Vitalis and Marie Boyer
In the May of 1874, in the town of
Montpellier, M. Boyer, a retired merchant, some forty-six years of
age, lay dying. For some months previous to his death he had been
confined to his bed, crippled by rheumatic gout.
As the hour of his death drew near,
M. Boyer was filled with a great longing to see his daughter,
Marie, a girl of fifteen, and embrace her for the last time. The
girl was being educated in a convent at Marseilles.
One of M. Boyer's friends offered
to go there to fetch her. On arriving at the convent, he was told
that Marie had become greatly attracted by the prospect of a
religious life. "You are happy," the Mother Superior had written
to her mother, "very happy never to have allowed the impure breath
of the world to have soiled this little flower. She loves you and
her father more than one can say."
Her father's friend found the girl
dressed in the costume of a novice, and was told that she had
expressed her desire to take, one day, her final vows. He informed
Marie of her father's dying state, of his earnest wish to see her
for the last time, and told her that he had come to take her to
his bedside. "Take me away from here?" she exclaimed.
The Mother Superior, surprised at
her apparent reluctance to go, impressed on her the duty of
acceding to her father's wish. To the astonishment of both, Marie
refused to leave the convent. If she could save her father's life,
she said, she would go, but, as that was impossible and she
dreaded going out into the world again, she would stay and pray
for her father in the chapel of the convent, where her prayers
would be quite as effective as by his bedside. In vain the friend
and the Mother Superior tried to bend her resolution.
Happily M. Boyer died before he could learn of
his daughter's singular refusal. But it had made an unfavourable
impression on the friend's mind. He looked on Marie as a girl
without real feeling, an egoist, her religion purely superficial,
hiding a cold and selfish disposition; he felt some doubt as to
the future development of her character.
M. Boyer left a widow, a dark handsome woman,
forty years of age.
Some twenty years before his death, Marie Salat
had come to live with M. Boyer as a domestic servant. He fell in
love with her, she became his mistress, and a few months before
the birth of Marie, M. Boyer made her his wife. Madame Boyer was
at heart a woman of ardent and voluptuous passions that only
wanted opportunity to become careless in their gratification. Her
husband's long illness gave her such an opportunity. At the time
of his death she was carrying on an intrigue with a bookseller's
assistant, Leon Vitalis, a young man of twenty-one. Her bed-ridden
husband, ignorant of her infidelity, accepted gratefully the help
of Vitalis, whom his wife described as a relative, in the
regulation of his affairs. At length the unsuspecting Boyer died.
The night of his death Madame Boyer spent with her lover.
The mother had never felt any great affection
for her only child.
During her husband's lifetime she
was glad to have Marie out of the way at the convent. But the
death of M. Boyer changed the situation. He had left almost the
whole of his fortune, about 100,000 francs, to his daughter,
appointing her mother her legal guardian with a right to the
enjoyment of the income on the capital until Marie should come of
Madame Boyer had not hitherto taken
her daughter's religious devotion very seriously. But now that the
greater part of her husband's fortune was left to Marie, she
realised that, should her daughter persist in her intention of
taking the veil, that fortune would in a very few years pass into
the hands of the sisterhood. Without delay Madame Boyer exercised
her authority, and withdrew Marie from the convent. The girl
quitted it with every demonstration of genuine regret.
Marie Boyer when she left the convent was
growing into a tall and attractive woman, her figure slight and
elegant, her hair and eyes dark, dainty and charming in her
manner. Removed from the influences of convent life, her religious
devotion became a thing of the past. In her new surroundings she
gave herself up to the enjoyments of music and the theatre. She
realised that she was a pretty girl, whose beauty well repaid the
hours she now spent in the adornment of her person.
The charms of Marie were not lost on Leon
Vitalis. Mean and significant in appearance, Vitalis would seem to
have been one of those men who, without any great physical
recommendation, have the knack of making themselves attractive to
After her husband's death Madame Boyer had
yielded herself completely to his influence and her own undoubted
passion for him. She had given him the money with which to
purchase a business of his own as a second-hand bookseller. This
trade the enterprising and greedy young man combined with
money-lending and he clandestine sale of improper books and
photographs. To such a man the coming of Marie Boyer was a
significant event. She was younger, more attractive than her
mother; in a very few years the whole of her father's fortune
would be hers.
