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Episode 54: The Night Crew - The Rebel Thief, Episode 3

By Duolingo on Tue 23 Nov 2021

In Episode 3 of this six-part series, Alexandre hones his skill as a master thief. He builds a team of anarchist thieves and strives to remain one step ahead of the police. But how long can his luck last?

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Ngofeen: Hi all, a quick note before we begin. This season of The Duolingo French Podcast is serialized. So if you haven’t heard the previous episode yet, go back to our first episode and start from there! Now, onto the episode.

Ngofeen: It’s March 1905, and a new day of Alexandre Jacob’s trial in the northern French city of Amiens has just begun. Alexandre is the main defendant, but he’s not alone: 22 other men and women stand trial as his accomplices. They’re a motley crew of fellow anarchists, including Alexandre’s mother, Marie, and his lover, Rose. The court clerk begins reading out the list of charges, l’acte d’accusation.

Court Clerk: Acte d’accusation dans le procès d’Alexandre Jacob et ses complices ! Accusation numéro un : cambriolage dans la ville d’Abbeville…

Ngofeen: In most trials, reading out the charges takes a few hours, at most. But Alexandre and his accomplices are accused of over 150 burglaries. The reading takes…nearly two days.

Court Clerk: Accusation numéro 24 : vol de vaisselle en argent dans le château du Duc de… Accusation numéro 72 : vol de bijoux en or appartenant à la Comtesse de Chaussey-Bressac… Accusation numéro 113…

Ngofeen: Alexandre and his crew stand accused of having stolen four million French francs. That’s roughly 16 million in today’s dollars. And yet, when the police raided Alexandre’s home, they were surprised by how modestly he lived. As the list of charges continues, Alexandre sits straight and silent on the defendant's bench.

Alexandre: Si le tribunal savait ! On n’a pas commis 150 vols… mais presque 300 ! Les gens parlent de 4 millions de francs, mais ils ne se demandent pas pourquoi on a volé cet argent. Ils ne se demandent pas non plus ce qu’on a fait avec l’argent. Ils ne considèrent pas notre cause. Notre cause, c’est la cause des travailleurs honnêtes, exploités par les patrons et les bourgeois.

Ngofeen: As the list of charges goes on, the jury is shown item after item of physical evidence. The objects are lined up on a long table that takes up the entire front of the courtroom. The object that draws everyone’s eye isn’t particularly fancy or dangerous-looking. It’s an umbrella. A long, skinny, black umbrella.

Alexandre: Ah, ce parapluie noir… Il me rappelle des souvenirs…

Ngofeen: It turns out, that skinny umbrella played a key role in one of Alexandre’s most stunning robberies.

Alexandre: On peut dire que ce parapluie nous a été bien utile !

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 the turn of the last century, la Belle Epoque, to follow the adventures of France’s real-life “gentleman thief” Alexandre Marius Jacob. Today we pick up the story as Alexandre builds his trusted band of thieves — a group he called les Travailleurs de la Nuit. They’re always one step ahead of the police…but is Alexandre getting too cocky? As always, you can follow along with full transcripts at And now, Episode 3: “The Night Crew,” Les Travailleurs de la Nuit.

Ngofeen: We’re going to jump back in time to the years before Alexandre’s trial. 1900: the dawn of a new century. Alexandre had just escaped a mental asylum and was fully embracing life as a professional thief targeting the rich and powerful.

Alexandre: J’avais décidé d'être un voleur, mais je ne voulais pas être n’importe quel voleur. Moi, je volais pour une cause ! Alors mes vols devaient être visibles et le public devait reconnaître ma marque.

Ngofeen: Alexandre wanted to leave his mark, sa marque. But he was careful not to get caught. After escaping the asylum, it wasn’t safe for Alexandre to stay in Marseilles. So he left the city to settle further west, in Montpellier. There, he planned and executed a series of robberies all on his own. He got into the habit of leaving a note behind at each crime scene, signing off with an alias… Attila, or “Attila,” the infamous chief of the Huns, and the man who helped bring down a decaying Roman empire.

