Jules Bonnot, the son of a factory worker was born in Pont-de-Roide, on 14th October, 1876. His mother died in 1881 and as a teenager was arrested and spent time in prison for assaulting a police officer.
In 1897 Bonnot was conscripted into the French Army. He served three years as a mechanic working on army vehicles. This experience gave him a keen interest in cars. After leaving the army he associated with anarchists. He also developed a terrible temper and in 1907 he hit his boss with an iron bar.
Bonnot escaped to Geneva. He joined a gang that specialized in stealing luxury-cars in France and Switzerland. During one of these operations he accidental killed a fellow gang member. According to Victor Serge: "Joseph the Italian, a little militant with frizzled hair who dreamed of a free life in the bush of Argentina, as far away as possible from the towns, was found murdered on the Melun Road. From the grapevine we gathered that an individualist from Lyons, Bonnot by name (I did not know the man), who had been traveling with him by car, had killed him, the Italian having first wounded himself fumbling with a revolver."
Bonnot decided to move to Paris where he soon formed a gang that included local anarchists, Raymond Callemin, André Soudy, Octave Garnier, Stephen Monier, René Valet and Edouard Carouy. The author of The Bonnot Gang has argued: "His early flirtation with anarchism, which might once have been dismissed simply as youthful exuberance, now became a fully- fledged liaison but although his turn to crime may well have been influenced by his new-found anarchist contacts, he must have felt that he had very little to lose; he'd worked for years, done his military service, tried to support a family, and what had he got at the end of it? - nothing. Ideas and theories on the one hand, social experience on the other, it was a dialectical process that produced illegalism, and each individual's particular set of circumstances that produced illegalists."
These men shared Bonnot's illegalist philosophy that is reflected in these words: "The anarchist is in a state of legitimate defence against society. Hardly is he born than the latter crushes him under a weight of laws, which are not of his doing, having been made before him, without him, against him. Capital imposes on him two attitudes: to be a slave or to be a rebel; and when, after reflection, he chooses rebellion, preferring to die proudly, facing the enemy, instead of dying slowly of tuberculosis, deprivation and poverty, do you dare to repudiate him? If the workers have, logically, the right to take back, even by force, the wealth that is stolen from them, and to defend, even by crime, the life that some want to tear away from them, then the isolated individual must have the same rights."
Richard Parry, the author of the The Bonnot Gang (1987) has argued: "The so-called 'gang', however, had neither a name nor leaders, although it seems that Bonnot and Garnier played the principal motivating roles. They were not a close-knit criminal band in the classical style, but rather a union of egoists associated for a common purpose. Amongst comrades they were known as 'illegalists', which signified more than the simple fact that they carried out illegal acts. Illegal activity has always been part of the anarchist tradition, especially in France."
On 21st December, 1911 the gang robbed a messenger of the Société Générale Bank of 5,126 francs in broad daylight and then fled in a stolen Delaunay-Belleville car. It is claimed that they were the first to use an automobile to flee the scene of a crime. As Peter Sedgwick pointed out: "This was an astounding innovation when policemen were on foot or bicycle. Able to hide, thanks to the sympathies and traditional hospitality of other anarchists, they held off regiments of police, terrorized Paris, and grabbed headlines for half a year."
The gang then stole weapons from a gun shop in Paris. On 2nd January, 1912, they broke into the home of the wealthy Louis-Hippolyte Moreau and murdered both him and his maid. This time they stole property and money to the value of 30,000 francs. Bonnot and his men fled to Belgium, where they sold the stolen car. In an attempt to steal another they shot a Belgian policeman. On 27th February they shot two more police officers while stealing an expensive car from a garage in Place du Havre.
On 25th March, 1912, the gang stole a De Dion-Bouton car in the Sénart Forest by killing the driver. Later that day they killed two cashiers during an attack on the Société Générale Bank in Chantilly. Leading anarchists in the city were arrested. This included Victor Serge who complained in his autobiography, Memoirs of a Revolutionary (1951): "A positive wave of violence and despair began to grow. The outlaw anarchists shot at the police and blew out their own brains. Others, overpowered before they could fire the last bullet into their own heads, went off sneering to the guillotine.... I recognized, in the various newspaper reports, faces I had met or known; I saw the whole of the movement founded by Libertad dragged into the scum of society by a kind of madness; and nobody could do anything about it, least of all myself. The theoreticians, terrified, headed for cover. It was like a collective suicide."
