An Ordinary Woman Faces Prison for her Comments
This petition from the wife of a wigmaker in Paris demonstrates both the volatility of the political situation (she went to jail for badmouthing a local official while standing in line at a food market) and the conditions in prison.
This 25 Fructidor, Second Year [11 September 1794] of the French Republic, One and Indivisible,
Citoyenne Anne Felicité Guinée, twenty-four years old, married to Citizen Fillastre, a wig maker on rue des Vieilles Auduette, no. 3, Section de l'Homme Armé, informs you that she was arrested on [22 Germinal] at the Place des Droits de l'Homme, where I [sic] had gone to get butter. I point out to you that for a long time I have had to feed the members in my household on bread and cheese and that, tired of complaints from my husband and my boys, I was compelled to go wait in line to get something to eat. For three days I had been going to the same market without being able to get anything, despite the fact that I had waited from 7 or 8 A.M. until 5 or 6 P.M. After the distribution of butter on the twenty-second, some citizens said to me, "Are you still here?" I replied, "For three days I have been coming without getting the least thing." A citizen came over to me and said that I was in very delicate condition. To that I answered, "You can't be delicate and be on your legs for so long. I wouldn't have come if there were any other food." He replied that I needed to drink milk. I answered that I had men in my house who worked and that I couldn't nourish them with milk, that I was convinced that if he, the speaker, was sensitive to the difficulty of obtaining food, he would not vex me so, and that he was an imbecile and wanted to play despot, and no one had that right. Here, on the spot, I was arrested and brought to the guard house. I wanted to explain myself. I was silenced and was dragged off to prison, where I was left for six hours without anyone's asking whether I needed anything. About 7 P.M. I was led to the Revolutionary Committee of Section des Droits de l'Homme, where I was called a counterrevolutionary and was told I was asking for the guillotine because I told them I preferred death to being treated ignominiously the way he was treating me. I asked to write to my husband. I was refused. I saw a citizen wig maker whom I begged, in low tones, to go alert my husband.
When my husband arrived, he was told that he was not needed. He went to Section de l'Homme Armé. Two commissaires, the commissaires de police et d'accapparement, reclaimed me. It [the Revolutionary Committee of Section des Droits de l'Homme] informed the commissaires that a counterrevolutionary could not be returned, and the commissaires answered that they had never known me to be such. About midnight my procès-verhal was read to me. I was asked if I knew whom I had called a despot. I answered, "I didn't know him," and I was told that he was the commander of the post. I said that he was more [a commander] beneath his own roof than anyone, given that he was there to maintain order and not to provoke bad feelings. During this [time] one of the members called me a counterrevolutionary and an aristocrat. I answered that I was surprised that he insulted me that way and that even though I was a prisoner, they had to respect me.
From the answers in my procès-verhal I was told that I had done three times more than was needed to get the guillotine and that I would be explaining myself before the Revolutionary Tribunal. The next day, I was taken to the Revolutionary Committee of my Section, which without waiting to hear me, had me taken to the Mairie, where I stayed for nine days without a bed or a chair with vermin and with women addicted to all sorts of crimes who wanted everything from me. And when I complained, they put a knife to my throat. One day a bakeress who was under arrest for having given out bread without a [ration] card said, in tears, that she would have done better to throw her bread away than to give it away without a card. Despair prompted her to speak so. Three prisoners called me and asked me whether I wanted my liberty. My first impulse was to say yes. They told me, "You have heard what the bakeress just said. We will denounce her before the Revolutionary Tribunal, and we will have our liberty. I said that I would have my liberty because justice owed it to me, but that I would prefer death to having [liberty] at the expense of the liberty or the life of anyone else. I warned the bakeress to be more circumspect, and from that moment I became their sworn enemy. There was no longer any rest for me, and they invented all kinds of things to inflict pain on me, and I was told my head would roll, by decree.
One evening, eight or nine days after my arrest, I wrote a letter to my husband to ask him for linen and for money. In the morning I gave it to a female commissaire. I told her, "Have it read by the administrators." And I gave her some money for taking it to its address. Neither my husband nor myself ever heard anything more about this letter, and we do not know what became of it.
On the ninth day I was transferred to the prison of La Force, and I had to sleep on straw, as I had no money, and I was asked for fifteen sous on the first night. I said that whenever I received the money, I would give it to them. I wrote to inform [people] where I had been transferred. My letters were intercepted. In the evening I was getting ready to sleep in the same room I had slept in the previous evening. With the lowest of inhumanity, they came to take me away. It was useless for me to beg, shed tears, and say that I would not be without money for long. It was all useless, and I was placed in a room for troublemakers [? in French chambre des galleasse]. The next day, when the commissaire brought my food from the house, I wanted to give [them] a letter. One of the turnkeys pushed me back with such brutality that I was unable to hand over my letter. In the end, . . . my husband received only two of them. I received some money. I had to give it to the authorities for the room with straw where I had slept. I was already being threatened, and I would have been attacked had I not given over everything that was being asked. I went into my cell, and in spite of the fact that I had paid for my bed, I still had to hand over money to this same woman who had me put into the room for troublemakers.
In the end I can give you only the very slightest idea of all the horrors that are committed in these terrible prisons. The details would take too long. I was thrown together not with women but with monsters who gloried in all their crimes and who gave themselves over to all the most horrible and infamous excesses. One day, two of them fought each other with knives. Day and night I lived in mortal fear. The food that was sent in to me was grabbed away immediately. That was my cruel situation for seventeen days. My whole body was swollen from chagrin and from the poor treatment I had endured; finally, on the seventeenth day I was called to appear before the municipal police. How taken aback I was when I heard the national guardsman say that I was charged with having made remarks that were unbecoming to a citizen [and] tended to stir people up in the Place des Droits de l'Homme. I was stricken to the point that it was impossible for me to speak a word, and I lost the use of my senses. My case had been placed before the correctional police while I was under arrest. The General Assembly of my Section named commissaires to work for my liberation. The condition I was in gave my husband and my relatives reason to believe I was pregnant. A brief was presented, and this was mentioned, and that was the reason I obtained my provisional discharge on double bail.
From this period on I have been ill continually. I had bile in my blood, and I have had a great deal of difficulty restoring my health. I am informing you that I am the mother of a family and that I have not stopped being persecuted by fate, considering that my husband lost his position and the little he had saved from his work. This most recent trial has just crowned our misfortune because of the expenses my detention gave rise to and [because of] my illness, and I find myself overwhelmed on all sides. For a long time now I have been looking for a position, in view of the fact that my husband's situation has deteriorated. I cannot find anything. My conduct is free of all reproach. I have always comported myself following republican principles, and I have always sought to merit the esteem [due] a good citizen.
I count on your justice to get a definitive judgment handed down as speedily as possible for my tranquility and for that of the two citizens who are posting bail for me, and I dare flatter myself that your humanity will not view with indifference the fate which overwhelms me and that it "humanity" will do everything possible to obtain a position for me or whatever employment seems suitable to you. That would give me and my family the means to subsist. I am counting on your justice and your humanity.
Salut et fraternité written by me, [signed] femme Filhastre
From Women in Revolutionary Paris, 1789–1795, edited and translated by Darline Gay Levy, Harriet Branson Applewhite, and Mary Durham Johnson. Copyright 1979 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with the permission of the University of Illinois Press, 267–270.