The September Massacres

In late summer 1792, news reached Paris that the Prussian army had invaded France and was advancing quickly toward the capital. Moreover, rumors circulated that the Prussians would find ready support from Parisians who secretly opposed the Revolution, especially refractory priests. On September 3 and 4, inflamed by radical propaganda, ongoing food shortages, and fear of the invasion, crowds broke into the prisons where they attacked the prisoners, including refractory clergy, who were feared to be counterrevolutionaries who would aid the invading Prussians. The writer Nicolas–Edme Restif de la Bretonne here describes what he saw on the second day of the massacres. This outbreak of violence in the name of defending an imperiled Revolution from its enemies within France has been cited by some historians as evidence of an inherent tendency toward bloodshed on the part of the Jacobins. To others, the event suggests the unfortunate excesses to which well–meaning and sincerely frightened revolutionaries were willing to go to advance the cause of social and political change, in the face of difficult wartime circumstances.


I arose, distressed by the horror. The night had not refreshed me at all, rather it had caused my blood to boil. . . . I go out and listen. I follow groups of people running to see the "disasters"—their word for it. Passing in front of the Conciergerie, I see a killer who I'm told is a sailor from Marseilles. His wrist is swollen from use. I pass by. Dead bodies are piled high in front of the Châtelet. I start to flee, but I follow the people instead. I come to the rue St.-Antoine, at the end of the rue des Ballets, just as a poor wretch came through the gate. He had seen how they killed his predecessor, but instead of stopping in amazement, he took to his heels to escape. A man who was not one of the killers, just one of those unthinking machines who are so common, stopped him with a pike in the stomach. The poor soul was caught by his pursuers and slaughtered. The man with the pike coldly said to us, "Well, I didn't know they wanted to kill him. . . ."

There had been a pause in the murders. Something was going on inside. . . . I told myself that it was over at last. Finally, I saw a woman appear, as white as a sheet, being helped by a turnkey. They said to her harshly: "Shout 'Vive la nation!'" "No! No!" she said. They made her climb up on a pile of corpses. One of the killers grabbed the turnkey and pushed him away. "Oh!" exclaimed the ill-fated woman, "do not harm him!" They repeated that she must shout "Vive la nation!" With disdain, she refused. Then one of the killers grabbed her, tore away her dress, and ripped open her stomach. She fell, and was finished off by the others. Never could I have imagined such horror. I wanted to run, but my legs gave way. I fainted. When I came to, I saw the bloody head. Someone told me they were going to wash it, curl its hair, stick it on the end of a pike, and carry it past the windows of the Temple. What pointless cruelty! . . .

The number of active killers who took part in the September massacres was only about one hundred and fifty. The rest of Paris looked on in fear or approval, or stayed behind closed shutters.

Source: Nicolas-Edme Restif de la Bretonne, Les nuits de Paris (Paris: Hachette, [1793] 1960), 247–53.