“Footpads of Paris: How French Thugs Ply Their Thieving Trade” (1894)

  • Originally published on the Bartitsu.org site on Monday, 8th February 2016

The following catalogue of ingeniously non-lethal “mugging tricks” perfected by the Parisian “Apache” street gangsters is excerpted and translated from Le Bas du Pavé Parisien by Guy Tomel (1894).

At the turn of the 20th century, the folklore and mystique of les Apaches spread throughout and then far beyond the borders of France, developing into a kind of popular gangster chic.  Members of high society enjoyed exhibitions of the spectacular “danse d’Apache”, which acrobatically mimicked a violent encounter between an Apache pimp and one of his prostitutes; slumming society ladies could even take classes in “la langue verte”, the colourful argot spoken in seedy nightclubs and Montmartre back-alleys.

While one of the Apache mugging tricks – the Coup du Pere Francois – attained a degree of pop-culture infamy that has echoed into the present day, the additional four techniques presented in this article are lesser-known. They provide diverting examples of the type of criminal ingenuity later referred to by Bartitsu founder Edward Barton-Wright, Georges Dubois, Jean Joseph Renaud and their fellow Edwardian-era self defence instructors – several of whom developed scientific counters to the tricks of les Apaches.


How French Thugs Ply Their Thieving Trade
Various Ways of Attacking a Victim and Escaping.

In no country in the world is criminality carried to such a pitch as in France, and there is no city where the thief develops his trade with such ingenuity as in Paris – so full of lawlessness and the mysteries of crime.

The Parisian footpad is a criminal in whom generations of villainy have developed a character as shrewd and ingenious as it is pitiless and daring. He makes of crime a fine art, to which he devotes a life-time of study and practice, and the successful theif attains his skill only after passing through all the various grades of the criminal school.

Thieves in Paris have a wholesome dread of the law. The galley labor is not easy and sentences are severe. Besides, once down on the lists of the police, a thief, even if after serving his sentence he be allowed to live in Paris at all, is kept under a perpetual police surveillance which, to the man whose life has been spent in eluding their regard, is well nigh unbearable. And over and above all this is the perpetual dread of the French engine of death – the guillotine.

The catechism of the French criminal, then, begins and ends with the same question – how to attain their ends without brutalizing more than is necessary. All their ingenuity is taxed to invent means of robbery without damaging the victim. For attaining this, they have invented several most curious coups de main, or tricks, by which a man is overpowered and robbed with a swiftness and skill unknown in any other country.

A number of such tricks are used by thieves who work alone, and are most ingenious and named in striking and representative phraseology.

Coup de la Bascule

First in simplicity is what is known as Le Coup de la Bascule – the trick of the rocking chair. Its operation is as follows:

The unsuspicious Parisian, walking home to his hotel late at night, as he turns a corner comes face to face with a man, who, quick as thought, grasps the walker by the throat. Surprised at the suddenness of the attack, the latter has thrown himself instinctively backward.

This gives the thief time to hook his right foot behind his victim’s left, raise it off the ground and push him back upon the one remaining. Feeling himself falling backward, the hands of the man attacked instinctively drop behind him to break his fall instead of grasping his opponent’s throat, and it is just at the instant when the man in tottering and helpless – like a rocking chair – that the thief, still holding his throat by the left hand, with the right goes rapidly through his pockets or abstracts his watch, at the same time throwing him violently backward to the ground.

It needs only a quick “zouave” blow of the feet in the stomach to make it impossible for the man to rise at all, and if he can he is in no condition to pursue the thief, who vanishes at once.

The bancule is a trick performed with swiftness and precision, but it is by no means certain, and hence is not so often employed, except in the most daring and dangerous localities and along the outer boulevards of Paris.

Coup de la Petite Chaise

The commonest trick of all is known as Le Coup de la Petite Chaise – the trick of the little chair.

