Places of the French Revolution: La Force Prison

La Force prison was originally known as the Hôtel de la Force and was the private residence of Henri-Jacques Nompar de Caumont, duc de la Force. Near the end of Louis XIV’s reign, the hotel was divided into two parts: One part was called the Hôtel de Brienne, and the other part retained the name of La Force, with its entrance on Rue du Roi de Sicile.

La Force Prison in 1840

Interior of La Force Prison in 1840. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The two buildings then passed through several owners until they were obtained by the war ministry in 1754. In 1780, Hôtel la Force was converted into a prison, used to imprison debtors and those charged with civil offenses, and renamed La Grande Force. At the same time, La Grande Force appeared, Hôtel de Brienne was demolished, and, on the same site, a new prison was erected called La Petite Force, which initially held female prostitutes.

This new prison, consisting of La Grande Force (which now housed only male prisoners) and La Petite Force (which now housed only women) was called La Force. Included in La Force were also several other incidental buildings, such as an infirmary. Each building of La Force also had a separate and airy courtyard, with many courtyards containing greenery and a few trees.

On 10 August 1792 an insurrection occurred at the Tuileries Palace. King Louis XVI and his family fled to the Legislative Assembly for safety and a few days later were taken to the Temple. Beginning on 11 August committees of vigilance were established and a repression of all suspected counter-revolutionary activities instituted. This also resulted in counter-revolutionaries being arrested and thrown into prison, with some housed at La Force.

In September 1792, because fear was rampant that foreign and royalist armies would attack Paris and that inmates in city prisons would be freed and join them, La Force came under attack by violent mobs. The attacks began on 2 September. (Later, these attacks became known as the September Massacres.) Over the next five days, hundreds of prisoners were brought before the revolutionary tribunal. Of those who faced the tribunal, 160 prisoners were massacred.

Some of the more well-known prisoners housed at La Force prison during the revolution include the following:

Claude Nicolas Ledoux – He was one of the earliest exponents of French Neoclassical architecture and one of the most prolific and original architects of late 18th century. During the revolution, he became viewed as a symbol of fiscal oppression because he amassed a fortune and was thrown into La Force in 1793. Eventually released, Ledoux died in Paris in 1806.

Claude Nicolas Ledoux by Martin Drolling. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Jean Sylvain Bailly – Bailly was a French astronomer, mathematician, and freemason. He was a political leader in the early part of the French Revolution and served as Paris’s mayor. However, he became unpopular after the Royal Family fled and were captured at Varennes, which caused him to resign as mayor. Eventually accused of betrayal, he was arrested, convicted, and guillotined 12 November 1793.

Jean Sylvain Bailly imprisoned at La Force Prison

Jean Sylvain Bailly. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Madame de Tourzel (Louise-Élisabeth de Croÿ de Tourzel) – She was governess to the royal children and found herself imprisoned at La Force because of her relationship with the royal family. Fortunately, with the aid of some intrepid and mysterious gentlemen, she was smuggled out of prison. During the Bourbon Restoration, King Charles X made her a duchess, and, later, she published her memoirs about the final days of the royal family. 

Madame de Tourzel imprisoned at La Force Prison.

Madame de Tourzel. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Claude Fournier L’Héritier – He was a personality of the Revolution who was nicknamed l’Americain because he had gone to French America to seek his fortune. Upon his return to France, he joined the Revolution with enthusiasm, and distinguished himself by organizing a popular armed force which became involved in all major insurrections of the capital including the Women’s March on Versailles (1789), Champ de Mars Massacre (1791), the 10 August 1792 storming of the Tuileries Palace, and the September Massacres. He was also on bad terms with the majority of the politicians (particularly with Jean-Paul Marat) and spent much of his time in prison partly because many authorities thought him as an agitator and accused him of inciting insurrection. Arrested for the first time for trying to force an entrance into the club of the Cordeliers, from which he had been expelled, he was released, but was again imprisoned from 12 December 1793 to 21 September 1794 and again from 9 March to 26 October 1795. 

Pierre Victurnien Vergniaud – He was a lawyer, statesman, and significant figure of the French Revolution. He was indicted with 21 other Girondists for actions considered to be treasonable. On 31 October 1793 he and the Girondists were taken to the scaffolding singing Marseillaise (a revolutionary song), and he was guillotined last.

Pierre Vergniaud imprisoned at La Force Prison

Pierre Vergniaud. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Princess Marie Louise of Savoy, better known as the Princesse de Lamballe – She was Superintendent of the Household for Marie Antoinette, and because of her relationship with the royal family, she, similar to Madame de Tourzel, found herself imprisoned at La Force. She became one of the first victims of the September Massacres and died on 3 September 1792.

Princesse de Lamballe in the Drouot catalogue by Élisabeth Louis Vigée Lebrun. Courtesy of Drouout.

Anne d’Arpajon, comtesse de Noailles – She was a French noblewoman and court official who served as the dame d’honneur for Marie Leszczyńska and Marie Antoinette, who called her “Madame Etiquette” for her insistence that no minutia of court etiquette ever be altered or disregarded. On 25 August 1793, the de Noailles and their daughter were placed under house arrest and on 16 October Anne and her husband were transferred to the La Force Prison. They asked that their daughter be transferred with them, but this was not granted. However, on 5 April 1794, they were joined by their daughter-in-law and niece, Louise de Noailles, as well as her grandmother and mother, Catherine de Cossé-Brissac and Henriette Anne Louise d’Aguesseau, who was also the widow and daughter-in-law of Philippe’s brother Louis, 4th duc de Noailles. Anne and her husband Philippe were guillotined on 27 June 1794. On 22 July 1794, their daughter-in-law Louise de Noailles, as well as their sister-in-law and niece, Catherine de Cossé-Brissac and Henriette Anne Louise d’Aguesseau, were guillotined.

Anne d’Arpajon, comtesse de Noaille called Madame Etiquette. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Simon-Nicolas-Henri Linguet – This French journalist and advocate not only served time at La Force but also was thrown into the Bastille. During his incarceration there, he wrote a book about his experiences. He later retired to Marnes-la-Coquette to escape the Reign of Terror (6 September 1793 – 28 July 1794) but was arrested, condemned to death, and guillotined on 27 June 1794. 

Simon Nicolas Henri Linguet. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

After the French Revolution, La Force underwent several changes. For instance, La Petite Force was evacuated between 1801 and 1804 due to sewer issues. La Grande Force and Petite Force were then united in 1830 under the same management. At that time the prison began to hold only male offenders committed for trial. These male offenders were divided and housed in two groups: older more hardened offenders and younger more innocent offenders.

Construction of the Mazas Prison, which was located near the Gare de Lyon, began in 1845. This resulted in La Force being demolished. Thus, today, the only remaining sign of La Force is a small section of wall that adjoins the Historical Library of the City of Paris in the historically significant 4th arrondissement, see illustration to the below. (Note the historical plaque. These were first installed in 1993 and now can be found all over the city.)

Remaining Column of La Force Prison, Close-up Detail of Wall, and Histoire de Paris Plaque

Remaining column of La Force Prison, close-up detail of wall, and histoire de Paris plaque. Author’s collection.

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