About This Story
In the spring and summer of 1914 as all of Europe stood on the precipice of war, the attention of France and its government was diverted by a sensational scandal. On March 16th, the wife of the minister of Finance, Joseph Caillaux, walked into the editorial offices of the newspaper Le Figaro. She calmly shot and killed the paper’s editor Gaston Calmette. Calmette had recently launched fierce personal attacks on her husband’s integrity in the pages of the widely-read journal. The murder and subsequent scandal became part of the debates in the national elections in April that continued the bitter political struggles between the radical republicans and conservatives including France’s monarchists.
Mme. Caillaux was arrested on the scene and conveyed via her car to the prison of Saint-Lazare. The intense national and international publicity surrounding the murder and subsequent trial focused public attention on the infamous women’s prison in the 10th arrondisement. Within days prison officials were accused of affording special treatment and privileges to their celebrity prisoner.
Mme. Caillaux was housed in a private, heated cell. She was attended to by her maid, was allowed special visitation privileges, and even dined with her husband in the offices of the prison’s director. Two of the nuns who staffed the prison were assigned to watch over her. This special treatment greatly upset the other prisoners and there was talk in the newspapers of the possibility of a prison mutiny in protest. This outrage was also shared by many on the outside of the prison walls. Prison authorities claimed that Mme. Caillaux was being treated according to prison regulations, and that it was the responsibility of the prison doctor to determine the exact details of each prisoner’s regimen.
Rowdy crowds gathered on the streets outside the prison whenever Mme. Caillaux left for questioning, or to attend her trial. Dance halls and cabarets in Paris echoed with hastily-created songs reflecting popular opinion about the case. At the time of her arrest Mme. Caillaux had haughtily reminded the police that “I am a lady.” One of the tunes that immediately appeared was entitled: “A Woman and Lady.” The police intervened to prevent its performance.
The woman stole a piece of bread;
They hustled her roughly in the prisoner’s van.
The lady cried: “Touch me not. I have my auto.”
They took the woman off to jail, to a dirty little cell.
But the lady entered the governor’s drawing room.
The woman slept on a pallet hard.
But to the lady was given a satin coverlet and its color was red.
The woman fed on skilly broth.
But the lady got food that was rich and red-blood red.
The newspapers also reported a song performed at the Theâtre Mayol. Sung by the symbolic figure of France’s “Marianne” the lyrics suggest her experiences as reflecting those of the nation itself:
When I was quite young I loved a little corporal, Napoleon.
But he ill treated me.
I soon finished with Louis-Philippe;
Then I had a new affair-
Another Prince Napoleon,
And I loved him well;
But for him I lost my two children Alsace, Lorraine.
Now I am growing old;
I must pay for my lovers.
My future is very dark.
I’ve nothing but St. Lazare.
The trial itself was a public spectacle, with every detail of the testimony and the actions of lawyers and witnesses being reported in great detail. Access to the courtroom became the hottest ticket in Paris. Incredibly on July 28th, Mme. Caillaux was acquitted of murder and released. Her lawyer, Fernand Labori, successfully argued that the murder was not pre-meditated but rather was a crime of passion for which a woman could not be held responsible. Within weeks war would engulf France and the rest of Europe.