Summer 2006


Sabotaging the Committee of Public Safety

Ben Kafka

Engraving of Robespierre laid out on the table at the Committee of Public Safety, waiting to be taken to the guillotine on the morning of 10 Thermidor.

In 1802, two journalists, Étienne and Martainville, published a history of the French theater since the beginning of the Revolution. One of its footnotes told a strange story. During the final months of the Terror, following a performance of a stage adaptation of Richardson’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded perceived as counter-revolutionary, the Committee of Public Safety had decided to send the members of the Comédie Française to be judged by the Revolutionary Tribunal. The crowds had gathered to watch these celebrities escorted from the prison to the courtroom for a sentence that would surely be severe. But they never showed up. The trial had been postponed because the paperwork was missing. Étienne and Martainville reported that the actors and actresses had been rescued by “a simple employee of the Committee of Public Safety named Charles-Hippolyte Labussière, who, risking his life, removed all the documents.” Not only had he removed these documents, he had destroyed them “in the most ingenious way.” Labussière “went to the baths, soaked all of the documents until they were almost reduced to paste, and then launched them, in small pellets, through the window of the bathing room into the river.” The Terror came to an end before new papers could be drawn up. The note concluded by claiming that the members of the Comédie Française had not been the only ones rescued by this clerk: “More than two hundred people owe him their existence.”[1]

Interest was piqued. Within months of the book’s publication, a letter appeared in the widely read Journal des Débats elaborating on the footnote. The letter was signed “J. C. T.,” initials that probably belonged to Joseph-Charles Trouvé, former editor of the quasi-official newspaper Le Moniteur Universel, later a diplomat and prefect—in other words, a man of considerable credibility.[2] After reading the footnote, he had sought out Labussière in person. Trouvé was now writing this account of his meeting “as a monument to the cruelty of men and the humanity of a simple individual to whom we owe the preservation of more than twelve hundred victims condemned to perish for their virtues, their wealth, or their talents.” His version of the story is worth quoting at length:

Charles-Hippolyte Labussière entered into the Committee of Public Safety’s Prisoners Bureau as a copy clerk three and a half months before 9 Thermidor. This Prisoners Bureau provided information concerning prisoners throughout the Republic and served as a depository for documents delivered to the Popular Commission, by order of the Committee of Public Safety, so that they could be handed over to the Revolutionary Tribunal. Labussière was the clerk to whom the documents came last, to be numbered and registered. Every day, at two in the afternoon, he would give them to a member of the Popular Commission, who was instructed to take them from his hands without giving him a receipt. Forty-eight hours later the detainees were judged, which is to say, sent to the scaffold.

Labussière, from the very first moment of his entry into the Prisoners Bureau, had already conceived of his project to use his position in favor of as many victims as he could save. Every day he had twenty to twenty-five documents to give to the commission. He began first by removing the Sénéchal family, Madame Leprestre de Château-Giron and her two daughters. During the first six days he was content to hide the documents. However, since the volume began to grow too large, and since he could neither take them out during the day, nor keep them hidden, he imagined a way to make them disappear during the night. He would thus return to the Committee of Public Safety at one o’clock in the morning, while the members of the committee were deliberating. He would climb up to his office, go to his hiding-place, take the documents, soak them in a bucket of water, and make six or seven balls out of the paste, which he would put in his pockets. Towards six o’clock in the morning he would go to the baths, where he would soak these same balls of paper some more, since they had already hardened because of the extreme heat (it was the early days of Messidor). He would subdivide them into smaller balls which he would then toss into the Seine through the window of his bath.

This letter built towards the night of 27 June when Labussière discovered the documents concerning the trial of the members of the Comédie Française. Narrowly evading detection, he succeeded in destroying their dossiers and saving French theater. The letter concluded by mentioning that after the coup of Thermidor, which brought an end to the Terror, Labussière had continued to work to liberate political prisoners.[3]

Thanks to this footnote, Labussière was on his way to celebrity. In 1802 his portrait appeared in the Salon. And in the spring of 1803 the Comédie Française, after several false starts, staged a performance of Hamlet for his benefit at the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin—the first performance of the play in France in nearly twenty years.[4] The performance was attended by First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte himself, in the company of Josephine, another prisoner during the Terror whom he was credited with having rescued. A letter of gratitude from Labussière appeared in the theatrical paper Le Courrier des Spectacles. This appears to be the only version of his story written in his own words:

During this bloody period, horrible to remember, I had the pleasure of saving many victims from the revolutionary axe, at the risk of my life. How happy I would have been if this had not also involved the cruel necessity of risking the lives, more than once, of my comrades in the Prisoners Bureau, where I was hired as a copy clerk. I used a stratagem as simple as it was bizarre! I avow that, without their courageous humanity, all of my efforts would have been useless. They unofficially closed their eyes to my thefts and, through their silence, associated themselves with the glories and dangers of my enterprises. The tigers that drank the blood of men, although seized by fear and suspicion, were not careful enough to suspect me. My neglected exterior and my frank and joking tone gave me an air of simplicity that made me seem unimportant in their eyes. I dared to be human in an era where humanity was a crime.

