Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Tanneries of human skin? An war crime in the Vendée

The charge that French Revolutionaries tanned the hides of executed prisoners to make boots and trousers seems extravagant, but it has been surprisingly persistent.  Repeated throughout the 19th century, it has recently taken on a whole new lease of life on the internet.  Sometimes the interest is merely ghoulish;  but the allegation has also been used, most conspicuously by Reynald Secher,  to support  the idea of a "genocide" in the Vendée. 

In 2014 Jean-Clément Martin devoted a whole book  to "establishing the truth about flaying human skins and tanning them", in which  he reviewed the documentary evidence and explored the cultural context.  He entitled his book, "Un detail inutile?". Useless detail?  No indeed;  when viewed superficially, the cumulative weight of evidence seems impressive, but its limitations are soon revealed under the searching gaze of "le microhistoire".

There are in fact several different strands to the rumours concerning "tanneries of human skins". Let us look first of all at the accusations as they relate directly to the War in the Vendée.

1. An atrocity at Les Ponts-de-Cé

Almost all the direct evidence relates to one specific incident which took place at Les Ponts-de-Cé near Angers.  After Thermidor, in October and November 1794, an exceptional committee sat at Angers to judge the conduct of the Military Commission and Revolutionary Committee in the area during the Terror.  It heard hundreds of witnesses, including dozens of inhabitants of Les Ponts-de-Cé who denounced abuses of power during the last bloody phase of the war, after the Virée de Galerne,when the remnants of the Vendéan army had fallen back towards Angers and attempted to cross the Loire.  At Les Ponts-de-Cé hundreds had been arrested, summarily executed and their bodies thrown into the river.  Among the many depositions, are key testimonies concerning the tanning of human skins.  The records, preserved in the departmental archives of Maine-et-Loire, were published in full for the first time by François Uzureau in 1902.

The four men who testified denounced a military surgeon named Pequel who had flayed "thirty or so" corpses;  two of the witnesses stated that the skins had been tanned at the premises of tanner in Les Ponts-de-Cé called Langlais. Other tanners were named who had been threatened but had refused to co-operate. The skins were said to have been subsequently taken to the premises of a manchonnier (a "sleeve-maker" or furrier) in Angers called Prud'homme:

[The witness testifies] that Pequel, surgeon of the 4th Batallion of the Ardennes, flayed thirty-two of these bodies, had them taken to the tanner Lemonnier in Les Ponts-Libres to be tanned, that this man refused, that the skins are now with Prud'homme, a manchonnier in Angers.  Deposition of Jean-Claude Humeau.

Among the victims, there were thirty or so that a certain Pequel, officier de santé, had flayed.  He did the skinning himself on the banks of the Loire;  he sent the skins to the tanners of Les Ponts-Libres;  only one, called Langlais, when threatened, allowed the skins to be worked at his premises, by soldiers....They had been sent to Angers. Deposition of Jean-Eléonore Poitevin

The witness testifies] that...he found Pequel, surgeon of the 4th Batallion of the Ardennes, who had despoiled a number of bodies, the skins of which he had in a pocket.  
Deposition of Pierre Chesneau 

The historian Anne Rolland-Boulestreau, has studied the evidence in detail, and published her conclusions in an article freely available on the internet (see reference below)

As far as they go, the details can be all be verified.  Anne Rolland-Boulestreau has traced records of the tanners and furrier mentioned, and confirms that there was indeed a Philippe Pikelle or Pequel, who was a surgeon or officier de santé in the 4th Batallion of the Ardennes Regiment.

However, she also observes that the witnesses were not neutral observers. Far from being anonymous "inhabitants of Les Ponts-de-Cé", they were notable members of the Revolutionary administration:  Claude Humeau was justice of the peace, Jean-Eléonore Poitevin the national agent of the commune, and the other two senior municipal officials. These were men anxious to deflect blame from themselves onto the uncontrolled violence of the Republican soldiery, ready to divulge as many details as possible of the fusillades and other potential excesses that had taken place. It was in their interest to make the most of the flaying and tanning story. They were, they implied, politically powerless, even in the face of such horrors: "if the witnesses are are to be believed, Pequel imposed on them an abominable spectacle by flaying the skin of Vendéans before their eyes.  He had violated their conscience, making them complicit by their silence, in the tanning of human hides."
Anne Rolland-Boulestreau is sceptical that the skins could ever have really been made into trousers or shoes:  given the protracted nature of the tanning process, they could not have been prepared, recouped and sold in Angers within a credible timeframe. (p.25).

