At the head of the earlier editions of this work, published at first without the name of the author, there was nothing but the following lines.
“There are two ways of accounting for the existence of this work. Either there really has been found a bundle of yellow, ragged, papers, on which were inscribed, exactly as they came, the last thoughts of a wretched being; or else there has been a man, a dreamer, occupied in observing nature for the advantage of art, a philosopher, a poet, who, having been seized with these forcible ideas, could not rest until he had given them the tangible form of a volume. Of these two explanations, the reader will choose that which he prefers.”
As is seen, at the time when this book was first published, the author did not deem fit to give publicity to the full extent of his thoughts. He preferred waiting to see whether the work would be fully understood. It has been. The author may now, therefore, unmask the political and social ideas, which he wished to render popular under this harmless literary guise. He avows openly, that The Last Day of a Condemned is only a pleading, direct or indirect, as is preferred, for the abolition of the penalty of death. His design herein and what he would wish posterity to see in his work, if its attention should ever be given to so slight a production, is, not to make out the special defense of any particular criminal, such defense being transitory as it is easy; he would plead generally and permanently for all accused persons, present and future; it is the great point of human right, stated and pleaded before society at large, that highest judicial court; it is the sombre and fatal question which breathes obscurely in the depths of each capital offense, under the triple envelopes of pathos in which legal eloquence wraps them; it is the question of life and death, I say, laid bare, denuded and despoiled of the sonorous twistings of the bar, revealed in daylight, and placed where it should be seen; in its true and hideous position, not in the law courts, but on the scaffold, not among the judges, but with the executioner!
This is what he has desired to effect. If futurity should award him the glory of having succeeded, which he dares not hope, he desires no other crown.
He proclaims and repeats it, then, in the name of all accused persons, innocent or guilty, before all courts, all juries, and ail judges. And in order that his pleading should be as universal as his cause, he has been careful, while writing The Last Day of a Condemned, to omit anything of a special, individual, contingent, relative, or modifiable nature, as also any episode, anecdote, known event, or real name, keeping to the limit (if “limit” it may be termed!) of pleading the cause of any condemned prisoner whatever, executed at any time, for any offense. Happy if, with no other aid than his thoughts, he has mined sufficiently into the subject to make a heart bleed, under the œs triplex of a magistrate! Happy if he could render merciful those who consider themselves just! Happy if, penetrating sufficiently deep within the judge, he has sometimes reached the man.
Three years ago, when this book first appeared, some people thought it was worth while to dispute the authorship! Some asserted that it was an English book, and others that it was an American book. What a singular mania there is for seeking the origin of matters at a great distance; trying to trace from the source of the Nile, the streamlet which washes one’s street. Alas! this work is neither English, neither American nor Chinese. The author found the idea of The Last Day of a Condemned, not in a book, for he is not accustomed to seek his ideas so far afield, but where you all might find it, where perhaps you may all have found it, (for who is there that has not reflected and had reveries of The Last Day of a Condemned,) there, on the public walk, on the Place de Grève.
It was there, while passing casually during an execution, that this forcible idea occurred to him; and, since then, after those funereal Thursdays of the Court of Cassation, which send forth through Paris the intelligence of an approaching execution, the hoarse voices of the spectators going to the Grève, as they hurried past his windows, filled his mind with the prolonged misery of the person about to suffer, which he pictured to himself from hour to hour, according to what he conceived was its actual progress. It was a torture which commenced from daybreak and lasted, like that of the miserable being who was tortured at the same moment, until four o’clock. Then only, when once the ponens caput expiravit was announced by the heavy toll of the clock bell, he breathed. again freely, and regained comparative peace of mind. Finally, one day, he thinks it was after the execution of Ulbach, he commenced writing this work; and since then he has felt relieved. When one of those public crimes, called legal executions, are committed, his conscience now acquits him of participation therein.
All this, however, is not sufficient; it is well to be freed from self-accusation, but it would be still better to endeavor to save human life.
Also, he does not know any aim more elevated, more holy, than that of seeking the abolition of capital punishment; with sincere devotion he joins the wishes and efforts of those philanthropic men of all nations, who have labored, of late years, to throw down patibulary tree, the only tree which revolution fails to uproot! It is with pleasure that he takes his turn, to give his feeble stroke, after the all-powerful blow which, sixty-seven years ago, Beccaria gave to the ancient gibbet which had been standing during so many centuries of Christianity.
