Memoirs of Vidocq, Volume I/Chapter XIII
I see Francine again—My re-establishment in the prison of Douai—Am I, or am I not, Duval?—The magistrates embarrassed—I confess that I am Vidocq—Another residence at—I find captain Labbre there—Departure for Toulon—Jossas, the famous robber—His interview with a great lady—A tempest on the Rhone—The marquis of St Armand—The executioner of the Bagne—The plunderers of the wardrobe—A family of Chauffeurs.
Eight days elapsed, during which I only once saw the commissary, and was then sent with a party of prisoners, deserters, &c. who were to be conveyed to Lille. It was to be expected that the uncertainty of my identity would terminate in reaching a city where I had so often dwelt; and therefore, informed that we should pass through that place, I took such precautions that the gendarmes who had already conducted me did not recognize me; my features, concealed under a thick mask of dust and sweat, were, besides, completely altered by the swelling of my cheeks, almost as large as those of the angels which on the frescoes of churches are seen blowing the trumpet of the last judgment. It was in this state that I entered the Égalité, a military prison, where I was to stay for some days, there to charm away the weariness of my seclusion. I risked several visits to the canteen, in the hope that mingling with the visitors I might find an opportunity of escape. Meeting with a sailor whom I had known on board the Barras, I thought I might make him instrumental to my project. I asked him to breakfast with me, and, our meal finished, I returned to my chamber, where I remained for three hours, reflecting on the means of recovering my liberty, when the sailor came to ask me to share the dinner which his wife had just brought him. The sailor, then, had a wife,—and the thought crossed me, that to elude the vigilance of the jailors, she might procure me female attire or some disguise. Full of this idea, I went down to the canteen and drew near the table, when I heard a piercing cry, and a woman fainted. It was my comrade's wife. I ran to raise her—Good heavens, 'twas Francine! Alarmed at my own imprudence, which had allowed an expression of astonishment to escape from me, I tried to repress the emotion which I had unavoidably testified. Surprised and astonished, the spectators crowded round us, and overwhelmed me with enquiries; and, after some moments' silence, I told them that it was my sister, whom I had so unexpectedly met.
This incident passed without any consequences, and next day at early dawn we set off: and I was in consternation at finding that the convoy, instead of following as usual the road to Sens, took that of Douai. Why change the direction of our journey? I attributed this to some indiscretion of Francine; but I soon learnt that it resulted simply from the necessity of leaving at Arras some of the refractory prisoners from Cambrai.
Francine, whom I had so unjustly suspected, was awaiting me at our first halt. In spite of the gendarmes she would speak to and embrace me. She wept bitterly, and joined my tears with hers. With what bitterness did she reproach herself for the infidelity which was the cause of all my misfortunes! Her repentance was sincere, and I sincerely forgave her: and when, on the order of the brigadier, we were compelled to separate, she slipped into my hands two hundred francs in gold as the only recompense in her power.
At length we reached Douai, and at the gate of the prison of the department a gendarme rang the bell. Who answered the summons? Dutilleul, the turnkey, who, after one of my attempts to escape, had dressed my hurts for a month afterwards. He did not appear to know me. At the office I found another person whom I knew, the guard Hurtrel, in such a state of inebriety that I flattered myself his memory had entirely left him. For three days nothing was said to me; but on the fourth I was led before the examining magistrate, in the presence of Hurtrel and Dutilleul, and was asked if I were not Vidocq? I replied that I was Auguste Duval, which might be confirmed by sending to l'Orient; and besides, the motive of my apprehension at Ostend proved it, as I was only charged with having deserted from a ship of war. My straight-forward tale seemed to weigh with the judge, who hesitated; but Hurtrel and Dutilleul persisted in asserting that they were not mistaken. Rausson, the public accuser, came to see me, and also said he knew me; but as I was not disconcerted, he remained in doubt, and to clear up the affair they devised a stratagem.
One morning I was told that a person wanted me at the office, and on going thither I found my mother, whom they had sent for from Arras; with what intention may be easily divined. The poor woman hastened to embrace me, but I saw through the snare, and putting her from me quietly, I said to the magistrate who was present, that it was an unmanly thing to give the unfortunate woman any hopes of seeing her son, when they were, at least, uncertain of their ability to produce him. My mother, who was put on her guard by a signal which I managed to communicate to her, pretending to examine me attentively, at length declared that a wonderful likeness had deceived her, and then retired, uttering many bitter reproaches against those who had taken her from home only to afford her but a fallacious joy.
The magistrate and turnkeys were then reduced to their original state of dubiety, when a letter which arrived from l'Orient seemed to put the matter beyond a doubt. It mentioned a drawing pricked on the left arm of Duval, who had escaped from the hospital at Quimper, as a thing which would at once dispel every doubt as to the identity of the individual detained at Douai. I was again summoned before the examining-judge, and Hurtrel, already triumphing in his penetration, was present at the interrogation. At the first words I saw what was coming, and stripping my coat sleeve above my elbow, I snowed them the drawing, which they scarcely expected to find, and which exactly coincided with the description sent from l'Orient. All were in the clouds again, and what yet made the situation more complicated, was that the authorities of l'Orient demanded me as a deserter from the fleet. Fifteen days were thus spent without any decision having been made concerning me; then tired with the severities used towards me, and hoping to procure approbation, I wrote to the president of the criminal tribunal, declaring that I was really Vidocq. I had determined on this, under the idea that I should be sent forthwith to Bicêtre with a party, and that was actually the result. It was utterly impossible, however, for me to make the least effort to escape by the way, as I was guarded with unremitting vigilance.
