During the French Revolution, between 5 September 1793 and 28 July 1794, a period known as The Terror, it has been estimated that at least 40,000 people were executed, although official records cite 16,594 deaths. Those sentenced to be executed were usually guillotined the following morning after their trial. As was customary, the condemned were tied together, in sets of two, by the hands with a cord, and accompanied by a guard to the site where they were guillotined.
One day after a batch of prisoners had been found guilty and were being conducted down the streets by guards to the guillotine, the condemned men were met by the wife of one of the convicted prisoners. The distressed wife protested loudly that her husband was a good “patriot” and that he “had been unjustly condemned.” In fact, she insisted that she had proof of his patriotism and that she would let the world see it if given half a chance.
At that precise moment, the judge who had condemned the prisoners passed by and heard the wife’s declaration. Being in good humor, the judge decided that if the woman’s assertions were true, no “good patriot” should be executed. He therefore, ordered the man loosened and brought to him so that he could question him.
As the questioning was occurring a multitude gathered round, so that soon the condemned prisoners were mingled in among the crowd of spectators. The prisoner who had been yoked with the prisoner being questioned, discovered everyone’s attention was elsewhere and that he was unobserved. He then thrust his hand with the cord into his waistcoat and with cool composure, casually walked away through the crowd.
The crowd was transfixed on the judge who was receiving satisfactory answers to all his questions from the prisoner being questioned. As the escapee hastened to the port, the judge declared the prisoner he was questioning “to be a good sans-culotte, [sic] unjustly condemned, and ordered him to be set at liberty.” As cheers from the crowd went up, the escapee jumped into a boat and ordered the boatman to take him to the other end of the port.
At the far end of the port, the escapee suddenly realized he did not have a single sous to pay his fare. However, he did not lose his presence of mind. He felt around his pockets and then told the boatman he had forgotten his purse. The boatman began to swear and accused him of being a cheat, but at the precise moment the escapee pulled from his pocket the cord with which he had been tied with and said:
“Here my friend … take this; I by no means wish to cheat you: I cannot tell how it has happened that I have come out without money; but this cord, if you will accept it, is worth more than your fare.”
The boatman was encouraged by a nearby boatman to accept the cord. He finally did so because he realized the cord was triple the cost of the fare. The escapee was now truly liberated, and he hastened to a friend’s house. There he remained hidden throughout the night and into the following day. He then made good his escape, so that within a few days he was far away from the guillotine and the Republic of France.
- Watts, Joshua, Remarkable Events in the History Man, 1825