September Massacres

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The September Massacres at the Salpêtrière

The September Massacres[1] were a wave of killings in Paris and other cities from 2–7 September 1792, during the French Revolution. There was a fear that foreign and royalist armies would attack Paris and that the inmates of the city's prisons would be freed and join them. The radical Jean-Paul Marat called for preemptive action. The action was undertaken by 150, 200 or 300 Sansculottes, National Guardsmen, Gendarmes and Fédérés (with the support of the Cordeliers and the sections).[2][3] The rest of Paris looked on in fear or approval, or stayed behind closed shutters. The government (Conseil exécutif), c.q. Danton, Roland, Clavière, Lebrun-Tondu, Monge and Servan, the Assembly, the deposited, but reinstated mayor Pétion de Villeneuve and the high ranking commissioners from the Paris Commune turned a blind eye. At least one of them, Tallien, called on other cities to follow suit.[4][5][6] By 6 September, half the prison population of Paris had been summarily executed: some 1370 to 1460 prisoners. The exact number is not known; about 440-500 people had uncertain fates.[7][8] Of these, 233 were nonjuring Catholic priests and (arch)bishops who refused to submit to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy; around a eighty were members of the Swiss Guard; forty to eighty were "secular" prisoners, mostly royalists, aristocrats and some former ministers.[9] However, the great majority (70%) of those killed were non-political prisoners, c.q. forgers of assignats, prostitutes, or common criminals.[10] The massacres were repeated in several other French cities; 65-75 incidents were reported.[11][12]

The political repercussions first injured the Girondists (who seemed too moderate) and later the Jacobins (who seemed too bloodthirsty).[13] A new mayor Nicolas Chambon was installed on 1 December 1792. It was on Servan's proposal to bring armed volunteers from the provinces. He was arrested during the Terror, but released in February 1795. In 1796 twenty-four crafts and small business men were accused, and perhaps prosecuted for the killings.[14]


Map of Paris and the Faubourgs. The La Force prison was in Le Marais on Rue Pavée, near Place des Fédérés. The Conciergerie was located on southeast side Île de la Cité, near the Palais de Justice, Paris. The prison de l'Abbaye was the south of the Seine, at the end of Rue de Bussi (E40).
The Grand Châtelet from the north.
Porte Saint-Bernard by Adam Perelle

On the evening of 9 August 1792, a Jacobin insurrection overthrew the leadership of the Paris Commune headed by Jérôme Pétion de Villeneuve and proclaimed a new revolutionary Commune headed by transitional authorities.

The next day the insurrectionists stormed the Tuileries Palace. King Louis XVI was imprisoned with the royal family, and his authority as King was suspended by the Legislative Assembly; a de facto executive was named, but the actual power of decision-making rested with the new revolutionary Commune, whose strength resided in the mobilized sans-culottes, the vast majority of Paris' fairly poor population. The 48 sections of Paris were equipped with munitions from the plundered arsenals in the days before the assault, substituting for the 60 National Guard battalions. Now, supported by a new armed force, the Commune and its sans-culottes took control of the city and dominated the Legislative Assembly and its decisions. For some weeks the Commune functioned as the actual government of France.[15]

The Commune took major steps towards democratizing the Revolution: the adoption of universal suffrage, the arming of the civilian population, absolute abolition of all remnants of noble privileges, the selling of the properties of the émigrés. These events meant a change of direction from the political and constitutional perspective of the Girondists to a more social approach given by the Commune. As Cambon declared on 27 August:

To reject with more efficacy the defenders of despotism, we have to address the fortunes of the poor, we have to associate the Revolution with this multitude that possesses nothing, we have to convert the people to the cause.[16]

