1793: Charlotte Corday, Marat’s murderess

13 comments July 17th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1793, Charlotte Corday lightly dropped her head beneath the guillotine for the murder of Jean-Paul Marat.


The Death of Marat, by David.

She is of stately Norman figure; in her twenty-fifth year; of beautiful still countenance: her name is Charlotte Corday, heretofore styled d’Armans, while Nobility still was … A completeness, a decision is in this fair female Figure: ‘by energy she means the spirit that will prompt one to sacrifice himself for his country.’ What if she, this fair young Charlotte, had emerged from her secluded stillness, suddenly like a Star; cruel-lovely, with half-angelic, half-demonic splendour; to gleam for a moment, and in a moment be extinguished: to be held in memory, so bright complete was she, through long centuries!–Quitting Cimmerian Coalitions without, and the dim-simmering Twenty-five millions within, History will look fixedly at this one fair Apparition of a Charlotte Corday; will note whither Charlotte moves, how the little Life burns forth so radiant, then vanishes swallowed of the Night.

Carlyle’s voluptuous prose is well-suited to our heroine (for so she has officially seemed, since fall of Robespierre, or from the very first): in the mere hours from striking dead the ferocious Jacobin Jean-Paul Marat on July 13 to her beheading this day, she captivated the country and immortalized her name.

Hapless beautiful Charlotte; hapless squalid Marat! From Caen in the utmost West, from Neuchatel in the utmost East, they two are drawing nigh each other; they two have, very strangely, business together.

Or was it strange at all?

Implacable in her purpose, utopian in her design, unafraid to plant a butcher’s knife into the chest of an enemy of France, Corday has a little something in common with her mortal foe.


Charlotte Corday, by Paul-Jacques-Aime Baudry.

These make casting too easy: Marat, bad because he was ugly and ugly because he was bad; Charlotte, therefore, just the reverse. (She was also a virgin; they made sure to check at the autopsy.) Our Norman assassin’s looks have inordinately exercised her interlocutors from the moment of her arrest; her prosecutors, too, understood them as essential.

“Not at all pretty,” a contemporaneous government article (cited in Crisis in Representation) put about. “She was a virago, brawny rather than fresh, without grace, untidy as are almost all female philosophers and eggheads … an old maid … with a masculinized bearing … [who] had thrown herself absolutely outside of her sex.”

And there it is. Charlotte Corday’s power to excite both rapture and repulsion is plainly rooted in the unexpected contradiction between her sex and her crime. If she is a resolute political assassin, surely she is not feminine … or is it the other way around?

Take Andre Chenier‘s engorged ode: “Fair, young, resplendent, led to the executioners, you seemed to be riding in your bridal car … You alone were a man and vindicated the human race. And we, vile eunuchs, a cowardly and soulless herd, we know how to repeat some womanly whimper, but the steel would weigh heavy in our feeble hands. … One scoundrel less crawls in this slime. Virtue applauds you. Hear the majestic sound of its virile praise, heroic maid.” This is “throwing herself outside of her sex” in the affirmative sense of uplifting herself beyond mere womanhood, a girl so heroic she might almost qualify as a dude.

Place it at the historical pivot into a modernity unready to reckon with the place of the woman, and confusion reigns.

“The spectacle of such wickedness, beauty, and talent united in the same person,” a newspaper recorded, “the contrast between the magnitude of her crime and the weakness of her sex, her appearance of actual gaiety, and her smile before the judges, who could not fail to condemn her, all combined to create an impression on the spectators that is difficult to portray.”*

Still, this judgment offers more insight than some latterly “tributes,” like this Anglo magazine piece 30 years later: “an ornament and an honour to the sex of woman … Woman is the child of feeling. From this source spring up all her good and bad qualities. It is seldom ambition or policy which leads her on to any enterprise: it is the passions. … it was under the influence of such feelings that Charlotte Corday performed that act, which virtuous and generous minds, so far from considering a crime, will look upon as one of the most heroic deeds of recorded history.”

Which is a fascinating form of sexism, since it was precisely Corday’s unearthly calm — masculine virtue! — that awed the Revolutionary Tribunal. But everything about Charlotte Corday is up for interpretive grabs; Nina Rattner Gelbart even argues, in “The Blonding of Charlotte Corday” (Eighteenth-Century Studies 38.1 (2004)) that though a real-life brunette, her depictions trend increasingly flaxen-haired.**

As for Charlotte Corday her work is accomplished; the recompense of it is near and sure. The chere amie, and neighbours of the house, flying at her, she ‘overturns some movables,’ entrenches herself till the gendarmes arrive; then quietly surrenders; goes quietly to the Abbaye Prison: she alone quiet, all Paris sounding in wonder, in rage or admiration, round her. …

On Wednesday morning, the thronged Palais de Justice and Revolutionary Tribunal can see her face; beautiful and calm: she dates it ‘fourth day of the Preparation of Peace.’ A strange murmur ran through the Hall, at sight of her; you could not say of what character. Tinville has his indictments and tape-papers the cutler of the Palais Royal will testify that he sold her the sheath-knife; “all these details are needless,” interrupted Charlotte; “it is I that killed Marat.” By whose instigation? — “By no one’s.” What tempted you, then? His crimes. “I killed one man,” added she, raising her voice extremely (extremement), as they went on with their questions, “I killed one man to save a hundred thousand; a villain to save innocents; a savage wild-beast to give repose to my country. I was a Republican before the Revolution; I never wanted energy.” There is therefore nothing to be said. The public gazes astonished: the hasty limners sketch her features, Charlotte not disapproving; the men of law proceed with their formalities. The doom is Death as a murderess. To her Advocate she gives thanks; in gentle phrase, in high-flown classical spirit. To the Priest they send her she gives thanks; but needs not any shriving, or ghostly or other aid from him.