Slowly Vitalis set himself to win the girl's
affections. The mother's suspicions were aroused; her jealousy was
excited. She sent Marie to complete her education at a convent
school in Lyons. This was in the April of 1875.
By this time Marie and Vitalis had become
friendly enough to arrange to correspond clandestinely during the
girl's absence from home. Marie was so far ignorant of the
relations of Vitalis with her mother.
Her daughter sent away, Madame Boyer
surrendered herself with complete abandonment to her passion for
her lover. At Castelnau, close to Montpellier, she bought a small
country house. There she could give full rein to her desire. To
the scandal of the occasional passer-by she and her lover would
bathe in a stream that passed through the property, and sport
together on the grass. Indoors there were always books from
Vitalis' collection to stimulate their lascivious appetites. This
life of pastoral impropriety lasted until the middle of August,
when Marie Boyer came home from Lyons.
Vitalis would have concealed from the young
girl as long as he could the nature of his relations with Madame
Boyer, but his mistress by her own deliberate conduct made all
concealment impossible. Whether from the utter recklessness of her
passion for Vitalis, or a desire to kill in her daughter's heart
any attachment which she may have felt towards her lover, the
mother paraded openly before her daughter the intimacy of her
relations with Vitalis, and with the help of the literature with
which the young bookseller supplied her, set about corrupting her
child's mind to her own depraved level.
The effect of her extraordinary conduct was,
however, the opposite to what she had intended. The mind of the
young girl was corrupted; she was familiarised with vice. But in
her heart she did not blame Vitalis for what she saw and suffered;
she pitied, she excused him. It was her mother whom she grew to
hate, with a hate all the more determined for the cold passionless
exterior beneath which it was concealed.
Madame Boyer's deliberate display of her
passion for Vitalis served only to aggravate and intensify in
Marie Boyer an unnatural jealousy that was fast growing up between
mother and daughter.
Marie did not return to the school at Lyons. In
the winter of 1875, Madame Boyer gave up the country house and,
with her daughter, settled in one of the suburbs of Montpellier.
In the January of 1876 a theft occurred in her
household which obliged Madame Boyer to communicate with the
police. Spendthrift and incompetent in the management of her
affairs, she was hoarding and suspicious about money itself. Cash
and bonds she would hide away in unexpected places, such as books,
dresses, even a soup tureen.
One of her most ingenious hiding places was a
portrait of her late husband, behind which she concealed some
bearer bonds in landed security, amounting to about 11,000 francs.
One day in January these bonds disappeared. She suspected a theft,
and informed the police.
Three days later she withdrew her complaint,
and no more was heard of the matter. As Marie and Vitalis were the
only persons who could have known her secret, the inference is
obvious. When, later in the year, Vitalis announced his intention
of going to Paris on business, his mistress expressed to him the
hope that he would "have a good time" with her bonds. Vitalis left
for Paris. But there was now a distinct understanding between
Marie and himself. Vitalis had declared himself her lover and
asked her to marry him.
The following letter, written to him by Marie
Boyer in the October of 1876, shows her attitude toward his
"I thank you very sincerely for your letter,
which has given me very great-pleasure, because it tells me that
you are well. It sets my mind at rest, for my feelings towards you
are the same as ever. I don't say they are those of love, for I
don't know myself; I don't know what such feelings are. But I feel
a real affection for you which may well turn to love. How should I
not hold in affectionate remembrance one who has done everything
for me? But love does not come to order. So I can't and don't wish
to give any positive answer about our marriage--all depends on
circumstances. I don't want any promise from you, I want you to be
as free as I am. I am not fickle, you know me well enough for
that. So don't ask me to give you any promise. You may find my
letter a little cold. But I know too much of life to pledge myself
lightly. I assure you I think on it often. Sometimes I blush when
I think what marriage means."
