French revolutionary who killed in Camden
Gerald Isaaman enjoys a colourful account of the life of Emmanuel Barthélemy
29 June, 2018 — By Gerald Isaaman
A drawing of Barthélemy’s death mask from the July 1855 issue of The Zoist
HIS hands already bound, he stepped out onto the scaffold amid snow and fog at 8am on January 22, 1855, bowing to the thousands watching in the prison yard below at Newgate as he was about to die.
God he had refused to accept, declaring: “He is no use to me to ask Him for forgiveness. I shall soon know the secret whether there is one or not.”
William Calcraft, the white-bearded public executioner too often drunk on duty, strapped his legs together and pulled a hood down over his face as the noose looped over his head. He descended the steps, pulled the bolt and the trapdoor flew open, its victim dying instantly.
And in his hands the French revolutionary Emmanuel Barthélemy, immortalised in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, still clutched a letter from his suspected lover, itself a clue to The Murderer of Warren Street.
That is the title of an amazing and memorable new book by Marc Mulholland, Oxford Professor of Modern History, about the remarkable radical refugee who killed two people in the heart of Camden and is equally known historically for fighting – and winning – the last duel ever to be held the UK.
Violence was part of his life from his early days in Paris, living through the 1848 year of revolutions and conspiracy that swept across troubled Europe and becoming a galley slave as part of his punishment for the attempted assassination of a police officer.
Yet Mulholland describes his 34-year-old hero/villain as “both ferocious and majestic” and “a proud man with a strong sense of personal dignity” – a death mask of him going on display in the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussauds.
And he adds: “In life, Barthélemy, the disciplined, inventive, sleepless revolutionary, rejected the casual injustices of a class-bound society. His failings were his bursts of seemingly uncontrollable brutality, but also the creeping, dehumanising cold-eyed ruthlessness that grew over him…
“Certainly Barthélemy’s heart was much hardened. But he also had in him the capacity for courage, dignity and loyalty that lasted to his death on the scaffold at Newgate.”
A fanciful depiction of the murder by the Brisbane Telegraph on July 5, 1854
It will no doubt remain an enigma for many, given the graphic details of Barthélemy’s visit to his former employer. Accompanied by a mystery veiled woman dressed in a cloak, he arrived at No 73 Warren Street on December 8, 1854, the home of George Moore, who employed him as an engineer in his then fizzy drinks empire.
Sewn into Barthélemy’s overcoat was a dagger and hidden in his pocket were two pistols and 24 cartridges plus a ticket for a boat to Hamburg, as he was en route to assassinate Napoleon III, the emperor of France, having taken an oath to kill all kings.
Moore invited them in, opened bottles of lemonade and soda water for his guests and poured himself a ginger beer.
But the congenial meeting turned sour when the woman started reading from a letter. Moore rose from his chair in fury and lunged to snatch the letter. A fight between him and Barthélemy followed, Moore crying “Murder” as he was hit with a mallet handle, his blood spraying on the wall and sofa cushions
As Moore pursued him out of the house, Barthélemy pulled out his pistol and killed him with a shot full in the face. He then hustled his female friend outside, enabling her to escape the scene over the garden wall. Barthélemy, however, was confronted by two neighbours, one a former policeman, who pinned him to the ground.
Barthélemy’s gun went off again, one man subsequently died, the other seriously injured, before Barthélemy was captured and ended up on the scaffold, thousands of admirers cheering his appearance but not his fate.
What follows is an extraordinarily complex drama told in immaculate detail like the best TV thriller, an astonishing saga of social history.
And what is even more fascinating is that Mulholland tells this remarkable real-life story from a truly troubled century to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx, whom Barthélemy knew.
Indeed, they crossed swords and sabres while coaching Marx in a fencing salon in Rathbone Place, off Tottenham Court Road. He also visited Marx and his wife Jenny in their shabby flat in Dean Street, Soho.
Jenny, in particular, found him an unnerving character, his piercing eyes repulsive to her. But maybe that was because some claimed Barthélemy plotted to kill Marx because his communist views were too conservative for the revolutionaries who had made London their headquarters.
Who says history doesn’t repeat itself given the UK today is falling apart amid the chaos and confusion of Brexit, the world on the brink of a tumultuous trade war and London’s drug-infected lawless streets taken over by violent gangs armed with knives, guns and acid baths?
Truth is always stranger, weirder – and more deadly dangerous – than any fiction.
• The Murderer of Warren Street: The True Story of a 19th Century Revolutionary. By Marc Mulholland, Hutchinson, £16.99