Modern history


Impure Blood

August 1792–January 1793


Sometime during the third week of August, a guillotine was set up on the place du Carrousel, in front of the Tuileries. The “machine,” as it was generally called, was not a complete novelty since it had been in sporadic use since April 1792 at the traditional site of public executions on the place de Grève. Forgers of assignats were a special target of popularhatred, so their decapitation was something of an event. But for crowds accustomed to the prolonged and emotionally rich ritual of penitential processions, loud public confessions, the climactic jump of the body on the gibbet, the exposure of the hanging remains, even in some rare cases the prolonged ordeal of breaking on the wheel, the machine was a distinct disappointment. It was too expeditious. A swish, a thud; sometimes not even a display of the head; the executioner reduced to a low-grade mechanic like some flunkey pulling a bell rope.

But this austere compression of the spectacle of punishment was exactly what the designers of the machine had in mind. In December 1789, Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, deputy of the National Assembly, had proposed a reform of capital punishment in keeping with the equal status accorded to all citizens by the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Instead of barbaric practices which degraded the spectators as much as the criminal, a method of surgical instantaneity was to be adopted. Not only would decapitation spare the prisoner gratuitous pain, it would offer to common criminals the dignified execution hitherto reserved for the privileged orders. The proposal also removed the stigma of guilt by association from the family of the condemned and, most importantly, protected their property from the confiscation required by traditional practice.

A rather beautiful engraving made to illustrate the humanity of Guillo-tin’s device suggests dignified serenity rather than macabre retribution. The setting is bucolic since the good doctor wanted the site of execution to be moved beyond town, away from what he thought was the primitive spectacle of the gutter mob. The action is stoical, perhaps even sentimental, since the executioner too has been transformed, from a brawny professional into a sensitive soul required to avert his eyes as he slashes the cord with his saber. The benevolent confessor is straight out of Rousseau’s Confessions de Foi d’un Vicaire Savoyard and the few spectators are expressly kept from the machine by a barrier guarded by an impassive soldier.

Nothing could have been more in keeping with late-Enlightenment thinking on capital punishment. There were deputies to the Constituent, notably Robespierre, who would have preferred outright abolition as recommended by Beccaria (except in cases of regicide or treason). But if the death penalty was to be retained, better it should be swift, merciful and utilitarian. In 1777 Marat had recommended some sort of method that would combine deterrent grimness with painless efficiency, and the machine described to the Assembly by Dr. Guillotin seemed to meet those specifications perfectly. His description (as reported in the Journal des Etats-Généraux) – “The mechanism falls like thunder; the head flies off, blood spurts, the man is no more” – met less with somber appreciation than nervous laughter. And while the other items of his reform were adopted in 1790, it was not until two years later that the machine itself was set to work.

On the third of June 1791, the ci-devant Marquis Lepeletier de Saint-Fargeau, a militant Jacobin, proposed that every person condemned to death suffer the same penalty of having their head struck off. But there was as yet no indication that this equal treatment was to be mechanically applied. It was only the reservations expressed by the public executioner, Charles-Henri Sanson, that led the Feuillant government in the spring of 1792 to consider the machine once more. Sanson’s worry (as a professional proud of his trade) was that decapitation offered far more possibilities for unfortunate mishaps than hanging, especially with a heavy caseload. The blades might dull; the executioners might not be sufficiently skilled; the riffraff who were to be decapitated might not show the seemly composure expected of gentlemen. This would all make his work terribly difficult.

As Daniel Arasse points out in his excellent study, Dr. Guillotin had abandoned the machine, perhaps stung by the failure of the Constituent to take it seriously. But Dr. Louis, the perpetual secretary of the Academy of Surgeons (and the author of the article on death in the Encyclopédie), rescued the project in a learned memorandum assuring the Legislative that such a device would guarantee instantaneity by its radical severing of the neck ligaments. In April a German piano maker, Tobias Schmidt, was commissioned to build the prototype. He finished it in a week, and on the seventeenth, in the Bicêtre prison courtyard, trial executions were performed on corpses. Though the results were satisfactory, at least one witness already felt that though justice demanded such a solution, humanity could not witness it without “shuddering.”

