Achille Lemot learns the exact price of a mistress in 1870s Paris.
Court of Assizes of the Seine. Paris, Monday June 26, 1874.
A young man and a young woman arrive to sit before President Louis Claude Douët d’Arcq on the “bench of infamy”. A gray town guard stands between them.
He, a handsome 28 year old of medium build is dressed in a brown overcoat and has long black hair which is thrown back. His face is pale. She is a very pretty 25 year old brunette with a pink complexion, silky skin and delicate features. She wears her hair brought back under a black hat with black feathers. There’s a little curl on her forehead. Under a fur-trimmed coat with lace sleeves she’s wearing a black silk dress.
The young couple are pleasing on the eye and look quite out of place in court. They’re a couple who are “made for love” it is said.
And it was love that brought them here today.
The gentlemen of the press in court know the accused man, and they know him well. Achille Lemot is an illustrator, an caricaturist and an elite “boulevardière” of the Parisian artistic population. Born Désiré Achille Valentin in Reims, and known as Lemot, “a cheerful boy, a very nice fellow” and his front cover caricatures for Monde Pour Rire have earned him the nickname “Lemot Pour Rire” (Lemot for laughter).
Three years previously, in January 1871, the long haired Lemot fought in the Franco-Prussian War as a Sergeant Major in General Louis Faidherbe’s irregular French army, a group known for its radically politicised soldiers. He was wounded in the Battle of St. Quentin as Prussian forces defeated French attempts to relieve the besieged city of Paris during the hated La Commune de Paris, a radical socialist revolutionary government that seiged & ran Paris from 18 March to 28 May 1871. La Commune was suppressed by the regular French Army during La semaine sanglante (The Bloody Week) which began on 21 May 1871. During La semaine sanglante the Communards fought tooth and nail, resisting street by street, but were pushed right back into the heart of Paris. In total desperation, they executed a number of hostages (including the archbishop of Paris) and in the last days set numberous public buildings ablaze, amongst them the Tuileries Palace and the Hôtel de Ville. The Communards made their final stand in Père-Lachaise Cemetery, where the last resisters were shot down against the Mur des Fédérés (Federalists’ Wall) – which today is a place of pilgrimage, sacred to the French left. The government took a bloody vengeance. Twenty thousand Communards were killed in the fighting or executed on the spot and thousands of survivors were deported to remote island penal colonies, while others escaped into exile.
A month after La Commune fell, Lemot reappeared on the boulevard with a military medal pinned on his chest. “Lemot for laughter” didn’t get his old job at Monde Pour Rire back, the war had killed the laughter and times were hard. Young, and with his talent not yet fully formed, Lemot had not yet known the adulation heaped upon illustrators like the great Andre Gill, artists that handed out portrait cards with long biographies on the back.
The Courts Gazette would soon fill this gap and Achille Lemot would be the talk of all Paris.
On a table in the courtroom the exhibits are spread out: a copying press, a bundle of banknotes, a box of insecticide, a pair of bellows, and other items.
The court President, Douët d’Arcq begins explaining his case, listing the charges, deftly interrogating the accused and setting forth the evidence against him.
He tells the jury that in July of 1871, Lamot fell “into a crazy passion for the girl Attagnant. To meet the requirements of a life of disorder and the caprices of his mistress, he soon incurred too much expense. The embarrassment occurred in this irregular household, and it is she who seems to have pushed the accused to the crime.”
That July, continued Douët d’Arcq, Lemot met the delicate and dark haired Augustine-Reine Attagnant, a performer at the Montmartre Theater. Augustine already had several lovers and one of them, it is widely maintained was another girl. This didn’t prevent her having feelings for Lamot. On the contrary, she had a “crush” on the illustrator who became besotted – “what is called a lover of the heart”. This role repelled Lamot but he loved his mistress too much to suffer sharing her with another. The promiscious Augustine loved her Lamot enough to sacrifice her chances of snaring a “gentleman” to be with him. On this footing, the ill-fated pair began their relationship.
The court clerk Commerson now rose and picked up the story. Their reserves were low and running out he said, and although Augustine would get parts in plays at the Montmartre from time to time, she received no pay. Her upkeep was expensive and she regretted her impulsiveness. Lemot became increasingly exhausted in vain efforts to find the money required to keep his mistress and she tells him it must end. Desperate, he writes a letter to his mistress saying that parting is “to split his head against the walls”. He does not dare to appear before her, to face her reproaches, nor to suffer the grief that he causes her. If she perseveres in her resolution to leave him, he will have the courage to submit to it.
