Memoirs of Vidocq, Volume I/Chapter VII
Departure from Douai—The prisoners revolt in the forest of—Residence at the Bicêtre—Prison customs—The madhouse.
Worn out by the bad treatment of every species which I experienced in the prison of Douai, tormented by a watchfulness redoubled after my sentence, I took care not to make an appeal, which would keep me there some months. What confirmed me in my resolution was, the information that the prisoners were to be sent forthwith to the Bicêtre, and there, making one chain, to be sent on to the Bagne at Brest. It is unnecessary to say, that I relied on escaping on our route. As to the appeal, I was told that I could present a petition for pardon from the Bagne, which would have the same effect. We remained however some months at Douai, which made me regret bitterly that I had not made my petition for annulling the sentence.
At length the order of removal arrived, and, what would scarcely be credited from men doomed to the galleys, it was hailed with enthusiasm, so much were we tired of the torments of Marin, the jailor. Our new situation was not however much more satisfactory; the officer, Hurtrel, who accompanied us, I know not why, had ordered irons of a new construction, which fastened to each of our legs a ball of fifteen pounds weight, whilst we were secured two and two by a massive wrist-cuff of iron. Besides, the vigilance was extreme, and it was impossible to think of doing anything by address. An attack by main force could alone save us, and I proposed it to fourteen of my companions, who agreed on it, and it was settled that the project should be put in excution on our way through the forest of Compeigne. Desfosseux was of the party, and by means of fine saws which he had always securely secreted about him, out fetters were cut in three days; the plaister of a particular sort of gum prevented our keepers from perceiving the trace of the instruments.
On reaching the forest and gaining the appointed spot, the signal was given, the fetters fell from us, and we leaped from the carriages which enclosed us to try and gain the thicket; but the five gendarmes and the eight dragoons who escorted us, charged sword in hand. We entrenched ourselves behind the trees, armed with the stones which are piled up to mend the roads, and with some weapons we had got hold of at the first moment of confusion. The soldiers hesitated for an instant, but, well armed and well mounted, they soon made up their minds, and at the first charge two of our party fell dead, five more terribly wounded, and the others falling on their knees cried for mercy. Surrender was now imperative; and Desfosseux, myself and some others who had escaped, got into the carriage, when Hurtrel, who had kept at a very respectful distance from the affray, came up to a poor wretch, who certainly did not hurry himself very much, and thrust his sabre through him. Such baseness enraged us; the prisoners who had not yet ascended the carriages took up stones, and but for the aid of the dragoons, Hurtrel would have been knocked on the head. The soldiers bid us desist before we brought down destruction on ourselves; and the thing was so evident, that we were compelled to lay down our arms, that is the stones. This circumstance, however, put a termination to the annoyances of Hurtrel, who never approached us but with fear and trembling.
At Senlis we were placed in the temporary prison, one of the most horrible I ever tenanted. The jailor exercising the office of street-keeper, the prison was guarded by his wife; and what a creature was she! As we had made ourselves notorious, she thrust us into the most secret dungeons, convincing herself by previous personal examination that we had nothing about us that could aid escape. We were however trying the walls, when we heard her roar out, "Rascals, I am coming to you with my bastinado; I will teach you how to play music." We took her at her word, and all desisted. The next day we reached Paris, and were lodged in the outer boulevards, and at four in the afternoon we got in sight of Bicêtre.
On reaching the end of the avenue which looks on the road to Fontainebleau, the carriages turned to the right, and entered an iron gate, above which I read mechanically this inscription—"Hospice de la viellesse" (Hospital for the aged.) In the fore court many old men were walking, clothed in grey garments. They were paupers; and stared at us with that stupid curiosity which results from a monotonous and purely animal existence; for it often happens that a person admitted into a hospital, having no longer his own subsistence to provide for, renounces the exercise of his narrow faculties, and ends by falling into a state of perfect idiotcy. On reaching the second court, in which was the chapel, I remarked that the majority of my companions hid their faces with their hands or pocket-handkerchiefs. It may be supposed that they experienced some feeling of shame. No; they were only thinking of allowing their faces to be seen as little as possible, so that if opportunity presented they might the more easily escape.
