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Was Your Ancestor a French Crook?

Thief mark 2

We have been troubled at home by a spate a false chimney sweeps. French apartment buildings have door codes; those who do not have the code cannot get in. However, the police, fire brigade and post carriers all have pass keys. Occasionally, thieves get their hands on a pass key and suddenly are in the building, knocking on doors.

The current scam is very intimidating, especially to the elderly. The thief, sometimes even with the theatrical prop of a broom or duster, bangs on the door and says he is there to clean the flue to the apartment's heater. Try to tell him to go away and he says "It's the law!" Which it is. By law, Paris apartments must have the flue cleaned once a year. However, the city government is not so kindly as to send cleaners around. In our building, some of the elderly have let the sweeps in. Of course, they stole all they could get their hands on.

Periodically, word goes around that the burglars are marking houses again. Police stations in Belgium and France send out notices with the marks and warn people to be on the lookout for them -- made in chalk -- on one's door or front wall. The meanings are clear signals to other thieves of what sorts of potential victims can be found within. The mark above indicates that the dwelling has all ready been burgled. Here are a few others:

Plenty of money here         Plenty of money here


Nothing of interest                      Nothing of interest



Flirtatious Woman  Flirtatious woman.


Empty dwelling      Empty dwelling



Kind hearted woman    Kind-hearted woman


Zealous gendarmes Zealous police

 We would like to say that, should your French ancestor have left doodles resembling the above, he or she may have been in the fraternity of burglars, but on a closer examination, something is awry. We decided to investigate.

Our daughter has seen some of these marks on buildings in Neuilly-sur-Seine, where she hobnobs with her elite friends. She deigned to take us on an inspection tour. Every mark was either the one for "zealous police" or that for "nothing of interest", the latter being pretty hard to believe for one of the poshest neighbourhoods in all of France. It seemed clear that, when the zealous Neuilly police passed around the leaflet with the codes des voleurs, many owners stole their children's school chalk and put discouraging signs on their own front doors. 

To us, the marks were preposterous. What thief ever graciously told others where to strike next? What thief would broadcast to all the world that there were pots of money in a place he planned to rob? Wouldn't he be a bit worried that someone else would get in there before him? What thieves note, as they burgle, if the woman whose home they are stripping is flirtatious or kind-hearted? What woman is either in such a situation? Something niggled in our ageing and disintegrating memory. This last mark brought the memory back:

Offers work    Offers work


Now really, who  offers work to someone burgling their home? Does anyone recall the old stories of the hobos' codes? Used especially during the Depression, they indicated where one might find a kind lady who would offer food (or flirt), where the police would chase one away, where a job might be available. We suspect  a burglar with a sense of humour adapted these old hobos' codes to flummox the police and, by way of inverse reasoning, get owners with plenty to mark their own houses as having nothing within. 

Burglar codes are fiction, we assert here boldly, and fiction -- very old fiction -- is where they are found. In the centuries old tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, the thieves mark the walls of the homes they intend to rob.  Thus, your French ancestor who doodled strangely almost certainly was not a burglar. He or she may have had a stint as a hobo, or may have been a mathematician. They make funny marks too.


1st of April - in France, this brings out the prank of slyly sticking a paper fish on someone's back, hoping he will unknowingly wear it all day and be a poisson d'avril. We like it that the French associate so many of humanity's foibles with food. A fool is a poisson (actually, the Chinese use fish for fools as well). A complete idiot is a patate or an andouille (a particularly noxious type of sausage), or one who scrawls on his house in burglar code. 

©2011 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

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