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EXECUTIONS IN FRANCE.
THE CONSPIRACY AND DEATH OF FIES CHI AND HIS ACCOMPLICES.
BY AN EYE WITNESS.
1 ARRIVED off Havre, in the latter part of September, and the pilot who boarded the ship, soon after our entrance into the Channel, gave us the first account of the singular conspiracy of the 28th of July. The almost miraculous escape of the king, the great number slaughtered immediately around his person, and in the very midst of the National Guards, the extraordinary character of the infernal machine, and the cool, mocking, fantastical extravagance of the assassin, excited great interest. Fieschi was badly wounded by the explosion of some of his guns; his face was dreadfully lacerated, and fears were for a long time entertained, lest his death might deprive the police of the best means of tracing out the extent of a conspiracy of such alarming boldness. A bullet passed so near the head of the king, as to leave a mark upon his forehead. Fieschi altered the direction of his battery, to avoid Col. Lavocat, whom he observed in the suite of the royal family. He had lived with Lavocat as a servant, and had become somewhat attached to him. Such are the trifles upon which the great events of history turn! The gratitude of a servant saved the dynasty of Orleans from destruction, and France, and perhaps Europe, from a revolution.
The trial was deferred an unusual period. It was not until January of the next year, that the four conspirators, Fieschi, Pepin, Morey, and Boireau, were arraigned before the Peers of France. All offenders against the state are tried by this great body; and the infamous conviction of the Prince of Moscowa, the immortal Ney, in violation of justice and law, and the express stipulations of the treaty of Paris, proves how fit a tribunal it is for the administration of impartial justice. That 'judicial assassination,' as Carrel pronounced it, in the face of the peerage of France, upon a recent memorable occasion, is one of the foulest stains on the impotent administration of Louis XVIII. The peers met day after day, for several weeks, for the examination of the conspirators, and of the witnesses summoned on the trial. It is a singular and wretched feature in the judicial system of France, that the accused are always subjected to a most rigid and embarrassing cross-examination by the court, the
effect of which must be in the highest degree inconsistent with the impartiality so essential to the just administration of law. The trial at length drew to a close. Boireau was sentenced to transportation, and the other three to be guillotined. The execution followed quick upon the sentence.
The population of Paris is far too fond of every species of exhibition, not to find an execution irresistible. It is true, that much of the interest which these scenes tend to excite, has been destroyed by the introduction of the guillotine in place of the axe. In this, as in other things, the improvements of modern times have stripped off all that was picturesque in the customs of our forefathers. In the good old days of the ancien régime, an execution was a very different thing from the hurried, secret, mechanical, labor-saving operation of the present day. Then there was no concealment, no attempt to deprive the populace of their rightful participation in the scenes. The nobles had the privilege of a place upon the scaffold, and the people were permitted to press round its foot. Then, too, the executioner was a great man. He had his partisans and his enemies, his admirers and his detractors. He was the 'Monsieur de Paris' of the olden time; a great officer, of fearful distinction; a man whom none would willingly encounter. It was a fine sight to see the keen, unerring aim, the instant blow, with which he severed, at a stroke, the head of the unhappy criminal from his prostrate form. There was a consciousness of triumph pictured in the grim features of this great minister of the law, as he rose from the blow, and the air rang with the shouts of the applauding multitude. But now all is changed. The people are no longer freely admitted to these infernal games; the scaffold is no longer graced with the nobles of the kingdom; the executioner no longer triumphs in the masterly exhibition of his art. Every thing is done by machinery. The king's attendants are slain by one machine, and their assassins are decapitated by another.
