Les Bourreaux, France’s ‘Executors of High Works.’


260px-Galigaï_1617I recently had a brief Twitter conversation with a fellow scribe at Crime Traveller and these gentlemen came up therein, so I thought their story might be interesting to look at in more detail. ‘The Executor of High Works’ was a grandiose title for so unrelentingly grim a profession, especially one traditionally inherited by people already considered social outcasts. Many might regard their informal title of ‘Bourreaux’ as being more appropriate.

Les Bouureaux enjoyed (or endured) two distinct phases before and after the French Revolution of 1792. The Revolution brought many changes, but one thing never altered. They were the most despised, reviled and feared men in all of France. Hardly surprising, given their occupation, but not entirely fair and gross hypocrisy as well.

In pre-Revolutionary France executioners were chosen on a regional basis. In keeping with their public image they were drawn from people already performing work regarded as distasteful, unpleasant and only for the lowest rung of France’s social ladder. Undertakers, tanners, gravediggers and saddlers often found themselves shoe-horned into a part-time job that nobody else would take, that of torturer and local executioner. If nobody else was prepared to do the job then condemned criminals were offered it, spared their own lives in return for taking those of their peers.

When ordered they hung, drew and quartered, beheaded, burnt, broke on the wheel and hanged condemned prisoners. They also cut the hands off thieves and dismembered the condemned for public display, if ordered. Before a decree in 1791 they also tortured the condemned before execution if that was the sentence.

Beheading was often reserved for members of the aristocracy who usually died by the sword as a mark of their social status. Anne Boleyn, executed wife of England’s Henry VIII, died on his native soil, her husband importing a French executioner and his sword for the occasion. The social status of ‘Les Bourreux’ wasn’t in any doubt, either. Universally feared and loathed, the executioner was also a breed apart and. While happy to watch his hand sever necks, tie nooses and light fires under heretics, most French people weren’t inclined to shake it.

As much as executions were a public spectacle, the bourreaux lived in isolation. Schools routinely refused to teach their children. Merchants wouldn’t sell them goods. Employers seldom employed them. Traditionally nicknamed for the towns where they lived and worked, executioners were frequently made to live outside them. ‘Monsieur de Rennes’ might dispense justice both in Rennes and most of Brittany, but living in Rennes itself was out of the question.

Bakers followed an old French superstition. Obliged by law to provide bourreaux with free bread they kept it on a separate shelf, turned upside-down as inverted bread apparently attracted the Devil. Executioners also had to wear some badge of office, usually an image of a gallows or sword. Marking them as pariahs, Jews, prostitutes and vagrants also suffered a similar indignity.

Socially ostracised by virtue of their profession, the Church added to their outcast status. Bourreaux were only allowed to marry into the families of other bourreaux so, by abolition in 1981, all French executioners for centuries could be traced through a handful of family trees.

The few perks of the job couldn’t have compensated for the bitter irony of crowds turning out to watch them work one day only to spit on them in the street the next. So isolated were the bourreau families that one, the legendary Sansons, supplied six consecutive generations of executioners while their extended family supplied even more.

There were perks, though, albeit largely to ensure they had the means of daily living. An executioner possessed by law the right to levy certain goods from local merchants, even those who refused to actually sell them anything. Bread, vegetables, meat, fish and others goods could be levied according to the bourreau’s ‘droit de havage,’ the appropriately named ‘right of cleaving’ or ‘right of chopping.’

An executioner could take, for free, as much of those goods as his two hands could hold. The Revolution would change much for the bourreaux, public hypocrisy didn’t. Until the execution of Eugen Weidmann in Paris in July, 1939 the French public enjoyed watching the bourreaux work while shunning them everywhere else.

From 1791 torture before execution was abolished and from then on there would be only one executioner for each French region or ‘departement.’ Assistant executioners (known as valets) were also abolished in the departements. Again Paris was the exception ‘Monsieur de Paris, required by law to reside in the city, retained several valets.

Different methods of execution were also abandoned. From then on, as both a humanitarian and social statement, every prisoner would be beheaded in the same way. Whether  prince or pauper, all would face a brand-new invention regardless of social distinction;

The guillotine.

Exécution_de_Marie_Antoinette_le_16_octobre_1793Known variously as the ‘People’s Avenger,’ ‘National Razor,’ ‘Timbers of Justice,’ ‘Madame la Guillotine’ and ‘The Widow’ it replaced the wheel, gallows, sword, axe and burning post. The executioner’s torture tools also became museum pieces. The bourreaux did not; They were never more well-known or less unpopular than when providing vengeance-by-proxy for their proletarian public. They were never as busy, either, sometimes killing a hundred or more aristocrats a day and over 3000 in a single month. First used on highway robber Nicolas Jacques Pelletier in Paris on April 25, 1792 it wasn’t an instant success.

