The pamphlet was the work of the lawyer-turned-Revolutionary Louis-Eugène Poirier, a native of Dunkirk, who had found himself arrested as a suspected moderate and taken to theprison des Orphelinesin Arras in July 1793. He remained incarcerated for fourteen months. The first edition, written with his fellow prisoner Montgey, was produced whilst he was still in prison, in itself a considerable act of courage.
What comes across from Poirier's account is not so much the terrrible conditions in the prisons - though these were miserable enough - as the bewilderment of those detained. The majority were neither political activists nor even, in any real sense, enemies of the Revolution, but respectable and, for the most part prosperous, private citizens.
The Horrors of the Prisons of Arras; or, The Crimes of Joseph Lebon and his Agents
|English prisoners held at the Prison des Orphelines , Arras, 1794. Print of 1802. British Museum.|
Arrests in Arras before the arrival of Le Bon
In fact, one was arrested because, said they,he has aristocracy engraven in his heart; another, because it is depicted on his face; this individual, under pretext of an imaginary dismissal, which public acts belied; another, as a suspected person, without further denunciation; a fifth, upon the observation of a single member; a sixth, because, his father, his brother, or some of his relations, being already under arrest, it seemed convenient that he also should be imprisoned ; others, in fine—and they were in the greatest numbers—without any assignable cause, without any deliberation or process of the Committee of Surveillance or on the part of the other authorities.
There were even some people who were thought by the administrators to be at liberty at their own homes, although they had been more than a year immured in dungeons….
Not all the administration was guilty: some were merely cowed into silence. But others were later to gain public notoriety: Daillet, Carlier, Cabriere, Duponchel Darthé, Lefetz, &c. as well as several other monsters, whom Joseph Lebon had made the partners of his crimes.
The barbarity was made worse by a sort of procrastination. The names of some of those to be arrested were published in advance, but others were left in a state of uncertainty: By this means, those designated remained in their houses, in the midst of the alarms and tears of their families; while those who had not yet been named likewise secluded themselves, in the hope that, by not showing themselves, they should avoid imprisonment.
The city already began to lose its distinctive features; the bustling activity which it had enjoyed under the first revolutionary administrations was no more; the streets were deserted, and the few inhabitants whom one met there appeared strangers, and glanced reciprocally at each other with the eye of mistrust and dejection.
The Representative of the people, Laurent [Claude-Hilaire Laurent, deputy for the Bas-Rhin], restored many to liberty, but they were confined again in his absence. Radicals in the town acted in concert with Le Bon who had been sent on his first mission to pacify the north. In January 1794 he dissolved and reformed the Popular Society of Arras. The liberated citizens were put up for the scrutiny of his henchmen, and he himself was given absolute authority. The Committee of Surveillance was cowed into submission and the prisoners were reincarcerated.
Hearings before Le Bon
At this period it was intimated to us that Joseph Lebon, who was making a course through the departments, was about to return; that he would recommence his measures by annulling the constituted authorities; that he would occupy his mind with the prisoners, and that their fate would be disposed of in the deliberations of the Popular Society.
At length the moment for appearing before it arrived; till then we had waited for it with tranquillity, because we regarded it as the signal for justice, and, in fact, it was mentioned to us as the day reserved for the triumph of innocence.
But the imposing preparations which were made to fetch us soon opened our eyes.
A company of Chasseurs, and of National Guards, announced by the sound of the trumpet and the noise of the drum, stopped, about two o'clock, at the gates of l’Abbatiale. …
In vain could we attempt to describe all the feelings which this terrifying visit created in our hearts; all we can recall to our minds is the recollection of seeing women dropping down in swoons, daughters throwing themselves into the arms of their weeping mothers, fathers and husbands too much dismayed to afford assistance or consolation to those who were most dear to them…
Thus it was that the messengers, surrounded by bayonets, called over the names of the prisoners, and placed them in parties, to be conducted, under escort, to the club.
There they were ranged in a private hall, called alternately, and placed upon a wooden seat elevated to the height of ten feet, in order that they might be better exposed to the sneers and laughter of their enemies, and to every kind of denunciation: in disposing the seat in that particular manner for this object, it had been named the "formidable armchair."
