The Widow Gras or Jeanne Bricourt: The Jekyll and Hyde Murderess and Courtesan of France

Widow Gras. Public domain.

The Widow Gras or Jeanne Bricourt, also sometimes called Jeanne Brécourt, was considered the female version of a Jekyll and Hyde murderess and one France’s most notorious courtesans. She was born Eugénie Arménaïde Bricourt on 8 April 1837 in Paris and was the neglected child of a printer and a vegetable seller. Because she was so neglected, a Baroness took pity upon her and became her benefactress. However, when Jeanne was eleven, her parents removed from the Baroness’s care and forced her to sell gingerbread, which she did for the next six years.

Caricature of Jeanne with vitriol. Author’s collection.

Once she was of age, Jeanne sought out her benefactress, who helped her find employment with a silk manufacturing company. All went well until Jeanne attended the wedding of one of her co-workers. After the ceremony she decided she wanted to marry and mentioned it to the Baroness. She thought Jeanne was joking and teased her that she should marry the local grocer, a man named Gras. Jeanne decided to do just that and as she would not relent, the Baroness at last gave her consent, and in 1855, Jeanne became the wife of Gras.

The Baroness provided a dowry of 12,000 francs and helped the newlyweds set up a grocery business, but the marriage was miserable. Jeanne was constantly demanding money and her husband was constantly under stress. Before long, he disappeared, and then Jeanne did too, apparently attaching herself to an officer in the garrison at Vincennes.

When she surfaced again she had tried a variety of occupations, all of which had failed, and her husband had died at a charity hospital. According to various sources, the widow Gras was by this time pretending to love men but instead viewed them as nothing more than playthings and wanted them to suffer. She had also become a courtesan, began calling herself Jeanne de la Cour, and claimed only to love her sister:

“All is dust and lies. So much the worse for the men who get in my way. Men are mere stepping-stones to me. As soon as they begin to fail or are played out, I put them scornfully aside. Society is a vast chess-board, men the pawns, some white, some black; I move them as I please, and break them when the bore me.”[1]

Thereafter, in order to get wealthy, it was reported that she drove men to unbelievable depths through blackmail and deceit. The result was her German lover committed suicide and another lover overdosed on cantharides. A third admirer whom she dismissed as a fool, met his death in the hospital. However, it was not just men who were being ruined because supposedly Jeanne also began to suffer hysterical seizures, insane exaltations, convulsions, and loss of speech, and because of her ailments, she was admitted to a private asylum where she claimed that she did not know her parents and that she was a fine lady of breeding.

After several months in the asylum, Jeanne was pronounced “cured” and released. She went to Vittel in northeastern France and assumed the rank of Baroness and called herself the Baroness de la Cour. She was in her late thirties at the time, her hair was turning gray, her charms were waning, and she knew her future was one of destitution because she was losing her lovers to younger and younger women.

It was at this critical juncture, according to French papers, that she met, Rene de la Roche (English documents sometimes refer to him as Georges de Saint Pierre) at a public ball sometime in 1873. He was twenty, his mother had died while he was young, and he had lived with relatives ever since. He was tall and intelligent with delicate and distinguishing features. He was also an affectionate man of independent means willing to share his life story.

Four months after their initial meeting Jeanne met him again. This time sparks flew, and they became lovers. He was smitten by the middle-aged woman, who acted not only as his lover but also fulfilled the role of mother for him. The next three years flew by, and, they ended up living in Paris, each with their own apartment. In 1876, he traveled to Egypt, and while he was absent, he left the keys to his residence and Jeanne was allowed complete freedom to come and go as she pleased. He also wrote her a love letter that read:

“It is enough for me that you love me, because I don’t weary of you, and I love you with all my heart. I cannot bear to leave you. We will live happily together. You will always love me truly, and as for me, my loving care will ever protect you. I don’t know what would become of me if I did not feel that your love watched over me.”[2]

It seemed as if Jeanne’s conquest for a safe financial future was assured. However, she knew that Rene’s family disapproved of their relationship and she worried that they might force him to marry a woman they considered younger and more desirable. She also feared that she might end up destitute if Rene broke off their relationship.

