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Episode 52: The Making of a Thief - The Rebel Thief, Episode 1

By Duolingo on Tue 09 Nov 2021

In Episode 1 of this six-part series, we meet Alexandre Marius Jacob, the young sailor who grew up to become one of France’s most daring and notorious thieves. At the turn of the 20th century, the injustices Alexandre witnessed ignited a desire to seek vengeance against the rich and the powerful…entirely on his own terms.

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Ngofeen: The year is 1905, and France is undergoing seismic cultural change. In the streets, horse-drawn carriages jockey for road space alongside shiny, new motorized vehicles. The legislature is about to pass a law officially separating church and state. Women are still wearing corsets…and they are also joining the workforce. But on a rainy March day in the northern city of Amiens, the townspeople are preoccupied with something else.

Newspaper boy: Achetez le journal ! Tout sur le voleur Alexandre Marius Jacob !

Ngofeen: Everybody has gathered to catch a glimpse of the notorious man on trial that day: Alexandre Marius Jacob. A padlocked wagon slowly makes its way towards the courthouse. Inside, Alexandre Jacob sits between two policemen. His back is straight, his gaze alert. He knows that his trial, son procès, could end in a death sentence… But he’s not sorry for what he’s done.

Newspaper boy: Tout sur le procès d’Alexandre Jacob ! C'est le procès du siècle !

Alexandre: Mon procès, le procès du siècle ? Mais ce n’est que le début du siècle ! La foule s’est réunie devant le tribunal. Il y a des gens qui ne m’aiment pas, je le sais. J’entends les cris et les insultes. Ces personnes-là veulent qu’on me coupe la tête à la guillotine.

Ngofeen: Alexandre Jacob is barely 25 years old. But he’s already lived a life of adventure… He’s traveled the world in the merchant navy, he’s become a devoted anarchist… But most of all, he’s been the mastermind behind the most daring string of burglaries France has ever seen. To some, he’s a dangerous thief. To others, a rebel who’s challenged a deeply unequal society.

Alexandre: J’entends aussi les personnes courageuses qui crient devant la police et les soldats : « Vive l’anarchie ! » J’ai des gens de mon côté. Le peuple est bon, j’en suis certain.

Ngofeen: But now, Alexandre Jacob confronts the biggest challenge of his lifetime. He’s tried to live on his own terms…stealing from the rich, giving to the causes he believes in. But his luck has run out. Today, he faces trial, and maybe…the guillotine.

Ngofeen: Bienvenue and welcome to “The Rebel Thief,” Le voleur rebelle, a special serialized season of the Duolingo French podcast. I’m Ngofeen Mputubwele. This season, we’re taking you back in time…to France at the turn of the last century, a period known as La Belle Époque.

You may have heard of the fictional character Arsène Lupin, the famous « gentleman thief » in the novels by Maurice Leblanc. But at the same time Leblanc was writing his novels, France had a real-life master thief. His name was Alexandre Jacob, and his life, some say, was filled with more adventure, action, and intrigue than the story of any character from a book.

Over the next six episodes, we’ll share the story of this complicated man whose ideals and actions rattled French society to its core. By the end of the series, it will be up to you to decide: was Alexandre Jacob a hardened criminal? Or was he a daring French Robinhood, trying to transform French society, one robbery at a time…?

To bring you this series, we’ve dug through history books, newspaper archives and consulted with historians. But before we begin, a word about what’s true and what’s not. The characters in this series are played by voice actors, and most of what they say, think and feel is fictionalized. But the people, places and all major events described in these episodes are real. As always, our characters will be using intermediate French, and I’ll be chiming in for context in English.

And now, Episode 1: “The Making of a Thief”, La naissance d’un voleur.

Ngofeen: Let’s jump back a few years before Alexandre’s trial, to the year 1896. Alexandre Jacob, the man who would one day become France’s most notorious thief, was barely out of boyhood. He’d grown up in Marseilles, in the south of France. But at 16, he was already far from home and hard at work. For the past four years, he’d been working as un mousse, a cabin boy, on steamships.

Alexandre: J’ai commencé à travailler à 12 ans. Ma famille avait besoin d’argent. Alors je suis devenu mousse et je suis parti en mer. Je rêvais d’aventure, et de devenir capitaine. Mais la vie de mousse était très dure.

