The Green Mile last night and I began thinking about the pros and cons, for lack of a better expression, of capital punishment. It has certainly been proven that certain types of offenders, child molesters as an example that fits the topic, are not likely to be "rehabbed". Their rate of re-offense is virtually 100% and considering the lives they destroy, the argument for destroying them holds weight. But, continuing on the theme of the movie, when one sees a death such as that of poor Eduard Delacroix one can easily make a case for deleting the institution all together. Then, too, when John Coffey tells Paul Edgecomb that he's "tired of the pain, boss" we understand. Who wouldn't rather be executed than caged?
All this brings me to the horrific yet curious story of Robert Francois Damiens. Born in a small hamlet in the northern French province of Arras circa 1715, Damiens quite literally never amounted to much. He was apparently dishonorably discharged from the army and then held a series of jobs as a servant or laborer from which he was usually dismissed as well. He was probably bipolar, but who knew of such things then?
Damiens claim to fame, or infamy as it may be, was a half-hearted attempt on the life of King Louis XV. Damiens stabbed the king as he was descending a carriage and then made no attempt to escape. The king was subjected to a mere flesh wound, and perhaps a bit of embarrassment, but Damiens would suffer far, far worse.
Hauled off to a hasty trial, Damiens ranted and raved so much that he was tied down to a mattress when brought before his judges (as shown in the engraving above via Wikimedia). He was quickly convicted of attempted regicide and sentenced to die quite literally by torture. The last days of Robert Francois Damiens and Agnes, the miller's daughter hold much in common.
Like Agnes, Damiens became curiously stoic as the hour - or hours - of his death drew near. In his book Death, A History of Man's Obsessions and Fears, Robert Wilkins quotes from a contemporary source which describes Damiens' honorable behavior in the face of unbearable misery. Damiens had his skin seared with hot sulphur and then the executioner took steel pincers "which had been especially made for the occasion,, and which were about a foot and a half long" and ripped chunks of flesh from Damiens' calves, thighs, arms and chest. The contemporary source goes on to tell us that "though a strong, sturdy fellow, this executioner found it so difficult to tear away the pieces of flesh that he set about the same spot two or three times, twisting the pincers as he did so..." After this, each wound was filled with molten lead.
Damiens cried out "Pardon my God! Pardon, Lord!" we are told. Wilkins also says that "from time to time he would raise his head and look over his tortured body." He was then harnessed to horses at each limb but to no avail. The horses pulled so hard for well over half an hour that one collapsed in his harness and yet poor Damiens' limbs would not be ripped from his torso. At this point, the prisoner - doubtless in unimaginable pain - asked calmly that the priest standing by say masses for his soul.
After fresh horses were brought in, Damiens' legs were finally torn off. The execution then chopped the prisoner's arms from his body, evidently with a sword or axe. At this point, the executioner pronounced the man dead. The pamphleteer, however, begged to differ:
... the truth was that I saw the man move, his lower jaw moving from side to side as if he were talking. One of the executioners said that he was still alive when his trunk was thrown on the stake.
All of Damiens' body parts were reduced to ash and scattered to the four winds.
Damiens remained something of a bogey man in French memory and, after the Terror, it was rumored that Maximilien Robespierre was related to him. There appears to be no validity to this and it seems to have sprung from their only connection: both men were from Arras.
The disgusting yet dignified death of Robert Francois Damiens remains an obvious case of justice gone berserk. Surely unfortunate Damiens could have agreed with John Coffey when he said he was tired of the pain.