Around this same time, a friend from Jeanne’s childhood named Nathalis-Mathieu Gaudry reappeared on the scene. He was a homely, crude, and uncultivated man. Since she had seen him last, he had joined the army, served in the Italian war of 1859, and won a medal of honor. In addition, he married and had two children. When his wife died in 1875, he traveled to Paris, obtained a job as a metal smelter just outside Paris at Saint-Denis, and sought out Jeanne.

Gaudry wanted to renew his friendship with her, but now she was a Baroness, and moving in circles to high and remote to what he could ever obtain. He found there was little more he could do than worship her from afar and he was willing to do that because she remained friendly. However, because he was constantly lurking around, she soon decided to put him to good use, and because he was so helpful, her servants came to believe he was her brother.

“On Sundays, he helped her in her apartment, carried coals, bottled wine, scrubbed the floors, and made himself generally useful.”[3]

After Rene return from Egypt, Jeanne visited a ballet dancer, an older woman in a financial predicament much like herself. The dancer was taking care of a young, sightless, and well-to-do man, and she told Jeanne that because of her care of the sightless man, he would marry her, and she would never have to worry about money again. Jeanne was greatly impressed by the good fortune that her friend had achieved.

In the meantime, Gaudry’s desires for Jeanne continued to grow stronger and stronger, until he fell madly in love with her. He was so in love with her that he was willing to do anything she wanted. He also began telling some of co-workers that he wanted to marry her, and that was his state of mind when he received a letter from Jeanne in November of 1876 that read:

“Come at once. I want you on a matter of business. Tell your employer it is a family affair; I will make up your wages.”[4]

As directed, Gaudry obtained leave from his employer and rushed to Jeanne’s side only to discover that the business Jeanne talked of was a scheme of revenge. She explained that a man had defrauded her and that she wanted revenge by seriously injuring the man’s son. She proposed to accomplish the injury with the help of a knuckle-duster, which she produced and gave to Gaudry. The plan was for him to attack her enemy’s son, strike him in his stomach, and disable him for life. To set things in motion, she pointed out her target, who was none other than her lover Rene.

Apparently, rumors had surfaced that Rene wanted to marry and Jeanne was convinced that his affections had cooled as his absences from Paris had become more frequent and longer. However, for some reason the plan to harm Rene was not immediately put into action. Whether Gaudry wanted to wait or Jeanne stalled is unclear. Nonetheless, after a month or so she contacted her nephew who worked as a gilder and asked him to obtain some vitriol (sulfuric acid) as she had some copper she wanted to clean.

In early January of 1877, she received a letter from Rene stating that he wanted to talk to her in person. The tone of the letter was serious, and she became convinced that he was about to inform her that he wanted to marry someone.

“Then there entered into the woman’s mind one of the most diabolical projects ever conceived by a fiend in human shape. She formed the design of so disfiguring the young man for life as to render his marriage impossible, and of inflicting on him prolonged suffering that she might have the opportunity of earning his lasting gratitude by appearing to act as his devoted nurse.”[5]

About this same time, Jeanne beckoned Gaudry to visit and he did because an accident shut down his work at Saint-Denis for a few days. She told him that she still distraught because of her enemy and that the only cure was punishment of her enemy’s son. She then showed Gaudry the bottle of vitriol and said, “Make him suffer, here are the means, and I swear I will be yours,”[6] and to prove her point, she dropped some vitriol onto the floor to demonstrate its virulent nature.

Gaudry was horrified about what Jeanne wanted him to do. He protested that he could not perform such a nefarious deed and suggested that instead of the vitriol he challenge the young man to a duel. Jeanne argued against it and as Gaudry had a great desire to marry her, something she promised to do but had no intention of keeping, his passion for her overcame his objections and he agreed to her plan.

The attack on Rene by Gaudry. Author’s collection.

It seems that the ballet dancer’s good fortunate was a “veritable toxin” that had also sparked Jeanne’s idea to harm Rene because it would mean she would never have to worry about money again. In reply to Rene’s letter she asked that he take her to a masked ball being held on 13 January in Paris. Rene was somewhat surprised at her request and unsure what to do as he did not necessarily want to be seen in public with her, but after some thought he agreed to visit, and with that Jeanne’s plan was set in motion.

