The Story of Joseph Lesurques

IN the cemetery of Père La Chaise, not far from the tomb of Abelard and Héloïse, stands a plain white marble monument à perpetuité, bearing an inscription calculated to arrest the attention of the most careless observer.

It runs as follows : —


The judicial blunder which sent Lesurques to the scaffold grew out of his fatal resemblance to a villain named Dubose. It is famous in the annals of French jurisprudence, and is celebrated in one of the most popular, powerful, and exciting dramas on the French stage.

Joseph Lesurques was born at Douai, of respectable parents. He entered the army at an early age, and served in the Auvergne regiment until 1789, when he was honorably discharged, and soon after married and settled in Douai.

He acquired a small fortune during the Revolution by lucky speculations, and removed with his family to Paris late in 1795, where he took up his abode with his cousin, André Lesurques, pending repairs on the house that he had hired. He was still living with this André when the crime was committed for which he suffered.

On the morning of the 9th Floréal, an IV. (28th April, 1796), some peasants found the mail-coach that ran between Paris and Lyons abandoned in the woods, near the hamlet of Lieursaint, a few leagues distant from Paris. One of the horses was missing; the other was still harnessed to the vehicle. Near by, among a mass of papers smeared with blood, lay the dead body of the postilion, and a little further on that of the courier ; both disfigured by dreadful wounds, that, together with the trampled grass, gave evidence of a desperate struggle. The peasants immediately alarmed the neighborhood, and summoned the proper officers, who proceeded to an investigation.

A few steps from the victims they found several articles that had evidently belonged to the murderers, namely, a great-coat with a narrow dark-blue border, a broken sabre with its sheath, the sheath of a large knife, another sabre sheath, and a plated spur with chain attached, which had been broken, and mended by means of a bit of large cord. The blade of the sabre was red with blood, and bore the legend,

“ L’honneur me conduit,
Pour le salut de ma patrie,”

a strange sentiment for a highwayman to carry about him.

The time of the murder, as nearly as could be ascertained, was nine o’clock of the night before. The courier’s papers showed that on setting out he had had in his possession ten thousand francs in coin and several millions in assignats, all of which were missing.

An inquest was next held, when it appeared, from the testimony of several witnesses, that four men on horseback had been along the road, on the afternoon of the 27th of April, as far as Lieursaint, but not beyond; and that these same men, in company with a fifth horseman, had returned towards Paris in the night. It also appeared that the coach had carried but one passenger, a man wrapped in " a great-coat with a narrow dark border,” who had taken his seat beside the courier at Paris. This man was nowhere to be found. He was clearly an accomplice, who had made good his escape on the missing horse, and was the “ fifth horseman ” of the witnesses. A bloody sabre was produced that had been picked up on the road near Melun. It fitted exactly the odd sheath found at the scene of the murder. Finally, the volunteer who had mounted guard in Paris at the Barrière de Rambouillet, between four and five o’clock, on the morning of the 28th of April, testified to the entrance into the city, at about that time, of five horsemen, riding at full speed, upon horses reeking with sweat and almost spent.

The police now took the matter in hand. After securing the missing posthorse, which was found astray in Paris, near the Place Royale, they proceeded to look up the other four. They soon discovered that at about five o’clock, on the morning of the 28th of April, a man named Courriol had left at a certain tavern in Paris four foaming horses, which he and another man had taken away again at seven o’clock ; that this Courriol had lodged in the Rue de Petit Reposoir before the 27th of April, but had not slept in his lodgings on the night of the murder, or returned to them since ; that from the 28th of April to the 6th of May he had lodged with his mistress in the Rue de la Boucherie, at the house of one Richard; and, in fine, that on the 6th of May the two had taken out passports for Troyes, and left the city together in a post-chaise. The fugitives were traced to the house of a man named Golier, in Château Thierry. The police found there also a citizen of Douai, named Guesno, who had arrived a few hours previously from Paris, where he too had lodged with Richard. This Richard, it should be remarked, had formerly resided in Douai. Guesno and Golier were arrested, as well as Courriol and his mistress, and all four were taken to the capital.

As about one fifth of the stolen property was recovered from Courriol, he was at once committed for trial ; but Guesno and Golier easily convinced the magistrate, Daubanton, of their innocence, and were discharged from custody. Guesno was told to call the next day and get his papers, which had been seized in his room at Richard’s.

