The Widow Gras

Report of the trial of the woman Gras and Gaudry in the Gazette des Tribunaux. The case is dealt with also by Mace in his “Femmes Criminelles.”


Jenny Amenaide Brecourt was born in Paris in the year 1837. Her father was a printer, her mother sold vegetables. The parents neglected the child, but a lady of title took pity on her, and when she was five years old adopted her. Even as a little girl she was haughty and imperious. At the age of eight she refused to play with another child on the ground of her companion’s social inferiority. “The daughter of a Baroness,” she said, “cannot play with the daughter of a wine-merchant.” When she was eleven years old, her parents took her away from her protectress and sent her into the streets to sell gingerbread—a dangerous experience for a child of tender years. After six years of street life, Amenaide sought out her benefactress and begged her to take her back. The Baroness consented, and found her employment in a silk manufactory. One day the girl, now eighteen years old, attended the wedding of one of her companions in the factory. She returned home after the ceremony thoughtful.

She said that she wanted to get married. The Baroness did not take her statement seriously, and on the grocer calling one day, said in jest to Amenaide, “You want a husband, there’s one.”

But Amenaide was in earnest. She accepted the suggestion and, to the Baroness’ surprise, insisted on taking the grocer as her husband. Reluctantly the good lady gave her consent, and in 1855 Amenaide Brecourt became the wife of the grocer Gras.

A union, so hasty and ill-considered, was not likely to be of long duration. With the help of the worthy Baroness the newly married couple started a grocery business. But Amenaide was too economical for her husband and mother-in-law. Quarrels ensued, recriminations. In a spirit of unamiable prophecy husband and wife foretold each other’s future. “You will die in a hospital,” said the wife. “You will land your carcase in prison,” retorted the husband. In both instances they were correct in their anticipations. One day the husband disappeared. For a short time Amenaide returned to her long-suffering protectress, and then she too disappeared.

When she is heard of again, Amenaide Brecourt has become Jeanne de la Cour. Jeanne de la Cour is a courtesan. She has tried commerce, acting, literature, journalism, and failed at them all. Henceforth men are to make her fortune for her. Such charms as she may possess, such allurements as she can offer, she is ready to employ without heart or feeling to accomplish her end. Without real passion, she has an almost abnormal, erotic sensibility, which serves in its stead. She cares only for one person, her sister. To her Jeanne de la Cour unfolded her philosophy of life. While pretending to love men, she is going to make them suffer. They are to be her playthings, she knows how to snare them: “All is dust and lies. So much the worse for the men who get in my way. Men are mere stepping-stones to me. As soon as they begin to fail or are played out, I put them scornfully aside. Society is a vast chess-board, men the pawns, some white, some black; I move them as I please, and break them when they bore me.”

The early years of Jeanne de la Cour’s career as a Phryne were hardly more successful than her attempts at literature, acting and journalism. True to her philosophy, she had driven one lover, a German, to suicide, and brought another to his death by over-doses of cantharides. On learning of the death of the first, she reflected patriotically, “One German the less in Paris!” That of the second elicited the matter-of-fact comment, “It was bound to happen; he had no moderation.” A third admirer, who died in a hospital, was dismissed as “a fool who, in spite of all, still respects women.” But, in ruining her lovers, she had ruined her own health. In 1865 she was compelled to enter a private asylum. There she is described as “dark in complexion, with dark expressive eyes, very pale, and of a nervous temperament, agreeable, and pretty.” She was suffering at the time of her admission from hysterical seizures, accompanied by insane exaltation, convulsions and loss of speech. In speaking of her humble parents she said, “I don’t know such people”; her manner was bombastic, and she was fond of posing as a fine lady.

After a few months Jeanne de la Cour was discharged from the asylum as cured, and on the advice of her doctors went to Vittel.

There she assumed the rank of Baroness and recommenced her career, but this time in a more reasonable and businesslike manner. Her comments, written to her sister, on her fellow guests at the hotel are caustic. She mocks at some respectable married women who are trying to convert her to Catholicism. To others who refuse her recognition, she makes herself so mischievous and objectionable that in self-defence they are frightened into acknowledging her. Admirers among men she has many, ex-ministers, prefects. It was at Vittel that occurred the incident of the wounded pigeon. There had been some pigeon-shooting. One of the wounded birds flew into the room of the Baroness de la Cour. She took pity on it, tended it, taught it not to be afraid of her and to stay in her room. So touching was her conduct considered by some of those who heard it, that she was nicknamed “the Charmer.” But she is well aware, she writes to her sister, that with the true ingratitude of the male, the pigeon will leave her as soon as it needs her help no longer.

