In the 1780s the inequities of French criminal law were highlighted by a number of notorious miscarriages of justice, in which progressive lawyers like Lacretelle, Lacroix and Dupaty appealed their cases directly to public opinion through the publication of judicial memoirs. In this immediate pre-Revolutionary period, there was a new willingness to defend the ordinary and unprivileged members of society. One such, whose case greatly engaged Parisian sensibilities, was that of an uneducated servant-girl called Marie-Françoise-Victoire Salmon, who was condemned to death for poisoning an elderly man in Caen in 1781.
|Innocence recognised, innocence presumed|
One of several portraits of Salmon which
circulated in Paris.
Victoire Salmon (she was sometimes known as Marie, sometimes Victoire, more occasionally Françoise) was the third of seven children of a labourer from the village of Méautis, on the Cherbourg Peninsular Normandy. She had left the family home at the age of fifteen to earn her living in the neighbouring town of Bayeux, where she had been variously employed, as a domestic servant, laundress and seamstress.
Her story began with a familiar act of sexual predation. In 1781 the priest of the parish of St. Victor in Bayeux was caught attempting to rape her and was condemned by the judicial authorities. In order to avoid malicious rumours and forestall further attentions from the priest, she decided to leave and seek employment in Caen. A post was arranged for her by Roland Revel de Bretteville, procureur du roi in the bailliage court of Caen, who she had met at the home of her employers in Bayeux. For some reason she never took it up: her defenders claimed that the magistrate too had sexual designs on the girl and that his annoyance at their frustration was behind her subsequent conviction.
Having arrived in Caen on the morning of 1st August 1781, Salmon immediately secured another post, with the Huet-Duparc family, petit-bourgeois landowners, in the town. It was less than a week later that Madame Duparc's father, Paysant de Beaulieu, aged 88 years died suddenly; poisoning was suspected and family members claimed hysterically that they too had been poisoned. When an autopsy revealed traces of arsenic, suspicion fell rapidly on the new servant, who had prepared his food. Traces of arsenic were said to have been found in her mattress and in her detachable pockets. Salmon rapidly found herself incarcerated on the demand of her mistress, and was soon facing a charge of murder.
The case was heard first by the bailliage or lower court in Caen, which was presided over by Revel de Bretteville. The information was conducted in a negligent and hasty manner. Evidence was collected from the crime scene only two days after Beaulieu's death; Madame Duparc's claim that she had found several stolen objects hidden in a cachette, was never verified; Salmon's witnesses were scarcely heard; the son of the house, who had disappeared to the country, was not interrogated. After what was, by 18th-century standards, a swift judicial process, on 18th April 1782 the tribunal unanimously condemned Victoire Salmon and and sentenced her to be burnt at the stake.
Nine months later, on 17th May 1782, the judgment was upheld by the Parlement of Rouen. This trial too was unusually summary, perhaps due to the influence of Revel de Bretteville's brother who was an advocat in Rouen. It seemed that nothing now stood in the way of Victoire Salmon's execution. However, on 30th May 1782, when more than 5000 spectators had already gathered on the marketplace, she cheated death with the sudden and desperate declaration that she was three-months pregnant. The execution now had to be postponed for two months to allow the midwives to determine the truth.
Fortunately for Salmon,at this point her plight came to the attention of two sympathetic ecclesiastics, père Lambert and the abbé Gardé. They took advantage of the temporary stay of execution to approach an influential young Rouen lawyer Pierre-Noel Lecauchois. who agreed to petition for a retrial. The cause was said to have benefited greatly from the support of the Keeper of the Seals, Hue de Miromesnil, who chanced to be in Rouen at the time. On 26th July 1782 the case was referred to the Conseil du roi. It was barely in time - once again a pyre had been built on the marketplace in Caen. This time the deliberations were protracted. After two years the Conseil privé finally referred the case back to the Parlement of Rouen, where the procureur général the marquis de Godard de Belbeuf, convinced of Salmon's innocence, had the original verdict annulled. (His attempts to prosecute the Duparc family were, however, twarted.) After another seven months, Salmon was transferred to Paris where the case was now heard before the Parlement of Paris.
