1794: The neighbors of Susan Sorel, the female atheist

1 comment May 28th, 2017 Lewis Goldsmith Stewarton

(Thanks to Lewis Goldsmith aka “Stewarton” for the guest post, cribbed from his The Female Revolutionary Plutarch -ed.)

Susan Sorel

The Female Atheist

Mais tout passe, et tout meurt, tel est l’arret du sort;
L’instant ou nous naissons est un pas vers la mort.

That the hardened criminal should silence or repulse the clamour of his conscience, and in a trembling despair call out “There is no God!” cannot be surprising; his enormities bid defiance to a divinity; he cannot endure to think of what he has such dreadful reason to fear; the very idea of an omnipotent God must to him be a hell upon earth. But that modest virtue, pure morality, honour, and loyalty, should be misled, to embrace the shocking, despairing, and destructive tenets of atheism, and disbelieve and deny a remunerator of good and evil, after all the abominations witnessed in France since the revolution, loudly proclaims the dangerous progress infidelity has made in that country, as well as the dangerous effects of the sophistical notions disseminated in the works of a Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Helvetius, Raynal, and other French philosophers.

Susan Sorel had inherited from her parents property producing about nine thousand livres (375 l.) per annum, near Metz, in ci-devant Lorrain. She had from her youth evinced an inclination for literary information and for a studious life; and when at the age of twenty-five, by the death of her parents, she became mistress of her fortune, she declined all offers of marriage entirely, to avoid all interruption to the gratification of her leading passion for reading. The revolution, and the famine and the horrors that accompanied it, gave her an opportunity to gain the admiration of all her neighbours by acts of generosity, that announced a heart as tender and liberal as a mind noble and philanthropic. She not only distributed among the poor all her superfluities, but frequently refused herself the necessaries of life to relieve suffering humanity. She paid no visits, and received but little company. Though she never went to church herself, she advised her servants never to neglect mass or vespers. She frequently presented the curate of her parish with liberal donations; and when in the beginning of 1794 the republicans proscribed and pursued him with all other christian priests, she, at the risk of her own life, concealed him in her house, and paid the same attention and respect to him as if she had belonged to his flock, or been one of the faithful. Four days before her death she presented him with a purse containing one hundred louis-d’ors, and a passport which would carry him safe to Germany, for which she had paid the same sum.

On the 21st of May 1794, she invited forty-four children of her neighbours to a dinner and ball, which continued till past midnight. She seemed not only composed and tranquil, but lively and gay, partaking with pleasure in the enjoyments and amusements of innocence and youth. When they retired she gave them each a louis-d’or in money, to be spent when monarchy was restored in France, and six yards of white riband to decorate themselves with on the same occasion.

A few weeks before, she had caused a small summer-house, or rather hut of dry wood, to be constructed in her garden, which she furnished in a neat and plain manner. Half an hour after the children had left her, the gardener heard reports of pistols, and looking out observed the hut on fire on all sides; and before he could procure any water or assistance to extinguish it, the hut was consumed, and Mademoiselle Sorel reduced to ashes. She probably had this hut built only to serve her as a funeral pile.

As soon as it was day-light the servants sent for the justice of peace (in France they have ho coroners), who, after taking an inventory of her effects, put a seal on the house. He found upon the table in her study a letter addressed to himself. In it she made him a present of fifty louis-d’ors, desiring him to have her ashes collected to be thrown into the river Moselle. She informed him that it was not by accident but by design, that she had burned the hut and herself, having chosen that death as the most agreeable and the most clean in departing from a world she detested so much, that she preferred to it even an annihilation, of which she was certain. She stated that, not to surwive the day she had calmly fixed on for her exit, she had set the hut on fire before she shot herself. She asked him to have her last will read at the department, as well as the papers accompanying it, some of which she hoped would give consolation to the wretched, and explain and palliate her conduct to the good and loyal.

My Last Will and Testament

In the name of no God! I, Susan Sorel, sound in mind and body, de bequeath all my landed property and estate, all my household furniture, money, and valuables; in few words, every thing that can be called mine upon earth, (after two years wages have been paid to each of my servants), to his Majesty the king of France and Navarre, Louis XVII or his heirs and successors, to be disposed of by him or by them, as he or they judge and think proper, to some unfortunate sufferer whom the revolution has ruined for his attachment to his lawful sovereign. Until the restoration of royalty, Nicholas Nerein and Jacques Meunier, my neighbours, whom I appoint my executors, are requested to see that my lands are well cultivated and my rents paid; and to distribute the same to the full amount among all the poor of our parish, deducting only six hundred livres (25 l.) a year each for their trouble. They may either let or occupy themselves my principal dwelling, upon condition of keeping it in the best possible repair, until it with every thing else can be delivered up to the rightful owner; such a one as is nominated by the first Bourbon who is acknowledged a King of France and Navarre. Written, signed, and sealed by myself, at ten o’clock in the morning, May 21st, 1794; or, in the republican jargon, Floreal 30th, year II of the republic, one and indivisible.

