Thursday, April 18, 2019

The Sanson Memoirs- 2/3

by Nomad

In the first part of this series, we profiled the Sanson family- the official executioners for imperial France before the Revolution. In this part, we will look at the Charles-Henri's vivid observations of the chaos that overwhelmed France during the revolt.

Your King is Ready to Die

As we noted in Part One, as an eyewitness to historical events particularly those of the French Revolution, Charles- Henri Sanson's diary is both fascinating and horrible.

By January 1792, the guillotine was working at full steam, with a growing - and shrinking- list of the French 1% and members of the royal court. The borders had been closed long before. Those that had waited too long to escape were now trapped and were being hunted down like rats. 
It was the moment, the writer explains, when the history of the scaffold and the history of France combined.

Not surprisingly, King Louis XVI, ( "an infamous voluptuary who lived in this vast palace of Versailles like Tiberius at Capri") became the target of the revolutionaries. With no other option, he and his queen Marie Antoinette attempted to escape France during the night of 20–21 June 1791. The plan had been to launch a counter-revolution from abroad (probably Sweden.) 

However, a series of blunders in his escape plan (and unheeded warnings) led to the king and his family being arrested in August 1791. Without leniency or pity, the imprisoned monarch, now named Citizen Louis Capet, was condemned to death by the Revolutionary Tribunal. The charge: treason.

The incredulous Charles Henri Sanson was given the execution order. Even though Sanson was no royalist, it is clear that he felt tremendous angst about the legitimacy of this regicide. Regardless of his personal sympathies, Sanson, as the royal executioner of France, was duty-bound to carry out his orders. 
Even when it came to beheading the head of State.

The execution was scheduled for Monday, 21 January 1793. The crowds were, Sanson tells us, so large in the streets that it took him nearly two hours travel to Place de la Revolution, where the scaffold had been prepared by order of the new revolutionary government.

As his journal implies, Sanson never thought it would come that. He expected an armed attempt would be made by Royalists to free the former king. And this was based on more than false hope. He claimed to have received a note the day before, implying that the king would be saved at the last moment.
Sanson wrote in his diary:
I listened intently for some indication as to what was about to occur. I rejoiced at the thought that the King had perhaps been rescued on the way and that he was already beyond the reach of danger.
It turned out to be a vain hope.
As, however, my eyes were bent in the direction of the Madeleine, I suddenly espied a body of cavalry which was coming up at a trot, and immediately after it, a carriage drawn by two horse and surrounded by a double row of horsemen followed.
No doubt could now exist; The victim was at hand. My sight became dim and I looked at my son; he also was deadly pale.
He continues:
The carriage stopped at the foot of the scaffold. The King was sitting on the back seat on the right; next to him was his confessor, and on the front seat, two gendarmes. The later came down first' then the priest and he was followed directly by the King, who appeared even more collected and calm than when I saw him at Versailles and in the Tuileries.
As he approached the steps of the scaffold, I cast a glance around. The people were silent, the drums were sounding and not the slight sign of a rescue being at hand was given. 
When asked to remove his coat, the condemned prisoner flatly refused. The executioner's assistant repeated the order and added it was also necessary to bind his hands. Citizen Caput was outraged.
This would not do. The priest appealed to the king to retain his dignity. The King then submitted and held out his hands, as the priest presented him with a crucifix to kiss. As he ascended the steps, he turned to his executioners and asked  "Are these drums going to sound forever?"

Upon reaching the platform, the deposed king signaled for the drummer to pause. He had a final statement to make to the people. Sanson depicts the scene:
"Frenchmen!" he exclaimed, in a strong voice, "you see your King ready to die for you. May my blood cement your happiness! I die innocent of what I am charged with!"
Just as he was about to continue, the drummers were ordered by the head of the guard to drown out his final words. Nothing more could be heard. 
In a moment, he was bound to the weigh-plank and a few seconds afterwards, while under my touch, the knife was sliding down, he could still hear the voice of the priest pronouncing these words:
"Son of Saint Louis, ascend to Heaven."

By the description, the citizens who stood watching seemed to be transfixed, paralyzed witnesses. 
The slightest signal would have been sufficient to cause a diversion in his favor; for if when Gros, my assistant, showed the King's head to the multitude, some cries were uttered, the greater part of the crowd turned away with profound horror.
Despite being embittered by years of the neglect and deprivation, this official act of vengeance for a moment left the mob both conflicted yet unsatisfied.

