Dancing with Death: Assassination Plots Against Napoleon Bonaparte
A history by Nicholas Stark
Upon opening the Napoleon’s coffin on Ste-Helena in order to identify the body,
the people present were stupefied to find Napoleon in a perfect state
of preservation after being buried from almost 20 years.
You undoubtedly have heard at least in passing how Napoleon once held Europe in his sway and built the super-power that was the First French Empire. However, have you ever thought how different modern history would be if he were murdered during his reign? Just think about the chaos that would have resulted! When Alexander the Great died, his empire was divided and destroyed in the disorder that ensued, so is it not reasonable to assume that in the more politically complicated world of Napoleon worse yet might have occurred. The possibility of assassination lies ever present for any world leader, especially for one as powerful as Napoleon. These were some of the very real plots against his life, any of which could have changed the world as we know it.
This conspiracy should be rated as both the least publicized and the least-likely-to-succeed plot recorded. In 1800, Napoleon was hardly a year into his new position as First Consul of France, one of the three main figures in the government. Still, some people had bitter feelings over the coup, as bloodless and popular as it was, that established this new government. Royalists, those wanting to put the Bourbons back on the throne, weren’t pleased with yet another Revolutionary government; likewise, fragments of the Jacobin Club, an ultra-radical political group that fell from power with the death of Robespierre, were not pleased that their ideals were not upheld perfectly. Apart from them, Napoleon had enemies in other countries and in provinces the Wars of the Coalitions had spread over.
The plot’s existence came to light on 20 September of that year. It was not the police who discovered it, for it was too undeveloped in its planning at that point, but an inside informative: a ‘snitch’, so to speak, by the name of Harrel. Being a dismissed Chef de Battalion, his aim was probably to exonerate his past faults. He disclosed to Napoleon’s private secretary, Bourrienne, that he was involved in a plot on Napoleon’s life, and asked for funds so that the plot could be brought to bear; his logic behind such a suggestion was that the conspirators could be caught in the act and arrested on-the-spot, leaving no one to question the guilt of the accused. Bourrienne brought the matter up to Napoleon who agreed.
Supplied with money, Harrel went back to the conspirators and continued to spy on them, returning his information to Napoleon as the plot evolved. Soon the names of those involved were revealed; the chief among them were Ceracchi, Arena, and Topino-Lebrun, all of who were relatively obscure people, but still die-hard enemies of Napoleon. The plan itself was almost insultingly simple. On a given date, they would approach Napoleon at the Opera with what seemed like business matters. When they were close to him, they would stab him to death. The connections to William Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar are obvious, almost comical.
The given date would be 10 October 1800. About half an hour into the opera that evening, a disturbance was heard in the hall outside of Napoleon’s box. Sending Bourrienne to check out what it was, he learned that it was the police rounding up the conspirators. Not long after their arrest, Ceracchi, Arena, and Topino-Lebrun were all executed, while Harrel was rewarded by being reinstated and appointed commandant of Vincennes. The danger had been averted thanks to the work of Harrel, and it would be up to others to try to finish the task of assassinating Napoleon.
Now here was a lot closer of a call for Napoleon! Instead of murdering him up close and personal, the assassins would use a giant bomb, dubbed ‘the Infernal Machine’. The plan was this: on Napoleon’s way to the Theater of the Republic and the Arts [Théâtre de la République et des Arts], a horse-driven wagon would be stationed on Rue de Loi. Inside the wagon would be a barrel containing the Infernal Machine, filled with both gunpowder and shrapnel. When Napoleon’s escort of cavalry that precedes his carriage came into view, they would ignite the bomb and flee, obliterating the target. The day to execute the plan would be easy enough to plan; the newspapers announced that Napoleon would be attending Haydn’s new opera Creation on Christmas Eve [24 December 1800].
As well thought out as the plan was, it failed to take into account one interfering factor: fate. On the evening in question, his wife, Joséphine, received a new shawl from Constantinople, and wasn’t quite sure how to wear it. Her escort for the evening, Jean Rapp, who had been an aide-de-camp to Napoleon during the Egyptian Campaign, noticed that she wore it incorrectly, and tried to help her wear it in the proper Egyptian style. Napoleon, either not wanting to be late or just being anxious, decided to leave and meet her up at the opera. He hopped into his carriage with Jean Lannes [one of Napoleon’s best generals], Charles-François Lebrun [Second Consul], and Jean-Baptiste Bessieres [second-in-command of the Consular Guard], and took off. Joséphine, along with her daughter Hortense, Jean Rapp, and Napoleon’s sister, Caroline [who was pregnant at the time], left shortly afterwards.
