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The Last Public Execution in France: A Young Christopher Lee's Witness to History

Just seconds before the blade fell.

On 17 June 1939, Eugène Weidmann was the final person to face public execution by guillotine. His crimes included multiple kidnappings and murders, including that of a young American socialite. Weidmann's criminal spree in 1937 after his release from a German prison for theft.

While incarcerated, Weidmann befriended two individuals, Roger Million and Jean Blanc, who would eventually join forces with him in criminal activities. Upon being released, they collaborated to abduct affluent tourists in France and rob them of their money.

Their initial abduction endeavour was unsuccessful as the victim fought back vigorously, compelling them to release him. However, in July 1937, they tried again, this time targeting Jean De Koven, a 22-year-old dancer from New York City who was in Paris visiting her aunt Ida Sackheim. De Koven was intrigued by the charming German man she had met, whom she referred to as Siegfried, and mentioned the possibility of a Wagnerian adventure. She agreed to visit him at his villa located in a picturesque setting near a historic mansion linked to Napoleon and even took photos of him with her new camera. Tragically, Weidmann then murdered De Koven, burying her in the garden of the villa. The group then sent De Koven's belongings to Million's mistress to cash in. Subsequently, a ransom demand was sent to Sackheim, and her brother Henry offered a reward for information on her whereabouts.

The arrest of Eugène Weidmann

On September 1st of the same year, Weidmann enlisted a chauffeur named Joseph Couffy to drive him to the French Riviera. In a forest near Tours, Weidmann fatally shot Couffy and stole his car along with 2,500 francs. The spree continued on September 3rd when Weidmann and Million enticed Janine Keller, a nurse, to a cave in the Fontainebleau forest under the guise of a job offer. Weidmann murdered Keller and stole her money and jewellry. Subsequent victims included Roger LeBlond, a theatrical producer, and Fritz Frommer, a German Jew with anti-Nazi sentiments, both shot in the back of the neck. Weidmann also killed a real estate agent named Raymond Lesobre in Saint-Cloud. These heinous acts were marked by robbery and violence, with Weidmann showing a pattern of shooting his victims in the same manner before looting them.

Weidmann shortly after his arrest

The Arrest

Following the trail left by a business card at Lesobre's office, officers from the Sûreté, under the leadership of young inspector Primborgne, managed to locate Weidmann at the villa. Upon his arrival home, Weidmann was greeted by two officers. Despite being unarmed, the wounded Sûreté officers were able to overpower Weidmann after he fired three shots at them with a pistol. Subduing him with a nearby hammer, they rendered him unconscious.

Weidmann, who proved to be a cooperative prisoner, admitted to all his murders, expressing regret only for that of de Koven. He reportedly tearfully remarked,

"She was gentle and unsuspecting.... When I reached for her throat, she went down like a doll."

The trial of Weidmann, Million, Blanc, and Tricot in Versailles in March 1939 was the most significant since that of Henri Désiré Landru, known as the modern-day "Bluebeard", 18 years earlier. Weidmann's lawyer, Vincent de Moro-Giafferi, had previously defended Landru. Notably, the French novelist Colette was commissioned by Paris-Soir to write an article on Weidmann.

The trial of Eugene Weidmann

Weidmann and Million were sentenced to death, Blanc received a twenty-month prison term, and Tricot was acquitted. Million's sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment.

Following a highly publicised trial, Weidmann was convicted and given the death penalty. On June 17, 1939, in front of Prison Saint-Pierre, he faced a guillotine as a lively and noisy crowd gathered to witness the event.

The crowd gethers

The Execution

One of the onlookers that morning was a young Christopher Lee, who was stopping briefly in Paris on his way to the French Riviera. In his autobiography, he described a 'powerful wave of howling and shrieking' that greeted Weidmann’s appearance on the street but admitted he couldn't actually watch the execution, telling a documentary maker in 1998:

"I turned my head, but I heard,"

Weidmann was positioned under the blade, and the chief executioner of France, Jules-Henri Desfourneaux, swiftly released it.

Instead of reacting solemnly, the crowd behaved rowdily, using handkerchiefs to collect Weidmann’s blood as souvenirs. Paris-Soir criticised the crowd as “disgusting”, “unruly”, “jostling, clamouring, whistling”. The rowdy behaviour of the crowd caused a delay in the execution, extending it past the usual dawn hour, allowing for clear photographs and a short film to be captured.

Weidmann is led to the guillotine, passing by the wicker 'coffin' that will be used to transport his body.

Following the incident, authorities eventually realised that the public execution did not deter or have positive effects on the crowds, but rather encouraged base instincts and unruly behaviour.

The “hysterical behaviour” of the spectators was so scandalous that French president Albert Lebrun promptly prohibited all future public executions.

The blade drops

The French republic exclusively utilised the guillotine as a method of execution from 1792 until 1977. Over nearly two centuries, this device efficiently carried out the deaths of numerous individuals, providing a swift and painless end. Despite its initial appearance of brutality, the guillotine was considered less gruesome compared to other forms of capital punishment prevalent in pre-revolutionary France. Nobles were often beheaded, while commoners faced hanging, with additional, more uncommon and cruel methods also being employed.

Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin introduced a new method of execution to the National Assembly with the intention of being more humane than previous forms of capital punishment and ensuring equal treatment for all criminals regardless of their status.

Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin

Compared to various other methods of capital punishment still in use today, the guillotine is considered one of the most effective in terms of minimising pain and ensuring a swift process.

The guillotine was specifically designed to provide a more humane means of carrying out executions. It ensures that the condemned do not experience prolonged suffering, as death is nearly instantaneous with minimal room for error.

Following decapitation, the victim's head remains conscious for approximately 10-13 seconds, depending on the glucose and blood levels in the brain at the time. Nevertheless, the impact of the blade and subsequent blood loss are likely to render the head unconscious.

During the Reign of Terror (June 1793 to July 1794), the guillotine was extensively used, resulting in an estimated death toll ranging between 15,000 and 40,000 individuals.

Hamida Djandoubi, a convicted murderer, was the final person to be executed by the guillotine, known as the "National Razor," in 1977. However, the machine's reign of 189 years officially concluded in September 1981 when France permanently abolished capital punishment.




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