Ngofeen: Cabin boys lived a hard-knock life. They woke up at 4 a.m. to wash the ship’s decks. At 8 a.m. they ate a meager breakfast. Then they had to restock the deckhouses, grease and fix any ropes that needed mending, and mop the floors all over again.

Alexandre: À midi, on servait le déjeuner aux officiers, puis on mangeait les restes, rapidement. J’avais toujours faim, et je ne dormais presque pas. C’était crevant.

Ngofeen: The work was grueling, crevant. But it was also dangerous. Alexandre and his fellow mousses climbed the high masts in all kinds of weather…and often risked falling to their deaths. But the hardest part, for Alexandre, was seeing the first-class passengers lounging on the decks…and feasting on foie gras.

Alexandre: J’ai commencé à me demander : « Pourquoi est-ce que les gens qui ne travaillent pas ont tout, et ceux qui travaillent le plus n’ont rien ? »

Ngofeen: One icy winter morning, a foreman ordered Alexandre to scrub the top of the highest mast on the ship. Alexandre climbed up the mast, hauling a bucket, un seau, of freezing water.

Alexandre: Il faisait si froid que l’eau avait gelé dans le seau. Mes doigts aussi étaient gelés, et le vent était si fort que je risquais de tomber dans les eaux glacées.

Ngofeen: When Alexandre made it back down, frozen and exhausted, the foreman berated him for not working faster. Something inside Alexandre snapped. It wasn’t simply his exhaustion: it was all the injustices he’d endured and witnessed while at sea. That night, while the other cabin boys slept, he wrote a letter to his mother.

Alexandre: « Chère Maman, j’ai décidé d’arrêter. Je n’en peux plus. Ce n’est pas le travail qui me dérange. C’est l’injustice. »

Ngofeen: Alexandre paused. He hesitated to write to his mother about the worst things he’d seen at sea. He knew they would shock her. But he’d witnessed something truly inhumane: slavery, l’esclavage, and the trading of enslaved humans by the sultan of Zanzibar.

Alexandre: Ah Maman, si tu voyais les choses horribles que j’ai vues, tu serais dégoûtée toi aussi ! Je croyais que l’esclavage était une horreur du passé. Eh bien non : le sultan de Zanzibar fait du trafic de personnes. Et il utilise nos bateaux ! C’est inhumain… Ils ont rempli le fond du bateau, pas avec de la marchandise, mais avec des hommes.

Ngofeen: The ship lurched, and Alexandre gripped the table to steady himself. He knew his mother would be upset to read about the enslaved people locked up in the hold of the boat. In France, slavery had been banned for 50 years. But some wealthy barons had found ways to get around the ban. Alexandre despised them.

Young Alexandre: « Maman, la vie de mousse, ce n’est pas pour moi. Je ne veux pas participer à ces crimes et aider ces monstres à exploiter des hommes. Je veux faire quelque chose de plus honnête. Alors j’ai pris ma décision : je rentre à Marseille. Je suis impatient de te revoir. »

Ngofeen: Several months later, Marie Jacob, Alexandre’s mother, prepared for her son’s arrival back home. She was 33 years old, a stocky woman with strong arms who worked as a baker in the old port of Marseilles. Seven days a week, she got up before dawn to bake loaves of bread for fishermen and dock workers. But she could barely make rent.

Marie: Ce n’était pas une vie facile. Je travaillais seule dans le quartier du Vieux-Port. C’était un quartier pauvre et certains jours, je devais choisir entre manger ou payer le loyer de la boutique. Et puis, j’avais eu tellement peur de perdre mon fils… J'étais heureuse qu’il ne soit plus mousse. Je préférais qu’il soit près de moi.

Ngofeen: Marie headed out to the harbor wearing a secondhand dress she’d mended by hand — her Sunday best. The bustling port was packed with people: immigrants stepping off steamships, orphans begging for food…and first-class passengers with trunks full of fine clothes. Standing at the edge of the dock, Marie scanned the crowd. Finally, she spotted him.

Marie: Alexandre !

Alexandre: Maman !

Marie: Bonjour mon grand. Fais voir ton visage ! Qu’est-ce que c’est que cette barbe ?

Ngofeen: Alexandre listened happily as Marie fussed over him and pressed him about his future plans.

Alexandre: Je suis tellement content de te revoir, Maman.

