Sunday, 29 September 2019

1750: The last homosexuals executed in France

On 18th October 2014, the Socialist Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo ceremonially unveiled a memorial plaque to Bruno Lenoir and Jean Diot, the last men to be executed in France for homosexuality.  The plaque is embedded into the pavement at the corner of rue Montorgueil and rue Bauchaumont, on the exact spot where the two were arrested over two hundred and fifty years ago, in January 1750.

Hommage à MM. LENOIR & DIOT from ALSG on Vimeo.

The commemoration is something of a political hot potato.  The memorial was the initiative of  the Communist and Left Party of the Conseil de Paris (groupe PCF-PG) and is seen as a piece of anti-clerical propaganda (see for instance, the articles by Olivier Marchal).  It has already been subject to two acts of vandalism in 2018 - a wreath  burned in May,  the plaque smeared in soot and covered with homophobic tracts in July.

Who were Lenoir and Diot?  

The case in itself was unremarkable.

On the night of 4th January 1750, at about eleven o'clock two men were arrested in the rue Montorgueil, between the rue Saint-Sauveur and the former rue Beaurepaire.  They had been caught in flagrante by the sergeant of the watch, "in an indecent posture and a reprehensible manner", details of which "propriety does not allow us to explain in writing". One of them was drunk.  Several days later, Bruno Lenoir, a garçon cordonnier of twenty three, admitted that he had been propositioned by Jean Diot.  He had taken off his breeches but they hadn't "concluded the business" because they had been surprised and arrested.  Jean Diot, forty years old, was a servant (garçon domestique) in a nearby butchers. He continued to deny everything.  He maintained that he had simply found the young man asleep in the doorway, definitely with his breeches firmly in place.  Diot was illiterate and could not even sign his name to the deposition.

The trial lasted six months.  On 11th April 1750 the procureur advised that Lenoir and Diot should be  burnt at the stake, a method of execution reserved for heretics, witches, and sodomites. They were found guilty by the Châtelet on 27th May 1750. The Tournelle of the Parlement of Paris confirmed the sentence on appeal.

The arrêt of the Parlement, published on 5th June, condemned the two men to be "burned alive, with their trial records, and their cinders then scattered to the winds, and their goods confiscated by the King." However, a retentum stipulated that they were to be "secretly strangled before they felt the flames".  Apart from this decree, few references have come down to us.  In June 1750 Barbier reported that the sentence of execution by burning was "fort singulier", but it was rumoured that it had been commuted "for prudence" to life imprisonment in the Bicêtre.  On 6th July, however, the execution finally took place:  Barbier gives the following account:

Barbier Journal, vol. 4, June 1750, (p.441) and July 1750 (p.447).  English trans. from Crompton (2009) p.450.


Why did they suffer the full rigours of the law?

As Barbier's comments suggest, it was highly unusual for homosexuals to be executed at this time.

Although burnings for sodomy were rare, the possibility existed and the threat was kept alive by a a handful of well-publicised cases.  However, until now there had always been serious additional charges involved.  Philippe Basse and Bernard Mocmassess, who went to the stake in 1720, were also convicted of blasphemy,  itself a capital crime. In 1726 Benjamin Deschauffours  was condemned for murder,  having been engaged in the traffic of young boys for rich and high-born patrons. This was a notorious case. The government wished to hush up the affair, but the lieutenant de police Hérault, insisted on making an example of Deschauffours, who was publically burned in the place de Grève. (See Crompton, p.449-50)

Some historians have emphasised the humble social origins of Diot and Lenoir.  Maurice Lever in Les Bûchers de Sodome (Fayard, 1985) pointed out that Diot and Lenoir had "no protection" as they were men of the people.  Homosexuality was tolerated in aristocratic circles but not among the working classes.  As Barbier observed, it was easy to make an example of men of no social consequence.  In normal circumstances, however, punishments were still a lot less severe, even for ordinary people.  In the case of a first arrest, the guilty parties usually spent only a few hours, a few days at the most, in prison.  The affair would be resolved by a formal reprimand, a "mercuriale".  A second offence would bring a more prolonged imprisonment, but nothing more.  Only seventeen cases are known to have been brought to formal trial in the whole century (see Courouvre, "Procès de sodomie")

There is not enough circumstantial detail to really explain the sudden harshness shown on this occasion. The scandal and execution of Deschauffours had no doubt reanimated homophobia, but that had taken place twenty-five years previously. The executions have also been linked to the particularly volatile situation in Paris where, in the Spring of 1750, serious unrest was sparked by an over-zealous police initiative to clear vagrants from the streets. There were rumours that children were being kidnapped to be sent to Louisiana or even sold to paedophile rings. The burning of the two sodomites might have been calculated to intimidate the populace and restore order (Crompton, p.450).  Marion Sigaut (somewhat implausibly) proposes a specific link between the Diot/Lenoir affair and the execution a month later, in August 1750, of three rioters named Lebeau, Charvat and Urbain, whom the police were supposedly anxious to silence.

Antoine Courouve, historian of the case, has pointed out that the dates do not really fit: the first riots occurred on 19th May, whereas the death sentence had been recommended for Lenoir and Diot on 11th April.  Courouve suggests a more contingent crackdown by magistrates.  He thinks it may be significant that the men had been formally arrested and reported by an officer of the guet, the ancient royal watch which operated in the region of Les Halles; this did not conform to the usual police practice; extensive manuscript dossiers show that the meeting places of homosexuals, "Les Assemblées de la manchette" were characteristically subject only to covert surveillance.

In 2008 the legal historian Benoît Garnot devoted a chapter to the case in his book On n'est point pendu pour être amoureux ["You don't hang someone for being in love"]. Garnot emphasises that by  1750 magistrates no longer really believed in the exemplary value of the death sentence and would have hesitated over whether to give a case like this publicity.  The condemned men might normally have expected a prison sentence.  Perhaps advisedly,  Garnot  declines to speculate on the reasons behind the execution.   He contents himself with noting that this was last execution for sodomy.  It marks the laicisation of  crime, and paved the way for much less harsh punishment.   Homosexuality was decriminalised by the Revolutionary government in 1791.

The plaque, at 67 rue  Montorgueil  ("just across from the popular La Fermette fromagerie").  Google Streetview, April 2019


Ian Brossat, "Affaire Diot-Lenoir:  briser le silence, 250 ans plus tard", L'Humanité, 10 January 2014

A detailed account of the case and its context can be found on the blog of Claude Courouve, who has also published a book on the affair:
A. Claude Courouve, Connaissances ouvertes [blog]:
-  "L'Affaire de Lenoir et Diot (Paris, 1750)" , 27.08.2014.
-  "Les Assemblées de la manchette" 21.04.2016
-"Procès de sodomie", 14.08.2016

See also:
Louis Crompton, Homosexuality and civilisation (Harvard U.P.,2009), p.449-50.

Olivier Marchal, Mon XVIIIe [blog]:
- "Marion Sigaut : l'homosexualité sous l'Ancien Régime" 18.11.2014
- "Benoît Garnot à propos de l'exécution des homosexuels Diot et Le Noir" , 09.01.2017 [On Garnot's book On n'est point pendu pour être amoureux (Belin, 2008)]

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