Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Derues and the ritual of execution

The execution of Derues was accompanied by an unprecedented outpouring of images.  According to Grimm, portraits of Derues and scenes from his crime and trial "of marvellous exactitude" were produced everywhere and merchants of engravings sold nothing else for a fortnight.  The following are mostly from a series of thirty-nine prints offered by the engravers Esnauts et Rapilly, to accompanied the extremely popular Vie privée et criminelle by the bookseller Cailleau.  Among them are some of the most striking images of the final years of "the age of spectacular execution".  Cailleau's  work sought to portray Derues as a monster of hypocrisy and crime; but paradoxically, the illustrations seem (and probably seemed at the time) more an indictment of the cruelties of 18th-century capital punishment.  They stand as  testimony to the suffering and resilience of the little man, whose protestations of innocence so disconcerted contemporary observers.

Derues is subjected to extraordinary torture before his execution
On 6th May, at six in the morning, Derues had his condemnation formally read to him.  He was then led into the torture chamber where the various high officials,including the lieutenant criminal Bachois de Villefort, were foregathered, with the executioner and his assistants in attendance. 

The details given in the manuscript journal of the bookseller Sébastien Hardy, suggest that much of what transpired was common knowledge:

Derues, Hardy noted, was paler than usual but he did not tremble.  He listened to the solemn reading of the arrêt against him by the court clerk, on his knees, bareheaded, with his hands tied behind his back.  When his eyes caught sight of the crucifix on the wall, he inclined his head piously and murmured a prayer.  Looking at his judges, he remarked quietly, "I did not expect so severe a sentence". ["je ne m'attendais pas a un traitement semblable".] 

According to custom, before the torture commenced, he was interrogated once more sur la sellette.  With unshakeable courage, he continued to affirm his innocence; he gave his name, age then stated that he had nothing to add to the testimony he had given at the trial.  In answer to the questions, he continued to deny that he had bought or administered poison. He remained apparently calm, his state of anguish  revealed only by the loosening of his bowels.(Hardy, quoted by Claretie, p.274-6)

The official records tell much the same story. The surgeons present feared that Derues would die under torture and proscribed the use of the water torture. He was submitted to the brodequins. The "ordinary" torture consisted of four wedges.  With the first,  he called on God to give him courage and continued to insist he was not  guilty of poisoning but only of concealing Mme de Lamotte's body.   After the second Derues "cried out much" and merely called on God to give him the strength to maintain the truth.  After this came the extraordinary torture;  he was now reduced to howling and crying,  "I am innocent!  I am innocent!  "At the first wedge of the extraordinary, he persisted and said the same thing, letting out great cries - At the second wedge, he said nothing - At the third wedge, nothing".  He had fainted away, but on the matelas the surgeons succeeded in reviving him. He even conversed  with magistrates, absolving them of blame and protesting his innocence. He was questioned again, but was too feeble to sign the procès-verbal

Derues is made ready to leave the Châtelet to be taken to his execution
In this version the executioner holds out the white shirt for the ritual of the amende honorable

Shortly before two o'clock in the afternoon Derues was taken to the parvis of Notre-Dame to perform the amende honorable.  He climbed into the cart which would take him to the scaffold.  Jean Gilbert Segaud, curé of Saint-Martin in the faubourg Saint-Marcel was in attendance.  It was raining and one of the executioner's assistants held an umbrella over the priest as he showed a crucifix to the condemned.  An immense crowd lined the route from the porte du Parlement.  It was observed that  Derues's palour was accentuated by his white shirt.  However, his expression betrayed no emotion.  According to the formula,  he was made to kneel, a cord around his neck and an heavy wax candle in his right hand; on his chest and back, a board recalled his crime:  Empoissoneur de dessein prémédité.  Before the clerk, sheltering under his umbrella, could begin to read the prescribed words of the amende honorable, Derues cried out once again, "I am innocence".  He addressed the crowd, his voice carrying clearly: "If justice disposes of my body, I hope that God will have care of my soul" (Metra, Correspondance littéraire secrète, quoted Claretie,p.280.)

Derues performs the amende honorable in front of the Church of Notre-Dame: he declares out loud his infamous crimes for which he asks pardon from God, the King and Justice.