There is a single additional piece of evidence.  In 1852 the historian Godard Faultrier actually managed to track down an old man who had been an eye-witness to the fusillades at Sainte-Gemmes, a few miles from Les Ponts-de-Cé, when he was aged thirteen or fourteen.
When asked about the thirty victims whose skins had been removed and tanned, he replied that the fact was certain; that he had seen with his own eyes, several bodies in this state, lying beside the water on the river bank.  But how can we believe such horrors?  I asked him.  I am not deceiving you, he said, and I can even tell you that they had been skinned from the  midpoint of the body down;  the skin was cut below the belt, then along the thighs to the that, after its removal, the trousers were partly formed;  all that remained to do was to tan and to sew.
Testimony of sieur Robin, on 31 May 1852,
Godard  Faultrier,  Le champ des martyrs (3rd ed. 1869) p.126-7:

Clearly there is no real means of assessing the accuracy of this testimony sixty years after the event.

We are left, then, with a single culpable individual, significantly enough a surgeon.  Gruesome though the circumstances are, there were only thirty prisoners were involved, out of the 1,200 to 1,500 estimated to have been executed at Les-Ponts-de-Cé.

The Société populaire in Angers, in its report to the Convention of 25th November 1794,  was eagar to denounce the aberration:
 These cannibals have pushed barbarity to the point of choosing among these poor people, thirty or so of the best looking, who were skinned and their skins tanned! Men who called themselves patriots dressed themselves in this awful garment! 
Quoted in Godard Faultrier, Le champ des martyrs (3rd ed. 1869)

2. Some other accounts 

Could Pequel really have been the only guilty party?  It seems improbable that the rumours can all have stemmed from this one incident. The other evidence is unreliable and anecdotal.  However, there is quite a cumulation of references to corroborate at least the idea of breeches made human leather, especially worn by cavalry officers. There is no means of telling whether or not such "anthropodermic" trophies were genuine, but they do seem to have featured in the military culture of the time - just  as Louis Combes tells us they later did under the July Monarchy.

Here, such as they are, are the main sources that I have found:

Evidence from the Ancien Régime

The reference books and technical manuals of the later 18th century countenance the possibility of tanning human skin.  Jaucourt in the Encyclopédie refers to experiments carried out by the royal surgeon Pierre Sue, who contributed a pair of slippers to the Cabinet du Roi; but  here we are pretty much in the realms of amusements de laboratoire.  More interesting are the manuals of Joseph Jérôme Le Français de Lalande from the early 1760s, which include the Art of the Chamoiseur (1963), that is a maker of soft "chamois" leather; this was a  process quite distinct from the  tanning of ordinary leather.  In this work, Lalande tells use that stockings made out of dogskins have a soothing natural grease, and that sometimes human skin has been used, as it is good for putting next to the body or callouses on the feet.
Nouveau manuel complete de chamoiseur....(1763)
In his Art of the tanner (1764),Lalande also comments that human skins have been found to be difficult to work because of the grease.

Rumours about the tannery in Étampes

Writing about the Convention, Aimée de Coigny made the throwaway observation in her journal that there were "three tanneries" for human skin, in Angers, Étampes and Meudon.  Angers and Meudon were well-known, but why Étampes?  Maybe it was just that the town was  a centre for industrial tanning.

