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NEW MONTHLY MAGAZINE.
REVELATIONS OF THE GUILLOTINE.*
The era of Louis XIV. and of Louis XV. was that of minorities; the system extended itself to the very foot of the social ladder, and to the royal minorities succeeded that of the royal executioners. Charles Sanson was dead, and his widow, the most remarkable woman of the family—Martha Dubut-obtained the father's appointment for his eldest son, Charles Jean Baptiste Sanson, at that time only seven years of age. Jean Baptiste, worthy son of an indomitable mother, took to his profession, when age had rendered him competent to its duties, as a matter of course. He was equally free from the feverish excitement of his grandfather and the gloomy melancholy of his father. So great was the influence of Martha Dubut, “ the mother of the Gracchi of the scaffold,” that she also obtained the appointment of provost of the king's hotel for her second son, Gabriel, but the execution of Damiens so sickened this youth with the duties that he at once gave up his charge.
Jean Baptiste, of a less sensitive nature, on the contrary, took a pride in his profession, and thoroughly identified himself with the sanguinary appanage, which he looked upon as hereditary. Unluckily, he was not of a literary turn— possibly the two avocations do not tally, for Henry Sanson manifestly had his business in horrorand he has left few notices of the terrible dramas in which he was engaged. The fact is, that these appear, from the brevity of such as do exist, to have made no deep impression upon his cynical disposition. Among the most remarkable were one Ruxton, broken on the wheel for having assassinated Andrieu, a barrister-at-law; and Montgeol, a civil engineer, who had murdered Lescombat, an architect, prompted thereunto by Marie Taperet, the wife of the latter. The indifference and egotism of this corrupt woman at his trial so irritated her quondam lover, that he was induced to tax her openly with having instigated him to commit the crime. Marie Taperet, young and beautiful, and whose coquetry equalled her viciousness, reckoned upon her charms and dress to fascinate the magistrates and win them over in her favour, but in this she was disappointed; she was condemned to be hung, and only obtained delay by declaring herself enceinte by the unfortunate man whom she had sent to the scaffold. Marie Taperet's history bears some resemblance to that of Madame Ticquet ; like it, it has been made the groundwork of both novels and dramas, but it has no redeeming points like the ill-assorted marriage, and ardent and passionate, albeit criminal, love of Madame Ticquet. Among the other more or less
* Mémoires des Sansons, etc! Tome Troisième. Paris : Dupray de la Mahérie.
July-VOL. CXXVIII. NO. DXI.
distinguished personages who fell into the hands of Jean Baptiste was a magistrate of the name of Dufrancey, who was nearly sacrificing the life of one Roy, a merchant, byffalse testimony. A slight incident at the trial betrayed the plot.
Roy, overwhelmed by the horrible charges brought against him by one of the witnesses, exclaimed:
“ Miserable man, what have I done to you that you should have me broken on the wheel? I do not know you, or have you ever seen me!”
“How !” exclaimed the witness,“ broken on the wheel? I did not mean it to go as far as that.”
These words were a beam of light. A new turn was given to the examination, and the whole plot was discovered.
Jean Baptiste was struck down by palsy in January, 1754. We have seen how he attempted to re-vindicate his rights in the instance of Lally Tollendal ; in fact, he may be almost said to have loved his profession. Another proof of this lies in the fact that out of ten children, he got all that were boys—seven in number-appointments as executioners at Reims, Orleans, Meaux, Etampes, Soissons, Montpellier, and elsewhere. When these members of a family of decapitators were assembled at the patriarchal board, the aged Martha Dubut at the head, her son paralysed and statue-like at the side, and the mother at the foot, they were designated as Monsieur de Reims, Monsieur de Soissons, &c.-a custom which is still upheld in the profession.
The eldest, Charles Henry Sanson, was by birthright Monsieur de Paris, and he was a handsome and even gentlemanly person. Being obliged by law to wear a green coat, he actually brought the colour into fashion, and he even attempted to raise the question, as a descendant of the De Longvals, if the office of executioner derogated from his rights of nobility! His handsome person and love of dress entailed many adventures, some of which, as his acquaintance with Jeanne Vaubernier, afterwards Countess of Barry, had no untoward results, which was not always the case with others. Being out hunting one day, a lady of title inquiring as to who he was, and receiving for answer that he was a “ parliamentary officer,” she invited him to her house. But discovering afterwards the real profession of our gay Lothario, she was so profoundly irritated that she commenced an action against him, insisting that he should ask pardon publicly with a rope round his neck, and further, that he should be obliged to wear a distinctive badge. Charles Henry defended himself so effectually, however (the very speeches made on both sides are placed on record in this strange history), that nothing came of this persecution of an indignant lady.
