Robert Francois Damiens was 42 years-old when he died his gruesome death. They killed him on a cold blowy day in March, my birthday month: the 25th for my birthing and the 28th for his dying. The full horror of what they did to him has haunted me since I first read about it over forty years ago. The Place de Grieve, Paris 1757: I count back the years from my time to his, a total currently standing at 257. It isn’t very long when you think about it, and from 1955 when I was born it becomes a mere 198 years; a mere 172 before my mother was born in 1929; a mere 139 before my grandmother in 1896; and just 105 years before my great grandmother’s birth in 1862. And from that year the countdown resumes: only 77 years before her mother’s birth; the merest 43 before her grandmother entered the world, while for her great grandmother it’s …well, we are almost there, almost standing among the crowd in that windswept square on that fateful March morning.
You can see what I’m doing: I’m making it more real by connecting the threads that link me to the day; I’m destroying the myth that it’s all in the past, all long forgotten and can do us no harm. Think carefully, though, steep yourself in its details and the harm is there; it is real, a small-scale equivalent of the Holocaust and its death camps, and it hurts the soul like hell. Once read about and digested, your view of the world and its people, then or now, can never be the same. And there’s no getting away from the fact that it happened; that man’s inhumanity to man doesn’t get more grisly than this. Damiens’ execution was a low point, maybe the lowest point, of so-called civilised society; the powers that be lowered themselves to the nadir of judicial depravity because they wanted to; because, like the opposite of any mountain to be climbed, it was there to be sunk to. They did what they did to him because they could, because nobody was there to stop them.
The agenda for the day was well planned and the audience, who’d paid well for its seats, was not disappointed. Damiens didn’t let them down; he lingered for hours, for the whole duration. Man’s (and woman’s) taste for cruelty has no better example. It was a French affair, but not wholly. English sadists eagerly crossed the Channel, among them George Selwyn, who loved the spectacle of suffering, but whose daughter said was a kind and loving father! Be that is it may, he was one of them, those bewigged, knee-breeched and stockinged, three-cornered hatted men and their hooped-skirted women; living dolls male and female doing to another what no doll, and no human being, ever should do.
But what did they do to him? I hear you ask. No, why not rephrase that: what didn’t they do to him? I refuse to dwell on the details – the Gentleman’s Magazine for March 1757 will tell you everything you need to know. How – to paraphrase – the hand that had dared offend His Majesty was plunged into boiling pitch and sulphur. His flesh in his fleshiest parts was torn with red-hot pincers and boiling oil poured into the wounds. How next he was partially (how magnanimous of them!) broken upon the wheel till finally, hours later – he was dying to die by then but they wouldn’t let him – he was pulled apart by four horses flogged outwards in four different directions. The horses were in it for the long haul but they would need some help to rip him limb from limb.
‘Why not sever some tendons?’ Charles Henri Sanson, the 18- year-old assistant to his uncle the executioner suggested.
‘Good idea,’ said his uncle, pleased that his prodigy was learning fast, ‘but where best to make the incisions?’ A surgeon spectator told them. Soon (but not soon enough for Damiens) the victim was down to just an arm and a leg, and before long just his torso and they burnt what was left of him at the stake.
Suffice to say, then, that he was tortured to death over a period of several hours, alive still, the eyewitnesses said, till almost the last moment. Shock set in and his body shut-down, turned numb, leaving him to observe, somewhat detached, certainly dismembered, as they worked on him an inch at a time. They say he showed curiosity, fascination – ‘Is that really me? – really my body being dragged apart?’
And his crime? your next question is likely to be. Answer: to dare to wound (merely scratch) King Louis XV with a penknife in ‘a murderous attack’ that was never murderous in the first place. Damiens, humble domestic servant at the Jesuit college in Paris, a nobody who was easily led and even easier taken in, was hazy in his motives, something about the Jansenists, a heretic sect threatening Catholic dogma. I’m not sure he knew why himself, only that the king was somehow to blame and had to be eliminated.
