Jean-Marie Roland de la Platière and his wife, Madame Roland, were supporters of the French Revolution. In addition, Jean-Marie was also an influential member of a loose political faction called the Girondins. When they fell in 1793 during the Reign of Terror, Jean-Marie went into hiding in Rouen with two spinster sisters, the mademoiselles Malortie. The spinsters were sisters to his previous fiancée, who died unexpectedly.
While Jean-Marie was in hiding, Madame Roland was arrested, as were other Girondins and their supporters. Madame Roland was imprisoned at the Abbey of Saint Germain des Près that had inscribed over its door, “All hope abandon, ye who enter here!” This was also the spot where a wave of killings, called the September Massacres, had taken place between the 2nd and 7th of September in 1792 and resulted in the death of many people, including the Princesse de Lamballe.
During her imprisonment, Madame Roland continued to insist that she had been wrongly imprisoned. It seemed as if her protestations worked because suddenly on the 24th of June she was released. She gathered her things, ordered a carriage, and went home. Unfortunately, she had not mounted more than few steps when she was rearrested by the Paris Commune.
This time Madame Roland was locked up at the prostitute’s gaol known as Sainte Pélagie. While there she learned that all the imprisoned Girondins were to be tried. Madame Roland realized the seriousness of her situation and concluded that the end of her life was fast approaching. She then wrote:
“If I must die … I know of life the best it contains, while its continuance would probably only exact fresh sacrifices. … The moment in which I gloried most in my existence, when I felt most vividly that exaltation of soul which dares all dangers and rejoices in facing them, was the one which I entered this Bastille to which the executioners have sent me. … It seemed to give me an occasion of serving Roland by the firmness with which I could bear witness; and it seemed sweet to be of some use to him … I should like to sacrifice my life to him.”
On a wintry Friday on 8 November 1793, Madame Roland’s execution occurred. A great crowd was assembled to watch as she and others rode in death carts, called tumbrils, to the guillotine. It was a cold, rainy afternoon when the five tumbrils arrived at the spot where she would be executed. As she stood there, she “heard the threefold sounds of execution: first the dropping of the plank to which the prisoner was bound, then the fall of the lunette on the neck and then the rattle of the blade.”
Madame Roland’s turn came soon enough. At the Place de la Révolution she was bound tightly to the plank and her arms securely pinned. As she laid there bare headed in the distance her eyes rested on the colossal painted clay statue of Liberty. It was standing on the same pedestal that had once held the statue of Louis XV. Thinking about liberty, Madame Roland supposedly uttered these memorable words:
“O Liberté! O Liberté! que de crimes on comment en ton nom! (O Liberty! O Liberty! what crimes are committed in thy name!)”
While Madame Roland may have been thinking of liberty, on the platform that held the guillotine, to the executioner it was business as usual. He let the guillotine blade drop, and as her head fell, an official checked her name off his list. Sometimes the severed head left with the person’s body and went directly to the cemetery. Other times, if the person was well-known, the head was given to Madame Tussaud and taken to the studio where “the tortured features of the dead were recomposed, the lips were closed, the eyes shut, the horror-struck expression common to all decapitated head was smoothed away.”
Madame Tussaud did not get Madame Roland’s head as it escaped the executioner’s notice. Instead, Madame Roland’s severed head was buried with her body. The burial spot was the cemetery pit at a convent of Benedictines situated in the rue de la Madeleine called Ville l’Evêque.
When word came that Madame Roland had been executed, Jean-Marie Roland was still hiding in Rouen. He was undone by the news, and, on 15 November, he bid the spinster sisters farewell and left Rouen. The following morning, he was found leaning comfortably against a tree. His discoverer at first thought he was asleep, but then he noticed a cane-sword through his heart as he had committed suicide after pinning the following words to his chest:
“Whoever thou art that findest me lying here, respect my remains. They are those of a man who devoted his life to being useful, and who has died as he lived, virtuous and honest … Not fear, but indignation, made me quit my retreat on learning that my wife had been murdered. I did not choose to remain longer in a land polluted with crimes.”
-  Blind, Mathilde. Madame Roland. (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1886) p. 256.
-  Ibid., p. 274.
-  Pope-Hennessy, U. Madame Roland: a Study in Revolution. (Dodd, Mead and Company, 1918). p. 530.
-  Edward Latham, Famous Sayings and Their Authors: A Collection of Historical Sayings in English, French, German, Greek, Italian, and Latin (Swan Sonnenschein, 1906), p. 158.
-  U. Pope-Hennessy, p. 532.
-  M. Blind, p, 311–12.