Those who were eager for the perpetration of crimes, horrors, and murders, seated at the table of the notorious Lebon, then arose by turns, and indulged in the most infamous invectives against the prisoners. The sequel fully proved that this scene had only been contrived for the purpose of deluding more completely, and of disposing their minds generally against all the prisoners.
To some they imputed it as a crime to possess ability; others were esteemed criminal if they were endowed with wit and knowledge; and the greater part were held to be guilty because they cultivated moral principles. Several, however, obtained their liberation, and two, in particular, moved the sensibility of their fellow-citizens to such a degree, that they were forthwith restored to their friends. These were the Citizens Stoupi and Lallart Delbuquiere the younger; but they were soon afterwards again incarcerated.
To the ex-priests every sort of language was held; there were some of them who, by confessing that they had been mere impostors, mountebanks, and reprobates, appeared to merit their liberty from that title alone. But there were not many of this character…..
|The palais de l’Abbatiale, now Collège Jehan Bodel, rue de l'Arsenal, Arras.|
One-time residence of Cardinal de Rohan; prison in the Revolution
Hearings of the women
The infamous familiars of Lebon, who seemed to have exhausted all their rage and revenge upon us, assumed towards them the bitter tone of raillery, and treated them with the most shameful vulgarity. The wretches prepared in anticipation the pretexts which, in the sequel, served as the basis to determine upon the murder of many of these females.
In those, who united with youth the smiles, the graces, and the ingenuousness of innocence, they made it a crime not to have frequented those balls, which, by the disorders that pervaded them, necessarily kept at a distance all who had anything like morality; in those of a more advanced age, who had been present only from fear, they found it a cause of reproach that they had not occupied the place of the patriots; and with respect to such as were arrived at old age, they were likewise inculpated, and charged with being tainted by the poison of their ancient habits.
This we learnt from these unfortunate beings when they returned amongst us with aching hearts.
Some brave nuns
To give us a little breathing-time, they appeared to forget us for some days ; that is to say, during the whole time that Lebon was occupied in performing the same operations in the other prisons of the city successively, and in afterwards summoning such of the prisoners as, from sickness or other causes, had not yet appeared before the clubs.
After having thus passed a crowd of individuals in review before him, Lebon further conceived the whim of wishing to see all the late nuns who lived in the city, assembled in his presence; and he enjoined them, under the severest penalties, to repair to his meetings. He there held before them the most obscene language, till then unknown to beings whose simplicity of manners was their richest ornament. He made promises or held out menaces to them, and finished his measure by sending those who would not take the oath he required into the prison of the Abbatiale. Some of the trusty agents of this wretch seized each of them, and the guard, following the example, dragged them ignominiously into our place of imprisonment..
These reprobates doubtlessly thought they should inflict a punishment upon the nuns by sending them amongst us; but how were they deceived! . . . . Scarcely had they made their appearance, before all displayed the utmost alacrity, in emulation of each other, to assist and console them…
The detainees are subject to searches
On the 8th February, 1794 about three o'clock in the afternoon, we heard the repeated sound of the trumpet and the noise of the drum. We were anxiously endeavouring to ascertain the cause of the alarm, when we were informed that a troop of chasseurs and of national guards was at the gates of our prison.
For about two hours, we heard them performing military evolutions in front of the prison: but, at length, the gates were opened, and the soldiery were commanded to charge their arms.
Some of the confidential creatures of Lebon regulated this military preparation.
We were in our rooms, looking on all this parade with an anxious gaze. The formidable horde concerted their signals in silence, and suddenly this terrible order was intimated to us. Let the men pass to one side, and the women to the other! The troop then separated into two parties, one to guard the men, and the other to prevent the women from approaching them.
Considering that we were arrived at the last hour of our existence, we only thought of collecting all our energies in order to terminate courageously blameless and irreproachable lives.
Such was our alarming position, when an apostle of an anti-social religion, named Lefitz, an ex-monk, as hypocritical as he was abandoned, advanced towards the men, made one of them approach, searched him, turned his pockets inside out, and took possession of all his papers; and the same thing he did with some of the rest. This reptile pushed his duplicity so far as to return the pocket-books, saying that he had no design upon our purses.
