The Executioner’s Account of Louis XVI’s Execution

Louis XVI was executed on 21 January 1793. Three weeks after his execution, a revolutionary journal called Thermomètre du jour published an inaccurate account claiming the King was led to the scaffold with a pistol to his temple, the guillotine struck his neck instead of his head, and the King died without courage. Because the newspaper story was so inaccurate, the executioner’s account of Louis XVI’s execution was published.

Executioner's Account of Louis XVI's Execution: Charles-Henri Sanson, Corrtesy of Wikipedia

Charles-Henri Sanson. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Louis XVI’s executioner was Charles-Henri Sanson. Sanson’s reply to the editor of the Thermomètre du jour provided what Sanson called an “accurate” description of what happened. Sanson dated his account 20 February 1793, and here is that account almost verbatim.

Citizen,

A short absence has prevented my sooner replying to your article concerning Louis Capet. But here is the exact truth as to what passed. On alighting from the carriage for execution, he was told that he must take off his coat. He made some difficulty, saying that they might as well execute him as he was. On [our] representation that was impossible, he himself assisted in taking off his coat.

French Engraving, “Day of 21 January 1793 the death of Louis Capet on the Place de la Révolution.” Courtesy of Wikipedia.

He again made the same difficulty when his hands were to be tied, but he offered them himself when the person who accompanied him [his confessor] had told him that it was the last sacrifice [the Abbé Edgeworth had suggested to him that the Saviour had submitted to the same indignity]. Then he inquired whether the drums would go on beating as they were doing. We answered that we could not tell. And it was the truth.

He ascended the scaffold, and advanced to the front, as if he intended to speak; but we again represented to him that the thing was impossible. He then allowed himself to be conducted to the spot, when he was attached to the instrument, and from which he exclaimed, in a loud voice, “People, I die innocent!” Then, turning round to us, he said, “Sir, I die innocent of all that has been imputed to me; I wish that my blood may cement the happiness of the French people.”

“Death of Louis XVI King of France” from an English engraving, published 1798. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

“These, Citizen, were his last and exact words. The kind of little debate which occurred at the foot of the scaffold turned altogether on his not thinking it necessary that his coat should he taken off, and his hands tied. He would also have wished to cut off his own hair [He had wished to have it done early in the morning by Cléry, but the Municipality would not allow him a pair of scissars].

And, as an homage to truth, I must add that he bore all this with a sang froid and firmness which astonished us all. I am convinced that he had derived this strength of mind from the principles of religion, of which no one could appear more persuaded and penetrated.

You may be assured, citizen, that there is the truth in its fullest light.

I have the honour to be your fellow Citizen —

Sanson

Sanson had been reluctant to be the king’s executioner even though he did not support the monarchy. No French executioner had ever executed a French King and Sanson was worried and wanted implicit instructions. After Louis XVI’s execution, a Monsieur de Beauchesne inaccurately reported that Sanson never assisted at another execution and died six months later. However, his allegations appear to be contrary to the evidence.

Sanson continued to work as the Royal Execution of France until 1795 “when he obtained the reversion for his son and a pension for himself.” It seems that Sanson’s eldest son Gabriel had been his assistant and heir apparent until he fell from the scaffold in 1792 while displaying a severed head to the crowd. Thus, the hereditary obligation fell to the youngest son, Henri, and it was Henri who executed Queen Marie Antoinette in October of 1793, Sanson only attended.

References:

  • The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art, Volume 30, 1853
  • The Quarterly Review, 1853

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