The Dangerous Classes




Frontispiece from Mémoirs de Lacenaire

 In 1835, Pierre-François Lacenaire was convicted of a double murder and an attempted third. While in prison awaiting his trial, Lacenaire held press conferences, entertained writers, allowed a phrenologist to measure the bumps on his head and make a life mask, and received countless letters from the public. Lacenaire spent his time writing poetry and reading the classics. According to Victor Hugo, he discussed serious literature with his jailer and Lacenaire went so far as to will the jailer his personal library. (Wright, 1981, p. 31) At the trial itself, Lacenaire took command of the proceedings by confessing all of his crimes in detail and stunned the courtroom with an improvised closing soliloquoy. Rumors circulated that he was to be pardoned after conviction and be made chief of a special branch of police. This sounded much like the familiar case of the bandit, Vidocq. In fact, Lacenaire claimed to have been inspired by Vidocq's memoirs. Reading Vidocq showed Lacenaire that the real "school of crime" was the nineteenth century prison. In order to learn from the best, Lacenaire got himself arrested for a minor crime and spent a year learning from the experts.


Lacenaire's main goal was to become "the scourge of society." (Wright, 1981, p. 35) It is questionable how much he actually learned from his fellow convicts. His crimes were hardly those of one schooled in the art of murder. He and an accomplice were convicted of a brutal, amateurish butchery of a slum-dwelling transvestite and the latter's aging mother. The criminals committed the crime under the belief that there would be a huge monetary reward for their efforts, but Lacenaire was mistaken in his theory that the victims possessed a hoard of money. His second venture was even less professional than his first attempt. He lured a bank messenger to a false rendezvous, seeking to rob him and slit his throat. This job was completely botched, and again, Lacenaire was forced to flee empty-handed.


Lacenaire and his victim


Lacenaire in Les Enfants du Paradis

 After his conviction, Lacenaire wrote his memoirs and, with some of his poems, they were published after his execution and became a best-seller. Dostoevsky read of the case and it inspired him to write Crime and Punishment, in which Raskolnikov's crime was a copy of Lacenaire's almost down to the last detail. (Wright, 1981, p. 32) A French encyclopedia called him an "odieux assassin", and devoted almost as much space to Lacenaire's career as to that of the famous general Lafayette. (Grand Dictionnaire Universel, 1860) Lacenaire's name was lost for a while, and then resurrected in Marcel Carné's 1945 film, Les Enfants du Paradis. Lacenaire was sentenced to a rendezvous with the guillotine, and while the newpapers claimed that he died a coward, his admirers claimed that he played out his heroic role to the end.