13th March 2019

Execution of M J F Béasse, For the Crime of Infanticide.  A handbill from 1830 in the Library collection, a gruesome souvenir of the notorious crime committed by a young French nobleman in the vicinty of Guernsey's Ruettes Brayes, translated from the original French.

Marie Joseph François Béasse, son of Jacques-Simon, a young man of about 31 years of age, was a native of Ecommoy, Sarthe, in France; he had resided in this island for several years, and had recently bought the estate of the Ruettes Brayes, where he committed the horrible crime for which he has just died on the scaffold.

Before giving the details of the execution, we should perhaps provide some information about the circumstances which led up to this sad event.

On Saturday, 12 June last, between 9 and 10 o’clock at night, Pierre Martel, Ecuyer, one of the Town Constables, was told by Monsieur Jean Robin, Assistant Constable, that his colleague Mr Hancock harboured very grave suspicions against Béasse and that, following vague answers Béasse had given to the brother of his maid, Sara Elliot, he had every reason to believe that she had given birth, but that as Béasse’s house was in the parish of St Martin, he felt he had no right to investigate there.

The following Monday morning, M Hancock went to the Police station, and informed the Constables of what had happened. As a result of this information, Constable Martel and Hancock, along with Dr O’Brien, went to Béasse’s house. After some preliminary difficulties, Sara Elliott was examined by Mr O’Brien, who declared that she had brought a baby to full term, and that this had not been a miscarriage, as she was claiming. A short while after, M O’Brien accompanied the Constables into the small garden behind the house, where Béasse showed them the place where the child had been buried, underneath a medlar tree in an isolated area of the garden. The doctor examined the child and saw no external marks of violence, except that the umbilical cord was not attached and there was a clear fluid coming out of the baby’s mouth. The child was then taken into the house and placed in a cupboard to wait the arrival of Dr Hoskins.

The two doctors performed an autopsy on the body. They noticed a laceration in the mouth below the tongue, which had not been caused by a blade; and they saw two other injuries, one either side of the throat. They examined the abdomen and saw evidence of other injuries. They carefully removed the rectum and found an injury to the intestine about 2½ inches from the anus. They also pronounced that, having performed the usual tests on the lungs, there was no doubt that the child had been born alive. Dr O’Brien was also of the opinion that the woman would have needed almost superhuman strength to have inflicted such injuries on the baby.

Béasse was taken before the court. His evidence had been taken in writing and he was taken into custody to await trial. He was accused of having feloniously killed, destroyed and murdered a male child to which Sara Elliott had given birth on the night of 10/11 June, 1830, by forcibly introducing a sharp instrument into the throat and anus of the baby. His trial took place on Saturday 23 October. The Court condemned the prisoner to death, the Bailiff making these comments as he pronounced the sentence:

‘I had hoped that I would go to my grave never having had to pronounce the sentence of death upon a fellow human being.  It is, however, my duty to pronounce upon you the Court’s judgment. Even if I hesitated to allow that the evidence was legally sound, I am nonetheless convinced in my mind that you are guilty, and I have no doubt that their sentence is just, that is, that you be taken, next Friday, or any other day that Court determines, to the place of execution, and there to be hanged and strangled until you be dead, and that all your worldly goods are to be confiscated, and may the God of mercy, the God of us all, have pity on your soul.’

The prisoner heard the final sentence with the greatest coolness; he even made some impertinent comments about procedure in criminal cases, and said: If my death leads to a change in the way of conducting cases like this, it will have been of some use.

Monsieur Jeremie, Béasse’s counsel, left for London on the 25 October in the hope of obtaining an adjournment of the execution. His efforts were unsuccessful and he arrived back on Sunday morning, with a letter from Secretary Peel, addressed to the Lieutenant-Governor, and informing His Excellency that there was no need to delay Monsieur Béasse’s execution any longer.

On Wednesday the 27th the prisoner asked for an extension, claiming he wished to receive news from France, concerning the property he had in that country. On Thursday, the Court assembled and allowed him another week, but at the same time gave an order that six armed men be stationed in the prison yard at night, until his execution.

The same day, Béasse wrote the following letter to Sara Elliot:

‘SARA ELLIOT. A friend has kindly undertaken to give you this letter and to translate it for you, so that I can tell you my last thoughts. I am taking advantage of his kindness. You will see that there is no resentment in my words, nor am I trying to hide anything. That would be a bad use of the few moments I have left to live. So, nothing but the truth. Even if my judges chose not to recognise that truth, fortunately for me, God knows everything. Before I make my appearance before Him, for my own satisfaction I would like my friend, who has thought much of me and whom I would consequently like to continue to hold me in some regard, to receive from your own mouth, not an admission of the guilty part you may have played in this, but the complete truth about me. You can no longer be afraid that you will compromise yourself. So, if you have any vestige of sensibility left, if you pay any regard to my misfortune, answer my questions frankly; I am in no way reproaching you. Can I possibly be guilty? Are you really sure I could not have laid my hand upon the unhappy child, who was already breathing its last when I entered the bedroom? You had said I was innocent, but when you did you changed a few things in a way that led people to believe that I could have been guilty without your knowing; does that possibility exist? Answer, in the name of a God who hears you, and before whom you must in time appear! Did you notice anything untrue in my evidence? Did not the child remain beside you at all times? Are you not aware  that you yourself put the child in a place to which only you had the key, and that I myself knew nothing about him until Sunday evening when you brought him to me? What a moment! Great God! When I think of it!