The day and the place fixed for the execution were studiously concealed. The populace were extremely anxious to be present, and the police were equally anxious to deprive them of that pleasure. For several days, vast crowds had assembled by sunrise, the usual period of execution, at the different barrières at which it was expected to take place. An officer of the National Guard, ordered out to attend the execution, informed a friend of the place at which the scaffold was to be erected. Our cabriolet was in waiting by day-light. It was a mild, clear morning, in February, and the dawn promised a day of more than common loveliness. We drove rapidly along the Boulevards, the Rue Royale, and across the Place de la Revolution and the Pont Louis Quinze, and winding along the southern bank of the Seine, we passed the Quais D'Orsay, Voltaire, and Malaquais, until, turning to the right into the Rue de Seine and the Rue de Tournon, we found ourselves, in a few minutes, at the palace of the Luxembourg. Entering the Rue Vaugirard, which runs in front of this celebrated pile, we turned again to the right, into a street whose inauspicious name sounded sadly in unison with the dreadful object of our visit. We were in the Rue d'Enfer. Here, for the first time, we observed the unusual multitude which began to fill the streets at this early hour. The trottoirs and the carriage-way were covered
with a crowd of men, women, and children, all hurrying toward the walls. Cabriolets and carriages of every variety, were moving forward, as fast as they could press along the narrow and crowded avenue. We had proceeded only a few hundred yards, before we perceived men and women on foot, and occasional carriages returning. This augured unfavorably; but we drove only the more rapidly, concluding they had, in despair of piercing the crowd, which choked the farther end of the street, turned back to seek their way by some less thronged thoroughfare. In a short time, we found it impossible to proceed farther in our cab. Dismounting, we pushed our way through the moving multitude, observing at every step increasing numbers returning. We soon found an explanation in a detachment of cavalry, drawn across the street, with orders to prevent any one from passing in the direction of the barrières. Nothing could exceed our perplexity at this unexpected difficulty. Every chance of seeing the execution seemed to be at once cut off. It wanted but a few minutes of seven o'clock, the hour at which it was to take place. We endeavored to ascertain, from the officers in command, whether there was any way by which we could get within sight of the guillotine. We could gather nothing from the imperturbable ignorance or incivility of these men. Determined to spare no exertions to accomplish our object, with a couple of friends, I turned down a narrow street, leading into the Rue du Faubourg St. Jacques. The crowd lingered around the spot at which their progress was arrested by the troops, or returned back, along the Rue d'Enfer, into the city. No one seemed disposed to follow us; yet we had struck the true path. As soon as we reached the Rue du Faubourg St. Jacques, we encountered another stream of people, on foot, men, women, and children, moving toward the barrière. The crowd was not very dense, nor was it moving very rapidly; and we found no difficulty in pushing forward with more rapid steps than those around us. The long street of the Faubourg St. Jacques leads in an almost straight line from the centre of the most crowded quarter of Paris, to the Boulevards, a broad avenue, stretching nearly around the whole circumference of Paris, and generally bounded by the walls of the city. At irregular distances, are the gates which lead into the country; and at each of these barrières, as they are called, are stations of the custom-house officers, appointed for the collection of a duty levied upon almost every article of consumption entering the city. The Rue Faubourg St. Jacques passes the Boulevards, opposite one of these barrières, or gates, and forms a semicircular Place, immediately in front, the street opening on either side, and the houses being built around a semi-circle. This was the place
fixed for the execution.
As soon as we reached the summit of a small elevation in the street, my attention was attracted by a woman, who pointed out the scaffold. I could just discover the tops of two parallel beams, about eighteen inches or two feet apart, joined by another on the top. Now, for the first time, we were satisfied that the execution was to take place, and that this was the spot. Continuing to push forward through the crowd, which had now become almost stationary, I found to my surprise, the street less crowded, the nearer we ap
proached the guillotine. Whether this was produced by an unwil lingness to behold the dreadful scene too near, or from an apprehension on the part of the people that they might be injured by the squadrons of horse who guarded the place, in their movements in the event of any disturbance, I cannot say. But I think this last apprehension was most probably the cause, for the government had plainly shown, by the great pains it had taken to conceal the execution, and by the vast numbers of troops ordered out for the occasion, that it apprehended the possibility of a riot; and the fear of the ministry had probably communicated some alarm to the more timid of the populace.
