Of all the many personal tragedies of the Revolutionary epoch, none seems more poignant than the death of Condorcet, the great exponent of human progress, alone in his prison cell. The nature of his death remains uncertain; did he attempt to take charge of his fate by an act of suicide or did he merely succumb, more mundanely but mercifully, to a medical condition - a heart attack or a stroke? Here are a few notes on the lead up to Condorcet's arrest, and what is know of his final end.
In the rue Servandoni - With Mme de Vernet
|File:Plaque Nicolas de Condorcet, 15 rue Servandoni, Paris 6.jpg - Wikimedia Commons|
|Fichier:Maison ancienne de clamart.jpg — Wikipédia|
|The last meal of Condorcet, from Louis Figuier, Vie des savants illustres|
|pic.gif (640×480) (patrimoine.asso.fr)|
No trace remains in Bourg-la-Reine today of the maison d'arrêt where Condorcet died. There used to be a commemorative plaque where it once stood, at what is now 81 Avenue du Général-Leclerc. However, in 2006 , when the site was redeveloped, the plaque seems to have been taken down and never replaced.
|"Condorcet commits the act of suicide in prison to avoid his sentence". Engraving after Alexandre Fragonard, published in London in 1803.|
Did Condorcet commit suicide?
Could Condorcet really have hidden the wherewithal to poison himself? At the time of his arrest his personal effects, including the knife and scissors which could potentially have been suicide weapons, had all been seized. The room was also thoroughly searched after his death. Certainly there was no chance of keeping a flask or the ring with a concealed cavity favoured by more romantically-inclined historians. That said, Cabanis's poison didn't need a container as such: it is described as being made up into "pieces of barley sugar" or as a ball about the size of half a little finger. It could be broken up and dissolved directly on the tongue.
The death certificate and the official report of the removal of the body, still assumed to be that of the vagrant Pierre Simon, yield only two pieces of medical information:
- The corpse was found in an odd position, face down on the floor with arms stretched out stiffly by the sides.
- There was bleeding from the nostrils. Based on this, the medical officer had no hesitation in concluding that "sanguinary apoplexy", that is to a say a stroke,was the cause of death. No postmortum was carried out.
In contrast, Michel Biard, in his 2015 book on death and the deputies to the Convention, concludes that poisoning was indeed feasible. He consulted two modern forensic medical practitioners, Gérard Lahon, at the court of appeal in Rouen and Jean-Georges Anagnostides, an expert at the Cour de cassation. Both felt that the acute poisoning could not be discounted, perhaps in conjunction with a preexisting cardio-vascular condition. The position of the body seemed to them unnatural, as though manipulated post mortem by a third party. The thought is that the suicide had been concealed in order to avert charges of negligence - but this is to add a whole new layer of supposition.
This line of inquiry does not get us very far:
- Loménie de Brienne, former finance minister and Archbishop of Sens, died, ostensibly of heart failure, on the night following his arrest on 18th February 1794. He was widely assumed to have taken poison - perhaps even "les pastilles de Cabanis". However, his 19th-century biographer Perrin, was doubtful; the accounts are contradictory and members of the family were convinced that he had died of natural causes. A postmortum revealed no traces of poison.
See: Joseph Perrin, Le cardinal de Loménie de Brienne, archevèque de Sens; ses dernières années (1896), p.187-191. https://archive.org/details/lecardinaldelom01sensgoog/page/n202/mode/2up
- Napoleon attempted suicide in the early hours of 13th April 1814 by taking poison or medicinal opium. It was thought that he once possessed Cabanis's poison, but the capsule he actually took had been prepared by his personal physician Dr Alexandre-Urbain Yvan. Thanks to prompt intervention, he suffered only spasms, nausea and vomiting.
Condorcet's state of health:
Condorcet would certainly have been exhausted, debilitated and profoundly mentally stressed by the time he reached Bourg-la-Reine:
- He was forced to spend two March nights sleeping rough in a quarry, which must have been quite an ordeal for a man who was used to a warm bed. During this time he sustained a leg injury.
- There was some dispute whether Condorcet had eaten with the Suards, or was starving and had been driven by hunger into the inn in Clamart.
- He was so exhausted he had to be loaded on a cart to be taken from Clamart to the prison in Bourg-la-Reine.
