Thursday, April 11, 2019

The Sanson Memoirs- 1/3

by Nomad

Not too long ago, I spent about a month reading The Memoirs of  Sanson Family. I am pretty certain you've never heard of it. I myself discovered it accidentally on the "shelves" of For history buffs, it is a remarkable and unique find, a truly riveting history.

Written by Henry-Clément Sanson, the last of the family line, the two-volume chronicle tells the true story of a French dynasty of state executioners. It covers the period beginning with the age of the kings and through the horrific revolution. Exactly how accurate it is is, of course, up for debate but most scholars consider it reasonably accurate.

The Dreaded Inheritance 

The family history began with Charles Sanson of Abbeville (1658–1695), a soldier in the French royal army. According to the tale, Charles fell off his horse, breaking his leg and was cared for by a gruff father and his lovely daughter. While nursed back to health, the brutish soldier fell in love with the young woman.
Tenderer feelings were stirred, as they say.

It was, however, immediately clear that Charles was not the ideal son-in-law and when goodbyes were said, it was understood that it was forever. Poor Charlie became both obsessive and possessive about the daughter and, after quite a bit of angst, made his appeal to her papa. 
The father reluctantly gave his permission to marry only on the understanding that Sanson would take up the same line of work as his bride's father- as the Royal Executioner. In the name of love, Charles accepted, not quite realizing what exactly he was getting himself into. 

Sadly for Charles, his bride died soon after the marriage. By that time, the grim Sanson was accustomed to the public scorn as well as the prestige of his official position.

Passing from generation to generation, the title of state executioner became a sort of dreaded inheritance. The average French citizen regarded the Sanson family with a peculiar mixture of dread and respect. Ostracised by all levels of society, the well-paid Sansons lived in their own bubble, going out a little as possible and shielding their children from the public.

The most interesting part deals with the fourth of six generations of Sansons, Charles Henri Sanson (1739 -1806). He had succeeded his father, Charles-Jean-Baptiste Sanson, as chief executioner in 1778. In a career that spanned some 40 years, Sanson presided over an estimated 2,918 executions.

Being the royal executioner was not a job Charles Sanson took much joy in. He did keep detailed notes and personal observations. His journal was an inventory of the executions of the most celebrated criminals, as well as the travesties of justice. 

Unbeknownst to him, a storm was on the horizon which was to complicate his situation.

The Bankrupted Kingdom

Precipitated by the declaration that the royal treasury was broke in August 1788, law and order in imperial France quickly broke down.
Outside of the profligate spending by the monarch and his family, France had incurred debt through its assistance of the American colonies. This policy had largely been in an effort to break the British hegemony in North America. As successful as it had been, it came at an enormous cost to the French nation. The country, saddled with this significant debt, was now facing a complete economic meltdown.

During this time, there were repeated efforts at finding some kind of legislative and political resolution to the threat of bankruptcy. Compromises, mainly in the form of revenue-raising taxes, were proposed but were repeatedly rejected by the French nobility.

Unaware of the furious mood of the French people, the nobles refused to budge. They intended to maintain their privileged (tax-exempt)status even if that meant seeing the whole country go under. Likewise, the clergy with its vast wealth rejected the very idea of taxation. The attitude was: leave it to the already-burdened middle-class and the poor to pay. The impasse made the money lenders disinclined to bail out the monarchy yet again.

After months of little to no progress, Paris saw its largest and most violent protest. Crowds took over the Bastille prison, but not to free the prisoners- which held only 7 prisoners at the time, but for the gunpowder and arms.
In the next years, The National Assembly took over the running of the country in June 1789 and attempted to set up a new Constitution providing the necessary and long overdue reforms.

Against this backdrop, the Sanson family continued its grim work for a country caught up in a tempest.

Decapitation by Machine

One little-known fact found in the book: Charles Henri Sanson was instrumental in the adoption of the use of the infamous guillotine.

For years, there had been calls- not for the abolition of capital punishment- but for a more humane method of disposing of criminals.
Prior to this, executions were generally carried out with an ax in a public square. (For some heinous crimes, more gruesome methods were applied to provide a sort of unforgettable visual lesson to the peasants.) 

Witnessing the cruelty first-hand, Sanson's conscience had long been irritated by the problem. By fortunate chance, Charles had become acquainted with a German engineer of the name of Schmidt, a manufacturer of musical instruments, ingenious in his craft and a passionate lover of music. 

One evening around the late 1780s, Charles and Schmidt were playing an after-dinner duet together when Charles stopped and confided to his friend about his problem. He told the German that the present method of execution was unsuitable. Too often, things were botched, the suffering was unnecessarily prolonged. 

Schmidt, the text reads, hesitated for a moment and then traced a few rapid lines on a piece of paper, which he handed to his host. 
Charles Henri Sanson looked at the drawing with unfeigned surprise and satisfaction. Schmidt told him that he had long doubted whether it was proper for him to have anything to do with instruments which were designed to kill, but that, seeing his friend's perplexity, he could not resist the temptation of assisting him.
It was thus that the guillotine came into the world, as it were, in the midst of a concert.
Its chief advantage over any other method of execution was that it was swift and- when applied with professional care, painless.
Wikipedia describes the apparatus in this way:
The device consists of a tall, upright frame in which a weighted and angled blade is raised to the top and suspended. The condemned person is secured with stocks at the bottom of the frame, positioning the neck directly below the blade. The blade is then released, to quickly fall and forcefully decapitate the victim with a single, clean pass so that the head falls into a basket below.
The machine later took its name from the physician, Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, who approved of the design but actually had nothing to do with its invention. He promoted its use as a reform on the practice and a step forward in the enlightened age.

Without question, its efficiency eliminated- for the most part- the physical pain for the victim.
On April 31, 1791, the good doctor appeared before the National Assembly and got a bit carried away with enthusiastic praise for the method that he, the text says, almost imperiled its success. 
He said that the culprit would only feel "a slight freshness on the neck." The phrase was sufficiently ingenious; but when he added, "With this machine, I chop off your head in a twinkling and you do not suffer," the Assembly gave way to irrepressible laughter.
It was not long before the laughter stopped.  

As a footnote, Dr. Guillotin would later be arrested and imprisoned during the French Revolution's Reign of Terror. Only through sheer luck, the good doctor escaped an ironic death at the hands of the invention that bore his name.

There was, however, one unexpected problem with the mechanical exterminator. Its adoption as the state-approved method of capital punishment led to a kind of death penalty assembly line.  And executions seemed to be the last way the ruling class had to attempt to remain in control. And the deadly mechanism sped up the process of punishment, reducing the time to appeal. Trials became more and more cursory.  

However, when the mobs finally rebelled against the aristocracy, the guillotine became a "double-edged" instrument for administering justice. It was to become the avenger of the angry mob, and the redresser of social injustice.
The time for settling scores had begun.

*   *   * 
In Part-Two, we will continue the tale of the Sansons in which Charles-Henri meets his most famous victim- the King of France.