 However, Étampes also features in a letter published bGranier de Cassagnac in his History of the Directory, from an avocat of the Cour d'appel in Paris.  Writing in September 1851, Granier de Cassagnac's correspondent reports that his grandfather had been a leading Paris tanner, and a syndic of the tanners' corporation.  His father, at the age of fifteen or sixteen, had dealings with a tanneur-mégissier, who prepared human skins.  He was called Simonnot or Simoneau, his works were in Étampes but he had a warehouse in Paris.  His father saw human skins there, he is not certain at what date or where they came from; but he knew that among tanners at the time this trade, though not conducted openly, "was a mystery to no-one".  They were destined mainly for trousers for army officers. 
Granier de Cassagnac, Histoire de la Directoire, vol. 1(1851)
At such a distance in time, the credibility of the witness was hard to judge.  However, "Simonnot or Simoneau" existed;  he was Jacques Guillaume Simmoneau, a prominent tanner from Étampes who, at the beginning of the Revolution, had a workshop employing 60 workers; he was elected mayor of Étampes in 1791 but killed in March 1792 when he resisted a crowd wanting  to fix the price of bread. It is also perhaps significant that Étampes was a centre for the production of chamois leather. (A "moulin à chamois" operated there from 1717 to 1797 under famous marchand-chamoiseur François Rigault;. see "Le moulin à Peaux, alias Chamois", Corpus Étampois,

Trousers belonging to the duc d'Orléans

The source of the statement that the duc d'Orléans wore trousers made of human hide is a history of 1827 by the abbé de Montgaillard, a former Royalist agent and fabricator of many dubious anecdotes.  Montgaillard states that Égalité acquired his trousers from the tannery at Meudon, but the dates don't fit, since he was imprisoned and executed before any Revolutionary establishment was set up there.  The story is probably just malicious, but  there is something temptingly plausible about the idea of the duc parading round the Palais-Royal in such a horrible garment.....
Guillaume-Honoré Roques, abbé de Montgaillard, Histoire de France depuis la fin du règne de Louis XVI jusqu’en 1825, vol.IV,  p.290 note.

Trousers worn by General Beyssier at Nantes

The Royalist historian, Jacques Crétineau-Joly in his Histoire de la Vendée militaire, first published in 1840, claimed that the Republican general Beyssier, was the first to wear human skin, during the defence of Nantes.  
In those days of bloody madness, [Beyssier] dared to be the first to wear, in the midst of combat and reviewing his troops, a pair of trousers made from the prepared and tanned skin of Vendéan soldiers who had been flayed after the battle.  This was an abominable trophy, of which he was proud, a horrible fashion that he made popular. 
Jacques Crétineau-Joly, Histoire de la Vendée militaire,5th ed. Paris, 1865, Tome 1, p.184.

According to Prudhomme in a work published in 1824, at the Festival of the Supreme Being several deputies wore breeches made of human skin which were "like those sent to Barère by a general in the Vendée".
Histoire impartiale des revolutions, vol.VIII (1824) p.390

Testimony of a veteran encountered by the comtesse de La Bouëre 

The Souvenirs of the comtesse de La Bouëre, record that in 1829, whilst researching the Virée de Galerne in La Flèche, she met an old Republican soldier who "boasted of having flayed brigands in order to have their skins tanned in Nantes"; to have "worn trousers made out of the leather and furthermore to  and to have sold a dozen other pairs".  His geography is vague and, unfortunately for his credibility,  he also claimed to have served in the colonnes infernales, participated in the noyades,  thrown prisoners down a well at Clisson and even melted corpses of 150 Vendéan women for their fat. The comtesse commented mildly, "It is to be believed that this braggart exaggerated his crimes."
Antoinette Charlotte Le Duc, comtesse de La Bouère, La guerre de la Vendée, 1793-1796 : mémoires inédits, Paris, Plon, 1890, p. 306-13.

Other veterans

  • A second letter was published by Granier de Cassagnac, this time from a former commissaire in the Revolutionary army, who claimed that he had seen "several officers in Saumur, Angers and Nantes", wearing breeches made of human skin.  He could not  confirm that they came from tanneries in Les Ponts de Cé nor that the skins were from soldiers in the Vendéen army.

  • According to Paul Lacroix, the "Bibliophile Jacob", a certain Souterre, former Hussard de la Mort,  assured him that he had worn breeches made of human skin. He had the same admission from an architect, who had been one of the Bande Noire in 1823: whilst in the army he had worn trousers of human skin which were "very well tanned, very supple and very comfortable". (ICC, 1870-73, p.460)

  • In a technical manual of 1841, Jean-Sébastien-Eugène Julia de Fontenelle,  claimed that he "knew an artillery officer who had breeches made from a woman's skin.  Generally, however, such operations were little performed".   Julia de Fontenelle, Nouveau manuel complet du chamoiseur, pelletier-fourreur, maroquinier ..(1841), p......101-2.

