Dogs During the French Revolution: What Became of Them

All sorts of events were associated with dogs during the French Revolution and many stories exist because the revolution was a chaotic time not just for people but also for the dogs. Sometimes dogs suffered danger and sometimes they were the danger. Dogs also helped to maintain prisoner morale, functioned as messengers, and sometimes served as watchdogs or comforting companions. 

Portrait by J. B. Charpentier of the Duke of Penthièvre, his son Prince de Lamballe, the Princesse de Lamballe, daughter (the future Duchesse d’Orleans), and Maria Theresa Felicitas d’Este with their pedigreed dog. Public domain.

Of all the dogs that suffered during the Revolution, pedigreed dogs probably suffered the most. Such dogs were usually pets of royalty or nobility, and when these people fled France, their pedigreed dogs, called lexicons, were abandoned. Some of these dogs became outcasts, some mourned the loss of their owners, and some were disguised to prevent them from being taken or destroyed. However, many of these dogs were gathered up and burned at the Place de Greves, the spot said to be used for the “vilest malefactors.”

In 1793, there were also reports of thousands of abandoned dogs roaming Parisian streets. The roaming dogs reportedly fed on the blood that flowed from the guillotine and discolored the streets. Because this the dogs were described as possessing an “innate ferocity and blood-thirstiness.”[1] People who escaped the guillotine found themselves being threatened by these ferocious dogs and to avoid being torn apart, an armed force was established to take care of them.

“[The armed force] surrounded the Champs Elysées, drove their canine adversaries through the Rue Royale to the Place Royale, and there killed them by musketry discharges. Within a single day upwards of 3000 dogs were destroyed, whose bodies lay scattered about in the streets, where they remained for three days, a dispute having arisen amongst the authorities as to whose business it was to remove them.”[2]

Eventually, the Convention assigned a Monsieur Gasparin to deal with the dogs. He decided that because the dogs belonged to the aristocratic they should be buried with aristocratic honors. To accomplish this, Gasparin then gathered up all the state carriages of “Old France,” and these carriages then became hearses for the thousands of dog carcasses that needed to be removed.

Henri de La Rochejacquelein at the Battle of Cholet in 1793 by Paul-Émile Boutigny. Courtesy ofMusée d’art et d’histoire de Cholet, Cholet, France.

Abandoned dogs caused all sorts of problems in Vendée too. There an uprising against the revolution broke out between 1793 and 1796. Thousands of people were killed, and with lots of hungry dogs and lots of dead corpses, you can imagine what happened:

“Near Chollet [sic] there were extensive bleaching grounds, the owners of which kept a great many watch-dogs, large and fierce. The town, after having been repeatedly stormed, sacked, and burned, was at length abandoned by both parties. The watch-dogs, to the number of 400 or 500 took possession of the ruins and remained there for many weeks, feeding upon the bruised bodies of republicans and Vendeans that lay scattered in the streets and all round the place in a horrible abundance. After the pacification, when the disarmed townspeople of Chollet [sic] returned and attempted to rebuild their houses, the animals had become so ferocious that they attacked them and would have devoured them; and a battalion of republican soldiers were obliged to march against the dogs and exterminate them before the place could be re-inhabited.”[3]

Dogs eating human corpses did not just occur in Vendée. A leader of the French Revolution named François Nicolas Leonard Buzot and the second mayor of Paris named Jérôme Pétion de Villeneuve, were proscribed with the Girondists on 2 June 1793. They and several others escaped from Paris and found safety with a wig maker in Saint Emilion. However, after a time they did not feel safe and left their asylum. Fearful that they were about to be discovered and arrested, both men committed suicide. Buzot and Pétion’s corpses were then discovered in a cornfield with a pile of pistols laying nearby. The discovery was made when a fellow returned to the area to visit his sweetheart and heard growling:

“He turned aside from the path to see the cause … and his approach put to flight three dogs that had been tearing two human bodies, which lay, each on its back, a few paces from each other. The face of each corpse was intact, but ‘black as the back of a chimney.'”[4]

