Great Chileans? Emile Dubois (part 1)
By Ben Angel
A burst of steam escaped from the blastpipe into the chimney of the EFE locomotive. As the wheels creaked slowly forward on the Sunday afternoon train out of Mapocho Station in Santiago toward Valparaiso, a mildly disheveled, but still refined, passenger watched the city move past his window. As the train picked up speed on the outskirts of Chile’s capital, he pulled from his pocket a Whaltan gold watch and checked the time.
About 12 hours earlier, that very watch belonged to French businessman Ernesto Lafontaine. Detectives would later determine that this chief bookkeeper for the San Pedro mill encountered what would soon be the watch’s new owner sometime around 9 p.m. on Saturday, January 7, 1905, in his office at Paseo Huérfanos 865, about a block southeast of Santiago’s Plaza de Armas. The former watch owner was beaten to death during this apparently brief encounter with a cloth-covered blunt object, the attack occurring while his office safe was open; there was a large amount of cash, about 3,000 US dollars worth (back then, a small fortune), taken from that normally secured strongbox. The watch might have been taken as an afterthought.
The body was discovered the next morning when an office worker found the body, skull cracked open and a bloody mess, next to a couch where victim and assailant had apparently smoked large quantities of cigarettes and chatted together for a long while before the first blow was delivered to the back of the bookkeeper’s head.
The killer might have appeared on the train that Sunday as any number of spent carousers who had come to the Chilean capital to enjoy the nightlife for the weekend. Some four hours later, he would disembark with the crowd from the train at the old Bellavista stationhouse in Valparaiso, located at the time on the waterfront between the modern Metro stations of Bellavista and Francia. He probably didn’t appear in any way suspicious as he made his way to his home with the loot taken from Lafontaine’s office the night before, and over the coming days he gave or pawned away much of the evidence of the robbery, some of which went to the disadvantaged in his neighborhood.
Some two years later, Emile Dubois would be convicted of this and three other murders, and be called by newspapers such as Santiago’s “El Mercurio” as Chile’s own serial killer. He denied his guilt to these crimes even as he faced the firing squad, but his detractors and most of his admirers accept today that he was the one who committed these murders. His legend defends his actions, accenting the fact that he never killed a Chilean, and never harmed a woman or child. Instead, he targeted only ruthless foreign businessmen whose money he gave to the needy. This legend earned him a Robin Hood-like admiration among the poor, and to some even folk saint status. One biographer described him as “a powerless saint, killed by the rich.”
The French Fugitive
Emile got his start in life far from the long Chilean shoreline. He was born April 29, 1867, as Louis-Amadeo Brihier, son of Joseph Brihier and María Lacroix in the French port town of Etapes, located along the English Channel. His memoirs indicate that Maria abandoned her son, leaving him with his father after the birth and never came back. Joseph, being stuck with an infant with no resources to provide him a mother, gave the tiny boy over to his own parents.
Louis-Amadeo spent his early childhood with his grandparents in a period of French history during which Emperor Napoleon III faced off against the rising Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in Central Europe. At the time of his birth, trains only recently replaced horse carriages on the French coast as the main means of transportation, and later, when Louis-Amadeo grew up, an arts community sprung up in his hometown, located just south of Boulogne and Calais.
At age 4, Louis-Amadeo witnessed from his northern port city the march of the Prussians on Paris, and the rise and fall of the Paris Commune. Amidst the background noise of coup attempt and scandal during the Third Republic’s Belle Epoch, the boy grew up with dreams of adventure, greatness, and wealth. Unfortunately, his station in life didn’t allow him many legal opportunities for these ambitions, and despite efforts of his father to foster refinement and character in him through reading, Louis-Amadeo instead was drawn to the quick accumulation of wealth from criminal activities.
Sometime in the late 1880s, Louis-Amadeo, already figured to be involved in small-scale bank robberies and extortion, was arrested as a suspect in the killing of the father of a young lover, and he fled the country to Spain after convincing the court to release him. During his stay in that country, he joined a theater group, where he displayed a natural talent for acting. But the starvation wages that this life earned drove him to pursue the next available opportunity for quick wealth, and he soon relocated to England where he learned the art of forgery.
While in England, according to the chronicle “La Cuarta,” he developed a fascination for the story of John Williams, alias Murphy, the sailor accused of the Ratcliff Highway murders that took place in Wapping, London, during the height of the Napoleonic Wars in 1811. The common factor in these murders were that they took place within the homes of the victims, which agitated a fear and hostility in the English public (who to this point lived comfortably in the idea that “an Englishman’s home is his castle”) such that they sought immediate relief in anyone that remotely appeared to be the killer. It has been suggested by his detractors that the idea that someone else might have carried out the murders and gotten away with it served as an inspiration toward his eventual career path.