Appeal to public opinion
Between July 1782 and May 1786, when the Parlement of Paris gave its verdict, the case was reviewed by Lecauchois and his Parisian colleague Jean-François Fournel in the teeth of violent opposition. Lecauchois published two of his depositions, Mémoire pour Marie-Françoise Victoire Salmon (1784) and Justification de Marie Françoise-Victoire Salmon (1786). These were followed in 1786 by the Consultation of Fournel, which was generally agreed to be better in style. Ostensibly the publications were formal judicial memoirs; thus Lacauchois's Justification follows a set pattern: presentation of the facts, the shortcomings of the trial ("l'arbitraire et les vices affreux"), then proofs of innocence of the accused. However, they were also highly emotive appeals to public opinion. The Mémoire contains a dramatic account of Salmon's story written in the first person, with a direct appeal to the reader as personification of "justice". Lecauchois also, at least implicitly, demanded legal reform - proper rules of evidence and defence for the accused along the line of the English system. The Enlightened lawyer appears as champion of the accused, crusader for reform and man of sentiment.
As a result of all the publicity, interest in the case became intense. The Mémoires secrets of Bachaumont and journals like l'Année littéraire reported that colporteurs were selling the judicial memoirs in the streets and squares of Paris, often accompanied by engravings representing Victoire Salmon. The bookseller Hardy noted in his journal, for 11th May 1786, that he had acquired a copy of the plaidoyer of Fournel, "which is spoken about with such interest in conversations" (quoted by Lüsebrink, p.96). The portraits which circulated invariably emphasised Salmon's simple appearance and modest attire - the outward sign of "innocence presumed"
Acquittal and its aftermath
On 23 May 1786 Parlement bowed to public pressure and Salmon was triumphantly acquitted, after a total of fifty-eight months in captivity. An immense crowd waited for her outside the gates of the Palais de Justice, where she appeared accompanied by Lecauchois. She was carried in triumph to a carriage which awaited her; according to Hardy, the crowd was in tears.
Innocence Recognised. The engraver Maillet dedicated this print to madame de Genlis, Salmon is shown among the Judges of the Parlement of Paris, on their benches. The verses congratulate both the Judges and Lecauchois.
From the end of May to mid-August Parisian society gave itself over to a veritable frenzy of sentimental reparations.
Lecauchois paraded Salmon around to be fêted. A subscription was opened and there were other substantial financial gifts. She was received by the Keeper of the Seals, Hue de Miromesnil, and the King and Queen gave a private audience where she received a quantity of gold pieces. The players of the Comédie Française inserted references to the case in their plays and staged a production in her honour, where "she received new witnesses to the sensibility and lively interest of the public". All the journals produced narratives. One must wonder what the wretched girl made of it all.
The culminating piece of theatre was to be a showpiece wedding, orchestrated by the duc d'Orléans and his household. With the agreement of Lecauchois,Madame de Genlis found Salmon a husband. Details about this man, whose name was Jean-Louis Savary, vary. According to a well-informed account by Armand Le Corbeiller published in 1927, he was the son of a draper from Canisy, a few kilometres from Méautis, and was a year older than Salmon. He was officially identified as a former soldier in the Lorraine regiment, now in the service of the duc d'Orléans . According to the Journal encyclopédique, he was a "garçon menuisier" from her province who had joined an infantry regiment; Salmon had been able to buy him out and obtain from Orléans a place for him as lock keeper on the Canal de Briare. Sentimentalists told how he was her sweetheart, who had followed her faithfully throughout her ordeal and shared his meager resources with her. More cynical accounts had it that he was one Lecauchois previous clients who had been dragooned into the duty.
