Revolt at Levant Penitentiary with 14 Boys Roasted Alive

On 3 October 1866 14 boys were roasted alive because of a revolt at Levant Penitentiary, a juvenile facility, located on the Île du Levant, sometimes referred to as Le Levant. It is a French island in the Mediterranean off the coast of the Riviera, near Toulon and is the largest of the four islands that constitute the Îles d’Hyères.

Some English juveniles pickpocketing victims in London by D.T. Egerton, 1823. Courtesy of University of Michigan.

The revolt at Levant Penitentiary involved teenage convicts or as the French would say, jeunes délinquants, between the ages of 13 and 19. The penitentiary, also referred to as an “amateur reformatory,” trained young boys in husbandry and agricultural skills. It had been established by Count de Portalis and placed under the control of a well-intentioned man named Fauvau who served as its director.

Things began to heat up at the penitentiary on 24 September when sixty-five Corsicans previously confined at St. Antoine, in Ajaccio, the site of Napoleon Bonaparte’s ancestral home, were transferred to Levant island. At the time the Levant Penitentiary contained somewhere between 223 to 230 boys but with the addition of the Corsican juveniles the number of convicts was around 300 inmates. Of this addition, the Morning Post noted:

“The Levant reformatory had always been well conducted [even regarded as model of discipline], indeed, this was the reason for transferring thither the late inmates of the penitentiary at St. Antoine … an establishment which seems to have been suppressed as a consequence of its having been considered a failure.”[1]

According to Levant authorities, less than six days after the Corsicans arrived, there were problems. It was later claimed that about forty of the sixty-five Corsican convicts began to make trouble and cause unrest in the penitentiary. According to the Hampshire Telegraph:

“They refused to work, they disbanded, and by means of fine promises and terrible menances they succeeded in winning over a good number of the oldest boys of the Levant Penitentary.”[2]

According to prison officials, the riot began under the pretext that the Corsican inmates were being “insufficiently fed.” It happened in the evening on 2 October, when some of the instigators joined together, got up from their beds, put out the lights, broke windows, demolished the partitions, and expelled the guards. They juveniles then armed themselves with axes and released other young convicts who had been confined in their cells because of bad behavior. The young convicts then began to pillage the penitentiary.

“[T]he lads uniting in a body then burst into the storehouse, knocked in the heads of the casks of brandy, tore open the cases of sugar provisions, and then abandoned themselves to a complete orgie.”[3]

Amongst the juvenile convicts were a group of fourteen inmates who refused to join in the revolt. The chief ringleader of the rioters, a boy named Coudurier, soon proposed that these unwilling participants be dealt with and a discussion ensued as to how that should be accomplished. First, the convicts thought about taking the fourteen boys to the heath and stoning them, but they gave up the idea and decided on something more nefarious. The idea was to lure them to the storehouse and then set it on fire with them still inside.

Revolt at Levant Penitentiary - bound delinquent from 1898

Example of a young delinquent from 1898 who is bound. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The rioters somehow enticed the 14 boys to the storehouse and then 16-year-old Coudurier selected two boys to aid in his plan. The boys chosen were Ferrandon described in Le Constitutionnel as being pale, “a little man of thirteen and a half [whose] … countenance expresses nothing bad or cruel”[4] and an evil “hang-dog” looking 13-year-old named Allard. Ferrandon lit the match after a pile of papers was heaped up and saturated with petroleum and then Allard ensured none of the fourteen boys escaped: In fact, he stood opposite the door of the storehouse holding a knife and ready to stab anyone who attempted to flee the burning building.

Once the revolt at Levant Penitentiary was underway the small force used to maintain order inside the prison found the young convicts greatly outnumbered them. Unable to repress the convicts’ enthusiasm for destruction, the guards fled. The rioters then attempted to approach Fauvau’s house planning to do him harm, but another small attachment of guards held them off and the young convicts retreated. However, finding their lives in danger, the guards and Fauvau, along with others then fled the island for the mainland. A report later stated:

“At the Levant reformatory there appears to have been absolutely no force at all to resist these three hundred young desperadoes. The few attendants … had to fly for their lives at the very outset, and it was with some difficulty that a boat-load of them, with the chaplain and the director, contrived to leave the island, pursued by the execrations of the young rebels, who stood on the beach blaspheming in vexation at the escape of the fugitives whom they wished to tear to pieces.”[5]  

Fauvau and those who fled from Levant finally reached Toulon safely. Upon landing they told Toulon authorities about the revolt at Levant Penitentiary that had broken out and how they had barely survived. Unfortunately, there was little Toulon authorities could do because the weather at sea had become “tempestuous” and they were unable to send any assistance to quell the riot until the following morning when the seas calmed down.

With no one to prevent the juvenile rioters from doing whatever they wanted things escalated. By now the storehouse with the fourteen boys locked inside was steadily blazing and because the storehouse windows were strongly barred, “there was no possibility of egress except by the one door, at which the boy Allard stood with his knife.”[6] Supposedly one lad named Garibaldi tried to pass through the door three separate times but each time Allard was waiting and stabbed him, and he was “hurled back bleeding into the fire.”[7]

As the blaze grew there were at least two attempts to help the trapped boys. The island’s lighthouse keeper got a blanket, dipped it in water, and ran to the door, but the convicts grabbed him and flung him into a deep ditch, where he broke both his ankles in the fall. Another boy also took pity on the burning boys. He snatched a blanket and tried to aid them, but once again the riotous convicts grabbed him and threw him into the ditch. Fortunately, however, he was not harmed and was able to climb out and run away.

revolt at Levant penitentiary with the storehouse set on fire.

