At the Roquette: the entry to death row

Source : The collection of the National Museum of Prisons (France).

Death row at the prison of the Grande Roquette. Photographs taken with a Versacope Richard (type of stereoscope) at the end of the 19th century.  (National Museum of Prisons) The Verascope, invented by Jules Richard in 1893, was the first photographic apparatus that could be recharged during the day. The hexagonal prison for juveniles located near the cemetery Père Lachaise at 143, rue de la Roquette and inaugurated in September 1830, was first known as “La Roquette”. Once a prison for adults was constructed on the land across the street in 1836, the original prison became known as “Petite Roquette” and the newer building, composed of a walled-off square building with a central courtyard, became known as “La Grande Roquette”. Here, in “La Grande Roquette”, criminals sentenced to penal servitude would spend short sentences as they waited to be sent to penal colonies, and those condemned to death would await their execution. The latter stayed on death row, an area composed of three cells. Extract from Memoirs of Monsieur Claude, Chief of Police under the second empire, presented by Sylvain Goudemare, Paris, Arléa, 1999, chap. XVIII. The three cells of the Roquette, p.170-180. “The door to the three cells opens onto a narrow corridor, that doesn’t look anything like the terrifying image one might imagine for such a place. Yet, the bareness and the light that fills up this space is just as dreadful as the darkness of the dungeons of ancient times…Darkness is the reserve of crime; it’s a refuge for hopelessness and pain. This unpitying daylight that floods the antechamber and the cells of those condemned to death must be yet another agony for them. Of these three cells, normally only one is occupied. It was only during the Orsini case that all three were occupied by the refractory lieutenant Orsini, Pieri and Rudio”[1] (trans. P. Bass). For more information: See the article on La Roquette on Wikipedia and the bibliography on the Prisons of the Roquette on Criminocorpus.

[1] An English translation exists but does not include the passage in question. See : Memoirs of Monsieur Claude, Chief of Police under the second empire, trans. by Katherine Prescott Wormeley, Boston and New York : Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1907.


At the Roquette: the walkway

Source : The collection of the National Museum of Prisons (France).

Death row at the prison of the Grande Roquette. Photograph taken with a Verascope Richard (type of stereoscope) at the end of the 19th century.  (National Museum of Prisons) Extract from Memoirs of Monsieur Claude, Chief of Police under the second empire, presented by Sylvain Goudemare, Paris, Arléa, 1999, chap. XVIII. The three cells of the Roquette, p.170-180. “Behind the chapel are the inner courtyards. Their courtyard, the third, faces the nurse’s office. It has a garden, which is where the condemned go to see the first buds bloom or see the last leaves fall before walking to their deaths. The arcades that decorate this courtyard are reminiscent of a modern convent, using the same uniform style as the arcades of the rue de Rivoli – a simplified and contemporized Romanesque architecture. To the right of the arcades is a round, sinister-looking door, barred with enormous locks and painted yellow. This door draws the eye and frightens even the most hardened imagination. This large yellow door speaks for itself; its appearance draws the eye, while its color repels. This is the door that leads to the three prison cells in question, the door of those condemned to die.” (trans. P. Bass)

At the Roquette: a cell (a prisoner’s drawing)

Source : The collection of the National Museum of Prisons (France).

