M. Derues

The last word on Derues has been said by M. Georges Claretie in his excellent monograph, “Derues L’Empoisonneur,” Paris. 1907. There is a full account of the case in Vol. V. of Fouquier, “Causes Celebres.”


M. Etienne Saint-Faust de Lamotte, a provincial nobleman of ancient lineage and moderate health, ex-equerry to the King, desired in the year 1774 to dispose of a property in the country, the estate of Buisson-Souef near Villeneuve-le-Roi, which he had purchased some ten years before out of money acquired by a prudent marriage.

With an eye to the main chance M. de Lamotte had in 1760 ran away with the daughter of a wealthy citizen of Rheims, who was then staying with her sister in Paris. They lived together in the country for some time, and a son was born to them, whom the father legitimised by subsequently marrying the mother. For a few years M. and Mme. de Lamotte dwelt happily together at Buisson-Souef. But as their boy grew up they became anxious to leave the country and return to Paris, where M. de Lamotte hoped to be able to obtain for his son some position about the Court of Louis XVI. And so it was that in May, 1775, M. de Lamotte gave a power of attorney to his wife in order that she might go to Paris and negotiate for the sale of Buisson-Souef. The legal side of the transaction was placed in the hands of one Jolly, a proctor at the Chatelet in Paris.

Now the proctor Jolly had a client with a great desire to acquire a place in the country, M. Derues de Cyrano de Bury, lord of Candeville, Herchies, and other places. Here was the very man to comply with the requirements of the de Lamottes, and such a pleasing, ready, accommodating gentleman into the bargain! Very delicate to all appearances, strangely pale, slight, fragile in build, with his beardless chin and feminine cast of feature, there was something cat-like in the soft insinuating smile of this seemingly most amiable, candid and pious of men. Always cheerful and optimistic, it was quite a pleasure to do business with M. Derues de Cyrano de Bury. The de Lamottes after one or two interviews were delighted with their prospective purchaser. Everything was speedily settled. M. Derues and his wife, a lady belonging to the distinguished family of Nicolai, visited Buisson-Souef. They were enchanted with what they saw, and their hosts were hardly less enchanted with their visitors. By the end of December, 1775, the purchase was concluded. M. Derues was to give 130,000 livres (about L20,000) for the estate, the payments to be made by instalments, the first of 12,000 livres to be paid on the actual signing of the contract of sale, which, it was agreed, was to be concluded not later than the first of June, 1776. In the meantime, as an earnest of good faith, M. Derues gave Mme. de Lamotte a bill for 4,200 livres to fall due on April 1, 1776.

What could be more satisfactory? That M. Derues was a substantial person there could be no doubt. Through his wife he was entitled to a sum of 250,000 livres as her share of the property of a wealthy kinsman, one Despeignes-Duplessis, a country gentleman, who some four years before had been found murdered in his house under mysterious circumstances. The liquidation of the Duplessis inheritance, as soon as the law’s delay could be overcome, would place the Derues in a position of affluence fitting a Cyrano de Bury and a Nicolai.

At this time M. Derues was in reality far from affluent. In point of fact he was insolvent. Nor was his lineage, nor that of his wife, in any way distinguished. He had no right to call himself de Cyrano de Bury or Lord of Candeville. His wife’s name was Nicolais, not Nicolai—a very important difference from the genealogical point of view. The Duplessis inheritance, though certainly existent, would seem to have had little more chance of realisation than the mythical Crawford millions of Madame Humbert. And yet, crippled with debt, without a penny in the world, this daring grocer of the Rue Beaubourg, for such was M. Derues’ present condition in life, could cheerfully and confidently engage in a transaction as considerable as the purchase of a large estate for 130,000 livres! The origin of so enterprising a gentleman is worthy of attention.

Antoine Francois Derues was born at Chartres in 1744; his father was a corn merchant. His parents died when he was three years old. For some time after his birth he was assumed to be a girl; it was not until he was twelve years old that an operation determined his sex to be masculine. Apprenticed by his relatives to a grocer, Derues succeeded so well in the business that he was able in 1770 to set up on his own account in Paris, and in 1772 he married. Among the grocer’s many friends and acquaintances this marriage created something of a sensation, for Derues let it be known that the lady of his choice was of noble birth and an heiress. The first statement was untrue. The lady was one Marie Louise Nicolais, daughter of a non-commissioned artillery officer, turned coachbuilder. But by suppressing the S at the end of her name, which Derues was careful also to erase in his marriage contract, the ambitious grocer was able to describe his wife as connected with the noble house of Nicolai, one of the most distinguished of the great French families.