I made my second entry at Bicêtre on the second of April 1799, and there found some old prisoners, who, although galley-slaves, had obtained permission to have their sentence to the Bagne remitted, and it was an advantageous commutation for them, as the duration of their punishment took date from the day of their actual apprehension. These kinds of favours are occasionally granted at the present day; and if only conferred on persons whom peculiar circumstances of condemnation, or repentance, rendered worthy of it, we should give it a tacit consent; but deviations from the general principle arise ordinarily from the sort of struggle which exists between the police of the provinces and the general police, each of which has its favourites. The convicts, however, always belonging to the general police, it can remove at will any prisoner from the Bicêtre, or other prison, to the Bagne, and this is convincing with regard to the observation I have just made. The convict, who up to this time had conducted himself with apparent piety, throws off the mask, and shows himself one of the most depraved of malefactors.
I saw at Bicêtre captain Labbre, who, it may be recollected supplied me, when at Brussels, with papers, by means of which I had deceived the baroness d'I——. He had been sentenced to sixteen years at the galleys, for being concerned in an extensive robbery committed at Ghent, at the house of Champon, the aubergiste. He was, with us, to depart with the first chain, the near approach of which was disagreeably announced to us. Captain Viez, knowing the gentlemen who were to be confided to him, had declared, that to prevent any chance of escape, he would put us on wrist-cuffs and collars until we reached Toulon. However, our promises induced him to forego this formidable project.
After the rivetting of the fetters was done (in a similar way to that in which it had been performed at my first departure) I was put at the head of the first cordon, with Jossas, one of the most celebrated robbers of Paris and the provinces, better known as the marquis de Saint-Armand de Faral, which he constantly bore. He was a man about thirty-six years old, with a gentlemanly appearance, and able to assume at will the most perfect suavity of manners. His travelling costume was that of a dandy leaving his bed-room for his boudoir. With pantaloons of silver-gray knit materials, he wore a waistcoat and cap trimmed with Astracan fur, of the same colour, and the whole covered with a large cloak lined with crimson velvet. His expenditure equalled his appearance, for not contented with living sumptuously at the places of repose, he also supported three or four others of the cordon.
Jossas never had any education, but having entered when very young into the service of a rich colonel, whom he accompanied in his travels, he had acquired manners sufficiently good not to disgrace any circle. Thus his comrades seeing him introduce himself into the first society, named him "Passe-par-tout." He was so completely identified with this character, that at the Bagne, when confined in double irons, and mingling indiscriminately with men of the most miserable appearance, he still kept up a portion of his grandeur though disguised in a convict's cassock. Having provided himself with a splendid dressing-box, he bestowed an hour daily on his toilet, and was extremely particular about the appearance of his hands, which were certainly very handsome.
Jossas was one of those thieves, of whom, fortunately, but few are now in existence. He meditated and prepared an enterprise sometimes as long as a year beforehand. Operating principally by means of false keys, he began by taking first the impression of the lock of the outer door. The key made, he entered the first part; if stopped by another door, he took a second impression, had a second key made; and thus in the end attained his object. It may be judged, then, only being able to get on during the absence of the tenant of the apartment, he must lose much time before the fitting opportunity would present itself. He only had recourse to this expedient when in despair, that is, when it was impossible to introduce himself to the house; for if he could contrive to procure admittance under any pretext, he soon obtained impression of all the locks, and when the keys were ready, he used to invite the persons to dine with him, in the Rue Chantereine, and whilst they were at table, his accomplices stripped the apartments, from whence he had also contrived to draw away the servants, either by asking their masters to bring them to help to wait at table, or by engaging the attention of the waiting-maids and cooks by lovers who were in the plot. The porters saw nothing, because they seldom took anything but jewels or money. If by chance any large parcel was to be removed, they folded it up in dirty linen, and it was thrown out of window to an accomplice in waiting with a washerwoman's wheel-barrow.
A multitude of robberies committed by Jossas are well known, all of which bespeak that acute observation to invention which he possessed in the highest degree. In society, where he passed as a Creole of Havannah, he often met inhabitants of that place, without ever letting anything escape him which could betray him. He frequently led on families of distinction to offer him the hand of their daughters. Taking care always, during the many conversations thereon, to learn where the dowry was deposited, he invariably carried it off, and absconded at the moment appointed for signing the contract. But of all his tricks, that played off on a banker at Lyons it perhaps the most astonishing. Having acquainted himself with the ways of the house, under pretext of arranging accounts and negociations, in a short time an intimacy arose, which gave him the opportunity of getting the impression of all the locks except that of the cash chest, of which a secret ward rendered all his attempts unavailing. On the other hand, the chest being built is the wall, and cased with iron, it was impossible to think of breaking it open. The cashier, too, never parted from his key; but these obstacles did not daunt Jossas. Having formed a close intimacy with the cashier, he proposed an excursion of pleasure to Collonges; and on the day oppointed, they went in a cabriolet. On approaching Saint Rambert, they saw by the river side a woman apparently dying, and the blood spouting from her mouth and nostrils; beside her was a man, who appeared much distressed, assisting her. Jossas, testifying considerable emotion, told him that the best method of stopping the effusion of blood was to apply a key to the back of the female. But no one had a key, except the cashier, who at first offered that of his apartment. That had no effect. The cashier, alarmed at seeing the blood flow copiously, took out the key of his cash-chest which was applied with much success between the shoulders of the patient. It has been already guessed that a piece of modelling wax had been placed there previously and that the whole scene had been preconcerted. Three days after, the cash-box was empty.
