10-Soldiers and Spies

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Séverine4

The world of labor was in turmoil. Unions were forming and strikes were multiplying, but workers’ rights were slow to improve. So, the demonstrations organized for Labor Day on May 1 1891, the first such celebration of International Workers’ Day after the Haymarket Riot[1], were bigger and bolder. In Lyon they marched with red and black flags—red for the socialists, adopted during the 1848 Revolution, and black for the anarchists, which had been introduced by Louise Michel back in 1883. As the procession went to put wreaths on the graves of bygone revolutionaries there was a clash with police, shots were fired and casualties were numbered on both sides. Other disruptions occurred in Marseille, Toulouse and Bordeaux. Dynamite exploded in Nantes and Charleville doing little damage. But in a number of towns the workers did not even take to the streets; they just signed petitions. In Fourmies, however, tragedy struck.

Fourmies was a small town in Northern France at the height of its industrial development whose population consisted mainly of workers in the textile and glass factories. A strike was organized for an eight-hour workday and higher wages, which the owners of the factories had adamantly opposed. At the bequest of the mayor two infantry companies from the 145th regiment were brought in from nearby Avesnes. Armed with their brand new Lebel rifles (8mm bolt-action rifles that could shoot through walls, an innovation of General Boulanger when he was War Minister) three hundred soldiers faced off against fewer than two hundred unarmed strikers. Some stones were thrown at the uniforms and in retaliation they opened fire. Nine workers were killed at the front of the march—two men, four women and three children—and around forty wounded in less than a minute.

A few days after the massacre Le Temps published an article that tried to console its readers about the shooting: “In the front rows among the dead there were, we can say now, women of very loose morals.” Did they fire on a crowd of morals? Séverine vented her anger in “Sort the Dead”. For these men, every women who was not a housewife was a whore. And by leaving behind the traditional roles assigned to females, they left behind any protection or consideration that might be offered by society. But who was really at fault for this?

The public was certainly indignant and disillusioned once again about their security forces. Their peacekeeping brothers ceased for the moment to be brothers. But no one of the troop was ever found guilty of any misconduct. They were just following orders after all. On the other hand, the instigators of the strike, Hippolyte Culine the director of Guesde’s French Workers’ Party, and Paul Lafargue, the son-in-law of Karl Marx, were sentenced to prison for six years and one year respectively for “provocation to murder” or inciting the crowd to violence. Lafargue, however, skillfully used the tragedy to get elected deputy in Lille in November of that year and was thereupon released. He was the first Guesdist in the Chamber. Séverine, a long-time antagonist of Guesde since Le Cri, denounced his exploitation of the carnage—another source of her beautiful anger.

Séverine wrote these articles for L’Eclair because she was no longer collaborating with Le Gaulois. Her participation in the Padlewski affair six months earlier was unacceptable and they had cut her off. Padlewski? Of course. It was the talk of town at the end of 1890, a real cloak and dagger story right out of a spy novel.

On November 18 1890 in a Paris hotel room Stanislas Padlewski, a Polish nihilist, assassinated General Seliverstoff, the former chief of Russian secret police who was responsible for the repression of Polish revolutionaries fighting to free their country from Tsar Alexander III’s barbarous occupation. Padlewski fled and hid with friends in the city. It was the Russian socialist poet Procope Bazilisk who showed up at Séverine’s door one evening early in December; she did not know him, but they had friends in common. He asked her to help him find some money and get Padlewski out of France. She agreed, but how, seeing that he was wanted all over France? She thought of Georges.

Georges de Labruyère’s reputation as a duelist came in handy. Under the pretext of fighting a duel in Italy with Padlewski disguised as his second, they could sneak him over the border. To assuage his misgivings, Séverine convinced Georges that, besides helping a righteous cause, if he wrote about the adventure he would have all the publicity he dreamed of: the escape of a political criminal right under the nose of the French police and the Tsarist agents—what a report. He accepted and got a 2,000 F advance for the article to finance the expedition. For Séverine it was the first time she had done such a thing and far from being motivated by self-promotion she was compelled by justice—it was a political attack in a war of liberation.

It was a success. With Padlewski traveling as Dr. Wolf, they got to the Lyon train station where one of the chiefs recognized Georges. They joked about his upcoming duel and to make it easier for him to get his swords across the Italian border the chief wrote a letter to his colleague in Modane. Padlewski arrived safely in Italy and boarded a ship for the USA. Georges returned to Paris and published his “extraordinary report the likes of which have never been seen before”: “How I Helped Padlewski Escape” in L’Eclair on December 15 1890. It was a sensation.

It did not last. On December 24 Georges de Labruyère was summoned before the 9th correctional court of Paris and found guilty of aiding and abetting the escape of a murderer. Thirteen months in prison. Merry Christmas. Séverine was implicated as an accomplice, but no criminal charges were brought against her. However, since France was trying to woo Russia as an ally in the face of deteriorating Franco-Germanic relations, it was a very sensitive issue. To be an outspoken rebel was one thing, but to help a red terrorist against Holy Russia was quite another. With her lover in prison and her reputation now more vitriolic than ever, she was no longer a reliable profit and Le Gaulois let her go. Luckily Charles Cazet at L’Eclair welcomed her—she would never forget him for this favor.

Meanwhile, Georges did not have to rot in Mazas Prison for long. After one month the court of appeals acquitted him. He had got his publicity, but he did not get much work after that. And Padlewski? He lived in Texas under the name of Otto Hauser before committing suicide on October 4 in San Antonio. It was said the gun he used to shoot himself in the head had been given to him by Georges de Labruyère.

 

[1] See 4-Propaganda by Deed and “The Chicago Anarchists”.

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