Alexandre: Attila est un homme qui s’est battu contre la corruption d’un empire. Moi aussi, j’étais un rebelle. Je n’étais pas juste un voleur, j’étais un travailleur… un travailleur de la nuit.

Ngofeen: For his new life in Montpellier, Alexandre took on a fake identity. Eventually, his lover, Rose, joined him there. She wanted to stay by his side, even if it meant living the life of an outlaw, une vie de hors-la-loi.

Rose: Pour rester près d’Alexandre, j’étais prête à vivre une vie de hors-la-loi. On devait changer de nom, changer d’identité. On devait aussi trouver une histoire pour cacher la vraie activité d’Alexandre. On a réfléchi, puis on a trouvé la couverture parfaite : une quincaillerie.

Ngofeen: Une quincaillerie, a hardware store. Alexandre leased one under his new identity, and he started a new life there with Rose. It was the perfect cover: a place to store all the kinds of tools a burglar might need. There were also plenty of locks, des serrures, and safes, des coffres-forts, that Alexandre could use to practice picking.

Rose: Alexandre et moi, on a commencé une nouvelle vie. Je travaillais dans la boutique, pendant que dans la salle du fond, Alexandre s’entraînait à forcer des serrures et des coffres-forts…

Ngofeen: But Alexandre also wanted to make sure his mother was safe. Her bakery had never fully recovered from the police raids, so he asked her to join this new family business. At first, Marie refused. She tried to talk him out of his dangerous new life. But she found her son had already made up his mind.

Marie: Je ne pouvais pas imaginer vivre sans mon fils. Et je voulais le protéger. Il était encore si jeune. Il avait juste 20 ans… Un fils a toujours besoin de sa mère. Alors je suis allée vivre avec eux à Montpellier.

Ngofeen: Outwardly, Rose, Marie and Alexandre gave every appearance of being respectable, hardworking shopkeepers. But behind closed doors… Alexandre was busy recruiting accomplices. He avoided career criminals, and preferred like-minded anarchists who shared his convictions. He gave these men a nickname: les Travailleurs de la Nuit, The Night Crew. And together they agreed on some rules.

Rose: Bonjour Monsieur. La réunion est dans la salle du fond. Dépêchez-vous. Chut, ne faites pas de bruit…

Alexandre: Bonjour, Messieurs les Travailleurs de la Nuit ! Alors, je vais être très clair avec vous. Nous avons des règles. Première règle : nous volons seulement les riches. Jamais les travailleurs. Jamais les intellectuels.

Ngofeen: Standing in the back of the room, Rose and Marie listened as Alexandre listed the rules. Rule number 1: only steal from the rich. Rule number 2: give at least 10% of proceeds to the anarchist cause.

Alexandre: En soutenant la presse anarchiste, nous éduquons le peuple ! Un peuple informé est un peuple libre !

Ngofeen: Marie gave Rose a knowing look. She knew that Alexandre gave much more than 10% to his beloved anarchist cause. But the two women didn’t mind living frugally. And while Marie remained skeptical of her son’s politics, Rose agreed with Alexandre’s efforts to fund the anarchist press and educate the people.

Marie: Alexandre ne gardait presque rien pour lui. À sa façon, il était généreux avec moi, et avec Rose. Mais lui, il vivait très simplement. Le plus important, pour Alexandre, était de soutenir sa cause. Il était tellement passionné ! Je l’admirais.

Ngofeen: Then Alexandre stated the third and final rule. During a burglary, un cambriolage, they must avoid violence at all cost. The room turned quiet.

Alexandre: Nous, les Travailleurs de la Nuit, on ne veut pas avoir de sang sur les mains. Avant un cambriolage, vérifiez toujours que la maison est bien vide.

Ngofeen: Marie didn’t like that Alexandre and his men often carried knives with them…and sometimes, guns. But Alexandre assured her that they never used the weapons they carried. His instructions were clear: violence was a last resort.

Alexandre: Nous sommes des cambrioleurs, pas des assassins. Nous volons des voleurs ! Nous sommes des travailleurs de la nuit !

