Wednesday, 18 February 2015

The man who buried himself - Vital Douat, St Patrick's Catholic Cemetery, Leyton

St Patrick's Roman Catholic Cemetery, Leyton



On Sunday 3 December 1865 the reverend Father McQuoid presided over what must have struck him as a unusual funeral at St Patrick’s Cemetery in Leyton. The deceased, a French wine merchant from Bordeaux called Vital Douat, arrived on an ordinary dray cart rather than a hearse, direct from train station. There was no undertaker (and consequently no help getting the heavy coffin down from the cart and into the chapel) and only one mourner, a mysterious foreigner who called himself Signor Bernardi who spoke almost no English.  Bernardi insisted that Monsieur Douat was buried with full Roman rites but as soon as the coffin had been lowered into the grave and the gravediggers started shovelling earth over it, he disappeared, never to be seen again. The Douat grave lay unmarked, unvisited and neglected for several months until the weeds had taken over the plot and Father McQuoid had forgotten all about the peculiar funeral. 

Meanwhile, in Paris, the widow of Vital Douat presented herself at the office of the Insurance Company where her husband had assured his life for 100,000 francs just a few months before. The Insurers were presented with copies of the English death and burial certificates and a claim was lodged.  The Insurers were suspicious; after Monsieur Douat had taken out his life policy he had returned to Bordeaux and declared himself bankrupt. Investigation by the local fiscal authorities soon revealed the bankruptcy claim to be fraudulent and Douat had fled the country. The Insurers contacted Scotland Yard with their suspicions and the case was assigned to Sergeant Nathaniel Druscovich.

The Moldovan Detective Druscovich
Druscovich had been born in the parish of St George-in-the-East on the notorious Ratcliffe Highway in the east end of London in the 1840’s, the son of a carpenter from Moldova. He spent some of his childhood in Romania and spoke English with a noticeable foreign accent all his life. For this reason Scotland Yard often gave him their ‘foreign’ cases and so the thin file on Vital Douat landed on his desk to investigate. Druscovich soon discovered that on arriving in London Douat had booked himself into Fords Hotel in Manchester Street, Marylebone under the name Roberti. While there be had convinced a French waiter to sign the name Dr Crittie to a forged death certificate which he claimed was to be used to play a prank on a friend of his who never replied to his correspondence. The certificate said that one Vital Douat had died of an aneurism of the heart on 20 November. This certificate was presented to the Registrar of Deaths at Plaistow on 1 December by Douat (who was now using the name Bernardi), the body supposedly lying at 32 Anne Street, E13. The same day Douat presented himself at St Patrick's Cemetery and purchased a burial plot from the sexton and ordered a grave to be dug.

Druscovich then picked up the trail in the Mile End Road where Douat, now using yet another alias, Rubini, had bought a heavy ready-made coffin from an undertaker, asking for it to be adapted by the addition of extra lead lining and the handles to be placed at the ends of the coffin in the continental manner rather than at the sides in the English way. Two days later Douat/ Roberti/ Rubini/ Bernardi appeared again at the undertakers, paid for his coffin, hired two labourers to help him transport it and made his way to Shoreditch Station where he took the train to Leyton and had himself buried at St Patrick's. Druscovich had enough information to request an exhumation certificate from the Secretary of State for Home Affairs and a few days later accompanied by his boss, Inspector Williamson, two of the witnesses who had seen Douat whilst in London, and a doctor the small party made their wayto Leyton to dig up the coffin. In the event neither the witnesses nor the services of the doctor were required because once the coffin had been disinterred and unscrewed it was found to be completely empty. A warrant was issued for Douat’s arrest but by this time he was no longer even in Europe. Having decided it would be safer to remove himself as far away from the continent as possible until his insurance claim was sorted out he had sailed to the United States sometime earlier.

Vital Douat at work sealing his own coffin in an illustration from "A Sleuth and a Mystery Coffin: Another True Story of the Master Detectives of Scotland Yard" published in the Chicago Tribune, Dec 4, 1927
Douat was arrested at Antwerp on his return from the United States. Whilst in Belgium he was tried for further crimes of forgery, including burning a ship in order to claim the insurance and, shockingly, condemned to death once convicted. By March 1867 the hapless Douat (surely the most incompetent white collar criminal of all time?) had had his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment and had been extradited to France to face fraudulent bankruptcy and forgery charges there. This was widely reported in the press:    


GETTING OFF LIGHTLY! A convict condemned to death in Belgium, whose sentence had been commuted to hard labour for life, has just been delivered up to the French authorities. His name is Vital Douat, of Panillac, in the department of the Gironde, and he was formerly a wine merchant in Bordeaux. He was condemned to death by sentence of the 13th of November last at Antwerp, for having in that city, where he had taken refuge in the false name of Willis Romero Donatry, wilfully set fire to certain combustibles for the purpose of burning one or more ships, being also convicted of forgery. He is now about to take his trial in France for fraudulent bankrupt, and for the forgery of bills of lading to the value of nearly a million of francs. His position is somewhat strange, for he escapes from a sentence of hard labour for life to undergo trial which can entail at most hard labour for a definite period, and should he be acquitted, which is not, however, very likely, there seems to be no way by which he can be given up again to the Belgian authorities for crimes committed in Belgium.