Fouquier-Tinville: Purveyor to the Guillotine

Fouquier-Tinville was born Antoine Quentin Fouquier de Tinville and became a French public prosecutor who, because of his zealous prosecutions during the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, earned the nickname “Purveyor to the Guillotine.” Born in Herouël, a village in the Aisne department, he was the son of a seigneurial landowner. He studied law and in 1774 obtained a position as prosecutor procureur attached to the Châtelet in Paris. He sold that office in 1781 to pay off his debts and became a clerk under the lieutenant-general of police.

Antoine Quentin Fouquier de Tinville. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Fouquier-Tinville married his first wife, Geneviève-Dorothée Saugnier, in 1775. They then had five children. However, she died in 1782 and so four months after her death, he married a second time. His second wife was Henriette Jeanne Gérard d’Arcourt and they had three children together.

In the late 1780s Fouquier-Tinville become active in politics in his section and was a supporter of the sans-culotte movement. In addition, likely because of his cousin Camille Desmoulins, who was a journalist and politician, he gained a position that allowed him to judge royalists arrested in the 10 August incident. Then on 10 March 1793, when the Revolutionary Tribunal of Paris was created by the National Convention, he was appointed its public prosecutor.

As to Fouquier-Tinville’s personality and character contemporaries claimed that he was considered a “bar of iron” against nearly all types of temptation. He supposedly never gave way to intemperance and was not addicted to women or the theatre. He reportedly ate a “sparing in diet” and was also said to be a man of regular habits. He was such a hard worker that no matter how many hours he worked he never suffered from fatigue.

Working as the public prosecutor, he quickly earned a sinister reputation. He could indict anyone who was determined to behave “wickedly and intentionally” and to do so he need only rely on information provided by private citizens or French authorities. His office reflected legality but essentially operated under political command because he did not have to find guilt to condemn someone to the guillotine. In fact, he, like Maximilien Robespierre, became known for his ruthless radicalism. Of Fouquier-Tinville it was said:

“[He] was excessively artful, quick in attributing guilt, and skilled in controverting facts, showed immoveable presence of mind … and his name soon became as terrible as that of Robespierre to all France.”[1]  

Maximilien Robespierre. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Similar sentiments about Fouquier-Tinville were stated by an English lady who resided in France from 1792 to 1795. She gave the following insights on him:

“I have been told by a gentleman who was at school with Fouquier, and has had frequent occasions of observing him at different periods since, that he always appeared to him to be a man of mild manners, and by no means likely to become the instrument of these atrocities … he was induced to accept the office of Public Accuser to the Tribunal, and was progressively led on from administering to the iniquity of his employers, to find a gratification in it himself.”[2]

As the number of cases increased Fouquier-Tinville realized he needed help to keep up with his prosecutions and he therefore employed a clerk. Soon he needed a second one. So many people were heading to the guillotine that he left the task of drawing up the indictments to his clerks and his job became only to sign the bottom of each page, sometimes writing words in the margins or fixing the text where needed. In addition, sometimes names were added after indictments were drawn up.

During Fouquier-Tinville’s tenure as prosecutor he demonstrated a brutalized concept of duty and his courtroom became a ritualized killing machine. The evening before a trial, usually around 9pm, documents were served to the interested parties. The following day at trial, the accused person was not given time to speak and generally the accused could only answer “yes” or “no” to the charges. There was also no legal counsel available to those charged with a crime.

Fouquier-Tinville

Fouquier-Tinville. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Many examples of the types of cases that Fouquier-Tinville prosecuted exist. For instance, on 17 June (19th of Prairial) 1794, Cécile Renault, a royalist sympathizer, was convicted of trying to assassinate Robespierre. She, her father, brother, aunt, and forty-nine other prisoners were also brought before the tribunal that Fouquier-Tinville was overseeing. She heckled him over the charges and mocked the council conducting the trial. The outcome was not surprising:

“All were convicted of having made themselves ‘the enemies of the people by participating in the conspiracy of the foreigner, and attempting, by assassination, famine, the fabrication and introduction of forged paper-money (assignats) and base coin, the deprivation of morality and public spirit, and insurrections in the prisons, to promote civil war, to dissolve the national representation, to re-establish royalty, or any other tyrannical domination.’ The hearing lasted only three hours. The Tribunal condemned them all, to the punishment of death … All were brought to the place of execution and put on the scaffold clothed in red shirts, as assassins of the Representatives of the people. Yet only one of them had committed an attempt at assassination.”[3]

Fouquier-Tinville - Cécile-Aimée Renault

Cécile-Aimée Renault. Public domain.

Under Fouquier-Tinville many well-known people were also sentenced to death. Among those condemned by him were Jean-Marie Roland and Madame Roland, Charlotte Corday, and the Queen, Marie Antoinette. Moreover, French statesman and historian Marie Joseph Louis Adolphe Thiers reported:

“Justice in his eyes consisted in condemning; an acquittal was the source of profound vexation; he was never happy unless when he had secured the conviction of all the accused. He required no species of recreation; women, the pleasure of the table or of the theatre, were alike indifferent to him. Sober and sparing in diet, he never indulged in excess, excepting when with the judges of the revolution tribunal, when he would at times give way to intemperance. His power of undergoing fatigue was unbounded. The sole recreation which he allowed himself was to behold his victims perish on the scaffold. He confessed that the object had great attractions for him.”[4]

“La reine Marie-Antoinette en habit de veuve à la prison de la Conciergerie” by Alexander Kucharsky in 1793. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Although many stories about Fouquier-Tinville talk of his heartlessness there was at least one story that seemed to show another side to him. The information came from Charles Paul de Kock, a French novelist who in 1820 began his long and successful series of novels dealing with Parisian life in Georgette, ou la Nièce du tabellion. According to Kock:

“[I]n the dreadful days of the Terror, when his father [Koch’s] had been led to the scaffold, his mother, with himself as a baby in her arms, received a visit from the public accuser, Fouquier-Tinville. Four men had come to carry his mother to prison and be judged before the Revolutionary Tribunal because she was ‘suspect’ as the wife of a man who had already been executed. Fouquier-Tinville was about to give the order, when the child in his mother’s arms, astonished at the sight of these strange faces, and thinking that a comedy had been arranged for his own benefit, burst out into a peal of laughter such as babies laugh … And the strange thing was that Fouquier-Tinville was touched. At all events, he withdrew after some perfunctory excuses, and the mother and child were saved.”[5]  

Fouquier-Tinville

Charles Paul de Kock. Public domain.

