Louis Mandrin has been called the French Robin Hood or the Prince of Smugglers. He became famous for rebelling against the tax collectors of France during the time of Louis XV. The tax collectors, known as fermiers, were farmers who collected taxes for the King. However, besides the pre-agreed tax amount, these tax collectors often tried to collect something for themselves. Many of them were greedy, and, therefore, they were extremely hated and highly unpopular with the French people.
The first time that Louis Mandrin experienced a problem was in 1748. His father had died and he taken over his business. At the time, Mandrin had a contract with the French government to supply mules to the French army in Italy. To do so, his 97 mules had to travel to Italy and in so doing they had to cross the Swiss Alps. This was an extremely difficult task because of cold weather and a variety of other factors. Unfortunately, along the way, most of the mules died so that when Mandrin reached his destination, only 17 mules survived. The survivors were in such a sorry state, the fermiers refused to pay him for the animals.
Five years later, in 1753, Louis Mandrin had more problems. This time he and his friend named Benoît Brissaud were involved in a fight and killed their opponents. Brissaud and Mandrin were sentenced but both escaped. Unfortunately, Brissaud was caught and executed, and, on the same day as Brissaud’s execution, Mandrin’s brother Pierre was also hanged for counterfeiting. From that point forward, Mandrin decided to seek revenge and became to wage war against the tax collectors.
He joined a gang of smugglers, who primarily smuggled tobacco and operated out of the Cantons of Switzerland, France, and Savoy. Mandrin, who was middle-sized, red-headed, with blue eyes, was good at smuggling and was soon appointed the leader of the gang.
“A solemn oath was imposed upon all the members of the band, in which they swore against the government officers an undying hatred, and death, if they interposed any obstacles in the way of their success. The number of recruits increased rapidly.”
Louis Mandrin ran his gang of about 300 as if it were a military regiment and organized military campaigns that targeted the most unpopular of the tax collectors. These campaigns against the tax collected made him popular with the oppressed people. Moreover, because Mandrin bought goods in Switzerland and resold them in French towns without paying taxes, people could buy his smuggled products for far less.
Because of Mandrin’s antics, tax collectors appealed to Louis XV, but he told them to handle the problem themselves, although because the French government was losing out on taxes, laws were soon passed that made it illegal for anyone to buy smuggled goods. Nonetheless, the new laws did not deter Mandrin from smuggling. He instead began to target employees from an outsourced operation known as the Ferme générale that collected taxes and duties on behalf of the King and forced some of these employees to buy his goods at gunpoint, which is reported in the following story from 1754:
“The poor man endeavored to protest; but the great sabre, the pistols, the ferocious aspect of the man [Mandrin], and, above all, the fifty-two bayonets which he could see through his open window gleaming in the sun, took from him any thought of resistance. He allowed the mules to be driven in to his court, assisted in unloading them, and counted out the amount politely demanded by the bandit. As soon as he received the money, the chief gave the collector a receipt in due form, signed Le Capitaine Mandrin.”
Incidents like that infuriated the tax collectors, and they then sought help from the Royal Army. In the meantime, Louis Mandrin sought refuge in Savoy, near Pont-de-Beauvoisin and believed himself safe. The tax collectors by this point were fed up and they illegally entered Savoy, disguised themselves as ordinary peasants, and seized Mandrin at Rochefort-en-Novalaise. When the King of Savoy, Charles Emmanuel III (relative to the ill-fated princesse de Lamballe), learned what had happened, he protested and wrote to Louis XV, demanding that Louis Mandrin be returned. Louis XV agreed, but the tax collectors desirous to be rid of Mandrin once and for all held a speedy trial.
Mandrin’s trial took place on 24 May 1755. He was found guilty, sentenced, and quickly executed before Louis XV’s letter could reach them. Mandrin’s execution involved being broken on the wheel, a penalty reserved for only the worst offenders as it was an extremely cruel punishment. Two days later, on 26 May, Louis Mandrin was taken to place aux Clercs in Valence, Drôme. There six thousand spectators waited to witness his execution, which was described in the following way:
“For the Reparation of which, and the other Crimes proved against him, we have condemned the said Lewis Mandrin to be delivered to the Execution of Justice, to be stripped to his Shirt, with a Rope about his Neck, and a Writing affixed to him, containing these Word in large Characters, ‘The Chief of Smugglers of Criminals guilty of High Treason, of Assassins, Robbers, and Disturbers of the Public Peace,’ holding in his Hand a lighted Wax Candle of the Weight of two Pounds, before the Cathedral Church of Valence in Dauphiny, where the said Mandrin, bare-headed and kneeling, shall declare with a loud Voice, that he begs Pardon of God, of the King, and the Officers of Justice, for all the Crimes and Villainies by him committed. He shall then be taken to the Place of Execution, and there have his Arms, Legs, Thighs, and back broken while alive, on a Scaffold prepared for that Purpose, and at length be put on a Wheel with his Face turned towards Heaven, where he is to end his Life.”
Mandrin endured the torture without a sound, and after suffering for eight minutes, he was strangled. His corpse was then displayed and angry, as well as sympathetic notes, were left next to his body. However, the death of Mandrin was in many ways just the beginning because from that point forward, a legend was born. Mandrin’s struggle against the Ancien Régime’s tax collector became a constant topic of discussion among the public, and, perhaps, in some ways contributed to the French Revolution.
Olivier Malinur, a friend on google plus, provided this link to “La Commplainte de Mandrin” on youtube. It is a soulful and traditional song about Mandrin’s execution and is still popular today. It is from Yves Montand (although they are many other versions).
-  Fuller, Horace Williams, Noted French Trials, 1882, p. 239-240.
-  Mandrin, Louis, Authentic Memoirs of the Life and Exploits of Mandrin, 1755, p. 38-39.