Noisy buskers used to drown out the sounds of murder

But were organ-grinders really complicit in the 1817 killing at Rodez of the French politician Fualdès, as the translation suggests, or were the vielles hurdy-gurdies, as you’d expect?

Witness Mrs Manson (sic) confronts murderers Messrs. Bastide and Jausion, heads still attached.

Witness Mrs Manson (sic) confronts murderers Messrs. Bastide and Jausion, heads still attached. Image: Histoire complète du procès....

I’m quietly looking out historical examples of street organs in society, but Fualdès was a serendipity. North/Nord, 1944, and Céline, wife Lili, cat Bébert and an actor are escaping into Germany to avoid retribution:

In La Rochelle I had to resist the French Army that wanted to buy my ambulance! It wasn’t mine! me, the soul of honesty, nobody can buy anything from me! the ambulance belonged to my dispensary in Sartrouville … you can imagine … I took the lousy bus back where it came from! and the two grandmothers, my passengers, with their bottles of wine, and three newborn babies … the whole shebang in perfect condition! Did anybody show me the slightest gratitude? Hell no! Abominations, that’s all I got … enough to fill a penitentiary! Twenty Landrus, Petiots, and Fualdèses!

Hmm, don’t know those names. Translator Ralph Manheim’s note:

FUALDÈS (1751-1817). French magistrate assassinated in 1817. An accomplice of the assassins played the barrel organ outside the ill-famed hotel to which he had been lured, in order to drown out his cries. The incident was the theme of a popular song.

The Wikipedia article on the affaire Fualdès identifies the instrument as a Barbary organ:

Au matin du 20 mars 1817, le corps d’Antoine Bernardin Fualdès, ancien procureur impérial du département de l’Aveyron, est découvert, flottant dans l’Aveyron, la gorge ouverte. Il a été sauvagement assassiné dans la nuit, à l’autre bout de la ville, au son d’un orgue de Barbarie destiné à couvrir ses cris.

Its source is a 1922 article by the critic Camille Pitolet in the Mercure de France, which cites memoirs of Rodez to the effect that several organ grinders played all evening, covering the cries of the victim:

Des joueurs d’orgue, qui “disparurent”, avaient joué toute la soirée dans la rue des Hebdomadiers pour qu’on n’entendit pas les cris de la victimes.

But Pitolet doesn’t add “de Barbarie”, and the idea that a couple of proper street organs -expensive technology at the time- would have been playing in the red light district of a country town like Rodez is too good to be true.

Fortunately the French had by this stage already got sensational but high-quality court reporting down to a fine art, and we can turn to the Histoire complète du procès instruit devant la cour d’assises de l’Aveyron, relatif à l’assassinat du Sr. Fualdès; Avec des Notices historiques sur les principaux personnages qui ont figuré dans cette cause célèbre, in which it turns out that the instrument in question is the loud and loathsome, but comparatively cheap and indestructible, vielle, the hurdy-gurdy:

Des joueurs de vielle y étaient aussi placés, et firent entendre pendant environ une heure le son de leurs instrumens, et disparurent le lendemain de grand matin.


Brast, tailleur: Un joueur de vielle joua sans discontinuer, près de la maison Bancal, depuis huit heures du soir jusqu’à neuf, le 19 de mars. Vers les huit heures et un quart, il entendit marcher dans la rue plusieurs personnes qui paraissaient porter un paquet ou balle; elles s’arrètèrent devant la maison Bancal. Une porte s’ouvrit et se ferma, mais le son de la vielle l’empècha de distinguer si c’était celle de Bancal.


Ces joueurs de vielle qui disparurent le lendemain de l’assassinat reparaîtront un jour, et avec eux ou sans eux apparaîtra la vérité.

The 1818 Complainte de Fualdès is one of the finest examples of a genre which we call ballads but which the French have never really managed to name – see Robert Paquin “Ballad: Ballade, Complainte, Chanson Tragique, Chanson Lyrico-Épique ou Chanson Narrative?” Credited to the limonadier, which is to say publican, M.J. of Toulouse, but said to be by a Occitan dentist called Moreau et Catalan, the Véritable Complainte, arrivée de Toulouse, au sujet du crime affreux, commis à Rodez, sur la personne de l’infortuné Fualdès, par Bastide, Jausion et complices, available from “all the sellers of ballads of Paris and abroad”, still has hurdy-gurdy men grinding away:

Et des vieilleurs insolens
Assourdissent les passans.

