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 for instance, 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.

Who were Lenoir and Diot?  

The case in itself was unremarkable.

On the night of 4th January 1750, at about eleven o'clock two men were arrested in the rue Montorgueil, between the rue Saint-Sauveur and the former rue Beaurepaire.  They had been caught in flagrante by the sergeant of the watch, "in an indecent posture and a reprehensible manner", details of which "propriety does not allow us to explain in writing". One of them was drunk.  Several days later, Bruno Lenoir, a garçon cordonnier of twenty three, admitted that he had been propositioned by Jean Diot.  He had taken off his breeches but they hadn't "concluded the business" because they had been surprised and arrested.  Jean Diot, forty years old, was a servant (garçon domestique) in a nearby butchers. He continued to deny everything.  He maintained that he had simply found the young man asleep in the doorway, definitely with his breeches firmly in place.  Diot was illiterate and could not even sign his name to the deposition.

The trial lasted six months.  On 11th April 1750 the procureur advised that Lenoir and Diot should be  burnt at the stake, a method of execution reserved for heretics, witches, and sodomites. They were found guilty by the Châtelet on 27th May 1750. The Tournelle of the Parlement of Paris confirmed the sentence on appeal.

The arrêt of the Parlement, published on 5th June, condemned the two men to be "burned alive, with their trial records, and their cinders then scattered to the winds, and their goods confiscated by the King." However, a retentum stipulated that they were to be "secretly strangled before they felt the flames".  Apart from this decree, few references have come down to us.  In June 1750 Barbier reported that the sentence of execution by burning was "fort singulier", but it was rumoured that it had been commuted "for prudence" to life imprisonment in the Bicêtre.  On 6th July, however, the execution finally took place:  Barbier gives the following account:

Barbier Journal, vol. 4, June 1750, (p.441) and July 1750 (p.447).  English trans. from Crompton (2009) p.450.


Why did they suffer the full rigours of the law?

As Barbier's comments suggest, it was highly unusual for homosexuals to be executed at this time.

Although burnings for sodomy were rare, the possibility existed and the threat was kept alive by a a handful of well-publicised cases.  However, until now there had always been serious additional charges involved.  Philippe Basse and Bernard Mocmassess, who went to the stake in 1720, were also convicted of blasphemy,  itself a capital crime. In 1726 Benjamin Deschauffours  was condemned for murder,  having been engaged in the traffic of young boys for rich and high-born patrons. This was a notorious case. The government wished to hush up the affair, but the lieutenant de police Hérault, insisted on making an example of Deschauffours, who was publically burned in the place de Grève. (See Crompton, p.449-50)

Some historians have emphasised the humble social origins of Diot and Lenoir.  Maurice Lever in Les Bûchers de Sodome (Fayard, 1985) pointed out that Diot and Lenoir had "no protection" as they were men of the people.  Homosexuality was tolerated in aristocratic circles but not among the working classes.  As Barbier observed, it was easy to make an example of men of no social consequence.  In normal circumstances, however, punishments were still a lot less severe, even for ordinary people.  In the case of a first arrest, the guilty parties usually spent only a few hours, a few days at the most, in prison.  The affair would be resolved by a formal reprimand, a "mercuriale".  A second offence would bring a more prolonged imprisonment, but nothing more.  Only seventeen cases are known to have been brought to formal trial in the whole century (see Courouvre, "Procès de sodomie")

There is not enough circumstantial detail to really explain the sudden harshness shown on this occasion. The scandal and execution of Deschauffours had no doubt reanimated homophobia, but that had taken place twenty-five years previously. The executions have also been linked to the particularly volatile situation in Paris where, in the Spring of 1750, serious unrest was sparked by an over-zealous police initiative to clear vagrants from the streets. There were rumours that children were being kidnapped to be sent to Louisiana or even sold to paedophile rings. The burning of the two sodomites might have been calculated to intimidate the populace and restore order (Crompton, p.450).  Marion Sigaut (somewhat implausibly) proposes a specific link between the Diot/Lenoir affair and the execution a month later, in August 1750, of three rioters named Lebeau, Charvat and Urbain, whom the police were supposedly anxious to silence.

Antoine Courouve, historian of the case, has pointed out that the dates do not really fit: the first riots occurred on 19th May, whereas the death sentence had been recommended for Lenoir and Diot on 11th April.  Courouve suggests a more contingent crackdown by magistrates.  He thinks it may be significant that the men had been formally arrested and reported by an officer of the guet, the ancient royal watch which operated in the region of Les Halles; this did not conform to the usual police practice; extensive manuscript dossiers show that the meeting places of homosexuals, "Les Assemblées de la manchette" were characteristically subject only to covert surveillance.

