The Sanson household was not a merry one. It produced seven generations of French executioners who severed thousands of heads from 1688 to 1847. Here comes the not-for-the-faint-hearted story of a family which chose death as its bread and butter.
While justice may sometimes be considered blind and anonymous (or even plain stupid), its main public figure was well-known in the Middle Ages: the executioner, a man whose face was known (and feared) across the area where he performed his despicable duty. Although thousands of gawkers gathered around the scaffold on execution day, the hangman did not receive city-wide acclaim for his performances. People would rather steer clear of a man whose bloody hands had involuntarily soiled the name and damaged the reputation.
“La mort n’a pas d’amis”
French for ‘death has no friends’, that old proverb proves particularly true when it comes to medieval executioners. Marginalized, cast aside by superstition and fear, they usually inhabited the poor districts that prostitutes, lepers and beggars also called home. So why would anybody in his right mind pick this job as a breadwinner?
Charles Sanson did not actually embrace the profession; rather, he married the daughter of a notorious executioner in Dieppe, and thus started working alongside him in the late 1670s. Charles helped his father-in-law hanging around — that’s how he learned the ropes of the job, although it was not always easy. (One day he fainted on the scaffold and the crowd copiously taunted him.) Charles kept learning nevertheless, and ten years later became the official executioner of Paris. His predecessor had been convicted of pimping (yes, he was both an executioner AND a pimp, what a business card) so Charles was tasked with his first execution in 1688.
Running in the blood
Charles would not have expected the job to remain in his family for almost two centuries; but since the profession of executioner was widely considered cursed and ill-omened, it usually overlapped over generations from father to son. In 1707, Charles Sanson II succeeded his Dad but died early, leaving his 7-year-old child Jean-Baptiste in charge. Somebody else took office until Jean-Baptiste had reached age of majority, and thirteen years later, the latter eventually walked in his grandfather’s footsteps.
Jean-Baptiste’s career was sullied by professional misconduct, however; during a banal hanging in 1751, the rope broke twice in a row, sparing the convict. Feeling offended, the executioner strangled the man with his bare hands, before hanging his dead body again for good measure… Later in life, Jean-Baptiste fell victim of a stroke and his eldest son took the reins in 1778. His name was Charles-Henri Sanson. His six brothers also worked as executioners in Blois, Versailles, Montpellier, Provins, Reims and Dijon.
The burnt-out executioner
Charles-Henri was to become the most prolific executioner of the family. His career started nonetheless with a tragic twist: after he had beheaded three counterfeiters, his son Gabriel grabbed one head after the other to show to the audience (as was customary at the time). But 22-year-old Gabriel stumbled and fell from the scaffold, smashing his skull. Three convicts, four dead.
The tense political context of the late 18th-century did not give Charles-Henri much time to mull this accident over. The French Revolution provided him with a rising supply of prisoners to execute. Plus, on October 6, 1791 was passed a new law: ‘All condemned to death will have their heads cut off’. Worried about overwork (overtime did not pay much in the 1790s), the executioner contributed to the design of the notorious guillotine, which would at least spare him part of the dirty work.
The guillotine, first tested on cadavers and sheep, was officially introduced in 1792. Despite its gloomy reputation, one may say it was a truly democratic machine, for it killed prisoners, monarchs and revolutionaries alike. Charles-Henri Sanson, overseeing the executions, saw no less than 3,000 heads falling off their owners’ necks. Amongst them, those of Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette (whose last words were addressed at Sanson himself), Robespierre, Danton… Perhaps it was too much for the executioner to handle: he resigned in 1795, giving way to his son Henry.
The end of the dynasty
Henry walked into his father’s footsteps for 35 years, with less labor fortunately. The massive executions featuring the Terreur period had decreased dramatically. His son Henri-Clément became the last executioner of the Sanson family, only overseeing eighteen executions. But he earned his reputation elsewhere: he was a notorious gambler who lost most of the time, and once even bet the guillotine to clear his debts! Upon his dismissal in 1847, the Sansons had reigned over the scaffold for 159 years — a dynasty started by Charles, Henri-Clément great-great-great-grandfather. One thing is for sure: the Sanson family was blood-related in more ways than one.
- Sonya Vatomsky, “The Executioners Who Inherited Their Jobs”, 26 janvier 2018, Smithonian.com.
- Jacques Delarue, Le métier de bourreau : du Moyen Âge à aujourd’hui (1979), Fayard.
- Emma Bryce, “What Was It Like to Be an Executioner in the Middle Ages?”, août 2019, LiveScience.
- Frédéric Armand, Les bourreaux en France. Du Moyen Âge à l’abolition de la peine de mort (2012), Perrin.
- Arthur Isak Applbaum, “Professional Detachment: The Executioner of Paris”, Harvard Law Review, vol. 109, no. 2, 1995, pp. 458–486. JSTOR.