O’Neil-Henry on Freundschuh (2017)


Freundschuh, Aaron. The Courtesan and the Gigolo: The Murders in the Rue Montaigne and the Dark Side of Empire in Nineteenth-Century Paris. Stanford UP, 2017, pp. 258, ISBN 978-1-5036-0082-9

Anne O’Neil-Henry, Georgetown University

In the early hours of 31 August 1887, Enrico Pranzini, “an Egyptian migrant of Italian parentage” (4), was executed by guillotine after being found guilty of murdering the courtesan Marie Regnault, her servant Annette Gremeret, and Annette’s twelve-year-old daughter Marie, in March of the same year. The thirty-year-old Pranzini had led an extremely adventurous life by the time he was arrested in Marseilles just days after the crime took place in Paris: he had been a former employee of the Egyptian Post (fired and arrested for stealing goods), a casino dealer in Lower Egypt, a talented polyglot interpreter, a purveyor of international business schemes, a member of the British army during the Second Afghan War, and a Parisian gigolo. This shocking murder in the rue Montaigne, considered a “‘peaceful’ passage up from the Champs-Elysées,” “an exemplar of discretion and normalcy” (22), was spun into a media phenomenon that enthralled France for several months of 1887. The women’s brutal murder, the police investigation, the journalistic reporting, Pranzini’s trial and execution, and the political fallout of a scandal involving portions of the accused’s corpse are the focus of Aaron Freundschuh’s engaging book, which also analyzes the case’s larger implications for Third Republic France.

If the rue Montaigne murders and investigation of 1887 constituted a “cause-célèbre on par with any in living memory” (3), they have today been forgotten, the author suggests, largely due to the sensational Jack the Ripper murders that began a year later: “[o]ver time, the Ripper lore eclipsed the Parisian cases in popular memory and scholarly interest” (3). Freundschuh thus painstakingly reconstructs the events surrounding what he claims was the “first global murder investigation” (11), drawing evidence from “contemporary testimonies, private letters and diaries, juridical records, press accounts, diplomatic and military correspondence, and a variety of other sources pertaining to the case” (7). He delves, for example, into the increasingly regulated world of Parisian prostitution, describing the life of the elite “clandestine” prostitute Regnault who, by maintaining an elegant home off the Champs-Elysées, “kept in step with the rapprochement between the monde and the demimonde” (95). He also highlights the Service de la police de sûreté and its increasingly common “conversion of war veterans into criminal detectives” (125) as he sketches the profiles of Chief Ernest Taylor and Deputy Chief François Goron. At the same time, Freundschuh showcases the tensions between these Parisian police officers and investigative reporters like Georges Grison of Le Figaro, who were eager to satisfy readers with a “proliferation of fait-divers crime stories” (46). The author contextualizes the explosive rue Montaigne murders alongside the rise of Boulangism in the late 1880s, stressing that the trial may have appealed to the followers of General Boulanger, “not least because the defendant symbolized much of what the movement hated about the Republic, foremost the internationalism wrought by imperialism” (150). In short, this microhistorical work effectively argues for contemporary audiences the relevance of the Pranzini case, whose events and characters were imbued with the changing and even volatile social, cultural, and political milieu of late nineteenth-century Paris.

Freundshuch makes the compelling argument that Pranzini, who was classified as both a Levantine and rastaquouère (“a neologism that was originally a racial slur against Latin Americans and that subsequently carried the suggestion of low-life criminality […] and an alluring but seedy colonial glamour washing up on the Grands Boulevards” [9]), typified contemporary anxieties about migration for Third Republic Parisians. If Pranzini was a “colonial migrant-criminal” who had eased seamlessly into the metropolitan city and allegedly attacked its citizens, he thus conformed to and amplified existing stereotypes; this event would ultimately reinforce the policies of those who would seek to “adjust the flow of foreign populations across political boundaries” (201). Indeed, Freundschuh shows how the intersection between contemporary discourses on the “colonial” and on the “criminal” found in the example of Pranzini made him a symbol of the fragility of Empire and led to “serious ramifications in politics and legislations” (200).

The author focuses on the concept of “imperial insecurity”—the “heightened sense of vulnerability in the metropole” (12) due to concerns over “imperial failure and collapse” (200)—and argues that Pranzini’s case effectively highlights such insecurities while exposing the “costs of trying to establish global dominion and securing the borders at the same time” (198, emphasis in the original). Rather than tying more neatly together many of the strands evoked above about Third Republic France, the book’s concluding pages focus exclusively on “imperial insecurity.” Freundschuh, shifting between this concept-building exercise and the extensive archival evidence relayed in a more narrative (instead of argumentative) mode that constitutes the majority of the study, thus leads us to a conclusion that feels a bit abrupt. Nevertheless, he offers a gripping and well-written book that will be of interest to scholars of nineteenth-century French history, culture, and politics, as well as to today’s general reading public which, as in fin-de-siècle France, is still fascinated by stories of sex, crime, and political scandals.