1794: Elisabeth of France, sister of the king

5 comments May 10th, 2013 Headsman

The 25-strong batch dispatched to the guillotine on the Place de la Revolution during the Terror on this date in 1794 included Princess Elisabeth, the sister of the late guillotined King Louis XVI.

Princess Elisabeth (English Wikipedia entry | French) was the staunch conservative* of her family’s generation and not afraid to advertise it.

Required by the revolutionary tribunal to identify herself, she retorted (since her brother’s death passed the succession to the imprisoned child Louis XVII), “I am called Elizabeth Marie de France, sister of Louis XVI, aunt of Louis XVII, your King.” The papers just reported that she said “Elizabeth Marie.”

This fate cannot have surprised her: her correspondence anticipates a bloody reckoning with the revolutionary “monsters from hell” from years earlier, and reflects the figure in the royal household pushing the king and queen on immoderate courses like their famous attempted escape. (Elisabeth posed as a maid with the fugitive party.) “The Assembly is still the same; the monsters are the masters,” she wrote in February 1790. “The king, and others, from the integrity of their own natures, cannot bring themselves to see the evil such as it is.”

Elisabeth was nevertheless quite attached to her brother and her sister-in-law, and swore an oath to keep with Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette during the royal couple’s harrowing attempt to ride out the revolution. She courageously quaffed the every terror that family endured all the way to the dregs; when the mob stormed the Tuileries on June 20, 1792, she was momentarily mistaken for the queen and thereby put in peril of her life. “Do not undeceive them!” she warned an associate who was about to save her by correcting the misapprehension.

Elisabeth’s correspondence shows her not “merely” self-sacrificing but a keen observer of events who pushed her brother to rein in the revolution by force … and pushed her exiled brother the Comte d’Artois** to do likewise. For Elisabeth, bloodshed would be necessary, and desirable sooner than later — in contrast to the national-reconciliation stuff the doomed king was still hoping for.

By the end Paris of the Terror probably didn’t really need any better reason to cut off Elisabeth’s head than the fact of her bloodlines — “sister of the tyrant.” There are enough little hagiographies out there concerning Elisabeth’s piety and loyalty, however, that some think she should eventually be proposed as a candidate for Catholic canonization.

* She might as well be: royals couldn’t save themselves even by going full Republican.

** The future King Charles X.

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1940: Nikolai Yezhov, terror namesake

5 comments February 4th, 2012 Headsman

In the terrible years of the Yezhovshchina, I spent seventeen months in lines outside the prison in Leningrad [queuing to deliver food to or get news of imprisoned loved ones: in her case, her son Lev]. One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there):
‘And can you describe this?’
And I said: ‘I can.’
Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.

-Poet Anna Akhmatova

On this date in 1940, the first name in Stalin’s terror got his just deserts.

Well. The first name after Stalin’s own, a point energetically made by Nikolai Yezhov’s daughter* in her fruitless post-Soviet attempts to rehabilitate the man.

But clearing a fellow’s name is a tough task when that name is the mother tongue’s very metonym for political persecution: the Soviet Union’s mind-bending late-1930s witch hunt for internal enemies, known as the Yezhovshchina.

From late 1936, when he eliminated his predecessor Genrikh Yagoda (later executed, of course), until his own fall from power in at the end of 1938, Yezhov presided over the apex of Stalinist terror, averaging hundreds of political killings daily — perhaps north of 600,000 for the two-year period, plus a like number disappeared into the Gulag’s freezers. (Just browse this here site’s ‘1937’ tag for a taste.)

Departments and regions received quotas for executions as if they were tractor factories. Security officials well understood that their own heads would be next on the block for any perceived shortcoming; Yezhov had thousands of them arrested, too. (pdf)**

We are launching a major attack on the Enemy; let there be no resentment if we bump someone with an elbow. Better that ten innocent people should suffer than one spy get away. When you chop wood, chips fly.

-Yezhov

The “Bloody Dwarf” — surely there is some of Yezhov in the Master and Margarita character Azazello, the Satan/Stalin figure’s murderous and diminutive attendant — rode this tiger unto his own destruction.


Stalin and other Soviet VIPs with (front right) Nikolai Yezhov.

The same photo ‘updated’ after Yezhov’s fall. (For a similarly chilling photographic disappearance, see Vladimir Clementis.)

As Yezhov had once displaced and killed his mentor Yagoda, so Yezhov’s own nominal underling Beria would displace Yezhov.

