Sunday, 1 September 2019

Notorious criminals: the Widow Lescombat

On 2nd July 1755, Marie-Catherine Taperet, the Widow Lescombat, was hanged as an accomplice to the murder of her husband.  It was one of the most sensational cases of the age.  The execution attracted a vast crowd: according to Barbier: "there was an extraordinary convergence of people on the place de Grève and the surrounding streets just to see her pass;  there were even people on the towers of Notre-Dame;  rooms were rented out in the place de Grève, carriages filled the square and adjacent passages...."  The trial had been been reported avidly in journals, and printed histories and engravings circulated in the streets.  The case continued to be a media phenomenon, the subject of numerous pamphlets, novels, commentaries, ballads, plays, poems, well into the nineteenth century.

The crime

 The following is translated / summarised from a series of articles by the lawyer P(aul) Fournier des Ormes, published in the journal Constitutionnel for 1852 (and later in Le Figaro). This is the the  fullest narrative that I have managed to find, and, as always, much of the truth is in the details. Des Ormes was highly critical of the sensationalist literature which grew up around the case and based his account on the original archival trial records.

The affair in fact proves to be more interesting for its glimpses of everyday life and relationships in Paris in the mid-18th century than for anything  more lurid.  Despite the violence of the murder, the Widow Lescombat and her lover come across as quite sympathetic - an ordinary, rather naive couple, driven by circumstances into foolishly desperate measures.

Part 1:  The murder / first revelations

On the night of 19th July 1753, at some time after ten o'clock, the inhabitants of the rue Palatine and rue des Fossoyeurs (today rue Servandoni) were alerted by a commotion; an old woman finally ventured out to find a man in his late twenties collapsed on the steps of the nearby church of Saint-Sulpice with blood flowing from his nose and mouth.  He had only the time to say his assailant was a friend and to beg for a confessor before he expired.  A surgeon was called, who found that the corpse had received eight gaping wounds from a sword, five to the chest and three on the back close to the spine.  Once the commissaire of police had appeared on the scene, the body was transported to the Châtelet.  A letter in one of the pockets established his identity as sieur Lescombat, architect.

Later that same night a police patrol brought in a man dressed in a blue coat who had come forward to declare that it was he who had killed Lescombat in self-defence.  He identified himself as Jean-Louis de Mongeot, a former gendarme, aged twenty-nine, currently living in rooms in the rue Dauphine.

Mongeot testified that Lescombat was his master and friend.  The two had been reconciled after a quarrel and  gone to eat together at a popular restaurant in the Luxembourg Gardens ("chez le suisse du Luxembourg").  On their way home, in the narrow rue des Fossoyeurs,   Lescombat had suddenly drawn a pistol on him, but the gun had misfired and Mongeot had managed to stab Lescombat with his sword.  The commissaire had Mongeot detained in the Grand Châtelet, in order to interrogate him again the next day.  There was some confusion about the whereabouts of the supposed pistol.  Mongeot was genuinely perplexed, for, as it later transpired, he had planted a pistol near the body.  It later turned up, having been picked up by a passing workman.  Mongeot was momentarily triumphant and demanded to be set at liberty; the pistol proved his innocence since, if he was guilty, why should he have voluntarily come forward?   The commissaire, however, still had doubts:  the number and ferocity of the stab wounds seemed inconsistent with self-defence.  Moreover, eyewitnesses had seen Mongeot pursuing Lescombat, his drawn sword in his hand.

The scene of the crime - the rue Servandoni on Google Street View
Further incriminating evidence came from a letter from Mongeot found in Lescombat's pocket;  this revealed that Mongeot had been his lodger;  Lescombat had become suspicious about his relations with his wife and asked him to leave.  Mongeot explained that in the previous January he had entered an arrangement  to board with Lescombat,  initially with two of his pupils whom he had been tutoring in mathematics at a pension. He had ambitions to join the Corps des Ingénieurs  and Lescombat, who was often employed by M. Buache,  géographe du roi,  had agreed to give him lessons in architectural theory.   Lescombat was an aggressive and debauched man.  On one occasion, when particularly drunk,  he had picked a quarrel and tried to evict his lodger; only the intervention of Mme Lescombat  had prevented him from resorting to blows.  Mongeot subsequently overheard an exchange between the couple which made it clear that Lescombat suspected him of adultery and was mad with jealousy;  Mongeot maintained that he had shown Mme Lescombat some attention when she had been ill but their relations were innocent.  As a result Mongeot decided to move out the next day and had left the letter found on Lescombat's body on top of  a bureau.  He had now found lodgings in the rue Dauphne.  At the instigation of Lescombat's relatives, the two men subsequently patched up their differences.

