Murray-Miller on Freundschuh, 'The Courtesan and the Gigolo: The Murders in the Rue Montaigne and the Dark Side of Empire in Nineteenth-Century Paris'

Author: 
Aaron Freundschuh
Reviewer: 
Gavin Murray-Miller

Aaron Freundschuh. The Courtesan and the Gigolo: The Murders in the Rue Montaigne and the Dark Side of Empire in Nineteenth-Century Paris. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016. 272 pp. $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-5036-0082-9.

Reviewed by Gavin Murray-Miller (SHARE) Published on H-Empire (August, 2018) Commissioned by Gemma Masson (University of Birmingham)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=52227

On the night of March 16-17, 1887, Régine de Montille ( Marie Regnault) was found gruesomely murdered in her apartment on the rue Montaigne alongside the bodies of her servant, Anette Gremeret, and Gremeret’s young daughter. The apartment was located in the lower Champs-Elysées, a gentrified quarter of the French capital frequented by Parisian elites and wealthy visitors to the city. Evidence at the crime scene quickly revealed that Regnault was a high-class prostitute with an exclusive clientele, making the incident in the rue Montaigne the latest in a string of murders among women of the demimonde dating back at least two years. Within weeks, police had in their custody the handsome Enrico Pranzini, an Egyptian-born Italian who had come to France in 1886 and whom authorities believed responsible for the crime. Triple-homicide, sexual intrigue, and a foreign-born culprit: the murders in the rue Montaigne possessed all the makings of a sensational story destined to enthrall a French public hungry for scandal and gossip. 

In The Courtesan and the Gigolo, Aaron Freundschuh seeks to place the rue Montaigne murders within the context of the broader social and political milieu of fin-de-siècle France. Histories of crime and criminality are hardly in short supply when it comes to this well-researched period. The works of Dominque Kalifa, Edward Berenson, and Benjamin Martin have provided excellent studies of the republican justice system and crime during the Third Republic. Adding to this body of scholarship, Freundschuh brings to the table a focus on colonial history and theory in his treatment of the rue Montaigne murders. As he states, his book is intended to serve as a “microhistorical approach to empire” (p. 12). Such an approach is welcome in imperial studies, which often tend to focus on broad structural themes and issues that cut across vast swaths of territory. As a methodology, it offers a promising means of analyzing the precise ways in which colonialism might have engendered feelings of national vulnerability and crisis central to Freundschuh’s book. Building upon this conjecture, Freundschuh argues that the rue Montaigne affair demonstrates how xenophobia, racial attitudes, sexual deviancy, and gender converged with colonial influences at the tail end of the nineteenth century. The case and dramatic trial became a manifestation of national anxieties and “imperial insecurity” that blurred the boundaries between metropole and colony and exposed a “darker vision of the age of empire” (p. 11).    

Central to Freundschuh’s argument is Enrico Pranzini, the leading suspect in the rue Montaigne murders. Following his arrest, Pranzini became a symbol of the many threats the nation faced, whether as a foreign immigrant, an ambiguous “oriental,” or a case study in the new racialized theories of criminology emerging at the time. The evidence against Pranzini was circumstantial, and this entailed the prosecution making Pranzini’s character and “Laventine” origins a centerpiece of the trial. Freundschuh nicely places these details within the broader context of French cultural and political life. As he notes, the trial occurred during the building of the Eiffel Tower—a monument that provoked heated debates over French identity—and in the midst of the Boulangist threat and rise of the new Right, which was actively whipping up fears regarding foreign and cosmopolitan infiltration. Right-wing publicists used the trial to illustrate the dangers posed by foreigners while authorities and the prosecution employed colonial stereotypes related to criminalized behavior and sexual deviance to emphasize Pranzini’s guilt. According to Freundschuh, perceptions of the “cosmopolitan colonial” as a criminal archetype were becoming more pronounced as colonial expansion destabilized concepts of borders and identity in the late nineteenth century. The investigation and trial, in his estimation, underscored the close links “between the colonial and the criminal imaginaries” (p. 199).     

