France’s last Public Execution
The guillotine’s final day in the sun
The guillotine is the ultimate expression of Law… He who sees it shudders with an inexplicable dismay. All social questions achieve their finality around that blade.
—Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
This is the last public execution by guillotine, not the last execution by guillotine.
The above photograph was taken moments before the execution of Eugene Weidmann early on the morning of June 17th, 1939 outside the Saint Pierre prison at rue Georges Clémenceau in Versailles, just outside of Paris. Weidmann had been convicted – after finally confessing to the crimes – of kidnapping and murdering six people, including a female American dancer. His taking responsibility for the murders spared the lives of his three accomplices but set Weidmann up for a date with Madame Guillotine.
If you look carefully you can see Weidmann already strapped to the bascule and that he’s been tilted into position with the lunette closed around his neck. This was possibly less than 5 seconds before Jules-Henri Desfourneaux (just four months into the job of nation’s chief executioner) released the déclic that sent a 90-pound steel razor blade slamming into Weidmann’s neck with a half-ton of force before coming to rest after falling for 1/70th of a second.
Debate still rages as to whether the victim is immediately rendered unconscious or if he/she has what might be up to 60 seconds of awareness after the head has been severed from the body before the brain finally runs out of whatever oxygen was in the head’s blood at the moment it was removed.
Each time the prison door moved the semi-circle of officials and reporters reacted, and heads were bared in anticipation. The first three times it was a policeman or functionary who stepped out. The fourth time it was Weidmann.
Eugen Weidmann died with his eyes tightly closed.
He shut them instinctively as he caught sight of the guillotine’s hanging knife, when he stepped from Saint Peter’s Prison, in Versailles at 4:30 a.m. — in bright daylight — but otherwise he did not flinch.
He said nothing and the only sounds were the thud of his heavy body as two men threw it down on the cradle, and the crash of the weighted blade.
His eyes were tightly shut, his face flushed and his cheeks sunken. His thin blue shirt had been cut away across his chest, and his shoulders appeared startlingly white against the dark polished wood of the machine upon which he was pushed. The knife dropped 10 seconds after the prisoner passed through the doors.
Two women tried to see the execution from the side of the machine. One was the mother of Roger Le Blond, Paris theatrical agent, who was murdered by Weidmann and Roger Million. She appeared at midnight, fashionably dressed, for the spectacle, and with her was a pretty girl of twenty, who had been a friend of Le Blond. Police escorted both away and at daybreak they saw what they could from a neighbouring window.
Four hours in advance, six hundred persons pressed toward the Place Louis-Barthou. There were catcalls and jests with the Mobile Guards and occasionally a wave of cheering and whistling. In two brightly lighted cafés, waiters joked and perspired and piles of sausage sandwiches, prepared in advance, went steadily down.
Gradually police evacuated the cafés, and squads of regular troops, relieving the Mobile Guards, slowly pushed the protesting mob still further back, barricading them away with sections of white wooden fence.
Weidmann inadvertently became the last person publicly executed by guillotine in France. The crowd of witnesses got so rowdy (a few accounts have them dipping handkerchiefs in Weidmann’s blood as “souvenirs” of the execution, not to mention throwing handfuls of blood and spinal fluid all over the place) that the French government never again allowed executions to be a public spectacle: they would be remanded to privacy behind the prison walls, with only a few prison officials and the lawyers of the condemned on hand to witness the act.
Eugen Weidmann (February 5, 1908 – June 17, 1939) was the last person to be publicly executed in France. Executions by guillotine in France continued in private until September 10, 1977, when Hamida Djandoubi was the last person to be executed.
Weidmann was born in Frankfurt am Main in Germany to the family of an export businessman, and went to school there. He was sent to live with his grandparents at the outbreak of World War I; during this time he started stealing. Later in his 20s he served five years in Saarbrücken jail for robbery.
During his time in jail Weidmann met two men who would later become his partners in crime: Roger Million and Jean Blanc. After their release from jail, they decided to work together to kidnap rich tourists visiting France and steal their money. They rented a villa in Saint-Cloud, near Paris, for this purpose.
1937, thousands of visitors had flocked to Paris for the great International Exposition.
Their first kidnap attempt ended in failure because their victim struggled too hard, forcing them to let him go.
In July, they made a second attempt, Weidmann having made the acquaintance of Jean De Koven, a 22-year-old New York dancer visiting her aunt Ida Sackheim in Paris and checked into the Hotel des Ambassadeurs.
Jean made the acquaintance of a young man known only as Bobby, who spoke with a thick German accent, and they arranged to go on a date a few days later.