Power in the NKVD shifted towards Beria over the course of 1938 until Yezhov’s own resignation that November. The former boss was quietly arrested the next April and barely troubled his skilled torturers before copping to the usual litany of official self-denunciations: corruption, economic sabotage and “wrecking”, treasonable collaboration with the Germans, plus a bisexual personal life. (That last one was true.)

Bound for historical infamy, Yezhov salvaged a shred of dignity in the last, when he was “tried” a few hours before death and renounced those confessions — albeit from the twisted standpoint of a man still unquestioningly committed to the man and the system that had destroyed him.

It is better to die, but to leave this earth as an honorable man and to tell nothing but the truth at the trial. At the preliminary investigation I said that I was not a spy, that I was not a terrorist, but they didn’t believe me and applied to me the strongest beating. During the 25 years of my party work I have fought honorably against enemies and have exterminated them. I have committed crimes for which I might well be executed … But those crimes which are imputed to me by the indictment in my case I did not commit …

My fate is obvious. My life, naturally, will not be spared since I myself have contributed to this at my preliminary investigation. I ask only one thing: shoot me quietly, without tortures …Tell Stalin that I shall die with his name on my lips.

And indeed, Yezhov knew from plenty of personal experience how this script ended. It was called the Yezhovshchina for a reason.

The judges pretended to deliberate for half an hour. Ezhov fainted at the verdict, then scrawled a petition for mecy; it was read out over the telephone to the Kremlin and rejected. Ezhov was taken in the dead of night to a slaughterhouse he himself had built near the Lubianka. Dragged screaming to a special room with a sloping cement floor and a log-lined wall, he was shot by the NKVD’s chief executioner, Vasili Blokhin. Beria gave Stalin a list of 346 of Ezhov’s associates to be shot. Sixty of them were NKVD officers, another fifty were relatives and sexual partners. (From Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him

* Natalia Khayutina is actually Yezhov’s adoptive daughter. Her birth parents were killed … in the Yezhovschina.

** “I purged 14,000 chekists,” Yezhov later said. “But my guilt lies in the fact that I did not purge enough of them.”

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1793: 213 or so Lyonnaise

Add comment December 22nd, 2011 Headsman

Upon learning of the recent Republican capture of Toulon from the British and anti-revolutionary allies — a military achievement authored by a 24-year-old artillerist by the name of Napoleon Bonaparte — Joseph Fouche dispatched the following missive from the city where he his iron-fisted occupation was earning the epithet “Executioner of Lyon(s)”

Despite showing himself a ferocious Jacobin during the Terror, the Machiavellian Fouche helped author Robespierre‘s downfall and later became ennobled as the Duke of Otranto under Bonaparte. Needled by the Corsican about having voted for Louis XVI’s execution, Otranto aptly riposted, “Yes, sire; and that is the first service I had the honour of rendering your majesty!”

Joseph Fouche to Collot d’Herbois
22nd December 1793

And we likewise, my friend, have contributed to the surrender of Toulon, by spreading terror amongst the traitors who had entered the town, and by exposing to their view the dead bodies of thousands of their accomplices.

The war will be at an end if we know how to profit by this memorable victory; let us show ourselves terrible, that we may not fear becoming weak or cruel; let us annihilate in our anger, and at one single blow, every conspirator, every traitor, that we may not feel the pain, the long torture of punishing them as Kings would do.

Let us follow the example of nature in the exercise of justice. Let us be avenged as a nation, let us strike as quick as lightning, and let even the ashes of our enemies disappear from the land of liberty.

Let the perfidious and ferocious English be assailed from every quarter; let the whole republic turn into a volcano, and pour forth the devouring lava upon them: may the infamous island that produced those monsters, who no longer belong to the human species, be hurled for ever in the waves.

Farewell, my friend: tears of joy gush from my eyes, and overflow my heart. The courier is setting off. I shall write to you by the post.

FOUCHE

P.S. We have but one means of celebrating our victory. We shall this evening send 213 rebels to the place of execution: our loaded cannons are ready to salute them.

(Translation primarily as rendered in the London Times, July 18, 1815)

Whether this horrifying last bit of revolutionary braggadocio was in fact effected does not seem to be quite clear. This book claims that Fouche had 192 executed that day for the amusement of a party of Jacobins and prostitutes, which has the suspicious whiff of propaganda about it.

Hubert Cole, in Fouche: The Unprincipled Patriot reckons it “only” 67, with Fouche routinely inflating his atrocity figures a la military body counts for the benefit of ardent revolutionaries in Paris.

The use of cannon loaded with anti-personnel grapeshot — condemned tied together in pairs and then indiscriminately blasted; troops on hand to finish off survivors with bayonets — was an innovation in death-dealing technology that the National Convention did not appreciate, and Fouche was obliged to return to the more decorous methods of regular firing squads and that newfangled beheading machine.

