THE OLD REGIME POLICE BLOTTER: Murders
I know of nothing like a French Newgate Calendar. Though similar information exists in a variety of police records, periodicals and in local volumes like Abbeville's Red Book (a log of trials over several centuries), only some of this is on-line and that is rarely searchable and still more rarely in English. While an effort to reconstitute (and translate) an "Old Regime Newgate Calendar" would probably outlast Sundries itself, I thought I would begin including such items here, faute de mieux, and see where the project takes me. With that, for lovers of the gory and the gruesome, a few murders. All of these were mentioned in Bachaumont, which is to say they were all considered colorful or otherwise worthy of note at the time.
PARDON ME, I HAVE TO GO
Sometimes it's just smarter to take your pardon and run.
June 22, 1775
Among the pardons granted by the king at his coronation, much is said about that of M. de Vileraze de Castelnau, perpetrator of the murder of Monsieur Franc, agent of the states of Languedoc, May 30, 1772, condemned to the wheel by the Toulouse parlement. But a remarkable restriction has been added, that he cannot come nearer to Beziers, scene of the crime, than twenty leagues. This captain of cavalry proposed, it is said, to change his name, and never return to the kingdom, and to go to serve in a foreign land. It would be all the more prudent for him to do so given that the deceased has grown sons... who might want to avenge their father.
Bachaumont 8, 1775 (88-89)
THE PRIEST'S AWKWARD DINNER
This simple story unfolds with a Biblical inevitability before landing in the sophisticated precincts of Paris.
February 21, 1778
Two farmers leave their village together, they head on to their business, they quarrel, the brawl heats up, one of them kills his friend; his first instinct is to flee. Upon reflection he retraces his steps, and throws the body in a nearby stream in order to leave no trace of the crime. He comes home after this outing so riddled with remorse, that the next day, unable to bear it, he goes to confess to his parish priest, admits the murder, and tells how it happened; as payment for his sin, the priest imposes a proportionate penance, and beyond that advises him, in order to avoid all suspicion, to stay calm, and to keep completely silent about it.
The same day, the pastor was to dine at the house of the dead farmer. He goes, and finds the family completely unaware of the loss of its head, and everybody in good humor. The contrast of this joy with the dark secrets he hides in his breast torments and disturbs the priest so that he appears very unhappy through the meal. He is questioned about his obvious discomfort; he responds vaguely. One of the sons of the victim notices this and thinks it over; during the night his imagination takes over, he becomes convinced that his father is dead, and that the priest knows this. He goes right away the next morning to demand that he explain his answers from the night before; the latter, regretting having said too much, is evasive and claims to know nothing... The next day, the young man, in a state, and troubled overnight by the most sinister dreams, shares his fears with his brother, and his decision to force the priest to explain himself; he arms himself with a pistol and both go to see him together. After the first demands, which the priest resists, the furious young man shows him the pistol and tells him he is ready to blow his brains out if he does not disclose what he knows of his father's death which he now considers certain; the other, present, asks him as well not to prompt his brother, by his refusal, to carry out his threat. The terrified priest tells them everything he has learned.
The story gets around, the murder is known, the authorities are informed, the affair is taken before the Toulouse parlement which absolves and releases the murderer, sentences the priest to be burned alive, and the two brothers to be broken on the wheel. The decision is appealed, it is overturned, and they are sent before the Paris parlement, which is currently reviewing this truly romanesque trial, and is the subject of consultations. One cannot help but applaud the decision at Toulouse, following the letter of the law,; but it is considered quite severe, and it is hoped that all the guilty parties will be pardoned.
Bachaumont 10 1777-1778 (110-111)
DELAY BY APPEAL
In America today, some complain that murderers delay the execution of their sentence by repeated appeals. Apparently, for people of the right class, such delays were available even in Old Regime France. [NOTE: Though the perpetrators here are referred to as 'murderers', the victim in this case survived.]
February 11, 1778
Pleading will begin this month at the palace [of justice], [before the] Great Chamber and Tournelle combined, on a very interesting case: it concerns a murder committed by the Chevalier de Queyssat, captain of the dragoons in the legion of Lorraine; Froidefond de Queyssat, formerly captain in the provincial regiment of Marmande; and Fillol de Queyssat, formerly captain-aide-major in the same regiment, against the person of Beller [Belair] Damade, merchant in the city of Bordeaux. It is at Castillon on Dordogne, where the murderers live, that the crime was committed, but luckily not fully accomplished. The plaintiff, maimed for the rest of his days, and mulitated in his prime in the most deplorable manner, was preparing to demand the full rigor of the tribunal of the marshals of France, judges on questions of honor, when the lords Queyssat, hoping no doubt for a better outcome, entered a protest before the civil judge by suit of October 17, 1775. The latter, the lieutenant criminal of Libourne, had no choice but to issue an arrest warrant for the lords Queyssat. They appealed to the Bordeaux parlement which, by consecutive decisions of March 16 and May 12, 1776. rejected these appeals and ordered them transferred in the prison of the senechal of Libourne...
