Victor Hugo and Guernsey: sparring with Palmerston

9th March 2015

The Guernsey reaction to Victor Hugo's letters on the death penalty, 1854; an examination of newspapers and other resources in the Library.

Think now: ever since the sentence of death was pronounced, that ticking you now hear from every clock is the beating of this wretch's heart. [From Letter to the Inhabitants of Guernsey, January, 1854]

I could not learn even the name of a single refugee at Jersey except Victor Hugo whose letter about that Guernsey murderer had drawn attention to him—the people seem to think him a half mad oddity. [John Stuart Mill, letter from St Malo, June 1854.]

Gazette de Guernesey, 14 January 1854

'We give below a most moving address to the inhabitants of this Island, from the sublime pen of Victor Hugo, on death sentences handed down by the courts, in particular the case we are now witnessing. It asks them to seek mercy for the condemned man Tapner, and thus to prevent an execution, something that virtually every enlightened judiciary in the world has exiled from its laws. There is no need for us to recommend to you the talent, and strong and energetic style of this author, his name alone is enough. His worldwide reputation says more about him than we ever could; let us hope that those Channel Islanders whose souls are charitable and merciful harken to his noble words. We admit that a terrible and cruel crime was committed, but we have overwhelming evidence that in those countries in which the death penalty has been abolished, these type of crimes are occurring less often; London, that great city, is an irrefutable example.'1

Victor Hugo was an indefatigable opponent of the death penalty.2 His son had been sent to prison for the cause, and Hugo wrote letters and made speeches throughout his life with the aim of abolishing it. In 1852 he had come to live in Jersey, chosen for its proximity to France, where he was no longer able to reside thanks to his bitter hatred of Napoleon III. At the beginning of 1854 he was roused to action by the case of John Charles Tapner, an Englishman condemned to death for murder in Guernsey on 10 January. The Guernsey newspapers reported Tapner’s trial in great detail. In Jersey, Hugo followed the story by reading the Guernsey Star.

Hugo immediately decided to write a letter3 appealing to the people of Guernsey. He had reason to think he might enjoy some success; the Jersey authorities, backed by the Crown, had in September of 1851 commuted the death sentence they had handed down to one Jacques Fouquet for shooting his lover’s husband, William Derbyshire.4 In fact, three death sentences in Jersey had been commuted over a period of eight years.

Hugo’s letter was published by only one of the island’s three main newspapers.5 The Gazette de Guernesey published it as soon as it could, on the 14 January; the Chronique de Jersey put it on its front page on the same day; both were French-language newspapers. In Guernsey, the Star noted that the letter had been received but declined to publish it; on 12 January the editor of the Comet had explained that although the newspaper acknowledged that the author wrote with the best of intentions, it was its policy to publish only in the English language. It did, however, have these words for Hugo:

An elaborate paper from the pen of the poet-orator VICTOR HUGO has been presented to us for publication..... We admire the motives which have induced the distinguished exile to put forward the aid appeal, but cannot pass the same eulogy on his prudence under existing circumstances.  ... If the case under consideration admits of any palliation, the legal advisers of the convict have their remedy at hand, and to which they can have recourse without setting the community in collision with the judicial authorities. If a clear case can be made out for the exercise of the Royal clemency, we may rest assured the same will not be withheld; and if it be extended to the unfortunate individual, we shall cheerfully acquiesce in the exercise of that prerogative which is vested in the CROWN.

Adèle Hugo, in her diary of 1854,6 attributes this reluctance to publish to Guernsey’s 'religious scruples.' Thomas Falla, Tapner's advocate, in his letter to Hugo, attributes the reluctance of the islanders to offer more support to both 'false religious principle' and their inability to comprehend that a greater principle than mere punishment was at stake. 

