The Executioners Who Inherited Their Jobs

For centuries, carrying out executions in France was a family affair

The executioner Franz Schmidt
The executioner Franz Schmidt executing Hans Fröschel on May 18, 1591. This drawing in the margins of a court record is the only surviving fully reliable portrait of Franz Schmidt. Wikimedia Commons

Louis Desmorest was just 10 years old when his father died in 1664, passing to his son the title of executioner. Though regents generally filled in until minors came of age, Desmorest’s appointment served as a reminder that not just any person could perform the necessary tasks: execution was a family matter. In young Louis’ case, not unusually, the vocation ran on both sides. His mother belonged to the prominent Guillaume family, a dynasty of executioners who doled out capital punishment in Paris for a total of almost 100 years.

The grand spectacle of capital punishment birthed an entirely new class in medieval France, bound by duty and blood. The executioner patrolled society’s margins and held court in the town square, where he “coaxed the meaning from the flesh of the condemned.” Executioners were both feared and reviled by the public, who they came into contact with only when carrying out their duties. From the early 13th century through the reformation of the penal code in 1791, the executioners of France lived a life apart, their clothing marked and their families ostracized.

Perhaps the most famous executioner family was the Sansons, who served before, during, and after the French Revolution. Directly following the Guillaume dynasty, patriarch Charles Sanson was appointed in in 1688. Nearly a century later, his descendant Charles-Henri Sanson became Royal Executioner of France, a career peaking with the execution of Louis XVI during the Revolution. “Considering his very first execution was that of Robert Francois Damien, who had attempted to assassinate the King, the irony is thick,” writes Robert Walsh at The Line Up. All together, Charles-Henri Sanson executed a total of 2,918 people during his appointment, and oversaw the very first execution by guillotine.

According to Paul Friedland, professor of history at Cornell University and author of Seeing Justice Done: The Age of Spectacular Capital Punishment in France, executioners did not merely carry out justice. “The executioner as a modern, bureaucratic court office,” Friedland writes, “was constructed in reaction to the prevailing and long-standing conception of him as an extraordinary being, someone whose touch was so profane that he could not come into contact with other people or objects without profoundly altering them.”

This infamy was a result not of experience, but one of birth. Though legally the position of executioner was not hereditary, it may as well have been. The title passed typically from eldest son to eldest son, with other male children serving as aides or filling vacancies in nearby towns. Daughters of executioners married sons of executioners and endogamy — the practice of marrying solely within a social group — only served to reinforce their outsider status, centering the family, and not the act of execution, as the object of revulsion. It was not necessary to have actually beheaded — merely the blood of an executioner running through your veins made you complicit.

The fear of social contamination even extended to the period’s horror stories, many of which featured unsuspecting protagonists dining with executioners or falling in love with their daughters. “Throughout the early modern period, and indeed through the Revolution as well, one of the most effective means of impugning someone’s moral character was to insinuate that they had been seen dining with the executioner,” Friedland explains.

Because executioners lived apart from society and married mostly within their own ranks, the same last names dot the ledgers of towns and cities across France, some even spreading into neighboring countries like Germany and Switzerland. “The genealogy of the executioner can be drawn as a continually intermarried family tree,” Stassa Edwards writes at The Appendix. Families would serve for several generations while sons and daughters married to produce their own legacies. Established dynasties eventually so normalized the right of succession that it was written into law, occasionally leading to the appointment of children, like Louis Desmorest.

Desmorest’s ancestor on his mother’s side, the patriarch of the Guillaume dynasty, became executioner of Paris in 1594. More than 200 future executioners would later trace their lineage back to him. By the time Jean (sometimes spelled Jehan) Guillaume died, according to Friedland, he “amassed enough wealth to be accorded an elaborate funeral presided over by thirty priests,” a testament to the fiscal power of keeping things in the family. This infamous dynasty gave rise to the burlesque neologism jeanguillaumer, or to hang — and in his Curiositez Francoises, French author Antoine Oudin wrote of “knights in the Order of Jean Guillaume”: men dead by hanging.

The wide purview of the executioner can be seen in his full title, maître de hautes et basses oeuvres, or “master of high and low works.” Les hautes oeuvres encapsulated punishment capital and non-capital; sentences involving a “degree of spectacularity” like whipping and mutilation, for example, called for the executioner’s special talents. Rarely beheading morning-to-night, however, meant the executioner had a bevy of basses oeuvres to keep him busy. It’s these low works that granted the executioner domain over a number of unsavory but profitable side-jobs, and kept him and his family at society’s edge.

Executioners ruled all that was morally problematic, from the maintenance of latrines and cesspools to the management of stray dogs and discarded carcasses, the latter of which they could skin for additional profit. They enforced livestock regulations, exacted tribute from lepers and prostitutes, and could both run gaming houses and seize money from their shutdown. In Friedland’s words, they “patroll[ed] the margins of society, a kind of metaphysical as well as literal border guard.” Edwards, in turn, calls the executioner a “sovereign of the underworld,” given his ability to extract coin from other social pariahs.

The majority of the executioners’ financial power, however, came from something called droit de havage: the right to seize a predetermined quantity of goods from the public marketplace. “If the dirty work of scavenging lined the executioners’ pockets, then the droit de havage made them wealthy,” Edwards writes. Already required to signal their profession through clothing or carried items, executioners performed havage with bags into which vendors would deposit their allotted cakes, eggs, garlic, herring and other delicacies. Touching the food themselves would have contaminated it, so the bag — or in some areas, a slotted spoon — made the executioner a passive player even as he carried out tasks that belonged only to him.

The era of the executioner ended alongside spectacular capital punishment, the activity which gave the executioner his power. Moreover, the revolutionary penal code of 1791 reformed punitive practices, suppressing torture prior to execution, standardizing death sentence, and replacing public displays of spectacular justice with incarceration. Law, and even death, had moved from the realm of the profane into the administrative. The executioner and his family slipped into the shadows of history.

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