Drawing by Henry Meyer, Death Row, July 18th 1885.  (National Museum of Prisons) This drawing shows the spartan furniture of a cell on death row: a bed, a small table, and three chairs. It also shows the people who are often there: the condemned man (on the right), the warden (standing on the left), and the soldier of the control room. Pipes are hung on to the wall: each prisoner would season the bowl of one and break it when his demand for pardon was rejected. Card-playing was one of the main activities of the condemned: reports of executions often mention such games when they describe the last day of the condemned. Extract from Memoirs of Monsieur Claude, Chief of Police under the second empire, presented by Sylvain Goudemare, Paris, Arléa, 1999, chap. XVIII. The three cells of the Roquette, p.170-180. “Of these three cells, normally only one is occupied. It was only during the Orsini case that all three were occupied by the refractory lieutenant Orsini, Pieri and Rudio. Normally, the cell on the left is the only one used. It’s quite clean, very spacious, and it receives sunlight from a large square window high up on the back wall. Below the window, which is at least a meter high, there’s a wood table within view of the window. Against the door, there’s an iron bed. On the other side, a cast-iron stove, three chairs and a small table. The walls are eleven feet long and seven feet wide. The condemned man, the warden and the soldier sit on the three chairs. The soldier and the warden are both replaced every two hours. The soldier is unarmed – they’re taken from him as a rule, and even his pocketknife is confiscated. As for the condemned man, once his sentence is read, he is forced to stay in a straightjacket. It’s made of a canvas sack that comes midway down his body. Each sleeve is laced up at the ends, to prevent his hands from getting out. The cords of the laces go under his thighs and back up to his shoulders, restraining his arms against his body and preventing him from moving at all. The straightjacket limits the condemned to a doll-like status. He can’t act without the will and the help of his guardians. The free use of his body no longer belongs to him. This is how it is for the condemned man ever since the prison vehicle took him to the Roquette, ever since it rolled out onto the five slabs that support the foundation of the guillotine, until he returns there by foot, accompanied by the chaplain and the executioner. That’s how Verger, Collignon, La Pommerais, Orsini, Pieri, Lemaire, Avinain, Troppmann and so many others I accompanied went to the gallows. I noticed that each one was more or less devastated by their condemnation, demolished by this captivity: a terrible prologue which, day by day, hour by hour, is only made shorter by the thought of the guillotine. The guillotine! This constant thought tortures the patient, whether he’s asleep or awake, whether it’s night or day, and it strikes his brain like a hammer, paralyzing him in a totally different way than the straightjacket does. Out of tolerance, the condemned man is allowed a small amount of respite from the normal administrative rigor. During meals, the right sleeve of the straightjacket is unknotted so that the prisoner can bring the pre-cut food to his mouth. He receives a double ration of food; whereas other inmates at the Roquette only have meat and wine on Thursdays and Sundays, the condemned man has a special privilege - envied by no one! - that allows him to have a fifth of wine and roast beef every day. He can also write if he asks to do so, and smoke as a pastime. A little bell in the doorway lets him alert the guards of his wishes. In his cell, the condemned man orders and the guards react. They’re instructed never to contradict him during their conversations with him, from the moment when they wake him up to the moment they undress him like a child and put him to bed. His cell can only be visited by his closest family and the chaplain, who visits the patient every day; he has a key to all three cells, which lets him visit at any time…”. (trans. P. Bass)

Interactions with the guards

Source : The collection of the National Museum of Prisons (France).

Last page of the Memoirs of Henry Meyer, July 27th 1885.  (National Museum of Prisons) Aside from the warden and the soldier, a policeman (from the department of security) who had taken part in the arrest and sometimes the investigation would often visit the condemned. His secret mission was to obtain supplementary confessions, notably about possible accomplices. The familiarity between the condemned person and the men around him was facilitated by the fact that, knowing these were his last days, the condemned man was led to intensely appreciate any human contact and to avoid suicidal loneliness. In fact, when the straightjacket ceased to be used in 1870, the warden and the soldier were entrusted with the duty of preventing the condemned man from committing suicide. Here, Meyer shows appreciation for his “old friend”, and “sympathizer”, the security agent Pierre Roger, to whom he dedicated his small opuscule of memoirs. Often, when the condemned were on their way to the guillotine, they would thank their guards as one of their last words.

Drawings by Gamahut, a condemned man: escape (1)

Source : The collection of the National Museum of Prisons (France).