The majority of islanders could understand Hugo’s letter perfectly well, although Tapner himself could not speak French and had to have concessions made for him during his trial, which, like all Guernsey official business, was conducted in French.7 The letter featured in other newspapers published by Hugo’s friends; La Nation, in Belgium, on the 16th, and L’Homme, the controversial newspaper published in Jersey by other radical exiles on the 18th; and Hugo was gratified to learn later that from here it found its way to French-speaking Canada, where the authorities in Quebec were sufficiently moved by it to spare the life of a murderer named Julien.8

Hugo began correspondence with Tapner's advocate, Thomas John Blondel Falla.9 The Comet of 19 January, five days after the publication of Hugo’s letter, announced that a petition had been started to ask the Home Secretary, Lord Palmerston, for clemency for Tapner. Thomas Falla seems to have been instrumental in this; placed in several shops, the petition was eventually signed by around 600 people, including some of the most important in the island. While no non-conformist ministers added their names, as was noted with contempt by Thomas Falla, women and children did, neither of whom, even supporters of Hugo were forced to admit, 'could fully understand the issues.' Meetings in Jersey in support of Fouquet had attracted around the same number; Hugo was disappointed nevertheless.

In their request for mercy, in response to the appeal from Victor Hugo, 700 English citizens proclaimed the principle of the inviolability of human life. The death penalty, they said, must be abolished.10

The petition may well have been muddled, citing the circumstantial evidence presented at the trial as a reason for clemency, although Hugo himself describes the petition as being based primarily on the inviolability of human life ('qui s'appuie énergiquement sur le principe de l'inviolabilité de la vie humaine'). For whatever reason, it failed; Hugo had been frustrated, awaiting news from Thomas Falla. He was to discover that Palmerston had also turned down the lawyer’s appeal for clemency. There appeared to be no grounds to grant it and Palmerston referred the matter back to the Jurats of the Royal Court, who, as always, implemented the law. Circumstantial evidence did not wash with them; the Jurats had been unanimous in finding Tapner guilty, so he should be punished accordingly. There had been just a few letters in the island’s newspapers condemning the death penalty; others had displayed a more equivocal approach. Even after the execution, the Comet’s editor wrote that 'we are far from satisfied with the arguments of the abolitionists.' However, on 10 February the execution took place and was a catastrophe. Hugo was still in Jersey and read of the appalling incompetence of the executioner in the newspapers. The Chronique de Jersey of 15 February gives the details, and, following the Gazette, condemns the hapless executioner, John Rooks (who seems to have been an alcoholic); the Guernsey Comet exonerates him. It was at this point that Hugo, no doubt exercised by the news to the point of desperation, decided to act. On 15 February, the day on which the Chronique de Jersey had published the account of Tapner’s appalling and pathetic end, Hugo wrote a private note to himself:

To Lord Palmerston: You are hanging this man, Sir. Alright. Well done. I once dined with you, a few years ago. I suppose you've forgotten that; but I remember it. What struck me about you was the unusual way your cravat had been tied. They told me you were famous for the skill with which you tied your knot. I see that you are pretty good at tying knots around other people's necks, too.11

On the same day and in this frame of mind he composed a letter to be sent to Lord Palmerston.

On February 19 he wrote to his friend and publisher Hetzel:

My whole life has been one never-ending fight. And now here I am having to get in the ring with Palmerston. What an awful thing this Tapner business is, eh?12

The next day the letter to Lord Palmerston from Hugo appeared in the Times. It was rather strongly worded, and gave the impression that Hugo believed Palmerston had refused clemency to Tapner because he was influenced by Hugo's enemies in France.13

Why? Why is that refused to Guernsey which has been so frequently granted to Jersey? .... Why this difference where the cases were parallel? ... Is there any mystery connected with it? Of what use is reflection? Things have been said, my lord, before which I turn away my head. No, what has been said cannot be.14

This letter had an effect on Palmerston, although Hugo was not aware of this—Hugo’s account of the dreadful sufferings of Tapner in the letter brought about reform in the method of hanging in Britain.15 The letter itself, however, shocked and angered the inhabitants of Guernsey, always loyal to the Crown. They were horrified at the suggestion that the British could be in any way swayed in their application of the rule of law by the requirements of the French authorities. The Comet, without comment, reprinted16 a scathing critique of Victor Hugo 'and the Execution at Guernsey' from the Times. Even the Gazette, (whose assistant editor, Henri Marquand, was later to supplement his journalist's income by teaching the Hugo family English, became Hugo's 'Guernsey disciple'—Hugo was godfather to one of Marquand's children—and who, in 1860, published a book about the life and execution of John Brown dedicated to Victor Hugo17), printed a condemnation of the letter, putting Hugo in his place in no uncertain terms.

