August 17th, 2014 Harry Brodribb Irving
In the May of 1874, in the town of Montpellier, M. Boyer, a retired merchant, some forty-six years of age, lay dying. For some months previous to his death he had been confined to his bed, crippled by rheumatic gout. As the hour of his death drew near, M. Boyer was filled with a great longing to see his daughter, Marie, a girl of fifteen, and embrace her for the last time. The girl was being educated in a convent at Marseilles. One of M. Boyer’s friends offered to go there to fetch her. On arriving at the convent, he was told that Marie had become greatly attracted by the prospect of a religious life. “You are happy,” the Mother Superior had written to her mother, “very happy never to have allowed the impure breath of the world to have soiled this little flower. She loves you and her father more than one can say.”
Her father’s friend found the girl dressed in the costume of a novice, and was told that she had expressed her desire to take, one day, her final vows. He informed Marie of her father’s dying state, of his earnest wish to see her for the last time, and told her that he had come to take her to his bedside. “Take me away from here?” she exclaimed. The Mother Superior, surprised at her apparent reluctance to go, impressed on her the duty of acceding to her father’s wish. To the astonishment of both, Marie refused to leave the convent. If she could save her father’s life, she said, she would go, but, as that was impossible and she dreaded going out into the world again, she would stay and pray for her father in the chapel of the convent, where her prayers would be quite as effective as by his bedside. In vain the friend and the Mother Superior tried to bend her resolution.
Happily M. Boyer died before he could learn of his daughter’s singular refusal. But it had made an unfavourable impression on the friend’s mind. He looked on Marie as a girl without real feeling, an egoist, her religion purely superficial, hiding a cold and selfish disposition; he felt some doubt as to the future development of her character.
M. Boyer left a widow, a dark handsome woman, forty years of age.
Some twenty years before his death, Marie Salat had come to live with M. Boyer as a domestic servant. He fell in love with her, she became his mistress, and a few months before the birth of Marie, M. Boyer made her his wife. Madame Boyer was at heart a woman of ardent and voluptuous passions that only wanted opportunity to become careless in their gratification. Her husband’s long illness gave her such an opportunity. At the time of his death she was carrying on an intrigue with a bookseller’s assistant, Leon Vitalis, a young man of twenty-one. Her bed-ridden husband, ignorant of her infidelity, accepted gratefully the help of Vitalis, whom his wife described as a relative, in the regulation of his affairs. At length the unsuspecting Boyer died. The night of his death Madame Boyer spent with her lover.
The mother had never felt any great affection for her only child.
During her husband’s lifetime she was glad to have Marie out of the way at the convent. But the death of M. Boyer changed the situation. He had left almost the whole of his fortune, about 100,000 francs, to his daughter, appointing her mother her legal guardian with a right to the enjoyment of the income on the capital until Marie should come of age. Madame Boyer had not hitherto taken her daughter’s religious devotion very seriously. But now that the greater part of her husband’s fortune was left to Marie, she realised that, should her daughter persist in her intention of taking the veil, that fortune would in a very few years pass into the hands of the sisterhood. Without delay Madame Boyer exercised her authority, and withdrew Marie from the convent. The girl quitted it with every demonstration of genuine regret.
Marie Boyer when she left the convent was growing into a tall and attractive woman, her figure slight and elegant, her hair and eyes dark, dainty and charming in her manner. Removed from the influences of convent life, her religious devotion became a thing of the past. In her new surroundings she gave herself up to the enjoyments of music and the theatre. She realised that she was a pretty girl, whose beauty well repaid the hours she now spent in the adornment of her person.
The charms of Marie were not lost on Leon Vitalis.
Mean and significant in appearance, Vitalis would seem to have been one of those men who, without any great physical recommendation, have the knack of making themselves attractive to women. After her husband’s death Madame Boyer had yielded herself completely to his influence and her own undoubted passion for him. She had given him the money with which to purchase a business of his own as a second-hand bookseller. This trade the enterprising and greedy young man combined with money-lending and he clandestine sale of improper books and photographs.