Dr. Guillotin seems always to have resented the fact that a device of such mechanical impersonality should have been associated with his name – even though in its early career it was also called a “louison” or a “louisette” after its more recent promoter. His proposal, he insisted, had always been “philanthropic” and humanitarian. But it was certainly as the penal expression of impartiality that it was introduced to behead the first criminal on the twenty-fifth of April 1792, Nicolas Pelletier, who had committed robbery with violence. Following the overthrow of the monarchy, the guillotine seemed to the authorities competing to be its beneficiary an ideal way to recover control of violent punishment. When it was used on August 21 for the beheading of Louis Collot d’Angremont, the secretary of the administration of the National Guard (accused of having taken part in the royal “conspiracy”), it had already returned to the exemplary and spectacular purposes which both Guillotin’s “philanthropy” and Louis’ surgical utilitarianism meant to preclude. The place du Carrousel was selected for the site of execution precisely because it was there that the criminal was said to have perpetrated his misdeed. The public were positively encouraged to bear witness to his atonement and the swift severity by which the justice of the Nation was accomplished.

All this was meant to be in deliberate contrast to, and if possible to correct, the atrocities of what was euphemized as “popular justice,” or in other words, spontaneous and summary lynchings, and fatal beatings and stabbings. There was, of course, an element of disingenuousness about this official attitude. The very beginnings of the Revolution in 1789 had been not just marked but actually empowered by precisely these acts of spontaneous retribution and indiscriminate street murders. The willingness of politicians like Barnave to tolerate these acts, only to find themselves and their regime on the receiving end, perpetuated the notion that “popular justice” was part and parcel of the legitimate self-expression of the “sovereign people.” At each successive phase of the Revolution, those in authority attempted to recover a monopoly on punitive violence for the state, only to find themselves outmaneuvered by opposing politicians who endorsed and even organized popular violence for their own ends. The fact that arms were now securely in the hands of unofficial gendarmes of the popular will meant that the only way to impose the authority of the state was through a military confrontation which itself seemed to justify yet further acts of violence on the streets. The core problem of revolutionary government, then, turned on the efforts to manage popular violence on behalf of, rather than against, the state. This was something even the Jacobins failed to secure without the most extreme forms of totalitarian control.

The problem posed itself immediately following the overthrow of the monarchy on August 10. The rump of the Legislative Assembly had reinstated in a “Provisional Executive Council” the Girondin ministers dismissed by the King – Roland, Clavière and Servan – and had added to them for good measure two Jacobins, the mathematician Monge and, at the Ministry of Justice, Danton. The latter had personally intervened to protect a group of Swiss guard prisoners from casual butchery on the streets on the eleventh but he appreciated that some sort of institutionalized accounting was crucial if the thirst for popular “vengeance” was to be brought under control. In the weeks following the uprising, the center of power was, in any event, not in the Assembly but in the “Insurrectionary Commune” at the Hôtel de Ville, which gave instructions to its officers, the mayor Pétion and the procureur Manuel, whom it had also reinstated. It was in the Commune that the demands were most vehement for some sort of extraordinary military tribunal to try the “criminals” of August 10 (the events of that day now being routinely described as a royal plot). On the seventeenth just such a tribunal was established, with members to be appointed by the new commander of the Paris National Guard, Santerre; its judgments and sentences would expressly preclude any kind of appeal.

Collot d’Angremont’s death on the guillotine was the first such sentence of the special tribunal to be carried out. A royalist journalist, du Rozoi, and the intendant of the King’s civil list, Arnaud de La Porte, followed. But from the point of view of militants in the Commune like Robespierre and Marat, there were disappointingly few other such cases. At least they had demanded, and had got from the Legislative, extensive police powers to detain, interrogate and incarcerate suspects without anything resembling due process of law. The organ to which this work was entrusted was a Comité de Surveillance (Committee of Vigilance) on which two of Danton’s friends from the days of the district of the Cordeliers – the engraver Sergent and the lawyer Panis – were particularly important. Though it cannot be too much emphasized that it was in the mythical days of revolutionary liberty, in 1789, that the Constituent set up executive committees that resumed much of the police and spy work and powers of arbitrary detention associated with the old regime, it was only in August 1792 that a true revolutionary police state came into being in Paris.

