Execution Substitution: Has It Ever Happened? September 27, 2013Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback
A weird little episode that Beach can’t get out of his head. 20 January 1793 the news has come that Louis XVI will be executed/murdered/killed the next day. It is difficult for us to understand the frantic actions undertaken by monarchists in Paris in their do or die efforts to save ‘the anointed of God’. The morning after, in fact, various French monarchists would attempt to break through to the executioner’s carriage, but the rows of Republican guards were just too many. The night before though one young monarchist thought laterally. He is called a fanatic in the brief paragraph that follows. Beach would prefer to think of him as one who had come up with a plan that could get the king out, but only at the cost of his own life: Dickens wrote some very lyrical pages at the end of A Tale of Two Cities for someone who did something not very different and Sydney Carton certainly wasn’t a ‘fanatic’. In any case, to a real story. We are in the quarters of Charles-Henri Sanson, executioner for Paris. Charles-Henri was a man with many virtues, who was never easy with the murder of the French optimates. Marie-Anne his wife was an out and out royalist.
A young man, a stranger, was in the room; and it was he who had revealed the news of the execution to Marie-Anne by speaking of his plan to take the King’s place on the scaffold. This young fanatic proposed to dress himself up like the King, stuffing his waistcoat with rags to look as big and plump, and then to hide under the steps of the scaffold. When the King arrived, the executioner and the assistants would somehow smuggle him out of sight, and the young man would substitute himself.
The great difficulty in this plan would be the substitution. Sanson would have needed every one of his staff to have been prepared to work with him. He would have needed a pretty good correspondence between King and ‘the fanatic’ and it would have been a very sweaty moment when he was obliged to show the crowd the ‘fanatic’s head. Probably it was hopeless…. Anyway all this got Beach thinking. Are there other examples from history of execution substitution? There are cases where deaths are supposed to have been faked: e.g. Richard Sorge or the dreadful Ceausescus. But if you belong to the conspiracy fraternity – the evidence in both cases is vanishingly slight, then presumably it was a fake killing. Not the wrong killing. Any genuine execution substitutions: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
27 Sept 2013: I sought an expert opinion from Executed Today who came up with one real example (Loizerolles) and one fictional example (fantomas). The Count on the other hand has come up with a rather shocking example: certainly I didn’t see this one coming… Outside the pages of Fantômas, substituting a lookalike for somebody about to be executed is obviously not very plausible, especially in the days before plastic surgery. There is, however, one possible and very famous instance of this – I refer of course to the Crucifixion! Unfortunately I can’t find the reference at the moment (googling that sort of thing is tricky on account of the zillions of semi-coherent religious loony websites), but I’m sure that, at a surprisingly early date – 2nd century AD, I think, when Christianity was still trying to consolidate its position as the official Western religion, and for a while it looked as though Manicheanism might overtake it – there were all sorts of peculiar versions of the Gospel going around, almost certainly forgeries perpetrated by rival religions. One of them took advantage of the fact that no physical description of Jesus is given in the Bible to reveal that Our Lord was in fact a creepy little rat-faced hunchback. But there was a more interesting one – in fact, I think it might even have been a really early Gnostic text – in which it was claimed that the Romans executed the wrong man (if I remember correctly, Simon Zealotes), while Jesus literally hid behind a wall and had a giggle! This incident is parodied and inverted in The Life of Brian when the Romans pardon the wrong guy (Terry Jones is a very erudite man, and there are loads of references in that film to things which are either probably true of the historical Jesus, or which were at one time alleged to be true about him, but which certainly don’t form part of official dogma these days). This is actually fairly plausible, since even the official version of events claims that Jesus was wandering around chatting to people and going to picnics after he’d been seen by a large crowd to die as a combined result of crucifixion and a spear through the lungs! If that story’s true, there are two possible explanations. 1) He was God (or at least Wolverine, which is still pretty awesome). 2) They crucified the wrong guy. Even the standard “he wasn’t quite dead and his followers revived him and then he went to France” theory has trouble getting around the fact that the soldier who thrust a long spear into his side in the direction of his heart clearly intended to inflict a fatal wound as an act of mercy, and thought that he had done so. I would tend to think so too! Even if he wasn’t quite dead, in 33 AD that wasn’t the kind of wound you were likely to recover from! There’s a variant of this theory which states that not only did some other bloke get crucified, but Jesus for some inexplicable reason went to Japan, where he settled down and lived to the ripe old age of 106. You can still see his burial mound and chat to his descendants. Who, ironically, are Buddhists. Thanks ET and the Count!
30 Sept 2013: Then the Count writes in for further comments. ‘Found the reference! I was right, it was indeed the Gnostics, but I slightly misremembered the victim – it was of course Simon of Cyrene. And not being very well up on Islam, I had no idea that this is actually a more or less official part of Islamic orthodox belief. Anyway: (1), (2). Oh, and about that Japanese Jesus’