Maturin Bruneau

Maturin Bruneau—Soi-Disant  Louis XVII. of France

Maturin Bruneau, the next pretender to the honours of the deceased son of Louis XVI., was quite as great a rascal as Hervagault, but he lacked his cleverness. Bruneau was the son of a maker of wooden shoes, who resided at the little village of Vezin, in the department of the Maine and Loire. He was born in 1784, and having been early left an orphan, was adopted by a married sister, who kept him until she discovered that he was incorrigibly vicious, and was compelled to turn him into the streets to earn his livelihood in the best way he could. Although Maturin was only eleven years old at the time, he found no difficulty in providing for himself. He strayed a little distance from home, into regions where he was personally unknown, and there accosted a farmer whom he met, asking him for alms, and stating at the same time that he was a little "De Vezin." The farmer's curiosity was excited, for the Baron de Vezin was a well-known nobleman, who had suffered sorely in the civil war of 1795, whose chateau had been burnt, and whose estates had been devastated by the republican soldiery; and that his son should be compelled to beg was more than the honest agriculturist could bear. So he took the little waif home with him, and kept him until the Viscountess de Turpin de Crissé heard of his whereabouts, and carried him off to her own chateau at Angrie.

In her mansion Maturin Bruneau was treated as an adopted son, and lived in great splendour until, in 1796, a letter arrived from Charles de Vezin, the brother of the baron, who had just returned to France, and who informed the viscountess that she had been imposed upon, for the only nephew he ever possessed was at that time an emigrant refugee in England. The result was that Bruneau was thrust out of doors, and, sent back to his native village and the manufacture of wooden shoes. The jibes of his fellow-villagers, however, rendered his life so miserable that the viscountess consented to receive him as a servant, and he remained with her for a year; but his conduct was so unbearable that she was at last compelled to dismiss him.

After a brief sojourn with his relatives he announced his intention of making the tour of France, and left his home for that purpose at the age of fifteen. He seems, in the course of his wanderings, to have fought in the Chouan insurrection in 1799 and 1800, and having been press-ganged, deserted from his ship in an American port, and roamed up and down in the United States for some years. When the news of Napoleon's downfall reached that country in 1815, he returned to France, arriving with a passport which bore the name of Charles de Navarre. He reached the village of Vallebasseir in great destitution, and there, having been mistaken for a young soldier named Phillipeaux, who was supposed to have perished in the war in Spain, he picked up all available intelligence respecting the family, and forthwith presented himself at the house of the Widow Phillipeaux as her son. He was received with every demonstration of affection, and made the worst possible use of his advantages. After spending all the ready money which the poor woman had, he proceeded to Vezin, where he was recognised by his family, although he pretended to be a stranger. Thence he repaired to Pont de Cé, where lived a certain Sieur Leclerc, an innkeeper, who had formerly been a cook in the household of Louis XVI. To this man he paid a visit, and demanded if he recognised him. The innkeeper said he did not, whereupon he remarked on the strangeness of being forgotten, seeing, said he, "that I am Louis XVII., and that you have often pulled my ears in the kitchen of Versailles."

Leclerc, whose recollections of the dauphin were of quite a different character, ordered him out of his house as an impostor. But it does not fall to everybody to be familiar with the ways of a court, or even of a royal kitchen, and a few persons were found at St. Malo who credited his assertion that he was the Prince of France. The government, already warned by the temporary success of Hervagault's imposture, immediately pounced upon him, and submitted him to examination. His story was found to be a confused tissue of falsehoods; and after being repeatedly interrogated, and attempting to escape, and to forward letters surreptitiously to his "uncle," Louis XVIII., he was removed to the prison of Rouen as the son of the Widow Phillipeaux, calling himself Charles de Navarre. When he entered the jail he was the possessor of a solitary five franc piece, which he spent in wine and tobacco, and he then took to the manufacture of wooden shoes for the other prisoners in order to obtain more. As he worked he told his story, and his fellow jail-birds were never tired of listening to his romance. Visitors also heard his tale, and yielded credence to it, and it was not long before everybody in Rouen knew that there was a captive in the town who claimed to be the son of the murdered king.