With So Little Innocent Blood

No doubt the reigning kings and queens around the world must have been dismayed by what was taking place in France. The wise took it as a lesson about the perils of being a frivolous monarch, negligent of the needs of his or her people.
A ghastly bit of karma playing out for all the world to see.

Some went further, asking whether the French aristocracy- which had once thought nothing of the poor- deserved any pity at all? Hadn't they actually brought this fate upon themselves?

In the newly-formed nation of the United States, the founding fathers reviewed their Constitution forming a proper governmental framework, and expressed the belief that such things could not happen here. There were mechanisms in place, safeguards against despotism and corruption.

When the Revolution first began, Thomas Jefferson- the US minister to France at the time- was an ardent supporter of the revolt against the King. Jefferson viewed it as a rejection of the corrupt French monarchy, not unlike the American colonies' war for independence.

In a 3 January 1793 letter (just weeks before the royal execution), the radical Jefferson wrote:
In the struggle which was necessary, many guilty persons fell without the forms of trial, and with them some innocent. These I deplore as much as anybody, and shall deplore some of them to the day of my death. But I deplore them as I should have done had they fallen in battle. It was necessary to use the arm of the people, a machine not quite so blind as balls and bombs, but blind to a certain degree.
The liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest, and was ever such a prize won with so little innocent blood?
With the revolt entering into its most bloody and violent stages, Jefferson's support must have wavered at least to some degree. (It was not until he became President in 1801 that Jefferson’s views toward France began to cool and became more pragmatic.)

For the French, the death of the king turned out not to be the concluding act of the Revolution. It was, in fact, "the prelude to a series of wholesale executions."
Between June 1793 and the end of July 1794, usually referred to as The Reign of Terror, there were 16,594 official death sentences in France, of which 2,639 were in Paris.

The old order of the nobility and the clergy was being dismantled First the monarchy and the ruling class and then the Church itself. The Notre-Dame Cathedral had already been looted and damaged by the angry mobs. Then the Republican government declared that all church property in France now belonged to the nation which was then sold at public auction.

In a widespread anti-Christianity campaign, the revolutionaries demanded that all clergy swear their loyalty to the new state. The clergy was to be made employees of the state and those that refused were either exiled - some 30,000- or were executed.

Mad and Furious Humanity

In the year that followed the king's death, Sanson was an extremely busy worker. Throughout the Reign of Terror, the executioner kept careful notes of the condemned in his diary. Here are a few entries.
Executed a dishonest baker, Nicolas Gornot, of the Rue St. Jacques. All the citizens of his section were around the scaffold and insulted him.
Three women and two men, all belonging to the nobility, were executed to-day.
On 4 January 1794, Sanson wrote in his journal:
To-day we executed General Luckner. He was seventy-two years old, and quite broken by age; but he was brave to the last, and died bravely.
A week or so later, Sanson presided over the execution of a tradesman named Thiellard, the vicar of the Church of Bordeaux and a lawyer. He writes:
In the cart, the three convicts sang a song they had composed in prison. Their singing excited the anger of the people, who threw mud in their faces. Firmness does not mollify all citizens, but rather irritates them, as red irritates bulls.
Entry dated 11 January 1794:
Adrien Lamourette, constitutional bishop of Lyons, was put to death to-day. He showed that he did not fear death. He was much insulted on the way ; he blessed the people without showing any bitterness or resentment.
When the crowd chanted for the Lamourette to embrace his executioner, he replied to Sanson:
"Yes, I embrace in thee humanity; however mad and furious it may be, it is always humanity.'
After the slaughter of the aristocracy, the kings and the priests, the reign of terror took on another, more horrible, form. Informers fanned out around the country and revolutionary commissions were formed.
Lists were made, followed by arrests, incarceration, perfunctory judgments delivered, swiftly followed by executions in the square.

Soon nobody was safe and accusations alone were enough to send the unfortunate to the scaffold. During this stage, as many as forty people a day were executed. Without any kind of process of appeal, the innocent and the guilty alike lost their lives to the Sanson blade.

As the savagery of the French revolution unfolded, the silent, stoic Sanson carried out his duties. To the public, he was a loyal servant of the State. Whatever disgust he felt was recorded privately in his journals. 
A year since to-day we executed the King. This morning my wife was so pale and tired when she awoke that I guessed that her sleep had been troubled. She knelt down to pray, and I did the same.
The following day, he writes:
Thirteen executions of minor individuals.
*   *   *
In Part Three of this series, we will look at how both the Revolution and the Sanson curse came to an end.