Besides these measures, the Commune engaged in a policy of political repression of all suspected counter-revolutionary activities. Beginning on 11 August, every Paris section named its committee of vigilance. Mostly these decentralized committees, rather than the Commune, brought about the repression of August and September 1792. To ensure that there was some appropriate legal process for dealing with suspects accused of political crimes and treason, rather than arbitrary killing by local committees, Maximilien Robespierre as the speaker of the insurrectionary Commune proposed that a extra-ordinary Tribunal be set up, with extraordinary powers to impose the death sentence without any possibility to appeal.[17]:201 Pierre Joseph Alexis Roussel, a secretary of the Convention, published in 1815 under the pseudonyme Proussinale some remarkable details about the procedure.[18] On 17 August an revolutionary tribunal was installed.[19] Robespierre refused to preside it and preferred to be elected as deputy to the Convention?[20] On 19 August the non-juring priests were ordered to leave the country within two weeks, which meant before 2 September 1792. (In Paris, all monasteries were closed and the rest of the religious orders were dissolved by the law of 15 August.[21]) From 15 to 25 August, around 500 detentions were registered. Half the detentions were made against non-juring priests, but even priests who had sworn the required oath were caught in the wave. On the 26th the elections began; in the next few days all over the country electors were chosen. On the evening of the 26th or 27th a ceremonial was held for the around 5,000 citizens killed in the massacre of the 10th August; tout-Paris was present.[22] The people called for revenge.

At the end of August there was a sharp conflict between the Legislative and the Commune and its sections, according to Jonathan Israel.[23] Nobody knew who was in power; the Conseil Éxecutif was very busy reorganizing or solving questions around the police, justice, the army, navy and paper money. In the Legislative Assembly more than half of the deputes fled since the storming of the Tuileries. Since the arrival of the volunteers in the end of July Paris looked like an armed city. Lawlessness seems very likely as the tribunals were allowed to appoint new registrars at the court and members of the tribunals were not allowed to go on holidays.[24] On the evening of 28 August, around ten, a curfew was ordered by the Assembly for 22 hours, some sources mention two or three days.[citation needed] The sections were ordered to search in every (suspect) house for useful weapons (arms, carriages and horses).[25] The next day the Legislative tried to diminish the influence of the Commune and suggested to organize elections, after the National Convention was installed.[26] The city council protested; Robespierre was no longer willing to cooperate with the Girondins c.q. Brissot, Roland and Condorcet. (For Condorcet the "enemies of the people" belonged to the Nation. They should not be judged by members of the Commune.) The balance of power was disrupted and would influence the ongoing of the French Revolution.[27].

Invasion by the Duke of Brunswick[edit]

The political situation in Paris on the eve of the September Massacres was highly excited and aroused by dreadful rumors of traitors and foreign invaders.[28] Thionville was taken by the Austrians and on 2 September, news reached Paris that the Duke of Brunswick's Prussian army attacked the key fortress of Verdun. He was advancing quickly toward the capital. One month earlier, on 25 July, Brunswick had issued the "Brunswick Manifesto". His avowed aim was

to put an end to the anarchy in the interior of France, to check the attacks upon the throne and the altar, to reestablish the legal power, to restore to the king the security and the liberty of which he is now deprived and to place him in a position to exercise once more the legitimate authority which belongs to him.[29]

Additionally, the Manifesto threatened the French population with instant punishment should it resist the Imperial and Prussian armies, or the reinstatement of the monarchy. Such threats fueled this first wave of mob hysteria of the Revolution. By the end of August, rumors circulated that many in Paris – such as non-juring priests – who opposed the Revolution, would support the First Coalition of foreign powers allied against it. According to Danton and Robespierre, those royalists who had spoken about support to the enemy or capitulation had to be locked up.

On Sunday morning the Commune, gathering in the townhall, as it was the day the Elections for the National Convention began, decided to maintain their seats and arrest Rolland and Brissot.[30] When Danton came in with the news that Brunswick had captured Verdun it escalated the sense of panic. The Commune ordered the alarm guns fired and the gates closed. In the afternoon an army of 60,000 was to be enlisted at the Champ de Mars. Their imminent departure from the capital provoked further concern about the crowded prisons, now full of counter-revolutionary suspects who might threaten a city deprived of so many of its defenders.[31] Jean-Paul Marat advised the volunteers not to leave the capital without first having their enemies punished and the conspirators killed. He announced that a "new blood-letting" should take place, larger than the one on 10 August. The British ambassador reported:

A party at the instigation of someone or other declared they would not quit Paris, as long as the prisons were filled with Traitors (for they called those so, that were confined in the different Prisons and Churches), who might in the absence of such a number of Citizens rise and not only effect the release of His Majesty, but make an entire counterrevolution.[32]

