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September Massacres

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The September Massacres at the Salpêtrière
The September Massacres at the Salpêtrière

The September Massacres[1] were a wave of killings in Paris and other cities from 2–7 September 1792, during the French Revolution. There was a fear that foreign and royalist armies would attack Paris and that the inmates of the city's prisons would be freed and join them. Radicals called for preemptive action. The action was undertaken by mobs of National Guardsmen and some fédérés; it was tolerated by the city government, the Paris Commune, which called on other cities to follow suit.[2] By 6 September, half the prison population of Paris had been summarily executed: some 1300 to 1400 prisoners. Of these, 233 were nonjuring Catholic priests who refused to submit to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. However, the great majority of those killed were common criminals.[3] The massacres were repeated in many other French cities.[4]

No one was prosecuted for the killings, but the political repercussions first injured the Girondists (who seemed too moderate) and later the Jacobins (who seemed too bloodthirsty).[5]

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The political situation in Paris on the eve of the September Massacres was highly excited and aroused by dreadful rumors of traitors and foreign invaders.[6]

On the evening of 9 August 1792, a Jacobin insurrection overthrew the leadership of the Paris Commune headed by Jérôme Pétion de Villeneuve and proclaimed a new revolutionary Commune headed by transitional authorities.

The next day the insurrectionists stormed the Tuileries Palace. King Louis XVI fled with the royal family, and his authority as King was suspended by the Legislative Assembly; a de facto executive was named, but the actual power of decision-making rested with the new revolutionary Commune, whose strength resided in the mobilized sans-culottes, the vast majority of Paris' fairly poor population. The 48 sections of Paris were fully equipped with munitions from the plundered arsenals in the days before the assault, substituting for the 60 National Guard battalions. Now, supported by a new armed force, the Commune and its sans-culottes took control of the city and dominated the Legislative Assembly and its decisions. For some weeks the Commune functioned as the actual government of France.[7]

The Commune took major steps towards democratizing the Revolution: the adoption of universal suffrage, the arming of the civilian population, absolute abolition of all remnants of noble privileges, the selling of the properties of the émigrés. These events meant a change of direction from the political and constitutional perspective of the Girondists to a more social approach given by the Commune. As Cambon declared on 27 August:

To reject with more efficacy the defenders of despotism, we have to address the fortunes of the poor, we have to associate the Revolution with this multitude that possesses nothing, we have to convert the people to the cause.[8]

Besides these measures, the Commune engaged in a policy of political repression of all suspected counter-revolutionary activities. Beginning on 11 August, every Paris section named its committee of vigilance. Mostly these decentralized committees, rather than the Commune, brought about the repression of August and September 1792. From 15 to 25 August, around 500 detentions were registered. Half the detentions were made against non-juring priests, but even priests who had sworn the required oath were caught in the wave. In Paris, all monasteries were closed and the rest of the religious orders were dissolved by the law of 15 August.[9]

Invasion by the Duke of Brunswick

On 2 September, news reached Paris that the Duke of Brunswick's Prussian army had invaded France (19 August), and had captured the key fortress of Verdun. He was advancing quickly toward the capital. On 25 July, Brunswick had issued the "Brunswick Manifesto". His avowed aim was

to put an end to the anarchy in the interior of France, to check the attacks upon the throne and the altar, to reestablish the legal power, to restore to the king the security and the liberty of which he is now deprived and to place him in a position to exercise once more the legitimate authority which belongs to him.[10]

Additionally, the Manifesto threatened the French population with instant punishment should it resist the Imperial and Prussian armies, or the reinstatement of the monarchy. Such threats fueled this first wave of mob hysteria of the Revolution. By the end of August, rumors circulated that many in Paris – such as non-juring priests – who opposed the Revolution, would support the First Coalition of foreign powers allied against it. According to Danton and Robespierre, those royalists who had spoken about support to the enemy or capitulation had to be locked up. Furthermore, Paris lacked extensive food stocks.

