Wednesday, 15 July 2020

The problems of the Picpus Cemetery

Strange how it is possible to normalise the most extreme and macabre situations!  Here is a translation of two forgotten documents from the 19th-century collection edited by Louis Lazare, which give a glimpse into the world of minor officials and gravediggers at the height of the Terror.  They concern the little Picpus Cemetery which, in the short time between 14th June and 18th July 1794, received the bodies of over 1,300 individuals guillotined on the nearby place du Trône-Renversé (place de la Nation).

A report from the local Section police: 

Section des Quinze-Vingts - Civil and Police Board:  Observations presented to the Department of Public Works by the Citizens GILLET, ALMAIN and RENETS, police commissioners ...of the arrondissement  in the faubourg Antoine which contains the places of execution and burial of those condemned by the Revolutionary Tribunal. 

1. A  pit has been dug on the place of execution, about a cubic toise in size, into which the blood of the executed flows together with the water used to wash the ground.  This pit is almost entirely full and gives off a pestiferous odour, which all the inhabitants of the area complain about  greatly when the wind carries it their way.  This pit needs to be filled in and another one dug which is deep enough to reach down to the underlying soil so that the blood can drain away.

2. The only route from the place of execution to the cemetery, runs along the wall of the cloister.  Since it is not paved, this is impractical,  especially for the tumbrils used to transport the bodies to the cemetery.  These tumbrils only have very low wheels, which means that they get stuck in the sand and loose earth, however many horses are attached to them; a narrow pathway needs be paved along the wall as far as the cemetery, which would require an estimated 200 toises of paving.

3. You cannot hear yourself speak in the cemetery when it rains  and at night the wind make it impossible to keep a light.  Since there is already a little shelter in the cemetery which is partly enclosed, all that is needed is to erect a frame and fit a door on it.  It would then be possible to take the register of personal effects under cover: there could be a table for the register and the pen and ink, and a light could be kept there. This would not even cost 50 livres, whilst a single forgotten overcoat often means a loss of 100 livres to the nation; when it pours with rain or is windy items are all too easily missed.

These observations are so reasonable and so urgent that the citizen administrators should take immediate action and give the appropriate orders.

Paris, 21 Messidor Year 2 of the indivisible and unperishable French Republic.(9th July 1794) Signed. Gillet, Almain, Renets.

Site of the two communal graves, Picpus Cemetery

A report by  Bernard Poyet (1742-1824) architect to the Paris Commune.

Cemetery of the executed at Picpus 
Paris, 21 messidor Year II of the One and Indivisible Republic

I hasten  to communicate to the Department of Public Works the recommendations of Coffinet's report  into the burial of the executed, which he considers indispensable to prevent an odour injurious to health.   This inspector went down into the ditch which has been dug in the Picpus Cemetery, where he experienced a miasma which it is essential to mitigate by whatever means possible.  He proposes to place a wooden cover over the ditch, with a trapdoor to enable access.  This is the only way to confine the dangerous emanations which can escape from the ditch without warning.

There is another source of danger to health which has come to the attention of this inspector,  which I also believe demands the consideration of the Public Works.  At the place of execution, on the place de la Barrière-Renversée, there is a sink in the ground intended to receive the blood of the executed. When the execution is finished, this hole is covered with planks. This precaution is insufficient to contain the odour of rotting blood, which is present in sufficient quantity to  create a dangerous miasma.  In order to prevent a murderous emanation in the present season, the Sieur Coffinet recommends the provision of a lead-lined chest on a two-wheeled cart.  This would allow the blood of the executed to be collected, and then emptied into the ditch at Picpus. The Department of Public Works will undoubtedly hasten to adopt this measure.  It is particularly urgent since the place of execution and the site of the ditch are not far apart; thus there is a risk that the two emanations will come together to create an even more noxious miasma capable of engulfing a large area of the atmosphere.

I await the order of the Department to carry out the dispositions recommended in the report.
Architect of the Commune

Louis Lazare, Bibliothèque municipale: publications administratives, vol. 4 (1864), p143-8.

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