On this same evening, therefore, about half-past seven o’clock, from the gate of the Conciergerie, to a City all on tiptoe, the fatal Cart issues: seated on it a fair young creature, sheeted in red smock of Murderess; so beautiful, serene, so full of life; journeying towards death,–alone amid the world. Many take off their hats, saluting reverently; for what heart but must be touched? Others growl and howl. Adam Lux, of Mentz, declares that she is greater than Brutus; that it were beautiful to die with her: the head of this young man seems turned. At the Place de la Revolution, the countenance of Charlotte wears the same still smile. The executioners proceed to bind her feet; she resists, thinking it meant as an insult; on a word of explanation, she submits with cheerful apology. As the last act, all being now ready, they take the neckerchief from her neck: a blush of maidenly shame overspreads that fair face and neck; the cheeks were still tinged with it, when the executioner lifted the severed head, to shew it to the people. ‘It is most true,’ says Foster, ‘that he struck the cheek insultingly; for I saw it with my eyes: the Police imprisoned him for it.’†

In this manner have the Beautifullest and the Squalidest come in collision, and extinguished one another. Jean-Paul Marat and Marie-Anne Charlotte Corday both, suddenly, are no more. ‘Day of the Preparation of Peace?’ Alas, how were peace possible or preparable, while, for example, the hearts of lovely Maidens, in their convent-stillness, are dreaming not of Love- paradises, and the light of Life; but of Codrus’-sacrifices, and death well earned? That Twenty-five million hearts have got to such temper, this is the Anarchy; the soul of it lies in this: whereof not peace can be the embodyment! The death of Marat, whetting old animosities tenfold, will be worse than any life. O ye hapless Two, mutually extinctive, the Beautiful and the Squalid, sleep ye well,–in the Mother’s bosom that bore you both!

In Carlyle’s third volume on the French Revolution, “Charlotte Corday” is the first chapter in Book IV: The Terror.

While the assassin went contentedly to her death, and left smitten admirers in her passing, more realistic politicians saw that all her magnificent stoicism, all her self-sacrifice, had doomed the liberals who were her political fellow-travelers and opened the door to the very Terror she meant to avert. (And also that the gesture might have been better directed elsewhere, since Marat was already dying.)

“She has killed us,” prophesied Girondin deputy Pierre Vergniaud. “But she has taught us how to die.”

What meaning this leaves one with — any at all? — is the subject of the Peter Weiss play-within-a-play Marat/Sade, which sets a cast of lunatics in the Napoleonic era under the direction of the Marquis de Sade to portraying Marat’s rendezvous with Charlotte Corday.

* Cited by Elizabeth R. Kindleberger in “Charlotte Corday in Text and Image: A Case Study in the French Revolution and Women’s History,” French Historical Studies, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Autumn, 1994).

** Also of interest from Gelbart is the Vichy government’s affinity for our murderess: “Antisemitism made of Marat a Jew and a vile creature, dark, dirty, satanic, a bloodthirsty monster. In contrast, Corday was pure, saintly, beautiful, virginal, and of course fair.”

† The slap given Charlotte Corday’s severed head is historically attested by the French press (which was aghast); the famous story about it of a much more fantastic quality is that the severed head blushed — and, in the phrasing of Englishwoman Helen Maria Williams, “exhibited this last impression of offended modesty.” The legend of Charlotte’s crimsoned cheeks always comes up in the backstory of the guillotine’s experiments to determine if a head retained consciousness; Charlotte’s blush may in fact be credited as one of the reasons these experiments actually came to pass.

Part of the Themed Set: The Feminine Mystique.

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1795: The last Montagnards

1 comment June 17th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1795, the Mountain that had so recently dominated revolutionary France was destroyed by the blade.

This largely forgotten date is actually a significant milestone of those years’ imbroglio: the date on which the French bourgeoisie achieved its revolution by slaying the last sans-culottes-affiliated deputies in punishment for the last sans-culottes uprising.

In the year since the fall of Robespierre, a White Terror had purged his former adherents — or in class terms, had put Madame Guillotine to work pushing the Paris working class out of its former political authority.

The latter’s last hurrah of resistance was the Prairal Rebellion of May 20, 1795, when a mob stormed the Convention.

In the florid narration of Thomas Carlyle,

[I]t billows free through all Corridors; within and without, far as the eye reaches, nothing but Bedlam, and the great Deep broken loose! … Insurrection rages; rolls its drums; will read its Paper of Grievances, will have this decreed, will have that.

… National Representation, deluged with black Sansculottism, glides out; for help elsewhere, for safety elsewhere; here is no help.

About four in the afternoon, there remain hardly more than some Sixty Members: mere friends, or even secret leaders; a remnant of the Mountain-crest, held in silence by Thermidorian thraldom. Now is the time for them; now or never let them descend, and speak! They descend, these Sixty, invited by Sansculottism: Romme of the New Calendar, Ruhl of the Sacred Phial, Goujon, Duquesnoy, Soubrany, and the rest. Glad Sansculottism forms a ring for them; Romme takes the President’s chair; they begin resolving and decreeing. Fast enough now comes Decree after Decree, in alternate brief strains, or strophe and antistrophe, — what will cheapen bread, what will awaken the dormant lion. And at every new decree,* Sansculottism shouts “Decreed, decreed!” and rolls its drums.

