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1789: The murderers of the baker Francois

October 22nd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1789, two working stiffs literally became stiffs for a noteworthy bread riot during the French Revolution’s early days.

Ah, 1789.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times … it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. And we know how all that ends.

Just three months after the Bastille was stormed, France was merely pregnant with its coming Terrors. The Revolution was in its “moderate stage”.

Some moderation.


“Events of the 22nd of October, 1789: The hanging of a man named Francois, a baker”. Despite the title, sources (like this French-language study in the Annales historiques de la Revolution francaise, overwhelmingly date the baker’s murder to the 21st.

The tumbrils may not have been running (actually, the Revolution’s iconic execution device had not yet even been created), but the “October Days” had enough to scare you, especially if you were a sensible constitutionalist type like the Marquis de Lafayette.*

Like a mob dragging the King back to Paris from Versailles, with the heads of his royal guards on pikestaffs.

A drought had created a calamitous bread shortage, which in turn helped stir the Revolutionary pot. The mob that invaded Louis XVI‘s palace a couple of weeks before had celebrated his return to Paris singing “We Have the Baker, the Baker’s Wife, and the Baker’s Son. We Shall Have Bread.” When the king’s presence failed to ease the shortage, fresh disturbances followed.

On October 21, 1789,** the baker Denis Francois became the unfortunate focus of one such, when a famished woman spuriously denounced him a monopolist. A frenzied crowd lynched the hapless boulanger before he could get a word in edgewise.

This event occasioned the Constituent Assembly to pass a martial law decree, permitting a municipality to signal martial law by raising a red flag, whereupon anyone failing to disperse made him- or herself liable to summary military execution.

According to Lafayette (cited in Revolutionary Justice in Paris: 1789-1790):

During the disturbance stirred up against the baker Francois, another one broke out in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, the object of which was to unite with the Faubourg Saint-Marcel for purposes of reducing the price of bread, and for getting into the convents under the pretext of taking the muskets stored there. The National Guard, in breaking up these seditions, arrested the assassin of the baker [a dock porter named Blin] and the principal instigator of the faubourg [i.e., the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, namely a laborer named Michel Adrien†]. Both were judged and hanged the next day.

* We meet Lafayette here as captain of the National Guard; in a few years, the progress of the Revolution that he struggled to contain and direct will make him persona non grata in his country.

** Six Thousand Years of Bread: Its Holy and Unholy History gives the date as Oct. 20, though it’s not clear upon what authority. Archibald Alison placed it on the 19th. Whenever the murder of Francois occurred, the martial law decree’s passage on the 21st appears to be firmly dependable, which would mean the supposed malefactors’ deaths on this date should be as well.

† Revolutionary propagandist Camille Desmoulins later seized on the very skimpily justified Adrien execution — he “was judged and hanged in twenty-four hours for circulating a seditious flyer, although he didn’t know how to read” — to contrast with the outsized tenderheartedness shown for aristocrats who have “different weights on the scales of justice.” (Revolutionary Justice in Paris: 1789-1790)

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Hanged,History,Known But To God,Lynching,Murder,No Formal Charge,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Rioting,Summary Executions,Wrongful Executions

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