Monday 29 January 2018

The journey of the 132 Nantais

In September 1794 the acquittal of the "132 Nantais" by the Revolutionary Tribunal in Paris set in train the indictment of the Nantes Revolutionary Committee and the fall of Carrier.  

Mathieu Guillaume Thérèse de Villenave, Relation des cent trente-deux Nantais: envoyés à Paris par le Comité Révolutionnaire de Nantes. Paris: Ballard, 1794.

One of the reasons the case assumed such a high profile was the strategic publication of this little 45-page book, signed by a dozen of the prisoners, 
which gave a highly readable first-hand account of the tribulations of their long forced trek from Nantes to Paris across war-ravaged France. The work is ascribed to the Nantes lawyer, and former member of the  Société Vincent-la-MontagneMathieu-Guillaume-Thérèse de Villenave -  who was to become well-known in later years as a writer and collector of manuscripts. According to Jean-Joël Brégeon, the circumstances surrounding the publication are not entirely known,  though some information can be gathered from the papers in the Nantes archives  relating to Villenave's publisher Ballard. There was a first edition of the book dated 1er Messidor II, but it was the second, dated 30 Thermidor, which created the real impact.  4,000 copies were planned, but in the end Villenave doubled the number and employed colporters to distribute them.  There may also have been pirated versions.

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.

Saturday 27 January 2018

Nantes: Memoirs of a sans-culotte

Daguerrotype of Souvestre from 1852-4

The Mémoires d'un sans-culotte bas-breton does not really date from the Revolution.  It was written by the 19th-century novelist Émile Souvestre, a native of Morlaix in Finistère, and published in instalments in the Revue des Deux Mondes during the 1830s.  We can probably take with a pinch of salt Souvestre's claim in his preface that he  based his work on the "unpublished notes of his father" and the "gossip of old men".  However, whilst the Mémoires is clearly not history, it is not simply a  work of fiction either.  Souvestre appeals to the example of Thierry and Michelet and explains that he wants to create an imaginative reconstruction of the "torn pages of history"; in particular he wants to illustrate the distinguishing features of the Revolution in Brittany.  The result  is a curious mixture of folk memory, popular imagination and half-digested reportage.

Here is a translation of some extracts in which Carrier himself appears - already transmogrified into the monster of myth...Our hero, Baptiste, is a young man of good family.  Whilst committed to the Revolution, in reality he is more bourgeois moralist than authentic sans-culotte.   It is 1793 and Baptiste finds himself reluctantly diverted to Nantes: the date is 20 Nivôse and the town is en pleine terreur. 

XLI. -  Arrival in Nantes - Carrier

I had heard rumours in Rennes of the energetic measures undertaken by the Representative Carrier: but I did not realise their gravity and I was not too worried.  The first effect of danger is to bring men together in close association; but, at a certain point, they separate and concern themselves only with self preservation. The crisis was so terrible in the area, that no-one looked beyond their own doors. Every town, beseiged by hunger, war, and repression, was like a sick man struggling in his agony and caring little what went on elsewhere.  Death seemed so close, that people grew accustomed to it, and waited for it, for others as well as for themselves.  In the midst of the political convulsions which shook France, it was an ordinary everyday occurrence...

From a distance, the executions in Nantes seemed nothing out of the ordinary; the large numbers were explained by the multitude of Vendéan prisoners; the sufferings of the brigands were regarded as just reprisals for their ravages and cruelties.

Too much indignation, misery and desire for vengeance had amassed in people's hearts for them to show mercy.  There was not, in all of Brittany, a family of patriots that had not lost someone in this impious war; each Vendéan head that fell represented an offering to the memory of a loved one or a promise of security to those who were still alive.  Today, when hatred is as weak a passion as love, such sentiments might seem ferocious; impartiality comes easily to those who have not suffered;  for myself, I admit that I shared the anger of my comrades, and the punishment of royalist excesses scarcely touched me.

And so, I left for Nantes, without misgivings and without fear;  I was far from anticipating the spectacle that awaited me there.

