Napoleon’s Policeman, Pierre-François Réal

Pierre-François Réal by Charles Willson Peale, around 1824

Pierre-François Réal by Charles Willson Peale, around 1824

Pierre-François Réal was an ardent French Revolutionist who helped Napoleon seize power and then served in key police positions throughout Napoleon’s reign. His supporters called him a champion of liberty who defended the rights of the falsely accused. His detractors regarded him as a hypocritical monster, responsible for many deaths. After Napoleon’s fall, Réal found exile in the United States. He built a “cup and saucer” house in Cape Vincent, New York, and may have sought to rescue Napoleon from St. Helena.

A Jacobin lawyer

Pierre-François Réal was born in the village of Chatou, near Paris, on March 28, 1757. He was the third of 12 children, the son of a gamekeeper. Thanks to a bishop’s charity, Réal received a good education at the Collège Sainte-Barbe in Paris, equipping him for a career as a lawyer.

As one of the electors to select deputies for the Estates-General of 1789, Réal became an early supporter of the French Revolution. He started off as a fervent Jacobin. In 1792, he was appointed public prosecutor of the Revolutionary tribunal created to deal with the insurrection of August 10, which resulted in the fall of the French monarchy. Réal’s politics moderated as the Revolution progressed. He became a collaborator of Georges Danton. According to Réal’s supporters,

Whatever the errors of Réal in this period, they included no barbaric acts; and, without betraying the interests of liberty, which he considered sacred, whenever it was in his power to render services, he rendered them with alacrity, and gained for several victims of this period the recognition of rights that were infringed when their services were no longer needed. (1)

In March 1794 Réal was arrested, along with Danton and others, and imprisoned in the Palace of Luxembourg. Thanks to the fall of Maximilien Robespierre on 9 Thermidor (July 27, 1794), which ended the Reign of Terror, Réal escaped the guillotine.

Under the Directory, Réal aligned himself with Paul Barras (the lover of Rose de Beauharnais, who became Napoleon’s wife Josephine) and Joseph Fouché (who became Napoleon’s minister of police). Réal published a patriotic newspaper, was named historiographer of the Republic, defended those accused of Jacobin conspiracy, and eventually took a position in the Department of the Seine. He also began his association with Napoleon, through Josephine. Réal had opposed the conviction of her first husband, General Alexandre de Beauharnais, for which she was grateful. Both Fouché and Réal played important roles in the coup d’état of 18 Brumaire (November 9, 1799), which brought Napoleon to power.

Napoleon’s policeman

Napoleon considered Pierre-François Réal trustworthy and capable. He made Réal a councillor of state in the justice section, where he participated in the drafting of the Civil Code, or Code Napoléon. In 1804, Réal was responsible for conducting the investigation into the plot by Georges Cadoudal and Jean-Charles Pichegru to assassinate Napoleon. This affair led to the arrest and execution, on March 21, 1804, of a Bourbon prince, the Duke of Enghien, on trumped-up charges. The episode is described in “The d’Enghien Affair: Crime or Blunder” by Tom Holmberg on The Napoleon Series.

This stain on Napoleon’s career also tarnished Réal’s. On March 20, Napoleon had directed his Secretary of State to write to Réal, ordering him to proceed to Vincennes to personally interrogate the Duke of Enghien, and then to report the results to him. The letter arrived at Réal’s house late in the evening. Réal, exceedingly tired, had forbidden his valet to wake him until early morning, so he didn’t read the letter until then. Setting out with haste, he ran into René Savary, who informed him that the execution had already taken place. Napoleon’s secretary Méneval reports what happened at Malmaison, where Napoleon was waiting.

Savary related the sentence and its execution in a few words. On hearing that the Duc d’Enghien had asked to see him, the First Consul, without asking for any of those details of which he was usually so greedy, interrupted Savary to ask what had become of Réal, and to know if he had not gone to Vincennes. Hearing that he had not gone there, Napoleon remained silent, walking up and down his library, with his hands crossed behind his back, until the moment when M. Réal was announced. After listening to the latter’s explanation, and having exchanged a few words with him, he fell back into his reverie, and then, without expressing a word either of approval or of blame, he took his hat and said: ‘It is well,’ leaving M. Réal surprised, and to some extent disturbed by his manner. (2)

Charles Ingersoll cites Joseph Bonaparte’s account, corroborated by Réal:

Napoleon, who was enraged at it, thought that the Jacobins had trifled with him, and that Réal’s excuse was fabricated to cover their plan, to throw the whole odium of their measures on the First Consul. That was the cause of his anger and rage against Réal – but the mischief was done. (3)

Napoleon was not angry enough to dispose of Réal. Shortly thereafter, the French Empire was divided into four police districts. Réal was placed in charge of the largest and most important of these, covering northern, western and part of eastern France. In 1808, Napoleon made Réal a count of the Empire, an ironic position for this formerly fierce republican.