Now Guesno was well acquainted with Joseph Lesurques, and happening to fall in with him the morning after his release, while on the way to Daubanton’s office, he very naturally regaled his friend with the story of his late unpleasant experience. Lesurques no less naturally evinced great interest in Guesno’s recital, accompanied him to his place of destination, and readily consented to go in with him and see the end of the matter. They accordingly passed into the magistrate’s office, and seated themselves in the ante-room, which was full of country people, witnesses in Courriol’s case. Two of the women present eyed them curiously and closely, and kept up a brisk whispered conversation until summoned to Daubanton. Guesno and Lesurques little thought what was the tenor of that conversation, although they perceived that it had reference to them.

The door of the magistrate’s private room had scarcely closed upon the women when it suddenly opened again, and an officer appeared on the threshold and called the two friends in. On their entrance, Daubanton bade them be seated, and asked them a few trivial questions in presence of the two women, who now scrutinized them even more attentively than before. They were then requested to withdraw, but had hardly recovered from their astonishment at this strange proceeding ere they were again summoned, and informed that they were positively identified by the women as two of the four horsemen who had been seen hanging about the neighborhood of Lieursaint on the day of the robbery of the Lyons mail, and must consider themselves under arrest. They were next ordered to produce their papers. Lesurques, unluckily, had never taken the trouble to provide himself with a carte de sûreté, and, more unluckily still he had in his pocket two cartes, one bearing the name of his cousin André and the other blank.

The case was set for trial at Melun, early in July ; but just as it was about to begin, the accused exercised their right of removal, and it was referred to the criminal court at Paris, presided over by Jerome Gohier, conspicuous, three years later, as a member of the Directory. The accused were now six in number ; namely, Courriol, Richard, Guesno, Lesurques, Bernard, and Bruer. Richard had been arrested before the memorable visit of Lesurques and Guesno to Daubanton’s office.

The trial began on the 2d of August. Ten witnesses living on the Lyons road testified against Lesurques, and swore that they recognized in him a tall, lightcomplexioned man, who had been a notable figure in the little cavalcade of the 28th of April. Seven of these ten positively and unhesitatingly recognized Lesurques; the other three qualified their recognition somewhat, and said that they believed him to be the man whom they had seen in the party. Two, an innkeeper and his wife, swore that Lesurques had mended his spur at their house with a piece of cord, which they identified as the spur and string found near the dead bodies of the courier and postilion. A third declared that he had dined at Montgeron in the same room with the four highwaymen, and that Lesurques was one of the four, and wore long boots, with spurs like the one shown in court.

The examination of Lesurques is interesting as showing the theory of the prosecution. Much abbreviated, it is in substance as follows : —

Q. Where did you sleep on the night of the 8th Floréal ?

R. At home; that is to say, at my cousin’s, André Lesurques’s.

Q. Are you sure ? It seems to be pretty well ascertained that you did not.

R. I am sure. I had not slept out of the house a single night for several months.

Q. Why did you go with Guesno to M. Daubanton’s office?

R. Simply to accompany my friend, M. Guesno.

Q. Did you not go in behalf of Richard and Courriol ?

R. No, I did not go in anybody’s behalf, and I have no acquaintance with Courriol.

Q. How do you account for the fact that these witnesses identify you as one of the four horsemen ?

R. Granting their testimony to be honest, I can only account for it on the ground that I bear a strong resemblance to one of the four.

Q. How does it happen that you have no carte de sûreté, but carry your cousin’s and a blank one ?

R. I have never provided myself with a carte de sûreté, because I am a peaceable and law-abiding citizen, with plenty of friends, and have not had particular occasion to use one. Any man of decent reputation can get one at any time. My cousin’s carte happened to be lying on my mantel-piece, and when I went out I picked it up and put it in my pocket, for safe-keeping. The blank carte was one of several odd scraps of paper that I happened to have about me, and as it bears no seal is worthless for any criminal purpose. Of course, if I were guilty, I should not lack plausible papers.

Q. What kind of spurs are you in the habit of using?

R. I have not used any spurs for more than a year. Those that I own are old-fashioned ones, and not like the spurs used nowadays.

Lesurques’s defense outside of testimony to his good reputation, with which he was well provided, was of course an alibi. He brought fifteen witnesses to prove his presence in Paris on the 8th Floréal.

