4.2.11

The Sanson family - Montmartre Cemetery

I have been a little bit too busy these last days, so here is another post about the Montmartre Cemetery, from which I still have some photos in reserve, including of another cat.

This is about a family grave which is difficult to combine with other tombs, so it’s about one single, fairly modest grave where are buried three members of the executioner family Sanson, including maybe the two most famous ones, Charles-Henri Sanson (1739-1806) and his son Henri Sanson (1767-1840), who respectively performed the execution of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. The grandson of Charles-Henri, Henri-Clement Sanson (1799-89), who was the last of the family to hold this profession, has also his place here.
Totally seven generations of the Samson family held this official function, from 1688 to 1847, so Charles-Henri was number four. Other executioners were of course active during this period, but the Sanson family held the originally Royal rights and was active in Paris. (Many other executioners including other Sanson family members worked in the province).

Charles-Henri had of course the “privilege” to be active during the Revolutionary years, which made him responsible for some 4000 executions including of Louis XVI, Danton, Robespierre… until his son took over.

Charles-Henri was also heavily involved in the development of the guillotine; such an instrument became necessary with the need for more “efficiency”. The Revolution gave also the “right” to non-nobles to be decapitated rather than being hanged, burnt, torn to pieces…. To be honest, there seems also to have been some wishes to make the executions more “human”. There was a close collaboration between J.P. Guillotin, who gave the name to the new instrument and some others, including Charles-Henri and a friend of his, an instrument maker, who finally produced the first guillotine. It is said that Louis XVI who were presented the plans, proposed some improvement to the blade, to make it oblique.

Different sources give a doubt whether Charles-Henri or his son, Henri, executed Marie-Antoinette, but the most probable is that the son was the one. Charles-Henri was still present, but let his son, who officially took over the official title two years later, in 1795, do it.

Despite all, there are some sources which indicate that both Charles-Henri and Henri had a human behavior and tried to make their job as decently as possible. One anecdote tells that Marie-Antoinette walked on the foot of Henri, excused herself and that he then replied that he was the one to be excused.

The last executioner member of the family, Henri-Clement Sanson, who took over in 1840 and was active for only seven years had less to do; only 18 executions. He "improved" and published his grandfather’s memoires, which are still on the market (if you are interested).

Here are some illustrations from the executions of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette and the famous drawing by David of Marie-Antoinette on her last trip.
I have already made some posts about the guillotine in previous posts, trying to retrace its "Paris history" until the death penalty was at last – and fortunately – abolished in 1981.

Here is where you can find the Sanson grave.

31 comments:

Cynthia said...

A very interesting post! I find the Sanson story fascinating, I've meant to read a book on that family but I haven't done it yet :(

Karen said...

The cat seems to take his job very seriously.
Another entertaining and enlightening post. Thanks, Peter.

Ninja said...

I really enjoyed this essay because I am interested in Marie-Antoinette and her life.

Virginia said...

Peter,
This chat is very familiar! Your posts of this cemetery are a treasure. Most of us breeze through and we depend n you to give us the wonderful details. Merci!
Bon weekend,
V

Studio at the Farm said...

Peter, I have exhausted my source of ways to describe your most interesting and fascinating posts. I will only say "thank you".

Owen said...

Not any relation to Veronique Sanson, who was married to Stephen Stills (of Crosby Stills Nash & Young fame) ?

One must wonder whether their conscience bothered them at all, or if they rationalized their work away... And were they well paid for the time ?

Seems like Montmartre cemetery is an endless mine of fascinating history.

Will have to publish some photos from there from last summer... a cat or two as well...

Genie -- Paris and Beyond said...

Is there some reason that cats are usually found around cemeteries. Recoletto in Buenos Aires has many as have others I have visited. I have only seen a few at PL.

I have marked your post along with the others as you have a treasure of information on this cemetery.

Bises et bon weekend,
Genie

Dianne said...

Such a contented cat - I love these posts Peter - just a wealth of history - Many thanks I really appreciate them

ALAIN said...

Un sujet bien grave, et toujours polémique.

hpy said...

Autres temps, autres moeurs, il n'y a que les chats qui restent les mêmes.

claude said...

Entre Charles-Henri père et Charles-Henri fils, de qui des deux à guillotinés le roi et la reine, y a où y perdre la tête !
Ce devait être un métier en vogue au moment de la révolution où dans de têtes sont tombées.
Le chat a une bonne tête lui !
Je n'ai pas l'air d'être séieuse, mais j'ai tout bien lu Peter et c'est très intéressant.

