Devil in the City of Light

Robin Hood or the French H.H. Holmes? Depicted as evil incarnate, 240 years ago Antoine Francois Desues executed for his crimes, but was he the monster his executioners claimed?

Late in the afternoon in 1751, a group of schoolmates ran and hid, playing a game of archers and highwaymen—cops and robbers—in the fields and woods outside Chartres, France. When a robber was caught, he was condemned on the spot to a make-believe “hanging.” Seven-year-old cop Antoine Francois captured robber Pierre. Per the boys’ rules, Antoine Francois tied up Pierre’s hands and feet and then put a noose about his neck. He looped the other end over a tree branch while the condemned stood atop a stack of books. The rope hung slack.

Earlier that day Pierre had wrestled the sickly Antoine Francois to the ground and teased him for being so timid. According to Alexandre Dumas, author of The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, and The Vicomte de Bragelonne (The Man in the Iron Mask), here’s what happened when the roles were reversed at the mock hanging:

“A horrible thought showed itself like a flash on the child’s face. He resembled a young hyena scenting blood for the first time. He glanced at the pile of books Pierre was standing on, and compared it with the length of the cord between the branch and his neck. It was already nearly dark, the shadows were deepening in the woods, gleams of pale light penetrated between the trees, the leaves had become black and rustled in the wind. Antoine stood silent and motionless, listening if any sound could be heard near them.

“And he knelt down, and collecting all his strength, gave the pile a violent push.

“Pierre endeavoured to raise his hands to his throat. ‘What are you doing?’ he cried in a suffocating voice.

“’I am paying you back,’ replied Antoine, folding his arms.

“Pierre’s feet were only a few inches from the ground, and the weight of his body at first bent the bough for a moment; but it rose again, and the unfortunate boy exhausted himself in useless efforts. At every movement the knot grew tighter, his legs struggled, his arms sought vainly something to lay hold of; then his movements slackened, his limbs stiffened, and his hands sank down. Of so much life and vigor nothing remained but the movement of an inert mass turning round and round upon itself.”

A child murderer. A devil from birth. As recounted by Dumas in an 1840 nonfiction book about the lives of infamous criminals, even as a seven-year-old Antoine Francois Desrues already harbored the monstrous multiple murderer he would one day become, a man without moral scruple, a devious criminal willing to do anything to serve his own overweening desires for material pleasures. The child bore an evil within that like a cancer would grow and grow.

Otherwise, Dumas wrote, “how can one conceive this taste for murder in a young child, how imagine it, without being tempted to exchange the idea of eternal sovereign justice for that of blind-fatality?”

For the Paris court of justice that would torture him as part of its pursuit of the truth about his crimes, of theft and premeditated murder, and then condemn him to a horrible, painful death 240 years ago, on May 6, 1777, Antoine Francois was the devil in the City of Light.

But was he? Now all but forgotten, for more than a century Desrues remained a figure whose life and crimes drew several prominent French, English and even American authors to debate whether he was a monster depicted by the French royal police and court or rather a revolutionary. Did Desrues stand up too soon against the Old Order of royals and nobles that the French Revolution would bring down a little over a decade later and pay the worst price for his challenge to a soon-too-fall, doddering and wastrel aristocratic hierarchy?

What we know about Antoine Francois Desrues comes from testimony taken at his trial and books that appeared soon after. Later in the 19th century, Dumas, Hugo, Balzac and other authors studied those materials and interpreted them according to their own views about the Old Order and the French Revolution that brought it down.

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Antoine Francois Desrues was by contemporary accounts a most peculiar and rascally child. Born in Chartres of a modestly well-to-do family, he was orphaned as a three year old and passed after that to be raised by cousins. He was a pale, sickly, timid child, who generally avoided other children like Pierre. He had a “problem.” The books describe him as a hermaphrodite who passed as a girl until age twelve when medical “remedies” of an unspecified nature, though presumably surgical removal of vestiges of female genitals, gave him a male sexual identity. Was this sexual fluidity concocted as a way to make Desrues appear more loathsome, even reptilian? According to a life of Desrues that appeared soon after his real life ended, “both sexes wanted nothing to do with him.” He continued to dress in women’s clothing his entire life, wearing dresslike robes and headscarves even in society. Although he eventually married, his features made it easy for him to pass himself off as a woman and he seemed to enjoy entertaining guests in female clothing.

His cousins soon found the young Antoine Francois uncontrollable, obstinate to the point of mocking even their frequent beatings. Sent first to a Catholic boarding school, after his schoolmate’s death, for which he was never charged—yet the authors of his life story seemed to know he did it—he apprenticed with a grocer and pharmacist. It was an apprenticeship in murder.

During this time he learned to handle various toxic liquids—a skill he would soon put to service in advancing his own career. He was eager to rise up in the world and swindled his employer to acquire her store. With that first small holding, he managed to marry a woman descended of the minor nobility. He added an aristocratic twist to their married name to make him appear of a higher class of nobility. When his wife’s closest relative was shot to death by an unknown assailant (which the books imply was almost certainly Desrues) in his bedroom, he and his wife inherited his small fortune.

However, that was still not enough. Desrues and his wife moved into a lavish Parisian residence, a palatial apartment far beyond their means. Eager to ingratiate himself with the Parisian nobility, they threw over the top parties. Drawing on his wife’s inheritance, he made loans to other nobles, card-playing gamblers, money that in the mores of the period he could never hope would be repaid.

