One dark December night in 1797, 29 brigands, or as they called themselves chauffeurs, assembled together for a great gypsy feast in the forest of Lifermeau (in the district of Orgères). They survived by pillaging and robbing, and their feast consisted of stolen poultry. At the feast, the chauffeurs’ also plotted to attack a well-to-do farmer named Fousset. The chauffeurs believed Fousset possessed “coffers full of louis-d’or, and chests crammed with linen and plate.”
Leading the French brigand band was a man who had several aliases — François Pelletier, Jean Anger, and François Girodot. Although is real name was unknown, he most frequently used the name Girodot but was generally known within the band as le Beau-François. Beau-François was about 30 and described as a tall, handsome man with penetrating blue eyes and a clear translucent complexion. He had been an itinerant rabbit skin seller but succeeded the band’s former leader, Fleur d’Epine who was guillotined in the September Massacres.
The night after the feast, with Beau-François leading the way, the chauffeurs set out for Fousset’s farm intent on robbing him. Beau-François’s second in command was also there. His name was “Thomas Roncin, alias the Big Dragoon.” He was a ferocious man with a red beard who had been a cattle dealer and then a soldier in the Queen’s Dragoons. Roncin “usually carried a musket, a sabre, and a pair of pistols.” The rest of the band carried bludgeons, although there were two other men who carried muskets, one was double-barreled and the other had a bayonet.
A high wall surrounded a portion of Fousset’s farm and when the chauffeurs arrived, they stopped at the wall and sent one French brigand named Duchesne to reconnoiter. Duchesne climbed a tree, saw a light, and discovered three men — Fousset, his son named Bernard, and a notary — counting money. Unfortunately, when Duchesne slid down the tree, a dog began to bark. Duchesne then heard Fousset whistle, a door open, and the clatter of sabots. Thus, when Duchesne returned to the band, he suggested they wait another hour before attacking.
An hour later Duchesne went to reconnoiter once again. This time the lights were out and it appeared as if everyone was asleep. Duchesne gave a soft, low whistle, which brought Beau-François and his band. But it also caused the dog inside the house to begin barking, and it barked so loud it also roused the farm dog, and then both dogs began barking non-stop. Thus, Beau-François had no choice but to call off the attack.
The attack was postponed until 14 January 1798. On that night, 26 men came together by different routes. They assembled at nine o’clock in the forest of Goury. The chauffeurs then surrounded Fousset’s farm, and when Beau François fired his pistol, their attack began.
The men used a field roller as a battering ram on the gate and quickly gained entrance inside the wall. The front door to Fousset’s house was also knocked down with equal ease. The band then left a guard at the front door and placed sentinels along the outside wall before rushing into the house shouting, “‘Forward; thirty of you here, forty there,’ [hoping] to give an exaggerated impression of their numbers.”
In the meantime, Fousset and his household fled to the stable and barricaded themselves behind the door. Finding no money in the house, Beau-François turned his focus to the stable. “The barred stable door was dashed open, and the gang rushed in with threats and curses, one of them carrying an ominous red-hot coal and a wisp of straw.”
Inside the stable, Fousset, his son, and the maid hid themselves in the stable litter. They were driven out by the chauffeurs, who pricked them with knives and bayonets. One of the thieves, his knife between his teeth, wanted at once to cut their throats but Beau-François would not allow it.
The gang knew there were two other servants — a carter and a shepherd. As they were missing, the band began to search for them fearing that if they were not found, they might raise an alarm. “The carter, trying to pass into the road by a hole in the stable wall, was driven back by the blows of a cudgel; he then hid himself in the manger under some horse-collars, and was..caught. The shepherd, burrowing in the hay loft, was pricked out and thrashed back to the stable.”
Having everyone under their control, the band now attempted to discover where the money was hidden, and they chose the oldest and weakest to torment. “Fousset was garotted, and with his cotton cap drawn over his nose, so that he should recognise no one, was cudgelled into the parlour, where his legs being tied, they threw him on the ground.” The chauffeurs threatened him, passed lit wisps of straws near him, and demanded to know where he had hidden his money.
Being blinded, nearly suffocated by the smoke, and unable to move, Fousset was too weak to reply. The chauffeurs then half-stripped him, took off his shoes and stockings, and scorched “his naked flesh till he screamed in agony.” At that point, he confessed where some money was hidden in a little bureau in the kitchen, and it was there the chauffeurs discovered 300 francs.