The strands of fate continued to weave their elaborate tapestry in this next instance. Napoleon’s driver, Germain, drove the carriage excessively fast, for reasons not entirely clear; it has been asserted that either he had been instructed to make haste in order to arrive at the opera on time or he was simply inebriated, both of which would serve as viable explanations. As a result of the carriage moving at such high speeds, Napoleon’s cavalry escort was forced to follow behind the carriage rather than preceding it.
Planning on using the cavalry as the signal for igniting the bomb, the conspirators were rather disconcerted to first see instead the carriage flying down the street. Frantically, they lit the device and fled for their lives, but by the time it exploded, Napoleon’s carriage had already zoomed by and Josephine’s carriage had still to pass; however, the ‘kaboom’ still unleashed its fury on everything nearby. Several nearby buildings were either destroyed or damaged, and an estimated fifty-two people either killed or wounded, all of who were innocent bystanders. Among the death toll was the young girl Pensel, who had been paid twelve sous to hold the reigns of the horse attached to the Infernal Machine’s wagon. The only ill affect of the explosion on Napoleon’s carriage was that it shattered the windows. Josephine’s carriage wasn’t quite as fortunate; one of its horses was killed, the windows shattered, and Hortense suffered a cut on the wrist from either broken glass or flying shrapnel.
So, we know what the plan was, but who were the would-be assassins? At first, Napoleon thought it was the radical Jacobins, and had a list drawn up of possible suspects. As it turned out, it wasn’t Jacobins this time; it was the Royalists. Joseph Fouché, Napoleon’s Minister of Police, had what remained of the wagon and horse reassembled, and searched to find anyone who could identify the owner. As it turned out, someone did identify it: a local grain dealer. He had sold them recently, and revealed the stable where they had been kept. By questioning the liveryman of the stable, Fouché was able to trace the movements of the buyer, and was able to identify him as a criminal by the nickname ‘Petit François’, wanted for robbing stagecoaches. A reward of 12,000 francs was offered for the capture of this man.
Before long, the true identify of ‘Petit François’ was discovered: François-Jean Carbon. At that point, the rest of the investigation came together. François Carbon was arrested at the Notre-Dames-des-Champs convent, and he divulged the names of his fellow conspirators Pierre Robinault de Saint-Regent and Joseph-Pierre Picot de Limoelan. All of the suspects had fought against the Revolutionary government in the Vendée Wars, and were put up to the plot by the English terrorist Georges Cadoudal. Carbon and Saint-Regent were guillotined on 21 April 1801 at the Place de Grève in Paris, but Limoelan managed to escape justice by fleeing to the U.S.A. where he became priest. The despicable Cadoudal and three of the other conspirators; Andre Joyaux, Coster Saint-Victor, and La Haye-Saint-Hilaire; were smuggled back to England. Although the terrorist mastermind Cadoudal was still at large, another assignation plot against Napoleon had been foiled.
Regrettably, the would-be assassins still refused to yield even after their last attempt went horribly awry. Yet again a royalists plot would be launched under the command of Cadoudal, although this time he would employ more capable men, in particular French Generals Pichegru and Moreau. In the police’s continued hunt for the terrorists, arrests were made of Querelle and Sol de Grisolle, followers of Cadoudal, in the summer of 1802. On 20 August 1803 Cadoudal landed in Paris and began collecting his agents, who were dispersed across France. As it turned out, it would be five whole months before the police received word of his presence in the capital, despite the fact that he was right under their noses; as fortune would have it, however, the man had done nothing but plan during that whole time.
Beginning to comprehend that something was afoot, Real, Councilor of State in charge of police, made the important discovery that Gen. Pichegru had come to Paris with the intention of meeting with the illusive Cadoudal. Real interrogated the already-incarcerated Querelle and struck a plea bargain; in exchange for not receiving the death penalty, he ‘coughed up’ what he knew about what Cadoudal had in store. His confession confirmed the information Real already had, namely that both General Pichegru and Moreau had been in contact with Cadoudal. At this point, Paris was declared in a state of siege, with the police redoubling their efforts to bring the terrorists to justice.