The police offered a reward of 100,000 in an effort to capture members of the gang. This policy worked and on information provided by an anarchist writer, André Soudy was arrested at Berck-sur-Mer on 30th March. This was followed a few days later when Edouard Carouy was betrayed by the family hiding him. Raymond Callemin was captured on 7th April.
On 24th April, 1912, three policemen surprised Bonnot in the apartment of a man known to buy stolen goods. He shot at the officers, killing Louis Jouin, the vice-chief of the French police, and wounding another officer before fleeing over the rooftops. Four days later he was discovered in a house in Choisy-le-Roi. It is claimed the building was surrounded by 500 armed police officers, soldiers and firemen.
According to Victor Serge: "They caught up with him at Choisy-le-Roi, where he defended himself with a pistol and wrote, in between the shooting, a letter which absolved his comrades of complicity. He lay between two mattresses to protect himself against the final onslaught." Bonnot was able to wound three officers before the house before the police used dynamite to demolish the front of the building. In the battle that followed Bonnot was shot ten times. He was moved to the Hotel-Dieu de Paris before dying the following morning. Octave Garnier and René Valet were killed during a police siege of their suburban hideout on 15th May, 1912.
The trial of Raymond Callemin, Victor Serge, Rirette Maitrejean, Edouard Carouy, Jean de Boe, André Soudy, Eugène Dieudonné and Stephen Monier, began on 3rd February, 1913. According to Serge: "In the course of a month, 300 contradictory witnesses paraded before the bar of the court. The inconsequently of human testimony is astonishing. Only one in ten can record more or less clearly what they have seen with any accuracy, observe, and remember - and then be able to recount it, resist the suggestions of the press and the temptations of his own imagination. People see what they want to see, what the press or the questioning suggest."
Callemin, Soudy, Dieudonné and Monier were sentenced to death. When he heard the judge's verdict, Callemin jumped up and shouted: "Dieudonné is innocent - it's me, me that did the shooting!" Carouy was sentenced to hard labour for life (he committed suicide a few days later). Serge received five years' solitary confinement but Maitrejean was acquitted. Dieudonné was reprieved but Callemin, Soudy and Monier were guillotined at the gates of the prison on 21st April, 1913.
The end of 1911 saw dramatic happenings. Joseph the Italian, a little militant with frizzled hair who dreamed of a free life in the bush of Argentina, as far away as possible from the towns, was found murdered on the Melun Road. From the grapevine we gathered that an individualist from Lyons, Bonnot by name (I did not know the man), who had been traveling with him by car, had killed him, the Italian having first wounded himself fumbling with a revolver. However it may have happened, one comrade had murdered or "done" another. An informal investigation shed no light on the matter and only annoyed the "scientific" illegalists. Since I had expressed hostile opinions towards them, I had an unexpected visit from Raymond. "If you don't want to disappear, be careful about condemning us." He added, laughingly, "Do whatever you like! If you get in my way I'll eliminate you!"
"You and your friends are absolutely cracked," I replied, "and absolutely finished." We faced each other exactly like small boys over a red cabbage. He was still squat and strapping, baby-faced and merry. "Perhaps that's true," he said, "but it's the law of nature."
A positive wave of violence and despair began to grow. The outlaw anarchists shot at the police and blew out their own brains. Others, overpowered before they could fire the last bullet into their own heads, went off sneering to the guillotine. "One against all!" "Nothing means anything to me!" "Damn the masters, damn the slaves, and damn me!" I recognized, in the various newspaper reports, faces I had met or known; I saw the whole of the movement founded by Libertad dragged into the scum of society by a kind of madness; and nobody could do anything about it, least of all myself. The theoreticians, terrified, headed for cover. It was like a collective suicide. The newspapers put out a special edition to announce a particularly daring outrage, committed by bandits in a car on the Rue Ordener in Montmartre, against a bank cashier carrying half a million francs. Reading the descriptions, I recognized Raymond and Octave Garnier, the lad with piercing black eyes who distrusted intellectuals. I guessed the logic of their struggle: in order to save Bonnot, now hunted and trapped, they had to find either money, money to get away from it all, or else a speedy death in this battle against the whole of society. Out of solidarity they rushed into this squalid, doomed struggle with their little revolvers and their petty, trigger-happy arguments. And now there were five of them, lost, and once again without money even to attempt flight, and against them towered Money - 100,000 francs' reward for the first informer.
