François Bertrand: “The Vampire” of Paris

the vampire
View of Paris from Père Lachaise Cemetery, Author’s Collection

A series of grave desecrations happened in Paris between the summer of 1848 and March 1849. These desecrations were eventually blamed on an unknown person nicknamed “The Vampire” of Paris. At the time, The Vampire limited his operations to the cemetery of Père Lachaise, which overlooked Paris and where each night he forced open coffins, mutilated corpses, and scattered remains across the grounds.

To stop this horrid destruction, authorities hired guards at the Père Lachaise cemetery. However, despite the guard’s best efforts to capture the “mysterious figure” that flitted from grave to grave, they failed. Apparently, every time, just as the guards approached, the figure “disappeared like a phantom, and even the dogs that were let loose upon him stopped short and ceased to bark, as if they were transfixed by a charm.”

There was much conjecture as to who was causing the despoiling of graves. Chief among the suspects was the guards themselves. When that proved not to be the case, relatives of the dead were accused. That also proved false, and, so, suspicion finally fell upon doctors because they were known to rob graves for dissection. However, when doctors examined the desecrated sites, they declared that “no scientific knife had been there.”

Unsure who to blame, authorities doubled the watch at Père Lachaise cemetery. Unfortunately, extra guards did nothing to stop the nocturnal raids. “The Vampire continued … as if he were a ghoul, and cared nought for human power.” Then as popular excitement reached its zenith, the nightly raids on graves suddenly ceased. Everyone finally relaxed only to be horrified when the grave desecration began with renewed vigor soon after.

This time a raid happened at a suburban cemetery where a sweet 7-year-old girl had just been laid to rest. Her parents had lovingly place her in a special frock she wore for parties and holidays. Unfortunately, the following morning after her internment, guards found her “grave had been violated, [her] body torn from the coffin, frightfully mutilated, and the heart extracted.”

The desecration of such an innocent child, excited Parisians. Every Parisian was upset and “the metropolitan clergy were almost ready to resort to the ceremonies of exorcism employed in the Middle Ages.” Surveillance increased in the area, but the increased surveillance was to no avail because The Vampire decided to move.

“The Vampire,” Courtesy of Wikipedia

This time The Vampire attacked at Montparnasse Cemetery. There his raids became so frequent, authorities reached their wits’ end, and guards became convinced he was something super human. Moreover, The Vampire became more brazen. He opened the grave of a 16-year-old girl in July 1848, and later, after he was caught, he claimed:

“I covered it with kisses and pressed it wildly to my heart. All that one could enjoy with a living woman is nothing in comparison with the pleasure I experienced. After I had enjoyed it for about a quarter of an hour, I cut the body up, as usual, and tore out the entrails.”

At the time, most cemeteries had high walls and iron gates that were difficult to scale. One night as a Montparnasse guard was making his normal rounds, he found footsteps in a spot where someone had made entrance and discovered a man’s foot had also disturbed the mortar in the wall. This induced him to set a trap for the intruder. The trap was “a sort of infernal machine, which [would] explode if anyone attempted to enter the cemetery at that place.”

On the night of 15/16 March 1849, an explosion was heard and a foot pursuit ensued. Montparnasse guards fired their muskets at the intruder, but the intruder escaped, leaping over a wall with surprising agility. One newspaper reported: “He … managed to escape; [and] his strength was such that he strangled the dogs set at him.” Fortunately, however, after The Vampire’s disappearance, guards determined they had likely hit their mark because they found blood droplets.

Still the guards did not catch The Vampire and Monteparnasse’s midnight intruder might never have been discovered, if it had not been for an alert gravedigger. The next day he was preparing the ground for a burial, when he overheard some sappers of the 74th Regiment talking about one of their sergeants. According to the sappers, their sergeant had returned the previous night so badly wounded he had to be taken to the military hospital but no one was sure what happened to him.

