16-Bilking Panama and Burning Chivalry



16-Bilking Panama and Burning Chivalry

Back in 1880, encouraged by the success of the Suez canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps founded the Panama Canal Company which was destined to link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, but which was also destined to end in disaster. Underestimating the extent of work coupled with mismanagement put the company on the verge of bankruptcy. After years of difficulty the company suspended payments in December 1888 and three months later was ordered by the court to liquidate its assets.

The great scandal was aggravated by Boulangism [see 9-General Boulanger] and by a crisis at the Comptoir d’Escompte: after making huge speculations on the copper market, the bank’s director Eugène Denfert-Rochereau committed suicide and his partner at the Société des Métaux was sent to prison for six months. Faced with the collapse of this financial institution the Bank of France and the Rothschilds stepped in to prevent a full-blown financial panic. But Paris was on edge that year of 1889 when the International Exhibition unveiled the Eiffel Tower rising over a thousand feet and standing as the tallest structure in the world[1]. But all the success the Tower had with the public could not overshadow the damaged reputation of Gustave Eiffel himself who, as engineer of the Panama Canal Company, had to refund 20,000 francs and was sentenced to two years in prison, although like the others he was acquitted.

See, the canal had been stopped and the actual liquidation was postponed in the hope of starting a new company or raising the price of American offers[2]. Agents were commission to raise funds, but most of the money went to buy off politicians. By 1892 bankruptcy was inevitable, thereby causing the ruin of 800,000 investors (many of them single women) and the loss of almost two billion francs. In the wake of the failure, many government officials, ministers and parliament members were accused of taking bribes to give away public funds and conceal the facts in the affair. Jean Jaurès was put in charge of a commission to investigate the case and found 104 legislators implicated in the crimes.

The failure of the Panama Canal Company was one of the major politico-financial scandals of the Third Republic and the largest financial scandal of the 19th century. Banking pirates, corrupt politicians, paid-off journalists and unscrupulous businessmen colluded in cheating people out of billions of francs. Although the concerned parties tried to cover up their crimes in the face of glaring evidence, they were inevitably brought to light for raising money under false pretenses, misappropriation of funds and corruption, tried in court, found guilty… and acquitted!

While Vaillant and Henry were throwing bombs at the very people responsible for the wreckage, another kind of attack was coming from a different quarter. The collapse of the Panama Canal Company stirred up anti-Semite activity as people like Edouard Drumont used his paper La Libre Parole to exploit the role of two Jewish speculators in the corruption. Anti-Semitism was a growing problem (as we saw Séverine’s interview with the Pope [12-Pope Leo XIII] attest to) that would culminate in the Dreyfus Affair [see 17-19].

In Fernand Xau’s Le Journal Séverine followed the Panama trial that was the talk of the town. Unlike her support of the anarchists, there was little controversy in criticizing the perpetrators of this historic fraud. Séverine, however, still managed to attract controversy with her thorny insight. She supported Lesseps, the scapegoat, to a certain degree, because the real culprits never appeared in court. The responsibility lay with the regime itself. Not only the guilty parties, but the whole government and all its cohorts were to blame—from the power mongers to the parasites, the entire system was corrupt.

Of course, Séverine’s journalism was not limited to the disgraceful politics of the day. Her on the spot reporting continued as well. As we have seen she was adept at modern journalism, a certain sensationalism, but she always had her principles to accompany her. Back in May 1887 a dreadful fire at the Opéra Comique killed over a hundred people (so many bodies reduced to mere ashes that a precise number was never ascertained) during a performance of Mignon by Ambroise Thomas. Séverine went to the still smoking ruins in spite of the interdictions and warnings, but she was not content to stand around and watch from the outside. She wanted to give her readers a detailed description of the disaster not for the sake of sensationalism but for justice: she wanted to expose the responsible parties and make them pay for their crime. Being the only woman among the officials, she managed to get inside, observe the tragedy and conduct her investigation, which exposed the theater management that had locked an emergency exit for fear of people sneaking in. It was not only stupid, it was criminal. After her article the justice system continue to turn a blind eye toward safety regulations in public buildings, but it could no longer claim ignorance.

Now in 1897, as the Panama scandal was rekindled with the arrest of Emile Arton (one of the criminal bankers) in London, another catastrophic fire gripped the public conscience. An annual charity event, le Bazar de la Charité, had been held for more than ten years in different mansions of the Parisian elite. This fateful year, however, a wooden building on rue Jean Goujon was donated for the occasion. The interior was decorated to look like medieval Paris complete with shop signs and painted canvas backdrops. There was also a demonstration of the fascinating new technology by the Lumière brothers: cinematography. On the afternoon of May 4 the motion picture projector, which used ether in the lamp, caught fire and spread quickly. Over a thousand people, mostly from the aristocracy, panicked to escape. Within fifteen minutes the place was consumed and the charred remains of the victims lay in the ashes. Among the dead was the Duchess of Alençon, one of the organizers of the event and the sister of Empress Elisabeth of Austria. Estimates ranged from 115 to 135 casualties, less than ten of them men.

Within thirty minutes after the blaze Séverine was on the scene and stayed there for almost forty hours. As she gazed upon the lifeless bodies of all the women and children she wondered where all the men were. Her interviews with the witnesses revealed a tragic truth. First with her article “What Did The Men Do?” in L’Echo de Paris then in articles for Le Journal she gave no quarter to the men who had beaten their way through the women to escape. She accused them of cowardice and perfidy and brutality, but went even further. Far from the chivalry that the upper classes boast of in their males here was a tragic expression of the “battle of the sexes” that was being waged against women in the workplace and universities. Her poignant observations made many people stop to think about the real tragedy and consequences of the event.

Be that as it may, after this disaster safety regulations were implemented for emergency exits and the Lumière brothers developed electric lamps for their projectors.


[1] Until the Chrysler Building was constructed in 1930

[2] The Americans eventually took over the project and the Panama Canal opened for business on August 3 1914, along with World War I.


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