However, for the moment, “disfigured as it is, beautiful or ugly,” she loves it. “Don’t forget,” she writes, “that a woman who is practical and foreseeing, she too enjoys her pigeon shooting, but the birds are her lovers.”

Shortly after she left Vittel an event occurred which afforded Jeanne de la Cour the prospect of acquiring that settled position in life which, “practical and foreseeing,” she now regarded as indispensable to her future welfare. Her husband, Gras, died, as she had foretold, in the Charity Hospital. The widow was free. If she could bring down her bird, it was now in her power to make it hers for life. Henceforth all her efforts were directed to that end. She was reaching her fortieth year, her hair was turning grey, her charms were waning. Poverty, degradation, a miserable old age, a return to the wretched surroundings of her childhood, such she knew to be the fate of many of her kind. There was nothing to be hoped for from the generosity of men. Her lovers were leaving her. Blackmail, speculation on the Bourse, even the desperate expedient of a supposititious child, all these she tried as means of acquiring a competence. But fortune was shy of the widow. There was need for dispatch. The time was drawing near when it might be man’s unkind privilege to put her scornfully aside as a thing spent and done with. She must bring down her bird, and that quickly. It was at this critical point in the widow’s career, in the year 1873, that she met at a public ball for the first time Georges de Saint Pierre. [For obvious reasons I have suppressed the real name of the widow’s lover]

Georges de Saint Pierre was twenty years of age when he made the acquaintance of the Widow Gras. He had lost his mother at an early age, and since then lived with relatives in the country. He was a young man of independent means, idle, of a simple, confiding and affectionate disposition. Four months after his first meeting with the widow they met again. The end of the year 1873 saw the commencement of an intimacy, which to all appearances was characterised by a more lasting and sincere affection than is usually associated with unions of this kind. There can be no doubt that during the three years the Widow Gras was the mistress of Georges de Saint Pierre, she had succeeded in subjugating entirely the senses and the affection of her young lover. In spite of the twenty years between them, Georges de Saint Pierre idolised his middle-aged mistress. She was astute enough to play not only the lover, but the mother to this motherless youth. After three years of intimacy he writes to her: “It is enough for me that you love me, because I don’t weary you, and I, I love you with all my heart. I cannot bear to leave you. We will live happily together. You will always love me truly, and as for me, my loving care will ever protect you. I don’t know what would become of me if I did not feel that your love watched over me.” The confidence of Georges in the widow was absolute. When, in 1876, he spent six months in Egypt, he made her free of his rooms in Paris, she was at liberty to go there when she liked; he trusted her entirely, idolised her. Whatever her faults, he was blind to them. “Your form,” he writes, “is ever before my eyes; I wish I could enshrine your pure heart in gold and crystal.”

The widow’s conquest, to all appearances, was complete. But Georges was very young. He had a family anxious for his future; they knew of his liaison; they would be hopeful, no doubt, of one day breaking it off and of marrying him to some desirable young person. From the widow’s point of view the situation lacked finality. How was that to be secured?

One day, toward the end of the year 1876, after the return of Georges from Egypt, the widow happened to be at the house of a friend, a ballet dancer. She saw her friend lead into the room a young man; he was sightless, and her friend with tender care guided him to a seat on the sofa. The widow was touched by the spectacle. When they were alone, she inquired of her friend the reason of her solicitude for the young man. “I love this victim of nature,” she replied, “and look after him with every care. He is young, rich, without family, and is going to marry me. Like you, I am just on forty; my hair is turning grey, my youth vanishing. I shall soon be cast adrift on the sea, a wreck. This boy is the providential spar to which I am going to cling that I may reach land in safety.” “You mean, then,” said the widow, “that you will soon be beyond the reach of want?” “Yes,” answered the friend, “I needn’t worry any more about the future.”

