Saturday, 9 February 2008

The Poison-Pen Murder

By John Mead
Master Detective
December 1979

In the early 1880s, Mme. Lenormand, once a leading Paris hostess and now married to a much younger man, suspected that he was being unfaithful to her. So she got in touch with a private detective agency, one of whose agents - a man called Morin - was destined for a violent death.

It was in August, 1883, that Mme. Jeannette Hugues, the beautiful 28-year-old wife of Clovis Hugues, the Deputy for Marseilles, discovered that Morin was bandying her name about in connection with possible divorce proceedings between the Lenormands.

An incensed Mme. Hugues took a revolver and went to Mme. Lenormand's home, intending to kill her. But her husband followed her and seized the pistol before she could carry out her intention. Then, on September 1st, she was dissuaded from carrying the revolver when, with two friends, she insisted on a confrontation with one Clerget, the head of the detective agency. Clerget was all apologies, insisting that his agency's job was merely to ascertain addresses and it was Morin - who had left the agency - who was slandering Mme. Hugues.

All was quiet for a few weeks - until Mme. Hugues learned that Mme. Lenormand was paying another agency 25,000 francs to implicate her. On October 29th, she tried to visit Mme. Lenormand to insist on a showdown – only to be told that the latter was dying. She did in fact die on November 6th, just as a police investigation into the affair was about to conclude. A few days later, Morin faced his judges and received a two-year jail sentence.

However, his lawyers counseled an appeal. Formalities dragged on - it was not till November 27th, 1884, that he appeared in court again. But for the previous fortnight Mme. Hugues, her revolver at the ready, had been frequenting the central area of Paris, where Morin lived. She couldn't trace him there, but decided to act when she learned the date of his appeal. That day, she waited at the Palais de Justice for him. Only minutes after he emerged from the courtroom, she shot him repeatedly.

The case was a sensation well before her trial opened in Paris in January, 1885. Would she be acquitted, this victim of a long series of poison-pen letters, slanders and gossip? Was she not right to be impatient with the state of the law which seemed powerless to punish her slanderers?

When her trial for premeditated murder opened, the Palais de Justice was under siege from the public, many of whom waited all night to get into court. When the doors were opened, the noisy throng swept in, taking not merely all the public seats, but jostling for places with officials, lawyers and reporters. "It was as though the street and the market had invaded the court," one newspaper recorded.

It took over an hour for the president of the court, M. Bernard des Glajeux, to introduce some sort of order into the densely-packed room. Yet tall, deathly-pale and dressed in black, Mme. Hugues was very much in command of herself - and soon of the court - as she replied in sonorous tones to the president's questions.

He recalled that on November 27th, as Morin was the first to come out of the court, she came up behind him with her husband and her lawyer, Mâitre Gatineau.

Mme. Hugues interjected: "Not at all. Morin followed us. He went by me for a moment and, as he did so, he eyed me up and down in the insolent way he had. Then I seized my revolver which I had hidden under my coat and fired pointblank at him."

The president: "You had planned to strike. On November 13th, you bought cartridges and, on the evening of the 27th, an overnight bag was found packed at your home, in case you went to jail."

Mme. Hugues: "Just so, I'd had enough. I din’t want to be legally investigated side by side with Morin."

"Your hand didn't tremble. A witness has said that you were 'as still as a statue'."

"That's true. I had hesitated several times. But on November 27th, my mind was made up. I was resolved to kill this man – so much so that, thinking that he might have a revolver as well and might kill me, I went on the morning of the 27th to say goodbye to my children.”

"You had an extraordinary calm."

"It was an artificial coolness," replied the defendant. Then she added vehemently: "If I'd had 50 bullets, I would have used them all on Morin."

When the president asked: "Why did you kill this man?" she replied that she was in Marseilles when a telegram from her father brought her urgently to Paris. She found that Mme. Lenormand had involved her in slander, paying witnesses to say that she was once M. Lenormand’s mistress.

Mme. Hugues now told the court: "That's just how it was. I went to Mme. Corbion with my husband and our friend M. Georges Meusy, legal editor of l'Intransigeant. Mme. Corbion told me that she had never uttered the slander that Morin attributed to her. In fact, she had angrily showed Morin the door and said she would help me to nail the lie…

I went to Mme. Lenormand, asking her to repudiate the slander. She refused, then suggested that if I felt aggrieved I should go to law. She laughed at me, saying, 'What's one lover in a woman's lifetime? Lenormand is a handsome chap, so I don't blame you. I fell for him - and I was 15 years older'."

Mme. Hugues went on: "I said I wanted a straight yes or no as to whether she had paid people to slander me. All she would say was that the dossier on the separation proceedings was at my disposal at the office of the legal authorities.