So that’s that. Or perhaps vielle and orgue were interchangeable at at some point in (pre-)revolutionary rural France – I have found no evidence. I think it more likely that modern and metropolitan writers used the expression orgue (de Barbarie) as a comprehensible functional equivalent for the moribund and marginal vielle. Fualdès, a five-acter supposedly by Messrs. Dupeuty and Grangé premiered in Paris in 1848, has one André driven to organ-grinding, with an orgue, by rural landlessness. And a rather more tenuous link is established in a tremendous bucolic 1833 Lucrezia Borgia parody, Tigresse Mort-aux-Rats, allegedly by Messrs. Dupin and Jules, in which an orgue de Barbarie is heard off-stage playing the Fualdès ballad.

I have started singing the plaint as part of my forays into the genre. With lines like the following, there is no way I could have remained indifferent:

Écoutez, peuple de France,
Du royaume de Chili;
peuple de Russie aussi,
Du cap de Bonne Espérance,
Le mémorable accident
D’un crime très conséquent.

However, I am quite sure that no one will want to listen to even a comparatively short example like this, let alone a full programme. Tom Lehrer hits the bull’s-eye in his Irish ballad:

My tragic tale I won’t prolong,
My tragic tale I won’t prolong,
And if you do not enjoy my song,
You’ve yourselves to blame if it’s too long,
You should never have let me begin, begin,
You should never have let me begin.

There is a lesson in all this: if we wish to prevent a return to the law of the jungle, then amplified or naturally noisy buskers need to be hounded mercilessly. Hmmm. I don’t feel particularly comfortable reading Céline in the same week as the mob attack on the Stamford Hill synagogue, but Mort à crédit / Death on the installment plan is required reading for those who hope for a future in organ-grinding:

After his terrible accident Courtial had taken a solemn vow that he’d never again, at any price, take the wheel in a race … That was all over … finished … He’d kept his promise … And even now, twenty years later, he had to be begged before he’d drive on some quiet excursion, or in an occasional harmless demonstration. He felt much safer out in the wind in his balloon …

His studies of mechanics were all contained in his books … Year in year out he published two treatises (with diagrams) on the development of motors and two handbooks with plates.

One of these little works had stirred up bitter controversies and even a certain amount of scandal. Actually it wasn’t even his fault … It was all on account of some low-down sharpers who travestied his ideas in an idiotic money-making scheme … It wasn’t at all in his style. Anyway here’s the title:

An Automobile Made to Order for 322 Francs 25. Complete instructions for home manufacture. Four permanent seats, two folding seats, wicker body, 12 m.p.h., 7 speeds, 2 reverse gears. Done entirely with spare parts that could be picked up anywhere! assembled to the customer’s taste … to suit his personality! according to the style and the season of the year! This little book was all the rage … from 1902 to 1905 … It contained … which was a step forward … not only diagrams, but actual blueprints on a scale of one to two hundred thousand. Photographs, cross-references, cross sections … all flawless and guaranteed.

His idea was to combat the rising peril of mass production … There wasn’t a moment to be lost … Despite his resolute belief in progress, des Pereires had always detested standardization … From the very start he was bitterly opposed to it … He foresaw that the death of craftsmanship would inevitably shrink the human personality …


  1. Lancaster hosted a hurdy-gurdy festival for a few years and one certainly felt like murdering someone after an hour or so.

    I do wonder why they had to play for so long though. I haven’t had much recent practice, but how long does it take to slice a man’s throat open?

    1. I don’t think of hurdy-gurdy (wo)men as particularly practical people, checking inside to see if they can get off to their next gig at the abbatoir.

      I’m surprised the French didn’t stick a sharp blade on the hurdy-gurdy wheel and patent the circular action repeating guillotine.

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