Friday, 27 April 2018

A new portrait of La Pérouse??

Jean François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse,  1778.  
By Marie Renée Geneviève Brossard de Beaulieu/ Jean-Baptiste Greuze. Oil on canvas, 83.8cm x 66cm. 
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

This striking portrait is not quite a new acquisition, since it was given to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in 2008, but it has only very recently appeared on the internet and does not seem to have been previously documented.  The image on Wikipedia was uploaded on 26th September 2017.  It was uploaded to "FineArtAmerica" on 30th October 2017 (so now you can buy a La Pérouse tote bag or yoga mat.....).

Sunday, 22 April 2018

In search of La Pérouse.... in Albi

By an odd quirk of fate the main museum dedicated to La Pérouse in France is far from the sea, in La Pérouse's home town of Albi.  In the mid 18th-century Albi had a population of 9,000, a hundred or so of whom belonged to the nobility of Languedoc. The family Galaup de La Pérouse traced their pedigree back to the 16th century - the navigator's father had been consul of the town. Until the age of fifteen La Pérouse was educated by the Jesuits of Albi, on the site now occupied by the Lycée Lapérouse. The Château du Gô, where he was born, is still owned by his descendants:

The town has a central place Lapérouse with a bronze commemorative statue by Nicolas Raggi which dates from 1853. Bones from Vanikoro were ceremonially deposited in its base in 1988.

Saturday, 21 April 2018

The La Pérouse's Voyage: the plates

The artists

He will direct the draughtsmen embarked on board the frigates, to take views of all remarkable places and countries, portraits of the natives of different parts, their dresses, ceremonies, games, buildings, boats and vessels, and all the productions of the sea and land, in each of the three kingdoms of nature, if he shall think that drawings of them will render the descriptions more intelligible.
Instructions to La Pérouse (Voyage, vol 1, p.38 of English translation):

Thursday, 19 April 2018

La Pérouse's Voyage - publication history

French edition

Jean-François de Galaup, La Pérouse, comte de
Voyage de La Perouse autour du monde, publié conformément au Décret du 22 avril 1791 et rédigé par M.L.A. Milet-Mureau … A Paris, de L’lmprimerie de La République. An V [1797]

On Gallica:

The first edition was published in Paris in 1797 in four quarto volumes with an accompanying folio atlas containing 69 plates, maps and plans.

First edition in original pink leather binding
On sale for £17,500 with Shapero of Mayfair

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

La Pérouse - highlights of the 2008 Expo

From 19th March to 20th October 2008, to coincide with the final expedition to Vanikoro, the musée de la Marine in Paris, in co-operation with the Association Salomon, staged an ambitious temporary exhibition Le mystère Lapérouse, enquête dans le Pacifique sud. As well as artefacts from the shipwrecks, the exhibition brought together a comprehensive set of paintings, maps  drawings and documents - 700 objects in all from a dozen different collections. Since the brochure and a few dossiers remain on the on the internet, I thought I would use the outline of the exhibition to pull together a few notes.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

The mysterious end of La Pérouse

On 2nd March 1788 the two ships of the La Pérouse expedition, the most prestigous French voyage of exploration ever launched, left Botany Bay and were never heard from again. It was not until 1828 that it was discovered that they had been wrecked off the  remote island of Vanikoro in the Solomon Islands.   What had happen?  Were there survivors, and what was their ultimate fate?

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Tanneries of human skin? Meudon

Jean-Baptiste Isabey, View of Meudon in 1791, Louvre

In Paris there were two further components to the allegations that human skins were being tanned for leather.  Firstly, the charge of wearing trousers or boots made from human hide was extended from the generals in the Vendée to their civilian colleagues in the Convention. Secondly there were persistent rumours, whether spontaneous or orchestrated, that a secret tannery had been set up at Meudon with the express purpose of processing human leather to equip the soldiers of the Republic.  Here we can afford to be more robust in our conclusions - there is no real evidence; it was all just nonsense, most of it malicious.

Accusations against the Deputies 

After Thermidor, it was an obvious strategy to associate the Jacobins in the Convention with military excesses by charging them with having worn clothing made from the skins of victims of the Terror.  According to Jean-Clément Martin, besides Barère, Vadier et Saint-Just, those implicated at one time or another included Billaud-Varenne, Drouet, Foussedoire, Javogues, Le Bas and Moulin (Un détail inutile, p. 61 et p. 144, note 103). The accusation was persistent and dogged surviving deputies for years to come.  It is difficult to pinpoint exact origins; the only written sources date from Restoration.  In later accounts the accusation is usually loosely associated with speculation concerning the tannery at Meudon.

