At Paris on Wednesday M. Bordeaux, the examining magistrate, committed the defaulting bank clerk Gallay, the woman Merelli, and the man Lerendu for trial before the Assize Court. Gallay will be indicted for forgery and embezzlement and the woman Merelli for complicity in the two forgeries alleged to have been committed by Gallay, which enabled him to embezzle the sum of 350,000 francs. Merelli is also accused of receiving stolen property. The man Lerendu will be indicted for having received 15,000 francs, remitted by Gallay on the promise that he would assist in committing the forgeries.
— The Guardian (London, England), December 1, 1905
With her high starched collar and prim lace shawl over a plain gingham dress she looks every bit like a sweet country girl. Her apparent lack of makeup and nascent unibrow complete the wholesome picture.
He looks like a dapper professor or businessman, with his pince-nez, dark suit coat and staid plaid vest. Only his handlebar mustache hints at a wilder side to his personality.
Don’t believe your eyes because Jean Gallay, the man in the photo, was a brazen thief who stole an enormous sum of money from the bank where he worked. The woman, Valentine Merelli, was his mistress who aided him in concealing the thefts and fled with him to Brazil. Both were married to other people when they met and fell in love (at least he fell for her). The pair sailed off into the sunset aboard a luxurious yacht, guzzling champagne all the way.
Jean was a well-educated man who spoke German and English in addition to his native French. He’d worked for the Paris police prior to taking a job as a bank clerk at the Comptoir d’escompte de Paris, where he realized the record keeping system at the bank had some loopholes ripe for exploitation.
In 1904 he began to transfer small sums of money belonging to the bank’s clients to the bank’s branch offices. Next he withdrew the money using documents he’d forged. When he wasn’t caught he increased the amounts he stole.
He moved his family to the country and adopted a false persona — he became the Baron de Gravald, a wealthy, unmarried man about town. Wearing an old straw hat and tired coat to his clerk’s job during the day, he transformed himself in the evenings with a fashionable dinner coat, tailored shirt and diamond-studded platinum cuff links. A silk top hat and monocle completed the Baron’s aristocratic look.
On one evening out on the town the Baron met Valentine Merelli and fell head over heels for her.
Valentine Darbour was a convent-educated girl from the countryside. She got married young to a printer named Sohet but soon tired of her monotonous, middle-class life, so she left her husband, took some of her dowry cash and moved to Paris. She adopted the stage name “Valentine Merelli” and tried to develop a stage career but she had no talent for acting or singing. Soon her money ran out and she was forced to search for a man to support her — ideally a rich one.
Jean seemed to be the answer to Valentine’s prayers. He set her up in an apartment in the Rue Gustave Flaubert. To finance their stays in expensive hotels, meals in the best restaurants and trips to the opera he embezzled ever-larger sums of money from the bank. He knew that the thefts would be discovered eventually, so he asked a fellow employee, Lerendu, to help him cover up the losses in the books.
As the summer of 1905 unfolded, Jean knew that the day of reckoning, when the bank uncovered his fraud, was drawing near. He and his ladylove needed to get out of Paris and run as far away from Europe as it was possible to go. Knowing they would likely be caught if they went by rail they hatched a plan to travel by boat to Brazil.
With the $200,000 (over $5,500,000 in today’s dollars) that remained of the stolen loot, they traveled to Le Havre, a port city in northwestern France. There Jean chartered a British steam yacht, Catarina, for three months and hired a crew of 20 men, along with a physician and a maid, Marie Audot, for Valentine.
The couple outfitted themselves for the voyage with 28 hats, 37 evening dresses, 40 suits, 50 pairs of knickers, 40 pairs of shoes, 22 corsets and many boxes of champagne and liquors. It took 86 bags and trunks to hold it all. Valentine directed the loading of the booty onto the yacht. For three days before Catarina set sail the crew was not allowed to go on shore and an aura of mystery surrounded the plans for the voyage.
On August 3rd the couple’s luxuriously appointed dreamboat left for the coastal city of Bahia in Brazil.
Meanwhile back in Paris the bank finally looked over its books, discovered the missing funds and tied the theft to their absent employee. They notified the police and provided them with a photograph of the unassuming clerk.
The detective in charge of the case figured the couple would try to escape by boat. He tracked Jean and his mistress to Le Havre, where he showed Jean’s photo to the yacht rental companies in town. He soon discovered which yacht Jean hired, but the boat had already left port. He got the yacht’s itinerary and alerted the Bahia police to keep a watch for her at the port. To guarantee that there was no confusion he provided the police in Brazil with a photo of Jean.
When Catarina made port in Bahia, the police went aboard and arrested Jean, Valentine and Marie. They were extradited, under guard, back to France. The boat’s crew was reportedly quite unhappy because, with champagne flowing every evening and the baron handing out cigars to all and sundry, they’d never enjoyed a trip more.
Jean was convicted and served part of his seven-year sentence at Devil’s Island, an infamous French penal colony in Guiana that was, ironically, located just north of Brazil. “They are taking me away from France but the hope of returning again will sustain me,” he commented before he left. He got his wish when he was transferred to Melun Prison in France. He was released in 1912 after serving five years.
Since Jean had started embezzling money before he met Valentine, the jury gave her the benefit of the doubt and decided that she was unaware of how he’d obtained his wealth. They acquitted her of the charges but her husband divorced her.
After her trial ended she had a brief fling with the kind of fame she’d previously longed for when she was photographed for a series of postcards. When people realized that she was no great beauty and that she still couldn’t sing, her star plummeted and she faded from the limelight.
The maid, Marie, wasn’t charged with any crime. She sold her story to the press.
Jean and Valentine’s mugshots, along with those of the maid and Jean’s co-worker, Lerendu, were collected by the father of the modern mugshot, Alphonse Bertillon, in an album of Paris Crime Scenes compiled during the early 20th century. The album, which includes some gruesome photos of Parisian murder victims, was donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in 2001. “Made as part of an archive rather than as art, these postmortem portraits, recorded in the deadpan style of a police report, nonetheless retain an unsettling potency,” notes the Met’s catalog.
Featured photo: “La Merelli,” mugshot taken October 9, 1905. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.