Concerning the period of the Thermidorian Reaction we find Carlyle in his "A History" reporting the following:

This Convention, now grown Anti-Jacobin,did,with an eye to justify and fortify itself, publish Lists of what the Reign of Terror had perpetrated: Lists of Persons Guillotined. The Lists, cries splenetic Abbe Montgaillard, were not complete. They contain the names of, How many persons thinks the reader?—Two Thousand all but a few. There were above Four Thousand, cries Montgaillard: so many were guillotined... of whom Nine Hundred were women. (Montgaillard, iv. 241.) It is a horrible sum of human lives, M. l’Abbe:—some ten times as many shot rightly on a field of battle, and one might have had his Glorious-Victory with Te-Deum. It is not far from the two-hundredth part of what perished in the entire Seven Years War. By which Seven Years War, did not the great Fritz wrench Silesia from the great Theresa; and a Pompadour, stung by epigrams, satisfy herself that she could not be an Agnes Sorel? The head of man is a strange vacant sounding-shell, M. l’Abbe; and studies Cocker to small purpose.

A careful reading of Carlyle indicates that he himself seems to scoff at the notion that less than two thousand (or even four thousand) were Guillotined. And from many other places in his book, it appears clear that there were far more victims of the guillotine. He mentions Forty Four thousand revolutionary committees all over France, collecting prisoners and sending them to Paris to be guillotined, as well as bands of Jacobins traversing all of France with portable guillotines that they would set up in the town square where they arrived, and haul in their victims to be beheaded - whole families at once, men women and children.

And we find a parade of "tumbrils" traversing the streets of Paris, carrying their victims to the guillotine, containing ten, twenty and as many as sixty at a time, for months on end or perhaps even a year.

The Revolutionaries also set up facilities for putting to use the human remains of their victims:

One other thing, or rather two other things, we will still mention; and no more: The Blond Perukes; the Tannery at Meudon. Great talk is of these Perruques blondes: O Reader, they are made from the Heads of Guillotined women! The locks of a Duchess, in this way, may come to cover the scalp of a Cordwainer: her blond German Frankism his black Gaelic poll, if it be bald. Or they may be worn affectionately, as relics; ren- dering one suspect? (Mercier, ii. 134.) Citizens use them, not without mockery; of a rather cannibal sort. Still deeper into one’s heart goes that Tannery at Meudon; not mentioned among the other miracles of tanning! ‘At Meudon,’ says Montgaillard with considerable calmness, ‘there was a Tannery of Human Skins; such of the Guillotined as seemed worth flaying: of which perfectly good wash-leather was made:’ for breeches, and other uses. The skin of the men, he remarks, was superior in toughness (consistance) and quality to shamoy;

This seems to indicate that there were far more than two thousand victims - these wigs and 'leather' products appear to have been fairly widespread, and it would hardly have been worth the trouble to set up such operations at all for only one thousand victims (one thousand men and one thousand women).

When I considered the number, it seemed to me that 100,000 would be a conservative estimate. If each of the 44,000 councils sent only one to the guillotine, we already have 44,000. Do we have a clear reckoning (not a simple count but an accounting) of how many heads were actually felled by guillotine during the Revolution?

  • Are you asking about those who were guillotined or also about those who were kileld in other ways? And do the casualties of the Vendee count here? The question is not quite clear as it is. Aug 14, 2013 at 7:16
  • @FelixGoldberg : "how many heads were actually felled by guillotine" - can I be any clearer? :-) Le Vendee? Good question... were they guillotining over there? I'll have to review - from Carlyle it sounds more like just a general military/paramilitary sort skirmish.
    – user2590
    Aug 14, 2013 at 7:29
  • The title of the question is clear but the body seems to diverge from it into a general discussion of the death toll ("so many were guillotined,fusilladed, noyaded, done to dire death;"). Presumably, there were many deaths in the countryside but not many of them would be by means of a portable guillotine (I don't think there were 44,000 of them anyhow). From what I've read now (ref [2] in the wikipedia article that @Pieter Geerkens quoted) it seems that the low figures for deaths strictly by guillotine may be correct; the other ways of meeting one's death in the Terror are harder to tally. Aug 14, 2013 at 8:40
  • And if fact, Carlyle seems to confuse the issue - Meudon is bad enough, but it's not clear that the victims whose bodies got there were guillotined - they could have been shot or whatever. Aug 14, 2013 at 8:41
  • @FelixGoldberg - Carlyle says they were guillotined as quoted, which makes sense. If someone is shot, drowned, etc. their skin might be damaged. Guillotining is very clean... leaves all the skin perfectly intact... you have a contradicting source? I'd be interested. I know there have been doubts cast on some of Carlyle's accounts. I'm no expert in the subject - just read some French literature and Carlyle, as much for the literature as the history. But he got me interested in the subject. (as a follow up I'm reading Tale of Two Cities)
    – user2590
    Aug 14, 2013 at 9:37

1 Answer 1


Wikipedia lists the total casualties from the Terror at a much more reasonable tens of thousands:

The death toll ranged in the tens of thousands, with 16,594 executed by guillotine (2,639 in Paris),2 and another 25,000 in summary executions across France.

The Terror only lasted 9 months after all.

While it is certain that a few tens-of-thousands were guillotined during the Terror, the wheels of Justice still rolled slowly. For one, a certain Josephine Beauharnais was imprisoned for several months at the end of the Terror awaiting execution:

Considering Joséphine as too close to the counter-revolutionary financial circles, the Committee ordered her arrest on 19 April 1794. A warrant of arrest was issued against her on 2 Floréal, year II (21 April 1794), and she was imprisoned in the Carmes prison until 10 Thermidor, year II (28 July 1794).

Her husband was accused of having poorly defended Mainz in July 1793, and considered an aristocratic "suspect", was sentenced to death and guillotined, with his cousin Augustin, on 23 July 1794, on the Place de la Révolution (today's Place de la Concorde) in Paris. Joséphine was freed five days later, thanks to the fall and execution of Robespierre, which ended the Reign of Terror.

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    I am down-voting this answer because it simply cites wiki, which brings no source and no method of reckoning, nor do you or wiki address the numbers Carlyle mentions: Forty four thousand revolutionary councils, which was an important part of my question. Nine months? If we assume 10 people per tumbrel, 5 days a week, for 36 weeks, we already have 1800 in Paris alone - and ten per tumbrel is a conservative estimate. These numbers need sources and validation. In addition, guillotining was not synchronous with the 'reign of terror' - for one, the Thermidorians guillotined many Jacobins.
    – user2590
    Aug 14, 2013 at 5:16
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    and it quite likely artificially narrows the definition in order to arrive at a lower than actual number of victims, not an uncommon thing to do (of course other sources may artificially inflate) when the author wants to give a certain impression of an event.
    – jwenting
    Aug 14, 2013 at 8:32
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    @jwenting - "in order to arrive at a lower than actual number of victim...when the author wants to give a certain impression..." Yes. We need to do more than just keep pulling wiki's out of the air - they have their bias and it is becoming the de-facto source for everything. Not good.
    – user2590
    Aug 14, 2013 at 10:02
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    @Vector using wikipedia as a source is fine, as long as their entries are verifiable. I see them as no different from any other secondary source in that.
    – jwenting
    Aug 14, 2013 at 10:13
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    @jwenting - I also use it - mostly to refresh my memory - problem is getting to the sources they cite. Regardless, I just don't like the way they seem to be becoming a defacto source for everything. Between them and Google, a monopoly on knowledge will arise: BAD, as we know....
    – user2590
    Aug 14, 2013 at 10:22

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