The acquaintanceship with Jeanne Vaubernier, afterwards Countess of Barry, is said to have originated in the attendance at the house of Jean Baptiste of the Abbé Gomart, chaplain to the condemned, and who may be supposed to have frequented the society of the Sansons from their duties bringing them so closely and so intimately together. The disputed paternity of Jeanne Vaubernier is attributed by the Sansons to a youthful error on the part of the abbé, who seems in other respects to have been a pious man, and an able and conscientious minister of religion. It was from hearing the worthy abbé talk of the beauty and the frailty of his niece, as he called her, and the latter of which, while he extolled the charms of the girl, he never ceased to deplore at the table of the Sansons, that first induced the ardent young Charles Henry to seek her, with the view primarily, we are told, of bringing her back to a sense of rectitude, Whereupon Jeanne most justly retorted :
“ Quel nigaud que ce garçon la !"
Henry Sanson passes lightly and delicately over these pages in the history of his grandfather, which others have availed themselves of to present in a very different light; the one party as a hideous and repulsive relationship with a common executioner, the other as a mysterious and fatal connexion replete with strange prophecies of the future. Read in any light, it remains not the less a strange incident that one of the favourites of this frail but beautiful and fascinating creature, should have been the very man who, in after years, was called upon to carry out the last penalty of the law-or rather of public reprobation-upon her own person.
Charles Henry Sanson became, indeed, in the words of his biographer, the minister of popular reprisals, the incarnation of the thoughts of Marat and Robespierre, and the liquidation of the revenge accumulated for ages against the abuses of the monarchy, and he seemed at that exceptional epoch to have become the alpha and omega of politics. It is, indeed, impossible to find in any other country, or under any other legislation of the past, a more perfect or a more exaggerated personification of the public executioner. Royalty, the “Gironde," and the "Mountain,” each in its turn passed under his hands ; each successive crisis ended at the same point-the scaffold; as if the fatal triangle of iron moved by his homicidal hands an invention that seemed as if it had sprung forth from the necessities and inspiration of the time—was the only possible solution to all the various social and political questions that were discussed with so much violence in those days.
The latter portion of the reign of Louis XV. had been sparing in blood. The condemned were simply malefactors of the most common and vulgar class, such as always present themselves amidst a vast and more or less disorganised population. Henry Sanson remarks, however, upon more than one occasion, that it was strange to say the parliament, whom these miserable victims appealed to for mercy, that invariably aggravated their sentence of death into that of being broken upon the wheel. Happily, we have now come to the time when the last of such execrably barbarous scenes was attempted to be enacted, and that, too, at Versailles, the very seat and stronghold of royalty.
“ Our modern laws," writes Henry Sanson, “ attaching more importance to human dignity, have abolished corporeal punishments. The pillory and the brand have disappeared one after the other ; I have seen them both erased from my fatal duties. The act of mutilation that preceded the execution of parricides has fallen into disuse, as a refinement of cruelty unworthy of a civilised society. The cremation of bodies and the dispersion of their ashes to the winds, would only be looked upon in the present day as an odious phantasmagoria calculated to hurt public feeling and to degrade justice. The scaffold and the privation of life in the name of the law alone remain ; and an internal voice proclaims to the old descendant of a long generation of executioners, that these last fétiches of barbarity will not fail to be carried away by the breath of progress, and that legislation, refreshed at the eternal sources of religion, will at length recognise the inviolability of human life, the work of God, who alone has the right to destroy it."
The events of a period marked by an effusion of blood greater than is known to the annals of any other epoch, or any other race of people, were preceded by an incident of a more personal character, and which displays an amount of cynicism that is so peculiarly national, and was so characteristic of the times that it is impossible to pass it over in silence.