We have just said that the scaffold is the only edifice which revolutions do not demolish. It is rare indeed that revolutions are temperate in spilling blood; and although they are sent to prune, to lop, to reform society, the punishment of death is a branch which they have never removed!
We own, however, if any revolution ever appeared to us capable and worthy of abolishing capital punishment, it was the revolution of July. It seemed, indeed, as if it belonged to the merciful popular rising of modern times to erase the barbarous enactments of Louis XI., of Richelieu, and of Robespierre, and to inscribe at the head of the code the inviolability of human life! 1830 was worthy of breaking the axe of ‘93.
At one time we really hoped for it. In August, 1830, there seemed so much generosity afloat, such a spirit of gentleness and civilization in the multitude, that we almost fancied the punishment of death was abolished, by a tacit and unanimous consent, with the rest of the evils which had oppressed us. For some weeks confiding and credulous, we had faith in the inviolability of life, for the future, as in the inviolability of liberty.
And, indeed, two months had scarcely passed, when an attempt was made to resolve into a legal reality the sublime Utopia of Cæsar Bonesana.
Unfortunately this attempt was awkward, imperfect, almost hypocritical; and made in a different spirit from the general interest.
It was in the month of October, 1830, as may be remembered;some days after France had been startled by the proposition to bury Napoleon under the column, that the question of capital punishment was brought before the Chamber, and discussed with much talent, energy, and apparent feeling. During two days, there was a continued succession of impressive eloquence on this momentous subject.
And what was the subject? — to abolish the punishment of death?
Yes, and No!
Here is the truth:
Four men of the world, four persons well known in society,1 had attempted, in the higher range of politics, one of those daring strokes which Bacon calls crimes, and which Machiavel calls enterprises. Well! crime or enterprise — the law, brutal for all, would punish it by death; and the four unfortunates were prisoners, legal captives guarded by three hundred tri-colored cockades, under the fine ogives at Vincennes. What was now to be done? You understand the impossibility of sending to the Grève, in a common cart, ignobly bound with coarse ropes, seated back to back with that functionary who must not be named — four men of our own rank,-“four men of the world!”
Still, if there had even been a mahogany guillotine!
Well, to settle the matter, they need only abolish the punishment of death!
And thereupon the Chamber set to work!
Notice, gentlemen, that only yesterday they had treated this abolition as Utopian, as a theory, a dream, a poetic folly. This was not the first time that an endeavor had been made to draw their attention to the cart, the coarse ropes, and the fatal machine. How strange it is, that these hideous details suddenly acquired such sudden force in their minds!
Bah! they had good reason to be excited, it was not on account of the general good that they sought to abolish capital punishment; but for their own sakes — as Deputies, who might become Ministers. And thus an alloy of egotism alters and destroys the fairest social combinations. It is the dark vein in marble, which, crossing everywhere, comes forth at each moment unexpectedly under the chisel!
It is surely unnecessary for us to declare that we were not among those who desired the death of the four ministers. When once they were imprisoned, the indignant anger we had felt at their attempt, changed with us as with every one else, into profound pity. We reflected on the prejudices of education of some among them; on the ill-developed head of their chief, fanatic and obstinate relapse of the conspiracies of 1804, whitened before its time, in the damp cells of state prisons; on the fatal necessity of their common position; the impossibility of their placing a drag on that rapid slope, down which monarchy rushed blindly on the 8th of August, 1829; on the influence of personal intercourse with royalty over them, which we had hitherto underrated; and finally we reflected, above all, on the dignity which one among them spread, like a purple mantle, over their misfortunes! We were among those who sincerely wished their lives saved, and would have readily lent our aid to that effect. If a scaffold had been raised for them in Paris, we feel quite certain — and if it be an illusion, we would preserve it — that there would have been an insurrection to pull it down; and we should have been of the rioters. Here I must add that, in each social crisis, of all scaffolds, the political one is the most abominable, the most fatal, the most mischievous, the most necessary to extirpate.
In revolutionary times, beware of the first head that falls. It excites the sanguinary appetite of the mob.
