It’s the sesquicentennial of France’s beheading of Martin Dumollard, one of the earliest — some even venture the earliest — serial killers in the modern record.
This dull peasant spent at least the latter half of the 1850s (and maybe the first half, too) visiting Lyon where he would lure impecunious girls with the promise of good wages in a domestic position.
We know very well that there was no job awaiting these young women, but the twist is that Dumollard wasn’t a sex-killer, either — he just wanted to throttle his marks, drink their blood, and steal their poor clothes and meager possessions to re-sell them.
And in Second Empire France, with its haunting specters of Communism and nationalism, the migration of country bumpkins like Dumollard into urban areas, and the existential threat posed the entire polity by the rise of neighboring Prussia … in that France, Dumollard’s shocking spree really agitated the id of the respectable French bourgeoisie.
Relentless and grim — Dumollard had actually seen his own father put to death when the family fled as refugees to Italy during his boyhood — the illiterate, middle-aged murderer as presented to the public heedlessly stuffed his face with food while maintaining a near-total disinterest in the criminal case that would claim his head. He’d also shown no interest in subterfuge, leading the courts to castigate police for not detecting him years earlier even though several girls had escaped from him. His wife abetted the whole thing, dutifully washing out the victims’ stained clothes before market days. (She got a sentence of hard labor.)
Dumollard must have looked to his betters like some vengeful golem arisen from the soil, a homicidal automaton not even impelled by any recognizable human avidity, and a frightening warning of what might befall them.
According to Albert Borowitz, the unveiling a few months later of Jean-Francois Millet’s unnerving painting The Man with the Hoe raised hackles in France (and it did raise hackles) partly because of the farmer’s perceived resemblance to Martin Dumollard.
L’homme à la houe (The Man with the Hoe), by Jean-Francois Millet. “A monster without brow, dim-eyed and with an idiotic rictus, planted in the middle of a field like a scarecrow,” wrote Paul de Saint-Victor of this painting. “No trace of intelligence humanizes this brute at rest. Has he just been working, or murdering? Does he dig the land or hollow out the grave?
“The public voice has found his name: it is Dumollard, gravedigger of the good.”