Among other persons of education and respectability who listened and believed was a Madame Dumont, the wife of a wealthy merchant. This lady became an ardent partizan of the pretender, and not only visited him, but spent her husband's gold lavishly to solace him in his captivity. She supplied him with the richest food and the rarest wines that money could buy. A Madame Jacquières, who resided at Gros Caillon, near Paris, who was greatly devoted to the Bourbon family, also came under the influence of Bruneau's agents, and finally fell a victim to his rascality. This good lady was an ardent Catholic, and having some lingering doubt as to the honesty of the prisoner of Rouen, in order to its perfect solution she visited many shrines, said many prayers, and personally repaired to the old city in which he was confined, where she caused a nine days' course of prayer to be said to discover if the captive were really the person he pretended to be. This last expedient answered admirably. The Abbé Matouillet, who celebrated the required number of masses before the shrine of the Virgin, was himself a firm believer in Bruneau, and he had no hesitation in assuring the petitioner that loyalty and liberality towards the prince would be no bad investment either in this world or the next. The Abbé then led his credulous victim into the august presence of the clogmaker, and the poor dupe prostrated herself before him in semi-adoration. Nor would she leave the presence until his Majesty condescended to accept a humble gift of a valuable gold watch and two costly rings. His Majesty was graciously pleased to accede to the request of his loyal subject.

Bruneau could neither read nor write, and perhaps it was as well for himself that his education had been thus neglected, for if he had been left to his own devices his imposture would have been very short-lived. But he contrived to attach two clever rascals to himself, who helped to prolong the fraud and to victimise the public. They were both convicts, but convicts of a high intellectual type. One was Larcher, a revolutionary priest, and a man of detestable life; while the other was a forger named Tourly. These worthies acted as his secretaries. On the 3d of March 1816, the priest wrote a letter to "Madame de France" in these terms:—

"My Sister,—You are doubtless not ignorant of my being held in the saddest captivity, and reduced to a condition of appalling misery. So may I beg of you, if you should think me worthy of your especial consideration, to visit me here in my imprisonment. Even should you for an instant suspect me of being an impostor, still may I claim consideration for the sake of your brother. The scandal and judgment of which our family is daily the object throughout the entire kingdom may well make you shudder. I am myself sunk in despair at the thought of being so near the capital without being permitted to publicly appear in it. If you determine upon coming down here you would do well to preserve an incognito. In the meantime receive the embraces of your unfortunate brother,     The King of France and Navarre."

This precious epistle Madame Jacquières undertook not only to forward to the Duchess d'Angoulême, but also promised to procure the honour of a private interview for the bearer of the missive.

Larcher and Tourly must have been kept very busy, for the pretended dauphin was never tired of sending appeals for assistance to the foreign powers, of addressing proclamations to the people, and even went so far as formally to petition the parliament that he might be taken to Paris, in order there to establish his identity as the son of Louis XVI. The whole of the papers issued from the prison, and they were enormous in quantity, were signed by his secretaries with his name.

About the same time considerable interest was excited by a trashy novel, called the "Cemetery of the Madeleine," which pretended to give a circumstantial account of the life of the dauphin in the Temple. Out of this book the secretaries and their employer proceeded to construct "The Historical Memoirs of Charles of Navarre;" but after they had finished their work, they found that it was so ridiculously absurd that there was no probability that it would deceive the public for a moment. They accordingly handed the manuscript over to a more skilful rogue with whom they were acquainted, and this man, who was called Branzon, transformed their clumsy narrative into a well-written and plausible history. He did more, and "coached" the pretender in all the petty circumstances which he could find out respecting the Bourbon family. Manuscript copies of the "Memoirs" were assiduously distributed in influential quarters in Rouen, and particularly among the officers of the third regiment of the royal guard, then quartered in the town. A copy fell into the hands of a Vendéan officer named De la Pomelière, who recollected the story of the pretended son of Baron de Vezins, and half-suspected a similar imposture in this instance. With some difficulty he procured admission to the royal presence, and induced the sham dauphin to speak of La Vendée. During the conversation he remarked, that when the chateau of Angrie, the residence of the Viscountess de Turpin, was mentioned, the pretender slightly changed colour and became embarrassed. The acknowledgment that he was acquainted with the mansion, and the accurate description which he gave of it, gave the first clue whereby proof was obtained of his identity with Maturin Bruneau.

