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.