The lords Queyssat, having since had the last decision of the Bordeaux parlement overturned on a technicality, wer sent back to the Toulouse parlement, which confirmed the arrest order against the murderers. By a new chicanery, they have begun again, and here they are before the Paris parlement. The arm of justice, [having] already loomed three times above the heads of the accused, presumes strongly that they are guilty.
Bachaumont, 10 1777-1778 (95-96)
[NOTE: La Harpe later reported that after the brothers finally lost, and were held until they paid 80,000 livres of damages, Madame de Genlis, surprisingly, sold an edition of her plays to help them. He also says that at that point they were "ruined". Correspondance Litteraire, II (361)]
THE NAKED WIFE-KILLER
Much about this story is classic - but not how the murderer hid the evidence.
June 20, 1784 It appears certain that M. d'Entrecasteaux, counselor with the Aix parlement, twenty six years old, after having tried several times to poison his wife, slit her throat in the most atrocious fashion while she was in bed. It is said that having found her asleep, together with his valet, a scoundrel devoted to him, they both stuffed her mouth with cotton, then sawed her neck with a razor; that during this awful operation the husband held a vessel to catch the blood; that having taken ever precaution to set up a story, he cried out he'd been robbed; but by everything that followed, it was clear they were the perpetrators of the crime and what removed all doubt is that M. d'Entrecasteaux has fled to Sardinia. The husband's father was here. He is a president on this parlement, but little liked among his colleagues, having once been attached to Maupeou's party, and as currently prosecuting one of those trials which it is even shameful to win. The parlement has written to the chancellor to beg the king to have all courts alerted to watch for the guilty man. Mad [sic] d'Entrecasteaux, the daughter-in-law, was born Castellane, very pretty and only 24 years old. She brought a small dowry to the marriage; the young man was very greedy and wanted to marry a rich widow; this is the motive given for his horrendous crime. Bachaumont, 26, 1784 (59-60) September 7, 1785 It has been thought sure for some time that M. d'Entrecasteaux has died of sorrow in Lisbon; that first he had declared himself the perpetrator of his wife's murder, and to have had no accomplice. He told how, to commit it, he stripped himself completely naked, and then plunged into the well of his house, so that no trace of blood remained on him.
Bachaumont, 29, 1785 (207)
THE KING OF SWEDEN AND THE NINEPIN KILLING
A minor affair, a major player... (The king of Sweden was travelling in France under the name of the count of Haga.) And a reminder that even prominent people (as the judges here would have been) are not immune to star power.
July 4, 1784
The count of Haga was to hear a case judged at the Tournelle; but the keeper-of-the-seals dissuaded him, on the pretext that it was not customary, that these matters should be handled in closed session. Everything had been arranged to pardon the criminal, especially since it was a very pardonnable case, since it concerned a man who had killed another with a ninepin, which suggests a momentary, even involontary, crime. The members of the parlement were very unhappy with the keeper-of-the-seals's remark, especially since the example would set no precedent, it being rare to have spectators of this rank. The count of Haga was himself to pardon the guilty man, who is to be pardoned nonetheless, it is hoped, by his intervention.
Bachaumont, 26, 1784 (97)
ARMED ESCAPE AT THE CONCIERGERIE
While several people escaped from the Bastille, none did it by violence and I know of no one who ever escaped the formidable Conciergerie. This case was almost an exception.
October 4, 1784
The trial concerning the revolt and the murder at the Conciergerie has taken place before the Lieutenant-General of the bailiwick of the palace [of justice]; a third participant has been implicated in the adventure. It is a certain Jaquin. He was what is called a 'servante' [sic] of the wicket clerks [the jailors at the entry window]. This is a prisoner who is less guilty and more likely to be released, whom these engage and to whom they give a certain trust in order to help them in their duties. Desaignes and de Forges had won him over, and he agreed to help them; which his position made it easier for him than another to do.
Here is what has been determined legally. All three were duly convicted of having plotted an armed escape from the Conciergerie, and for this purpose Desaignes of having having obtained from a person whom he declares to be unknown to him, five pistols [à demi-arçons - with shortened stocks?]; three quarters of a pound of gunpowder and twenty-two bullets; of having distributed them as follows, two pistols, to Desforges, with the necessary ammunition, and one of the same to the said Jaquin, and of having kept for himself two other pistols, and the rest of the powder and the bullets: all three, for the execution of their plot, Tuesday the 28th of September towards nine in the evening, wanted to force open the doors, fired several pistol shots, of which one hit a wicket clerk, another, though aimed at the wicket clerk, hit Jaquin, one of the accused and another hit a second wicket clerk, dead of the wound the next morning. The general word this evening is that all three have been condemned on October 1st by the bailiwick to be broken on the wheel, and that the sitting chamber [chambre a vacations] has just confirmed the sentence.
Bachaumont, 26, 1784 (225)