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A Spectacular Murder Rocks France.

A Spectacular Murder Rocks France.

An Affair to Remember

On the evening of March 16, 1914, Henriette Caillaux was ushered into the office of Gaston Calmette, editor of Le Figaro. . . .

Mme. Caillaux wore a fur coat over a gown strangely formal for a late afternoon business call. Her hat was modest, and a large furry muff linked the two sleeves of her coat. Henriette’s hands were hidden inside the muff.

“Before Calmette could speak she asked, ‘You know why I have come?’ ‘Not at all, Madame,’ responded the editor, charming to the end.

From her furs the visitor produced a Browning automatic pistol and fired six times. Calmette fell to the floor clutching his abdomen.

As office workers closed in, she warned them not to touch her.

?Don?t touch me. I am a lady,? Henriette Caillaux barked at those trying to restrain her. The well-dressed woman had just pumped six bullets into Gaston Calmette, editor of the right-leaning French newspaper?Le Figaro. An impassioned Caillaux couldn?t bear the politically scandalous and personally embarrassing details that the journalist had been printing about her husband. So she donned a gown, bought a pistol, and headed for Calmette?s office. Bleeding and bewildered, her?victim?muttered, ?I only did my duty,? as he was carted off to the hospital, where he died later that night.

Henriette Caillaux?(1874-1943) was a Parisian socialite and wife of the former Prime Minister of France who is remembered as an assassin.?Born?Henriette Raynouard, she was having an affair with Joseph Caillaux while he was still married but eventually he divorced and the two married. While serving as Minister of Finance in the government of France, Joseph Caillaux came under bitter attack from his political foes and at a time when newspapers took political sides, the editor of the Le Figaro newspaper, Gaston Calmette (1858-1914) had been a severe critic.

Calmette received a letter belonging to Joseph Caillaux that journalistic etiquette at the time dictated should not be published. The letter seemed to suggest that improprieties had been committed by Caillaux; in it he appeared to admit having orchestrated the rejection of a tax bill while publicly pretending to support its passage. Calmette proceeded to publish the letter at a time when Joseph Caillaux, in his capacity as Minister of Finance, was trying to get an income tax bill passed by the French Senate. The publication of his letter severely tarnished Joseph Caillaux’s reputation and caused a great political upheaval.

Madame Caillaux believed that the only way for her husband to defend his reputation would be to challenge Calmette to a duel, which, one way or another, would destroy her and her husband’s life. Madame Caillaux made the decision to protect her beloved husband by sacrificing herself.

Mme. Caillaux was arrested on the scene and conveyed via her car?to the prison of Saint-Lazare. The intense? national and international publicity surrounding the murder and subsequent trial focused public attention on the infamous women?s prison in the 10th arrondissement.? Within days prison officials were accused of affording special treatment and privileges to their celebrity prisoner.

Mme. Caillaux was housed in a private, heated cell. She was attended to by her maid, was allowed special visitation privileges, and even dined with her husband in the offices of the prison?s director. Two of the nuns who staffed the prison were assigned to watch over her. This special treatment greatly upset the other prisoners and there was talk in the newspapers of the possibility of a prison mutiny in protest.? This outrage was also shared by many on the outside of the prison walls.? Prison authorities claimed that Mme. Caillaux was being treated according to prison regulations, and that it was the responsibility of the prison doctor to determine the exact details of each prisoner?s regimen.

Rowdy crowds gathered on the streets outside the prison whenever Mme. Caillaux left for questioning, or to attend her trial.? Dance halls and cabarets in Paris echoed with hastily-created songs reflecting popular opinion about the case. At the time of her arrest Mme. Caillaux had haughtily reminded the police that ?I am a lady.?? One of the tunes that immediately appeared was entitled: ?A Woman and Lady.?? The police intervened to prevent its performance.

Mme Caillaux, wife of the French Finance Minister Joseph Caillaux. She stood trial for the murder of Gaston Calmette, editor of Le Figaro, who she shot and killed for publishing personal letters written by Caillaux. She was acquitted. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Mme Caillaux, wife of the French Finance Minister Joseph Caillaux. She stood trial for the murder?of Gaston Calmette, editor of Le Figaro, who she shot and killed for publishing personal letters written by Caillaux. She was acquitted. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

As war threatened in the Balkans, the attention of much of the French people focused instead on the sensational case of Madame Henriette Caillaux, whose trial for the murder of Gaston Calmette, editor of the newspaper?Le Figaro, opened on July 20, 1914, in Paris.

