It is of course well known that careless talk costs lives, but the full scale of the problem is not always appreciated.

For instance, a human (see Earth) named Arthur Dent who, because of a Vogon Constructor Fleet, was one of the last two humans in the Universe at the time, once said "I seem to be having tremendous difficulty with my lifestyle." At the very moment that Arthur said this, a freak wormhole opened up in the fabric of the space-time continuum and carried his words far far back in time across almost infinite reaches of space to a distant Galaxy where strange and warlike beings were poised on the brink of frightful interstellar battle.

The two opposing leaders were meeting for the last time.

A dreadful silence fell across the conference table as the commander of the Vl'Hurgs, resplendent in his black jewelled battle shorts, gazed levelly at the the G'Gugvuntt leader squatting opposite him in a cloud of green sweet-smelling steam, and, with a million sleek and horribly beweaponed star cruisers poised to unleash electric death at his single word of command, challenged the vile creature to take back what it had said about his mother.

The creature stirred in his sickly broiling vapour, and at that very moment the words I seem to be having tremendous difficulty with my lifestyle drifted across the conference table.

Unfortunately, in the Vl'Hurg tongue this was the most dreadful insult imaginable, and there was nothing for it but to wage terrible war for centuries.

- The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy

 


 

Sometimes the most appalling horror is triggered by the most trivial of incidents. And the death of Robert-François Damiens (the last Frenchman to be executed by being quartered by horses) would seem to be a case of quite disproportionate retribution.

Damiens has been described by historians as mentally unstable. He was certainly removed from a domestic position with the Jesuits, and possibly nicknamed "the Devil". Not saying the man was any kind of saint, but let's compare the results of his actions to his actual actions.

On the morning of the 28th of March, 1757, he was brought from his cell, where he is reported to have said "La journée sera rude", which rougly translates to "Today is going to suck". That was an incredible understatement. 

Because they started the day's events with a small amuse-gueule of tearing at him with red-hot pincers, you know, just to get everyone warmed up and ready for the remainder of the day. The hand that he used to attempt to kill the King with was then burned, with sulphur. Pouring molten wax and then molten lead, and then boiling oil into his various wounds was the next course, because they wanted to make sure he got the point.

Unluckily for Damiens, he seemed to have a Rasputin-level of constitution and a high tolerance for pain. Naturally, during his previous trial - they tortured him to try and see if he had co-conspirators or was put up to the assassination attempt, but he had nothing to say. But people typically under the careful ministrations of a torturer will still make up a story to get the pain to stop. That Damiens never said a word was a testament to his unfortunate fortitude.

That not being enough general misery for the man, they then went on to la grande finale, which was to take him to the place of execution where they attached horses to his limbs and had them try to pull him apart. I say try, because during the horrible screaming and severe agony he endured, his limbs actually wouldn't come off, so after a while of this the officiants thought it best to assist the process with a few clumsy blows with axes. After a while they eventually got his limbs removed from his torso in this fashion, but the whole affair was torturous and barbaric even by 1700s standards and those who weren't moved to turn away by the horrible shrieks of the condemned were certainly made to do so by the crude attempts at hacking the man's limbs off to allow the horses to pull them away.

Since he was still alive, they then dragged his torso over to a stake and burned him alive. Mercifully, this finally managed to kill him.

Regicide is of course not something any government has ever taken lightly, and Elizabethan England is rife with the horrific stories of hanging, drawing and quartering for anyone even thought to want to try. 

But what set this whole story off is that Damiens appeared incensed that the Catholic clergy would not grant sacraments to the Jansenist sect, and somehow Damiens got the idea that the King was responsible for all of this. He seemed to get the idea that if he struck at the King, he would obtain some kind of heavenly reward.

So on the 5th of January, 1757, he rushed past the bodyguards of King Louis XV, and attempted to stab the man with a penknife. He chose winter as the timeline for this attack, so what little damage a pen-knife would have done was further hampered by the very thick, heavy clothes Louis was wearing. Voltaire described the wound as no more than a pin-prick, and it is thought that the blade barely made it half an inch into his skin. Probably never even left a scar.

Lest this be taken as an attack on the French, the ensuing actions did manage to bolster the British comedian's view that the French are foppish, weak, and prone to extreme bouts of drama. Louis swooned back, convinced he was dying, and theatrically called for a confessor lest he should die. When the Queen (well, the other one) arrived in tears he begged her forgiveness for his multiple affairs. With his arm over his brow, lying in his would-be death bed.

Which of course, led to the events that transpired, followed by Damiens' house being burned to the ground, his body being reduced to ashes, and every relative of his being required to change their name, and his immediate family were banished from France.

There are multiple eyewitness accounts recorded of the last day of Robert-François Damiens, and the events of the day were used not only to justify the cruelty towards aristocrats during the French Revolution, but also in a general philosophical opposition to oppressive governments and royalties in general. They may very well have set in motion a lot of the fuel which drove the Revolution, which inspired the American Revolution. All because a mentally unstable domestic wanted to martyr himself for a now-forgotten heretical sect in the 18th century.

Any student of history will find the juxtaposition of the comedy and horror of these events yet another example of how human history runs. Unfortunately, we're not truly able to divorce the two. One would laugh at the theatrical depiction of Louis, supposedly expiring from a tiny pinprick, calling for the Last Rites and crying to his wife about his adultery convinced he was dying - but for the fact that within a few months the resulting execution and torture was horrifically barbaric.

Maddeningly, the story is incomplete. One would think that the bodyguards so easily pushed aside by a random nut wouldn't exactly be told they were very very naughty, written up for being a half-step too slow, and told to do better next time. History doesn't so readily record what happened to them, but one can presume they weren't exactly happy with the aftermath, either.

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