The Living Dead (1): Victor Hugo – “The Last Day Of A Condemned Man”

Even the best and worst days of your life have one thing in common: they are 24-hours-long. – Anthony Graves (prisoner, death row)   


Anthony Charles Graves (born August 29, 1965) is the 138th exonerated death row inmate in America. With no record of violence, he was arrested at 26 years old, wrongfully convicted, and incarcerated for 18 years before finally being exonerated and released. He was awarded $1.4 million for the time he spent imprisoned, and the prosecutor who put him in prison was ultimately disbarred for concealing exculpatory evidence and using false testimony in the case. (source: Wikipedia)



The conditions of confinement are so oppressive, the helplessness endured in the roller coaster of hope and despair so wrenching and exhausting, that ultimately the inmate can no longer bear it, and then it is only in dropping his appeals that he has any sense of control over his fate. – Dr Stuart Grassian , expert on death row



The plea is a cord which holds you suspended over an abyss, and which you feel giving way at each instant until it breaks! – Victor Hugo, The Last Day of A Condemned Man (1829)




In March 2018, Alabama enacted a new law authorizing the use of nitrogen gas as an alternative method of execution. Although lethal injection remained the primary method of execution, the law provided condemned prisoners a limited opportunity to designate nitrogen asphyxiation (hypoxia) as the means of their death. The availability of execution by nitrogen gas led to a July 2018 settlement of a federal lawsuit Alabama’s death-row prisoners had filed that had challenged the constitutionality of the state’s three-drug lethal injection protocol as constituting cruel and unusual punishment. But nine months after the law was enacted and five months after the prisoners opted for execution by lethal gas, Alabama has not yet issued a protocol explaining how it intends to conduct nitrogen-gas executions, and there are no clear indications as to when the state will do so.




In March 1976, Christian Ranucci was tried and condemned to death, for the murder of 8-year-old Marie-Dolorès Rembla, in June 1974. He had his request for pardon rejected by president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, and was executed on July 28th 1976, at 4.13 am. Ranucci was one of the last victims of the infamous guillotine, and may have been executed for a crime that he did not commit. The case poses the question of whether the death penalty is any better than the crime that it is supposed to punish.


Capital punishment is contrary to the highest aspirations and the noblest dreams of humanity over the last two thousand years. It is, at the same time, contrary to the spirit of Christianity and the spirit of the Revolution.

 – Jean Jaurès, 1908



Of all the speeches delivered to the French Assembly under the Fifth Republic, the one given by Robert Badinter, the French Justice Minister, on 17th September 1981, ranks at the very top of French parliamentary eloquence. He made reference to several French writers and intellectuals who fought for the abolition of the death penalty – Victor Hugo and Albert Camus, in particular. Capital punishment was abolished in France, on 9th October 1981, more than 200 years after the guillotine was first used.

Waiting, after two hundred years.

Waiting, as if capital punishment was a fruit that you had to leave ripen before plucking it. – Robert Badinter, 1981








Victor Hugo: The Last Day Of A Condemned Man


But now, I am a captive! Bodily in irons in a dungeon, and mentally imprisoned in one idea. One horrible, one hideous, one unconquerable idea! I have only one thought, one conviction, one certitude: Condemned to death!

Whatever I do, that frightful thought is always here, like a spectre, beside me, solitary and jealous, banishing all else, haunting me forever, and shaking me with its two icy hands whenever I wish to turn my head away, or to close my eyes. It glides into all forms in which my mind seeks to shun it; mixes itself, like a horrible chant, with all the words which are addressed to me: presses against me even to the odious gratings of my prison. It haunts me while awake — spies on my convulsive slumbers, and reappears, a vivid incubus, in my dreams under the form of a knife.


Victor Hugo’s “The Last Day Of A Condemned Man,” is a series of reflections written by a prisoner who is awaiting his execution. We never know who the prisoner is, or what crime he has committed. There is no indication of who the “I” is, only that the “I” will die. But such is the literary efficacy of Hugo’s work, that the reader has no choice but to follow the experience, as if it were him. It is a brilliant piece of realistic fiction, in which a legal experience – the sentencing of a man – becomes a human experience comprising a mental, physical, and psychological experience of confinement and inevitability. The timing is as meticulous as it is ruthless, from hearing the time of his execution at 6.00 am, to the moment the guillotine falls, at 4.00 pm, the very same day. It is an inhumane mechanism that is set in motion and, once started, cannot stop.

