Good Victims

In January 1816, Mathurin Viel was despairing of his health.*

He had seen several doctors, but nothing had worked to cure his ‘nerves’. It was at this point that he was introduced to a man known as ‘Lacroix’, whose real name was René Bodin. Lacroix told him his illness ‘came from a spell that had been cast on me by five people’, but Lacroix could lift the spell. The normal price was 6000 francs but he offered to do it for Viel for just 500 francs. Impressed, Viel agreed, and Lacroix proceeded to pour out a liquid from a bottle onto a plate and set it on fire. As the liquid burned, Viel heard a person cry out – one of the witches apparently suffering in the flames of Lacroix’s spell. He paid 100 francs on the spot. The next week, Lacroix returned and performed the same operation. This time, Viel heard two witches cry out and paid 200 francs.

Lacroix must have thought he could keep this going for some time, but when Lacroix’s accomplice showed up the following week, Viel had had a change of heart. In his own words, ‘I had begun to disabuse myself’.

Viel’s story distils everything that the authorities hoped to hear from ‘good’ fraud victims.

In fact, it is a story so perfectly formulaic as to be suspicious. Like a good folk tale, it makes use of the law of three, with two encounters between the hero and their antagonist, and a third encounter with a twist. Viel framed his choices as the result of both desperation – having been abandoned by medical doctors – and the ruses of the fraudster, who made use of a theatrical trick, and presumably some accomplices outside the house, pretending to be suffering witches.

But even in his desperate situation, and even in the face of these cunning deceptions, Viel was savvy enough to realise something was not right.

To be a ‘good victim’ in the eyes of the police, judges, and local officials who investigated frauds like this involved careful storytelling from men like Viel. (Women, too, though it is worth noting that men seem to slightly predominate among the witnesses in cases of magical fraud.)

‘Good victims’ pitched themselves as careful empiricists and rational consumers. Their plausibility and usefulness to fraud prosecutions depended on two, successive moments. First, good victims not only admitted to their initial gullibility but explained it in context. And second, they told the story of their change of heart, as they ‘realized’ that they had been defrauded. Telling this story involved walking a tightrope between an honest and shameful admission of credulity and an assertion of scepticism and empiricism.

In this way, although they were the plaintiffs or witnesses rather than the defendants, fraud prosecutions worked to punish and shame victims for how they had behaved, and encouraged them to tell a story emphasizing what they had learned from being conned.

And what of those who rejected the terms that criminal justice offered?

There are many different ways to think about the creativity, resilience, and cunning of the ‘victims’ who found themselves caught between financial exploitation by magicians and public shaming by the authorities. Some ‘good victims’, like Viel, tell a story so perfectly balanced between credulity and realisation that I wonder if he was just playing a part.

A great many others refused, or failed, to play good victims. The two obvious ways that they did so were completely opposed. Some witnesses never abandoned their conviction that the magic in their case had been real. While a judge could still use their evidence against an accused fraudster, this was awkward, and such witnesses often refused to talk, or refused to confirm key details that a prosecution needed to succeed (payment, the ‘trick’ the fraudsters had used).

On the other hand, outright sceptics were useless to investigators. When a witness said that they had never believed what a magician said, this ruled out the possibility of a fraud. The accused had not, in that particular case, created a false hope or false fear.

How did such people end up giving evidence at all in an investigation? Because they had nonetheless paid the magician for their services. This poses an obvious challenge to how prosecutors thought about these cases. They needed victims to shamefully confess their ridiculous ‘belief’ in magic. But when witnesses and victims talked in more complicated ways about the attitudes they had towards magic, this made their evidence less useful.

Such witnesses frequently appear in the records of criminal investigations, and much less frequently in court.

*Viel’s testimony was recorded by the justice of the peace in Segré (Maine-et-Loire), but the prosecution was focused in Mayenne, where the majority of Bodin’s victims lived. See the dossier of the 1816 investigation in Archives Départementales de la Mayenne, U 5404.


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