In 2008 the legal historian Benoît Garnot devoted a chapter to the case in his book On n'est point pendu pour être amoureux ["You don't hang someone for being in love"]. Garnot emphasises that by  1750 magistrates no longer really believed in the exemplary value of the death sentence and would have hesitated over whether to give a case like this publicity.  The condemned men might normally have expected a prison sentence.  Perhaps advisedly,  Garnot  declines to speculate on the reasons behind the execution.   He contents himself with noting that this was last execution for sodomy.  It marks the laicisation of  crime, and paved the way for much less harsh punishment.   Homosexuality was decriminalised by the Revolutionary government in 1791.

The plaque, at 67 rue  Montorgueil  ("just across from the popular La Fermette fromagerie").  Google Streetview, April 2019


Ian Brossat, "Affaire Diot-Lenoir:  briser le silence, 250 ans plus tard", L'Humanité, 10 January 2014

A detailed account of the case and its context can be found on the blog of Claude Courouve, who has also published a book on the affair:
A. Claude Courouve, Connaissances ouvertes [blog]:
-  "L'Affaire de Lenoir et Diot (Paris, 1750)" , 27.08.2014.
-  "Les Assemblées de la manchette" 21.04.2016
-"Procès de sodomie", 14.08.2016

See also:
Louis Crompton, Homosexuality and civilisation (Harvard U.P.,2009), p.449-50.

Olivier Marchal, Mon XVIIIe [blog]:
- "Marion Sigaut : l'homosexualité sous l'Ancien Régime" 18.11.2014
- "Benoît Garnot à propos de l'exécution des homosexuels Diot et Le Noir" , 09.01.2017 [On Garnot's book On n'est point pendu pour être amoureux (Belin, 2008)]

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. 

The details given in the manuscript journal of the bookseller Sébastien Hardy, suggest that much of what transpired was common knowledge:

Derues, Hardy noted, was paler than usual but he did not tremble.  He listened to the solemn reading of the arrêt against him by the court clerk, on his knees, bareheaded, with his hands tied behind his back.  When his eyes caught sight of the crucifix on the wall, he inclined his head piously and murmured a prayer.  Looking at his judges, he remarked quietly, "I did not expect so severe a sentence". ["je ne m'attendais pas a un traitement semblable".] 

According to custom, before the torture commenced, he was interrogated once more sur la sellette.  With unshakeable courage, he continued to affirm his innocence; he gave his name, age then stated that he had nothing to add to the testimony he had given at the trial.  In answer to the questions, he continued to deny that he had bought or administered poison. He remained apparently calm, his state of anguish  revealed only by the loosening of his bowels.(Hardy, quoted by Claretie, p.274-6)

The official records tell much the same story. The surgeons present feared that Derues would die under torture and proscribed the use of the water torture. He was submitted to the brodequins. The "ordinary" torture consisted of four wedges.  With the first,  he called on God to give him courage and continued to insist he was not  guilty of poisoning but only of concealing Mme de Lamotte's body.   After the second Derues "cried out much" and merely called on God to give him the strength to maintain the truth.  After this came the extraordinary torture;  he was now reduced to howling and crying,  "I am innocent!  I am innocent!  "At the first wedge of the extraordinary, he persisted and said the same thing, letting out great cries - At the second wedge, he said nothing - At the third wedge, nothing".  He had fainted away, but on the matelas the surgeons succeeded in reviving him. He even conversed  with magistrates, absolving them of blame and protesting his innocence. He was questioned again, but was too feeble to sign the procès-verbal

Derues is made ready to leave the Châtelet to be taken to his execution
In this version the executioner holds out the white shirt for the ritual of the amende honorable

Shortly before two o'clock in the afternoon Derues was taken to the parvis of Notre-Dame to perform the amende honorable.  He climbed into the cart which would take him to the scaffold.  Jean Gilbert Segaud, curé of Saint-Martin in the faubourg Saint-Marcel was in attendance.  It was raining and one of the executioner's assistants held an umbrella over the priest as he showed a crucifix to the condemned.  An immense crowd lined the route from the porte du Parlement.  It was observed that  Derues's palour was accentuated by his white shirt.  However, his expression betrayed no emotion.  According to the formula,  he was made to kneel, a cord around his neck and an heavy wax candle in his right hand; on his chest and back, a board recalled his crime:  Empoissoneur de dessein prémédité.  Before the clerk, sheltering under his umbrella, could begin to read the prescribed words of the amende honorable, Derues cried out once again, "I am innocence".  He addressed the crowd, his voice carrying clearly: "If justice disposes of my body, I hope that God will have care of my soul" (Metra, Correspondance littéraire secrète, quoted Claretie,p.280.)

