On 27 April 1796, when France was
still recovering from the revolution, there was a particularly brutal
night-time robbery of the Lyon Mail, after it left Paris. On the
following morning, the mail-coach was found abandoned at the roadside,
near the village of Lieursaint. The driver lay dead in his seat with
wounds to his chest and his throat cut so badly that the head was nearly
severed from the trunk. The postilion lay dead on the road with savage
head and chest wounds. Letters were found scattered in the vicinity of
the coach and the highwaymen who perpetrated the atrocity escaped with
75,000 livres (about £3000) in bank bills and silver.
For terrified European travellers in fear of
highwaymen, this late eighteenth-century pair of double-barrelled
flintlock pistols offered the opportunity of four individual shots
before reloading. The weapons shown were made in Belgium at the great
arms production centre of Liege.
The tragedy of the two brutally murdered mail-coach
men was compounded by the fact that an innocent man named Joseph
Lesurques was later to be executed for the crime. His unlucky
involvement in the incident took place purely by chance, after he had
inherited some money and moved from the country, with his wife and
children, to live in Paris. After the unloading of his family’s
household effects from a hired conveyance, Lesurques apparently walked
to the Paris office of the carrier to pay the removal bill. He was on
friendly terms with the head of the carrier firm because both originally
came from the same village. The next day they arranged to have a meal
together and while at the restaurant, they casually conversed with two
A few days later Joseph Lesurques unexpectedly
encountered the carrier again while strolling in Paris. The latter was
on his way to the magistrate’s office on business and, as he had time to
spare, Lesurques volunteered to accompany him. When they arrived, some
people were present in the magistrate’s office who were being questioned
about the earlier Lyon mail robbery; so Lesurques and his friend waited
in the adjoining office. The visitors were members of the serving staff
at an inn, near the scene of the hold-up, and had been brought as
witnesses by the police to Paris, after reporting that a gang of
horsemen had called at the inn just before the mail-coach arrived to
change horses. They believed that their earlier customers might well
have been the guilty highwaymen. While in the magistrate’s office, a
couple of them glanced by chance into the office next door. They then
astounded the magistrate by stating excitedly that two of the highwaymen
were sitting outside his office. The men they accused were Lesurques,
whom they swore they could not fail to recognise, and the carrier. As a
consequence, Joseph Lesurques and his friend were held on suspicion of
highway robbery and murder.
Two other suspects had earlier been arrested, after
their hired horses, later found to have been used in the robbery, were
returned to their stable in Paris, in a highly distressed condition. The
stable owner reported the incident to the police, and the witnesses from
the inn identified these two as members of the group who had called at
their hostelry before the robbery. They proved to be the very strangers
with whom Lesurques and his friend had innocently spoken in the Paris
restaurant. Eventually, after further investigation, all four men were
sent for trial, only the carrier being acquitted, as he had a firm alibi
that was easily verified in court. The other three were found guilty of
the mail robbery and the murders. They were condemned to be executed,
despite the other two swearing that Lesurques was never involved in the
The death sentence by guillotine was carried out on all three men
on 10 March 1797. Lesurques dressed himself completely in white, as a
final despairing token of his innocence. The two others pleaded again on
the scaffold that he had not been a member of their gang but admitted he
bore a remarkable likeness to one of their missing accomplices, named
Dubosq. Their pleas were of no avail and Lesurques died at the age of
thirty-three years. His wife and children were left in much distress, as
his property, according to procedure, was seized. A few years later, the
police arrested Dubosq on another charge and eventually proved he had
also taken part in the Lyon mail robbery. The authorities acknowledged
they had tragically executed, due to double coincidence, an innocent man.
Unfortunately, the authorities did nothing to help his wife and children,
despite the miscarriage of justice.
The Story of Joseph Lesurques
The Atlantic monthly. / Volume 51, Issue 304, February
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The judicial blunder which sent
Lesurques to the scaffold grew out of his fatal resemblance to a villain
named Dubosc. It is famous in the annals of French jurisprudence, and is
celebrated in one of the most popular, powerful, and exciting dramas on
the French stage.
Joseph Lesurques was born at Douai, of respectable
parents. He entered the army at an early age, and served in the Auvergne
regiment until 1789, when he was honorably discharged, and soon after
married and settled in Douai.
He acquired a small fortune during the Revolution by
lucky speculations, and removed with his family to Paris late in 1795,
where he took up his abode with his cousin, André Lesurques, pending
repairs on the house that he had hired. He was still living with this
Andri when the crime was committed for which he suffered.
On the morning of the 9th Floréal, an IV. (28th April,
1796), some peasants found the mail-coach that ran between Paris and
Lyons abandoned in the woods, near the hamlet of Lieursaint, a few
leagues distant from Paris.
One of the horses was missing; the other was still
harnessed to the vehicle. Near by, among a mass of papers smeared with
blood, lay the dead body of the postilion, and a little further on that
of the courier; both disfigured by dreadful wounds, that, together with
the trampled grass, gave evidence of a desperate struggle. The peasants
immediately alarmed the neighborhood, and summoned the proper officers,
who proceeded to an investigation.
A few steps from the victims they found several
articles that had evidently belonged to the murderers, namely, a great-coat
with a narrow dark-blue border, a broken sabre with its sheath, the
sheath of a large knife, another sabre sheath, and a plated spur with
chain attached, which had been broken, and mended by means of a bit of
large cord. The blade of the sabre was red with blood, and bore the
legend, Lhonnenr me conduit, Pour le saint de ma patrie, a strange
sentiment for a highwayman to carry about him.
The time of the murder, as nearly as
could be ascertained, was nine oclock of the night before. The couriers
papers showed that on setting out he had had in his possession ten
thousand francs in coin and several millions in assignats, all of which
An inquest was next held, when it appeared, from the
testimony of several witnesses, that four men on horseback had been
along the road, on the afternoon of the 27th of April, as far as
Lieursaint, but not beyond; and that these same men, in company with a
fifth horseman, had returned towards Paris in the night.
It also appeared that the coach had carried but one
passenger, a man wrapped in a great-coat with a narrow dark border, who
had taken his seat beside the courier at Paris. This man was nowhere to
be found. He was clearly an accomplice, who had made good his escape on
the missing horse, and was the fifth horseman of the witnesses.
A bloody sabre was produced that had been picked up
on the road near Melun. It fitted exactly the odd sheath found at the
scene of the murder. Finally, the volunteer who had mounted guard in
Paris at the Barrii~re de Rambouillet, between four and five oclock, on
the morning of the 2~th of April, testified to the entrance into the
city, at about that time, of five horsemen, riding at full speed, upon
horses reeking with sweat
and almost spent.
The police now took the matter in hand.
After securing the missing posthorse, which was found astray in Paris,
near the Place Royale, they proceeded to look up the other four.
They soon discovered that at about
five oclock, on the morning of the 28th of April, a man named Courriol
had left at a certain tavern in Paris four foaming horses, which he and
another man had taken away again at seven oclock; that this Courriol had
lodged in the Rue de Petit Reposoir before the 27th of April, but had
not slept in his lodgings on the night of the murder, or returned to
them since ; that from the 28th of April to the 6th of May he had lodged
with his mistress in the Rue de la Boucherie, at the house of one
Richard; and, in fine, that on the 6th of May the two had taken out
passports for Troyes, and left the city together in a post-chaise.
The fugitives were traced to the house
of a man named Golier, in Chateau Thierry. The police found there also a
citizen of Douai, named Guesno, who had arrived a few hours previously
from Paris, where he too had lodged with Richard. This Richard, it
should be remarked, had formerly resided in Douai. Guesno and Golier
were arrested, as well as Courriol and his mistress, and all four were
taken to the capital.
As about one fifth of the stolen
property was recovered from Courriol, he was at once committed for trial;
but Guesno and Golier easily convinced the magistrate, Daubanton, of
their innocence, and were discharged from custody. Guesno was told to
call the next day and get his papers, which had been seized in his room
Now Guesno was well acquainted with
Joseph Lesurques, and happening to fall in with him the morning after
his release, while on the way to Danbantons office, he very naturally
re~aled his friend with the story of his late unpleasant experience.