During the two weeks between the seventeenth of August and the prison massacres in early September, more than a thousand people were taken into custody on the flimsiest warrants. The vast majority of them were refractory priests taken from seminaries, colleges and churches – sometimes even from private houses where they had been hidden in lay dress. Other targets were any persons identified as having petitioned against the demonstrators of the twentieth of June or against the prosecution of Lafayette for abandoning his post. The whole of the royalist press was shut down overnight, its editors and printers arrested and their equipment staved in. Other less obviously threatening enemies of the “sovereign people” were also peremptorily seized, including virtually all the personal servants of the King and Queen, among them the governess Mme de Tourzel, who had played “Baronne Korff” on the unhappy excursion to Varennes. The biggest catch in this descent on the court, though, was Marie-Antoinette’s old friend the Princesse de Lamballe. Cold-shouldered by the Queen since the rise of the Polignac clique, Elisabeth had remained touchingly loyal. When the Polignac sisters had headed for the frontier along with Artois in 1789, she decided to remain with the Queen and became her mistress of the household. Though the repeated waves of pornography routinely depicted her as a lesbian whore, she could not have looked less the part. Her blond curls had lost their sheen and spring, but her face still possessed an extraordinary cherubic quality, as though permanently posing for one of Greuze’s doe-eyed portraits. At the Temple prison, where the royal family had been taken after three days in the Logographie of the Manège, she continued to wait on the Queen. The guards who came for her and the other servants told them they were being taken only for interrogation, but both Elisabeth and Marie-Antoinette evidently feared they would not see each other again. They embraced with the kind of valedictory tenderness that the defamatory press inevitably reported as licentious.

At some point the arrests became absurdly indiscriminate. The Abbé Sicard, who was a popular hero among the artisans of Paris as the père-instituteur of deaf-mute children, was picked up and imprisoned in the Abbaye along with a large number of priests. On the thirtieth a deputation from the school came to the Assembly to plead for the release of their “instructor, their provider, their father, shut up as if he were a criminal. He is good, just and pure,” they went on:

and it is he who has taught us what we know; without him we would be like animals. Since he has been taken from us we are sad and sorrowful. Give him back to us and you will make us happy.

Moved by this demonstration, a deputy offered to take Sicard’s place, but invoking the indivisibility of revolutionary justice, another member, Lequinio, insisted that there be no special exemptions, and the sad little delegation was sent away. The rejection very nearly cost Sicard his life.

Finally, the police action enabled some to settle old scores. Ever since they had crossed swords over the Kornmann Affair, in which Beaumarchais had defended the wife’s reputation in a complicated suit and Marat had upheld the honor of the aggrieved husband, the two men had hated each other. The playwright’s grand house in the faubourg Saint-Antoine had been threatened many times by popular riots but never seriously damaged. Now he was accused by the Commune of having bought a large cache of weapons for dubious purposes (much as he had purchased arms for the American war). Rumored to be a virtual arsenal, Beaumarchais’ house was ransacked on the same day as the fall of the monarchy and on the twenty-third of the month he was arrested. At themairie the charges were found to be without substance and Beaumarchais – told to call himself Citizen Caron henceforth – was on the point of being released when his old nemesis walked in and dispatched him to the Abbaye, where he too just escaped death by being released four days before the massacres began.

On the twenty-eighth of August, at the behest of Danton, what were politely called “domiciliary visits” were authorized, ostensibly in search of firearms with which to defend the beleaguered patrie but more often than not in search of suspects or incriminating documents. “Everything,” said the proclamation, “belongs to the patrie when the patrie is in danger.” Characteristically, the visits would be late at night or in the early hours of the morning, to catch all the occupants at home. Ten or even more men would batter on the door and fill the room with sabers, pikes and guns. While the experience was obviously terrifying for most people, at least some thought it a stirring demonstration of patriotic vigilance. Mme Jullien de La Drôme, for example, whose offer of her father’s hunting gun was politely declined, wrote to her husband, “I approve of this measure and the surveillance of the People so strongly that I should have liked to have cried ‘Bravo! Vive la Nation.’” Only those who were “dolts or criminals” could possibly be afraid of such visitations, she thought. Mme Jullien de La Drôme lived in the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève, one of the areas of Paris in which many arrests were made, and having watched seminarians shoved through the streets, jeered at by the crowd, pelted with mud or punched in the face and body, she enthused, “What an immense operation; how well the threatened public interest is defended!”

