Expositions /

Death Penalty and Political Repression

Jean-Claude Farcy with Marc Renneville (translation : Patricia Bass)

The execution of Louis XVI (January 21st 1793)

Source : Collection of the museum of living history (Musée d’histoire vivante), Montreuil, France.

The execution of Louis XVI, Collection of the Museum of Living History (Musée d’histoire vivant – Montreuil) Caption: “The Execution of Louis Capet XVI by name, January 21st 1793. At ten thirty in the morning, Louis Capet’s head was cut off at the Place de la Révolution, previously called Place de Louis XVI, between the pedestal and the Champs Elysées. He arrived at the place of execution in one of the mayoral carriages. He got undressed and climbed up to the guillotine with confidence and courage. He wanted to harangue the people, but the executor of criminal sentences, under orders from General Santerre and to the sound of drums, made him submit to his sentence. Yet those who were near the guillotine heard him speak these words (Citizens, I pardon my enemies, I die innocent). His head fell, it was shown to the crowd, and the corpse was taken and buried in a field in the cemetery of the Magdelaine parish.” Louis XVI’s trial is sometimes considered as the first modern political trial since the legislative assembly and the Convention became a “court of justice” to judge this enemy of the Revolution. Despite the fact that almost all the representatives were convinced that the king was guilty of being a traitor, they still asked many controversial questions: can he be taken and judged in court? Should the people’s opinion be asked, and what should the sentence be ? If death is voted for, should a reprieve be given before the execution? On January 19th 1793, the reprieve was dismissed, and Louis XVI was executed on January 21st. The majority of revolutionaries, including Saint-Just who made one of the most convincing speeches, were convinced that capital punishment was necessary for such political matters. This was also the case for Beccaria and all of the philosophers who wanted to reduce or abolish capital punishment. Thus, Condorcet was alone in his opinion, which was interpreted at the time as a tactic to slow down the final judgement instead of as a profound conviction. Extract from the speech of Saint-Just, November 13th 1792 (cited in M.J. Mavidal and M. E. Laurent, eds, Archives parlementaires de 1787 à 1860, première série (1787-1799), 2nd ed., 82 vols, Paris, Dupont, 53-56: 390-393, trans. by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, available at: https://chnm.gmu.edu/revolution/d/320/): “To judge a King as a citizen . . . that would astound a dispassionate posterity. To judge is to apply the law. A law is linked to justice, and common to mankind and kings? What does Louis have in common with the French people that they should treat him well after he betrayed them? It is impossible to reign in innocence. The folly of that is all too evident. All Kings are rebels and usurpers. Do Kings themselves treat otherwise those who seek to usurp their authority? Was not Cromwell's memory brought to trial? And certainly Cromwell was no more usurper than Charles I. For when a people is so weak as to yield to the tyrant's yoke, domination is the right of the first comer, and it is no more sacred or legitimate for one than for another. These are the considerations that a generous and republican people must not forget when judging a King. You will be told that the verdict is to be ratified by the People. If that is to be, why can they themselves not pass judgment? If we did not sense the weakness of such ideas, whatever form of government we might adopt would find us slaves. The sovereign would never be in his place, nor the magistrate in his, and the people would have no guarantee against oppression. Citizens, the tribunal which must judge Louis is not a judiciary tribunal . . . it is a council . . . it is the People . . .”. Extract from Archives parlementaires, tome LVII, session of January 16-17th 1793, p. 384: “Any difference in sentencing for the same crime is an attack on equality. The punishment for conspirators is death. But this punishment is against my priniciples, and I never voted for it. I can’t vote for imprisonment, because no law would allow me to do so. I vote for the harshest punishment in the Penal code which is not death” (trans. P. Bass). For more information: See the article on the execution of Louis XVI on Wikipedia, and on the site of Criminocorpus: publications of the period and posterior publications.

The execution of Marie-Antoinette (October 16th 1793)

Source : Collection of the museum of living history (Musée d’histoire vivante), Montreuil, France.

Execution of Marie-Antoinette, Collection of the Museum of Living History (Musée d’histoire vivant – Montreuil) Marie-Antoinette was brought before the Revolutionary Court on the 14th, 15th and 16th of October to be judged guilty of “intelligence with the enemy” and for plotting against the Republic. For more information: See the article on the trial of Marie-Antoinette on Wikipedia and the Bibliography on the website Criminocorpus.

The Revolution: the call of the condemned

Source : Histoire de la Révolution française by Adolphe Thiers, tome 6.

