The History of a Crime, by Victor Hugo

Chapter xvi.

The Massacre

Suddenly a window was opened.

Upon Hell.

Dante, had he leaned over the summit of the shadow, would have been able to see the eighth circle of his poem; the funereal Boulevard Montmartre.

Paris, a prey to Bonaparte; a monstrous spectacle. The gloomy armed men massed together on this boulevard felt an appalling spirit enter into them; they ceased to be themselves, and became demons.

There was no longer a single French soldier, but a host of indefinable phantoms, carrying out a horrible task, as though in the glimmering light of a vision.

There was no longer a flag, there was no longer law, there was no longer humanity, there was no longer a country, there was no longer France; they began to assassinate.

The Schinderhannes division, the brigades of Mandrin, Cartouche, Poulailler, Trestaillon, and Tropmann appeared in the gloom, shooting down and massacring.

No; we do not attribute to the French army what took place during this mournful eclipse of honor.

There have been massacres in history, abominable ones assuredly, but they have possessed some show of reason; Saint Bartholomew and the Dragonnades are explained by religion, the Sicilian Vespers and the butcheries of September are explained by patriotism; they crush the enemy or annihilate the foreigner; these are crimes for a good cause; but the carnage of the Boulevard Montmartre is a crime without an ostensible reason.

The reason exists, however. It is hideous.

Let us give it.

Two things stand erect in a State, the Law and the People.

A man murders the Law. He feels the punishment approaching, there only remains one thing for him to do, to murder the People. He murders the People.

The Second of December was the Risk, the Fourth was the Certainty.

Against the indignation which arose they opposed the Terror.

The Fury, Justice, halted petrified before the Fury, Extermination. Against Erinnyes they set up Medusa.

To put Nemesis to flight, what a terrifying triumph!

To Louis Napoleon pertains this glory, which is the summit of his shame.

Let us narrate it.

Let us narrate what History had never seen before.

The assassination of a people by a man.

Suddenly, at a given signal, a musket shot being fired, no matter where, no matter by whom, the shower of bullets poured upon the crowd. A shower of bullets is also a crowd; it is death scattered broadcast. It does not know whither it goes, nor what it does; it kills and passes on.

But at the same time it has a species of soul; it is premeditated, it executes a will. This was an unprecedented moment. It seemed as though a handful of lightnings was falling upon the people. Nothing simpler. It formed a clear solution to the difficulty; the rain of lead overwhelmed the multitude. What are you doing there? Die! It is a crime to be passing by. Why are you in the street? Why do you cross the path of the Government? The Government is a cut-throat. They have announced a thing, they must certainly carry it out; what is begun must assuredly be achieved; as Society is being saved, the People must assuredly be exterminated.

Are there not social necessities? Is it not essential that Béville should have 87,000 francs a year and Fleury 95,000 francs? Is it not essential that the High Chaplain, Menjaud, Bishop of Nancy, should have 342 francs a day, and that Bassano and Cambacérès should each have 383 francs a day, and Vaillant 468 francs, and Saint–Arnaud 822 francs? Is it not necessary that Louis Bonaparte should have 76,712 francs a day? Could one be Emperor for less?

In the twinkling of an eye there was a butchery on the boulevard a quarter of a league long. Eleven pieces of cannon wrecked the Sallandrouze carpet warehouse. The shot tore completely through twenty-eight houses. The baths of Jouvence were riddled. There was a massacre at Tortoni’s. A whole quarter of Paris was filled with an immense flying mass, and with a terrible cry. Everywhere sudden death. A man is expecting nothing. He falls. From whence does this come? From above, say the Bishops’ Te Deum; from below, says Truth.

From a lower place than the galleys, from a lower place than Hell.

It is the conception of a Caligula, carried out by a Papavoine.

Xavier Durrieu comes upon the boulevard. He states —

“I have taken sixty steps, I have seen sixty corpses.”

And he draws back. To be in the street is a Crime, to be at home is a Crime. The butchers enter the houses and slaughter. In slaughter-house slang the soldiers cry, “Let us pole-axe the lot of them.”

