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Hippolyte Visart de BOCARMÉ





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Poisoner - To inherit
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: November 20, 1850
Date of birth: 1818
Victim profile: Gustave Fougnies (his brother-in-law)
Method of murder: Poisoning (nicotine)
LocationMons, Belgium
Status: Executed by guillotine on July 19, 1851

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In 1851, the Belgian chemist Jean Stas was the first to prove the use of tobacco extract as a murder poison in the civilised world. The Belgian count Hippolyte Visart de Bocarmé had poisoned his brother-in-law with tobacco leaf extract in order to acquire some urgently needed money. This was the first exact proof of alkaloids in forensic medicine.


The Deadliest Sin

By Nene Adams -

The trial at Mons created a sensation on the Continent in 1851 when the Belgian Count Hippolyte Visart de Bocarmé and his wife, Lydie, were accused of poisoning her brother, Gustave Fougnies. Bocarmé’s greed for wealth was believed to be the motive.

Lydie was the daughter of a retired grocer of considerable means, rendering her very attractive in Bocarmé’s eyes despite her common birth. The Count’s finances, it seems, were in desperate need of a cash infusion; his income was only 2,400 francs a year, and he had been borrowing heavily. His mismanagement of funds did not improve after marriage. Even though his father-in-law only gave the couple an allowance of 2,000 francs a year, Bocarmé and his wife lived in a grand style despite their mounting debts, and he had a mistress to support as well.

When the grocer died, the bulk of his fortune was left to Lydie’s brother, Gustave. Bocarmé had anticipated his wife inheriting much more than a paltry 5,000 francs per year. Their finances were worse than ever; he had been forced to pledge some of Lydie’s jewels to borrow more money, and to sell some of his property to stave off creditors. Fortunately, Gustave suffered from ill health and a weak constitution. Bocarmé went so far as to consult a physician to find out the chances that Gustave might die soon, thus saving the Count from imminent financial and social ruin.

The answer must not have pleased the impatient Bocarmé. His only hope lay in Gustave dying without heirs, but that hope was dashed when Gustave announced he was getting married. Bocarmé had to act. After consulting with a professor of chemistry and spending some time in the laboratory himself, he invited Gustave to come to dinner at his château on the 20th of November, 1850.

At a certain point in the evening, the alarm was raised. Gustave’s body was discovered in the dining room. Bocarmé and Lydie said he had died of apoplexy. Very carefully, the couple had ensured there were no other witnesses. At first, their account was accepted… until an examination of the body proved them false.

There were contusions and scratches on the victim’s noise and cheek; traces of corrosive poison were found on the tongue, in the throat and stomach contents. Tests confirmed the substance was pure nicotine. Bocarmé was also subjected to a physical examination; the authorities found he had bite marks on one of his fingers, and stains on his fingernails which were believed to be blood. It was not long before it was discovered Bocarmé had distilled two phials of nicotine–one of the most lethal poisons known–prior to Gustave’s death. The aristocrat and his wife were arrested and charged with murder.

The prosecution contended that the victim had been restrained by Bocarmé and the poison forcibly poured down his throat. This scenario required two people working in concert. It could be proved by servants’ testimony that it was the Countess who ordered the dining room to be cleared of potential witnesses, leaving herself and Bocarmé as the only people in the room with the deceased; she made certain the door connecting to the kitchen was closed; after the body was discovered, she had the dining room’s floor thoroughly cleaned, and also arranged for her husband’s clothing to be washed, and some of it burned. Another servant was said to have heard Gustave crying for help, the pleas soon turning silent.

Under questioning, Lydie claimed she had been under duress. Bocarmé had told her of his murderous intentions towards her brother, but she had been helpless to warn Gustave, or do anything against Bocarmé’s wishes. It was all her husband’s fault; he had plotted the whole affair and forced her to assist him. She had not even been in the room when the murder was committed, but had fled after Bocarmé attacked Gustave, throwing him to the ground.

Bocarmé had another story to tell. He admitted to having distilled the nicotine. According to him, the phials had been on the dining room table; his wife had picked one up and poured it into Gustave’s glass, mistaking it for wine. Gustave’s death, he claimed, was a tragic accident.

The jury believed the wife but not the husband. Lydie was acquitted. Bocarmé was found guilty and sentenced to death.

“I ask one favor,” he told the Procureur de Roi after his appeal against the judgment was rejected, “see that the ax is well sharpened. I have read of cases in which, owing to the blunt edge of the knife, two or three strokes were necessary–the idea makes me shudder.”

Count Hippolyte Visart de Bocarmé was executed by guillotine on the 19th of July, 1851, before a crowd of thousands. As requested, the blade was very sharp, and it took only a single blow to sever the murderer’s head from his neck.