Fast enough; the work of months in hours, — when see, a Figure enters … And then Gilt Youth, with levelled bayonets, countenances screwed to the sticking-place! Tramp, tramp, with bayonets gleaming in the lamp-light: what can one do, worn down with long riot, grown heartless, dark, hungry, but roll back, but rush back, and escape who can? The very windows need to be thrown up, that Sansculottism may escape fast enough. Money-changer Sections and Gilt Youth sweep them forth, with steel besom, far into the depths of Saint-Antoine. Triumph once more! The Decrees of that Sixty are not so much as rescinded; they are declared null and non-extant. Romme, Ruhl, Goujon and the ringleaders, some thirteen in all, are decreed Accused. Permanent-session ends at three in the morning. Sansculottism, once more flung resupine, lies sprawling; sprawling its last.

The so-called Cretois were hailed before a tribunal; six were condemned to death on this date.**

They dramatically attempted to cheat the headsman by stabbing themselves after the trial, somehow passing down the line without intervention a single knife smuggled by Goujon.

Three of them died of their self-inflicted injuries. The other three went immediately to the guillotine.

“They were,” Carlyle concludes, “the Ultimi Romanorum … Sansculottism sprawls no more. The dormant lion has become a dead one; and now, as we see, any hoof may smite him.”

* According to A Popular History of France from the First Revolution to the Present Time, one of the decrees was abolition of the death penalty “except in the case of emigrants and forgers of assignats.”

** Other less treasonably culpable former Montagnards who had not cast their lot squarely with the Thermidorians were proscribed or otherwise cut off from power in the aftermath of the Prairal rebellion.

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1795: Antoine Quentin Fouquier-Tinville, Robespierre’s prosecutor

5 comments May 7th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1795, the attorney who had engineered the Terror was guillotined for engineering the Terror.

Antoine Quentin Fouquier de Tinville (English Wikipedia page | French), or just plain Fouquier-Tinville, had emerged during the Revolution from penurious obscurity to wrangle a jury foreman’s position courtesy of his connection to Camille Desmoulins. When Desmoulins ally Georges Danton spearheaded creation of a Revolutionary Tribunal (French link), Fouquier-Tinville drew the choice gig of Public Prosecutor.

From that perch, he would supply the arbitrary exercises of the Committee of Public Safety their (increasingly scanty) scaffolding of formal legality in Paris’s greatest show trials.

Charlotte Corday.

The Girondists.

Marie Antoinette.

Fouquier-Tinville’s own onetime benefactors, Danton and Desmoulins. (He struggled to contain Danton’s rhetorical fireworks, as depicted in the 1983 film Danton — we see him plying his trade from about 3:29 of this clip.)

Heck … when the Terror ended, our good state’s attorney even signed off on the execution of Robespierre, with what must have been a lump in his throat. He was himself denounced within days, and narrowly preserved from the summary justice of his fellow-prisoners upon incarceration.

Naturally, like every criminal barrister since, Fouquier-Tinville’s defense was, hey, don’t blame me: the law made me do it. “I had only acted in the spirit of the laws passed by a Convention invested with all powers. Through the absence of its members [on trial], I find myself the head of a conspiracy I have never been aware of.”

Pity the lawyers.

This varietal of the only-following-orders defense did not impress in Fouquier-Tinville’s case; the Public Prosecutor had made the role too much his own.

I have been told by a gentleman who was at school with Fouquier, and has had frequent occasions of observing him at different periods since, that he always appeared to him to be a man of mild manners, and by no means likely to become the instrument of these atrocities; but a strong addiction to gaming having involved him in embarrassments, he was induced to accept the office of Public Accuser to the Tribunal, and was progressively led on from administering to the iniquity of his employers, to find a gratification in it himself.

And, indeed, he was condemned by his own hand. His lawyerly letter to the Convention during Danton’s trial — “the accused are behaving like madmen and demand the summoning of their witnesses … our judicial powers do not furnish us with any means of refusing” — duly elicited those heretofore absent powers, which the prosecutor immediately deployed to gag the defense.

Antoine Quentin Fouquier de Tinville, the sinister mediocrity who gave villainy the cover of law, was guillotined this morning in 1795 to the delight of the Paris mob: the last head to roll in a batch of 16.

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1795: Unspecified Robespierrists

1 comment January 25th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1795, a Balzac story La Comedie humaine reaches its climax as the tumbrils of the Thermidorian Reaction wind their way to the scaffold.

In “An Episode Under the Terror”, a mysterious man appears to a priest in hiding and prevails upon him to say a secret mass for the recently executed Louis XVI.

It transpires in an exchange between the two that the stranger’s own conscience is somehow troubled.

“Remember, my son, [said the abbe] that it is not enough to have taken no active part in the great crime; that fact does not absolve you. The men who might have defended the King and left their swords in their scabbards, will have a very heavy account to render to the King of Heaven — Ah! yes,” he added, with an eloquent shake of the head, “heavy indeed! — for by doing nothing they became accomplices in the awful wickedness—-”

“But do you think that an indirect participation will be punished?” the stranger asked with a bewildered look. “There is the private soldier commanded to fall into line — is he actually responsible?”

We have no more answer in the text than we have in life.

