In France, in the 1700s, when people were condemned to death, those convicted of certain atrocities were sometimes condemned to be broken on the wheel in a public execution. Sometimes after being broken on the wheel, blows were also given on the chest or the abdomen of the condemned person. These blows were called coups de grâce, or in other words, “blows of mercy,” as they were fatal to the condemned. If these blows were not given, a condemned person might live for hours or days, and they might be subject to birds pecking at them until they died. In addition, on occasion, a special grace, known as the retentum, was granted where a condemned person was strangled after the second or third blow, or in special cases, even before the breaking began.
This practice of being broken on the wheel was reported on by an Irish gentleman visiting Paris, France, in 1788. He wrote a letter to a friend in Ireland dated July 23rd, and, in the letter, he described the torturous punishment that one Parisian criminal experienced on the wheel. Here is his letter verbatim:
“I have been to see a most dreadful spectacle, a man broke alive upon a cross: which they call breaking on the wheel. At about four of the clock in the evening I went to the place de greve where public executions and rejoicings for the birth, &c. of any of the royal family are continue to be performed. There was a very great multitude of people assembled together, and in the midst of the place was erected a wooden stage. I got up into a high window, from which I had a commanding prospect of this frightful business.
On the scaffold was laid horizontally a large wooden cross, much in the form of a Roman X. This cross was marked with eight square notches, two on each extremity, and about five inches in depth. On this cross, I was informed, the condemned prisoner was to have his limbs broken and be put to death. At one end of the scaffold a small coach wheel was horizontally placed upon a perpendicular axle-tree or post. On this wheel, I was told, the body of the prisoner was to be left exposed, after having been broken on the cross.
In a short time the unhappy prisoner arrived, in company with the executioners, and conducted by a party of the horse guards of the police, or guet-à-cheval. The prisoner with the executioners went into the town-house, where they remained for about half an hour. The prisoners are conducted to the town-house to be examined for the last time; and there I suppose this prisoner was put to the torture; for on coming out, he was unable to walk, and was borne up by the two troopers.
Arriving at the scaffold, three executioners dressed in a genteel and fashionable stile, handed the prisoner up the ladder with seeming politeness and civility. Having ascended the scaffold, he knelt down and prayed for some time with a clergyman in a black cassock, whose conduct on the whole appeared decent, pious and proper. After praying for some minutes, the prisoner suffered the executioners to take off his clothes. He then layed himself on his back upon the cross, and stretched out his legs and arms along its extremities; while an executioner fastened down his limbs with straps and buckles.
Here I turned my eyes from this frightful spectacle, and beheld the whole place covered with a multitude of people, with their faces all turned to the scaffold: and strange as it may appear, the greater number were women. It is amazing, how the more delicate part of the creation, whose feelings are so exquisitely tender and refined, should come in crouds to see so bloody a spectacle: Yet without doubt, it is the pity, the kind compassion which they feel, that makes them so anxious about the tortures inflicted on our fellow creatures.
The noise of the multitude was like the hoarse murmur caused by the waves of the sea breaking along a rocky shore: For a moment it subsided; and in an awful silence, the multitude beheld the executioner take up an iron bar, and begin the tragedy, by striking his victim on the fore arm, which being placed immediately over one of the notches, was by the blow of the bar, smashed and crushed down into it. He next struck one of the legs in the like manner, and crushed the bones and flesh at one blow into the notch. He then broke the fore arm in the same manner; then a thigh next an arm, after that the other thigh, and concluded by breaking the remaining arm. The priest who still continued with the dying man, knelt down, praying with him, and giving him such consolation, as in such cases can only be drawn from conscious innocence, or a lively hope of Divine mercy, and being shortly translated to a happier existence.
A halter had been fixed round the neck of the prisoner, the end of which the executioner pushed through a small hole in the scaffold, which he immediately corresponded to the back part of the prisoner’s neck when extended on the cross. All the limbs of the prisoner being broken, the execution looked at his watch and let the prisoner remain in that deplorable situation for some minutes according to his sentence. The time being elapsed, an executioner under the scaffold fastened the extremity of the halter to a windlass. He then waited for about a minute, when on a signal given by the principal executioner, he began to turn the windlass, and gave the ropes some violent tugs, such as must have dislocated the vertebrae of the prisoner’s neck. During this transaction the other execution on the scaffold again took up the iron bar and gave the prisoner three most violent blows upon the belly and stomach, such as must have burst the heart, arteries, stomach, diaphragm, and intestines, and confounded them into one mass of blood and wounds.
After some time, the priest descended from the scaffold. The prisoner being sentenced to remain upon the cross until he was absolutely dead, the executioner still remained upon the scaffold, frequently extending the fingers of the prisoner, to know if they would contract, and shew that the man was still alive. In about a quarter of an hour, the execution unbuckled the straps which had bound the prisoner’s body to the cross. He then took in his arms the mangled body, which was most frightful to behold, every limb being broken and distorted. He then placed the body on its back upon the small coach wheel which was fixed on a post at one end of the scaffold: and letting the head hang down, fastened the body, by twisting the broken and bleeding limbs among the spokes of the wheel, and then having turned the wheel about, left the body exposed in that hideous form, and descended from the scaffold.”
This execution was one of the last done using a wheel in France. A few weeks later, on 3 August 1788, the execution of Jean Louschart was scheduled in Versailles using a wheel. Louschart had been convicted of murdering his father, Mathurin. However, many people supported Louschart, thought him not guilty, and showed that Louschart “had been the patient victim of the whims and acrimonious temper of old Mathurin.” On the day of the execution, a sympathetic crowd decided to storm the scaffold, and they rescued Jean Louschart. There were also many other critics who believed the wheel was too torturous a form of punishment, which also helped to put an end to the French using the wheel.
- Saint John, James, Letters from France to a Gentleman in the South of Ireland, Volume 2, 1788
- Sanson, Clément Henri, Memoirs of the Sansons from Private Notes and Documents, 1876