The wedding was celebrated at the church of Saint-Séverin on 26th August 1786 at the expense of the duchesse d'Orléans who personally provided the trousseau. The church was so crowded that tickets were issued for a place in the nave. Mademoiselle de Chartres placed the nuptual crown on the bride's head and Madame de Genlis placed round her neck a gold chain bearing a portrait of Lecauchois. The thirteen year-old duc de Chartres, the future Louis-Philippe, signed the marriage contract.
As to Victoire Salmon and her husband, they descended rapidly into obscurity. They managed to survive the Revolutionary years in modest prosperity. Jean-Louis acquired a minor office, and in 1813 they were able to buy a house and a small property in Vesly in the Manche. The marriage of their only daughter, Jeanne-Pauline in 1816 reveals that they had a respectable capital and relations in official positions. After the early death of her daughter, Victoire adopted a niece. She died in midst of her family in 1827.
"L'innocence reconnue est Marie Françoise Victoire Salmon" (Méautis, Caen, Paris,1786)
LE DIDAC’DOC – Service éducatif des archives départementales de la Manche – Sept-Octobre 2015 [dossier]
Hans-Jürgen Lüsebrink, "L'innocence persécutée et ses avocats. Rhétorique et impact public du discours «sensible» dans la France du XVIIIe siècle", Revue d’Histoire Moderne & Contemporaine 1993, No. 40-1: p. 86-101 [open-access article]
Sarah Maza, "The theatre of punishment: melodrama and judicial reform in Prerevolutionary France",From the Royal to the Republican Body: Incorporating the Political in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century France ed Sara E. Melzer, Kathryn Norberg University of California Press, 1998, p.182-197.[open access]
______, Private lives and public affairs: the causes célèbres of Prerevolutionary France (University of California Press, 1993) p.212 [Extracts on GoogleBooks]
A reforming lawyer
Pierre-Noël Lecauchois, who was born in Rouen in 1740, had already defended several clients of modest origins, including a soldier accused of robbery and rape in 1762 and a second soldier who was condemned to the galleys in 1764. He indignantly defended his efforts on Salmon's behalf:
Four years of work and travel; more than 500 pages of printed memoirs, all of them the fruit of my own labour; three royal orders to preserve the life of my unfortunate client, the last obtained solely through my own representations. I have proof of this: more than two thousand pages of observations, copies, handwritten extracts; a correspondence of more than eight hundred letters from all orders of society; eight to ten thousand livres of expenses; the abandonment of my legal practice; these are the burdens that have tormented me for so long....This is the fifth individual whose fortune, honour and life has been saved by my efforts.....
Lecauchois, cited in L’esprit des journaux français et étrangers. Septembre 1786 [ Lüsebrink p.8]
Let the reader judge:
From the Consultation of Fournel
In this extract Fournel provides a crisp and convincing forensic reconstruction of events:
Marie-Françoise-Victoire Salmon is the daughter of a farm labourer from the Parish of Méautis, in Basse-Normandie. Having lost her mother at an early age, she was obliged to leave the paternal house and go into domestic service. She was employed successively, in the neighbourhood of her birth, by sieurs Anseaux, Angoville and Péree, all of whom give her the best testimonials.
In 1780 (aged 20) she entered into the service of the Dumesnil family, in the Parish of Formigny. It was in this house that she met Revel de Bretteville, the Procurateur du Roi in the Bailliage Court of Caen, who was a relative of sieur Dumesnil, and had a house in the vicinity where he often stayed. This officer had seen the Salmon girl several times and had noticed her youth and attractive appearance. In an effusion of benevolence, he exhorted her to leave the countryside and come to Caen, where she could find a better post.
We do not know what complaints young Salmon might have brought against Sieur Revel. We should put aside any unthinkable ideas which might offend human decency. But we see that afterwards it was this same sieur Revel, now turned into an implacable adversary, who condemned his former protegée to be burned at the stake; we cannot mistake the character of a resentment as profound as it is secret.
Marie Salmon did not at first take up sieur Revel's invitation because it was her intention to leave domestic service and become a seamstress. However, having tried this trade in Bayeux and not found enough work, she was forced to go back into service.
