Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

EXECUTION.

§ I.

Yes, we here repeat the observation, a man that is hanged is good for nothing; although some executioner, as much addicted to quackery as cruelty, may have persuaded the wretched simpletons in his neighborhood that the fat of a person hanged is a cure for the epilepsy.

Cardinal Richelieu, when going to Lyons to enjoy the spectacle of the execution of Cinq-Mars and de Thou, was informed that the executioner had broken his leg. “What a dreadful thing it is,” says he to the chancellor Séguier, “we have no executioner!” I certainly admit that it must have been a terrible disaster. It was a jewel wanting in his crown. At last, however, an old worthy was found, who, after twelve strokes of the sabre, brought low the head of the innocent and philosophic de Thou. What necessity required this death? What good could be derived from the judicial assassination of Marshal de Marillac?

I will go farther. If Maximilian, duke of Sully, had not compelled that admirable King Henry IV. to yield to the execution of Marshal Biron, who was covered with wounds which had been received in his service, perhaps Henry would never have suffered assassination himself; perhaps that act of clemency, judiciously interposed after condemnation, would have soothed the still raging spirit of the league; perhaps the outcry would not then have been incessantly thundered into the ears of the populace — the king always protects heretics, the king treats good Catholics shamefully, the king is a miser, the king is an old debauchée, who, at the age of fifty-seven fell in love with the young princess of Condé, and forced her husband to fly the kingdom with her. All these embers of universal discontent would probably not have been alone sufficient to inflame the brain of the fanatical Feuillant, Ravaillac.

With respect to what is ordinarily called justice, that is, the practice of killing a man because he has stolen a crown from his master; or burning him, as was the case with Simon Morin, for having said that he had had conferences with the Holy Spirit; and as was the case also with a mad old Jesuit of the name of Malagrida, for having printed certain conversations which the holy virgin held with St. Anne, her mother, while in the womb — this practice, it must be acknowledged, is neither conformable to humanity or reason, and cannot possibly be of the least utility.

We have already inquired what advantage could ensue to the state from the execution of that poor man known under the name of the madman; who, while at supper with some monks, uttered certain nonsensical words, and who, instead of being purged and bled, was delivered over to the gallows?

We further ask, whether it was absolutely necessary that another madman, who was in the bodyguards, and who gave himself some slight cuts with a hanger, like many other impostors, to obtain remuneration, should be also hanged by the sentence of the parliament? Was this a crime of such great enormity? Would there have been any imminent danger to society in saving the life of this man?

What necessity could there be that La Barre should have his hand chopped off and his tongue cut out, that he should be put to the question ordinary and extraordinary, and be burned alive? Such was the sentence pronounced by the Solons and Lycurguses of Abbeville! What had he done? Had he assassinated his father and mother? Had people reason to apprehend that he would burn down the city? He was accused of want of reverence in some secret circumstances, which the sentence itself does not specify. He had, it was said, sung an old song, of which no one could give an account; and had seen a procession of capuchins pass at a distance without saluting it.

It certainly appears as if some people took great delight in what Boileau calls murdering their neighbor in due form and ceremony, and inflicting on him unutterable torments. These people live in the forty-ninth degree of latitude, which is precisely the position of the Iroquois. Let us hope that they may, some time or other, become civilized.

Among this nation of barbarians, there are always to be found two or three thousand persons of great kindness and amiability, possessed of correct taste, and constituting excellent society. These will, at length, polish the others.

I should like to ask those who are so fond of erecting gibbets, piles, and scaffolds, and pouring leaden balls through the human brain, whether they are always laboring under the horrors of famine, and whether they kill their fellow-creatures from any apprehension that there are more of them than can be maintained?

I was once perfectly horror-struck at seeing a list of deserters made out for the short period merely of eight years. They amounted to sixty thousand. Here were sixty thousand co-patriots, who were to be shot through the head at the beat of drum; and with whom, if well maintained and ably commanded, a whole province might have been added to the kingdom.

I would also ask some of these subaltern Dracos, whether there are no such things wanted in their country as highways or crossways, whether there are no uncultivated lands to be broken up, and whether men who are hanged or shot can be of any service?

I will not address them on the score of humanity, but of utility: unfortunately, they will often attend to neither; and, although M. Beccaria met with the applauses of Europe for having proved that punishments ought only to be proportioned to crimes, the Iroquois soon found out an advocate, paid by a priest, who maintained that to torture, hang, rack, and burn in all cases whatsoever, was decidedly the best way.

§ II.