"Cannibals are not capable of remorse" plate from Prudhomme's Dictionnaire des individus envoyés à la mort judiciairement (1796)

According to the journalist Prudhomme, one of the earliest and most quoted authorities, on the occasion of the Festival of the Supreme Being, 20 prairial Year II (8th  June 1794), the deputies wore their new ceremonial costume of "royal blue coats, with buckskin breeches"; but "several were dressed in breeches made of human skin, like those sent to Barère by a general in the Vendée". Prudhomme was a bitter opponent of the Terror and offers nothing to substantiate his observation.  It should also be noted that this passage does not come from Prudhomme's contemporary writings but from his Histoire impartiale which was only published in 1824.
Histoire impartiale des révolutions de France, vol.VIII (1824) p.390

Saint-Just, who was not around to defend himself, was often singled out.  A particularly nasty accusation, with overtones of sexual perversion, appeared in Harmand de la Meuse's memoirs of the Revolution, published in 1820:
A young woman, tall and shapely, had refused Saint-Just's advances; he had her taken to the scaffold. After the execution he wanted to have the corpse shown to him and the skin removed.   When this vile outrage had been committed, he had the skin  prepared by an oil tanner and wore it as breeches.  I heard this revolting fact from the actual person charged with these preparations, the man who actually satisfied the monster. He told me further details that I do not care to repeat, in my office in the Committee of General Security in the presence of two other people who are still living.
Jean-Baptiste Harmand de la Meuse, "Sur Saint-Just",  Anecdotes relatives à quelques personnes, et à plusieurs événements remarquables de la Révolution (1820)

This dubious tale has recently gained extra currency due to its appearance in Assassin's Creed: Unity, where it forms the basis of a discreet piece of gameplay, "Coat of Arms"; the tannery (in Paris rather than Meudon) is splendidly gory:

Jean-Baptiste Harmand de la Meuse  was Saint-Just's colleague in the National Convention in 1792-94, but the anecdote does not belong to his original work of 1814; it appeared only in the posthumous edition of 1820 which contained twelve new chapters "suppressed by the original censor".  Clearly by a different hand, the additions were  a literary embellishment  designed to make the work more sensationalist. Neither the name of the woman nor a definite date is given.  Later in the same section the author stretches his credibility by insisting that Revolutionaries produced oil from human corpses, which was sold for enamellers' lamps.

Anne Quenneday,  president of the Association pour la sauvegarde de la Maison de Saint-Just was so indignant that she was driven to quote the inventory from the sale of Saint-Just's personal effects in Year III: his wardrobe contained no human skin, just a blue cloth coat, and two pairs of  breeches, one in buckskin ("en peau de daim"), and the other again in blue cloth.

The tannery at Meudon

In November 1793 the Convention founded an establishment for munitions production and research in  the former château at Meudon.  It was controlled by a Commission of prominent scientists, engineers and military experts, who included such worthies as the chemists Fourcroy, Berthollet and Guyton de Morveau and the mathematician Claude Chappe, inventor of the optical telegraph. The work  - concerning gunpowder,cartridges, incendiary devices, aerostatics and such like - took place in strict military secrecy and there were large numbers of mysterious comings and goings, mostly the transport of munitions towards the frontier.

According to the 19th-century writer Georges Duval rumours of a secret tannery were rife at the time:
I can neither confirm or deny it... but I can tell you what everyone believed... that at Meudon the locals showed with strange terror the windows of the lower room of the old château where they claimed that horrible "manipulations" took place; each night they heard the rumbling of covered waggons, which brought the decapitated bodies  of the executed from the place de la Revolution to feed the tannery.
Georges Duval, Souvenirs de la Terreur, vol.4 (1842)  p.355

Unsurprisingly, the records of the Convention do not yield any corroboration.  After Thermidor, some initial concerns were raised about security at Meudon; Barras proposed to the Committee of Public Safety that two Representatives be sent to investigate but his proposal was not adopted;  Barère produced a report, calming fears and pointing out need for military secrecy. The Thermidoreans Bentabolle and Fréron exploited the establishment as a weapon to discredit the Terrorists;  Fréron in particular presented it as the centre of vast plot against public liberty -  but he made no reference to any illicit tannery.  Nor is there any mention in the denunciations or indictment of  Billaud, Collot, Vadier and Barère; their official defence commended  the "new machines and means of military defence" perfected at Meudon.