To such a man the coming of Marie Boyer was a significant event. She was younger, more attractive than her mother; in a very few years the whole of her father’s fortune would be hers. Slowly Vitalis set himself to win the girl’s affections. The mother’s suspicions were aroused; her jealousy was excited. She sent Marie to complete her education at a convent school in Lyons. This was in the April of 1875. By this time Marie and Vitalis had become friendly enough to arrange to correspond clandestinely during the girl’s absence from home. Marie was so far ignorant of the relations of Vitalis with her mother.
Her daughter sent away, Madame Boyer surrendered herself with complete abandonment to her passion for her lover. At Castelnau, close to Montpellier, she bought a small country house. There she could give full rein to her desire.
To the scandal of the occasional passer-by she and her lover would bathe in a stream that passed through the property, and sport together on the grass. Indoors there were always books from Vitalis’ collection to stimulate their lascivious appetites. This life of pastoral impropriety lasted until the middle of August, when Marie Boyer came home from Lyons.
Vitalis would have concealed from the young girl as long as he could the nature of his relations with Madame Boyer, but his mistress by her own deliberate conduct made all concealment impossible. Whether from the utter recklessness of her passion for Vitalis, or a desire to kill in her daughter’s heart any attachment which she may have felt towards her lover, the mother paraded openly before her daughter the intimacy of her relations with Vitalis, and with the help of the literature with which the young bookseller supplied her, set about corrupting her child’s mind to her own depraved level.
The effect of her extraordinary conduct was, however, the opposite to what she had intended. The mind of the young girl was corrupted; she was familiarised with vice. But in her heart she did not blame Vitalis for what she saw and suffered; she pitied, she excused him. It was her mother whom she grew to hate, with a hate all the more determined for the cold passionless exterior beneath which it was concealed.
Madame Boyer’s deliberate display of her passion for Vitalis served only to aggravate and intensify in Marie Boyer an unnatural jealousy that was fast growing up between mother and daughter.
Marie did not return to the school at Lyons. In the winter of 1875, Madame Boyer gave up the country house and, with her daughter, settled in one of the suburbs of Montpellier. In the January of 1876 a theft occurred in her household which obliged Madame Boyer to communicate with the police. Spendthrift and incompetent in the management of her affairs, she was hoarding and suspicious about money itself. Cash and bonds she would hide away in unexpected places, such as books, dresses, even a soup tureen.
One of her most ingenious hiding places was a portrait of her late husband, behind which she concealed some bearer bonds in landed security, amounting to about 11,000 francs. One day in January these bonds disappeared. She suspected a theft, and informed the police. Three days later she withdrew her complaint, and no more was heard of the matter. As Marie and Vitalis were the only persons who could have known her secret, the inference is obvious.
When, later in the year, Vitalis announced his intention of going to Paris on business, his mistress expressed to him the hope that he would “have a good time” with her bonds. Vitalis left for Paris. But there was now a distinct understanding between Marie and himself. Vitalis had declared himself her lover and asked her to marry him. The following letter, written to him by Marie Boyer in the October of 1876, shows her attitude toward his proposal:
I thank you very sincerely for your letter, which has given me very great-pleasure, because it tells me that you are well. It sets my mind at rest, for my feelings towards you are the same as ever. I don’t say they are those of love, for I don’t know myself; I don’t know what such feelings are. But I feel a real affection for you which may well turn to love. How should I not hold in affectionate remembrance one who has done everything for me? But love does not come to order. So I can’t and don’t wish to give any positive answer about our marriage — all depends on circumstances. I don’t want any promise from you, I want you to be as free as I am. I am not fickle, you know me well enough for that. So don’t ask me to give you any promise. You may find my letter a little cold. But I know too much of life to pledge myself lightly. I assure you I think on it often. Sometimes I blush when I think what marriage means.