On 8th July Lescombat moved to the nearby rue des Fossés-Saint-Germain next to the Comédie-Française, where he rented a boutique with the intention of setting his wife up as manager of a dress shop: "Thus I became the neighbour of the Lescombat couple."  The husband took Mongeot into his confidence regarding his domestic troubles:  Lescombat was aggrieved that his brother-in-law Geneste Ruelle had moved in with them -  ostensibly to help with the business but in reality to protect his sister from Lescombat's abusive behaviour.   The two friends met on several occasions in the café Procope which was opposite his wife's shop, and on the fatal night of 19th July they had dined in the Luxembourg.  Mongeot maintained his assailant must have harboured a secret grudge against him, despite their reconciliation.

Unfortunately for Mongeot, his version of events failed to satisfy the instructing magistrate. Witnesses soon came forward to testify to his  adulterous relations with his former host's wife.  Particularly damaging was the revelations of a disaffected servant girl whom Mme Lescombat had recently dismissed .  It emerged that Mongeot had known Lescombat's wife long before he came to live in the household.  She had even secured his release from the Grand Châtelet where he had been imprisoned for debt. The servant had surprised them alone together on several occasions .  Mongeot's neighbour in the rue Dauphine testified that he had been visited every day by a young and beautiful woman, often accompanied by a man dressed in black, evidently la Lescombat and her brother.  The three would play cards, eat and drink together.  The man would then leave and return later to collect his sister.  The nature of the relationship between the couple was never in doubt, for, said the witness, they did not trouble to close the window or draw the curtains.

More damaging still, the same witness had seen Mme Lescombat take Mongeot's sword and examine it by the light of the window.  She had then signalled to her brother to admire the point of the blade.

On the strength of these revelations, on 27th August, six weeks after the crime the Widow Lescombat, and her brother Geneste Ruelle were arrested at the boutique in the rue des Fossés-Saint-Germain. 

The Murder - illustration from 1861

Part 2:  First arrest of Mme Lescombat / Trial and execution of Mongeot

Concealed in Mme Lescombat's clothing at the time of her arrest was a confessional memoir penned by her husband - in all probability she hoped that it might serve to give those who found it some  idea of his character.  Des Ormes notes that at the time of Lescombat's death he had two contrasting books on his person, the first a work of devotion and the second La France galante, ou Histoire amoureuse de la cour.  They exemplified the contradictions of the man's character as revealed by his confession. On the one hand he was guilty of many vices.  Even as a child he had stolen money; a thief and cheat, he had given himself over to passions, of which drunkenness was his least weakness. [Des Ormes is reticent here - other commentators say that the trial records suggest he was "debauched and in all probability syphilitic"]  Yet he retained his religious beliefs, accusing himself of failing to pay attention in church and of deliberately seeking out lenient confessors.

Such revelations could count for little when set against the reality of murder.  Mme Lescombat was now taken to the For-l'Évêque prison and interrogated in the presence of the lieutenant criminel of the Châtelet, Sartine.  Though still a young man, Sartine resisted her charms, a strength of character which, according to Mercier, did him much credit.

Catherine-Marie Taperet, the Widow Lescombat, was twenty-four years old and beautiful. According to the author of the pamphlet Lettre d'un Français  à un Anglais, she had a fine figure, black eyes, white skin.  She soon had admirers;  her image was reproduced in engravings for sale to the public.  Des Ormes remarks that it was still possible (in 1852) to find moulds of her arms and hand  (see also the Goncourts' Journal for 1854 which likewise refers  to the "white arm and white hand of la Lescombat" once seen at the mould-makers).  