“The building in the Rue de Boulogne, in which the widow had her apartment, stood at the end of the drive some twenty-seven and a half yards long and five and a half yards wide. About half-way up the drive on either side, there were two small houses, or pavilions, standing by themselves … The whole was shut off from the street by a large gate, generally kept close. … According to [Jeanne’s] plan, the young man, her enemy’s son was to take her to the ball … Gaudry was to wait in her apartment until their return. When he heard the bell ring, which communicated with the outer gate, he was to come down, take his place in the shadow of one of the pavilions … and from the cover of this position fling in the face of the young man the vitriol which she had given him. The widow herself … would be well behind the victim, and take care to leave the gate open so that Gaudry could make his escape.”[7]

On the night of the 12th, despite Rene feeling a sense of foreboding, he appeared in Paris and spent the night at Jeanne’s. The next day he went to his own residence. Around 5pm, Gaudry appeared at Jeanne’s, she showed him the vitriol, reviewed the plan, and discussed that she and Rene would return around 3am. Later, when Rene came to fetch her, Jeanne hide Gaudry in the alcove where he overheard their conversation, and when Rene went to fetch a cab, she released Gaudry from his hiding spot, exhorted him to be courageous, and promised him all his desires would soon be achieved if he succeeded in the plot to harm Rene.

Jeanne and Rene then left for the ball. She couldn’t have been happier. Acquaintances noted that she was in excellent spirits and was breathless from dancing so much. In the meantime, Gaudry waited and paced. Between 2 and 3am Rene and Jeanne returned home. When the time came, Gaudry threw the vitriol, burned Rene’s face, and blinded him in one eye and threatened the eyesight of the other. One newspaper provided more details as spelled out in the indictment:

“All at once … terrible cries were heard. To repeat the identical expressions of those who were awakened by these cries, it was a kind of a bellowing, followed by the hoarse utterance of a man who flesh is being torn off. … … [Jeanne] affected the utmost anguish when she reached the spot where Rene lay writhing in fearful agony, and had him at once transported to her apartment.”[8]

Illustrations by Alfred le Petit of the events surrounding the attack on Rene by Gaudry. Author’s collection.

At the time, no one suspected Jeanne. Everyone believed Rene had been mistaken for someone else and thought he was an innocent victim who suffered an unfortunate crime. Jeanne now began to care for Rene and did her duty with affectionate devotion, caring for him night and day. He was consumed with gratitude and amazed and appreciative of her devotion.

Jeanne also made sure to keep his family and friends at a distance. Because of this, one of Rene’s friends became suspicious and when he learned she planned to take Rene to Italy, he took action and spoke with the son of the deputy prosecutor. The son then confided the friend’s concerns to his father who contacted judicial authorities. They decided to review the case, and that got the commissary of police, Gustave Macé, involved.

Macé paid Jeanne and Rene a visit. She as none too happy and did everything possible to deter Macé from talking to Rene, but he insisted. Rene told him that he had no enemies and that he was sure he was victim of mistaken identity. He also mentioned the love and good care he received from Jeanne and commented that he intended to leave Paris for a change of air. Jeanne claimed Rene was tired and insisted Macé leave, and, upon his departure, Macé asked where she intended to take Rene. When she said Italy, Macé informed her that she could do no such thing because an inquiry was open, and she was ordered to stay nearby in case of questions.

Macé was suspicious about Jeanne and without her knowledge ordered that she be kept under constant surveillance. Two detectives began following her and saw her take a desk from Rene’s residence and on 11 February saw her speaking to an unknown man at the Charonne Cemetery. When she left the man, detectives followed him but lost him. A few days later, Jeanne left Paris with Rene for the suburbs of Courbevoie some 7 miles (11km) away.

Macé’s suspicions continued to grow, and he soon elicited certain facts from the porter of Rue de Boulgone and other witnesses. Macé’ came to believe that Jeanne was behind Rene’s misfortune. First, there was her insistence that he should take her to ball; second, Rene walked in front of her when the gentlemanly thing to do would have been to stay behind and allow her to go first; and, third, the gate was extremely heavy and closed on its own so that meant someone must have held the gate open to allow the perpetrators escape. Moreover, neighbors mentioned the disappearance of Jeanne’s supposed brother shortly after the attack.

On 6 March, Jeanne was ordered to return to Paris and placed under “provisional arrest.” She was defiant, claimed she could not leave her patient as someone needed to take care of Rene, and when she was informed that Rene’s family would take her place, she was livid. She continued to remain defiant when she was taken before the magistrate, who then ordered her resident searched.

