This article originally appeared on VICE France.
Lining the pages of Anatole Deibler's diaries aren't descriptions of what he did that day, but portraits of murderers, thieves and child rapists. They are the faces of criminals waiting to hear their punishment. Forced labour in Guyana? Life in prison? Or a dawn appointment with Anatole Deibler, the infamous executioner?
From the beginning of his career in 1891, Deibler kept meticulous notebooks of the criminals he beheaded, complete with their criminal resumés. If a name had a red cross circled in black beside it, they had met Deibler’s guillotine. Criminal history expert Éric Guillion was rummaging through the Paris police archives when he stumbled across a catalogue of early criminal mugshots. Carefully preserved, the images he found complete Deibler's notebooks, cataloguing 299 beheadings over a 40-year career as France's top executioner.
Guillon’s book Guillotiné (Beheaded) features accounts of some horrific crimes. One example is Deibler's second-ever execution in 1891: two young men killed an old lady before trying to cut off her tongue, sticking a metal drill in her temple and dancing on her body. They then had a quick bite before heading to the theatre for an alibi. Here, author Eric Guillon tells us about the faces in the photos and the fascinating hangman himself.
VICE: When did mugshots become a thing?
Éric Guillon: At the end of the 19th century, so just a bit before the start of Anatole Deibler’s career. Before it was implemented, it was easy to slip through the cracks of the justice system with a false identity and the only reliable way to identify criminals was skin branding.
What do we know about the criminals featured in the book?
They were, for the main, part assassins and often reoffending murderers, guilty of sordid crimes, such as torturing women or children. Back then, you couldn’t walk through Paris without the risk of being attacked by a gang. The period when Deibler was most active – from 1890 to 1939 – also overlaps with WWI, where many cases involved young men no older than 20 years old. There was a clear rise in youth crime during the war, because of the destruction of family structures.
How did executions take place?
Convicts weren't told their own execution date, to avoid them becoming uncontrollable. Sometimes they had to wait four or five months. They had to spend every night thinking it could be their last. By law, all executions had to take place in the early hours of the morning. The night before an execution, Deibler and his helpers assembled the guillotine as silently as they could, but it didn’t stop people getting wind of it.
What do you mean?
Apart from lawyers, judges and prosecutors, no one was meant to know when an execution would take place. But word would spread so far that people would line up to attend beheadings, which were public until 1939. Finding the location was pretty simple, as the guillotine was always set up in the same spot in Paris: in front of the Prison de la Santé, then the Prison de la Roquette.
Artists and upper class people would rush to executions. When it was a famous criminal, people paid a lot to rent out spaces like apartments with a view of the execution stage. Others would climb walls and trees. The public would see it as entertainment, like reality TV shows nowadays. Then the execution would be reviewed in the paper. After Deibler’s first execution, the following day's paper read: “Young Mr Deibler demonstrated a confident flick of the wrist, and the ease of an experienced practitioner. After this happy trial, we can foresee and wish him a good career, and a number of respectable performances.”
Was Deibler well-liked?
He was seen as a model executioner. He was very professional. He wasn’t a sadist; he didn’t take any pleasure in executing people, he just wanted his machine to function well, so he wouldn't prolong their suffering.
How did one become an executioner then?
Anatole Deibler was from a long line of executioners who worked in Germany and then later in France. Executioners were a sort of caste – Deibler had also married the daughter of an executioner. The family business wasn’t something you could easily get out of.
Did he want to become an executioner?
No, he was working as a salesperson for a tailor in a large Parisian department store. But his family really pushed him to carry on the family tradition. His father was actually the only executioner to ever resign. He would shake every time he beheaded someone. So he made way for his son. At any rate, Deibler made history – criminals even used to get “My head to Deibler” tattooed on their necks, as well as a line around the neck followed by “cut along the dotted line.”
It was a rather coveted position, due to the status it gave, as well as the comfortable salary for very little work. In the Middle Ages, executioners had benefits, such as being able to choose any foodstuff they’d need in markets. After Deibler died in February 1939, they had about 200 applications.