Joseph Kerrebrouck, a 66-year-old grain measurer of the city of Ghent and a man of “honest and irreproachable behaviour”, did not have an easy life. By 1784, he had been married to Marie Caroline De Rocke for about 32 years. And while their first names might suggest otherwise, their household could hardly be compared to that of the biblical Joseph and Mary. Marie Caroline was generally reputed to be having an affair with a certain Gillis Jacobs. Furthermore, she spent large sums on what was probably the actual love of her life: alcohol. She passed these dissolute habits on to her son Jacobus, who by the age of 16 was known far and wide as a drunkard “who caused many scandals”. To make matters worse, Marie Caroline constantly pit her son against Joseph, who she said was not Jacobus’s real father. In October 1783, the aldermen of Ghent sentenced Jacobus – aged 25 – to an imprisonment of three weeks on bread and water because of his frequent drunkenness and disobedience towards his father. If he were ever to commit similar infractions again, the aldermen warned, they would send him to the house of correction. When Jacobus was finally released, his father took him back into the home.
Despite the punishment, however, on March 15 1784, the family conflict reached a dramatic climax. When he came home from work around noon, Joseph found Jacobus and Marie Caroline in an inebriated state. Furthermore, he discovered that they had broken his cabinet and had stolen some textiles, which they had hocked at the local pawnshop (the Berg van Barmhartigheid or Mount of Charity) to buy beer and gin. Joseph, who was fed up with his son’s behaviour, went out to call the local watchmen. However, he was unable to find them and returned home. Once there, he was attacked by Jacobus, who stabbed his father in the left shoulder with a knife. Jacobus immediately fled the house, and a number of neighbours rushed in to help Joseph. Surgeon Pieter De Buck was called to provide medical assistance. He judged the injury to be lethal, and asked a priest to administer Last Rites. While this was being done, De Buck wrote a report for the judicial authorities. Following an ordinance from 1615, the surgeons of Ghent were required to report all injuries they treated to the local authorities so they could obtain a better overview of violent crime. This allowed them to initiate judicial proceedings as soon as possible while preventing victims from seeking private revenge.
Ghent’s authorities leapt into action. Two aldermen and a representative of the hoogbaljuw or public prosecutor were sent to Joseph’s home to question him regarding the incident. Furthermore, the town physicians and surgeons were required to examine the victim and write an official report on his medical condition. They judged the wound to be dangerous but curable. However, the medical experts also declared that – given the possibility of sudden complications – a proper prognosis was only possible after a certain interval of time had passed. Luckily, Joseph’s condition rapidly improved, and De Buck reported on March 18 that most of his symptoms (pain in the chest, a fever, red-tinged phlegm) had greatly diminished. Now, the aldermen could turn their full attention to the suspect, who had been arrested at one of the city gates on the day of the attack and imprisoned in the city jail. When interrogated on March 16, Jacobus Kerrebrouck immediately admitted that he had stabbed his father in the shoulder with a knife. He imputed this act to a combination of anger and drunkenness.
The aldermen did not take this incident lightly. The act in question was nothing less than an attempt at parricide, one of the most serious offences in early modern criminal law. According to the Flemish jurist Filips Wielant (ca. 1441/2-1520), those who committed parricide should be dragged “in the most dishonourable and degrading way” to the place of execution, where they would be beheaded and their corpse displayed on a wheel. If judges wished to impose additional punishments, they were allowed to do so “because of the enormity of the crime and as an example to others”. This harsh language is mirrored in the sentence pronounced by the aldermen against Jacobus Kerrebrouck on April 24 1784. They called Jacobus’s attack on his father “a horrendous, denatured and abominable fact”. Therefore, a harsh punishment was required “as an example to other denatured and evil children”. Jacobus was sentenced to be publicly whipped on the scaffold before the city hall and branded with the mark of the city. Moreover, he was condemned to fifty years of imprisonment in the provincial house of correction. If Jacobus actually served his full term in prison – which seems very unlikely – he would have been released in 1834. Not only would he be 76 by then, he would probably hardly have recognised the world he re-entered. He would have missed the Brabant revolution against Austrian rule in 1789-90, the annexation of the Austrian Netherlands by revolutionary France in 1795, the rise and fall of the Napoleonic Empire (1804-14) and the brief existence of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands (1815-30). The convict would have been a subject of the newly independent Kingdom of Belgium, a state whose existence no one living in 1784 could have imagined.
However, this scenario belongs to historical fiction rather than historical fact. Let’s return to the criminal case records. After his son was confined to the house of correction, Joseph Kerrebrouck took action against his wife. On May 8, he submitted a petition in which he asked that Marie Caroline be confined in a “secure place”. In eighteenth-century Flanders, confinement on request was a very common procedure for dealing with unruly, debauched or insane relatives. The aldermen interrogated Marie Caroline regarding the allegations contained in her husband’s petition and even subjected her to a medical examination by a surgeon, who diagnosed her with scabies. Although the medical report does not explicitly mention the examined body parts, one might reasonably assume that the surgeon was looking for signs of venereal disease, the presence of which would confirm Joseph’s statement about her debauched lifestyle. Unfortunately, the records do not tell us whether Marie Caroline De Rocke was confined, and if so, for how long. But after this series of unfortunate events, we can only hope that Joseph Kerrebrouck was allowed to spend his remaining days in relative tranquillity.
City Archives Ghent, Old Archives, series 108bis, no. 41: Ordinance of 2 January 1615; series 213, no. 294-295: Criminal trial records, 1784.
Wielant, Filips. Corte Instructie in Materie Criminele, ed. Jos Monballyu. Brussels: Paleis der Academiën, 1995.
Doyon, Julie. ‘Les enjeux médico-judiciaires de la folie parricide au XVIIIe siècle’. Crime, Histoire et Sociétés/Crime, History and Societies 15 (2011), no. 1: 5-27.
Lis, Catharina and Hugo Soly. Te gek om los te lopen? Collocatie in de 18de eeuw. Turnhout: Brepols, 1990.
Roets, Anne-Marie. ‘Rudessen, dieften ende andere crimen’. Misdadigheid in Gent in de zeventiende en achttiende eeuw: een kwantitatieve en kwalitatieve analyse. PhD thesis, Ghent University, 1987.