The Seven Convicts Who Launched a Revolution

As symbols of revolutions go, they aren’t the most inspiring examples. For one thing, they were all criminals. Yes, it is true that all would-be revolutionaries are criminals in the eyes of the establishment, but these men were not imprisoned for their political views.

Most of them, in fact, are anonymous. In all the commotion and revolutionary fervor, someone misplaced the records that would tell future generations about the men whose captivity became synonymous with revolutionary liberty.

The Bastille

The Bastille was an 8-tower medieval fortress that was originally built to defend the eastern wall of Paris. It wasn’t long before it became a hated symbol of royal tyranny. Cardinal Richelieu, acting for King Louis XIII, used the Bastille as a prison for the king’s enemies. Using lettres-de-cachet — secret warrants issued personally by the king — rivals were snatched up and locked away without a trial or even being informed of the charges against them. If released, it was upon the condition that they never reveal anything they had seen or experienced inside the prison.

On July 14, 1789, the citizens of Paris rose up to overthrow the government of King Louis XVI. They focused their aggression on the Bastille, equating it with everything they hated about royal oppression. Unbeknownst to many who stormed the prison that day, the massive structure housed a grand total of seven prisoners that day.

Here is what we do know about them:

Four Forgers

Four of the convicts were forgers. The specifics of their crimes are just as lost as their identities. We know they were arrested under warrants issued by the Grand Châtelet court. Whether they were fraudulently replicating art, counterfeiting currency, or generating bogus legal documents is a mystery.

A Guy Who Thought He Was Julius Caesar

James Francis Xavier Whyte was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1730. He served during the Seven Years War, first as a cornet in the Soubise Volunteers then a captain in Lally Tollendal’s Franco-Irish regiment. By 1781, his psychological state was alarming. His family held him at the prison in Vincennes. When it was closed in 1784, he and fellow inmate the Marquis de Sade were transferred to the Bastille. The authorities declared him incompetent and unable to manage his own affairs in March 1789. His daughters were given control of his property.

The Marquis de Sade was transferred out of the Bastille ten days before it was stormed by the mob. Whyte, however, became an instant hero when he was released. The citizens of Paris paraded him through the streets throughout that day.

It quickly became clear that there was a reason why Whyte had been locked away. To the alarm of the people around him, he introduced himself at various times as Julius Caesar, St. Louis, or God.

On the day after his release, Whyte was locked away, first at the Hôtel de Ville and then at the prison-asylum at Charenton. In 1795, he was transferred one last time to the asylum of Petites Maisons.

A Would-Be Assassin

The closest to a political prisoner was Auguste-Claude Tavernier. It was commonly believed that he had been locked away as a conspirator in the attempted assassination of Louis XV thirty years earlier. He was, in fact, there at the request of his own family.

The surviving records of the Bastille reveal that the authorities were not overly concerned about him. In them, he is described as “Un homme de néant.” (“A man of nothingness”). His father locked him away at Charenton in 1745 for “excessive idleness and libertinage.” He was later moved to Saint-Lazare. After that, he was held at the prison on the Île Sainte-Marguerite in the bay outside Cannes. His family paid 300 livres a year for his upkeep.

It was while he was in custody on the Île Sainte-Marguerite that he was first accused of conspiring to kill the king. In 1759, the chevalier de Lussan, a fellow inmate, made the accusation. He was moved to the Bastille for questioning. Somehow, no one got around to investigating the case. For that reason, Tavernier remained in limbo for the next 30 years.

In her 2000 book If the King Only Knew: Seditious Speech in the Reign of Louis XV, Lisa Jane Graham concluded that Tavernier was “a shrewd and resourceful man who could not immediately be dismissed as crazy.” After being imprisoned for nearly all of his adult life, however, he was not in the best of mental health. After his release from the Bastille, he was found wandering the streets at two in the morning. Authorities held him under guard in the district of Saint-Roch, occasionally allowing him to greet the public. Five days after being freed from the Bastille, he surrendered to the Hôtel de Ville. The following day he was taken to Charenton by M. de La Chaise. Records show that he left Charenton in July 1795, but where he went from there is an unsolved mystery.

A Man of Ill-Repute

Hubert de Solages was definitely not the kind of guy you’d want to hold up as a national hero. He was locked away by his family for “perverted sexual practices” after committing incest with his sister Pauline. It was Solgages’ father who sought the imprisonment “due to his dissipation and bad conduct.”

He was initially imprisoned at the château de Ferrières near Castres, at the fort de Brescou off the Cap d’Agde before being transferred to the fortress of Pierre-Encize in Lyon. While there, he managed to escape. After he was apprehended, he spent time in Vincennes before finally being moved to the Bastille on February 28, 1784.

Solages quarters at the Bastille were on the fourth floor, overlooking the rue Saint-Antoine. He whiled away the hours by playing the violin, reading, and writing. For his upkeep, his family paid 2,300 francs for his pension and 400 francs for his care.

After his release, Solages took up lodging at the Hôtel de Rouen, rue d’Angivilliers. Later, with help of his uncle, he returned home to the Albigeois. He died on October 2, 1824, becoming the only freed prisoner we know of who died in freedom.

Fated to Die on the Toilet

When they found Michael Godwin, he was already dead. He was also on the toilet. We mention the location of his demise because it is relevant to this story, not because we are inclined toward toilet humor (despite what you might think after reading these articles). There’s just no getting around the fact that Godwin…

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