Mandolinquents – Weird Musical History #5

Among top musicians, claimed one newspaper in 1932, the mandolin is much maligned and seen as ‘a tinkling toy, fit only for people whose musical ambition, like their musical ability, is severely limited’.[i]

Not true, of course. I’ve unearthed a couple of French stories that show that the mandolin has played a role in heinous crimes – and I’m not just talking about crimes against music…

A Mysterious Adventure at Bordeaux

In August 1899, the French city of Bordeaux was alight with fevered speculation about a bizarre crime. Late one Monday evening a young man was walking down the street when from out of a dark alley he was leapt upon by an ‘ill-favoured’ assailant. The attacker stabbed his victim in the back and then disappeared into the night, while the man screamed and dropped to the floor. Some passers-by had seen the attack and were dashing to help the injured man, when from nowhere a landau drew up, two men leapt out and scooped up the young man and threw him into their carriage. They galloped off at a furious speed, but instead of a whip, the driver lashed his horses with a mandolin.[ii]

This strange story appeared in many newspapers, though none give details and it seems to be more rumour than verified crime, but it does have the makings of a thrilling cloak and dagger mystery. From what I can find, the good people of Bordeaux never found a solution, and the young man, his attacker or his mandolin wielding kidnappers were never heard of again.

However, the seemingly random appearance of a mandolin made me wonder if the following remarkable character may have been at the bottom of it all…

The Musical Cobbler ~ France’s Most Wanted

Armand Mousset was one of the most notorious criminals in late nineteenth and early twentieth century France. He was mysterious, elusive, a master of disguise, forger, escapologist and was nearly always one step ahead of the police. The papers called him the musical cobbler, and it was his instrument – the mandolin – which played a part in his eventual downfall.

Police had very little information on Mousset as he robbed and burgled his way across France. All they knew was that in the days before a series of robberies occurred in a town, a mysterious mandolin player would be seen about the place. After the crimes had been committed, he would not be seen again. Soon after, the sudden appearance of a mandolin wielding stranger in another town, perhaps a hundred miles away, would presage another series of crimes. The stranger had the uncanny ability to vanish without trace whenever authorities were getting close.

Mousset was responsible for hundreds of robberies and burglaries across Europe and South America and operated under dozens of names supported by expertly forged passports and birth certificates. The only other thing the police knew about him was that he was a shoemaker – hence his nickname of the musical cobbler.

In 1891, Mousset’s luck ran out and he was caught and sentenced to hard labour on France’s notorious penal colony Devil’s Island, off the coast of French Guiana, South America. Conditions there were grim, and the death rate was 75%. Mousset, however, managed a daring escape and returned to France. Unfortunately, we’re not told how he did this.

Devil’s Island Penal Colony

In 1909 he was recaptured and found himself back on Devil’s Island. After a few years, he again managed to escape. Some sources say he did this by disguising himself and marching out with some soldiers. Other sources have him steal a canoe with five comrades and make the difficult and dangerous journey to Brazil. Four of the escapees died en route, but Mousset again made it back to Paris.

Mousset had his nemesis – Detective Inspector Oudin of the Paris Detective Force who had spent ten years tracking the criminal after his escape from Devil’s Island. Oudin had almost caught him in a house raid in 1926, but arrived just too late finding only some cobbler’s tools and a mandolin.

However, Oudin’s net tightened. In the last days of December 1928, Oudin followed Mousset as he desperately tried to evade capture in an exciting Paris cat and mouse chase. Mousset used all the tricks of his art and frequently changed disguise or doubled back on himself. Finally, Oudin traced him to a squalid hotel room where he was caught with a trunk full of wigs, disguises and forged identity papers.

It was a fair cop, and Mousset gamely congratulated Oudin on his success in finally capturing him after a ten-year chase. On being arrested Mousset defiantly announced that they had better not send him back to Devil’s Island ‘or I should teach all my mates how to escape’.

Indeed, now in his mid-sixties, Mousset’s age meant it likely he would be sent to a French prison rather than back to the penal colony he’d twice escaped from.

I don’t know if there’s a moral to this story, unless it’s that the mandolin is probably not the best instrument for a career criminal.[iii]

[i] The Aberdeen Press and Journal 7 June 1932

[ii] St James Gazette 23 August 1889

[iii] Scotsman 21 January, 1929; Belfast Telegraph 7 January 1929; Perth Daily News 8 February 1929

Published by Paul Weatherhead

Author of Weird Calderdale, musician and songwriter

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: