The Execution of Robert-François Damiens
Robert-François Damiens was a French domestic servant whose attempted assassination of King Louis XV of France in 1757 culminated in his notorious and controversial public execution. He was the last person to be executed in France by drawing and quartering, the traditional and gruesome form of death penalty used for regicides.
Fetched from his prison cell on the morning of 28 March 1757, Damiens allegedly said “La journée sera rude” (“The day will be hard”). He was tortured first with red-hot pincers; his hand, holding the knife used in the attempted assassination, was burned using sulphur; molten wax, lead, and boiling oil were poured into his wounds. He was then remanded to the royal executioner, Charles Henri Sanson, who harnessed horses to his arms and legs to be dismembered. But Damiens’ limbs did not separate easily: the officiants ordered Sanson to cut Damiens’ joints with an axe. Once Damiens was dismembered to the applause of the crowd, his reportedly still-living torso was burnt at the stake.
The execution was witnessed by famous 18th-century adventurer Giacomo Casanova, who included an account in his memoirs:
We had the courage to watch the dreadful sight for four hours … Damiens was a fanatic, who, with the idea of doing a good work and obtaining a heavenly reward, had tried to assassinate Louis XV; and though the attempt was a failure, and he only gave the king a slight wound, he was torn to pieces as if his crime had been consummated. … I was several times obliged to turn away my face and to stop my ears as I heard his piercing shrieks, half of his body having been torn from him, but the Lambertini and Mme XXX did not budge an inch. Was it because their hearts were hardened? They told me, and I pretended to believe them, that their horror at the wretch’s wickedness prevented them feeling that compassion which his unheard-of torments should have excited.