Friday, 10 November 2017

Joseph Le Bon, Terrorist (cont.)

Le Bon, Engraving by Bonneville
Lebon was carried away with a holy fury against the inertia that bogged down Revolutionary measures.  He disbanded his tribunal and filled it with sixty bougres à poil. Those arrested were closely incarcerated.  The heads of aristocrats fell like hail.  Le Bon busied himself ceaselessly with acts of accusation....
Letter of the public prosecutor Darthé to Lebas, 19 March 1794.

In northern France by mid-1793 there was mass emigration by nobles and priests, and foreign armies were only a few miles from towns like Arras and Cambrai.  It was Le Bon who was sent as représentant-en-mission with the daunting task of imposing government control in the area.  In August-September, following the fall of Valenciennes on 28th July, he undertook a first mission to the Pas-de-Calais and the Nord, during which he conscripted 6,800 men to crush the  uprising known as the “Petite Vendée”.  

On his return to Paris he became briefly a member of the Committee of General Security but by the end of October 1793, at the instigation of the Committee of Public Safety, he returned to the Pas-de-Calais.  Following the decrees of 14 Frumaire, he enjoyed virtually unlimited powers. As well as provisioning the army and ensuring security, he was charged with purifying the local administration - "gangrenous with indifference or moderatism" - and with carrying out the Revolutionary programme of class war and sequestration.

Place de la Comédie, Arras
Louis Jacob,  Joseph Le Bon, v2, plate IV
In March 1794 he overhauled the Revolutionary tribunal in Arras, replacing the judges, advocates and juries with his own nominees. Arrests multiplied, on Lebon's initiative, but also on that of Saint-Just and Lebas who were the representatives with the Armée du Nord. The tribunals in Arras and the frontier town of Cambrai were allowed to function autonomously even after the decree of 27 Germinal, which theoretically transferred jurisdiction over all those accused of conspiracy to Paris. The prisons filled with suspects. In Arras the guillotine occupied the little square in front of the new théâtre à l’italienne in the judicial quarter, where it would have been clearly visible from the Maison Robespierre.

In all 391 people were executed in Arras between February 1794 and February 1795, with a further 148 executions at Cambrai. The vast majority condemned were not active counter-revolutionaries or political opponents but ordinary respectable citizens.  They do not even profile clearly as "class enemies":  according to Auguste Paris, of those guillotined in Arras only 88 were priests, nobles or army officers; 211 were soldiers, merchants, advocates, farmers or labourers, and 93 women. In addition, by the end of June 1794, the prisons of the Arras were bulging with 1,328 "suspects", among them Le Bon's one time ally, the former mayor Dubois de Fosseux.

MS register of persons guillotined in Arras, February 1794-February 1795.  Archives du Pas-de-Calais.

Such figures earned Le Bon a well-deserved reputation for excess and lurid stories of his blood-thirsty behaviour abounded.

His reputation for savagery was undoubtedly compounded by his sense of theatre and his flair for the unfeeling bon motCeremony and symbol were always integral to the Terror, but Le Bon used them to maximum effect.  Added to incarcerations and executions, the popular accounts are full of strangely trivial and sadistic instances of harassment:  a young woman walking on the remparts of Montreuil,  arrested because her appearance was "too elegant for a Sunday" ,  others detained (though often subsequently released) for not wearing cockades, for reading novels, for answering back too freely.  

In a review article in1934 the great radical historian, Georges Lefebvre, gave his considered judgement.  He emphasised that Le Bon did not personally initiate all the arrests and executions, although the tribunals acted with his sanction.  The context needs to be considered - the nature of the Revolutionary government of the region, its origins,the role of the Representatives and the detailed functioning of the Revolutionary Tribunals; also Le Bon's relationship with the Committee of Public Safety.  

Until his entrance into the Convention, and even during his first mission to the Pas-de-Calais, Le Bon showed a moderation which contrasted curiously with the violence later imputed to him.  In September 1792, as mayor of Arras, he had the agents of executive power arrested; he was accused of rejecting the decree on the indivisibility of the Republic, and he hesitated to allow the formation of a departmental guard.  He was also said to have wanted Louis XVI deposed rather than executed. In March 1793, like Dubois de Fosseux, he supported new elections to the Convention to deal with the Revolutionary crisis.

