Monday 25 January 2021

Prisoners of the Maison des Oiseaux

The following account of the Bonnet-Rouge's prison in the Maison des Oiseaux is taken from the memoirs of Voltaire's great-nephew Alexandre-Marie-François de Paule de Dompierre d'Hornoy (1742-1828), former conseiller maître of the Chambre de Comptes. The manuscript was published with an introductory essay by Guy Périer de Féral in the Mémoires of the Historical and Archaeological Associations of the Ile-de-France in 1952.


Portrait said to be Hornoy de Dompierre by Quentin La Tour
(Périer de Féral, p. 110).

In 1794 even a relative of Voltaire had no guarantee of immunity from detention.   Hornoy was arrested on night of 19-20th April 1794 at his father-in-law's property, the château de Monthuchet, near Saulx-les-Chartreux, a full twenty kilometres outside Paris. Local officials were accompanied by two roving representatives from the Bonnet-Rouge section, one of them none other than Piccini, the "ardent admirer" of Voltaire.  Hornoy was told he had been denounced, though he himself considered he had been arrested simply because he was a former nobleman and magistrate (p.168) 

Piccini and his companion Ballière gave Hornoy his choice of prison. He was tempted by the Luxembourg, where he had friends, but in the end chose the Maison des Oiseaux ("my lucky star made me change my mind"). His custodians boasted of its fresh air and garden. He was allowed to take a servant and advised to "bring money", which led him to conclude that the regime would not be too harsh. (p.169) 

The Maison des Oiseaux

Hornoy goes on to describe the circumstances of his detention.  He relates how the Revolutionary Committee of the Bonnet-Rouge section had at first held its detainees in the former barracks in the rue de Sèvres, then in March 1794 acquired a new, much grander location, the so-called Maison des Oiseaux.  This vast hôtel was situated on the corner of the boulevard des Invalides  next to the barrière de Sèvres. It was, writes Hornoy, a large, attractive house, built with more magnificence that good taste.. (p,170)  Pleasant and airy, it boasted a substantial garden.  In the early 1790s the property had belonged to the Mory family - in August 1792 Antoine de Mory had given Marie-Antoinette's valet Joseph Weber refuge there.  No-one was quite sure how the Bonnet-Rouge had subsequently acquired it;  Horney supposed that the new proprietor had leased it to them "out of terror". 

The couvent des Oiseaux in the 19th century, Engraving in the Carnavalet

In the 19th century the building belonged to a congregation of Augustinian nuns. It was completely demolished in 1909. 

The Maison des Oiseaux in 1909 (Guy Périer de Féral, p.132)

The regime of the Oiseaux differed considerably from that of a ordinary prison. According to Hornoy, since the members of the Committee wanted primarily to turn a profit, they encouraged their detainees to regard the house not as a prison but as a "maison de sûreté" (p.171). The scale of charges was two to twelve livres a day.  It seems that a veneer of respectability was maintained.  Hornoy comments wryly that, although Montesquieu made virtue the principle of Republics and honour the principle of Monarchies,  the Republican gaolers, like valets of old,  took great pride in the arrangement of the house. The Committee retained a concierge, lodged on the premises who cleaned and rendered services to the inmates. He was assisted by a clerk, and had several porters and custodians under his orders.  The exterior guard was furnished by the municipality and paid three livres a day.

For most of Hornoy's time at the Maison des Oiseaux the concierge was Dorigny, "a man who had neither a good enough head, nor a bad enough heart for his position". 

Accommodation, food, cleanliness, health

Prisoners were allowed to chose their preferred lodging place in the house, united with family and friends. Compared to conditions in the former Maison d'arrêt, they were well provided for: each room contained only two, three or four people.  The law of 17 September allowed inmates to bring in necessary furniture. Living areas could be cordoned off with screens. Hornoy himself took up residence in the long gallery, 66 feet by 12 feet,  vaulted and furnished with skylights, which had formerly served as a picture gallery and library.  Here the detainees stored their possessions in cupboards which had once held books and set up their beds at the feet of plaster Muses.