Reports of massacres

La prison de l’Abbaye
La prison de l’Abbaye
Mass killing of prisoners in the Châtelet on 3 September
Mass killing of prisoners in the Châtelet on 3 September
Le massacre des Carmes by Marie-Marc-Antoine Bilcocq, (1820). Musée de la Révolution française.
Le massacre des Carmes by Marie-Marc-Antoine Bilcocq, (1820). Musée de la Révolution française.

When news that Brunswick had captured Verdun reached the Commune in the morning, they ordered the alarm guns fired and the gates closed, which escalated the sense of panic. In the afternoon an army of 60,000 was to be enlisted at the Champ de Mars by Danton. Jean-Paul Marat advised the volunteers not to leave the capital without first having their enemies punished. He announced that a "new blood-letting" should take place, larger than the one on 10 August. The British ambassador reported:

A party at the instigation of someone or other declared they would not quit Paris, as long as the prisons were filled with Traitors (for they called those so, that were confined in the different Prisons and Churches), who might in the absence of such a number of Citizens rise and not only effect the release of His Majesty, but make an entire counterrevolution.[11]

The first instance of massacre occurred when 24 non-juring priests were being transported to the prison of the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, which had become a national prison of the revolutionary government. The six carriages, escorted by fédérés, were attacked on the street by a mob.[12] They quickly killed 19 of them as they were trying to escape into the prison, then mutilated the bodies, "with circumstances of barbarity too shocking to describe" according to the British diplomatic dispatch. During the next hours, a tribunal was compiled by Stanislas-Marie Maillard; 135 inmates were killed, 27 were transferred, 86 were set free, and 36 had uncertain fates.[13] In the late afternoon of 2 September 116 priests in the former convent of Carmelites (Carmes prison), detained with the message they would be deported to French Guiana, were massacred, mostly by sans-culottes.

From 2 to 7 September, summary trials took place in all nine Paris prisons. The pattern of semi-formal executions followed by the popular tribunals was for condemned prisoners to be ordered "transferred" or even "released" and then taken into the prison courtyards where they would be cut down by waiting sans-culottes. Restif de la Bretonne saw the bodies piled high on Pont au Change in front of the Châtelet. The witnessed atrocities he recorded in Les Nuits de Paris (1793).[citation needed]

On 3 and 4 September, groups broke into other Paris prisons, as the Conciergerie, the La Force Prison, Salpêtrière (for men and boys), Sainte-Pélagie, Tour Saint-Bernard, the seminary Saint Firmin, and Bicêtre (for women) on 6 September.


According to Albert Soboul there were about 2,800 prisoners in early September. Around 1,300 prisoners were condemned and executed, in truth half the detained persons from the previous weeks. Among the victims were more than 250 priests, almost 100 Swiss guards, many political prisoners and 30 aristocrats,[14] including the queen's friend, the Princesse de Lamballe, locked up in "La petite Force".[15] About 1,500 prisoners brought before the people's courts were returned to their cells or in a few cases acclaimed as "patriots", released, and escorted to their homes.[16]

A total of nine prisons were violently entered during the five days of the massacres before the killings concluded on the night of 6–7 September. After initially indiscriminate slayings, ad hoc popular tribunals were set up to distinguish between "enemies of the people" and those who were innocent, or at least were not perceived as counter-revolutionary threats. In spite of this attempted sifting an estimated three-quarter of the 1,300–1,400 killed were no counter-revolutionaries or "villains", but forgers of assignats, mentally ills, 35 prostitutes, women, and 43 children.[17]

In Paris in the Terror, Stanley Loomis reports that during the massacre at the prison of Bicêtre, 33 boys aged between 12 and 14 were murdered. Loomis also reported that "girls as young as ten" were murdered when the mob subsequently attacked the Salpêtrière institution for women, mentally insane and prostitutes, but he did not report how many victims there were.[18][page needed]

Killings outside Paris

On 3 September a circular letter had been sent to regional authorities by Tallien, member of the newly created Paris Commune advising that "ferocious conspirators detained in the prisons had been put to death by the people"[19] and urging that "the entire nation... will hasten to adopt this necessary measure".[20] Smaller-scale executions took place in Meaux, Reims, and Lyon, in imitation of the major massacres. There were 75 separate incidents in 32 of the 83 départments. Most notable of these was the killing of 44 political prisoners near Château de Versailles on 9 September.[21]

