Louis-Marie Prudhomme, was born in Lyon in 1752. His first job was as a librarian. He then moved to Meaux, where he worked as a book binder. In 1787, he moved to Paris, and it was there he wrote lampoons. Among the lampoons attributed to him was the three-volume Résumé général, ou Extrait des cahiers de pouvoirs, instructions, demandes ou doléances remis par divers bailliages, sénéchaussées et pays d’État du royaume, which was written in conjunction with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and François-Silvain Laurent de Mezières and seized by police.
Prudhomme gave up lampooning when a patriotic journalist and pamphleteer, Antoine Tournon, encouraged him to write a pamphlet about the attack on the Bastille. Prudhomme’s pamphlet proved to be a huge success: It had lively writing, numerous etchings, and sold out even after its fifth edition. Because of the pamphlet’s popularity, Tournon convinced Prudhomme to join him and write a weekly newspaper.
The paper, titled les Révolutions de Paris (Revolutions of Paris), began on 12 July 1789 and lasted until 28 February 1794. Tournon acted as editor but left after the first edition. Prudhomme then took over and ran it like business: He hired writers, illustrators, map makers, typographers, and a political editor. Later, after Prudhomme had an estimated 250,000 subscribers and propelled the 48-page weekly newspaper to success, Tournon sued over ownership. Fortunately for Prudhomme, Tournon lost and Prudhomme’s ownership was confirmed.
During the time Prudhomme was publishing his (radical but not inflammatory) paper, he maintained an active political life. He served as a member of the third electoral assembly of Paris, a committee member of the Four Nations section, and as a civil commissioner. Additionally, besides writing newspaper articles relating to the French Revolution, he included his viewpoint about French feminism. Feminism was not something Prudhomme supported, and, in fact, he once wrote:
Civil and political liberty is in a manner of speaking useless to women and in consequence must be foreign to them. Destined to pass all their lives confined under the paternal roof or in the house of their marriage; born to a perpetual dependence from the first moment of their existence until that of their departure, they have only been endowed with private virtues … A woman is only comfortable, is only in her place in her family or in her household. She need only know what her parents or her husband judge appropriate to teach her about everything that takes place outside her home.
Prudhomme was also opinionated about the French Revolution. Initially, he supported it and wrote when Marie Antoinette was executed, “They [the French people] looked on calmly as the Queen passed by, and even cheered her; but, on the whole, the people seemed to forget all the evil that this woman had brought upon France, and to look upon her solely in her present condition.” His opinion changed later. At that time, he attacked the regime responsible for the Reign of Terror (a period marked by massive executions), resulting in him being imprisoned several times, although fortunately he was always released and never executed for his contrary viewpoint.
Besides journalism, Prudhomme also pursued a career as a historian. He gathered information and created a list of every person he knew sent to death during the Reign of Terror. Prudhomme’s list of victims included not only those sentenced to die by the guillotine but also those executed by hanging, firing squad, and drowning. Moreover, the list included each victim’s name, age, address, occupation, and date of execution. It is from Prudhomme’s list that we know no one was safe from execution: The youngest victim was 14 and the oldest, 92.
In 1796, after gathering such vital information, Prudhomme published a two-volume book titled Dictionary of Individuals Condemned to Die During the Revolution. He also published more information about victims of the French Revolution in 1797. His second book, a six-volume work was published under the title Impartial Errors, Mistakes and Crimes Committed During the French Revolution.
Even though Prudhomme was appointed director of the hospitals of Paris in 1799, he continued to publish and write. However, his publishing and writing were not financially beneficial because he declared bankruptcy sometime after 1803. He then created a new publishing house around 1808 under the name “Office of Lavater.” After the Bourbon Restoration, because he did not support the First French Empire, he wrote a book fiercely criticizing Napoleon in 1825.
Five years later, in 1830, despite his stance on feminism, he published a two-volume dictionary with short biographies about famous women. This was the last year of his life, and the man who wrote some 15,000 lampoons, the man who did not “deny the atrocity of the [September] massacres,” and the man Thomas Carlyle called a “dull-blustering Printer,” died on the 20th of April in Paris.
- Anderson, James Maxwell, Daily Life During the French Revolution, 2007
- Biographie Universelle et Historique des Femmes Célèbres Mortes ou Vivantes, Volume 2, Paris, 1830
- Carlyle, Thomas, The French Revolution, 1838
- Dictionnaire Des Individus Envoyés a la Mort Judiciairement, Volume 2, Paris, 1796
- “Illustrations from Révolutions de Paris,” on Department of History
- “Off with their Heads! French Guillotine Records Launch Online,” at Ancestry.com
- Miller, Mary Ashburn, A Natural History of Revolution, 2011
- Prudhomme, “On the Influence of the Revolution on Women” (12 February 1791), on Liberty, Equality, Fraternity
- Tschudi, Clara, Marie Antoinette, 1902