The French Revolution
The men advanced upon them, calling out for the Archbishop of Arles. One of the priests went forward to meet them, demanding a fair trial for himself and his fellow-prisoners. A shot was fired and his shoulder was smashed. The Archbishop, praying for a moment on his knees, then went towards the men himself. 'I am the man you are looking for,' he said, and was immediately struck across the face with a sword. As he fell to the pike was plunged through his chest. At that moment an officer the National Guard appeared and managed to get the priests to the nearby church where they gave each other absolution, while they were saying prayers for the dying, the armed gang broke through the door and dragged the priests out in pairs to slaughter them in the garden. After several had been killed a man with an air of authoriry arrived at the church calling out, 'Don't kill them so quickly. We are meant to try them.' Thereafter each priest was summoned before a makeshift tribunal before being executed. He was asked if he was now prepared to take the constitutional oath and when he said that he was not—as all of them did—he was taken away to be killed. Some bodies were removed in carts, the rest thrown down a well from which their broken skeletons were recovered seventy years later.
These murders were the first of numerous other massacres which took place in the prisons of Paris over the next five days. At the seminary of St Firmin in the Rue Saint-Victor where other refractory priests were held; at La Grande and La Petite Force where men and women convicted of civil offences were incarcerated; at Les Bernardins whose prisoners were mainly men condemned to the galleys; at La Salpetriere, a house of correction for female offenders; at Bicetre, a prison hospital for the poor and the mad, as well as at Le Chatelet, the prison for common criminals—indeed in all the prisons of Paris except Se Sainte-Pelagie, which was for debtors, and the Saint-Lazare, for prostitutes—gangs of citizens, later to be known as septembriseurs broke in armed with swords, pikes, hatchets and iron bars and set about their work, resting from time to time to drink wine or eat the meals which their women brought to them 'to sustain them, so they said, in their hard labours.'
A prisoner at the Abbaye, Jourgniac de Saint-Meard, recorded how those whose cells had not yet been broken into heard with horror the screams of the victims and waited in terror for their turn to come:
The most important matter that employed our thoughts was to consider what posture we should put ourselves into which dragged to the place of slaughter in order to suffer death with the least pain. Occasionally we asked some of our companions to go to the turret window to watch the attitude of the victims. They came back to say that those who tried to protect themselves with the€ir hands suffered the longest as the blows of the blades were thus weakend before they reached the head; that some of the victims actually lost their hands and arms before their bodies fell; and that those who put their hands behind their backs obviously suffered less pain. We, therefore, recognized the advantages of this last posture and advised each other to adopt it when it came to be our turn to be butchered.As at the Carmes most murders were preceded by a rough form of trial. The prisoners were dragged into rooms lit by torches and candles to face groups of judges sitting round tables littered with papers, prison registers, bottles, pipes and jars of tobacco. In one room the judges included men with bare arms covered in blood or tattooed with the symbols of their respective trades, men with swords at their sides, wearing red woollen caps and butchers' aprons. In another several of the judges seemed drunk and the others half asleep. At the Abbaye the president of the self-styled court was that hero of the sans-culottes, Stanislas Maillard, who had played so prominent a role both in the storming of the Bastille and the women's march on Versailles.
Jourgniac de Saint-Meard described how he was dragged into the corridor where Maillard held his court by three men, two of whom grabbed hold of his wrists, the other of his collar. An old man, whose trial had just ended, was being killed outside the door. Saint-Meard, warned that 'one lie meant death,' was asked why he had been arrested, While replying, some of the people in the crowded room distracted the attention of the judges by pushing papers in front of them and whispering in their ears. Then, after he had produced written evidence in his defence, Saint-Meard's trial was interrupted again by the appearance€ of a priest who, following the briefest interrogation, was taken away to be stabbed to death. There was a further interruption when a gaoler rushed into the room to say that a prisoner was trying to escape up a chimney. Maillard told the gaoler to fire shots up the chimney and that, if the prisoner got away, he himself would be killed in his place. When shots failed to dislodge the fugitive, a pile of straw was set alight beneath him and when the man fell down, almost suffocated by the smoke, he was killed as he lay on the hearth. Saint-Meard's trial was once more resumed, and, to his astonishment, his honest plea that, although he had been a confirmed royalist until 10 August he had never played any part in public affairs, was unanimously accepted by the tribunal and he was allowed to depart. Greeted by cries of 'Vive la Nation!' by the people outside, he was escorted to his home by men carrying torches who refused any payment for their services.
Saint-Meard's experiences were not uncommon. Others described how men, who seemed quite prepared to murder them at one moment, were at the next hugging them enthusiastically and declining all rewards for seeing them safely home. One assassin, refusing an offer of recompense, wept with emotion as he restored a father to his children. 'The nation pays us for killing,' said another who also refused a reward, 'but not for saving lives.'
Several prisoners were saved by compassionate men who risked their own lives to help them, as were both the Duchesse de Tourzel and her daughter. The Duchess herself recorded how kind were some of the people among the crowds who witnessed the massacres with apparent approval; how, when she was told to climb on to a pile of corpses to swear an oath of loyalty to the nation, several people came forward to protect her; and how, when asked to attend to a fellow-prisoner, the young wife of one of the King's gentlemen of the bedchamber, an onlooker who supposed a medallion the girl wore round her neck was stamped with a portrait of the King or Queen, whispered to the Duchess to remove it and hide it in her pocket. Saint-Meard said that when he admitted during his trial that he had been an officer in the King's army, someone gently trod on his toe as a warning not to say too much.
Yet most murders were committed with appalling ferocity. At the Conciergerie, which contained prisoners awaiting trial in the Palais de Justice, a gang of assassins, bursting into the courtyard which was separated from the Rue de la Barillerie by fine gilded wrought iron railings, battered down the doors behind which the prisoners had tried to barricade themselves and, sparing some, hacked others to pieces until the mangled remains of 378 of the 488 prisoners held there were piled up in heaps in the Cour du Mai. Having killed numerous prisoners in their cells, a party of assassins mounted the stairs to the courtroom where several Swiss Guards were on trial. At their approach the guards threw themselves under the benche€s while their commander, Major Bachmann, rose to his feet and marched forward resolutely to the bar. The presiding judge, formidable enough in his black robes and plumed hat, held up his hand to halt the intruders whom he commanded to 'respect the law.' They obeyed him and retreated. Bachmann was then sentenced to death and that afternoon was carried away in one of the carts to execution.
One prisoner who did not escape the assassins' blades was Marie Gredeler, a young woman who kept an umbrella and walking-stick depository in the courtyard of the Palais Royal. Charged with having mutilated her lover she was herself mutilated, her breasts were cut off, her feet were nailed to the ground and a bonfire was set alight between her spreadeagled legs.
As the heaps of corpses mounted, carts drawn by horses from the King's stables were obtained to take them away to the Montrouge quarries. Women helped to load them, breaking off occasionally to dance€ the Carmagnole, then stood laughing on the slippery flesh, 'like washerwomen on their dirty linen,' some with ears pinned to their dresses.