The Red Inn Affair became a notorious case in the nineteenth century after a hostel customer at the Red Inn was found dead with a smashed skull. Evidence seemed to point to the proprietors of the inn — Pierre and Marie Martin — and their employee, Jean Rochette. The ensuing trial (which is sometimes dubbed “The Crimes of Peyrebeille”) was sensational, and beside being charged with murder, the Martins and Rochette were also accused of the horrid crime of cannibalism.
The Martin’s started operating the Red Inn, originally named L’Auberge de Peyrebeille, in 1805. Located in the southern French commune of Lanarce in Ardèche, it bordered on Issanlas and Lavillatte and was situated on a lonely road. Pierre Martin had started out as a poor farmer. However, he and his wife had pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and accumulated a sizable fortune that amounted to 30,000 gold Francs (worth approximately 600,000 Euros today).
Despite his financial success, Pierre Martin had a not-so-friendly reputation with the locals. Neighbors feared him and accused of bullying them. Moreover, his forceful reputation was further solidified after he began using henchman to get his way.
Trouble for the Martin’s began when a local horse dealer named Jean-Antoine Enjolras appeared at the Red Inn on 12 October 1831 searching for a missing heifer. Enjolras soon came up missing himself and this resulted in local authorities investigating his disappearance. They soon learned that Enjolras had patronized the Red Inn. His body was discovered by the Allier River, which was close to the inn. His skull was bashed in and his knee badly crushed.
Shortly thereafter, on the 25th of October, Pierre Martin and his nephew, André, were arrested on suspicion of murdering Enjolras. Their arrests were followed by the arrest of Martin’s servant, Jean Rochette on the 1st of November. The next day, despite the belief at the time that a woman could not commit murder, Martin’s wife, Marie, was also arrested.
On 18 June 1833, the trial of the “four monsters” began in the commune of Privas. The murder was quickly dubbed the Red Inn Affair. The belief was Enjolras had been murdered while being robbed. Moreover, at trial it was ascertained Enjolras had been drinking at the inn and Marie had given him some tea shortly before he disappeared.
Laurent Chaz, a local non-speaking French beggar, who was also an alcoholic, testified he was at the Red Inn on the night of the murder. Chaz claimed he was thrown out because he could not afford a room. He maintained that he then sought shelter in a shed where he witnessed Enjolras’s murder by the accused.
More testimony in the Red Inn Affair seemed to convict those accused. For instance, disposal of Enjolras’s body was confirmed by a man named Claude Pagès. He testified Pierre Martin, Rochette, and some unknown third person used a cart to transport Enjolras’s body to the river.
At the time of the trial the Code Napoleon allowed hearsay evidence and it was overwhelming and had little to do with the facts. For example, testimony fed off dislike for Pierre Martin, false rumors, and jealousy over the Martin’s large fortune. Witnesses made wild allegations including that Marie used corpse pieces to make stews, human hands were seen boiling on her stove, corpses (even of young children) were cooked in her ovens, walls and floors were covered in blood, and sickening smells were constantly spewing forth from the inn’s smoky chimney.
Despite the 100 plus witnesses that testified against the accused, the person who perhaps did the most damage to the defense was Rochette’s own lawyer. At trial, he declared his client a murderer, although he also claimed it was not Rochette’s fault because Rochette could not escape the bad influences of the Martins. Such statements helped to convict the Martins and Rochette.
When summation occurred, the president of the court essentially supported the prosecution. He ignored the defense’s arguments that stated that Chaz’s claims could not be trusted because he was a drunk and that Enjolras probably died from a heart attack because of his drinking.
When the verdict came down in the case of the Red Inn Affair, André Martin was found “not guilty.” The other three were found guilty and despite all the testimony about cannibalism and numerous murders, Rochette and the Martins were only found guilty of killing Enjolras. Their executions occurred at noon with reputedly thirty-thousand spectators attending their executions. Afterwards a celebratory ball was held in front of the inn.
Supposedly Rochette’s last words were, “Masters be damned, what didn’t you make me do!” Some people at the time felt that Rochette’s words confirmed his guilt. They also believed that he and the Martin’s were guilty of much more than killing Enjolras. Moreover, there continued to be much talk and gossip about the Red Inn Affair as demonstrated by an article that appeared some sixty years later in 1893 that stated:
“The notorious wayside inn at Peyrebeille which during a period of twenty-six years was the scene of innumerable murders of travellers, is for sale. This former death trap is situated in a wild spot among the Arèche mountains. At the time of the murders it was kept by a man and his wife, assisted by a … servant. The crimes of the trio were eventually discovered, and they all perished … but the exact number of travellers they had killed was never found. The price asked is only 100 francs, a thousand times less, perhaps, than has been made by the many authors who have exploited the horrible legend of Peyrebeille.”
Years later, in 1966, Felix Viallet and Charles Almeras reexamined the case. They reaffirmed the guilt of the Martins. However, since their reexamination, other scholars have raised doubts about the validity of the trial and the truthfulness of the testimonies, just like doubt has been raised in the case of Madame Marie Lefarge who was accused of murdering her husband.
One scholar who questions the guilt of the Martins and Rochette is current historian is Thierry Boudignon. He asserts the trial was a miscarriage of justice and that there was dubious testimony and unreliable witnesses. He also maintains the trial was nothing more than attempt to make an example out of the Martins and that Chaz’s testimony was translated in such a way that it influenced the jury to find them and Rochette guilty.
-  “L’Auberge rouge, à Peyrebeille,” on le Progres
-  “Notorious Inn for Sale,” in The Star, 8 June 1893, p. 1.