The accusations of the journalist Galletti

The first known published reference to the Meudon tannery appeared at the end of February 1795 to coincide with the initial moves against  Billaud, Collot, Vadier and Barère.  In number 872 of the Journal des Lois de la République,  dated 26th February 1795,  the Italian-born journalist Guglielmo Francesco Galletti  reported  in the section "Les on dit":
.... that our former leaders requisitioned the bodies of the guillotined, had them taken to Meudon,  had them flayed and their skins tanned, and that  Barère and Vadier wore boots made from the leather of their miserable victims.
The following issue explained that the skin from guillotined bodies had been used to make footwear for soldiers and that "the first trials of this new leather had been devoted to making boots for Saint-Just and Barère".  No wonder, he adds, that the government had taken such precautions to prevent anyone from entering the site! 
The accusation was immediately taken up in other journals and repeated with relish by the abbé Proyart in his La vie et les crimes de Robespierre which was published shortly afterwards  [1795, p. 279-80]

Galletti's key piece of evidence was the famous bookbinding belonging to Guillaume Villenave, now in the library of the Carnavalet. In an study published in 1872, the historian Louis Combes reproduced the text of a poster on blue paper  which was sold with the book when it was auctioned in 1864.  In it Galletti informs us that Barère and his colleagues  had denied his charge - also by means of a "big blue poster", plastered all over the walls of Paris. He complains that he had been singled out for attack, even though he was not the first to make the allegations.  If the tannery did not exist at Meudon, "it certainly existed elsewhere", since one of his subscribers has sent him a copy of the Constitution of 1793 printed in Dijon, chez Causse, and bound in human skin in imitation of natural calfskin  (le veau fauve).  It is a little suspicious to say the least that a book should  suddenly be produced when all the other references are to trousers or boots.  In all probablility Villenave, who was chief editor of Galletti's journal, orchestrated the whole episode;  as Louis Combes observes, the only reason he would have wanted such a relic was as a confirmation of Republican atrocities. (Combes, "Les tanneries de peau humaine", p.22-23). Hopefully, the Anthropodermic Book Project  will soon be allowed to examine the binding and we will know one way or another whether it is genuine human skin.

In the Convention Galletti was given short shrift.  The only response was a  letter from the Representatives at Meudon which denied "a malicious rumour, placed in several journals, that, under the former tyranny, human skins were tanned at Meudon to make leather". (Moniteur 11 ventôse , 2 March 1795)  The Thermidorean Merlin de Thionville, stated categorically: "We are not in a century where human skins are tanned" (12 ventôse; Journal des Débats et décrets, no.890, cited Combes, p.15-16)

A bogus report of August 1794

This is a superficially much more impressive source: the text of an official report, delivered on 14th August 1793, to the Commission des Moyens Extraordinaire pour la défense du pays by no less a personage than Saint-Just. It comes as no real surprise to learn that there never was such a report and that a Commission des Moyens Extraordinaire never really existed. The origin is a passage in the Souvenirs de la marquise de Créquy, a dubious confection first published in 1834-5 with many subsequent additions.  The wording follows closely the abbé de Montgaillard's Histoire de France of 1827:

In the present climate of poverty and shortages, we must commend as an appreciable achievement,  the discovery of a method for tanning, in a few days, leathers which had previously required several years of preparation. At Meudon human skin is tanned and the production leaves nothing to be desired either in quality or preparation.  It is well known that Citizen Philippe-Égalité wears breeches of this sort, the material taken from the finest bodies of the executed.  The skin that comes from men is of a consistency and quality superior to chamois.  That of female subjects is more supple, but it lacks firmness due to the softness of the tissues.
Report of the Commission etc. 14th August 1793
Souvenirs de la marquise de Créquy (really by Cousin de Courchamps (1783-1849)): vol.7

It would seem that it was the historian Émile Gabory, writing in 1927, who was responsible for the final part of the jigsaw, the reference to Saint-Just.   Careful reading shows that Gabory simply juxtapositioned the general question, "Did Saint-Just not propose to use the hides of the dead?", with a quote from the report, without relating the two.  Anne Quenneday expresses her surprise that he was taken in:  "One must marvel that an archivist trained in the École des Chartes in the critical analysis of documents did not realise so crude a forgery as the report of the "Commission des moyens etc." (art. cit., note 8)

An industrial process?

