I came across this tiny bit of Paris cemetery lore in the Bangor (ME) public library of all places. I had been looking for a particular work by Arthur Koestler in the biography section and my eye gravitated to an upper shelf just for a moment and lo and behold there was this old tattered book Madame de Lafayette and Her Family, by M. MacDermot Crawford. (photo: Lafayette's grave maintained by the US DAR; his wife is also buried with him.)
Intrigued for reasons I cannot explain, I pulled it off the shelf, checked the index for the word Picpus -- the cemetery in the 12th arrondissement where she and her husband are buried, near the mass graves of more than 1,300 people who were guillotined nearby, including most of the members of her family. I was rewarded with the following tale of sorrow, anguish and the nobility of human nature.
The priest wrote that after a long and ceaseless search, in which he had met with unnumbered obstacles, he had at last succeeded in finding the burial place of the thirteen hundred victims who had fallen by the guillotine in the last six weeks of the Reign of Terror near the Barrière du Trone. (Barrière du ‘Trone reversé’, as the wits named it after the days of a fallen monarchy.) This was almost at the same moment as [Madame Lafayette] hear from Mme. De Montagu on the same subject. One of the first cares, “a pious duty of a devoted daughter,” of Mme de Montagu, after her return to France, was to try and learn where her mother, Mme d’Ayen, had been buried. No one was able to tell her. All the émigrés were in the same ignorance concerning the fate of those near and dear, who had met their death upon the scaffold. All Paris knew where the victims had fallen, but none where they had found eternal rest; the journals of the time made no comment, it was almost a state secret. On her return from Auvergne where she had been to attend to some family business, she heard of a poor girl, a lace maker by trade, Mlle. Paris, living in the faubourg, who might be able to furnish a clue. On this slight thread, Mme de Montague commenced the laborious search, and after heartrending disappointments, weary mounting of endless tortuous stairs, knocking at numberless doors, she arrived at the fourth-floor garret of Mlle Paris, who, on seeing her, thought she was a new customer whom heaven had sent. The poor workwoman melted into tears when Mme de Montagu had explained the object f her visit, and told her the following story:
“My father,” she said, “was an infirm old man who had served the family of Brissac for thirty years; my brother, a little younger than myself, an employé in the staff office of the National Guard. He was very steady and economical, and supported us all by his work, after the misfortune of the house of Brissac had deprived my father of his pension. As for myself, I had no occupation; none wore lace in the time of the Terror. One day my brother did not come home at the usual time. I went out to see what happened, and when I returned, found the house deserted. My father, who could scarcely walk, had been dragged to prison in my absence, my brother also, during the morning. I have3 never been sure of what they were accused. They would neither shut me up with them, nor even allow me to embrace them. I never saw them again until they were in the charette, being taken to the guillotine. Some one who saw and recognized me in the crowd tried in pity to lead me away, and on my refusal, went away crying. I saw my father and brother guillotined, and if I was not killed by the shock, it is because God upheld me. I did not fall, but stood riveted to the spot, mechanically stammering some prayers without seeing or hearing what was going on. When I cam to myself, the Place du Trone was almost deserted, the crowd having dispersed in all directions. The blood-stained carts on which they had loaded the bodies of the poor victims took the road to the country, surrounded by several gendarmes. I did not know where they were going, but followed them, though I could hardly walk. They stopped at Picpus. It was nearly night, but I recognized perfectly the old house of the Augustines, and the place where they buried all in a mass, the unfortunates who had been guillotined. From that time, I have often gone there to pray; winter and summer, it is my walk on Sundays.”
It had always been a great grief and sorrow to the pious daughters that they should not have even the poor consolation of praying beside the graves of those dearly loved, who had been, as described by Mlle. Paris, buried in one undistinguishable mass, covered with quicklime, in the brutal fashion inaugurated at the burial of the unfortunate sovereigns Louis and Marie Antoinette. She finally found that her mother and sister slept in the little cemetery of the Picpus, belonging to the convent of the same name. The origin of this cemetery of Picpus is of great antiquity and curious interest. Far back in the fifteenth century the people of a part of France, in particular, of Paris, were visited by an irritating affliction. Its exact cause not being known to the unskilled chirurgeons of the day, the epidemic ran on, unchecked. It was characterized by numerous, not over-large, swellings on all arts of the body, in appearance having the effect of monster flea-bites, with the accompanying irritation and itching of the skin. Finally, a monk, whose name has been lost, affected so many cures that he established a little monastery, at a village, or rather, straggling collection of houses, near Paris, on the road to Vincennes, where, with a few brethren of his order, he continued to cure those who flocked to him. These monks became known as the Pique Puces (flea-bites), from their treatment of those irritating swellings, so similar to the bites of that bloodthirsty insect, which they cured in a simple manner, by opening the sores, expressing the virus, bathing the wounds, and allowing Dame Nature to pursue her healing way unhindered. The order became a flourishing one, always being known as the Pique Puces, and giving its name to the village, now swallowed by ever-growing Paris.