Joseph Caillaux, a left-wing politician, had been appointed prime minister of France in 1911. He was forced out of office the following year, however, after he was accused of being too accommodating to Germany. Chosen again as a cabinet minister in 1913, the relatively pacifist Caillaux was under almost constant attack from the right. In his personal life, Caillaux was relatively indiscreet, parading his mistresses around during his life as a bachelor and carrying on a secret love affair with one of them, his future second wife, while he was still married to his first wife.

Although Caillaux was an old friend of Raymond Poincare, elected president of France in March 1913, he and Poincare had become political adversaries even before World War I began the following summer. Shortly after his election, Poincare supported legislation that would increase the required length of military duty in France from two to three years, a measure that seemed necessary to many as a way of offsetting Germany?s enormous population advantage?70 million to 40 million?in the case of a war. Despite opposition from Caillaux and other liberals, including the country?s Socialist leader, Jean Jaures, the bill passed in August 1913. When Caillaux continued to attack it, he became the object of a major smear campaign led by Gaston Calmette, the most powerful journalist in France and the editor of the leading right-wing journal?Le Figaro.

Gaston Calmette, editor of Le Figaro, who was shot and killed by Mme Henriette Caillaux. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

The Victim: Gaston Calmette, editor of Le Figaro, who was shot and killed by Mme Henriette Caillaux. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Beginning in December 1913, Calmette claimed he could and would publicize certain documents that would prove Caillaux, while serving as minister of finance in 1911, had obstructed justice in a financial scandal in which he may have been personally involved. Moreover, Calmette threatened to publish love letters exchanged between Caillaux and his second wife, Henriette, while he was still married to his first wife.

When Calmette threatened to publish intercepted wire communications supposedly showing Caillaux?s sympathy to Germany?a claim that spurred a protest by the German government against the interception of its official correspondence?Caillaux went to Poincare and asked him to prevent Calmette from revealing the documents. If Poincare declined to do so, Caillaux pointed out, he himself would make public intercepted cables in his possession that revealed the French president?s secret negotiations with the Vatican, a revelation that would certainly anger Poincare?s secular and anticlerical supporters. The French government subsequently issued an official denial of the existence of the German cables, but Calmette continued to threaten to publish Caillaux?s love letters.

French Finance minister Joseph Caillaux (1863 - 1944) husband of the murderess, Mme Henriette Caillaux. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

French Finance minister Joseph Caillaux (1863 – 1944) husband of the murderess, Mme Henriette Caillaux. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

France had passed press freedom laws in 1881 that basically lifted all constraints. A free press, and scant protection from libel or defamation, meant the gloves flew off when it came to public insults between politicians and journalists. Henriette?s husband, Minister of Finance Joseph Caillaux, a well-to-do Radical Party frontman with a fondness for proletarian causes, inspired plenty of political vitriol from the conservative?Le Figaro. A few days before Henriette Caillaux?s murderous act, Calmette had daringly crossed a line.

Keeping in mind that at that time, every French newspaper was read by at least two adults,?Le Figaro, on March 13, had splashed across its front page a 13-year-old letter from Joseph Caillaux to his then-married mistress, who would become his wife ? until she was cast aside for Henriette. This violated a privacy of a sexual nature at a time when sexual matters were confined to the brothel, the bedroom and the confessional. To top it off, Calmette promised a whole series of sexual revelations, which Henriette reasonably feared would further embarrass her husband and also shame her by revealing her own adultery. What would her circle of high-brow friends say? The case was ?startling,? because the newspaper ?paraded their private lives, including the extramarital affairs ? before the public. That broke a taboo.? It wasn?t illegal, but, until Calmette, it simply hadn?t been done.

