In a city the size of Paris, where history goes back a thousand and more years, it is only fitting that we should spend some time at the burial sites of the dead. There are, of course, a good many famous burial sites in Paris, but there is no sadder one than the little ground at the end of the Chapelle Expiatoire, which is also sometimes known as the “Saddest Spot in Paris.”
The little park on which this chapel stands is located on a little open space, bordered by the Boulevard Haussmann, the narrow Rue des Maturins, and the even nar rower Rues Pasquier and d’Anjou. In 1862 this little square was named after Louis XVI, but the chances are that, if you should ever ask a Parisian to direct you to it, he would probably have to think twice before he could tell you. The little square is completely surrounded by business houses and is, in itself, quite insignificant. And yet, it is one of the spots in Paris that has a deep historical significance, for it was on this square, or rather in the little walled in garden that stands in the middle of it, that the thirteen hundred forty-three known victims who were guillotined on the Place de la Concorde in 1793, as well as the members of the Swiss Guard a thousand of them who gave their lives in defense of the king during the storming of the Tuileries, were interred. Actually, according to a little circular which you may obtain from the concierge, the number of victims buried here, both known and unknown, and again excluding the Swiss Guard, amounts to twenty-eight hundred thirty. Can there, in all the world, be another spot where such a diverse group of people are buried in one grave?
Surrounding the little garden planted with roses, grown as standards, are the eighteen granite tombs of the Swiss Guard, nine on each side, which form the outside walls of the enclosure. These tombs originally contained inscriptions, but these were smashed by the Communards of 1871, and in order not to arouse more antagonisms, they were never replaced. To gain entrance to this garden you will have to apply to the concierge at the Rue Pasquire end of the garden. She will then open the gate and take you through the garden and into the little chapel at the end of it. At the end of the row of tombs of the Swiss Guard are the tombs of Charlotte Corday at the right, and the tomb of Philippe Egalite he who tried to carry water on both shoulders and paid for it with his head-on the left. There is also a separate tomb of the murdered Marat, not too far from that of Charlotte, who, put him out of his misery. Besides the tombs of the King and the Queen, and these are in the chapel, these are the only tombs of people that can be identified, and even these differ but slightly from the tombs of the Swiss. Guard.
The circumstances which make this burial groundone can hardly call it a cemetery the saddest spot in Paris are, of course, the manner in which the bodies of the decapitated victims were disposed of. About the year 1722, a little cemetery had been established on this spot, which, in those days, was not, of course, as built up as it is today. It was not connected with the nearby Madeleine Church, for this church was not built until many years later. But when the guillotine began its grisly work on the Place de la Concorde, then of course still known as the Place de la Republic, it became necessary to find some nearby spot where the bodies of these victims could be disposed of, and the little open space along what is now the Boulevard Flaussmann, looked like the nearest place to it.
Accordingly, a huge pit was dug in the center of this plot, and when you are walking down the path which divides the two lawns, you will be walking right over the mass-grave of these headless bodies. Thither these bodies were brought after they had been thrown helterskelter into blood dripping carts-men and women, rich and poor, the pious and the impious, scientist and scholar, nobleman and upstart, the innocent as well as the guilty, all are here, below your feet, interred in one mass-grave. Of course, no one will ever be able to tell for certain just who is buried here and who isn’t, for after 1794 some of the bodies were also taken to a little burial site near the Parc Monceau. But of this burial site there is now no trace left. Among these bodies would, presumably, have been the bodies of Madame Elizabeth, Robespierre and Malesherbes. Who will ever be able to tell?
However, since we generally like to think of the dead when we visit their graves, it may not be entirely inappropriate to recall to you the names of some of the more prominent men and women who were executed on the Place de la Concorde during these terrible times, and the manner in which they went to their deaths. Starting with the year 1793, the year in which Louis XVI was executed, we have first, Charlotte Corday who surrendered her life on July 17 because she took one-that of Marat, who would, no doubt, ultimately have found his way to the guillotine anyway; as did all the others. Then, on October 16, at a quarter past twelve came Marie Antoinette, aged only thirty-eight and already grey. Next, on October 31 ,came the twenty-one Girondists there were twenty-two, but one of them had committed suicide while they were still imprisoned in the Conciergerie. All of them were brilliant young men, and in the bloom of youth. The crime they were accused of was of having been moderates. Sentence was pronounced on them at ten P.M. the night before, and they were executed the day after one after the other. “I die,” said one of them Lasource to his judge, “when the people have lost their reason; you will die on the day they recover it.” Then came a man of some importance, Philippe Egalite, the Duke of Orleans, whom we met at the Palais-Royal yesterday and who died as carefree as he had lived. He had voted for the death of the King and now his own turn had come, as were the turns of others in time. He mounted the scaffold on the afternoon of November 6. When Sanson, the executor, noted the quality of his boots, he asked him to remove them, to which Philippe smilingly replied that they would come off much easier after. Two days later, on November 8, came Madame Roland, a woman of great culture. Her ,crime was having entertained the twenty-two Girondists at her salon. And then, an December 7, the Terror reached Madame Du Barry who had outlived Madame de Pompadour as the mistress of Louis XV and was then already fifty years of age. She was guillotined the same day she was condemned.
But the end is not yet. The Terror goes on into the next year. On March 24 the prophecy of the Giorondist Lasource comes true and the head of Hebert, the man who had clamored loudest for their execution, falls into the wicker basket. And April 5 takes the head of Camille Desmoulins, four years and ten months after the populace had acclaimed him at the Cafe Foy. His age was thirty-four. With him in the same tumbril, went the giant Danton, whom they called “The Mountain.” His age was. thirty-five. Five days later the same fate overcame Camille’s gentle wife Lucile on the accusation of having tried to help her husband escape, as what woman wouldn’t from such a fate. But that still is nothing. Wait and hear what follows. April 23 saw the execution of Malesherbes, the lawyer who had dared to defend Louis XVI at his trial. And for this noble man, sans-culottism had reserved all of its fury. Before the poor man was strapped to the guillotine he was made to witness the execution of his sonin-law, his daughter, and his grandchildren, also for no, other reason than that they were related to him. And now we have only two more names to mention, and both of them important. On May 10, Madame Elizabeth, the King’s sister, followed her brother to the guillotine, and with the same composure. Not so Robespierre, who was, already half dead after he reached the Place de la Concorde. We are told that after his head fell into the basket,. shout after shout went up in approval of his execution. He, too, was only thirty-six when the end came, and with it, the end of the Reign of Terror. As Carlyle says near the close of the chapter dealing with this period, “May God be merciful to him, and to us.” The date was July 28, 1794.
There was a lull then for a little while, but chopping off people’s heads still did not seem to produce the much needed bread. Insurrection raised its ugly head once more in the district of Saint Antoine, and this time the fury of the people was directed against none other than Fouquier Tinville, the man who had been public prosecutor for the Revolutionary Tribunals. For nearly two years this man’s job had been to make up the lists of prisoners patches they called them-who were to be executed each day. He had been a remarkably methodical and coldblooded man, whom neither tears nor entreaties could move to pity. When he was tried, his excuse was that he had merely carried out orders, an excuse which sounds all too familiar today. He was sent to the guillotine on May 7, 1795. His remains were probably not buried here, but wherever they are, I am sure that neither you nor I care.
More by accident than anything else the bodies of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette were buried in separate graves, near the Rue d’Anjou end of the garden, though the Queen had to wait nine months after the death of her husband for her turn. It so happened that a Royalist lawyer who lived on this street, directly opposite to this spot, had witnessed many of these interments and when the bodies of the King and the Queen were brought here, he made a note of the spot where they were buried. In 1796, this loyal gentleman purchased the little plot where the little chapel now stands, and probably without telling anyone the reason, planted two weeping willows and four ,cypresses on the spot. The bodies remained in this place until 1815, when Louis XVIII had them removed-or what little remained of them-to the royal sepulchre at Saint Denis. It was also he who erected the chapel. However, since all these bodies were buried without coffins, only the two skulls and the femurs could be found and, sadly enough, the metal parts of the Queen’s garters.
Inside the chapel are two marble groups, the one on the right showing Louis XVI, with an angel pointing toward heaven standing beside him; the other-the one on the left-showing Marie- Antoinette being comforted by Religion, whose face is that of Madame Elizabeth. Engraved in gold letters on a black marble slab at the base of the King’s statue is his last will. There is a similar slab at the base of the Queen’s statue showing her last letter, which was addressed to Madame Elizabeth, the most moving words of which are, perhaps, the following: “May my son never forget the last wishes of his father. I expressly ask him that he may never seek to avenge our deaths.” This sentiment differs considerably from what were probably the last spoken words of Roberspierre, who, on being taunted by a strumpet as he was being carted to the guillotine, already half dead from having been shot in the jaw the day before, slowly opened his eyes and snarled, “Scelerat. Go to hell.” But this, I admit, I take from Carlyle. However, the poor mother might have saved herself the trouble of admonishing her son. The little Dauphin, then a sweet little boy of ten, was taken from her when she was imprisoned in the Temple and never heard of again, although there is considerable historical evidence that a shoemaker and his wife, in whose care he had been placed, got to love him so much that, knowing the danger he was in, they smuggled him out of the Temple and substituted a deaf mute for him. Had he come to the throne, he would have been Louis XVII, but history never heard of him thereafter. In the crypt of the chapel there is a very ornate marble sarcophagus, which marks the exact spot where the bodies of the King and the Queen were found-or what remained of them.
All this information you can take from the little circular in French, called “Histoire du Square Louis XVI,” which you may obtain from the concierge for a few cents. You can also purchase a circular which gives the King’s last letter, addressed to Madame Elizabeth. The King’s testament is dated December 25, 1792, at the Temple; the Queen’s letter is dated October 16, 1793, at four thirty A.M. at the Conciergerie, or but a few minutes after she had been condemned. This letter, by the way, never reached the King’s sister. It was found between the mattresses of Robespierre’s bed, after he, too, had been executed. But that is not all yet. The poor woman came very close to not being buried at all. Her headless body lay for two weeks unburied on the ground, someone having forgotten to advance the money for her burial, until the grave-digger Joly, took it upon himself to bury her. For this he later presented a bill to the Government for twenty francs.
Perhaps, after reading all this you may not even care to stop off at this burial ground. Architecturally, there isn’t very much to see there. In all of these articles I have religiously avoided sending you to spots where something important happened but of which there is now no longer any trace left, for I never could see much sense in going out of the way to see where a famous building once stood only to find a modern laundry or a supermarket in its place. So, since I have told you everything there is to know about this chapel, why don’t you content yourself with that, and taxi to the Parc Monceau directly from your hotel.