- Condorcet was known to be sensitive to stress and to have a delicate temperament which was taxed by his intellectual labours. At the beginning of the Convention, he declared in the Chronique de Paris 1792, that his health had been adversely affected.
- Isambert in the Nouvelle Biographie générale writes that Condorcet was tall, with a large head, wide shoulders and a robust body, but weak spindly legs. He habitually stooped. (See Robinet, p.264)
- In the winter months at the rue Servandoni, he suffered from the cold, particularly in the legs, perhaps a sign of poor circulation. Sarret reports he would stay in bed until midday to keep his legs warm and Mme Vernet depicts him shivering in front of the fire.
- He had difficulty in walking with Sarret to Fontenay, a journey of 8 kilometres, which took him four hours.
- When Mme Suard saw him for the last time, admittedly after two nights sleeping rough, he was bent double, unrecognisable, walking with difficulty.
- Régis Olry and Geneviève Dupont state that Condorcet had previously suffered a minor stroke This seems important point, but they do not give a reference and I have been unable to find one.
In the absence of conclusive evidence either way, it is perhaps safest to accept the official verdict that Condorcet died of natural causes, a stroke and/or heart attack. On the other hand, Condorcet had on several occasions expressed his intention to take his own life rather than submit to trial - the timing must surely supports the idea that he did so. It is certainly comforting to imagine, with his friends and family, that he was able to confront his fate and chose a philosopher's death.
La liberté ou la mort, mourir en député, 1792-1795 - Google Books
From the letters of Mme Vernet:
He stayed for five more months after that fatal day , and it was only on the 5th of April that he escaped from me, by the ruse of the tobacco box, accompanied by my good Sarret. The cry of poor Manon (the servant) when she found him gone left me unable to move for four hours. Good Sarret, who arrived back half-dead, informed me that he had left him at the door of that monster Suard....It was at 10:30 in the morning, on the 5th April that they left. They had embraced, with the promise of a return on the 7th of the month...
This incomparable man, left after ten, accompanied by M. Sarret, with the sun shining...it took them four hours to arrive at Fontenay-aux-Roses...They had to rest often on the way ; your poor father had difficulty walking, through having been indoors so long....
Robinet, App. I Condorcet - Google Books
Account by J.-B. Sarret:
At the time of his proscription, Condorcet found by fortunate chance, a secure refuge, even an agreeable one, with a woman who was almost unknown, though distinguished by her moral qualities...
For the whole time that Condorcet passed in this retreat, that is eight whole months, I had the good fortune, since I lived under the same roof, to live with him, to second the vigilance and share, as far as I was able, the care given to him by his guardian angel. For these eight months, we did not lose sight of him for an instant. We witnessed and admired his gentleness, patient, his unfailing calmness of spirit, and his resignation to a fate he had done nothing to deserve. He was indifferent to his own welfare, for the objects of his greatest concerns were always the Republic, his wife, his child, his friends.
He divided his time between work; reading (mainly novels of which he devoured an incredible quantity) and the society of his benefactress, whom he named his second mother.... [He also enjoyed the company of ] Citizen Marcoz, member of the Convention, who lived in the same house...it was he who procured the books, newspapers and other papers, and brought news, particularly of the Convention....and also me myself.
Such was the way of life of Condorcet in this refuge; as he said more than once, he only lacked for contentment, the happiness of his country and the presence of those close to him.
It was here that he composed his posthumous works (Progress of the Human Mind/ The Advice to his daughter etc.) ...
I now come to that cruel catastrophe that cost us, and continues to cost us, so many tears and regrets.
This letter, which indicated another possible retreat, obliged him to leave the refuge where he had proposed to spend his life. Alas! We did not foresee that his absence, which was planned to last only three or four days, was to become an eternal separation. I did not imagine that our embrace on the plain of Montrouge, - to which I had accompanied him alone and in full daylight - would be our last farewell.
He went on to Fontenay-aux-Roses, to the home of Suard, his old friend. I never found out exactly what happened between them; but two or three days later, the unfortunate Condorcet was arrested in Clamart in a cabaret where hunger had driven him, and from there he was taken as a criminal to the prison in Bourg-Egalite, where ...he finished his days by poison.
"Notice sur la vie de Condorcet pendant sa proscription" published in his edition of Condorcet's Observations pour les instituteurs sur les élémens d'arithmétique à l'usage des écoles primaires, ( (Year VII/1798/99) p.ii-xi. Google Books This work was among the manuscripts left in Sarret's care.
