He is a man who earns a living by sending others to the scaffold. He is the official purveyor to every Place de Grève. Not only that, he is a gentlemen with pretensions to style and literature, a fine speaker, or thinks he is, who if needs be will trot out a line or two of Latin before deciding on death, who tries to create an impression, who is fascinating to his personal sense of self-esteem – O woe! – who, where other people’s lives are at stake, has his models, his appalling examples to live up to, his classics, his Bellart, his Marchangy, like one poet has Racine and another Boileau. During the proceedings he fights on the guillotine’s side; it is his role, his profession. His summing-up is his work of literature, he decks it with metaphors, perfumes it with quotations; it has to be good for the audience, it has to appeal to the ladies. He has his stock of commonplaces that are still brand new to provincials, his ornamental turns of phrase, his affectations, his writerly refinements. He hates the simple word almost as much as the tragic poets of the school of Delille. Have no fear he will call things by their proper name. Bah! For each idea which would disgust you in its naked form, he has disguises complete with epithets and adjectives. He makes Monsieur Sanson presentable. He veils the blade. He blurs the bascule. He wraps the red basket in circumlocutions. You don’t know where you are any more. Everything is rose-tinted and respectable. Can you picture him at night in his study, at leisure, doing his best to work up the harangue that in six weeks’ time will have a scaffold built? Do you see him sweating blood to make the defendant’s head fit into the deadliest article of the criminal code? Do you see him sawing through a poor wretch’s neck with a badly made law? Do you see how he injects two or three poisonous passages into a muddle of tropes and synecdoches so that, with much ado, he can squeeze out, extract the death of a man from it? Is it not true that under the desk as he writes he probably has the executioner crouching at his feet in the shadows, and that he puts down his pen now and then to say to him, like a master to his dog: “Hush! Quiet now! You’ll get your bone!”
What’s more, in his private life this public servant might be a decent man, a good father, a good son, a good husband, a good friend – like it says on all the headstones in Père-Lachaise. Let us hope the day is coming when the law will abolish these doleful duties. At some point the very air of our civilization must wear out the death penalty.
-Victor Hugo, Circa 1929 in France, Last Week in America.