As I have already stated, Jossas playing off the high and mighty, spent money with the facility of a man who comes easily by it. Besides, he was very charitable; and I could cite many instances of his whimsical generosity, which I leave to the examination of moralists. Amongst others, the following: One day he penetrated into an apartmant in the Rue du Hazard which he had been informed would yield a rich booty. At first the wretchedness of the furniture surprised him, but the proprietor might be a miser. He went on searching, burst open all, broke everything, and only found in a desk a bundle of pawnbrokers' duplicates. He took from his pocket five louis, and placing them on the mantel-piece, wrote on the glass these words, "Payment for broken furniture;" he then retired, after closing the doors carefully, lest any other robbers, less scrupulous, should carry off what he had respected.
When Jossas set out with us for Bicêtre it was his third journey. He afterwards escaped twice, was retaken, and died at the Bagne at Rochefort in 1806.
On our way to Montereau, I was witness of a scene which may as well be known, as it may prevent a similar recurrence. A convict, named Mauger, knew a young man of the city, who was believed by his parents to be sentenced to the gallies; and recommending his next neighbour to hide his face with his handkerchief, he told several persons we met on our way, that the persons who thus concealed himself was the young man in question. The chain went onwards, but scarcely were we a quarter of a league from Montereau, when a man, running after us, gave the captain fifty francs, produced by a collection made for the 'man with the handkerchief.' These fifty francs were in the evening distributed amongst the plotters of the scheme, without any other persons but themselves knowing the cause of such liberality.
At Sens, Jossas played another comedy. He had sent for a man, named Sergent, who kept the auberge de l'Écu; and on his arrival, this man testified the most excessive grief. "What!" he exclaimed, with tears in his eyes, "you here, my noble marquis! You, the brother of my old master! I, who thought you on your return to Germany! Oh heavens! what a misfortune." It may be guessed that in some expedition, Jossas, being at Sens, had passed himself for an emigrant, returned clandestinely, and the brother of a count with whom Sergent had been cook. Jossas explained to him how, being apprehended with a forged passport at the moment he was gaining the frontier, he had been sentenced as a forger. The good aubergiste did not confine himself to empty lamentations, but sent the galley slave an excellent dinner, which I partook, with an appetite greatly contrasted with my wretched situation.
Save and except a tremendous chastisment inflicted on two convicts who had tried to escape at , nothing extraordinary occurred till we reached Châlons, when we were put on board a large boat, filled with straw, very similar to those which convey charcoal to Paris; the whole covered with a thick cloth. If, to cast a glance over the country, or breathe a purer air, a convict ventured to raise a corner, a shower of blows rained instantly on his shoulders. Although freed from such treatment, I was not the less affected at my situation; scarcely could the gaiety of Jossas, who was never downcast, avail in making me for a moment forget, that, on reaching the Bagne, I should be the object of a special vigilance that must frustrate every hope of escape. This idea doubly depressed me when we reached Lyons.
On seeing the, Jossas said to me, "You are going to see something new." I saw, on the quay of the , an elegant carriage, which seemed to be awaiting the arrival of the boat. As soon as it came in sight, a female put her head from the window, and waved a white handkerchief. "It is she," said Jossas, who replied to the signal. The boat having been moored to the quay, the lady descended, and mixed in the crowd of lookers-on; I could not see her face, which was concealed by a very thick black veil. She remained there from four in the afternoon till evening, and the crowd then dispersing, Jossas sent lieutenant Thierry to her, who soon returned with a sausage, in which were concealed fifty louis. I learnt that Jossas, having made a conquest of this lady under his title of marquis, had informed her by letter of his condemnation, which he doubtlessly accounted for as he had done with the aubergiste at Sens. These sort of intrigues, now very rare, were at this period very common, in consequence of the disorders which sprung from the revolution; an event which shook to the very centre the structure of social order and good conduct in society. Ignorant of the stratagem plotted to deceive her, the veiled lady reappeared the next day on the quay, and remained there until our departure, to the great satisfaction of Jossas, who not only was recruited in finance, but was assured of an asylum in the event of effecting his escape.