With the observations of sieur Revel in mind, she decided to go to Caen.
On 1st August 1781, at four o'clock in the morning, she left Bayeux, taking with her a little parcel of possessions, among which were two pairs of pockets, one of which she had only just started to make - these not counting the pair she was wearing......
(Arriving at Caen, she is directed towards the Huet-Duparc household...)
[Her informant] assures her they are good people, but adds that they had changed their servant five or six times since the feast of St.Clair; that is in the space of 12 or 13 days.
Nonetheless she takes up employment the same day for a wage of 50 livres. The household is composed of seven members: sieur and dame Duparc, two sons of 21 and 11, a daughter of 17, and madame's elderly parents, sieur et dame de Beaulieu, aged 88 years and 86.
In the evening dame Duparc instructs her new domestic on her duties. Every morning she must buy two farthings-worth of milk, to make gruel for sieur de Beaulieu, and have it ready at seven o'clock precisely. Having poured out the gruel, she must help the old lady, dame de Beaulieu to seven o'clock mass. She must then do the shopping, run errand, buy provisions; in a word do all the housekeeping duties; though according to dame Duparc, in most things she and her daughter helped.
The next day, Thursday 2nd, dame Duparc instructed Salmon to prepared her father's gruel, to which it was not necessary to add salt.
On Friday 3rd and Saturday 4th Salmon carried out her duties to dame Duparc's satisfaction....
On the 5th, a Sunday, since it was usual to dress more carefully, she discarded the pair of pockets that she had worn all weak - blue with white and yellow stripes - and wore her clean pair, which were siamoise, with blue and white stripes. She left the old pair on the back of a chair in the little room where she slept, which was on the ground floor near the dining room and open to the whole household.
Sunday passed as usual, but it was the last peaceful day that the unfortunate Salmon was to enjoy in that house; the moment was fast approaching which was marked out by Providence for her to be delivered over to the most terrible trials. On Monday 6th (her fifth day of service) she prepared the grandfather's gruel in her mistress's presence. It was dame Duparc herself who added salt - or something else - to the mixture, even though she had previously instructed Salmon not to add salt.
Let us stop for a moment to grasp the relevant circumstances.
It was not the girl Salmon that went to get the milk. It was not she who brought the flour. It was not she who put the salt in the gruel; Finally, it was not she who prepared the platter for the gruel. She worked under the eyes of dame Duparc and her two children, who helped in the preparation. From this observation alone, whatever the outcome, it could not be blamed on the unfortunate girl.
Salmon carried away the bowl, hurried to take dame de Beaulieu to seven-o'clock mass, then ran errands. She returned to the house at eleven thirty, where she was told that sieur de Beaulieu was ill with colic and vomiting. She was ordered to put him to bed, then to watch over him. Her own bed was brought into the sickroom.
The old man's condition worsened; an apothecary's boy was sent for to apply poultices but to no avail. He died at about half-past five in the evening, on Monday 6th August, in agony, without receiving Last Rites.
We cannot refrain ourselves from pointing out the indifference and tranquillity displayed by dame Duparc and her children, when faced with this appalling catastrophe - which suggested a terrible attempt at murder, or the existence of some hidden poison which threatened the whole house.
The proper measures were neglected. Dame Duparc behaved in a a way that was mysterious (and itself suspect) as though she feared to draw attention to the poisoning...She sent her son out of the house on horseback.....
After the death of sieur de Beaulieu, a guardian was summoned by madame Duparc to lay out and watch over the body. This woman found the sensitive Salmon on her knees at the foot of the corpse, saying prayers for the kindest of men, that a sudden death had taken from her....They had supper, then the two women slept the night....
[Madame Duparc now had ample opportunity to plant the evidence.]
