Robert-François Damiens was born in the tiny hamlet of La Thieuloye, France, on 9 January 1715 to Peter Joseph Damiens (a poor hard-working man) and Mary Guillemant. From infancy, he was said to have been “untoward and perverse” in disposition which, as an adult, earned him the epithet, Robert the Devil. Before Damiens turned 15 years old his mother died. An uncle “took him under his care, and put him to school to learn reading and writing: but Robert neglecting his education, [and so] the uncle thought proper to bind him [to] … a locksmith in Bethune.”
Damiens remained with the locksmith a short time before he decided to become a soldier. That decision cost his uncle four hundred livres. It was in the French army, that Damiens served a Mr. Dubas, a Swiss officer, and, at the time, the Count of Raymond. Damiens went with Dubas when he traveled to Bavaria, and, upon returning from Bavaria, Damiens left Dubas.
Damiens then went through a number of jobs because of “his natural inconstancy, and violence of temper.” One of these short-lived jobs was at the Parisian Jesuit college, known as Louis-le-Grand. Damiens remained there for about 15 months before being “expelled for refractoriness, in not submitting to a punishment he had incurred by bad behaviour.”
He married Elizabeth Molerienne in 1739, and when he left the Jesuit college “he was observed to be reserved in his speech, inclined to passion, surly, and refractory towards his superiors.” After his marriage and until July 1756, he served numerous successive masters in a variety of ranks and under a variety of conditions and was described in the following terms:
“[V]ain, self-conceited, and affected to out-do every person of his own rank; … he was a keen newsmonger, of a seditious spirit, and … his bent to criticise upon public transactions made him much more loquacious and talkative … he frequently muttered to himself; … he was inflexible in his resolutions…he was impudent, and much given to lying; and … he was not insensible of the natural impetuosity of his passions.”
Physical descriptions proved little better.
“[He] was rather tall than short: … [with] a longish face … fierce and steady countenance: his nose … more hooked, than what is generally called the Roman nose: his mouth [was] … sunk in; and his lips, from the [annoying] habit of talking to himself, were in continual motion.”
In July 1756, a year after Marie Antoinette was born, Robert-François Damiens was employed by a Russian merchant, who he proceeded to rob. When the merchant learned of the theft, he went to the police and before the police could issue a warrant, Damiens absconded. He then reappeared in Paris the first part of December where his wife tried to “make him sensible of the danger he exposed himself to by staying in Paris.” Convinced at last, he promised to leave and return to Artois.
He supposedly departed Paris on the evening of the 3rd of January, but instead of going to Artois, Damiens arrived in Versailles at three o’clock in the morning. He then asked directions to an inn. There he drank a glass of wine and went to bed. About 2pm he went out and returned later “in great fury, saying, ‘there is no dispatching of business at the cursed Versailles;’ and ‘that the king was going again to Trianon till the next Saturday.’ He asked a fowl for supper, but accepted … mutton, of which he eat [sic] a little, and then went to bed.”
On the afternoon of 5 January, Robert-François Damiens was observed sauntering around the Palace of Versailles. That same afternoon, King Louis XV, grandfather to Louis XVI, had come from Trianon to Versailles to see the princesses, and after his visit, the King, the Dauphin, and the whole court made their way to the King’s coach. Damiens at last saw his opportunity and, “in a word, fanaticism had troubled the mind of this unfortunate man,” and that is what drove him to attempt to assassinate the “well-beloved” Louis XV. It happened just as the King was stepping in to his carriage. He leaned on the Count of Brionne and the Marquis of Beringhen and then:
“Damiens, who had concealed himself in a little hollow at the bottom of the stairs near the arch-way, rushed in amongst the courtiers, and running towards the king, jostled the Dauphin … then laying hold of his majesty by one shoulder with one hand, with the other [hand] stabbed him in the right side, directly at the fifth rib, with the blade of his knife.”
The king discovering the wound after putting his hand under his coat, “turned about, and espying this stranger, who was covered, and whose eyes stared wildly, he said, ‘That is the man who stabbed me; arrest him, but do him no harm.'”
Robert-François Damiens made no attempt to escape and was “instantly seized by one of the King’s footmen, and delivered up to the guards; who carried him into their hall, where he was stripped, searched, and the fatal [pen] knife found upon him.” The guards believed he had accomplices and it was with great zeal and “just horror of the villain, [that] incited them to try to wring from him the impeachment of his accomplices, by dint of torture.” They put him near a hot fire and pinched his feet with red-hot tongs, but Damiens admitted nothing.
Great precautions were also taken to ensure he did not escape while he awaited trial. He was fastened to his bed by leather straps and guarded 24 hours a day by “twelve of the most discreet and sensible serjeants … four of which relieve[d] one another every four hours, and were successively day and night in the room with him.”
When his trial concluded, Damiens was found guilty of regicide, and, on 26 March was “condemned to the same pains as [François] Ravaillac … that he should, previously to his suffering death, be put to the torture.” Damiens execution was slated for 28 March 1757 at seven o’clock in the morning, and among the witnesses to his execution was the famous eighteenth-century adventurer and author Giacomo Casanova who included the story of Damiens’s execution in his memoirs.
At the appointed time, Robert-François Damiens was stripped and readied. His hand was first burnt with brimstone amidst his piercing shrieks. Next he was pinched with “red-hot pinchers in the arms, thighs, and breasts,” and boiling oil, melted lead, and hot rosin poured into his wounds. However, his final punishment was yet to come as he had been sentenced to be drawn and quartered.
“At length they proceeded to the ligatures of his arms, legs, and thighs, in order to dismember him. This preparation was very long and painful … The horses having been put to the draught, the pulls were repeated for a long time, with frightful cries on the part of the sufferer: … yet nothing gave signs of the dismemberment taking place.”
In spite of the straining efforts of the horses and with no prospect of an end in sight, it was decided to cut the principal sinews to make it easier to tear off his legs and arms. So, the next time the horses pulled, an arm and thigh separated. To this separation it was reported, “Damiens … looked … and seemed to preserve some sense and knowledge,” finally expiring when the second arm was severed. Then his body and limbs were thrown into a fire prepared for that purpose. His ashes were taken and scattered in the wind, his house was razed, his family ordered to changed their names, and his father, wife, and daughter banished from France forever.
-  The New Wonderful Museum, and Extraordinary Magazine, 1802, p. 182.
-  Ibid., p. 183.
-  Ibid., p. 182.
-  Ibid., p. 183.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid., p. 184.
-  Ibid., p. 188.
-  Ibid., p. 189.
-  The Sketch Book of Character, 1835, p. 99.
-  Barrow, George, Celebrated Trials and Remarkable Cases of Criminal Jurisprudence from the Earliest Records to the Year 1825, Volume 4, 1825, p. 387.
-  The Sketch Book of Character, p. 100.
-  The Monthly Review, Volume 17, 1757, p. 65.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid., p. 69.
-  Ibid., p. 71.
-  The New Wonderful Museum, and Extraordinary Magazine, p. 206.
-  The Monthly Review, p. 76.
-  Ibid., p. 77.