But although M. de la Pomelière, from his previous knowledge, had a hazy idea of the truth, the uninformed public continued devoted to the cause of the pretender; and the convict secretaries, if they failed to stir up the educated classes, at least succeeded in entrapping the ignorant. The prison cell of Bruneau was converted into a scene of uninterrupted revelling. Persons of all classes sent their gifts—the ladies supplying unlimited creature comforts for their king, while their husbands strove to compensate for their incapacity to manufacture dainties by filling the purse of the pretender. Nothing was forgotten: fine clothes and fine furniture were supplied in abundance; and the adoring public were so anxious to consider the comfort of the illustrious prisoner, that they even subscribed to purchase a breakfast service of Sevrès, so that the heir to the throne might drink his chocolate out of a porcelain cup.

Meantime Madame Jacquières had not been idle, and was ready to fulfil her promise to send a messenger to the Duchess d'Angoulême. Her chosen emissary was a Norman gentleman named Jacques Charles de Foulques, an ardent Bourbonist and a lieutenant-colonel in the army. This officer was both brave and suave, and seemed in every respect a fitting person to act as an ambassador to the Tuileries. He was deeply religious, very conscientious, and extremely simple. His mental capacity had been accurately gauged by Bruneau and his associates, and care was taken to excite his religious enthusiasm. The Abbé Matouillet plainly told him that Heaven smiled upon the cause, and introduced him to the prince, who administered the oath of allegiance, which the credulous Norman is said to have signed with the seal of his lips on a volume that looked like a book of gaillard  songs, but which the simple soldier mistook for the Gospels. After several audiences, his mission was pointed out, and Colonel de Foulques, without hesitation, agreed to proceed to Paris, and there to place in the hands of the daughter of Louis XVI. a copy of the "Memoirs of Charles of Navarre," and a letter from her reputed brother.

The latter document was produced in the court at Rouen when Bruneau was afterwards placed at the bar, and is a very curious production. In it the maker of clogs thus addresses "Madame Royale:"—

"I am aware, my dear sister, a secret presentiment has long possessed you that the finger of God was about to point out to you your brother, that innocent partaker of your sorrows, the one alone worthy to repair them, as he was fated to share them.

"I know, also, that you were surrounded by snares, and that they who extend them for you are men of wicked ways. They believe they have destroyed the germs of some virtues, as they succeeded in arresting the progress of my education; but there remain to me uprightness of principle, courage, a tendency to good, and the desire of preserving the glory of my nation. Louis XIV. could boast of no more.

"I know that I have been pictured to you as one who has forgotten his dignity, and who is the slave of a love for wine. Alas! that beverage that was forced upon me in my tenderest youth, by the ferocious Simon, has served to fortify my constitution in the course of a most painful life, even as it did that of the great Henry IV.; and, if I have been addicted to the use of it in this place, it was for my health's sake, to preserve which a more refined method would not have so well suited me.

"The use of tobacco was recommended to me in 1797, at Baltimore, also on account of my health. I have profited by it. It has occasionally served to dissipate my sense of weariness, and the thin vapour has often caused me to forget that life might be breathed away from my lips almost as readily.

"I have wished, my dear sister, to speak to you as a brother. Whatever may be the force of a custom preserved during nineteen years, I shall know how, in sharing the fatigues of my troops, to deprive myself of what is a pastime to them. Other occupations will but too easily absorb me entirely. Cease to see by any other vision than your own. Trust to the evidence of your own senses, and no other. I have learned, through a long series of misfortunes, how to be a man, and to be upon my guard against my fellowmen. Truth is not apt to penetrate under golden fringes. It is, however, my divinity; and henceforward, my sister, it will dwell with us. I grant the right of having it told to me. It will never offend a monarch who, having contracted the habit of bearing it, will have the courage to heed it for the benefit of his people.

"I dispersed the last calumny which perversity has aimed at me, when it declared that your brother was still in the United States. No; I had long left it when my evil destiny conducted me from Brazil (as you will see in my "Memoirs") to France, which is anything for me but the promised land. Heaven, to whom my eyes and hopes were ever raised, will not fail to have in its keeping certain witnesses to my existence. There is one to whom I presented, in 1801, at Philadelphia, three gold doubloons, a note of twenty dollars, three shirts, a coat, a levite, and two pairs of old boots. This witness, whom chance has again brought me acquainted with here, is a certain Chaufford, son of a baker of Rouen, well known to the keeper of the prison, and who was on board the French fleet which sailed from Brest. This witness (of whom I have spoken in my "Memoirs") deserted from the fleet. My servant François meeting him in Marc Street, brought him to me. I was then suffering in consequence of a fall from my horse, and was obliged to go about on crutches; and it was from me that he received every species of assistance, and it is by me that he has been reminded of it within the walls of this odious prison, where he least of all expected again to meet with his illustrious benefactor.

"I conclude, my dear sister, certifying to you, by my ambassador, the nature of my ulterior projects. He will hear of your final resolution, and will at once return to me, after assuring you that the superior rank to which destiny calls me is only coveted by me for the sake of my people, and in order to share with you the grateful attachment, which will always be for me the sweetest reward. It is the heart of your king and brother that has never ceased to hold you dear. He  presses you to that heart which the most cruel misery has not been able to render cold towards you."

Armed with this extraordinary document, Lieutenant-Colonel de Foulques set out for Paris, honoured by his mission, and convinced that he had only to present himself at the Tuileries to obtain easy access to the duchess, and only to gain her ear to insure her co-operation in the sacred task of placing her long-lost and ill-treated brother on the throne of France. Of course, there were certain forms which must be complied with, but the result was, to his mind, certain. He first opened negotiations with M. de Mortmaur, and delivered the despatches to his care. To his surprise they were treated with the utmost indifference, not to say rudeness; and the Norman was still more disgusted when told that no audience would be granted. From M. de Mortmaur he repaired to the Duchess of Serent, and, in a letter, craved her influence to procure for him the desired interview with "Madame Royale." The reply was prompt and unmistakable: If he did not leave the capital within eight days, he would be thrown into jail.

The colonel did not wait for a week; but in an angry mood returned at once to those who sent him, cursing the government in his heart, stigmatizing "Madame Royale" as an unnatural sister, and considering the king no better than other royal uncles who had occupied thrones which belonged to their imprisoned nephews. The news of his discomfiture did not disconcert or dishearten the plotters, and, although their first attempt to approach the daughter of Louis XVI. had resulted in failure, they resolved to make another attempt. Madame de Jacquières, in particular, was very hopeful, and, with a wisdom and modesty which did her credit, discovered that there would have been great indelicacy in the Duchess of Angoulême granting a private interview to a man. A female messenger ought to have been sent; and she soon found one to repair the first blunder.

Madame Morin, who superseded De Foulkes, was a lady of great accomplishments and considerable intelligence. The documents which the unsuccessful ambassador had carried with him were entrusted to the new emissary; and, in addition, she carried with her a portrait of Charles of Navarre, who was represented in the brilliant uniform of a general officer of dragoons. But Madame Morin was as ill-fated as her predecessor had been, and all her efforts to force her way into the presence of the duchess were fruitless. The police also frightened her as they had terrified De Foulkes, and paid a visit to her residence. They did not make a thorough search, but gave her to understand that if any further attempts were made to annoy the duchess they would institute a strict perquisition—a threat which had so great an effect upon the ambassadress that she immediately burnt her copy of the "Memoirs," her credentials, and even the portrait of her illustrious master and prince, and returned to the power from which she was accredited, shamefacedly to confess that she had been equally unfortunate with the gallant Norman colonel.

