Et cependant, toute grandeur, toute puissance, toute subordination repose sur l'exécuteur: il est l'horreur et le lien de l'association humaine. Otez du monde cet agent incompréhensible; dans l'instant même l'ordre fait place au chaos, les trônes s'abîment, et la société disparait.
Joseph de Maistre.
What a sombre and striking figure in the deeply coloured background of history is the headsman, that passive agent of strange tyrannies, that masked executor of laws which were often but the expression of man's violence! He stands aloof from the brilliant web of life, yet, turn where we will, his shadow falls across the scene. In the little walled towns of mediæval Europe, in the splendid cities, in the broad lands held by feudal lord or stately monastery, wherever the struggle for freedom and power was sharpest and sternest, the headsman played his part. An unreasoning and richly imaginative fear wrapped him in a mantle of romance, as deeply stained as the scarlet cloak which was his badge of office. Banished from the cheerful society of men (de Maistre tells us that if other houses surrounded his abode, they were deserted, and left to crumble and decay), he enjoyed privileges that compensated him for his isolation. His tithes were exacted as ruthlessly as were those of prince or baron; and if his wife chattered little on summer days with friendly gossips, she was sought in secret after nightfall for hideous amulets that blessed—or cursed—the wearer. From father to son, from son to grandson, the right was handed down; and the young boy was taught to lift and swing the heavy sword, that his hand might be as sure as his eye, his muscles as hard as his heart.
Much of life's brilliant panorama was seen from the elevation of the scaffold in the days when men had no chance nor leisure to die lingeringly in their beds. They fell fighting, or by the assassin's hand, or by the help of what was then termed law; and the headsman, standing ever ready for his rôle, beheld human nature in its worst and noblest aspects, in moments of stern endurance and supreme emotion, of heroic ecstasy and blank despair. Had he a turn for the marvellous, it was gratified. He saw Saint Denis arise and carry his severed head from Montmartre to the site of the church which bears his name to-day. He saw Saint Felix and Saint Alban repeat the miracle. He heard Lucretia of Ancona pronounce the sacred name three times after decapitation. Ordericus Vitalis, that most engaging of historians, tells us the story of the fair Lucretia; and also of the Count de Galles, who asked upon the scaffold for time in which to say his Pater Noster. When he reached the words, Et ne nos inducas in tentationem, the headsman—all unworthy of his office—grew impatient, and brought down his shining sword. The Count's head rolled on the ground, but from his open lips came with terrible distinctness the final supplication, Sed libera nos a malo.
These were not trivial experiences. What a tale to tell o' nights was that of Théodoric Schawembourg, whose headless trunk arose and walked thirty paces from the block! Auberive, who has preserved this famous legend, embroiders it with so many fantastic details that the salient point of the narrative is well-nigh lost; but the dead and forgotten headsman beheld the deed in all its crude simplicity. Had he, on the other hand, a taste for experimental science, it was given him to watch the surgeons of Prague, who in 1679 replaced a severed head upon a young criminal's shoulders, and kept the lad alive for half an hour. Panurge, it will be remembered, was permanently successful in a similar operation; but Panurge was a man of genius. We should hardly expect to find his like among the doctors of Prague.
Strange and unreasonable laws guaranteed to the headsman his full share of emoluments. He was well paid for his work, and never suffered from a dull season. From the towns he received poultry and fodder, from the monasteries, fish and game. The Abbaye de Saint-Germain gave him every year a pig's head; the Abbaye de Saint-Martin five loaves of bread and five bottles of wine. Cakes were baked for him on the eve of Epiphany. From each leper in the community he exacted—Heaven knows why!—a tax at Christmas-time. Les filles de joie were his vassals, and paid him tribute. He had the power to save from death any woman on her way to the scaffold, provided he were able and willing to marry her. He was the first official summoned to the body of a suicide; and standing on the dead man's breast, he claimed as his own everything he could touch with the point of his long sword. He might, if he chose, arrest the little pigs that strayed in freedom through the streets of Paris,—like the happy Plantagenet pigs of London,—and carry them as prisoners to the Hotel Dieu. Here, unless it could be shown that they belonged to the monks of Saint Anthony, and so, for the sake of the good pig that loved the blessed hermit, were free from molestation, their captor demanded their heads, or a fine of five sous for every ransomed innocent. It was his privilege to snatch in the market-place as much corn as he could carry away in his hands, and the peasants thus freely robbed submitted without a murmur, crossing themselves with fervour as he passed. The representative of law and order was not unlike a licensed libertine in the easy day of old.
