10 March 1762 – Jean Calas

Jean CalasA painful death on the Catherine wheel took place today in 1762, after a French cloth merchant was stitched up. Jean Calas was found guilty of a crime he professed never to have committed.

Calas stood accused of strangling his youngest son for fear that he would follow in his brother’s footsteps and turn to Catholicism. But he vowed that he was innocent.

Why was he fitted up with the crime? Because he was Huguenot and his Protestant religion was hugely unpopular.

Wheel of misfortune

As a result it was felt that Calas’s trial was also unfairly skewed. But that didn’t stop his being found guilty and they didn’t hang around either. The very next day, Calas was strapped to the breaking wheel and slowly beaten to a pulp. This was a languorous form of torturous death – and death would have taken hours or days rather than minutes. The wheel would revolve slowly and each limb would be whacked with a hammer or iron bar.

Body blows

The offender would often die of shock or dehydration, rather than injuries, making this a particularly barbaric form of execution. However some offenders were given coups de grâce – where the executioners would dole out body blows early on in the torture that gave sufficient internal injuries to put them out of their misery.

So the fact that Calas maintained his innocence up to his death caught the public’s sympathy and provoked Voltaire, the renowned philosopher, to push for religious toleration and review of criminal sentencing.

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