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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)

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

Considering all the excitement generated by Lacenaire’s memoirs, I expected more. The acerbic wit Lacenaire ably demonstrated in the courtroom is, unfortunately, absent for large chunks of the text. Instead Lacenaire’s memoirs, which are chronological, take a mostly banal expository approach to life, and the best bits occur when Lacenaire opens up with his philosophy and moves away from chronology and the blame game.  He seems to want his future readers to understand his actions and so he doesn’t risk alienating his audience. Instead of defiance, he portrays himself largely as a victim of circumstance. The memoirs were, not too surprisingly, censored before publication. This was something that Lacenaire expected, and before his death he expressed his doubts about the memoirs ever being published:

These are my memoirs–I do not know what will be done with them. I do not know whether Monsieur Allard, to whose generosity I am much indebted, will publish them one day; I do not know whether the police will tear pages out or add chapters… Ah well!

There are, according to Stead, rumours of “another manuscript” and then there’s speculation that part was added by the publisher or invented by Lacenaire. Stead argues that the style change in the last few pages indicates that the conclusion was ghosted. Throughout the memoirs, Stead painstakingly notes the number of lines censored and missing from the text–about forty gouges in all, and he includes in-page notations indicating missing lines. Stead states:

Over half the deletions concern Lacenaire’s materialistic views on religion. Then come his criticisms of the existing social order.

Well no wonder they had to go. Stead, vigilant in his attempts to package the memoirs together as faithfully as possible, also “restored” one of Lacenaire’s poems to the text.

 Both the first and second preface to the memoirs exhibit the sort of wit Lacenaire proved he was capable of during the trial, and to be fair to the author, it must be remembered that the memoirs were written in haste, under pressure and interrupted by the guillotine before they could be completed. A large portion of the memoirs is spent on Lacenaire’s childhood–a miserable one by all accounts. Throughout these pages Lacenaire sprinkles the tantalizing idea of ‘if only’ . If only he’d been more loved…if only his parents had been this or that…if only he’d been given a chance…and I suspect readers will have a range of reactions to Lacenaire’s life and claims that he could have been a contender if fate (and circumstance) had been a little kinder

Lacenaire states that his father, a “rich bachelor” and a successful businessman was 47 when he met and married an eighteen year-old-girl. They had no children in the first six years of their marriage, and then followed 13 little Lacenaires. Six survived: the first son (Lacenaire’s brother), Lacenaire and four sisters. Lacenaire continually expresses the belief that he was unloved and unwanted while his elder brother was a favourite with his parents. He was, he states, “a victim of injustice since infancy.”

Lacenaire’s education was composed of various schools from which he was expelled for a range of infractions. Sometimes he presents himself as the victim of wrong-doing and at another time he argues that he was trying to protect another boy. Of course it’s impossible to know the truth of these stories, but by the time he was an adult, he needed to earn a living, and this was problematic.

Lacenaire had been raised and educated as a gentleman, and yet he found himself trying to make his way in the world. Ordinarily, perhaps he would have joined his family’s business concerns or perhaps become a lawyer. Indeed Lacenaire mentions that he was intended for either the Bar or medicine, but that those plans fell apart when his father’s business interests failed. This left Lacenaire in the position of having to earn his living, but at the same time having expensive tastes for a lifestyle he could not support. Lacenaire tried a brief stint (well, two in the army) and he also tried various lines of work.  He “nearly always spent above his means” plus he had a gambling habit. He worked as a public scribe, for a lawyer, in a bank, became a commercial traveler  “in wines and spirits”  and even tried to launch a literary career (“I had a vaudeville produced, which was not entirely mine, but I wrote the couplets for it“).  His fortunes waxed and waned. On the rare occasions that he had a sizeable amount of money (usually borrowed from relatives), he rapidly lost it at the gaming tables. Lacenaire admits that he wasn’t troubled by:

leading such a vagabond existence [because] I sincerely believed that one day I should inherit more money than I needed to live in peace and devote myself to my beloved literature.

Lacenaire’s only relatives with money to spare were aunts, and he eventually wore out his welcome by continually hitting them up for money which was rapidly lost gambling. By this time the Lacenaire family moved (ran off), and when he deserted from the army, Lacenaire discovered that his family had absconded to Belgium leaving a trail of debts behind. He’d already dabbled in forgery and now found himself “dying of hunger.”

According to Stead “whenever Lacenaire found things difficult, he instinctively turned to crime.” Lacenaire, who was a great admirer of Vidocq, by the way, eventually decided to become “a thief and an assassin,”  and he deliberately got himself incarcerated in order to find a likely accomplice to help him with his life of crime:

I determined to be the scourge of Society, but I could do nothing alone. I needed partners; where should I find them? I had long been ignorant of what a professional thief was really like. But I had just been reading the Memoirs of Vidocq and had formed some idea of the criminal class in its state of continual hostility against Society. In its ranks, I told myself, I must find the men to second me; only there shall I find them. But how to set about it? I gave it long consideration, and consideration convinced me that to attain my end and make the acquaintances I needed it was absolutely necessary to spend some time among such people.

Stead makes a great deal out of Lacenaire’s death-wish. Apparently, Lacenaire’s father, despairing of his son, had at one time pointed out the guillotine and predicted that Lacenaire would end up having his head chopped off. After reading the memoirs, Lacenaire’s drive to commit murder struck me as a significant factor, and his desire to kill comes up more than once.

When Lacenaire went on trial in Paris, he was charged with the murder of the Chardons, but  in fact, he had committed murder before. He shot a man in the face and then left the scene of the crime to look like a case of suicide. At another point in the memoirs, he gives frustratingly few details about his attempts to murder a former mistress (he failed). He also fought a duel with the nephew of Benjamin Constant. Some sources state that Constant’s nephew was not killed in the duel, and so I’m including this statement from Lacenaire concerning the event:

In 1829, I fought a duel with Benjamin Constant’s nephew. The scene of the combat was one of the dry moats of the Champs-de-Mars. I did all I could to avoid the affair; I tried to enter into some arrangement, for it troubled me to fight him. He refused and fired first. The direction of his pistol and the assistance of the two banks of the moat gave his aim told me I was a dead man. However, he missed me. I fired in my turn; he fell immediately. The sight of his death-agony caused me no emotion.

François, Lacenaire’s accomplice for the botched robbery and attempted murder of the bank employee was ready to murder someone for twenty francs, and this seems to be a ‘selling point’ as far as Lacenaire was concerned. Here’s Lacenaire on the subject of murder, and while he argues that a murderer, if caught, is guaranteed the scaffold for his crimes rather than a sentence to the galleys, somehow that rings false when he lets slip a sentence such as this:

Throughout this period I never remitted my search for someone prepared to assist me in a murder.

In his memoirs, Lacenaire emphasizes the idea that he was a victim of circumstance, and there’s some substance to that argument. He’d been raised as a gentleman but did not have the means to sustain the lifestyle to which he had become accustomed. He enjoyed dressing elegantly, dining in fine restaurants, and attending the theatre. He also loved to gamble.  All these things are hardly entitlements, of course, but he found them hard to give up. Lacenaire’s life was without prospects, and he had no wealthy relatives ready to pull strings to advance his employment. He tried various avenues of employment but found himself cast out time after time. But was he a really a victim of circumstance? Lacenaire seems to giving us just a version of events, and some significant events are passed over with triviality. He mentions, as an aside, fighting 8 duels for example (and killing 2 men) and there’s also mention of a vice-squad scam involving wealthy men–again Lacenaire gives frustratingly few details. Lacenaire seems to be one of those people destined to self-destruct quickly in life, and this is manifested by his desperate crime and gambling sprees. Here’s a quote from Stead on the veracity of Lacenaire’s memoirs:

 Can we accept the version of his life which he offers us? Is he telling the truth? He told the truth as far as he could. Hostile critics of the Memoirs will refuse to see more than the frenzied vanity of a failure, making a last hysterical attempt at self-justification. But there is more than that. There is the history of a lost and baffled spirit, and a feverish attempt at finding the truth. If we feel that Lacenaire sometimes places a construction upon events which they would not have borne at the time, we can still recognize the inescapable characteristic drift of his nature in everything he tells us. When he twists the interpretation of a fact, we are not deceived, because he has first told us that fact. As his quill races on, the story darkens into truth. The impression of savage, swift hate, of inflamed sensibility and inverted pride, of fatal blindness grows deeper. We catch glimpses of the incomplete virtuoso, the unrealized artist, the damaged, defensive sceptic. The psychologist and the moralist will judge him according to their respective fashions; he offers them both every facility. The Memoirs stand, unique, grotesque, a murderer’s cast into his own darkness for the secret of his fate.

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

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

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