Derues performs the amende honorable in front of the Church of Notre-Dame: he declares out loud his infamous crimes for which he asks pardon from God, the King and Justice.

Derues was then obliged to climb once more into the cart to travel to the place de Grève  Here the crowd was truly phenomenal; the archers on duty had difficulty containing the throng and illustrations show how the soldiers created a restraining cordon.  Colporteurs moved among the onlookers selling copies of the arrêt of condemnation and the various brochures containing details of the trial. The event coincided with a military review on the plaine de Sablon in the presence of the King and the whole royal family;  but there was no competition.  Not since Damiens had an execution attracted so huge a gathering.

Following his  amende honorable,  Derues is taken to the  place de Grève

Still Derues remained impassive;  only a slight trembling of his lips gave his emotion away. Once arrived, he immediately claimed his right to enter the Hôtel de Ville in order make his final declarations.  The magistrates gathered in one of the rooms;  M. Bachois de Villefort was there in his splendid scarlet robes.  But there were no new revelations.  Derues again protested his innocence of any poisonings. He tried above all to save his wife by insisting that she knew nothing of his schemes to dispose of the bodies.

The wretched Mme Derues  was brought from the For-l'Évêque prison to "confront"  her husband.  The little man embraced her and commended their children to her care, to be brought up in "fear of God and love of their duties".  He called on the protection of the bishop of Chartres and of Archbishop de Beaumont of Paris. (Hardy).  The miserable woman cried hysterically, pulled out her hair, collapsed to the ground.  According to Hardy she had already tried to kill herself by knocking her head against a doorpost.  Even the lieutenant criminal was moved to try and calm  her.  Desrues was questioned again to no avail, then signed the proces-verbal with  a firm hand.

Derues's wife s brought to the Hôtel de Ville where the sight of her husband causes her terrible distress.
On the point of leaving for the scaffold, Derues kneels, asks pardon from the magistrates for his lies during the trial, and insists on his innocence of poisoning

Scene of the execution (engraved by Basset, rue Saint-Jacques)

Heaven by it equitable judgment
Will sooner or later punish a perverse heart
Christians, let us pray to the God of Love
That he will save this black soul from Hell

At the last minute a bailiff from the Parlement arrived at the Hôtel de Ville with a letter from M de Gourgues, the president of the Tournelle  ordering a stay of execution if Derues had confessed. But he had admitted nothing.

It was now nearly six in the evening.  "Come", said Derues, "it must be finished"  The doors opened.  Supported by two aides he descended the steps of the Hôtel de Ville, climbed calmly onto the scaffold, and started to undress himself, helped by the executioners' assistants who served, said Hardy, as his valets de chambre.

Suddenly silence fell.  Derues was bound to the cross of St Andrew with his face towards the sky.  He was wearing only his chemise, leaving his arms and tights exposed.  The executioner Charles-Henry Sanson took up his iron bar and began to break his bones.  In this case the condemnation contained no retentum and the little man's cries of the suffering filled the air.  The crowd were horrified; it is recorded that, an apprentice engraver, a boy of fourteen, fainted right away and had to be taken to hospital.

Sanson finished his work  with two or three obligatory blows to the stomach and detached Derues from the cross.  He was not, however, dead;  he shuddered and still breathed feebly.  Nonetheless, he was now placed on the bonfire which had been prepared next to the scaffold, his body covered with brushwood and set alight.  When the fire was extinguished, according to the terms of the arrêt, his ashes were "thrown to the wind"  The crowd rushed to find some relic.  The urchins sold fragments of bone which were said to bring good luck (Hardy).  According to Metra the remains were bought up by an enterprising individual for 300 livres.

