On This Day in 1977 – Hamida Djandoubi, last man to face a French guillotine.


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The dawn on September 11, 1977 dawned damp and grey for the citizens of Marseilles, especially those residing in Les Baumettes Prison. All the inmates (and some of the staff) were were in a dark mood as they contemplated the rising of the dawn and the falling of executioner Marcel Chevalier’s blade. Inmates of ‘Death Alley’ were equally subdued. If they were relieved at that day not being theirs they were too tactful to show it.

For Hamida Djandoubi, however, this was his day. Nobody involved yet knew it, but it would be the last time, both in France and Western Europe, that a prisoner would embrace the infamous ‘Widow’ and lie between the ‘Timbers of Justice.’ It would be the last time Chevalier, descended from a long line of executioners, would perform the grim office of ‘The Executioner of High Works.’

Capital punishment had been under debate in France for many years. The guillotine itself had been both a political and humanitarian statement. Egalitarian in principle, it became the only method of execution for French civilians regardless of rank and social class. No more did peasants swing limp on the rope while the axe and sword were reserved for their social betters. No longer would people be burned, broken on the wheel or hung, drawn and quartered. When Charles-Henri Sanson debuted his new device, beheading highway robber Nicolas-Jacques Pelletier on April 25, 1792, everybody was to get a quicker and cleaner death.

Djandoubi would be the last.

By 1977 death sentences were rare and executions even rarer. Much of the French public and its politicians had turned against the death penalty. When Chevalier inherited the job from his uncle Andre Obrecht in 1975 he worked only a few times, although he his son was at Djandoubi’s execution to assist and watch should he succeed his father. Judicial death in France had long been a family affair, after all.

Executioners, disparagingly nicknamed ‘les bourreaux’ by their countrymen, occupied a contradictory place in french society. Until the execution of German serial killer Eugen Weidmann in June, 1939 the French public hadn’t minded turning out in their thousands to watch these men work, but had always despised and shunned them at the same time.

Schools refused to accept their children. In the days of regional executioners they were forced to live just outside whichever town or village they lived in. Even bakers would keep the executioner’s bread separate so their other customers would know their bread wasn’t tainted, an old French folk tale said that anything touched by the executioner was also touched by the Devil himself. Even churches refused to marry them, except into the families of other executioners. By the time Chevalier became last to perform his office all French executioners could be traced to only a handful of families, not always illustrious ones at that.

8053966631_4749cd2e3eAfter Weidmann executions would always be performed in private within prison walls. Hamida Djandoubi’s date with ‘bourreaux’ Marcel Chevalier would be poorly-attended by official order.

Not that people called him a ‘bourreaux’ much any more. In 1870 the term had been outlawed and calling anybody a ‘bourreaux’ became a crime. The same changes also mandated that only one chief executioner would be required and he was required by law to reside in Paris. Overnight the regional executioners lost their jobs, although some did continue as assistant executioners or ‘valets.’ Now that ‘Monsieurs de (insert town here) were largely out of work there was only one chief and he bore a sinister nickname;

‘Monsieur de Paris,’ the ‘Man from Paris.’

It became a phrase dreaded in French prisons, especially in the cells forming ‘Death Alley.’ For a long time prisoners didn’t know their execution date until the official party came to take them from their cells. Until 5am every morning, by which time executions for the day would have been performed, every condemned prisoner dreaded the sound of a guard saying to a colleague ‘Monsieur de Paris est arrivee.’

‘The Man from Paris has arrived.’

Who would it be, they wondered? Whose cell would be unlocked? Who would be taken away never to return, perhaps kicking and screaming on their final walk? Until 5am they didn’t know but, for at least one of them and maybe more, the time between four a five in the morning was when they’d find out.

Would the keys rattle in their cell door..?

With no chance of a commutation or stay, Djandoubi knew his time was almost up. At around half-past four it was his turn to hear those keys rattle like a skeleton’s bones. He was told what time it was and why he had official visitors. Led away from Death Alley for the last time he was accompanied by his lawyer and ready for the final acts of his personal drama.

Djandoubi, a French-Tunisian by birth and pimp by profession, had tortured and murdered his sometime girlfriend Elizabeth Bousquet. She’d refused his increasingly insistent efforts to become one his working girls and, his harassment getting worse, had reported him to police and he’d spent 11 months in prison. He avenged himself on her after his release in Spring 1973.

After abducting her and torturing her with lit cigarettes, on July 3, 1974 he’d taken her to the outskirts of Marseilles, strangled her and dumped her body. It was a brutal, squalid and utterly unnecessary murder that drew no pity from judges, jurors or anyone able to stop his execution.

Before he could die the traditional French bureaucracy had to be observed. Paperwork had to be completed paroling the prisoner into the (very temporary) custody of Chevalier and his assistants. French law dictated that no convict could be guillotined, so Djandoubi had to be freed in order to be killed. With that taken care of the ‘toilette du condamne’ could begin.

‘Le toilette’ was rather more practical. Djandoubi, wearing the traditional red sweater of the condemned, had his hands and feet tethered with string. He could walk, but not run or struggle. His neck was bared, the sweater cut with scissors and eased down around his arms to avoid jamming the blade. He was offered a last cigarette and a glass of spirits. Now all was ready and, for Djandobui and the guillotine itself, all was finished.

