Sunday, May 30, 2004

The cutting edge of law 

The idea of death by execution holds morbid fascination. The issues that it raises have excited the imagination of writers and filmmakers alike. While Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s film Nizhalkkuthu (Shadow Kill) addresses the question of sin and redemption through the story of a guilt-ridden hangman, the memoirs of France’s former chief executioner reveal a man who thought of his job as an essential public service.

Adam Sage

A still from Nizhalkkuthu
A still from Nizhalkkuthu

With the beheading of 395 criminals to his name, Anatole Deibler was probably the greatest executioner France has ever known. He even boasted he could guillotine a man faster than he could say the word ‘guillotine’.

His appointment as Executioner-in-Chief for the Republic in 1899 saw him become something of a French media star, with journalists pestering him for interviews and large crowds often greeting his arrival in provincial towns.

Despite his popularity, Deibler was a secretive man who disliked publicity, keeping his thoughts to himself — and in his 14 diaries in which he recorded the details of every head he sent rolling into the bucket.

When these came to light more than 60 years after the executioner’s own death from a heart attack on the platform of a Paris metro station in 1939, a furious bidding war ensued, ending with publisher l’Archipel paying Euros 100,249 for them.

The result: a unique — and extremely unemotional — insight into a very French form of capital punishment. In Les Carnets d’ Executions (The Execution Diaries), Deibler comes across as an extremely conscientious civil servant, recording all his executions with cold precision, omitting no details. It shows him as a man who went about his job as proficiently as he could, a professional charged with what he assumed to be an essential public service.

A typical entry relates to an execution in 1933: “Toulon. December 15, 1933. Friday. Storms, rain. 6.30am. A man by the name of Marcel Grandoux, aged 24...condemned for having committed a murder with premeditation...The day of his execution he was very surprised. He thought he would win a reprieve. When the prosecutor went up to him, he stopped him and said: ‘I know, I know. You’re going to ask me to be brave. I will be.’ He got dressed calmly...Whilst his hands were being tied behind his back, he said: ‘It’s cold this morning. I don’t want to catch a chill...’

“He drank two glasses of rum and smoked a cigarette and then he said simply:

“‘Let’s go.’ Leaving the prison and seeing the guillotine, Grandoux exclaimed: ‘How small it is’.”

Among Deibler’s victims were some of France’s most notorious murderers of the first half of the 20th century, including Joseph Vacher, found guilty of killing six shepherdesses, four shepherds and an old woman; Father Joseph Bruneau, who threw a fellow priest down a well, stole the proceeds of the collection from his church and spent the money in a brothel; Santo-Jeronimo Caserio, an anarchist who assassinated President Sadi Carnot in 1894; and Paul Gorguloff, who shot dead another head of state, Paul Doumer, 38 years later.

When Gorguloff was taken to the guillotine, Deibler wrote: “He showed a certain courage, saying only ‘Oh Holy Russia’.” These were his favourite criminals, those who neither struggled nor shouted as they were led to their deaths, allowing Deibler and his assistants to demonstrate their considerable skills to the full. In a matter of seconds, the condemned man would be placed on the bascule (a sort of rocking plank that was then lowered into position), drop down the lunette (a wooden semi-circle that holds the head) and then release the blade. As soon as it had dropped, the body was tipped from the bascule into a basket, with the head removed from a bucket and thrown in with the body.

In fact, Deibler, who came from a long line of executioners, was widely admired for this efficiency. From the time the guillotine was first introduced in France during the Revolution in 1793 until capital punishment was abolished in 1981, few practioners handled the instrument with such skill, commentators said.

Outside of work, Deibler lived a very ordinary home life with his spouse and daughter, enjoying cycling, driving in the countryside, walking the dog and cooking. And if ever he thought about his job in his free time, his diaries note it was to complain about his salary.

The enduring image the book gives of the man is someone who at no time saw himself as the principal actor in an emotionally charged drama which often attracted tens of thousands of people. As far as he was concerned, death was mundane — as was he.

— The Guardian