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Guest blogger! From Giverville to the Évreux guillotine, in 1837

Match! and last we heard well on the way to renovation after years of neglect.
Match! and last we heard well on the way to renovation after years of neglect.

Not far from this idyllic Giverville scene, back in the 1830’s lived Pierre-Aime Pinel, with his wife and young family.  Pierre-Aime was now 30, his wife Marie-Clotilde Cauvin, 40.  Any traces of the alluring older woman he once adored disappeared in the decade they had lived as man and wife.  They were poor and badly suited, only speaking to blame each other for their misery. Unoriginal, Pierre drank and when he drank he beat his wife.

On Christmas Eve 1836 Pierre-Aime probably drank a little more than usual.  He certainly became angrier.

The next morning the body of Marie-Clotilde was found in a frozen pond, she was covered with bruises.  The autopsy said she had been strangled then drowned.   Neighbours quickly came forward to share their stories of Pierre’s violence but it was the testimony of Pierre-Aime and Marie-Clotilde’s son that sealed his father’s fate.  He simply said ‘it’s dad who killed mum’.

'Normandy Peasant Woman and her Child', oil on canvas painting by Elizabeth Nourse, 1900, Cincinnati Art Museum
‘Normandy Peasant Woman and her Child’, oil on canvas painting by Elizabeth Nourse, 1900, Cincinnati Art Museum

Witness to justice – our guest blogger Mme. Tyssandier

On 22 July 1837 Pierre-Aime Pinel was sentenced to death by guillotine, until that time he would be imprisoned in La maison d’arrêt, the prison, in Évreux .

A little girl, the 8 year old daughter of the Évreux prison nurse, would witnessed this terrible justice. Years later and a now a widow, Mme. Tyssandier wrote an account of her early life in Normandy that included memories of Pierre-Aime’s last days.

Mme. Tyssandier is our guest blogger and here is her account, written in 1894, of a form of justice now consigned to history.

This postcard of a young Normandy peasant girl in traditional costume is we think a good likeness for our guest blogger, age 8
This postcard of a young Normandy peasant girl in traditional costume is we think a good likeness for our guest blogger, age 8

 

Excerpt from ‘Impressions of Childhood’ published in the Bibliothèque universelle et Revue suisse 1903…

A young girl plays in a prison

In a large cabinet at the back of our kitchen lay beams and planks, arranged in order. Upon these planks I would sit my dolls when I wanted to play at ‘schools’. I was the mistress of course. I taught my two pupils with cardboard signs but as they were silent to all my questions, I had to smack them from A to Z.

I would climb up on their benches for a closer scold; just like my own teachers who would often scold and smack me. The wood I was climbing and where I played was the wood of the guillotine.

Now I often shudder at this memory. But then the scaffold appeared harmless and just part of my life; for years a friend of many hours play, before becoming an object of terror and disgust.

“This is the knife”

My mother had forbidden me to touch a large basket covered with a well-crafted cover. “What is it?” I had asked once. She answered me “This is the knife”. What knife I did not know and if I had asked her, I do not remember.

On days prisoners were due to be placed in the pillory [for public abuse], a small grey haired man, very sweet who my mother called Mr Amand would come to the prison.  I liked him.  People spoke of him as ‘the executioner’. It was a long time before I realized the formidable task of justice he held.

At that time, each Assize Court had its executor. In our town, everyone knew the executioner; although he was avoided. Those who had dealings with him in the prison service appreciated his character and tried to stop people’s prejudice.

He had no children but his little niece became a bit my friend and looking for her sometimes I would visit the uncle. The executioner lived in a nice house near the Pont-Saint, at the entrance of the street to the Butchers. I can see him now, tidy in his bowler hat. If I met him out walking he was always alone.

Mr Amand was a fishing enthusiast. With plenty of leisure time and quiet tastes he often spent afternoons on Avenue Camholle by the river, with a line in his hand.

Another use for old wood

I was very familiar with the long wood planks in our kitchen, they were the landscape of my games. Then I suddenly learned their bloody destination. I was eight or nine years old.

The guillotine would soon execute a man who had murdered his wife [Pierre-Aime Pinel] .

Sometimes I slid behind a guard in the hallway leading to the cells and when the door opened, I saw chained to the foot of his cot, one that awaited death.

He was in the prime of life. I knew we would cut his neck because he had killed his wife. The guards said one evening in front of me “It’s probably Saturday for forty days have passed“.

So we would behead a man who was full of life; we would kill him coldly. On the scaffold it was said, on my boards he would be beheaded with a knife from the basket. And by whom, great God by Mr. Amand, this small very sweet man, who had never kissed me, but always said hello so kindly and touched his hand upon my hair.

justice criminelle pierre aime pinel

Tormented

I was during those evenings in the darkness of our room even more scared than usual, and visions of torment haunted my sleep. During the day in the kitchen I avoided opening the cabinet that housed wooden justice but, in spite of myself, my imagination could see them.  I could see deep down through the white wall to their great shadowy spot.

