Sunday, 28 January 2018

Carrier's trial and execution.

Carrier "during his trial" by Vivant Denon.  Sold at auction in 2013.

The trial of the Revolutionary Committee of Nantes

On 28 pluvôise Year II (16th February 1794) Carrier left Nantes, having been recalled at his own request.  He had been ill or inactive for most of February. He took up residence in Paris in the rue d'Argenteuil and resumed his place in the Convention. In July came the fall of Robespierre and, with it, the beginning of the Thermidorean  deconstruction of the Terror. 

The movement against Carrier began with the trial before the Revolutionary Tribunal between 22 and 29 fructidor Year II (13th-15th September 1794) of 94 (originally 132) citizens of Nantes accused of federalism and Counter-Revolutionary activity.  These men had been arrested on the order of the Revolutionary Committee in Nantes, with Carrier's countersignature, in November 1793 and had  taken forty days to complete a harrowing journey from Nantes to Paris.  They were now triumphantly acquitted and the Tribunal  authorised by the Convention to proceed against Nantes Revolutionary Committee instead.   

The trial of the Revolutionary Committee of Nantes, which  opened on 25 vendémiaire Year III (16th October 1794)  and concluded only two months later,  was the most protracted in history of the Revolutionary Tribunal.  As Corinne Gomez-Le Chevanton observes, the Act of Indictment already focused heavily on the noyades as the embodiment of Terrorist atrocities.   Thirteen members of the Committee were initially accused, followed by a further nineteen, and finally Carrier himself .  There were fifty-four hearings in all.  The proceedings took  place in great confusion, with no preliminary investigations;  there were huge inconsistencies in testimony as regards dates, those responsible for the atrocities and the number of victims. The accused immediately tried to place the entire blame on Carrier, "the man who electified our heads, guided our movements, despotised our opinions, directed our movements, and who contemplated calmly our tears and despair" (Declaration of Goullin)   

The indictment of Carrier

On 8 brumaire Year III (29th October) the Convention put in place a commission of twenty-one members, drawn by lot, to examine the case against Carrier himself.  Its conclusions were presented and debated over the course of three days, 1-3 frumaire (21st-23rd November 1794).  On the last morning the exhausted Carrier pleaded sickness, but was summoned to appear.   That afternoon, visibly affected and with altered voice,  he presented his final defence to the Assembly.  His speech, which was subsequently published, reiterated that he had only executed his mission and was not responsible for individual abuses.  He was subsequently taken back to his lodgings whilst the Convention voted. 498 deputies supported  his indictment, with only two absentees.  Those who voted against him included all the most notable surviving Jacobins:  Bourdon, Collot d'Herbois, Maignet, Billaud-Varenne, Albitte, Duhem,  Barère and Fouché. (When Carrier, heard the verdict, he exclaimed at this betrayal: "Quoi! Duhem, quoi! Billaud, quoi!  Barère m'ont abandonné; je suis perdu".)

When the sectionnaires came to escort him to the Conciergerie in the small hours of the morning he attempted suicide but was successfully disarmed. Three days later, on the morning of 7 frumaire he appeared before the Revolutionary Tribunal, surrounded by Gendarmes, to have the indictment read to him.    He refused to acknowledge the jurisdiction of the Tribunal and, when no advocate could be found to defend him, he angrily announced that he would defend himself.  The trial took place before a crowded courtroom, with still more spectators congregated outside.

The judicial process was stacked against Carrier.  The report of the Commission of Twenty-One, was composed either of denunciations by former Nantes administrators, or depositions collected specially for the trial by the Committe of Surveillance in Nantes.  This evidence tended to focus on Carrier personally, neglecting the other actors in the repression in Nantes.  Dossiers on  Fouquet and Lamberty, who had been condemned and guillotined after Carrier's departure, were requested but never presented. Carrier drew up a list of persons that he wished to appear in his defence, including high-ranking military personal and members of the Convention, but only eight were summoned. The others were not even invited to produce written testimony.  

Among the witnesses who testified against him, the most damaging were former members of the Revolutionary administration of Nantes and the directors of the popular society Vincent-la-Montagne, who wished to escape accusation themselves.  These included the mayor Renard, the president of the department Minée;  and François Bignon, who had overseen the shooting of almost 2,000 prisoners.  

