Today’s Sorrowing Yet Truly Morbid Fact!
Perhaps the most famous case of execution by breaking on the wheel in French history was the execution of Count Antoine de Horn and his companion, the Chevalier de Milhe, in 1720. Both were accused of murdering a share-dealer in a tavern in the Rue Quincampoix in Paris. They had made an appointment to meet their prey, ostensibly to sell him shares worth a hundred thousand crowns, but in reality to rob the man. Surprised by a servant while attacking the dealer, they leaped from the window but were captured and committed to jail.
Such was the prominence of de Horn in French society that his aristocratic relatives sought to influence the judges, hoping that any punishment might be mitigated. But shock ran through the court as both were sentenced to be broken on the wheel. Petitions signed by earls, dukes, bishops, and even a prince, were raised, claiming that insanity in the de Horn family was the real cause, but these were rejected by the regent, despite his being distantly related to the condemned man through his mother, the Princess Palatine.
Not only was pressure, subtle or otherwise, brought to bear on the regent; the man charged with performing the execution, Monsieur de Paris, Charles Sanson, a member of a redoubtable family of hangmen and torturers, was approached by the Comtesse de Parabére [No relation – Comtesse DeSpair], the regent’s mistress, who begged him to save the life of ‘her’ Antoine – confirming the rumors in fashionable circles that the ladies of the court hesitated little before surrendering to de Horn’s overture.
Desperately, the comtesse offered him gold, anything, to allow the condemned man to escape, but Charles valued his own head more than any bribe, promising, however, to whisper her name in the victim’s ear before dispatching him.
On the day of the execution Sanson collected his prisoners from the Conciergie, the prison, to find them both severely crippled. In accordance with the law, they had both been subjected to torture designed to make them admit the names of any accomplices. The instrument used had been the dreaded brodequins, iron boots which could be tightened with agonizing slowness by means of screw mechanisms until the wearer’s ankles were crushed to the bone.
A Variety of Brodequin. (This is also apparently a variety of Brodequin.)
Sanson and his assistants carried them out to the tumbril and laid them on the straw. In view of the possibility of a rescue attempt, the cart was strongly guarded, and it soon arrived at the Place de Gréve, where the scaffold stood. Two wheels had already been mounted on posts in readiness, with a St. Andrew’s Cross lying flat on each, and to these the two condemned men were bound. Without any delay Sanson gave the order. Instantly, Nicolas Gros and his other assistant seized the iron clubs and proceeded to strike at the arms and legs of the helpless victims. Fearsome screams issued from the chevalier, who was now writhing in agony, but from de Horn came only silence. In defiance of orders, Sanson had surreptitiously administered the retentum [Retentum’s gotta be the name of a metal band too, right? Oh, yep. – DeSpair]; the young man was already dead.
The crowd, horrified yet unable to look away, watched the tragedy unfolding before them as the priest sought to ease the chevalier’s sufferings by wiping his brow and pouring a few drops of water into his mouth. [Nice way to pretend you’re helping priest – maybe try a few drops of morphine next time? – DeSpair] His cries of pain increased, cries accompanied by the screams of the women around the scaffold, and at last Sanson gave the final order. Gros obediently picked up a large block of iron and dropped it on to the chevalier’s chest, caving it in and bring merciful relief to the mangled victim. After some time the corpses, their limbs adhering to their bodies only by shreds of skin, were cut free from the wheels and gently carried to waiting carriages then taken to a nearby chapel where the clergy would perform the mass of the dead before the funerals took place.
And on the afternoon of the execution an envelope was delivered to the sorrowing Comtesse de Parabére, a missive from Charles Sanson which bore the inscription ‘Promised souvenir’. Inside, it contained a lock of Antoine de Horn’s hair.
Culled from: The Book of Execution