There was more truth in the statement that Mme. Derues was an heiress. A kinsman of her mother, Beraud by name, had become the heir to a certain Marquis Desprez. Beraud was the son of a small merchant. His mother had married a second time, the husband being the Marquis Desprez, and through her Beraud had inherited the Marquis’ property. According to the custom of the time, Beraud, on coming into his inheritance, took a title from one of his estates and called himself thenceforth the lord of Despeignes-Duplessis. A rude, solitary, brutal man, devoted to sport, he lived alone in his castle of Candeville, hated by his neighbours, a terror to poachers. One day he was found lying dead in his bedroom; he had been shot in the chest; the assassin had escaped through an open window.

The mystery of Beraud’s murder was never solved. His estate of 200,000 livres was divided among three cousins, of whom the mother of Mme. Derues was one. Mme. Derues herself was entitled to a third of his mother’s share of the estate, that is, one-ninth of the whole. But in 1775 Derues acquired the rest of the mother’s share on condition that he paid her an annual income of 1,200 livres. Thus on the liquidation of the Duplessis inheritance Mme. Derues would be entitled nominally to some 66,500 livres, about L11,000 in English money. But five years had passed since the death of Despeignes-Duplessis, and the estate was still in the slow process of legal settlement. If Derues were to receive the full third of the Duplessis inheritance—a very unlikely supposition after four years of liquidation—66,000 livres would not suffice to pay his ordinary debts quite apart from the purchase money of Buisson-Souef. His financial condition was in the last degree critical. Not content with the modest calling of a grocer, Derues had turned money-lender, a money-lender to spendthrift and embarrassed noblemen. Derues dearly loved a lord; he wanted to become one himself; it delighted him to receive dukes and marquises at the Rue Beaubourg, even if they came there with the avowed object of raising the wind. The smiling grocer, in his everlasting bonnet and flowered dressing-gown a la J. J. Rousseau, was ever ready to oblige the needy scion of a noble house. What he borrowed at moderate interest from his creditors he lent at enhanced interest to the quality. Duns and bailiffs jostled the dukes and marquises whose presence at the Rue Beaubourg so impressed the wondering neighbours of the facile grocer.

This aristocratic money-lending proved a hopeless trade; it only plunged Derues deeper and deeper into the mire of financial disaster. The noblemen either forgot to pay while they were alive, or on their death were found to be insolvent. Derues was driven to ordering goods and merchandise on credit, and selling them at a lower price for ready money. Victims of this treatment began to press him seriously for their money or their goods. Desperately he continued to fence them off with the long expected windfall of the Duplessis inheritance.

Paris was getting too hot for him. Gay and irrepressible as he was, the strain was severe. If he could only find some retreat in the country where he might enjoy at once refuge from his creditors and the rank and consequence of a country gentleman! Nothing—no fear, no disappointment, no disaster—could check the little grocer’s ardent and overmastering desire to be a gentleman indeed, a landed proprietor, a lord or something or other. At the beginning of 1775 he had purchased a place near Rueil from a retired coffeehouse-keeper, paying 1,000 livres on account, but the non-payment of the rest of the purchase-money had resulted in the annulment of the contract. Undefeated, Derues only determined to fly the higher. Having failed to pay 9,000 livres for a modest estate near Rueil, he had no hesitation in pledging himself to pay 130,000 livres for the lordly domain of Buisson-Souef. So great were his pride and joy on the conclusion of the latter bargain that he amused himself by rehearsing on paper his future style and title: “Antoine Francois de Cyrano Derues de Bury, Seigneur de Buisson-Souef et Valle Profonde.” He is worthy of Thackeray’s pen, this little grocer-snob, with his grand and ruinous acquaintance with the noble and the great, his spurious titles, his unwearied climbing of the social ladder.

The confiding, if willing, dupe of aristocratic impecuniosity, Derues was a past master of the art of duping others. From the moment of the purchase of Buisson-Souef all his art was employed in cajoling the trusting and simple de Lamottes. Legally Buisson-Souef was his from the signing of the agreement in December, 1775. His first payment was due in April, 1776. Instead of making it, Derues went down to Buisson-Souef with his little girl, and stayed there as the guests of the de Lamottes for six months. His good humour and piety won all hearts. The village priest especially derived great satisfaction from the society of so devout a companion. He entertained his good friends, the merry little man, by dressing up as a woman, a role his smooth face and effeminate features well fitted him to play. If business were alluded to, the merry gentleman railed at the delay and chicanery of lawyers; it was that alone that postponed the liquidation of the Duplessis inheritance; as soon as the lawyers could be got rid of, the purchase-money of his new estate would be promptly paid up. But as time went on and no payment was forthcoming the de Lamottes began to feel a little uneasy. As soon as Derues had departed in November M. de Lamotte decided to send his wife to Paris to make further inquiries and, if possible, bring their purchaser up to the scratch. Mme. de Lamotte had developed into a stout, indolent woman, of the Mrs. Bloss type, fond of staying in bed and taking heavy meals. Her son, a fat, lethargic youth of fourteen, accompanied his mother.