One often hears speak of the miseries of that town in the Terror;  and through them one of the most obscure members of the Convention has gained his place in history.  Leperdit, Champenois, Audaudine, Gabart, Thomas, Bancelin - all these names have been forgotten, whilst that of Carrier  lives on!  His name  is branded on the conscience of a generation. The others were  men of loyalty courage and devotion, in a time when loyalty, courage and devotion were commonplace; but Carrier was among  the elite of the wicked, embodying in his person all the excesses of the epoch.

The port of Nantes. After M. Ozanne, 1776
If I live for a thousand years I will never forget my arrival in Nantes. It was towards evening, I had just sighted the town half obscured by the mists of the Loire; I was hurrying on my horse, when suddenly I heard loud sharp gunfire, followed almost immediately by the discharge of a cannon. I stopped in astonishment; there was a long pause then the guns fired again, followed by the cannon. The noise evidently came from the town;  it could be an unexpected attack by the Vendéans or an insurrection;  I was debating what to do, when a volunteer passed.
- Are they still fighting?  I cried out to him.
He looked at me in astonishment.
 - What?  Can you not hear the gunfire?
He shrugged and smiled: Those are brigands,  having their evening prayers recited to them... 
- But the cannon?  
Ah!..That is the Representative's idea for speeding things up. 
- So they are carrying out  a lot of executions, then?
 - As many as they can. Any means of killing is good for Carrier...You have only to continue and you will encounter the royalist carcasses on your way.  With these words, the volunteer went on, and I resumed my path as though in a dream.

I found that the faubourgs remained much as they had been left by the Vendéans after the siege; it was as though the enemy had just retreated.  Houses, without doors or windows, borne the furrows of cannon balls or were peppered with shrapnel holes. Some, further from the road, had their roofs half caved in and their walls blackened.  Others were just piles of debris over which brambles already grew. In the distance I glimpsed  on the threshholds,  a few women with miserable items of food and dishevelled men who looked on with a haggard look.

Near the Erdre I met a band of children carrying a pile of bloody clothing that they were fighting over.  Night had come; To cut short my journey, I avoided the quais and went via the place du Département.

My heart was constricted by an inexpressible sadness, and I was going along deep in thought without looking around, when suddenly my horse threw itself to one side with a whinny of fright; it had trampled on a corpse.   I went past quickly, but it came up against a second, then a third, then yet more. I tried to make it go on, but it wouldn't.  I got down; as I did so, my foot made contact with something that gave way under it; it was the body of a child.  I looked around in horror; the whole area was covered with the dead;  blood flowed in streams like water after a storm.  The air was filled with an unspeakable smell;  I felt cold to the marrow;  My horse still refused to move; I was hesitating what to do when I heard  barking in the distance, growing louder and approaching rapidly. A pack of dogs threw themselves at the place;  I saw them pass close by me, disperse among the corpses, then disappear...

[He eventually escapes, and flies in panic, to the hotel where he has arranged to stay.]

August Raffet,  Defeat of the Vendéans before Nantes in 1793, 1834. Musée Carnavalet

XLII. - Pinard. - The Compagnie Marat

[The next day our hero visits a tavern, le Café du vrai Sans-Culottes in search of a certain Dufour, whom he has arranged to meet in Nantes.]

It was a low, smokey building, on the shutters of which some scribbler had crudely drawn a guillotine sporting a Phrygian bonnet, with the epigram  LIBERTÉ, FRATERNITÉ.   From a half-open door came the chink of  glasses and bursts of laughter and swearing, accompanied by a sour acrid odour.  I went up to the window but because of the  condensation I could only distinguish vague forms moving around;  I made up my mind to enter.

I had just closed the door behind me and started looking around for citizen Dufour, when I heard my name being called behind me.  I turned round and saw a man in a carmagnole jacket who took me by the hands;  I was amazed: it was Pinard! 

[The infamous Nantes Revolutionary invites Baptiste to join his table.]

They made room for me and I was forced to sit down.  Pinard got me a drink.
- Come on, Cincinnatus! he cried; Cheer up, and drink to the death of priests!

I had to drink.  I was ill at ease, not sure what sort of company I was in, but, knowing Pinard as I did, I feared the worst.  I didn't stay in any doubt for long.

- So, have you come to see how we do business here?  he asked, pouring himself some punch.

I explained to him briefly what had brought me to Nantes; but he wasn't listening to me; he sipped his drink and stared into the bottom of his glass.