Eight of these were persons with whom he had had dealings on the day in question ; four, Legrand, Aldenhof, Ledru, and Baudard, were personal friends ; and his own wife and his cousin André and wife complete the list. Legrand and Aldenhof were jewelers ; Ledru and Baudard, artists. All four were well acquainted with each other, as well as with Lesurques. Aldenhof and Ledru were both from Douai, and acquainted with Guesno. By these last seven witnesses alone Lesurques very reasonably expected to prove his case to the court beyond the shadow of a doubt. His doings on the 8th Floréal, as gathered from their evidence, were briefly as follows : —

He passed a part of the morning at Legrand’s shop, in the Palais Royal, where he met Aldenhof, and took him home to dine with him. Arrived at the house, they found Ledru. All three dined together, and then went out to walk. Met Guesno on the Boulevard des Italiens at about half past six and returned to the house at about half past seven. Soon thereafter Baudard appeared. Then they separated, and Lesurques passed the evening and the night at home.

Legrand was the first witness called for the defense. He testified that Lesurques had passed part of the morning of the 8th Floréal in his shop. When asked what made him remember this fact so distinctly he replied that while Lesurques was there, Aldenhof had come in, and had bought a soup ladle and sold him a pair of ear-rings ; and that he was confident that this transaction took place on the 8th Floréal. In proof of the correctness of this statement he appealed to his books, and unfortunately laid great stress upon the entry made at the time. He was told to produce the book containing the original entry, and accordingly passed it up to Gohier. On looking at the page indicated, the latter started with surprise, and exclaimed, “ This is a gross attempt to defeat the ends of justice ! This date has been tampered with. Arrest the witness.”

Guinier, Lesurques’s counsel, and Legrand were thunderstruck. They seized the book, when it was handed back to them, and eagerly examined the date. Unquestionably there were two figures there, one over the other, but, as Guinier afterwards argued, so clearly manifest as to disprove at once all probability of criminal intent.

Legrand, still under arrest, continued his testimony; but the court,proceeding after the French fashion, inspired him with such terror that he became very much confused, and contradicted himself in such a way as hopelessly to damage Lesurques in the eyes of the court.

Gohier henceforth conducted the trial as if he were assured of his guilt, intimidating the witnesses, and sparing no pains to create an unfavorable opinion of them and of their testimony in the minds of the jury. His efforts were completely successful.

Courriol, Bernard, and Lesurques were pronounced guilty of highway robbery and murder. Richard was found guilty of receiving stolen property. Guesno and Bruer were acquitted.

Lesurques turned pale with horror when he heard the unexpected verdict, and raised his hands as if in deprecation. Then, conquering his emotion, he stood up, and with the calmness and dignity that characterized his bearing to the end said, “ Unquestionably the crime of which I am accused is a terrible one, and deserves to be punished with death ; but if murder on the highway is a crime, the abuse of law to strike an innocent man is no less criminal. The day will come when my innocence shall be established ; then my blood be on the heads of the jurors who have convicted me without due reflection, and on the judge who has influenced them to do so.”

Courriol now made his first effort to save Lesurques. He rose from his seat, and cried out, “ Lesurques and Bernard are innocent! Bernard only lent the horses. Lesurques had nothing to do with the matter.” These remonstrances of course, availed nothing. Lesurques, Courriol, and Bernard were condemned to death ; Richard to twenty-four years’ imprisonment. The property, real and personal, of all four was confiscated.

Courriol had two interviews with the authorities, in the hope of saving Lesurques. He gave the names of his accomplices as Durochat, Vidal, Dubose, and Roussy. He said that Durochat, under an assumed name, had taken his place on the coach beside the courier, and that the rest of them had met at the Barrière de Charenton, and proceeded on horseback to Lieursaint, dining on the way at Montgeron ; and declared that the spur found on the ground belonged to Dubose, who resembled Lesurques, and was confounded with him by the witnesses. He appealed to his mistress in corroboration of his statements as to the resemblance between Dubose and Lesurques.

She affirmed that there was a strong likeness between them, which was much heightened by a blond wig worn by Dubose on the day of the murder, and confirmed all the other particulars given by Courriol, so far as she was acquainted with them.

These developments incited Lesurques and his friends to renewed exertions, and they succeeded in bringing the case to the notice of the Directory. The Directory referred it to the Council of Five Hundred, and the Council referred it to a committee.

But all was in vain. The committee reported adversely to Lesurques, and nothing now was left for him to do but to prepare for death. He took leave of his wife and children the day before his execution, and on the evening of the same day cut off his hair with his own hands, and inclosed it in a packet for his wife, which he touchingly addressed, “ A la citoyenne Veuve Lesurques.” At the same time, he again bade her farewell in the following pathetic lines : —

“ When you read this letter I shall be no more ; the cruel knife will have cut short my days, — days so happily consecrated to you. I am to be judicially murdered. It is my fate, and there is no escape from it. I have endured my lot with all the constancy and courage of which human nature is capable. May I hope that you will imitate my example ? Your life is not yours ; it belongs to your children and to your husband, if he was dear to you.