Derues was then obliged to climb once more into the cart to travel to the place de Grève  Here the crowd was truly phenomenal; the archers on duty had difficulty containing the throng and illustrations show how the soldiers created a restraining cordon.  Colporteurs moved among the onlookers selling copies of the arrêt of condemnation and the various brochures containing details of the trial. The event coincided with a military review on the plaine de Sablon in the presence of the King and the whole royal family;  but there was no competition.  Not since Damiens had an execution attracted so huge a gathering.

Following his  amende honorable,  Derues is taken to the  place de Grève

Still Derues remained impassive;  only a slight trembling of his lips gave his emotion away. Once arrived, he immediately claimed his right to enter the Hôtel de Ville in order make his final declarations.  The magistrates gathered in one of the rooms;  M. Bachois de Villefort was there in his splendid scarlet robes.  But there were no new revelations.  Derues again protested his innocence of any poisonings. He tried above all to save his wife by insisting that she knew nothing of his schemes to dispose of the bodies.

The wretched Mme Derues  was brought from the For-l'Évêque prison to "confront"  her husband.  The little man embraced her and commended their children to her care, to be brought up in "fear of god and love of their duties".  He called on the protection of the bishop of Chartres and of Archbishop de Beaumont of Paris. (Hardy).  The miserable woman cried hysterically, pulled out her hair, collapsed to the ground.  According to Hardy she had already tried to kill herself by knocking her head against a doorpost.  Even the lieutenant criminal was moved to try and calm  her.  Desrues was questioned again to no avail, then signed the proces-verbal with  a firm hand.

Derues's wife s brought to the Hôtel de Ville where the sight of her husband causes her terrible distress.
On the point of leaving for the scaffold, Derues kneels, asks pardon from the magistrates for his lies during the trial, and insists on his innocence of poisoning

Scene of the execution (engraved by Basset, rue Saint-Jacques)

Heaven by it equitable judgment
Will sooner or later punish a perverse heart
Christians, let us pray to the God of Love
That he will save this black soul from Hell

At the last minute a bailiff from the Parlement arrived at the Hôtel de Ville with a letter from M de Gourgues, the president of the Tournelle  ordering a stay of execution if Derues had confessed. But he had admitted nothing.

It was now nearly six in the evening.  "Come", said Derues, "it must be finished"  The doors opened.  Supported by two aides he descended the steps of the Hôtel de Ville, climbed calmly onto the scaffold, and started to undress himself, helped by the executioners' assistants who served, said Hardy, as his valets de chambre.

Suddenly silence fell.  Derues was bound to the cross of St Andrew with his face towards the sky.  He was wearing only his chemise, leaving his arms and tights exposed.  The executioner Charles-Henry Sanson took up his iron bar and began to break his bones.  In this case the condemnation contained no retentum and the little man's cries of the suffering filled the air.  The crowd were horrified; it is recorded that, an apprentice engraver, a boy of fourteen, fainted right away and had to be taken to hospital.

Sanson finished his work  with two or three obligatory blows to the stomach and detached Derues from the cross.  He was not, however, dead;  he shuddered and still breathed feebly.  Nonetheless, he was now placed on the bonfire which had been prepared next to the scaffold, his body covered with brushwood and set alight.  When the fire was extinguished, according to the terms of the arrêt, his ashes were "thrown to the wind"  The crowd rushed to find some relic.  The urchins sold fragments of bone which were said to bring good luck (Hardy).  According to Metra the remains were bought up by an enterprising individual for 300 livres.

The version in the hostile Vie et crimes retains the memory of Derues's (now sinister) serenity but  minimises the gratuitous violence of the execution:

He mounted the scaffold were the serenity of an oppressed sage or a Christian martyr filled with resignation.  Abandoned to the executioner, he embraced him, kissed the instrument of his torment, assisted in the removal of his clothes.  When they tied his limbs, he asked the executioner to let him suffer as little as possible, then he laid down  courageously on the Cross of St-Andrew.  After affectionately embracing his Confessor and kissing the Crucifix several times, he abandoned himself to death without the slightest sign of fear or emotion.  Once his face was covered up by his gown,  his arms, his  legs, his thighs and kidneys, were broken;  he made a few sharp cries but by the ninth blow he had fallen quiet.  We are told there was a constant clapping of hands during the execution ......He was  taken down, his hands and feet bound together and his body placed on the bonfire.  This was immediately covered with branches and faggots and set fire to.  At that moment, the wretch was still breathing;  he must almost have felt the heat of the fire.  It was thus that this abominable destroyer of the human race paid for his crimes..... (p.127-8)

