In Paris today there are two famous monuments to wholesale slaughter. One was the site of a cruel sacrifice, thousands marched to their deaths to appease the triune god of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity; the blood of guilty and innocent alike washed the stones of the Place de la Grève during the Terror and the days of Revolution. Where the dread weapon once called to its victims, now stands a massive obelisk dug from the ruins of ancient Egypt and carried off—one civilization’s warning of hubris unheard by the next.
The second monument is less obtrusive, so much so that unless it is pointed out, it goes unnoticed even by the tourists. In the middle of a street are five flat stones, the last remaining indicators of where the guillotine stood outside the Prison de la Roquette. At that time executions were still open to the public, but held behind the walls of the prison. The victims of this massacre numbered sixty-nine in 50 years, far fewer than of the first, and their crimes were at least palpable, legally recognized—but to those for whom capital punishment is a symbol of injustice rather than of justice, it was a slaughter nevertheless.
Between these two guillotines, from 1832 to 1851, there was no permanent scaffold location erected for the execution of criminals. It was built and rebuilt for each successive use, still public, but not in the center of spectacle. The guillotine itself was stored behind a small church, right where the present day St.-Jacques Métro station stands, named for the church and the faubourg, less than a mile directly south of the famed Luxembourg gardens.
Whether by fate or design, it was in this place, the small yard of the church of St.-Jacques, that the man charged and convicted of a heinous pair of murders—that of a child and his governess—was appointed to meet his end.