Spoiler (That You Saw Coming) Alert

The stranger returns on the anniversary of the king’s martyrdom, but he remains enigmatic, until the abbe is caught up in a crowd watching the procession to the guillotine.

“What is the matter?” [the abbe] asked Madame Ragon.

“Nothing,” she said; “it is only the tumbril cart and the executioner going to the Place Louis XV. Ah! we used to see it often enough last year; but to-day, four days after the anniversary of the twenty-first of January, one does not feel sorry to see the ghastly procession.”

“Why not?” asked the abbe. “That is not said like a Christian.”

“Eh! but it is the execution of Robespierre‘s accomplices. They defended themselves as long as they could, but now it is their turn to go where they sent so many innocent people.”

The crowd poured by like a flood. The abbe, yielding to an impulse of curiosity, looked up above the heads, and there in the tumbril stood the man who had heard mass in the garret three days ago.

“Who is it?” he asked; “who is the man with—-”

“That is the headsman,” answered M. Ragon.

Meaning (though unnamed as such by Balzac), the phenomenally prolific Sanson.

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1794: Maximilien Robespierre, Saint-Just and the Jacobin leadership

30 comments July 28th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1794, the curtain — and the blade — fell on the Terror.

Maximilien Robespierre, who had breakfasted the previous day as master of France, was guillotined this evening with his chief lieutenants and partisans.

His fall came as sudden and inevitable as his rise had been unpredictable.

Five years before, Robespierre was an unprosperous Arras attorney of fashionably liberal philosophies, and you wouldn’t have given a sou for the prospects of his being remembered five minutes after he died. Yet it would come that his inseparable lieutenant Saint-Just would remark with understatement, “The words we have spoken will never be forgotten on earth.”

The historic convocation of the Estates-General thrust him onto the political stage where he would make the dread name that follows him, starting off in the Revolution’s inception as a far-left deputy. He took a notable early stand against the death penalty, with several arguments that are quite familiar by our day:

The first obligation of a legislator is to form and preserve public morals, the source of all freedom, source of all social happiness. When in running to a particular goal he turns away from this general and essential goal he commits the most vulgar and dire of errors. The king must thus present to the people the purest model of justice and reason. If in place of this powerful, calm and moderate severity that should characterize it they place anger and vengeance; if they spill human blood that they could spare and that they have no right to spread; if they spread out before the people cruel scenes and cadavers wounded by torture, it then alters in the hearts of citizens the ideas of the just and the unjust; they plant the seed in the midst of society of ferocious prejudices that will produce others in their turn. Man is no longer for man so sacred an object: we have a less grand idea of his dignity when public authority puts his life at risk. The idea of murder inspires less fear when the law itself gives the example and the spectacle. The horror of crime is diminished when it is punished by another crime. Do not confuse the effectiveness of a penalty with the excess of severity: the one is absolutely opposed to the other. Everything seconds moderate laws; everything conspires against cruel laws.

For Robespierre, it was an abomination for the nation to deal out death within its community, but his Rousseauan elevation of the collective and abstract People made extirpating existential threats to the community itself an altogether different matter.

The future tyrant’s anti-death penalty case for executing the deposed Louis XVI, flowing directly from those principles, makes interesting reading and is excerpted at length (all emphases added) here for its topicality:

When a nation has been forced to resort to the right of insurrection it returns to a state of nature as regards its tyrant. How can the latter invoke the social compact? He has annihilated it. The nation can preserve it still, if it thinks fit, in whatever concerns the interrelations of its citizens: but the effect of tyranny and insurrection is to break it entirely as regards the tyrant; it is to throw them into mutual war; the tribunals, the judiciary procedures, are made for the members of the city. … The right to punish the tyrant and that to dethrone him are the same thing. The one does not admit of different forms from the other. The tyrant’s trial is insurrection; his judgment is the fall of his power; his penalty, whatever the liberty of the people demands.

Peoples do not judge like judiciary courts. They pass no sentences; they hurl the thunderbolt. They do not condemn kings: they thrust them back into oblivion; and this justice is not inferior to that of courts. If they arm themselves against their oppressors for their own safety, why should they be bound to adopt a mode of punishing them which would be a new danger to themselves?

As for me, I abhor the penalty of death so lavish in your laws, and I have neither love nor hatred for Louis. Crimes only I hate. I have asked the Assembly, which you still call Constituent, for the abolition of the death penalty, and it is not my fault if the first principles of reason seem to it moral and political heresies. But if you never bethought yourselves to invoke them in favor of so many unfortunates whose offenses are less their own than those of the government, by what fatality do you remember them only to plead the cause of the greatest of all criminals? You ask an exception to the death penalty for him alone against whom it can be legitimate! Yes, the penalty of death generally is a crime, and for that reason alone, according to the indestructible principles of nature, it can be justified only in cases when it is necessary for the safety of individuals or the social body. Public safety never demands it against ordinary offenses, because society can always guard against them by other means and make the offender powerless to harm it. But a dethroned king in the bosom of a revolution which is anything but cemented by laws, a king whose name suffices to draw the scourge of war on the agitated nation, neither prison nor exile can render his existence immaterial to the public welfare: and this cruel exception to ordinary laws which justice approves can be imputed only to the nature of his crimes.

It is with regret that I utter this fatal truth. But Louis must die, because the country must live.

“Pity is treason.”

Months later, as head of the Committee of Public Safety — the Orwellian name harkens to the body’s power to judge who lay inside the community and who, lying outside, made war upon it — he would find an inexhaustible fifth column of kindred threats to the Revolution.