The pair meet for a reconcilliation at the restaurant Petit Journal and Augustine reconsiders, granting Lamot a grace period. Things soon begin to look up as Lemot is hired by Mr. Léon Sault, director of Watercolor-Fashion on 5, rue du Quatre-Septembre. He earns 400 to 500 francs a month drawing fashion models. The lovers rent a 5 room apartment at No. 2, Marie-Antoinette Street and move in together. Augustine however, is accustomed to the role of kept woman, deprives herself of nothing and Lemots’ francs melt away well before the end of each month. Once again, this is embarrassing, and there’s the refrain of Augustine’s recriminations and she threatens to leave, this time for good.
Panicked and desparate, Lamot spots a copying press at the house of Madame Faugeron on Rue Dancourt. He buys it for seven francs and carries it home. A clever illustrator, he’s also a good engraver. He takes a twenty-franc note and begins to etch it carefully in reverse onto a zinc plate, and pushes down the inked press. He’s not happy with the result from the plate and throws it into a sewer near the Montmartre theater and starts again on another. This time, it works.
On May 13, 1873, the newspapers begin to report, “For some time there has been a large number of fake notes of 20 francs. The sign that can be used to recognize them is that these notes all bear the same number, the counterfeiter probably having only one board. These numbers are 525 and Z. 1.256. The paper is a little stronger, the engraving a little less clear than in real notes.”
To preserve the love of this woman sitting by his side in court, announces Douët d’Arcq, Lemot the illustrator had turned forger.
President Douet d’Arcq now pauses. He is well disposed and compassionate toward the accused. Moved by Lamot’s youth, his previous bourgeois virtues and pained by the punishment he’ll inflict on him if found guilty, d’Arcq tries speaking to Lamot gently, urging a confession from him. Lamot denies everything. He’s never seen the notes he’s being shown and knows nothing of the people who presented them.
Now d’Arcq piles on the pressure; “Listen to me. You have embarked on a perilous path, that of absolute denial…You have behind you circumstances which, without making it disappear, however mitigate your fault. You have been, I repeat, a good soldier and a good son. You can hope. Think. You have undergone training, you have listened to a crazy passion. You have forgotten your honesty. There was a moment of trouble in your soul. Descend into your consciousness, declare the truth; it’s advice I give you.”
“I deny,” replies Lamot in a weak voice. The prosecutor does not insist but he’s in hot pursuit and d’Arcq explains to Lamot what he knows. And he knows it all in detail and he spells it out it for the jury.
On the evening of May 31, Lamot – with his hat pulled low on his face so as to conceal it – entered the herbalist’s shop of Mrs. Folain at 104, rue Lafayette. He bought a box of insecticide powder and a set of bellows. He paid with a counterfeit 20 franc note. On the following Sunday evening on rue de Lévy, he tried to buy tobacco in the shop of a Ms. Guinard who spotted the fake and refused the sale. “It’s unfortunate,” said the client simply, “it was my boss who gave it to me,”
The counterfeit notes continued to circulate, appearing all over Paris. From upmarket Montmartre hill to the slaughterhouse district of La Villette.
Miss Elise Schaak was a seller of fake jewellery. On June 14, Lamot visited Schaak’s house and, selecting a lucky charm bracelet, he presented he with a 20 franc bill as payment. Schaak pretended that she had no money and sent her brother to a money changer with the bill. The brother returned with the police commissioner but was arrested. Lamot protested his innocence, maintaining that the bill was good and that he’d received it that morning in his pay from the hands of Mr. Blanchon, the cashier at his employer Watercolor-Fashion.
The commissioner visited Blanchon the cashier at 30, rue de Neuilly in Clichy to make inquiries. Blanchon confirmed Lamots’s story. He had 20 franc bills like the one shown to him in his box having just been in person to the Bank of France to get change for 100 francs. This shook the commissioner, especially since Mr. Blanchon also provided a glowing character reference for Lamot.
For the sake of form, the commissioner searched Lamot’s home and his studio. He found nothing suspicious and released him. The commissioner was sloppy in his work. He’d passed close to a padlocked desk in the studio which contained a bundle of counterfeit 20-franc banknotes, which Lamot hid beneath some floor tiles the next day.
Unluckily for Lamot, 3 days later a man named Metz was called by Lamots landlord to remove the tiles from the building. Metz carried the tiles to a rubbish dump at Bobigny where to his surprise he found amongst them a 10 centimeter thick wad of 20 franc notes. Metz washed the filthy notes, sorting them. The discolored ones he burned, the clean ones he took to the police commissioner, who sent them to the prosecutors office.
