Monday 26 April 2021

Week 17: Baptistin Travail, a gentleman-burglar fit for the cinema

100 years ago this week: Week 17

When a daring, ingenious and charming French career burglar was arrested in Rio de Janeiro, the press could not help making a link to the rapidly developing film industry. His life, exploits - and arrest - seemed to make a perfect movie scenario, but little did journalists know that the most dramatic was yet to come.

Get your popcorn ready and read on.

Is it because there are great film scenarios in life that we love the cinema so much, or because we love the cinema that we see so many wonderful possible film scenarios? 

Here is a very dramatic one in any case.

On instruction from the Paris police force, a certain Baptistin Travail, who participated in the 1919 rue Daunou jewellery heist and was probably an accomplice in the murder of Mme Dreyfus at La Villette, has been arrested.

He had managed to escape and set up a commission and export house in Rio. His business was going very well. He was beginning to be recognised as an important trader in the city. He drove a car.

The police put an end to this good luck and an adventure story that had all the principal elements - tragedy, the spectacular and a suitably moral ending.

(L'Intransigeant, April 29, 1921)


The first question in this short piece is extremely revealing of the time, and perhaps a pointer that the perceptions of people had changed. Faced with dramatic events, people were no longer making associations with literature or the theatre, but instead with the cinema. Despite the lack of sound and colour, what was presented on the screen already seemed more real and closer to their lives than the other art forms.


Baptistin Travail was one such personality living a life that seemed perfect for a film. Indeed, he shared certain characteristics with one of his fictitious contemporaries, Arsène Lupin, who had already been the star of several films by 1921. 'Travail' translates into English as work or a job, but Baptistin Travail's life in crime appeared to be more about the intellectual challenge than the profit he obtained from his exploits.

Cunning and dexterity


Two of his earlier heists helped develop his renown. Travail, originally from Marseille, was an expert safe cracker, but also an expert at covering his tracks. During one robbery in Monte Carlo, he easily fractured the safe and escaped with the money, but his fingerprints were later found on the scene. Surely the game was up this time thought the authorities, but Travail was able to present his passport that showed that he had been in Egypt at the time of the robbery. How could he have been in two places at once? In fact, Travail, knowing he might need an alibi, had sent a lookalike to Egypt!


A second mission demonstrated his sense of planning and observation. He had noted that the Banque de France regularly transported large sums of money on a ship from Marseille to the island of Corsica. When the next shipment of money was ready to go, Travail made sure he was onboard too, and carefully swapped a large bundle of bank notes with the same quantity of plain paper during the crossing.


On trial

As we have seen from the article though, Travail did not always get away with his crimes, although in this particular case he may well have been arrested for crimes he did not commit. Travail had perhaps escaped to Rio to begin an honest life (where he was so successful that he even drove a car), but following his arrest, he was brought back to France and put on trial. His case came to court in 1923 in Paris, where, once again, he made a positive impression on the journalists present. Compared to other criminals, he was well-presented, cheerful, amusing and polite. It is also noted that during his life of crime he had never killed anybody.

For the two crimes mentioned in the article, the defence team brought to the dock two people who had been convicted for the misdemeanors. Both swore that Travail had not been part of their gangs and had not played any role in the crimes. Nevertheless, perhaps taking into account his previous efforts, the prosecution succeeded in convicting Travail, who was sentenced to 20 years of hard labour. On hearing the sentence, Travail smiled again and remarked "better 20 years hard labour than 10 years behind bars".  

A twist in the tale


Travail though would only live until February 1924, but his story had a huge twist at the end. His death came in the Saint Martin prison on the Ile de Ré, just as he was seemingly about to be freed. When he discovered that he was schelued to be sent to the dreaded forced labour camps in French Guyana, Travail played his final card. During the war, he revealed, he had performed a mission for the French secret services. In Berne, Switzerland, Travail daringly climbed into the Austrian ambassador's residence and stole an important document from the safe. The secret services wanted to give Travail a financial reward, but he refused, saying he had done it for patriotic reasons. He never mentioned the mission again until he felt he had no other choice, and the authorities confirmed the key role he played. The pardon was about to be declared when Travail fell ill and died.

Surprisingly, the life of Baptistin Travail has not yet made it to the cinema, but he may have inspired other characters. Travail's nickname was 'Titin'!


Terry said...

Another riveting story, Adam! Thanks!

Gavin said...

What an incredible life. His story surely would make a very entertaining film!

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