Madame Boyer, displeased at the theft, had let her lover go without any great reluctance. No sooner had he gone than she began to miss him. Life seemed dull without him. Mother and daughter were united at least in their common regret at the absence of the young bookseller.
To vary the monotony of existence, to find if possible a husband for her daughter, Madame Boyer decided to leave Montpellier for Marseilles, and there start some kind of business. The daughter, who foresaw greater amusement and pleasure in the life of a large city, assented willingly. On October 6, 1876, they arrived at Marseilles, and soon after Madame bought at a price considerably higher than their value, two shops adjoining one another in the Rue de la Republique. One was a cheese shop, the other a milliner’s.
The mother arranged that she should look after the cheese shop, while her daughter presided over the milliner’s. The two shops were next door to one another. Behind the milliner’s was a drawing-room, behind the cheese shop a kitchen; these two rooms communicated with each other by a large dark room at the back of the building. In the kitchen was a trap-door leading to a cellar. The two women shared a bedroom in an adjoining house.
Vitalis had opposed the scheme of his mistress to start shop-keeping in Marseilles. He knew how unfitted she was to undertake a business of any kind. But neither mother nor daughter would relinquish the plan. It remained therefore to make the best of it.
Vitalis saw that he must get the business into his own hands; and to do that, to obtain full control of Madame Boyer’s affairs, he must continue to play the lover to her. To the satisfaction of the two women, he announced his intention of coming to Marseilles in the New Year of 1877. It was arranged that he should pass as a nephew of Madame Boyer, the cousin of Marie. He arrived at Marseilles on January 1, and received a cordial welcome.
Of the domestic arrangements that ensued, it is sufficient to say that they were calculated to whet the jealousy and inflame the hatred that Marie felt towards her mother, who now persisted as before in parading before her daughter the intimacy of her relations with Vitalis.
In these circumstances Vitalis succeeded in extracting from his mistress a power of attorney, giving him authority to deal with her affairs and sell the two businesses, which were turning out unprofitable. This done, he told Marie, whose growing attachment to him, strange as it may seem, had turned to love, that now at last they could be free. He would sell the two shops, and with the money released by the sale they could go away together.
Suddenly Madame Boyer fell ill, and was confined to her bed. Left to themselves, the growing passion of Marie Boyer for Vitalis culminated in her surrender. But for the sick mother the happiness of the lovers was complete. If only her illness were more serious, more likely to be fatal in its result! “If only God would take her!” said Vitalis. “Yes,” replied her daughter, “she has caused us so much suffering!”
To Madame Boyer her illness had brought hours of torment, and at last remorse.
She realised the duplicity of her lover, she knew that he meant to desert her for her daughter, she saw what wrong she had done that daughter, she suspected even that Marie and Vitalis were poisoning her. Irreligious till now, her thoughts turned to religion. As soon as she could leave her bed she would go to Mass and make atonement for her sin; she would recover her power of attorney, get rid of Vitalis for good and all, and send her daughter back to a convent.
But it was too late. Nemesis was swift to overtake the hapless woman. Try as he might, Vitalis had found it impossible to sell the shops at anything but a worthless figure. He had no money of his own, with which to take Marie away. He knew that her mother had resolved on his instant dismissal.
As soon as Madame Boyer was recovered sufficiently to leave her bed, she turned on her former lover, denounced his treachery, accused him of robbing and swindling her, and bade him go without delay.
To Vitalis dismissal meant ruin, to Marie it meant the loss of her lover. During her illness the two young people had wished Madame Boyer dead, but she had recovered. Providence or Nature having refused to assist Vitalis, he resolved to fall back on art. He gave up a whole night’s rest to the consideration of the question.
As a result of his deliberations he suggested to the girl of seventeen the murder of her mother. “This must end,” said Vitalis. “Yes, it must,” replied Marie. Vitalis asked her if she had any objection to such a crime. Marie hesitated, the victim was her mother. Vitalis reminded her what sort of a mother she had been to her. The girl said that she was terrified at the sight of blood; Vitalis promised that her mother should be strangled. At length Marie consented. That night on some slight pretext Madame Boyer broke out into violent reproaches against her daughter. She little knew that every reproach she uttered served only to harden in her daughter’s heart her unnatural resolve.
