Sherlock Holmes Comes to Paris: True Crime and Private Detection in the Belle Époque

What’s the appeal of true crime? There’s the mystery to solve and the lure of thinking about violence from a safe distance. There’s also the desire to see justice done: one of the staples of true crime is a botched or mishandled police investigation. There are those who say they are wrongfully accused (Adnan Syed from Serial) and those who manage to escape the consequences of their actions (Robert Durst in The Jinx). Taken together, these cases paint a portrait of the American justice system as deeply inegalitarian, too easy on the wealthy and too prejudiced against people of color and the poor. In these conditions, journalists and members of the public need to conduct their own enquiries to find the truth and obtain justice.

But the twenty-first century isn’t the first time stories of crime fascinated the public and led private citizens to investigate the claim on their own. The same was true in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century France, an era just as obsessed — and maybe more so — with crime. Grisly stories of murder were regularly splashed across the front pages of the major newspapers and detective fiction was wildly popular.1 As is true today, many worried that those at the top of the social and economic hierarchy had too much influence over the criminal justice system.

Looking at one case from this era — the 1908-1909 Steinheil Affair, a double murder turned sex scandal set among France’s elite — shows how inegalitarian political and social systems can spur members of the public to play detective. This case provoked endless speculation, and many Parisians took on the role of Sherlock Holmes by looking for clues in newspapers or on the streets of Paris. Doing so allowed ordinary citizens to insert themselves into a drama involving France’s rich and powerful and to understand how power and privilege operated.

The Facts of the Case

At the center of the affair was Mme Steinheil, a noted society hostess whose household was financed through affairs with wealthy and prominent men. She was famous for a liaison with Félix Faure, president of the Republic from 1895 until his death in 1899. Indeed, that death propelled her into a national legend; the story goes that he had a heart attack when the two were having sex in the Elysée Palace. Nearly a decade later, in May 1908, she returned to the limelight in a dramatic fashion when her husband and mother were found murdered in their home in Paris. Mme Steinheil was the sole survivor of the attack. She had been tied to the bed but was otherwise unharmed.

Mme Steinheil and her lawyer. (Wikimedia Commons)

Initially, she claimed that the murderers were four strangers: a red-headed woman and three men with fake beards who were wearing long robes and wide-brimmed hats like sombreros. They had intended to rob the house but had ended up killing and only sparing Mme Steinheil because they thought she was an adolescent. Unsurprisingly, this account strained belief and one of the doctors examining her after the murder exclaimed “It’s a sham!”2 Later that fall, she switched to blaming the household’s valet and then the cook’s son, but finally in November 1908, she became the chief suspect and was placed under arrest. One year later she was tried (and acquitted) for the double murder. The case remains unsolved to this day, and at the time, many presumed that the murderer was one of her lovers who was too powerful and well connected to have been accused.3

It’s not hard to see why the public was so obsessed with this crime: it revealed plenty of sexual license and corruption among France’s elite. In particular, many of Mme Steinheil’s lovers were also judges. Were they really going to condemn a woman they had known so well? Indeed, the first chief investigator into the double murder declined to investigate her; in fact, he was one of Mme Steinheil’s admirers. Many Parisians assumed that the trial was rigged to assure an acquittal, especially since the prosecutor was married to a woman who had also been one of Faure’s mistresses. The world of the Parisian elite – and their sex scandals – was a small one and very good at taking care of its own.

The Investigation

As soon as news of the murder broke, members of the public took to playing detective. Newspapers mocked what they termed the “Sherlock Holmeses of the café,” the individuals who passed their leisure time speculating about the crime.4 From police reports, we know some of the rumors flying around Paris: that the double murder was somehow connected to Faure’s death (and that he had been murdered, too); that Mme Steinheil’s (non-existent) illegitimate son had committed the murder; or maybe it was the Minister of the Navy; or maybe it was a judge who Mme Steinheil was now blackmailing. Crowds gathered at the crime scene to see if they could see something that might be a clue.

A crowd gathers outside the Justice Palace in 1909, eager to learn details fo the Steinheil affair. (Bibliothèque nationale de France/Wikimedia Commons)

Others took an even more active role in investigating the case. For instance, one man who claimed he had seen a car on the Steinheils’ street on the night of the murder spent considerable amounts of time and money trying to track down the owner of the car. He hired friends to help him and rented an apartment under an assumed name where he received mail about the case. He also constructed an elaborate ruse involving a mysterious and sudden inheritance to lure the mistress of a neighbor of the Steinheils. (Nothing came of his investigation.)

Journalists jumped into the investigative fray. They investigated possible suspects, went to locations associated with the crime, and hounded Mme Steinheil and her friends at every opportunity. These interventions were more consequential. The press was so relentless that Mme Steinheil realized that she could only clear her name if she came up with a convincing suspect. This is what triggered her to blame her valet and then, when exculpatory evidence came to light, to pin the murder on her cook’s son. When it turned out that he had an airtight alibi, the chief investigator of the case felt he had to arrest her, as her lies had so exhausted the patience of the public and the authorities.

Private citizens sent in tips to the police in the hundreds. Some claimed that the police already knew that Mme Steinheil was the murderer but weren’t going to do anything about it, since she was protected from on high. Others wrote about some crucial detail that had leapt out at them from newspaper reports. (This idea of solving a crime from a distance by focusing on what had been widely reported was straight out of Sherlock Holmes.) Or maybe they had seen someone on the street, in the metro, or in a train station who looked like they could have done it. In most cases, we know nothing about who wrote these letters, as many were unsigned. Yet there are some clues as to who sent them in. A number were written on cheap paper or contained plenty of misspellings, suggesting an unlettered hand. One was even written on behalf of an illiterate man who had nevertheless been following the case as it unfolded in the newspapers. This is all to say that many of these private detectives came from those who were decidedly not elites and were far removed from the world of Mme Steinheil and her lovers.

Why Did They Do It?

What are we to make of all these private detectives looking into the Steinheil Affair? Some clearly felt that the state was too corrupt to properly investigate the case, while others understood that the police needed their help. The possibility that they might have seen something important while commuting, running errands, or walking on the streets also shows that Parisians felt that their everyday lives could be a source of drama, that urban life was a constant source of entertainment, novelty, and spectacle.5

More fundamentally, these Parisian Sherlock Holmeses show how ordinary individuals wanted to insert themselves into a story of elite life. Their sleuthing and speculation allowed them to peer into a world usually off limits, one of backroom deals and hidden misbehavior among the rich and powerful. Looking in to the case helped members of the public understand how power and wealth might allow someone to get away with murder. But maybe, just maybe, all this private detection might reveal enough to ensure that justice would be done.

True crime often gets a bad reputation: it’s tawdry, it’s voyeuristic, it exploits tragedy for cheap thrills. The same was said of the Steinheil Affair when it was unfolding and certainly the lurid qualities of the affair was one of its appeals. And yet this case, or Durst’s, or Syed’s, or any number of other cases that have fascinated the public, shows that this voyeurism isn’t just about enjoying tales of sex and violence, but also righting wrongs and understanding the fundamental injustices of the criminal justice system.

Notes

  1. Dominique Kalifa, L’Encre et Le Sang: Récit de Crimes et Société à La Belle Époque (Paris: Fayard, 1995). Return to text.
  2. This phrase was widely repeated at the time and appears in the indictment, found in Arrêt qui prononce la mise en accusation et renvoie la veuve Steinheil aux assises de la Seine, 18 Juin 1909, Cour d’appel de Paris, Chambre des mises en accusation, Archives de la Seine, D5 U9 194, no. 4898. Return to text.
  3. The best study of the Steinheil Affair in English is Benjamin F. Martin, The Hypocrisy of Justice in the Belle Epoque (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1984), Chapter 1. Return to text.
  4. This quote comes from “Assassinat du peintre Steinheil,” Le Figaro, June 2, 1908, 1. Return to text.
  5. Vanessa R. Schwartz, Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Siècle Paris (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998). Return to text.

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