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Who should be held responsible when a mob commits murder?
While mob violence is hardly uncommon in many parts of the world, the question of who should be charged and what kind of penalty they should receive is always difficult for any court to determine. But what happens when a mob made up of hundreds of French villagers, many of whom barely knew each other, murder a young aristocrat in a way that leaves the rest of the world horrified?
To understand what happened and why a young aristocrat named Alain de Moneys would be targeted, it is important to provide some of the background in this strange case.
Even today the village of Hautefaye in France's Dordogne region has only about a hundred inhabitants but is was considerably smaller back in 1870 when this killing occurred. With only 45 residents in all, the people of Hautefaye largely supported themselves by working on the local farms. In an era before universal public education, most of the people living in the village were illiterate and had little news of the outside world. All that the peasants of Hautefaye knew was that they hated the aristocrats who owned all of the really big farms in the Dordogne area. Old stories of the French Revolution and how peasants overthrew the rich aristocrats and punished them for their greed still lingered and acts of violence aimed at the wealthy landowners were hardly uncommon.
To add to the tension, France was in the middle of a brutal war with Prussia and rumours about Prussian saboteurs and spies were widespread. Stories about the hardships being faced by the peasants due to the war and how aristocrats were undermining the rule of the popular Emperor, Napoleon III ensured that anti-aristocratic feeling was as strong as ever. Then there were the unpopular taxes that were supposedly intended to help the war effort though dark rumours suggested that the aristocrats and landowners were failing to pay their share. Add in the fact that the entire Dordogne region was in the middle of a terrible drought and you can understand why the peasants were more agitated than usual.
Despite this unrest, a three-day fair was held in Hautefaye to commemorate the anniversary of the founding of the First Republic on April 15. It was one of the few occasions in the year when the locals got a chance to have some fun and craftsmen came in from miles around to sell their wares and get in some festive drinking. Nobody expected the horror show that would occur on August 16, 1870, least of all young Alain de Moneys who had arrived in Hautefaye to buy a heifer. Though his family was one of the biggest landowners in the area, he was, by all accounts, more preoccupied with farm matters than politics and about as unlikely a victim of mob violence as you might imagine.
Unfortunately, Alain had brought his cousin with him which proved to be a major blunder. Camille de Maillard was a firebrand who enjoyed stirring up political controversy with his extreme views on most issues. Knowing how strong the Bonapartist feeling was in the countryside, de Maillard still decided to rile the peasants by commenting that France was losing the war. He also added that a costly defeat would be a personal disaster for Napoleon III and likely force him from power. Whatever reaction de Maillard had been hoping for, he likely had no idea how dangerous his comments were.
Not only had the men in the crowd been drinking heavily, but there were no soldiers or gendarmes around to maintain order (who would have thought they would have been needed?). A mob quickly formed and de Maillard fled for his life. Still enraged, the mob quickly turned to a new target - the unfortunate Alain de Moneys. Though some of his neighbours, including the village mayor, tried to come to Alain's defense, the mob refused to listen. As far as they were concerned, they had found a Prussian spy and nothing would persuade them otherwise. The ringleader for the mob was reportedly a blacksmith named Chambert who lived in a nearby village and he seemed determined to see "justice" prevail. Whether he had a personal grudge against the victim or whether he had simply been swept up by the mass psychosis that had gripped the rest of the mob, the outcome would be the same.
While the village priest tried to defend the hapless nobleman with a pistol, he was forced to retreat while the mob, which at this point numbered anywhere from three to eight hundred peasants all converged on their intended victim. According to at least one account of what happened next, Chambert managed to convince the other mobbing peasants that he was in charge and that de Moneys needed to be killed for the sake of France. What followed was a horrific ordeal with de Moneys being systematically tortured over the next two hours. Even women and children took part.
Using farm implements, sticks, hooks, and whatever tools they could lay their hands on, the mob apparently enjoyed the spectacle and successfully beat off assorted attempts to rescue their victim. That these would-be rescuers included the village mayor and various members of Hautefaye's town council made little difference to them. In the meantime, villagers who weren't participating in the grotesque murder simply sat at their tables and watched the entire spectacle.
Recognizing that he was about to die, de Moneys told the mob to shoot him but they seemed determined to make him suffer. They nailed horseshoes to his feet and burst one of his eyeballs as he was systematically beaten. His bloody body was then dragged through the streets, mangled beyond recognition. Finally, he was tossed onto the bank of a dried-up pond and the mob proceeded to build a huge bonfire so that the body could be roasted. Treating the whole business like one of the traditional bonfires held during midsummer, the youngest child present lit the fire and Alain de Moneys' body was torched. Whether or not he was actually dead by this point made little difference to the mob. It was Chambert who packed the wood around the burning body and shouted "Vive l'Empereur" as the mob celebrated their achievement.
Even after the body was completely consumed by the fire, members of the mob continued to boast about "roasting a fine pig" and insisted that the Emperor would reward them for what they had done. One witness even stated that they had committed the murder to "save France." Only after the mob dispersed (likely to sober up) was any sort of order restored. Gendarmes entered the town and Alain de Moneys' remains were finally taken down for burial. A later autopsy determined that the body was "charred beyond recognition" and the position of his hands and feet reflected the extreme agony of his final moments.
As news of "l'Affaire de Hautefaye" spread throughout France, gendarmes converged on the town and mass arrests took place. Newspapers condemned the brutal killing and provided exaggerated details of what happened. One popular account maintained that many of the villagers collected the fat dripping from his body and placed it on their bread to eat. Despite not evidence that this actually happened, Hautefaye was widely referred to as the "Village of Cannibals" (the title of one popular book describing the killing) and people of all political leanings demanded justice.
To be continued
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