Richemont—Soi-Disant  Louis XVII. of France

On the 30th of October, 1834, a mysterious personage was placed at the bar of the Assize Court of the Seine, on a charge of conspiring to overthrow the government of Louis Philippe, and of assuming titles which did not belong to him, for the purpose of perpetrating fraud. This individual, who is described as a little man, of aristocratic appearance, was another of the many pretenders who have from time to time assumed the character of Louis XVII., and his story was so evidently false that it would scarcely be worth mention were it not for the fate which befell him. For several years he had been prowling throughout France in various disguises, and under a multitude of names, swindling the credulous public; and from being an assumed baron, he suddenly developed himself into the dauphin of the Temple, and laid claim to the throne. Like the other impostors, he made his assumption profitable, and found a peculiarly easy victim in the Marquise de Grigny, a lady aged eighty-two years, who not only gave him all her ready-money, but would have assigned her estates to him if the law had not interposed. So successful was he in victimizing the public, that he could afford to keep a private printing-press at work, and disburse large sums to stir up disturbances in various parts of the country; and so hopeful, that he bought a plumed hat, a sword, and a gorgeous uniform, to appear before his subjects in fitting guise on the day of his restoration.

The clothes-basket of the laundress was brought into requisition for his benefit also, and in it he lay ensconced while devoted friends were carrying him away from the Temple, and from the rascally Simon, who was still in authority. Like Meves, he asserted that Madame Simon aided the plot, and in the course of his trial placed a certain M. Remusat in the witness-box, who stated that while he was in the hospital at Parma a woman called Semas complained bitterly of the treatment to which she was subjected, and declared loudly that if her children knew it they would soon come to her relief. Remusat thereupon asked her if she had any children, when she responded, "My children, sir, are the children of France! I was their gouvernante !" There was no mistaking the allusion, and her astonished hearer replied, "But the dauphin is dead." "Not so," was the answer; "he lives; and, if I mistake not, was removed from the Temple in a basket of linen." "Then," added the witness, "I asked the woman who she was, and she told me that she was the wife of a man called Simon, the former guardian-keeper. Then I understood her assertion, 'I was their gouvernante !'"

This extraordinary piece of evidence was entirely uncorroborated, and in reality the accused had no case. But if he was deficient in proof of his assertions, he had abundance of audacity. At first he declined to answer the interrogatories of the judge, and permitted that functionary to lay bare his past life, without any attempt to dispute his assertions; but when the witnesses were brought against him, he broke his silence, and finally became irrepressibly talkative. The authorities had traced his career with some care, and showed that his real name was d'Hébert, and that he always used that name in legal documents, such as transfers of property to himself, being shrewd enough to know that a conveyance would be invalid if executed in a false name. In his proclamations, however, he invariably appeared as "Charles de Bourbon, Duke of Normandy." In private life his favourite title was Baron Richemont, although sometimes he condescended to be addressed as Colonel Gustave; and when imperative occasion demanded, passed under the vulgar cognomen of Bernard.

The agents of police tracked him under all these disguises with the greatest facility, by means of a clue which he himself provided. Having been a man of method, he was in the habit of keeping a memorandum-book or diary, in which he recorded, in cypher, all his proceedings. This interesting volume fell into the hands of the detectives, who soon discovered the key to it, and thus enabled the judge of the Assize Court to present the sham dauphin with a very vivid portrait of himself drawn by his own hand. Among other occurrences which were recorded in this diary, was a visit which had been paid by the pretender to a certain Madame de Malabre, at Caen; and it was specially noted that he had granted this lady permission to erect a monument to himself in her garden, and to dedicate it to the Duke of Normandy; and, what was a very much graver matter, that he had visited Lyons with the express purpose of stirring up a revolution there. In some of his letters, also, he mentioned this attempted uprising in the great city which rests on the twin rivers, and asserted that the denouement approached, and that his triumph was certain. "I am at Lyons," he added, "where I have seen the representatives of sixty-five departments. We shall march to Paris, and I have in the capital forces ten times greater than are necessary to oust the rascal!"

To follow all the evidence which was led against the prisoner would be very tedious, and worse than useless; but one witness appeared whose testimony is worthy of record. He was an old man, aged seventy-six, who was very deaf, and whose voice was almost gone. It was Lasné, the faithful keeper of the Temple. He said—

"Two people came to my house and asked me if the dauphin were really dead, and if he had not been carried out of the Temple; and I told them that the poor child died in my arms, and that though a thousand years were to pass his Majesty Louis XVII. would never reappear."