The guillotine had been erected during the night. It was formed of wood, painted red, and constructed so as to be erected and taken down at every execution. A flight of some eight or ten steps led to a platform about fourteen feet square, raised some seven feet from the ground. Immediately opposite to the steps, two parallel beams, placed near the edge of the platform, rose twelve or fifteen feet high, and were fastened by a cross beam at the top. They were eighteen inches or two feet apart. The axe moved up and down in grooves, in the sides of these upright posts; and the height to which it is drawn, with the weight of its metal, gives the blow with sufficient force to sever the neck with unerring certainty. The blade of the axe is wide and thin, and the edge forms a diagonal line with the parallel sides of the beams, so as to render the cutting more easy. When the criminal ascends the scaffold, he is placed on a step attached, at right angles, to a board rising perpendicularly in front of him, and reaching a few inches above his head. To this board he is lashed by the executioner, so that his body is held firmly in its place. When this is done, the board, with the prisoner's body bound to it, is turned over upon a sort of axle, the prisoner being thus thrown upon his face, and is received on a track along which it is rolled, until the neck of the victim lies immediately under the axe. The neck is then placed in a semi-circle cut in a board, placed between the two beams in which the axe moves; and another board, with a corresponding semi-circular opening, is fastened upon the first, so as to hold the neck fixed immediately in the line along which the axe descends.
The foot of the scaffold was surrounded, at a distance of some twenty or thirty feet, by a line of infantry, eight or ten deep, the sharp blades of whose bayonets formed a dense hedge, almost impenetrable to the eye, above the not very elevated heads of the dwarfish troupes de ligne. Infantry and mounted troops lined the Boulevards to the right and left, and choked up every approach to the scaffold, except that through the Rue Faubourg St. Jaques, by which we had come. The walls of the city enclosing the Boulevards, the house tops in the vicinity, and the trees which overlooked the walls, swarmed with a countless multitude of people. There could not have been less than seventy or eighty thousand persons within sight of the scaffold; and this vast crowd had assembled at seven in the morning, about sunrise, although the execution had been kept secret and all the streets, but one, leading to the place had been closed by troops; and at the very instant that this great assemblage was collected at the Barrière St. Jaques, an almost equal number were assembled at
an opposite extremity of the city, expecting the execution to take place there!
I was looking around for an eligible position from which to gain a view of the execution, when, for a small fee, myself and a friend secured a couple of places in a window, looking on the Place, and raised some four feet above the ground. A correspondent of some London paper had got into a corner of the window, and we found no little difficulty in effecting an arrangement by which all might look out at the same time. We fastened a handkerchief across the window, which supported us as we leaned forward. Our position was extremely uncomfortable; and but for the intense excitement of the scene, and its short continuance, would have been intolerable. We accomplished our object, however, of looking over the heads of the crowd, and the bayonets of the troops; and were not more than twenty-five or thirty yards from the scaffold itself.
The crowd thickened in the Place. A feverish anxiety seemed to render it unusually restless; yet there was no struggling for choice positions. A great number of women, of the working classes, were present. I had scarce cast my eye over the curious scene before me, when we discovered the plumes of horsemen moving down the Boulevards, from the direction of the gardens of the Luxembourg palace, and recognised the procession preceding the cars of the prisoners. The great officer charged with the superintendence of the execution, a Marshal of France I believe, and his staff, rode in front. They entered the space formed by the circle of infantry, and the mounted men that accompanied them formed a line within this circle. The cars containing the three prisoners, who were accompanied by a priest a-piece, followed next in the order in which the criminals were to be executed. The procession halted. A moment was consumed in preparation. Presently the long trembling form of Pepin was seen ascending the scaffold. He wore a cap that fitted close to his head, and the usual cloak in which criminals are dressed for the scaffold, after the ceremony of the toilette, as it is technically called, has been performed. This is disposed of just before leaving the prison, and consists in cutting the hair close to the back of the head, and tearing off the collar of the shirt, so as to leave the neck clear for the axe. This is generally considered one of the most painful moments in the whole process. The reader may recollect the vivid description of the sensations produced by the cold touch of the scissors on the bare neck, in Hugo's 'Dernier Jour d'un Condamné.' Pepin placed himself on the foot-board; the executioner threw aside his cloak, and tossed off his cap, with an air of professional coxcombry. His body was firmly bound, and the board on which it was lashed was rolled under the guillotine. The neck was fastened. The executioner stepped aside, and touching a spring, the axe descended! The head rolled into a pannier prepared to receive it, and the body was pushed off the side of the scaffold, and was instantly removed. The axe was raised, its broad blade red with blood; and a few handfuls of saw-dust were scattered over the platform.
Morey came next. He was an old man, corpulent, and extremely infirm. The terrors of death had unmanned Pepin and himself. Both exhibited the most dreadful apprehensions, throughout the whole of