Adde, a bookseller, of 17, Boulevard Poissonnière, is standing before his door; they kill him. At the same moment, for the field of murder is vast, at a considerable distance from there, at 5, Rue de Lancry, M. Thirion de Montauban, owner of the house, is at his door; they kill him. In the Rue Tiquetonne a child of seven years, named Boursier, is passing by; they kill him. Mdlle. Soulac, 196, Rue du Temple, opens her window; they kill her. At No. 97, in the same street, two women, Mesdames Vidal and Raboisson, sempstresses, are in their room; they kill them. Belval, a cabinet-maker, 10, Rue de la Lune, is at home; they kill him. Debaëcque, a merchant, 45, Rue du Sentier, is in his own house; Couvercelle, florist, 257, Rue Saint Denis, is in his own house; Labitte, a jeweller, 55, Boulevard Saint Martin, is in his own house; Monpelas, perfumer, 181, Rue Saint Martin, is in his own house; they kill Monpelas, Labitte, Couvercelle, and Debaëcque. They sabre at her own home, 240, Rue Saint Martin, a poor embroideress, Mdlle. Seguin, who not having sufficient money to pay for a doctor, died at the Beaujon hospital, on the 1st of January, 1852, on the same day that the Sibour Te Deum was chanted at Notre Dame. Another, a waistcoat-maker, Françoise Noël, was shot down at 20, Rue du Faubourg Montmartre, and died in the Charité. Another, Madame Ledaust, a working housekeeper, living at 76, Passage du Caire, was shot down before the Archbishop’s palace, and died at the Morgue. Passers-by, Mdlle. Gressier, living at 209, Faubourg Saint Martin; Madame Guilard, living at 77, Boulevard Saint Denis; Madame Gamier, living at 6, Boulevard Bonne Nouvelle, who had fallen, the first named beneath the volleys on the Boulevard Montmartre, the two others on the Boulevard Saint Denis, and who were still alive, attempted to rise, and became targets for the soldiers, bursting with laughter, and this time fell back again dead. Deeds of gallantry ware performed. Colonel Rochefort, who was probably created General for this, charged in the Rue do la Paix at the head of his Lancers a flock of nurses, who were put to flight.

Such was this indescribable enterprise. All the men who took part in it were instigated by hidden influences; all had something which urged them forward; Herbillon had Zaatcha behind him; Saint–Arnaud had Kabylia; Renault had the affair of the Saint–André and Saint Hippolyte villages; Espinasse, Rome and the storming of the 30th of June; Magnan, his debts.

Must we continue? We hesitate. Dr. Piquet, a man of seventy, was killed in his drawing-room by a ball in his stomach; the painter Jollivart, by a ball in the forehead, before his easel, his brains bespattered his painting. The English captain, William Jesse, narrowly escaped a ball which pierced the ceiling above his head; in the library adjoining the Magasins du Prophète, a father, mother, and two daughters were sabred. Lefilleul, another bookseller, was shot in his shop on the Boulevard Poissonnière; in the Rue Lepelletier, Boyer, a chemist, seated at his counter, was “spitted” by the Lancers. A captain, killing all before him, took by storm the house of the Grand Balcon. A servant was killed in the shop of Brandus. Reybell through the volleys said to Sax, “And I also am discoursing sweet music.” The Café Leblond was given over to pillage. Billecoq’s establishment was bombarded to such a degree that it had to be pulled down the next day. Before Jouvain’s house lay a heap of corpses, amongst them an old man with his umbrella, and a young man with his eye-glass. The Hôtel de Castille, the Maison Dorée, the Petite Jeannette, the Café de Paris, the Café Anglais became for three hours the targets of the cannonade. Raquenault’s house crumbled beneath the shells; the bullets demolished the Montmartre Bazaar.

None escaped. The guns and pistols were fired at close quarters.

New Year’s-day was not far off, some shops were full of New Year’s gifts. In the passage du Saumon, a child of thirteen, flying before the platoon-firing, hid himself in one of these shops, beneath a heap of toys. He was captured and killed. Those who killed him laughingly widened his wounds with their swords. A woman told me, “The cries of the poor little fellow could be heard all through the passage.” Four men were shot before the same shop. The officer said to them, “This will teach you to loaf about.” A fifth named Mailleret, who was left for dead, was carried the next day with eleven wounds to the Charité. There he died.

They fired into the cellars by the air-holes.