Madame Boyer, displeased at the theft, had let
her lover go without any great reluctance. No sooner had he gone
than she began to miss him. Life seemed dull without him. Mother
and daughter were united at least in their common regret at the
absence of the young bookseller. To vary the monotony of
existence, to find if possible a husband for her daughter, Madame
Boyer decided to leave Montpellier for Marseilles, and there start
some kind of business. The daughter, who foresaw greater amusement
and pleasure in the life of a large city, assented willingly.
On October 6, 1876, they arrived at Marseilles,
and soon after Madame bought at a price considerably higher than
their value, two shops adjoining one another in the Rue de la
Republique. One was a cheese shop, the other a milliner's.
The mother arranged that she should look after
the cheese shop, while her daughter presided over the milliner's.
The two shops were next door to one another. Behind the milliner's
was a drawing-room, behind the cheese shop a kitchen; these two
rooms communicated with each other by a large dark room at the
back of the building. In the kitchen was a trap-door leading to a
cellar. The two women shared a bedroom in an adjoining house.
Vitalis had opposed the scheme of his mistress
to start shop-keeping in Marseilles. He knew how unfitted she was
to undertake a business of any kind. But neither mother nor
daughter would relinquish the plan. It remained therefore to make
the best of it. Vitalis saw that he must get the business into his
own hands; and to do that, to obtain full control of Madame
Boyer's affairs, he must continue to play the lover to her.
To the satisfaction of the two women, he
announced his intention of coming to Marseilles in the New Year of
1877. It was arranged that he should pass as a nephew of Madame
Boyer, the cousin of Marie.
He arrived at Marseilles on January 1, and
received a cordial welcome. Of the domestic arrangements that
ensued, it is sufficient to say that they were calculated to whet
the jealousy and inflame the hatred that Marie felt towards her
mother, who now persisted as before in parading before her
daughter the intimacy of her relations with Vitalis.
In these circumstances Vitalis succeeded in
extracting from his mistress a power of attorney, giving him
authority to deal with her affairs and sell the two businesses,
which were turning out unprofitable. This done, he told Marie,
whose growing attachment to him, strange as it may seem, had
turned to love, that now at last they could be free. He would sell
the two shops, and with the money released by the sale they could
go away together.
Suddenly Madame Boyer fell ill, and was
confined to her bed. Left to themselves, the growing passion of
Marie Boyer for Vitalis culminated in her surrender. But for the
sick mother the happiness of the lovers was complete. If only her
illness were more serious, more likely to be fatal in its result!
"If only God would take her!" said Vitalis. "Yes," replied her
daughter, "she has caused us so much suffering!"
To Madame Boyer her illness had brought hours
of torment, and at last remorse. She realised the duplicity of her
lover, she knew that he meant to desert her for her daughter, she
saw what wrong she had done that daughter, she suspected even that
Marie and Vitalis were poisoning her.
Irreligious till now, her thoughts turned to
religion. As soon as she could leave her bed she would go to Mass
and make atonement for her sin; she would recover her power of
attorney, get rid of Vitalis for good and all, and send her
daughter back to a convent. But it was too late. Nemesis was swift
to overtake the hapless woman. Try as he might, Vitalis had found
it impossible to sell the shops at anything but a worthless
figure. He had no money of his own, with which to take Marie away.
He knew that her mother had resolved on his instant dismissal.
As soon as Madame Boyer was recovered
sufficiently to leave her bed, she turned on her former lover,
denounced his treachery, accused him of robbing and swindling her,
and bade him go without delay. To Vitalis dismissal meant ruin, to
Marie it meant the loss of her lover. During her illness the two
young people had wished Madame Boyer dead, but she had recovered.
Providence or Nature having refused to assist Vitalis, he resolved
to fall back on art. He gave up a whole night's rest to the
consideration of the question.