A final element to the myth of Meudon, was the idea that the Revolutionaries dehumanised their victims to the extent of making the tanning of human skin into an industrial process.  A certain Séguin, so the story goes, came to the Convention with a proposal for a new method of tanning and was set up at Meudon to process human hides on an industrial scale.  

What people in Europe does not dismiss as a fable the establishment of a tannery of human skin at Meudon?   However, it might be remembered that a man came to the bar of the Convention to announce a new and simple procedure for preparing an abundance of leather; that the Committee of Public Safety (of Carnot) granted him a site at the château of Meudon, whose doors were carefully closed, and finally that Barrère, Vadier and others were the first to wear boots made of human  hide. 
Auguste Danican,  Les brigands démasqués (1796) p.186

See also: Joseph-François-Nicolas Dusaulchoy de Bergemont, "Tannerie de peau humaine" in Mosaique historique, littéraire et politique, vol. 1 (1818), p.145

Like all the best tall tales, this one only slightly distorts the truth. The events took place not in the Terror but after Thermidor, when the Committee of Public Safety charged Berthollet with rectifying the Republic's chronic shortage of leather.  After many experiments the industrialist Armand Séguin succeeded in using extracted tanin to speed up the production of leather and, by a decree of the Convention dated 14 Nivôse III,  was made director of a new State tannery.  The works was located not in the château of Meudon, but close by, on the Île-de-Sèvres (now Île Seguin) in the Seine - later well known as the site of the Renault car factoryLouis Combes  gives short shrift to the idea that Séguin, who was soon tanning  fifty thousand hides a year to supply the armies of the Empire, really bothered to experiment with human skins.  (Combes p.19-20)


Louis Combes, "Les tanneries de peau humaine", Épisodes et curiosités révolutionnaires (1872), p.1-31

Henri Allorge, "Tanneries de peau humaine", Le Courrier d'Epidaure. Revue médico-littéraire.... 1934/01, p.39-48

Anne Quennedey, "Saint-Just dans Assassin's Creed Unity: une mise en point",  Association pour la sauvegarde de la Maison de Saint-Just [website]

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Tanneries of human skin? An incident in Colmar

 Morel, portrait by JJ. Casimir Karpff
One further incident suggests the tanning of human skin could be entertained - if only as a crass scientific experiment - in the Revolutionary period.

The episode in question took place not in the Vendée but in Colmar in Alsace. On 5 Thermidor an II (23rd July 1794), the  Revolutionary Commission of Haut-Rhin ordered the arrest of a certain doctor Gabriel Morel, together with the tanner, Jean Ziegler and the trouser-maker, Jacques Maus.   Morel, ouvrier de santé in the military hospital at Colmar, had "removed the skin from a guillotined man and had it tanned to be made into trousers". Maus had reportedly kept the skin in his shop for several months where he had shown it to anyone who asked to see it. (He testified that he had found it impossible to work and tried to return it to Morel but had never found him at home.) 

According to the procès-verbal of his interrogation preserved in the muncipal archives, when asked whether he had found treating a human hide repulsive, Ziegler had replied that "it was no more repugnant to tan the skin of a man than that of a dog". He was then asked what he would charge to tan a dog's hide, to which he replied 4 livres; but added that he had not charged Morel, who was his doctor.
(La Nouvelle revue,1920/05,

The chief culprit, Gabriel Louis François Anaclet Morel (1769-1842) was a young man of precocious talent.  The son of a hospital director and demonstrator of anatomy in Colmar, he had become doctor of medicine and surgery at the age of eighteen.  At the start of the Revolution he had been studying in Paris, but returned to Colmar where he was given a commission as a military surgeon.   Until his departure for the army in 1792 Morel had led a batalliion of National Guard.  He and his co-accused were active members of the Jacobins of Colmar.  At the time of the arrest order he was assigned to the military hospital in Mainz, where he was responsible for 5,000 wounded and sick soldiers.  