Extraordinary trial for murder in Belgium

(From the Leed's Mercury, June 7, 1851)

A remarkable case is now on trial before the High Criminal Court of Hainault, at Mons. The accused are the Count and Countess of Bocarme, of a family stated to be one of the oldest in Belgium. The crime laid to their charge is that of havng poisoned the Countess's brother, Gustave Faugnies, in order to obtain his fortune.

Count de Bocarme resided at the chateau of Bury; he married in 1843, for her fortune, Lydia Fougnies, the daughter of a retired grocer, and got with her a sum representing £100 a-year of English money. This, after all, was no great sum, and as the Count was somewhat of a spendthrift, his affairs assumed gradually a most embarrassed state.

His wife's brother, Gustave Faugnies, had become possessed, by his father's death, of considerable property, and as he was unmarried, the Count and Countess had every prospect of inheriting his fortune. Gustave, though weak in constitution, and amputated of a leg, determined, in November, 1850, to marry.

The state of Count Bocarme's exchequer was at this time quite ruinous. He owed large sums to his legal advisers, and had mortgaged most of his property. Fougnies' marriage would have been a blow to his hopes.

Suddenly the Count became addicted, in the beginning of 1850, to the study of chemistry. He went under a false name to a manufacturer of alembics, corresponded also under a false name with a professor of chemistry, and ultimately succeeded in distilling from tobacco leaves a deadly poison known as nicotine, and for which hitherto it has been impossible to find a reactive.

This poison he tried on various animals, and, according to his own statement, he obtained tremendous results, death being instantaneous after the slightest absorption of the poison.

In November, 1850, Gustave Fougnies was induced to accept an invitation to dinner at Bury, it being proposed to him to become trustee for the Count and Countess, during a voyage they intended making in Germany. He came on the morning of the 20th November, and after dinner on the same day, died in the room where were present both the Count and the Countess.

It was found, on examination, that death had ensued, not from apoplexy, but from the forcible injection of a poisonous and corrosive substance. There were marks of violence on the face of the dead man, and part of the poison had run down the side of his face, corroding the flesh and blistering it. An examination of Count Bocarme's hands showed the presence of a bite from humun teeth, and a red tinge on one of his nails corresponded with certain marks and scratches on the face of Fougnies. The clothes of Fougnies and those of the Count, which he had changed, were found wet, and hanging up to-dry in an attic of the chateau.

This had been done by the Countess, as- alie states, by order of her husbnnd. The floor had been scraped with glass, but insufficiently to prevent the marks of the corroding liquid, which seemed to have been spurted all over the room. There were no traces of chemical instruments or of any apparatus for the distillation of poison. The false name assumed by the Count in his dealings with the chemical instrument-maker, however, became known.

After six weeks search, the alembics used in producing nicotine were found, and Bocarme, when informed of these discoveries, for a moment gave himself up to despair. The Countess then openly accused her husband of being the murderer. She described how, after dinner, her brother expressed his determination to go home, and Bocarme went out to order his horses. In his absence she and her brother were talking together, when Bocarme rushed in, seized Gustave by the shoulders and threw him down. She fled, and did not return into the room till all was over, and the body of Gustave lay lifeless on the ground.

(From the Adas, June 21, 1851)

After seventeen days of trial, the case of the Count and Countess de Bocarme was brought to a conclusion at the Assize Court of Mons on Friday. After considering their verdict for an hour and a half the jury returned into Court and the foreman in a somewhat tremulous bnt firm voice declared the finding of the jury to be, " ou my honour and conscience, and in the presence of God and man," a verdict of guilty against the Count, and not guilty against his wife, Madame Bocarme:-The President then ordered the accused to be brought into Court.

This time the Count was admitted first. His appearance was calm and collected. Madame de Bocarme had her veil down, but her step waB firm. On hearing the verdict of guilty a slight momentary flush passed over the Count's face, but he evinced no other sign of emotion. On heanng not guilty on his wife, an expression of internal satisfaction animated his features. He looked affectionately toward his wife, who gave no visible signs of emotion. She left the dock with a firm step, without speaking to her hus- band. The Procureur du Roi, having asked the prisoner if he had anything to say, he replied " No, except that I am perfectly innocent." He then entered calmly into conversation with his counsel.

At eleven o'clock the Court pronounced sentence of death upon Hippolyte Visart de Bocarme, and decreed that the execu- tion should take place in one of the squares of Mons. The prisoner left the Court under guard with a firm step.


Tobacco & Crime

By Linda Stratmann

The tobacco plant, nicotiana tabacum, was introduced to Europe in 1561. It arrived at Lisbon, where the French ambassador, Jean Nicot, took an interest in the new plant and introduced it to France. It was used medicinally as a treatment for eczema and palsy. It was not until 1828 that the most active ingredient was isolated, and named nicotine.

