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With their neat handwriting on lined paper within drab beige covers, the 2000 pages recount in chilling detail the last moments of 400 souls – their crimes, trials, attitudes to death, behaviour and even the weather at the moment of execution – all noted down by the man who dispatched them from this mortal world.

Of one prisoner, guillotined in 1930, Deibler wrote: “After smoking a cigar and several cigarettes, and consuming two glasses of cognac, he let himself be shackled with docility and walked with a firm step to the guillotine.”

Born on November 29, 1863, Anatole was descended from a long line of executioners stretching back to the 17th century, succeeding his father Joseph as France’s chief executioner. Unlike papa, who sported a top hat for the solemn ritual of execution, Anatole customarily wore a hood. That did not protect his identity and he became a celebrated and revered figure for the crowds who regarded public executions as thrilling theatre. Even his victims joined in, one crying “Vive Deibler!” before putting his head on the block.

Privately, Deibler was regarded as “boringly normal”; he fished, he played billiards, he kept tortoises and canaries. The barbaric practice of public guillotining ceased in 1939 and with it the macabre prestige of the chief executioner diminished.

Soon after, Deibler died of a heart attack on the Paris Metro and for him there was no chance for a last request, traditionally offered to convicts before their death: most opted for a cigarette and a glass of rum. Only one, wrote Deibler, refused the rum. “No thanks,” he said. “It’s bad for my health.”

The Deibler diaries and other material, including documents belonging to the executioners in the Deibler family, and papers relating to Anatole’s professional life from 1885-1939, were consigned for sale by Anatole Deibler’s daughter, and these lots attracted considerable if morbid attention at Beaussant Lefèvre’s saleroom on February 5.
The diaries were bought by French publishers Scriptura, who work with collectors of rare historical documents, and who plan to publish the diaries, not as sensation, ie The Man Who Chopped Off 400 Heads, but to send a message against the horrors of the death penalty.