The roundups were so ambitious in their sweep that they finally provoked the rump of the Assembly into action against the Commune and its police committees. On the thirtieth of August a demand was made for its dissolution and replacement by a successor to be promptly elected. The effect of this move was unfortunate. For although a number of the less militant sections had also become disturbed by the arbitrary searches and arrests of the previous weeks, this outright challenge to the Commune resulted in their falling into line behind it. Robespierre, Marat and the radical Jacobins denounced the move as an attempt to reverse the revolution of the tenth of August and to protect criminals and traitors from the consequences of their misdeeds. Under this withering fire – and more particularly under threat of further physical intimidation by armed sectionnaires – the Assembly backed down two days later. A new Commune would come into being along with the new National Convention that was to be elected (much along the lines proposed by Robespierre on July 29) by universal male suffrage to create a new, presumably nonmonarchical constitution.

The need for emergency police powers might not have been accepted had there not also been at the same time a genuine and potentially catastrophic military crisis. Carrying out a strategy agreed upon by their ally the Austrian Emperor, the armies of the King of Prussia crossed the French frontier on August 19. Four days later the important defensive fortress of Longwy surrendered after little resistance to bombardment. On the thirtieth, the crucial stronghold of Verdun – for the first, but not the last, time in modern history – faced a Prussian siege. If it fell, and the forecasts were not cheerful, the road to Paris would lie open through the valley of the Marne.

In the circumstances, the capital became convulsed by a mixture of terror and martial exhilaration. The snail’s pace of the Austrian campaign the previous spring had lulled Parisians into thinking of the “patriotic war” as something fought far away and mostly involving Belgian fields of flax and turnips. With shattering suddenness, the enemy seemed to be at their gates. Moreover, the revolution they had just consummated in deliberate defiance of the Brunswick Manifesto seemed to have exposed them to terrible retribution should the invasion succeed. Indeed, there were already stories of Teutonic abominations committed in the theater of war: peasant women raped and mutilated, children spiked and tossed on bonfires – the standard military nightmare. In response, the Provisional Executive Council ordered the immediate levy of a force of thirty thousand volunteers to be sent to the front and the creation of new reinforced barrières at the city walls.

With a proclamation by Hérault de Séchelles (now the President of the Legislative) once again officially declaring “la patrie en danger,” Paris became a scene of frantic activity. The streets echoed to the sounds of marching boots and drums beating la générale. Amid tearful parting scenes with loved ones, volunteers were inscribed on the Pont-Neuf in front of the statue of Henri IV. Paintings like Watteau de Lille’s Departure of the Volunteers reversed the moral charge of Greuze’s Wicked Son paintings by having a young man fulfill, rather than neglect, his duties by going off to war. In the 1792 version, the place of the sinister recruiting sergeant in the Greuze is taken by the trusty shakoed grenadier silhouetted against the doorway.

Orchestrating all this phenomenal effort was Danton. His own fearlessness and genuine belief that Paris and France would survive their trial by fire was extraordinarily infectious. And the proclamations he produced at the end of August for the Executive Council may well have made the difference between resolution and complete panic. He even managed to turn the proximity of the enemy into an apparent asset for revolutionary fortitude:

Our enemies prepare to carry out the last blows of their fury. Masters of Longwy, threatening Thionville [on the Austrian-Belgian front], Metz and Verdun, they want to cut a way right up to Paris… Citizens, no nation on earth has ever obtained liberty without a struggle. You have traitors in your bosom; well, without them the fight would have been soon over.

These last allusions to the “traitors within” were the most telling. It had always been a standard feature of revolutionary discourse to represent the enemies of liberty at home as armed foreigners, a fifth column working for the unholy coalition of international despotism. This was as true of the rhetoric of 1789 as it was of the rhetoric of the Brissotins in 1791. Now that war was actually at hand, the alliance between the “mercenary lackeys of tyranny,” the émigrés who had gone to join them and the malevolent hidden saboteurs at large in the streets of Paris seemed even more dangerous. Just as the “brigands” of 1789 were said to have been the cutthroat stooges of vengeful aristocrats, now another equally sinister threat was said to lurk in the prisons, where freshly arrived counter-revolutionaries – Swiss guards, refractory priests, royalist writers – could suborn common criminals into being their accomplices.

To find a solution to this problem was particularly pressing, as it was commonly rumored that once volunteers had left for the front, a breakout from the prisons would occur. A defenseless city would be given over to the slaughter of Patriots’ women and children, just as the Brunswick Manifesto had promised. It may even have been the case that if members of the Commune did not actually credit such stories, they did believe that able-bodied men might have been deterred from enlisting exactly because of apprehension.