The next day (Tuesday 7th August) Madame Duparc reproached Salmon with being "a bad manager" and with having worn since Sunday, her best pockets when she had others".(Madame Duparc had thus seen the pockets)
We would like to believe that this observation did not hide any criminal intention. However, this concern about a servant's pockets seems very strange, at a time when many more important matters must have demanded madame Duparc's attention. What should we make of the fact that this pair of pockets, taken so quietly, were cited by madame Duparc and used in the trial as a piece of incontrovertable evidence for Salmon's guilt.
The girl changed her pockets, and there she was "like Nessus, in the fatal garment which was to change into devouring flames"
Salmon went about her chores, but, being exhausted, slept from time to time, allowing madame Duparc and her daughter to have a hand in preparing the meal, seasoning the soup etc. Two different soups were prepared: one for the household and one for the guardian and Salmon. The arrival of the master of the house drew Salmon's attention away, since she had to deal with the horse and his luggage. They dined at one; Madame Duparc herself served the soup. The boy complained that he found something which crunched on his teeth. Salmon took away the washing up and ate her own meal.
The company apparently stayed at the table quite happily until half-past two when Salmon brought in a plate of cherries for desert. It was not until this time that members of the family came into the kitchen complaining of stomach pains; dame Duparc entered first and claimed that she could smell burned arsenic.
Fournel observes that it was surprising that dame Duparc knew so much about arsenic and recognised it so quickly. They subsequently found arsenic in the intestines of sieur Beaulieu, and in the pockets belonging to Salmon.
Clearly the intention was to create suspicion that the servant had thrown the remains of the poisoned soup on the fire. The charge of poisoning was absurd since the whole of the soup had been eaten and the family remained tranquilly at the dining table.
"Rumour spread through the town that seven members of the Duparc faily had been poisoned by their servant, who the day before, had poisoned the old man Beaulieu. Thus the poisoning of the 7th August explained that of the 6th, and Madame Duparc found a way out of difficulty........"
Jean-François Fournel, Consultation pour une jeune fille condamnée à être brûlée vive (Paris, 1786)
Extracts from Lecauchois's, Justification
Like Voltaire in his defence of Calas, or Dupaty in his memoir for the "trois roués", Lechauchois uses emotive rhetoric in an attempt to stir the compassion of his readers. He seeks to establish the consistent appearance of virtue displayed by his client. He dwells on her naivety and simple rural origins - a theme also emphasised by the iconography. We learn ,, for example, that she had a crippled hand, the result of an attack by a pig that she had suffered in her infancy. Throughout the horrors that beset her, she manifested her innocence in her gestures, in her tears over the old man's deathbed, in her pathetic cries for justice....
The opening preface sets the dramatic tone:
A multitude had gathered on the public square, where wood for the fire had already been brought; the Executioner had his orders, the instruments for the Question were laid out, the Guard prepared: the unfortunate Salmon was brought up before the fearsome Tribunal; everything seemed set for the arrival of the promised Sacrifice!
Nulla unquam de morte hominis cunctatio longa est
["No delay is ever long when it concerns the death of a man"(Juvenal)]
In a celebrated passage, Lechauchois relates how, after the case had been reviewed by the Parlement in Rouen, Salmon was cruelly misled by her fellow prisoners into believing she had been reprieved:
Placing confidence in her innocence, the defenceless victim was talking in the courtyard with the other Prisoners. They put up one of the wardens to say that the Sentence of the Judges in Caen had been dismissed, that there was to be a retrial and that she would be transferred back to Caen.
The young Salmon, who was a bright and lively girl, replied that she had known all along that the judgment would be overturned. Under this misapprehension, she returned happily to her cell to make herself some cabbage soup, which she ate hungrily, having eaten nothing at all that day.
[When she had finished the soup, she went back into the Prison courtyard, where one of the prisoners revealed the lie and told her she still sentenced to death.]
At this terrible news the pretty face of the unfortunate girl went deathly pale, her eyes turned, she cried out: "Good God! What a horror!" Then she fell down in a faint. She certainly had enough cause to drop dead on the spot, not least on account of the cabbage soup which, in her hunger, she had not cooked sufficiently (p.4)
Lecauchois now recounts how Salmon believed herself already in the torture chamber, about to be executed, when the two priests come to her aid. This scene is "invested with the pathos of a Gothic novel" (Sarah Maza)
We must leave her in this state, and pass on to another scene, which is no less moving.
