Source: Tormenta: The Execution of Robert Francois Damiens, 1757
At the Midsummer's Fair in mid-sixteenth-century Paris, cat-burning was a regular attraction. A special stage was built so that a large net containing several dozen cats could be lowered onto a bonfire beneath. The spectators, including kings and queens shrieked with laughter as the animals, howling with pain, were singed, roasted, and finally carbonized. Cruelty was evidently thought to be funny. It played its part in many of Europe's more traditional sports, including cock-fighting, bear-baiting, bull-fighting, and fox-hunting.
Two hundred years later, on 2 March 1757, Robert Francois Damiens was condemned in Paris to make honorable amends: Damiens was being punished for attempted regicide. His immediate family were banished from France; his brothers and sisters ordered to change their last names; and his house was razed. He had approached Louis XV as the King was entering his carriage, and he had inflicted a small wound with a small knife. He made some sort of complaint about parliament and made no effort to escape, saying he only wanted to give the King a fright Nowadays, he would be assessed as a crank.
He was brought in a tumbrel, naked except for a smock, and carrying a torch of burning wax in his hand. The scaffold -stood on the Place de Greve. Pincered -at the breasts, arms-, thighs and calves, his right hand holding the knife, with which he perpetrated the said act, he was to be burned on the hand with sulfur, to be doused at the pinion points with boiling oil, molten lead, and burning resin, and then to be dismembered by four horses, before his body was burned, reduced to ashes, and scattered to the winds.
When the fire was lit, the heat was so feeble that only the skin on the back of one hand was damaged. But then one of the executioners, a strong and robust man, grasped the metal pincers, each one foot long, and by twisting and turning them, tore out huge lumps of flesh, leaving gaping wounds which were doused from a red-hot spoon.
Between his screams, Damiens repeatedly called out, 'My God, take pity on me!' and Jesus, help me!' The spectators were greatly edified by the compassion of an aged cure who lost no moment to console him.
The Clerk, of the Court, the Sieur de Breton, went up to the sufferer several times, and asked him if he had anything to say. He said no . . .
The final operation lasted a very long time, because the horses were not used to it. Six horses were needed: but even they were not enough . . .
The executioner asked whether they should cut him in pieces, but the Clerk ordered them to try again. The confessors drew close once more, and he said 'Kiss me, sires', and one of them kissed him on the forehead.
After two or three more attempts, the executioners took out knives, and cut off his legs . . .
They said that he was dead. But when the body had been pulled apart, the lower jaw was still moving, as if to speak
. . . In execution of the decree, the last pieces of flesh were not consumed until 10:30 in the evening.