An orphan,  she had been brought up by her elderly grandmother in the rue Saint-Denis. There was no hint of any previous disorder in her conduct.  Her behaviour suggested her attachment to Mongeot was sincere and profound.  When questioned, she still denied the adulterous relationship, maintaining that she had visited Mongeot  merely to collect arrears of rent.  She also complained of the brutality of her husband. Her brother's statements confirmed those of his sister.

At this point, since there was  only one witness, insufficient to convict, a monitoire was published to be read from the pulpits on three consecutive Sundays.  However,  when no further revelation was forthcoming, the prisoners were finally released after two months of incarceration. The brother promptly fled from Paris.

Meanwhile the trial of Mongeot at the Châtelet had been held up by the political crisis and judicial strike of 1754.   It was not until  25th September 1754 that he at last appeared before his judges.  He was subjected to a long final interrogation, convicted and sentenced to be hanged.  Prior to his execution he was to undergo ordinary and extraordinary torture. The case was referred to the Parlement where the procureur-général amended the sentence to being broken on the wheel, the approved penalty for premeditated murder.  On 31 December 1754 an arrêt confirmed this sentence, but with the retentum that Mongeot was not to receive blows while alive, but was to be secretly strangled on the cross. [In the form of the punishment employed in Paris at this time, the prisoner was strapped to a "cross of St Andrew", his arms and legs broken, then his mangled body displayed on a wheel.]   The latter, as Des Ormes remarks,  strongly suggests a deal had been struck.

On Tuesday 5th January 1755 at five o'clock in the evening - already after dark - he went  to his execution,  having courageously withstood the question aux brodequins.  He was taken past the church of Saint-Sulpice to the Carrefour de Croix-Rouge - used on this occasion in instead of the place de Grève since the lottery was being drawn at the Hôtel de Ville.

At the foot of the scaffold he suddenly offered to make a confession.  He was taken to the first floor of a house on the square to do so.  Des Ormes notes that the idea he had a change of heart because he glimpsed la Lescombat at liberty in the crowd is a myth - she had been detained once more in the prisons of the Grand-Châtelet and did not attend the execution.  The length of his confession suggests that it had probably already been drawn up:

Mongeot now admitted that he had plotted the murder of Lescombat in concert with the Widow Lescombat and her brother Geneste Ruelle.  He had known la dame Lescombat long before taking up residence in the household; he had been in love with her and  installed himself as a pensionnaire and pupil in order that they could be close.  They soon established intimate relations.  She had confided in him her aversion to her husband.  Mongeot himself soon grew to hate Lescombat, who was maddened by jealously;  the altercation between the two men had taken place, much as la Lescombat had described (Mongeot, "a military man", had reluctantly taken a blow without retaliation...)

After his departure for the rue Dauphine Mongeot had continued to meet with his mistress and her brother.  He had tried to provoke Lescombat into a duel but the latter was afraid and avoided him. Then one day he came across him by chance in a bar,  overcame his terror and succeeded in winning his confidence. After that they often met up in cafés and cabarets; his plan, said Mongeot, was to lead Lescombat into a solitary place, provoke him and "kill him like a dog".

It was la Lescombat and her brother who suggested the idea of feigning self-defence by firing off a pistol and leaving it by the body.  The brother was made to buy the pistol, powder and balls to ensure he was compromised and would keep the secret.  On the evening of the crime la Lescombat had been concerned that her husband was nervous about something and had started wearing padding under his clothing.  She had examined Mongeot's sword to make sure it was sufficiently pointed to penetrate this extra layer.

Mongeot then went on to recount the circumstances of the murder.  As the two men walked home from the Luxembourg arm-in-arm, exchanging jovial conversation, Mongeot had suddenly turned to face Lescombat, drew his sword and stabbed him twice in the chest.  The latter fled in panic, he pursued him, stabbed him again, this time in the back and left him for dead.  He abandoned the pistol, then passed by the shop where la Lescombat  and her brother were sitting out with a group in the summer evening.  Ruelle joined him in the rue Contrescarpe-Dauphine.  Finally, after wandering for some time, Mongeot had given himself up to the guard post of the market in Saint-Germain-des Prés.  He added that he had been visited in prison several times by his mistress, both before her arrest and in her interval of liberty.