On hearing of Mme. de Lamotte’s contemplated visit to Paris, Derues was filled with alarm. If she were living free and independent in Paris she might find out the truth about the real state of his affairs, and then good-bye to Buisson-Souef and landed gentility! No, if Mme. de Lamotte were to come to Paris, she must come as the guest of the Derues, a pleasant return for the hospitality accorded to the grocer at Buisson-Souef. The invitation was given and readily accepted; M. de Lamotte still had enough confidence in and liking for the Derues to be glad of the opportunity of placing his wife under their roof. And so it was that on December 16, 1776, Mme. de Lamotte arrived at Paris and took up her abode at the house of the Derues in the Rue Beaubourg Her son she placed at a private school in a neighbouring street.

To Derues there was now one pressing and immediate problem to be solved—how to keep Buisson-Souef as his own without paying for it? To one less sanguine, less daring, less impudent and desperate in his need, the problem would have appeared insoluble.

But that was by no means the view of the cheery and resourceful grocer. He had a solution ready, well thought out and bearing to his mind the stamp of probability. He would make a fictitious payment of the purchase-money to Mme. de Lamotte. She would then disappear, taking her son with her. Her indiscretion in having been the mistress of de Lamotte before she became his wife, would lend colour to his story that she had gone off with a former lover, taking with her the money which Derues had paid her for Buisson-Souef. He would then produce the necessary documents proving the payment of the purchase-money, and Buisson-Souef would be his for good and all.

The prime necessity to the success of this plan was the disappearance, willing or unwilling, of Mme. de Lamotte and her son. The former had settled down quite comfortably beneath the hospitable roof of the Derues, and under the soothing influence of her host showed little vigour in pressing him for the money due to herself and her husband. She had already spent a month in quietly enjoying Paris and the society of her friends when, towards the end of January, 1770, her health and that of her son began to fail. Mme. de Lamotte was seized with sickness and internal trouble. Though Derues wrote to her husband that his wife was well and their business was on the point of conclusion, by the 30th of January Mme. de Lamotte had taken to her bed, nursed and physicked by the ready Derues. On the 31st the servant at the Rue Beaubourg was told that she could go to her home at Montrouge, whither Derues had previously sent his two children. Mme. Derues, who was in an interesting condition, was sent out for an hour by her husband to do some shopping. Derues was alone with his patient.

In the evening a friend, one Bertin, came to dine with Derues. Bertin was a short, hustling, credulous, breathless gentleman, always in a hurry, with a great belief in the abilities of M. Derues. He found the little man in excellent spirits. Bertin asked if he could see Mme. de Lamotte. Mme. Derues said that that was impossible, but that her husband had given her some medicine which was working splendidly. The young de Lamotte called to see his mother. Derues took him into her room; in the dim light the boy saw her sleeping, and crept out quietly for fear of disturbing her. The Derues and their friends sat down to dinner. Derues kept jumping up and running into the sick room, from which a horrible smell began to pervade the house. But Derues was radiant at the success of his medicine. “Was there ever such a nurse as I am?” he exclaimed. Bertin remarked that he thought it was a woman’s and not a man’s place to nurse a lady under such distressing circumstances. Derues protested that it was an occupation he had always liked. Next day, February 1, the servant was still at Montrouge; Mme. Derues was again sent out shopping; again Derues was alone with his patient. But she was a patient no longer; she had become a corpse. The highly successful medicine administered to the poor lady by her jolly and assiduous nurse had indeed worked wonders.

Derues had bought a large leather trunk. It is possible that to Derues belongs the distinction of being the first murderer to put that harmless and necessary article of travel to a criminal use. He was engaged in his preparations for coffining Mme. de Lamotte, when a female creditor knocked insistently at the door. She would take no denial. Clad in his bonnet and gown, Derues was compelled to admit her. She saw the large trunk, and suspected a bolt on the part of her creditor. Derues reassured her; a lady, he said, who had been stopping with them was returning to the country. The creditor departed. Later in the day Derues came out of the house and summoned some porters. With their help the heavy trunk was taken to the house of a sculptor, a friend of Derues, who agreed to keep it in his studio until Derues could take it down to his place in the country. Bertin came in to dinner again that evening, and also the young de Lamotte. Derues was gayer than ever, laughing and joking with his guests. He told the boy that his mother had quite recovered and gone to Versailles to see about finding him some post at the Court. “We’ll go and see her there in a day or two,” he said, “I’ll let you know when.”