“ This is all I have to ask.

“A little packet of my hair will be banded to you. Keep it carefully, and when my children are grown share it with them. It is all that I have to leave them for inheritance.

“ Farewell forever. My last sigh shall be for you and my unfortunate children.”

He wrote, also, to his friends in these words : —

“ The truth could not manifest itself, and I am about to perish, the victim of a mistake.

“ May I hope that you well entertain for my wife and children the same friendly feelings that you have always shown for me, and aid them under all circumstances ? I thank M. Guinier, my defender, for the pains that he has taken in my behalf.

“ Now receive, one and all, my last farewell.”

Lastly, he addressed an open letter to Dubose, for insertion in the newspapers:

“ You, in whose stead I am about to die, rest content with the sacrifice of my life. If ever you fall into the hands of justice, think of my three children, covered with infamy, and of their mother, a prey to despair, and do not prolong the misfortunes caused by the fatal likeness that I bear to you.” 1

Lesurques, Courriol, and Bernard were executed on the 30th of October, 1796.

As soon as Lesurques mounted the cart that was to carry them to the place of execution, Courriol pointed him out to the crowd, and cried in a loud voice, “ I am guilty, but Lesurques is innocent! ” and he continued so doing until they reached the foot of the guillotine.

Lesurques, clad all in white, in token of his innocence, never for a moment lost his self command. When his turn came, he ascended the scaffold with a firm step, and uttered a few words of forgiveness for his judges, then he laid his head upon the block, and so passed into the presence of the never-erring Judge.

Four months after these events, the police succeeded in arresting Durochat. He was fully recognized as the pretended traveler on the Lyons coach, and eventually made a full confession, sustaining in every particular the account given by Courriol. He declared that Bernard not only lent the horses, but had a share of the plunder. With reference to Lesurques he said, “ I have heard that a man named Lesurques was condemned for complicity with us. Truth compels me to say that I never knew the man, neither when we planned the job nor when we did it. I did not know him, and I never saw him.”

Vidal and Dubosc were captured before Durochat was executed, and he identified them both ; but they escaped from prison before they could be brought to trial. Vidal was soon recaptured, tried, condemned, and executed. Dubosc remained at large for some time, but at length he was retaken, and confronted with the ten witnesses who had sworn against Lesurques. One of the ten maintained and one retracted his evidence given at the first trial; the remaining eight declared that they could not say whether Dubosc or Lesurques was the man whom they had seen. Dubosc, for his part, denied everything, as Vidal had done before him, and seized every advantage offered by his resemblance to Lesurques, and the latter’s conviction and execution ; but all in vain. He was guillotined on the 25th of December, 1800.

Roussy, the last of the five assassins, was arrested in Madrid, toward the close of the year 1803, and executed the following June. He acknowledged the justice of his sentence with his latest breath, and left a paper with the priest who shrived him, enjoining the priest not to open it until six months had elapsed.

When opened it was found to contain these words: “ I declare the man Lesurques to be innocent; but my confessor, to whom I give this declaration, must not deliver it to the authorities until six months after my death.”

The play founded upon Lesurques’s story is the joint production of MM. Moreau, Siraudin, and Delacour, and is entitled Le Courrier de Lyon. The descendants of Lesurques empowered the authors to use his name, and Dubosc, Courriol, Guesno, and Daubanton also figure in the drama. It was brought out in Paris on the l6th of March, 1850, at the Théâtre de la Gaieté, and was from the first a pronounced success. The distinguished Lacressonière took the double part of Lesurques and Dubosc, with which he henceforth became thoroughly identified.

The English version of the play is much altered from the original, and every way inferior to it; but, nevertheless, it had a great run in London in the season of 1854, appearing simultaneously at the Adelphi, the Victoria, and the Princess’. At the Princess’ Charles Kean took the parts of Lesurques and Dubosc. Mr. Henry Irving has recently adopted the rôle, with his usual excellent fortune.

The Courier of Lyons was played in New York a few years ago, but met with little or no success; not enough, at all events, to familiarize the public with the sad story of Joseph Lesurques.

S. E. Turner.

  1. “ Vous, au lieu duquel je vais mourir, contentez-vous du sacrifice de ma vie. Si jamais vous êtes traduit en justice, souvenez-vous de mes trois enfants couverts d’opprobre, de leur mère au désespoir, et ne prolongez pas tant d’infortunes causées par la plus funeste resemblance.” — Memoires des Sanson.