On Prisoner #280

Prisoner #280 was listed in the prison records as the Widow Capet. She, along with almost 400 other women, was executed by the new-born French Republic with the new form of capital punishment, the guillotine. We think of that device as being a cruel, almost barbaric method of punishment, but the French revolutionaries saw it as being a much more humane way to kill prisoners. That, however, was of little comfort to this widow or the over 17,000 total Frenchmen who died that way, including the former King, Louis XVI and many other members of his royal family.

The widow’s crimes included treason (which seems to have been almost a catch-all charge during the period for any enemy of those in power at the moment) and, more damning, incest with her young son. Perhaps it was because she had friends and family in other countries that led the court to charge her with the treason. She denied both charges, of course. These charges, and her impending death as well as the conditions of her imprisonment, turned her hair white while she was held. She developed a hacking cough and even lost sight in one eye while in custody of the State. She was only 38 at the time.

Her prison, the infamous Conciergerie, was where prisoners waiting for their execution were held. For over two month, the Widow Capet endured the degradation of the nights with rats running over her and the odor of their urine, of the walls dripping with slime and mold, and of the fetid food offered with a sneer by the guard. The 11’x6′ cell afforded little more room than to turn round properly. Down from her room, cells for groups of prisoners that had straw on the floor to absorb their wastes lined the hallway. She could hear the pitiful moans and screams of the wretched prisoners who were being dragged off to meet the so-called justice of the Revolutionary Tribunal.

Finally, it was her turn. They shaved her head and tied her hands behind her tightly. People of Paris turned out every day to watch the “sport” of the most recent executions, and, sure enough, a decent crowd had assembled to watch the festivities. As she climbed the scaffold to her death, the widow stepped on the foot of the executioner. “Pardon, sir,” she said, “I didn’t mean to do that.”

After her beheading, the prisoner known as #280’s headless corpse was thrown into an unmarked grave while shovels full of quicklime covered her. For his work, the gravedigger presented the following bill to the Revolutionary Tribunal: “The Widow Capet. 6 livres for the coffin. 15 livres, 35 sols for the grave and gravediggers.”

It wasn’t until over 20 years later that her body was exhumed and reburied under a marker that described her as most of us know her:

Marie Antoinette, Queen of France.

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