The Murderer of Warren Street

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The French Blanquist revolutionary, Emmanuel Barthelemy, was hanged for the Warren Street murders on 22 January 1855. He had been sentenced to death, even though the jury that found him guilty had recommended clemency. It was a public execution, watched by perhaps as many as 10,000 people, apparently a disappointing crowd for the time.

How had a dedicated and uncompromising French revolutionary, a veteran of the 1848 barricades, come to die on the scaffold in London?

Marc Mulholland’s biography is a tremendous book, extremely well-written, a history book that is actually hard to put down. He provides a marvellous account of Barthelemy’s life and of his tragic end.

There is a grim inevitability about Barthelemy’s fate — although we can be certain that he would far rather have died in the revolutionary cause — attempting, perhaps even succeeding in assassinating the emperor Louis Napoleon, than hanging as a common murderer.

Who was Emmanuel Barthelemy? He was a working class revolutionary, a Blanquist socialist, driven on by a rage that often got the better of him. In May 1839, he was on his way to join his comrades in a futile uprising that it was hoped would precipitate a general revolt in Paris. This was the Blanquist strategy: that a small band of dedicated revolutionary conspirators could inspire the masses by means of a heroic coup.

Unfortunately, he met a police sergeant en route who had beaten him up on a previous occasion and could not resist the temptation for immediate revenge. Barthelemy shot and wounded the man in the street and was immediately captured, never actually making it to the barricades. As he defiantly told the court at his trial: “anger does not calculate”. Aged 16, he was sentenced to hard labour for life in the galleys.

He was freed by the revolutionary overthrow of the French monarchy in February 1848, played a heroic role in the working class insurrection of June that year, and was once again sentenced to life in the galleys.

He took part in an incredible escape, finally arriving in London in November 1849. Here he became part of the revolutionary exile community, refugees from the defeated 1848 revolutions across Europe. For a short while, he was even friendly with a certain German revolutionary exile, Karl Marx.

The failure of the revolutionary cause to recover and the frustrations of exile led to increasing division and bitterness within the exile community, with different factions slandering and maligning each other. Here Barthelemy was both victim and culprit. This culminated in his duel with another French revolutionary, Frederic Cornet, on 19 October 1852. They fought it out with pistols in the countryside outside Windsor and Cornet was killed. The killing only further embittered relations between the rival factions.

Barthelemy’s revolutionary impatience could not be contained. His anger still rejected calculation. What seems to have brought about the Warren Street murders was his determination to assassinate the French emperor, a typical attempt to short circuit the revolutionary process.

Were the Warren Street murders a “revolutionary expropriation” gone wrong, a failed attempt to raise the funds to finance an assassination attempt? Mulholland provides as convincing an account of this episode as we are ever likely to have, although, as he acknowledges, much still remains unclear.

He has written a truly gripping account of Barthelemy’s life and tragic end. Certainly one of the best books I have read so far this year. Great stuff.