We therefore agreed thoroughly with those who wished to spare the four minister, both as a matter of feeling, and of political reasoning. But we should have liked better that the Chamber had chosen another occasion for proposing the abolition of capital punishment.
If they had suggested this desirable change, not with reference to those four ministers, fallen from the Tuileries to Vincennes, but in the instance of the first highwayman — in the case of one of those wretches to whom you neither give word nor look, and from whom you drink as they pass. Miserable beings, who, during their ragged infancy, ran barefoot in the mud of the crossings; shivering in winter near the quays, or seeking to warm themselves from the kitchens of M. Véfour, where you happen to be dining; scratching out, here and there, a crust of bread from the heaps of filth, and wiping it before eating; scraping in the gutter all day, with a rusty nail, in the hopes of finding a farthing; having no other amusement than the gratuitous sight of the king’s fête, and the executions — that other gratuitous sight: poor devils! whom hunger forces to theft, and theft to all the rest; children disinherited by their step-mother, the world; who are adopted by the house of correction, in their twelfth year, by the galleys at eighteen, and by the guillotine at forty! Unfortunate beings, whom, by means of a school and a workshop, you might have rendered good, moral, useful; and with whom you now know not what to do; flinging them away like a useless burthen, sometimes into the red antheaps of Toulon, sometimes into the silent cemetery of Clamart; cutting off life after taking away liberty. If it had been in the instance of one of these miteasts that you had proposed to abolish the punishment of death, oh! then your councils would have indeed been noble, great, holy, majestic! It has ever belonged to those who are truly great and truly powerful, to protect the lowly and weak. Were the august fathers of Trent assisting the heretics to repent in the name of the entrails of God, per viscera Dei, because they hoped for their conversion, quoniam sancta synodis sperat hœrelicorum conversionem, no assembly of men has ever presented to the world a spectacle more sublime, more illustrious and more merciful. How grand would be a council of Brahmins, advocating the cause of the Pariah! And with us the cause of the Pariah is the cause of the people. In abolishing the penalty of death, for sake of the people, and without waiting until you were personally interested in the question, you would have done more than a political work, you would have conferred a social benefit.
Instead of this, you have not yet even completed a political act, while seeking to abolish it, not for the abolition’s sake, but to save four unfortunate ministers, caught with their hands in the sack of coups d’etat.
What has happened? As you were not sincere, the people were distrustful; when they suspected the cause of your change, they became angry at the question altogether; and, strange to say, they declared in favor of that condign punishment, the weight of which presses entirely on themselves.
Immediately after the famous discussion in the Chamber, orders were given to respite, indefinitely, all executions. This was apparently a great step gained; the opponents of punishment by death breathed again; but the illusion was of short duration. The trial of the ministers was ended. I know not what judgment was rendered.
The four lives were spared, and the fortress of Ham was selected as a medium between death and liberty. These different arrangements once completed, all fear was banished from the minds of the ruling statesmen; and along with fear, humanity was also banished. There was no further question of abolishing capital punishment; and, when they no longer wished to prove to the contrary, Utopia became again Utopia, theory was theory, and poetry, poetry.
There were still in the prisons, however, some unfortunate condemned wretches, who, having been allowed during five or six months to walk about the prison-yards and breathe the fresh air, felt tranquil for the future, sure of life, mistaking their reprieve for pardon. But wait.
There had indeed been a reprieve of six months for these hapless captives, whose sufferings were thus gratuitously aggravated, by making them cling again to life; then, without reason, without necessity, without well knowing why, the respites were all revoked and all these human beings were launched into eternity.
Let us add, that never were executions accompanied by more atrocious circumstances, than since that revocation of the reprieve of July. Never have the anecdotes of the Grève been more revolting, or more effectual to prove the execration of capital punishment.
We will cite here two or three examples of the horrors which have attended recent executions. We must shock the nerves of the wives of king’s council. A wife is sometimes a conscience.