The call of the condemned, engraving in l’Histoire de la Révolution française by Adolphe Thiers, 13 ed., Paris, Furne et Cie, 1865, tome 6; Photos, presentation and organization: Yann-Arzel Durelle-Marc. Once someone was condemned to death by the Revolutionary court, they did not have much time to live before they were called to the guillotine. During this brief waiting period, they would write a last letter to their loved ones, and then, when the jailer arrived, say their goodbyes. Here is one example of a letter by someone sentenced to death under the Reign of Terror: Marie-Madeleine Coutelet, sentenced to death for writing anti-Revolutionary texts (cited by Olivier Blanc, La dernière lettre. Prisons et condamnés de la Révolution 1793-1794, Paris, R. Laffont, 1984, p.170): “To citizen Coutelet in care of the citizen Neuvéglise, from the family of Jacobins, rue Saint-Jacques in Paris. My dear parents, I’m carrying out my last duties. You know how the law has judged me, and that they’ve found crime in innocence, and that is the way in which they have ordered me to die. I hope that you can be consoled, and it is the last pardon that I will ask of you. I die with such a pure soul that I can receive and see death with joy. Goodbye, receive my last kisses. They are from the tenderest daughter and the most devoted sister. I find this day today to be the most beautiful that I’ve received from the Supreme Being. Live and don’t think of me except to rejoice in the happiness that awaits me. I send my love to my friends and I’m thankful for those who have spoken in my favor. Goodbye for a last time, my last wish is that our children should be happy. Coutelet” (trans. P. Bass).

Joseph Lebon and the crackdown in Pas-de-Calais

Source : Collection of the museum of living history (Musée d’histoire vivante), Montreuil, France.

Acerbic Forms”, engraving from 1795, Collection of the Museum of Living History (Musée d’histoire vivant – Montreuil, photo: Véronique Fau-Vincenti) This anti-terrorist engraving made by Poirier and Montgey in 1795 stigmatizes the crackdown instigated by Joseph Lebon, a representative sent on a mission to Pas-de-Calais from October 23rd 1793 til July 28th 1794. The revolutionary court in this department sentenced over 550 people to death in a little less than six months. The allegorical engraving shows a monster in human form between the guillotine of Arras and that of Cambray, holding two chalices full of the blood of his numerous victims. He is on top of a stack of corpses with two furies at his sides who direct the animals eating the remains of his unfortunate victims (according to the caption of the engraving).

Guizot against the death penalty in political matters (1822)

Source : Guizot, Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire de mon temps, Paris, M. Lévy frères, 1858, tome I, p. 304-308.

Extract from François Guizot, Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire de mon temps [Memoirs to illustrate the history of my time], First tome, Paris, M. Lévy frères, 1858, p.304-308. English translation available thanks to Project Gutenberg at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/28169/28169-h/28169-h.htm.

Historian François Guizot (1887-1874) was a high-level civil servant in the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of the Interior during the beginning of the Restauration. However, after supporting a middle-ground position between the royalists and the heirs of the revolutionary tradition, he was dismissed following the murder of the duke of Berry (1820). He then became one of the heads of the liberal opposition to the regime of Charles X. When Louvel was executed for the attempted murder of the duke of Berry (1820), and a crackdown occurred on the “plots” of secret societies linked to the Charbonnerie (including the execution of four sergeants of the Rochelle on September 22nd 1822 at Place de la Grève in Paris), Guzot became convinced of the uselessness and even the dangers of the death penalty for political matters. He stated his argument in De la peine de mort en matière politique, which was published in 1822. The extract cited in his memoirs summarizes his feelings: while a fear of death deters some would-be criminals, it also provokes a desire for vengeance and martyrizes others. He believed that this excessive repression would be counter-productive for the regime in power, which would ultimately be weakened by it. Thus, it was primarily for reasons of “good politics” that Guizot suggested abandoning the death penalty and replacing it with exile and deportation, measures adopted by the Second Republic. For more information: See the biographical article on Guizot on Wikipedia.

1848: Abolition of the death penalty for political matters

Source : Garnier-Pagès. Histoire de la revolution de 1848, Paris, tome III, p. 102-104.