Marie: Moi aussi, mon fils ! Ce n’est pas grave que tu ne sois plus mousse. Tu es intelligent, on va te trouver un autre métier.

Ngofeen: In the room above her bakery, Marie watched her 16-year-old son shave his beard. She noticed how thin he looked — his rib cage showed beneath his undershirt. When Alexandre finished shaving, he turned around. He’d left a trim mustache, but it suited him.

Marie: Montre ta moustache ! Pas mal… Ça te va bien !

Ngofeen: As Alexandre settled back into life in Marseilles, he started spending more and more time with an upstairs neighbor, a young man called Émile. Marie was glad he was making friends. But one evening, as Alexandre was heading out the door, she noticed he looked excited…and nervous.

Marie: Alexandre, mon grand, où est-ce que tu vas comme ça ?

Alexandre: Ah… Ce soir, j’ai prévu d’aller à une réunion politique…

Marie: Une réunion politique ? C’est quoi cette réunion ?

Alexandre: Ne t’inquiète pas. C’est une réunion du parti anarchiste…

Ngofeen: Marie’s heart stopped. Her son was headed off to a meeting organized by a new political movement: anarchism.

Marie: Le mot « anarchisme » me faisait peur. Quand Alexandre était en mer, les anarchistes avaient fait beaucoup de bruit dans la société, et causé beaucoup de problèmes.

Ngofeen: Marie reminded her son that when he was away at sea, a group of radical anarchists had been behind a series of deadly political attacks. To her, that kind of violence was wrong. But more than anything, she wanted her son to be safe from the police.

Marie: Alexandre, tu es sûr que tu veux aller à cette réunion ?

Alexandre: Oui, Maman, c’est très important. Nous vivons dans un monde injuste… Je veux changer les choses.

Marie: Mais… c’est dangereux, non ?

Ngofeen: Alexandre shook his head. He told his mother that anarchism was just a political movement, a workers’ movement. The movement’s goal, he told her, was to end the exploitation of the working class by the ruling class. And after what he’d seen at sea, this spoke to him.

Alexandre: Maman, tu n’es pas d’accord avec ces idées ? Regarde notre vie à Marseille : tu travailles tous les jours, du matin au soir. La société exploite les gens comme nous ! Il faut faire une révolution. C’est notre seule chance de vivre dans un monde plus juste.

Marie: La police surveille les anarchistes. Fais très attention, mon fils. Je ne veux pas qu’il t’arrive quelque chose.

Ngofeen: Alexandre went to his first political meeting. Then another. And another. He started hanging out in anarchist cafés. At first, he mostly listened to his outraged comrades, ses camarades révoltés.

Male Voice: Je suis anarchiste et révolté parce que j’ai un amour sincère et profond pour l’amitié. Donc, toute injustice me révolte !

Ngofeen: The speeches Alexandre heard resonated with him. He wanted to speak up about what he’d experienced at sea… But it was hard.

Alexandre: Je ne savais pas quoi dire de plus qu’eux. Je voulais me rendre utile, mais je ne savais pas comment.

Ngofeen: Little by little, Alexandre gained confidence. He made friends with a few regulars, read every anarchist pamphlet, and even wrote a few articles of his own. Then, one summer night, 17-year-old Alexandre went to a rally in the back of a smoky café. Finally, he got up to speak.

Alexandre: Messieurs, bonsoir. Je suis devenu mousse à l'âge de 12 ans. J’ai vu le monde, et il n’était pas beau ! J’ai vu la richesse, mais j’ai aussi vu une pauvreté horrible.

Ngofeen: For months, he’d carried the burden of the worst horror he’d seen at sea: slavery. Other than the letter he’d written to his mother, he hadn’t known who to talk to about it. Alexandre took a deep breath.

Alexandre: Vous pensez peut-être qu’en France, il n’y a plus du tout d’esclavage, et que c’est simplement une horreur du passé. Pourtant, je l’ai vu de mes propres yeux ! Au fond d’un bateau, j’ai vu des hommes attachés ! Et tout ça, sur nos bateaux de commerce ! J’ai compris ce que voulait dire l’exploitation de l’homme par l’homme. Les choses doivent changer !

Ngofeen: After Alexandre spoke up, other anarchists came to see him. They shared his disgust for the times they lived in. They spoke of values like liberté et fraternité, freedom and brotherhood. One of the men offered to buy him a beer. He introduced himself as Leca.

