A few years ago, I watched a fantastic French film called L’Elegant Criminel (a 1990 release also known as Lacenaire). It featured one of my favourite actors–Daniel Auteuil in the main role of Lacenaire, an infamous 19th century French criminal. An earlier portrayal of Lacenaire is found in the 1945 film Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise). Lacenaire’s influence didn’t stop there. After reading about the crime, Dostoevsky “published Lacenaire’s memoirs in Russian in a magazine he edited, and he used him as a model for Raskolnikov, the double murderer in Crime and Punishment” (The Crimes of Paris, Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler). Now almost 200 years after his execution, Lacenaire’s name has faded, but it has not entirely disappeared. But why does Lacenaire remain a figure of interest at all? He was hardly a criminal mastermind; in fact his criminal career was fraught with ineptitude, and his crimes didn’t yield much profit either. So why does he remain a fascinating figure?
There are two basic, interconnected reasons for Lacenaire’s propelled fame: his highly entertaining trial and his memoirs–both of which guaranteed a certain amount of attention. The astonishing trial, subverted by Lacenaire, became entertainment rather than the usual mechanism for punishment, and then his memoirs, censored and published in 1836, the year of his death, fed that notoriety.
Part of Lacenaire’s fascination is that he was a member of the bourgeoisie. He was educated, dashing, witty, and utterly charming. The fact that he appeared to be an elegant, affluent, dandified gentleman allowed him to commit crimes that the shabbily-dressed illiterate man could never hope to get away with. Part of the fascination resides in the notion that a man who emerged from a relatively privileged background and who had a number of talents chose a life of crime–brutal, vicious crime.
The French philosopher Michel Foucault gets at that entertainment idea when he argues that Lacenaire was a:
“symbolic figure of an illegality kept within the bounds of delinquency and transformed into discourse–that is to say, made doubly inoffensive; the bourgeoisie had invented for itself a new pleasure, which it has still far from outgrown.” (Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault)
When I discovered that Lacenaire’s memoirs were available in English, well I had to get a copy. The volume is ‘put together’ and translated by Philip John Stead, so he’s listed as the author in spite of the fact that a large section of this book is straight from Lacenaire. For the curious, my first edition copy is from Staples Press– dated 1952 and runs to 238 pages.
The book begins with an invaluable 3-part introduction which provides the background of the memoirs:
I The Hand of Lacenaire
II The Trial
III The Prisoner in the Conciergerie
The memoirs follow pp. 51-266, and then a short epilogue, a bibliography, appendix and acknowledgements. I add these details as the volume is fading from view, and there’s a slim chance that someone else on the planet may like to know this information.
Lacenaire was guillotined for his crimes, so we know how the story ends, but it’s how things got to that point that make up the majority of the book. The book begins with The Hand of Lacenaire— “the severed hand of a murderer.” There’s no explanation of how the hand “yellow and mummified as a Pharoah’s claw” ended up owned by Maxime du Camp, but it sat “on a cushion in his house,” and there it apparently captured the imagination of Gautier. The author, Philip John Stead says that it was the line from Gauthier: “Il fut le Manfred du ruisseau,” which led him to the story of Lacenaire.
Stead sets the stage for Lacenaire’s memoirs by describing the crimes that brought him to the attention of the Paris police. The first crime–the brutal murder of Widow Chardon and her son took place in 1834. It was estimated that they’d been dead for two days when the police broke down their door and found bloody, ransacked rooms and two dead bodies. The son, who’d been murdered by a chopper was “badly mutilated.” His mother had been viciously stabbed to death with a shoemaker’s awl. No one was particularly sorry to see the last of the Chardons. The son was an ex-convict who engaged in petty fraud as a “begging letter writer,” and the police suspected that the murders were committed by acquaintances of the victims. After the crime, Lacenaire and Avril went to the Turkish baths in the Boulevard du Temple to wash away the blood. Then it was dinner and the theatre.
Two weeks later on Dec 31st 1834, another crime occurred, and even though no-one was murdered in this case, the police took the crime very seriously as it involved a bank. The victim was bank employee Genevay. He was lured to an address and attacked by two men who attempted to steal the approximately 11,000 francs he carried. The crime was bungled and Genevay escaped. Both crimes were referred to Monsieur Allard of the Sûreté. A series of events led Allard and Chief Inspector Canler eventually to round up several men involved in the crimes: François, Bâton, Avril, and Pierre-François Lacenaire. Lacenaire, raised as a gentlemen who lacked the means to actually live like one (more of that later), was both the ring-leader and the brains behind the crimes. François and Avril played various thuggish roles to one degree or another while Bâton turned into a key witness.
At the time Lacenaire was arrested, he was voyaging through the country on a forgery gig, but bad luck plagued him and when he was caught he was using one of many names: Jacob Levi. In the end, François and Avril both eagerly pointed fingers at each other and at Lacenaire, and Lacenaire decided to damn them both. Stead details the sensational court case–a “melodrama” in which Lacenaire frequently interrupted the lawyers who argued the case. He interrupted not to be rude–but to correct information, and in one instance to tell the court where a missing witness could be found. To add to the salacious details of the case, Lacenaire had attended Seminary with the counsel who defended François. In the courtroom, the elegant, well-spoken and obviously intelligent Lacenaire astounded the legal profession with his nimble verbal arguments. The public swarmed to witness the entertainment of a man eagerly and wittily embracing his crimes in order to enact revenge against his accomplices.
Part of the Lacenaire sensation resides in the fact that he wanted the guillotine. And he got it. In the interim between the end of the trial and his execution, Lacenaire entertained visitors in his cell and furiously penned his memoirs. The trial opened on November 12th, 1835. He was executed on January 9th 1836, and the memoirs were written during this period.
Stead states that approximately 200 murders a year took place in Paris at this time, yet Lacenaire has the dubious honour of standing out from the crowd. Stead argues that Lacenaire was by no means a ‘typical’ criminal, and this is underscored by the fact that Allard even commissioned a portrait to be painted of Lacenaire. Lacenaire appeared to take a “great liking to Allard the police chief, which curiously seems to have been reciprocated. He was on friendly terms with Canler, but Canler did not succumb to his charm.” That use of that last word ‘charm’ is significant, for it perfectly describes Lacenaire’s behaviour during interrogation, the trial and even at the execution. He appears to have used that charm to further his forgery crimes too, and yet a dark violent side existed within Lacenarie. Stead argues:
The trial, which was ostensibly an act of social justice, was turned into an act of personal revenge by Lacenaire. It conferred a lurid glory on him; it was his gloomy apotheosis. How he stage-managed it is interesting enough to trace in some detail.
Stead very wisely doesn’t take the memoirs at face value. More of that in part II