Imagine the Zapruder film found in a drawer decades after JFK’s assassination. A comparable thing happened in the 1660s, when an unusual parchment scroll was discovered at an old château in the south of France. The scroll was a long-lost police report on the 1407 assassination of Louis of Orleans. Louis, who had often ruled in place of his insane brother, Charles VI, had been hacked to death in a Paris street one night by a gang of thugs wielding swords and axes.

The scroll, compiled in the turbulent days after the crime, reads like a police procedural. It contains an autopsy, eyewitness testimony from ordinary Parisians, and a step-by-step account of the police inquiry into the crime — a catastrophic event that would plunge France into civil war and lead to a devastating English invasion under Henry V.

Several years ago I examined the scroll at an archive in Pau, the town where it was found in the 1660s. I was researching the 1407 murder and the courageous man of law who had unmasked the killers — the Provost of Paris, or chief of police, Guillaume de Tignonville. I had already studied a transcript of his report but wanted to see the original, the work of one of history’s first detectives. Guillaume had solved the case at great personal risk, and mainly with shoe leather, intelligence, and a courageous pursuit of the truth.

Guillaume’s report, contained in the priceless scroll, gives us a unique inside look at how he went about solving the crime. Some of his investigative methods are still in use today — for example, collecting eyewitness testimony near a crime scene and searching for physical evidence. Other practices common back then, like judicial torture, have fallen by the wayside. Or have they?

Louis’s murder took place on the night of November 23, 1407, in the Rue Vieille du Temple — a narrow street in the Marais, perfect for an ambush. About 8 PM, a shoemaker’s wife named Jacquette, who lived in a house overlooking the street, was waiting for her husband to come home. Holding her baby, she watched a great lord riding down the street with about six men carrying torches. Jacquette stepped away from the window for a moment to put her baby to bed:

Suddenly she heard a noise in the street and someone shouting, “Kill him! Kill him!”

Had her husband gotten into an altercation on his way home?

She rushed back to the window, still holding her baby, and stared down at the street. But her husband was nowhere in sight.

The great lord was now right below her window. No longer mounted, he was “kneeling in the street,” surrounded by “seven or eight men wearing masks and holding swords and axes.” Several of the men also held torches. One of the lord’s hands was missing, and blood gushed from his severed wrist. Another man, apparently one of the lord’s attendants, lay motionless on the pavement nearby.

Jacquette saw the lord glancing around in terror at his assailants. “What is this?” he cried out. “What are you doing?”

They answered with their weapons. As blades flashed in the torchlight, the lord desperately “threw his arms in the air to fend off their blows.”

Jacquette watched in horror as a sword struck one of his upraised arms, nearly taking off the lord’s remaining hand.

In an instant, they were all “chopping and stabbing” at him. They “hammered” him as he swayed on his knees in their midst, blood flying everywhere.

Despite the onslaught, it took the man a long time to die.

Finally, a great ax blow from above “split open his head down to the teeth,” and he fell forward onto the pavement. A piece of his brain, knocked loose from his shattered skull, landed in the mud nearby.

Even after the lord lay “stretched out” in the street, clearly dead, the assassins kept up the attack, chopping and stabbing “as hard as they could” at his lifeless body, “beating” his bloody corpse — Jacquette would later say –“like a mattress.”

“Murder!” she screamed. “Murder!”

One of the killers looked up and yelled at her: “Shut up, you
damned woman! Shut up!”

Despite harsh penalties, violent crime was endemic in medieval Paris, and night was “the time of crime.” By nightfall, most people had barred their doors, shuttered their windows, and gone to bed. There was no public street lighting, and anyone still outdoors at night needed a torch and was also advised to travel in company — or carry arms. Some tools of trade could double as handy weapons: a cook’s knife or a carpenter’s hammer. And most noblemen carried swords or daggers as badges of rank, although Louis’s lightly armed squires were no match for assailants wielding swords, axes, half-lances, and huge metal-tipped maces.

It was also not unusual for criminals to threaten victims, or witnesses like Jacquette to silence them. Even some law officers lived in fear of the felons they pursued. One member of the nightwatch, or guet, while making his rounds, reportedly “sent two or three fiddlers in advance of him, so that their noisy playing would alert wrongdoers to his approach” (A Parisian Journal, 1418). The guet would make their rounds after the local church rang the curfew bell — not a signal to clear the streets but to cover all fires to protect the highly flammable wooden houses lining most streets. Louis’s assassins, in fleeing the crime scene, pretended to be the local watch, shouting at residents along their route to put out lights, even striding fiercely into shops to cut down candles with their blades.

If Louis’s killers could be caught, they might be destined for the great stone gibbet at Montfaucon to the north of the city wall. The gibbet could accommodate up to eighty bodies at once, raising a stench that often carried half a mile into the city. During one five-day period in 1431, sixty-two thieves were hanged there. And public beheadings, burnings, drownings and other punishments were often meted out at the city’s central market, Les Halles, and other locations. If brutal crime was common in medieval Paris, brutal punishment was as well.

(Excerpts from “Blood Royal,” copyright Eric Jager, courtesy of Little, Brown and Company.)

Next time: The Provost examines the victim’s corpse at the crime scene.