A popular historical anecdote says that the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, when he met with the retired Parisian executioner, asked how can he sleep at night, having executed so many people. And executioner said: “If kings, dictators and emperors sleep well, why shouldn’t I?”
Such a man was Charles Henry Sanson, the fourth and the most famous member of this Parisian dynasty of executioners. Many books are written about his life, one is even signed by his own descendant. We’ll just go over the most interesting facts on this man and his family.
Notoriety is still a kind of fame
He executed some of the most famous french, like Louis XVI, his sister Elizabeth and wife Marie-Antoinette, revolutionaries Desmoulins, Danton and Robespierre, Marat’s killer Charlotte Corday and the chemist Lavoisier… It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Sanson and his guillotine were central figures of the Great French Revolution.
It is deemed that this particular member of the Sanson family has performed 2918 executions — burnings, hangings, beheadings, breaking on the wheel and quartering. That last onу he had to recreate using old manuscripts specifically for the execution of Robert-François Damiens, who botched an assassination of king Louis XV. Of course, Sanson’s tally would’ve been way lower if not for the invention of his good friend monsieur Guillotin. Sanson took an active pat in creating the apparatus.
The Sansons were nobility
Near the end of the XVII century during the reign of the Sun King Louis XIV a young nobleman Charles Sanson de Longval married a daughter of an executioner from Rouen. His motive might have been love, or it could be that fact that he had financial troubles (the executioner in question was quite wealthy). There’s even a version where a young guardsman kissed a pretty girl on the street and her enraged father, who turned out to be Larasseur, an executioner, demanded the man to marry her or face his axe. In any case ву Longval left the guard and became an executioner himself at the insistence of his father in law.
This post had already become inherited at the time: a son or a daughter’s husband was obliged to learn the trade and assume a vacant post in one of the cities on France. Charles became his father in law’s apprentice and according to legend fainted during his first execution, but after very little time he became quite proficient. After Larasseur’s death assumed his post and later on by the special decree of Louis XIV became the principal executioner of Paris.
Sanson voted for the guillotine
During the tough years of the French Revolution the device conceived to grant an equally quick and merciful death for nobility and commoners alike cut short many lives, and not just of the enemies of the Revolution but of some of its unfortunate proponents.
The person who first suggested the use of a guillotine was an anatomy professor Joseph Ignace Guillotin who was a good friend of Charles Henry Sanson. Ironically the good professor was against capital punishment but understood that it wasn’t going anywhere, so he sought a way to execute people as humanely as possible.
During the spring of 1892 Guillotin presented the national assembly a project of a mechanism with a wooden frame and a descending crescent-shaped blade. The device was later built by a mechanic and a piano-tuner Tobias Schmidt, who asked Guillotin and Sanson to leave out his name, and so the mechanism was named not after its engineer but its ideologist.
Surgeon in Ordinary to the King Antoine Lou together with Guillotin and Sanson presented the device to Louis XVI, and the guillotine was approved by the monarch. He even introduced an upgrade — an angled blade instead of a crescent one. Two years after that the king was executed with exactly this conveniently shaped blade.
They say on his way to the execution he asked Sanson of the fate of comte de La Pérouse’s missing expedition.
A peculiar record of the third Sanson and his seven sons
When Charles Sanson de Longval II, the son of Chevalier de Longval we already know of, died his firstborn was only eight years old. Nothing could challenge tradition, and so Charles Jean-Baptiste Sanson, a member of the third generation of this dynasty, assumed his title regardless of his gentle age. If Guinness Book of Records existed at the time the boy would’ve certainly claimed his place in it.
He attended the executions performed by his late father’s assistant Prudom until he became of age. So officially the third Sanson worked as an executioner for 52 years!
He had seven sons and the eldest, Charles Henry, who was later called the Great Sanson, inherited his father’s post in 1778, but the rest also worked as executioners in Reims, Orleans, Montpelier, Soissons, Dijon…
Their family was wealthy — the executioner’s trade was quite profitable at the time. One of the customs at the family estate was to leave work on the scaffold. When meeting at his father’s table, the Sanson brothers discussed theatre and music, and called their grim duty simply “the work”.
The last Sanson and his guillotine
The Sanson line faded on its seven generation. It’s last member was Clement-Henry Sanson de Longval. He was a wealthy and well-educated man, а sophisticated connoisseur ща music and ballet and an avid card player. Unfortunately for him, as he assumed the executioner’s function after his father France experienced peaceful times. Executions were rare and paid for individually. Thus the young man has quickly run through his family’s fortune and sunk neck deep into debt. Trying to change his luck and avoid imprisonment he sold his family’s guillotine!
Coincidentally that’s when the realm found the need of his services once more. Creditors have refused to sell such a prize back to Sanson, and a scandal ensued — the executioner had nothing to execute with!
In the end Prosecutor General of France gave Clement-Henry the money to buy his guillotine back and on the 24th of August 1847 the last Sanson executed his last victim and was later dismissed.
Such was the inglorious end of the Sanson dynasty, but not of capital punishment. Some countries still have executioners on payroll. We’ll tell you more about that and about memoirs allegedly issued from the pen of the Great Sanson sometime soon.
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