The gravedigger informed his superior, and they soon determined The Vampire was a man named François Bertrand. Bertrand was a sergeant of the voltigeurs. Furthermore, investigators soon ascertained Bertrand “had committed many like outrages in other parts of France prior to the arrival of his regiment in Paris.”

Nonetheless, people were amazed that Bertrand was the culprit. He seemed anything but a vampire or a despoiler of graves. He had excellent character and was loved for his forthrightness. Those who knew him reported he “bore a good name in his regiment, and was accounted a man of gentle disposition and an excellent soldier … [who had] followed a course of studies in seminary.” Moreover, he was said to be “a good son, and most amiable companion.”

Eventually Bertrand was brought before the bar of justice. He was “supported on crutches, wrapped in a gray cloak, [and] pale and feeble.” When asked if he had committed the crimes, Bertrand freely admitted his guilt. However, when questioned as to why he did what he did, he responded:

“I cannot tell … it was a horrible impulse. I was driven to it against my own will; nothing could stop or deter me, I cannot describe nor understand myself what my sensations were in tearing and rending these bodies. I have sometimes exhumed from ten to fifteen bodies in a night. I dug them up with my hands, which were often torn and bleeding with the labour I underwent, but I minded nothing so that I could get at them. The desire seized me generally about once a fortnight.”

Doctors who attended Bertrand reported their findings, but they could not unanimously reach a diagnosis. Many doctors, however, believed Bertrand suffered from “monomania.” One doctor’s notes stated:

“There had been something singular and abnormal about [Bertrand] from the time he was seven or eight. It was not so much in acts, as in his love of solitude and his profound melancholy that the aberration was exhibited; and it was not till two years ago that this frightful peculiarity fully developed itself.”

The “peculiarity” began, according to Bertrand, when he and some friends passed by a cemetery. At that time, Bertrand noticed gravediggers covering a body. Bertrand continued:

“At this sight … horrible desires seized me: my head throbbed, my heart palpitated violently; I excused myself to my companions, and returned hastily into town. No sooner did I find myself alone than I procured a spade, and returned to the cemetery. I had just succeeding in exhuming the body when I saw a peasant watching me at the gate. While he went to inform the authorities of what he had seen I withdrew … retired into a neighbouring wood, I laid myself down, and in spite of the torrents of rain … remained there in a state of profound insensibility for several hours.”

Dr. Joseph Guislain, Courtesy of Wikipedia
Dr. Joseph Guislain, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Although the medical community could not agree on a diagnosis, they did agree when it came to Bertrand’s culpability. Doctors stated, “although perfectly sane, Bertrand is not responsible for these acts.” Despite doctors findings, the justice system levied a punishment, so that in the end, Bertrand received a year’s imprisonment, during which time doctors attempted to cure him.

In 1856, Bertrand moved to Le Havre. There he held a variety of positions — clerk, lighthouse keeper and mailman. As no reports on grave desecration were linked to Bertrand, one nineteenth century newspaper stated, “he is now perfectly cured of his hideous disease, and is cited as model of gentleness, propriety, and good behavior.”

Bertrand died on 25 February 1878. However, Bertrand’s “peculiarity” for the dead continued to be of interest to the medical community. It also resulted in Dr. Joseph Guislain, a Belgian physician and a pioneer in psychiatry, coining the term “necrophilia” in 1850.

References:

  • “A Modern Vampire,” in Dundee Evening Telegraph, 2 April 1886
  • Fisher, Sarah, et al., Bodies, Sex and Desire From the Renaissance to the Present, 2011
  • Krafft-Ebing, Richard, Psychopathia Sexualis, 1906
  • “Lycanthropy,” in Gloucester Journal, 22 September 1849
  • Revue des Deux Mondes, Volume 2, 1874
  • “The Ghoul of Montparnasse,” in North Otago Times, 1 January 1875
  • “The Vampire,” in Illustrated Police News, 1 December 1894

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