Official role

Between 17 August and the prison massacres in early September, more than a thousand people were taken into custody on the flimsiest warrants.[22] On 27 August a betrayal of Louis Capet was discovered, a plot to murder, on the night of the 2nd to the 3rd of this month, all the good citizens of the capital, by the aristocrats and the refractory priests, to help brigands and scoundrels, detained in the prisons of Paris.[23][24][25] On 28 August, on the behest of Danton, "domiciliary visits" were authorized in search of firearms.[26] On 30 August a demand was made for the dissolution of the Commune and replacement by a successor to be promptly elected. The Assembly backed down two days later.

On Sunday 2 September the French National Convention election, 1792 started. Robespierre had accused Brissot and the Brissotins publicly of plotting with Duke of Brunswick.[27] Marat left nothing in doubt when he urged "good citizens to go to the Abbaye, to seize priests, and especially the officers of the Swiss guards and their accomplices and run a sword through them".[28] By that time section assemblies were already passing motions demanding "the death of conspirators before the departure of citizens".[29] Madame de Staël, who tried to escape Paris, was forced by the crowd to go to the town hall. She noted that Robespierre seated that day, assisted by Collot d'Herbois en Billaud-Varenne.[30]

According to Madame de Staël on 31 August "it was already known, that those only who were destined to be massacred were sent to that prison [of the Abbeye].[31] According to Adolphe Thiers on Sundaymorning 2 September: "The keeper of the Abbaye sent away his and children in the morning. Dinner was served to the prisoners two hours before the accustomed time; and the knives were taken from their plates."[32]

Such municipal and central government as existed in Paris in September 1792 was preoccupied with organizing volunteers, supplies, and equipment for the armies on the threatened frontiers. Accordingly, there was no attempt to assuage popular fears that the understaffed and easily accessed prisons were full of royalists who would break out and seize the city when the national guards and other citizen volunteers had left for the war. The Minister of Justice Danton responded to an appeal for restoring order with the comment: "To hell with the prisoners! They must look after themselves."[33][34]

Debate in the Convention

On 29 October 1792, the Convention held an "afterthought". Roland accused the Commune of the atrocities. Jean-Baptiste Louvet de Couvray accused Robespierre of creating a personality cult and dictatorship.[35] Robespierre was taken by surprise and had to be defended by Danton.[36] Robespierre was given eight days to reply. On 5 November Robespierre stated that Marat had visited him only once since January.[37] He asked the Convention: "Citizens, did you want a revolution without revolution?" Robespierre, Danton, and Marat insisted that the "new bloodletting" had been a spontaneous popular movement. Their opponents, the Girondins, spoke of a systematically planned conspiracy.[38] Louvet was no longer admitted to the Jacobin Club.


A group of 115 churchmen killed during the massacres was beatified by Pope Pius XI on 17 October 1926. Among the martyrs were Pierre-Louis de la Rochefoucauld, bishop of Saintes; Jean-Marie du Lau d’Alleman, archbishop of Arles; François-Joseph de la Rochefoucauld, bishop of Beauvais; and Ambroise Chevreux, the last superior-general of the monastic Congregation of Saint Maur.[39]

