The Memoirs of Lacenaire by Philip John Stead (part III)

No matter how we feel about Lacenaire’s arguments about why he turned to crime, he was a phenomenon. His fame grew thanks to his behaviour in the courtroom and was then cemented by the publication of his memoirs. Regarding the trial, Stead states that Lacenaire “stage-managed” events, and that’s a perfect description. Lacenaire was in the courtroom to be tried, convicted and eventually punished for his crimes. He effectively subverted the authority of the court by directing the action at crucial moments and then depriving the court of its power by demanding, in fact, welcoming the guillotine. His popularity grew as the trial continued, and the day of his execution was not announced as “the authorities were disquieted by Lacenaire’s fame.”  Contrary to the official propagandized account of the execution, Lacenaire showed no fear whatsoever, and he went nonchalantly and with some degree of curiosity to his death. At one point, he even consoled Monsieur Allard who was “genuinely upset.”

What else is left to say about Lacenaire? After all, his crimes–the crimes he was tried for–are not that noteworthy either for their proficiency or for their profitability. He brutally murdered an elderly woman and her middle-aged son, and he attempted to rob and murder a bank employee. If you think about it, it’s quite repulsive –a fit man in his prime murdering a defenseless old lady in her bed, but as so often occurs with murders, the victims fade and become just part of the scenery, linked in perpetuity to their murderers. This is certainly what happened with the Chardons who are  remembered only because they were murdered by Lacenaire.

It’s impossible to keep class out of the equation when considering Lacenaire’s story. During the trial, it was noted that he was the brains while Avril was the brawn (“Lacenaire was the head; Avril was the arm” ), and yet in spite of the fact that Lacenaire was the acknowledged ringleader, with his tawdry glamour, he appeared to be the most appealing man on trial. He managed to make Avril and François look pathetic, dull and stupid while he drew laughter through his savage wit. Under other circumstances, one could imagine that this would create a hierarchy of criminal accountability, with Lacenaire the most responsible since Avril and François followed his orders. But in the extraordinary case of Lacenaire, the opposite occurred. Lacenaire appealed to his bourgeois audience. Perhaps he sent a shiver of excitement into the bosoms of the women who watched the trial. Perhaps they imagined Lacenaire as the sort of man they would invite to their homes or meet at social events. Lacenaire ended his life with a fan base.

Class also played a role in Lacenaire’s life of crime. His dress and gentlemanly manners reassured the merchants he dealt with. He appeared to be a gentleman with a nonchalant attitude to money, and he passed forged notes with contagious confidence. The proceeds from his crimes were rapidly squandered. He would sell his clothes and his furniture for a night at the gaming-table.

Both the trial and the memoirs indicate that Lacenaire was an intelligent man who was not untalented.  Author Stead, in gathering together the memoirs and the notes about the trial, makes an incredible effort to offer all the information about Lacenaire to his readers, and then it’s up to us to digest that information and decide for ourselves whether or not Lacenaire was the victim of circumstance as he claimed to be.

Lacenaire’s choices in society were limited. Once his father’s business interests failed, Lacenaire was forced to try to eke a meagre existence. He evidently tried that and then turned to crime. That’s not a unique story by any means, but it’s the brutality Lacenaire sought so eagerly and viciously that eradicates any notion that he committed crime exclusively for its financial return.

Stead published this book in 1952, and at that time, the celebrity status that sometimes sticks to certain killers was not the issue it is today. We know now that serial killers receive loads of letters–and sometimes marriage proposals–from members of the public who are fascinated to one degree or another by a killer and his crimes.  If Lacenaire were alive today and waiting execution in a country that upheld the death penalty, he might be a media event for the very reasons he was a sensation back in the 1830s. He would wave away his appeals and hasten the execution. In the 21 st century, he’d be able to publish his memoirs while awaiting execution. He’d be able to hold interviews which would be televised. Lacenaire would have loved television. Imagine if his trial had been televised. And it was, sort of, through the film version L’Elegant Criminel.

Lacenaire was in his element in the courtroom. As he directed the action, he was the centre of admiring attention from his fascinated audience. Who can tell how much this attention altered Lacenaire’s performance?

For some reason, I find myself thinking of Wichita’s BTK killer. The BTK killer conducted a rampage in the 70s through 1991, murdering and torturing his victims. Then silence…. In January 2004, thirty years after the first murders, the Wichita Eagle published a story about the crimes, and in March of that year, the still unidentified killer began sending letters and victim memorabilia to the police. Eventually, this man, who murdered repeatedly and was never caught, made mistakes and was captured. Was he drawn out by his need to claim responsibility for these unsolved crimes? Was his ego fed by the thrill of taunting the police?

On one final note, when I read Lacenaire’s memoirs, I was reminded of Maupassant’s Bel Ami. Bel Ami (Georges) was destitute, ex-army, wandering around Paris wondering where his next meal was coming from when he ran into an old friend. This meeting proved to be significant, and the newspaper job arranged for Bel Ami by his friend was the first rung on the ladder of phenomenal success.

Bel Ami was an amoral man of mediocre talents, but he became a wealthy, influential journalist thanks to his bedroom antics. If Lacenaire had been given this sort of chance would his fate have been different or was he too restless and rootless to exploit the ambitions of an influential spouse?

And finally a quote from George Orwell:

Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful. A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats. (George Orwell: Life and Art by Jeffrey Meyers)


Filed under Non Fiction, Stead Philip John

13 responses to “The Memoirs of Lacenaire by Philip John Stead (part III)

  1. Interesting. I still wonder why he wasn’t able to adapt to his new circumstances, ie poverty. Laziness? Pride?
    Why didn’t he try to marry a rich woman, emigrate, join the army?
    I don’t know enough of his story to push the analysis.
    All this reminds me of Landru and Dr Petiot. Have you heard of them?

    I’m not going to read the memoirs, but I’m tempted to watch the film.

  2. PS: Trials aren’t televised in France. It’s forbidden, except for extraordinary trials, which are recorded and not broadcasted live.

  3. Stead argues that Lacenaire did try working and for fairly long periods, but there are huge narrative gaps in the memoirs. Impossible to know if Lacenaire simply did not want to discuss the details or if he was pressed for time due to his date with the guillotine.

    At one point he was accused of theft by his employer and he denied it. At another job which he kept for some time, his job was given to an old friend of the employer. Lacenaire doesn’t detail how he lived in these periods of employment, but we can guess that he lived in fairly modest circumstances.

    My feeling (and it’s just that) is that he tried so-called honest employment and then when things became difficult, for a range of reasons, he turned, as Stead says, to crime. Perhaps it was more attractive or exciting. There is no indication how he managed to suppress his gambling habit or his desire to live well and eat well when he endured a hand-to-mouth existence gainfully employed.

    At one point, Lacenaire drops an aside that he was involved in some sort of blackmail scam, but it’s impossible to identify when this took place. In between jobs? Or was it a lucrative sideline? The story just isn’t all here.

    As for women…good point…he mentions the only woman he ever loved and it sounds as though it was a very painful relationship, but it’s a strange account that doesn’t ring entirely true. Bottom line, his relationships with women were difficult. There are a couple of hints that he may have been homosexual, but ultimately he seems to be sexually indifferent.

    He would have made a splendid actor as I think he was by nature a chameleon.

    His greatest moments were in the courtroom, and there’s no doubt he would have made a splendid, colourful lawyer–although I think he had a restless spirit and who knows if even a good turn of fortune would have held for a lifetime.

  4. I have heard of Petiot. I have the film Dr Petiot (excellent) and a book about his crimes. I haven’t heard of the other person you mention, so I will go and do some digging.

  5. I’ll look for the film. It’s intriguing, he has a complex personality. Plus, Auteuil is starring in it, I like this actor.

    I came accross an article about a book entitled Trial by Fire, by David Grann.
    Have you heard of it ?
    It’s an inquiry about the Todd Willingham case in Texas and a miscarriage of justice. It sounds fascinating, I thought you might be interested.

  6. I hope you like the film. I thought it was wonderful, and I suppose part of the idea that Lacenaire was in his element during the trial comes from the film. This is one of Auteuil’s best roles.

    No I haven’t heard of the Willingham case or the Grann book, so now off to investigate.

  7. Ok: looked them up. Now I remember the case and I read the New Yorker article at the time.

    Have you seen Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman? You might like that since we are on the subject.

  8. I haven’t seen Pierrepont. I’ve searched on Wikipedia, it was released during my “no-life-beside-working-and-pampering” period, so I’m not surprised I’ve never heard of it. Is it good?

  9. Fascinating trio of entries Guy. He sounds like a classic sociopath, charming but unable to maintain interest in an ordinary life.

    I wonder if he was any influence on the creation of Arsene Lupin? Not that he sounds a tenth as competent.

    • Lacenaire certainly sweep the public’s fancy, but Arsene Lupin is likely based on anarchist illegalist Marius Jacob.

      I’m no expert but Vidocq had to have really influenced the fascination with crime.

  10. Book Around The Corner: Yes Pierrepoint is an excellent film. The reason I thought about it is that it deals with a situation in which an innocent person is executed.

  11. Another film to add to my list, thanks.
    And thanks for the name too. My French firstname is unprononcable for an Anglophone.

  12. Thanks Guy for reminding me of these posts. If he truly did show no fear of the guillotine, surely that says something about him. Both the lack of fear and the lack of interest in living any longer.

    I enjoyed your discussion of how he might have been in our media-managed world.

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