The scope and character of the pensions bourgeoises – renamed maisons de santé early in the Revolution – changed dramatically following the passage of the Law of Suspects in September 1793. This legislation called for the creation of the Revolutionary Tribunal and the arrest of anyone who, “par leur conduite, leurs relations, leurs propos, leurs écrits se montrent partisans du fédéralisme et ennemis de la liberté.”(8) As one might expect, the prisons of Paris very quickly became overcrowded with enemies of the Republic, awaiting trial and probable execution. The rapidly growing number of maisons de santé provided at least a temporary solution to prison overcrowding. The former clinics thus became detention centers for sick, infirm, or mentally ill prisoners (mostly ex-nobles and members of the highest echelons of pre-Revolutionary society). Of course, the maisons de santé were much more comfortable (and expensive) than traditional prisons.
For a sizable fee, prisoners could get themselves declared sick or mentally troubled and transferred to a maison de santé, where the “infirm” could recover while still under (nominal) police surveillance. In theory, once the prisoner had been declared “cured” he or she would have then been transferred back into the normal prison system to await sentencing. But, in practice, as long as the prisoner was willing and able to pay for his or her room and board at the maison de santé, a certification of recovered health would not be forthcoming. Health was directly related to wealth and as long as money flowed to grease the wheels of State corruption patients could largely avoid execution. (9)
This is precisely what seems to have happened in Sade’s case. His own assets, combined with what was most certainly an active campaign on the part of Quesnet and other representatives ensured that he was declared ill, transferred to Coignard’s maison de santé, and protected from the Terror’s grasp. In a letter to his agent, Gaufridy, following his release from the Maison Coignard in October 1794, Sade explicitly cites several thousand livres of expenses incurred during his seven-month stay at Picpus. (10)
When the maison de santé at Picpus opened its doors in 1793, its proprietor, Eugène Coignard, hoped to emulate, rival, and perhaps even surpass the success of other similar establishments, particularly that of his neighbor, Jacques Belhomme. Indeed, Coignard’s rooms were soon filled to capacity. At the very least, in January 1794, Coignard scored a symbolic victory over his competitors when Belhomme himself checked in for “illness” while serving a six-year sentence for having blatantly extorted huge sums from his guests and abused the authority vested in him by the Convention. Coignard also was able to boast of housing other illustrious guests such as the son of the naturalist Buffon and the author of Les Liaisons dangereuses (1782), Choderlos de Laclos. Coignard’s maison de santé soon became so prosperous and crowded that, in March 1794, he was forced to annex land and buildings that had formerly belonged to the convent of the Chanoinesses de Saint-Augustin.(11) It was in this state that Sade arrived at Picpus.
Sade desribed the Maison Coignard as “un paradis terrestre; belle maison, superbe jardin, société choisie, d’aimables femmes.”(12)Having become a veritable connoisseur of French prisons since his first imprisonment in 1777 this was high praise indeed!(13) Like at other maisons de santé, Sade and his fellow prisoners were able to roam with relative freedom about the grounds. Many were allowed to receive visitors (Sade’s companion, Constance Quesnet, made several visits) and personal correspondence. Enclosed within the former convent’s walls, Coignard’s “patients” were, as with the nuns that preceded them, to a large extent peacefully cut off from the events unfolding around them.
Coignard’s “earthly paradise” quickly descended into hell when, on June 14, 1794, the guillotine was moved from what is now Place de la Concorde to the Place du Trône (now, Place de la Nation), a stone’s throw from Coignard’s maison de santé on the rue de Picpus. The decapitated bodies of the guillotine’s victims were then taken from the Place du Trône and placed in mass graves (where they remain today in what is now the private cemetery of Picpus). This all took place, according to Sade, under his eyes and nose.(14) Indeed, the stench from the rotting corpses was so intense in the stifling midsummer heat that the residents of the Picpus quarter wrote numerous appeals to the Comité de Salut Public. Thankfully for both the inmates at the Maison Coignard and the residents of Picpus, the guillotine was removed from the Place du Trône on 10 Thermidor, following the fall of Robespierre’s regime and, thus, the end of the Terror. However, the end of the Terror also effectively brought an end to the lucrative business of housing well-to-do enemies of the Republic; many maisons de santé, including Coignard’s, soon folded.
Association du souvenir de Picpus (Paris). Les Victimes de Picpus: 1794-1994. Paris: Association du souvenir de Picpus, 1993.
Blanc, Olivier. La Corruption sous la Terreur. Paris: R. Laffont, 1992.
---. La Derniere lettre. Paris: R. Laffont, 1984.
Destremau, Noëlle. Un jardin historique à Paris, Picpus. Paris: N. Destremau, 1994.
Gray, Francine du Plessix. At Home with the Marquis de Sade: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.
Lenormand, Frédéric. La Pension Belhomme: Une prison de luxe sous la Terreur. Paris: Fayard, 2002.
Lenotre, G. “Belhomme.” In Vielles maisions, Vieux Papiers, III. New edition annotated by André Castelot. Paris: Librarie Académique Perrin, 1980.
---. Le Jardin de Picpus. Paris: Perrin, 1955.
Lever, Maurice. Sade: A Biography. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. New York: Farrar, 1993.
Lely, Gilbert. Vie du Marquis de Sade, avec un examen de ses ouvrages. In Oeuvres complètes, I-II. Paris: Cercle du livre précieux, 1966.
Max-Billard, Les Maisons de santé sous la Terreur. Paris: Societé française d’imprimerie et de librairie, 1912.
Sade, D.A.F. Correspondances du Marquis de Sade et de ses proches encrichies de documents, notes et commentaires, XXIII & XXIV. Edited by Alice M. Laborde. Geneva: Slatkine, 1996.
---. Lettres inédites et documents. Edited by Jean-Louis Debauve. Paris: Editions Ramsay; Jean-Jacques Pauvert, 1990
Schaeffer, Mark. Marquis de Sade: A Life. New York: Knopf, 1999.