- Circumstances are difficult, Cincinnatus, he continued, with the seriousness of a drunk.  True patriots like us suffer cruelly: we work day and night in vain;  there are so many brigands in the prison, we can never bring them all to justice....There is just not enough time.

- That's right, said a man with a red beard who was drinking in front of us with a morose air;  but there is time to undress them,  shoot them,  club them to death!... Too much time if you ask me.

Pinard leaned towards me.

- That's Ducou, he whispered to me, indicating the drinker with a sweep of his arm.
-When  time presses, said another, we try to work quickly;  but the miserable president Tronjolly, wants to give everyone a hearing; as if  we need proof to send aristocrats to the national razor!..
- That's Goullin, said Pinard to me in a low voice;  the most worthy of us all.

- Do you known that this evening more brigands are being sent to the château d'Aux? asked Ducou.
-The château d'Aux? I repeated....But I have just come from there and I didn't see any prisoners.
There was general laughter.
- Wonderful, cried Pinard; he doesn't get the joke! The château d'Aux, idiot, is the Loire; "château d'eau", get it?
I made a gesture of horror, which he took for a movement of impatience.

- Come on, he said amicably, don't worry Cincinnatus;  it is a pleasantry that we make to the prisoners when we take them out to the baignoire nationale. Why shouldn't we amuse ourselves?  At first, they used to think that they were being taken to England or Spain; so Carrier called our baths "vertical deportations"!  One day I will take you to the Entrepôt; you will see how we make those priests gulp water...

[Lamberty, who is among the group,  has a list of newly proscribed citizens, among whom is Baptiste's landlady;  he hastily sends her a note.]

- How long have you been here, citizen?  Goullin asked me.
- Only a few hours
- Then you cannot know what is happening...The true Montagnards are masters everywhere; we are knee-deep in dead bodies and pretty women.
- You must do him the honours, said the little man with the red beard.....Lamberty, take him to the Entrepôt, where he can choose a brigande to suit his fancy.
- Unless the citizen is like Pinard, who calls himself "the women's enemy" and thinks only to kill them.

Pinard was about to answer, when the door opened; six new sans-culottes entered.
- Look, it is Chaux and the others, said Lamberty.
- That's good, cried Ducou, I thought that you were on an "extraordinary mission"
- The wretched committee prevented us, replied Chaux;  I was furious thinking that you were there.
[..One of the newcomers, a "giant of a man" had the ear of one of the prisoners nailed to his hat.]
-  Watch out,  cried Chaux, he is an inspector of livestock:  we will end up eatingVendean disguised as salt beef.
- Why not?.... A surgeon of my acquaintance proposed to the Convention that we tan the hides of our enemies to make them into trousers for the grenadiers...

[Baptiste has had enough by now;  he makes his excuses and exits as quickly as he can.]

Interior of a Revolutionary Committee (engraving for sale on

XLIII. - The Prisons of Nantes

[The next day Baptiste and Dufour go to Le Bouffay in search of their friend Benoist who is being held prisoner there.]

We went together to Le Bouffay.  When we arrived  I noticed that the square was crowded with people, eating, working or talking peacefully.  There were benches with names on as  in a church, and others that were hired out by the hour.  The guillotine stood in the middle on a huge tank covered with a reddish coloured canvas. My companion told me that this  had been put in place following complaints from  shopkeepers whose premises had been flooded with blood.

- You can see, he told me, that this is a place for meeting and gossiping; people gather round the guillotine; they come in families....The women bring their needlework as if they were visiting a neighbour, servants bring children out on walks.   It isn't vengance that they seek, but thrills; it is a circus where the sovereign people watches Christians die. Those that march bravely to the ladder are applauded, those that tremble are whistled at.  Apart from a small minority, there is neither hate nor anger in this crowd: they are either connoisseurs who come to judge, or the curious who come for amusement.

We arrived at the prison; it was agreed without too much difficulty that we should be taken to the cell of Citizen Benoist.

We followed the gaoler Lagueze along a long dark corridor. On either side could be heard muttering voices and confused groans.  Finally Lagueze opened a door for us, and said: Here.