The notes were identical to the bill given to Elise Schaak. d’Arcq shows these same bills to the jury so they can see with their own eyes. They bear the exact same date: November 26th, 1872 and the exact same numbers: 525 and Z. 1256.
Now d’Arcq tries a different tactic to prise a confession from Lamot. He has the guards bring out Augustine-Reine Attagnant and with her standing there explains, “You do not have much discretion to observe towards her. Hardly had you been in prison for a week, that she took a new lover; a low-level industrialist. Do not get lost completely for her. You must realize it. These first charges are already heavy against you, the others will follow … You do not say anything? Yet, it seems that one can read it on your sad face. Tell the truth. A loyal confession would certainly reconcile indulgence.”
“I’ve confessed everything I have to admit,” Lamot said stubbornly.
“Come on, it’s unfortunate. Guards, bring back the girl Attagnant.” said d’Arcq. Augustine was taken back to her seat on the bench and d’Arcq resumed.
Following the fortuitous discovery of the bills in Bobigny, the Public Prosecutor’s office now instructed a magistrate who specialized in forgery cases to unravel it. This magistrate ordered a new search of Lamots home by another police commissioner. This one would prove more scrupulous than the last. On arriving at 6 Rue Marie-Antoinette, the new policeman surprised Augustine Attagnant drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes in the company of Désirée Courtecuisse, the widow of an actor named Bouffes-Parisiens who worked at the Theater des Batignolles. Augustine’s mother was there too, in a white apron, her sleeves rolled up busily washing dishes. Very civilly, the mother offered the Commissioner a cup of mocha which he declined, preferring instead to begin a thorough rummage of the house. He quickly discovered and seized a copy press, letters, bank notes, a box of small vials containing colors, especially blue, a lot of photographs, “as one finds in such places”, and a box of insecticide powder and a pair of bellows. A fine haul.
On June 19, Lamot – free after being arrested when the bills were found but exonerated by his employee – was caught attempting to spend a fake 20-franc bill in a tobacconist and arrested for the second time. At this stage in proceedings prosecutor d ‘Arcq tries for the third to get a confession from Lamot. He confronts Lamot in court with his mistress again, with all the witnesses who have appeared so far. Lamot says he understands what all the witnesses are saying but claims to have never seen them and continues to deny everything.
The prosecutor resumes once more and Lamot’s persistent bad luck continues to manifest. On July 21st, a woman whose job is extracting sand from sewers was working on Rochechouart Boulevard, just a few hundred meters from the Montmartre theatre. From out of the sand she lifted an engraved copper plate. This plate is now added to the exhibits. A civil engineer named Ermel is called to examine the counterfeit notes and the plate from the sewer. He confirms that under the magnifying glass, all the notes found at the rubbish dump at Bobigny reveal the same flaws as the Schaak note and that the copying press found during the second search of Lamots home was used to print all of them. Ermel also states that there are minute flecks or imperfections on the plate found in the sewer that were caused by the copy press used and that these appear on the fake bills too.
These conclusions of Elmer sealed it for the court who decided that there was more than enough evidence to send Lemot to trial at the Assize Court.
Whilst the illustrator woke up in jail on October 31st, the Public Prosecutor woke up to an unusual letter in his mail that morning.
The letter began; “I believe it is the duty of an honest man to inform justice to save an innocent person and to have a guilty person recognized. The mistress of Lemot has made to some of her friends confidences tending to make believe that Lemot would not be the counterfeiter, but the unconscious transmitter.” This “honest man” left the letter unsigned and went on to say that Augustine had made a “proposition” to a girl named Basel. Augustine, he said, “passed several fake notes to her seamstress”.
Naturally the public prosecutor was intrigued but sought more information and it soon came. First, Augustine’s seamstress Ms. Mathieu was found. She was Augustine’s arpète, a kind of domestic apprentice who does odd jobs. Mathieu revealed that the paper of a 20 franc note Augustine once paid her with “seemed a little strong”. A few days later the seamstress was attending to Augustine at the Montmartre theatre and she asked “for her toilet”. In the 1800s a womans “toilet” meant her clothing and preparing her appearance and Augustine needed help buying and getting into a particular dress. Augustine gave her two 20 franc notes and, claiming to be sick, she sent her mother to buy the dress. Mrs. Mathieu refused, saying that her daughter’s 20-franc notes were false. Augustine’s reaction was to give 20 francs to Madame Mathieu and take back her 2 notes. “Since they are false they will not work again” she said as she tore them up, stuffing them in her pocket.
