Friday, March 9, 2012

Wheel Man

Three hundred and fifty years ago today, on March 9th 1762, a Huguenot merchant in Toulouse France named Jean Calas was sentenced to death for the crime of murdering his son. This was seen as a particularly heinous crime as it was rumored that Jean’s son, Marc-Antoine, had converted to the state religion of Catholicism, and this was the reason Jean murdered him. Jean was sentenced to be broken on the wheel.

Jean died the next day, on March 10th. History preserves the account of Jean repeatedly declairing that his son had committed suicide until he could speak no more. This suggests that Jean was not granted a retentum (a special grace where the condemned was strangled to death before the breaking had progressed too far). The condemned man broken on a wheel had each of his large bones literally broken with a hammer. The shattered limbs could then be bent at strange angles, and in France the condemned was woven onto a wagon wheel by braiding his unnaturally pliable limbs through the spokes. The man-wheel was hoisted onto a tall pole so that birds could eat the still-living individual. Strong men could last for days before dying of dehydration.

Jean maintained that he had found his son dead of a suicide, and to prevent desecration of his body (which, because suicide was such a grave sin, was a common occurrence) said Marc-Antoine had been murdered until after his body had been buried. Although there is no mention of Jean’s other son, who had also converted to the state religion of Catholicism without attempts on his life,coming to his father’s defense there was another notable defender of Jean.

Voltaire successfully defended Jean, and won his acquittal three hundred and forty seven years ago today, on March 9th 1756. This was a little too late for Jean.

Voltaire was a very good friend of Benjamin Franklin. His correspondence with Ben helped to shape the philosophical underpinnings of the US constitutional government. During the time from 1762 to 1765, when Voltaire was vigorously defending Jean, he published the Dictionnaire Philosophique. Though Jean's death could have left him like many other protestants in France, as a obscure victim of Catholic paranoia, his death instead helped to motivate the separation of church and state that helped the US (and later France) to flourish.

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