Secret Societies of All Ages - Charles Heckethorn

II. The Chauffeurs, or Burners

301. Origin and Organisation of Society.—The Chauffeurs or Burners formed a secret society formerly existing in France, and only extinguished at the end of the last century. Its members subsisted by rapine and murder. According to the slender notices we have of this society, it arose at the time of the religious wars which devastated France during the days of Henry III. and IV. and Catherine of Medici; and as the writers who searched into its history were Roman Catholics, they charitably assumed the original Chauffeurs to have been the defeated Huguenots, who took to this brigand life to avenge themselves on their conquerors. But the fact that the religious ceremonies of the society included the celebration of a kind of mass, strongly militates against this assumption of their origin. It is more probable that, like similar fraternities formed in lawless times, it consisted of men dissatisfied with their lot, ordinary criminals, and victims of want or injustice.

The Chauffeurs constituted a compact body, governed by a single head. They had their own religion, and a code of civil and criminal laws, which, though only handed down orally, was none the less observed and respected. It received into its fraternity all who chose to claim admission, but preferred to enroll such as had already distinguished themselves by criminal deeds. The members were divided into three degrees; the spies, though affiliated, did not properly form part of the society. The initiated were again subdivided into decuriae, each with its guapo or head.

Though, as we have said, any one could be initiated, yet the society, like that of the Jesuits, preferred educating and bringing up its members. Whole families belonged to the fraternity, and the children were early taught how to act as spies, commit small thefts and similar crimes, which were rewarded more or less liberally, as they were executed with more or less daring or adroitness. Want of success brought proportionate punishment with it, very severe corporeal castigation, which was administered not merely as punishment, but also to teach the young members to bear bodily pain with fortitude. One would almost be inclined to think that those bandits had studied the code of Lycurgus! At the age of fourteen or fifteen the boy was initiated into the first degree of the society. At a kind of religious consecration he took an oath, calling down on his own head the lightning and wrath of heaven if ever he failed in his duty towards the Order. He received the sword he was to use in self-defence and in fighting for his brethren.

The master had almost unbounded authority; he kept the common purse, and distributed the booty according to his own discretion. He also awarded rewards or promotion, and inflicted punishment. Theft from the profane, as outsiders were called, was the fundamental law, and, indeed, the support of the society, but theft from a brother was punished, the first time, by a fine three times the amount stolen. When repeated, the fine was heavier, and sometimes the thief was put to death. Each brother was bound to come to the assistance of another when in danger; the honour of the wives of members was to be strictly respected, and concubinage and prostitution were prohibited and severely punished. Their mode of administering justice was rational, i.e., summary. The accused person was called before the general assembly of the members, informed of the charge against him, confronted with the witnesses, and if found innocent acquitted; if guilty, he had either at once to pay the fine imposed, receive the number of blows allotted, or submit to hanging on the nearest tree, according to the tenor of the sentence.

302. Religious and Civil Ceremonies.—The religious worship of the Chauffeurs was a parody on that of the Church. The sermons of their preachers were chiefly directed to instructing them how most profitably to pursue their profession, and how to evade the pursuit of the profane. On fete-days the priests celebrated mass, and especially invoked the heavenly blessing on the objects and designs of the society. English navies seem to have borrowed the leading feature of their marriage ceremony from that of the society of Chauffeurs, which was as follows:—On the wedding-day the brideoom and bride, accompanied by the best man and chief bridesmaid, presented themselves before the priest, who after having read some ribald nonsense from a dirty old book, took a stick, which he sprinkled with holy water, and after having placed it into the hands of the two chief witnesses, who held it up between them, he invited the bridegroom to leap over it, while the bride stood on the other side awaiting him. She received him in her arms, and held him up for a few moments before setting him down on the ground. The bride then went in front of the stick, and took her leap over it into the bridegroom's arms, whose pride it was to hold her up in the air as long as possible, before letting her down. Auguries were drawn of the future felicity and fecundity of the marriage from the length of time the bride had been able to hold up her spouse, whilst both seated themselves on the stick, and the priest put on the bride's finger the wedding-ring. The navies' ceremony therefore of "jumping over the broomstick" is no new invention.

Divorces were granted not only for proved or suspected infidelity, but also on account of incompatibility of temper—which proves the Chauffeurs to have been, in this respect at least, very sensible people—after the priest had tried every means to bring about a reconciliation. The divorce was pronounced in public, and its principal feature was the breaking of the stick on which the pair had been married over the wife's head. After that, each was at liberty to marry again.