Contemporary sources
  • Vie de Dérues, exécuté à Paris en place de Grève, le 6 mai 1777  A Paris, chez tous les libraires qui vendent des nouveautés. 1777.  Attributed by Grimm and others to François-Thomas-Marie de Baculard d'Arnaud(1718-1805);2
  • Vie privée et criminelle d'Antoine-François Desrues Paris, chez Cailleau, imprimeur-libraire, rue Saint-Severin, 1777   There were at least four issues of this brochure in 1777 alone.
These two very hostile lives of Derues, were both issued with the approbation of Bertier de Sauvigny, intendant of Paris, and permission to print from Lenoir, dated 5th and 6th May 1777, the date of the rejection of Desrues's appeal.  In Annie Duprat's view they were officially sponsored to counter the public sympathy which Derues had excited.  Cailleau's version went through at least four editions in 1777 alone.  The second edition was accompanied by the engravings of Esnauts et Rapilly, "Marchands d'estampes rue Sainct Jacques, près de la Fontaine de St. Séverine"; the book sold for 24 sols without plates and 48 sols with the 39 engravings plus frontispiece (a portrait of Desrues).  p.131-2 gives a list of the plates, and the page numbers where they should be inserted.

This numbered series correspond to the list of plates,Vie privée et criminelle  p.131-2.

Thibault Ehrengardt, "Antoine-Francois Desrues, (Not) just another villain", Rare Books Hub

Among other plates, were some striking broadside sheets:
Tableau des principaux événements de la vie d'Antoine-François Derues(45 x 39 cm)

Secondary sources: 

Georges Claretie, Derues l’empoisonneur, une cause célèbre au xviiie siècle, Paris, Fasquelle, (1906)

See also:
Armand Fouquier, "Derues 1777" in Causes célèbres,  Paris (1862)

H.B. Irving," M.Derues" in A book of remarkable criminals (1918).

Modern studies of the Derues affair:
Annie Duprat, "L’affaire Desrues ou le premier tombeau de l’Ancien Régime"  Sociétés & Représentations, vol. 18, no. 2, 2004, pp. 123-134.

Pascal Bastien, "Les arrêts criminels et leurs enjeux sur l'opinion publique à Paris au XVIIIe siècle"
 Revue d'histoire moderne et contemporaine, (2006) Vol.53(1): p. 34-62

Hélène Duccini,  "Les images de la justice dans l'estampe, de 1750 à 1789", Le Temps des médias, 2010, vol. 15(2): p. 38-56. p.47-

The public papers gave an account of Derues' execution and the enormity of his crimes, which were of a sort to attract a kind of fame, but they made no mention of the revolution that has taken place in men's minds since his death. The following day people bought his ashes and bones; they wept over the end of villain they would have been happily seen torn to pieces. The firmness of the condemned man, his gentleness, even his religious sentiments, offered a truly astonishing spectacle.  
Annales politiques civiles et littéraires du xviiie siècle (1777) vol. 2 p.218-9 [quoted Bastien, p.36]

The more one interrogated him and heard his reasoning, the more one came to regard him as an incomprehensible and altogether extraordinary creature.   He earned the high esteem and veneration of Parisians and the inhabitants of Villeneuve-le-roi, who regarded him as a saint...   A great number of fools, ignoramuses or people disposed to prejudice against magistrates, grumbled against the rigour of the judgment.
Extracts from Hardy, MS Journal [quoted Bastien p.36-7]

This man preserved his mask of hypocrisy to the last breath, speaking ceaselessly of God, and of his innocence, saying that he forgave for his death the judges who condemned him unjustly.  He had his wife sent for and commended their children to her to be brought up well ."I expire, he said to her, "like Calas, and I resign myself to the decrees of Providence". He allowed himself to be tied to the Cross of Saint-Andrew with unheard of tranquility;  he even lifted himself up to view the crowd......finally, there could be no hero who could have perished with such philosophical firmness..... Some people, as there are always those who like to complain, found that the law had been betrayed in condemning to death a man who stubbornly denied his crime and against whom no valid proofs were found;   these frondeurs did not want to see all the evidence that had been accumulated..
Metra, Correspondance littéraire secrète,  vol. 4 p.358-9.