His example was imitated, towards part of the prisoners, by a draper named Cavrois, assisted by the famous Carreau, the brewer* [see NOTE]
They searched the women with the most barefaced indecency, and rifled and stripped them as their whims dictated.
This search continued for three hours, and was followed by other excesses.
Lefitz, the man who, as well as his infamous companions, ought never to have risen from the state of contempt and abjection in which the revolution placed him, obliged every one to remain in the courts, took possession of all the outlets, at which he placed guards, whom he thus addressed: "Sentinels, if any of these scoundrels move a step to enter, stick your bayonets into them."….
The object of this order was to afford opportunity to make further searches in the chambers, and to carry away from them the wine and other provisions they might contain.
During all this time we remained in the court, to the number of three hundred persons, without any other seats to rest upon than the steps of the entrance staircase…..
The following day, at the same hour, there was the same military parade, the same command, the same visit, and the same order against the prisoners.
Lefitz, who was again at their head, ordered one of the prisoners to approach, and demanded his buckles, his watch, his pocket-book, and his cash; thus he searched and stripped them all in succession, leaving them no other clothes but those they wore.
All the things were put into hand-baskets, around which, as well as around the pocket-books, they merely tied a band of paper, and pretended to make notes of the things taken away, which did not contain anything like a description of them.
The same ceremony was employed towards the women, and the infernal superintendent, after he had disposed everything as he had done the evening before for the internal plunder, fatigued with the debauch that had accompanied his first dilapidations, and not being able to pass a second night, deputed Carreau and Cavrois to carry off the remainder of the spoil.
After the example of their general, these two bore off all our property, disposed, like bashaws, of a part of our money, tore the few historical and other books which we were allowed to read, and placed a seal upon all that was under lock and key. And as to our provisions, they were all lost to us.
Our representations, urging that we might be permitted to retain a few necessary articles, received no other reply than the vain promises to restore to each of us six shirts, six pocket-handkerchiefs, and six pair of stockings…...
There is no doubt, from the circumstance of their being able to remove the women from the view of the men in that prison, that they were outraged in a more atrocious manner than everywhere else.
The wretches acted in the most cruel manner to the young females, who were stripped almost naked. One of them, whose father and uncle perished on the scaffold, became distinguished from the dreadful treatment she endured on the part of the reptiles employed by Carreau. These infamous wretches were not content with merely insulting the modesty of this interesting creature, and driving her almost frantic: she attempted to escape from their brutality, but the monsters forced her back in derision, and unveiled the secrecy of her sex. Amongst other things, they robbed her of a ring which she cherished as a pledge of what she held most dear. Ye who boasted incessantly of the virtue of your brother in crime, Robespierre, thus it was, then, that you put it in practice……
They are transferred to the Hotel Dieu
The prisoners were now transferred. The women were taken to La Providence, a prison hitherto reserved for prostitutes and the insane, where five hundred were crowded in a space that would scarcely take three hundred. The men were taken under guard to the Hotel Dieu where they joined prisoners detained under the decrees of St Just and Lebon.
Arrests of every kind, in contempt of all law then began to increase. Lebon ordered the arrest of all the women whose husbands were already incarcerated, and of all the husbands whose wives only were imprisoned. Each new comer was usually put into close confinement, until Carreau, or others of his stamp, should have an opportunity of plundering him. All was then taken from the prisoner, without any proces-verbal ……
In order to induce us to desire and request our removal to the Hotel Dieu, it had been described to us as a most convenient abode, and excited our feelings by extolling the advantage we should have of seeing our wives and children, who were shut up in La Providence, which prison was immediately in front of the walls of the Hotel Dieu. At the commencement, we were allowed to approach the windows which looked out on that side; shortly, however, this privilege was taken away, and all the windows were ordered to be stopped up, excepting those judged necessary for ventilation……
Through the windows of the attics, we were witnesses of an infamous scene between Joseph Lebon and two female citizens, whom we could not recognise. Having seen them seated upon the rampart, in a place where, according to the idea of this madman, they had no right to be, he drew his sword, struck them with it, and aided by his Don Quixotte, Lefitz, he arrested them, and conducted them to La Providence.