I tried to enter but a gust of fetid air suddenly engulfed me and I felt so weak I was forced to support myself against a wall.  Dufour took me by the arm and suggested we go back. I refused and staggered forward. Everything floated before my eyes as in a dream;  I saw vaguely, stretched out on the bare ground or on a layer of straw, men, women, children; none of them seemed to move.  However, at the end of the room, I caught sight of someone who stirred. Fresh air came in from a semi-blocked up window.  I felt revived.

At that moment I recognised Benoist; and I ran to him.
- Have you come for me?  He asked us.

[They discuss Benoist's situation]
"Look around, he added indicating the long line of immobile bodies that I had already noticed;  there are only four of us who are still left alive.  There, on the litter of straw, all the space is taken up by the dead!... Those who arrive tonight or tomorrow will be forced to lie on top of corpses, and will serve in their turn, in a few days, as beds for the next arrivals.  The gaolers themselves can no longer open the cells without dying.  Those who used to take away the bodies now refuse, knowing that they will catch the sickness that killed them. A while ago, forty prisoners accepted the task in exchange for their liberty; thirty perished and, once the prisons were cleared, they guillotined the rest....And do you know what they give us for food?  Half-a-pound of bread mixed with straw and a half-pound of rice that they refuse to cook.  They often forget for to give out anything for two days at a time.  We are sold water; I have seen children  die of hunger and thirst before my very eyes.
- And is there any means of deliverance?   I asked.

- None.  Attractive women think they can escape death by giving themselves to Carrier;  but his bed, like Cleopatras, surrenders its secrets only for one night, and in the morning the Loire engulfs all.  There remains prostitution, but even that is  uncertain.  The prisons of Nantes have become bazaars where old women have bought the right to recruit for their hidious industry.  They meet with easy success, for fear is even more corrupting that gold.  They tempt the honour of young girls by promising them life, but often they last for only a short time; once their beauty is gone, they are given over to the bourreau.

[They discuss means of liberating Benoist.  Dufour suggests that he simply does not answer when his name is called.]
- Do they even know who they are killing? he continued shrugging his shoulders;  our prisons are cattle yards where those for the slaughter are taken by chance.  If a prisoner isn't there at the moment his name is called, the noyeurs pass on (they are always in a hurry to catch the tides) and the next day they have forgotten him!...What saves a man now, isn't legal right, dedication, or courage;  but the chance occurrence of a badly written name or a list carried off in the wind...

[With this they are obliged to leave their friend]

XLIV.- A supper party chez Carrier

[Baptiste is persuaded by Pinard and Goullin to come with them to dine with the Representative.]

Carrier lived at the extremity of Richebourg. His house was carefully guarded and we had to make ourselves known to the sentry to be allowed in.  We found the Representative on the landing with a young girl who was pleading with him.
- You love aristocrats, he said; but I love pretty women; I've told you the condition for your brother's release from prison; one favour deserves another!
So saying, he tried to take her hands;  the young woman shrank back.
- I do not want to make one evil into two, she said with noble despair. 
- In that case, go to the Devil, cried Carrier brutally;  I don't like blonds anyway!
We arrived at that moment...
- Well, cried Goullin, if it isn't the little Brevet; is she still coming to ask if she can take bread to her brother?  Alas, let me do that service, she said, turning, hands clasped, towards Carrier.
 - Indeed, continued Goullin, give her permission; it is only fair that her brother eats today, since yesterday he had so much to drink ....  The girl turned her head with a cry; Goullin and Pinard began to laugh.
- Is it true? she stuttered, Michel!...have-you drowned him?
- I would have offered him clemency, you imbecile! said Carrier shrugging his shoulders.
She gave a cry and held out her arms for support.  I would have caught hold of her, but Carrier restrained me.
- Let this prude be thrown out, he said, and let the guard poke his bayonet into the belly of anyone who comes to ask me for any more favours;  I am shutting up shop for today.

[For the story of Perotte Brevet, see Pieces remises... à la Commission des vingt-un (1796), p.23]

With these words, he ushered us into the salon, where I found  most of those that I had seen already at the cafe du vrai Sans-Culotte.  I was then presented to Carrier....

