Dan Carlin begins his new Hardcore History podcast, called Painfotainment, by talking about a man who was gruesomely executed in Paris, France in March 1757. Robert-Francois Damiens (whom some people might wrongly hear as “Damian”) was executed publicly at the age of 42 after trying to kill King Louis XV of France. As he was led out to his execution, he said: “Rumor has it anyway, it’s going to be a hard day.” His execution was a huge public spectacle, with people arriving hours in advance to see it and creating an almost “tailgate” experience, Carlin explained in his podcast. Interestingly, Damiens was the last person executed in France by drawing and quartering. Here’s some more background information about Damiens that you might want to know after listening to Hardcore History.
Damiens was born on January 9, 1715, in a tiny hamlet called La Thieuloye in France. His dad, Peter Joseph, and mother, Mary Guillemant, were poor and hard working parents. He was said to have had an “untoward and perverse disposition” from the time he was an infant. His mom died when he was 15 and an uncle tried to educate him, but he wasn’t very interested. So he began studying with a locksmith until he joined the French army, costing his uncle a great deal of money.
Damiens became a domestic servant after he was discharged from the army. He was dismissed multiple times for misconduct and was given the nickname “Robert the Devil” because he has “natural inconsistency and violence of temper.” He worked for the Parisian Jesuit college for 15 months before being expelled for “refractoriness…in not submitting to a punishment he incurred by bad behaviour.” He had a lot of issues, according to people he worked for. He was said to have been vain, self-conceited, a “keen newsmonger” with a “seditious spirit” who often mumbled to himself.
Damiens had a wife, Elizabeth Molerienne, whom he married in 1739, and a daughter. His physical appearance was described as being tall with a long face, a nose that was more hooked than the typical Roman nose, a sunk-in mouth, and a “habit of talking to himself.”
He attempted to kill the king on January 5, 1757. The king had traveled from Trianon to Versailles to see the princesses. The day before, when Damiens was in Versailles, he was heard saying, angrily, “there is no dispatching of business at the cursed Versailles” and “the king was going again to Trianon til the next Saturday.” So on January 5, the king was entering his carriage when Damiens rushed him and stabbed him with a penknife. It was a shallow wound and he was immediately arrested. Under torture, he didn’t confess to having any accomplices. In order to make sure Damiens didn’t escape before his trial, he was guarded 24 hours a day and fastened to his bed with leather straps.
It’s not known exactly why Damiens tried to kill the king. Some historians have said he was mentally unstable. Others said he was agitated after the French Catholic clergy refused to give the holy sacrament to members of the Jansenist sect, and he blamed the king for this. Giacomo Casanova wrote that it was because he believed he would get a heavenly reward for his actions.
Carlin relies on many sources during his podcast when he talks about Damiens, including Vic Gatrell, who wrote The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 1770-1868. He also quotes Paul Friedland, who did exhaustive research into public executions. One of his books is “Seeing Justice Done: The Age of Spectacular Capital Punishment in France.” Carlin also quoted Giacomo Casanova, who watched the execution live and wrote about it in his memoirs.