Extract from the Histoire de la Révolution de 1848 [History of the Revolution of 1848] by Garnier-Pages, Paris, Pagnerre, tome III, p.102-104. Louis-Antoine Garnier-Pagès (1803-1878) is one of the figures of the Revolution of 1848. A representative since 1842, he participated in the “Campagne des banquets” (See English Wikipedia article on Campagne des banquets), which destabilized the Restauration regime. Following February 1848, he became the mayor of Paris and a member of the provisional government. Here, he recounts the abolition of the death penalty for political matters during the excitement of the revolutionary days of February. The decree of February 26th, presented lyrically (the style of these days) by Lamartine on the balcony of the Hôtel de Ville, aimed to do away with the horrors of the Reign of Terror, which were linked to the concept of a Republic for many people. The decree also aimed to prevent a potential popular protest from those who might suspect that the new figures in power would want to save the old heads of state in case the power ever shifted back into their hands. Memories of the trial of Charles X in 1830 were still fresh, and Lamartine himself even asked the people at that time – using his Ode against the death penalty – to refrain from taking their revenge on the king. The abolition of the death penalty, limited to political crimes, thus became part of a broader policy of pacification which aimed to appease the former political personnel. For more information: The full text of History of the Revolution of 1848 is available in English on the site of archive.org.


The execution of the murderers of General Bréa (1849)

Source : Victor Hugo, Choses vues, Le temps présent IV, 1849.

Extract from Victor Hugo, Choses vues, Le temps présent [Things Seen, The present time] IV, 1849. On June 25th 1848, the General Bréa, commander of troops quelling a workers’ insurrection, agreed to speak with the insurgents in order to reach a peaceful agreement - but when he approached the insurgents, he was seized and killed. After the fighting, 18 000 arrests were made, charges were held on two thirds of them, and fewer 500 insurgents were finally deported overseas, the majority of whom were sent to Algeria. Many insurgents who were considered active organizers of the murder of General Bréa were sent to the Council of War and five of them were sentenced to death, despite the fact that their motivation was clearly political. On March 17th 1849, two were executed at the barrier de Fontainebleau, near the place where General Bréa was killed, and the other three were pardoned. The court of appeals was consulted concerning the legality of executing political criminals even though this type of punishment had been abolished on February 26th of the previous year, and they stated that “odious acts, which constitute crimes of common law, cause political crimes to lose their exceptional nature”. This created jurisprudence: political crimes were categorized as acts of common law in order to be able to apply the death penalty. Victor Hugo realized the gravity of this event and noted that it was the first time the guillotine dared show itself since February, and that it was protected by a grandiose military display.

The hostages killed by the Commune

Source : Collection of the National Museum of Prisons (France).

Extract from P.O. Lissagaray, Histoire de la Commune de 1871, Paris, Maspero, 1970, p.343-344; Photograph of the firing squad wall at the prison of the Roquette taken with a Verascope Richard (type of stereoscope)(National museum of prisons) The journalistProsper-Olivier Lissagaray (1838-1901) opposed the regime of Napoleon III and did not take part in the Commune except during the “bloody week” when he fired on the barricades. Taking refuge in Belgium and then in England, he returned to France after receiving amnesty. In Brussels, he published his Histoire de la Commune de 1871 [History of the Commune of 1871], one of the best accounts of the history of the Commune and specifically of its last days, mixing his personal memories with extracts from the French and international press of the time. His account describes how under pressure from their troops (who were overwhelmed by the acts committed by the Versaillais during the beginning of the Bloody Week), the leaders of the commune made the decision to shoot the hostages that they had imprisoned following the decree of April 5th 1871. The first execution, described in Lissagaray’s text, occurred on February 24th and led to the death of Mgr Darboy, the archbishop of Paris, the president Bonjean, and four members of the clergy. The second execution, which turned into a massacre, happened on May 26th on rue Haxo. In all, 85 hostages were shot, most of whom were policemen.

Court martials and the Commune’s repression

Source : P.-O. Lissagaray, Histoire de la Commune de 1871, Paris, 1970, p.374-375.

Extract from P.-O. Lissagaray, Histoire de la Commune de 1871, Paris, Maspero, 1970, p. 374-375 ; photograph of a brief execution (website of Richard J. Geib) When it comes to the number of executions in a short period of time, the largest political repression in contemporary French history was the Bloody Week, not counting the direct victims of fights between Revolutionaries and soldiers from the Versailles army. While the revolutionary courts executed about 17 000 individuals all over France between March 1793 and August 1794 (two thirds of sentences were delivered insurgent regions), the court martials in Versailles executed over ten thousand Communards in less than two weeks. Although this number is lower previous estimations (often 30 000 deaths were counted), Robert Tombs shows that these executions were important because they were part of a methodical and systematic repression that created a precedent for contemporary political repressions. Lissagaray’s text gives several examples of how “cours prévôtales” [Provost-Marshals’ courts] work. The extent of this massacre profoundly marked the political left: for almost a century, commemorations of the Bloody Week included demonstrations at the Père-Lachaise cemetery where the last battles were fought. A 1946 event is viewable on the site of INA Archives pour tous, with an extract from the French press, AF, 13/06/1946.

