The Child Martyrs


enfant de la rue

The Child Martyrs[1]

“The child has been, until now, more abused than an animal, more miserable than a beast.” Jules Vallès, Le Réveil, February 6, 1882.


At the beginning of the year 1882—that was 22 years ago, almost a quarter of a century—Vallès, whose disciple I was honored to be for the sincere conviction that he maintained, willfully, in financial difficulties and on the fringes of glory, for the exalted honesty of his conscience that matched his actions to his words, which in him equaled talent, this Vallès, I say, the designated protector of all the little Vingtras[2] run away from their brutal parents, set off to found the League of Children’s Rights.

The memberships flowed in. The first was from my friend Jean Bernard who was then a young lawyer in the court of appeals. In his letter he said, “I do not want to consider whether your project is legal, it is humanitarian and just—that’s enough for me.”

But it was not reason enough for others who were emotional but not rebellious. They wanted to do something philanthropic but without violating the Roman tradition subsisting in our law, without affecting the authority of the pater familias. In spite of everything, a little of Brutus’ soul survived in these good people. Hence the failure of the enterprise, the impossibility of doing anything to create stability out of a jumble of such diverse elements. Didn’t someone dare, at the third meeting, to propose the precondition of asking the Préfecture de Police for authorization, while another, as urgent as he was practical, wanted them to guarantee the reception of the endowment that made up the social fund!

Since then, the Child Rescue Society (10** Rue de Richelieu) has been founded. It does a great service, but has never for a minute had the idea of registering among its honorary members the name of the writer whose work and initiative paved the way for them.

But he was not counting on gratitude. He found his reward in his own efforts, the accomplishment of a duty that he laid out for himself, of a task that he accepted in the dreadful days of his youth—under his mother’s whip and his father’s stick!

Counting on the crowd to storm this other Bastille, he wrote, “I myself had the honor of throwing the first board across the pit to make the bridge and launch the attack. If they demolish the law someday, it is because, like Maillart[3] on July 14, I will have incited men of action and women of heart. But the push to overthrow the iniquity will have been given by everyone.”

“Everyone”, that is to say that public opinion is involved, in fact… but only lackadaisically. But in twenty-five years, for the serious cases, only some parental restrictions have been made. And that’s it.

No forceful action, no great intervention has happened for the torture victims of the nursery. They have not striven to foresee or transform the mentality of parents toward their offspring who are not their property, or to call forth the specter of responsibilities, the guarantee for the victims.

The public sentiment is content to whine and complain every time a “petit Grégoire”[4] is found; they cry, they pity, they scream out in horror at the details of the torture; the neighbors (who did nothing and told no one) send wreaths; the neighborhood goes into mourning; the Parisian smart set of the serial novels follow the funeral—where the authorities are represented—and the press pours out a stream of denial.

Then one fact after another: something else to touch the heartstrings turns up.

And the old Law is still standing, incomplete, primitive, obsolete, fierce toward the weak and mild toward the strong.


So, after this they are surprised to see us in heated discussion about the present state of the law and about our customs, the question of repopulation conceivable only on the day when all those who are already born are in need of nothing; when the search for paternity will be allowed; and the maternity out of marriage will no longer be a synonym for dishonor and illegality; when, finally, the children unfortunately born outside that natural maternal instinct will be protected against the bad luck of their birth, shielded from the results of the mistake.

Doesn’t the daily record support this argument? I was talking the other day about how there are too many litters that are refused a kennel. Well, then, in the mail yesterday I received a letter from a teacher in Paris. She told me about the case of a family with five kids. The rent was paid, four kids are in school and the last one is just a two-month old baby—and yet they were evicted. “Too many children”, the landlord said. And since the father is sick and the mother (selling fruits and vegetables out of a basket) has to earn a living for seven people and since nobody has agreed to take the clan, the poor woman sees no other choice but to tether her offspring behind her and take the plunge together. This will make a great piece of news. The funeral will be magnificent; big-hearted society will take in the crippled—and it will treat as subversive those, like me, who shake their fists!

