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The mild mannered murderer, from Alençon

Murderer and fraud Edme Samuel Castaing was born in 1789, during the turbulent years of the French Revolution but in Alençon, a prosperous country town that experienced little in the way of revolutionary disorder. Edme’s childhood was relatively undisturbed.

The very grand Hotel de Ville in Alençon, Orne, Normandy - Match!
The very grand Hotel de Ville in Alençon, Orne, Normandy – Match!

His family was comfortably bourgeois and as far as we can find out no great psychological scars were inflicted on little Edme to cause his later disregard for human life.

Respectable through revolution

His father, Toussainte Pierre-Louis Samuel Castaing was the Inspector-General in the department of Waters & Forests and anyone who has visited the Orne will know there are plenty of those in the region.  It was a highly respected job.

There was a little flurry of controversy in 1792 when Toussainte replaced M. Dufriche-Valazé as regional government representative after M. Dufriche-Valazé’s views were considered counter revolutionary and he lost his head.  But M. Castaing made no such errors and his career followed a steady path.

The Castaing children grew into equally respectable adults.  Edme’s elder brother followed his father into local government.  Their middle brother was a captain in the army engineers.  Edme, noticeably clever, was sent to school in Angers where he excelled winning many prizes.  He then chose to study medicine in Paris.

The corn exchange, La Halle aux Blés, Alençon
The corn exchange, La Halle aux Blés, Alençon

To Paris, and Love

For two years Edme Castaing from Alençon worked hard and was a model son, living carefully within the allowance given to him by his father. But then he fell in love and lost all reason.

He kept his head long enough to qualify as a doctor in 1821 and was known as a kindly, generous man; while a medical student he treated some poor unfortunates for free and in 1818 underwrote a friends loan of 600 francs.

Contemporary accounts describe Edme as rather attractive with a fine long face, regular features, a high forehead, fair hair brushed back and large impressive side-whiskers.  Someone once said he appeared more like a priest than a doctor as he often kept his eyes downcast and his quiet, unassuming demeanour gave an impression of patience and humility.

It was this fair, modest young man who stole the heart of a Paris banker’s widow.  A lady a few years older than Edme with two children, and rather less income than she liked.

Dr Edme Castaing, what a nice young man!
Dr Edme Castaing, what a nice young man!

Living beyond their means

For a while the couple was extraordinarily happy and optimistic.  If Edme became a doctor of fashion his income would be substantial.  She might even marry him.  They had a child and soon another was expected.  But by then the life of Edme Castaing was beginning to implode.

Before he qualified in 1820 the friend’s debt had become due and the friend had no means to pay it.  Neither did Edme.  He managed to hold the debtors off for a while, explaining his future profession would give him the funds to pay them.  At home the widow expected a certain standard of living for their growing family.

Delightful Paris family, much like Edme was pretending to be, at the turn of the 19th century
Delightful Paris family, much as Edme and his lovely mistress were pretending to be, at the turn of the 19th century

Bad debts and a bad friend

Edme appealed to his father for help, but Toussaint, unhappy with his son’s romantic choices, refused to help him.  His mother tried to everything she could for her adored youngest son, calling on a highly placed official to speak on Edme’s behalf to his creditors.  But to no avail.

Soon other debtors began to knock on the door as worried Edme’s fine fair hair began to recede rapidly.

Then in October 1822 he suddenly became incredibly generous:

On 10th October he gave a stockbroker 66,000 francs to invest in securities.  On 11th October he lent his mother 30,000 francs.  On 14th October he gave his cherished mistress 4,000 francs.

He also became a very bad friend.

Signature of Edme Castaing
Signature of Dr Edme Castaing

Some necessary scene setting

In Paris Edme had become friends with two wealthy brothers, both lawyers; Hippolite and Auguste Ballet. Hippolite was industrious, the adored child of wealthy parents. His brother Auguste was from infancy rejected completely by his mother and had grown into a dissolute, harder character. However when the parents died they left their fortune of around 260,000 split fairly between their children. The brothers were now close although Hippolite was known to disapprove of his brother’s wastefulness and he quietly decided to leave his fortune to his sister and her family.

