Gaspard de Besse robbed from the rich (who detested him) and gave to the poor (who adored him). Often compared to the British Robin Hood but whilst the latter’s roots are shrouded in mystery, there’s no doubt about the identity of the famous French outlaw.
Gaspard de Besse
Gaspard Bouis, later known as Gaspard de Besse, was born February 9, 1757 in Besse-sur-Issole, a small village in the Var region of southern France. His father died one year later, and Gaspard was placed in the care of the local priest. The priest assumed Gaspard would follow his footsteps into a religious life and made sure he had a proper education. However, Gaspard, a charming, handsome smooth-talker who wasn’t suited to the priestly way of life left Besse at the age of 17 for Toulon where he began his life of crime.
According to some, Gaspard’s life changed when he saw a poor mother with four children living in appalling circumstances because her husband had been put into forced labor for stealing salt. Gaspard couldn’t abide this injustice. He helped the father and another prisoner escape, and these two men became his lieutenants for the new band of outlaws that he formed.
Another story says that army recruiters got Gaspard drunk and convinced him to enlist. After he sobered up and realized what had happened, he deserted and went to live in the mountains.
However it came about, wanted posters were pasted up all across the south of France bearing pictures of Gaspard’s handsome face. He set up shop in a cave in Mont Vinaigre (Mount Vinegar) near Frejus, and hung out his “help wanted” sign. Soon he had a band of about fifty robbers working for him.
To work for Gaspard, they had to abide by strict rules: he insisted that though they carried muskets (which made people more agreeable to handing over their goods) they weren’t allowed to shoot anyone. In addition, only the rich could be robbed and part of the takings would be invested back into the community… that is, given to the poor locals. Those who benefited from Gaspard’s generosity were loyal, happy to tip him off and hide him when the police came snooping around.
Eventually Gaspard’s luck ran out, and in 1779, he was arrested. He was thrown into prison in Draguignan, but escaped a few months later – possibly with the help of the jailer’s daughter. Even though Gaspard wasn’t there, his trial went ahead as scheduled and he was found guilty of armed robbery in absentia.
Gaspard carried on robbing from the rich and giving to the poor for another year or so. Then one evening, after he and his merry band had relieved some travelers of their heavy burden in the gorges of Ollioules, they went out to dinner to celebrate. It was in the auberge at La Valette where he was arrested. One story says that he was captured by accident when someone tipped off the police that there was a band of criminals in the auberge. The lawmen swooped in and arrested them without even knowing it was the infamous Gaspard de Besse and his gang. Another version says he was turned in by a jilted lover.
On October 25, 1781, at twenty-four years old, Gaspard de Besse was tied to the wheel of torture and met a slow and agonizing death in Aix en Provence. After he died, his head was cut off and nailed to a tree at the edge of the Taillades woods where he had carried out many of his robberies.
It was rumored that Gaspard’s hoard was hidden somewhere in the region of Cuges les Pins, just east of Marseille. Every chateau in the area was searched from top to bottom and every field looked like it was infested with moles, but his treasure was never found… as far as we know. Even today, if you are in the area of Cuges les Pins, you might see some people with their metal detectors, still hoping to find Gaspard’s hoard.
Margo Lestz lives in Nice, France and blogs at curiousrambler.com. She is the author of Curious Histories of Nice, France and French Holidays and Traditions, details: curiousrambler.com/margos-books