Patrick Brunet, Whose Ancestor Guillotined Louis Xvi, Swears He's No Chip Off the Old Block

UPDATED 06/05/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 06/05/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT

When Paris mounts a parade this month from the Place de la Bastille to the Place de la Concorde to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution, Patrick Brunet will march with a special contingent of 2,000 descendants of Parisians who lived—and, in some cases, died—at the bloody dawn of liberié, égalité, fraternité. He is concerned about what he will wear. "I hope they don't give me an ax and hood, because it wasn't quite like that." says Brunet, who notes that his most famous ancestor, the subject of much public misconception, actually wore "a frock coat and tricorn hat, with a sword at his side." There is no doubt, however, about what Brunet's celebrated relative did to secure his place in history: On Jan. 21,1793, the forebear in question, Charles-Henri Sanson, cut off the head of King Louis XVI with a newly perfected device, the guillotine. Eight months later, Sanson performed the same grisly service for Marie Antoinette.

Brunet, 31, has become something of an expert on the Sanson dynasty of French executioners, six generations of whom practiced their trade in Paris between 1688 and 1847. He is writing a history of the family and has finished a fictionalized film script about the last three Sanson executioners: Charles-Henri; his son Henry; and Henry's son Henri-Clement a gambler and profligate who lost his job—and thus, the Sansons' connection with the trade—when he hocked the family blade to cover his debts.

Brunet's relationship to the Sansons is, he admits, tangential, but it is still significant His great-grandmother—a cousin to the wife of the last Sanson executioner—inherited all the Sanson family documents, including personal notes and various birth and marriage certificates. Patrick's grandfather would occasionally talk about the Sansons. "But I wasn't the slightest bit interested," says Patrick. Nor were Patrick's father, Michel, and mother, Christiane, who together manage an electronics company, or brother Philippe, a journalist in New York. Yet two years ago it occurred to Brunet, who by profession makes films for Paris's office of cultural affairs, that his family's saga might add up to a documentary.

Brunet's research took him back to 1688, when Louis XIV appointed Charles Sanson to the post of public executioner for the city of Paris. "The first Sanson, like those who followed, was loyal to the King," says Brunet. "He had a concern for respectability. He was very pious, a regular churchgoer." He was also, like any executioner of the time, versatile. Decapitation with a sword was reserved for the nobility; common criminals were dispatched by hanging, drawing and quartering or burning at the stake.

After the storming of the Bastille in July 1789, the newly formed National Assembly called for a democratization of the death penalty and a cleaner, more humane way of killing. A physician, Dr. Joseph Ignace Guillotin, promoted a contraption guaranteed to make heads roll. On April 25,1792, Charles-Henri Sanson presided over the first guillotine execution. The victim was a purse snatcher, and the machine worked fine. From the audience's perspective, however, "it was a total failure," says Brunet. "It was over too quickly."

King Louis XVI, then 38, was brought to trial in December 1792 and condemned to death, much to Monsieur Sanson's horror. "Charles-Henri was a royalist," says Brunet. "He could not have anticipated what would happen, and when he did, it was too late." According to Brunet, "Henry, the son of Charles-Henri, would later say, 'I was with my father when he had to decapitate poor Louis XVI. When he had to display the head to the crowd, he almost fainted.' " As much as it pained Charles-Henri to kill the King, to forfeit his post would have meant finding his own head on the block.

By the time Charles-Henri executed Marie Antoinette, 37, who is said to have apologized for stepping on his foot, the Reign of Terror—in which leaders of the revolution turned on one another—was raging, and Sanson and his aides were dispatching as many as 50 people a day. When the Terror finally ended with the fall of Maximilien de Robespierre, one of the revolution's ringleaders, in July 1794, Sanson had overseen the decapitation of 2,750 people. "As for Henry," says Brunet, "he was pursued by a lifelong regret at having helped his father kill the King. He kept an engraving of Louis XVI in his house, and a medallion of the King's head was inventoried with the family jewels when he died."

Brunet at first found historical research daunting. "I didn't have much previous experience with libraries, and old documents tend to be almost illegible," he says. Still, he is consumed. "Between the research and the script, I hardly have time to do anything else," he says. Through family members, he has acquired a few Sanson relics, including a tobacco box, paper cutter and straight razor that now sit atop an electric organ in his Paris flat. But for all his fascination with the Sansons, he feels little affinity. "I'm nice," he says. "I don't bite. I'm a peaceful young man." He is also against capital punishment, which was abolished in France in 1981. "It's a complicated moral debate," says Brunet, "but in any case I know I wouldn't want to be the one to bring down the blade."

—Tim Allis, Cathy Nolan in Paris

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