No Spark of Malice: The Murder of Martin Begnaud

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No Spark of Malice: The Murder of Martin Begnaud. By William Arceneaux. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, c. 1999. Pp. xiv, 349. $34.95, ISBN 0-8071-2447-8.)

In 1896 Martin Begnaud, the congenial owner of a general store in Scott Station, Louisiana, was found with his throat cut. He had been robbed of several thousand dollars, blindfolded, wrapped up like a mummy, and stabbed more than fifty times. Two local good-for-nothings were arrested for the murder, but in the months following the crime, the guilt of the accused men became more and more doubtful. No hard evidence connected them to killing, and they insisted on their innocence despite the sheriff's ungentle attempts to persuade them to confess. Suspicion then fell on two affable teenagers believed to be orphans from France, brothers who had worked for a neighbor in Scott Station and had disappeared after attending Begnaud's funeral. Ten months after the murder, believing that all suspicions were fixed on the two luckless men in jail, the boys recklessly returned to the little Cajun community to visit their former employer. They were arrested and later confessed to the crime. They claimed robbery as their motive for the crime but gave no real explanation of the furious violence of the killing. The sheriff was resourceful in protecting his charges from being lynched, so that they were duly tried, convicted, and hanged near Lafayette in 1897. One of the boys, speaking both for himself and his brother, stated in his gallows speech that their hearts contained "no spark of malice" (p. 249).

In his book of that title William Arceneaux refers to a diary and a memoir written by one of the killers while he awaited sentencing and execution-sixteen pages in all--and he tells that the memoir "is thus a confession" and "a blow-by-blow account of the gruesome events" of the murder (p. 211). But he never gives us access to the young killer's mind by quoting much of these two crucial documents. The reader has too little information about the murderers to gain a sense of their individuality. The author offers no insight of his own into the viciousness of their crime. At the end of the book, we have only a detailed account of a random murder to show for our reading, except for two long digressions by the author. …