September Massacres

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 1200 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]


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 possess 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 1 August, 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. Furthermore, Paris lacked extensive food stocks.

Reports of massacres

When news that Brunswick had captured Verdun reached the Convention, they ordered the alarm guns fired, which escalated the sense of panic. An army of 60,000 was to be enlisted at the Champ de Mars, the British ambassador reported:

A party at the instigation of some one 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. They were attacked by a mob that quickly killed them all 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. Of 284 prisoners, 135 were killed, 27 were transferred, 86 were set free, and 36 had uncertain fates.[12] In the afternoon of 2 September 150 priests in the convent of Carmelites were massacred, mostly by sans-culottes. On 3 and 4 September, groups broke into other Paris prisons, where they murdered the prisoners, who, some feared, were counter-revolutionaries who would aid the invading Prussians. From 2 to 7 September, summary trials took place in all Paris prisons. Almost 1,400 prisoners were condemned and executed, in truth half the detained persons from the previous days. Among the victims were more than 200 priests, almost 100 Swiss guards, many political prisoners and aristocrats,[13] including the queen's friend, the Princesse de Lamballe.


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-quarters of the 1,100–1,300 killed were non-political prisoners. 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.[14]

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 in front of the Châtelet and witnessed atrocities that he recorded in Les Nuits de Paris (1793).

Killings outside Paris

Smaller-scale executions took place in the provinces in imitation of the major massacres. Most notable of these was the killing of fifty-three political prisoners in Versailles on 3 September. On 2 September a circular letter had been sent to regional authorities by the newly created Paris Commune advising that "ferocious conspirators detained in the prisons had been put to death by the people"[15] and urging that "the entire nation... will hasten to adopt this necessary measure".

Official role

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."[16]


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.[17]


In Paris in the Terror, Stanley Loomis reports that during the massacre at the prison of Bicêtre in September 1792, 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 Salpetriere prison, but he did not report how many victims there were.[18]

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. Leborgne, Dominique, Saint-Germain-des-Prés et son faubourg, p. 40, Éditions Parigramme, Paris, 2005, ISBN 2-84096-189-X
  13. ib, Bergeron, p. 327
  14. M. J. Sydenham The French Revolution, B. T. Batsford Ltd, 1965, page 121
  15. "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.
  16. M. J. Sydenham The French Revolution, B. T. Batsford Ltd, 1965, page 121
  17. "Bienheureux Martyrs des Carmes". Nominis (in French). Catholic Church in France. Retrieved 31 August 2018.
  18. Loomis, Stanley (1964). Paris in the Terror. New York: Dorset Press. ISBN 0-88029-401-9.


  • 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

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