“I congratulate you,” said the widow, “and what is more, your lover will never see you grow old.”

To be cast adrift on the sea and to have found a providential spar! The widow was greatly impressed by her friend’s rare good fortune. Indeed, her experience gave the widow furiously to think, as she revolved in her brain various expedients by which Georges de Saint Pierre might become the “providential spar” in her own impending wreck. The picture of the blind young man tenderly cared for, dependent utterly on the ministrations of his devoted wife, fixed itself in the widow’s mind; there was something inexpressibly pathetic in the picture, whilst its practical significance had its sinister appeal to one in her situation.

At this point in the story there appears on the scene a character as remarkable in his way as the widow herself, remarkable at least for his share in the drama that is to follow. Nathalis Gaudry, of humble parentage, rude and uncultivated, had been a playmate of the widow when she was a child in her parents’ house.

They had grown up together, but, after Gaudry entered the army, had lost sight of each other. Gaudry served through the Italian war of 1859, gaining a medal for valour. In 1864 he had married.

Eleven years later his wife died, leaving him with two children. He came to Paris and obtained employment in an oil refinery at Saint Denis. His character was excellent; he was a good workman, honest, hard-working, his record unblemished. When he returned to Paris, Gaudry renewed his friendship with the companion of his youth. But Jeanne Brecourt was now Jeanne de la Cour, living in refinement and some luxury, moving in a sphere altogether remote from and unapproachable by the humble workman in an oil refinery. He could do no more than worship from afar this strange being, to him wonderfully seductive in her charm and distinction.

On her side the widow was quite friendly toward her homely admirer. She refused to marry him, as he would have wished, but she did her best without success to marry him to others of her acquaintance. Neither a sempstress nor an inferior actress could she persuade, for all her zeal, to unite themselves with a hand in an oil mill, a widower with two children. It is typical of the widow’s nervous energy that she should have undertaken so hopeless a task. In the meantime she made use of her admirer. On Sundays he helped her in her apartment, carried coals, bottled wine, scrubbed the floors, and made himself generally useful. He was supposed by those about the house to be her brother. Occasionally, in the absence of a maid, the widow allowed him to attend on her personally, even to assist her in her toilette and perform for her such offices as one woman would perform for another. The man soon came to be madly in love with the woman; his passion, excited but not gratified, enslaved and consumed him. To some of his fellow-workmen who saw him moody and preoccupied, he confessed that he ardently desired to marry a friend of his childhood, not a working woman but a lady.

Such was the situation and state of mind of Nathalis Gaudry when, in November, 1876, he received a letter from the widow, in which she wrote, “Come at once. I want you on a matter of business. Tell your employer it is a family affair; I will make up your wages.” In obedience to this message Gaudry was absent from the distillery from the 17th to the 23rd of November.

The “matter of business” about which the widow wished to consult with Gaudry turned out to be a scheme of revenge. She told him that she had been basely defrauded by a man to whom she had entrusted money. She desired to be revenged on him, and could think of no better way than to strike at his dearest affections by seriously injuring his son. This she proposed to do with the help of a knuckle-duster, which she produced and gave to Gaudry. Armed with this formidable weapon, Gaudry was to strike her enemy’s son so forcibly in the pit of the stomach as to disable him for life. The widow offered to point out to Gaudry the young man whom he was to attack. She took him outside the young man’s club and showed him his victim. He was Georges de Saint Pierre.

The good fortune of her friend, the ballet-dancer, had proved a veritable toxin in the intellectual system of the Widow Gras. The poison of envy, disappointment, suspicion, apprehension had entered into her soul. Of what use to her was a lover, however generous and faithful, who was free to take her up and lay her aside at will? But such was her situation relative to Georges de Saint Pierre. She remembered that the wounded pigeon, as long as it was dependent on her kind offices, had been compelled to stay by her side; recovered, it had flown away. Only a pigeon, maimed beyond hope of recovery, could she be sure of compelling to be hers for all time, tied to her by its helpless infirmity, too suffering and disfigured to be lured from its captivity. And so, in accordance with her philosophy of life, the widow, by a blow in the pit of the stomach with a knuckle-duster, was to bring down her bird which henceforth would be tended and cared for by “the Charmer” to her own satisfaction and the admiration of all beholders.