* Not to be confused with Nazi torturer Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon. We hope the good people of Lyon will not require too many more synonymous sobriquets.

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1793: Jean-Sylvain Bailly, moonstruck

Add comment November 12th, 2011 Headsman

See Bailly, likewise of Paris, time-honoured Historian of Astronomy Ancient and Modern. Poor Bailly, how thy serenely beautiful Philosophising, with its soft moonshiny clearness and thinness, ends in foul thick confusion — of Presidency, Mayorship, diplomatic Officiality, rabid Triviality, and the throat of everlasting Darkness! Far was it to descend from the heavenly Galaxy to the Drapeau Rouge: beside that fatal dung-heap, on that last hell-day, thou must ‘tremble,’ though only with cold, ‘de froid.’ Speculation is not practice: to be weak is not so miserable; but to be weaker than our task. Wo the day when they mounted thee, a peaceable pedestrian, on that wild Hippogriff of a Democracy; which, spurning the firm earth, nay lashing at the very stars, no yet known Astolpho could have ridden!

Carlyle

On this date in 1793, French astronomer turned revolutionary Jean-Sylvain Bailly was guillotined during the Paris Terror.

Bailly ditched a family trade in the arts — his father was a supervisor at the Louvre — and turned his gaze skyward.

Studying astronomy under Lacaille, Bailly made a quick splash in astronomical circles with meticulous work on Halley’s Comet and the moons of Jupiter. He was inducted into the French Academy of Sciences while still in his twenties. Not quite the guy every schoolchild knows, but a significant scientist in his time. As one twentieth-century reviewer put it,*

Bailly was not a great thinker or the discoverer of new concepts; no case can be made for placing his name beside those of Newton, Leibnitz, and Laplace. But he should not be denied a niche among the numerous competent and persevering work-a-day scientists who, perhaps, in the long run make possible the achievements of a few great men. His observations and reductions, his application of a mathematical discipline to the movements of the heavenly bodies, and his detailed publications had brought him, by 1766, considerable credit among fellow scientists.

His “considerable credit” in the public sphere, enhanced by his widely-admired writing, set him up for election to the Estates-General in 1789. Indeed, Bailly was elected to head the body’s Third Estate.

On June 20th of that pregnant year, days after the Estates-General had constituted itself a National Assembly with ambitions far outstripping the limited purpose of revenue collection the king intended them for, Louis XVI locked the delegates out of their meeting-room.

Bailly, in consequence, would lead one of the pivotal actions of the embryonic French Revolution. “I do not need to tell you in what a grievous situation the Assembly finds itself,” he said to the assembly reconvened at a nearby tennis court. “I propose that we deliberate on what action to take under such tumultuous circumstances.” The result of that deliberation was the Tennis Court Oath.


Detail view (click for the full image) of Jean-Sylvain Bailly administering the Tennis Court Oath, in Jacques-Louis David‘s sketch of the event.

When the Paris provost — an archaic municipal office — was shot by the mob on Bastille Day, Bailly became the City of Light’s first mayor.

But as with other principals of the Revolution’s earliest stirrings, like Bailly’s ally Lafayette, the man was left behind by the rapid progress of events. He’d been two years retired out of public service in Nantes when he was hailed before the Revolutionary Tribunal on the preposterous charge of having conspired in Louis XVI’s attempted flight and guillotined on that basis.

A lunar crater — the largest crater visible from earth — is appropriately named after this prolific observer of the heavens.

* Edwin Burrows Smith, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Series, Vol. 44, No. 4 (1954).

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1937: Pavel Vasiliev, peasant poet

Add comment July 16th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1937, Elena Aleksandrovna Vasilieva arrived to Moscow’s Lefortovo Prison to visit her husband, “peasant poet” Pavel Vasiliev.

“He’s been transferred to another place,” she was told.

He had been: six feet under, that very day.

Vasiliev hailed from a Cossack family in Kazakhstan, and he would fight his short life’s literary battles with a pugnacity reflecting his youthful work as a sailor and gold miner in Siberia. He was renowned for his boozing and carousing.

The early 20th century “peasant” literary movement was just the place for him.

While the Futurists waxed eloquent over the wonders of the new machine age, the peasant writers and poets were moved by a strong revulsion for industrialization … [and glorified the village and longed to return to the simple life of rural Russia. At the same time the futility of their dream was evident even to them, and their writings are often of a tragic bent.

And bents tended towards tragedy in the 1930s.

