Montmartre Cemetery 75018 Paris
January 21st 2020 marked the 228th anniversary of the execution of King Louis XVI. Instead of memorializing him, I’d like to talk about someone else.. the family responsible for executing the King of France, his wife Marie Antoinette, and thousands more during the Reign of Terror.
Some professions run in families. Lawyers, Doctors, Dentists.. and executioners? La famille Sanson had blood in their, well.. blood. During 6 generations and nearly 200 years, each eldest Sanson male continued the family legacy in the trade of death, beginning with Charles Sanson, who was dubbed Original Gansta Executioner of Paris in 1684- until Henry Clément Sanson who served as the last Sanson bourreau (French for executioner) until 1847.
The “Great Sanson”, Charles Henri Sanson is the most well known as the first to use the guillotine and undoubtedly for his role in beheading King Louis XVI during the French Revolution on January 21, 1793 at what today is known as Place de la Concorde.
So who was the man who killed a King? At first glance, the role of executioner may seem to be an evil one, and history certainly paints Charles Henri with a red (maybe crimson?) marker. But in reality, this man’s life was an interesting one. Despite killing a total of 2,918 people during his career, when asked if he slept well at night, he responded, “if emperors, kings, and dictators can sleep well at night, why can’t an executioner?”
The eldest son of 16 children, Charles Henri took over the role of his father, Charles Jean Baptiste Sanson, in 1778 after several years apprenticing. However he didn’t have any desire to hold this gruesome title, and in fact had a strong aversion to it. Spending his early childhood at a private school in Rouen, he had to leave when his peers discovered his father’s ghastly profession. (Because 18th century bullies can be assholes too right? HEY CHARLIE YOUR OLD MAN SHARE ANY AXE JOKES WITH YOU OR DO THEY JUST GO RIGHT OVER YOUR HEAD HAHAHA!)
He was also forced to leave his beloved medical school training as his father became progressively weakened from his line of work. True story, this was a tough job that required a certain.. finesse. On a moral level, regardless of his opinion of guilt or innocence of the victim before him, Charles had a duty and at the risk of shame to his family name- was required to do as he was commanded. And somewhat surprisingly, he approved of the guillotine as the method of execution for ALL (equality was a key factor in the French revolution, with the king being killed just as his subjects were. Normally, those of higher standing were afforded a quicker, cleaner death by sword) citing that not only was it more humane, it was also more efficient and less physically demanding for the executioner, who even if highly skilled, could have his bad days and ah, miss his mark.
It probably didn’t help his work-life relationship when his eldest son and heir Gabriel, slipped off a scaffold and died in 1790 while holding a severed head after he had assisted his father in an execution. There are quite a few interpretations regarding the morning of January 21, 1793 when Charles Henri executed Louis XVI. Apparently while Charles Henri was not a supporter of the monarchy, he was reluctant to kill the King, who was regarded at that time as chosen by God himself. One can only imagine the pressures he was under being forced to chose between ending the line of Bourbon monarchs and the blood thirsty new government of the French Revolution.
Some say that King Louis XVI was executed swiftly and painlessly. Others say that the guillotine merely severed the back of his head and jaw and he screamed a horrible cry just before his head was held aloft by an executioner’s assistant, who cried out “Vive la Revolution!” According to Charles Henri himself, King Louis XVI died an honorable and brave death, even pardoning Sanson for shedding his innocent blood.
There was a moment of solidarity between the two when it was made clear to Louis XVI that his hands were to be bound with rope. Aghast at being treated like a lowly criminal, the former King cried “Never!” Sanson offered him an alternative, “A handkerchief Sire”.
Perhaps touched upon hearing his old title and shown this small respect by the man soon to be responsible for ending his life, the King gave in and bravely offered his wrists and accepted his fate. What happened to Charles Henri after this pivotal moment in his career? Well he retired as executioner not long after, and spent the rest of his days playing the violin, growing medicinal herbs in his garden, and tracking pokémon on his Iphone X. He died on July 4, 1806 and was buried with his ancestors in a small plot in the Montmartre cemetery, which can be visited today.