DAVID LAWDAY, "THE HEIRS OF MADAME GUILLOTINE: THE DESCENDANTS OF FRANCE'S DYNASTY OF EXECUTIONERS TODAY PONDER THE PARADOXES OF THE REVOLUTION," US NEWS AND WORLD REPORT (JULY 17, 1989).
The descendants of France's dynasty of executioners today ponder the paradoxes of the Revolution Standing alone at the back of the courtroom in his darkgreen frock coat and top hat, Charles-Henri Sanson hardly hears the gasps of protest and despair that rise from the prisoners' pen each time the death sentence is pronounced. He is busy calculating. At six to a cart, he'll need seven carts to haul them, if he squeezes them in extra tight. Only four of his dark-red tumbrels are in proper working order. Another needs a wheel fixed; three more are in for repairs. He'll have to pay that gouging coachmaker to work through the night again. Financially, the Revolution is killing him.
The next day, Sanson makes sure that the quiet young duchess he had noticed in court is put in the first cart. She was among the last to be sentenced. She seems remarkably calm for an 18-year-old. During the rumbling ride past the hostile street crowds and their crude gestures, she says nothing. He tells his sons, Henri and Gabriel, to take her first; they cut off her hair, then tie her down and place her head in the hole. The less you wait, the less you suffer. The girl shivers, still speechless. Sanson pulls the lever. Almost simultaneously her head is gone; it stares up from the blood-soaked leather bag.
Sanson works up a fast rhythm. His two sons and the five scaffold assistants make a good team, though the lads are becoming a problem. They were complaining at breakfast about the pressure of work and threatening to quit unless he increased their wages by 1 franc a day. He makes up his mind to appeal for more money to Fouquier-Tinville, the public prosecutor.
Two centuries later, in his modest apartment near the Eiffel Tower, Patrick Brunet, a direct descendant of Sanson, is surrounded by yellowed family papers. What strikes him about his family's role in the Revolution, and particularly in the Terror that followed, is the professionalism. "For Sanson, death was a transport problem, not a moral one. He was admired for his efficiency, and he worried about maintaining his reputation."
Brunet traces his Sanson blood from the daughter of the last Sanson to be France's chief executioner. The job was in the family ftom father to son for two centuries. Except for France's royal line, few families have so directly marked French history.
Small, soft-eyed and energetic, Brunet, 31, would not have cut an imposing figure on the scaffold had removing heads stayed in the family. Brunet, who works in the film industry, has prepared a screenplay on his forebears and is seeking a producer.
Like many of bis fellow Frenchmen in this bicentennial year, Brunet has profoundly mixed feelings about the Revolution and its historical consequences. Did the powerful democratic currents it unleashed make a far deeper impact on the world than did its brutality? Or was it a terrible mistake because its freethinking debut ended in horrors tbat inspired Stalin and Hitler? Brunet questions the Revolution on humanitarian grounds. "Remember that three quarters of those who were guillotined at that time were innocent. You have to ask whether that isn't a symbol of noncivilization."
The decapitation dynasty started in 1688 when Charles Sanson arrived in Paris ftom Normandy to become royal executioner. He obtained a sealed letter of engagement from Louis XIV, the Sun King, giving him sole "to enforce criminal sentences" in the capital.
The job title was a euphemism. The King's executioner was torturer, axman and hangman in one. France still practiced medieval methods of punishment, from the torture wheel to quartering. Charles Sanson's Paris home was the pillory house where delinquents were put to torture and death. Not a nice place for tbe children but one that inured them to gore and body mangling and prepared sons to assume the family charge without blenching.
The house apart, Charles Sanson lived well-like an archbishop, says Patrick Brunet-thanks to royally ordained privileges that went with his salary. It was his right to take a handful of provisions each day from every merchant in the Paris food market, and he dispatched his assistants with capacious wooden scoops to bring back the booty, which he then used, stored or resold at will.
