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What are the September Massacres?

By Rachel Burkot
Updated May 23, 2024
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The September Massacres were a set of attacks on prisons in Paris between 2 and 7 September 1792. The massacres were justified as a defense of Paris because during this time, France was going through the French Revolution. The attackers believed that a large number of prisoners opposed the Revolution and its efforts, so they wanted to take out opposition to the war.

The first act of the September Massacres occurred on 2 September as an act of mob violence. A crowd of angry citizens slaughtered 24 priests who were being transported to the prison L’Abbaye. Though some priests tried to escape into the prison, none were successful. After all the priests were killed, the mob went into the prison and killed many other prisoners too.

The September Massacres continued over the next five days. Horrific acts of violence took place during this September war, and the unsympathetic citizens who were responsible made fellow prisoners watch as body parts were ravaged, mutilated and ripped off. As they simply awaited their turn to be killed, prisoners did not even attempt to protect or defend themselves. A few who survived noted the silent fury with which the mob worked their destruction throughout the prison.

Before each murder, the citizens who had invaded the prison would carry out a mock trial, during which they would hold their weapons, stained in blood from a previous massacre. The reasons cited for the killing did not matter; the prisoners had no chance to defend themselves against the crowd. During these trials, many killers were drunk or half-asleep.

During the September Massacres, about 1200 prisoners were killed. This was approximately half of the number of Paris prisoners at the time. The executioners did not only target adults who were blatantly against the Revolution, but children who had no stake in the matter whatsoever were murdered just as savagely.

Many of these killers were Jacobins, considered to be nobles as part of the Jacobin Club, the most powerful political organization during the French Revolution. When the revolutionary leader Georges-Jacques Danton made a speech in the Assembly on 2 September, he called for boldness against enemies. This speech, taken literally and directed against all counter-revolutionaries by Jacobins and the other murderers, contributed largely to the September Massacres. The original acts of violence against the priests stemmed from a belief that the clergy had close ties to the royalty of France, and they would never support the Revolution. Another reason for the murders included a simple lust for bloodshed fueled by the anger that the revolutionists felt toward anyone who did not support their cause.

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