The Legendary Jean “Chouan” Couttereau

Legendary Jean Chouan
Portrait Presumed to be Jean Chouan by L. de Labarre, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Born on 30 October 1757 at Saint-Berthevin, the legendary Jean Chouan was the nom de guerre of Jean Cottereau, a counter-revolutionary, insurrectionist, and staunch royalist. He was also a man of several nicknames, with “Chouan” a nickname given to him by his father (or it may have come from his imitation of the call of the tawny owl. However, he got the nickname, it meant silent one. There was also the less flattering nickname of “le Gars mentoux” or “le garçon menteur” (the boy liar).

Chouan is legendary because what is known about him was written by royalist partisan Jacques Duchemin des Cépeaux in 1825 at the request of Charles X. The story that Cépeaux reported has many unfounded facts that were further nourished by a small faction of Catholics and royalist-legitimist. Thus, Chouan’s actual role in history remains questionable and is likely more legend than fact.

Some facts that appear to be true are that Chouan’s father, Pierre Cottereau, was a lumberjack who felled trees, stacked and seasoned the lumber, and then made wooden shoes called sabots. His mother was a woman named Jeanne (nee Moyné) Cottereau. The Cottereau’s lived as tenants on a 20-acre farm located half-way between Saint-Ouën-des-Toits and Bourgneuf-la-Forêt in Mayenne, France. Chouan’s father was often absent and his mother was illiterate, which meant the children — Jean, Pierre, François, and René — were largely unschooled. Thus, when Chouan’s father died, Chouan declared himself a sabot maker, but unlike his father, Chouan was not as energetic or as skilled. Continue reading

Art Theft of the Princesse de Lamballe Painting in the 1980s

Paintings of Princesse de Lamballe, Callet (left), Rioult (top right), and Le Brun (bottom left), Public Domain
Paintings of Princesse de Lamballe, Callet (left), Rioult (top right), and Le Brun (bottom left), Public Domain

Princesse de Lamballe, who was Marie Antoinette’s friend and her Superintendent of the Household, married the heir of the richest man in France. Because the princesse was royalty and because she was rich, many people were intrigued by her and many portraits were painted of her. One well-known painting that is currently displayed at Versailles was done by Antoine-François Callet in 1776. Another painting was painted by Louis-Édouard Rioult between 1780 and 1785 and appeared on a supplementary issue of Le Petit Journal in 1892. Another person who painted the princesse de Lamballe was one of Marie Antoinette’s favorite painters, Madame Le Brun. Yet, perhaps of all the paintings of the princesse, one particular painting bears mention because it was stolen in an art heist in the 1980s. Continue reading

Torture in 18th Century France: An Irishman’s View

Joseph Ignace Guillotin, Courtesy of Wikipedia
Joseph Ignace Guillotin, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Before the guillotine was proposed by Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin in October of 1789, an Irish gentleman visited Paris, France, in 1787. While in Paris, he wrote a number of letters to a friend in Ireland. He noted in the letters that Frenchmen used various methods of torture in 18th Century France. This torture was applied to criminals and what he claimed was an “idea of the administration call[ed] la justice Françoise.” Among the letters the gentleman wrote was one dated July 25th, which described various types of punishment meted to French criminals.

Here is that letter verbatim: Continue reading

Pierre Poulailler the 18th Century Robber

Pierre Poulailler
Hen-house, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Despite being a handsome child, Pierre Poulailler acquired a reputation at birth of belonging to the devil. He demonstrated this devilish reputation when, even as a toddler, he behaved incorrigible. At the age of ten, he ran away and became a cabin-boy on a merchant ship, but his sea career did not last long. He deserted at age twelve, went to England, and tried to pass himself off as the son of a French duke, which failed. He then found himself back in France attached himself to a band of gypsies, who taught him the art of pilfering, quackery, and he “passed through all the degrees which lead to downright robbery.” Continue reading

21 Facts About the Guillotine in the 1700s

Not the Guillotine but the Halifax Gibbet
Halifax Gibbet, Early Example of a Decapitating Machine, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Before the guillotine, there were other beheading devices. One early one used in the town of Halifax, West Yorkshire, England, in the sixteenth century was an alternative to beheading by axe or sword and called the Halifax Gibbet. Yet, the decapitation machine that would become the most well-known was the French guillotine, named for Dr. Joseph-Ignance Guillotin.

Interestingly, Dr. Guillotin was opposed to the death penalty and hoped it would be abolished. As that seemed unlikely, he gave a speech and proposed a decapitation machine he thought less painful and more humane. He said, “Now, with my machine, I cut off your head in the twinkling of an eye, and you never feel it!” His statement quickly became a joke and resulted in the circulation of a humorous song that thereafter tied his name to the machine and caused many people to believe he invented it.

Besides the guillotine not being the first decapitation device and Dr. Guillotin not being the inventor of the guillotine, there are 21 other interesting facts about the guillotine. Continue reading

The Four Soldiers of the La Rochelle Conspiracy

Four Accused Men of the La Rochelle Conspiracy, Public Domain
Four Accused Conspirators, Author’s Collection

In 1821, under the Bourbon Restoration, a sergeant-major named Jean-Francois Louis Leclerc Bories was in the 45th regiment. He was also garrisoned at Paris. While there, he was initiated into the society of the Carbonari, a group of secret revolutionary societies originally founded in Italy that influenced secret societies in France.

