It is hardly uncommon--particularly in our exhibitionist, social media-driven, "Look at me! Look at me!" era--to hear stories of authors resorting to unusual and outlandish publicity stunts to promote their books.
However, I defy anybody to top this one.
Clement Passal was a man well-known to the French police in the early 20th century. He was a career thief who, under his favored alias of "Marquis de Champaubert," committed various swindles. He was a determined, ambitious crook, but, alas for him, a largely unsuccessful one. His busy career earned him a prominent name in the Parisian underworld, but not much else.
The 1920s were something of a golden age of the "celebrity gangster." Criminals, if they were just bold and colorful enough, were treated like movie idols. Passal saw no reason why he should not get a piece of this action. In 1929, after serving the latest of his many prison sentences, he decided to write his memoirs. Perhaps the story of his adventures would finally make crime pay for him.
Unfortunately, his book proposal failed to attract much interest. As extensive as his criminal history may have been, it was all too run-of-the-mill to make for exciting reading. It lacked that element of romance and novelty the public wanted in their scoundrels. Passal finally managed to sign a publishing contract, but--as all fledgling authors soon come to realize--he knew that something was desperately necessary to make him stand out in the bookstores.
In September 1929, Passal's mother received several weird and extremely alarming anonymous letters. These messages stated that her son was being held captive by a mysterious organization called "The Knights of Themis." These letters described in graphic detail the various tortures being inflicted on Passal. Similar letters were sent to the newspaper, "Le Matin," giving the remarkable story behind the crime. The writer stated that the "Knights" had kidnapped Passal in order to force him to reveal the hiding place of money he had made through his various swindles. The letters alleged that Passal, far from being just another mediocre petty con man, was in reality a criminal genius who had amassed a secret stash of some 15 million francs. The "Knights," "composed of the cream of society," saw itself as an extrajudicial tribunal, punishing criminals who had, in the opinion of the "Knights," gotten off too easy in the French legal system. The writer promised that other thieves would be dealt with in a similar manner. Passal himself wrote to his mother, confirming his imprisonment by the "Knights," and bidding her a touching farewell, as he was sure the group meant to kill him.
On October 3, Madame Passal was sent the worst letter of all. It informed her that Passal had been buried alive by his bloodthirsty captors. The nameless writer stated that a bad conscience compelled him to reveal this dark deed, "to have [Passal] rescued before he dies." He even included a detailed map showing precisely where the victim was buried. "Le Matin" received a letter from the "Knights" giving every lurid detail of the entombment:
"When the grave had been dug, we once more offered to spare his life if he would cease dissembling, but with no effect. We then took off his shoes, and, leaving only his shirt and trousers on him, we laid him in the coffin which we had made out of a packing case that had been used for carrying upholstery.
"He offered no resistance, and we closed the lid and placed the coffin in the grave, which we then filled in with earth. Until four o'clock in the morning we remained on watch.
"Before burying him we gave him to understand one of us would remain constantly near the spot and at the slightest sound from him would block up the pipe through which he was breathing, although not a soul was likely to pass.
"As a matter of fact, we simply abandoned him to his fate, certain that he would not escape death. We can only conclude from the attitude of the 'marquis' at the last that he was mad, letting himself be buried without showing any emotion.
"Since that is the case with him, he will not suffer. We consider our deed against the 'marquis' virtually complete, and our end attained. It is a good finish to the holidays."
Naturally, the recipients of these blood-curdling messages took them to the police. After a little persuasion--the constabulary was at first inclined to dismiss these letters as a bizarre joke--some officers were sent to the site claimed to be Passal's burial place. They were unsettled to find an area of freshly-dug earth, with a tube sticking up among it. They began to dig, and before long unearthed a crudely-built coffin. And, yes, Clement Passal was inside it.
Unfortunately, they were too late. It was clear from the agonized expression on Passal's face, and the contorted position of his body, that he had died a horrifying death from asphyxiation. A number of chocolate bars were found in the coffin, indicating that whoever buried Passal expected him to be alive for some time. However, the breathing tube placed in the coffin had not provided him with an adequate supply of air.
The police investigation into Passal's dreadful death soon led them to a friend of his, an ex-convict named Henri Boulogne who was now, significantly, working as a grave-digger. After a lengthy interrogation, the whole story came out. In mid-September, Passal had enlisted him in a little scheme he had devised. His aim was "to attract public attention to himself in order that he might then be able to publish sensational memoirs."
Passal typed out a number of letters, which were to be posted to various people. He and Boulogne built a coffin. On September 30, he spent eight hours in the box, as a test of whether he could safely stay in it for a prolonged period of time. The next evening, he led his accomplice to a spot in the wood at Verneuil. A large grave was dug. Passal got into the coffin, which Boulogne then closed and buried.
Boulogne stayed by the grave for some fifteen minutes, to make sure that Passal was able to breathe. After the "victim" reassured him via the tube that he "was quite all right," Boulogne returned to Paris and, as he had been directed, sent off the letters.
He said that the next evening, he returned to the burial site, but when he tried speaking to Passal, received no answer. He could think of nothing better to do after that than just go off to his home, no doubt to meditate on the strangeness of life.
As supremely weird as Boulogne's story was, he was able to convince the police that it was nothing less than the truth. Instead of facing a murder trial, Boulogne was charged merely with "Homicide by imprudence and concealment of a body"--the French equivalent of manslaughter. He received three months in prison. Felix Bachelet, another friend of Passal's who had assisted in the scheme, was fined 100 francs.
Passal's remarkable methods of drumming up publicity did indeed have its effect--albeit not quite in the way he had intended. After the whole story came out, there was a great public clamor to read the late author's manuscript. If this was how he scripted real life, so the reasoning went, what must he have put in his book? Newspapers began fighting with each other over the serial rights.
Alas, it all came to nothing. Evidently, Passal had been so involved in his book's publicity that he neglected the book itself. All that was found of his promised "Memoirs" were a few fragmentary notes. Poor Passal could have said, like Oscar Wilde, "I put all my genius into my life."
There was one appropriately ghoulish sequel to our little story. In 1930, an "American souvenir hunter" offered police £80 for Passal's now-famous coffin. The last reports I have been able to find stated that the relic was to be sold at public auction, but I cannot say who bought it or where it might be today.
If the coffin still exists, it should be put on permanent display somewhere, as an unforgettable refutation to that old show business motto, "There is no such thing as bad publicity."