Prologue: The Prisoner in the Tower

October 22, 1785

As the setting sun slipped below the tiled roofs of late 18th century Paris, a solitary convict leaned over his desk in the Liberty Tower of the Bastille and began to write:

“The extensive wars that Louis XIV had to wage throughout the course of his reign, while exhausting the state’s finances and the people’s resources, nevertheless uncovered the secret to enriching an enormous number of those leeches always lying in wait for the public calamities they provoke rather than quell in order to profit from them all the more… It was towards the end of this reign… that four among them conceived the unique feat of debauchery we are about to describe.”

The man’s fine-tipped quill moved quickly across the four-and-a-half-inch-wide paper, filling the page with delicate, almost microscopically small letters, the lines of brown ink crammed so close together to save space that the descenders of his “j”s, “p”s, and “y”s stabbed like lancets into the line below. As he wrote, the light from his shaded candles flickered about the whitewashed stone walls of his cramped octagonal cell, the air rank from the waste that poured from the sewer pipe under his window into the moat below. Past his cell door, the prison echoed with the creaks of doors, clattering keys, and bolts slamming into place, the only sign he wasn’t completely alone. 


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In the cold evening, shadows played across the trappings allowed to a prisoner of his aristocratic stature: Shelves sagging with six hundred books, with titles by Homer, Newton, and Shakespeare, as well as works on the existence of God, the motion of fluids, and the history of vampires. Expensive bottles of Eau de Cologne, fine linen towels, velvet cushions, and colorful tapestries stretched across the walls. And a prized collection of dildos, fashioned from rosewood and ebony, crafted to exacting specifications by a prominent Parisian cabinetmaker.

The cell’s occupant was one of the notorious criminals in 18th century France. He had spent most of his 45 years reveling in debauchery: engaging in blasphemous acts with a prostitute, torturing a beggar, poisoning whores, hiding in Italy in the romantic company of his sister-in-law, locking away girls and boys in his chateau for his own sexual devices, and narrowly surviving a bullet fired at his chest. For years, he had evaded the law – breaking out of an Alpine prison, dodging a military raid on his home, absconding from the clutches of a police squadron, and eluding his own public execution. 

His name was Donatien Alphonse François de Sade, but most knew him as the Marquis de Sade.

Sade’s exploits had come to an end with his capture in 1778. He had first been assigned to the dungeon of Vincennes, a royal residence turned prison in a hunting preserve outside of Paris, where he had briefly been interned as a much younger man. For six years, he had lived in a damp and rodent-infested cell whose narrow windows provided the faintest hint of daylight. Then, the year before, authorities had shut down Vincennes and transferred him to an even more foreboding facility: the Bastille. Located near the heart of Paris, the Bastille was one of the most notorious prisons in all of Europe. With his arrest warrant signed by the king, Sade had been locked away with no charges, no trial, no possibility of appeal. For all he knew, he might never be released.

The time behind bars had taken its toll on Sade’s once fine figure. Inactivity and a penchant for delicacies sent to him by his wife – eel pâté, chocolate cakes, bacon-wrapped thrush – had left him obese. He’d become plagued by migraines, gout, nosebleeds, breathing problems, dizzy spells, and hemorrhoids so painful he needed a special leather cushion to sit at his desk. With his eyesight nearly ruined, he’d taken to wearing strange mask-like leather goggles. In his mounting delusion, he’d come to perceive a secret code of numerical signals concealed within his monotonous existence – the number of days he’d been imprisoned, the number of letters and packages he received, the amount of times he’d stimulated himself sexually in his cell. He believed these ciphers, once cracked, would reveal the date of his release. At other times, he concluded he was going mad.

“The Curse of the Marquis de Sade”


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Sade had developed one obsession that eclipsed all others: a need to put quill to paper. “It is impossible for me to turn my back on my muse,” he wrote in a letter. “It sweeps me along, forces me to write despite myself and, no matter what people may do to try to stop me, there is no way they will ever succeed.” He composed endless letters, essays, plays, and novellas, launching a literary career whose reputation would linger long after he was gone, resulting in a body of work so violent and obscene that its author would be variously described as “the freest spirit who ever lived,” an “apostle of assassins,” and “a professor emeritus of crime.” Thanks to his writing, Sade would become so deeply associated with cruelty and perversion that his name would become synonymous the world over with deriving pleasure from pain.

But nothing would match the vulgarity of the effort he began this October evening. Experts would come to call the results “one of the most important novels ever written” and “the gospel of evil.” The work was titled The 120 Days of Sodom, or the School of Libertinage.

The novel tells the story of four wealthy degenerates – a duke, bishop, judge, and financier – who engage in a four-month orgy for which they gather 32 subordinates: their four young wives, eight virile men, four elderly female prostitutes, and, as the prime targets of their crimes, 16 boys and girls, ages 12 to 15, selected from a group of several hundred children kidnapped from their homes. In the telling, the four nobles and their retinue retreat to a mountaintop chateau in the depths of the central Europe, a heavily fortified citadel called the Castle of Silling. Thanks to walled-up exit gates, impassable chasms, and impenetrable snow drifts, there is no hope of escape. As the duke, the most domineering of the four, tells some of the prisoners, “you are already dead to the world and it is only for our pleasures that you are breathing now.”

