When a Paris Newspaper Pushed a Housewife to Murder

When a Paris Newspaper Pushed a Housewife to Murder

Henriette Caillaux

SourceHulton Archive / Getty Images

Why you should care

Because you should never mess with a lady.

“Don’t touch me. I am a lady,” Henriette Caillaux barked at those trying to restrain her. It was March 16, 1914, and the well-dressed woman had just pumped four 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.

France passed press freedom laws in 1881 that basically lifted all constraints, says Edward Berenson, a history professor at New York University and the author of The Trial of Madame Caillaux. 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, writes Lisa Appignanesi in Trials of Passion: Crimes Committed in the Name of Love and Madness, “Calmette had daringly crossed a line.”

The ideal of a bourgeois woman was what ladies aspired to.

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, writes Appignanesi, 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,” says Berenson, 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.

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Cover of the March 29, 1914, Le Petit Journal depicting the murder of Gaston Calmette by Henriette Caillaux.

Source Public Domain

To defend their reputation, men would duel, with the first sign of blood — swords were preferred to guns, says Berenson — ending the match. But how could a woman of the Belle Époque restore her honor? A “ ‘real woman’ had now become simply that nervy, emotional, suggestible, virtuous, domestic creature, hysterical by turn and weak of intellect,” writes Appignanesi. So Henriette — as une vraie femme — turned to an impassioned female criminal defense as her rallying cry. A “real woman” was someone who didn’t work, was modest and retiring and didn’t flaunt her sexuality, Berenson explains — commonly held notions that had not yet been challenged by feminism. “There was nothing in France like the women’s suffrage movement in the U.K.,” he says. The ideal of a bourgeois woman was what ladies aspired to. Calmette’s mudslinging “was a real, serious affront” to Henriette, doing “grievous harm” to her social standing, which made her “momentarily lose her mind,” Berenson says.

The “crime of passion” defense was pretty standard in the late 1800s in France, the idea being that perpetrators weren’t responsible for their actions because they’d been consumed by a “momentary fit of passion,” Berenson explains, their “conscious will … overwhelmed by uncontrollable emotions.” Henriette’s lawyer even had a psychiatrist offer an analysis to the court, noting that “two beings and two wills inhabited [her].”

On July 28, Henriette was acquitted. She had gotten away with murder, and the next day’s Le Matin, another national paper, carried a divided front page: half devoted to the Caillaux trial, the other half declaring “Austro-Serb WAR Declared: Europe-wide War May Still Be Averted” — a fitting reflection, perhaps, for the end of an era. Henriette Caillaux’s crime, writes Appignanesi, “was the last to bring together all the Belle Époque’s contradictory understandings of madness, feminine psychology and sexual relations.” War, after all, would soon give Europe far greater concerns than that of an irrational vraie femme.

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