Memoirs of Vidocq, Volume I/Chapter VIII

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The departure of the chain—Captain Viez and his lieutenant Thierry—The complaint of the galley-slaves—The visit from Paris—Humanity of the galley-serjeants—They encourage plundering—The loaf converted into a portmanteau—Useless attempt to escape—The Bagne at Brest—The benedictions.

It was the 20th of November 1797: all the morning we remarked a more than usual commotion in the prison. The prisoners had not left their cells, and the gates were every moment opened and shut with much noise: the jailors went to and fro with a busy air, and they were knocking off irons, in the great court, of which the sound reached our ears. About eleven o'clock two men clothed in blue uniforms entered Fort-Mahon, where for eight days I had been replaced with the companions of my essay to escape: it was the captain of the chain and his lieutenant. "Well," said the captain, smiling in a kind of familiar way, "have we any return horses (fugitive galley-slaves)?" And whilst he spoke all pressed about, trying who should testify most respect to him. "Good day, M. Viez; good day, M. Thierry," resounded from all sides. These salutations were even repeated by the prisoners who had never seen either Viez or Thierry, but who assuming an air of acquaintance; hoped to get some favour. It was no wonder if Viez was a little giddy with so much applause; but as he was accustomed to these homages, it did not quite turn his brain, and he knew very well what he was about. He perceived Desfosseux, "Ah! ah!" said he, "here is a darby cutter (one skilled in cutting off his chains), who has travelled before with us. I heard that you had a narrow escape of being a head shorter (guillotined) at Douai, my boy. You escaped well by Jove; for, look you, it is better to go back to the meadow (Bagne) than let the executioner play at pitch and toss with your knowledge-box (head). Besides, my lads, let the world be quiet, and we shall set beef and celery." The captain had only begun his inspection and continued it, addressing similar jokes to all his "merchandize," for by that name he called the condemned prisoners.

The critical moment arrived, and we went into the Cours des Fers, where the house-surgeon came to us to examine if we were all in a state to bear the fatigues of the journey. We were all pronounced adequate, although some were in a most woful plight. Each prisoner then puts off the prison livery and assumes is own clothes; those who have none have a frock and trousers of packing-cloth, insufficient to protect them from the cold and damp. Hats and clothes, if at all decent belonging to the prisoners, are torn in a particular way to prevent escape; they take for instance the border off the hat and the collar from the coat. No prisoner is allowed to retain more than six francs; the overplus is given to the captain, who gives it on the route in proportion as it is needed. This precaution is easily eluded by placing louis in large sous hollowed out.

These preliminaries adjusted, we went into the great court where were the guards of the chain, better known as argousins, or galley serjeants, who were for the most part men of Auvergne, water-carriers, messengers, or coalmen, who carried on their trade in the intervals between the journeys. In the midst of them was a large wooden chest containing the fetters which are used in all similar expeditions. We were made to approach two and two, taking care to match us in height, by means of a chain of six feet in length, united to the cordon of twenty-six prisoners, who could thus only move in a body; each was confined to the chain by a sort of iron triangle, called the cravat, which, opening on one side by a turning screw, is closed on the other with a nail firmly rivetted. This is the most perilous part of the operation; the most turbulent and riotous then keep quiet; for, at the least movement, instead of falling on the anvil, the blows would break their skull, which every stroke of the hammer grazes. Then a prisoner comes with long scissars and cuts off the hair and whiskers of the prisoners, pretending to leave them irregular.

At five in the evening, the fettering was finished; the argousins retired, and the prisoners alone remained. Left to themselves, far from despairing, these men gave themselves up to all the tumults of riotous gaiety. Some vociferated horrible jokes, echoed from all sides with the most disgusting shouts; others amused themselves by provoking the stupid laughter of their companions by beastly gestures. Neither the ears, nor the modesty were even spared, all that was heard or seen was immoral and discordant. It is too true that once loaded with fetters, the condemned thinks himself obliged to trample under foot all that is honoured and respected by the society which has cast him off; there are for him no longer any restraints, but from material obstacles; his charter is the length of his chain, and he knows no law but the stick to which his jailor accustoms him. Thrown amidst beings, to whom nothing is sacred, he takes care how he testifies that steady resignation which betokens repentance; for then he would be the butt of a thousand jokes, and his keepers, troubled at his serious mood, would accuse him of meditating some plot. It is best, if he would keep them unsuspicious of his intentions, that he should always appear reckless and abandoned. A prisoner who sports with his destiny is never an object of mistrust; the experience of the greater part of the wretched beings who have escaped from the Bagnes prove this. What is certain is, that with us, those who had the greatest interest in escaping were the least dejected; they were the leaders. When night came on, they began to sing. Imagine fifty scoundrels, the greater part drunk, all screeching different airs. In the midst of this din a "return horse" thundered out with the lungs of a Stentor, some couplets of "The Galley Slave's Complaint."

"The chain, the chain,
Makes us complain;
But never mind,
We may leave it behind.

"Our coats are of a scarlet hue,
We wear no hats on our head
But caps, and they've taken our cravats too,
And left us queer ties instead.
'Tis true we are spoil'd children,
And have no right to complain;
And for fear of losing us, now and then,
They fasten us with a chain.

"Oh, we will make articles fine and nice,
In wood, in straw, in wax,
And sell them below the market price,
For our shops will pay no tax.
And those who come to see our toys
Will purchase every day,
And the produce of our hands, my boys,
Will moisten well our clay.


"Then comes the time to fill the paunch,
Bring in the beans so white!
They're not so good as a fine plump haunch,
But we lack not appetite.
How much more wretched had been our lot.
If, like many a jolly cadet,
Instead of the galleys, we'd chauc'd to 've got,
To the abbey of Mont-a-r'gret."

All our companions were not so happy; in the third cordon, composed of the least disorderly, we heard sobs, saw tears flowing; but these symptoms of grief, or of repentance, were hailed by the shouts and threats of the two other cordons, where I figured in the first rank as a dangerous fellow, from my address and influence. I had near me two men, one a schoolmaster condemned for rape; and the other, an ex-officer of health, sentenced for forging, who, without mirth or melancholy talked together with a very calm and natural tone.

"We are going to Brest," said the schoolmaster.

"Yes," answered the officer of health, "we are going to Brest; I know the country, I passed through It when I was sub aide-de-camp in the 16th brigade—a good country, upon my word—I shall not be sorry to see it again.

"Is there much amusement?" asked the pedagogue.

"Amusement!" said his companion, with an air of astonishments.

"Yes, amusement—I ask you, if we can procure any little pleasure if we are well treated,—if provisions are cheap."

"In the first place, you will be taken care of," replied the officer," and well taken care of, for at the Bagne at Brest, only two hours are needed to find all the beans in the soup, while at Toulon the search would take eight days."

Here the conversation was interrupted by loud cries, proceeding from the second division. They were knocking on the head three prisoners, the ex-commissary of war, Lemière, the staff-major, Simon, and a robber named the Petit Matelot (little sailor), who were accused of having betrayed their comrades by information, or of having defeated some plot in prison. The person who had pointed them out to the vengeance of the galley-slaves, was a young man, who would have been a good study for a painter, or an actor. With dilapidated green slippers, a hunting waistcoat, destitute of buttons, and nankeen pantaloons, which seemed to defy the inclemency of the weather; his head dress was a helmet without a peak, through the holes of which a tattered night-cap was visible. In the Bicêtre, he was only known by the name of 'mademoiselle,' and I learnt that he was one of those degraded wretches, who abandoned, in Paris, to a course of the most infamous prostitution, find at the Bagne a theatre worthy of the most disgusting debaucheries. The argousins, who ran at the first noise, did not give themselves the least trouble to get the Petit Matelot from the hands of the galley slaves, and he died four days afterwards of the blows he had received. Lemière and Simon would also have perished but for my interference; I had known the former when in the roving army, where he had rendered me some service. I declared that it was he who had supplied me with the tools necessary for undermining the walls at Fort-Mahon, and thenceforward they left him and his companion unmolested.

We passed the night on the stones in a church, then converted into a magazine. The argousins made regular rounds, to assure themselves that no one was engaged in fiddling (sawing their fetters). At daybreak we were all on foot; the lists were read over, and the fetters examined. At six o'clock we were placed in long cars, back to back, the legs hanging down outside; covered with hoar frost and motionless from cold. On reaching St Cyr, we were entirely stripped, to undergo a scrutiny which extended to our stockings, shoes, shirt, mouth, ears, nostrils, &c. &c. It was not only the files in cases which they sought, but also for watch springs, which enable a prisoner to cut his fetters in less than three hours. This examination lasted for upwards of an hour, and it is really a miracle that one half of us had not our noses or feet frozen off with cold. At bed-time, we were heaped together in a cattle stall, where we laid so close that the body of one served for the pillow of the person who laid nearest to him, and if any individual got entangled in his own, or any other man's chain, a heavy cudgel rained down a torrent of blows on the hapless offender. As soon as we had laid down on a few handfulls of straw, which had already been used for the litter of the stable, a whistle blew to command us to the most absolute silence, which was not allowed to be disturbed by the least complaint, even when, to relieve the guard placed at the extremity of the stable, the argousins actually walked over our bodies.

The supper consisted of a pretended bean soup, and a few morsels of half mouldy bread. The distribution was made from large wooden troughs, containing thirty rations; and the cook, armed with a large pot ladle, did not fail to repeat to each prisoner, as he served him, "One, two, three, four, hold out your porringer, you thief;" the wine was put into the same trough from which the soup and meat were served out, and then an argousin, taking a whistle, hanging to his button-hole, blew it thrice; saying, "Attention, robbers, and only answer by a yes or a no. Have you had bread?"—"Yes." "Soup?"—"Yes." "Meat?"—"Yes." Wine?"—"Yes." "Then go to sleep, or pretend to do so."

A table was laid out at the door, at which the captain, lieutenant, and chief argousins, seated themselves to take a repast superior to ours; for these men, who profitted by all occasions to extort money from the prisoners, took excellent care of themselves, and eat and drank abundantly. At this moment the stable offered one of the most hideous spectacles that can be imagined; on one side were a hundred and twenty men herded together like foul beasts, rolling about their haggard eyes, whence fatigue or misery banished sleep; on the other side, eight ill-looking fellows were eating greedily without, not for one moment, losing sight of their carbines or their clubs. A few miserables candles affixed to the blackened walls of the stable, cast a murky glare over this scene of horror, the silence of which was only broken by stifled groans, or the clank of fetters. Not content with striking us indiscriminately, the argousins made their detestable and brutal witticisms about the prisoners; and if a man, fevered with thirst, asked for water, they said to him, "Let him who wants water put out his hand." The wretch obeyed, mistrusting nothing, and was instantly overwhelmed with blows. Those who had any money were necessarily careful; they were but very few, the long residence of the majority in prison having for the most part exhausted their feeble resources.

These were not the only abuses which mark the progress of the galley chain. To economize to his own profit the expenses of the journey, the captain generally made one of the cordons to go on foot. But this cordon was always that of the strongest men, that is, the most turbulent of the condemned. Wo to the females whom they met, or the shops which they came near. The women were assaulted in the grossest manner, and the shops stripped in a twinkling, as I saw, at Morlaix, at a grocer's, who did not save even a loaf of sugar, or a pound of soap. It may be asked, what the guards were about during the commission of this offence? The guards were pretending to be very busily preventing it, but without opposing any real obstacle to it, knowing that they would ultimately profit by the plunder, since the prisoners must sell their booty through their medium, or exchange with them for strong liquors. It was the same with the thefts made on the prisoners who were added to the chain in its passage; scarcely were they ironed, when their neighbours hustled them, and took from them all the little sums they might have.

Far from preventing or checking these spoliations, the argousins even suggested them, as I saw them do with an ex-gendarme who had sewed up a few louis in his leather breeches. "Here is some fat!" said they, and in less than three minutes, the poor devil was pennyless. At such times the party attacked call out loudly for the argousins, who take good care not to approach until the robbery be perfected, and they thump, with heavy cudgels, the poor wretch who has been plundered. At Rennes, the bandits I am speaking of carried their infamy to such an extent, as to despoil a sister of charity, who had brought us some tobacco and money, in a stall where we were to pass the night. The most crying of these abuses have disappeared, but many yet exist, which it will be difficult to root out, if we consider to what sort of men the conducting of the chain must be entrusted, and the materials they have to work upon.

Our toilsome journey endured for twenty-four days, and on reaching Pont-a-Lezen, we were placed in the depôt of the Bagne, when the prisoners perform a kind of quarantine, until they have recovered from their fatigue and it has been ascertained whether they have any contagious disease. On our arrival we were washed in pairs, in large tubs filled with warm water, and on quitting the bath our clothes were allotted to us. I received like the others, a red frock or cassock, two pair of trowsers, two sail cloth shirts, two pair of shoes, and a green cap; each garment and article was marked with the initials GAL, and the cap had besides a tin plate, on which was the number of the entry in the register. When they had given us our clothing, they rivetted an iron ring round the leg, but did not couple us.

