The Village of Cannibals

This book details the background to the murder of Alain de Moneys, a young French nobleman in the hamlet of Hautefaye in South East France on August 16th 1870. It also recounts the tortuous murder itself, the subsequent trial and sentencing to death of four peasants and the imprisonment of many others for their involvement in the crime.


The murder took place within the boundaries of Hautefaye which forms a tiny piece of the Nontron District which is attached to Perigord. This region of rolling hills covered with forest and meadow had, in 1870, an image of poverty, primitiveness and lack of cultivation where wheat was practically unknown and peasants still fed their hogs on acorns. People from the region were of short stature, poor health and illiterate. It was a ‘sedentary region’ where the people did not engage in temporary migration and lived in isolation from those in neighbouring communes.


Hautefaye is on the border of the Dordogne department with a strong feeling of confinement and the Charente department which brings a sense of contact with the outside world. It is also on the invisible boundary between the canton of Nontron, a district of smallholders and tenant farmers, and the ‘Little Vendee’ of Beaussac and Mareuil, an area of aristocratic landowners with large estates. The Moneys family owned 166 hectares, 80 of which was in the commune of Hautefaye. In 1870 the village comprised 15 – 17 houses occupied by 45 residents. The farmlands worked by Hautefaye peasants overlapped those of neighbouring communes and because of this overlapping many people who lived in outline hamlets were virtually unknown to those in the central hamlet. Hautefaye had no great landowners, no professional men and no government officials or civil servants other than the schoolteacher, the road maker and postman. The Mayor was the local blacksmith and the members of his council were farmers or tradesmen. The state of education was deplorable with up to half the children receiving no education. Cruelty to children was a common occurrence with some children inflicting cruelty on their fellow peers.


The peasants of South Western France detested the nobility. To these peasants Dordogne seemed a region of vast estates owned by an arrogant nobility. This belief was greatly exaggerated by the rural middleclass bourgeoisie who manipulated the peasants against the nobility by rumour and distortion of the facts in the years prior to the crime. Much violence and unrest resulted from such rumours. The bourgeoisie strategy of influencing the peasantry resulted in a system that bore little resemblance to reality. "The nobility was the caste was proscribed under the First Republic, the was accused of complicity with the foreign invasion of 1814 and was the Emperor’s enemy in 1815 while working to reconstruct the Ancient Regime under Royal Governments." In this climate of fear, rumour and festering hatered many peasant attacks were made on the chateaux of the nobility. The bourgeoisie also incited the tenants to hate the clergy and deliberately exaggerated the closeness of the two in working together to restore the Ancien Regieme. Rural people were angered by dour priests who were hostile to dancing and cabarets, prone to overcharging for ceremonies and most especially for their refusal of religious burials. The peasants sought the removal of Church pews, fees for bell ringing at baptisms and burials and free access for parishioners to the choir portion of the church. These issues led to unrest in the Nontron region accompanied by violent threats. In addition rural communities vied with the church for state subsidies for community projects. Peasants became frightened when sacristans affixed the coat of arms of the bishop above the church doorways and inside the sanctuary. The coat of arms had engraved with it an escutcheon containing heads of grain and daisies which they took as symbols of a plot to overthrow the Emperor and reinstate the tithe. This prompted tumultuous demonstrations aimed at ridding churches of altar flowers. Much damage was done to many churches and the crowds justified their actions by suggesting that it demonstrated their loyalty to serve Napoleon III. The peasants of Hautefaye believed that the Emperor was being betrayed by nobles, priests and republicans and whom they felt were sending money to the Prussians.


Antagonism towards the so-called 45 centime tax, introduced in 1988, caused the peasants to come to dislike republicans as well as nobility and clergy. This led to further unrest and violence and the army patrolled the countryside to keep order. Relative peace was restored with the accession to power of Louis Napoleon on December 20th 1851 and lasted until the republicans resumed control in 1870. Total loyalty to ‘Bonapartism’ fostered a sense of solidarity in the peasantry of South Western France and gave them a sense of identity. This devotion, admiration and gratitude to Napoleon III gave rise to a cult of the Emperor which was to impact on the peasantry in the crime of August 1870 as they sought a scapegoat who turned out to be a noble. The Emperor was involved in a war with Prussia in the period leading up to the crime and this was a source of anxiety to the locals of Hautefaye who worried about the Emperor, the regime and their own future.


