Sort the Dead

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Fourmies Massacre

Sort the Dead[1]

I do not want to upset anyone, but really, I wonder where that editor’s head is who was ill-advised enough to offer the following consolation to the good people who were saddened by the shooting in Fourmies: “In the front rows among the dead there were, we can say now, women of very loose morals.”

One point and that is all. The charming conclusion is self-evident: the tragedy is not so awful, the catastrophe not so distressing and the sub-prefect Isaac should not be booed because the victims were not virgins!

The 145th regiment, which did the shooting, was a morality regiment, a vice squad. Commandant Chapus was a Public Health leader, even though he went a little overboard in his practices. And shelling out lead to the young people was simply a prelude to the distribution of pretty little cards with first and last names, age and complete civil status—the signs pinned to the murdered victims’ shrouds as their mothers had to spell out their names while tearing out their hair!

In fact it was just a roundup that was just a little more radical than the others. The hearse replaced the paddy wagon—which was more preferable for respectability and public health—the great Saint Lazare becoming the patron saint of the French regiment!

I have rarely read anything more detestable, including the famous saying of Monsieur Dumas fils about the tragic, random shootings during the repression in 1871. He tactfully called them “Females” because he did not want to talk about them “out of respect for the honest women whom they looked like…when they were dead”![2]

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At least he recognized that the Grim Reaper, an ironic equalizer of prejudices like it is of situations, makes all the scraps that have left life behind the same and the good, ignorant earth accepts all manure, not caring about where the flesh we give it to rot came from.

The pure have no more right to maggots than the perverse—and the mocking wind sows the abortive Rue[3] on the sepulcher of the fertile—it makes the orange tree spring up on bellies that knew nothing about uprightness.

But Le Temps is harsher than Monsieur Dumas fils and puts nature to shame for its disgraceful indulgence. It wants none of that troubling confusion, even after death. It gathers the corpses of the deceased on the field of massacre and before mourning them it sends them for a visit to the health clinic to determine what their moral standing was.

“Was this one a virgin? Ah, what a shame! And was this one a sinner? Good riddance!”

And they sort them in two: the bodies of the respectable dead and the bodies of those we should not respect. Le Temps mourns the first and I prefer not to say what it does to the others!

Then it counts them up and since the pile of “loose” women is much bigger than the other, its grief vanishes right away. Obviously the Fourmies affair is unfortunate, but not too unfortunate since we have learned about the behavior of these little hussies against whom the soldiers, after all, were probably just defending their virtue.

The girls were getting too close… poor lads!

Ah, if a monarchist newspaper or a religious newspaper had delivered this unprecedented sentence, Le Temps would be screaming about it at the top of their lungs! They would be protesting in outrage against the obscurantism of certain opinions, the intolerance of the Church and the lack of humanity of its reaction.

They would bring up ’89[4] and the immortal principles: equality before the law, the Rights of Man and all the wonderful things that make the Republicans today declare that it is certainly upsetting that the Lebel has made its debut on women and French women at that, but it is, after all, less upsetting than we might believe at first—since these women were not so well behaved!

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Poor girls! I was curious enough to reread the list of the dead and see again how old these inveterate sinners were.

Maria Blondeau, who held the “May” decorated with ribbons and flowers that was, along with the tricolor flag that the young man Giloteaux held, the banner of this rowdy demonstration of young girls—Maria Blondeau was fifteen years old. According to a witness, a bullet took the top of her skull off like the lid of a teakettle. But she was suspected of being a little more than just engaged to Giloteaux (reread the delightful story of Miette’s death in La Fortune des Rougon[5]), so Le Temps’ pity could not be given to her. Yet at fifteen, if you have done wrong, you have hardly had the time to do much wrong.

Ernestine Diot was shot four times, part of her head was also blown off and one of her eyes was plucked out. She was nineteen years old. Out of decency our colleague could not have any compassion for her either…she left behind a young child.

Louise Hublet, two bullets, twenty-one years old; Félicie Pennelier, one bullet, seventeen years old. They were both shot down at the same time as the first two. Should we feel sorry for them or not, according to the austere theory of Le Temps? I do not know.

