The September Massacres happened because of exaggerated fears that foreign and royalist armies were posed to attack Parisians and France. Parisians thought inmates in local jails would be freed once the enemy arrive and that they would join the foreign and royalists armies to slaughter all Parisians. It was a fearful time and there was much overreaction by French citizens in response to what they were anticipating.
The lead up to the September Massacres happened on 10 August 1792 when an insurrection by revolutionaries caused the royal family to seek safety. They left the Tuileries Palace and three days later Louis and his family were imprisoned in the Temple, supposedly for their own safety. Tensions continued to build until the September Massacres began on 2 September and lasted through 7 September 1792. The killings were perpetrated by Fédérés (troops who volunteered for the French National Guard), Guardsmen (police reserve force), and Sans-culottes (common people of the lower classes) aided by the support of Gendarmes (national police force of France).
The first of the victims to be massacred were twenty-four non-juring priests who were being transported to the prison of the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. A mob attacked them as they attempted to enter the prison. George Granville Leveson-Gower, 1st Duke of Sutherland who was known as Earl Gower from 1786 to 1803 and who served as ambassador to Paris, sent a dispatch reporting on the attacks. Simon Schama, a well-known English historian, provides more details:
“A party of twenty-four priests taken there under armed escort from the mairie only just escape violent assault from the crowd at the rue de Buci. When they reached the prison, however, another crowd (possibly the same group that had attacked them earlier, swollen by reinforcements) demanded summary “judgement.” A grotesquely perfunctory interrogation was followed by their being pushed down the steps and into the garden, where their killers waited armed with knives, axes, hatchets, sabers and, in the case of a butcher (by trade) called Godin, a carpenter’s saw. In an hour and half, nineteen of the group were hacked to pieces. The five who survived to bear witness to the atrocity include the Abbé Sicard, who had been spared only through the intervention of a grocer National Guardsman named Monnot.”
Gower had been appointed ambassador in June 1790 at the age of 32. However, because Louis XVI was essentially under house arrest in the Tuileries Palace, Gower was unable to become “an ornament of the inner circle at Versailles,” like his predecessor, the Duke of Dorset. Gower therefore did not work closely with the royal family. Moreover, because he had no previous diplomatic experience, he was scarcely better equipped to handle the complexity of the French Revolution than his predecessor and so his main priority as ambassador was to send news about the French court back to Britain. Gower did so no matter how trivial, although he also reported on some popular “disturbances.” Nonetheless, he had little comprehension of the broader political climate and the importance of the events happening in France.
When the September Massacres broke out, Gower was in Paris and maintained that the scene was a “barbarity too shocking to describe.” He further stated that men were “pulled to pieces” and then continued:
“The same cruelties were committed during the night and continue this morning at all the other prisons of the town. Whey they have satiated their vengeance, which is principally directed against the refractory Priests, … it is hoped the tumult with subside, but as the multitude are perfectly masters, everything is to be dreaded. … It is impossible to describe to your Lordship the confusion and consternation which at present prevails here. The Prussians are advancing rapidly, they have already cut off the communication between the armies of Messrs Luckner and Dumouriez … Verden is fallen into the enemy’s hands.”
The frenzy spread. With the support of Gendarmes, the Fédérés, Guardsmen, and Sans-culottes struck against those incarcerated. More priests were executed — primarily by sans-culottes — and over the next few days mobs breached Paris prisons and demanded blood.
Gower’s same dispatch home also claimed that “four thousand” people had been killed. His numbers were grossly overestimated, and while the number of dead is still shocking, in actuality, estimates now show the number was closer to 1,400 people being condemned and executed by the Parisian tribunal. Moreover, among the dead where several hundred priests, a hundred Swiss guardsmen, and Marie Antoinette‘s friend and Superintendent of her household, the Princesse de Lamballe.
In response to the 1792 September Massacres, Paul R. Hanson, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and professor at Butler University, notes the response of people at the time:
“The initial reaction to the massacres was one of stunned acceptance. Many deputies adopted the attitude of Jean-Marie Roland, then minister of the interior, who described the massacres as a regrettable but necessary measure, ‘over which perhaps a veil must be drawn.'”
The Kentish Gazette had a completely different reaction to the September Massacres. The English newspaper published an article that was titled “French Fashions.” Here it is verbatim:
The hair dishevelled and dirty, ornamented with a THRUM-CAP, tied round with a RED GARTER OF WORSTED. The garments for the most part, spotted with a mixture, called the blood of their countrymen—SANS CULOTTES.
Their hair A LA BELLONA.—Gowns half torn off,—owing, we suppose, to their frequent engagements; short petticoats, and sagged half boots, a dagger on one side, and musket on the other. The lower class of women have spits, which, it is said, they wield with uncommon dexterity.
CURTESIES are entirely out of fashion, the French Ladies holding it to be against the new system of LEVELLING, for any one to kneel to another; the common way of salutation is, therefore, either by a fist clenched, or a kiss,—as love or hatred may inspire.
A good coat, a waistcoat, a pair of breeches, a shirt, a pair of stockings, a pair of shoes, a powdered head, a cockaded hat, murder in their looks, an assassin’s dagger in their pockets. The men without a principle of honour, honesty or virtue: The women divested of charity, tenderness, and humanity.
A tattered coat, ragged waistcoat, broken breeches, sleeves without a body, long ruffles, dirty stockings, high cocked hat, worsted cockade; the sallow tinge of horror in their looks, and the internal agents of remorseless cruelty in their bosoms.
SANS COAT, SANS VESTE, SANS CULOTTE, the instruments of fortune in their hands, hell in their countenances, and blood and massacre in their ideas. The men worse than beasts of prey—the women more savage than the tygresses of the forest.
Schama also maintains of the carnage:
“A drawing by [artist Etienne] Béricourt represents, all too graphically, the administrative banalization of mass murder. At bottom right an official swatch in a tricolor sash, inspects the disposal of bodies while a figure beside him makes notes in a register. To their right stands a vainqueur de la Bastille [a man like Philippe Mathé Curtius, Madame Tussaud’s mentor] recognizable from his helmet while another gazes unconcernedly at the severed head. On the cart the men are plainly enjoying their work.”
-  Schama, S., Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, 1989, p. 633.
-  Browning, Oscar, etal., The Despatches of Earl Gower, English Ambassador at Paris from June 1790 to August 1792, 1885, p. xvii.
-  Ibid., p. 223.
-  Ibid., p. 223-224.
-  Hanson, P.R., The A to Z of the French Revolution, 2007, p. 295.
-  “French Fashions,” in Kentish Gazette, 2 October 1792, p. 2.
-  Schama, S., p. 637.