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Crime and Punishment during the Ancien Regime: The Arrest, Trial and Execution of Cartouche and his Cour des Miracles Gang

Portrait of Cartouch

Portrait of Cartouch

One of the more unusual volumes that I handled during my long career as an antiquarian bookseller was a collection of 78 legal documents and other printed pamphlets relating to the arrests, trials and punishments of Louis Dominique Bourguignon, called Cartouche, and his notorious “Cours des Miracles” gang of criminals. This was bound with 62 documents, including official arrest and sentencing records, relating to crimes committed in France in the 17th and 18th centuries. One of France’s most famous outlaws, Cartouche was portrayed (and romanticized) in countless stories, plays, songs and films, including the 1962 film “Cartouche,” starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Claudia Cardinale. His crimes and those of his followers were exhaustively detailed in the collection, which consisted chiefly of documents issued by the Cour de Parlement de Paris, the ancien régime’s primary legislative and judicial body.

Cartouche was the son of a wine merchant. After expulsion from school, he became the head of a gang in Normandy, then served for a time as a police informant before joining the army. Upon leaving the army, Cartouche and some of his fellow soldiers formed a new criminal gang, headquartered in the Cour des Miracles, a notorious Parisian slum. Cartouche's Cour des Miracles gang, which appears to have had over one hundred members (both male and female), was an early example of organized crime in France: Cartouche had himself elected leader, and punished challenges to his authority with death. Members of Cartouche’s gang terrorized the city with almost daily robberies and murders; they were especially feared for their attacks on carriages traveling from Versailles to Paris.

Betrayed by one of his accomplices, Cartouche was arrested on January 6, 1721 and thrown into prison. Believing that his gang would rescue him, he at first refused to divulge any information to the authorities, even when subjected to the question extraordinaire, a particularly brutal form of judicial torture. Cartouche was scheduled to be executed on November 27, 1721, and hoped for rescue up until the last minute; however, when he finally realized his gang had broken faith with him, he begged the officiating priest for a reprieve so that he could take revenge by betraying his former associates. On November 28, after making his confession, Cartouche was broken on the wheel (rompu vif), the standard execution for robbers and brigands in 18th-century France. Document no. 6 in the collection (see list below), dated November 26, 1721, records the death sentence given to Cartouche and seven of his associates by the Cour de Parlement de Paris.

After Cartouche’s execution, most of the remaining Cour des Miracles gang members were arrested and tried for their crimes, which included murder, armed robbery, breaking and entering, stealing from churches and royal residences, receiving stolen goods, and harboring other criminals. These proceedings, which took place at the Cour de Parlement de Paris in the summer and fall of 1722, are recorded in documents in the list below.  The sentences included hanging, being burned alive, the wheel, branding, whipping, the stocks, banishment and the galleys.

Of the remaining documents in this collection, the most interesting were a defense of the notorious Marquise de Brinvilliers, executed in 1676 for poisoning her family; the arrest records of Robert-François Damiens (no. 130), drawn and quartered in 1757 for attempting to stab Louis XV, and of Damiens’s family arrested and punished for their association with him; and a record of the judgment against the famous French smuggler and bandit Louis Mandrin. The remaining documents record arrests and punishments for diverse crimes, including theft, pimping, infanticide, fraud, heresy, and refusing a dying person the last rites.

This remarkable collection on crime may have been assembled by Pierre Théodore Noël du Payrat, seigneur de Razat (1761-1832), jurist, King’s counsel, acting procurer general of the Parlement of Paris, delegate from the Dordogne to the États généraux in 1789, and member of the Council of Five Hundred. Noël de Peyrat’s descendants still maintain the Chateau de Razat and its important library of books on jurisprudence. 


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