Just as tact means being astonished and touched and nothing more by the discovery of Rue Rameau. Hey, it can’t be, another child martyr? Isn’t it over yet? Isn’t the list finished? Do there have to be mean, stubborn people?

Well, yes, but if the man is an alcoholic, if the man is crazy, what recourse does a victim have? Here the butcher is not the father, it is the benefactor. His godfather, on the recommendation of the brothers of the Christian schools of Saint Fraimbault, has entrusted him to the orphanage in Guérin—and Guérin has made this twelve-year old creature into a “beast of burden”!

Why would this be disturbing? It happens all the time, I’ll say again, these dramas in which they destroy the life, health and mind of fragile beings.

I am, you know, from the school of action. More than theories, as noble as they may be, more than advocates, as eloquent as they may be, I appreciate the bold sobriety of an event. It says more in its concrete form than all rhetoric. It is nothing short of an irrefutable lesson, a proof that abolishes contrary arguments. It is the mirror of a time without the varnish of appearances, without the make-up of civilization.

And do you want a clear demonstration?

I won’t go back ages and ages, even though I have before me a file containing ten years of child martyrdom.

Let’s take one, if you want, just from this past year, just from the most memorable cases—and that they deigned to think so, as well as the secondary incidents, for those who have remained unknown, for those portray the neglected torments as scandals brought to light.

It is little Gaspard, a 27-month old baby who headed the parade in 1903. It was “accomplished” for his New Year’s present—and certainly, given the blows received and the food refused, his excellent mother could not have given him a better gift!

Two days later at La Chapelle-Thouarault, they discovered a 17-year old girl, whose mother had kept her locked up almost since birth. The poor child was in such a [bad] state that they had to cut off her toes, which were infected with gangrene; and later it was considered necessary to cut off both of her legs.

February 16 at La Flèche they discovered, in a bag of dirty laundry, something that was wailing. It was the little girl of the couple N… She was 15 years old but seemed like five. They had never given her more than or two sous worth of milk a day. The light of day shone through her skeleton.

March 2 at Rethel, there were two more little girls, two poor “lasses”, ten and six-years old. The younger girl was dead, weighing 25 pounds, her hipbones poking through her skin. The older girl had half an inch of louse in her hair. Panting breathlessly she told how her stepmother—very nice to her own four bambinos—made them sleep almost naked on dry leaves among their own excrement. Once, they went an entire week without eating and without drinking even water. When they were thirsty, they drank their urine.

April 2 in the 11th Court they tried a drunkard woman, the wife of D… Her three children, her three victims, were called to enumerate the abuses they suffered: knife wounds, hot irons, etc. Three years in prison—one year per head! It would not have been so steep if her plight were not so wild and depressing, maybe some alcoholic atavism, some morbid heredity.

In June it was little Eugène F, four years old, whose father and brother (not much older than him) both punished worse than the other. The police had been informed, but there was “not enough proof”. It was finally given in the body of the crime, that is the body of the child swimming in his own blood.

In July, August, September, October, you only had to bend down to pick up the news to add to this already too long list.

In November there is little Albert P., two years old, who had to be taken away from his parents and brought to the emergency in Trousseau. His older brother was pampered, spoiled and loved, but according to the report of Dr. Heick he was “covered in wounds and bruises.” It was his mother who took it out on him.

The same month in Nice they tried the parents of little Anna. One month and three months in prison: what a bargain!

Finally in December in Troyes they dug up the young Lucien C. He had been buried for two and half years—and the corpse spoke through all its festered lesions.


There you go—a very incomplete record of the year. It says a lot about our social state and proves once again how right Vallès was when he asked the Third Republic to finally recognize and proclaim the Rights of Children!


[1] In Séverine: Vie et combats d’une frondeuse, Evelyne Le Garree, L”Archipel, 2009.

[2] Jacques Vingtras was the main character in Vallès trilogy: L’Enfant (1879), Le Bachelier (1881) and L’Insurgé (1886)

[3] Stanislas-Marie Maillard (17-63-1794), revolutionary who participated in the taking of the Bastille on July 14 1789.

[4] From the song by Théodore Botrel in 1898.