The murder of Hautefaye coincided with two celebrations; the fair of August 14th to 16th and the National Holiday of August 15th to commemorate the First Empire. This day was also the Feast of the Assumption which meant that the clergy participated but the principal dignitaries were the mayors. Toasts were drunk in honour of the sovereign and imperial family followed by public celebration. The territory associated with the murder was determined by the fairs influence which extended over a radius of 15 miles and therefore relationships which developed at these fairs often involved relative strangers. The fair was nothing more than a periodic gathering of males – artisans, blacksmiths, gelders and wheelwrights who came to offer their services. Livestock dealers and hawkers also showed up as did some nobles accompanied by their servants or tenant farmers. Not many women attended the fairs as a general rule.


On August 16th 1870 Alain de Moneys turned up at 2 o’clock allegedly to buy a heifer. By that stage much of the bargaining had been done and drinking was becoming the principal activity. The fairground became a place where violence was likely to occur and because of its remoteness there were no gendarme on the scene in Hautefaye. There were many issues occupying the minds of those present at the fair. The drought which was affecting them since 1868, the bad news from the warfront as well as the rumours blaming the disaster on nobles, priests and republicans not to mention their concern about the fate of the Emperor and his dynasty.


The murder victim was not known for his outspoken political beliefs unlike his cousin, Camille de Maillard, who had been the intended target of the crowds anger. He is reported to have rejoiced in the Emperor’s difficulty and made a hasty retreat when pursued by the chasing mob. It was at this point that Alain de Moneys appeared and the crowd directed their hostility towards him instead. Several of Moneys neighbours vouched for his true identify but the mob refused to listen. They though they were attacking not a noble, not a great landowner, but a Prussian who had shouted ‘Vive la Republique’. Chambort, the mobs ringleader, recognising that the people at the fair were strangers to each other passed himself off as a member of the municipal council with such authority that people believed him to be the adjoint of Hautefaye. He incited each of the mob to take a hand in torturing the victim and it is estimated that up to 200 people in their turn physically attacked Alain de Moneys. The priest courageously intervened with his revolver but he quickly realised the volatility of the situation and retreated to his presbytery. The victim was slowly and sporadically tortured over the next two hours. The composition of the blood thirsty mob changed constantly with even the principal actors occasionally leaving centre stage to join one of the side shows. Armed with various implements such as a leaden cane, bloody stakes and hooks those involved in the murder knew they were performing for the benefit of a large audience. Although there were several attempts to rescue the victim including one by the mayor and yet another by the priest, the brutal torture continued, stopping only intermittently to consider what the next stage might be. The plan to hang Moneys gave way to the idea of bludgeoning him to death. He was tied to the blacksmith’s workbench and beaten from behind with a hook.


During a brief respite Moneys requested that he be shot rather than clubbed to death but the mob had already decided to make him suffer before dying. His bloodied body, was by this stage, engulfed by a swarm of flies. They dragged him along the streets striking him as they went along so that his head resembled a bloodied ball. Two assailants each took one arm and dragged the body along a rocky tail, sometimes on its back and sometimes with his face to the ground. They abruptly dropped the body and blows which rained continuously struck the head and legs with a wooded sound. The mayor, wearing a sash, continued to follow behind, powerless to do anything. The body was then violently hurdled onto a stony, sloping bank of a dry pond.


The mob decided that the final act in the episode would be to burn the body because they believed the Prussians would come and burn themselves. This form of death would relieve their anxieties. ‘Roast him’, pummel him’ they screamed. Blows were struck not only with fists but with feet shod with wooden shoes aimed at his kidneys, stomach and face. He was thrashed as if he were wheat particularly during the final episode when blows showered continuously on his lifeless body for ten minutes. Men armed with prods aimed at his lower abdomen and a pitchfork was used at one point. When the decision was taken to burn the body and Chambort gave instructions to build the fire in the dry lake. Straw and sticks were placed on the body and then trampled upon. The mayor looked on helplessly as the fire was lit by the youngest boy present, in keeping with the tradition of the bonfires of St. John. The desecration of the victim’s body, the scorn, insult and ridicule heaped upon the dead man, the joyful reaction of the crowd and the adherence to a form of ritual set the execution of Alain de Moneys apart from ordinary murders.


There were children around the blaze and two men poked the charred ashes while others in the assembled crowd enquired as to the identify of the victim. After the body had burned the crowd dispersed calmly reflecting on a job well done. Those involved boasted of their exploits of having burned a ‘fine pig’. Peasants were fond of using animal metaphors. Implicit in their claims was the hope of monetary reward. ‘We did it for France, our Emperor will surely save us’ they proclaimed. Even before nightfall anxiety was beginning to silence their boasts and bravado gave way to mounting concern. The various local newspapers of every political persuasion condemned outright the murderers referring to them as monsters, cannibals, drunk on blood and a brutish mob.