In Choses Vues,18 Hugo's memoirs, he himself has this to say:

The evening before my visit to the prison, Mr Pearce, one of the two chaplains who had ministered to Tapner on the day of his death, came to see me at Hauteville House with the Prévôt. I asked Mr Pearce, a very venerable and worthy old man: 'Did Tapner know that I was trying to help him?' 'Most definitely,' replied Mr Pearce, clasping his hands together. 'He was very touched and very appreciative of your intervention, and he asked particularly that you should be thanked on his behalf.' 

I note, as a common characteristic of the freedom of the press in England, that at the time of Tapner's death, all the island papers having more or less insisted on the execution, and extremely shocked by my letter to Lord Palmerston, conspired not to mention what Mr Pearce now told me. They seemed to be making out that Tapner was a supporter of the gallows, and it wasn't entirely my fault I got the impression Tapner resented me.19

But was Hugo, for all the seeming pomposity and affrontery the islanders so much objected to, victorious in the end? He did not think so, and his disappointment was evident years later.20 However, In Choses Vues, he has his friend, Etienne Martin, the Prévôt, tell him 'There is something else you don't know, and that they have also deliberately not mentioned. You think your intervention completely failed, but you actually scored a tremendous victory.' He explains to Hugo that despite the island's adherence to tradition, following Hugo's letter the authorities had not dared force Tapner to parade all the way to his execution on the sea-front, with his noose around his neck, as had always happened up until then. 'They said, let's hang him, but in secret. They were ashamed.' A hole was knocked into the wall of a garden next door to the prison, so that Tapner could pass through, seen only by those who had a ticket.21

Hugo, who admits he is giving us the gist of Martin's words, rather than the exact text, believed himself responsible for that. Almost exactly a year later, the Executioner died in the Town Hospital. And Tapner was, after all, the last person to be executed in Guernsey.


¹ 'Nous donnons plus bas une adresse pathétique aux habitants de cette île de la plume sublime de Victor Hugo, sur les sentences de mort prononcées par les tribunaux, et spécialement sur celle dont nous sommes présentement témoins, les engageant à intervenir en grâce pour le condamné Tapner, pour arrêter une exécution que presque tous les tribunaux éclairs du monde proscrivent de leurs codes. Le talent de l’auteur, son style mâle et énergique n’ont pas besoin de notre éloge pour le recommander à nos lecteurs, son nom suffit; sa réputation universelle en dit plus que tout ce que nous pourrions dire; espérons que sa noble voix sera entendue par les âmes charitables et miséricordieuses des îles de la Manche. Le crime est énorme et cruel, nous l’avouons; mais nous avons la preuve éclatante que dans les pays ou l’on a aboli la peine de mort les crimes disparaissent à une plus grande proportion; Londres, cette grande cité, en offre un exemple irréfragable.'

² See his wife's partial biography, written in 1863: Hugo, Adèle, Victor Hugo, by a Witness of his Life, trans. Charles Wilbour: New York, Carleton, 1864, Chapter 51. This includes the story of Charles Hugo's 1851 trial, in which he was defended by his father, the texts of the letters to the Guernsey people and to Palmerston, and an address on John Brown written by Hugo.

³ This letter was published in an edited form in Pendant L'Exil; Actes et paroles: 'Pendant l'Exil, 1852-1870': Paris, Nelson, pp. 107 ff. Another letter, concerning the execution of a 20-year old murderer in Jersey, named Bradley, is printed in the Star of August 14 1866.