The vicissitudes of this order were many, and the monastery finally became the property of the Canonesses of Saint Augustine, to whom it belonged at the outbreak of the Revolution. After the law abolishing all religious orders, the convent with its quaint cemetery, its luxurious gardens and fruit trees, was abandoned, serving as a sleeping place for those waifs who knew not form day to day what the next hour might bring forth. Its gnarled trees, overhanging the grim walls, tempted young Jean and Pierre to put into effect the law which ruled France at the moment: that of making one’s neighbor’s worldly goods one’s own. Unchecked by rebuke, they became bolder, and not even the ghostly terrors of the deserted graveyard kept the ragged little wretches from satisfying their appetites on the fruits which had been the bonne bouches of the absent nuns.
After the Terror had slain its thousand, and the spectacle of executions lost the charming flavour of novelty which at first made it so popular, the inhabitants of the rue Saint Honoré and the quartier through which the laden tumbrels daily passed on the way to the Place de la Révolution, petitioned the Committee to have the guillotine removed to another part of the city. After the entry, “Prairal 25,” M. Sanson, the more than famous “Monsieur de Paris,” says:
At last the brief of the inhabitants of the rue Saint Honoré has been granted. The day before yesterday, as I was going to bed, I was called to the Palais de Justice, where Royer, the substitute, ordered me to clear the Place de la Révolution of the scaffold, and take it to the Place de la Bastille. The carpenters worked all night. The public of this quartier had no liking for executions, for as soon as we appeared in the rue St. Antoine, with three carts full, we were hissed, and otherwise ill received. The inhabitants of the quartier St. Antoine are not so timid as those of the Place de la Révolution, and they made no secret of their disgust; when the execution took place almost everybody had gone away. The Committee have determined not to renew the experiment, and under the pretence that the Place de la Bastille is too good for aristocratic blood, they have directed the scaffold to be transferred to the Place du Trone. So we passed another sleepless night. We are now to send the corpses to the St. Marguerite cemetery.” This new arrangement did not prove satisfactory – the place of putting the unfortunate dead in the cemetery of St. Marguerite, for again less than a fortnight after, Sanson alludes to the matter.
“Messidor 1: The dead are beginning to frighten the living. The inhabitants of the Montreuil section, where we now send the dead bodies, have complained. They argue that the stench is horrible, and that unless the small cemetery of St. Marguerite isw closed, serious consequences cannot but ensue. After much hesitation, the Committee has selected a new place for the burial of the executed. This is the garden of the old convent of Picpus. The spot seems to be ill chosen; the soil is composed of pure clay, and it cannot absorb what is deposited in it.” So runs the history of the cemetery of Picpus, where so many noble dead sleep in silent harmony with those who were of the byways.
The enclosure, or field, was the property of the Princess of Hohenzollern, whose brother, the Prince of Salm-Kyrbourg, beheaded in the Terror, was buried there. His property, among which was the hotel (now rebuilt) belonging to the Legion d’Honneur, on the Quai d’Orsay, was confiscated, according to the practice of the day, being drawn in the National Lottery by a coiffeur. The princess refused the request of Mmes. De Lafayette and de Montagu, to “consecrate the ground to the common veneration of the many families whose members lay sleeping there.” “She did not wish to relinquish her rights.” There was, however, a chapel, and some fields adjoining, and these the sisters, with the many others interested, bought. It was leased to an order of Bernardine nuns, who had dedicated themselves to the perpetual adoration of the Holy Sacrament, their order, founded in 1425, being the second only to the Carmelites in its dreadful severity and rigorous austerities. So, at last, the dead slept in consecrated ground. Mme de Lafayette passed many hours in the little chapel, where the names of the victims, inscribed on the books of the Conciergerie, weeping, and praying for the souls of those who had gone without hesitation to eternity. This interesting spot, with its harrowing memories, is situated near the old mur d’octroi, between the Barrière du Trone and the Barrière Saint Mandé – now absorbed in the busy faubourg of St. Antoine, and has – or had -- a boarding school attached to it, where the nuns daily teach. It is still known as the cemetery of Picpus. At her request, Mme de Lafayette was buried there – the spot for her grave chosen by Mme de Montagu – though it is usually to the tomb of her gallant husband that the steps of the pilgrim and sightseer wend their way.
Excerpted from Madame de Lafayette and Her Family, by M. MacDermot Crawford, New York: James Pott & Co., 1907, pp. 309-314