- A Tale of Two Murders: Passion and Power in Seventeenth-Century France
In the hands of some historians this book could have become A Tangled Tale of Two Murders, but in the capable hands of James R. Farr the tale has been admirably untangled. To state that the tale needs untangling would be an understatement, for it has layers of complexity overlaying layers of complexity. It begins in Dijon on 6 September 1638, when the nobleman Pierre Baillet and his valet Philibert Neugot disappeared. According to some rumours the two had departed for Paris or Italy and possibly encountered bloodthirsty bandits. Other rumours implicated another nobleman, Philippe Giroux, who was Baillet's cousin and the rumoured lover of Baillet's wife. Six months passed before Baillet's wife and his mother took the matter to the Parlement of Burgundy, the court of law with jurisdiction in the case. The resulting trial lasted until 8 May 1643, when the Parlement declared Giroux guilty and ordered his execution on the same day.
Both noblemen held important and powerful positions; Giroux was a presiding judge in the Parlement that tried him, and Baillet was a presiding judge at the royal financial court in Dijon. Another important figure in the trial was Pierre Saumaise, a conseiller du roy in the Parlement, an implacable enemy of Giroux, and a partie instigante in the murder trial. The trial itself produced a parade of servants and lackeys, relatives, neighbours, gardeners, priests, tradesmen, magistrates, and lawyers, usually with second-, third-, or even fourth-hand testimony, many of them returning again and again to answer the same questions or new ones, some adding to their testimony after the application of torture. Throughout Giroux and Saumaise continually accused each other of threatening or bribing witnesses or making them disappear. Added to the mix was a host of other accusations against [End Page 133] Giroux: he murdered his wife, attempted to poison her mother, succeeded in poisoning the servant who had helped him commit the murders, betrayed the security of a castle, attempted to murder a prisoner, slandered the court, suborned witnesses, and plotted to kill the son of Saumaise. Not to be outdone, late in 1639 Giroux initiated legal proceedings against Saumaise for the 'violent and bloody rape' of a twelve-year-old orphan.
In the meantime the number of his supposed accomplices kept increasing until they reached 30, including Giroux's physician, who was convicted of impiety, poisoning, counterfeiting, sacrilege, and infanticide, crimes for which he was condemned to life in chains in the king's galleys. Further complicating the historical record were the lengthy factums that both Giroux and Saumaise wrote to influence the opinion of the powerful, defending themselves mainly by attacking the other. The final matter that requires untangling is the role of Henri II de Bourbon, the Prince of Condé, in all of this, for as prince of the blood, cousin of King Louis XIII, and governor of Burgundy he had enormous power. He was also Giroux's patron, but when Condé transferred his patronage to Saumaise, he refused to intervene on behalf of his former client.
On the cover of the paperback edition is a picture of a seventeenth-century playing card, the King of Spades. Its appropriateness is revealed late in the book. To achieve a conviction the Parlement needed one of three things: the corpses, an eyewitness account, or a confession. Because it had none of these, the trial went on and on for over three years in the hope of a breakthrough. The breakthrough came on 10 April 1643. Giroux's father had left a trunk in the custody of Giroux's godmother. When the investigating authorities heard of the trunk, they seized it, opened it, and found bones and personal effects including shoes and clothing. They asked Baillet's tailor to examine a doublet from the trunk; he thought it could have been one made for Baillet. He then...