On the following day a smartly dressed, dapper, but very pale little gentleman, giving the name of Ducoudray, hired a vacant cellar in a house in the Rue de la Mortellerie. He had, he said, some Spanish wine he wanted to store there, and three or four days later M. Ducoudray deposited in this cellar a large grey trunk. A few days after he employed a man to dig a large hole in the floor of the cellar, giving as his reason for such a proceeding that “there was no way of keeping wine like burying it.” While the man worked at the job, his genial employer beguiled his labours with merry quips and tales, which he illustrated with delightful mimicry. The hole dug, the man was sent about his business. “I will bury the wine myself,” said his employer, and on one or two occasions M. Ducoudray was seen by persons living in the house going in and out of his cellar, a lighted candle in his hand. One day the pale little gentleman was observed leaving the cellar, accompanied by a porter carrying a large trunk, and after that the dwellers in the Rue de la Mortellerie saw the pale little gentleman no more.

A few days later M. Derues sent down to his place at Buisson-Souef a large trunk filled with china. It was received there by M. de Lamotte. Little did the trusting gentleman guess that it was in this very trunk that the body of his dear wife had been conveyed to its last resting place in the cellar of M. Ducoudray in the Rue de la Mortellerie. Nor had M. Mesvrel-Desvergers, importunate creditor of M. Derues, guessed the contents of the large trunk that he had met his debtor one day early in February conveying through the streets of Paris. Creditors were always interrupting Derues at inconvenient moments. M. Mesvrel-Desvergers had tapped Derues on the shoulder, reminded him forcibly of his liability towards him, and spoken darkly of possible imprisonment. Derues pointed to the trunk. It contained, he said, a sample of wine; he was going to order some more of it, and he would then be in a position to pay his debt. But the creditor, still doubting, had M. Derues followed, and ascertained that he had deposited his sample of wine at a house in the Rue de la Mortellerie.

On Wednesday, February 12, a M. Beaupre of Commercy arrived at Versailles with his nephew, a fat boy, in reality some fourteen years of age, but given out as older. They hired a room at the house of a cooper named Pecquet. M. Beaupre was a very pale little gentleman, who seemed in excellent spirits, in spite of the fact that his nephew was clearly anything but well. Indeed, so sick and ailing did he appear to be that Mme. Pecquet suggested that his uncle should call in a doctor. But M. Beaupre said that that was quite unnecessary; he had no faith in doctors; he would give the boy a good purge. His illness was due, he said, to a venereal disorder and the drugs which he had been taking in order to cure it; it was a priest the boy needed rather than a doctor. On the Thursday and Friday the boy’s condition showed little improvement; the vomiting continued. But on Saturday M. Beaupre declared himself as highly delighted with the success of his medicine. The same night the boy was dead. The priest, urgently sent for by his devout uncle, arrived to find a corpse. On the following day “Louis Anotine Beaupre, aged twenty-two and a half,” was buried at Versailles, his pious uncle leaving with the priest six livres to pay for masses for the repose of his erring nephew’s soul.

The same evening M. Derues who, according to his own account, had left Paris with the young de Lamotte in order to take the boy to his mother in Versailles, returned home to the Rue Beaubourg. As usual, Bertin dropped in to dinner. He found his host full of merriment, singing in the lightness of his heart. Indeed, he had reason to be pleased, for at last, he told his wife and his friend, Buisson-Souef was his. He had seen Mme. de Lamotte at Versailles and paid her the full purchase-money in good, sounding gold. And, best joke of all, Mme. de Lamotte had no sooner settled the business than she had gone off with a former lover, her son and her money, and would in all probability never be heard of again. The gay gentleman laughingly reminded his hearers that such an escapade on the part of Mme. de Lamotte was hardly to be wondered at, when they recollected that her son had been born out of wedlock.

To all appearances Mme. de Lamotte had undoubtedly concluded the sale of Buisson-Souef to Derues and received the price of it before disappearing with her lover. Derues had in his possession a deed of sale signed by Mme. de Lamotte and acknowledging the payment to her by Derues of 100,000 livres, which he had borrowed for that purpose from an advocate of the name of Duclos. As a fact the loan from Duclos to Derues was fictitious. A legal document proving the loan had been drawn up, but the cash which the notary had demanded to see before executing the document had been borrowed for a few hours. Duclos, a provincial advocate, had acted in good faith, in having been represented to him that such fictitious transactions were frequently used in Paris for the purpose of getting over some temporary financial difficulty. On the 15th of February the deed of the sale of Buisson-Souef had been brought by a woman to the office of a scrivener employed by Derues; it was already signed, but the woman asked that certain blanks should be filled in and that the document should be dated. She was told that the date should be that of the day on which the parties had signed it. She gave it as February 12. A few days later Derues called at the office and was told of the lady’s visit. “Ah!” he said, “it was Mme. de Lamotte herself, the lady who sold me the estate.”