4 Derbyshire had found his wife in Fouquet’s rooms and was attacking her at the time; Fouquet shot him; Derbyshire had named Fouquet as his killer before he died. Details of this crime and trial can be found in the 1851 Chronique de Jersey, in the Library.

5 For the history of the island's newspapers, see Bennett, A., A History of the French newspapers and nineteenth-century English newspapers of Guernsey: thesis, Loughborough University, 1995.

6 Adèle Hugo's diary, 1854. In the comment above, the editor of The Star wrote 'the requirements of the Divine law are completely overlooked in the discussion of this question, ... human sympathy is substituted for sound reason.' In fact, Victor Hugo amended this in his publication of the letters in 1854, to be found in Pendant l'exil. There he names three ministers who had signed the main Guernsey petition; Pearce, Carey, and Cockburn. A letter has recently (2016) come to light from Hugo to the Reverend Pearce, written on 19 February 1854, in which he apologises for having not mentioned Pearce and explaining that he will include in his publication spéciale the other two honorables ministres. Hugo may have mistaken MD for DD, however, as James Cockburn was a Guernsey doctor.  The Comet, February 9th, 1854: 'Today the culprit was visited by the two gentlemen who conducted his defence, Messrs FALLA and GALLIENNE, and who, since his condemnation, have used strenuous efforts to procure a commutation of the punishment that awaits him.'

On 7 January The Star reported that the edition of the 5th with the details of the trial had been reprinted twice, and was holding up publication of the next edition. 'The publication of the present number of The Star has been delayed till Friday by the unceasing demand for Tuesday’s number, which has kept our printing-machine at work without intermission ever since Wednesday morning.' On the 30th January, the Comet announced that Henry Brouard, editor of The Star, was going to produce a book about the trial and that its publication was imminent, but in the event, it was not published until after the execution. See the Gazette March 13 1854. Procès de Jean Charles Tapner: condamné à la peine de mort par arrêt de la Cour Royale de Guernesey à la date du 3 Janvier 1854. Trial of John Charles Tapner, Guernsey: Henri Brouard, 1854; available in the Library. Tapner's victim was Mrs Elizabeth Simon, widow of André Saujon (The Star, October 20 1853, the first report of the murder).

8 'Victor Hugo avait élevé sa voix éloquente, juste au moment où la vie et la morte de Julien étaient dans la balance.' La Nation, 12 April 1854. Cited in Notes to Pendant L'Exil—'L'affaire Tapner.'

At the beginning of February, a man called Julien was sentenced to death in Quebec for having murdered his father-in-law, Pierre Dion. It was just at this precise moment that the European newspapers brought to Canada Victor Hugo's letter addressed to the people of Guernsey, asking for mercy for Tapner. The Moniteur Canadien of 16 February, which I have a copy of here, published this letter, and followed it with this thought, which I quote: Has this sublime argument against the death penalty not reached us at this very moment in order to show us exactly how we should deal with the wretched murderer of Pierre Dion? And now, a few days later, we read in Le Pays of Montréal: the sentence against Julien for the murder of his father-in-law has been commuted to life imprisonment. And the Canadian newspaper adds: Victor Hugo raised his eloquent voice, just as the life of Julien hung in the balance. [From the French].

9 Victor Hugo, Correspondance avec Pierre-Jules Hetzel, 11 janvier 1854-avril 1857: France: Centre national du Livre, 2004, 19 February 1854 p. 39.

10 Actes et paroles: Pendant l'Exil, 1852-1870: Paris, Nelson, pp. 521 ff.

11 'À L. Palmerston: Vous pendez cet homme, monsieur. Fort bien. Je vous fais mon compliment. Un jour, il y a quelques années de cela, je dînai avec vous. Vous l'avez, je suppose, oublié; moi, je m'en souviens. Ce qui me frappa en vous, c'était la façon rare dont votre cravate était mise. On me dit que vous étiez célèbre par l'art de faire votre noeud. Je vois que vous savez aussi faire le noeud d'autrui.' Pendant l'Exil. Cf. Robb, Graham, Victor Hugo: London, Picador, 1998.