In the letter Labussière claimed to have rescued exactly 1,153 people from the guillotine. He had then returned to private life, all but forgotten, until Étienne and Martainville rescued him from obscurity.[5]

An authorized biography appeared in 1804. Written by an enterprising lawyer, Charles, ou Mémoires historiques de M. de la Bussière, ex-employé au Comité de Salut Public recounted its subject’s life in four small volumes of treacly prose. He had been born in 1768 to an ennobled family protected at court by the famously ill-fated Princesse de Lamballe. Inspired by a love of the theater, he had eventually moved to Paris to take part in small productions. The Revolution provided him with a new opportunity for acting out. He would disrupt section meetings by introducing absurd motions. He would attract large audiences in the gardens of the Palais-Royal by denouncing the latest conspiracy to steal something from him—once the suspense had built sufficiently he would reveal the thing to have been only his handkerchief. These anecdotes always concluded with his narrow escape from the humiliated sans-culotte mobs.

It is not entirely clear from the biography how Labussière ended up working for the Committee of Public Safety. It merely states that his friends, concerned that he was endangering himself with his antics, arranged for the position because they felt that it would be safer for him there. Labussière was assigned to the Prisoners Bureau, under the direction of Fabien Pillet, a man of letters who, like Labussière, was opposed to the terrorist regime. It was Pillet who suggested to Labussière that “the occupations of the employees, far from harming the unfortunate detainees, can help them. This office is nothing, and yet it is a lot.” Nothing because, to all appearances, it was simply a brief stop for a small number of the documents circulating within the revolutionary government. A lot because “we can sometimes suspend the voracious activities of the Revolutionary Tribunal by working slowly and multiplying obstructions. At the slightest pretext we can delay, as long as possible, the transfer of documents to the Popular Commission. This way we give the detainees time to have their relatives or friends intervene by bribing committee members who are the absolute masters over the lives of men.”[6]

Labussière was put in charge of evidentiary documents. Once registered, these documents were handed over to the agent of the Popular Commission who arrived each day at two o’clock. The agent neither counted the documents nor provided a receipt. His sloppiness provided Labussière with the opportunity he needed. He hid his first documents shortly after entering the offices of the Committee of Public Safety. He soon removed more, and then more still, locking them all in his desk drawer. At first he acted cautiously, worried that the agent would notice that files were missing. But after realizing just how little order there was in the paperwork, he settled on the scheme that would make him famous. Flashing his entry card to the guards in front, he would return to the Tuileries late at night, climb to his office in the Pavillon de Flore, and take the documents he had hidden in his desk during normal business hours. He would soak them in a bucket of water kept in the offices to chill the wine; form the paste into small pellets that he could hide in his pockets; transport the pellets to the public baths to be soaked and shredded some more; finally toss the papers through the window into the river. “These ingenious methods were the only ones possible during these times of rigorous surveillance,” the memoirs explain, “because burning the documents was impractical, especially during the heat of summer, when fire would seem unnecessary or suspect; because transporting the documents in their natural state would have been imprudent, given their volume and the guards’ strict orders.” As for the final shredding of the documents in the public baths, it was necessary because the larger pellets quickly dried out in the summer heat and might float to the top of the Seine, thus exposing the sabotage. By mid-June, Labussière had disposed of eight hundred files.[7] By the end of June, he had rescued the French theater. And by the end of July, it was over. Labussière resigned from the Committee of Public Safety after making sure to “efface even the slightest traces of his hard work.”[8]

The most reliable account of Labussière’s later years was provided by Fabien Pillet, his friend, supervisor, and accomplice. Writing the entry for Michaud’s Biographie Universelle in the 1840s, Pillet recounted how the benefit performance at the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin had raised 1,400 francs for the former clerk. “But, unable to economize, Labussière soon dissipated this sum, and, despite the secret aid of the Empress Josephine, via the hands of Madame de la Rouchefoucauld, he fell into a state of extreme misery. Following a violent attack of paralysis, his intellectual faculties became so deranged that the police were forced to keep him locked up in a madhouse, where he died soon after, entirely forgotten even by those for whom he most risked his life.”[9] (Pillet himself went on to become a noted arts critic, dying in 1855. Of his own adventures, the Michaud mentions only that he had “the good fortune to pass unnoticed during the reign of terror.”)[10]

