France, Foucault, Florists & Forgotten Punishments

Blade from a guillotine, France, c.1794.
Blade from a guillotine, France, c.1794.  This blade was used to execute revolutionary, Jean-Baptiste Carrier. Image Credit Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images

Bonjour et bienvenue. Le blog d’aujourd’hui aura une saveur décidément française.

Pourquoi? I hear you ask. Well, pour plusieurs raisons as it happens.

Premièrement, in last week’s blog, I mentioned David Garland’s fantastic conference talk on famous French scholar Michel Foucault and my intention to blog further on it.*Deuxièmement, since then I was given a fantastic book by my PhD Supervisor on French execution – Seeing Justice Done by Paul Friedland. Troisièmement, as if that wasn’t enough justification, I have been invited to give a conference paper at a seminar to welcome Northumbria’s new Visiting Professor – Dominique Kalifa (Professor of History at the University of Paris 1 Pantheon-Sorbonne). If that isn’t enough justification then I don’t know what is.

So, where to start with a blog about French execution – the obvious place would be at the foot of the guillotine. On which note I found in my research that, much like Edinburgh last week, there are markers in the road where the guillotine (gallows in Edinburgh’s case) was placed.

These stones are part of five that mark the location of a Parisian guillotine. The machine of death was constructed at the entrance to the now shut and demolished Prison de la Roquette. Images courtesy of
These stones are part of five that mark the location of a Parisian guillotine. The machine of death was constructed at the entrance to the now shut and demolished Prison de la Roquette. Images courtesy of

I am going to hazard a guess that even the most disinterested reader summons the guillotine to mind at the mention of French execution. It seems the two are intrinsically linked, but the story of the guillotine is a relatively well established one, so I thought I’d take a different approach. What I found most fascinating in Friedland’s book was the alternative suggestions to the guillotine that never made the grade. After all, if the punishments a society chooses are a useful reflection on that society, then surely the ones that didn’t make the grade are equally instructive.

So it was that I found myself aghast at the following suggestion, in Friedland’s book, presented to the National Assembly by a “citizen by the name of Giradet.”

Giradet proposed that a scaffold be erected 6 or 7 feet high, with a wooden post in the middle to which “the servant of death (i.e. the executioner) would attach the condemned by the neck, feet and hands behind the back, all of which he would cover or enclose in a kind of booth, 5 feet square, equipped with panes of glass on all four sides and with a tight fitting cap on top.” Underneath the scaffold, at a given signal, “charcoal, sulfur and other materials that cause asphyxiation could be introduced into the booth by means of an inverted funnel in such a way that the condemned would suffocate and expire instantaneously.” But the beauty of the device, for Giradet, was not simply the delivery of a quick death; equally important was the way that the device prevented spectators from actually seeing the spectacle of suffering. “One will see through the panes of glass, notwithstanding the thickness of the smoke, death by suffocation”

Paul Friedland, Seeing Justice Done: The Age of Spectacular Capital Punishment in France (OUP Oxford, 2012), 240.

After the initial horror, what struck me about this punishment was its remarkable similarity to the modern American execution chamber. The glass screens, the slow release of noxious chemicals (in this case via injection) and the observant audience attendant to agree that the criminal has died. The ultimate ‘reality’ TV.

San Quentin Prison's New Execution Chamber
San Quentin Prison’s New Execution Chamber.

Given this European precedent for the modern American form of capital punishment there is a certain irony in the fact that US execution rates are being dramatically curtailed owing to an EU ban on the drugs needed to create their lethal injections. The restrictions put in place in 2012 meant that,

EU firms wanting to export drugs such as the sedative sodium thiopental will now first have to ensure the product is not going to be used for executions

BBC News 5th March, 2012

This ruling has had a dramatic effect.

Texas has 317 inmates on death row, but only enough of a key lethal injection drug to execute two of them. Ohio has just one dose of the drug left.

Jennifer Horne, “Lethal Injection Drug Shortage,” The Council of State Governments, accessed October 19, 2016,

There was one distinct difference though between Giradet’s plan and modern American execution. Giradet’s intention was that the smoke would actually obscure the moment of death and reveal a corpse once it cleared – thus removing the ‘horror’ of the spectacle. In this sense his proposals were in line with a wider move for a more humane system of execution. It seems oxymoronic to talk of a “humane” way of killing, but the quest for a humane killing machine has been with us since the guillotine itself. But who is this humanity for? The prisoner or ourselves. If the punishment a society chooses is a mirror on that society then perhaps we don’t like what we see. As one American commentator put it,

Our search for “humane” methods of execution isn’t about sparing the condemned from suffering, it’s about convincing ourselves we’re not barbarians.

