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- "This is what happens when you give command of the government to half-starved lunatics, and command of the army to bloodthirsty savages."
- ―Napoleon on the September Massacres, 1792.[src]
With the threat of foreign armies advancing upon them, the revolutionaries grew fearful that Paris' prison population could form a dangerous counter-revolutionary force if freed. Rallied by radicalists like Jean-Paul Marat, they set out to pre-emptively eliminate any prisoner that showed even the slighest evidence of being against the revolution; ultimately, over a thousand people lost their lives in the massacres.
In April 1792, France's Legislative Assembly declared war on Austria, purportedly to "spread the Revolution", but actually to, among other things, distract the populace from its own economic problems. Initial engagements were not in France's favor, however, and the country ended up being invaded by the allied Austrian and Prussian forces under the Duke of Brunswick.
Around the same time, the revolution took a radical turn with the storming of the Tuileries Palace on the 10th of August, leading to the arrest and imprisonment of King Louis XVI and his family. Radicalists such as Marat subsequently began to incite hatred towards royalists, priests who had refused to accept the terms of the new constitution, and aristocrats, many of whom were sent to languish in Paris' prisons alongside common criminals and lunatics.
When the Duke of Brunswick secured victory at Verdun on 2 September, the revolutionaries panicked, believing Paris would be the next to fall, and decided to radically purge any and all opposition to their cause. Their paranoia led them to target the prisoners, whom they thought would join forces with the Prussian Army in an effort to restore the monarchy.
- "Look at these posh bastards. Bet they weren't fed on bread and water."
- ―One of Rouille's guardsmen during their assault on the Grand Châtelet, 1792.[src]
The bloodshed began at the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, where 24 non-juring priests were dragged from their carriages and butchered as they were being transported to the prison de l'Abbaye. In the following days, the violence spread to other prisons, with makeshift courts being formed to judge whether or not the inmates were against the revolution.
Those who were found to be "guilty" were immediately and brutally murdered; one notable case involved Princess Marie Louise of Savoy, a close confidant of Marie Antoinette, who was hacked to pieces by an angry mob. Her head was then placed on a pike and paraded around beneath her old friend's window at the Temple, though it is unknown if Marie Antoinette actually saw it.
Despite the widespread violence, some prisoners managed to survive the ordeal, even if their dignity did not. Marie-Maurille de Sombreuil, the daughter of the former governor of Les Invalides, supposedly drank the warm blood of aristocrats to prove her hatred of them, in an effort to save her father's life.
The Templar captain Frédéric Rouille participated in the massacres as well, marching on the Grand Châtelet with his men. Killing guards and prisoners alike, they took control of the prison, with Rouille taunting the captured prison warden by waving the head of his decapitated brother in front of him. However, the Assassin Arno Dorian also infiltrated the Grand Châtelet and, after freeing the prison guards that had been taken captive, assassinated Rouille, putting an end to the Templar's cruelty.
By the 7th of September, over a thousand people had been killed, most of them nobles, royalists and Swiss Guards, but also street children, common criminals and prostitutes. The victims' remains would end up being buried in the Catacombs of Paris.
Although some deputies defended the massacres, claiming they were necessary, many Parisians remained deeply affected by the deeply violent acts that had been committed. In the provinces, people reacted with horror and disapproval to what had transpired in the capital, while potential opponents were frightened by what could happen to them.