The French Executioner Charles-Henri Sanson

The French executioner Charles-Henri Sanson was born on 15 February 1739 and served as the royal execution during the reign of King Louis XVI and High Executioner during the First French Republic. He administered capital punishment in the city of Paris for over forty years and executed nearly 3,000 people, including King Louis XVI. He came from a long line of executioners, his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all executioners and his life would be ruled by the scaffold.

French executioner Charles-Henri Sanson

Charles-Henri Sanson. Courtesy Wikipedia.

He was born in Paris to Charles-Jean-Baptist Sanson and his first wife Madeleine Tronson. He had three sisters and was the oldest son among seven boys, all of who became “headsman.” He initially attend a convent school at Rouen, but another student recognized his father as the executioner, and, so, he left school to avoid ruining the school’s reputation and was then privately educated.

Image after Louis XVI’s execution on 21 January 1793. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Sanson never wanted to be an executioner but no other career could be considered for him. When he was 15 years old his father was stricken by paralysis and never recovered, and so Sanson was immediately appointed deputy. That meant that his future career was settled, and he soon assumed the mantle of an executioner and followed in the footsteps of his father.

Sanson was well-educated and musically talented. In his leisure time he played the violin and the violoncello, listened to Christoph Willibald Gluck, and often met with his longtime friend Tobias Schmidt, a well-regarded German maker of musical instruments, who would later build the guillotine. Moreover, Sanson was counted among the well-dressed members of Parisian society. One writer noted of him:

“Handsome and well-formed, he possessed a superior intellect and an excellent education. He was extremely elegant in his habits, and attracted so much attention by the richness of his dress, that a somewhat arbitrary measure was taken, which forbade him to wear blue because it was the color of noblemen. His manner of protesting consisted in adopting still more gorgeous costumes of green cloth. He even made the color fashionable, and the beaux of the court, with the brilliant marquis de Létorières at their head, copied the cut and color his garments, and wore coats à la Sanson.”[1]

Sanson’s job as an executioner, however, required a uniform, which was described in the following fashion:

“In the early days he wore the traditional blue breeches and red jacket, the latter being embroidered with the gibbet and ladder in black. A pink two-cornered hat completed the attire, together with a sword at his waist (for personal defence, not for execution purposes). But by 1786 he was given carte blanche in his official dress and so adopted a long double-breasted frock coat of dark green material worn with a wide white cravat and striped trousers. A tall top hat covered his sandy hair … Later in his career his apparel altered yet again, and he took to wearing an elegant short jacket and breeches, with silk stockings and bright buckled shoes. A tricorne hat completed his appearance with, of course, the customary sword.”[2]

Prior to the creation of the guillotine, Sanson accomplished his executions with rather lightweight tools. They were vulnerable to problems under heavy usage and replacement costs were prohibitive, which is part of the reason an executioner never became rich. In addition, Sanson had to employ assistants and buy everything associated with the execution, which included such things as ropes, straps, hatchets, sawdust, axes, tumbrils, and horses.

He was allowed in the early days to supplement his income in various ways. For instance, he was entitled to whatever possessions the executed person had on them at the time of their death (watches, clothing, hats, etc.), but that changed slightly when it was decreed that all clothing should be donated to the poor. Sanson was eventually allowed to sell some cadavers for medical research, and, in addition, anyone executed had to have their hair cut off to ensure their neck could be viewed clearly. This hair he then sold to wigmakers at a profit.

Sanson also forged a lucrative deal with Philippe Mathé Curtius, a Swiss doctor, who provided anatomical models for medical students and created miniature flesh-tinted models from wax for study purposes. These tiny anatomical replicas initially sparked local interest, but after the French Prince of Conti, a cousin to Louis XV, discovered him he moved to Paris and soon turned his wax business into a thriving business capturing the faces in wax of the famous and the infamous. He also trained his niece, Marie Grosholtz, who went on to become Madame Tussaud.