Anarchist attacks: dynamite in Paris

Source : Collection of the museum of living history (Musée d’histoire vivante), Montreuil, France.

Le Petit Journal. Supplément illustré, April 15th 1892, Collection of the Museum of Living History (Musée d’histoire vivant – Montreuil) Anarchist theories were influential in France at the end of the 19th century, expressing the revolt of popular classes and marking the birth of organized labor (notably the CGT trade union). Partly under the influence of Russian anarchists (Kropotkine), intellectuals and activists applied this ideology in France and supported “propagande par le fait” [propaganda of the deed]. Here, this meant the use of individual acts of terror to fight the reviled bourgeoise society, starting with its representatives and its symbols. The first attacks occurred in the region of Lyon in 1882. Since the judicial system and police harshly punished those accused, the anarchists intensified their actions to take revenge for their “martyrs”. On May 1st 1891, anarchist actions in the Parisian suburbs ended with gunfights in the streets with the police. Ravachol organized numerous bombings in the center of Paris in reaction to the death sentences that were made: May 1st 1892 at the Sagan hotel on rue Saint-Dominique, March 11th at the building where the magistrate who presided over the Assizes court had taken his decision the previous May, March 14th at the Lobau barracks, etc. The illustrated supplement of the Petit Journal shows the wreckage in various parts of the capital following these attacks.

The execution of Vaillant (February 5th 1894)

Source : Archives of the Parisian Police Prefecture, BA/887.

Police chief’s report on the execution of Vaillant, February 5th 1894 (Archives of the Parisian Police Prefecture, BA/887) On December 9th, 1893, anarchist Auguste Vaillant (1861-1894), threw a bomb into the assembly room of the Chamber of Deputies, wounding fifty-some people, including himself. He was sentenced to death by the Assizes court of the Seine on January 10th 1894 and executed on February 5th. The anarchist attacks, some of which may have been fabricated by the police to justify the repressive Lois Scélérates , continued: for example, Emile Henry threw a bomb into the café Terminus on February 12th, 1894, and Caserio stabbed to death Marie François Sadi Carnot, President of the French Third Republic, on June 23rd 1894. Attacks ebbed the following year as anarchist groups began prioritizing the organization of labor, using general strikes as a means to ultimately destroy capitalism. This report made by the chief of police confirmed the strength of the anarchist activists’ convictions; Vaillant considered himself a martyr, one of many victims of bourgeois society, who would swell the ranks of future “comrades”. His last words address his political struggle: “Death to bourgeois society, Long live anarchy!”..

The execution of Vaillant (February 5th 1894) (continued)

Source : Archives of the Parisian Police Prefecture, BA/887.

Vaillant’s last will and testament

Source : Archives of the Parisian Police Prefecture, BA/887.

The will of Auguste Vaillant, prison of the Roquette, January 29th 1894 (Archives of the Parisian Police Prefecture, BA/887) Without any hopes of being pardoned, Vaillant wrote his will one week before the date of his execution. He was worried about what would become of his daughter, and his will expresses his wish that his most loyal friend, the anarchist propagandist Sébastien Faure, be given custody of her so that the “bad influence” of her mother (since immigrated to America) could be avoided. An atheist and scientist, Vaillant bequeathed his body to science so that it could be used for experiments that would be useful for humanity. His will ends with a justification of the bombing, stating that sometimes it may be necessary to “amputate a limb to save the individual”. The clause regarding Vaillant’s body was not respected after his death, since nobody was sent from the Medical School to collect the corpse. A telegram from the chief of police dated February 6th 1894 reads: "I accompanied the body from the cemetery of Ivry where I attended the burial… No incidents. Vaillant had asked that his body be delivered to the Medical School but nobody came for the body. The abbot Valadier, who Vaillant refused to see, did not come to the cemetery either.”

Vaillant’s last will and testament (continued)

Source : Archives of the Parisian Police Prefecture, BA/887.