The end came quickly. Standing before a door leading into the prison yard Djandoubi was held by two of Chevalier’s valets and marched quickly to his fate. He was laid face-down on ‘le bascule,’ a sliding wooden board. When the blade fell its impact would cause Djandoubi’s body to ounce from the bascule into the traditional wicker coffin beside it. A nod to the days when executions were regarded as public entertainment, the French nicknamed it the ‘family picnic basket.’ As the bascule slid him into position ‘le lunette,’ the traditional wooden collar, was quickly slipped down over the back of his neck. With everything ready Chevalier wasted no further time. One last look ensured nobody was at risk from the falling blade and Chevalier pushed a button. No photograph exists, but this image of Weidmann’s execution is very similar to what Djandoubi faced.

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The blade fell. Hamida Djandoubi was dead.

So was the death penalty. France finally abolished capital punishment in 1981 after a vote in the National Assembly. The guillotine became a museum piece (albeit an embarrassing exhibit seldom displayed in public) and Chevalier, last of ‘les bourreaux,’ was out of work. Between Djandoubi’s execution and final abolition every death sentence was respited,  the authorities seeing no point in further executions.

As Djandoubi’s body, spirit and head simultaneously parted company, centuries of tradition were died with him. Like Djandoubi and many thousands of others, ‘les bourreaux,’ the death penalty and the  ‘National Razor’ were no more.

Today, they are seldom missed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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On This Day in 1949; Germaine Leloy-Godefroy, last French woman to face the guillotine.

She was the last woman in France to face the dreaded ‘Timbers of Justice.’


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The name of Germaine Leloy-Godefroy won’t be as familiar as that of Hamida Djandoubi, the last man to be guillotined in France, but she’s worth a mention. She was the last woman in France to face the dreaded ‘Timbers of Justice.’ Marie Antoinette is without doubt the best known victim of the ‘National Razor,’ but Godefroy’s was France’s final female execution.

Her crime was unexceptional. The wife of coal merchant Albert Leloy, she brutally hacked him to death with an axe while he slept, later trying (very ineptly) to disguise it as a random robbery gone wrong. A vicious murder inflicted on a defenceless victim simply to replace him with her toyboy lover, Raymond. Not a case deserving of much sympathy or, you might say, of any mercy. There probably wouldn’t have been any fuss at all if Albert Leloy had wielded the axe on his wife to run off with a younger woman. But France is France and, as in most places, executing a woman was a big deal regardless of her crime.

On December 10, 1947 Albert Leloy would succumb to the axe. On April 21, 1949 Germaine would succumb to a different kind of axe, and for the last time in French history. Germaine and Raymond were soon caught and, when tried in 1948 at the Assize Court of Maine-et-Loire, Raymond drew ten years as an accomplice. Despite trying to shift the entire blame onto Raymond and another toyboy named Pierre, Germaine wouldn’t be as lucky. She was transported to Angers Prison to await a date with the sinisterly-nicknamed ‘Monsieur de Paris;

‘The Man from Paris.’

In 1870, French law had changed. Regional executioners, long known by the towns from which they came, were abolished. From then on there would be only one chief executioner and, by law, he was required to live in Paris. While the likes of ‘Monsieur de Rennes and his brethren were disbanded, French convicts learned to dread hearing one guard say to another the simple phrase ‘Monsieur de Paris est arrivee…’

‘The Man from Paris has arrived…’

The then-current ‘Monsieur de Paris’ was one Jules-Henri Desfourneaux. Desfourneaux, like all French executioners for several centuries, came from a long-serving family of headsmen. Executioners, known disparagingly as ‘Bourreaux,’ were despised by the french public. They didn’t mind turning out to watch them work, but wanted nothing else to do with them. By abolition in 1981 all French executioners could trace their ancestry back to a mere handful of families, mostly intermarried with each other. The Desfourneauxs had been serving French justice for centuries. Jules-Henri himself had racked up scores of ‘customers.’

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Germaine Leloy-Godefroy wasn’t the only last of his career. On June 17, 1939 he’d been in Paris performing what would be France’s last public execution. German serial killer Eugen Weidmann would be the last to face the ‘People’s Avenger’ before an audience. So distasteful was the behaviour of the public outside Saint-Pierre Prison that day (an execution witnessed by 17-year old would-be actor Christopher Lee, that President Lebrun immediately banned any further public beheadings and, in the process, cut off centuries of French tradition as well.

Ironically, Lee (eventually to become Sir Christopher Lee) would later play legendary bouureaux Charles-Henri Sanson in one of his many screen and stage parts.

Eugene Weidmann Being Led to Guillotine

With her appeals denied and Presidential clemency not forthcoming, Germaine prepared herself for the end. France’s condemned weren’t informed of their impending execution until it was time to take their final walk. It hindered suicide or escape attempts and didn’t leave them sitting in tiny cells watching the clock tick as they brooded on their impending death.

At around 4:30am on the cold, grey dawn of April 21, 1949, Germaine Leloy-Godefroy’s time finally came. Desforuneaux, by then ageing and sliding into alcoholism, was ready for perform his grim task. Things moved swiftly from then on. After a brief talk with Chaplain Moreau she attended Mass before writing a final letter. The grim ritual known as the ‘toilette du condamne’ was performed, her hair being trimmed and her neck bared, ready for the blade. Offered the traditional final cigarette and glass of rum, she declined.

All that remained was one final piece of bureaucracy. Under French law a convict couldn’t actually be executed. Instead, they had to be formally paroled by the justice system into the custody of the executioner. With the paperwork attended to, nothing else stood between her and her unwilling date with destiny.

It was over quickly. Like England’s hangmen, the bourreaux didn’t waste time. As soon as she reached the guillotine after a brief walk from her cell, they laid her out and strapped her down. Without any further ado, the blade fell. The audience, now composed only of those specifically invited to view an execution behind prison walls, signed their witness statements and departed.

Germaine Leloy-Godefroy was dead.