"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Resurrection of Louis de la Pivardière

History is often made by the unlikeliest people. For instance, no one could have guessed that an obscure, impecunious, seemingly thoroughly uninteresting minor nobleman named Louis de La Pivardière would eventually instigate one of seventeenth-century France’s most explosive causes célèbres?

De la Pivardière was the youngest son of a family that was, like so many in France, long on illustrious lineage but short on cash. When his father died, Louis was left with literally no assets but his aristocratic heritage. In 1687 he utilized the power of that heritage to marry a plebian, but fairly well-to-do widow named Marguerite de Chauvelin. It seems to have been a typical marriage of convenience, where the two parties were able to just about tolerate each other, but nothing more. When, after two years of wedlock, Louis was called away to military service, it was a welcome development to them both. During his long absences, his wife saw much of the head of the local priory of Miseray, Sylvain-Francois Charost, and a warm friendship—at the very least—developed between them.

When word of this relationship reached the ears of De la Pivardière, he chose to put the worst possible construction on the news, and apparently decided to look upon his marriage as essentially over.

What brings his story into the realm of The Weird is that he decided his whole life—his whole identity—as over as well. Pre-revolutionary France was ludicrously obsessed with genealogy. If even the most poverty-stricken losers had the right ancient pedigree, they were a prized Somebody, entitled to look down their regal noses at the bourgeois, no matter how wealthy their “inferiors” may have been. It was a society nearly as inflexible and unforgiving as the old caste system of India. And yet De la Pivardière, for reasons never understood from that time to this, voluntarily threw it all away. He chose to go, you might say, from Brahmin to Untouchable.

In the town of Auxerre, he met an innkeeper’s daughter, Marie-Elisabeth Pillard. Her beauty and gentle sweetness appealed to him—perhaps he even fell in love. He wooed the girl under his family name of Dubochet, and presented himself as a simple ex-soldier, giving her no hint of his true identity. They married, and Louis took on his recently-deceased father-in-law’s job as huissier (essentially usher to the local assembly.) The couple was very happy together, and for four years all went well.

Then, in 1697, the rightful Madame de la Pivardière finally got wind of what her wandering lord had been up to. Soon after she heard the news, Louis himself turned up at the family home in Narbonne asking for money, and the fat was well and truly in the fire. That evening, the pair had a flaming row, which ended when Madame was overheard to say the ominous words: “You shall learn what it is to offer such an insult to a woman like me!”

The two parties flounced off to their respective bedchambers. And De la Pivardière vanished. His belongings were still in his rooms and his horse remained in the stables, but no one in the chateau or the neighboring area saw any sign of him again.

Considering the circumstances of when he was last seen, it is no surprise that the most sinister rumors began to spread. Two of Madame de la Pivardière’s female attendants, Catherine Lemoine and Marguerite Mercier, whispered dark hints about their mistress’ role in Louis’ disappearance. Four other servants swore they had heard a musket shot the night he was last seen. In short, there was a growing certainty that de la Pivardière had been murdered by his wife. Finally, the local authorities were persuaded to formally look into the matter. They questioned a number of witnesses, in particular Lemoine and Mercier, and what they heard caused them to issue an arrest warrant for Madame de la Pivardière.

Madame went into hiding, and her nine-year-old daughter Marie was sent to a family friend. While there, the little girl told a story that seemed to be conclusive proof that her mother murdered her father. She claimed that on the night Louis disappeared from the family chateau, she had been put to bed, not in her usual bedroom, but in a garret at the top of the house. During the night, she was awakened by a loud noise and her father’s voice crying “Oh my God, have mercy upon me!” When she tried to go investigate the commotion, she found her door had been locked. The next day, she saw bloodstains in her father’s room, and a few days later caught her mother washing bloodstained linen. Marguerite Mercier corroborated the girl’s story, and declared that she had seen the Prior of Miseray and two of his servants murder de la Pivardière in his bed. Lemoine claimed to have been out of the chateau at the time of the actual killing, but described seeing Louis’ dead body before the servants took it away for a secret burial. Over thirty other people—some of whom were friends of Marguerite de la Pivardière—confirmed that she had had her troublesome husband put to death.

In short, it was looking like Madame and her Prior were the two most obvious assassins on record.

Then, something utterly unexpected happened. It began to be reported that Louis de la Pivardière had been seen alive and well in a neighboring town days after his “murder.” When inquiries were made at Auxerre, the whole story of his bigamous marriage was revealed, as well as the fact that he had been there very recently, but had suddenly fled for parts unknown. Agents acting for his wife were able to track him down.

When he was discovered, de la Pivardière claimed that on his last night in his family chateau, Catherine Lemoine warned him that he was in danger of being arrested for bigamy, (a capital offense,) inspiring him to make as hasty a retreat as possible. He left his horse behind because it was lame, and did not want to be burdened by carrying along his luggage. When told that his wife was about to be convicted of his murder, Marie-Elisabeth Pillard—who only now learned of her husband’s true identity—urged him to prevent this miscarriage of justice.

When de la Pivardière returned to Narbonne, he was immediately recognized—although many at first assumed they were seeing his ghost. However, when he presented himself before Lemoine and Mercier, they both declared he was an impostor.

In exasperation, the Procurer-General of Chatillon, who had been leading the “murder” inquiry, ordered that de la Pivardière be put under arrest until it could be determined just who he was. This news caused Louis, ever fearful of the inevitable bigamy trial, to flee back to Auxerre.

What followed was a highly curious legal standoff. De la Pivardière’s entire family insisted he had not been murdered. The alleged victim himself insisted he had not been murdered. The Procurer-General, on the other hand, continued to stubbornly insist that he had. De la Pivardière, for his part, refused to return until he was granted a safe-conduct that would protect him against being charged with bigamy. After a great deal of legal wrangling, the Chauvelin family was able to persuade Louis XIV himself to issue the document.

Safe-conduct in hand, the fugitive returned to prove that A: He was Louis de la Pivardière, and B: He was not dead. The court hearing on the matter lasted, rather amazingly, for many days. In the end, the judges were still divided in their opinion, but in the summer of 1699, finally decided that, yes, this man was who he said he was.

If you think that was the end of the matter, however, forget it. It was ruled that a separate trial was necessary to prove that the testimony of Lemoine and Mercier was false. Lemoine had, arguably fortunately for her, died before she could be charged, but Mercier was found guilty and given a dire punishment: She was whipped, branded on her shoulder, all her worldly goods were confiscated, and she was banished for life. Madame de la Pivardière and the Prior were publicly exonerated and set free.

After all was over, de la Pivardière went from having a surplus of wives to no wife at all. He and Marie-Elisabeth Pillard parted ways (whether it was from his desire or hers is not clear.)  De la Pivardière obtained a position in the army, and thereafter disappeared from history.  According to one chronicler, de la Pivardière was soon killed in an encounter with smugglers, but this is unverified. It seems only appropriate that his death should be as enigmatic as his life. Marguerite de la Pivardière died suddenly in her bed not long after she was freed. As for Marie-Elisabeth Pillard, she survived three more husbands during her long life and, we are told, “lived and died much respected.”

Although the de la Pivardière case was settled, it was by no means completely solved. It has remained a mystery why Lemoine and Mercier—who had always been treated with great kindness by their mistress and who would be putting themselves at great risk by committing perjury—would invent such a grave allegation. And what of young Marie’s story about terrible cries during the night and blood in her father’s bedroom?

Do we really know the whole truth about Louis de la Pivardière?


  1. There are too many contradictions in this story even to try to figure out a reason for everyone's behaviour.

    1. I know! This is one of those stories where I found it hard to even work out a theory about what really happened.


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