We had nearly reached the termination of our navigation, when two leagues from Pont St Esprit, we were overtaken by one of those terrific storms so common on the Rhone. It was announced by distant rumblings of thunder. Soon afterwards, the rain descended in torrents; gusts of wind, such are only experienced under the tropics, blew down houses, uprooted trees, and drove the waves mountain high, which threatened at each moment to overwhelm us with destruction. At this moment, the spectacle that presented itself was horrific; by the rapid flashes of lightning were to be seen two hundred men, chained so as to deprive them of the remotest hope of safety, and expressing by fearful cries the anguish of approaching death, rendered inevitable by the weight of their fetters: on their sinister countenances might be read the desire to preserve a life disputed by the scaffold, a life henceforward to be spent in misery and degradation. Some of the convicts evinced an absolute passiveness, many, on the contrary, delivered themselves up to a frantic joy. If any unfortunate wretch, mindful of his innocent youth, muttered out the fragment of a prayer, his next companion would perhaps shake his fetters, whilst he howled an obscene song, and the prayer expired in the midst of lengthened howls and shrieks.
What redoubled the general consternation was, the despair of the mariners, who seemed to have given all over for lost. The guards were not more confident, and even gave symptoms of an intention to quit the boat, which was visibly filling fast with water. Then matters took a fresh turn, and they urged on the argousins, crying, "Make the shore; let all make for shore." The darkness, added to the confusion of the moment, affording an opportunity with impunity, the most intrepid of the convicts rose, declaring that no person should quit the boat until it reached the bank. Lieutenant Thierry was the only one who appeared to have preserved his presence of mind; he put on a bold front, and protested that there was no danger, as neither he nor the sailors had any intention of quitting the vessel. We believed him the more as the weather was gradually becoming more moderate. Daylight appeared, and on the surface of the waters, smooth as ice, there would have been nothing to recall the disasters of the night, if the muddy tide had not been strewn with dead cattle, trees, and fragments of furniture and houses.
Escaped from the tempest, we landed at Avignon, and were confined in the castle. There commenced the vengeance of the argousins; they had not forgotten what they were pleased to term our insurrection; refreshing our memories with it by blows from their cudgels, and then preventing the public from giving the convicts that assistance which the end of the journey prevented from passing through their hands. "Alms to these vagabonds!" said one of them, called father Lami, to some ladies who wished to bestow some aid; "it would be money lost. Besides, ask the captain."
Lieutenant Thierry, who ought not to be mentioned with such brutal and inhuman beings, and of whom I have already spoken, gave permission; but, by a refinement of villany the argousins made the signal for departure before the distribution was finished. The rest of the journey had no features of interest; and at length, after thirty-seven days of most painful travel, the chain entered Toulon.
The fifteen carriages arrived at the port, and drawn up in front of the rope-yard, the convicts were ordered to alight, and were then escorted to the courtyard of the Bagne. On the way thither, those who had clothes worth anything made all possible haste to take them off and sell or give them to the crowd which assembled at the arrival of a new chain. When the clothing of the Bagne was distributed, and the manacles had been rivetted, as I had seen it done at Brest, we were conveyed on board a cut-down frigate, called le Husard (now le Frontin) used as the floating Bagne. As soon as the 'payots' (convicts employed as writers) had written down our descriptions, the "return horses" (escaped convicts) were rivetted to the double chain. Their escape added three years additional confinement to the original sentence.
As I was thus circumstanced, I was sent to No. 3, where the most suspected convicts were placed. Lest they should find an opportunity for escaping in going to the harbour, they never went to labour. Always fettered to the 'banc,' lying on the bare plank, eaten up by vermin, and worn out by brutal treatment and want of nourishment and exercise, they presented a most lamentable appearance.
What I have already said concerning the abuses of every kind, of which the Bagne at Brest was the theatre, precludes the necessity of making any remarks on that at Toulon. Here, was the same mixture of convicts; the same inhumanity of argousins; the same pilfering of the government property; only the importance of the armaments afforded more scope for plunder to the galley-slaves, who were employed in the arsenals or magazines. Iron, lead, brass, hemp, pease, beans, oil, rum, smoked beef, and biscuit, disappeared daily; and the men easily found receivers, as the convicts had very active auxiliaries in the marines and free workmen of the dock-yard. The rigging procured by these means served to equip a multitude of boats and fishing smacks, whose owners got them very cheaply, and were borne out, in case of inquiry, by saying that they had bought them at a sale of refuse stores.
A convict of our ward, who being a prisoner in England, had worked as a carpenter in the dock-yards of Chatham and Plymouth, told us that the plunder was there very great. He assured us that in all the villages along the banks of the Thames and Medway, there were persons perpetually occupied in untwisting the cordage of the royal navy, to take out the marks and stamps put in to make it known; others were employed in effacing the 'broad arrow' stamped on all the metal materials used in the arsenals. These thefts, however considerable, are not at all comparable to the robberies on the river Thames, so very injurious to trade. Although the establishment of a river police has in great measure repressed these abuses, I think it will not be uninteresting to give some details concerning the frauds exercised still in some parts at the expence of the cargoes of vessels.