On the morning of March 19 Madame Boyer rose early to go to Mass.
Before she went out, she reminded Vitalis that this was his last day in her service, that when she returned she would expect to find him gone.
It was after seven when she left the house. The lovers had no time to lose; the deed must be done immediately on the mother’s return. They arranged that Vitalis should get rid of the shop-boy, and that, as soon as he had gone, Marie should shut and lock the front doors of the two shops.
At one o’clock Madame Boyer came back. She expressed her astonishment and disgust that Vitalis still lingered, and threatened to send for the police to turn him out. Vitalis told the shop-boy that he could go away for a few hours; they had some family affairs to settle. The boy departed. Madame Boyer, tired after her long morning in the town, was resting on a sofa in the sitting-room, at the back of the milliner’s shop. Vitalis entered the room, and after a few heated words, struck her a violent blow in the chest. She fell back on the sofa, calling to her daughter to come to her assistance. The daughter sought to drown her mother’s cries by banging the doors, and opening and shutting drawers. Vitalis, who was now trying to throttle his victim, called to Marie to shut the front doors of the two shops.
To do so Marie had to pass through the sitting-room, and was a witness to the unsuccessful efforts of Vitalis to strangle her mother. Having closed the doors, she retired into the milliner’s shop to await the issue. After a few moments her lover called to her for the large cheese knife; he had caught up a kitchen knife, but in his struggles it had slipped from his grasp. Quickly Marie fetched the knife and returned to the sitting-room.
There a desperate struggle was taking place between the man and woman. At one moment it seemed as if Madame Boyer would get the better of Vitalis, whom nature had not endowed greatly for work of this kind. Marie came to his aid. She kicked and beat her mother, until at last the wretched creature released her hold and sank back exhausted. With the cheese knife, which her daughter had fetched, Vitalis killed Madame Boyer.
They were murderers now, the young lovers. What to do with the body? The boy would be coming back soon. The cellar under the kitchen seemed the obvious place of concealment. With the help of a cord the body was lowered into the cellar, and Marie washed the floor of the sitting-room. The boy came back. He asked where Madame Boyer was. Vitalis told him that she was getting ready to return to Montpellier the same evening, and that he had arranged to go with her, but that he had no intention of doing so; he would accompany her to the station, he said, and then at the last moment, just as the train was starting, slip away and let her go on her journey alone. To the boy, who knew enough of the inner history of the household to enjoy the piquancy of the situation, such a trick seemed quite amusing. He went away picturing in his mind the scene at the railway station and its humorous possibilities.
At seven o’clock Vitalis and Marie Boyer were alone once more with the murdered woman. They had the whole night before them.
Vitalis had already considered the matter of the disposal of the body. He had bought a pick and spade. He intended to bury his former mistress in the soil under the cellar. After that had been done, he and Marie would sell the business for what it would fetch, and go to Brussels — an admirable plan, which two unforeseen circumstances defeated. The Rue de la Republique was built on a rock, blasted out for the purpose. The shop-boy had gone to the station that evening to enjoy the joke which, he believed, was to be played on his mistress.
When Vitalis tried to dig a grave into the ground beneath the cellar he realised the full horror of the disappointment. What was to be done? They must throw the body into the sea. But how to get it there?
The crime of Billoir, an old soldier, who the year before in Paris had killed his mistress in a fit of anger and cut up her body, was fresh in the recollection of Vitalis. The guilty couple decided to dismember the body of Madame Boyer and so disfigure her face as to render it unrecognisable. In the presence of Marie, Vitalis did this, and the two lovers set out at midnight to discover some place convenient for the reception of the remains. They found the harbour too busy for their purpose, and decided to wait until the morrow, when they would go farther afield. They returned home and retired for the night, occupying the bed in which Madame Boyer had slept the night before.
