The private collection of artifacts held by the family Sanson, public executioners to both kings and latterly the republic and empire of France for some four generation must remain one of the truly most macabre commemorative arrays existent anywhere on the globe.
Charles-Henri Samson is without doubt the most infamous of the clan, born in February seventeen thirty-nine his first claim to fame is the public execution of Robert-François Damiens, performed at the seeming tender age of seventeen in front of a huge cheering crowd in the Place de Grève, including one Giacomo Casanova who later account of events fully describes both the young mans singular aptitude for the profession and unquestioned crowd pleasing performance. Having inherited the post of executioner of Paris at the retirement of his faither Charles Jean-Baptist Sanson, due to ill health in seventeen fifty-four, the then but fifteen-year-old Charles-Henri began to quickly and successfully master the technical and brutal aspects of his profession as if truly born to the role.
The position of public executioner, or executor of high works as the official title read, is particularly fraught with technical difficulties as well as theatric and symbolic elements, making ‘monsieur de Paris’ both necessity and anathema, a figure of public respect but also disgust, isolation, shunning, denigration.
The passing of the red cape through the crowded thoroughfares would be accompanied by a crowd of the ill and out of luck hoping to but touch a portion of the minor aristocrats clothing in the hopes of cure or transfer of good fortune.
For all his previous infamy and diabolic acts it is Charles-Henri’s relation ship with his new mistress, Madame Guillotine, that will forever hold him in particular notoriety. It was indeed as a result of a most unfortunate incident involving one of his last pre-revolutionary designated victims that resulted in the adoption of the infernal machine as the chosen angel of death of the new French Republican congress in the first place.
The first indicator of the changing attitude towards capital punishment reared its head in seventeen eighty-eight at the prospective execution of Jean Louschart, sentenced to be broken on the wheel for murdering his father during an argument, by a cruel blow to the head with a hammer. The execution was supposed to be carried out near Versailles, but the event was rudely interrupted by a mob of local residents who spiriting the condemned man away and burned the wheel of misfortune upon the scaffold. Charles-Henri with his assistant sons Gabriel and Henri escaped the event with their lives the commotion reached the ears of the new National Assembly whom immediately put both the question of execution and the position of executioner up for debate.
Doctor Guillotin’s device, considered by the Assembly as a truly utilitarian form of execution, without fear or favor by class, gender, age, or culpability, was accepted out of hand and under the guidance of the good Doctor, assisted by the decapitation skills of Charles-Henri, the medical advice of Anton Louis the surgeon general, and even it seems the mechanical expertise of the now imprisoned King Louis XVI, the first working example was constructed and almost immediately put to use. On April 25th seventeen ninety-four the guillotine claimed its premier victim, a condemned highway robber Nicolas-Jaques Pelletier. The sight of the macabre machine was reported to have terrified Pelletier more than its soon to follow efficiency. King Louis and Charles Henri were themselves of course destined to meet once under much different circumstances atop the scaffold erected in the Place de la Revolution upon the 21st January nineteen hundred and ninety-four, ending on that occasion with Louis head dropping into a wicker basket.
In total it is estimated that Sanson executed in total perhaps some three thousand individuals, men, women, and children, the vast majority with the aid of the peoples razer. When at a later point Sansom was personally criticized by the then Emperor Napoleon for his bloody work he was heard to reply to the sovereigns deep chagrin, “If kings, emperors, and dictators can sleep well, why shouldn’t an executioner?”