Executed Via Guillotine: An Eye-Witness Account

Everyone knows what the guillotine is—it is an instrument that gained notoriety during the French Revolution (1789–1815) when, during the Reign of Terror, the Jacobin-dominated Committee of Public Safety sentenced thousands of “enemies of the revolution” to die under the shadow of its blade.

Picture of G.W.M. Reynolds as featured in Reynolds’s Miscellany (c) Stephen Basdeo

After the revolution, however, the guillotine was still used in France for executing criminals, the use of which lasted into the 1970s.

Having spent much of his youth in France, George William MacArthur Reynolds—one of the best-selling novelists of the nineteenth century—was a witness to one of these post-revolutionary guillotine executions.

My copy of Reynolds’s translation of Victor Hugo’s Last Day of a Condemned (1840)

He deplored the death penalty as an inhumane and uncivilized punishment. Throughout his life he campaigned, through his writings, for an end to capital punishment, and even translated Victor Hugo’s Last Day of a Condemned in 1840.

The following is his account of an execution in northern France in the 1830s.

A Guillotine Scene in France

By George William MacArthur Reynolds

Being at Dunkirk a few years ago, I heard that a murderer was to be executed at Mount Cassel; and I resolved to witness the scene.’ I accordingly rose very early on the fated morning, and ordered a post-chaise to take me to the town where the dreadful tragedy was about to be enacted. After a ride of about an hour and a half, through a fine district, the height of Mount Cassel developed itself in bold outline in the horizon. A number of large windmills upon the summit of the hill met my eyes; and as I advanced more nearly towards the place of destination, the beauty of the adjacent country and distant scenery seemed to borrow new charms. At length, just as the clock of the town struck-seven, the vehicle rolled along that part of the road, which runs round the northern vase of the lofty mountain; and in ten minutes more I stopped at the Hotel d’Angleterre. This establishment is situate upon the Grande Place, or Market-Place, on which an immense crowd had already assembled; and, in the midst of that multitude, rose high in the air the beams and axe of the dread engine of slaughter which had been erected to wreak the vengeance of the law upon a criminal.

The morning was now delightful in the extreme,—but never more were the seasons and their changes to shed joy upon the soul of the doomed one;—never again would it be his in this life to mark the ingress of one, or the egress of another Spring, which is so charming, with its soft mornings, and buds, and blossoms, when earth has shaken off the icy hand of winter;—Summer, so pleasant with its bright evenings, and flowers, and rural scenes, and excursions— Autumn, so delicious with its golden days, each one of which we could cleave to for ever; when the fields are heavy with the yellow harvest, and the gardens hang ruddy with fruits, and the sun, shorn of his fiery beams, is succeeded at night by the harvest-moon;—and then old Winter, offering his bright, fireside, with pleasant friends or pleasant books; when, in spite of the freezing air-without, the flow of soul gushes most sparkling within; so that while its chilling breath may blight all nature without, yet it is powerless upon the heart and soul of man;—all these seasons, with their changes and their varied blessings,— were now as nothing in respect to that wretched man who was hovering upon the verge of eternity: unless, indeed, that cold winter which stands last upon our st,[1] be taken as an affecting type of the other winter now about to follow—that long, cold, freezing winter in which no man can work!

The criminal, it appeared, had been convicted of a heinous offence—that of murder, accompanied by robbery, and other violence of an infamous nature in respect to a poor girl who had acted in the capacity of servant to the deceased. The victim of the assassination was a small farmer residing in the neighbourhood of Mount Cassel, upon the estate of the Count de Vandamme; and the perpetrator of the dreadful action was the farmer’s nephew—a dissolute wild, and incorrigible young man of only three-and-twenty. He had been arrested a few days after the murder, and in course of time was tried at Hazebrouck, where he was found guilty. The sentence was death. The culprit appealed unsuccessfully to the Court of Cassation, by which tribunal the former judgment was confirmed; and the day of execution had now arrived. The prisoner had been transferred on the previous evening from the prison of Hazebrouck to that of Mount Cassel, at which latter town the execution was ordered to take place, the crime having been perpetrated in the vicinity. At a quarter to eight ‘o’clock the bell of the church began to toll. By this time the entire market-place was thronged ‘with spectators; and every window commanding a view of the scene was crowded with: human heads. Five thousand pair of eyes seemed to have made the scaffold the focus to which all their visual rays were directed. But there was no improper conduct amongst that living ocean, which appeared as if it had come to dash its wares against the guillotine—that dread and mysterious lighthouse erected there to warn away the giddy mariner from the shoals and sunken rocks of life! There was a busy hum—a murmuring sound—like the whispering of myriads of voices;—but there were no indecent cries—no querulous ejaculations—no profane talk—no ribald jokes—no snatches of flash songs—no loud and boisterous laughter. The deportment of the multitudes in the market-place was as respectable and decent as that of the better classes who occupied the windows of the dwellings overlooking it.

