Sanson was born into a long line of executioners. His father was Henri Sanson, the city's chief executioner for 47 years, and his grandfather was Charles Henri Sanson, the storied executioner of royals and revolutionaries.
Early in his career as executioner, Henry-Clément was described contemporaneously as being "in person a fine figure, with an elegant and noble countenance, and a very sweet and agreeable expression". His pleasant demeanor belied a deep inner anguish: he simply could not reconcile himself to his family profession. His profound unhappiness led him to seek anaesthetic refuge in alcohol and other vices. Most unlike his rectitudinous forebears, Henry-Clément immersed himself in a dissolute and profligate lifestyle, and his extravagance left him desperately in need of income. Among other unconventional methods of moneymaking, he established a musée des horreurs in his home, where for five francs the curious public could watch the famous Sanson family guillotine be used to decapitate a sheep.
Career as executioner
Henry-Clement served less than eight years as the Monsieur de Paris, the shortest duration of any of the Sanson dynasty. The end of his career came in 1847, after he was compelled by debt to pawn his ancestral guillotine for 3,000 francs. He attempted to commence his next execution armed only with one of his ancestor's axes. The French government bought the guillotine back, summoned Sanson back for the execution, and dismissed him immediately when it was complete.
Henry-Clément was the last executioner of the Sanson family line. He was replaced by Charles-André Férey.
After his dismissal, Henry-Clement dictated his memoirs to a journalist, the six-volume Seven Generations of Executioners, 1688 - 1847. Though often dismissed as fiction - like the spurious "memoirs" ascribed to his grandfather - Henri-Clement's recollections are considered by some scholars to have at least a basis in fact. Admittedly ghostwritten (and probably embellished), Seven Generations is considered reasonably reliable and may even draw upon an actual diary written by his grandfather.
- Croker, John Wilson (1857); Essays on the early period of the French Revolution; John Murray, London; p.571. |"M. DuBois assures us that... the present dignitary [Henri-Clement] is in person a fine figure, with...."
- Gerould, Daniel (1992); Guillotine: Its Legend and Lore, Blast, NY; p.68. |"Henri-Clement pursued expensive hobbies, indulging in gambling and sexual debauchery...."
- FRANCE: The Heirs of the Widow, TIME magazine, 1951.
- Gerould (1992). See pp.69-70.
- See Google Books: Seven Generations of Executioners, 1688-1847.
- Encyclopædia Britannica, Vol. 24, p.182: "The romantic tales told of C.H. Sanson have their origin in the apocryphal Mémoires pour servir à l'histoire de la Révolution Française par Sanson (2 vols., 1829; another ed. 1831)... Other memoirs of Sanson, edited by A. Grégoire in 1830, and by M. d'Olbreuze (6 vols., 1862-1863) are equally fictitious."
- Gerould (1992). See p.70: "Destitute, Henri-Clement published the six-volume Seven Generations of Executioners, 1688 - 1847 family history in 1862 and 1863; although extensively rewritten by a journalist [M. d'Olbreuze], it is perhaps based on the original diary kept by his grandfather during the Revolution."
- Sanson Family article on FR.Wikipedia.