What was to be done? Fréron’s Orateur du Peuple was in no doubt. The first battle we shall fight will be inside the walls of Paris, not outside. All the royal brigands clustering inside this unhappy town will perish in the same day. Citizens of all departments, you hold the families of émigrés [hostage]; at that time let them fall to the weight of popular vengeance; burn their châteaux, their palaces, sow desolation wherever traitors have fomented civil war… the prisons are full of conspirators… see them where they shall be judged.

A jugement in this kind of rhetoric was the standard euphemism for a summary execution. Marat left nothing in doubt when he urged “good citizens to go to the Abbaye, to seize priests, and especially the officers of the Swiss guards and their accomplices and run a sword through them” (passer au fil de lépée). It has seriously been claimed that Marat was speaking metaphorically or with the kind of punitive hyperbole that he had made a speciality of his paper. But why his readers and devotees should have been expected to have distinguished between rhetorical figures of speech and literal instructions is hard to see. This is especially the case since he had, for the moment, ceased publishing the Ami du Peuple and was printing his comments in the form of placards posted around town in a manner that gave them the authority of semiofficial proclamations.

Or take another placard: the “Compte Rendu au Peuple Souverain,” unsigned though written by Danton’s devoted friend the poet and play-wright Fabre d’Eglantine. Nothing could have made the connection between a war to the death at the frontier and a preemptive strike in Paris more crystal clear:

Once more, citizens, to arms! May all France bristle with pikes, bayonets, cannon and daggers; so that everyone shall be a soldier; let us clear the ranks of these vile slaves of tyranny. In the towns let the blood of traitors be the first holocaust [literally, le premier holocauste] to Liberty, so that in advancing to meet the common enemy, we leave nothing behind to disquiet us.

News of the fall of Verdun arrived prematurely in Paris on September 2. By that time section assemblies, anticipating the worst, were already passing motions demanding, as did the Popincourt section, “the death of conspirators before the departure of citizens.” Others, like Gobelins, where Santerre was the Jacobin leader, insisted on the internment of the families of émigrés and royalists to hold as hostages against Prussian violence.

What then followed has no equal in atrocities committed during the French Revolution by any party. Disturbed by its horror and poorly trained in their professional discourse to contemplate it, historians at this point tend to avert their eyes and dismiss the event as somehow incidental or “irrelevant” to any serious analysis of the dynamics of the Revolution. The Anglophone tradition in this century, which in almost every other respect has made a powerful and prolific contribution to revolutionary historiography, has a particularly egregious record of silent embarrassment, rather as though a dinner guest had met with an unfortunate but inexplicable accident in the college common room.

In France, until very recently, the literature on the September massacres was dominated either by counter-revolutionary martyrology or the massive volume by Pierre Caron, which self-consciously set out to purge the record of hagiographic myths. Caron’s claim was that a careful sifting of contemporary sources would produce a more “objective” account of the episode, one cleansed of tendentious moralizing. The book that resulted, and which is still cited reverentially by historians, is a monument of intellectual cowardice and moral self-delusion. Purporting to evaluate eyewitness accounts against some scholarly index of reliability, Caron in fact privileges those which reflect the official revolutionary version while dismissing sources from the prisoners themselves (like the AbbéSicard) as, by definition, “suspect.” In a strenuous attempt to fit the event onto the procrustean bed of “objective historical explanation,” Caron argued that the massacres were, somehow, no one’s responsibility. Rather, they were the inevitable product of impersonal historical forces: mass fear and, he often implies, justifiable desire for revenge against the casualties of the tenth of August. The overall effect is meant to be comforting for the revolutionary historian: the scholarly normalization of evil.

Obviously, the killing of at least fourteen hundred people in cold blood was the consequence of some sort of phobic condition brought on by the military crisis and the apocalyptic rhetoric of prison conspiracy. There was also an element of armed sanitation about it, the logical consummation of Mercier’s jeremiads against the cloacal filth of the metropolis. The trash to be disposed of comprised all his specified sources of contamination: gilded aristocrats, venal priests, diseased whores and court lack-eys. But the work of eliminating all these human infections was not some generalized, indiscriminate mass mobilization, as suggested by Caron. On the contrary, as François Bluche has argued in a courageous and perceptive account, the killings were the work of specific, identifiable human agencies. And there is no shortage whatsoever of sources describing those acts, which the historian can concentrate his attention on if he so chooses. To those who insist that to prosecute is not the historian’s job, one may reply that neither is a selective forgetfulness practiced in the interest of scholarly decorum.