For some reason, the natural reluctance of Gaudry, or perhaps a feeling of compunction in the heart of the widow, this plan was not put into immediate execution. Possibly she hesitated before adopting a plan more cruel, more efficacious. Her hesitation did not last long.

With the dawn of the year 1877 the vigilant apprehension of the widow was roused by the tone of M. de Saint Pierre’s letters. He wrote from his home in the country, “I cannot bear leaving you, and I don’t mean to. We will live together.” But he adds that he is depressed by difficulties with his family, “not about money or business but of a kind he can only communicate to her verbally.” To the widow it was clear that these difficulties must relate to the subject of marriage. The character of Georges was not a strong one; sooner or later he might yield to the importunities of his family; her reign would be ended, a modest and insufficient pension the utmost she could hope for. She had passed the meridian of her life as a charmer of men, her health was giving way, she was greedy, ambitious, acquisitive. In January she asked her nephew, who worked as a gilder, to get her some vitriol for cleaning her copper. He complied with her request.

During Jeanne de la Cour’s brief and unsuccessful appearance as an actress she had taken part in a play with the rather cumbrous title, Who Puts out the Eyes must Pay for Them. The widow may have forgotten this event; its occurrence so many years before may have been merely a sinister coincidence. But the incident of the ballet-dancer and her sightless lover was fresh in her mind.

Early in January the widow wrote to Georges, who was in the country, and asked him to take her to the masked ball at the Opera on the 13th. Her lover was rather surprised at her request, nor did he wish to appear with her at so public a gathering. “I don’t understand,” he writes, “why you are so anxious to go to the Opera. I can’t see any real reason for your wanting to tire yourself out at such a disreputable gathering. However, if you are happy and well, and promise to be careful, I will take you. I would be the last person, my dear little wife, to deny you anything that would give you pleasure.” But for some reason Georges was unhappy, depressed. Some undefined presentiment of evil seems to have oppressed him. His brother noticed his preoccupation.

He himself alludes to it in writing to his mistress: “I am depressed this evening. For a very little I could break down altogether and give way to tears. You can’t imagine what horrid thoughts possess me. If I felt your love close to me, I should be less sad.” Against his better inclination Georges promised to take the widow to the ball on the 13th. He was to come to Paris on the night of the 12th.


On the afternoon of January 11, Gaudry called to see the widow. There had been an accident at the distillery that morning, and work was suspended for three days. The widow showed Gaudry the bottle containing the vitriol which her nephew had procured for her use. She was ill, suffering, she said; the only thing that could make her well again would be the execution of her revenge on the son of the man who had defrauded her so wickedly: “Make him suffer, here are the means, and I swear I will be yours.” She dropped a little of the vitriol on to the floor to show its virulent effect. At first Gaudry was shocked, horrified. He protested that he was a soldier, that he could not do such a deed; he suggested that he should provoke the young man to a duel and kill him. “That is no use,” said the widow, always sensitive to social distinctions; “he is not of your class, he would refuse to fight with you.” Mad with desire for the woman, his senses irritated and excited, the ultimate gratification of his passion held alluringly before him, the honest soldier consented to play the cowardly ruffian. The trick was done. The widow explained to her accomplice his method of proceeding. The building in the Rue de Boulogne, in which the widow had her apartment, stood at the end of a drive some twenty-seven and a half yards long and five and a half yards wide. About half-way up the drive, on either side, there were two small houses, or pavilions, standing by themselves and occupied by single gentlemen. The whole was shut off from the street by a large gate, generally kept closed, in which a smaller gate served to admit persons going in or out. According to the widow’s plan, the young man, her enemy’s son, was to take her to the ball at the Opera on the night of January 13. Gaudry was to wait in her apartment until their return. When he heard the bell ring, which communicated with the outer gate, he was to come down, take his place in the shadow of one of the pavilions on either side of the drive, and from the cover of this position fling in the face of the young man the vitriol which she had given him. The widow herself, under the pretence of closing the smaller gate, would be well behind the victim, and take care to leave the gate open so that Gaudry could make his escape.

In spite of his reluctance, his sense of foreboding, Georges de Saint Pierre came to Paris on the night of the 12th, which he spent at the widow’s apartment. He went to his own rooms on the morning of the 13th.

