Charles Henri Sanson  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Charles Henri Sanson, full name Chevalier Charles-Henri Sanson de Longval (* February 15, 1739 in Paris; † July 4, 1806) became official executioner of Paris in 1778 was also known as "the" executioner of the French Revolution.



Sanson was the oldest son of Charles-Jean-Baptiste Sanson (1719–1778) with his first wife Madeleine Tronson. He came from an executioner family which originally lived in the Picardie region and held the position of executioner in Paris and Versaille since 1688: Charles-Louis Sanson (1635–1707) married Marguerite Jouënne († 1681) in 1675, daughter of the executioner of Rouen, Pierre Jouënne, and moved in 1687 to Paris. On September 24th 1688 he took over as the position of executioner from his predecessor Nicolas Levasseur and married Jeanne-Renée Dubut in 1699. The son from his first marriage, Charles Sanson (*1681, † 25. September 1726), took over in 1707 and held the position until 1726. He married Anne-Marthe Dubut in 1707. His successor was his son Charles-Jean-Baptiste Sanson. Because Sanson was still a minor when is father died (at age 7) his mother and second husband acted as ‚Regent‘ (French régent, official title of a temporary executioner) until 1739.

Charles-Henri Sanson was at first raised in the convent school at Rouen until in 1753 a father of another student recognized Charles-Henri's father as the executioner and he had to leave the school, much to the regret of the principal, in order to not ruin the school's reputation. Charles-Henri was then privately educated and attended the University Leiden in order to become a Doctor. He had a strong aversion towards his family's business.

Executioner as a career

His father's paralysis and the assertiveness of his paternal grandmother, Anne-Marthe Sanson, led to Charles-Henri to leave his study of medicine and to take on the hated job as executioner in order to guarantee the livelihood of his family in 1754. As executioner (bourreau) he got to be known as „Monsieur de Paris“ - „Gentleman of Paris“. On January 10th 1765 he married his second wife, Marie-Anne Jugier. They had two sons: Henri (1767–1830), who became his official successor, and Gabriel (1769–1792), who also worked in the family business.

1757 Charles-Henri Sanson assisted his uncle Nicolas-Charles-Gabriel Sanson (1721–1795, executioner of Reims) with the extremely gruesome execution of the King's attempted assassin Robert-François Damiens. Through his well executed intervention he shortened the quartering of the delinquent and thus the pain. His uncle quit his position as executioner after this event. In 1778 Charles-Henri officially received the bloodred coat, the sign of the master executioner, from his father Charles-Jean-Baptiste and held this position for 38 years, until his son Henri in 1795 succeeded him after he showed serious signs of illness. The majority of the executions were performed by Sanson and up to six assistants.

Charles-Henri Sanson performed 2918 executions, including Louis XVI. Even though he was never in support of the Monarchy he was initially reluctant to execute the king but in the end performed the execution. The Queen, Marie Antoinette, was executed by his son Henri, who essentially had replaced his father since 1793 and Charles-Henri only attended. Later, using the Guillotine, Sanson and his men executed successive waves of well-known revolutionaries, including Jacques-René Hébert, Georges Danton, Camille Desmoulins, Maximilien Robespierre and Antoine Saint-Just.

Supporter of the Guillotine

Charles-Henri Sanson was a strong supporter of the suggestion by the doctor Joseph-Ignace Guillotin who believed that beheading by a machine was a more humane way of execution. He argued that the executioner tired when beheading several individuals in short order and that the sword dulled and the purchasing and maintenance cost are excessive.

Sanson's hobbies included the dissection of his victims and the production of medicines using herbs he grew in his garden. In his free time he liked to play the Violine and Cello, listened to Christoph Willibald Gluck and often met the Cembalo manufacturer and music friend Tobias Schmidt, a German, who later as a well regarded craftsman build the execution machine, also known as the Guillotine based on the concept by Antoine Louis, the King's physician. The King himself had suggested the building of the machine. On April 25th 1792 the machine was first used at the Place de Grève by Charles-Henri Sanson to execute the robber Pelletier.

An anecdote reports that Charles-Henri Sanson after his retirement met Napoléon on the street. Napoléon asked the former executioner if he could still sleep well after he had executed more than three thousand people. Sanson's laconic answer was: "If Emperors, Kings and Dictators can sleep well, why shouldn't an executioner?"


In April 1793 he handed over his office to his son Henri Sanson (1767–1840) who held the position until his death in 1840 for 47 years. He was a soldier during the Revolution (Sergent, then captain of the national guard in Paris, later in the artillery and police of the Tribunals) and executioner. He guillotined Marie Antoinette and the chief prosecutor Antoine Quentin Fouquier-Tinville (1795) among many others. His youngest brother, Gabriel (1769–1792), who was his fathers assistant since 1790, died while showing a head as he fell off the scaffold. Charles-Henri Sanson died on July 4th 1806 and is buried in Montmartre. Buried in the family grave are also his son Henri Sanson and his wife Marie-Louise Damidot, the grandson Henri-Clément Sanson and his wife Virginie-Emilie Lefébure.

Henri-Clément was the sixth and last in the family who held the position as executioner, since 1830 as assistant and officially from 1840 bis 1847. He performed 18 executions (including Pierre-François Lacenaire and Victor Avril in 1836). In 1847 he pawned off the Guillotine due to his gambling addiction, when this became known he was arrested and the French Justice Minister was forced to pay his executioners debt. On March 18th 1847 Henri-Clément Sanson was relieved of his duties. Thus ended the 159 year long "term" of the family Sanson as the executioner of Paris. He had to perform one last execution using the recovered Guillotine, until Charles-André Férey became his successor, who himself was succeeded after two years by Jean-François Heidenreich. Henri-Clément Sanson spent the following years writing his and his families memoires.


  • Robert Christophe: Les Sanson, bourreaux de père en fils, pendant deux siècles. Arthème Fayard, Paris 1960.
  • Guy Lenôtre: Die Guillotine und die Scharfrichter zur Zeit der französischen Revolution. Kadmos, Berlin 1996. ISBN 3-931659-03-8
  • Hans-Eberhard Lex: Der Henker von Paris. Charles-Henri Sanson, die Guillotine, die Opfer. Rasch u. Röhring, Hamburg 1989. ISBN 3-89136-242-0
  • Chris E. Paschold, Albert Gier (Hrsg.): Der Scharfrichter - Das Tagebuch des Charles Henri Sanson (Aus der Zeit des Schreckens 1793-1794). Insel-Verlag, Frankfurt/M. 1989; ISBN 3-458-16048-5
  • Henri Sanson: Tagebücher der Henker von Paris. 1685-1847. Erster und zweiter Band in einer Ausgabe, hrsg. v. Eberhard Wesemann u. Knut-Hannes Wettig. Nikol, Hamburg 2004. ISBN 3-933203-93-7
  • Honoré de Balzac: Un épisode sous la Terreur (fiction)

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