One, a notary, who perished in the sequel, was arrested by Carlier, because he chanced to meet him one evening on his passage. Another was imprisoned, owing to a turkey falling into his well. He sent for a man named Lentillette, to draw the turkey out, in doing which he found a small plated candlestick, not worth more than twenty-five sous. He made his report upon it, and this petty affair caused an immediate order for the arrest of the individual, and procured the well-digger, who was well known at Arras, the appointment of a member of the Committee of Surveillance. A female was incarcerated because she unluckily met Lebon as she was carrying some food to her imprisoned brother. Several were placed in confinement as counter-revolutionists for having given a few sous to a poor man who asked charity. Another was seized by the collar by Duponchel, Mayor of Arras, in passing over the bridge of the citadel, for going to visit some prisoners of war newly arrived. Many others came to increase our numbers, in consequence of their having been found, by chance, at the houses of individuals who had been ordered to be arrested, as well as all those who belonged to the houses.
Children and servants:
After having thus incarcerated, without any quarter, men and women, there still remained in some of the houses of the prisoners, their children and confidential servants; they, however, were no more spared than the prisoners themselves.
Children from the age of five years arrived from all quarters; and, in order to remove them from all paternal control, commissaries were sent to them from time to time, who indulged in the most immoral language to the children; so that some of them afterwards became the most formidable torments of the prison.
We learnt at the same time, from those who afterwards arrived, that our confidential domestics were all shut up in the Abbatiale, and that they had been subjected to every sort of examination, as well to discover our valuable effects as to prevail upon them to give false testimony. More than three weeks elapsed before they regained their liberty.
All these precautions were useless; most of these prisoners, faithful to their consciences, remained invulnerable. Some of them, indeed, there were who accompanied their unfortunate masters even to execution!
The old men are transferred to the
Those who had planned this scheme of removal forthwith had it executed with a cruelty which they hoped would appear meritorious in the eyes of the too-powerful Lebon.
With much difficulty we prevailed upon them to send for hackney-coaches, in which we placed these worthy and respectable old men.
Citizen Asselin, who had been suffering for several days from a putrid and malignant fever, which our physicians, Ansart and Toursel, excellent men, of whom I have already spoken, regarded as mortal, was tormented like the rest,and pitilessly transported to the ci-devant Capucins, where he remained till the evening of the same day without receiving his bed. On the following day, this worthy but ill-fated citizen died.
Citizen Mayoult, having refused to leave us, because he had lost the use of all his limbs, and was abandoning the support of his young son, was loaded with the most atrocious imprecations. All kinds of threats were employed against him, and in the afternoon, notwithstanding a heavy rain-storm, he was transported upon his mattress in a wheel-barrow to his new destination. He thus passed through a part of the city, sheltered from the rain by nothing but an umbrella. This worthy citizen long remained ignorant, that his wife, two of his daughters, and his cook had likewise been subjected to the sanguinary cruelties of the infamous Lebon, to the deep regret of their fellow-citizens.
They were brought back in the night to the Hotel Dieu, and in the same manner as they had quitted it. Darkness was purposely chosen for the execution of the new scheme, as the first removal had About eleven o'clock, p. m. they arrived without much noise on that side of the building known under the name of the Hospital. Without the least respect for the age and infirmities of some amongst the number, they were placed in a damp place, upon a stone floor, where there was no fire; and no other restoratives were given to these unfortunate beings, who were perishing of cold, than a pitcher of water…
At this time the executions began:
Towards four o'clock, we received a visit from Tacquet, jun. bailiff of the revolutionary tribunal, dressed in uniform, and wearing an embroidered police hat: he came to single out the victims who were to be immolated that or the following day.
The directors were then clandestinely ordered to be called, and they were seen going through the courts and buildings, seeking with an eye of brutal pleasure the persons fixed upon for the sacrifice. Each trembled for himself; the victim who was to be carried off received his summons in these terms: "Take thy hat and come along; thou art waited for below."