This incident may be partly why Fouquier-Tinville was reported to be an enigma and why some people said he possessed a conflicting nature. His contradictory character was demonstrated when his life was closer examined in the early 1910s:

“He was a scholar and a gentleman ― a good husband and a good father. But he also ‘had the education, all the education and habits, of a lawyer, of a procurator, of a man brought up and trained in legal chicanery and procedure.’ Consequently ‘he wanted to win his cases at whatever cost,’ and he saw no reason why he should not be employed by the Government to win cases after Thermidor as well as before it, for he regarded himself as ‘functionary,’ zealous only to carry out the orders of his superiors.”[6]

Eventually, Robespierre fell because certain members of the National Convention feared that they might become his next victims. With his execution on 28 July 1794 came the end of the Reign of Terror. After his execution, Fouquier-Tinville filled the role of public prosecutor for less than a week because by this time, the same people he had so zealously condemned were demanding his blood. He was thus arrested on 1 August after being denounced by Louis-Marie Stanislas Fréron, a French politician, journalist, and representative to the National Assembly. However, despite his arrest, his trial did not happen quickly.

Marie Stanislas Fréron. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

It began nine months later in April of 1795. He defended himself in a long drawn out affair that lasted 41 days and included more than 400 witnesses. Of the trial it was said:

“[He was charged with] having caused the destruction of innumerable multitude of French persons, under pretence of conspiracies; for having caused carts which were ready beforehand, to be loaded with victims whose very names were not mentioned, and against whom no depositions were made, and for having constituted a jury of his own adherents. It would be impossible to detail all of his atrocities.”[7]

Unfortunately for Fouquier-Tinville, at trial he presented a dry, businesslike attitude that made him appear uncaring. His defense was that he had only been responsible for enforcing the laws and that he was nothing more than a blind instrument, in other words, the “axe” of the National Convention. Professor of History at the University of North Texas, Graham B. Cox, notes:

“Fouquier-Tinville used the defense of superior orders, setting an early precedent, ironically, for several Nazi war criminals: ‘It is not I who ought to be arraigned here, but the chiefs whose orders I have executed. I had only acted in the spirit of the laws … passed by a Convention invested with full power.’ Fouquier-Tinville repeatedly asked, ‘What would you have done in my place?’”[8]

The jury was unsympathetic and Fouquier-Tinville’s arguments fell flat. Thus, he was found guilty. Of his sentencing the Chester Courant reported:

“The jury brought in their verdict yesterday, and found … [Fouquier-Tinville] Guilty of having committed at the revolutionary tribunal … crimes tending to favor the plans of the enemies of the people, to promote the dissolution of the National Convention, and to aim the citizens against each other; of having caused an innumerable quantity of citizens to perish under the forms of law; of having drawn out lifts of proscription; of having ordered women with child to be executed; of having tried and condemned, 30, 40, and even 60 persons at a time, within three hours; of having drawn on indictments in such a confused manner, that the father has often been executed for the son, and the son for the father; of having refused to persons accused a copy of the act of accusation against them; of having packed juries, instead of choosing them by lot, &c.”[9]

Fouquier-Tinville was supposedly furious after hearing the verdict and even more enraged when he and several associates of the Revolutionary Tribunal were sentenced to death by guillotine. On 7 May 1795 they were transported in three tumbril carts to the Place de Grève. There their sentences were carried out. It was reported that Fouquier-Tinville was the last to be executed, of which the Derby Mercury reported:

“[H]is face was pale and livid, all his muscles were contracted, and his eyes were wild and bloated … [after his execution] the people demanded his head; the executioner seized it by the hair, and held it out to the eager multitude. – ‘Thus perished that ferocious animal, the principal agent of tyranny, which caused so many calamities to France.’”[10]

Fouquier-Tinville

Antoine Quentin Fouquier de Tinville. Public domain.

References:

  • [1] M. A. Thiers, The History of the French Revolution, 3 vols. (London: Richard Bentley, 1838), p. 153.
  • [2] A Residence in France During the Years 1792, 1793, 1794, and 1795 (London: T.N. Longman, 1797), p. 207.
  • [3] A. Dunoyer, The Public Prosecutor of the Terror, Antoine Quentin Fouquier-Tinville (G. P. Putnam’s sons, 1913), p. 80.
  • [4] M. A. Thiers. 1838, p. 153–54.
  • [5] Daily Telegraph & Courier, “Books of the Day,” October 4, 1899, p. 6.
  • [6] Pall Mall Gazette, “The Trumpet of the Terror,” October 2, 1913, p. 10.
  • [7] M. A. Thiers. 1838, p. 152.
  • [8] G. B. Cox, Seeking Justice for the Holocaust (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019), p. 90.
  • [9] Chester Courant, “Paris, May 8,” p. 1.
  • [10] Derby Mercury, “London, Thursday, June 11,” June 18, 1795, p. 1.

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