Philippe Mathé Curtius. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Despite all these extra money-making activities, Sanson barely earned enough to cover the costs necessary to conduct an execution. Even worse was the unexpected results and physical demands placed on him before the guillotine was adopted. This was expounded by one of the main supporters of the guillotine, Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, who stated the following when talking about executions performed with swords:

“In order to accomplish the execution in accordance with the intention of the law it is necessary, even without any opposition on the part of the prisoner, that the executioner should be very skillful and the condemned man very steady, otherwise it would be impossible to accomplish an execution with the sword. After each execution the sword is no longer in a condition to perform another, being likely to break in two; it is absolutely necessary that it should be ground and sharpened afresh if there be several prisoners to execute at the same time. It would be needful therefore to have a sufficient number of swords all ready … It must also be taken into account that, when there are several condemned persons to be executed at the same, the terror produced by this method of execution … creates fear and weakness in the hearts of those who are waiting to die. An attack of faintness forms an invincible obstacle to an execution. If prisoners cannot hold themselves up … the execution becomes a struggle and a massacre.”[3]

To solve these types of problems and to have a more humane approach to the death, the idea of a guillotine gained popularity. A prototype of it was first tested on 17 April 1792, and Sanson was there. The demonstration happened at the Bicêtre Hospital when bales of hay were decapitated followed by live sheep and then human corpses. Although Sanson suggested a few minor tweaks, he declared the new machine a success, and, a week later, on 25 April 1792, the National Assembly approved the guillotine’s use on a live human being.

The first person executed with it was a highwayman and robber named Nicolas Jacques Pelletier. He died at 3:30pm and was wearing a red shirt. The guillotine, which had been prepared earlier, was draped in the color red too. The execution took minutes and was so efficient and effective, the assembled crowd was dissatisfied and yelled, “Bring back our wooden gallows!”[4]

The new guillotine’s blade dropped efficiently severing a person’s head when two ropes were released. Near it, the severed heads tumbled into a basket, morbidly called the “family picnic basket.” The executioner or an assistant then held up the severed head for spectators to see. Supposedly, faces on these severed head were sometimes contorted or the eyes or mouths of the victims wide open.

The new guillotine eventually allowed Sanson to be so efficient that he could execute hundreds of people in a day, with 12 victims decapitated in 13 minutes. Sometimes forty or fifty condemned individuals would arrive and he would dispatch one every two minutes. “At the height of the Terror, Sanson and his assistants guillotined 300 men and women in three days, 1,300 in six weeks, and between 6 April 1793 and 29 July 1795, no fewer than 2,831 heads dropped into the baskets.”[5]

Despite Sanson’s efficiency, he was often sickened by what his job required. During the Revolution, he found himself sometimes overwhelmed, and, once noted in his diary the toll that it took on him:

“A terrible day’s work! The guillotine devoured fifty-four victims. Maria Grandmaison, an actress of the Italian Theatre, and Marie Nicole Bouchard, her servant, were of the number. The latter was only eighteen years old, and she was so thin and delicate that she did not appear to be more than fourteen. When the poor little girl held out her hands to Larivière, he turned to Desmorets, my head assistant, and said, ‘Surely, this is a joke?’ Desmorets shrugged his shoulders, and it was the little one, who, smiling through her tears, answered, ‘No, sir, it is serious;’ whereupon Larivière threw down his cords, and said ‘Let some one else bind her. It is not my profession to execute children!’ There was some delay in starting, and little Nicole Bouchard sat down by her mistress’ feet, and tried to console her. She asked leave to be with her in the same cart. I really believe that if she had begged for life, more than one would have freed her and offered to take her place. What we felt, the people felt also. The crowd was very large, owing to the proportions of the execution. … I had looked at Nicole Bouchard in the Conciergerie, and her eyes to my thinking seemed to say, ‘You will not kill me?’ And yet she is dead now. She was the ninth. When she passed before me I had to struggle with an inspiration that whispered in my ear, ‘Smash up the guillotine, and do not allow this child to die?’ My assistants pushed her on toward the knife. I turned away, my legs trembled, and I turned sick. He said to me, ‘You are unwell. Go home, and trust to me for the rest.’ I did not answer, and left the scaffold.”[6]

Another entry by Sanson was identified as Messidor 7.