303. The Grand Master.—The sect was spread over a great part of North-western France; made use of a peculiar patois, understood by the initiated only; and had its signs, grips, and passwords like all other secret societies. It comprised many thousand members. Its existence and history first became publicly known through the judicial proceedings taken against it by the courts of Chartres during the last decade of the preceding century. Many mysterious robberies, fires, and murders were then brought home to the Chauffeurs. Its Grand Master at the time was Francis the Fair, so called on account of his singular personal beauty. Before his initiation he had been imprisoned for robbery with violence, but managed to escape; the Order sought him out and enrolled him amongst its members, and at the death of their chief, John the Tiler, unanimously elected him in his place. Taken prisoner at the above-mentioned period, he again found means to give his gaolers at Chartres the slip—probably with their connivance—and was not heard of again. A rumour was indeed current at the time that he had joined the Chouans, and eventually perished, a victim to his debaucheries. Some hundreds of Chauffeurs were executed at Chartres; but the mass of them made their escape and swelled the ranks of the above-named Chouans.

It was chiefly during the Reign of Terror that the Chauffeurs committed their greatest ravages. At night large bands of them invaded isolated houses and the castles of the nobility, robbing the rich and poor alike. During the day children and old women, under various disguises and pretences, penetrated into the localities where property worth carrying off might be expected to exist, and on their reports the society laid its plans. Sometimes, disguised as national guards, they demanded and obtained admission in the name of the law. If they met with resistance they employed violence; if not, they contented themselves with robbery. But sometimes they suspected that the inmates of the dwelling they had invaded concealed valuables; in that case they would tie their hands behind their backs, and casting them on the ground apply fire to their feet, at the same time cutting them open with their daggers or knives—whence the name chaffeurs "burners"—until they revealed the hiding-places of their treasures, or died in frightful agony. Such as did not die were generally crippled for life.

304. Discovery of the Society.—A young man who had suffered in this fashion from some of the members of the society, determined to be revenged on them, by betraying them into the hands of justice. He revealed his plan to the authorities of Chartres, and then set about its execution. In broad daylight, in the market-place of Chartres, he picked the pocket of a gendarme. The gendarme, having his instructions, of course saw nothing, but a Chauffeur, some of whom were always prowling about, noticed the apparently daring deed, and reported it to his fellows and to his chief. That so clever and bold a thief should not belong to the brotherhood seemed unnatural; very soon therefore he was sought out, and very advantageous offers were made to him if he would join them. At first he seemed disinclined to do so, but eventually yielded, and then showed all the zeal usual with neophytes. He attended all the meetings of the society, and speedily made himself acquainted with all their secrets, their signs, passwords, modes of action, hiding-places, etc. Their safest retreat and great depot, where the booty was stored, was a wild wood in the neighbourhood of Chartres. When the false brother had made these discoveries, and had also ascertained a day when nearly all the members of the society would be assembled on the spot for planning an expedition, he managed to evade their vigilance, hastened to Chartres, and gave the necessary information to the authorities, who had held a large number of men in readiness in the expectation of this chance. These were at once despatched to the locality indicated by the guide, the wood was surrounded, and the Chauffeurs being taken unawares, either perished fighting or were taken prisoners. This was in 1799. Some of the Chauffeurs managed to escape, and under the leadership of Sohinderhannes (John the Player), continued their criminal practices on either side of the Rhine, until the band was seized in 1803, and Schinderhaimes and many of his followers were executed at Mayence, from which time the Chauffeurs were no more heard of.

305. Death of an old Chauffeur.—The French papers in November 1883 reported the death, near Cannes, of Yves Condie, at the age of 105, one of the ancient leaders of the Chauffeurs. He had spent the latter part of his life in "respectable retirement." He had started on his adventurous career at the period of the wars of La Vendee; later on, on arriving at Chartres, in quest of his wife, who had fled from him, taking with her all the money she could lay hands on, he joined a band of Chauffeurs. Having discovered his wife's retreat, it is recorded that he flayed her alive, and the leader of the band to which he belonged being executed, he assumed his place, and carried off a Government commissary who had been instrumental in causing the brigand chief to be guillotined, keeping him as a hostage until a heavy price was paid for his ransom.