Then the interrogatory proceeded:—

"Was he long ill?"

"He was ill for nine months after the establishment of the commune. Dr. Dessault prescribed several drops of a mixture which he was to take every morning, and three consecutive times the child vomited the medicine, and asked if it were not injurious. In order to reassure him, Dr. Dessault took the cup and drank some of it before him, when he said, 'Very good. You have said that I ought to take this liquid, and I will take it;' and he swallowed it. Dr. Dessault attended him for eight days, and every morning drank some of the medicine to reassure the Child. When Dessault died suddenly from an apoplectic stroke, M. Pellatan took his place and continued the same treatment. At the end of three months the poor child died resting on my left arm."

"Was it easy to approach the child?"

"No, sir; it was necessary to pass through the courts of the Temple. The applicant then knocked at a wicket. I answered the summons; and if I recognised the person I opened the wicket. Then the visitor was taken to the third floor, where the prince was."

"Did he show much intelligence?"

"Yes, sir, he was very intelligent. Every day I walked with him on the top of the Tower, holding him under the arm. He had a tumour at his knee, which gave him a great deal of pain."

"But it is said that another child was substituted for him, and that the real dauphin was smuggled out of the Tower?"

"That is a false idea. I used to be a captain of the French Gardes in the old days, and in that capacity I often saw the young dauphin. I have attended him in the Jardin des Feuillants, and I am convinced that the child who was under my care was the same. I was condemned to death; but the events of the 9th Thermidor saved my life. I was condemned, at the instigation of Saint-Just, who caused me to be arrested by eight gens d'armes. I solemnly declare that the child who died in my arms was in reality Louis XVII."

"That he was undoubtedly the same child?"

"Undoubtedly the same child, with the same features and the same figure."

More than one impostor has tripped, stumbled, and fallen over that declaration.

But notwithstanding Lasné's evidence, on the second morning of the trial a printed sheet was circulated among the audience, which is a curiosity in its way. This document, which was addressed to the jury, was signed "Charles-Louis, Duke of Normandy," and was a sort of protest in favour of Louis XVII., who pretended to have nothing in common with the sham Baron Richemont. It asserted that "the secret mover of the puppet Richemont could not be unaware the real son of the unfortunate Louis XVI. was furnished with the requisite proofs of his origin, and that he could prove by indisputable evidence his own identity with the dauphin of the Temple. It was perfectly well known that every time the royal orphan sought to make himself known to his family, a sham Louis XVII. was immediately brought forward—an impostor like the person the jury was called upon to judge—and by this manœuvre public opinion was changed, and the voice of the real son of Louis XVI. was silenced." At the opening of the court an advocate appeared on behalf of this second pretender; but after a short discussion was refused a hearing.

As far as Richemont was concerned, all his audacity could not save him; from the beginning the evidence was dead against him; there was no difficulty in tracing his infamous career, the public prosecutor was merciless in his denunciation, and in his demand that a severe sentence should be passed upon this new disturber of the state, and Richemont's own eloquence availed him nothing. The prisoner was, however, bold enough, and in addressing the jury, said—"The public prosecutor has told you that I cannot be the son of Louis XVI. Has he told you who I am? He has been formally asked, and has kept silence. Gentlemen, you will appreciate that silence, and will also appreciate the reasons which prevent us from producing our titles. This is neither the place nor the moment. The competent tribunals will be called upon to give their decision in this matter. He tells you also that inquiries have been made everywhere; but he has not let you know the result of these inquiries. He cannot do it!... I repeat to you that if I am mistaken, I am thoroughly honest in my mistake. It has lasted for fifty years, and I fear I shall carry it with me to my tomb."

The jury were perfectly indifferent to his appeal, and found him guilty of a plot to upset the government of the king, of exciting the people to civil war, of attempting to change the order of succession to the throne, and of three minor offences in addition. The Advocate-General pressed for the heaviest penalty which the law allowed, and the judge condemned "Henri-Hebert-Ethelbert-Louis-Hector," calling himself Baron de Richemont, to twelve years' imprisonment.

Richemont listened to his sentence unmoved, and as the officers were about to take him away, said in a low voice to those near him, "The man who does not know how to suffer is unworthy of persecution!"