“There was a time when the women were, as a rule, stronger and pluckier than the men. Not so now. They weep, tremble, and beg for mercy. We have had a fearful day … My carts contained twenty-three women of different ages and social standing. Each turn of the wheel was marked by a sob. Their shrieks were awful to hear.”[7]

One high-profile person Sanson executed besides King Louis XVI was Charlotte Corday. She assassinated the French journalist and radical Jacobin, Jean-Paul Marat and earned the sentence of death. One other oft told tale about her execution is what happened after her decapitation. Reports indicate that a duty carpenter who worked on the guillotine named Legros lifted Corday’s head from the basket the moment it fell and “undeterred by the smile of content[ment] on the beautiful dead face, struck it repeatedly with his open hand.”[8] (At that time many people believed that for a short time after a beheading, the beheaded person retained consciousness.) Witnesses claimed Legros’ slap produced an expression of “unequivocal indignation” upon Corday’s face. But Legros’ actions were not approved by the crowd or Sanson, and, in fact, the Revolutionary Tribunal imprisoned him for a short time for his inappropriate action, and Sanson fired him, although he had to hire him back.

Charlotte Corday. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Sanson had married his wife in 1765 and they had two sons, Henri and Gabriel. Both boys had no choice but to follow in their father’s footsteps and were therefore taught about executions and helped their father on the scaffold. Unfortunately, in 1792, Gabriel was on the scaffold and holding up a severed head when he slipped, likely because of the bloody platform. He died from his injuries, and the accident resulted in French scaffolds thereafter having sides.

By 1795, old age was catching up with Sanson and he developed a kidney complaint known as nephritis and was forced to resign on 30 August 1795. He asked for a pension, but it was not granted, and he and his wife retired to the country where he gardened and relaxed. Sanson then died a few years later on 4 July 1806 and was buried in the family plot at Paris’ Montmarte Cemetery.

“He was buried … in grave no. 27 … after an impressive funeral service in Saint-Laurent Church, the plot being marked by a plain stone in order to avoid possible desecration. It was later engraved with his name, the dates of his birth and death, and the inscription ‘This stone was erected by his son and family by whom he was regretted’ and although the medical reasons for his death are known, it is said that he … died of sorrow at having to kill his King.”[9]

Sanson’s only living son Henri assumed the office of executioner after he retired, and Henri served as executioner for 47 years. Just like his father had been called Monsieur de Paris, so was Henri as French executioners were identified by the towns that they served. Henri was replaced by Sanson’s grandson, Henry-Clément Sanson. In fact, Henry was the last in the dynasty of the Sanson’s to serve as executioner. He did so until 1847.

References:

  • [1] Record of the Year: A Reference Scrap Book v. 2 (Washington, D.C.: G. W. Carleton and Company, 1876), p. 181.
  • [2] Geoffrey Abbott, Lords of Scaffold (Great Britain: Eric Dobby Publishing, 1991), p. 85–86.
  • [3] G. Lenotre, The Guillotine and Its Servants (London: Hutchinson & Company, 1929), p. 149.
  • [4] G. Henry, What the Fact?! A Daily Trivia Almanac of 365 Strange Days in History (San Francisco: Chronicle Books LLC, 2018), p. 99.
  • [5] G. Abbott, p. 87–88.
  • [6] Record of the Year, p. 183.
  • [7] C. H. Sanson, Memoirs of the Sansons from private notes and documents, ed. by H. Sanson, 2 vols. (London: Chatto and Windus, 1876), p. 177–78.
  • [8] J. van Alstine, Charlotte Corday (London: W. H. Allen & Company, 1890), p. 181.
  • [9] G. Abbott, p. 95–96.

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