On June 17, 1939, Eugen Weidmann—a slick, handsome 31-year-old German—became the last person to be publicly executed via guillotine in France. His journey toward being a trivia-question answer started with a kidnapping gone awry, and spiraled into a deadly crime spree that spanned half of 1937.
But the abduction, and subsequent killing, of Jean de Koven, a young American dancer who was staying in Paris with her aunt that summer, wasn’t Weidmann’s first crime. Not by a long shot. He began stealing as a youth, and kept it up into adulthood, eventually serving time in both Canada and his native Germany.
While he was in prison in Germany, just across the border from France, he met the various men who’d join him as accomplices in his grandest, and most sinister, criminal endeavors. The gang decided robbing rich tourists would be their ticket to easy street—so they rented a villa near Paris to serve as their home base. After a bungled first attempt, it became clear that their theft targets would have to die if their greed-driven scheme would succeed.
Enter Jean de Koven. While visiting Paris in July 1937, Jean met a good-looking man with a German accent who called himself “Bobby.” They made a date, but the 22-year-old tourist never returned to her hotel after. Her body wasn’t found until four months later (along with her camera, which produced photos that helped ID her killer). In the meantime, though, someone who clearly didn’t have a good grasp of Jean’s signature cashed her traveler’s checks.
And then came the other victims, some of whom did not fit the “rich-tourist profile” by any means: “a woman lured by the false offer of a position as governess, a chauffeur, a publicity agent, a real estate broker, and a man Weidmann had met as an inmate in a German prison.” Weidmann didn’t have a type, other than “person with stuff to steal,” but he had preferred method, which was a single shot to the back of the neck.
Eventually, he was captured at his suburban villa, but he didn’t go down easy; police had to clobber him with a hammer to subdue him. Eventually, though, he confessed. Unlike many high-profile cases of the era—think the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and murder, for instance—Weidmann’s trial isn’t what made the most headlines, even though as the ringleader of the gang he received the harshest punishment. Rather, it was his June 1939 execution, which was so dramatic it changed history.
It was held in the early morning, after the bars around the prison St. Pierre in Versailles had closed. But things ran behind schedule, partially because of the sheer size of the keyed-up crowd that assembled ’round the guillotine. As Life Magazine wrote at the time, all present were more than eager to “experience the exquisite excitement of seeing a man have his head cut off.” And the delay meant they had an unusually clear view of the action thanks to the “bright daylight” of summer.
The International Herald Tribune described the scene in vivid detail, remarking on the “catcalls and jests” and “cheering and whistling” that came from the gathered, probably not-entirely-sober masses. And, eventually, the spectacle began:
Each time the prison door moved the semi-circle of officials and reporters reacted, and heads were bared in anticipation. The first three times it was a policeman or functionary who stepped out. The fourth time it was Weidmann.
His eyes were tightly shut, his face flushed and his cheeks sunken. His thin blue shirt had been cut away across his chest, and his shoulders appeared startlingly white against the dark polished wood of the machine upon which he was pushed. The knife dropped 10 seconds after the prisoner passed through the doors.
Because of the time of day, the event was widely photographed and even filmed (see below; it’s a brief but dramatic bit of footage). Unfortunately, the camera stopped recording before the aftermath, which apparently included women soaking up spots of Weidmann’s blood with their hankies as gruesome souvenirs.
The two most compelling legacies of Weidmann’s execution: a young Christopher Lee was among the spectators. The 17-year-old was visiting a friend in Paris at the time, and of course he was curious about the macabre event. (Alas, no photos of teenage Lee taking in this gory spectacle exist, so we’re free to imagine the look on his face.)
Of less pop-culture interest, however, is the fact that Weidmann’s public beheading via guillotine was the very last one in France, ending a tradition that stretched back to 1792. (The boisterous, photo-snapping crowd, no doubt, had something to do with that.)
From top: Eugen Weidmann after receiving the death sentence on April 1, 1939 (AP Photo); Eugen Weidmann at his trial (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)