Thursday, December 8, 2016

Scott Thomas Outlar writes

Fairy Tale Apocalypse

Once upon a time 
the illusion of democracy 
was still a spell 
that the State 
worried about casting.

Now the ruling elite 
just flip a coin 
and tell the losers 
to go eat cake.

Once upon a time 
there were whispers 
in the streets 
about which heads 
soon would roll.

Now the silent cries 
are roaring loud 
as the smell of blood 
fills the air.

Once upon a time 
there was still a chance 
to hold the fort 
with the promise 
of keeping peace.

Now the war is hot 
and hell hath no fury 
like a free 
nation scorned.

 The Execution of Maximilien de Robespierre, July 28, 1794

This painting by an unknown artist is in the Bibliothèque nationale de France (National Library of France) in Paris. Despite the title, the beheaded man is actually Robespierre's ally Georges Couthon. The prisoner ascending the stairs is Robespierre’s younger brother Augustin. Robespierre is still in the tumbril, holding a handkerchief to his mouth due to his failed suicide attempt that morning.



  1. "Six tumbrils carry the day’s wine to La Guillotine." -- Charles Dickens

    “Saint Guillotine,” the "national razor," was one of the enduring symbols of the French Revolution. Late in 1789, the year the Revolution began, the Estates-General secretary Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, an opponent of capital punishment, proposed the adoption of "a machine that beheads painlessly" as a more humane method of execution than sword and axe decapitatons, which were reserved for the nobility and often botched, or hanging. He off-handedly quipped remarked during a follow-up speech, "Now, with my machine, I cut off your head in the twinkling of an eye, and you never feel it!" Within days a comic song about the remark circulated, forever tying his name to the machine. His proposal failed, but the Constituent Assembly made beheading the only form of execution in March 1791 as of a year later. The royal executioner ("bourreau"), Charles-Henri Sanson (the fourth in a six-generation dynasty of executioners) pointed out that there were not enough skilled beheaders to handle the volume and that the cost of maintaining the blades would be prohibitive, since the executioners owned their own instruments. Dr. Antoine Louis, the secretary of the Academy of Surgeons, then designed the appropriate machine (at first known as a Louisette), and it was constructed in less than a week by Sanson's close friend Tobias Schmidt, a harpsichord maker. Painted a dull blood red, it had two large uprights joined by a beam at the top and erected on a platform reached by 24 steps. The whole contraption was painted a dull blood red, and a heavy, razor-sharp blade ran in grooves in the uprights which were greased with tallow, dropped 226 cm (89 in), and severed a neck in 0.005 seconds (though brain activity may continue for about 4 seconds after decapitation). It was immediately tested on calves, sheep, and corpses, and a week later officially used for the first time to execute a thief on 25 April 1792, but the crowd that witnessed the event complained that it was too quick and demanded the restoration of the gallows. The machine's development was partially overseen by Guillotin, but he tried to distance himself from the device that popularly bore his name; after his death in 1814 his family petitioned the French government to change its name, but the government refused (though it allowed the family to adopt a new surname).

  2. Ironically, one of his colleagues was Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre, who was also an ardent opponent of capital punishment. When the Third Estate created a representative National Assembly (soon to transform itself into the National Constituent Assembly), Robespierre became a member. He was the one who coined the motto "Liberté, égalité, fraternité" (Freedom, Equality, Brotherhood). In early June 1792 he proposed an end to the monarchy and on 20 June the militia (staffed by revolutionaries known as the fédérés), which he had helped form, entered Paris without the king's approval, and on 10 August 1792, the insurrectionary National Guard of Paris, fédérés and sans-culottes (the pantsless poor) led a successful assault upon the Tuileries palace with the intention of overthrowing the monarchy; on 16 August, Robespierre demanded the establishment of a revolutionary tribunal and the summoning of a convention chosen by universal suffrage. Concerned that foreign and royalist armies would attack Paris and be joined by the inmates of the city's prisons, radicals called for the preemptive execution of the prisoners; the Paris Commune tolerated mob action; between 2–7 September some 1200 to 1400 prisoners (about half the city's prison population) were summarily executed, including 233 Catholic priests. Robespierre defended the action, insisting that they were "as illegal as liberty itself... Citizens, do you want a revolution without a revolution?" The Convention unanimously declared a republic on 21 September, and in December Robespierre took the lead in demanding the king's execution: "As for myself, I abhor the death penalty ... and for Louis I have neither love, nor hate; I hate only his crimes.... Louis must die so that the nation may live." Louis XVI was executed by guillotine on 17 January 1793. Unfortunately, his neck was so fat that the blade failed to slice his head off the first time. After Sanson's second attempt, a young guard picked up his head for the crowd to see, and the mob rushed to dip handkerchiefs in his blood, crying out, “Long live the Revolution!”