Three-hundred francs was not nearly enough to satisfy the French brigand band. They wanted more, and they believed Fousset had 20,000 francs hidden somewhere, so once again they began to harass him. They asked, “Where is the money?” But Fousset denied there was any more money. One of chauffeur’s then “drew out a long sharp needle and pierced the soles of his feet, and passed the flame over the wounds … Still no confession could be burnt out of him.” So, a search was conducted.
The search involved ripping mattresses, tearing apart feather beds, and splitting open cupboards and chests. But that did not produce any more money either. Upset, “Beau François trampled on the half-dead man, regarding him as a mere worthless corpse … threw … a heap of ripped-up beds and counterpanes [on him].” Finding nothing, Beau-François now whistled together all of his men and gathered up Fousset’s linens and goods into cloth bundles.
Beau-François also thought it best not to leave anyone loose and ordered his band to put everyone but the half-dead Fousset in the cellar. The trap door was opened and Fousset’s son, the carter, and shepherd were herded into the cellar. The maid was frozen with fear and could not move. This resulted in one of the most brutal of the band, hurling the poor maid “down the steps headlong … amid shouts of cruel laughter.” Another chauffeur, le Gros Normand, was ordered to bar the trap door and covered it with casks of flour.
With their cloth bundles and 300 francs, the band formed a two-line troop and marched off into the night, “the men with muskets preceding, and le Beau-François … and le Gros Normand guarding the rear.” Loaded down with their booty, the troop passed Pourpry and headed for the woods where they exchanged their old clothes for the clean stolen linen. They also equally divided the remaining clothes and set apart “the silver cups, bowls, shoe-buckles, and brooches [which they planned on selling later].”
As Beau-François and his band were busy dividing up their loot, Fousset gained consciousness. Hearing no sound and with nothing more than a dim light, he tried to remove his bindings. He was eventually successful, tearing one of the ropes with his teeth. With his hands still bound, he raised himself with pain onto his brunt and bleeding feet and took a few steps before falling to the floor. He then crawled to the door and cried out for help in a feeble voice. As there was no reply, he decided he had to reach a nearby laborer’s house, but that involved “an hour of agony! A hundred yards; it seemed twenty miles.”
Fousset pulled himself along the ground, and, at midnight, he reached the laborer’s door and called out. But he was too weak to be heard and finally pulled himself to the door and knocked on it with his head. “At length the labourer’s wife came with a candle, and found the miserable man half-dead on the threshold.” With the help of a neighbor Fousset was untied, his wounds dressed, and put to bed.
At dawn, the laborer’s wife and another women, went to Fousset’s and released those imprisoned. A surgeon was also called for poor Fousset, and it was discovered his legs were nearly roasted below the knees and his chest terrible burnt. The surgeon could do little and Fousset expired eight days later. The gendarme of Canton d’Artenay were also sought out. When officers arrived, they found the extent of the destruction Beau-François and the band had caused. However, they did not find Beau François or the chauffeurs, as the only trace of them was “two old three-cornered hats, a pair of iron-heeled sabots, a pipe, and an old blouse.”
Other attacks by the band proved more fruitful, and it seemed as if Beau François and the chauffeurs would never be caught. But then a man named Vasseur arrested a couple of wandering beggars — a man and wife. Vasseur had been chasing the chauffeurs for some time. So, he was delighted to learn the male beggar was an important member of the chauffeurs and wanted a fresh start. To save himself, the beggar provided Vasseur with “a full description of his associates, their names, ages, appearance, their favourite haunts and hiding places, and a list … of their crimes.”
One by one the chauffeurs and other brigands were arrested until at last there was “such terror … that a single gendarme was enough to overawe and capture a dozen of them at time.” Soon the prisons were full and 300 bandits executed. One of those caught and shot on the spot was the famous Beau-François, “the ancient chauffeur, who … had been captured at the head of a gang in the department of Deux Sèvres.” Thus, within two years France was stripped of all “the brigands who had defiled and terrorized the people.”
- “A Gang of French Brigands,” in Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 13 February 1872
- Griffiths, Arthur, Mysteries of Police and Crime, Volume 2, 1899
- “Les Chauffeurs d’Autrefois,” in Le Petit Journal, 15 November 1908