In the South, towards the close of last September, the following circumstance occurred; I think it was at Pamiers. Towards the end of September the officers went to a man in prison, whom they found quietly playing at cards, and gave him notice that he was to die in two hours. The wretched creature was horror-struck; for, during the six months he had been forgotten, he had no longer thought on death; he was confessed, bound, his hair cut off, he was placed in the fatal cart, and taken to the place of execution; the executioner took him from the priest; laid him down and on the see-saw, put him in the oven, to use slang, and then let loose the axe. The heavy triangle of iron slowly detached itself, falling by jerks down the slides, until, horrible to relate, it gashed the man, but without killing him! The poor creature uttered a frightful cry. The disconcerted executioner hauled up the axe, and let it slide down again. A second time, the neck of the malefactor was cut, without being severed. Again he shrieked, the crowd joining him. The executioner raised the axe a third time, hoping to do better at the third stroke, but, no! The third stroke only started a third stream of blood on the prisoner’s neck, but the head did not fall. Let us cut short these fearful details. Five times the axe was raised and let fall, and after the fifth stroke, the condemned was still shrieking for mercy. The indignant populace began in justice to stone the executioner, who hid himself beneath the guillotine, away behind the gendarmes’ horses; but we have not yet finished. The hapless culprit seeing he was left alone on the scaffold, raised himself on the plank, and there standing, frightful, streaming with blood, he demanded with feeble cries that some one would unbind him. The populace, full of pity, were on the point of forcing the gendarmes to help the hapless wretch, who had five times undergone his sentence. At this moment the servant of the executioner, a youth under twenty, mounted on the scaffold, told the sufferer to turn round, that he might unbind him; then, taking advantage of the posture of the dying man, who had yielded himself without any mistrust, sprang, on him, and slowly cut through the neck with a knife! All this happened; all this was seen. Yes.
According to law, a judge was obliged to be present at this execution; by a sign he could have stopped all. Why was he leaning back in his carriage then, this man, while they massacred another man? What was he doing, this punisher of assassins, while they thus assassinated, in open daylight, his fellow-creature?
And the judge was not tried for this; nor was the executioner tried for it; and no tribunal inquired into this monstrous violation of all law on one of God’s creatures!
In the seventeenth century, that epoch of barbarity in the criminal code, under Richelieu, under Christophe Fouquet, when Monsieur de Chalais was put to death at Nantes, by an awkward soldier, who, instead of a sword-stroke, gave him thirty-four strokes of a cooper’s adze,2 thus at least it seemed irregular to the parliament of Paris; there was an inquest and a trial; and, although Richelieu and Fouquet were not punished the soldier was. An injustice doubtless, but in which there was some show of justice.
In the modern instance, nothing was done; the thing took place after July, in times of civilization and march of intellect, a year after the celebrated lamentation of the Chamber on the penalty of death. The circumstance attracted no attention; the Paris papers published it as an anecdote, and no one cared about it. It was only known that the guillotine had been put out of order by some one who wished to annoy the executioner. A dismissed servant of the executioner, to revenge himself, had taken this method of action.
It was only imagination. Let us continue.
At Dijon, only three months ago, they brought to the scaffold a woman — a woman! This time again, the axe of the guillotine failed of its effect, and the head was not quite detached. Then the executioner’s servants pulled the feet of the woman; and, amidst the yells of the populace, thus fulfilled the law!
At Paris, we have come back to the time of secret executions; since July they no longer dare to decapitate in the Grève; as they are afraid, as they are cowardly, here is what they do, They took lately from the Bicêtre prison, a man, under sentence of death, named Désamdrieux, I think; they put him in a sort of panier on two wheels, closed on every side, bolted and padlocked; then with a gendarme in front, and another at the back, without noise or crowd, they proceeded to the deserted barrier Saint-Jacques. It was eight in the morning when they arrived, with but little light. There was a newly erected guillotine, and, for spectators, some dozens of little boys, grouped on the heaps of stones around the unexpected machine. Quickly they withdrew the man from the basket; and, without giving him time to breathe, they furtively, secretly, shamefully, deprived him of life! And that is called a public and solemn act of high justice! Infamous derision!
How then do the law-givers understand the word civilization? To what point have we attained? Justice reduced to stratagems and frauds! The law reduced to expedient! Monstrous!
A man condemned to death, it would seem, was greatly to be feared, since they put an end to him in this traitorous fashion!