Particularly damning testimony came from the hospital director Laënnec,  who consistently overestimated the number of Carrier's victims and insisted on the reality of the "republican marriages". His most redoubtable accuser, however, was  Phelippes Tronjolly, former president of the Nantes Revolutionary Tribunal in Nantes, who had engineered the fall from grace of the Revolutionary Committee. Relieved of his post prior to Carrier's departure,  Phelippes had defended the 132 Nantais.  He had previously denounced the noyades in a published memoir but without accusing Carrier personally - there are letters from him addressed to Carrier in which he praises the Representative's honesty and courage.  Now he penned a second memoir in which he accused Carrier of "crimes et attentats".  Added to these notables were a host of ordinary witnesses - doctors, concierges, prison guards, National Fuardsmen, workers in the ports and boatyards and  simple "colporteurs de la rumeur". 
Jean-Joël Brégeon comments:
 In truth, at two century's distance, the true interest of the trial lies less in the [detailed depositions]...than in the behaviour of the accused towards one another.  They had almost all understood that the essential aim was to convince the Tribunal that "someone else" was responsible. The behaviour of Goullin, Chaux and Bachelier [members of the Revolutionary Committee] was "pure ignominy", that of Carrier himself "a mixture of roguery, falsity and naivity

Carrier himself eschewed  personal accusations;   as Brégeon notes, his was a "political defence".  At first he tried to deny the accusations altogether, but soon realised that no-one believed his innocence.  He then made difficulties, demanding to see the originals of his orders, or insisting on the appearance of witnesses  such as Kléber and Marceau - who could verify his conduct.  Finally, knowning himself lost, he no longer troubled to conceal the truth but launched into suicidal protestations of collective responsibility.  Fusillades and noyades had taken place elsewhere. The Convention had sanctioned his actions:

Yes, the Convention was aware that brigands were shot by the hundreds.  What were the deputies doing then who set themselves against me?  They applauded.  Why was my mission continued?  I was the saviour of the Fatherland, but now I am a man of blood.

Condemnation and execution

The final judgment  was delivered on 26 frimaire year III (16th December 1794).. Carrier had spoken from midnight to four-thirty in the morning.  He expressed himself with astonishing calm before a quietened audience, displaying a dignity which did not leave him to his death.  The jury returned its verdict at six in the morning. Carrier was condemned to death, as were the two most compromised of the Nantes Terrorists,  Moreau-Grandmaison and Jean Pinard.  The remaining thirty-three members of the Revolutionary Committee were all acquitted on the grounds that they had been misled by their patriotic zeal.

At two o'clock that same afternoon the three men were escorted from the Conciergerie to the Place de Grève where they were guillotined.  Carrier was thirty-six years old.

Guillotine blade, 1794

This unpleasant little curiosity comes from the  collection of Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, in the Euston Road.  It belonged, so the label informs us, to the very machine which decapitated the "cruel and sadistic" Carrier!  No clues as to how Henry Wellcome came upon such a gruesome object.....


Jean-Joël Brégeon, Carrier et la Terreur nantaise 2016 (original edition 1987)
Corinne Gomez-Le Chevanton,  "Le procès Carrier", Annales historiques de la Révolution française No. 343. 2006


Take care citizens, the stormy chances of revolutions, passions, the opinion of the moment, lead to unfortunate excess; the return of calm allows one to deplore the consequences, but such regrets are tardy and superfluous.

Reason and philosophy have rehabilitated the memory of Calas; but we have only sterile tears to lay on his tomb.

What would you have done in my place?  What were my intentions?  To be sure, I had none other than to save the Republic.
Carrier, Discours prononcé .. à la Convention nationale : dans la séance du soir du 3 frimaire de l'an III

Official account of the execution of the order for Carrier's arrest
Citizen two o'clock in the morning....entered Carrier's lodgings. They found Carrier lying in bed.  After he had been read the order [for his arrest], Carrier was invited to get up.  He asked if he could draw the curtains of his bed;  Lafford refused ...Carrier insisted forcefully, and when he was refused, seized with his right hand a pistol à deux coups, which he brought up quickly to his mouth; Laffond, alarmed by the gesture, fell on him, and after a short and determined struggle, managed to disarm him.

It is to be observed that Laffond had not seen the pistol, and did not even suspect its existence, since all Carrier's weapons had been taken; he believed from Carrier's movement that he intended to take poison that he had procured. Once disarmed Carrier was forced to get up; but he turned to Laffond and said, "Patriots will not forgive you for having prevented me from blowing out my brains."  "On the contrary, replied Laffond,  I have carried out a sacred trust in obeying the order of the Convention".

On route to the prison, Carrier, now less angry, asked Laffond to ensure that he was treated as a Representative of the people;  on arrival he asked the concierge for a well-ventilated room: since he was accustomed to breathing the air of the mountains,  fresh air was more important to him than to other people.
Histoire parlementaire, vol. 34 (1837) p.135.