Even after the Law of 14 Frimaire, Le Bon did not operate freely but was forced to cope with an anarchical situation.  Unlike Carrier, he always took care not to overstep his powers and consistently asked for advice from the Committee of Public Safety; for instance when he moved into Cambrai he did so at the request of Saint-Just and with the approbation of the Committee.

Nonetheless, in Lefebvre's view, Le Bon had an inherently unstable personality; he agreed with Darthé that he seemed suddenly to swing into extremism:
As far as I can judge, Le Bon was energetic to the point of being impulsive and was at the same time very succeptible to the influence of his surroundings.  The incident at Beaune which brought about his expulsion from the Oratory seems proof; from this, it is possible to understand how, at the end of 1793 and during Year II, he found harmony with the exalted mood of the sans-culottes.(p.171)

Did he misuse his power? Lefebvre noted that Le Bon's thought processes need careful unravelling.  Like Saint-Just and Lebas, Le Bon feared the development of counter-revolutionary conspiracy behind the lines of the Armée du Nord.  He also prosecuted straightforward crimes: desertion or peculation.  But there was also in his mind a third category of criminal, who undermined the Revolution by words, letters, demonstrations, and also through their religious opinions;  for Le Bon, as for Saint-Just, it was  necessary to "terrorise" such elements and reduce them to inaction. How, asks Lefebre, other than by the desire to spread fear,  can the execution of old men and the arrest of young girls be explained? 

To understand is not to exonerate. Although Le Bon acted in concert with the Revolutionary tribunal, it seems clear from the experience of Representatives elsewhere, that he could have used his influence to moderate its judgments. 
His disinterest and his conviction that he acted for the safety of the revolutionary nation, cannot be doubted. But the question is whether his impulsive temperament allowed him to exercise in his terrible functions, the sang-froid, the gravity, the judgment, that was required.  I doubt it and it is this which later singled him out as a scapegoat.

Georges Lefebvre,  Review of Louis Jacob, Joseph Le Bon, 1765-1795: la Terreur à la frontière.  Annales historiques de la Révolution française, 1932, No.62, p.170-6 [on JStor]

Pas-de-Calais, Histoire et patrimoine, "Quelques aspects de la Révolution dans le Département du Pas-de-Calais", 16 November 2015.
Archives du Pas-de-Calais, "Un document à l'honneur - L'Ogre et la Veuve"

Note on Biographies of Le Bon

The main source of information on Le Bon is still the overtly hostile account by Auguste Paris:

Auguste Paris, La Terreur dans le Pas-de-Calais et dans le Nord : histoire de Joseph Le Bon et des tribunaux révolutionnaires d'Arras et de Cambrai, 1864
(2 vols)

Le Bon's son Émile produced an apologetic biography and edited some of his private correspondance: 
Émile Le Bon, Joseph Le Bon dans sa vie privée et dans sa carrière politique (1861)

Louis Jacob produced a biography in the 1930s and edited Le Bon's defence from his trial.
Louis Jacob, Joseph Le Bon, 1765-1795: la Terreur à la frontière (Nord et Pas-de-Calais) 1932

Various accounts are brought together in a free e-book,  Le Conventionnel Joseph Le Bon: textes oubliés, edited by Jacques de Loris.

The only modern treatment of Le Bon in English that I have found is the chapter in Joseph F. Byrnes, Priests of the French Revolution era (2014) cited in the previous post.  This concentrates mainly on his early career.  There is a modern biography in French: Ivan Gobry, Joseph Le Bon:  La Terreur dans le nord de la France (Paris, 1991).  This is described by Brynes as "a popular text built on Paris".


Le Bon's appearance and personal style 

Plate auctioned by Mitchells of Cockermouth Cumbria in 2015.

Le Bon's passport description:
Height five feet six inches, light brown hair and eyebrows, high forehead, average nose, blue eyes, medium-sized mouth, smallpox scars
Cited in Louis Jacob, Joseph Le Bon, vol. 1, p.63

The actress Louise Fusil wrote her memoirs in 1841. She was detained at Bologne during the early part of Le Bon's mission.  After an interview with him, she was forced to attend a patriot ball with her four-year-old daughter - the proconsul was "fond of children" - but then released and allowed to travel safely to Paris. 
Joseph Le Bon was of medium height and good build;  his expression, though pleasant and agreeable, had something sly and diabolical about it.  His style of dress was almost coquettish: he wore a fine grey carmagnole jacket and brilliant white linen; the collar of his shirt was open, and he wore a deputy's sash. His hands were well manicured and they say that he wore rouge.  What a bizarre mixture of ferocity and desire to please 
Louise Fusil, Souvenirs d'une actrice, p..204.