Louise Basel was found living in dire straits with a trimmings merchant called Paul Vilain at 44, rue Ramée. She said that in May, Augustine, knowing it embarrassed her to be so short of money, came to her suggesting a way to get by. Augustine said she’d found a bundle of twenty-franc notes – furtively half opening her bag, she showed her 150 – and she thought they were false. She’d already passed several in the Montmartre district, and thought it best to try another district. If Basel wanted to take charge of the operation she could have half the profit. Basel said she’d have to think about it. She told everything to her lover who advised her to steer clear of her friend. Since then she been pestering Vilain until to make him swear to keep the thing secret.
Augustine-Reine Attagnant was swiftly arrested. She was found living with a salesman named Lazare Lehman in Montmartre.
Lamot and Augustine were tried together. Lamot remained loyal and besotted thoughout, refusing to implicate his promiscious mistress.
“Well, Lamot! if the Attagnant girl had fake tickets to put in circulation”, said Advocate General Eymard in his closing arguments, “it is apparently you that had made them.” He painted Lamot as a man lost to love, his crime one of passion. In the Parisian press this sentiment was echoed and amplified; “This little artist had found his Fornarina, and although he had not yet received the orders of kings, he lavished on her the jewels, the astrakhan, and the egrets, and to satisfy her sumptos, he exerted himself in lucrative counterfeit trade. But she watched the chisel of the future great man, and when sometimes this chisel hesitated, trembled, stopped, she leaned over the face of the worker, and under the kisses of the courtesan the workman continued to engrave the stone. Yet how are the most valiant and the most intelligent youths lost?”
The jurors returned from the House of Deliberations at 8.30pm with a verdict of guilty against the two accused.
Achille Lamot was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment.
The president of the court had wrath in reserve and he unleashed it on Augustine in his final remarks. Without passion as mitigation, he chose blatant avarice in its most pure and decadent form as her motivation. “She seems to take pleasure in humiliating and outraging him.” he said, “She seems to be angry with him personally. She is a creature of mud. She smokes cigarettes! She is a marble girl, an irregular, a femme fatale, the one for whom so many sons of families are damned and lost. Her like has been glorified on the stage and in some novels. She holds one by the hand and will not let go.” Finally he directed the court “…to make her pass not only as an accomplice, but as the true, the only culprit.”
Augustine-Reine Attagnant was sentenced to hard labour. For life.
Quivering with anger, Augustine now stood up and screamed, “And you! Who will judge you, who will give you what you deserve? Cowards!”
Lamot sat, pale faced and he held a handkerchief to his eyes.
The president of the court, the jury, the journalists and the public had percieved only the lamentable story of a poor but honest young man, an ex-soldier diverted from the “path of duty” by the bewitchments of a spiteful harlot. In their eyes, Lemot’s crime was simply to have loved too much. The passionate dynamic of the two lovers, each with their own conflicting brand of love, destined to devour one another, all this escaped everyone.
Everyone that is except for the French novelist and poet, Alphonse Daudet who wrote the 1884 novel Sappho ten years after the trial.
Daudet was a consummate rake who lost his virginity at twelve years old and slept with his friends’ mistresses throughout his marriage to the writer, poet and journalist Julia Allard. During the writing of Sappho, Daudet began suffering from the syphilitic paralysis which eventually killed him and was undergoing painful treatments and operations. The disease produced violent, uncontrolled spasms and flashes of pain, “I react like a berserk marionette”, said Daudet in the book La Doulou. He wrote Sappho intending it as a cautionary, moral tale for his sons to read and learn from when they reached age 20. Sappho is an artist’s model and muse named Fanny Legrand. More moving that the art she inspires, she inhabits a hedonistic Parisian demi-monde. Sappho’s helplessness and sexuality are responsible for the progressive moral and spiritual collapse of her lover, Jean Gaussin. The books main theme is the mauling that decadence inflicts on hope.
In one scene, Sappho’s lover Jean Gaussin is on the terrace of a café on the corner of rue Royale, listening to tales of Fannys’ past. In particular, her “terrible adventure”:
“What adventure?” asked Gaussin, his voice strangled; and he began to choke at his straw, listening to the drama of love which fascinated Paris a few years ago. The engraver was poor, mad over the woman; and for fear of being abandoned by her, he made counterfeit banknotes in order to maintain her in luxury. Discovered almost immediately and arrested with his mistress, he was sentenced to ten years’ penal servitude, she to six months of prevention at Saint-Lazare, the proof of his innocence having been made…”
Immortalised by Daudets’ Sappho, Lemot was released from his hard labour early, in 1881 and began to work under the name Uzès. The pseudonym is likely a tribute to Anne de Rochechouart de Mortemart, the Duchess of Uzès The aristocratic Dutchess had inherited a fortune from the founder of the Veuve Clicquot Champagne empire and devoted her time to feminist causes and charities. Perhaps the intervention of the powerful Duchess of Uzès earned Lemot his reprieve.
