Rue de la Harpe Murders, Cannibalism, and Folktales

Rue de la Harpe murders, Cannibalism, and Folktales
Rue la de Harpe Today, Courtesy of Wikipedia

This folktale is about the Rue de la Harpe murders and begins in 1800 when two rich business men decided to travel to Paris together. They went to the Rue de la Harpe, an ancient street in the Fauxbourg of St. Marcell. One of the men was accompanied by his faithful companion, a dog. Before visiting the more fashionable streets of Paris and upon their arrival at the Rue de la Harpe, the two friends went to the shop of a barber to be shaved.

The barber’s name was Becque. The first business man (whom I shall call Henry for clarity’s sake) was shaved and then Henry told his friend that he needed to complete a small errand. Henry promised to return before the second man finished his shave, but when Henry returned, to his great surprise, he discovered his friend had left and that his friend’s dog was waiting for him outside the barber’s door.

Henry assumed his friend had left for a short time, and he chatted amiably with Becque awaiting his friend’s return. However, a considerable amount of time passed, and Henry’s friend still did not return. Henry became impatient and asked the barber if he knew where his friend went. But the barber said no. Becque claimed that Henry’s friend got up and left after his shave without mentioning where he was going.

Henry decided his friend had to be nearby as his dog remained at the door. Henry went in and out and then up and down the street, but he could find no sign of his friend, so, he returned to the barbershop. By now Henry’s impatience had turned into alarm and his friend dog’s also began to exhibit a sense of restlessness, yelping and howling. This upset Henry and he had an altercation with Becque, whereupon Becque demanded Henry leave.

Henry left the shop but no matter what Henry did, he could not get the dog to leave. “No whistling, no calling, no patting … [nothing would] stir him.” Henry was so upset a crowd soon surrounded him and the dog. The crowd then asked Henry why the dog would not leave and he explained, it encouraged the crowd to try to get the dog to leave. However, nothing they did or said — no caress, no seduction, no treat — could sway the dog to budge.

Eventually, someone suggested Henry call for the police. Others in the crowd decided Becque’s shop needed to be searched, and they forced their way into his shop. They conducted a thorough search through every apartment but still there was no trace of Henry’s friend. During the time of the search, the dog remained patiently waiting at the door.

After a fruitless search, another altercation occurred with Becque and he then insisted that everyone leave. He was forcing everyone out and swearing to his innocence, when the dog suddenly sprang at him. He aimed for Becque’s throat and it so scared Becque, he fainted. Several people restrained the dog, but the dog remained in state of fury, howling and crying. Eventually, someone suggested the dog be let loose, and it was agreed.

The moment the dog was loose, he flew through the shop, down the stairs, and into a dark cellar when he began to howl madly. The crowd followed the dog, obtained lights, and found bloodied walls and floors that caused everyone to be aghast. Moreover, supposedly there was also the torso of a headless man, and a hole in the wall that led to the bakery next door. The bakery was occupied by a pastry cook named Mornay. Mornay made savory meat patties, and when Mornay’s place was searched, evidence was found that implicated the pastry cook with Becque.

James Gillray’s Depiction After the September Massacres of 1792 Showing a Family of Sans-culottes Feasting Upon the Dismembered Bodies of other Frenchmen. Public Domain.

At that point Becque and Mornay were arrested and brought to trial. During the trial it was learned that Becque and Mornay were friends and that they devised a horrid scheme to get rich. Supposedly, when someone came into the barber shop, Becque would put the person at ease and then slice the person’s throat with his razor. He would then rob the dead man of his riches and dump the body in the cellar. Mornay then supposedly took the body, minced it, formed into patties, cooked, and sold them, thereby making a fortune.

It was such a horrible crime, supposedly Becque and Mornay were tried at the Palace of Justice in 1801. They were found guilt and not just executed but executed upon the rack. The houses in which they lived were also torn down and the spot where their buildings existed were “marked out to posterity with horror and with execration,” that no human should ever inhabit or reside in that spot again.

Sweeney Todd Cover, Public Domain

That was the story of the Rue de la Harpe murders, and although some people claimed it was true, most people claimed it was nothing more than folklore based on the following facts. First, the murders were supposedly documented by the Minister of Police, Joseph Fouché, in the Archives of the Police, but he is the only person who seems to have commented on it, despite it being such a momentous story. When Fouché died, a book titled Mémoires de J. Fouché was published with the story, but Fouché’s son claimed the book was fraudulent and the stories untrue. Second, about six years before the story first appeared, two houses on the Rue de la Harpe were torn down to allow access to the ruins of the Thermes de Cluny. Some people claim that the story of the murderous barber and baker originated from this event. Thirdly, some people also assert that the French Revolution resulted in a fascination with cannibalism and that city dwellers in general were interested in crime, which may have contributed to the creation of the Rue de la Harpe murder story.

Eventually, a French murder story about a barber appeared in 1825 in Tell-Tale Magazine under the title “A Terrible Story of the Rue de la Harpe.” The story of Rue de la Harpe is also cited as influencing one of the famous penny dreadful stories that became popular during Victorian times. It was the story of the English demon barber Sweeney Todd of Fleet Street, London, and his baking accomplice Mrs. Lovett.

References:

  • “The Assassin Peruquier of Paris,” in The Odd Fellow, 25 July 1840
  • The Wonders of the Universe; or Curiosities of Nature and Art, 1836

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