Here is a man who is experiencing something that goes far beyond anything you or I could ever imagine – how it feels to be a living dead, at the outer limits of his consciousness. But we, as readers, do experience it. Indeed, we are forced to suffer and be psychologically tortured as he is, unless we decide to close the book. Victor Hugo has no part to tell in the story, no moral lesson to give. The “I” does it for us, the anonymous “I” who invades the psyche of each one of us. And the further we read, the more we come to realise that this man could have been you, or could have been me. In fact, he is you or me – at least the time of the story. The anonymous “I” reaches its paroxysm at the very moment it ceases to exist, only to become synonymous with universality.

The condemned man did hesitate over whether he should write about what he saw and what he felt. It was he who asked the jailers for pen and paper.

As I have the means of writing, why should I not do it? But of what shall I write? Placed between four walls of cold and bare stone, without freedom for my steps, without horizon for my eyes, my sole occupation to watch mechanically the progress of that square of light which the grating of my door marks on the sombre wall opposite, and, as I said before, ever alone with one idea, an idea of crime, punishment, death! Can I have anything to say, I who have no more to do in this world? And what shall I find in this dry and empty brain which is worthy the trouble of being written?

Others, who were there before him, and could not write, managed to leave traces of their presence, on the cell walls.

With almost surrealist care, in view of the circumstances, hair was being cut, and the prisoner’s neck and shirt prepared to receive the cutting edge of the guillotine.

My linen shirt, the only remains of former times, being of the finest quality, caused him a sort of hesitation for a moment: but at length be began to cut off the collar.

At this dreadful precaution, and the sensation of the steel touching my neck, a tremor passed over me, and a stifled groan escaped; the man’s hand trembled.

“Sir,” said he, “I beg your pardon! Have I hurt you?”

These executioners are gentle fellows.

It is writings that give meaning to events, but can also lead to “otherness,” witnesses who live outside the experience and can only describe it. A reporter was observing the final preparations of the condemned, before the execution.

A young man near the window, who was writing with a pencil, in his pocket-book, asked one of the turnkeys, what was the name of the present operation?

“The Toilet of the Condemned,” he was answered.

From this I understood that it would be in to-morrow’s newspaper.

For Victor Hugo, the King of France and the condemned lie outside the confines of humanity. The King has divine rights that are bestowed upon him. He is under constant protection by guards who serve and honour him. The condemned man has prison guards, who help him reach the outer limits of a human experience that affects us all but that no-one can consciously live through. He represents the exceptionalism of consciously experiencing the universality of death, in the same way that the King consciously experiences the universality of divine rights. 

It is within the boundaries of “ordinary” humanity that lies the inhumane, with all its possibilities. Even today, the fact that so many inmates sit in Death Row, whilst legislators take forever to decide on the best way to kill them, demonstrates the persisting qualities of the inhumane. The spectators on the streets may no longer be watching the spectacle, but the administrative killing machine is still very much alive.

We approached the fatal quay; my hearing and sight seemed about to fail me; all those voices; all those heads at the windows, at doors, at shop fronts, on lamp-posts, these thirsting and cruel spectators; this crowd where all knew me, and I knew none; this road paved and walled with human visages; I was confounded, stupefied, senseless. There is something insupportable in the weight of so many looks being fixed upon one.


There were also people letting out tables, chairs, and carts: and these dealers in human blood shouted at the top of their voices:

“Who wishes places?”

A strange rage seized me against these wretches. I longed to shout out to them:

“Who wishes mine?”

Before the guillotine fell, the condemned man asked them to let him write his last wishes. They unbound his hands, but the cord was still there, ready to be replaced. Even the hardest of criminals needs to leave a trace saying that he was there, that he was human, and that the church bells had struck four o’clock.



2018 was a record-low year for death-penalty usage in the United States, as nineteen death-penalty states set or matched records for the fewest new death sentences imposed in the modern history of U.S. capital punishment. (Click on map to enlarge.) Thirty-six U.S. states—including seventeen that authorized capital punishment in 2018—did not impose any death sentences in 2018, while California and Pennsylvania, which collectively account for nearly one-third of the nation’s death-row population, imposed record lows. Every western state except Arizona set or tied a record low, and Arizona, which imposed two new death sentences, was just one above its record low. Several southern states that were once among the heaviest users of capital punishment have now gone years without imposing any new death sentences. 


Total Number of Death-Row Prisoners as of July 1, 2018: 2,738