Reports of massacres[edit]

La prison de l’Abbaye
Le massacre des Carmes by Marie-Marc-Antoine Bilcocq, (1820). Musée de la Révolution française.
Conciergerie in 1790

The first instance of massacre occurred in quartier Latin around 2.30 in the afternoon when 24 non-juring priests were being transported to the prison de l'Abbaye near the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, which had become a national prison of the revolutionary government. The four or six carriages, escorted by Fédérés to the prison, were attacked after an incident.[33] The Fédérés quickly killed 19 of them in the middle of the street, then mutilated the bodies, "with circumstances of barbarity too shocking to describe" according to the British diplomatic dispatch.

The fact is that the reports of conspiracies in the prisons, however improbable, and the constant propaganda about the people’s will and the people’s anger, held everyone in a sort of stupor and gave the impression that this infamous performance was the work of the populace, whereas in reality there were not above 200 criminals.[34][35]

According to Galart de Montjoie, a lawyer and a royalist, everyone believed the Fédérés were involved.[36] The Fédérés were lodged in Cordeliers Convent.[37] Servan planned to give them military training before using them to supplement the army at the front.

In the late afternoon of 2 September 115 priests in the former convent of Carmelites (Carmes prison), detained with the message they would be deported to French Guiana, were massacred in the courtyard with axes, spikes, swords and pistols by people (with a strong patois accent). They forced the priests one by one to take the oath on the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, death followed on refusal. The priests hid in the choir and behind the altar. Several tried to escape by climbing in the trees and over the walls.[38]

The streets were full with people, according to Madame de Staël. She fled in the style of the ambassadress of Sweden. Her carriage was stopped and the crowd forced her to go to the Paris town hall, where Robespierre presided.[39] Robespierre, as well as Marat were militant members of the Insurrectionary Commune who had got from the executive council "... extensive police powers to detain, interrogate and incarcerate suspects without anything resembling due process of law."[40]

Between seven and eight o'clock in the evening the group was back in prison at the Abbaye. The bloody work was resumed, according to L. Bluche, after a lot of discussion. During the next hours, a tribunal was compiled of twelve people, presided by Stanislas-Marie Maillard. He asked the prisoner why he was arrested. A lie was fatal.[41]; 135 inmates were killed, 27 were transferred, 86 were set free, and 36 had uncertain fates.[42] At ten o'clock, seven commissioners from Législative arrived, after they had been in discussion for two hours.[43] These gentlemen escaped being insulted but were not listened to.[44]

Late in the evening Madame de Staël was conveyed home, escorted by the procurator Louis Pierre Manuel. The next day the secretary-general to the Commune of Paris Jean-Lambert Tallien arrived with a new passport and accompanied to the barrier.[45]

On Monday morning nine o'clock, Billaud-Varenne came to the prison at the abbey and declared that the murderers would get paid from the Commune. On 4 September police commissioners Étienne-Jean Panis and Sergent-Marceau gave orders to wash away the blood from the stairs and the courtyard, to spread straw, to count the corpses and to dispose of them on carts to avoid infections.[46] A contract was signed with the grave digger of the nearby Église Saint-Sulpice, Paris, who also had to purchase or apply quicklime.

From 2 to 7 September, summary trials took place in all nine Paris prisons. The pattern of semi-formal executions followed by the popular tribunals was for condemned prisoners to be ordered "transferred" and then taken into the prison courtyards where they would be cut down by waiting sans-culottes. Restif de la Bretonne saw the bodies piled high on Pont au Change in front of the Châtelet. The witnessed atrocities he recorded in Les Nuits de Paris (1793).[citation needed]

On 3 and 4 September, groups broke into other Paris prisons, as the Conciergerie, the La Force Prison, Salpêtrière (for men and boys), Tour Saint-Bernard, the seminary Saint Firmin, and Bicêtre (for women and girls) on 6 September.