As for young Bastain, seventeen years old, shot six times in the thigh and Elisa Dupont, twenty-five, shot in the knee and Elisa Lecomte, twenty-four, three bullets in her foot—I am also not informed. But for the last young woman, a question is raised. She was with a child, her child, who was two and a half years old. Was this child legitimate or not? If it was conceived in sin, the wounds and suffering of the mother do not matter much. But if it was the fruit of a legal marriage, ah!—the reporter from Le Temps would find this unlucky wound very regrettable and mourn the poor victim!

The same sorting needs to be done, of course, for the poor eleven, twelve and thirteen year old kids that they piled up in the Church Square like drowned cats on the riverbank. Did they or did they not have the stain of original sin? Had the mayor presided over the unions that gave birth to these children or not?

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I am dumbfounded at this reasoning. And all the common sense of the human race, all the feminine pity, all the bruised tolerance that my heart is full of is outraged and protests against this monstrous theory!

Life is a battlefield like any other where especially the people who claim to be representatives of the republican tradition should remove the wounded from the battlefield without distinction, without worrying about their past before they fell victim to their wounds.

Society makes prostitutes so that lucky women, called honest women, can enjoy virtue and cross the street without suffering the attacks of men. Society makes the poor so that the fortunate can have more than they need: excess, more than excess—luxury.

Every paving stone on our roads is a pauper’s heart that the dashing, pretty, gussied up herds of rich walk on!

If the dead at Fourmies were debauched—which they were not!—they would deserve even more pity since they had been sacrificed even before the shooting threw them on the only bed where they were allowed to sleep alone!

But they were poor girls who worked hard to earn a little money and who barely knew any other joy in their brief existence than the few caresses and embraces that the puritans of the Republic call a crime; and that they are using as a pretext to stop people’s grieving.

It is funny. The Mother Superior of the Sisters of Compassion at Fourmies did not think of this. The seventy-six year old nun washed and dressed the corpses with her own hands, closed their eyes (forever dead) leaned over them and with the sign of the cross gave them a motherly, contrite kiss on the forehead!

 

[1] Gil Blas, May 15 1891, and in Pages Rouges, 1893.

[2] Alexandre Dumas fils (1824-1895), the son of Alexandre Dumas père (1802-1870), writing about the Paris Commune.

[3] Also known as Herb-of-Grace, it was used to induce abortions.

[4] 1789.

[5] Novel of Emile Zola published in 1871.

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10-Soldiers and Spies

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Séverine4

The world of labor was in turmoil. Unions were forming and strikes were multiplying, but workers’ rights were slow to improve. So, the demonstrations organized for Labor Day on May 1 1891, the first such celebration of International Workers’ Day after the Haymarket Riot[1], were bigger and bolder. In Lyon they marched with red and black flags—red for the socialists, adopted during the 1848 Revolution, and black for the anarchists, which had been introduced by Louise Michel back in 1883. As the procession went to put wreaths on the graves of bygone revolutionaries there was a clash with police, shots were fired and casualties were numbered on both sides. Other disruptions occurred in Marseille, Toulouse and Bordeaux. Dynamite exploded in Nantes and Charleville doing little damage. But in a number of towns the workers did not even take to the streets; they just signed petitions. In Fourmies, however, tragedy struck.

Fourmies was a small town in Northern France at the height of its industrial development whose population consisted mainly of workers in the textile and glass factories. A strike was organized for an eight-hour workday and higher wages, which the owners of the factories had adamantly opposed. At the bequest of the mayor two infantry companies from the 145th regiment were brought in from nearby Avesnes. Armed with their brand new Lebel rifles (8mm bolt-action rifles that could shoot through walls, an innovation of General Boulanger when he was War Minister) three hundred soldiers faced off against fewer than two hundred unarmed strikers. Some stones were thrown at the uniforms and in retaliation they opened fire. Nine workers were killed at the front of the march—two men, four women and three children—and around forty wounded in less than a minute.

