Sunday, 6 December 2015

A Christmas suicide pact

Here is a cheery tale to kick off the festive season -  the famous suicide of the "two dragoons" which took place at the Arbalêtre Inn in St Denis on Christmas day 1773.  The event aroused intense speculation at the time and, to this day, remains deeply poignant and enigmatic.

The following is taken from the Revd Charles Moore's dissertation on suicide which was published in 1790. Moore translates a first-hand account and the testament left by the two men,  plus a letter written by one of them to his lieutenant.

An account of two French soldiers, who killed themselves at St. Denis on Christmas-day, 1773.
De la Barre,
Monday Morning.
A very tragical event has just happened near us. On Friday last (Dec. 24, 1773) about eleven o'clock, two soldiers came to an inn at St. Denis and bespoke a dinner for the afternoon. Bourdeaux, one of these soldiers, went out to buy some gunpowder and two bullets. While making the purchase he observed, that St. Denis seemed to him to be so pleasantly situated, that he was determined to pass the remainder of his life in it. He then returned to the inn, and they spent the rest of the day together in great cheerfulness. On Saturday also (being Christmas-day) they were in good spirits, and seemed very merry at their dinner. They called for more wine, and about five o'clock in the evening they were both sound dead near the fire, with a table between them, on which were three empty bottles, the will, a letter, and half-a-crown (having previously discharged their bill). They were both shot through the head and the pistols were lying on the floor. The people of the house being alarmed at the report of fire-arms, rushed into the room. Monsieur de Rouilliere [Rulhière], Commandant of the Maréchaussée  of St. Denis, who dined with us yesterday, gave us the whole account, and showed us the will from which the following was copied.


 A man who is certain, that he shall quickly die, ought to leave nothing for his survivors to do, which it is in his own power to settle beforehand.  This situation is peculiarly ours.  It is our intention therefore to prevent all trouble to our landlord, and to render the business as easy as possible to those, whom curiosity, under the pretence of form and good order, may prompt to visit us.  Humain is the larger man of the two, and I Bourdeaux, the smaller. He is drum-major of the Mestre de Camp Général dragoons, and I am a simple dragoon of Belsunce.  Death is a passage.  I refer to the Procureur Fiscal and his first clerk, who will assist him in this inquiry, the principle, which joined to the idea that all things must have an end, placed these pistols in our hands.  The future part of our lives affords us an agreeable prospect: but that future must soon have had an end.  Humain is twenty-four years of age;  as for myself I have seen only four lustres (twenty years).  No urgent motive has prompted us to intercept our career of life, except the disgust of existing here a moment under the idea, that we must at one time or other cease to be.  Eternity is the point of re-union, which alone has urged us to anticipate the despotic act of fate.  In short a disgust of  life is the only motive, which has induced us to quit it. We have experienced all the pleasures of life, even that of obliging our fellow-creatures.  We could still enjoy them; but all those pleasures must have an end, which is their poison.  We are tired with this universal sameness. Our curtain is dropped; and we leave our parts to be performed by those, who are silly enough to wish to act them a few hours longer.  A few grains of powder will soon destroy this mass of moving flesh, which our proud equals denominate the "King of Beings."—Ministers of Justice!  our bodies are at your service, as we despise them too much to be uneasy at their disposal.—As to our effects, I Bourdeaux leave to Monsieur de Rouilliere [Rulhière], Commander of the Maréchaussée  at  St. Denis, my steel-hilted sword.  He will please to remember, that last year on this very day, he had the kindness to pardon at my instance one of the name of St. Germain, who had offended him. The maid of the inn shall have my pocket and neck-kerchiefs, my silk stockings which I have on, and all my other linen. The remainder of our effects will be sufficient to pay the expenses of information, and the useless inquiries of law, which will be made about us. The half-crown left on the table will pay for the last bottle of Champagne, which we are now just going to drink.   
At St. Denis on Christmas-day, 1773.  