Impressed by the tall, handsome German, De Koven wrote to a friend: “I have just met a charming German of keen intelligence who calls himself Siegfried. Perhaps I am going to another Wagnerian role – who knows? I am going to visit him tomorrow at his villa in a beautiful place near a famous mansion that Napoleon gave Josephine.”
As Jean De Koven left the hotel lobby on July 26, 1937, with her new acquaintance it would be the last time her aunt would see her again, alive.
All young women, in murder stories, are inevitably classified as beautiful. Jean De Koven was beautiful. She visited the Louvre, the Folies, the Cafe de la Paix. At 5:20 in the afternoon, on July 23, 1937, she returned to Le Studio Hotel on the Left Bank, after a day of sight-seeing. She changed into a blue dress and patent leather shoes. Leaving, she told the elevator man to tell her aunt she’d be back by 8 o’clock that night. “I have no time to leave her a note,” she called back. “Somebody is waiting for me.” As it turned out–Death was waiting for her.
When she did not return, her aunt went to the police. They laughed. They said the girl was probably having a love affair. When the 1st ransom note came, demanding $500 and warning Miss Sackheim not to go to the police (“or we will stop all negotiations and she will be taken for a ride, you know how the gangsters of Chikago operate”), Miss Sackheim rushed to the police again. They called it a publicity stunt this time. But 15 days later–after $240 worth of Jean De Koven’s American Express traveller’s checks had been cashed, with her signature miserably forged on all of them–the police knew it was not a publicity stunt.
The Hunt: M. Primborgne, a young Surete wizard, was assigned to the case. By this time, Jean De Koven’s brother Henry had arrived from New York, and he offered a 10,000-franc reward. Governor Lehman of New York had asked the FBI to enter into the affair. But the FBI was not necessary. Primborgne, of the Surete, pulled off one of the most brilliant hunts in recent decades.
Her body would not be found for another four months. Jean had taken photos of him with her new camera (later found beside her body, the developed snapshots showing her killer). Weidmann had then strangled and buried her in the villa’s garden.
On September 8, 1937, the body of chauffeur, Joseph Couffy was found on France’s Paris-Orleans Road. He had been shot in the back of the neck and his car was missing.
On October 17, 1937, the naked body of theatrical producer, Roger Le Blond was found in the back seat of his car at Neully-Sur-Seine Cemetery. He too had been shot in the back of his neck and his wallet was missing.
On November 29, 1937, real estate agent, Raymond Lesobre was found sprawled face down on the floor of a villa in St-Cloud. He had been shot in the back of the neck and his wallet was also missing. A business card belonging to Herr Shott was found.
When the inspectors questioned Shott they were informed that his nephew, Fritz Frommer, had recently gone missing. He was last seen in the company of a young German, named Siegfried Sauerbrey who was renting a villa in St-Cloud.
On December 8, 1937, Inspectors Poignant and Bourguin went to the villa where Sauerbrey was staying.
As they approached the villa a young man who introduced himself M. Karrer asked if he could help them and invited them inside. When Inspector Bourguin asked to see his papers he calmly reached into his pocket and pulled out a gun. His first shot hit Poignant in the shoulder. Bourguin grabbed his wrist but Karrer kept on firing. Another shot grazed Bourguin’s forehead and as he and Bourguin were struggling for control of the gun Poignant saw a small hammer lying on a table and hit Karrer full force on his skull. Karrer dropped to the floor. He was immediately hand-cuffed and taken into custody.
Police searched the villa and found the body of Fritz Frommer in the cellar. He had been shot in the back of the neck. As they searched the grounds they noticed the front steps had recently been replaced. When police dug under the steps they found the body of Jean De Koven.
During his interrogation, Karrer coolly confessed to police that his real name was Eugen Weidmann. He also confessed to the murders of Jean De Koven, who he strangled while she was drinking tea, and Fritz Frommer, who he was afraid was going to talk to the police, Joseph Couffy, Roger Le Blond, and Raymond Lesobre. His motive was robbery.
Weidmann was a highly co-operative prisoner, confessing to all his murders, including that of de Koven, the only one for which he expressed regret. He is reported to have said tearfully: “She was gentle and unsuspecting … When I reached for her throat, she went down like a doll.”
The murder trial of Weidmann, Million, Blanc and Tricot in Versailles in March 1939 was the biggest since that of Henri Désiré Landru, the modern-day “Bluebeard”, 18 years earlier. One of Weidmann’s lawyers, Vincent de Moro-Giafferi, had indeed defended Landru. Also present was the French novelist Colette, who was engaged by Paris-Soir to write an essay on Weidmann.
