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The 14 Darkest Moments Of The French Revolution

Updated June 17, 2020 264.5k views14 items

The French Revolution was one of the bloodiest events in modern history. Between 1789 and 1799, French men and women went through dramatic changes in their social and political systems: They overthrew a monarchical system built on aristocratic and church privilege and attempted to replace it with a more democratic vision of society. But hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children in France paid for these political and social transformations with their lives.

Though most people associate French revolutionary violence with the guillotine - a new-fangled contraption that efficiently killed an individual by lopping off his or her head in a single slice - bloodshed happened throughout the revolution in different ways. People attacked one another on the streets, in prisons, and even in churches. Men and women in the royal family, aristocracy, and the church were slain for their association with the Old Order. The lucky ones lost their heads. As the revolution progressed, various factions turned on each other; there was no single vision of a post-revolutionary world.

Was the entire French Revolution a bloody mess? Well, no. The French Revolution brought about important political and social changes that are still relevant today. But the fact remains that the revolution played out against a backdrop of violent upheaval. 

Horrific French Revolution tales still have the power to shock and disturb even centuries after the events. These moments stand alongside brutal 21st-century rebellions, horrible things done by the Catholic Church, and terrible torture methods as moments in history when the dark side of human nature was laid bare for all to see. This most violent revolution was not just about egalité, fraternité, and liberté - it was actually more like egalité, liberté, and brutality. 

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  • Photo: Jacques-Louis David / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    One of the most notorious and mythic deaths in the French Revolution was that of Jean-Paul Marat, a journalist whose newspaper L'Ami de peuple routinely attacked conservative voices in the revolution and supported the Jacobins, a radical faction that believed the revolution needed to remake society and purge the revolution of its enemies. He especially attacked members of the rival Girodin political faction. He also suffered from a disease that ravaged his skin. 

    On July 13, 1793, Marat was taking a bath as treatment for his skin condition when Charlotte Corday, herself a Girodin, showed up at his flat. She claimed to have important information for him, so he allowed her to address him while he bathed. Instead, Corday pulled out a blade and buried it in Marat's chest, giving him a bloody, swift end.

    Corday was soon arrested and brought before a revolutionary tribunal. Over the course of her examination, she revealed her belief that she had "killed one man to save 100,000." Corday met a similarly bloody end: On July 17, 1793, she was guillotined. 

  • The Duc de Brissac Met A Violent End At Versailles

    Photo: Internet Archive Book Images / Wikimedia Commons / no known copyright restrictions

    Louis Hercule Timoléon de Cossé-Brissac, duc de Brissac, was a distinguished member of the royal court and owner of one of the most French names in history. He even took Madame du Barry, the last mistress of King Louis XV, as his lover. 

    During the revolution, Louis headed the king's constitutional guard, a kind of security force. When the revolutionary tribunal disbanded the constitutional guard, the duc de Brissac himself became a target of the revolution.

    Like many aristocrats and individuals associated with the monarchy, the duke met a violent end. On September 9, 1792, he was slain at Versailles in the so-called September Massacres. His enemies cut off his head and stuck it on a pike. They then paraded the pike all the way to the apartments of Madame du Barry, where they hurled it through her window, causing the woman to faint in horror.

  • Joseph Foulon de Doué Overtaken By A Mob While Fleeing Paris

    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    One of the most horrific episodes in the French Revolution was the slaying of Joseph Foulon de Doué, minister of King Louis XVI's finances, whom the common people considered an enemy. After the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, de Doué had the good sense to realize he needed to get out of town. But he was discovered outside of Paris, and peasants made him march barefoot back to the city.

    The humiliating march back to Paris was only the beginning of de Doué's problems. A large mob apprehended the former finance minister and decided to take justice into its own hands. They first set out to lynch de Doué, so they tied a rope around his neck and attached it to a lamppost. But the rope broke, so they tried again, and again, and again - three times the rope broke, since it could not support de Doué's overweight body. Finally, the crowd relented and decided a beheading would have the same result. So they removed de Doué's head, stuffed his mouth with straw, and displayed his severed head on a pike. 

    Why straw? Commoners throughout Paris alleged that, when told the poor throughout France were hungry, de Doué responded that they should eat straw. The straw was a final gesture to a man despised by commoners.

  • Revolutionary Mobs Ended At Least 1,200 Lives In September 1792

    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The September Massacres of 1792 was perhaps the most infamous and horrific event during the French Revolution. Over a period of roughly five days, mobs of revolutionaries slaughtered more than 1,200 people. 

    The majority of victims were prisoners, though many were priests and nuns. The French Revolution launched an assault against the Catholic Church, since the hierarchical organization was a clear symbol of the Old Order: Not only did clergymen and women occupy a privileged position in French society, but the younger sons and daughters of the aristocracy also often took the cloth when they couldn't have an inheritance. Indeed, the first victims of the September Massacres were 24 priests on their way to the Abbey de Saint-Germain des Prés. Later, a mob literally climbed over the walls of a nearby Carmelite convent and slaughtered 150 clergymen with clubs, pikes, and axes