A drawing by Adolphe Tiburce Gamahut, Death Row, 1885 (National Museum of Prisons) Adolphe-Tiburce Gamahut, nick-named “Champion”, was sentenced to death by the Assizes court of the Seine on March 11th, 1885, for murder and grand larceny. Born on December 14th 1861 in Epernay, he was raised by his aunt who placed him in the abbey of the Grande Trappe in Soligny (Department of Orne) at the age of 14 and then in the seminary of Châlons. Adolphe Gamahut refused the religious vocation that was forced upon him, and the only thing he kept from his short stint as an oblate was the name given to him during his religious baptism, Tiburce. He left the seminary to perform as an acrobat in cabarets and public places, where he gave performances as a weight-lifter. Partly because of his athleticism, he was approached by a gang of four Parisian criminals and asked to burgle the house of the widow Ballerich at 145, rue de Grenelle on November 27th, 1884. Tiburce and the gang committed the robbery at dusk, around 7:00pm. When the homeowner resisted, Gamahut stabbed her in the neck with a knife – a fact that shocked the Parisian population and explains the severity of the jury, who condemned Gamahut to death, two gang members to forced labor for life, and the other two to imprisonment. In Gamahut’s request for pardon, the magistrate’s report described the condemned man as a person with above-average intelligence due to his special education and training (National Archives, BB/24/2059). Each of Gamahut’s drawings was authenticated by Pierre Roger, the security agent, who noted the dates of his condemnation and his execution (April 24th 1885). This collection bears witness to the culture of the condemned, his dreams, and the moments of his life before it was cut short at the age of 24. The drawings also illustrate imprisonment and the desire to escape the obsessive thought of upcoming death. The sea, the boats, the lighthouse…all these elements create a fictive escape from the cell on death row.

Drawings by Gamahut, a condemned man: escape (2)

Source : The collection of the National Museum of Prisons (France).

A drawing by Adolphe Tiburce Gamahut, Death Row, 1885 (National Museum of Prisons) Another form of escape: the sky – in contrast to its absence for those imprisoned – with a sketch of constellations, with seemingly technical comments.

Drawings by Gamahut, a condemned man: school memories

Source : The collection of the National Museum of Prisons (France).

A drawing by Adolphe Tiburce Gamahut, Death Row, 1885 (National Museum of Prisons) Escape also takes the form of living in the past and, in this case, memories from school like the fable “Little Red Riding Hood”. In this drawing, the condemned man shows how the mother saved her child from being led astray by the “big, bad, wolf”.

Drawings by Gamahut, a condemned man: memories of the Empire

Source : The collection of the National Museum of Prisons (France).

A drawing by Adolphe Tiburce Gamahut, Death Row, 1885 (National Museum of Prisons) Among his memories, there are several figures from national history linked to Gamahut’s social background. Here, Antoine Drouot, a general who accompanied Napoleon when he was exiled to the island of Elba, represents the glory of the first Empire. Gamahut associates his own imprisonment and looming death with the destiny of Napoleon and his loyal general, who Gamahut has sketched here in pencil.

Texts by Gamahut, a condemned man: a dictionary of slang

Source : The collection of the National Museum of Prisons (France).

The cover of the Slang Dictionary by Adolphe Tiburce Gamahut, Death Row, 1885 (National Museum of Prisons) In a school notebook plastered with ads for classic books awarded by the French Academy, Gamahut wrote several pages of a dictionary on prison slang, slang being quite common among inmates. We can easily imagine that the presence of the security agent provoked, or at least greatly facilitated, this project since the police force was very familiar with the language of criminals. Also of note is the precision Roger (the security agent) uses when he describes how he appreciates “his” inmate’s brave march to the guillotine: “he walked with courage, as he always told his guards.” The last page of this notebook is dated March 19th, 1885 and the dictionary finishes with translations of the following words and phrases: “you’ll do the robbery tonight”, “listen to the man who’s talking to you”, “my eyes hurt”, “hot piss”, “he’s scared”, “knife” and “tissue”. Is this the result of disorganized writing, where the lacunae are filled in after the dictionary is reread? Or are these terms more meaningful, indicating the tormented inner thoughts of someone terrified of his impending last seconds of life?

