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Perverse panic – The piqueur legacy

December 1819: the Sûreté Nationale helmed by Vidocq, the infamous former criminal turned chief detective thanks to the efficacy of his unorthodox techniques, marks another victory. The prostitutes enlisted as baits on the gas-lit boulevards of Paris worked as hoped, and an undercover cop squad literally red-handed arrested Auguste-Marie Bizeul, the terrible piqueur who had been terrorizing the French capital for over six months. But… what is a piqueur?

The term had been just coined by the newspapers to indicate a new type of criminal. Differently than common delinquents who put their victims to the sword or slit their throats to rob the remains, Bizeul curiously stopped at pricking them. His modus operandi was to target a young woman – usually a commoner or a modestly-dressed servant – and sting her bottom with a pin hidden in a handkerchief. And that was it: there were no thefts or other violence, but merely the enjoyment of having drawn a few drops of blood.

Young Bizeul was identified by three victims, sent to trial and quickly sentenced to five years of prison and a fine. Which is, however, pretty odd for various reasons. The first is that over the six preceding months the piqueur had attacked at least four hundred women. Then, as noted by La Quotidienne on the verdict’s day, ‘the convicted is a scared tailor apprentice, but you’d think that the depravation behind such ferocious appetites could only result from all sort of excesses and from the abuse of pleasures that only wealthy layabouts could afford’. And lastly – and most importantly – the entire operation looked pretty much like a desperate attempt to put an end to a collective bout of hysteria with definitely more dramatic overtones than the mere 28 hospitalizations recorded over such an impressive number of victims.

Waiting just a few days provides the proof. As soon as the news from Paris propagates with the speed of carriages and word of mouth, a piqueurs epidemic explode. Cases multiply in Lyon, Bordeaux, Marseille, Calais, Bayonne, Lille, Amiens… precisely those towns where newspapers and reading rooms are more common. Local rags take every opportunity to morbidly highlight the element of bloodletting, and to draw a parallel with a work by Byron whose French translation has been published mere weeks earlier to a raging success: The Vampyre.

The piqueur – and, clearly, his emulators – is just like that fantasy creature: horrific, perversely erotic, invisible but ubiquitous. Everyone is fascinated and obsessed by it. In Rouen somebody points to a passerby and accuses him to be the dreaded ass-pricker: although there is no evidence to it, only the intervention of the police manages to save the unfortunate person by being lynched on the spot. In 1822 the piqueur is briefly back at work in Paris. This time the attacks target other body parts too and even a few men. It is clear to everyone that the matter cannot be reduced to one lunatic shop boy.

In fact, institutions don’t venture any psychiatric interpretation, also because the disciple doesn’t exist yet and the early “alienists” are a rare social eccentricity. Curiously, although the pricks are mostly aimed at the bottoms of attractive girls, even the sexual aspect is overlooked: after all, according to the law sex crimes are characterized by nudity and lewdness… while the wounds were always inflicted through the clothes.
Least of all the piqueur’s attacks get associated to any sexual dysfunction. Freud’s parents aren’t even born yet, but newspapers cartoonists and humor columnists take care of that. The singers of the Soupers de Momus group have a smash hit with their lyrics book La Piqûre à la mode, entirely based on double-entendres about a “prick” that can only hit when the woman is facing the other way, or about the victims’ virtue. A lithography titled The result of a pinprick shows a pregnant woman. It is this exorcism-via-mocking that eventually manages to get rid of a phenomenon that, until it remained terrorizing, nothing could keep at bay. This, and the slightly more concerning matter of the Vendée insurrection.

From our point of view, however, the sexual aspect is unmistakable – beginning with the choice of victims. Almost all the attacked women were below 18, cute but chaste in their looks and manners, virginal. In the turmoil of Romanticism, figures like them were given a specific name: oies blanches, meaning “white geese”, innocent manifestations of the overwhelming beauty of nature, and for this as desirable as they were inaccessible – especially to the crude pleasures of the flesh.

Reading the historical accounts, it is striking how the whole piqueur epic was characterized by the obsessive repetition of the concept of “attack to morals”. The problem wasn’t so much how hundred of women had been attacked while they were taking a stroll. After all, at the time police considered rape a triviality to be persecuted only in the case it became a cause of public nuisance; the real worry was more in how the piqueur also hit outside of the bad neighborhoods of Cité and Les Halles, even during the day and – horror of horrors – in the newfangled boulevards, which were the hard-won symbol of a modern and civilized city. Also, come on: everyone knows a slut is just asking for it. A sweet white goose, on the other hand, deserves extreme payback.

Today we’d also put the blame on the media. First for having idealized that type of female character; then for not having raised the alarm in time: the first call to citizens to form watches against the piqueur only dates to December 4th 1819, a few days before Bizeul’s arrest. Yet, depending on who you want to listen to, the blame can also be for having fueled the social psychosis: come to think of it, who were the responsible for printing advertisements like the one above this article, where a tailor sought publicity by imagining iron ass-protectors against the pricker, or the réclames of the charlatans who announced miraculous salves to make the bottom skin impervious and insensitive to wounds? And who, in the last days, was guilty of having unleashed absurdly generic manhunts, where the piqueur was described as ‘a rich man’ and at the same time through witnesses’ accounts talking about ‘a fella with a coat and a round hat, clearly a worker’?

While the smart Vidocq was sending his men to comb brothels in search of «those with the strangest and most depraved tastes», however, the dynamics into play were probably too big for anybody to see their scale.

At the time, Paris was one of the most important and influent cities in the world, and therefore the theatre for events of unpredictable complexity. In The Vanishing Children of Paris – Rumor and Politics Before the French Revolution, Arlette Farge and Jacques Revel tell of the collective hystery in 1750 for “countless kidnappings of children” – in reality nothing more of an urban legend which was artfully spread as the alibi to hold back an imminent popular uprising; a technique that was later reused many times during the revolution, building shocking and bizarre crimes out of thin air.
Naturally, we’ll never reach certainty about it, but several historians think that the piqueur might have been one of these cases, although one that “worked too well” growing out of control.

Maybe what was only meant to be a distraction from the manouvres for the Second Bourbon Restauration resonated with urbanization and industrialization anxiety; maybe in a society that worshipped the concept of virginity the metaphor of penetrating every defence even within the temples of civilizaiton, where genders even lived more separate than in the past, shone too violently. Maybe the unexpected variable were the newspapers and their naughty phrasing, so insisting on the idiom of ‘lack of bodily safety’ that surely drove sales up, but also unleashed the scary and still too vivid memories of guillotines in the streets.

Fact is, politics seized the piqueur trauma and ruthlessly distorted it to its advantage. While Napoleon’s power was more and more in danger and the Parliament fought to change electoral laws, the conservatives maintained that the prickers of young women were nothing more than a social destabilization campaign. On their part, the liberal paper La Renommée associated the pinpricks to the defilements perpetrated by its adversaries in Nîmes a few years earlier, when many women were publicly beaten with spiked crops imprinting them with the bloody mark of the royal fleur de lys.

And if, come the end of this story, you weren’t already reminded of other neighbourhood wathces, of other campaigns based on slander and public outcry, of other obsession for safety, of other “information sources” spewing disinformation instead of analyzing facts; if you still didn’t catch how the people can condemn beyond any sense, or how at the end of the day it laughs at the expenses of women – also and especially when they are victimized – because “after all they looked for it”… maybe studying history could be very helpful. Also when it defies all imagination.

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