Léon-Maxime Faivre (1908) Death of the Princess de Lamballe

According to Pierre Caron there were almost 2,800 prisoners in early September. Between 1,100-1,400 prisoners were condemned and executed. According to Caron 70% of the victims were killed within the 20 hours? Anyhow among the victims were 223 priests, 81 Swiss guards, and 40-80 were political suspect,[47] including the queen's best friend, the Princesse de Lamballe, the only political victim in "La petite Force".[48] The lifes of about 1,300-1,600 prisoners brought before the people's courts were saved.[49] In a few cases acclaimed as "patriots", and escorted to their homes.[50]

A total of nine prisons were violently entered during the five days of the massacres before the killings concluded on the night of 6–7 September. After initially indiscriminate slayings, ad hoc popular tribunals were set up to distinguish between "enemies of the people" and those who were innocent, or at least were not perceived as counter-revolutionary threats. In spite of this attempted sifting an estimated three-quarter of the 1,300–1,400 killed were no counter-revolutionaries or "villains", but forgers of assignats, 37 women, and 66 children.[51]

In Paris in the Terror, Stanley Loomis reports that during the massacre at the prison of Bicêtre, 33 boys aged between 12 and 14 were murdered. Loomis also reported that "girls as young as ten" were murdered when the mob subsequently attacked the Salpêtrière institution for women, mentally insane and prostitutes.[52] According to Caron it was the only prison were the number of victims seems to be exactly known, 35.

Killings outside Paris[edit]

On 3 September a circular letter had been sent to regional authorities by Tallien, member of the newly created Paris Commune advising that "ferocious conspirators detained in the prisons had been put to death by the people"[53] and urging that "the entire nation... will hasten to adopt this necessary measure".[54] Smaller-scale executions took place in Meaux, Reims, and Lyon, in imitation of the major massacres. There were 75 separate incidents in 32 of the 83 départments. Most notable of these was the killing of 44 political prisoners near Château de Versailles on 9 September.[55]

Official role[edit]

Between 17 August and the prison massacres in early September, more than a thousand people were taken into custody on the flimsiest warrants.[56] On 27 August a betrayal of Louis Capet was discovered, a plot to murder, on the night of the 2nd to the 3rd of this month, all the good citizens of the capital, by the aristocrats and the refractory priests, to help brigands and scoundrels, detained in the prisons of Paris.[57][58] On 28 August, on the behest of Danton, "domiciliary visits" were authorized in search of firearms.[59] A curfew was announced at least for 22, perhaps 48 hours. On 30 August a demand was made for the dissolution of the insurrectional Commune and replacement by a successor to be promptly elected. The Assembly backed down two days later.

On Sunday 2 September the French National Convention election, 1792 started. Robespierre accused Brissot and the Brissotins publicly of plotting with Duke of Brunswick.[60] Marat left nothing in doubt when he urged "good citizens to go to the Abbaye, to seize priests, and especially the officers of the Swiss guards and their accomplices and run a sword through them".[61] According to Timothy Tackett: "For a period of some 48 hours between the 29th and the 31st of August the whole of Paris was systematically searched by the national guard for lurking conspirators and hidden arms.[62] By that time section assemblies were already passing motions demanding "the death of conspirators before the departure of citizens".[63] Madame de Staël, who tried to escape Paris, was forced by the crowd to go to the town hall. She noted that Robespierre seated that day, assisted by Collot d'Herbois en Billaud-Varenne.[64]

According to Madame de Staël on 31 August "it was already known, that those only who were destined to be massacred were sent to that prison [of the Abbeye].[65] According to Adolphe Thiers on Sundaymorning 2 September: "The keeper of the Abbaye sent away his and children in the morning. Dinner was served to the prisoners two hours before the accustomed time; and the knives were taken from their plates."[66]

Such municipal and central government as existed in Paris in September 1792 was preoccupied with organizing volunteers, supplies, and equipment for the armies on the threatened frontiers. Accordingly, there was no attempt to assuage popular fears that the understaffed and easily accessed prisons were full of royalists who would break out and seize the city when the national guards and other citizen volunteers had left for the war. The Minister of Justice Danton responded to an appeal for restoring order with the comment: "To hell with the prisoners! They must look after themselves."[67][68]

Debate in the Convention[edit]

On 29 October 1792, the Convention held an "afterthought". Roland accused the Commune of the atrocities. Jean-Baptiste Louvet de Couvray accused Robespierre of creating a personality cult and dictatorship.[69] Robespierre was taken by surprise and had to be defended by Danton.[70] Robespierre was given eight days to reply. On 5 November Robespierre stated that Marat had visited him only once since January.[71] He asked the Convention: "Citizens, did you want a revolution without revolution?" Robespierre, Danton, and Marat insisted that the "new bloodletting" had been a spontaneous popular movement. Their opponents, the Girondins, spoke of a systematically planned conspiracy.[72] Louvet was no longer admitted to the Jacobin Club.