"Here we are," said Desfosseux to me: "you see that square building—that is the prison." We alighted at an iron door, guarded inside by a sentry. Having entered the office, we were only registered, our description being deferred until the next day. I perceived, however, that the jailor looked at us, Desfosseux and me, with a sort of curiosity, and I thence concluded that we had been recommended by the officer Hurtrel, who had preceded us a quarter of an hour from the time of the business of the forest of Compiègne. Having opened many low doors, guarded with iron plates, and the Bird-cage Wicket, we were introduced to a large square yard, where about sixty prisoners were playing at fives, and shouting so loudly as to sound all over the place. At our appearance their game ceased, and surrounding us, they examined with much surprise the irons which loaded us. It was, besides, to enter Bicêtre in the most favourable manner, to be decked with such caparisons, for they estimated the deserts of the prisoner, that is to say, his boldness and talent for escape, by the precautions taken to secure him. Desfosseux, who found himself amongst friends, had no difficulty in introducing us as the most distinguished personages of the north; he did more, he particularly expatiated on my merits, and I was accordingly surrounded and made much of by all the worthies of the prison: Beaumont, Guillaume, Mauger, Jossat, Maltaisé, Corun, Blondy, Troaflat, and Richard, one of the party concerned in the murder of a Lyons courier, never left me. As soon as my fetters were taken off, they took me to the drinking-shop, where for two hours I did justice to a thousand invitations, when a tall man, with a police-officer's cap, who they told me was the room-inspector, took us to a large place called Le Fort Mahon, when we were clothed in the prison garb, consisting of a frock half grey and half black. The inspector told me, I should be brigadier, that is, that I should preside at the giving out of the provisions amongst my table-companions, and I had, in consequence, a good bed, whilst others slept on camp couches. In four days I was known to all the prisoners; but although they had the highest opinion of my courage, Beaumont wishing to try me, picked a quarrel with me; we fought, and as he was an expert boxer, I was completely conquered. I, however, had my revenge in a room, where Beaumont, unable to display the resources of his art, had the worst of it. My first defeat, however, gave me a desire to be instructed in the mysteries of this art, and the celebrated Jean Goupel, the Saint George of boxing, who was at the Bicêtre with us, soon counted me amongst those of his pupils who were destined to do him the most honour.
The prison of Bicêtre is a neat quadrangular building, inclosing many other structures and many courts, which have each a different name; there is the grande cour (great court) where the prisoners walk; the cour de cuisine (or kitchen court); the cour des chiens (or dog's court); the cour de correction (or court of punishment); and the cour des fers (or iron court). In this last is a new building five stories high; each story contains forty cells, capable of holding four prisoners. On the platform, which supplies the place of a roof, was night and day a dog named Dragon, who passed in the prison for the most watchful and incorruptible of his kind; but some prisoners managed at a subsequent period to corrupt him through the medium of a roasted leg of mutton, which he had the culpable weakness to accept; so true is it, that there are no seductions more potent than those of gluttony, since they operate indifferently on all organised beings. To ambition, to gaming, and to gallantry, there are bounds fixed by nature; but gluttony knows nothing of age, and if the appetite sometimes opposes its inert power, we are quits with it by a good fit of indigestion. However, the Amphytrions escaped whilst Dragon was swallowing the mutton; he was beaten and taken into the cour des chiens, where, chained up and deprived of the free air which he breathed on the platform, he was inconsolable for his fault, and perished piecemeal, a victim of remorse at his weakness in yielding to a moment of gluttony and error.
Near the erection I speak of is the old building, nearly arranged in the same way, and under which were dungeons of safety, in which were inclosed the troublesome and condemned prisoners. It was in one of these dungeons that for forty-three years lived the accomplice of Cartouche, who betrayed him to procure this commutation! To obtain a moment's sunshine, he frequently counterfeited death so well, that when he had actually breathed his last sigh, two days passed before they took off his iron collar. A third part of the building, called La Force, comprised various rooms, in which the prisoners were placed who arrived from the provinces, and are destined, like ourselves, to the chain.
At this period, the prison of Bicêtre, which is only strong from the strict guard kept up there, could contain twelve hundred prisoners; but they were piled on each other, and the conduct of the jailors in no way assuaged the inconvenience of the place: a sullen air, a rough tone, and brutal manners, were exercised towards the prisoners, and they were in no way to be softened, but through the medium of a bottle of wine, or a pecuniary bribe. Besides, they never attempted to repress any excess or any crime, and provided that no one sought to escape, they might do whatever they pleased in the prison, without being restrained or prevented. Whilst men condemned for those attempts which modesty shrinks from naming, openly practised their detestable libertinism, and robbers exercised their industry inside the prison without any person attempting to check the crime or prevent the bestiality.
If any man arrived from the country well clad, who, condemned for a first offence, was not as yet initiated into the customs and usages of prisons, in a-twinkling he was stripped of his clothes, which were sold in his presence to the highest bidder. If he had jewels or money, they were alike confiscated to the profit of the society, and if he were too long in taking out his earrings, they snatched them out without the sufferer daring to complain. He was previously warned, that if he spoke or it, they would hang him in the night to the bars of his cell, and afterwards say that he had committed suicide. If a prisoner, out of precaution, when going to sleep, placed his clothes under his head, they waited until he was in his first sleep, and then they tied to his foot a stone, which they balanced at the side of his bed; at the least motion the stone fell, and aroused by the noise, the sleeper jumped up, and before he could discover what had occurred, his packet hoisted by a cord, went through the iron bars to the floor above. I have seen, in the depth of winter, these poor devils, having been deprived of their property in this way, remain in the court in their shirts until some one threw them some rags to cover their nakedness. As long as they remained at Bicêtre, by burying themselves, as we may say, in their straw, they could defy the rigour of the weather; but at the departure of the chain, when they had no other covering than the frock and trousers made of packing cloth, they often sunk exhausted and frozen before they reached the first resting place.
It is necessary, by facts of this nature, to explain the rapid depravity of men whom it was easy to excite to honest feelings; but who unable to escape the height of misery but by excess of wickedness, sought an alleviation of their lot in the real or apparent exaggeration of all species of crime. In society, we dread infamy; in the society of prisoners, there is no shame but in not being sufficiently infamous. The condemned prisoners are a dictinct people; whoever is cast amongst them, must expect to be treated as an enemy as long as he will not speak their language and will not identify himself with their way of thinking.
The abuses I have mentioned are not the only ones; there are others even more terrible. If a prisoner were marked out as a false brother or as a sneak, he was pitilessly knocked on the head, without any jailor interfering to prevent it. Matters came to such a pitch, that it was necessary to assign a particular division to those individuals, who, giving an account of their own doings had made any mention of their comrades which they thought could in any way compromise them. On the other hand the impudence of the robbers, and the immorality of their keepers, were carried to such an extent, that they prepared openly in the prison tricks of swindling and theft, which were to be perpetrated on quitting the walls of the prison. I will mention only one of these plans, which will suffice to evince the measure of credulity of the dupes and the audacity of the plotters. These latter obtained the address of certain rich persons living in the province, which was easy from the number of prisoners who were constantly arriving. They then wrote letters to them, called, in the slang language, 'letters of Jerusalem,' and which contained in substance what follows. It is useless to observe that the names of places and persons change according to circumstances.