It was now three minutes to eight and a breathless silence suddenly prevailed—like that Sudden and awe-inspiring lulling of the breeze upon the ocean just before the wing of the hurricane sweeps over its surface. That silence was broken by the chant of sacred hymns; and from my window at the hotel I could now descry the funeral cavalcade slowly approaching from the farther extremity of the Grande Place. At first it seemed a dark line of persons, whose sombre uniformity was broken by the white robes of two priests;—but as the mournful procession drew gradually nearer and nearer, I could distinguish the tall and marshal forms of the gendarmes with their drawn swords—the figures of the usher of the court which condemned the prisoner—the gaoler, the commissary of police, the mayor, and other civic authorities—and amidst them all the person of that young and Iuckless man for whom all this parade, ceremony, interest, anxiety, curiosity, and assembly of multitudes had taken place. Oh! say not that one life is nothing in the great chain of creation:—the doom of one miserable being, who had never done a good action in his life, and who had hitherto dragged on  grovelling existence unnoticed and unknown, had caused the neighbouring towns and villages to pour forth their crowds, had set the men of justice and the men of the sword to work, and had collected all together in one point on this fatal morning!

No insult was offered to the prisoner as he passed slowly along, the passage opened, for him by the crowd;—but if there were no public demonstration calculated to wound him, there was also an absence of any kind sympathy tending to cheer him. A deep, a stern, a solemn, a religious silence was maintained by the multitude, as the malefactor, attended by the two priests, dragged himself to the foot of the guillotine. At that moment the executioner, attended by his two assistants, appeared upon the scaffold. He lowered the axe, tried its edge, and then greased the grooves in which it worked up and down, with a piece of a candle. The gendarmes helped the condemned one up the steps to the platform; his face was colourless, and upon it could death impress no more hideous expression, nor throw a more ashy pallor than it already wore. His legs almost refused to perform their office; his hands were clasped together, in bitter—bitter agony of mind;—but his eyeballs seemed dead and lustreless, although his brain was at that moment the seat of such appalling—such withering—such lightning-blasting thoughts! —

Oh! who may say what agonies were experienced by that young man during the few moments he stood upon the platform of the guillotine, while the executioner’s assistants bound him to the fatal plank? Who shall decide whether that short interval of ineffable horror were not meet expiation for even the dread crime of which he had been guilty? Oh! too dread subject for contemplation if mortal have exceeded the trust reposed in him, and flown in the face of his Maker by taking away, even under the semblance and sanction of human justice; the lives of those who are created in that Maker’s image!

The dread preparations were completed;—the criminal was bound powerless to a plank, which was then lowered to a horizontal position, and shoved onward until the head of the miserable man fitted into a hollow in a block of wood, perpendicularly placed beneath the hatchet. Another block of wood, also with a semi-circular hollowing, was drawn down above his neck, so that his head was fixed in a hole resembling those of the stocks. The priests leant forward to Whisper the last consolation of man in the malefactor’s ears, and, all being ready, the executioner pulled a string which let the fatal axe loose. Down—down the newly greased grooves it fell, quick as the eyes can wink; and the head was here—and the trunk was there!

And then the crowds began to disperse—but less rapidly than they had assembled; and one by one the spectators withdrew their heads from the windows,—and the casements themselves were closed, or had their curtains drawn down,—and in an hour after the execution not a trace of that supreme act of the law was left—no, not even the blood of the criminal upon the pavement, nor a rafter of the guillotine in the market place.

Citation: George W.M. Reynolds, ‘A Guillotine Scene in France’, Reynolds’s Miscellany, 14 November 1846, 25–26.


[1] The newspaper here is illegible; perhaps the printers were a bit remiss in doing their jobs.

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