This eventful day, which, to quote Iago, was either to “make or fordo quite” the widow, found her as calm, cool and deliberate in the execution of her purpose as the Ancient himself. Gaudry came to her apartment about five o’clock in the afternoon. The widow showed him the vitriol and gave him final directions. She would, she said, return from the ball about three o’clock in the morning. Gaudry was then sent away till ten o’clock, as Georges was dining with her. He returned at half-past ten and found the widow dressing, arraying herself in a pink domino and a blonde wig. She was in excellent spirits. When Georges came to fetch her, she put Gaudry into an alcove in the drawing-room which was curtained off from the rest of the room. Always thoughtful, she had placed a stool there that he might rest himself. Gaudry could hear her laughing and joking with her lover. She reproached him playfully with hindering her in her dressing. To keep him quiet, she gave him a book to read, Montaigne’s “Essays.” Georges opened it and read the thirty-fifth chapter of the second book, the essay on “Three Good Women,” which tells how three brave women of antiquity endured death or suffering in order to share their husbands’ fate. Curiously enough, the essay concludes with these words, almost prophetic for the unhappy reader: “I am enforced to live, and sometimes to live is magnanimity.” Whilst Georges went to fetch a cab, the widow released Gaudry from his place of concealment, exhorted him to have courage, and promised him, if he succeeded, the accomplishment of his desire. And so the gay couple departed for the ball. There the widow’s high spirits, her complete enjoyment, were remarked by more than one of her acquaintances; she danced one dance with her lover, and with another young man made an engagement for the following week.

Meanwhile, at the Rue de Boulogne, Gaudry sat and waited in the widow’s bedroom. From the window he could see the gate and the lights of the cab that was to bring the revellers home. The hours passed slowly. He tried to read the volume of Montaigne where Georges had left it open, but the words conveyed little to him, and he fell asleep. Between two and three o’clock in the morning he was waked by the noise of wheels. They had returned. He hurried downstairs and took up his position in the shadow of one of the pavilions. As Georges de Saint Pierre walked up the drive alone, for the widow had stayed behind to fasten the gate, he thought he saw the figure of a man in the darkness. The next moment he was blinded by the burning liquid flung in his face. The widow had brought down her pigeon.

At first she would seem to have succeeded perfectly in her attempt. Georges was injured for life, the sight of one eye gone, that of the other threatened, his face sadly disfigured. Neither he nor anyone else suspected the real author of the crime. It was believed that the unfortunate man had been mistaken for some other person, and made by accident the victim of an act of vengeance directed against another. Georges was indeed all the widow’s now, lodged in her own house to nurse and care for. She undertook the duty with every appearance of affectionate devotion. The unhappy patient was consumed with gratitude for her untiring solicitude; thirty nights she spent by his bedside. His belief in her was absolute. It was his own wish that she alone should nurse him. His family were kept away, any attempts his relatives or friends made to see or communicate with him frustrated by the zealous widow.

It was this uncompromising attitude on her part toward the friends of Georges, and a rumour which reached the ears of one of them that she intended as soon as possible to take her patient away to Italy, that sounded the first note of danger to her peace of mind. This friend happened to be acquainted with the son of one of the Deputy Public Prosecutors in Paris. To that official he confided his belief that there were suspicious circumstances in the case of Georges de Saint Pierre. The judicial authorities were informed and the case placed in the hands of an examining magistrate. On February 2, nearly a month after the crime, the magistrate, accompanied by Mace, then a commissary of police, afterwards head of the Detective Department, paid a visit to the Rue de Boulogne. Their reception was not cordial. It was only after they had made known their official character that they got audience of the widow. She entered the room, carrying in her hand a surgical spray, with which she played nervously while the men of the law asked to see her charge. She replied that it was impossible. Mace placed himself in front of the door by which she had entered, and told her that her attitude was not seemly. “Leave that spray alone,” he said; “it might shoot over us, and then perhaps we should be sprinkled as M. de Saint Pierre was.” From that moment, writes Mace, issue was joined between the widow and himself.