The element of picturesqueness entered into this life, sombre traditions enriched it, terror steeped it in gloom, the power for which it stood lent to it dignity and weight. In Spain the headsman wore a distinctive dress, and his house was painted a deep and ominous red. In France the ancient title "Exécuteur de la haute justice" had a full-blown majesty of sound. In Germany superstition grew like a fungus beneath the scaffold's shade, until even the sword was believed to be a sentient thing with strange powers of its own. Who can forget the story of the child Annerl, whose mother took her to the headsman's house, whereupon the great weapon stirred uneasily in its cupboard, thirsting for her blood. Then the headsman besought the mother to allow him to cut the little girl very lightly, that the sword might be appeased; but she shudderingly refused, and Annerl, abandoned to her destiny, was led thirty years later to the block. Executions at night were long in favour, and by the flare of torches the scaffold stood revealed to a great and gaping crowd. For centuries la place de Grève was the theatre for this ghastly drama, until every foot of the soil was saturated with blood. Only in 1633 were these torchlight decapitations forbidden throughout France. They had grown too turbulently entertaining.
The headsman's office was hereditary, and if there were no sons, a son-in-law succeeded to the post. Henri Sanson, the last of his dread name, claimed that he was of good blood, and that the far-off ancestor who handed down his sword to nine generations had been betrayed by love to this dark destiny. He had married a headsman's daughter, and could not escape the terrible dowry she brought him. It is not possible to attach much weight to the Sanson memoirs,—they are so plainly apocryphal; but we know that the family plied its craft for nearly two hundred years, and that one woman of the race bore seven sons, who all became executioners. In 1726 Charles Sanson died, leaving a little boy, Jean Baptiste, only seven years old. Upon him devolved his father's office; but, in view of his tender infancy, an assistant was appointed to do the work until he came of age. It was required, however, that the child should stand upon the scaffold at every execution, sanctioning it with his presence.
The pride of the headsman lay in his dexterity. The sword was heavy, the stroke was sure. Capeluche, who during the furious struggle between the Armagnacs and the Burgundians severed many a noble head, was a true enthusiast, practising his art con amore, and with incredible delicacy and skill. When the fortunes of war brought him in turn upon the scaffold, he proved no craven; but took a lively and intelligent interest in his own decapitation. His last moments were spent in giving a practical lesson to the executioner; showing him where to stand, where to place the block, and how best to handle his weapon.
The vast audience that assembled so often to witness a drama never staled by repetition was wont to be exceedingly critical. Bungling work drew down upon the headsman the execrations of the mob, and not infrequently placed his own life in danger. De Thou's head fell only at the eleventh stroke, the Duke of Monmouth was mangled piteously, and in both these instances the fury of the mob rose to murder point. It was ostensibly to save such sufferings and such scenes that the guillotine was adopted in France; but for the guillotine it is impossible to cherish any sentiment save abhorrence. Vile, vulgar, and brutalizing, its only merit was the hideous speed with which it did its work; a speed which the despots of the Terror never found fast enough. In October, 1792, twenty-one Girondists were beheaded in thirty-one minutes; but as practice made perfect, these figures were soon outdistanced. The highest record reached was sixty-two decapitations in forty-five minutes, which sounds like the work of the shambles.
Charles Henri Sanson, the presiding genius of the guillotine, has been lifted to notoriety by the torrents of blood he shed; but his is a contemptible figure, without any of the dark distinction that marked his predecessors. His pages of the family memoirs are probably mendacious, and certainly, as M. Loye pathetically laments, "insipid." He poses as a physiologist, and tells strange tales of the condemned who long survived beheading, as though sixty-two executions in forty-five minutes left leisure for the study of such phenomena. He also affects the tone of a philanthropist, commiserates the king who died by his hands, and is careful to assure us that it was an assistant named Legros who, holding up the severed head of Charlotte Corday, struck the fair cheek which blushed beneath the blow. We are even asked to believe that he, Sanson, whispered to Marie Antoinette as she descended from the cart, "Have courage, Madame!"—counsel of which that daughter of the Cæsars stood in little need.