Prud'homme wrote an early account of the "crimes" of Le Bon, published in 1797.  Here he describes  Le Bon's entrance into Cambrai surrounded by members of his "redoubtable tribunal" 
Their costumes and murderous weaponry added to their air of barbarism and to their terrifying reputation
The arrest of several women without cockades, heralded their arrival.  A house had been requisitioned and fitted out for the Representative and his entourage.  Here Lebon, stretched himself out nonchalantly in an armchair, threw his authorisation papers on the table and said, "You know me no doubt".  His lackeys meanwhile searched the room.  Everywhere they found emblems of Royalty, a harmless rosette on a light become a fleur-de-lys; an old map of England stuck behind a picture, royal arms still visible - all excited their fury and cries of"A la guillotine!". Lebon, rattling his sabre threateningly, paced the room and uttered fearful oaths and imprecations against the Administration.....(p.343-4)
Prud'homme, Histoire générale et impartiale des erreurs, des fautes et des crimes commis pendant la Révolution française (1797), vol. 2 p.343-4

The language of Terror

Once he arrived in the departments of the Nord, Le Bon seemed to be seized with a murderous monomania.  "The guillotine awaits it quarry (son gibier)" he said to  the Committee of Public Safety, and Billaud-Varenne replied, "You have unlimited powers; deploy all your energies".  Armed with this open mandate, he set to work.....He maintained an active correspondence with Paris and one remains struck with sad astonishment that an assembly which represented the government of a great country could read without indignation missives where each phrase was stained with blood.  On 26th November 1793, Le Bon wrote to the Convention: "  I am progressing in a fine manner: twenty-four hours do not pass without me sending to the Revolutionary tribunal two or three gibiers de guillotine".  The sinister word is repeated endlessly  in the dispatches of the terrorist.  "Today Mme de Moderne sneezed in the guillotine's bag; - the aristocrats resist even under the blade of the guillotine;  - these messieurs, relatives and friends of the emigres, overwhelm the guillotine;  the guillotine continues to roll at full speed in Arras;  until now you have only had miserable, thin aristocrats, tomorrow I will give you one that is big and fat, a fine head for the guillotine"
Summarised from Histoire de Joseph Le Bon, par Auguste Paris, 1864, 2 vol.
 Revue des Deux Mondes, 1873 vol. 106: 667-8.

The theatre of the guillotine 

The location of the guillotine was not judged favourable for the enjoyment of the ravishing spectacle of watching heads fall, and so the instrument of death was tranported to the Marché au poisson.  Here the facade of the theatre was well-placed;  from the balcony it was possible to preside over the executions and make speeches if necessary;  Le Bon himself accompanied the transfer of the guillotine, and, indicating with the end of his sabre the desired position, he made this sacriligious and ironic allusion :  Super hanc patram aedificabo ecclesiam me.
Related by the Arras theatre director Dupré-Nyon, but probably originating from Fréron. At his trial Le Bon denied the truth of this anecdote:
I never ordered or advised that the guillotine should be set up in one place rather than another.  I could never see it from where I lived;  it was set up permanently in Arras before I arrived. 
Quotes from Hector Fleischmann's  essay, "La comédie à Arras sous la Terreur", reproduced in Le Conventionnel Joseph Le Bon, p.233  

