Anyone wanting to be buried in Picpus Cemetery, one of only two private cemeteries in Paris, would have to be related to a very unfortunate ancestor.
Between June 14th and July 27th 1794, 1306 people were executed by the guillotine and buried in two hastily dug pits in the garden of a former convent. (The land had been taken from the convent of Chanoinesses de St Augustin.) The guillotine had been set up in the Place du Trône-Renversé (Place de la Nation), just behind.
While the bloodshed during the French Revolution had been almost commonplace, the period known as the Reign of Terror was unsurpassed in its cruelty.
Among the victims: 1,306 were men. As many nobles (108) as clergy. Monks guillotined numbered 136, military men 178 and commoners 579. 197 women suffered the same fate, 123 commoners, 51 nobles and 23 nuns. It is the fate of 16 of these nuns of the Carmelite order which is perhaps the most poignant. These nuns, with ages ranging from 29 to 78, walked to the scaffold singing hymns. As each nun was guillotined, the remainder kept on singing to the very last nun. (These nuns were beatified in 1906 as Martyrs of the Compiègne.)
There was no distinction between class or profession; butchers and innkeepers were beheaded alongside scientists such as Antoine Lavoisier who was called the ‘Father of modern Chemistry’, the architect Richard Mique, who designed the Hameau de la Reine at the Palace of Versailles, and nobility including Henrietta Anne Louise d’Aguesseau, Duchess of Noailles, Princess of Tingry. She was guillotined on the 22nd July along with her mother-in-law and her daughter. Poets were not spared and André Chénier and Jean-Antoine Roucher both came to their end on the same day, the 25th July.
But it was the guillotining of some family members of Marie Adrienne Francoise de Noailles, Marquise de Lafayette (her mother, sister and grandmother) that resulted in the cemetery’s most famous tomb. Adrienne was later buried in Picpus, and her husband, the illustrious Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette, chose to be buried there next to his wife after his peaceful death in 1834.
The Marquis de Lafayette was not only a French general and aristocrat but also a close friend of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, two of the American “Founding Fathers.” Lafayette even fought in the American Revolutionary War before France had officially entered the conflict. Lafayette brought soil from Bunker Hill in Boston– where the famous battle of Bunker Hill was fought– back to France. This soil was used to cover the graves.
Three months after the United States entered the First World War, on July 4th 1917, the U.S. Army Colonel Charles E Stanton visited the tomb of General de Lafayette, placing the American flag on his grave and uttering the words:
“America has joined forces with the Allied Powers, and what we have of blood and treasure are yours. Therefore it is that with loving pride we drape the colors in tribute of respect to this citizen of your great republic. And here and now, in the presence of the illustrious dead, we pledge our hearts and our honor in carrying this war to a successful issue, Lafayette, we are here.”
The American flag remains flying over his tomb to this day, courtesy of the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) and every 4th of July, members of DAR and U.S. embassy officials pay their respects at the tomb.
The gardens were closed off after the death on July 28th, 1794 of Robespierre, the architect of The Reign of Terror, who was himself guillotined with many of his supporters in La Place de la Concorde.
Terrible to think that if Robespierre had been guillotined just 43 days earlier, these 1306 people may have been spared their horrible fate.
Perhaps an added irony is that the invention of the guillotine was intended to lesson the victim’s pain– to be a more humane and efficient method of execution. As a public spectacle, blood running in rivers, severed heads then tumbling into baskets, makes it impossible to imagine any concept of humanity.
Although crude forms of the guillotine date back to 1307, and a device called a mannaia was used to execute the nobility in 16th century Italy and Southern France, the guillotine used in the French Revolution was devised and promoted by Dr Joseph Ignace Guillotin, a physician and deputy of the National Assembly of France.
In 1792, after a practice run on sheep, calves and corpses from the poor house, the guillotine was used for the first time on a thief, Nicholas Pelletier.
The guillotine was never mass produced. Expert craftsmen, blacksmiths, carpenters and metal workers were enlisted; each trade produced separate parts of the guillotine which were then assembled at the site of the execution. For a machine that’s single purpose was decapitation, it is astounding that estimates of the number of lives ended by this method during the French Revolution ranged from 17,000 to 40,000. In one particularly brutal month, 3,000 citizens were beheaded. At least 75% of these victims were believed to be innocent of any crime whatsoever.
At first, the guillotine was named the ‘louison’ or ‘louisette’ after Dr Louis who had pressed it into service. Later to honor Dr Guillotine (who did not in fact feel honored and resented the association), the machine became widely known as the dreaded guillotine.
The first executioner was Charles-Henri Samson, who after a year’s practice had the dubious honor of beheading King Louis XVI in 1793 and later Marie Antoinette.
The last time the guillotine was used in France was late 1977 when it was still the accepted, official, execution device. In 1981, the French President finally abolished the death sentence, and with it the guillotine.
However it was not only the family of Lafayette’s wife who were remembered and honored by Lafayette. In 1797 the land was secretly bought by Princess Amélie Zephyrine of Salm-Kyrbueg, whose brother, Frederick III, Prince of Salm-Kyrburg, was buried in one of the common graves. Six years later, when Napoleon was first consul, family members of aristocrats who had also been buried in common graves, bought up the rest of the land and built a second cemetery.
The unassuming exterior of Picpus Cemetery still retains the entrance where the carts brought back the decapitated bodies. In the chapel as you enter the cemetery, two enormous plaques bear the names, occupations and dates of death for each of the 1306 victims flung into mass graves.
Just as in 1794, there was no distinction in death between those of noble birth and commoners, and now any descendent of the 1306 individuals– be they rich or poor– has the right to be buried alongside them.
Picpus Cemetery can be found at 25, Rue de Picpus in the 12th arrondissement. Metro: Nation. Entrance fee 2 euros.