A gallery of 1871 Paris Commune pétroleuse portraits - the world's first photographic 'mug shots' - taken of the alleged petrol girls, by photographer E. Appert.
A gallery of 1871 Paris Commune pétroleuse portraits - the world's first photographic 'mug shots' - taken of the alleged petrol girls, by photographer E. Appert.
The pétroleuses (“petrol girls”) were 8000 women (along with hundreds of children) who were accused of setting fire to Paris during the Versailles invasion called ‘Bloody Week’, where somewhere between 10,000 and 40,000 Parisians were slaughtered on the streets of Paris, ushering the end of the Paris Commune.
To many people at the time, the formidable sight of Paris burning was equal to the shocking sight of women fighting hard against it: wearing military uniforms and fighting the Versailles army on the barricades. Shortly after, the two were associated with one another, as these women were accused of deliberately setting fire to Paris with little petrol cans.
No evidence of pétroleuses was ever presented to the military tribunals, despite the flood of caricatures of poor women – depicting them as witches and deranged madwomen – that flooded the newspapers after Bloody Week. Historians tell us that the fires were more likely caused by the incendiary bombs which the Versaillais fired into windows, in an attempt to force the Communards from the buildings.
Lissagray, in his History of the Commune, stated:
“The pétroleuses were chimerical creatures, comparable to salamanders or elves. The Councils of War never succeeded in producing a single one.”
But it was not for want of trying. The first of these so-called pétroleuses faced trial before the military tribunals in late 1871. The women they accused were all poor, mostly illiterate, and all told the court that they had not set any of the fires. They were nonetheless sentenced to death and exile in the trials that followed.
These trials were farcical: women were found guilty on the basis of their sexual histories (for example, living with de-facto partners), the criminal histories of family members, or in one case, for sharing a surname with a known revolutionary, despite being no relation.
You can read more about some of the individual histories of the pétroleuses below the photo gallery.
Elisabeth was a 39 year old cardboard-maker who had lived faithfully with a road-repairman for seven years until she left because he beat her. After she left, she pawned all of her clothes and survived on poverty wages. As it was difficult to find work making cardboard during the Prussian Siege, she accepted pauper relief from the city of Paris: a pound of bread and 60 centimes. But she was said to have always paid her rent on time and was liked by the people in her neighbourhood ‘for her gentleness, her honesty and her good relations with everyone’.
Elisabeth did have a distant criminal history: she had been sentenced to 20 days in prison in 1853 for fighting with a woman, and was fined 16 francs in 1855 for insulting a policeman. Early in May 1871 her neighbour Eulalie Papavoine invited her to work as a canteen worker, but she soon became an ambulance nurse. She said she had done this through sympathy. “I would have aided a Versailles soldier just as willingly as a national guard,” she said, during the military trials.
At the Palace of the Legion of Honour, she was seen carrying a rifle, though no one saw her firing it. She was seen bringing food and drink to the barricades and giving first aid to the wounded. She was seen wearing a red scarf and had not been observed to be rolling any casks of kerosene.
Elisabeth was sentenced to death during the pétroleuse trials. Several months later, her sentence was commuted to exile and hard labour in French Guiana.
In 1878 she married a fellow prisoner Jean Berthonier. She lived the rest of her life in French Guiana.
Eulalie was a neighbour of Elisabeth Rétiffe and lived in the neighbourhood of rue du Temple. She was a seamstress, and was 25 years old at the time of the Commune.
Eulalie had no criminal record prior to the Commune. She had lived in a common law marriage with a journeyman engraver, Ernest Balthazar, and they had a child together. During the Commune, Ernest was a member of the 135th battalion of the National Guard. Eulalie followed him as an ambulance nurse in all the places he fought: Neuilly, Issy, Vanves and Levallois.
Eulalie was accused of having fought against the Versailles army, of burning the Legion of Honour, and of having looted three handkerchiefs with Léontine Suétens from a house in rue de Solférino. That house was being used as a makeshift hospital following the explosion of the munitions factory on Avenue Rapp, where Eulalie was a first responder, gathering the injured girls, giving them first aid as the Legion of Honour burned.
The court asked why she did not flee the house at rue de Solférino when the Versailles army approached. She told the court that she did not leave because “I wanted to share my lover’s fate” and “we had dead and wounded men.”
Eulalie refuted all the charges against her, but Louise Michel stated that the judges did not take kindly to her because she shared the name Papavoine of a known revolutionary, despite being no relation.
She was sentenced to deportation in a fortified enclosure and civic degradation in 1871, and was given permission to marry her lover Ernest, detained at Satory, in order to legitimise their four year old son.
She died in prison at Châlons-sur-Marne in 1875 at the age of 29.
Joséphine had a criminal history: she had once been sentenced to six months in prison for theft. Her family was likewise considered suspect: her mother had spent five years in prison and ten years of police supervision for incitement to debauchery, and her sister Madeleine, in a correction house until twenty years old, had also been imprisoned for theft.
