Suicide

Church and state traditionally defined suicide, like sodomy, in terms of sin and crime. Suicide entailed damnation of the self, and sodomy, according to the police model, involved corruption of others. Clergy and jurists considered both unnatural and antisocial. French subjects who tried and failed to drown, hang, or shoot themselves could be sentenced to death. Men and women who succeeded in taking their own lives could be dragged through the streets on a hurdle, hanged by the feet, and barred from burial in consecrated ground, and the crown could confiscate their estates. As the eighteenth century unfolded, however, magistrates punished suicide, like sodomy, less frequently and less severely, in no small part to avoid publicity that might inspire imitation. Revolutionary legislation decriminalized both offenses in 1791.

Parisians witnessed or at least thought they witnessed an epidemic of suicide in the last decades of the Ancien Régime. The police documented hundreds of cases in reports that may be analyzed quantitatively (who, where, when, who, and why?) and qualitatively for patterns in the ways in which people from all walks of life killed themselves and in the ways in which friends, neighbors, and relatives recounted their lives and deaths. These reports suggest that suicide, like sodomy, became more thinkable, more talkable, more doable than in the past, against the background of theological and philosophical contestations about human agency, the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain, mind and body, and other issues.

The police arrested thousands of sodomites and pederasts in eighteenth-century Paris. After shorter or longer terms in prison many of these men returned to public spaces, but a few of them killed or at least tried to kill themselves in custody or even before incarceration. They apparently acted out of despair to avoid disgrace, despite the risks of subsequent or posthumous punishment. Extant sources include documentation about several cases throughout the century.

Joseph Dupressoir-Louvart, a wigmaker’s son dressed like a marquis at the time of his arrest, frequented the Luxembourg garden “in order to seduce young schoolboys.” He showed no signs of “sickness” or “madness,” but he cut off his genitals and then cut his throat on 18 June 1702. Before he died he wrote and signed a note composed of these words: “I ask God’s pardon with my whole heart. It is despair.” He was buried in the cemetery of Saint-Paul under the name Pierre Massuque.[1]

Blaise Doucet, 25, baker’s assistant, discussed size and role with a decoy under the arches under rue Saint-Louis on 16 July 1725 (AB 10256, ff. 182-83). Arrested en route to The Magpie, a tavern named many times in police reports, he denied everything. Officer Simonnet conducted him to the gates of the Petit Châtelet prison, where he cut his throat and died on the spot.[2]

Jean Baptiste Nattier, 40, painter, named in several dossiers, was arrested as an “accomplice of Deschauffours” (AB 10874, f. 59).[3] The guard who shared his cell in the Bastille noted that the prisoner was discouraged about his case and “fell into great sadness now and then.” After the two men played cards and talked into the night, Nattier cut his throat with a small knife before sunrise on 27 April 1726.[4] Lieutenant general Hérault visited the scene and submitted a report in which he listed four papers written in pencil found in the dead man’s pockets. On the same day minister of the Royal Household Maurepas sent Hérault an order for the burial of the body and asked him for a copy of what the painter had written to “justify” his suicide (AN, O1373, f. 212). On 11 June the minister’s clerk repeated the request for this lost “testament,” which “deserves to be preserved because of the composure with which it is dictated” (AB 10895, f. 68).

first pages of the report on and investigation of Nattier’s suicide

Louis Levasseur, around 40, unemployed coachman, was confined and released in 1724 (AB 10977, ff. 277-84). His dossier includes his signed statement of submission to the lieutenant general’s order to avoid the public promenades. He was arrested again on 12 August 1727, after telling a decoy in the Tuileries that he liked “to put it in,” that he had had this “habit” for a long time, and that men of his “taste” had to look out for spies. Levasseur cut his throat during the night but survived. Commissaire Regnard interrogated him, and lieutenant criminel Le Conte prosecuted him “for making an attempt on his life.”[5] He was released with the sentence of further inquiry for a year and exiled to his native region.[6]

Christophe Laurent, married second-hand dealer, tried to bribe the guards who arrested him in the Tuileries on 16 May 1787 and stabbed himself in the heart with a large knife after they reached the guardpost (AN, O1 3705, ff. 284-5, 16 May 1787). He had been arrested at least twice before, on 11 February and 16 July 1781.

More sodomites known as such may have committed suicide, and some of the hundreds of men who killed themselves for economic or emotional reasons in eighteenth-century Paris may have been sodomites who were not identified as such. It is impossible to generalize from just six cases, but it is noteworthy that in this time and place sexual deviance was not routinely associated with self-destruction, not in police records and not in public debates about these subjects. Contemporaries of the men listed above did not assume that “people like that killed themselves.”

[1] François Nicolas Napoléon Ravaisson-Mollien, ed., Archives de la Bastille, 19 vols. (Paris: Plon, 1866-1904), 11: 7-9.

[2] Thanks to Stephen Shapiro for this reference.

[3] Nattier is named in AB 10255, f. 136; 10908, f. 217; 10911, f. 183. Ernest Raynaud published the relevant documents in AB 10895, ff. 59-66, in “La Mort de J. B. Nattier,” Mercure de France, 15 July 1928, 324-40, reprinted in Cahiers Gai-Kitsch-Camp 24 (1994): 151-61.

[4] Thomas Simon Gueulette, substitute royal prosecutor in the Châtelet, reported that Nattier had confessed and received absolution, but he also reportred that te painter strangled himself on the night of 22 May 1726. Jean Buvat, Journal de la Régence (1715-1723), ed. Emile Campardon, 2 vols. (Paris: Henri Plon, 1865), 2: 501.

[5] The transcript of the interrogation and therecords of the criminal proceedings have not survived.

[6] Lieutenant general d’Ombreval noted in the margin that he had discussed the case with attorney general Joly de Fleury on 14 August.

Author: Jeffrey Merrick