Texts and drawings by Meyer, a condemned man: memoirs

Source : The collection of the National Museum of Prisons (France).

Henry Meyer (1864-1885) was sentenced to death by the Assizes court of the Seine on June 20th 1885 for murder: according to his “memoirs”, he participated in a burglary of the house of an “old geezer”, a suitcase-maker on the rue d’Angoulême. The homeowner was killed with iron knuckles by one of Meyer’s accomplices for a small sum, totaling not much more than one hundred francs. Inmates often wrote their “memoirs” as they naturally looked back on their lives when faced with the prospect of imminent death. This activity was encouraged by prison guards, who wanted the prisoners to occupy their time in order to maintain morale, and by criminologists, who wanted to know more about the “criminal process”. For example, Alexandre Lacassagne, chair of forensic medicine in Lyon and one of the founders of criminal anthropology, had a particular interest in criminal memoirs. Composed of only several leaves of paper, Meyer’s memoirs roughly sketch out several aspects of his short life: his birth in the capital, rue Notre-Dame de Nazareth in 1864, a “travelling” (for business?) father and a mother who stayed at home to play-act being “bourgeois”. Apparently, it was this dynamic that led to the divorce of Meyer’s parents in 1873. The young Meyer lived alone with his father for several years, “prowled around Paris” with him, became an apprentice and then lived on the road before becoming a sort of “cheerleader” who worked up the audience at the summer circus. There, he “spent his time with bad apples” who led him to delinquency (fraud and robbery). For more information: Bibliography on criminal writings, Artières (Philippe), Laé (Jean-François). Lettres perdues: écritures, amour et solitude XIXe et XXe siècles, Paris, Hachette littératures, 2003, 267 p. Artières (Philippe). Crimes écrits : la collection d’autobiographies de criminels du professeur A. Lacassagne, Genèses, 1995, n°19, p.48-67. Artières (Philippe). Le livre des vies coupables : autobiographies de criminels (1896-1909), Paris, A. Michel, 2000, 428 p. Artières (Philippe). Signer son crime [le journal d’un détenu au XIXe siècle], Centre de Recherches interdisciplinaire sur les Textes modernes (Nanterre), 1995, n°10, p. 141-155. Carlier (Christian), Wasserman (Françoise). « Comme dans un tombeau ». Lettres et journaux de prisonniers : La Belle Epoque, Fresnes, Ecomusée, 1992, 204p.

Texts and drawings by Meyer, a condemned man: national glory

Source : The collection of the National Museum of Prisons (France).

Drawing by Henry Meyer, Death Row, July 18th 1885 (National Museum of Prisons) In his Memoirs, Henry Meyer describes how his father was a lieutenant in the national guard during the war of 1870 and the Commune, and how he himself was hired as a kitchen-boy for the 129th regiment of the infantry. Meyer enjoyed this position, but he quit after only a short time for reasons he doesn’t explain. Due to his education and this type of experience, he doubtlessly had a taste for national glory, which would coincide with the general nationalism that developed in reaction to the defeat of 1870. Accordingly, he drew coats of arms symbolizing the Republic on numerous occasions. Other than nationalist feelings, this drawing may express Meyer’s unconscious nostalgia for the country, which ultimately killed him.

Texts and drawings by Meyer, a condemned man: misery and a Republican coat of arms

Source : The collection of the National Museum of Prisons (France).

Drawing by Henry Meyer, Death Row, 1885 (National Museum of Prisons) Aside from the drawing of another Republican coat of arms, the sketch of a blind man in Paris evokes Meyer’s most painful childhood memory when, following the divorce of his parents in 1873, he lived alone and “prowled around Paris” with his father. Although rather secretive about these five years, he implies that his father lived on money he got on trips, perhaps through begging, and that young Meyer was often abandoned in Paris. Eventually, the Consistory of Paris took him in and placed him in a Hebrew boarding house.

