French police tackle 103-year-old cold case

In December of 1913, workers looking to dig a cellar under a sharecropper’s house adjoining the Château of Montcigoux in the town of Saint-Pierre-de-Frugie in Dordogne, southwestern France, made a grisly discovery: human skeletal remains. The bones were buried in a shallow grave — the skull was just 10 inches beneath the surface — under the floor near the fireplace. There was no clothing or objects of any kind that might help identify the deceased. There was no sign of decomposition in the soil and the bones were bleached white.

The discovery of the skeleton made the news at the time, but the authorities had no interest in pursuing a death investigation. In 1933, local newspaper Le Courrier du Centre did an investigation of their own and published a series of stories claiming to have solved the mystery. And a truly lurid solution it was. According to the paper, the bones belonged to one Ernest de Fontaubert who in 1850 had left France with his sister Ernestine to make his fortune in the California Gold Rush. They were more than just brother and sister, the story alleged. They were incestuous lovers who lived as a couple in the manor house while their younger brother Arthur, who they hated, was forced to live in the small sharecropper’s house. Over the course of their unholy relationship, they had five still-born children who they surreptitiously buried on the estate.

When they returned from California, Arthur killed Ernest with a hatchet blow to the head and buried his brother under the floorboards of his room. He then slaughtered two bullocks at the entrance to the manor so the stench of their decomposition would mask Ernest’s. When she realized her brother/husband was missing, Ernestine went mad and Arthur locked her in the tower.

This very juicy story got a foothold in the local lore, and soon it was being recited as fact. Author Robert Margerit wrote a novel based on the account in 1958 which became a bestseller in Dordogne. In 1987 a documentary was filmed about the purported murder. In 1989 Bertran Visage wrote another novel inspired by the 1933 news articles. The result was a renewed interest in the bones and their context. Tourists queued up to visit Ernest’s remains and the town took full advantage of its notorious boney resident, promoting the château and hosting all kinds of Ernest-related events and tours.

The boost was significant, because while the Château of Montcigoux is lovely, it’s a comparatively modest manor house, not the kind of palatial mansion that people think of when they think of châteaux in, say, the Loire Valley. The first Montcigoux castle was built in the 12th century, but only a single round tower survives from the medieval château. (That’s where Arthur was supposed to have imprisoned Ernestine.) The manor that stands now dates to the 17th century. It was the seat of the Rolle family from 1540 until 1826 when the château was acquired by Pierre Paignon de Fontaubert. Pierre’s son Francois Ernest was the Ernest of skeleton fame. His other son Francois Arthure was the alleged fratricide.

In 2011, Bernard-Jean Aumasson visited Montcigoux and took a tour of locations from the story. A retired mineral expert for a geophysics company, Aumasson was immediately skeptical of the Ernest-Ernestine-Arthur story. He decided to see if he could find any answers himself, and spent the next two years combing through archives in France and the United States for clues about what really happened. He discovered that Ernest was murdered, but not in the Château of Montcigoux, and not by his brother.

Ernest had indeed caught the gold bug and emigrated to California in 1850, as the story said. Like all wise 49ers, he focused on selling things to the masses hoping to strike it rich, not on panning for gold himself. Apparently he was quite successful and respected, but these were dangerous times and on February 26th, 1862, Ernest was found dead in Cave City, Calaveras county.

In Calveras county records Aumasson found that Ernest’s sister gave a statement to an investigating judge. She said her brother had left the day before at nine in the morning carrying 2.6 kilos (5.7 pounds) in gold. His body was found by a neighbor just half a mile from his Cave City home. The gold was gone. The next morning his horse returned home alone.

The murder got a blurb in the Stockton Daily Independent newspaper.

A French merchant named De Fontambert, who has for years done business at Cave City in Calaveras county, was early last week murdered by some ruffians for $1,500 in gold dust which he was carrying to San Andreas for exchange. This is the second time within two years that Mr. De Fontambert’s life was attempted by robbers. He was a most estimable gentleman, highly educated, polished in his manners and a member of a distinguished French family.

Aumasson also found that Ernest was married, a fact entirely elided in favor of the incest angle. He’d been married to Thérese de Tessieres for 10 years before he left for California. Thérese stayed behind and helped manage the estate when Ernest was gone. Ernestine corresponded with her regularly. One letter from 1855 survives and it’s apparently very affectionate. Thérese died in 1860, two years before her long-distance husband was murdered. It would have been exceptionally challenging for Ernest to have knocked up his sister five times in the active presence of his wife and other siblings. Besides Aumasson checked the local records and found five babies born to the family had died of natural causes and been buried on the estate in an entirely above-board fashion. Oh, and her name wasn’t Ernestine. It was Catherine.

Catherine stayed in California another three years after her brother’s death. When she returned to France in 1865, she had a significant sum of 600 francs on her and seemed fine at first. Her sister Hortense welcomed her warmly and she stayed with her in Paris before returning to Montcigoux. Then things went awry. Catherine decided she would go to Paris, but when she missed the train to Limoges, she decided to just walk the 300 miles to the capital. She was found 100 miles away in Chateauroux. In 1866, the family were granted guardianship of their unstable sister. She died the next year.

Aumasson’s research bummed out the locals who love their lore and their skeleton which is kept in a glass-topped box almost like a relic of a saint, but it also inspired the authorities to finally take a look at the bones. On Monday, police packed up the whole box and transported the remains the Institute for Criminal Research of the national police of Cergy-Pontoise. There the bones will be examined forensically in an attempt to determine the individual’s age, sex and possible cause of death.

Gilbert Chabaud, who has owned the Montcigoux manor since 1977 and is the mayor of the hamlet of some 400 inhabitants, said he was sad to say goodbye to “Ernest”.

But Chabrol reassured the townsfolk: “As soon as he has had these little tests, he will return to his place. We will return him to the village.”