But the story did not end with the life of its protagonist. It would be novelized, dramatized, filmed, and even, during the bicentennial celebrations, made-for-television. In 1891, a play about Labussière, Victorien Sardou’s Thermidor, sparked riots for its allegedly anti-republican sentiments. The riots, in turn, sparked an editorial in the New York Times, which expressed bewilderment that Parisians had become so agitated over so simple a story. “The play seems to go no further than an implication that the guillotine sometimes makes mistakes,” they wrote. “A similar dramatic presentation of the case against lynch law would be received without hostility in a Western mining camp and might be attended and enjoyed by the members of the latest vigilance committee.”[11] Alas, the French could muster no such tolerance. Banned in France, the play traveled abroad, including to New York, where it sold well despite tepid reviews. The ban was finally lifted in 1894; a restaurant on the Boulevard Saint-Denis celebrated reopening night by placing on its menu a new culinary creation, lobster Thermidor.

The controversy generated by Sardou’s play would last through the fin de siècle, engaging some of France’s most prominent historians. Of the various twentieth-century versions of the Labussière story, one still stands out. In 1927, Abel Gance released his bio-epic Napoléon, whose importance in France is perhaps best compared to that of D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation in the United States. The scene featuring Labussière begins with a shot of papers stacked to the ceiling inside the Committee of Public Safety. A man suspended from a rope moves up and down the shelves, retrieving dossiers. An official passes them to a clerk and orders him to hurry: there must be three hundred heads a day. The camera then pulls back to reveal a hectic, cluttered office. The clerk scurries back to his desk and sets down to work. He comes across a dossier with the name Josephine de Beauharnais. The camera closes in as he bites into it, spastically chewing, swallowing, digesting. The clerk next to him watches in wonder and then follows his example, soon devouring the dossier for Napoleon Bonaparte. “Happily, Labussière watches over them, this strange character who, out of humanity, became a thief of dossiers,” an intertitle tells us. “Not a thief, but a chewer, risking his life at every instant to save the lives of unknowns.”[12] Through this act of papyrophagy, the republic is sacrificed, the empire born.

Stills from Abel Gance’s Napoléon, 1927.

  1. Charles-Guillaume Étienne and Alphonse-Louis-Dieudonné Martainville, Histoire du théâtre français depuis le commencement de la révolution jusqu’à la réunion générale, 4 vols. (Paris: Chez Barba, Year X/1802), vol. 3, pp. 146–148.
  2. This attribution is suggested by Arthur Pougin, La Comédie Française et La Révolution: Scènes, Récits et Notices (Paris: Gaultier, Magnier & Cie, 1902), p. 148.
  3. Journal des débats et loix du pouvoir legislatif et des actes du gouvernement 5 Messidor, Year X (23 June 1802), pp. 2–3.
  4. Le Courrier des Spectacles, 24 Germinal, Year XI (14 April 1803).
  5. Ibid.
  6. Nicolas-Julien Liénart, Charles, ou Mémoires historiques de M. de la Bussière, ex-employé au Comité de Salut Public, servant de suite à l’Histoire de la Révolution française, avec des notes sur les événemens extraordinaires arrivés sous le règne des Décemvirs, rédigés par M. Liénart. 4 vols. (Paris: Marchand, 1804), vol. 4, pp. 95–96.
  7. Ibid., vol. 3, pp. 99–110.
  8. Ibid., vol. 3, p. 132.
  9. Louis Gabriel Michaud, ed., Biographie universelle, ancienne et moderne, 2nd ed., 45 vols. (Paris: Vivès, 1880); s.v. Labussière (Charles-Hippolyte).
  10. Michaud, Biographie universelle, s.v. Pillet (Fabien).
  11. Untitled editorial, The New York Times, 28 January 1891, p. 4.
  12. An illustrated and annotated version of the script, including the director’s notes, can be found in Abel Gance, Napoleon: Épopée cinégraphique en cinq époques. Première époque: Bonaparte (Paris: Jacques Bertoin, 1991).

Ben Kafka is a member of the Princeton Society of Fellows. In 2007, he will become an assistant professor in the Department of Culture and Communication at New York University. He is completing a book entitled The Demon of Writing: Paperwork and the Making of Modern France.

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