12 'J’ai passé ma vie dans un pugilat éternel. Voici maintenant qu’il faut boxer avec Palmerston. Quelle horreur hein, que cette affaire Tapner!' Victor Hugo, Correspondance avec Pierre-Jules Hetzel, 11 janvier 1854-avril 1857: France: Centre national du livre, 2004, p. 39. It must have been just after writin the letter to Palmerston that he fired off a reply to Guernsey's Reverend Pearce

13 23 February 23. There was a rumour that M Walewski, the French ambassador, had had an audience with Palmerston two days before he reached his verdict.

14 From the 'Letter to the Inhabitants' ...., in Hugo, Adèle, Victor Hugo, by a Witness of his Life, trans. Charles Wilbour: New York, Carleton, 1864, Chapter 51.

15 Robb, Graham, Victor Hugo: London, Picador, 1998.

16 20 February.

17 Henri Marquand became a close family friend, one of the few Guernsey people to do so. He probably was not fully employed as assistant editor until a few months after the publication of the criticism of Hugo. Marquand, Henri-E., John Brown: sa vie, l'affaire de Harper's ferry, capture, captivité et martyre du héros et de ses compagnons; suivis de considérations sur sa mort et ses résultats probables, etc.: Guernsey, Thomas-P. Bichard, Bureau de la Gazette, Rue du Bordages, [1860]. He wrote other books.

The Gazette de Guernesey of 4th April 1863

OUR CAMPAIGN AGAINST THE DEATH PENALTY.  In the Journal de Bruges of 27th March 1863 we read: Wherever there is light there is a way of communicating that light. Alongside the great exile of Guernsey you needed a newspaper, and that newspaper of necessity pleaded his life's great cause. The friends of the night defend only the cause of the tomb. So the Gazette de Guernesey supports the sacred inviolability of human life, the ending of that great social injustice, the death penalty, and its editor, M Henri Marquand, like the crusaders of old who fought with word and sword, battles against the scaffold with his words and his pen. Not only did he dedicate the columns of his paper for fourteen years to the discussion of that great question which so occupies our thoughts now here in Belgium, and to acquaint his readers with our country's efforts to wipe from our penal code that bloodstain which still sullies it, but he takes his battle with the scaffold to the wider public, in his public addresses.

Last February 9th, M Marquand delivered an extraordinary speech, at a meeting attended by M. Victor Hugo. Here is the letter that great poet wrote to the orator, that same evening:

Monday, 9th February. 11.00 p.m.

I have just heard you speak, my dear Monsieur Marquand, and I send you my congratulations once again. You have pleaded our great cause most worthily. You have battled with the Bible, and with those who hide behind the Bible, and emerged victorious. You broke their sword in their hands. You kept the whole audience interested with a plethora of facts based on sound argument, using your voice and gestures to great effect. You defended the cause in a particularly fine manner. I add my heartfelt applause to the bravos you have already received. VICTOR HUGO.

18 Choses vues: souvenirs, journaux, cahiers, 1849-1869, ed. Juin, Hubert: Paris, Gallimard, 1972. For an unpublished letter to Reverend Pearce re the death penalty, dated 19 February 1854, thanking him for his support (cf. note 4 above), see Galerie Thomas Vincent, Paris.

19 Choses vues, p. 300.

20 From Pendant L'Exil. An 1865 letter in reply to A M Lilly of London, who asked Hugo for help to save a murderer named Polioni.

Hauteville-House, 12 February 1865.

Sir, you do me the honour of turning to me for help – thank you.

A scaffold is to be erected; you are letting me know about it. You think it is in my power to knock this scaffold down again. Alas! I do not have that power. I could not save Tapner, I won’t be able to save Polioni. To whom should I appeal? The government? The people? To the English people I am a foreigner, and to the English government an outlaw. Less than nobody, you see. England considers my opinion just like any other, a bit irritating perhaps, ineffectual most definitely. I cannot do anything, Sir; pity Polioni and pity me. [From the French.]

21 Choses vues, p. 300.

[DAB]