The Executioner’s Granddaughter
The Story Behind the Photograph
Last week, as I was selecting antique photos of children with toys from my collection for my post of May 18, I picked up this one of a curly-headed moppet holding a toy lamb and a riding crop. It’s a CDV (carte de visite) a calling-card-sized photo that could have been taken any time from 1854 to 1900. The photographer is listed as “Samson” in Liege, Belgium.
Then I turned the card over and saw some words in French that set me on a path to a fascinating story about the man who executed King Louis XVI and nearly 3,000 others. (His son guillotined Marie Antoinette.)
I didn’t need my high school French to translate the words on the back of the card as: “Louise Samson, Descendent of Sanson who decapitated Louis XVI, King of France.”
I don’t know why I never noticed this inscription before. But thanks to the internet, which I didn’t have when I started collecting photos, I quickly learned the bizarre story of Charles Henri Sanson (1739 to 1806) who was the fourth in a six-generation dynasty of Royal Executioners of France. His great grandfather and grandfather and father were all named Charles Sanson too.
The Charles Henri Sanson who beheaded Louis XVI really didn’t want to be an executioner—he longed to be a doctor—but when his father became ill, his bossy paternal grandmother forced him to give up the study of medicine and take over as royal executioner to continue the income and position of the family.
It was this Charles Henri Sanson who introduced the guillotine –invented by Joseph-Ignace Guillotin--as the executioner’s weapon of choice, because it was more efficient and humane than previous methods. He was no doubt inspired by a very messy and unpleasant execution when, as Wikpedia puts it, “In 1757 Sanson assisted his uncle Nicolas-Charles-Gabriel Sanson, executioner of Rheims, with the extremely gruesome execution of the King’s attempted assassin Robert-Francois Damiens. Through his well-executed intervention he shortened the quartering of the delinquent and thus the pain His uncle quit his position as executioner after this event.” (Wikipedia also says of Sanson, “His hobbies included the dissection of his victims and the production of medicines using herbs he grew in his garden. In his free time he liked to play the violin and cello.”)
Charles Henri Sanson put on the blood-red coat of the master executioner in 1757 and held the position for 38 years. He performed 2918 executions. He executed Louis XVI on Jan. 21, 1793 at the Place de la Revolution which is now Place de la Concorde He was assisted by his two sons, Gabriel, the youngest, who was supposed to eventually take over the job, but Gabriel “died after slipping off a scaffold as he displayed a severed head to the crowd,” (talk about irony!) so the position fell to the older son, Henri (1767-1840) who took over in April, 1793 and remained the official executioner of Paris for 47 years. Only six months after he started, Henri executed Marie Antoinette.
His son, Charles Henri’s grandson, Henry-Clement Sanson, took over the job in 1840 and served until 1847. He was the sixth and last in the dynasty of executioners.
One of my favorite stories is this: “An anecdote reports that Charles-Henri Sanson after his retirement met Napoleon Bonaparte and was asked if he could still sleep well after having executed more than three thousand people. Sanson’s laconic answer was, ‘If emperors, king and dictators can sleep well, why shouldn’t an executioner?”
Thirty-seven years after the beheading of Louis XVI, Alexandre Dumas interviewed Henri Sanson—Marie Antoinette’s executioner--about the king’s behavior on the scaffold. Dumas asked about the report that there was a “wrestling bout” between the king and the four assistants at the foot of the scaffold.
Henri replied, “The King had been driven to the scaffold in his own carriage and his hands were free. At the foot of the scaffold we decided to tie his hands, but less because we feared that he might defend himself than because we thought he might by an involuntary movement spoil his execution or make it more painful. So one assistant waited with a rope, while another said to him ‘It is necessary to tie your hands.’ On hearing these unexpected words, at the unexpected sight of that rope, Louis XVI made an involuntary gesture of repulsion. ‘Never!’ he cried, ‘Never!’ and pushed back the man holding the rope. The other three assistants, believing that a struggle was imminent, dashed forward…It was then that my father approached and said, in the most respectful tone of voice imaginable, ‘With a handkerchief, Sire’. At the word ‘Sire’, which he had not heard for so long, Louis XVI winced and…said ‘So be it, then, that too, my God!’ and held out his hands.”
As for little Louise Samson, the innocent child holding the lamb in the photograph above—she would not have been the grandchild of Charles Henri , because his son Henri died in 1840. She could be the child of Charles’ grandson, Henry-Clement Sanson, the sixth and last executioner, but I suspect she’s another generation removed.
Notice that the family name Sanson has been changed to “Samson” for Louise, and the photographer who took the photo in Liege, Belgium, is also named Samson. This child’s father may have changed his name and moved to Belgium to escape the blood-soaked history of his forefathers and open a photography studio.
Or the inscription on the back of the CDV may be wrong. Maybe Louise is not really descended from the famous executioners. But even if this is the case, I’m glad that the written words led me to a fascinating history that I’d never heard before. It’s accidental discoveries like this—sheer serendipity—that keep me collecting antique images and looking for the story behind the photo.