“His “appalling adventure” does not seem to have marked his features.” said the French Courier of July 7th, 1885, “He is a handsome man. He let his beard grow, which he wears coquettishly cut to the point. The look is a little sad.”
Lemot also sent a portrait of himself to the newspaper and a letter, addressed to a Monsieur Roques: “Because you saw me devour Bordeaux studs and crawfish on Sunday, do not conclude that my life is going on in continual orgies. I live in the countryside…I have a dog, a turtle, even turtles, and I raise chickens. We are far from the horrible debauches you accuse me of. I work from morning to evening; I do not do anything right, but I try. I have before my eyes a goal, to give back what I see and what I think. But it’s hard, I did not have as a starter the lessons of Fine Arts. Without Gill, my regretted master and friend, who guided me with his advice and example, with extreme kindness and indulgence, I would have paddled all my life without knowing where I was going. I do not mean that I have achieved much, but I see and feel; by working much more, I will come, I hope, to produce something of which I will be satisfied. Something that has not happened to me yet. What does happen, at great speed, are the years; I have already accumulated a certain amount of them…”, he continues in self depreciating fashion, “I collaborated on a lot of newspapers, starting with The World for Laughs, Eclipse, Parody, etc., but I would bore you by stirring up this pile of dead leaves. I have, therefore, produced lots of drawings, the best of which is not worth four sous. Today, I make illustrations for small books, it’s nice, it boils the pot-au-feu, but finally, it’s not the path of great art, or even of the average art.”
Between 1882 and 1886, as Uzès, he was working for the journal of Le Chat Noir – thought to be the first modern cabaret – for which he drew several wordless picture stories with sequential art, alongside the work of artists like Caran d’Ache, Steinlen, Gillette, Heidbrinck and Poitevin. Lemot was also one of the main illustrators for the magazine Le Pèlerin from 1884 until his death. He illustrated a great many covers, tales and comic pages. Lemot’s importance for the magazine is evident as, in a 1932 sketch by Gignoux, Le Pèlerin’s artist team of the time are introduced as “the successors of Lemot.”
Achille Lemot died at 63, in Asnières, 2, rue d’Angeville, on September 19, 1909, leaving a widow, 51 year old Berthe Alphonsine Michel, and a 23 year old son, Leon.
On the 24th of November 1872, whilst awaiting his trial at the Court of Assizes, Lemot produced something quite extraordinary. It is absolutely nothing like anything he, or any other artists were producing at the time. Perhaps this is the “something that he’s aiming at when he says, “I will come, I hope, to produce something of which I will be satisfied”. Perhaps with the trial looming and his prospects looking grim, he felt that this was a last chance artistically – there was nothing to lose. It’s an emormous head, squashed into the front cover frame traditionally reserved for the swollen headed cartoon mockery of emperors, composers, opera singers, politicians and the like. It’s a demonic countenance and an upside-down caption that reads actualité is above rather than below it. The noun Actualité means current, topical, relevant.
The demonic face, when seen upside down (presumably the “correct” way up) becomes a rather ordinary, kind face. Lemot has put a truly deep, personal and abstract peice within a journal known for its specifically pointed satire. This is. 1872, a long time before surrealism or dada. It’s an early abstract artistic statement, one left open to interpretation. It’s about dual personality within the individual, like the yet to be published Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886).
It’s eerily prescient of Lemot’s deception a year later. The counterfeiter and the illustrator.
Five days later, on the 29th Nov. 1872, Lemot delivers readers another kind of abstract “duality” curve ball for the front cover of La Scie. The caption reads (‘scuse my French): “This number folds into a leaf; stay vertically to the white lines, letting one fold one in and the next one out. Look at it horizontally to the right, then to the left. We will see two drawings of the deepest philosophy.”
L’âge où on les fait – The age at which they are made. L’âge où elles vous refont – The age when they make you.
For Lemot, there was a time when his illustration was easy and pleasurable. Now it has him in chains. This echoes perhaps Lemots’ frustration whilst working to support his mistress Augustine.