One of the most audacious and successful nineteenth century swindlers, or as the French say, chevaliers d’industrie, was Anthelme Collet, a man described as a rather “ill-favoured looking fellow.” Collet was born on 10 April 1785, in Belley, a commune in the Ain department in eastern France. By the time he was 35 years old, Collet had served 8 years of a 20 year sentence. His adventurous career had been terminated at Mons when he was arrested “for some obscure and insignificant infraction of the laws.”
The swindler Antheleme Collet was the son of Jean-Baptiste Collet, a cabinet-maker, and a seamstress named Claudine Bertin. When Collet was nine, his father died. His father had been serving as a volunteer captain in the 1st battalion of volunteers of Ain and was killed at Piedmont. Collet’s maternal uncle, a priest, took over Collet’s care, but the uncle was too busy to ensure that Collet got a proper education. So, at the age of 15½, Collet returned to France. His care was then entrusted to a paternal uncle, a former captain who had become a battalion commander and participated in Napoleon Bonaparte’s Egyptian campaign.
With his uncle’s aid, Antheleme Collet joined the 101st line infantry regiment a year later. He also received the title of lieutenant and success in the military seem assured. However, he “owed his commission more to intrigue than bravery,” and whatever success Collet achieved was short-lived. In 1806, while participating in the Siege of Gaeta, he was wounded. He soon thereafter deserted, and having thrown “off the military uniform … [Collet] assumed the clerical black cassock, which he soon changed into a violet-coloured one, forged a bull nominating himself to the episcopacy, and was, as a Lord Bishop, received in the most flattering manner.”
His career as a Lord Bishop proved successful. It also resulted inAntheleme Collet almost being sanctified at Nice. It was also at Nice “where, by way of doing him honour, the Bishop of the diocese allowed 33 priests, and as many deacons and sub-deacons, to receive ordination at his hands.” Collet repaid this momentous honor by mounting the pulpit and preaching a sermon of the French Jesuit preacher, Louis Bourdaloue “(this being the eighth time he had preached the same sermon in different places), which got him the reputation of a most eminent preacher.” However, Collet’s luck and reputation was about to change.
It all began when a party of gendarmes (a military force charged with police duties), discovered Collet’s location and came to arrest him for desertion. However, Collet was slick and gave them an episcopal blessing, doing so “with so much dignity and unction, that they dreaded they were under some mistake, and allowed him [to leave Nice].” Collet then weighed his ecclesiastical position and finding his position and revenues precarious, he decided to renounce it all and resume a life in the military. Thus, in 1810, he conferred upon himself the appointment of Inspector-General.
With such an illustrious title, Collet called upon a Commissary of War. From him he obtained a considerable sum of money under the pretense of organizing an army in Catalonia, and when Collet left, the Commissary was “enchanted with the promise … of procuring … the Cross of the Legion of Honour [promised by Collet].” Then, in the village of Nismes, Collet used a similar scam and obtained 300,000 francs. He repeated the same scam at Montpelier and obtained another large sum.
One day, in Montpelier, Collet reviewed his troops early in the morning. He then called upon the prefect, “whom he complimented upon his excellent administration of the department, and promised to have him made a superior officer in the legion of Honour.” Unfortunately, two hours later, Collet was under arrest, but his adventures did not end there.
Several days after Antheleme Collet’s arrest, the prefect held a dinner and his guests learned about Collet and requested to see him. The prisoner “accordingly [was] brought to the prefect by two gendarmes, and placed in a room contiguous to the dining-room, until he should be brought in along with the dessert.” As Collet waited, he spied a white cap, jacket, and apron belonging to a cook. He then “assumed the whole, snatched up a dish … and boldly carried it in the banquetting-room.”
Several minutes later, Collet seized another empty dish, and passed once again through the door, glided effortlessly past the unwary gendarmes and “descended safely in to the streets.” When dessert arrived and there was no Collet “great was the confusion of the prefect and the disappointment of his guests; and the former, in the first moment of his anger, offered a reward of ten thousand francs to any one who would bring him, the fugitive, alive or dead. This, however, proved useless.”
If the prefect had been more observant, he might have realized Collet had not gone far. He was concealed in the house next door. For an entire month, Antheleme Collet watched the “prefect every day making his toilet.” During that month, Collet did not remain idle. He found a treatise on Osteology and memorized it well enough that his next position allowed him to be titled surgeon-major. He then obtained employment with a general and later became a “civil surgeon.”
Eventually, Collet arrived at Roche Beaumont and found lodgings with the Commissary of Police. He also made the acquaintance of some officers and once again set out to deceive and defraud his victims. This time he told the officers “of his estates near the Rhone and of his desire to find a trust-worthy … steward.” His false story resulted in an officer accepting his position of steward and agree to Collet’s proposal that he should marry “as a further guarantee of his steadiness.” Thus, after the officer married, “he set out, furnished with a letter giving him full powers to enter upon the stewardship of [the] estates, the precise situation of which he has, of course, [never discovered].”
It seemed as if Antheleme Collet would continue to enjoy an easy life swindling and cheating everyone he met. But his adventurous career came to a quiet end in 1819. He was arrested for “some obscure and insignificant infraction of the laws.” This resulted in a 20-year sentence of hard labor. Collet served his time, made no escape attempts, and “conducted himself remarkably well.” In 1840, he died at the Marine Hospital in Rochefort, but his legend lived on in Honoré de Balzac’s character Vautrin and in Honoré Daumier’s caricature of the well-known criminal and assassin of French plays, Robert Macaire.
- “France,” in The Atlas, November 19, 1828
- “Swindling,” in North Wales Chronicle, 31 July 1828
- The Church of England Quarterly Review, 1851