When those who disliked this sort of thing rebelled in 1789 against France's absolute monarchy, the Sansons saw they were in trouble. Charles's grandson, Charles-Henri, was now in place as executioner. As a servant of the Crown and a devout Roman Catholic like all the family, he had little sympathy with the Revolution. Nor did the Revolution sympathize with him. Freethinkers in the new parliament were clamoring for abolition of the death penalty. Worse, there was a strong move to make him a subcitizen by depriving him, along with provincial executioners (and actors), of the right to vote. And the press was making things worse by charging that a printer friend he was sheltering in his home was a royalist pamphleteer. Facing immediate arrest, Sanson sued the newspapers for libel; in court, his lawyer carried the day, pleading there was no cause to destroy someone who took lives on the orders of justice when a soldier who did the same thing on orders received promotion, or a medal.
Still, Sanson was 50 now, and he was ill at ease in the revolutionary climate. The new regime had drastically cut his income, which in any case petered out in the last Year of the beleaguered monarchy. He was constantly harassed by creditors: Clockmakers, goldsmiths, furniture makers and the many other merchants who supplied the town house and stables he had acquired in residential north Paris, well removed from the stinking pillory. True, there was no great wave of executions to be carried out in these early democratic days. But he had 16 people in his house to feed, including his wife and sons, two brothers, a sick sister, an aging uncle and eight servants. For all his status, he was an outeast. That was the way it always would be. Executioners had no entry into society. The Sansons were obliged to keep apart, invariably marrying within a narrow caste confined to themselves and provincial executioners' dynasties. Charles-Henri's mood was low. Perhaps he had a premonition of what the Terror would bring.
The guillotine, which became a symbol of the Revolution's brutality, was, ironically, devised for humane reasons. Sanson welcomed it, less out of compassion than out of his taste for efficiency. Until 1792, his principal death tools were the rope for common folk and an axlike sword for gentlefolk. The campaign for abolition got nowhere, despite a tirade in the revolutionary parliament against the injustice and pointlessness of the death penalty from the member from Arras, Maximilien Robespierre.
After Joseph Guillotin, a doctor, proposed to the Assembly the use of a head-cutting machine that "works faster than you blink and dispenses with the slightest pain," Sanson was formally consulted. One reason he gave for supporting the change was that he couldn't work properly at night with the sword. The flickering flames at the publicexecution site often made him miss the nape of the neck, he explained. Besides, the swords were extremely expensive, arid they tended to break during use. He provided specifications for the new machine, which was designed by an eminent surgeon, Dr. Antoine Louis. The only detail the inventive doctors ignored was the inordinate mess the humane machine made. From 1792 until 1795, Sanson employed it to behead 2,794 people in Paris, most of them under the auspices of Robespierre. Experience sharpened Sanson's efficiency. At full stretch, he could dispatch better than onea minute.
On a wall in the suburban-Paris apartment of Michel Brunet, Patrick's father, is a handsome wooden barometer handed down by the Sansons. It was made in London, a sophisticated object indicating that the Sansons' financial fortunes improved once more as the Revolution took hold. Michel, age 60, keeps the barometer as his one memento of the Sansons. Unlike his son, he doesn't much dwell on his family's past. Yet Michel, an engineer who runs a small TV-equipment company, provides a characteristic thread to the Sansons. His late father, a sculptor who worked with Rodin before World War I, was a passionate royalist, as the Sanson executioners remained to the last. Between the wars, the sculptor was a fan of Charles Maurras, an anti-Semitic royalist who reviled the Revolution even from a distance of 150 years. Already too old for conscription in 1939, he willingly backed Marshal Petain's collaboration with Germany, as most Frenchmen ended up doing. Michel says his father would certainly have given his support now, were he alive, to the extremist Jean-Marie Le Pen, whose voters include France's remaining royalists. "My father wanted someone with great authority at the head of the state, someone enduring."
10:20 a.m., Jan. 21, 1793. The moment of truth for the Sansons. Or the supreme irony. The weather is wintry clear at the Place de la Revolution (now Place de la Concorde). Louis XVI, the once absolute ruler whose blood the Revolution decided after long hesitation that it must have, is on the scaffold. Charles-Henri, dressed in his familiar dark-green Rock coat and top hat, and his son, Henri, are less hesitant than the King's judges.
