By Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler
On the night of December 13, 1911, three men stole an automobile from the home of a family in the wealthy Paris suburb of Boulogne-sur-Seine. The car was a Delaunay-Belleville, France’s finest make: the czar of Russia was said to own twenty. The three men were to use it to become, for a time, the most wanted criminals in Europe.
A week later, that same car sat idling on the Rue Ordener in Montmartre. At the wheel was Jules Bonnot (police mug shot above), a former racing-car driver who had embraced anarchism and turned to crime as a protest against society. His two cohorts, Raymond Caillemin and Octave Garnier, stepped out of the car when they saw a man with a briefcase approaching.
The briefcase, they knew, was filled with cash and securities being messengered to a bank. Though the two gunmen drew pistols, the messenger surprisingly resisted, and Garnier shot the man twice through the chest before he released his hold on the case.
The gunshots attracted attention and people ran to help. As his accomplices slid into the back seat, Bonnot gunned the motor of the Delaunay-Belleville, made a hairpin turn and sped back down the street. Finding other vehicles in his way, he simply drove onto the sidewalk, scattering pedestrians in his wake. Within seconds, the car was out of sight.
In the annals of crime, this was a singular moment: for the first time, bandits had used what became known as a getaway car to escape from the scene of a crime. French newspapers gave Bonnot the nickname “the Demon Chauffeur” as the gang staged robbery after robbery in the same ruthless fashion.
Bonnot once coolly walked into a newspaper office to correct a story that had been written about him. He admitted that the police would triumph eventually, but he vowed not to be taken alive.
So it was. On April 27, Bonnot’s hideout, a two-story house in the countryside, was surrounded by sixteen members of the French Sûreté. Resisting calls for surrender, Bonnot demonstrated that he had stockpiled plenty of weapons and ammunition. The chief of the Sûreté forces called on the local militia, who brought artillery.
When word of the battle spread, more than ten thousand civilians gathered, as well as a motion-picture newsreel team. Spotlights were set up as the siege lasted into the night. When the building was destroyed by dynamite, Bonnot’s body was discovered inside, next to a final testament he had written in his own blood. His gravesite had to be kept secret to prevent admirers from turning it into a shrine.
Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler are authors of The Crimes of Paris: A True Story of Murder, Theft, and Detection (Little Brown).