Sunday 29 September 2019

1750: The last homosexuals executed in France

On 18th October 2014, the Socialist Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo ceremonially unveiled a memorial plaque to Bruno Lenoir and Jean Diot, the last men to be executed in France for homosexuality.  The plaque is embedded into the pavement at the corner of rue Montorgueil and rue Bauchaumont, on the exact spot where the two were arrested over two hundred and fifty years ago, in January 1750.

Hommage à MM. LENOIR & DIOT from ALSG on Vimeo.

The commemoration is something of a political hot potato.  The memorial was the initiative of  the Communist and Left Party of the Conseil de Paris (groupe PCF-PG) and is seen as a piece of anti-clerical propaganda (see the articles by Olivier Marchal).  It has already been subject to two acts of vandalism in 2018 - a wreath  burned in May,  the plaque smeared in soot and covered with homophobic tracts in July.

Saturday 28 September 2019

The Sorcerers of Lyon

The affair of the "sorcerers of Lyon" was a further, far more extensive trial involving magic quests for treasure.  Proceedings took place over a three-year period, from 1742 to 1745, and involved the arraignment of no less than twenty-nine individuals.

This episode is fascinating, not only for the insights into legal practices and attitudes to witchcraft but also for the details of the lives and hopes of  ordinary people that it revealed.

The trial is unusually well-documented: the library of the Château Grosbois-en-Montagne in Bourgogne preserves a comprehensive manuscript dossier, including full transcripts of the many interrogation.  This  compilation was the work of the commissioning magistrate for the case Jean-Claude Perreney de Vellemont (1718-1810), conseiller, and later  Procureur-général  in the Parlement of Dijon.  According to family tradition Perreney was an austere and conscientious man, who got up at four in the morning to attend early mass and habitually spent his days in study. This is borne out by the manuscript, which amounts to 400 folio pages, laboriously transcribed in small neat handwriting.

The fortified manor house of Grosbois en Montagne, much embellished by the Perreney family in the 18th century.
A full account of the case, based on the dossier, was published by Henri Beaune  in 1868.  More recently, in 2001, the evidence has been revisited in an article by Mathias Dupas Didier.  

Friday 27 September 2019

Some treasure-seekers

Magical treasure-seeking featured prominently in 18th-century grimoires, and seems to have become a particular preoccupation of the time.  Perhaps it can be viewed as one more aspect of the quest for riches and upward mobility so prominent in all walks of life during this period. From time to time the antics of the treasure-hunters surface in detail in the judicial or police record.  As Professor McManners observed, these cases reveal "something of the popular superstition and the judicial ferocities underlying the crystaline wit and sophisticated adventures of thought of the Enlightenment" (p.237). 

Wednesday 25 September 2019

The Extravagant Imaginings of Monsieur Oufle

Nothing is so easy as to persuade the Credulous into a belief of whatever one pleases; especially when what is propos'd to them falls in with their Prejudices.
(Bordelon, A History of ..M. Oufle, p.195)

By the opening decades of the eighteenth century, belief in magic and the supernatural was already becoming an object of ridicule. The landmark text is the splendid Histoire des Imaginations Extravagantes de Monsieur Oufle, a comic novel by the abbé Laurent Bordelon published in 1710.

Sunday 22 September 2019

Some books of magic

According to the historian of the grimoire, Owen Davies, books of magic spells and incantations circulated widely in 18th-century France.  Police reports from the opening years of the century reveal a lively trade in manuscripts and clandestine texts among enterprising Parisians, most of them humble members of society: priests, prostitutes, abortionists, chemists, labourers and tradesmen.(Davies p.96)  

France rapidly became the European centre for the production of popular books of magic.  In the course of the late 18th and 19th centuries, tens of thousands of illegal cheap editions, part of the so-called Bibliothèque bleue, were distributed throughout the country by colporteurs.  The centres of production were in Troyes, Rouen and Paris, places of high literacy where standard French was spoken. (Davies, p.98)  The earliest title, the Grand Albert was mainly a compendium of "natural magic",  but true grimoires, which included methods for the invocation of demons and spirits, became increasingly available - no doubt  in response to a growing demand. 

