The Life of LEWIS HOUSSART
the French Barber, a Murderer
As there is not any crime more shocking to human nature or more contrary to all laws human and divine than murder, so perhaps there has been few committed in these last years accompanied with more odd circumstances than that for which this criminal suffered.
Lewis Houssart was born at Sedan, a town in Champaigne in the kingdom of France. His own paper says that he was bred a surgeon and qualified for that business. However that were, he was here no better than a penny barber, only that he let blood, and thereby got a little and not much money. As to the other circumstances of his life, my memoirs are not full enough to assist me in speaking thereto. All I can say of him is that while his wife, Anne Rondeau, was living, he married another woman, and the night of the marriage before sitting down to supper, he went out a little space. During the interval between that and his coming in, it was judged from the circumstances that I shall mention hereafter, that he cut the throat of the poor woman who was his first wife, with a razor. For this being apprehended he was tried at the Old Bailey, but for want of proof sufficient was acquitted.
Not long after he was indicted for bigamy, i.e., for marrying his second wife, his first having been yet alive. Scarce making any defence upon this indictment he was found guilty. He said thereupon, it was no more than he expected, and that he did not trouble himself to preserve so much as his reputation in this respect; for in the first place he knew they were resolved to convict him, and in the next, he said, where there was no fault, there was no shame; that his first wife was a Socinian, an irrational creature, and was entitled to the advantages of no nation nor people because she was no Christian, and accordingly the Scripture says, with such a one have no conversation, no, not so much as to eat with them. But an appeal was lodged against him by Solomon Rondeau, brother and heir to Anne his wife, yet that appearing to be defective, it was quashed, and he charged upon another, whereunto joining issue upon six points they came to be tried at the Old Bailey, where the following circumstances appeared upon the trial.
First, that at the time he was at supper at his new wife's house, he started on a sudden, looked aghast and seemed to be very much frightened. A little boy deposed that the prisoner gave him money to go to his own house in a little court, and fetch the mother of the deceased Anne Rondeau to a gentleman who would be at such a place and wait for her. When the mother returned from that place and found nobody wanting her, or that had wanted her, she was very much out of humour at the boy's calling her; but that quickly gave way to the surprise of finding her daughter murdered as soon as she entered the room. This boy who called her was very young, yet out of the number of persons who were in Newgate he singled out Lewis Houssart, and declared that he was the only man among them who gave him money to go on the errant for old Mistress Rondeau.
Upon this and several other corroborating proofs, the jury found him guilty, upon which he arraigned the justice of a Court which hitherto had been preserved without a taint, declaring that he was innocent, and that they might punish if they would, but they could not make him guilty, and much more to the like effect; but the Court were not troubled with that, so he scarce endeavoured to make any other defence.
While in the condemned hold amongst the rest of the criminals, he behaved himself in a very odd manner, insisted upon it that he was innocent of the fact laid to his charge, threw out most opprobious language against the Court that condemned him, and when he was advised to lay aside such heats of passionate expressions, he said he was sorry he did not more fully expose British justice upon the spot at the Old Bailey, and that now since they had tied up his hands from acting, he would at least have satisfaction in saying what he pleased.
When this Houssart was first apprehended he appeared to be very much affected with his condition, was continually reading good books, praying and meditating, and showing the utmost signs of a heart full of concern, and under the greatest emotions, but after he had once been convicted, it made a thorough change in his temper. He quite laid aside all the former gravity of his temper and gave way, in the contrary, to a very extraordinary spirit of obstinacy and unbelief. He puzzled himself continually, and if Mr. Deval, who was then under sentence, would have given leave, attempted to puzzle him too, as to the doctrines of a future state, and an identical resurrection of the body. He said he could not be persuaded of the truth thereof in a literal sense; that when the individual frame of flesh which he bore about him was once dead, and from being flesh became again clay, he did not either conceive or believe that it, after lying in the earth, or disposed of otherwise perhaps for the space of a thousand years, should at the last day be reanimated by the soul which possessed it now, and become answerable even to eternal punishment for crimes committed so long ago. It was, he said, also little agreeable to the notions he entertained of the infinite mercy of God, and therefore he chose rather to look upon such doctrines as errors received from education, than torment and afflict himself with the terrors which must arise from such a belief. But after he had once answered as well as he could these objections, Mr. Deval refused to harken a second time to any such discourses and was obliged to have recourse to harsh language to oblige him to desist.
In the meanwhile his brother came over from Holland, on the news of this dreadful misfortune, and went to make him a visit in the place of his confinement while under condemnation, going to condole with him on the heavy weight of his misfortunes. Upon which, instead of receiving the kindness of his brother in the manner it deserved, Houssart began to make light of the affair, and treated the death of his wife and his own confinement in such a manner that his brother leaving him abruptly, went back to Holland more shocked at the brutality of his behaviour than grieved for the misfortune which had befallen him.
It being a considerable space of time that Houssart lay in confinement in Newgate and even in the condemned hold, he had there, of course, abundance of companions. But of them all he affected none so much as John Shepherd, with whom he had abundance of merry and even loose discourse. Once particularly, when the sparks flew very quickly out of the charcoal fire, he said to Shepherd, "See, see! I wish these were so many bullets that might beat the prison down about our ears, and then I might die like Sampson."
