I mentioned Robert-François Damiens in the piece on Encyclopaedias the other day, and yesterday’s talk of murder and mutilation brought him again to mind.
Damiens was born in northern France on January 9th 1715, and after service in the Army and several menial and serving jobs, all of which he was dismissed from, he was reduced to selling “… balls to take spots out of clothes”. Described as a “… very superstitious enthusiastical sort of a man,” he is said to have fallen under the influence of ‘popish priests’ and had been encouraged by them to commit regicide.
On January 5th 1757, as King Louis XV of France was approaching his carriage at Versailles, Damiens came forward with a knife which had two blades of different sizes and struck at the King, catching him with one blade between the fourth and fifth ribs. At first, the King thought he had been punched, but when he put his hand to the place, he saw blood and cried out, “ I am wounded, seize him, but do not hurt him.” The thickness of his winter clothes had turned the blade, leaving little more than a scratch, although the King was concerned that he may have been poisoned. It is reported that the wound had healed within two weeks.
Damiens was arrested and tortured, but revealed neither accomplices nor motives, although he hinted that the life of the Dauphin was still in danger. An attempt at regicide was judged to be as grave a crime as regicide itself, the penalty for which was death. Damiens was sentenced by the Parlement of Paris and on the morning of March 28th 1757, with concern that the wounds of his torture had started to ‘mortify’, he was dragged in a tumbrel, with a candle weighing two-pounds in his hands, first to the gates of the principal Church of Paris, where he was made to confess his crime, then dragged to the Place de Grève, the place of execution in old Paris.
|Section from a partial English translation of Pièces originales et procédures du procès, fait à Robert-François Damiens by Thomas Jones, London 1757|
He was taken up onto a scaffold, and the flesh of his arms, legs, thighs and breast was torn from him with red-hot pincers. Molten lead, melted wax, boiling oil and burning pitch were poured into the wounds, and the right hand with which he had committed the crime was covered with blazing sulphur.
The executioner, Sanson, attached four horses to his limbs, to pull Damiens apart, but four horses were not enough, so two more were added. Even then, the prisoner remained whole, so Sanson and his assistant drew their knives and began to hack at the thigh joints. Eventually the legs came away, so the same was done with the shoulders, until the arms also came away. Damiens’ body, still said to be alive, was then thrown onto a pyre and burned to ashes, which were scattered on the wind. The house in which he had been born was purchased and wiped from the face of the earth, with orders that nothing should ever be built there again. All his belongings, possessions and furniture were forfeit to the King. His brothers and sisters were ordered to change their names; his father, wife and daughter were banished forever from France.
Robert-François Damiens was the last man to be drawn and quartered in France.
Casanova was in Paris in 1757, and rented rooms overlooking the Place de Grève, from where, with male friends and female companions, he watched the execution, writing later in his Memoirs : - “On March the 28th, the day of Damien's martyrdom, I went to fetch the ladies in good time; … we had the courage to watch the dreadful sight for four hours. The circumstances of Damien's execution are too well known to render it necessary for me to speak of them; indeed, the account would be too long a one, and in my opinion such horrors are an offence to our common humanity.
Damien was a fanatic, who, with the idea of doing a good work and obtaining a heavenly reward, had tried to assassinate Louis XV; and though the attempt was a failure, and he only gave the king a slight wound, he was torn to pieces as if his crime had been consummated.
While this victim of the Jesuits was being executed, I was several times obliged to turn away my face and to stop my ears as I heard his piercing shrieks, half of his body having been torn from him, but the Lambertini and the fat aunt did not budge an inch. Was it because their hearts were hardened? They told me, and I pretended to believe them, that their horror at the wretch's wickedness prevented Them feeling that compassion which his unheard-of torments should have excited.”
All of which just goes to show the deterrent value of capital punishment, as no one ever tried to kill a French King ever again. Er, wait a sec …