The public of Rouen had heard about the judgment and were discussing it on the basis of the different versions which had reached them. This aroused the curiosity of two priests and of the abbe Godé, who is now the parish priest in Pitre near Rouen. The Concierge had just transported the unfortunate Salmon to a room where these three ecclesiastics were visiting another prisoner.
The victim opened her eyes. She interpreted those around her as so many Executioners about to prepare her for the terrible sacrifice that had just been announced. "Alas!", she cried out, "My God! I am innocent and all is lost for me! Is there no longer any justice?", and she fell back in a faint, in an even worst state than before.
When she came round, the Abbe Godé, the Concierge and the other present, talked to her gently; and gave her words of hope. She considered more calmly these kind and charitable souls and said to them, "Alas, Sirs, I am innocent; God is my witness". Such an utterance is of great consequence before God, though but a feeble one in this world........ (p.4-5)
Pierre-Noël Lecauchois, Justification de Marie-Françoise-Victoire Salmon (Paris, 1786)
To be led barefoot, wearing only a shirt, holding a torch of burning wax weighing two pounds, with a noose around her neck, and displaying on her chest and back a placard with the following words: 'Poisoner and domestic thief', before the principal door of the Church of Saint-Pierre in the town of Caen, by the Executioner of Criminal Sentences; there, on her knees to speak and declare in a loud clear voice, that she committed the said crimes maliciously and with premeditation, that she repented and demanded forgiveness from God, from the King and from the Judiciary; thence to be led by the Executioner to the old Marketplace of the town of Caen, to be attached by an iron chain to a stake which had been erected there for the purpose, and burned alive, her body reduced to ashes, which were to be thrown to the winds. As a preliminary the condemned woman must submit to torture to obtain revelation of her accomplices, and of those who sold or acquired for her the arsenic she had used.
The formal words of the sentence probably sounded as archaic and cruel to late 18th-century sensibilities as they do to us today. It is not entirely clear why Salmon was condemned to be burnt at the stake - like a 17th-century witch - rather than hanged. The lack of standardised sentences was a weakness of the existing system which was often condemned by legal reformers.
The Acquittal - Scenes outside the Parlement of Paris
It is difficult to describe the sensation that the acquittal produced among the public, who gathered in a crowd outside the Parlement. This day has become a landmark in legal history which we must remember to the honour of our century and of humanity.....
To protect the girl from the press of the crowds, which would have put her once more in danger, some prudent people placed her in the middle of the magistrates and court officials, where she was safe from the crush but still clearly visible to public gaze.
The general satisfaction showed itself in continual applause and the girl was showered with gifts of money....
The staircase and the whole courtyard of the Palais was engulfed in an instant with so great a multitude, that it took the girl Salmon a long time to reach the waiting coach... A young girl, with fine and modest features, slowly descended the steps of the temple of justice, surrounded by guards and men of law....
Since that time public concern seems to have grown daily about the fate of this unfortunate girl, who has become the object of general curiosity. The Archduke and Archduchess, Mme the duchesse de la Vallière, M. le comte d’Estaing, M. le bailli de Suffren, M. le Comte d’Aranda, Mgr the Archbishop of Paris, & majority of the great figures of the Kingdom, have honoured Salmon with their gifts and cried tender tears over her fate. Mme the duchesse d'Orléans personally provided her with a trousseau. At Belle-Chasse, the princes of the House of Orléans kissed her and overwhelmed her with caresses. Mme de Genlis hugged her in her arms; everywhere she went she produced scenes of emotion [...] Since her release the Salmon girl has amassed a considerable sum of money.
From the Journal encyclopédique for August 1786, quoted in Archives départementales de la Manche LE DIDAC’DOC, 2015.