Marius: Aux Travailleurs de la Nuit !

All: Aux Travailleurs de la Nuit !

Ngofeen: Soon, Alexandre and his Night Crew were carrying out burglaries all across France. Marie would stay behind at the hardware store with Rose, waiting for him to return, and hoping he wouldn’t get caught.

Marie: Au revoir, mon grand. Fais bien attention à toi.

Alexandre: Oui maman… À très bientôt.

Rose: Au revoir, mon amour.

Alexandre: Au revoir, ma belle.

Ngofeen: Alexandre often worked with Marius Royère, the former asylum nurse who had become his loyal friend. But to make it harder for eyewitnesses to recognize him and his men if they were spotted, Alexandre also regularly switched accomplices. One night, he set out for a burglary with a baby-faced rookie named Felix Bour. He was the crew’s youngest recruit.

Alexandre: Félix partageait mes principes, et il avait de bonnes intentions. Mais il avait très peu d’expérience… Il avait beaucoup à apprendre.

Ngofeen: Tipped off by another member of the crew, Alexandre and Felix headed to the town of Rochefort, in the west of France. They intended to target the house of a wealthy navy captain named Julien Viaud. For Alexandre, this burglary would be a form of payback, revenge for the abuse he’d endured during his time at sea as un mousse.

Alexandre: Depuis mes années de mousse, j’avais très peu de respect pour les officiers de notre marine ou même pour tout autre officier. Pour moi, les militaires étaient des ennemis du peuple. C’est pour cette raison que nous avons choisi ce capitaine de marine.

Ngofeen: When they arrived at the house, Alexandre broke a window, and he and Felix climbed inside. They began packing up valuables, swiftly and silently.

Alexandre: On n’a eu aucun problème. Tout se passait bien.

Ngofeen: Suddenly, Alexandre noticed something that gave him pause. There were some letters on a desk, clearly written by the owner of the house. But they weren’t signed by Julien Viaud. The letters were signed by Pierre Loti, a writer, un écrivain, that Alexandre greatly admired. So Alexandre turned to Felix and told him to stop.

Alexandre: Félix, remets tout à sa place. Mets bien les choses là où elles étaient. On s’en va.

Felix: Pourquoi ?

Alexandre: On a fait une erreur. On est dans la maison d’un grand écrivain. Souviens-toi, Félix : nous ne volons jamais les médecins, ni les professeurs d’école, ni les artistes, ni les écrivains, ni les travailleurs… Seulement les parasites de la société !

Ngofeen: Instead of leaving the writer’s house immediately, Alexandre grabbed a piece of paper from the desk and wrote Pierre Loti a note.

Alexandre: Monsieur Loti, je suis rentré chez vous par erreur. Je ne vole pas ceux qui écrivent pour vivre. Je vous laisse dix francs pour vous rembourser la fenêtre cassée.

Ngofeen: Alexandre signed his apology with his moniker, Attila. Then he fished around in his pocket and pulled out a 10-franc coin. He left it on the desk next to the note as payment for the broken window. That night, Alexandre returned home empty-handed. But he had a good story to tell Rose and Marie. And soon, he got to read about it in the papers.

Alexandre: C’était étrange de lire les histoires que la presse racontait sur moi. Mais cette histoire m’a bien fait sourire. Ma mère me disait d’être prudent, que ce n’était pas une bonne idée d’attirer l’attention. Mais moi, je voulais que les journaux écrivent encore plus sur nous et sur notre cause. Alors, je voulais faire plus de vols et lire plus d’articles sur nos coups audacieux.

Newsboy: « Attila vole à nouveau ! » ; « Vague de cambriolages dans toute la France ! »

Ngofeen: Alexandre and his Night Crew were unstoppable. For the next three years, they criss-crossed France, picking their targets methodically. They developed a careful system, sending ahead scouts and breaking in only when properties were empty. Wherever they went, they were always a step ahead of the police.

Alexandre: Ah ! C’était les années glorieuses. Rien ne pouvait nous arrêter !