To begin with, those who bore some responsibility for looking away and not doing more to prevent the killings when they were incontrovertibly in a position to have done so are not difficult to find. Chief among them were Roland, the Minister of the Interior, and Danton. Roland did become disturbed by the “excesses” with which the “children of liberty must not soil themselves” but only after September 2; at the time, he maintained a discreet silence. Danton’s impassiveness is perhaps more damning since he commanded such potent influence among the sections and with the police committees. On the day that the killings began, he was, it is true, making the speech of his life, in the belief that if resolution were not instilled into the French, and more particularly the people of Paris, there would indeed be a total disintegration. He may well have been right, especially since Roland was all for moving the seat of government to Tours. At any rate, the speech was, of its kind, a brilliantly muscular call to arms, at once a flattering self-portrait of martial readiness and a reassuring manifesto of victory:

The patrie will be saved… Everything is in motion, everyone burns to fight… While one part of the people goes to the frontiers, another digs our defences and a third, armed with pikes, will defend our cities and towns… Paris will go to second these efforts… The tocsin that shall be sounded is not a signal of alarm but a summons to charge against the enemies of the patrie. To vanquish them, Messieurs, we need boldness, always boldness [toujours de laudace] and still more boldness and then France will be saved!

The effect of the oration, which was declaimed in what contemporaries report as Danton’s immense vox humana (not for nothing was he called by his enemies “the Mirabeau of the canaille”), must have been electrifying. But at the same time, the Minister of Justice was turning a blind eye to the violence he clearly knew was about to take place in Paris. When the inspector of prisons, Grandpré, came to the Hôtel de Ville, where the Minister was in a meeting with the Commune, to voice his concerns about the prisoners’ vulnerability, Danton brushed him off with a curt “Je me fous bien des prisonniers; quils deviennent ce quils pourront!” (“I don’t give a damn about the prisoners; let them fend for themselves.”) On the third of September, as reported by Brissot, Danton claimed that the “executions were necessary to appease the people of Paris… an indispensable sacrifice… Vox populi, vox Dei is the truest and most republican adage I know.”

Even after it had become apparent that a massacre of appalling proportions was taking place, first at the Abbaye and then at the other prisons, on the afternoon of the second, the only move made by the authorities of the Commune was to appoint commissaires to investigate what was happening. But those same men were mandated less with a mission to stop the killings than to give the violence a gloss of judicial respectability. They included, most notoriously, Stanislas Maillard, the soi-disant hero of the Bastille moat on the fourteenth of July and the leader of the women on October 5, 1789. Maillard now liked to swagger around as the captain of a paramilitary troop of strong-arm men at the service of the most militant sans-culottes. He had been a zealous arresting officer in the roundups and was now commissioned to undertake the summary “trials” which passed as justification for the butchery.

The Abbaye was the site of the first mass killing. A party of twenty-four priests taken there under armed escort from the mairie only just escaped violent assault from the crowd at the rue de Buci. When they reached the prison, however, another crowd (possibly the same group that had attacked them earlier, swollen by reinforcements) demanded summary “judgment.” A grotesquely perfunctory interrogation was followed by their being pushed down the steps and into the garden, where their killers waited armed with knives, axes, hatchets, sabers and, in the case of a butcher (by trade) called Godin, a carpenter’s saw. In an hour and a half, nineteen of the group were hacked to pieces. The five who survived to bear witness to the atrocity included the AbbéSicard, who had been spared only through the intervention of a grocer National Guardsman named Monnot. Later, in the Assembly, Monnot was decorated by Hérault de Séchelles, in an obscenely hypocritical act of condescension, for having saved “someone so valuable to thepatrie.”

Later on the second, the sanguinary scene was repeated at the Carmelite convent used as a holding cell for another hundred and fifty priests. Assembled there by the ex-monk turned Jacobin Joachim Ceyrat, they were subjected to a roll call, each name being followed by the briefest questioning, a “sentence” and murder carried out with the usual assortment of weapons. The fortunate ones were shot. In a desperate attempt to escape from the convent garden, some climbed trees and threw themselves over the wall to the street below; others ran into the chapel, from which they were dragged, then bludgeoned and stabbed. In the midst of the carnage the commissaire of the Luxembourg section, Jean-Denis Violette, arrived, briefly halting the proceedings. A slightly more formal manner of judicial proceeding actually produced some “acquittals,” but by the end of the day one hundred and fifteen persons had been subject to the hache vengeresse (the axe of vengeance), including the Archbishop of Arles, the bishops of Saintes and Beauvais and the royalist Charles de Valfons.