You have often told me, I appeared displeased with my situation. It was sincere, but not absolutely true. I have since examined myself more seriously and acknowledge myself entirely disgusted with every state of man, the whole world, and myself. From these discoveries a consequence should be drawn;—if disgusted with the whole, renounce the whole.  The calculation is not long.  I have made it without the aid of geometry. In short I am on the point of putting an end to the existence  that I have possessed for near twenty years; fifteen of which it has been a burden to me; and from the moment that I write, a few grains of powder will destroy this moving mass of flesh, which we vain mortals, call the King of Beings.  I owe no one an excuse.  I deserted: that was a crime;  but I am going to punish it, and the law will be satisfied.  I asked leave of absence from my superiors, to have the pleasure of dying at my ease.  They never condescended to give me an answer. This served to hasten my end.  I wrote to Bord to send you some detached pieces I left at Guise, which I beg you to accept. You will find they contain some well-chosen literature. These pieces will solicit for me a place in your remembrance. Adieu, my dear lieutenant! continue your esteem for St. Lambert and Dorat. As for the rest skip from flower to flower, and acquire the sweets of all knowledge and enjoy every pleasure.
"Pour moi, j'arrive au trou/ Qui n'echappe ni sage, ni sou/ Pour aller je ne scais ou" [verse of Piron]
If we exist after this life, and it is forbidden to quit it without permission, I will endeavour to procure one moment to inform you of it; if not, I should advise all those, who are unhappy, which is by far the greater part of mankind, to follow my example. When you receive this letter, I shall have been dead at least twenty-four hours. With esteem, &c.


Contemporary accounts in French, by the bookseller Hardy, by Grimm and by the journalist Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Suard supply a few more minor details, plus the text of  a second letter, this time from  Humain to his commanding officer. The most substantial modern study is by the University of Wisconsin scholar Jeffrey Merrick.  Professor Merrick has consulted the archival records for the official enquiry and for the posthumous prosecution by the Châtelet Court which resulted in the two men being hanged in effigy and their original papers burned. (It was in fact comparatively rare for cases of suicide to be tried at this time - only nine men and one woman were prosecuted in the 1770s; the majority were excused either as accidental death or the result of insanity. This  case, however, attracted too much publicity to be ignored.) 

The court proceedings, do not provide much extra illumination as to the dragoons' motivation.  Little is known about the background of the men, but they were not from the ranks of the very poor.  According to the innkeeper, Edme Marie Jean Bourdeaux was the son of the clerk to a wine merchant in Auxerre.   Hardy said Bourdeaux's  father was a provincial lawyer and Humain's an infirmary employee in the Parisian seminary of Saint-Sulpice.  Bourdeaux had studied law and spent time in a monastery, probably the abbey of Sainte-Geneviève-du-Mont in Paris:  in his letter to his lieutenant  he describes himself in disillusioned terms, as "formerly student of pedants, then of Cujas [the Humanist lawyer] , then assistant in chicanery, then monk, then dragoon, then nothing".  His irreligion is clear; the testament which was left so conspicuously on the table sets out the materialist conclusion that man "which our proud equals denominate the 'King of Beings.'" is but "a moving mass of flesh".  The choice of Christmas Day for the suicides is also evidently symbolic; it was noted that the two men celebrated and walked around the town, but did not attend a religious service.  Bourdeaux alludes to the possibility of an afterlife only once, in ironic terms, to say that, if he finds that suicide is punished in the hereafter he will find a way to warn his lieutenant.

Now, as then, therefore, it is tempting to blame the corrosive effects of "philosophy" for the death of the two young men.  Bourdeaux himself suggested as much.  In his testament he assures his readers that the suicides had no "urgent motive" other than existential angst, "the disgust of existing here a moment under the idea, that we must at one time or other cease to be". The very idea that all pleasures must come to an end had poisoned their appeal.  He was tired of the "universal sameness".  To his lieutenant, he reveals that his existence has felt a burden to him for fifteen of his twenty years; he is "disgusted with every state of man, the whole world, and myself": when one is tired of everything, he declares, the only remedy is to "renounce the whole".  Humain's letter is perhaps more suggestive of clinical depression; he refers to an unspecified malady which afflicts him  and to his despair at being unable to help his father( presumably financially) Bourdeaux, he says, offered him a remedy,  "an infallible recipe for freeing .myself at the same time from my illness and from distaste for my existence" (see Merrick, p.280)

Whatever the truth of the two young men's state of mind the disparity between their stated motivation and their action remain irreducible.  Many people become bored with life or tired of pleasures; but very few of them blow out their brains with a pistol as a result. Thus the Revd Moore can only remark on "the indifference to life of Bourdeaux and his companion and the extraordinary composure with which they accompanied their own murders for no apparent reason."


Rev. Charles Moore, A Full Inquiry into the Subject of Suicide(1790) p.342-3

J Merrick, 'Suicide, society, and history: the case of Bourdeaux and Humain, 25 December 1773', Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 2000:08 (2000), p.71-115. Reprinted in Merrick, Order and Disorder under the Ancien Régime (2009) p.266-282
I have avoided copying out too much from this key study,the greater part of which is available on Google Books.  Particularly fascinating (and sad) are all the little details in the various reports of the young men's clothing and personal effects.

For another recent analysis see  Charly Coleman, The Virtues of abandon: an anti-individualist history of the French Enlightenment (Stanford, 2014), p.125-6

No comments:

Post a Comment