Gibbets, dismemberment and Dickens’ account of an execution

Interesting to read Michel Foucault’s ‘Discipline & Punish: The Birth of Prison’ which traces punishment through several centuries as it moved from being focused on the body to being more focused on the soul.

This passage stayed with me for a while:

Even as late as the eighteenth century as 1772, one finds sentences like the following: a servant girl at Cambrai, having killed her mistress, was condemned to be taken to the place of her execution in a cart ‘used to collect rubbish at the crossroads’; there a gibbet was to be set up ‘at the foot of which will be placed the same chair in which the said Laleu, her mistress, was sitting at the time of the murder; and having seated the criminal there, the executioner of the the High Court of Justice will cut off her right hand, throw it in her presence into the fire, and, immediately afterwards, will strike her four blows with the cleaver with which she murdered the said Laleu, the first and second being on the head, the third on the left forearm and the fourth on the chest; this done, she will be hung and strangled on the said gibbet until she be dead; and when two hours have elapsed her dead body will be removed and the head separated from it at the foot of the said gibbet on the said scaffold, with the same cleaver she used to murder her mistress, and the same head exhibited on a pole twenty feet high outside the gates of the said Cambrai, within reach of the road that leads to Douai, and the rest of the body put in a sack, and buried near the said pole at a depth of ten feet’.

Quite specific, isn’t it. I wonder if she’s still there.

The role of the public in executions was seen as important at the time – important that people see with their own eyes justice being done. ‘Because they must be made to be afraid; but also because they must be the witnesses, the guarantors, of the punishment, and because they must to a certain extent take part in it. The right to be witness was one that they possessed and claimed; a hidden execution was a privileged execution, and in such cases it was often suspected that it had not taken place with all its customary severity.’

The first time the guillotine was used the Chronique de Paris reported that people complained that they could not see anything and chanted, ‘Give us back our gallows.’

Execution of Louis XVI painting by Georg Heinrich Sieveking
Execution of Louis XVI – copperplate engraving 1793 by Georg Heinrich Sieveking || Public Domain: Author died more than 100 years ago

The passages above reminded me of an early piece of  journalism by Charles Dickens: a travel sketch he wrote  in 1845 after witnessing a man guillotined in Rome:

On one Saturday morning (the eight of March) a man was beheaded here. Nine or ten months before, he had way-laid a Bavarian Countess, travelling as a pilgrim to Rome – alone and on foot, of course – and performing, it is said, that act of piety for the fourth time.

He saw her change a piece of gold at Viterbo, where he lived; followed her; bore her company on her journey for some forty miles or more, on the treacherous pretext of protecting her; attacked her; in the fulfilment of his unrelenting purpose, on the Campagna, within a very short distance of Rome, near to what is called (but what is not), the Tomb of Nero; robbed her; and beat her to death with her own pilgrim’s staff.

He was newly married, and gave some of her apparel to his wife: saying that he had bought it at a fair. She, however, who had seen the pilgrim countess passing through their town, recognized some trifle as having belonged to her. Her husband then told her what he had done. She, in confession, told a priest; and the man was taken, within four days after the commission of the murder.

There are no fixed times for the administration of justice or its execution, in this unaccountable country; and he had been in prison ever since. On Friday, as he was dining with the other prisoners, they came and told him he was to be beheaded next morning, and took him away.

It is very unusual to execute in Lent; but his crime being a very bad one, it was deemed advisable to make an example of him at that time when great numbers of pilgrims were going towards Rome, from all parts, for the Holy Week. I heard of this on the Friday evening, and saw the bills up at the churches, calling on the people to pray for the criminal’s soul. So I determined to go, and see him executed.

The beheading was appointed for fourteen and a half o’clock Roman time: or a quarter before nine in the forenoon. I had two friends with me; and as we did not know but that the crowd might be very great, we were on the spot by half past seven.

The place of execution was near the church of San Giovanni Decollato (a doubtful compliment to John the Baptist) in one of the impassable back-streets without any footway, of which a great part of Rome is composed – a street of rotten houses, which do not seem to belong to anybody, and do not seem to have ever been inhabited, and certainly were never built on any plan, or for any particular purpose, and have no window-sashes, and are a little like deserted breweries, and might be warehouses but for having nothing in them.

Opposite to one of these, a white house, the scaffold was built. An untidy, unpainted, uncouth, crazy-looking thing of course; some seven feet high, perhaps: with a tall, gallows-shaped frame rising above it in which was the knife, charged with a ponderous mass of iron, all ready to descend, and glittering brightly in the morning sun, whenever it looked out, now and then, from behind a cloud.

There were not many people lingering about; and those were kept at a considerable distance from the scaffold, by parties of the Pope’s dragoons. Two or three hundred foot soldiers were under arms, standing at ease in clusters here and there; and the officers were walking up and down in twos and threes, chatting together and smoking cigars.

At the end of the street, was an open space, where there would be a dust heap, and piles of broken crockery, and mounds of vegetable refuse, but for such things being thrown anywhere and everywhere in Rome, and favouring no particular sort of locality.

We got into a kind of wash-house, belonging to a dwelling-house on this spot; and standing there in an old cart, and on a heap of cart-wheels piled against the wall, looked, through a large grated window, at the scaffold, and straight down the street beyond it, until, in consequence of its turning off abruptly to the left, our perspective was brought to a sudden termination, and had a corpulent officer, in a cocked hat, for its crowning feature.