Delphinium said...

EHHHHHHH tu as pris en photo le chat de mes parents!!!! Je ne savais pas que notre Sikkim avait pris le TGV pour arriver à Paris.

Cergie said...

Je ne sais pas si tu as parlé déjà de la superstition bien ancrée du pain qu'il ne faut jamais retourner sur la table et qui tiendrait au pain du bourreau qui était retourné pour ne pas le confondre...

Bettina said...

Yeah, another cute cemetery cat ;o)

What an interesting "lesson" today about The Sansons.

arabesque said...

hi peter, glad you can still post something informative despite being busy. ^0^
a nice post about the Sansons.

caterpillar said...

That's one serious looking cat...
And somehow I feel bad for the executioner family...must have been pretty hard for them...

Anai Le said...

¿Luis XVI inventó el concepto "tuning car"?
:)

Catherine said...

I have thoroughly enjoyed all your Montmartre Cemetery posts - thanks

MadAboutParis said...

That cat is the reincarnation of my pet, Burgess!
I have the exact same questions as Owen...did they make a good living and where did they live?
So glad to know others who are "mad about cemeteries"...bon weekend!

Starman said...

One wonders what kind of person would become an executioner? And for it to be the family business...incredible.

Cezar and Léia said...

The cat is adorable!
Impossible not enjoy your posts, wonderful work!
Léia

Marie said...

Très intéressant ce blog qui nous ramène à notre histoire, toujours intéressante, souvent tragique.

V Rakesh said...

Wow, that certainly is a very well fed cat!

And an interesting piece of history detailed!

Thanks for sharing!

Cynthia Schelzig said...

I just found your blog. You take such wonderful photgraphs and give a history lesson at the same time.
I am really enjoying it...all the cats too...like in the ruins in Rome..tons of them running around too.

ParisBreakfasts said...

Did you ever consider becoming a cat portraitist?
It's not too late!

Nefertiti said...

j adore ces photos de chats ils sont magnifiques !

oldmanlincoln said...

From things I have seen about this kind of killing, it was popular and great crowds would gather to witness it.

Hanging was that way over here in the states for decades. People who take baskets filled with food and go eat like a picnic while watching the person being hanged.

I think the cat is gorgeous.

Jeanie said...

What a fascinating and enlightening post. I've never really thought about what it might be like to be an executioner -- this is your job and that of your family before and after.

Again I am enchanted by your series of cemetery cats (though I must say the one with a wee bit of its tongue showing might be my favorite!)

I begin my first French class on Tuesday night. I am hoping when I come to Paris again, if we meet, we might be able to speak a word or two!

joanny said...

Peter:

It astounds me our human history, in cruelty to one another, and actually making a living at it. The mob rule...

The cat is lovely.

joanny

Maria O. Russell said...

From Andre Castelot's book Queen of France...
The clerk had just uttered the
word "Republic," which ended the decree, when, followed by Nappier, the usher to the Tribunal, a young man entered: the executioner.
He was Henri Sanson, son of the executioner who had guillotined Louis XVI and who since 21 January no longer exercized his duties. He came forward, seeming to fill the cell with his "enormous size."
"Hold out your hands."
The Queen recoiled two steps and asked in a frightened voice: "Are my hands to be bound?"
The executioner bowed his head. She exclaimed: "Louis XVI's hands were not bound!"
Sanson turned towards Hermann, who ordered: "Do your duty."
"Oh, my God!" cried the condemned woman, "all bewildered."
"At these words," Lariviere recounted, "Henri brutally seized the poor Queen's hands and bounded them too tightly behind her back. I saw that the Princess sighed, raising her eyes to heaven, but she held back her tears, which were ready to flow."
Then Sanson, who towered over Marie Antoinette, suddenly took off the bonnet she had arranged so carefully a short while before, and with a large pair of scissors cut off the wonderful hair which had gone white, but in which ash-blonde lights could still be seen.
The Queen thought she was to be executed there with an axe and she turned round, her eyes terrified. She saw the executioner putting in his pocket the hair, which was shortly to be burned. With his large hands he replaced the bonnet on the top of the Queen's head. Irregularly cut locks surrounded the freed neck.
It was nearly eleven o'clock.
The bystanders moved away from the door. In silence Marie Antoinette left the cell, followed by the executioner holding the ends of the rope, which pulled at her elbows...Sorry this is so long. Thank you, Peter.

Emma Sanson said...

Very interesting. I really like reading about the Sanson´s, the problem is that I can´t find a line descending from Clémet Sanson. It would be interesting to know if we are actually related.