In 1788, a French blacksmith named Mathurin Louschart was killed in his home by a single blow to the head. The act was committed in the blink of an eye, but the feud motivating it had festered for months. Earlier that year, the deeply conservative Mathurin had apparently taken offense at his son Jean’s newfangled ideas about liberty and equality. Jean was vocal about his beliefs, which were stoking the fires of radicalism throughout France. Not content with throwing his son out of the family home, Mathurin attempted to punish him further by arranging to marry Jean’s girlfriend, Helen. Helen’s family was only too pleased to palm off their daughter to a vaunted member of the community, but Helen herself despaired at the prospect of being wrenched from Jean and shackled to a brooding old ogre for the rest of her life. Jean hatched a plan: he arrived one night at his father’s house to rescue Helen and ride off into the egalitarian sunset. But Mathurin interrupted their escape, and a fight ensued. Jean lashed out with a hammer. It struck Mathurin flush on the forehead, and the old man died instantly.
Despite his protestations of self-defense, Jean was found guilty of murder and sentenced to be broken on the wheel. That punishment, in which the condemned was strapped faceup upon a large wheel and then had their bones broken, had been a common means of torture, execution, and humiliation throughout Europe for centuries. Some believe it was a thoroughly French invention, pioneered as early as the sixth century. If so, more than a thousand years of history came to an unexpected end the day that Jean approached his agonizing fate in Versailles. In the weeks after sentencing, Jean’s fate became a cause célèbre. Here, many felt, was a young man being punished not for an act of violence but for his political beliefs. As Jean made his way to the scaffold on the day of his execution, dozens of locals charged forward, seized him, and carried him to safety. The authorities were stunned, and the strength of public opinion moved King Louis XVI to issue Jean a royal pardon.
The freeing of Jean Louschart now seems one of the myriad small moments of rebellion that presaged the coming Revolution, which swept away centuries of tradition. France never again resorted to the wheel, which suddenly appeared to belong to a very distant past. Roughly a year after the Louschart case, a new method of execution was publicly discussed for the first time: the guillotine, a machine of killing that would, so its creators insisted, deliver pristine justice, one rolling head at a time.
The man charged with operating Paris’s guillotine throughout the turbulent 1790s was the same man who had been poised to execute Jean Louschart before the mob intervened. His name was Charles-Henri Sanson, chief executioner to both Louis XVI and the republican regime that swept the ancien régime aside. Though at the start of the Revolution he was as reviled and tainted as any executioner of his time, he ended his life as “The Great Sanson,” a hero to the French people. He was perceived across the continent as the last bastion of moral integrity in France.
Killing was in the Sanson blood. The first of the family to act as the royal executioner was Charles-Henri’s great-grandfather, who was coerced into taking the position once his father-in-law had passed away. Over the next century, three other Sanson men inherited the role before Charles-Henri succeeded in 1778. He was thirty-nine at the time but already a capital-punishment veteran. When his father had succumbed to a debilitating illness in 1754, Charles-Henri had taken over his duties on the scaffold at the age of just fifteen. The boy exhibited astonishing qualities: a wisdom way beyond his years and a stomach strong enough to see him through the strangulations, beheadings, and burnings that were his workaday life. While still a teenager, he conducted the last hanging, drawing, and quartering in French history, inflicted upon Robert-François Damiens for an attempt on the king’s life. Sanson would later look back on this as a simpler time, when the worst sin imaginable was killing a king.
All we know of Sanson suggests he was an eloquent and thoughtful man. Erudite, well-read, and multilingual, he took his duties as a public official with the utmost seriousness. He may have felt, as his grandson would later claim, constrained and frustrated by the family business, eager to attain higher office but prohibited by the taint of the hangman’s noose. Traditionally, being an executioner secured one a good living but not one that could be enjoyed within the bounds of polite society. Though the people thirsted for public executions, the person responsible for taking a life was deemed spiritually polluted. The knowledge of this weighed heavily on Sanson, and he worked hard to cleanse the family name. It’s impossible to determine his deepest thoughts about the social and political torrents that soaked late eighteenth-century Paris, but it appears as if Sanson was proud to serve the king, even to such grim ends. The only things Sanson really wanted were the respect he felt a devoted servant of the king deserved. Curiously, it was the Revolution that offered him those things.
