1. The Body of the Condemned
On 1 March 1757 Damiens the regicide was condemned "to make the amende
honorable before the main door of the Church of Paris", where he was to
be "taken and conveyed in a cart, wearing nothing but a shirt, holding
a torch of burning wax weighing two pounds"; then, "in the said cart,
to the Place de Grève, where, on a scaffold that will be erected there,
the flesh will be torn from his breasts, arms, thighs and claves with
red-hot pincers, his right hand, holding the knife with which he committed
the said parricide, burnt with sulphur, and, on those places where the
flesh will be torn away, poured molten lead, boiling oil, burning resin,
wax and sulphur melted together and then his body drawn and quartered
by four horses and his limbs and body consumed by fire, reduced to ashes
and his ashes thrown to the winds" (Pièces originales..., 372-4).
"Finally, he was quartered," recounts the Gazette d'Amsterdam of 1 April
1757. "This last operation was very long, because the horses used were not
accustomed to drawing; consequently, instead of four, six were needed; and
when that did not suffice, they were forced, in order to cut off the wretch's
thighs, to sever the sinews and hack at the joints...
"It is said that, though he was always a great swearer, no blashemy escaped
his lips; but the excessive pain made him utter horrible cries, and he often
repeated: 'My God, have pity on me! Jesus, help me!' The spectators were
all edified by the solicitude of the parish priest of St Paul's who despite
his great age did not spare himself in offering consolation to the patient."
Bouton, an officer of the watch, left us his account: "The sulphur was
lit, but the flame was so poor that only the top skin of the hand was burnt,
and that only slightly. Then the executioner, his sleeves rolled up, took
the steel pincers, which had been especially made for the occasion, and
which were about a foot and a half long, and pulled first at the calf of
the right leg, then at the thigh, and from there at the two fleshy parts
of the right arm; then at the breasts. Though a strong, sturdy fellow, this
executioner found it so difficult to tear away the pieces of flesh that
he set about the same spot two or three times, twisting the pincers as he
did so, and what he took away formed at each part a wound about the size
of a six-pound crown piece.
"After these tearings with the pincers, Damiens, who cried out profusely,
though without swearing, raised his head and looked at himself; the same
executioner dipped an iron spoon in the pot containing the boiling potion,
which he poured liberally over each wound. Then the ropes that were to be
harnessed to the horses were attached with cords to the patient's body;
the horses were then harnessed and placed alongside the arms and legs, one
at each limb.
"Monsieur Le Breton, the clerk of the court, went up to the patient several
times and asked him if he had anything to say. He said he had not; at each
torment, he cried out, as the damned in hell are supposed to cry out, 'Pardon,
my God! Pardon, my Lord.' Despite all this pain, he raised his head from
time to time and looked at himself boldly. The cords had been tied so tightly
by the men who pulled the ends that they caused him indescribable pain.
Monsieur le [sic] Breton went up to him again and asked him if he had anything
to say; he said no. Several confessors went up to him and spoke to him at
length; he willingly kissed the crucifix that was held out to him; he opened
his lips and repeated: 'Pardon, Lord.'
"The horses tugged hard, each pulling straight on a limb, each horse held
by an executioner. After a quarter of an hour, the same ceremony was repeated
and finally, after several attempts, the direction of the horses had to
be changed, thus: those at the arms were made to pull towards the head,
those at the thighs towards the arms, which broke the arms at the joints.
This was repeated several times without success. He raised his head and
looked at himself. Two more horses had to be added to those harnessed to
the thighs, which made six horses in all. Without success.
"Finally, the executioner, Samson, said to Monsieur Le Breton that there
was no way or hope of succeeding, and told him to ask their Lordships if
they wished him to have the prisoner cut into pieces. Monsieur Le Breton,
who had come down from the town, ordered that renewed efforts be made, and
this was done; but the horses gave up and one of those harnessed to the
thighs fell to the ground. The confessors returned and spoke to him again.
He said to them (I heard him): 'Kiss me, gentlemen.' The parish priest of
St Paul's did not dare to, so Monsieur de Marsilly slipped under the rope
holding the left arm and kissed him on the forehead. The executioners gathered
round and Damiens told them not to swear, to carry out their task and that
he did not think ill of them; he begged them to pray to God for him, and
asked the parish priest of St Paul's to pray for him at the first mass.
"After two or three attempts, the executioner Samson and he who had used
the pincers each drew out a knife from his pocket and cut the body at the
thighs instead of severing the legs at the joints; the four horses gave
a tug and carried off the two thighs after them, namely, that of the right
side first, the other following; then the same was done to the arms, the
shoulders, the arm-pits and the four limbs; the flesh had to be cut almost
to the bone, the horses pulling hard carried off the right arm first and
the other afterwards.
"When the four limbs had been pulled away, the confessors came to speak
to him; but his executioner told them that he was dead, though the truth
was that I saw the man move, his lower jaw moving from side to side as if
he were talking. One of the executioners even said shortly afterwards that
when they had lifted the trunk to throw it on the stake, he was still alive.