The version in the hostile Vie et crimes retains the memory of Derues's (now sinister) serenity but  minimises the gratuitous violence of the execution:

He mounted the scaffold were the serenity of an oppressed sage or a Christian martyr filled with resignation.  Abandoned to the executioner, he embraced him, kissed the instrument of his torment, assisted in the removal of his clothes.  When they tied his limbs, he asked the executioner to let him suffer as little as possible, then he laid down  courageously on the Cross of St-Andrew.  After affectionately embracing his Confessor and kissing the Crucifix several times, he abandoned himself to death without the slightest sign of fear or emotion.  Once his face was covered up by his gown,  his arms, his  legs, his thighs and kidneys, were broken;  he made a few sharp cries but by the ninth blow he had fallen quiet.  We are told there was a constant clapping of hands during the execution ......He was  taken down, his hands and feet bound together and his body placed on the bonfire.  This was immediately covered with branches and faggots and set fire to.  At that moment, the wretch was still breathing;  he must almost have felt the heat of the fire.  It was thus that this abominable destroyer of the human race paid for his crimes..... (p.127-8)

Contemporary sources
  • Vie de Dérues, exécuté à Paris en place de Grève, le 6 mai 1777  A Paris, chez tous les libraires qui vendent des nouveautés. 1777.  Attributed by Grimm and others to François-Thomas-Marie de Baculard d'Arnaud(1718-1805);2
  • Vie privée et criminelle d'Antoine-François Desrues Paris, chez Cailleau, imprimeur-libraire, rue Saint-Severin, 1777   There were at least four issues of this brochure in 1777 alone.
These two very hostile lives of Derues, were both issued with the approbation of Bertier de Sauvigny, intendant of Paris, and permission to print from Lenoir, dated 5th and 6th May 1777, the date of the rejection of Desrues's appeal.  In Annie Duprat's view they were officially sponsored to counter the public sympathy which Derues had excited.  Cailleau's version went through at least four editions in 1777 alone.  The second edition was accompanied by the engravings of Esnauts et Rapilly, "Marchands d'estampes rue Sainct Jacques, près de la Fontaine de St. Séverine"; the book sold for 24 sols without plates and 48 sols with the 39 engravings plus frontispiece (a portrait of Desrues).  p.131-2 gives a list of the plates, and the page numbers where they should be inserted.

This numbered series correspond to the list of plates,Vie privée et criminelle  p.131-2.

Thibault Ehrengardt, "Antoine-Francois Desrues, (Not) just another villain", Rare Books Hub

Among other plates, were some striking broadside sheets:
Tableau des principaux événements de la vie d'Antoine-François Derues(45 x 39 cm)

Secondary sources: 

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

See also:
Armand Fouquier, "Derues 1777" in Causes célèbres,  Paris (1862)

H.B. Irving," M.Derues" in A book of remarkable criminals (1918).

Modern studies of the Derues affair:
Annie Duprat, "L’affaire Desrues ou le premier tombeau de l’Ancien Régime"  Sociétés & Représentations, vol. 18, no. 2, 2004, pp. 123-134.

Pascal Bastien, "Les arrêts criminels et leurs enjeux sur l'opinion publique à Paris au XVIIIe siècle"
 Revue d'histoire moderne et contemporaine, (2006) Vol.53(1): p. 34-62

Hélène Duccini,  "Les images de la justice dans l'estampe, de 1750 à 1789", Le Temps des médias, 2010, vol. 15(2): p. 38-56. p.47-

The public papers gave an account of Derues's execution and the enormity of his crimes, which were of a sort to attract a kind of fame, but they made no mention of the revolution that has taken place in men's minds since his death. The following day people bought his ashes and bones; they wept over the end of a villain whom they would happily seen torn to pieces. The firmness of the condemned man, his gentleness, even his religious sentiments, offered a truly astonishing spectacle.  
Annales politiques civiles et littéraires du xviiie siècle (1777) vol. 2 p.218-9 [quoted Bastien, p.36]

The more one interrogated him and heard his reasoning, the more one came to regard him as an incomprehensible and altogether extraordinary creature.   He earned the high esteem and veneration of Parisians and the inhabitants of Villeneuve-le-roi, who regarded him as a saint...   A great number of fools, ignoramuses or people disposed to prejudice against magistrates, grumbled against the rigour of the judgment.
Extracts from Hardy, MS Journal [quoted Bastien p.36-7]

This man preserved his mask of hypocrisy to the last breath, speaking ceaselessly of God, and of his innocence, saying that he forgave for his death the judges who condemned him unjustly.  He had his wife sent for and commended their children to her to be brought up well ."I expire, he said to her, "like Calas, and I resign myself to the decrees of Providence". He allowed himself to be tied to the Cross of Saint-Andrew with unheard of tranquility;  he even lifted himself up to view the crowd......finally, there could be no hero who could have perished with such philosophical firmness..... Some people, as there are always those who like to complain, found that the law had been betrayed in condemning to death a man who stubbornly denied his crime and against whom no valid proofs were found;   these frondeurs did not want to see all the evidence that had been accumulated..
Metra, Correspondance littéraire secrète,  vol. 4 p.358-9.

