LEGACY OF DEATH by Barbara Levy


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A chilling and macabre family history. Levy has written the collective biography of the Sansons -- the remarkable family who for two and a half centuries from 1635 to 1889 functioned as the executioners of France. Because it inspired such revulsion, the post was virtually hereditary; the sinister bourreau became a well-paid pariah whose children were barred from finding jobs or marrying outside the profession. What sort of men were they, these headmen who tortured and decapitated all in a day's work? Drawing on the family history of Henri-Clement, the last Sanson to hold the job, and on contemporary memoirs and press accounts, Levy draws a surprising portrait. The Sansons were repelled by their work, and they suffered acutely performing it. Without exception they were mild and humane men; some accepted their job as necessary but they were never inured to its horror. Several resigned their post at an early age; others developed twitches or suffered strokes and more than one lapsed into melancholia or died young. Apparently in an attempt to make psychic restitution several Sansons practiced medicine as an avocation and the family gained a reputation as doctors and healers to rich and poor alike. Insofar as possible they accepted their ostracism without a murmur and tried to live the quiet, orderly, self-effacing lives of the respectable bourgeois. Levy's book however is something more than a singular family history. French executions (until 1939!) were public and in fact bloody spectator sports. Here the glimpses one gets of the blood lust of the Ancien Regime and the French Revolution -- e.g. at the quartering of Peter Damiens or the guillotining of Charlotte Corday -- provide a grizzly commentary on the degradation of the Parisian populace and the hysteria that periodically swept through the streets of the capitol. Levy deftly weaves her story around the major political events of French history -- regicides, attempted assassinations, revolutions and coups took the greatest head toll -- providing a unique look at early modern notions of punishment and the brutal underside of social history. An unusual and worthwhile book.

Pub Date: Dec. 3rd, 1973
Publisher: Prentice-Hall