The society in France was an association of conspirators involving Liberals and Bonapartists who were against the Bourbon monarchy. Members were primarily recruited from military ranks, and Bories appealed to his comrades to join. Thus, he successfully initiated several other soldiers into the society’s ranks.

In January of 1822, the 45th regiment moved from Paris to La Rochelle, and while in the regiment was in La Rochelle, the secret society was discovered. The discovery resulted in twenty-five men being arrested and accused of being part of a conspiracy to overthrow the restored Bourbon monarchy of Louis XVIII. Among those arrested and brought to trial were Bories, along with three other men — Jean-Joseph Pommier, Charles Goubin, and Marius-Claude Raoulx.

Continue reading

Madame Marie Lafarge, Murder, and Arsenic

Madame Marie Lafarge, Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France
Madame Marie Lafarge, Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France

Charles Pouch-Lafarge was a coarse and repulsive 28-year-old man. He was also not having much luck in life. He had married and his wife had died shortly thereafter. In addition, his father had purchased property in the hamlet of Le Glandier in Corrèze and it had fallen into disrepair. To make it profitable, Lafarge turned part of into a foundry, which resulted in him falling into massive debt and being on the verge of bankruptcy. For this reason, Lafarge decided to find a wife that could help him financially, and to accomplish that he hired a marriage broker, a man by the name of Monsieur Foy.

In Picardy, France, Marie-Fortunée Capelle was born in 1816. Her father was an artillery officer, and her grandmother was rumored to be the illicit love child of Stéphanie Félicité, better known as Madame de Genlis, and Louis Philippe II, Duke of Orleans. If that was true it made Marie a descendant of Louis XIII of France. Yet, despite her royal credentials, Marie was described as “not greatly blessed with beauty.” She, similar to Lafarge, also had some bad luck. Her father died when she was twelve and her mother died several years later. Thus, she found herself at the age of eighteen the adopted daughter of her maternal aunt. Continue reading

Murder of the Duchess de Choiseul-Praslin

Louis Philippe I, by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, Courtesy of Wikipedia
Louis Philippe I, by Franz Xavier Winterhalter, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Seventeen-year-old Fanny Altarice Rosalba Sébastiani married nineteen-year-old Charles Laure Hugues Théobald, Duke de Choiseul-Praslin, on 18 October 1824. The Duke was a French nobleman, politician, and leading figure under the reign of Louis Philippe I. The Duke and Duchess had been visiting in Praslin and had returned to Paris on the Corbeil railway on Tuesday night, 17 August 1847. Each had made several separate visits to friends and then returned to their home located at 55 Faubourg Saint-Honoré. It was late by the time the Duke and Duchess got their children to bed and even later when they retired to their separate apartments. The Duke’s and Duchess’s apartments were located on the ground floor and divided by an ante-chamber that opened onto a flight of stairs. To its left was a boudoir connected to the Duchess’s room and on the right a little room preceded the Duke’s bedroom. Above their apartments were those of their servants. Continue reading

The Murder of Comte d’Antraigues and His Wife

Comte d'Antraigues, Public Domain
Comte d’Antraigues, Public Domain

Emmanuel Henri Louis Alexandre de Launay, comte d’Antraigues, was a French citizen. While living in France, d’Antraigues become involved in an incident known as the Favras Plot. When his involvement was discovered he fled to avoid execution. His mistress, a celebrated French operatic soprano named Madame de Saint-Huberty, followed him. They eventually married and lived in several countries before finally settling in Russia. However, the comte and his wife were expelled in 1806 because the comte published a pamphlet against Napoleon and the French Empire. Because of the expulsion, the comte and his wife moved to England. Continue reading

Being Broken on the Wheel in the 18th Century

Public Square in 4th Arrondissement of Paris, Now Called Place de l'Hôtel de Ville (City Hall Plaza) was, Before 1802, called Place de Grève, Courtesy of Wikipedia
Public Square in 4th Arrondissement of Paris, Now Called Place de l’Hôtel de Ville (City Hall Plaza) was, Before 1802, called Place de Grève, Courtesy of Wikipedia

In France, in the 1700s, when people were condemned to death, those convicted of certain atrocities were sometimes condemned to be broken on the wheel in a public execution. Sometimes after being broken on the wheel, blows were also given on the chest or the abdomen of the condemned person. These blows were called coups de grâce, or in other words, “blows of mercy,” as they were fatal to the condemned. If these blows were not given, a condemned person might live for hours or days, and they might be subject to birds pecking at them until they died. In addition, on occasion, a special grace, known as the retentum, was granted where a condemned person was strangled after the second or third blow, or in special cases, even before the breaking began.

This practice of being broken on the wheel was reported on by an Irish gentleman visiting Paris, France, in 1788. He wrote a letter to a friend in Ireland dated July 23rd, and, in the letter, he described the torturous punishment that one Parisian criminal experienced on the wheel. Here is his letter verbatim: Continue reading