There are few criminals who have occupied public attention more that the miserable Desrues;  there are few also whose conduct has revealed a more firm and quietly fierce spirit.  His  scheme to acquire a property worth more than a hundred-thousand francs without paying a sou showed remarkable boldness, especially for a private individual who was neither a lawyer nor a businessman; without unforeseen bad luck, his contrivances might have succeeded; they showed perhaps more ingenuity than wickedness or atrocity.  Only the hypocrisy of a Tartuffe or a Cromwell could be compared with that shown by Desrues - in the course of his crime, during his trial and right up to the last moment of his life.  

We do not want to repeat what has been said in the public papers, especially the arrêt of condemnation, which was more detailed than any previousarrêt  of this sort;  we will confine ourselves to a few of the personal peculiarities, that M. d'Arnaud had collected.

The wretch was a native of Chartres; he was born into a respectable family, long established in trade.  It seems that both sexes wanted to reject him; for in his early years he was brought up as a girl; remedies were given to him that, in his twelfth year, procured him the distinctive characteristics of the masculine sex..... 

If one wishes to have an  idea of Desrues one must imagine a man of small stature, with a pale face, delicate and thin...His features, little outstanding, were not remarkable at first;  but his eyes, round, deep and piercing, betrayed in a certain fashion the perversity of his soul.

This monster was thirty-two or thirty-three years old; he slept little he always had in his hands the Imitation of Christ or some other work of piety.  Sometimes he played cards with this guards; but what excited astonishment and indignation, was the way he showed a calm face of innocence; unclouded, without passion...breathing purity, trusting himself to the Providence and his judges; saying that "the magistrates would restore his honour as they had that of Calas...".  When he appeared before the Parlement, he looked at the crowd with a tranquillity which proclaimed virtue....His replies to the magistrate, when he went into the Hôtel-de-Ville, were full of good sense and vigour.  His interview with his wife was a masterpiece of villainy; he used all his quiet daring; the unheard of excesses of his imposture, to address to the unfortunate woman the most pathetic exhortations, to entrust to her the education of their children, assuring her of his resignation and persisting in his claim that he had poisoned neither Madame de Lamotte nor her son.

....He went to the scaffold with the assurance of an oppressed sage or a Christian martyr, his soul full of saintly hopes. He helped the executioner take of his clothes, positioned himself on the cross of Saint-Andrew;  affectionately embraced his confessor, kissed the crucifix and gave himself to death without the slightest sign of fear or emotion.
The people were so struck by these appearances of virtue and piety, that the ashes of this monster were gathered the next day as though they were precious relics.  To dissipate the illusion created by his hypocrisy, there were published detailed relations of his life and crimes.
Grimm,  Correspondance littéraire, vol. 9, p.362-3.

The "Lives" which appeared with official approval, emphasised not only Derues's villainy and hypocrisy, but also his criminal nature, which was manifest from an early age.

Antoine-François Derues, former Marchand Epicier, will be counted among these  villains to be remembered as long as crime is held in horror: not even Cartouche, Nivet, Chaubert... united in their villainy so many and profound attrocities.  Fathers of Families, keep this terrible history near at hand and before the eyes of your children.  There is no doubt:  if the parents of Derues. If the parents of Derues had kept an attentive eye on his developing inclinations, they might have have discovered and perhaps stiffled the monstrous seed of criminality, even of the diabolical.Vie de Dérues (1777), p.3-4.

The Frontispiece to the Vie privée et criminelle  reads:  "Under the mask of Virtue/ He committed frightful crimes/ This abominable Hypocrite/ Finished as he had lived"

The wicked passion for accumulating riches leads to all sorts of disorder, such that the man who is afflicted can take no step which does not lead to his ruin.  This unworthy passion effaces from his heart all noble sentiments of human nature. .... [Derues] lost his father and mother at the age of three...He already showed vicious inclinations, at the age where a man scarcely knows his own mind.  His cousins saw that he was stealing money from them .... 
Vie privée et criminelle d'Antoine-François Desrues (1777) p. 3-5.

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".
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