According to Guy Périer de Féral, surviving dossiers contain requests for bedclothes, linen, clothing and the like.  Although certain prisoners brought their personal servants with them, it seems these were relatively few in number - Hornoy describes the solace of housework to those little accustomed to such menial tasks.

At first meals were supplied from outside. Inmates made their own arrangements - either food was brought to them from home or a agreement made with a traiteur (p.172)  Food could be reheated on stoves in the house.  However, by the Spring of 1794 orators in the sections had begun to voice criticism of the food wasted in the prisons: the accused were seen to be better fed than the sans-culottes at the front. As a result, rom 8th May onwards the prisoners had their money confiscated and were allotted 50 sols a day for food.  In July this was given directly to the cooks employed by the Maison itself. This seemed to give the lie to any fiction that those held were pensionnaires rather than prisoners.

To men and women from the higher echelons of society, the standards of cleanliness at the Oiseaux, although better than many other establishments, left a great deal to be desired.  Hornoy complains that "chaises" were installed ad hoc. Inmates were at least allowed to wash and attend to their personal care, though it pained them greatly not to be able to maintain their standards of dress. In mid May scissors and razors were seized and certain prisoners were obliged to go without shaving for eleven days.  Women were deprived of their hair pins and curling tongs.

The Committee also cared little about the health of its prisoners, which was often fragile. The elderly prince de Bauffremont, for instance, suffered all sorts of infirmities.  A M. de la Ferté was paralysed by the time he was released;  the  princesse de Tingry went blind.  Private doctors were ignored.  Health officers visited, but medicines seldom reached the sick.

Social life

Life at the Maison des Oiseaux was made bearable despite the deprivations, thanks to the freedom of circulation which was allowed in the house, and, in the first months at least, in the substantial park.  Even at a later point, when stricter rules were imposed, the detainees could not be confined to their rooms and would meet together, even in the evenings. The premises were animated by "une vie intense" -  as Périer de Féral comments, the social élite brought its routines, its way of seeing things, its inclinations.  Among those detained were some, like the duc de Choiseul-Praslin, and the chevalier de la Tremblaye, who had supported the early Revolution; but, taken as a whole, opinion was resolutely hostile to the Republic.  Society would focus around some great lady - the princesse de Tingry, the duchesse de Choiseul - who directed the conversation, "as capably as if she was in her own salon".  Hornoy evokes soirées held by candelight, in which participants would conceal their personal anxieties  to maintain a natural, amiable tone. The close knit community, with whole families imprisoned together, helped to reinforce morale and ensure strict codes of decency. With very few exceptions, the prisoners never gave way to weakness.  Even at the worst moments, when they came to fetch victims for the Revolutionary Tribunal, they retained their dignity and courage.

The Detainees

Hornoy estimated the number of prisoners at 150 and  the author of the Précis historique thought 160, though it is not clear whether this was the total or the complement at any one time. 

Although all the registers had all been lost, Hornoy's editor Guy Périer de Feral was able to use his account, plus police records, to recover the names of 133 individuals, which he included in a biographical appendix.  There were 54 men and 79 women. This imbalance in gender reflects the fact that many men had emigrated, often leaving their wives in France in charge of their properties. The general age of the detainees was high;  the prince de Bauffremont, was eighty-one, senile and kept alive only by the attentions of an ancient valet de chambre; Mme de Mailly-Flavacourt was seventy-nine,  the marquise de Quevilly seventy-eight.  Out of 95 prisoners whose age Périer de Feral established, 15 were over seventy;  20 in their sixties; 18 in their fifties; 17 in their forties; only 10 in their thirties and 10 in their twenties, plus four teenagers and a child of nine. There may have been other children who were not formally arrested but accompanied their parents: one dossier mentions the presence of a grand-daughter and her governess.