As Owen Davies notes, exact bibliographic details are not easy to trace.  It is often not clear in the police reports, which works are being described, or whether they are manuscripts or printed texts.  The books in question were in any case usually destroyed. Paradoxically, the  cheap ephemeral editions of the Bibliothèque bleue are now quite rare.  Even when  they do survive, origins remain uncertain, since publishers commonly gave false dates and hid behind fanciful imprints -  such as Beringos Fratres of Lyon, whose premises were located "at the sign of Agrippa".  

Le Grand Albert 

The Grand Albert, the oldest magical staple of the bibliothèque bleue,  was a heterogeneous compilation of herbalism, household hints and popular superstition.  Principally, it  gave instructions for the esoteric use of natural materials - to change the properties of inert or living things;  or for divination.  The contents covered such subjects as  gynaecology, physiognomy, alchemy, medicine, and from 1703 it included an almanac of propitious days.

Although the Grand Albert did not contain spells, curses or  incantations, its proliferation still generated concern;  in 1709 it was listed by censors as a book to be condemned and confiscated,  along with a whole range of religious and pseudo-religious works printed in Rouen. (See Davies, p.98)

The text  may date in part to the 13th centuries.  Almost sixty manuscript copies survive from the 14th to 16th centuries. The work subsequently diffused widely in print, in the original Latin, then in Italian, German, French and English translations. It was was not officially proscribed until 1604 when the first part, Les secrets des Femmes, was placed on the Index;  this section was then reproduced only in Latin editions. By the later 17th century cheap French editions were being published regularly in Troyes by Jacques Oudot.

The "classic" French version, which includes Les secrets des Femmes,  appeared for the first time at the beginning of the 18th century under the title Les Admirables Secrets d’Albert Le Grand.  The first edition, of which Bibliothèque nationale possesses a copy, dates from 1703 and is a high quality publication, with five fine engravings.  Almost certainly it originated outside France.  

There were many subsequent editions, following this same basic format.  The earliest examples have the imprint "Cologne chez le dispensateur de secrets" and the later ones "Lyon Beringos Fratres".   As time passed, the quality tended to decline - for instance the use of contrasting red type was dropped.

Friday 20 September 2019

Magic in the early 18th century

Edict of 1682

Édit... pour la punition de différents crimes [magie, sortilèges, empoisonnement]. Registré en Parlement le 31 aoust 1682

In the late 17th and early 18th centuries longstanding laws on witchcraft were repealed the throughout Europe.   In France a new framework was provided by the Edict of 1682, which redefined crimes relating to magic in the wake of the "Affair of the Poisons" and a series of high-profile miscarriages of justice by the provincial parlements. The Edict in effect placed the supernatural outside the jurisdictionof the secular law courts.  Witchcraft and magic practices were no longer punishable directly, but only in so far as they involved imposture or criminal activity.  Severe penalties were retained for blasphemy and poisoning.

The Edict identified three different sorts of offences:

1. Divination 

All persons who practice divination or claim to be diviners were to be  summarily banished from the Kingdom as soon as the Edict was published, on pain of corporal punishment.

2. "Superstitious practices" 
These were defined as abuse of the the words of Holy Scripture or the prayers of the Church; , also recourse to deeds and words "which have no relation to natural causes". Punishment was left to the discretion of the judge but must be "exemplary".

3.  "Impiety and sacrilege" 

Those who added "impiety and sacrilege" to superstition in the practice of "supposed magic" were liable to the death penalty. This included attempts to invoke or make pacts with demons, and the misuse of Catholic ceremonial, sacred vessels and sacraments.

All those involved in poisoning or trading in poisons also faced execution.

Wednesday 18 September 2019

Derues and the ritual of execution

The execution of Derues was accompanied by an unprecedented outpouring of images.  According to Grimm, portraits of Derues and scenes from his crime and trial, "of marvellous exactitude", were produced everywhere and purveyors of engravings sold nothing else for a fortnight.  The following are mostly from a series of thirty-nine prints offered by the engravers Esnauts et Rapilly, to accompanied the extremely popular Vie privée et criminelle d'Antoine-François Derues by the bookseller Cailleau.  Among them are some of the most striking images of the final years of "the age of spectacular execution".  Cailleau's  work sought to portray Derues as a monster of hypocrisy and crime; but paradoxically, the illustrations seem (and probably seemed at the time) more an indictment of the cruelties of 18th-century capital punishment.  They stand as  testimony to the suffering and resilience of the little man, whose protestations of innocence so disconcerted contemporary observers.