Before long, the police managed to arrest Picot and Bouvet de Lozier; the former was Cadoudal’s servant and the latter was Cadoudal’s right-hand man. Just as Querelle had done, these new captives sang like song-birds and shed light on another aspect of the plot: the reason for the extensive delay. By a stroke of pure fortune, it was due simply to bickering between the two generals and the terrorist. Being a royalist, Cadoudal wanted to restore the Bourbon Monarchy to France after Napoleon was assassinated; however, while Moreau condoned the assassination of Napoleon, he himself wanted to be successor to the throne instead of another Bourbon. This caused a great schism between the ringleaders of the plot, and before any reconciliation could be achieved, the police foiled their plans and arrested them. At last the nefarious Cadoudal would face justice!
With the details of the counter-plot revealed, it is important to see what the potential plot was. Fortunately we have the confessions of the conspirators to formulate what was being planned: quite simply, the conspirators would waylay Napoleon’s carriage while he was on one of his journeys, kidnap him, bring him to Normandy, and then embark him for England. Despite this part of Cadoudal’s confession, the final part of the plan stated thusly seems incredibly unlikely. Napoleon’s private secretary Lavalette, while addressing the event, wrote in his memoirs, “The latter part of the plan was evidently too absurd for a man of Georges’ [Cadoudal] sense to have ever thought feasible. He only invented that fable, because he was ashamed of acknowledging that he intended to murder the First Consul; and, in fact, nothing would have been easier for him.”
There was also another problem with the plan: Napoleon generally did not broadcast his personal movements. In one instance, Napoleon approached Count Lavalette at a party thrown by Second Consul Cambacérès and relayed to him, “I intend to set off in two hours for Boulogne [where the Army of England was residing].” Setting out immediately, “he arrived before any one knew in Paris where he was gone.” To capture the First Consul on the road would have been nothing short of sheer luck; however, his return trip would be a different story.
As it was obvious that Cadoudal was indeed planning an assassination, not to mention that his involvement in the earlier Infernal Machine incident was clear, he was doomed from the moment he was arrested. He pled guilty, and was guillotined along with eleven of his fellow conspirators. During the trial, Pichegru was found strangled to death in his cell. Although there is a limited debate arguing that he was murdered, there is overwhelming evidence to support the idea that he committed suicide. As for General Moreau, he was another story altogether. He was one of those heroes of the people, and held much sway over the military. The repercussions of executing him could have been severe, and so ultimately his sentence was downgraded to exile, appeasing everyone. Interestingly, during the trials it became clear that there was one more conspirator in this plot, referred to only as the ‘young prince,’ assumed to be of the Bourbon line. The search for this mysterious character would soon lead up to the infamous Duke d’Enghien Affair, used by contemporary detractors of Napoleon to stain his image. Although the exact person referred to as the ‘young prince’ is subject to debate, the rest of the conspirators were brought to justice for their actions. From this point on, the assassins learned their lesson, and plots on Napoleon’s life died away. Through a combination of good-old police work and sheer luck the plots on his life were averted, and France would continue through the height of its glory years. It would be nearly two decades more before Napoleon was finally felled by that most odious of the assassins’ weapons: poison.
Count Lavalette. Memoirs of Count Lavalette. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1894.
Markham, J. David. Napoleon for Dummies. Indianapolis: Wiley Publishing, Inc., 2005.
Bourrienne, Louis Antoine Fauvelet de, ed. Phipps, Ramsay Weston. Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte. Online. 31 August 2007. <http://digital.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=3567>
General Michel Franceschi. The Duke of Enghien Affair: A Plot Against Napoleon. Online. 30 August 2007. <http://www.napoleonicsociety.com/english/ducenghienangl.htm>
Holmberg, Tom, and Sewell, Max. The Infernal Machine. Online. 30 August 2007. <http://www.napoleon-series.org/research/miscellaneous/c_infernal.html>
Reilly, Cameron and Markham, J. David. The Napoleon Bonaparte Podcast #11- Peace With Britain. Online. 30 August 2007. <http://napoleon.thepodcastnetwork.com/audio/tpn_napoleon_20060920_011.mp3>
Assassination Plots. Online. 30 August 2007. <http://www.napoleonguide.com/assassin.htm>
Chouan; Jean-Baptiste Bessieres; Jean Rapp; Plot of the Rue Saint-Nicaise. Online. 30 August 2007. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki>