During the Reign of Terror, a period during the French Revolution that lasted from 1793 to 1794, Marseilles (spelled Marseille by the French) was a highly patriotic city filled with revolutionaries. These revolutionaries were so patriotic they began to sing a catchy tune on Marseilles street corners and when they marched into Paris they sang it there too. This catchy tune soon caught on, and as revolutionaries fought against tyranny and foreign invasion, the song, known as La Marseillaise, was adopted and became the French Republic’s national anthem on 14 July 1795.
Besides La Marseillaise and Marseilles’s reputation for revolutionary fervor, Marseilles also became known for being a place where thousands of citizens perished after they were accused of being unpatriotic: “political feeling was made a cloak of every deed of public violence and even private revenge.” Ordinary citizens sometimes found their names on anti-patriotic lists or revolutionaries counted them as someone to be watched because they might be against the revolution. That was exactly what happened to one innocent avocat (lawyer).
The avocat was sought out by a group of revolutionaries to be tried because they decided he was a traitor. But when the revolutionaries arrived at the avocat’s doorstep and questioned his wife as to his whereabouts, she told them that he had been absent for several days and that she did not know where he had gone. The revolutionaries insisted on searching the house and, despite a thorough search, found not a single trace of him. For that reason, they left in search of other unpatriotic souls whose names were written on their list.
Shortly after the revolutionaries departed from the avocat’s house, one of them returned. He found the avocat’s front door open and without hesitation stepped inside. He then hastened up the stairs and began knocking on a wainscot panel demanding fiercely, “Open, open quickly.”
As the panel opened a double-barreled pistol was discharged and then the avocat, who had been hiding inside, emerged. To the avocat’s surprise he found the visitor to be no revolutionary, and, fortunately, for the visitor, he found he had not been shot and cried out, “I come to save you, and you would kill me.” The gun’s discharge also brought the avocat’s wife, and the visitor said to her, “Hear me madam … I have associated myself with those men who were recently here, only that I may save my fellow-citizens.”
Apparently, during the search, the visitor had noticed the wife trembling when the revolutionaries passed the wainscoting. The visitor then deduced that her husband was hiding behind the wall. The visitor now told the wife that her husband would never be safe “in this house, or even in the town,” and he related he wanted help the avocat escape and had a plan.
Later that night, after dark, the visitor put his plan into action. The visitor spirited the avocat out his house and took him to his house where the avocat remained hidden for several days. In the meantime, the visitor made arrangements to consign the avocat to a Genoese vessel. With everything readied, the avocat was taken to the Port of Marseilles where he board the ship and sailed away, far out of reach of the revolutionaries and their guillotine.
- Macaulay, James, Strange Yet True, 1892
- Watts, Joshua, Remarkable Events in the History of Man, 1825