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.”
Poulailler, which is a reference to a hen-house, and perhaps not Poulailler’s birth name, probably acquired the name because of his poultry thieving skills, which some people have said is what he first started stealing. Having demonstrated himself to be a successful poultry thief and robber, he soon found himself in Germany and it was there he began a crime spree and began to lead a small band of robbers. He also assumed the identity of a Count, met a woman, and fell desperately in love.
Poulailler’s love interest was the daughter of a Baron, Mademoiselle Wilhelmina de Kirbergen. Their love flourished until the real Count appeared and pronounced Poulailler a fraud. When confronted, Poulailler refused to admit he was a fraud, and, he argued so effectively, the Baron dispatched messengers to determine the truth. However, just before Poulailler’s true identity was to be revealed, he absconded, and, Wilhelmina, blinded by love, went with him.
Poulailler, Wilhelmina, and his band of robbers next appeared in France. In France, they were reputedly so well organized “that neither life nor property was considered safe.” This resulted in the local magistrate constantly attempting to arrest Poulailler and his band of thieves. Poulailler, however, turned the tables on the magistrate by finding his address, binding him hand and foot, and robbing him of all his gold.
When people learned of Poulailler’s triumph over the magistrate, Poulailler’s actions were converted into several cheeky songs and sung on Parisian streets. These songs ridiculed the magistrate’s defeat and made Poulailler out to be a gallant, chivalrous, and noble hero. Yet, his reputation of hero wouldn’t last long.
Poulailler first got in a trouble with the Louis Jean Marie de Bourbon, known as Duke of Penthièvre. At the time the Duke of Penthièvre was the richest man in France. Poulailler set three fires to the Duke’s forest, and the last fire killed one of the Duke’s guards. The Duke then offered a generous reward for Poulailler’s capture.
Around the same time that Poulailler was having problems with the Duke, the French populace turned against him. It seems they became upset with Poulailler because he was intentionally cruel: Reputedly, he killed 150 people, many of who were alleged to have been murdered in cold blood, and, moreover, his reputation preceded him to the point that Parisians were “afraid to venture into the street after nightfall.”
Poulailler’s own gang members were also afraid of him. One alleged traitorous gang member was punished in the most extraordinary way: He was gagged and plastered into a wall alive. Poulailler noted the murderous event in his own handwriting, etching the traitor’s sentence and epitaph into the soft plaster where the man was sealed, which was not discovered until years later when a new proprietor purchased the building.
As Poulailler’s murderous reputation grew, police sought him out and captured him several times, but he always somehow escaped. In the meantime, Poulailler also fell out of love with Wilhelmina. He then supposedly tried to twice rid himself of her by stabbing her and then poisoning her, but both attempts failed.
Despite these attempts on her life, Wilhelmina remained committed to Poulailler. She had given up station, family, and friends and was not about to turn Poulailler into authorities, that is, until something happened that she could not ignore. It seems Poulailler decided to leave Wilhelmina for a younger woman, and, so, she finally “abandoned herself to revenge.”
Wilhelmina implored Poulailler that they might meet one final time, and because he wanted to be free of Wilhelmina for good, he agreed. When they met, Wilhelmina was so warm, Poulailler half-repented. He then sat down to dine on a delicious supper, and as he sat enjoying tasty food and a zesty conversation, Wilhelmina suddenly clapped her hands. “In an instant, before he had time to move, the Philistines were upon him. Archers and … officers swarmed from the hangings, door, and windows.”
It had taken months for police to capture Poulailler. This time, however, unlike the five times previous, Poulailler did not escape. Police ensured he was securely manacled and chained wherever he went. When at last Poulailler was presented before the bar of justice, he was found guilty of all sorts of crimes. He then received a sentence of the most excruciating torture, and to prolong his agony, he was “publicly broken on the Wheel — and was taken off it alive, to be cast into a blazing fire.”
- —, in Saunder’s News-Letter, 18 July 1786
- Bidwell, W.H., ed., The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art, 1851
- Dickens, Charles, All the Year Round. London, 1861
- “Thursday’s Post,” in Derby Mercury, 30 September 1784