"Sir,—You will doubtlessly be astonished at receiving a letter from a person unknown to you, who is about to ask a favour from you; but from the sad condition in which I am placed, I am lost if some honourable person will not lend me succour: that is the reason of my addressing you, of whom I have heard so much that I cannot for a moment hesitate to confide all my affairs to your kindness. As valet-de-chambre to the marquis de ——— I emigrated with my master, and that we might avoid suspicion we travelled on foot and I carried the luggage, consisting of a casket containing 16,000 francs in gold and the diamonds of the late marchioness. We were on the point of joining the army at ———, when we were marked out and pursued by a detachment of volunteers. The marquis, seeing how closely we were pressed, desired me to throw the casket into a deep ditch near us, so that it might not implicate us in case we were apprehended. I relied on recovering it the following night; but the country people, aroused by the tocsin which the commandant of the detachment ordered to be rung, began to beat the wood in which we were concealed, with so much vigour, that it was necessary to think only of escape. On reaching a foreign province, the marquis received some advances from the prince of ———; but these resources soon failing, he resolved on sending me back for the casket thrown into the ditch. I was the more certain of finding it, as on the day after I had thrown it from me, we had made a written memorandum of the localities, in case we should be for any length of time without being able to return for it. I set out, and entering France, reached the village of ——— without accident, near the spot where we had been pursued. You must know the village perfectly, as it is not three quarters of a league from your residence. I prepared to fulfil my mission, when the landlord of the auberge where I had lodged, a bitter jacobin and collector of national property, remarking my embarrassment when he proposed to drink to the health of the republic, had me apprehended as a suspected person: and as I had no passport, and unfortunately resembled an individual pursued for stopping the diligences, I was taken from prison to prison to be confronted with my pretended accomplices, until on reaching Bicêtre I was obliged to go to the infirmary, where I have been for two months.
"In this cruel situation, having heard mention of you by a relation of my master's, who had property in your district, I beg to know if I cannot, through your aid, obtain the casket in question and get a portion of the money which it contains. I could then supply my immediate necessities and pay my counsel, who dictates this, and assures me that by some presents, I could extricate myself from this affair.
"Receive, sir, &c.
Out of one hundred such letters, twenty were always answered: and astonishment will cease when we consider that they were only addressed to men known by their attachment to the old order of things, and that nothing reasons less than the spirit of party. It testified besides, to the person addressed, that unlimited confidence which never fails to produce its effect on self-love or interest; the person answered that he would agree to undertake to get the casket from its place of concealment. Another letter from the pretended valet-de-chambre stating, that being entirely stripped, he had agreed with the keeper of the infirmary for a very small sum to sell the trunk, in which was, in the false bottom, the plan already alluded to. Then the money arrived, and they received sums sometimes amounting to twelve or fifteen hundred francs. Some individuals, thinking to give a profound proof of sagacity, came even from the remotest parts of their province to Bicêtre, where they received the destined plan which was to conduct them to this mysterious forest, which, like the fantastic forests of the romances of chivalry, fled eternally before them. The Parisians themselves sometimes fell into the snare: and some persons may still remember the adventure of the clothseller of the Rue des Prouvaires, who was caught undermining an arch of the Pont Neuf, where he expected to find the diamonds of the duchess de Bouillon.
We may imagine that such manœuvres could not be effected but by the consent and with the participation of the keepers, since they received the correspondence of the treasure-seekers. But the jailor thought, that independently of the direct benefit he thence drew from it, by the increase of the money spent by the prisoners in viands and spirits, they being thus occupied would not think of escaping. On the same principle he tolerated the making varieties of things in straw, wood, and bone, and even false pieces of two sous, with which Paris was at one time inundated. There were also other crafts exercised; but these were done clandestinely: they made privately false passports with the pen, so well done as to pass currently, saws for cutting iron, and false hair, which were of great service in escaping from the Bagne—the galley-slaves being particularly recognizable by their shorn heads. These various articles were concealed in tin-cases, which could be hid in the intestines.
As for me, always occupied with the idea of escaping from the Bagne and reaching a sea-port whence I could embark, I was night and day plotting the means of getting away from Bicêtre. I at length imagined that by breaking through the quadrangle of Fort-Mahon and reaching the waters-courses made under it, we might, by means of a short mine get into the court of the ideots I have before alluded to, whence there would be no difficulty in reaching the outside. This project was executed in ten days and as many nights. During the whole time the prisoners, of whom we had any distrust, were always accompanied by a trusty man; but we were obliged to wait until the moon should be on the wane. At length, on the 3rd of October 1797, at two o'clock in the morning, we descended the water-course, thirty-three in number, provided with dark lantherns, and we soon opened the subterranean passage and reached the court of the ideots. We wanted a ladder, or something instead of it, to climb the walls: and at last got hold of a long pole, and we were going to draw lots to decide who should first climb up, when a noise of chains suddenly broke the silence of night.
