I follow a blog written in French by Marie-Christine Pénin called www.tombes-sepultures.com which specialize in locating the tombs of famous people in France. The period covered is usually 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. I often wonder where is so and so buried, a famous name does not necessarily have a famous grave. Each entry gives you the story of the person and how it ended with often some strange family detail about the burial. One entry recently was about the French Revolution (Civil War) and how the Kings and Queens of France buried in the St-Denis Cathedral were dug up and their tombs smashed. Some with vivid description of the cadaver, like that of Louis XV whose body was black and gave out a powerful stench despite the fact that he had died some 17 years prior.
This week it is about the family Sanson, who for 7 generations where the Official Executioner of France, from 1688 to 1847. A profession that no longer exist, but a profession nonetheless required for putting to death the great and the not so great of France who had been condemned by the State. Official Executioner was a title given by the King and then at the Revolution by the Committee in charge. It was a paid job with honours and benefits. One benefit was on the death of the Executioner, he was entitled to a Funeral Mass with full Civilian Honours. So for 159 years the Sanson, from fathers to sons where in charge of executing by whatever means decreed, prisoners. They not only exercised their profession in Paris but also in several other cities of France. The head of the Family usually had Paris and his sons had other cities, some sons were also helpers in the putting to death of a condemned person. They were responsible for maintaining the tools of their trade and setting up the scaffolds etc ensuring that all would go well.
A very grim business and not always a quick affair, sometimes in the 17th and 18th centuries executions which were a public spectacle required some showmanship. However amongst the duty of the Executioner, he had to meet with the condemned prior to the execution, they would have a surreal conversation about what was to take place and the condemned could make a request that he be dispatched quickly if possible, often giving the Executioner a sum of money. One of the Sanson was known for his consideration and kindness toward the condemned person, his job was to put them to death not to make them suffer unduly or turn a public execution into butchery.
It was Charles-Henri Sanson who had to execute King Louis XVI. Though he had been a revolutionary in 1789 by 1793 he had lost his appetite for the revolution and turned against it. In his opinion far too many innocent people had been condemned by comedy show trials, where the results were more important than the facts or the truth. When he was given the paper ordering the execution of the King, Charles-Henri Sanson said he felt faint and wanted to run. He knew the trial had been rigged against the Sovereign and Sanson was hoping for a last minute reprieve or a plot to free the king. This royal execution would haunt him for the rest of his days and in his will he left money so that a Mass could be said monthly to ask God for forgiveness for this horrible business.
Sanson’s son would execute 9 months later Queen Marie-Antoinette, who was leaving behind two young children. The day of the execution the Parisian crowds were in an ugly mood and sullen, very much against putting the Queen to death. He also dispatched other revolutionaries like Danton and Robespierre. He like other members of his family are buried around Paris in churches or in cemeteries amongst other dignitaries. We do not know much about the Sanson family except for the journals and correspondence they left behind, they had a job to do and it required a certain amount of discretion.