On this date in 1794, two women whose husbands had been deadly enemies in the French Revolution followed them to the guillotine.
The radical Jacques Hebert had been beheaded on March 24; Camille Desmoulins, the acerbic Dantonist journalist who had often savaged Hebert, followed him on April 5. Between the two, Robespierre had destroyed the principle remaining factions to his left and his right, respectively.
In Desmoulins’ last days, a supposed plot involving his wife formed part of the charge against him, and he became frantic that a bride he loved tenderly (he died clutching a lock of her hair) would follow him to the scaffold. It was barely a week later that it came to pass, when Lucile shared a tumbril with an unlikely friend: the widow of Hebert.
Their fate was nothing to the Revolution, but it remains an affecting personal portrait amid the tempest of factional massacres. Here is their end, sketched by the (markedly anti-Revolutionary) Paris in the Terror:
As Camille Desmoulins had foreseen, his wife soon followed his footsteps to the guillotine … Lucile was arrested immediately after Camille’s execution. It suited the Committee [of Public Safety] to support St. Just’s story of a “dangerous conspiracy in the prisons.” Along with having been seen in the vicinity of the Luxembourg (carrying the baby Horace in her arms in the hope that Camille might catch a glimpse of him),* Lucile had gone to Robespierre’s house and tried to gain admittance in order to plead with the Incorruptible on her husband’s behalf. No man was less accessible to the pleas of wailing women than Robespierre, and his door remained adamantly closed. Such manifestations of despair conveniently lent themselves to St. Just’s contention that revolt was afoot, and Lucile was accordingly arrested.
(Robespierre, in fact, had been the chief witness at Camille’s wedding and was actually godfather of little Horace.)
Lucile was condemned to death on April 13, along with eighteen other victims. She accepted her sentence with serenity. “In a few hours I shall see my Camille again,” she declared to her judges. “I am therefore less to be pitied than you, for at your death, which will be infamous, you will be haunted by remorse for what you have done.” At the same trial, the widow of Hebert was also condemned. The two women whose husbands had so bitterly hated each other struck up a friendship in the last few days of their life. “You are lucky,” Mme. Hebert said to Lucile as they departed for the scaffold. “Nobody speaks ill of you. There is no shadow upon your character. You are leaving life by the grand staircase.”
Upon hearing the news of her daughter’s sentence [Lucile’s mother] sent a frantic letter to Robespierre. “It is not enough for you to have murdered your best friend [Camille],” she cried. “You must have his wife’s blood as well. Your monster Fouquier-Tinville has just ordered Lucile to be taken to the scaffold. In less than two hours’ time she will be dead. If you aren’t a human tiger, if Camille’s blood hasn’t driven you mad, if you are still able to remember the happy evenings you once spent before our fire fondling our Horace, spare an innocent victim. If not — then hurry and take us all, Horace, myself and my other daughter Adele. Hurry and tear us apart with your claws that still drip with Camille’s blood … hurry, hurry so that we can all sleep in the same grave!”
* This particular of strolling outside the prison in hopes of giving the doomed man a glimpse is echoed by Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities in the person of Charles Darnay‘s wife — Lucie:
“[T]here is an upper window in the prison, to which Charles can sometimes gain access at three in the afternoon. When he can get to it — which depends on many uncertainties and incidents — he might see you in the street, he thinks, if you stood in a certain place that I can show you.”
In all weathers, in the snow and frost of winter, in the bitter winds of spring, in the hot sunshine of summer, in the rains of autumn, and again in the snow and frost of winter, Lucie passed two hours of every day at this place; and every day on leaving it, she kissed the prison wall.