Baron Haussmann’s Story of the Murderous Innkeepers
From Mémoires de baron Haussmann, 1890
excerpted from a section called Excursions
These events take place in the 1830s, Haussmann on his way to his new job at Nérac, the post he held in our last story of his assisting George Sand.
To escape the monotony of returning by the same road, we resolved to go up by way of the Ardèche, following the route to Clermont—which crosses the small mountain range where this river has its source near the village of Larnace—and to return to Haute-Loire by Pradelles, finally pushing on to Puy, at least to spend the night there.
But we did not leave Aubenas before lunch, and the time now lacked to reach Pradelles, where we’d counted on having dinner before nightfall. Further, the road is rangy and wearying, and our horses, after holding up for several hours on a hot and windless day, were out of breath, and could climb no more.
It was six in the evening. With regret our party chose to stop, no matter where, for dinner and to rest our horses. This put us at an isolated auberge, most melancholy, seated at a crossroads on a naked plateau. Night came, a black night, where the stars were not enough to see the road. Not without discomfort, we decided to sleep there. But we were suffocating in the kitchen, which served also as the dining room and parlor, and to reach the road for some air, we opened the door—already barricaded. A gleam appeared between two mountains; with joy, we recognized this as the moon, rising. The thought of escaping the beds already prepared for us, doubtful as to cleanliness, and searching for others less suspect, came to us both at the same time. We ordered our horses saddled and bridled at once, despite all the solicitations of our interested hosts, with whom we hastily settled accounts. Midnight had sounded when we arrived, exhausted, like our mounts, at Puy.
Eight months later, as Deputy Prefect of Nérac, I read the summary in my Journal des Débats, of a big criminal trial judged in the Court of Assizes at Ardèche. This, in respect of some innkeepers, who profited by the isolation of their auberge, to murder those travelers who looked worth stealing from, and who then made the bodies disappear by burning them in an oven. Quarrels among the women over the sharing of jewelry stolen from the victims, put justice on alert, leading to the discovery of these abominable crimes. The name reported by the journalist, of Peyrabelle, as well as that of the inn…which for long enough had served as theater of operations…caught my attention.
Hadn’t that been exactly the name of our stop, as we returned from Aubenas? Assuredly, yes! But my emotion was greater when I saw designated among the disappeared a big cattle dealer from my old arrondissement, whom we’d met at precisely the inn in question. My companion M. Dumolin he had known as a client, and I recalled having spoken with him of his business that very evening. He came from the fair at Saint-Ciergues-en-Montagne, the canton of Montpezat, and after selling all his animals had meant to purchase others suitable for breeding, in those various communities of the Ardèche where he expected they could be found. Was it on the night of this conversation, or on some other journey, that he had been killed, robbed, burned? I could not know. But the memory of our stop at this savage place terrified me. No doubt, one might hesitate to make disappear such personages as my companion and myself. Our horses, also, would have been as difficult to keep as to sell.
But, in the end, we had missed sleeping there!
Here are two excerpts from a British account, of the murderous innkeepers’ prosecution:
Berkshire Chronicle Saturday 28 December 1833
The French journals of last month mentioned the execution of two persons, a man and wife named Martin; and of a servant of theirs, named Rochette, but suppressed the details of the trial.
There were 109 witnesses examined. Vincent Boyer, one of them, deposed to the following facts: “One day in the winter of 1824, I was forced by the severity of the weather, to stop at Martin’s house, at a place called Peyrabeille. There were many persons there, and among the rest an old man. Martin’s wife asked me to draw near the fire, and inquired how much I earned, and what money I had about me. She said there was a band of brigands in the neighborhood and asked what I should do if they attacked me, and whether I was a heavy sleeper. I told her I had only 30 sous about me, and that I slept very soundly. It occurred to me that I was in a slaughter-house. She then put questions to the old man, who said he was after selling a cow. When bedtime arrived the people of the house told us in an imperative tone to go to our rooms, and no longer concealed their object. The old man saw his danger, and said he would sleep in the same room with me; but they told him very drily that he must sleep alone. When the old man got to his room he made some objections, and I heard a voice say, ‘Do as you like; there is no other room for you.’ I heard his door shut, and the person who conducted him returned down the stairs. One of Martin’s daughters accompanied me to my room and told me not to leave the door open, in a tone of command. When she departed I examined the bed and found large spots of blood on the clothes. I lay down, more dead than alive, and in about an hour some person came to see if I was asleep, turned over my clothes, and finding that I had only 30 sous, did not take them, but went away. Two or three hours after, I heard a knocking at the old man’s door. ‘Get up,’ they said, ‘it is time.’ But no answer. They who made this noise went to the ground floor and came up again in half an hour. They knocked again, calling out as before. Receiving no answer, they forced open the door, and I immediately heard three times distinctly a cry of, ‘Help, help!’ and then only heard inarticulate sounds, like those of a pig when the knife is at its throat. During all this time, the daughters of Martin, aged from 25 to 30, were at my door, as if to watch me, singing and laughing. In the morning Martin’s wife asked me if I’d slept well, and whether I had heard anything? I said I never woke the whole night. I ran as fast as I could and never stopped till I found myself out of danger.”
(2020, translation, Stephanie Foster)