Madame Henriette Caillaux, second wife of French politician Joseph Caillaux, who shot dead M Calmette, the editor of 'Le Figaro'. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Madame Henriette Caillaux, second wife of French politician Joseph Caillaux, who shot dead M Calmette, the editor of ‘Le Figaro’. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

After enduring a three month long pre-trial investigation, Henriette Caillaux appeared in the cour d’assises in Paris on July 21, 1914, just three weeks after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, in Sarajevo. In the weeks following the assassination in Sarajevo, alliances between the great European powers solidified, and tensions mounted. Despite these circumstances, Henriette Caillaux’s trial consumed the dailies circulated by Paris’s mass popular press. The trial spanned nine days during which time Paris newspapers printed little other than news of the unfolding drama in court.

To a degree, the trial merited this level of attention. The case featured the accused socialite murderess Henriette Caillaux, her famous husband Joseph, and was conducted by two of France’s leading lawyers, Fernand Labori for the defense and Charles Chenu for the prosecution. Drama and sensationalism dominated the trial and provided fodder for celebrity gossip, particularly in the testimony of Joseph’s first wife, Berthe Gueydan, who exposed private details of the scandalous start to the Caillaux couple’s adulterous relationship.

21st March 1914: Relatives of Gaston Calmette, editor of Le Figaro, leading his funeral procession through Paris. Mme Henriette Caillaux stood trial for his murder. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

21st March 1914: Relatives of Gaston Calmette, editor of Le Figaro, leading his funeral?procession through Paris. Mme Henriette Caillaux stood trial for his murder.?(Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

When Henriette Caillaux’s trial opened it found itself well within a historical context that was increasingly dominated by nationalist pride that valorized the family and supported traditional gender roles. The controversy of divorce’s threat to family stability swiftly followed the opening remarks on the first day of the trial as Henriette Caillaux took the stand for the judge’s inquiry. The judge began by asking Mme. Caillaux about the circumstances surrounding her divorce. His direct opening question reflected the imposed centrality of issues of marriage, divorce, and adultery to the case. While these issues were secondary to the main events of the trial, the presiding judge deemed the placement of Henriette in the context of two marriages to be of utmost importance. In 1908, Henriette divorced her husband of fourteen years.

She had been having an affair with Joseph Caillaux over the course of the previous year and had decided to leave her first husband to marry Joseph. Joseph, also, was married at the time of their affair to Berthe Gueydan, but unlike Henriette, he had no children by his first marriage. The couple’s adulterous relationship and morally questionable divorces made the integrity of family a theme developed by several newspapers covering the trial.

Henriette’s response to the judge’s questioning reflected careful navigation of social norms. She began by identifying herself with her peers, stating:

“I was raised like all the other young girls of my time? I never left my parents until the day of my marriage.” She then confessed that soon after her first marriage, which took place when she was only nineteen years old, “bad feelings unexpectedly arose?our characters did not complement one another; on several occasions, I was at the point of breaking off the union, but I had two children, two girls, and for them I waited.”

Henriette characterized herself as a woman of the time: she had the same upbringing as her peers and the same expectations for a happy marriage, and she placed her family above her personal needs. Parisian society could not blame a woman for desiring happiness in marriage; after all, by 1914, happiness in marriage had become a realistic expectation. Henriette’s desire for a happy marriage was not uncommon for women in the Belle Epoque, and her postponement of personal satisfaction for the sake of her children suggested to the public that she was a woman who upheld family values.

Divorce was a point of contention in the Third Republic, in addition to being widely considered unpatriotic. Divorce undermined family and was thus seen as linked to France’s purported moral decay. In his article on divorce in the Belle Epoque, Berenson writes, that the link between moral decay and divorce, “commentators claimed, had spread to the family itself, an institution progressively weakened by feminism, individualism, and divorce” with depopulation as the “inevitable result.” Immorality, divorce, adultery, and feminism were intimately linked in the conservative minds of the right. Parisian press in opposition to Henriette Caillaux exploited these connections to portray her as unwomanly and thereby associated with the moral decay perceived as subverting French society. By contrast, newspapers that wrote sympathetically of Henriette overlooked her checkered past to emphasize her respect for social norms and her attempt to live by them.