Poems by Joseph Albert, a condemned man: criminal confessions

Source : The collection of the National Museum of Prisons (France).

A lament on his crime by Joseph Albert, October 23rd 1877 (National Museum of Prisons) Antoine-Joseph Albert, a 25-year-old Parisian day laborer, was sentenced to death by the Assizes court of the Seine on September 27th 1877 for having murdered Mrs. Lepelletier on August 24th 1876 at the Makaoff Tower (Vanves). He had thrown the body into a nearby well, the Puits-d’amour (“Well of love”). The crime remained unsolved for several months before he turned himself in after a disagreement with his lover. The Gazette des tribunaux reported on the first day of the trial on September 27th, 1877: “The accused, Albert, is a pimp of the lowest class, of the most abject condition, a murderer who robs objects of little value, and a man who is jealous of a well-matched lover, who he denounced as his accomplice, and in doing so, denounced himself. He can rest assured that she won’t leave him to go live with one of his peers, which is what she had threatened to do and even tried to do once before. Here is a murder where the prime suspects could have escaped justice without even leaving Paris, but, due to the strange emotions of this man and his uncontrollable remorse, the crime will come out of the shadows and show itself in broad daylight in all its hideous detail to the audience of the court.” Albert was executed on October 25th 1877. The tradition of criminal laments had existed for years, and these laments were normally accompanied by an engraving of the scene of the crime or the execution, similar to the images that one finds in a certain type of penny newspapers (les canards) that recounted public opinion of minor (normally crime-related) news items. Here, it’s the condemned man himself who wrote his own lament, which confesses the crime all while laying the blame on his lover. Without any hope of a pardon – he wrote this lament two days before his execution – he prepared himself for death by listing the reasons why the Eternal would forgive his sins: first, he was forced into crime by his mistress, he made a spontaneous confession that allowed the police to solve an unsolved crime, he felt remorse, and he accepted his sentence. “Lament on the crime of Malakoff, written by Albert, the co-author of the crime in question. Title: Tune, “Do You Remember (etc.)”?

First verse: A horrible crime! Never before such a horror, has been done, by the young audacious Mademoiselle and me, in Vanves, a town. And justice, arrived on the spot. The murderers, did they run not to get caught? With fervor, the authorities looked and peered, A year later, in front of the assizes, these young murderers appeared (repeat).

Second verse: The murderer, was only twenty-five! And his accomplice looked even younger. Only he confessed, due to his frank thoughts, Before the judges, the story was unsung. Instead of following his example, his perverted accomplice, with impudence! denied his truth, With her lies, she betrayed him since. And they declared him, guilty (repeat).

Third verse: This young couple lived, at the Villette for a year, when they noticed an old woman, whose flirtation with the young man seemed so clear. Once she had disappeared, the man had such a heavy heart! He turned himself in to the hands of justice! And brought them his partner (a prostitute) for a start! Sir Jacob soon knew it all (repeat).

Fourth verse: The court judged, and pronounced a fair sentence! Condemned to death, prison would be sweet penitence, His accomplice, however, was much more guilty, Pushing him to crime, what a vile pervert, she! From the crime to the gallows! Remorse! You won’t leave me alone, you will be the ruin of me! With your cowardly propositions, End if there is no more pity! In this world, alas, it’s done; the head of France refuses to pardon me! I begged my killer to torture me, so I won’t die a coward, but a martyr be. So that the Eternal! Condescends to pardon me! The mistakes that I’ve made, in my unfettered life! Goodbye! Brothers! Goodbye! It’s for eternity! The shame will be the shaft of the gruesome flag! They’ll place it on my grave, when I leave from the guillotine!” (trans. P. Bass)

Poems by Joseph Albert: the dreams of a condemned man

Source : The collection of the National Museum of Prisons (France).