From the Memoirs of Garat
Dominique-Joseph Garat, the former Minister of the Interior, attempted to arrange a new hiding pace for Condorcet at the time of his arrest.
Account by Amélie Suard:
M Suard and I had gone to Paris for two or three days. When we came back, we learned that a man with a scruffy bonnet, trousers and a long beard, had come to the door twice at Fontenay, and had appeared distressed not to find us in. [The next morning at nine the maidservant informed her that she had shown the man in to Suard. Mme Suard suspected that he might be a wanted man seeking shelter but concealed her suspicions from the patriotic servant.]
...soon M. Suard came in and said to me quickly: Give me your keys quickly, my dear; give me the key to the cupboard, to the wine; get me some tobacco. My God, I said to him, giving him everything he asked for, what is it? I will tell you everything he replied, but stay here; I forbid you to come up....It was more than two hours before M. Suard appeared in my apartment. [From my window] I saw the man leaving, but I only saw his back and his bearing alone inspired me with the deepest pity. He looked in his pockets for something he could not find. He left; and M. Suard came to tell me that the man was M. de C** who had been so dear to us.
...He had just abandoned his hiding place, for fear of compromising the generous woman who had given him refuge and wanted to keep him with her. This man who had once been so dear to all that knew him... had been dying of hunger and thirst for three days, and had found nowhere to lie his head except the floor of one of the quarries along the road to Fontenay. A loose stone had injured his leg. Having no passport, he dared not make himself known except to us....
M. Suard gave him Malaga wine, a substantial meal, and tobacco, for which he had recently developed a passion. I had given a paper cone of tobacco to M. Suard; but to my distress, I found it on the floor of the salon! It was this tobacco he looked for before he opened the gate; I am convinced that it was this misfortune which made him enter the cabaret in Clamart, in the hope of finding more; he could not have been hungry after the meal that he had eaten. M. Suard had also given him him money, and bandages for his injured leg, plus a copy of Horace to pass the time. He had arranged a rendez-vous for eight in the evening, at nightfall.
He had asked M. Suard if he could give him shelter. M. Suard replied that he would willingly sacrifice his own life but that he could not risk mine....M. Suard told him that we lived in a detestable commune, that Condorcet himself would be in danger, that we suspected our servant. However, he could stay one night without endangering himself or me. Suard added that he would leave immediately for Paris, where he would see our old friends and try to acquire a passport; that he was to return at eight that evening, that our servant would be sent away, that he could pass the night under our roof and then, equipped with the passport, move on to somewhere more suitable.
He said to M. Suard that he only feared arrest in the daytime, and that if he had a night before him, he was certain to escape his executioners....
M. Suard left on foot and returned, very tired, but pleased to have a passport that Cabanis had given him. I was happy too. We dismissed our cook until ten, closed the door to our apartment via the stair so that the only entrance was from the garden. He was to sleep on the couch in the salon, which we had filled with food, wine, clean linen, tobacco, all that he could want...We waited fruitlessly until ten o'clock. We imagined he had gone to Auteuil where his wife and daughter were; but the next evening [they learned that he had died in prison in Bourg-la-Reine]
Essais de mémoires sur M. Suard...(1820), p.195-203. Google Books
Notes by Condorcet's daughter:
[According to Mme Vernet] ..it was about ten o'clock, on the pretext of going up to fetch his tobacco, that he left her house accompanied by M. Sarret. He arrived in Fontenay-aux-Roses at the Suard house about four hours after his departure from Paris. Suard has said, and it has been printed, that he was not in when Condorcet arrived, and that, if he had seen him, he would have received him. I think that Garat has repeated the same thing....Later, in 1825, Mme Suard admitted in her memoirs that Suard had seen him and talked to him. Mme Suard said that her husband asked my father to return in the evening and come in by the garden gate, which would be left open for him. What is certain is that after he left Mme Vernet, my father wandered without shelter in the country. My mother was told that he had hidden in the quarries. Was the Suard's garden gate left open for him, as promised? Mme Vernet has repeated to me many times that a few days after my father's departure, she visited this little gate...there was grass a foot high, which established beyond doubt that the gate not been opened for a long time.