"I had a revolver. But my husband tore it out of my hands."

The president: "So you wanted to kill Mme. Lenormand?"

Mme. Hugues: "If she hadn't given me the satisfaction I demanded, then…" she shrugged her shoulders.

She added that she went to the Parquet (the office of the public prosecutor) in Paris to try to see the "evidence" gathered by Morin. But they referred her to the Parquet of Rouen, who refused to give her details, asking her to wait until the case came up two months later. So she went to Clerget, who told her that Morin was now on his own.

Mme. Hugues added: "I didn't want to spend my life struggling against the plots of Mme. Lenormand. I decided to have done with her and, unknown to my husband, I returned to her place.

"Her son told me that she was dying and tried to stop me. There was a struggle. 'I want to kill your mother' I cried.

And I’ll be back!’ I had my pistol with me. The son snatched it from me with the help of a gendarme.”

When Morin was sentenced, she said she would use her influence to help him - so long as he admitted that he had slandered her. All he replied was, 'To hell with Clovis Hugues and his wife - I'll get out of this by myself! Anyway, I know important people who will say that she was the mistress of Lenormand'."

Mme. Hugues continued: "Meanwhile, my husband kept getting poison-pen letters and filthy postcards about me - so now you can understand my need for vengeance."

The president: "It was the postcard slanders that determined you to kill?"

Mme. Hugues: "Yes."

The president: "The postcards were certainly horrible. Your husband was accused of every natural and unnatural crime. They are so horrible that I cannot read them out in court."

In further evidence, Mme. Hugues said that when she made her offer to Morin, the entire Press - even those most hostile to her husband's political opinions - were united in condemnation of her slanderers.

The president: "Nothing can justify the killing of Morin, nor even explain it. Murder is never justified."

Mme. Hugues: "So you count all my suffering for nothing?"

The president: "You killed him after waiting for 15 months. One would have thought you would have sought immediate vengeance."

Mme. Hugues: "But he had a down on me - he treated me as if I were an insect under his feet. He was at liberty to go on scheming vilely against me. That's why I killed him. If I'd killed him before his case came on, people would have said I was frightened because he knew something about me… I didn't kill Morin the false witness. I killed Morin the persistent slanderer."

The president: "You know that on his deathbed, in that supreme hour when no one lies, Morin saw all the obscene letters sent to you. He couldn't speak, but each letter was shown to him and he was asked whether he knew the writer. He shook his head. Then he asked for a pencil and painfully, with death already paralyzing his hand, he wrote, 'It's not me - I'm innocent, innocent'."

Mme. Hugues: "I know the cards were not in his handwriting. But I'm certain they came from one of his friends."

When the president pointed out that many of the letters and cards were postmarked in Marseilles, where her husband had enemies (and where Morin had never been), Mme. Hugues replied sharply: "Very well - find out their author's identity! Until then, I accuse Morin!"

The president: "Your vengeance was cruel. Morin was tortured for a fortnight, twisting in pain, had a horrible trepanning operation and his hands had to be bound so that he wouldn't tear off his bandages. You suffered, Madame.

But anguish for anguish, moral suffering for physical suffering, which of the two suffered more?"

Mme. Hugues: "I did."

Evidence of the killing was that Mme. Hugues coolly fired six times, "as in a shooting gallery" - and that when she had done so, her husband embraced her, crying: "Bravo, Jeannette, my angel! You've avenged us!"

M. Gobert, a handwriting expert, said that none of the letters and postcards in question were in Morin’s hand. All Morin's private papers had been examined and in none did the handwriting correspond to the poison-pen missives.

M. Bernard, the Advocate-General (prosecutor), argued that Mme. Hugues would have acted more wisely if she hadn't made such a vast stir about an admitted calumny. The Press, he argued, had acted in the public interest in championing her, so surely Mme. Hugues should have been satisfied with such reparation?

M. Bernard contended that no one had the right to take the law into their own hands, especially at a time when so many "crimes of passion" were growing. "A verdict of acquittal," he declared, "would legalise a right to murder."

Maitre Gatineau painted a picture of a deeply-suffering woman pursued by the authors of the filthy vendetta, who had gone so far as to send slanderous cards about her to such public figures as Victor Hugo.

After a two-hour retirement, the jury found her not guilty. As the verdict was announced, the cheering in court could be heard all along the boulevards.

It was a sensational case, but what stayed in the memory of many journalists were the lively scenes when the court was invaded by all and sundry (no less that 40,000) people had applied for official tickets of admission). "It was," said one reporter, "an unheard-of, shameful, disgusting spectacle, with tarts, criminals and riff-raff jostling with respectable citizens to get a glimpse of Mme. Jeannette Hugues."

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