Meet the killer poet who inspired ‘Crime and Punishment’

When women lust after Joe Goldberg, the murderer on the television show “You,” or swoon over convicts on social media with the hashtag #FelonCrushFriday, take heart.

Today’s fangirls are participating in a rich tradition of ladies falling for dreadful scoundrels, a trend dating back to the 19th century when Pierre François Lacenaire was dubbed “The Don Juan of Murder.”

Lacenaire sparked not just terror, but fascination — and also a classic work of literature, writes Kevin Birmingham In his new book, “The Sinner and The Saint: Dostoevsky and the Gentleman Murderer Who Inspired a Masterpiece” (Penguin), out Tuesday.

On December 14, 1834, Lacenaire (along with his axe-wielding henchman Victor Avril) knocked on the door to the apartment where Jean François Chardon lived with his widowed mother, Anne Marie Yvon Chardon, in Poissy, France.

After he was let into an apartment, Pierre Francois Lacenaire brutally murdered a widow in her bed.
After he was let into an apartment, Pierre Francois Lacenaire brutally murdered a widow in her bed.
Historia/Shutterstock

Jean François was a supposedly gay conman rumored to possess 10,000 francs — more than $200k in today’s money. After he welcomed the two men into his apartment, Lacenaire stabbed Chardon but allowed Avril to finish him off with a blow from his axe. Meanwhile, Lacenaire entered the bedroom, where the invalided widow lay, and repeatedly stabbed her in the face and eyes until his knife snapped. 

Lacenaire found just 500 francs, but later, claimed the money meant little to him. Painting himself as a Robin Hood figure, he declared, “I come to preach the religion of fear to the rich, for the religion of love has no power over their hearts.”

Remarkably, when he was put on trial for the murders in 1835, women flocked to the courtroom. One periodical was shocked at the number of “beautiful ladies!” who filled the benches to watch his testimony, dressed in eye-catching silk gowns and pink bonnets. Some sent him poetry on perfumed paper; others delivered food and chocolates. At least one grande dame begged for his autograph.

Over a two-day trial, Lacenaire became a celebrity — famed for his good looks, excellent breeding and utter callousness.
Over a two-day trial, Lacenaire became a celebrity — famed for his good looks, excellent breeding and utter callousness.
Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Unlike most murderers, who were considered the dregs of society, Lacenaire came from a well-off family who had lost their money after making bad investments in the silk industry. Educated and well-bred, he also wrote his own romantic poems imploring, “immortal virgin, wait for me in heaven.” The 30-year-old was also a stylish dresser, turning up to court in a spiffy blue frock coat that showcased his curly black hair and well-groomed mustache.

He may have been cultured but he was also callous. After he killed the Chardons, he went to a comedy show, and claimed it was “a great day for me.” When asked what he would do with a dead body at the trial he whistled cheerfully and suggested he would cook it as a stew and eat it. “Killing without remorse is the greatest happiness,” he declared.

Dostoevsky became obsessed with the story of Lacenaire and used him as inspiration for his protagonist Rodion Raskolnikov in the classic “Crime and Punishment.”
Dostoevsky became obsessed with the story of Lacenaire and used him as inspiration for his protagonist Rodion Raskolnikov in the classic “Crime and Punishment.”
Corbis via Getty Images

Lacenaire, however, may not have been as eager to sleep with the ladies as they were with him. He was thought to have “infamous habits” (aka homosexual tendencies) and, at his trial, there was much reference to the fact he shared a bed with his accomplice Avril. His victim Chardon may have been, Birmingham writes, a man who “reminded him just a bit too much of himself.” 

The trial lasted only two days, after which Lacenaire and Avril were convicted of the murders and sentenced to death by guillotine.

On Jan. 9, 1836, about 600 people came to watch his execution, many of them simply hoping for a glimpse of the man. He did not disappoint. As he walked to the scaffold, he wore the same stylish blue suit he’d sported at his trial, looking desirable right up until the moment he lost his head.

More than two decades later, in 1861, novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky learned about Lacenaire after he read about his case in Armand Fourquier’s “Causes Célèbres de Tous Les Peuples,” which detailed famous crimes of the past. Dostoevsky marveled at the tale, declaring it “more exciting than all possible novels.”

In crafting his protagonist of Rodion Raskolnikov, a poor student in St. Petersburg who forms a plan to kill an unscrupulous pawnbroker for her money, “Dostoevsky hammered at the idea of Lacenaire over and over again, reshaping, revising and altering his image,” Birmingham writes.

“Crime and Punishment” was released in twelve monthly installments in 1866 and as a complete novel the following year. Dostoevsky’s book became a literary classic that “demolished the assumption that criminals are fundamentally different from everyone else,” Birmingham writes. In the end, the novelist created an even more famous and indelible character than Lacenaire himself.

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