In Silling Castle, amid sumptuously furnished apartments, soundproof compartments, and torture chambers buried deep in the earth, the four noblemen subject their young victims to 120 days of escalating depravity. The first day involves one of the old prostitutes recounting a story tying together priests, pedophilia, and body fluids. It is the tamest episode in the novel. Day after day, as the perversions escalate, the descriptions become ever starker, with all semblance of narrative falling away. Eventually, all that remains is a blunt list of horrors: incest, bestiality, coprophilia, necrophilia, starvation, disemboweling, amputation, castration, cannibalism, and infanticide. By the end of the novel, the chateau is awash in blood and body parts.

The very act of reading the story from end to end seems to exact a physical toll. In 1957, the French philosopher George Bataille declared “Nobody, unless he is totally deaf to it, can finish 120 Days of Sodom without feeling sick.” The Sade publisher Jean-Jacques Pauvert admitted that his and his colleagues’ work on the novel “made us profoundly uneasy for several weeks, the atmosphere broken by outbursts of unexpected, truly crazed laughter.” Austryn Wainhouse, the American author who first English translated the book in the 1960s, wrote that “Sometimes it happens that reading becomes something else, something excessive and grave; it sometimes happens that a book reads its readers through.” In the 1980s, the surrealist literary critic Annie Le Brun compared the task of analyzing the text to “being sucked into a seemingly limitless erotic quagmire.” And most recently, British professor Will McMorran began work on an updated English version, only to note on his blog that “Translating felt like a struggle for agency – sometimes it felt like I was acting on the text, sometimes it felt like the text was acting on me.” McMorran would come away from the experience believing 120 Days of Sodom was the worst thing ever written.

The novel’s onslaught of violence and debauchery made its very existence a mystery. Why would someone have written something so appalling that it was all but unreadable? Why would anyone have bothered with such a herculean effort at a time when the results could never be published? And who exactly was the man behind it? Was Sade a revolutionary, working to expose the rotten core of the aristocracy to which he was born? Was he a radical philosopher, aiming to lay bare humanity’s most cruel and twisted desires? Or was he simply an unrepentant criminal, chronicling his own atrocities, committed or simply dreamed of?

There is also the puzzle of the manuscript itself. Sade worked on the text from 7 to 10 o’clock each evening, since its content was far too scandalous for him to be caught composing it during the day. When he reached the end of a sheet of paper, he pasted another below it, creating an ever-lengthening roll. After 22 nights, he flipped the document over and continued to write. The result, after 37 days of work, was a scroll formed from 33 sheets of paper fastened end to end, measuring just over four inches wide and but stretching nearly forty feet. Both sides were covered with 157,000 words, the text so tiny it was nearly illegible without a magnifying glass. 

In the years to come, the scroll would embark on a centuries-spanning odyssey that would take it across Europe. It would endure revolutions and world wars; land in the epicenter of scientific, artistic, and literary upheavals; and become the focus of an audacious heist and international court battles. As it bore witness to hundreds of years of tumultuous history, the fragile text would move from one extraordinary owner to the next – and manage to outlast them all.

Finally, in 2014, one of the most powerful men in France would purchase 120 Days of Sodom for €7 million. The price made it among of the most valuable manuscripts in the world, comparable to original copies of the Gutenberg Bible, the Canterbury Tales, and Shakespeare’s First Folio. The scroll settled in to its new home just in time for a year-long national celebration of the bicentennial of Sade’s death, the final step of a mass re-evaluation of the once-banned writer that led some French intelligentsia to declare that Sade was France’s version of Shakespeare. 

But within a few months of its homecoming, the manuscript would be snatched away again, this time by French authorities. The ensuing scandal would bring to light festering vendettas at the highest levels of the French government, multimillion-euro manuscript sales derailed by sabotage, phony historical documents, and shady financial deals in the shadow of Monaco’s Monte Carlo Casino. The affair would involve feuding antiquarian booksellers, auction houses beset by theft, and culminate in allegations of a decade-long, continent-spanning, billion-euro con, the specifics of which, if true, would make it one of the biggest financial crimes in French history. 

The fallout would rock the world’s most celebrated book and manuscript market to its core, raising a question with far-reaching implications for everyone who cherishes the written word: As the age of handwriting comes to an end, what is the value of the original texts left behind?

Some would conclude it wasn’t a coincidence that the upheaval began just after the return of120 Days of Sodom. The development, after all, was only the latest example of how nearly everyone who had sought or possessed the scroll over the centuries had seen their fortunes dashed, their prize snatched away. To many observers, the evidence was clear: 120 Days of Sodom, in all its ugliness and infamy, had to be cursed.

The manuscript’s modern-day reputation would surely have pleased its author. When Sade began 120 Days of Sodom that October evening in 1785, he knew exactly what he was writing. As he noted in the novel’s introduction, “The time has come, friendly reader, for you to prepare your heart and mind for the most impure tale ever written since the world began.”

Joel Warner is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Esquire, Wired and Newsweek among others. He currently serves as managing editor of the Denver-based investigative news outlet The Lever. He is also co-author of “The Humor Code: A Global Search For What Makes Things Funny.” He lives with his family in Denver.