The depôt of Pont-a-Lezen, being a sort of lazaretto, there was not a very rigorous vigilance kept up. I was even told that it was easy to get out of the rooms and climb the outside walls. I learnt this from a man named Blondy, who had once escaped this way from the Bagne at Brest, and hoping to profit by this information, I made arrangements to avail myself of the first opportunity. We sometimes had loaves given to us, weighing eighteen pounds each, and on quitting Morlaix, I had hollowed out one of these and filled it with a shirt, a pair of trowsers, and some handkerchiefs. It was a new kind of portmanteau, and passed unsuspected. Lieutenant Thierry had not given me to a special watch, on the contrary, having learnt the grounds of my condemnation, he had told the commissary, when speaking of me, that with men as orderly as I was, he could manage the chain as easily as a girls' school. I had then inspired no mistrust, and looked about me to execute my project. I, at first, contemplated cutting through the wall of the room in which I was placed. A steel chisel left by accident on the foot of my bed by a turnkey prisoner, who rivetted the ancle cuffs, served me to make the opening, whilst Blondy cut my irons. This completed, my comrades made a figure of straw, which they put in my place, to deceive the vigilance of the argousins on guard, and soon, clothed in the garments I had concealed, I got into the court-yard of the depôt. The walls which environed it were at least fifteen feet high, and to climb them I found I must get something like a ladder, a pole served as a proxy, but it was so heavy and so long that it was impossible for me to drag it over the wall, to aid my descent on the other side. After many trials, as vain as they were painful, I was compelled to risk the leap, in which I succeeded so badly and came down with so much violence on my legs that I could scarcely drag myself into a bush that was near. I hoped, that when the pain had somewhat abated, I could escape before daybreak, but it became more excessive, and my feet swelled so prodigiously, that I was compelled to give up all hopes of escape. I dragged myself along, as well as t was able, to the door of the depôt, to return to my cell, thinking thereby to diminish the number of blows which would be assuredly bestowed upon me. A sister whom I asked for, and to whom I told all, had me conveyed into a room where my feet were dressed. This excellent woman, who compassionated my lot, went to the commandant of the depôt, and obtained my pardon by her solicitations, and at the end of three weeks, being completely recovered, I was conveyed to Brest.

The Bagne is situated in the bosom of the bay; piles of guns, and two pieces of cannon, mounted at the gates, pointed out to me the entrance, into which I was introduced, after having been examined by the two guards of the establishment. The boldest of the condemned, however hardened, have confessed that it is impossible to express the emotions of horror excited by the first appearance of this abode of wretchedness. Each room containing twenty night camp couches, called bancs (benches), on which lie six hundred fettered convicts, in long rows, with red garbs, heads shorn, eyes haggard, dejected countenances, whilst the perpetual clank of fetters conspires to fill the soul with horror. But this impression on the convict soon passes away, who feeling that here he has no cause to blush at the presence of any one, soon identifies himself with his situation. That he may not be the butt of the gross jests and filthy buffoonery of his fellows, he affects to participate in them; he even exceeds them; and soon in tone and gesture this conventional depravity gets hold of his heart. Thus, at Anvers, an ex-bishop experienced, at first, all the outpourings of the riotous jokes of his companions; they always addressed him as monseigneur, and asked his blessing in all their obscenities; at every moment they constrained him to profane his former character by blasphemous words, and by dint of reiterating these impieties, he contrived to shake of their attacks; at a subsequent period he became the public-house keeper, at the Bagne, and was always styled monseigneur, but he was no longer asked for absolution, for he would have answered with the grossest blasphemies.

It is on days of rest, particularly, that the recital of crimes often imaginary, of close connexions, and infamous compliances, complete the corruption of a man, whose punishment for a first fault exposes him to this pernicious contact. To prevent this, it has been in contemplation to do away with the system of Bagnes altogether. At first, opinion was unanimous on this point, but when a substitution of punishment became the matter in question, plans were very variously sketched out; some proposed penitentiaries, like those of Switzerland and the United States; others, and these are the majority, have advocated colonization, adducing the happy results, and prosperity of the English establishments in New South Wales, better known as Botany Bay.

Let us see if France is in a condition to enjoy these happy results and this prosperity.