A dog came out from a kennel placed in an angle of the court; we stood motionless and held our breath, for it was an important moment. After having stretched himself out and yawned, as if he had only wanted to change place, the animal put one foot into his kennel as if about to return, and we then thought ourselves saved. Suddenly he turned his head to the place in which we were huddled together, and fixed on us two eyes which looked like burning coals. A low growling was then followed with barkings which sounded all over the place. Desfosseux wished to try and cut his throat, but he was of a size to render the issue of a contest doubtful. It appeared best to us to lie down in a large open space, which served as a walking ground for the ideots; but the dog still kept up the concert, and his colleagues having joined him the din became so excessive that the inspector Giroux, fancying something particular was passing amongst his lodgers, and knowing his customers, began his round by Fort-Mahon, and almost fell backwards at finding no one. At his cries the jailor, turnkeys, and guard, all assembled. They soon discovered the road we had taken, and taking the same to get into the court of the ideots, they loosened the dog, who ran straight at us. The guards then entered the place where we were with fixed bayonets, as if about to carry a redoubt. They put handcuffs on us, the usual prelude of any important matter to be done in a prison; and we then returned, not to Fort-Mahon, but to the dungeon without however experiencing any bad treatment.
This attempt, the boldest of which the prison had for a long time been the theatre, threw the keepers into so much confusion that it was two days before they perceived that one of the prisoners of Fort-Mahon was missing: it was Desfosseux. Knowing all his address I thought him at a distance, when, on the morning of the third day, I saw him enter my dungeon pale, exhausted, and bleeding. When the door was closed on him he told me all his adventure.
At the moment when the guard had seized us, he had squatted down in a sort of tub, probably used for baths, and hearing no noise, he had left his retreat: and the pole had aided him in climbing several walls: but yet he always got back to the ideot's court. Day was just breaking, and he heard footsteps going and coming in the buildings, for they are nowhere earlier than in hospitals. It was necessary to avoid the gaze of the turnkey, who would soon be in the courts: the wicket of a room was half open—he glided in, and was about with much precaution to roll himself in a large heap of straw; but what was his astonishment to see it occupied by a man naked, his hair dishevelled, beard long, and eye haggard and bloodshot. The madman, for such he was, looked at Desfosseux with a fierce air, then made him a quick sign: and as he stood still, darted at him as if to attack him. A few caresses seemed to appease him: he took Desfosseux by the hand and made him sit down beside him, heaping all the straw round him in the manner and with the gestures of a monkey. At eight o'clock a morsel of black bread fell in at the door, which he took up, looked at, threw into a heap of dirt, and then picked it up and began to eat. During the day more bread was brought; but as the madman was asleep Desfosseux seized and devoured it, at the risk of being himself devoured by his terrible companion, who might have been enraged at the abstraction of his pittance. At twilight the madman awoke, and talked for some time with inconceivable volubility; night came on and his excitement sensibly increased, and he began to leap about and make hideous contortions, shaking his chains with a kind of pleasure.
In this appalling situation Desfosseux waited with impatience until the madman fell asleep to go out at the wicket. About midnight, hearing him move no longer, he advanced first one leg and then the other, when he was seized by the madman with a powerful grasp, who threw him on the straw and placed himself before the wicket, where he remained till daylight motionless as a statue. The next night another attempt, and another obstacle. Desfosseux, who grew distracted, employed his strength, and a tremendous struggle ensued: Desfosseux, being struck by his chains, and covered with bites and blows, was compelled to call for the keepers. They mistaking him at first for one of the madmen who had got loose, were also about to put him in a cell; but he managed to make himself known, and at length obtained the favour of being brought back to us.
We remained eight days in the dungeon, after which I was put in the Chaussée where I found a party of prisoners who had received me so well on my arrival. They were making good cheer and denied themselves nothing: for, independently of the money procure by the 'letters of Jerusalem,' they had got a supply from some females whom they knew, and who constantly visited them. Having become, as at Douai, the object of special vigilance, I still sought to escape; when at length the day arrived for the departure of the chain.