Robinet, App. I Condorcet - Google Books
Comments of Antoine Diannyère:
Why, when a well-founded fear of a raid on his place of asylum, forced him to leave, why was he not received on the spot by the man who had been his friend? You deprived France and the whole world, by abandoning him to his naivety and his honesty. In spite of his disguise, he could not satisfy the questions of a municipal officer in Clamart-sous- Meudon; his clothes, his beard, announced a beggar; his responses were those of a well-educated man man who did not know how to dissimulate. His very qualities led him into the abyss; he was taken to a prison in Bourg-l'Égalité. He is no more; he escaped through poison, on 9 Germinal Year II, the agony that awaited him in Paris.
From the Memoirs of the abbé Morellet
Morellet, who had lodged with Cabanis at Mme Helvétius's house in Auteuil before the Revolution, seems likely to have heard most of his account first-hand.
p.102: At the time of the arrest of Brissot and his partisans, [Condorcet] fled from pursuit and lived a wandering hidden life; the summit of misfortune.....
He was taken in in Paris by a women who knew him only by reputation and who generously gave him refuge. He stayed there until the period of domiciliary visits in April 1794. At this time, and no doubt to avoid endangering his hostess, he left his retreat. He left Paris safely enough, without carte de civisme, with a white bonnet on his head. He wandered for several days in the area around Clamart and Fontenay-aux-Roses, and in the bois de Verrière, two or three leagues from Paris.
M. and Mme. Suard, with whom he had lodged for several years and been intimate friends, - though he hadn't seen them since the death of the king - had a house in Fontaney, composed of two corps-de-logis: one was let to M. de Monville, a magistrate of the Parlement. Condorcet presented himself one morning at M. de Monville's door, believing he was at the Suards' residence. A servant opened the door and [directed him to the right place].
Condorcet entered Suard's house and found him in. Suard sent away his maidservant and learned from Condorcet the nature of his situation. He gave him bread and cheese and wine.....He offered to go immediately to Paris and try to obtain, through Garat, a [certificate of invalid status] which would serve instead of a carte civique; they agreed that Condorcet would come back the next day to collect this safe conduct. Condorcet asked him for a Horace and some tobacco...they made him up a horn of tobacco which he had the misfortune to forget when he left.
Suard rushed to Paris, and talked to Garat. The latter came to Auteuil and gained from Cabanis, who worked in the hospitals, a sort of pass, which allowed a soldier who was discharged to go from one department to another. Suard came back with this makeshift passport and waited for Condorcet, who had agreed to reappear at eight in the evening. Suard had to send away his maidservant; his wife took her with her at about three in the afternoon to pay a call in the village. Left alone, he waited. The whole evening passed without seeing anyone; his wife returned at half-past nine. Neither that day, nor in the two days that followed, did they receive any news; finally, on the evening of the third day, they went to spend the evening in one of the houses of the village, and there they learned that a man had been arrested in Clamart, whom they believed to be Condorcet; as was indeed the case.
Mémoires of the abbé Morellet, vol.2 (1821), p.100- Google Books
Procès-verbal of Condorcet's arrest
On 7 Germinal, two members, Nicolas-Claude Champy, François Breau, brought before the committee a personage... who declared himself to be Pierre Simon, native of Ribmont, district of Saint-Quentin, in the department of L'Aisne, aged fifty years. He declared that he had left his native region 20 years ago, and since that time had served as valet de chambre to Trudaine, the intendant of finances, and Dionise du Séjour, magistrate of the former Parlement of Paris, whose service he had left twenty months ago. When asked where he had spent the last twenty months, he declared that he had lived on his savings in Paris, at 505 rue de Lille, section de la Fontaine de Grenelle...
Robinet, Appendix H, no. 1. p. 358. Condorcet - Google Books
Did Condorcet take poison?
Procès-verbal of the removal of the body
The Justice of the Peace for the canton of l'Égalité testifies that on 29th March 1794 (9 Germinal) at 9 o'clock in the evening, he received notice that a man detained in the Maison d'arrêt in l'Égalité. had been found dead in his chamber. Accompanied by the required officials, he arrived there at 10 o'clock in the evening. The concierge Antoine Chevenu, showed him the prison register. He declared that he himself had found the prisoner Pierre Simon dead on his 4 o'clock rounds....