The bailiff appointed to superintend these fatal draughts from our numbers seemed to have been purposely modelled for such a dreadful office. His haggard eye, in anticipation, saw the prey hes eized already writhing in expiring agony; and, before he led them towards the tribunal, he commenced his horrid duty by taking possession of everything valuable they had, either in jewels, money, or public notes. His crabbed physiognomy was so dreadfully repulsive, that it would be a difficult task to portray it, or to find one upon earth more capable of inspiring terror in the firmest and most courageous minds. His presence alone was more terrible than death, and his sepulchral and hollow voice sounded like the funeral cries of those fearful phantoms which fiction paints, when it traces the crimes of hell's subaltern agents. The first that heard the dreadful summons were Souchez, Coutonet, both ex-nobles, and Berlette. The last-mentioned was acquitted, and doubtlessly his sentence had displeased Lebon, as the subsequent day he was brought before the tribunal again, and condemned to death, as the two former had been the evening before… After an interval of a few days, the same fatal ceremony was employed towards seven ex-nobles, who had figured in the states of Artois. At the time of their removal, their names were ironically called over according to their former titles, viz. Delaunoy, Daix, Dewasseras, Serjeant d'Hennecourt, Debaulincourt, Coupigny, and Thieulaine.
Notwithstanding the infirmities of several of them, who, for a long time, had been dragging on a frail existence in the infirmary, and who could scarcely crawl along, they were inhumanly torn from their beds, and conducted, under the escort of a numerous guard, from the Hotel Dieu to the prison of the Baudets…
As if it had been determined to make them suffer a thousand deaths before they tasted that which was preparing for them, they were left in horrid suspense for some days, at the end of which they were brought up for trial. Their imputed guilt consisted in their having signed in 1788, at the time of the Assembly of the Notables—consequently, before the Revolution— a protest against all which might be attempted in prejudice to the privileges of the ci-devant province of Artois. … In the same decade, they came to summon Gamonet Blin the elder, Leroy d'Hurtebise, and Lacomte, as forming part of a list which widow Bataille had kept of all those who had given her alms; and one of them for having been present at the ceremony of a marriage solemnized by a constitutional priest in the house of the said widow. Seventeen women were removed from La Providence, or from their own houses, for the same affair.
By a refinement of cruelty, which seemed to afford a certain presage of their acquittal, instead of taking them to the prison of the Baudets, they were led back, contrary to custom, to their first house of confinement, and the next day they were fetched to go before the tribunal, and thence to execution.
The precipitation of this proceeding was such, that several of these twenty victims were immolated, without preparatory examination, and without being heard, merely because they happened to be inscribed upon a charitable list, as the donors of three livres. Amongst the rest was a female named Toursel, wife of a doctor, leaving behind her nine very young children.
The only mode by which we could hear of the melancholy fate of these victims was by the seizure of their effects, without any inventory or order whatever.
The following day, or the next day but one, Citizen Corbeau, who had been clerk to the beforementioned states, came into our garret, threw himself into our arms, bade us farewell, and departed with an expression of hope that he should live in our remembrance. This man, well persuaded that his just defence would be all in vain, said to his judges, "I know that you have decided on my death; I am resigned to it, and have nothing to answer but to the Supreme Being, who, more clearly than you can do, reads the feelings of my heart, and who will avenge my fate, and the fate of all the innocent beings whose destruction you have plotted."
A citizen, named Delettres, a land-surveyor of Arras, was summoned, a short time afterwards, on suspicion of having purchased a church on account of some emigrants. He first appeared at the district, and said to us on his return: "My friends, worthy patriots though you are, you have a traitor amongst you, who reveals all that you say, and who disguises it under the most odious and hypocritical features; from what he has declared to our enemies respecting me, I am about to be sacrificed. May you escape the snares of this perfidious wretch!" The next day he was taken away from amongst us, and suffered, as he had predicted, the penalty of death.
Each day was marked by similar transfers from our prison, and the afternoon was looked for with deadly terror, until the hour usually fixed for the fatal visit was past. Sighing over the fate of those whom tyranny had chosen, we then breathed to each other the mournfully-pleasing truth" There is yet another day's delay for us!"
I should enter into an endless task were I to relate the sinister events of every succeeding day.....
An escape attempt: One Decadi the bailiff came to summon the Citizens Merchandise, Boitel, Griffon, Wigna, and Lacroix. Marchandise was in his room, and said to the directors, when they called him: "I am at your service in a moment; allow me only just to go down into the yard." Foreseeing that it could be no other than the infamous emissary of the tribunal, he did in fact go towards the aisances, the position of which appeared to him best calculated to favour his escape. He scaled the walls, jumped into a garden, and gained the street by the adjoining house…. … it would have been easy for the four others to profit by this moment of confusion with greater success, and more especially if the prisoners, to the number of upwards of three hundred, had conceived the project of gaining their liberty by flight. But each, strong in his innocence, remained tranquil.