But it is England which, more than any other country, has been distinguished for the stern delight of slaughtering men with the pretended sword of the law. Without mentioning the immense number of princes of the blood, peers of the realm, and eminent citizens, who have perished by a public death on the scaffold, it is sufficient to call to mind the execution of Queen Anne Boleyn, Queen Catherine Howard, Lady Jane Grey, Queen Mary Stuart, and King Charles I., in order to justify the sarcasm which has been frequently applied, that the history of England ought to be written by the executioner.

Next to that island, it is alleged that France is the country in which capital punishments have been most common. I shall say nothing of that of Queen Brunehaut, for I do not believe it. I pass by innumerable scaffolds, and stop before that of Count Montecuculi, who was cut into quarters in the presence of Francis I. and his whole court, because Francis, the dauphin, had died of pleurisy.

That event occurred in 1536. Charles V., victorious on all the coasts of Europe and Africa, was then ravaging both Provence and Picardy. During that campaign which commenced advantageously for him, the young dauphin, eighteen years of age, becomes heated at a game of tennis, in the small city of Tournon. When in high perspiration he drinks iced water, and in the course of five days dies of the pleurisy. The whole court and all France exclaim that the Emperor Charles V. had caused the dauphin of France to be poisoned. This accusation, equally horrible and absurd, has been repeated from time to time down to the present. Malherbe, in one of his odes, speaks of Francis, whom Castile, unequal to cope with in arms, bereaved of his son.

We will not stop to examine whether the emperor was unequal to the arms of Francis I., because he left Provence after having completely sacked it, nor whether to poison a dauphin is to steal him; but these bad lines decidedly show that the poisoning of the dauphin Francis by Charles V. was received throughout France as an indisputable truth.

Daniel does not exculpate the emperor. Hénault, in his “Chronological Summary,” says: “Francis, the dauphin, poisoned.” It is thus that all writers copy from one another. At length the author of the “History of Francis I.” ventures, like myself, to investigate the fact.

It is certain that Count Montecuculi, who was in the service of the dauphin, was condemned by certain commissioners to be quartered, as guilty of having poisoned that prince.

Historians say that this Montecuculi was his cupbearer. The dauphins have no such officer: but I will admit that they had. How could that gentleman, just at the instant, have mixed up poison in a glass of fresh water? Did he always carry poison in his pocket, ready whenever his master might call for drink? He was not the only person present with the dauphin, who was, it appears, wiped and rubbed dry by some of his attendants after the game of tennis was finished. The surgeons who opened the body declared, it is said, that the prince had taken arsenic. Had the prince done so, he must have felt intolerable pains about his throat, the water would have been colored, and the case would not have been treated as one of pleurisy. The surgeons were ignorant pretenders, who said just what they were desired to say; a fact which happens every day.

What interest could this officer have in destroying his master? Who was more likely to advance his fortune? But, it is said, it was intended also to poison the king. Here is a new difficulty and a new improbability.

Who was to compensate him for this double crime? Charles V., it is replied — another improbability equally strong. Why begin with a youth only eighteen years and a half old, and who, moreover, had two brothers? How was the king to be got at? Montecuculi did not wait at his table.

Charles V. had nothing to gain by taking away the life of the young dauphin, who had never drawn a sword, and who certainly would have had powerful avengers. It would have been a crime at once base and useless. He did not fear the father, we are to believe, the bravest knight of the French court; yet he was afraid of the son, who had scarcely reached beyond the age of childhood!

But, we are informed, this Montecuculi, on the occasion of a journey to Ferrara, his own country, was presented to the emperor, and that that monarch asked him numerous questions relating to the magnificence of the king’s table and the economy of his household. This certainly is decisive evidence that the Italian was engaged by Charles V. to poison the royal family!

Oh! but it was not the emperor himself who urged him to commit this crime: he was impelled to it by Anthony de Leva and the Marquis di Gonzaga. Yes, truly, Anthony de Leva, eighty years of age, and one of the most virtuous knights in Europe! and this noble veteran, moreover, was indiscreet enough to propose executing this scheme of poisoning in conjunction with a prince of Gonzaga. Others mention the Marquis del Vasto, whom we call du Gast. Contemptible impostors! Be at least agreed among yourselves. You say that Montecuculi confessed the fact before his judges. Have you seen the original documents connected with the trial?

You state that the unfortunate man was a chemist. These then are your only proofs, your only reasons, for subjecting him to the most dreadful of executions: he was an Italian, he was a chemist, and Charles V. was hated. His glory then provoked indeed a base revenge. Good God! Your court orders a man of rank to be cut into quarters upon bare suspicion, in the vain hope of disgracing that powerful emperor.

Some time afterwards your suspicions, always light and volatile, charge this poisoning upon Catherine de Medici, wife of Henry II., then dauphin and subsequently king of France. You say that, in order to reign, she destroyed by poison the first dauphin, who stood between her husband and the throne. Miserable impostors! Once again, I say, be consistent! Catherine de Medici was at that time only seventeen years of age.