According to the minutes of the Popular Society of Colmar, at the session of 16 thermidor, the two official defenders, Blanchard and Jacques Klimrath asked members to affirm Morel's "civisme";  he was supported by his colleagues Vivot and Metzger, but Chausse-Loup, a member of the Commission,  was of the opinion that he had exhibited "a profound immorality"  from earliest infancy.  Vivot, a  doctor at the military hospital,  defended his patriotism and his talent as a doctor and anatomist: far from being reprehensible his action was "necessary for the instruction of artists of this genre";  tanned human skins were commonplace  in the cabinets de curiosités of Paris, and  the body in question had been abandoned by the public prosecutor, who had jurisdiction over it.  He also answered previous accusations of immoral behaviour by Morel, that he had ferretted in the entrails of his dead father (the father had ordered a postmortem) and killed his mother by a cure on her leg ("not all interventions are fortunate").  On 18 thermidor the Society reiterated the need for Morel's services in the hospital.  The Commission acceded and the seals were removed from his surgical instruments, and from the skin itself,which had been impounded. The Revolutionary Commission was subsequently disbanded and the charges against the three men dropped.  Morel appeared before the Society to express his gratitude and was given a "fraternal accolade".
Les Jacobins de Colmar: procès-verbaux des séances de la Société populaire (1791-1795)

The National Archives in Paris, preserves a letter from Morel's co-accused asking for their case to be considered: these robust working men still seemed oblivious to the gravity of their offence.

Citizens Jean Ziegler, chamoiseur, and Jean-Jacques Maus, culottier, to Citizen Garnerin, agent of the Committee of Public Safety.


We have been deprived, for several days, of our liberty. We are going to explain to you the cause.
About ten décades ago, citizen Morel, doctor of this commune, arrived at the premises of one of us, Ziegler, with a request to tan a human skin. 

 The consideration Morel enjoyed in his profession decided me not to refuse.  I thought he wanted it for his cabinet of anatomy.  Once it was tanned, he went to Maus, also one of us, whom he engaged to make him a pair of breeches.  I agreed to his request, because I thought I could do no better than to carry out the wishes of so well-considered a citizen.

Since by this action we have neither compromised the public good, nor hampered its progress, we have reason to hope that you will help us; we are both fathers of families useful to the Fatherland.

Ziegler has at this moment 500 hides all destined to supply the cavalry, which are at danger of spoiling.

Maus would be occupied in clothing our brave defenders.  Hasten our release or expedite our judgment

Maus, culottier
Ziegler, chamoiseur 
Archives nationales, dossier 8, piece 60.quoted in Adolphe Guillot, Paris qui souffre : la basse geôle du Grand-Châtelet et les morgues modernes (1888) p,69-70.

The Revolutionary authorities bowed before realism and necessity.  However, the records of the Commission make it quite clear that, even in the middle of the Terror, the violation of a human corpse was considered totally unacceptable: "These three individuals can only be regarded as reprehensible and counter-revolutionary; the mere idea of their action brings a shudder to republicans, for whom humanity is the first duty..."

Recently auctioned portrait Morel & his wife, by JJ. Casimir Karpff

Morel was not a real criminal. The affair gives the impression of a thoughtless young man, too full of professional arrogance to consider the implications of his amusement de laboratoire.  He was to go on to enjoy a long and illustrious career.  He was founder and professor at the Maternity Hospital of the Haut-Rhin, deputy, conseiller général, and from 1813 to 1815 mayor of Colmar.  The consensus was that his later good deeds more than redeemed his reputation.


 "Culottes en peau humaine", La Nouvelle revue, 1920/05

Jacques Betz, "Gabriel-Louis-Francois-Anaclet Morel, 1769-1842, medicin et maire de Colmar"  Annuaire / [Société d'histoire et d'archéologie de Colmar], vol.27, 1778, p.27-

The account of the incident in L’intermédiaire des chercheurs et curieux for 30th March 1936 embellishes the story by supplying a named victim:  Joseph Thomas, a saintly priest from Guebwiller in Alsace who was guillotined on 11th December 1793 at Colmar:
In the Haut-Rhin, the memory is preserved  of a macabre and odious incident which took place in Colmar during the Revolution. After the execution of the saintly abbé Thomas of Guebwiller, who was condemned to death for emigration, the executioner sold to doctor Moret the flayed skin of the victim. The doctor had it tanned and had made from it a pair of trousers which he wore proudly, telling the tale of their origin.  The people of Colmar were so outraged that the authorities had to intervene: the trousers were seized and the executioner and tanner condemned for theft.  Doctor Morel himself was not troubled and even became to mayor of the town.  He subsequently showed himself more humane and redeemed himself by numerous acts of generosity and by his irreproachable administration of the town and civil hospital.
 F. Schaedelin, "Peau humaine tannée",ICC, 30 mars 1936,

 (The 1978 article by Jacques Betz, on the other hand identifies the victim as "the mayor of Soultzbach, who was accused of murder and guillotined - what's the story there, I wonder?)

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 "la 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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