The magistrate insisted on seeing the patient. He sat by his bedside. M. de Saint Pierre told him that, having no enemies, he was sure he had been the victim of some mistake, and that, as he claimed no damages for his injuries, he did not wish his misfortune to be made public. He wanted to be left alone with his brave and devoted nurse, and to be spared the nervous excitement of a meeting with his family. He intended, he added, to leave Paris shortly for change of scene and air. The widow cut short the interview on the ground that her patient was tired.

It was inhuman, she said, to make him suffer so. The magistrate, before leaving, asked her whither she intended taking her patient. She replied, “To Italy.” That, said the magistrate, would be impossible until his inquiry was closed. In the meantime she might take him to any place within the Department of the Seine; but she must be prepared to be under the surveillance of M. Mace, who would have the right to enter her house whenever he should think it expedient. With this disconcerting intelligence the men of the law took leave of the widow.

She was no longer to be left in undisturbed possession of her prize. Her movements were watched by two detectives. She was seen to go to the bachelor lodgings of Georges and take away a portable desk, which contained money and correspondence. More mysterious, however, was a visit she paid to the Charonne Cemetery, where she had an interview with an unknown, who was dressed in the clothes of a workman. She left the cemetery alone, and the detectives lost track of her companion. This meeting took place on February 11. Shortly after the widow left Paris with Georges de Saint Pierre for the suburb of Courbevoie.

Mace had elicited certain facts from the porter at the Rue de Boulogne and other witnesses, which confirmed his suspicion that the widow had played a sinister part in her lover’s misfortune. Her insistence that he should take her to the ball on January 13; the fact that, contrary to the ordinary politeness of a gentleman, he was walking in front of her at the time of the attack; and that someone must have been holding the gate open to enable the assailant to escape it was a heavy gate, which, if left to itself after being opened, would swing too quickly on its hinges and shut of its own accord—these facts were sufficient to excite suspicion. The disappearance, too, of the man calling himself her brother, who had been seen at her apartment on the afternoon of the 13th, coupled with the mysterious interview in the cemetery, suggested the possibility of a crime in which the widow had had the help of an accomplice. To facilitate investigation it was necessary to separate the widow from her lover. The examining magistrate, having ascertained from a medical report that such a separation would not be hurtful to the patient, ordered the widow to be sent back to Paris, and the family of M. de Saint Pierre to take her place. The change was made on March 6. On leaving Courbevoie the widow was taken to the office of Mace. There the commissary informed her that she must consider herself under provisional arrest. “But who,” she asked indignantly, “is to look after my Georges?” “His family,” was the curt reply. The widow, walking up and down the room like a panther, stormed and threatened. When she had in some degree recovered herself, Mace asked her certain questions. Why had she insisted on her lover going to the ball? She had done nothing of the kind. How was it his assailant had got away so quickly by the open gate? She did not know. What was the name and address of her reputed brother? She was not going to deliver an honest father of a family into the clutches of the police. What was the meaning of her visit to the Charonne Cemetery? She went there to pray, not to keep assignations. “And if you want to know,” she exclaimed, “I have had typhoid fever, which makes me often forget things. So I shall say nothing more—nothing—nothing.”

Taken before the examining magistrate, her attitude continued to be defiant and arrogant. “Your cleverest policemen,” she told the magistrate, “will never find any evidence against me. Think well before you send me to prison. I am not the woman to live long among thieves and prostitutes.” Before deciding finally whether the widow should be thrown into such uncongenial society, the magistrate ordered Mace to search her apartment in the Rue de Boulogne.

On entering the apartment the widow asked that all the windows should be opened. “Let in the air,” she said; “the police are coming in; they make a nasty smell.” She was invited to sit down while the officers made their search. Her letters and papers were carefully examined; they presented a strange mixture of order and disorder. Carefully kept account books of her personal expenses were mixed up with billets dous, paints and pomades, moneylenders’ circulars, belladonna and cantharides. But most astounding of all were the contents of the widows’ prie-Dieu. In this devotional article of furniture were stored all the inmost secrets of her profligate career. Affectionate letters from the elderly gentleman on whom she had imposed a supposititious child lay side by side with a black-edged card, on which was written the last message of a young lover who had killed himself on her account. “Jeanne, in the flush of my youth I die because of you, but I forgive you.—M.” With these genuine outpourings of misplaced affection were mingled the indecent verses of a more vulgar admirer, and little jars of hashish. The widow, unmoved by this rude exposure of her way of life, only broke her silence to ask Mace the current prices on the Stock Exchange.