One of the more interesting details brought to light in this book is the colonial subculture that existed within the metropolitan police. Marie-François Goron, one of the chief investigators in the case, had served in Algeria and the Antilles prior to joining the metropolitan police force, and as Freundschuh claims, Goron put his colonial knowledge to the test while investigating Pranzini. The transition from colonial official to metropolitan law enforcer was not unique to Goron, hinting at a broader colonial mindset embedded within metropolitan policing at the time. These colonial influences came out in one of the most gruesome details of the Pranzini affair when, following Pranzini’s sentencing and execution, leading men within the security force obtained pieces of Pranzini’s skin and had it made into decorative cardholders given to the top brass of the metropolitan police. The so-called skin affair elicited a scandal, with the press linking the taking of Pranzini’s skin to forms of trophy collection popular on the colonial frontier. Journalists did not fail to remark on the “savage” attributes of such practices, leading Freundschuh to surmise that the skin affair served to feed anxieties over imminently “colonial” influences coming to imprint themselves on the metropole. In no uncertain terms, the skin affair lifted the veil of French civilization to expose the Other beneath, as Freundschu argues.

Freundschuh has written an entertaining and insightful book. Yet at times it seems that the themes of colonialism and anxiety are lost among the accounts of the criminal investigation and Parisian press as Freundschu establishes the details of the case. Mixing a narrative of events with reflections on domestic politics and colonialism, he modulates between giving readers a traditional history of crime and a more analytical study of race, xenophobia, and imperialism. The first half of the book is primarily concerned with following the development of the case, rarely hinting at the broader themes and concepts Freundschuh seeks to address later in his study. The effect tends to leave readers with a feeling that some of Freundschuh’s main claims regarding the influence of colonial anxieties might be overstated in places. While fears of imperial insecurity may have loomed over the Pranzini affair, their direct impact on the case and trial seems speculative in many instances and reliant upon Freundschuh’s interpretive reading of the event.        

This is not to suggest that Freundschuh’s detailed examination of the investigation is without merit. His account provides insight into the metropolitan police force, recounting the internal rivalries and subcultures that came to shape criminal investigation in France. The Sûreté—the primary agency dedicated to criminal investigation in France during the nineteenth century—was in a period of transition as the murders of the demimondaines broke. Recently removed from the watchful eye of the municipal police, Sûreté was bent on reforming its image as a corrupt, antirevolutionary arm of the state. The newly appointed chief of security, Ernest Taylor, cultivated the image of a cooperative republican fonctionnaire, an “umbrella inspector,” as critics charged. Yet if criminal investigation was attempting to adopt a more professional persona, authorities were forced to confront the newly democratized press, which often competed with criminal investigators for clues and leads. One of the most interesting aspects of Freundschuh’s book is its examination of how modern investigative reporting developed in the 1880s alongside the professionalization of the criminal police. Reporters like Georges Grison, who chronicled the rue Montaigne murders for La Figaro, surveilled authorities, printed their own conjectures on cases, and openly hectored officials in their columns. In this evolving relationship between Parisian officialdom and investigative reporters, authorities were forced to come to grips with a democratized press and journalists catering to sensationalism.

Just as intriguing is Freundschuh’s examination of the milieu of the Parisian demimonde. His insights are informed by a variety of sources ranging from secret police files to books like The Pretty Women of Paris (1883), a notorious sex guide rating upscale prostitutes. Elite prostitution thrived on networks that brought sex workers to Paris from various parts of the world, with “exotic” women often fetching a high price at the high-end maisons de rendez-vous that typically facilitated sexual encounters. Freundschuh gives a detailed picture of the Parisian sex industry in the late nineteenth century and its place within the world of elite male sociability. He equally provides insight into the lives of elite prostitutes like Marie Regnault. Demimondaines often acquired expensive collections of jewelry, art, and luxury items from clients. Their net worth, as Freundschuh reveals, sometimes rivaled the top income-earners in the country. This conclusion is, in part, ascertained from the inventory lists of auctions held at the Hôtel Drouot, which sold many belongings of demimondaines in the midst of financial troubles or after their death.      

For those interested in the history of crime and investigative journalism in late nineteenth-century France, Freundschuh’s book will be a pleasure to read. It is short, well-paced, and informative. For those seeking new insights on the French Empire, however, the book may not have as much to offer. While certain aspects of the investigation and trial were shaped by the culture of nineteenth-century imperialism, these elements are often diffuse and spread throughout the story. Pranzini after all was an Egyptian, not a French colonial subject. The xenophobia and racism that Freundschuh critiques were just as much reactions to early globalization and security concerns following the Franco-Prussian War as they were to French empire-building and expansion during the period. These distinctions are never delineated as carefully as they might be by Freundschuh, leaving questions as to whether the many national anxieties he notes were all representative of the “dark side of empire.”               

Citation: Gavin Murray-Miller. Review of Freundschuh, Aaron, The Courtesan and the Gigolo: The Murders in the Rue Montaigne and the Dark Side of Empire in Nineteenth-Century Paris. H-Empire, H-Net Reviews. August, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=52227

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