A few days after the massacre Le Temps published an article that tried to console its readers about the shooting: “In the front rows among the dead there were, we can say now, women of very loose morals.” Did they fire on a crowd of morals? Séverine vented her anger in “Sort the Dead”. For these men, every women who was not a housewife was a whore. And by leaving behind the traditional roles assigned to females, they left behind any protection or consideration that might be offered by society. But who was really at fault for this?

The public was certainly indignant and disillusioned once again about their security forces. Their peacekeeping brothers ceased for the moment to be brothers. But no one of the troop was ever found guilty of any misconduct. They were just following orders after all. On the other hand, the instigators of the strike, Hippolyte Culine the director of Guesde’s French Workers’ Party, and Paul Lafargue, the son-in-law of Karl Marx, were sentenced to prison for six years and one year respectively for “provocation to murder” or inciting the crowd to violence. Lafargue, however, skillfully used the tragedy to get elected deputy in Lille in November of that year and was thereupon released. He was the first Guesdist in the Chamber. Séverine, a long-time antagonist of Guesde since Le Cri, denounced his exploitation of the carnage—another source of her beautiful anger.

Séverine wrote these articles for L’Eclair because she was no longer collaborating with Le Gaulois. Her participation in the Padlewski affair six months earlier was unacceptable and they had cut her off. Padlewski? Of course. It was the talk of town at the end of 1890, a real cloak and dagger story right out of a spy novel.

On November 18 1890 in a Paris hotel room Stanislas Padlewski, a Polish nihilist, assassinated General Seliverstoff, the former chief of Russian secret police who was responsible for the repression of Polish revolutionaries fighting to free their country from Tsar Alexander III’s barbarous occupation. Padlewski fled and hid with friends in the city. It was the Russian socialist poet Procope Bazilisk who showed up at Séverine’s door one evening early in December; she did not know him, but they had friends in common. He asked her to help him find some money and get Padlewski out of France. She agreed, but how, seeing that he was wanted all over France? She thought of Georges.

Georges de Labruyère’s reputation as a duelist came in handy. Under the pretext of fighting a duel in Italy with Padlewski disguised as his second, they could sneak him over the border. To assuage his misgivings, Séverine convinced Georges that, besides helping a righteous cause, if he wrote about the adventure he would have all the publicity he dreamed of: the escape of a political criminal right under the nose of the French police and the Tsarist agents—what a report. He accepted and got a 2,000 F advance for the article to finance the expedition. For Séverine it was the first time she had done such a thing and far from being motivated by self-promotion she was compelled by justice—it was a political attack in a war of liberation.

It was a success. With Padlewski traveling as Dr. Wolf, they got to the Lyon train station where one of the chiefs recognized Georges. They joked about his upcoming duel and to make it easier for him to get his swords across the Italian border the chief wrote a letter to his colleague in Modane. Padlewski arrived safely in Italy and boarded a ship for the USA. Georges returned to Paris and published his “extraordinary report the likes of which have never been seen before”: “How I Helped Padlewski Escape” in L’Eclair on December 15 1890. It was a sensation.

It did not last. On December 24 Georges de Labruyère was summoned before the 9th correctional court of Paris and found guilty of aiding and abetting the escape of a murderer. Thirteen months in prison. Merry Christmas. Séverine was implicated as an accomplice, but no criminal charges were brought against her. However, since France was trying to woo Russia as an ally in the face of deteriorating Franco-Germanic relations, it was a very sensitive issue. To be an outspoken rebel was one thing, but to help a red terrorist against Holy Russia was quite another. With her lover in prison and her reputation now more vitriolic than ever, she was no longer a reliable profit and Le Gaulois let her go. Luckily Charles Cazet at L’Eclair welcomed her—she would never forget him for this favor.

Meanwhile, Georges did not have to rot in Mazas Prison for long. After one month the court of appeals acquitted him. He had got his publicity, but he did not get much work after that. And Padlewski? He lived in Texas under the name of Otto Hauser before committing suicide on October 4 in San Antonio. It was said the gun he used to shoot himself in the head had been given to him by Georges de Labruyère.

 

[1] See 4-Propaganda by Deed and “The Chicago Anarchists”.