One discovery, however, disturbed her equanimity. In the drawer of a cupboard, hidden under some linen, Mace found a leather case containing a sheaf of partially-burnt letters. As he was about to open it the widow protested that it was the property of M. de Saint Pierre. Regardless of her protest, Mace opened the case, and, looking through the letters, saw that they were addressed to M. de Saint Pierre and were plainly of an intimate character. “I found them on the floor near the stove in the dining-room,” said the widow, “and I kept them. I admit it was a wrong thing to do, but Georges will forgive me when he knows why I did it.” From his better acquaintance with her character Mace surmised that an action admitted by the widow to be “wrong” was in all probability something worse. Without delay he took the prisoner back to his office, and himself left for Courbevoie, there to enlighten, if possible, her unhappy victim as to the real character of his enchantress.

The interview was a painful one. The lover refused to hear a word against his mistress. “Jeanne is my Antigone,” he said. “She has lavished on me all her care, her tenderness, her love, and she believes in God.” Mace told him of her past, of the revelations contained in the prie-Dieu of this true believer, but he could make no impression. “I forgive her past, I accept her present, and please understand me, no one has the power to separate me from her.” It was only when Mace placed in his hands the bundle of burnt letters, that he might feel what he could not see, and read him some passages from them, that the unhappy man realised the full extent of his mistress’ treachery. Feeling himself dangerously ill, dying perhaps, M. de Saint Pierre had told the widow to bring from his rooms to the Rue de Boulogne the contents of his private desk. It contained some letters compromising to a woman’s honour. These he was anxious to destroy before it was too late. As he went through the papers, his eyes bandaged, he gave them to the widow to throw into the stove. He could hear the fire burning and feel its warmth. He heard the widow take up the tongs. He asked her why she did so. She answered that it was to keep the burning papers inside the stove. Now from Mace he learnt the real truth. She had used the tongs to take out some of the letters half burnt, letters which in her possession might be one day useful instruments for levying blackmail on her lover. “To blind me,” exclaimed M. de Saint Pierre, “to torture me, and then profit by my condition to lie to me, to betray me—it’s infamous—infamous!” His dream was shattered. Mace had succeeded in his task; the disenchantment of M. de Saint Pierre was complete. That night the fastidious widow joined the thieves and prostitutes in the St. Lazare Prison.

It was all very well to imprison the widow, but her participation in the outrage on M. de Saint Pierre was by no means established.

The reputed brother, who had been in the habit of attending on her at the Rue de Boulogne, still eluded the searches of the police. In silence lay the widow’s only hope of baffling her enemies. Unfortunately for the widow, confinement told on her nerves. She became anxious, excited. Her very ignorance of what was going on around her, her lover’s silence made her apprehensive; she began to fear the worst. At length—the widow always had an itch for writing—she determined to communicate at all costs with Gaudry and invoke his aid. She wrote appealing to him to come forward and admit that he was the man the police were seeking, for sheltering whom she had been thrown into prison. She drew a harrowing picture of her sufferings in jail. She had refused food and been forcibly fed; she would like to dash her head against the walls. If any misfortune overtake Gaudry, she promises to adopt his son and leave him a third of her property. She persuaded a fellow-prisoner; an Italian dancer undergoing six months’ imprisonment for theft, who was on the point of being released, to take the letter and promise to deliver it to Gaudry at Saint Denis. On her release the dancer told her lover of her promise. He refused to allow her to mix herself up in such a case, and destroyed the letter. Then the dancer blabbed to others, until her story reached the ears of the police. Mace sent for her. At first she could remember only that the name Nathalis occurred in the letter, but after visiting accidentally the Cathedral at Saint Denis, she recollected that this Nathalis lived there, and worked in an oil factory. It was easy after this for the police to trace Gaudry. He was arrested. At his house, letters from the widow were found, warning him not to come to her apartment, and appointing to meet him in Charonne Cemetery. Gaudry made a full confession. It was his passion for the widow, and a promise on her part to marry him, which, he said, had induced him to perpetrate so abominable a crime. He was sent to the Mazas Prison.

