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. Read More