As a result of his deliberations he suggested
to the girl of seventeen the murder of her mother. "This must
end," said Vitalis. "Yes, it must," replied Marie. Vitalis asked
her if she had any objection to such a crime. Marie hesitated, the
victim was her mother. Vitalis reminded her what sort of a mother
she had been to her. The girl said that she was terrified at the
sight of blood; Vitalis promised that her mother should be
strangled. At length Marie consented. That night on some slight
pretext Madame Boyer broke out into violent reproaches against her
daughter. She little knew that every reproach she uttered served
only to harden in her daughter's heart her unnatural resolve.
On the morning of March 19 Madame Boyer rose
early to go to Mass.
Before she went out, she reminded Vitalis that
this was his last day in her service, that when she returned she
would expect to find him gone. It was after seven when she left
the house. The lovers had no time to lose; the deed must be done
immediately on the mother's return. They arranged that Vitalis
should get rid of the shop-boy, and that, as soon as he had gone,
Marie should shut and lock the front doors of the two shops. At
one o'clock Madame Boyer came back. She expressed her astonishment
and disgust that Vitalis still lingered, and threatened to send
for the police to turn him out. Vitalis told the shop-boy that he
could go away for a few hours; they had some family affairs to
settle. The boy departed.
Madame Boyer, tired after her long morning in
the town, was resting on a sofa in the sitting-room, at the back
of the milliner's shop. Vitalis entered the room, and after a few
heated words, struck her a violent blow in the chest. She fell
back on the sofa, calling to her daughter to come to her
assistance. The daughter sought to drown her mother's cries by
banging the doors, and opening and shutting drawers. Vitalis, who
was now trying to throttle his victim, called to Marie to shut the
front doors of the two shops.
To do so Marie had to pass through the
sitting-room, and was a witness to the unsuccessful efforts of
Vitalis to strangle her mother. Having closed the doors, she
retired into the milliner's shop to await the issue. After a few
moments her lover called to her for the large cheese knife; he had
caught up a kitchen knife, but in his struggles it had slipped
from his grasp.
Quickly Marie fetched the knife and returned to
the sitting-room. There a desperate struggle was taking place
between the man and woman. At one moment it seemed as if Madame
Boyer would get the better of Vitalis, whom nature had not endowed
greatly for work of this kind. Marie came to his aid. She kicked
and beat her mother, until at last the wretched creature released
her hold and sank back exhausted. With the cheese knife, which her
daughter had fetched, Vitalis killed Madame Boyer.
They were murderers now, the young lovers. What
to do with the body? The boy would be coming back soon. The cellar
under the kitchen seemed the obvious place of concealment. With
the help of a cord the body was lowered into the cellar, and Marie
washed the floor of the sitting-room. The boy came back. He asked
where Madame Boyer was.
Vitalis told him that she was getting ready to
return to Montpellier the same evening, and that he had arranged
to go with her, but that he had no intention of doing so; he would
accompany her to the station, he said, and then at the last
moment, just as the train was starting, slip away and let her go
on her journey alone. To the boy, who knew enough of the inner
history of the household to enjoy the piquancy of the situation,
such a trick seemed quite amusing. He went away picturing in his
mind the scene at the railway station and its humorous
At seven o'clock Vitalis and Marie Boyer were
alone once more with the murdered woman. They had the whole night
before them. Vitalis had already considered the matter of the
disposal of the body. He had bought a pick and spade. He intended
to bury his former mistress in the soil under the cellar. After
that had been done, he and Marie would sell the business for what
it would fetch, and go to Brussels--an admirable plan, which two
unforeseen circumstances defeated. The Rue de la Republique was
built on a rock, blasted out for the purpose. The shop-boy had
gone to the station that evening to enjoy the joke which, he
believed, was to be played on his mistress.