A little too outspoken for his own good, Vasiliev openly defended Nikolay Bukharin (arrested in February 1937) as “the conscience of peasant Russia,” and characterized the politically expedient denunciations made by fellow scribblers as “pornographic scrawls on the margins of Russian literature.”

It’s a remark that would age a lot better than the man who uttered it.

The admiration of many contemporaries — Pasternak considered Vasiliev brilliant (see this Russian biography; most of the information about Vasiliev online is in Russian) — could hardly aid a man coming under official fire for “kulak bohemian ideology.” Vasiliev did prison stints (Russian again) in the early 1930s for counter-revolutionary writing, and then for “malicious hooliganism” after whaling on a former friend who had denounced him in print.

I accept the title of a rumbler,
If the brattle of gusli is thunder.**

Pavel scorned the warning, leaving his widowed Elena to husband his many unpublished verses until they could finally be published (and the poet rehabilitated) in the 1950s, after Stalin died.

* The most famous poet of this school was Sergei Yesenin, whose death at the end of a hangman’s rope at age 30 is unfortunately not eligible for this site … since Yesenin put up the rope himself. Live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse.

** Thanks to Sonechka for the translation assist.

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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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1793: Madame du Barry, who hated to go

5 comments December 8th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1793, Madame du Barry — shrieking pitiably in terror — was guillotined in Paris.

Versaille costume dramas have made great hay with the courtesan who became the mistress of Louis XV, and her catty court rivalry with Marie Antoinette. (Madame Tussaud’s still-on-display Sleeping Beauty figure was also created way back in 1763 in her likeness.)

More portraits of Madame du Barry here.

The sovereign’s bed implied a station of wealth and extravagance, but the low birth that caused Marie to turn up her nose didn’t much help this day’s victim standing with the Jacobins.

Poor Madame du Barry, at 50 years of age, had not lost an ounce of her considerable zest for life … and her apparently ingenuous joie de vivre while the Revolution raged looks somewhere between innocent and daft.

While nobles were scrambling to get out of France, the Comtesse born Jeanne Bécu shuttled back and forth over the English Channel in 1792 to settle her jewelry accounts … and decided to stay in France, returning after the September Massacres no less. Later, she would detail to her gaolers where she had stashed her baubles around her estate, in the delusion that they could buy her life — or at least, “did not each word give her a second of time?”*

She’s remembered for the uncommon scene she made being hauled to the guillotine this date — in a time when the scaffold’s pageantry demanded a stoic public dignity from the guillotine’s victims, the Comtesse came apart, and begged the crowd for her life so frantically and heart-wrenchingly that the executioners felt hurried to dispatch her lest the scene turn against them.

Even to the last, hopeless second she implored Sanson,

Encore un moment, monsieur le bourreau, un petit moment.**

One could make the case that if more clients of the national razor had displayed such naked humanity to onlookers, the guillotine‘s technical and social capacity for mass butchery might have been lessened.

Whether true or not, she gives us a glimpse, oddly unusual in these pages, of unadulterated fright — of that visceral instinct to cling to life, even under the blade, even for one little moment more.

Dostoyevsky, who knew whereof he spoke would write in The Idiot,

After all this honour and glory, after having been almost a Queen, she was guillotined by that butcher, Samson. She was quite innocent, but it had to be done, for the satisfaction of the fishwives of Paris. She was so terrified, that she did not understand what was happening. But when Samson seized her head, and pushed her under the knife with his foot, she cried out: ‘Wait a moment! wait a moment, monsieur!’ Well, because of that moment of bitter suffering, perhaps the Saviour will pardon her other faults, for one cannot imagine a greater agony.

Spare a thought for that moment of bitter suffering, next time you … uh, dine on cauliflower?

* This line, obviously in the vein of her famous last request to the headsman, is from Memoirs of the Comtesse Du Barry, actually a 19th century work of historical fiction by Baron Etienne Leon Lamothe-Langon.

** “One moment more, executioner, one little moment!”

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1793: The Girondists

9 comments October 31st, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1793, in a revolutionary Paris where the machinery of the Terror was clattering to life, five tumbrils bore to the guillotine twenty former Girondist ministers to the National Convention — plus the corpse of their late colleague Dufriche de Valazé, who had cheated the executioner by killing himself.

Named for the region of Aquitaine from which their leading lights hailed, the Girondists (or Girondins) had in the compressed history of the Revolution ascended from fringe democratic party to governing party even as the political facts shifted under their feet. Finding themselves the conservative party in an assembly increasingly dominated by radical Montagnards and the Paris mob, the Girondists’ tactlessness and stubborn refusal to deal with Georges Danton after his (still historically murky) involvement in the riotous slaughter of prisoners during the September Massacre eroded their position.

