Crime historian Edmund Lester Pearson once noted that murderers can be “too clever”: they put together amazingly elaborate, meticulously well-planned homicide plots, only to be undone because they tripped over their own plans. A perfect example was a Belgian named Armand Peltzer. In 1881, he concocted a plan for murder as ingenious as anything imagined by Christie or Highsmith, only to see it ruined at the last minute by one "act of cleverness" too many.
The catalyst for his crime was a young woman named Julie Bernays, with whom Peltzer had fallen violently in love. Unfortunately, as so often happens, there was an impediment to his wooing: the lady’s husband William. The couple was unhappily married, but she refused to agree to a divorce because under Belgian law, that would mean sharing custody of their son.
It was easy for Peltzer to decide that there was nothing for it but to turn the alluring Madame Bernays into an eligible widow as soon as possible. Of course, it would not do if all he got out of William Bernays’ murder was a prison cell. He needed an alibi, and a darn good one. And, out of what the old criminal courts would have called “the instigation of the Devil,” he found it. Bernays would be killed, and in a way that would point to the killer…who would very definitely be someone other than Peltzer. The authorities would never find this murderer, because he would be someone who never existed.
Armand Peltzer’s younger brother, Leon, was currently living in New York under an alias because of some financial improprieties. Armand had helped him escape his troubles, and Leon—who had always been rather under his brother’s thumb in any case—was easily persuaded to accept Armand’s offer to cancel the debt. Leon agreed to disguise his appearance and take on a new identity, that of "Henry Vaughan," a millionaire intending to establish his own shipping line. “Vaughan” visited various European navigation firms, thus making himself well known in several countries.
Once “Vaughan’s” identity was established, he wrote to William Bernays. He explained that Bernays (who was an attorney,) had been recommended to him as someone to consult for advice about Belgian shipping laws. He enclosed five hundred francs as a retainer, and requested they meet in Brussels.
Bernays kept the appointment. “Vaughan” cordially escorted him to the house he had recently rented out, bade his visitor to sit down, pulled out a pistol, and shot Bernays through the back of the head.
The murderer then destroyed his disguise, and left unobtrusively. Meanwhile, Armand was very calmly and very obviously going about his normal routine in Antwerp.
The brothers knew the police would be utterly flummoxed. They were presented with a murder that had no apparent motive, committed by a man who had completely vanished.
The Peltzers may well have gotten away with it if Leon had not become impatient. When ten days had passed without Bernays’ body being found, he very foolishly resurrected Henry Vaughan. Under that name, he wrote to the Belgian police, telling them where to find Bernays, and explaining that his death was “a horrible accident.” He was showing Bernays his revolver, and—oops!—it somehow went off and killed his visitor.
The Belgian PD no longer had Hercule Poirot on the force, but they did not need him to see that there was something rather rum about this letter. They announced a reward for information about “Henry Vaughan,” and circulated samples of his handwriting.
These samples provided additional proof that Armand got all the brains in the Peltzer family. Leon had not even bothered to try and disguise his writing in the “Vaughan” letter, and an acquaintance soon recognized it. He, as well as his brother, quickly found themselves under arrest.
At their trial, the Crown had little difficulty demonstrating that while Leon had actually pulled the trigger, he was merely his more assertive brother’s puppet. (Julie Bernays, meanwhile, filed a separate civil suit against the brothers over her husband’s death.) The Peltzers were quickly condemned and sentenced to life imprisonment. Armand died just two years into his sentence. Leon spent his incarceration studying languages, eventually getting an unofficial position as translator in the Ministry of Justice. After he had served thirty years, he was released, on the condition that he leave Belgium. The sixty-five year old man changed his name to “Albert Preitelle,” and eventually settled in Ceylon. After seven years, he was allowed to return to Brussels, but he felt his entire life was wasted, and he wanted no more of it. In 1922 he threw himself into the North Sea. And William Bernays was finally well and truly avenged.