St Lazare prison, where Mme Henriette Caillaux was held while awaiting trial for murder. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

St Lazare prison, where Mme Henriette Caillaux was held while awaiting trial for murder. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

The two nuns in charge of Mme Henriette Caillaux, while she stood trial for the murder of Gaston Calmette, editor of Le Figaro. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

The two nuns in charge of Mme Henriette Caillaux, while she stood trial for the murder of Gaston Calmette, editor of Le Figaro. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

While society accepted women’s adultery, it did not accept the scandal that accompanied public knowledge of such affairs. Women engaged in extramarital relations were expected to keep the knowledge of it within the confines of their intimate circle. The paradox of Belle Epoque society was that the perception of morality and purity of the family was idealized while the reality of discrete immorality was accepted. Parisian society thus deemed it acceptable for a woman to seek sexual fulfillment outside of wedlock if the marriage was devoid of it, but it was unacceptable for a woman to allow her extramarital affairs to be made public. Gaston Calmette’s campaign threatened to make Henriette’s affair public by publishing intimate love-letters on the front page of?Le Figaro. Her extreme reaction to the threat of her affair’s publication, that is the murder of M. Calmette, was cast by favourable newspapers as playing by social rules rather than subverting them. By contrast, newspapers hostile to Henriette took advantages of the opportunity to emphasize the morally questionable start to the marriage of Henriette and Joseph, in which two families were dissolved.tumblr_n90labnw8n1tqopy5o1_1280


The trial of Henriette Caillaux. The wife of French Finance Minister Joseph Caillaux, Henriette Caillaux shot and killed Gaston Calmette, editor of Le Figaro, in his office. Calmette had used the newspaper to wage a ferocious campaign to discredit Caillaux from 1911 onwards. In a sensational trial that gripped the attention of French society, Madame Caillaux was acquitted on the grounds that her actions were not premeditated but were a crime of passion caused by her uncontrollable female emotions. Madame Caillaux devant ses juges. Une cause sensationnelle aux assises de la Seine. Illustration for Le Petit Journal, 2 August 1914.

On the sixth day of the trial, M. Labori stood before the courtroom overflowing with reporters and spectators and began to read aloud the notorious?letters intimes, for which Henriette Caillaux had reportedly been willing to kill to prevent their publication.?Le Matin?had described Henriette as she entered the court that morning as “more pale than ever and, already, giving signs of extreme distress.” Despite the “almost super human effort?not to give vent to her feelings and scream,” Mme. Caillaux, overcome with emotions, fainted as M. Labori finished his readings, having experienced what Le Petit Parisian termed, “an attack of nerves.”

The trial was suspended until Henriette Caillaux was able to return, but even then, according to reports from?The New York Herald, “she was frightfully pale,” and “a helpless, semi-inanimate form” for the remainder of the hearings. Yet not all journalists present had the same interpretation of the notorious letters and Henriette’s climatic fainting spell. In contrast to the sympathetic tones taken by many newspapers, the conservative?Le Figaro?dismissed the hype surrounding the letters, claiming that they contained “nothing. Absolutely nothing” and asserted that “the letters were an?alibi?for her.”

Instead of a woman ashamed and frightened that her affair would be publically exposed,?Le Figaro?claimed that the hype surrounding the letters was merely an act. The paper implied that Henriette hid behind a feminine disguise to appear as an adherent of social rules that permitted women to have private love affairs when trapped in an unhappy marriage, so long as they guarded against their public exposure.


Throughout the nine day trial, the main actors took centre stage in a court case dominated by emotion, romance, hot-tempers, and secret political dealings. With every dramatic turn in the trial’s events, the Parisian press was present to carefully report every detail. The papers related Joseph’s insulting interjection in the middle of Berthe’s testimony that masculinized her by stating that their natures were at the time opposed and too similar. The press captured Berthe’s calculated moves to checkmate M. Labori as she granted him custody of the notorious letters intimae, thereby forcing him to choose between betraying his client and withholding evidence from the court. The dailies reported Henriette’s dramatic fainting spells and described her husband as he rushes, leaps, and ascends the railing, to take his wife in his arms. And they faithfully recorded the violent altercation between the Calmette-supporter Henry Bernstein, the famed playwright, and Joseph Caillaux which resulted in the greatest uproar and disorder and ended with the trial’s temporary suspension.