Let us be just, however; the execution was not quite secret. In the morning people hawked and sold, as usual, the sentence of death through the streets. It appears, there are people who live by such sales. The crime of a hapless fellow-creature, its punishment, his torture, his agony, forms their stock in trade; a paper that they sell for a penny. Can one conceive anything more hideous than this coin, verdigrised in blood? Who can it be that picks it up?
Here are enough of facts; here are too many. Is not all this horrible?
What can be alleged in favor of punishment by death?
I put this question seriously. I ask it that it may be answered; I ask it of legislators, and not of literary gossips. I know there are people who take the excellence of punishment by death for a text of paradoxes, like any other theme; there are others who only advocate capital punishment because they hate so-and-so who attack it. It is for them almost a literary question, a question of persons, and proper names; these are the envious, who do not find more fault with good lawyers than with good artists. The Joseph Grippas are no more wanting to the Filangieri, than the Torregiani to the Michael-Angelos, and the Scuderies to the Corneilles.
It is not to these that I address myself; but to men of law properly so called — to logicians, to reasoners; to those who love the penalty of death, for its beauty, its goodness, its grace!
See, let them give their reasons.
Those who judge and condemn, say that punishment by death is necessary, first — because it is requisite to remove from the social community a member which has already injured it, and might injure it again. If this be all, perpetual imprisonment would suffice. What is the use of inflicting death? You argue that a prisoner may escape from jail — keep watch more strictly! If you do not believe in the solidity of iron bars, how do you venture to have menageries?
Let there be no executioner where the jailer can be sufficient.
But, they answer: “Society must avenge itself, society must punish.” Neither one nor the other: vengeance is an individual act, and punishment belongs to God.
Society is between the two; punishment is above its power, retaliation beneath it. Society should not punish, to avenge itself; it should correct, to ameliorate others!
Their third and last reason remains, the theory of example. “We must make examples. By the sight of the fate inflicted on criminals, we must shock those who might otherwise be tempted to imitate them!” Well; in the first place we deny, the power of the example. We deny, that the sight of executions produces the desired effect. Far from edifying the common people, it demoralizes and ruins their feeling, injuring every virtue; proofs of this abound and would encumber our argument if we chose to cite them. We will allude to only one fact, amongst a thousand, because it is of recent occurrence. It happened only ten days back from the present moment, viz., on the 5th of March, the last day of the Carnival. At St. Poi, immediately after the execution of an incendiary named Louis Camus, a group of masqueraders came and danced round the still reeking scaffold! Make then your fine examples! Mardi-Gras will turn them into jest!
If, notwithstanding all experience, you still hold to the theory of example, then give us back the Sixteenth Century; be in reality formidable; restore to us a variety of suffering; restore us, Farinacci; restore us the sworn torturers; restore us the gibbet, the wheel, the block, the rack, the thumb-screw, the live-burial vault, the burning cauldron; restore us in the streets of Paris, as the most open shop among the rest, the hideous stall of the executioner, constantly full of human flesh; give us back Montfaucon, its caves of bones, its beams, its crooks, its chains, its rows of skeletons; give us back, in its permanence and power, that gigantic outhouse of the Paris executioner! This indeed would be wholesale example, this would be punishment by death, well understood; this would be a system of execution in some proportion — which, while it is horrible, is also terrible!
Or better, do as in England. In England, land of commerce, they capture a smuggler on the coast near Dover, and use him for an example — far an example they leave him swinging on the gibbet; but as the weather might destroy the corpse, they wrap it carefully in canvas soaked in tar, in order not to have to renew it too often. Oh, land of economy! Tar the hanged ones!
However there is still some logic in that. It is the most human way of using the theory of example.
But do you seriously suppose you are making an example, when you take the life of a poor wretch, in the most deserted part of the exterior boulevards? On the Grève in open daylight it might be so, but at the barrier Saint-Jacques, at eight o’clock in the morning — can it be that that is an example? An example for whom? For the trees of the boulevard apparently.
Do not you see then, that your public executions are done in private? That fear is with the execution, and not among the multitude? One is sometimes tempted to believe, that the advocates for capital punishment have not thoroughly considered in what it consists. But place in the scales, against any crime whatever, this exorbitant right, which society arrogates to itself, of taking away that which it did not bestow; that most irreparable of evils!