In the meantime Derues, through his bustling and ubiquitous friend Bertin, took good care that the story of Mme. de Lamotte’s sale of Buisson-Souef and subsequent elopement should be spread sedulously abroad. By Bertin it was told to M. Jolly, the proctor in whose hands the de Lamottes had placed the sale of Buisson-Souef. It was M. Jolly who had in the first instance recommended to them his client Derues as a possible purchaser. The proctor, who knew Mme. de Lamotte to be a woman devoted to her husband and her home, was astonished to hear of her infidelity, more especially as the story told by Derues represented her as saying in very coarse terms how little she cared for her husband’s honour. He was surprised, too, that she should not have consulted him about the conclusion of the business with Derues, and that Derues himself should have been able to find so considerable a sum of money as 100,000 livres. But, said M. Jolly, if he were satisfied that Mme. de Lamotte had taken away the money with her, then he would deliver up to Derues the power of attorney which M. de Lamotte had left with him in 1775, giving his wife authority to carry out the sale of Buisson-Souef. Mme. de Lamotte, being a married woman, the sale of the property to Derues would be legally invalid if the husband’s power of attorney were not in the hands of the purchaser.


To Derues, on the eve of victory, the statement of Jolly in regard to the power of attorney was a serious reverse. He had never thought of such an instrument, or he would have persuaded Mme. de Lamotte to have gotten permission of it before her disappearance. Now he must try to get it from Jolly himself. On the 26th of February he once again raised from a friendly notary a few thousand livres on the Duplessis inheritance, and deposited the deed of sale of Buisson-Souef as further security. His pocket full of gold, he went straight to the office of Jolly. To the surprise of the proctor Derues announced that he had come to pay him 200 livres which he owed him, and apologised for the delay. Taking the gold coins from his pockets he filled his three-cornered hat with considerably more than the sum due, and held it out invitingly to M. Jolly. Then he proceeded to tell him of his dealings with Mme. de Lamotte. She had offered, he said, to get the power of attorney for him, but he, trusting in her good faith, had said that there was no occasion for hurry; and then, faithless, ungrateful woman that she was, she had gone off with his money and left him in the lurch. “But,” he added, “I trust you absolutely, M. Jolly, you have all my business in your hands, and I shall be a good client in the future. You have the power of attorney—you will give it to me?” and he rattled the coins in his hat. “I must have it,” he went on, “I must have it at any price at any price,” and again the coins danced in his hat, while his eyes looked knowingly at the proctor. M. Jolly saw his meaning, and his surprise turned to indignation. He told Derues bluntly that he did not believe his story, that until he was convinced of its truth he would not part with the power of attorney, and showed the confounded grocer the door.

Derues hastened home filled with wrath, and took counsel with his friend Bertin. Bertin knew something of legal process; they would try whether the law could not be invoked to compel Jolly to surrender the power of attorney. Bertin went off to the Civil Lieutenant and applied for an order to oblige M. Jolly to give up the document in question. An order was made that Jolly must either surrender it into the hands of Derues or appear before a referee and show cause why he should not comply with the order. Jolly refused still to give it up or allow a copy of it to be made, and agreed to appear before the referee to justify his action. In the meantime Derues, greatly daring, had started for Buisson-Souef to try what “bluff” could do in this serious crisis in his adventure.

At Buisson-Souef poor M. de Lamotte waited, puzzled and distressed, for news from his wife. On Saturday, 17th, the day after the return of Derues from Versailles, he heard from Mme. Derues that his wife had left Paris and gone with her son to Versailles. A second letter told him that she had completed the sale of Buisson-Souef to Derues, and was still at Versailles trying to obtain some post for the boy. On February 19 Mme. Derues wrote again expressing surprise that M. de Lamotte had not had any letter from his wife and asking if he had received some oysters which the Derues had sent him. The distracted husband was in no mood for oysters. “Do not send me oysters,” he writes, “I am too ill with worry. I thank you for all your kindness to my son. I love him better than myself, and God grant he will be good and grateful.” The only reply he received from the Derues was an assurance that he would see his wife again in a few days.

The days passed, but Mme. de Lamotte made no sign. About four o’clock on the afternoon of February 28, Derues, accompanied by the parish priest of Villeneuvele-Roi, presented himself before M. de Lamotte at Buisson-Souef. For the moment M. de Lamotte was rejoiced to see the little man; at last he would get news of his wife. But he was disappointed. Derues could tell him only what he had been told already, that his wife had sold their estate and gone away with the money.