Revolt at Levant Penitentiary with the storehouse set on fire and the trapped boys inside the burning storehouse. Author’s collection.

The leaping flames then intensified and the Hampshire Telegraph reported on the horror that then ensued:

“All the boys inside managed to get at the window, clung to the bars, and cried for assistance with accounts of the most moving despair. But the ringleaders now surveyed the victims with an implacable coolness. The poor fellows suffered the most excruciating agony; their faces were black, their cheeks melted in the fiery flames, their hair blazed; but soon death put an end to their sufferings.”[8]

When soldiers and additional support from Toulon finally arrived on the 4th by ship, the juveniles Levant Penitentiary rioters were rounded up. At the time, the storehouse was still burning, and so firemen were brought to the scene and the smoldering fire put out. It was then that authorities discovered a “fearful occurrence” had taken place and that resulted in the gruesome details being provided by the Morning Post:

“After the fire had burnt itself out, and when a sufficient force came to arrest these young desperadoes, the remains of the fourteen victims who had perished in the flames were discovered reduced to charred and shapeless masses, so that it was almost impossible to identify them as having once been human beings.[9]

The teenage convicts involved were taken to the mainland and incarcerated. A few months later, on 3 January 1867 sixteen of the boys were tried at Draguignan. At trial it was obvious to attendees that the guards, the chaplain, and Fauvau looked bad for having fled the scene. Nonetheless, they hoped to shore up their reputations by pointing the finger at the Corsican inmates, who they noted had been uncooperative and troublesome from the start.

Typical trial of juvenile criminals in the 1800s in England. Courtesy of the British Library.

During the trial some interesting facts came out that showed authorities at the Levant Penitentiary were wrong about who was to blame for the riot. Evidence showed that it was the “old inhabitants” of Levant who were the real instigators and started the trouble. It seems that Coudurier was a long-time inhabitant at the penitentiary and that he worked as a cook. It was alleged that he made soup for the Corsican convicts with sea brine hoping that they would become dissatisfied with their food so that he could encourage them to be insubordinate and then persuade them to support him in a riot.

“Indeed, the alleged cause of the outbreak, as pleaded by the prisoners in excuse, was that their food was bad, and as this is a grievance which could not have excited rebellion unless it were of some standing, it is probable that the plea was a mere pretence, and that the food of the new comers was made unpalatable in order to make them discontented, and produce a frame of mind in which they could be more easily induced to co-operate in the projects of the conspirators.”[10]  

The verdict came down against the young juveniles late in the evening on 8 January 1867. However, due to telegraph transmission difficulties the verdict was not known to the public until the following morning at 9am. The chief ringleader Coudurier was one of the four convicts condemned to life in the galleys. Allard received an additional ten years, and Ferrandon, the boy who had lit the petroleum, was acquitted. However, he was to remain in the prison until he reached twenty years of age. The remaining inmates charged were given varying sentences but less severe punishments than Allard or Ferrandon received.

After the riot, Levant Penitentiary authorities attempted to determine exactly what happened and exactly how the revolt at broke out. The Morning Post reported it was somewhat difficult for anyone to clearly ascertain the facts but ultimately the following conclusion was reached:

“Fourteen were burnt by the gang in acting under the direction of the sixteen ringleaders … of whom Condurier was the chief. The probability is, that in this case what is generally found to be the rule, prevailed, namely, that the majority were neutral, apathetic, cowardly, amused by the riot, and, without taking any active part in it stood by as lookers-on, and suffered this horrible crime to be committed by an united and therefore irresistible minority of conspirators.”[11]

People in the local area claimed for some time that the revolt at Levant Penitentiary in 1866 was one of the most horrible tragedies that they ever remembered within “civilized” society. But that was not the end of the affair. Apparently, one young boy who was convicted and received an increase sentence for his role in the riot came to believe that another inmate had provided evidence against him and therefore brutally murdered the supposed “snitch.”

As to the Levant event in general, the London Evening Standard summed up the revolt stating:

“Frightful, indeed, must be the depth of juvenile depravity which could enact such horrors. Savages could not have done worse, and such a scene in England would almost ruin the reformatory movement for ever. One lesson to be learned from it appears to be this — that discipline should be firmly maintained, and that there should always be a sufficient power at hand to suppress the first attempt at a general revolt. Such tragedies should be made impossible.”[12]  

References:

  • [1] The Morning Post, “The French Newspapers,” January 9, 1867, p. 4.
  • [2] Hampshire Telegraph, “Extraordinary Revolt in a French Penitentary,” January 12, 1867, p. 7.
  • [3] Lincolnshire Chronicle, “Awful Fire in a Penitentary,” October 13, 1866, p. 6.
  • [4] Le Constitutionnel, “Cour d’ Assises du Var,” January 5, 1867, p. 3.
  • [5]The Morning Post, p. 4.
  • [6] The Illustrated Police News, “The Illustrated Police News,” January 12, 1867, p. 2.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Hampshire Telegraph, p. 7.
  • [9] The Morning Post, p. 4.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] London Evening Standard, January 10, 1867, p. 4.

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