Hippolite was particularly fond of Edme Castaing.  Never completely well, he found the presence of the gentle doctor reassuring.  When Hipployte was advised to summer in Enghien for his health Edme was a regular visitor.

Hippolite was expected home from Enghien at the end of September.  On 18 September Dr Edme Castaing purchased 10 grains of acetate of morphia, a new vegetable based painkiller much like opium and just as deadly if misused. It also left no discernible trace in the body. For a doctor to buy a strong painkiller is perhaps not strange during these times, except for what happened next.

Edme Castaing (top) Hippolite and August Ballet
Edme Castaing (top) Hippolite and August Ballet

More dangerous than leeches…

Back in Paris on 22 September, friends later recalled Hippolite was in good spirits, clearly rejuvenated by his time at the spa.  Never completely well, on Tuesday 1 October he mentioned to his sister Mme. Martignon that Edme would be popping by to apply leeches. He was still buoyant when she saw him the next day.

On Thursday 3 October Hippolite started quite suddenly to vomit and he could not stop. His brother-in-law visited and reported that Hipployte’s face was swollen and his eyes red. The patient refused to let his sister see his repulsive condition.  The family were reassured that Dr Edme Castaing stayed with him the entire day.

The next morning Castaing visited Mme Martignon to break the news that Hippolite’s symptoms had only got worse during the night.  Mme Martignon was desperate to visit him but Edme was insisted she stay away rather than disturb, and be disturbed by Hippolite’s appearance. She visited her brothers house, dressed as a servant to see him without causing any disturbance, but Edme turned her away.

A day passed. Then on 5 October 1822 it was all over, Hippolite Ballet was dead.

acetate of morphia

Sudden suspicious generosity

With a fellow doctor, Castaing undertook the autopsy of his friend.  They concluded death was due to Pleurisy aggravated by the Consumption he suffered from for most of his short life.

On 7th October 1822 Auguste cashed in 100,000 francs of stocks and was later seen giving them to Edme.  Any trace of a new will favouring Hippolite’s sister was never found, according to a will made some years before, Auguste would inherit.

It was around this time that Edme suddenly became very generous.

Family and friends mourned Hippolite but life went on. Then something rather odd happened.

Where there’s a will there’s an Edme

Auguste Ballet made a will naming Dr Edme Castaing as his only heir.  This would have been a surprise to Auguste’s friends who noticed he began to avoid Edme.  Edme must have felt this change in their friendship.  He also knew Auguste had fallen in love and was spending large amounts of his newly inherited wealth to make a new mistress happy.

Edme asked his cousin M.Malassis, a notary clerk, if a will made by a sick man to his doctor would be legal.  Re-assured, on May 29 1823 Edme deposited a will dated 1 December 1822, naming him as the main heir to the estate of Auguste Ballet.

Don’t drink it Auguste!

Next day Edme and Auguste went on a short trip to the countryside at Saint Cloud just outside Paris. According to his servants, Auguste was vigorous with health. On the second evening away Edme asked that a drink be made for them both using a lemon mix he had with him.  The drink was so sour August complained to his friend. But he finished the drink.

That evening Auguste Ballet started to feel rather unwell. The next day, 31 May, his friend left the guest house early in the morning, later explaining he had gone for a long walk. He did, straight to the station.  Edme travelled quickly back to Paris and a chemist where he purchased tartar emetic, an expectorant in the treatment of parasitic infections that is also highly toxic.  Edme then visited a second chemist and purchased grains of acetate of morphia.

'Dans le Parc de Saint-Cloud' by Renoir
‘Dans le Parc de Saint-Cloud’ by Renoir

The attentive friend

Returning from his ‘long walk’ Edme found his friend unwell in the care of the guest house owners.  Auguste’s vomit had been preserved for the doctor to analyse, Edme demanded it be thrown away.  He then called in a local doctor, Dr Pigache, who prescribed a tonic and rest.