  3. Two months later a Revolutionary Tribunal was established, with Antoine Quentin Fouquier de Tinville as public prosecutor, and on 6 April a Committee of Public Safety was formed, including Robespierre. On 5 September the Convention proclaimed, "It is time that equality bore its scythe above all heads. It is time to horrify all the conspirators. So legislators, place Terror on the order of the day! Let us be in revolution, because everywhere counter-revolution is being woven by our enemies. The blade of the law should hover over all the guilty." In February Robespierre defended the actions of his committee: "If virtue be the spring of a popular government in times of peace, the spring of that government during a revolution is virtue combined with terror: virtue, without which terror is destructive; terror, without which virtue is impotent. Terror is only justice prompt, severe and inflexible; it is then an emanation of virtue; it is less a distinct principle than a natural consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing wants of the country'".... The government in a revolution is the despotism of liberty against tyranny." He then purged his former allies and had them executed. On 10 June the Tribunal was transformed into a court of condemnation without need of witnesses.

  4. On 16 October Louis' queen Marie Antoinette was tried, had her hair shorn so it would not get in the way, and executed; when Charles-Henri's son Henri Sanson removed her cap the crowd jeered her bald head. [In 1782 Jean-Jacques Rousseau's "Confessions" were published, in which he claimed that a "great princess," upon learning that the peasants had no brad to eat, suggested, "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche," ("Let them eat cake," though broche is actually a luxury bread enriched with butter and eggs), demonstrating her disregard for the fact that simple bread absorbed 1/2 of their income. Although her frivolousness and extravagance had led many critics to blame her for ruining France's finances, even to the point of nicknaming her "Madame Déficit," the attribution of the inflammatory remark to her was not made until 1843 when the writer Alphonse Karr made the claim in his satirical literary journal "Les Guêpes" (he is best known for his epigram, "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose" -- the more things change, the more they stay the same). However, the "Confessions" had been written in 1765, when the future queen was nine, five years before her arrival in France; and no famines occurred during the reign of Louis XVI, although a serious bread shortage occurred in northern, eastern and western France in April–May 1775 and led to the "Flour War" riots a few weeks before his coronation, and another in 1788.]

  5. Guillotin himself was arrested and imprisoned after refusing to inform Fouquier-Tinville of the whereabouts of the family of a condemned count, but was freed by a general amnesty after Robespierre's fall; he then abandoned his political career and resumed his medical practice. At first, ordinary criminals were beheaded in the Place de Greve and political offenders at the Place de Carrousel, but it was erected for the first time in the Place de la Revolution for the king. In June 1793, the executions were moved to the Place St. Antoine, where 96 people were decapitated in five days, but local merchants complained and it was moved to the Barriere Ranverse, where 1,270 people were executed in less than two months. It returned to the Place de la Revolution for the execution of Robespierre and 21 of his followers on 28 July. He tried to avoid the blade by shooting himself but only managed to smash his jaw. Fouquier-Tinville helped in the arrest of Robespierre and was briefly kept on as prosecutor but was imprisoned on 1 August; after a 41-day trial he was condemned and guillotined in 1795, along with 15 of his accomplices on the Revolutionary Tribunal.

  6. The executions rapidly evolved into a popular form of entertainment as people came in droves to watch; spectators bought souvenirs, read programs listing the names of the day's victims, and ate at the nearby “Cabaret de la Guillotine.” Some people attended on a daily basis, like the “Tricoteuses” who sat beside the scaffold and knitted between beheadings. Marie Tussaud got her start by making wax heads: She poured hot melted wax “death masks” of famous people whose heads she picked fresh from the guillotine basket; she later toured the UK with them for over 30 years before setting up her waxworks museum in London. Many victims rehearsed sarcastic quips or defiant last words before being executed, and some even danced their way up the steps of the scaffold. The guillotine was the subject of jokes, songs, poems, and earring designs, and a two-foot-tall replica became a popular children’s toy that children used to decapitate dolls or small rodents. Upper-class Frenchmen used novelty bread and vegetable slicers shaped like guillotines. Executioners became trend-setting celebrities and were closely judged on how quickly and precisely they could orchestrate multiple beheadings; a skilled executioner could execute two victims per minute and usually possessed more than one guillotine to maximize efficiency. Chevalier Charles-Henri Sanson de Longval, "Monsieur de Paris," had detested the family business and intended to become a physician, but had to succeed his paralyzed father to support his family in 1778; his hobbies included the dissection of those he executed and the production of medicines using herbs he grew in his garden. His eldest son Gabriel was his assistant, but the young man died after slipping off a scaffold as he displayed a severed head to the crowd in 1790, so when Charles-Henri retired in August 1795 he was followed by his youngest son Henri, who held the post for another 47 years. When Napoléon Bonaparte asked him if he could still sleep well after killing some 3,000 people, Charles-Henri asked him in turn, "If emperors, kings and dictators can sleep well, why shouldn't an executioner?" his grandson, Henry-Clément Sanson, was the last in the dynasty, serving until 1847 after only eight years of service. To support his profligate lifestyle, he established a musée des horreurs in his home and charged five francs for people watch him decapitate a sheep with the family guillotine. After he sold it to Mme. Tussaud's brothers for her museum, he was forced to rely on an axe for his next job; the government bought the guillotine back, summoned to complete the sentence, and dismissed him immediately afterwards. In 1879 Louis Deibler became the new Monsieur de Paris," beginning a new dynasty that lasted until his son Anatole died in February 1939. The last public guillotining occurred on 17 June 1939, but private executions occurred until 1977. The death penalty was abolished in 1981.


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