In the meantime the Widow Gras was getting more and more desperate. Her complete ignorance tormented her. At last she gave up all hope, and twice attempted suicide with powdered glass and verdigris. On May 12 the examining magistrate confronted her with Gaudry. The man told his story, the widow feigned surprise that the “friend of her childhood” should malign her so cruelly. But to her desperate appeals Gaudry would only reply, “It is too late!” They were sent for trial.

The trial of the widow and her accomplice opened before the Paris Assize Court on July 23, 1877, and lasted three days. The widow was defended by Lachaud, one of the greatest criminal advocates of France, the defender of Madame Lafarge, La Pommerais, Troppmann, and Marshal Bazaine. M. Demange (famous later for his defence of Dreyfus) appeared for Gaudry. The case had aroused considerable interest. Among those present at the trial were Halevy, the dramatist, and Mounet-Sully and Coquelin, from the Comedie Francaise. Fernand Rodays thus described the widow in the Figaro: “She looks more than her age, of moderate height, well made, neither blatant nor ill at ease, with nothing of the air of a woman of the town. Her hands are small. Her bust is flat, and her back round, her hair quite white. Beneath her brows glitter two jet-black eyes—the eyes of a tigress, that seem to breathe hatred and revenge.”

Gaudry was interrogated first. Asked by the President the motive of his crime, he answered, “I was mad for Madame Gras; I would have done anything she told me. I had known her as a child, I had been brought up with her. Then I saw her again. I loved her, I was mad for her, I couldn’t resist it. Her wish was law to me.”

Asked if Gaudry had spoken the truth, the widow said that he lied. The President asked what could be his motive for accusing her unjustly. The widow was silent. Lachaud begged her to answer. “I cannot,” she faltered. The President invited her to sit down. After a pause the widow seemed to recover her nerve.

President: Was Gaudry at your house while you were at the ball?

Widow: No, no! He daren’t look me in the face and say so.

President: But he is looking at you now.

Widow: No, he daren’t! (She fixes her eyes on Gaudry, who lowers his head.)

President: I, whose duty it is to interrogate you, look you in the face and repeat my question: Was Gaudry at your house at half-past ten that night?

Widow: No.

President: You hear her, Gaudry?

Gaudry: Yes, Monsieur, but I was there.

Widow: It is absolutely impossible! Can anyone believe me guilty of such a thing.

President: Woman Gras, you prefer to feign indignation and deny everything. You have the right. I will read your examination before the examining magistrate. I see M. Lachaud makes a gesture, but I must beg the counsel for the defence not to impart unnecessary passion into these proceedings.

Lachaud: My gesture was merely meant to express that the woman Gras is on her trial, and that under the circumstances her indignation is natural.

President: Very good.

The appearance in the witness box of the widow’s unhappy victim evoked sympathy. He gave his evidence quietly, without resentment or indignation. As he told his story the widow, whose eyes were fixed on him all the time, murmured: “Georges! Georges! Defend me! Defend me!” “I state the facts,” he replied.

The prisoners could only defend themselves by trying to throw on each other the guilt of the crime. M. Demange represented Gaudry as acting under the influence of his passion for the Widow Gras. Lachaud, on the other hand, attributed the crime solely to Gaudry’s jealousy of the widow’s lover, and contended that he was the sole author of the outrage.

The jury by their verdict assigned to the widow the greater share of responsibility. She was found guilty in the full degree, but to Gaudry were accorded extenuating circumstances. The widow was condemned to fifteen years’ penal servitude, her accomplice to five years’ imprisonment.

It is dreadful to think how very near the Widow Gras came to accomplishing successfully her diabolical crime. A little less percipitancy on her part, and she might have secured the fruits of her cruelty. Her undoubted powers of fascination, in spite of the fiendishness of her real character, are doubly proved by the devotion of her lover and the guilt of her accomplice. At the same time, with that strange contradiction inherent in human nature, the Jekyll and Hyde elements which, in varying degree, are present in all men and women, the Widow Gras had a genuine love for her young sister. Her hatred of men was reasoned, deliberate, merciless and implacable. There is something almost sadistic in the combination in her character of erotic sensibility with extreme cruelty.


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