The Death Warrant of Marie Antoinette: 1912

Marie Antoinette Death Warrant

In honour of the 220th anniversary of the execution of Queen Marie Antoinette, a story of the discovery of the

DEATH WARRANT OF MARIE ANTOINETTE

Washington, D.C.

After having been buried for over forty years in the accumulated dust and dirt of an out of the way attic the long lost death warrant of Marie Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI, has just come to light in this city.

The finding of this document, together with a number of perfectly preserved autographs of great persons of the court of Louis Quinze, adds another chapter to the history of the one of the most remarkable documents connected with the French Revolution—the last authentic record in the life of the unfortunate Marie and her son, the Dauphin.

After the execution of the beautiful Queen on that fatal Wednesday, October 16, 1793, the document which had ordered the death dealing embrace of “Madame Guillotine” was returned to the public archives of the infant republic in the Temple, supposedly to remain there with the other dread reminders of the time when France passed through the greatest crisis which has ever beset a nation.

But fate ordained otherwise.

Henri Samson, executioner of the Queen, passed one day through the Temple gazing at the documents marking the pathway of blood the Revolution had left through France, the sanguine road traced by the sharp knifed instrument of which he had been the pilot. By change his eye fell on the warrant of the “Widow Capet.” Scarcely realizing what he was doing, the executioner lifted the glass covering the document case, folded the official record of the death of a Queen in three places and put it in his pocket as a memento of the last hour of the Austrian wife of the King, to whom he had previously sworn fealty.

With the warrant Samson took three small pieces of paper lying near by, thinking that they contained the Queen’s autograph. In this he was mistaken, for the slips were later found to be covered with the scrawled signatures of lords and ladies of the  court, together with the names of the Dauphin, his sister Therese, and his aunt Elizabeth, sister to the King.

The executioner’s action in taking from the archives of the republic documents of public interest has never been satisfactorily explained and the official records of the Temple indicate only that the death warrant of the Queen was discovered to be missing from its accustomed pace and “was not to be found, even after long search.” No mention is made of the autographed slips of paper, which probably were considered of little appreciable value at this time.

The story of the valuable documents from the time they were abstracted from their glass covered resting place to the present moment is vague and indefinite. History mentions the disappearance of the warrant and chronicles now and again its reported discovery—now here, now there. But up to the present time nothing authentic has been heard of the papers.

Some weeks ago, however, William H. Freeny, foreman of a tailoring establishment in this city, while rummaging through the trunks in his attic discovered some old papers carefully pressed and placed between the pages in an old atlas. The fact that they were in the upper tray of a trunk which had belonged to his father-in-law, Armand Laag, a native of Ville, France, convinced Freeny that they were probably connected with the history of the Laag family and he asked his wife if she knew anything about them.

Mrs. Freeny replied in the negative and suggested that they might find out something about them by looking further among her fathers’ belongings. An old diary begun by the elder Laag several years before he left France, in 1873, came to light. In it was detailed the fact that the papers—listed as “the death warrant of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, and various autographs of the Dauphin, his sister, aunt and ladies and gentlemen of the court of Louis XVI” had been presented to Armand Laag in 1860 by the son of Henri Samson, the executioner, who had found them among his father’s effects.

The papers, the diary continued, had been given Laag as an appreciation of a service which he had rendered Samson, fils, and had been placed in the old atlas for safe keeping. The excitement of the events of 1870 and the succeeding years and the emigration of Laag to his country are supposed to have driven all recollection of the warrant and autographs out of his mind, because Mrs. Freeny never remembers having seen the documents before they were rediscovered by her husband.

Strange to say, after all the years which have passed since the writing and signing of the death warrant and the affixing of the signatures to the small slips of paper, all four documents, if such they can be called, are in excellent condition.

The warrant itself is about 6 by 10 inches in size and appears to be written and printed on paper of exceptionally strong fibre. The printing and handwriting are almost as clear and legible as when first placed upon the paper and even a small blot near the top of the sheet is distinctly visible. The first line of writing above the printed word “Requisition” is blurred, but close examination discloses the words: “Archives de la *** l’Etat.” The word between “la” and “l’Etat” is indecipherable.

Below this line is the file number (“Carton No. 120”) and beneath that appears printed: “Requisition to the commanding general of the Parisian armed force.”

The remainder of the document, translated, reads:

“IN THE NAME OF THE REPUBLIC.

The prosecuting public attorney of the Revolutionary Criminal Court, established at Paris by the act of March 10, 179e, in execution of the judgment of the court of this day, requires the commanding General of the Parisian armed force to give assistance and to put on foot the public force necessary for the execution of said judgment rendered against Marie Antoinette Lorraine Autriche (Austrian), widow of Louis Capet, and which condemns her to the penalty of death, which execution shall take place to-day at 10 A.M. in the Place de la Revolution in this city. The commanding General is required to send the said public force from the court house yard on the said day at 8 A.M. precisely.

Given at Paris on the twenty-fifth day of the second years of the French Republic, one and indivisible. (Old style, Wednesday, October 15, 5 o’clock in the morning.)