A group of 115 churchmen killed during the massacres was beatified by Pope Pius XI on 17 October 1926. Among the martyrs were Pierre-Louis de la Rochefoucauld, bishop of Saintes; Jean-Marie du Lau d’Alleman, archbishop of Arles; François-Joseph de la Rochefoucauld, bishop of Beauvais; and Ambroise Chevreux, the last superior-general of the monastic Congregation of Saint Maur.[73]

See also[edit]

Notes and citations[edit]

  1. ^ Samuel F. Scott and Barry Rothaus, eds. Historical Dictionary of the French Revolution 1789–1799 (1985) Vol. 2 pp. 891–97; The classic modern account of the legends and traditions that have accrued, and an appraisal of the sources on which a narrative account can be based, is Pierre Caron, Les Massacres de Septembre (Paris, 1935).
  2. ^ P. Caron (1935), p. 107, 114
  3. ^ S. Schama, p. 611
  4. ^ François Furet and Mona Ozouf, eds. A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution (1989), pp. 521–22
  5. ^ A general biographical dictionary: containing a summary ..., p. 993 by John Gorton
  6. ^ Jean-Lambert Tallien
  7. ^ Septembre 1792 : logiques d'un massacre by Frédéric Bluche (), p. ?
  8. ^ L. Madelin, p. 256
  9. ^ P. Caron (1935), p. 101-102
  10. ^ Gwynne Lewis (2002). The French Revolution: Rethinking the Debate. Routledge. p. 38.
  11. ^ P. Caron (1935) Les massacres de Septembre, p. 363-394. Part IV covers comparable events in provincial cities that transpired from July to October 1792.
  12. ^ P. McPhee (2016) Liberty or Death, p. 162
  13. ^ Georges Lefebvre, The French Revolution: From its Origins to 1793 (1962), pp. 241–44, 269
  14. ^ P. Caron (1935), p. 107
  15. ^ Bergeron, Louis, Le Monde et son Histoire, Paris, 1970, Volume VII, Chapter VII, p. 324
  16. ^ L. Bergeron (1970), p. 325
  17. ^ Ruth Scurr (17 April 2007). Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution. Henry Holt and Company. ISBN 978-0-8050-8261-6.
  18. ^ Histoire secrète du tribunal révolutionnaire, par M. de Proussinalle, Band 1, p. 2-6
  19. ^ Press in the French Revolution, p. 277
  20. ^ Oeuvres, Band 2 von Maximilien Robespierre, p. 9
  21. ^ L. Bergeron, p. 326
  22. ^ Rachel Rogers (2012) Vectors of Revolution : The British Radical Community in Early Republican Paris, 1792-1794, p. 467
  23. ^ J. Israel (2017) Revolutionaire ideeën, p. 362-363
  24. ^ Collection Complète des Lois, Décrets, Ordonnances, Réglements, et Avis du ... p. 452, 453, 458, 459
  25. ^ Collection Complète des Lois, Décrets, Ordonnances, Réglements, et Avis, p. 440
  26. ^ J. Israel (2017) Revolutionaire ideeën, p. 356
  27. ^ J. Israel (2015) Revolutionary Ideas, p. ?
  28. ^ T. Tackett (2011)
  29. ^ Arno J. Mayer (2000). The Furies: Violence and Terror in the French and Russian Revolutions. Princeton U.P. p. 554.
  30. ^ [é&f=false Septembre 1792: logiques d'un massacre by Frédéric Bluche]
  31. ^ Cobb, R. & C. Jones (1988) The French Revolution. Voices from a momentous epoch 1789-1795, p. 159
  32. ^ Oscar Browning, ed., The Despatches of Earl Gower (Cambridge University Press, 1885), 213–16, 219–21, 223–28.
  33. ^ The history of the French revolution, tr. with notes by Marie Joseph L. Adolphe Thiers, p. 144