It was near a month before he was called up to receive sentence, after which he made no scruple of saying that since they had found him guilty of throat-cutting, they should not lie, he would verify their judgment by cutting his own throat. Upon which, when some who were in the same sad state with himself, pointed out to him how great a crime self-murder was, he immediately made answer that he was satisfied it was no crime at all; and upon this he fell to arguing in favour of the mortality of the soul, as if certain that it died with the body, endeavouring to cover his opinions with false glosses on that text in Genesis where it is said, that God breathed into man a living soul. From hence he would have inferred that when a man ceased to live, he totally lost that soul, and when it was asked of him where then it went, he said, he did not know, nor did it concern him much.
The standers-by, who notwithstanding their profligate course of life had a natural abhorrence of this theoretical impiety, reproved him in very sharp terms for making use of such expression, upon which he replied, "Ay! would you have me believe all the strange notions that are taught by the parsons? That the devil is a real thing? That our good God punishes souls for ever and ever? That Hell is full of flames from material fire, and that this body of mine shall feel it? Well, you may believe it if you please, but it is so with me that I cannot."
Sometimes, however, he would lay aside these sceptical opinions for a time, talk in another strain, and appear mightily concerned at the misfortunes he had drawn upon his second wife and child. He would then speak of Providence, and the decrees of God with much seeming submission, would own that he had been guilty of many and grievous offences, say that the punishment of God was just, and desire the prayers of the minister of the place, and those that were about him.
When he reflected on the grief it would give his father, near ninety years old, to hear of his misfortunes and that his son should be shamefully executed for the murder of his wife, he was seen to shed tears and to appear very much affected; but as soon as these thoughts were a little out of his head, he resumed his former temper and was continually asking questions in relation to the truth of the Gospel dispensation, and the doctrines therein taught of rewards and punishments after this life.
Being a Frenchman and not perfectly versed in our language, a minister of the Reformed Church of that nation was prevailed upon to attend him. Houssart received him with tolerable civility, seemed pleased that he should pray by him, but industriously waved aside all discourses of his guilt, and even fell out into violent passions if confession was pressed upon him as a duty. In this strange way he consumed the time allowed him to prepare for another world.
The day before his execution he appeared more than ordinarily attentive at the public devotions in the chapel. A sermon was then made with particular regard to that fact for which he was to die; he heard that also seemingly with much care, but when he was asked immediately after to unburden his conscience in respect of the death of his wife, he not only refused it, but also expressed a great indignation that he should be tormented as he called it, to confess a thing of which he was not guilty.
In the evening of that day the foreign minister and he whose duty it was to attend him, both waited upon him at night in order to discourse with him on those strange notions he had of the mortality of the soul, and a total cessation of being after this life. But when they came to speak to him to this purpose, he said they might spare themselves any arguments upon that head, for he believed a God and a resurrection as firmly as they did. They then discoursed to him of the nature of a sufficient repentance, and of the duty incumbent upon him to confess that great crime for which he was condemned, and thereby give glory unto God. He fell at this into his old temper, and said with some passion, "If you will pray with me, I'll thank you, and pray with you as long as you please; but if you come only to torture me with my guilt, I desire you would let me alone altogether."
His lawyers having pretty well instructed him in the nature of an appeal, and he coming thereby to know that he was now under sentence of death, at the suit of the subject and not of the King, he was very assiduous to learn where it was he was to apply for a reprieve; but finding it was the relations of his deceased wife from whom he was to expect it, he laid aside all those hopes, as conceiving it rightly a thing impossible to prevail upon people to spare his life, who had almost undone themselves in prosecuting him.
In the morning of the day of execution he was very much disturbed at being refused the Sacrament, which as the minister told him, could not be given him by the canon without his confession. Yet this did not prevail; he said he would die without receiving it, as he had before answered a French minister, who said, "Lewis Houssart, since you are condemned on full evidence, and I see no reason but to believe you guilty, I must, as a just pastor, inform you that if you persist in this denial, and die without confession, you can look for nothing but to be d----;" to which Houssart replied, "You must look for damnation to yourself for judging me guilty, when you know nothing of the matter."
This confused frame of mind he continued in until he entered the cart for his execution, persisting in a like declaration of innocence all the way he went, though sometimes intermixed with short prayers to God to forgive his manifold sins and offences.
At the place of execution he turned very pale and grew very sick. The ministers told him they would not pray by him unless he would confess the murder for which he died. He said he was very sorry for that, but if they would not pray by him he could not help it, he would not confess what he was totally ignorant of. Even at the moment of being tied up he persisted and when such exhortations were again repeated, he said: "Pray do not torment me, pray cease troubling me. I tell you I will not make myself worse than I am." And so saying, he gave up the ghost without any private prayer when left alone or calling upon God or Christ to receive his spirit. He delivered to the minister of Newgate, however, a paper, the copy which follows, from whence my readers will receive a more exact idea of the man from this, his draught of himself, than from any picture I can draw.
The Paper delivered by Lewis Houssart at his death.
I, Lewis Houssart, am forty years old, and was born in Sedan, a town in Champaigne, near Boullonois. I have left France above fourteen years. I was apprentice to a surgeon at Amsterdam, and after examination was allowed by the college to be qualified for that business, so that I intended to go on board a ship as surgeon, but I could never have my health at sea. I dwelt sometime at Maestricht, in the Dutch Brabant, where my aged father and brother now dwell. I travelled through Holland and was in almost every town. My two sisters are in France and also many of my relations, for the earth has scarce any family more numerous than ours. Seven or eight years have I been in London, and here I met with Anne Rondeau, who was born at the same village with me, and therefore I loved her. After I had left her, she wrote to me, and said she would reveal a secret. I promised her to be secret, and she told me she had not been chaste, and the consequence of it was upon her, upon which I gave her my best help and assistance. Since she is dead I hope her soul is happy.
Source: Hayward, Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals