1803: George Foster, and thence to the reanimator 1758: Francois Macandal, forgotten black messiah

1870: Jean-Baptiste Troppmann, mass murderer

January 19th, 2009 Headsman

Outside Paris’s La Roquette prison this morning in 1870, mass murderer Jean-Baptiste Troppmann was guillotined for the sensational butchery of a family of eight.

Katherine Taylor’s In the Theater of Criminal Justice conceptualizes Troppmann‘s crime and trial as a test case for the evolving public performance of justice.

The Alsatian-born Troppmann, or Traupmann (French Wikipedia page | German) was apprehended trying to catch a ship for America shortly after a murdered woman and her five murdered children were discovered on the Plaine de Pantin on the outskirts of Paris.

The horrific state of the bodies (caution: link displays grisly post-mortem photos) produced a public sensation with the curious phenomenon of mass citizen pilgrimmages to the “field of cadavers” such that the Parisian police chief would later remember that “[i]t was necessary to close the entrance gate of the train station on the crowd that could no longer go in or out, that screamed from every direction in explosions of terror and rage: ‘Yet another victim of Pantin!'”

Troppmann had last been seen accompanying family father Jean Kinck on a business trip from which the latter was destined never to return … and it soon came to light that Jean Kinck had been the first of Troppmann’s victims, followed by the eldest son, interspersed with letters written to Kinck’s unwitting widow requesting bank transfers in the name of his deceased business partner.

As a judicial matter, this case was open and shut; Troppmann was convicted three months after his arrest, and went under the blade three weeks after that.

But the immense public fascination he generated would be a milestone in the development of the French tabloid press, which did brisk business* stoking the lucrative hysteria.

Small wonder such a staggering throng assembled for the dawn beheading — assembled even from the previous evening, to catch a glimpse of the grim apparatus being assembled for the next day’s play.

Among the multitude were various intellectual worthies, including the liberal Russian author Ivan Turgenev. His subsequent “Kazn’ Tropmana” (“The Execution of Troppmann” — the link is in Russian; I haven’t found a full English version), which includes meeting the remorseless prisoner and witnessing his pre-execution “toilette,” reflects the writer’s discomfiture with Madame Guillotine. Too appalled to watch the beheading, he turns away and narrates its sound.

a light knocking of wood on wood — that was the sound made by the top part of the yoke with the slit for the passage of the knife as it fell round the murderer’s head and kept it immobile … Then something suddenly descended with a hollow growl and stopped with an abrupt thud … Just as though a huge animal had retched … I felt dizzy. Everything swam before my eyes. … None of us, absolutely none looked like a person who realized that he had been present at the implementation of an act of social justice; each one tried mentally to turn aside and, as it were, throw off any responsibility for this murder

“I will not forget that horrible night,” Turgenev later wrote to a friend (pdf link), “in the course of which ‘I have supp’d full of horrors’ and acquired a definite loathing for capital punishment in general, and in particular for the way it is carried out in France.”

Most others present are presumed to have experienced the opposite sensation, as made plain in this more democratic English-language account freely available from Google books. Nevertheless, Troppmann enjoyed a literary afterlife with a poetic name-check in Maurice Rollinat’s Les Nevroses (French link; “Soliloque de Troppmann” is about 75% of the way down the page); and as noted in Richard Burton’s Blood in the City, death-obsessed Georges Bataille used the infamous surname for both a pen name and the name of a main character in two separate works more than half a century later. (Update: Victor Hugo got in on the act, too. See the comments.)

Although Troppmann’s name appears on some lists of serial killers, his eight homicides do not fit the term’s usual definition of a compulsive pattern of murders spread over time. Troppmann’s blood offerings were meant for no other idol but Mammon.

* According to Thomas Cragin’s Murder in Parisian Streets: Manufacturing Crime and Justice in the Popular Press, 1830-1900, the circulation of everyman broadsheet Le Petit Journal surged by 50% overnight after the discovery of Troppmann’s victims — “But just as cases such as this one could boost sales, their absence temporarily reduced circulation … [and] its publishers tried to ensure a steady supply [of murder stories].”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,Mature Content,Murder,Pelf,Public Executions,Theft

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9 thoughts on “1870: Jean-Baptiste Troppmann, mass murderer”

  1. Dunsmuir News (California), Vol. 1, No. 13, August 9, 1890, page 1, column 6 from left (7 column paper), top article. (Copied word for word.)

    How a French Reporter Best His Rivals in a Noted Murder Case
    Two veteran newspaper men, one of whom was formerly connected with the New York Herald bureau at Paris, were talking over old times a few evenings since in the presence of a Tribune reporter. They drifted into a comparison of the work done by American reporters with that done by those on the other side of the Atlantic, particularly in England and France.
    A number of brilliant exploits were recalled, notable among them that of a Tribune reporter in meeting a ship-wrecked sailor on Lake Michigan, the only survivor of a terrible disaster, and successively keeping him secluded from other interviewers until his story was published in the Tribune. It was agreed that American reporters have a keen scent for news and are more skillful in their methods of getting facts than any of their foreign brethren. “But,” remarked the former correspondent of the Herald, “the French reporters are not slow. The feat accomplished by the reporter for a Paris paper at the time of the great Troppmann murder case was agitating France, will compare favorably with any on record. The reporter was sent to Cernay, where Troppmann’s father lived.
    “Upon his arrival he called upon the Justice of the Peace and the Commisssaire de Police, asked them to follow him to the Mairie, took his seat in the Judge’s chair, and with unparalled audacity ordered the Garde Champetre to bring the assassin’s father before him. The dignity and imperiousness assumed by the reporter repelled any question as to his authority,. When the father of Troppmann was brought before him he interrogated him as though officially commissioned to do so. The result was that it was learned that the son had written to the father on the eve of the day of the crime.
    ” ‘Monsieur le Commissaire, go to the house of the witness and seize those letters,’ commanded the reporter.
    “The functionary obeyed and the letters were brought. The reporter found they contained unquestionable evidence of Troppmann’s guilt. He copied them carefully but quickly and solemnly. He then handed them to the Justice and told him to seal them and preserve them safely for future use. He put the copies in his pocket and dismissed the court.
    “It was now only a little after noon and no passenger train would leave for Paris till evening. That would make the report too late for the next morning’s issue of his paper. To make matters worse he met two other reporters who had just arrived from Paris. Then he had to do something to keep the news from them and at the same time escape to Paris. A happy thought came to his rescue. They had not eaten since morning. He told them he, too, was half starved. If they would go to the inn near by and order a good dejeuner with plenty of wine, he would join them soon.
    “They were ready to accept the suggestion. As soon as they were out of sight he jumped into a wagon and had himself driven rapidly to the station, where, after much urging and undoubtly [undoubtedly] some financial persuasion, he succeed in getting aboard a luggage-train which was around to start. He caught a regular train at the junction some distance from Cerney and reached Paris late at night. The first page of his paper had been made up, but the importance of the news he brought was such that the page was reopened, and the next morning Paris was made acquainted, through one paper only, with the indisputable evidence of the guilt of Troppmann.” – Chicago Tribune.

  2. Headsman says:

    Nice find, Wim van den Bosch: “Kill six men, and you are Troppmann; kill six hundred thousand, and you are Caesar.”

    Here’s “Pour la Serbie” in French.

  3. Wim van den Bosch says:

    Victor Hugo refers by name to this criminal in his famous “Pour la Serbie”, in which he compares the public outrage about the seven murders that he committed with the inertia amongst governments concerning the mass murders by the Turks on the Balkans involving tenthousands in 1876.

    Hugo’s article is considered by many as the basis for a United Europe.

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