The tribunal at Cambrai is set up
Base and hardened as he was, he could not disguise from his own thoughts, that the continuation of his atrocities might, sooner or later, excite a general revolt, of which he would infallibly be the first victim.
In order to avoid the threatened storm, he went to establish a new tribunal at Cambrai; he caused a permanent guillotine to be established there, and proceeded himself through the country in the neighbourhood of Bapaume, at the head of a detachment of hussars, for the purpose of having arrested, under his own eyes, all the farmers indiscriminately who had not formerly been at mass, or against whom he had any enmity from motives less serious. They were immediately brought before the tribunal of blood which he had just created, and which was entirely composed, both as regarded the judges and the jurors, of men devoted to his vengeful purposes. In the night he had carried off from the prisons of Arras those who he knew were defended by public opinion, which he could no longer hope to flatter or delude with his idle pretexts. He, in fact, only engaged in these schemes of murder, to give activity to his new and sanguinary tribunal….
In the interval which I have just been glancing over, it must not be imagined that the tribunal of Arras had remained idle: a thirst for blood so continually possessed the soul of Lebon, that he daily selected some new victims for the guillotine; and, as to be brought up for trial was almost always equivalent to inevitable death, however innocent the accused might be,a great number of assassinations took place until the moment of the suspension already alluded to; and it is estimated that, in the space of four months, four hundred condemnations to death were pronounced, and that too in a commune which was declared at three different periods to have merited well of the country, and which consequently had always faithfully served it.
I have, indeed, been credibly assured, that, in the course of about six weeks, the tribunal of Cambrai ordered the execution of upwards of one hundred and fifty citizens.
The profound stupor in which I was plunged during the occurrence of these events did not permit me at the time to take an account of each victim that suffered, or of the order in which they had suffered; indeed, our situation was so critical, that not one amongst us dared to take the least note; for our actions and words were not only rigidly watched, with the design of injuring us,but they even wished and strove to'divine our most secret thoughts, and to make them a pretext for denunciation against us: I have therefore been unable to follow any other guide than my recollection, enfeebled no little by the wretched scenes that each day offered to it. If I have indulged myself by speaking of any particular sufferings, it is less with a view of exciting sympathy for our situation, than with the intention of exciting a just horror at the abuses which our tyrants permitted themselves to exercise.
Louis-Eugène Poirier, The horrors of the prisons of Arras [English translation, 1826]
Joseph Pyotte, "Joseph Le Bon et l'avocat Poirier de Dunkerque" (1902), reprinted in Le Conventionnel Joseph Le Bon, ed. by Jacques de Loris (free e-book) p.246-54
https://www.edition999.info/IMG/pdf/le_conventionnel_joseph_le_bon.pdf"Louis-Eugène Poirier (1753 - 1818)"
The Musée des Beaux-Arts in Dunkirk has a physionotrace portrait of Poirier.
The Musée des Beaux-Arts in Dunkirk has a physionotrace portrait of Poirier.
*François Carraut, Robespierre's cousin, can be found listed among the members of the new Revolutionary commune of Arras in 1792. Most of the other accessible information comes from Poirier: The references are a reminder of just how close the relations were between the Robespierres and the Terrorists of Arras:
See Lenotre, Romances of the French Revolution, vol. 1, p.31.
Lebon's staff were devoted to Robespierre. Handsome Daillet, the important man of the tribunal, was so intimate with Maximilien that he supplied him with cravats; Darthé, the public prosecutor, the friend of Lebon, received his instructions direct from the Duplays, with whom he regularly corresponded. Even in prison, Charlotte found herself among acquaintances, her first cousin, Carraut, being one of those who rifled the prisoners. Men and women stripped before him: after which he shook their clothes, turned their pockets inside out, and silenced the discontents by boasting of the esteem in which he was held by "his virtuous relative", Robespierre.
Poirrier also includes the following anecdote: