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Pierre François Lacenaire was an unlikely criminal to catch the imagination of the French public; his crimes were deliberate, brutal and born out of bitterness against what he perceived as ‘an evil and wrong society’.
His victims however were blameless: a bank teller and a transvestite and his old mother. Incredibly, Lacenaire became a public hero; his flamboyant court room appearances, his theatrical confession dressed in a ‘redingote’, a double breasted top coat with full skirt and velvet collar– leading many to want his pardon.
He was born in Lyon, the fourth child and second son of a bourgeois family; his mother had 13 pregnancies between 1799 and 1809. He felt unwanted by his parents and abandoned by his mother who both preferred his older brother.
The seeds of bitterness and injustice blossomed early in Lacenaire’s young life.
He was however, a brilliant pupil, excelling in literature and already a gifted poet. His father had other plans for his son and 1820 found him working for a notaire, 1822 a banker and in 1825 Lacenaire left for Paris lodging with an aunt in Rue Barre-du-Bec. The literary career he craved consisted of writing poetry and unpaid articles for magazines. His real career– that of a petty criminal, forger, thief and future murderer– had already began.
Under a false name, in 1826, Lacenaire joined a Swiss Regiment in the service of France. He soon deserted and returned to Lyon. He worked as a traveling liquor salesman, voyaging to England and Scotland, but 1827 found him back in France where his various forgeries in the name of Lacenaire caught up with him. His brother refused to lend him the 600 francs he owed, but his father, wanting to clear the family name, repaid the debt on the condition that Lacenaire joined the army.
Once more, Lacenaire deserted just before a campaign to Morea in Southern Greece where the French were aiding the Greeks in their War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire.
There is a theory that Lacenaire’s next petty crime was deliberate in its ineptness; that his intent was to be jailed for a short period to enable him to immerse himself in criminal life and search out suitable accomplices. He stole a cabriolet from the Rue du Temple which he then sold on leaving his name and address on the sales receipt. He had used the gun to fight a duel in the Champs de Mars, killing the nephew of Benjamin Constant. Lacenaire was arrested for the theft, not the duel which was legal. Lacenaire received a year’s jail sentence which he spent in Poissy jail, finding the dubious accomplices he would team up with after his release: Victor Avril, François Martin, Jean François Chardon (a homosexual better known as ‘Tante Madeleine’), and Jules Baton.
But first he worked for a lawyer, ironically in the Palais de Justice, but once more Lacenaire could not keep his hands to himself and was arrested once more under the name of d’Henry Viallet for stealing silverware from a restaurant and was jailed for 13 months. In prison he wrote poems and articles and immersed himself in criminal life.
Freed in 1834, Lacenaire returned to Paris and petty theft. By then he had met up again with Baton and the two committed their thieving together.
It was though with Victor Avril that Lacenaire’s crimes escalated to murder.
Lacenaire attacked a bank teller who managed to escape and give a description of Lacenaire to the police. The bank teller had a lucky escape– during his trial Lacenaire famously boasted that killing a man was the same to him as drinking a glass of wine. The brutal murders however of his former prison mate, Jean François Chardon, and his mother in their home in the Passage du Cheval Rouge (now the square opposite Arts et Metiers) on December 14th 1834, put Lacenaire in another league. Chardon’s boasting in prison that he had a stash of money had cost him and his mother their lives. Avril butchered ‘Tante Madeleine’ and both suffocated his old mother under her mattress for the paltry gain of 500 francs and a watch.
Lacenaire then rented a room in the L’Auberge du Compas d’Or in Rue Marie-Stuart in the 11th arrondissement.
Avril was arrested for theft and named Lacenaire as his accomplice. After Lacenaire’s arrest he admitted to the killings naming Avril as his murderous partner. Once more in jail, Lacenaire turned his cell into a salon, writing ‘Memoirs, Revelations and Poems’. He used his trial to make impassioned speeches and defended his crimes as a valid protest against social injustice. It was not just the general public who rallied behind Lacenaire, perceiving him as cultured, a poet; he left a lasting impression on Dosteovsky. Raskolnikov’s crime in Dosteovsky’s classic, Crime and Punishment, shares striking similarities to that of Lacenaire’s. Balzac too, was impressed. The sheer theatrics of Lacenaire’s trial resounded throughout France and caught the imagination of the people who saw him not as the normal uncouth, rough, cold blooded murderer, but as an educated and flamboyant anti hero.
Nevertheless, Lacenaire and Avril were condemned to death. Lacenaire went to the guillotine on 9 January 1836. Folklore has it that the guillotine stuck half way down and Lacenaire looked up to see it descending once more to finish its job.
After his execution, a plaster cast was made of Lacenaire’s head. Lacenaire had a keen interest in phrenology and phrenologists believed that the prominent area above his right ear was an indication of destructiveness, vanity and acquisitiveness. Several copies were made and used by lecturers as visual proof of phrenological science.
Even more pleasing to Lacenaire’s vanity if he could have but known were the two films made of his exploits: Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise) directed by Marcel Carne and scripted by Jacques Prevert in 1945, and in 1990, Lacenaire, starring Daniel Auteuil.
More than a century after his death, Lacenaire still had the celebrity and recognition he’d craved.
Lead photo credit : A dramatisation of Lacenaire and Avril's murders from 1858