Rétif describes the September Massacres (1792)


Nicolas-Edme Rétif was a Parisian novellist of moderate political views. Here Rétif recalls witnessing the violence of the September Massacres:


“August 10th had renewed the Revolution and brought it to its conclusion [but] September 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th cast a sombre horror over it. These atrocious events must be described with impartiality and the writer must be cold when he makes his reader tremble. He must be moved by no passion; otherwise he becomes a declaimer instead of being a historian…

The killing began at Le Chatelet: they were going to the Force Prison. But I didn’t go there. I believed I was fleeing from these horrors by going home. I went to bed. A sleep troubled by the fury of the carnage allowed me only a difficult rest, often interrupted by the start of a frightened awakening.

But that was not all. At about two o’clock, I heard a troop of cannibals pass by my windows, and not one of them seemed to me to have a Parisian accent. All were foreign – they sang, they bellowed, they yelled. In the middle of all that I heard: ‘Let’s go to the Bernardines! Let’s go to Saint-Firmin!’ (Saint-Firmin was a priests’ prison) … Some of these murderers cried out ‘Long live the nation!’ One of them, whom I would have liked to see so as to read his hideous soul on his atrocious face, cried out maniacally: ‘Long live death!’… I heard it, as well as the galley convicts, and the priests of Saint-Firmin.

Among these priests was the Abbe Gros, ex-Constituent… This Abbe? Gros saw among the murderers a man with whom he had had some dealings. ‘Ah! There you are my friend! Hey! What have you come here for at this time of the night?’ ’Oh!’ the man replied, ‘we come here at an evil time (for misery). You were good to me… So, why have you retracted your oath?’ This man turned his back on him, as the kings and Richelieu used to do to their victims, and signalled to his comrades. The Abbe? Gros was not stabbed. He was given a more gentle death: he was thrown from the window. His brains gushed out on impact, he did not suffer…

The murderers were at the Conciergerie, at the Force. They killed all night in these two prisons, as well as at Le Chatelet…

Finally, I saw a woman appear, pale as her underclothing, held up by a counter clerk. They said to her in a harsh voice: ‘Cry out: “Long live the nation!”’ ‘No! no!’ she said. They made her climb onto a heap of corpses. One of the murderers seized the counter clerk and took him away. ‘Ah!’ cried the unfortunate woman, ‘don’t hurt him!’ They told her again to cry out ‘Long live the nation!’ She refused disdainfully. Then a killer seized her, tore off her dress and opened her belly. She fell and was finished off by the others. Never had such horror offered itself to my imagination.

I tried to flee; my legs failed. I fainted. When I came to my senses, I saw the bloody head. I was told that it had been washed, its hair curled, and that it had been put on the end of a pike and carried under the windows of the Temple. Pointless cruelty!

What is, therefore, the true motive for this butchery? Several people think that it was actually so that volunteers, departing for the frontiers, would not leave their wives and children to the mercy of brigands whom the courts could discharge with a pardon, whom malevolent people could help escape, etc. I wanted to know the truth and I have finally found it. They only wanted one thing: to get rid of non-juring priests. Some even wanted to get rid of all of them.”