With Pelletier public hypocrisy reached new heights. Far from promoting the bourreaux as no longer being svages and outcasts, the spectators complained that it was too quick and humane. They even came up with a then-popular song including the words ‘Give us back our wooden allows.’ The public might have regarded those who worked such instruments as the lowest of the low for doing so, but they hated even more the idea of being deprived of the entertainment factor from seeing prisoners strangle slowly at the end of a rope or be engulfed in flames. No, the bourreaux were still unholy brutes. It was just that were no longer brutal enough.

Until 1939 the heads still rolled, the crowds still turned out and the bourreaux were still objects of public hatred. By then use of the term ‘bourreaux’ had been officially outlawed (not that anyone stopped using it) while French officialdom too sought to distance itself from those who did their dirty work. The guillotine itself was officially the property of the chief executioner, not the Ministry of Justice. The chief executioner (now only ‘Monsieur de Paris actually dropped the blade)  and his remaining valets were also kept at arm’s length.

‘Monsieur de Paris’ didn’t draw a salary. He was given an annual appropriation of 180,000 Francs to cover repairs, maintenance, expenses and paying himself and his assistants. The Ministry of Justice could then keep them all at an official distance while still regularly despatching them around France, themselves to despatch the criminals thereof.

The pay was low and one chief was fired for having pawned the device to raise funds. When they found out he’d done so, shortly before a scheduled execution, the Ministry had to redeem the pawnbroker’s fee out of public funds so the execution could go ahead. In their eyes, however, nothing could redeem the bourreau who’d pawned it. He was immediately fired.

rd7YcIn France’s notorious penal colonies at French Guiana and New Caledonia the National Razor’s operators were equally hated, though for a different reason. The penal colonies used convict-executioners, men already serving sentences who were ready to kill their fellow criminals in return for protection and privileges. Hated by guards and inmates alike, they were the most reviled convicts in the system.

Neither guards or inmates had any time for men viewed as traitors to their criminal class. A couple were themselves executed. Isidore Hespel, known throughout Guiana’s Penal Administration as ‘The Jackal’ was himself executed for murder by the very assistant executioner he’d trained. The assistant wasn’t any more popular for having executed his hated boss.

Worse still was the grisly fate of a particularly brutal Guiana bourreau Henri Clasiot. A man of singularly vile personality, Clasiot routinely beat, cursed and insulted the convicts he executed, marching them to the guillotine with fists and invective. Abducted by some freed convicts, Clasiot found himself facing far worse than even he had inflicted. After a severe beating, his captors stripped him naked, smeared him liberally with honey and staked him out over an anthill.

The ants were carnivorous.

Eugene Weidmann Being Led to Guillotine
24 Jun 1939, Versailles, France — Shirt pulled down over his shoulders to prevent interference with the knife, Eugene Weidmann, convicted slayer of Jeanne De Koven, Brooklyn dancer, is shown being led into the courtyard of Saint Pierre Prison in Versailles to his execution on the guillotine. The basket which was to receive his dead body is shown (partially) at left. A few moments after his picture was made the great knife fell and Weidmann’s head was severed from his body. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

After Weidmann in 1939, itself watched by a young Englishman later to become Sir Christopher Lee, executions were hurriedly removed behind prison walls. Such had been the disgust at drunkenness and debauchery during Weidmann’s death, President Lebrun (an opponent of capital punishment) ordered public executions abolished. The bourreaux became increasingly obscure and secretive figures, perhaps grateful for the lowering of their public profile. The penal systems of Guiana and New Caledonia closed and, while ‘Monsieur de Paris’ and his valets still plied their grim trade, they did so increasingly rarely and entirely in private.

1949 saw France’s last female execution, that of Germaine Leloy-Godefroy. In 1953 the last prisoners returned from Guiana, the infamous colony having closed its doors in 1946 and its caps and orisons gradually shut down. A movement against capital punishment had always existed in France, but it gathered increasing momentum after World War II. Ironically considering their profession, now the bourreaux themselves were on borrowed time.

djandoubi-guillotine-570x5701977 saw France’s last execution, that of Hamida Djandoubi in Marseille’s notorious Baumettes prison. In 1981 the Natonal Assembly finally abolished the death penalty. Djandoubi was the last prisoner beheaded in both France and Western Europe. France was the last in Western Europe to abolish beheading as a method. The days of ‘les bourreaux’ were over.

Until abolition French judges still passed death sentences, but all were commuted. Seeing the way the political wind was blowing President Francois Mitterand (another death penalty opponent) reprieved every death sentence passed between his election and final abolition. No longer would the residents of what the French called ‘Death Alley’ count off the days they had left and wonder how many actually remained.

French condemned prisoners were never given their exact date and time of execution until it actually happened, when at the traditional time of dawn their cell doors opened and their final walk began. They knew when there was an execution scheduled for the next morning, but whose? They spent every dawn hoping the door that opened wouldn’t be theirs.

No longer would they hear guards talking in the evenings and tremble until after the dawn, having heard the dreaded words ‘Monsieur de Paris est ici…’

12899097244_e28e7fc978_z‘The Man from Paris is here…’

 

 

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


djandoubi-guillotine-570x570

 

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.