15 September 1837

On Saturday morning the servants came for the guillotine. Everyone was excited and spoke of the “unfortunate” in lowered voices. I asked a guard who often sat outside his cell “does he know?” “not yet”, he said “the public prosecutor will come and the executioner. They will arrive in an hour or two”.

At this I ran to hide at the end of our hallway; then, unable to hold up, I went to the courtyard which was empty. It was a glorious September morning. I don’t know what drew me outside, what curiosity but I wanted to see, mingle with the surging crowds I heard pass like a stream by our walls. Claiming an errand I was allowed out into the street, while in the cell Mr. Amand presided over the last moments of the condemned.

Vintage postcard of a cell in the the old Évreux prison
Vintage postcard of a cell in the the old Évreux prison

Évreux on the day of execution

In those days we guillotined on the big Évreux crossroads by the marketplace, in daylight before the people of the city and those of the country.  As an example, it was said. I went to the marketplace.

The marketplace was as lively as the day of the country fair. Peasants, workers, citizens filled the streets. The crowds had bought drinks from farmhouses and jostled under red cotton umbrellas, open against the sun. There was music from barrel organs, laments and songs.  The maimed displayed their misery, asking for alms. The windows of the houses were full ofthe curious.

Approaching the crossroads I saw in the bottom of the square the guillotine.

I slipped between groups of people until I was right by the platform, looking up at two huge planks of wood joined at the top by a large cleaver. I could hardly recognise these silent friends from my home, these steadfast companions of my games, as they appeared to me terrible in their new attitude.

I could see all the of contraption but what struck me most was that the two planks were each side of a gleaming blade, like two huge wooden arms raised to the sky.

There was a hubbub, soldiers appeared then there was a great silence as the procession arrived: a cart escorted by mounted police.

Évreux, the Place du Grand Carrefour
Évreux, the Place du Grand Carrefour

The prisoner arrives at the scaffold

Here they are at the foot of the scaffold. I see Mr. Amand in black suit while the condemned in the cart is bareheaded his shirt half-open, his hands tied behind his back, accompanied by a priest who raises up to his forehead a large crucifix.

The man walks, staggering, supported by an aid and the chaplain who speaks no doubt of forgiveness and eternal life. Mr. Amand unfolded a large handkerchief and places a towel on the front of his shirt.

Horror seizes me, I would run away but my legs falter. So I sit down, and I cover my face with my apron, up over my head.

How long I remained thus, squatting on the edge of a sidewalk, elbows on knees, the veiled face in my hands, I do not know. Perhaps half an hour elapsed when a woman, touching me on the shoulder and asked me “Why are you waiting there, little one?”

Awakened from my stupor, I reply “I do not want to see cut the neck!”.

But that is long ago, it’s over” she said. So I get up, put down my apron, I open my eyes. The world had dispersed; the great crossroads was almost empty. They had already dismantled the guillotine and I no longer feel alive as instead of the scaffold there is just a large bloodstain. I returned to the prison, somehow defeated.

Francisco de Goya's pencil sketch 'The French Penalty' @1828
Francisco de Goya’s pencil sketch ‘The French Penalty’ @1828

No longer a friend

In the sunny main street the inns were full of noise; peasants, recovered from their emotions lunched happily and clinked their glasses. On returning, I found my mother. She scolded me strongly then, seeing me so confused, she relented and spoke to me kindly.

The dethroned scaffold was returned to our home and his accustomed place. But he had ceased to be my friend. I saw in it’s frame the broken body of a barbarian instrument. I never again climbed its planks, splashed with the blood of the poor.

Now I ran whenever I saw Mr. Amand and I did not understand why he had chosen an ugly business. I did not know that the poor man was born to it; son, grandson, nephew, cousin all executors with no choice about their vocation.

One day he told my mother that he was not a supporter of the death penalty “our business is ending” he said “it is no bad thing. We have already since I started abolished the brand and the shackles. You will see that we will eventually remove the executioner”.

He probably wished that the function lasted as long as him, for he would hardly find another that paid so well.  2,400 livres and living happily in his little house by Butcher street with little to do. Every three months after each assizes there would be a pillory to exhibit all those sentenced to prison and others. But the guillotine usually rested for several years.

Wenceslas de Broczik 'Peasant women chatting in Normandy'
Wenceslas de Broczik ‘Peasant women chatting in Normandy’

The executioner

When the day of an execution approached Mr. Amand was sick. Usually sober, he drank to excess in the morning to give tone, and staggering he rested his hands on the back of the cart which led the condemned to death. I heard that his terrible work being accomplished, on his way home he would be in a fit of rage.  Without hurting people he would rush on things, shoving furniture, breaking dishes, wanting to somehow relax his nerves. The next day he was as normal; taking his fishing tackle slowly and alone to the water’s edge.

Mme. Tyssandier 1894

First published in the Bibliothèque universelle et Revue suisse 1903

Update

The last person to be guillotined in France was Hamida Djandoubi in 1977. France finally retired the guillotine in September 1981 when capital punishment was abolished.

Chateau de Giverville through the old gates
Chateau de Giverville through the old gates

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