(Signed)
SUSAN SOREL.

My Last Creed.

The world has never been created, but produced by incomprehensible, mechanical causes and occurrences, and has by degrees become nearly as it is. It will remain with little variation in the same state’ to all eternity.

A God is the invention of fear, and the idol of folly and ignorance. I too in my youth worshipped a God, adored his Son, prayed to a virgin-mother, and knelt before human saints. I too confessed, fasted, subjected myself to mortifications, and wore relics. I too attended church, followed processions, prostrated myself before the host, sung hymns, and made vows. My sincere piety, my ardent devotion, was first shaken by seeing the prosperity of crime, the sufferings of innocence, and the misfortunes of virtue.

When I saw the best and most virtuous king that ever ruled France, in return for his pure and patriotic wishes to make his subjects free and happy, rewarded by ingratitude, insults, and pains — I said, No, there is no God!

When his loyal life-guards were murdered in doing their duty, and their known assassins remained unpunished — I said, No, there is no God!

When this good king was carried to Paris, and there detained a prisoner by those very subjects to whom he had offered liberty, and outrage was added to confinement — I said, No, there is no God!

When with his nobly resigned queen and family, he was arrested and ill-treated in a journey he had undertaken to restore order to his kingdom, and tranquillity and happiness to his subjects — I said, No, no, there is no God!.

When first treacherously assaulted in his own palace, and afterwards barbarously dragged from the throne he was so worthy to occupy, to a prison his virtues purified and sanctified — No! no! no! said I, there can be no God!

When, in the course of a few months, his innocent blood was shed by the hands of criminals on a scaffold erected for criminals — It is impossible, said I, it is impossible there can be any God!

When I saw honour and loyalty bleeding and flying, and robbers, rebels, and regicides victorious — No! no! said I, there is no God!

When I saw altars erected to Marat, and heard that his sanguinary accomplices pronounced his apotheosis, without being crushed by the thunder of heaven — No! no! no! said I, there is no God!

When I read that a prostitute was worshipped upon an altar consecrated to a God who did not revenge this sacrilegious outrage — No! no! said I, there is no God!

When Marie Antoinette, whose courage, sufferings, and resignation, were so great and so edifying, and whose faults and errors were so few and so exaggerated, ascended the same scaffold where her royal consort Louis XVI had bled — No! no! no! said I, there is no God!

When the model of fennale virtue and purity, of religious sanctity, of parental and sisterly heroism, the royal Princess Madame Elizabeth, was condemned by regicide murderers to die like the parricide or assassin — No! no! no! said I, there never has been, there never can be a God!

It is time, said I, to depart from a world where every thing vile, corrupt, and guilty, is fortunate, and where every thing elevated, good, generous, and honourable, is wretched. If there is another world, what have I to apprehend? My life is pure; the blood of no being have I shed; the property of no person have I plundered; the rights of no individual have I invaded, and the reputation of no person have I injured. I may therefore, said I, reduce myself to ashes, to annihilation, with as much indifference as I strip myself of my garment when I undress to go to bed. Should a God, a supernatural being, whom I am unable to comprehend or to believe in ; should he really exist, and have created such vile creatures as man and woman, I — humble I, am no shame, no disgrace to his work, to his performance! Though not confiding in him myself, I have not only not prevented any body from doing so, but have encouraged and enjoined many to trust in his justice and his bounty. It is also true, I observed that those I thus advised had neither energy of character, for strength of mind, to see in themselves every thing inferior, equal, and above them. For their repose they required some terrific superior — a Robespierre in the heavens to bow to, to tremble before.

To my young neighbours, whose innocent enjoyments made my last hours so happy, and my journey into the shades of oblivion so easy.

Sweet children! die soon, or misery is your lot; die soon, or you will deplore existence as a curse. Die soon, or the assassin’s dagger will stab you, the poisoned tooth of the calumniator wound you; or, what is worse, and more insupportable, the arrow of wretchedness will pierce your tender bosom without killing you, suspend you for years between existence and annihilation, and leave you just enough of life to feel all its horrors. Die soon, or you will, like myself, witness that what disgraces human nature prospers, what degrades it succeeds. Die soon, or you will see modesty trampled upon by impertinent or rude audacity; folly and impertinence tyrannize over wisdom and prudence; and unpunished ferocity intimidate equally the brave and the coward, the good and the bad, the virtuous and the wicked. Die soon, or you will die a thousand times before you expire. To die is nothing; you must all die sooner or later: it is only the agony of death that is terrible, insufferable.