M. de Lamotte was hardly convinced. How, he asked Derues, had he found the 100,000 livres to buy Buisson-Souef, he who had not a halfpenny a short time ago? Derues replied that he had borrowed it from a friend; that there was no use in talking about it; the place was his now, his alone, and M. de Lamotte had no longer a right to be there; he was very sorry, poor dear gentleman, that his wife had gone off and left him without a shilling, but personally he would always be a friend to him and would allow him 3,000 livres a year for the rest of his life. In the meantime, he said, he had already sold forty casks of the last year’s vintage, and would be obliged if M. de Lamotte would see to their being sent off at once.

By this time the anger and indignation of M. de Lamotte blazed forth. He told Derues that his story was a pack of lies, that he was still master at Buisson-Souef, and not a bottle of wine should leave it. “You are torturing me,” he exclaimed, “I know something has happened to my wife and child. I am coming to Paris myself, and if it is as I fear, you shall answer for it with your head!” Derues, undismayed by this outburst, re-asserted his ownership and departed in defiant mood, leaving on the premises a butcher of the neighbourhood to look after his property.

But things were going ill with Derues. M. de Lamotte meant to show fight; he would have powerful friends to back him; class against class, the little grocer would be no match for him. It was immediate possession of Buisson-Souef that Derues wanted, not lawsuits; they were expensive and the results uncertain. He spoke freely to his friends of the difficulties of the situation.

What could he do? The general opinion seemed to be that some fresh news of Mme. de Lamotte—her reappearance, perhaps—would be the only effective settlement of the dispute. He had made Mme. de Lamotte disappear, why should he not make her reappear? He was not the man to stick at trifles. His powers of female impersonation, with which he had amused his good friends at Buisson-Souef, could now be turned to practical account. On March 5 he left Paris again.

On the evening of March 7 a gentleman, M. Desportes of Paris, hired a room at the Hotel Blanc in Lyons. On the following day he went out early in the morning, leaving word that, should a lady whom he was expecting, call to see him, she was to be shown up to his room. The same morning a gentleman, resembling M. Desportes of Paris, bought two lady’s dresses at a shop in Lyons.

The same afternoon a lady dressed in black silk, with a hood well drawn over her eyes, called at the office of M. Pourra, a notary.

The latter was not greatly attracted by his visitor, whose nose struck him as large for a woman. She said that she had spent her youth in Lyons, but her accent was distinctly Parisian. The lady gave her name as Madame de Lamotte, and asked for a power of attorney by which she could give her husband the interest due to her on a sum of 30,000 livres, part of the purchase-money of the estate of Buisson-Souef, which she had recently sold. As Mme. de Lamotte represented herself as having been sent to M. Pourra by a respectable merchant for whom he was in the habit of doing business, he agreed to draw up the necessary document, accepting her statement that she and her husband had separate estates. Mme. de Lamotte said that she would not have time to wait until the power of attorney was ready, and therefore asked M. Pourra to send it to the parish priest at Villeneuvele-Roi; this he promised to do. Mme. de-Lamotte had called twice during the day at the Hotel Blanc and asked for M. Desportes of Paris, but he was not at home. While Derues, alias Desportes, alias Mme. de Lamotte, was masquerading in Lyons, events had been moving swiftly and unfavourably in Paris. Sick with misgiving and anxiety, M. de Lamotte had come there to find, if possible, his wife and child. By a strange coincidence he alighted at an inn in the Rue de la Mortellerie, only a few yards from the wine-cellar in which the corpse of his ill-fated wife lay buried. He lost no time in putting his case before the Lieutenant of Police, who placed the affair in the hands of one of the magistrates of the Chatelet, then the criminal court of Paris. At first the magistrate believed that the case was one of fraud and that Mme. de Lamotte and her son were being kept somewhere in concealment by Derues. But as he investigated the circumstances further, the evidence of the illness of the mother and son, the date of the disappearance of Mme. de Lamotte, and her reputed signature to the deed of sale on February 12, led him to suspect that he was dealing with a case of murder.

When Derues returned to Paris from Lyons, on March 11, he found that the police had already visited the house and questioned his wife, and that he himself was under close surveillance. A day or two later the advocate, Duclos, revealed to the magistrate the fictitious character of the loan of 100,000 livres, which Derues alleged that he had paid to Mme. de Lamotte as the price of Buisson-Souef. When the new power of attorney purporting to be signed by Mme. de Lamotte arrived from Lyons, and the signature was compared with that on the deed of sale of Buisson-Souef to Derues, both were pronounced to be forgeries. Derues was arrested and lodged in the Prison of For l’Eveque.