In my ignorance I was far from supposing that I was going to dig my own grave when I dug that of the poor child, already a victim. May the person who was prepared to sacrifice us be forgiven for his and my deaths, whoever that person may be.  Besides, my conscience is clear; I may have been imprudent but I have the consolation of not being a criminal. If I have anything to blame myself for it is perhaps that when you told me you were unwell I went to bed, but I had no idea that this night would be such a fatal one, and, as can happen when you keep company very late, I had drunk more than usual, and this too meant I slept deeply. But after all you could have got me up, since you went downstairs during the night. I do have to say also, that when I heard about such singular injuries [done to the child], I supposed that a small iron meat skewer could have been used to inflict them, a skewer I had seen a few days before in your room. I don’t know whether it was there [at the time of the murder].

Anyway, in two days’ time I shall be no more! If knowledge of the truth, truth known only to yourself, might occasionally recall your child and me to your mind, may that remembrance wholly contribute to your living a life that never deviates from the path of duty and good sense. Be happy, I forgive you from the bottom of my heart, and I say to you ADIEU.’

This letter very much annoyed Sara Elliott; her response was not expressed in delicate terms.

From the condemnation of Béasse up to the moment of his execution, Messieurs the Reverends Chavannes and Phillips were unceasing in giving the criminal all the religious consolation his sad situation demanded. Other ministers offered their services, but he asked that they be refused, seeing that he was quite happy with those who were visiting him, and he preferred not to have any others.

Last Wednesday, two of his friends attended the prison to say their goodbyes to the condemned man. He chatted with them exactly as he had done before his sentence, and when they left him he shook their hand without showing the least emotion.

One day, when the maid who made up his bed told him that she was scared she might break a jug that was in his cell, because she thought he would not forgive her, he said to her: ‘If I don’t forgive you, how can I hope to obtain forgiveness from God, I, who am such a great sinner.’

Last Thursday, at around eight o’clock in the evening, a short time after Mr Phillips had left him, Béasse, alone in his cell, tried to open the veins in his arms and legs with a multi-bladed penknife that he had recently got hold of (despite all the precautions taken by the Warden.) He had then intended to slit his throat with the largest blade, but, as he said himself afterwards, he could not allow himself to do it, for, he said, it was the hand of the Lord that prevented him, and he resigned himself to meeting his death. His arms were then tied behind him with a rope, and he remained thus for the rest of the night. Mr Chavannes was with him the same night, from around nine until eleven, at which hour the prisoner asked him not to stay any later, as he wanted to go to bed. He slept from midnight until three in the morning. Two men were posted at his door all this time.

Friday (today) being the day settled on for the execution, the Deputy Prevôt went to the prison at around seven-thirty in the morning, to prepare the prisoner. Béasse came down and went into room no. 6, where the executioner put the noose around his neck and made the usual arrangements, after which Béasse took a little brandy and sugar. The condemned man then appeared in the gallery; he was wearing a pair of pale blue trousers, a black coat and a cap. At ten to eight he went down into the prison courtyard, where the Prevôt was waiting for him. The Reverend Mr Chavannes walked at his left and the Reverend Mr Phillips at his right. The Crown Officers, the Constables of the Town, Vale, and St Sampson’s parishes, and the halberdiers (whose numbers had been increased), were outside the main gate of the prison, and as soon as the prisoner came out, the cortège set off. Béasse’s steps were steady; he was followed by the executioner, who seemed more upset than he was. There was a huge crowd.

As he came near to the place of execution, Béasse seemed very affected by the sight of the gallows, but the ministers held on to his arms to give him support and he seemed to grow calmer. Upon arrival at the fatal spot, the Reverend Mr Phillips removed Béasse’s cap, and then the Reverend Mr Chavannes got to his knees and prayed to God. The most profound silence reigned. Everyone seemed to be praying along with the minister in his intercession for the criminal. When the prayer was over, Monsieur the Deputy Greffier read out the judgment and sentence, and when he got to these words, ‘has been found guilty and convicted,’ the condemned man said to the Reverend Phillips, ‘I answer only to God.’

At eight thirty-five, having shaken the hand of the ministers who had accompanied him and the hands of the Court officials, Béasse climbed on to the gallows, his step still firm, and looking intently at the crowd, he spoke these words in a strong voice: ‘IL N’Y A QUE LE CRIME QUI DÉSHONNORE.’ The executioner then adjusted the noose around the condemned man’s neck, and pulled the hood down over his face; the next moment, he sent him to eternity. Béasse seemed to die almost instantly; the breath of life was soon extinguished.

One hour later, the body was cut down from the gibbet, and placed in a coffin lined with black, whose length was six feet and four inches. He was then carried to the cemetery, on a wagon escorted by the halberdiers, and buried in the presence of a great crowd of onlookers.

For the fate of Sara Elliott, see The White Shroud of Penance.