In the days that followed, return visits were made to the Abbaye, where the murderers subsequently referred to their travail (labor) – for which evidently they had been promised specific wage rates. According to the army officer Jourgniac de Saint-Méard, who somehow survived and whose story of what he called his “thirty-eight hours of agony” is one of the best accounts of the slaughter, the horror was compounded by the “profound and sombre silence” in which the executioners worked. About two thirds of the prisoners at the Abbaye were killed, including a valet of the King, Champlosse, the ex-minister Montmorin and two justices of the peace, Buob and Bosquillon, who had committed the “liberticide” crime of trying to prosecute those responsible for the invasion of the Tuileries on June 20. Among those who escaped was Martin de Marivaux, the Parlementaire advocate who, in 1771, had borrowed Rousseau’s nostrums on popular sovereignty to attack the “despotism” of Chancellor Maupeou. By 1792 he had evidently had quite enough of the General Will.

At two thirty on the morning of the third of September, the General Council of the Commune was told by its secretary, Tallien (also one of the commissaires), that though safe-conducts had been issued to protect the prisoners, there were simply too many able-bodied citizens on military duty at the barrières to ensure their safety. This was a prime instance of the conspiracy of disingenuousness that enabled those few members of the Assembly still sitting to exercise a Pilatic impartiality while the massacre continued. Another commissaire, Guiraut, was even more self-exonerating when he claimed that “by exercising vengeance the people are also doing justice.” To the Legislative Assembly he claimed there was a serious mutiny of prisoners under way at another of the prisons, Bicêtre, that had to be dealt with before it became a security threat to the whole city.

What was really taking place at Bicêtre was the systematic butchering of adolescent boys. While the inmates at the Abbaye, the Carmelites and another holding cell at the Monastery of Saint-Firmin, were nearly all priests and political prisoners rounded up over the previous two weeks, those at Bicêtre, La Force and La Salpêtrière, the scenes of similar slaughters, were common criminals, beggars and persons detained at the request of their own families under the conventions of the old regime. Forty-three of the one hundred and sixty-two persons killed at Bicêtre were under eighteen, including thirteen age fifteen, three age fourteen, two age thirteen and one twelve-year-old. It appears that the chief warden of the house, one Boyer, participated vigorously in killing his own inmates. At Saint-Bernard another seventy or so convicts waiting to be taken to the hulks were murdered; at La Salpêtrière over forty prostitutes were killed after being, in all likelihood, subjected to physical humiliation at the hands of their killers.

At La Force, the Princesse de Lamballe passed the time by reading devotional manuals and attempting to comfort the terrified ladies-in-waiting to the Queen. Confronted by another of the improvised courts that would be judge, jury and executioner, she was asked if she knew of the “plots of the tenth of August” and responded courageously that she was aware of no plots on that day. Required to swear an oath of loyalty to Liberty and Equality and one of hatred to the King, Queen and monarchy, she accepted the first but refused the latter. A door was opened off the interrogation room, where she saw men waiting with axes and pikes. Pushed into an alley she was hacked to death in minutes. Her clothes were stripped from her body to join the immense pile that would later be sold at public auction, and her head was struck off and stuck on a pike. Some accounts, including that of Mercier, insist on the obscene mutilation and display of her genitals, a story which Caron dismisses with the cloistered certainty of the archivist as intrinsically inconceivable. What is certain is that her head was carried in triumph through the streets of Paris to the Temple, where one of the crowd barged into the King’s rooms to demand that the Queen show herself at the window to see her friend’s head, “so you may know how the people avenge themselves on tyrants.” Marie-Antoinette spared herself this torment by fainting on the spot, but the valet de chambre Cléry peered through his blinds to see the blond curls of the Princesse de Lamballe bobbing repellently in the air.