The approach of danger had not dashed the spirits of the little man, nor was he without partisans in Paris. Opinion in the city was divided as to the truth of his account of Mme. de Lamotte’s elopement. The nobility were on the side of the injured de Lamotte, but the bourgeoisie accepted the grocer’s story and made merry over the deceived husband. Interrogated, however, by the magistrate of the Chatelet, Derues’ position became more difficult. Under the stress of close questioning the flimsy fabric of his financial statements fell to pieces like a house of cards. He had to admit that he had never paid Mme. de Lamotte 100,000 livres; he had paid her only 25,000 livres in gold; further pressed he said that the 25,000 livres had been made up partly in gold, partly in bills; but where the gold had come from, or on whom he had drawn the bills, he could not explain. Still his position was not desperate; and he knew it. In the absence of Mme. de Lamotte he could not be charged with fraud or forgery; and until her body was discovered, it would be impossible to charge him with murder.

A month passed; Mme. Derues, who had made a belated attempt to follow her husband’s example by impersonating Mme. de Lamotte in Paris, had been arrested and imprisoned in the Grand Chatelet; when, on April 18, information was received by the authorities which determined them to explore the wine-cellar in the Rue de la Mortellerie. Whether the woman who had let the cellar to Derues, or the creditor who had met him taking his cask of wine there, had informed the investigating magistrate, seems uncertain. In any case, the corpse of the unhappy lady was soon brought to light and Derues confronted with it. At first he said that he failed to recognise it as the remains of Mme. de Lamotte, but he soon abandoned that rather impossible attitude. He admitted that he had given some harmless medicine to Mme. de Lamotte during her illness, and then, to his horror, one morning had awakened to find her dead. A fear lest her husband would accuse him of having caused her death had led him to conceal the body, and also that of her son who, he now confessed, had died and been buried by him at Versailles. On April 23 the body of the young de Lamotte was exhumed. Both bodies were examined by doctors, and they declared themselves satisfied that mother and son had died “from a bitter and corrosive poison administered in some kind of drink.” What the poison was they did not venture to state, but one of their number, in the light of subsequent investigation, arrived at the conclusion that Derues had used in both cases corrosive sublimate. How or where he had obtained the poison was never discovered.

Justice moved swiftly in Paris in those days. The preliminary investigation in Derues’ case was ended on April 28. Two days later his trial commenced before the tribunal of the Chatelet.

It lasted one day. The judges had before them the depositions taken by the examining magistrate. Both Derues and his wife were interrogated. He maintained that he had not poisoned either Mme. de Lamotte or her son; his only crime, he said, lay in having concealed their deaths. Mme; Derues said: “It is Buisson-Souef that has ruined us! I always told my husband that he was mad to buy these properties—I am sure my husband is not a poisoner—I trusted my husband and believed every word he said.” The court condemned Derues to death, but deferred judgment in his wife’s case on the ground of her pregnancy.

And now the frail, cat-like little man had to brace himself to meet a cruel and protracted execution. But sanguine to the last, he still hoped. An appeal lay from the Chatelet to the Parliament of Paris. It was heard on March 5. Derues was brought to the Palais de Justice. The room in which he waited was filled with curious spectators, who marvelled at his coolness and impudence. He recognised among them a Benedictine monk of his acquaintance. “My case,” he called out to him, “will soon be over; we’ll meet again yet and have a good time together.” One visitor, wishing not to appear too curious, pretended to be looking at a picture. “Come, sir,” said Derues, “you haven’t come here to see the pictures, but to see me. Have a good look at me. Why study copies of nature when you can look at such a remarkable original as I?” But there were to be no more days of mirth and gaiety for the jesting grocer. His appeal was rejected, and he was ordered for execution on the morrow.

At six o’clock on the morning of May 6 Derues returned to the Palais de Justice, there to submit to the superfluous torments of the question ordinary and extraordinary. Though condemned to death, torture was to be applied in the hope of wringing from the prisoner some sort of confession. The doctors declared him too delicate to undergo the torture of pouring cold water into him, which his illustrious predecessor, Mme. de Brinvilliers, had suffered; he was to endure the less severe torture of the “boot.”

His legs were tightly encased in wood, and wedges were then hammered in until the flesh was crushed and the bones broken. But never a word of confession was wrung from the suffering creature. Four wedges constituting the ordinary torture he endured; at the third of the extraordinary he fainted away. Put in the front of a fire the warmth restored him. Again he was questioned, again he asserted his wife’s innocence and his own.

At two o’clock in the afternoon Derues was recovered sufficiently to be taken to Notre Dame. There, in front of the Cathedral, candle in hand and rope round his neck, he made the amende honorable. But as the sentence was read aloud to the people Derues reiterated the assertion of his innocence. From Notre Dame he was taken to the Hotel de Ville. A condemned man had the right to stop there on his way to execution, to make his will and last dying declarations. Derues availed himself of this opportunity to protest solemnly and emphatically his wife’s absolute innocence of any complicity in whatever he had done. “I want above all,” he said, “to state that my wife is entirely innocent. She knew nothing. I used fifty cunning devices to hide everything from her. I am speaking nothing but the truth, she is wholly innocent—as for me, I am about to die.” His wife was allowed to see him; he enjoined her to bring up their children in the fear of God and love of duty, and to let them know how he had died. Once again, as he took up the pen to sign the record of his last words, he re-asserted her innocence.