The thieves here alluded to are divided into many classes, each of which has its particular province or department; they are called the river pirates (pirates dc rivière); light horsemen (chevaux legers); heavy horsemen (gendarmes); game watermen (bateliers chasseurs); game lightermen (gabariers chasseurs); mud-larks (hirondelles de vase); scuffle hunters (tapageurs); and copmen (receleurs). The river pirates consist of the boldest and most desperate of the robbers who infest the Thames: they carry on their operations in the night against all vessels badly watched, and whose crews are sometimes murdered that they may the more easily pillage the vessel. More frequently they confine themselves to taking the cordage, oars, poles, and bales of merchandize. The captain of an American brig, anchored off Castlane-Ter, hearing a noise, went on deck to look out, he saw a boat row away, and found they were pirates, who, wishing him good evening, told him that they had just raised his anchor and cable. Having an understanding with the watchmen charged with taking care of the cargoes at night, they plunder with the greatest facility. When they cannot effect such collusions, they cut the cables of the lighters and let them drift until they get to a place where they can effect their object without any fear of discovery. Small coal barges have been thus found entirely emptied during the night. Russia tallow, which from the difficulty of moving the enormous barrels containing it, would seem to be safe, is not so; for an instance has been known of the nocturnal removal of seven of these casks, each weighing between thirty and forty hundred weight.
The light horsemen also plunder during the night, but principally those vessels coming from the West Indies. This species of robbery arises from a concerted plan between some of the crew and the receivers, who buy the scrapings, that is, the samples of sugar, the refuse of the coffee, or the drippings of the spirits, and which remain in the hold when the cargo has been discharged. It is an easy matter to encrease these by piercing the sacks, and loosening the hoops of the barrels. This, a Canadian merchant, who sent a great deal of oil annually, discovered to his great astonishment. Always finding a deficit much greater than could arise from common leakage, and unable to get, on this head, a satisfactory solution from his correspondents, he determined on making a voyage to London, to penetrate the mystery. Resolved to pursue his investigations with the most minute research, he was in the quay waiting with much impatience for a lighter laden the previous evening, and whose delay seemed very extraordinary. At length it appeared, and the merchant saw a pack of fellows of very bad appearance jump on board with as much eagerness as a crew of corsairs into a prize. He also went down into the hold, and was completely stupified on seeing the barrels placed with their bungs downwards. When they begun to unload the lighter, he found as much oil left floating in the hold as would fill nine barrels. The proprietor having had a few planks taken up, there was found as much more as filled five casks, so that the load of one lighter had made a diminution of fourteen barrels. It would be scarcely credited, that the crew, far from being ashamed of this, had the impudence to assert that they had a right to this as a profit that belonged to them.
Not content with these thefts, the light horsemen, united with the lightermen, opened, during the night, barrels of sugar, which they entirely emptied, carrying them off in black bags which they call "black straps" (bandes noires). Some constables sent to Paris, and with whom I was associated in an affair, assured me that in one night there had been carried off from various vessels as much as twenty hogsheads of sugar, and also of rum drawn of by means of a pump, called a jigger, and which was conveyed away in bladders. The ships, on board which this traffic is carried, were called "game ships" (vaisseaux à gibier). At this period, the robberies of liquors and spirits were, besides, very common, even in the royal navy. A very remarkable instance occurred on board the Victory, which brought to England the dead body of Nelson, killed, as we know, at the battle of Trafalgar. To preserve the remains, they were put into a puncheon of rum. On reaching Plymouth, the puncheon on being opened was entirely empty and dry. During the voyage, the sailors, very certain that the purser would not visit this cask, had drank up all the rum by straw pipes, or jiggers. They called this "tapping the admiral" (mettre l'amiral en perce).
The game boatmen are on board vessels unloading their cargoes, and receive, and instantly carry off, all stolen goods. As they are the parties who treat with the receivers, they make a profitable business of it; and spend a great deal of money. I heard of one who, from the fruits of his industry, kept a very elegant woman, and a saddle horse.
By mud-larks, are meant those men who grope about on the shores at low tide, under the bottoms of vessels, pretending to look for old pieces of cord, iron, coals, &c., but in fact to receive and conceal various articles thrown over to them.
The scuffle-hunters, are workmen with long aprons, who pretend to ask for work, go in a body on shipboard, and find opportunities of 'prigging' something during the confusion.
Last of all are the receivers, who not content with buying all that the thieves bring to them, sometimes have understandings with the captain, or some of the crew, whom they find out to be not indisposed to deal with them. These transactions are made in slang terms, intelligible only to the parties concerned. Sugar was "sand;" coffee, "beans;" pepper, "small pease;" rum, "vinegar;" tea, "hops;" so that they could deal for them even in the presence of the supercargo of the ship, whilst he was not aware that it was his cargo that was the subject of such roguery.
I found in the cell, No. 3, all the most abandoned scoundrels that ever assembled at the Bagne. I saw there one named Vidal, who even struck the convicts themselves with horror. Apprehended at fourteen years of age, in the midst of a band of brigands, whose crimes he participated, his age alone redeemed him from the scaffold. He was sentenced to imprisonment for twenty-four years; but scarcely had he reached the prison when, at the conclusion of a quarrel, he killed a comrade with a blow of his knife. A sentence of twenty-four years' hard labour, was then substituted for that of imprisonment only. He had been for some years at the Bagne, when a convict was sentenced to death. There was not an executioner to be found in the city, and Vidal eagerly offered his services, which were accepted, and the execution was carried into effect, but they were compelled to put Vidal on the bench with the galley-guards, or else the convicts would have knocked him on the head with their fetters. The threats which menaced him did not prevent him from fulfilling his new office again, some time afterwards. Besides, he undertook to administer the sentenced of bastinado on the prisoners. At length, in 1794, the revolutionary tribunal having been installed at Toulon, after the taking of that town by Dugommier, Vidal was employed to carry their sentences into effect. He then thought he was liberated, but when the terror had ceased, he was remanded to the Bagne, where he was placed under a special surveillance.
