Pierre Poulailler the 18th Century Robber
Despite being a handsome child, Pierre Poulailler acquired a reputation at birth of belonging to the devil. He demonstrated this devilish reputation when 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 that some people claim is what he first stole. 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. He did this by building and leading 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 Pierre Poulailler a fraud. When confronted, he refused to admit he was a fraud. He argued so effectively, the Baron dispatched messengers to determine the truth. However, just before Poulailler’s identity was revealed, he absconded, and, Wilhelmina, blinded by love, went with him.
Pierre Poulailler, Wilhelmina, and his band of robbers next appeared in France and home to people like Madame Récamier. There Poulailler and his band were reputedly so well organized “that neither life nor property was considered safe.” The Derby Mercury reported:
“A numerous set of Banditti now infest the French Metropolis and its Environs. They are headed by Poulailler, who lately escaped with the greatest Part of his Gang from Montargis Forest. They are complete Levellers, and their Aim seems to be to establish a perfect Equality among Men, robbing the Rich to assist the Poor, and keeping the rest of the Booty for themselves.”
With all the problems Poulailler was causing the local magistrate was constantly attempting to arrest him and his band. However, Poulailler turned the tables on the magistrate. He did this by finding the magistrate’s 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. Indicative of this is what was said in an extract of a letter:
“Nothing of a more interesting nature presents itself to send you, than … the infamous Poulailler, whose name is very familiar to every Englishman who has travelled, and who has been for many years the terror of France, but particularly the neighbourhood of Paris. His robberies have been of every degree, from the henroost, from which he has taken his name of Poulailler, to the highway; but in all his villainous proceedings, he has never been known to ill use, either by word or action, those from whom he collected a very ample, though very iniquitous revenue; but, on the contrary, he performed many charitable acts.”
Unfortunately, for Pierre Poulailler his reputation of being a hero would not last long. Things starting to go downhill for him after he got into trouble with the Louis Jean Marie de Bourbon, known as Duke of Penthièvre. He was father-in-law to the Princesse de Lamballe and at the time the richest man in France. Poulailler set three fires to his forests, and the last one 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 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. Rumors swirled for years about this murder, but the dead man’s grave was not discovered until years later when a new proprietor purchased the building. Moreover, as Poulailler’s murderous reputation grew, police sought him out and captured him several times although Pierre Poulailler always somehow escaped.
Poulailler also fell out of love with Wilhelmina. This supposedly caused him to twice try and rid himself of her, stabbing her once and then attempting to poison her. Fortunately for her, both attempts failed, but despite these attempts on her life, Wilhelmina remained committed to him. She had given up station, family, and friends and was not about to turn him into authorities, that is, until something happened that she could not ignore. It seems Pierre Poulailler decided to leave her for a younger woman, and, so, she finally “abandoned herself to revenge.”
Authorities put in place a plan to capture Poulailler and Wilhelmina cooperated. She implored him to meet with her one final time and because he wanted to be free of her for good, he agreed. When they met, Wilhelmina was so warm, Poulailler half-repented. He then sat down to dine on a delicious supper. As he sat enjoying the tasty food and having 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 Pierre Poulailler. This time, however, unlike the five times previous, he would not escape. Police ensured he was securely manacled and chained wherever he went. In fact, they restricted him so much he had no chance of escaping.
When at last he 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. It was a sentence that prolonged his agony because he was “publicly broken on the Wheel — and was taken off it alive, to be cast into a blazing fire.”
-  Harper’s Magazine, Vol. 3, 1851, p. 491.
-  Ibid., p. 492.
-  “Thursday’s Post,” in Derby Mercury, 30 September 1784, p. 4.
-  —, in Saunder’s News-Letter, 18 July 1786, p. 2.
-  Bidwell, W.H., ed., The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art, 1851, p. 566.
-  Harper’s Magazine, p. 191.
-  Bidwell, W.H., p. 568.
-  All the Year Round. London, 1861, p. 96.
A fascinating post, Geri. The most interestin part is that he was able to win the loyalty of a Baron’s daughter. What do you think it was about him that made him so attractive to her?
People like him probably exude charm and that’s how he was able to fool everyone for so long. Once she’d fallen in love with him, I think passion probably drove her. She also must have had some sort of mental health issue. If my boyfriend or lover attempted to kill me, I don’t think I’d be hanging around, and I’d probably be doing everything possible to put him in jail.