But how they made him pay: not content with butchering him, they demolished his house, exiled his family and obliterated all record of his existence. It beggars belief who could construct such a menu and take it so far. Yet I can see them now, sitting round a table brainstorming while someone bullet-points their ideas on a flipchart:
‘How about if we did this to him…’
‘What about doing that to him…’
‘Great! And how about …’
Apparently the king was not in agreement. He didn’t want Damiens tortured (but he was tortured); didn’t want his death agonisingly prolonged (it was); and when he heard it was so (or so it’s said) he fell into a deep depression. His courtiers had got their way, an example must be made and justice – if we can call it that – seen to be done. Yet how did they live with themselves, these men and women of the French Enlightenment? Did they think their Catholic God would approve and applaud? Perhaps they salved their consciences by reflecting on what the culprit had done – dared to strike the inviolable royal person, the royal We. They’d convinced themselves the king was special, that for crimes against his person nothing was too cruel. Casanova tells us how it was. Characteristically touching up the women’s breasts while it all transpired, he had this to say before discreetly spewing into his kerchief:
We had the courage to watch the dreadful sight for four hours … Damiens was a fanatic, who, with the idea of doing a good work and obtaining a heavenly reward, had tried to assassinate Louis XV; and though the attempt was a failure, and he only gave the king a slight wound, he was torn to pieces as if his crime had been consummated. … I was several times obliged to turn away my face and to stop my ears as I heard his piercing shrieks, half of his body having been torn from him, but the Lambertini and Mme XXX did not budge an inch. Was it because their hearts were hardened? They told me, and I pretended to believe them, that their horror at the wretch’s wickedness prevented them feeling that compassion which his unheard-of torments should have excited.
Interesting? I think so, mainly in what it tells us about the women enjoying the spectacle (other accounts have them wagering on how far the blood would spurt when the executioner made his next cut) and what it says about women generally, not just men.
So where does it leave us? Morbid, but not, I hope, wallowing. My writer’s eye, like John Eagle’s conscience, darts from place to place – Damiens in his cell in the days before – and then the night before – his execution. Why didn’t he try to end it beforehand, surely something sharp was to be had? Or maybe not, maybe they’d chained him, heavy-duty swaddled him so they could kill him in the way they’d chosen. OK, that’s probably how it was, but did he find it in him to sleep, and if he slept did he manage to dream? Were his dreams of past freedoms? – of future freedoms after death? Did he dream that it all been a dream, a nightmare about a nightmare? And what about next morning when he woke to find it all so horribly true? Was he hungry? Did he eat breakfast knowing what lay in store for him? Did the food stick in his throat? And when he knew they were coming for him and he had to get ready, when he uttered his heartbreakingly ironic remark that the ‘day will be hard,’ did he think about what to wear? Was he worried about his modesty if he ended up naked on the block? And what did he think about while they tortured him? Did he look at the sky and wonder if God was looking down? Did he try to focus on faces in the crowd, searching for one that held any vestige of pity? And what did his poor mother, his poor wife and his poor daughter think when they learned of his fate? They may have known that he was (probably) mentally unstable, but did they believe he felt less pain? Surely his screams of Sweet Jesus! and Jesus Maria! are contrary proof?
Before I finish, the psychology of executioners comes to mind, particularly these executioners. Asked by an eye-witness whether he could bear to do what he did the elder Sanson replied, ‘If they can bear it …’ – his employers – ‘ …then so can I.’ Significantly, though, he resigned his post shortly afterwards and was replaced by his nephew Charles Henri, who would rather have had a different career but family pressure ruled otherwise. He too, the story goes, found the work distasteful at first (and what a hell-fire baptism he’d had that day!) but case-hardened himself in the future and notched up over two thousand victims before his retirement in 1795.
I sometimes think of Damiens now. Has heaven put him back together again after some of the king’s horses and some of the king’s men had torn him apart? I doubt it, though perhaps there was justice of sorts in that his execution, as John Eagle tells us, was still being talked about in France in 1789; it was symptomatic, quoth blood-drinking sans-culottes out for revenge, of the cruel injustices of the hateful ancien regime. It’s sobering too how Dickens approaches the subject in A Tale of Two Cities. We get the heartless endeavours of the French nobility, the downtrodden lives of the peasants, but when the peasants get the whip hand and take their terrible revenge, our allegiances switch to their former oppressors – a classic case of two wrongs don’t make a right.