Alexandre: Leca parlait d’égalité et de fraternité entre les hommes. Il voulait aider le peuple à retrouver son honneur. J’étais heureux de trouver d’autres personnes qui pensaient comme moi. Je l’aimais bien, Leca.

Ngofeen: As the night went on, Alexandre was enjoying himself. But when Leca brought up a hush-hush plot to target a building anarchists considered a symbol of the bourgeois state… Alexandre was surprised. He didn’t want to get mixed up in anything like that.

Alexandre: Leca a regardé autour de lui, puis discrètement, il m’a donné deux objets : un livre, et un petit paquet fermé. À voix basse, il m’a dit que le paquet contenait des explosifs. Puis, il m’a demandé si je savais utiliser des explosifs. J’ai répondu que non. Ensuite, il m’a demandé si je pouvais garder les explosifs chez moi, en sécurité.

Ngofeen: Alexandre was stunned, and scared. He’d never thought of doing something violent…and he’d certainly never handled a packet of explosives before. But Leca had been friendly. And Alexandre was only 17, new to anarchist circles. He desperately wanted to be useful.

Alexandre: J’étais jeune, naïf, et je voulais être utile. Alors, j’ai pris le risque d’accepter. J’ai regardé Leca dans les yeux, et je lui ai dit : « C’est d’accord. » Je n’aurais jamais imaginé les conséquences de ma décision…

Ngofeen: Later that night, Alexandre stumbled out of the café, dizzy from the thrill of doing something forbidden. Under his jacket, he clutched the book and the packet that Leca had given him. He went home and hid the objects in his bedroom. Then he went to sleep. Marie never heard him get home.

Marie: Quelqu’un frappait fort à la porte. Puis j’ai entendu : « Police ! » Je me suis dépêchée de sortir de mon lit.

Ngofeen: When Marie stepped out of her bedroom, it was chaos. A dozen policemen had barged into her home. They were ransacking everything, dumping out the contents of her drawers and tipping over furniture. One of the officers looked like the inspector in charge. Marie walked up to him.

Marie: J’ai demandé : « Mais qu’est-ce que vous cherchez ? » Le policier n’a pas répondu. Tout à coup, un des policiers a crié : « Je l’ai trouvé ! » Il est sorti de la chambre d’Alexandre avec un paquet dans la main. Derrière lui, deux autres policiers poussaient Alexandre vers la porte.

Ngofeen: Marie rushed over to Alexandre. She pleaded with the policemen to let her son go. But the inspector raised a hand to silence her. He announced that they’d found explosives in Alexandre’s possession. The police led Alexandre away in handcuffs. Later that night, in his holding cell, Alexandre put two and two together: Leca had framed him. Alexandre realized that his speech at the anarchist bar must have made him a target. After three weeks in jail, he was put on trial…and sentenced to six months in prison.

Alexandre: J’ai découvert la vie en prison, la vie enfermé entre quatre murs, moi qui étais parti en mer parce que je rêvais de grands espaces et de liberté… Alors la vie en prison, c’était très dur. Mais je me suis promis de sortir de là vivant… et de ne plus jamais retourner en prison.

Ngofeen: Six months later, in February 1898, Alexandre was freed. He was 18 years old now. Marie was happy to have her son back, but she also noticed a change in him. He seemed…hardened.

Marie: Quand Alexandre est sorti de prison, j’ai trouvé qu’il avait changé. Il faisait moins confiance aux gens. Il était plus… dur. Et surtout, il ne faisait plus confiance à la police. Pour moi, il était encore mon petit garçon… Mais maintenant, c’était un homme.

Ngofeen: To Marie’s relief, Alexandre seemed resolved to stay out of trouble. He wanted nothing more to do with the police. He finished secondary school and found a job as a pharmacist’s apprentice.

Marie: Alexandre aimait son nouveau travail. Il préparait les mélanges de médicaments, il aidait les clients… Ça l’intéressait ! Et puis, le pharmacien était un homme bien.

Ngofeen: But it wasn’t long before Alexandre started returning to anarchist cafés. This worried Marie, but he promised her that he’d keep a low profile. In truth, it wasn’t just politics that drew Alexandre back to his old watering holes. He’d noticed someone there.

Rose: Faites attention où vous marchez !