Ngofeen: Soon, police and reporters had developed a nickname for Alexandre’s band of thieves: “Les Quarante Voleurs,” after Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. The wealthy feared them, the press reviled them, and anarchist pamphlets glorified them.

Alexandre: C’était vraiment quelque chose de toujours voir notre dernier vol sur la première page du journal !

Ngofeen: With every successful heist, Alexandre grew more and more confident. It felt like there was no apartment, house or villa he couldn’t break into…no treasure he couldn’t steal. He was ready to up his game. One day, a recruit named Jacques came to tell Alexandre about a particularly big treasure in Paris. The target was a wealthy jeweler, un bijoutier, named Monsieur Bourdin. Jacques had worked with Bourdin, and described him as greedy, avare.

Alexandre: Jacques, mon nouveau complice, avait travaillé pour ce bijoutier. Selon lui, c’était un homme avare. Surtout, Jacques savait exactement où se trouvait son coffre-fort, et combien d’argent il y avait dedans. 250 000 francs. C’était beaucoup d’argent.

Ngofeen: Jacques told the men that the jeweler kept a huge amount of cash in a safe inside his apartment: 250,000 francs – worth roughly one million of today’s dollars. If they succeeded in breaking into the safe, the payout would be huge. Later that night, Alexandre told his mother Marie about the idea. It made her uneasy.

Marie: C’était un coup vraiment risqué, dans la capitale, Paris. La police était partout. C’était dans un immeuble avec plusieurs appartements donc il y aurait certainement des voisins. Mais Alexandre était devenu très sûr de lui. Même trop sûr de lui. Il avait l’impression que rien ne pouvait l’arrêter.

Ngofeen: Despite his mother’s concerns, Alexandre decided to go for it. He, Rose and Marie packed their bags and rented a small furnished apartment in Paris. For weeks, Alexandre and his men carefully plotted every detail of the heist. They mapped out a floor plan of the jeweler’s apartment. They figured out that Bourdin and his wife left the city every Saturday…this was their window of opportunity. Then came the trickiest part. They had to find a way to get in.

Alexandre: Le bijoutier habitait au 4e étage d’un immeuble. Donc, mes hommes et moi, on ne pouvait pas forcer une fenêtre comme on faisait d’habitude. Il fallait trouver une autre façon. Puis un jour, on a appris que l’appartement au-dessus de celui du bijoutier était vide. Voilà ! C’était ça, notre porte d’entrée.

Ngofeen: Alexandre decided that they would rent the empty unit above the jeweler’s apartment. They’d get in by carving a hole in the floorboard. It was a clever idea…but there was one big problem: the noise. There would be sawing, and falling debris… How could they carve a hole big enough for a man to fit through without drawing attention?

Alexandre: C’est là que j’ai eu une idée ingénieuse : un parapluie. On utiliserait un parapluie. Une fois qu’on avait trouvé cette ruse, on était prêts à faire le coup.

Ngofeen: Alexandre picked two accomplices for the heist: Jacques, and a smooth-talking member of the gang called Bonnefoy… His posh accent allowed him to pass as a well-heeled businessman. Ten days before the heist, Bonnefoy donned his best suit and told Bourdin’s concierge, the doorman, that he was looking for an apartment to rent.

Alexandre: Le concierge a fait confiance à Bonnefoy. Il a tout de suite accepté de lui louer l’appartement au-dessus de celui de Bourdin. C’était parfait !

Ngofeen: Finally, on a crisp October Saturday in 1901, Alexandre and his men put their plan into action. First, Jacques tailed the jeweler Bourdin and his wife to make sure they left the apartment for the day. After they got on the train as usual, Jacques gave Alexandre the green light, le feu vert.

Alexandre: Quand Jacques est revenu me donner le feu vert, je me suis préparé. J’ai mis une blouse blanche, une petite casquette et un sac d’ouvrier.

Ngofeen: After putting on his workman’s disguise, Alexandre walked briskly up to the building.

Alexandre: Bonjour ! Je viens réparer une porte chez Monsieur Guilloux. Il m’attend.

Concierge: Entrez, c’est au 5e étage !

