François Bordier was a boulevard actor born 2 August 1758 in Paris. He attained more fame for the circumstances of his death on 21 August 1789, and the posthumous pamphlets and prints it generated, than for his life.
The son of a stone-cutter, he entered the Ambigu-Comique theatre as a child playing mostly the roles of valets, soldiers and peasants. In 1781, Bordier left this theatre and joined instead a troop of comedians who performed shows in the Bois de Boulogne and at Saint-Cloud. This enterprise having been fruitless, Bordier joined the Variétés-Amusantes in 1782 where he enjoyed greater notoriety. The theatre gave Bordier financial security as well as the opportunity to appropriate new roles for himself including that of Frontin in Dumaniant’s comedy Nuits aux Aventures. Bordier was not, however, a disciplined actor, police records bulge with accounts of his gambling debts and spats with actresses. Bordier spent his last jewels during an illness and left Paris for the curing waters of Forges. The next time he is heard of, it is in circumstances still mysterious today.
Indeed, Bordier’s most famous role was as a co-leader of the pillaging of the monarchic Hôtel de l’Intendence of Rouen on 3 August 1789. Details of Bordier's role in the pillaging vary wildly depending on the commentator but it appears that he co-led with a lawyer named Jourdain. They were both promptly arrested.
In a script worthy of any play, one of the stories that surrounds his arrest is that he was allowed to escape from his prison before execution but was then given chase by the same volunteers who delivered him. They raced, believing him to be further away but found him instead having lunch in Magny. Bordier was condemned to death and hung with Jourdain on 21 August 1789.
Bordier and Jourdain's actions are not particularly unusual in the wider context of the Great Fear that followed the events of July 1789. What made the case stand out, however, was Bordier's profession. The affair was consequently taken up in an unusual proliferation of posthumous pamphlets. In these pamphlets, Bordier was depicted alternatively as an instrument of the aristocracy or a leader of a troupe of brigands. Very few pamphlets defended his actions as anti-aristocratic.
Bordier's profession also led to more imaginative tributes, his execution prompted several negative plays in 1789 for example including Bordier aux enfers, comédie en un acte, and Jugement de Bordier, dans l’empire des morts. Bordier was also captured in one particular print, ‘Avis aux perturbateurs du bon ordre’ (see image on right). The print portrays Bordier in full Harlequin regalia next to the gallows. It also refers to and quotes a play by Dumaniant, La nuit aux aventures, in which Bordier had played the role of Frontin. The quote, spoken by Frontin ‘Vous verrez que je serai pendu / pour arranger l’affaire’ (I bet I’ll be hung to arrange matters) suggests not only that Bordier was guilty only through unfortunate circumstances but also an inability to separate Bordier the man from Bordier the actor. It is claimed that Bordier uttered those words as he walked to the gallows, the rumour of which probably influenced the print. To further demonstrate how this play appears inextricable from his death, its playwright penned the same year Bordier’s defence in Mort de Bordier, acteur des variétés.
Bordier was eventually rehabilitated four years later, in 1793.
Louis-Abel Beffroy de Reigny, Bordier aux enfers, comédie en un acte (1789).
Antoine-Jean Bourlin (Dumaniant), Mort de Bordier, acteur des variétés, (Paris: Laporte, 1789).
Antoine-Jean Bourlin (Dumaniant), La nuit aux aventures ou 'Les deux morts vivants' (Paris: Cailleau, 1788).
Emilie Campardon, Les Spectacles de la Foire, vol. 1 (Elibron Classics, 2006) pp. 117, 167-171.
Amable Floquet, Histoire du parlement de Normandie, vol. 7 (Rouen: Edouard Frère, 1842) p. 562.
Edouard Frère, Manuel Du Bibliographe Normand ou Dictionnaire Bibliographique et Historique, vol. 1 (Slatkine reprints : Geneva, 1971).
Paul Friedland, Political Actors: Representative Bodies and Theatricality in the Age of the Revolution (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003) pp. 205-207.
Henri Louis Le Kaïn, Jugement de Bordier, dans l’empire des morts ou Lettre de Lekain aux amateurs (Paris, 1789).