On the same bench with Vidal, was the Jew Deschamps, one of the principal of the party concerned in robbing the royal wardrobe (garde-meuble), to the details of which the convicts listened with a sinistrous pleasure. At the enumeration of the diamonds and jewels carried off, their eyes sparkled, their muscles contracted by a convulsive motion; and by the expression of their countenances, inferences might unerringly have been drawn of the first uses they would have made of their liberty. This disposition was particularly discernible in those men only convicted of petty offences, who were taunted and bantered as only having stolen objects of small value; and then, after estimating the plunder of the wardrobe, at twenty millions of francs, Deschamps, added, with an air of contempt towards a poor devil sentenced for stealing vegetables, "Ah! ah! this was cabbage."
From the moment when the robbery was perpetrated it became the subject of multiplied comments, which circumstances and agitation of mind rendered very singular. It was during the meeting of the representatives on the Sunday evening (16th of September 1792), that Roland, minister of the interior, announced the event to the tribune of the convention, complaining bitterly of the inefficient surveillance of the agents and the military guards, who had forsaken their posts, under pretext of the "severity of the cold." Some days afterwards, Thuriot, who was one of the commission charged with searching out the matter, in his turn accused the minister of carelessness, who answered drily, that he had something else to do beside watching the wardrobe. The discussion rested here, but these debates had aroused the public attention, and the sole public theme was of guilty collusions, and plots framed for robbery, of which the produce was devoted to keeping the police agents in pay; they went so far as to say, that the government had robbed itself; and what gave a consistency to such a report, was the reprieves granted on the 18th of October to some individuals condemned for this affair, and from whom confessions were expected. However, on the 22nd of February 1797, in a report to the Conseil des Anciens, on a proposal to grant a reward of five thousand francs to a madame Corbin, who had facilitated the discovery of a great quantity of the plundered property, Thiebault declared, in the most formal manner, that this event was not the result of any political measure, and had all been incurred by the defective vigilance of the police, and by the mismanagement which pervaded every department of the administration.
At the beginning, the Moniteur had heated the imaginations of the most wary, by speaking of forty armed robbers who had been surprised in the wardrobe. The truth is, that no one was surprised; and when they first discovered the loss of "the regent," the dauphin's coral, and a vast many other jewels valued at seventeen millions of francs, for four successive nights, Deschamps, Bernard Salles, and a Portuguese Jew, named Dacosta, had in their turns entered the apartments, without any other arms than the tools requisite to extract the jewels set in the plate, which they disdained to carry off; and thus they removed with the greatest precaution the magnificent rubies which formed the eyes of the ivory fishes.
Deschamps, to whom belongs the honour of the invention, first got into the gallery by climbing a window, by means of a lamp-post, which still stands at the angle of the Rue Royale, and the place of Louis XV. Bernard Salles and Dacosta, who kept watch, were at first his only comrades; but on the third night, Benôit Naid, Philipponeau, Paumettes, Fraumont, Gray, Monton, lieutenant of the National Guard, and Durand, called 'le Turc,' a jeweller in the Rue Saint Sauveur, were added to the gang, as well as many first-rate 'cracksmen,' who had been, in a friendly way, invited to come and participate in the spoil. The rendezvous was at a billiard-room in the Rue de Rohan; and, besides, they made so little mystery of the robbery, that the morning after the first booty, Paumettes, dining with some girls at a cook shop, in the Rue d'Argenteuil, threw on the table to them a handful of rose and small brilliant diamonds. The police however got no information. To detect the principal authors it was necessary that Durand, arrested for forging assignats, should confess to obtain his own pardon, and on his information "the regent" was discovered and seized at Tours, sewn up in the headdress of a woman named Lebiène, who, unable to reach England in consequence of the war, was about to sell it at Bordeaux to a Jew, known to Dacosta. They had attempted to get rid of it in Paris, but the value of the gem, estimated at twelve millions of francs, would have awakened dangerous suspicions; they had also given up the idea of cutting the stone, lest the lapidary should betray them.
The majority of the robbers were in turns apprehended, and sentenced for other offences, amongst whom were Benôit Naid, Dacosta, Bernard Salles, Fraumont, and Philipponeau; this last, arrested in London at the close of the year 1791, at the moment he was engraving a plate of assignats of 300 francs, was taken back to France, and shut up in La Force, whence he escaped by favour of the massacres of the 2d of September.
Before having been sentenced for the robbery of the wardrobe, Deschamps had been implicated in a capital affair, whence he was extricated, although so guilty, as he boasted to us, by giving details not to be doubted. He had been concerned in the double murder of the jeweller Deslong and his servant maid, committed with his accomplice, the broker Fraumont.
Deslong had an extensive business, and besides private purchases, he also bartered diamonds and pearls; and as he was known to be an honest man, he often had valuable gems entrusted to him, either to sell or unset. He also frequented auctions, where Fraumont first knew him, who was constantly at sales to buy the ropes, altar cloths, and other pillaged church ornaments (1793) which he burnt to get the metal from the gold. lace. From the custom of meeting together so frequently in business, a sort of acquaintance sprung up between the two men, which soon became a close intimacy. Deslong had no concealment with Fraumont, and consulted him in all his undertakings, informed him of the worth of all the deposits entrusted to him, and even confided to him the secret of a hiding-place in which he kept his most valuable articles.
Informed of all these particulars, and having free access at all times to Deslong's house, Fraumont conceived the project of robbing him whilst he and his wife were at the theatre, which they frequented. He wanted an accomplice to keep watch; and besides it would have been dangerous for Fraumont, whom everybody knew, to be seen on the premises on the day of the robbery. He first selected a locksmith, a fugitive convict, who made the false keys necessary for entering Deslong's house; but this man being pursued by the police, was forced to leave Paris, and he then substituted Deschamps.
On the day fixed for the perpetration of the robbery, Deslong and his wife having gone to the Theatre de la Republique, Fraumont concealed himself at a vintner's to watch for the return of the servant maid, who usually took advantage of the absence of her master and mistress to go and see her lover. Deschamps went up to the apartment, and opened the door gently with one of his false keys. What was his astonishment to see in the hall the maid servant whom he thought absent, (her sister, who was much like her, having in fact left the house a few minutes before!) At the sight of Deschamps, whose surprise made his countenance even more frightful, the girl let fall her work and shrieked. Deschamps sprang upon her, threw her down, seized her throat, and gave her five blows with a clasp knife, which he had about him, in the right-hand pocket of his trowsers. The unhappy creature fell bathed in blood, and whilst the death rattle was yet sounding in her throat, the ruffian ransacked every corner of the room: but whether this unexpected event disturbed him, or that he heard some noise on the staircase, he only carried off some pieces of plate which came to hand, and returned to his accomplice at the vintner's, and told him the adventure. He (Fraumont) was much grieved, not at the murder of the servant, but at the little information and clumsiness of Deschamps, whom he reproached with not having discovered the secret closet which he had so plainly pointed out; and what put the cope-stone on his discontent was, that he foresaw that after such a catastrophe Deslong would be more careful of his property, and it would be impossible ever again to get such an opportunity.
In fact, Deslong did change his lodging after this event, which inspired him with the most excessive fright, and the few persons whose visits he allowed were received with the greatest precaution. Although Fraumont did not present himself, yet he had no suspicion of him. How could he suspect a man who, if he had perpetrated the crime, would not have failed to have ransacked the closet, of which he knew the secret? Meeting him at the end of a few days on the Place Vendôme, he pressed him strongly to come and see him, and became more intimate with him than ever. Fraumont then began plotting again; but, despairing of breaking open the new place of security, which besides was carefully guarded, he determined on changing his plan. Led to Deschamps' house, under pretence of bargaining for a large lot of diamonds, Deslong was assassinated and robbed of seventeen thousand francs, in gold and assignats, with which he had provided himself by advice of Fraumont, who dealt him the first stab.
Two days elapsed, and madame Deslong, not seeing her husband return, who never made so long an absence without a previous intimation, and knowing that he had considerable property about him, no longer doubted but that some misfortune had befallen him. She then went to the police, the confused organization of which was then felt sensibly in every department; but, however, they contrived to get hold of Fraumont and Deschamps; and the confession of the locksmith, which corresponded with the accounts of the robbery, and who was apprehended soon after, would have had an unpropitious termination for them, had not the authorities refused to give this man the liberty they had promised to reward him with; and the police agent, Cordat, who had been the go-between, unwilling that his promises should be broken, aided his escape on the way from La Force to the Palace. This circumstance removing the only witness who could be brought forward, Deschamps and Fraumont were set at liberty.
Condemned afterwards to eighteen years' imprisonment for other robberies, Fraumont set out for the Bagne at Rochefort on the first Nivose, year eight; but he was not yet out of courage, and by means of money, produced by his plunder, he had bribed several persons who were to follow the chain to aid his escape, in case he should attempt it, or even to carry him off by force, if need should be. The use he proposed to make of his liberty was, to assassinate M. Delalande, high president of the tribunal which had condemned him, and commissary of the police of the Section de l'Unité, who had brought such overwhelming charges against him. All was ripe for the execution of this plot, when a common woman, who had learned the details from the lips of one of the accomplices, made a spontaneous confession, and measures were accordingly taken. The escort was informed of it; and when the chain left Bicêtre, Fraumont was put in extra chains, which were not removed until his arrival at Rochefort, where he was an object of special vigilance; and I was told that he died at the Bagne. As for Deschamps, who escaped from Toulon soon after, he was apprehended at the end of three years, as concerned in a robbery committed at Anteuil, sentenced to death by the criminal tribunal of the Seine, and executed at Paris.
In cell, No. 3, I was only separated from Deschamps by a burglar named Louis Mulot, son of that Cornu who so long affrighted the people of Normandy, where his crimes are still unforgotten. Disguised as a horse-dealer, he frequented the fairs, watched the merchants who had large sums about them, and taking the cross roads, laid in wait for and assassinated them. Married, for the third time, to a young and pretty woman of Bernai, he had at first carefully concealed from her his infernal trade; but he was not slow in discovering that she was entirely worthy of him, and thenceforward she accompanied him in all his expeditions. Frequenting all the fairs as a peripatetic mercer, she easily introduced herself to the rich graziers of the valley of Auge, and more than one met his death at the appointed spot of gallant rendezvous. Often suspected, they brought forward alibis, always successful, and for which they were indebted to the fleetness of the excellent horses with which they were always provided.