When Vitalis tried to dig a grave into the
ground beneath the cellar he realised the full horror of the
disappointment. What was to be done? They must throw the body into
the sea. But how to get it there? The crime of Billoir, an old
soldier, who the year before in Paris had killed his mistress in a
fit of anger and cut up her body, was fresh in the recollection of
Vitalis. The guilty couple decided to dismember the body of Madame
Boyer and so disfigure her face as to render it unrecognisable. In
the presence of Marie, Vitalis did this, and the two lovers set
out at midnight to discover some place convenient for the
reception of the remains. They found the harbour too busy for
their purpose, and decided to wait until the morrow, when they
would go farther afield. They returned home and retired for the
night, occupying the bed in which Madame Boyer had slept the night
On the morning of the 20th the lovers rose
early, and a curious neighbour, looking through the keyhole, saw
them counting joyously money and valuables, as they took them from
Madame Boyer's cash-box. When the shop-boy arrived, he asked
Vitalis for news of Madame Boyer. Vitalis told him that he had
gone with her to the station, that she had taken the train to
Montpellier, and that, in accordance with his plan, he had given
her the slip just as the train was starting. This the boy knew to
be false: he had been to the station himself to enjoy the fun, and
had seen neither Vitalis nor Madame Boyer. He began to suspect
In the evening, when the shops had been closed,
and he had been sent about his business, he waited and watched. In
a short time he saw Vitalis and Marie Boyer leave the house, the
former dragging a hand-cart containing two large parcels, while
Marie walked by his side. They travelled some distance with their
burden, leaving the city behind them, hoping to find some deserted
spot along the coast where they could conceal the evidence of
Their nerves were shaken by meeting with a
custom-house officer, who asked them what it was they had in the
cart. Vitalis answered that it was a traveller's luggage, and the
officer let them pass on. But soon after, afraid to risk another
such experience, the guilty couple turned out the parcels into a
ditch, covered them with stones and sand, and hurried home.
The next day, the shop-boy and the inquisitive
neighbour having consulted together, went to the Commissary of
Police and told him of the mysterious disappearance of Madame
Boyer. The Commissary promised to investigate the matter, and had
just dismissed his informants when word was brought to him of the
discovery, in a ditch outside Marseilles, of two parcels
containing human remains. He called back the boy and took him to
view the body at the Morgue. The boy was able, by the clothes, to
identify the body as that of his late mistress.
The Commissary went straight to the shops in
the Rue de la Republique, where he found the young lovers
preparing for flight. At first they denied all knowledge of the
crime, and said that Madame Boyer had gone to Montpellier. They
were arrested, and it was not long before they both confessed
their guilt to the examining magistrate.
Vitalis and Marie Boyer were tried before the
Assize Court at Aix on July 2, 1877. Vitalis is described as mean
and insignificant in appearance, thin, round-backed, of a bilious
complexion; Marie Boyer as a pretty, dark girl, her features cold
in expression, dainty and elegant. At her trial she seemed to be
still so greatly under the influence of Vitalis that during her
interrogatory the President sent him out of court.
To the examining magistrate Marie Boyer, in
describing her mother's murder, had written, "I cannot think how I
came to take part in it. I, who wouldn't have stayed in the
presence of a corpse for all the money in the world." Vitalis was
condemned to death, and was executed on August 17. He died fearful
and penitent, acknowledging his miserable career to be a warning
to misguided youth. Extenuating circumstances were accorded to
Marie Boyer, and she was sentenced to penal servitude for life.
Her conduct in prison was so repentant and exemplary that she was
released in 1892.
M. Proal, a distinguished French judge, and the
author of some important works on crime, acted as the examining
magistrate in the case of Vitalis and Marie Boyer. He thus sums up
his impression of the two criminals: "Here is an instance of how
greed and baseness on the one side, lust and jealousy on the
other, bring about by degrees a change in the characters of
criminals, and, after some hesitation, the suggestion and
accomplishment of parricide, Is it necessary to seek an
explanation of the crime in any psychic abnormality which is
negatived to all appearances by the antecedents of the guilty
pair? Is it necessary to ask it of anatomy or physiology? Is not
the crime the result of moral degradation gradually asserting
itself in two individuals, whose moral and intellectual faculties
are the same as those of other men, but who fall, step by step,
into vice and crime? It is by a succession of wrongful acts that a
man first reaches the frontier of crime and then at length crosses