Hidden in a corner of the crazy butte of Montmartre there’s a little house with a countryside, wine, laughs, music, and extreme poverty feeling.
It’s there, always the same for 150 years.
The little house of the Lapin Agile it’s a kind of grandmother for Montmartre, and with that I’m not trying to conjure up the image of a white-haired old woman, cozily sitting on her rocking chair while knitting socks for his grandchildren… I’d say more like a robust and always drunk grandmother with a big and kind heart, the kind that embarrasses everyone at family gatherings and that only children can appreciate, and now we’ll see why.
For starters, this place had a lot of strange names: before it had the remarkable title of Au Rendez-vous des Voleurs (The Rendez-Vous of the thieves), it was then promoted to the Cabaret des Assassins (The Killers’ Cabaret) thanks not only to the dubious reputation of its patrons but also because of this tacky painting on the wall:
Intrigued by this charming scene under the moonlight, I decided to study the crime news it refers to.
In Paris, it became known as the «Pantin massacre».
The main character’s name was Jean-Baptiste Troppmann, guillotined at the early age of 21 years for the heinous, reiterated, obscene murder of up to 8 members of the Kinck family.
To be precise, I’ll add that it wasn’t a homicidal raptus, but an absurd serial massacre that upset the sumptuous France of the Second Empire (1852-1870)
I started my research imagining that the young man had had, at least, a difficult childhood. On the contrary, I discovered he was “the apple of his mother’s eye”, and he had been initiated to a good and strong career in his father’s workshop.
Ah, the “banality of evil“! Jean’s criminal act stemmed from nothing particularly extraordinary, rather from something so lackluster it was almost depressing.
Jean-Baptiste Troppmann wanted success, luxury, celebrity – maybe even in America – and wanted everything now, but he didn’t have the money to fund some of his business projects.
A cynical destiny had him become an intimate friend of the Kincks, a well-off and incredibly numerous bourgeois family that, at the time, lived in the North of France and trusted Jean as he was the young business partner of Monsieur Kinck.
And so, the lightbulb of depravity was turned on.
I tried to summarize Jean’s thinking line here:
Then the time came to put a… rather confused plan in motion, as we’ll see.
Boasting about a big deal to invest in, Jean convinced the father of the Kinck’s family – who, for a cynical destiny, had his same name – to follow him in Alsace.
Far from prying eyes, Troppmann killed Kinck slipping him some poisoned wine. He hoped to find a great sum of money on him, but he only discovered two checks he couldn’t cash.
Jean didn’t panic, and changed his plan – it’s true, he had killed for the first time, but he was clearly decided to postpone any kind of pondering about how much that had shocked him.
Troppmann decided to send the checks found on Jean Kinck’s body to his wife, Hortense, with a handwritten note on behalf of her husband who had accidentally “hurt his hand” and couldn’t sign himself.
In this letter, monsieur Kinck – so to speak – asked his wife to cash the checks and send the money to the Guebwiller mail post, where he planned to stop for some days with his friend Jean.
The poor woman fell for it – she had no reason to suspect anything – and obliged.
The money arrived at the mail post, but the criminal mastermind hadn’t factored in the fact that he was too young to withdraw the money pretending to be Kinck and too old to pretend to be his elder son Gustave, who was just a sixteen-years-old.
No problem, crime never sleeps nor give up: Jean found refuge in Paris and went on to plan C: writing a new false letter, this time for the young man.
The boy obeyed, but the mail post didn’t give him the money because he had forgotten his ID. Gustave decided to join his father at the Parisian hotel where he had told him to meet, nonetheless, but when he got there, he found only old dear friend Troppmann to greet him. What about dad? Strange…
Troppmann, not seeing any cash, probably thought «that’s what you get for trusting a teenager!», but yet again he didn’t give up, and asked Gustave to write a telegram to his mommy…
Once the telegram had been sent, Gustave was useless and dangerous.
After stabbing him to death, Troppmann buried his remains in the Pantin field, in the north-east of Paris, that will later become sadly renowned.
Mme Hortense Kinck, even if she was six-months pregnant, immediately answered to the call, bringing her five children with her.
The sixth was too young and he was left with his wet nurse: he was the only member of the Kinck family who survived September 1869.
To put together what happened the fateful night between September 19th and 20th isn’t easy, but let’s try.
