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Tuesday, 24 September, 2002, 13:00 GMT 14:00 UK
The executioner's tale
Former executioner Fernand Meyssonnier
He helped to guillotine more than 200 people.

Fernand Meyssonnier has me by the head. With four meaty fingers behind each of my ears, he is tugging me forward out of my seat. It doesn't exactly hurt, but the effect is certainly unsettling.

"That's the way to do it. You've got to make sure you don't hold the guy too near the neck, or you could have an accident. It happened. There were people who lost two or three fingers," he says.

The blood spurts like two glasses of red wine chucked three metres

Mr Meyssonnier is - or was - an executioner. In 21 years from 1947, he helped to guillotine the heads off more than 200 people - the vast majority of them Arabs - in French Algeria. During the war there he was taking off five or six a month.

He knows what it is like to hold a human head.

He has seen the gore.

"The blood spurts like two glasses of red wine chucked three metres," he says with a quick double-flick of the wrist.

He is - in Europe at least - a last link with an ancient, almost mythological, profession: the people's killer.

He is speaking to me in the upstairs room of a house flanking the river in the picturesque Provencal village of Fontaine-de-Vaucluse. This was where he came in 1992, after 30 years making his fortune as a bar-owner in Tahiti.

The book

French soldiers in Algiers during the Algeria Civil War
During the war in French Algeria he was cutting off five or six heads a month
He has never spoken publicly about his experiences before. But at 72 he is ill with cancer, and this month he is bringing out a book - An Executioner's Tale - in which he answers all the questions.

Like, what made him become an executioner?

"People say I became an executioner because my father was one - but that's not the case," he says.

His father Maurice Meyssonnier - a communist bar-owner - was chief executioner in Algiers after World War II and took him on as an apprentice in 1947.

Fernand's godfather was Henri Roch, chief executioner before the war and from a line of executioners going back to the 16th Century - so, whatever he says, the guillotine was certainly in the family.

"My father needed someone he could trust absolutely. The important thing about the job was that absolutely nothing must go wrong.

"But for me, there were other reasons. I had good money; I could carry a gun; I had plenty of free time; the chief of police would greet me. And I had the good will of the whole of French Algeria."

The work routine


You come out with an incredible sense of power - only God can do that!

Meyssonnier senior would receive a call at the bar from the prosecutor's office, and that evening they would pack the guillotine into boxes and set off by lorry to the prison in Algiers, Oran or Constantine. There they would erect the machine in the courtyard and rest till dawn.

Fernand started off as a junior assistant, with the task of tying the convict's ankles and thighs with fishing-wire. Then his hands were handcuffed behind his back and his elbows trussed together. "This has the effect of making the head stick out, which was what we wanted," he says.

Later he was promoted to first assistant, whose job it was to stand at the top-end and pull the convict's head through the wooden hole known as the "demi-lunette," or half-lens, and then hold it as the blade came down.
Execution scene in a TV drama on French Revolution
The Meyssonnier family is linked to executioners as far back as 16th Century

Because he was looking at the convict through the demi-lunette, the first assistant was also known as the "photographer."

"You must never give the guy time to think. Because if you do he starts moving his head around, and that's when you have the mess-ups. The blade comes through his jaw, and you have to use a butcher's knife to finish it off.

"So I would say 'Go, father!' and - crack! - the head is in my hands, and I put it in the bucket.

Sometimes I watch game-shows on television, and some poor fellow wins a fortune. He's mad with joy, and I've got tears in my eyes!

"It is an exorbitant power - to kill your fellow man. The whole thing would happen like in a fast film. They bring in the first one and then the second, and in 20 seconds two people are decapitated. You come out with an incredible sense of power - only God can do that!"

With his powerful frame and grizzled chest-hair, Fernand Meyssonnier has all the burly gruffness of the classic former colonial, but he is also clearly fond of a laugh.

Hard man?

A miniature replica of a guillotine which he made for his father when he was 15 has pride of place in a glass box. A pair of spectacles which he keeps in the coffin-basket belonged to one of his victims. But on top of the box - bizarrely - is a "Billy the Bass" singing fish.

Two grey parrots in a cage interrupt our conversation. He has trained them to whistle the Marseillaise and the Internationale, and then shout out "Off with his head - Long Live Meyssonnier!"
Fernand Meyssonnier with Hugh Schofield
Meeting Mr Meyssonnier was an unsettling experience

Was he a hard man, I ask, to have lived through all that killing?

"Not at all. Sometimes I watch game-shows on television, and some poor fellow wins a fortune. He's mad with joy, and I've got tears in my eyes!

"And once in Algeria I was with a friend who was trying to start his car with the handle, and it came off and he cut his head. I had to take him to the doctor to have stitches, and I tell you I was almost sick watching him suffer, with all the blood coming out.

"I asked the doctor what was wrong with me - and he said 'You're just not used to it!.'"

Fernand Meyssonnier bursts into laughter.

Links to more Europe stories are at the foot of the page.


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