On the morning of the 20th the lovers rose early, and a curious neighbour, looking through the keyhole, saw them counting joyously money and valuables, as they took them from Madame Boyer’s cash-box. When the shop-boy arrived, he asked Vitalis for news of Madame Boyer. Vitalis told him that he had gone with her to the station, that she had taken the train to Montpellier, and that, in accordance with his plan, he had given her the slip just as the train was starting. This the boy knew to be false: he had been to the station himself to enjoy the fun, and had seen neither Vitalis nor Madame Boyer. He began to suspect some mystery.
In the evening, when the shops had been closed, and he had been sent about his business, he waited and watched. In a short time he saw Vitalis and Marie Boyer leave the house, the former dragging a hand-cart containing two large parcels, while Marie walked by his side. They travelled some distance with their burden, leaving the city behind them, hoping to find some deserted spot along the coast where they could conceal the evidence of their crime. Their nerves were shaken by meeting with a custom-house officer, who asked them what it was they had in the cart. Vitalis answered that it was a traveller’s luggage, and the officer let them pass on. But soon after, afraid to risk another such experience, the guilty couple turned out the parcels into a ditch, covered them with stones and sand, and hurried home.
The next day, the shop-boy and the inquisitive neighbour having consulted together, went to the Commissary of Police and told him of the mysterious disappearance of Madame Boyer. The Commissary promised to investigate the matter, and had just dismissed his informants when word was brought to him of the discovery, in a ditch outside Marseilles, of two parcels containing human remains. He called back the boy and took him to view the body at the Morgue. The boy was able, by the clothes, to identify the body as that of his late mistress.
The Commissary went straight to the shops in the Rue de la Republique, where he found the young lovers preparing for flight. At first they denied all knowledge of the crime, and said that Madame Boyer had gone to Montpellier. They were arrested, and it was not long before they both confessed their guilt to the examining magistrate.
Vitalis and Marie Boyer were tried before the Assize Court at Aix on July 2, 1877. Vitalis is described as mean and insignificant in appearance, thin, round-backed, of a bilious complexion; Marie Boyer as a pretty, dark girl, her features cold in expression, dainty and elegant. At her trial she seemed to be still so greatly under the influence of Vitalis that during her interrogatory the President sent him out of court. To the examining magistrate Marie Boyer, in describing her mother’s murder, had written, “I cannot think how I came to take part in it. I, who wouldn’t have stayed in the presence of a corpse for all the money in the world.”
Vitalis was condemned to death, and was executed on August 17. He died fearful and penitent, acknowledging his miserable career to be a warning to misguided youth. Extenuating circumstances were accorded to Marie Boyer, and she was sentenced to penal servitude for life. Her conduct in prison was so repentant and exemplary that she was released in 1892.
M. [Louis] Proal, a distinguished French judge, and the author of some important works on crime, acted as the examining magistrate in the case of Vitalis and Marie Boyer. He thus sums up his impression of the two criminals:
Here is an instance of how greed and baseness on the one side, lust and jealousy on the other, bring about by degrees a change in the characters of criminals, and, after some hesitation, the suggestion and accomplishment of parricide, Is it necessary to seek an explanation of the crime in any psychic abnormality which is negatived to all appearances by the antecedents of the guilty pair? Is it necessary to ask it of anatomy or physiology? Is not the crime the result of moral degradation gradually asserting itself in two individuals, whose moral and intellectual faculties are the same as those of other men, but who fall, step by step, into vice and crime? It is by a succession of wrongful acts that a man first reaches the frontier of crime and then at length crosses it.
Also on this date
- 1929: James Horace Alderman, Prohibition rum-runner
- 1942: Irene Nemirovsky, Catholic Jewish writer
- 1510: Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley, tax collectors
- 1951: Antonio Riva and Ruichi Yamaguchi
- 1909: Madanlal Dhingra, Indian revolutionary
- 1571: Marco Antonio Bragadin, flayed Venetian