Taking my companions to one side, he began to talk confidentially with them.  I took the opportunity to take a closer look at him.  He was a man of about thirty-five, tall but awkwardly built.  His black hair, stuck to his temples, parted to reveal an olive coloured face; his forehead was low; his eyes round and nervous; his nose hooked, his lips invisible.  Although he looked to be a strong man, he had about him something cautious and cowardly, which the brutality of his manners failed to conceal.  Whatever way you looked at him, he seemed always in profile; the former lawyer could still be seen in the bourreau.

They told us that dinner was served and we moved into the adjacent room, where several women were already present.  Pinard pointed out to me the two mistresses of the Representative, Madame Le Normand and Angélique Caron. The latter made a striking impression on me: I have seldom seen a woman more beautiful, and none at all who seemed to me as seductive....Between her and the beings who surrounded her, there was  all the gulf between a fallen angel and Caliban.  To see her among those brutes with the faces of men, with her natural distinction...she might have been a Regency marquise amusing herself by dining among the hangman's lackeys.

...The conversation of Angélique Caron was lively, original and wide-ranging.  Hers was one of those minds that they call "fluid"; it penetrates everywhere like water, but lacks form and solidarity:  a person with this nature is dangerous, since they plunge easily into corruption, and are condemned without being hated...She spoke to me with sincere emotion about her childhood, her interests and her dreams for the future...

- These debates tire you, she said...Buried in Brittany you do not know how cowardly and cruel the enemies of the Republic have shown themselves to be;  you cannot hate them as we do.
- I hate those who are cruel and cowardly; but today so many innocent people are mixed in with the guilty!
- The duties of those who hold power are terrible.
- Is it ever possible to deflect their rigour?
- Rigour is necessary.
- Yet I have been told that there is a voice here which  pleads for mercy and likes to get what it asks for.
Angelique looked at me and said:  Who do you want to save?
- A sincere patriot.
- Our friends are always that, she said smiling....

I rejoined the guests.  Their number had grown singularly.  There were several generals with epaulettes made of wool, as was the custom of the time;  members of the departmental government in wooden clogs;  judges from  the Revolutionary Tribunal without waistcoat or cravat.  Most were smoking, playing cards or drinking.  Some were chasing half naked women, who escaped from them laughing; one could hear swearing,  chinking glasses, obscene songs and the noise of kisses;  one might have supposed it an Amsterdam cabaret.

In the middle of this tumult, an ugly and surly woman sat knitting in a corner.  I asked who she was.

- That's the Representative's wife, Pinard replied;  a really awkward woman.  If I was Carrier I would have got rid of her long ago; but she is like a knitting turkey - he doesn't notice her. On that subject, where is Carrier?  With  Citizen Caron I bet....

XLV.- The noyades

[They go with Madame Benoist to rescue their friend who is about to be drowned]

We found armed men at the base of the staircase into Le Bouffay, who prevented us from passing.
- What is going on?  I asked. - We are taking some prisoners for a dip, replied the  sergeant.....
At that moment the prisoners started to come down between two columns of soldiers;  they were almost naked and each woman was tied to a man.  There were young girls among them whose modesty survived and who lowered their heads; there were old men who staggered at each step; children scarcely taller than the knees of the bourreaux, who were crying!  All went slowly down the great staircase, with groans or snatches of prayer.  An odour of dead bodies, the same as I had smelt in the prison, went before them.  Torches reflecting off the pikes and bayonets lit the spectacle from afar....

[They find that happily Benoist is not among the condemned]

Robin and his companions left Le Bouffay carrying loads of precious objects taken from the miserable people who were about to perish.  We retreated into the shadows so that they could not see us.  The armed men made for the Loire, and we could see torches burning in the middle of the river;  soon came the sound of axe blows; a terrible cry rose then died almost immediately ...The torches had disappeared.

[They manage to secure Benoist's release and hastily, with great relief, leave Nantes. }

Émile Souvestre, Mémoires d'un sans-culotte bas-breton (1843 ed.)