Weidmann and Million received the death sentence while Blanc received a jail sentence of 20 months and Tricot was acquitted. Million’s sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment.
After Weidmann’s appeals had been exhausted it was announced that his execution was to take place immediately. Standard procedure before capital punishment ended in France was that the prisoner was awakened in the early morning the day after any chances of clemency or acquittal had dried up.
He was informed that with no possibility of reprieve, that his execution was to be carried out immediately. The condemned was given time to pray with a priest, offered a last cigarette and then however many shots of rum he could stomach. His hands were bound, then promptly escorted to the guillotine and secured into the apparatus. As soon as his neck was trapped in the lunette the blade fell, allowing scarce time for the victim to feel panic or anxiety about being killed in so bloody a fashion.
The crowd had began gathering the night before at the Pallais de Justice at Versailles. There were hundreds of drunk, rowdy spectators who had gathered to witness the macabre event. By 4:00 am the unruly crowds had swelled with people vying to find an idea spot in order to witness the beheading. Surrounding building owners were charging exorbitant fees for spectators to get a bird’s-eye view. Because the excution had taken place later than usual there was enough light for photographers to snap away and even record films of the event.
On June 17, 1939, Weidmann was beheaded outside the prison Saint-Pierre in Versailles. The “hysterical behaviour” by spectators was so scandalous, along with the photographs of the execution appearing in the press. This spectacle led the government to stop public executions and to hold them instead in prison courtyards, such as La Santé Prison in Paris.
French president Albert Lebrun immediately banned all future public executions. Unknown to authorities, film of the execution was shot from a private apartment adjacent to the prison.
The history of the guillotine started long before the French Revolution, but when and where exactly, nobody knows. Guillotine like machines seem to have functioned in Germany, Great Britain and Italy before 1300, but there is no clear evidence to prove this. The earlier machines replaced the axe, but the guillotine replaced the sword.
It was originally developed as a more humane method of execution.
The origins of the French guillotine date back to late-1789, when Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin proposed that the French government adopt a gentler method of execution. Although he was personally opposed to capital punishment, Guillotin argued that decapitation by a lightning-quick machine would be more humane and egalitarian than sword and axe beheadings, which were often botched. He later helped oversee the development of the first prototype, an imposing machine designed by French doctor Antoine Louis and built by a German harpsichord maker named Tobias Schmidt. The device claimed its first official victim in April 1792, and quickly became known as the “guillotine”—much to the horror of its supposed inventor.
Guillotin tried to distance himself from the machine during the guillotine hysteria of the 1790s, and his family later unsuccessfully petitioned the French government to change its name in the early 19th century.
Guillotine executions were major spectator events. During the Reign of Terror of the mid-1790s, thousands of “enemies of the French revolution” met their end by the guillotine’s blade. Some members of the public initially complained that the machine was too quick and clinical, but before long the process had evolved into high entertainment. People came to the place de la Revolution in droves to watch the guillotine do its grisly work, and the machine was honored in countless songs, jokes and poems.
Spectators could buy souvenirs, read a program listing the names of the victims, or even grab a quick bite to eat at a nearby restaurant called “Cabaret de la Guillotine.” Some people attended on a daily basis, most famously the “Tricoteuses,” a group of morbid women who supposedly sat beside the scaffold and knitted in between beheadings. The theater even extended to the condemned. Many people offered sarcastic quips or defiant last words before being executed, and others danced their way up the steps of the scaffold. Fascination with the guillotine waned at the end of the 18th century, but public beheadings continued in France until 1939.
Children often attended guillotine executions, and some may have even played with their own miniature guillotines at home. During the 1790s, a two-foot-tall, replica blade-and-timbers was a popular toy in France. Kids used the fully operational guillotines to decapitate dolls or even small rodents, and some towns eventually banned them out of fear that they were a vicious influence. Novelty guillotines also found their way onto some upper class dinner tables, where they were used as bread and vegetable slicers.
In late-18th century France, aristocrat youths were known to throw so-called “victims balls”—special dances where only people who had lost an immediate family member to the guillotine were allowed to attend. Revelers wore red ribbons around their necks to imitate the slice of the guillotine blade, and performed a dance that involved a sudden nod of the head to simulate being decapitated. The morbid parties proved immensely popular, to the point that some people even lied about having guillotined relatives to get a chance to attend.
1977: Was the last official use of the guillotine in France. On the 10th of September Hamida Djandoubi was executed.