Paul Waldman,

Ironically, a series of botched executions in the US in the last few years actually led to numerous calls for the revival of – you’ve guessed it – the guillotine. Some even argued that the guillotine’s return may be the perfect way to enact the death penalty’s removal.

 I can imagine one objection: that the guillotine is barbaric. But to me, that’s a point in its favor. Let’s have no illusions about what we’re doing when the state carries out the killing of captive prisoners. I imagine support for the death penalty would decline rather quickly once heads started rolling.

Conor Friedersdorf, “Bring the Guillotine Back to Death Row,” The Atlantic, May 2, 2014,


I am probably presenting my research paper as you read this and one little story from it felt too good to not make the cut . I wanted to find a French link in my paper for the Visiting Professor – not so easy when talking on a gibbeted highwayman in Gateshead. I had almost given up when I suddenly remembered a poem I had come across from 1805, many months ago. It details Gateshead’s standing army and their military prowess. In it there are threats to Newcastle and, more importantly for my purposes, Napoleon.

Let them ance get ‘im into their taings weel,

Nae fear but they’ll give ‘im his whaings weel ;

And to Hazlett’s• pond bring ‘im,

.. And there in chains hing ‘im;

· What a seet for the Bonny Geatsiders[1]

“The Bonny Gatesiders”1805

Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon Bonaparte

For regular readers of the blog, you will know that Hazlett was the Robber of the Mail who was hung at Durham in 1770 and gibbeted on Gateshead Fell – and who’s long since extant gibbet site I think I managed to, roughly, locate. The pond in question was the body of water which the gibbet sat on the edge of – according to one late c18th causing the appearance of two malefactors from the waters reflection. Answers on a postcard for what ‘taings weel’ and ‘whaings weel’ mean.

*If anyone is unaware of Foucault his work is very complex (don’t let that stop you reading it) so here’s a neat little animated introduction. As much as I am fascinated by his work, on first encountering him I couldn’t help wondering if his surname didn’t directly translate as Fuck All – given that was the sum total of what I understood of his work.

Distraction 1: Crystal Maze and Crazy Punishments

The Crystal Maze
The Crystal Maze

I was put in mind of Giradet’s glass box again last night when I caught Channel’s 4’s one off revival of the Crystal Maze on Channel 4. Hosted manfully by Stephen Merchant (he came to my house once but that’s a different story – my only other celebrity anecdote is that I met Arsenal winger Paul Merson in a Boots in St Albans in about 1990!). This was one of my favourite shows growing up, but thanks to my PhD warped mind at the shows finale I couldn’t help imagining Giradet watching on from the side shouting “will you start the fans please” as six celebrities gamefully await flying tokens, only to be met by a cloud of noxious gas. Now there’s a cheery thought for a Thursday. Here’s another Crystal Maze reference to cheer you – plus a shameless attempt to plug an old sketch from my comedy group – see if you can spot it.

Distraction 2: Floristry

Having grown tired of my office, I decided to work at my girlfriend’s floristry studio this week. PhD work can be incredibly isolating so having someone else around, not to mention the dog, has been great. Two other bonuses are the music she plays – I am constantly finding new songs through her – and the views outside the workshop. The workshop is under a bridge arch, one of three bridges side by side and a group called Ouseburn Futures Trust has worked really hard to turn the land under the bridges into a beautiful little orchard. So, it’s the perfect place for a head clearing walk with the dog. So, here’s my earworm for the week, Hercules and Love Affair’s Blind, and some photos of the beautiful Ouseburn.

Unexplained Sheep's Head. The pub is called The Ship and I always like to imagine a commissioned artist slightly misheard his brief and the owners jjust went with it
This was taken one evening this week. To the right of the shot is a new art installation with two demonic babies on top of three cars, titled Unfairground, and to the left is the side of The Ship pub (emblazoned with a sheeps head). I always like to imagine the artist commissioned to do the mural slightly misheard the pubs name and the owners just went with it.
1839 original timber sturcture replaced by iron 1869 - year after execution
The three bridges over the Ouseburn. The one I am directly under is a rail bridge originally constructed of timber in 1839, but replaced by wrought iron in 1869. I often bore my girlfriend by explaining that, that was the year after execution became private and moved behind the prison walls – oh what larks!


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