To my good neighbours, Nicholas Nerein and Jacques Meuitier.

My will and the charge entrusted to you, my friends, prove how sincerely I esteem you, and my confidence in you. Shew yourselves worthy of it by discharging your duty faithfully. You know since the death of my nephews I have no relations left: I therefore do not infringe on the ties of consanguinity in presenting my offering to loyalty. As the last proof of my friendship for you both when, tired of living, I bequeath you my example of dying. Embrace your wives and children on the part of your and their departed friend,

SUSAN SOREL.


The department of the Moselle, instead of approving of the will of Susan Sorel, considered her as an enemy of the republic, who by suicide had prevented the effect of national justice, and therefore confiscated her property for the benefit of the nation. Nicholas Nerein and Jacques Meunier they caused to be arrested as suspected, and delivered up to the revolutionary tribunal, which condemned them both to death as accomplices of Susan Sorel. They were executed on the 28th of May, 1794.

On the back of the paper containing what she called Her Last Creed, were written the following lines:

On a vue souvent des athees
Vertueux malgre leurs erreurs:
Leurs opinion infectees
N’avoient point infectes leurs moeurs.
Spinosa fut doux, juste, aimable:
Le Dieu que son esprit coupable
Avoit follement combattu,
Prenant pitie de sa foiblesse,
Lui laissa l’humain sagesse,
Et les ombres de la vertu.

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1944: Max Sievers, freethinker

1 comment January 17th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1944, German freethinker Max Sievers was beheaded at Brandenburg Prison for “conspiracy to commit high treason along with favouring the enemy.”

A working-class Berliner, Sievers (English Wikipedia entry | German) became a prominent communist and atheist writer in the interwar years. He directed the Association of Freethinkers for Cremation from the early 1920s, and in 1927 became the chair of the German Freethinkers League.

This was not a demographic Adolph Hitler was courting. In the wake of the 1933 Reichstag Fire, the Nazis stamped out atheistic movements, even converting the Freethinkers’ building into a Protestant recruitment venue.

Briefly imprisoned, Sievers fled Germany upon his release later in 1933 and from exile in Belgium — and then, after Belgium was conquered, in hiding in France — he kept up a drumbeat of antifascist propaganda, notably the 1939 book Unser Kampf gegen das Dritte Reich: von der nazistischen Diktatur zur sozialistischen Demokratie.

He was finally arrested by the Gestapo on June 3, 1943, and condemned to death by Roland Freisler.

Sievers was posthumously exonerated in 1996, and is today — and on January 17th in particular — an honored martyr for German humanist, atheist, and freethinker groups.

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1931: Bhagat Singh

2 comments March 23rd, 2012 Headsman

I am full of ambition and hope and of full charm of life. But I can renounce all at the time of need, and that is the real sacrifice. These things can never be hinderance in the way of man, provided he be a man. You will have the practical proof in the near future.

Bhagat Singh

On this date in 1931,* India revolutionary Bhagat Singh was hanged by the British in Lahore, together with Shivaram Rajguru and Sukhdev Thapar. The hanging was surreptitiously done, on the evening before it was officially scheduled, with the men’s cremated ashes scattered into the nearby Satluj River.


Statue of the three March 23 martyrs near Amritsar, Punjab, close to the Pakistani border. (cc) image from Alicia Nijdam.

Though only 23 years of age when he hanged, Singh’s renown as a nationalist freedom-fighter was already considerable. It has not lessened in the intervening decades.

The teenage Singh had participated in Gandhi‘s nonviolent Non-Cooperation Movement, but violent British suppression of independence demonstrations soon had Singh looking for a more energetic response.

Till that time I was only a romantic revolutionary, just a follower of our leaders. Then came the time to shoulder the whole responsibility. … I began to study in a serious manner. My previous beliefs and convictions underwent a radical change. The romance of militancy dominated our predecessors; now serious ideas ousted this way of thinking. No more mysticism! No more blind faith! Now realism was our mode of thinking.

-Singh, from “Why I am an atheist”

Singh issued his definitive reply to British violence in 1929 by exploding a couple of bombs in the subcontinent’s legislative building.**

“It takes a loud noise to make the deaf hear,” read their leaflet, vindicating the (non-lethal) ordnance.