During the Commune, Joséphine worked as a canteen worker for the Enfants Purdus battalion, beside her lover Jean Guy, a butcher boy. She was accused at trial of having participated in the looting of a house, of wearing a Tyrolian hat and arming herself with a rifle, and of encouraging the national guardsmen to battle. Some of the things she allegedly said included “Pack of traitors, go on and fight!” and “If I am killed, I want to kill first!”. She was also accused of having forced her lover to the barricades, despite his wish to desert the Commune.
Joséphine denied having used kerosene. She said she was merely going to the rue de Lille to return some linen she had washed for the Commune soldiers.
Joséphine was said to have wept when her death sentence was made. It was later commuted to exile and hard labour in French Guiana.
She escaped in 1872 and little is known about her life afterwards.
A 25 year old laundress who was daughter of a tailor who exhibited revolutionary ideas, Léontine had been previously sentenced to a year in prison for theft. She had been living for six years in a common law marriage with a stonemason, Aubert, who was a quartermaster sergeant in the 135th battalion. When the Commune began defending itself against Versailles, she worked as a canteen worker, and took part in fighting at Neuilly, Issy, Vanves and Levallois, and was wounded twice in these battles.
During the fighting, she was seen armed with a chassepot rifle and wearing a red scarf. She brought water to the Commune soldiers, gathered the wounded and was seen building barricades.
Léontine denied having ever touched kerosene or being provided kerosene in provisions for the soldiers. She said she had been given ten francs to pay the ambulance nurses; the judges believed she had received this money in payment for setting the fires, which was not proven or supported by evidence.
Nonetheless, Léontine was sentenced to death in 1871. She was said to have wept when the sentence was read.
Her sentence was later commuted to forced labour for life in French Guiana.
Marie Leroy was a double agent during the Commune, being the mistress of both the Versailles agent, Barral de Montaud, and the Communard member Raoul Urbain.
Marie was considered an agent provocateur: she assisted the Versailles agent, Barral de Montaud, to be appointed as the leader of the 7th legion for the Commune.
She likewise was said to have been vociferous in her insistence that the Commune shoot ten hostages in response to the Versailles army’s rape and murder of an ambulance nurse on the battlefield, and of having influenced Urbain to vote on the same. (The motion did not pass, with the Commune’s Public Prosecutor Raoul Rigault allegedly stating “I would rather let two guilty men escape than strike down a single man who was innocent”, contrary to the Commune’s reputation as violent and lawless.)
During her trial, the military court saw her as “a pretty young woman albeit a very naughty puss” and decided to cite a saying of antiquity, that “nobody should beat a woman, even with a flower.” She was said to have wept during her trial in a way that “none but a woman of fine temperament and cultivated intellect can weep, without a reddened nose and blistered cheeks, and without making herself look ugly.”
The court generously concluded:
“Madame Leroy may have a great and pleasant career before her. She will go to [Noumea], where, perfectly free to do anything but leave the place, she may exercise the various talents with which she is endowed, in a place where pretty women are scarce. She has not only good manners and some experience of official life, but while looking out for higher things, can make bonnets and dresses. Moreover… she is free as air to marry.”
While the court was in deliberation, Marie was said to have written a letter to the Colonel Merlin, asking him to share the fate of Raoul Urbain, and to be allowed to marry him. But when Urbain learned of her double-agent duplicity he was said to have been unwilling.
Madame Leroy was sentenced to deportation to New Caledonia for her role in the Commune. She married for a third time while there, but was not popular with the other deportees.
Hortense was 35 years old at the time of the Commune. She had been married in 1854 to a brush-maker, with whom she had two children, but they had separated by 1871.
During Bloody Week, Hortense was arrested at the barricades at rue Royale and rue Faubourg Saint-Honoré. She worked as a canteen worker during the Commune. She was said to have pointed and fired the cannon at Place de la Concorde, and to have slept under the vault at the naval Ministry. She was always dressed in a sailor’s uniform. Her skills and courage in machine gunning were also said to be such that she was carried on the shoulders of her comrades to the Hotel de Ville, who celebrated her bravery.
The pro-Versailles writer Maxime du Camp gave a fanciful account of Hortense and others supposedly conducting obscene bacchanalian festivals amidst the buildings they had set alight, making men feverish, kissing them and intoxicating them with “battle and brandy”.
She was sentenced to hard labour for life, for her role in defending the barricade in rue Royale, and for burning down the Tuileries Palace. While there, the Director of the Auberive prison said that she was a tireless worker, a good student and had a timid character. He thought she was a ‘good woman who had easily got carried away’. He interceded on her behalf several times for the reduction of her sentence, saying that she bitterly deplored her weakness, and was a widow who was worried for the welfare of her two children.
She died in hospital in 1893, at the age of 56.