But Revolutionary France really was in a war for its survival, against external and internal foes alike. The monarchist for whom crime multiplied upon crime every day after the Tennis Court Oath has the easiest time of this period, for every step brings a new monstrosity. And it is well enough to call Robespierre illiberal, to shudder at his prim and icy persona.

But if the French Revolution’s liberte, egalite, fraternite is a legacy for celebration — as it is to much of the west, and much of the world — one must grapple with the place of this man and his methods.

Merely because they are the paths not taken, one hardly seems entitled to assume that at that tumultuous moment the rule of a constitutional monarchy heir to all the monstrosity of the ancien regime, the government of the Girondins who had launched the nearly fatal war against Austria, or that of Danton‘s haute bourgeoisie would necessarily have delivered France to a better place, or even a different one.

For a Dickens, Robespierre’s Terror is simply the appalling wrong turn of a high-minded movement. For Trotsky, “the Incorruptible”* is the admirable sword of France’s bourgeois revolution who effects the needful task of annihilating the feudal nobility, who presses fearlessly forward seeing that the only alternative is the slide into Bonaparte. Between the two lie many readings of the man.

Whether an aberration, a visionary, or a necessity, he waded a sea of blood for his frightening twins Virtue and Terror.

The fall of 9 Thermidor preceded Robespierre’s execution by a full — and very eventful — day. Arrested by the Convention, he was promptly liberated by his base in the Paris Commune which came within a whisker of overthrowing the Convention at that very moment. Instead, a frantic few hours of marshaling the armed power of the Revolution’s rival claimants to leadership ensued ending in a fray which saw the Robespierrists overpowered.

Robespierre was shot through the jaw in the process of signing an appeal to arms — some say a botched suicide, but a wound from the invading national guard is more generally believed; at any rate, the bloodied document with his signature begun “R-o-” is one of the age’s most arresting historical artifacts.

Horrifically injured, he lay most of the following day exposed for public derision before he was hauled with his party to the guillotine, re-erected in the Place de la Revolution for this most memorable execution. In Carlyle’s florid (and free) narration:

Robespierre lay in an anteroom of the Convention hall, while his Prison-escort was getting ready; the mangled jaw bound up rudely with bloody linen: a spectacle to men. He lies stretched on a table, a deal box his pillow; the sheath of the pistol is still clenched convulsively in his hand. Men bully him, insult him: his eyes still indicate intelligence; he speaks no word. … -O reader, can thy hard heart hold out against that? His trousers were nankeen; the stockings had fallen down over the ankles. He spake no more word in this world.

Fouquier had but to identify; his Prisoners being already Out of Law.** At four in the afternoon, never before were the streets of Paris seen so crowded. From the Palais de Justice to the Place de la Revolution … it is one dense stirring mass; all windows crammed; the very roofs and ridge-tiles budding forth human Curiosity, in strange gladness. … All eyes are on Robespierre’s Tumbril, where he, his jaw bound in dirty linen, with his half-dead Brother, and half-dead Henriot, lie shattered; their “seventeen hours” of agony about to end. The Gendarmes point their swords at him, to show the people which is he. A woman springs on the Tumbril; clutching the side of it with one hand; waving the other Sibyl-like; and exclaims: “The death of thee gladdens my very heart, m’enivre de joie;” Robespierre opened his eyes; “Scelerat, go down to Hell, with the curses of all wives and mothers!” — At the foot of the scaffold, they stretched him on the ground till his turn came. Lifted aloft, his eyes again opened; caught the bloody axe. Samson wrenched the coat off him; wrenched the dirty linen from his jaw: the jaw fell powerless, there burst from him a cry; — hideous to hear and see. Samson, thou canst not be too quick!

Samson’s work done, there bursts forth shout on shout of applause. Shout, which prolongs itself not only over Paris, but over France, but over Europe, and down to this generation. Deservedly, and also undeservedly. O unhappiest Advocate of Arras, wert thou worse than other Advocates? Stricter man, according to his Formula, to his Credo and his Cant, of probities, benevolences, pleasures-of-virtue, and such like, lived not in that age. A man fitted, in some luckier settled age, to have become one of those incorruptible barren Pattern-Figures, and have had marble-tablets and funeral-sermons. His poor landlord, the Cabinet-maker in the Rue Saint-Honore, loved him; his Brother died for him. May God be merciful to him, and to us!

Part of the Themed Set: Thermidor.

* Even his enemies agreed — sometimes adding it to the bill of particulars against him — that Robespierre lived a life of personal moderation; he lived as a boarder with a working-class family, and disdained to avail the politician’s typical harvest of political graft.

** The Convention had decreed Robespierre’s outlawry when he escaped custody; his immediate execution was, of course, akin to the logic he had once turned against the king.

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1794: The last cart of the Terror, not including the Marquis de Sade

July 27th, 2008 Headsman

July 27th, 1794 — the 9th of Thermidor, year II — is inscribed in history as the day Robespierre fell, when a parliamentary coup d’etat between the right and the remnants of the parties he had destroyed shouted him down as he readied the National Convention for his next purge.

This scene from the multinational bicentennial epic La Revolution Francaise conflates the events of 8 Thermidor — when Robespierre delivered a menacing two-hour address but provoked outcries by failing to name the deputies he implicated in “conspiracy” — and 9 Thermidor, when Robespierre’s lieutenant Saint-Just was shouted down from the podium and Robespierre ended up staggering through the benches appealing against the imprecations of his colleagues as his arrest is decreed.