There are few criminals who have occupied public attention more that the miserable Desrues;  there are few also whose conduct has revealed a more firm and quietly fierce spirit.  His  scheme to acquire a property worth more than a hundred-thousand francs without paying a sou showed remarkable boldness, especially for a private individual who was neither a lawyer nor a businessman; without unforeseen bad luck, his contrivances might have succeeded; they showed perhaps more ingenuity than wickedness or atrocity.  Only the hypocrisy of a Tartuffe or a Cromwell could be compared with that shown by Desrues - in the course of his crime, during his trial and right up to the last moment of his life.  

We do not want to repeat what has been said in the public papers, especially the arrêt of condemnation, which was more detailed than any previousarrêt  of this sort;  we will confine ourselves to a few of the personal peculiarities, that M. d'Arnaud had collected.

The wretch was a native of Chartres; he was born into a respectable family, long established in trade.  It seems that both sexes wanted to reject him; for in his early years he was brought up as a girl; remedies were given to him that, in his twelfth year, procured him the distinctive characteristics of the masculine sex..... 

If one wishes to have an  idea of Desrues one must imagine a man of small stature, with a pale face, delicate and thin...His features, little outstanding, were not remarkable at first;  but his eyes, round, deep and piercing, betrayed in a certain fashion the perversity of his soul.

This monster was thirty-two or thirty-three years old; he slept little he always had in his hands the Imitation of Christ or some other work of piety.  Sometimes he played cards with this guards; but what excited astonishment and indignation, was the way he showed a calm face of innocence; unclouded, without passion...breathing purity, trusting himself to the Providence and his judges; saying that "the magistrates would restore his honour as they had that of Calas...".  When he appeared before the Parlement, he looked at the crowd with a tranquillity which proclaimed virtue....His replies to the magistrate, when he went into the Hôtel-de-Ville, were full of good sense and vigour.  His interview with his wife was a masterpiece of villainy; he used all his quiet daring; the unheard of excesses of his imposture, to address to the unfortunate woman the most pathetic exhortations, to entrust to her the education of their children, assuring her of his resignation and persisting in his claim that he had poisoned neither Madame de Lamotte nor her son.

....He went to the scaffold with the assurance of an oppressed sage or a Christian martyr, his soul full of saintly hopes. He helped the executioner take of his clothes, positioned himself on the cross of Saint-Andrew;  affectionately embraced his confessor, kissed the crucifix and gave himself to death without the slightest sign of fear or emotion.
The people were so struck by these appearances of virtue and piety, that the ashes of this monster were gathered the next day as though they were precious relics.  To dissipate the illusion created by his hypocrisy, there were published detailed relations of his life and crimes.
Grimm,  Correspondance littéraire, vol. 9, p.362-3.

The "Lives" which appeared with official approval, emphasised not only Derues's villainy and hypocrisy, but also his criminal nature, which was manifest from an early age.

Antoine-François Derues, former Marchand Epicier, will be counted among these  villains to be remembered as long as crime is held in horror: not even Cartouche, Nivet, Chaubert... united in their villainy so many and profound attrocities.  Fathers of Families, keep this terrible history near at hand and before the eyes of your children.  There is no doubt:  if the parents of Derues. If the parents of Derues had kept an attentive eye on his developing inclinations, they might have have discovered and perhaps stiffled the monstrous seed of criminality, even of the diabolical.Vie de Dérues (1777), p.3-4.

The Frontispiece to the Vie privée et criminelle  reads:  "Under the mask of Virtue/ He committed frightful crimes/ This abominable Hypocrite/ Finished as he had lived"

The wicked passion for accumulating riches leads to all sorts of disorder, such that the man who is afflicted can take no step which does not lead to his ruin.  This unworthy passion effaces from his heart all noble sentiments of human nature. .... [Derues] lost his father and mother at the age of three...He already showed vicious inclinations, at the age where a man scarcely knows his own mind.  His cousins saw that he was stealing money from them .... 
Vie privée et criminelle d'Antoine-François Desrues (1777) p. 3-5.

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