Prisons, the guillotine and executions

Here’s a gruesome bit of Parisian history from just around the corner on the rue de la Roquette in the 11th arrondissement.

There were two prisons on the Rue de la Roquette, pretty much opposite one another.  La Grande Roquette was for very those judged to be the most serious or dangerous offenders who were condemned to death, to life imprisonment or to deportation and La Petite Roquette was for less serious and youth offenders, and eventually became a women’s prison.  Public executions were banned in France in 1939, two women were executed here in the early 1940s.

It’s pretty uninspiring and dull but these three stones, and another two like them [which some cars were parked on top of] mark one of the sites of Paris’ guillotine.  The stones and the guillotine were locally known as the “abbaye de cinq pierres” or “Abbey of Five Stones”, which is a pun on “Abbey of Saint Pierre” [Abbey of Saint Peter].  Sixty-nine people were executed here between 1851 and 1899.  The guillotine was moved here from the Place de Greve in the 14th arrondissement in the south of the city.

If it’s any use, think of the arrondissements as laid out in the spiral pattern of a snail shell.  The 1st is the very centre of the city and the spiral then runs in clockwise spirals and end in the east of city with the 20th.

The guillotine was moved as an act of kindness [I guess these things are relative] since the prison governor didn’t want the condemned to have to travel too far from the prison to the place of execution.

During the Paris Commune, the prison was the site for some of the executions of the religious leaders, including the archbishop of Paris, Georges Darboy.  The picture below is a fabricated one of the executions of the five people shot during the commune, used to misrepresent the events and portray the commune executioners in a bad light, when compared to the obviously much more humane state run executions.

Two of the people executed by the state [rather than by the short-lived commune] were the anarchists Auguste Vaillant and Emile Henry.  Both were inspired by the idea of the “propaganda of the deed” [which has inspired many of the stereotypical images of the cloaked, black clad, bomb throwing anarchists and which I’ll write about later].  Vaillant threw a bomb into the French chamber of deputies but didn’t manage to kill anyone.  He was nonetheless sentenced to death, causing an outcry.  To avenge his death and to attack the bourgeoisie, Emile Henry, already an experienced bomb maker, threw a bomb in the Café Terminus, near Gare St Lazare, killing one person and injuring twenty.











The arrest of Emile Henry immediately after the bombing in the Cafe Terminus

La Grande Roquette was finally closed and demolished in 1900 and the stones were dug up.  The governor attempted to sell the five granite stones to the Musée Carnavalet but they were not interested so the stones were replaced, but incorrectly.  They now form a diagonal cross pattern but they were originally in the form of a traditional cross.  The incorrect pattern is shown in the main image.

La Petite Roquette was closed in 1974, and all that remains is the gateway, which now leads into a rather nice park.


4 thoughts on “Prisons, the guillotine and executions

  1. […] my last post [on the guillotine], I mentioned two anarchists, Auguste Vaillant and Emile Henry who had been executed for bombings in […]

  2. […] an earlier post on the site of Paris’s last guillotine, I mentioned the executions of Auguste Vaillant and Emile Henry.  Then I tried, maybe ambitiously, […]

  3. […] Photos. The entrance to the Grand Roquette Prison, with its stones to keep the guillotine level, comes from […]

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