man in his noblest and most powerful organ, the presumed seat of intelligence. Yesterday a privilege, beheading became, thanks to the concept of equality before the law, common to all.” Indeed, before the Assembly adopted it, the means of execution depended on the “quality” of the victims—beheading was for the Nobles, while the others were hanged, for example. If all men were created equal, then all men had to be killed the same. Dr. Guillotin did not invent the guillotine either; he simply perfected an Italian machine from the 16th century known as the mannaia. Only a few old engravings remained of it at the time, and he had trouble figuring out how to make it work. According to the memoirs of Clément-Henri Sanson, his ancestor Charles-Henri Sanson was playing music with a German friend of his, one mechanist named Schmidt, when the latter suddenly drew the sketch of a death machine on a sheet of paper: “THAT WAS THE GUILLOTINE!” These people knew how to entertain themselves.
Sanson and Dr. Guillotin then presented the project to Dr Louis, the personal doctor of King Louis XVI. During the interview, a newcomer appeared out of the blue and allegedly told them how to improve the shape of the blade. “The first impression of Sanson had been the right one: the King was standing in front of him.” Thus Louis XVI contributed to the death machine that severed his head a few years later! On that fateful day, Charles-Henri Sanson was waiting for him on the scaffold. According to a popular belief, Louis XVI’s last words were for La Pérouse, the famous navigator who had disappeared at sea: “Is there any news on La Pérouse?” A keen cartographer, Louis XVI had drawn the trajectory of the expedition himself. But this is an apocryphal statement. “French people,” he said, “your King is about to die for you. May my blood seal your happiness. I die an innocent man.” He was about to add something but the drums cut in. “Son of Saint Louis,” whispered the priest, as the blade of the guillotine was falling, “go up to heaven!” Up he went; and down his head—“the operation is so quickly executed that only the sound of the blade testifies of the death of the victim, and of the fact that justice is done. The head falls into a basket full of bran placed below; meanwhile, to hide the sight of the blood flowing from the cut, a circular black leather blinder is drawn.” It is wise to turn a blind eye on certain things.
The “charge” of executioner was a dull one. But do not trust Henri-Clément Sanson, he wasn’t relieved when dismissed in 1847. His family had always fought hard to keep this “charge”. In 1726, Charles Sanson died, survived by one son, Charles-Jean-Baptiste. His mother made sure the child would inherit the “charge” of his father—the Parliament complied, but appointed an assistant executioner, due to the young age of Charles-Jean-Baptiste. Yet the kid was to assist in every session of torture and execution perpetrated in his name—he was only seven!
Anyway, Henri-Clément was not dismissed by chance. First of all, though married and the father of two, he was a “wild pederast”, as a police report of the time states: “He lives with a young man, one Hubert alias Little John, who is his assistant.” It didn’t stop him from executing several men convicted for buggery, showing nothing but disgust for their “vile passion”—at least openly. Henri-Clément was also a gambler—who lost a lot, and borrowed as much. One day, his upset creditors complained, and the executioner of Paris became a wanted man! “But he was a cunning fox,” reads an article published in Le Point in 2012. “He knew that the police of the time couldn’t arrest people but inside the walls of Paris, and from 6 A.M. to 6 P.M. exclusively. Thus, every morning at dawn, Sanson carefully left the brothels and the gambling houses of the capital and returned to his place in the suburbs.” But in 1846, he received the order to execute one Pierre Lecomte and was consequently forced to enter the capital in broad daylight. He was arrested shortly after the execution, while storing the guillotine—the executioner was responsible for his work tool, which he owned. Sent to jail, he offered his main creditor to leave the guillotine with him as security until full payment of the debt. The deal was concluded but Sanson failed to pay on due time. Called for another execution in March 1847, he ran to his creditor, who refused to give the guillotine back. Sanson had no choice but to inform the Ministry of justice. The debt was paid so the execution could take place on time, and Henri-Clément Sanson was soon dismissed. Thus retired the last offspring of seven generations of executioners! Death had lost a faithful servant, but don’t you worry, she was never short of volunteers: “The day following my dismissal,” Sanson writes, “eighteen pretenders were already fighting over my bloody succession.” Unlike God, Death has never rested a single day.