Even as the month of Thermidor’s eponymous epochal event was unfolding, the daily gears of Revolutionary justice were turning: the usual haul of unfortunates condemned, including seven women from the previous day’s batch of Saint Lazare prison conspirators who had pled their bellies to buy a day.

That day was one day too little.

Stanley Loomis is overtly hostile to the Revolution, but his middlebrow sensibilities are well-tuned for the pathos of the scene:

Indifferent to the storms that were raging in the Convention, the Revolutionary Tribunal continued to go about its implacable business with cold efficiency. The arrest of its President [the Robespierrist Rene-Francois Dumas (the link is French), who was taken in the courtroom] startled no one. Since its inception that court had been witness to too many dramas to be astonished any further. Dumas quietly departed; the trials continued. Forty-two prisoners were sentenced to death. By four o’clock their hair had been cut and they were ready to be sent on their way. But Samson, aware of disturbances in the St. Antoine quarter of the city, suggested to [prosecutor] Fouquier[-Tinville] that the executions be deferred until the morrow.*

“Justice must take its course,” snapped the Public Prosecutor. “Do your work.”

And so the last “batch” lumbered off in the direction of the Faubourg St. Antoine and the Place de la Nation. With the exception of the Princesse de Monaco, they were nearly all obscure and humble members of the petite bourgeoisie. Hanriot, waving his sabre, conducted the procession to the place of execution. By seven o’clock that evening, as the minutes of the military escort poignantly show, the unfortunate victims, who had been so close to deliverance, had all been executed.

Henriot proceeded directly from his escort service to the Convention to liberate Robespierre for the night’s brief pitched battle against the Convention, and here we take our leave of them, for now. We shall meet both of them on the scaffold tomorrow.

Not on the wagon** with the Princess of Monaco was a man whom Loomis would have pitied rather less.

The bloated, penniless 54-year-old fruit of an ancient noble house, Donatien Alphonse François de Sade, Marquis de Sade had, in the most recent chapter of his astounding career, navigated the Revolution in the improbable guise of a proletarian section head and revolutionary tribunal judge, until his own arrest late the previous year.

This day, de Sade’s name was on a list of prisoners to be seized from Madelonnettes Prison — “Sade, former count, captain of Capet’s guards in 1792, has corresponded with enemies of the republic,” it said — which he had occupied until a recent transfer to Picpus, a monastery converted into a prison adjacent to the guillotine’s place at the Place de la Nation. Whether the result of another of the many bureaucratic snafus we’ve witnessed this week or a well-placed bribe from his friend and/or mistress Marie-Constance Quesnet, the guards were in the wrong place, didn’t find him, and didn’t care to dig any further.

Three months later, he was — for the last time in his life — a free man.

One could hardly say that the Revolution made the author of Justine the man he so (in)famously was — but having lived within sight of the blade that might any day be called upon to chop off his own head, and the entire tableau of the years preceding, left their impression. Hundreds of bodies from the Terror were stuffed in the unpropitious clay of the makeshift jail’s yards under de Sade’s cell. “Those few months in the shadow of the guillotine did me more harm than all the years of my incarceration under the King,” he wrote a friend.

According to Writing the Orgy: Power and Parody in Sade, Revolutionary France would inexorably influence his subsequent work,

strangely mixing real memories with very Sadean embellishments … Plots, betrayals, denunciations, beheadings: these fictional motifs and Sadean phantasies are linked with the reality and the imaginary of the Revolution.

Good for what ails you.

* Sanson’s diaries — a memoir of the family business constructed by the famous executioner’s grandson — leave off before the events of Thermidor and suggest that the hecatombs of the Terror were taking their toll on the aging headsman. Other accounts of this day have the tumbrils stopped in the streets by clemency-inclined onlookers, only to be forcibly extricated by Henriot.

** Also not (really) on the cart: the fictional occultist Zanoni, who is beheaded in this batch in the novel of the same title by legendary awful writer Edward George “it was a dark and stormy night” Bulwer-Lytton.

Part of the Themed Set: Thermidor.

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1794: Loizerolles and others for the Conspiracy of the Prisons

1 comment July 26th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1794, the Jacobin government struck what would prove to be its last blow against the “Conspiracy of the Prisons.”

The “conspiracy” was really a cover story for Robespierre‘s boys to wield their purifying torch against prisons and (of course) tighten the grip of authority by wild reference to treasonable plots abroad.

Supposedly, the prisons had birthed a scheme to effect a mass escape further to some sort of counterrevolutionary insurrection, or assassination of Robespierre. Marvelously, these conspiracies simultaneously spanned most all of Paris’ prisons, and their “authors” formed a dominant demographic among the Terror’s last tumbrils as the authorities purged each prison in turn.

While we have tarried to profile select victims individually this week, we have in fact repeatedly met so-called prison conspirators.

Luxembourg Prison — whose warders had concocted the earlier “conspiracy” involving Camille Desmoulins’ wife — had been purged repeatedly earlier in the month; its last spasm swept up the Noailles women.

An efficient detour to the Carmelite Monastery converted by revolutionary Paris into another gaol netted Alexandre de Beauharnais.

And the first batch of St. Lazare Prison felled Andre Chenier, where, as elsewhere, dozens were punished for some impressively villainous designs.