Jeanne went with the policemen for the search, and what they found was a strange mixture of order and disorder. There were ledgers and financial accounts mixed up with paints, belladonna, and pomades. Among her belongings police discovered letters that exposed her criminalistic ways and a leather case holding a sheaf of partially burnt letters addressed to Rene from another woman in which it was made clear that he had compromised the woman’s honor.

The police called Rene in for an interview and showed him the evidence. He initially refused to believe that Jeanne had intentionally harmed him. He defended her, referred to her as “Antigone” and remarked on the wonderful care she had given him. Macé continued to insist and then placed the half-burnt letters in his hand. Apparently, Rene had thought Jeanne burned them for him but instead she had pulled them from the fire planning to use them to blackmail Rene if necessary. It was when Rene saw the half-burnt letters that he knew she had deceived him, and he cried:

“To blind me … to torture me, and then profit by my condition to lie to me, to betray me – it is infamous – infamous!”[9]

Macé only had circumstantial evidence that Jeanne had committed the crime and he still needed to find her missing brother. In the meantime, as Jeanne sat in jail unaware of what was happening with the investigation, she became increasingly anxious about Gaudry and decided to invoke his aid and write him a letter. In it she begged him to come forward and tell the police what he had done. She promised if he did she would aid his children and give him a third of her estate. She also wrote of the harrowing ordeals she suffered while imprisoned and then she convinced another prisoner, an Italian dancer soon to be released, to deliver the letter to him.

When the dancer was released, she told her lover about Jeanne and the letter. He convinced her to not get involved, and, so, she never delivered the letter to Gaudry. However, the dancer could not keep quiet about the ordeal and began to blab to anyone who would listen. Word spread and news of Jeanne’s doings soon reached the police. Macé then called in the dancer for questioning and she recollected what Jeanne had said about Gaudry, and through the dancer’s help police were able to track him down and arrest him. They also conducted a search of his house and discovered letters Jeanne had written to him, burned clothes from the vitriol attack, and other evidence that implicated them both. As the evidence against him was overwhelming, he confessed and was sent to prison.

In the meantime, Jeanne was becoming more desperate as she sat in jail. Twice she unsuccessfully attempted suicide ingesting powdered glass and verdigris. When that failed to work, she attempted to bribe a guard and escape. But that didn’t work either, and on 12 May 1877, she was taken before the magistrate, and he set a trial date for 23 July.

Madame Lafarge. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The trial would last three days and she would be defended by Charles Lachaud, the same man who had defended Madame Lafarge, a woman charged with murdering her husband with arsenic. Just like Madame Lafarge’s trial, Jeanne’s trial aroused considerable interest, and hundreds of people showed up for it. The room where it was held was so crowded it was stifling hot, but no one cared because everyone wanted to catch a glimpse of Jeanne. One trial witness who did catch a glimpse provided this description of her:

“She looked more than her age, of moderate height, well made, neither blatant nor ill at ease, with nothing of the air of a woman of the town. Her hands are small, her bust is flat, and her back round, her hair quite white. Beneath her brown glitter two jet-black eyes – the eyes of a tigress, that seem to breathe hatred and revenge.”[10]

Another description was provided by an Irish newspaper:

“Since her imprisonment her hair has grown white; and notwithstanding her black tulle hat and green feather, her exquisite lace mantille, and her fashionably-cut black robe, everyone fails to see in her haggard features the slightest trace of the charm which infatuated poor Rene de la Roche and made a criminal of her unhappy dupe, Gaudry.”[11]

Gaudry was represented by Charles-Gabriel Demange and there was plenty of evidence to back up Gaudry’s claims that Jeanne had committed the crime. For instance, he mentioned she had obtained vitriol from her nephew and that she had dropped it on the floor. Gaudry took the police to the exact spot where she had dropped it, and a chemist, Monsieur Lhote, examined the floorboards and conducted tests determining vitriol had indeed been dropped were Gaudry indicated. Gaudry also repeated Rene and Jeanne’s conversation that he had overheard while he had been hiding.

There were other witnesses, the coach driver who took them to the ball, domestics, friends of Rene’s, several doctors, and prison guards who testified. An oculist also testified that evidence showed that Jeanne had continued to harm Rene after the initial attack while he lay helpless and lethargic. The oculist maintained that Jeanne put drops of vitriol into his eyes in the hopes of completing Gaudry’s imperfect attack. In addition, Rene relived the night of the terrible attack by testifying. His appearance in court prompted mountains of sympathy and this comment from one newspaper:

“During the examination of M. de la Roche, who came into court leaning on his doctor’s arm, and whose sightless disfigured face called forth a murmur of commiseration, she made one last appeal to his affection, entreating him, with a most admirably acted tenderness, to defend her. But M. de la Roche had had his eyes opened to the widow’s treachery … for all the reply to the prisoner’s passionate supplication he said bitterly – ‘Had you killed me madame, I would have thanked you; but to condemn me to a future like this roots out all pity from my heart.’”[12]

Despite letters from Jeanne to Gaudry that told him to stay away after the incident and to meet her at the cemetery, Jeanne maintained her innocence and refused to admit any wrong doing. She denied the oculist’s accusations and all the charges Gaudry made against her. She also denied Gaudry ever came to her residence. Moreover, she blamed Gaudry solely for the attack and Lachaud backed her up and “attributed the crime solely to Gaudry’s jealousy of [Jeanne’s] lover and contended that he was the sole author of the outrage.”[13]

Max Simon Nordau, a Zionist leader, physician, author, and social critic provided his perspective of the trial:

“The most horrible feature of this revolting trial is that it is not the romance of the Widow Gras, but the romance of Parisian life and the best French society. Every character is this romance is a type which is repeated around us ten thousand times. De la Roche is the typical gommeux, the rich, idle dolt, who blows in his money with a primitive frequenter of the Bois de Boulogne and then marries, in order to reform. … Gaudry is the typical Alphonse, who espouses a gay money maker, and knows enough to combine the requirements of an indulgent husband with those of heavy-fisted porter. And la Gras — la Gras is the typical cocotte … [who] ruins sundry dozen men, and then winds up her career as a countess, capitalist, and president of the pious societies.[14]

Charles Lachaud. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Towards the end of the day, as summations were being presented, one newspaper reporter stated:

“What is destined for [Jeannie] I cannot say, as Maitre Lachaud had not commenced his address when I was obliged to leave court. His extraordinary eloquence and ingenuity in detecting and magnifying contractions in evidence have ere now drawn most unexpected verdicts from juries; but I hardly think it possible he can be successful in white-washing the she-fiend whose cause he has now to plead.”[15]

The reporter was right. The jury was out for a half an hour and returned a verdict of guilty against Jeanne on all nine counts. They also found her guilty of the greater share in the crime and sentenced her to fifteen years penal servitude. Gaudry was cited as her accomplice and received a sentence of ten years in prison. He was also stripped of his military medals and supposedly cried when they removed them from his buttonhole.

There was plenty of conjecture among the public about Jeanne and her methods, but perhaps, one summary of Jeanne’s doings best explains how many nineteenth century people felt at the time about what Le Petit Parisien referred to as the “Affaire Gras-Gaudry”:

“At the same time, with that strange contradiction inherent in human nature, the Jekyll and Hyde elements which, in varying degree, are present in all men and women, [Jeanne] had a genuine love for her sister. Her hatred of men was reasoned, deliberate, merciless, and implacable. There is something almost sadic in the combination in her character of erotic sensibility with extreme cruelty.”[16]

References:

  • [1] The Police Journal v. 6 (New York: The National Police Journal, 1920), p. 16.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 17.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Irish Times, “Extraordinary Trial in Paris,” July 27, 1877, p. 3.
  • [6] H. B. Irving, A Book of Remarkable Criminals (New York: Cassell, 1918), p. 241.
  • [7] p. 69–70.
  • [8] Irish Times, p. 3.
  • [9] p. 75.
  • [10] Ibid., p. 77.
  • [11] Irish Times, 3
  • [12] Dundee Evening Telegraph, “Trial of the Widow Gras and Her Accomplice,” August 2, 1877, p. 2.
  • [13] p. 79.
  • [14] Max Nordau, Paris Sketches (Chicago: Laird & Lee, 1884), p. 146.
  • [15] Irish Times, p. 3.
  • [16] p. 79.

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