Victorine was the “companion” of the General Émile Eudes, who was a leading Blanquist and member of the Commune.
She was a former student and close friend of Louise Michel, and worked as a pharmacist. She likewise met her husband when he was a pharmacy student, and they had a six year old daughter, Jeanne, at the time of the Commune.
Victorine was known as ‘la Generale’ for being the equal to her husband. She was recognised for her skills as a sharpshooter, as well as having a reputation for bravery. When her husband was arrested for hiding the revolutionary Blanqui in 1870, for example, she would not submit to threats and disclose the revolutionary’s hiding place.
Victorine had a strawberry birthmark on her face. Pro-Versailles writers such as Maxime du Camp believed this mark was a sign of her moral decadence. He wrote “With her wide eyes illuminating a delicately-coloured face, framed by lavish, light-chestnut hair, Madame Eudes could have passed for a perfect beauty, were it not for the nasty strawberry-mark which, spreading down between her eyebrows, made this madonna-like face horribly crude.”
Another time, when Maxime du Camp saw Victorine fence with Raoul Rigault, the Public Prosecutor of the Commune, he said “I imagine that she has given up on being a woman, or, at least, that she would have wanted to be a woman with a beard.”
Victorine fought on the barricades at Fort d’Issy with Louise Michel. After Bloody Week, her husband escaped to Switzerland and she and Jeanne followed him, escaping by dressing as a peasants. They quickly went to London, where Victorine worked as a seamstress to support her family, as Émile had been sentenced to death in absentia and they could not return to France.
Victorine and Émile went on to have three more children born in Britain and Scotland: Blanche, Émile and Hélène. Émile worked as a French teacher in Edinburgh until the family returned to Paris after the 1879 amnesty.
Marie-Jeanne was caught several months after the Commune, while trying to set fire to the house where she believed her lover was living, planning to wreak vengeance on him.
Instead, while investigating that act, police found some papers in her home supporting the Commune. The police used these papers to arrest Marie-Jeanne as a pétroleuse, despite having no evidence of her involvement in the Commune.
She was sentenced to death in 1871, but several months later her sentence was commuted to forced deportation for life in the Salvation Islands, off the coast of French Guiana. She received amnesty in 1880.
Marguerite was a clothier. She had been married to a man named Prévost and had a child to him, but then they separated. For 11 years since, she had been living in a common law marriage with a bronze-setter and Communard Toussain Auguste Lachaise, and was considered his ‘companion’. She worked as a canteen worker and ambulance nurse during the Commune, and was admired for her courage by her comrades in the 66th battalion.
Marguerite was implicated in the murder of a Communard, Charles de Beaufort, who was shot for treason during Bloody Week. Many members of the Commune had suspected his loyalty; after an undisciplined action by some troops he was heard to say ‘I must purge this battalion”. He was arrested on Marguerite’s instigation, and taken to the office of Commander Genton. Commander Genton said that he was not qualified to continue the interrogation, and several other members of the Commune, including the respected Delescluze, also intervened on the prisoner’s behalf. But Delescluze could not prevent the cries of the mob Death! Death! He’s a traitor! He’s a nobleman and a count! He could only be among us to betray us! He has to be shot. Marguerite was accused of saying “If you don’t have him shot, I’ll shoot him myself” and, after de Beaufort was taken to a vacant lot and shot, of having said “That’s good… I’m so happy I could die.”
Yet other evidence suggested that she had pleaded for de Beaufort’s life with Delescluze, that she asked for two hours’ respite to examine the charges against him, and that she cried when she saw the mob leading him off to be shot.
During Bloody Week, she was also said to have presented at La Roquette prison to ask that the Archbishop of Paris and other hostages not be shot. The following conversation was said to have taken place:
The Captain of the 207th battalion – “You know very well that women do not come in here.”
Marguerite – “I’m not a woman, but a man, because I’m a canteen worker… already this morning they have shot a Federal officer. This is too much. I don’t want my battalion being called murderers.”
Despite the evidence not supporting her sentence, she was condemned to death, commuted in 1872 to forced labour for life in the Salvation Islands, off the coast of French Guiana, for her role in de Beaufort’s death. She was granted amnesty with the other Communards in 1879.
An ambulance worker during the Commune, she was condemned to deportation.
Josephine was condemned to deportation for burning the Palace of the Legion of Honour in 1871.
Marie worked as a canteen worker during the Commune and was condemned to forced labour for having burned down the Porte Saint-Martin.
Condemned to hard labour for burning down the Hotel de Ville.
Laure was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Françoise enthusiastically supported her husband, an artilleryman, during the war with Versailles. She was sentenced to five years of prison and ten years of surveillance.
The photos in this gallery originally appear at the Museums of the City of Paris online Collections
The biographies are sourced from information online, at various museums in Paris, and in the excellent book The Women Incendiaries by Edith Thomas, which you can purchase here.