French Priest Delacollonge: A Nineteenth-century Murderer

The French priest Delacollonge lived in Dijon. On occasion a woman by the name of Fanny Besson visited him at his rectory. She was a milliner and said to be “mild, modest, and very religious.”[1] She was also renting a room in Dijon from a Madame Vulot and had told her that her “husband had fled for a political offence, and she had no friend but her brother [Delacollonge].”[2]

French Priest Delacollogne, Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France

French Priest Delacollonge. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

In May of 1834 a pregnant Besson arrived at Delacollonge’s house and remained there for two or three months. During this time, the French priest Delacollonge helped her gain lodging for her accouchement, and numerous people mentioned the tenderness Delacollonge displayed towards her during this time. Unfortunately, soon after the baby’s birth, the child died.

After the child’s death, the Delacollonge took Besson back to his rectory, where servants were told she was his cousin. However, one servant knew they were not cousins because she had already discovered Besson and Delacollonge were having an affair. The servant told the mayor of St. Marie la Blanche about the affair, and the mayor spoke to Delacollonge “about the scandal,” which resulted in Besson being sent away. However, Besson soon returned to the rectory. 

Fanny Besson, Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France

Fanny Besson. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

News leaked out that Besson was back and accusations began that she had returned, but the French priest Delacollonge denied it. At the same time, he was helping Besson pack her belongings, so she could move. Knowing that she had to leave, the two were unhappy about their upcoming separation and talked about committing joint suicide. Then, according to Delacollonge, “he with her consent, pressed her neck closely with his two hands, as an experiment of the effect of strangulation. When he removed his hands she fell, and seeing she was dying, he gave her absolution, and death ensued.”[3]

Fearful of the consequences and supposedly to preserve the reputation of Besson, Delacollonge then began to think about how to dispose of Besson’s body without detection, something similar that other murderers, such as Théodore Gardelle, also planned and tried to accomplish. In Dellacollogne’s case he could not bury her because his garden was exposed to public view and his cellar was too small. “He … thought of burning it, but this seemed impracticable.”[4] He soon decided is only choice was to cut her body into pieces, which he did using a billhook and a knife, and “although he placed a tub under the body to catch the blood, the floor was covered with it.”[5] Moreover, “when he made the first gash in the neck the blood spurted into his face.”[6]

After the French priest Delacollonge cut up of the body, he threw her entrails down the privy. He placed the other pieces of her body in a trunk. However, after doing so, he reconsidered the wisdom of putting them in the trunk and moved them to a sack, “which he carried … out at night, and threw … into a pond.”[7]

His crime might have gone undetected if it were not for a woman named Jeanne Poupon. She was washing some linen in the pond a few days later when she discovered the sack. She opened it and was horrified when a leg fell out. Later, when the head was removed from the pond, it was recognized as belonging to Besson. A Dr. Molin examined the head and the pieces taken from the pond and claimed they had “been separated with great skill … by a person possessing the most complete sang froid.”[8]

Discovery of Besson's Leg, Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France

Discovery of Besson’s Leg. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

When the French priest Delacollonge learned Besson’s body had been found, he panicked. He broke into the churchwarden’s chest and took 285 francs (although later he restored the money). Using the stolen money to finance his escape, Delacollonge first found lodging with a young woman named Rippet at Lyons, the city where the French socialite Madame Récamier had been born. Delacollonge then fled to Geneva where his conscience got the better of him and “not wishing to avoid justice, he returned to France, and was arrested.”[9]

The trial in 1836 was a grisly recreation of the crime. Dr. Molin testified and claimed the decapitation was accomplished with a knife. This error roused the French priest Delacollonge who then made the following claims according to court records:

Delacollonge: “I placed the head on a block, and supporting the corpse with my left hand, I struck with the right two blows on the neck with a bill-hook. But these strokes were not sufficient, and I continued to strike till at last the head came off quite easy in my hand, and I held it up by the hair.”
Attorney-General: “You commenced your dissection, then, by the head?”
Delacollonge: “To be sure; then I cut off the arms; then the legs: last of all, I extracted the entrails and intestines.
Doctor: “I still say, that with this bill-hook I do not understand how the head could be cut so clean off!”[10]

After this gruesome testimony, the judge suggested proceedings stop for the day, but the jury strongly objected because the following day a fair was being held at Chalons and some of the jurors wanted to attend. Therefore, the judge promised arguments the next day would be short. He also promised the jurors could deliberate as long or as short as needed to determine Delacollonge’s verdict. The following was published in regard to the jurors and their verdict:

“[The] next evening at six o’clock — whether in a hurry to compromise the fair of Chalons, we cannot tell — they gave the following astonishing verdict:

As to murder, that ‘the culprit was guilty of voluntary homicide, but without premeditation‘ — and as to the robbery, that ‘he was guilty, but with extenuating circumstances!‘”[11]

The judge issued his ruling based on the verdict. He sentenced the French priest Delacollonge to a life of hard labor “and to be exposed in the pillory!“[12] The judge’s ruling excited those in the courtroom and loud murmurs arose. As for the prisoner, upon hearing the ruling, it was reported he “fell down, and when he left the court was obliged to be supported by gendarmes.”[13]

References:

  • [1] The Annual Register, Or, A View of the History, Politics, and Literature for the Year, 1837, p. 27.
  • [3] “Murder by a Priest,” in Evening Mail, 14 March 1836, p. 1.
  • [4] “Murder by a French Priest,” in Wexford Conservative, 26 March 1836, p. 1.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] “Horrible Murder by a Priest,” in Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle, 13 March 1836, p. 1.
  • [8] Murder by a Priest,” in Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 19 March 1836, p. 4.
  • [9] “Horrible Murder by a Priest,” p. 1.
  • [10] Museum of Foreign Literature, Science and Art, Volumes 29-30, 1836, p. 73.
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] “Murder by a Priest,” in Evening Mail, p. 1.

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1 Comments

  1. Michelle Stanley on May 1, 2016 at 4:48 pm

    I wonder what the murderer’s fate would be if the fair was not in town.

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