c. 1797 | Bicêtre

Letter Scam

In eighteenth-century France, a stranger asks a favor.

The impudence of the robbers, and the immorality of their keepers at the Bicêtre prison were carried to such an extent that they prepared openly in the prison tricks of swindling and theft, which were to be perpetrated on quitting the walls of the prison.

I will mention only one of these plans, which will suffice to evince the measure of credulity of the dupes and the audacity of the plotters.

These latter obtained the address of certain rich persons living in the province, which was easy from the number of prisoners who were constantly arriving. They then wrote letters to them, called, in the slang language, “letters of Jerusalem,” and that contained in substance what follows. It is useless to observe that the names of places and of persons change according to circumstances:


You will doubtlessly be astonished at receiving a letter from a person unknown to you, who is about to ask a favor from you; but from the sad condition in which I am placed, I am lost if some honorable person will not lend me succor. That is the reason of my addressing you, of whom I have heard so much that I cannot for a moment hesitate to confide all my affairs to your kindness. As valet de chambre to the Marquis de ——, I emigrated with my master, and that we might avoid suspicion we traveled on foot, and I carried the luggage, consisting of a casket containing sixteen hundred francs in gold, and the diamonds of the late marchioness. We were on the point of joining the army at ——, when we were marked out and pursued by a detachment of volunteers. The marquis, seeing how closely we were pressed, desired me to throw the casket into a deep ditch near us, so that it might not implicate us in case we were apprehended. I relied on recovering it the following night, but the country people, aroused by the tocsin which the commandant of the detachment ordered to be rung, began to beat the wood in which we were concealed with so much vigor that it was necessary to think only of escape. On reaching a foreign province, the marquis received some advances from the prince of ——; but these resources soon failing he resolved on sending me back for the casket thrown into the ditch. I was the more certain of finding it, as on the day after I had thrown it from me, we had made a written memorandum of the localities, in case we should be for any length of time without being able to return for it. I set out, and entering France, reached the village of —— without accident, near the spot where we had been pursued. You must know the village perfectly, as it is not three quarters of a league from your residence. I prepared to fulfill my mission, when the landlord of the auberge where I had lodged, a bitter Jacobin and collector of national property, remarking my embarrassment when he proposed to drink to the health of the republic, had me apprehended as a suspected person; and as I had no passport, and unfortunately resembled an individual pursued for stopping the diligences, I was taken from prison to prison to be confronted with my pretended accomplices, until on reaching Bicêtre I was obliged to go to the infirmary, where I have been for two months.

In this cruel situation, having heard mention of you by a relation of my master’s, who had property in your district, I beg to know if I cannot, through your aid, obtain the casket in question and get a portion of the money which it contains. I could then supply my immediate necessities and pay my counsel, who dictates this, and assures me that by some presents, I could extricate myself from this affair.

Receive, sir, &c.

(Signed)           N———

Out of one hundred such letters, twenty were always answered, and astonishment will cease when we consider that they were only addressed to men known by their attachment to the old order of things, and that nothing reasons less than the spirit of party. It testified besides, to the persons addressed, that unlimited confidence which never fails to produce its effect on self-love or interest; the person answered that he would agree to undertake to get the casket from its place of concealment. Another letter from the pretended valet de chambre stating, that being entirely stripped, he had agreed with the keeper of the infirmary for a very small sum to sell the trunk, in which was, in the false bottom, the plan already alluded to. Then the money arrived, and they received sums sometimes amounting to twelve or fifteen hundred francs. Some individuals, thinking to give a profound proof of sagacity, came even from the remotest parts of their province to Bicêtre, where they received the destined plan that was to conduct them to this mysterious forest, which, like the fantastic forests of the romances of chivalry, fled eternally before them. The Parisians themselves sometimes fell into the snare, and some persons may still remember the adventure of the cloth seller of the Rue des Prouvaires, who was caught undermining an arch of the Pont Neuf, where he expected to find the diamonds of the Duchess de Bouillon.

From The Memoirs of Vidocq: Principal Agent of the French Police until 1827. Vidocq details here a swindle that later became known as the Spanish Prisoner scheme, which resembles the modern Nigerian email scam. As a onetime criminal who went on to found the Brigade de Sûreté in Paris, Vidocq served as the basis for Honoré de Balzac’s character Jacques Collin (also known as Vautrin), who appears in various novels, among them Père Goriot and Lost Illusions. When Vidocq retired from the Paris police in 1827, he held a fortune of a half-million francs.