Serge Bianchi, Review of a new edition of the Mémoires published in 2004, Annales historiques de la Révolution française, no.335 (2004): p. 227-229

Friday 26 January 2018

Executions in Nantes: four sisters

Debay, Episode de 1793, à Nantes  1838. Oil,  227cm  x 174 cm
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes
This painting by Auguste-Hyacinthe Debay, dating from1838, is usually said to depict a particularly notorious episode from the Terror in Nantes, the execution on 19th December 1793 of the La Métairie (or La Métérie) sisters, the  "four cousins of Charette".  It is an imposing canvas, over than two metres high, and a tour de force of Romantic sensibility. The ladder to the guillotine is painted an ominous  red and the bourreau and his assistants are prominent in their Phyrgian bonnets. The belfrey of the Bouffay prison is clearly visible against the clouded sky.  The moment is full of pathos: the sisters huddle in despair at the foot of the guillotine; to the left the condemned mount the ladder to the scaffold. 

Here is a video of the picture in situ in the Château des ducs de Bretagne

The execution

 From the Act of Accusation of  the National Convention against  the Representative of the People Carrier:

The first two accusations:

1. To have given, on 27 frimaire Year II, to Phelippes, president of the criminal tribunal of the department of the Loire-Inférieure, sitting at Nantes, a written order to execute, without trial and on the spot, twenty-four brigands who had just been arrested under arms, and brought to Nantes, of whom two were thirteen and two fourteen years old; to have on the same day, repeated the order verbally, although Phelippes had represented to him that it contravened laws of 19 March, 10 May and 5 July 1793.

2. To have, on 29th of the same month of frimaire, given a written order to Phelippes to have executed without trial twenty-seven brigands who had been arrested under arms, and who had also been brought to Nantes, among there number being seven women.

The two summary executions which took place on 27 and 29 frimaire Year II (17th and 19th December 1793)  were among the few definite facts cited against Carrier at his trial (Martin, La Guerre de Vendée, p.218).  They were carefully documented by Phelippes-Tronjolly who, wanted to make clear that he had been compelled to act  "following the will and express command of the Representative of the People". The texts of Carrier’s orders, were submitted to the Revolutionary Tribunal and official copies added to the records of the Revolutionary tribunal in Nantes.  The texts,together with the lists of prisoners, were  also included in Phelippes’ published defence (Noyades, fusillades, ou Réponse au rapport de Carrier, p.77-82)

The twenty-four prisoners executed on 27 frimaire were fishermen and peasants mostly from la Chapelle-Basse-Mer: they included four young boys: Julien Peigné and René Berthaud, aged fourteen and René Charron and Louis Guillocheau who, at thirteen years old, were legally minors.  According Bernard Laquèze, the concierge at Le Bouffay,  the captives were not even taken to the prison but made to stand several hours in the square until they were guillotined. Carrier himself arrived by carriage to summon the public prosecutor G and the members of the Revolutionary tribunal in order to ensure the execution took place. Crespin, of the Compagnie Marat testified that he was sent to Carrier’s house by Phelippes to intercede for the two children but was met with by the proconsul’s furious refusal (“Sacré mille Dieux ! dans quel pays suis-je ? tout comme les autres !"). Dobsent, presiding at Carrier’s trial, recalled that one of the young victims had been so naïve as to ask the executioner if he was going to hurt him.  Fazed by the question, the bourreau had positioned the child wrongly and the guillotine had sliced off the top of his skull, obliging him to restart the execution.  When challenged Carrier denied that he was aware of  the incident.  

Two days later, on 29 frimaire, a second order was addressed to Phelippes, commanding the execution of twenty-seven further prisoners.  The group had been arrested at Nozay on the route de Rennes on the evening of 27 frimaire and included seven women, among them the four La Métairie sisters. Their arrival in Nantes of the women caused a flurry of interest. A letter later published in the Journal de la Montagne reported:

Seven female prisoners, taken on the route de Rennes, because they could not catch up with  the army of the brigands, arrived here yesterday evening.  Among them were four cousins of the infamous Charette;  they are all former nobles, and two of these women are of a great beauty. They will be guillotined today.