Singh’s arrest, along with a fellow bomb-tosser, was an intended consequence, but the official pursuit of the case against him also led back to Singh’s fellow-revolutionaries and bomb-manufacturers. Some of these were induced to inculpate Singh, Rajguru, and Thapar to the theretofore-unsolved murder of Lahore policeman John Saunders in December 28.

Saunders had been mistakenly assassinated: Singh et al took him for John Scott, a police superintendent who ordered a baton charge against protesters and personally helped beat to death one of the independence movement’s revered fathers.

While the law wrapped its coils about him, Singh led a successful hunger strike for better prison conditions, and kept churning out writing.

His example of sacrificial revolutionary ardor — not to mention his leftist politics — kept him a popular martyr figure for years after his death, all the way down to the present day.


Climactic execution scene from the 2002 Hindi flm The Legend of Bhagat Singh — one of many different cinematic adaptations of his story.

The Shaheedi Mela (Martyrdom Fair) is observed across Punjab each March 23 in honor of these men.

* Not on Valentine’s Day, as a 2011 Twitter hoax claimed.

** Shades of Auguste Vaillant.

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1766: Jean-François de la Barre, freethinker martyr

3 comments July 1st, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1766, a 20-year-old French chevalier’s freethinking proclivities got him beheaded and burned for impiety in one of Bourbon France’s most notorious episodes of religious chauvanism.

Check that date again. This is 69 years after the British Isles’ last execution for blasphemy; Voltaire was alive, and already in his dotage — and the fact that young Chevalier de la Barre was reading him was proclaimed as evidence. Such a benighted proceeding with the French Revolution on the horizon calls Dickens to mind:

it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness

The luckless youth and a couple of friends had pissed off a local judge, which got ugly for them when the unexplained vandalism of a town crucifix availed the opportunity for the magistrate to wield a sledgehammer against a fly.

De la Barre’s volume of Voltaire was tossed onto the pyre with him. That Enlightenment colossus made a measured posthumous effort at having the boy rehabilitated* — primarily for the benefit of his more judicious friend, who had fled the country and required his death sentence in absentia be lifted in order to inherit the family estate — but the verdict was not set aside until the French Revolution, a few months after the end of the Terror.

France’s overall secular trajectory since has rendered this date a sort of national freethinkers’ holiday, Chevalier de la Barre Day. A statue of its namesake stands in Paris’ Montmarte:

* Voltaire’s writings on the case in the original French are collected by the Association Le Chevalier de la Barre here.

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1697: Thomas Aikenhead

2 comments January 8th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1697, Scottish medical student Thomas Aikenhead was hanged on the road from Edinburgh to Leith for blasphemy, an already-archaic punishment inflicted for what reads like headstrong youthful atheism of a decidedly garden variety.

Aikenhead partook of the times’ emerging (albeit forbidden) store of humanist and skeptical literature, and chatted most unguardedly with University of Edinburgh “friends” who tattled to authorities to the extent that, not content with testifying against him, one published a pamphlet demanding the offender “atone with blood, the affronts of heaven’s offended throne.”

Said authorities scarcely elevated the dignity of the temporal throne in their own eagerness to swing a sledgehammer against a fly, trying the young hothead for his life under a Restoration law which by its own letter should not have lodged him in mortal peril until his third offense.

Thou Aikenhead, the indictment thundered in the second person:

shakeing off all fear of God and regaird to his majesties lawes, have now for more than a twelvemoneth by past…[vented] your wicked blasphemies against God and our Saviour Jesus Christ, and against the holy Scriptures, and all revealled religione…you said and affirmed, that divinity or the doctrine of theologie was a rapsidie of faigned and ill-invented nonsense, patched up partly of the morall doctrine of philosophers, and pairtly of poeticall fictions and extravagant chimeras

He called the Old Testament “Ezra’s fables”, Jesus the “Imposter Christ” (preferring Mahomet), and anticipated the extirpation of Christianity.

It was a bare two weeks from conviction to execution. Accounts of Aikenhead’s last days seem inconsistent; the prisoner recanted, possibly sincerely, but the Church — explicitly handed the power to at least reprieve him by its intervention — demanded hurried and “vigorous execution.”

Macaulay disgustedly pictured the scene:

The preachers who were the boy’s murderers crowded round him at the gallows, and, while he was struggling in the last agony, insulted Heaven with prayers more blasphemous than any thing that [Aikenhead] had ever uttered.

The singular punishment meted out this day — the last hanging for blasphemy throughout what was soon to become the United Kingdom — cast a long shadow into the coming century’s remarkable Scottish renaissance and lingers even today as a suggestion to some just how near the menace of theocracy might yet remain.

And Britain’s blasphemy laws? They’re only now facing repeal.

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