Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Two regicides

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Some months ago, an aspirant to martyrdom “pro aris et focis” was extinguished by a Prussian tribunal in a simple but most effectual manner. An ignominious sentence divested his antecedents of every spark of romance, blighted his hopes of immortality, stripped him of all claim to sympathy, and degraded him to the status of a common malefactor.

A century has elapsed since Damiens sought a niche in the Temple of Fame by similar means. It is curious to note the different treatment of the two criminals, and the different sentiments their memory consequently evokes. They were both guilty of the same crime—both had raised a sacrilegious hand against one of those who, “by the grace of God,” rule over this earth; but the historian will contemptuously record the name of Oscar Becker as that of a cowardly assassin, whilst he will overlook the heinous nature of Damiens’ offence in detestation of his cruel judges.

“Whenever,” says an eminent historian, “the offence inspires less horror than the punishment, the rigor of penal law should give way to the common feelings of mankind.” The Supreme Court of Berlin has practically acknowledged the truth of this aphorism; but it would seem that the French legal luminaries of the eighteenth century held a different opinion. The sentence they passed upon Damiens, for conspiring to assassinate Louis the Fifteenth, was—death by torture.

In order to carry it out the more effectually, learned physicians held long and frequent consultations as to the amount of agony, and the kind of agony the human frame could longest support before death released it from suffering. Grave dissertations were published on the subject. Public executioners compared notes with the learned, the former contributing their experience—the latter, scientific theories. It was at length determined to begin with the torture of the boot.

The decision of this sanguinary Areopagus was promptly acted upon. At twelve o’clock on the ensuing night the criminal was conducted to the torture-chamber of the Bastille, and the first act of the bloody drama began. Those gloomy walls that had looked down upon so many dark deeds, never witnessed a sadder scene of human suffering. The dim light of an iron lamp, suspended from the vaulted roof, fell upon the stalwart forms of the executioners, and a dark group of bronze-visaged men who silently watched their proceedings. Wedge after wedge was driven in with a sickening crash of human flesh and bone. The perspiration poured from the brows of the executioners as the dull blow of their sledge-hammers echoed through the dungeon, but not a sigh escaped the lips of the tortured wretch. At length the physician, who stood by with a hand on his fainting pulse, signed to them to pause. Nature could bear no more. The pale morning light, struggling through the grated windows, fell on a mangled but still breathing mass of humanity.

Weeks rolled on, and under the sedulous care of physicians and nurses Damiens gradually regained his strength. The time approached for the completion of the sentence.

It was a cold, bleak morning in February. Snow had fallen during the night and still covered the Place de Grève; but, nevertheless, every available spot was occupied. The Faubourg St. Antoine had disgorged its sans-culottic population. A sea of human heads surged to and fro in unwieldy mass,—clinging to chimneys, clustered on the trees, hanging on the roofs, they formed a brutal assemblage—fit spectators of a brutal drama. But in the balconies and windows overlooking the “Place” were hundreds of high-born ladies, many of them youthful and beautiful. They smiled and coquetted with their cavaliers, diamonds sparkled, and plumes waved in the winter wind. They were come to enjoy a new sensation, and to evince their loyal devotion to an outraged king. Some of the prices paid for places were fabulous. For days previous to the execution nothing else was talked of in the good city of Paris.

A scaffold, erected at the north eastern extremity of the “Place,” rose in stern black lines above the shifty multitude. In the centre was a chair firmly fixed to the boards, and at one end a large stove. Iron vessels containing resin, pitch, oil, wax, sulphur and lead bubbled and boiled on the furnace, whilst the flames cast a lurid glow on the cruel, swarthy countenances of the executioners as they completed the preparations, or watched over the seething caldrons.

The hoarse murmur of the crowd was now suddenly hushed. A general movement and flutter pervaded the fair occupants of the windows and balconies. Damiens appeared, slowly mounting the steps of the scaffold.

The executioners spent some minutes in firmly binding him to the chair, from the back of which extended a horizontal piece of wood about two feet in length. To this his right arm was securely strapped, his hand protruding just beyond it. Executioner No. 1 now advanced, and held under it a brazier filled with sulphur. A horrible cry burst from the wretched man, a cry that seemed to issue from his very vitals, and that for months afterwards rang in the ears of the spectators. The ladies shuddered: some nearly fainted, and retired a little way from the windows. Soon they returned, refreshing themselves with their smelling-bottles, and levelled their glasses once more at the scaffold. There was no fire visible. The sun had just burst through the clouds, and effaced the pale flame, in which his hand was slowly and invisibly burning. But a nameless stench filled the air, and a thick fetid smoke rose over the scaffold, gradually spreading itself out, and hanging like a pall over criminal and spectators, as if it would shut out the pitying heavens from this scene of cruelty.

Damiens cried out no more. He sat quietly looking at the blackened bones fast withering in the flame.

Meanwhile the horrible caldrons were bubbling and hissing, and the pincers of the Provost’s Court of Paris were heating in the furnace. The worst was yet to come. A gigantic executioner now advanced and tore the criminal’s flesh with the red-hot irons in six different places. His assistants followed carrying spoonsful of resin, oil, lead, pitch, sulphur and wax, which they poured into the gaping incisions. Soon the breast, the arms, the thighs were one awful wound. All this time Faubourg St. Antoine and Faubourg St. Germain looked on alike unsated; and the high-born dames of Louis the Fifteenth’s court smiled and chatted with their cavaliers, and looked and shrank back, and looked again.

All was not yet over. Damiens still breathed, still suffered, and occasionally cried out. Four horses were now led forward. The noble animals were almost ungovernable. All the morning they had struggled to escape from this dreadful spot; from the cries and groans, the thick smoke and sickening smell that filled the air. It was their turn now to take the place of the executioner, who could not find a fresh spot on the victim’s body to torment.

Damiens was carried down the steps of the scaffold; the horses were backed towards him as he lay on the ground, and the nimble executioners made fast the traces. The grooms loosed their heads, and with a terrified snort, they sprang forwards. But human thews and sinews were too strong for them. They were thrown on their haunches, and with a dull, heavy thud, the body struck the ground. Again and again they started. Urged on by blows and shouts, they pulled, and pulled in vain. A quarter of an hour passed away. Damiens still lived—still breathed. At intervals he even raised his head, and looked at the animals.

“Oh! those poor horses!” exclaimed Mademoiselle de Priandeau, the young and beautiful niece of the Financier Bouret.

Evening was approaching. The commissioners appointed to preside over the execution were embarrassed. It was necessary to carry it out according to the strict letter of the sentence, which directed the criminal to be quartered. The crowd, too, was waxing indignant, and clamorously demanded the coup-de-grace. They consulted together, and at length ordered the muscles and tendons of the legs and arms to be severed. Once more the horses plunged wildly forward—and this time all was over.

One of Bentham’s discoveries in morals was that the pleasures of malignity were only to be branded as evil because they were less than the pain given in indulging them. In like manner all infliction of punishment which gave more pain than it prevented from being given, was, in Benthamite philosophy, to be regarded as leaving a balance of evil. Without going so far as this, it is still indisputable, that the great end of all punishment, viz., prevention, is never attained by excessive severity. On the contrary, the very notoriety which such punishment obtains, exercises an extraordinary morbid influence over some minds, and actually incites them to incur the same penalty. The excesses of the French Revolution were the result of such scenes as those here described. The thirst for blood that courtly lords and ladies nurtured in the populace, required ere long to be slaked with theirs, and exacted a terrible retribution.