The contrast is sharp between this business-like butchery, where the condemned were begrudged the time it took to die, and the earlier executions, so full of dignity and composure. The vilest criminals felt intuitively that the fulness of their atonement consecrated those last sad moments, and behaved often with unexpected propriety and grace. Mme. de Brinvilliers was a full half hour upon the scaffold. The headsman prepared her for death, untying her cap-strings, cutting off her hair, baring her shoulders, and binding her hands. She was composed without bravado, contrite without sanctimoniousness. "I doubt," wrote her confessor, the Abbé Piron, "whether in all her life she had ever been so patient under the hands of her maid." Some natural scorn she expressed at sight of the crowd straining with curiosity to see her die: "Un beau spectacle, Mesdames et Messieurs!"—but this was all. The executioner swept off her head with one swift stroke; then, hastily opening a flask, took a deep draught of wine. "That was a good blow," he said to the Abbé. "At these times I always recommend myself to God, and He has never failed me. This lady has been on my mind for a week past. I will have six Masses said for her soul." Surely such a headsman ennobled in some degree the direful post he bore.
If a murderess, inconceivably callous and cruel, could die with dignity, what of the countless scenes where innocence was sacrificed to ambition, and where the best and noblest blood of Europe was shed upon the block? What of the death of Conradin on a Neapolitan scaffold? In the thirteenth century, boys grew quickly into manhood, and Conradin was seventeen. He had embarked early upon that desperate game, of which the prize was a throne, and the forfeit, life. He had missed his throw, and earned his penalty. But he was the grandson of an emperor, the heir of an imperial crown, and the last of a proud race. There was a pathetic boyishness in the sudden defiance with which he hurled his glove into the throng, and in the low murmur of his mother's name. The headsman had a bitter part to play that day, for Conradin's death is one of the world's tragedies; but there are other scaffolds upon which we still glance back with a pity fresh enough for pain. When Count Egmont and Admiral Horn were beheaded in the great square of Brussels, the executioner wisely hid beneath the black draperies until it was time for him to do his work. He had no wish to parade himself as part of that sad show.
In England the rules of etiquette were never more binding than upon those who were about to be beheaded. When the Duke of Hamilton, the Earl of Holland, and Lord Capel went to the block together, they were told they must die in the order of their rank, as though they were going in to dinner; and upon Lord Capel's offering to address the crowd without removing his hat, it was explained to him that this was incorrect. The scaffold was not the House of Parliament, and those who graced it were expected to uncover. On a later and very memorable occasion, the Earl of Kilmarnock, "with a most just mixture of dignity and submission," offered the melancholy precedence to Lord Balmerino. That gallant soldier—"a natural, brave old gentleman," says Horace Walpole, though he was but fifty-eight—would have mounted first, but the headsman interfered. Even upon the scaffold, a belted earl enjoyed the privileges of his rank.
All this formality must have damped the spirits of the condemned; but it seems to have been borne with admirable gayety and good temper. Lord Balmerino, "decently unmoved," was ready to die first or last, and he gave the punctilious executioner three guineas, to prove that he was not impatient. "He looked quite unconcerned," says an eye-witness, "and like some one going on a party of pleasure, or upon some business of little or no importance." Lord Lovat, beheaded at eighty for his active share in the Jacobite rising of 'forty-five, derived much amusement from the vast concourse of people assembled to witness his execution;—an amusement agreeably intensified by the giving way of some scaffolding, which occasioned the unexpected death of several eager sight-seers. "The more mischief, the better sport," said the old lord grimly, and proceeded to quote Ovid and Horace with fine scholarly zest. If the executioner were seldom a person of education, it was from no lack of opportunity. He might, had he chosen, have learned at his post much law and more theology. When Archbishop Laud stood waiting by the block, Sir John Clotworthy conceived it to be a seasonable occasion for propounding some knotty points of doctrine. The prelate courteously answered one or two questions, but time pressed, and controversy had lost its charms. Even so good a churchman may be pardoned for turning wearily away from polemics, when his life's span had narrowed down to minutes, and the headsman waited by his side.
In the burial registry of Whitechapel, under the year 1649, is the following entry:—
"June 21st, Richard Brandon, a man out of Rosemary Lane. This Brandon is held to be the man who beheaded Charles the First."
