Robert Walsh is a freelance writer based in the UK. Formerly a regular contributor to Real Crime Magazine, he’s also been an expert consultant for the BBC. He currently owns and operates Crimescribe.
June 17, 1939 wasn’t an ordinary summer’s day for Parisians, nor for 17-year-old Englishman Chrisopher Lee. Decades before portraying French executioner Charles-Henri Sanson in 1989’s ‘La Revolution Francaise,’ Lee had his own close encounter with what the French called their ‘National Razor.’
As Lee went to Saint-Pierre prison (today’s Palace of Justice) he didn’t know he was about to make his first, uncredited, appearance on film. In a cell on Saint-Pierre’s notorious Death Alley, German serial killer Eugen Weidmann was also about to take a bow. Weidmann’s appearance would be brief, but he played the starring role at what would be France’s last public execution.
Weidmann was there to die. Lee was there to watch. At a window overlooking the guillotine somebody else was there to film, illegally so. As executioner Jules-Henri Desfourneaux and his assistants (known as ‘valets’) prepared Weidmann for his date with history, Lee stood in the crowd not really knowing what he was about to see. He would never forget it.
Public executions had been a part of French life for centuries. Whether they were hanged, burned, beheaded by axe or sword or tortured to death France’s felons had traditionally died before an audience. The Revolution had changed things somewhat, no longer was the sword exclusively for condemned noblemen while mere peasants made do with the gallows.
The guillotine was intended to be as egalitarian as it was quick, as much a political statement as a more humane method of execution. No matter what their social status, all France’s condemned would die in the same way. Weidmann would be the last to do so in public. The sinisterly-nicknamed ‘Monsieur de Paris (‘The Man from Paris’) had long plied his trade in public, one of the central characters in France’s own theatre of death.
Abolition had started to become an issue among the French people although decades would pass before the guillotine went the way of the thousands who died on it. The scenes of drunkenness and debauchery that were typical of public executions were grist to the abolitionist mill.
The crowd were less than respectful of what should have been a solemn occasion. Many were drunk, the cafes and bars having stayed open all night to make the best of a thirsty crowd. By dawn, the traditional time for French executions, some were already asleep and many others were remarkably intoxicated. Gendarmes were also having trouble maintaining order. All told, what should have been a solemn affair was more like a Roman holiday with many spectators drunk well before the dawn.
Lee wasn’t one of them. At only 17 he was too young to drink, although he might have needed one after Weidmann made his grand entrance and speedy exit. The illegal film-maker was also ready. Positioned carefully for as clear a view as possible, he would make his own entry in cinematic history. The footage, for those who can watch it, is still available on Youtube.
In his memoir ‘Lord of Misrule: The Autobiography of Sir Christopher Lee’ the man himself takes up the story:
“The war correspondent Webb Miller took me to see the beheading of the murderer Eugen Weidmann in Versailles because he thought it important, with the war clouds gathering, that I see something of the world. They rushed Weidmann to the extraordinary structure, so that his feet came off the ground. His hands were tied behind him and his head was held back.
They set him down by the plank and punched him in the stomach so that he fell forwards on to it, a strap went over his back, the plank tilted forward and the man they called The Photographer adjusted his head. In that instant the knife fell, and I thought I would die myself.”
Weidmann certainly had and the crowd, still unmindful of the occasion, continued carousing while some dipped their handkerchiefs and scarves in Weidmann’s blood. These they kept as souvenirs. President Lebrun, long an opponent of the death penalty, was as appalled as the press at the exhibition. A week later he permanently outlawed public executions.
Until France’s last execution, that of Hamida Djandoubi at Marseilles’s notorious Baumettes Prison on September 10, 1977, the condemned died more discreetly behind prison walls. With abolition in 1981 the guillotine became a museum piece. Just as ‘Monsieur de Paris’ ceased performing for his public in 1939 the guillotine’s blade never fell again except in fiction.
In 1989 Sir Christopher Lee would portray France’s most famous executioner, never having forgotten watching one of Sanson’s descendents at work.