The alternatives are these: first, the man you destroy is without family, relations, or friends, in the world. In this case, he has received neither education nor instruction; no care has been bestowed either on his mind or heart; then, by what right would you kill this miserable orphan? You punish him because his infancy trailed on the ground, without stem, or support; you make him pay the penalty of the isolated position in which you left him! you make a crime of his misfortune! No one taught him to know what he was doing; this man lived in ignorance; the fault was in his destiny, not himself. You destroy one who is innocent.
Or, secondly; the man has a family; and then do you think the fatal stroke wounds him alone? that his father, his mother, or his children will not suffer by it? No, in killing him, you vitally injure all his family. And thus again you punish the innocent.
Blind and ill-directed penalty; which, on whatever side it tums, strikes the innocent!
Imprison for life this culprit who has a family; in his cell he can still work for those who belong to him. But how can he help them from the depth of the tomb? And can you reflect without shuddering, on what will become of those little boys, of those little girls, from whom you take away their father, their support? Do you not feel that in fifteen years the one may be in the galleys, the other in the dancing halls?
In the colonies, when a slave is condemned to public execution, there are a thousand francs of indemnity paid to the proprietor of the man! What, you compensate a master, and you do not indemnify a family? In this country, do you not take the man from those who possess him? Is he not, by a much more sacred tie than master and slave, the property of his father, the wealth of his wife, the fortune of his children?
We have already proved your law guilty of assassination; now we have convicted it of robbery!
And then another consideration. Do you consider the soul of this man? Do you know in what state it is, that you dismiss it so hastily?
This may be called sentimental reasoning, by some disdainful logicians, who draw their arguments only from their minds. I often prefer the reasonings of the heart; and certainly the two should always go together. Reason is on our side, feeling is on our side, and experience is on our side. In those States where punishment by death is abolished, the mass of capital crime has yearly a progressive decrease. Let this fact have its weight.
I do not advocate, however, a sudden and complete abolition of the penalty of death, such as was so heedlessly attempted in the Chamber of Deputies. On the contrary, I desire every precaution, every experiment, every suggestion of prudence; besides, in addition to this gradual change, I would have the whole penal code examined, and reformed; and time is a great ingredient requisite to make such a work complete. But independently of a partial abolition of death in cases of forgery, incendiarism, minor thefts, et cætera, I would wish that, from the present time, in all the greater offenses, the Judge should be obliged to propose the following question to the Jury: “Has the accused acted from Passion or from Interest?” And in case the Jury decide “the accused acted from Passion,” then there should be no sentence of death.
Let not the opposite party deceive themselves; this question of the penalty of death gains ground every day. Before long, the world will unanimously solve it on the side of mercy. During the past century, punishments have become gradually milder; the rack has disappeared, the wheel has disappeared; and now the guillotine is shaken.
This mistaken punishment will leave France, we hope; and, please God, it will depart limping, for we itch to give it some good kicks.
It must ask hospitality of some barbarous people — not of Turkey, which is becoming civilized, not of the savages, for they will not have it;3 but let it descend some steps of the ladder of civilization, and seek refuge in Spain, or in Russia!
In the early ages, the social edifice rested on three columns, the priest, the king and the headsman. It is a long time since a voice exclaimed, “The gods have departed!” Lately another voice has cried, “The kings have departed!” It is now full time that a third voice shall be raised to say, “The executioner must go!”
Thus the barbarous usages of the olden times fall one by one; thus Providence completes modern regeneration.
To those who regret the gods, we say, “God remains!” To those who regret the Kings, we say, “Our Country remains!” But to those who could regret the Executioner we can say nothing.
Let it not be supposed that social order will depart with the scaffold; the social building will not fall from wanting this hideous keystone. Civilization is nothing but a series of transformations. For what then do I ask your aid? The civilization of penal laws. The gentle laws of Christ will penetrate at last into the Code, and shine through its enactments. We shall look on crime as a disease, and its physicians shall displace the judges, its hospitals displace the galleys. Liberty and health shall be alike. We shall pour balm and oil where we formerly applied iron and fire; evil will be treated in charity, instead of in anger. This change will be simple and sublime. The Cross shall displace the Gibbet. That is all.
15 March, 1832.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09