In 1775, Desrues learned of a country estate belonging to the Saint-Faust de Lamotte family, that had become available for purchase. Befriending the noble couple, he tricked them into believing he had the means to purchase their property, placing a small deposit on it. Madame de Lamotte came to Paris with the deed to the property, expecting to exchange it for the promised payment for the estate. So trusting was she that she stayed with Desrues and his wife. While in his home, Desrues poisoned her, making her look as if she had taken ill. The poison soon killed her.

He hid her corpse in a basket supposedly containing wines he was cellaring for later sale. He hired laborers to carry the basket with her body to a basement he had rented below a house in the Marais district in Paris. A man to whom Desrues owed money had spied him earlier as he drove a wagon with the basket through the Paris streets. He had a friend follow him, hoping perhaps to see where he took the wine and seize it to regain his money. The friend watched as Desrues and his laborers entered the basement with the basket. The laborers departed the scene and, a few hours later, a filthy Desrues followed.

When the noblewoman’s son came looking for his mother at Desrues’ house, Desrues claimed his mother had departed the city to regain her health. He offered to bring him to see his ailing mother. However, before leaving in a coach with the young man he again employed his knowledge of poison potions, giving the young man a drink that sickened him as well. The young man developed what appeared to be the symptoms of terminal syphilis. Claiming he was the young man’s uncle, Desrues brought him, unconscious, to a boarding house in Versailles, outside Paris. Continuing to administer poison to the young de Lamotte, the noble family’s son soon died. Desrues paid for the young man’s quick church service and burial in a local cemetery.

Back in Paris, he forged a letter from the noblewoman in which she proclaimed she had tired of her husband. Desrues then forged a bill of sale from the owner’s wife giving him title to the property in return for the money with which she supposedly fled Paris in the company of her lover. Desrues then disguised himself as the noblewoman and went to the district clerk’s office in Lyon, France, to file the sales receipt for the property and the deed giving Desrues title to the estate.

Like a most “Talented Mr. Ripley” of Patricia Highsmith’s novels, Desrues had achieved his lifelong dream, gaining title to property that could provide him a substantial income and an estate with a noble title that would solidify his place in the finer salons of Paris.

However, the dead woman’s husband refused to believe that his beloved wife would suddenly leave him and depart. At the same time, the owner of the basement rented by Desrues complained about nonpayment. De Lamotte went to the chief of the police district in central Paris, Commissioner Hubert Mutel. Before long, he heard from the man who had seen Desrues and from the property owner complaining that he had not been paid for his basement’s rental. Investigating the basement, the police uncovered the woman’s body, which Desrues’ own wife identified as Madame de Lamotte. Mutel brought Desrues in for questioning. He told them that he had taken the deathly ill son outside Paris to spare the family the embarrassment of his death from syphilis. The young man’s grave was dug up. Desrues was placed under arrest and taken to the judicial center, the Châtelet.

One of the leading Parisian newspapers, Le Journal de Paris, reported the sensational story, which, unsurprisingly, drew broad popular interest. With spreading resentment of the royal police and judiciary and fear of a potential for a backlash, the Paris court put Desrues immediately on trial for the sensational crimes. In pre-revolutionary France criminal justice was regulated by the Ordinance of Louis XIV of 1670. This Ordinance provides for torture as the major method of investigation and for the death penalty as the most commonly used form of punishment.

His trial began on April 30, 1777, and he was found guilty by the court on May 5. Despite being put to the rack, Desrues insisted to the very end, even at his final confession to a priest, that he was not guilty. Many Parisians viewed Desrues as an anti-aristocratic hero whom they applauded for attempting to steal from the nobility regarded increasingly as corrupt and protected by royal institutions.

On May 6, 1777, thus almost exactly 240 years ago, thousands turned out to see Desrues paraded through the streets in an open wagon to a platform built on the Place de la Grève in front of the Hotel de Ville. Armed military guards held the crowd back. Strapped down, his limbs and hips were broken one after another with a heavy pike (a horrible form of punishment shown in the illustration from the life of Desrues). Then, while apparently still alive, he was folded up like slabs of meat and thrown on a burning pyre. After the fire burned out, people collected ashes as relics of the man who had dared to challenge the aristocratic order.

In the aftermath of the trial and execution, the chief of police, the notoriously cruel Lieutenant Lenoir, feared civil disorder. Hoping to control the story, he ordered illustrated books, an early form of media using cheap and quickly produced graphics, to be printed and sold to the public. The books sought to show that Desrues was a monster born to crime, neither man nor woman, drawn to murder from childhood, a scheming “little grocer” with a plan to enrich himself, willing to murder child, man and woman for his goals, and no anti-aristocratic hero of the people.

After his execution, Desrues’ wife, who had aided the police in their investigations of her husband, was accused of having helped him carry out his plan, though there was no evidence against her. She was imprisoned in the Bastille, where she languished until, ironically, she was murdered ten years later during the massacres of prisoners which took place during the French Revolution.

After his execution and on through the 19th century, the case of Desrues remained hotly debated and widely remembered. His wax figure served as a popular attraction in Madame Tussaud’s famous wax museum. Seeing in him in proto-revolutionary, Victor Hugo referred to him in two of his famous works, including Les Misérables. Others, including Alexandre Dumas, saw “the Little Grocer” as a serial poisoner, a genderless, amoral climber willing to do anything to rise in the world to which he did not belong, much like Patricia Highsmith’s Talented Mr. Ripley of our times. Although several books retold the tale of his notorious life, he largely disappeared from view in the early 20th century.

A “scheming little grocer” with murder in his soul or an ambitious man abused by a world on the brink of revolution that refused to make a place for him? Perhaps he was both.