3. Material evidence:  

The Nantes soldier 

Until relatively recently a tanned human skin from the Revolutionary period was on display in the Muséum des sciences naturelles in Nantes. In  January 2006 an organisation called Collectif des Libertés bretonnes invaded the museum and demanded that the hide, the "relic" of a Chouan combattant,  be handed over and buried on Breton soil.  The museum diplomatically withdrew the exhibit  "on ethical grounds", though, as Jean-Clément Martin points out, it had been happily viewed and discussed up until this point.

The irony is that the skin was not that of a Chouan at all.  According to an article by Lenotre published in the Le monde illustré in 1898, it belonged to a Republican soldier who was killed on 29th June 1793 during the defence of Nantes. (A massive bullet hole was still visible in the chest)  At the moment of his death, the soldier asked for a drum to be made out of his skin, so that it could be beaten for his comrades as they charged into battle;  sadly, the hide proved too flimsy and he was denied his  posthumous glory.  In 1811 the curio was bought by the founder of the museum, François René Dubuisson, for 15 francs.  It seems to have been largely forgotten until the 1960s, when it was put on display - in a case with a blackened  mummy and a gruesome Maori head - and  written up in various guidebooks.  Of course, the provenance is not absolutely watertight, but the tale chimes well enough with other episodes of Republican bravado. (One thinks for instance of the young Théodore Lavaux, who, faced with the Vendéan firing squad, famously cut the word Liberté into his arm, to distinguish his corpse from the royalist dead.)

Photographs of the hide in its display case are reproduced on loads of websites - I'm not about to add another one!

The website belonging to the Collectif des Libertés bretonnes can still be viewed: you certainly need to be sure of your facts, if you are going to be this extreme:
A human skin, tanned and used as a garment?  That seems to you impossible?  Yet it was done. ...This hide was produced in 1793 and it is that of a chouan who fought the politics of terror and extermination of the French Revolution.  It was a genocide, freely perpetrated, calculated, carefully executed, an absolute and permanent will to exterminate (200,000 dead)...200 years have passed.  Brittany has pardoned, but it must not forget.  We demand that [the skin] be withdrawn immediately to rest in a sepulcre worthy to receive it.
For the article by Lenotre, see Clémentine Portier-Kaltenbach, Histoires d'os et autres illustres abattis (2012), p.191-4.

[Although unusual, human skins were not absolutely unknown in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In his article Lenotre related an anecdote from Cabanès in his Chronique médicale, that the lycée de Versailles possessed before 1870, the entire skin of a gardener who died at the time of the continental blockade, when trade in hides was interrupted. This is probably the same  skin recorded by Julia de Fontenelle as "in the Muséum de Versailles". ]

A skin from the archives at Vincennes. 

  • According to Clémentine Portier-Kaltenbach, the journal Souvenir chouan de Bretagne for 2006 noted that Reynald Secher had presented a slide in lectures in 1986-7 showing a skin he had found intact in the historical archives of the Château de Vincennes. The inference  is that this was another Vendéan prisoner.  Sadly,  I have been unable to find any further references.
What to conclude from all this?  The evidence is difficult to judge, but, beyond the single case at Les Ponts-de-Cé, there is nothing to suggest tanning human skins was a widespread or acceptable practice.  All the witnesses were in no doubt this was an evil aberration; there was no general will to dehumanise the defeated Vendéans; as Jean-Clément Martin puts it, there were "war crimes but no project of genocide".


Jean-Clément Martin,  Un détail inutile? Le dossier des peaux humaines tannées Vendée, Meudon, 1793-1794 (2013) [Extract]
Introduction by the Jean-Clément Martin (Youtube video)
Review / interview with Jean-Clément Martin in 20 Minutes

Anne Rolland-Boulestreau, "Résonance d’une 'perversion': tanner la peau humaine en Vendée militaire (1793-1794)" , Annales de Bretagne et des Pays de l’Ouest, 120-1 | 2013, 163-182.

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