The execution of Carrier - from the Memoirs of Sanson 

The news of the condemnation of Carrier spread through Paris with incredible speed;  my grandfather heard of it before the order for the execution arrived...Learning that the author of so many atrocities...was finally going to pay for his crimes the entire city took on an atmosphere of festivity, like the day of military victory. No doubt it was a triumph over the odious principles of Terror...yet  public joy in such circumstances, had something offensive about it; as  Carrier himself had said, after the horrible crises we had gone through humanity itself seemed dead, or no longer had the voice to make itself heard.

My grandfather journeyed at two o'clock to the Conciergerie.  The condemned men were led into the avant-greffe to be prepared.  Grandmaison was the first.  That slaughterer of the feeble trembled before death; he was disfigured by pallor, walked with difficulty and scarcely breathed.  In contrast Pinard, who was second, had succombed to an anger which bordered on delirium;  he was a short man, heavy and thickset, with a sinister face.  When he saw Carrier, he escaped from the assistances who were tying his hands, leapt onto his former chief, seized him by the throat and tried to strangle him.  Without the intervention of  the assistants and the gendarmes, Carrier would undoubtedly have perished there and then at the hands of his former accomplice.  They managed to grab the fanatic; Carrier freed himself swiftly but without anger, and, when Pinard continued to pursue him with  invectives..., he shrugged his shoulders and said to the gendarmes  in an authoritative voice, "Get rid of this madman"...

Whilst they cut his hair, he talked much, repeating what he had already said before the Tribunal; that he had come away from his position of power a poor man;  that he had appropriated none of the goods of the Republic; that his worth was the same as before the Revolution, a smallholding of 10,000 livres; that he left a wife who would not have enough money to live on.  At this thought, he appeared moved, but his emotion was not like that of other men;  it expressed itself by nervous spasms which shook his whole body, and by a wandering of his eyes. He came to himself almost immediately and said that "he would die  happy if his death contributed to the consolidation of the Republic; that, he was fully confident that posterity would vindicate him.  This claim seemed so strange from the lips of Carrier,that, despite the solemnity of the situation, those there could not suppress a smile.  He repeated again that he died victim to the duplicity of the Committee, that he had always acted according to his orders, that he would not have been tried if the originals of those orders had been in his possession.

The three condemned men were put together in the same cart; the frustration of Pinard continued to grow:  on several occasions he tried to bite Carrier who was next to him: it was necessary to place an assistant between them so that he was not torn apart.  During the journey, the people shouted furious curses. There was so much hate in their voices, so much detestation in their eyes, that you would have thought each one of them  had a loved one to see avenged.  The rage of the multitude made no impression on Carrier;  he withstood the stares and listened to the terrible taunts without lowering his gaze. ...This endurance maddened the crowd, whose indignation grew as the cart progressed;  they seemed to believe that Carrier outraged nature and law still further by not dying a coward.  When the cortege arrived at the place de Grève, at the foot of the scaffold, the crowd began to cheer before the blade had fallen; they wanted the condemned men to take to their graves the memory of the satisfaction of those who had watched die;  a thunder of applause greeted their descent from the cart.

Grandmaison was executed first.  He made his end like the miserable creature he was;  terror froze his blood and paralysed his nerves.  At the moment he was climbing the ladder Pinard threw himself backwards on the assistants and fought them with his feet, his tied hands and his teeth; he was a strong man and it took four executioners to fell him and carry him onto the bascule.  He too was afraid when face to face with the instrument of death.

Carrier mounted the steps, calm, cold, impassive; but just as  Desmoret put a hand on his shoulder to push him onto the bascule, in the solemn silence as twenty thousand people held their breath, the shrill note was heard of a clarinette playing the Ça ira.  Carrier turned brusquely in the direction of this supreme outrage;  his eyes remained menacing, but his  face lost its composure, and forgetting that he too in his orgies had insulted the dying, he murmured:
- Vile people, I regret having served you!
That was the only amende honorable that Carrier made.  A moment afterwards his head rolled.