The owner of the Hôtel du Chemin de Fer du Nord – which is now the Paris Terminus Nord right in front the Northern station –affirms that on the evening of September 19th, Mme Kinck showed up ad the reception of his hotel with her five children.
The woman asked for her husband, Jean Kinck (who, I remind you, was dead cold in Alsace).
A man with that name had actually reserved a room, but he wasn’t in the hotel at the moment.
Madame then asked two rooms for herself and the children, and went out a bit later for an appointment, probably with the young Troppmann himself.
The night had fallen when a carriage with the roman, her five children and a young man in his twenties (who could he ever be?), left the Northern station to head towards Pantin, in the north-east of Paris.
The coachman told how the woman, her eldest son – thirteen years old, more or less – and the man with them, got out from the carriage first, disappearing near a field.
The poor man had been given the order to wait, and so he did and, after a bit, he saw the young man come back to take the other four kids who, tired for the trip, were asleep in the carriage.
For the owner of the Pantin field, the next morning wouldn’t have been merry to remember.
He noticed some loose earth and something coming out of it. The unaware man got closer and he found the corpse of a child. Shocked, he ran to look for help. The nightmare had just begun: they found seven corpses: one of a pregnant woman and five children, the youngest was only four..
The victims were rapidly identified, and the suspicions fell immediately on the missing members of the family: monsieur Kinck and the older son Gustave. The search for them lasted for days, and it was tireless but useless. Unsurprisingly so…
The article of Le Petit Journal of September 23rd, 1869 displays the deposition of the Hôtel du Chemin de Fer du Nord, according to whom the infamous “Monsieur Kinck” – who we know to be Troppmann – came briefly back to the hotel the morning after the massacre.
He was with a “man”, he doesn’t say “young man”. After changing his clothes, Kinck had gone out, never to come back.
It was Troppmann himself to crack the case wide open.
At the docks of Le Havre, some monsieur Wolf, who looked rather nervous and was waiting to get on a ship to New York, couldn’t produce his passport.
He was ordered to follow an officer for a check and so Troppmann – if you hadn’t recognized him – promptly dove in the canal.
I don’t really know what he was hoping to accomplish, what’s for sure is that he was promptly fished out and arrested.
They found on him the correspondence and some titles with the name of Kinck. It wasn’t a case worthy of Perry Mason, indeed….
In the beginning, Troppmann affirmed to have been dragged against his will in the terrible vengeance plan of Jean Kinck and his son Gustave. They were hungry for revenge because of the infidelity of Mme Kinck, and they had planned and committed the entire family’s massacre, forcing him to help them hide the bodies in Pantin’s field. It was hard to believe such an abstruse story.
Finally, after long hesitation, Troppmann confessed to the murders of Jean and Gustave Kinck too.
In the meantime, to make this event even more grotesque, the Pantin field had become the Parisians’ favorite entertainment venue, the most fashionable promenade.
Phony eyewitnesses hungry for morbid tales, sellers of alleged relics once owned by the victims or of spades to dig for corpses, tourists, refreshment points, pickpockets… nothing was missing at the fair of horrors and bad taste.
For Troppmann, the conclusion was inevitable: his execution in rue de la Roquette gathered an incredible crowd.
Even that day, Troppmann showed his incredible strength and fighting spirit: he broke the straps, they had to hold him down and he almost bit away the executioner’s index finger.
The doubt remains – and it’s more than reasonable – about how a man alone could commit the Pantin massacre: during the questionings, Troppmann had referred to some accomplices but he had always refused to say more. Moreover, many depositions describe him with one or more mysterious people. It’s perfectly plausible that Troppmann had hired some accomplices to reach his goal, but then why not tell their names to try and make some deal with justice?
Someone speculated he was involved with powerful counterfeiter gangs.
Espionage had been a theory, too: it was the dawn of the French-Prussian War, and the Kincks lived on the border with the future enemy. The idea was that Kinck was handling much more than just the “bourgeois” business. Could Troppmann have worked with Prussian spies to protect the plans for the invasion of France? Could that explain that «bring all the papers» Troppmann had Gustave write into the telegram before killing him?
No theory is sound enough.
What’s sure is that on the wackiest butte of them all, known by everyone as Montmartre and that I renamed “Mount-Mad”, there had to be a story about homicidal madness.
Luckily, the Lapin Agile tells many other stories that have nothing evil, at all.
(To know more crazy stories about the Lapin Agile read: “The Characters of the Lapin Agile: an alert sectioned patient and an unaware millionaire“)