Being convicted of having declared themselves the enemies of the republic, by keeping up communications with the enemies of the state; by furnishing them with assistance; by participating in the plots, conspiracies, and assassinations of the tyrant and his wife, against the people; by conspiring in the maison d’arret (lock-up house), called Lazare, to escape, and to dissolve, by the assassination and murder of the representatives of the people, and more especially of the members of the committees of public safety and general security, the republican government, and to re-establish royality; — in fine, by wishing to destroy the unity and indivisibility of the republic.

(The march of the penal inquisitors through the plots is covered in a French Wikipedia page.)

Charles-Louis Muller’s 19th century painting of the Saint Lazare Prison “conspirators” being summoned to their doom. Seated in the center is Andre Chenier.

Each of these famous figures is a noticeable face among dozens of hapless wretches, largely drawn from the Third Estate and often laughably implausible escape artists and assassins — such as, among this day’s victims, an 80-year-old priest. The most poignant fate among the many forgotten threads threads of life clipped short is undoubtedly one Jean Simon Loizerolles, who was imprisoned with his son.

On the 7th Thermidor, about four o’clock, p.m., the bailiff of the tribunal presented himself at the prison with the mortuary list, or, in other words, the death-warrant.

Loizerolles was called for: it was Loizerolles, junior, whom death surrounded. Loizerolles, the father, did not hesitate to present himself; and, comparing his sixty-one years to the twenty-two years of his son, he determined to give him life a second time: the father went down, and was conducted to the Conciergerie.

He there received the bill of accusation, drawn up by order of the Committee of Public Safety, and headed Prison Conspiracy.

This bill bore the name of Loizerolles, junior.

The next day the father appeared for examination, with his twenty-five companions of misfortune.

The bill of accusation, which was joined to the depositions, stated that it was Francois Simon Loizerolles, junior, aged twenty-two.

The declaration of the sentence, prepared in anticipation upon the bill, bore the same designations. The recorder contented himself with effacing the name of Francois, and putting above it Jean.

Finally, the questions submitted, for the sake of form, to the jury, and drawn up in anticipation upon the same bill of accusation, contained the names and the designation mentioned in the accusation. But, at the time of the trial, when the charge was made to the jury, Coffinhal took care to efface the name of Francois, to substitute that of Jean, and to erase te word son, which was replaced by the word father. He rudely altered the two figures from twenty-two to sixty-one, and added the former profession of the father, which the accusation did not state.

And Jean Simon Loizerolles, against whom there was no accusation, was put to death on the 8th Thermidor.

Loizerolles is renowned for nothing in life save the touching valor of his death, but his name was a watchword for paternal devotion in France in the 19th century; Jadin wrote a short opera to his honor, and Victor Hugo references Loizerolles (bizarrely side by side with Robespierre’s younger brother) in Les Miserables as the sort of paragon of loyalty disdained by a gauche skeptic. But the gambit worked: Loizerolles junior survived the last days of the Terror, and was later pensioned by Charles X.

For every triumph, there were countless tragedies. The prisoners had wind of the enterprise to decimate their number days before; an anonymous account printed here (also the source of the Loizerolles story) describes a ramping-up of abuses great and petty in an effort to provoke a rising that would license a bloodbath, and the fear and desperation of the prisoners as death circled them.

Our melancholy and dejected hearts prepared themselves for death. The prison appeared surrounded by a funeral veil, and the death-like silence which pervaded it produced a dreadful feeling of misery in its inmates. Games and amusements were banished from the grounds, and our cadaverous countenances afforded an index of our afflicted souls; the refectory, which was wont to inspire a sentiment of cheerfulness, became a meeting of moving spectres, who quitted each other without exchanging a word.

The prisoners at St. Lazare could no longer indulge in illusions on the fate that awaited them … old age and infancy had ceased to be respected; all were alike condemned as guilty of the project of escape; and the man who was the most harmless and the most devoted to his country was no longer exempt from accusation.

But there was a small favor: a third repetition of the scene was postponed two days, which turned out to be all the difference between life and death.

[T]he Robespierrists, delighted in perpetuating our terrors, announced that the tragic scene would be renewed on the 10th.

The two days which we passed in anticipation of our destiny were two days of unmitigated agony: a general mourning reigned through our asylum; our eyes, in fancy, beheld on all sides the palpitating and struggling bodies of the victims of Robespierre, and of the villainy of his agents; tranquility quite abandoned us; death was hovering over our heads; and the prison appeared, to our diseased fancies, like a sea of blood, on which we had suffered shipwreck …

In this deplorable situation we saw no end to our sorrows but in death; and, however terrifying the grim visitant may naturally be, yet we deemed his arrival too long delayed, and invoked his coming, while we regretted that we had not been of the number of the first victims. When, about ten o’clock, p.m., of the 9th Thermidor, it was reported in the prison, that Robespierre was formally accused, the news, which had been brought by three new prisoners from without, inspired distrust, and savoured too much of the miraculous to be easily believed.

The following morning … the information was confirmed … in such a positive and circumstantial manner that we could no longer entertain a doubt of its truth.

It may easily be conceived how sudden was the change which was effected in the prison of St. Lazare: the prisoners began, for the irst time, since the 5th, to breathe more freely; their hearts, which had been so long cast down, received a fresh inspiration; their countenances cleared up; the full use of their suspended faculties was restored; and the images of death, which had affrighted them, were dissipated; and if they could have forgotten the assassination of their companions, they might have entirely lost the recollection of their misfortunes.

