The Bloody Family History of the Guillotine

576cb32f05aae_louisetteEdward White at The Paris Review:

Killing was in the Sanson blood. The first of the family to act as the royal executioner was Charles-Henri’s great-grandfather, who was coerced into taking the position once his father-in-law had passed away. Over the next century, three other Sanson men inherited the role, before Charles-Henri succeeded in 1778. He was thirty-nine at the time, but already a capital punishment veteran. When his father had succumbed to a debilitating illness in 1754, Charles-Henri had taken over his duties on the scaffold, at the age of just fifteen. The boy exhibited astonishing qualities: a wisdom way beyond his years, and a stomach strong enough to see him through the strangulations, beheadings, and burnings that were his workaday life. While still a teenager, he conducted the last hanging, drawing and quartering in French history, inflicted upon Robert-François Damiens for an attempt on the King’s life. Sanson would later look back on this as a simpler time, when the worst sin imaginable was killing a king.

All we know of Sanson suggests he was an eloquent and thoughtful man. Erudite, well-read, and multi-lingual, he took his duties as a public official with the utmost seriousness. He may have felt, as his grandson would later claim, constrained and frustrated by the family business, eager to attain higher office but prohibited by the taint of the hangman’s noose.

more here.