Nine o’clock struck, and ten o’clock struck, and nothing happened. All the bells of all the churches rang as usual. A little parliament of dogs assembled in the open space, and chased each other in and out among the soldiers. Fierce looking Romans of the lowest class, in blue cloaks, russet cloaks and rags uncloaked, came and went, and talked together.

Women and children fluttered on the skirts of the scanty crowd. One large muddy spot was left quite bare, like a bald place on a man’s head. A cigar merchant, with an earthen pot of charcoal ashes in one hand, went up and down crying his wares.

A pastry-merchant divided his attention between the scaffold and his customers. Boys tried to climb up walls, and tumbled down again. Priests and monks elbowed a passage for themselves among the people, and stood on tiptoe for a sight of the knife, then went away.

Artists in inconceivable hats of the middle-ages, and beards (thank Heaven!) of no age at all, flashed picturesque scowls about them from their stations in the throng. One gentleman, connected with the fine arts, I presume, went up and down in a pair of Hessian-boots, with a red beard hanging down on his breast, and his long and bright red hair plaited into two tails, one on either side of his head, which fell over his shoulders in front of him, very nearly to his waist, and were carefully entwined and braided!

Eleven o’clock struck: and still nothing happened. A rumour got about amongst the crowd, that the criminal would not confess; in which case, the priest would keep him until the Ave Maria (sunset); for it is their merciful custom never finally to turn the crucifix away from a man at that pass, as one refusing to be shriven and consequently a sinner abandoned of the Saviour, until then.

People began to drop off. The officers shrugged their shoulders and looked doubtful. The dragoons, who came riding up below our window every now and then, to order an unlucky hackney-coach or cart away, as soon as it had comfortably established itself, and was covered with exulting people (but never before), became imperious and quick-tempered. The bald place hadn’t straggling hair upon it; and the corpulent officer, crowning the perspective, took a world of snuff.

Suddenly, there was a noise of trumpets. ‘Attention!’ was among the foot-soldiers instantly. They were marched up to the scaffold and formed around it. The dragoons galloped to their nearer station too. The guillotine became the centre of a wood of bristling bayonets and shining sabres.

The people closed round nearer, on the flank of the soldiery. A long, straggling stream of men and boys, who had accompanied the procession from the prison, came pouring into the open space. The bald spot was scarcely distinguishable from the rest. The cigar and pastry-merchants resigned all thoughts of business, for the moment, and abandoning themselves wholly to pleasure, got good situations in the crowd.

The perspective ended, now, in a troop of dragoons. And the corpulent officer, sword in hand, looked hard at a church close to him, which he could see, but we, the crowd could not.

After a short delay, some monks were seen approaching to the scaffold from this church and above their heads, coming on slowly and gloomily, the effigy of Christ upon the cross, canopied with black.

This was carried round the foot of the scaffold to the front, and turned towards the criminal, that he might see it to the last. It was hardly in its place, when he appeared on the platform, barefooted; his hands bound; and with the collar and neck of his shirt cut away, almost to the shoulder.

A young man – six and twenty – vigorously made, and well-shaped. Face pale; small dark moustache, and dark brown hair. He had refused to confess, it seemed, without first having his wife brought to see him; and they had sent an escort for her, which had occasioned the delay.

He immediately kneeled down below the knife. His neck was fitting into a hole, made for the purpose, in a cross plank, was shut down, by another plank above; exactly like the pillory. Immediately below him was a leathern bag. And into it his head rolled instantly.

The executioner was holding it by the hair, and walking with it round the scaffold, showing it to the people, before one quite knew that the knife had fallen heavily, and with a rattling sound.

When it had travelled round the four sides of the scaffold, it was set upon a pole in front, a little patch of black and white, for the long street to stare at, and the flies to settle on. The eyes were turned upward, as if he had avoided the sight of the leathern bag, and looked to the crucifix. Every tinge and hue of life had left it in that instant. It was dull, cold, livid, wax. The body also.

There was a great deal of blood. When we left the window, and went close up to the scaffold, it was very dirty; one of the two men who were throwing water over it, turning to help the other lift the body into a shell, picked his way as through mire. A strange appearance was the apparent annihilation of the neck.

The head was taken off so close that is seemed as if the knife had narrowly escaped crushing the jaw or shaving the ear; and the body looked as if there was nothing left above the shoulder.

Nobody cared, or was at all affected. There was no manifestation of disgust, or pity, or indignation, or sorrow. My empty pockets were tried, several times, in the crowd immediately below the scaffold, as the corpse was being put into its coffin.

It was an ugly, filthy, careless, sickening spectacle; meaning nothing but butchery beyond the momentary interest, to the one wretched actor. Yes! Such a sight had one meaning and one warning. Let me not forget it. The speculators in the lottery station themselves at favourable points for counting the gouts of blood that spurt out, here or there; and buy that number. It is pretty sure to have a run upon it.

The body was carted away in due time, the knife cleansed, the scaffold taken down, and all the hideous apparatus removed. The executioner: an outlaw ex officio (what a satire on the Punishment) who dare not, for his life, cross the Bridge of St Angelo but to do his work; retreated to his lair, and the show was over.