from Mémoirs de Lacenaire
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.
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.