This is a biography that begins with a bang, swiftly followed by puddles of blood, shrieks of ‘Murder!’ and a chase through the foggy streets of Victorian London.
On 8 December 1854, a French émigré was walking through Fitzrovia, close to the heart of radical London, having recently left a pistol-shooting range in Westminster. He had a companion: a mysterious woman with a letter in her pocket and unknown intentions in her heart. It was a cold, wet night. At just past eight o’clock, they arrived at 73 Warren Street, a narrow town house near Tottenham Court Road, where George Moore (a soda water manufacturer who had employed the émigré as an engineer) lived, and were shown into the plush parlour to wait for him.
At first the three chatted amicably over some of Moore’s fizzy drinks. Then the woman produced her letter, and suddenly the mood changed. Soon Moore was lying on the parlour floor, his head gashed open by a glancing blow struck by his guest with a mallet used for tapping corks into the pressurised bottles. Then, as the two men grappled, the Frenchman raised his pistol and shot Moore full in the face. Within a few minutes another man lay dying: a local greengrocer who had tried to halt the murderer’s escape and had been shot in the stomach.
If this sounds like the opening of a Victorian whodunit, it’s hardly an accident. Although the author, Marc Mulholland, is an Oxford historian, his book is peppered with fictional echoes, as he describes the ticket to Hamburg that was in the murderer’s possession (‘his plan, to assassinate the Emperor of the French’), or imagines how Moore’s maid might have peered at this mysterious visitor by ‘the dim radiance of a flickering wick’.
The big difference is that we know from the start who did it: both murders were committed by Emmanuel Barthélemy, a political revolutionary who was swiftly apprehended, tried, convicted, and within a few weeks executed outside Newgate Prison before a crowd of up to 10,000 spectators. His last words were reported to have been: ‘Now I shall know the secret.’ Yet his own life remains something of a puzzle. Who was Emmanuel Barthélemy?
Little is known about his early years, which makes the biographer’s task a bit like trying to grab handfuls of smoke. Understandably, the opening chapters of Mulholland’s book are full of ‘perhaps’ this and ‘maybe’ that, as he describes how Barthélemy started a career as a sertisseur (gem-setter) in Paris before entering the seething world of revolutionary politics. By 1839, the 16-year-old artisan had already shot a member of the Municipal Guard and been sentenced to a life term of forced labour in the galleys. However, it isn’t until the events covered by 1848, when Paris once again erupted in violence, that his story really comes alive.
Released from the galleys, Barthélemy soon found himself commanding a barricade in the Faubourg du Temple, where ‘the smell of cordite hung in the air’ and men like him could use their metalworking skills to improvise bullets by moulding them in sewing thimbles. Arrested again, this time he managed to escape from prison by squeezing through a skylight and crawling along the roof before vanishing into the night. Later, he slipped across the border into Belgium disguised as a priest, and eventually made his way to London, where he joined one of the factions of political refugees who devoted their years of exile to preaching the values of equality and fraternity while squabbling viciously with each other.
If some of this — galleys, barricades, and so on — sounds familiar, that’s hardly a coincidence. Victor Hugo had met (and heartily disliked) Barthélemy, and later included a sharply written sketch of him in Les Misérables, where Barthélemy is described as ‘thin and puny, sallow-faced and taciturn, a sort of tragic outcast’ who ‘at all times flew one flag only, and it was black’.
Nor was that the least flattering assessment of him from the period. According to Alexander Herzen, a Russian émigré who met Barthélemy in 1852, he was dark and handsome (though not very tall), with a ‘muscularly powerful build’,‘pitch-black curly hair’ and dreams of a socialist future, that were ‘inseparable from a savage desire to massacre the bourgeois’. Karl Marx’s wife was even less impressed. Apparently she found Barthélemy’s piercing eyes ‘repulsive’.
Mulholland points out that to some people Barthélemy was not only a ‘dashing young revolutionary’ but also ‘a proletarian hero’. Indeed, while he was in Belgium, his lawyer received several letters from wealthy young women ‘who declared themselves eagerly enamoured of his intrepid client, and willing to share with him their life and fortunes’. Yet anyone hoping that he would be a real-life Jean Valjean is likely to have been disappointed. If anything, he sounds more like a modern terrorist taking advantage of his adopted country’s hospitality to plot new atrocities.
During a period of exile in Switzerland, every morning he practised firing his pistol into a copper pan, and he also studied weapons manufacture, coming up with an early design for the machine gun. He was equally uncompromising in London: when he was arrested after the Warren Street murders, he was carrying a dagger with a nine-inch blade as well as a large pair of pistols. Actually, his British acquaintances might have had another word for him, especially after he challenged an equally hot-blooded countryman to a duel just outside London, and chose to fire from 20 paces rather than the customary 30. (Mulholland points out the irony of two Frenchmen set off for a violent encounter on a train departing from Waterloo station.) He wasn’t just a misguided idealist or a lovable rogue. He was a cad.
In dealing with this unsympathetic figure, Mulholland proves to be an excellent guide: knowledgeable, fair-minded, and even-handed. He is also willing to admit how much has fallen between the cracks of the historical record, including Barthélemy’s explanation for the events that took place in and around Warren Street, although that does not prevent him from offering a few home truths of his own: ‘Conspirators have a habit of falling out’, ‘Ingratitude is never a genial character trait’, ‘Lawyers are practical souls’, and several more. And if he never quite manages to pin his subject down, that is probably just what Barthélemy would have wanted. Like many advocates for revolution, he considered the cause he was fighting for to be infinitely more important than his own life. He was merely a figurehead: someone for the plucky but directionless workers to cluster around and be inspired by.
In this context his fate was especially cruel. As Mulholland relates, after he was executed his face was turned into a death mask and put on display outside Newgate Prison as a warning to others, while his clothes were sold to Madame Tussaud’s. Here they adorned a wax figure in the Chamber of Horrors alongside other notorious murderers and criminals. Instead of a baying mob, now Emmanuel Barthélemy would appear before paying crowds; instead of spouting revolutionary rhetoric, now his mouth would forever remain rigid and silent. For such an all-action activist it was the ultimate indignity.