The Imaginary Prisoner of the Bastille known as Comte de Lorges

Storming of the Bastille in July 1789. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The imaginary prisoner of the Bastille, known as the Comte de Lorges, was thought to be a real person for many years. Yet, he was no more real than the implements of torture said to be inside the Bastille after it was stormed in 1789. In fact, when a search was conducted for the Bastille’s torturous devices, a printing press was the only thing found, having been mistaken for an implement of torture.

The beginnings of the man who would come to be known as Comte de Lorges began to circulate almost immediately after the Bastille fell. For instance, an English doctor named Dr. Rigby wrote in his journal that “two wretched victims of the detestable tyranny of the old Government had just been discovered and taken from some of the most obscure dungeons of this horrid castle.”[1] One of the two wretched victims he described as a little old feeble man:

“I could not learn his history; he exhibited an appearance of childishness and fatuity; he tottered as he walked, and his countenance exhibited little more than the smile of an idiot.”[2]

Deliver of the Comte de Lorges from the Bastille. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The second man described by Rigby supposedly entered the prison forty-two years earlier. His name was Comte d’Auche. According to Rigby, d’Auche had a long beard and hair that was “matted together and divided into two long tails, very much resembling the tail of a monkey [that] … would have nearly reached the ground, but, as he walked, he supported them on one of his arms.”[3]

A man traveling with Rigby named Samuel Boddington also wrote about the Comte d’Auche. Boddington stated on 19 July that “his beard was of a great length and his hair which appeared to have been combed was entangled in large nets as if it had been wove.”[4]

Rigby and Boddington were not alone in describing the wretched prisoners freed from the Bastille. Another English writer produced a pamphlet in 1790 titled “Tyranny Annihilated” and noted:

“As soon as the soldiers and citizens had made themselves masters of the Bastile [sic], they immediately proceeded to release the prisoners … They broke open the cursed dungeons and liberated the wretched inhabitants; whose appearance formed a scene more shocking than the mind can conceive, or the pen describe. … Emaciated with such close and long confinement, they appeared more spectres. Their bodies were wafted, and their limbs so contracted that they had totally lost the use of them, and were obliged to be removed by the manual strength of their patriotic and heart-feeling deliverers.”[5]

In 1819, one author wrote about the discovery of the Comte de Lorges having been freed from the “gloomy recesses of oblivion”[6] and maintained:

“The count de Lorges was exhibited to the public in the Palais Royal; and his squalid appearance, his white beard, descending to his waist, with his imbecility, the effect of thirty-two years of close imprisonment, rendered him an object extremely well calculated to operate on the mind and the passions of every spectator. Happy would it have been, had the French revolution ended with the extension of so detestable an engine of despotism.[7]

Madame Tussaud also insisted she had made a mold of de Lorges’ face soon after his release. She noted in one of her exhibition catalogs:

“COUNT DE LORGE, represented as in prison in the Bastile. (Taken from life). The existence of the unfortunate man in the Bastile has by some been doubtful, but Madame Tussaud was herself a witness of his having been taken out of that prison, July 14, 1789. Madame Tussaud was then residing in the house of her uncle … where the Count was brought, but his chains had been taken off. The poor man, unused to liberty for thirty years, seemed to be in a new world; freedom had no joys for him; he had lost his relatives, and habit made him repine for the solitude form which he had been taken; he frequently with tears would beg to be restored to his dungeon. The unfortunate Count live but six weeks after his liberation.”[8]

Madame Tussaud. Author’s Collection.

Despite Madame Tussaud’s attestation, there appears to have been no Comte de Lorges freed from the Bastille. Moreover, the seven prisoners freed were not imprisoned because of political expediency. Four were common criminals incarcerated for counterfeiting and were Bernard Laroche known as Beausablon, Jean Béchade, Jean La Corrège, and Jean-Antoine Pujade. Shortly after they were freed, they were once again rounded up and incarcerated in Bicêtre.

Nineteenth century image of the Comte de Lorges from Madame Tussaud’s archives.

The three other prisoners at the Bastille had been imprisoned at the request of their families. First, there was a 60-year-old prisoner named Auguste-Claude Tavernier who was unstable and involved with Robert-François Damiens, the man who had attempted to assassinate Louis XV. Another prisoner was Hubert de Solages. He was confined for committing perverted sexual acts, namely incest with his sister. Finally, there was a James Francis Xavier Whyte of Irish descent, described as deranged, and sporting a long, unkempt beard. He was imprisoned because of his mental instability and declared interdit, that is to say, deprived of the management of his property. (Whyte appears to be the person that Rigby and Boddington both referred to as Comte d’Auche.)

Jean-Louis Carra. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

It seems apparent that both Rigby and Boddington saw at least one Bastille prisoner paraded in the streets, but it was not Comte de Lorges. So, the question then becomes did a Comte de Lorges exist? One twentieth century author stated that the Comte de Lorges “never existed” and claimed that a French journalist and revolutionary named Jean-Louis Carra invented the Count. Perhaps, Carra used Whyte as the basis for his fictional Comte de Lorges as Whyte seems to fit the physical description of the Count and was paraded at the Palais Royal.

“Carra published his description of the release and subsequent death of De Lorges in a pamphlet issued in 1789; according to Carra, De Lorges had been a prisoner in the Bastille for thirty-two years … but De Lorges was never more than fiction, a composite figure of suffering; and Marie Tussaud’s attempts to document his existence do not stand up to scrutiny.”[9]

So why did Carra invent such a person? One writer suggests that it created a powerful symbol for revolutionaries, made the storming of the Bastille a memorable act, and served as reminder of the tyrannical power of the old regime. Thus, once the story of the Comte de Lorges leaked out, it could not be squelched, and the Comte de Lorges and his terrible ordeals in the Bastille began to be shared as if fact. One twentieth century writer noted:

“[I]n spite of the fact that he never existed, it was almost a dramatic … necessity to invent the Comte de Lorges. And once invented, the character of the captive chained in oblivion and now set a liberty was too powerful a symbol to discard.”[10]

References:

  • [1] Dr. Rigby’s Letters from France &c. in 1789 (London: Longmans, Green, 1880), p. 66–67.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 67.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 68.
  • [4] Mary Anne Constantine and Paul Frame, Travels in Revolutionary France and a Journey Across America: George Cadogan Morgan and Richard Price Morgan (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2012), p. 16.
  • [5] Tyranny Annihilated: Or the Triumph of Freedom over Despotism, containing a particular account of the rise, progress, and various incidents which produced the late grand and memorable Revolution in the government of France, etc (London: William Adlard, 1790), p. 25–26.
  • [6] David Ramsay, Universal History Americanised, Or, An Historical View of the World from the Earliest Records to the Year 1808 (Philadelphia: M. Carey and Son, 1819), p. 233.
  • [7] D. Ramsay, p. 233–34.
  • [8] Madame Tussaud and Sons’ Exhibition, Exhibition Catalogue: Containing Biographical & Descriptive Sketches of the Distinguished Characters which Compose Their Exhibition and Historical Gallery (London: B. George, 1880), p. 43.
  • [9] C. C. Barfoot and T. Haen, Tropes of Revolution: Writers’ Reaction to Real and Imagined Revolutions 1789-1989 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1991), p. 331.
  • [10] Ibid.

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