Sunday, 12 November 2017

The trial and execution of Joseph Le Bon

It is not as your husband that I must die, it is as a true citizen, as one of the leaders of the popular cause.
 Le Bon's last letter to his wife.

In the months leading up to fall of Robespierre, there was increased criticism of Le Bon's high-handed conduct.  In April 1794 he cut across the loyalty of the Arras revolutionaries by arresting several prominent former members the Revolutionary Tribunal - the president Beugniet, the public prosecutor Demuliez and Gabriel Leblond and his wife – who were escorted to Paris to face trial.  Criticism was orchestrated by the Pas-de-Calais deputy Armand Guffroy, who wrote against Le Bon's violence and denounced his irregularities to  the Convention.  Robespierre himself seems to have hesitated for some time over leaving Le Bon in Arras: his longstanding friend Buissart wrote to Robespierre that he and his wife were “outraged by your silence”; Charlotte Buissart came to Paris to plead personally.  Guffroy, a former colleague in the episcopal court,  appealed to Robespierre against the “tyrant”.  Lebas, on the other hand, maintained that Le Bon was "worth a whole garrison of soldiers".   At this point, the Committee of Public Safety decided to keep him in post, probably persuaded by Saint-Just who had entrusted him with the administration of justice in Cambrai.  He was briefly recalled in May 1794 but vindicatedOn 21 Messidor (9th July 1794) Barère spoke in his defence before the Assembly.  However,  the following day the Committee relieved him of his authority and suspended the tribunals in Arras and Cambrai.

These events were interrupted by 9 Thermidor. Le Bon returned hurriedly to Paris where he was accused in the Convention of being a "second Robespierre". Arrested on 15 Thermidor, he was incarcerated in abject conditions in the Luxembourg, at Meaux, then in the Conciergerie, whilst a commission of twenty-one members of the Convention examined his acts.  Among those sitting in judgment were Collot d'Herbois and Billaud-Varenne, both of whom were anxious to defect attention from their own deeds.  Finally on 19 Thermidor Year III (6th August 1795) he was transferred to Amiens to face trial before a specially constituted jury.

In all he was held for fourteen months. During this time he conducted a correspondance of "great sensibility" with his wife.  (His son Émile Le Bon, later a juge d'instruction, published these letters in 1845 with a preface in which he attempted to rehabilitate his father).

Le Bon asked in vain for his dossiers which had been seized in Arras. He was without money to pay a lawyer or to pay for witnesses.  He was condemned for excessive abuse of power by the criminal tribunal of the Somme on 13 Vendémiaire IV (5th octobre 1795).  The death sentence was ratified by the Convention and read to him at 11 o'clock in the morning of 
24 Vendémiaire IV, 13th October 1795. He was executed on the place du Grand-Marché, the central square of Amiens, on the same day.

He was thirty years old.

As Le Bon was taken from the prison to the guillotine the executioner was obliged to support him to prevent him from falling.  Following the execution on the crowded square, his remains were buried in a fosse commune in a nearby cemetery.  A baying crowd followed the executioners' assistants, invaded the cemetery and threw stones into the ditch after him.  Forty years later his remains were rediscovered, recognised by the stones that still covered them;  the skeleton was exhumed and a doctor in Amiens examined the skull which, in Lenotre's time, still resided "in a collection".


Le Bon's defence

Barère's defence of Le Bon in July 1794; the reference to "des formes un peu acerbes" later became notorious:
The man who crushes the enemies of the people, albeit with an excess of zeal and patriotism, cannot be the object of censure.  Le Bon's measures were "a little harsh" but these measures  destroyed the progress of aristocracy.  He has been reproached with excessive severity, but he unmasked false patriots... What is not permitted to the hatred of a republican against aristocracy?...Revolutionary measures are always to be spoken of with respect.  Liberty is a virgin whose veil it is not lawful to lift."
Report to the National Convention on behalf of the Committee of Public Safety, 21 messidor II (9th July 1794). 

Le Bon retained the loyalty of many radicals in the Pas-de-Calais:
Since Joseph Le Bon was sent on mission to our region, patriotism has triumphed and aristocracy cowers in the houses of detention.  If the constituted authorities have been purified;  if public officials deserve the citizens' trust; if Counter-Revolutionaries have been punished for their conspiracies; the department of the Pas-de-Calais owes this to your colleague.  It is his voice which has galvanised the popular societies and inspired the whole people to revolutionary heights. Yet just as he tastes the fruits of his work, when the department, purges of traitors and enemies of liberty, breathes the pure air of republicanism, the author of this change, the regenerator of the public spirit, is calomnied.
Letter from the Jacobins of Boulogne, in support of Le Bon, July 1794. quoted, Jacob, Joseph Le Bon, vol. 2, p.280.

Le Bon's own speeches and letters of justification, produced over fourteen months, run to many thousands of words.  Much of his effort is concerned with answering specific charges of judicial misconduct and peculation.  However deluded, he seems to have sincerely believed he had done no more than carry out the will of the Convention in defence of the Revolution.  

La défense du Conventionnel Joseph Le Bon edited by Louis Jacob (1934)

Lettres de Joseph Le Bon à sa femme pendant les quatorze mois de prison, edited by Émile Le Bon (1845)]

Oh my Colleagues! When in the middle of the fire of universal torment, you yourself adopted such measures, were your intentions criminal and perfidious?  No, to be sure.  Then why do you not judge my actions by your own?" 
Letter addressed to the Convention,  La défense, p.84

Will we say, because of our troubles, that virtue is a chimera, and that we were wrong to hold ourselves to it?  This blasphemy will never enter my heart. I congratulate myself that I was never a slave to riches, nor pride,  envy, debauchery or hatred towards any particular individual. I hated only the enemies of my country, the enemies of the Revolution.   I pursued scoundrels of all sorts:  that is my only crime and I do not feel so cowardly as to repent of it.
Letter to his wife, dated 19 fructidor II (5th September 1794) Lettres p.133

 Notes addressed by Le Bon the Committees of Public Safety and of Legislation shortly after his condemnation on 11 October 1795.  Le Bon argues in detail that he cannot be directly condemned for acts of judicial murder which were the result of his "provocation".  Autograph manuscript on sale with Thomas Vincent in Paris for 1,700 €. 

Le Bon's last days

A final letter to his wife:
Guard against losing your self in bitterness and resentment. Ask if you can find in the whole of history a single man who has been useful to his country that has been paid with anything other than ingratitude in his lifetime.   Such is the  fate of almost all those called by Heaven to great destinies; thus must they purchase the eternal glory of their name and the pride of their descendants.

Be, my dearest, the worthy wife of Joseph Le Bon. If the happiness of our union has been short, providence reserves for you other pleasures to compensate.  You will see all patriots moved with respect and tenderness whenever they meet the companion of their faithful and invariable friend..  Do not say that I am going to die, I am going to start a new life in all those hearts devoted to the republic!....

It is not as your husband that I must die, it is as a true citizen, as one of the leaders of the popular cause;  this great mission must be fulfilled with greatness.
Letter from Amiens "or rather the Champs-Élysées", 19 Vendémiaire IV (11th October 1794) Lettres, p.257

Le Bon's last hurried note to his brother-in-law Abraham Régniez, who followed him to Amiens:
Fairwell! Abraham!  Fine young man!  Always stay the same; hold up the courage of your sister, of my old father, her mother and all my relatives.  I shall soon be sleeping, away from all ills. Give my wife a thousand kisses from me;  Dearest Mimie, Pauline, Émile! ...let yourselves be consoled!  I send a shirt, a handkerchief, a copy of the Constitutional Act, two combs, my spoon and my fork.  I owe twenty francs to be paid to the gaoler for my sheets.  Fairwell to all our friends, and long life the Republic!
Amiens, 24 vendémiaire, Pauline's second birthday. 
Lettres...., p.258

[After his condemnation] Le Bon dined as usual; after his meal he asked for eau-de-vie and drank a pint in two sessions. As he left the maison de justice, he exhorted the prisoners to conduct themselves like good republicans.  In the tranfer from the prison to the Grand-Marche, the executioner was forced to support him on several occasions to prevent him from falling.  He kept silent until the moment of the execution.
Procès de Joseph Lebon, quoted in Auguste Paris, Terreur dans le Pas-de-Calais, vol. ii, p.338-9.

When they dressed him in the red shirt (of the parricide) to be executed, he cried out, "It isn't me who should be wearing it; it should be sent to the National Convention...." He was half-dead by the time they carried him to the scaffold, and he received the fatal blow without noticing it, as he doubtless would have wished.  The executioner took his head by the hair and showed it, at the four corners of the scaffold, to the immense crowd which filled the square even to the rooftops of the surrounding houses.

Joseph Le Bon was the last criminal condemned in the beautiful antique Salle du Baillage. He was  buried near the farm of the field "aux Navats".

Ten years later, when they excavated the abandoned cemetery, they recognised his body from the quantity of stones thrown into the ditch by the indignant crowd.  A famous surgeon of Amiens carried off his head to conserve it in his collection of anatomical specimens.
A Goze, Histoire des rues d'Amiens, vol. iii, p.129, quoted by Paris, vol. ii, p.338-9.

A young woman from Cambrai, whose family who had been persecuted during the Terror, wished to be present at the execution of this abhorred individual;  she came to Amiens and hired a window place in an attic overlooking the town square.  At the moment the executioner positioned Le Bon on the plank, a spectator next to her keeled over and lay unconscious on the floor.  His neighbour remained unmoved;  she did not want to miss the horrible drama;  but when it was all over, she came to herself and hurried to help the striken man, though reproaching him a little for his lack of courage on such an occasion.  "Ah" mademoiselle, he responded, I imagined myself to be stronger;  but when I saw the monster on the bascule, I thought that he found himself in the same position he had forced on seventeen members of my family, and the memory overcame me"
Quelques souvenirs du règne de la Terreur à Cambrai, par P.-J. Thénard, Cambrai, 1860. Quoted by Lenotre.

The verdict of the historians

The probity and civic devotion of Le Bon, tenderness towards his family and affection for the poor,  struck even the most hostile authors. The Thermidorians, who gloried hypocritically  in having reestablished regular forms of justice, refused him the means of defence by sequestering his papers, and left him to cover the expenses of witnesses, knowing that he had no money to meet the costs (Comment of Georges Lefebvre )

Joseph Le Bon had shown in his interrogation and defence the energy of a man who wanted to save his life.  However, the letters he wrote to his wife demonstrate, that he had no illusion about the fate which awaited him.  Faced with imminent death, he fell back on the ties of family and abandoned to passionate emotion that same heart which the tears of so many widows and orphans had failed to move. 
(Auguste Paris, Le Terreur dans le Pas-de-Calais, vol.ii, p.336)

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