In this the thief advances from behind, putting his bent right knee in the small of his victim’s back, and bending him half-way back over it. His left hand holds the victim’s throat, and his right reaches over the shoulder and goes through the breast pockets taking both watch and chain. While bent thus backward and thrown off his equilibrium the victim’s blows can reach only the knee of the thief, and the latter’s clutch on the throat makes it impossible for him to turn. It is, of course, the position upon the knee of the thief which gives it its derisive name, “the little chair.”

In this, as in the bascule, the parting blow, delivered as the man is falling, enable the thief to make good his escape. In this instance this is generally in the side of the neck, and often renders the recipient unconscious.

All the boxing skill in the world will avail one nothing In these two tricks, as in both the hands are rendered absolutely useless.

Coup de Pied de Vache

The only means of parrying the latter attack is by employing a trick which the thieves of Paris use principally in resisting arrest by the police. It is called Le Coup de Pied de Vache – the kick of the cow’s foot – and is delivered with such force as sometimes to break the large bones of the leg.

Unhappily, this trick is known much better by the thieves themselves than by men who need it for self-defence. It is most useful, for it can be delivered instantly and without turning when one feels himself grasped from behind.

The one delivering this blow brings his right foot around in front of the left, turning the toe inward, and bringing the leg, well bent at the knee, around behind him, with a strong, semi-circular sweep, which, when well done, even if it breaks no bones, rarely fails to carry a man off his feet. This must, however, be given instantly as soon as touched, as, after the equilibrium has been lost, it is, of course, out of the question.

When the thief is reinforced by an accomplice he employs the more scientific Coup du Pante. This is most sure of success, and has the great advantage over the others that a worn cravat or a badly fastened collar cannot cause it to fail.

Coup du Pante

In the Coup du Pante one thief comes up quickly behind the man to be robbed, seizes both arms and bends them both back. At the same time, as in the bascule, hooking one foot in the other’s ankle and thus breaking his equilibrium. Held in this living net, the victim of the Pante cannot struggle and finds it utterly impossible to utilise either fists or feet.

There is one drawback to this trick, and indeed, to all of those named heretofore. It is that the victim, from beginning to end, can shout as lustily as he may wish and there is always a large chance that his cries may summon help before the thieves can get away from pursuit.

It is this disadvantage which was responsible for the invention of Le Coup du Pere Francois – the very ne plus ultra of criminal ingenuity. It is named after an old and celebrated Parisian criminal who first used it, and taught it to his younger confreres.

This is practically a new trick, but it is continually growing commoner and becoming more and more a part of the primary education of the thief. Its method is as follows:

Coup du Pere Francois 1
Coupe du Pere Francois 2

One thief, holding by the ends a stout silk handkerchief, throws it about the neck of the intended victim, turns his back to him and bends far over, at the same time drawing tight the handkerchief and pulling the man with it backward, nearly off his feet. The victim, feeling the handkerchief strangling him, cannot make the least sound, and his hands try to seize the silk to keep from choking. In the meantime the other thief has been rifling the pockets of the un-happy man.

In less than half a minute suffocation begins, and when the poor devil is released he falls helpless and unconscious on the pavement.

Very often, when set upon his feet, he is absolutely unable to give the slightest account of his aggressors. He has not seen their faces nor known when they approached, nor the direction of their flight. It is like a nightmare, but for the bruised neck.

Le Coup du Pere Francois would be the ideal of the professional thief were it not sometimes accompanied by disagreeable results. When the choking is a little too prolonged, or when the victim has none too good lungs, it occasionally happens that one does not waken from his unconscious state.

An accident of this sort was the cause recently of an official and thorough wiping out of a band of thieves at Neuilly, just outside the walls of Paris.

In a case of this kind, if the thieves be by any chance caught, the judges are not apt to be regardful of the prisoner’s feelings. The punishment is summary, and the grim guillotine is not a thing to whose acquaintance the most desperate footpad would unwittingly lay himself open.

But fatal accidents seldom occur, and until a better one be found Le Coup du Pere Francois will be taught with respect in all thieves’ dens of this most unruly city of the world.

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