Lesurques no less naturally evinced great interest in Guesnos recital,
accompanied him to his place of destination, and readily consented to go
in with him and see the end of the matter. They accordingly passed into
the magistrates office, and seated themselves in the ante-room, which
was full of country people, witnesses in Courriols case. Two of the
women present eyed them curiously and closely, and kept up a brisk
whispered conversation until summoned to Daubanton. Guesno and Lesurques
little thought what was the tenor of that conversation, although they
perceived that it had reference to them.
The door of the magistrates private
room had scarcely closed upon the women when it suddenly opened again,
and an officer appeared on the threshold and called the two friends in.
On their entrance, Daubanton bade them be seated, and asked them a few
trivial questions in presence of the two women, who now scrutinized them
even more attentively than before.
They were then requested to withdraw,
but had hardly recovered from their astonishment at this strange
proceeding ere they were again summoned, and informed that they were
positively identified by the women as two of the four horsemen who had
been seen han ~ ing about the neighborhood of Lieursaint on the day of
the robbery of the Lyons mail, and must consider themselves under arrest.
They were next ordered to produce their papers. Lesurques, unluckily,
had never taken the trouble to provide himself with a carte de saret6,
and, more unluckily still he had in his pocket two cartes, one bearing
the name of his cousin André and the other blank.
The case was set for trial at Melun,
early in July; but just as it was about to be~in, the accused exercised
their right of removal, and it was referred to the criminal court at
Paris, presided over by Jerome Gohier, conspicuous, three years later,
as a member of the Directory. The accused were now six in number; namely,
Courriol, Richard, Guesno, Lesurques, Bernard, and Bruer. Richard had
been arrested before the memorable visIt of Lesurques arid Guesno to
The trial began on the 2d of August.
Ten witnesses living on the Lyons road testified against Lesnrques, and
swore that they recognized in him a tall, light-complexioned man, who
had been a notable figure in the little cavalcade of the 28th of April.
Seven of these ten positively and unhesitatingly recognized Lesurques;
the other three qualified their recognition somewhat, and said that they
believed him to be the man whom they had seen in the party.
Two, an innkeeper and his wife, swore
that Lesurques had mended his spur at their house with a piece of cord,
which they identified as the spur and string found near the dead bodies
of the courier and postilion. A third declared that he had dined at
Montgeron in the same room with the four highwaymen, arid that Lesurques
was one of the four, and wore long boots, with spurs like the one shown
The examination of Lesurques is
interesting as showing the theory of the prosecution. Much abbreviated,
it is in substance as follows
Q. Where did you sleep on the night of
the 8th Floreal?
R. At home; that is to say, at my
cousin's, André Lesurquess.
Q. Are you sure? It seems to be pretty
well ascertained that you did not.
R. I am sure. I had not slept out of
the house a single night for several months.
Q. Why did you go with Guesno to M.
R. Simply to accompany my friend, M.
Q. Did you not go in behalf of Richard
R. No, I did not go in anybodys behalf,
and I have no acquaintance with Courriol.
Q. How do you account for the fact
that these witnesses identify you as one of the four horsemen?
R. Granting their testimony to be
honest, I can only account for it on the ground that I bear a strong
resemblance to one of the four.
Q. How does it happen that you have no
carte de sfiret6, but carry your cousins and a blank one?
R. I have never provided myself with a
carte de sfiretd, because I am a peaceable and law-abiding citizen, with
plenty of friends, and have not had particular occasion to use one. Any
man of decent reputation can get one at any time. My cousins carte
happened to be lying on my mantel-piece, aiid when I went out I picked
it up and put it in my pocket, for safe-keeping. The blank carte was one
of several odd scraps of paper that I happened to have about me, and as
it bears no seal is worthless for any criminal purpose. Of course, if I
were guilty, I should not lack plausible papers.
Q. What kind of spurs are you in~ the
habit of using?