Réal’s wealth rose along with his standing. In 1799, he had purchased the château of Ennery. He now acquired the château of Boulogne, on the banks of the Seine outside the Bois de Boulogne (the property was later purchased by the banker James Rothschild).

In her memoirs, Réal’s lover Victorine de Chastenay describes an evening at Boulogne:

The soiree was magnificent. In the salon there was music: Mme. Lacuée [Réal’s daughter] sang with her charming voice; one of her young friends sang after her, Plantade accompanied. The windows were open, and in the garden, on a terrace, M. Réal, looking through a telescope, showed me the moons of Jupiter, and roamed the extended sky. (4)

All was not light and love, however. Around 1790, Réal had married Marguerite Agnès Pérignon (born circa 1770). They had two children, a son born around 1790 and a daughter, Eulalie Françoise, born around 1791. Their son became a sublieutenant in the dragoons and was killed at the Battle of Pultusk in December 1806.

The Emperor could not say a word of condolence to this despairing father, who truly was his victim. It was when [Réal] could show himself that the Empress [Josephine] took care to erase this cruel injury; she took M. Réal aside as soon as she perceived it, and spoke to him as a devoted friend whose maternal heart each day also suffered from mortal worries…. The unhappy ones closeted themselves, and when they reappeared, their grief hid itself and finally evaporated. (5)

After this, Réal’s devastated wife – who apparently blamed Napoleon and her husband for the death – “renounced all the vanities of this world” and distanced herself from Réal. (6)

His opponents called Réal a hypocrite: on the surface a good and likeable man; underneath cruel and rapacious.

The highway assassin is preferable to the fearful and hypocritical Réal; you are on your guard against the first, and the second, with the appearance of virtue, makes you fall into his traps. (7)

When Napoleon abdicated in 1814, Réal was ejected from his post. When Napoleon returned to power in March 1815, he made Réal the prefect of police of Paris – a prestigious post in which Réal enjoyed considerable independence and reported directly to Napoleon.

Exile in New York

After Napoleon’s final defeat, Pierre-François Réal was compelled by an edict of July 24, 1815 to leave Paris for house arrest in a distant part of the country. Réal went to Belgium, ostensibly to grow hops on an estate he reportedly bought near Aalst. He was considered a troublemaker and could not get permission to extend his stay there. He sold his French property and bought 1,700 acres of land at Cape Vincent, in northern New York State. The seller was Jacques Donatien Le Ray de Chaumont, a French-born American citizen and land speculator. Chaumont had sold a large tract of nearby land to Joseph Bonaparte.

In 1816, Réal embarked for New York with his nephew, Jean François Roland de Bussy, and his nephew’s family. He was also accompanied by his secretary, Jean-Claude-Charles Pichon, an amateur astronomer whose last name is sometimes mistakenly given as “Pigeon” in American sources. Réal’s wife, with whom a police report said he was on bad terms, remained in France. The ship landed in August.

On Gouvello Street in Cape Vincent, Réal built an octagon-shaped dwelling crowned with a cupola and tower, which became known as the “cup and saucer house,” owing to its resemblance to an inverted cup placed in a saucer. He furnished it richly, devoted one of the rooms to Napoleonic memorabilia, and used another as a laboratory for undertaking scientific experiments with Pichon. This is the house where Napoleon stays with Réal in Napoleon in America. Much like the legend behind Napoleon House in New Orleans, it was rumoured that Réal plotted with Joseph Bonaparte to rescue Napoleon from St. Helena, and that the house was intended to become the Emperor’s residence once his escape had been achieved. Henri Lallemand wrote to his wife Henriette on November 13, 1821, that Real’s farm was a “very nicely situated at the junction of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, good land and a fine house.” (8)

Réal also held land in the Vine and Olive colony in Alabama, which the United States Congress had granted to the French exiles, but he never lived there. Tradition has it that Réal was the person who proposed the name Demopolis for the main settlement on the Vine and Olive grant.