A workman, a currier, named Moulins, who had taken refuge in one of these shot-riddled cellars, saw through the cellar air-hole a passer-by, who had been wounded in the thigh by a bullet, sit down on the pavement with the death rattle in his throat, and lean against a shop. Some soldiers who heard this rattle ran up and finished off the wounded man with bayonet thrusts.

One brigade killed the passer-by from the Madeleine to the Opera, another from the Opera to the Gymmase; another from the Boulevard Bonne Nouvelle to the Porte Saint Denis; the 75th of the line having carried the barricade of the Porte Saint Denis, it was no longer a fight, it was a slaughter. The massacre radiated — a word horribly true — from the boulevard into all the streets. It was a devil-fish stretching out its feelers. Flight? Why? Concealment? To what purpose? Death ran after you quicker than you could fly. In the Rue Pagevin a soldier said to a passer-by, “What are you doing here?” “I am going home.” The soldier kills the passer-by. In the Rue des Marais they kill four young men in their own courtyard. Colonel Espinasse exclaimed, “After the bayonet, cannon!” Colonel Rochefort exclaimed, “Thrust, bleed, slash!” and he added, “It is an economy of powder and noise.” Before Barbedienne’s establishment an officer was showing his gun, an arm of considerable precision, admiringly to his comrades, and he said, “With this gun I can score magnificent shots between the eyes.” having said this, he aimed at random at some one, and succeeded. The carnage was frenzied. While the butchering under the orders of Carrelet filled the boulevard, the Bourgon brigade devastated the Temple, the Marulaz brigade devastated the Rue Rambuteau; the Renault division distinguished itself on the “other side of the water.” Renault was that general, who, at Mascara, had given his pistols to Charras. In 1848 he had said to Charras, “Europe must be revolutionized.” And Charras had said, “Not quite so fast!” Louis Bonaparte had made him a General of Division in July, 1851. The Rue aux Ours was especially devastated. Morny that evening said to Louis Bonaparte, “The 15th Light Infantry have scored a success. They have cleaned out the Rue aux Ours.”

At the corner of the Rue du Sentier an officer of Spahis, with his sword raised, cried out, “This is not the sort of thing! You do not understand at all. Fire on the women.” A woman was flying, she was with child, she falls, they deliver her by the means of the butt-ends of their muskets. Another, perfectly distracted, was turning the corner of a street. She was carrying a child. Two soldiers aimed at her. One said, “At the woman!” And he brought down the woman. The child rolled on the pavement. The other soldier said, “At the child!” And he killed the child.

A man of high scientific repute, Dr. Germain Sée, declares that in one house alone, the establishment of the Jouvence Baths, there were at six o’clock, beneath a shed in the courtyard, about eighty wounded, nearly all of whom (seventy, at least) were old men, women, and children. Dr. Sée was the first to attend to them.

In the Rue Mandar, there was, stated an eye-witness, “a rosary of corpses,” reaching as far as the Rue Neuve Saint Eustache. Before the house of Odier twenty-six corpses. Thirty before the hotel Montmorency. Fifty-two before the Variétés, of whom eleven were women. In the Rue Grange–Batelière there were three naked corpses. No. 19, Faubourg Montmartre, was full of dead and wounded.

A woman, flying and maddened, with dishevelled hair and her arms raised aloft, ran along the Rue Poissonnière, crying, “They kill! they kill! they kill! they kill! they kill!”

The soldiers wagered. “Bet you I bring down that fellow there.” In this manner Count Poninsky was killed whilst going into his own house, 52, Rue de la Paix.

I was anxious to know what I ought to do. Certain treasons, in order to be proved, need to be investigated. I went to the field of murder.

In such mental agony as this, from very excess of feeling one no longer thinks, or if one thinks, it is distractedly. One only longs for some end or other. The death of others instills in you so much horror that your own death becomes an object of desire; that is to say, if by dying, you would be in some degree useful! One calls to mind deaths which have put an end to angers and to revolts. One only retains this ambition, to be a useful corpse.

I walked along terribly thoughtful.

I went towards the boulevards; I saw there a furnace; I heard there a thunderstorm.

I saw Jules Simon coming up to me, who during these disastrous days bravely risked a precious life. He stopped me. “Where are you going?” he asked me. “You will be killed. What do you want?” “That very thing,” said I.

We shook hands.

I continued to go on.

I reached the boulevard; the scene was indescribable. I witnessed this crime, this butchery, this tragedy. I saw that reign of blind death, I saw the distracted victims fall around me in crowds. It is for this that I have signed myself in this book AN EYE-WITNESS.

Destiny entertains a purpose. It watches mysteriously over the future historian. It allows him to mingle with exterminations and carnages, but it does not permit him to die, because it wishes him to relate them.

In the midst of this inexpressible Pandemonium, Xavier Durrieu met me as I was crossing the bullet-swept boulevard. He said to me, “Ah, here you are. I have just met Madame D. She is looking for you.” Madame D.24 and Madame de la R.,25 two noble and brave women, had promised Madame Victor Hugo, who was ill in bed, to ascertain where I was, and to give her some news of me. Madame D. had heroically ventured into this carnage. The following incident happened to her. She stopped before a heap of bodies, and had had the courage to manifest her indignation; at the cry of horror to which she gave vent, a cavalry soldier had run up behind her with a pistol in his hand, and had it not been for a quickly opened door through which she threw herself, and which saved her, she would have been killed.

It is well known that the total slaughter in this butchery is unrecorded. Bonaparte has kept these figures hidden in darkness. Such is the habit of those who commit massacres. They are scarcely likely to allow history to certify the number of the victims. These statistics are an obscure multitude which quickly lose themselves in the gloom. One of the two colonels of whom we have had a glimpse in pages 223–225 of this work, has stated that his regiment alone had killed “at least 2,500 persons.” This would be more than one person per soldier. We believe that this zealous colonel exaggerates. Crime sometimes boasts of its blackness.

Lireux, a writer, arrested in order to be shot, and who escaped by a miracle, declares that he saw “more than 800 corpses.”

Towards four o’clock the post-chaises which were in the courtyard of the Elysée were unhorsed and put up.

This extermination, which an English witness, Captain William Jesse, calls “a wanton fusillade,” lasted from two till five o’clock. During these three terrible hours, Louis Bonaparte carried out what he had been premeditating, and completed his work. Up to that time the poor little “middle-class” conscience was almost indulgent. Well, what of it? It was a game at Prince, a species of state swindling, a conjuring feat on a large scale; the sceptics and the knowing men said, “It is a good joke played upon those idiots.” Suddenly Louis Bonaparte grew uneasy and revealed all his policy. “Tell Saint–Arnaud to execute my orders.” Saint–Arnaud obeyed, the coup d’état acted according to its own code of laws, and from that appalling moment an immense torrent of blood began to flow across this crime.

They left the corpses lying on the pavements, wild-looking, livid, stupefied, with their pockets turned inside out. The military murderer is thus condemned to mount the villainous scale of guilt. In the morning an assassin, in the evening a thief.

When night came enthusiasm and joy reigned at the Elysée. These men triumphed. Conneau has ingeniously related the scene. The familiar spirits were delirious with joy. Fialin addressed Bonaparte in hail-fellow-well-met style. “You had better break yourself of that,” whispered Vieillard. In truth this carnage made Bonaparte Emperor. He was now “His Majesty.” They drank, they smoked like the soldiers on the boulevards; for having slaughtered throughout the day, they drank throughout the night; wine flowed upon the blood. At the Elysée they were amazed at the result. They were enraptured; they loudly expressed their admiration. “What a capital idea the Prince had had! How well the thing had been managed! This was much better than flying the country, by Dieppe, like D’Haussez; or by Membrolle, like Guernon–Ranville; or being captured, disguised as a footboy, and blacking the boots of Madame de Saint Fargeau, like poor Polignac!” “Guizot was no cleverer than Polignac,” exclaimed Persigny. Fleury turned to Morny: “Your theorists would not have succeeded in a coup d’état.” “That is true, they were not particularly vigorous,” answered Morny. He added, “And yet they were clever men — Louis Philippe, Guizot, Thiers —” Louis Bonaparte, taking his cigarette from his lips, interrupted, “If such are clever men, I would rather be an ass —”

“A hyena in an ass’s skin,” says History.

24 No. 20, Cité Rodier.

25 Rue Caumartin. See pages 142, 145–148.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38