In terms of social distribution, the roll-call was impressively aristocratic.  Besides Mgr de Saint-Simon, former bishop of Agde, the prisoners included the prince of Monaco-Grimaldi, le duc de Choiseul-Praslin, the duc de Clermont-Tonnerre, Louis de Béthune, duc de Sully and the elderly prince de Bauffrement.  Amongst the women were two princesses, eight duchesses, the widow of a maréchal de France and six dames d'honneur.  There were three écuyers du Roi, a "cordon bleu", three chevaliers de Malte, a chevalier de la Toison d'or, and twenty-four other general officers; in addition: two diplomats, four parlementarians, a financier, five other administrators, plus a dress maker, a wig-maker, three male servants and five chamber maids. (No doubt there were other servants)

As Périer de Feral comments, this social composition reflects that of the wealthy élite of the faubourg Saint-Germain. Those less able to pay no doubted ended up in less well-appointed prisons, La Force or Les Carmes.

Those guillotined

It seemed at first that, since its masters preferred it forgotten, the prison in the  rue de Sèvres was  destined to escape the worst of the Terror.  The detainees consoled themselves that the carts always brought them more companions, rather than carry away their existing ones. In over six months, of 160 or so prisoners, only three were sent to execution. But by the first weeks of July 1794 no-one could count themselves safe.   This was the time  of the so-called "prison plots".  Rumours began to circulate among the Revolutionary Committees and the clubs that their prisoners were preparing to rise up and massacre the patriots. The commissioner of police Martial Herman, recommended that all the prisons be emptied.  Hornoy thought that the intention was to provoke protests in the prisons, which could serve as pretexts to murder the inmates.  On 24 Messidor (12 July 1794) Dorigny was replaced as concierge  at Les Oiseaux,  by a certain Leclerc, who had the confidence of the police administration.  The detainees were convinced that he had been placed there to prepare lists of those to be executed.

Anonymous portrait of Geneviève Ossun

On the morning of  7 Thermidor, on the eve of the fall of Robespierre, eleven prisoners were suddenly removed to appear before the  Revolutionary Tribunal. According to one anecdote, an agent of the Revolutionary Tribunal named Ducret had discovered that the princesse de Chimay was held at Les  Oiseaux;  when informed of this, Fouquier-Tinville exclaimed in surprise that he had been looking for her for three months [Blanc (1987), p.65].  Hornoy describes the arrival of the fateful carriage.  Those named first were the women:  the comtesse d'Ossun, former dame d'atours to the Queen,  then the maréchale d'Armentieres, the princesse de Chimay, the comtesse de Narbonne-Pelet and her femme de chambre, the marquises de Querhoent and de Maulévrier and finally the comtesse Raymond de Narbonne.  Hornoy recalls how the comtesse d'Ossun responded with sang-froid to the garbled rendition of her name - "It might be I she said, moving forward with a firm step." The comtesse Raymond de Narbonne movingly took leave of her infant daughter. Then came three men, the elderly duc de Clermont-Tonnerre, the former  Revolutionary general, the marquis de Crussol d'Amboise, and Saint-Simon, Bishop of Agde.

The convoy stopped at Sainte-Pélagie to pick up the former Princess of Monaco  before proceeding to the Conciergerie.  Those selected appeared before the Revolutionary Tribunal the next day, accused of conspiracy with enemies of the Republic.  The deliberation of the jury is said to have lasted nine and a half minutes.(see p.206).  The princesse de Monaco and the comtesse Raymond de Narbonne  declared themselves pregnant, but only gained themselves a few extra hours. The condemned were guillotined on 26th July 1794 at the barrière du Trône and their bodies consigned to the Picpus Cemetery. 

Dompierre d'Hornoy himself was more fortunate; after six and a half months of detention,  he found himself liberated  on 23 Vendémiaire Year II (14 October 1794)  and was able to retire quietly to his estates in Hornoy-le-Bourg in the Somme. 


Guy Périer de Féral, "La maison d’arrêt des Oiseaux, d’après les souvenirs de captivité du président de Dompierre d’Hornoy" Mémoires de la Fédération des Sociétés historiques et archéologiques de l'Ile-de-France, vol. 4, 1952

Hornoy's account of the arrests of  7 Thermidor is reproduced in Olivier Blanc, Last letters: prisons and prisoners of the French Revolution, English translation by Alan Sheridan, 1987 p.65-72

No comments:

Post a Comment

Print Friendly and PDF