Citizen Labrousse was required immediately to verify the state of the body and to establish the cause of death. We went with him into the chamber where we saw the corpse with its face turned towards the ground and the arms stretched out by the side of the body. There were no weapons or instruments present that could lead to a presumption of suicide. The clothes consisted of a carmagnole jacket and soft grey trousers; a striped silk waistcoat of green and grey; a shirt, well-made and unstained; a flannel waistcoat worn underneath the shirt; grey cotton stockings, high round hat; cotton bonnet; a handkerchief with red squares; black silk cravat; lace shoes with over-stitching. The dead man appeared to us to be about fifty years of age, with light brown hair and eyebrows, grey eyes, a thick brown beard, large flat nose, receding hairline, smallpox scars; height about five feet five.
Citizen Labrousse examined the individual and declared that he had died from a "sanguinary apoplexy"; he observed to us that there was blood coming from the nostrils. We searched the pockets and found the sum of 23 livres...which together with the clothing, we took to be deposited at the tribunal of the VIe arrondissment. We finished by placing our seal on the forehead of the body....
Robinet, Appendix H, no. 2. p. 360. Condorcet - Google Books
Robinet, Appendix H, no. 3. p. 361 Condorcet - Google Books
The next morning, he was found dead. He had taken stramonium combined with opium, which he always had with him; it was that which made him say to Suard as he left: "If I have a night in front of me, I am not afraid of them; but I do not want to be taken to Paris".....
The poison which he used seems to have acted gently, without causing pain or convulsions. The surgeon called to confirm the death declared in the procès-verbal that [he] had died of apoplexy; he was bleeding from the nose.
Mémoires de l'abbé Morellet - Google Books
p.83: Condorcet, although still at liberty, no longer had any illusions and prepared himself for every eventuality, as this note by his friend [Debry] shows:At Auteuil on 30 June 1793, at midnight. Condorcet, proscribed by the detestable faction of 31st May last, before fleeing the assassin's dagger, shared with me, as a gift of the friendship which unites us, the poison that he had conserved in order to remain in all eventualities, the sole master of his person. Jean Debry.
Guillois, Le salon de Madame Helvétius : Cabanis et les idéologues (1894)
The testimony of Garat
In his Memoirs Garat recounts that he and Condorcet both had access to poison, though he himself had decided against suicide if he was condemned.
Under Robespierre and Billaud, having little doubt as to the fate that awaited me, I never went out without the means to take control promptly of my own destiny. It was a comfort to me to have the wherewithal, and to have the choice; but after mature consideration, I decided against this course of action. ...The principles of Socrates of submission to the law and social...still appeared to me sacred and sublime. But in the midst of so many horrors it would cost little to endure a few more hours in order to show the people how an innocent man, who has been inequitably condemned, faces death.
O, you who stayed the hand that traced the progress of the human spirit, to lift to your lips the fatal potion, other thoughts and feelings inclined your will towards the tomb. You gave to eternity your republican soul, with the poison that we shared between us like bread among brothers!
Mémoires - Google Books
See also Guillois, p.98:
The question has been much discussed whether Condorcet had hastened his end or died naturally. The note of Jean Debry, dated 30 June 1793, serves on its own, as conclusive proof. In addition Cabanis always acknowledge that he gave the poison to Condorcet. There is in the archives of the Institute, a letter from M. Fayolle to Arago, dated 28th February 1842, which is no less conclusive.
It is from Garat that I learned that Cabanis had given to several of his friends, in 1793, a certain poison, opium combined with stramonium, that he called "le pain des frères". Since Bonaparte, at a certain time, used to see Cabanis at the home of Madame Helvétius in Auteuil, this doctor gave him the poison in question in the form of sticks of barley sugar. I have all these details from Garat and M. Feuillet [the librarian of the Institute] must also know them.
Plunged into a damp cell, without a bed or food, he was forgotten for nearly 48 hours. Only on the day after his entry did the warden visit: he found him stretched out, lifeless, on the floor. Is there any need to speculate on how he died? The poor wretch did not have time to finish his meal in the cabaret in Clamart; he died of hunger in his cell, having already been at the end of his strength; it is perhaps for this reason that this event, which would naturally have excited interest, has been kept secret until now, and that rumours of poisoning have been put about.
Le nouveau Paris - Louis Sébastien Mercier - Google Livres