This series explores the social history of Capital Punishment in Britain, America and France with a unique perspective through the often-overlooked and shadowy figures of the executioners themselves. Who were these men? What did they do? And what did it do to them?
1. The Hangman
2. Dynasties of Death
3. States of Death
Episode 2 - Dynasties of Death
A typical 19th century wedding photograph. The guests well-groomed. Eminently respectable. There is nothing to distinguish it from countless others. But it tells the very darkest story of French history.
The groom, Henri Desfourneaux, is a killer. To his left, Anatole Deibler Desfourneaux, another. Two rows back another- Between them, they killed more than a thousand men. But they were not criminals, nor soldiers. They killed for money but were not volunteers. They had no choice. They were the "bourreau" - the executioners. And they lived their lives apart from ordinary men û in the shadow of the Guillotine. The story of the French 'bourreau' is perhaps the most remarkable in the history of judicial executions. Nowhere were executioners more shunned than in France. Since they were carrying out the King's work, by divine right, they were seen as mystical figures. Holy but unclean. It was nigh impossible for them to carry out any other trade. They were often forced to live outside town and city walls. Tradesmen refused to serve them. The only prospect of marriage was to marry into another executioner's family. There were hundreds of them, forming a vast caste of death dealers. They lived together, loved together and killed together. And yet they had no 'official' status. They were 'un-persons'. They paid no taxes, were free to marry cousins, and exempted from military service. And since their children were refused schooling, and had to be taught by private tutors, they were remarkably cultured people, well-read, musical, artistic and theatre-goers. Many spoke English fluently and were sought out by British tourists.
And for nearly 200 years they became masters of, and slaves to - the guillotine. More than a killing machine, the guillotine represented a revolutionary ideal - that all men should be treated equally. Even in death. And since at one time only the nobility were beheaded, it elevated the status of all citizens who suffered it. And its swiftness, certainty and 'humaneness' were supposed to distance the executioner from the process. Without blood on his hands, there should have no longer been any stigma attached to the post.
But it didn't turn out that way...