Les Miserables de Guernesey: Criminals

22nd May 2017

Throughout his life Hugo took an interest in crime and punishment, not least in Guernsey when he was writing Les Misérables. This is part of The Victor Hugo and Guernsey project.

On 2 March 1861 he noted in his Agenda:

Deux faits du moyen-âge cette semaine à Guernesey – un home fouetté. Torode (50 coups de fouets payés 25 fr. à celui qui a servi de bourreau)

un homme poursuivi à coups de pierres dans les rues pour avoir nié la divinité de la Bible.

[Two medieval events this week in Guernsey – a man whipped. Torode (50 lashes of the whip, the executioner of the punishment paid 25 fr), a man pursued and stoned through the streets for having denied the divinity of the Bible.]

Thomas Torode was a cause célèbre of the period. When Torode visited town he ended up drunk and committing petty theft. He was then imprisoned and whipped. The punishment had little effect for Torode appreciated the bed and food at the prison. Henri Marquand, the editor of La Gazette de Guernesey and a close friend of Hugo, viewed the prison as a school of vice and theft. What was needed was an establishment to reform these wretches (‘reformer ces misérables’). There was no point in the whip and brutality. Rather, prisoners should be put to work and thereby earn their food; they should be taught some trade; they should be provided with good advice and good examples; there should be thought more about reforming than punishing. Marquand visited Torode in prison and tried to talk to him about a plan to rehabilitate him but Torode would have none of it (Gazette, 21, 23 July 1859; 10, 17 March 1860; 2 March 1861).

Hugo took an interest in some court cases. We note four in particular:

[a] The case of Mary Ann Dawson for witchcraft in March 1857. This is of interest because Victor Hugo directly refers to it in Toilers of the Sea.

[b] The libel action against Bichard, the owner of the la Gazette de Guernesey, who was alleged to have libelled Du Jardin of Jersey. An article had appeared in the Gazette attacking Du Jardin. He had signed certificates for meat exported to Guernsey. The meat was declared unwholesome in Guernsey. Marquand, editor of the Gazette attacked Du Jardin and that led to the legal action. The court found against Bichard/Marquand. A fund was opened to raise money to cover the fine. On 2 April 1859 Hugo visited Barbet’s shop in the High Street (St Peter Port) to subscribe to the fund. He appended the following to his contribution:

un habitant de Guernesey reconnaissant des services que M. Marquand rend à ce pays (an inhabitant of Guernsey grateful for the services that M. Marquand renders to this country).

Hugo handed over 40 fr 40 in total, on behalf of himself and his family. (Massin x/1475). Marquand was a close friend of Hugo.

[c] On 7 December 1859 Hugo visited the trial of Musy for attempting to extort money from Mr Gosselin (Massin x/1501).

[d] In December 1860 Laval was prosecuted for attempted arson. Laval had tried to burn down the Hotel de l’Europe. It was there that Hugo had lodged for a few days when he arrived in Guernsey in 1855. Hugo knew of the governor of the gaol, Jean Goubey. He refers to him obliquely in L’Archipel de la Manche (Chapter VIII). On Christmas day Goubey was wont to give the prisoners—at his own expense—a meal of roast beef, vegetables, plum pudding, and beer (Gazette, 29 December 1860), a measure calculated to treat them as brothers and inspire them to redeem themselves. On 16 July 1862 Marquand wrote of Goubey

We like to chat with the governor, that excellent M. Goubey, such an intelligent man, strong and at the same time full of good will, who knows so well how to combine the demands of his charge to the duties that humanity claims. He is the first to tell us that the system followed in the gaol is deplorable; that by means of an outlay of a few hundred pounds a workhouse could be established’ (Translated).

Goubey’s scheme was designed to make the prisoners concentrate on work, to prevent them engaging in obscene conversation or subversive talk; the work would generate income for the authorities and help pay for the upkeep of the prisoners; some of the money could be held in reserve and handed over to the prisoners on their release, giving them something to live on until they found work. One cannot help but remember Jean Valjean.

Later Hugo became friendly with the chaplain of the prison, the Reverend William Collings Brehaut.