R. I have not used any spurs for more
than a year. Those that I own are old-fashioned ones, and not like the
spurs used nowadays.
Lesurques's defense outside of
testimony to his good reputation, with which he was well provided, was
of course an alibi. He brought fifteen witnesses to prove his presence
in Paris on the 8th Floreal.
Eight of these were persons with whom
he had had dealings on the day in question; four, Legrand, Aldenhof,
Ledru, and Baudard, were personal friends; and his own wife and his
cousin André and wife complete the list. Legrand and Aldenhof were
jewelers; Ledru and Baudard, artists. All four were well acquainted with
each other, as well as with Lesurques. Aldenhof and Ledin were both from
Douai, and acquainted with Guesno.
By these last seven witnesses alone
Lesurques very reasonably expected to prove his case to the court beyond
the shadow of a doubt. His doings on the 8th Floreal, as gathered from
their evidence, were briefly as follows
He passed a part of the morning at
Legrands shop, in the Palais Royal, where he met Aldenhof, and took him
home to dine with him. Arrived at the house, they found Ledru. All three
dined together, and then went out to walk. Met Guesno on the Boulevard
des Italiens at about half past six and returned to the house at about
half past seven. Soon thereafter Bandard appeared. Then they separated,
and Lesurques passed the evening and the night at home.
Legrand was the first witness called
for the defense. He testified that Lesurques had passed part of the
morning of the 8th Flor6al in his shop. When asked what made him
remember this fact so distinctly he replied that while Lesurques was
there, Aldenhof had come in, and had bought a soup ladle and sold him a
pair of ear-rings; and that he was confident that this transaction took
place on the 8th Floreal.
In proof of the correctness of this
statement he appealed to his books, and unfortunately laid great stress
upon the entry made at the time. He was told to produce the book
containing the original entry, aud accordingly passed it up to Gohier.
On looking at the page indicated, the latter started with surprise, and
exclaimed, This is a gross attempt to defeat the ends of justice! This
date has been tampered with. Arrest the witness.
Guinier, Lesurquess counsel, and
Legrand were thunderstruck. They seized the book, when it was handed
back to them, and eagerly examined the date. Unquestionably there were
two figures there, one over the other, but, as Guinier afterwards argued,
so clearly manifest as to disprove at once all probability of criminal
Legrand, still under arrest, continued
his testimony; but the court, proceeding after the French fashion,
inspired him with such terror that he became very much confused, and
contradicted himself in such a way as hopelessly to damage Lesurques in
the eyes of the court.
Gohier henceforth conducted the trial
as if he were assured of his guilt, intimidating the witnesses, and
sparing no pains to create an unfavorable opinion of them and of their
testimony in the minds of the jury. His efforts were completely
Courriol, Bernard, and Lesurques were
pronounced guilty of highway robbery and murder. Richard was found
guilty of receiving stolen property. Guesno and Bruer were acquitted.
Lesurques turned pale with horror when
he heard the unexpected verdict, and raised his hands as if in
deprecation. Then, conquering his emotion, he stood up, and with the
calmness and dignity that characterized his bearing to the end said,
Unquestionably the crime of which I am accused is a terrible one, and
deserves to be punished with death; but if murder on the highway is a
crime, the abuse of law to strike an innocent man is no less criminal.
The day will come when my innocence shall be established; then my blood
be on the heads of the jurors who have convicted me without due
reflection, and on the judge who has influenced them to do so.
Courriol now made his first effort to
save Lesurques. He rose from his seat, and cried out, Lesurques and
Bernard are innocent! Bernard only lent the horses. Lesurques had
nothing to do with the matter.
These remonstrances of course, availed
nothing. Lesurques, Courriol, and Bernard were condemned to death;
Richard to twenty-four years imprisonment. The property, real and
personal, of all four was confiscated.
Courriol had two interviews with the
authorities, in the hope of saving Lesurques. He gave the names of his
accomplices as Durochat, ~Tidal, Dubosc, and Roussy. He said that
Durochat, under an assumed name, had taken his place on the coach beside
and that the rest of them had met at the Barri~re de Charenton, and
proceeded on horseback to Lieursaint, dining on the way at Montgeron;
and declared that the spur found on the ground belonged to Dubosc, who
resembled Lesurques, and was confounded with him by the witnesses. He
appealed to his mistress in corroboration of his statements as to the
resemblance between Dubosc and Lesurques.