Instead Réal spent his time building up his farm and making occasional forays into mechanics and applied chemistry with Pichon. A number of exiled Bonapartists wound up in the Cape Vincent area, which was just as well, as Réal wrote to Joseph Bonaparte that his “overly old ears” would never understand English. (9)

Back in France, Réal’s wife and daughter were busy seeking a pardon for him from King Louis XVIII. Their request was accompanied by a petition signed by the Marquis de Lafayette and other members of the opposition, as well as by attestations from royalists to whom Réal had been helpful. On May 26, 1819, the king agreed to recall those who would openly promise loyalty to him. France’s ambassador to the United States, Jean-Guillaume Hyde de Neuville, was authorized to issue Réal and his companions the necessary passports. Réal told Joseph Bonaparte that the restoration of his rights in France brought back all his memories and nostalgia for “the state of splendor, glory and happiness in which France had once found herself” under Napoleon. (10)

Pierre-François Réal did not, however, immediately return. He had invested heavily to develop agriculture on his farm in Cape Vincent and wanted to recoup his investment. Also, he may not have been keen to rejoin his wife. Her death, on November 8, 1826, prompted him to dispose of his American property and return to France. As Réal was in poor health, his daughter Eulalie came to accompany him home. They arrived in Le Havre on May 29, 1827. According to a police report, Réal was said to have lost most of his fortune on “bad speculations” in the United States. (11) Though Napoleon left Réal 100,000 francs in his will, the latter may never have received this amount.

Réal spent the remainder of his days in Paris studying chemistry with Pichon. After the July 1830 Revolution, he briefly advised the new prefect of police. He also wrote his memoirs, published anonymously under the title Indiscrétion, 1798-1830: souvenirs anecdotiques et politiques tirés du portefeuille d’un fonctionnaire de l’Empire.

Pierre-François Réal died in Paris on May 7, 1834. He was buried with military honours at Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. Simon Bernard was a pallbearer.

Réal’s daughter Eulalie, who in 1808 had married Baron Jean Lacuée de Saint-Just, became a widow the same year her father died. In October 1836, she received a marriage proposal from the French writer Marie-Henri Beyle, better known as Stendhal. She declined and instead married the engineer Léonor Fresnel in December 1836.

The cup-and-saucer house was destroyed by fire on October 14, 1867. In honour of its French heritage, Cape Vincent hosts an annual French Festival, complete with a Napoleon-led parade.

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  1. Théodore Bourg Saint-Edme, Biographie des lieutenans-généraux, ministers, directeurs-généraux, préfets de la Police en France (Paris, 1829), p. 401.
  2. Claude-François de Méneval, Memoirs to Serve for the History of Napoleon I, From 1802 to 1815, translated by Robert H. Sherard, Vol. I (London, 1895), pp. 261-262.
  3. Charles J. Ingersoll, History of the Second War between the United States of America and Great Britain, Second Series, Vol. 1 (Philadelphia, 1853), p. 221.
  4. Victorine de Chastenay, Mémoires de Madame de Chastenay, 1771-1815, Vol. II (Paris, 1897), p. 234.
  5. Ibid., p. 55.
  6. Ibid., p. 134.
  7. Lewis Goldsmith, The Secret History of the Cabinet of Bonaparte (London, 1810), p. 606.
  8. Eric Saugera, Reborn in America: French Exiles and Refugees in the United States and the Vine and Olive Adventure, 1815-1865, translated by Madeleine Velguth (Tuscaloosa, 2011), p. 349.
  9. Louis Bigard, Le comte Réal, ancien Jacobin (Versailles, 1937), p. 175.
  10. Reborn in America, p. 349.
  11. Ibid., p. 350.

6 commments on “Napoleon’s Policeman, Pierre-François Réal”

  • Irene Hartlmayr says:

    I wonder that Lewis Goldsmith is cited here . He was not an
    ” opponent ” politically but a totally dishonest pamphleteer,
    who wrote the above named book purely as slander against
    Napoleon and his family.Therefore he cannot be described as
    a in any way credible witness!!Even the English considered
    this pamphlet to be impossible and dishonourable!!

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thanks for your comment, Irene. Réal had many detractors, both in France and abroad. I used Goldsmith’s quote as an example of some of the negative things said about him.

  • John Adan says:

    Very much appreciated.

  • C.GRAS says:

    Je suis un descendant de Jean François Roland de Bussy. Pouvez vous me donner plus d’informations sur celui-ci.
    Sentiments distingués .

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The highway assassin is preferable to the fearful and hypocritical Réal; you are on your guard against the first, and the second, with the appearance of virtue, makes you fall into his traps.

Lewis Goldsmith