He had scarcely signed his confession when he was confronted with the Widow Lescombat who had been brought from the Grand-Châtelet. The wretched man was pale and defeated, standing between his confessor and the executioner, in a room overlooking the scaffold on the square.  La Lescombat did not give way to the reproaches later ascribed to her, but simply continued to deny that she had ever planned to murder her husband.

Mongeot, who persisted in his revelations, was now taken out to execution. It was said that his end was long and painful;  the ropes were too short to secure him, so that the bourreau was forced to send out for others in Saint-Germain-des-Prés.  Des Ormes speculates that in fact the delay was caused by the need to carry out the strangulation.

The next day it was said in Paris that as as the Widow Lescombat  was led away, she glanced at the body of her lover bend double on the wheel and exclaimed callously, waving her fan, "Look! They have put his head to his feet".

Part 3:  Condemnation and execution of the Widow Lescombat 

Two days after Mongeot's execution the Widow Lescombat herself was sent for trial, despite the fact she was eight months pregnant.  She was immediately convicted of complicity in Lescombat's murder and sentenced to be hanged.  The verdict of the Châtelet was confirmed by an arrêt of the Parlement on 17th January 1755. She was also sentenced to undergo ordinary and extraordinary torture.

The jurist Muyart de Vouglans noted that the murder of a husband by his wife was considered a form of parricide, and marvelled that the Widow Lescombat escaped the traditional penalty of being burned alive at the stake with her husband's bloody shirt before her eyes.  He explained the indulgence of the judges by the fact that she had not committed the murder with her own hand.

 It was only six weeks later, on 5th March 1755, that the sentence was read to her.  She had given birth to her son only a month before. When escorted to the torture room, she declared, no doubt in desperation, that she was again pregnant.  The details she gave seemed improbable;  however, the surgeons and midwives decided that it was necessary to wait another four months in order to verify the pregnancy.  Barbier reports that the scaffold had been erected and a crowd already gathered on the place de Grève by ten in the morning. Now, instead of being hanged, she was was taken by coach to the Conciergerie, where  people thronged to see her descend in the courtyard of the Palais.  He adds that she was respectably dressed, with her head covered ("proprement mise et coiffée modestement")  (March 1755, p.135)

"Catherine Tapperaist, Veuve Lescombat, drawn from nature by Francesco Dalberati, Italian painter, during her stay in the Conciergerie prison in May 1755.  Engraved after the original drawing".
Versailles, châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon
According to Pauline Chapman, the wax model exhibited by Madame Tussaud was based on an engraving which showed her in prison sewing a baby's bonnet - possibly this one?.

She passed the next four months at the Conciergerie under close surveillance.  Finally, on 3rd July 1755, her pregnancy was declared to be false, and she was immediately taken to be tortured.  She withstood the question aux brodequins, denying all participation in the murder of her husband: by the insertion of the fourth wedge she was reduced to shaking her head, but she managed to sign the procès-verbal.  However, on the place de Grève, at the foot of the scaffold, she finally decided to make a full confession.

Up until this point, if Barbier is to be believed, there had been reason to hope for a reprieve. She was pretty, and had attracted interest at Court, where the King's sisters, the Mesdames de France, had personally arranged for her first child, a daughter aged seven or eight, to be taken into the care of a convent (Feb 1755, p.123). According to d'Argenson,  she was so beautiful that she had numerous protectors who wished to engineer her escape, by pretending she was dead or similar. It was Louis XV himself who finally insisted that the sentence be carried out.(May 1755, p.9; July 1755, p.35)

In her testament de mort, received by Sartine, the Widow Lescombat admitted that she had been the mistress of Mongeot.  The assassination had been planned by the latter, who wanted to avenge the blow he had received, but it had been she who had come up with the idea of planting a pistol as a ruse to evade justice.  She denied that Mongeot had come to inform her immediately after he had committed the crime.  She admitted that she had regularly visited Mongeot dressed as a man, whilst he had been imprisoned in the Grand-Châtelet. 

 According to Barbier, "people were so impatient to know her fate, that they sang songs about her in the streets; the scaffold having already been erected uselessly once".  The proceedings were then delayed two hours whilst she gave her deposition in the Hôtel de Ville.  Finally, at half-past seven in the evening, after signing her declaration,  she was taken to the scaffold to be hanged. Spectators remained dissatisfied because she was executed à la voile, with her face entirely covered by a "bagnolette"; it was rumoured that the wrong woman had been hanged or that Lescombat's good looks had been deliberately hidden from view.

According to the manuscript diary of the lawyer Thomas-Simon Gueullette, the hanging was cruelly botched by the 18-year-old Charles Henri Sanson who stood in for his father for the occasion: "the son of the executioner handled this execution badly and had to make four or five attempts".

Genest Ruelle, Mme Lescombat's brother, was finally discovered in the ranks of the royal marines and taken back to Paris;  since the proofs against him were insufficient, he was submitted to la question préparatoire, which he withstood.  An arrêt of 5th August detained him in prison pending the receipt of further information.  Finally at the end of the year, two neighbours who had been among the group gathered at the shop door on the night of the assassination came forward to affirm that they had not seen him follow Mongeot.  On 11th March 1757 he was released, and disappeared from history.

P. Fournier des Ormes, "Souvenirs judiciaires:  La Lescombat",  Le Constitutionnel: 
         Part i, 29.10.1851
         Part ii, 30.10.1851
         Part iii, 31.10.1851
Thomas-Simon Gueullette, Sur l’échafaud: Histoires de larrons et d’assassins (1721-1766), edited 2010 [Extracts]

Images of La Veuve Lescombat

On the face of it it is difficult to understand why this case attracted so much attention.  It is true, as Muyart de Vouglans reported, that murder of a husband by a wife  was traditional seen as a particularly heinous crime; both in France and England it could attract the penalty of being burned at the stake (the fate of Mary Hayes in 1726).  But by  the mid-century, this perception was declining. Neither being female, nor killing one's husband, was in itself enough to account for the intense interest aroused by the Widow Lescombat. The circumstances were not particularly gruesome and Marie Catherine Taperet did not even commit the murder with her own hand.

The best explanation is the one usually given by contemporaries, that she excited particularly attention because she was an exceptionally attractive woman.  Her social position, as wife of an architect and manageress of a shop, placed her not quite in the haute bourgeoisie but at least above the common criminal classes.  The fact that case was heard before the Parlement of Paris,  brought it instantly to the attention of Parisian society and even, it would seem, of the Court at Versailles. Although her guilt was never in doubt, reaction was  at first mostly sympathetic. Barbier specifies that "this woman, twenty-six or twenty-seven years old, is one of the prettiest women there is in Paris, which causes compassion".  He specifies that the many prints which circulated were "not as beautiful as she was in reality".  Similarly the marquis d'Argenson: "As she is the most beautiful woman in Paris and the most shapely, she has found many protectors at Court"."(Journal, 3rd July 1755,

However, despite the  talk of  a reprieve, popular concern was superficial: there was little or no interest in the real woman, her personality or circumstances, notably, the miserable and probably abusive nature of her relationship with her husband, even though this comes across clearly in the judicial record.

Beauty, moreover, proved a double-edged weapon. The "Widow Lescombat" came to viewed as irresponsible, uncaring and coquettish.  One of the earliest sources, a supposed "letter from a Frenchman to an Englishman", depicts her frivolous behaviour in prison.  Prints show her implausibly well-coiffured and fashionably dressed, and often include a verse warning that beauty can be deceptive.   More luridly, the lawyer Gueullette recorded that her corpse was (supposedly) preserved and displayed at the house of the doctor Hérissaut in the rue Quincampoix, again accompanied by reproving admonitions.

Two engravings of 1755 from the Bibl. Nationale:
Le véritable portrait de Marie Catherine Taperet (Paris, 1755): 
Portrait de Marie Catherine Taperet (Paris, 1755).

The case was embroidered into a salacious pseudo-moralising tale of adultery and conspiracy.  Details varied, but it became standard that la Lescombat had been allowed liberties by her weak husband, and had irresponsibly goaded Mongeot into his murder in order to demonstrate "proof" of his devotion.  The main source, a series of supposed letters between the two lovers published by Cailleau in 1755, was reproduced  in numerous articles, plays and novels 
throughout late 18th and 19th centuriesas well as by  Des Essarts in his compendium of famous trials.  Modern commentators point out, no doubt correctly, that this version of events chimed with longstanding sexual fears and new concerns about marriage brought about by the increasing social freedom of women.