As the terrible year of 1793 unfolded, the Girondins discovered themselves successively overthrown, expelled from the Convention, proscribed, and hunted. Though many more — Girondists and others — were to follow in their steps, the trial of these 21 before the Revolutionary Tribunal and subsequent guillotining, the first notable mass-execution of the Revolution, raised the curtain on the Terror.


L’ultime adieu des Girondins le 31 Octobre 1793, by Paul Delaroche

Decades later, the English historian Lord Acton remembered the faction’s doomed heroism.

[The Girondins] stood four months before their fall. During that memorable struggle, the question was whether France should be ruled by violence and blood, or by men who knew the passion for freedom. The Girondins at once raised the real issue by demanding inquiry into the massacres of September. It was a valid but a perilous weapon. There could be no doubt as to what those who had committed a thousand murders to obtain power would be capable of doing in their own defence.

Almost to the last moment Danton wished to avoid the conflict. Again and again they rejected his offers. Open war, said Vergniaud, is better than a hollow truce. Their rejection of the hand that bore the crimson stain is the cause of their ruin, but also of their renown. They were always impolitic, disunited, and undecided; but they rose, at times, to the level of honest men.

They were easily beaten and mercilessly destroyed, and no man stirred to save them. At their fall liberty perished; but it had become a feeble remnant in their hands, and a spark almost extinguished. Although they were not only weak but bad, no nation ever suffered a greater misfortune than that which befell France in their defeat and destruction.

That Pierre Vergniaud who scorned the hollow truce was the last to mount the scaffold this day — a shining orator of the Revolution who captured the calamity engulfing his nation in another well-remembered aphorism, “the Revolution devours its own children.”

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1793: Marie Antoinette

16 comments October 16th, 2008 Headsman

This afternoon in Paris, 1793, the French Revolution devoured the Queen.

Thirteen-year-old Madame Antoine — a year before marriage, and rebranding as Marie Antoinette. A vast gallery of her portraiture awaits here.

Among the most emblematic death penalty victims in history, Marie Antoinette — the “widow Capet,” as she was styled in egalite, after the guillotine shortened her husband — had the bad luck to personify the decadence of the ancien regime under the hegemony of the sans-culotte.

(And, of course, the good luck to be born heir to all the perks of absolutism she enjoyed for the first thirty-plus years of life. So, you know: a mixed bag.)

Those infamous excesses — and her infamous alleged bon mot, “let them eat cake” — are said to have been greatly exaggerated, nothing that everyone wasn’t doing, nothing that wasn’t understandable under the circumstances.

She had a gift, it seems, for accumulating to her personal reputation the outrage incurred by every gross and petty indulgence of the old order. And she had a popular press, the libelles, ready to embroider them salaciously.

Poor Marie.

Jacques-Louis David sketched this portrait of a haggard Marie Antoinette en route to the guillotine.

Cruel, wanton, senseless … her death was all of these, but then many others in the Terror suffered the same, as many others had under the Bourbons.

As royal dynastic pairings go, she’d been dealt a bad hand.

Her mere presence in France was fruit of the controversial policy of alliance with the Austrian Habsburgs from the Seven Years’ War, and she was trundled off with her dowry and her teenage wiles to the foreign snakepit of Versailles just as the minister advancing that policy fell. Distrusted by the French as an Austrian catspaw, castigated by her family for her inadequacies thereto, socially expected to display conspicuous regal largesse during a budget crisis not of her making, and unable for the longest time to get a successful coition from her indifferent and/or impotent husband, it must have seemed to her some days like every play was a losing one.

She struggled to gain traction at court. But she would lose much more than influence.

I was a queen, and you took away my crown; a wife, and you killed my husband; a mother, and you deprived me of my children. My blood alone remains: take it, but do not make me suffer long. (WikiQuote)

Her bearing she kept forever: in a kangaroo court with a foreordained outcome where her imperious dignity still managed to turn aside an accusation of sexual abuse her son had been cajoled into supplying; on the scaffold, when she did not neglect courtesy to the executioner whose foot she trod:

“Monsieur, je vous demande pardon. Je ne l’ai pas fait exprès.”

For much more queenliness, Marie-Antoinette.org delivers what the url promises, in quantity. If this figure or this period appeals, be sure to browse its forums.

Naturally, the doomed queen has had plenty of attention from printed word as well:

A few books about Marie Antoinette

As well as less, er, traditional media.

Part of the Themed Set: Belles Epoque.

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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.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Innocent Bystanders,Known But To God,Mass Executions,Notable Jurisprudence,Public Executions,Treason,Women

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