Public Prosecuting Attorney

(Signed) A. J. Fouquier.

The document is stamped with the seal of the “National Legislation Section of the Archives.”

Although 119 years old the document is remarkable well preserved, due no doubt to the fact that it has been kept in a dark place during the greater part of the time. Three well formed creases and one slight crease mar its surface, but otherwise the sheet of paper, a trifle yellow from age, is as perfect as on the day it was signed by Fouquier. The ink is still black and the printing has not faded in the least.

The three slips of paper which were found in the same book as the warrant were apparently taken from the archives of the Temple at the same time as the larger document. Two of them are about three by four inches, while the other is only a small slip containing the single signature of the “Comtesse Valois de la Motte,” surrounding whose varied career the elder Dumas wove the tale of “The Queen’s Necklace.”

The signature of the “Countess” is, as one would expect from such a clever criminal, firm and determined. The letters are well formed and the very writing appears to breathe character and determination. The “Motte” ends with a lengthy flourish, as do both “d’s” another contribution to the theory of Lombroso and other criminologists that the more ornate a signature the less oral the writer.

The autographs on the two other slips of paper are fully as interesting as is that of the condemned Countess. Only three of the writers, however, have gone down in history. These are Louis Charles Capet, the Dauphin; [Marie] Therese Capet, his sister, and Elizabeth Capet, his aunt and sister of the King.

There are two signature of the little Dauphin, one on each slip. Both of them are scrawled the in the childish hand of the little Prince, and in one of them the “p” in Capet was missing and inserted over a caret. The childish letters were evidently formed with great difficulty one at a time and in some cases they do not even join one another. The “l” at the commencement of one signature is more like a “k” than its proper self, while the “r’s” resemble the “t’s”. The young King-to-be was also a little careless about the placing of the dots over his “I’s,” for in both autographs the dot is over the first loop of the “u” in Louis, instead of over the letter to which it belongs.

The signature of Therese, his sister, however, is well formed and indicates the character of all women of the Capetian line. Although but a child when the autograph was put to paper, the daughter of Louis XVI, was as able a penwoman as her Aunt Elizabeth, only the “t” in Capet being malformed. The Princess Elizabeth’s hand is bold and easily read, the final “t’ being complete with a heavy swing and downward stroke of the pen which is carried onto the crossbar.

Among the other signatures on the slips are those of “David” (who believed that the importance of his position, whatever it was, warranted his surrounding his name with a flamboyant flourish), Daujon, Saurens, Stady, Channette and others which are undecipherable. Practically the same signatures appear on both the larger slips—Therese and Elizabeth Capet being the only ones who inscribed their names but once. The Sun [New York, NY] 21 July 1912: p. 1

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil cautions her readers that she has no idea if the story of the document’s theft by the executioner and its “rediscovery” in Washington, D.C. is true or not. Marie Antoinette was a romantic and sympathetic figure, rather like Mary, Queen of Scots. Stories of her relics were often the subject of imaginative reporting in the early 20th century press, while mementoes of the doomed Queen–perhaps of the correct age, but creative provenance–were avidly sought.

Some of the characters mentioned:

Princess Elizabeth, “Madame Elisabeth” [1764-1794] was the sister of King Louis XVI, excuted during the Terror. 

Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy, “Comtesse de la Motte” [1756-1791], was the central figure in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace.  

Commissioner Daujon of the Commune shielded the Royal family by not allowing revolutionaries carrying the Princesse de Lambelle’s head on a pike into the Temple, where the Royal family was staying. 

Antoine Quentin Fouquier de Tinville [1746-1795], who signed the warrant, was the prosecutor in the trials of Charlotte Corday and Queen Marie Antoinette. 

Charles-Henri Sanson, France’s state executioner

One wonders if “David” was Jacques-Louis David, the artist, known for his Revolutionary sympathies.

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4 thoughts on “The Death Warrant of Marie Antoinette: 1912

  1. Undine

    Hilaire Belloc’s bio of Marie Antoinette contains a facsimile of the death warrant, and that book was published three years before this newspaper article announcing the document’s “discovery.” That would seem to suggest the article is fiction, but I haven’t been able to find out anything else about the warrant.

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    1. chriswoodyard Post author

      Most interesting! Many versions of this article–mostly with less detail, ran in papers all over the country in 1912, starting in July. That is the earliest I can find reference to the story. (Sometimes one does see an identical story repeated 5 years or so later, but this does not seem to be the case.) Is it possible that there were multiple copies of the warrant, just as there were multiple copies of the Magna Carta? To post all over proclaiming that the Austrian Woman was dead? Just a theory. There is a William Freeny, Tailor, listed in the Washington Census for 1900. His wife was born in France.

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  2. Pingback: Marie Antoinette and the Fortune-Teller: 1782 | Mrs Daffodil Digresses

  3. Pingback: Marie Antoinette’s Emeralds: 1888, 1895 | Mrs Daffodil Digresses

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