After the doctor left Edme diligently spooned the prescribed tonic into his friends dry and foul smelling mouth. Five minutes later he suffered appalling convulsions, his pulse became weak and his body covered in a cold sweat.  Dr Pigache was recalled and, shocked by his patient’s fading state, asked what had happened.  Edme explained Auguste began to seriously decline shortly after taking Dr Pigache’s tonic.

By late evening Auguste was in a coma. The eminent physician Dr Pelletan arrived from Paris but it was too late.

By 1 June he was dead.

Horrible coincidence

As Dr Edme Castaing wept he told Dr Pelletan of the horrible coincidence, to be at the death of two of his close friends, the brother’s Ballet.  He also mentioned his distress at being his friends sole heir.  Did Dr Pelletan think there would be an investigation?

Dr Pelletan said a post-mortem should take place.  Edme begged that it would.

Friends of Auguste, alerted to his death, arrived in Saint Cloud shocked at their friend’s sudden demise.  Edme was visibly agitated during the post-mortem but no evidence of poison was found and death blamed on inflammation of the gut. He denied to the Paris friends any knowledge of Auguste’s will.  Then just hours later admitted it was lodged with his cousin, M.Malassis.

The circumstances of Auguste’s death and some angry claims by his friends concerned the police greatly.   On 2 June 1823 Dr Edme Castaing was arrested.

I’m mad, honest!

For the first few days of his incarceration Edme put on an enthusiastic act of being insane.  He was not very convincing and soon gave up.  The investigation took five months.

The trial started on 10 November 1823 at the Paris Assize Court.  Edme was charged with the murder of Hippolite Ballet, the destruction of Hippolite’s will and the murder of Auguste Ballet.  The three charges would be tried simultaneously.  The acte d’accusation (indictment)
against Castaing consisted of a hundred finely printed pages.

The investigation had uncovered his purchases of acetate of morphia, coincidentally just before his friends died, the missing will and Edme’s sudden wealth.

Dr Edme Castaing, not feeling very optimistic
Dr Edme Castaing, not feeling very optimistic

The defence

Edme’s lawyers were a school-friend Rousell and the renown lawyer PierreAntoine Berryer. It was not one of Berryer’s greatest cases but he didn’t have a lot to work with.

For Berryer’s defence all hinged on the absence of morphia in the victim’s bodies, how could poison be proved if there was no poison? But this was an inconclusive argument as Acetate of Morphia leaves no trace. He undertook some rather questionable testing of morphia and told the court that tasting just a grain in a spoonful of milk made it “so insupportably bitter to the taste that he could not keep it in his mouth.

The cross examination of Dr Edme Castaing was uncomfortable to watch.  Poison was not proved but a good reason for his continual purchase of this lethal substance could not be explained and the bloating, vomiting and convulsion of the Ballet brothers before they died were clear indicators.  As he changed his story and his lies were exposed, Edme’s character was thoroughly destroyed.

Edme Castaing with the brothers Ballet
Edme Castaing with the brothers Ballet

But I’m innocent! Ish.

In a final statement before being sentenced Edme still fought for his innocence:

“I shall know how to die, though I am the victim of ill-fortune, of fatal circumstance. I shall go to meet my two friends. I am accused of having treacherously murdered them. There is a Providence above us! If there is such a thing as an immortal soul, I shall see Hippolite and Auguste Ballet again. This is no empty declamation; I don’t ask for human pity. I look to God’s mercy, and shall go joyfully to the scaffold. My conscience is clear.”

Perhaps he just didn’t have a conscience at all.

He was sentenced to death and ordered to pay 100,000 francs damages and costs.

Edme appealed the verdict, but on 4 December his appeal was quickly rejected.   He attempted suicide with poison bought to the prison by a friend and concealed in a watch.  But his courage failed him.

Two days later on 6 December 1823, in a state of complete collapse, Dr Edme Samuel Castaing, the mild mannered doctor from Alençon, was executed. The first man to be convicted of murder, by morphine.

Edme's final moments
Edme’s final moments

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