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  • Head-hunting German Phrenologists August 9, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

    ***This post was suggest by Invisible who shares though Beachcombing’s scepticism***

    Before plunging into this modern story of head-hunting the reader should be warned. First, the quotations come from a contemporary nineteenth-century English ‘sketch’ (rather than translation) from the French: Jacques Peuchet, Mémoires tirés des Archives de la police de Paris, vol I, 161 ff. Beach didn’t have the energy to translate but he can confirm that the sketch is essentially faithful.

    Second, though the author of this text, Jacques Peuchet, claimed to be working from the police archives in Paris Beach has his suspicions. That JP became a source for Karl Marx and Alexander Dumas (P), two of the greatest fantasists of the nineteenth century, does nothing to quell his worries. If any reader can give some extra information on the reliability of the Mémoires the world would be a better place for it: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    It was during the reign of Louis XIV [obit 1715], that disappearances of individuals became alarmingly frequent in Paris. Awfully mysterious rumours on the subject were rife; and the lieutenant general of the police, anxious to unravel the awful secret, employed an intelligent agent of the name of Lecoq for that purpose. It transpired that a female who sometimes pretended to be a Polish princess, a Mademoiselle Jaborouski, and at other assumed the title of Lady Guilfort, was at the bottom of all.

    One of Beachcombing’s concerns with this text is that Lady Guilfort (Lady Guilford??) seems to have sunk without trace despite her, historically-speaking, irresistible tendencies. In any case, enter the fils.

    Lecoq placed his son, superbly dressed, in her way. The female appeared, and he was allured to her house where many had been drawn who were seen no more.

    When Lady Guilfort left the room, the son  ‘profiting by her absence, made an inspection of the room, in one corner of which stood what appeared to be an Indian screen. Wishing to see what was behind this, he endeavoured to close up its folds, but finding them immoveable, he shook them with some violence, when he heard a click, like that of a spring giving way, and one of the folds descended into the floor, and left unmasked a deep and ample recess upon the shelves of which  were ranged twenty-six silver dishes, and in each a human head, the flesh of which had been preserved by some embalming process. A stifled cry of horror burst from the youth’s lips, which but a moment before had been breathing the accents of admiration and passion. But his agony of terror was still further increased when, looking towards one of the windows of the room, he thought he saw several other cadaverous faces fixing upon him through the panes their glazed but fiery glances.’

    Luckily, Lecoq senior arrives with his men and prevents Lady Guilfort and four ruffians from killing his boy. Now the explanation for this ghoulish scene that reads suspiciously like Le Fanu.

    A number of the most desperate malefactors whose crimes had often merited the gibbet and the galleys, had formed an association under the command of an experienced and daring chief. This arch villain had in the course of his wanderings, fallen with a rich but most profligate English woman… Besides being his mistress, she lent herself as a decoy, by means of which young men who had the appearance of wealth were lured to the den were young Lecoq had so miraculous an escape.  There, after sharing in her entertainments, they were murdered, and their heads separated from their bodies. The latter were disposed of to the surgical students for anatomical purposes; and the heads, after being dried and embalmed , kept until a safe opportunity of sending them to Germany, where a price was given for them by the secret amateurs of a science then in its infancy, but which has since made some noise in the world under the name of phrenology…

    So Beach just wants to get this straight. They chose young rich men but then used their bodies? Why not choose young poor men who would have disappeared far more easily? Note too how the implication is that they died with a smile on their face: the black widow having offered ‘entertainments’ to her victim before stinging them. And what is this about phrenology a century before the ‘science’ was invented?

    In any case, Lady Guilfort was placed in the Bastille until one day the Chevalier de Lorraine decided, in a fit of madness, to have her to dinner: ‘This Englishwoman must be a rare piece of womanhood, suppose we have her to sup with us’. Whether fact or fantasy the sequel is very entertaining.

    Lady Guilfort, after the first surprise was over, had no difficulty in recognizing the persons before her, the King’s brother, the Duke of Orleans, the Chevalier de Lorraine, and the Marquis d’Effiat. She quickly perceived the motives which led to her being brought into their presence; and though under other circumstances, she would have willingly joined in the wildest orgies with the persons in whose company she then found herself, yet the recollection of her dungeon in the Bastille, and the terrible death impending over her, left her no thought but that of making her escape.

    She was seen to bed by the Marquis de Lafare and the Chevalier de Lorraine. She told both, separately and in secret, that they should come to her room to converse physically with her. Then when, after several minutes, they both arrived simultaneously she used their confusion to slip through the door and lock them within before escaping from an upstairs window. An escape worthy of the author of the Count of Monte Cristo and one that is almost as impractical as some of his.

    Conveniently the pages of the police archive are missing here, Peuchet tells us – though a letter from the dread Guilfort is to be found threatening revenge on poor old Lecoq. Beach notes that there appears to have been a fictionalisation of Lady Guilfort’s crimes, La Syrène by one Xavier de Montépin.


    10 August 2011: KMH has some thoughts on the date of this story: ‘This tale sounds unlikely if dated to Louis XIV. But what if the author made a simple transpositional error and really meant Louis XVI? Then we have a horror story that could be classed as one of those rank deceptions and/or atrocities so characteristic of pre-revolutionary (and post-revolutionary) periods. (think of Marquis de Sade, Cagliostro, the Count Saint-Germain, and Casanova). Louis XVI died in January, 1791.  Phrenology is said to formally originate with Franz Joseph Gall in 1796, although his interest in the subject began much earlier according to the quote below. Gall died in 1828. ‘Although twice married, he had no descendants. After his death, his head was removed and was added to his collection of over three hundred human skulls, skull casts, and brain casts.’   How long did it take to collect his assortment of skulls?’ Thanks as always KMH!

    11 August 2011: Luis has come back from his holidays (well spent we hope) to tear into the Mémoires: About The Phrenology story it’s uneasy to track. I found the book at plenty of sites but when looking inside for ‘Phrénologie’ I found that it was mentioned but in a quite mystic sentence ‘isn’t the phrenology about to rehabilitate chiromancy?’. So I enlarged the search path and found some blogs that credited the Mémoires tirés des archives de la police indeed as an inspiration for Dumas when he wrote Monte-cristo and being regarded as the only reliable source for French police archives after a large part of them where lost in fire during the commune civil war. The original edition is evaluated at around 700-800 Euros by the way and it’ll be re-released in France next October. So case closed it seemed. Not at all, it’s a fake, well not totally faked but the stories told in this book were not verified before printing nor endorsed as for many of the other books of the prolific writer Mr Lamothe-Langon. He’s the real author, he used many pseudonyms, amongst them was Jacques Peuchet. He is listed in the volume 5 of “Les supercheries littéraires dévoilées” you can have a look here at the list of his forged Mémoires. So Invisible and you were right being sceptic about this, still the phrenology is mentioned in the book but Lamothe-Langon lived during the Napoleon Bonaparte era so it matches with the creation of this concept by (so says wikipedia) Franz Joseph Gall in 1796.’ Thanks as always, Luis!