Ngofeen: And just like that, the doorman waved Alexandre in. A bit later, when the doorman heard some faint sawing sounds coming from the 5th floor, he thought it was simply the young workman, doing work for the new tenant… But Alexandre and Bonnefoy were busy carving out a small, narrow hole in the floorboard, le plancher, to reach the apartment below.

Alexandre: On a fait un trou dans le sol de notre appartement. On a creusé jusqu’au plafond de l’appartement du bijoutier. Et puis on a traversé son plafond. Puis, j'ai glissé un long parapluie dans le trou.

Ngofeen: Once they had lowered the umbrella into the jeweler's apartment, they secured the handle to the floorboards, and opened it. Now, the umbrella was positioned to catch any debris that fell from the ceiling.

Alexandre: Des morceaux de bois et de briques tombaient. Mais le parapluie les attrapait. Donc les débris ne faisaient presque pas de bruit.

Ngofeen: The open umbrella muted the noise of falling debris as Alexandre and Bonnefoy made the hole wider and wider. Once it was big enough for a man to fit through, they carefully lowered the umbrella to the ground. Then they unfurled a rope ladder. And they were in!

Alexandre: Après ça, tout ce qui nous restait à faire, c’était ouvrir le coffre. Et là, on a eu beaucoup de chance : il y a eu un orage. Le tonnerre et la pluie ont masqué le bruit de mes outils, et j’ai pu forcer le coffre-fort tranquillement. La fortune du bijoutier Bourdin était à nous !

Ngofeen: The next day, after distributing the loot, le butin, Alexandre sat with Rose, Marie and members of his crew reading the day’s newspapers. The Bourdin theft had made headlines.

Alexandre: « Un vol d'une audace extrême ! » ; « Un butin de 250 000 francs ! ». Croyez-moi, Messieurs, ce n’est pas tout le monde qui peut réussir un cambriolage comme celui-ci. On est les meilleurs du métier.

Ngofeen: Across the table, Marie studied her son. There was a swagger to him that she didn’t recognize. She wondered: was that new? Or had she just never noticed it before?

Marie: Alexandre était devenu très sûr de lui. Maintenant, c'était lui le chef. Ses complices se taisaient pour l’écouter. C’était nouveau.

Ngofeen: Marie wasn’t sure what to think of the change. She’d always known her son was daring and unconventional. And she’d grown to accept — even understand — his ideals. But his robberies were getting bigger, and riskier. There’d been a few close calls already. She was worried he was tempting fate.

Marie: Alexandre, mon grand. Après ce vol, tu ne penses pas que tu devrais rester discret un petit moment ? Quitter le pays pendant quelque temps ?

Alexandre: Ne t’inquiète pas, maman. On a de l’expérience, mes hommes et moi. On sait quoi faire pour ne pas être attrapés. J’ai toujours réussi à m’en sortir.

Ngofeen: Marie nodded, but inside, she was worried. Alexandre was smart, yes. And he’d been lucky so far. But she wondered…

Marie: Combien de temps est-ce que sa chance pouvait durer ?

Ngofeen: What Marie didn’t know, was that Alexandre’s luck was about to run out… And it would happen when he least expected it.

Ngofeen: “The Rebel Thief,” Le Voleur Rebelle is based on the real-life story of Alexandre Marius Jacob. Tune in next time for Episode 4: “To Catch a Thief,” Comment attraper un voleur.

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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 was produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media.

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

Managing Editor: Natacha Ruck
Lead Producer: Lorena Galliot
Co-Writer: Pierre-Louis Vernier
Assistant Producer: Justine Hagard
Additional editorial and production support from Adélie Pojzman-Pontay and Martine Chaussard
Special thanks to the historian and author Jean-Marc Delpech.
Mixing & Sound Design: David De Luca
Mastering Engineer: Laurent Apffel
Production Manager: Román Frontini
Executive Producer/Editor: Martina Castro
Voice Actors: Laurent Apffel, Ewunia, Lambert Bastar, Marie Benati, Jérôme Ruiz, Edouard Dossetto and Danielle Acker.