The man who pawned a guillotine

If you walk up the rue de la Roquette in the direction of Pere Lachaise cemetery, you will notice a pleasant park on your left, with a rustic-looking entrance.

On the gate is a memorial tablet honouring 4,000 women Resistance members who were imprisoned there (…“dans ces lieux 4,000 Résistantes ont été imprisonnées pour avoir lutté contre l’Occupant…”).

But I found the French text imprecise. “Dans ces lieux…?” What lieux?

Later, I learned that this was once a women’s prison known as La Petite Roquette, demolished in 1974. On the other side of the rue de la Roquette stood La Grande Roquette, the men’s prison, demolished in 1911. All that remains of these grim places are the rustic-looking gate, the former prison entrance, and some granite stones set into the roadway where the rue de la Croix-Faubin meets the rue de la Roquette. You can see them on Google Street View.

You may feel as if a goose has walked over your grave when you look at them. This is where the prison guillotine once stood.

Most of us who are not French associate the guillotine with the part of the Revolution known as the Terror, and forget that the device remained in use in France until capital punishment was abolished in 1981. (Actually, the last execution by guillotine took place in 1972.) And we tend to think of “the guillotine” as if there were only one – the one on what is now the place de la Concorde, where the king, the queen, hundreds of aristocrats, and many others met their deaths. But there were lots of guillotines, at least one in every major city and town in the country back then.

The guillotine is as steeped in irony and paradox as it is in blood. Its name comes from a doctor and humanitarian called Joseph Ignace Guillotin, who proposed it as a humane, efficient, and egalitarian way of dispatching those whom the state saw fit to dispatch. Of course, in the 18th century, the radically humane idea of not putting people to death for their offences never occurred to him.

Before the guillotine, the choices depended on who you were and what you had done. Aristocrats were beheaded with a sword or an axe, thieves were hanged, heretics were burned at the stake, and so forth. Some executions were extended forms of torture. Dr Guillotin thought it might make more sense to have one single, reliable method for all that would be quick and involve minimal suffering.

He proposed an efficient decapitation device to the National Assembly in December 1789 during a debate on penal reform. No one paid any attention – admittedly, it was a busy time. But a year later, Robespierre revived the idea and asked another doctor, Dr. Antoine Louis of the Academy of Surgery, to do a feasibility study.

Dr. Louis found a harpsichord maker willing to develop a workable prototype based on Guillotin’s proposal. He may also have been aware of similar devices previously used in Northern England and in Switzerland. A long-standing but unverifiable story has it that he even consulted the king, who advised that the blade should be slightly curved for maximum efficiency – yes, that king.

Eventually, the harpsichord maker produced a couple of models and demanded a patent, but the government felt that he was asking for too much money. Dr. Louis found another manufacturer. The doctor’s name is still associated with the device – today, the French version of Wikipedia even offers the alternative name of “louisette” for the instrument.

In March 1792, some hapless sheep met their maker during the first public demonstration. It was used on a human felon a month later. The crowd was deeply disappointed at how quickly it went off. Where’s the drama in a machine that operates quietly and efficiently?

But the Terror of 1793 to 1794 provided the drama they longed for, as one after another, aristocrats mounted the scaffold and either awed the crowd with a devil-may-care-attitude (one complained that his appointment with death was interfering with his supper plans) or created a scene (Madame du Barry, former mistress of Louis XV, wept and struggled to the very last moment).

The official executioner, a fellow called Charles-Henri Sanson, was amazingly efficient: one afternoon he beheaded 54 people in 24 minutes. This would have been in the Place du Trône (now the Place de la Nation), where the guillotine was moved in the summer of 1794. There, during the last two months of the Terror, more people were guillotined than in the previous eleven months.

Sanson kept at the job until the day one of his sons, who was assisting him, fell off the scaffold, and died of his injuries. The father who had impassively killed thousands of people was grief-stricken and left the job to another of his sons – the job of executioner was traditionally hereditary and carried perks that were passed down through a family.

His son served both the Emperor Napoleon and the restored King Louis-Napoleon. Executioners can’t afford political loyalties. It was the grandson who ended the dynasty. His name was Clément-Henri Sanson. Think about it. Who calls a son “Clément” in a family of executioners? Indeed, Clément-Henri couldn’t stand the sight of blood. He gambled heavily to forget his job woes, and when he couldn’t pay his debts, he pawned the guillotine. (One wonders what sort of pawnbroker would take this object.) When the authorities found out, they fired him.

Executioners had plenty of work in the 19th century, but their ranks were thinned by another piece of technology – the railway. Once French towns were linked by efficient transportation, there was no need for every city and town to have its own headsman, so the job was centralized, and the Paris executioner (known as “Monsieur de Paris”) would travel to appointments by train.

The perks seemed to have disappeared along the way. By the 1950s, the holder of the position was a freelancer with no benefits, who had to pay all his own expenses. Guillotine operator Jules-Henri Desfourneaux could not afford to retire on his earnings of 30,000 (old) francs a month (about $90 at the time). He was getting frail, but kept at the job until he died at the age of 74 in 1951. He was succeeded by a cousin, because his son had committed suicide rather than take on the job.

The last public execution took place in 1939. To that point, the authorities persisted in the belief (despite abundant evidence to the contrary) that the sight of an execution would be sobering and make people more law-abiding. But the rowdy behaviour of the crowd at an execution in Versailles that year finally brought home the fact that some people enjoy violence and blood and are not sobered by the sight at all.

The guillotine was then set up inside the Prison de la Santé in the 14th arrondissement (this prison still stands), in the oddly named “Cour d’Honneur.” When an execution took place, a black awning was erected over the machine, so the sight was shrouded from public view.

In 1978 the machine was moved to Fresnes, a suburb to the south of Paris, but it was never used again, since the sentences of the last few people on death row were all commuted. It was eventually sent to a museum in Marseilles, but has never been displayed.

Still, those stones remain visible on the rue Roquette. The city has never paved them over. An odd memorial to a violent past.

Further reading: Robert Frederick Opie has written a short history of the device called, simply, Guillotine. Stanley Karnow’s story about impoverished executioner Desfourneaux forms a chapter of his book, Paris in the Fifties.

Text and photograph copyright Philippa Campsie.

About Parisian Fields

Parisian Fields is the blog of two Toronto writers who love Paris. When we can't be there, we can write about it. We're interested in everything from its history and architecture to its graffiti and street furniture. We welcome comments, suggestions, corrections, and musings from all readers.
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7 Responses to The man who pawned a guillotine

  1. Meg Morden says:

    Fascinating and goulishly macabre! this article will make me suspect every granite block I see in the roadways of France!

  2. Adam says:

    An excellent investigation! How archaic it all seems now, and yet executions are still of course carried out across the world (including in supposedly ‘civilised’ countries – America, I’m looking at you!)

  3. Pingback: The Paris Blog: Paris, France Expat Tips & Resources »Blog Archive » The Birth of the Guillotine

  4. Alison says:

    Hallowe’en comes early this year and let’s face it, we’re all drawn to the ghoulish at times. Well done, to writer and photographer!

  5. Thanks for your interesting historical tidbits. Of special interest to me is the feminizing of Louis to Louisette.

  6. Pingback: A Taste of Garlic

  7. MAC says:

    A couple of errors.
    1. The last execution was 1977, not 1972.

    2. Desfourneaux’s son (Rene) did not commit suicide, he was murdered (gang feud)in Le Havre in 1934.

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