In 1794, the Cornu family consisted of the father, mother, three sons, two daughters and their lovers, all of whom had been habituated to crime from their earliest childhood, either in keeping watch or setting fire to barns, &c. The youngest, Florentine, having at first testified some repugnance, they had cured her delicacy by compelling her to carry in her apron, for two leagues, the head of a farmer of the environs of Argentin!
At a later period, entirely devoid of any tender scruples, she had, as her lover, the assassin Capelle, executed in 1802. When the family formed itself into a band of Chauffeurs to infest the country (Caen and Falaise) it was she who put to torture the wretched farmers, by putting a lighted candle under their armpits, or placing blazing tinder on their toes.
Hotly pursued by the police of Caen, and particularly by that of Rouen, who had apprehended two of the juniors of the family at Brionne, Cornu resolved on retiring for some time to the vicinity of Paris, trusting thus to elude enquiry. Installed with his family in a lone house, on the road to Sevres, he did not fear to take his walks in the Champs-Élysées, where he met nearly all the robbers of his acquaintance. "Well, father Cornu," said they to him one day, "what are you about now?"—"Oh, always administering the last consolation (assassination), my sons—the last consolation."—"That is droll, father Cornu; but discovery may ensue."—"Oh! no fear where no witnesses. If I had done for all the corn-threshers (farmers) whom I have only singed, I should have nothing to funk about now."
In one of his excursions, Cornu met an old comrade, who proposed to him to break into a villa, situated in the wood of Ville d'Avray. The robbery was committed and the booty shared, but Cornu found that he had been duped. On reaching the middle of the wood, he let fall his snuff-box whilst offering it to his companion, who stooped to pick it up, and at that very instant Cornu blew out his brains with a pistol-shot, plundered him, and regained his own house, where he told the tale to his family with bursts of laughter.
Apprehended near Vernon, at the moment he was breaking into a farm, Cornu was conducted to Rouen, tried before the Criminal Court, and sentenced to death. Soon after this, his wife, who was still at liberty, came every day to bring him food and console him. "Listen," said she to him one morning, when he appeared more dejected than usual, "listen, Joseph: they say that death affrights you,—don't play the noodle, at all events, when they lead you to the scaffold. The lads of the game will laugh at you."
"Yes," said Cornu, "all that is very fine, if one's scrag was not in danger; but with Jack Ketch on one side, and the black sheep (clergyman) on the other, and the traps (gendarmes) behind, it is not quite so pleasant to be turned into food for flies."
"Joseph, Joseph, do not talk in this way; I am only a woman, you know; but I could go through it as if at a wedding, and particularly with you, old lad! Yes, I tell you again, by the word of Marguerite, I would willingly accompany you."
"Are you in earnest?" asked Cornu. "Yes, quite in earnest," sighed Marguerite. "But what are you getting up for? What are you going to do?"
"Nothing," replied Cornu; and then going to a turnkey who was in the passage, "Roch," said he to him, "send for the jailor, I want to see the public accuser."
"What!" said his wife, "the public accuser! Are you going to split (confess)? Ah, Joseph, consider what a reputation you will leave for our children!"
Cornu was silent until the magistrate arrived, and he then denounced his wife; and this unhappy woman, sentenced to death by his confessions, was executed at the same time with him. Mulot, who told me all this, never repeated the narrative without laughing till he cried. However, he thought the guillotine no subject for joking; and for a long time avoided all crimes that could send him to rejoin his father, mother, one of his brothers, and his sister Florentine, all executed at Rouen. When he spoke of them, and the end they had made, he frequently said, "This is the fruits of playing with fire; they shall never catch me at such work:" and in fact, his tricks were not so redoubtable; he confined himself to a species of robbery in which he excelled. His eldest sister, whom he had brought to Paris, aided him in all his enterprizes. Dressed as a washerwoman, with a pannier at her back and a basket on her arm, she went to all the houses where there was no porter, and, knocking at the doors, if she learnt that the occupants were from home, she returned and told Mulot. Then he, disguised as a journeyman locksmith, went, and with his bunch of picklocks in his hand, opened with the greatest ease the most complicated locks. Frequently, that suspicion might not be aroused, in case any one should pass, his sister, with her apron and a modest cap on, and with the disturbed appearance of a nurse who had lost her key, aided his operations. Mulot, as we may see, did not want foresight, but yet was one day surprised in the very act, and soon after condemned to imprisonment.
- We give M. V.'s own spelling of this word, but such a place on the banks of the Thames is not known to us, nor, we believe to any one else in London: but in reference to Colquhoun's 'Police of the Metropolis,' we find this and the following anecdotes, whence M. Vidocq must have literally copied them; and the 'Castlane Ter' is 'East Lane Tier.' So much for accuracy!—Translator.
- Whence the name of Chauffeurs, or burners.—Translator.