Of the last dreadful punishment the offending grocer was to be spared nothing. For an aristocrat like Mme. de Brinvilliers beheading was considered indignity enough. But Derues must go through with it all; he must be broken on the wheel and burnt alive and his ashes scattered to the four winds of heaven; there was to be no retentum for him, a clause sometimes inserted in the sentence permitting the executioner to strangle the broken victim before casting him on to the fire. He must endure all to the utmost agony the law could inflict. It was six o’clock when Derues arrived at the Place de Greve, crowded to its capacity, the square itself, the windows of the houses; places had been bought at high prices, stools, ladders, anything that would give a good view of the end of the now famous poisoner.

Pale but calm, Derues faced his audience. He was stripped of all but his shirt; lying flat on the scaffold, his face looking up to the sky, his head resting on a stone, his limbs were fastened to the wheel. Then with a heavy bar of iron the executioner broke them one after another, and each time he struck a fearful cry came from the culprit. The customary three final blows on the stomach were inflicted, but still the little man lived. Alive and broken, he was thrown on to the fire. His burnt ashes, scattered to the winds, were picked up eagerly by the mob, reputed, as in England the pieces of the hangman’s rope, talismans.

Some two months after the execution of her husband Mme. Derues was delivered in the Conciergerie of a male child; it is hardly surprising, in face of her experiences during her pregnancy, that it was born an idiot. In January, 1778, the judges of the Parliament, by a majority of one, decided that she should remain a prisoner in the Conciergerie for another year, while judgment in her case was reserved. In the following August she was charged with having forged the signature of Mme. de Lamotte on the deeds of sale. In February, 1779, the two experts in handwriting to whom the question had been submitted decided in her favour, and the charge was abandoned.

But Mme. Derues had a far sterner, more implacable and, be it added, more unscrupulous adversary than the law in M. de Lamotte.

Not content with her husband’s death, M. de Lamotte believed the wife to have been his partner in guilt, and thirsted for revenge.

To accomplish it he even stooped to suborn witnesses, but the conspiracy was exposed, and so strong became the sympathy with the accused woman that a young proctor of the Parliament published a pamphlet in her defence, asking for an immediate inquiry into the charges made against her, charges that had in no instance been proved.

At last, in March, 1779, the Parliament decided to finish with the affair. In secret session the judges met, examined once more all the documents in the case, listened to a report on it from one of their number, interrogated the now weary, hopeless prisoner, and, by a large majority, condemned her to a punishment that fell only just short of the supreme penalty. On the grounds that she had wilfully and knowingly participated with her husband in the fraudulent attempt to become possessed of the estate of Buisson-Souef, and was strongly suspected of having participated with him in his greater crime, she was sentenced to be publicly flogged, branded on both shoulders with the letter V (Voleuse) and imprisoned for life in the Salpetriere Prison. On March 13, in front of the Conciergerie Mme. Derues underwent the first part of her punishment. The same day her hair was cut short, and she was dressed in the uniform of the prison in which she was to pass the remainder of her days.

Paris had just begun to forget Mme. Derues when a temporary interest was-excited in her fortunes by the astonishing intelligence that, two months after her condemnation, she had been delivered of a child in her new prison. Its fatherhood was never determined, and, taken from her mother, the child died in fifteen days. Was its birth the result of some passing love affair, or some act of drunken violence on the part of her jailors, or had the wretched woman, fearing a sentence of death, made an effort to avert once again the supreme penalty? History does not relate.

Ten years passed. A fellow prisoner in the Salpetriere described Mme. Derues as “scheming, malicious, capable of anything.” She was accused of being violent, and of wishing to revenge herself by setting fire to Paris. At length the Revolution broke on France, the Bastille fell, and in that same year an old uncle of Mme. Derues, an ex-soldier of Louis XV., living in Brittany, petitioned for his niece’s release. He protested her innocence, and begged that he might take her to his home and restore her to her children. For three years he persisted vainly in his efforts. At last, in the year 1792, it seemed as if they might be crowned with success. He was told that the case would be re-examined; that it was possible that the Parliament had judged unjustly. This good news came to him in March. But in September of that year there took place those shocking massacres in the Paris prisons, which rank high among the atrocities of the Revolution. At four o’clock on the afternoon of September 4, the slaughterers visited the Salpetriere Prison, and fifth among their victims fell the widow of Derues.


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