The four limbs were untied from the ropes and thrown on the stake set up
in the enclosure in line with the scaffold, then the trunk and the rest
were covered with logs and faggots, and fire was put to the straw mixed
with this wood.
"...In accordance with the decree, the whole was reduced to ashes. The
last piece to be found in the embers was still burning at half-past ten
in the evening. The pieces of flesh and the trunk had taken about four hours
to burn. The officers of whom I was one, as also was my son, and a detachment
of archers remained in the square until nearly eleven o'clock.
"There were those who made something of the fact that a dog had lain the
day before on the grass where the fire had been, had been chased away several
times, and had always returned. But it is not difficult to understand that
an animal found this place warmer than elsewhere" (quoted in Zevaes, 201-14).
Eighty years later, Léon Faucher drew up his rules "for the
House of young prisoners in Paris":
"Art. 17. The prisoners' day will begin at six in the morning
in winter and at five in summer. They will work for nine hours a day throughout
the year. Two hours a day will be devoted to instruction. Work and the day
will end at nine o'clock in winter and at eight in summer.
Art. 18. Rising. At the first drum-roll, the prisoners must rise
and dress in silence, as the supervisor opens the cell doors. At the second
drum-roll, they must be dressed and make their beds. At the third, they must
line up and proceed to the chapel for morning prayer. There is a five-minute
interval between each drum-roll.
Art. 19. The prayers are conducted by the chaplain and followed
by a moral or religious reading. This exercise must not last more than half
Art. 20. Work. At a quarter to six in the summer, a quarter to
seven in winter, the prisoners go down into the courtyard where they must
wash their hands and faces, and receive their first ration of bread. Immediately
afterwards, they form into work-teams and go off to work, which must begin
at six in summer and seven in winter.
Art. 21. Meal. At ten o'clock the prisoners leave their work and
go to the refectory; they wash their hands in their courtyards and assemble
in divisions. After the dinner, there is recreation until twenty minutes to
Art. 22. School. At twenty minutes to eleven, at the drum-roll,
the prisoners form into ranks, and proceed in divisions to the school. The
class lasts two hours and consists alternately of reading, writing, drawing
Art. 23. At twenty minutes to one, the prisoners leave the school,
in divisions, and return to their courtyards for recreation. At five minutes
to one, at the drum-roll, they form into workteams.
Art. 24. At one o'clock they must be back in the workshops: they
work until four o'clock.
Art. 25. At four o'clock the prisoners leave their workshops and
go into the courtyards where they wash their hands and form into divisions
for the refectory.
Art. 26. Supper and the recreation that follows it last until
five o'clock: the prisoners then return to the workshops.
Art. 27. At seven o'clock in the summer, at eight in winter, work
stops; bread is distributed for the last time in the workshops. For a quarter
of an hour one of the prisoners or supervisors reads a passage from some instructive
or uplifting work. This is followed by evening prayer.
Art. 28. At half-past seven in summer, half-past
eight in winter, the prisoners must be back in their cells after the washing
of hands and the inspection of clothes in the courtyard; at the first drum-roll,
they must undress, and at the second get into bed. The cell doors are closed
and the supervisors go the rounds in the corridors, to ensure order and silence"
(Faucher, 274, 82).
We have, then, a public execution and a time-table. They do not
punish the same crimes or the same type of delinquent. But they each define
a certain penal style. Less than a century separates them. It was a time when,
in Europe and in the United States, the entire economy of punishment was redistributed.
It was a time of great "scandals" for traditional justice, a time of innumerable
projects for reform. It saw a new theory of law and crime, a new moral or
political justification of the right to punish; old laws were abolished, old
customs died out. "Modern" codes were planned or drawn up: Russia, 1769; Prussia,
1780; Pennsylvania and Tuscany, 1786; Austria, 1788; France, 1791, Year IV,
1808 and 1810. It was a new age for penal justice.
Among so many changes, I shall consider one: the disappearance
of torture as a public spectacle. Today we are rather inclined to ignore it;
perhaps, in its time, it gave rise to too much inflated rhetoric; perhaps
it has been attributed too readily and too emphatically to a process of "humanization",
thus dispensing with the need for further analysis. And, in any case, how
important is such a change, when compared with the great institutional transformations,
the formulation of explicit, general codes and unified rules of procedure;
with the almost universal adoption of the jury system, the definition of the
essentially corrective character of the penalty and the tendency, which has
become increasingly marked since the nineteenth century, to adapt punishment
to the individual offender? Punishment of a less immediately physical kind,
a certain discretion in the art of inflicting pain, a combination of more
subtle, more subdued sufferings, deprived of their visible display, should
not all this be treated as a special case, an incidental effect of deeper
changes? And yet the fact remains that a few decades saw the disappearance
of the tortured, dismembered, amputated body, symbolically branded on face
or shoulder, exposed alive or dead to public view. The body as the major target
of penal repression disappeared.
From Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison
(NY: Vintage Books 1995) pp. 3-8 translated from the French by Alan Sheridan