The sisters were listed as Gabrielle (aged 28); Marguerite (aged 27), Claire (aged 26) and Olympe who was only seventeen, from the parish of Poiré, Roche-sur-Yon, in the Vendée.  They were accompanied by their maid Jeanne Roy, aged 22.  The other two women were Michelle Hervouet, aged 29, from Vannes and Mathurine Marchand, 25, the daughter of a municipal officer from Lorient. The men picked up with them were all young farm workers from the area of Blain and Savenay.
 List of the twenty-seven prisoners condemned on 29 frimaire. Lescadieu & Laurant, Histoire, p.112.
The women were taken first to the prison at Le Bon Pasteur, where the concierge relieved them of their diamond bracelets and shoe buckles, then at three o’clock on the afternoon of 28 frimaire they were moved to Le Bouffay to await execution.  According to a servant girl at the prison, “They were crying; poor unfortunate things!”.  Goudet the Public Prosecutor promised to save them but to no avail; at nine next morning they were summoned, by order of Carrier, taken out to the square and guillotined. 
Order for the execution, signed by Carrier.

A certain femme (Jeanne) Laillet, poissonnière, was sent by Bernard Laquèze to break the terrible news of their imminent execution.  At Carrier’s trial, she produced a ring which the youngest had given her and testified movingly; the members of tribunal  were greatly impressed by her honesty and forthrightness – a typical Nantes fishwife said Alfred Lallié. She explained that, despite her request, Goudet had not been able to save even the maidservant:
I led the demoiselles La Metayrie into a chamber and, said to them, crying, "  Ah! My friends, your last hour approaches.  Prepare youself for death;  at nine o'clock you will be no more;  it is Carrier  who orders it;  you will all be taken in the same carriage.  The youngest, who was seventeen, gave me a ring.  The unfortunate young women complained that they hadn't been given a hearing or judgment; they prostrated themselves on the ground and addressed their prayers to the Supreme Being;  then they were taken to their execution, and guillotined, without judgement, as were about thirty-seven others, who awaited the fatal blade in an hour at the foot of the guillotine.

The crowd was said to have given out a collective sigh, moved by the sisters’ youth, beauty and pious resignation.

It was widely believed in Nantes that the executioner Michel Sénéchal was so overcome with misery and remorse that he died three days later.  Phelippes confirmed that he did indeed die two or three days after the execution; according to Alfred Lallié the documentary evidence tallies:  on 5th January 1794 the records show his replacement by François-Joseph Ferey, the former executioner of Pont-Audemer in the Eure.


Phelippes Tronjolly, Noyades, fusillades, ou Réponse au rapport de Carrier, représentant du peuple, sur les crimes et dilapidations du comité révolutionnaire de Nantes (1794), p.77-82

Camille Mellinet, Histoire de la Commune et de la milice de Nantes, vol. 8 (1840)
This history, which is roughly contemporary with Debay's painting, explains that the story of the La Métairie sisters was often confounded with that of Madame Le Loup de la Biliais and her two daughters who were executed on 6th March 1794. This possibly explains the presence of the older woman in the painting, which may well have been intended as a composite scene.

Alfred Lescadieu and Auguste Laurant Histoire de la ville de Nantes, vol. 2 (1836) p.110-113

Alfred Lallié, "Le Bouffay de Nantes", Revue de Bretagne, de Vendée & d'Anjou (1857), p.224-9.
_____,  "La guillotine et le bourreau à Nantes pendant la Terreur", Revue historique de l'Ouest, vol. 12, Mémoires 1896, p. 169-190.

Who were the sisters?

The château de La Métairie as it is today

The  sisters were members of the petty nobility of the Vendée, the daughters of  André-Alexandre Vaz de Mello, seigneur of  La Métairie or La Métérie, on the outskirts of  Le Poiré-sous-la-Roche (now  Le Poiré-sur-Vie). They were indeed distantly related to General Charette. Their mother,  Marie-Marguerite Charette de La Verrière, who had been a widow for twelve years, died on the eve of the Revolution.  The sisters had been attempting to flee to join their former schoolmistress when they were caught up in the chaos of the Virée de Galerne.

Le Poiré-sur-Vie today

The Revolution was to consume the entire family, for both brothers  joined the Légion de Béon and were killed fighting for the Royalist cause:  Alexandre-Désiré  in April 1794 and Césaire-Victor at Quimper in June 1795.


Élie Fournier, Ouragan sur la Vendée : les quatre cousines de Charette (1982) (extract)

On their relationship to Charette: "Question généalogique autour de Charette et des Demoiselles de la Métairie" Le Chêne et le Hibou [forum]  post by "Nicolas Soufflet",   23/12/2013

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