See also

Notes and citations

  1. ^ Samuel F. Scott and Barry Rothaus, eds. Historical Dictionary of the French Revolution 1789–1799 (1985) Vol. 2 pp. 891–97; The classic modern account of the legends and traditions that have accrued, and an appraisal of the sources on which a narrative account can be based, is Pierre Caron, Les Massacres de Septembre (Paris, 1935).
  2. ^ François Furet and Mona Ozouf, eds. A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution (1989), pp. 521–22
  3. ^ Gwynne Lewis (2002). The French Revolution: Rethinking the Debate. Routledge. p. 38.
  4. ^ Caron 1935, part IV covers comparable events in provincial cities that transpired from July to October 1792.
  5. ^ Georges Lefebvre, The French Revolution: From its Origins to 1793 (1962), pp. 241–44, 269
  6. ^ Tackett (2011)
  7. ^ Bergeron, Louis, Le Monde et son Histoire, Paris, 1970, Volume VII, Chapter VII, p. 324
  8. ^ Bergeron, 1970 p. 325
  9. ^ Bergeron, p. 326
  10. ^ Arno J. Mayer (2000). The Furies: Violence and Terror in the French and Russian Revolutions. Princeton U.P. p. 554.
  11. ^ Oscar Browning, ed., The Despatches of Earl Gower (Cambridge University Press, 1885), 213–16, 219–21, 223–28.
  12. ^ The history of the French revolution, tr. with notes by Marie Joseph L. Adolphe Thiers, p. 144
  13. ^ Leborgne, Dominique, Saint-Germain-des-Prés et son faubourg, p. 40, Éditions Parigramme, Paris, 2005, ISBN 2-84096-189-X
  14. ^ ib, Bergeron, p. 327
  15. ^ The history of the French revolution, tr. with notes by Marie Joseph L. Adolphe Thiers
  16. ^ M. J. Sydenham The French Revolution, B. T. Batsford Ltd, 1965, page 121
  17. ^ S. Schama (1988) Citizens. A Chronicle of the French Revolution, p. 635
  18. ^ Loomis, Stanley (1964). Paris in the Terror. New York: Dorset Press. ISBN 0-88029-401-9.
  19. ^ "The French Revolution". Charles Knight's Popular History of England. p. 725. in Beale, Joseph H. (1884). Gay's Standard History of the World's Great Nations. 1. W. Gay and Company. Retrieved 31 August 2018.
  20. ^ The French Revolution: From Enlightenment to Tyranny by Ian Davidson
  21. ^ P. McPhee (2016) Liberty or Death, p. 162
  22. ^ S. Schama, p. 624
  23. ^ Grande trahison de Louis Capet complot découvert, pour assassiner, dans la nuit du 2 au 3 de ce mois, tous les bons citoyens de la capitale, par les aristocrates et les prêtres réfractaires, aidé des brigands et des scélérats, détenus dans les prisons de Paris
  24. ^ L. Madelin (1932) De Fransche Revolutie, p. 336
  25. ^ O. Flake (1968) De Franse Revolutie, p. 107
  26. ^ S. Schama, p. 626
  27. ^ Robespierre by John Hardman, p. 56-57
  28. ^ S. Schama, p. 630
  29. ^ S. Schama, p. 631
  30. ^ Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution, Band 2, p. 70
  31. ^ Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution, Band 2, p. 68
  32. ^ The history of the French revolution, tr. with notes by Marie Joseph L. Adolphe Thiers, p. 144
  33. ^ M. J. Sydenham The French Revolution, B. T. Batsford Ltd, 1965, page 121
  34. ^ R. Scurr (2006) Fatal Purity. Robespierre and the French Revolution, p. 243?
  35. ^ S. Schama p. 649
  36. ^ R. Scurr (2006) Fatal Purity. Robespierre and the French Revolution, p. ?
  37. ^ Oeuvres, Band 2 by Maximilien Robespierre, p. 186, 188
  38. ^ J. Israel (2015) Revolutionary ideas, p. 359?
  39. ^ "Bienheureux Martyrs des Carmes". Nominis (in French). Catholic Church in France. Retrieved 31 August 2018.


  • Tulard, Jean; Fayard, Jean-François; Fierro, Alfred (1998). Histoire et Dictionnaire de la Révolution Française (in French). Robert Laffont. ISBN 2-221-08850-6.
  • Loomis, Stanley (1964). Paris in the Terror. New York: Dorset Press. ISBN 0-88029-401-9.

Further reading

  • Hibbert, Christopher, The Days of the French Revolution, William Morrow, New York, 1980.
  • Schama, Simon, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (1992) pp. 629–39.
  • Scott, Samuel F. and Barry Rothaus, eds. Historical Dictionary of the French Revolution 1789–1799 (1985) Vol. 2 pp. 891–97 online
  • Tackett, Timothy. "Rumor and Revolution: The Case of the September Massacres", French History and Civilization (2011) Vol. 4, pp. 54–64.

Fictional accounts

External links

This page was last edited on 11 November 2018, at 19:04
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