RECOUNTED BY EYE-WITNESSES
I. THE EXECUTION OF LOUIS XVI.
There were certain characteristic details connected with
the execution of Louis XVI. that are not recorded in history.
They were recounted to me by an eye-witness* and
are here published for the first time.
* This eye witness was one Leboucher, who arrived in Paris from
Bourges in December, 1792, and was present at the execution of Louis
XVI. In 1840 he recounted to Victor Hugo most of these details
which, as can easily be imagined, had impressed themselves deeply
upon his mind.
The scaffold was not, as is generally believed, erected
in the very centre of the Place, on the spot where the
obelisk now stands, but on a spot which the decree of
the Provisional Executive Council designates in these
precise terms: "between the pied d'estal and the
What was this pedestal? Present generations who
have seen so many things happen, so many statues crumble
and so many pedestals overthrown do not quite know what
meaning to give to this very vague designation, and would
be embarrassed to tell for what monument the mysterious
stone which the Executive Council of the Revolution
laconically calls the "pied d'estal" served as a base. This
stone had borne the statue of Louis XV.
Let it be noted ~en passant~ that this strange Place which
had been called successively the Place Louis XV., Place
de la Revolution, Place de la Concorde, Place Louis XVI.,
Place du Garde-Meuble and Place des Champs-Elysées,
and which could not retain any name, could not keep any
monument either. It has had the statue of Louis XV.,
which disappeared; an expiatory fountain which was to
have laved the bloody centre of the Place was projected,
but not even the first stone was laid; a rough model of a
monument to the Charter was made: we have never seen
anything but the socle of this monument. Just when a
bronze figure representing the Charter of 1814 was about
to be erected, the Revolution of July arrived with the
Charter of 1830. The pedestal of Louis XVIII. vanished,
as fell the pedestal of Louis XV. Now on this
same spot we have placed the obelisk of Sesostris. It
required thirty centuries for the great Desert to engulf half
of it; how many years will the Place de la Revolution
require to swallow it up altogether?
In the Year II of the Republic, what the Executive
Council called the "pied d'estal" was nought but a
shapeless and hideous block. It was a sort of sinister symbol
of the royalty itself. Its ornaments of marble and bronze
had been wrenched off, the bare stone was everywhere split
and cracked. On the four sides were large square gaps
showing the places where the destroyed bas reliefs
had been. Scarcely could a remnant of the entablature
still be distinguished at the summit of the
pedestal, and beneath the cornice a string of ovolos,
defaced and worn, was surmounted by what architects call
a "chaplet of paternosters." On the table of the
pedestal one could perceive a heap of debris of all kinds,
in which tufts of grass were growing here and there. This
pile of nameless things had replaced the royal statue.
The scaffold was raised a few steps distant from this
ruin, a little in rear of it. It was covered with long
planks, laid transversely, that masked the framework. A
ladder without banisters or balustrade was at the back, and
what they venture to call the head of this horrible
construction was turned towards the Garde-Meuble. A
basket of cylindrical shape, covered with leather, was
placed at the spot where the head of the King was to fall,
to receive it; and at one of the angles of the entablature,
to the right of the ladder, could be discerned a long wicker
basket prepared for the body, and on which one of the
executioners, while waiting for the King, had laid his hat.
Imagine, now, in the middle of the Place, these two
lugubrious things, a few paces from each other: the
pedestal of Louis XV. and the scaffold of Louis XVI.; that is
to say, the ruins of royalty dead and the martyrdom of
royalty living; around these two things four formidable
lines of armed men, preserving a great empty square in
the midst of an immense crowd; to the left of the scaffold,
the Champs-Elysees, to the right the Tuileries, which,
neglected and left at the mercy of the public had become
an unsightly waste of dirt heaps and trenches; and
over these melancholy edifices, over these black, leafless
trees, over this gloomy multitude, the bleak, sombre sky
of a winter morning, and one will have an idea of the
aspect which the Place de la Revolution presented at the
moment when Louis XVI., in the carriage of the Mayor
of Paris, dressed in white, the Book of Psalms clasped in
his hands, arrived there to die at a few minutes after ten
o'clock on January 21, 1793.