It has been said that Charles V. himself imputed this murder to Catherine, and the historian Pera is quoted to prove it. This however, is an error. These are the historian’s words:

“This year the dauphin of France died at Paris with decided indications of poison. His friends ascribed it to the orders of the Marquis del Vasto and Anthony de Leva, which led to the execution of Count Montecuculi, who was in the habit of corresponding with them: base and absurd suspicion of men so highly honorable, as by destroying the dauphin little or nothing could be gained. He was not yet known by his valor any more than his brothers, who were next in the succession to him.

“To one presumption succeeded another. It was pretended that this murder was committed by order of the duke of Orleans, his brother, at the instigation of his wife, Catherine de Medici, who was ambitious of being a queen, which, in fact, she eventually was. It is well remarked by a certain author, that the dreadful death of the duke of Orleans, afterwards Henry II., was the punishment of heaven upon him for poisoning his brother — at least, if he really did poison him — a practice too common among princes, by which they free themselves at little cost from stumbling-blocks in their career, but frequently and manifestly punished by God.”

Signor di Pera, we instantly perceive, is not an absolute Tacitus; besides, he takes Montecuculi, or Montecuculo, as he calls him, for a Frenchman. He says the dauphin died at Paris, whereas it was at Tournon. He speaks of decided indications of poison from public rumor; but it is clear that he attributes the accusation of Catherine de Medici only to the French. This charge is equally unjust and extravagant with that against Montecuculi.

In fact, this volatile temperament, so characteristic of the French, has in every period of our history led to the most tragical catastrophes. If we go back from the iniquitous execution of Montecuculi to that of the Knights Templars, we shall see a series of the most atrocious punishments, founded upon the most frivolous presumptions. Rivers of blood have flowed in France in consequence of the thoughtless character and precipitate judgment of the French people.

We may just notice the wretched pleasure that some men, and particularly those of weak minds, secretly enjoy in talking or writing of public executions, like that they derive from the subject of miracles and sorceries. In Calmet’s “Dictionary of the Bible” you may find a number of fine engravings of the punishments in use among the Hebrews. These prints are absolutely sufficient to strike every person of feeling with horror. We will take this opportunity to observe that neither the Jews nor any other people ever thought of fixing persons to the cross by nails; and that there is not even a single instance of it. It is the fiction of some painter, built upon an opinion completely erroneous.

§ III.

Ye sages who are scattered over the world — for some sages there are — join the philosophic Beccaria, and proclaim with all your strength that punishments ought to be proportioned to crimes:

That after shooting through the head a young man of the age of twenty, who has spent six months with his father and mother or his mistress, instead of rejoining his regiment, he can no longer be of any service to his country:

That if you hang on the public gallows the servant girl who stole a dozen napkins from her mistress, she will be unable to add to the number of your citizens a dozen children, whom you may be considered as strangling in embryo with their parent; that there is no proportion between a dozen napkins and human life; and, finally, that you really encourage domestic theft, because no master will be so cruel as to get his coachman hanged for stealing a few of his oats; but every master would prosecute to obtain the infliction of a punishment which should be simply proportioned to the offence:

That all judges and legislators are guilty of the death of all the children which unfortunate, seduced women desert, expose, or even strangle, from a similar weakness to that which gave them birth.

On this subject I shall without scruple relate what has just occurred in the capital of a wise and powerful republic, which however, with all its wisdom, has unhappily retained some barbarous laws from those old, unsocial, and inhuman ages, called by some the ages of purity of manners. Near this capital a new-born infant was found dead; a girl was apprehended on suspicion of being the mother; she was shut up in a dungeon; she was strictly interrogated; she replied that she could not have been the mother of that child, as she was at the present time pregnant. She was ordered to be visited by a certain number of what are called (perfectly malapropos in the present instance) wise women — by a commission of matrons. These poor imbecile creatures declared her not to be with child, and that the appearance of pregnancy was occasioned by improper retention. The unfortunate woman was threatened with the torture; her mind became alarmed and terrified; she confessed that she had killed her supposed child; she was capitally convicted; and during the actual passing of her sentence was seized with the pains of childbirth. Her judges were taught by this most impressive case not lightly to pass sentences of death.

With respect to the numberless executions which weak fanatics have inflicted upon other fanatics equally weak, I will say nothing more about them; although it is impossible to say too much.

There are scarcely any highway robberies committed in Italy without assassinations, because the punishment of death is equally awarded to both crimes.

It cannot be doubted that M. de Beccaria, in his “Treatise on Crimes and Punishments” has noticed this very important fact.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25