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Certainly, we all know that history also includes capital executions ordered by kings and governments. However, we rarely focus on the executioner—the person who carries out the sentence. We always know the name of the king or judge who pronounces the verdict, whether right or wrong. We extensively study the victim’s life. Yet, we seldom discuss the one who must execute that sentence: the executioner.

Among the most famous executioners in history is one who served the Savoy Dynasty: Pietro Pantoni, a true artist in his own right.

The Emilia-Romagna period

Pietro Pantoni’s father, Antonio Pantoni, hailed from Emilia-Romagna. Of humble origins and abandoned by his parents, he moved to Rome in search of fortune. There, he found shelter with Giovan Battista Bigatti, known as Mastro Titta. Bigatti took him in as an orphan and became a second father to him.

Antonio fell in love with and married Bigatti’s daughter. To fully understand the story, it’s essential to know that Mastro Titta was none other than the executioner appointed by the pontiff. In his lifetime, he executed over 500 people. Given these circumstances, it’s easy to infer that Antonio Pantoni, assisting his father-in-law, became an Executor of Justice.

Unhappy with this role, Antonio returned to Reggio Emilia in search of other occupations. However, finding no other employment, he continued his work as an executioner. It was during this time that Pietro Pantoni was born.

Pietro had a brother, Giuseppe Pantoni, who assisted their father in the executioner’s trade. However, Giuseppe attempted to escape that fate by moving to France.

The executioner
Scene of a sentence

Unfortunately, the family name didn’t help. Being the son and brother of executioners wasn’t a favorable introduction when seeking a better life. Defeated, Giuseppe returned to Reggio Emilia. In 1831, he embarked on a career as an Executor of Justice for the Duchy of Modena.

Pietro Pantoni: the executioner

Parma, May 26, 1831. Eight in the morning. The sentence was for two rebels accused of attempting to overthrow Duke Francesco IV of Modena. Pietro Pantoni, alongside his brother Giuseppe, prepares to carry out the death sentence. Giuseppe’s “patient” was Vincenzo Borelli, while Pietro dealt with Ciro Menotti.

Pietro would later become the Executor of Justice for the Kingdom of Sardinia. After relocating to Turin, tradition said that he take up residence at Via Bonelli 2 (then known as Via Fornelletti), an apartment designated by the Podestà for those in his profession.

In reality, he resided on the top floor of Via San Domenico, behind Palazzo Giustizia. The apartment’s proximity to the senatorial prisons on Via Corte d’Appello made it convenient. It was here that Borgonovo visited him for an interview, which we’ll discuss later.

Likely, Pietro’s nephew, Felice Pantoni, lived on Via Bonelli. He, too, was an executioner. He was summoned to Turin to serve under his uncle. Pietro was compelled to distance him from Turin due to rumors of his wife’s infidelity, which further strained their already difficult social relations.

The Turin period

The pay is good, even excellent. Pietro earns roughly as much as a university professor. However, he leads a sad and solitary life. Married with five children, he is often mocked, ridiculed, and discriminated against.

For instance, when receiving his money, merchants offer him a bowl of vinegar to disinfect the soiled money. Not to mention the bakers, who only serve him the executioner’s bread.

Even in church, he is completely isolated. In the Church of Sant’Agostino, he has a separate pew from the others during Mass. Furthermore, the bell tower is used for the burial of executioners. They remain isolated within their category, even after death.

His wife rarely ventures out due to the shame of being seen in public. It is said that the people of Turin mocked her, claiming her house was the cleanest in the kingdom. However, at that time, it was uncommon for other women to frequently leave their homes.

Le Memorie del Boia di Torino

In his lifetime, Pietro will have only two friends. Both are somehow connected to his profession. The first is Giuseppe Cafasso, a priest who comforts and accompanies the condemned to execution; he was Pietro’s confidant and confessor. The other was a certain Caranca, an undertaker from Rivarolo.

Pantoni retired after 33 years of service. In 1864, hanging was replaced by execution by firing squad.

Curiosities about the Executioner

Pietro Pantoni, the melancholic executioner of Turin, is a figure that both intrigues and unsettles. In 1853, through an official letter, he requested the replacement of the gallows with the guillotine. His aim was to alleviate the suffering of the condemned and ease the burden on the executioner.

Death by hanging was indeed a protracted and intricate process. First, the executioner’s assistants had to help the condemned climb a ladder propped against the crossbeam of the gallows. Then they would slip the noose around the person’s neck. Next, the ladder was removed, leaving the condemned dangling. At this point, the chief executioner would leap onto the man’s shoulders while another assistant pulled him downward by the legs (hence the term “tirapiedi,” or foot puller).

And all this had to happen swiftly. Moreover, if anything went awry, the group of executioners risked being lynched by the enraged crowd.

If you’re curious, you can find the book “Le memorie del boia di Torino” (The Memoirs of the Turin Executioner) on market stalls or in some bookstores. However, it’s worth noting that this work is a historical fabrication. Despite being credited to Pantoni, the true authorship of the work lies with Enrico Gianeri. Gianeri based his writing on the transcripts from interviews conducted by Giacomo Borgonovo, a Genoese Mazzinian who staunchly opposed the death penalty and had a conversation with Pietro Pantoni in 1865.