The autopsy report described the corpse as being ‘charred beyond recognition’, the right hand clinched above his head as if to implore, the left hand drawn up towards the left shoulder and open as if begging for mercy. The charred remains were carried into the church and buried the next day.


The trial began in a packed courtroom on December 13th and remained full until the verdict was announced on December 21st. Defence lawyers tended to blame the crime on mob psychology, ‘this was the crime of a mob in a moment of intoxication, fuelled by ignorance, superstition, fanaticism and the excitement of noise and numbers’.


In order for republicans to profit politically from the event blame for the barbarous act had to be placed squarely on the tottering empire. The barbaric, primitive and blind rage stemmed from loyalty to Napoleon III. By burning a man in the Emperor’s name, the peasants were supporting their beleaguered ruler. Therefore, the republican government refused to show leniency towards the accused. They treated it as a common crime and not a political act. The Justice Minister ordered the immediate execution of the death sentence against those convicted. In all 19 people were punished for the murder. Four of them received the death sentence while one was sentenced to life of hard labour, eight others received 5 to 8 years of hard labour and the remainder received prison sentences. A wooded guillotine was transported to the scene of the crime and the four executions took place on the morning of February 6th 1871 between 8.25 a.m. and 8.30 a.m. before a detachment of 200 infantry men, reinforced by the gendarme.


The murder of Hautefaye is different from other murders for a number of reasons. It had nothing to do with land, water, wood or commune property. It was not a vindictive or a revenge crime, the young man was known only for his generosity. The murder was committed in broad daylight by men, not all of whom were from the same locality, nor was it an attack on the state or on the police. In fact the participants believed they were doing the state’s work. They believed that their homes would be burned if the Emperor fell so they were quick to burn the ‘Prussian’. The Emperor, they taught, was defending France against invasion whereas republicans had joined nobles and priests in an obscure plot against the nation. It was an affirmation of their identity and a celebration of their loyalty to the Sovereign and his dynasty. The mob was out to regain some control over its destiny by compressing all its troubles into a single confrontation.


This murder is remarkable not only for its relative brutality but for the timing of its occurrence in the latter part of the 19th century. In earlier centuries bestial violence had religious connotations. Ritual violence was usually directed against corpses. Bodies were stripped, eyes plucked out, limbs chopped off and heads severed. Burial was not allowed and parts of the anatomy were publicly paraded in processions and displayed as trophies. The scene of torture was a place sanctified by the spilling of impure blood. The disfigurement of the dead and mutilation of corpses anticipated the impending torture of hell. Violence was a ritual to appease the wrath of God. It usually involved three stages; desecration of the body, then stone it and finally burn it.


In later centuries the public celebration of torture became less acceptable. Violence was reserved for the battlefields, death punishment was by guillotine away from public view. Scenes of mass murder and torture inspired growing feelings of horror and resentment and by 1850 the last vestiges of torture were removed from the criminal justice system. Animal slaughter and retail butcher shops were increasingly hidden from view and a new desire to honour the dead emerged. Although no knives, axes, clippers or scythes were used in the murder and Alain de Moneys head was not chopped off nor organs plucked from his body, the murder was very much an anachronism in that murders of this type had long since ceased to be fashionable.


To understand fully the reasons for the brutal murder in Hautefaye in 1870 one must examine the extraordinary set of circumstances, economic, political, religious, geographical and historical which intermingled to make the barbarous act seem totally rational in the eyes of the perpetrators. Since there were no local police, the priest (curé) had only been resident there for three years and weak municipal authorities led to lack of control, leadership and a moderating influence for a poorly educated community. This community were forgotten by historians who began to banish accounts of cruelty and mob violence from the pages of history. The government and wider community who reacted with smouldering hostility isolated the commune of Hautefaye.


The Village of Cannibals shows some remarkable similarities with the burning of Brigid Cleary. They both occurred in the second half of the 19th century. The location is a peasant region removed from close supervision of central administration. The agencies of Church and central government are resented for their interference and impositions in relation to the community such as war and tithes. In both cases there is a ritualism associated with violent death. The community tries to preserve itself from threats and grasps at the nearest and weakest victim it finds. To cloak its terrible deed each resorts to a mythology – Witchcraft or Imperialism which gives the act a certain credibility. Brigid and Alain are both lambs to the slaughter, to a torture that is protracted and, therefore, all the more horrible. Contemporary accounts of both killings describe the local communities in terms associated with ‘savage tribes of Africa’ (from a European colonial perspective – cannibals and Hottentots). There is a conflict between the ‘local’ and ‘official’ reading of events. They are both fine examples of the ‘New History’. They are not political and yet it is political history. They both reflect a ‘history from below’.