Strange excess of abasement and misery: the son of so
many kings, bound and sacred like the kings of Egypt,
was to be consumed between two layers of quicklime,
and to this French royalty, which at Versailles had
had a throne of gold and at St. Denis sixty sarcophagi
of granite, there remained but a platform of pine and a
Here are some unknown details. The executioners numbered
four; two only performed the execution; the third
stayed at the foot of the ladder, and the fourth was on the
waggon which was to convey the King's body to the Madeleine
Cemetery and which was waiting a few feet from the
The executioners wore breeches, coats in the French
style as the Revolution had modified it, and three-cornered
hats with enormous tri-colour cockades.
They executed the King with their hats on, and it was
without taking his hat off that Samson, seizing by the hair
the severed head of Louis XVI., showed it to the people,
and for a few moments let the blood from it trickle upon
At the same time his valet or assistant undid what
were called "les sangles" (straps); and, while the crowd
gazed alternately upon the King's body, dressed entirely
in white, as I have said, and still attached, with the hands
bound behind the back, to the swing board, and upon that
head whose kind and gentle profile stood out against the
misty, sombre trees of the Tuileries, two priests,
commissaries of the Commune, instructed to be present, as
Municipal officials, at the execution of the King, sat in the
Mayor's carriage, laughing and conversing in loud tones.
One of them, Jacques Roux, derisively drew the other's
attention to Capet's fat calves and abdomen.
The armed men who surrounded the scaffold had only
swords and pikes; there were very few muskets. Most of
them wore large round hats or red caps. A few platoons
of mounted dragoons in uniform were mingled with these
troops at intervals. A whole squadron of dragoons was
ranged in battle array beneath the terraces of the
Tuileries. What was called the Battalion of Marseilles
formed one of the sides of the square.
The guillotine--it is always with repugnance that one
writes this hideous word--would appear to the craftsmen
of to-day to be very badly constructed. The knife was
simply suspended to a pulley fixed in the centre of the
upper beam. This pulley and a rope the thickness of a
man's thumb constituted the whole apparatus. The
knife, which was not very heavily weighted, was of small
dimensions and had a curved edge, which gave it the form
of a reversed Phrygian cap. No hood was placed to shelter
the King's head and at the same time to hide and circumscribe
its fall. All that crowd could see the head of
Louis XVI. drop, and it was thanks to chance, thanks perhaps to
the smallness of the knife which diminished the
violence of the shock, that it did not bound beyond the
basket to the pavement. Terrible incident, which often
occurred at executions during the Terror. Nowadays
assassins and poisoners are decapitated more decently.
Many improvements in the guillotine have been made.
At the spot where the King's head fell, a long rivulet
of blood streamed down the planks of the scaffold to the
pavement. When the execution was over, Samson threw
to the people the King's coat, which was of white molleton,
and in an instant it disappeared, torn by a thousand hands.
At the moment when the head of Louis XVI. fell, the
Abbé Edgeworth was still near the King. The blood
spirted upon him. He hastily donned a brown overcoat,
descended from the scaffold and was lost in the crowd.
The first row of spectators opened before him with a sort
of wonder mingled with respect; but after he had gone a
few steps, the attention of everybody was still so
concentrated upon the centre of the Place where the event had
just been accomplished, that nobody took any further notice
of Abbé Edgeworth.
The poor priest, enveloped in his thick coat which concealed
the blood with which he was covered, fled in bewilderment,
walking as one in a dream and scarcely knowing
where he was going. However, with that sort of instinct
which preserves somnambulists he crossed the river,
took the Rue du Bac, then the Rue du Regard and thus
managed to reach the house of Mme. de Lézardière, near
the Barrière du Maine.
Arrived there he divested himself of his soiled clothing
and remained for several hours, in a state of collapse, without
being able to collect a thought or utter a word.
Some Royalists who rejoined him, and who had witnessed
the execution, surrounded the Abbé Edgeworth
and reminded him of the adieu he had addressed to the
King: "Son of St. Louis, ascend to heaven!" These words,
however, memorable though they were, had left no trace
on the mind of him who had uttered them. "We heard
them," said the witnesses of the catastrophe, still moved
and thrilled. "It is possible," he replied, "but I do not
remember having said such a thing."
Abbé Edgeworth lived a long life without ever being
able to remember whether he really did pronounce these
Mme. de Lézardière, who had been seriously ill for more
than a month, was unable to support the shock of the death
of Louis XVI. She died on the very night of January 21.
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