Dogs were blamed for other problems too. For example, a critical food shortage in 1789 contributed to the French Revolution, and when the food shortage continued into the year II (1790), many people blamed dogs. This resulted in some people taking action and “motions [were made] to eradicate superfluous dogs (those which did not guard livestock or buildings).”[4] According to one report:

“The usual rationale was that dogs consumed food which nourished humans, but someone at Le Havre pointed out that skins could be used to make packs for soldiers. … Most of the motions were tabled, and when passed, were not implemented. Gondrin twice urged citizens to reduce the number of dogs to one per household, but even club members refused. Montignac reversed a decision to have useless dogs killed, when a member made this touching speech. ‘The dog is the faithful friend and companion of man, watching over his safety and property. … What about those individuals, who, without dogs, would be alone in the world? We all get the same ration of bread. What does it matter to the public welfare, if a citizen shares a little of his sustenance with the only friend he has on earth?'”[5]

As friends to their masters, some dogs adamantly refused to leave their masters when they were arrested. For instance, one dog followed his master to prison and remained constantly at the prison door. A guard tried to get several people to take the dog, but everyone refused. When the time arrived for the man’s execution, the dog would not leave its master and followed him to the guillotine and up onto the platform. One of the gendarme then threw the dog down the steps, but it rushed up again and began to howl dismally, whereupon a gendarme pinned it with his bayonet. This action did not resonate with the crowd:

“Strange to say, the people who could stand and see Christians murdered, took the dog’s part. Stones were aimed at the gendarme, and he narrowly escaped with his life. A workman took up the dog and carried it away.”[6]

Dog waiting at the prison door. Author’s collection.

Another faithful dog supposedly became a means for one master to find comfort while he was imprisoned at Luxembourg. His dog who would sneak into the prison and enter his master’s chamber where the master would overwhelm him with love and caresses. One day the dog entered but acted strange and kept directing his master to his collar. The master finally examined the collar closely and found a letter from his wife. It stated that she had been constantly repulsed by guards and not allowed to see him. Thus, she had finally devised a means of communicating with him through the dog.

“[The master then] replied by the same courier. A regular correspondence was now carried on, and every day at a certain hour, the faithful commissioner of affection passed and repassed with his invisible message.”[7]

The royal family also found comfort from dogs during their incarceration. In fact, they were imprisoned with several pedigreed dogs at the Temple. Besides a special little spaniel that lived with them at Versailles, both Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette had other dogs. Madame de Tourzel, who served as governess to the royal children, reported that none of the dogs barked except for one owned by the Queen. That dog quickly came to serve as a sentinel in relation to the guards because it always barked at the slightest noise and thereby gave them a warning when someone approached. 

Spaniel of Madame Royal. Author’s collection.

Sometimes the companionship and comfort of a dog arrived in unexpected ways. This happened when Madame de Tourzel, her daughter Pauline, and the princesse de Lamballe were removed from the Temple and taken to La Force prison. It was a cold, dismal, and dreary prison and to make matters worse, the three women were not imprisoned in the same room. Pauline was distraught at the separation from her mother and later wrote of her gaoler:

“I was in despair at being separated from my mother, and asked for no other consolation than to rejoin her, he [the gaoler] was touched by my position, and, thinking to do me a pleasure, he left his little dog with me by way of distraction saying, ‘Whatever you do, do not betray me; I shall pretend I forgot it.'”[8]

References:

  • [1] Wehrhan, Robert, Memoirs of Queen Hortense, Mother of Napoleon III, Volume 1, 1862, p. 83.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] McFarlane, Charles, The French Revolution, Volume 3, 1845, p. 142.
  • [4] Lenotre, G. and Frederic Lees, Romances of the French Revolution, Volume 2, 1909, p. 320.
  • [5] Kennedy, Michael L., The Jacobin Clubs in the French Revolution, 1793-1795, 2000, p. 127.
  • [6] The Art Journal, 1888, p. 35.
  • [7] Du Boca, Louis, Interesting Anecdotes of the Heroic Conduct of Women Previous to and During the French Revolution, 1804, p. 42.
  • [8] Du Bouchet de Sourches, Louise Élisabeth, Memoirs, 1886, p. 285.

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