She affirmed that there was a strong
likeness between them, which was much heightened by a blond wig worn by
Dubosc on the day of the murder, and confirmed the other particulars
given by Courriol, so far as she was acquainted with them.
These developments incited Lesurques
and his friends to renewed exertions, and they succeeded in bringing the
case to the notice of the Directory. The Directory referred it to the
Council of Five Hundred, and the Council referred it to a committee.
But all was in vain. The committee
reported adversely to Lesurques, and nothing now was left for him to do
but to prepare for death. He took leave of his wife and children the day
before his execution, and on the evening of the same day cut off his
hair with his own hands, and inclosed it in a packet for his wife, which
he touchingly addressed, A Ia citoyenne Veuve Lesurques.
At the same time, he again bade her
farewell in the following pathetic lines
When you read this letter I shall be
no more; the cruel knife will have cut short my days, days so happily
consecrated to you. I am to be judicially murdered. It is my fate, and
there is no escape from it. I have endured my lot with all the constancy
and courage of which human nature is capable. May I hope that you will
imitate my example? Your life is not yours; it belongs to your children
and to your husband, if he was dear to you.
This is all I have to ask.
A little packet of my hair will be
handed to you. Keep it carefully, and when my children are grown share
it with them. It is all that I have to leave them for inheritance.
Farewell forever. My last sigh shall
be for you and my unfortunate children.
He wrote, also, to his friends in
The truth could not manifest itself,
and I am about to perish, the victim of a mistake.
May I hope that you will entertain for
my wife and children the same friendly feelings that you have always
shown for me, and aid them under all circumstances? I thank M. Guinier,
my defender, for the pains that he has taken in my behalf.
Now receive, one and all, my last
Lastly, he addressed an open letter to
Dubosc, for insertion in the newspapers:
You, in whose stead I am about to die,
rest content with the sacrifice of my life. If ever you fall into the
hands of justice, think of my three children, covered with infamy, and
of their mother, a prey to despair, and do not prolong the misfortunes
caused by the fatal likeness that I bear to you.
Lesurques, Courriol, and Bernard were
executed on the 30th of October, 1796.
As soon as Lesurques mounted the cart
that was to carry them to the place of execution, Courriol pointed him
out to the crowd, and cried in a loud voice, I am guilty, but Lesurques
is innocent! and lie continued so doing until they reached the foot of
Lesurques, clad all in white, in token
of his innocence, never for a moment lost his self-command. When his
turn came, he ascended the scaffold with a firm step, and uttered a few
words of forgiveness for his judges, then he laid his head upon the
block, and so passed into the presence of the never-erring Judge.
Four months after these events, the
police succeeded in arresting Durochat. He was fully recognized as the
pretended traveler on the Lyons coach, and eventually made a full
confession, sustaining in every particular the account given by Courriol.
He declared that Bernard not only lent the horses, but had a share of
the plunder. With reference to Lesurques he said, I have heard that a
man named Lesurques was condemned for complicity with us. Truth compels
me to say that I never knew the man, neither when we planned the job nor
when we did it. I did not know him, and I never saw him.
Vidal and Dubosc were captured before
Durochat was executed, and he identified them both; but they escaped
from prison before they could be brought to trial. Vidal was soon
recaptured, tried, condemned, and executed. Dubosc remained at large for
some time, but finally was
guillotined on the 25th of December, 1800.
Roussy, the last of the five assassins,
was arrested in Madrid, toward the close of the year 1803, and executed
the following June. He acknowledged the justice of his sentence with his
latest breath, and left a paper with the priest who shrived him,
enjoining the priest not to open it until six months had elapsed.
When opened it was found to contain
these words: I declare the man Lesurques to be innocent; but my
confessor, to whom I give this declaration, must not deliver it to the
authorities until six months after my death.