The Four Soldiers of the La Rochelle Conspiracy

In 1821, under the Bourbon Restoration, a sergeant-major named Jean-Francois Louis Leclerc Bories was in the 45th regiment. He was also garrisoned at Paris. While there, he was initiated into the society of the Carbonari, a group of secret revolutionary societies originally founded in Italy that influenced secret societies in France.

The society in France was an association of conspirators involving Liberals and Bonapartists who were against the Bourbon monarchy. Members were primarily recruited from military ranks, and Bories appealed to his comrades to join. Thus, he successfully initiated several other soldiers into the society’s ranks.

In January of 1822, the 45th regiment moved from Paris to La Rochelle, and while the regiment was in La Rochelle, the secret society was discovered. The discovery resulted in twenty-five men being arrested and accused of being part of a conspiracy to overthrow the restored Bourbon monarchy of Louis XVIII. Among those arrested and brought to trial were Bories, along with three other men — Jean-Joseph Pommier, Charles Goubin, and Marius-Claude Raoulx.

Four Accused Men of the La Rochelle Conspiracy, Public Domain

Four accused conspirators., Author’s collection.

In Paris, the liberal press reported on the trial. While the four conspirators became heroes in Italy, they were not considered heroes in France by those who supported Louis XVIII. On 21 September 1822, despite the four men refusing to admit guilt, all four were condemned for treason and sentenced to be executed.

Four Soldiers in the La Rochelle Conspiracy Receiving Their Sentence of Condemnation

Four Soldiers in the La Rochelle conspiracy receiving their sentence of condemnation. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The following day, the four condemned men were moved to the Conciergerie prison. They arrived early in the morning. In anticipation of their arrival, crowds had already assembled excited to get a look at the conspirators. Their cells at the Conciergerie were well furnished, and inside the cell was a working clock. Unfortunately for the prisoners, the clock chimed every fifteen minutes, thereby reminding “its unhappy tenants that their moments … [were] fast expiring.”[1]

The execution was to be carried out at the Place de Grève (now known as the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville). At one end, the scaffolding stood about five feet above the ground. Next to it were two wagons with two horses harnessed to each wagon. The executioner’s assistants had formed a temporary floor in each wagon with some rough planks, and on top of the planks was a basket, about six feet long, three feet wide, and deep enough to hold the bodies. A wooden box was placed near the guillotine to receive the heads as they were lopped off. Another nearby basket was filled with sand or saw dust to transfer the heads with the bodies to their final resting place.

At the Place de Grève a half-dozen mounted gendarmes were on duty and detachments of gendarmes were stationed within the quarter. The fatal cortège was to leave the Conciergerie and march to the Place de Grève, a parallelogram, at right angles to the Seine river, and about twice as long as Covent Garden. At two o’clock, five hundred soldiers marched into place and formed a square. Additionally, in anticipation of the execution, spectators crowded the foot path leading to the guillotine, and within two yards of the scaffolding, a number of women sat unaware “that they would be deluged with blood of the condemned at the moment of execution.”[2]

A Gendarme d'élite de la Garde Impériale, Courtesy of Wikipedia

A Gendarme d’élite de la Garde Impériale. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

At the Conciergerie, the prisoners were placed in two wagons and seated on boards. The first wagon contained the executioner, described as a “tall, elderly, decent looking man, wearing a fashionable blue silk handkerchief on his neck, and a black straw hat.”[3] Bories was in the same wagon wearing his regimental jacket, along with a clergyman and the prisoner Goubin. In the second wagon were the prisoners Raoulx and Pommier, accompanied by another clergyman. The condemned men wore no hats or cravats and each had their shirt collar loosened and open.

Fifteen minutes later, the wagons carrying the condemned left the Conciergerie accompanied by an escort. As the procession clipped along, the regular daily amusements were being conducted within twenty yards of the guillotine. There “officers were playing … billiards, the shops were open … showmen were exhibiting, and low gaming [occurred].”[4] An Englishman witnessing the spectacle reported:

“My heart sickened; but knowing that the transactions of the day would be scarcely noticed in the French journals, I roused myself and determined, if possible, to view the whole affair.”[5]

Location of La Rochelle, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Location of La Rochelle/ Courtesy of Wikipedia.

During the procession to Place de Grève the prisoners “looked round themselves incessantly, acknowledged acquaintances in the crowd, [making] loud remarks to each other; and Bories and Goubin repeatedly addressed the people, notwithstanding the efforts of the priests and the gendarmes to restrain them.”[6] Each clergyman also held a crucifix in his hand. They seemed “anxious to impress their unhappy charges with some sense of religion, but most certainly [their efforts occurred] without a particle of success.”[7]

When the clock struck five o’clock, the prisoners still had not arrived. By now, the Place de Grève was “filled with a dense crowd incapable of increase.”[8] Nearby spots were also crowded with people and included the “windows and tops of all the houses within view.”[9] Excitement filled the air, and when at last the fatal cortège was seen approaching, an announcement rang out accompanied by “shouts, plaudits, and clapping of hands.”[10] As the clock struck a quarter past five, the first gendarmes that formed the condemned men’s escort entered the Place de Grève to the universal cry, “hat off,” at which time “all heads were uncovered.”[11]

The wagons approached the scaffolding and halted at the foot of the scaffolding. The executioner descended from the cart first. He went to the guillotine and readied it. The condemned men, whose hands were tied behind their backs, seemed unperturbed by his preparations. In unison they rose, “threw a hasty glance round them, made some remarks loudly to each other and prepared in a hurried manner to quit the waggons.”[12]

A gentleman connected with ministry of justice advanced to the condemned men and made a final appeal. The clergymen also “redoubled their entreaties and exertions, but without effect; for those unfortunate young men appeared to have no feeling, than they were brought there to suffer, and that to have it over suddenly and expeditiously was the only thing desirable.”[13] Then the condemned men embraced one another.

Goubin then addressed his companions and flew up the stairs to the scaffolding. The executioner seized him, his assistants bound him to a plank, and the shout “Vive la Liberté” rang out, followed by “a general groan from 150,000 people announcing that he had ceased to live.”[14] Pommier was next. He had long whiskers and was “deemed a most intelligent and respected young man.”[15] He was also said to possess sang froid. Raoulx followed. Finally, Bories ascended, and as quickly as it began, the executions were over.

Postcard Illustration of the Four Men, (left to right) Bories, Raoulx, Goubin, and Pommier, Public Domain

Postcard illustration of the four men, (left to right) Bories, Raoulx, Goubin, and Pommier. Public domain.

The whole bloody event lasted no long than seven minutes from when the wagon entered the Place de Grève.

“The priests were departing — the crowd separating — the women, unmoved to tears, were making observations on the bloody scene — the executioner and his men were busied in disposing of the mangled bodies, and in dismantling the guillotine; [the two buckets of water that had been set aside were] poured … on the blood-stained pavement; the soldiers prepared to march: in short, at thirty-five minutes past five o’clock, the troops defiled, with drums beating, and few remained near the scaffold, save the gendarmes.”[16]

References:

  • [1] Burke, Edmund, The Annual Register, Or, A View of the History, Politics, and Literature for the Year, Volume 64, 1893, p. 180.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 181.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Ibid., p. 180.
  • [5] “Execution of the Rochelle Conspirators,” in Caledonian Mercury, 30 September 1822, p. 2.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Burke, Edmund, p. 181.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] Ibid., p. 182.
  • [13] Ibid.
  • [14] “Execution of the Rochelle Conspirators,” p. 2.
  • [15] Ibid.
  • [16] Burke, Edmund, p. 182-183.

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