Derues is subjected to extraordinary torture before his execution
On 6th May, at six in the morning, Derues had his condemnation formally read to him.  He was then led into the torture chamber where the various high officials,including the lieutenant criminal Bachois de Villefort, were foregathered, with the executioner and his assistants in attendance. 

Sunday 8 September 2019

The poisoner Derues [cont.]

"Portrait from nature...engraved by X......"

Trial and Conviction

The Inquiry

For a moment Desrues must haved believed that he was safe.  It had been necessary that Mme de Lamotte was alive; a lawyer in Lyon had seen her; as had the proprietor of the hotel. At midnight he began the journey back to Paris as fast as possible, arriving in Paris at four in the afternoon on the 11th.  His absence had lasted only six days but, as it turned out,   he had not been quick enough. The situation had already begun to unravel.

M.Lamotte himself  in Paris, had  gone first to the lieutenant of police Lenoir, then, on 3rd March, lodged a formal complaint with Hubert Mutel, commissaire at the Châtelet. On 5th Mutel began to make enquiries.  He learned that Derues had departed for Lyon.  On 6th the commissaire, accompanied by the inspector Le Houx, arrived at eight in the evening in the rue Beaubourg to interrogate Mme Derues. She answered very straightforwardly, believing her husband had gone to Versailles.  Seals were placed on the apartment and various papers carried off;  also discovered were clothes belonging to Mme de Lamotte and shirts, handkerchiefs and slippers  belonging to her son. 

The affair had already attracted some attention; Derues's story that Madame de Lamotte had absconding with a lover did the rounds in Paris. Some thought she and Derues were in cahouts.  Mutel's personal notes on the case are preserved in the dossier in the Archives. He soon unravelled the inconsistencies in Mme Derue's deposition.   He suspected fraud, or coercion, but did not at first consider the possibility of murder. He noticed that Mme Derues name was falsified on her marriage contract.   Four days later, however, having learned of Mme de Lamotte's illness and her son's stomach pains, he he  become convinced  that an assassination had taken place.  The police were soon emptying the cesspit and making enquiries at the laundry in search of bloodstained linen.

The discovery of the first body

There is no record in the dossier of how the police were led to cellar in the rue de la Mortellerie.  Contemporaries, including the well-informed Hardy, were convinced Mme Masson had recognised Desrues and informed the police.  

On Friday 18th April, at three thirty,  Mutel, with inspector Le Houx and several other police agents descended by torchlight into the pitch-black cellar, a sort of vaulted space under a staircase.  Here they discovered a wooden spade, stray traces of hay and disturbed ground.  They began to dig and soon came upon a putrifying corpse shrouded in damp linen with a sack over its head.  The advanced state of decomposition made identification uncertain. The procureur du roi was immediately informed and an autopsy ordered.

At eleven at night, Desrues himself was brought by coach and taken down  down to see the corpse.  He  remained completely impassive and denied categorically that he recognised Mme de Lamotte or her clothing.

In the cellar in the rue de la Mortellerie: Derues claims not to recognise the body of Mme de Lamotte, even though it has been identified by his wife.

The doctors, one of whom was the famous surgeon Nicolas Pierre de Leurye, now arrived to investigate the body, which had been carried to the ground floor room of a neighbouring house.   Despite the decomposition, they claimed to be able to discern signs of poisoning.  The earrings the woman  was wearing were removed, which Lamotte later identified as his wife's. The servant Jeanne Barque and Bertin positively identified the corpse, as did  Derues's wife who was brought from the For-l'Évêque prison.  The latter testified that Mme  Lamotte had been ill but that she herself had never interfered with any medicines.  She reacted with horror at the suggestion that she had helped her husband dispose of the corpse.  Desrues was confronted by these witnesses.  At first he joked that "like Mme de Lamotte the nose is a bit pointed",  but he finally admitted that it was her.   

When interrogated the next day, Desrues had a new story.  He now claimed  that he had found Mme de Lamotte dead, and disposed of the body surreptitiously because he feared he would be accused of assassination. He had also wanted to safeguard the  purchase of the Buisson-Souef.  He still denied that he had poisoned her.  He now also admitted that the son, who was apparently consumed by venereal disease, had died on the way to Versailles. He further testified that he had prevailed upon a woman he had met by chance  to impersonate Mme de la Motte before the lawyer in  Lyon.

The discovery of the second body  

Meanwhile the whole of Paris was abuzz with speculation.  The day of the discovery of Mme de Lamotte's corpse was a fête day - Joseph II had arrived the day before and was travelling to Versailles. The Journal de Paris appraised its readers of events:  according to Metra’s , Correspondance secrète, four hundred people gathered in the Bois de Bologne where it was rumoured the son was buried.  On 22nd April  huge crowds turned out to follow the funeral procession  to the parish church of Saint-Gervais.

On 23rd April the investigating  magistrates arrived at the Cemetery of Saint-Louis in Versailles, having left the Grand Châtelet at six that morning with the Derues, his wife and Donon, the master of the pension.  With the aid of the cooper Pequet, it soon proved possible to pinpoint the grave and exhume the body of the young Lamotte.  A massive crowd turned out to watch the proceedings.  This time the corpse, of a tall thin young man, was well-preserved, even mummified.  Derues and his wife, were led in handcuffs before the open coffin. Derues again maintained that he did not recognise the body, despite the positive identification of Pequet and Donon.  At the murmur of the crowd,  Derues turned towards them and, indicating the gens de justice, started to speak: "All these  present are honest men. You must believe them".  Then he stopped, his legs trembled and he fainted away.

Shortly afterwards, he revived and was interrogated in a nearly ballroom on the rue Saint-Honoré.  He now had some difficulty in replying, but persisted in denying any poisonings. At this point Mme Derues decided to make a deposition in order to save herself.  She now admitted meeting Derues in the road with his trunk, depositing it in an attic and using it to send china to Villeneuve.  She also agreed that she had had suspicions, that she had lied to Lamotte - but the degree of her culpability remains impossible to judge.

The Cemetery of St Louis in Versailles, 23rd April 1777: Derues and his wife do not recognise the body of the young Lamotte, and feign illness.

The inquiry now approached its conclusion; the two doctors, who had now performed an autopsy on the Versailles body,  formally declared the cause of death to be poisoning.   Both bodies showed "intestinal disorder" and inflammation. Subsequently, there would be some worries that the medical findings were inconclusive, especially since no incriminating substances were ever found. However, the circumstantial evidence was pretty compelling.  Both victims had similar symptoms. . Both had grown worse after remedies or hot chocolate administered by Derues.  

On 25th April Monsieur Pourra, the notary from Lyon,  arrived in Paris to confront Derues.  He did not recognise him, but observed that he was the same height as the woman who had visited him, and had a similar nose.  It seemed likely, but was never incontrovertibly established, that his mysterious visitor was indeed Derues in disguise. 


The hearing concluded on 28th April and on 30th April, after only one day of deliberations, the magistrates of the Châtelet  condemned Derues to death. Even on the sellette, he still denied everything.  He had taken Mme de Lamotte in out of charity. Nor had he poisoned the boy. He  immediately appealed his sentence to the Parlement of Paris.

On Monday 5th May, at four in the morning, Derues was taken to the Palais for the final  judgement.  He was held in the Chambre de l'Edit where curious onlookers were admitted in groups of six   By nine o'clock the visitors were so numerous that no more were allowed to enter. In the meantime the Tournelle sat behind closed doors to consider its verdict.  Derues, apparently serene, engaged in conversation with those who filed past.  He reminded  one onlooker that he had come to see him and not the painting on the wall.  Observers were amazed by Derues's ironic tone:   Mercier, who had seen him in prison in the Châtelet, had already been astonished by "his cool intrepidness and the tranquil courage of his hypocrisy"

The review of the trial took more than seven hours and confirmed the judgment of the Châtelet. The arrêt of the Parlement, which included a full extract from the deliberations was placarded at all the crossroads  of Paris.  Derues was condemned to be broken on the wheel, his remains burned and the ashes "cast to the winds".

Wednesday 4 September 2019

Notorious criminals: the poisoner Derues

The poisoner Antoine-François Derues, who was executed in 1777, was another criminal who aroused huge public interest, both at the time and long afterwards.  

In her study of the case, the historian Annie Duprat observes  that the trial and conviction of Derues were carried with unusual tenacity and speed. The inquiry began on 30 April 1777 and the final verdict of the Parlement of Paris was delivered on 5th May.  This suggests concern on the part of the magistrates: there were already signs of  lack of public confidence in the police and judiciary, and the beginnings of disaffection with the cruelties of "spectacular capital punishment".  Although Derues's guilt was never really called into question, there was still some danger that he might become a popular hero, as he himself maintained, "another Calas".  There was also an undercurrent of class resentment against his aristocratic victims.  More importantly, people were disconcerted by Derues's dignified courage and his protestations of innocence even in extremis which seemed to call  into doubt the rationale of the traditional inquisitorial system.

The following is summarised from the account by the lawyer and journalist Georges Claretie, published in 1906, on the basis of the extensive dossier of the case preserved in the Archives Nationales.  Viewed over a gulf of almost two-and-a-half centuries, Desrues's personality and motivation remain as enigmatic as ever.

Who was Derues?

The most striking aspect of Antoine-François Derues - preserved for us in a multitude of engravings and witness statements - was his unusual physical appearance.  He was a slight little man, with delicate pointy features  and an extreme palour. Portraits show a receding hairline, large furtive eyes and a thin mouth. Claims that he had been born a hermaphrodite are almost certainly a fantasy, but, as events proved, he was able to don a dress and impersonate a woman with credibility. He is almost always portrayed in his dressing gown, decorated with large flowers, with his head enveloped in a white cotton bonnet resembling a turban. Hostile source emphasised his ferocious feline qualities, but the portraits show a frail, vulnerable and  oddly sympathetic individual.  He seems to possess a mobile, nervous intelligence – it is not the face of a ruthless murderer, though possibly that of a fraudster and fantasist.

In Georges Claretie's view, Desrues was not the pathological monster of contemporary accounts, but a phenomenon born of an age of social climbing:  "a petit bourgeois of Paris, riddled with debt, who wanted to play the grand seigneur, have a castle and lands in the country without paying, and who, to arrive at his goal, was forced to become a criminal" (p.6)
At the time of the crime Derues, who was in his early thirties, lived with his wife, two children and a maidservant,  in a ground-floor apartment in the rue Beaubourg.  He styled himself a “former businessman” though in reality he had, until recently,  run a grocery shop in the rue Saint-Victoire.   His pretensions to gentility went further: he signed himself Derues de Cyrano de Bury and claimed to own a fief near Candeville in the Beauvoisis.  Moreover, he let it be believed that his wife was Marie-Louise de Nicolai,a member of  the great family of the President of the Cour des Comptes.  All these noble titles were a complete fabrication.

Engravings sometimes show the furnishings the apartment; the dining room has a high ceiling, elegant mouldings and a large mirror over the chimney.  It is modestly though tastefully decorated with a porcelain vase and Chinese paper pictures - a typical bourgeois interior.  Details from the sale after Derues's death confirm this impression (p.10)

Portrait of Marie-Louise Nicolais (1745-92), wife of Derues
Mme Derues was eventually condemned to be flogged and branded, then imprisoned in perpetuity. She survived for thirteen years in la Salpétrière only to be killed in the prison massacres on 4th Septembe 1792.
Mme Derues was a strong, pleasant-looking young "woman of the people". They seemed to have been a loving couple.  Her degree of complicity in her husband's affairs was difficult to assess, but in the course of the trial she was to display great loyalty - and a high degree of native cunning - in his defence.

Derues was well liked in the quartier for his simplicity, modesty and good humour.  He  entertained often, and was known for his cordial welcome and amusing company. He also enjoyed a reputation for piety: he went to mass regularly, wore a scapular, and had many religious social connections; one of his sisters was a nun. 

Little is known for certain about Derues's early childhood.  He was born in Chartres in 1744, of "honest parents": his father was an ironmonger, corn merchant and sometime innkeeper. Derues was the oldest of four children, with two sisters and a brother who owned a cabaret. According to the later accounts, he was orphaned at three, brought up by relatives then entrusted to the frères des Écoles Chrétiennes.  There are lurid tales of his early viciousness, none of which can be verified.  He was subsequently apprenticed to a grocer and came to work in Paris. In 1767 he was taken on by his master's widowed sister-in-law who in February 1770 ceded to him the lease of her shop in the rue Saint-Victoire: at twenty-five, Derues became became a  fully qualified marchand-épicier droguiste (hence his facility with poisons).  In September 1772 he married Marie-Louis Nicolais, daughter of a former petty officer in the artillery, now a saddler, from Melun. His wife’s association with the Nicolai family was pure fantasy –  the final “s” is actually scratched out from her name in a copy of the marriage certificate preserved in the Archives.   She did, however, stand  to inherit through her mother’s second marriage the substantial sum of  250,000 livres from a certain sieur Despeignes-Duplessis.  The inheritance, though certainly existant, took a long time to be settled; indeed it was still outstanding at the time of the Revolution.  Nonetheless it became a valuable source of credit for Derues . Despeignes-Duplessis had died in a fire under suspicious circumstances, but no evidence was ever uncovered to implicate Derues in his demise.

Georges Claretie devotes a whole chapter to Derues’s labyrintine financial dealings, which involved  a complex web of borrowing and money lending.  Some of his clients were important people - he received the likes of the duc  Béthune-Sully and the marquis de Fleury -  but neighbours also observed more dubious visitors:  clerks, baliffs, minor court officials. His life, remarks Claretie, was a continual battle to maintain an illusion of gentility, to stave off his creditors and keep the authorities at bay (p.11). By 1775 Desrues's financial affairs were in a state of crisis, but, it would seem,  nonetheless, that he had become increasingly preoccupied with idea of securing a property to validate his claim to nobility. 

A crime unfolds

An estate in the country

The fatal die was cast when, in 1775, when Derues  made the acquaintance of sieur Étienne de Saint-Faust de Lamotte, a provincial noble who owned the estate of Buisson-Souef in Villeneuve-le-Roi in Bourgogne.  In the May of that year Lamotte had given power of attorney to his wife to come to Paris and negotiate the sale of the property. The legal transaction was placed in the hands a procureur at the Châtelet named Jolly - in all probability it was he who had put the two parties in contact.  The Lamottes were taken in by Derues’s spurious noble credentials and, after one or two interviews were delighted with their prospective purchaser. The sale was speedily agreed. A bill of exchange was drawn up whereby Derues agreed to pay 130,000 livres for the estate, with a first instalment of 12,000 livres due on the completion of the sale, no later than the first of June, 1776. As a gesture of good faith,  Derues gave Mme. de Lamotte a bill for 4,200 livres to fall due on April 1, 1776.In order to stall for time, Derues now went with his maidservant and small daughter on an extended visit to Villeneuve-le-Roi, where his host found him "agreeable, complaisant, aimable, bouffon".  Meanwhile in Paris Derues's wife struggled throughout the summer to placate her husband's many creditors. 

The Château de Buisson Souef, Villeneuve-en-Yonne in a postcard from 1920.
The Château still stands today
A poisoning

The crisis finally arrived in December 1776 when Mme de Lamotte arrived in the capital to complete the sale. To keep any control over the situation obliged to offer her lodgings with him.  He even hired a coach to meet her.  To make room for her his associate Bertin was obliged to leave the apartment,and Derues's  own son and his daughter of four were dispatched to stay in Montrouge with relatives of the maidservant.  Mme de Lamotte's own son, a boy in his teens, was installed nearby in a pension and school run by a certain Donon in the rue de l'Homme-Arme. 

Desrues now planned to pull off an ambitious fraud by using a fictitious loan to buy the property and persuade Mme de Lamotte to sign the necessary receipt. He would then need only to fabricate a story that she had absconded with the money.  But how was she to be removed from the scene?  His guest was happily ensconced and settled into an agreeable round of social visits and entertainments, but soon began to suffer from sickness. The young Lamotte too was out of sorts - he complained to his friends of dizziness, cramps and digestive troubles. By end of January, the season of carnival, Madame had taken a definite turn for the worse. She complained continually of fatigue. Both mother and son were obliged to rush to the garde-robe during mealtimes.  On 30 January she vomited almost continually. The next day it had been arranged for Mme Derues and the servant, Jeanne Barque, to visit the children in Montrouge.  Jeanne Barque later testified that at dawn she brought  Mme de Lamotte a bowl of broth and a medicine prepared under instruction from Derues. Some time later she came back to find her seemingly asleep, snoring loudly.  She was alarmed but Derues insisted that at all costs Madame was not to be woken.  Mme Desrues appeared strangely agitated, and later instructed the servant to go to Montrouge alone, since she was obliged to help her husband take care of the sick woman.  In the evening  admission to the chamber was refused to Bertin; the young Lamotte was apparently taken to the door and glimpsed his mother sleeping.  Bertin reported that during the evening meal Desrues got up several times to "attend" Madame in the garde-robe, an event accompanied by a horrendous stench.  He would return in a good mood. The couple spent the night in the cabinet next to the sickroom, but early in the morning Derues sent his wife out on a errand.  Madame de Lamotte, it would seem, had succumbed to poison in the night.

 The trunk

It was now essential to dispose of the body. The doorman to the building had received orders to admit no-one and Derues himself had removed the bell from the door. Nonetheless he had to move quickly.  

The wife of a shopkeeper in the rue des Bourdonnais, testified  that she had visited Desrues at about eleven o’clock in quest of some money he owed her. The apartment had been in disarray and Desrues had not at first replied to her knock. When he finally appeared, in his habitual flowery dressing gown and white cotton bonnet, he looked even paler than usual and his hands trembled. The disorder of the room surprised her. She was then taken into the kitchen where there were two trunks; at first she feared Derues himself was about to abscond, but he explained that they belonged to a lady who had been staying with him, who was about to leave, accompanied by his wife.

 Desrues himself later admitted – with some reticences -  how he went about his gruesome task.   He had already, several days earlier, bought a massive leather trunk from a second-hand dealer in the rue Saint-Antoine, and had lined it with hay to prevent the body moving around.  Now, after a moment overcome by nausea, he opened the curtains of the bed and tried to lift the repulsive corpse.  When it proved too  heavy, he dragged the trunk up and used the bedcovers to roll the body in.  He then fastened the trunk securely. The doorman, Louis Petit, saw him talk to the local commissionnaire, who later came with two men and a little cart to take the the trunk away.  They went in the direction of the Louvre.  Desrues now encountered his wife.  She testified that her husband requested her to ask a friend  Mme Mouchy to look after the trunk, after which they returned to their lodgings together.  Mme Derues took on trust Desrue's explanation that the trunk belonged to Mme la Motte who was cured and already on her way to Versailles.  Desrue confirmed this story to Bertin, who came to dinner that evening, and to the Lamotte boy who was also present.  According to Bertin the dinner was a convivial occasion.

Engraving from a series produced by Esnauts et Rapilly, rue St-Jacques.
Derues, having poisoned Mme  de Lamotte, puts her body in a trunk, 1st February 1777, and leaves it with a gentleman at the Louvre in order to have it transported later to be buried in a cellar in the rue de la Mortellerie

The Cellar 

In order to secure a permanent hiding place for the body, Derues rented a cellar in the rue de la Mortellerie, an unfrequented alley near the Hôtel de Ville, running parallel to the Seine. The owner, Mme Mason, a widow in her sixties, later described her new tenant as "little man with a pale complexion and piercing eyes, dressed in a fine lilac redingole, with a walking can and hat trimmed with gold lace". Using the name Doucoudray, Derues claimed that he needed the cellar in order to store Spanish wine. 

Three or four days later, several passersby saw the little man accompany a cart loaded up with a substantial wine barrel and a huge bale of grey cloth. One witness followed him to the rue de la Mortellerie, where he solicited the aid of a river porter and a charbonnier to unpack the load. One of the men, struggling with the heavy grey bale, noticed that it concealed a packing case made of wooden planks.

It would have been imprudent to leave the body above ground, exposed to the damp of the cellar. Derues engaged an unemployed mason to dig a hole five-feet long on the pretext of storing wine.  Desrues was seen by several other witnesses in the vicinity. An inhabitant of Mme Mason's house called Rogeot was woken in the night  by noises from the cellar and went to investigate, but found nothing.  Mme de Lamotte was now buried beneath four feet of earth.  The trunk was packed with china  and sent to Buisson-Souef on the coche d'eau.

A trip to Versailles 

It was now necessary to silence the son.  For the moment the boy was satisfied with the story that his mother had gone to Versailles to buy him an office, and would soon be sending  for him. On the week of the Mardi Gras holiday he spent several days with the Derues. At his pension he complained to Mme Donon, of sickness ,and was taken with violent stomach pains, though he later recovered enough to go on an outing  to the foire Saint-Germain.  Derues now announced that he had at last heard from the mother and that he was to accompany the boy to  rejoin her in Versailles.  He personally went to the kitchen and prepared the boy a cup of hot chocolate.  Again he became ill, although Mme Derues took him out to see the Carnival masques and he again rallied.

The following day, Ash Wednesday, Derues administered yet more chocolate to the boy, then left early with him.  The gatekeeper saw them depart and an odd-job-man called Juppin took their luggage as far as the rue Saint-Martin, where they boarded the coach for Versailles.

The conductor recalled two pale travellers who descended at the auberge Fleur de Lys in the avenue de Sceaux in Versailles. The boy had vomited throughout the journey and was unsteady on his feet.  The innkeeper, fearing smallpox, refused to put them up but directed them instead to some modest lodgings in the rue de l'Orangerie, which were owned by a cooper named Pecquet and his wife. A price was agreed and a camp bed installed in the room for the boy, whom Desrue claimed was his nephew. He gave his name as Beaupré, from Commercy.   Pecquet recalled that the boy seemed ill, the uncle solicitous.  The next day Derues sent Mme Pequet to buy various ingredients for a purgative medicine.  The woman was horrified at the state of the child but her offers to call a doctor were refused.  By the Saturday, the nephew was pronounced to be better.  However, in the night a loud noise awoke Pecquet who found the sick boy on his bed, almost fainted away.  His eyes were closed, he could not speak, and he was racked by a horrible rattling snore which recalled the sound Jeanne Barque had heard his mother make on her deathbed.  A priest was called for.  By the time the abbé Manin, from the nearby parish of Saint-Louis had arrived, the young man was already dead.   His uncle knelt by the bed, reciting the prayer for the dead, with great tears rolling down his cheeks.  It was now eleven in the evening.

Derues, at Versailles, recites prayers for the dead beside Mr de la Motte fils, whom he has just poisoned.

The next day, Sunday, Pequet helped the traveller to wrap the body in a shroud.  The death was registered at the parish of Saint-Louis, where Derues  gave the boy’s name as Louis-Antoine Beaupré.  Pecquet went as far as the cemetery where  the supposed uncle, in tears, left the cure six livres to say masses for his nephew's soul; a few prayers were recited, a few handfuls of earth thrown and that was the end of it. The same day Derues returned to Paris. 

That evening, at dinner with Mme Derues and Bertin, Derues was in fine form; he even broke into song over dessert.  He declared that he had finally clinched the purchase of Buisson-Souef.  Moreover, Madame Lamotte and her son were unlikely to return from Versailles, where, he hinted, she had an amorous liaison.  There were many unanswered questions, but neither his wife nor Bertin seem to have asked them.

In the following days Derues happily put about the news of his new estate. Lamotte received a series of reassuring letters from Mme Derues but rapidly became frantic that he had not heard from his wife. Even a visit from Desrues to Villeneuve failed to reassure him.  Denon, the owner of the pension where the boy had lodged, was also fobbed off.  Desrues  had the spurious deed of sale drawn up.  Now, however, came upon an unforeseen hitch, since neither the procurateur Jolly nor Lamotte himself would act without sight of the power of attorney and assurances that Madame had personally handed it over.

In Lyon

On the morning of 5th March Derues was witnessed departing in a cabriolet de poste.  That evening he stayed at an inn in Montargis and, two days later, on the evening of the 7th, he was in Lyon at the hotel Blanc, rue de l'Arsenal, where he signed the register "M.Desportes, de Paris." The next morning he left early, instructing the innkeeper to allow a woman whom he was expecting up to his room.  Some hours later a shopkeeper recalled a "very pale" individual, who went by the name of Chavannes and bought two women's dresses; one  white with lilac and green stripes, and the other in black silk, total cost 288 livres.  An errand boy accompanied him back to the hotel Blanc with his parcel.  

That same day, 8th March 1777, Antoine Pourra, conseiller du roi and notary, received a visit at home, from a veiled woman, for whom he drew up a power of attourney document.  She was dressed in a black silk robe, with her face almost concealed by her hood.   Monsieur Pourra was struck by  her Parisian accent, though not apparently by her masculinity.  

Desrues disguises himself as a woman in order to deceive a lawyer in Lyon.


Georges Claretie, Derues l’empoisonneur, une cause célèbre au xviiie siècle, Paris, Fasquelle, (1906)

[to be continued]

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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