Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



First Advisor

Douglas Biggs

Second Advisor

Mark Ellis

Committee Members

Christopher Steinke, Linda Van Ingen, Amber Alexander


Ancien Regime;Capital Punishment;Criminal Justice;Executioner;French Revolution;Headsmen


This thesis examines the memoirs, letters, public records, and legal records of the Sanson dynasty of executioners to understand the patterns of thought and behavior of the early modern headsman. While recent historians have acknowledged the social and political pressures of the profession, few have attempted to catalog the words and actions of the executioners themselves. The Sanson family is unique in their longevity and historical role in the French Revolution. Furthermore, their memoirs provide in their own words a direct understanding of their state of mind. With recent scholarship dedicated to the analysis of the “Age of Spectacular Punishment,” this thesis seeks to synthesize current historical interpretation with a microhistory of a single executioner family. This paper charts the rise and fall of the Sanson dynasty over seven generations from 1688-1857. While the Paris lineage is well documented, this paper also examines the executioner lines in Abbeville, Reims, and Rouen. It highlights the patterns of thought and behaviors caused by factors unique to the profession. The Sansons combated this trauma by targeting the social and professional factors that caused them. Members of the family worked to reform the penal code to restore their citizenship, pushed for the adoption of the guillotine to ease their workload and expenses, and wrote editorials to turn public perception of their profession from revulsion to respect. In highlighting the plight of the French headsman, this paper underscores the singular difficulties of a profession hitherto misunderstood by contemporary society.



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