Nicotine is a rapidly effective poison, in the same group as morphine, strychnine and aconitine. Its initial effect is that of a stimulant, but in poisonous doses it produces nausea and cardiac irregularity, eventually paralysing the respiratory system. The lethal dose for an adult is between 60 and 90mg. One cigar contains enough nicotine to kill two adults if it were administered by injection. Death may take place within a few minutes. Homicidal use of nicotine is rare but its use in horticultural sprays has led to many cases of accidental poisoning through skin absorption. Although by 1847, tests had been devised to identify vegetable poisons in their pure forms in the laboratory, this did not help in cases of suspicious deaths, when the poison would be embedded in the organs of the victim. Scientists were unable to isolate vegetable poisons from animal tissue. When the tissue was destroyed - the normal procedure in the search for arsenic - the poison was destroyed as well. The leading toxicologist of the day, Mathieu Orfila, lamented that the alkaloid poisons, as these vegetable substances were known, might remain forever undetectable. He was proved wrong only three years later in a remarkable case.

Count Hyppolite de Bocarmé was part Belgian and part Dutch, and, in keeping with his extraordinary lifestyle, he had been born on the high seas in the middle of a storm. His family had been bound for Java, where his father held the post of Governor. The boy had been neglected during his childhood, and was allowed to run wild. In later years the legend sprang up that he had been suckled by a lioness. Later on, his father had become a tobacco dealer and then a hunter. It was not until the family returned to Europe that the boy received any education, when he displayed an interest in agriculture and science. He was a badly behaved youth, well known to be a swindler and womaniser. When he was 24 his father died, and he succeeded to the title and took over the Château de Bitremont, near the Belgian community of Bury.

Bocarmé liked to live an extravagant life, and in 1843, to increase the family fortunes, he married a bourgeoise, Lydie Fougnies, whom he believed to be wealthy. Her father was an eccentric apothecary, and had raised his two children, Lydie and a sickly son, Gustave, to aim for marriage into a titled family. After the marriage, Bocarmé found that Lydie was not nearly as wealthy as he had imagined. The couple liked wild parties and extravagant hunts, and her income of 2000Fr. per annum was not nearly enough to support this, not to mention the upkeep of the château and its staff of servants. This situation created some tension between the couple, and violent quarrels would alternate with bouts of mutual passion. When Lydie's father died, her annual income increased to 5000Fr., but this was still far too little. They managed for some time by selling off what land they could, but by 1849 this source had dried up. Their last hope was that Gustave, who had inherited the major part of his father's fortune, would die unmarried, in which case, all his possessions would go to his sister. This was not unlikely, as Gustave, who had never been strong, had been very ill since the amputation of a leg.

In the spring of 1850, however, Gustave bought the château of an impoverished noble family, and there were rumours of his interest in the former owner, Demoiselle de Dudzech. On 20th November, messengers arrived at the Bocarmés to say that Gustave would be arriving at noon to announce his engagement. A number of curious preparations were made for this event. It was normal for the children of the family to eat with their elders in the main dining room, but on that day they were banished to the kitchen. The food was to be served, not by the château servants but by the Countess herself.

That afternoon, the maid, Emmerance, heard a sound from the dining room as if someone had fallen to the floor, and Gustave crying out "Oh, oh, pardon, Hyppolite!" She went to see what the matter was, but as she approached the dining room door she collided with the Countess who was rushing out, closing the door behind her. The Countess ran into the kitchen, fetched some vessels of hot water, and ran back to the dining room. Soon afterwards she called to Emmerance, and Gilles the coachman, for help, saying that Gustave had been taken ill, and she thought he had had a stroke.

They found Gustave lying on the floor of the dining room. Bocarmé was in a state of great excitement. He ordered vinegar to be brought to him, and proceeded to pour glass after glass of it down Gustave's throat. He then ordered that Gustave should be undressed and his body washed with vinegar. The Countess rushed to the laundry with Gustave's clothes and threw them into hot soapy water. Gilles, after throwing more and more vinegar over Gustave at Bocarmé's excited orders, was then told to remove the body to Emmerance's room and lay it on the bed.

The Countess was up most of that night scrubbing the floor of the dining room. She also scrubbed Gustave's crutches, but later decided to burn them. Early in the morning the Count took a knife and began scraping the dining room floorboards. He continued in this task until late afternoon. Eventually, the Count and Countess, by now both exhausted, went to bed. At this point the servants met together and discussed what to do. All of them were alarmed and terrified by the events of the last twenty-four hours. They decided to go to the priest and tell their story. By the time they had done so, rumour had also reached the examining magistrate in Tournai that Gustave Fougnies had died an unnatural death.