In the decade following the storming of the Bastille, all the most basic assumptions about French life—and death—were interrogated. In December 1789, the newly formed National Assembly debated the claims to civil eligibility of three groups who’d previously been denied full civil status: Jews, actors, and executioners. Even in the age of liberté, égalité and fraternité, many found the suggestion that executioners should be considered full citizens utterly ridiculous. “The exclusion of executioners is not founded upon prejudice,” Abbé Maury said. “It is in the soul of all good men to shudder at the sight of one who murders his fellow creatures.” Hearing these sentiments, Sanson was moved to write a letter to the Assembly on behalf of every executioner in France. He wrote that tackling the taboo surrounding executions was a revolutionary duty and failure to do so would betray superstition, cowardice, and hypocrisy. “Either conclude that crime must remain unpunished,” he challenged them, “or that an executioner is needed to punish it.”
As it turned out, the tide was in Sanson’s favor: the way executions and executioners were regarded within French society was in the middle of a seismic change. Hitherto, there’d been a strict class divide: beheadings for the well-to-do, while peasants choked and writhed on the end of a rope. Just weeks earlier, Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin had floated a hazy but startling vision of post-Revolution public execution. He suggested the introduction of some kind of decapitation machine that would ensure identical deaths for all condemned citizens and would also remove the medieval vestiges of pain and vengeance from the act of execution, leaving only the swift dispensation of justice. “With my machine,” he said, although he did not yet have a specific design in mind, “I strike off your head in the twinkling of an eye and you won’t feel a thing.” Many found it difficult to take Dr. Guillotin’s vision of a killing machine seriously. According to the nineteenth-century historian J. W. Croker, Guillotin was considered something of a joke by his peers, one of whom dismissed him as a man “without talent or reputation … a nobody who made himself a busybody.” Yet Guillotin’s ideas about equal rights on the chopping block struck a chord. In October 1791, a law was passed that standardized executions, prohibiting any means other than decapitation.
Looking at the well-worn blades he used for removing heads and perhaps foreseeing the increased workload ahead of them, Sanson explained that performing every execution with a sword was infeasible; a more efficient method was needed. With the new law, Dr. Guillotin’s laughable notion of a killing machine had become urgent. As the backlog of death-penalty prisoners mounted, the engineer Dr. Antoine Louis was recruited to quickly design a workable contraption, and a man named Tobias Schmidt was hired to build it, though the association with Guillotin stuck. On April 17, 1792, Sanson was joined by government officials at the Bicêtre Hospital to give the machine a dry run. Over the course of the day, bundles of hay, several human corpses, and a live sheep were placed under the guillotine’s blade. A few weeks later, Sanson appeared before a huge fascinated crowd in Paris to watch the guillotine’s public debut. Nicolas Jacques Pelletier, a notorious highwayman, was the first to face this macabre new rite. No one, not even Sanson, could have predicted how many more would follow him.
Contemporary reports of the first few guillotinings describe a sense of anticlimax among spectators. Efficient and businesslike, this revolutionary method of death was devoid of all the grandiloquent theater that attended a traditional execution. Some thought this progress: perhaps now executions would cease to be a source of popular entertainment. In fact, it simply marked the evolution of the spectacle from the medieval to the modern. The slow, somber process of old was replaced by swift clinical brutality, filled with pints of spurting blood. No longer were the condemned expected to win the crowd over with a show of quiet dignity; in the charged partisan context of the Revolution, defiant martyrdom became the keynote. Frequently, the men and women Sanson placed under the blade danced, sang, and girned their way to extinction, taunting their enemies with their final words. “In both word and gesture,” the historian David Gerould writes, “one had to show sovereign contempt for death;” the gory end of a life was often treated—even by the condemned—as “a splendid show.”
To those in favor of the Revolution, its purges, and its condemnations, the guillotine was the humane vehicle of ultimate justice, and it soon acquired mythical status. As the hand that guided the machine, Sanson’s profile was transformed. Forgetting his family’s long dedicated service to the House of Bourbon, the public now cheered Sanson in the street, hailing him as “the Avenger of the People,” a hero who personified the power and wisdom of the masses. His popularity grew to such an extent that his executioner’s uniform—striped trousers, three-cornered hat, and green overcoat—was adopted as men’s street fashion, while women wore tiny guillotine-shaped earrings and brooches.
Most remarkable of all, Sanson became the acceptable face of the Revolution among its most trenchant critics. Stories abounded of his grace and good manners, his love of gardening and animals, and his tenderness as a father and husband. Numerous English visitors to France, most of whom found the principles of the Revolution unpalatable and the violence committed in its name unspeakable, spoke glowingly of Sanson—even after he had carried out the execution of King Louis XVI in January 1793. Perhaps they saw in him a glimmer of old, aristocratic France, a man who kept his opinions to himself and stoically carried out the task assigned to him not only by the state but by centuries of heredity and tradition.