In any case, Louis-Amadeo left England a step ahead of the police, and began yet a new adventure, this time in South America. He landed in Colombia, a country wracked by the Thousand Day War, a Liberal insurrection against a corrupt Conservative regime whose jurisdiction encompassed both Panama and modern Colombia. Louis’ part as a small group leader fighting with machetes in Colombian jungles alongside other Liberals is not well-documented. What is known that he seduced 15-year-old Ursula Morales there, who then ran away from home to follow him through adventures in Colombia, Venezuela, and present day Panama. Before finally leaving the country, probably sometime after the Liberal cause began to falter at the Battle of Palonegro, he secured (or forged) Colombian identity papers naming him Louis Dubois.
With his new identity, Louis crossed with his young girlfriend into Ecuador, where he took part in yet another insurrection, this time a strike against banana plantation owners by local workers. When this insurrection proved to be yet another disappointment, Louis and Ursula continued south into Peru.
From Lima, Louis found work as a miner deep in Peru and further onward to Bolivia, obtaining work as a result of his earlier experience as a laborer in the coal mines of Courrières. He may have continued his crusade to organize labor there, but if so, stories of his successes and failures did not survive to modern day. Despite the constant presence of his girlfriend, Ursula, Louis, described as a man of moderate build but in good shape, bearing low, broad shoulders, and high cheekbones and eyes, lived the highlife with wine, women, and song, and certainly by this time carried himself in a refined but flamboyant style, taking on assumed personas as if they were theatrical parts. Whereas in Spain, he served as a dramatic actor for a living, by the time he boarded the steamer in Peru with Ursula for Chile, the drama he acted out became his life.
Murder by numbers, 1, 2, 3…
Louis Dubois and 19-year-old Ursula Morales entered Chile at the port of Iquique in January 1903. With cape, cane, hat, and business cards that claimed he was a mining engineer, Dubois, as he was officially known, immediately sought out work in the summertime heat of the north of Chile. Failing to find anything there, he continued onward, arriving in Valparaiso a couple months later when autumn rains began their annual dousing of the central Chilean coast.
Valparaiso, at the time, was one of the biggest ports on the Pacific Ocean. The first main stop for vessels that rounded Cape Horn from the Atlantic, or the last stop before rounding the Cape and leaving the Pacific, the city served not only as Chile’s window to the world, but also became home to just about every kind of entrepreneur from just about every country that likewise held a home port. Following the success of the first funicular, Ascensor Concepcion, seven other funiculars were raised by the time of his arrival as new homes sprouted like plants further and further up the hill from the Plan, or city center. Bars near the port catered to sailors of many nations, but beyond this well-lit zone, the streets of Valparaiso were notoriously narrow and dark at night.
It was into this world that Louis Dubois, who would soon after adopt the alias “Emile”, would play out the final scenes of his dramatic life. With a handle-bar moustache, a goatee beard, and eyes that exuded charisma, and perhaps a little madness, Valparaiso would be his moment of climax. Playing a momentarily down-on-his-luck mining engineer, he begged, threatened, and finally killed to maintain a life of luxury, where he could afford the finer things in life, and toss the spare change from his happy nights to the homeless scraping out a living on the streets. Bedding no less than four lovers, he would always return to the home he shared with Ursula, his Colombian partner who seemed extremely devoted to him.
The killing of bookkeeper Lafontaine in Santiago two years after Dubois’ arrival in Chile appeared to have been a failed attempt to borrow cash. When his fellow Frenchmen perhaps appeared to hesitate in lending Dubois part of the 3,000 dollars entrusted to Lafontaine, the desperate fugitive struck him dead at a moment when his safe was left opened. Policemen are said to have detained him for questioning near the Santiago crime scene of his first known murder, but the actor skillfully convinced detectives of his alibi, and instead of facing charges, dozens of other criminals were detained and accused of the crime instead (for which none had enough evidence to justify charges).
Eventually, it would be the gold watch that he took from his first victim that would tie him to the Santiago crime – Lafontaine recorded the serial number of the watch, which was found to have been pawned by Dubois after his final arrest. But the cash he picked up from the theft in Santiago would keep him for at least eight months, through to spring.
Continue reading the story of Emile Dubois by Ben Angel. Part Two Here