 Eugène Vidocq, criminal and later detective,deserted the army and fled to his native Arras in 1793, Here, according to his supposed memoirs, he witnessed the guillotine at first hand. The fact that Le Bon read an army bulletin in the middle of an execution is repeated in several sources.
 Penetrating the crowd, which was thronging in the dark and winding streets, I soon reached the fish-market. Then the first object which struck my sight was the guillotine, raising its blood-red boards above the silent multitude. An old man, whom they had just tied to the fatal plank, was the victim; suddenly I heard the sound of trumpets. On a high place which overlooked the orchestra, was seated a man, still young, clad in a Carmagnole of black and blue stripes. This person, whose appearance announced monastic rather than military habits, was leaning carelessly on a cavalry sabre, the large hilt of which represented the Cap of Liberty; a row of pistols ornamented his girdle, and his hat, turned up in the Spanish fashion, was surmounted by a large tri-coloured cockade: I recognised Joseph Lebon. At this moment his mean countenance was animated with a horrid smile; he paused from beating time with his left foot; the trumpets stopped; he made a signal, and the old man was placed under the blade. A sort of clerk, half drunk, then appeared at the side of the " avenger of the people," and read with a hoarse voice a bulletin of the army of the Rhine and Moselle. At each paragraph the orchestra sounded a chord; and when the reading was concluded, the head of the wretched old man was stricken off amidst shouts of "Vive la republique!" repeated by the satellites of the ferocious Lebon. I shall never forget, nor can I adequately depict the impression of this horrible sight. I reached my father's house almost as lifeless as the miserable being whose agony had been so cruelly prolonged; and then I learnt that he was M. de Mongon, the old commandant of the citadel, condemned as an aristocrat.
Memoirs of Eugène Vidocq (1829) p.21

Le Bon addresses an individual about to be guillotined in Arras
plate from  Prudhomme's Histoire générale et impartiale des erreurs.

From the Memoirs of an Englishwoman living in Arras at the time of the Terror. 

I have already noticed the cruel and ferocious temper of Le Bon, and the massacres of his tribunals are already well known...
As he was one day enjoying his customary amusement of superintending an execution, where several had already suffered, one of the victims having, from very natural emotion, averted his eyes while he placed his body in the posture required, the executioner perceived it, and going to the sack which contained the heads of those just sacrificed, took one out, and with the most horrible imprecations obliged the unhappy wretch to kiss it:  yet Le Bon not only permitted, but sanctioned this, by dining daily with the hangman.....

When any of his colleagues passed through Arras, he always proposed their joining with him in a "partie de Guillotine", and the executions were perpetrated on a small square at Arras, rather than the great one, that he, his wife, and relations, might more commodiously enjoy the spectacle from the balcony of the theatre, where they took their coffee, attended by a band of music, which played while his human butchery lasted.
 A Residence in France during the years 1792, 1793, 1794 and 1795 (New York, 1798), p.136-7; the author is identified as Charlotte Biggs (d.1827).

We saw you in Cambrai, surrounded by your barbarous band of fellow assassins,  stretch yourself out like a ferocious sultan on a large armchair at one end of the table;  and opposite you was the executioner....He set the tone for the company;  you laughed, you provided a chorus of laughter for his bloodthirsty jokes, and during the whole meal you talked only of the guillotine, and the facility of the executioner."
A.-B.-J. Guffroy, Les Secrets de Joseph Le Bon... ; p.173-4. 

[At his trial Le Bon admitted that the Arras executioner, Pierre-Joseph Outredebanque, had been one of the party which travelled from Arras to Cambrai and that he had been allowed to share their table despite "a certain repugnance".  But he categorically denied that he ever had dinner with him in Arras.]

One holiday, Lebon took himself to the execution site, where, thanks to his barbaric tast, an orchestra played next to the scaffold.  "Young ladies, he said to those there, do not always listen to your mothers;  follow the voice of nature and abandon yourselves to the arms of your lovers."
As a result of his suggestions, a troup of young children gave themselves over to the most licentious conduct.  Their atheism and neglect of duty earned them the monstrous praise of the Proconsul.....Already familiar with blood, some of them had little guillotines with which they amused themselves executing birds and mice....
Prud'homme, p.350-51.

Le Bon's victims

Of what crimes were they guilty, these miserable people that the machine dispatched by the dozen?  The records of the tribunal of Arras still exist for us to find out. A brave peasant shelters the servant of a curé; another "claims to avoid the services of Constitutional priests"...; another has said "He who laughs last laughs longest".   Joseph Delattre, "speaks to no-one and fears no-one"; Mme de Monaldy "devalues assignats".  To the guillotine! said Joseph Le Bon, to the guillotine!  Louise Fouquart, seated at her door, nurses a baby of three months. An official notes that she is not wearing a cockade, an offence punishable by guillotining.  You have guillotined plenty of others, she replies.  That night the head of the miserable mother fell beneath the blade of the guillotine.  Le Bon's deputy Carlier, who was present, remarked that it was amusing to see milk flow at the same time as blood.
Summarised from Histoire de Joseph Le Bon, par Auguste Paris, 1864,2 vol.
 Revue des Deux Mondes, 1873 vol. 106: 667-8.
Lebon only wanted a dozen families to remain in Cambrai.  This would be enough in his view to sustain the town

p.350.   Lebon, to deter petitioners, had a notice put on his door:  "All those who come to request the release of detainees will be sent to prison themselves".  And indeed, all those who tried to do so, suffered this fate.
Prud'homme, p.348/ 350