Poem on his crime by Joseph Albert, October 1877 (National Museum of Prisons) In the same vein as the lament on the previous page, this dream of a condemned man may have been written on the same day of his execution, when he woke up and heard that he would not be pardoned. Summing up his last moments, he combines the remorse for his crime, his accusation of his lover and thanks to his guards and chaplain with a Christian hope to enter a new world. “Dreams of a Condemned man during the last hours of his existence. Where am I! Alas! … in a dark cell! … Where so many times, unhappiness! Bad luck! Come and wail here! And to die… how many horrible memories! Guards, inspectors, sentinels! … By softening my punishment…with their conversation and their wise advice…giving me hope! My soul is at peace. A dignified priest as well, conscientious and patient, consoles this unfortunate soul through his last moments. Stupid and audacious, in turmoil!! A soul that is both repugnant! And odious!! Tarnishes my existence, and makes me unhappy! The wise justice punishes the ungrateful. One is led to the gallows, and the other becomes an inmate! The eternal is back again, full of indulgence. Take pity! What is their penance? For these two ungrateful beings! Unworthy of leniency. Yet oh! My god! In you I hope, in climbing up towards you! In leaving the earth, Where in my worthy transport, I will go and join, my mother, Madame Albert.”

Lacenaire, the fiancé of the guillotine

Source : Lacenaire, The last song, 1836.

A poem by Pierre-François Lacenaire, The Last Song, the Conciergerie, November 28th 1836. Pierre-François Lacenaire (1800-1836) and his accomplices Victor Avril and François Martin committed numerous robberies and murders. A well-educated member of the petty bourgeoisie, Lacenaire scandalized public opinion when he overturned the role expected of criminals at his trial and during his execution. This was all the more shocking given that he was born into the upper class, a population which seemed horrified to discover that they too could be the source of crime. During his trial, he fiercely held his own, theatrically opposing the president of the Assizes court. His scandalous attitude quickly made him famous, and multiple celebrities came to see him at the Conciergerie, where he was imprisoned. He also corresponded with journalists and “admirers” of the texts that he wrote on his life and crimes. He notably wrote Memoirs, Revelations and Poems. He was executed on January 9th, 1836. His Last Song is a hymn to the guillotine, the “beautiful fiancée” in whose arms death is confounded with ecstasy. Instead of the remorse and the legitimation of the sentence that was expected of him, he claimed to have chosen his death, and, accordingly, one of his other texts reflects on the best way to die: “By water? No, it entails too much suffering. By poison? I don’t want to be seen suffering. By a blade? Yes, that must be the sweetest death. From now on, my life will be a long suicide, I won’t do anything else but belong to the blade. Instead of knives and razors, I choose the great ax of the guillotine. But I want it to be no more than revenge. Society will have my blood, but I’ll have the blood of society!” For more information: See the biographical article on Lacenaire on Wikipedia and the Bibliography on Criminocorpus.


Waiting for a possible pardon: coating the pipe bowl and… breaking it

Source : The collection of the National Museum of Prisons (France).

Mounted pipes belonging to those condemned to death (National Museum of Prisons) Traditionally, the inmates on death row at the Grande Roquette would break a pipe when their request for a pardon had been rejected. In this collection of pipes, only one is whole: the man was pardoned. For all the others, a little message accompanies the two halves of the pipe: “a pipe coated by me…a condemned man” followed by the date of execution (in the example of Henry Meyer’s pipe and note). Most often, the text was written by a prison guard: “pipe coated by the murderer…” (in the example of Gamahut). In common language, to “coat” a pipe (“culotter” in French, which also means to put trousers/knickers on) meant to create a coating on the bottom of the bowl by frequent smoking, which made the pipe more pleasant to smoke later. This evokes the common French expression “casser sa pipe” which literally means “to break your pipe” but is often used to mean “to die”. This expression seems to have existed since the Napoleonic wars during which surgeons, lacking anesthesia, would give the wounded a terra cotta pipe to bite on to muffle their cries of pain. When a patient died, their pipe would fall the ground, breaking in two.