The death of Robespierre, and the close of his dark crimes, were the subject of an epigram, which an individual wrote upon the wall; it describes the monster too accurately, not to find a place here:

Il s’abreuva du sang d’un million de victimes, —
Il parla de vertus, et commit tous les crimes.

A thousand victims slaked his thirst for blood,–
He spoke of virtues while he swam in crimes.

Part of the Themed Set: Thermidor.

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Themed Set: Thermidor

21 comments July 22nd, 2008 Headsman

Paris, 1794

It is Thermidor — Month of Heat — by that queer artifact of the times, the Revolutionary calendar, and in the blistering summer the guillotine rots its own scaffold.

It is the climax of that emblematic moment of the French Revolution, often wrongly standing to casual observation as synonymous with the entire revolution. Jarring indeed how brief the span of those pregnant, dangerous days, that upon the storming of the Bastille the guillotine had not yet been erected and from that traditional birthdate of the Revolution were eclipsed successively the Bourbon monarchy, the Constitutionalist Assembly, the Girondin liberals, Marat, Danton … culminating in the bloody hegemony of Robespierre and the fatal test between the Jacobins and their enemies.

By the spring and summer of 1794, Paris is delivered fully to Robespierre. “Terror,” he says, “is only justice prompt, severe and inflexible; it is then an emanation of virtue; it is less a distinct principle than a natural consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing wants of the country.” A blip on the screen chronologically, this period seems endless to those who survive it, and it reverberates endlessly to those who succeed it.

In this Revolution-era cartoon, legendary Parisian headsman Sanson, having run out of victims, guillotines himself.

For the next week, join Executed Today in 1794’s Month of Heat as day by day the Terror rages at its apex, inscrutably suffering citizens to live or die — until of a sudden it succumbs to its own rot.

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1794: Georges Danton and his followers

13 comments April 5th, 2008 Headsman

At twilight this date in 1794, the most magnetic and perhaps most statesmanlike politician of the French Revolution mounted the scaffold at the Place de la Revolution in the revolution — as described by the poet Arnault:

In the dying light of day the great leader seemed to be rising out of his tomb as much as preparing to descend into it. Never was anything more bold than that great athlete’s countenance, never anything more formidable than the look of that profile which seemed to defy the knife. That great head, even as it was about to fall, appeared to be in the act of dictating laws.

The famously ugly revolutionary had been the moving spirit overthrowing the monarchy of Louis XVI in 1792; as the firmest public minister holding up against the ensuing military collapse he was for a few weeks something close to the head of the government.

Some credit him with saving Paris from military rout or internal anarchy during this time; some implicate him in the horrific September Massacres — and it may well be that neither view is mistaken.

He was destroyed by his sometime ally Robespierre — Danton had returned from semi-retirement on his farm late in 1793 to engage this losing power struggle — and the two are easily, albeit simplistically, read as yin and yang in the Revolution.

Danton’s earthy, all-too-human joie de vivre — his carnality, profanity, arrogance, venality — opposed to cold-blooded, sexless Robespierre, “the Incorruptible”; Danton’s (arguable) far-seeing vision of Revolutionary France’s place in the wider world opposed to Robespierre’s bloodthirsty peccadilloes of “virtue”. For most observers, though by no means all, the comparison profits Danton. (Just see if France ever names a warship for Robespierre.)

“We must dare, and again dare, and forever dare.”

Like many before him, most especially the Girondins who had (fatally to both parties) scorned an alliance with the Dantonists, Danton sought to arrest the revolution where he stood. The confrontation that finished him was precipitated by Danton’s attempt — with the assistance of his longtime confederate Camille Desmoulins, the most notable of the other men to lose their heads this day — to apply the brake to the excesses of Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety, that lethal organ he himself established as a pillar of order for a time of peril now abated. With the worst of the very real dangers to the Revolution checked, Danton in the Convention and Desmoulins in his fiery journalistic writings proposed to rein in the bloodbath and overturn the power of the sans-culottes.

The time was not yet ripe for the former, although the far-left Hebertist party preceded Danton to the guillotine by a few weeks. In this clip from the 1983 film Danton (review | another | still another (pdf)), Robespierre — who had long resisted denouncing Danton, but did it with characteristic gusto once he committed to the course — turns the terrified Convention against the title character:

Danton’s action in those last days seems vacillating, uncertain; fate devours him. For Georg Buchner in Danton’s Death (here it is free in the original German), he’s paralyzed by the contradictions and uncertainties of an unknown new world in its birth pangs, despairing as all his good-natured philosophies drench themselves in gore.

He roused himself one last time for a ferocious and hopeless defense before the Revolutionary Tribunal, coming near enough to swinging the mob in his favor that the Convention felt obliged to vote a measure to gag him.*

He went to his death this day in full character, making the most of his last turn on that stage — strutting, jesting,** boastful to the very end, prophesying (accurately) Robespierre’s imminent demise. He was the last to lose his head, having seen Desmoulins and his fellows die before him, “with such coolness as does not belong to man,” the headsman Sanson recalled. His last words were an instruction to the executioner: “Show my head to the people. It will be worth it.”

* Later codified into a regulation preventing any prisoner mounting a defense, the law would boomerang against its authors when Robespierre’s cadre was hailed before the Tribunal and condemned without a hearing.

** Another in the doomed party, Fabre d’Eglantine, was a writer who on the day of the execution complained of the loss of his verses, vers, a French word also meaning “worms.” Danton observed that he’d soon be making plenty more vers.

On this day..

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