Alexandre: Oui… Pardon… Je ne t’avais pas vue…

Rose: Ah, c’est toi, Alexandre. Ce n’est rien. Comment vas-tu ?

Alexandre: Bien… et toi, Rose ?

Ngofeen: Alexandre was smitten.

Adult Alexandre: Elle s’appelait Rose. Rose Roux. Je la trouvais très belle. Elle avait de longs cheveux bruns, et des yeux intelligents, déterminés. Quand Rose souriait, son menton avait une petite fossette.

Ngofeen: When Alexandre first fell for Rose and her dimpled chin, sa fossette, his friends teased him. She was 15 years older than he was! And she’d once lived with another man — a true scandal for an unmarried woman at the time. But Alexandre didn’t care.

Alexandre: Elle parlait toujours avec intelligence, et détermination. Rose n’était pas comme les filles de mon âge. Elle avait l’air… libre.

Ngofeen: Rose was outspoken. Alexandre admired the passion in her voice. She had a good head on her shoulders, and political convictions of her own. Soon, Rose also fell under the charm of this handsome young man…with big ideals.

Rose: Je n’avais jamais rencontré quelqu’un comme Alexandre. Il était brillant, passionné… Et il me traitait avec respect, contrairement à beaucoup d’hommes. Je voyais qu’Alexandre était un esprit libre. Lui et moi, on se ressemblait.

Ngofeen: Pretty soon, Rose and Alexandre were in love. They moved in together, started making plans for the future. But for Alexandre, being a convicted anarchist remained a problem. The French government had passed laws that restricted the civil liberties of anarchist sympathizers. And for the local police, that made Alexandre a target…even at his place of work.

Alexandre: Un jour, la police est venue voir mon chef, le pharmacien. Ils lui ont dit : « Alexandre est un anarchiste dangereux. Vous ne pouvez pas lui faire confiance. » Puis les policiers sont partis. Et mon chef est venu me parler.

Ngofeen: The pharmacist told Alexandre that he was sorry. He had nothing against him. But after what the police had said, he couldn’t keep Alexandre on as an employee.

Alexandre: J’ai perdu mon travail. En plus de ça, la police visitait régulièrement la boulangerie et l’appartement de ma mère. Qu’ils me persécutent c’est une chose, mais persécuter ma pauvre mère…

Ngofeen: Marie hated it when the police barged into her bakery and demanded to search the store. It was bad for business. Even longtime customers started to avoid her store.

Marie: Chaque semaine, la police venait faire des recherches chez nous. Ils disaient qu’ils cherchaient des substances dangereuses… Mais tout ce qu’ils faisaient, c’était faire peur aux clients !

Ngofeen: Alexandre was furious. He’d served his time, he was doing his best to live an honest life. But the police were making “normal” life impossible for him and his mother. So Alexandre made a decision: If they weren't going to let him live by the rules, then he was going to break them…

Alexandre: Ils me voyaient comme un criminel ? Eh bien ! J’allais devenir un criminel ! Les riches avaient trop. Les pauvres n’avaient pas assez. Alors je serais un voleur… mais je ne volerais que les riches. Bientôt, ils allaient voir de quoi j’étais capable.

Ngofeen: And Alexandre already knew exactly who his first target would be.

Ngofeen: “The Rebel Thief,” Le voleur rebelle is based on the real-life story of Alexandre Marius Jacob. Tune in next time for Episode 2: “The First Heist,” Le premier cambriolage.

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The Duolingo French Podcast is produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media. I’m your host, Ngofeen Mputubwele, à la prochaine!


This episode includes a recording from kineticturtle under the Creative Commons Attribution License.

This episode was produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media.

Managing Editor: Natacha Ruck
Lead Producer: Lorena Galliot
Co-writer: Pierre-Louis Vernier
Assistant Producer: Justine Hagard
Mixing & Sound Design: Samia Bouzid
Mastering Engineer: Laurent Apffel
Music Score: Laurent Apffel
Sound Mixers: Samia Bouzid, Morgane Fouse and David De Luca
Additional Help from: Adélie Pojzman-Pontay, Martine Chaussard, and the historian and author Jean-Marc Delpech
Production Manager: Román Frontini
Executive Producer/Editor: Martina Castro
Voice Actors: Laurent Apffel, Lambert Bastar, Ewunia, Marie Benati, Jérôme Ruiz, Edouard Dossetto, and Danielle Acker