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ON JUDICIAL TORTURE.
MR URBAN-Your Minor Correspondence for the month of June, 1842, represents an inquirer as saying, "In the Dictionnaire Historique it is stated, that Desrues, the noted poisoner and forger, was examined by torture, and broken on the wheel, in 1777. But had not the use of torture been already abolished by Louis XVI?" To this interrogatory, I answer that it had not.
Of the two species of torture, 1° la question, or, torture préparatoire, and, 2° its final and fatal application on the wheel, (être rompu vif sur la roue,) the former was not suppressed until the 15th of February, 1788, by a royal declaration, or ordinance, under Cardinal de Loménie's administration. Its professed object was to elicit a confession, "habere reum confitentem," as Cicero so often presents us Verres, and which was considered an indispensable preliminary, or requisite justification, of capital infliction. See Montesquieu, livre vi., ch. 7, and the much ampler article of Beccaria, who, in section xii. of his work, "Dei Delitti e delle Pene," truly describes this assumed test of guilt, rather as a trial of nerve than a principle of judicial discrimination. "Di due uomini
ugualmente innocenti, o ugualmente rei, il robusto ed il corraggioso sarà assoluto; il fiacco ed il timido, condennato." "Etiam innocentes coegit mentiri dolor," asserts the Mimic poet, Publius Syrus; and Montaigne, (Livre ii., chap. v.,) consonantly adds, "d'où il advient que celuy que le juge a géhenné (tortured,) pour ne le faire mourir innocent, il le fait mourir innocent et géhenné." An eloquent Frenchman defined torture as an invention of despotism, "pour ravir à l' homme la dernière faculté, celle de se taire;" nor is La Bruyère's abhorrence less energetically expressed of this supplice.
Death by torture after conviction, though considerably modified in legal application, and mitigated in execution, by a decree of the National Assembly, on the 9th of October, 1789, was not wholly abolished till the 3rd of June, 1791, when the Assembly resolved que la peine de mort consistera dans la simple privation de la vie, sans qu'il puisse jamais être exécuté aucune torture envers les condamnés. Tout condamné à mort aura la tête tranchée." The guillotine was then adopted, on the motion of M. Guillotin, a member of the Assembly, with whose family I was well acquainted in his native town of Saintes, and whose name has thus been impressed on this implement of death, which, in Scotland, had been called the Maiden, and in Italy, La Mannaia, as we learn from the "Quæstiones Symbolica" of Achilles Bocchius, printed at Bologna, 1555, (small quarto,) where an engraving of it by Giulio Bonasone is to be seen. It is also mentioned by the Dominican Father, J. B. Labat, in his Voyages en Espagne et en Italie," tome viii., Paris, 1730.
This legalised mode of execution, suggested at the time as an act of mercy to the victim, while the claim of justice was still vindicated, had always been considered, from its comparative promptitude of effect, a special grace and privilege accorded to the higher order of culprits, not only abridging, as it was supposed to do, the pain of death, but avoiding the humiliation attending the visible struggle, and long suspended bodies of those condemned to the halter. It soon found, however, a formidable opponent in one of the most eminent anatomists of the day, in Doctor Samuel Thomas Soëmmering, a native of Thorn, in West Prussia, (a city honored, too, by the birth of Copernicus,) who, in 1795, we are informed by his biographer, M. Leroy-Dupré, communicated to the Parisian "Magazin Encyclopédique," his sentiments on the subject, which he published the following year at Leipzic, in an octavo volume, considerably enlarged, and in the form of a letter from Francfort, where he was then established, to his friend Charles Ernest Oëstrer, a Prussian political refugee, in Paris, under the title of "Sur le Supplice de la Guillotine." He there contends, that physical sensation generally survives in the severed head for a few minutes, sometimes even for a quarter of an hour, during which, the anguish from the numerous muscles of the neck, thus violently lacerated and torn asunder, must be intensely excruciating. This, if feeling really outlive decapitation, we can well believe. Indeed, when first I became a spectator of such an execution, (and it was by compulsion, forcibly driven on and accidentally immersed in a dense crowd of an infuriated populace, pressing forward to witness the death of a
revolutionary miscreant,) the sack destined to receive the head,* happening, by some chance, to be out of place, the convulsed muscles of the head were clearly discernible to my horrified view, but, whether still sentient or not, must be an undecided question. Strangulation or hanging, on the other hand, is represented by this author, as an infinitely less afflictive extinction of life, which is attested by the uniform evidence of those who have undergone its full process, save its fatal termination, having eventually recovered. Our illustrious philosopher, and liberal prelate, Dr. Berkeley, who had nearly fallen a victim, we are told, to the dangerous experiment, confirmed this testimony; and we equally know, on the affirmation of those, who even for hours had apparently sunk in a watery grave, under suspended animation, that they had felt little or no pain. Dr. Soëmmering's theory was combated by Drs. Cabanis, Sedillot, and others, while supported by several of his profession, among whom was the father of the too notorious novelist, also a surgeon, Eugène Sue. The controversy, however, has produced no visible effect; for in no country has any change been since made in criminal executions. Suicide, by the vapor of charcoal, and total exclusion of atmospheric air, is very common in France, and appears unaccompanied with pain. Seneca with his nephew Lucan, when, like our Duke of Clarence, (Edward the Fourth's brother,) permitted to choose their manner of death, preferred opening their veins. (Tacit. Annal. xv., 60, &c.)
"Eternuer dans le sac," to sneeze in the sack, (of sawdust,) was the vulgar revolutionary expression of the period, when the ridiculous was always intermixed with the horrible.
Soëmmering was also a very ingenious man, and according to Larrey, Napoleon's celebrated surgeon, in his "Clinique Chirurgicale," (tome ii., p. 36,) the inventor of the electric telegraph, so long ago as 1810, though the merit has been assigned to others more recently; but his enduring fame rests on his noble anatomical work, "De Corporis humani fabrica," or, Treatise on the structure of the human frame, which was published at Francfort, from 1794 to 1801, in six successive volumes. His death occurred in 1830, at the age of 75.
M. Guillotin (Joseph Ignatius) had in early life, and when destined for the church, been a professor in the Irish college, "rue du Cheval Vert," at Paris, but changing his vocation, he studied medicine, and was one of the commissioners appointed to investigate Mesmer's doctrine of animal magnetism, in 1784, associated with Franklin, Condorcet,* Bailly, Lavoisier, and other eminent men. The admirable report was the
* When outlawed in 1793, with the Girondin faction, Condorcet succeeded in evading the revolutionary search, from October of that year to March, 1794, when, as previously noticed, he escaped public execution by poison. During his concealment, he for the first time, as he says, attempted to versify, and in retaliation of some lines from his wife, the sister of Marshal Grouchy, to whom Napoleon imputed the disaster of Waterloo, addressed her an epistle, under the semblance of a Polish exile in Siberia. The poetry is that of a mathematician; but a most expressive distich, which his accomplished daughter, the spouse of my friend, General Arthur O'Connor, has been heard to repeat with filial pride and virtuous sympathy, deserves attention. It indicates his resolution to encounter every risk, rather than concur in the horrors which so deeply stained that epoch, though certainly not without reproach himself, in having prepared the way for them
"Ils m'ont dit: choisis d'être oppresseur ou victime;
Madame O'Connor, a child five years old at her father's death, had a very faint recollection of him, but I perfectly remember him, with his ardent look, and, though still young, a gray head-" a volcano covered with snow," as was said of him.