Anonymous engraving of 1755
"La Femme Lescombat, hanged; le Sieur Mongeot her lover, broken on the wheel; le Sieur Lescombat assassinated. "All you who give yourselves to immodest love / Should fear like this couple a tragic scene"

From Fournier Des Ormes:

"We have examined all this ephemeral literature, hatched by adultery and assassination.  We have found it sometimes bizarre and burlesque, but usually flat and ridiculous."

Complainte et epitaphe de Madame Lescombat

 Oraison funèbre de Marie Catherine Taperet (n.p.n.d.)

"At this period, the mock "Funeral Oration" was a common conceit. This one is sad and uninspiring.  There are no details about la Lescombat, just a lot of empty and bad rhetoric.  To judge the tone:  the hangman is styled sacrificer; the greatest eloquence is reserved for a malediction addressed to the forest which has provided the wood for the scaffold. This piece must have earned a louis for some starving hack or young abbé in search of amusement."

La mort de Lescombat, tragédie (La Haye, chez Pierre Vander, 1755)

An anonymous tragedy, the first of many plays, on the theme of the Widow Lescombat.  Des Ormes admires its style, if not its historical veracity.  (The author ["G*****"] states he is a Burgundian.) 

Lettres amoureuses de la Dame Lescombat et du Sieur Mongeot, ou l'Histoire de leurs criminelles amours (La Haye, et se trouvant à Paris chez Cailleau, 1755) [Includes the text of Lettre d'un Français  à un Anglais ]

Des Ormes comments on this work are illuminating:

"One occasionally finds for sale on the quais a volume with the  title:  Lettres amoureuses de la dame Lescombat et du sieur Mongeot...chez Cailleau, libraire, 1755.

The bookseller Cailleau frequently edited and even collaborated in this sort of publication.  In his Advice to the reader he says merely that the letters fell into his hands ...and warns that they may contain some irregularities and lapses of style.

This warning is not without cause.  These letters are of a detestable style....

This correspondence is apocryphal.  It is sufficient to read a single page to see that the letters are all written by the same hand.  Yet they have been, and still are, admitted as authentic documents from the Lescombat trial.  As a result, the majority of those who talk about the case accept as the motive for murder, the intention of the two lovers to marry one another.... But how could Mongeot have hoped to marry the Widow Lescombat after he had murdered her husband?...He was married himself; from his prison cell he wrote to his wife, shortly after his arrest, the following letter which we found in the dossier in the archives:

[Mongeot pathetically asks his wife to "at least" send him some decent linen to wear before his judges]

... The man who wrote these illiterate lines could never have produced the flourishes of rhetoric attributed to him.

However, many authors have been deceived, foremost among them the lawyer Dessarts....Never has there been a less scrupulous compiler....He cites as original the letters from this strange publication, and he takes the rest of his article from another piece by a beau esprit of the  time,  Lettre d'un Français  à un Anglais (1755) This latter short pamphlet deals mainly with the behaviour of the Widow Lescombat in prison, where she supposedly passed her time reading novels.

Another writer who fell in the same error as Dessarts is M. Roger de Beauvoir, who in 1841 published a novel entitled La Lescombat...."

Des Essarts, Procès Fameux, vol. 5, p.278f.

Roger de Beauvoir, La Lescombat (Brussels, 1841)

For a rendition along similar lines in English:
"A fatal intrigue" in The Terrific Register: Or, Record of Crimes, Judgments, Providences, and Calamities (Sherwood, Jones & Co. 1825) p.77-9.

Modern studies

Wikipedia article: "Marie Catherine Taperet"

Sabine Juratic, "Meurtrière de son mari: un "destin" criminel au xviiie siècle?  L'Affaire Lescombat"
Revue d’Histoire Moderne & Contemporaine, 1987,  vol.34(1):p.123-37.

Anna Clare Jenkin, "Perceptions of the Murderess in London and Paris, 1674-1789".  University of Sheffield PhD. 2015.

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