“Constantly Thinking Up Sinister Projects Against Society” – Pierre Francois Lacenaire

Lacenaire played by Marcel Herrand in 'Children of Paradise'

Pierre Francois Lacenaire born December 20, 1800 in Francehville, Rhone, was known as the Dandy Criminal, or the Poet Assassin, and his exploits are the direct inspiration for Dostoeyvskys Crime and Punishment. Raskoloknivs crime and confession is an almost detail by detail account of Lacenaires. He also inspired Baudelaire, enough to quote the great philosopher as proclaiming him “One of the heroes of modern life”.

Lacenaire finished his childhood and young adult education with great results. He joined the army, deserting in 1829 before an expedition to Morea, He committed a petty crime on purpose, so he would be jailed, and use his time in lock up as “criminal prison” In prison he met Victor Avril, and Francois Martin, who quickly became his dubious enterouge.

Lacenaire eventually committed 3 murders, rather sloppily no doubt, the killing of a bank messenger (as seen in Marcel Carnes 1945 epic ‘Children of Paradise’) and the December 14th 1834  brutal butchering of a transvestite and his mother. The Chandon’s were killed in their apartments, on the Pasage du Cheval Rouge. Lacenaire and Avril went to a nearby Turkish bath to wash the blood off heir hands.

While incarcerated for a 2nd time, Pierre Francois turned his jail cell into a salon, and discussed great literary works with his jailer, even willing his book collection to him after he was to put to death. after all it was not his crimes that represented Lacenaire, but his aesthetic towards them. A view that society was so hateful, and malformed, that his injustices were not his fault. In his Memoires, Revelations, Poems, he explains s world, and the toll it took on him. A miserable childhood, his inflated sense of self worth, his penchant for creative writing, and his need for solitude. Adding an air to mystery to the tale, their is a inscription beneath his picture on the cover of the original piece that reads “There is a secret that kills me,/Which I hide from curious eyes,/ You will see here only the statue/ The soul is hidden from every eye.”

Needless to say, there is no record of Pierre Francois Lacenaire ever taking a wife or a mistress, but we will never know. It has been supposed by Edward Baron Turk, among other things that Lacenaire would have been inclined to take Barbey d’ Aurevilleys standpoint on romantic love which is “once a dandy falls in love he ceases to be a dandy anymore” Turk hints at a inclination on Lacenaire’s part to sexual celibacy, as was popularized by the 1828 book ‘Pelham Adventures of a Gentleman’  about Beau Brummel. To care about someone else, proved your worth insufficeint. We have no way of ever telling if this was Lacenaires viewpoint or not, but his alienated state certainly goes a certain length in backing this proposed theory up.

The grandest part of Pierre Francois Lacenaires legacy is the courtroom drama that unfolded upon his criminal trial. He showed up in court not in rags, but dressed as a gentleman. He wore a blue coat with a velvet collar and black trousers.He wore a white shirt front collar and cuffs that were immaculately clean. He carried a cambric handkerchief which was the latest fashion for men in 1835. He brought down the house with his theatrical confession, a detail by detail account of his crimes. He also directly testified Avril and Martin, as they were desperately trying to save their necks.  He bravely ended with a beautiful soliloquy that explained why an evil and wrong society had blossomed a criminal potency in himself that he had not choice but to act upon, time and time again. Because of his immense public popularity and sensationalistic style, many thought he was to be pardoned, but instead he was sentence to death on the guillotine, and on January 9th 1836, he was executed in Paris, France. The night before his death he was quoted as having ” brief bits of melancholy that entrained him” but he showed no remorse or regret.

I’ll leave with a direct quote from the man himself, which summed up his feelings on society, and imprinted his stance as a criminal tour de force, an intellectual outlaw, a superstar thief and murderer. He enacted his cruel philosophy on the world, a philosophy which was a direct defense against a society that threatened to strangle him, and thus trigger his monstrous criminality. Like a saner and more dignified Charles Manson, his crimes were part of a statement on the society in which he lived, and suffered everyday. A brave murder, and dark artist, he should be remembered for inspiring and enthralling generations of artists after him, from Baudelaire, to Marcel Carne.  And so he said ” when, with the best will in the world to earn money by my own talents in an honest way, I found myself rejected and disdained on every side….then hatred followed contempt. Deep gnawing hatred which eventually I included the whole of humankind….It was the social structure I wanted to strike at, in its foundations, in its rich folks, its harsh and egotistical rich. I’m going to my death, up my poor route, a stairway.”

Anthology of Black Humour pg 59 Andre Breton


Child of Paradise: Marcel Carne and the Age of Golden Cinema by Edward Baron Turk pg 269-272



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