  34. ^ The memoirs of Madame Roland, p. ? (London: Barrie & Jenkins, translated by Evelyn Shuckburgh (1989)
  35. ^ History of the conspiracy of Maximilien Robespierre, p. 81
  36. ^ Histoire de la conjuration de Robespierre, p. 81. Paris, les marchands de nouveautés, 1795 ; Chez Maret, an IV(1796).
  37. ^ S. Schama, p. 605, 611
  38. ^ Image Les Massacres du 2 septembre 1792 à la prison des Carmes à Paris, p. ?
  39. ^ Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution, Band 2, p. 75
  40. ^ S. Schama (1990) Citizens, p 624, 631
  41. ^ L. Blanc (1855) Histoire de la Révolution Française, vol VII, p. 165
  42. ^ Leborgne, Dominique, Saint-Germain-des-Prés et son faubourg, p. 40, Éditions Parigramme, Paris, 2005, ISBN 2-84096-189-X
  43. ^ L. Blanc (1855) Histoire de la Révolution Française, vol VII, p. 168
  44. ^ Oscar Browning, ed., The Despatches of Earl Gower (Cambridge University Press, 1885), 213–16, 219–21, 223–28.
  45. ^ A New Dictionary of the French Revolution by Richard Ballard, p. 341
  46. ^ L. Blanc, p. 182
  47. ^ P. Caron (1935) Les Massacres de Septembre, p. 94-99
  48. ^ The history of the French revolution, tr. with notes by Marie Joseph L. Adolphe Thiers
  49. ^ P. Caron, p. 99
  50. ^ M. J. Sydenham The French Revolution, B.T. Batsford Ltd, 1965, p. 121
  51. ^ P. Caron (1935) Les Massacres de Septembre, p. 95
  52. ^ Loomis, Stanley (1964). Paris in the Terror. New York: Dorset Press. ISBN 0-88029-401-9.
  53. ^ "The French Revolution". Charles Knight's Popular History of England. p. 725. in Beale, Joseph H. (1884). Gay's Standard History of the World's Great Nations. 1. W. Gay and Company. Retrieved 31 August 2018.
  54. ^ The French Revolution: From Enlightenment to Tyranny by Ian Davidson
  55. ^ P. McPhee (2016) Liberty or Death, p. 162
  56. ^ S. Schama, p. 624
  57. ^ Grande trahison de Louis Capet complot découvert, pour assassiner, dans la nuit du 2 au 3 de ce mois, tous les bons citoyens de la capitale, par les aristocrates et les prêtres réfractaires, aidé des brigands et des scélérats, détenus dans les prisons de Paris
  58. ^ L. Madelin (1912) La Révolution, p. 255
  59. ^ S. Schama, p. 626
  60. ^ Robespierre by John Hardman, p. 56-57
  61. ^ S. Schama, p. 630
  62. ^ "T. Tackett, p. 63
  63. ^ S. Schama, p. 631
  64. ^ Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution, Band 2, p. 70
  65. ^ Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution, Band 2, p. 68
  66. ^ The history of the French revolution, tr. with notes by Marie Joseph L. Adolphe Thiers, p. 144
  67. ^ M. J. Sydenham The French Revolution, B. T. Batsford Ltd, 1965, p. 121
  68. ^ R. Scurr (2006) Fatal Purity. Robespierre and the French Revolution, p. 243?
  69. ^ S. Schama p. 649
  70. ^ R. Scurr (2006) Fatal Purity. Robespierre and the French Revolution, p. ?
  71. ^ Oeuvres, Band 2 by Maximilien Robespierre, p. 186, 188
  72. ^ J. Israel (2015) Revolutionary ideas, p. 359?
  73. ^ "Bienheureux Martyrs des Carmes". Nominis (in French). Catholic Church in France. Retrieved 31 August 2018.


Further reading[edit]

Fictional accounts[edit]

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