For Pierre Caron this kind of thing was no more than the regrettably inevitable “excesses” committed at such moments of mass hysteria. He describes the exhibition of the Lamballe head noncommittally as “the custom of those days,” as though it were some picturesque folk pastime. And he goes to great lengths to dismiss stories of other atrocities as self-evident myths and items of royalist martyrology. Many of the stories – of the sexual molestation of the whores of La Salpêtrière; of the mutilation of the Princesse de Lamballe; of Mme de Sombreuil being forced to drink a glass of blood in order to save her father – may have been apocryphal. But Caron’s dismissal was based partly on their not being recorded in the revolutionary sources to which he gives exclusive credence, and partly on his refusal to believe that human beings, especially those claiming to act in the name of the Sovereign People, could have perpetrated anything so obscene. He was writing, however, in 1935. Ten years later, European history was again disabused of the notion that modernity somehow confers exemption from bestiality.

Approximately one half of all the prisoners in Paris died in the September massacres. In some places like the Abbaye and the Carmelites, 80 per cent or more of the inmates perished. There were signs of remorse and even desperation among the helpless members of the Legislative and even among some in the Commune, like Manuel, who referred to scenes he had personally witnessed as “painful” (douloureux). But the Commune never pursued the killers, and a number of its members actually praised the deeds as a useful purge of a fifth column. The signals sent to zealots in the provinces were clear, since in the two weeks that followed there were a number of similar summary judgments and executions there, almost all of priests and royalist suspects. A batch of forty-odd prisoners was being sent from Orléans to Paris, and the Legislative Assembly decided to divert the party to Saumur for its own safety. But one of the most militant of the Paris sectionnaires, Fournier “the American,” actually set out with a company of armed men to ensure that the prisoners kept to the original plan. At Versailles the whole party, including the Feuillant Minister of Foreign Affairs de Lessart, were massacred in what looks remarkably like a premeditated plan.

For days the sites were carefully scrubbed down and doused with vinegar, though at some prisons, like La Force, some of the bloodstains were not expungeable. A drawing by Béricourt represents, all too graphically, the administrative banalization of mass murder. At bottom right an official, swathed in a tricolor sash, inspects the disposal of bodies while a figure beside him makes notes in a register. To their right stands a vainqueur de la Bastille recognizable from his helmet while another gazes unconcernedly at the severed head. On the cart the men are plainly enjoying their work.

In the last days of the Legislative and the first weeks of the National Convention which succeeded it, Girondin politicians, who had been far from blameless themselves, endeavored to use the deaths as a stick with which to attack their enemies among the Jacobins. Brissot, in particular, believed, not entirely without some justification, that he and his friends had also been earmarked for extermination and had only narrowly escaped.

Precisely because the massacres quickly became a feature of the partisan combats of the Convention, they have often been seen as just another episode in the polemics of faction. In this representation, or as a psychological aberration linked to the war panic, the event has been marginalized as somehow of interest only to sensationalist, anecdotal history and beneath the attention of serious analysis. But a good case, however, might be made for seeing the September massacres as the event which more than almost any other exposed a central truth of the French Revolution: its dependence on organized killing to accomplish political ends. For however virtuous the principles of the kingless France were supposed to be, their power to command allegiance depended, from the very beginning, on the spectacle of death.

One contemporary eyewitness, at least, acknowledged exactly the moral squalor of the revolutionary predicament. In a letter to a woman friend, unfinished and unsent, Claude Basire, a Jacobin deputy of unimpeachably Robespierriste militancy, expressed his relief that

your beautiful eyes have not been soiled by the hideous sights that we have had before us these last days… Mirabeau said that there is nothing more lamentable or revolting in its details than a revolution but nothing finer in its consequences for the regeneration of empires. That may well be, but courage is needed to be a statesman and keep a cool head in such upheavals and such terrible crises. You know my heart, judge the situation of my soul and the horror of my position. A feeling man [homme sensible] must simply cover his head in his cloak and hurry past the cadavers to shut himself up in the temple of the law [the legislature].

As Bluche points out, it is exactly when Basire is forced out of this shell of official self-protection that his account breaks off. Appointed by the Assembly as one of six commissioners sent to bring peace into the prisons, he walked to the Abbaye, “groaning inwardly at the slowness of our cortege.” Before the building, where there was “a profound darkness lit only by the sepulchral light from some torches and candles,” he halts and so, abruptly, does his narrative. It is as if the reality within was too much for thecoeur sensible to bear: the oracular utterance of the General Will expressed in an oblation of blood and bone.

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