According to contemporary accounts and the later testimony of his family, Sanson was plagued with guilt and doubt about his role in the king’s execution, a moment many identified as the symbolic start of the guillotine’s era of greatest infamy. In the months following Louis’s death, tensions among the leaders of the Revolution spilled over, culminating in the Terror, a year or so in which the government sought to stamp out even the vaguest trace of counterrevolution. “Terror is nothing more than speedy, severe and inflexible justice,” said Robespierre, the architect of that year of state-sanctioned violence. Between June 1793 and July 1794, sixteen and a half thousand people were sentenced to death throughout France. The avalanche of killing unleashed dark forces entirely unconnected with the stated aims of the Revolution. In the northern town of Cambrai, a priest named Joseph Le Bron found a new vocation when he became the local executioner around the start of the Terror and set himself up as a mini Robespierre, settling personal scores, indulging an apparent passion for mayhem, and killing dozens of people on the flimsiest of pretexts.
Shortly before the Terror began, Sanson had been devastated by a personal tragedy when his son—who, in the family tradition, was also his assistant—raised a severed head to the crowd, fell from the scaffold, and died. On top of that grief now came wave after wave of slaughter; in twelve months, Sanson was ordered to execute more than two thousand people. His diaries—at least, as quoted by his grandson—show the immense strain it placed on him. “A terrible day’s work” is his weary comment on June 17, 1793, when he was assigned fifty-four beheadings. On another day, he apparently hired sixteen assistants to help with the executions. “They are organizing the service of the guillotine as if it were to last forever.” One morning presented him with the neck of Marie Antoinette; another, that of Georges Danton, perhaps the key figure in the overthrow of the monarchy. It was impossible to keep track of the fortunes of the various factions within factions or to predict which exalted patriot would next be denounced as a traitor. “Great citizens and good men follow one another continuously to the guillotine,” Sanson confides to his diary. “How many of them will it yet devour?” The guillotine was no longer a machine of justice but an instrument of tyranny.
Ironically, the office of executioner was one of the few hereditary institutions to make it through the 1790s unscathed. In August 1795, around a year after Robespierre’s fall and the unofficial end of the Terror, an exhausted Sanson handed over his duties to his son, Henri. Over his thirty-nine-year career, Sanson had presided over nearly three thousand deaths. Henri proved to be a chip off the old block and stayed in his post until 1840, by which time the monarchy had been restored and the Sansons were back to being royal lickspittles rather than revolutionary heroes. The transformation of the executioner’s public image had been only a passing phase.
On Henri’s death, the job passed to his son Henri-Clément, who found the family inheritance an intolerably shameful burden. The business of execution brought him out in hives, made him physically sick, and plagued him with nightmares. He turned to drink and gambling. At some point in 1847, he informed the government that he was unable to carry out that day’s execution because he’d pawned the guillotine to pay off a debt and lacked the funds to buy it back. This was the end of the Sanson family’s seven-generation association with the least desired public office in the land. Henri-Clément wrote a history of the Sanson executioners that purported to draw heavily on the diaries Charles-Henri kept during the Revolution. No such diaries have survived, so it’s impossible to know the veracity of that claim, and it’s certainly convenient that the quoted extracts fit with Henri-Clément’s suggestion that like him, his famous grandfather struggled with his duties, the stain of which precluded him from choosing another path in life.
Still well-known in France, Charles-Henri Sanson has cropped up as a troubled and troubling figure in many works of fiction, from Dumas to Hilary Mantel. Most recently, he’s been transformed into the romantic antihero of a manga series, a delicate but brilliant young man forced by the irresistible demands of family honor to carry out macabre duties in a world turned upside down. The memory of the guillotine, of course, has proved even more tenacious. It was last used in France as recently as 1972. A lawyer for one of the condemned men wrote of his disgust at the scenes of celebration in Paris when the death sentence for his client was announced, likening them to the baying mobs of the guillotine’s early years: “The crowd would undoubtedly have applauded, screamed with delight, if the executioner, in the manner of Sanson, had held up the two heads in front of them.” But as far as we know, Sanson himself rarely felt delight in that chilling moment. When he was asked how he felt during an execution, he replied: “Monsieur, I am always in a great hurry to get it over with.”
Edward White is the author of The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America.