The examining magistrate , Heughebaert, arrived in Bury accompanied by three gendarmes and three surgeons. He was sceptical of the rumours and so, leaving the gendarmes behind in Bury, arrived at the walled and moated château with only the surgeons and the town clerk for company. The fireplace of the dining room was filled with ashes, and it was clear that books and papers had been burned there, while the dining room floor was littered with wood shavings. At first the Count refused to see the magistrate, but eventually he was obliged to appear. When Heughebaert asked to see the body he was led reluctantly to a darkened room, and when the Countess refused to draw the curtains he did so himself. Bocarmé tried to hide Gustave's face with his hands, but it was apparent that this was anything but a natural death. The young man's face was badly cut, and the mouth appeared burned and blackened.

Heughebaert ordered that the body be examined at once. The doctors carried it to the coach-house, and two hours later, announced their verdict. The mouth, tongue, throat and stomach showed distinct corrosive burns and they believed that Gustave had died from drinking some corrosive liquid, probably sulphuric acid. Heughebaert supervised the removal from the body of all the organs that might be useful for a chemical examination. They were sealed in vessels containing pure alcohol. He then placed the Count and Countess under arrest.

Once back at Tournai, Heughebaert engaged a carriage with fast horses and went to Brussels with the specimens. There was only one man he wanted to examine the remains, a professor of chemistry called Jean Stas. Stas was at thirty seven the leading chemist in the country. When he found the laboratory at the École Militaire where he taught, to be poorly equipped, he set up equipment in his own home, turning the whole house from cellar to roof garden into a laboratory. In later years, ministers and kings would come to visit him there. It was in this home laboratory between the months of December 1850 and February 1851, that Stas made the breakthrough - he devised the method for demonstrating the presence of vegetable poisons in human tissue.

He was quickly able to rule out sulphuric acid as a cause of death. Like most of his contemporaries, he used his sense of taste and smell to identify chemicals. He at once remarked to Heughebaert on the smell of vinegar, and was told of the repeated washing of the body in this substance. It occurred to him that this might well have been done to mask the presence of another poison. After a number of experiments, he identified a smell which reminded him somewhat of coniine, the poison found in hemlock, and realised that he might be dealing with a vegetable poison. Further purification of the material resulted in a brownish substance with the unmistakable smell of tobacco. He was able to submit this to the laboratory tests for pure nicotine, and obtained a positive result. Stas sent his extract to Heughebaert with a letter suggesting that he investigate whether the Bocarmé's had ever had nicotine in their possession.

Heughebaert at once went to search the château and questioned the servants. The feeble minded gardener told him that during the summer, he had helped the Count prepare eau-de-cologne, and for this purpose, the Count had bought enormous quantities of tobacco leaves and made extracts of these in a laboratory in the castle washhouse. The resultant extract had been placed in a cupboard in the dining room, and the following day the Count had removed all the equipment from the washhouse. In the next few days, Heughebaert was able to trace a number of chemists to whom Bocarmé had gone to seek advice about the extraction of nicotine from tobacco leaves. He found the buried bodies of cats and ducks which Bocarmé had experimented upon, and eventually he found the equipment, hidden behind some panelling in the château. He sent the animal remains to Stas, as well as samples of wood from the floorboards and even the trousers the gardener had worn when preparing the "eau-de-cologne". Stas found traces of nicotine in all of them.

So how had Stas made the breakthrough? Vegetable poisons are alkaline, and soluble in both water and alcohol. The substances of which the human body are made are soluble either in water or in alcohol, or else they are insoluble in both. If the material is reduced to a pulp, and exposed to alcohol to which an acid has been added, the resultant filtrate will take with it those substances soluble in alcohol together with the poison, leaving behind the insoluble bodily substances. Water could then be used to dissolve the poison, leaving behind those bodily substances insoluble in water. The crucial thing therefore was the mixture of alcohol and acid. The organs had, it will be recalled, been preserved in alcohol - and the acid? Bocarmé had added this himself - the vinegar.

At the trial in the following May, the two defendants had no recourse but to accuse each other. The Countess admitted that she had helped to murder her brother but said that her husband had compelled her by brute force. The Count admitted he had made the poison but said he had stored it in a wine bottle and his wife had given it to her brother. It was a feeble lie that fooled no-one. It was obvious from the appearance of the body that Gustave had died violently, probably being held down while the nicotine was forced down his throat. Bocarmé must have thought that his rank would protect him. A court reporter wrote of him "His air of assurance is prodigious". His counsel painted the Countess as a designing woman and sought the sympathy of the court by pointing out that his client had had a disturbed upbringing. The Count was found guilty of murder, but the Countess, to the indignation of the populace was acquitted, it is said because the jury could not bear to send a lady to the guillotine. There were no such scruples about her husband, however, and despite his petitioning the King, Bocarmé went to the scaffold the following July.

Stas earned lasting fame, and his method of identifying the alkaloid poisons is fundamentally the same as that used today.

Linda Stratmann



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