Henriette Caillaux’s testimony shifted back and forth between literary and scientific images. It was intended to make her appear a heroine of uncontrollable emotions to the jury, and a victim of deterministic laws to the experts. Literature made a woman of ungovernable passions sympathetic, even attractive; criminal psychology placed her beyond the law.

After nine days of hearings and despite the testimony by witnesses against her, an abundance of evidence, and Chenu’s legal skill, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty.

From the Cour d’Assises in Paris, Henriette Caillaux walked out free. In less than an hour of deliberations, the all-male jury had decided the homicide was committed without premeditation or criminal intent. The jurors accepted her testimony that when she pulled the trigger, she was a temporary victim of (as her lawyer put it) “unbridled female passions.”

The same day the papers announced Henriette Caillaux’s acquittal, tensions between the great European nations came to a head with Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on Serbia. Surprisingly, when compared to the press’s coverage trial, the events leading to war received very little attention. The limited number of newspaper reports of the mounting tensions abroad was somewhat unusual. Soon after the rise of France’s mass popular press in the 1880s, French dailies averaged between 15 and 20 percent coverage of foreign affairs, with one of the largest French dailies, Le Matin, allocated on average 50 percent of its coverage to news from abroad.

Henriette Caillaux Famous Prisoners of SaintLazare Henriette Caillaux. Caillaux Scandal: ?Saint-Lazare Plage.? ?The Bathing Beach at Saint-Lazare.? Satirical Postcard: Commeting on the special treatment received by Henriette.

Henriette Caillaux Famous Prisoners of Saint Lazare Henriette Caillaux. Caillaux Scandal: ?Saint-Lazare Plage.? ?The Bathing Beach at Saint-Lazare.? Satirical Postcard: Commeting on the special treatment received by Henriette.

Many of the larger papers limited their foreign affairs coverage during the week of the trial to accommodate the commentary, elaborate images, and complete transcripts of trial proceedings. Among the newspapers boasting the largest circulation numbers, the trial dominated the front pages: Le Matin devoted approximately 56 percent of its front page to the trial, Le Petit Journal only 26 percent, and Le Petit Parisien 42 percent. In contrast, Le Figaro, with a lower circulation but perhaps more closely aligned with the trial, devoted approximately 70 percent of its front page to the trial.7 In addition to the front-page coverage, each of these papers printed between two and three pages of the complete trial transcripts. For L’Echo de Paris, a conservative Parisian newspaper, complete coverage of the trial meant excluding nearly all other news coverage from its four pages. The unprecedented trial coverage was achieved at the expense of foreign affairs coverage, which dropped well below average over the course of the week.

French newspapers had found their success in the Third Republic, but along with it they also found their notorious reputation for bias reporting. In the case of Henriette Caillaux’s trial, Parisian newspapers slanted their descriptions of the trial in terms of the integrity of the family and the affirmation of traditional gender roles. For many newspapers, the image of Henriette Caillaux as a weak and feminine woman was manipulated by editors and reporters favorable to Henriette Caillaux. By situating Henriette in the context of family and gender, the newspapers appealed to the existing social framework in Belle Epoque society. Newspapers that hoped for her acquittal described a woman subject to her own emotions, who, despite all efforts, was unable to master the emotional distress the public exposure of her scandalous affair caused her. Her weak, frail nature was the antithesis of masculine strength, and as such, her character appeared to pose no threat to male authority.

Extreme biases did exist in the press, and not all newspapers shared the same biases in Henriette Caillaux’s trial. Yet, while French dailies were divided in the biases they had toward Henriette Caillaux and Berthe Gueydan, they were unified in their use of femininity and gender roles to cast the two women as opposing characters. Sympathetic and hostile newspapers alike drew from themes of family and femininity existent in 1914 Parisian society to bias their papers and influence their readers. Headlines, section titles, commentary, and images carried the undercurrents of overarching social questions of femininity, feminism, changing gender roles, and how they fit within the context of the family. The gender question took a prominent place in the coverage of Henriette Caillaux’s trial and was used as leverage to support or oppose her acquittal.

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