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)