The September Massacres of 1792
The September Massacres occurred because of the fear Royalist troops, supported by foreign armies and mercenaries, would attack and obtain the support of citizens in overwhelming the Republicans and revolutionaries. Of particular concern to the Republicans was the large number of prisoners held in the cells of Paris, obviously no friends of the Revolution. If they were set free they would undoubtedly provide aid to the Royalists. Although the worst of the massacres was in Paris, there were mass killings in other cities.
When the Prussian Army crossed the frontier into France it issued the Brunswick Manifesto, which demanded that France restore the King to the throne, the authority of the Catholic Church, and the laws which existed before the onset of the Revolution. As the Prussians advanced into France the mobs in Paris, many of which were armed National Guard troops, began raiding the prisons and jails of the city, removing and executing those prisoners who were not killed on the spot in their cells. The city and national government stood by without interfering.
By that time the law was that Catholic priests were required to swear an oath submitting to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, which placed their first loyalty to the civil authorities of the Revolutionary government rather than Rome. Those priests who had not done so were called nonjuring priests, and many were jailed. Before September 6 more than 200 of these nonjuring priests were killed by the mob in Paris, part of more than half all those imprisoned whom the mobs killed. Within Paris there were about 1,400 prisoners killed in the massacres.
The prisoners who were removed from their cells were taken before hastily established tribunals which offered them quick trials before condemning them to death. They were then escorted into the prison courtyard and executed. More than 100 Swiss Guards, mercenaries who served as guards of the King and Queen, had been imprisoned for the crime of doing so. They were summarily tried and executed. In a few instances the tribunals released prisoners, mostly for the amusement of the crowds, but the prisoners were executed by the waiting mobs anyway.
When the Minister of Justice, Georges Danton, was informed of the slaughter of the prisoners and asked what should be done to bring the mobs under control he responded, “To hell with the prisoners! They must look after themselves.” Nearly all of the aristocrats and nobles being held in the Paris prisons were executed, including one of the closest friends of Marie Antoinette, the Princesse de Lamballe. Lamballe had been one of the ladies of the French court who had been so smitten with Benjamin Franklin during his stay in Paris during another, earlier Revolution. Another 53 nobles were tried and executed at nearby Versailles.