 St. Vincent dePaul Image Archive
Citizen Fontaine is condemned as a pious anti-revolutionary, who kept hidden under a heap of straw a pile of brochures and newspapers imbued with the most unbridled royalist spirit, who has further refused the oath, and who has even insulted the district commissioners by saying that there are no more devils left in hell since they are all busy on earth.  Citizens Gérard, Lanel and Fantou are sentenced as her accomplices.
Condemnation of Mother Madeleine Fontaine, of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, aged 71, executed with three of her nuns in Cambrai in June 1794.  The nuns, who went to the guillotine singing “Ave Maris Stella” , were beatified in 1920.

The Popular Society was chosen to vet those detained in the prisons.  They constructed an elevated walkway where the prisoners were paraded.  Le Bon presiding, asked members of the Society to identify those who were rich, noble or the agent of an emigre... They acknowledged the social virtues of citizen Landa, but unfortunately he was rich: bring me ce bougre-la, said Le Bon.   The Proconsul asked a priest to make him see the devil.  Nuns were addressed in obscene language.  Young girls were charged with aristocracy becanse they were too modest to attend the orgies in the Temple of Reason....
Prud'homme, p.365

The author of the History of the Prisons gives the finishing touch, by the following traits, to the hideous picture of the barbarity of Lebon and his creatures towards the defenceless sex:
A woman named Duvigne was walking for the benefit of her health on the ramparts of Arras, in company with her daughter. They were reading the novel of Clarissa Harlowe. Lebon perceived them, and at first fired a pistol to alarm them. He then approached them, and commanded the mother to give him the book which she was reading. Her daughter remarked that there was nothing of a suspicious nature in it; whereupon he struck at her with his clenched fist, and knocked her down. He afterwards searched the workbags of both, but, finding nothing suspicious in them, he forced the daughter to undress herself, in order that he might make a stricter search. After having placed her in the most indecent situation, he degraded his character to such a degree as to conduct these females to prison himself. As, however, they were without reproach, he was obliged to release them the next day.
A young girl who did not know Joseph Lebon, met him. He asked her whither she was going?' What is that to you?' she replied. The proconsul felt indignant that he should be treated with so little respect. The consequence was, that the girl herself, her father, mother, and brothers, were incarcerated the next day, and all of them were condemned to death and executed.

He had a young girl of seventeen years of age publicly exposed for not having danced with the patriots. She was then in prison.

He published a decree prohibiting women and girls from decorating themselves on Sunday, under pain of imprisonment. He decreed, at the same time, that the houses of the municipal officers who should not see to the execution of his will should be razed to the ground.
Note from Louis-Eugène Poirier, Horrors of the prisons of Arras. 

A Revolutionary vision

The theatre, instead of being a brilliant foyer of patriotism and a gathering place for virtue, seems plunged in the obscenity and triviality of the Ancien regime.  At the very moment when citizens should be fired up with the love of liberty, they are invited to performances of Les Fouberies de Scapin etc.  This will happen no longer!
Declaration of Le Bon (quoted by Fleischmann)

The town theatre was soon submitted to his surveillance;  he established himself as censor of dramatic works, and disfigured them by the cuts he made...He would often arrive in the middle of a play, throw himself on the stage, draw his sabre and wave it furiously.  The audience soon departed from the arena of this gladiator.  He habitually filled the interval with discourses to the people on the Agrarian Law and the education of children.....
Prud'homme, p.352

The Agrarian law was the attraction he used to woo his Popular Society.  "San-culottes, he cries, you have lived in hovels long enough; you shall have the beautiful hotels of guillotined aristocrats. Finding the Revolutionary law too lenient...he incited the people to inform :

"Saus-culottes," said he one day, "fear not to denounce, if you wish to leave cottages. It is for you the guillotine acts. Without the guillotine you would die of hunger.  The Sans-culottes will take the place of the rich" 
Prud'homme, p.353.

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