Sept générations d'exécuteurs, 1688-1847 : Mémoires des Sanson. T. 5 (1862)

From the Memoirs of Antoine Tortat
A short time after my arrival in Paris, the Convention had indicted Carrier, Pinard and Grandmaison for the drowings and assassinations that they had carried out in Nantes.  I assiduously followed the sessions where Carrier, under strong attack, tried to defend himself.  He was a lanky man, with a pallid complexion, boney, still wearing his hair in the straight style of the Jacobins.  His explanations provoked great storms.  The special tribunal condemned them promptly to death.  I wanted to attend their execution on the Place de Grève in front of the Hôtel de Ville; a crowd had gathered.   Pinard and Grandmaison were executed first.  Carrier, led in his turn before the guillotine,  was deadly pale.  I was struck at that moment, not by pity but by something more undefinable, a moment of weakness which would have thrown me to the ground if I had not been held up by the people around me;  I could not bear to see this third head fall; I was forced to avert my eyes and lean on a neighbour until I had regained my senses....
Correspondance historiques et archaeologiques, 1908, p.343-4

The Baron de Barante, writing in 1835, gave an unusually shrewd and sympathetic account of Carrier's trial.
The 9th Thermidor arrived; those who triumphed over Robespierre, saw themselves carried by the tide to overthrow the scaffolds, and take a new direction.  As soon as the effusion of blood was once stopped, a universal outcry, which became louder and louder was raised against men that had shed so much.  To capitivate public opinion it ws necessary for public men to lend themselves when called upon upon to a just vengeance which animated all France.  Everyone of the Revolutionists hastened to exonerate himself, by laying the blame of all the massacres on his associates and colleagues;  and in their divisions they excited the people against such members of the National Convention as had gone a little father than others.

The troubles of the Vendée, which still lasted, the trial of some people of Nantes, whom Carrier had sent to Paris, and who, when they were brought into court (after 9th Thermidor), found themselves in a position to be accusers instead of victims, brought down execrations on his head;  and the public voice soon demanded the execution of Carrier.  The Convention was quite ready to commit him for trial.  In vain Carrier, with sang-froid, represented, that he had only obeyed the orders of the Convention;  that measures pretty much the same as his, had been adopted in other provinces; that, at the very time he was doing his work at Nantes, an authentic decree of the Convention had commanded the Republican generals to put all the Vendéans to the edge of the sword, and reduce all the villages to ashes: - that infernal columns (the troops merited the name) had executed those orders.  

"Why then," cried he, "should  you blame me today, for what your own votes and decrees ordered?  Does the Convention wish to condemn itself?  I predict it to you; you will all be enveloped in an inevitable that you will all be enveloped by an unavoidable proscription.  If I am punished as guilty, everyone and everything here is guilty, even down to the president's handbell."

Carrier's defence wss not listened to.  Perhaps there was some imprudence in attacking him; but the Convention would have been still more imprudent had it attempted to defend him.  He appeared before the tribunal, where the people could scarcely keep their hands off such a prisoner.  He repeated the same justification he had made before the National Convention.  All the proceedings on that trial - the depositions of witnesses - the recriminations of some of the subaltern agents of Carrier, who tried to throw the load of his crimes on them...form a long and horrid document, which cannot be perused by a feeling mind without great difficulty.  Carrier was condemned for having "ordered arbitrary executions with counter-revolutionary intentions"; so much were those who sent him to the scaffold obliged to manoeuvre, and be evasive, in order to cover themselves....

He met his death with firmness, repeating he was innocent; and, as M. de Barante remarks, in comparing himself with his accusers he might really consider himself as not very guilty!
Mélanges historiques et littéraires, translated into English by Leigh Hunt.

When they came to arrest him, after the denunciation of the Nantais, he tried to blow his brains out, but he was prevented.  For the forty days and sixty sessions of his trial, the cunning of the procureur reasserted itself beneath the ferocity of the proconsul.  He defended himself with the sang-froid of a man of affairs, step by step, hour by hour, inspite of the baying of the crowd.  He was no more thrown by revelations of the horrors he had perpetrated than he was by the cries of his victims. A true aberration of nature, he was indifferent to them in the same way as others are blind.  On the night of 26 frimaire year III, a few hours from going to the scaffold, and knowing himself irrevocably lost, he began to speak at midnight and continued his plea, as though speaking for another man, until four in the morning!

Standing upright in the cart, this tall man, stooped, bilious, boney, his great jaw hanging down as usual, endured impassively the public demonstrations of joy and the imprecations of his fellow victim the Nantais Pinard, who tried with each jolt to approach him and tear him with his teeth crying"Monster - it is you who have brought me to this state"

When he mounted the platform, where Pinard had struggled like an animal about to be butchered, he advanced by himself towards the plank of the guillotine. At that moment, from the foot of the scaffold, the shrill sound of a clarinette playing the Ça ira could be heard.  At this bloody irony, "he suddenly raised himself and darted a helpless and terrible look in the direction of the sound;  then he lowered his gaze and his head rolled on the scaffold".

Marcellin Boudet, "Carrier, Jean-Baptiste" in Les tribunaux criminels et la justice révolutionnaire en Auvergne, 1873, p.18-9.

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