They are missing Gabriel's sturdy assistance. Charles-Henri's younger son fell from the scaffold four months earlier and broke his skull while displaying a severed head to the crowd, The boy's death did not deter Charles-Henri from his work. Instead, his reaction was to install a safety fence around the scaffold, on one pole of which Louis XVI, perplexed, now rests a hand. Courageous until then, his behavior suggests he half expects to be spared. The Sanson team has to drag him struggling to the guillotine plank. The King gasps, "I am done for, I am done for." Within seconds, Henri has fished in the leather bag and brought out the royal head to display to the stupefied crowd massed shoulder to shoulder in the huge square. The cry goes up, "Vive la Ripublique!"
In the days that follow, Sanson Senior is again attacked by the press, now because of rumors that he sold locks of the King's hair and had led the King to believe he might be spared. He feels bound to stick his own neck out. In a letter to a revolutionary newspaper, he recounts "the true story" of what happened at the royal execution, declaring that he was astonished by the King's sang-froid and firmness, despite the odd difficulty. "I remain convinced that he derived this firmness from the religion by which no one more than he was imbued." In fact, the account slid around the truth. But the phrasing took courage. Expressing admiration for the monarchy or the Catholic Church was no way to please the unforgiving Robespierre, whose head Sanson was not called upon to remove until 18 months later.
What stumps Patrick Brunet is his ancestors' mindset. The Sansons were not cultivated people at first, though CharlesHenri was educated by priests, and he could turn a fine phrase as his written account of Louis XVI's death showed. Their lifestyle became increasingly bourgeois despite the social ostracism their task still brought upon them. They supplemented their income by practicing medicine in a quackish but well-respected way, using substances drawn from victims for sure-cure ointments. Henri and his son, Henri-Cldment, the last of the Sanson executioners, played musical instruments. They even married outside the death-dealing clan: Henri comes closest to explaining how the family came through the revolutionary bloodletting sane. He said he and his father acted like robots right through the Revolution because the volume of work left no time for reflection. It was only afterward, when the Revolution had run its course, that they trembled. Still, even when Charles-Henri quit in exhaustion in 1795, there was no question of the family relinquishing the job.
It took another century for the dynasty to end. In 1889, the centenary of the Revolution, the death of a Monsieur Henri in Versailles went unnoticed. He had moved to the old royal stronghold a quarter of a century before, assuming the alias when he left Paris in disgrace: Henri-Clement Sanson lacked the iron nerves of his father and grandfather. Relatives in Paris told inquirers he had gone to America,
He had preferred painting and music to blades. When he took over the family job in 1840, it was to be the King's high executioner, for Louis-Philippe had been on the restored-and enlightenedthrone for 10 years. To take his mind off his task, Henri-Clement took to drinking with actor friends. This led to gambling, thence to debtors' prison. Fortunately for him he was only required to perform 18 public executions before the Sanson family's charge came to an abrupt end in 1847.
To pay off his debts, he pawned the guillotine, not as outlandish a proposition as it sounds since the "national razor" was in fact Sanson property. Still, the Justice Ministry was not happy. It paid off HenriClement's creditors and took possession of his guillotine, at the same time dispensing with his services for good,
Early this summer in Paris, Patrick Brunet took part in a gathering at City Hall of descendants of the main actors in France's Revolution. It was like hordes of Jeffersons, Washingtons and Hamiltons congregating for cocktails. Except that the 2,000 descendants hailed ftom opposing sides, half from the side of the Revolution's victims, half from the side of its instigators. Curiously, the division roughly corresponds with a divergence between right and left. Almost everyone now supports republican government and the democracy that accompanies it, but the right questions the way it was introduced 200 years ago while the left accepts the violence as the means to an end.
With a foot in both camps, Patrick nonetheless has reached a clear judgment on an issue of interest to his family, the death penalty. France continued to use the guillotine, if sparingly, into the 1980s when Socialist President Frangois Mitterrand had the death penalty abolished. Many conservatives want it back, including Michel, who calls the guillotine "the only sanction that counts against murder. "Pro-abolitionist Patrick has a sharper eye on the family history. "Shouldn't society be better than its criminals?" he asks. "Remember, it takes someone to kill to have capital punishment."