Friday, 7 May 2021

The Martyrs of Prairial - epilogue

Louis Coquelet. Mort des derniers montagnards., Musée National de l'Éducation (

Always, in defeat there is hope....however irrational!

In the years following Prairial, the improbable rumour grew up in patriot circles that Romme and Goujon had not in fact died at all.  It was said that  Romme had been able to prepare a poison which  prevented too great an effusion of blood and produced a simulacrum of death.  He had been revived and been able to escape to Russia, where he found refuge with his former pupil, the comte de Strogonoff.  The  Rapporteur républicain for  17 Vendémiaire Year VI (8th October 1797) even carried a prediction of his return to France.  In the years which followed, he was regularly  said to have been glimpsed, phantomlike in his old Representative's coat, during the great Revolutionary journées of Paris, right down to 18 Brumaire.

Not unnaturally, the families of the dead men were deeply disturbed by these stories. 

Disappearing coffins

In 1905  Armand Delpy, a magistrate from Riom, published  further details taken from the voluminous correspondence of Romme's nephew, the avocat Jean-Baptiste Tailhand (1771-1849).  His findings were  publicised in a short article by Lenotre  which appeared in Le Temps in 1906.  The key piece of evidence was a letter, dated 24 Floréal, year IV (13th May 1796), from the architect Nouvion, who had been Romme's close friend.  Nouvion reports the findings of his own investigations. The evidence for survival was slim: the hands of the corpses, seen briefly by a patriotic doctor, "did not resemble those of dead men"; the coffins were said to have mysteriously disappeared from the cemetery:

On 29 Prairial  Romme left the bloody tribunal and went with his colleagues into the room where he died.  It was Goujon who stabbed himself first on the staircase, in spite of having already taken poison before he appeared in front of his assassins.  Romme hastened to follow his example;  but when he saw that his friend had not died outright, he supported him so that he would not fall.  He led him to a corner of the room, sat him down on the floor, embraced him, then stabbed himself with two swift blows, saying "I die for the Republic".  The others did the same.

Many unknown patriots had attended throughout the hearings.  The gendarmes who guarded the prisoners, among them those who witnessed their deaths, were Jacobins. They had not foreseen what was about to happen.  They noticed a great commotion; the bodies of Romme and Goujon were placed one on top of the other and covered with a carpet;  the other men were taken to the scaffold.

During this interval, a patriotic surgeon presented himself to try and see the two bodies.  He was not allowed near them, but he noticed particularly that the hands of Romme and Goujon were in good condition, full of colour, and  no way resembled those of dead men.  It should be noted that the hands of Duquesnoy were purple and violet. 

A few moments later, the section took charge of the bodies and proceeded immediately to their burial in the Cimetière de Monceau, beyond the city walls.  Some patriots followed at a distance; but when they arrived at the cemetery they were not allowed in; the gates were closed.  However, one man was sufficiently persistent to remain in the vicinity, as did several of the women; they noticed that, after twenty four hours, the two coffins were still by the side of the communal grave.  It was impossible to get into the cemetery.  Finally the caskets disappeared. (Delphy, p.278-9)

An unknown visitor

 More intriguingly, Goujon's mother received a visit from a young man who asked her to pack up a parcel of clothes for her son.  He never kept the rendezvous that had been arranged.  The family's enquiries progressed no further: at Errancis the concierge (the splendid Joly perhaps?) refused adamantly to open the graves.

The following day at three or four o'clock in the afternoon, a young man appeared at the door of the Citizeness Goujon, the deputy's mother. He was well-dressed, with trousers, nankeen waistcoat and round hat, his hair cut in Jacobin style.  His manner seemed very awkward.  He managed to gain entry into the apartment, and, in the presence of several servants and the brothers and sisters of Goujon,  he asked to speak particularly to his mother.   The latter appeared, still drowned in her grief.   Fear seized her;  she believed they had come to arrest her.  The young man seemed as moved as she was, and again demanded to speak to her alone.

Since he was insistent, she invited him down into the dining room.  He followed her; once inside, she shut the door and asked him what he wanted.   The others in the house, fearful of this mysterious interview, followed as far as the stairs;  the children even pressed against the door of the room.

- Do you have clothes, the young man asked, which are suitable for  man?

- Yes, certainly.

- In that case, make a parcel of stockings, breeches, coat, shoes etc. and be ready to follow me this evening at nine o'clock precisely.  I will come and find you, but you must come with me on your own.

With some difficulty, she consented and gave her word.  She asked for information, but the young man seemed ill at ease;  and would only say:

- You must follow me on your own, at nine o'clock; do you understand?

He opened the door quickly and disappeared like lightning....

Goujon's mother came out of the room, filled with cruel reflections and did not dare to share her secret with anyone.  However, she confided in her son-in-law and her daughter...The package was made up, and they waited for nine o'clock with impatience.  Ten, eleven, midnight sounded, but no-one appeared.  Since that time they have heard nothing more.  