"Held to be" only, for the mystery of the King's executioner was one which long excited and baffled curiosity. Wild whispers credited the deed to men of rank and station, among them Viscount Stair, the type of strategist to whom all manner of odium naturally and reasonably clings. A less distinguished candidate for the infamy was one William Hewlett, actually condemned to death after the Restoration for a part he never played, and saved from the gallows only by the urgent efforts of a few citizens who swore that Brandon did the deed. Brandon was not available for retribution. He had died in his bed, five months after Charles was beheaded, and had been hurried ignominiously into his grave in Whitechapel churchyard. As public executioner of London, he could hardly escape his destiny; but it is said that remorse and horror shortened his life. In his supposed "Confession," a tract widely circulated at the time, he claimed that he was "fetched out of bed by a troup of horse," and carried against his will to the scaffold. Also that he was paid thirty pounds, all in half-crowns, for the work; and had "an orange stuck full of cloves, and a handkerchief out of the King's pocket." The orange he sold for ten shillings in Rosemary Lane.
The shadow that falls across the headsman's path deepens in horror when we contemplate the scaffolds of Charles, of Louis, of Marie Antoinette, and of Mary Stuart. The hand that has shed royal blood is stained forever, yet the very magnitude of the offence lends to it a painful and terrible distinction. It is the zenith as well as the nadir of the headsman's history; it is the corner-stone of the impassable barrier which divides the axe and the sword from the hangman's noose, the death of Strafford from the death of Jonathan Wild.
If we turn the page, and look for a moment at the "gallows tree," we find that it has its romantic and its comic side, but the comedy is boisterous, the romance savours of melodrama. For centuries one of the recognized amusements of the English people was to see men hanged, and the leading features of the entertainment were modified from time to time to please a popular taste. Dr. Johnson, the sanest as well as the best man of his day, highly commended these public executions as "satisfactory to all parties. The public is gratified by a procession, the criminal is supported by it." That the enjoyment was often mutual, it is impossible to deny. There was a world of meaning in the gentle custom, supported for years by a very ancient benefaction, of giving a nosegay to the condemned man on his way to Tyburn. Before the cart climbed Holborn Hill,—"the heavy hill" as it was called, with a touch of poetry rivalling the "Bridge of Sighs,"—it stopped at Saint Sepulchre's church, and on the church steps stood one bearing in his hands the flowers that were to yield their fresh fragrance to the dying. Nor were the candidates without their modest pride. When the noted chimney-sweep, Sam Hall, achieved the honour of a hanging, he was rudely jostled, and bidden to stand off by a highwayman, stepping haughtily into the cart, and annoyed at finding himself in such low company. "Stand off, yourself!" was the indignant answer of the young sweep. "I have as good a right to be here as you have."
"Nothing," says Voltaire, "is so disagreeable as to be obscurely hanged," and the loneliness which in this moral age encompasses the felon's last hours should be as salutary as it is depressing. Mr. Housman, who gets closer to the plain thoughts of plain men than any poet of modern times, has given stern expression to the awful aloofness of the condemned criminal from his fellow creatures, an aloofness unknown in the cheerful, brutal days of old.
They hang us now in Shrewsbury jail:
The whistles blow forlorn,
And trains all night groan on the rail
To men who die at morn.
The sociability of Tyburn, if somewhat vehement in character, was a jocund thing by the side of such solitude as this.
Parish registers make curious reading. They tell so much in words so scant and bald that they set us wondering on our own accounts over the unknown details of tragedies which even in their day won no wide hearing, and which have been wholly forgotten for centuries. Mr. Lang quotes two entries that are briefly comprehensive; the first from the register of Saint Nicholas, Durham, August 8, 1592: "Simson, Arington, Featherston, Fenwick, and Lancaster, were hanged for being Egyptians."
Featherston and Fenwick might have been hanged on the evidence of their names, good gypsy names both of them, and famous for years in the dark annals of the race; but were these men guilty of no other crime, no indiscretion even, that has escaped recording? Five stalwart rogues might have served the queen in better fashion than by dangling idly on a gallows. The second entry, from the parish church of Richmond in Yorkshire, 1558, is still shorter, a model of conciseness: "Richard Snell b'rnt, bur. 9 Sept."
Was Snell a martyr, unglorified by Fox, or a particularly desperate sinner; and if a sinner, what was the nature of his sin? Warlocks were commonly hanged in the sixteenth century, even when their sister witches were burned. "C'est la loi de l'homme." In fact, burning was an unusual, and—save in Queen Mary's mind—an unpopular mode of punishment. "You are burnt for heresy," says Mr. Birrell with great good humour. "That is right enough. No one would complain of that. Hanging is a different matter. It is very easy to get hung; but to be burnt requires a combination of circumstances not always forthcoming."
Yet Richard Snell, yeoman of Yorkshire, mastered these circumstances; and a single line in a parish register is his meagre share of fame.