Living La Belle Vie

Living La Belle Vie

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.

[Album of Paris Crime Scenes]

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.

[Album of Paris Crime Scenes]

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.

Valentine1

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.

Trenton Al

Trenton Al

He was known as “Trenton Al”, “French Al” and “Albert St. Claire.” His real name was Francis Alphonse Voullaire. His crimes were mostly of the white-collar variety — embezzlement, bribery, forgery, passing worthless checks — Al didn’t like to get his hands dirty. Held as prisoner #209 by the Jersey City Police, his measurements and mugshots were taken on October 5, 1901. Though he was five feet eight inches tall, his derby hat, worn high on his head, made him look taller.

The youngest son of a wealthy family, Al was born in 1863 in St. Louis, Missouri. His father, Seymour Voullaire, was a successful criminal attorney. However wealth does not necessarily buy happiness and his parents’ marriage was extraordinarily stormy. His mother, Ann Catherine — known as “Kitty” — was said to be very appealing to the opposite sex; at any rate she took a lot of lovers. After trying to kill one of Kitty’s lovers in a pistol duel — in which he was injured — Seymour had enough. Despite being Catholic, in 1867 he and Kitty divorced. While Al was still a child, another of his mother’s lovers murdered her second husband in an effort to secure the lady for himself. (The man was convicted of the crime and sentenced to death).

One would think that was enough drama for a lifetime, but no! In 1883 another lover of Kitty’s, Horace Shepard, suffering from depression and remorse over his relationship with Kitty, murdered her and then turned the gun on himself. It was quite a scandal — the two lovers were found in dead in bed in their fashionable New York City rooms. He left a note saying they would be “happier in death.”

Al married young and, unlike his parents, he stayed married. His wife, Annie, raised their six children while he cheated on her with a series of floozies, some of whom were involved in his illegal exploits.

Voullaire Sing Sing

Sing Sing Prison Admission Register for Alphonse Voullaire. New York State Archives.

He was well educated and had honest employment, often as a bookkeeper or clerk, but Al’s penchant for criminal activities inevitably got him into trouble. A forgery conviction in 1892 landed him in Sing Sing Prison for two years. Following his release from prison, he was arrested for writing bad checks. Then he compounded the problem by trying to bribe officials to get out of jail.

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Bertillon Card of Alphonse Voullaire (back). Collection of the author.

In 1902, claiming to be a major player in New York City criminal circles, Al persuaded a New York Herald newspaper reporter to help him to pull off some robberies and sell the proceeds to fences. The idea was that they would bribe NYPD detectives to look the other way, proving the detectives’ complicity in the crimes. The reporter would get a great story and Al would get some of the loot. The plan backfired when detectives (possibly tipped-off by the paper) arrested Al and his reporter colleague instead of taking bribes. The absence of listings for him in city directories between 1902 and 1908 may indicate Al served another stint in prison for the Herald debacle.

After 1908 Al went by his given name — Francis — and worked as a self-employed “traffic expert” in New Jersey, where he lived with his long-suffering wife and children. It’s hard to say what a traffic expert did back then and it’s impossible to know if “Trenton Al,” whose life certainly started out badly, left the bad life completely behind.

Featured image: Bertillon Card of Alphonse Voullaire (front). Collection of the author.

Nemo Takes his Poison

Nemo Takes his Poison

A few days before Christmas 1898 a young man wandered into the Greenville Police Station in Jersey City, New Jersey. Though he was sober and appeared to be in his right mind, he told the officers that he could not remember his name or anything about his past. For the time being he was kept at the jail and his description was placed in local newspapers, including those in New York City, in the expectation that someone would read about him and come forward to identify him. Until his name could be established he was dubbed “Mr. Nemo.”

The chief of the Jersey City police made efforts to assist the young fellow by dictating letters for him to write in hopes that he would recall his name when he got to the end and signed the letter. Mr. Nemo came up with a few names but, upon investigation, none of them turned out to be him.

Meanwhile, the roommate of a man named Harold Carpenter had gone missing. Quite a lot of Harold’s clothing was missing too, including several overcoats that he really couldn’t be without since the weather was getting chilly. Harold, the steward of a yacht owned by a wealthy lawyer, lived at Mills House No. 1, an inexpensive residential hotel for working men in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Mills House No. 1 opened in 1897 and was the brainchild of architect Ernest Flagg and philanthropist Darius Ogden Mills. The aim was to empower the residents and discourage them from getting involved in “undesirable” (i.e. criminal) activity.

nypl.digitalcollections.510d47e0-d7df-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.w

“Evening in one of the courts in the Mills House, no. 1.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1902.

Harold read the description of Mr. Nemo in the paper. It sounded quite a lot like his missing roommate, Harry Litchfield. In fact he sounded so much like Harry that Harold went to Jersey City to inquire about Mr. Nemo, who had been moved from the police station to the hospital.

When confronted with Harold, Mr. Nemo claimed he had never seen him before, but Harold recognized him — he was his missing roommate, Harry Litchfield. The police chief had accompanied Harold to the hospital and he used a new-fangled device called a telephone to speak to someone at Mills House and get a description of Harold’s roommate. Harry’s description matched Mr. Nemo ‘to a T!’

The jig was up. Harry fell to the floor, writhed around as if in an epileptic seizure. Once the writhing stopped he looked up and said “Why hello Harold! What are you doing here?” Harry’s memory had miraculously returned! Harold replied that he was there to get his clothing back.

The mystery of why Harry, after stealing his roommate’s clothing, had appeared at a New Jersey police station claiming to have lost his memory was never solved. It’s possible he wanted to try out his skills as a con man.

An investigation of Harry revealed that the clothing theft was not his first foray crime. He’d stolen a watch in Boston a month earlier, but his lawyer had taken an interest in him and managed to get him a suspended sentence. However that was not all Harry had done.

The previous year he had worked as the bookkeeper and temporary treasurer for a Boston auction company. One of his duties was to attend auctions and handle the cash paid in when the auction was over. In September 1897 one of the auctions Harry worked made $1000. He took put the money in a bag, took it to the office, place the bag in the vault and then told his employers he needed to go out for a breath of fresh air. However the money was not in the bag—it was hidden in his coat and he walked out with it.

1899_Hotel_Touraine_Boston_USA_postcard_NYPL

Hotel Touraine main dining room in Boston, Massachusetts. The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1899.

He proceeded to the luxurious Hotel Touraine, booked a room and began entertaining friends. He entertained many, many friends, including a number of stylishly dressed young ladies. One evening Harry and his friends ran up a bill of over $100 in the hotel’s dining room. Harry tried to pay with a check which the manager, who had become suspicious, refused to accept. The police were called and Harry was arrested, identified, and then tried and convicted of embezzlement. He served nine months in the Concord Reformatory in Massachusetts.

Harry was philosophical about life and crime. Regarding his embezzlement arrest, he commented: “A man’s an idiot to work for $12 for a week and be held responsible for thousands. The man who employs such a man is a bigger idiot. I took the stuff, took my chances, was caught red-handed, and here I am. I have had my fun, and I will take my dose of poison without a murmur.”

Featured photo: Harry A. Litchfield, carte de visite mugshot taken Sept. 27, 1897 in Boston, Massachusetts. Collection of the author.