Doctors and surgeons have claimed that, in Goujon's case, loss of blood could have halted the effect of the poison.  

Several days later, Mme Goujon, her daughter and son-in-law visited the gravedigger of the Monceau cemetery.  He refused, even for gold or silver,  to have the coffins dug up so that they could verify the presence of the bodies.  This resistance, from a patriotic gravedigger, gave rise to suspicion.  But they could take the matter no further.

A short time later, a young man catching sight of Goujon's brother-in-law,  approached him , shook his hand, and whispered, "Is Goujon really dead?",  then disappeared.  The latter, absorbed in his own thoughts, did not even have time to answer. (p.279-281).

Dilemmas in the Auvergne

Far away from the capital, in the commune of Gimeaux just outside Riom, Romme's elderly mother, Marie Anne Desnier (1714-1800), who now lived alone, clung to the hope her youngest son might yet  be restored to her.  The rumours were at their most persistent in 1797.  The old lady wrote to  Mme d'Harville, a faithful friend, who replied encouragingly: "After all the information in your letter seems that you are right, that your son was saved and is in Russia" [Letter of 16 Pluviose Year VI (3rd February 1798)].

Engraving after a miniature of 1788 in the Musée Mandet, Riom
Overnia, Bibliothèque numérique du patrimoine (

See: Antoinette Ehrard, "La mémoire des 'Martyrs de Prairial' dans l'espace public" , Annales historiques de la Révolution française  Année 1996  304  p.434.  The most widespread image of Romme, which shows a plumper man, in fact represents his  brother Charles.  Aimé Jourdan commented that Romme was as small and ugly as Marat, but without his comic grotesqueness.

 For Romme's widow, Marie-Madeleine, a young woman of twenty-five at the time of his death, the rumours threatened a cruel dilemma.  Romme had married her less than a year before his death, having patriotically determined to take on the wife of a fallen Republican soldier. Their daughter, Marie Anne Philippe was born four months after her father's execution. Now twice widowed, and marooned with her mother-in-law, Marie-Madeleine remarried in March 1797. Her third husband,  Charles Dulin, was the twenty-year old son of a lawyer from Combronde, two leagues from Riom.  Delphy reproduces a concerned letter from Dulin père, who now faced the prospect of preparing the young people for Romme's  reappearance: the letter, to Tailhand, is dated  21 vendémiaire Year VI, 13th October 1797.

Rumours abound  that Romme is still alive.  If you have any proofs, it is important for the honour of both family that they are communicated to me. Uncertainty is more of a burden than any outcome, whatever it might be. Whilst I would rejoice at the return of Romme, I would need to console my son; at least I would have my part to play - that of sane philosophy;  Please let me know what you think of these rumours, so that I can begin to prepare the minds of those who will be directly affected. (Delpy, p.285)

In the event, the new household was not destined to be disturbed.  The couple went on to enjoy a long married life and have five children together.  

Above: old photograph of  Romme's mother's house in Gimeaux .  Below: portrait miniature of Madame Romme.  From a 1945 book on ebay
Le Conventionnel Riomois Gilbert Romme - Son disciple le comte Paul Strogonof | eBay

These images give a good idea of the remoteness of the location - I can't find an unwatermarked version of the portrait, which is probably among those in the musée Mandet in Riom.

The story of Romme's marriage is given by his 19th-century biographer, Vissac, p. 189:

Romme wished to democratise his conjugal union and to"sans-culottise" love. 

He asked his section to select for him the widow of a defender of the fatherland, who had died without children, in order to make her his compagne.  The section chose Marie-Madeleine Chaulin, born 17th March 1700 at Carrouges in the department of the Orne, daughter of Marie Couvé  and Jean Chaulin.  Her first husband lay on one of the battlefields of the Republic.

Romme lived with her from 27 vendémiaire to 18 ventôse Year III without being married.  It was a free union in a free state....On 18 ventôse he married her in Paris to give a name to the child she was carrying.

Corroborating details can be found on Geneanet.  Marie-Madeleine's first husband,  whom she married on 7th March 1791 was Gervais Machereaux,  killed on 23rd September 1793 at Saint-Fulgent near Poitou.  She married Gilbert Romme on 8th March 1795 and Charles Dulin (1777-1844) on  9 March 1797..  Her daughter by Romme, Marie Anne Philippe was born  Brumaire Year IV (24th October 1795) and died at Combronde on 21st March 1812, not yet aged seventeen. Marie-Madeleine Chaulin : Family tree by Pierre de LAUBIER (pdelaubier) - Geneanet

Lenotre  caricatures Marie-Madeleine as a shallow young woman, "une gaillarde de vingt-quatre ans".   Despite her "obscure origins" she had some education and sought distraction in frivolous reading ("If you have the Délassements de l'homme sensible or les Epreuves du sentiment, please send them to me;  in any case send me what you have, above all the works of Florian".)  So rapidly was she consoled, that after sixteen months of widowhood, she took a new husband, "a child of twenty years old". Lenotre probably does her a disservice.  Her marriage to Romme was not a love match, but it was marked by affection and shared Revolutionary commitment. On 3 floréal, Year 4 (22nd April 1796), Nouvion wrote to her in tones of friendship, asking for news of herself, her daughter and mother-in-law.  He describes the volatile political situation Paris in detail and sends  copies of the patriotic journal L'orateur plébéien.  In a letter to Tailhand she relays an anecdote concerning the uncompromising Romme who had refused to eat bread for a month "not wanting to buy it at 16 livres the pound and aid the devaluation of the assignat"; he had even made his pregnant wife  take some bread that she had bought back to the baker. (quoted Delpy, p.294).  Although there was  some ill-feeling at the time of her marriage, her relations with Tailhand later resumed;  Among their letters is one in which Marie-Madeleine  requests Romme's deputy's uniform to display at a patriotic fête at Combronde in which their three-year-old daughter was taking part. [Letter of 19 Nivôse,  8th January 1798]

An encounter with Sanson

An 1850 Éloge of Tailhand, contains what purports to be a first-hand account of inquiries made by Tailhand himself  into the fate of his uncle.  It is known that Tailhand visited Paris in July 1796.   Tailhand first meets Sanson, then visits the Cimitière de Clamart where the gravedigger shows him  a spot where "900 heads" lie buried. The scenario seems improbable.  Romme's family knew that he had not been guillotined; and why go to the wrong cemetery?  Presumably the account was among Tailhand's papers, so perhaps he envisaged a fictionalised memoir?  The piece is worth quoting for its memorable depiction of Sanson's famous gentility: 

When I entered Sanson's house, my ears were greeted by sounds of musical harmony.   A woman's voice accompanied a harpsichord.  Music in such a place and in the home of such a man!  I thought that  I had made a mistake with the address; but I was not in error.  This was indeed the  abode of the man on whose coat the blood of Louis XVI  mingled with that of his judges; the imagination of Dante could not have done better....

I was introduced by an official.  At that time no-one had a valet, even an executioner.  The salon in which I was received had none of the attributes of the master of the house.... there  were mirrors, elegant sofas, a fine carriage clock and engravings of rustic scenes; all the drama took place in the streets; the salon was a pastoral refuge ...

A young girl was playing the harpsichord; an older woman appeared to be giving her a music lesson;  I found myself face to face with the wife and daughter of Sanson...

Sanson was in his cabinet.  The executioner was in his dressing gown,  reading and meditating.  You would have mistaken him for a  man of letters...

- It is without doubt Citizen Sanson whom I have the honour of addressing?

- Yes Citizen; how can I be of service?  The response was polite but it made me feel ill.

- Citizen,  I have come to seek information... Can I ask whether you presided over the execution of the condemned of Prarial?

Sanson considered for an instant then replied:  I think that I did preside over that execution. 

- In that case could you tell me whether the deputy Gilbert Romme was beheaded with his colleagues?

-Sanson again considered.

-  Young man, he said to meafter a few seconds, my memory is too confused to give you a definite answer; but here is a register that will be able to satisfy your curiosity. Sanson searched the letter R;  the name of Romme was not mentioned.  This discovery was important, but not decisive, for Sanson admitted that the book had not been kept with great regularity, since the hand of his secretary was more adept at catching heads than maintaining this lugubrious catalogue.  An eyewitness was needed as confirmation. 

Simon pulled his bell-pull.  The official appeared - Have the chef de service called.  This functionary used to be called the valet of the executioner.  The order was carried out.  The chef de service appeared before his superior.  

- Citizen, said Santon, do you remember if you guillotined the Representative Gilbert Romme?

Gilbert Romme? is possible but so many citizens passed under the national razor that I cannot remember all their names.

This interrogation left the facts as obscure as ever.  My investigation did not stop there.  Sanson advised me  to address myself to the concierge at the Clamart Cemetery.

I ran to the cemetery and  saw the concierge who led me to a spot shaded by some willow trees.  Beneath our feet, he said, are more than nine hundred human heads,  culled by the blade of the executioner.  Do  you think that by excavating this ossuary you will be able to recognise that of your relative?

That was my last visit.  I left convinced that it it does does not belong, even to the gravediggers of Shakespeare, to understand the great enigma that is death. 

Quoted fro Éloge biographique  de M. J.-B. Tailhand (1850).  Vissac, p.234-236 


Armand Delpy, "Romme le Montagnard: documents inédits", Revue d'Auvergne, t.22, 1905, p.277-296
Revue d'Auvergne : Société des amis de l'Université de Clermont: Internet Archive 

G. Lenotre, "La Petite-Histoire:  Romme le Montagnard",  Le Temps, 7th February 1906
Le Temps | 1906-02-07 | Gallica (

Marc de Baron Vissac, Un conventionnel du Puy-de-Domme: Romme le Montagnard (1883)

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