They were wandering in the city without escape, ready to be killed somewhere, anywhere, in a tram or a cafe, content to feel utterly cornered, expendable, alone in defiance of a horrible world. Out of solidarity, simply to share this bitter joy of trying to be killed, without any illusions about the struggle (as a good many told me when I met them in prison afterwards), others joined the first few such as red-haired Rene Valet (he too was a restless spirit) and poor little Andre Soudy. I had often met Soudy at public meetings in the Latin Quarter. He was a perfect example of the crushed childhood of the back alleys. He grew up on the pavements: TB at thirteen, VD at eighteen, convicted at twenty (for stealing a bicycle). I had brought him books and oranges in the Tenon Hospital. Pale, sharp-featured, his accent common, his eyes a gentle gray, he would say, "I'm an unlucky blighter, nothing I can do about it." He earned his living in grocers' shops in the Rue Mouffetard, where the assistants rose at six, arranged the display at seven, and went upstairs to sleep in a garret after 9:0o p.m., dog-tired, having seen their bosses defrauding housewives all day by weighing the beans short, watering the milk, wine, and paraffin, and falsifying the labels... He was sentimental: the laments of street singers moved him to the verge of tears, he could not approach a woman without making a fool of himself, and half a day in the open air of the meadows gave him a lasting dose of intoxication. He experienced a new lease on life if he heard someone call him "comrade" or explain that one could, one must, "become a new man." Back in his shop, he began to give double measures of beans to the housewives, who thought him a little mad. The bitterest joking helped him to live, convinced as he was that he was not long for this world, "seeing the price of medicine."
One morning, a group of enormous police officers burst into our lodgings at the press, revolvers in hand. A bare-footed little girl of seven had opened the door when the bell rang, and was terrified by this irruption of armed giants. Jouin, the Deputy Director of the Surete, a thin gentleman with a long, gloomy face, polite and almost likable, came in later, searched the building, and spoke to me amiably of ideas, of Sebastien Faure whom he admired, of the deplorable way in which the outlaws were discrediting a great ideal.
"Believe me," he sighed, "the world won't change so quickly." He seemed to me neither malicious nor hypocritical, only a deeply distressed man doing a job conscientiously. In the afternoon he sent for me, called me into his office, leant on his elbows under the green lampshade, and talked to me somewhat after this fashion: "I know you pretty well; I should be most sorry to cause you any trouble-which could be very serious. You know these circles, these men, who are very unlike you, and would shoot you in the back, basically.... they are all absolutely finished. I can assure you. Stay here for an hour and we'll discuss them. Nobody will ever know anything of it and I guarantee that there'll be no trouble at all for you."
Bonnot's life-history (ten years longer than most of the others), was a classic story of an ordinary working class lad who, after the normal youthful escapades, wanted to settle down into a decent job, get married and have a family. He was frustrated not just by 'bad luck' but by his inability to wield any power over his own conditions of existence.
His early flirtation with anarchism, which might once have been dismissed simply as youthful exuberance, now became a fully- fledged liaison but although his turn to crime may well have been influenced by his new-found anarchist contacts, he must have felt that he had very little to lose; he'd worked for years, done his military service, tried to support a family, and what had he got at the end of it? - nothing. Ideas and theories on the one hand, social experience on the other, it was a dialectical process that produced illegalism, and each individual's particular set of circumstances that produced illegalists.
Their attitudes were more or less formed before they congregated in Paris, although the concentration of comrades doubtless reinforced their ideas, and the arguments between the 'activists' and the 'intellectuals' showed that the former were hardly keen pupils eager to learn from their ideological mentors. If Bonnot and Garnier's scribbled notes contained phrases lifted from the pages of l'anarchie, this was more a case that they saw their own feelings reflected in print. Besides their obvious motivation, they might have lacked opportunity had it not been for Garnier's driving energy and the chance arrival of Bonnot.