On the night of July 27, 1794 (9 Thermidor), Donatien-Alphonse-François, Marquis de Sade, was to have joined the 1,306 souls buried in the mass graves of Picpus. Sade’s dossier had been forwarded to the Revolutionary Tribunal for review on 6 Thermidor and, two days after that, Antoine Quentin Fouquier-Tinville (1746-1795), the Tribunal’s infamously ruthless public prosecutor, had indicted Sade (along with twenty-eight other individuals) under the following charges:
Sade, ex-comte, capitaine des gardes de Capet en 1792, a entretenu des intelligences et correspondances avec les ennemis de la République. Il n’a cessé de combattre le gouvernement républicain en soutenant dans sa section que ce gouvernement était impracticable. Il s’est montré le partisan du fédéralisme et le prôneur du traître Rolland [sic]. Enfin il paraît que les preuves de patriotisme qu’il a voulu donner n’ont été de sa part que des moyens d’échapper à la recherché de sa complicité dans la conspiration du tyran dont il était le vil satellite.(1)
Thus, on 9 Thermidor, the bailiff of the Tribunal was sent to Saint Lazare prison to bring Citoyen Sade, ex-noble, before the Tribunal for trial (and, most probably, eventual conviction and execution). When the bailiff called out Sade’s name, no one came forward; “Aldonze Sade” was marked “absent.” Sade had escaped the guillotine’s blade.
It is no surprise that Sade was not found in Saint Lazare; indeed, he had not been there for four months. Ironically, Sade was being held only a few yards away from the mass graves in which he was to have been unceremoniously buried. On 27 March 1794 (7 germinal, an II), he had been transferred “pour cause de maladie” from Saint-Lazare to a private prison-hospital, or maison de santé, owned and operated by a Monsieur Eugène Coignard.(2) Since that time he and his representatives (chief amongst whom, his companion, Constance Quesnet) had been writing to the Comité de Sûreté générale to clear his name and secure his release from prison. What, then, led him to be marked absent on the Tribunal’s list of accused? Surely, the Comité de Sûreté générale and the Comité de Salut public had updated their records since March 1794! They certainly had done so in the case of one of Sade’s fellow inmates at the Maison Coignard, Jean-Pierre Béchon d’Arquien, who was taken into custody and guillotined on 9 Thermidor.(3) As one of Sade’s biographers argues, “If Sade managed to cheat fate, it was not because of some obscure design of Providence, nor was it, as Gilbert Lely believed, due to the ‘number and crowding of the prisons’ or the ‘disorder in the dossiers.’ Nor was it the negligence of the bailiff charged with taking the prisoners into custody who, after failing to find Sade at Saint-Lazare, supposedly ‘forgot’ to call his name at Picpus.”(4) What, then, had (apparently so miraculously) saved Sade from almost certain execution when so many others had perished during the Terror? As I will show, Sade’s survival was the result of wealth, friends with influence, and a highly developed system of state corruption.
Revolutionary leader Maximilien Robespierre might have had a reputation for being “Incorruptible” but the functionaries who served under or alongside him certainly were not. Corruption infiltrated and thrived at every institutional level within the nascent French republic, including the legal system. Though arrested and imprisoned under the Law of Suspects of 1793, many ex-nobles and others with means could still trade on their considerable wealth, assets, and influence for better treatment and even reprieves from trial and execution.(5) An important and understudied component of this state corruption during the Terror was the maison de santé. (6)
The maisons de santé were, at the same time, private hospitals and private prisons. They originated in the ancien régime as so-called pensions bourgeoises. The most famous of them, and likely the first to open its doors, was that of a former mirror-maker, Jacques Belhomme. His pension opened in or around 1765 and quickly became a successful venture, imitated by many in the years leading up to the French Revolution. The clientele of these pensions was, for the most part, from what we might describe as the middling or merchant classes – civil servants, low-level functionaries, reasonably well-to-do shop-keepers. For a fairly modest sum they would be housed, fed, and cared for in calm, comfortable surroundings, usually a former hôtel particulier. In his study of Belhomme’s pension/maison de santé, Fédéric Lenormand suggests that the pension bourgeoise could be thought of as the forerunner of the psychiatric clinic.(7)