It was evident that the hard heart of the duchess could not easily be moved, and it was necessary to have recourse to other tactics. At this time misery and famine were prevalent in the land, and many persons were discontented with the rule of Louis XVIII., who was in extremely ill health. The Abbé Matouillet saw his opportunity, and taking advantage of the prevalent disaffection, issued a proclamation intimating that if the people of France would place their captive king upon the throne now occupied by a dying usurper, the liberated and grateful sovereign would, in return, immediately fix the price of bread at three sous per pound. Meantime, the generous offerer was regaling himself on the fat of the land, and holding his petty court within the walls of Rouen jail. But this last move led to energetic action on the part of the authorities. The attempted rising was crushed, the careless jailers were dismissed, the prisoner was placed in solitary and comfortless confinement, and the keeper of the seals commenced serious proceedings in order to bring him to trial.

The chief object to be accomplished was to prove his birth, for there were many who jumped to the conclusion that he must be the son of Louis XVI., since he was not the son of the Widow Phillipeaux. Seeing that his time had come, and that the government was determined to punish him with severity, Bruneau became alarmed, and offered his new jailers ten thousand francs to set him at liberty. The offer was refused and reported, the prisoner was more narrowly guarded, and his preliminary examinations were hastened. The stories which he told were so absurd and so wildly contradictory, as to leave no doubt of the hollowness of his pretensions; but still the difficulty remained of proving who he really was.

When affairs were in this stage the Viscountess Turpin, Bruneau's first benefactress, arrived in Rouen. M. de Pomelière, the officer of the king's guard who had suspected him from the first, had communicated his suspicions to the viscountess, and she had come to see him, and, if she could, to expose him. When Bruneau was confronted with his former patroness, he at once admitted that he had enjoyed the lady's hospitality, but declared that that fact did not render him the less the Dauphin of France. The viscountess reproached him, and endeavoured to ashame him; but the impudent and ungrateful scamp turned to her with an air of mock majesty and exclaimed, "Madame, I accept counsel from no one. I give it as I do commands. I am a sovereign!" The members of his family were next brought from Vezin to identify him, and had no hesitation in doing so. He denied ever having seen them before, but frequently betrayed himself by addressing them by their pet household names, and by contradicting them with regard to trivial occurrences. The imposture was plain; and Bruneau, his forger-secretary Tourly, Branzon the author of the "Memoirs," the Abbé Matouillet, and Madame Dumont, were committed for trial as swindlers, as the government did not deem them of sufficient importance to charge them with high treason.

The Abbé contrived to effect his escape from the jail, but the others were placed in the dock, Bruneau was received with some faint cries of "Vive Louis XVII.!" but the scamp knew that his game was played out, and did not care to conceal his knowledge of the fact. He had made no effort to make himself presentable; but appeared in court ill-dressed, unshaven, and wearing a cotton night-cap on his head. It was with difficulty that he could be compelled to respect the forms of the court, or to preserve ordinary decency. He interrupted the opening speech of the government prosecutor by noisy ejaculations, oaths, filthy expletives, and immodest and insulting gestures, and when rebuked by the judges showered down upon them all the abusive and abominable epithets of his extensive vocabulary.

The trial lasted for ten days, and the career of Bruneau was clearly traced from his very childhood. As revelation after revelation was made, and the history of crime after crime was disclosed, his interruptions became more and more frequent and violent, until his very accomplices shrank from him in horror, protesting that it he had presented himself to them in the same guise when he first proclaimed his pretensions, they would not have been seduced by him. Their advocates pleaded on their behalf that they were dupes and not confederates, and the plea served to exculpate the Abbé, Madame Dumont, and Tourly. The impostor himself was condemned to five years' imprisonment, three thousand francs fine, and a further imprisonment of two years for his offences against the dignity of justice and the public morality committed in open court. He was further condemned to remain at the after-disposal of the government, and to pay three-fourths of the expenses of the trial. Branzon, his literary friend, was sentenced to two years' imprisonment, and to pay a fourth of the expenses. When that part of the sentence was pronounced, which referred to the cost of the proceedings, Bruneau burst into an insulting laugh, and informed the judges that he would take care to defray the heavy responsibility laid upon him as soon as he was able. But, as the saying is, he laughed without his host. The subscriptions of his dupes were lying at the Bank of France, were confiscated by the state, and, amply served to pay the pecuniary penalty. After his imprisonment had expired Bruneau disappeared from public view.