Desrues, a grocer's apprentice in Chartres, born in 1744, came to Paris to seek his fortune, like many others, and was received in the shop of the sister-in-law of his quondam master. A frail, impotent creature, of, according to Cailleau, even an indistinct sex, this otherwise repulsive youth managed by his assiduities, civilities, and assumed piety, so far to ingratiate himself in the favour of his mistress, as to be admitted in 1770—that is to say, at about twenty-six years of age-as a partner in the business. Two years after this he married Marie Nicolais, daughter of a sub-officer of artillery, whose mother had since united herself to a cobbler; Marie Nicolais was neither comely nor wealthy, nor even gifted with much intelligence, but she had an inheritance in prospective. This inheritance was a kind of feudal half-ruinous keep, with an estate attached, at Caudeville, near Auxerre, and at that time held by one Despleignes du Plessis. In default of direct issue, the lordship of Caudeville fell, one-third to the Nicolais family, another third to a Sieur Laurent, and the last third to a Marie Courtonne, a cousin-german. No sooner was Desrues wedded, than he set to work to appropriate to himself the lion's share of the property in perspective. As to the old cobbler and his wife, they were only too glad to get rid of a succession, the trouble of vindicating their right to which appeared to them an unending mystery. They sold their claim at once for 401. down, and an annuity of 501. Laurent was satisfied with the promise of the plate and furniture. Marie Courtonne alone held out, and would not come to terms. In the mean time, the misanthropic tenant of the ruinous castle was found one day dead in his arm-chair. He had been shot through the window with a fowling-piece loaded with small shot, but whether the crime had been committed by some discontented farmer, desperate poacher, or others anxious to inherit the estate, was never discovered. The murder had manifestly not been committed for purposes of robbery, as none was attempted, and more was never known.
The peculiar ambition of Desrues was, as with many others who have been ill-favoured by nature, not only to gain wealth, but also to stand high in the world, to move in good society, and be what is termed a person of distinction. In 1773 he sold his grocery, and removed to what his Parisian biographer calls “ a vast apartment” in the Rue des Deux. Boules-Sainte-Opportune. His conversation turned incessantly upon his Château de Caudeville, and his forests, meadows, and ponds; and he called himself Desrues de Bury, and his wife De Nicolai, dropping the final “g.” As no actual moneys had come in as yet from these territorial seignoralities, he had recourse to loans and to usury to keep up his establishment, and he would even borrow (always upon the faith of the said seignoralities) to lend---not always with the most successful results.
It was under these circumstances that an acquaintanceship with the procureur Joly brought Desrues into contact with a M. de Saint Faust de la Motte, who, with his wife, son, and daughter, inhabited the domain of Buisson-Souer, near Villeneuve le Roi, and who, being anxious to forward their son's prospects in life, were seeking a purchaser for their domain, in order that they might reside in Paris. Desrues at once presented himself as the purchaser of the estate ; but as the epoch of this liquidation of the Caudeville succession was still in abeyance, he submitted terms—a small sum down, a larger sum on signing the contract, a third sum three months afterwards, and two other equal payments annually, making a total of one hundred and thirty thousand francs. Desrues had not, probably, one hundred and thirty pence at his banker's; but what did that matter to a man of his speculative genius. “Who obtains credit owes nothing," was his axiom, and he quietly awaited the chapter of events to extricate himself from difficulties as they arose. The property of BuissonSouef was an inheritance of Madame de la Motte's, née Perier; and M. de la Motte, who was attached to the court, but in embarrassed circumstances, had condescended to wed a mere bourgeoise for the sake of the succession. It was to Madame de la Motte, then, that the most assiduous approaches were made by Desrues and his wife, and they induced her to sign a contract privately, upon condition of her receiving a personal present of four thousand two hundred frapcs, as pin-money, and for which Desrues gave his acceptance at three months. The dates of payment were left in this contract to be filled up afterwards. The three months elapsed, and the first little bill fell due, and was dishonoured; but M. and Madame Desrues de Bury played their part so well, dwelt with so much emphasis upon the delays met with in arranging the liquidation of the Caudeville succession, exchanged visits at Buisson-Souef, and so fêted M. and Madame de la Motte in Paris in their turn, that they were completely thrown off their guard.
But this state of things could not go on for ever. Even the La Mottes became impatient, and in December, 1776, Madame la Motte was induced to accept an invitation to come and pass a few weeks at the residence of the Desrues de Bury, at that time in the Rue Beaubourg, in order that some final settlement might be arrived at. Desrues began by exciting distrust on the part of Madame de la Motte towards her quondam friend the procureur Joly, and he gradually obtained so much influence over her as to induce her to remove her son-at that time a youth of fifteen, at college-to a pensionnat of his own selection, in a street significantly designated as that of l'Homme Armé.
Matters went on thus till the 25th of January, 1777, upon which day Madame de la Motte was taken ill, with nausea, sickness, and severe pains in the head. The illness continued for some days, and Desrues persuaded her not to call in a medical man; as a grocer, he was, he said, an expert in drugs, and he undertook to cure, what he termed, an evanescent indisposition. Desrues accordingly manufactured the “tisanes," which he administered with his own hands, and on the 30th of January Madame de la Motte had a second crisis, more violent than the first. To the inquiries of her son and attendants, however, Desrues persevered in replying at the same time that she was getting better. The next day he managed dexterously to get everybody out of the house. The son he sent