Sunday Reading

The death of Robert François Damiens before the steps of Notre Dame cathedral in 1757 furnishes provocative material for anyone wishing to argue that God couldn't possibly have had sufficiently good reasons for allowing the Fall of Man.


His mind unhinged by various ecclesiastical controversies, Damiens had tried to assassinate Louis XV, a deed for which he was convicted as a regicide and sentenced to make the amende honorable in the Place de Grève. While the crowd gaped and gasped, an executioner mounted the scaffold, seized a pair of steel pincers forged especially for the occasion, and systematically tore gobbets of flesh from Damiens's chest, arms, thighs, and calves. A second executioner poured molten lead into these wounds, followed by a demonic potion of burning resin and boiling wax.

"Pardon, my God!" Damiens screamed to the local priest, who had come to hear his confession. "Pardon, Lord!"

The executioners next tied ropes to his upper arms and thighs, harnessed the ends to four horses, and urged the animals to a gallop. Unfortunately for Damiens, the horses were strangers to the business of quartering, and they failed to pull him apart. Growing desperate, the executioners now drew out their knives and slit his shoulders and hips. The horses tugged mightily, causing the agonized man to cry, "My God, have pity on me!"

At last his legs came off, but his arms remained in place. Again the executioners went to work, sawing through his muscles until their knives scraped bone. The horses tugged once more, and finally the right arm came loose, followed by the left. Still alive, Damiens somehow managed to sit up and survey what he'd become, a torso with a brain. He was not quite dead when they raised him aloft, threw him onto a pile of logs, and set the pyre ablaze.

To tell you the truth, I'm glad the age of the amende honorable is over. Being the Devil, I naturally favor capital punishment, but I believe a simple hanging or electrocution will suffice in most cases. As Damiens's death demonstrates, torture is a system too easily abused. I think it's unconscionable that four well-meaning horses were humiliated in public when the executioners could easily have taken them from their stables the night before and taught them how to quarter. If there's one thing I can't stand, it's cruelty to animals.

from Blameless in Abaddon by James Morrow (184-185)